Imai stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. His long hair was gone, cropped short with fringe still long enough to flop over his eyes regardless of how often he pushes it back. Raking his fingers through his hair again, Imai sighed. The long hair was honestly more manageable in that regard. The hair was simply a distraction though.
Continuing his self inspection, Imai squinted at his face. At a glance, he looked almost the same as when he last left home. Almost. His skin was still sun-kissed, but the tan was fading after three weeks back. The biggest change to him, though, was how he seemed to have aged more than the eight months he had been missing for. Perhaps it was the weathering by the sun and the seas, perhaps it was the stress of everything he had been through.
Imai rubbed a hand over his clean shaven chin as a muscle in his cheek twitched. Despite what he thought, the visitors, his friends, his parents’ friends, his distant relatives, even the neighbours, every one of them who came by, be it out of curiosity or concern, all commented on how Imai still looked the same, said that he hasn’t changed. It unnerved him.
In the bustle that followed Imai’s return, between the trips to the prosecutor’s office, the intrusions by meddlesome news reporters, visitations by well wishers, and his own family’s fussing, Imai barely had time to spare for himself, much less his own thoughts. He had often thought of running off, back out to sea to look for Atsushi, or maybe even join him, but testament to how busy things were after he came back, every possible opportunity was taken away by the occurrence of some new happening or utter fatigue.
With the sheer contrast in how his time was spent these days, Imai’s time on the island with Atsushi never felt further way, and more like a dream than now. The only proof that he had of Atsushi’s existence were the scant scribblings by Atsushi in his journal, the lidless music box, and that smaller box…
The two gold rings that hung by a silver chain around Imai’s neck clinked, reminding him of their presence. Attention drawn to them, Imai squeezed his eyes as he felt that familiar ache in his chest. Holding the rings between his index finger and thumb, he thought back to the night when he opened the small box that Atsushi retrieved from the cave, and the moment when these two rings fell out. Imai’s jaw tightened as he felt his breath hitch in his throat.
Banging rattled the bathroom door on its hinges, snapping Imai out of his thoughts. Muffled screaming came from outside. “Brooooo, hurry up!”
Imai rubbed his face in his hands and groaned. The non-existent privacy was another reason to regret coming back.
The banging started up again. “C’mon, what’s taking you so long!?” his younger brother whined.
Buttoning his shirt back up, Imai ran a hand through his hair again, sighing as the fringe flopped back down. When the banging started up for the third time, Imai swung the door open and scowled at his sibling, catching him by surprise.
“What took you so long?! I swear you take longer than a girl!” his brother complained as he barged into the bathroom. “Get out! I needa pee!”
“I’ve seen you pee a million times, what does it matter,” Imai grumbled as his brother pushed him out the door. “Just say that you want to jerk off-”
“Shut up!” His brother slammed the door shut.
“So much for ‘I’m so happy you’re home, this is the best day of my life’,” Imai muttered to himself, mocking his brother as he shuffled back to his room.
Closing the door behind him, Imai scanned his room, as he always did ever since he came back. It was eerie how everything was left as it was, as if he had never been away. It just amplified the illusion that he had never been a castaway at all.
Light tinkling made him look towards the source. The old wind chimes from his younger days that hung over his window facing the port. Imai smiled to himself. Atsushi would’ve liked them. Speaking of which… Imai turned to his desk and frowned as he picked up Atsushi’s musical box. The box had, for some strange reason, stopped working about a week ago. Maybe it rusted up or maybe something was wrong with the mechanism on the inside. Whatever it was, the craftsmen he had brought it to couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. Imai tried cranking the handle once more, but, as expected, it was stuck. Putting a hand on his hip, Imai clicked his tongue. Atsushi would be rather upset about this.
“Come eat!” A high pitched voice rang out throughout the house, announcing breakfast. “Come eat! Come eat! Come eat!” Light slapping sounded on Imai’s door. He sighed. Finding a moment for himself in this house is quite the challenge. Opening the door, Imai looked down at his three-year-old niece grinning up at him with Bonnie at her side. “Come eat!” she repeated.
Taking her hand with a quiet smile, Imai left his room and headed downstairs, into the dining area with his niece and Bonnie in tow. It was a good thing she grew attached to Bonnie right off the bat. The rest of his family weren’t too receptive to keeping a chicken as a pet after all. They still wouldn’t let Bonnie stay in the sleeping quarters upstairs though. That’s another thing that was bound to irk Atsushi.
Imai picked his niece up and sat her down in her high chair. Pulling out the chair two spaces away, Imai took his seat and started eating, greeting the rest of his family members as they came together at the table.
Listening to the growing commotion as he ate, Imai rested his head in the palm of his hand, half to hold his fringe out of his face, half out of fatigue. He could feel the furrow between his brows. It was almost like a constant now. He was probably going to develop a permanent line between his brows at this rate.
“Don’t sulk at the dining table,” his mother chastised when she spotted Imai’s frown.
That only deepened the frown. Imai merely grunted in response as he poked at the food before him. Imai had boasted to Atsushi that his mother’s cooking was great but, for some reason, he just couldn’t bring himself to eat on most occasions.
“Respect your mother,” his father grumbled from the other end of the table.
Imai’s frown intensified, if that was even possible. “I’m not…” He simply sighed instead of finishing his sentence. Whatever he was going to say didn’t matter. He already knew where this was leading to.
“You’re always spoiling the mood during meal times with your moaning and sighing. Shouldn’t you be glad that you’re back home safe and sound?”
There it was.
Taking in a deep breath, Imai leaned back in his seat, breathing out slowly with his eyes closed. Chewing on the inside of his cheek, Imai slowly stood up and left the table.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Out,” Imai replied, walking to the front door.
“Alone? What did we say about you going out on your own?”
“I’m taking Bonnie with me.” She was already loitering around at Imai’s feet, waiting for him to be done with putting on his boots.
“The chicken does not count!”
Picking up Bonnie in his arms, Imai stepped out of the house and shut the door behind him. Things have been like this ever since the dust settled. The Envoy has been dealt with, everyone has run out of things to keep them occupied with, and the brief novelty of Imai’s return has faded. All that was left was his parents’ overwhelming desire to keep Imai around, whether he liked it or not.
Living close to the city centre meant that the place was always busy, a far cry from Imai’s quiet days on the island with Atsushi. In all honesty, this would’ve been rough for Atsushi. Would he really have been able to adjust to this?
Bonnie started moving restlessly, her wings twitching as she wriggled. Imai put her down on the ground and she walked a few steps forward, stretching her wings to their full span before turning back around and sticking close to Imai’s legs under the traditional robe that he wore over his shirt and trousers. Some days, Imai wondered if Bonnie was in fact a dog or a cat trapped in a chicken’s body instead of an actual chicken.
Keeping an eye on Bonnie as he walked, Imai swept his robe to the front, swishing them like a cloak to guide Bonnie. Ever since his return, Imai couldn’t kick the habit of wearing those robes. It could be that it provided a sense of comfort to him, something to hold on to from his time away, but it did have the added benefit of concealing the brand on his wrist from prying eyes. Even without his outer robe, the brand was already covered under a black wrap around his forearm. That drew curious eyes though, not that he wanted the attention.
As Imai wandered aimlessly around the city, Bonnie went around pecking at food scraps that passers-by dropped, both accidentally and purposely. Imai let his lips twitch into a brief smirk. At least Bonnie seemed to be enjoying her time here.
Inevitably, Imai came to find himself at the market square which was packed with people, buyers, browsers, traders alike. Feeling repulsed by the crowd Imai intended to move away from the square but when he looked down, looking for Bonnie, she was nowhere to be found.
“Well, shit,” he swore. If she got picked up by a poultry seller, that’s the end of the road for her. Quickly scanning his surroundings, Imai searched for any sight of Bonnie, frantic despite his calm exterior. Spotting a flash of brown heading into the tentage, Imai ran after it, yelling, “Bonnie, get back here, you shit!”
Startled shoppers turned towards Imai and stepped out of the way as he barrelling towards them. Swerving between still and moving bodies, Imai struggled to keep Bonnie in his field of view as he tried to catch up. It shouldn’t be that hard for Imai to catch Bonnie but her size was an advantage while his was a hindrance in this crowd.
“Bonnie! Get back here!” Imai yelled again, running deeper and deeper into the complex after the chicken.
Seeing her leap onto a low table, Imai’s eyes brightened, spotting his chance. Pouncing forward, Imai successfully swiped Bonnie off the table. “You dumb bird! Bold of you to run off like that! Don’t you understand you’re food!? What if you end up as someone’s dinner?! How am I supposed to explain that to Atsushi!?” he vented as he held Bonnie aloft in his hands.
Bonnie stared back at Imai and after a second, she turned her head away. Imai glared at her. A stink eye and a scoff? From a chicken?
A chuckle came out of nowhere to Imai’s right. “That’s a clever bird you have there,” said a man, supposedly the owner of the stall Imai and Bonnie were standing in front of.
Giving the skinny man a once over, Imai’s expression turned sceptical. “More like troublesome,” he remarked.
“Wanna relieve yourself of that trouble?” the man smirked. “I could take her off your hands.”
“Not for sale,” Imai said flatly, tucking Bonnie under his arm.
“I thought so,” the man chuckled again. “You seem quite attached to it after all. What’s your name?”
Imai remained silent as he stared at the man, trying to figure out what this was about. “Imai.”
Recognition lit up in the man’s eyes. “Ah, the talk of the town himself. Eldest son of the family, am I right?”
“You know, they were saying that perhaps you came back a little touched in the head,” the man chuckled, leaning his hip against the edge of his store table. “What with the strange sense of dressing you have there,” he nonchalantly gestured his hand up and down Imai, “and a pet chicken to boot. Don’t you eat chicken?”
“Not this one.”
“I mean, yeah, it’s a pet after all,” the man nodded with understanding. “Anyway, call me Maki.” He stretched out a hand to Imai.
“Right.” Imai reluctantly shook his hand. “So… what do you want from me?”
“Buy something?” Maki waved a hand over his wares, stacks and stacks of boxes, with a sheepish grin. “It’s hard to make a living when no one ever comes by here.”
Imai frowned. “Boxes?”
“Not mere boxes-”
“Don’t tell me,” Imai cut in. “Musical boxes?”
“Oh-ho? How’d you guess?” Maki asked, thoroughly amused.
Imai coughed a laugh, glancing down at Bonnie. “I guess you led me here for a reason, huh, Bonnie?”
“Did you happen to be looking for them?”
“There’s one I need fixed,” Imai said. “Can you do that?”
“Ah… I might be able to but…” Maki looked crestfallen. “I thought I’d finally get a sale.”
“I’ll pay you however much you want if you can get it done,” Imai offered.
“Huh? Why would you do that for these cheap trinkets?” Maki blurted, before covering his mouth with a hand, eyes wide with the gravity of what he just said.
Imai pressed his lips thin. “I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to promote your wares.”
“Yeah,” Maki agreed in a small voice, staring at the floor with the same wide-eyed expression.
“Don’t worry, I’ll buy your cheap shit too,” Imai sighed. “As long as you manage to fix mine.”
“I guess I’ll have to give it a shot then,” Maki said, nodding to himself.
Imai barged through the front door and sprinted up the stairs to his bedroom.
“Where have you been!?” his father yelled from the living area.
“Market square!” Imai shouted back, ignoring his wrath as he went into his room.
Quickly stuffing notes and the broken music box into his pouch, Imai made haste as he fastened it to his belt. That Maki made him leave Bonnie behind as collateral and that did not make him feel comfortable at all.
Thundering back down the stairs, Imai saw his father waiting at the door, filling him with apprehension. Just then, his younger sister appeared with his niece in her arms. “I assume you’re going back to the market square?”
“… Yes, why?” Imai asked warily.
“Okay, good.” She made Imai carry her daughter. “Take her with you and entertain her, I need a break.”
“Uncle Hisashi, where’s Bonnie?” his niece asked.
“Playing in the market square,” Imai answered in a cheery voice as he approached the door. His father glared at him but said nothing, probably to avoid scaring his precious granddaughter with his rage. “Shall we go and join her?”
Imai glanced at his sister who nodded quickly and gestured at him to leave. Realisation hit Imai and as he turned away from his father to open the door, he flashed his sister a grateful smile and gave her a quick nod.
“See ya,” Imai bade as the door closed. Once it clicked shut, he briskly walked away from the house, chatting with his niece as he did.
Maki whistled in awe. “This is ancient,” he commented, turning the box around in his hands. “Well, not literally, but it’s definitely old.”
“Uh-huh.” Squatting down next to Maki, Imai watched him inspect the music box. His niece was occupied with playing with Bonnie nearby.
Frowning with a pout, Maki shone a tiny hand-held light into the interior as he tried to get a look at the mechanism. “This…”
“You know, all the other guys I’ve brought this to so far said they can’t fix it,” Imai muttered.
“That’s probably because they’ve never seen anything like this before,” Maki scoffed.
“And you have?”
“You see a lot when you grow up around these things,” Maki said vaguely. “Anyway…” He stood up and walked into the backroom. “Give me a few minutes.”
“Don’t break it,” Imai called after him as he sat down on the carpet, stretching his legs out to lounge.
Eyes still frowning intently at the music box, Maki waved a dismissive hand at Imai. “Can’t break it any more than it already is anyway,” he retorted as he slipped behind the curtains that separated the shop front from the back.
“True,” Imai muttered to himself.
Just as Imai began to zone out, he felt a tug on his sleeve. Turning, it was his niece. “Can we go to the beach?” she asked, looking up at him with pleading eyes.
“Huh?” Imai was caught off guard by her request. The beach was a little further out from the city centre, near the old beach house where his grandparents used to live in. It was a bit of a pain to get to but… “I… suppose we can… after this,” Imai said.
Exhilarated giggles erupted from his niece the moment Imai agreed to it. Amused, he asked, “Do you like the beach that much?”
She nodded. “But no one ever takes me,” his niece complained. Sitting down, she pulled a flustered Bonnie into a hug, burying her face in the feathers.
Imai simply smiled. “Try not to crush Bonnie, will you?”
“Done!” came an exclamation from the back. Imai turned sharply and found a triumphant Maki brandishing the music box. “Try,” he said, extending it to Imai.
Eying it with obvious scepticism, Imai took the music box from Maki and raised a cynical brow at him. “So quick?”
“Go on, try it,” Maki urged.
Hesitantly, Imai held the handle and exerted a bit of force. His brows shot up in surprise when it moved, making soft clicks as it wound up inside. Imai wasn’t going to be too optimistic about things until it actually worked though. Cranking it thrice, as usual, Imai held his breath as he let the handle go… and it played.
Hearing it again automatically made Imai smile. It also had the unwanted effect of causing a ball of emotion to well up in his throat. With a hand over his mouth, Imai chose to watch the fascination on his niece’s face as he controlled his breathing. There was no way in hell he was going to let himself go in public.
When the music stopped, Imai put it down and took a deep breath. “I… Thanks,” he muttered.
“That old thing clearly means a lot to you,” Maki observed. “Who does it belong to?”
Ignoring Maki’s question, Imai reached under his robes for the pouch at his waist. He held the pouch out in Maki’s direction without looking at him. “Take however much you want."
“Nah,” Maki waved him away. “It’s fine. I didn’t do much anyway.”
Imai glanced at Maki with narrowed eyes. “What did you do?”
“Trade secret,” Maki winked.
Imai peered at the musical box, sniffed, and looked back at Maki. “You only added lubricant, didn’t you?”
“ Trade secret ,” Maki insisted.
“Huh, I suppose the solution is sometimes simpler than it seems.”
“Assume what you want,” Maki scoffed indignantly.
“Hey, Hina,” Imai called his niece. “Go pick out a box you fancy.” Almost immediately, her face lit up and she started running around, opening boxes and listening to the music as she discussed with Bonnie. “Be careful with those things,” Imai reminded. “I can’t afford everything,” he added as he started browsing around himself.
“You seriously gonna buy something?” Maki asked in disbelief. Despite his doubt, Imai could hear the smile in Maki’s voice.
“I need to compensate you for fixing it somehow,” Imai said nonchalantly.
“These!” came an excited declaration from knee height.
Imai looked down and despaired. There were probably four… no, five boxes held in a jumble in his niece’s little arms. How did she even manage to hold so many? “I said a box, that’s one-”
Sensing Imai’s rejection, his niece started pouting and tearing up as she stared at him.
“Argh…” Imai buried his face in his hands, fighting the urge to swear in front of his niece. “ Fine , fine… Fine, just…” he waved his hands around, exasperated.
A wide grin on Maki’s face, he chuckled, clearly pleased with the result. “Thank you for your patronage.”
It’s been awhile since Imai heard the familiar sound of sand shifting underfoot and felt the sea breeze in his hair. The beach here was not like the from the one he grew used to living on though. It looked different and it felt different. It seemed colder too, but that might just be because of the colder months approaching.
Imai could hear his niece playing around in the sand a short distance away, along with Bonnie’s clucking as she was being chased by his niece. In all honesty, it felt like Bonnie was a better babysitter than Imai was. Though from the look of things, she definitely wasn’t too happy about it. He felt sorry for Bonnie, but the strangeness of how things turned out made Imai smirk despite his melancholy.
Looking at the sea always reminded Imai that Atsushi was still out there, left behind on his own again. And even though the sea has always been visible from his room, being at a beach made the gravity of it weigh even heavier on Imai’s shoulders.
Along with his outer robe, Imai took his boots off and set them aside in the sand, next to the bucket bag that Maki loaned him to put the musical boxes that his niece manipulated him into getting. Digging his feet into the sand, Imai felt a strange sense of satisfaction in the pit of his stomach as he bent over to roll his pants halfway up his shins. Standing at the edge of the water with his hands in his pockets, he let the ebbing waves wash over his feet and closed his eyes, focusing on the sound of the waves crashing onto the shore and pulling away, soothing his mind with the sounds and sensations.
“Hm, I barely recognised you, looking like this. Where’s Atsushi?” Imai’s eyes shot open and he turned sharply, searching for the source of the voice. Frankly, it wasn’t hard to find him. He was standing right next to Imai after all.
Frozen in shock by the man’s sudden appearance, Imai remained silent as he took a long look at the stranger who he last met on the island. He looked exactly the same as before, long hair neatly tied back, flowing black robes in that same dark iridescence, the complete opposite of Atsushi’s.
It took a moment for Imai to find his voice. “That’s my line,” he replied curtly.
The man frowned. “He’s not with you?”
Imai slowly shook his head stiffly. “Isn’t he with you?”
The man shook his head as well. This look of worry on his face was new. “I thought he left that dump with you. Weren’t you rather adamant about that?” he asked with a critical tone.
“Things didn’t… He almost did,” Imai muttered.
Imai sighed. He could feel the man’s intense stare on him, pressuring him. “Atsushi… He put me to sleep. And then… did his own thing…”
“Huh.” The man turned his gaze to the sea. “Powerless after all.”
Imai clicked his tongue in annoyance. “Don’t remind me,” he muttered. “Why are you asking me though? Can’t you just go look for him at the island-”
“There is no island.”
“What?” Imai’s mind went blank. He turned sharply to the man. “How- What do you mean by that? How can there be no-”
“It was swallowed by the sea.”
Imai found himself stunned into silence again, neither able to comprehend nor speak. Staring at each other without a word, only the sounds of his niece’s joyful play kept the silence from engulfing them. Looking into the man’s dark eyes, previously so full of mirth and guile, Imai could find no deceit in his eyes. All he found was sympathy.
“You’re pulling my leg now, aren’t you?” Imai mumbled as he looked away, mind still reeling from the news.
“I wish I were,” the man said in a quiet voice.
Letting the information sink into him, Imai gradually started to feel a certain sense of denial growing in him. “It can’t be…” he whispered to himself. Louder, Imai asked, “Atsushi is not…? Is he?”
“He’s… somewhere,” the man replied, albeit with hesitance. “Just… for once, I don’t know where.”
“But he’s fine? He’s alive?” Imai needed to know.
“I don’t know,” he whispered. The man was silent for a long while, as if giving Imai time to grapple with his thoughts. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want your apology!” Imai hissed through gritted teeth. “I want to know if Atsushi is…”
“Why haven’t you tried finding him then? Or going back?” questioned the man.
“I can't! I have no means of travel,” Imai rebutted. “And unlike you, I can’t swim that long a distance,” he added, kicking the water. “Can’t you go and investigate the area though?”
“Well… I can’t either,” the man confessed, looking slightly sheepish.
“That does not make sense.”
“The water’s too… warm, in this season,” he muttered. “I travel with the cold currents…”
Imai stared blankly at him. “But… you saw that the island was gone?”
“Yes,” the man nodded. “And I get the sense that Atsushi’s not dead but I don’t know what state he’s in. You get stories of turning into seafoam and what not.”
“The… seafoam thing is real?”
“Well, I’ve heard of it but…”
Imai’s face contorted into a grimace. So the island was gone and Atsushi is missing. And he was likely alive but could be as good dead? Unable to wrap his head around this, Imai stepped away and began to pace in the sand. He barely noticed his niece approaching the man until she spoke to him. “Who are you?”
In a panic, Imai darted towards her, picking her up and carrying her away from the man. “What did we say about talking to strangers?” he asked her, stressing his point.
“But Uncle Hisashi, you were talking to him.” When his niece called Imai by his name, he choked. “That means he’s your friend, right?” she went on to ask.
“So that’s your name, Hisashi,” the man purred.
“Sometimes, grown ups have no choice but to talk to certain people who aren’t friends,” Imai said to his niece, ignoring the man. “That doesn’t mean that they’re all good people though.”
“But, why?” his niece asked.
“One of those unpleasant things that adults have to do,” Imai said, hoping that it was enough to satisfy her curiosity. “Go play with Bonnie while I deal with him,” he said, putting her down.
Imai suddenly felt an arm around his shoulders. “Am I not a good person, Hisashi?” the man said into his ear.
Stepping away, Imai shook him off. “Good people don’t talk about eating other people for one,” Imai muttered, hoping that his niece wouldn’t hear him. “Leave her alone, you hear me?”
“I’ve had my fill before coming here,” the man said, dismissing the notion with a wave of his hand. “Besides, I’m more interested in eating the chicken-”
“Atsushi will kill you if you do that,” Imai said. “Then me, for letting you.”
The man chuckled, amused by the idea of it. His expression, however, turned sombre. “Is that why you’re keeping it? For Atsushi?”
Imai blinked, perplexed by the question. He hadn’t exactly thought about it. “I suppose I’m used to having her around… And it’ll upset him if anything happened to Bonnie.”
“What if he doesn’t come back?”
Imai didn’t know how to answer. He never even wanted to consider the possibility that it could happen. What would he do then?