It never gets any easier.
Sometimes, he thinks, there might be a way to curb the disappointment that settles deep in the pit of his stomach when his body gives up on him and all he can do is watch, defeated and out of breath, as another takes what has always been rightfully is.
His teachers would slap him upside the head and tell him to get back up, to be the better man even as his whole being aches, to keep chasing the shadows leading towards the blinding light. But today, there’s none of that. Today there’s only the searing pain in his muscles, the way his heart feels like it’s caught on fire, how deafening the crowd is, their screams blurring into white noise in his brain.
Today, all he can do is roll out of the ring and clamber past the maddening flurry of colors and lights, escape to a place where no one can see him.
Most of his peers have already cleared out of the locker room, only a few dirty towels hanging here and there the proof that there has been any human presence here today. It certainly doesn’t feel like it now, and the only thing that reminds him that he’s alive is the sound of his own breathing, heavy and hitching on nothing.
He hears a mute sound coming from the bottom of his bag, no doubt his phone vibrating against the linoleum floor. He could just let it ring into oblivion, but the curiosity or who would try to call upon him in such a time is too strong to resist.
He doesn’t quite remember how he got a hold of this number. Surely, a missed connection between the two of them an a journalist, a meeting that never came to be because they were both too busy ruling on their own.
Now he has nothing but this number, eyes burning through his phone screen just as they had been through the television screen just moments earlier, watching another kingdom crumble.
They were both on top of the world, once, untouchable giants in their court, overcoming anything and anyone that stood in their way. As fate would have it, of course, they both stumbled and fell.
There isn’t any thought as to why he presses the name on the screen, watches the dialer light up, seconds feeling like hours as he waits, and waits. And then finally, there’s a voice on the other end.
“If you’ve come to laugh at me-” the voice starts, broken and raw.
He pinches the bridge of his nose, eyes screwed shut so tight he sees stars. “What right do I have to laugh.”
Someone had told him once about humility being a measure of virtue. He’d like to say he wishes he’d known that soner, but he did know, all these years, and never once listened.
“We make a pretty pathetic pair, uh?” the voice says from the other end, bitter laughter coloring its tone. It’s easy enough to tell it’d rather be anywhere else.
Coincidentally, he feels the same. “Not to wallow in it but…”
The place is remote from the center of the city, somewhere in a residential area, near a park. Children play, joyous and carefree, and Kento wishes he could go back to that time in his life, when nothing else mattered but the present.
It certainly would be easier than standing here with nothing to show for himself, years of hard work and struggle extinguished in three pitiful seconds. He hadn’t been the better man that day He hadn’t been strong enough, clever enough, resilient enough. He hadn’t been enough. The words swirl around in his mind, refusing to leave him even as a familiar figure rounds the corner, unmistakable build carried by long, maladjusted strides, a child that never quite got to finish growing up.
The proposition had seemed absurd at first, and he’d told Kazuchika in so many words, even managing a half-sincere laugh when Kazuchika had then suggested they invite Katsuhiko along to complete their miserable group of disgraced rulers.
The proposal hadn’t gone through, because that was more bad blood than Kento wanted to do with at the moment, but Kazuchika still maintained his invitation, a hand extended by a man who knew he didn’t have any reason to hold himself above others anymore.
“You’re really here, uh?” Kento says when Kazuchika gets within earshot, reveling in the pout he gets in return.
Anytime they’d med, the setting usually much more formal, suits and trophies and forced smiles all around as they tries desperately to get a grasp on each other, Kento noticed how different Kazuchika was than he is in the ring, like a stable boy who borrows armor that’s too big for him and goes into battles he doesn’t know how to win otherwise. He’d felt like that sometimes too, when his confidence waned even for a second in the face of a new challenger. He’d be interested to find anyone in their grueling life who couldn’t relate.
Now, in the sweltering summer heat, they’re just two human beings trying to make sense of the loss.
“You think I’d leave you hanging?” Kazuchika retorts, hand already on the door’s handle. “I’m a loser, but I’m not a quitter.”
They get a table in the corner, far from the noise of the main room and close enough to the kitchen that Kento can smell the ground coffee beans and the freshly baked pastries, cinnamon and caramel melding in the air. The card at the counter says today’s special is a lemon meringue pie-flavored doughnut, big enough to satiate even him by the looks of it, some much needed sweetness in his life.
Kazuchika’s phone rings about two minutes in, and he furrows his brows at it before declining the call.
“Press?” Kento asks around a mouthful of doughnut.
“Worse, “Kazuchika says, looking as aggravated as ever. “Gedo.”
Kento can’t help but snort at the way Kazuchika says that name, like a teenager who’s out past his curfew and knows he’s in trouble. Kento doesn’t need to have dug deep in the crevices of Kazuchika’s life to know the iron grip Gedo has on almost every aspect of it, a shadow that hovers over his shoulder.
Today, there’s apparently no time for shadows, and Kento watches as Kazuchika rejects the call and turns off his phone. “Where were we?”
It probably shouldn’t come as such a surprise that Kento isn’t quite there yet. He stares off in the distance sometimes, over Kazuchika’s shoulder as he stirs the ice cubes in his coffee, the sunlight streaming through the café windows turning his eyes the color of liquid gold, a terribly ironic yet poetic reminder of what they’d both lost. It’s been weeks, and Kazuchika thinks he shouldn’t be so hung up on it after managing what he did, but seeing the lost look in Kento’s eyes only reminds him of the morning after, how it felt like his own fire had been extinguished when he looked at himself in the mirror.
He wants to ask what’s next, obviously, because it’s the only question that’s weighed on his mind as of late. Where do you go from where you’ve fallen lower than you’d ever thought you’d go?
“You going for it again?” he says, without thinking, but he doesn’t miss the way Kento’s lips pull into a sad smirk.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” Kento’s voice is barely above a whisper. “I’m weary.”
That’s not surprising. Kazuchika has felt weary for a long time, too.
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Kento cuts his train of thoughts off. “We’re both here, barely old enough to know who we are, and we’re already tired of it. I thought when I had Ishikawa down for the count that everything would be smooth sailing, I could take on anyone but…” But then other monsters had come along to pry his dreams away. “I guess nothing’s made to last forever.”
There’s no missing the bitterness in his voice, how his usual composure is chipped and ripped apart at the seams. “A guy I’d beaten before… Seems like everyone is moving forward except me.”
Something ticks in Kazuchika’s chest. Maybe that’s the issue, he thinks, maybe their arrogance outweighed their hard work, and now they have nothing to show for themselves. This isn’t anything anyone else can fix for them, the errors of their ways laid plain and simple and bare before their eyes.
“Let’s get out of here.” he says, so suddenly he surprises even himself. Before Kento can retort or ask where to, Kazuchika is out of his seat and fumbling in his pocket for his wallet.
Tokyo Dome City is only a train ride away, and so that’s where they end up, shielding their eyes against the sun when they get out of the station and onto the busy street. It’s a place they both know very well, stretching out before them.
He follows Kazuchika into the heart of the place, but they don’t take the turn Kento expected.
“Korakuen’s that way.” he says, trying to keep up the pace even in his confusion.
Kazuchika doesn’t even turn to answer him. “We’re not going to Korakuen. I’m sick and tired of that place.”
There isn’t much he can argue against that. The building is home to so many memories, some better than others, but right now there’s isn’t anywhere he’d want to be less than there, in the suffocating hallways and under the blinding lights.
“I think I’ve been there more in recent years than I’ve gone back to visit my parents.” Kento chime as he catches up to Kazuchika, in the open court near the ferris wheel. “It’s weird how that place I dreamed of almost feels like a nightmare now.”
There’s no reply, for a moment, and he’s afraid he said something so uncategorically wrong that Kazuchika is just going to turn the other way and leave him there. Instead, he gets a smile and a hushed giggle, almost out of place for their situation, but he can’t help but follow suit.
“That’s why we’re here instead.” Kazuchika says, pointing to the ferris wheel and the rollercoaster and the people milling about on every floor of the amusement park. In a moment of thought, Kento finds himself looking at his hand instead, extended so far towards the sky.
Kazuchika pays for their tickets despite Kento’s pathetic protests, though he reasons the man’s bank account won’t suffer too much after the two years he’s had, the lavish lifestyle he allows himself more proof than anyone else would need. And although it’s a new feeling, Kento can’t say he dislikes being looked after and taken care of, even in small ways, even if it just means iced coffee, a doughnut bigger than his face, and a ticket to get out of his mind for once.
The rollercoaster makes him a bit queasy at first, but then he realizes it’s nothing compared to how Kazuchika screams his lungs out like they’re heading directly for the ground, eyes squeezed shut whenever the car drops. They both end up on wobbly legs with their hair sticking out in all directions, and when Kento catches a glimpse of himself in a shop window, he scrambles to get himself back in order despite Kazuchika’s teasing.
“God, you remind me so much of him sometimes.”
Kento doesn’t need to ask who Kazuchika is talking about. He’s heard the comparisons a thousand times over, as unshakeable as they were initially flattering. Hearing it from Kazuchika, though, is another thing entirely. He still isn’t quite sure what feelings were or weren’t there, and maybe that’s a question for another day, when the sun is hiding on the other side of the world and they only have starlight as their witness.
Kento shakes his head, picks at a strand of hair that refuses to stay in place. “But I’m not. Come on.”
He takes Kazuchika’s hand in his without even thinking about it, leading him past the crowd to the ferris wheel. They jump into one of the empty cars, and as they rise towards the sky, Kento finally feels his heartbeat slowing down just enough.
“When I was a kid I always wondered what the top of the world would look like.” he mumbles, eyes fixed on the city as they go up and away from it. “What it would feel like.”
Kazuchika only hums, his head pressed to the glass window.
“I just never anticipated that one day I’d have to come crashing down.”
It never gets any easier.
It wasn’t when he fell to Ishikawa, a young champion so sure of himself that he could have never prepared for a beast lurking in the shadow. He remembers the adrenaline that coursed through his entire being when he reclaimed his throne, how he’d felt like this time, nothing could make him waver. Nothing could break him.
But there was always someone else.
“It’s funny how hard the climb is and how sudden the fall can be.” Kazuchika’s eyes are still glued to the outside, almost not daring to meet Kento’s. There’s something in his tone that tells a wholly different story, all the funny parts left out to make room for pain and disappointment. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to do it anymore. When I’m lying in bed and I can’t move because every single part of my body hurts like hell…”
“And yet this is where it hurts the most.” Kento finishes the sentence without needing to be asked, a hand over his chest. He’s not sure if he’s referring to his pride, his ego or his heart, and if Kazuchika even means the same thing, but he hopes they can find a semblance of understanding, even now.
The wheel rocks them up slow and steady, the cityscape neverending under them.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Kazuchika says, straightening up in his seat. “Even if I have to break my own heart a thousand times over.”
Kento speaks in the same breath. “I’ll keep going because it’s all I ever wanted.”
When their eyes finally meet, there’s nothing left to do but smile, sun filtering through the scratched-up windows of the cabin. If they have to constantly set themselves up for a fall, at least they’ll enjoy the view.
It’s barely late afternoon when they touch down on the ground again, a lot more softly than either of them ever have, but the sun is already starting its course down, coloring the sky in bright yellows and oranges and pinks. It casts a gentle light over everything, comfortable warmth that neither of them mind as they walk back towards the station, hands brushing ever so slightly with each step.
Neither of them seem to know how to say goodbye, and Kento can see in Kazuchika’s eyes the same reluctance that he feels.
“Gedo’s going to kill you.” Kento comments when he looks at the time. “Don’t you have a little something going on right now?”
Kazuchika snorts, looks around at the horizon. “Yeah, he’ll probably try. Not that it matters anymore." The scoreboards have been drawn, this much Kento knows. “Had to make time for this, anyway. For you.”
There’s more sincerity in his voice right then and there than Kento has ever heard, even after so many years of watching his career unfold. Out here in the open, away from the ropes and the spotlight, he sees the human being behind the glitz and the downpour.
It’s that side of Kazuchika he likes best, the one he gets to see four drinks in at press parties, the one that had smiled at him, up and away in the ferris wheel. “Why?”
It’s a simple question, but it holds all the weight in the world, and Kento can see it in the way Kazuchika looks up at the sky when he answers it.
“Because I owe you this much. Because I wish someone had genuinely been there for me like this when I needed it.” He wasn’t there anymore, this Kazuchika doesn’t say, but Kento doesn’t need him to. “Guess we don’t want to walk this road alone, right?”
Kento beams up at him, links their fingers together on instinct. He feels something lodge itself in the hollow of his ribs when Kazuchika holds on tight.
“We’ll get there eventually.”