Shizuo barely thinks about Izaya at all anymore.
He can remember when this wasn’t the case. For the first few months after their last fight, after Izaya disappeared from the city like he had dissolved into the air, he was on Shizuo’s mind more than he wasn’t, more persistent in his absence than his presence ever was. There’s an irony to that, Shizuo knows, that just when he finally cleared the city of Izaya’s toxic influence it’s his own mind that betrays him, drawing up long-buried memories and unasked-for curiosity that weights the back of his thoughts like lead he can’t shift the way he could shift a physical obstacle. It’s as if Izaya in memory is as slippery as Izaya in reality was, like the recollection of him is as impossible to grasp as he ever was in person, and all Shizuo’s efforts to evict the other from his thoughts are useless as he always thought his threats would be. But maybe it’s just a matter of time, maybe it’s just a matter of patience; because Izaya’s not in the city anymore, is he, and just as Shizuo begins to accustom himself to carrying the other with him in his thoughts those start to fade too, until whole days go by with nothing more than the usual hazy nightmares of dark eyes and darker hair that fade with the rising of the morning sun.
For a long, long time, Shizuo didn’t even know if Izaya was alive or not. At first that was a point of satisfaction, a weight in the center of his chest he mistook for relief for months while his nightmares went darker and more threatening, until one night he woke in the small hours of the morning with his heart racing and his hands fisted on themselves as if enough pressure would shed the memory of Izaya’s bones giving way under his knuckles, as if enough effort would push away the knowledge that he could have done it without Vorona there to stop him, that he could have watched the light fade from Izaya’s eyes and the smile flicker away from his lips and known it was his doing, that it was his fault. Shizuo stumbles into the bathroom to run his hands under water that runs too hot and he doesn’t bother to turn down, as if the liquid will wash his skin clear of the nonexistent blood he imagines he can feel in the creases of his knuckles, and by the time his hands are aching with the heat his heartbeat has eased a little, has slowed enough to grant him back awareness of reality and the knowledge that even if Izaya did die it wasn’t directly at his hand. But the thought lingers, the possibility that Izaya’s absence is indicative of some larger loss, because wouldn’t he have come back, wouldn’t he have at least called Shinra to let him know he survived? Shizuo doesn’t know how badly injured Izaya was -- he can only remember the fight in flashes, in the clear feel of bone crushing under his fist, in the weight of Izaya’s smile like a burden all its own, in the sound of the other’s sharp voice straining on what must have been pain, by then. But he was standing, and he was speaking, and he can’t have died, his death seems like an impossibility to even consider. But the more time passes with no word, with nothing to testify to Izaya’s existence except the spaces he left behind him, the more Shizuo worries, and the worse his nightmares get.
The interview is a relief, when it comes. Shizuo suspects it’s out of courtesy to him that his friends so studiously avoid Izaya’s name; he’s the only one who brings it up, now, and even then he can see the wide-open shock in everyone’s faces at how calm he can stay on the subject. He can hardly explain the guilt that has settled inside his chest like it’s made a home for itself, can hardly explain the hazy nightmares that come with sleep and the vague regrets that come with waking, can’t put voice to the alternate endings he thinks about, sometimes, the turning points where a shift of speech or of reaction could have given him a friend instead of an enemy, could have given the city peace instead of a war. But then the question comes, an inquiry after Izaya that Shizuo has to take a moment to parse, and with it the certainty that Izaya is alive, somewhere, even if his fingerprints are wearing off the city in his absence. Shizuo can feel the edge of the smile that catches at the end of his answer, can feel the old familiar heat of anticipation that speeds his heart as he lets his voice drag long over Izaya-kun, and his dreams that night are warmed with the gold of nostalgia instead burdened with the weight of guilt.
It’s easier after that. Freed of the burden of his own fears Shizuo finds the rest of his life falls into an easy rhythm, the pattern of his day-to-day life finally achieving the calm stability that he always said he wanted when he was younger, when the possibility of peace was so distant as to be pointless to even reach for. He sleeps better, the nightmares fade as fast as his memories do, and by the time two years have passed Shizuo has stopped turning for every catch of wind against a black jacket, has stopped jumping at every knife-edge laugh he hears. Izaya fades to a memory, even the weight of guilt fading into the dull ache of regret until Shizuo has almost forgotten, until he has almost learned how to live in the calm that his life has become.
The vacation is an impulse. He has nowhere to go, no distant relatives to visit; all his family are nearby, within a few hour’s travel at most, and it’s hardly as if his daily job is a source of stress. But Tom’s original off-hand suggestion takes root in Shizuo’s mind, gaining traction off the six-month honeymoon trip Shinra still talks about with enthusiasm Celty can only barely restrain in him, and finally it’s Kasuka who says “You should” with a flat disinterest that proves far more convincing to Shizuo’s wavering thoughts than a more eloquent attempt at persuasion would have been. So he goes, takes a week off work that Tom assures him are no kind of an inconvenience and takes a train ticket to a town he’s barely heard of, chosen more at random from the list of possible destinations than with any true goal in mind. It’s enough to be away from Ikebukuro, to be away from the streets that carry the lingering recollections of long-past fights beaten into their pavement; the absence makes Shizuo feel lighter, detached, like he weighs less than he’s used to, like he might just come free from the ground entirely if he takes a too-hasty step. So he walks slow, and lets his attention wander, and if he gets some sidelong looks for his height or for his hair no one stops him and no one tries to pick a fight with him just to prove their own fighting ability. It’s strange to have glances slide off him, strange to see a complete lack of recognition in the eyes of others; Shizuo didn’t realize how familiar he was in Ikebukuro, didn’t realize how much he had grown accustomed to complete strangers glancing at him with recognition behind their eyes. But here he’s no legend, he’s nobody at all; just a tall man with blond hair and a bartender tender, as easily forgotten as anyone else in the crowd of strangers. It makes Shizuo feel free, untethered from his life and his history and his strength, as if he could be anyone, as if he could be anything he wanted. He doesn’t have to think of his past, doesn’t have anyone he would recognize on the unfamiliar streets; he can walk through the crowd without listening for his name, without scanning the faces for a warm smile or a friendly wave.
And it’s then that he thinks of Izaya.
He can’t figure out why at first. It’s been weeks since the other crossed his mind, except in the lingering remnants of the nightmares that Shizuo can barely remember upon waking. There’s no familiarity to the streets around him, nothing to recognize in the faces he sees; Shizuo can’t explain why his heart suddenly constricts, why his breathing stutters so hard on adrenaline that he trips over his own feet and has to stumble to regain his balance. It’s just there, in his head, as clearly as if Izaya is standing right in front of him: the shine of a blade, the cut of a smile, the dig of a grating laugh. For a moment Shizuo even imagines he can smell him in the air, that weird metallic wrongness clinging to his breath like it’s trying to infiltrate his lungs with poison. It’s the strongest impression he’s had of the other in years, strong enough that it pulls him to do what he hasn’t done in months, to turn and look over his shoulder with the startled response of a peripheral glimpse of a half-seen face. This is familiar, too, this jumpy reaction; Shizuo can feel himself flinching at the action even as he moves through the turn that he thought he had broken himself of, the whip-quick pivot to look for a face he knows he won’t see in the crowd. He’s blinking hard, shaking his head to clear it of the haze of sudden nostalgia as much as of the rush of adrenaline through him; and then he hears the voice, and all thoughts of shaking off his flash of recognition stall to shocked silence as he hears the high skid of a laugh too familiar for even common sense to reject.
It’s Izaya. Shizuo knows it is, knows it so deep in his bones that he can feel his stomach drop like he’s suddenly lost his connection to the earth. He’s scanning the crowd, looking for dark hair or a fur-lined coat, and he doesn’t see him but he knows, he knows, his heart is pounding itself to the edge of panic in his chest and he can still hear him, can pick out the sound of that voice from the murmur of the crowd around him as clearly as if it were shouting his name. Shizuo wants to speak, wants to open his mouth to lilt out the familiar rhythm of the other’s name in his throat, but his chest is too tense to allow him a breath and he can’t find the air he would need for such a call. He’s still scanning the crowd, glancing at faces and rejecting them as fast as he can pick out their features; and then the wind catches a dark sleeve, and Shizuo’s head turns to follow the movement of its own accord, and he sees him.
Shizuo was looking at the wrong level. He had been scanning the faces on height with his own, skipping from one to another across the top of the crowd, even glancing briefly to higher levels, the kind of ledges and railings Izaya always favored in their Ikebukuro fights. But Izaya is lower, below the head height of the crowd and hard to see even when Shizuo realizes where to look, because he’s in a wheelchair, leaning back against the support of it with one hand bracing a phone to his ear and the other handling the controls for the electronics of the chair. His coat is still there -- it was that that Shizuo saw, catching the wind for a moment of familiar motion -- but it’s draped around his shoulders instead of over his arms, making the shape of a cape more than the jacket it really is. Izaya isn’t looking at Shizuo; he’s watching the crowd in front of him, his mouth caught against the edge of some unthinking smile at whatever he’s listening to on the other end of the phone. He speaks again as Shizuo stares at him, his mouth moving on words too soft for Shizuo to make out but for the cutting edge on the other’s voice; and then he laughs, a spill of sound so familiar it shudders down the entire length of Shizuo’s spine as if he’s been electrocuted. Izaya’s eyes are bright, his smile flashing as sharp as the knives he used to carry; but he navigates the crowd without effort, without any stress visible on his face, which speaks to a months-old familiarity with the wheelchair that fits so poorly into Shizuo’s memory of him.
Shizuo doesn’t know what to do. He wants to look away, wants to turn aside and lose himself in the crowd; he wants to call out, to taste Izaya’s name loud on his tongue again and see the other’s head snap up to meet his gaze. But his throat is constricting on itself, the odd combination of nostalgia and novelty too much for his coherency to handle, and Shizuo’s voice has died in his chest, has left him gaping speechless as Izaya moves past without seeing him. All it would take is a glance, Shizuo knows; his hair and his height make him stand out as much as his uniform, and whatever else may have changed he is certain right down in his bones that Izaya would know him at a glance, would know him at a word. But Shizuo can’t speak, and Izaya doesn’t look up, and as the crowd carries him past all Shizuo can do is stare at the unbelievable reality of Orihara Izaya alive, and here, and oblivious to his presence.
It’s long after Izaya has vanished from sight around a distant corner that Shizuo can think to catch his breath, and longer still that he stands unmoving at his position on the sidewalk, ignoring the odd looks his expression gets him as much as he does the more usual glances.
He’s sure anyone would react this way upon seeing a ghost.