Ichiro inhales, slowly, then exhales, watches as the air in front of him turn to frost, watches as it fades into nothing. He doesn’t shudder in the cold wind of January. His hands don’t shake despite the cold wind that circles through Ikebukuro.
He hasn’t felt lighter in months.
Around him, the people are indistinct, blurry; they mind their own business. In the past hour he’s been walking around Ikebukuro aimlessly, strangely enough, no one seemed to recognize him, despite being the Yamada that everyone in Ikebukuro knows. There are no jobs for him in the office, no jobs for him as he wandered through the busy streets.
Chatter is everywhere around him. More even so, because the past weeks have attracted tourists from other countries. They all blended into a giant buzzing of the city’s heart being alive, alive, alive.
From where he’s gone, he starts a slow walk to a café he’s grown to love, like many otakus like him. Walking past ordinary people and workers and tourists and cosplayers, the scene is therapeutic, and he finds he wishes his brothers are with him, soaking in the sights he wasn’t privy to relax in for a long time.
Before Ichiro starts to wonder where are his brothers, why am I not with— a flash of brown catches the corner of his vision and he whips to see—
An owl, a statue of it. Absurd, he thinks, blinking to clear his faulty vision. He swears he saw feathers fluttering, alive and beating, not just a bronze, still statue that should not have caught his attention because, after all, Ikebukuro is littered with them.
Before he starts to walk over to the statue to sate his ever-growing curiosity, this time, a flash of white catches in the corner of his eyes, the pure color begging for anyone’s attention.
His eyes turn to a man, white hair and white shirt with two buttons open, exposing pale skin to the cold weather. Impossibly enough, he seems unbothered by the cold, like Ichiro is. Though, unlike Ichiro, he isn’t wearing any jacket.
(For a moment, Ichiro blinks, and he sees the man wearing a black leather jacket, hair slicked back from his forehead, a vicious grin in his lips. Then he blinks again, then the image is gone.)
Ridiculous. He doesn’t even know this man.
“Thought I’d see you here.” The man taps the cigarette he’s been holding, the ashes falling. Then, after a second of consideration, he lets it fall from his hand, to the ground, in the center of the people walking around the two of them frozen in time.
He plants a foot solidly on the concrete, grounding his heel on the lit cigarette on the path. When he removes his foot, predictably, the light is snuffed out.
Ichiro tears his eyes from the scene back to the man’s red eyes, focused on him with an intensity he couldn’t read. He prides himself on how he can read his clients’ intentions, but with this man, he feels like he should—know him for longer than the moment he met him today.
“I was going somewhere,” Ichiro says, instead of asking him whatever his business was. He has a feeling that asking would cause his words to turn razor sharp despite not knowing this stranger in front of him, so he chose the neutral words instead.
He shouldn’t be, he thinks. There is clear familiarity in the man’s gaze the first it fell on him, and he looks like he’s braced for impact, clutching the cigarette to his chest a while ago. Impact for what, Ichiro couldn’t discern.
There is no clear danger around them. Just the city, alive under the sunshine.
“So, what do you need, uh…” He trails off, letting the silence stretch to an inquiry.
The man sends him a sharp look, red eyes like fire, then, unusually, he relaxes, the line of his shoulders sloping down.
He looks like he hasn’t seen the sun for days. He looks like he hasn’t slept for days.
“Samatoki,” the man answers the unspoken question. “And was findin’ you.”
Ichiro blinks at the newly-named man, befuddled. “But what for,” he emphasizes.
Samatoki only shrugs.
Ichiro exhales. Damn, he isn’t going to let a man ruin his time alone for the first time in weeks. He steps forward again, intent on continuing his therapeutic walk alone in Ikebukuro and Samatoki doesn’t miss a beat, falling to step by his side.
Their feet are in sync, he sees, like they have taken countless of walks around the city before, like this is not the first time they’ve done. Ichiro remembers an online article saying the more synchronized your feet are when you are walking, subconsciously, the more you trust this person, and shakes the thought out of his head.
Strangely enough, he finds that he doesn’t mind. The sun, which was high in the sky earlier, is now in an angle that indicates that it’s going to dip into the horizon soon, unseen, and that Ichiro has spent an indefinable amount of time walking around the city by himself.
The shadows are lengthening. At some point, Ichiro has stopped walking, Samatoki right beside him, to tip his head up and stare at the setting sun, at the pinks and blues and violet and orange hues of the messy sky painted above them, and can’t help feeling that this was all somehow fake.
When Ichiro glances at Samatoki, he sees that he is looking back at him. On closer inspection, Samatoki’s eyes aren’t pure red—there are flecks of grey in them, here and there, barely noticeable at a distance.
“Did you find what’re you looking for,” Samatoki asks, uncaring whether he has placed enough inflection in the sentence to make it sound as a question.
He shakes his head.
Samatoki cocks his head in a direction. “Then let’s go.”
Ichiro stumbles on a step to follow the man. Being behind him, he notices that Samatoki seems just barely taller than him. “Go where?”
Samatoki glances at him, eyes hooded. “You’ll see.”
Contrast to the earlier journey, this walk now has a purpose, and now, Ichiro could feel the tiredness in his bones, settling and mingling with the strange peace he found himself floating in since he woke up. “Stop being cryptic, asshole.”
The man barks out a laugh. “Now that’s more like it.”
“What do you mean—”
“I said, you’ll see.”
The shadows have grown to the point that they look like inky hands reaching for the unknown. With each step, Ichiro grows more uneasy, but he has no choice but to give back a favor to Samatoki, who accompanied him to his spontaneous walk around the city.
Samatoki glances at him, as if sensing his discomfort, and asks, “Do you believe in reincarnation?”
You’ve gotten chattier than the whole afternoon, Ichiro thinks wryly, but welcomes it as a distraction to whatever he’s feeling right now. “No. What brought it up?”
Samatoki’s fingers twitch in his side, like itching for a cigarette. “Your friend is. A believer, that is.”
Ichiro’s head throbs suddenly. He feels lethargic, maybe drunk, maybe just fatigued. “My friend.”
Not a believer of reincarnation, Ichiro thinks, or not your friend?
He stumbles on a step again, a non-existent bump on the road, and Samatoki catches his arm, preventing his fall. He thinks he keep falling, but the touch is keeping him grounded to reality.
“Where are we going?” he asks again. The sun is completely gone now, and the first of the stars have started appearing. Aren’t you tired, he wants to ask. Because he certainly is: he's feeling exhaustion he hasn’t felt before.
“Where are we going, Samatoki?”
Despite this, he wants to run away wherever Samatoki is taking him, exhaustion in his bones be damned.
“This isn’t a good idea,” Ichiro says, feeling cold dread clog up his chest. Maybe it wasn’t the wind. Maybe it was always the dread, since earlier. “I don’t like this.”
He tries to tug his wrist away from the Samatoki’s grip on him. The hand on him adjusts and tightens, enough to leave a mark, enough to leave a bruise. Solid. Unrelenting.
“Me neither,” grunts Samatoki, marching now to their destination, grip unrelenting. “But you have to come home.”
His escaping attempts cease. “Home?”
There aren’t any residential houses ahead, this is not the direction to the orphanage—
This is not the direction to the apartment he shares with—
Samatoki shoots him a look that somehow conveys, yes, you’re being incredulous right now, and says, “How could you abandon your brothers, anyway?”
The mention of his brothers is like lightning to his cold, cold bones. “My—Jiro, Saburo—”
He gasps like a fish out of water, like a drowning man who broke the surface the sea for the nth time, and stumbles again. Like before, Samatoki catches him with a firm hand, not slowing down in the slightest.
“Yes. I thought you love them so much?”
The hospital looms in front of them, overbearing and oppressing. From where they’re standing, they could see windows from below. Some of them have curtains closed, some, lights are on, and some are dark and empty.
They enter without much fanfare, no emergencies coming through the doors, no shitstorm of an accident to make the scene chaotic. There is a lone woman at the receptionist’s desk, and she clearly recognizes Samatoki by the way she doesn’t spare him an inquiry and avoids them.
Ichiro tries to piece himself together as the yakuza guides him along the white hallways, the smell of antiseptic strong and making him dizzy. “I didn’t—intend to.”
Samatoki scoffs. “Didn’t intend to, my ass.”
They soon came to a stop in front of a room. There’s a bench near it, another man, red-haired and numerous piercings in a visible ear. He’s dozing off, a blue-green and white jacket bunched in his arms as a makeshift pillow. Ichiro stares at him long enough for Samatoki to tap his boots against the tiled floor impatiently. “C’mon.”
He remembers now, as he was shoved into the room, the door clicking shut behind them. He remembers the second division rap battle going poorly. Remembers his brothers being unable to stare at him in the eyes. Remembers countless attempts to make them open up to him, to trust their big brother, to no avail. Remembers the revelation of what one Ayamado Rei has brought to their life, and how it has gone downhill since.
Remembers the three of them going against Bad Ass Temple, Kuukou and their father against them on top of the stage. Gripping his mic with grim determination, and shielding Jiro and Saburo from the worst of the attacks.
“Just trust in me,” he whispers to the two, minutes before the battle begins and places a palm on Jiro's and Saburo's heads, feeling the flinch from the two. Ichiro shuts his eyes back at the sudden onslaught of tears threatening to swallow him whole. That isn’t what he needs right now, he needs to be strong. For the Buster Bros!! or whatever is left of them. What are you guys not telling me, huh? he barely holds himself back to ask. We can fix this, he resists the urge to say, but just whispers: “Trust in your Ichi-nii, okay?”
They have, undoubtedly, lost. And he’s been in coma for what?
“Three days,” mutters Samatoki quietly. He watches Jiro and Saburo by the bedside with a melancholy and sharp longing in his eyes, clearly remembering his sister, and avoiding looking at the slumbering body on the bed. Ichiro’s heart tugs at its strings when he recalls he hasn’t told Samatoki yet. “Sensei’s out of his wits.”
When Ichiro turns, Jakurai is occupying the last of the chairs in the hospital room, a hand curled into an absent mic, his long limbs awkwardly sprawled in his sleep.
He stares at his own body, which is a disconcerting experience, and huffs. “Time for me to come home, huh.”
Samatoki snorts. The smell of cigarette fills the room. “Made us wait long enough, brat.”
“No cigarettes in the hospital.”
“You made me itch so much for one.”
The voice did not belong to either of them. They turn simultaneously to Jakurai, rubbing grit out of his eyes. By some twist of fate, he cannot see Ichiro, who, when he rubbed a hand on his hair, can see he’s already half-transparent.
“Go home, sensei,” Samatoki says, softly. “I can take care of this. Of them,” he amends, when Jakurai glances to the brothers slumped over the bed. “You can come back, just take your rest tonight.” I can handle this, went unsaid.
Jakurai nods and leaves quietly. Ichiro spies a look to see whether Kuukou has woken up—he hasn’t, and blinks when a flash of pink hair follows Jakurai.
He wonders if this is the start of everything. If he made a dent in changing the world, despite losing badly.
“What are you waitin’ for?”
Ichiro takes a step forward, back on his own body, barely managing to touch his own hand—
—and he’s alive, gasping, the monitors beside him going stir-crazy with beeping, the hospital gown scratching where it meets skin, and his lungs full of air he forgot he needs to breathe, blood pumping, ache in his whole fucking body, his head pounding—
—and the second is shouting, then the third is crying, and he immediately has a handful of brothers in his arms who are a mess of I’m sorrys and I’m glad you’re alives and It’s not gonna happen again—
—and Kuukou, who he hasn’t talked to for years then suddenly appearing on the stage with a new rap team, is barging through the door noisily, calling for nurses—
—and Ichiro finds it in himself to smile, hugging his brothers to him tighter.
Samatoki leans on the wall, snuffing the cigarette out. “Welcome home, bastard.”