"My friends, let us regress once more." - Al Saiduq
Jungo Torii, in a war never-ending.
After the third regression, Jungo feels dizzy.
He doesn't know why. Not yet. He's cooking chawanmushi for Keita. A new recipe. He's removing the squid from the jell-o he grabbed at the market—the kind Hinako likes, but he doesn't remember that yet— when the earthquake hits. Jungo's head shoots up quick, but not quick enough to stop Keita from peaking out the apartment window.
"Keita!" He admonishes, steadying himself with the counter while the floor trembles beneath him. "You're supposed to get in doorways and under tables during earthquakes! You shouldn't be near the window!"
Keita scoffs. The memory is so fresh in Jungo's mind in a way so many things aren't these days. "You're not under the table either, moron. Besides, its not gonna hurt us. It's over already."
He's right. The earthquake had subsided with Keita's voice and Jungo's chastisement is unnecessary, but he doesn't think it hurts. There is something familiar about how the earth had trembled. Something bad.
A tremendous crash breaks through the air. Keita, at the window, sees it first.
"Shit, the building across from us is falling apart! I thought all the apartments around here were supposed to be earthquake-proof. What a bunch of goddamn liars."
I don't think that was an earthquake, Jungo wants to say, but suddenly his mouth is too dry. His body feels different, like the earthquake is inside him now. It takes all he has to stay upright and even then he stumbles back a step, away from the counter. Keita's sharp eyes catch the whole thing.
"Hey! You gonna faint or something?"
Jungo still can't speak so he shakes his head instead, both to say no and to dispel the sudden dizziness.
Then there's no time to talk because suddenly cracks force themselves into existence across Jungo's kitchen floor. They don't speak when they're sprinting downstairs, and it's only when they're on the street below that Jungo somehow finds himself again. A bad feeling creeps up his spine.
Somehow, Jungo forces his mouth to move. "We should get to a shelter. This area is dangerous."
"Whatever," Keita says. For some reason, there are already police on the scene, which normally Jungo would be grateful for, but he doesn't feel so good about it now.
They go. Five men in yellow coats catch them on the way, call them by their full names and say they need to go to some place called JP's. For once, Keita doesn't protest. Neither does Jungo. He feels he has to go with them, to JP's. The bad feeling does not subside.
He tells Keita about his feeling. Keita says nothing. It is possible he had felt the same thing back then. Jungo has never asked.
That was then. That was a lifetime ago.
Jungo is so tired now.
Keita Wakui is sixteen. He has been sixteen for as long as Jungo can remember.
There was a time when he was younger, Jungo knows. They officially met a year before Keita's sixteenth birthday. But whenever Jungo thinks of that small shop and the way the sauce had tasted on his tongue, he can never picture Keita with anything other than the same look he has now, no trace of the slightly rounder face and higher voice Jungo knows he must have held back then.
Keita is sixteen. For as long as Jungo can remember, Keita has always been sixteen. Jungo doesn't know if he will ever see Keita at any other age.
They fight Er Rai and Alphard, Antares and Draco, Vega and Cygnus, Acrux and Cheleb and Furud and Heka and Kajam and so many more that Jungo loses count. He doesn't like fighting, but they fight and fight until the skin on their hands break and reveals bone, and then they fight some more. He doesn't know what it feels like to be clean any more. He doesn't know what it's like not to be whittled down to the barest parts of him.
They don't age. They fight and fight until the world is nearly nothing, eaten by Void or blown to bits by a star and then Saiduq turns everything back and they get up to fight again.
Jungo remembers regressed worlds almost instantly now. There are too many to ever be forgotten. There are too many to remember. Jungo fights for a millennia and wakes up nineteen every morning.
One by one, the stars go out.
Jungo is tired. There is a weariness sunk in to his bones that only lifetimes of war can create. Jungo is tired and Keita is always, always sixteen.
He wonders what Keita would look like with a more angular face, a few more inches in his height. He wonders what his voice would sound like with a deeper pitch, if his chest would broaden with age. He wonders what Keita would look like even a year from now.
They reset. Again. Keita Wakui is sixteen.
By the time the worst is over (not finished, never finished), the fire in Keita's eyes reflects the flames dancing on the street. Everyone is gathering themselves, patching the worst of their wounds until they can recover enough magic to cast even the simplest healing spell. Blood runs from under Jungo's hat in to his eye. It nearly blinds him. His whole body aches to hold Keita's hand.
He doesn't have to ask to know Keita would never allow it.
There is no room for soft edges in a body made of steel.
They are fighting another administrator (Rigel, Jungo thinks, or maybe the one after) when Keita goes down.
The first time Jungo had the death dream of Arcturus, the one where Keita was the second to die in a blaze of fire, Jungo crept in to Keita's room and begged to stay. Keita had given in with no small amount of protest, citing "puppy-dog eyes" as the only reason he allows Jungo in at all.
He tells Jungo that if he wants in so badly, he can sleep on the floor. So Jungo does. He thinks his decision makes Keita flustered at first, like maybe he hadn't expected Jungo to accept, but Jungo sits vigil at the foot of the bed for the next three nights and falls asleep to the sound of Keita's breathing.
The world resets.
Keita is young. He is sixteen. Never any older. Never any younger. Perpetually stuck on the cusp of adulthood.
Jungo is tired, and Keita is always, always sixteen.
"Move, dumbass!" Keita shouts and that's Jungo's cue, but he doesn't follow fast enough. He's taken more punches from Airi than he can count, and Keita's hits are nothing to laugh at. He has fought demons and humans and watched his friends die one after another, and this is still in the top ten worst things he's ever felt.
Jungo has fought worse than Kartikeya by far. It still hurts.
Kartikeya rides a bird, fierce and beautiful and his spear equally so. The spear is more fierce than beautiful though, lodged so firmly in to Jungo's abdomen that he's sure it's sticking out the other side. Kartikeya's satisfied smirk says so.
Keita roars and the demon is gone in seconds, spear included. Jungo falls.
There's cussing and shuffling and Jungo's vision stops swimming when Keita shoves him on to his back. It hurts so badly to breath. Jungo can feel hot blood, his own blood, slipping out of the wound and trickling down his sides. It is familiar.
"Fuck," Keita swears. He runs his fingers down Jungo's blood soaked chest and finds the hole just below his ribs, pressing sharply against it before Jungo can even remember that he's supposed to keep pressure on wounds like this. Otome has said so, many times. But Keita's palms feel so awful against his abdomen it's like being stabbed all over again. Jungo keeps his own hands by his side.
"Fuck," Keita says again. "Get your fucking hands here! I have to find Otome. Are you listening to me?"
The cell tower is gone, Jungo remembers, so they can't just call. Fumi said she would have it up in another hour, but it looks like Jungo won't be around to see it. He swallows something wet and sour.
Keita is scrambling for Jungo's hands to replace Keita's on his stomach. Jungo's mouth tastes like copper. It's all he can do to shake his head and use the last of his strength to grasp Keita's hands instead of his own abdomen.
"No," Jungo breathes softly. "You should stay."
"I can't do any healing spells, moron." Keita stares intently at their intertwined hands but doesn't immediately yank away. Blood slicks the spaces between their fingers. "I barely have any magic and that's all gone from earlier."
"I know," Jungo says. It is very hard to speak. His tongue feels too thick to form the words right. He thinks of the earthquake, in the third world. "Keita, I'm not—"
"Of course you fucking will!" Keita roars back before he can even finish. His face is one of fury, eyes wide. He is beautiful. "I- We need you live! You have Administrative Authority, dumbass! If you die then this is all for nothing!"
"I'm sorry, Keita."
And he is. Jungo is so sorry Keita has to see this, that Jungo won't live and make this endless war worth it. He is so sorry to be seeing the tragedy playing out of Keita's features. Keita is always so hard, but soft sometimes in ways others didn't know about.
"We need to find Otome or Fumi or someone before you croak! How is this so hard to understand?"
"They're too far away, Keita. I'm not going to make it that long."
Keita's hands almost jerk away with refusal but somehow Jungo manages to hold on.
"But I can't..." Keita's protests are scattered and weak, so unlike his usual confidence. "If I don't find someone, you'll..."
"I know. Stay."
That's the thing about Keita. Keita is all fire and shrapnel and animal spirit. He can grow and change, but Keita doesn't have it in him to heal a wound so egregious. A wound this large, this raw, this bloody was too much like Keita himself to be fixed.
Keita is so young, he thinks, feeling older than his nineteen years. He watches the way Keita's eyes dart around the room, over Jungo and back again. Keita's jaw clenches tightly, then unclenches. He looks like he wants to scream. It's more likely that he'll punch someone. Possibly Jungo.
Jungo wants to reach up, smooth the lines on Keita's face, but that would only smear blood around and Jungo doesn't think he has the energy. He smiles instead.
Keita is sixteen, and Jungo is tired.
"Hey, Keita." Every breath catches in his chest and twists the wound even more. Jungo smiles wider.
"What?" Keita asks thickly. Jungo watches the bob of his throat as he swallows.
"I finally got to hold your hand."
Jungo has always wanted to hold Keita's hand because so long as there is something else in Keita's grasp, he isn't curling his fingers into a fist. Jungo doesn't like fighting. He never has.
Keita is too stunned to speak, which is just fine for Jungo because he doesn't know if he can any more. His vision dances with dark stars and the copper taste on his tongue only grows. He is tired.
Keita is screaming, maybe, though that just might be the roar in his ears. Jungo has been close to death so many times before, but this time he has no more tricks to slip away. He hopes everyone will be safe when he is gone. He hopes Yamato or Saiduq figure out a way to use his lost Authority. He hopes Keita, somehow, impossibly, makes it to seventeen.
Jungo wakes up again in dust and debris, body sore in a way he so often wakes up to. His mouth tastes like death. All of him feels like death. He can feel Keita's eyes on him before he even turns to eye him in the corner of the room.
The moment Jungo's consciousness registers with Keita, he storms out of the room. Otome and Airi's face fill his vision instead.
Airi says she heard Keita screaming. She and Otome came running. They barely made it in time, bursting through the door to find Keita futilely pressing on the wound to keep the blood in and screaming himself hoarse with obscenities. Otome says he's going to make it, that the wound is gone but that Jungo will probably be exhausted for a while.
Both Otome and Airi can't keep the worry from their voice when they recount how close he was to death. He thanks them both genuinely and is again grateful for having amazing friends such as these. Jungo loves them with all his heart.
He stands up on wobbly legs against Otome's protest. He has to find Keita. He tells them so, and Airi wants to act as an escort so Jungo won't immediately get taken out again but that's no good. Keita gets flustered too easily when there are too many people. Jungo needs to find him alone.
"You're so stupid," Airi tells him, looking sad. He thinks Keita would agree.
He finds Keita in an alley several buildings down, punching the walls with his bare knuckles. A demon would be a better choice, but they've all been scared off, probably. But not even Keita can break walls.
"You're hurting yourself," Jungo says, reaching forward to grab Keita's wrist.
He's pushed away before he can actually stop him and Keita pins him with one of the most vicious looks he's managed yet, but at least it gets Keita to stop hurting himself.
Jungo looks at him. There is still blood crusted under his nails and fingertips. Jungo's blood.
"What?" Keita finally snaps. His voice is raw. Raw from screaming for him, Jungo remembers. He can still feel the echoing jolt of pain in his belly.
"I'm okay," Jungo says, reaching out again. Keita moves.
The blow to the head hits him like a pick-up truck and Jungo sees stars. He is always seeing stars these days.
He picks himself up from the alley floor and watches Keita leave.
They fight and fight and fight and fight and fight and fight and fight and—
Keita is sixteen. Keita is ancient.
Jungo is nineteen. Jungo is as old as the stars.
At night, the sky is mostly void.
But only mostly.
"Look to your side, should your strength falter. Your brothers and sisters stand beside you."