Ordinarily, he would've gone to Starbucks. But he was feeling reckless today, and so it was that Futakuchi Kenji found himself here: in a 24-hour combini off the side of the road, perusing the coffee menu, or what passed for one in this sort of establishment.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets, sauntered up to the counter and made a half-hearted attempt at a nod that conveyed, perhaps, Good morning. In the fluorescent lighting that enveloped them like a wake-up call, every angle was unforgiving anyway.
"An Americano, please," he said, for want of a more exciting option.
The young man at the cashier nodded.
He had neatly combed hair and a smile made for customer service manuals. It was a smile, thought Kenji somewhat blearily, that had no business being awake at this hour of the day. He had no business being awake at this hour of the day. Yet here they both were, Kenji and that smile. Sunrise had hit them at the same ungodly hour, and made no distinction.
"What size would you like?"
His voice was a polished-bright drone just this side of the electropop song piped through the store radio, all peppy overtures and chords that looped mindlessly in your head.
Kenji, in the middle of stifling a yawn, thought better of it. He yawned out loud. He stopped just short of making an obnoxious production of his boredom.
"Grande — wait, I mean, large. Actually, the biggest size you have. Extra-large."
"Large is the biggest size we have."
Kenji tapped one foot impatiently. "How large is large?"
The cashier turned around, picked up a paper cup from behind the magazine racks and showed it to him. It was wholly unsatisfactory. Kenji frowned.
"Fine. That." He made a dismissive gesture with a wave of his hand. "But listen, I think you're really missing out on a market for extra-large caffeinated beverages here. People need that sort of thing on the road, you know."
The picture-perfect smile wavered slightly round the edges, hovered on the edge of courteous confusion and indulgence.
"I'll mention it to the manager," said the cashier.
"You do that…"
Kenji made a point of leaning forward obviously, squinting at the name tag pinned to his uniform.
"…Tsuchida-kun. You do that."
Tsuchida picked up a marker and scrawled something on the side of the cup. It could have been Americano with sugar. It could have been code for spit into this guy's coffee, please.
With that handwriting, thought Kenji, he could have been a doctor.
"Hey, Tsuchida-kun," Kenji said, as he fished ¥1,000 out of his pocket and handed it over. "Can I ask you a question?"
Tsuchida blinked, uncertain. Kenji barrelled on.
"Did you ever dream you could be more? Like, really achieve something? I mean, between you and me, although this coffee is very personally important to me right now — in the greater scheme of things — "
Kenji paused meaningfully.
Across the counter, he heard the ding and spring of the cash register popping open, the sound of crinkling notes and the dull clink of the coins. The radio in the background crackled, static zipping through the still air. It made Kenji think of solitary evenings at his laptop.
Tsuchida broke their cursory eye contact, looking down as he slid the change tray over to Kenji. His hands were steady, his manner efficient, and pleasant enough.
"Here's your change, sir. Please collect your coffee from the end of the counter. Plastic lids, extra sugar and napkins are over there."
Kenji straightened, rolled his shoulders back and sighed.
He pocketed the handful of coins along with the receipt, making a mental note to charge it to travel expenses when he got back. If he got back. Perhaps he wouldn't. The idea was amusingly illicit, and thrilling.
He'd asked that question before, in other times, other places, to all kinds of strangers. He'd never really got an answer he believed.
This Tsuchida, at least, was honest in his polite incomprehension, if not particularly expressive.
It would make for a wonderful column, he knew, an investigation of the ultimate question: where do dreams go to die? Or something like that. If nothing else, it was very attention-grabbing.
Kenji tapped a thoughtful finger on the side of his cup as he walked back to his car, tossing his keys in the air, catching them with a deft hand.
No, he decided, with some regret. Moniwa might find something poetic in the idea, but it wouldn't even make it to his desk; Kamasaki would throw it back at him before that could happen. He'd have to come up with something a little less pointed.
Overhead, the drizzle pelted a steady, staccato rhythm on the awning.
It was early June, and the summer had come upon them in its usual way, with a flurry of showers; the Meteorological Agency had announced the official start of tsuyu, the rainy season, to the sound of a quickening breeze from the north.
Today's forecast: light showers throughout the day, turning heavier in the afternoon. Chance of a thunderstorm.
Kenji’s waterproof windbreaker sat in his back seat. He was not wearing it at the moment. It was a short walk from the carpark into the combini, and it was an unbearably humid morning; he felt damp just from being outside. His fringe was sticking to his forehead.
He turned up his collar and stepped out into the rain.
His Toyota Prius awaited, an unremarkable car in many ways. The most common car in Japan. But it was his, and so it had souped-up rims of shining chrome, an engine that hummed like a sweet, low purr, and on the windscreen, an improbable car decal of a shiba inu puppy that Aone had given him.
It was grey, the pale, silvery grey of chalk dust, of snow melting on pavements, of the sky.
Kenji whistled tunelessly under his breath as he clicked open the car doors. He realised, much to his annoyance, that the electropop from the combini was stuck in his head, and it was likely that nothing short of the loudest and most terrible death metal would be able to drive it out.
The coffee was overwhelmingly sweet. He licked his lips, set it into his cup holder, placed a sour gummy on the tip of his tongue and turned on the engine.
Somewhere in between the university and the golf course, his phone rang, sooner than expected. Kenji reached out to hit the accept call button, steeling himself.
Kamasaki's strident voice greeted him with the usual, "Where the hell are you?"
"Geh," Kenji muttered. "Not even a hello?"
He turned up the volume on his radio, just a little, and nudged his phone mount nearer to the speakers.
"Don't geh me, Futakuchi! And what is that terrible music?"
"I have no idea," said Kenji, truthfully. "I'm on 48."
"48? What d'you mean, 48?"
"National Route 48? Kamasaki-san, you really need to get out more."
Kamasaki made a sound that hovered between a swear word and a grunt. Kenji permitted himself a fleeting, wry smile.
"Don't sass me. Where do you think you're going?"
"I have no idea either. I just felt like taking a drive."
"Taking a drive? You owe me a column, you jerk!"
Kenji cast a quick glance at his mirrors and slipped into the centre lane. He liked the look of the south. Perhaps he'd head that way.
Somewhere in the periphery of his vision, the Hirosegawa River sparkled dimly in the faint light, and the mist that lingered over it was silver-white through the raindrops. An incoming stream of commuters was piling up on the other side of the road. Cars, stretching out as far as the eye could see on the clouded horizon, were making their way into Sendai City as the morning dawned.
It was a poor day for visibility. A good day to get away.
Kenji leaned back in his seat and let out a long, slow breath.
"Relax. You'll get it. C'mon, when have I ever let you and Moniwa-san down?"
Kamasaki huffed out an explosive, exasperated sigh. "Oh, fuck off."
"Ha," said Kenji, with a dry grin. "Gladly. Can I do anything else for you on this fine morning? Will that be all?"
"No, give me your column. Then fuck off."
"I — wait, hang on a sec, there's someone out there."
Kenji leaned sideways over the dashboard, squinted through the drizzle and lifted his foot slightly from the pedals, slowing down. There — up by the roadside, standing behind the barriers, right by the slip road onto the Tohoku Expressway —
His eyes did not, in fact, deceive him. It was a person.
A tall person, to be exact, in jeans and an immaculately cut white jacket, with a bulging duffel slung over his shoulder. He had his thumb out. A hitchhiker.
Idiot, was Kenji's first thought; there were a thousand other ways to get out of Sendai, every one of them easier than hitchhiking, and on top of that, there was the drizzle. It was picking up ahead of them, grey clouds looming low above the mountains in the distance.
Interesting, said a small, pesky voice in his head.
He spun the wheel and cut out to the left. Skidding on the slippery road with practised ease, he ignored the horns that blared out at him, the thumping crescendo of heavy metal, and Kamasaki's raised voice heckling him from the phone. "Oi, Futakuchi?"
Perhaps he'd have liked to say, on hindsight, that he had acted against his better judgement in the heat of the moment, that he had been seized with some perverse and regrettable form of journalistic curiosity, that he had some kind of demon whispering in his ear, anything but the truth.
The truth was far more unflattering, and prosaic:
That had been his better judgement.
(Also, regrets were for losers.)
"Hey, I gotta go save someone's life," he announced, reaching out to click off the phone.
"Futakuchi, you're so full of shit — "
"Bye, Kamasaki-san! I'll call you back! Or maybe not."
And Kenji skidded to a halt on the road shoulder, rolled down the passenger side window and leaned over, one arm resting atop his wheel.
It smelled like rain on asphalt, car exhaust and rubber sparking, faintly, and then came the drifting, tantalising scent of an unfamiliar cologne as the hitchhiker stepped closer and bent down.
Up close, he seemed taller and more fragile all at once. He had chocolate brown eyes, ringed with sleepless, dark circles, and slightly mussed brown hair to match. It might have been styled before he'd left home that day. It might not. He was, in any case, the kind of carelessly handsome that meant it didn't matter either way, and Kenji could tell from the tilt of his chin that he knew it.
"Hey," he said, and smiled.
It was not a smile made for customer service manuals.
"Hey," Kenji said back. "Hop in."
The hitchhiker's eyebrows shot up. His mouth formed a pert o of surprise.
"Are you sure? You're not asking where I want to go?"
Kenji shrugged, casual. "I don't care. I'm not going anywhere in particular myself."
"It's not, really. Look, are you getting in or not?"
"Oh," said the hitchhiker, "I think I will."
In one smooth motion, he opened the door and slid into the passenger seat, stretching his long legs out in front of him with an appreciative sigh as he flopped down. He dumped his duffel on the floor and turned to Kenji, one hand extended.
"Thanks. I'm Oikawa Tooru."
"Futakuchi Kenji," said Kenji, taking it.
He had the sudden impression of having closed his palm around a butterfly, or a bolt of lightning; fleeting and damn near intangible and yet, indelibly, leaving its mark on him, whether in the form of shimmering, ethereal wing-dust, or an electric burn that singed like a scar from long ago. Still fresh with the memory of it.
In the end, it lasted no more than a beat, this handshake. Long enough for Kenji to register a sort of fiery chill in the contact, not long enough for it to last.
Then the moment passed, and Oikawa Tooru withdrew his hand first.
Kenji took the car out of neutral.
"So where do you want to go, Oikawa-san?"
"You know," said Oikawa, lightly, "I haven't a clue either."
Kenji's eyes narrowed as he slammed down on the brake.
"What do you mean, you haven't a clue?"
"You'd better move, Futakuchi-chan. You're obstructing traffic," Oikawa observed, glancing over his shoulder behind them.
"I'm pretty sure you're ten years too young to be calling me -chan," said Kenji, under his breath.
But Oikawa was right, and so Kenji slammed his foot down on the accelerator and they merged onto the Tohoku, slicing southbound through the rain. Another horn sounded. Kenji ignored it, heard the sharp intake of breath from the passenger seat and smiled grimly to himself.
"You're a dangerous driver, Futakuchi Kenji," said Oikawa.
It was an observation, not a protest.
"I know," Kenji said.
Oikawa turned towards his window. He propped his head up with one hand, made a show of peering out at the signboards zooming by. "Oh, well, will you look at that. Looks like we're stuck on the expressway."
Kenji shot him a pointed glare. "No thanks to you. What is your deal, anyway? You just want to come along for a ride? Any ride?"
"Mmm," said Oikawa, noncommittal. "Well, it's something like that."
"What kind of idiot tries to hitch a ride to nowhere?"
"Asks the kind of guy who's on a drive to nowhere," said Oikawa.
He made a finger gun at Kenji. It went off with a whispered bang, and Oikawa exhaled, leaned back and tucked his hands behind his neck, elbows out obnoxiously to either side.
"Why do I have the feeling I should throw you out of my car?" Kenji muttered.
Oikawa grinned. "Same reason I have the feeling you won't. Ooh, is this coffee? Can I have some? I'm dying here."
"No," said Kenji.
Oikawa reached over anyway. Plucking the cup from its holder, he took a long sip and made a face. "Gross. It's so sweet."
Kenji, knuckles whitening round the wheel, flashed his most pleasant and acidic smile at Oikawa. Coincidentally, they were the same smile.
"I'm sorry the service standards in this vehicle aren't up to your expectations. Can I get you a pinot noir?"
Oikawa's answering smirk came complete with a raised eyebrow, and Kenji turned back to the road, already composing his column in his mind. My cross-country trip with a crazed hitchhiker: a cautionary tale. Opening sentence: Kids, don't try this at home.
Occupational hazards. He'd chalk it up to that for now.
They were no more than a few miles down the highway before Kenji decided he couldn't stand it anymore. His heavy metal playlist had reached its end, looped round again, and Oikawa Tooru, having apparently decided that it wasn't enough to push Kenji's figurative buttons, had taken it upon himself to play radio DJ. Kenji suffered in stoic, stony silence through a series of rapid changes in beat, rhythm, and vocal pitch as Oikawa flicked blithely through what felt like every available station this side of Sendai, from punk rock to talkshows to the most cringeworthy best of AKB48. Worse still, he'd started singing. Off-key.
Even his speaking voice, thought Kenji, would be better than this hell.
"Oikawa-san," Kenji started.
"Hmmm?" Oikawa paused, humming under his breath.
"I don't mean to pry... no, you know what, forget that," said Kenji flatly. "I completely mean to pry."
"Well, that's very direct. I like that."
Kenji turned up his windscreen wipers. The less he could see of the highway, the more it felt like it was just him, and Oikawa, cocooned in some air-conditioned, bubblegum pop world of their own, which was unnerving in more ways than he could possibly elucidate.
The view cleared slightly, and he let out a tiny sigh of relief.
"I just think I deserve to know if I'm aiding and abetting an axe murderer. I think that's very fair."
"Immensely fair," Oikawa agreed. "I regret to inform you I have no axes on my person — "
As he spoke, he hitched his duffel up on his lap and unzipped it, and Kenji watched from the corner of his eye as he took out another, smaller bag. It was a sleek, boxy affair in black with a thick strap. In Oikawa's hands, it seemed weightier than it probably was. Kenji recognised the shape of it.
"That's a camera bag," he said.
"That's what you're carrying?" Kenji nodded at the duffel. "Camera equipment? You're a photographer?"
"I'm a man on a mission," Oikawa proclaimed, like there was all the difference in the world.
From the padded depths of his camera bag, he produced an expensive-looking Nikon, slung it round his neck and raised it; and Kenji heard the whirr of lenses zooming, focusing on the windscreen, the road ahead. Click. Another click. They were a motion blur captured on the highway, a rush of wheels and grey on grey on grey, sky and road and the Prius, and an ever-shifting horizon.
"A mission," Kenji repeated.
"Mmm," said Oikawa, lowering his camera. "I'm taking photos of the road. It's my pet project. Travels through Japan, with dubious strangers — "
"Thanks," Kenji remarked dryly, before he could help it. "I've always wanted to be featured as a dubious stranger in someone's creative work."
Oikawa smiled, looked down and flicked through his photos. The thoughtful hum he let out went down like Kenji's coffee, only mostly sweetened, with an aftertaste that was not — for something picked up by the side of the road — entirely unpleasant.
Kenji filed it away. He drove on.
"I'm not slowing down for you," he warned, offhand.
"I don't want you to," said Oikawa.
Fine, Kenji thought. Good.
They sped on.
"But — "
Oikawa's addendum, barely begun, was interrupted by a distinct growl from his stomach, and he laughed with a sheepish charm that made Kenji take his eyes off the road. Just for a second.
"I am starving. Let's get something nice for breakfast!"
"Are you paying?" Kenji asked. It wasn't a question.
They took the next exit off the highway, and Oikawa pressed his face to the window, squinting through the rain. This side of the city, breakfast options were somewhat limited. Kenji shifted, restless, in his seat. The sudden abundance of traffic lights and elderly pedestrians made him want to turn up the terrible music again.
He slowed as they drove past a small family restaurant. "Here?"
Oikawa made a face.
At the next corner, they passed by a coffee shop with sunflowers outside. A signboard cheerily proclaimed, in multi-coloured chalk, the presence of freshly made pancakes.
"Here?" Kenji asked, hopeful.
Oikawa blew him a raspberry and shook his head.
"That's it," Kenji declared. "I'm the driver here. We're stopping at the next place I decide to stop."
"But I'm the one buying — oh, wait!"
Oikawa's hand flew out unexpectedly, grabbed Kenji on the forearm before he had time to flinch.
"Here! Let's eat here!"
Kenji, one foot on his brake, craned his neck over Oikawa's shoulder.
It was a bakery. A tiny one, with melon pan and baguettes in the window. An incredibly pedestrian, normal, mundane bakery.
In truth, Kenji really didn't care where they had breakfast. It was not a meal that featured with any prominence in his daily routine, which tended to revolve primarily around takeaway Frappuccinos and whatever was left in the supermarket's bargain bento section. He would probably have been fine with just about whatever. But there was something about the humility of this particular choice that struck him as uncharacteristic, for what it was worth; it wasn’t like he’d known Oikawa all that long, and yet —
It lodged into his mind anyway, like a stray, niggling grain of sand.
"There's no seating inside," he pointed out, pulling up to park by the kerbside.
Oikawa undid his seatbelt, repacked his camera into its bag, and stretched his arms overhead with an audible crack. He yawned.
"Oh, seating! I don't need to sit. Look, the rain's let up. I need to move. Don't you?"
The most annoying thing of all was that when Oikawa said it, Kenji found that he did, indeed.
They got out of the car.
Oikawa paused outside to look at the pastries in the window, so Kenji walked in first, his senses assailed by the warm, welcoming scent of freshly baked bread the moment he pushed the door open. Overhead, a small bell tinkled. An older woman with her hair in a bun looked up from the counter, bowed a respectful irasshaimase and smiled. Kenji nodded.
"Ah, this is perfect," said Oikawa.
Kenji stepped aside to let him in. "What's perfect?"
Oikawa spread his arms, dramatic and expressive. "Everything. Good morning, obaa-san! Do you have any milk bread?"
Kenji shut the door behind them as Oikawa swanned up to the counter, light on his feet. He was an erratic breeze, the sort that came with tsuyu yearly; and Kenji leaned against a wall, stared at the ceiling, looked around and counted the types of bread in the shop.
Oikawa bought five milk breads and a carton of orange juice.
"I can't believe you made me drive all the way out here and stop for milk bread," Kenji muttered, as they left. He had to get the door because Oikawa's arms were full.
Oikawa, unapologetic, nudged him with an elbow, and Kenji had to make a swift recovery to stay upright. He stopped short of reaching out to grab Oikawa, fingers grazing his sleeve before he righted himself.
Side by side on the sidewalk like this, Kenji realised, he was looking straight into caramel-chocolate-coffee brown eyes that danced sweet and spicy at the same time, and that meant they were practically of a height, and that Oikawa's delight at his haul was utterly, disarmingly, genuine — and then Oikawa laughed and took a half-step back, and Kenji felt his breath return with a vengeance. He scowled.
Oikawa held one of his bread rolls out to him.
"Don't be upset, Futakuchi-chan. Here, for you."
Kenji, after a moment's hesitation, accepted the peace offering and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. "You're the epitome of generous."
Oikawa's repartee was an animated yet wholly indecipherable mumble, muffled by the huge chunk of bread he'd just torn off, and was now chewing with gusto.
"Also," Kenji added, "you'll get indigestion if you keep eating like that."
Oikawa swallowed. "I'm so touched that you're looking out for my well-being."
"I'd just rather not spend the afternoon at some off-road shitty hospital's A&E, if it's all the same to you."
"Pfft." Oikawa snorted. "You underestimate my constitution. I know I have the complexion of porcelain, but I really can't help my genes, can I?"
Kenji, in spite of himself, let out an undignified sort of snigger.
Oikawa smiled. They walked on down the street. Kenji avoided the puddles along the way; Oikawa walked right through them without inhibition, making little splashes round his sneakers.
For someone who'd seemed so laid-back in the car, his pace was surprisingly brisk. Kenji matched him, stride for stride, stewing in silence until his penchant for meddling got the better of him.
"So what's the story with you and milk bread?" he asked.
"You wouldn't stop anywhere else. You were obviously looking for a bakery. You were obviously looking for milk bread, god knows why — "
Oikawa wiped the crumbs from his mouth with a delicate swipe of his fingers. "What makes you think there's a story?"
"Please," said Kenji. "I do this for a living."
The wind, a knowing whisper by his ear, blew a stray leaf into his hair; he brushed it off roughly, watched it fall to the ground.
"Oh? What do you do?" Oikawa asked.
"I'm an investigative journalist," said Kenji.
"How very fascinating. What paper do you write for?"
Kenji rolled his eyes. "You don't have to pretend you're interested. People don't even read newspapers anymore. I bet you haven't touched one in years."
Oikawa shrugged. "It's true. Reading's a dying art. But sometimes they have pretty photos."
"We're not really the pretty photo sort at the Dateshin — "
"Dateshin?" Oikawa repeated, an eyebrow arched in polite curiosity.
"The Datekougyou Shinbun. See, I knew you wouldn't know it. It's not like we're big or anything."
"Prickly, Futakuchi-chan. Do you hate your job or something?"
When Oikawa asked the question, he managed, somehow, to toss it out almost casually, like he was making small talk about the terrible weather.
"No. I love what I do," Kenji said.
"Then why do you sound so grumpy?"
"Because you're a nosy asshole?"
"Hey, you pretty much just described what you do for a living, so I'll take that as a compliment — "
And Oikawa popped the straw on his juice box, taking a long, unhurried sip, as he slipped aside and ducked the half-hearted punch that Kenji aimed at his shoulder with a maddening effortlessness. Showoff, thought Kenji.
"What are you doing on a drive to nowhere like this, anyway?" Oikawa pressed on. "Don't you have things to go investigate?"
Kenji kicked at a loose pebble, watched it bounce onto the road and away. A small frown curved the corners of his lips. "I'm investigating a personal dilemma."
"How cryptic. Are you going to write a column about it?"
"No," said Kenji. "It's personal. Like I said."
Oikawa pursed his lips. "And you think you'll find the answer on a roadtrip to nowhere?"
Kenji shot Oikawa a passing glare. It rolled right off his back like a stray raindrop. "You pick up all kinds of things on a roadtrip to nowhere, apparently."
"True." Oikawa preened a little. "Isn't it your lucky day."
"By the way," Kenji pointed out, "you never did tell me the deal with you and milk bread. Don't think I missed you changing the subject."
"I did it awfully smoothly, don't you think?"
"It's not going to work twice."
Oikawa let out a low chuckle. He finished off his juice with a loud slurping noise, tossed the empty carton into a recycling bin without looking, and hummed again, a low, singsong hmmm as he looked at Kenji speculatively.
Kenji, determined to hold his own, looked right back.
"I don't know that there's a deal, really. It's kind of like, a childhood thing, I guess," said Oikawa.
Kenji tipped his chin up slightly, eyed Oikawa from this vantage point. He took in the nostalgic twist in his mouth, the soft, strangely intense focus in his gaze, facing forward, in the unmistakable way of someone trying very hard not to look back.
"A childhood story," he repeated, his tone a study in practised neutrality.
"Hey, the rain's back," said Oikawa, looking up. He blinked, brushed a raindrop, uselessly, from his forehead. The moment passed. Kenji followed his gaze.
"No shit," he murmured. "Let's get back to the car."
By some tacit, unspoken agreement, they found themselves back on the expressway. Kenji realised, belatedly, that he could have kept driving off-road instead; there were some rather densely forested areas nearby that seemed like good places to shake off an annoying passenger, and if that failed there were always those quaint, charming little farming towns that sprung up round rice fields and mountains. It seemed to Kenji that inaka life would be a novel and character-building experience for an Oikawa Tooru.
Said Oikawa Tooru, who had gone into a brief, silent sulk upon being told firmly not to eat his milk bread in the car, now turned to Kenji with a grin so bright and sudden that Kenji felt himself immediately suspicious of it.
"I have a proposition."
"I knew this peace and quiet was too good to last," Kenji remarked.
"Let's go to Tokyo. How about that?"
"Tokyo?" Kenji sputtered. "Do you know how long a drive that is?"
Oikawa screwed up his face in thought, head tilted. "Mmm... about four hours?"
"Without stopping. If you think I'm driving non-stop, well, you're wrong."
"So we'll take longer." Oikawa shrugged, nonchalant. "What's the hurry? Don't you want to do something, I don't know..."
He waved his hands vaguely, like he was searching for the word somewhere in the air, and his fingers ached to pluck it and make it his.
Kenji, the taste of immediate regret honeyed at the back of his throat, let out a breath and said, "Something bigger?"
"You mean Tokyo is big? I knew that."
"Oh, don't be like that, Futakuchi-chan! You know what I mean. Don't you?"
The sun would burst forth, thought Kenji, and the clouds would blow away before he answered that aloud, but he made the unspoken concession of a steady acceleration, straight ahead. He did not check his rear view mirror. There was enough already to handle right in front of him, and within.
He reached out and changed the radio channel to the news, ignoring Oikawa's protest of bo-ring!, and listened for a while to the familiar, reassuring drone of business updates and stock market performances.
Oikawa dropped his head to one side at an unnatural angle and pretended to snore. Kenji let him.
Tokyo, huh. He'd never been. Being with the Dateshin, even if you were a star reporter, meant you were only still as big as Miyagi. It wasn't like there was anything inherently bad about that. He could admit, sometimes, that he was proud, even, in a fierce and protective way, of the place that had made him. Sure, the stories were small, and there was that question he'd grown used to asking, like a bad habit he couldn't shake off, but — well —
maybe sometimes —
Through the unbearable humidity and the chill of tsuyu, he thought of going.
He could go, and they could go faster and farther, until something broke and the pleasant heat coiling in his belly grew itself into the kind of spark he could no longer ignore, one that skirted uncomfortable like fingernails on the edge of the pavement.
"You realise," said Kenji, "that four hours there means the same back to Sendai."
"Oh, let's not bother with that. We can just camp overnight in this car! It's an adventure, isn't it?"
Kenji pondered, for a moment, his lack of sleeping bag and a change of clothes before snapping back to the present, and the sheer ridiculousness of it all. "I am not camping overnight in my car!"
"We-ell," said Oikawa, doubtfully, "I could drive us back — "
Kenji cut him off. "That's even more out of the question."
"I'll have you know I'm a very good driver."
"Camping it is, then!" Oikawa declared.
Kenji sighed. "I hope you're packing a hot shower and a bed in that duffel of yours."
"Oh, only one bed? Is that how it is, Futakuchi-chan? That's very forward of you."
"Yeah," said Kenji, deadpan. "The one bed's for me. You get to sleep on the floor. Or wherever. I don't care."
Oikawa stirred. He opened his eyes.
Kenji, gaze fixed firmly on the view from his windscreen, felt them on him more than anything else, heard the sunlit satisfaction in Oikawa's voice when he said, "So we are going to Tokyo, then."
"I don't know about we. You can still get out of my car. Any time," said Kenji.
"How cold you are!"
Kenji, an electric warmth running down his spine, smiled to himself.
It wasn't like Kenji had never seen a photographer at work. On the contrary, he had seen too many to count. It was either a perk or an unfortunate circumstance of his life in a newsroom.
Oikawa Tooru was not like any photographer he'd ever known. For one, having made himself far too much at home already in Kenji's car, he seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time with his eyes shut.
At one point, Kenji remarked, "I thought you were doing a travel photography project."
"I am," said Oikawa.
"Shouldn't you, I don't know, take some photos?"
Oikawa, curled up in a languid sort of repose with his head resting against the window, waved a hand at him like he was swatting a fly. "I'll know when the time for photos is."
"How is that even possible? You're not looking. Mostly."
Oikawa smiled. It was maddening.
"Trust me," he said.
Kenji turned up the music (now, to match the storm clouds looming in the distance, a classical channel blasting some angry Beethoven), and drove on. There was something calming about the roar of everything around him. Midday crept up on them, grey and damp and relentless; the downpour drummed a soothing rhythm on the roof of the car.
And that was the other sticking point, the why of it, that trust me; Kenji, a natural sceptic, had an abundant and inherent distrust of anything with a source he couldn't trace, and trust was the last thing he was inclined to do with anyone he'd just met, let alone this guy, but —
He caught a sharp, sudden, movement, then, from the corner of his eye, and his gaze flicked over and there it was again. Faster than either of them could blink, Oikawa had uncoiled himself to alertness. It was like zero to a hundred in the space of a second. It kept happening. It was driving Kenji slowly up the wall.
Still as he was, every muscle in Oikawa's body seemed to thrum with energy; he was poised, and he was deliberate, and he had his camera raised to his eye as he leaned forward, snapping pictures of the rain-spattered signboards and slip roads beyond the windscreen.
"Why here?" asked Kenji.
"Intuition," said Oikawa without missing a click.
"But there's nothing here," Kenji protested. "Just the exit to Date."
"Don't be so rude, Futakuchi-chan. I'm sure people from Date would find that a very important sort of something."
Kenji laughed. "I'm from Date, Oikawa-san," he said, and revelled in the momentary satisfaction of hearing, seeing, the small intake of breath as Oikawa's lips parted slightly in a murmured oh?
"I grew up there. The Dateshin started there," Kenji said. "That's where it gets its name."
Oikawa leaned back, lowered his camera and gave Kenji an appraising look. "You've been with the Dateshin since it started?"
"Yeah," said Kenji.
"That's pretty dedicated," Oikawa remarked. "You must be really serious about it."
Kenji felt something inside him twist. He reached for his bag of sour gummies, found it missing, and turned to glare at Oikawa, who grinned and brandished it like a prize.
"What colour is your favourite?" Oikawa asked, peering into the bag.
"What? I don't care. Any colour. Yellow. Whatever."
Oikawa, with all the appearance of great care and concentration, fished a yellow gummy out of the bag and placed it solemnly on Kenji's outstretched palm. His fingers were cool, and lingered briefly.
"I'll even give you two," Oikawa added, putting another one next to the first as he replaced the bag back into its rightful place near the gearstick.
Kenji popped them both in his mouth at the same time.
"You might be the first person to ever call me serious," he said to Oikawa. "Although, coming from you, I'm not sure that's a good thing."
From the cavernous depths of his duffel, Oikawa produced a pair of black-framed glasses and set them on his nose, clearing his throat with an exaggerated harrumph.
"I'm very serious, Futakuchi-chan, I don't know what you mean to insinuate."
Kenji, in spite of himself, smiled.
Oikawa propped one leg up on the seat, hugged it close and rested his cheek atop his knee, head tilted contemplatively towards Kenji. He was silent for a while. The orchestra segued into a pastoral symphony as the rain continued to pour.
"What?" Kenji asked, when he couldn't stand it anymore.
"You keep staring at me like you expect me to talk."
"Maybe I expect you to talk," said Oikawa.
"Mmm. About seriousness. About whatever's on your mind."
"What makes you think there's something on my mind?"
Oikawa let out a low, silk-smooth laugh that was, all at once, quiet and deafening in the echoey kind of way, like it reached right through him, spelunking into a hollow part of Kenji that he hadn't even known existed.
"We'll probably never see each other again," said Oikawa, lightly. "So. You really don't have to hold back, you know. I'm the perfect confidante."
Kenji let out an exhale like a slow whistle. It sounded heavy, heavier than he actually felt. Probably. "It's not really much of a secret anyway. Just, something you wouldn't really care about."
"Oh, try me."
In Oikawa's mouth, even an invitation sounded like a challenge, a crooked finger beckoning. Kenji felt a knot inside him loosen. This was familiar territory, this masking of care with cavalier provocation, and yet, here, uncharted, it was ruled by someone who wasn't him for once. If he'd had a more romantic bent to him, he might have found himself captivated.
"Moniwa. My editor. He's stepping down. God, that makes us sound old."
"Is this Moniwa your age?" Oikawa squinted at him. "You have some very unbecoming stress lines round your eyes — "
"Koganegawa's fault," Kenji muttered, under his breath.
" — but you don't seem, mmm, retirement-age."
"Moniwa's leaving the Dateshin," Kenji said. "He's moving to another paper. In Kansai. He'll have a smaller role there, but it's a much bigger title, so. It'll be good for him. And he's done a lot for us. I guess it's time for him to move on."
Oikawa said nothing, and waited.
"He asked if I would be the next editor."
Oikawa stirred. He raised his head and rubbed the back of his neck with one hand like it ached, a strangely endearing, absent-minded gesture. "That's awfully exciting, isn't it? But you don't sound all that excited. Do you not want to be editor? Is this like, one of those I need to get away and find myself roadtrips-to-nowhere?"
"I do want to be editor," said Kenji.
It was the first time he'd said this out loud. It was the first time he'd said this to anyone. Perhaps, even, to himself.
"But," said Oikawa, and stopped, leaving it dangling. It hung in the air between them, an open door, cracked ajar just enough to let in the chill, the rainswept wind, and, somewhere beyond, the light.
God, thought Kenji again, it was annoying; he was being drawn out, he knew, like a kitten with a ball of string, yet because he was aware, some part of him was also uncomfortably conscious of the fact that he was being drawn out because he wanted to be.
"I didn't expect to be asked," he admitted, reluctant. "Because I know I'm a pain. I'm selfish and problematic and I make life hard for my bosses. If I were Moniwa, I don't know how I'd manage me."
He laughed dryly, stopped for breath. His words were veering off the tracks like a runaway train. He went on anyway.
"I'm a good journalist. But I don't know if I'll be a good editor. I don't know if I'll be serious enough, I suppose. I mean, look at me now, just taking off on my own like this…"
"Mmmm," Oikawa hummed, contemplative. "I think you're thinking too much."
Kenji rolled his eyes at him. Oikawa stuck his tongue out in response and leaned back, eyes fluttering shut once again.
"Don't give me that look. It's simple. Do you want to do it?"
Kenji reached for another sour gummy.
"I do," he said.
"Then do," said Oikawa.
They stopped for a late lunch at a family restaurant just off the highway, this time a place of Kenji's choosing, and Oikawa conceded the fairness of it with a jostle of his elbow and a click of his camera, laughing gaily as he sidestepped Kenji's retaliatory punch and took a picture of the restaurant's facade, then of the Prius in the half-empty carpark. Through the dull light, it looked like something out of a faded, film noir photograph.
Oikawa showed it to him over glasses of iced lemon tea. Their fingers bumped over the sides of the camera.
"Can I see the rest of your photos?" Kenji asked, reaching for the arrow buttons.
Oikawa snatched the camera away. "Nuh-uh. They're full of secrets."
Kenji smirked. "Yours?"
"Of course not." Oikawa sniffed dismissively. "Everyone else's. Yours, even."
Then their curry rice came, and Kenji, who'd suddenly remembered he was starving, let the secrets slide for now.
Oikawa ordered a coffee to go, and Kenji, who had long finished his overly sweetened Americano, was persuaded into doing likewise; this one tasted like ditchwater, and it seemed to amuse Oikawa more than anything else, a fact that would have flummoxed Kenji into speechlessness had the rain not, then, come to a temporary state of peace with the sun and painted a rainbow across the sky, which made him slow down unconsciously and made Oikawa grab his arm and insist they pull up to the shoulder so he could take a picture.
"Rainbows seem awfully prosaic," Kenji protested, half-hearted.
"I'm a prosaic sort of fellow. I'm really quite uncomplicated," said Oikawa.
They pulled over to the shoulder.
As Oikawa whipped out a tripod and set about his work, Kenji leaned back against his car, crossed his arms and gazed out at the horizon. It was so alive, nature verdant and unfettered and unhesitating, all up and down those fields and green peaks in the distance. He imagined new shoots, kindling, and what would come after the rain.
Flashes of limitless scored themselves into his mind. The ache inside him threatened to come unlaced.
Oikawa pronounced himself satisfied, if imperfect; the rainbow had vanished before he'd got all the shots he wanted, but he waved it off with an imperious flick of his wrist and declared that that rainbow hadn't known how good it had it to be photographed by someone like him, anyway.
"Takes one to know one. You're both as capricious as each other," Kenji remarked bluntly.
"Oh, be quiet," said Oikawa, without malice, and Kenji shot him a knowing grin.
So it went, in the sleepy post-lunch hours: they drove on, Kenji switched radio channels again to a pop-rock station that was, if nothing else, mind-numbingly inoffensive, and Oikawa drifted in and out of fitful naps.
Traffic on the Tohoku was an insistent sort of ebb and flow, this time of day. Kenji could lose himself in tides like these. He allowed his thoughts to wander, his left foot to tap, aimlessly, to the beat of whatever song came on. Sometimes, he even let himself hum along.
If it had been a dry summer's day, and he had one of those fancy convertibles, he would have lowered the roof of his car and let the sun blaze down on him, but this was more than fine too. Sendai, his deadline, and all of his difficult decisions littered his wake like so many raindrops, so many blurry reflections in puddles; the further away he left them, the closer he felt to some kind of breakthrough, everything crystallising from the perspective of distance.
Oikawa, with his eyes closed, said, "I'm bored. Let's play Twenty Questions."
"No," said Kenji.
"I'll start. Is it bigger than a milk bread?"
"Is what bigger than a milk bread?"
"Whatever you're thinking of. Futakuchi-chan, don't tell me you've never played this game before!"
"I haven't played it since I was five."
"Wow, you're boring. I guess I'm the winner by default, then."
Kenji let out an impatient snort. "Yes."
"That's very submissive of you. I expected more of a fight, honestly — "
"No, you dolt. I mean, yes, it's bigger than a milk bread. An average milk bread. Technically, you could bake milk breads the size of a car, so you need to ask better questions."
Oikawa's eyes opened, and he laughed, light and easy and a little bit drunk on caffeine, and the miles and miles of road that lay before them. Beneath their feet, the highway seemed to stretch like a red carpet.
They played Twenty Questions for the next four exits, before Oikawa declared himself bored, too, with this game, and fell asleep again, waking in fits and starts to photograph seemingly the most random things by the roadside. Sometimes, a dent in the metal fence, sometimes a crack of light that pierced the clouds, sometimes, signboards silhouetted in green against greener mountains, and a sky like a fogged-up mirror.
It remained a mystery, his modus operandi. Kenji stewed on it in quiet futility till his phone went off, jolting him back to more relevant, less interesting concerns with a short beep.
He reached out, swiped the notification aside and skimmed the message that appeared onscreen.
From: Kamasaki Yasushi
Hey, you ass. Are you going to be back by tomorrow? Nametsu-chan's asking.
"Ooh," Oikawa piped up, peering round blatantly. "Who's Nametsu-chan?"
Kenji reached out without looking and shoved Oikawa away by the face, ignoring his strangled yelp.
"Editor-in-chief's PA. I guess Oiwake wants to see me," Kenji said.
"Well, yes. Obviously. I don't intend to still be trapped in a car with you this time tomorrow, if that's what you're asking," Kenji shot back.
"Ouch. Why? Haven't I been nothing but scintillating company? Hey, let's play another game."
Oikawa raised his hand, formed an ok sign and brought the perfect circle of his thumb and index finger to his eye, speculatively; he looked at Kenji like he was a picture, and Kenji wondered if he would take a picture of him somewhere along the way.
He hadn't asked. Not yet. He probably would. Wouldn't he? The anticipation of the possibility was worse than the idea itself. Kenji didn't want to be photographed. But neither did he want to be deemed not important enough for it. Either way, he was annoyed all over again.
"I spy, with my little eye," said Oikawa, grandiose, "someone who's afraid to dream big."
"Ha," said Kenji. It wasn't a laugh.
"Was that too easy to guess?" Oikawa asked rhetorically.
Kenji shook his head. "You're wrong. I'm not scared. I'm just realistic. I want the job, but I'm probably going to fuck it up, you know?"
Oikawa reached into his duffel and pulled out one of his loaves of milk bread.
"Hey, no eating in the car — " Kenji started, but Oikawa cut him off with a swift finger to his lips, as cool as it was sudden.
"So dry. Remind me to introduce you to the wonders of lip balm," said Oikawa, running his fingertip off Kenji's bottom lip.
Kenji swallowed, and tried not to gape.
"You asked me about milk bread. Remember? Well, here's the story. When I was in junior high, I came down with RSI. Repetitive stress injury in my shooting hand."
Something inside Kenji recoiled, instinctively. He turned. Oikawa flexed his wrist, wiggled his fingers slightly and waved off Kenji's look like it was nothing.
"Oh, don't look at me like that. It was fine. Just a mild case. The thing is, I should have seen it coming. I was pushing myself way too hard. I had a really talented kouhai, you know — no people skills whatsoever, but he had a real eye for it… anyway, it's not his fault. I was just a jerk who'd come in second in district photography competitions for the last two years and felt shitty, if you can imagine that."
"Well, I can imagine you being a jerk," said Kenji, but there was no sting in it. Oikawa smiled. He held up the milk bread.
"When it happened, my best friend bought me a loaf of milk bread and said that if he caught me holding on to a camera any tighter than I would hold on to this loaf of bread, he would punch me in the face. It was terrible. Iwa-chan was mean. I wasn't allowed to dent the bread."
"That's." Kenji said, and stopped awkwardly, finding himself at a momentary loss for words. "Very creative."
Oikawa laughed. "It worked, though. And it was like… I don't know. Even after I fucked up, and had to sit out of club activities for a while, it turned out okay in the end, right? All it took was something as simple as milk bread to remind me to be — oh, this is embarrassing to admit, don't tell anyone — "
"We'll probably never see each other again," Kenji murmured. In the echo of the words, uttered so lightly, he felt something clench in his gut. He wasn't sure if he relished it or not. "So. You really don't have to hold back, you know. I'm the perfect confidante."
"To — oh, to hang on and let go at the same time, if you get what I mean. To be my stupid goddamn stubborn self. Iwa-chan’s words,” Oikawa added, a small pout on his lips. “Just, with a reduced propensity for dents. Also, are you an alien? Or a tape recorder?"
"I don't know about alien. Pretty sure I'm not a tape recorder," said Kenji. "It would be very useful if I were one."
"You have a scary memory."
Oikawa laughed again, then, and Kenji felt more than a little lightheaded.
"So, anyway." Oikawa shrugged. "You'll fuck up. It's a fact of life, my realistic friend. But if there's something you dream of — something you want to do — then go do it. And fear not — "
He reached out, tapped Kenji on either shoulder with his loaf of milk bread, and grinned, a beatific, blade-sharp grin that left only the most glancing cut behind. Enough to prick, not enough to bleed through.
"I bequeath to you the power of milk bread. From now on, you, too, can buy five loaves of milk bread whenever you need to feel better."
"You're outrageous," said Kenji, swatting him away.
Oikawa tipped his head close to Kenji's cheek as he leaned back into his seat. "You like it. Don't lie," he said, softly and brightly, the words grazing Kenji's ear like a breeze, like a bruise.
Kenji felt his heart seize up unbearably, for a moment.
He opened his mouth. He had no idea what would come out of it.
Perhaps it was something in Oikawa's story, that unexpected strain of understanding, of vulnerability; perhaps it was the impromptu knighting ceremony that filled him with a foolhardy courage. Perhaps, in the end, it was simply the rain, and the lingering, unshakeable feeling that they were infinite, here and now.
"Do you ever dream you could be more, Oikawa-san?" Kenji asked, the words tripping forth before he thought them all the way through. He heard himself. He kept talking anyway, an accident in the making. The unrelenting warmth of the afternoon pressed itself close, and it squeezed all the maybes and things he couldn't say from his throat, all the breath from his chest like an release, long and slow and summery.
"I mean, like, really achieve something."
Oikawa blinked. He stared at Kenji like he had just asked the world's simplest question.
"Of course," he said. "Doesn't everyone?"
And Kenji found that, from Oikawa's lips, he could believe it, for the first time.
"Hey, how much longer to Tokyo?"
"I don't know. We're halfway, maybe? A little more than halfway? I don't know where the hell we are now. All I see are mountains for miles."
"You don't know! Aren't you the driver here?"
"Oh, I knew you were a dangerous driver!"
"You're still here, so shut up."
"We're… hmm, let me see… somewhere near Nasu? There are an awful lot of mountains."
"You can tell we're near Nasu just from seeing an awful lot of mountains?"
"Don't be silly, Futakuchi-chan. I can tell we're near Nasu because that big sign right there said so."
"Oh. I didn't notice it."
"Honestly! How do you drive?"
"I slam my foot on this pedal here and the car goes?"
"Oh, very funny. I wash my hands of you. Let me out here, I want a good photo of this scenery!"
"The scenery? Wait, right here? Are you even seeing all this rain pouring down right now? You can't — "
"It's fine! You've got a huge umbrella in the backseat, just come out and hold it over me — "
"Like hell I'm doing that!"
Later, as Kenji wrung out his jacket and regretted everything about his life leading up to this moment, he glanced over at Oikawa, settling back into the passenger seat.
He had his camera in his hands, and Kenji looked, really looked, for the first time, at the careful elegance in the way he held it, the curves and valleys of his fingers, his knuckles; and there was something impossibly fine about the territory.
There was something, too, about the look on his face —
He wore his smile like a fingerprint, private and one-of-a-kind, and turned inwards. Mostly. He glanced up, then, and Kenji caught a glimpse of something unguarded, the pure and unadulterated joy of an emotion captured in snapshots.
"I spy, with my little eye, something that begins with ka — "
"No," said Kenji.
"Oh, come on, I'm so bored!"
"Take some photos. Isn't that what you're here for?"
"Hmmph." Oikawa made an impatient noise, arms crossed firmly. "Are you offering to be my subject?"
Kenji, a retort on the tip of his tongue, sputtered and choked on the words. Just then, a jaunty, obnoxious jingle that sounded like a shampoo commercial filled the air.
Saved by the bell, thought Kenji.
The pout on Oikawa's lips dissolved itself into a sigh just this side of haplessly dramatic, and as Kenji raced on through the hazy, quickening drizzle and the first tinge of a blush-pink evening, he watched Oikawa reach for his duffel, carefully remove his camera bag and tip everything else into his lap in a messy pile; a rolled up magazine, a notepad, sunglasses, and something that looked suspiciously like an inflatable pillow, among other odds and ends. No umbrella, of course. That would have been far too practical a thing.
The ringing stopped for a blessed respite of approximately half a second before it started again.
"Where is — oh, here we go."
Oikawa flipped his bag upside down, pulled his mobile from a side pocket and answered it with a lilting "Iwa-chan!"
Kenji made no secret of turning to stare.
"Yes… yes, I'm fine. I'm in a car with a delightful young man. Say hi — "
"No," said Kenji. Oikawa wrinkled his nose at him in disapproval and returned the receiver to his ear.
"Well, he won't say hi, so for all you know, I'm in a car with a dangerous stranger… Iwa-chan, please. I'm not telling you where I am. That would take all the fun out of it."
There was a pause, then, as Oikawa listened, one foot tapping impatiently on the floor. Kenji reached out to turn down the music.
"What, you're calling with a work question? I'm so disappointed. I thought you cared about my welfare… no! Don't send Kunimi-chan. He hates doing event shots. Too energetic… yeah. It's not his strength anyway. Send Yahaba. Hey, are you watering Spidey?"
Eavesdropping on one half of Oikawa's phone call, thought Kenji, was like trying to catch a mosquito in summer. It was an annoying, persistent hum, just high-pitched enough to be impossible to ignore, and it had the tendency to buzz erratically off in every other direction when you tried to pin it down. It was the kind of aggravating, futile quest that would end inevitably in one smacking oneself instead.
But the more Oikawa spoke, the more the pieces came together in Kenji's mind, and the more he was certain he'd caught something.
As Oikawa hung up with a cheery, "Give my love to your family! Bye!", Kenji coughed, obviously and deliberately. He'd never mastered the art of raised eyebrows, so he settled for narrowing them instead, shooting Oikawa a deadened glare.
"Don't look so scary," said Oikawa, gathering up all his stuff in one armful and tossing the lot, higgledy-piggledy, back into his duffel.
"Iwa-chan, huh," Kenji remarked, a wry, humourless twist on the corner of his lips.
Oikawa lowered his lashes slightly. "Are you jealous, Futakuchi-chan? That's so sweet."
Kenji, gritting his teeth, said, "Took me long enough. I must be losing my touch. I've finally figured out who you are."
"Have you? That's very existential."
"The Aoba Times. Your best friend, Iwa-chan — it's Iwaizumi, isn't he? The deputy editor."
"Wow. I can't believe the day has come when Iwa-chan's more famous than me. I'm so upset."
As Oikawa made this pronouncement, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a mint and popped it into his mouth, looking not in the least upset.
"Well. Reading's a dying art, and all."
"Why, I seem to remember hearing that recently somewhere."
"So, you know," Kenji went on, "I don't really pay attention to superfluous text that doesn't interest me."
"Like my name under all the best photos in The Aoba Times, I suppose," said Oikawa lightly, looking down at his nails.
"Things like that, yes."
"I'm so hurt."
Kenji took a deep breath.
He felt that heat flare up inside him again, urgent and pressing and unfurling like a forest fire; and all the steady patter of the falling rain on his window, the looming clouds ahead and the mist on the fields, the tops of the trees, did nothing to dampen it. He thought to snap off his words between his teeth and let them come out light and frozen like he didn't care, but as he swerved sharply and pulled over to the road shoulder, foot jamming down on the brake, he found his breath coming in ragged jags, and he found that he didn't care how they came out after all.
"You've been lying to me."
Oikawa had gone very still. Calmly, he set his bag back down on the floor.
"I haven't," he said.
"We'll probably never see each other again? Really? I know about you — "
"I really think this is an overreaction, it's not like we've ever met before, and you didn't even recognise my name!"
"Oh, whatever. I know The Aoba Times has an award-winning photo editor. Ours won't shut up about it. Even Moniwa knows about you."
"How lovely of them," said Oikawa, the ghost of a smile fleeting across his lips.
Kenji curled one hand into a fist and drove it into his seat, feeling the scrape of sweat and synthetic leather across the chapped backs of his fingers.
"We move in practically the same circles, Oikawa-san. If I became editor, we'd definitely see each other again."
"You say that like it's a bad thing," said Oikawa, sounding a little injured, and oddly quiet. "Is it such a bad thing? I think I've come to rather like you, you know, Futakuchi-chan."
Kenji slumped back. The headrest was unpleasantly warm, and a little sticky. He reached out and turned up the air-conditioning. Lightning split the sky overhead, and a second later, thunder rumbled; around them, cars kept streaming on thick and fast. Kenji felt like the still point in the heart of a storm. He was a bastion of solidity. He was scrabbling, reaching desperately for something real and rooted, something that would not blow away.
The truth was, he liked Oikawa, too.
He did not want to admit it, not now, but in the face of Oikawa's honesty at last, he could not lie. At least not to himself. He would rather eat a hundred milk breads than say it aloud.
He said, eventually, "That's not the point. Why didn't you tell me?"
"I don't know. It just… never came up. And then you were telling me about everything at the Dateshin and it was weird for me to bring it up after that."
In the shifting shadow of the trees, windswept, by the roadside, Oikawa's face was caught in fading light and darkness; Kenji could just about make out the fine lines furrowing his forehead, the simmering frustration in the crease and set of his eyes. They were less caramel, more bitter chocolate, now.
"You know," said Kenji, "I only told you everything because I thought it was like — I don't know — when you pour your troubles into some void on the internet where only total strangers can hear."
"I'm sorry," Oikawa said. He even sounded genuinely contrite.
"Now you're sorry?"
Oikawa, hand half-raised from his lap, dropped it back like a stone. Kenji wondered if he had been trying to reach for him, to lace those fingers through his instead.
He wondered what he would have done.
Oikawa tipped his chin up defiantly, and spoke with a fullness and a pride that made Kenji turn to stare.
"I'm sorry I didn't tell you properly who I was. It's like I said. I like you, and I wanted to hear your story. But I'm not sorry I told you mine. Even knowing who you were. Now, do you want to drive on or do you want me to get out of your car?"
He had one hand on the handle of his duffel, and Kenji realised, with some bemusement, that he meant it; that if Kenji said get out of my car, Oikawa would do so without protest.
He put down the handbrake and took the car out of neutral. The engine hummed to life.
He did not lift his foot, not yet.
"I don't know," he said.
Wordlessly, suddenly, before Kenji had the time to react, he opened the door and slid out of the car as easily as he had slid into it, and into Kenji's life and choices and damned uncertainties, and the story he'd been weaving in his head this entire time.
Kenji watched, speechless, through his side mirror, as Oikawa walked away from him.
You asshole, he thought. In the end, you didn't even let me choose.
He stayed where he was, unmoving on the road shoulder, until the faint reflection of Oikawa's silhouette disappeared into the rain. It didn't take long.
Then he put on the heavy metal playlist again and floored the accelerator.
He called Kamasaki as he zoomed past Utsunomiya into the heart of Tochigi-ken, and was reminded of Sendai by the sight of high-rise buildings breaking up the skyline, billboards splashed against the plum-sweet setting sun.
"Hey," he said. "I'll be back tomorrow. You can tell Nametsu to pencil me in for, like… sometime in the afternoon."
"Does that mean I'll get your column in the morning?" Kamasaki asked.
"You're like a pit bull on a scent — "
"That's a terrible analogy. You want a tracking dog, like, I don't know, a bloodhound. You're losing your touch, Futakuchi."
"Funny. I've been thinking that too, lately," said Kenji.
"Hey, don't get all discouraged on me. You always manage to pull it off somehow. God knows how. So? When?"
"Fine, yes, you'll get my column in the morning. In fact, I'm going to pull over right now and scrawl it on my notepad and send you a photo of it, and you can type it up — "
"Fuck off," said Kamasaki.
"Glad someone still loves me."
Kamasaki let out a snort of derisive laughter, then stopped short. "Is that thunder I hear? Bloody hell, where are you?"
"Still driving. On the Tohoku. Somewhere."
"In weather like this? Can you even see past ten feet of your windscreen? Where the hell are you going?"
"Don't know," said Kenji.
"You're crazy. At least you're in your car. I gotta go. Aone says hi."
Kenji narrowed his eyes at his phone. "Don't lie to me. Aone didn't say anything."
"You pedant. I meant, Aone is giving me a meaningful look right now which I interpret to be a friendly greeting, but who knows? We need you back here. Right, bye then."
And Kamasaki hung up, leaving Kenji with a dial tone and dead silence.
Kenji looked over to his empty passenger seat.
This is stupid, he thought, even as he tried to purge Kamasaki's words from his head where they rang out, like an accusation. At least you're in your car.
If Kamasaki only knew —
He thought of Aone, then, and of Koganegawa, and wondered what they'd got themselves into without him there, and he thought of all the things he had yet to do, all the things he wanted — no, ached — to do, so much it hurt. They were poised on the brink of something great, greater, he knew; there were so many stories the Dateshin had yet to tell, and they could be — would be — his to tell.
He dared, in that moment, to touch the edges of a dream and claim it for himself. It felt velvet-smooth. It felt barbed. It felt like Oikawa's breath tickling the shell of his ear.
Outside, the storm raged on.
"Oh, fuck this," said Kenji, out loud, and took the next exit.
Regret, of the tart, vinegary kind, the kind that left a little bit of a burn on his tongue, was a taste Kenji was becoming far too well-acquainted with today.
He hadn't even had the courtesy to take his empty coffee cup with him, thought Kenji, and the frown on his face etched itself deeper as he stared daggers into said cup; it sat there, right there by the passenger side air-conditioning vents, a reminder that someone had been here.
That Kenji had let someone in, and he'd been selfish and reckless, as usual, and perhaps, the thing was — this time —
The other person had been reckless too, and when two dangerous drivers met, it could only end in a collision course, if not in sparks.
It took Kenji an unreasonable number of U-turns and missed roundabouts before he found his way back to the Tohoku, going north, and then looping round again back southbound and retracing the road they'd travelled, mile by painstaking mile till he figured out exactly where he'd left Oikawa behind.
Dusk spread itself across the sky like a darkening cloak, stitched in echoes, misty streaks of fuschia and rain that fell sideways, and Kenji cursed Oikawa all over again under his breath.
He had to slow down, keep his eyes peeled for any recognisable landmark. It was an arduous, thankless task. Everything looked different in this hazy lamplight and half-light.
He took the slip road out, hurtled down a while in the dark and screeched over beneath the shelter of zelkova trees, swaying overhead, and then he turned and looked back.
If he'd been an Oikawa Tooru, carrying a heavy duffel and some very valuable photography equipment, sans shelter and wholly inappropriately attired, there was really only one place he could have gone.
I've done enough stupid things today. What's one more?
Gritting his teeth, Kenji put his car in reverse and inched down the road shoulder, bit by bit, until he found himself outside what looked like some kind of huge, abandoned warehouse.
He reached for his umbrella, put up his hood and got out of his car.
Rain. That was the first thing he smelled, the entirety of it, and the sensation sang in his bones; rain on asphalt and rain on grass and mud and gravel, a familiar, comforting, gritty kind of smell. It made him think of the city, of people-watching, and also of sprinting up mountains and round neighbourhoods in his youth, when he'd had too much energy and curiosity and Date had not known what to do with him. He'd been the most annoying child in town, and he had never shut up.
The second thing Kenji smelled was the equally comforting scent of gasoline and engine oil, and then he knew without a doubt, as he stepped into the building, that this was a place where cars were made. Or used to be made.
"Oikawa-san?" he called out sharply, snapping his umbrella shut.
His voice bounced off the walls. It sounded thinner, more uncertain in the reverberation. Kenji walked on.
There were no lights inside, only shadows, and the outlines of crates and old machinery, of parts lying around; something there that looked like a pile of hubcaps, a piece of a bonnet, a stack of wheels whose rubber had probably worn thin to nothing.
"Oikawa-san — " he tried again, softer this time, and then he heard a footstep behind him.
"Hey," Oikawa murmured.
Kenji's head started to whip round, only to be stopped short by the sudden sensation of warmth drawing nearer. He froze, felt a hand on his shoulder, and then an arm, winding round him in a loose embrace, and then Oikawa's inhale was against the back of his neck and his fingers slid their way down Kenji's chest, no more than skimming, light and unsure.
Metal. Metal and grease, and muscle memory. Kenji's heart was pounding, and he held himself still, where he was, held his tongue against his all his instincts to raise his voice. To even speak. Breaking the delicacy of this balance would be a bad, bad idea.
He breathed out, rough, against the distant memory of Oikawa's fingertip running over his bottom lip; Oikawa breathed out, featherlight behind him, and like the ghost of some suspended laughter, he felt a flutter, a flicker, eyelashes, or maybe a flyaway strand of hair, and then there was the aching, insistent press of Oikawa’s forehead into his shoulder, and Kenji remembered to breathe again.
"You came back," Oikawa whispered.
"I'm an idiot."
"I know," said Oikawa, and the barely veiled petulance in his voice made Kenji laugh, a low, self-deprecating chuckle.
"I mean," said Kenji, "I'm an idiot for coming back."
He thought he felt the porcelain-fine curve of Oikawa's answering smile dig into his shoulder blade.
"If that makes me the lesser idiot here, I'll take it," said Oikawa.
You're the worst.
The insult smothered itself on the inside of Kenji's mouth, molten. He let it linger, kept himself from swallowing its bitterness, as the thunderstorm pounded the rooftop above them. Perhaps it was not an insult at all. Perhaps it was a compliment. That would explain the aftertaste.
"Are you okay?" asked Kenji, turning around at last, and Oikawa raised his head.
His arm stayed where it was, draped over Kenji's shoulder. His smile was exactly as Kenji had imagined. He looked slightly damp, but none the worse for wear; in fact, thought Kenji, he looked better like this, with his immaculate hair in a rain-smeared mess, his jacket dirty with stray streaks of grease. He looked real. He looked like someone Kenji could reach out and touch.
So Kenji did, and when his hand came to rest on the chiselled line of Oikawa's jaw, Oikawa closed his eyes. Through his palm, Kenji felt him swallow, cupped in silence.
"I'm simply wonderful," Oikawa breathed.
Kenji believed it.
Oikawa, Kenji discovered, did not wear a watch, for time, apparently, was a thing for lesser mortals (or the unfortunate Iwa-chan) to concern themselves with. Oikawa Tooru did not live by the same clock as the rest of the world. He was the sort of person who expected the rest of the world to fall in with his, and, impossibly enough, it always seemed to.
The upshot of this was that Oikawa had no idea it had got so late, and he had immersed himself so deeply in shooting every nook and cranny of this abandoned car workshop that Kenji heard the rumbling from his stomach before Oikawa himself did.
"Sit," Kenji ordered, shoving him against a wall, and took the milk bread from his pocket.
Oikawa lit up. "You still have it! How sweet!"
"I forgot all about it till now," Kenji said as he ripped the packet open, tore off a piece and stuffed it unceremoniously into Oikawa's half-open mouth. For good measure, he ate some as well. It seemed unlikely they would be getting a proper dinner tonight.
Kenji, used to unusual mealtimes, was none too fussed by this, and Oikawa seemed to be in no hurry to leave their makeshift shelter, so Kenji sat down next to him and leaned back.
Their legs, stretched out beside each other, jostled for space. Their ankles bumped, and then their knees, and when he felt the jut of Oikawa's hip against his, Kenji flashed him a half-smile like ditchwater coffee.
"You're doing that on purpose," he said dryly.
"Never said I wasn't," said Oikawa, the admission blithe and easy. "You're really transparent, by the way, Futakuchi-chan. Actually, I've decided that's a real mouthful. How do you feel about Futacchi? Or Ken-chan?"
"How do you feel about me eating all the rest of this milk bread?" Kenji asked.
Oikawa sniffed haughtily. "I'd feel really sad that the milk bread has to suffer its final indignities in the mouth of someone who doesn't even really love it like I do."
"That's disgusting. I don't want to know how you love milk bread. What do you mean by transparent, anyway?"
Oikawa propped his arm up on one knee, tilted his head back and grinned. "You've been wondering how I know when to take photos, haven't you?"
"Well, honestly, I've never seen a photographer who spends so much time with their eyes closed."
"I told you from the start. Travels through Japan, with dubious strangers."
"You never took any photos of me, though — "
Oikawa shook his head. "That wasn't the project. The project was to see the road through your eyes."
"Through my eyes?"
"Did you know, when you get intense about something, you go faster? And when you see something that interests you, you slow down. Most drivers do. But you especially," said Oikawa, jabbing a finger into Kenji's ribs.
Kenji sputtered. "Wait. Hold up. I — what?"
Oikawa raised his finger, swatted Kenji on the cheek with it before waving it in his face like a gentle admonition. "A good photographer is — hmm, how shall I say it? Invisible. If I went on a roadtrip with a stranger only to take photos of things I liked, I wouldn't be a good photographer. I'm here to learn about my subjects. To draw out a hundred percent of you through my pictures."
"You mean," Kenji said slowly, piecing it together, "you had your eyes closed so you could feel when I was slowing and speeding?"
Oikawa shrugged like it was the most obvious thing in the world. "It's a lot easier to concentrate when my eyes are closed."
Kenji sagged against the wall. He closed his gaping mouth.
"I've travelled with a lot of people. I've been working on this series for a while," Oikawa went on. He turned to face Kenji. "But you were different, from the start. You were so driven. So… in the present. You were obviously reckless, and you had all this energy, and yet — you said you weren't going anywhere. You were the worst kind of contradiction for me, Futakuchi Kenji. One I really couldn't resist."
Kenji felt a pang twisting inside his chest, the feeling of being, against all odds, known. He took a long, careless breath, and shot Oikawa a glance from the corner of his eye.
"I've never really believed in dreams. Or tomorrows."
"I figured," Oikawa murmured.
"I still don't know if I do. But I've never met anyone who believes in them like you do. Someone like you could go to my head. You're bad news."
Oikawa smiled. He lowered his eyelids. Drifting moonlight caught on his long, graceful lashes.
"And thanks to you," he said to Kenji, with a curious reverence, "I remember what it feels like to be caught in the rain."
Kenji smiled, too.
"Isn't it great? Doesn't it make you feel like nothing else matters but now?"
"Now," said Oikawa, "and infinity. Carpe diem."
He leaned over, eyes still closed, and pressed a kiss to the corner of Kenji's lips. It stung like a love bite, lingered like a vow.
"I've been wanting to ask you something, Oikawa-san — "
"Well, I have a feeling you're going to ask it no matter what I say, so go on."
"Why the hell are you carrying sunglasses around?"
"Because! It wouldn't do to have my vision damaged by direct light, would it?"
"But we're in the middle of tsuyu, in case you forgot to turn on the weather report this morning. Or, you know, forgot to look out a window."
"Rude — "
"Just pointing out facts."
"Also, pessimistic. One never knows when the sun will come up, after all!"
"...if you say so."
"I do say so."
"Fine. I'm going to sleep on your lap now."
"I need to finish this column tonight. If I use the top of your head as a table for my notepad, don't punch me."
"I can't guarantee what I'll do in my sleep. I'm a very violent sleeper."
"Funny, because you were a very still sleeper in the car — "
"I'm sleeping. I can't hear you any more."
When morning dawned, Kenji woke, not to the obnoxious beeping of his alarm clock or an angry call from Kamasaki, but to a hand shaking him lightly and a hazy, dreamlike sunrise on the backs of his eyelids.
The smell of metal and grease brought him back to a not-unpleasant reality.
He cracked open his eyes and sat up, with an effort.
Oikawa's voice was soft, soft and gentle, gentler than Kenji had thought him capable of, and he was running a thumb across Kenji's tired cheek as he crouched in front of him, looking unnaturally alive for this time of morning.
"Oh god," Kenji croaked out. "You're one of those awful morning people, aren't you."
Oikawa's lips quirked upward in a wry smile. "Still such a shit-talker the minute you wake from an all-nighter. I knew I liked you for a reason. Want me to drive back to Sendai?"
Kenji, after a moment's hesitation, nodded. "Yeah. I think so."
Oikawa dragged him to his feet. He was surprisingly strong.
"Where are your keys?" he asked.
"In my back pocket," Kenji mumbled, and slumped over him. "You just want to get into my pants, don't you."
"You're a delight, Futakuchi Kenji. I can't think why you don't already have a boyfriend."
"I can think of eleven reasons why you don't have one."
"I'll buy you coffee if you promise never to tell me any of them," Oikawa offered gallantly.
Kenji smiled. "Deal."
What we learned on our way to Tokyo
by Futakuchi Kenji, Correspondent
This column was going to be about something else altogether.
It was going to be about apathy, and a question I've asked a lot, about dreams. Actually, in a roundabout kind of way, I suppose it's still about that. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I know we're all very busy people, so in case you don't have time to read to the end, here's the moral: If you've ever thought of taking a drive to nowhere and picking up a devilishly handsome hitchhiker along the way, don't, because he'll probably turn out to be an ass.
Moniwa put down his paper and looked up, across the crowded newsroom, towards Kenji's workstation. It was a wild, nuclear terrain, marked by an abundance of paperclips, staples, empty Starbucks cups, and sour gummies that somehow crawled out of their packet and got stuck to his in-tray.
Kenji, slurping loudly at his mocha Frappucino, swivelled his chair round to face Moniwa and propped his feet up on the desk. "What is it?"
"Nothing," said Moniwa. He smiled. "I was just reading your column again. It surprised me, you know, when you first handed it in."
Kenji tipped his chair back and stared at the ceiling.
"I think it surprised me too," he said.
First impressions aren't wrong. He was an ass.
But the thing about collision courses — chance encounters, like these, with people you think you'll never see again — is that they have a funny way of being about you, in the end. I found myself telling this stranger things I'd never told anyone else. There was something weirdly liberating about it, like screaming down a well into the void, or rolling down your windows on the highway and yelling into the rain. Very dramatic, I know. There's probably been a rom-com like this. (I assure you my experience was not at all like a rom-com.)
Oh, also, I don't recommend tsuyu as a season for impromptu travel, unless you've a screw loose. I learned on this trip that I definitely have several. Fortunately, my hitchhiker had more.
Kenji's phone beeped. He looked down at it. One new message.
From: Oikawa Tooru
His smile was a sunset smirk, a curve on his lips half-cloaked in kisses, the bruising kind. He set aside his copy of today's Aoba Times, open to the centrefold, where a series of photos from the road covered the double-page spread. There was the exit to Date, distant mountains, and that elusive rainbow, clouded over; there was a close-up of coffee in its cup holder, a shot of moonlight spilling over empty metal spaces, and a blurry view of the Tohoku's neverending traffic through a rain-spattered windscreen. Through Oikawa's lens, it looked like something out of a car chase. Everything was a technicolour neon-bright streak on grey, zooming into the oncoming storm.
It told a story, one that not even Kenji had known the whole of. It was poetic, it was raw, all at once; and they were chasing, kept on chasing speed and sparks on the road, the sonic boom of thunder on the rainy horizon. Perhaps, beyond that, even, the blinding sun. They were the only ones who could keep up with each other, after all. They were charged. They were electric.
The notification light blinked again. One new message.
i didnt know u were gonna write about ME AT LEAST I TOLD U MY THING WAS ABOUT U
i call shenanigans
Shenanigans duly called and noted.
KENJI I HATE U
I'm so touched.
Your place tonight?
urs is a pigsty of course my place
All right. See you.
~love you too~ <3 XOXOXO
GROSS GET OUT OF MY PHONE
So, this seems as good a place as any to officially announce: I'll be taking on the role of Editor at the Datekougyou Shinbun, starting next month. No thanks to a stranger I met on the road. I apologise to any readers out there who are easily offended. I hope you'll stick with me, though. We're going places.
Oh, and by the way, we never made it to Tokyo. But that's fine.
Maybe next time.