Ambushes aren’t a problem for third generation pyrokinetics. When you can make your own flame in any situation, you can burn the element of surprise to ashes.
What is a problem for third generation pyrokinetics is second generation users who can kill fire dead. Fire Soldiers are taught a variety of self-defence styles at the Academy for this reason, taught to break holds and stomp toes and deliver vicious blows to the nose and solar plexus.
Arthur never has to use these cowardly moves, because Arthur has a fire that doesn’t die. His blue plasma sword is by and large unaffected by second generation pyrokinesis; it’s too concentrated a flame to be extinguished by any other than him.
So, when the ambush happens, he isn’t taken off guard. He produces his sword and starts deflecting fiery punches thrown by one of the three pyrokinetics attacking them. They wear the insignia of the 3rd Division and blather about revenge for Dr Giovanni. Which is stupid, because the only kind of revenge that matters is the kind that you take for yourself. It’s not a gift that can be given second-hand.
While he fights on, though, Shinra is kicking high above them, spurting back and forth on uneven flames. His fire is being shredded by an older woman with long blonde hair and nails like claws. The Demon’s sputtering badly, dropping several feet before managing a brief burst to keep himself airborne.
They’re in an abandoned part of town that still bears all the scars from the Cataclysm. The buildings on either side are crumbling; the ground is littered with shattered glass that crunches under Arthur’s heavy boots. Arthur is thrown back into a hunk of concrete by a wall of flames, and feels new cracks develop in the aged surface.
“Oi, Demon,” he shouts, as he dodges another blow, bringing his sword up to slice a path through the inferno, “Get it together!”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” replies Shinra, grinning with worry, his teeth a jagged line. He shoots up some fifteen feet above the ground, and his blonde opponent smiles, fisting her hand.
His flames cough, then die. Shinra plummets back to earth as Arthur watches, arms flailing. He hits the shrapnel-scattered ground feet first and ploughs forward several meters before one of their enemies catches him with a punch to the jaw; he folds like a cheap suit of clothes. His feet, Arthur sees in the moment before he dodges his own opponent’s next attack, are a bloody mess.
It’s times like this that his knightly ethos is an unexpected bonus. Knights protect their comrades, no matter what. The moment he sees Shinra go over, his own flames surge, sword growing. He swings it viciously and catches his opponent off-guard with its additional length, slicing his fire suit straight up the middle and sheering it off him. He tumbles backwards, eyes wide, and Arthur spins the sword around and jabs in point first, stopping a millimeter from his chest: close enough to burn. “I give you one chance: surrender,” he says, glowering.
The man gives a squeaking cry and scrambles to his feet, scampering off leaving his heavy jacket behind in pieces on the ground. Shinra’s blonde opponent turns to Arthur but he’s already moving. He sees the panic in her eyes when she reaches out to kill his flame and makes no impact. He slices off her long hair, blonde locks drifting to the ground like snowfall, the air suddenly smelling of burnt hair. She shrieks and scrambles back; he cuts her helmet right off her head, singeing more hair. She drops, whimpering, then scurries off after her comrade.
He turns to the third, final man. He gives Arthur one look, turns, and runs.
Arthur smiles, giving his sword an expert twirl.
Then he remembers Shinra.
He releases the flames in his blade, which vanish with a brief blue burst, then walks over to where Shinra is lying on the ground, curled up tightly. His eyes are narrowed, his teeth bared.
Arthur squats down beside his bare feet and takes a closer look. The soles have been slashed by broken glass, some fragments embedded in the hardened skin. The wounds are bleeding freely; the worst are the deep, ugly gashes in the arch of his foot – the most tender skin.
“Looks ugly,” comments Arthur.
“Thanks a lot.” Shinra’s tone is tight with pain, his fingers twitching.
“Guess you can’t walk,” adds Arthur, stating the obvious. Shinra doesn’t answer, looking away. “Alright then.” He shuffles forward, slides his arms under Shinra’s back and knees, and lifts him.
Shinra twists, kicking and flailing. “Hey – wait – what?”
“Stop it,” snaps Arthur, shaking him once, hard. Shinra stops struggling, breathing heavily. There’s a harshness to each intake of air, a rough pant that speaks of intense pain.
“I don’t need rescuing,” he pants, his face too close to Arthur’s, close enough that Arthur can feel his warm breath against his cheek.
“You’d rather walk?”
“Don’t be an ass.”
“I’m not the one ignoring reality.”
“And that’s a world first,” replies Shinra, closing his eyes. He rests his head on Arthur’s shoulder, his hands fisted in the thick material of Arthur’s coat. “I’m not some… some damsel on the top of a tower,” he adds, quietly, his words muffled against Arthur’s collar. “I don’t need saving.”
Arthur glances down at him. His black hair is feathered over pale skin; his red eyes are tight with pain. He hears Shinra when he says he’s not a damsel in need of saving – had it come to it, Shinra would have blasted right on through the pain of shredded feet to protect himself and Arthur. Arthur knows that.
But what he sees is a young, helpless, wounded comrade. His very own princess, carried tenderly home in his arms.
Arthur feels himself reddening, heat rising through his suddenly very narrow neck to pool in his face. He looks away. “Yeah, right, whatever,” he says, staring off into the distance as he stomps over the rough terrain. “Don’t get comfortable.”
“As if,” snorts Shinra.
Which leaves Arthur to perform first aid.
The station has a nurse’s room, equipped with two white-sheeted beds, a tall cabinet filled with iodine and bandages and burn ointment, and a sink – although no nurse. Arthur deposits Shinra on the nearer bed, the mattress protesting rustily. He finds a bucket and fills it with water, then digs out some sterile gauze, iodine, and a pair of tweezers. Shinra is watching him with a long face, his grin nervous. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“It doesn’t take a genius to pick out glass,” replies Arthur, brows twitching.
Arthur seats himself on the floor in front of Shinra’s feet and rests the right heel on his left knee. Foot upturned, he starts slowly pulling out slivers of glass and pebbles. Shinra flinches repeatedly, hissing with the larger shards.
In a way he’s lucky – the glass is mostly smaller pieces, which while more difficult to dig out don’t necessitate stitches. Arthur cleans out the whole of his right foot and then cleans it with water and iodine and bandages it. Blood slowly soaks through the bandages; the cuts are deep. Arthur frowns, but turns to the left foot.
Given that he can use them to control fire, Shinra’s feet are surprisingly sensitive. The smallest brush of Arthur’s fingers against his sole makes him twitch, his face tense and dark with pain. It makes Arthur’s heart twist in his chest, his own fingers trembling in sympathy with Shinra. He bits his lip and leans in closer to better focus. When he looks up at one point, he sees Shinra watching him with unreadable eyes, his mouth a long, uncertain line.
Arthur swallows and looks back down to his work.
All in all it takes about half an hour to clean up Shinra’s feet. After which he looks around slowly and realises the one piece of equipment the room doesn’t have: a wheelchair. Shinra’s feet are still shredded; he can’t walk on them.
“Guess I’ll carry you to the dorm,” says Arthur, standing and dumping the bloody water out in the sink, heart hammering against his chest.
“But,” begins Shinra. He doesn’t finish; Arthur’s picked him up again, this time in just his orange jumpsuit. Without the thick Kevlar jacket between them, Arthur can feel the heat of Shinra’s body, can sense every small shift he makes. He’s lanky but strong, his limbs firm with muscle, his stomach flat with it. It makes Arthur’s own stomach clench.
It’s not a long walk to the dorms, but once they get there there’s another problem. Shinra’s bunk is on top.
“Hm,” says Arthur, looking up at it. The ladder is too steep for him to climb carrying Shinra. “Looks like you’re sleeping in my bunk.” He puts Shinra down on his mattress, the bed neatly made as required (and checked) by Lt Hinawa.
Shinra stares up at him with huge, surprised eyes, eyes the colour of holly berries in winter. Arthur climbs the ladder abruptly, breaking contact. Up in his bunk Shinra has a small alcove in the wall for his books and lamp. Arthur snags the books and returns with them. “Here,” he says shortly, handing them over while staring at the books, not Shinra. “I’ll be back later.”
“Arthur,” starts Shinra, but he’s already closed the door behind him.
Arthur is never flustered. He’s sailed through life with supreme confidence in his abilities, in his role as knight, and later knight-king. His absolute faith in himself is reflected in the heat and stability of his blade, of his morals, of his actions.
And yet, one look at Shinra sitting wide-eyed on his – his! – bunk, as though he were waiting for Arthur, as though he belonged there… Arthur heaves a shuddering breath and runs a hand through his hair.
He’s in the library. No one ever comes here, partially because they don’t have the time, and partially because it was stocked by the captain and mostly contains literature on body building and some extremely lurid fiction which only Tamaki reads. It smells of must and old paper, and the silence highlights his harsh pants.
He’s trying to go through a list of possible actions to take. Breathing into a paper bag is near the top of the list, but he doesn’t have a paper bag. Then comes taking a cold shower – but that would mean going back to his room for a change of clothes, back to see Shinra now doubtless nestled down in the bed, his head on Arthur’s pillow, his body caressed by Arthur’s mattress… No.
There’s a drinking fountain in the hall outside the library and he briefly sticks his head under it, but the measly trickle of water doesn’t do much to cool his heated skin. He reaches up and pulls his hairband out, shakes his damp locks like a dog.
“Geez, is it raining again?”
Arthur turns at the sound of a familiar voice. Captain Obi is coming down the hall, dressed in his gym wear.
“I was hot,” replies Arthur, straightforwardly. Obi nods.
Arthur likes the captain. He likes that his answers never seem to phase the man the way they did his trainers at the Academy. Likes that Obi doesn’t seem to look down on him despite the fact that his version of reality isn’t quite the same as everyone else’s.
For some reason, it prompts him to unthinkingly ask his next question: “What would you do if you liked somebody?” As soon as the words leave his mouth he’s wondering at them, trying to piece together the train of thought that led to them tumbling from his tongue. Does he like Shinra? Is that what the twisting stomach and racing heart mean? The trembling fingers and the hot face? Does his unconscious know something he doesn’t?
He thinks back to their time out in the wasteland, his scooping Shinra up in his arms. He could have carried him over his shoulders, or riding on his back. But instead he held him in his arms – his very own princess. He swallows dryly.
Obi blinks. He crosses his arms and stares at the wall, really thinking about it. “I guess I would tell them,” he says, finally. And then, looking at Arthur and smiling faintly but kindly: “Faint heart never won fair maiden.”
Arthur stares back, captivated by the words.
Obi’s smile widens and he keeps walking, leaving Arthur behind on his own in the hallway.
He stops in the kitchen and makes a sandwich from the left-overs available: lettuce and peanut-butter and mayonnaise. He adds one of Maki’s containers of pudding; the ogress will never know he took it. Then he heads back to the dorm.
Shinra is lying in bed, his feet propped up on his pillow, his head on the bare mattress. He’s holding a book above his head.
“You’d better wash that pillowcase when you’re done with it,” says Arthur, putting the plate of food down on the room’s one desk.
“My feet kept throbbing. I was afraid…” Shinra trails off, marking his page with a bookmark and putting the book down on his chest. “What do you want?”
“This is my room too,” replies Arthur, pulling the chair out from under the desk and straddling it. “I brought you some food.” He points at the plate. Shinra looks at it.
“Is that mayo on lettuce?”
“Tamaki hasn’t done the shopping yet.”
“Thanks but no thanks. I’ll wait.”
Arthur shrugs and pops open the pudding container. He’s very aware of the way Shinra’s watching his mouth as he slowly spoons the chocolate pudding in. He licks his lips experimentally; Shinra glances away.
“What’re you afraid of?” he asks. Shinra frowns.
“Your feet – afraid you’ll burn us all down?”
Shinra’s hands slip fluidly into fists. Sharp teeth appear, gleaming. “I never said that.”
“You won’t,” says Arthur, confidently.
Shinra’s frown shifts from angry to confused.
“What?” he asks, again, puzzled this time.
Arthur leans forward, balancing the chair on its two hind legs. “You won’t. Everyone said you burned your family down. But you didn’t, did you? You’ve never lost control.”
Shinra sits up too fast and smacks his head on the top of the bunk. He winces, rubbing his crown. “Arthur…”
“If your little brother is alive, it means someone else was there. Someone else who started the fire. Right?”
“You’ve always thought I was a demon! You call me a demon!”
“You don’t like it?”
Shinra stops. He goes still as stone, staring at Arthur with those holly-coloured eyes. “Do you know what it was like to grow up with everyone calling me a demon? Telling me I killed my mother? My brother? Telling me I had destroyed everything I loved? Can you imagine –” he cuts himself off. “Of course you can’t. You only use your imagination when it comes to yourself.” He turns away, legs outstretched in front of him, face directed at the wall.
Arthur tips back, sits squarely on the ground. “I’m sorry,” he says.
Shinra doesn’t look around. “Are you? Why?” he asks flatly.
“Knights aren’t supposed to hurt the one they like.”
Shinra pauses for a moment. Then slowly turns around, staring. His eyes are wide as saucers.
“I saw the captain earlier,” Arthur says, conversationally, as he finishes off the pudding and tosses the empty container into the garbage. “He told me to tell you.”
“Captain Obi told you to tell me that you like me,” says Shinra, voice flat with disbelief.
Shinra reaches up and buries his hands in his hair, pulling at it. “Why?”
“Because I do.”
“What,” demands Shinra, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, “is happening right now? Do you have a concussion? Did you get hit in the head earlier? Are you delirious?”
He hops out of the bed and stands, apparently completely forgetting that he only an hour ago sliced his feet to ribbons. Arthur leaps up, knocking over his chair, and catches him when he collapses to the floor, face white and twisted in agony.
In an instant they’re crumpled on the floor together, Shinra’s hands fisted in Arthur’s t-shirt, his face buried against Arthur’s neck. Somehow some instinct has caused Arthur to clasp him, wrap his arms around Shinra and hold him as he gasps for breath.
“Breathe,” says Arthur, because the first aid people were always very keen on it.
“I’m so confused,” pants Shinra, his breath hot against Arthur’s neck.
“Do you not want me to like you?”
Shinra cranes his head upwards, crimson eyes meeting Arthur’s. “I have no idea how even to answer that. No? Yes? I want to be liked by all my colleagues. But liked…” He swallows.
“I always thought you hated me,” he says, lost. “How can I just 180 on this? How can you?”
Arthur picks him up carefully and lifts him back up onto the bed. He remains sitting on the floor, carefully examining the light pink patches on the bottom of Shinra’s bandages. “I didn’t hate you. You were my rival; that’s special.” He looks up. “You’re still my rival. But maybe you could be my prin – something more.”
Shinra’s eyes narrow. “You were going to say princess.”
“Was not,” lies Arthur.
Shinra crosses his arms. “You were. You think because you rescued me today that I’m some helpless maiden to be put on a pedestal. Well I’m not.”
Arthur leans back, resting his arms out behind him and leaning on them. “You’re a hero. I know. And I’m a knight. A hero needs a secret romance to fight for. A knight needs a princess – or a prince – to defend.”
“I’m more than a trope, Arthur.”
“So am I.”
For a moment they watch each other, vying silently for superiority in their staring contest.
Finally, Shinra sighs. “You really like me?”
He eyes Arthur thoughtfully. “I guess… we could try it. I don’t not like you. It’s just… I’ve always been alone. I’ve never imagined my life with someone else in it.”
Arthur looks up, smiling. “I’m good at imagination,” he says.