Three lousy hands in a row. He should have folded the last one.
Maybe it wasn't his night, after all.
Gojyo had felt out of sorts for most of the evening. A bit like back before Hakkai and his cooking showed up in his life to make sure he didn't eat anything bad or downright poisonous. He didn’t happen to be in Lady Luck's good graces, either; bad news for both his reputation and for the fact that Hakkai had scraped the bottom of their savings jar that morning. They’d bounce back eventually, but money was rarely that tight.
There was still a lot left for the taking at the poker table, but, eh. Gojyo figured it would still be there the next day. Well before midnight he wrapped up the last game with a straight flush (at last!), decided not to push his luck and announced he was calling it quits to the accompaniment of sneering remarks.
He wasn't going weak or losing his touch or any such bullshit some of his drinking buddies had teased him with to make him stay so they could take back his meager winnings. As if they could do that. Sha Gojyo rarely lost at cards. Losing to Hakkai didn’t count; nobody had to know about that, and tonight? Even monkeys fell out of trees sometimes. Besides, he did whatever he pleased whenever it pleased him to do it, and he went home early because he wanted to.
His head swam a little as he picked his way through the dark, sleepy town. A stray dog howled somewhere in the distance; a long, keening call that made Gojyo's gut clench in a funny way. Or maybe it was the scent in the air that made him queasy; woodsmoke mixed with something odd. Someone burning their trash, he guessed. Frost glimmered here and there on the cobbled street; his breath curled into clouds almost as thick as when he puffed out smoke. Winter was creeping in early that year on the tails of a very short fall.
Good thing Hakkai made sure they were ready for it.
The lights in the house were on, a warm, golden glow behind the curtains. Gojyo finished his smoke, flicked the butt away over his shoulder and smiled a little wry grin as he reminded himself to be quiet. ‘Cause maybe Hakkai had fallen asleep over one of his books, the way he often did when the evenings got cold, and Hakkai had a knack for being pretty damn scary in moments like that. Thus Gojyo pressed the door handle as gently as he could and tried extra hard not to stumble as he stepped inside--
--and that was when the warm feeling snapped and rushed out of him in a flash.
The four beer cans he'd emptied before hitting the bar hours earlier were still there--three on the table, the fourth under the chair he'd vacated. The other chair lay at an odd angle, half-propped against the bed, one leg snapped in half. The book Hakkai had been reading lately was thrown open in the corner, three careless dog ears and a spatter of blood. More blood stains on the wall and when Gojyo looked closer, he spotted a trail of drops marking a path to the door.
His knees shook as he dropped to a squat and shoved unsteady fingers into the red. Already dry, for the most part.
“Shit,” he muttered to himself. “Hakkai, what the hell?”
It was so quiet the ringing in his ears pounded through his head like a set of bells, and when he called Hakkai’s name, no answer came.
There were no signs of struggle outside the main room. On second thought it didn't look like a struggle; a small massacre was more accurate.
If anyone was around to ask, Gojyo wouldn’t know whether that was a good thing or a good reason to freak out. He stormed out at a run, skidded to a halt on the edge of the small perimeter illuminated by the ribbon of light spilling from the door, and he called Hakkai again with no better result. The ground was too frozen for footprints, but the trail of blood took a sharp turn around the cabin where it vanished into the night. It was too fucking dark to see anything, so when all else failed, Gojyo decided to follow the only hint that made a sickening sort of sense: the reek of things better not thought of, burning, not far.
He had a feeling he knew what he might find. His guesses weren't often that far off the mark.
He found Hakkai by the western rim of the woods, under an old, broad pine. At first sight he looked like a heap of rags, a still shape wrought from its own shadow. Ten paces ahead of him was the source of the stench: a medium-sized stack of piled wood, half-burned, yielding vicious clouds of acrid smoke. Resting on Hakkai’s knee was his clawed hand, crooked fingers splayed, its outline sharp and black against the yellow tinted tangle of flames.
A funeral pyre, Gojyo realized, and suddenly it was very very cold again, nevermind the massive amount of heat seeping through his clothes. He wanted to yell but maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all. If Hakkai spooked, who knew what he would do?
Gojyo knelt beside him. A hint of a vine was still there, across Hakkai’s face. Gojyo’s heart thumped a furious rhythm but he slinked closer, scrunched up his nose at the terrible smell and the smoke getting into his eyes, and he folded his legs under him by Hakkai’s side. Hakkai’s hair had partly receded to its normal length. In the firelight, a lone limiter glimmered on the shell of his pointed ear. He held the other two in his other hand, rolling them absently in claw-rimmed fingers the way Gojyo sometimes did with his cigarettes.
“It’s different when you know them,” Hakkai said, trying for that not-a-care-in-the-world tone and not quite pulling it off. “Ah, Gojyo--I let myself go a little, I’m afraid.”
Gojyo shuddered, his mind spinning creative scenarios in the absence of facts. “Are you all right?”
“Am I ever?” Hakkai touched his face with the back of his hand; his knuckles came away with a dark smudge. “Of course I’m all right. It’s only a scratch.”
Gojyo stared into the flames with what he vaguely recognized as curiosity of the rather creepy kind. The fire crackled like a thousand tiny whips; he thought he could still see the charred remains of a person in the blaze. A gust of wind gathered on the hill and tumbled into the valley, scattering ash every which way; light and white like snowflakes.
“Who was that?” Gojyo asked, and wondered if he should have.
“Mr. Cheng,” Hakkai said, with a smaller hint of guilt than Gojyo subconsciously expected to hear. “The grocer from the market. I really enjoyed his company.”
Gojyo was pretty sure what Hakkai meant and what his mind depicted in a mental knee-jerk response were two different things. He swallowed thickly. “Dare I ask how he got here? ‘Cause, uh. The house is a mess.”
“Oh--I am sorry about that.” Hakkai smiled without looking at him. It didn’t quite come off as intended with the fang poking Hakkai’s lower lip... Or maybe it did. “It couldn’t be helped.”
Questions pooled in Gojyo’s mind. He couldn’t decide which one to ask, or if he should ask at all. Hakkai hadn’t killed anybody (that Gojyo knew of, at least) since that thing with Banri went south, and for over two years he had mostly lived the quiet life he used to want so much. This, whatever it was, looked like a serious curveball and who else but Gojyo would end up dealing with the aftermath?
“So, this…” Gojyo began. “What did he do to piss you off? The prices went up?”
Hakkai chuckled; a dark, humorless sound. “Mr. Cheng visits--used to visit me every week for a game of xiangqi. Easily the best opponent I’ve ever played against. An excellent strategist."
Gojyo knit his brow. “Did you lose?”
“Mr. Cheng, ah, lost himself before we even began. It was unfortunate that he attacked me, but it didn’t seem like he was in control.”
Gojyo scratched the back of his head. “Another one,” he said. Fourth one that month. He had only told Hakkai about the first two of those. Hakkai's reaction to the news had been strange; he'd laughed that forced little chuckle and wondered out loud when it would be his turn.
"I--I can feel it quite strongly," Hakkai said. "When I'm like this. Something is changing, Gojyo, and not in a good sense."
Gojyo agreed. Even if you turned the other way and minded your own business, it was getting hard to miss. It took a single youkai attack to make the humans talk. Tch. Fucking prejudice.
In all the time they sat there side by side, Hakkai hadn’t looked at Gojyo, not once. Instead he kept his eyes on that fire and though he was calm on the outside, Gojyo would bet any money that on the inside, he was anything but.
The same was true for Gojyo, pretty much.
He’d never seen Hakkai’s youkai form that close. Back then, with Banri’s thugs, he’d been on the floor tied to a chair and it was over so fast. By the time Hakkai had untied him he’d already put the limiters back on. Now Gojyo had a better chance, and hell, he couldn’t help staring in that hypnotized sort of way. Even partly limited, Hakkai radiated a steady kind of power, pulling, scary, irresistible. It was almost as if death itself sat there beside him wearing Hakkai’s hide--a chilling thought, but it was beautiful, raw and somehow true, of Hakkai’s own making.
"It’s freezing,” Gojyo said and cringed at how strained his voice came out. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Go home, Gojyo. I want to stay for a while.”
“It’ll take hours before Mr. Cheng here gets crispy enough,” Gojyo said, waving a hand at the fire. "You’ll get sick, and I can’t cook chicken soup worth a damn.”
“You managed all right when I wasn’t there,” Hakkai said, sounding odd. “You’d do fine.”
“Wait, what?” So that was the conversation they were having now? “Don’t give me this crap. And don’t even think you’re going anywhere. Except maybe back to the house.”
Hakkai’s mouth twitched in a quasi-smile. “I guess I’m not.”
“Hey. You're not losing it, are you now?"
Hakkai had his funny--as in crazy in a disturbingly clear way, once you knew what you were looking at--moods every now and then, that much Gojyo had learned over time. But even then, his act of choice usually kicked in, fast. As if on cue it was right there, except it came with a twist: Hakkai gave his head a light shake, assured him that everything was fine, and looked at him with such a murderous glare that Gojyo decided he'd had enough.
He took the two limiters from Hakkai’s hand. Shuddered as the tip of one claw caught him under a fingernail, sharper than a needle. Pushed the thought away and with it his own somewhat panicked reaction. This was Hakkai. Hakkai wouldn’t hurt him. They looked out for each other and he was sure Hakkai remembered that, with the limiters or without. He did, right?
Well, he was about to find out.
Gojyo held his breath. Slid his fingers into Hakkai’s matted hair. Pushed the messy, tangled strands out of the way and, realizing he was still alive, he set himself to the task of putting the missing limiters back where they belonged.
Hakkai's shoulders shook.
When they settled into place, tight around his ear, Hakkai shivered and let out a long sigh as the tells of his youkai form disappeared.
“I’ll never get used to that,” he said, tired, resigned. “I suppose it’s as it should be.”
“S’that why you took ‘em off?” Overkill, Gojyo thought. One youkai, no matter how crazy or strong, would never warrant going the whole nine yards--but Hakkai had his reasons.
Or so Gojyo hoped.
“I wondered how I’d feel if I killed someone I knew in youkai rather than in human form. But I’m not human. Not anymore. Not even when I look the part.”
“Human, youkai. Tch.” Gojyo bristled. “I’m neither and I’m both. You’re Hakkai. That’s good enough.”
Hakkai didn’t answer, and was quiet for a long time. Gojyo was fine with that. There were plenty of things he was itching to say, but none of them seemed right. He was cold and dizzy, nauseated from the stinking smoke; Hakkai was shivering, too, which was not that surprising given the thin shirt he wore. He probably hadn't noticed the cold that much, in youkai form.
“What do you think Hell is like? Gojyo?” Hakkai asked eventually, staring at his hands. Gojyo knew that look. He'd seen it often when they first met--less often lately--whenever Hakkai thought nobody was watching him.
The question confused him and Gojyo took a while to turn it over in his mind. He didn’t care much about things like Heaven or Hell. Life was a handful without getting hung up on what did or didn’t wait for them at the end. But Hakkai looked like he needed an answer, and Gojyo decided that Hakkai would get what he needed whenever possible.
“I don’t really know about that,” he said. “But maybe it's like, you’re dying and the guy you’ve become meets the guy you could’ve been. And you’re stuck with that. That'd be Hell all right."
Hakkai’s head snapped up and Gojyo’s heart squeezed in his chest--he looked raw and open and scared.
“Shit. Sorry. That didn’t come out right,” Gojyo said, and hid his face in his hands. “But you’re alive, Hakkai. Maybe the guy you’re gonna be years from now when death kicks our door down is ten times better than anything you think you’ll become.”
“I don’t suppose I’m going to live long enough to atone for all I’ve done,” Hakkai said, disturbingly matter-of-fact. "I'm a murderer, you know. Sanzo said it once. ‘It’s too late for you to wear white’. It would have to be a very long life, and even then..."
Saved your ass once so you could work it out, Gojyo thought. He’d do it again and again if he had to, and maybe Hakkai knew that, but didn’t quite believe it would change a thing. Gojyo did believe, but he wasn’t sure how to say it without sounding like a hopeless sap, so he draped an arm around Hakkai’s shoulders, pulled him close and shut him up with a press of his mouth.
The reek of roasting youkai flesh followed them back to the house. Gojyo tied his hair up to try to forget that he smelled like the dead. It wouldn’t get out of their clothes. Tomorrow Hakkai would shred his hands trying to get it washed, but they’d likely end up throwing it all in the trash.
“Oh my.” Hakkai was shaking his head as he looked around. “I made a mess, didn’t I?”
“Yeah,” Gojyo agreed. “But don’t sweat it. I’ve made worse.”
He scooted Hakkai to the shower and went out with a bucket to dig up some dirt with a knife to cover the bloody path leading away from their doorstep. Then he picked up a cleaning cloth to wash the blood off the floor.
Hakkai emerged from the shower some time later, once Gojyo had wiped the stains he could and covered those he couldn’t, wearing a towel around his hips and an absent look on his face. There were red marks around the scar on his stomach; from fingernails, not claws. He made tea and fried eggs with bacon for both of them, and it would have been just like any other evening except that Hakkai didn’t say a word.
Gojyo grabbed a beer and made himself scarce. He left a deck of cards on the kitchen table, but Hakkai didn’t bite.
Later, when they lay side by side and the lights were out, Gojyo stared at the dark ceiling and listened to the howling wind whipping the windowpane. Not that it was particularly interesting, but it was better than paying attention to what went on between his ears. Because maybe it wasn’t Mr. Cheng who had gone mad. Who knew? And not that Gojyo thought it had been Hakkai, not really. But maybe it had.
Hakkai’s hand snaked out from under the covers. Fingers brushed the side of Gojyo’s neck--an oddly cool touch that made him think of claws and vines and startled the crap out of him.
“If I ever lose my sense of self,” Hakkai said, very softly. “I’ve decided I’d like to die a slow, painful death. It would be only fair.”
Gojyo slapped a hand across his face. Air rushed out of him with a snort and took the tension with it. “S’that what’s been turning those wheels in your head?”
“Tell you what. If either of us goes nuts, I bet Sanzo's gonna be right there to put bullets through our brains. No way I'm giving the stinking monk the pleasure of ending us so you'll just have to keep your shit together like you've been doing so far, and I mine."
“How do you know I didn’t kill Mr. Cheng in cold blood?”
How indeed? Gojyo propped himself up to take a close look right into Hakkai’s eyes. In the thick darkness they were pools of dull black, still water with a thousand traps.
“I don’t,” Gojyo said. “Wasn’t there. But I’m a gambler, y’know. My reputation is well-earned.”
“I’m not your best bet, Gojyo.”
“Says who? And who cares, anyway? We are what we are.”
Gojyo couldn’t quite tell if Hakkai heard him, or if he wasn't somehow making things worse. But Hakkai was smiling up at him--a slow, slight upward curve of his mouth--so he figured he was doing something right.
It was a start. Every day, another one.
By morning the first light snowfall had covered the town with a thin film of white. Gojyo crawled out of bed, leaving the sleeping Hakkai between the sheets warm from the heat of their tangled bodies, and padded barefoot to the porch for a smoke.
The snow would hide the evidence of Hakkai’s little lapse of self-control. Luckily, it looked like it was going to be a long winter.