Summary: One-shot introspective, Kouichi-centric. I wanted to do a character piece for Kouichi that didn't center on his relationship with his brother, since that seems to be a well-explored aspect already, but on one of the other Frontier kids. Eventually, Tomoki was my choice, because he seemed the most likely to reach out to someone shy like Kouichi. That's about all the thought that went into it.
Pairings: None really, though it aims toward Kouji x Takuya and Junpei x Izumi.
The mall was always crowded on Saturdays. This particular Saturday, it seemed to be less crowded than usual, which Kouichi suspected had something to do with the turn for the beautiful that the weather had taken in the last week. But it was still crowded enough for the clumps of passing patrons to jostle him from time to time, determined to get the corner of a shopping bag into his eye if they could arrange it. It was enough to make Kouichi wish he were at the center of a group of his own, if only to have the benefit of a line of human shields.
He was alone again. Or, not alone. Just behind.
He hadn't started that way. After the routine trip to the ice cream shop on ground level, Kouji had walked with him for their full first lap of the second floor, making disparaging remarks about the passing merchandise in a voice so that only his twin could hear them.
But Takuya always had to be in front, and Kouji refused to fall behind, and it hadn't taken long for the dark-haired boy to fall in step with his rival-turned-best-friend instead, losing track of his brother in the shuffle. Kouichi could see them now, some distance ahead of him, arguing rather loudly about whether or not Takuya had ice cream smeared all over his face like a moron, and whether or not Kouji was always bugging other people about stuff that wasn't his business.
Kouji was. Takuya did. Kouichi smiled. Being an outsider wasn't really so bad. It gave him a unique perspective.
His eyes shifted to the group of three meandering to his left, their softly chatting voices just too low for him to overhear. Izumi strolled down the line of windows with one hand in her hair, twirling a long blonde strand around her index finger, and every time her smile would indicate a preference Junpei looked at the item in question with a frown, as though he'd buy them all if his meager allowance could afford it. And Tomoki was infused with the spirit of childhood excitement, running to press his face against the glass of the shop windows, making a face at his reflection, and always returning to Izumi's side, as if she were a harbor and he a tiny boat seeking shelter.
From a distance, they looked like a young couple and their son. It was an image Junpei at least would have appreciated, and it made Kouichi laugh, though he muffled the sound behind his hand. He kept his hand raised until his wide smile had faded back to normal, just a friendly turn at the corner of his lips.
He'd been hiding his smile a lot lately. Not because he didn't want the others to see him smile. Just because they didn't seem to see humor in the same things he did. Like the way Kouji yanked Takuya back a little too roughly by the collar of his shirt when the boy decided to hang halfway over a railing, or the way Izumi took Junpei shopping with her because he positively drooled over the invitation to carry her bags.
Somehow, no one else seemed to laugh at these things. Kouichi decided they were just too close to the center. They couldn't see what he saw.
The small voice pulled his eyes down to waist level, where Tomoki's big eyes regarded him with open curiosity. Tomoki scratched one foot against his ankle and hopped to keep up with the older twin, swinging his hands back and forth.
"Whatcha smiling at?" the little boy asked. Kouichi shook his head.
"Just remembering something funny."
Kouichi glanced up ahead, keeping track of the group's bickering leaders as they pulled farther and farther away, and Tomoki hummed a little to himself before tugging on Kouichi's arm to retrieve his attention.
"You mind if I walk with you? Or do you want to be alone?"
Kouichi gave the boy another smile. "Nope. I don't."
He didn't. But it didn't matter. He was all right alone, too. He was all right just watching.
The boy sent Kouichi a grin he must have picked up from Takuya, and then they proceeded in silence, listening to the steady rhythm of Junpei's heavy footsteps and Izumi's lighter counterpoints. Tomoki played hopscotch with the checkered linoleum tiles and Kouichi watched him, the floppy hat bobbing up and down like a mushroom top with every jump. When Tomoki tired of the game, he looked up at Kouichi and at the backs of the friends spread out ahead of them, and gave his companion a sneaky smile, lacing his hands behind his back.
"You know what's funny? Takuya and Kouji don't hate each other as much as they say. They just like arguing. And Izumi doesn't really mind Junpei, either."
Kouichi blinked, glancing from the boy at his side to the pairs getting lost in the crowd. He laughed.
"You're right, Tomoki. That is funny."
So there was one person who understood.
Tomoki ran ahead so that he could face Kouichi by walking backwards, his wide childhood face split in a knowing grin. "Is that what you were smiling about before?"
Kouichi nodded, returning the boy's smile. "You caught me."
Tomoki shook his head. "Don't worry. I won't tell. It can be funny just for us. Deal?"
The boy stuck out his pinky to seal the promise, and Kouichi extended a hand to meet him, his much longer finger wrapping around Tomoki's.
Tomoki giggled, and with a little leap he rushed off into the crowd, his patience for calm conversation exhausted. Kouichi brushed a hand against his finger. But he didn't want to fall behind, so he resumed walking at an easy pace, his hand tingling just a little where it rested at his side.
A pinky promise. He'd never made one before. Not because he'd never had a friend to make one with, exactly. But his friends had never been the pinky promise kind, and Kouji was much too old now to take an interest in little symbols. Too old to have an older brother, really.
Kouichi smiled as he watched the passing windows. That, at least, was something Kouji wasn't getting rid of. Even if he was really little more than a shadow.
The mall patrons moved through his vision in colorful waves, their voices the churning of a restless tide, and Kouichi let the sound sweep his thoughts away, feeling the impact of each step along the sole of his foot and the brush of other hands against his. He wasn't really alone, after all. People were moving all around him, and even if they didn't speak, there was a contact there that lingered after they had moved away, like a breath of wind circling a dark room.
And there was Tomoki, staring into the window of a video game shop with wide eyes before he returned to Kouichi's side, pausing at his new harbor before restlessness carried him away again. And there were Takuya and Kouji, laughing now instead of arguing, disappearing from sight as the escalator carried them down to the first floor. And there was Junpei, throwing a mournful look at the chocolate shop that was getting farther away as Izumi propelled him after their friends. And here was Tomoki again.
Kouichi smiled. Not alone, after all.
It was four steps to the top of the escalator. Only the last one went wrong. Kouichi stepped onto the grated metal, and suddenly there was only air beneath his foot, the step falling away beneath him. Kouichi gasped and clutched at the rail, the thick rubber burning his desperate arms as he backpedaled from the edge of the moving stairs, dark eyes wide in his paling face.
A missed step, and a tumble, and the sight of the cold floor rushing up to meet him…
He squeezed his eyes shut, taking another step back. Hurried people pushed past him down the escalator, only fleeting curiosity on their faces; Kouichi wrapped his arms around himself to hold the memories back, wondering where the warmth he'd been feeling just a moment ago had suddenly disappeared to.
And where was Kouji? Kouji was at the bottom. Kouji wasn't next to him, where he'd always been when Kouichi got scared like this. Wasn't there to put a hand on his twin's shoulder and pull them both onto the escalator, promising with a single touch that he'd never let it happen again.
But Kouji wasn't there. Probably hadn't noticed. This time, he really was…
Kouichi's eyes came open slowly, shy of finding the bright green eyes right in front of him. Tomoki shifted from foot to foot, glancing to the escalator and back with a thoughtful frown.
Kouichi nodded. Tomoki cocked his head to the side.
"Is it scary?"
The older boy turned away, watching the blur of faces instead. Tomoki tugged at his sleeve.
There was something warm against his palm now, and Kouichi turned back to see the little boy's hand slip into his, warm and rough against his knotted fingers. Tomoki smiled.
"Let's do it together. Maybe then it won't be so scary."
Kouichi stared at their blending skin, his pale hand so tight around the smaller one. Then they were moving, and the twin took a deep breath as they stepped onto the escalator, only letting it out when he was sure the step wasn't going to disappear again.
He could see them all grouped together at the bottom, conferring with each other and glancing at the descending pair, and from Kouji's frown Kouichi realized that his brother had noticed something, after all. Tomoki squeezed his hand, and as dark eyes turned to find him he gave the elder twin another blinding smile.
"Don't worry, Kouichi. I'll hold your hand from now on. So there's nothing to be scared of. Deal?"
Kouichi exhaled softly, summoning a smile of his own. "Deal."
A crowd of wondering faces surrounded the pair as soon as they stepped off the moving stairs, their voices a babble of worried curiosity. Takuya scratched the back of his head, glancing between the two as though an explanation would be written on their faces.
"What took you so long? It looked like you were coming down, and then…"
Kouji gave his brother a sharp look, and Kouichi ducked his head, all too aware of how the younger twin could read his expression when he chose to. But Tomoki only laughed, lifting their joined hands to show the group.
"I was scared to go down the escalator, so Kouichi held my hand." The child grinned, directing his gleeful expression to the quiet boy beside him. "Right, Kouichi?"
Kouichi smiled. "Right."