They met in Ikebukuro as the evening verged on night, crowded into one of the back booths of a homely izakaya where there really had no right to be a business. The other customers were few- and thankfully uninterested in sneaking a glimpse of the three history-makers trying and failing to make their orders though the part in the booth’s curtain.
“Soooooo?” Ramuda tapped his finger expectantly against the table, watching Ichiro intently. Ichiro, for the most part, was still trying to make sense of the menu. The food had been easy- Jakurai and Ramuda were apparently connoisseurs of pub food- but the drinks were something else entirely.
Ichiro hadn’t quite realized there were so many options.
“Beer is traditional, isn’t it?” offered Jakurai with that mature sort of confidence, neatly disguising the fact he probably remembered nothing of his first drink.
“No, Ichiro’s definitely going with a rum and coke, right? Right??” Ramuda said, clinging onto Ichiro’s arm and shaking him gently into his assent.
Really, Ichiro didn’t have much of a preference. Easier to just go along with whatever Ramuda had decided for him from the moment he’d strong-armed them all into this. Besides. He doubted that anything could enhance cola. He’d bet on it, actually. Just not against Ramuda, grinning up at him with such mischief.
“Then it’s settled! A beer, a rum and coke, and your weakest iced tea for the old man over there!”
“There’s no need to make it weak,” Jakurai amended. Their waitress’ gaze darted between them a few frantic times before seemingly siding with Jakurai, much to Ramuda’s displeasure. She nodded, then set off to fetch their drinks as Ramuda pouted after her. But it was all just for show. He was back pestering Ichiro fondly not the moment she was back on the other side of the curtain.
“So? So? No more special plans for today?” Ramuda asked, despite the fact he knew full well that the last of Ichiro’s plans included him. He’d spent the day with Jiro and Saburo; let them handle the cooking and settled down together on the couch to marathon through their present to him- both platinum box set re-releases of their childhood favorite card game anime- or as many of the hundred and fifty episodes as they could before he'd had to pry himself away to let Jakurai drive him here.
“Just this,” he said, and recounted how he’d spent half the day enraptured by the story and half the day doing imitations of the show’s hotdog man, much to Jiro and Saburo’s delight. Halfway through their drinks arrived, and Ramuda made very, very careful to ensure Jakurai ended up with the mug of tea and not beer. As soon as his story was over, they made for the toast.
“To your twentieth,” said Jakurai, holding up his tea. Ramuda and Ichiro met him there with aplomb.
They turned to him expectantly. No time for hesitation now. Ichiro gave one last wary glance to the glass, then drank it down with abandon.
It wasn’t bad. Why you’d mess with perfection, Ichiro couldn’t say. But regardless of whether it was subpar cola or decent alcohol, it wasn’t bad either way.
Ramuda and Jakurai gave him a polite round of applause as he set down his glass. That was it, then. If there’d been any doubt before, all of it had vanished with the thin burn of the alcohol down his throat. Finally, finally- he was just as much an adult as the rest of them.
(Not that it felt any different. Not compared yesterday, at least. Or the day before that, or the day before that. To three years ago- definitely. But turned out milestones weren’t always the moving of a heart or leaps to and from the peak of glory. Ichiro wasn’t sure, but he thought that might have been a good thing.)
“But you know? It doesn’t feel real!”
Jakurai nodded. “It is strange to think the time passed so quickly.”
“No, not thaaat,” said Ramuda with a dismissive wave of his hand, “It doesn’t feel real that we’re all-“
Jakurai cut him off sternly, but it was too late. Ichiro ducked his head and pretended to be enthralled with the remains of his drink.
One, two, three, four. The Dirty Dawg. Fragments of an old greatness, sparkling as pieces of a polished new whole.
Ramuda, Jakurai, Ichiro… Samatoki.
It wasn’t that they were on bad terms. The bulk of their animosity- of Samatoki’s hate and Ichiro’s anger- had been sorted out with the fall of the wall. They’d talked. The truth had come out, and for the first time in years, they were both on the same page. They were… good.
Or at least well on their way to it, probably. But none of that changed the fact that Ramuda and Jakurai were here, and Samatoki wasn’t.
“It’s not a big deal. Really.”
Ramuda and Jakurai enhanced a glance over the table. Ichiro wasn’t nearly so preoccupied as to miss their skepticism. If he’d at least managed to convince himself, Ichiro thought, downing the last of his drink with an ill-advised gulp, that would have been nice.
“Next round?” he asked hopefully, sliding the menu over to Ramuda in an invitation to choose. Given the glint in his eye, that was probably a mistake- but it smoothed over the awkwardness. And after finally fixing his friendships, Ichiro thought that was a fair enough trade.
They were three rounds in when Ramuda slipped out of the booth, hopping to his feet with what Ichiro had long since learned was undeniable purpose.
“Bathroom!” Ramuda chirped, then rounded the table to take Jakurai’s hand. “Jakurai~ Come with!”
“I think you’re quite capable of finding the way on your own.”
“Come with,” Ramuda insisted. Jakurai shot Ichiro a hapless glance, shrugging with one shoulder as Ramuda tugged him away. Ichiro waved them off with a bemused smile. He could ask, but he probably didn’t want to know.
“And another drink for Ichiro! It’s his birthday!” Ramuda shouted at someone out of view, despite the fact he still had most of his last one left. Apparently Ramuda had commandeered a tray meant for someone else entirely, because a rather flustered waitress sat a bright little glass down before him not a minute later with an awkward smile and an assurance that she was right around the corner, so he should call if he needed anything else.
He resolved to do anything but that until the other two got back. Instead, Ichiro fiddled with the decorative straw in his new drink. It was unnervingly pink. Definitely artificial. He took a moment to weigh the consequences of trying it (...death?) versus trying to pawn it off later (Ramuda’s wrath and eternal disappointment).
The choice was obvious.
Ichiro took a tentative sip. It tasted mostly like juice, with a refreshing hint of hibiscus. It wasn’t bad. He took another. And another, and another, and then scrolled absently through his phone a while as he waited.
And waited some more, just for good measure.
They’d been gone for a while now. The dregs of his drinks and his phone with its endless stream of birthday wishes had long since ceased to be an adequate distraction against the sense that something was off. It was possible that they’d gotten caught by other customers, and were staving them off- but it didn’t seem quite loud enough for that. And if it wasn’t loud enough for that, it was nowhere near enough of a cacophony for Jakurai to have gotten sidetracked by a drink. Then they were… paying the bill? No, it was still far too early for that. Which meant, so long as nothing had happened, they had to be out there somewhere.
But when he poked his head out from behind the thin curtain, all that awaited him was a flash of white and black and everything he hadn’t wanted to see. He cast a furtive look over the lobby, then pressed his luck to crane his neck and check the hall, praying they’d be his escape. There was no sign of them. He tried to duck back in, but it was too late- in the split second he’d pressed his luck, Samatoki had caught his gaze. Even at this distance the air was electric, the world narrowed down to a razor’s edge between them. Ichiro forced himself to look away before the spark burst.
But it didn’t stop Samatoki from making his way over, deliberate and slow. Telegraphed, not quite his usual saunter.
There was nothing to be done. Ichiro withdrew, and let Samatoki push his way in.
“Yo,” said Samatoki, unusually subdued. Though it was only his tone. His gaze was sharp as ever, staring him down as if waiting for a concession he’d never give. Ichiro had only ever been able to stand strong and meet him halfway. If alcohol was supposed to be liquid courage, then Ichiro had it in spades.
“Why’re you here?”
Impassiveness greeted him. Offense wasn’t far behind. And beneath it all… Something Ichiro didn’t want to see. Something he felt. Understood. “I promised, didn’t I? I don’t go back on my word.”
Just people, thought that distant part of him, still seventeen and betrayed and cynical as the streets he’d just left. But it was in the past. Just like all his other days of being left behind.
Ichiro had never really liked when the rest of TDD had gotten together to drink. It was always a reminder that he was nothing but a child. That despite all the jobs he’d taken and power he’d won and lessons he’d learned, he’d hardly taken but a step towards growing up.
Also, it usually ended up in Jakurai accidentally taking a drink, which was chaos enough with everyone else sober.
It was one of those evenings- out celebrating an overwhelming victory; Ramuda having coaxed Jakurai out for some fresh air and water- that Samatoki had promised. He’d slung an arm around Ichiro’s shoulders, pressed close to him on the couch. A beer can was raised to him; for a split second Ichiro thought he’d have to refuse a drink. But then Samatoki had fixed him with the full intensity of that fond gaze, and all Ichiro’s doubts had melted away.
“When you turn twenty,” Samatoki had said, “‘mma take you outta drink. Buy you the good stuff. Take you out on the town and paint it red.”
“A night I won’t forget?”
“A night you better forget, if we do it right.”
He waved the can, flashed Ichiro that cocksure grin. The welcoming one, assuring him that after so long of wandering, he’d found his place to belong. Ichiro toasted him with a bottle of coke and began the countdown. Three years. Two and some change.
A promise that they’d still be together. That their future was limitless and bright, a knot just waiting to be tied.
(How little he’d known, back then. How hopeful he’d been. How much time he’d once spent wishing things could have been that simple.)
In the present, Ichiro let out a long breath.
“Didn’t think you’d remember.”
It wasn’t an unreasonable assumption. Though he’d deny it to the death, Samatoki had always been surprisingly forgetful. A promise he’d made three years ago while more than a little drunk wasn’t exactly something Ichiro was going to take to heart these days.
(No matter how he had back then, hoping and waiting and sure that if he played his cards just right, then maybe-)
“Yeah, well,” Samatoki started, then stopped, then began at a significantly lower volume- “Wasn’t sure you still wanted me to.”
For some reason, Ichiro had been sure that was his line. “Yeah,” he said, words stolen from him before he could manage anything but the truth, “I did.”
And the insecurity quelled. Not all of it, not instantly- but enough.
“Beer,” Samatoki called over at the passing server, then slid into the opposite side of the booth. He caught sight of Ichiro’s empty glasses, then stuck his head back out and added- “Two.”
They devolved back into silence, broken only by the buzz of Ichiro’s phone notifying him that Ramuda had apparently posted a selfie of them together on… every social media platform they shared.
Dammit, he thought, fondly, and silenced his phone before the flood could begin.
“They ever coming back?” Ichiro muttered under his breath, now well aware that they wouldn’t. They’d probably planned this; texted Samatoki at some point while Ichiro was distracted and staged the whole thing. He’d been scammed. And he hadn’t even paid.
Their beers arrived as the awkwardness continued, persisted unabated through what Ichiro swore was half the generous mug. Of course they’d bail when he needed them most.
Whatever, thought Ichiro, doesn’t matter. They’re shit at de-escalating tension anyway.
He wracked his brain for a solution instead. He had to come up with something. Samatoki had shown. This was supposed to have made his night, not ruined it. Three years ago, he would’ve been ecstatic. Would’ve chattered on without restraint, confident that Samatoki was listening no matter how little he ultimately understood.
Something. Anything. At the very least, thank you-
“So? How’re the brats?”
Ichiro cast him a warning glare. But there had been no venom in Samatoki’s tone. So he ventured, slowly- “They’re good.” A pause. Samatoki was still watching him intently. So he continued, gaining strength with each word- “Jiro graduated high school, y’know. Worked damn hard for it, too. Even let Saburo help him out without complaining. Or, uh, with minimal complaining. Some of the science stuff got dicey there for a second, but he did it.”
Samatoki gave a huff, a little half chuckle behind his drink. “Sounds like him. And? How’s number three?”
“I know you know their names.”
Samatoki rolled his eyes. “How’s Saburo?”
Not exactly a paragon of goodwill, but Ichiro would take it. “Good. He made some friends! Or uh, some friends, and some acquaintances that call him ‘Jiro’s little brother’ every time they see him.”
Samatoki lifted an eyebrow. “He hates it?”
Ichiro nodded solemnly. “He hates it.”
Muffled snickering was quickly covered up by sips of their drinks, the both of them trying desperately not to take too much joy in Saburo’s mundane sort of misery. It was a life neither of them had gotten to live. Knowing that despite everything, their siblings were was… indescribably good.
Which reminded him- “How’s Nemu-chan?”
The last time Ichiro saw her, it had been their moment of reunion. When everything had come to light. Not the first time Ichiro had thought, but the first time he had been sure that things between them would be all right.
For the first time that evening did Samatoki truly seem to relax. The tension in his shoulders vanished, the smile teasing at his lips gained contentment and pride. It was a good look on him. It always had been.
“She’s good, now. Busy as hell, but she likes it. Probably gonna start looking for a place of her own, soon. Keep tellin’ her to stay until she’s got enough saved up, but she’s headstrong.” A pause, then, just a touch melancholy- “Dunno when she grew up like that.”
Like brother, like sister. And Samatoki thought Ichiro was guilty of doting.
“Know that feeling. Swear Saburo’s gonna start lookin’ at universities any day now. And Jiro’s home for now, but…”
It wasn’t going to last forever. Samatoki caught his gaze with sympathy before Ichiro could even think to ask for it. Like the old days. Like a reminder that despite everything, they still understood each other on a level they’d never known anyone else.
Samatoki breathed out a sigh like smoke on his lips. “But it’s damn bittersweet, huh.”
His tone demanded no answer. Ichiro muttered a soft yeah into his drink regardless.
But just before the silence could settle again-
“Two more!” Samatoki called with sudden energy, downing the rest of his beer. Ichiro followed quick suit, caught up in his flow. It had taken a few questions, but suddenly it was as if the years couldn’t stand being trapped behind floodgates. It poured out of them smooth as wine, a cascade of stories that wouldn’t end.
Samatoki spoke wonders of Rio’s growing grove of impossible coffee trees and explained with increasingly less coherency the taste of tarantula soup- didja know, Ichiro? You can make soup. Outta tarantulas- and listened intently as Ichiro recounted the story of a client who’d tried to pay him for helping move shop halfway across Ikebukuro exclusively in discount vocaloid figures.
Samatoki lifted an eyebrow and leaned back in the booth, eyeing him far too knowingly for Ichiro’s liking. “You accept, or no?”
Hearing Samatoki laugh like that was almost- only almost- worth the way it was very firmly at his expense.)
A wave impossible to stop. A river, escorting them to the ocean where they’d meet. The hours flowed like the drinks, uncountable and buoyed by an overwhelming sense of togetherness. And it was stupid, Ichiro thought, somewhere in-between it all- so damn stupid- that they’d spent so much time worrying about whether they even wanted to see each other when it had been so easy to slide back into this.
He’d lost count of what round he was on by the time Samatoki finally moved to stand, beckoning him along. Ichiro glanced down at his phone, sure that it couldn’t have been that late yet- but the numbers of the clock were infuriatingly hard to focus on, and Samatoki’s voice so much easier.
“C’mon,” said Samatoki, grabbing the bill without looking and sliding out of the booth, clear a signal as anything. “Let’s go, or we’re never getting you outta here.”
“...Can get out of here just fine,” Ichiro insisted, scrambling to stand with the greatest of urgency.
But maybe the drinks really had done more for him than he’d thought, because the second he was on his feet the world began to swim dangerously. His legs didn’t belong to him; his attempt to take a grounding step was thwarted by his altered balance. Samatoki grabbed his arm and Ichiro grabbed his jacket, trying to keep the both of them on their feet- but even Samatoki couldn’t support the full weight of him, and tumbling back into the booth they went.
The seats were padded, though that didn’t mean much when two full-grown men fell atop them full force. His breath left him in a rush as Samatoki landed on his chest, narrowly avoiding slamming an elbow into Ichiro’s shoulder as he tried to catch himself.
The way the world spun, it took Ichiro a moment to get his bearings- but the second he grasped them he froze, daring hardly to breathe. It would’ve been damn nice to be able to blame this on the alcohol- to say that the heat in his veins had nothing to do with this sudden proximity, the way that he knew that just the slightest shift would send their lips crashing together like magnets on the edge of each other’s orbits.
One breath. Two. His hand was still curled into the unseasonably thick fabric of Samatoki’s jacket. Samatoki’s hand still held tight against his wrist. They were a spring, coiled up tight with an unstoppable energy. The only question was which way it would burst. Three breaths. Four-
Ichiro didn’t know who moved first. Just that one moment there was distance and the next there was nothing but a hungry press of lips.
It was their first real kiss. And in some ways it showed- a little too desperate, a little too urgent, a little too Ichiro digging his hands into Samatoki’s hair and dragging him down to deepen it clumsily. In the way that mattered, though, it felt a lot like coming home.
Given that Samatoki was the person who’d showed him what going home meant in the first place, it was a perfect fit.
After a while- Ichiro had no hope of knowing just how long- Samatoki pulled back to let them catch their breath. One of his fingers came to trail gently through Ichiro’s hair, tracing around the shell of his ear like a distant memory of needle and precious stone. It was easy to drown in the sensation- to let Samatoki’s soft touches lull him into a pleasant trance and forget about the world- but secluded or not, they were still in public. They were still supposed to be heading home.
Ichiro forced his eyes open and was met with red- tender, more vibrant than any jewel could hope to be. Not when he was staring down at Ichiro as if he was the only other person in the world. Like he’d been dreaming of this, and finally...
Oh, thought Ichiro, and forgot about moving for a while longer. They stayed there a moment, drowning in proximity as they breathed each other’s air. Ichiro never wanted it to end. He wanted to surge up for another kiss and begin it again. He wanted next time. He wanted now. He wanted everything. He wanted this.
(It was funny, thought Ichiro, somewhere in the distant part of him that thought not in word but in feeling, that their first kiss tasted like alcohol. Since the beginning- when they’d come down from the high of victory with laughter and arms slung around each other’s shoulders and Ichiro had realized admiration wasn’t nearly enough for the feeling spreading through him wide as the sky- Ichiro had always assumed it would be the bitter taste of cigarettes.)
“We really fucked it up, huh?”
He didn’t say you, though he knew Samatoki would no longer blame him if he did.
He didn’t say it because it wasn’t true. If Ichiro had just managed to keep his cool, convinced Samatoki to talk rather than fight, then… Would they have stayed together? Would he have known Samatoki like this always, a warmth at his side and a weight on his chest and a flame in his heart he’d never have tried so hard to smother?
There was no way to know. Unless he jumped universes in a miracle caused by someone else’s prayer, woke up one day to find himself thrown three years into the past, he’d never have the chance, either.
But even if he did, that world would never be his. Because the thing was- he loved the way things had turned out too much to ever change the road they’d taken to get here. He had his regrets- his many, many regrets- but teaming up with Jiro and Saburo, watching over them the way he always should have been around to, reconnecting with the Dirty Dawg after they’d all come to change for the better…
Things were only looking up. This was where they belonged.
Samatoki didn’t answer him. It was probably for the best. He said instead, pulling back to offer Ichiro his hand, “C’mon. I’ll take you home.”
It was a brave new world, this future without walls. Without hesitation, Ichiro reached up to take it.
They stumbled out into the late-night streets, Ichiro most definitely feeling that drunken wave crashing over his senses every time he had to move. He’d make it home, at least, but what came after that was anyone’s guess.
“What home ‘re we going to?” he said, significantly louder than he thought he did. Jiro and Saburo were at his, and Ichiro hardly wanted to show up like this. The original plan had been for him to stay the night at Ramuda’s; clearly that had only ever been them leading him on.
“Safehouse. The Ikebukuro one.” Samatoki turned his head with a weighty gaze. “You remember?”
Ichiro met him there with puzzlement. Of course he did. He’d let Ichiro stay over for dinner and a safe place to unwind more times than either of them could remember. “Kept that place?”
Samatoki shrugged. “Never know when I’ll need it.”
Just the thought sent a jolt of unease through him, reeling like a punch to the gut. He stumbled half a step before catching himself, feeling the brush of Samatoki’s fingers across his arm to keep him grounded.
Once upon a time, he’d wanted to win. To prove that he’d grown. To show Samatoki he’d learned to live by his words better than the man himself. That had never meant wanting to see Samatoki in danger. To see anything of him hurt- except maybe that goddamn pride, responsible for parting them in the first place.
“‘f you do somthin’ stupid again, ‘m gonna kill you,” Ichiro said. Samatoki laughed, warm as the midsummer on their skin.
“Big words from the guy who can’t even walk in a straight line.”
“Fuck off,” Ichiro said, clinging close to Samatoki as he could. It wasn’t exactly his proudest of moments, but it was sure better than the embarrassment he’d feel if he walked into a lamppost or stop sign or something equally stupid.
They walked that way a while, basking in the newfound comfort of their silence. Side by side. Shoulder to shoulder. The way it was always meant to be.
Samatoki shuffled a little closer, letting their arms brush, then-
“Stay with me, Ichiro.”
Samatoki was holding his hand. Samatoki was holding his hand. Ichiro swung them loosely, marveling at how perfect the fit.
“What, big old Samatoki-sama mister hardcore gonna get looooost?”
“Shut the fuck up, dumbass. Overgrown brat.” He was embarrassed. If Ichiro squinted, he swore he could see the trace of a blush on his ears, bright pink against all the silver.
Ichiro snickered at him, fighting down full-belly laughter for no reason at all. Samatoki picked up the pace- so much so that he almost missed their first turn. Ichiro herded him back on track with a tug of their linked hands and a pointed little smile that Samatoki definitely checked out of the corner of his eye, no matter how he pretended not to.
“What, I thought the great old Sama-“
“Are you drunk or not?” Samatoki spat, gaze locked firmly ahead. Ichiro drank in the details of his profile beneath the streetlights, wondering just how he’d managed to grow even more beautiful than the first time they’d met. When he’d told Ichiro everything he’d needed to hear, intoxicated on the hope in his words and the realization that this was someone he wouldn’t mind risking it all alongside, even if just for a moment.
Was he even drunk anymore? Hell if Ichiro knew. But the night was impossibly bright, radiant with a dizzying energy Ichiro could feel in his head, his heart, his gut. He had nothing else to compare it to save the rush after a battle, rhymes still on his lips and victory in his veins. A whirlwind of butterflies, sending him reeling as they took wing. A weightlessness in his chest, making him want to clutch at it to make sure he was still there. A old sensation. A familiar one. A bird coming home to nest in the hollows Ichiro thought he’d forgotten, like the reminder he hadn’t yet sold his soul.
Not even to Samatoki. Not even then.
He’d seen Samatoki beginning to part from him, and cut him away entirely before he could be left behind again. Better to end it of his own will than have it torn from him piece by piece- his respect, his admiration, his love. Best to let it crash over him again like saltwater over a scar. Unable to hurt, only sweeping away the sand stinging in their eyes.
He had his answer.
“Yeah. But you have to stay with me, too.”
A car rattled past; all Ichiro caught was the last hint of Samatoki’s muttered reply.
“I said, ‘m not letting go again!” Samatoki all but shouted, voice echoing into the quiet night.
A group of office workers stumbling out of a bar on the other side of the street turned their heads, lost interest as laughter rang out from within. But Ichiro didn’t notice them at all. Everything he had was focused on Samatoki, who’d begun amending his statement with a few mumbled afterthoughts- “Brat. Little shit. Fucking... Fuckin’... I dunno, sh-“
“I love you too, Samatoki.”
Samatoki almost tripped over his own feet. Ichiro snickered, turned on him a wicked grin.
Too early? Fuck it. If they were doing this, then it had to be with nothing less than their all. If they could still love each other after everything, then Ichiro figured it was never going to fade. There was no point in tempering his words. Not now, not ever.
“I love you. I really, really do.”
Samatoki’s grip on his hand turned crushing. But it wasn’t bad. Not in the slightest. Ichiro squeezed back with a content little smile, let Samatoki lead him towards the safehouse they’d always thought of more as a home. He’d get the words out of Samatoki yet. After all- the night was young. But for now, all he needed was the familiarity of their steps hitting in time and the immeasurable tenderness poured into Samatoki’s small, grateful-