Fic: That I Do Not Lose You
Notes: Written for Team Currahee as part of the HBOWarathonV2 on tumblr. Title from the referenced poem "To A Stranger" by Walt Whitman. Fulfilling the crossover prompt: "Close Calls."
Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me as of a dream)...
- from "To A Stranger," by Walt Whitman
In the millisecond after, it's the sound of his own harsh breath in his ears. That and the sound of nothing at all, like being too close to a bomb when it finally detonates - a ringing that turns the world to fog and smoke. Among the discordant whistle is the sludge of one slow-moving thought: Get to him... get to him... now.
He blinks. Just a millisecond.
And for an unbearable eternity in between, it's everything else.
Just clinking coins on the counter. Nothing like the sound of bullets on metal.
"Just the one?"
The man behind the counter slides open the register and it does not sound like loading a gun, not at all.
Money passes hands.
The man with the red hair takes it black. The man with the dark hair is more the type to slip whiskey into his glass when no one's looking, or when everyone is, depending. Dick's caught him at it before. For some reason it always makes him smile into his cup, even though he knows he shouldn't. For some reason, the man always seems to catch him at that, too.
It's raining outside. And for some reason this is wrong. Behind his eyelids it is bright and sunny, little explosions of it against the dark. He shakes his head in a feeble attempt to clear it. Must be from staying up so late studying. Finals next week. Had to be prepared. The thoughts come disjointed, lazy, running through his brain like half-formed excuses and he doesn't recall why that would be.
"You should really try it." He looks up. The man - Nix, he knows, without a shadow of a doubt - is across from him at the table, flask in hand, dangling it like an offering.
Dick shifts in his seat, suddenly uneasy. "You know I don't drink." Doesn't he? Doesn't this man know him better than everyone else? Aren't they best friends? "You make fun of me for it all the time."
He blinks, some strange shadow in those dark eyes. "Do I?"
The mug slips from his sweaty hands on a burst of thunder in the outside world. He watches, like a film gone slow and unsteady, as it shatters on the ground by their feet. The sound is so achingly familiar he leaps from his seat, sends it sprawling backwards in his haste to get to Nix. A hand on his arm, plaintive eyes searching his face.
"Are you okay?"
"Am I okay?" The voice comes from the man's throat but his face doesn't match; he's smiling and nodding while the voice is strangled and scared. Some quality in it that clenches at his heart, makes him wonder...
Dick blinks on the next roll of thunder and the man - what's his name again, do they even know each other? - is looking at him oddly.
The cup is steaming in front of him again, perfectly intact.
"Sorry, did you say something?"
The man smiles uncertainly. Lewis reads the nametag pinned to his chest. Strange name, in this day and age. "I just asked what you were studying. That's a pretty big book there."
Dick doesn't remember. He looks down. American Involvement in WWII. "Yeah, ah. History, concentration on War in America."
Lewis, topping up his coffee, wrinkles his nose. "I'd need a lot more whiskey for that."
"Yeah, maybe you'd even have to stop hiding it in my footlocker, Nix." He laughs. Stops. Looks up and blanches.
Lewis - Nix, Lewis Nixon - is looking back but there's no indication that anything is wrong with what he just said, nothing beyond the thin line of blood that trickles down from a bloom of blood on his forehead. A bloom that is steadily growing.
"Am I okay?" he repeats, as his skull begins to cave inward around the fleshy pulp of the bullet hole in his head. Blood floods into his eyes but they stay open, searching Dick's face like he has all the answers. "Am I okay?" Red pupils.
Dick closes his eyes in horror and hears a crack, the sound of the back of a head exploding outwards, the tell-tale thump of something large and heavy and dead hitting the ground, something loud in his own ears threatening to explode with grief.
Gasping, soaked through his clothes by sweat, his eyes open from darkness to dim.
Pre-dawn light melts over the bedsheets, bridging the gap between where he lies panting and where another pair of sleepy eyes stares up from the shadows.
He shakes his head, mouth open. Great drags of air hiss in and out again, and it's then Nix sits up, concerned. "Iwo Jima again?"
He shakes his head, but it's less certain this time. "No... maybe," he manages at last. "You were shot." What a dream, what a strange, strange dream...
Nix snorts, soft. "I've never even been to war." Being 4F sort of kept you out of it. A heart condition, they'd said. And who wouldn't have done everything they'd could to protect a heart like that?
It's this thought that makes Dick take a shuddering breath and say, "I know."
"You know." The murmured words are accompanied by the murmur of a hand on his shoulder, warm but not pressing.
Then, into the silence, "It felt real."
"You were... ripped away from me."
The hand slips lower, pushes a thumb into the dip of his waist. Dick shivers. Then a mouth closes over his earlobe and sucks and the shivers become full-body tremors that he can't seem to stop. "Well, I'm here now," Nix says roughly, lips on his jaw and slipping lower, all of him, the whole of him, full of promise and suggestion.
His hands round over Lew's shoulders, at once pressing and pushing. He hesitates and Nix must sense it, because it's with a final sigh of a kiss that he lifts his head and leans back. Dick's eyes fall over the rough-hewn lines of his sleepy, half-aroused lover, over his tangled hair and stubbly chin and kind eyes like ocean floors in the dark.
And for some reason he thinks of war, until he realizes he is not thinking, but remembering.
There's a dot of red. It gets trapped in one of the furrows above Lew's eyebrows.
He gasps, starts backward.
Nix is staring at him with eyes that are sinking into his head. Blood is trickling from his ears. "Am I okay?" he murmurs, and blood bubbles up from his mouth, painting it red like a woman's lipstick as he reaches for Dick. He is weeping blood.
Dick stares in horror as, almost against his will, his hand brushes at the tufts of Nix's hairline. The bullet lodged there glistens in its pulsing red pulp, just as it flies out of his friend's shattered brains and heads straight for his own.
Five more lives before he remembers.
He wakes up in a hospital bed. His heart, beeping steadily on a monitor, beating steadily in his chest. No, his heart in his throat -
He lurches upwards, fists a hand in the shirt of the nurse beside him and pulls her down to him, skin catching in his nails and her shrieks lodging in his ears. Mere inches from his, her eyes are wide and frightened, some aborted scream still stuck in her mouth. His blood boils; she, she doesn't know, doesn't know what it is to have a heart clogging hers.
He can't breathe but the name is just sitting there on his tongue as it is. He lets it fall out, helpless. "Nix."
Somewhere or everywhere, once or always, Nix is dying, and he must stop it. He gets it now, though he may never get why.
But she is not answering. She is swallowing. He watches the lump of it in her pretty white neck. He watches her shaking her head. "The captain didn't make it."
He lets her go only because he no longer has the strength to hold on. She stands, watching him and biting at her red, red lips, before she flees. Winters doesn't notice that there is blood on his hands. Spilling out of the hole in his chest until the heart monitor at his side flatlines.
He comes to life in the middle of a war he knows, but it's not his own.
"You've gotta help me, we've gotta move, c'mon," Sledge is saying, the high rise of panic building in his voice, and Dick scrabbles over, even as the ground is shaking under his feet. The terrified earth, ever trembling at what those above are capable of. Little pebbles crunch underfoot, like a spray of bullets on his ankles as he slips to his knees in the muddy grey dust of the pacific.
The tank is turning on the bunker. "Hold on, Bill."
Together, the two throw themselves over Bill as it fires.
He'd just wanted them to get clear.
It was only supposed to be a march, never this.
And with last night and the dead marine, the memory fresh as newborn star and just as impossible to look away from...
Winters has too many memories holding him beneath the cover of darkness.
The rest of the company is leaping up from their cover but all Dick can see is Sledge, still holding on to the shoulders of the man writhing on the ground with hands like a vice, his voice spattering uselessly into the air. "Come on, look at me, look at me," he begs, over and over and over again.
Is this it? The unlucky moment? There's blood in the space of Bill's eyes but he's alive, still shrieking for Gene, and the luckiness of it throws Dick off balance just enough that he doesn't hear the footsteps or the scream.
He startles backwards just as the man draws his gun. Dick can't get to his weapon fast enough, his hands are too clumsy, there could be blood or fear in his own eyes and he isn't sure which -
The gun jams. The Jap looks down in horror, in loathing, in terror, but only for a second - then he's drawing his sword and charging straight for them with a wild cry.
Sledge looks from the enemy soldier to Bill to Dick, and there's nothing in his eyes at all.
And the world... stops. The moment frozen on a spill of Japanese blood and the glint of a sword. Just before it... rewinds.
And stops. And plays again:
"You've gotta help me, we've gotta move, c'mon," Nix is saying, shouting, and there's not even the whisper of Gene's buried calm in it as he looks down at the man bleeding in his arms with bits of grenade still shredding his skin to long, bloody strips.
Dick is panting, disoriented, thrown off not only by the screams of the ambushed or the wounded but by the shaking in his hands that says they have just taken the life of a man and saved the lives of two others. He's been here before, only this time there is still a man with blood in his eyes on the ground and a man with panic in his throwing himself down to protect the other.
And this time, it's Nixon.
There are stars, moons, galaxies of fear in those eyes, but as their owner reaches a hand out to pull Dick down with them it's just a certainty made inescapable as orbit: Nix does not belong here. Perhaps neither of them do. But he shall never, ever escape the draw of this man.
The tank fires into the bunker and Nix is yelling at Bill - "Come on, look at me, look at me" - and with every sickening lurch of feeling Dick realizes that, no. This is the unlucky moment. How could it ever be anyone but Nix?
Because the sergeant from the other side has leapt from the bunker and is drawing on them, drawing his weapon, drawing out their fate as if it had been a red pen held in his arms instead of a gun.
Please, let it jam, he begs. It had for Sledge, so it must for the Nix who is suddenly here, suddenly at his side, where he always now seems to belong and can never stay -
Bill is screaming for Nix through the bubbling of blood. He isn't the only one.
Nix turns to look at him with entire universes going unsaid in his eyes, just as the bullet strikes between them, and Dick watches as they all burn themselves up in an instant of perilous light. Dick feels the coldness of space gone hollow in his chest when all the life fades, and his world again goes dark.
He's a reporter. Local crime division. He knows almost the day he signs on, that one day the police chief will hold a conference, and amid the flashbulbs and clamoring for information the silver-haired man will spin the tale of an upper class man, early thirties, dark hair, nice house with a good wife and a kid and a dog, who never did a thing wrong in his life and suffered for it anyway.
He won't tell about the way his eyes spark when he's laughing but doesn't mean it, or the way they do when he does; the police chief won't know a thing about how that man sounds on three hours sleep or the exact scent of his breath when he's had one drink too many. He won't know about the war that settles into his spine, or the aches that carve a home for themselves in his mind and in his heart and in his soul. Won't know the way that his hand on Dick's shoulder means both I understand and I never will.
Dick will, though he's never met the man in his life. It is, everyone in the office remarks, the best story he has ever written.
This one is a hospital. They work with the dead and dying, make the most of what they can for the living. He deals it in every day. In a florist's shop, the scent of daffodils will remind him of familial condolences, of withering plants at the bedsides of the withered hopeless.
He comes into his shift with a single edelweiss tucked into his breast pocket. Strength. Determination. I, who would scale mountains for this, for you.
He saves the 'Room 119, gunshot wound to the head, condition: critical' written in shaky blue script on his chart for last. When he does, he pauses outside the door with his hand trembling on the knob, wondering if this can be the life where they both win. He has everything here - Nix has life support, Dick has years of knowledge weighted in his brain, and without bullets and shells and other men to worry about, there is time to do this right.
The small white flower, he pins to the wall, among sympathy cards and decaying bouquets from people Dick has never met. Not in this lifetime.
The heart monitor beeps steadily on. Lewis Nixon's heart, visible for all to see.
Dick is supposed to check his pulse anyway, but it's not the only reason he reaches for the bruise-dark wrist. Much of it, he can admit, is to feel the lively rush of Lew's blood beneath his skin. Where it belongs.
One, two, three... in his own chest, something slows with the pace of relief.
Nix's dancing eyes remain sleepily closed, as his body remains motionless, but it doesn't matter. Dick allows his words out, whispered nothings, aimless confessions. They fill the silence where hollow chuckles and deadpan wit might have made their marks, were things otherwise. It doesn't matter; he still hears that heart beating, and it is almost the same.
The hand under his own is still so warm. Warm and small, like a child's. He wants to tuck it in against his chest. Let the warmth that belongs to it seep back out, immeasurable as the tide, just as natural and right.
Nix is sleeping but his eyes blink open for a second, focus in on his face. "You're going to lose me." The room echoes with dark laughter.
Dick stares till his eyes water, but the man remains asleep.
When he is forced to leave, he takes one look back over his shoulder, at the silhouetted figure in the bed. That he looks like a corpse is just another thing Dick is used to in this world (in all their many, many worlds).
The next morning he arrives, and Room 119 has a new patient. The edelweiss is gone.
There is war in every world, he thinks. In this one it's the 21st century and America's thrown itself into another country's war. Got itself involved where maybe there wasn't war to be had. Dick doesn't know, never asks, does what he's told and shuts his mouth because the sooner he does, the sooner he finds Nix, and that is what matters these days.
He's getting increasingly desperate. For the first time in any of his lives, he is trying not to think.
The sun's hot through his uniform, and he swats, distractedly, at a fly. In this one, they're marines, fighting in the war on terror. But isn't war itself a terror?
Last night was a disaster and they all know it, but in the afternoon after with the light sifting through sand and the thin, sparse grass atop Iraqi soil, they're regrouping. Sitting on the ground with what's left of their food supply and each other, and the laughter and insults and quiet conversations do what they can to make up for the losses.
"Here, dead," Ray's saying, sitting where Rudy was only just last night. The perfect fractal distortion of glass cuts right between his wide, childish eyes. He leans over as Rudy's own eyes shift back to the bullethole that nearly ended his life. "Alive."
Ray lifts again, squinting through the circle, and Rudy exchanges a glance with Dick. "Dead here, now I'm alive, I'm dead, alive, dead -"
"Ray," Rudy cuts in, his tired face betraying nothing. "What's your point?"
"'M just trying to cheer you up, brother," he says, sugary sweet and sincere.
At his side, Nix laughs, and some of the tension falls from Rudy's face. They're used to shaking their heads at Ray. Dick tries, he really does. But something is shaking in his hands, a memory, upwelling from a past he hasn't lived -
Nix is not part of the marines. Neither is he. But here they are.
He stumbles away from the humvee, striking out away from the others so that Rudy's face shattering out the back of his head will stop becoming Lew's every time Dick closes his eyes.
"What's his problem?" he hears Ray ask, half-sulking and half-concerned. It's a thin balance that he strikes better than most, and it only spurs Dick's steps on faster, faster in angry steps on the ground - he doesn't remember him, nor any of the others in Recon, from any other lives. But they're out there somewhere. Floating through space just the same. In this one they are his friends, as well loved as any from a war fought decades before or centuries later.
He touches so many people in this useless quest, this search for a single moment. No longer a singularity, though, as he chases it in and out of chasms of time, space, dreams.
Nix is the goal. That it is always worth it says something he can't, or doesn't wish to, explain.
Footsteps loping up behind his, slowing to a stop. He'd know their gaits anywhere. "I'm fine, Nix," he says, staring out over the flat, hazy sands. They're steaming beneath the sun. His clothes are too tight, and Nix's hand on his shoulder, when it finally comes, is too painful a reminder. He shoves away, farther out, and he imagines what it must be to swim out and out until the water closes above your head. It must be sort of like this.
But Nix is determined, and grabs at his wrists as he makes for those unknown shores, twisting him back around to gaze into those eyes deeper than the ocean, darker than the desert at night. "What's wrong?"
"Why does Rudy get to live," he asks, and it isn't a question.
"What?" Nix's hands go stiff on his skin.
"Why," he articulates, and Dick feels the words rioting under his skin, inescapable, pressing at floodgates aching to open. "Why does Rudy get to live when so many don't? He leans and he's free. Someone else doesn't and they're dead. Nix, I used to -" he stops to tear his arm from his friend's grasp and dash it under his nose.
"I used to believe," he says more quietly, "that all men died heroes. Now I think some of us just die lucky."
What a lucky thing, he thinks, and the thoughts themselves are hollow, to die.
Nixon is just staring at him, the breeze catching at the tuft of dark hair on his head. Dick aches to soothe it away, but even now it's not something they can do. Even now, no matter what he wants and no matter what he might do - he feels the waves closing above his gasping lips.
"I don't know," Lewis says at last, and then his eyes drop. He sidles up beside him, and the both of them turn to look back at the camp, watching Ray squabble over something with Brad, watching Trombley frown down at his gun while Poke rolls his eyes and starts walking round the back of the vehicle. More men, more faces, sliding through the background, slipping in and out of focus, winking out at the corners of their vision. "I don't know why some of us live and some of us die, Dick. Isn't it enough to be happy we're the lucky ones?"
Nix turns eyes up to him that are so honest he might as well be drowning in what is currently choking at his throat.
The men are laughing. Nix is staring at him, so serious, so certain. The sun is setting. "Yeah," Dick says at last, and he drops his head. "Yeah, it is."
Three days later the humvee rolls over a crest in the ground and the bullet that should have sailed above Nix's helmet goes straight through the side of his head.
There's nothing strange about this one. Just cold, honest death, come for them again.
Dick hopes for a life in which he can find the man who ever first made a gun, whoever first made ammunition, whoever first made weapons, and kill him. But, much like the end, it never comes.
Luck is almost never on his side. And fate, if it exists, has an ugly sense of humor.
In one world the war happens and Nix does not join the army, or Dick doesn't, or they do but the division is wrong, the regiment changes, the camp is different - and they slip by each other like trout in a stream. Doing their part, never meeting but for the brush of a salute or a nod from farther down the line. The war won, they go home. They grow old. Separate, two trees in a singular forest miles and miles apart. Something is missing and they both die before they can figure out quite what it is.
It happens in some world, but not this one, and Dick does not have the time to wonder if he is thankful for this mercy or not before his eyes are opening elsewhere, just as the bullet clangs against Nix's helmet and a scream tears itself from the rawness of his throat.
Nix's laughing face frozen in shock. Dick screaming he falls in slow motion.
When the police arrive, Dick has killed the intruder. Killed him with bare hands that are still sticky with... not just blood, but Lew. Lew's body begins dissolving in his arms. His skin oozes away from his face, muscle melting from bone and draping itself across Dick's arms, and the red sea of his blood pours out across them all. Gooey, gelatinous, he spreads and spreads over the floor, over Dick's hands, over everything - he is entirely covered in Lewis Nixon, and Lewis Nixon is gone. Hands that once cradled Lew's body close and refused to let go stray off toward the side, toward the gun still on the floor, with its one bullet left.
The policemen are laughing and jeering and up to their ankles in the puddle of what once was man, their teeth sharp as the teeth of wolves as their cornered prey sinks into the deeps of melted brain and heart and bones.
A hand in his, with sand beneath his feet and water rushing up over his toes. Moonlight gone milky over the bay.
"You're going to die," Dick says, without looking up, because he's tired of not saying it.
And who else would be here, stroking his fingers in a military cadence and squeezing like the pulling of a trigger? Who else would understand so wonderfully and so terribly all at once? The waves make no sound, no sound at all. Lew's inhale sounds like he's swallowing the sea.
"Aren't we all?" He tries to laugh, but it dies in the air between them when Dick flinches. "What?" he steps closer, his body curved like an eclipse. Hiding them away from the world. It's the only place Dick can never really hide himself, because Lew will always find him.
It's a truth he counts on now as he leans forward, allowing his forehead to dip and rest upon his lover's. He can feel eyelashes flared wide against his cheek. Small, spiked, delicate and dark. Their fragility is devastating.
"Tell me," Lew murmurs, like the song of the siren calling him home.
Dick does. He tells every tale, every life. Every world that had ever been, every world that never would be again, all the places and times they've visited and the people they've been - it spills out of him, unstoppable, uncontrollable, until suddenly he is tearing himself away from Nix and splashing into the ocean because they are one and the same, now. They are powerful things beating powerlessly against an inexorable shore, drawn to the moon.
They're up to their thighs in water as Nix kisses the salt from his face and makes promises Dick knows he won't keep. It's so bittersweet. They cling to each other like men dying of thirst.
The water rises, sucks them out to the depths. He thinks they drown.
In his next life Dick finds himself at the grave of a man older by him than a hundred years, who died decades ago.
It isn't fair, he thinks, that sometimes they never know each other at all. That alone is better than what they have now.
Which isn't, he reflects, staring up at a church spire silhouetted against a morning of pale spring, that fair at all, either.
Some of them don't make sense, the laws of physics melted and reality made askew. Some are like half-formed fever dreams, rising from subconscious smoke, others are so real he has no choice but to believe they are lives that have been lived by others, ones that he and they are just trying on for the time, as they run through the same, dark forests from the same, dark demons.
But in every single one, the one thing never changes: Lewis Nixon is going to die. Richard Winters is going to do his best to save him. He is going to fail.
The universe has fractured with the wrongness of it, he's certain. Time is bleeding through the cracks like the red of it bleeds over Dick's hands, stains them red, red for warning, for wrong, for stop, please, stop.
The world does not remember how. Helpless, off-balance, it spins faster and faster. Faster still. Round and around as this one broken life repeats itself, over and over again, variations like a kaleidoscope draining all the color from his world.
Sometimes, he just wants it all to end -
His eyes open. A quiet cottage. Home.
He wonders, still half-asleep, if he still believes that there is a different outcome to be had at the end of one of these lives. He wonders, too, when he stopped wondering if it would be this one.
He stares at the ceiling for a long, long time.
Then Dick swings softly out of the bed, pulls on his boots, and ventures out into the mountain - knowing what he will find in time.
After moments of crunching along the gravel path, he spots the figure under the tree, where it's almost lost among the tall, spindle-grass and shadows of mid-afternoon. Despite everything, despite the warning thick in his bones, despite -
Dick grins. Because, for the moment, this is a world with Lewis Nixon. If this is all he ever gets, let it be this.
He breaks into a jog.
A few more moments and the carefree outline of Nix's face comes into view, unscarred and open as he, too, stands to greet his friend. A few moments after that, and there's a gentle pulse fluttering against his wrist, a hand curving over his jaw, lips on his own, and he feels like he might die.
The bees are fat in spring. Under the cool blue sky ride soft breezes, blowing incessant through the windy fields, sending the trees into quiet stirs, quiet conversations. Endless questions to which the silent flowers, peppering the land in swathes of blue, purple, yellow, provide no answers.
They need none. Not now, not yet. One of the bees brushes by Dick's ear, and above him, Nix waves it away, scraping his fingers over the fragile shell of skin instead. The buzzing remains.
He turns and meets dark eyes under the private shade of the home they've carved out of this once-empty stretch of hillside. Out of trees, bees, borrowed time and lazy kisses. The soft, warm stretch of dirt that curves around their bodies, curved around each other.
"I want this one forever," he mumbles around hot skin.
Lew kisses him instead of answering and it doesn't matter, nothing matters anymore and maybe that is what does.
When the rumbling comes, he prays it is not tanks or far-off explosions. Just thunder that precedes the gentle patter of rain over a peaceful land. The young Richard Winters and Lewis Nixon could have been anywhere from 200 to 2000 miles apart at any given time. This never happened. Never had a chance. He knows this and clings to the image anyway.
"Please," he begs into Lew's soft, forgiving mouth. "Just this one."
He clings, scrapes, bites until his fingers wear holes in Nix's sides and his blood is under his nails and his tongue is down his throat and his eyes are closed his eyes are closed his eyes are closed so tight against this and suddenly -
"I tried so hard to save you."
"Am I okay?"
Nix looks at him with wide eyes under his helmet. Went straight through, he'll laugh later, showing it off with a half-grin and a roll of his eyes. Thought I was a goner for a second there. There will still be a burn striped across his forehead as he says it. Just a second.
Dick only gapes. This is it, this is real, this is - Nix. Nix.
"Quit lookin' at me like that!" he says, shoving him off, and Dick is left panting with dust coating his tongue as Nix rolls over and away and the both of them find space to breathe. Dick heaves and passes out.
Dick wakes up.
Morning light, tossed soft and sweet on a country wind.
"Are you okay?"
Weakly, he turns his head. With dark eyes gone worried in their darker circles, Nixon is sitting at his bedside, head tilted. There's scorched line across his forehead, but he's safe. Safe. For now? Forever? Dick doesn't know, but he allows himself one second, one moment for his eyes to open and drink in this cool instant of relief, before he slams them shut tight again lest the world change right before his very eyes.
When Nix doesn't get an answer, he begins shifting around on his chair. "You came down with something. Fever, hallucinations, it - it looked unpleasant, Dick. Pretty sure Doc gave you something and made it worse, actually." A quiet chuckle.
Winters is still quiet. His hands folded solemnly across his chest. His eyes still closed, because he doesn't know if he can take what he knows will happen when they open.
Nix is speaking again. He's asking a question. "What do you remember?"
Everything. Nothing. All that once was, could be, will never be, shall always be. "You. Dying." The words are hoarse, scraped from the very bottom of all that Dick has left.
Even feet away, he can feel Nix go still. He is used to this feeling. Something in him lurches and the distance between them aches, aches so that his eyes begin to sting with tears and his face is growing hot. Please, not again.
But that's life. That's death. And that's sure as hell war.
"Hey, hey." Murmurs. That same voice. In a crowd of strangers he would hear it whispering.
The bed beneath him shifts, and there's a hand on his arm, warm and grooved in all the places where it should be. He knows the constellations of freckles on the back of Nix's hand, knows the way they shift with the tans of each season, is certain that he could trace the bones and muscles and veins beneath the skin, were he asked. He knows the beat of the pulse in his thumb. Its beat as Nix lives. Its beat as he dies, until he does.
"I'm okay." Winters feels himself shaking out of his skin. Certainly he is unwinding, decaying as they speak. Certainly he has lived too many lives for far too long to be anything but ashes and dust by now.
"Look at me."
He can't, he can't. He just cannot.
"Dick, please, look -"
"Don't ask me," he murmurs, and the voice is quiet but thick and pleading and harsh because Nix has to understand, has to know. "Don't ask me to look at you because every time I see you, you... you... " Even words do not have the capacity for these horrors. These unspeakable truths, that they are mortal men, fighting in a very mortal world.
There is a heaviness to the hand that clenches on his arm that is, somehow, lighter than all else. As the bed shifts and the line of Nix's body tucks itself against his side - wrong, not in this lifetime; no, but right all the same - curving to the angles that they share so seamlessly, he feels like he might break apart. To dust at last, carried on the wind.
Lips against his cheekbone, mouthing over the wet-tracked flesh. Breath means life. If it breathes it is alive. The breaths of his friend blow soft as the wind outside. It breaks his heart. It breaks his everything and he whispers, "I can't lose you again, Nix."
That's it. Everything is gone. Whatever cruel joke was being played on him by the universe, whatever God had put him through for reasons unknown - he has nothing left to give.
Nix takes him soft against his side anyway. He takes him into the circle of his arms.
Nix - strangely silent, strangely warm - puts his cheek to Dick's, and he can feel the drum of a pulse against his neck. Their hearts, syncing in time. "You haven't," the voice at his ear whispers. A kiss, pressed beneath his ear, under his chin, to the beat that burns. Like the brush of forgiveness. "You won't." The scrape of stubble against his jaw as Lew's head moves back.
There are lips hovering just above his own. There is breath, sweet breath, against his face. There are words.
There are more:
"You haven't lost me."
"I love you."
He has been waiting. He has been silent. It has not been said in any of their universes. So could it, could it be...?
The lips are still there before his. He has to see. But he can't, can he, can he? Has he seen to it? Has all been said? Is this it at long last, can he at last -
Lips against his own. Oh. Miraculous. Pulling back for a breath. Last, lost words against his skin: "Look at me."
His eyes open wide.