Houtou Castle fell on Midsummer's Day, the pall of smoke from its smouldering ruins an incongruous black streak against the clear blue sky. Kougaiji watched it rise with his usual good grace and said it was time for a new start anyway.
Hakkai turned Jeep eastwards and they headed home.
The journey back took them mere months, not years - although it was not entirely without incident. Gojyo got into more than one fight with guys who wanted to kill him, but that was because he'd chatted up the wrong girl, and as Sanzo remarked, even preventing Gyumoah's resurrection couldn't be expected to stop that from happening.
It was autumn when they returned to Chang'An. The sky was as blue as it had been in India, but the air had turned colder, and the leaves were no longer green.
Sanzo's office was almost completely unchanged. Someone had emptied the ashtray, that was all. The pile of papers awaiting his attention was as high as it had ever been.
With Sanzo working, Goku's days were as empty as they were before the journey west. Things were supposed to have changed.
He felt cheated.
A week after their return, Goku discovered Priest Hogaku had moved one of the older novices into his rooms. Further investigation revealed they were sleeping together. Everyone knew it, and no-one cared.
Heart and belly fluttering with excitement, Goku rushed to Sanzo's rooms and told him the news. There was a moment's silence and then Sanzo's cheeks flushed crimson. He called Hogaku a pervert and the boy a fool, then chased Goku out of his office with stinging blows from the fan.
Supper that evening tasted of dust and ashes, and even though he tried, Goku just couldn't eat it.
A month later, for Sanzo's birthday, Hakkai baked a cake. It had twenty-six candles. Which meant Goku was twenty-one and in all his life had only been kissed once. He looked at Sanzo's mouth, at the sprinkle of crumbs that clung to his lower lip for a moment before he brushed them away, and felt something break deep inside.
Gojyo was surprised when, later that night and without Sanzo, Goku showed up in his favourite bar. He was so surprised he bought him a beer, then a whisky, then another beer. He'd promised Hakkai he'd be home in time for supper, but when a couple of girls hit on them, and Goku had said he'd take them both if Gojyo was chicken, Gojyo figured he could hardly leave the kid unchaperoned when he was in a mood like that.
"He what?" Sanzo's voice was a whip-crack in the still of his rooms. It was a cold and frosty morning but his eyes were on fire.
"Got drunk," Hakkai explained again. "Then he and Gojyo went home with a couple of young youkai ladies. Gojyo rolled in an hour ago, still drunk. All his money's been stolen and he has a black eye."
Sanzo’s expression said 'Serve the shithead right'. He seemed to be shaking. "And Goku?"
"May be in more than a spot of trouble."
Sanzo ground the end of his cigarette out in what little space was left in the ashtray on his desk. "Too fucking right, he is."
Goku hurt all over. It was one thing to get injured in a fight, when his blood was pumping and his muscles were warm from exertion, but quite another to be beaten whilst strapped to a chair. After a while, though, the punches and blows began to sober him up, so that he was able to regain control of his body and fight back. His assailants now lay crumpled and bleeding at his feet, the ropes they'd bound him with trailing loosely from his wrists and ankles. There was nothing keeping him here now. Gojyo was gone and the girls had fled.
If only he knew what they'd done with his clothes.
If only he hadn’t had more to drink after they left the bar.
If only he didn't feel so fricking sick.
Gojyo led them to the house. Hakkai had insisted on his doing so, despite his pained groans and green complexion. He called it making amends. Gojyo said it felt more like retribution.
The front door was open and they entered cautiously - Sanzo first, gun in hand and the hammer already cocked - but there was no-one lying in wait for them downstairs. Gojyo eyed the staircase warily. A prod between the shoulder blades from Sanzo's gun persuaded him to mount it. He cringed as each step creaked under his feet, and creaked again under Sanzo's and Hakkai's, but nobody sprang out to attack them. Gojyo began to wonder if he'd imagined the whole thing.
Sanzo kicked the doors in, one by one, arms extended, leading with his gun. Handles banged against walls and windows shuddered in their frames but there was no other sound. A search of the wardrobes and under beds yielded nothing. Sanzo said he couldn't even hear Goku whining in his head.
Goku limped back to Chang'An under the cover of darkness, a branch snapped from the bush he'd spent the day hiding in the only thing shielding his modesty. He felt cold, sick and embarrassed, but at least he'd been kissed. And done some kissing himself. Plus some other things too, he was almost sure.
The line outside the laundry block was heavy with washing. Goku unpegged one of the novices' robes and slipped it on. Still damp, it made him colder still and his teeth chattered as he crept into the temple. He knew he ought to tell Sanzo he was home, and safe, but he didn't. He went straight to his room, shut the door and got into bed.
Everything that had happened had been all Sanzo's fault anyway.
"Master Sanzo! Master Sanzo!" One of the older priests - Chosui, who served as temple physician - burst into Sanzo's office without knocking. The lines between the old man's brows looked even deeper than usual, his back more bent. "It's Goku, Master Sanzo."
Sanzo's world stopped turning; his heart, beating. "What ... about .. him?" he asked, the words thick and dry in his throat.
"He's-" Chosui hesitated, gathered his courage and continued. "- very sick. I think he's been poisoned. I can't-"
Sanzo's chair hit the floor as he surged out of it. "Get Hakkai!" His hands found the front of the Chosui's robe and closed around fistfuls of it. "NOW!"
"Someone has already gone to find him," the old priest reassured him, but there was sorrow, not comfort, in his milky brown eyes.
Overcome with sudden weakness, Sanzo released him. The room was spinning and he was losing his balance. He staggered backwards, tripped and somehow found himself sitting on his desk, hanging on to its edge with a white-knuckled grip to stop himself falling any further.
"He's in the infirmary," Chosui said.
But Sanzo couldn't move.
On the third day, Hakkai told Goku he had an extraordinary constitution and that he was well enough to return to his own room if he promised to rest. He told Sanzo the very same thing. By way of reply, Sanzo merely grunted around his cigarette, but he stopped sitting hunched over his papers and leant back in his chair, tipping his head back to exhale a perfect smoke circle. Together they watched it drift up towards the ceiling, thinning slowly until there was nothing left.
Outside a light snow was falling. Not enough to settle for long but a warning that winter was on its way.
Hakkai placed another log on the fire dying in the grate and prodded it with Sanzo's brass poker. "It's going to be a cold night, so if you want to keep warm," he advised, gesturing towards the basket of firewood on the hearth, "you're going to have to keep feeding it. If you let it die right down, you'll have twice the amount of work getting it lit again."
They both knew he wasn't talking about the fire.
Meditating on it didn't help; the golden Buddha's knowing grin was downright annoying and Sanzo kept wanting to punch it. Half a bottle of saké and chain-smoking the rest of his cigarettes didn't help either. Which meant that, an hour or so later, he was outside of Goku's room, hand hovering over the door knob. After a couple of deep breaths, he seized it and twisted.
The door opened to reveal Goku, sitting up in bed.
"You didn't come to see me," he said, before Sanzo had even crossed the threshold. He looked thinner and his skin had lost its glow - almost as if he were only human. Sanzo felt his courage falter, and he would have turned and left right then and there had Goku's eyes not held him fast. "Before. In the infirmary," Goku went on. "You didn't come."
"No," Sanzo said, aiming for gruff.
"I nearly died and you didn't come."
"No." Much to Sanzo's horror, his gruff sounded more like admission, and dangerously close to apology.
"But now - now I'm better - you decided to make the effort?"
Sanzo closed his eyes. "Yes."
"You're a jerk!"
There was no denying it, so Sanzo didn't say anything, nor did he open his eyes. He heard the sound of bedclothes being thrown back, of bare feet padding towards him, and felt the warmth of Goku's body close by.
"So why did ya come at all? Afraid that now I'm better I'd kick your ass if you didn't at least come pretend you care?"
"I'm not-" pretending. The word almost slipped out but Sanzo bit down on it hard and clenched his teeth. It was rapidly becoming clear to him that he shouldn't have had even one beaker of saké before coming here, let only finished the bottle. Feeling himself starting to sway, he opened his eyes again - out of necessity, not because he wanted to see the face looking up at him. He could see that whenever; couldn't erase the damn thing from his mind, in fact. But there it was anyway, with those huge, impossible eyes and that infuriatingly perfect mouth.
"You're not what?" it asked.
For a moment, Sanzo couldn't speak because, drunk or not, he wasn't stupid enough to tell the truth. He racked his brain for something safe. "Not afraid of anything, monkey," he said. "Least of all you. You're an idiot. What the hell possessed you to go off with a couple of youkai?"
"Because ...! Because ...!" Goku spluttered, going pink. "Because I'm twenty-one, Sanzo. I'm not a kid any more. I need ... Forget it. You wouldn't understand."
Sanzo understood all too well. "You should have realized it would only lead to trouble," he said. It was what he kept telling himself. Every time Goku got too close. Every time he found himself wishing he'd get closer still.
"But we stopped the Resurrection!" Goku protested. "That was supposed to make everything okay again! Get everything back to normal. I thought we'd all get on better."
"Things don't change overnight, moron."
Resentment flared in Goku's eyes. "You mean we went through all that for nothing?"
"No, not nothing. We stopped things getting any worse. But both sides need time to heal."
"How much time?"
Sanzo shrugged. "Who knows? There was a lot of death and that isn't something you get over just like that."
There was a long pause, and then Goku said quietly, "Yeah, but I don't know if I can wait forever, Sanzo. Not again."
Alarm bells sounded in Sanzo's head and every instinct told him to run but yet again, his damn feet wouldn't move.
"It's been thirteen years," Goku sighed. "Thirteen. An' I've been waiting for nearly four of them. Ever since that day when you painted spells on me. I kept telling you to stop but ... " His cheeks went pinker still but a half-smile lit up his face, making Sanzo's heart clench. "D'you remember?"
Of course Sanzo remembered but he shook his head, and there was another long silence, filled with the agony of having to see disappointment and hurt wipe the smile from Goku's face. "You don't have to wait," Sanzo said hoarsely, wishing that he meant it, that he didn't want to keep Goku with him forever.
Goku's eyes went wide as saucers and he drew in a sharp breath. "I don't?"
It was only then that Sanzo realized he'd put the emphasis on entirely the wrong word, that it had fallen on 'don't', not 'have'. Adrenalin surged through him, making his heart pound and his skin tingle. He took a step back on legs that suddenly felt too weak to support him.
"Does that mean ..?" Goku looked and sounded every bit as unsteady as Sanzo felt. "Can I-?" But he was reaching out already, his hands coming up to frame Sanzo's face. "- kiss you?"
Sanzo swallowed hard and forced a glare. "Don't ask stupid questions, ape!" The words were meant to be dismissive, and to push Goku away. They failed entirely.
Goku stepped in closer and pushed up on tip-toe. "Okay," he said, right up against Sanzo's mouth, lips brushing Sanzo's as he spoke. "I won't. I'll just do it - 'cuz you'll tell me if I'm doing it wrong, right?"
The hairs at the back of Sanzo's neck stood up on end. "Doing what wro-?" He broke off abruptly, startled by the strange sensation of his lips moving over Goku's. And at the realization that he hadn't pulled back.
"This," Goku breathed. The word brought his mouth closer still, and he pressed it gently to Sanzo's.
Sanzo froze, acutely aware that they were at a crossroads. If he kissed Goku back, nothing would ever be the same again. Something like fear clawed at his throat. He remembered the last time his life had changed dramatically. Had never been able to forget it …
"Sanzo?" Goku's voice pierced the grisly image forming in Sanzo's head, and his uncertain, hopeful smile chased it back to the dark corner it had sprung from. "Are you okay?"
Sanzo felt his mouth twist into an embarrassed grimace. "Yeah. For a minute there ..." He stopped. It would be stupid to say it and Goku might get the wrong idea.
"Afraid?" Goku asked, his tone almost unbearably patient and kind.
Sanzo looked away. It was humiliating, feeble.
" 's'okay," Goku soothed. "I'm a bit scared too."
Sanzo turned back to look at him and true enough, Goku really did look nervous. There were little frown lines on his forehead and he was worrying at a dry patch on his bottom lip with his teeth. Suddenly Sanzo realized that they'd passed their crossroads years ago, the very first time they'd met, and that they'd been crossing more of them, quietly and unnoticed, ever since - saving each other's asses, and kicking each other's butts, time after time after time. Everything Sanzo had done, every decision he'd ever made had brought him to this point.
Things might never be the same if he kissed Goku, but they'd be a hell of a lot worse if he didn't.
"Don't be ridiculous," he said, screwing up his nerve and tilting Goku's face up with a hand under his chin. "It's only kissing."
Goku blinked, then gave a happy little laugh as Sanzo closed his eyes and leant in.
It should have been perfect - or at the very least good. Instead it was clumsy, off-centre and wet. Goku must've moved at the last minute: his mouth wasn't where Sanzo expected it to be and now it was open, half-stuck to Sanzo's cheek. Sanzo could have died from shame and he wished to every god he'd every heard of that he'd let one of the many bastards who'd tried groping him at least kiss him so he'd have known how it was done.
Weirdly, Goku wasn't complaining. In fact, he was smiling - a smile so broad it nearly split his face in two. "That was your first kiss ever, wasn't it?" he said, in obvious amazement.
"Shut up," Sanzo growled. "Shut up now or I'll kill you."
"Your first kiss!" Goku squealed and threw his arms around Sanzo's neck. "You gave me your very first kiss! I'm so happy, Sanzo, I could die!"
"Keep that up and you very well might," Sanzo warned, but the growl was gone, even to his own ears.
Goku tangled his fingers in Sanzo's hair. "Don't worry," he said, pulling him closer. "We'll get better, I promise."
This time their mouths aligned perfectly and, as Sanzo's pulse began to race, he had to admit that Goku was right - they were getting better.
Both of them.