Kei Nagai woke up at his desk.
Gasping, the student bolted up, a piece of loose-leaf clinging stubbornly to his cheek. A few of his neighbors noticed; chuckled. The teacher continued to drone on about ionic bonds between molecules.
Kei let his head drop back down, sheltered from his surroundings by folded arms. He felt tears burning deep in his eye sockets, but didn't allow them to emerge.
No… no way…!
The dismissal bell startled Kei out of his skin, and again his classmates chuckled. Shakily, he picked up his backpack.
“Hey, man! Jumpy today?” a vaguely familiar voice asked, and Kei bristled as Watanabe appeared at his shoulder.
“Yeah… of course I believe you…”
An offered… hand… you…
“Aah… yeah,” he replied weakly, trying to smile. “Sorry…” Why are you acting… so normal…?!
“C'mon!” another member of their little group called from the doorway. “They’re gonna lock us in the classroom if we go any slower!”
“Nagai-kun?” Nakajima asked gently, his kind eyes making Kei both jumper and, somehow, more relaxed.
You… and you… all three of you…!
When the car…!
Electric aftershocks wracked his body–memories of the pain. He cringed internally, but this time managed to avoid any visible reaction.
“Yeah, I’m… fine,” he forced himself to say, running his hand through his hair and realizing how sweaty it was. Reluctantly, he followed the people he had once regarded as friends–if only friends of convenience–out of the classroom and onto the street.
A dream… no, not–! It can’t have been a dream…!! Teeth grit, Kei tried to gather himself. It wasn’t right–he had to believe that the past months hadn’t been a dream.
His head throbbed with the image of the damned brave man, gun in hand and top button of his blazer tightly closed.
He hadn’t run.
He had stood; he had sworn to fight.
He had been forced to fall.
He remembered clinging to the building, the searing pain as his fingertips were shredded against the concrete; being buffeted by the wind. He remembered struggling–screaming; shrieking at his useless bastard of a ghost as it stared down at him, silent and unwittingly mocking.
He remembered falling.
All that… Kei’s face twisted before he could stop it, and he lowered his head to hide the expression from his seemingly ignorant human companions as he tried to calm himself. So much pain…! I’ve died… so many times…! No way was that–that couldn’t–all of it couldn’t have just been–!!
“You know him?”
Watanabe’s voice jarred Kei from his spiraling thoughts, and he had to stop from snapping a terse reply. But as soon as he saw the direction the human, smug and demeaning, was jerking his chin…
His heart soared; stomach twisted; throat clogged hopelessly.
The raised hand was so casual–the young man’s expression was calm, a juice box in his hand and his backpack beside him on the curb. Once it would have been easy to ignore him–Kei had ignored him once, in these very circumstances.
So much had changed since then, for Kei Nagai if for no one else on earth. Whether a dream or a forgotten reality, it had all happened. And Kei decided, in that instant, to act accordingly.
“I do…” he breathed, ignoring his supposed friends’ confusion as he left them behind and walked, then ran to Kaito.
Kai, though seeming surprised, rose to meet him. He didn’t question it when Kei, an estranged friend he hadn’t spoken to in years, flung himself at him; he just opened his arms and excepted Kei into a powerful, loving embrace and held him.
Kei, sheltered in those dependable arms, let the sobs take him with no regard for the world outside that embrace.
“Do you…?” Kai asked softly, breath hot on Kei’s ear. “What do you need me to do?”
Kei drew a shuddering breath before answering, with all the strength he could muster, “Come away with me. I need to be alone with you for a while.” His nails dug into fabric; clawed and clung.
Kai nodded immediately. “Right. Come on, then.” Still keeping his arms around the other boy, he shifted their position so that walking was possible. Neither of them looked back at the three stunned humans left standing, where they had been abandoned by their supposed friend, in the middle of the sidewalk.
A truck passed by on the road, it’s path uncrossed.
Kai led the way confidently toward the forest; Kei let him control their direction and momentum, too lost in muddled thoughts and memories to do otherwise. He trusted Kai–that hadn’t changed, and never would. More than anything, he was impossibly glad to be in the boy’s arms for the first time in an unknown eternity.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Kai asked gently, when he had lowered them both gently to sit at the foot of a vividly familiar tree. Kei, eyes still downcast, didn’t reply right away.
… I can…
“… I… I think… this is a second chance.”
Kai didn’t question the statement, simply nodded and waited patiently.
“I… woke up… I revived… in the past…” Kei murmured, then looked up at Kai for the first time; met his steady golden gaze. “I need to test something. Please don’t be alarmed.”
Kai only nodded, but did stiffen and lean forward when Kei picked up a jagged piece of wood lying on the forest floor, hefting it experimentally.
“Don’t be… alarmed…” Kei repeated slowly; then, with the certainty of far too much practice, he drove the branch into his neck.
The last sound he heard was Kai’s alarmed shout of his name.
… … …
“Coming, coming!” The door opened to a drowsy face; tousled brown hair and wrinkled nightclothes.
They had ridden through the night to find him.
“Nakano.” Kei’s greeting was bold, and he reached forward to clasp the boy’s shoulders firmly. Kou Nakano stiffened.
“Wha–what are you doing?! Who the hell–?!”
“We’ve got another chance, Nakano,” Kei continued, his eyes narrowed. Explaining would have been too tiresome and irritating. It would have taken too long, besides. Kai waved awkwardly in greeting over Kei’s shoulder. “We’ll stop Satou for sure, this time.”
“Satou…?! Who the–?!” Kou spluttered, then gasped in surprise as he was pulled out into the hallway. “H-Hey, wait…!”
Kei released him, turning. “Let’s go. Time is a precious thing, no matter how many lives you get.”
“Wh-What’s that supposed to mean?!” Kou blustered, taking a defensive step backwards. Kai smiled disarmingly.
“Sorry about this. We haven’t met. I’m Kaito.”
“K-Kou… Nakano…” the other spluttered, but then leaned around Kai to shout, “Where do you get off, calling me by name and then not even introducing yourself?! At least your bud here has some common courtesy! Jerk…!”
Kei paused. “Dumbass…” he muttered, but there was a smile tugging at one corner of his mouth.
“What did you just say?!” Kou demanded, taking an aggressive step forward. But Kei only resumed walking.
“Keep up, Nakano. We have a war to win.”
“War?!” Kou demanded, looking to Kaito for an explanation–for anything at all. The spiky-haired boy only shrugged.
“He hasn’t given me much to go off of, either. But I trust him. And he says you’re a valuable comra–”
“He’s useful, I meant,” Kei cut him off spitefully. “Sort of. Barely.”
“You come back here and say that to my face!” Kou demanded, but Kei only motioned.
“Come on. You’re the one who wanted to fight to begin with, and now I don’t intend to run, either.”
“What the hell is he talking about?” Kou asked Kai plaintively, although again he only received a shrug.
“The future, from the sound of it.”
“Come on, Nakano,” Kei said tiredly, from where he had stopped and turned halfway back. “You were always so damn over-zealous. Don’t conk out on me now. Or are you the one who’d rather sit back and cling to your peaceful life, now?”
“Hey, it’s not like I’d run away from any fight!” Kou objected, finally starting after Kei. Kai padded more calmly beside him. “But it’s not as if you’ve even told me what I’m supposed to be fighting for!”
“For ourselves, as ajins,” Kei replied simply. “For all the humans that Satou’s going to kill in our names. For Japan. For the sake of our own peace.” Then he paused; resumed walking as the other two caught up. He was grimacing–an expression that should have been familiar to Kou. “Do you need more reasons?”
“Th-Those are pretty good reasons…” Kou admitted. “But how am I supposed to trust you?”
“How did I know you’re an ajin?” Kei responded. “Take a… blind leap of faith for me, would you? Even though you’re afraid of heights, so that might not be the best turn of the phrase…” he added, and Kou stopped walking.
“How do you know all this?”
“Because I’ve lived through it all once before,” Kei replied simply, resigned now to at least a brief explanation. “I don’t know why this happened the last time I died, but it did. And now we can change how things happen–you, Nakano, and Kaito and I… and Tosaki and Shimomura-san, once we rendezvous with them.” Then he added, softer, “And even Hirasawa-san…
"This time, I will not run. Better yet, this time… I’ll strike first.”