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The first visit takes him by surprise.

He’s reading a book in his cell (and he’s never been much of a reader but his options are somewhat limited) when a guard comes to take him to the visitor’s room. His uncle and aunt have already stopped by this week —both as sad and petite and frail as he remembers them— and for a brief, terrifying moment, he can only assume one of them has passed away or had some horrific accident and the other one is coming to inform him. There is no other reason for a second visit since there is no long-lost love between them and no one else—

He sees them before he can finish that thought. He sees them through the glazed door, sitting together by the table closest to the window. They’re wearing their school uniforms and they look as worried as they do curious. Tooi’s heart squeezes painfully at the sight — at their cautious smiles, their rubbing elbows, the goddamned miçanga dangling from Kazuki’s ankle. He can barely make the outline of a football inside Enta’s sports bag.

The guard pushes open the door and leads him to the table. He stands to the side, against the wall, and Tooi just stands there, across from them, so choked up he can’t muster a word. Enta’s eyebrows knit together in worry and Kazuki’s smile drops, replaced by a thin line. His face is a mystery. Tooi’s head swirls as he tries to read his expression. Is he disgusted? Angry? Disappointed? Is he going to walk out of the door, having suddenly realized he cannot do this? Tooi wouldn’t blame him. He didn’t expect to see them again and he will take this small grace.

He stares at them, at their faces, committing every detail to memory in case they regain their wits and leave to never return. The moment of silence stretches, thin and weary, and then—

Kazuki burst out laughing, so loud and so vibrant that it startles the guard. Enta joins in a moment later, his whole face sagging in relief, and they just laugh, and giggle and slap the table for long enough that Tooi can feel his irritation sparking, growing—

“What’s so fucking funny?”

“Your—“ Kazuki can’t even finish. Enta takes over, kinder, because he has always been a softie at heart.

“Your hair, Kuji! It’s so bad, pfff—“ He giggles again and Tooi’s unease unravels within his chest, spooling and fraying and pulling at something he had thought forever lost: his ability to laugh at dumb shit. He laughs with them and sits across them with a smile, and thinks, feeling warm and soft, about how much he wishes to hug them both.

 


 

The second visit is also a surprise, if only because it takes place the very next day.

This time, Tooi greets them with a small smile.

 


 

The third visit is a surprise because Enta brings a card game and Kazuki proves to be horrifically bad at it. Tooi hasn’t laughed that hard in years.

 


 

From the fourth onwards the surprises have more to do with the content of the visits (the stories they tell him, the way their football team wins or loses this or that match, the tests they fail and pass, the way the city changes and grows and yet remains the same) than with the visits themselves. They come every single day. Some days only one of them does (because life likes to get in the way) and some days they’re both unable or there is a holiday or something unexpected happened. Tooi will never forget the snowy December day when Kazuki rushed through the door, startling Enta out of his skin, and proudly announced that Nyantaro was a father, as proud as if he had conceived those kittens himself. He brought pictures the next day and Tooi dutifully hanged them alongside the dozens of other pictures they keep bringing by. When he lies down to sleep at night, his eyes wander to his wall and he can feel himself smile in the dark.

 


 

When he had first heard his sentence he had thought it would feel like a lifetime. Three years. Three years devoid of freedom, of football, of school — three years lost to his many mistakes. To the memory of a brother he still loves deep down, as ashamed as that makes him feel. (He will always love him.) He had thought that it’d be hard to live by, but Kazuki and Enta keep visiting and time just — slips away.

It feels like he never left.

It feels like they’re holding him steady, afloat, secure. Tethered to the outside world.

Connected.

 


 

The day he leaves, there are no visits. He had told them, the night before, that he would be released in the morning. And they had all agreed to meet by their spot. He makes his way through the city in a daze, heart bursting at the seams, entranced by all the changes and all the ways the streets and the buildings and the people have remained the same. Something changed all right but it wasn’t Asakusa.

He jumps from the bridge, feeling the air rushing past his cheeks, through his hair, rustling him, shaking him alive. He is alive. Alive. Alive. Alive. He is free.

No, it wasn’t Asakusa at all.

He opens his eyes. They’re there, smiling at him, as part of the water as he feels. When they swim together to the surface, Tooi knows that he is home. At last.

“Welcome home, Tooi!” Kazuki echoes, his voice high and firm. His eyes are luminous beneath the sun.

“We were waiting for you” Enta adds, grinning from ear to ear.

Tooi feels his heart leap and answer:

“Why are you here? I’m sick of seeing you two,” he smiles.

I’m home it beats back.