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Echo Chamber

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What are you doing here?

The thought comes unbidden, just as you’re starting to relax. Kazuma’s next to you, a movie he picked out playing on his TV. You’ve been trying to pay attention, really - Team Caesar is starring, and that alone would’ve been enough to catch your interest - but every time you start, this thought returns and jolts you out of what peace you were beginning to ease into.

“Hey, you okay?” Kazuma asks, and you blink a couple of times before you remember to smile and shake your head.

“I’m fine. Just a little tired.”

He eyes you skeptically, but your expression doesn’t falter. You’ve always been good at holding a pose. Finally, he lets out a sigh that’s almost a groan. “If you say so. But the best part’s coming up, so careful you don’t miss it.”

It’s easier to hold the smile then, and on impulse you reach over and pet his hair like you used to. He mutters something you can’t quite catch, and doesn’t smile like he used to, but he leans into it a little and feeling that makes something catch on your heart. You settle back against the couch comfortably as you return your hand to your lap and why are you here?

Your mouth tightens in spite of yourself. Quietly, you lace your fingers together. Keep them still, and try to pay better attention to the movie. He was so surprised when you admitted you hadn’t seen it - apparently it caught quite a bit of attention not long ago. His reaction almost made you laugh, like it nearly does now. You can count the number of times you’ve gone to a movie theater on one hand. There was just never time, and it wasn’t important enough to start an argument for permission.

That, at least, is less of a problem these days. No one else has really changed, but you have. You just... don’t care. You can’t even pretend to now. A persistent sense of responsibility may keep you there, but it’s not enough to make you limit yourself like before. After all, whatever they might say, nothing anyone in that house can do to you could be worse than what you’ve already managed to live through.

You dig a nail into your knuckle. Swallow something empty.

What’s been happening on screen the last few minutes?

You blink again, try to look more closely. Some kind of fight, you think? A pang of guilt hits you as you realize that, no matter how hard you try to remember, vague impression is all you’ve retained. Kazuma asked you over to watch this, and what have you been doing? Your chest feels heavy. You drive your nail into your skin deeper, but it feels. Too small. You can’t focus on it. No, you shouldn’t be focusing on that anyway, you’re supposed to be paying attention to the screen. What are you doing here?

Faintly hoping he won’t notice, you close your eyes. To try and get a better grip on yourself. But all you can think is the chance after chance Kazuma’s given you, and all you’re doing is. Wasting them. Wasting his time. Your breath picks up, despite your efforts. It’s not like he doesn’t have a limit, after all. Your memories of Shiranui’s control, are... not exactly hazy. Distant is a better word. Like you were watching everything happen at the far end of a tunnel. You don’t know if you’d even call what you were conscious. But you remember enough. How Kazuma tried so hard to see any of you in Shiranui, and all he got in return was more hurt. Until he couldn’t even stand anymore.

There’s a buzzing under your fingers that you can’t feel through. You try to dig your nail in further, but it’s too blunt. You open your eyes, but they won’t focus, no matter how much you try to force it. What’s even left of you now? Shiranui dragged his claws through every corner of your mind, picking out bits and pieces of whatever would hurt most (and no matter how many times you tell yourself it's okay, he was tricked, it wasn't his fault, you still can't forget how it all felt), and then he was forced out too and you’re all he left behind.

How long is Kazuma going to keep looking for the person you were before he finally gives up? How long are you going to let him?

“...Nii-san?”

“Sorry,” you say, and your voice sounds far away. You hate it. It reminds you of him, speaking through your mouth, and you can’t make it stop. “I’ll be right back.” Your body’s no better. When you stand up, all your movements feel oddly light, and half a step ahead of you. Like you’re being moved by your body instead of the other way around.

Your breath hitches. Stops.

You’re the only one here, you try to remind yourself. You’re alone. But.

Another step, slower than you want, and your vision swims. Bile rises in the back of your throat, but you keep your teeth grit and swallow it all down. Kazuma says something behind you, but you can’t hear it. The world has tipped and fallen away from you, and it’s all you can do to stumble into the bathroom and shut the door behind you ( don’t slam it , your body remembers at least, that draws attention ) before you let yourself slide to the floor, push your sleeve back, and bite hard into your wrist.

There , you think, as the pain bursts into focus, that’s real. That’s here , clear and undeniable. You dig your teeth in deeper, stopping just short of breaking the skin. Kazuma would notice if you drew blood. You hold onto that thought, letting it lock you in place until the pain dulls into more of a burn. When you finally let your jaw unclench and pull your arm away, it’s shaking. Every breath comes out too harsh, and the buzzing under your skin is everywhere. You just... want to bite harder. Deeper. Pull it all out of you.

“Nii-san-!” Kazuma’s voice rings out from the other side of the door. You can hear it better now. The fear in it, too, as much as he’s trying to guard it. “What’s going on?”

You open and close your mouth a few times, torn between trying to answer and burying your teeth back into yourself. Finally, you let out a breath and say, “Sorry, I- I just felt a little sick.” You take another look at your arm. The teeth marks are starting to swell a little already. You rub at them, taking some small comfort in the light sting, and say, “I’ll just... be a couple of minutes.”

“...Okay.”

His footsteps move away from the door, and both relief and disgust with yourself come flooding in until you have to curl over your knees just to keep sitting up. You’re still doing it. Scaring him. Hurting him. There's no one else to blame for that. He fought so hard to get you back. He was hurt so badly. And this is what he got for it.

Slowly, you cross your arms over your stomach and grab hold of the sides of your shirt. Safely out of reach from your teeth. You just. Don’t move. For a little while. Keep your eyes down, and listen to the soft sounds of Kazuma moving around further away. Breathe.

Eventually, you feel like you can stand again, though your hands still shake when you go to rinse them off. The mark you left is really getting red now... at least it’s far enough up that your sleeve will cover it easily. You keep your eyes focused on that, avoiding the mirror over the sink.

When your legs are steady enough, you leave and head back towards the main room. He’s not there, and the television is off. Anxiety starts to flare, before you hear him call, “Ah, over here.” The kitchen, then. He has some tea steeping on the counter, two cups out. Another swell of panic - you’d thought you’d only been in there a few minutes. How long has it actually been? When you look at him, before you can ask, he quickly fills one of the cups and puts it on the table in front of you. “This should - um - be good for stomachs. That’s what it said on the box.”

...

Somehow, you’d managed not to cry through your pointless scene. You’d held back that much. But now... you have to take a breath to steady yourself before you pull out a chair and sit. “Thank you,” you say, hoping the quiet way you say it doesn’t make you sound ungrateful. But you don’t trust your voice to be steady if you speak any louder. You can’t even look at him like this. You should, you know, but you can’t. If he’s looking at you with any amount of concern, you’ll lose what meager grip you have on your self-control and you won’t do that to him. You refuse to.

After a couple of seconds, he gets his own cup ready, and leans back against the counter. That he doesn’t sit down too makes you uneasy, so you take a small sip of the tea. You don’t really taste it, but it’s warm and has a nice scent. That helps a little. Your wrist throbs a little, under your sleeve.

“I’m sorry to worry you like that,” you finally say, when you trust your voice enough, “I wasn’t... really expecting that to happen. I didn’t know it would.”

He doesn’t answer, and you can’t bring yourself to look at his face yet. When he asks, “How about when I asked if you were okay?” it’s in a guarded way that you don’t know how to read. Your hands tighten a little around your cup despite yourself, and you hear him shift and sigh. “Look, I... I’m not mad or anything. But... well, what do you want me to do? Next time, I mean. Should I just not ask, or- or maybe the movie bothered you...?”

“It’s not that.” It comes out weaker than you planned. You stop, rub a hand over your eyes. How do you explain this? You keep trying to start, but... even if you don’t want to be insincere, you want to burden him even less. Caught between those two goals, everything you come up with sounds like excuses, or ways to avoid the question. And bubbling under each one is an impulse to yell yes , he should stop, stop everything, stop asking you over and worrying about you and let you stop too - but that, you will keep it buried. Force it down deeper. Nothing comes up to replace it.

You’re still trying to piece something together when he asks, “...What is it you think I won’t get?”

You look up, then, a little, through your fingers. You have to, because you still can’t read his tone at all. Maybe you could have, once, but not now. His eyes flicker to and from you, and he keeps shifting his weight from one foot to the other. The more you look, the less you think he wants an answer. He’s not done talking yet.

“What... exactly do you think I’ve been like all these years?” The words force all the air out of you like a blow. “Seriously. I spent... so much time being terrified. I tried so hard not to think about what had happened. Any of it. And when I did see you, I was paralyzed. I could barely breathe. Just from... just from a few seconds worth of a video.” He’s holding himself and not looking at you, and you don’t know if you should approach him or stay sitting. It’s your fault, after all. How would any comfort you offer not feel hollow, with that hanging over it?

“I was shaking when I went to fight you, and even though I told myself I was doing it for me, that it didn’t matter what you thought, the whole fight I kept- feeling like I was back there. In that house. That everything was just happening over again, and nothing I tried to do ever mattered, because I really was... just as worthless as everyone thought.” He lets out a rattling breath, and even with all the time in between then and now, you still recognize what his voice sounds like when he’s trying not to cry.  

You stand, still not entirely sure what you mean to do after that. You just know you have to do something. “Maa-kun-”

“And yeah, that fight was the worst, but... things like that would happen all the time. Something would happen to make me remember, and I’d freeze up and have to run away just to function again.” He looks at you, then, and seems surprised you’ve gotten up. With a shake of his head, he adds, “I’m not... I’m not saying all this to dump blame on you. Really. I’m just trying to say... I do get it. Not all of it, maybe, but. More than you think I do. That’s all.”

So he says, and the waver is out of his voice, but don’t you have plenty of experience with how easy that can be to accomplish?

You move towards him slowly. Deliberately. Making sure he sees what you’re doing, and waiting for any sign he might not want you to. His eyes flicker from you to your cautiously outstretched arms... and nods. Just a little.

You mean to hug him carefully, but once you have your arms around him, you can’t help squeezing his tight. It takes a few seconds for him to react, but despite how stiff and awkward you both feel, when he does, it’s to reach up and cling to your back. There’s very little that’s relaxing or soothing in either gesture. But he is holding on to you, so you won’t let go.

“...I’m sorry,” you say, even though apologies are pointless and he’s told you they don’t help, simply because you are and you need to say it. But that on it’s own isn’t enough, so you try harder to get the words out. “It... it isn’t that I don’t trust you. Or that I don’t want to be here. I didn’t say anything because... well, because I’m not used to it.”

He shifts, a little, then asks, “Not used to what?”

You sigh, feeling your hair fall into your face, and absently wish you’d re-done your ponytail earlier. “...Talking about that kind of thing. I’m... not usually in a position where I can. Or even should.” In the space between sentences, you feel him tighten his hold on you. It feels protective, so you quickly move on to assure him, “It usually works out alright. I can hold it back, and eventually it just goes away.” At least until you get to your room, where you can break down safely. “But here it’s... it’s more comfortable. I’m not used to that. And... there’s room to relax, and once I do... well, I guess this is the result,” you say, with a bit of a laugh. You’re not sure why. It’s not really funny, except maybe in a pathetic kind of way. You’re glad he can’t see your face like this.

“...Good,” he finally says, against your shoulder, “It’s a good thing, that you’re comfortable here.”

You still don’t look. You can’t. You hear that protectiveness again, soft but fierce - and it just makes you ache. “It will... probably happen again, though.” It’s coming out weak again. Needy. You could scream at yourself. There’s the buzzing again, and you want to hold tighter, to feel him more clearly, and have to stop yourself. “I... I’ll try not to let it, but I don’t know-”

“Don’t say that.” He pushes himself away from you, and you let go right away, but he doesn’t. His hands are still on your arms, not quite gripping them. You can’t look at him. You can’t. You can’t. You’ve got some control over yourself and you won’t lose it. “I already said I get it, didn’t I? And if the alternative’s you closing up and hiding everything, then... yeah. Of course I’d rather actually know how you feel.” If you weren’t so close to him, you’re not sure you’d have caught the rest. He says it so softly. “Not knowing that was... always the scariest part.”

It hurts, hearing that, and knowing there’s only so much you can force yourself to say, even now. You want to ask him why he’s trying so hard. If he’s hiding how disappointed he is. Everything ready to come out your mouth just sounds awful, so you keep it bitten back. But the silence is awful too, and you don’t know what’s worse.

No... he just said what’s worse for him. You try to hold on to that and another useless “I’m sorry” cracks out. More words come tumbling after it, equally useless, “For making you deal with all of this, it shouldn’t be your job-”

He cuts you off with a groan. The exasperation, oddly, feels comforting. “It’s not a job at all,” he says, tugging on your arms, you think for emphasis, “I just care about you, okay?”

And then you do look up, just a little, and there’s too much determination on his face to doubt him. But you don’t know what to say to it. You feel a little dizzy, and stumble, surprised to notice yourself shaking. You can’t breath well. The tears don’t burst out like they had when you’d opened your eyes and realized you were yourself again, and you could move how you wanted, and Kazuma was somehow still there next to you. They don’t slip out like they do when you’re alone and just too tired to bother holding them back. They stumble out of your eyes in fits and starts, as if confused about where they’re supposed to go.

His hands move from your arms to your shoulders, steadying you. You see his concern before you hear it in his question, “Nii-san?”

You don’t know what to do when he looks at you like that. But he doesn’t want another apology, and you’ve already given them to him too many times. So, instead, you just say, “Thank you.”

He doesn’t say anything in return, but his arms move around your neck and pulls you back into a hug. As your bury your face into his shoulder, a part of you is already silently promising that you’ll pull yourself together. You will. And then you’ll ask him about getting something to eat, maybe, or apologize for not paying attention to the movie and offer to try again. But right now... right now you can’t even talk. And you don’t really want to. You just want to let his words sink in, hold on to him, and impress the reason you're here into you.