The rapid clack of soles against tile echoes off the crumbling walls. Bile builds up thicker, tearing away at Meis’s throat when each footstep is met with silence.
Every second is without response, calling out that name into stale air stained with the scent of burnt carpet and years-old rust, and it drives the stake further into his frantic heart.
Panicked glances into rooms abandoned with their singed computers and stacks of moldy paper grant him no relief. The cobwebs along damaged ceilings mock him with their hollow laughs, draping themselves within an empty coffin; they tell him you’re too late in a voice suspiciously like his own.
He must have come here, right? They’ve passed this street before, turning a left and then a right, going straight until the convenience store. They’ve walked back the same way, grabbing ice cream and chips to watch whatever dogshit movie they heard about, maybe have friends over. It was just yesterday when they last did this, right?
So why… Why did his mother turn on the TV, just to stop there and stare? He knows he saw it too: this exact same road on the screen, its pavement scorched and covered with shards of ice, while cameras panned past melted cars and… a running figure, clad in worn down sneakers and a hoodie that's spent it fair share of days in Meis's own closet.
Didn’t she recognize him? Did her own gut not sink, watching the face of a child she’s known for years being chased by armed soldiers through the city she called home? Why did she just stand there?
He knows his father saw it. He heard him mutter his recognition of his son's best friend. Meis didn't wait to hear him call it a “damn shame” like it means nothing to him, nor did he hear the shouts that demanded he come back. He’s not going to trip over himself, even as the news anchors change slides and bring up the stupid fucking weather or their stupid fucking football teams. Ignoring this won’t make it better. Ignoring this won’t bring back the boy he loves.
Something comes up from his gut as he runs, and Meis almost can’t swallow it down when he thinks about the screams the camera didn’t pick up.
His head feels light. Is this the last floor? The countless offices blend together, their doors hanging off broken hinges and cracked tiles covered in ash. Now and then the ceilings will be caved in, the resulting debris left on a pile, and all he can hope is that there isn’t a person under there.
It’s warm here.
Meis isn’t sure what he hears first.
The faint glow from the open door at the end of the hall sparks in unreal hues, pinks and teals he's never seen so vividly before with his own eyes- and yet, the cries he hears mingled into those familiar sobs… They, too, feel far too human.
He doesn't call out. If Gueira hadn't replied before, he certainly won't now.
Instead, he approaches the door, each step slower than the last. Gradually, the strange pleas get louder, impossible to decipher, and yet always cut off by the choked up tears that fill his best friend's throat. He hates it.
He hates the way Gueira looks up when the ground under his heel crunches just too loud. How scared he looks. Through all their years together, Gueira has always been a bright, enveloping presence in any room he walked into. It hurts to see him like this, curled into himself, with his knees held right up to his chest, looking smaller than he ever has been.
The heat from the flames crackle around this poor boy, adding to the cacophony that rings in Meis's head; those colors, vibrant and neon and unreal have no business being around Gueira, around his best friend-- he wants them all to leave him alone, let them go back home, back to their silly little lives where everything was far from perfect, more like terrible, but God damn it, it still wasn't this.
Yet nothing in his heart can bring himself, fully, to hate them- not when they reach out to him, desperate, crying in their own ways, begging him to help the one they hold in their grasp now. It's unsettling, how quickly it calms him. How readily he listens to it.
Meis isn't sure why he hears it, whatever it is. Still, it compels him regardless, taking a step closer without thinking. A piece of his heart cracks when Gueira tries to back away, right into the wall.
"Hey…" his voice comes out softer than even he expected. "I… I'm here, Gueira."
"Get away from me."
Please, don't do this to me, he wants to say. Meis takes a step, then repeats, "I'm not here to hurt you."
"Stay back." Who's hurting who, here, really?
"You're not alone." He kneels down in front of him.
Meis feels like he's lost it. The flames surrounding Gueira only grow in intensity, filling more of the room with their hisses, yet still he gets closer. His friend’s widened eyes watch him extend his hand, into the tendrils of fire that flicker over his fingertips. "I'm here with you."
He doesn’t scream. There’s the sharp taste of iron on his tongue, right where his teeth are biting down. It doesn't matter. All he does is take Gueira's hand in his own, feeling that familiar soft skin under his palm while he still can. "I trust you."
Every sound crashes in his head at once, from the foreign voices that have been begging him for help to the roar of the blaze that eats at his arm, to even his own contained cries of pain, all of them are shouting above each other, insisting he run, get out of here, no, please, stay--
The tears down his burning cheeks are hardly a priority, not when he smells the disgusting smoke off the tips of his own hair as he tells Gueira to breathe, to count with him. "That's right," he assures him, "you'll-"
There's pricks against his neck, and once more he finds himself swallowing down a cry of his own. "B… be... safe," even as the vision on his right starts to blur.
Meis is certain he's still talking- Is he talking? Breathing, he thinks he says. He tries, he tries, he swears he is, breathing along with what he's sure he's trying to say. Gueira's lips are moving, he thinks, or what he can still see of them, but he can't… hear him. He's… crying.
As each voice in his head raises into a hellish din, none of their demands make sense anymore. His eyes can't focus. The air in his lungs goes shallow. All he hears is someone's distant screaming.
And then in a moment, it all goes quiet. "Please-" Gueira's voice cracks. Somehow, that hurts him most of all. "Please, don’t... Fuck, just… just stop hurting him…"
Finally, only now does Meis find himself breathing again. His throat is hoarse when he speaks again, and he only has half a mind to wonder why that is. No time for that; he resumes, as if nothing's wrong at all. "I'm not going to let anyone hurt you."
Something cool lands on his hands. Tears. Yet even still, Gueira's hand remains held in his.
"I trust you." His thumb strokes his dear friend's hand, though who knows if he would've noticed it himself if he looked away.
Gueira takes a deep breath. Good, keep going. Another. The flames around him are dying down, and they're taking the screams with them. He feels that much.
In their place, however, they leave a boy he hardly remembers. The same man who spent years at his side, proving he could grow up, knowing damn well he had no other choice, is now... here. Sitting in front of him. Merely reduced to all the childhood terror he could never shake off.
"I didn't… wanna hurt you." Even his voice sounds small. "I- I promise. I swear. I didn't…"
Meis only nods. "I know. You… you wouldn't."
"But I did."
He threads together their fingers.
"I hurt you, I… I…" The noise is coming back, the haze of heat returning to the air. "God, I never hated him, he's, he's still my… he's still my dad, right? I wouldn't… I never… I never wanted to…"
For a second he lets go, but just as quickly he feels Gueira flinch when his arms are around him, pulling him close. His friend doesn't react at first, not until Meis's hands are stroking his back. "I'm fine."
Whatever dam was holding him back crumbles in Meis's embrace. "You're… you're not…"
He feels a weight on his shoulder, curled locks of hair pressing up close to his cheek as he holds him. "I hurt you… I hurt my own dad, I-I, I just… just blew it all up, and I… I can't..."
"I'm here, Gueira." Meis's voice causes a pause in the other boy's breath, followed only by arms tightening around him. "I'm right here. I'm not mad. You aren't going to hurt me."
"I'm sorry… so- I'm so sorry…."
Stuttered apologies and broken sobs bury themselves in his shoulder, and all Meis can do is take them as Gueira lets them out, holding them close to his heart. He says nothing; what could he possibly tell him? That it's okay? That any of this is okay?
Meis knows what he was like. Praised for being the best, a model of perfection, only to turn around and reject his own child. To deny him everything he's ever needed just to be, denying even himself, just for the meaningless image of a man who's okay after losing his own wife. For all Meis cares, that piece of shit deserved it. Keeping up that ego at the cost of not just his own life, but that of his child, of the son he'll never accept he has, only gets him here.
But Meis can't say that. He knows where here is. That bastard isn't the only one in this position.
He remembers the ambulance he passed, loading in a body with arms charred so much worse than his own. He feels the shivering mass in his embrace now, and knows what he saw was so much worse. None of what's happening is okay to him, and right now, Meis isn't going to make the same mistake of insisting otherwise.
Maybe he's a hypocrite in thinking that. After all, here he is now, right? Skin cracked and peeling, fingers numb, his eyes blurring and watery- is any of that fine?
But that's all now. In this moment. Meanwhile, Gueira's had years.
Gueira knows his story, too. One that's for another time. And if he held him through it then, Meis can only do the same for him now.
A siren blares closer. The grip on the back of his shirt tightens. Meis's heart is in his throat, but he knows they can't stay.
"Please, d-don't," Gueira's choking over his own tears, "don't leave me-"
"I won't. I promise." But we can't stay.
The flames threaten to pour out once more. "I don't… I don't-t want to die…"
"I won't let anything happen to you." As if that's even in his hands, yet Meis himself can feel he means it. "Let's get you out of here."
He doesn't have a plan. He has no direction, no bag, nothing- but it's too late to worry about that now. He's found him now, amid all the smoke and panic on the streets and in his own head, and he has no intention of losing him to it again.
Slowly, they make it down the stairs. Holding the other boy to his side, or maybe he's the one keeping him steady. His knees feel weak by the last floor.