Thanks to my splendiferous beta, sharpeslass. She so totally rocks!
Title: Zang Fu Theory, Part 22
Email: ladylotusmoon (a) hotmail (o) com
Summary: : While the ikkou are staying in a town, Sanzo and Hakkai are called away in the middle of the night to help a severely injured farmer. Gojyo is left babysitting a dragon, who behaves very strangely. At the farmhouse, Hakkai is possessed by a fire oni, & the oni's attempt to draw heat results in a sexual situation with Sanzo. Upon Hakkai & Sanzo's return to the inn, Gojyo & Goku realized what happened & Gojyo attacks Sanzo. Hakkai attempts to be peacemaker, sending Sanzo & Goku to the bathhouse, leaving him with Gojyo. Sanzo & Goku have a chat in the bath, and Sanzo is attacked by the fire oni. Back at the inn, afraid he is losing his friend to Sanzo, Gojyo uses his special brand of persuasion with Hakkai. Hakuryu flies back to the inn for help, leading Hakkai & Gojyo to the bathhouse. They battle the fire oni, and just when all seems lost, Gojyo remembers Jien's magic beans. Hakkai & Gojyo wash the ash off each other. Returning to the inn, Gojyo & Goku are kicked out of the room & Hakkai tends Sanzo's wounds. Goku gets embarrassed in the bathroom in front of Gojyo, who ends up lending him a helping hand. The healing session becomes intimate between Hakkai & Sanzo. Hakkai remembers the past when he was at the temple with Sanzo and Gojyo seeks solace after accidentally eavesdropping on Hakkai & Sanzo. Goku follows the upset Gojyo & gets free dumplings from a vendor because he's a companion of the Chosen One. During a passionate moment, Sanzo loses control & Hakkai leaves to look for Gojyo. Goku leads Hakkai to the bar he had followed Gojyo to the night before. At the Red Kimono, Gojyo is attacked & mysteriously declared to be the Chosen One. The purpose of the Chosen One is revealed to be a companion for the fire oni. And the villagers chose Gojyo! Trapped by a talisman next to his heart, Gojyo decides to say goodbye to Hakkai. Hakkai's passion is released. Sanzo meets up with the rest of the ikkou at the Red Kimono. He and Gojyo had a confrontation over Hakkai sleeping with both of them, and Sanzo realizes something is wrong. Hakkai realizes Gojyo is being coerced by the owner of the Red Kimono. He says good-bye to Gojyo so he can discuss strategy with Sanzo. Sanzo and Hakkai discuss Gojyo's predicament, but Sanzo makes it clear he's not going to talk about anything else. Goku reviews his feelings for Gojyo.
Chapter 22: The first part of Hakkai's rescue plan.
Hakkai divided his attention between the disreputable road and the dejected young man in the back seat. Glimpses in the rearview mirror revealed an abjectly miserable Goku sitting hunched up, staring at the empty seat across from him. Hakkai suppressed a sigh. Gojyo's absence was distressingly tangible. It was as if they were driving with a Gojyo-shaped hole in Jeepu. Although it had only been hours since they'd left him at the Red Kimono, to Hakkai it felt like days. He missed Gojyo's laugh, his smell, the light touches on his shoulder as he drove...
Jeepu hit a large pothole and the steering wheel wrenched hard to the left in Hakkai's hands. Sanzo cursed as Hakkai quickly regained control and straightened Jeepu on the road. Hakkai glanced in the rearview mirror, out of habit, to check the safety of the passengers. Goku had moved up as close as possible and was resting his head on the back of Sanzo's seat.
Goku looked heart-breakingly lonely. Hakkai reached between the seats and squeezed Goku's knee. When Goku looked up, Hakkai met his surprised eyes in the mirror.
You're not alone, Hakkai thought.
Patting Goku's knee, Hakkai returned his hand to the gear shift. He watched Sanzo out of the corner of his eye, but the monk sat with the same stoic expression he'd worn since they'd climbed into Jeepu. He sat with his hands tucked into his sleeves, arms crossed over his chest, staring straight ahead. He didn't even speak or move when Goku lay his cheek on his shoulder.
Hakkai knew Sanzo was furious and hurt. In the park, Sanzo had been thrumming with tension like a shamisen strung too tightly. Hakkai had sensed that if he had plucked a single string, it would have snapped and cut them both. So he hadn't pursued the discussion he had wished to have at that moment. However, just because he had made a strategic retreat and acknowledged Sanzo's statement that the issue was not to be discussed by no means meant Hakkai wouldn't address it later. Sometimes a wound had to be re-opened and drained before it could heal properly.
"Sanzo. Please don't punish Gojyo for my mistake."
"Which mistake would that be, Hakkai? Sleeping with me, or sleeping with him?"
Hakkai had made his decision. Playing out various scenarios in his head, it had been the choice that would cause the least amount of suffering and disruption in the long-term. Or, at least during whatever time the ikkou had left on this deadly mission they had embarked upon. He still wasn't sure what had come over him to allow the situation to deteriorate to its current state. His role had been unofficially established early in their journey: healer, mediator, caretaker. There was no room for selfish motivation in the performance of those duties. Possession by the fire oni had undoubtedly brought carefully suppressed passion to the surface and lowered his inhibition. But what was his excuse for what had happened later?
He had indulged in his freshly released desire with both Sanzo and Gojyo, given in to the desperate yearning; yearning to be touched, to be held, to have... some small kind of joy.
It was selfish and unacceptable and he would not permit it to continue. Once the ikkou had extricated itself from this current debacle, he would sit down with Sanzo and Gojyo and set things right.
He regretted the pain he had, and would, cause these two men he cared for so deeply, but regret was nothing new to him. His entire life was a patchwork quilt of regret and guilt wrapped around him wherever he went. Sometimes, he thought he would suffocate beneath the heavy weight of it. What Hakkai had forgotten - what he had permitted himself to forget - was that any kind of joy came at a price. The lesson had been soaked into his body like the blood he had shed. The cost of his happiness was the suffering of others.
"Hey, is that it?" Goku called from the back seat. "It's kinda creepy."
Hakkai glanced over and saw the charred remains of the farmhouse he and Sanzo had visited a few days ago. As they approached, Hakkai noted Wan Tu by the barn, dragging off burnt timbers with the aid of an emaciated ox. It looked like he was excavating the skeletal remains of a giant. Jeepu pulled off the road and came to a stop in a cloud of dirt and loose gravel. Wan Tu paused in his labors and leaned over the back of the ox, tilting his conical straw hat to peer at them.
"So, that guy's an orphan now," Goku whispered as Hakkai turned off the engine and lifted the parking brake. "Like us."
"Yes, Goku," Hakkai responded. Although whether or not Goku was truly an orphan was a matter of semantics.
Climbing out of Jeepu, Hakkai raised his hand in greeting. Wan Tu returned the gesture and began trudging across the dead field towards them. Goku jumped down next to Hakkai, but Sanzo remained in the jeep.
"Good afternoon, Wan Tu," Hakkai said.
The young man looked a little worse for wear since they had seen him last. He seemed thinner, and there were cuts, scrapes and burns beneath the sooty dirt on his face and hands. Rebuilding was hard work for a man alone.
"Good afternoon, Hakkai-san," Wan Tu said with a short bow. "How may I be of service?"
"First, if I may ask..." Hakkai took a breath. "Was your father the last Chosen One?"
"Yes." Wan Tu's voice was as flat and bleak as the land behind him. His dark eyes flicked over Goku and Sanzo before returning to Hakkai. "They've taken one of you, haven't they?"
"Yes, they have," Hakkai confirmed. "And we need your assistance to retrieve him."
Wan Tu nodded, his grim face showing no surprise. "What are you going to do?" he asked.
As succinctly as possible, Hakkai outlined his stratagem, leaving out most of what he and Sanzo were doing. Instead, he concentrated on what he needed Wan Tu and Goku to do. Wan Tu listened carefully until Hakkai was finished speaking. Wan Tu pushed his hat off his head so it hung behind him, suspended from a cord around his neck.
"Give me a moment to unhitch the animal and wash off, Hakkai-san," Wan Tu said.
Without another word, the young man turned and plodded back to the ox. Goku tugged on Hakkai's sleeve.
"How'd you know he'd help us?" Goku asked.
"Because we prayed for his dead," Hakkai answered.
"Che," Sanzo snorted.
Hakkai twisted around to look at Sanzo. The monk fished cigarettes and a lighter out of his robe sleeve and lit up a stick. As clearly as if it had happened yesterday, Hakkai remembered Sanzo praying for his own dead: his Kanan. They had been standing in front of another incinerated ruin, dust devils swirling papery cinders around their feet. Bleeding, half-blind, his gut torn open, Hakkai had felt that all the color had been bled out of the world, and that everything had been covered in a gritty layer of ash.
Then Gojyo had asked Sanzo to pray. When those first chanted words had flowed, it had been like a sunrise after the longest, darkest night imaginable. Closing his eyes and lifting his face, Hakkai had imagined, for a moment, that the air was a little fresher, less choked with death and the smoldering embers of violence. Hakkai had struggled to focus his one eye on Sanzo: a blindingly bright creature of white and gold, sitting on the filthy, blackened ground, like a lotus, unstained by the mud beneath it. Hakkai had known then that whatever happened after that moment didn't matter. He had known he would give himself freely over to the monk and to whatever justice his gods demanded.
For a moment, Hakkai saw a double image: Gonou's Sanzo and Hakkai's Sanzo; the smoke from the destroyed castle of the past mingling with the cigarette smoke presently wreathed around his golden head. A phantom pain spiked through Hakkai's glass eye. Closing his eyes, he reached up to rub at it beneath his glasses.
"What's the matter, Hakkai?" Goku asked. "Got something in your eye?"
"I'm fine, Goku." Hakkai blindly patted Goku on the shoulder.
Opening his eyes, Hakkai adjusted his glasses and found Sanzo watching him. He smiled and Sanzo frowned. Staring into the narrowed purple eyes, dark with pain, Hakkai wondered how long Sanzo was going to suffer with the headache before asking for help. He had seen Sanzo pinch the pressure point in his hand as they drove to the farm, trying to hide the gesture in his sleeves. Even if he hadn't seen, Hakkai would know. He knew Sanzo had been suffering with the headache since the park.
Hakkai always knew when Sanzo was in distress.
"Here's the guy," Goku announced.
"Wan Tu," Hakkai corrected absently.
On the ride back to town, Goku pestered Wan Tu with questions. Sanzo glanced over at Hakkai, surprised he wasn't intervening. He caught the small, bitter self-mocking smile twisting Hakkai's lips and realized why. Even though Hakkai knew Goku's tactlessness was causing Wan Tu discomfort, the information the recently orphaned farm boy was providing could be useful to the ikkou. In some ways, Hakkai could be ruthlessly practical.
Sharp pain stabbed into Sanzo's temple and he clenched his jaw, nearly biting the cigarette in two. Without the calm to relax and work on the pain, the headache was turning into a migraine. Scowling, Sanzo pinched the webbing between the thumb and forefinger on his left hand so hard it made his pinkie spasm. No relief. Hakkai would be able to banish the agony with a small amount of healing chi, the briefest touch to his temple...
Closing his eyes, Sanzo decided to ignore the throbbing in his head and listen to the farm boy. Slowly he unfolded the story of how the town's tradition of a Chosen One began.
"It started with Quan, the youngest son of a farmer here," Wan Tu told them. "A boy from my great-grandfather's time. Quan was severely injured in an accident, and his father brought him to the temple by the spring and begged the monks to save him. By the healing powers of the sacred hot spring and the prayers of the monks, Quan lived. To show his gratitude, Quan's father sent his son to serve at the temple. Quan was not permitted to join the order of monks, but he lived in a hut by the water, tending the sacred spring and accepting the offerings made by the villagers to the fire oni. While Quan was the attendant at the spring, the village and farms prospered greatly. When Quan grew too old to fulfill his duties, one of his brothers sent a son to take over. As each caretaker grew old, a male child from the same family was sent to serve in each descending generation from Quan to this one. They came to be known as the Chosen One who served the fire oni of the sacred spring."
"Wait," Goku interrupted. "Why didn't they let Quan become a monk?"
"Quan was youkai," Wan Tu said.
Opening his eyes, Sanzo glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Goku's golden eyes widen as his mouth formed a silent "O." Sanzo doubted Goku realized the only reason he and Hakkai had been permitted to live at the temple was because they were his charges. Even then, it had been a constant battle with the prejudices and pettiness of certain monks. It had been incredibly annoying.
"Over a year ago," Wan Tu continued. "Our village was struck with the Plague of Madness."
"The Minus Wave," Sanzo said.
"All the youkai on the farms and in the village went mad with blood-lust and began killing everyone." Wan Tu paused. "Including my mother."
"It affected the Chosen One as well." Hakkai's tone made it more a statement than a question.
"Yes." Wan Tu turned toward the front seat. "He slaughtered most of the monks at the temple before disappearing." Wan Tu looked away, out over the blighted fields on either side of Jeepu.
"After that, we lost the blessing of the fire oni. Crops failed, merchants stopped coming to the village. The high priest from the temple told us once a new Chosen One was selected, good fortune would again be ours. Farmers with multiple sons sent their youngest to the temple. One by one, they died within hours of being given to the fire oni. Horribly burned, like..." Wan Tu paused, blinking as he swallowed. "My father."
"The fire oni was drawing energy from their bodies through possession," Sanzo murmured.
Hakkai nodded. "The frailer human constitution wouldn't be able to take the strain of it as the youkai Chosen Ones had."
Sanzo remembered Hakkai, curled up on the blanket in the floor of the storage shed, his entire body shaking and teeth chattering so hard he could hear the clicking. When he'd held Hakkai, the other man had been cold as a corpse. If he had not been there, how long would Hakkai's drained body have lasted before the oni's elemental nature began incinerating his body from the inside out? Would his youkai self have been able to withstand it? The thought of Hakkai dying so horribly, like the farmer, made Sanzo feel vaguely ill.
Perhaps when it had a steady source, the oni only took what it needed and let its Chosen One's body replenish. Sanzo was uncertain how much intellect an oni possessed, but he knew elementals tended to be strongly instinctual.
"The farmers and villagers refused to send any more children to the temple," Wan Tu said. "The fire oni burned a path down the woods from the spring to the lowlands, sending lightning storms down on the farmers and the village. The destruction was terrible. The high priest convinced the village elders to do a lottery among the men to select a Chosen One. The priest used his power to strengthen the hearts of the men so they lasted longer than the sons."
The priest most definitely needed to be neutralized. Hakkai's plan wisely allowed Sanzo uncensored latitude in that respect, while involving him as little as possible in the rescue of the hostage and Gojyo. Sanzo felt considerably less inclined than usual to exert himself on behalf of the kappa.
Jeepu hit a bump in the road, and red claws of pain squeezed the top of Sanzo's head. Closing his eyes, he tried to slow his breathing, visualizing the pain flowing out of his body like smoke...
Sanzo lost the rhythm of his breathing. He rarely gave Gojyo much thought. Actually, he made a point of not thinking about the irritating redhead. He would never have asked Gojyo to come along on this journey. Then again, he conceded, he wouldn't have asked any of them. Given a choice, he would have undertaken this task alone. Sometimes he still thought about it, slipping away in the middle of the night to finish it on his own. Although now his reasons were different than they had been at the onset of the journey. At the beginning, he'd felt the other three were an encumbrance; now he didn't want the responsibility of their deaths.
Sanzo suppressed a sigh. Not even Gojyo's, damn him.
Gojyo was the opposite of Sanzo in almost every conceivable way. Unlike Sanzo, Gojyo was adept at talking about nothing; he could fill the silences between people with the kind of nonsense that made them feel at ease. He was loud and confident and laughed so easily. And, he was always... touching. Wrestling with Goku, hugging Hakkai, Gojyo often even invaded Sanzo's personal space by slinging an arm around his shoulders. Talking, laughing, touching. It was irritating how effortless Gojyo made it all seem. He was so playful, even when fighting, that at first Sanzo hadn't recognized Gojyo's skill as a fighter. Just as he hadn't realized the true role Gojyo had played within the ikkou until he was gone.
When Gojyo had left the group to fight "God", his absence had been felt immediately. Gojyo had occupied Goku and used up his excess energy. He had blunted Hakkai's sharp intensity and brought out the real smile. Although he would never admit it, even Sanzo had missed the diversion provided by the ridiculous flirting and lewd jokes. Gojyo filled in the gaps, quietly took up the slack, distracting them for a few moments from the grim nature of the mission and the fact that they were all most likely going to die.
Sanzo opened his eyes, wincing at the intrusion of the world. The day was nearly gone. Jeepu had stopped behind a cluster of dead bamboo in the ditch beside the road. A quick glance in the rearview mirror showed the back seat was empty.
"This is where we agreed to split up," Hakkai said.
For a moment, Sanzo was confused, the migraine making his thoughts lag, then he remembered. Once they had picked up Wan Tu, they were supposed to separate at the bamboo grove just outside of town. Hakkai, Goku and the farm boy were going to the Red Kimono and Sanzo was going to the temple.
The dead bamboo rattled in the wind like brittle bones and the faltering light shifted strange shadows across Hakkai's concerned face.
"You should let me take care of that headache," Hakkai said.
When Hakkai touched his arm, Sanzo automatically pulled away.
"Please," Hakkai said quietly. "You need your full concentration to confront the head priest."
"Che," Sanzo snorted.
He doubted some country priest at a backwater temple would be powerful enough to make him break a sweat. However, none of them knew what was waiting at the temple. Just like the orange, Sanzo briefly wondered what Hakkai would infer from his accepting the healing.
"Fine." Sanzo leaned his head back against the seat and closed his eyes.
He heard Hakkai shift closer. Even though he was expecting it, Sanzo flinched when he felt the light touch against his temple.
"Relax, please," Hakkai murmured, breath tickling Sanzo's cheek.
Hakkai's fingers firmly massaged Sanzo's temple, releasing a warm circle of chi. The sharp talons withdrew from Sanzo's skull and the tight band around his head loosened. Fingers pressed against his other temple and soothing heat rolled over him, like slipping into a hot bath dissolving away muscle ache. Sanzo relaxed more deeply in his seat, shoulders dropping. Skillful fingers slid through his hair, massaging his scalp, while the pads of Hakkai's thumbs continued to press his temples. The heat began to tingle and the last vestiges of pain evaporated.
"Better?" Hakkai asked softly.
Sanzo's eyes opened and focused on Hakkai's face, so close to his own. Hakkai was wearing his "professional" healing smile. Sanzo wanted to rub the fake smile away, reshape Hakkai's mouth with hard kisses. Sanzo's eyes rose and met Hakkai's waiting gaze that saw too much despite being half-blind. The fake smile vanished and Hakkai's real eye darkened.
"Sanzo..." he whispered.
Sanzo reached up and grasped Hakkai's wrists, pulling the slender hands away. His eyes flicked down to Hakkai's mouth, lips still parted from saying his name. Sanzo's grip tightened on Hakkai's wrists as his gut clenched. He wanted him. Buddha help him, he still wanted him. Scowling, Sanzo released Hakkai's wrists and turned away to climb down out of Jeepu. He had only taken a few steps westward toward the temple when Hakkai's voice stopped him.
"Please be careful, Sanzo," Hakkai called out.
Sanzo continued walking towards the dying sun without turning around.