Night terrors were something Keiji was accustomed to. But this was never one he'd experienced.
Before, it was always the smell of gunpowder, hot and stinging his senses. A loud, high-pitched ringing in his ears that pierced through his brain like a sewing needle. A clatter as the gun fell from his hand. Those open eyes, face bloody and dead. It was always Keiji who was the damned in these night terrors. There had never been anyone else to be plagued in these dreams besides himself and the life that his hands took.
Tonight was different. And it was a sign that he had allowed himself to care -- maybe too much.
On this island, they all wore collars around their necks. It had become a part of all of them, so much so that they stopped noticing how constricting they originally felt. Like it was just a fact of life now. Keiji supposed that something terrible would happen to them if they were to swim out too far or try to escape, the means of which being through these seemingly-electrified collars. This dream was about that.
Once again, a hot, uncomfortable smell filled his nostrils, burning and stinging. This was something he was used to, smoke in his eyes causing painful tears to well. Clumsy fingers raised to clutch his collar, attempting to see if the source of the pain came from his own throat -- but no. Through the smog of sleepiness he saw Kazumi Mishima. Beloved friend... cornerstone of this island community... something more?... It was Kazumi whose fingers clutched at the collar around his own neck, pained look on his face.
Instantly, in this dream, Keiji broke into action, panic welling fast in his heart. Not you too, Kaz, he thought desperately. Trying to run was like wading through quicksand, heavy and painful, his muscles straining, screaming. Hot steam spurt from Kazumi's collar in thick clouds, only getting hotter as Keiji got closer. Stay back! He could hear Kazumi cry, hand holding out in an attempt to keep Keiji at bay. Stay back, stay away from me! It hurts! Red, searing burns began to form on the other's neck, the collar tightening.
Keiji's heart dropped , constricting in fear and pain. Am I doing this to him...? He paused dead in his tracks, fearful. Terrified to get closer. The smell of burning flesh burned his nostrils. Kazumi... Kaz... Just hold on!! Hold on! Please!! He cried from a distance, longing to get closer but too terrified.
The last thing Keiji remembered was a dull thunk as Kazumi's head hit the ground.
"Keiji!! -- Keiji!!"
Burning throat gasping for cold air. Chest heaving as hyperventilation constricts lungs. Heart pumping with adrenaline and terror, as if he were still there -- still in that terrifying reality. Hands were clutching Keiji's arms and instinct commanded him to hold on to this close body, as if clinging to a life preserver. His thick frame shook with violent tremors as his fingers dug into the fabric of that familiar shirt.
-- It was Kazumi, of course; this time, the real deal. Ever since the professor had learned that Keiji wasn't sleeping, but rather keeping guard outside the camp most nights, he'd demanded to stay close to his side to ensure Keiji got enough rest at some point. Something like tag-teaming guard duty, the idea to sleep in shifts. Oftentimes, however, this meant Kazumi falling asleep at his side -- he was not as well equipped to stay up extremely late as Keiji was -- but he figured at least the company of someone close by would be enough to bring Keiji some semblance of peace and togetherness at nights, even if he wasn't sleeping well. This time, it was Keiji who had finally fallen asleep, dozing listening to the calm breaths of Kazumi as he slept, but ...
"It's okay, Keiji... It's okay. I'm right here..." Arms wrapped around wide shoulders as Keiji buried his face in the other man's chest, attempting to get his breathing back in order. It was ragged and terrified, occasionally riddled with a dry sob as he attempted to ride the wave of his subconscious emotions. All Kazumi knew was that he had woken up suddenly to the sound of Keiji's voice, strangled and frightened, body tense while he tossed and turned in his sleep.
He had heard his own name on Keiji's lips. What could he have dreamed of that would make him call out to him in such a way?
"Kazumi... thank god..." Keiji gasped as he held on to him, attempting to get a hold back on this reality where he could no longer smell burning flesh. He'd have time to be embarrassed about the reality of clinging to the professor later; for now, he just wanted to ground himself, and attempt to regulate his breathing. "Thank god..."
"Keiji, what's going on with you...?" Kazumi asked softly with concern, not letting go. This was the first time he'd ever been embraced so fiercely, with such intense protectiveness -- the first time Keiji seemed so looming and large to him. But the professor would be lying if he said this wasn't... kind of nice. He'd never complain about being shown physical affection, sure -- but with Keiji? It was all so delightfully unexpected, his concern for the other in the moment aside. He closed his eyes, listening to the other begin to calm as he held on to him in equal measure.
Finally, Keiji began to breathe steadily, and was calm enough to pull away but not create too much distance between himself and the other. As per usual, they were both just outside the camp, sleeping with sandy blankets on the ground. Keiji remembered covering the professor up with his own before accidentally dozing, himself.
Kazumi kept a hand on Keiji's shoulder, worried expression on his face.
"It's okay, teach... just was having a bad dream, is all..." Keiji swallowed dryly, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "Sorry for getting physical, there. Got a little freaked out, I guess... you were in my dream."
“It’s quite alright, of course,” Mishima replied, certainly not the type to push away a friend in a time of need – especially not Keiji. He smiled gently, hoping to put the freshly-awake man beside him at ease. “Yes, I, ah … heard you say my name. Did something happen to me?” It felt like a silly question to ask, but he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t curious.
Keiji felt embarrassed heat spring to his face. He’d said Kazumi’s name in his sleep? With the professor sitting right there? Damn it… why couldn’t the professor have slept through all of that? A hand raised to the back of his neck, rubbing the skin there nervously. “Damn. That’s embarrassing,” Keiji said. “Sorry you had to see that. Really. And, uh…” He shrugged, not making eye contact. “Yeah. You… uh, you… died, in the dream.”
“Goodness.” Kazumi replied in quiet surprise, eyebrows quirking upward. “That sounds awful. I’m sorry you had to see that.” To be quite honest, he somewhat treasured seeing Keiji like this. Torturous thoughts and unpleasant dreams aside, it was like layers were being peeled off of the persona that Keiji projected day and night. Underneath all of the snarky phrases and carefully chosen, few words, was a fiercely protective, fiercely caring man. Kazumi saw it clearer and clearer every day.
Keiji didn’t reply. What he had seen really had crawled under his skin, a cruel reminder of the dangers of getting close to people. Yes, he’d had a man in his life he’d treasured as a father figure who died, because of him. He hadn’t been remotely as close to anyone else since then. Now here he was, with a man in his life who he treasured as a friend, as a companion, as… whatever this was or could possibly be… and anxiety a deep and heavy iron weight in his stomach that he would lose Kazumi in a similar fashion. After all, this was a deserted island. Their lives weren’t guaranteed. Kazumi seemed a fragile man. He could die tomorrow. What was he doing, opening his heart up like this? Did he really want to kill himself with grief if anything were to happen?
“Keiji. Keiji.” Kazumi was saying insistently. His hands gently latched onto one of Keiji’s own, wrestling it from its place against his neck. Keiji blinked in surprise, turning to the professor. “—you’re in your head, Keiji. Come back to reality. I’m not dead, you know; I promise, it was only a dream. I’d hate for you to prematurely write my obituary.”
“That’s not funny, Kaz,” Keiji was saying with a lopsided smile on his face, but god – he just couldn’t put the front back up. His heart was too weak from sleep (or perhaps lack thereof). Tears welled in his eyes without his consent, his throat once more tightening painfully.
Kazumi’s expression slowly melted with sympathy and emotion. So it had been that bad…
“Oh… oh, I’m sorry, Keiji… it’s okay…” It was easy, all too easy, for the professor to coax Keiji into his arms. This time, not in desperation and fierceness, but in shockingly gentle comfort. Keiji fit perfectly against his smaller frame, face pressed against his shoulder as his muscled arms reciprocated the embrace. Kazumi closed his eyes tightly, a hand resting against his short blond locks. He felt the other’s body shake as he softly wept, the tears quiet and true, like they’d been cried a million times. Maybe it was due to his empathetic nature as a teacher, or the fact that he had never felt someone care about him like this, but Mishima felt tears spring into his own eyes as he held Keiji.
He’d come to terms with the fact that most likely very few people would miss his place on this Earth were he to leave tomorrow. Now here was Keiji, fingers gently grasping his shirt, arms locking him in place. Don’t go. Don’t ever go, he seemed to say. Not without me.
“I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere,” Kazumi said quietly, relishing the closeness between them, the warmth as they held tightly on to each other for support. “I promise, I’ll be okay, Keiji… I’m stronger than I look. You don’t have to worry.”
“’M sorry, Kaz,” Keiji was saying softly, voice shaky with tears. “It’s embarrassing, I know… I know it was just a dream, but…” I really just did not fuckin’ like it.
“You worry too much,” Mishima smiled slightly. “… Thank you, though. For worrying about me. You can come back now, Keiji. I’m still here.”
Keiji pulled back slightly, once again not creating too much distance between himself and the professor. He wanted to see his face. Kazumi allowed him to sit up straight once more, greeting him once more with his gently smiling face, a tear that had graced his dust-dirtied face leaving a streak against his pale skin.
Keiji looked. The collar against the professor’s neck left no hot, bloody sears. Kazumi’s face wasn’t twisted in pain. His hands weren’t outstretched, attempting to push him far away. They were open and accepting and the professor’s face was gentle and real.
The ex-policeman let out a shaky breath, emotions of his heart beginning to calm. Feeling his composure return slightly as he saw the other man breathe, blink – live. Like he had something to ground himself to in reality again. After a minute, he remarked: “Kazumi, don’t you ever fuckin’ die on me.”
There’s no promising anything. I don’t intend to, but… his pale hand clutched Keiji’s once more, with confidence. He didn’t break eye contact. “I will not. You must promise me you won’t die either. I can’t imagine…” can’t imagine what? Can’t imagine someone as strong as Keiji ever dying? Can’t imagine what life would be like without him now? Can’t imagine how inconsolable you would be, how deep the well of grief would be? He blinked, still emotional, shaking his head in denial. “-- I simply can’t imagine it.”
The men simply looked at each other for a moment. They both were experiencing what it felt like, for the first time, to love someone so deeply, to know that your life would never be the same because of them. To entrust all your hopes and all your terror into one human life.
And it was seemingly in the same moment that they came together, in completely silent, mutual understanding; their lips met with pure knowing, taste riddled with sea salt and tears, lips chapped from survival but pure nonetheless.
A hesitant hand raised, Keiji’s fingers brushing against the professor’s high cheekbone, longing to bring him closer. He felt all of his hopes and fears and anxieties fluttering to a standstill, the image of Kazumi’s agonized expression slowly melting away. Half-lidded eyes allowed this image, of both the shy yet deeply caring professor’s flushed, joyful, extremely loving expression as he kissed him to be burned into his mind. He never wanted to forget this. He never wanted to be scared again.
Their kiss broke after a long second; however, it was quickly followed by Keiji pressing a sure, affectionate kiss to the professor’s cheek, a strong arm winding around the other man’s shoulders to bring him in against his chest. Come closer. Just stay right here. Let’s just stay like this forever. A place where you and I will never be hurt again.
“Thank you,” he heard the professor say quietly, the touch reciprocated.
Keiji pressed a kiss against the other’s silver head. The funny thing was, they both knew that they had loved each other – likely all along. Touch came natural to either of them, and so did talking, working together. Caring for the kids like they were a married couple, for pete’s sake. They’d said they loved each other more times than they could count without ever actually opening their mouths.
Minutes passed. Soon, Kazumi’s breaths became steady as he had fallen asleep in the warmth of Keiji’s chest. He felt his own eyes growing heavy, although neither of them relinquished their embrace of each other. Slowly, he laid himself and Kazumi down, tugging a sandy blanket over them both. He laid gazing at the professor until sleep coaxed his eyes closed.
That night, he didn’t dream of anything. He just held on tight and woke up with Kazumi in his arms. And the knowledge that he was no longer alone was enough to fill his blood with newfound strength.