It’s that dream again.
Or memory, rather.
Everything happens all at once. He doesn’t see anything, but he feels it, and it’s real.
People say that you can’t be hurt in dreams. Iwamine Shuu knows that’s not true. He feels it, all of it, like it’s happening all over again.
There’s a great weight on his body, rough rubble pinning him down and making it hard to breathe. He struggles to get it off but he’s too weak. He’s so small.
More than that, though, is the burning. It’s eating his right side like a pack of starved feral animals, hot breath on his skin, making his mind numb with pain. It’s so hot. It’s so hot, he can’t fathom it. There’s smoke filling his lungs and breathing is painful, making him try to turn his head to catch a breath of fresh air, but he can’t find it. He keeps trying to move and can’t, and that just makes him breathe harder in his panic, taking in more of the acrid air. He’s burning inside and out.
“Help,” he gasps, so weakly he’s unsure if he managed to get any sound out. “Help me, anyone. It burns. I’m on fire. Please help, it burns.” No one is coming to help. He’s trapped. He’s going to die here. At least maybe then the pain will stop.
Hitori remembers. He must remember.
He’s in the research lab. His own brother, his last and only brother, is burning alive in the other room, and there’s nothing Hitori can do to help him.
Help me, Hitori! The shadow in his heart cries out to him. I’m burning, Hitori! Help me!
“I’m trying,” he whimpers, turning over. “I can’t. I couldn’t save you, Nageki, I’m sorry-”
He gasps and grunts, tossing and turning restlessly until he’s all tangled up in his blankets, and he’s about to breathe a shaky sigh now that he’s realized he’s awake, but- but he can still hear it. It’s still happening. It’s happening now.
“It burns! Help!”
Hitori- Nanaki, Nanaki- is still only half-awake, and with his nightmare having followed him into what he thought was the waking world, he doesn’t know what’s real. He jumps to his feet and turns around aimlessly, lost as to what to do and where he is.
God, it’s still happening. Why is this still happening? He’s startled into action like a gamebird flushed from the grass. He stumbles into the hall, and in the dark he can’t tell if it’s the hallway of his own home or the smoke-filled corridors of the medical center.
“I’m coming, Nageki!” he calls, because it’s the only thing he can think. It’s the only thing that matters. “I’m coming, hold on!”
He shoves his way into the room he hears it coming from, and there’s no fire but Nanaki feels hot as he grabs the body closest to him. It’s Shuu, he knows that it’s Shuu, but he needs to save Nageki.
Shuu has kicked the blankets off in his struggles, he’s hyperventilating in his distress and he’s covered in cold sweat. Nanaki grabs a frail body by the shoulders and pulls him up. “I’ve got you! I’m here!” He always should have been there.
Shuu gasps in cold air. He’s still lost and confused, only vaguely aware that he’s now in a bed and not trapped under rubble in Aves High City more than twenty years in the past. But he’s been in this situation before, enough times that being jostled by Nanaki is just enough to remind him of what he needs in this situation.
But he can’t get it alone, not with his injured leg. So he clasps a hand to Nanaki’s shoulder, partly to get his attention and partly for his own support, to feel grounded, and says hoarsely, “Shower! Water!” The raspy shakiness of his voice would embarrass him even if he wasn’t concerned with other things at the moment.
Nanaki hesitates for a moment, but the simple direction is all that he needs to latch onto. He wraps his arms around Shuu’s middle and lifts him just enough to half-carry, half-shove him into the bathroom. He throws on the cold water as they both collapse onto the floor, breathing heavily.
The sharp chill chases away the heat that had consumed Shuu in his dreams and startles him into proper waking. His breath shakes for a while, unsteady from the nightmare, but as the nightmare fades, his breathing calms. He lays there on the floor, limp, closes his eyes and counts to ten until he thinks he won’t be sick.
This is an experience that has plagued him for nearly his entire life. It’s not an often occurrence, at least not anymore, but still too regular. This was the first time in a long time that someone else had witnessed it. It’s not something Shuu would ever want other people to know- it’s a weakness, after all, isn’t it?- but he supposes that if Nanaki would insist on their living together then it was bound to happen eventually. At least he had helped…
Nanaki’s not doing a whole lot better. He’s on his knees, arms around himself, staring at the other man. In the rush and panic of everything that had just happened, he’s still coming down from the unsteady adrenaline high.
It wasn’t Nageki. Nageki is long dead. It was just Shuu- Shuu, Nageki’s killer- who needed his help.
He puts his face in his hand and can’t help but let out a weak, sorrowful laugh. It’s almost funny, in a way, that things should end up like this. The fire follows him wherever he goes, in forms he never expected.
There’s no sense of time. It may have been ten minutes or two hours, neither care to keep track, before the cold water is no longer refreshing, and Shuu is shivering, and their soaked pajamas are clinging tightly to their skin, and Nanaki reaches up and turns the shower off.
Shuu slowly pushes himself up into a sitting position. His shivering is a little extreme, and his teeth are chattering. It’s certainly not pleasant, but at least it’s a far cry from the nightmare he had been having. He glances up at Nanaki, making eye contact briefly, and then looks down and away.
Nanaki isn’t sure if he was meant to see gratefulness in there, or anything, really.
Shuu’s not sure if he knows either.
They both feel numb. It’s too much. Neither of them know what they’re supposed to make of this.
But it’s over now. So there’s that.
Nanaki stands, and his knees shake still, but only a little. He can handle it. “Get out of those clothes,” he mutters, voice quivering more than he thought it would. “I’ll get you something dry.”
Shuu just gives a small nod and stays where he is as Nanaki gets up to find them both a change of clothes. He changes into new pajamas in his room, and by the time he’s done he’s not shaking quite so bad. He brings Shuu a fresh set and doesn’t blink at the sight of the other man out of his clothes. He’s seen enough of him while dressing the wounds he himself inflicted, and besides, there’s too much weighing heavily on both of their minds to worry about it.
Nanaki gets down on the floor with Shuu to help him get dressed. He had noticed Shuu’s burn scars before, of course he noticed, but now he can’t stop staring. Without thinking of the rudeness, he reaches out and runs his hand over the rough, uneven surface.
Shuu shies away from the touch, but only briefly, and does nothing else. Acknowledgment of his scars is something he’s never appreciated. He won’t even give someone a chance to see them if he can help it. But he relents in this case. He’s just too tired to care, and part of him understands why recent events would pique Nanaki’s interest. He’ll grant him this, this one time.
Nanaki feels the skin and closes his eyes to imagine the feeling, recall all the times he’s held a match too long or accidentally touched a hot stove. But it’s nowhere near the same, and he knows it, so he gives up. Does he want to know how Shuu feels? How Nageki felt? He lets his hand fall away, and Shuu’s somewhat tense body relaxes, tentatively.
There’s got to be some sort of irony here or something, right? Nageki burned alive in the flames, and his own killer, the man who made him do it, had himself been kissed by fire. And now here was Hitori- no, no, Nanaki now- having to save someone from it.
Well, you didn’t fail this time, he wants to say to himself, but the sentiment is hollow because he failed when it mattered.
“Hitori.” The voice, tired and frail as it is, snaps him out of his revery. Nanaki squints at Shuu, responding with a quiet, “It’s Nanaki, remember?” more out of habit and a false sense of obligation than anything else. He’s so exhausted and numb that he doesn’t have the energy leftover to care about that, not right now.
Has Shuu ever looked this vulnerable? Quivering, dark bags under the eyes, a hollow, shaken-up look on his face. It’s hard for anyone, even Dr. Iwamine, to look intimidating in such a state. He doesn’t even talk, just sits there silently and does what little he can to help with the process. As Nanaki helps him get dressed, he reflects on how he always considered taking care of people to be something he was meant to do. Even if he can’t forgive Shuu, maybe the silver lining is that he’s still able to do that one thing. Nageki did say that he wanted him to be happy, didn’t he? Does this make Nanaki happy? He’s still figuring it out.
Shuu’s leg still hasn’t recovered enough for him to walk on it, but Nanaki doesn’t feel like getting his wheelchair out, so he stoops down and picks him up instead. Shuu would usually complain about such a thing, make a snarky comment or just look grumpy. But he doesn’t this time. He’s not in the mood, and he knows it’s more convenient right now anyway.
And maybe feeling secure in someone’s arms is a welcome sensation at the moment.
He really needs to eat more, Nanaki thinks as he takes idle note of how light Shuu is. It helps to let himself think of the small things. Remind himself that there’s more than just pain.
He carries the doctor past the room he normally sleeps in and into Nanaki’s. As he lays him on the bed, Nanaki catches Shuu’s confused look and just says, “I think we could both use some company tonight.”
Shuu’s expression softens, subtly, into understanding and acceptance, and he doesn’t complain as Nanaki gets in with him. There’s a tense moment where both are afraid to move, as if scared of what will happen if one touches the other. Then Nanaki can’t bear it anymore and he moves closer, presses himself against Shuu with an arm slung over him, and holds him tightly. Shuu lets out a small breath that Nanaki catches the faintly whispered ghost of a “thank you” on.
There’s a small voice in the back of Hitori’s head, crying to him, What are you doing? He killed me! How can you hold him like this?
But he shuts it down. He knows, now, that that isn’t Nageki. It never was. And truthfully, even if Shuu is Souma and Nanaki is Hitori and they are who they are and have done what they done… they need this. Right now, in this helpless moment late at night, Nanaki feels like it’s what he needs more than anything else, and he thinks maybe it’s what Shuu needs too.
There’s no thought, just pure instinct, as Nanaki moves closer and presses his lips to Shuu’s cheek in what might be some sort of kiss. Nanaki doesn’t know what it means, not now, and when Shuu turns his head just enough and their lips brush feather-light, Shuu doesn’t know what that means either. They keep their eyes closed because neither know what will happen if they look and their eyes meet, don’t know if they could handle it because so much has happened already. But neither move away.
There will be time to figure it all out later.
For now, they sleep, and they sleep peacefully. It’s enough.