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Sha Jien is very skilled at wrapping wounds. He has to be, with his younger brother around. A scraped knee here, a sprained wrist there, and any number of bruises from schoolyard fights. Jien has learned not to ask who started it, because the fight is inevitably the other party's fault. His younger brother is no scholar, preferring to roughhouse with the boys and chase the girls. He has treed nearly twenty-five different skirts, as the tally marks on the floor under his bed testify. He thinks Jien doesn't know about it.

It's good to let a kid think he has secrets sometimes. It gives them that extra impetus to be trusting when things really matter, to ensure that they never feel they have given all of themselves away. So Jien keeps his mouth shut when the bruises appear more often, preferring to bide his time. At least in front of his brother.

Sha Jien attends parent-teacher conferences when he can. Early on Sunday mornings are best; he cares little for God and the teacher cares little for the confines of church. The conferences are always the same. There is so much potential in him, but he never applies himself. He is a distraction in class. Oh, no, it's not that he means to do it. Often he's staring out the window. But the girls won't stop looking at him. The only writing he does is in response to the love notes dropped on his desk. And when he does feel like turning an assignment in, it's so frustrating to see his mind sit in squalor on every other day. Because now I know what he can do.

This conference, though, is different. Sha Jien strolls into the schoolhouse, bowing respectfully to the teacher, and greets, "Good morning, Ito-sensei."

"Take a seat, take a seat," she responds, bowing back before reseating herself at her desk and trying to straighten out some of the permeating mess. "I'm sorry I can't be available for you any other time…"

Jien smiles into the sun-streaked single-room school. The desks are tables arranged in front of backless benches, the epitome of discomfort in a hall of learning. Jien seats himself at the bench closest to the front, although not directly before the teacher's desk. "I should say the same thing to you. Such are the vagaries of working six days a week, eh? So, has he broken something again? If so, I might need to get back to work to help pay for it."

She spares him a laugh, swiping an errant strand of blonde hair behind her ear. "I think the surprise is that he has done nothing of the sort." She looks straight into Jien's face and says, "The fights are increasing, both in frequency and intensity. I know it's out of my hands, but don't you think…" she trails off, looking away with some measure of modesty. "You are his guardian, but it's becoming harder and harder to separate the boys when he's involved. I have had to call in extra help twice already, and he never seems to want to settle down. None of my usual disciplinary measures are working on him any more."

Jien's smile remains, although it is strained. "He's nearly fourteen. After his mother's death he never fully recovered. A boy like him is sensitive to things like that. It's probably raging hormones."

She turns on him, anger in her eyes. "Do you think I don't notice? How long do you think you can possibly hide it from anybody? The long hair hardly hides his ears when he's fighting, and twice his shirt's been ripped open. I've seen the birthmark. A few other adults have, too. It's fine with us, really. I believe youkai and humans can live together peaceably, and that includes an education. But only if he can control himself." She pauses, rubbing her ink-stained fingers over the bridge of her nose. "I won't pry into how he got the scars, Jien, but…a teacher ought to have some feeling of control over her students, shouldn't she? The schoolyard should be a safe place. He's getting to the point where he invites conflict."

Jien sighs, rubbing the blotch over the bridge of his own nose. Then, with slow, calm, deliberate motions, he unlaces the bound bracelet around his left wrist. He does not look at the teacher while his ears lengthen, his claws grow, the blotch over his nose becomes distinctly geometric and ever-damning. A freckle on his forehead grows, completing the beastly visage. He hears her try to stifle a shriek of surprise at his actions, his transformation.

"We can keep control of ourselves," he says, twirling the limiter in his fingers. "You should at least know me better than that, Terue." Her first name hisses through his teeth and Jien immediately dislikes the sound of it with fangs. "This isn't a cure-all, you know. If Gojyo is having a hard time with his anger or violence or anything like that, don't expect it to change just because he's got one." He smiles faintly, not parting his lips. "He hates them anyway."

Behind her desk, the teacher is shaking. "Sha-san…Jien…please, put it back on."

Jien is tempted to refuse her, to continue the discussion in his natural form to stubbornly prove his point. He sighs a bit and relents to her request nevertheless, knowing compliance is the best tool to soothe the frightened. He slips the limiter back on over his wrist, carefully using his teeth to pull the knots tight without severing the leather. "I just wanted you to know." He smiles gently, shrugging one shoulder. "I know youkai aren't common here, but you might be surprised at how many of us there are, hiding under limiters. We're subject to reason, able to understand and appreciate art and music, capable of even becoming scholars and scientists. After all, I'm sure we managed to fool you for at least some of the time, didn't we? The rumors and prejudices you know about aren't really the truth. Well," he amends with a chuckle, "not necessarily. But I understand your concerns. We deal with it everywhere. I'll have a talk with Gojyo, both about his behavior and getting his limiter on. Is there anything el se you would like to talk to me about?"

A stunned silence follows, but soon the teacher regains her footing and passes a slip of paper to him. "This is Gojyo's last test. I usually have the students peer-grade on such assignments, but as you can see…"

Jien tries very hard not to laugh. In the allotted spaces for what should be simple answers, Gojyo has doodled extensively and graphically. While the kid's motor skills are severely lacking, the subject of his artwork is blatantly obvious. "Ah. This is not the sort of material to be passed around the classroom. I did mention that he is nearly fourteen."

"That being as it may, it's no excuse for that sort of behavior. Please include it in your talk with him." She turns her face away, hiding a blush and dismissing him in the movement.

He smiles at the paper, folding it and depositing it in the breast pocket of his shirt. "Yes, ma'am."

Jien tries not to think as he walks home, deep through the heart of town, past merchant stalls and shops. The small house is little more than a shack set near the outskirts of town, with one large room as a den connected to a kitchen, two small bedrooms, and a bathroom with heated water on lucky days. It has been enough for the two of them for years, and it will be enough for years more. Out of a better sense, Jien locks the door when he leaves, and he trusts Gojyo to lock the door as well. In one of the better gestures from younger brother to elder, Gojyo always makes sure that particular duty is upheld. Jien unlocks the door and comes inside with little ceremony.

Gojyo greets him from his place on the floor, curled lazily against the wall with a book propped against his knees. His hair is tied back in a low ponytail, swept over his ears to hide the pointed tips. There are grass, dirt, and bloodstains on his torn jeans, and he has discarded his shirt and shoes. "Heya, Jien. Did you know the thinnest skin on your body's your eyelid?"

"Oh, really?" Jien asks, humoring him. "What's the second-thinnest?"

Gojyo grins, baring sharp incisors. "Your ass."

Jien kicks the door shut and locks it behind him, laughing. "Damn the idiot who ever thought it was a good idea to teach you how to read."

Gojyo wrinkles his nose, and the twin scars crinkle with the movement. "Aw, man, that'd leave me without steady child-support."

Time to be serious. "You do well enough boxing," Jien comments, shooting a pointed glance to the kid on the floor. "Your teacher's getting worried."

Gojyo huffs, turning away and smoothing his hair over his cheek. "It's always them gangin' up on me. Can't help it if they can't hold on to their girlfriends." While Gojyo has the tact to hide his most recent injury from Jien, he can't help but smirk.

Jien frowns, plopping down on the floor next to Gojyo and closing the book in his brother's lap. Gojyo gives a noise of protest, but Jien drops the book and nudges it away with the toe of his boot. "I'm serious, Gojyo. I've asked you before and you've never managed it. I can't hold a steady job if I can't count on you to do your part, too. You know? It's already hard enough."

Big, pale blue eyes focus on Jien for a moment, and then Gojyo angrily turns his face away both out of humiliation and the realization that he's revealed his injury to Jien. "Lay the guilt on me, wouldja? I don't think it's thick enough yet," he mumbles into his dirty knees.

"It's not like I like it any more than you do," Jien mutters, feeling like pouting himself. "Having to be heavy-handed with my little bro. Lemme see your face."

Gojyo shakes his head, keeping himself turned away. Jien yanks on the string holding Gojyo's ponytail back and ink-black hair springs loose over his shoulders. In one swift, practiced movement he's got Gojyo's hair tied in a topknot and the rest of the lanky teen dragged into a headlock. "I said, 'lemme see'." He probes at the beginnings of what will later be a beautiful shiner, a battle scar worthy of a warrior. "Damn, and you've been sitting here reading? How do you see?"

"One eye is fine enough," Gojyo mutters, struggling to get out of Jien's grip. Just as he is making a little headway, Jien drops him and gets up to go to the freezer. A package of frozen peas wrapped in a towel, a remedy over five years old, is nestled beside the ice tray. Jien grabs it and returns to the floor, holding it over Gojyo's eye and forcing Gojyo's head to remain on the floor next to him despite the struggles from the other parts of Gojyo's body.

"All right," Jien says when Gojyo finally relents and relaxes. "Remember something for me." At Gojyo's derisive snort, Jien uses his free hand to thump him on the top of the head. "Play along. Remember back when you were five or six? And how there was a river real close to our place? The summers were always really hot, and everybody used to go swimming. A bunch of kids from all around, d'you remember?"

Gojyo huffs. "Yeah. Ma wouldn't let me go. Man, I hadn't thought about that in a long time."

Jien smiles a bit. "Well, you know how it was always me that told you to stay in?"

"Yeah?" Jien does not answer, waiting for the gears to shift. Heavy silence falls, and then Gojyo cries out, "Fuck you! Why couldn't I go, huh? Those were the worst summers ever!" He kicks his legs, flailing and punching at the antagonist he can't reach or see.

Jien waits, keeping his hand over the bag of frozen peas and thus maintaining some semblance of a hold on his younger brother. "If you want to play the blame game, it was really your fault. You refused, even then, to wear your limiter."

"Ma said we shouldn't have to!" Gojyo snarls, blindly striking out. "Ma said we should be proud of who we are! There's nothing wrong with us!"

"You think I don't know that?" Jien replies, nearly growling himself. "But your friends didn't. Yeah, there were a few proud youkai in the old neighborhood but do you remember how they were all treated? There was always that general feeling of distrust. They were the ones people gossiped about. Especially when they spent too much time with humans. I didn't want that to happen to you. That's why I wouldn't let you go. Because your hair would come loose and show your ears. Because people could see the mark on your back."

Gojyo crosses his arms, bends his legs, crosses his feet. Jien is sure he is giving the floor a hell of a death-glare. "I know," Gojyo grumbles, the sound muffled by the bag of peas in the way. "My hair's not long just 'cause of the stupid scars. I got used to 'em. And I kinda figured it out. But I hate that stupid thing."

Jien leans his head back against the wall. "Why?" he asks without a trace of condescension.

Gojyo rolls over, taking the towel and bag with him. He speaks into it, kicking his feet like a little child. "It makes me look all girly!"

Silence, stunned and manic, forces Gojyo to look up at his brother. Jien has bitten down so hard on his bottom lip the skin is whiter than his teeth. Gojyo frowns. "That's not the only thing!" he cries, indignation making him blush. "I can't fight as good with it on! Everything slows down and then I'm just like the other guy!"

So he's worn it recently? Jien logs Gojyo's inadvertent admission away, choosing wisely not to comment on it. He picks up the bag of peas and hefts it in his hands. "Well, if he's knocking you around so much already I wouldn't call what you've got much of an advantage."

"That's not fair!" Gojyo retorts, hauling himself up on his knees. "There were like five of 'em!"

Jien stops moving. "Really?" he asks softly, staring only at the bag of frozen peas in his hands.

"Yeah," Gojyo replies, settling down a little. "Jiayi got mad at me 'cause he caught me with Aiko inna stock room and his friends ganged up on me. I'd of beaten 'em all but Nori snuck up from behind with a rock." He points to his face. "I didn't catch the rock."

"That's an understatement," Jien comments, and pulls Gojyo into his lap again, examining the bruise. This time, Gojyo does not struggle even as Jien's cold fingers prod heavily at the tender skin. "What were you doing with Aiko?"

Gojyo grins, pale blue eyes sparkling. "Running bases."

"Knowing full well that Jiayi obviously has some attachment to Aiko?" Jien quirks an eyebrow, tightening his grip on Gojyo's head.

Gojyo wrinkles his nose, curling his lip in disgust. "They've only been goin' out a month or so. It's no big deal, and Aiko said she liked it." He cries out in pain when Jien twists one of his ears. "What?"

"You know better," Jien chides, not letting go. "Here I'm called in to talk to your teacher for, what is it?" He wrenches Gojyo's ear just a little bit more for effect and Gojyo winces, baring his teeth. "The tenth time? And I've got to explain to her why you can't control yourself. Guilt's not working. Maybe this will."

Gojyo's features contort into a scowl and he pulls away from Jien. He takes off at a dead run down the hallway into the small back room across from the bathroom usually used as a broom closet. Jien hears digging and sees a discarded soccer ball rolling down the hallway preceding Gojyo's entrance. When his younger brother does return, his hair is untied, his eyes are defiant, and his ears are rounded. Around his neck is a thick strip of silver, just tight enough to rest an inch above his collar, but loose enough to allow breath, speech, and nourishment to pass.

"Now you can't twist my ear!" he cries, hands on his hips.

Jien grins. Point big brother. "Okay. But you better leave that limiter on or I'll do it again. And behave yourself."

"Yeah, yeah," Gojyo grumbles. "I'm behaving."

"Like a brat," Jien retorts, getting to his feet and passing the peas back to Gojyo. "Put it back on for a while. That's going to swell just like the others all did. D'you have homework?"

Gojyo bends down to retrieve his book, trying with one hand to both juggle the text and find his original page. "No, mum."

"No shitting?" Jien asks, walking into the kitchen for a glass of water. "I've got a geometry quiz in my pocket that says you've not been studying as hard as you'd like me to think."

"Depends on what you want me to study," Gojyo replies, earning him a thump to the back of the head. "Aah, fine. But I'm not kidding; I didn't have homework."

He sits down at the small table outside of the kitchen and Jien does the same. There are two chairs and two chairs only, as they are not expecting any visitors, now or ever. Gojyo drops the book on the table, flipping through the pages with one hand while the other holds the bag of peas to his eye. And then he tugs on the limiter.

"Geez, Jien, do I have to wear this? Can't we at least paint it black or something?" Gojyo tries to look at the adornment with distaste, but his eyes do not reach so far. "It's so girly!"

Jien smiles. "Nah. You're gonna have to live with it."

Chapter Text

"You're gonna have to live with it."

Gojyo hiccups, crying and fighting at the same time. Jien holds him, bearing the load of tiny fists and feet, cradling the mess of eight-year-old limbs and tears and blood. "I just wanted to know!" Gojyo bawls, over the initial shock and seized by pain and betrayal. He takes advantage of Jien's ear. "I just wanted to know about dad!"

Jien sighs and hefts the boy, repeating his comment. "You're gonna have to live with it. No matter how much I clean this out, you're going to have scars. Gojyo, let it be a lesson, okay? There are some things you just don't ask about." He sits Gojyo on the bathroom sink, pulls the dark hair away from his brother's face, and wipes at the hot, raw lines across his younger brother's cheek and nose. The two jagged marks bleed freely, and the skin around them is reddened with the stinging force of the slap that had preceded the cuts. A slap given open-palmed and too hard so claws tear into soft, vulnerable flesh. A smaller line graces the underside of Gojyo's left eye, much more shallow than its counterparts.

The child's tears clean his wounds, saline flowing into the bloody trails that drip from his chin. Gojyo tries to speak again, but is overcome by sobbing hiccups so his words are choked away. Jien knows what he is trying to say. And so he bends his head close to Gojyo's ear and whispers.

"Our father gave us our blue eyes, Gojyo. When I was younger, he was hardly ever home. I don't know much of him either. But know this. He left mom before you were born. Whenever you bring him up she remembers and feels really sad, okay? Any questions you have, you'll make mom sad." Jien grabs a bit of toilet paper and holds it to Gojyo's nose. "Blow."

When Gojyo obliges, Jien shakes his hand to make him laugh. "You got it?" he asks softly, as Gojyo's sniffles subside. "Please don't bring it up, okay?"

Gojyo nods. And then he notices the bottle in Jien's hand. "No! Don't put that on! It stings!" He tries to struggle away, nearly falling off of the rim of the sink.

Jien's hands are heavy but gentle on Gojyo, holding him up. He explains, "Bactine will help you heal. Do you want scars?"

"I don't want it to hurt any more!" Gojyo responds, tears threatening to descend again. "It hurts enough!"

Jien is too young for this. He nearly drops the dark bottle at his brother's words, flooded with sympathy and hot emotions. He is not a father, but only a brother. Only a boy himself, even if he is already shaped in the build of an adult. Jien wraps his arms around Gojyo's waist and pulls the boy into his arms, burying his face in his brother's messy mop of hair, trying desperately to keep a strong face. Gojyo squirms against him, protesting against being held, but Jien refuses to let go.

"Okay. You can keep the scars," Jien whispers, and sits Gojyo down on the sink again. He tapes gauze over the worst of the wounds, then takes Gojyo's hands. "You walk with me to your room, and you stay there until I come to get you, okay?"

Gojyo nods dumbly, following his older brother's tugging hand. When they arrive, Jien seats Gojyo on his bed, bounces him a bit, and says, "If it takes all night, just don't come out. Not until I get you. Promise me."

"I promise," says Gojyo, already reaching up to toy with the bandages.

Jien sees it coming and smiles. "And no scratching. You'll only make it worse." He closes the door on Gojyo's dejected face and goes to find his mother where he left her. He had worked to calm her first, locking Gojyo in the bathroom until she was manageable in her grief and rage, and had then left her to her own devices.

The first thing Jien notices is the bitter cold. The front door hangs open.

Jien and Gojyo have a beautiful mother. It is one of the reasons Jien could never fathom why his father holds so many mistresses. Ego, perhaps, or an urge to spread his seed far and wide. But why, when such a devoted, lovely lady is at his every beck and call? Perhaps, just perhaps they are all like that. Jien does not let himself wonder how many there were, how many there are. Whether he is the first-born son or merely the first-born from this particular female in the harem.

For the formative years of Jien's life, he played the man of the house because his father was never, ever there. Oh, his mother told him stories upon stories of this quality or that deed or how he had his father's lovely blue eyes. Every day was spent in preparation for his return, for his blessed arrival into Jien's life, for the completion of their idyllic family picture. She did not let Jien go to school, preferring to have him home to take care of her and be her company. And always, always, she looked lovingly into his lovely blue eyes.

On the famed and fabled day of his arrival, Jien had been examined perfunctorily before being shoved out of the way, called upon as cabana boy and little else. In moments where they had separated, Jien spent the time helping his mother clean laundry and listening to her happy sighs about how, now, father Sha was back for good. Jien did not sleep for their ecstatic cries.

He stayed for ten days and left before dawn on the eleventh. The staggering finality of his departure was punctuated by the lack of note, the door left carelessly unlocked and open, the subversive method he used to run away. Immediately, Jien's mother fell into deep grief, questioning her own merit and at one point turning on Jien for frightening her beloved away. Jien was too loud, too quiet, too intrusive, too scarce, too tall, too small, too ugly, any number of faults over which Jien had no control and did not know he possessed. Within weeks of the first breakdown, the true cause of his departure was discovered.

Jien had to lay his mother flat on her bed, holding her arms with his hands and pressing down heavily on her legs with his knees to keep her from beating her belly in. No matter how she thrashed, begged, pleaded, bit, fought, or writhed against him, Jien did not let up for the rest of the night and into the next day.

That last maneuver was the most perplexing to a young youkai. His mother, ripe with womanhood and fertility, pressing her body against his in foreign ways, her breasts finding the curve of his chest and her voice whispering red seduction. He did not have time to think about it as he frantically forced her body against the bed in the first time he saved his brother's life, but in the days after and the months after and the years after, her actions plagued him.

But then, in the desperate, frightened, violent darkness of the bedroom, Jien pressed his body into his mother's, clothed hip to clothed hip, knee to thigh, hand to wrist, to keep her from beating her belly in and killing the child she fully believed had driven her beloved away. When she fell asleep, he did not follow suit but instead watched her breathing and trembled with adrenaline until she awoke to fight him anew.

The months of pregnancy made Jien into an exhausted, haggard, full-grown superhero. He only saved two lives, but he saved them nearly every day. He cooked, he cleaned, he conversed, and even held some manual work hours on days he felt he could spare the time. His mother spent most of the time sleeping, and when she was awake she was often ingratiatingly pleasant, cooing to him and flattering him and touching him with all visible affection. Her fits grew fewer and further between as her breasts and belly swelled, but they were never any less violent than the first. And Jien, the unsung Brother Of The Year, would hold her down every time, sometimes talking to try to take her mind away from it but most often desperately silent until the tantrum faded into sleep.

When Gojyo was born, she wanted nothing to do with him. For the first few weeks, the most vulnerable days of the baby's life, he had no name nor care beyond Jien's arms and stolen cows' milk. And then, manic and pink-feathered, maternal instinct set in and Gojyo was treated as another beloved baby boy. Jien was wary all the time, often taking it upon himself to handle the more distasteful chores of caring for an infant lest Gojyo offend his new mother.

The most frightening moment of Gojyo's young life came when the boy was too young to be conscious of it. He opened his lovely blue eyes at his mother, laughed and grabbed her finger, suckling on it. That alone left Gojyo floating facedown in the water-barrel. When Jien found him, he was blue. Frantically, Jien pulled the baby from the water, braced him against his thigh, and tried to pound the water from Gojyo's lungs. Frigid liquid poured from the baby, but it did not breathe, purple tongue distending from behind white lips. Only under the pressure of Jien's own breath and gentle fingers did Gojyo cough and curl into a protective ball, wheezing weakly in his brother's arms. Gojyo slept for the next entire day.

Sometimes, rarely, she repented. After beating Gojyo, abusing him with words or her fists, she took her guilt and grief out on herself. And while Jien could care for Gojyo, his abilities with his mother were far more limited. In Gojyo, in Jien, she saw her lover, her would-be mate, her betrayer, and because of this neither of her sons could console her. In them she saw her own faults, blatant as her beloved's blue eyes. When her fits turned introspective, masochistic, suicidal, she dug her claws into herself and anyone who tried to stop her.

Gojyo got used to being locked in the bathroom and huddling in the tub even as he bled from fresh wounds. But Jien could never quite handle pulling his mother's bloody hands from herself and holding her down with the full length of his body until she quieted. Even as Jien grew into the figure of an adult, even as his maturity was blatant in his muscles and the lines of his face, his body could never quite overpower hers with anything less than his full effort. And as Jien grew into the figure of an adult, even in his early teens, the more his face would remind his mother of her beloved. In him she saw her own faults, and in him she saw her release. She alternated between writhing against him and trying to tear her teeth into his arm to let her up. Neither attempt succeeded, although the toll on Jien showed in the lines already working their way into his youthful features and the darkness in his lovely blue eyes.

Gojyo grew up outdoors, learning to walk with Jien on gravel paths, learning to swim with Jien in the shallows of rivers, learning to imagine and play with Jien in grassy fields. Gojyo grew up outdoors because it was the best for the three of them to leave their mother stationed in the house. Even as a rambunctious toddler, Gojyo understood how to handle himself when Jien brought him to his worksites. Through a process of trial and error, a long string of mistake and punishment, he learned never to leave Jien's side. Whenever he did, something bad happened. Jien was an important guy to have around.

Likewise, Jien grew up as Gojyo's father, letting the boy teethe on river stones with a gentle but firm grip to make sure the kid never swallowed, teaching him how to walk and run and climb trees and swim and keep his hair tied low over his ears. Jien stayed nearby as Gojyo made friends with his easy laugh and his sharp wit and the way he knew how to catch stinkbugs. Jien kept Gojyo from swimming with the other boys, from roughhousing, from learning the extent of his own strength.

If anything, their mother personally preferred Gojyo for his brutishness. When she spoke kindly or purposefully, she always spoke of pride in her species, pride in her parentage, pride in her lovers. It was from her that Gojyo learned all concepts of both soaring self-confidence and debilitating self-doubt. For even mere hours after she finished a speech on the pride and prestige of being youkai, and water sprite no less, something would set her off and she would wail and berate a cockroach Gojyo had never met but shared his face. Gojyo learned to head for the bathroom even before Jien made ready to lock him in for his own protection. Gojyo learned to keep toys in the bathtub, a ball to bounce against the wall to drown out the sobbing that tore at his insides even as a young child. Gojyo learned that he hated the sound of women crying, but he never figured out how to completely stop his ears.

Jien can smell the blood even before he gets outside. It leads him to her, the familiar tang of female and mother and Gojyo so thick and heady he fears the worst. He nearly races past her, propped as she is against the backside of the house, the side without windows from which the laden laundry lines still hang. Her blood spatters against the pristine linens, tobacco starbursts that have dulled and dried long past freshness to deep brown. Jien tears through the sheets, yanking clothespins free of the lines with the force of his movements, his frantic search until he finally finds her pillowed by nothing more than the grass.

The force of repentance is heavy as the executioner's axe. The blade did not go all the way through the glistening tubes in her neck, but far enough and hard enough to crack her spine. The tears are gone from her, but the bloodstained expression of horrified, choking scream remains cemented into her features as rigid hands refuse to release the handle of the axe. Blood paints the house, the grass, her dress, the axe, the freshly washed bed sheets blowing in the evening breeze.

Jien can't bring himself to go to her, and acts upon the only impulse he can grasp. The word repeats over and over, thrumming in his blood like the only concrete thing in the world. Without even tears, Jien runs back into the house, grabs a bag and begins to stuff clothes into it. He plans routes in his head, digging under his bed for the money he'd been saving, the pocket change left over after buying a lifetime's groceries. After so many years, he has spent none of it, but the coinage barely fills a sock from toe to heel. It will have to be enough. He does not think of how he will tell Gojyo. Gojyo knows to follow him, Gojyo knows to obey him, Gojyo knows to trust him. For now, it will have to be enough.

run, run, run, run, Run, Run, Run, Run, RUN, RUN, RUN...

Gojyo grins like a maniac, running home as fast as he can, a slip of paper clutched tightly in his hand. The ground is solid under his feet and, although the limiter hinders his movements to their fullest, he is fast enough to fly. He throws his arms out, crouching low and pounding through the center of town, to the house he and Jien share. When he gets there, he fidgets and fumbles with his key, finally slamming into the house and whooping loudly.

"Jien! Jien, I know you're here! Come here! Come and see!" he cries, bouncing.

A cloud of steam precedes Jien's entrance. He is clothed in nothing more than a towel, dripping from his hair to his toes and wearing an expression of urgent curiosity. He hasn't even had time to slip his limiter on after his shower, and so appears before Gojyo in naked glory. Even though they are related, Gojyo is unused to the sight of his brother, ever the prude, so bare to him. He holds the paper in front of Jien's face to keep water and claws away from it.

It takes Jien a moment to read it, having learned to read not long before Gojyo did and severely out of practice with it. Not to mention said brother's constant vibration. When he finally gets through it, he laughs and gives Gojyo an affectionate, congratulatory noogie.

"Bro, that's awesome. See what you can actually pull off?" he asks, fumbling a bit when the motion causes his towel to slip.

Gojyo grins, haughtily rubbing his nose with his thumb. "Yeahwell, I figured if I had to try I'd do it right. 'S what you get for teachin' me how to read."

Jien grins right back at him. "I ought to guilt-trip you more often." Before Gojyo can retort to that, Jien laughs and adds, "So what do you say I do something special tonight to help celebrate?"

"You gonna put clothes on?" Gojyo jibes, poking at his brother's bare stomach.

Jien shrugs. "What, you jealous? You runt." He gives Gojyo a playful cuff to the shoulder. "Don't go nerdy on me. Let me go get some clothes and then we'll figure out something cool to do for dinner." Jien is about to retreat back to the bathroom for his clothes when he stops and, without turning around, orders, "You do your homework first. I want to see it when you're through."

Gojyo huffs, muttering with the sufficient amount of teen angst, and winces when Jien adds, "And remember to lock the front door!"

Jien wonders if, had Gojyo been any older, if Gojyo had questioned him, if Gojyo had resisted in the slightest, he would have left his brother.

True, the first blind hours of running, stumbling, dragging him by the hand through descending night were punctuated by questions, but never once did Gojyo pull his hand away, always following and trusting and believing in Jien's decision. When the adrenaline ebbed, Gojyo's faith was the force behind Jien's movements. When fatigue set in to his muscles, when he felt the lightness of his makeshift purse, when twilight gave way to starless pitch, Gojyo's young hand still rested in his.

The first night, Jien fed them from bread stolen from the pantry. He marveled at his own level-headedness, how he remembered to bring clothes for any weather, extra socks for them both, and food, food, food. He marveled at his own instincts in keeping them near the river, away from people but always near the river for water and some semblance of direction. He wondered where he'd learned how to make a fire, how to curl his body around Gojyo's so the boy slept soundly and warmly and without ache in the morning, even without blankets. He dreaded the less-frantic time where he would have to explain to Gojyo exactly why they had to run.

Jien did not question why he ran in the first place, only moving on from sheer instinct, always moving and sometimes having to carry a sleeping Gojyo and both their sacks just to keep going. By the end of the third day, he removed his limiter for the added stamina and secreted it in the bottom of his pack. Gojyo talked to him, mainly about the birds and bugs they saw on the way, about animals he could smell and how the sky looked and how sick he was of eating old bread.

After twelve days, they were out of food. Jien did not want to teach Gojyo to steal, feeling the eight-year-old's psyche was skewed enough, and so instead they learned together how to hunt. They hunted like animals, with teeth and claws and stealth and Gojyo most often staying behind with their packs of clothes so Jien could handle it quickly and quietly. Gojyo disliked being left behind, but after enough stern words from Jien he obeyed. On days when Jien felt it better, knew they had leftover supplies and was sure of his own abilities in the coming days, he let Gojyo come with him. The kid was never very good at sitting still enough to lure a rabbit or a bird near enough to him, didn't have the patience for fishing, but when he did manage to grab something it was always big. The first time Jien and Gojyo ever tasted venison, it was from a catch Gojyo had grabbed by the throat.

Gojyo took quickly to hunting larger animals, and within those weeks and slow months, his muscles grew straining and full for big, anaerobic bursts of energy. His ears were trained to every sound of prey animal, and he hunted savagely, ate heavily, tore into things with claws and teeth. He grew impatient and animalistic, yanking half-cooked meat away from the fire with a growl and sucking the bone clean before Jien had finished cooking his own meal. His talkative nature ebbed as the river thinned until, one day, they both disappeared into the undergrowth. Gojyo did not so much walk as prowl, shouldering his pack and stalking with his head down and his shoulders back, breathing deeply and feeling the strength in his own pulse. He only answered Jien's questions when he had to, and the change in him did not go unnoticed.

When Jien and Gojyo came upon a small one-room house, a stately sort of shack, abandoned in the middle of a forest, Jien shoved Gojyo inside and pronounced it their permanent home. Gojyo protested, having grown to love sleeping under the stars and waking in the morning with game-scent in the back of his throat. Jien insisted, and began cleaning the place out to punctuate his point. He dug his limiter out of his pack and put it on, but did not force Gojyo to wear his own.

Jien put up every affectation of domesticity, forcing Gojyo to follow suit as they cleaned the floors, tested the pipes, bathed under frigid water for the first time in months. Jien was again in charge, imposing the rule of 'no hunting' from then on, determined to bring his brother to some semblance of civility again. Jien dipped into their precious savings to buy groceries and had Gojyo chop wood to make a fire for cooking. Jien brought Gojyo with him on his hunt for jobs, finding that the path that ended at their doorway actually came from a modest town in need of an able-bodied, helpful young man to aid in construction of a schoolhouse.

The schoolteachers, for there were two of similar height and build, stood as lovely blonde pillars to welcome Jien to the construction site. While one immediately took to Gojyo, leading him away from the working young men and entertaining him with games and her friendly nature, the other was an able-bodied young man himself, and worked alongside Jien. On their breaks, he taught Jien how to read. The admission had not come easy to the dark-haired liar, the mellow youkai masquerading as a man, but once it slipped into the open, his companion was more than willing to help him, as easy as sharing his name. It was one of the first things Jien learned how to spell, after his own. "Jien" and "Genichi", scrawled together in the dirt, once in an experienced flourish and again in a shaky, copying hand, was the first real triumph Jien felt. Once Jien learned well enough, he taught Gojyo. And Gojyo, like sinking his teeth into the soft, hot flesh of a deer, took to reading with natural talent and fervor. He spent his days reading under the watchful eye of the sister-teacher, while Jien worked with Genichi and shook his hand once the schoolhouse was finished. His pay at the end of every week was meager enough, but it was enough to live on and that was all that mattered.

Near the place's completion, children had begun to flow out of the woodwork, urged by their parents, the curious and forward-thinking parents that wondered at life beyond repairs of the family tavern, or of their own accord. These children gathered around the sister, the blonde pillar of welcoming and wealth, and by right of position they also gathered around Gojyo.

Gojyo learned from Jien how to tie his hair low over his ears. Gojyo learned from Jien how to read and how to speak politely to his elders and not call Terue by her first name but by Ito-sensei, no matter what he wanted. But Gojyo's rapport with the children that came by was entirely his own merit. He gravitated toward the pretty girls that giggled and tried to touch his scars, and to the much younger boys that poked bugs with sticks and cried when they accidentally popped themselves with their slingshots. They gravitated to him, and the ones that knew how to read as well as he did lent him books to take home and bring back the next day to laugh about. And always, always, Terue stood close by with a protective arm always in reach of Gojyo, either to shield him from children's cruelty or to grab his collar before he enacted some of his own.

It was easy for Jien to love them. He learned what he could from Genichi, that the two of them had a dream of creating a school in a place not so rich as all the others, that they wanted to welcome all who wanted to learn, that they would have to rely on kindnesses and donations, that they would pay Jien the world if they could, but they'd always known this would be a financial struggle. It was easy for Jien to love the honesty, the self-sacrifice, the hard work in them. He could see their iron backbones and his own straightened a bit further in camaraderie.

Gojyo was welcome to the school once it had been finished, and Jien urged Gojyo to go, even if he was three years older than the beginning class where he would have to start out. The deal was sweetened when Gojyo learned that all the classes were taught by the two blondes in the same room, and that he could pay attention to the higher levels if he chose. Of course, when school really started, Gojyo learned that he was far ahead of the majority of the populace for his ability in reading, and slid through his lessons with relative ease. He made friends quickly, and enemies soon after that for his strange looks and his cheeky attitude toward other boys. But the fighting didn't start until Gojyo finally got up the nerve to talk to Jien.

It had been over a year since the night he'd left, nearly popping his arm from his socket because he couldn't keep up with Jien's big strides and the insistent pulling on his hand. Over a year since the first frantic, blind stumble through the night where his only anxiety came from how shaken Jien was. Over a year since Jien told him it was best to really not ask questions that might make people sad.

They had been curled up on a brand-new mattress, just one without a bed frame, but a mattress won thanks to Jien's hard labor, and about to go to sleep after a meal of rice and cheap, unseasoned chicken. His eyes had been open and Jien's had been closed, but he knew Jien was awake from the too-even breathing and the too-still sleep posture. Jien always fidgeted when he slept, twitching from his dreams.

Gojyo prodded his brother in the shoulder and whispered, "Where's mom?"

Jien's eyes had snapped open, lighting blearily first on nothing, then settling on Gojyo's face with a mixture of hurt surprise and heavy sorrow. Gojyo had stared right back at him, insistent and feeling a bit hurt himself. He repeated the question, and Jien reached up and put a hand, a deceptively human-looking hand, over his mouth. "I'll tell you," Jien whispered, "if you don't stop me until I'm done."

Gojyo had nodded, and Jien had spoken. Gojyo waited through every agonizing second, straining to hear his brother struggle to tell him secret words that grated across his ears and tied his gut into knots. He did not react until Jien finished, too stunned to move until silence closed in again and Gojyo did not have to fight to hear him and then, for lack of anything else, Gojyo rolled over and cried. He cried until he bled inside, for all he knew, sobbing hard into the mattress and fighting Jien when he tried to touch his back and comfort him. He cried until there were no more tears in him, though the heaving sobs did not stop until he felt like vomiting, stumbled away from Jien and the mattress and locked himself in the bathroom. Gojyo huddled in the tub, turned on the frigid water and screamed himself hoarse.

His voice rang against the dingy tile for long seconds after he stopped, turned off the water, and lay down with his face against the drain. Impossibly, tears came again. Jien had sworn up and down that it was not Gojyo's fault. The boy knew better. Somewhere, he'd always known better.

Chapter Text

Cold, hard, unyielding. When his eyes blearily open, blood stains his hair red and glues him to his bed. He aches in the palms of his hands and down the side of his face. He clutches metal made hot by his body, but the pain arching through the sterile swipes in his skin is frigid to the point of burning.

Slowly, panic lancing through his gut, he pulls his body away from the bed. His hand will not release the strange staff, will not loosen the white-knuckled hold brought on by nightmares and adrenaline. He stands, shaking, and throws it away from him. It clangs loudly, the metal rings that hang against the blades chiming with the welcome of brutality.

Bleeding. He needs to stop the bleeding. He reaches up to touch his face and hisses at the sharp reawakening of pain, the fresh spurt of heat over his fingers. Blood frightens him and he does not know how much he can handle, does not know whether the amount left on his pillow is something he should have saved. Wryly, he entertains a morbid joke about sleeping in.

It's staring at him. He knows the look, deeper than his reflection, the attention of an inanimate object slick with the leftovers of its penetrating tryst with his unconsciousness. It waited patiently for him to come awake, to pull his heat away and to deal with the sticky remnants of the act. The razor-sharp smiles at either end of the staff stare back at him with his own reflection. The top of the staff, the side that had sliced into his cheek in his sleep, is hazed with his blood and dyes his gaze red. He had clutched the strange staff like a prayer, though he has no faith in God. He had clutched it like a lover though it stung him, though the touch of women is, for all his bragging, foreign and shameful. He had clutched it like a child. The unfeeling metal rod allowed itself to be encircled in his arms for the small price of cutting him open where the blade became his pillow. In return, his nightmares stole his heat and his hands cramped as they wore their prints into the metal.

He glares into the betrayal, clamping his hand over his face, and stumbles closer to the door. He stares at the staff, wary and very near the breaking point of panic. It does not attack. Yet it exists, and he knows he never consciously brought something like it into the house, into his room, into his bed. He has never seen anything like it before, so efficient and harsh. It smiles lovingly at him with his own worried, bloody face and contents itself to sit in the corner where it landed. He begins to wonder if Jien is playing with him, knowing his brother's skewed sense of humor.

He opens his door, still walking backwards, still looking at the thing. He walks into Jien.

The first thing Jien notices is the blood, and he comes very close to swearing but curbs it for the sake of a little brother too grown-up for the care. Jien closes his eyes, remembers to breathe, and sees the staff. He puts his arm around Gojyo then, and smiles a little.

"I was beginning to wonder," he says, "if you were ever gonna do it at all, bloodline or no. Guess you're just a late bloomer, huh?"

And, to Gojyo's astonishment and testosterone-jolting thrill, Jien produces a bone sword from thin air. The staff Gojyo had thrown away grins in recognition, nearly humming in anticipation.

This is the wonder of puberty.

Gojyo rocks his hips, deftly undoing blouse buttons and eliciting a laugh from beneath him when his fingers linger to tickle sensitive skin. He grins down at her, bending in for a kiss and nearly recoiling at the amount of alcohol on her breath. He knows what girls can handle, and this one has had too much. He sits up a bit, bringing her with him and rubbing her back.

"Hey, hey, maybe this isn't the best idea, Ai-chan," he says, using his pet name for her. "You're drunk."

Aiko shoves a hand into her curly, brown hair and blinks muzzily. "Didja get that bruise for me?" she asks, pointing at it with a wobbling hand.

Gojyo grins, reaching up to touch the latest set of knuckle-prints. "Jiayi still ain't gotten it through his head about you an' me," he explains, making ready to hoist her into a standing position. "Come on, up."

"You got so many scars for me," Aiko says dreamily, trying clumsily to kiss him again. She reaches up with thick, heavy fingers and runs them over his nose. "But what boy gave you those?"

Gojyo winces and nearly shoves Aiko to her feet. "Come on," he says, nearly growling. "Let's get you home." The walk away from the bar is silent except for Aiko singing to herself, and Gojyo realizes he doesn't like her voice at all. Her fingers are also offensive, traveling from his nose to linger on the silver band at his throat. He slaps her hand away and deposits her at her back door, trusting her to get inside before he slips away.

He walks home through other peoples' backyards, listening to night animals move and thinking despondently about Aiko. Stupid girls, he snarls inwardly. Always pokin' at me. What do they want, my life story? Stupid girls. Like she could take it.

There are others, and there would always be others for Gojyo. At seventeen, his body has completely filled out, and his lankiness has gone from awkward to able, stacked with wiry muscles for back-alley fights to the tune of five-against-one and no-one on Gojyo's side. At seventeen, he's perfected his cocky grin, and the exact way to look up at someone through his eyelashes, and how to purr while kissing a girl he wants so she wants him too. At seventeen, he's grown attached enough to the limiter and gotten a few piercings to match so the accessory looks intentional. At fourteen he learned how to play poker, and at seventeen he's paraded his skill and the fact that he doesn't have to hold a steady job to wear better shoes than yours. At seventeen, he can hold his liquor better than you can, too.

At seventeen, he's experimented with Jien on quiet Sunday nights, learned the limits of his body, and gotten excited about pushing them. Jien sleeps through Sunday morning to prepare for Gojyo's demanding sessions, and has given up on staying one step ahead. The neighbors have learned not to ask about the clash of metal and the muffled grunts. He has learned how to summon a weapon, how to handle it with skill, how to block Jien's blows and how to keep Jien from blocking his. He has learned when to stop and how to wrap his wounds without Jien's help.

He has learned that liquor is more than a good disinfectant, and that Bactine is the least of his worries.

Gojyo tromps home through other peoples' property, cooling down in both rage and arousal until he is just tired and hopes he doesn't stink so much of alcohol as Aiko did. Jien stopped yelling at him for it a while ago, but Jien still gives him admonishing looks, playing the father he was never allowed to ask about. When he does make it, he slips in through the back door and locks himself into the bathroom for a cold, soapy, cleansing shower.

Jien couldn't get Gojyo out of the bathroom until Gojyo unlocked it on his own. And when he did, he emerged dry and clean, without a hint of tearstains or lack of sleep. His voice was clear, his teeth were brushed, and he ate. He ate well, and whatever Jien put in front of him. But he read less, and was sluggish in communication. His responses were monosyllabic, only answering when Jien posed a direct question to him. He tore into food, slept his days away, preferring to walk around at night and thinking Jien didn't know. He began getting into territorial fights at school, intentionally stepping on toes.

Jien sat in denial of it, going about his own work, digging ditches for irrigation, mending fences and roofs. He sweated in the sun alongside Genichi, donating what money he could to the school as his friend did for his sister. It was impossible to handle teaching and eating on no money. Even though the school was popular beyond what they expected, the donations were close to nil on average from each family, and so Genichi had to leave his sister to work as he had before, bending over in the sunlight to earn food and supplies for the both of them. Jien worked next to him, helped him, kept an eye out for anything that might cause undue injury or any hindrance to him. Being a superhero was easy after years of practice.

Jien sat in denial of Gojyo's behavior, not wanting to remember the running time, the fugitive and beastly hours spent trying to coax civility out of the brother that would tear throats out of animals twice his size. Not wanting to think about the triggers to his behavior or the overwhelming sense of failure in playing part in Gojyo's problems. Plagued by if-only, Jien had to be forced into action by a direct summons from the teacher.

The conference did not go well. Simply put, Jien was humiliated, both as a guardian and for Gojyo's sake. Having everything he did not want to believe shoved in his face was sobering enough, but by a woman he had come to adore as well as his own sister, and by a man whose presence in his life was at that time irreplaceable, the insult turned to near-grief. And yet, Jien was at a loss. Before, he had forced Gojyo into civility by finding him a place to live that had a roof and a kitchen and steady meals beyond hunting. This resurgence broke the power of a home so weak as to still have the mattress on the floor.

So Jien got the mattress off of the floor. Jien thought better than Gojyo did, despite the younger's education. Jien thought of the future, always the future, to dampen down the effects of his past. Jien had saved a bit of his pay away in the sock until the sock overflowed and then Jien used his rain boots. By that time, the boots were nearly full to the top, both of them, with coins preciously hoarded as loose change and tips. With it, Jien took Gojyo from the forest and bought a house on the outskirts of town, close to the school and close to neighbors and close to people and away from the beasts. The mattress rested on good wooden planking rather than moldy carpet, and the water had heat, and the windows actually opened.

The move depleted Jien's savings to the point of even insulting the original sock, but it was enough. Gojyo still fought at school, but less often. Gradually, he talked more. There were fights, but verbal fights talked out without fists or teeth or claws or locking oneself in the bathroom.

Gojyo learned about how good boys get girls. And put his own spin on it. Gojyo learned to read fluently, so that he could speak as he read and not skip a beat when he didn't know a word. Those instances grew fewer and fewer between. Gojyo took jobs on the weekends when he could, helping Jien and his teacher's brother, or pulling weeds, or lugging produce to stock carts in the town square. Gojyo learned what it was like to have neighbors, to be a neighbor, and how not to offend. Gojyo learned when it was okay not to be sorry. Later, Gojyo learned how to play poker and stopped stocking carts and digging ditches in favor of really pissing his elders off by cleanly winning their money from them. And Gojyo learned that Jien was a good guy to have around, that Jien was smarter than he looked, and that there were just some things you never wanted to ask Jien and that Jien never wanted to tell you.

Gojyo towel-dries his hair, being mindful of his ears as he lets friction do its work to dry his hair and clear his head, and then slips the limiter back on his neck out of force of habit. After it come the earrings, three in the left ear and one in the right and a modest barbell stud in the right eyebrow, all silver to match the limiter. They make him ugly and they offset the scars and they highlight his beautiful blue eyes. The pain in getting them wasn't much at all. If nothing else, they're things to play with when he's bored or nervous.

Gojyo dresses in clean clothes and pads, barefooted, down the hall to the sound of familiar voices. Sensing that he is about to walk in on something private and personal, Gojyo speeds up his pace until he comes to the doorway of the den and kitchen.

Jien sits at the small table and his former teacher sits across from him, sobbing into the hardwood. Beyond being a student, beyond using her surname as a measure of respect, he calls to her and comes to her side, resting his hand on her shoulder.

"Terue! What's going on?" Gojyo asks, hating the sound of her crying and wishing she would stop.

Jien looks at him in a way that forces Gojyo's heart into his throat. He has seen this look on his brother only twice before, only when he asks questions. But Gojyo has to know, despite himself. Only trembling slightly, he repeats the question.

Jien looks from him to the crying woman by his side, waiting for a go-ahead. When she leans into Gojyo's hand and nods, Jien sighs. "The family they left behind in the west has been slaughtered by an expanding youkai clan. Genichi left to go pick up the pieces."

"He's not going to come back," Terue sobs weakly, blonde hair catching in her eyelashes and so removed from the authoritative figure she had been during her conferences with Jien. So removed from the straight and tall voice echoing from the front of the classroom managing thirty children from ages five to fifteen, in Gojyo's special case. "He's going to do what he can there, and he's going to go off and try to fix things. Make it like it never happened. He's not going to come back until that place is spotless, and there's not going to be anything to rebuild."

Gojyo would normally tell her that Genichi's choice is his own, but he knows the financial status of the school, knows how Terue depends on her brother, how she lives alone and lives for the school alone. When the words come from him, they are hardly his own. "Do you want one of us to go get him?"

Terue's bright green eyes fly wide open, staring tear-reddened up at Gojyo. "I couldn't ask that of you! I can hardly ask anything of you, but I didn't know where else to go…" She sniffles again, wiping at her eyes. Gojyo hates watching her do it, pulls her shoulder against his chest and gives her a tight hug before letting go.

"Jien should go. I bet you he's sick of taking care of me all this time anyway." Gojyo looks over to his brother, having successfully stymied even himself with the words. But they continue to come, spurred by the idea of being a bachelor, the need to give Jien more to his life than taking care of Gojyo, the desire to make Terue stop crying. "I could help you pay for the school and maybe once Jien gets back with Genichi things'll all work out okay."

Jien smiles, a sorrowful little quirk in his mouth. "You're such a kid," he mutters, voice choked with affection and something else.

Three days later, Jien leaves without telling Gojyo goodbye.

Gojyo despises being told that it's not his fault. And yet she keeps repeating it as if it makes a difference, as if he hears it and it does something to mitigate the sting of failure and the permeating ache of exhaustion.

The school didn't last four months with Jien and Genichi gone. Gojyo had even taken regular jobs to supplement his gambling, but providing food, supplies, and care for himself and Terue had been far too much to ask. Terue had tried to hold a night job, but when her teaching suffered Gojyo had insisted she leave it all to him.

He had told Jien to leave. He had taken the load upon himself. He had refused her help. And now he watches as the building sits unused, even the desks remaining untouched because the wood is so marred with ink it is no good to burn. Whenever he sees her, she gives him a big smile and a loving welcome into the little house made so big by Genichi's absence. They talk about when Gojyo was younger, and when they first met, and what Gojyo has been reading lately. The names that never appear in conversation, however, hang heavy between them, their private skeletons in the shape of an elephant in the corner.

Gojyo knows about the rumors that had started even the day after Jien left and he shouldered Terue's burden on his own. He knows they still manifest whenever they visit one another, but he doesn't care. There are just some lines he will not cross, and since both he and Terue know it, neither is affected.

After Terue gave up the struggle of teaching, she became a fruit merchant, helping a local family sell in the town square with her pretty face and bright attitude. Gojyo, left to his own devices, frequents bars to win his wages in poker and drinking contests. As in school, the women gravitate toward Gojyo whenever he sits down to play, complimenting him on his eyes and watching as his muscles move under his clothes. Some who live in nearby houses watch him as he trains on Sunday night, sparring with his own shadow and a ferocious grin. But Gojyo, above all things, is aware of the curse of fertility and so refuses many prospective bed partners. He learns to prefer older women, for their skill and quick honesty and their lack of romantic notion about boys and the ickiness of condoms. He learns to know all of them, and knows the working hours of their husbands.

Gojyo masquerades as the Handyman, repairing roofs for pay to gamble with and bedding the owners' wives if they ask. Gojyo repairs Terue's roof for free. She knows what he does, but he is not her son and there are just some lines Gojyo won't cross. Gojyo learns to smoke because Genichi hates it and he wonders why.

Gojyo learns to hate the monthly mail, because nothing ever comes for him. This does not bother him so much as the fact that there are never messages for Terue. Gojyo learns that having a pierced eyebrow only draws attention to the worry lines his forehead takes when his eyebrows raise, and he learns that removing some of the metal from his ears as well means fewer tangles in his hair come the morning. Gojyo is young, so the holes heal while the scars remain.

Gojyo watches as people come and go, migrating through the town on their own life-cycles with or without his interference. Though he has no shortage of passing friends, though he is always welcome with Terue despite the cloud of anticipation, though books are a luxury he affords himself like smoking cigarettes, Gojyo grows bored.

Gojyo does not mind the rain so much. In fact, he rather likes it if only because it makes the world smell clean when it stops. He has the passing affection of a man in a warm, dry bed being lulled by the sound of droplets when post-coital haze just doesn't cut it. Rain pulls him into deep sleep and makes it that much harder to get up in the morning, hiding both the cutting silver edge of moonlight and the blatant brightness of the sun.

After sleeping through one of the best nights of his life, Gojyo awakens to a town that is clean, drying, and buzzing in the noonday sun. It is not until he goes barhopping later that night that he learns the topic of everyone's conversation.

Gojyo's main haunt always has a seat open for him, and he takes it at the poker table without so much as a warning before greetings sound all around. "Hey, guys," he responds, jangling the coins in his pocket. "You tell me when the next round starts so I can get in on it." He winks at the pretty girls around him and lights a cigarette.

A handsome young man with long, dark hair and an abominable hand folds and leans over next to Gojyo. "Oi, did you hear?"

Gojyo grunts, turning to him. "Lemme in the loop, Tongpu."

The other players hear a story coming and only mutter niceties of the game, waiting for it to come out. Repetition of new gossip is better than recycling of old. Tongpu grins. "You that interested in gossip?"

"Hey, you're the one who offered it in the first place." Gojyo blows smoke out of the corner of his mouth, aware of Tongpu's proximity and trying not to smother him. "Oi," he gestures to a passing waitress, "can I order?"

She smiles at him. "I know your usual, Blue-eyes. Be right back with it."

Tongpu's brow furrows and he mutters, "You banged her, didn't you."

Gojyo affects a look of innocence. "The hell are you talking about? I was kinda hopin' this week's gossip –wasn't- about me."

A new hand is dealt and Tongpu nearly misses out on it, but one of the other players kicks him from across the table. "Yeah yeah," Tongpu says, checking out the cards and making a disgusted face before throwing them back in. "No doubles, no faces, nonsuit as you can get." He takes a swig of beer as Gojyo's is brought, and makes a mock-toast with him. Gojyo does not catch the waitress' eyes, but Tongpu sees her trying to initiate the visual contact. Instead, Gojyo's gaze is trained on him. He notices his friend's eyes are demanding, and gives in. "Right. Well, I heard from a friend of a friend that someone found this guy in the woods bleedin' all over the place. It was last night, and this kid was cut from collar to nads spillin' his guts onto the ground. He's been in a coma at the doctor's ever since they stitched him up. Nobody knows who he is or where he's from, but they say he's got real funky jewelry on him. Apparently they can't keep the nurses out of his room, he's that good-looking."

Gojyo snorts. "It's only been a night. What is he, a god?" Gojyo rests his elbows on the table, leaning forward to cradle his chin in his hands. "He came in that messed up? And they found him alone?"

A knowledgeable face across the table nods authoritatively. "Completely alone. There were footprints but they were obviously his, just one trail leadin' to the body and that was it. Like he'd walked from wherever he got messed up, you know? Hell if that was true, though, with wounds that big and that deep. Like someone had put their hand through his stomach or something. S'posed to be a fuckin' miracle he's still livin', even a veggie."

"Language." Gojyo jerks a thumb over his shoulder and the girls laugh, hovering still closer. "But damned if that's not a lucky break on him. They gonna keep him at the doc's?"

The man Gojyo had reprimanded bore the insult with dignity, partially influenced by a winning hand. As he collects on the bids, he shrugs. "Got a sister who's a nurse. She says the place is too small for him but hell if anybody'd take him in. You figure he's got enemies like crazy to get cut up like that."

A new round is dealt and Gojyo is included. He mutters, "Well, it'll be his problem when he wakes up then. Hope the poor bastard sleeps for a month or two."

Tongpu laughs. "Maybe this hole'll finally have a tourist attraction."

Gojyo snorts and throws some money onto the table. "Call."

It shouldn't bother Gojyo as much as it does, the phrase "funky jewelry". Yet Tongpu's words reverberate in his head, the snatch of gossip passed from a friend of a friend of a friend over beer and cigarettes and lengths of clothesline and backyard fences.

He should have died. He has strange jewelry. Enemies that could cut his body wide open and a body that could still travel, walking for miles in the rain.

It is a perverse pastime of Gojyo's, trying to find other youkai. Kindred spirits, the oppressed hiding in a human world and getting along with humans and hiding the truth from everyone they know. He's only found a few, not even trusting himself to take off his limiter and use his nose but going about it the hard way, through learning their lives and watching their clothes. It kills the boredom and they always move on before either they or Gojyo can slip up about one another. Gojyo wouldn't do it, but he doesn't trust anybody else to handle it except for Jien. Jien and Terue. But there is a sense of obligation to prove understanding when he confronts someone else about his species. They are both members of a secret club, and it is only right for one member to reveal himself when discovering another.

Gojyo wants to see him, wants to see the damage to him and the jewelry they found on him and why, just why it is so impossible to get the nurses to leave him alone. More than anything else, Gojyo knows the beauty of broken things, the twinkle of blue eyes in a scarred face. Gojyo knows the allure of dangerous things, of fighting and rutting and drinking before his time, and already his neighbors' words have set a thrill through his blood. Enemies that could slit a man, maybe a youkai, maybe a god from throat to groin. And the guy gets up and moves afterward.

Gojyo's hands itch to fight him. Gojyo wants desperately to test his body against this stranger, this renegade idol made notorious by excited mouths and a bloody puddle in the forest. Gojyo wants to fight with him and fight beside him and see the character of his strength and the strength of his character.

When Gojyo gets up the nerve to try and see him, so many curious townspeople had come before that he is turned away without a second glance. Nobody is admitted to see the patient, the nameless man, except for family. We don't know his name, so he himself must verify whether or not you are related. Thus, under a system of comatose admission the mystery patient rests undisturbed while Gojyo fidgets through his days and waits for his awakening.

Terue notices, after the third time Gojyo has come by to see if she needs maintenance in as many weeks. She has had him pull weeds, fix shutters, build furniture, but she will not allow him to touch the plumbing for fear of flooding his freshest handiwork. When Gojyo comes to see her for the third time in as many weeks, Terue brings him inside and sits him down with a cup of decaf coffee and a wry comment about not wanting to compound his nervous energy.

"Is something the matter, Gojyo?" she asks, taking a seat in her lonely, tired chair and resting her feet on the slightly off-level footstool Gojyo built for her last week.

Gojyo runs his hands up and down the hot sides of the mug, staring into his untouched decaf. "Just can't get settled."

She laughs gently, responding, "Well how many more years is it going to take you?"

Gojyo laughs weakly in response, nothing more than a soft, high sound that dies quickly into silence. And then, as is his fashion, he blurts out what is on his mind. "D'you…d'you know anything about that guy in the hospital?"

Terue's yellow-green eyes widen, and she sits speechless for a few moments. Thinking better of chiding him about gossip, knowing the same rumors he's heard, she says, "Not more than you do."

"I found the footprints. They were like big mud puddles by the time I got to 'em but I know they were his footprints out there. They came from the west." Gojyo looks up at her, his voice quiet but firm. "You can't tell me you haven't been thinking about it. What if he's youkai? What if he's really from further out west? He might…might know something." He trails off even as the idea turns to ash in his mouth. He can't bring himself to meet Terue's compassionate eyes.

"West can mean any number of things, Gojyo," she says softly, gently. "I did think about it. But we can't get our hopes up about it, you know that. If he happened to be involved with…with…our brothers," even now, she can hardly bring herself to say their names, "he would probably be on the side of the youkai that killed my parents in the first place. It's been two years, Gojyo, there's no way…"

Gojyo bites down on his lower lip, frustration welling into tears that he fervently beats back. "You're probably right," he mutters through clenched teeth, looking again into the black depths of his cooling coffee. "But it won't stop me from thinking."

Chapter Text

Sha Jien is very skilled at wrapping wounds. It comes in handy, now more than ever. Wrapping blisters on sore feet and shovel-worn hands, soothing scratches from miles of unforgiving undergrowth, recovering from skirmish after skirmish. Liquor is a good enough disinfectant, a good anesthetic, and it helps him to forget.

Jien never completely forgets. He could never completely erase Genichi, but the cause is lost. He'd known it from the morning he woke before the sun. Before he'd packed his bags and hid them where Gojyo couldn't see, before he'd even fully listened to Terue's first tearful telling of the story. Jien had last seen Genichi at work beside him, and it was the last he would ever see.

Drinking himself into oblivion is not a habit, but on the nights without sleep that come when the moon is bright and he can see all of himself, when he thinks about removing his limiters and stalking through civilization just to catch the scent of Genichi, when he thinks about leaving all he had worked to accomplish behind, Jien has no misgivings about reaching for the bottle. He has no doubts that he will never see Genichi again, nor Terue, nor Gojyo.

That last name always wrenches a curse from the pit of his gut. He shudders with guilt and nostalgia and love and shame for the weight of baggage he carries for no one else to see, and curses leaving.

Jien could not have survived another day with Gojyo. Not in that house, not in that town, not with that brother so close and so heavy on him. He might have woken up the next morning and forgotten everything he ever knew. Jien couldn't live with a hole in his life left by a brother who desperately wanted to fix things. It reminds Jien of everything he couldn't fix. Of bloody bedsheets and water barrels and Bactine and axes and his life savings filling a solitary sock.

Jien can't even fill a sock anymore.

He had never set out to find Genichi, instead trying to make his way out, away, on his own. Without a younger brother to care for, without a school to support, without damsels in distress, this superhero wanders from job to job and remembers how to hunt and kill. He remembers how to fight when it isn't just for fun.

Jien fills his days with odd jobs, digging trenches and building houses and repairing rooftops, wherever his brawn is needed and he does not have to talk. He sleeps inside only when he is sure he can still buy breakfast, or when it rains. Still, some days he has to hunt, and on those days he remembers how to make a fire and cook his food even when he is so hungry he could tear the raw meat from the bones. Jien hunts naked, without his limiters and without his one good set of clothes he uses to go into civilization. Jien hunts near rivers, so he can dive in and clean the blood away before scrambling back into his armor. Jien hunts when he absolutely must, and while the meat is cooking on his fire he leans over the river and shaves his face with his bone sword. He refuses to use it anywhere else.

"Aw, but why?"

Jien stares sternly down at his brother. But not by much. Gojyo is getting bigger, and the blue eyes glaring right back at him over bloody gauze and bandages are filled with stubborn spirit. "You know perfectly well why. You already get into fights at school, Gojyo, and I can't risk you giving in to the temptation to pull out a dangerous weapon on a bunch of humans." He locks the door to the closet, hiding the glinting madness of Gojyo's summoned staff behind a solid layer of wood. "If, by the time you're sixteen your grades have improved and the fighting has stopped," and here Jien levels a glare meaning completely, "we'll talk."

Gojyo turns away, sulking. "That's so not fair. Why don't you put your sword in the closet then, huh?"

Jien grins a bit. "That wouldn't be logical. After all, I've got the key." He rubs his brother's head affectionately. "Come on, let's get your mind off of it."

Gojyo grabs Jien's wrist. "Nuh uh. Now's the perfect time to give me the birds and the bees."

"I thought you already had that covered?" Jien asks teasingly, laughter in his voice, still trying to goad Gojyo away from the subject.

The young man laughs facetiously, trying the knob to the closet just in case Jien made a mistake when he thought he'd locked it. "You know what I mean! I at least knew I was gonna have morning stiffs but how the fuck was I supposed to know about shit like that?"

Gojyo yelps when Jien dings him about the ear. "Language." He walks away, shoving his hands into his pockets and his key with them. "Look, let me make you breakfast and I'll tell you."

Gojyo beats Jien to the kitchen, yanking open the fridge and pulling out eggs, cheese, and every onion they own. As he does, he mutters to himself about the injustice of Jien's treatment of him, much to his elder brother's amusement.

Once the eggs are in the pan and sizzling, Jien begins talking but not yelling over the sound of an omelet in progress. "Okay. Gojyo…geez, this isn't easy to say outright…Gojyo, don't take this the wrong way, but we're pretty much freaks."

Gojyo's eyebrows shoot into his hairline. "Oh, really. So most families aren't as fucked as ours?" He notices the death-glare shot over Jien's shoulder at him and quickly amends the statement. "As weird, I meant."

"Gojyo, our dad was a pretty powerful guy. Compared to some he was small potatoes, but he still had enough in his bloodline to make us some important descendents. Not everybody has enough power to summon a weapon at will." A mis-gesture with the spatula slices a hole in the omelet. Jien frowns at it, but goes with the flow.

"Ya think?" Gojyo interjects, putting his head on his hand and tracing lazy circles with his finger over an old coffee stain on the counter. "And you didn't tell me this why?"

Jien flicks off the burner and shuffles the omelet-cum-scrambled eggs onto a plate. "That's a bit more complicated. Coffee or water?"

Gojyo frowns. "Stop stalling. Neither."

"Okay, okay," says Jien, and leans on the counter with both his elbows. "I didn't tell you for a lot of reasons. First off, for the same reason your staff's in the closet now. Because if you knew you had that sort of power before, you'd be tempted to use it. And if you consciously tried to summon it and succeeded when I wasn't there, you'd bring down total hell and – here's the selfish bit – I'd have to pay for it. Plus that it'd kill your reputation just for a good few minutes of letting Jerry or whoever know what's what." Jien sighs a little, picking a bit of onion off of Gojyo's plate and eating it himself. Gojyo swats at him with his free hand but lets it go. "Then of course there's your inferiority complex."

"I have not got an inferiority complex!" Gojyo cries, indignant egg bits shooting from between his lips.

Jien laughs. "Worded –that- one wrong. I meant that I could have given you one, you know? Like, if I told you that you had the power to think a weapon into existence just like I could…and then you couldn't, how much would that kill you?" At Gojyo's cross-eyed look, Jien laughs again. "Sure, you say that, but it could have happened. I didn't know much about it when it happened to me either, and when it did and ma found out…" Hurt flashes in Jien's eyes and Gojyo echoes it, both forcibly reminded and suddenly aching in the pits of their hearts. Jien finishes softly, "Well…I could only pick up a few abstract ideas about this whole deal in the first place. She blamed it on dad, so it's got to be his blood. And the rest is really just my guessing."

Gojyo doesn't flinch away when Jien's hand comes up to probe the bandages on his face, but his expression clearly conveys annoyance and the remaining tendrils of pain from a sudden jolt of memory. "I'm sorry I didn't say anything, but I never thought it would be so big or that you'd cut yourself on it. I thought you might yell and I'd come running instead of you being so quiet in there. But I just didn't think it was a good idea to let you know beforehand, in case it never happened or in case it did and I wasn't there."

Gojyo huffs, turning from Jien's hand and busying himself with his food. "You worry too much," he mutters, hiding his eyes and filled with a sudden impulse to cover his scars with his hand.

Gojyo hefts the heavy box in his hands. He sits down heavily on the table, settling the box in his lap and swiping his too-long hair over his too-human ears. "What's this?" he asks, grinning with all of his teeth.

"Open it," Jien goads. "Go on."

Sensing foul play, Gojyo quirks an eyebrow and stalls. "You're excited. This is bad." He shakes the box and hears the clanking of metal. Immediately his mind flies to the prize hidden in the closet, but knows the box is far too small. His instincts don't hum with anticipatory adrenaline. This is just a box.

In response, Jien only grins back at him. Gojyo sighs melodramatically and tears into the brown wrapping paper. He is exact and methodical while at the same time incredibly destructive, knowing exactly where to dig his rounded fingernails to seek out the weakest points of the wrapping job and tear the bindings free. Paper does not so much fly as fall apart, leaving a box of brand new tools gleaming with sweating promise in Gojyo's lap.

Jien laughs when Gojyo gives him a questioning, indignant glare. "Happy fifteenth, bro. It's time for some responsibility training. You're gonna learn how things work if you can't learn anything else in school. Don't look at me like that – you'll love it. Taking things apart, putting them back together… Aw, Gojyo…"

Gojyo groans loudly, throwing himself back on the table. He whines his brother's name and kicks his legs. "Work? You're giving me a job for my birthday?"

Jien grabs his brother's lanky ankles in one hand, whips off his socks, and begins tickling. Gojyo squirms, cursing and laughing, pinned under the toolbox. "Yeah, you're gonna work," Jien teases. "You'll thank me for it later, kid. And you can buy anything you want with a good job. You won't need birthday presents. It'll be great."

"Great?" Gojyo cries, breathless and giggling. "You bastard, it's my birthday!"

Jien lets go and tosses Gojyo's socks at his brother's face. "I'm aware. Look in the fridge, kid."

Gojyo bolts upright, socks forgotten. He takes a moment to gingerly move the toolbox, but then zooms away and skids to a stop in the kitchen. Within seconds he is buried to the waist in the refrigerator and has secured his prize.

"Beer? Yeah, Jien! Thanks!"

Jien laughs hard as he starts running to intercept his brother. "Not that, you numbskull! I meant the cake!"

"You know, I could make a mint winning poker games," Gojyo grumbles, scratching at the grease coating his arms to the elbow.

Jien nudges him with the sole of his boot, sprawled under a leaking sink with a flashlight in his mouth. He gurgles and Gojyo disinterestedly passes him a tightly-coiled spring with only enough care to keep his fingers over the ends to keep it in place. Gojyo draws circles in the grease on his arms, itching to slough it all off but dreading his later date with a scrap of steel wool designated for such a purpose.

"Jien," he whines, "We already did the water heater and the gas to the stove so why are we still here?"

Jien spits out the flashlight. "Because nobody else lives in this place and it's the best way to experiment. Get under here and let me learn you somethin'."

Gojyo wrinkles his nose. "If you put it that way…" He makes sure to elbow his brother on his way under the sink. He takes the flashlight and holds it tightly in lubricated hands, listening to Jien talk and wincing when residual water drips onto his face. Blooming mold cushions his shoulders and reddens his eyes. Jien keeps talking, showing him how pipes connect and where to tighten, where to loosen, where not to do anything at all.

Gojyo holds the flashlight, and when the beam wavers Jien does not scold him but reaches up to steady his brother's hands. Soon, impossibly, the sink is fixed and Gojyo is laughing. He gets up to turn the water back on as Jien showed him, and when he does the pipe under the sink explodes. He knows from the sounds Jien makes, the muffled gurgling so much more frantic than the noises that come from around a flashlight. Gojyo shuts the water off, runs back inside, and laughs at the drowned rat flailing on the floor. He dives back under the sink to help without being told, this time taking up a wrench and letting Jien hold the flashlight.

Over the course of days, weeks, months, Gojyo learns how to build things. He learns how to fix roofs, how to shut off electricity and plumbing and gas to repair and test, how not to hammer his own thumb, and how Jien makes great faces when Jien does it in spite of himself. Together, Jien and Gojyo plug holes, cement cracks, and fortify rotting beams. Together, they clean and scrub and demolish to replace. Gojyo learns what termites look like and how to tell mold from a coffee stain. Gojyo learns what can and can't hold his weight, and that windows are made less airtight the more he shoves on them instead of more. Gojyo learns how to handle a hammer, a wrench, and how to level with his eyes.

Gojyo's hands are callused, scarred, and strong. From hammering and balancing on unstable floors and roofs, his body is filling out and learning its limits. He is still soft, still breakable, but flush with the power of building and taking apart and rebuilding. He feels and thinks with his hands, sensing even through the toughened pads on his fingers and the blisters in his palms. He wears a bandanna often to keep the sweat out of his eyes and to keep from rubbing grease onto his forehead with the back of his arm. He wears the same dirty shirts and pants coated in oilstains and electrical burns until the holes in them are too big to ignore. His shoes are heavy and tough, rubber soles for traction and duct tape over the eyelets for endurance. He repairs everything on him with duct tape until Jien demands a more permanent fix.

Over the course of days, weeks, months, an abandoned wreck becomes hospitable again. Jien breathes to Gojyo, "I wish we'd found it like this. When we needed it. Imagine who else might come along."

At that, Gojyo smiles weakly. He wants to and doesn't want to imagine this house belonging to anyone else. It does not belong to him, never belonged even when he lived in it, but after so much of his work and his heart and his sweat drained into the walls it feels like his. It is his house, without spoken recognition. Gojyo suddenly understands why Jien continues donating money to the schoolhouse.

The gauntlet crashes down when they realize there is nothing left for them to fix. They know the workings of the house in and out, know its nuances and how to handle the problems they can't treat on their own or can't afford to pay to replace. The gauntlet crashes down, and they walk to their residence together, toward their hot showers and their working kitchen and their beds.

Jien resumes working on other peoples' property. Gojyo, in an act of rebellion or of respect, leaves a shrine hidden in the house. Gojyo spends his days and nights learning to play poker, making good on his earliest threat. Neither of them go back to visit the place. Neither want to have to fight the urge to break something just so they can resume fixing it.

"Jien. You bastard."

"Mm?" Jien murmurs, looking up from a newspaper and his coffee. "You're up early."

Gojyo towers over his seated brother, chest heaving and torn between laughter and violence. "You bastard!" He clutches the staff, shaking it with menace. "You knew and you didn't tell me. Even made a Goddamn' show of locking the door on it! Geez, Jien…you're…"

"Brilliant? I know." Jien grins a little and holds out his hand. "Lemme see it."

Gojyo jumps back, cradling the staff while trying to maintain a fighting stance with it. The end result nearly takes Gojyo's nose off. "Oh, no, I'm not falling for that one again. You think you're so clever, hiding this in a closet when it wasn't even there!"

Jien sets the newspaper down, folding it and shrugging. "Oh, it was always there, Gojyo. As long as you believed I'd locked your staff in the closet and there was no way you could get it out, it was there. Gathering dust. Making a home for spiders, I expect. Frankly, I'm amazed it took you this long to figure it out."

Gojyo resists the urge to knock his brother's teeth out, but only by a fractional margin. As it is, the staff quivers as a result of his twitching and the metal rings on it chime in warning.

"Look," says Jien, stretching his arms out in a supplicating manner, "You can barely handle it, even if it is yours. You're going to hurt yourself, even with all that phys…"

Gojyo's eyes immediately narrow. The gears shift, the round peg blasts through the square hole in a spray of shards and sawdust, and Gojyo hisses, "You bastard." He brandishes the staff, nearly losing his balance with it, but makes a good show nonetheless. "Always ulterior motives with you!"

Jien shrugs a little. "Not really." He smiles disarmingly. "You also needed to learn to appreciate craftsmanship. What I do all the time. Come on, you're saying it wasn't fun?"

"That's not the point!" Gojyo cries. He thrusts the staff forward and the motion throws the blade away from the staff a good foot. It dangles from a shining chain, crescent points swaying not far from the floor. Gojyo stares at it in wonder, jerking his arm to retract the chain without fully knowing how. The blade clinks back into place and Gojyo hefts the staff, running his eyes along the length of it.

"Help me learn it, Jien," he murmurs softly, not taking his attention away. "That's your motive, right? You want me to learn it. To appreciate hard work. Then go on."

Sha Jien puts the sword away and stares at himself in the river. For once, he hasn't cut his own face shaving. The rabbit he caught is steaming over the fire, dripping blood and fat and making the flame hiss and crackle. Jien makes himself wait.

All of his counseling, all of his plotting, all of his planning had been to teach patience. Jien forces it on himself in the cold of the wilderness, fearing above all the descent into hypocrisy. He keeps the limiter on, keeps his mind working as he walks, keeps himself in contact with civilization, always alert for any feeling of an upsurge in his feral nature. He remembers teaching Gojyo, guiding Gojyo, and preaches to himself.

Jien travels Westward and Westward, the silent ear alert to the world around him. When he listens to human voices, he feels more human, and so he throws himself into the gossip he can touch. He learns the lives of people, of personal disputes and small claims and relationships. He learns of births, of deaths, of names he never faces from faces he never names. Jien travels Westward among people as a person, fearing bestial oblivion and fighting for his own brand of normalcy. He only sleeps outside when he does not have the money to provide a comfortable financial cushion for the next morning's meal.

Alone, without anything to care for or care about but himself, Jien is plagued by bad dreams. He dreams of all of the things he was unable to fix, and all of the things he broke further by touching. He dreams of making enough money to buy another bottle of liquor, and then dreams of drinking it and dying the next night. He dreams of Gojyo surviving and surpassing him. He dreams of Gojyo coated in blood, clutching his staff in sleep and bleeding out over the mattress. He dreams of Genichi in strings between pointed teeth, and of Terue starving in the street. He dreams of losing the seams that hold his limiter over his wrist. He dreams of pulling them away on his own. He dreams of hunting naked and how good it isn't supposed to feel. He dreams of his mother's soft curves and his father's blue eyes and tobacco starbursts on drying laundry.

Jien does not scream, but grinds his teeth so hard his jaw aches through noon. Jien does not scream, but thrashes and tears his own palms with his fingernails. Jien does not scream, but works hard for the extra money to buy another bottle of liquor to down in one go. And in the morning, he awakens and shoves his head under the cold surface of the river, blows bubbles, and resumes following it to the West. He walks away, carrying nothing but the weight of the past on his back.

Chapter Text

When his one good eye opens, it opens to a sterile, white room filled with sterile sunlight and the sterile stench of disinfectant-drenched medical supplies. He mutters to himself, something vague and incomprehensible about hell, and the silence closes in all around him. Slowly, so slowly, his body awakens. First, the muscles in his face ache from smiling and the hot itch of bandages registers over his right eye. Down his neck the nerves do a quick, startled check before voicing complaints of soreness, and then his shoulders and arms follow suit down to his hands so weak they could be floating on air. His heart is sluggish, barely palpitating, but rhythmic as his breathing, detached and dutiful. There, as his real conscious breaths resonate in his ears, there his skin pulls taught against the air in him and the incredible ache in his gut comes to the forefront of his brain. This is not hot, sudden pain of fresh injuries, but the festering of infections cleaned away and old skin stitched together with new. The tender bruise left over where the original impact did not hurt so much for the sake of adrenaline.

He does not groan, does not voice his pain, if only because his breathing is suddenly too loud to his open ears. He acutely feels how alone he is, and thoughts crash down hard enough to leave craters against the backs of his eyes.

"Kanan…" he whispers, shutting his eye and hissing, the sound of it grating against the silence. Failure wreaks havoc in his mind, shattering the last few gentle effects of lethargy and throwing the world into sharp relief against the blood on him. Even after so many washings, he can smell the blood, taste it in the back of his throat, feel it coating his hands slick and hot so his own heart beat faster out of exhilaration. He remembers being beastly, feral, vengeful to the point of blindness and his own dirty knife plunging into the soft flesh of his beloved. He is disgusted, appalled, and shaken, wracked by losses beyond the physical.

He is about to reach a hand up and jam the heel of it into his aching eye when the door opens gently and a young woman in a white dress, obviously talking to no other ears but her own, murmurs, "Let's check in on our boy today."

When she meets his eyes, she nearly lets out a squeal. "Oh, how are you?" she asks, coming quickly to his bedside and speaking softly.

His voice comes out in tones more gentle and polite than he had expected of himself. "Please…where am I?"

She smiles warmly at him, reaching over to pat the hand he cannot lift. "You're safe. You're just in a little nowhere town's nowhere hospital, with two nurses and one surgeon and we're probably overstaffed." She points to the stethoscope around her neck and says, "I'm sorry to move you, but I have to do a check-up."

"I understand," he responds, smiling to encourage her. "How…how long have I been here?" he asks.

She huffs on the end of the stethoscope to warm it and gently tugs his bedding down. "A little over a month," she responds, undoing his hospital-issue pajama shirt with all manner of efficiency. "Breathe deep," she orders, listening. "And again." They go through the rigors, checking pulse and heartbeat, eyes and hearing, nose and throat, reflexes and skin condition. Her hands linger on his scar and the areas nearby, testing him for sensitivity. He has the sneaking suspicion that she is trying to make him laugh, but does not voice it.

When she finishes, she waits for him to fumble through buttoning his own shirt and then helps him sit up in bed. "Before you ask, and I know you'll ask," she prefaces, "Your clothes and belongings are fine. Aside from a washing, they're all in the same condition they were when we found you. It's not our policy to pry into how exactly you received your wounds, sir, but it would be best if you could give your name?"

He has to think for a moment, closing his eye and again inwardly struggling against tearing the bandages away from his other one. "My name," he murmurs, thinking hard. The only name in his head is Kanan's, and her voice rings through his ears. A perpetually smiling white face with closed eyes and pins in his teeth eclipses her moon-face and their voices merge into remembrance. He jolts awake, his eye flying open, and says, "My name…my family name is Cho." It is all he is willing to give.

Cho has no money in his pockets, no history he cares to share, no close family to help pay his bill. Cho, however, has an above-average level of intelligence, a natural tendency toward domesticity, and a near-religious faith in cleanliness. After he takes steps on his own, he works around the hospital, chatting pleasantly with the two nurses, sweeping floors and changing sheets and playing receptionist when they need him. He sleeps on unused hospital beds in the back, bathes under the surgeon's sink. After a week or so, he manages to maintain his hygiene without the help of a nearby nurse. A few days into his second week, a young boy with a broken leg is carried in by his father, and Cho demonstrates an uncanny ability with him both before and after the bone is set. He tells stories, plays games, keeps the boy's mind from the pain as best he can, better than anyone else. Cho's easiness with the child is incongruous with the rumors flying around about him, and both the nurses and the doctor accept his gentlene ss as a mark of his character. The injuries he sustained over a month beforehand unsettle them, but his manner in the present puts them at such ease that they suppose he was the unfortunate victim of a wild attack.

For all of the rumors flying around about the mystery patient in the coma, the news of his awakening travels slowly through those that see him up and about. When he is paraded before their eyes as nothing more than a man with all normal affectations, the buzz about him dies down to a slow murmur only carried on by conspiracy theorists and those who doubt his unfailing smile. To all that meet him, he is polite and normal, holding behind his unusually clear eyes nothing but more pleasantries.

Within two months, he has paid off his bill to the best of his abilities. Upon receiving this notice, he smiles, shakes the doctor's hand, and leaves with nothing but the clothes on his back.

News of it spreads more quickly than the news of his awakening, and again the hospital is flooded with would-be visitors. Instead of clamoring to see the mysterious comatose stranger, this time they demand to verify for themselves the proof of his departure. Among them is a tall, lanky, near-grown man with a silver necklace and blue eyes. He lingers at the edges of the crowd, until most of it has dissipated, before coming to flirt with the nurse on door duty. Where his winning smile normally grants him passage, it did not work the first time he came and it does not work now.

"Can't blame me for trying," he says, grinning and trying to catch a look down the nurse's blouse.

"Yes, I can," she mutters offhand, shutting the door in his face. He shrugs and turns away, affecting every look of nonchalance as if his curiosity had only been passing.

He strolls into the street, accidentally bumping into a man. He calls, "Sorry," before the brightness of that man's blonde hair registers. Immediately, the name, "Genichi!" comes to his mouth, and he whirls about without thinking to grab the man's shoulder.

Too late, he realizes he is touching someone smaller than he is, someone too tense and dressed too heavily for a sunny day. The blonde turns, his arm going up one of his oversized sleeves as if searching for something, and Gojyo meets the violence brewing in violet eyes. He lets go and puts his hands up, trying to smile disarmingly and trying not to stare at how surprisingly beautiful the guy is. Like a woman. Genichi is too masculine, too tall, too broad, too passive for any of this. "I took you for someone else. My mistake."

The blonde snarls and turns back around, absently beating at a young man by his side for muttering, "At least that one didn't hit on you, Sanzo."

Gojyo watches as, a few minutes later, the blonde and his boy leave the hospital at a dead run. And promptly forgets about it.

Sanzo aches from running, running, running through the same forest for hours, but Goku swears he has the man's trail and Sanzo has the feeling they don't have much time. So Sanzo runs on, trying to keep pace with the boy that stops every once in a while and hops impatiently while waiting for him to catch up. From what he heard at the hospital, they missed their target by one day's walking. Perhaps one night's as well.

They have been lucky in the search for Cho Gonou so far. His public discovery, the loud rumors from the small town that housed him, his lifestyle after awakening, all of it was passed by word of mouth so far and so fast it reached him just a few days outside of Chang'an. By the time Sanzo and Goku had made it to within a few miles of where he had allegedly been found, they knew his story, the details of his body, his mannerism inside and out without even having to access the power of Sanzo's title or weapon to get information. Sanzo curses the hassle of finding one man out of the masses armed with but a name and a fleeting physical description, youkai convert or not, but knows that it could have been worse. The guy could be living in some obscure shack with a quiet family that only goes out once a week for groceries or something. But any man running from a seemingly secure job, a comfortable life, rumors notwithstanding, that rang warning bells in Sanzo's head.

Perhaps Cho Gonou had unfinished business. Perhaps Cho Gonou supposed he would be followed. Sanzo has only speculation to go on, but both his instincts and Goku are screaming at him to go faster.

"It's getting stronger! Sanzo, we've gotta be right on top of him!" Goku calls, bounding ahead. He skids to a stop before even getting up to full speed. "Oh, geez, Sanzo, I found him."

Sanzo slows to a walk, hearing not urgency in Goku's voice but dejection and quiet awe. He regains his breath and pushes through the last barrier of bushes in the cursed forest and comes upon an exceedingly large clearing. Aside from the stench of rain-dampened ash and burn marks in the grass, it is utterly empty. A brown heap by Goku proves to be the body of Cho Gonou, sprawled facedown in the dirt. To be sure, Sanzo rolls Gonou with his foot and rucks up the man's shirt to check for a scar. It has reopened on end, blood seeping slowly onto the skin, but the rest of the damage seems to be leftover bruising.

Goku makes a face, clapping his hands over his nose and looking sick. "Sanzo," he whines, "It smells like death here. Blood and fires, too. But it doesn't smell like this guy's dead."

Sanzo picks up Gonou's wrist and feels, through the grime on him, for a pulse. Indeed there is one, strong despite the appearance of the body. "He's not," Sanzo confirms, crouching on the ground next to Gonou. Goku drops down on the other side of the body, poking at it. He stops when Sanzo snarls, "Don't do that."

The blonde sighs, itching to light a cigarette but completely out of them. "He might have just collapsed. With those injuries and the coma, he probably shouldn't have tried to walk for long distances for at least another month or two. His muscles weren't up to it."

Goku frowns. "We can't leave him out here."

"If you carry him, you'll probably hurt him more," Sanzo deadpans.

"We could get help?" suggests Goku, looking into a murderer's face made serene in exhausted slumber. "He doesn't look like a bad guy. He probably made friends or something."

"Do you really want to get a whole town in on this again?" Sanzo glares at Goku until the boy looks up, blushes, and shakes his head. "You've seen what publicity does. And hell, I hate dealing with people in big groups. Mobs are bigger idiots than people alone." Sanzo pauses a moment, then sits down and crosses his legs with a thoughtful look. "Go get a blanket and some rope. You'll pull him."

"B-but Sanzo!" Goku stammers, head whipping up to stare at his companion. "I don't have any money to buy anything like that! And I'd be leaving you alone!"

Sanzo pulls his gun out and levels it at Goku, dispelling any thoughts that Sanzo might be incapable of caring for himself. "Tell 'em I'll come by and pay for it later. If that doesn't work, take someone's laundry line and bed sheets and I'll buy them new things when we get back. Go, damn you, before he dies."

At that, Goku nods quickly, sending a furtive glance down to the reddening spot on Cho Gonou's shirt before dashing away into the forest. Sanzo lets out a bit of a relieved sigh, shoving his gun back up into his sleeve and lifting Gonou's shirt again to check on the wound. The blood is clotting, slow but sure, so he does nothing about it.

He was so intent about coming back here he did it before he was ready. Sanzo takes a moment to look around, gets to his feet and walks the perimeter of the scorched lines in the grass with one eye always on the body of Cho Gonou. Goku smelled blood and fire. Sanzo counts steps on the way back to Gonou and estimates distances, wonders at the weight of the place where the walls pressed indentations into the ground. He killed a thousand youkai.

His cursory investigation finished, Sanzo sits down next to Gonou again, feeling his pulse for the sake of something to do. There are three cuffs on one of his ears, and a broken pocket watch bulges in the breast pocket of his shirt. He has no ring. His hair, his face, his fingernails are well cared-for, if not clean thanks to their sojourn in the dirt. Sanzo notices all of it, logging it away and wondering why, just why the Sanbutsushin required him for such a job.

Sanzo grunts, fishes in his sleeve for a pack of cigarettes that is not there, and waits for Goku to return.

After just two nights in the same familiar hospital, Sanzo deems Gonou fit for travel. He buys new bed sheets and laundry line to replace the ones that had been destroyed. He pays Gonou's hospital bill. He buys food for the trip, and cigarettes.

To his mild surprise and displeasure, Gonou comes easily. The man is resigned and silent and Sanzo has nobody to fight. Gonou is unobtrusive, even preferring to rewrap his bandages on his own, always wearing a benign near-smile that makes Sanzo's fists itch, never demanding that they slow their pace to suit his muscles. Sanzo reasons that he left without his bandages before, pushed his body to the brink, because he planned to die, but he has yet to confront Gonou about his theory.

The first time the man actually speaks, it is to aid Goku on the third day. The boy is trying to read a sign and stumbles over an unfamiliar character. Gonou sounds it out for him, softly enough that the noise could have been Sanzo's imagination from three feet away. Goku turns to him and grins out his thanks, continuing to read out loud.

Later that night, as they eat, and Gonou even eats well enough to justify Sanzo's buying him a meal, Gonou lets out a bit of a smile as he watches Goku shovel food into his face. And when Goku is sated, or when Sanzo makes him stop, Gonou speaks again.

"Who taught you how to read?"

Goku, easy as anything, takes Gonou's speech for a simple question and rubs the back of his head. "I dunno. I just know that I've always kinda known how to read." He laughs in self-deprecation. "I'm not good at it though."

"I think you just need practice," Gonou responds, smiling a bit more.

"I heard once Practice Makes Perfect," Goku says, getting into the conversation and doing a nice job of pronouncing the capital letters in singsong.

There, and Sanzo can see it even though it is fleeting, Gonou grins a bit. There is the murderous smile, the cocky, virulent, diseased curl of lip he had been expecting all along. It disappears almost instantly. "Only practicing perfectly, Goku-san." And he takes a sip of water so that neither of them can see his mouth.

They continue their travels with Goku nagging Sanzo and Sanzo yelling at Goku and Gonou standing by to watch, only speaking if asked a direct question. Never again does he initiate a conversation, and never again does he smile so openly as he had with Goku that night. He bears the whispering upon their arrival at the temple with quiet patience, bowing his head in shame and never once reacting. He accepts the small room given him, and keeps to himself.

Sanzo had not anticipated a follow-up attack after devastation on such a grand scale, both from Gonou himself and then in his wake thanks to fire, but one came. The crow youkai had been brash enough to barge into a temple in the dead of night, bellowing to wake the dead and demanding to see Gonou.

Sanzo blew his brains out before Gonou even opened his door. Sanzo went to him, leaving attendants to clean up the foul mess despite their protests, and looked Gonou directly in the eye. "He came to kill," he said, "and so made himself ready to die. Maybe he even deserved it."

After that, Gonou is even more reserved, bearing the days before his trial in his room without making the effort to contact anyone. Sanzo is kept busy enough with temple life and needy attendants and a nagging urge not to want to be in the same room with Gonou. He leaves him alone. Unhampered by any such obstacles, Goku feels the urge to come in and visit on the night before his allotted trial.

Goku knocks once while opening the door, never having gotten the hang of waiting. "Hey, Gonou?"

The man is sitting cross-legged on his bed, in the process of wrapping fresh bandages around his torso. The skin is healed except for the place where the scar reopened, but constant movement even as soon as Gonou first managed to get out of bed has left the skin weakened and frail. He smiles gently at Goku. "Yes, Goku-san?"

"I…uh…I wanted to ask you somethin'," Goku says, coming inside and closing the door behind him. He sits down in the small chair in Gonou's room and crosses his legs so his knees rest on the arms of the chair. He fidgets until Gonou has finished wrapping the bandages and pulls a shirt on over his head. When the man looks at him expectantly, politely, Goku fidgets some more. "Uh…why were you there? Where we found you, I mean. Sanzo said not to ask you so if you don't wanna tell it's okay."

Gonou does not appear appalled; rather, he seems to have been expecting that question and his answer comes quickly. "I suppose, because I will have my story paraded during the trial tomorrow, I would rather at least one person heard it correctly from me first. Word will get out no matter the measures of secrecy taken, and will probably travel faster for it. Hearsay is a terrible tool that only leads to misrepresentation. I know the sort of monster I am." And, with deadpan and deliberate clarity, Gonou tells Goku of Kanan.

Later, Goku realizes as he tells it to Sanzo that Gonou's voice held no emotion, that Gonou never once spoke of his own thought or feeling beyond the driving rage behind his killings, that Gonou was apologetic in the imperfect way that hides true opinion and intent. When he finishes telling Sanzo, the blonde leans back in his chair with a new cigarette and smokes silently for a long time, responding only with a dry order for Goku to leave when he is questioned.

Sanzo leans back and smokes, wondering at Gonou's tale and why, of all people, he had decided to tell Goku. He does not look forward to the next day's trial, but has a twitching desire to get Gonou out and away from the temple as quickly as possible. Buddhists do not kill, but they are effective relocators.

Chapter Text

It happens suddenly, on a day when Gojyo awakens before noon by some providence of chance and decides on a whim to check up on Terue. He hasn't since his visit to talk about his urge to question the hospital's nameless wonder and hates leaving on that note. He walks down familiar streets with his hands in his pockets, waving at those who greet him and strategically avoiding other sets of eyes until he reaches her house and realizes she is not there. He is not bored enough to wait for her, and so strolls off, wondering if perhaps she is out shopping, making a mental note to come by later.

Gojyo takes the long route home, listening to a town awake and working, the noises he never notices when asleep. He lights a cigarette for the comfort of it, enjoying the sun and momentary financial security thanks to a winning streak that has yet to dissipate. He winks at a girl just to make her blush and grins, secure again in his allure.

It is when he passes by the abandoned schoolhouse that Gojyo hears laughter and talk and the noise of small children. He nearly breaks into a run, but controls himself and walks over to one of the windows, peering inside. There, standing like a memory or a goddess, Terue is teaching the front row how to do rudimentary sums. He stands transfixed, nearly pressing his hands and nose into the window, just watching her before thought can crash down and ruin the sun-dappled moment. Before he can think, he stares through the glass and marvels at how full the classroom is, how busy everyone looks while his heart eats itself.

A light hand taps his shoulder and he jumps a mile, inwardly cursing the limiter for the billionth time.

"Excuse me, sir, but school is still in session and I fear you're becoming a distraction to the students." The man is pleasant enough, speaking with respect and a smile, but in his eyes there is a hardness with knives in it.

Gojyo stammers, his words fleeing at the first glance into the man's face. The inside of his skull itches, nearly jumping out his ears. All Gojyo can think of to say in the face of it is, "I…I didn't know this place was open again."

"Yes, it is," the man responds, his manner still gentle. "Although I must stress that your presence is inopportune. If you would like a conference later on, perhaps I could…"

"Oh," Gojyo cuts him off, "no. Uh. I'll talk to Terue on my own later."

"Shall I tell Ito-san," and here the man's eyes narrow almost imperceptibly to stress the respectful observance of title, "who has dropped by?"

Gojyo does not like his tone and responds in kind, polite but edged. "I'm sure if you describe me she'll figure it out." He walks away with indignance blooming over the twitch in his subconscious.

It is only later, when he goes to Terue's house that evening, bearing a flower snatched from someone else's garden, that the piece fits into place. He'd heard all of the rumors, all of the descriptions, all of the stories about the man he had tried to visit but never met, but had not dared form a picture in his mind. The image presented him that day had been so incongruous with anything Gojyo had tried not to assume that the recognition took hours.

He is sitting in Genichi's chair when it hits him, and he says, "Who's your partner?"

Terue raises her eyebrows, setting Gojyo's flower in a vase on the low table between the chairs. "If you don't know, you should stop making the fish-face."

Gojyo clamps his mouth shut, trying to curb the impulse to let his jaw drop again, and mutters, "I meant, what's his name?"

"Cho." Her response is infuriating, and she knows it. She laughs gently before elaborating, "Cho Hakkai. He says he has never taught before, but he's a fantastic aide. And, well, with the current influx of people moving further eastward, we've got no shortage of children to teach and parents willing to pay for it." She smiles warmly at him. "If only it had been a few years earlier, right?"

"People moving eastward?" Gojyo repeats at the risk of sounding like a parrot. "I didn't notice much."

"They're mainly families," Terue responds. "Not exactly your crowd."

Gojyo grins. "Guess not. But you still should have told me."

"I didn't think you cared that much," Terue says softly, not looking at him. She knows what Gojyo has been up to, knows Gojyo's nature and what he lets on.

At her words, Gojyo tosses his head back to laugh as if it is the funniest thing in the world. "Probably shouldn't. But still. I'd figure you'd wanna tell me just to get the word out. To let me know you're happy. God damn it's so great you can teach again."

Terue smiles, turning to look again at Gojyo with tired, familiar eyes. "At times I wish I could be so easy with it as you. You're right; I should have let you know. Even if just for my own selfish reasons."

Gojyo grins again, slapping his own knee and declaring, "Damn' straight!" with campy fervor.

"Oh," Terue murmurs, remembrance lighting up her face, "I suppose you ought to know something else. You'll never guess where he's living."

Of course, Gojyo knows immediately. "You're sh-…you're kidding me." He puts his chin on his hand. "We left that place such a mess, you know? And he's all alone out there… guy like that'd get eaten by wolves." Gojyo pauses, eyes narrowing. "Wait. How long?"

Terue sighs a bit, having waited for Gojyo to ask that question. "You know the real reason I didn't let you know."

Gojyo's expression clearly conveys that he in fact does not, but Terue remains silent so he sits and thinks. Gojyo closes his eyes with his chin in his hand and lands on the answer when he remembers her hand on his collar, the safe barrier of her arm, the shield of her words. "You were protecting him from me."

"Just until he could get his feet. And not just from you," Terue adds quickly, seeing the expression on his face at being cruelly vindicated. "He lives out in the boonies like that, and came quietly to the school because he remembers the rumors. You can't expect him not to know them, and he really didn't want all of the attention to center on him again. If I told you, someone else might hear. As it is, not many people have found out because when he gave his name to the hospital they kept the confidentiality agreement." She sighs, knowing the look on Gojyo's face without having to see it. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you. But we both know you would have jumped down his throat for a million things and he can hardly handle anyone other than the children right now. He tells them the most fantastic stories when they ask him questions, but he can't lie to anyone older."

Gojyo repeats himself. "How long?"

"I don't know. But he came to the school a few days after it reopened and applied for a job. That's why you weren't the first to know. Otherwise, otherwise you know you're at the top of my list, Gojyo. You know how much your help meant to me then. How much it still means to me."

Gojyo can't get mad at that. He smiles a bit and stands up, taking Terue into a half-hug against his hip. "Yeah," he says. "I know."

Gojyo can't be mad at Terue, but he can't keep the thought from bothering him, from bruising his ego. Some other guy had succeeded where he had failed, some other guy he did not know and who just had to be more capable than he was for saving her in weeks where he'd taken months to drag her down. It grates on his nerves even before his conscience can enter into the equation. He shouldn't have left her alone.

Gojyo doesn't even bother hiding his agitation on the walk home, ignoring the calls of his friends and the welcoming heat of open bars. His internal monologue rubs sandpaper against his better sense, shooting winces like lightning across his features and cringes in his shoulders. He walks briskly, head down and hands in fists, breaking open a fresh carton of eggs on an upward swing.

"Watch where you're goin'," he snarls, then jolts into consciousness when he realizes just whose groceries he has spoiled. He flushes to spite himself, as if the man had been able to read his thoughts. "Uh. So I gotta watch better too."

"Indeed," Cho Hakkai responds, and moves to walk away.

Gojyo does not know why he does it, baiting a tiger with his own fingers, but he reaches out to grab the man's sleeve. The movement registers first with Hakkai, who stares at him in frighteningly benign fashion until Gojyo realizes he has not let go of the cloth in his hand. "Come on," he says, nearly croaks, "Let me get you some new stuff, okay?" He pointedly eyes the sopping bag and the mess of yolk oozing from Cho Hakkai's hands. His hands are soft looking, white and ink-stained, the bruises on the knuckles more likely from knocking on someone's door than breaking someone's jaw. The nails are trimmed, cared for, and the cuffs that rest on bare wrists are buttoned without gaudy adornment. "You and me didn't get off to such a hot start," Gojyo finishes lamely, not believing his own words.

The smile that graces Cho Hakkai's face then is infuriating, filled with bared fangs and civility and the smugness of superior intellect. "No, no we didn't," he responds, sliding his arm away from Gojyo's slackened grip. The smile softens enough to send uncomfortable chills down Gojyo's spine and Cho Hakkai lets Gojyo lead him back to the market. Even at this hour enterprising shop owners have their doors open, their stalls lit, and the faces that Gojyo ignored on his way through the first time do not bother to greet him again.

The first words above the murmur of business around them are closer to Gojyo's ear than he'd been ready to hear. "You have the advantage of me," says Hakkai, and chuckles gently when Gojyo makes a noise of surprised questioning. "Ito-san isn't much for keeping secrets, bless her. I presume you went to see her?"

"That I did," Gojyo responds. He grabs a new brown bag and holds it open while Hakkai sorts through his original groceries for the salvageable items. The eggs had been cushioned on the side of the bag, hoping for the protection of Hakkai's arms and a loaf of bread. The vegetables, fruit, and tea are undamaged, but a bag of rice, the bread, and the eggs are completely ruined. "How long is this gonna last you?" Gojyo asks, eyeing the small portions distastefully.

Hakkai gets another bag and passes it to Gojyo. The sodden lump of paper and egg he holds a bit away from himself, explaining, "Perhaps I might start a compost heap." As he points Gojyo to the replacement groceries, he says, "I was hoping to sustain myself for a few weeks. Why?"

Gojyo shrugs, trying not to drop the new bags as he maneuvers around the stalls. "You gotta eat more than that. Uh. Gonna ask a real personal favor of you…"

"Yes?" asks Hakkai, absently trying to clean his hands on the paper of the dripping bag.

Gojyo flashes him a chagrined, hell-bent grin and says, "M'wallet's in my back pocket."

Hakkai's hands are soft and gentle, strong and dexterous as they worm their way under Gojyo's and take one of the cumbersome bags from him. Gojyo can't bring his eyes to Hakkai's after the first glance, can't decipher the complexity bared in crystalline green eyes for the obviousness of the man's thought. Gojyo instead focuses on using his free hand to procure his wallet, pay for the parcels, and take the bag back from Hakkai.

They walk in silence. Hakkai tries to lead, assumes he is the one in control of the path, but Gojyo's legs know the route to the marrow of his bones. "There's no advantage," he murmurs offhandedly. "Terue let my name go, too."

Gojyo does not have to look over to know Hakkai is smiling again. "You misinterpret. You know more than rumor tells of me, but all I have to go on is hearsay." He pauses and, before Gojyo can gather thought to speak, preempts himself. "Then again, if you learned of me from Terue, that's hearsay as well. And they say secondhand smoke is deadly."

Gojyo scrambles. "Uh. 'Kay. So…I know where you live and where you work. That's all, really. And your name. If you really wanna even things up, we can hit my place on the way home." The word is out of his mouth before he realizes he's said it, and Hakkai picks up on it, his head jerking to the side and his eyes searching Gojyo's face. Before Hakkai can speak, Gojyo blurts, "I don't work. I gamble and do odd jobs and that's the way it goes. Gamble more than anything else."

Tact overrides perception and curiosity. Hakkai latches on to the new brand of small talk. "Ito-san said you built that school." He watches for a reaction, and Gojyo does not disappoint. Blue eyes wince so heavily Gojyo's face twitches.

"Most nobody who doesn't know doesn't care. I figure, 'cause you're gonna fall in love with Terue, you should know. She hates strangers." He does not notice as Hakkai visibly falters, only saving himself by virtue of a quick double-step to catch up and maintain Gojyo's pace. The taller man laughs a bit. "Terue really hates strangers, you know? She's a sweet girl."

"Funny how you might say that about someone so many years your senior," Hakkai comments, unnerved by the affection in Gojyo.

Gojyo laughs, feeling more comfortable. It is easy to talk about Terue and to love Terue and to protect Terue. "She was my teacher. When me and my brother came here, she and her brother were tryin' to start up the school. I was maybe ten and she looked after me while our brothers built the place. Man, did I ever give her hell." And then Gojyo stops talking, his eyelids drooping to half-mast as he bites back the memories. Hakkai lets it go, not caring for further elucidation, as diverting as Gojyo's voice may be.

When Gojyo takes an instinctive right turn off of the beaten path, Hakkai calls to him. "Excuse me…"

Gojyo remembers himself, then realizes what Hakkai said. "Damn, d'you always say 'excuse me' to warn people of stuff? I'd hate to be around you if my life depended on it." He says it with a grin, but unintentional knives dig deep into Hakkai's gut. "See, this is a shortcut," Gojyo continues before Hakkai's emotions can register in the hardening of his face. "I kinda used to live in your house."

"Only kind of?" Hakkai echoes, his tone not as playful as it should be.

Gojyo grins, waiting for Hakkai to follow him. "This'll cut a good ten minutes out of the walk, if you know where to go. Oh, d'you know how to fix plumbing?"

Nonplussed, Hakkai shakes his head, focusing more on remembering his surroundings than the conversation. The trees are thicker here, the ground ungroomed, so that he must watch his step around rocks and twigs. There is evidence of long-broken branches from ground level to shoulder height, stumps healing jaggedly and coated in fresh growth. There are initials carved into one tree, messy and encircled in an asymmetrical heart, and the first set Hakkai immediately recognizes as "Sha Gojyo". And, above his head is the molding remnant of a bit of bright cloth. A dead kite renovated into a bird's nest forgotten after the rain rotted the fabric. His attention jolts to Gojyo when the man gives an uneasy laugh.

"The house is…tricky. Sensitive, you know? If you want hot water and the heater's cut out, you either boil it or you call me. That's assuming the stove's working. It's a messy job to fix and I'd rather you not burn yourself, yeah? Only, you'll have to try to find me wherever you can 'cause Terue-chan ain't the best of links."

Hakkai nods. "I noticed."

"Here," Gojyo says, pointing. "See, we got here way faster than you could of before. One more thing," he continues, hopping up onto the porch and shifting the bags in his arms. He plants a solid kick right beneath the doorknob and, without so much as a groan of protest, the front door swings open. "No lock."

Hakkai remembers himself long enough to pitch the bag of dripping egg and sodden bread into an infant pile of grass and leaves. He walks past Gojyo into the kitchen, murmuring, "I assume you'll want to fix that, too?" as he moves to wash his hands. Despite any forewarning, the water comes out warm and strong.

Gojyo sets the bags of groceries down on a small table, a familiar relic he has to touch with both hands once unburdened. He manages to affect a shrug. "We left the place a mess, Jien and me." Again, the word slips out before Gojyo can stop it. He is unused to censoring himself, unused to being asked in innocent fashion all of the burning questions too tender to answer. Unused to being confronted half-naked in the middle of a reverie.

He drags his hands away from the table and moves toward the door. "Nobody knows about the weak spot but you an' me. It's okay. Not like anybody wants to steal this place, huh? And one more thing." Gojyo reaches up and taps the band of silver around his neck. "Be real careful about your earrings. Kids like to grab shiny things and I have a feelin' it'd be a real bad idea if they ran away with those. You get me?"

He nearly runs from the house, walking so fast he does not hear if Hakkai has a response for him or even modest thanks.

Hakkai puts his hands under the running tap and frigid water soaks into the cuffs of his sleeves. The soft, white cotton had already been stained by egg white, hardening into a crust that crackles when Hakkai moves. The water slowly warms, either by virtue of a functioning heater or by the cooling of Hakkai's blood until his hands are white and he resigns himself to a tap without heat. He washes the egg out of his shirt and methodically begins picking dried yolk from the bottom of the leg of his pants. His glasses slide down his nose, and automatically he reaches up to yank them away. He wears them like he wears the broken pocketwatch that weights down his breast.

Hakkai feels. He feels the coldness of the water, feels a sigh of disdain rise in his pretty throat at the thought of finding that noisome man because he needs to. The brash, rude thing that pegged him on sight and burst into his house and his life and declared that he would fall in love.

Hakkai rebels against the idea. He had died, married to another in body and soul, and now the words insinuate themselves into images of a new soft skin, a new set of green eyes. The thought burns with perverse betrayal. Hakkai lingers on it for another moment, moving from the kitchen toward a new set of clothes.

His shirt comes away easily, each button undone with patient, able fingers. There is no one to push him here. He presses his hands into his own skin, feeling the lines and puckers of a new scar growing old, a birth defect for which there is no aesthetic cure. He grins slowly, predatory only upon himself, and drives the heel of his hand against his right eye. The pressure soothes a headache he does not have and lasts only for a handful of heartbeats.

Hakkai pulls out of his shirt and immediately throws another one on over his head. He pulls the pocketwatch from the breast pocket of the shirt he discarded and lays it on the kitchen counter aside his glasses. Conscientiously, he reaches a hand up to his ear. The security, the finality, the static shock of the limiters makes him shudder, and he quickly goes about changing into a new pair of pants. These are the comfortable pajamas he would never show to the outside, the shirt without buttons that would close it to the collar. The dirty clothes he folds to occupy his hands, then lays into a basket designated for laundry.

A spider crawls over the back of Hakkai's hand. With one deft finger he pins it to his skin by the abdomen, applying pressure at the softest part of the spider, not crushing but holding so that it freezes. The stalemate continues until Hakkai realizes he is not breathing. One inhalation from him, and the spider's legs skitter for purchase, becoming frantic. Sensing blood, the spider bites. Hakkai lets up and throws it out the window. He then returns to the kitchen to wash his hands. He does not feel like eating, instead threads his fingers through the hair behind and above his ear, pressing his palm against the limiters for reassurance and punishment alike.

Chapter Text

Goku yelps, squirming under Sanzo's hold on his ear. The monk smacks him again with the newspaper he'd been reading and lets him go. "Idiot monkey," he snarls, but when one of the lesser monks begins to voice agreement, he whirls upon him with a glare cold enough to stop a glacier.

"Sanzo," whines Goku, rubbing his head with one hand and his ear with the other. "How was I supposed to know they weren't just painting pictures? I couldn't read any of those words anyway! I wanted to help!"

Sanzo's spine remains straight as a rod, but he deflates somewhat. When he turns, Goku cringes in anticipation of a backhand, but Sanzo does not raise his arm. "How many times have I told you to ask permission?" Sanzo hisses, looking down the length of his nose. "Just because you're bored doesn't mean you get to destroy things without asking."

"I wasn't destroying anything," Goku mutters, looking hurt. Then, gaining resolve, Goku frowns, his hands clenching at his sides. "I wouldn't be so bored if you'd give me something to do!"

Sanzo snorts at that. "Do? This is a monastery. There's nothing for you to do." He crosses the room and digs his coronet out of a dresser drawer, ramming it over his head. "Look, I don't have time for this. I've got work to do outside the temple but I'll be back by this evening."

"Take me with you!" cries Goku, itching at the chance to get away from the sneers and stares of the other monks.

Sanzo shakes his head. "Ask permission," he chides, "even when it's not coming. You stay." When Goku protests, Sanzo glares at him and raises his voice. "Stay."

As he leaves, he turns his fierceness on the spectators, promising swift and bloody retribution should anything be out of line upon his return. He walks away, waiting for Goku to call out to him as usual, in a goodbye or another protest or any one of a million familiar Goku-isms, but no cry comes.

The afternoon is scorching, and Hakkai has all of the windows thrown open to try and maintain some air circulation. It does no good against the stagnant humidity of the day made worse by the ever-present sun, mitigated only slightly by the protection of nearby trees.

When a knock sounds at his door, he knows the sound from the bright recesses of a hospital bed and hopes that, perhaps, Goku has come this time, too.

The door swings inward on a gentle nudge, revealing a dour, familiar face. Hakkai is disappointed, but does not let it show. Instead, he ushers the man inside with an offer of a glass of water, affecting every nuance of his best behavior. His performance will be graded, he knows.

Sanzo is all business, not even sitting down or removing his crown. "How is your job going?" he asks.

Hakkai smiles. "Wonderfully. I enjoy teaching the children and they seem to have gotten used to me. We're learning one another as time goes on."

Sanzo's eyes narrow as the monk searches for anything hiding between Hakkai's lines, but the weave of this suspect's words is tight and strong. The interrogation, for it could never be called civil conversation despite the pleasantries either interjects, lasts nearly forty-five minutes as Sanzo quizzes Hakkai on his behavior, his attitudes, his social machinations and his physical inclinations. Hakkai answers politely, smilingly, convincingly. He does not lie insofar as lying implies telling untruths. His periodic omissions are ignored in favor of more important topics. Sanzo seems far more interested to know about Hakkai's new handyman friend in current context than anything that might have to do with said friend's parentage, and so Hakkai does not touch upon it.

When Hakkai gets in a question of his own, inquiring as to Goku's health and the well-being of Sanzo himself, the monk does not do well to hide the twitch that dilates his pupils. After a beat, Sanzo responds, "Goku is fine. He's been getting himself into a lot of trouble, but that's no surprise. I am too busy to deal with it, and so Goku gets into more trouble."

Hakkai laughs appreciatively, affectionately. "Such is the vicious cycle. Does he have no one to take care of him other than you?"

Sanzo reads the offer in Hakkai's face. He hears the hope thrumming in the man's words, knows his affinity for the love of a child. And he remembers the small smile, the murderer's smile that came with Gonou teaching Goku how to read just one word. Fear and possessiveness bite through him like a lance, hard enough to surprise him and he brushes it off as a rush of instinct. "Yes," Sanzo answers, not entirely untruthfully. "Unfortunately, he seems to be the fastest runner out of them all."

When Sanzo leaves, the sun is still high and Hakkai does not feel any more enlightened than before he came. He shuts the door behind the monk, kicking it once when it does not close. It takes a well-placed thump with the heel of his fine shoe to get the latch to slide and catch, and that is more satisfying than jiggling the doorknob. Hakkai picks up the cup of water he had filled for his guest, swilling the untouched portion against the sides of the glass as he moves to empty it in the sink. Washing the cup gives him something to do.

Cold water blasts out of the faucet, even when he runs the hot for minutes on end. He can hear the grinding of plumbing mechanisms rusting into one another even as his hand goes numb from testing the temperature of the water in the sink. Finally, when his wrist aches in warning, Hakkai pulls his hand back and shuts the water off, resigning the cup to sit on the counter, unwashed and empty.

Hakkai detests the idea. He fingers the limiters on his ear, running his groomed, clipped nails over the skin between them. He doesn't mind playing host to a holy man every once in a while, or to a child with a sweet face and a bright spirit, but he detests the stink of the handyman. The overconfident aura, the scars on his face, the gentleness of his smile that smacks of pity and understanding where he could never, ever understand. Hakkai does not want to invite this liar into his house and watch him call it the home it would never be, watch him love the walls and the floor and the roof and play at being civilized.

The handyman with his boldfaced honesty annoys Hakkai more than any honest liar that does not need to hide under a bit of jewelry for his societal keep. The handyman with his brash familiarity that insinuates itself into a life story he does not know. The handyman, who knows exactly how often and how much Hakkai will need him, whether Hakkai wants it or not.

Hakkai is sure he will be able to maintain polite conversation. He has to be sure of it. He holds on to that thought with both well-manicured hands.

Gojyo swings outside and immediately swings back in. Already the humidity of the night clings to him, attracting mosquitos and discomfort. He throws his jacket off and decides against the leather pants, opting instead for loose, baggy, comfortable jeans with badges from days of hard work acting as ventilation. Plus, girls can't seem to keep their hands from toying with the frayed edges of those holes and that, if nothing else, is a welcome distraction under the table. He leaves his house for the second time, kicking the door shut and locking it behind him.

It's too hot and muggy to smoke outside, so he waits until he gets into a bar with dim lighting and ceiling fans to light up. He doesn't even have time to wave to the barman before he hears the familiar cry of loss echoing from an informal game of poker in the back. Curiosity wins over other vices, and Gojyo slinks toward the sound with an anticipatory, easy smile.

He very nearly loses his cigarette when he recognizes the faces around the table. As it is, he barely manages to shut his mouth in time to keep the filter from falling after his jaw so suddenly dropped.

As if the movement had been audible, Cho Hakkai looks up from his freshest hand and smiles at him. "Oh, hello, Gojyo. I had hoped to find you."

The smile throws Gojyo's brain back into gear. "Done deal," he says, rubbing his head. "You're a gambler? You play poker? …You play poker?"

Hakkai chuckles and motions for Gojyo to pull up a chair at his side. "I've always had uncanny luck with games, I'm afraid," he intones, and slyly lets Gojyo see his hand. Despite himself, Gojyo's eyebrows raise. Immediately, everybody else at the table folds.

Gojyo scoffs, indignant. "I do this for a living, you know."

Agile, white fingers reorganize piles and piles of coins, shuffling with gentle, rapid clicks. Hakkai does not even watch as he does it, but shrugs and keeps his eyes on Gojyo. "I'll be sure to leave some money for you as well, then." His eyes change for a moment, and his entire face lights up. "Oh, yes," he adds, falsifying a serendipitous remembering. "Speaking of making a living, would you mind accompanying me back to my house? There is a growing list of repairs I just can't seem to handle."

Silently, Gojyo gestures to the rest of the table with his eyes. Hakkai raises an eyebrow at his opponents, who seem all to eager to let him go. Problem settled, Hakkai deposits his entire winnings into his pocket, though his pants sag with the weight of so many coins, and pushes his chair back. Even as talk resumes around the table, even as eyes follow them like lead on their backs as they leave, Gojyo can't bring himself to care. He follows, letting Hakkai lead him for the moment.

It is not until they are far outside the limits of the town, among the trees and past the entrance to Gojyo's unused shortcut, that Hakkai opens his mouth again.

"I already knew, Gojyo-san," he murmurs, softly enough that Gojyo almost doesn't catch it. While the man runs to catch up, Hakkai continues, "You didn't have to tell me," with a conscientious fondle of his limiters.

Gojyo smiles, on familiar footing. "I had to find out for myself. Guys like you that pass through, I always want to know."

"Nosy, that." Hakkai looks over and the smile on his lips does not reach the rest of him. "It'll get you into trouble."

Laughter echoes so loudly through the woods that nocturnal animals rustle among the undergrowth. Gojyo does not curb the sound, but revels in it. "I can handle myself fine. I can tell you're not used to it. Not yet. You from the woods? Wild-like?" he prods, studying Hakkai's face for anything a limiter might not have been able to hide.

Gojyo is taken aback by the gaze leveled at him when Hakkai turns to respond. He looks away, fighting the urge to flush from the jolt, while Hakkai answers, "No."

The silence stretches on, and silence is what Gojyo knows. He hates it, but he knows it. A sigh escapes him, and he settles into the routine of Opening Up First, Setting His Companion At Ease. At least it fills the air. "Me," he says, "I'm damn' near a fish. Water sprite, you know?" With no reaction from Hakkai, he plunges on. "I can take the limiter off at h-… your place if it makes it easy on you," he adds, hating himself for stumbling again over the word. "Some people like seeing someone else go naked first," he explains finally. The reasoning is good enough in speech, and permits Gojyo to remain altruistic. Deep down, he itches over Hakkai. He desperately wants to see this man-youkai-god-idol in his true form, wants to see what he can really do.

Hakkai's words slap him full in the face. "I…refuse to count myself as such. Out here."

Gojyo does not attempt speech after that. He merely allows Hakkai to usher him inside his own house through a broken door, maintaining all forms of protocol that he can manage. It drops completely when Gojyo dives under the sink, finds his old box of tools, and grins so hard he can barely breathe. It is his joy and the pervading dust and mold that lead into a spectacular coughing fit. He spasms beneath the sink, dust clouds loosened and rising with his every movement, until finally Hakkai brings him a towel and a glass of water. Gojyo wipes his face down and takes a drink, nodding in thanks, and Hakkai gets out of the way. Gojyo does not even need an explanation of what is to be fixed.

Yanking the stove out of the way is not so hard as it used to be. Gojyo knows the pipes and valves Jien put in, the strange inventions Jien devised to keep the place running with minimal cost. The makeshift catches, the temperature gauges, the joints that once had to be held together with duct tape, all of them form a map so ingrained into Gojyo's mind that they overlay the patterns in his veins.

He does not have his newest set of tools. He does not need them. The old tools are cold and dirty and feel like home in his hands. He remembers how to compensate for the size of the wrench, how to hold his breath when moving the roll of measuring tape so it might not break open, how to fix Jien's valves better than even Jien could.

As he works, he hums to himself. Gojyo does not have a sense of tune or of rhythm, but his voice is pleasant enough and his mood is high. He can't possibly sulk while working, while fixing, while sweating behind his old stove to fix his old sink and love his old pipes until the inevitable time when new things must be financed. Gojyo knows the financial strain of teachers. He refuses to put that burden on Hakkai.

Hakkai. As soon as the man comes to mind, he seems to materialize behind Gojyo with a refill on that water. Gojyo scoots out into the middle of the kitchen and accepts the glass, wiping his forehead on his forearm. "Wish I had my bandanna," he mutters, holding up his hair and pressing the glass to the back of his neck.

When he hands the glass back to Hakkai, the man holds his eyes for a moment. "I want to apologize, Gojyo-san."

Gojyo grunts, sliding back into his old position and examining his handiwork. "No problem. Your business."

He hears Hakkai's light laughter. "Do you often play big brother?"

"Not really." Gojyo shares with himself and his tools a hidden, wry smile. "Some folks get hostile when I bring it up, you know?" He raises his voice to a shrill screech in impersonation. "How dare you! All of that. I was raised to be proud of it, mistake or no, so it took me a while to understand repression. Serious fuckin' scary repression, youkai who wanted to be human so bad they'd cut stuff off." He pauses, turns, looks over his shoulder, and examines Hakkai's face with a bit of appreciation for the lack of mutilation. "I don't know what you do to get by, but I can tell ya they say youkai and humans live in peace and they're real boldfaced liars."

Hakkai, however, could not be deterred from an early sticking point. "Mistake?" he echoes, very softly. He realizes what he is doing and flushes brightly, holding up the hand that does not hold Gojyo's glass. "Forgive my prying."

Gojyo turns back to the pipes. "Yeah, well. The thing is, if I clarify you're gonna owe me a story. The real story, and the whole thing."

Staring into the last crescent of water left in the bottom of the glass, Hakkai murmurs, "You deserve it."

"Okay. What I want you to do is go back into the shower and turn it on. Cold first, then hot. At the same time. And turn them off separately," he warns as a quick afterthought. "Hot first, then cold. Cool?"

Hakkai nods and leaves, walking with every manner of easiness and efficiency. Gojyo watches him move with an appreciation for his compact power. His hands itch to fight him, but not yet.

A shrill creaking is Gojyo's only warning before the pipe explodes, nearly breaking his nose and drowning him in a deluge of freezing water. The utter ruckus brings Hakkai running, and Gojyo is still spluttering even after the water is shut off. The brunette crouches without touching anything but the toes of his feet to the sopping floor and asks, "Are you all right?"

Gojyo yanks a clamp around the breakage with a loud grunt. The first words out of the drowned sprite beneath the sink are wary. "You shut the shower off the way I told you to, right?"

Hakkai pauses a moment, then colors under his collar. Gojyo watches the blush traverse until it reaches Hakkai's ears, and fills in the blank. "You didn't." He lays his head back in the puddle beneath the sink, his dark hair fanning out in the moldy water. "Fuck. Now I gotta fix the shower too." He brings his legs up and listens to the squelching as his weight shifts. "And your floor."

"That one," Hakkai murmurs, "may have been your fault."

Gojyo laughs, closing his eyes and not just because water drips into them. He takes Hakkai's hand when it is offered and stands up, kicking his legs to try and shake some of the water free. All of the holes in his jeans press spiderweb-strands against his bare skin, creeping up his legs. It's too cold, too dark outside, and his clothes are too thin for comfort. He shivers, dressed for the heat of a humid day and left soaking in the cold. When Hakkai throws towels on the floor to sop up some of the mess and offers one to Gojyo, he struggles out of his wet shirt, throws it into the sink, and accepts the towel with a grateful smile.

Hakkai stands next to him, leans with him against the kitchen counter as they watch the towels soak up the water. There is still a puddle coming from under the sink, still the drip of a stemmed flow. Gojyo sighs, visualizing the wood warping and the mold flourishing.

The sigh is followed by one in kind from Hakkai, although it is forcibly lighter. "Would you care for some tea?" he asks. When Gojyo glances at the sink, horrified, he clarifies, "Iced."

Gojyo can't turn down iced tea. Especially because Hakkai doesn't have any beer. He takes a sip and smiles into it, drinking iced tea without any ice so there is nothing to land against his mouth. The way is clearer, drinking without ice. Even if the stuff tastes like sugar-water. He swirls the tea around in the glass, watching it move. "Sorry," he says softly. "About your floor and the pipes. I thought I had it."

Hakkai shrugs one shoulder, hands empty and his elbows on the counter. "You said yourself they were tricky. I couldn't possibly afford replacing all of the pipes in this house, so the tricky ones will have to stay."

"You're gonna get so sick of me," Gojyo responds, grinning not at Hakkai but at his glass. Then, suddenly and decisively, he sets the glass down, shrugs out of the towel around his shoulders, and scoops up an armful of soggy towels from the floor. "Got any clothesline?"

Gojyo sits, sopping, on the dilapidated front porch. Outside, where the air is thicker and the humidity holds leftover sunlight, he is warmer. A few cigarettes survived in his pocket and he lights one. After a few minutes, Hakkai joins him, but stands away from the smoke. Gojyo notices and keeps the cigarette held away.

"You want the door fixed while the floor dries?" Gojyo rasps, looking over.

Hakkai wraps his arms around himself, rubbing for friction. "It's getting late."

Gojyo shrugs as if he had all the time in the world. "I've done later. Thanks for the tea." He grunts and gets up, wringing out the ends of his pants before sloshing inside to grab his shirt from the sink. He does not struggle into it, but wrings it out one more time and throws it over his shoulder.

Hakkai stands in the doorway of his own house, looking in. He swallows hard, the lump in his throat containing far more than dry air. "Gojyo-san, I'm beginning to realize you may be an indispensable accessory when it comes to the functioning of this place." That sentence out, he pauses to breathe and line up his next words. "The door's still broken, and there's a growing list of needs." It takes his best effort not to look at the floor, but Gojyo does and laughs. The hardest words slip out so quietly Hakkai must repeat them. They are easier the second time. "Come tomorrow."

Gojyo quirks an eyebrow, but Hakkai cuts him off. "While I'm teaching, so I don't get in your way. If you want. I'll pay you for whatever you require, services and parts. How does that sound?"

And Gojyo, standing in the middle of his kitchen, king of a domain he no longer owns, grins like a child in a candy store. "Sounds good."

Chapter Text

Cho Hakkai awakens with the dawn. Lazy beams of yellow-white light filter through the dust in the air above his cot and the stench of rotting wood intensifies with the heat of day. His eyes ache and his nose is raw. He sits up without looking out the window and rubs his hand under his shirt, at once scratching the itch of old, dirty skin and tracing the lines of dead tissue on his stomach. Absently, his fingers find a hole in the front of his shirt, but it is nothing important.

A stretch of long, thin limbs brings his hands down flat onto the ground. He relaxes his back, lets the muscles in his thighs uncramp and feels his blood flowing through him. He has time before he is rushed out of his own home but goes without coffee for a lack of trust in his plumbing. Although the day will be warm, the world is venturing into fall and the air carries on it a certain chill hidden in the humidity. Cho Hakkai buttons his shirt to his collar and makes sure his cuffs are secured as well. He tucks the tired fabric of his shirt into his pants and closes a belt over his waist, if only to hide the fraying seams by his belt loops.

His shirt does not have a breast pocket. He no longer uses them, no longer keeps a broken weight over his heart where the shattered glass might tear into his skin. It ruins shirts and concentration alike. Instead it hides wrapped in an old pillowcase, a watch without a tick enveloped in cotton. It muffles the beating of his monstrous heart.

Cho Hakkai leaves his house without locking the door because the door does not work. It will be occupied soon enough anyway. He walks the main path with a sneaking suspicion that he will not be met because a certain kite-littered shortcut is favored, and this is just as well for him. Avoidance tactics were never his style.

He buys an apple, eats it, and pitches the core into the woods behind a little schoolhouse. There, awake since dawn, stands an idol so much bigger than a pocketwatch. She smiles at him and beckons him inside, lets him sit down with her and watch the sun thread through her hair. If he sits in her shadow, her eyes sparkle the same way and her hair looks darker. If he sits in her shadow, he can pretend the long, low ponytail is a braid and that the shine of her buttons is really a cross on her breast. If he sits in her shadow, he can hide his face from her and be appalled at himself in private.

Gojyo's words, the ugly words of the ugly handyman handy liar wandering-handsy demon slither through his senses and rub their backs arching against his spine. You're gonna fall in love with Terue, you should know. You're gonna fall in love. In love. Love. You're gonna love. You should. Fall in love. Love with Terue. You're gonna fall…

"You're going to fall out of your chair if you continue sitting that way, Cho-san," murmurs Terue without a hint of condescension and every affectation of concern. "Did you sleep well?"

Hakkai shakes himself and scoots a little further back into his chair, knuckles going white on the edges of his seat. For a few heartbeats, he composes himself. He lets the muscles in his thighs uncramp and feels his blood flowing through him. And then, with red nose and raw eyes, he turns to her and laughs gently. "I fear some problems with my plumbing have been leading to a rather spectacular mold problem in my house."

Concern for his immediate safety switches into something deeper green in her eyes. "Oh, dear! That will be terrible for your respiration, Cho-san. You know you are always welcome to stay your nights here. If the problem persists I may insist upon it."

"Ito-sensei…" Hakkai breathes, stunned and mute except for the exquisite knowledge of her title. And then he grabs hold of himself with both hands and throttles. The words come. "I appreciate the offer, but I couldn't impose. Now, please, inform me of your lesson plans today."

Terue smiles at him, a little sadly but ever in the present. "How would you like to lead a class?"

If Gonou could, he would purr. Standing in full sunlight, buttoned to cuffs and collar and comfortable, speaking with authority and respect, teaching someone else's lesson but for himself, Gonou is in his element. He has Terue behind him, watching with approval and a self-satisfied, appreciative smile. He has the attention of the children before him, minds to fill and eagerly. He has his old hand gestures back, all of the muscle memory resurfacing so his voice becomes confident. Everything is as it should be, with ink on his fingers and perfume gentle and unobtrusive in the back of his throat.

He remembers the first time he called Terue his teacher. Ito-sensei not only by example so the students would follow. She had asked him why, and he had acknowledged himself as her student, not just her coworker but a constant, unofficial pupil. He became the acolyte, running errands and bending to talk to students that she didn't have the time or capacity to reach, watching the children run home for midday meals and guarding the door to the file closet where supplies were kept. He saw what she couldn't see while she lectured, maintained a better sense of discipline at first with his voice and then merely with a flick of his eyes and a clearing of his throat. He learned the students' names and addressed them with respect. He learned the students' personalities and how they played with one another. He learned the students' dramas and how to seat them so disturbances were kept at bay. While Terue graded papers, he kept the students' attention with stories and idioms, snippets of the lessons he used to teach on h is own. When they called him, their titles slowly changed from Cho-san to Cho-sensei, until he was as much of a teacher in their eyes as their Ito-sensei but with a different flavor in their ears.

Gonou did not need to learn how to teach people. He learned instead how to teach children. And in his element, Gonou calmed and purred and curled up in the sunshine, aching for a different scent of perfume in his nose but content in the smell of children always remaining the same.

Hakkai teaches while Terue looks on, tempted to drive the heel of his hand into his eye just for a moment, just to reassert control. He pulls Gonou away from the insult of Gojyo's ugly words and breathes deeply of the smell of peanut butter sandwiches, of dirt under fingernails and skinned knees and old Bactine and runny noses and Terue's perfume, only Terue's perfume. Hakkai answers questions, patiently repeating concepts in new ways until all of the gears shift and understanding blossoms on the faces of his students, his students. Her students. Borrowed children, borrowed time, a gift given in the brightness just after dawn. He fights down a sudden impulse to swipe the long hair that he no longer has behind his ears.

None of them ever ask him about his earrings. One of them had tried, but Terue interceded. Ito-sensei had met his eyes and seen the nakedness there. She won't ask him about his earrings either. He wonders how much she knows about Gojyo and how much she knows about him.

He is appalled at lumping himself in with the handyman. But with him come thoughts of Terue, and he can't keep his thoughts from gravitating toward Terue.

Hakkai watches her as she takes the reins back from him, watches the seamless shift from spectator to speaker light her features, and contents himself to sit in her shadow. He holds off the present, holds off the future in her shadow. Depending on how he decides to view it, he is either learning from or ignoring the past he does not have.

Cho Hakkai walks home, halfheartedly chasing the sun. He takes his time, putting one foot in front of the other with calm, careful finality so that the cadence of his steps is slower than his heartbeat. The day's heat hangs in the humid air, but he does not loosen his collar. He never loosens his collar.

This road, as he travels it, is becoming more and more familiar to him. He can see his old footsteps in the undisturbed dirt, can count the animals that have crossed the path overnight, can distinguish the patterns of his soles from the patterns of every other set of footprints. Recently, there has only been one other.

He opens his door and finds that the knob and latch have been fixed, as have the hinges. It no longer squeals painfully when the door is moved, and it actually closes. So silent does the door move that Hakkai's entrance remains unheralded. He walks into his house and comes by surprise upon Gojyo bent pulling up the edges of carpet that lead into the tile of the kitchen. It is very faint, but a brown blotch on Gojyo's back looks vaguely reminiscent of a perfect stripe that branches into two points at either end. It follows the line of his spine and as the stripe nears his belt there are two freckles that lead down between his kidneys. Hakkai had never noticed the birthmark before, but had never been looking for it. He knows enough to realize that Gojyo still has his limiter on, but it is old, old enough that Gojyo's skin can't be fully restrained from its geometric tendencies. To wear the imperfection so blatantly tears a gaping hole into Gojyo's lie.

Hakkai feels inferior somehow.

Gojyo feels his presence, must have sensed him because Hakkai is sure he made no sound, and he looks up with a wave. "Sorry I'm still here. I wanted to start ripping this up before it mildewed out."

"It can stand another night," Hakkai murmurs. Gojyo nods and begins grabbing his tools, understanding a cue when it smacks him in the face.

"I feel he is dangerous and unstable."

"That as it may be, Genjo Sanzo, this order has been decreed by the Merciful Goddess. He is to live."

Sanzo bows his head, years of training preventing him from clenching his fists or questioning. "Yes."

"We will bestow upon him a new name and a new life. Keep an eye on him, Genjo Sanzo, until he is stable as you see fit. We place him under your charge."

Sanzo does not look at the sinner Cho Gonou as he leaves the chamber of the Sanbutsushin, but saves the words under his breath until the double doors have swung closed behind him.

Chapter Text

Kichiro grins and slides his palm into the waiting hand presented him. He wraps his fingers around the other man's calloused palm, but the gentle wariness of the movement does not go unnoticed. His rounded fingernails are badly kept and dirt rests under them. It almost detracts from the grotesque freckle on the tender inside of his wrist. Kichiro does not notice himself being scrutinized and only gazes gamely into a set of pale blue eyes across the table.

"You sure you wanna arm wrestle me, kid? This is your last chance for backing out," he warns, bravado and laughter in his voice. His opponent smiles good-naturedly, shifting his cigarette to the other side of his mouth.

"You kidding?" he drawls. "This is the first interesting match I've seen in weeks." Those disconcerting eyes slide over their locked hands unabashedly, weighing and analyzing and letting Kichiro know who he is.

Kichiro is not a small person. He is shorter than average, but that in no way mitigates the sheer amount of muscle on him, and his shirts bulge with the result of days of hard labor and plentiful food. He has been lucky, so lucky to be adept at his work and be recognized for it, if not for who he is. He keeps his hair cropped short in blonde peach fuzz and keeps his face scrubbed and clean to present an honest, open air about him for employers; he keeps his strength and health on display in his own primitive form of marketing. Without an education, it is the best he can do. Kichiro is not a weakling, nor is he a pushover. He is strong and reasonably confident and has never lost an arm wrestling match in his life.

The kid across from him is barely old enough to drink, probably isn't, just a mess of lean, wiry muscles and intelligent eyes beneath a fall of dark hair. Even then, he exudes warmth and naivete, the hard lines of him softened by the dim yellow lights in the bar. His cigarette burns lazily and his voice rumbles slow and deep.

This kid is unafraid. When they begin to wrestle, the rest of his body doesn't even show the strain he puts on his arm. Neither of them hunches like an old man nor reaches up to grip the table with his other hand. Neither fights with his own form beyond breathing heavily and baring his teeth. Seconds pass and the veins on their arms bulge under skin slicked with sweat. Even as the balance teeters, neither lets his face betray him.

When Kichiro wins, slamming the other man's knuckles against the tired varnish on the table, he gracefully accepts defeat. He shakes Kichiro's hand and half shrugs.

"Call me Gojyo. Round's on me."

Kichiro has to follow after that.

Gojyo is a friendly guy; popular with the ladies and handsome in a way that wouldn't be so striking if he hadn't been messed up a few times. The jagged scars running from his cheek over his nose accentuate the fineness of his skin and the intensity in his eyes. Gojyo is a friendly guy, easily handing over the money to buy Kichiro a drink, and not just the cheapest booze in the house. His posture is relaxed, familiar, comfortable in its element. And by default it is comforting.

So when he turns his head and quietly murmurs, "Nice limiter," in his gentle drawl, Kichiro has to take a moment to process his own discomfort. And a moment more to restrain himself from tugging self-consciously on the ornate ring on his thumb.

"How'd you know?" Kichiro whispers into his bottle and takes a long swig to cover the word.

Gojyo laughs, though not mockingly. The tone is practiced and friendly, always friendly. "I'm good at figuring it out. You're used to sharp fingernails." He pointedly uses a mundane word to cover it, a human word for eavesdroppers. "Passing through?"

Kichiro nods. "Heading west a ways. Hear there are more job opportunities where I don't gotta pose."

A grunt of understanding echoes in the hollow of Gojyo's bottle. The kid had already drained his first beer and orders another. He grins a little over at Kichiro, just a quirk at the side of his mouth, and fishes in his pockets for money and a lighter.

"If you want another drink, you're paying. But that's not me trying to get rid of you."

Kichiro may have been a far cry stronger than Gojyo when it came to brawn, but he had no capacity for drink. He called it quits while Gojyo was still working through his first light buzz, but stayed and talked to him while he downed more and more liquor, often commenting on Gojyo's hollow leg. They'd shared stories quietly, slurringly, conscious enough of discretion even when drunk, then bellowed out snatches of songs while trying desperately not to fall out of their chairs.

It had been a tremendously good night. Gojyo stumbles home on autopilot, one last beer for the road clutched in his fist. He fumbles for his keys when he gets to his front door and comes up empty. He jiggles the knob in frustration, unused to a door that does not open with the slightest of his touches. He contemplates yelling for Jien but instead trips around to the back and the broken window he knows is just at the right height for him to fall through. He kicks at a few overgrown weeds he could have sworn were never there before, hoists himself inside, and squints at the bright lights.

Gojyo swears, dropping the beer and trudging through to the front of the house. He curses the lights, curses Jien for staying up so late, cursing the lack of mattress and Jien's apparent design rearrangements. The last is the final straw, leaving Gojyo condemned to pass out on the floor in his corner without his brother.

"Y'took the fuckin' mattress away, you prick! Wha'dja do that for?" he cries out at the top of his lungs, ready to beat the crap out of his brother, but his legs give out and he crumples in a heap on the carpet, his shirt rucked up and his greasy hair catching in his snoring mouth.

Gojyo awakens to a roaring hangover and a ringing in his ears. The smell of coffee fills the air, acrid and nauseating with age and the state of Gojyo's stomach. He grinds his hands into his eyes and groans hoarsely, familiar with this feeling but by no means accustomed to it. He rolls over onto his stomach, hoists himself into a standing position, and stumbles toward the shower.

His clothes are stained but only with sweat and liquor, stinking of revelry but so tame compared to his usual fare. His hair is tangled and matted, catching in the hollows of his ears and twining around his neck tighter than the limiter both hot and cold against his skin. Just for this moment, behind the safety of a closed, rickety wooden door two inches from the rest of the world, Gojyo pulls the limiter off and shudders into full form. It takes the edge off of his headache, if nothing else, and improves his balance enough to get him into the shower without stumbling.

Expecting a blast of cold, Gojyo's muscles brace themselves for their rude awakening. When instead a stream of comfortable warm water pelts his skin, Gojyo makes a mental note to congratulate Jien on the near-impossible accomplishment. He does not wonder where his brother has gone, surmising that he'd gone out on one of his labor circuits and is digging trenches in the cool autumn sunlight. Gojyo feels it in his shoulders, and anticipates a similar experience in the full heat of the day. Damn Jien for being a morning person.

The soap and shampoo smell different, the usual mix of cheap chemicals replaced by herbs. It comes through his hair differently, not clinging to the strands but sliding through them easier than water and stinging in the shallow cuts around his torn fingernails. It flows over his skin without catching in the hollows of his body and slips under his feet with intent to throw him. It recoils away from the scars over the bridge of his nose and hides between the cracks in his lips and tastes good enough to swallow. Gojyo shakes his head to get the water out of his ears and the sensuality out of his brain, swallowing water from the showerhead to assuage the rest of his hangover.

There is only one towel; the hamper is gone; there is only one toothbrush. The towel is already damp. So is the toothbrush. The toothbrush smells of another mouth, not Jien's, not his own. As the limiter snaps back around his neck, the dull throb at the base of his skull intensifies just enough to blur the corners of his vision, but not of his perception. Gojyo wrings out his wet hair and tries desperately not to panic, if only because that hurts even more. He wraps the towel around his waist and pads into the hallway, searching for his 'room' and a decent change of clothes. They are all gone. Gojyo feels acutely naked, perfumed by unfamiliar soap and modest under a secondhand towel.

Not until Gojyo makes it back to the kitchen, to the stale pot of coffee still warming on the burner, does he fully recognize himself. This is not his blend, not his beans, too rich to be instant. Neither he nor Jien take their coffee with cream.

Gojyo does not leave. After a few breathless seconds' fighting with himself, twitching and gnawing at his lip, cursing and smacking his own forehead, the tension drains from him. Don't blame others for your own mistakes, he'd always been told. What a mistake. Atonement is impossible, and the explosion inevitable at the end of the school day. There is only so much he can do. He downs a cup of coffee, then a full mug of water. He resignedly gets back into his old clothes, finds his tools, and sets in to whatever work he can manage, ignoring his headache and the fouled bit of carpet where he slept. The beer bottle he dropped left a stain, but he has neither the supplies nor the facilities to deal with it.

"My, Gojyo-san, did you sleep well?" Hakkai shuts the door behind him and sets the books and papers beneath his arm down on the kitchen counter. "I'd always read that a flat surface can do wonders for the back."

Gojyo winces horridly, his entire body convulsing at the pleasant tone and the shadow of its owner tracing fingers up his back. He turns, rising fluidly as he can, his fingers white-knuckled about the screwdriver in his hand made slick with sweat and grime. He smiles and takes his bandanna off, wiping his face with it, and shrugs a little. "Sorry about that."

Hakkai nods placidly, his hands in front of him and his eyes closed. Gojyo feels his ribs constrict and his stomach drops to his knees, locking them back so he can't move and the only thing worse would be if those eyes were to open. He babbles, his hands upright and open and pleading.

"No, really. I'm sorry. I was drunk, I forgot what I was doing, and I came here instead... this used to be my… Damn it, I'm just sorry and I don't know what I could do to make it up to you. I've almost finished this entire place minus a few uh… carpet stains and checking out the roof but whatever you want I'll do. At least I wasn't a burglar or anything, huh? Maybe… I was thinkin' maybe I should put in some better locks for the windows, too, 'cause even though I know how to get into this place I…I shouldn't."

"It most certainly is not." Hakkai's eyes open and pin Gojyo harder than his own instincts, shove him back against the wall and take his breath. Hakkai's face is friendly, angelic, slim and pale and closed and smiling and made dead plastic by the eyes that threaten to tear Gojyo's throat from beneath his chin. "You know I appreciate your services, Gojyo-san, but this house is my house. Your familiarity with this place in no way mitigates our strictly professional relationship. At this point it seems all I can do is request that this incident not be repeated."

Gojyo does not relax but the slightest fraction, his shoulders dropping a centimeter and his throat loosening enough to let him breathe. He blinks.

Hakkai fixes him with a look only partially as severe as the first, as his eyes close in a blink after the first word and his face is not so much forced but tired. "You are the best handyman I've found, the only person willing to come out here day after day to ensure my house does not crash down around me. This course of events does not dissuade me from that, but once your job is done and payment rendered, I want…" Hakkai bites it down, so hard that his smile returns and for an instant it is horrified.

Gojyo feels about to vomit. He heard the words as well as if they'd been screamed at him in a thousand voices as light and beautiful as Hakkai's but melodic and feminine. They follow caresses and beatings and curl their tongues down the back of his throat. Nothing more to do with you. I want you out of my life. I want you gone. Please, just die.

"Excuse my faux pas, Gojyo-san," Hakkai says softly. He is not smiling, but serious enough to relax his mouth around the words. "But I've come to the decision that this, ultimately, is for the best."

Sound is too much until the middle of the second word, and comes gruff and frustrated. "I'm thinkin' you've got a point."

Hakkai's voice is silk and hollow iridescence. His eyes glitter beautifully, and in them Gojyo sees his lazy smile sliding back over hungry fangs. He blinks and those eyes merely reflect the sun, taunting his imagination. "Take tomorrow off, Gojyo-san."

It would be benevolent if Gojyo wasn't bleeding from the neck and seething. He sets the screwdriver in his toolbox, shoves it into the nearest empty cabinet, and walks out with his bandanna trailing from his hand.

Chapter Text

Gojyo does not put his foot through the roof, but it is a close thing. He wobbles and grabs for balance, catching the limb of a tree he will have to cut to keep it from falling through the roof in the next lightning storm. He catches his breath and wills his muscles to relax, tracking his path with his eyes to find the strongest beams for his weight. He cannot replace the entire roof on his own. Only able to repair the most badly damaged patches and waterproof it the best he can manage, he weaves a treacherous path in and among rotted boards, always testing to make sure he doesn't bring the house down.

Gojyo works with his heart in his throat, unable to focus entirely on his own feet for glancing over his shoulder down the path, for straining his ears toward the sound of footsteps, for breathing as deeply as he can to catch every scent on the wind. In this place, away from the eyes and ears of civilization, Gojyo is isolated and frustrated with it.

Whether he is expectant or dreading, he has not even revealed to himself. The conflicting emotions roil and war in his stomach, fifteen feet above the ground.

Gojyo growls, pulls his limiter off, and wraps it in his discarded shirt. He pitches the bundle to the ground and feels his balance return tenfold revealing every movement of the house below him. It provides him focus on his work, as he can rely on his senses to tell him of changes in his environment without sparing his concentration. It provides him efficiency, as he can spread his toes and move quickly and surely without clumsy human flailing. He finishes quickly and surveys his work from the branch of a tree, nodding in satisfaction.

He trims the trees with his claws, unable to fit his hands into the saw handle and unwilling to risk the job to stunted balance. When the last limb falls away from the house, Gojyo smells him and the muscles in his back tense to bursting.

Soft steps and the smell of ink, paper, tea, metal. Gojyo pulls his hair back and shakes out his shirt, catching the limiter before it hits the ground and forcing his body to calm itself. The moments of tenseness are near unbearable but Gojyo now has payment to demand, his services rendered.

This is his final day and it tears at him.

He curls his fingers over the porch railing, careful not to dig his nails into it, and breathes. He snaps the limiter around his neck and shudders, sopping sweat from his face with his shirt.

Hakkai watches the geometric pattern on Gojyo's back as it blurs into a soft birthmark only slightly browner than his skin. When Gojyo turns to him, he realizes he has gasped to hold himself down, and that Gojyo's eyes are still slitted, as deep a blue as starved blood.

Gojyo sits in a familiar room, staring into the kitchen in silence. The lighting he has rewired, the plumbing he has tightened, the carpet he has cleaned, the tile he has replaced, the walls he has painted, the mold he has killed. All the little fixes that should make this place his because the house breathed under his hands and breathes still with his life.

This he has given to the man sitting across from him and the money in his pockets is not nearly enough to pay him off.

Gojyo wants. Gojyo wants desperately to have this place as his own again, to take it back in time and have it fixed when he was ten, thirteen, fifteen, so he could show Jien how much he's learned from him and earn one of Jien's smiles. Gojyo wants to cling to these walls and squeeze two brothers out of them to fill the emptiness of this house, of his house. Of Terue's house, and the little place in town Gojyo sleeps in but does not call home.

Instead Gojyo fights against an instinct to squirm under the cool gaze of the man who invited him in for tea. Gojyo still does not understand the sudden graciousness, but he's gotten good enough at reading Terue's aide that he realizes this was not planned. He may be just as confused as Gojyo.

Green eyes burn trails up his skin, morbidly curious, and Gojyo shudders but responds in kind, raking his gaze over the man youkai god idol as blatantly as he dares. He realizes he had never taken his limiter off in Hakkai's presence, out of some shamble of respect by virtue of shared species and shared farce. Suddenly, in an overwhelming wave, Gojyo wants. Gojyo wants to see Hakkai naked and brimming without those cuffs on his ears, heaving and fighting and straining and glorious so he could walk for miles in the rain with his guts hanging out and still survive.

Hakkai's mouth is partly open and neither of them has touched his tea. Gojyo knows, remembers having attempted small talk, but their voices dried up and their minds took over, scrutinizing one another in silence that has stretched past counting the minutes. Even as Gojyo tries to focus on the house, on his accomplishments, on the regrets that taste familiar and the money in his pockets, he is drawn back to Hakkai's face and Hakkai's hands and the glint of silver on his ear.

Hakkai's mouth twitches sharply downwards, then closes. He takes a breath to speak.

Gojyo beats him to it, croaking and quiet. "Spar with me."

Hakkai blinks, for an instant letting his face fall, then firmly reins in his features. "Excuse me?"

"Spar with me." Gojyo's voice is soft but insistent, use giving back its cinnamon curl. "Show me what you can do."

The response is harsh and quick, and for a second Gojyo twinges. "I'll do no such thing."

Gojyo is undeterred, not leaning forward but resting gently back, benign as possible but taut as bowstrings on the inside. "Think of it as stress relief. Nobody out here but you and me." He pauses, then adds, "It's all I ask. Just once and I'll go."

Hakkai pauses, considering, and shrugs one shoulder almost imperceptibly. The strain on his face shows in his furrowed brow, but his smile is as soft as ever. "If you promise to leave me in peace."

Only after the fact does Gojyo realize his breath caught at that, his heart racing. He forces his voice to remain calm and his manner easy, as if he hadn't itched to test this, to fight him, ever since the rumors floated over lines of drying laundry. Gojyo ignores the sleight to his ego, knowing Hakkai already voiced his dislike of Gojyo's presence, in favor of thrumming with excitement. "Sounds good."

He shoves back from the table so hard the chair skids another few inches on the carpet. Without a second thought, he summons his staff, the metal sinking into his hands with the familiarity of an old friend and the shock of magnetism. It purrs in his hands, metal links in the chain rattling against one another in greeting.

Gojyo purrs in kind as he watches Hakkai's eyes. "Come at me like you mean it."

Hakkai swallows and the tendons in his neck show it. "Backyard," he breathes.

Opening the front door, Gojyo gently and carefully guides the shakujou outside. He can't resist the urge to wink, feeling suddenly lighter for the first time in days. "Meet you there."

Gojyo believes in fair play. Usually. He comes at Hakkai while the other is still rolling up his sleeves on the back porch, forcing his arms up in a block against the shakujou. He is as stunned as his opponent when Hakkai's pale, bare arms glow bright green and a barrier of chi instinctively protects him. Gojyo ricochets back, catching his feet in the dirt by digging in his toes so his feet cramp. Gojyo crouches, watching and waiting, trying to reel in his dropped jaw.

Hakkai focuses on Gojyo, but from the way his hands flex, he is still recovering from his unexpected display. Gojyo can see the gears turning, and when the green glow builds in his opponent's palms, he barely has a heartbeat to dodge before they come at him like missiles. Gojyo rolls, barely avoiding a tree, kicking up dead leaves and pine needles as he goes.

Hakkai's voice is soft, only slightly taxed. "You may have an idea with this concept of sparring, Gojyo-san."

Gojyo grins, his blood racing, and sends out the chain of the shakujou. He knew he was outclassed when he started this match, but had no idea the extent of Hakkai's strength and adaptability. He is silently grateful this fight is not in earnest, and entirely impressed with his opponent's skill. Gojyo attributes his apprehension to his knowledge of Hakkai's obvious talent, to the rumors surrounding him, and shoves it back, resolving to push Hakkai as far as he can. He wants to see Hakkai at his limit, at his best, and this is his only chance. "You think?"

Hakkai dodges easily, sidestepping the first swipe and jumping over the equally dangerous retraction before sending a few more blasts in Gojyo's direction. Gojyo yelps as the last one singes the longest ends of his hair. He vaults out of his crouch and sends the chain out again, wrenching the staff so the crescent blade slices cruelly through the air, whistling with speed.

With one glowing hand, Hakkai catches the blade. He grins at Gojyo, his eyes open and blazing.

Gojyo's stomach drops to his knees, locking them as efficiently as Hakkai's anger had so many days prior. Somehow, he pulls his arms up and yanks the chain back, locking it as it retracts.

Hakkai disappears. Gojyo brings his staff up just in time to block a fierce punch aimed at his throat. He throws Hakkai off and forces his foreboding to the single stone in the pit of his stomach. He refuses to back down, even as his own mortality rises like bile in his throat. Gojyo ignores it, all of it, and steadies his stance.

"Fine. Let's play rough." Gojyo sets the staff down while Hakkai watches him, and reaches his arms up to undo his limiter. When he shudders into full form, Hakkai's gaze changes, becomes harder and darker and wanting at the same time.

"You too."

Hakkai nods, reaching a hand up, and before it closes around his ear Gojyo can see that it shakes. "As you wish, Gojyo-san."

In the next moment, as the little cuffs fall silently to the bed of dead leaves by Hakkai's feet, as Gojyo rolls his shoulders and focuses on the thrill of battle to steady his nerves, dark vines trail their way over Hakkai's skin, coiling over pale limbs and blooming on his face. In the next moment, Hakkai becomes magnificent and untouchable as his claws lengthen to lethal points, his senses sharpen, his fangs protrude and catch on his lower lip. His eyes are slitted and greener than Gojyo could ever imagine, and focused entirely on him.

Gojyo does not have time to retrieve the shakujou before Hakkai darts forward and calmly, expertly bends his arm backward until the elbow snaps. Gojyo screams and Hakkai releases him, savoring the sound and brushing his hand off on his pants.

"You bring out the worst in me, Gojyo-san," Hakkai murmurs, waiting for Gojyo to sit up and face him. Before an insulted, frightened Gojyo can splutter out words of indignation and anger, Hakkai beats him across the face, and the sound of a snap echoes even above Gojyo's cry of pain.

Hakkai stands over Gojyo, lazy and relaxed, smiling as he always has. Tears fight their way into his eyes but he has no time to consider consequence, motive, reason. He only knows that this feels fantastic and the moron writhing before him asked for it. Far be it for him to turn down a request.

Hakkai kicks Gojyo in the gut, sending him flying until he hits a tree with more sickening cracks. Leaves and twigs fall from the branches, raining down around Gojyo. The dark-haired youkai is beyond words, struggling only to stand even as his breaths come in wet gasps.

Gojyo wraps his good arm around his ribs, coughing violently. Hakkai leans over him like a lover and slides his claws up under Gojyo's ribs, leisurely taking in the way Gojyo's blue eyes widen and his broken jaw slackens further in agony. Gojyo spits blood, spattering over Hakkai's pristine white shirt, and Hakkai backhands him for it.

"Keep your filthy blood away from me," Hakkai hisses, drawing out his claws and wiping them on Gojyo's shirt.

Gojyo's lip curls in a snarl and he kicks Hakkai in the stomach with both feet, using the tree at his back for leverage. Even that effort sends pain tremors through Gojyo's body, overpowering shock and tearing groaning whimpers from his throat. Hakkai stumbles backward only a few feet, but it is enough.

An unfamiliar shout echoes among the trees and blinding light captures Hakkai. Gojyo is only conscious long enough to hear his screaming among the sounds of a thrumming power even greater than the one Hakkai's limiters kept at bay.

"They renamed you too soon."

"It was not my choice."

"You'd rather be as you are."

"Gonou already had his second chance."

"It was Hakkai's first."

"That is no reassurance."

"I'm not reassuring you."

"I'm glad of it."

A sigh.

"Did I kill him?"

"Why does it matter?"

"Is that honest interest or are you rubbing it in my face?"

"Do you want him dead?"

"Don't ask me that."

Chapter Text

Sanzo said not to bother either of them.

When Goku asked why, he was told that he'd kill the water sprite. If he bounded inside, the little earthquake alone would rip the stitches on him wide open. He was in a delicate state, youkai or no, and the only way to keep him alive was to leave the monkey outside.

When Goku asked about the other one, Sanzo wouldn't look at him.

"Don't go near him."

Goku frowned. "I like Gonou. He was nice."

Sanzo looked at him then, and it was worse than being hit a thousand times. "Don't."

Sanzo smokes under the peach tree that bears offerings to the Merciful Goddess. He fires at the acolytes that protest the two prisoners, and bears the speeches from the doctors that come.

He keeps an eye on Goku, ordering others to distract him, to keep him away from the two padlocked doors.

The Sanbutsushin had been absolute in their edict: Keep them both. Keep them alive. The Merciful Goddess demands it.

Sanzo lets Goku climb the peach tree, and eat all he wants. When Goku offers him a peach, he refuses.

"Don't be stupid," he mutters. Goku sighs, and eats.

They've decided to call him Cho. Neither one nor the other, too far immersed in his new name, but not worthy of it.

Cho, and nothing more.

He hangs, pinned to the wall behind fortified bars, sutras burning into his skin. If he strains, his toes just barely touch the ground, but he never cared to strain.

Sometimes, the monk comes in to make sure the seals are holding him, to keep the limiters on his ears.

Sometimes, Cho asks after the handyman, trying to determine his own level of curiosity. He's not sure he cares.

The monk never answers.

Gojyo wakes slowly, and with a half-strangled scream. He hurts, half-lucid, half torn apart, and there is no painkiller strong enough for him.

There are monks watching him, and doctors, and he can smell their blood, and his blood, and the antiseptic and there is no trace of his dirt and his home and his death on his skin.

Someone puts the limiter on around his neck with a click that rings too loudly in his ears. He shudders, remembering through the pain.

Not one person says a word. Except for the blonde monk.

"Shut up. You're alive. Move on."

"Aren't you hungry?" Goku asks, sitting cross-legged before the bars.

Cho is, ravenous, his stomach eating at his spine. He shakes his head. "No."

Goku frowns. He remembers Gonou teaching him to read, and sharing his food, smiling.

"Do they let you down?"

Cho shakes his head. "No."

"But. But…why?"

Cho smiles, soft and quiet, his head bowed.

"I did a very terrible thing. Didn't Sanzo-sama let you know?"

"N-no," Goku stammers. "He just said not to come in here."

When Cho looks up, his eyes are the deepest green Goku has ever seen.

"Sanzo-sama is a smart man."

"Leave me alone, monkey," the water sprite grumbles. He turns his head away, his jaw clenched, eyes glazed.

Goku can see his hands shaking on the bed-sheets, callused, rough, tan, and weak. He frowns, watching tiny tremors rattle the bones in his wrists.

"What's wrong with you?" asks Goku, leaning forward over the bed.

The water sprite winces. The scars on his face crinkle as his mouth tightens, the taut tissue refusing to bend. "Ca-an't smoke. 'S these fucking monks."

"So you're messed up? From withdrawal?"

The water sprite holds up one hand, and watches as it twitches. "Sure."

"Fuck," says Gojyo, and with feeling. He smokes hard, drawing huge lungfuls in until the stitches on his skin ache and he has to stop. He coughs.

The monkey sits by him, watching. "D'I fix it?" he asks. "Are you doing better?"

Gojyo looks over at him, and gives him a weak smile. "It's a start."

Gojyo lights another, his eyes fluttering closed.

"Ah," says Goku, quiet and rough. "Sanzo won't tell me."

"Tell you what?"

Goku looks down at his lap. "H-how do you know Gonou?"

Gojyo doesn't open his eyes, but laughs. "I fixed his house for him."

"But Sanzo-sama, he comes to see me."

Sanzo snarls, low, dangerous, deep in his throat. Cho smiles at him, that tiny, superior quirk of his lips. Cho's eyes are closed, his long eyelashes resting behind the sheen of his glasses, over angelic, pale cheeks. In the silence, the thrumming, hot absolute shuddering from the edge of Sanzo's gun, Cho's words reverberate.

He comes. He comes. To see. He comes to see. Me. Me. He comes to see me.

Sanzo shudders, his finger slowly tightening on the trigger.

Fuck the Sanbutsushin. Fuck the Merciful Goddess. Fuck this.

Cho smiles, serene.


Gojyo stands, and his knees nearly drop him. He swears, staggering. When he is steady, he strips out of clothes the temple lent him.

He turns when he hears a quiet sound.

Gojyo raises an eyebrow. "Jealous, monkey?"

Goku flushes, bright and hot. "No! What happened to you?" he asks, pointing.

Gojyo looks down at himself. He shrugs. "It's nothing."

"You wouldn't be here if it's nothing. Tell me!"

Gojyo doesn't look, stepping into his clothes. "It's a long story. Ask Gonou."

Gojyo shoulders his bag, then, and leaves, waving over his shoulder as he disappears down the temple stairs.

"Sanzo says he's not gonna shoot you."

Cho opens his eyes and looks down. Goku stands as tall as he can, his chest pushed out and his crown gleaming in the dull light.

"Why won't he shoot me?" asks Cho, quiet.

"'Cause. You're important," says Goku, stubborn and rough.

Cho raises his eyebrows. "I doubt it."

Goku frowns, and comes right up to the bars, glaring at him.

"Tell me what you did to Gojyo."

Cho looks at him for a long moment.

"I tried to kill him."

Goku looks less shocked than Cho was expecting. Or perhaps hoping.


The little dragon is a torn and bloody mess, collapsing in a broken, jagged heap beneath the peach tree that bears offerings to the Merciful Goddess.

Goku demands to keep it, but Sanzo is the one who tends its wounds, shouting that Goku will kill it if he clumsily throws the thing around any more than he already has.

Over the dragon's body, as it sleeps, Goku tells him.

"He said he was jealous. Of Gojyo."

Sanzo lights a cigarette. "Hm."

Goku frowns, resting his chin on his hand. "Why, do you think? Sanzo?"

Sanzo shrugs. "Because he's an idiot."

Cho hits the ground hard, his knees giving out when his feet land.

"You're coming with me."

"Where?" Cho gasps, forcing himself to his feet. He rubs at his own arms, at the sore, stiff ache.


Cho can't help but stare. "Ah."

"Come on." Sanzo watches him, piercing, unrelenting. "If you fuck up, I'll shoot you."

"I believe you will."

Sanzo turns away from him, heading out the door. "There is no space for any of your shitty baggage. Leave it here."

Cho watches him. And then he laughs. "Yes, Sanzo-sama," he murmurs, following with his head bowed.

Chapter Text

Sanzo makes Cho sit beside him, close on his left. He keeps Goku directly behind Cho, reflected in the rearview.

The small, strange dragon-car whines under his hands, requiring his weight behind the steering wheel.

Some days, it tries to throw Cho from its passenger seat. Only Sanzo is allowed to drive.

Goku complains about his hunger, and Sanzo can't keep Cho from talking to Goku.

The heavy weight of his gun against his arm is little reassurance. It is even less when he first sees Cho fight, bright green bursts of chi obliterating the first mindless youkai that attack.

Sanzo makes them all sleep in the same room. He dares not leave Goku alone with Cho, nor Cho to himself, and he refuses to buy Goku his own room.

He and Goku learn together that Cho sleeps with his eyes open. The second time he laughs, low and curling and dangerous, Goku climbs into bed with Sanzo, regardless of the threat of the gun.

Sanzo calls him an idiot and kicks him, but Goku shudders and shakes his head, keeping his body between Sanzo and Cho.

Sanzo lets him stay.

Cho laughs, his eyes trained, unseeing, on the ceiling.

Between Goku and Cho, Sanzo hardly fires his gun at all.

Goku sticks near him, overprotective, beating holes in the youkai that approach and breaking their bones.

Both of them keep an eye on Cho, though it distracts Goku's focus.

Cho smiles, without teeth or opened eyes, serene and angelic and beautiful. He remains clean and perfect, firing chi through his enemies, three or four at a time, never once stopping.

When he throws a shield up around Sanzo and Goku, Goku nearly falters, shocked.

Cho gives them a smile, the same as all the others, and resumes the slaughter.

Gojyo knocks on the door, holding a flower stolen from someone else's garden.

A man answers, and blinks. "Gojyo! The fuck, you're alive?"

Gojyo frowns hard. "Where's Ito-sensei."

The other man winces, ducking his head. "Don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Gojyo hisses, grabbing his collar.

"Hey! No! Look, she left, okay? When – fuck, we all thought you'd died! Alright? But she… she went out looking for you, man."

Gojyo swallows. "Which way?"

"Don't. Don't. Some folks found her body a coupla days ago. Youkai tore her apart."

Gojyo staggers backward.

"She's buried behind the schoolhouse."

Gojyo leaves. He sells his house, packs a change of clothes in his bag, leaves.

Terue is gone. The schoolhouse is closed. There is nothing for him here.

Genichi went West.

Jien went West.

He turns his face toward the setting sun and squints into the light. The stitches in his stomach don't hurt any more. He'll cut them open later, to pull the strings out.

Gojyo bows his head to shield his eyes from the light, his handyman's handkerchief tied around his forehead and his limiter cold around his neck.

Gojyo goes West. There is nothing for him here.

She says her name is Shunrei.

She cries, and Cho watches her, feeling a knot tighten in his gut. She is beautiful in all the wrong colors, and talks too much of bearing a half-youkai child. A half-blood bastard.

He had forgotten what it felt like, to be around women. He misses intensely the openness of the road and nothing but Sanzo-sama and his monkey. No reminders.

Still, when another youkai lays a hand on her, he kills it without a second thought.

"Come on," he murmurs to her terrified face. She faints in his arms.

"I'll take you home."

Gojyo runs out of places to spend his money in before he runs out of money. The further West he goes, the more he has to fight. The further West he goes, the more stores are out of business, ransacked and left open, fruit rotting in the streets.

Gojyo scavenges. He sleeps in abandoned hotels and homes, and more and more, fights off youkai driven mad.

He stopped reasoning with them long before.

He remembers the hot rush of taking down an animal twice his size with nothing but his teeth.

The limiter grows tight to choking around his throat.

He says his name is Chin Yisou.

Cho smiles at him, remembering, until the gleam of his teeth shows between his lips.

"Are you afraid, Cho Gonou?" Chin Yisou slurs, the acupuncture needles in his mouth curving with his grin.

Cho slams his fist into Chin Yisou's chest and closes his hand through the hole that should have held his heart. Blood spurts from the wound, but it is only Cho's. Chin Yisou shrieks, his body convulsing and dissolving into dust.

Cho pulls back his ravaged hand. His palm cradles a mahjongg tile.

"Yes," he murmurs. "But not of you."

Kougaiji does not shudder, but the chill in the desert settles in the small of his back. Beneath him, the keeper of the Sutra he needs stands beside the Monkey King and… an utter madman.

"We're going back," he hisses, turning. Lirin opens her mouth to protest, but Yaone catches her shoulder, shaken by the look on Kougaiji's features. Both ladies, slim and lovely, both trained to fight, both irreplaceable. His own, to protect.

"This," Kougaiji says quietly, "is no place for either of you."

Lirin vibrates with protest.

Kougaiji fixes her with a sharp look. "We. Are going. Back."

Cho sits, quietly bandaging his hand.

"Who was that?" Goku bursts out, gripping the table with both hands. The food is on its way, but not fast enough.

Cho ties the bandage around his wrist and looks up. He meets Sanzo's eyes first.

"Someone I killed a long time ago. One of Hyakugan Maoh's sons."

Sanzo sips his beer. "Like the crow youkai?"

"I hadn't killed the crow before. It seems this one made himself into a shikigami."

Goku's eyes widen.

Cho looks over and smiles. He holds out the mahjongg tile, then crushes it in his fist.

"Don't worry."

Cho knows a personal demon when he sees one. When the youkai killer Rikudou's eyes pass straight from him over Sanzo's features, he steps back. This belongs to Sanzo-sama.

Goku fights him when he tries to hold him back, to keep him from stepping in. This is not his fight, not something Sanzo-sama will want to share, will want anyone to see.

Cho knows.

Goku fights him until Cho's grip is broken, and he dives into the fray, before the bullets, before the staff, and is beaten to the side.

Sanzo doesn't watch him land.

Cho watches, hands stilled.

The sound of the staff crunching through Sanzo's body echoes in the stunned silence before the monk gurgles, his body crumpling.

Cho catches him and swallows hard at the smell of his blood, but he can barely move to heal him before Goku shakes with the insurmountable power of a god.

The crown shatters into tiny useless crumbs of gold over the ground. Cho lays eyes on Seiten Taisei Son Goku, his breath catching in his throat.

The sounds of ripping flesh and Rikudou screaming echo over Cho's fight to force Sanzo's wound to heal. He bites his lip, concentrating.

The Merciful Goddess has lips as soft as petals, sharp as thorns. Se drops Cho's body once se has taken his blood, and passes it to Sanzo, holding his chin hard to keep him from moving. His hand still flails unconsciously at hir, smacking hir cheek.

Se stands, wiping hir mouth.

"I'm disappointed in you, Gensui," se says, fixing hir gaze on Cho.

"I'm sure I don't know who you're talking about, Merciful Goddess," Cho murmurs, still bowing deeply.

Se watches him for a long moment. "I'm sure you don't."

Se puts hir hand on Goku's head as se leaves.

Sanzo smokes, leaning out the window. He presses his hand to his stomach, just to feel that it is whole.

Cho brings him a beer.

"We do have a lot in common, Sanzo-sama," he murmurs softly.

Sanzo blows smoke into the night. "Don't say it."

Cho looks at him for a long moment, and watches his throat move as he swallows a sip of beer.

"Don't stand there either," mutters Sanzo.

Cho sits beside him, and looks out the window.

"Love is a terrible thing," he says.

"I don't love."

Cho smiles faintly. "Others would do well by your example."

Goku curls up in a corner of the room the three share.

The little dragon curls about his neck, cooing and rubbing his face against Goku's chin. It makes Goku smile, at least faintly, despite the heavy, dark sickness in his gut.

Cho finds him first, and kneels down.

Goku ducks. "I was gonna kill you guys. I. I couldn't stop it."

Cho tilts his head a little, and smiles. "Don't worry. You didn't, and that is all that matters."

Goku stammers, "B-but—"

Sanzo stands behind Cho. "Don't be stupid. We're fine. Get in bed before I put you there."

Gojyo tears into the body of a deer with his teeth, pulling skin away from the meat. He breaks the bones apart with his hands, tearing out huge mouthfuls of muscle and fat, blood running in thick, dark streams down his face and bare body.

He knows other youkai will be drawn by the scent soon, so he gorges himself, grabbing the best meat for himself, stripping a kill too big to guard all alone.

He can smell someone approaching, and growls deep in his throat, turning slitted blue eyes toward the intruder.

"Damn. You've really done it this time."

Chapter Text

"He's my little brother, lord. I couldn't just leave him."

The youkai before Kougaiji pants, blood on his breath, stained red down the length of his body. Kougaiji can see the muscles moving under his skin, the way his back is curled and feral. He is naked, unabashed, radiating power and the madness of the Minus Wave. The blue of this youkai's slitted, sharp eyes matches the blue in Dokugakuji's almost perfectly.

Kougaiji raises his eyes to his second's face. He damns his own mercy. "Fine. Clean him up. We'll find him a place."

Dokugakuji smiles. "Thank you, my lord."

As they move deeper into the castle, Gojyo's panting grows thinner, more like controlled breath. His spine straightens, and he begins to shiver.

"There you go," murmurs Dokugakuji. He leads Gojyo to Yaone, and has to stand between them to keep Yaone from crying out in shock. He speaks quickly and quietly; even as he explains, Gojyo's eyes begin to clear.

Dokugakuji manages to convince Yaone to draw him a bath, to help him inside, and he stands outside the door.

"A little to the left," he hears Gojyo rasp.

Dokugakuji grins as the sound of Yaone slapping him resonates.

"It's something about this castle," Dokugakuji explains, leaning in the doorframe.

Gojyo looks over, toweling out his hair. "What the fuck about the stuff outside of the castle?"

Dokugakuji shakes his head. "Fallout from ongoing attempts to revive my lord's father."

Gojyo drops the towel and stares for a moment. "Your lord?"

"Yes. My lord." Dokugakuji levels a look at his brother that defies comment. It is a protectiveness Gojyo recognizes.

Gojyo frowns, and starts struggling into a pair of pants Dokugakuji lent him. "Terue-chan died. Youkai killed her."

Dokugakuji swallows hard. "Then at least she's with her brother."

Cho dreams about Yaone. He wonders if he would have killed her if she weren't so mild, so sweet.

Cho dreams about Shunrei. He watches a thousand times as her half-bred baby tears its way from her womb, leaving her a shell on the ground.

Cho dreams about Terue suffocating in a smoke bomb, about the way she smelled like pencil shavings and paper. About the sunlight in her hair, and the small hands of children in hers.

It has been a long time since he last laughed in his sleep. Now, Goku and Sanzo contend with his screams.

"So you're Dokugakuji's little brother."

"I have a name."

"He never told me."

"It's Gojyo."

"Gojyo, then."

"You've got it."

"It seems."

"What's this I hear about Sutras? And your father?"

"You're brash."

"I'd like to know who I'm gonna fight for."

"When did I say you were going to fight for me?"

"Why else would you keep me?"


"You expect me to do it anyway, don't you? Jien likes you enough."




"He's got his stupid side, but he's not an asshole. Maybe he's got something."

"I don't believe in nepotism."

"D'you believe in blood lines?"

Gojyo sweats, crouched and grinning harder than he has in months. The rings on his shakujou tremble and chime in the deafening silence after Kougaiji's last blast.

"You're not bad," murmurs Kougaiji, from right behind him.

Gojyo wheels, starting a volley of blows with the staff, watching each time as Kougaiji's brown arms block his attacks. The shakujou sings.

"Good fighter too," he pants, licking sweat from the corner of his mouth. He can see Kougaiji watching his tongue.

The sucker punch he gets in for taking advantage is returned tenfold, and his jaw will ache for days from smiling.

Dokugakuji bows. "I'll ready the dragons, sir."

As he walks away, Gojyo pokes his head into the hall, looking down the length of it. He watches his brother's back retreat until Kougaiji notices him.

He grins, waving.

"You will stay here with Yaone and Lirin."

Gojyo frowns. "Yeah, I got it. Not good enough, huh?"

Kougaiji raises an eyebrow. "One afternoon of sparring hardly makes you trustworthy."

"But I'm good enough?" asks Gojyo.

The smile he gets for that is small, the tiniest quirk in the corner of Kougaiji's mouth. And then Kougaiji turns, chasing a Sutra in the sand.

They find him kicking viciously at a Scorpion youkai.

Cho watches Sanzo's body as it moves. This is not the simple, detached power of firing a gun. This is not his sharp tongue. This is his whole body concentrated into violence, simple and animal and Cho nearly moans.

Goku is horrified. He steps in first to stop it, to stop Sanzo from destructing himself. Sanzo does not look at him, can't bring himself to meet Goku's eyes as the recognition dawns.

Cho watches, his pulse beating hard in his throat. Sanzo's eyes are inviolate, violent violet, the deepest he's seen.

Dokugakuji tightens his arms about Kougaiji's limp body. Seiten Taisei had been too much, too big, too dangerous to handle. In the face of such wrath, they were like leaves in the wind.

The dark-haired one's green eyes stay with him, cold between his shoulders as he was walking away, cold now as he drags Kougaiji into the castle.

The sight of Dr. Nii in the doorway startles him.

Dr. Nii smiles, and asks for Kougaiji. "Shouldn't your precious ones go to the best?"

Dokugakuji swallows hard. He couldn't do it before, but…

Dokugakuji nods, cradling Kougaiji, prepared to follow.

"What the hell are you doing?" Gojyo asks, and his voice echoes sharply in the corridor.

Dokugakuji doesn't turn. "He's hurt. Doctor Nii is—"

Gojyo steps between them, his back to Nii. "Captain Creepy here doesn't get to touch him."

"I am a doctor," murmurs Nii.

Dokugakuji snarls. But Gojyo has grown taller, stronger than before. Gojyo is not thirteen.

"Give him to Yaone. She's his doctor."


"You trust him this guy more than her?"

Dokugakuji opens his mouth to speak, stops.

Gojyo growls and snatches Kougaiji from his brother, bearing the prince's weight too easily. "Fuck you."

"You were going to make Yaone cry. And the princess. Good going, you stupid fuck."

"Shut up, Gojyo."

"How'd he get that way, huh? And you without a scratch on you."

"Shut up, Gojyo."

"Did you even fightfor him? What the fuck else does he keep you around for?"

"You weren't there."

"No, 'cause if I'd gone, he wouldn't be this messed up. You almost handed him over to that… that rapist-looking thing!"

"He's a doctor, not a rapist!"

"You're telling me you –trust- it? He wouldn't stop leering at him-"

"Shut up, Gojyo! You don't know what you're saying—"

"I'm saying you don't give your lord over to a creepy son of a bitch after a battle he apparently fought for you to get fucked up the way he is when he's got a doctor who isn't! a fucking! Rapist!"

"Shut up! I did what I was supposed to-"

"Oh, wait, I get it now! You're treating him like family, you asshole. Gonna fuck him up and then leave him because it's too much for you, huh?"

"This isn't—"

"Oh fuck yes it's about me because now you're doing it again. You're doing it agai—"

Chapter Text

"So," murmurs Gojyo. "Where's my dragon?"

Kougaiji looks up, frowning. "What did you do to your face?"

Gojyo grins a little, strained and thick around the humongous bruise on his jaw. "Sibling rivalry is all. If you're gonna leave the castle this soon after being stitched up, you should have someone go with you."

"You're hardly in the best of shape."

Gojyo laughs. "Better'n you. Do I get a dragon or not?"

Kougaiji raises a skeptical eyebrow.

"I could always share yours," Gojyo offers, and winks.

After a long, weighted pause, Kougaiji laughs. It is quiet, and dry, but real.

Hwan laughs, vindictive and slow and quiet. "Didn't get him, did you?"

Nii only looks over with his eyes. His face is easy, but even in the dim, flickering light of computer screens, his eyebrows are drawn lower than usual. His cigarette ends are chewed, yellowed filters bursting from the paper at rough, wet angles.

The stuffed bunny in his lap leans back against his stomach, reflecting back his own meager body heat. Its weight is his favorite constant.

And then, nicotine-stained and sharp, Nii smiles.

"It's all about battles and wars, Doctor. I never was one for the skirmish."

It was only reconnaissance, really, and an excuse to get away from the air inside the castle.

Kougaiji finds himself sitting beneath a tree, two dragons snoring, and Dokugakuji's little brother sprawled in the shade beside him, sucking on an unlit cigarette.

"How lewd," murmurs Kougaiji, but he is smiling. Gojyo raises his eyebrows and looks over, tipping his head back.

"Yeah, well."

Kougaiji looks him over, looks over him. He meets Gojyo's eyes again. "Where, exactly, is Dokugakuji?"

Gojyo closes his eyes and settles back down onto the grass. "You so bored of me already? He's just bein' himself."

Softly, Kougaiji murmurs, "You are still wearing his clothes."

"Don't have any of my own. You saw how he found me. It's fucked up out there."

Gojyo rolls over and pushes himself up to sit a little more. "Your dad, huh?"

Kougaiji nods. "Mm."

Gojyo frowns, and comes a little closer. He plants himself beside Kougaiji, and asks. Softly, almost gently, he asks Kougaiji, and Kougaiji tells him everything he asks for.

He asks where the Sutras are, exactly. When Kougaiji tells him exactly where, he laughs so hard he has to keep himself from choking. It aches like guilt.

Kougaiji hadn't seen them before, Gojyo's scars. The thick, dark lines that run over his stomach had been obscured by blood, and Gojyo had simply never gone naked before him afterward.

But now, Gojyo pillows his head on one of Dokugakuji's shirts and lets him look.

"The one with brown hair, eyes scary as fuck? Did this one. He's youkai, and batshit fucking insane."

Kougaiji frowns. He pulls his hand back, the one he hadn't realized was reaching out toward Gojyo. "Why?"

Gojyo shrugs. "Wouldn't get out of his house."

Kougaiji watches him for a moment. Then he nods. "Oh."

"I won't have dissention among my men."

Gojyo raises an eyebrow. "Who's dissenting?"

Kougaiji frowns slightly, looking Gojyo in the eye. "You and your brother hardly seem to get along."

Gojyo gives him a wry smile. "What, this?" He gestures to the bruise on his cheek, already going yellow at the edges. "Nah, this is nothing."

"Why did he hit you?"

Gojyo looks away, shrugging. "You were messed up and he was gonna hand you over to that doctor guy. I wouldn't let him. Don't trust him."

Kougaiji pauses for a moment. "That's troubling."

"That I don't?"

"That Dokugakuji does."

"Which one of them did you fight?"

"Of the Sanzo party?"

Gojyo nods. "Yeah. Looks to me like only the one I knew could really fuck you up."

Kougaiji shakes his head. "I fought Son Goku."

Gojyo pauses, staring. "Wait. The monkey?"

Kougaiji gives him a stern look. "You have very little experience with him, then."

Gojyo snorts. "Uh huh. And who'd Dokugakuji fight?"

At Kougaiji's long, weighted silence, Gojyo blinks rapidly, understanding dawning.

"You're kidding. Nobody? What the hell—"

"He's mine to protect—"

"You're an idiot!" Gojyo pushes himself up and just stares at Kougaiji. "And you're serious."

Gojyo scrambles up after Kougaiji, Dokugakuji's shirt forgotten on the grass.

"Listen. No. Wait."

He manages to slide out in front of him and stops, holding up his hands. "I'm saying you're our lord, right? We're your men. Said so yourself. But what the fuck good is it having soldiers if you're not gonna let 'em fight for you sometimes? You gonna get yourself killed so that my dumbass brother has to take care of the Princess instead?"

Kougaiji frowns sharply at him. "You're not funny."

"But I'm right, aren't I?"

Gojyo's smile quirks when Kougaiji looks away.


"Perhaps you should reconcile with your brother."

Gojyo leans against the railing, looking out of Hotou castle into the night. His shoulders are hunched, thin inside a borrowed shirt.

"You know what the problem with this place is?"

Kougaiji steps up beside him, looking outside. "Which one?"

Gojyo snorts softly. "Nobody in this goddamn castle smokes. And I'm running out."

"Yaone told me he'd be best off talking to you. Go see him."

"And another thing, that means nobody's ever willing to give me a light," mutters Gojyo.

Kougaiji puts one hand on Gojyo's shoulder. "Gojyo."

"I know, I know."


Dokugakuji turns, and nods him in. "Mm."

Gojyo comes to sit beside him, and nudges him. "Can I keep the shirts? You don't ever wear 'em anyway."

Dokugakuji nods. "Yeah, go ahead."

Softly, Gojyo asks, "Where'd your limiter go?"

"Could ask the same of you."

Gojyo shrugs, leaning a little so their shoulders touch. "Took mine off. It's a trick I saw someone do once."


"Yeah," mutters Gojyo. "Sorry."

"It's okay. Did you ever ice your face?"

"Nah. Didn't have any peas."

Dokugakuji smiles a little, and cuffs his brother in the back of his head. "Smart ass."


Kougaiji turns. "Did I say you could come in?"

Gojyo comes in further anyway, quiet, respectful. "You left the door open."

Kougaiji frowns at him. "You shouldn't—"

"She's beautiful. Your mother?"

Kougaiji snaps his jaw shut and turns back to the looming, frozen statue. "Mm."

Gojyo steps up beside him, craning his head back to look at her. "This is why. Why you're doing all this, huh?"

"Yes. I made a pact for her revival."

"And you're gonna trust them?"

Kougaiji swallows. "I have to."

Gojyo looks over, chewing the inside of his lip. "Well, I hope she's grateful."

Kougaiji motions toward the dragons. "Dokugakuji. Yaone. Gojyo."

Gojyo winces. "Wait. Don't."

"What?" Kougaiji turns, impatience furrowing his brow.

"You don't want to bring Yaone. We're gonna go see the monk and his lackeys, right?"


Gojyo shakes his head. "Don't. Really. Don't." Subconsciously, he puts his hand over his stomach. "She's the kind of girl that'll set him off. And if you think Son Goku is bad shit, you haven't seen Cho."

Kougaiji looks at Gojyo for a long moment. He meets Yaone's uncertain eyes.

Softly, Kougaiji murmurs, "Alright. Yaone, keep an eye on Lady Lirin."

Yaone bows. "Sir."

Chapter Text

At the first minor explosion, the first tensing and the smell of smoke, Sanzo almost grins. Cho can see the muscles in his jaw clench against it.

Goku hops to his feet, eager.

Then, the dust clears and the silhouettes of Kougaiji and his minions become their forms.

Sanzo raises his gun. Shock makes him lower it the tiniest fraction. A heartbeat later, his aim is again perfect.

"What the fuck, kappa."

Gojyo grins, waving. "Yo. Baldy, Monkey, and… Mister Cho."

"I'm glad to see you survived, Sha-san," murmurs Cho.

Gojyo laughs, his head falling back. "You're a shitty liar."

"You're going to fight me again?" asks Cho.

"Don't want to, but I will. Loyalty, you know." Gojyo smiles a little, jerking his thumb over at Kougaiji.

Cho follows his gesture, watches the way Kougaiji and Sanzo meet eyes in the bare instant before Goku charges.

To his brother, Gojyo says, "Don't hit the monk. You'll just get shot."

Dokugakuji growls. Sanzo shifts his aim.

To Cho, Gojyo says, "She died. Terue-chan. Youkai got her. Thought you'd like to know."

Cho swallows hard. He looks for any sort of grim satisfaction on the Handyman and can't find it.

Sanzo fires.

It becomes something like a spectator sport. The monk's gun and mortality ensure his safety so long as he doesn't run. Neither Gojyo nor Dokugakuji really want to hurt him anyway. Cho stations himself beside the monk.

They watch the blur of movements that is Kougaiji and Goku fighting.

Gojyo can see it at moments, the expression on Kougaiji's face. It is very close to the one he saw when his shakujou beat against Kougaiji's brown arms, but there is a drive beneath the pleasure there, something almost desperate.

Gojyo pulls out a pack of cigarettes, and smokes his last.

Gojyo sees it first, the way Kougaiji's movements start to slow. Engokuki had amazed him, sent a sweet fire down into the pit of his gut. The monkey raised a similar sense of awe.

But it is when Kougaiji's guard starts to drop, his endurance finally beginning to give out, that Gojyo raises a hand.

"Hey. Time out."

Kougaiji glares.

Startled, Goku skids to a stop. "What?"

Gojyo steps up and smiles at him, ruffling his hair a little. "Time out. Got something to talk about, okay?"

Goku ducks out from under his hand. "You're so weird."

"Missed you too."

Gojyo's warm breath on his ear. Kougaiji can feel it acutely.

"I think it's time to go home," he murmurs. He smells like smoke.

Kougaiji growls. "I'm not finished here."

"You're not going to win today. You're slowing down and he's not, and he's still got the crown on." Gojyo moves closer. The fabric of his shirt brushes against Kougaiji's stomach.

"Let's cut our losses."

Kougaiji looks away. "I need that sutra."

"It's not going anywhere."

Gojyo's hand on his hip in the thin space between his belt and his vest. Gojyo's palm slips on his sweat.

Kougaiji swallows. "Fine."

"We're leaving."

Dokugakuji gapes. His surprised grunt is drowned in Goku's dismayed cry.

"What? But—"

"Shut up, monkey," Sanzo mutters. "They should have left us alone in the first place."

Gojyo watches as Cho sketches a bow, as Dokugakuji retreats. Kougaiji speaks at some length, with some eloquence, about their future meeting while Dokugakuji rounds up the dragons.

Gojyo watches Sanzo light up and swallows, needy.

"Hey, can I bum a smoke?"

Sanzo levels a glare at him. "No."

Gojyo huffs. "Fuck you very much, too."

He can hear Goku laughing at him long after the dragons have taken off.

"You listened to me, though," murmurs Gojyo.

Kougaiji frowns sharply at him. "Close the door."

Gojyo kicks it shut with his foot, his eyes on Kougaiji. He waits.

"I can't just retreat every time."

"I know."

Kougaiji looks away, clenching his fists. Gojyo watches, and dares a step closer. And then another.

Gojyo rests his hand on Kougaiji's hip, dry and warm. "All you need is a good plan."

Kougaiji frowns at him. His words come out softer than his glare, though, and he just barely leans into Gojyo's hand. "And you have one?"

"No," Gojyo murmurs, and smiles, unapologetic.

"Is there anything else I can do for you?" Gojyo murmurs, too close.

Kougaiji shakes his head. "No."

"I think you're lying."

Kougaiji turns, frowning, his mouth opening to contradict, but Gojyo is already moving, sliding down to his knees. Kougaiji can feel Gojyo's breath on his stomach when he speaks, but nothing of skin.

"I think there's something you could use."

Kougaiji reaches down, catching the back of Gojyo's head, grabbing a fistful of Gojyo's hair. He tugs, trying without real vigor to pull him back to his feet.

His only response is a low, muffled groan.

Kougaiji shivers.

"What was that for?"

Gojyo falls back onto the floor, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Fuck, I need a smoke."

Hoarsely, Kougaiji growls, "Gojyo."

Gojyo doesn't lift his head. Softly, he mutters, "Looked like you needed it."

Kougaiji frowns, a little shaky. "Serving your lord?"

Gojyo laughs. "Something like that."

Kougaiji turns his head away, somewhere between frustrated and confused.

Softly, Gojyo murmurs, "I'll still follow orders."

"That's not my concern."

Kougaiji stops, then turns, looking Gojyo in the eye.

Gojyo swallows, hard. "I can leave."

Kougaiji's gaze pins him.

"No, Gojyo. Finish what you started."

The echo of his voice is too loud, drowning out the sound of blood in his ears, the rush of breath in his chest.

The floor is cold, and hard, and unforgiving, stealing his heat and his balance, slick against bare shoulders.

Kougaiji doesn't touch him. Until the very last instant where Kougaiji's strong hand wraps around his own and strokes with him and he has to close his eyes.

Gojyo arches, cold air rushing under him.

Then shudders back down to the ground, hissing and oversensitive.

"G-giving back to the servants?" he slurs.

Kougaiji's mouth quirks. "Something like that."

Gojyo watches Kougaiji's mouth. He knows, now, the taste of his skin, the way his blood feels pulsing beneath the surface. It isn't enough.

Something in him wants to lay back again, to expose his stomach and his throat. Not waiting to be used, but extending the invitation. There is something to be said for being had.

His mouth itches. For what Kougaiji might taste like. For the nicotine he can't get. To spill his words out and make a fool of himself.

Gojyo swallows.

"I should probably go," he murmurs, fumbling back into his pants.

Kougaiji lets him leave.

It isn't too long before the withdrawal sets in. A couple of days before Gojyo's hands begin to shake, before his mouth feels dry and thick.

Kougaiji has been gone, promising Yaone he was only taking time for himself, or conferring with his father's mistress, or spending a few not-so-quiet moments with his younger sister.

Gojyo spends his time pacing the grounds, chewing on the side of his tongue.

A tiny rectangle on the counter by his bed makes him stop.

He holds it gingerly, the cellophane crinkling in his hand.

Then rips it open, sucking down the smoke.

Chapter Text

Gojyo's hand shakes, two fingers holding his cigarette in his mouth, only pulling it away when he blows smoke before replacing the filter between his lips.

He might stagger when he walks, but Nii is there to hold him up. Gojyo does not shift to accommodate his hands, but where Nii insinuates his fingers he is not stopped.

A small rectangle of vertical lines, just below his collarbones, rests in Gojyo's skin.

Nii smokes, lazy and easy, letting the filter lie, hanging from his mouth.

Nii walks with him slowly, guiding.

"Prince," says Nii, when they pass Kougaiji, and smiles.

Gojyo's hair falls in a long, dark cascade, his head tipped back and eyes unseeing. His skin is bruised, yellow-green-black held only by tape to plastic tubes flowing into his veins. The thinnest draw the tips of his fingers up from his palms in tensed, sharp lines.

Nii pulls the cigarette from Gojyo's mouth and tamps it out in an ashtray. He examines the filter, then drops it in a Petri dish. Nii closes the lab door.

The back of Kougaiji's throat itches with the urge to cough against the smoke. The urge to scream hits him somewhere lower.

"It's simple, really," murmurs Nii. "This young man has been counseling our Prince in a direction it would be best he not go. I chose to alter his counsel."

"Will it hinder the search?" asks Gyokumen Koushu, narrowing her eyes.

"It can only help. The Prince—"

"Does he know?"

"Not at all," he lies, smiling. "And if he notices, the changes to the patient's demeanor will be negligible. He's almost ready now."

Nii bears the scrutiny for a few more moments, then excuses himself. He wanders idly back to the lab, whistling merrily. He'll keep Kougaiji's haunted expression to himself.

Kougaiji almost touches him, in the dark space where his shadow falls over Gojyo's chest. He watches as Gojyo's breath moves his ribs, shifts the tubes in his skin ever so slightly. Iridescent green, faint yellow, and crystal clear fluids flow from the ceiling into Gojyo's body, darkening his bruises.

Gojyo's open eyes cloud, dry and unfocused and faintly green at the corners of the whites.

Kougaiji closes them with his fingers, then pulls back too quickly. The faint green tinge has reached Gojyo's tears, and they catch in his eyelashes.

Kougaiji shudders with rage. The black barcode shifts, breathing.

"He's bleeding!"

Kougaiji staggers under Gojyo's weight, forcing his limp body through the door. "Quiet, Yaone!" he hisses, kicking the door closed behind him.

"What in the world happened?" she cries, coming closer to help carry him.

Kougaiji lays Gojyo's body down on the floor. "Nii was experimenting on him. I don't know what's in him. But—"

Yaone already has bandages, rushing to wrap them around the bloody holes in Gojyo's skin. Softly, she says, "I'm afraid I can't do much, then. We may have to wait until it passes." She gives him a thin smile. "We'll make him comfortable."

The shudders start hours later, his first sign of real life. Gojyo's fever skyrockets before his body settles.

The night drags on.

The first dry heaves bring up what was left in Gojyo's stomach, and after that, rough, raw splatters of acid that cling to Gojyo's lips and drip into the bucket by the side of the bed.

He groans while Kougaiji holds his hair back, his eyes fluttering.

"Fuck," he slurs, and heaves again. Nothing comes.

Kougaiji swallows. "You're awake."

Gojyo groans, inarticulate, and shudders, slumped over the side of the bed.

Kougaiji strokes his hair. "I'm so sorry."

The bandages on Gojyo's fingertips are rough, scraping so faintly at Kougaiji's arm.

Gojyo's mouth fights to form the words, his tongue thick and too dry, his throat rebelling. He lays limp over the side of the bed, his fingers unable to even clutch at Kougaiji.

"Don't," he croaks, panting roughly. "Ma-ake me."

Kougaiji frowns, turning over the wet cloth on the back of Gojyo's neck. "Make you do what?"

Gojyo shudders hard, then slumps, spitting. "Go back."

Kougaiji shakes his head, even though Gojyo can't see it. "No. I won't."

Gojyo nods, just barely. "Okay," he slurs, and shivers.

"I thought the Prince was supposed to bring him back by now," sneers Hwan. She tilts her head and makes her voice shrill and whiny. "Oh, Doctor, he can't take it any more! Here, have him, give him some of your wonder drugs, just take the pain awa-ay!"

Nii bites the inside of his lower lip, holding down a snarl. He turns his face to Hwan and it is smiling.

He holds up the bunny and speaks through it. "Patience is a virtue, Doctor Hwan," he chirps, his voice pitched high.

As himself, Nii purrs, "Thanks for your concern, though."

Gojyo shudders, his knees almost giving out.

"Cut it off me," he whispers, a desperate rush. He reaches his hand up, claws poised and shaking over the barcode on his chest.

Dokugakuji grabs him, holding him tightly. He presses Gojyo's arms to his sides, lifting him.

"Don't," he growls, and pulls Gojyo away, pressing him back to the bed.

Gojyo shudders, snarling. "Cut it off me!" he cries, rough and hoarse. He struggles weakly until Kougaiji leans over him.

"We will," he says, putting his palm on Gojyo's forehead.

Gojyo squeezes his eyes tightly shut and moans through his teeth.

Gojyo bears it, biting down on a belt.

Yaone moves carefully, cutting precisely. Softly, she says, "It's just a tattoo, Gojyo-san. It's coming out."

Dokugakuji holds tight to Gojyo's shoulders, keeping him still on the table. Gojyo doesn't fight, merely shivers in his grip.

Yaone stitches the wound closed where she can, deep down, then presses gauze over the hole and tightens bandages over his chest.

When she sits back, moving to clean up her tools, Kougaiji puts a hand on her shoulder in silent gratitude.

She gives him a thin smile.

Gojyo spits the belt to the floor.

"You could have let me burn it off," says Kougaiji.

Gojyo smiles, crooked and exhausted. "Didn't want you near it. Bits would've probably stayed behind, too."

Kougaiji frowns. "You're an idiot." He spends a moment deftly untangling one of the matted knots in Gojyo's hair. His fingers brush Gojyo's ear.

Gojyo laughs, though his breath catches and makes him cough. "Uh huh," he says, weak and rough. "Pissed off the good doctor."

Kougaiji's frown deepens. Softly, he murmurs, "Yaone has volunteered to bring you cigarettes from outside."

Gojyo pales. "No," he mutters. "Been without 'em long enough. Kicking the habit."

Gojyo holds onto it, silent.

The small rectangle cut from his chest scars over into something more natural, with twisting arms and raised bumps. He remembers what his own voice sounds like.

He spars with Kougaiji again, forcing his muscles into waking.

It is when they have finished, breathless and buzzing, that it tumbles from him.

"If he'd do that to one of your men and your stepmom didn't stop him, what's the chance she's really going to hold up her end of the bargain?"

Kougaiji turns, his eyes tight at the corners with loss. "Low," he says, "to nothing."