Title: Seasons

by Lycotheia

Pairings: 58, 39, implied DK

Rating: MA/NC-17 (the fun stuff)

Summary: Four part story that takes a look into the lives of Gojyo, Sanzo, Hakkai, and Goku after the end of their mission.

Disclaimer:  I do not own Saiyuki or any of its characters. I jut own this original plot, title, and the dialogue. Songs used in the stories are cited.

Warnings: As is typical of my stories, VSDL, but the violence is really very mild. Naturally there is sex, drug (ab)use, and Gojyo's potty mouth. Okay Sanzo has a share in it too.

Length: ~55,000 words/ 97 pages

 

Seasons

 

Garnet Autumn

 

No, I don't know where I'm going
But, I sure know where I've been
Hanging on the promises
An' the  songs of yesterday
An' I've made up my mind,
I ain't wasting no more time

I'm just another heart in need of rescue,
Waiting on love's sweet charity
An' I'm gonna hold on
For the rest of my days,
'Cause I know what it means
To walk along the lonely street of dreams
-Whitesnake 'Here I go Again'


            I watched the smoke rise up in tiny purple wisps from the ends of my fingers. Why does smoke always look blue in the dark? I inhaled again; it tasted good. Acrid in the way cheap cigarettes always tasted, but it was a comfort. It straightened my coiled nerves and flattened the hair that rose on the backs of my arms. I let out a ragged sigh and heard Hakkai shift on the bed.

            He didn't wake up, though I had kind of been hoping he would. It was one of those cool, crisp autumn nights where the moon was almost full and peering through the thinning foliage of the trees. We had a little forest in our backyard. The farther you walk, the denser the trees get. They looked like a wall of fire in the daytime, rising up out of nowhere with flame-colored leaves and smoky grey branches peeping through. I hadn't noticed the transformation since I was a kid, out playing in the piles of leaves Jien would rake up beneath the naked oaks.

            Now that I had a home of my own, I spent a lot more time looking. At everything. Appreciating the little things that made life more comfortable, more worthwhile. Like a pantry full of food and a warm bed that was rarely unoccupied. Hakkai and I had gone in together—a few days after the end of our mission—and bought a place of our own. With two bedrooms, two baths, and more importantly a wide backyard, we were comfortable. I never missed my shoebox apartment in the middle of the city with its peeling wallpaper and molding tile. The crackling porcelain sink had been replaced with clean, firm marble, and the single, creaky bed we used to squeeze together on had been demoted to Hakuryu's bed in the guest room, and replaced by a much firmer, softer mattress. Not that we didn't make it squeak sometimes.

            I liked the light especially; in my old apartment there had only been one overhead lamp, and that was in the kitchen. That left the narrow bedroom and bathroom to be lit by table lamps, poorly made and cheaply bought, so that shadows clung like spider webs to every corner of every room. Hakkai had fixed that quickly, changing light bulbs and updating furniture, but we decided that rather than renting my apartment, it would make more sense to buy our house.

            Hakkai had wanted someplace quiet, and I had wanted someplace out in the country. See how well-matched we are? That's how we moved to our now permanent residence, 58 Oak Lane, the last house on the long winding street, about half a mile after you've seen what you would normally think is a dead end. And it is quiet. No one ever comes out, unless it's to visit us specifically. We have to drive into town to get our mail. But that's okay, because we're happy here. Really happy.

            I turned to my side when Hakkai shifted again in the bed, he ran a hand through his hair to shove it from his face as he sat up. "Gojyo?"

            Hell I loved that voice. When he was tired it lost its fluid, eloquent sound and became husky and low. That and his state at the time—naked and half-covered in blankets—was enough to get me interested. "Yeah? Did I wake you?" I ventured, stubbing out my cigarette quickly and pushing the window farther open. A chilly breeze floated in and nudged the curtains aside.

            "Are you smoking in here?" The Voice was back.

            "Yeah. Just one. It's too cold out," I wrapped my arms about myself for emphasis, and to my surprise he didn't roll his eyes at me, but lifted the sheets.

            "Well if you'd stay under the covers, at least you'd be warmer."

            Logical Hakkai. That would have been an offer from anyone else.

            "Yeah but I was looking out the window."

            "At what?" He wrapped the sheets about his waist and slid halfway off the bed, peering over my shoulder with curious eyes.

            "The trees. The moon. I like fall."

            Hakkai smiled—I could feel it in his movements, the way he touched my shoulder and planted a tiny kiss on my nape. "Me too," he agreed quietly.

            The air was cold and smelled faintly of smoke—not cigarette smoke, but a campfire burning in the distance. The faint scent of leaves and cold weather on the way touched my senses too, but I wasn't sure how I distinguished the smell of cold from that of hot, so I didn't mention it. "It's gonna be a cold winter."
            "I would imagine." Hakkai murmured, moving to sit beside me on the little armchair I had turned to face the back window. He perched on the overstuffed arm, and I looked up at him, letting my eyes trace the glowing, marble-like quality of his skin. Leaning closer, my lips warmed the edge of his ridged scar, flicking my tongue over the puckered skin in an intimate kiss. It startled him, as touching him there almost always did, and he nearly slid right into my lap. That would have been nice.

            "Gojyo."

            "What?" I grinned, holding out my arms in an attempt to coax him back down. "I'm cold Hakkai," I whined, but he managed to evade me.

            "So come to bed," he laughed, shutting the window all of a sudden and throwing the covers back from the mattress, then climbing in. The sheets had been dislodged, and he might have gone about fixing them if I hadn't intervened.

            "Okay, but you have to sleep really close," I stipulated, wiggling my eyebrows at him as I tangled my long legs into a red woolen blanket. I just wanted to make sure he got the message.

            "It's the middle of the night," He said blankly. It wasn't a protest, but merely a logical observation. Hakkai never liked to do things unless they made sense or served some purpose. I was—and still am—training him out of that. It's a serious job, and I'm in it for the long haul. At that point though, more persuasion than a simple come-hither gesture and my best bedroom eyes were required.

            "So? Is sex scheduled now?" I asked, prompting him in a rather Socratic fashion to fall into my trap. I had already learned that my style of arguing wouldn't get me anywhere, but if I played by his rules, sometimes I could win.

            "No."

            "And if we do it, will something bad happen?"

            "No..."

            "So why not?" My mouth—a serious line up until then—parted in a wide smile, watching him give a mental shrug and make the decision to appease me. Soon I had him pressed up against me and panting in that way only Hakkai knew how. It was such a turn-on to have Mr. straight-laces writhing and groaning against me, pressing surprisingly warm lips against mine in a burst of zeal. That's usually how we did it, anyways.        That night was a little different. I don't know if it was the moonlight that got to him or what, but he was strangely quiet, more so than he ever had been before, even our first time when he was all nerves and gasps.

            It felt good, don't get me wrong, but in a different sense. An emotional good, rather than something in your gut. He was quiet, full of sighing and murmuring, his hands never once tore at my hair or back, only stroked the full expanse of bronzed skin until he crested between us. I had meant to do something about that, but I had stilled in my own movements when I got distracted by his eyes.

            I know that sounds like a cheesy line, but it's not as though I used it as one. I really did get lost in those eyes, sometimes. They were green like spring, and no longer sharp with pain. I like to think I had a hand in erasing that agony from his life. Both orbs, the left one and the blind one, usually covered by a monocle, stared up at me lovingly as we kissed. But they were deeper for a moment, darker. The tiny slash across his right eye glinted, and I felt he wasn't with me.

             Hakkai was full of mysteries for me, even though I had already bared my soul to him. I had shown him every card I had in my hand, and he still had one in the hole. It was that card that I worried about most often, when I would see his eyes darken because he thought I wasn't looking, or when he would bury his face against my chest after making love and let me hold him, touch him, but not see him. Sometimes I think that card is Kanan. Sometimes I think it might be some sort of guilt or self-hatred, something repulsive he still clings to out of remorse. Either way, I was working harder every day to rid him of it. I wanted to set him free of those burdens, and relieve him of pain. I don't have a lot of goals in life, but don't confuse number with importance. Of them all, that one is at the top of my list.

            "Gojyo, are you alright?" His voice was close to my ear, and I jerked out of my reverie, realizing I was still positioned over him, drifting in afterglow.

            "Sorry babe." I rolled off, drawing him close and pressing a tender, heated kiss to his mouth. He returned it softly, tiredly, I hoped, and draped an arm over my waist.

            "What were you thinking of?"

            "You." I smiled, cupping his chin and kissing him again, touching that sweet mouth that tasted like rain. My hands slid back into his thick chestnut hair, fisting it and drawing our faces closer. "Were you…was it okay?"

            "Is it ever not?" He laughed softly. "You have something on your mind. Tell me."

            "Says who?"

            "You. You never would have asked me whether it was 'okay' or not before," Hakkai pointed out, trailing his slender, cool fingertips down my jaw line. He pressed two kisses to each scar beneath my left eye. "What troubles you?"

            Before I might have said, "nothing, really, go back to sleep," but by this time, I'd already learned that there was no dissuading Hakkai when he wanted something. "I was just thinkin' about you. About that look you get sometimes, like you just had."

            "What look?"

            "Far away, sad. It makes your eyes so much deeper and darker, like you're living somewhere else at the same time, and not entirely in either place."

            "I didn't mean to." He apologized.

            "I know that." I kissed him again, relieved to see the bright hue of emerald flickering back at me beneath long lashes. He was tired, so I evaded the next question with a well-timed yawn. "Don't worry about it. I guess Sanzo's paranoia rubbed off on me at some point."

            "Oh Gojyo."

            "G'night."

            "Good night," Hakkai replied, encouraging me to slip my arms about him and press my chest to his back, stroking his stomach and torso beneath the covers as we slept. He moved only once all night, and that was to turn over and rest his cheek against my chest, soft breath warming my skin.

 

            When I woke up, everything was back to normal. The smell of smoke had been aired out, the sheets tucked back in—around me at that—and the scent of bacon and eggs hung heavily in the air. I could hear Hakuryu chirping in the kitchen. Breakfast.

            Stumbling into my boxers, which is something I never would have done before, I strode towards the kitchen. I had learned, by the second day of our living together, that Hakkai was easily flustered, and didn't appreciate my coming to breakfast naked. I don't really see why—I mean, it's nothing he hasn't seen before. He never has any problem sleeping with me when I'm naked. But to please him, because he was the one making breakfast after all, I always managed to "make myself decent" as he puts it, before sitting down.

            "Good morning Gojyo." He smiles and greets me, dressed impeccably despite the hour. It was a Saturday, and I couldn't remember for the life of me why I had woken up so early.

            "Mornin'." He put a plate before me, everything prepared just the way I like it. Scrambled eggs with pepper and ketchup—don't knock it 'till you've tried it—and bacon with toast. I'd never bothered making myself breakfast before. It's one of those things that just isn't worth doing if you have to do it yourself. Besides, Hakkai was a way better cook than me. When it came to learning about me, he caught on fast—much faster than I did, though I'd like to think I've picked up on a few nuances of his.

             For instance, every morning when he gets dressed, he puts his clothing on in the same order: Underwear, pants, undershirt, shirt, shoes, layman's sash, and then his monocle. I've been up enough times to watch.

 He has two combs; one is for when his hair is wet, and the other for when it's dry. I think it might have something to do with the width of the teeth. When he shaves—which he doesn't have to do very often at all—it's with the most precise, well-angled movements you could imagine. Especially for a guy whose weapon is his chi.

            He likes his job, but it's not his life. He works at an elementary school, and I've seen him in class a few times too. The kids love him, and he's really great at what he does. Hakkai is the most patient guy I've ever met, and I'll bet he's never yelled once at any of his students. Not that I'm around his school much. Though, there was that one time…

            It was Valentine's Day, and I had decided to go in and surprise him with candy. He wasn't shy about our relationship in public, though I could never get away with more than a peck to the cheek without suffering remonstration. I thought he'd like the surprise because it was his kind of thing, romantic and subtle and all.

            I stood outside the door to his classroom at least five minutes before I could summon up the courage to walk through that pit of screeching and laughing children. I was afraid they'd all be like little Gokus, swarming the place and climbing up the walls. Much to my surprise, I found them playing civilly in little circles or lines, building castles out of blocks or painting on rickety easels. Hakkai was leaning over two students at a table and appeared to be complementing their Crayola-sponsored masterpieces. He had a genuine smile on his face, and a slight crinkle about the corners of his eyes. I would have just continued watching, expect one of the crayon artists pointed and made some sort of fuss about a stranger.

            "Hey 'Kai," I waved almost shyly—why should I have been embarrassed in front of a bunch of first-graders?—and strode over to him, meeting his green eyes.

            "Gojyo!" He looked surprised to see me, as if I had no place inside a school building. Well he was mostly right. I had hardly gone myself; I could read enough to get by, and I could sign my name (and a few others), but that was where it ended. Mom had never been too concerned about my education.

            "Surprise?" I offered, holding out the square box I had bought for him on the way in. It was his favorite sort of candy, the small coconut covered chocolates with pecan bits in the center. I won't lie and say the gift was just for him; I really liked to watch him eat them.

            For a brief moment I thought I might get yelled at for having interrupted his class, but he only smiled at me and gave my hand a squeeze. "Thank you."

            "Happy V-day," I added, walking with him to his small desk where he put the box away for the moment. "Did I uh, interrupt?"

            "No not at all. This is their break time. Recess."

            "Cool." I sat on the edge of the desk, looking over the little posters behind it and decorating the walls of the room. I could read them, simple words like "train," and "pencil," with pictures out to the sides. It didn't embarrass me that in a few years those kids would be more literate than I was. I had decided a long time ago not to worry about what I missed. I still learned a helluva lot, the way my life took me. "So you have time to talk?"

            "Of course." He smiled and leaned against the desk beside me; I grasped his hand again. "Your gift is at home," he added, as if to assure me he hadn't forgotten either. Like Hakkai could forget a date.

            "Yeah well so is the rest of yours. I just wanted an excuse to see you," I jested, leaning in closer and whispering against his ear, "so can I get a kiss?"

            "Gojyo," His cheeks darkened and he shook his head. "Not in class."

            "It's recess, remember?" I leaned in and brushed my lips over his cheek, watching the skin darken as it heated up in a bright blush. I couldn't help but laugh; he was so modest. And there was really no reason for it; it was only a peck. Or so I had thought.

            "Mr. Cho got kissed!" A squeal was raised from the corner where the two girls had been coloring; one put her crayon down completely and covered her mouth with her hands in a giggle. Her friend looked up long enough to laugh and watch her teacher's face redden.

            "You know they will tease me for this all day," Hakkai said with a half smile.

            "Kids can be mean," I sympathized sarcastically, giving his shoulders a squeeze. "Anything I can do though, while I'm here?"

            "No, nothing I can think of," Hakkai shrugged, glancing about the room and then up at the clock.

            "Are you Mr. Cho's wife?"

            I looked down to see the same fair-haired girl, wearing a peach-colored dress, smiling up at me. She repeated her question and Hakkai patted my shoulder as he hurried over to break up the beginnings of a fight between two younger boys.

            "Nah," I shook my head. "Justa friend."

            "But you kissed him," she pointed out, fidgeting with the hem of her dress.

            "We're good friends," I amended, "don't you wanna finish your coloring before recess is up?"

            "Oh!" She looked back at her book, nearly taken over by her friend's rapid doodling, and nodded, hurrying back to her seat. "Okay Mrs. Cho!"

            "What?"

            "Hmm?" Hakkai returned with a small stack of papers in hand, grinning at me to indicate he had heard her last comment, if not the whole conversation.

            "I guess I'd better be off, husband," I drawled, tugging a shock of his hair teasingly and brushing another kiss across his cheek. "I'll be waiting at home to do my wifely duties tonight."

            Hakkai nearly cursed me for that, and on my way out I assured him that there was no way any of the students knew what that meant.

            "No," Hakkai whispered back, "but they'll ask."

            Sure enough, before the door shut behind me, I heard the familiar voice of the little blonde girl in the peach dress, "Mr. Cho—what are 'wifely duties'?"

            I had to muffle my laughter on the way home.

            So yeah, he's good at his job. Really patient. And even though he didn't show it all at once, I really think liked the surprise. The rest of his present was a little more thoughtful—a pocket watch with his name inscribed; he had seemed to really appreciate it. And of course I played up the romantic stuff that night too, lighting candles and putting flower petals on the bed.

            That's another thing about Hakkai; you'd never guess he was a romantic, or interested in sex at all, if you met him. Well, he is. I'm familiar with his preferences in that area too. He likes to play uke to me, even though I've offered to bottom plenty of times. He has probably the most random erogenous zones I've ever found on anyone, guy or girl, but the discovery itself was a cinch. Outside of the obvious, there's a spot near the base of his spine that drives him wild when it's pressed. I usually slide a hand beneath him long enough to massage the sensitive area before nipping at the soft place behind his ears. Also, I've noticed he really likes it when we're close. Real close. I think it makes him feel protected, sheltered, because I'm a little taller, bigger than he is. Speaking of size, he's not bad off, but no one beats Sha Gojyo at that contest. He doesn't seem to mind, but submits every time.

            He's not too vocal in bed either; he moans on occasion—he's not quiet or anything. Just not like me. I remember that during our first few times, he was at a loss at what to do with his hands. He figured that one out fast enough, though. We both figured each other out, really.

            I have to say I like sleeping with him. Not just the sex—that's great too, don't get me wrong—but actually having him with me in bed, even if all we do is sleep. When we were still on the road, renting rooms or diving under bushes to avoid the rain, it was torture ending up with him, because I knew I couldn't do anything. We had an unspoken gentleman's agreement when we had to share a bed: hands to yourself, don't fidget too much. I never broke it, but there were a few times I came damn close.

            He never slept without a shirt, even when it was insanely hot and humid; I know it was because of his scar. I could understand if he did that around the others, but around me? I was the one who sewed it up. Actually, that's probably why it's so visible; I'm not a healer like he is, and we were both lucky I happened to be dexterous at all.

            But when we'd go to rent four rooms, and they'd only have two—or worse, one—Sanzo would grumble and swear in irritation, and he'd demand Hakkai as a roommate. This never worked out; we never split up that way. Goku and I would've killed each other, having to share a room without a mediator. Sanzo hates my guts. So naturally, I was almost always paired with Hakkai. When there were two beds, it was a lot easier. I could sleep with my back to him, and my nights were pretty much uneventful. But that wasn't always the case; the inns we were dragged through were far from luxurious; they were just a roof and a set of sheets, more or less. Usually the bed was small, and I had to sleep real close to him, feeling the chilly air his body radiated against my own, unable to help noticing the ivory slash of skin between his pajama pants and shirt when he would stretch. I have to say I've never been more tempted by anyone, but I loved him, so I never gave in.

            I told him about that though, a year or so after we moved in together, and I was a little nervous that he'd be pissed off at me for my "unintentional" peeping. It's not like I had gone and watched him in the baths or something—I never would have been able to resist if I did that.

            It was something that bore gradually into my subconscious, affecting me when I wasn't even thinking about it. I got a little light-footed around Hakkai, dodgy, even. This was nearer the last few months of our journey, and I had fallen for him. And everyone knows, when Sha Gojyo falls, he falls hard.

            We were stuck with two rooms again, the monkey and the monk together, of course. I walked into our shoebox of a room, and he was already sleep, neatly keeping to his side of the bed, considerate of the fact that I might come back sober enough to make it to the mattress and thus require some space. As it turns out, I hadn't had more than a shot of whiskey. Sanzo practically chased me out of the bar with his gun—and quite a few other patrons—over some stupid argument I can't even remember now. But what I do remember is walking into the room and seeing him lying there asleep, face smooth, but tense beneath the ivory skin. Moonlight seemed to collapse about his form beneath the sheets, exhausted and losing its rigidity, its firm lines. There were silver highlights in his dark hair, where the glow from outdoors hit just right. I stood in the doorway, feeling sort of disoriented, for a lot longer than I should have. For a while I was tracing the sharp lines of his face with my eyes, the narrow, straight shoulders, long, slender fingers atop the covers. I couldn't help it, and it was torture to know I would have to go back out into the damp night because I couldn't sleep there with him.

 He trusted me.

 But he made it hard, lying there so goddamn beautiful, and I couldn't even put my arms around him. It was almost as bad as when he slipped up, half-moon nights, and sunk into depression. He hid it well, but I'd known him too long to be so easily fooled.

But when I told him all this, I swear I was readying myself for a blow akin to Sanzo's when I make "cherry-chan" jokes. He shocked me by blushing and murmuring some small acceptance, telling me it was rather selfless to hold back for a change, for the sake of a friend. Though, he added, he wished I would not have, for he had harbored similar feelings for a long time.

That was probably the only thing Hakkai hadn't known about me. The guy figured people out pretty easily, and I'm not a terribly complex person. Living together just made it easier, I suppose, for him to predict what I was going to do and warn me in advance about it.

He knew my preferences, my habits, and for the most part—aside from smoking indoors and going to the table naked—he didn't mind them. I was kind of a slob, but I didn't have to have a sloppy environment to be happy. We reached a compromise over this: I can be messy so long as he can clean up after me without hearing about it.

            He encouraged me to get a job, and when I found one I liked, he was ecstatic. I worked in a local lumber yard for about a month or two until one of my employers caught me whittling at a two-by-four on break and sent me to a craftsman's shop instead. He must have been an associate of the owner, Mr. Beagle, who turned out to be a lot less friendly than his namesake.

             I wasn't apprenticed to anyone, unless you count Mr. Beagle's brief instruction, but it turned out that my hands are magic in more ways than one. I found work, and customers, very quickly. Mr. Beagle used me for advertisement at first, thinking I would draw a younger crowd to his shop. It sort of worked, though I usually just lured in women and the occasional adolescent guy. Mr. Beagle didn't particularly care, so long as they had money to spend. I was always kept busy at the shop, and provided that I didn't mess up or waste wood, Mr. Beagle kept to his own space, and shortly gave me my own.

            I found I loved carving intricate whorls and curves onto table legs, and sanding down the arched backs of captain's chairs to sit at the head of a dining room set that I had designed for a customer. Making my hands useful for more than just poker was satisfying; I must have made at least a dozen pieces of furniture my first year, and I don't know how many small jobs, footstools and repairs and things.

            Because I worked there, I got a pretty good deal on raw wood and supplies, and once for Christmas I made Hakkai a bench swing for the back porch, and installed a little nook in it for a book, since he enjoyed reading outdoors so much in the warmer months. I've saved us money by building a few end tables and in fact our dining room table too, during my spare time.

            Don't think for a minute I've given up on poker, though. I still go there on occasion, Fridays after work when I know Hakkai likes to have time to read, and sometimes Saturday nights, though we usually spend those together.

            I tolerate the jokes from both women and men about not bringing "the wife," but only because they're aimed at making me blush, not offending Hakkai. Usually. I've heard a couple people badmouthing him, or me, or what we've got together, but they're few and far between. And once they say it, they never say it again. I might not be following the shitty monk on his quest anymore, but my Shaku-jou still comes when called. And I'd like to say that I've not lost my knack for it.

            The bartender, a man called Fred, though I suspect it wasn't his birth name, has come to expect me every Friday, rain or shine. So have a lot of the women, and a couple of the men. I don't drink a lot—not as much as I used to—because I come there to play poker. I can't beat Hakkai—that's probably because no one can—but I manage to take the money of anyone new in town, visiting, or feeling lucky enough to play me. It's not to say that I don't ever lose, but I've never lost more than a ten or twenty in a night. I've got good luck, and an even better poker face.

            I enjoy it there, losing myself in a crowd of people and thus maintaining some level of privacy. The bar is "Freddy's," though the original owner retired before Hakkai and I moved here. I was the one who found it, though it was Hakkai who discerned the name and remembered it later, after the vicious hangover of the next morning.

             This current owner, as far as I know, is too old to be his son, but too young to really be his brother. He tends the bar, and he remembers names really well. He always asks me when my friends—Sanzo and Goku—are coming back, and not for the sake of their company. Last time they had come to visit, we'd ended up in a three way drinking contest and emptied several of Fred's bottles. Goku, in the meantime, had managed to choke down five entrees and half of a pie. I think we paid Fred's mortgage that night.

            Anyways, when I go in, it's always smoky and dim, though I've never seen it in the daytime. I like the scent of nicotine and beer and stale, cheap food. The flickering lights on the walls throw shadows over everything, and you can see the purple haze of cigarette and cigar smoke floating through the air like webs, adding to the general sense of disorder. There's an old juke box that actually still takes nickels in the corner, but only about half the records play, and you can hardly hear them anyways over the raucous laughter accompanying drunks and thundering threats coming from angry gamblers. Usually they're the ones I fleece.

            But like I said, Hakkai rarely goes with me. He hates the smell, the smoke makes him cough, and the food's always undercooked or fried to a blackened crisp. The tables, though he's sat at them before, are dirty, and so are most of the people, he's commented. He wonders why I go, because we don't live off of our winnings anymore; we'd do fine without them. When he asks, I just ask him why he likes to sit at home and read in the silence, and he shrugs and gives up. To each his own. I kinda like that idea. He's not clingy, like most women, and I appreciate it.

            There was one night when he came too. Not with me, but later. I had sauntered in and ignored the calls of a few new faces: people who had heard of me, and were ready to set their bills on the table. I was more than ready to scoop them up. We sat at the same well-worn, rounded table in the back of the room that I always used. Three men across from me, closer to each other than they were to their strange, redheaded opponent. Fred brought beers, and they looked suspicious. Like they might be drugged or something. One was about my age, maybe a year or two younger, the other a year or two older, wearing a flannel shirt beneath suspenders, and a strange pair of rubber boots. The third had attempted a comb over with the last few silver hairs of his head, and wore a perpetual scowl that was more comical than Sanzo's because it was less intimidating.

            "Gentlemen," I greeted them with a snicker, receiving smiles in return, except from the scowling grandpa to my right. I made up my mind to take his money first. "What're we playing?"

            The youngest, who later introduced himself as Tony, fished out a playing deck from his back pocket and put it on the table. It was new, the cards were crisp, and he fanned them out to let all the players see that they were unmarked. "Seven card stud," he stipulated, beginning to shuffle the deck. "High hole card's wild, seventh is down and dirty."

            The man in rubber boots snorted and shook his head, lighting up a fat cigar and popping it in his mouth with ease. I was reminded of something Hakkai had once told me about a guy named Freud, but I decided it was better not to bring that up. "Kid's games," he muttered. "It ain't no fun with wilds."

            "My deck, my deal," Tony reminded him, rapidly flipping cards to each of us until we all had two hole cards and one facing upwards. In the meantime two women—Rhoda and this blonde whose name changed every week—had come to watch. I called them my good luck charms, but only to be sociable. Flirting never led to anything unless I wanted it to. And I didn't.

            "Gojyo," the blonde, wearing an impossibly short skirt and low-cut blouse, tugged over a smaller wooden chair and sat on it backwards, draping one leg over each side so that her skirt rode up a little higher on her thighs. Not to be outdone, Rhoda, a brunette whose class (a relative term) and bust line could outdo Blondie's, perched on my lap, giving me a swift kiss on the cheek. She's one I would have considered, before.

            "Hey, hey!" The man in rubber boots laughed good-naturedly all of a sudden, winking to the ladies. "No fair giving such luck to him—we hear he's always winnin'."

            "Why do you think that is?" Rhoda pointed out, sliding off my lap and leaning instead over my shoulder to view my hand. I didn't mind letting her look, though I'd probably shoot Blondie for peeking. Rhoda had a professional's poker face, and her rival giggled at everything. Sometimes I wondered if it wasn't all the silicon messing with her brain waves.

            "Well why don't you c'mere and give me some luck too then?" The man in rubber boots persisted, peering at his cards and unfortunately not giving anything away. His lecherous smile never faltered. Maybe he had a good hand.

            "I'm not that kind of girl," Rhoda snapped, her face appearing cross, or at least to anyone who hadn't met her. I saw it for the joke it was, because I'd seen her before when she was really angry. She had a mean left hook, and you would never see it coming until you were missing teeth and half your eyesight.

            "Maybe you will be when the tables turn tonight," Tony broke in, winking cutely to Blondie, who wiggled her fingers in a teasing wave across the table. She scooted closer to me, but didn't attempt to peek at my hand. Good thing. My luck had held out, and I opened the bet with two, being seated on Tony's left, and watched Grandpa grumble and flip in two dollars of his own. The man in boots raised two—already?—and we all pushed more money in. Sixteen dollars wasn't a bad pot for the first card up in a game of seven.

            I had a three and a king in the hole, and unless my seventh was a two, I had three of a kind. The second round stuck my three with a queen, but Grandpa's six got an Ace, and he opened the next bet conservatively, with one half. So I figured it out fast: boot-man was a spender, Grandpa a tightwad, and Tony, like me, watched very carefully.

            I won the first round. And the second, and the third. I threw the fourth, because Grandpa looked ready to scoot, and Tony was getting restless. The man in rubber boots won this round, and it had him cheering, though he still hadn't gotten back more than a fourth of the money he'd lost to me. By this time he had accepted a beer, and a few others had wandered over to watch Sha Gojyo fleece the newcomers.

            Well I couldn't let them down. I dove in for the kill, making the best use of my bluffs and luck as I could, and won the next three rounds in a row. I threw the following, at the last second, because I had a gut feeling the old man was going to win. He did, and he seemed content to stick around a little longer, like his luck was changing. I was up about one twenty, and nowhere near ready to call it quits. Had to keep them happy. That's what I did for the regulars around here; they would play me on occasion if they'd been having a lucky day, and I wouldn't take enough of their money to prevent their playing me again. All of these instincts came from the time before Hakkai, before my job, and before something steady.

            Before Tony could call me a cheat, he won a round, and scooped up the pot of around sixty dollars. It was during the following game, Rhoda on my lap and Blondie leaning over my shoulder, her breasts pushed up against the lax muscle of my left arm, that Hakkai came in.

            Fred leaned over the far end of the bar, nearest our table, and chucked a nut at me, clicking his tongue and jerking his thumb in Hakkai's direction. I was surprised to say the least, but recovered and grinned up at him cheekily. He had that thin, false smile that he wore while bargaining in the market pasted over his face. "Hello Gojyo." Rhoda had the decency to leap up out of my lap, and it took Blondie a minute to figure it out, but she gradually faded into the shadowy din. Tony was getting impatient with the interruption. Lady Luck had finally found him after all, and he wanted to milk the situation for what it was worth.

            "Hey there 'Kai," I drew a chair over, leaning back in my own, and tugged him down onto it. "What'cha doin'?"

            "I came to see you."

            "Ain't that cute," sneered the man in boots, shuffling the cards with yellowed finger tips. It was his deal. "Is your boyfriend in or out, Red?" He blew a puff of cigar smoke our way.

            To his great surprise, I didn't refute the statement, but merely glanced at Hakkai, lifting an eyebrow. "Wanna play?"

            "Alright," Hakkai agreed pleasantly, earning a snigger from Grandpa, who sat to his right now. The man in boots began to deal, calling out five card draw, and Hakkai scooped up his small pile when everyone else had theirs. I thought it was cute, the way he held them up in slender fingers, smiling politely, because that was his poker face, and feigning indecision when it came to discard. The table limit was three, and after putting down a bet to match the others, he exchanged two cards. I took three. Tony was grinning, unable to contain himself, or trying to trick us, and he took one.

            When they laid out their hands, Hakkai laughed as if it had been a great accident that he had ended up with a flush. By the fourth round, I think my new buddies were starting to catch on. Grandpa left in a huff, and boot man lingered for another two games until he ran out of money and called it quits. I estimated by that time we had, together, raked in about five and a half.

            "Where'd you learn to play?" Tony asked Hakkai, fascinated at his winning streak. He didn't suspect him of cheating—I used to think it was some slight of hand trick myself, and even today I'm not so sure—but instead wanted to know what sort of methods he used to stay on top. Apparently in Tony's hometown, he was the player tourists flocked to challenge.

            "At St. Catherine's," Hakkai answered pleasantly. Tony stared.

            "A cathedral?"

            "An orphanage." Hakkai explained.

            "Oh," he nodded in understanding, flipping through his deck. "So how do you win?"

            "The way anyone would I suppose. Luck," Hakkai smiled and shrugged, accepting a shot of whiskey from the bartender, on the house, because Gojyo had brought customers, Fred insisted. I watched him toss it back easily and wondered if Tony felt up to a drinking contest…

            "You musta taught him. He took the better half of my paycheck t'night," Tony laughed, a good sport because he had given into Fred's coaxing an hour ago, and ingested a few amber-colored mugs. "So is this how you guys usually pull it off? You start, and he finishes?"

            "What? No!" I had been leaning back in my chair, feet on the table, and suddenly jerked forward, resenting the accusation. Though it did sound like a pretty tempting game plan for next time…

            "We don't." Hakkai confirmed. "I rarely come in. Usually only to fetch him home, not to play."

            "Hakkai's not a gambling man," I elaborated, draping my arm about his shoulders and giving him a secret little smirk. "Not usually, at least."

            "I'm afraid I really don't have very good luck," Hakkai laughed, though Tony must have thought him a liar, after raking in so much of his money.

            "Well I'm headed out," Tony stood, thanking us for the game, and paid his tab at the bar. Two more familiar faces approached us, Horuma and Zane, two toughs whose money I'd been more than happy to take on plenty of occasions.

            "Your luck's gotta have run out by now, Gojyo," Zane grinned, his long, tall face full of shadows in the poor light. "We'll play ya."

            "Who's this?" Horuma asked, sitting down with his beer and shuffling a stack of cards. His eyes were on Hakkai. "You look kinda familiar t'me…'ave we met?"

            "I don't believe so." Hakkai's expression told me all at once that they had. Horuma was already drunk. Zane snatched the cards from him in impatience and shuffled. Rhoda and Blondie cautiously returned to watch from a distance. They had only met Hakkai once or twice before, but I think they picked up that he was possessive. Just of me. I kind of liked it.

            "'S'only that you look real familiar-like," Horuma nodded to himself, as though agreeing with some memory or other, and nudged Zane. "Deal 'em."

            Zane did. My hand was crap, and naturally I couldn't tell what Hakkai had. Horuma was so drunk that his wide frown gave him away; Zane had a perplexed expression pasted over his sweaty face, and for all I knew he was seeing doubles of everything.

            "Three," I pushed my cards into the centre pile. I didn't have a pair, but they didn't need to know that.

            "Four," Zane belched, and Horuma drew two, looking to Hakkai in question.

            "Oh, none for me thank you," Hakkai smiled, and Zane swore beneath his breath, gesturing for Fred to bring him a beer. I noticed he paid full price for half a mug.

            We placed final bets, and the pot didn't even top twenty. Fanning our cards out, no one folding (I knew I was going to get my money back anyways), I revealed my pair of queens. Zane had the better half of a straight flush, and Horuma had three sevens. Hakkai laid down a high strait, leading with a king. Horuma's fist cracked the top of the table.

            "Fucking cheat!" He bellowed, knocking his chair over as he lunged upwards. I knew then he had come in here to pick a fight; when was it Hakkai had met him before?

            "It was your fucking deck," I hissed, standing up before Hakkai, feeling my youki flood the centers of my palms. Shaku-jou was close. "You saw him the whole time. Don't pick a fight for under twenty bucks, you lout."

            My logic didn't quite get through to him; he knocked the table over in an attempt to get to Hakkai, who could have handled him just fine, but I intercepted his swing. I caught his wrist in my hand, nearly losing my arm to the force of his attack, and whipped it backwards before he could retaliate. Blondie hooted, used to my brawling, and Rhoda tossed an epithet Horuma's way.

            "Gojyo you really don't have to do-"

            "S'nothin'," I assured Hakkai, grinning to him cutely. "I do this all th' time, don't I Fred?"

            Fred flipped me off as he began wiping down the bar; a little audience had gathered, so I made it quick, and managed to knock him out and chuck him from the threshold of the pub. Drunks were nothing, compared to the guys Hakkai and I had fought before. I just didn't want him to have to bring his youki out; people would treat him differently if they knew he was a demon.

            Zane, perhaps too drunk to grasp at common sense, stacked the cards and slid them into his back pocket. "Who knew a fag could fight?" He simpered, drawing a wicked glare from Hakkai, and a rather exasperated one from me. Unlike Hakkai, I was used to getting jibes about my living with another guy. I'd deck anyone who called Hakkai crude names (and a couple had), but I wasn't overly sensitive about being "gay." I loved Hakkai, and it was no secret that I was attracted to him—how could I not be?--he's hot as hell.

            But like I said, Hakkai wasn't used to it. I figured he was offended, so I took Zane out too, earning a few drunken, mildly entertained cheers, and a clap on the back from Blondie, who had drunk half her weight in martinis. I tossed Hakkai an apologetic expression, not meaning to have embarrassed him. I was used to throwing the occasional punch and heaving the deadweights—those that had paid their bill, anyways—out of Fred's pub for him.

            After playing each other for fun and boring Blondie and Rhoda, we put my deck of cards away and moved closer to the front of the bar, where the smell of stale smoke was thinner. We sat down at a smaller table with a pair of beers and watched the last of the patrons filter out. Fred began to sweep up and turn lights off. Someone had left the old jukebox playing; its neon green and red flickered in the corner, sending out static tunes from a bygone era. It gave me an idea.

            I rose from where I sat and stood before Hakkai, hand out. "Wanna dance?"

            He smiled to me, a genuine, pleased expression that made his poker face look like a grimace. Accepting my hand, he followed me to the small open area where Fred had already turned the chairs over onto the tables. I slipped my arms about his waist, drawing him close, and fell into the rhythm of the slow waltz. His arms draped over my shoulders, fingertips teasing the ends of my mane as we moved. 

            Now that I think about it, Fred probably slowed down his sweeping, because the song was a long one, and we danced right through it and into the next, that someone else's nickel had paid for. Dancing with people used to make me really uncomfortable; I didn't like the awkward silence, or not knowing where to look. With Hakkai it was a lot easier for me; I had no trouble with his closeness, or our silence. I looked at his eyes like I couldn't look away. It was halfway through the second song that I leaned forward and kissed him, just a soft touch of the lips, because I wanted the intimacy. He returned it, one hand threading delicately through my hair as we swayed. The flickering of the dim overhead lights drew our attention, and I grinned bashfully to Fred, who stood on the opposite end of the bar, flipping the light switch up and down.

            "Okay, okay, get a room," He scoffed, smirking, as he pulled a large key ring, cluttered with more key chains than keys, from his pocket.

            "Thanks," I smiled to him, noticing the time. Hakkai bade him goodnight, and we walked home together around one. The air was cold, and might have been colder, if I hadn't had a couple of beers. Hakkai let me put my arm around him, and walked closer to me than he normally did. I gave his shoulders a squeeze, and brushed my lips over his cheek. I guess it was because we were alone.

            "What made you decide to dance? I thought you hated dancing."

            I shrugged. "I don't hate it; I'm just not too good at it. Two left feet, ya know."

            "I think you're rather good."

            "Thanks." My breath emerged white in front of my face, and a shuddered as the temperature dropped another degree or two with a sudden breeze. I drew Hakkai closer, fingertips stroking his collarbone.

            "I wanted to." I answered after a long moment, having thought it over. "I thought you would like it."

            "I did," Hakkai acknowledged, but let the conversation drop.

            Suddenly I felt as though we were talking from opposite sides of a deep gorge, as if there were a chasm between us. As though we hadn't known each other for six years, and been lovers for two. "Don't wander off on me, Hakkai." He knew what this meant; I said it to him often enough. Explaining it the first time hadn't been as tricky as you might think, either. Hakkai liked to think in metaphors.

            "Sorry," he smiled, meeting my eyes with a gentle crease at the corners of his own. "I try not to do that so much anymore," he reminded me.

            "I know," I murmured, kicking at the ice forming in the grass beneath our heels. It was about a mile home, and getting colder. The black shadows of trees caked in frost shook in a brisk wind, and small animals scurried for shelter. I shuddered. "Gonna freeze."

            "Tsk, you sound like Goku. Next thing I know, you'll be telling me how hungry you are."

            "I could go for something to eat," I allowed, grinning widely. "But there's something else I would much rather stick in my mouth…"

            "Gojyo!" Even when we were alone, hell, even when were in the bedroom alone, Hakkai got flustered when I talked that way. I think it was something that stuck to him from his childhood; he was raised by Catholics, after all. It was cute, if not a bit inhibiting, the way he would turn red and stare at me as if I had uttered some great profanity (I could do that too, by the way).

            "Chill, chill, we're alone," I reminded him to no avail. He had moved out from beneath my arm, but he was smiling. I think, after traveling four years with Sanzo, the king of cursing, he was fairly used to my "inappropriate" remarks, as he put it, about our "becoming intimate."

            Come to think of it, he was still a little shy about that too. Verbally acknowledging it, I mean. He didn't like it when I called it fucking, though I've always supposed that was because there were about a hundred different euphemisms for it that better fit his poetic vocabulary. I'll admit I couldn't keep up with that Shakespearean innuendo I knew would get him hot, but I did do my best to be romantic. I liked to see him happy. I also liked to tease him about it and see how dark I could make him blush. It was ten times better than pissing off the priest; for one, I didn't get hit, and better yet, I generally got to do what I suggested later on.

            "Aw, sorry 'Kai," I wheedled, nudging against him as we took the turn onto our street, seeing a few lights in the distance, and then the porch light of our own house. The road was a straight shot. "How should I say it?" I questioned; dipping my head so that my mouth touched his ear, I murmured more suggestive variations yet, laughing at how quickly he colored, and pushed me back, as though he were self-conscious. Maybe he was.

            "What, no good?"

            "Gojyo keep your mind out of the gutter."

            "Now you sound like Baldy," I informed him sarcastically, zipping the front of my suede coat up to my chin. "I'll play your way," I conceded, "so long as I get to play."

            He nodded his approval, and we fell into comfortable silence again, walking close, arms brushing. I thought my face was going to freeze before we would get home, and Hakkai would use that as an excuse to send me straight to bed.

            "I'll make hot tea," he offered instead, touching my lips with his smooth fingers. I heard the door close behind him.

            "Thanks," I breathed, shrugging out of my jacket and exchanging it for the blanket draped on the back of the couch. I coaxed him out of his coat as well, draping a different cover over his shoulders and kissing his cheek lovingly. "Smells good."

            "It's lemon herb."

            "I meant your cologne." We sat back on the couch, and he rolled his eyes at me good-naturedly. We both knew I was the only one who ever wore cologne.

            "Maybe next weekend, instead of going to the bar, we could go out to eat together," Hakkai suggested. "Goku and Sanzo are coming into town."

            "No kidding?" We still got to see those two, but it wasn't with the regularity that we used to (though Goku visited often enough). Not that I was complaining. It was nice when we could see them again over dinner or beers and mahjong. Sometimes I missed the priest's bitching and the monkey's whining. Sometimes.

            "Sanzo put up a fight, but Goku said yes."

            "So they're coming?"

            "I believe so."

            "That monkey has him on such a short leash, and he doesn't even know it." I chuckled, still unable to picture them as a couple. If you could assert as much. Hakkai always said that opposites attract, and I guess that makes sense, because we work pretty well together, and he's a spring to my fall. A comfortable silence fell between us.

            "Done?"

            "Yeah. Thanks." He took my teacup from me, and I watched him put them in the sink for the morning, rinsing them at the faucet. We had a bigger kitchen than my shoebox apartment, and I think Hakkai liked it. He kept it in strict order, and no one else, especially not me, could cook in it. That suited me just fine, because I had never picked up on the fine art of not burning water. Hakkai could make gourmet out of tuna.

            "Hey, are you happy here?" I don't know what prompted the question, but the moment it was out of my mouth I wondered if I should have asked it at all.

            He looked at me with a confused frown, and then a soft smile bloomed when he met my eyes. "Yes. I am."

            I was glad I asked.

           

            Ten minutes later found us in the bedroom; Hakkai was shivering and trembling beneath me in that way that made me want to just pound him into the mattress. But I held back, arching into his caresses and nipping at his throat in encouragement. We sort of skipped foreplay that evening, though I usually made sure not to. Hakkai really liked it. I substituted by filling in the silence with deep, eager kisses. His tongue was magic, and I wished he'd use it for more than scolding me when my mind was in the gutter.

            "Gojyo…" Oh yeah. And he could do that. Groan my name, softly, like it was the only sound he was capable of making. It was a plea and a thanks at the same time, and I always, always responded to it. We kissed.

            The moonlight fell through the open windows when a cloud blew away, and I saw the fine sheen of perspiration covering his torso. It looked like a misty silk coverlet had settled over his skin. I made a point to slowly draw my gaze down the length of his body. He blushed.

            "Gojyo…?" Looking to me in question, Hakkai made a soft sound akin to a moan, and nudged me with his thigh. "What are you looking at?" He queried, pushing hair from his green eyes.

            "You, babe. All you." I smirked to reassure him and dove back into a feral kiss, feeling him cling to me and grind his hips upwards against my abdomen. For Hakkai, this was wild. I liked wild.

            He made those pathetic little groans, muffled sounds, as if he were afraid to be caught doing something he shouldn't be. He bit the pillow, the back of his hand, my shoulder, or simply let out his pent up energy in ragged breaths. He rarely yelled or spoke—I made most of the noise. But at the same time he was never quiet. That would be creepy. He would whimper to me if I did something he liked, and moan softly each time I hit his sweet spot, or licked at that sensitive place on the small of his back. Biting beneath an ear, which I did that night, several times, earned me a delicious clench of muscle and deep-throated growl of appreciation. The small of his back formed an arc as my hand slid beneath it, pressing the tender place where his hips joined his spine as we both reached our climax. I would have smiled if I hadn't been so breathless.

Hakkai said my name.

Not loud, not in a scream, but I still heard it just the same.

            I fell back, barely missing him, and rolled over so that I was exposed to the suddenly icy air. Hakkai turned onto his right side, drawing close and clutching my hand in his own, kissing the back of it with damp lips.

            "Good?" I breathed, waiting for the rapid rise and fall of my chest to slow. Hakkai nodded and murmured yes, a little smile on his lips. He looked satisfied, and I congratulated myself silently.

            When his eyes shut in a long, tired blink, I felt a sudden burst of heat, but this time from the centre of my chest, rather than my loins. I moved forward, stroking his hair back gently and cupping both sides of his lean face with my large, sunburned hands. I kissed him. It wasn't a lusty kiss, but at the same time it wasn't exactly chaste; I would call it passionate.

            Hakkai responded immediately, wrapping his arms about my neck and drawing me closer, running his slender fingers through my hair with a little, muffled sound of surprise and delight. I kissed him for a long time, just holding him close to me, my body resting, perched, over his. When we parted, I stroked his hair back again, not willing to part from his touch just yet. I wasn't sure what overcame me, some sentimental feeling that made my chest hurt, but in a good way. I thought he might be feeling the same thing, by the look in his eyes.

            "…'Kai…." My voice was more ragged, breathless, than I had thought it would be; I couldn't help but blush. The great Sha Gojyo never lost his breath over a lover. But maybe, I excused myself, over a love.

            "I love you, Gojyo," Hakkai murmured, making himself comfortable in my arms, his warm body pressed flush against me, taut muscles damp with perspiration, ridge of his scar almost smooth against my stomach. I knew every inch of that ridge, given that I helped make it.

            When we were both near to sleep, still wrapped in each other's arms, I kissed him again. "Goodnight, and I love you." I still couldn't bring myself to say it unless it sounded like an afterthought. It's not that I didn't mean it—hell yes I meant it. It's that to me the phrase was overused, and sounded phony, like a cheap line or a romance novel. I tried to save it for special occasions. I still do, but Hakkai always tells me that he can never hear it too much. 

 

I know this sounds like a line from a movie too, but I'm serious when I say waking up beside him is one of the best parts of living with him. On the road he used to jerk awake like Sanzo does, one minute asleep, the next, wide-eyed and alert. Now I've noticed it occurs for him in stages, and I think it's because he finally feels safe enough to let himself relax. He knows when he wakes up I'm gonna be there, and he doesn't have to be on his toes at the drop of a hat.

He'll shift a little bit, pushing up against me and smelling like fresh clover and rain, and his eyes will flicker open, tentatively, in the dim light of the morning. Sometimes one eye was brighter than the other; his good eye, his real one, always lit up the morning after, peering through a fan of thick ebony lashes at me. He was an early riser, and usually I would kiss him and go right back to bed. But sometimes he'd humor me and snuggle up to my side to doze a bit longer. I liked to feel him real close, and he likes to rest with his cheek on my chest, head beneath my chin. Generally we can sleep through the whole morning on a lazy Sunday, unless Hakuryu, jealous and demanding attention, decides to pop in on us. Usually Hakkai could placate him and get him to sleep at the foot of the bed.

This time though, it was a really great morning. Hakuryu didn't come in, and Hakkai fell back asleep beside me, and by some miracle I was able to stay awake, dozing a bit, but conscious the whole time. I watched him sleep and kissed his forehead, his cheeks, holding him at a comfortable distance for both of us. I knew he was happy because soon things were going to seem a little more like they used to, seeing Sanzo and Goku together for the first time in a long while. When he did stir, I kissed him and told him that I loved him. The grin he gave me in return told me it just made his day. It sure as hell made mine.

           

            So we went out to meet with Monkey and Baldy, and the usual chaos ensued. I stole food off of Goku's plate and made none-too-subtle remarks about Sanzo's playing catcher (even if he does deny it). I got stabbed with a fork, hit with two stale dinner rolls, and frowned upon by Hakkai. I missed the harisen.

            They were doing well, they told me, or maybe I extrapolated, as Hakkai put it. Sanzo didn't really say much at all to me, less than ten words, maybe. He talked mostly to Hakkai, and referred to me as the half-breed or Hakkai's "pet." Naturally I got a few good throws in with my half of the stale dinner rolls, even if Goku complained that I was wasting too much food.

            I was glad we could all get together again; it made me feel like nothing had changed. I know it made Hakkai feel good too; he and Hakuryu were practically chirruping through the whole meal. Monkey and I even managed to get along by the time dessert was brought out.

            When we saw them off, I told Hakkai I'd like to do that again sometime, and he practically beamed at me. We went home and made love, and sat up late by the fireplace draped in blankets. Hakkai read aloud from one of his books to me, and I rested with my head on his lap.

            And just like that, those nights we spent apart became fewer and fewer. Don't get me wrong, I haven't stopped gambling. Sometimes we go together. Sometimes I still go alone, and he sits home and reads without disturbance. But mostly we spend our time together, and not always in conversation. I'm comfortable around him, and I'm pretty sure he's comfortable around me too.

            Sometimes Hakkai asks me if I miss my old life, and I just shrug it off. I don't think about it too much anymore. I don't have to get shitfaced drunk to be happy, and I don't have to go scouting for sex every night when I have love waiting for me right back home.

            So in conclusion, I think I, Sha Gojyo, have changed. I'm going through the autumn of my life, shedding what isn't necessary to happiness, only to find out what is happens to be very basic. I've even dropped all (most) of my bad habits.

            Hakkai's the one who made me change. If I'm fall, then he's spring. We helped each other simultaneously. Finding him that night, the very same night I had been thinking that my life was just too easy, too good to be true, too boring, brought me out of the gutter. Made me realize I had put myself there. Mom wasn't holding me back anymore—she hadn't been for a long time. It was just me, like an animal that's been chained so long it doesn't understand it's free when the leash breaks. So I just drifted into a rut, a dirty, smoky trench off the side of the path I was supposed to be on in life. And fortunately for me, someone else had drifted off too. He made me save him, looking at me like that, like there was nothing left. He was in his winter then, but I pushed him forward, made him bloom again. He pushed me too, from my lazy summer right into a fall of restoration and transformation. I guess, in part, I'm still stuck in autumn, but that's ok. I like red.

 

Amethystine Winter



Your love's like one last cigarette
Last cigarette, I will savor it
The last cigarette
Take it in and hold your breath, hope it never ends
But when it's gone, it's gone
The last cigarette, last cigarette
One I can't forget, the last cigarette
Right there at my fingertips, I got your taste still on my lips
Right or wrong
 Bon Jovi 'Last Cigarette'

 

            I still don't really know how he did it. That stupid kid really is a monkey, the way he can climb through any fence, surmount any barricade that I've ever thrown up. Sometimes I think if I beat him he'd just go on smiling, waiting for me to finish so he could ask me when it will be dinner time.

            I don't know where to start, because I don't know when it started happening. It was a gradual thing, his breaking down my defenses. It probably started, hell, for all I know, the day I pulled him out of his cage on Mount Gogyo. He looked at me with those big, stupid eyes. Big because they were surprised, stupid because they were so trusting. I had never traveled with anyone else at that point, and I had expected him to become a shadow, an afterthought. Something I wouldn't have to deal with. I was going to make him that way, because I couldn't afford to risk getting close again. I still try not to, outside of Goku.

            "We" didn't start during the journey. He was still burrowing through well-constructed, ironclad defense lines at that time. Sometimes I wonder if it had been purely unintentional, and the idea of physical love only crossed his mind because Hakkai and Gojyo started it. As far as I know, they weren't sleeping together until they bought their first house, but I know they were lovers before then, on the last few months of the journey.

            Contrary to what they might think, I was not blind to their "subtle" gestures. I noticed the first day that they started walking a little closer together, brushing hands, volunteering to share a room. At an inn, I saw them kiss. I know Goku must have too, and that's where he got the idea. That is not to say he didn't come by sexual stimulation naturally, only that he didn't recognize it for what it was because he had lived his life in total isolation. The stupid kappa probably thought of him as an eternal child, and I, a "cherry-chan," incapable of catching onto what he and Hakkai had started.

            At first it sickened me because it meant I was going to have to live with it in close quarters. And I was going to be the one to have to explain it to Goku. Even Hakkai wouldn't be gracious enough to take up that responsibility. And even if Gojyo had been, I wouldn't have let him. The last thing the monkey needed was to learn about sex in monosyllabic terms and hand gestures.

            Not that I was the prime candidate for a teacher. I'm not a monk, but I am a Sanzo. I don't take lovers. I didn't, at least.

            That was what made Goku's questions and hesitating requests so much more difficult for me. He wanted to know what Hakkai and Gojyo had—their smells were different, he told me—and why we couldn't. Naturally, the first time he touched me, I flung him off and told him to go to Hell. What did he expect?

            But none of this really started until we finished our journey and returned to Chang'an. I'd admitted to myself over the past few years that I had grown…attached…to them. More so to him than anyone else. But I had planned to shake them off as one shakes burrs from their coat and resume my duties as Sanzo in the temple.

Goku didn't budge.

He clung to my shadow, following me everywhere. I could have rid myself of him, but I had a narrow window of time in which to do so. I had to make him believe I didn't want him there, and the longer I waited, the harder it would be to do so without sounding like a fool for having allowed him to linger so long.

            I never did it.

            The other monks accepted him because I told them to. They're sheep, save for a few, and do whatever they're told, following an idiotic hierarchy and worshipping a god who couldn't care less about them. Ironically, Goku respects them, when he's not stealing from their gardens.

            I remember the first overture he made towards me. It was the last, too. After that, agreements were unanimous.

            It had been close to midnight in January, and it was no more than a degree or two above zero. The snow crunched and stiffened beneath my sandals, and for some reason it seemed warmer than I was at the moment. My winter robes were heavier than those I wear in the summer, lined, but nowhere near enough to shield me from the tearing wind. I'd had cold before, and this time I had the looming, stony refuge of the fire-filled temple to return to. I think that was why I went out in the first place.

            This all happened less than three months after the end of our four year journey, and I wasn't used to sleeping near a fire, in an increasingly familiar bed, just yet. I left in the night to meditate, throwing myself on the mercy of the fierce wintertime. I'd slept outside in worse, and the air was clear, free of snow. Everything hung before my eyes with sharp, well-defined edges, strange for a nighttime scene. The moon was waxing overhead, and it threw its icy light down atop the firm half foot of snow glistening uninterrupted on the ground. Here and there a knotted black twig poked out of the ground's ivory flesh, and tiny indentations, rabbit tracks, littered the land about the slicked, iced trunks of sleeping trees. When the wind did blow, rustling the frozen branches heavy with sleet, it cut through my cloak like a knife, drawing numbing lines up the length of my body. I steeled myself against it and frowned at my weakness. Had a few mere months done this to me?

            Treading towards the frozen water source, I looked up at the sky, tracing the familiar constellations with my eyes. It was so cold it seemed the sky would snap and crack, breaking the patterns of heavenly bodies into meaningless dots on a black map. My arms folded over my chest, hands diving into the safety of long sleeves. I wished I had let my hair grow longer, rather than hacking it off again right above my shoulders. But I was thankful for my good sense in not shaving it. Not that I had considered it.

            The wind bucked and arched amongst my robes, whistling and hissing through a desert of ice and disappearing in the distance. I broke the unscarred, glowing terrain as I sat upon an ice-encrusted rock, folding my legs and letting my mind empty in a well-practiced hum. Ohm. 

            Just as Genjyo had disappeared and been replaced by some other, less physical being, a bright heat fell against my back. It was such a startling difference in temperature that I thought a smoldering brand had been shoved down my tunic. I jerked into consciousness, finding the world much brighter than the one behind my eyelids, and turned.

            Had I not been so frozen, I might have recognized the familiar touch.

            "What the hell do you want, monkey?" It wasn't said with venom. I was cold, after all.

            "You were shivering," he stared at me stupidly, as though I had walked all the way out there to talk to him.

            "It's cold." I explained, deadpan.

            "I know that," he smiled, opening his cloak and tugging out a small blanket, pressing it over my shoulders. "But I didn't think you noticed. You were sitting out here freezing, ya know?" He sensed I was growing irritated with him, and took a customary step backwards, expecting the harisen, but didn't halt in his speech. "Topo made some hot tea since it's so cold and all, and when I told him you weren't in your room, he sent me to find you."

            "You went in my room?" I had nothing in there he didn't know of—cigarettes, the harisen, beer if I hadn't finished it all off. It was the fact that he might have walked in on me that was so perturbing. I'm a Sanzo, not a saint, and some nights…but he didn't.

            "Yeah. I wasn't snoopin' or nothin'," he promised, sitting down beside me and letting his teeth chatter purposely. "I was just looking for you…I haven't seen you very much in the past few days."

            "I've been busy." I didn't know why I was making excuses to him.

            "That's what they tell me. But—you haveta eat. They even make the same type a' food you like here, and it's not like when we were in the inns, when they only had meat…you're gonna get thin and disappear on me."

            I rolled my eyes at his scolding, standing up and gazing at his messy tracks in the ground. He had scooped up snow as he went, for there were small indentions to the sides of his footsteps.

            "Are you going to stop whining?" I was too tired to force malice into my voice, and he took this as a go ahead, charging back towards the building in his own footprints.

            "Yeah! Just have tea and soup tonight, and I promise I won't say another thing about it," he assured me, stumbling and bending over to scoop up a wad of snow with one long fingered bare hand. I rose to follow him in, deciding that it was a good enough excuse to escape the cold, and froze in my steps as a blast of ice hit me against my chakra.

            Goku laughed at my expression, picking up another snowball and whirling it in my direction. This one I blocked with a long sleeve, fingers itching for my harisen. "Bakasaru!" The words left my mouth in a bellow before I could contain them, and he yelped and took off running, his laughter trailing after him in the cold air.

            I couldn't help but admit that I found it funny—I'd never tell him that—but it reminded me of the way things used to be between us. All of us.

            "Get back here you filthy animal!" He was like a golden dart between fence posts and rocks; his cape floated out behind him. The snow seemed to melt wherever he ran, as if he willed the earth about him to return to summer at his touch. I remembered the warmth of his palm.

            Turning sharply to my left, I leapt after him, only to find that he had slowed to a halt behind a dark tangle of leafless vines growing up the side of a small outbuilding. I slammed my other foot into the ground to stop, but ice crept up beneath the flat sandal, and propelled me forward and into Goku, tumbling us both into a pillow of snow atop the frozen earth. The fall knocked the breath out him more than it did me, and a good thing too.

            For a brief moment I experienced his smoldering heat up close, pressed to his warm body in breathless pleasure. I hoped it hadn't shown in my face. I could feel his stomach and chest rise in a gasp; his muscles clenched all over. My eyes locked on his lips, surprisingly pink and smooth, not affected by the dry, cold air at all. He was like a furnace, amongst all the snow. It struck me that I would have leapt up earlier, had I been anything but mad. But his mouth had captured my sleepy attention, and I leaned closer to it, head tilted just a bit, as if to kiss him. I thought then that I would like to do that more than anything else, feel his warm body beneath mine, his sweet, hot mouth pressing eagerly against my tongue. A sudden flush of dismay and disgust covered my face, and I stood up shakily, kicking a pile of snow upon his chest. I expected steam to rise off.

            "Lucky I didn't have my harisen, bakasaru," I reminded him, watching his mouth flicker into a wide grin.

            "Yeah," he agreed, his mind somewhere else, as if he knew what I had just been thinking, "So let's go inside so you can eat?"

            I followed him without further protest, too preoccupied by my own troubles to bother telling him I wasn't hungry.

 

            Inside my own room, connected to Goku's by a common bathroom, I disrobed, finding my skin to be taut with the cold, and slid into a comfortable sleeping robe. I had two blankets, not nearly enough, and curled up beneath them, watching my breath steam in the air. There was a fireplace in my room, but no kindling, no wood. I wasn't about to go back out for it. Naturally I wouldn't ask any of the other monks to do what I would not, even if it wouldn't have been looked down upon.

            Pressing my head into the fabric of the pillow, I heard the bathroom door creak open, and watched Goku, still fully dressed, stride in. He smiled to me and brought a tray with a steaming cup of tea on it. I sat up with a grunt, raising the cup to my lips to please him, and gave him a surprised cough when I tasted the sake.

            "I thought you needed something hot," he explained, "but I doubted you'd drink plain tea." He beamed proudly. "I had Gojyo bring it, last time he and Hakkai came."

            "Who knew the kappa would prove useful in anything," I mused, sipping at the drink and letting it gradually warm me. It seemed silly to think that I was struggling to stay warm with blankets and drinks when a mere touch from Goku could set me on fire. But I didn't need it. I couldn't risk it, either.

            "Yeah, when are he and Hakkai comin' back again?"

            "I don't know. Not now."

            "Hey Sanzo?"

            "What, saru?" I finished the cup, and he poured more from a small container, steadying my shivering hand with his own so that the liquid wouldn't spill. I almost blushed, and cursed myself silently for it.

            "Are Hakkai and Gojyo…are they in love?"

            I wrinkled my nose in distaste at the term. "I think what you mean to say is 'lovers,' and yes."

            "What's the difference?"

            I didn't like the direction this conversation was taking, and made sure he knew it. I would answer this question, and he would shut up. That was the unspoken command.

            "The difference is love is an emotion someone like Hakkai feels, that Gojyo could never understand. Lovers simply means that they're fucking."

            It was Goku's turn to wrinkle his nose. "But they kiss. I've seen them." He smiled almost shyly, as though he were telling Hakkai. "Gojyo hasn't been flirting with anyone else, either."

            "How would you know? You've only seen him in the monastery and at home, where there aren't any women."

            "But Hakkai told me," Goku pressed. "I asked him a few things too."

            Somehow the monkey hadn't gotten the message; he was still continuing this absurd conversation. I poured more of the sake this time, trying to listen to him with half an ear. He had far too loud a voice for that.

            "You shouldn't be asking him anything. Keep away from the kappa."        

            "Ha, ha. Yeah, I know, and s'not like we got along or nothin'. I just wanted to ask Hakkai, because ya know he seems really happy now. An' Gojyo said…" he lowered his voice a little bit, "Gojyo said that last September—that's the month when Kanan died—Hakkai was happier than he'd ever seen him during that time. And I think he's happy too. That's why I think they're in love."

            "I think you're an idiot, and so is Hakkai, if he believes Gojyo's capable of it."

            Goku was quiet for a long moment, watching me drink as he played with the extra cup on the tray. It was full of water.

            "Sanzo?"

            "What?"

            "How do you know if you're in love?"

            I flushed darkly, glancing away. "Why are you asking me stupid questions all of a sudden, saru?"

            "I don't think they're stupid," he murmured, fidgeting on the cold floor. "Hakkai told me…Hakkai told me that you know you're in love when you'd do anything at all to make someone else happy. When you'd give them everything—your life, even—without thinking about what you want or need. He said it's not something that you can describe easily, either. Is that right?"

            Typical Hakkai, I mused. Romantic drivel was the last thing I wanted the monkey parroting. I ched him and refused to answer, and he shocked me with his admission.

            "I think it is right, Sanzo." He smiled. "I think Hakkai is right."

            "So what?" I grumbled, fingering the suddenly very fragile glass sake cup in a tightening palm.

            "I think I love you." He didn't give the words enough time, and when he leaned forward to kiss me, I panicked. I don't panic often, and never in battle. But intimacy frightens me. Much less now than it used to, but such a learned reaction never completely vanishes. Gojyo caught onto that within the first month of our mission, and never failed to exploit it whenever he was within groping distance. That was why I purchased the harisen.

            I don't like to be stroked, or embraced. I don't like to be touched.  Every time a hand contacts my skin, in my mind it becomes their hands, and my trigger finger burns. I've been told that I'm "pretty" too many times to count, and I push it off because it makes me sick. Gojyo was envious of the offers I received during our travels, and blamed it on my eyes and fair complexion. I am not pretty. I don't see how I am even perceived as attractive to others, but the world is sick, and I ought to have expected as much.

            No one ever told me they love me. That was a crushing, suffocating word. It entailed too much all at once, and besides that, was entirely foreign. It made no sense that Goku should love me. My first thought, unjust to him, I know, was what does he want? His kiss set me off; I felt I knew what he wanted, and I was furious at him for even asking. When he knew why he couldn't have that.

            The cup in my hand shattered, flinging tiny splinters of glass into my palm and dousing them with scalding, stinging sake. He jerked back and I cursed, at him, not the pain. He knew it too.

            My breath fell in husky gasps as I glared at him with a hatred I couldn't imagine anyone staring down. I felt betrayed. I had trusted him more than the others, let him worm past my barriers, and he turned out no different than anyone else. Wanted something. Couldn't let it lay. Had to change things. Why Goku?

            "Go to hell," I managed, my breath choked in my throat.

            I've never seen his eyes look as they did that night, and I hope I never will again. His face didn't move, save for the closing of his mouth, but all the same his composure fell apart, as though he had suddenly collapsed and crumpled up on the inside. I can't remember his walking away, but I know he did, because when I lay down to sleep I was alone. It was cold.

 

            I couldn't sleep, and guilt made a meal of my insides. It could have been worse, and would have been, if my gun had been anywhere nearby. That would have damaged our friendship—us—irreparably. I attributed Goku's amnesty to his knowledge of my mannerisms. I communicated best through action, not words. I wasn't Gojyo; I did think before I spoke, but my audience rarely received the entire message. What he knew was that I had cursed him, and sent him away in shame, but I had been panicked. He told me only weeks ago today, when this incident came up in conversation between us at breakfast, that he had seen that, and it was why he went back. I had never known he did.

            I recognized even then, less than an hour later, the severity of what I had done. It wasn't in my words alone—I've said far worse—but in the setting, and the manner in which I said them. I had looked at him, treated him, like one of my aggressors, someone I might have shot at. I don't think I would have shot at him, but I know I would have plucked the revolver from my cloak for safety. That alone would have been too much.

            He didn't deserve that.

            Guilt chewed through me with a ferocity formerly unknown to me, and I found myself wishing it had never taken place. Because I had done to him what I did to the only other person I ever loved: I had hurt him.

 

            It was later that night, or early, early that morning, when his footsteps woke me. He thought it was his whisper.

            "Sanzo."

            Damn saru. I didn't answer, but pretended to be asleep. My back was facing him, and he couldn't tell, beneath the blankets. I couldn't face him right now.

            "Sanzo."

            I didn't want to know what the hell he was thinking. I didn't want to have to talk to him, either. Maybe he would just leave…

            I felt a warm hand brush my shoulder, and that gave me away. I jumped, leaning into and then instantaneously away from, his caress.

            His face surprised me, though it shouldn't have. All seriousness, drawn, no dancing light flickered behind his amber irises. He squatted on the icy floor, an inch from my pallet, but wisely refrained from touching it. He didn't say anything for a long time, and my stomach knotted. I'd never seen him, when he was still Goku, so serious.

            "Saru?" I queried again, snapping him out of some internal monologue. "What?" I was a coward, afraid then of even silence between us.

            "Sanzo…" He bit his lower lip, "I know you didn't mean that in the way you said it." His hands fidgeted.

            I did not reply, but waited.

            "I know you probably meant it, but no more than you ever do when you tell me to piss off. I don't think…I don't think you hate me," he whispered, his words sounding anything but childish. I felt incredibly selfish then, suddenly recognizing his dependency on me. I was the only human he knew, the one who had more or less raised him after liberating him. I had made him dependent on me, dragging him on the Gods-forsaken mission, and if I cut him off all at once, he would be lost. It wasn't only out of affection for me that he stayed; it was out of need.

            But despite his supposed understanding, he still looked pained. "If what I said…was so disgusting to you…I'm sorry. I don't want to make you mad. But all the same," and his eyes met mine, narrowed, serious. He looked too grown-up to be Goku. "All the same, I think I oughta say it, and you oughta hear it, too." He reached out and gently cupped my hand, prying my fingers from a bloodied palm. My first reaction had been to jerk my hand away, but he held it fast, pressing the thin bones of my fingers to his lips. This time I won, and withdrew my hand with a sound of disgust. He winced.

            "Why can't you trust me?"

            His voice rang out despite the low ceilings of the room. It echoed inside my head, the start of a headache. I couldn't answer him because I didn't know how. How was I supposed to tell him I did trust him, when all the evidence piled up to the contrary? Why would he believe it was only them I didn't trust, when my reactions had been to him?

            "Sanzo," and he looked angry, not like Seiten Taisei, a mad, senseless fury, but like a Goku I hadn't seen before. "You pulled away from me like I was gonna hurt you."

            I scrambled for words, picking up those I could and letting them drop from my mouth in a croak. Only two, and I hadn't even known those were the words I selected until they had fallen from my lips.

            "I'm sorry."

            He was a little surprised, through all that anger and hurt, and he nodded slightly to acknowledge it.

            "Let me bandage your hand?" A peace offering, it seemed to be at the time. I nodded, sighing softly as he left and waiting in silence for his return with a roll of bandages and tweezers.

            For the next half hour we sat in an uncomfortable quiet; he would pluck tiny chinks of the sake cup from my hand, and I would blink at the sting. When he finished the tedious work, he rubbed a balm over my palm and bandaged it gently.

            His voice broke the air.

            "I know you just think I'm an annoying, stupid monkey, but I'd do anything for you, y'know that, don't you Sanzo?"

            Know, yes I know—I know what's coming, I thought, feeling my insides turn to stone, then knot painfully in a cramp of fear. Why was he pushing this on me? Why did he think I needed to hear it again?

             I couldn't handle this; I didn't want his petty declarations. Those were things Hakkai dealt with. I opened my mouth to shut him up, but nothing came out, and he got there before me.

            "I know you pretend to not even like me," and his voice was innocent now; he had returned to the Goku with whom I was familiar. But that Goku wouldn't be saying this. "But ever since you saved me, I've looked up ta' you, ya know. I wasn't just joking when I called you "Sun." It's not like I think you're holy or somethin'. You were my savior because you pulled me out of my prison, and you took away the quiet, and the dark."

            "Saru--"

            "No," he interrupted, shaking his head. I saw his knuckles were white, clenched about the loose fabric of the pants he slept in. "Let me say this."

            "You've said enough," I hissed in warning, but he growled angrily.

            "Let me finish it!"

            I quieted in a rare display of obedience.

            "I know why you got mad. Because you're scared to open up again. You're scared you're gonna need me too much, and you've never needed anyone, not since Koumyou died." If he saw the flash of pain in my eyes, he didn't pause for it, "but everybody needs somebody; why can't you accept that like the rest of the world? Do you think you're so much safer and happier for bein' all alone? If you're afraid I'm gonna leave you, you're stupid. I can't live without you, and you know it. If you abandon me, I can only exist. That's why I hadta say it, because you haveta hear it, Sanzo. I love you."

            He didn't move forward this time, and the guilt in my chest collapsed into a great lead weight in my lower stomach. I tried to rationalize.

            It was infatuation. He couldn't mean it. He didn't know what he loved. He clung to me because he was thankful that I saved him, and because he had nowhere else to go. He didn't love me.

            Leaning forward, the saru presumed to kiss me; he did it this time much more slowly, much more gently. Still, I began to pull back, but not quickly enough. His mouth brushed mine, and an ember-warm hand caught my cheek, stilling me. It was equally as much my fault for letting it happen, for letting him get so close.

            His eyes said, trust me.

            I panicked, eyes snapping open wide at the intimacy, breath coming fast and short. If I had been any weaker, I might have trembled. He didn't encase me in an embrace, but merely touched my shoulder, stroking it with his thumb. I pulled back with a shocked expression, looking at him as though he'd tried to run me through. I still admire him for not being wounded by my cruelty.

            "Sanzo…you've gotta trust me." He murmured. "I'm not your enemy. I care about you. More 'n anyone else," he breathed, leaning closer to my face, one palm up and open. "I see other things too, ya know…" His long lashes partially veiled his glowing amber eyes, and I tilted my head to better see them. "I know how you want things, jus' like everyone else does. There're feelings inside you that you've frozen, and you won't let them out. It's not bad to have them,

             don't you know that?"

            The sage child of a rock was educating me on what was bad and what was not? Stupid monkey, gambling with emotions. Assuming I had them.

            It was as if he were asking me for my indulgence, or my favor. Oh Sanzo, wouldn't it be okay if we could just…

            No, no, not okay. Nothing about that was okay. How the hell had he managed to slip under my defenses? But before I could begin my next sentence, I don't want

            I don't love

            I don't care…

            He kissed me again. Harder. Like he knew what I wanted.

            And I recognized too late the barrier I had put up against him was crumbling fast. How the hell had he managed to do that?

            He had worked in silence to chip away at it, erode it gradually without appearing to try at all. He'd slipped in closer to me than I'd ever let anyone—and suddenly I found that I trusted him implicitly, and that this trust had developed somewhere in time before I could notice it. But he had noticed it; he pulled it out of me like he plucked the glass shards out of my palm. Silently, delicately, tediously, and over a long period of time. I cared about him now, too much.

            Sensing this sudden flood as a crumbling damn broke inside me, he waited, letting me grasp at some rationale for what I was doing so that I wouldn't drown. Gradually his arms slid about my waist beneath the covers, pulling me close to his warmth. More of the ice was melting, deepening the turmoil and confusion of the flood. I held on tighter, and to my surprise, found that it didn't hurt.

            And just like that, I gave in.

            He kissed me, fully this time, and let me hold onto him. We fell back onto my pallet, and he made some sort of mewling noise that reminded me of Hakuryu, and seemed to indicate pleasure. He was impossibly warm, and that glowing skin drew me closer.

            It was obvious what he wanted, and I found myself wanting the same thing within the minute. I'd denied that desire, even to myself, for far too long to refuse it when it was presented to me. He was stroking me and devouring my mouth and tongue at the same moment, feeding the fire and melting the ice, dragging me into his perpetual summer.

             Righting myself and establishing our position—I wouldn't play uke, not even for him—I ground my hips against his, pressing my weight against his smaller form as our tongues warred. He tasted better than I had imagined, sweet, almost like honey, and he was so eager to please that he took to stroking my sweet spot—I'm not about to tell you where it is—the moment he encountered it.

            I blushed each time he gasped my name, but didn't endeavor to shut him up. We were both awkward, fumbling, and it was obvious neither of us had much experience. I feigned it, banished fear, and disrobed him first. I'll admit the sight of him splayed out naked beneath me, writhing against my slick robes, made me pant. His little gasps and grunts set my loins on fire, and in a swift motion I threw the rest of my robes off, tugging him close, our chests pressed together, to kiss him again.

            I don't put high value on physical displays of affection, especially kissing, which I still won't allow him to do to me in public. The only reason we kiss so much in bed is my infatuation with his tongue. I assume it's because he eats so frequently that he's mastered the use of that slick muscle. I'm not about to describe what he's done for me with it, but I'm sure you can extrapolate.

            It was hectic the first time, and over much too quickly. While we were both writhing against one another, while his hands were sliding down my chest and between my legs, I hadn't been able to think. Moments after the afterglow evaporated, reality came crashing down along with the cold.

            "Sanzo…" He moaned my name softly, turning over on the pallet and sliding up against my side. He draped the blankets over both of us, and made himself small in my arms. I was reluctant to hold him at first, and then grasped him so tightly that I wondered if I would be able to let go. He didn't mind it either way, only smiled at me.

            "I'm happy," his eyes told me. I felt an unfamiliar warmth in my chest at those words, and I leaned down to kiss him, tenderly. I wasn't very good at it; I'd never kissed anyone before. He didn't seem to notice, only responded with equal passion, strong arms linking about my neck. He tilted his face up so that I could see his eyes beneath dark lashes, fairly glowing in the dim light of the room.

            "I love you, Sanzo."

 

            After that, it was as though uncertainty had never happened. I accepted him into my bed any night he chose, which was most nights, and obliged him in whatever he wanted to do, whether it was to sleep close to me or be made love to. How could I not?

            We grew as close as my collapsing, though still present, barriers would allow. To the others in the temple we were unchanged. No one noticed his pristine, unused bedding each morning. No one ever heard his cries, or my muffled moans in our wing. We were safe, free from questions that would have been detrimental at the time. I was still feeling my way through new territory; Goku loved freely, without having to tear parts of himself open to feel. For me it was not so easy, but I pushed myself, for him. I saw how happy it made him when I smiled to him, or kissed him when we lay together afterwards.

            My insides were frozen, unable to sense, but Goku's fiery personality and body were thawing them out gradually. I had grown so comfortable in the frozen terrain of my mind, which seemed to be permanently fixed in winter, that I'd forgotten how summer felt. It felt like Goku.

            One frigid evening we laid together before a fire, tangled in blankets and each other. I was watching the mad flickering of yellow and orange tongues as they leaped up the stone sides of their prison and popped hunks of wood in frustration. I could almost feel the heat dancing over my skin in a similar pattern; sleep was nowhere near, but drowsiness was welcomed. My fingers slid unthinkingly through Goku's kinky mane, stroking out the rough auburn tufts. His warm cheek lay against my chest.

            "Sanzo."

            "Hm." It was more of a moan really.

            "Messenger said Gojyo n' Hakkai are comin' this week."

            "Maybe they'll get lost," I offered, face still turned to the fire.

            "I hope not," Goku continued, smiling softly, "I miss them, ya know. Even the stupid dirty cockroach."

            "You must be sick."

            "Ha, ha." He kissed the tip of my nose and smirked. "I'm glad we'll get to see them again. I owe Hakkai a thanks."

            I knew what he was referring to, and I shook my head. "Don't tell them."

            "What?" He looked hurt, and I felt a brief pang of guilt. Something I wouldn't have had to bother with back when I was numb. "Why not?"

            "Because that would lead to an incredibly awkward conversation." I said simply, not wanting to dip into the details of it. Of how the kappa would upbraid me for taking Goku, who he still saw as a child, and then the incessant, moronic badgering that would follow. Hakkai would probably just smile.

            "Why? Gojyo can't tease you anymore about being a—what's he call you? Cherry-chan? Why cherry?"

            Rather than explain it to him, I yanked on his hair. "No."

            "He always teases you about that though. Now he can't, right? You're not—uhh—cold anymore."

            He meant 'frigid,' but I didn't correct him, only gave his bushy mane another tug. Gojyo, and perhaps Hakkai too, had considered me to be frigid and unfeeling, befitting of a monk in their eyes, because they never knew me to take a lover. Well I never had, but that hardly meant I didn't wake up to the same urges they did every morning. It only meant I had better control over mine.

            Gojyo makes it seem as though I was incapable of feeling any form of desire, even physical. Not so. I simply didn't advertise as he did. I still pleasured myself—again, not as loudly as he—and usually to an image that invoked shame. It had never bothered me before, and in fact it had been agreeable, hovering in that icy limbo of sorts. I didn't have to feel emotion, and that left a lot less room for pain. Physical pain I've been trained to, and it hardly fazed me anymore. It was the other sort that turned me into a coward. I was in the deepest trenches of my life's winter season, and not anywhere near ready to come out.

            Goku was no spring, easing me from the frozen depths to thaw; he was summer, full and blazing, and so incredibly warm. I was jerked into his heat and cast as the sun, and there wasn't much more to it. He had me from our first kiss, and I think the little bastard knew it, too. I didn't mind being forced into summer though, so long as no one else has to know.

            "How about we don't tell them right away?" Goku suggested, trying to meet me half way and still get some sort of recognition for his victory. At least the kappa would view it that way. "We could wait," he continued, using his intoxicating scent and touch to further persuade me. "Izznot like they've gotta know right away…"      

            I rolled over him, pinning him to the blankets in a gentle kiss. That always surprised him, but this time it failed to shut him up. He returned the embrace for as long as I willed to hold it, and then continued, unabashed, as if he had never paused.

            "I jus' think that we oughta, ya know, since they're our friends. Well since Hakkai is, and it wouldn't be fair to make Hakkai keep a secret from Gojyo, since they're lovers. In love. Whichever."

            I rolled my eyes; the thought of that slimy water youkai pawing at Hakkai had turned me off for the time being. Sliding to his side, I rested my lips in his hair. It smelled like cinnamon and Goku. It never used to, until the monkey discovered my weakness for that spice.

            Goku sighed, displeased, but let it pass. "Okay, Sanzo. I won't say a word about it, if you don't want them to know," he promised, smiling softly at me with wide, amber eyes. I grunted my approval and we slid further into the covers, watching the fire die. I let him lie against me, arms about my waist, even though I didn't usually permit such intimacies. I still didn't much like being touched, especially in my sleep. But Goku craved closeness, and I was gradually acknowledging a give and take between us that hadn't existed before.

            "Jeez, Sanzo," Goku huffed, sliding his firm hands up my sides and over the front of my chest. "You're gettin' thin."

            "I wonder why. You're always snatching my food out from under my hands."

            "I am not!" Goku protested laughingly, flicking his tongue out along the indention of a rib. "But you are awful thin. You should eat more, y'know. Like me."

            "Humans can't handle the amount of food you inhale at every meal. Our gardens can barely sustain you."

            "Just promise me you'll try to eat a little more?" He wheedled, burrowing. He did this often, concerning himself with my health and state of being, and then panicking if he thought he heard me cough or shiver. It was like having a second Hakkai around, only this one was hyperactive and, by virtue of a versatile tongue, much more persuasive.

            "Will it shut you up?" I offered, and he nodded.

            "Fine then, yes. I promise."

 

            Gojyo and Hakkai arrived sooner than expected, and looking back, I was probably more civil to the hanyou than his behavior merited. I watched Goku out of the corner of my eye, willing him silently to avoid casual shows of intimacy of which he had grown fond. It wasn't as though I permitted that in regular situations either; none of the other monks knew. They only assumed he was an overly-friendly young man who had the courage to admire me at a proximity others did not dare. They never would have guessed foul-tempered Genjyo Sanzo was fucking the saru-youkai. And to maintain their state of ignorance, I deprived them of any possible evidence.

            Gojyo and Hakkai, however, did not. Had I not known of their relationship with one another prior to their arrival, I would have by the time they had walked up the long, winding path to the temple. It was winter, snow still heavy on the ground, when I saw a red and green dot circling up the ice-slicked base of the hill. An echoed curse reverberated in the air overhead, and Goku came bounding out in excitement.

            "They're here!" He crowed, practically bouncing in anticipation. Their gradual ascent must have been agonizing for him in his impatience. I rather liked staring down at them from a height. Gojyo especially.

            As they mounted the crumbling, glossy stone steps that looked as though they were covered in glass, Hakkai slipped. Gojyo snatched his hand quickly, hauling him up by pressing one enormous foot into the rough snow on the path to anchor his body.

            "Thank you," the healer murmured, smiling to him, standing next to him, much more closely than they used to. Gojyo gave his hand a not-so-surreptitious squeeze dusted a patch of ice from his thigh. The physical intimacy Hakkai allowed him, in public no less, amazed me.

            Goku was oblivious. "Hey you guys!"

            "Hey stupid ape," Gojyo was grinning, Hakkai smiling. "Wow lookit that. You grew."

            "I did?" Measuring himself against the redhead, Goku slammed his hand into Gojyo's back. "Lookit that, I'm like two inches higher!"

            "Must be all the rabbit food Baldy feeds you." I overheard this despite Hakkai's polite greeting. He thanked me for having them both at the temple, and promised to keep Gojyo under control. As if he could.

            "Hey Monk, where should I put this?" Gojyo held up his knapsack, bulging at the sides, and I realized it probably had Hakkai's things in it too.

            "Ungrateful lout," I scoffed, "you'll have a room."

            "Ungrateful?" Gojyo echoed, shaking his head. "Not so; I brought to your dry monastery the drink of the gods." He jerked the long neck of a beer bottle up from his pack, wiggling his eyebrows. "Monkey sent a message that you were out, and getting damn pissy about it."

            "We know you're not supposed to have alcohol on the grounds," Hakkai began courteously, smiling as he always did, "but we rather figured you wouldn't care."

            "Damn right," I muttered, snatching the bottle from the kappa's large hands and popping the lid with a callused thumb.

            "Can I have some?" Goku piped, sticking a curious hand into Gojyo's backpack only to have it slapped away.

            "Aren't you enough trouble without getting intoxicated?"

            "I could say the same thing about you, cockroach!"

            "Who're you callin' a cockroach, bean monkey?"

            "Ero-kappa!"

            "Garbage disposal!"

            "Ah it feels as though we're back on the road," Hakkai laughed hollowly and followed me inside, leaving his lover and mine to quarrel uselessly with each other. Hakuryu floated up behind him, kyuuing from his flight. Apparently he hadn't been getting the exercise he used to, toting us around.

            "How are you, Sanzo?" Hakkai asked me once the echo of our footsteps on stone became audible, and the hiss of the winter wind faded out.

            I shot him a curious look. "Fine."

            "Are you happy here?"

            He generally wasn't so direct with his questions; it made me wonder if that was a bit of Gojyo rubbed off on him.

            "I'm fine, I said." I opened the door to his room, and he thanked me, not entering.

            "I am glad to see you so content. Your eyes tell me that you're happy."

            "Then why th'hell did you just ask me?" I never did like his mind-games.

            "Because you're very good at lying, Sanzo."

            "Hey is that our room?" Gojyo asked, carrying a snow-speckled knapsack against his side; Goku trailed behind. We both turned to face him, and he smirked.

            "Pullin' out all the stops huh priesty? Oooh look Hakkai we even get a window."

            "Ungrateful bastard," I muttered good-naturedly, "lucky I'm not making you sleep in the snow with your kappa brethren."

            "If I have to return to nature, the monkey hasta go back to the zoo," Gojyo asserted, bringing his and Hakkai's bag in and resting it near the two bedrolls on the floor.

            "Stop callin' me monkey, you lousy cockroach!"

            "Oh do you smell that?" Hakkai interrupted, distracting the two for an instant. "It must be dinner."

 

            I sat through one hell of a messy dinner. Thankfully I had had the foresight to remove our small party from the central dining hall to a smaller table in my side quarters, Goku's bedroom. No one found it odd that there should be a table and chairs in there large enough to hold four entrees; it was Goku's room after all.

            "Stop hoggin' all the fish you greedy kappa. How do you know one of those isn't your uncle?"

            "Do you not get the difference between sprite and fish, little chimp? Maybe you only understand 'banana.'"

            Goku nearly bit his teasing hand off for that one, and I kept my gaze on Hakkai, trying to maintain civil conversation over the roar of their arguments. Hakkai was describing his and Gojyo's new house to me, making their relationship no secret to either of us, though never implicating himself in one role or the other. I guessed (and still do) that he played uke. I don't think Gojyo would do that for anything.

            "It's very pleasant, rather like the monastery here, cut off from the world. Of course it's not very far to town at all, especially in Hakuryu."

            The little dragon chirped his agreement from the corner, where Hakkai had settled him with a small dish of nuts and dried vegetables.

            Sensing my unease, Hakkai continued without pause; I was silently grateful to him for not making me hold up my end of the conversation. I would have been fine in silence, but his casual banter held the warring monkey and kappa at bay.

            "You're welcome to visit us any time you like. We have a guest bedroom that I'm sure Hakuryu wouldn't mind forfeiting for a night. And there's a lovely view of the surrounding woods; it's perfect in autumn."

            "Hey yeah, we should go Sanzo," Goku insisted, "and then Hakkai could make that stew he makes, y'know, the one with the potatoes and turnips and green beans an--"

            "Yes of course," Hakkai assured him. "It's good in the cold months. You should come to visit us before the spring thaw, and enjoy it."

            "Ya know I've never stayed the night in a house before," Goku mused aloud. "Inns, yeah, a monastery, obviously, but never a house. I guess I really consider this my house now, though."

            Waxing philosophic, he might have continued had Gojyo not spoken up. "Well come try it out," he said in an exceptionally generous burst of energy. "Hakkai's learned a buncha new recipes, since he's got th' guarantee of a working kitchen now."

            That convinced him. "Sanzo we haveta go visit," Goku insisted, looking for a nod or some signal of affirmation from me.

            "You don't need me to go visit them!" He had done it alone plenty of times before, though never for an extended period of time.

            "But we would like to have you," Hakkai said softly, his good eye locking with mine. He searched me briefly, able to peel back the layers of contention and arrogance beneath which I took shelter. For a second I swear he knew. But then again, if he had, would he have been so shocked later?

 

            After trying to rinse my headache away in the baths, I found myself relieved to stretch out beneath the covers of my pallet beside a murmuring fire and doze. Hakkai was fine company because he was quiet, but Gojyo was an acquired immunity. I had been away from him for months, and lost my resilience to his idiocy. It was slow in returning.

            It was strange to have the entire bed to myself, but I was comfortable sprawling out between the sheets, not worried about rolling over onto Goku, or visa versa. He was in his own room for a change, using a pallet that hadn't been slept in for at least two weeks straight. I found the silence unsettling, after having adapted myself to the soft, husky noise of his breathing beside me.

            My mind, in its sleepy state, began to drift back four years, and I saw the frosty granite tower of Goku's prison. Despite the warmth of the bathwater still lingering on my skin, and the snapping fire mere feet from the bed, I shuddered.

            You couldn't have been here five hundred years.

            I don't know. How long is five hundred years?

            I pressed my eyelids shut tightly, feeling the pale lashes press against my cheek bones. My memory progressed without my will, flickering to selected images of our journey together, the four Ikkou, over a long period of four years. Four years meant I was twenty-seven, and too damned close to thirty. It meant Goku was twenty-two, a year younger than I when we began the journey. It was difficult for me to think of him in that way (even if he was really five hundred twenty-two), because sometimes, when he wasn't looking up at me from our pillow, I still saw him as the child he was when I smashed the stone bars of his cage.

            It was this memory in particular that led me down into sleep. Its living form brought me back.

            "Sanzo."

            He was kneeling on the cold tile beside the pallet, shaking my shoulder lightly. He had come in through the adjoining bathroom; both doors were still open. 

            "Hey Sanzo."

            "What?" My voice was harsher than I intended; I wasn't angry, or even all that tired. I had gotten used to being disturbed in the night, and finally trained myself out of the habit of pushing a gun into the face of my aggressor.

            "I can't sleep."

            "Go eat."

            "It's not that. I'm not used to being alone anymore. This place is creepy."

            "It's not creepy." I informed him.

            "It's haunted."

            "What the hell, you stupid monkey?" I sat up, propping myself up with my left arm. "You've killed youkai with teeth the size of your head, and you're afraid of ghosts?"

            He nodded. "Yeah. They make creepy sounds, and you can't kill them. 'Cause they're already dead, Sanzo." His wide eyes made me laugh.

            "Bakasaru; you're probably only hearing Hakkai and Gojyo at it."

            "I think I know what a ghost sounds like." He said it so seriously that I made myself bite back a cruel smirk.

            "What are you proposing?"

            "Can't I sleep here with you? It's not like they're gonna know."

            I gave into his logic more easily than I should have, lifting the covers and letting him crawl in with me. His thanks were returned with a neutered "ch."

            We dozed comfortably; I made him keep his distance, sleeping with my back to his, so that in case one of our "guests" happened to wander in I could at least escape the embarrassment of being found sleeping with my arms about the little twerp. As irony would have it, by the end of the night I would have been content if that was all they saw.

            I was gradually awakened an hour or so later by smooth, warm hands trailing down my back. I growled at Goku to back off, jerking forward and taking the covers with me.

            "Aw c'mon Sanzo. I went an' listened in th'hall, and no one's up. Just us."

            "Just you." I took shelter beneath a pillow.

            "But we do this every night." He reminded me, palms still on my back. I found myself wishing I had worn more to bed; the robe was too thin, and beneath it there was nothing guarding my skin from his clever hands.

            "What part of 'no' don't you understand?"

            "The why part."

            "Shut up."

            "Will you at least gimmie a kiss?"

            "No," I hissed, jerking up in the bedding and turning over; the covers cocooned about my hips and legs. I felt a sudden thrill of icy night air as the bunching blankets tugged the sides of my robes down and apart, baring a streak of pale skin between the thin lapels. It was difficult to tell where my body began and the robe ended; they were so similar in color, with the cold especially. Goku's skin, on the other hand, contrasted sharply with the snow-white sleeping robe; his burnt, bronze flesh seemed to glow against the pale, chaste color of the gown. I shouldn't have turned around.

            "How come you're so embarrassed of me?"

            "We've had this discussion before. Don't use that line to bait me."

            He pouted, which had perhaps more disastrous effects, and as his shoulders slumped, the robe slid off of them, baring firm, smooth skin. I cursed myself for averting my eyes; he, of course, noticed. I coughed and formed an expression of annoyance, and the monkey leaned close before I could lie down again, letting the thin cloth drip off of his shoulders and arms.

            "C'mon I'm cold. Just lemme sleep against you like we usually do."

            I hadn't realized it had become habit; I was getting soft. And in all the wrong places. "No. One night is no sacrifice; I let you stay in here with me, be content with that."

            He pretended to be, for a while. As I was feigning sleep with steadied breath, he ducked under the covers. I ignored what I believed was a ploy for attention, and heaved a mental sigh. Convincing or not, my act fell to pieces when I felt the teasing tips of coarse hair brushing against my thighs. He pushed my robe up and open, and to my great humiliation, when I opened my mouth to curse him for it, only a choked moan emerged.

            The little bastard had his palm cupped at the junction of my legs, stroking with practiced expertise. He knew where all of my sensitive spots were by now, and exploited them to his advantage as I writhed at his mercy.

            Son of a bitch.

            I told him to stop, but only once, and not in a very convincing manner. How had he managed to unravel my will power so easily? No one else had ever come close, but Goku…he made it look like child's play, and me like a wanton. I kicked the covers off and grasped a fistful of hair, jerking him up to eyelevel and pulling him into a kiss.

            "No need for that," I breathed, wrapping a leg about his waist as I drew him closer. He beamed, victor for the night, and allowed me to push him over onto his back in the messed pile of sheets and covers. I was already eager for him, and his little murmurs and gasps as I adjusted our bodies only encouraged me to move more quickly.

            It was cold, and for that I am grateful. I had draped a light sheet over both of us, knowing that the friction from our bodies wouldn't suffice, and unlike a blanket, a sheet would not hamper movement. Our torsos I kept bare. My hands were gliding down his form, silently admiring the slender figure, muscles taut beneath warm, glowing flesh. We kissed, long and hard, the way we always did, and I drew our foreplay out, extending it with kisses to his throat and chest, always returning to his fiery mouth. He tasted like cinnamon.

            "Sanzo…" When he moaned my name like that, I couldn't refuse him anything. I kissed his fingertips and wrists, the raised vein at his elbow, the pulsing jugular at his throat. Lost in his warmth and the slick, velvet texture of his tongue, my body moved of its own accord, finding small relief against his thigh as he reveled in the simplicity of a kiss.

            It was then that a nearby clatter and crash separated us; I leapt up and off of him, the sheets crumpling about my waist. He was quick to jerk the quilt up to his chin, golden eyes as wide as mine were narrowed. Through the open doors of the bath, in Goku's chambers, we both glowered at an astonished, plate-eyed kappa. There was a broken oil lamp at his feet.

            "Holy…fuck," he breathed, his astonishment paralyzing even me for a moment. Only a moment. I had my revolver in hand soon enough, and had it not been for his realization of that, he would be dead. I emptied a round into the wall in a downward arc, following him as he dove to the floor and rolled out of the way. Before I could reload, he had gone dashing to Hakkai for sanctuary. Barely bothering to tie my robe after piling bullets into the pistol, I took off after him. Goku was scrambling into his clothes and following after me, pleading the kappa's case. I didn't care. That perverted son of a bitch had been standing there—how long? I didn't know. I still don't really.

            "Kappa!" I snarled, shoving his and Hakkai's door open; he was kneeling on the edge of their pallets, which had been pushed together, and the healer was staring at me with equally wide eyes. I unloaded another round in Gojyo's direction, deterred by Goku's hand yanking on my arm and wrecking my aim.

            "What the fuck do you think you were doing you perverted son of a bitch!" Gun empty, I used it to give weight to my fist, slamming it into his gut before he could take a step back. Also before he could answer.

            "Sanzo!" Goku whined, hovering behind me.

            The kappa had to die.

            Gojyo coughed and held his middle, looking up at me from where he sat on the floor. "I swear I didn't know!" He protested, panting softly. "I came in to get the monkey—I didn't know you'd be screwing him! I wouldn'ta come in I swear," the sprite vowed, rising to his knees. I was visibly trembling with anger, and he had the nerve to open his damned mouth again.

            "Just…Sanzo…it was unexpected, 'sall."

            "Bastard!" I lunged, and Hakkai intervened, taking the brunt of the blow and asking Goku for help in dragging us apart. I was intent on killing him for that.

            "What th'hell's wrong with you man!" Gojyo gasped, struggling against Goku's hold. "It's not like I was spying! I was barely there a second!"

            "Sanzo please no murder in a temple," Hakkai reminded me peaceably, his iron grip a strong contrast to the silky tone of his voice.

            Another half hour saw us somewhat settled, though I had managed three more decent punches to the hanyou's jaw, raising a bruise beneath the scars of his left eye.

            I went back to bed, alone, and locked the doors. When morning came I set about my usual duties outdoors, despite the cold, and avoided them at breakfast. At lunch too, so that I thought I might not have the misfortune of running into anyone until the evening meal. I moved swiftly down the stone halls to my office, prepared to finish the evening with paperwork, and halfway through my workload, there was a knock at the door.

            "Come in." I thought it might be one of the younger monks bringing tea or pleading some small favor. I frowned deeply when I saw Hakkai on the other side, a false smile plastered across his face.

            He considerately closed the door behind him.

            "What do you want?"

            "Do you think you could put your work down?"

            I did so deliberately, staring up at his bright green eye, challenging him. He took a seat in front of me, lips falling into a neutral state. A verbal game of ping-pong had been initiated.

            "Do you always spend your evenings like this?" He served.

            "When I have to." I hit it back.

            "Are you usually absent from morning meals as well?" His smooth transition was no curveball for me.

            "Usually." I countered.

            "Don't you get lonely?"

            "You should know better than to ask me that. What the hell do you want, Hakkai? Say it."

            "Why were you hiding what you had with Goku, Sanzo?" It came out in the same tone as all of his former questions.

            "Why the fuck do you think?"

            "If I had the slightest idea, I wouldn't be asking you." That false smile did not return. He didn't look angry, but perhaps aggravated. I couldn't have cared less.

            "It's not your business."

            "Fair enough; it's not. But you attacked Gojyo last night, and he did nothing to you."

            I stared at him, wide-eyed at his statement. Nothing?

            "He didn't," Hakkai repeated, as if he thought I might not have understood his wording. "I sent him to fetch Goku to play mahjong, because we heard him pacing in the halls. He was not aware the doors would be open, or that you would be…otherwise engaged."

            I colored, played it off as anger, and began my paperwork again.

            "Sanzo,"

            "This conversation is over."

            "It's not really a conversation; you're hardly talking at all," Hakkai pointed out, his gentle tone never altering.

            "Why the hell can't you just drop it?!"

            "Why should it be embarrassing to you? Don't you think that your apparent humiliation wounds Goku? You can't keep him your lover in secret, and your servant in public. He is your equal, Sanzo."

            "I know that," I snapped, my quill snapping in half in my hand.

            "He doesn't. He's hurt by your reaction. As if you were disgusted that others knew."

            If it had been anyone else, even Hakkai, who had walked in, I wouldn't have been half so furious. It was that damned kappa, always looking down at me, as though his youkai half made him superior. Reminding me of my human weakness. He disgusted me. And now he knew.

            "What goes on between Goku and me is not your affair."

            "I know. I've overstepped my boundaries--"

            "You have."

            "--and I'm sorry."

            I stared at him.

            "It was an honest mistake, Sanzo. And it isn't as though either of us is disturbed by your relationship. I always suspected you would recognize his love for you eventually, though I'll admit I underestimated your perceptivity." He smiled gently. "I am very happy for you both."

            "Cut the shit out, Hakkai."

            He gave me a questioning glance.

            "We're not like you and the ero-kappa." I said flatly. "Not lovers."

            "No?" He was smiling as though he knew something. Smug, proud of his reasoning and deduction. I hated it when he did that. "I didn't know 'not lovers' kissed so passionately," he teased, the corner of his lip quirking. I might have shot him.

            "I see the filthy halfling has employed his usual amount of tact."

            "Of course," Hakkai chuckled, "he hasn't told anyone else. Only me. I was rather curious, you know. Not of the details, but rather of the overall content. I knew of Goku's adoration for you since the last year of our journey, and I wondered when he would…communicate this to you." His tone told me that he thought himself awfully keen.

            "Ch."

            "Was last night your…ah…first night, together?"

            This made my mouth twist up in a smirk. "Not that it's any of your affair," I stood, pushing my chair back and walking to the door. "But I've been fucking him for weeks."

            I left just in time to see Hakkai's face flush brightly at the thought, but avoid any further interrogations. I saw Gojyo in the hallway and brushed past him, ignoring the small sound of his throat opening, the beginning of another conversation I didn't want to be involved in.

 

            They got used to the idea during their week's stay, and aside from the usual, perverted jokes from Gojyo, it didn't change anything. Well, Goku and I were freer to be active during the morning hours. It wasn't as though Hakkai and Gojyo weren't. For some reason unbeknownst to the logical, Gojyo began to demonstrate overt affection for Hakkai, sometimes physical affection, in public. It was as if he thought, because of what he had seen, it was suddenly acceptable for him to kiss and stroke Hakkai in front of me. I made sure to abuse him for it regularly, to train him out of the habit.

            The monkey, I am pleased to say, matched Gojyo insult for insult, joke for joke. I had my share of beating him with the harisen or splashing him with scalding tea when a joke became particularly vulgar. Or if I was in a bad mood.

            The last evening we stayed up late into the night playing mahjong, two of us drunk, the other hyper from cocoa, which had been Hakkai's idea.

            "We should play a drinking game," Gojyo suggested, shrugging off my glare. Goku cheered his agreement, and Hakkai laughed hollowly.

            "I think we all know who's gonna win," the kappa continued, smiling none too subtly to his lover, "but it'd still be…interesting." He winked broadly at me, and I tossed a shot glass at his head.

            "Pissant."

            "What th'hell Baldy? You scaredta lose?"

            "I'm not playing your stupid game."

            "Why not? You and monkey goin' ta bed early?"

            Hakkai winced before anything happened, and then again after I had finished beating the redhead fiercely with the harisen. Goku laughed uproariously, and Hakkai handed the kappa a glass of whisky that they had snuck in.

            "A'right, fine, fine," Gojyo rubbed his head with a roll of his crimson eyes, stretching long, lanky arms up into the air. "S'go ta bed then, old man. I knew from the minute you told me you liked ramen soggy that you were fit to be a priest. Bedtime before midnight, even on the weekends."

            Hakkai made a gesture of warning that the kappa missed.

            "Monkey, ya might haveta trade him out come May," the redhead continued, smirking until I brought the harisen back down, once over each shoulder, then thrice atop his head. He swore at me as we left, Goku chattering incessantly about the "dirty kappa" until we arrived in my room. Our room.

            That night I reassured Goku that he wouldn't need or have time for another lover. And I made sure we made enough noise that the damn kappa heard it too.

 

            They left. Snow melted. Sakura trees bloomed. And things generally stayed the same. Goku had fallen into a routine that suited him well, and didn't bother me. The others accepted him still, even though I was fairly certain a few of them had figured out why his bed sheets were never messy despite his obvious behavioral patterns. But even those who were wary of him, his heritage as a youkai saru, said nothing of it to his face. They seemed well aware that their high priest would just as soon blow their heads off than sit down and explain Goku's relative safety to them.

            I simply told them that he belonged to me, and would remain at Chang'an. No one questioned for the longest time, until early June, when monks from a distant temple in Song'la came visiting to meet with Chang'an's sutra-bearing Sanzo.

            I knew at once, when I went to meet them, that they disapproved of a youkai's lodging in a Buddhist temple. So did the rest of the world. It wasn't that which bothered me. It was Goku's reaction to them. He seemed unusually distrustful and distanced himself as often as was possible without letting me out of his sight.

            I demanded an answer that night, and all I received was, "I don't trust them, Sanzo." I asked him why, and he couldn't say. He had never met them, nor had he heard of them. I know now to trust his instinct.

            But at the time I played it off, keeping no closer a watch on the pilgrims than on any of the other monks. I think I must have gone lost some sixth sense I had picked up during the journey, but I gained it back after this episode. I couldn't afford to risk losing my perceptivity again. 

            Waiting late the night or two after the pilgrim's arrival for Goku to come to bed, I was surprised when he didn't. He was never late, especially when I had been in at least a partially good mood throughout the entire day. I foolishly held off from searching for him, out of pride, I suppose, for an hour. By then I knew something was wrong—he was sick, at best—and I dressed, tucking my gun away within my robes, to search for him.

            The monastery betrayed no sign of him, and upon asking Topo, the only one who ever stayed up past midnight, he reported that he hadn't seen Goku, and that the pilgrims had, strangely, left about an hour ago. It took as broad a hint as that to spark the worn flint of my mind. I had permitted myself to become too trusting; no good.

            I left the monastery after double checking my Smith & Wesson for bullets; following them was easier than I had anticipated, though I think part of me knew exactly where they would have gone. It wasn't far from the temple, and I knew the way by heart, because it had been by that path that I had been called by Goku in the first place, years ago.

            They couldn't kill him if he didn't want to be killed—Seiten Taisei wouldn't allow for it—but Goku knew that if he killed, he would never be permitted back at Chang'an. Even the word of a Sanzo wouldn't override a youkai who slaughtered Buddhist pilgrims. And he knew I wouldn't be welcome there either. The stupid little monkey put too much value on my love for Chang'an, if he even allowed them to carry him off this way. To take him there.

            I would rather leave then have to find him there again.

            When I had mounted the hill, the hems of my robe splattered in spring mud and decked with crumpled sakura blossoms, my eyes had already adjusted well to the dark. The moon was a thin nail of a crescent, nothing prominent enough to see by. I felt a familiar flicker of communication between us, the way it used to be, where I could feel his thoughts because I couldn't hear them. Terror gripped me, and not my own. I decided then, following a well-trodden path, that if I found him behind the bars of the cage that had held him for so long, I would shoot every one of them.

            Unless you know me well, you might think that I made this decision without sufficient forethought, in haste, even. But if I didn't do this, they would only come back for him. I couldn't let him live in fear of ever having to return to that cage; his soul was clean, and free, despite what he thought of Seiten Taisei's bloody blemishes. I had taken him out and taken on the responsibility of protecting him, and I wasn't going to let him suffer.

            I didn't have to look for them long; the youngest, shaved head half covered with a hooded robe, announced himself. "Lord Sanzo! You've come!"

            "Which one of you did this?" They looked relieved by my calm tone and the lack of rage behind it. Hakkai and Gojyo would have recognized the severity it implied. The youngest one who had addressed me stepped forward.

            "All of us, Sanzo-sama." He bowed slightly. "That demon was deceiving you, Lord. Perhaps your enlightened soul was unable to be touched by its evil, but this is the saru-youkai who the Gods themselves entrapped here centuries ago! We owed your monastery at least this much for hosting us."

            I peered into the shadows of the familiar outcropping, past the rocky bars and slump of the ceiling. For a long time I didn't see anything, and then two narrow, golden slits flickered back at me. I thought they might belong to Seiten Taisei, but when they widened in a curious mixture of fear and relief, I recognized them instantly. He pulled into himself, arms about his slender legs, and the glint of his eyes vanished again.

 

            He awoke the hour before dawn, head resting on my pillow. I hadn't left his bedside since.

            "Sanzo?"

            "Saru." I leveled my gaze at him, one hand combing lightly through his kinky mane. He sat up and blinked hard. I knew then that he didn't remember; whether he had blocked it out subconsciously or simply been too maddened by his capture to recall it in a calmer state, I did not know. My memory played it all again in jolting, striking images against the insides of my eyes. I broke the familiar granite bars, and they crumbled with a gravelly voice of complaint. Goku hadn't leapt out, but rather I had taken two steps back and waited for at least five minutes for him to edge his way in my direction. I had never seen such terror in his eyes before; it had made my empty stomach twist and pull itself into a painful knot, having to watch him that way. It didn't seem natural to see Goku scared; he was the only one of us, really, who was never truly afraid. To see him weakened—and by monks—made my conscience bleed.

            But now he did not remember. He didn't recall the breathless sob the wind plucked from his lungs and lips as he collapsed, gripping my robes, wrapping his arms about my knees in the manner of a supplicant. He was murmuring something over and over in a low, breathy tone that I couldn't make out; I heard it in my head, instead. 

            Please don't put me back.

            No. I won't.

            "Sanzo I don't remember a lot." His voice shattered the disproportionate images in my mind, filing the sharp, painful angles and flattening the curves. It had been too dark to remember color; only his eyes.

            "Well enough, that way," I murmured, letting him sit up all the way.

            "Have you been here all night?" He looked up with Goku-eyes again, almost smiling at me.

            "Yes." I reached to touch his shoulder; after we had become lovers, I had slowly begun to associate physical intimacy, even a light touch, with emotion.

            His pinched, breathless voice stopped my hand in mid air. "I don't want to go back."

            "You won't." I didn't put any special emphasis on it, or elaborate to further persuade him. I spoke as I always did, so that he would know it was the truth.

            "I'm scared to go back." I though his voice might crack in his throat and emerge broken and sob-ridden.

            "You won't—saru," I shook my head in confusion, "why didn't you just take them out? Why the hell would you let them put you in there?" I was afraid of the answer I would receive, and felt my insides crack with ice when he gave it me.

            "If I killed them, they'd make me leave the temple," he said quietly. "Take you away from me. And they might do something to you too."

            "You think I can't take care of myself?" I detested the trembling, throaty quality of my voice. Where did he get off suffering for me? Indebting me to him?

            "I didn't want them to hurt you."

            "You're a stupid monkey."  I embraced him, drawing his body close and kissing his warm hair, his forehead and temples. "Bakasaru. You think I wouldn't follow you?"

            He shook in my arms, and I pulled him closer to my chest, kissing his warm skin and pressing our foreheads together. He kissed my lips, barely, a brushing touch.

            I laid down beside him, letting him sleep unusually close, and then permitted him to wind my arms about his chest as the night wore on. He knew better than to thank me, but the words were implicit. When I thought he was asleep, his voice almost startled me.

            "Sanzo."

            "What?"

            "You killed them, didn't you?"

            "Yes."

 

            The other monks never found out, because no one went up to that mountain top, and no one contested my explanation that they had left in the early morning to a nearby temple of Kuan Yin. "They required cleansing," I told them, and my sudden religious turn was pleasing and accepted.

            Goku was never forced to leave; it became, within the next year, all the more evident that where I went, he went. All of the others knew that in ridding themselves of a youkai, they would lose their high priest as well.

            And as for me, my burn marks have healed. I'm almost proud of them, and of myself, for surviving a battle I had thought for so many years would be my undoing. I freed Goku from his physical cage, and brought him into the light. The saru freed me in return from winter, albeit unwillingly, and dragged me into the scalding air of his summer. The warmth burned me at first; it was frightening. I would duck into shadows to avoid confronting such a blinding, trusting light like his. But it pleases me now, and I don't shy away from its approach anymore. Sometimes, in fact, I walk to it.

 

Emerald Spring

 

I'll miss your love, I'll miss your touch, but this holding on it hurts too much
Now its my turn to walk away... I'll be okay.

Try to not think about you
I'm not a dead man walkin' without you
You know I'll be alright
I'm showing signs of life

 

You left me barely breathing

I've had time for the healing

And now I've opened my eyes

I'm showing signs of life.

-Journey Signs of Life

 

 

            They say spring is the time of regeneration, rebirth, and renewal. The fair, weak green foliage bursting forth from gnarled bark has inspired more literature than a man cares to read. But what writers can't communicate, and readers can't comprehend, is that one cannot truly experience spring without having gone through winter first. Without the experience of a soul-numbing winter, the bright warmth of spring, cracking through the ice, cannot truly be appreciated. Frankly, the season of renewal is lauded because what precedes it is abhorred.

            I've come to believe every person experiences a full change of the seasons within his or her lifetime, at least once. Gojyo once told me that he was in his lazy summer when we met, and I pulled him towards his autumn, and the shedding of his old ways. Touched by his attempt at metaphor, I admitted that I would not be in the spring of my life now—not living at all, in fact—if it weren't for his rescuing me from a bitter winter. And it wasn't just saving my life. Anybody could have done that. Gojyo saved me, and I remind him of that often, in thanks. It makes him uncomfortable, and so recently I have replaced my thanks with gestures or looks. He knows what I mean when I kiss him that way.

            We're very content, spring and autumn, living within the same household. We're in different places, but that doesn't mean we can't love each other. It only means we were born into different seasons.

            I didn't intend to carry this allegory so far; all I really mean to say is that we work well together, he and I, and neither of us would be where we are now if it weren't for the other. But I still contend that it is I who carries the greater debt.

            When we first realized that we had to be together, it was partially because neither of us would be content to be without the other's presence in our everyday lives. Perhaps it was the effect of the journey; our experiences were unique, and we had known no one else who had seen and suffered what we had. Amiable glances, at the close of our unholy pilgrimage, became tender touches, evolved into embraces and kisses. I remember the first night he came to me; it was calm and clear outside, smoky indoors. I was on the veranda of a rather spacious inn and fading out, as he calls it now, by remembering too much. I knew it wasn't healthy—no more than Gojyo's chain smoking was when he fell into the rut of depression—and now we both help balance each other out and steer one another from falling in too deep. It's not to say we've stopped; he still smokes and broods, and I still remember. But we hold each other up.

            Sanzo and Goku had gone to bed—Sanzo almost-drunk, and Goku stuffed from rice cakes and meat buns. I smelled the familiar scent of Hi-Lites tobacco before I heard his footsteps. He can be very quiet when he wants to be.

            "Hey, 'Kai." That nickname evolved somewhere along the road; I can't recall a time or place.

            I turned to face him, leaning against a painted pillar, and flicked a spare smile in his direction. He dropped his cigarette and snuffed it out with his foot. By this time we had both recognized that there was something between us, but neither had been brave enough to name it, or test its boundaries. Naturally it was Gojyo who acted first. His bold, daring behavior has and will always astonish me. He is a marvel, in my way of thinking, and it's not confidence or pride either, but rather the willingness to risk, put himself in the open, be vulnerable to assault. I am not that courageous.

            "What're you thinking about?"

            "Not a lot," I confessed, embarrassed at having been caught slipping by my best friend. Sometimes that happened; I would remember first in shards of images, and they would add up, and suddenly I would see blood on my hands and a pair of panicked green eyes that looked too much like my own…

            "Hakkai." His voice brought me out of it again, and I found he had moved closer. Much closer. "Don't do this to yourself." He reached into his pocket for a cigarette, but paused, remembering whom he was with, and the Hi-Lite he had already extinguished. "I knew you'd be out here."

            "Did you?"

            "Yeah. It's the half moon."

            I looked up to the sky to confer, and indeed an evenly split pearl gleamed back through wispy clouds. "Yes it is," I agreed.

            "You don't notice it, do you?"

            "Notice what? The moon…?" I wasn't following his reasoning, but his intense gaze promised an explanation to follow.

            "It's every half-moon night that you get like this. You get quiet, and your eyes get dark. I hate to see you like that."

            "Gojyo, that's not true. If I recall last month at this time, we were at a bar--"

            "Yeah," he agreed, hand itching to dive into his pocket, but stopping and resting on the railing of the veranda; he leaned beside me, head turned to the left; slumped, he was my height. "And month before that, you were getting that way too. So we went out to that little casino joint and you won a handful."

            I understood, and his consideration and observance made me smile. And that wasn't the first time that he had detected my pain and strove to erase it. "Thank you. I never noticed." My brows furrowed in thought. "I suppose it...just happened."
            He nodded, gently brushing the back of his hand over mine that had been resting on the railing. My eyes met his again, and his fiery lashes lowered over widened pupils. "Was it like this the night she died?" He asked me softly.

            "Yes," I answered without thinking, knowing, without knowing the date, that it was. A half-moon night. How had I never understood it?

            "I'm sorry."

            "Gojyo…"

            "I am, though." He moved closer yet, giving my hand a gentle squeeze. "I really hate," his voice rose from a whisper, passion mounting in his throat, "that you carry this with you. You don't deserve to. It's not your fault, what happened. Anyone woulda..."

            But that was just the problem; anyone wouldn't have massacred a village. I felt his hand squeeze mine again. "You got hurt," his voice was strained, "and you're still hurting. But I think…" He swallowed hard, "I think that, to heal, you'd do a lot better if you weren't on your own."

            "Gojyo I'm never on my own."

            "Yes you are. You're with us, but we've all got wounds healing. It would be easier if we could help each other out, you know. I want to help you out."

            I was, once again, unsure of what he was proposing. Or at least I willed myself to be. "Gojyo?"

            "Hakkai I care a lot about you," he continued, unfazed by my perplexed expression. "A lot. You're the first real friend I've ever had. The first person I really—care about," he fidgeted a bit, and dropped my hand, picking it back up within the minute.

            "I want you to know that I'm here for you. Whenever you need me, and whatever for."

            "Thank you Gojyo." His promise was a generous one, and I had been truly grateful. When he embraced me, I took it as another display of his loyalty and kindness. Gojyo had always had the tendency to express himself physically; kappa were generally very sensual creatures.

            When he pulled away though, it wasn't entirely. His arms were still loosely about my waist, and when I felt a wide, callused palm cupping my jaw, I understood. Gojyo is really more complex, more multifaceted, than his peers give him credit for. For all his complaints that I am like a Rubex cube, he's very much a puzzle himself.

            When he kissed me it wasn't a shock, nor did it bring about uncontrollable waves of passion. It just felt right. As if I was meant to be pressed close to him, his hands on my cheek, in my hair, his mouth dominating my own. It felt good; he felt good. I think he was a little surprised that I didn't pull away, and I know, by his hitching breath, that he was shocked when I returned his kisses.

            I let him lean against me, pressing my spine into the wooden pillar, and permitted my arms to snake about his neck, my fingers to tangle in his hair. I hope he read it as acceptance, rather than the sick fascination others seemed to have with the sin born unto him. Soft breaths, poorly articulated words, and a little moan filled the empty air. He slid his wide palms down my sides and then up my back, touching me as I pulled closer. I could feel that for him the contact had become more than emotional, and that was not unusual, given his physical tendencies. He expressed himself as much through touch as I did through words; it was merely a manner of translating. 

            "Gojyo..."

            "Kai?" He pulled away, kissing my forehead softly, then the back of my hand, each knuckle individually. "I just didn't know how to tell you, I guess." He shrugged, blushing in embarrassment. "I love you, ya know."  And there he had done it again; he had gone out on a limb and expressed himself the hard way, my way, and was waiting for my answer. I responded to him in his own tongue, drawing him into a heated, novice kiss, arms slipping about his neck again with a sigh of pleasure. He embraced me tightly and maintained the kiss until we were both breathless.

            We slept in the same bed that night, his arms wrapped about my waist, lips in my hair, against my neck. We didn't make love. I think he sensed that would have been too much too soon. After that, communication between us was a mixture of both of our preferences. My smiles and words were genuine, and he would do more than accidentally brush my shirt sleeve on his way over Hakuryu's sides and into the backseat. We were not obvious, but I perceive that Sanzo knew. We began rooming together exclusively, taking it for granted each night that we would share a tent, or a bed. He taught me to kiss again—the "proper" way, he assured me, but considerately kept the rest of his lessons on hold until the end of our journey.

            The decision to live together wasn't actively made; it was just a given that we could not be separated. Neither of us expected that Goku and Sanzo would part either. Buying a house and settling in made me feel as though I were finally setting down roots, establishing myself somewhere. With someone. And Gojyo still felt right; we spent the first night exhausted from the move, lying on a blanket beneath the patch of sky over our own backyard. It was nice to know that one small part of the world belonged to us, and we reveled in it. The second night, he took me to bed.

            I'm embarrassed to say that it had been five years since I had become intimate with anyone, and I fear I was an insufficient release after his weeks of celibacy. He, needless to say, lived up to every self-propagated rumor. His tenderness, his care, took me by surprise. I had expected patience, but not such blatant devotion and willingness to do things my way.

            It was after the consummation of a long-recognized commitment that we began to learn about each other in a wholly different way. I knew his soul, his past, every scar on his body and mind, and he knew mine. Now we were learning the smaller things, little preferences outside of cigarette brands that had gone unnoticed before. We were doing things backwards I suppose, diving into the deep end of the lake and swimming to the shallow, though we never intended to climb out completely.

            The first thing I noticed didn't surprise me in the least: his openness. Gojyo was not easily embarrassed, and while some would call it immodest, I call it being comfortable with oneself. He was open, honest, and hid nothing from me. What I asked, he would answer. He was wholly unguarded around me, his defenses even more lax than they had been during our journey together. We moved in during the summer months, and Gojyo was fond of walking about half-dressed, or, if he had just woken up, completely naked. He never slept in clothing; he claimed he was a warm sleeper, and had a naturally higher body temperature. I didn't mind it in bed, but scolded him for coming to the breakfast table without a stitch. I played the hygiene card, but that wasn't the whole of it.

            Unlike Gojyo, I slept in long-sleeved pajamas, baring only my feet and my hands. During insufferable nights of humidity, I allowed myself to reduce my sleeping attire to pants and a tank top, but never any less. I suppose I was jealous of his open nature, his ability to demand acceptance boldly, and not care whether it was given in the end or not.

            He seemed offended by what he called my "modesty" at first. The only time I ever allowed him to see even my upper half bared was when we were intimate, when his lips skimmed over the central reason for my concealment: the scar running up my left side. It wasn't as though he had never seen it; he was the one who fixed it. But I was the one who made it, and it was, for me, a source of disgrace.

            I had other "hang-ups" as Gojyo called them, stemming from my past. He had done away with most of his, but I was slower in my progression. I believe it insulted him, and perhaps even hurt him, that I was not particularly vocal in bed. He always was, speaking my name, or murmuring incoherently in the heat of things. I wasn't silent, but I never called out to him or made enough noise to be heard through the walls.

            I originally passed it off as instinct; sometimes, and this was true, I still felt that Sanzo and Goku were sharing the room next to ours, and I didn't want a grumpy monk the next morning. Except that wasn't the case, and my habit didn't die down over time. I was embarrassed to make noise, and a part of me still felt that it was wrong to be allowing myself any pleasure at all. I still carried immense guilt, and sometimes afterwards, during the first few weeks, my mind would flash back to Kanan, and I would feel pangs of remorse great enough to drive me from our bed for days under flimsy pretences. To his credit, Gojyo was very understanding.

            That phase did pass within the first few months of our living together, but his attempts to coax me into open acceptance, vocal acceptance and enjoyment, were much slower in evolution. On special nights, I tried my best, and I know it pleased him when I cried out his name. He rewarded me with a wide, genuine smile and tender kiss. I realized then that it was not only that he wanted to hear me for his own purposes, but that my cries were a clarification of my own pleasure; they reassured him that his actions had not been purely selfish. After that, I pushed myself from my comfort zone more frequently. Gojyo was too unselfish for me to hesitate.

            He was not shy about taking me out to dinner, or to the bar, in public, as I had originally anticipated. Not because I'm male, but rather because I was someone he had settled with. Sha Gojyo was not known for being a steady partner. But all of a sudden he was, and outside of flirting with a few of the women at the local bar, he was fiercely loyal to me. I knew that, given his sensual nature, it was not unusual that he should flirt with and touch others; it was just his way. And I had no room to complain, given my own "hang ups."

            We started out spending nights together during the week, but went our separate ways over the weekend. I would stay home with a book, and he would go out and bring home fistfuls of poker winnings and a six pack of beer. If he came home before two, chances are I would be finishing the last chapters of a novel and willing to help him finish the case. I remember one night he came home completely drunk, which is something he had given up after the end of our journey, and I was furious at him for walking all the way home in such a condition, given the cold temperatures. It was spring, technically, but there was still frost in the air.

            "S'ok, 'Kai, I had my coat zipped all up," he smiled widely to me, fiddling with his zipper before letting it down to show me he had kept warm.

            "But you could have passed out. You never can do anything halfway, can you?" I was fussing over him and removing his coat and gloves as he reoriented himself; when Gojyo was drunk, even completely intoxicated as he was at this time, he was never utterly mindless. Unlike many, he could remember, sometimes in detail, what happened when he woke up the day after. He could form semi-coherent sentences too—practice makes perfect, he said—and he had the grace to look ashamed when I began to chastise him for making me worry so much. It was nearly four in the morning.

            "Sorry, 'Kai; I lost track a' time, ya know…but I was thinkin' about you."

            "You could have at least called."

            "I'm sorry," He slurred, looking a little hurt, or perhaps disappointed in himself for having forgotten. One hand reached out awkwardly, as if it were numb, and patted my arm. "I jus'…met up with some ol' friends and we jus' kep' talkin'."

            "Who was it that you saw?" I asked pleasantly, already making chamomile and mint tea for him on the stove and chasing down a spare blanket to drape across his shoulders. Hakuryu had come to rest on the counter near Gojyo's warm palm, watching it carefully.

            "Mnn thanks," he murmured to me, smiling handsomely despite his state—or perhaps I was familiar enough with it to see through it—and drew the blanket closer with a shudder. "Some guys I usedta work with, you know…back when. Banri's guys."

            I frowned, thinking it unusual for them to have been "passing through." Banri's friends were generally youkai, and despite the end of the Minus Wave's threat, youkai were still unwelcome in most ningen settlements. I never let on that I was, and still wore my limiters out of habit and fear. "Banri's youkai accomplices?"

            "Yeah, one. And Kota. A human."

            "I wasn't aware he had other humans working for him." I pushed the cup of tea in front of Gojyo, watching him carefully wrap his hands around it and draw it to his lips.

            "Jus' one," he winced as he burned his lip, drawing the cup back quickly. "Kota. Yeah but th'other guy, Rutsko, he dresses likea human. You can't hardly tell, 'cept for the ears." Gojyo grinned. "Man he looks goofy in a hat. His demon form ain't like yours."

            "What do you mean?" I ran a cloth along the stove top to catch spare water droplets, listening to Gojyo ramble on with half an ear, already fairly exhausted myself.

            "Ya know…his teeth're too big for his face…ear's're all pierced and shit."

            "Mm." I made a noise to signal that I was still listening.

            "Not all demons look as good as you do, ya know?"

            I rolled my eyes at him and pressed a soft kiss to his temple, giving his arm a squeeze. "Drink that, or you'll have a hangover in the morning."

            "I'll have one anyway," I he drawled, "I think I paid the owner's mortgage t'night."

            "I hope you didn't."

            "Don't worry. "I'waz'all stuff I won anyways…none a' our money or nothin'." He sipped at the tea delicately, smiling bashfully up to me over the cup. "Ya know I wouldn't throw your money away like that, 'Kai. I'm a real careful spender," he reminded me teasingly, eyes glinting through the intoxicated fog.

            "You usually don't come home like this," I pointed out, drawing the curtains shut despite our relative privacy so far out in the countryside. That was something Gojyo and I had both agreed on when purchasing a home of our own; it had to be removed from the city, within walking distance, perhaps, but removed. Quiet and private. "Did something happen?"

            "Whaddya mean did something happen?" His voice was remarkably clearer, as though I had triggered a specific memory.

            "Only that you have decent control of your drinking habits, or at least you have in the past few months, and you never come home with more than a slight buzz. I doubt Banri's old acquaintances had that much to say." They weren't particularly intelligent fellows.

            "Nothin' happened."

            I shrugged, moving behind him and gently rubbing his shoulders. "A wise man once told me that I needed to open up more, share more, to heal faster. Perhaps this applies to you too?"

            Gojyo recognized his own words and snickered. "Knew sayin' that would come back ta bite me in the ass."

            "But you were right, you know."

            "But you still don't open up a helluva lot."

            "I'll practice," I promised, coaxing his story out of him with a soft tone and the occasional reassuring touch. I straightened out his hair and flicked snow and ice from it, giving his shoulders another firm squeeze. He moaned when I rubbed my thumbs directly beneath his nape in slow, winding circles.

            "Feels good, 'Kai."

            "You're very tense."

            "Cold."

            "Hm." I didn't comment further, but waited for his story to unfurl of its own accord. I sensed that I had loosened his tongue after warming him up and reminding him of his own suggestions to me.

            "I saw Jien again," he offered, leaning back into my touch. I didn't pause in my movements, but merely nodded.

            "Is he well?"

            "Yeah he's fine." Gojyo snickered a little bit. "Real well."

            "What does that mean?" I was pleased to see him smile, even if I knew he was trying to deter and distract my line of questioning. I permitted the detour for the moment.

            "Means he was drunker than me," Gojyo talked right through a yawn, "an' 'e was tellin' me how he was hookin' up with this redhead."

            My eyebrows lifted at the mention of another hanyou. How unusual to find one anywhere anymore. Outside of Gojyo, the only other I had ever seen was…

            "Kougaiji," Gojyo hiccupped in laughter, shaking his head. He laughed harder when my hands stopped for a moment on his back.

            "Kougaiji?" I repeated, a bit stunned.

            "Yeah, I guess fagdom runs in the family?"

            "I wouldn't have guessed that they…" I steadied him on the kitchen chair, helping him up when I felt him push it back against the floor. "Gojyo be careful."

            "I am careful. And isn't that a riot? I pried it outta him 'cause he was drunker 'n me. But he didn't stay real long. Got outta there when Banri's guys came in. Ya know, Hakkai, I think he might be on top."

            I interrupted his musings with a finger to his lips, forcing him to sit back on the couch this time, by the fireplace, and cover up with a blanket. He didn't realize that he was beginning to shiver.

            "I am happy for your brother," I said softly, sitting beside him and sharing the blanket. I was too used to the smell of strong liquor to be deterred. Gojyo himself, beneath the heavy, alcoholic musk, smelled wonderful, like ginger, almost. "But what about you?"

            His forehead wrinkled in thought, and he frowned; he looked genuinely confused.             "But 'Kai I have you."

            "I didn't mean that," I smiled softly and gave his hand a surreptitious squeeze beneath the covers, listening to his soft breathing and the crackling of the flames to my left. "I mean, I want to know what happened. Gojyo you can't fool me; I know something upset you deeply, and I'd put money on its stemming from your 'friends' through Banri. What happened?" When we were traveling together, I never would have pressed the issue because of the lack of privacy, and the well defined lines of friendship between us. Now things were different, and I knew him better still. I knew that if he didn't tell me, he would push it under his skin and let it fester there until it chewed another hole through his conscience and affected him as much as his childhood memories did. I didn't want that, and saw fit to extract the danger early on.

            "I got inta a lil' fight."

            "Oh?" I inspected him more closely for wounds now, knowing this, but found none. "Are you hurt anywhere?"

            "Nothin' serious," he waved me off with his hand, opening his shirt of his own accord to show me a small series of cuts, claw-marks, that traced his skin. "Jus' small ones. Barely even cut my shirt," he mumbled, unable to button his shirt up after having opened it. I pressed my hands against his chest and my chi into his wounds, healing them quickly. He sighed and kissed my forehead.

            "I got most 'a th'wounds in, not them."

            "Rutsko?"

            "Yeah."

            "Why did you fight him?" I felt his hand coil tightly about mine; he brought it to his lips, kissing the back softly and then resting his cheek in my palm. My thumb stroked his cheekbone.

            "Guess I got pissed off. More than I thought I woulda, jus' for all that."

            "All of what?" I sensed the answer before I heard it.

            "He saw me an' Jien, and we got into it after he left. Jien, I mean."

            I nodded, encouraging him to continue without words.

            "He called me a bastard, and called Jien some other shit. What was I supposedta do? I decked him, but his claws came out, and we had it out."

            I didn't see where this was leading at first, and I'm a fool to have believed that anything had changed.

            "People in the bar got pissed off, then scared, when they saw we were youkai. I took Rutsko out easy—didn't kill him, but close—but the people in the bar, looking in through the door—everyone…looked kinda scared. Staring, like they'd never seen a demon before." He let out a humorless chortle, "I kinda forget that everyone's segregated again." He pushed his hair back, eyes very clear, but dark.

            I frowned, knowing he was too used to that look, and certainly didn't need to be on the receiving end of it again; it was condescending, disgusted, and perhaps a little scared. The same look his mother used to give him, and everyone thereafter.

            "I hadta get out. So I went to a different bar—Freddy's or somethin'—and made myself forget. Because to see that again…"

            "I know." I filled in his silence, nuzzling his stubble-peppered jaw gently and brushing tender kisses across his throat. "It will take a long time for humans' wounds to heal, Gojyo. Longer than ours. Just like battle wounds…"

            "I can't stand it." His hands fisted about the covers angrily. "Pisses me off, that they think I'm sucha monster now that they know that I'm more youkai than human. I guess I fooled 'em at first, since I acted like a human, talked to 'em." He affected not to care what others thought, but I knew that, when they looked at him in that way, it hit home, and it tore him up inside. There was still some small part of him that felt guilty for what he was, for what he couldn't control. "An' the worst part is, the youkai think I'm weak. Stuck in the middle, you really can't win."

            I felt a terrible pang of sorrow for him when I realized what he said was true.

            Later that night I stopped him from hacking off his hair just in time, and guided him back to bed. I slept with my arms about his waist, chin on his shoulder, so that if he moved again, I would know it. To my great relief he didn't, but the next day he wasn't himself. It's a sad memory, but one I like to keep because of what it signifies. Gojyo and I share much the same pain, and once again, he did what I could not, and opened up to me. He let me see him in his weakest of moments, and that only strengthened the bond between us. His absolute trust in me put my secrecy to shame, and I vowed to open up to him the very next time I suffered remembering, and the very next time he offered.

           

            And I did, too. I try not to recall the night because it was accompanied with graphic memories, horrible dreams. Sometimes that happens, less now than it used to, but on occasion my dreams still take me back.

            I had been dreaming of her, and he knew it too, before I woke up, I'm sure. It was winter, and I jerked awake in a cold sweat, body trembling fiercely in the aftershock. The images were still fresh in my mind, hanging behind my eyelids so that I was afraid to go back to sleep. The bed was empty, and seemed suddenly far too large for a single body. I looked to the open door, and the dim hallway light crawling through the room, unable to illuminate more than the first few feet.

            Everything was very quiet, and I could hear my heart thudding as though it had risen to my throat. Tears choked my senses, though nothing emerged. I hadn't cried for her in a very long time, and didn't anticipate doing so again. One had only so many tears. Now, rather than wetting my cheeks, they only stifled my breath and clouded my senses, sending me into a silent, motionless panic.

            Everyone experiences terror in different ways; for me it was a gradual, maddening effect, and always worse in the nighttime, and when I was alone. Despite the faint moonlight flickering in through open shades, the room seemed darker than usual to me, and the icy fingers of the night stroked my skin as they gradually wrapped about my limbs, sending fierce shudders to my core. I blinked, and I saw maddened green eyes, long, slender fingers slicked with blood, clutching the handle of a dagger backwards…

            Gonou!

            "Hakkai."

Gojyo came into the room and closed the door behind him, banishing the faint glow from the hall. I perceived the smell of lemon before I saw that he was carrying a small cup. He pressed the warm porcelain into my hands, holding them steady with his own.

            I stammered my thanks and made some pathetic apology for having woken him, trying to sip at the steaming liquid. He kept his hands around mine, watching me with worried, knowing eyes. I was appreciative of his warmth, his nearness. I was grateful that he thought better than to tell me "it's okay, it's alright." It wasn't, and he knew it. He didn't try to draw it out of me; Gojyo never insisted on knowing about the details of my dreams, or what I thought might have caused them. He was eternally patient, and sat a good half hour at my side, warm, callused hands around mine, until the shivering had stopped, and I felt I could breathe steadily again.

            He put the teacup on the nightstand, and draped the covers over my shoulders. Shortly, his hands returned to mine. "Kai."

            "I'm sorry." It was a reflex, and he shook his head.

            "Don't be. C'mere."

            I let him enfold me in his arms, pressing my cheek against his shoulder, hiding my face at his nape. He held me tightly, kissing the top of my head through my hair. This rarely happened; though I had dreams frequently, they usually did not affect me in such a manner. They were generally only fragments of images and sounds, rather than a recurrence. Gojyo was sensitive to my needs when it did happen, though, and never failed to comfort me as best he could. He never demanded to know, even though he certainly had the right to.

            He was the one to move first, stretching out a cramping leg as he eased me back into the bed. I was reluctant to part from him; holding onto Gojyo forced the images back, and muffled familiar shrieks that had become caught in my ears.

            "I'm not leaving," he promised in a whisper, lying right beside me, drawing me to him as though I were something fragile, made of porcelain like the teacup he had steadied at my lips. Drawing the covers around us and forming a cocoon of warmth, he kissed my forehead again and began stroking my hair, the small of my back.

            "Gojyo."

            "Hm?" His chest rumbled faintly with the sound, and I pressed closer, remembering my promise the week before, though he hadn't called me on it. He never would; he was too kind to demand that I let go, and certainly wasn't going to try to make me remember.

            "She killed herself." My voice barely managed to snake out of my mouth.

            "She did?" His voice was soft, barely present, not wanting to shake me from my thoughts just yet. He saw my communication of what happened as a method of healing. I realized he probably only knew vague details, only enough to piece together what he knew of me. He knew she was dead, I had loved her, and my reaction had caused my demon blood.

            "Yes. And I saw her do it."

            "Kai…" His arms tightened, and I shook my head.

            "I want to tell you." I was surprised at the new strength in my voice.

            "Okay," Gojyo murmured, stroking the side of my face gently with his fingertips. "Okay, Hakkai."

            We spent the night in that position, and I felt small, protected, in his arms. By purging myself of the memories, I avoided the nightmares. I never had so vivid a dream after that, but that's not to say I was healed. But it was a step in the right direction, and Gojyo had been with me the entire way, patient as always, careful not to tread over sensitive nerves. In this way, he came to know of the more intimate details of my past, things even Sanzo didn't know. And it was right that he ought to know. He had given me everything, and held nothing back, even of himself.

            When we awoke, the day was shockingly bright, streaming in through every window and lighting the wooden floors and yellow walls. It was as if the night hadn't happened. I was up before him, making breakfast, and he was kind enough to avoid asking me if I was alright, or if I needed him to stay home for the day. He thanked me for breakfast, and the only sign he gave of anything having happened was the affectionate way in which he kissed me goodbye for the day, running a hand down my cheek and letting his smooth lips linger a moment longer than usual.

            "Have a good day, 'Kai."

            "You too." I watched him leave, zipping up his coat against the cold, and treading down the snow encrusted road. There were no tire tracks so far out; Hakuryu had been ill, and Gojyo preferred to walk as it was. He almost slipped on the slick ice, and his mouth opened in a curse, kicking at broken shards as he walked on. I covered my mouth in laughter.

            When I couldn't see him any longer, I went into our room and made the bed, picked up the teacup from the nightstand and washed it and put it away. The clock read seven, and I dressed warmly for my own walk, bidding Hakuryu goodbye for the day, and leaving out a tin of fresh water.

            It was shortly after stepping out of the drive, my feet falling in Gojyo's footsteps to avoid the slick patches of ice, that the sunlight poured out from behind a cloud, blindingly bright as it reflected off of the snow. I felt a strange but not unpleasant sense of lightheadedness, and a calm relief washing over me, increasing with each crunching step. I glanced back at our house, and as though I had never considered it before, I realized that I was happy.

 

            And I have happier memories, too. For instance, I recall very well my discovery of Gojyo's birthday. It was from Dokugakuji that I heard it; though he wasn't positive of the date, he assured me it was "close enough." Gojyo hadn't any idea, and had never celebrated it before. I had only asked him about his birthday once, and he had brushed it off as "unimportant," and told me that he didn't know. I was pleased that Doku was able to tell me, but saddened to hear it had never been celebrated when he was a child, and naturally he wouldn't have cause to remember the date. I had guessed as much, but even in the orphanage I had had some due paid me on my birthday.

            We had met one another by chance in a bar outside of town. I had left home for a week on a mission for Sanzo to help a small troop of monks heal the unfortunate victims of an epidemic that was affecting several surrounding villages. It was a human disease, and youkai were immune to it, so I gladly agreed and offered my services. Gojyo had volunteered as well, but given his lack of medical training and human blood, I managed to persuade him to stay home. Sanzo, I reminded him, wasn't going either.

            "I'd like to do something special for him, but I don't want to upset old wounds," I told Doku, who was sitting on the barstool across from me, working through his third beer. I had had six whiskeys and was rather full, though nowhere near as lightheaded as the youkai beside me. "Could you tell me maybe what I ought to avoid?"

            "There's nothin' really. I mean, he never had any mind paid to it before, except when I'd get him little things from the shops if I had money. Never even had a cake."

            I thought it would be easy to bake one; I already knew he liked chocolate anything. To be polite, I inquired about his life, and whether he was still under Kougaiji's employ.

            "Oh, yeah you could say that," he nodded, unaware that Gojyo already told me of their relationship. "We're all still workin' at the castle."

            "I'm happy to hear it."

            "So I guess everythin' between you and my brother is good? You're living together right?"

            I nodded.

            "And is he driving you bat shit yet?"

            Laughing, I shook my head. "Not at all. Everything is perfect."

            "So why are you all the way out there then?" I realized he was checking up on Gojyo, and couldn't help but smile.

            "I'm staying in the monastery at Chang'an for a week to help Sanzo out. I'm sure you've heard of the epidemic in the surrounding towns." Doku nodded. "I convinced Gojyo to stay home; it's really too dangerous for a ningen to be around. I am in awe of the human monks who bring their aid."

            He nodded to me again, ordering another beer with a wave of his hand, and I couldn't help but crack a smile. Although there was little physical similarity between them, in movement, even gait, I had noticed, Gojyo and his brother were very much alike.

            "What's so funny?"

            "Nothing. You remind me of Gojyo, is all."

            "Ha. If I had a nickel."

            "Really?"

            "I'd have one nickel," Doku admitted with a chortle, tapping his fingers on a deck of playing cards. He noticed my glance, and shook his head. "Nuh uh. Gojyo's told me about you. I'm not risking a dime."

            "Oh I'm sure he exaggerates," I laughed it off, requesting another shot of whiskey from the barkeep, who gave me a funny look, but agreed when I slid a bill across the countertop.

            "I should thank you, ya know."

            "Whatever for?"

            "For makin' him so happy. Putting up with him."
            "He does the same for me," I said softly, reading Doku's eyes. He was genuinely happy for his brother.

            "Yeah, but you know, you're the first person in his life who hasn't run off on him. He really loves you. Ach," he made a face at me, shaking his head, "sounds like girl-talk, I know—I blame Yaone—but I can tell he really does care about you, and I think he's happy."

            "I'm glad to hear you say that," I said softly, fingers barely tapping the cold rim of my glass. "I am very happy too."

            "Yeah no kidding? Doesn't his, uh, habbits drive you nuts?"

            "Not at all." I thought to myself that I rather liked some of Gojyo's 'habits.'

            "Good, good. Can't help but pick on him a little ya know. It's my job." His smile faded gradually as a couple entered the bar and, taking one glance in our direction, murmured and made their exit. The barkeep raised his brows at Dokugakuji, as though he were considering throwing him out to attract more human customers.

            "Why do you still wear those things huh?" Doku asked me, flicking his hand across my ear. I jerked back out of instinct, and he apologized.

            "No, it's alright. Only reflex." I smiled plainly. "I just feel more comfortable in this form, I suppose. Or rather, I don't…I'm not ready yet to wear that form. It isn't as subtle as yours."

            "No, it's not," he agreed, seeming to recall my youkai form. "But at least things are easier for you this way. You look like a human, and you act like one too."

            "Yes, it is easier," I concurred, pushing the empty shot glass towards the barkeep and thanking him. "I'm sorry to be rude, but I must leave if I plan to get any sleep tonight." It was almost two in the morning, and I would be up early.

            "Yeah okay. Hey, tell him hi for me, okay?"

            "Yes of course." I smiled, an idea forming. "Ah…maybe you would like to come? On his birthday? I'm sure he'd like it."

            "Yeah okay," Doku nodded his agreement. "I'll be there."

 

            I left two days later, asking Sanzo and Goku also; Sanzo refused outright, but the latter promised both of their presences on the day. I trusted that Goku was the only other living being capable of persuading Sanzo to go, and knew that they would be there. Stopping by smaller towns on the way home, I attempted to search out a present for Gojyo. He was difficult to buy for; there was nothing he really needed, and nothing he ever bought for himself outside of beer. I had made good time, driving Hakuryu instead of walking when we went through towns so as to avoid suspicious gazes (people still aren't very comfortable around dragons). 

            Some small gift shops were pointless detours, as they had less in stock than even our little town, and others had items ranging from shocking to mundane, but nothing fitting for Gojyo. It was by chance that I stumbled across what I ended up buying for him. It was in our own town's general store, while I was picking up ingredients for his cake and our dinner, that I spotted the narrow square of sterling, reflecting the overhead lights. A slash of red, inlaid garnet, made the piece original while keeping it modest. The shop keeper knew me, and plucked it out when he saw it caught my eye.

            "You don't seem the type to smoke," he placed the thin cigarette holder atop the counter for my inspection.

            "I don't," I admitted, "It would be a gift."

            "Isn't that kinda sending the wrong message? You know, encouraging someone to keep puffin'?"

            "There are far worse vices," I admonished, paying for it and slipping it into the bag beside the flour. He bade me have a good day, and I drove Hakuryu home, letting him transform once we were past the last house on our drive. I apologized for forcing him to wait so long; the day was a little warm, and he was never truly comfortable disguised as a jeep.

            "Why don't you go cool off and lie against the tile in the sink?" I suggested, opening the front door and resting the two brown grocery sacks atop our small counter. I would have just enough time to start the cake before Gojyo got home from work. I pulled out a single pan, and seconds later I heard an exasperated kyuu, and a white flash caught my eye as Hakuryu alighted on my shoulder, whining because he was unable to get into the bathroom.

            "Did Gojyo leave the door shut? I'll get it for you. Here." I fed him first, and strode to the bathroom door, opening it for Hakuryu and letting out a small sound of surprise to find the shower water running, and Gojyo standing under it. Steam from a scalding deluge filled the room, masking the mirror, but the shower curtain was translucent, and it wasn't difficult to determine what he was doing by the evident outline of his movements.

            "Hakkai!"
            "I'm sorry!" I staggered back, embarrassed, and shut the door quickly, eyes wide when Hakuryu made a sound of confusion, looking at the door. "Not now," I shook my head, shooing him off just as the door swung open and a hot, wet pair of arms slid about my waist.

            "Kai! When did you get back?" He didn't give me time to answer, but busied himself pushing me up against the wall and searching my mouth physically for answers. When we parted, both breathless, my shirt was as wet as his chest. I felt an eager pressure pushing against my thigh beneath his towel.

            "I…only a few minutes ago," I explained, cheeks flushing brightly at what I had walked in on.

            "I didn't think you'd be back 'till tomorrow—man I was going nuts. And I hadta eat out. I almost starved. Freddy's food is seriously nasty, Hakkai."

            "Amazing what you can pick up on when you're sober isn't it?" I teased, meeting his smile and kissing him again, more gently this time. It was nice to feel so welcome, so needed. Missed. Usually it was I who missed others; no one missed me.

            "I thought you'd be at work." I said stupidly.

            "Out early. Finished the last order." He was still pressed against my thigh, and his voice was much huskier. "So how come you ran outta there so fast huh? Are you tired? You're not sick are you?" He frowned, pulling back a bit to inspect me. I shook my head.

            "No not at all; I just…well you were…" Unable to find a euphemism for this particular situation, I let my sentence trail off. He laughed.

            "How th'hell does that embarrass you? Nothin' you ain't seen before."

            "It's something private!" I protested, blushing darker at his amusement. "I didn't mean to just barge in on you. I was letting Hakuryu in to sit in the sink."

            He smirked, shaking his head. "We gotta work on this Hakkai. An' here I thought getting you to do it on top of the covers was progress. Don't tell me you never jerk off?"

            "Why would I? Gojyo, we're intimate every week."

            He smirked at my wording, and I evaded his gaze. "So you're telling me you don't need it outside of the weekends?"

            "Well no." I rolled my eyes. "Some of us are little more evolved I suppose." That sent him roaring in laughter, and chasing after me when I made my way back to the kitchen.

            "Oh come on Hakkai, I'm just kidding with you. C'mon." Of course I knew he was, but I was hardly going to give him the satisfaction of surrendering so easily.

            "It's been a week, 'Kai. C'mon." He tossed a glance at the bedroom, raising his eyebrows with a convincing grin. "Would it make any difference if I told ya it was my birthday?"

            "You know it's your birthday!" I exclaimed in shock.

            "What the hell kinda question is that? Of course I know it's my birthday."

            "You told me you didn't know when your birthday was." I pointed out, fingers tapping against the edge of the countertop in thought. I couldn't help but notice that his hair was dripping water onto the carpet.

            "Yeah, well I didn't want you to make a big deal out of it or anything. Sanzo was pissy that week because of Hazel, and it just didn't seem right. Besides, I'm not really positive it's the right date."

            "It is." I sighed.

            "So does that mean we can?" He slid an arm about my waist, insatiable, and I kissed his cheek.

            "Well don't you want to know how I found out?"

            "I'm guessin' you asked Jien."

            "Good guess," I admitted. "We ran into each other in a tavern, and the topic came up."

            "Not even gonna ask how." He was guiding me back to the bedroom as we spoke.

            "Well when he told me, I thought I should bake you--" he kissed me, pushing me back against the wall of our bedroom and nudging the door halfway closed with his foot.

            "Mnn…missed you," he breathed, breath warm against my lips. I opened my mouth to finish the sentence, but he closed it again, and soon I forgot entirely what I had intended to say. Gojyo has that effect on people.

            Despite his apparently intolerable week of celibacy, Gojyo was patient, and drew out our foreplay as best he could. He knew my weak spots, and dug his fingers into the small of my back, pushing and kneading the sensitive skin while biting roughly behind my ear. I muffled whimpers of pleasure against his shoulder, panting hard against the sweat-slicked flesh. He pulled back when he felt the vibration of a moan on my lips, and I blushed brightly at the sharp sound in the room. "You should do that more often," Gojyo advised me, jerking his towel off and working to unfasten my shirt.

            "Y'know I kinda like it this way…"

            "What way?" I could barely hear my own voice as his mouth played havoc with my senses. My body had wanted this more than my mind had realized.

            "Gettin' to undress you…" He growled, doing away with my layman's sash and the green tunic I wore over it. His hands slid up beneath my thin cotton undershirt before pulling it off completely, pressing his warm mouth and scalding, wet tongue against my left nipple. I came undone in his hands very easily, and he knew it. "Gojyo oh…" Giving into his whims, I responded eagerly, meeting his mouth kiss for kiss, bite for bite. He had my trousers off a moment later, and knelt between my legs, looking up with a suspicious smile. Before I had time to tell him not to, he ran his tongue up the underside of my arousal, sending a fierce blush over my upper half.

            "Gojyo don't," I murmured breathlessly, feeling far too exposed in the morning light of the room without a stitch of clothing.

            "No good?" He bit the inside of my thigh with a low groan, stroking himself so that I could see. I arched my back in a whimper, and he let up, standing and pressing his body over me. "Lemme get somethin'." He moved to his side of the bed, where the nightstand was, and pulled out a small bottle, a new one by the looks of it, and coated himself quickly. I sought something to conceal myself with, but without going to the bed there was nothing available. I was temporarily distracted by the thought that we had never made love where we could so clearly see each other. I might have been more embarrassed of myself if it hadn't been for Gojyo's swaggering pride, and my fascination with the source of it.

            "It is red," I murmured with some surprise, blushing under his gaze. He smiled softly and before I could move to the bed, pinned me up against the wall again.

            "Very." He pushed two fingertips to my lips, and I suckled them with a low moan, tasting him and, very faintly, strawberries.

            "What is that?"

            "The lube," he explained with a shrug. "Flavored, in case you change your mind." He glanced down at me, but I drew his chin back up, pressing my mouth firmly against his. I didn't like the vulnerable feeling it left me with, even if he was only doing it to please me. I would much rather have done as much for him.

            "Okay," he breathed, kissing the tender place beneath my ear with great care, his hands stroking my sides and occasionally my backside as well. Gojyo seemed to sense my need for cover, and provided it himself. I wasn't wholly comfortable, but it was a very fair compromise. Besides, it was his birthday.

            "Better?" He was grinding his hips against mine, breath falling fast at my throat. I nodded and muffled a little cry, reminding myself not to do that too much. I found the perfect opportunity to express my gratitude when he grasped me in a callused, warm palm, stroking the sensitized skin at the perfect speed. I stammered his name in a little gasp, pushing against him and resting my cheek against his shoulder, too self-conscious to meet his eyes.

            We never exactly made it to the bed; he drew my legs about his waist and managed to hold us both up until his release sapped his energy. But with Gojyo it was always temporary.

            I stretched out beside him on the wooden floor, panting softly and yanking the cover off the bed with some relief, covering myself and admiring his ability to lie on his back, legs half splayed, and search his pants pocket for a cigarette.

            "Best birthday gift ever," he grinned at me, placing soft kisses along my cheek and lips. "You okay, 'Kai?"

            "Fine, fine," I assured him, moving up to rest on the bed a moment and permit what remained of my afterglow to fizzle out naturally. "I should make your cake…" Rising, he eased me back down into the bed this time, kissing my bruised lips tenderly now.

            "Cake huh? You went all out. You don't have to."

            "I want to."

            It made him smile, and I was glad. He drew me into his arms and pressed soft kisses down my neck, one hand tangling in my hair. "Gods Hakkai…"

            "Hmm?" Lulled into a drowsy state by his touch, I only managed a vague sound by means of reply.

            "Nothin'. Just glad you're back." He smiled widely, pressing our foreheads together and clipping the tip of my nose with a kiss, and then my lips again. "It gets lonely real fast."

            "I'm glad I'm back too," I murmured, touching his damp hair and then combing through it with my fingers. I felt a weight on my calf, and looked down to see Hakuryu at the foot of the bed, chirruping at us and flapping his wings.

            "Hey man don't you knock?" Gojyo teased, leaning in to kiss my throat, suckling at the sensitive jugular with a little moan, intending to illustrate dominance. He and Hakuryu often put on little shows of it, Gojyo mostly for entertainment, the former out of genuine concern of losing me to him.

            Hakuryu chirruped and buzzed towards Gojyo, nipping at his hair and head in annoyance. I plucked him off with a laugh. "Hakuryu it's Gojyo's birthday; you mustn't be so rude to him." The small dragon kyuued in my hands and nipped at my neck, a half-inch below the space Gojyo had recently reddened.

            "Lookit that!" My lover chuckled, watching Hakuryu with interest. "Is he in love with you too? I didn't know dragons had a sex drive."

            "He's only possessive; he gets jealous of you. Don't you remember the first time we accidentally left the bedroom door open a notch while we were intimate?"

            "Hell yes I do. The little guy went psycho on my back."

            "He didn't understand." I defended, patting Hakuryu's head and kissing Gojyo gently as I scurried to get dressed. I know he watched me; I could feel his gaze on my back the entire time.

            "I'm going to be baking. No peeking until it's done."

            "Aw Hakkai!"

           

            I allowed him into the kitchen once the cake was in the oven, where he couldn't see it, and began working on dinner as well. He noticed I had set the table for five, and glanced to Hakuryu. "Don't tell me he's sitting at the table now too?"

            "Hahaha—no, no, I've invited another guest. Hakuryu has already eaten."

            "Yeah who?"

            "Surprise. Stop asking."

            "Sorry; I'm not used to the whole surprise party thing."

            "It wasn't as much of a surprise as I had thought it would be; you at least knew your own birthday."

            "Yeah well." He rubbed the back of his head and attempted to peek into the oven; I smacked him with an oven mitt.

            "You're acting like Goku."

            "Yeah well you're hitting me like Sanzo."

            I laughed, "Oh I hope I never become so insensitive to humor."

            "I think he must tolerate slapstick; he lives with the monkey after all." Gojyo was sipping at a beer from the fridge, the only thing I hadn't bothered to pick up. I knew there would be plenty, but now that we had guests coming…

            "Is there enough for everyone?" I wondered aloud.

            "I don't know, the chimp can't drink, and I don't know who the other guest is. Is this mystery-person underage? Perhaps eighteen and circa size C?"
            I rolled my eyes, tempted to give him a good thwack with my spatula. "You're incorrigible."

            "If that means what I think it means, you're damn straight. So I'm guessing it's not a chick?"

            "Do you really still prefer women?"

            He thought he had upset me, but I had been reading the directions for lemon chicken on a note card, and listening with half an ear. It sounded like a sufficient response.

            "Aw 'Kai I'm only joking." He snuck up behind me, pressing his lips gently to the bare skin above my hairline on my nape, arms slipping about my waist. "You know I only want you." He blew a puff of air into my ear, nipping at the lobe and distracting me from mixing. Stalling the long spoon, I turned for a moment to placate him, letting our mouths meet and his arms slide about my back, pulling me close. The kiss was tender, chaste, even; his palm found my cheek, thumb pushing a stray strand of hair from my eye. We pulled apart when the side door burst open and Goku came rushing into the kitchen with a wrapped package in hand.

            "Oops!" He yelped, covering his eyes with his arm. "Didn't see anything! Okay—maybe something. But really not much. I swear! Sanzo!"

            "I'm right here you stupid monkey," Sanzo growled, staring at us and turning Goku in the correct direction after jerking his arm down. "I might have guessed. No one's going to eat that now."

            "That's ridiculous; I washed my hands a moment ago, and we only kissed."

            "I'll eat it," Goku promised, looking into the bowl of soon-to-be stuffing. "Mmm it looks really good. What is it? What's in it? Are there going to be meat buns?"

            "Aa, sorry no meat buns Goku. Plenty of other things though."

            "Happy birthday cockroach!" Goku snickered, handing over the gift and accepting a noogie in return. "It's from Sanzo 'n me."

            "No, it's not." Sanzo said flatly. "My gift to you is that for tonight I won't shoot you."

            "Oh gee what a thoughtful present. How about a smile instead?" Gojyo teased.

            "Piss off."

            "So how old are you anyways Gojyo? Twenty…" Goku counted on his fingers, "nine!"

            "Twenty six, chimp. Don't you learn any math?"

            "Yeah but you jus' look old I guess," Goku grinned toothily, offering to help me stir the frosting that was sitting in a bowl on the island, to which I declined.

            "Your houshi-sama is older than I am." Gojyo said to effectively distract him for the moment.

            "Oh wow he's right Sanzo! That makes you twenty-seven! He won't tell me his birthday," Goku whispered in a tone the entire room heard.

            "Why the hell do you think?" Sanzo grumbled, lighting a cigarette. I didn't bother telling him not to smoke inside; he'd just do it anyways.

            "I'd like to know Sanzo-chan's birthday," Gojyo quipped, already abusing the monk's gift to him.

            "Yeah me too!" Goku added, "How else am I supposedta know whenta give him a present?"

            "You mean you don't just do that when…ya know. The mood is right?" Gojyo slid over the back of the couch with a smirk, grinning up to the blond. "You must be awfully picky."

            "Shut up you twisted--"

            "Not that ero-kappa!" Goku rolled his eyes; "I mean a real present. Something like Hakkai probably got for you. Like a—hey do I smell cake?"

            "Yes there's one baking now; please don't open the oven Goku." I guided his hand down quickly, not wanting the heat to escape.

            "Izzit for dessert!? Gojyo gets a cake?! Man I think I want a cake for my next birthday…"

            "You don't even know when your birthday is dumbass." Gojyo tugged at his hair. "Do you?"

            "Duh I know my own birthday, asswipe." Goku smiled softly. "It was the day Sanzo took me down from Mount Gogyo. I consider that my birthday."

            "That's a sweet thought, Goku," I mused aloud, keeping him away from the bowls and jars of spices I had out as I finished with the chicken on the stovetop.

            "Tch." Sanzo didn't balk at him for the sentimental addition to the conversation; that had not been the first time I had noticed the monk's softening temperament.

            "So you're not gonna tell me huh?" Goku sat quietly beside Sanzo, hands on his knees. "It's not like I'd do something embarrassing. I'd even make sure Gojyo wouldn't!"

            "Maybe he doesn't know either," Gojyo suggested. "You were an orphan, right? So how would you know?"

            Sanzo didn't respond, only shrugged it off.

            "Maybe he counts his birthday like I do," Goku save his hand a squeeze, narrowly avoiding a swat from the harisen. "Maybe you were born the day Koumyou took you in."

           

            Dokugakuji arrived about half an hour later, and by then Sanzo's fraying temper had been mellowed by two cans of beer and Goku's preoccupation with a lollypop. It looked to me as though the priest were getting ideas from the way Goku ate it.

            "Hey—Ji—Doku?" Gojyo looked up in surprise, meeting a similar pair of eyes across the room.

            "Hey…"

            "Dokugakuji-san, please come in."

            He looked about at the group of his former enemies, holding a small, narrow bag awkwardly before handing it over to Gojyo. "Hey kid." They both regarded each other uncomfortably for a moment, and I assumed it was because all of a sudden they had an audience. Goku was staring wide-eyed, and Sanzo was affecting boredom, though I noticed he watched their exchange from the periphery of his vision.

            "Hey." Gojyo put the gift down and moved to embrace his brother loosely; they made a short contest of smacking each other roughly on the back in an attempt to neutralize any sentiments unworthy of their masculinity.

            "I didn't know you were comin'."

            Doku shrugged, "I met up with Hakkai outside of Chang'an, and he asked me to."

            "Why were you near Chang'an?" Sanzo asked from the couch without turning around to face him; I observed from a removed point of view, watching three pots on the stove and a cake in the oven while rolling out the dough for biscuits.

            "Passing through." He shrugged. "Kougaiji has me mapping out the territory and remaining towns and cities surrounding his empire. A lot has changed. There're more settlements to the north."

            "I'd heard as much," Sanzo commented, letting Goku take over.

            "So how is Kougaiji? Where is he? Now that he's king, will he always live in the castle and never come out to see me anymore huh? I still think we oughta have a good fight, ya know?" Goku was entirely too hyper.

            "He's probably busy, chimp," Gojyo commented, trying to help me so that I had to shoo him out of the kitchen.

            "I'll let him know you're interested," Doku promised, sinking into the armchair nearest Goku, who was bouncing about the room, lollypop long since finished.

            "So when is your birthday?" Goku piped. I smiled, and Sanzo but his hand over his face with a groan.

            "How old are you, bakasaru?" He growled.

            "You know how old I am." Goku understood the rhetoric but chose to ignore it. "We were jus' talkin' about birthdays, and I was wonderin' how much older you were than Gojyo."

            "Seven years," Doku accepted the bottle of beer I passed him from the fridge and popped the lid easily with a long-nailed thumb.

            "So that makes you like…" Goku held out his hands for a moment in consideration, "forty!"

            "Thirty-three!" Gojyo and his brother protested in unison.

            "Sanzo, you gotta teach this kid to add." Gojyo snickered, watching Goku pull his mouth open with his fingers and blow a raspberry into the air.

            "So then how old is Kougaiji?"

            "Can't you act your age?" Sanzo implored with a snarl, jerking Goku back onto the couch, though there was little hope that he would remain immobile for more than a fraction of a minute.

            "He's twenty-eight," Doku answered, bemused by Goku's interest.

            "Hey Hakkai?"

            "He's twenty-six, saru," Gojyo filled in, earning a whack on the back of his head from an irritated youkai.

            "When is dinner gonna be ready," Goku continued unabashed.

            "Oh just about thirty minutes or so." I nudged the lemon-peppered chicken with a spatula and busied myself with the other side-dishes only to realize that conversation had fallen flat and become extinct on the other side of the counter. Gojyo and Dokugakuji looked at one another awkwardly, Goku was humming softly and sucking at another piece of candy, and Sanzo looked content with a newspaper he had pulled from the top of the bookshelf.

            "Dokugakuji," I began, not minding the job of rescuing conversation that usually fell to me, "you've been farther than any of us since the end of the Minus Wave's threat. How are things looking in the South?"

            "Actually," he looked relieved to have the uncomfortable silence in the room between former enemies broken; I smiled to him softly from where I was dicing vegetables, hardly having to glance down at the cutting board. "Things look better down South. There's still a lot of segregation, but no one expected folks to mesh right away. The good news is that I passed through a lot of towns where I saw youkai and humans, sometimes even working or living together."

            "Yeah really?" Gojyo looked interested in this, and his brother nodded.

            "Yeah. I'd say the best was Long'ra; it's inside Kougaiji's domain, but near the border. I was passing through there with a trail of ministers who were gathering a census, and we didn't get any shit from the humans or the youkai."

            "Why would the youkai be complaining?" Goku queried. I admit I was also uncertain.

            "They don't like to see the human ministers," Doku explained; "Kougaiji's hired both."

            "How progressive," I mused, impressed with the prince's willingness to be the first to suggest reconnecting humans and demons. Though given his background, so much like Gojyo's, it made sense that he ought to initiate such a movement.

            "Yeah well, I went through the town hall—it's a really small village, probably less than three hundred people—but I saw a couple gettin married, a human and a youkai."

            "No shit," Gojyo breathed, a slight smile behind his eyes.

            "Already!? That's good news," Goku threw in, grinning widely. "I think one day everybody's gonna have red hair," he added, looking pleased with his prediction. "Why not?" He shrugged in defense when Sanzo tossed him A Look.

            "I'm pleased to hear that wounds are, at least in some places, beginning to heal," I couldn't help but remember the bar at which Doku and I had met, and the glares of the patrons, and the dejected, lost look in Gojyo's eyes after his fight with Banri's men in our own town. I silently wished the North equal luck in bridging the rifts between specie.

 

            Dinner was celebratory and fortunately not too violent. Gojyo seemed in too much of a good mood to bother bickering with Goku over the last spring roll, and Goku was rather preoccupied with the heavy scent of chocolate cake coming from the kitchen.

            I was pleased to see even Sanzo eating the mix of rice and vegetables I had fried lightly in olive oil. Most of what I prepared was what I thought Gojyo would enjoy, though he was no more picky an eater than Goku. Lemon-peppered chicken, vegetable stir-fry, spring rolls, mashed potatoes, and small cylindrical wedges of cranberry sauce sufficed. I didn't bother with a salad, knowing my former troupe's preferences to some degree, at least. Naturally, alcohol was a necessary ingredient to the mix.

            "You're a great cook, Hakkai," Doku grinned over his glass to me, and must have kicked Gojyo beneath the table, because he turned to face him. "You're lucky, little bro, to have ended up with someone who puts up with your habits and cooks for ya too."

            "That's what I tell him ev'ry day," Goku chimed in, grinning cheekily at Gojyo.

            "It's not as though it's an unfair trade," I added in Gojyo's defense, "he has to put up with my habits too."

            "No one believes you have habits to match his horrendous living patterns," Sanzo commented, deadpan, between sips of sake.

            I laughed lightly, "Oh you might be surprised." Gojyo tossed me a smile.

            "Says the drinking, smoking, monkey-loving monk," he commented further, earning a wicked glare from the fair-haired priest. Doku raised his eyebrows and looked between Goku and Sanzo more closely, a roll frozen in his hand, halfway to his mouth.

            "No shitting?"

            "Urusei." Sanzo hissed, providing enough incentive for me to begin an entirely new conversation.

            "Do you have any resolutions for your twenty-sixth year, Gojyo?"

            "Yeah, actually." His answer surprised me, as he never seemed the type to set goals for himself on a long-term basis. "Gonna put in a deck."

            "Out back?"

            "Yup. Maybe try to expand to home installations at work too. And all th'other stuff I always resolve to get done."

            "Stuff like what!" Goku barked through a mouthful of rice. "You never made a New Year's resolution in your life."

            "I have too," he smirked, "stop drinking, stop smoking. Nice and consistent."

            "But you never do either of those things," Goku reasoned, stuffing a biscuit into his mouth as he waited for Gojyo's rebuttal.

            "'Course not. Then I'd be outta resolutions." He snickered, and Sanzo rolled his eyes; Goku laughed a moment later when his throat was cleared, and Doku chuckled into his sake cup.

            "I don't plan to do shit very much," Gojyo explained with a shrug. "When it needs doing, I just get to it. Planning doesn't end well for me. At least not long term stuff."

            "Yeah I know the feeling." Doku agreed, becoming more at ease by the minute despite the stoic human among us who still didn't seem wholly comfortable with his presence.

            "Hakkai when is it cake time?" Goku leaned back in his chair and stretched, his concerned eyes riveted to the countertop nearby and the mound of chocolate-covered chocolate resting atop the porcelain cake tier.

            "I suppose now, if everyone is finished."

            "Bring it on," the youngest (oldest, really) of our party insisted. The others were somewhat mellowed by the alcohol, and I feared Goku would become hard to handle when his low tolerance for caffeine was put to the test.

            I brought the cake and knife to the table, knowing better than to light candles atop it. Goku would be amused, Sanzo irritated, Dokugakuji confused, and Gojyo embarrassed. Dessert passed smoothly, and I took care of most of the dishes as the sake managed to hold up one leg of the conversation between guests. Gojyo grilled Doku about his new position as Kougaiji's right hand man, and Goku became increasingly hyper, much to Sanzo's evident distaste, and requested a battle with the demon prince to "set things strait for sure," though he assured Doku it was only for sport.

            By the time I had straightened the kitchen and table, save for a clutter of shallow cups and mostly-empty beer bottles, Goku had brought a blue-covered parcel over to push into Gojyo's lap, insisting he open it right away. At my insistence we moved first to the nearby living room, and I took the end of the couch nearest to Gojyo's chair; Goku sat cross-legged on an ottoman he had pirated from the other end of the room.

            "It's from Sanzo and me," He promised in a whisper, as though the monk couldn't hear him three seats down. "We didn't know whata get'cha, so I took a shot."

            Pulling away the paper, Gojyo revealed a two-layered square box of chocolates and, on top of the wax paper inside, a silk-wrapped whetstone. I recognized Sanzo's input immediately, and glanced fondly at the violet eyes watching closely from across the room.

            Doku's tall gift bag yielded a vintage wine, red, and the proper thanks were expressed. I recognized Gojyo's discomfort in accepting presents from anyone; begging Sanzo for a Marlboro on the road when his own supply had run out was one thing, but being offered presents for a birthday seemed to put him ill at ease. I debated over whether or not I should give him mine, and Goku beat me to a solution.

            "So Hakkai aren't you gonna give him his gift?"

            "I should," I smiled softly to the kappa, who drawled with interest, "What, in front of everyone right here?"

            I rolled my eyes to conceal a blush and returned shortly from the kitchen where I had hidden the cigarette case, wrapped in the small parcel-paper used in the shop. "You are, and you must admit to it, very difficult to buy for," I teased, pressing the small object into his hand.

            He accepted with a smile, pulling the paper back and looking with raised eyebrows at the garnet-streaked case. I recognized that he was pleased right away, and was thus content. His expressed his gratitude and, after half an hour, Doku rose to leave, admitting to having an early day to follow. Thanks were exchanged, and we saw him off. Goku was pleading with Sanzo within the next five minutes to linger a bit longer, but gave in shortly thereafter, wishing Gojyo a happy birthday and warning him to "be nice" to me that night after such a delicious dinner.

            The house was shortly silent once again, and I felt a tug on my hair when I bent to pick up the bits of paper that had missed the trash can. "Hm?"

            "Hey." Gojyo smiled at me, drawing me into a soft kiss. "Thanks, Hakkai. I mean, no one has ever done that for me before. You know you didn't have to." I could sense the tension in his muscles and the evasion of his gaze. It made me smile and shake my head; he wasn't used to thanking people, I realized, because no one had ever done anything before to merit it.

            "Gojyo you're welcome, and I hope you enjoyed it." I pushed a strand of hair from his eyes, kissing him again, deeply this time, and letting my arms slip about his neck. I sensed him relax shortly after, his body pressing against mine within the minute, hands gliding over my shoulders and back.

            "So hey…do you have any of that frosting left?"

            "Yes," I nodded, confused for a moment at the subject change until I discerned his intentions and blushed brightly. "I was going to throw it away, but I suppose you've already made plans for it?"

            He laughed, pressing a swift kiss to my cheek. "A'course. You wanna meet me in the bedroom?" He waggled his eyebrows and darted off in the direction of the kitchen. I felt my body tense in anticipation, watching him tug off his shirt as he walked through the door moments later, the small bowl in hand.

            "You sure you're okay with this?" He murmured, knowing my tendency to lean towards more conservative behavior in the bedroom. He swiped a thin film of chocolate over my lower lip and licked it off with a smooth, hot tongue, following an invisible trail down the side of my neck.

            "Gojyo," I said quite seriously, capturing his attention for a moment, "I could hardly refuse a request on your birthday."

           

 

            Although I can remember what it was like to be unhappy, I try not to. That part of my life had ended, and I had learned from it. In my opinion, there is no use dwelling on the past, so long as it is never forgotten.

Our first springtime together is one memory I do care to revisit on occasion. Gojyo had switched jobs, going from the lumberyard to a carpenter's workshop, and we had both decided to work on the exterior of our home now that the weather was warming up and flowers could finally be planted. He built a wooden porch swing for the backyard, and I stripped an eight by ten foot patch of lawn for a vegetable garden. Sanzo and Goku began to visit more regularly, generally under Goku's insistence, and our single apple tree was raided monthly, even before the fruit was ripe.

             One particular evening we had had an outdoor dinner, utilizing the stone grill Gojyo had repaired that sat on the edge of the lawn. I had made cider, and Gojyo had spiked it, so even Sanzo was in a tolerable mood.

            "This is really good Hakkai—didja make it from the garden?" Goku was working through his sixth or seventh piece of chicken, and being watched carefully by Sanzo, for he had twice tried to sneak a drink of Gojyo's cider.

            "Oh knock it off already!" Goku interrupted his own question when Sanzo snatched the cup from him. "I'm twenty-two! Wait no, five hundred twenty two, dammit. I wanna have the cider!"

            "You'll get sick." Sanzo reminded him, drinking it himself.

            "I will not! I've got an iron stomach. Hey hey! That was mine!"

            "Like you really need alcohol in your system? Do you wanna kill that last lonely brain cell?" Gojyo smacked him with his spatula, and Sanzo returned the gesture with his harisen. I was content to remain an amused bystander, still working through my second glass of the rather potent concoction Gojyo had formed with some favored brand of liquor.

            "Like you can talk? You've already gotta be drunk; you're wearing an apron like a chick." Goku stuffed a bun into his mouth.

            "It's a guy's apron."

            "What's it say? Hakkai, what's it say?" Goku turned to me, and I gave Sanzo a disapproving glare.

            "You've not been teaching him to read at all?"

            "You try teaching him." The monk stated flatly. "All he can think about is food."

            Gojyo snickered, "you sure your lessons don't just devolve into screwing on top of the desk?"

            "Ero kappa!" Sanzo smacked him ruthlessly with the harisen, and Goku continued to ask about Gojyo's apron.

            "It says 'kiss the cook,' Goku."

            "Yeah but that doesn't apply to you, monkey," Gojyo growled, rubbing his head and attempting to straighten his hair out.

            "As if."

            "Oh sorry, do you only go for the girly types now?" He tugged at Sanzo's robes for emphasis, flipping the monk's hair back.

            "Oh, Gojyo," I tried to warn him, but couldn't help my laughter as Sanzo pummeled him with the harisen once again, spouting obscenities. Goku joined the fray for the sake of fun, and I ended up dragging a dizzy Gojyo back to his seat atop the picnic bench he had built.

            "Try to be civil please?" I implored our small group.

            "Yeah tell him that," Gojyo growled, eyes narrowing in the monk's direction.

            "Just like bein' back on the road," Goku crowed happily, taking his seat beside Sanzo. "Speakin' of which, where's Hakuryu?"

            "He's indoors at the moment; he's been in and out."

            Goku leaped up and rushed through the sliding glass door, calling for the small dragon with his hands cupped about his lips. "Hakuuuryu!"

            Sanzo groaned and put his head between his hands. "It's going to be a long night. You idiots gave him sugar."

            "What, he doesn't get sugar at Chang'an?"

            "Where the hell would he find it?"

            "Good point. I forgot monks can't eat sweets," Gojyo mused aloud, "though I thought for sure you'd sneak something in for your lover." Placing special emphasis on the word irritated Sanzo, but I thought if I had said it, that particular phrasing wouldn't have fazed him.

            "Shut up." It had only been recently that Sanzo had come to openly acknowledge his relationship with Goku. Gojyo had been teasing him about it for a lot longer.

            There was a crash from inside, and Goku darted out in a flash of gold, cape swirling behind him. "I uh…I think Hakuryu got into something."

            "You bakasaru! What didja break?" Gojyo growled, ruffling his hair playfully and following me into the house. The cookie jar, fortunately empty, lay in several large chunks of chalkware on the kitchen tile.

            "Oh well at least it didn't make a big mess."

            "You're a walking tornado Goku." Gojyo helped me pick up the pieces, ignoring Hakuryu's chatter and mad dash for crumbs.

            "Baka." Sanzo slammed his harisen down over Goku's head, not terribly concerned with the broken antique.

            "I'm sorry Hakkai," Goku said softly, fidgeting and avoiding my eyes. "It jus' tipped."

            "You're like a five year old," Gojyo snickered, going into the pantry and handing him a plastic container of cookies. "Don't go near the breakables."

            "It's quite alright, Goku. Accidents happen," I assured him, smiling to Gojyo at how easily the younger member of our party bounced back.

            "Thanks!"

            "I'm going to kill you," Sanzo growled, eyes narrowing as Goku stuffed a snicker doodle into his mouth.

            "Aw c'mon Sanzo they've got cinnamon!" Goku wheedled through a mouthful, holding one out that the priest declined.

            "You mean he's got a sweet tooth? I can't see him sucking on anything but lemons." Gojyo baited him as I brought the dishes inside and stacked them near the sink to be cleaned. They broke out into an argument, but I doubted it would lead to anything physical. Sanzo was, contrary to expectation, rather mellow when buzzed. Gojyo knew a fight would ruin the night for me, and then the early half of the morning for him.

            When the bickering stopped, my hands were already submerged in the soapy water of the sink. A warm palm on my shoulder alerted me to Gojyo's presence.

            "Need some help?"

            "That would be nice."
            "I'll dry." He brushed a kiss across my nape, planting his lips carefully at the small oval of skin near my hairline.

            "Did they settle down in there?"

            "Yeah sorta. That pissy monk took the monkey's cookies, and all hell broke loose, but I guess they're okay now. At least I don't hear anything falling apart or getting shot."

            "A relief," I teased, passing him a wet handful of silverware. "But I am glad they came."

            "Me too. Monkey at least."

            "We wouldn't be complete without Sanzo's presence; you know that."

            "I guess. He's the yin, aint' he?"

            I laughed, "But to be properly balanced, we would need two to represent yin."

            "Okay then they're the yin," Gojyo corrected himself, snickering as he peered under the cabinets and over the counter to look in on our guests.

            "Oh my you sound like a Taoist now, Gojyo. Are you going to start philosophizing?"

            "Nah, I think I've had enough of that for one lifetime, thanks." He seemed to slip into deeper thought, and I continued chattering.

            "Do you remember that evening we spent in that town? It was so pleasant; I never would have expected such a dark outcome…" 

            "Yeah. I remember." His tone was clipped as he jerked up from where he had been leaning over the countertop. "I'm gonna go get a…blanket." He finished lamely, down the hall before I had a chance to question his change of mood.

            "Gojyo it's seventy degrees out." I spoke to the empty kitchen, finishing the dishes quickly and walking back towards the living room.

            "Is everything—oh." I blushed faintly, covering my mouth at Sanzo's signal. He was reading a newspaper on the edge of the couch, and Goku was sound asleep, head pillowed on the monk's lap. "Sorry," I whispered, sitting in the chair beside him and looking gently upon the picture they made. Sanzo sent me a threatening glare, and I averted my gaze, glancing up as Gojyo entered again, blanket wrapped loosely about his shoulders as though he were cold. Sanzo warned him with a single look, and Gojyo simply shrugged and fell back into his own chair, all of us facing the wide windows that looked out onto the backyard.

            When Goku stirred, Sanzo sat up, nudging him off of his thighs. "Time to go, saru."

            "Whaaa? But I jus' dozed!"

            "You were out half an hour," I informed him. "But of course you're welcome to stay later, if you like. You can spend the night here."

            "No. We're going back." It wasn't said impolitely. Sanzo thanked us civilly for our hospitality—or me, rather—and I let Goku take the remainder of the cookies back with him, much to Sanzo's displeasure. I left he porch light on until they were out of sight.

            "Gojyo?"
            "Hm?" He was looking out the bay window of the living room, returned once again to his chair. It was a beat up, overstuffed arm chair with wear on the centre that he refused to get rid of. It was his at his old apartment too.

            "Are you alright? You look…lost in thought."

            "Weird for me huh?" He grinned, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Jus'…you know. Thinking."

            "I wouldn't have intruded, only you looked pained."

            "Sorry," he murmured, glancing away again, and I caught a hitch in his voice. "Hey, 'Kai?"

            "Yes?"

            "Are you sure…this is what you want?"

            His words hit me with greater force than a punch could have inflicted; I felt my stomach and chest grow cold, and suddenly my insides were a vacuum, a vortex of empty, icy space. "What do you mean?"

            "Me. Us. This. Do you want it? Are you happy?" He turned to look up at me from his seat, and I nodded.

            "Why on Earth would I not be?" I hesitated to pursue further my questions; Why, Gojyo? Is it not what you wanted? Have you changed your mind after all this time?

            "I don't know." He rose, fisting his hands nervously. "Because I thought—I dunno. I thought you might want to get married or something. Have kids."

            I shot him a puzzled expression, and he bit his lower lip roughly; the tension within him seemed to fill the room; it made the hairs on my arms and nape stand up, charged with energy. "What would make you think that?"

            "You said it once. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and it all just hit me at once tonight, when you brought up that town, the Taoist's town."

            I nodded and encouraged him to continue without words, pained by his expression. Suddenly he was sad, the lines of it etched clearly on his face in the faint moonlight. His garnet eyes flashed at me, and I realized it was because they were damp.

            "Don't you remember?" He smiled weakly, "you said that you could finally start thinking about someone else. You wanted a good wife, and lots of kids. An' I'd be their uncle."

            I frowned, recalling the moment. It had been a great stepping stone for me, admitting that I was ready to try again someday soon. Gojyo had been silently supportive. I recalled his aversion of my gaze, and almost sorrowful agreement. Yeah. Let's see those nieces.

            "When you told me that," Gojyo murmured, "It was like a kick in the gut. I was so happy you were past mourning, and looking ahead…but it hurt that it wasn't at me."

            "Gojyo I hadn't even known that you cared for me." It came out like an apology.

            "I know. That's why I trusted what you said; you said it truthfully, without trying to protect my feelings, and I know I'm a selfish bastard for getting all beat up about it when I should've been glad for you, but I couldn't help it. It hurt so bad to think of you with someone else."

            I was stunned; that had been two years into our journey, four years ago. He had known so long? "Gojyo why didn't you tell me then?"

            "Because that would've been a god awful thing to do to you! I'm selfish, but not greedy. I want you, but I won't try to pin you down. You looked s'damn happy when you talked about havin' kids of your own…I wanted it for you too, when I thought about it. Even if it wasn't with me. And when you didn't talk about it again…I don't know. I pretended it didn't happen; made myself forget. That's the only reason I ever came out and told you how I felt. Now I wonder if I shouldn't have. Don't you still want a family?" The backs of my eyes burned with his questions; he looked more forlorn than I had ever seen him. "Gojyo,"

            "Because there's no denying you'd be a great dad. Any girl would be lucky to have you. If you…if you still want that, you know, you can have it." His voice lowered to a whisper, and I bit the inside of my lip. "I'm not gonna be the one to trap you here, if you ever decide you want to do that, make a family, I want you to, too. I just want you to know that."

            "Gojyo I would never leave you I--"

            "But if you wanted to," he persisted, hands fisting, empty, his arms tense. "If you wanted to," he whispered it this time, "you have to swear that you'd tell me. Swear you'd let me know."

            I nodded dumbly, moving to him and pressing my face to his chest. "You're so ridiculous," I whispered; it came out as a sigh. "Selfless bastard."

            His arms slid tightly about me, cheek resting in my hair. "I just didn't want to make you stay, if you didn't want to. But Gods, Hakkai, I'd miss you," he breathed into my hair, holding me closer, hands splayed on my back. Gojyo had been abandoned, betrayed, too many times in life to expect anything else out of people. And he would willingly let me go, if it would make me happy.

            "I'll never leave you," I murmured, "please don't ever think it, Gojyo." I couldn't imagine what he had felt and lived with after that evening. I had never even noticed his pain; he had hidden it so well. I felt guilty for ever having said what I did, though I couldn't have known. Who else could I want but Gojyo?

            "You don't want a family?" He asked quietly, heart thudding near my ear. I could feel the tension in his chest and arms, running down his legs.

            "Gojyo you are my family," I assured him, lifting my head to kiss him, but pausing in surprise as a single tear trailed down the sharp line of his jawbone. He moved to brush it away in embarrassed irritation, and I beat him to it, kissing his smooth skin gently. "Please don't ever think I could want anyone else, or any other life."

            We made love quietly on the couch, and then again in our bed, clinging close to one another, kissing and exploring as though we had never touched intimately before. He held me to his chest, cheek buried in my hair during the afterglow; I rested my forehead on his collarbone, breath warming his bare chest. I squeezed his hand in mine, letting his callused thumb rub across my palm. I didn't need to say it. He felt it.

            It was then that the last of the ice, the last of my winter, melted away. I was showing signs of life, of springtime, warmed by Gojyo's autumn touch. Small shoots of hope had evolved into deep-rooted plants, budding with the promise of wide blossoms in the summer to come.

 

 

Golden Summer

 

We met some time ago, when we were almost young
It never crossed my mind to ask, where did you come from?

When I was choking on the words to say,

You shoved your fingers down my throat.

The first time I said I loved you,

You told me to go to Hell

I never thought I'd lose you, no I'd rather go blind
I thought I saw the future but the fortune teller lied
Your love was my salvation, it could always get me high
What was once holy water, tastes like bitter wine

We were one of a kind, one of a kind.

 

-Bitter Wine by Bon Jovi

 

 

 

            Once, when Gojyo and I were talking about my age, he said he couldn't imagine living over five hundred years; he'd forget too much. I countered with proof of an excellent memory, and he asked me, in that case, what the most important day of my life was.

            "I…well, I guess there're two, actually."

            "Yeah?" He wasn't baiting me, only curious. Now that we're not living out of each other's pockets anymore, there's a lot more room for an easy friendship between the kappa and me. Yeah he still calls me monkey, and I still call him cockroach, but that doesn't mean we can't have fist-free conversations. Sometimes he's like an older brother to me, and Hakkai too, even. I go to them for free advice all the time, though generally Hakkai is more willing to give it, unless it's about sex.

            "The day Sanzo freed me. On Mount Gogyo, when he let me out. That was the most important day of my life." I felt sure of it the moment I had said it.

            "And the other one?" Gojyo prompted, exhaling in the other direction because he knew I didn't like the smell of his cigarettes anymore than Hakkai did. (Marlboros are a different story.)

            "The day Sanzo said he loved me."

            "He said he loved you?" Gojyo looked at me incredulously, as though I had exaggerated to entertain him.

            "Yeah. Why wouldn't he?" I felt my temper beginning to flare, something three of the four of us seemed to have no control over. I bit my lip and remembered Hakkai's advice. "He does, you know," I added more calmly, watching Gojyo shake his head in silent amusement.

            "I just can't picture him saying those words; that's all."

            "Well, I never said he said it in words," I began to fidget, feeling that my relationship with Sanzo was under scrutiny all of a sudden, being compared in silence to what Gojyo had with Hakkai. I bet Hakkai told him he loved him all the time.

            "Go figure. He's a prick, Goku. You could do better." He was joking with me now, and the tension washed out of my shoulders along with a little sigh.

            "But I don't want to." I said simply. "I love him."

            "Yeah, I know. Only a monkey would be dumb enough to love that pissy monk." He ran his hand through my hair and I rolled my eyes, slapping at his wrist. "I'm not a dog!"

            "No, you're a fuzzy little monkey."

            "So stop pettin' me!" I never really had a problem with Gojyo's taunts, though I riled and responded quickly enough to them, just to keep him on his toes. I really had begun to miss spending every day with friends—I know they got sick of it, but they didn't spend the first part of their lives locked away from human contact. I couldn't bear to be alone after our journey, and still today I hate it. The silence gets to me, and when there's no one to look to, to touch, I get nervous. So when Sanzo's away, or busy all day and tetchy around me, I take the long walk through the woods to Hakkai and Gojyo's house. Sometimes I stay the night; Hakkai's always really friendly, and he always tells me I'm welcome any and all the time. I take him up on that frequently—especially around dinner time. Hakkai cooks really good stuff.

            I remember the first time I came to them, during winter, because Sanzo was busy all the time, and the cold made him almost as irritable as the heat. He seemed to want me gone, so I took off on vacation. The monastery is made of solid granite and freezing no matter where you go, even in the rooms with fireplaces and blankets. Gojyo's house has central heating. But that wasn't really the reason I went. I had had it with my inability to express myself, and the maddening shyness that would overcome me every time I tried to tell Sanzo how I felt. He would stare at me and threaten to shove his fingers down my throat if I didn't spit it out. Once I considered telling him to go ahead, wondering all at once what his fingers would taste like, but I figured that wouldn't be the best way to let him know. So I went to Hakkai's to ask his advice; he always had reasonable suggestions, and I knew he wouldn't laugh at me. He's the only one who ever took me seriously.

            The snow and the silence of the woods drove me nuts, so I took the long cut along the path that wound through several villages, glad to see the brown streak of ruts in mud roads and random shards of wood and metal implements peeking up from the blanket of white. It was blinding, and seemed to throw a shroud of stillness over everything. I still hate the snow and the ice, the way it stifles everything alive and creeps in slowly, lingering for too long. It reminds me of being trapped on Gogyo, huddling against the dirt wall that might as well have been ice. It took me a long time to gather up the courage to walk through the snow; I avoided high banks at all costs.

            The gorgeous reflection of sunlight off of frozen limbs, encased in an inch of ice, sent shivers through me. It looked like the entire tree had been entombed in a glass coffin, fit to each digit of its branches. The ground cracked and groaned beneath my feet, each stepping smashing it into awkward pieces. The lack of color was disheartening, and I walked a lot slower through the towns I passed, relieved to see people, if not outside, at least near their windows, eating or sewing or reading something. Their bright furniture and clothing kept my mind off of the glowing white nothingness muffling the sounds of nature.

            When I arrived, it was always with a trembling sense of relief. Hakkai kept the house warm in winter—I think he hates the cold as much as Sanzo does—and always ushered me right to the fireplace when I would come in encrusted with snow and ice.

            "Goku did you walk all that way? You're shivering," Hakkai tsked me, pushing me onto the couch and handing me a blanket. "Do you want me to make you hot tea?"

            I grinned at him, assuring him I was fine, and inquiring about cocoa.

            "Spoiled brat," Gojyo smirked at me from the kitchen, leaning against the wall as though it had been built to support him. "Is your monk not keeping you warm?"

            His jokes weren't meant to wound me; he had no idea that what I felt for Sanzo was anything more than youthful adoration. "Shut up, cockroach. It's cold as hell over there, and there's nothin' ta do."

            Hakkai pressed a warm mug of hot cocoa into my hands, and I beamed at him, receiving a faint smile in return. "Well you know you're always welcome here."

            "Thanks," I licked my upper lip, watching Gojyo out of the corner of my eye incase he decided to try something. I looked around the room, feeling at home away from home all at once. Their house was cozy, and I don't know if it was the décor or their presence, but there was a level of comfort I always reached here that I couldn't achieve in Chang'an. The monks' stares when Sanzo wasn't around, their murmurings, put me on edge. They still thought of me as a forbidden child, some sort of monster.

            "Kinda quiet aren't you?" The redhead was behind me now, and he swung himself over the back of the couch to sit beside me. "Is Baldy starving you over there or somethin'? You look kinda bushed."

            "He's not!" I protested heatedly, "Sanzo takes good care a' me," I promised Hakkai, who smiled softly. "But it's really cold…"

            "I could imagine; the entire building is stone, isn't it?"

            "Yeah, and we're not allowed to have fireplaces in our rooms, except Sanzo's, and he never turns his on anyways. There's one in the central room, and that's about it."

            Hakkai pursed his lips in a frown, "They're rather like the Flagellants in their self-abuse, aren't they?"

            Neither Gojyo nor I followed his question, and he seemed to accept it, not bothering to explain.

            "You're welcome to stay the night," Hakkai reminded me as he rose, going to continue whatever it was he had been doing before I interrupted. Gojyo groaned, running a hand over his face and then through his hair.

            "Hakkai," He moaned, head hanging over the edge of the couch arm.

            "Gojyo!" Something was exchanged between them in a glance, and I couldn't comprehend it, but whatever was said made the cockroach shut up. I suddenly realized the problem and, without bothering to screen my thoughts before voicing them—Sanzo was always getting onto me about that—I assured Gojyo, "If it's about the sex, you can still go ahead. I'll be on the couch; I don't mind," I promised. I didn't know much about sex, or how I was supposed to (or not supposed to) discuss it with others. Sanzo never talked about it really. I just didn't want to be an ungrateful guest, and make them change their habits because of me. As long as I had a place in front of the fire and full refrigerator access, I was content.

            Hakkai and Gojyo stared at me, the kappa open-mouthed, then suddenly laughing.

            "What!" I demanded in self-conscious annoyance. "What th'hell is so funny! I was jus' tryin' to be polite dammit!" I shoved Gojyo right off of the couch, and he only began to laugh harder. Hakkai was blushing faintly, and looked a little flustered.

            "It's alright, Goku. And that's not it," his blushing told me it was, "Gojyo was just behind impolite."

            "That is so it," he spoke from the floor, legs still propped up on the couch. "And monkey, how the hell did you figure that out?"

            "You two always smell like each other." I shrugged. "I asked Sanzo about it once, and he just told me. If you were trying to keep it a secret, you did a really shitty job of it, kappa." I smirked, kicking his legs off of the couch too.

            "No shit?"

            "I have a good nose."

            "I had no idea," Hakkai murmured.

            "Was I not supposed to say that?" After our journey I had become much more aware of what I was allowed to say, and what was not socially permissible, as Hakkai put it.

            "No, no, Goku. It's quite alright. You're welcome to the sofa, or the guest room. I don't want you going back to Chang'an only to freeze. We would be very poor hosts to turn you out," He glared at Gojyo, and it must have been a benign Look, because the kappa just kept grinning at both of us, bemused at my comment. I was starting to wish I'd never let them know that I had figured it out. I just couldn't help but think that they must view me as some little kid, even though I'm older than all of them, just because my first five centuries were spent in total isolation.

            I'm a fast learner, and it's not as though I went through our entire journey unaware of everything except food and fighting and Sanzo. Gojyo talked over my head all the time, and made not-so-subtle references to Sanzo's being a "cherry-chan," thinking I didn't understand it. Well I sort of didn't—why cherry?--but even after our return, he would wink at Hakkai or make some vague reference to the night before and think that only Sanzo understood it. I just had the sense to keep quiet. I was afraid Sanzo would be upset if he knew that I had matured in that way.

            But within a year I had changed my mind completely. I didn't want Sanzo to see me as the equivalent of a twelve year old anymore. I wasn't. I might as well have been twenty-two—it had been ten years since I had gotten out of my prison on Gogyo, and I wanted that to be recognized. I wasn't a kid anymore, but they were all still treating me like one.

            Instead of acting out—save that one little slip up at Gojyo's—I decided to add that to my list of Things To Ask Hakkai. I wanted to know how to make Sanzo see me as an adult, a man, and how to let him know that I love him without making him hate me. It was a tall order, but if anyone I know could do it, it was Hakkai.

            So I waited until later that night, when Gojyo had stopped grumbling about Hakkai's refusal to do more than kiss him and just gone to bed. The healer was up late, cleaning the kitchen or something, when I wandered over from my makeshift bed on the couch. I had requested that over the guest room because of its proximity to the fireplace. I liked to sleep warm.

            "Hey."

            "There are leftovers in the fridge, if you like, Goku. Please just put your dish in the sink," Hakkai anticipated my request, and I shook my head.

            "No thanks. Erm—maybe later, actually," I threw in the safety net incase I got hungry again. "I just…are you goin' to bed soon?"

            "I was planning on it. Why? What is it?"

            "Can I ask you somethin'?" My voice had lowered to a whisper, as though I expected Gojyo to burst into the room at any moment. I could almost hear him snoring through the walls, and I didn't sense activity behind the closed door.

            "Of course." He went to the stove and filled the kettle with water, flicking the nozzle towards hot. "What is it?"

            "What's the difference between love and a lover?" I had heard Gojyo use both words, and I was suddenly at an impasse, uncertain of how to describe what I felt for Sanzo.

            "Lovers generally implies some sort of physical gratification," Hakkai explained calmly. "But lovers can be in love too." For a brief moment, I wondered what Sanzo thought of all that.

            "Hakkai, how do you know when you're in love?"

            That made him smile, and his good eye almost glowed at me. "Goku, that's a difficult question to answer. There's no definite response I can give you, as it's an opinion, and really differs person to person. But," I must have been frowning, because he held out the last suggestion like a peace offering, "I can tell you what I believe."

            "Yeah," I nodded, hoisting myself up easily onto the barstool and leaning over the counter to watch him as he stood by the stove.

            "I believe when you love someone, you're willing to do everything and anything for them, with no regard to how it will affect you in return. You want to see them happy, and that becomes more important to you than anything else."

            "Is that how you feel for Gojyo?" I was treading a personal path, but to my surprise Hakkai didn't reprimand me for being nosy, but only nodded.

            "It is."

            I digested the information for a little bit, asking myself silently if that was how I felt for Sanzo. Every question I posed received an immediate and resounding yes.

            "Hakkai?"

            "Hm?" The kettle was getting ready to whistle.

            "How do you tell someone you love them?" The last few syllables of my sentence were cut off by the screeching pot, but Hakkai removed it from the heat easily and began to pour it over two tea bags in porcelain cups. He must have read my lips or something.

            "I don't know that there is any special way to do it, or one method superior to another…Goku, may I ask around whom are these questions centered?"

            "I'm jus' curious." I shrugged, and he passed me my cup, sending a disbelieving glance in my direction.

            "You don't have to tell me. I was only curious as well."

            I was too embarrassed to tell him yet, and I fidgeted under his scrutiny, wondering if his good eye could read Sanzo's name printed all over the inside of my skull. I tried to think of something else.

            "Is this a recent development?" Hakkai queried pleasantly, trying to make me comfortable, passing me a cup of tea the minute the cup was cool enough to touch.

            "Not really. I mean…sort of." I wasn't trying to be evasive, but I didn't want to make it obvious. How many people outside of the monks did he think passed through Chang'an? Tourists went to the temple at the bottom of the mountain, and even though I hung around on occasion, it was never long enough to get to know someone. Maybe he thought I had met someone in town.

            "Aa." I realized it was my turn to strike up conversation. All I could think about was telling Sanzo—or not telling Sanzo.

            "Yeah this person's…not easy to talk to."

            "You should be used to that," Hakkai teased, referencing Sanzo. I blushed.

            "It feels good to talk about it. I haven't told anyone," I admitted, thrumming my thumbs on the rim of the teacup, watching my reflection ripple in the brown liquid.

            "You can talk about it all you like." Hakkai sipped carefully at his, and my legs swung beneath the bar, nudging his.

            "I just…this person…" I let out a long sigh, trying to think ahead so that I wouldn't let anything slip that could give it away.

            "…Is very special to you?" Hakkai murmured, watching me nod. He made me feel better, even though I didn't think I'd be able to admit to my secret; it seemed like a betrayal at the time, of the friendship between Sanzo and me.

            "What's this now? Monkey's got his first crush?" Gojyo had snuck up on us; he even startled Hakkai; I noticed his head jerk up at the sound of the kappa's voice.

            "What's it to you cockroach?" I growled out of instinct, turning around to glower at him only to find a wide grin plastered across his face.

            "Hey, nothin'. I'm just a little offended you didn't come to me for advice."

            "I needed to know about love!"

            "So you went to Hakkai?" Gojyo protested, bare arms flung out to the sides in mock exasperation. Hakkai coughed and I could feel the glare he sent the kappa over my head. Gojyo calmed, flicking a hand through his red hair and looking at me closely.

            "Love is it?" He quipped, sliding onto the stool next to me and draping a long arm loosely about my shoulders, tugging me in a bit. I could smell his cologne faintly, something woodsy and not totally unappealing.

            "Yeah so what?" My voice came out sharper than I intended, but he must have been used to it, only rubbing my head in an almost-noogie.

            "This is big, kid. You usually only get this once in life," he reminded me, and Hakkai made a sound of agreement, going to pour tea for Gojyo too, though he probably wouldn't drink it.

            "That's why I didn't come to you," I reiterated, smirking up at him nastily. I received a light punch in the arm and a chortle, and Gojyo accepted the tea with a hasty thanks, returning to his big-brother-type advice.

            "So give me all the details. What's she look like—short or tall? I guess shorter—what about figure?" He smoothed his hands through the air in an hourglass shape, waggling his eyebrows. I heard Hakkai sigh as he fiddled around in the kitchen, trying not to seem invasive while still scavenging for information.

            "I guess…taller."

            "You guess? Is this an imaginary girlfriend?"

            "He's not imaginary!" I protested in annoyance, banging my head on the bar the moment I had let the wrong pronoun slip.

            "He?" Gojyo gaped, then shook his head in a laugh. "I guess traveling inside each other's pockets for so long got us a little too comfortable with other guys…that's not to say I don't still appreciate a nice figure on a woman," he took the time to remind me emphatically of his bisexual nature, not noticing Hakkai's hastened finger tappings on the countertop.

            "It's not like I usually look at guys. Or anyone, really." I shrugged. "I just know I love him."

            "That's cute, monkey." Gojyo smiled almost gently at me, and I thought I saw, through the familiar leer of my old adversary, how Hakkai found him handsome.

            "So spill it; who's the dude?"

            "Like I'd tell you." I scoffed, glancing off and folding my arms over my chest in a childishly defensive manner.

            "Whoa, hostility. Okay, settle for this: what color is his hair?"

            I thought that would be a dead giveaway, so I shrugged. "It's…lightish."

            "Ish?" Gojyo rolled his eyes with a snicker; I noticed Hakkai take up round two of counter-polishing in the background.

            "So is he good-lookin'?"

            "He's beautiful," I said softly, meeting my own gaze in the murky reflection of my drink.

            "Beautiful huh?" Gojyo considered my words tactfully, leaning back on the stool and tilting his head up at the ceiling as though he could see through it and to the stars. "Not a lotta guys like that."

            "No, there aren't." I agreed quietly.

             "Does Sanzo know?"

            "No. And don't you dare tell him about this."

            "Cross my heart," Gojyo promised, though undoubtedly his avowed silence was the result of a fearsome glare from Hakkai, rather than my pleading. "The pissy monk'd blow a gasket if he thought you were doing something so 'unholy,' Gojyo snickered. "Ya know, 'cause with his smoking and swearin' and all he's pretty much got all the other baldies praying for him as it is—he can't afford sex ontopa that."

            I glanced away in a blush, and the other two naturally thought it was at the mention of sex, rather than of Sanzo.

            "…I'm guessin' that priest never taught you about the birds and the bees huh?"

            "What the hell does that haveta do with anything!?"

            "Goku, that's a euphemism for intercourse." Hakkai supplied; having finished his second round of granite-polishing, he sat down across from us again.

            "No, then. But it's not his job to."

            "If you ever need to know anything," Hakkai began, good eye gentle, the other gleaming harshly under the light, "all you have to do is come to us."

            "Yeah, you're gonna haveta learn about this sometime saru," Gojyo added, "especially when this dude decides he wants to-"

            "Ero-kappa! It's not like that!"

            "How can it not be?"

            "I haven't…exactly told him."

            "Not at all?" Gojyo balked, "You ought to do it before it's too late, before he ends up with someone else."

            "I don't think there's much of a chance for that," I assured him, finally sipping at my tea. It was lemon and herb.

            "Why is that?" Hakkai wasn't being pushy, but I just couldn't answer the question. I fidgeted.

            "Goku, is it because he's one of the monks at Chang'an?" Hakkai murmured, nearly causing Gojyo beside me to loose his mouthful of tea. I opened my mouth to vehemently deny it, but my face betrayed me, heating up like a radiator beneath my tan.

            "Oh." Hakkai sighed, probably restructuring the advice he was going to give me to fit my situation more appropriately. "Oh Goku."

            "Yeah well. That's why I just ain't gonna say anything."

            "I trust he hasn't…reciprocated your feelings in any way?"

            I shook my head, feeling my tea grow cold against blushing, burning palms.

            "That is difficult," the healer admitted, a shock of dark hair falling over his right eye. Gojyo broke his silent meditation.

            "Saru didn't you say he had light hair?"

            "So?"

            "I thought all the monks were baldies at Chang'an. All of 'em except Sanzo anywa--" He stopped in mid sentence, waiting for me to rebuke him for his assumption. Hakkai seemed shocked that he had overlooked the obvious, and I hung my head even lower.

            "Sanzo!" Gojyo howled, leaping up from his stool and nearly toppling it.

            I was too shocked to respond.

            "Sanzo!" He managed again, choking in shock. "Saru you can't be in love with him! He's the biggest prick on Earth, and he's gotta be the worst monk in history."

            "Shut up about him."

            "Goku…" Hakkai was staring at me too, and I wanted to sink into the floor and disappear, make their prying eyes vanish.

            "I can't help it okay!" I hollered, knuckles turning white with the wrestler's hold I had put on the cup. Hakkai gently pried my fingers off of it, scooting it out of range.

            "When did you first realize this, Goku?"

            "Months ago," I breathed, feeling a small weight being removed from my chest; Hakkai had suddenly become my confessor. "A long time ago," I amended, unsure of the exact number of days, weeks, months. "Even on the journey," I added, compiling my sins so that I could be given my penance to work through all week.

            Hakkai was pensive, Gojyo somewhere between shocked and amused. Both were silent. "Is it so bad?" I murmured. "He's been good to me. I really…want him to know."

            "You can't exactly tell a guy like that you're in love with him. You know he'd freak out, saru. Guy's never even had sex; I doubt he can handle love right off the bat."

            "It's not just that." I made Hakkai looked up when I paused. "I think…I think I'm the first guy he's trusted in a really long time. And if I tell him how I feel, he's going to think I've been looking at him like that—like the ero-kappa—during the whole journey. And I wasn't!" I protested, as though it was my current audience who needed convincing. "I never woulda done something bad like that to him. I just want him to know, but if I tell him…he'll hate me."

            "I don't believe Sanzo would ever hate you, Goku," Hakkai whispered reassuringly. "You saved him as much as he saved you. But you're right in that telling him would result in disaster. He isn't built to handle that sort of emotion. He lost that ability rather early in life, I would estimate…"

            "But it can come back," Gojyo offered, giving Hakkai a visual nudge. "People can learn to love again. To trust again."

            "Not all people are the same," Hakkai explained. "And Goku is correct that he would risk losing everything if he gave Sanzo the barest hint."

            "So the real question is," Gojyo pieced together for me, "is it worth it?"

 

            I slept on the couch by the fireplace all night, listening to Gojyo through the walls—though they were a lot thicker than those at most of the inns we'd stayed at—trying to persuade Hakkai into something more than cuddling.

            I was envious of them, and part of me was glad Hakkai wasn't giving in. Gojyo was lucky to have someone—not just anyone either, but the one he loved—whenever he needed him. Hakkai was always there for him. But in all fairness, there aren't a lot of times Sanzo hadn't been there for me. Only not as my lover, just as my keeper, my guardian. I felt worse thinking of our relationship as a friendship, because that sharpened the sting of my betrayal. If he knew how many times I had thought back on the little pats on the head he had given me, the smiles when no one else was around, that one time I had woken up to find him watching over me…he'd hate me. I wasn't supposed to treasure those memories anymore than he did. Maybe I wasn't even supposed to remember them at all.

            After breakfast, I returned to Chang'an, turning down Hakkai's offer to stay another night. Gojyo didn't groan at the courtesy this time, nor did he look particularly relieved to see me go. I know he cares about me, just like I do him, but neither of us wants to say it. There was a mutual acceptance of it between us. We had always had each others' backs fighting, between the insults, and I think we still watch over one another today.

            "Where were you?"

            "I told ya I was goin' to Hakkai's n' Gojyo's last night."

            "You spent the night?"

            "It's freezing here at night. You don't even light a fire. I got cold," I explained, watching him over the top of his desk, eyes following his elegant hands out of habit, glancing up occasionally at the strong line of his nose and cheekbones, an aristocratic face, I thought.

            "What do you want?"

            "Sanzo…" It made him look up, and he almost put down the pen, too.

            "What?"

            "It's gonna get colder." I said dully. "Let me go to town and buy some more blankets?"

            He handed over the gold card, evidently pleased to have me going someplace else.

            "Do as you like."

            "I'll bring you back some too," I promised, smiling faintly at him and silently willing him to return it. His violet eyes flashed at me in some unreadable signal, but his lips remained unmoving. I left.

 

            The town was bustling despite the cold, and I took comfort in the sound of carts being pushed to and fro, wheels creaking and voices laughing and grumbling. I wandered more than was necessary, peeping into shop windows and staring at large jars full of colorful candy—no fruit this late in winter—and a bakery stacked high with bread and meat buns. But it was to the little general store on the edge of town that I handed over Sanzo's card, a pile of three blankets obscuring the lower half of the cashier's face.

            "Yeah it's getting cold out isn't it?" He tried to make conversation, smiling to me with a little pat on the head. He was a human, and he didn't seem to know that I was not. "At home we just got central heat put in," he added, typing the prices into his old-fashioned register. "Bet you already have that."

            "Nah, I wish. I live at the temple," I explained with a shrug, stuffing my hands temporarily back into the pockets of my cloak. "It's always as cold inside as it is outside."

            "At Chang'an?" His grizzled brows lifted and he peered more closely at me. "There's a rumor going around that they're keeping a youkai up there. I guess that wouldn't be true, would it?"

            I gave him my best poker face, accepting the card and a receipt, and scooped the blankets up into my arms. "I wouldn't know about that." I returned flatly, tossing a thanks over my shoulder as I left.

            It hadn't occurred to me before what Sanzo was risking by letting me stay. I added selfishness to my list of sins, right below betrayal. How could I ever ask him to show any sort of affection towards me when keeping me there alone was such a hazard in itself? I rested my chin on the pile of wool blankets, tramping through slushy streets for a long while, dodging merchants and saleswomen waving their wares about. It wasn't until I felt the solid crunch of ice beneath my shoes that I realized I had left the town behind, and was on my way back to the temple. I hadn't detoured as much as I usually did, and I wondered what I would do when I got back.

            Winters were tricky. I rarely had much to do; usually I helped garden, or rebuilt things, but in the cold, most of the monks were doing paperwork and chanting. I couldn't read or write, and I doubted they wanted a heretic in their prayer room. Sanzo would get annoyed if I followed him around like a second shadow all day, so I decided to make myself useful and ask him, upon returning, what I could do for him.

            "What?" He looked up from his papers, violet eyes staring at me over the top of my purchases. "Move your mouth from the covers, baka." His reprimand was gentle, and I knew him well enough to catch the faint flicker of a smile pulling at the very corners of his lips.

            "I got you blankets." I repeated. "And now I'm wondering what else I can do. Ya know. To be useful."

            He lifted an eyebrow at me, putting his pen down. I bit my tongue roughly in punishment for thinking he looked very handsome in glasses. Nails dug into my palms when he removed them, and pushed his hair back with one fluid gesture. "Clean the floors then."

            "Okay, Sanzo." I smiled at him and, lost in thought, I forgot to leave.

            "Goku?" It was an exasperated tone, as if he were still dealing with a child, but I was relieved there was no anger behind it. The way he said my name—he so rarely did—made my heart thud a little faster.

            "I…I'll get right on it, Sanzo." I smiled and darted out, dropping the blankets off in his room and mine, which were connecting by a bathroom. I left two of the wool covers on his flat pallet, thinking that he must get impossibly cold at night. I wondered if his cheeks flushed with the cold. I thought he would look very attractive like that, and then I made myself stop thinking altogether. No good ever came of it. I was better at doing anyways.

            I scrubbed the floors and ate dinner for four before going to bed, pleased to see the spotless granite and tile beneath my feet as I hurried towards the warmth of my pallet sheets. The bathroom door was closed, and I heard the movement of water inside. Like a good friend ought to, I banished the images bombarding my brain and undressed, diving under the blankets and huddling up against the pillow. The night was cold, and I swore I could see my breath in the dark air. I willed sleep unto me, curling tightly in wool. Near to dozing, it occurred to me that a good friend probably wouldn't have any such images to banish.

           

            When I awoke, it was with an unfamiliar tension in my lower stomach, and my first reaction was panic, because I was so hot I was sweating. A fever—the flu—something from sleeping in the cold like this and not eating enough protein. Shifting to crawl out of bed and badger Sanzo about my condition, I felt the smooth sheet rub over a part of myself that wasn't usually so…awake. It sent tremors straight to my groin and had me flat on my back within an instant, nervous and exhilarated.

            It's not as though Hakkai had never explained that to me—we'd had that talk on the trip, anyways. Sort of. When I asked him what Gojyo had been doing, and well, you can imagine. But I didn't think it would feel like this. I was hesitant to touch, content to arch my hips teasingly against the weight of the blankets and moan into the back of my hand. Flashes of dreams returned in fragmented images of ivory, marble skin over bronze, stroking and kissing with reverence…

            It wasn't until I had half-stifled a deep cry of release that I recognized the new sin to be added to my list. I had to see Hakkai. This couldn't be good, that I was thinking of Sanzo in such a way. That I wanted to do more than hear him say he cared about me, but feel it too. Hakkai would know what to do; I just had to wait until morning so that I could go over. I resolved to do just that, but feared another similar dream, and worse yet, what it might do to me. Squeezing my eyes shut just made it worse, so I forced myself to stay awake the rest of the night, blankets thrown off so that the cold could keep me up.

            Cleaning up had been a small challenge, because I never got up for the bathroom at night, and I was petrified Sanzo would catch me, and ask me what I was doing. I'm a really bad liar, and especially so around him. Fortune, for once, was on my side; he didn't awaken.

            When morning came, I dressed warmly and, sleepily, trudged about the monastery, helping some of the monks who were partial to me with the sweeping or cleaning. Just as I deemed the hour decent enough to pay a visit to Hakkai and Gojyo, Sanzo met me in the hall, grasped me by the back of my collar, and when I was on my feet again, I was in his office.

            "What the hell saru?"

            I blinked. What had I done now?

            "Spit it out."

            "Spit what out?" He didn't look angry, but maybe a little tired. I saw faint lines about his beautiful eyes, though I didn't think he looked any less lovely for them.

            "You know damn well what—whatever was keeping you up all night." When I didn't offer anything, he added, "It kept me up too. You were calling again."

            "Calling?" I knew we had some eerie connection, courtesy of the gods, that had permitted Sanzo to hear my silent calls from Mount Gogyo and free me, but we weren't telepaths, and this communication was not regular, or done at will.

            "You were calling my name, but in a different way," He allowed, muddling through the mystery out loud. "Not like before, when you wanted help. You sounded…breathless."

            The word passed his lips like one a body isn't accustomed to pronouncing. I repressed a shudder and wished I could do the same with my blush. "Sorry, Sanzo. I had some bad dreams. I didn't know. I'm going to Hakkai's today--"

            "No you're not." He accepted my excuse more willingly than I thought he would have, and only now, years later, do I realize it was because he was afraid of prying further, hearing what he didn't want to.

            "It snowed during the night, and you're needed here to shovel the walk." It was a petty pretext and when I raised my brows, he shook his head. "Just do it."

            He doesn't want me to leave?

            "And…stop…that."

            "What!"

            "Your voice in my head. Cut it out, saru." I hadn't realized I had been sending out signals again. It certainly wasn't intentional, and I assured him of it.

            "Whatever. Just clean the walks."

            I ducked out with murmured assent, and clearing the cobblestone pathways turned out to be an all morning job. I was finished at half past noon or so, and despite all my time alone, in the eerie silence of the winter and nature's burial shrouds, I was no closer to solving my dilemma. In fact, I reasoned that I was a little farther from it. Guilt was pounding a hammer behind my eyes and threatening a migraine to last for days. I wasn't even hungry for lunch, but I made myself eat to throw everyone else off.

            Shame was whispering at my ear all day, and the same words played through my mind like a mantra, hissing and heckling. Dishonesty, betrayal, lying, desire.

            By nightfall I had managed to convince myself that the dream, and my body's reaction to it, was a fluke. I felt more assured of that when I woke up the next morning with no memory of the night whatsoever. Life took on a sense of normalcy for a little while, and I even began to feel the tight knot of self-loathing loosen in my chest. But that was a short reprieve, and by the end of the week my subconscious was betraying me regularly, plaguing me with dreams of every sort. I couldn't lie awake every night; eventually I would fall asleep halfway through my chores and make everyone suspicious. Sometimes I thought I may as well do that, because they could probably read me like a book as it was. The thought brought a bright flush to my cheeks, running all the way to the roots of my hair.

            Ultimately I didn't even want to go to Hakkai and tell him, and certainly not Gojyo, because it seemed wrong to want to fix things when I so obviously deserved the punishment I was being dealt. And it was punishment, having to see him in my dreams, kissing me, touching me in places I never would have thought of while conscious, and smiling at me. But it was embarrassing too, having desires like this for a friend. Being a bad friend. I just couldn't tell Hakkai.

            The remorse stifled me, and for some reason it was worse on cloudy days. I had never been the sort to react sharply to the weather; I didn't get mopey when it rained, except for the fact that Sanzo did, and my well-being had always been attached to his. But when it stormed out, or snowed and sleeted, I began locking myself in the empty tower that was too cold for winter use and sitting, huddled against a wall, watching the snow and hail fall past the bars of the window, thinking of my cage.

            Sanzo found me up there once, and the sharp angles of his face visibly softened when he thought I wasn't looking.

            "Saru what the hell are you doing?" His voice was almost gentle, certainly not angry. I hadn't been in his way.

            "Jus' sittin'. It's too cold to go out."

            "Why here."

            "Needed to think." There was a long pause, and Sanzo strode to my side and sank down to my level, leaning against the wall too. I could feel relatively little warmth radiating from his body, but his robes brushed my arm, so I knew without looking that he was close.

            "You've been acting out of character." He said after a long time. I thought he sounded a little bit like Hakkai.

            "Sorry."

            "Why." He wasn't looking at me, but watching the snow with rapt attention. I lowered my gaze to my hands.

            "Sanzo I did somethin' really bad."

            He didn't move, or speak, but waited patiently for me to continue.

            "I don't have a lot of friends," I sighed, "but those I have, I really care about." Was he tensing beside me? "I think I'm a bad friend, Sanzo."

            Once again, why.

            "Because I…I have a close friend. He's always been good to me, there for me when I needed him most. But I…now things are different between us." I bit my lower lip hard. "I think I…sometimes I wanna…kiss him. You know?" My breath faltered, and I turned to look up at Sanzo, a bright blush staining my cheeks.

            He grunted and shifted position, a shock of fair hair falling over his violet eye; I felt that yes, he did know, and maybe he had the same desires—wanting to kiss people too, but not being able to. Only for different reasons.

            "Is it a sin to want to do that?" I ventured hesitantly, assuming that, if anyone would know, it ought to be Sanzo. A priest should know all about sins.

            "A sin?" He snorted in laughter, though his mouth didn't curve, it was more of a bark of amusement, the sort he gave Gojyo when he was in a good mood, and the kappa had done something stupid or struck out for the night. "That's not the question I expected from you."

            It was my turn to ask why.

            "Saru," he shook his head, "sin only exists so long as there's a man willing to believe it does. Do you think the gods write the codes of morality? They're worse than we are," he said flatly.

            "So you think…you think I should tell my friend?"

            "I think you should do whatever the hell you want." He deadpanned. I think he assumed I was talking about Hakkai; I had been visiting him regularly until my strange shift in behavior, and he must have concluded that it was because those feelings I had were directed at the healer.

            "Then you don't think it's bad?" I needed something a little more direct to ease my conscience. To my great shock, he gave me just that, turning to face me and, barely smiling—though it was most definitely a smile—said, "No, Goku. It's not bad."

            I beamed, and his smile fizzled out too quickly. "Thanks Sanzo."

            "When you go into town next," he offered, watching me leave, "let me know."

            I couldn't help but tease him now, hearing the concern in his voice. "Why's that?"

            "I'm almost out of cigarettes." He met my eyes emotionlessly, and I grinned broadly. "Will do."

            "Tch."

 

            When I did go back into town—to Hakkai and Gojyo's—Sanzo pressed the goldcard into my hand, and almost forgot to remind me to buy Marlboros. He seemed genuinely concerned about what I was going to do. Maybe he thought I'd tell Hakkai and get my heart broken, and he'd have to pick up the pieces. I was pleased to relieve him of that duty when I came back, after dinner of course, and handed him his cigarettes with a brief smile.

            "I bought a meat bun on the way back. I hope you don't mind." It was a little late if he did, anyways. He shook his head.

            "I don't."

            Things went on somewhat normally from there; Hakkai had given me more or less the same answer Sanzo had, though in about five hundred more words, and assured me that what I was feeling wasn't wrong because it was born out of love. He told me to do "what I thought best" concerning the situation. So, basically, whatever the hell I wanted. And, a month later, I knew just what that was. I wanted Sanzo to know.

            I think even today he believes it was something Hakkai said to me that brought this all on; I've never told him it was his advice that really persuaded me to do it. Hakkai's alone couldn't justify putting me through the hellish experience of that night.

I don't like to dwell on it, at least not all of it, because it hurt worse than any wound I've ever gotten, even that one Hazel wouldn't heal me from, when Hakkai had to take off my coronet to keep me alive. I thought for sure Sanzo hated me, was sick at the mere sight of me. There is nothing more horrific than being stared upon in hatred by the one you love, and if you think there might be, it's only because it hasn't happened to you. Sanzo soothed my wounds when, months later, he explained that it had been his own reaction that revolted him, and although he lashed out at me, most of it was an internal struggle.

            But when he did break through whatever shell he had molded about himself in defense, it was beautiful. He just rolls his eyes or makes a face when I say as much, but I know he hasn't forgotten our first kiss either. The first real kiss, where he was holding onto me, and I was purring against his lips, both of us hesitant, but trusting.

            Neither of us had had much experience in this venue, or any, really. I'd never done more than kiss a girl, though to be fair I should say been kissed by a girl. I didn't initiate it. I don't think Sanzo's ever kissed a girl. Or a guy, for that matter.

            But for not having any experience, he was sure good at it. At least for me, though anything would have been good, so long as it was Sanzo doing it. I can't explain how wonderful it felt to finally feel his acceptance, his desiring me. It was a weight off of my chest, a great flood of relief bringing my body back to life. Hakkai and Gojyo recognized it before I did, and I'm sure Sanzo did too, though he never would have brought it up; I had begun to act more myself, waking early and staying up as late as I could, pestering Sanzo and Hakkai for meat buns, picking random fights with Gojyo, and of course eating with gusto to match my appetite during our journey. The cockroach said he was glad I didn't look half-dead anymore, and Hakkai, more eloquently, told me that the fire behind my eyes had been relit, and he was happy to see that the flame had spread to Sanzo's too. Sanzo wasn't there when he said this.

            Our relationship together developed at a rapid pace, probably, I'd reckon, to make up for the five years we spent hiding and denying it room to grow. Sanzo made no qualms about my sleeping beside him; he just let me, whenever I wanted. Sometimes I thought he was nervous about it, or uncomfortable with someone else so close to him while he was vulnerable, unconscious. I began to take precautions, something uncharacteristic of me, but hey, I grew up a little bit too over those five years, you know.

            I would test the waters nightly, hesitant around him until I was certain that he didn't mind my presence. The last thing I wanted was for everything I'd worked so hard for to blow up in my face. It's not that I believed Sanzo would betray me, only that I was afraid he'd wake up one day and realize he didn't want me anymore. I would never make him stay. I want him to be happy. But I can't deny that losing him would hurt like hell. I'd never get over it. That was why I took precautions.

            Every night, the same thing. It was around ten or so, pitch outside, and just a hair on the chilly side of sixty degrees, because of the wind. I tiptoed into his room through the adjoining bath, smiling because he couldn't see me; he was leaning against the wide limestone sill of the window, letting the breeze dry his damp hair.

            I love the way it turns a dark, burnished gold in color when its wet, and my eyes lingered there in appreciation before slipping to his thin sleeping robe; the damp silk clung to him like a second skin, though I suspect he wouldn't have been wearing it had he noticed this. He's surprisingly modest in that way, though you'd never get that from talking to him. He's shy about being naked above the covers, and I think secretly a little embarrassed of the scars running up and down his back. He did his best to keep me from seeing them, and if I did, it was never for long. But I respected his desire to hide that—it was his right, after all, and a part of his past—though I never withheld anything from him. Then again, I was never a particularly shy person.

            "Hey."

            He turned to face me, thin lips surprisingly devoid of a cigarette. I wondered if he was out.

            "Up late." He remarked, closing one of the two shutters against the breeze.

            "Yeah." I walked to his pallet, flopping down on the left side, my side, and looked up to him. "Can I sleep with you tonight?"
            "You ask that every night, bakasaru."

            "Yeah." I acknowledged with a shrug.

            "Don't I always say yes?" He was trying to sound annoyed, but I knew him too well, and I couldn't help but smile. Naturally this made him more uncomfortable, and he slid into the covers too, hiding his slender form from sight. I burrowed, pressing close to him and testing these new boundaries.

            "Thanks."

            "Goku…" My ears perked up at the sound of my name; he was still adjusting to using it so frequently.

            "You don't…always have to ask." He managed, uncomfortable and showing it, though I thought his unnerved shifts and jerks beneath the sheets as he tried to settle himself were endearing. (That's what Hakkai calls it, anyhow.) I slid an arm about his waist and tugged him close, moving to press a chaste kiss against his lips.

            "Okay, Sanzo," I promised quietly, nuzzling his jaw. He shooed me off, rolling his eyes and dimming the oil lamp that sat on a stool close to the bed. I grinned widely and ducked below the covers, determined to have my way yet again that night, now much more certain of my standing, and his.

            "Baka--" He only managed half of the epithet, the rest being drowned out in a low groan. I felt the sheets beneath me twist up as he grasped them ruthlessly beneath callused fingertips, jerking his hips a bit out of instinct. I peeled the damp silk back from his body and covered the warm, tense flesh with hot kisses, hands roving up the length of his chest and shoulders, winning an occasional gasp or grunt. I think it's a point of pride for him, being quiet in bed. I was just the opposite; I'm as vocal there as everywhere else in life, except for the table, when I tend to have my mouth occupied. Then again, in bed…but never mind that.

            To use Gojyo's words, it was hot. He was stubborn by nature, and did he best to always avoid climaxing before I did. My youkai endurance only egged him on; as in everything else, he had to prove himself able to keep up. For fear of embarrassing him, sometimes I made myself release early, just to see the relief on his face and flush of pleasure underneath his skin as, for a brief moment, he let go out of the rigid control he held over himself. I can't describe to you how he looked just afterwards, panting beside me and damp with sweat, his ivory skin dusted lightly in a fair, rosy hue. He lets me kiss him then the most, and touch his face and hair, things he usually scoffs at in any other state, seeing them as useless, as they never really lead to anything in particular. I think just touching could be nice. But that's why I'm sentimental, and Sanzo is sensible (those would be Hakkai's words too).

            Senses once again collected, he shifted and drew the covers up over both of us, lying against the pillow, facing me. I could feel him withdrawing, the way he always does—it's just his personality—and closing up on me. I put my foot in the door.

            "I love you."

            He snorted at me and ruffled my hair, tugging me close, but not meeting my eyes. I kissed his shoulders and neck, laving my tongue over bite wounds I couldn't remember making. "Was it nice for you?" I asked, feeling his chest vibrate in near-silent laughter.

            "What do you think?" His voice was deep, tinted with amusement, and I beamed at him. He kissed my forehead softly, resting his cheek in my hair and closing his eyes.

            "Well I think you liked it," I murmured, and then, hesitating, "Genjyo."

            I felt him tense beneath me, and then pull back, sitting up. I blushed.

            "Am I not allowed to call you that?" I think the timid whisper, and the fact that it came out instinctually, rather than as an attempt to influence his decision, affected his reaction.

            "It's not that. Why would you?"

            "It's your name. Sanzo's justa title. I mean, I guess it's kinda become your name for all of us, but Genjyo's your real name. I just thought I…might call you your real name. Sometimes," I added, not wanting to ask too much, "and jus' when we're alone." It wasn't as though I had dredged up some unsavory memory, some forbidden part of the past. I would never presume to call him Kouryuu. I know no one is allowed to call him that, no more than Gojyo should ever call Hakkai Gonou. It was a part of the past that they had worked to bury, and neither the kappa nor I was cruel enough to try to unearth it and lay claim to it. We both accepted that, while we gave our entire hearts, our loved ones would never be capable of doing the same in return. We had to accept that.

            Sanzo thought it over, lying back down and, in a moment, drawing me close. "Do what you like," he murmured into my hair, cheek pillowed there as he shifted to find comfort.

            "Goodnight," I offered, receiving a muted grunt in reply.

            The next night went much the same, though I didn't ask to stay, and he didn't wait for me to initiate anything. It was great that night too. Just like the one before, and the one that followed. I think Sanzo must have been making up for the past dozen years of pent-up sexuality; he never once refused me, and I know it wasn't because he was afraid of hurting my feelings either. He was, and is, always on top. I don't mind, in fact I sorta prefer it; it gives me a sense of comfort, feeling his stronger body over mine. It's sort of like he's protecting me. Gojyo jokes about Sanzo secretly wanting to play uke, but I seriously doubt it. He's been deprived of control of his own life too often to willingly forfeit it for any occasion. But like I said, I don't mind. As in everything else he does, when he puts his mind to it, Sanzo learns fast.

            We've recently discovered this…spot…of mine that produced such a sensation and reaction in me that it had almost convinced Sanzo to let me find the same place in him. I asked Hakkai about it once, maybe too blatantly, because Gojyo spat his beer out all over the table and laughed for a good five minutes. Hakkai turned red.

            I told Sanzo it's called a prostate, and he smacked me as said of course he knew that (I don't think he did), but regardless we both made good use of this little discovery from then on. 

            But with regard to Hakkai and Gojyo—once they had figured out our relationship, or rather, once Gojyo had, and blabbed it to Hakkai—they weren't cruel about it. I expected reproach from the kappa, and a never-ending bout of bad jokes, but I only received about half of that. He looked almost happy for me, but of course he had a thing or two to say to the both of us once he was assured that he wouldn't receive a bullet between the eyes for his wit.

            Hakkai would counsel me when I had questions that I couldn't go to Sanzo with—especially questions about Sanzo—and Gojyo, surprisingly, gave halfway decent big-brother advice between jeers. When Sanzo was particularly busy with temple-stuff, I would go to hang out at their place, and sometimes I'd stay for dinner.

            "You're a freeloading monkey is what you are," Gojyo growled playfully from across the table. Hakkai had just led me through the living room to take a seat, ensuring me that he had made plenty.

            "I am not, and I'm hungry. I can't survive on just plants."

            "Yeah you'll get as skinny as Baldy."

            "You shut up about him," I growled in warning, smirking in silent victory when Hakkai popped Gojyo on the head with a spatula.

            "He's not staying the night is he?" Gojyo looked to Hakkai playfully, batting long crimson lashes in his direction. The shorter man looked to me with a soft smile.

            "I don't know yet. Goku, do you want to stay?"

            Gojyo groaned from the back of his throat, and I thought it would almost be worth it to say yes, just to piss him off. But I really wanted to go back to Sanzo. Especially because I thought it might rain that night, and I knew he was grateful for my presence when it did. He would let me sleep with my arms around him, or at least very close.

            "Nah, I'm good. I can never sleep through Gojyo's whiny pleas anyways," I said it so matter-of-factly that Hakkai almost missed it. The kappa flung a roll at me for the sake of old times, and I promptly stuffed it in my mouth and sneered at him in return.

            "Cockroach ero-kappa."

            "Horny bean-monkey."

            "Me!" I snapped, face heating up, "aren't you one to talk about being horny!"

            I heard Hakkai sigh and pull the oven open slowly, dragging out whatever he had on the top rack. I smelled potatoes and beef stew.

            "Yeah you—like you'd pass up the chance at raiding our fridge if it weren't for the allure of your pissy monk."

            "Shut up about him you dickwad! I can't believe Hakkai puts up with you!"

            "Puts up with me!? Hey I do my fair share of the--"

            "Dinner." Hakkai said firmly, putting a casserole dish in the centre of the table and effectively distracting both of us. "Now would you mind being civil for the evening? I'm afraid I don't have a harisen to quiet you."

            "S'a good thing," Gojyo said after swallowing the last fourth of his beer can.

            "It's unfortunate," Hakkai corrected. "But there are other things I can deny you."

            My first thought was food—I couldn't live without the occasion trip to Hakkai's kitchen, at least once a week, usually twice, and to get used to living with such good food and then suddenly be deprived spelled a death sentence. But when I saw Gojyo's expression, I realized that, given his preference for beer, Hakkai was probably dangling a far more threatening ransom than his peppered chicken.

            Gojyo was as close to a perfect gentleman as he would ever come that evening, though he was tossing me none-too-subtle glances by nine, when I had stayed to have cider on the couch.

            "How is Sanzo?" Hakkai asked quietly, looking up from the book on his lap.

            "He's fine." I shrugged. "Doin' temple stuff."

            "You know it's approaching the two-year anniversary of the end of our journey. I thought he might be aching for travel," Hakkai jested, quite sure that Sanzo was probably actually thanking the Gods for a change, glad to have solid, familiar ground beneath his feet.

            "Oh I'll bet he's aching alright," Gojyo snickered, "but not for travel."

            Hakkai shot him a nasty look, and I topped it off with a pillow to the face, bursting into laughter as he tackled me back down.

            "Get off you stupid cockroach!"

            "It's too easy to hold you down, bean monkey! You're eatin' too much bunny food over there with Baldy aren't ya?"

            "I ain't!" I snapped, wriggling against his half Nelson. "Dude lemme go! Your pits stink!"

            Our wrestling match devolved into a name-calling contest, which resulted in good-humored badgering until ten, when I volunteered to leave, demanding a 'thank you' for my consideration from Gojyo, which for some reason amused the hell out of Hakkai. They waved me off, and I hurried back to the temple, making it just in time to be freshly soaked by a pregnant cloud overhead.

Sanzo scolded me for my bad timing, but not very harshly. In his room, he draped a fuzzy towel over my shoulders the moment I had peeled out of my sopping second skin. We slept facing one another, chests flush, my arms about his waist, his draping loosely over my back. I loved how I fit so perfectly against him, my head comfortable at the small of his throat, his chin above my forehead. When I heard thunder crackle overhead and a heavier bout of rain rushing to the ground outside, it made me glad to feel Sanzo's steady, sleeping breath against my skin. His face looked peaceful, not drawn and tense the way it usually appeared when it was raining. I liked to think I was responsible for erasing the lines between his eyebrows that used to rest there even while he was unconscious, dreaming, wounded, or otherwise. Just as I was dozing, I felt him shift and draw me closer. A little sigh escaped him, and it struck me all at once.

I was happy.

 

Hakkai once told me that he thought, if seasons applied to people, that I must be springtime. Sanzo corrected him almost at once, without glancing up from his newspaper; "He's summer." Hakkai didn't argue, and Gojyo made a sound of agreement, glancing at me with some interest, as if he were trying to peel back the effects my physical appearance had on distorting my personality. Perhaps my youth, my smaller frame, made him think of springtime too, but I have to agree with Sanzo that I feel much more like a summer. I'm happiest in the hot, dry months when the sun is always out and rain rarely clouds the skies. It was in fact summer when this motif infiltrated our conversation.

"So what am I, Sanzo?" Gojyo asked with a little grin, leaning back in the wooden Adirondack chair he had built, shuffling his feet in the grass of the backyard. Hakkai had returned to the grill to nudge whatever he was cooking—it smelled like shrimp, meatbuns, and some sort of sausage. I could smell lemon herb and basil faint amongst the smoke too, and was temporarily distracted by it. When I tuned into the conversation again, I heard Sanzo tell the kappa he was whatever season it was in Hell. Gojyo snorted in laughter and sprayed Sanzo with a mouthful of beer.

"What the hell is wrong with you!"

"Apparently I'm going to Hell?" Gojyo offered, wheezing and coughing from trying to swallow again too quickly. Sanzo took that opportunity to pelt him with the harisen. Sometimes I forgot he still carried that around. He rarely hit me with it anymore.

"Oh my I should have known not to leave you two alone." Hakkai mused from the other side of the backyard, though no one but me seemed to hear him. He made no move to break up their bickering, but rather watched with an amused smile from a safe distance; the sunlight gleamed off of his monocle.

I snickered as Gojyo was thoroughly pummeled, thinking that it was just like the days we used to spend cramped up in Jeep, traveling across deserts and savannahs, when we were lucky. A pang of sadness clamped onto my throat, shortening my breath, but I released it. I couldn't have it back, what we had then, and it wasn't fair to yearn for it when what I had now was so much better. I wouldn't trade Sanzo's acceptance for the world, and there isn't much that could make me go through earning it all over again. Even if we weren't together all the time, I knew we could be, whenever I wanted. Hakkai and Gojyo were never far either, and I don't think any of us would be capable of moving even out of visiting distance. We were stuck with each other, dependant on the comforting glance of someone else who had experienced the same thing.

"Yare, yare…you think you two can settle down now?" Hakkai pleaded, offering a plate of fried vegetables to Sanzo, who grudgingly accepted. Without my having to ask, he sat a stack of meatbuns before me on the wicker table, admonishing me not to eat them too fast. I promised not to, and made a point of chewing each bite.

"It's warm early this summer isn't it?" Hakkai commented after setting the table and sitting down beneath the wide umbrella hanging over it.

"Yeah," I nodded, closing my mouth quickly and swallowing before offering any more opinions.

"Ch." Sanzo's input.

"Well I like it. I hate the cold." Gojyo added, tapping his beer glass against Hakaki's, which was full of ice tea, in a silent toast. "This way I can work outside."

"You work?" It came out of my mouth before I could think about how it sounded; I hadn't known Gojyo got a job. I just figured that Hakkai worked and Gojyo brought home money from the bars.

Sanzo looked as puzzled as I did, and looked up curiously at the kappa.

"I work at Beagle's."

"Is that a restaurant?" I imagined they would serve hot dogs and root beer to go, and maybe those old-fashioned ice cream sundaes on the weekends.

"It's a furniture store, baka," Gojyo grinned. "I made that chair you're sitting on."

            "Huh." Sanzo mused carefully, draining a fourth of his glass. "Who knew you'd ever develop talent for something."

            "What the hell, you pissy monk? I've got more talent in one finger than you do--"

            "Hey shut up you dick!" I interjected, chucking a roll at Gojyo and then instantly regretting it. That one had been burned slightly on the bottom, and crispy just the way I like it. "Sanzo's more talented 'n you."

            "Monkey-fucking isn't a talent, saru," the kappa baited his long-time enemy and (I'm still hesitant to say it) friend, who ruthlessly brought down the harisen from all the way across the table.

            Hakkai sighed into his drink, but I caught a gleam of laughter in his left eye. He didn't attempt to break things up, knowing that the tension would dissolve shortly, when Gojyo realized he didn't want to suffer constant physical repercussions.

            "So what's yours, Sanzo-sama?" The kappa drawled; Sanzo wouldn't dignify it with a response, but I would.

            "Well he can exorcise demons, you dumb cockroach. You've seen him do it a million times."

            "I've seen his scroll do it. All he does is talk. He talks more civilly to that thing than to other people!"

            "Sanzo can read," I snapped, kicking Gojyo's shin under the table. "And write."

            "That's not a talent; that's a skill," the redhead argued good-naturedly, willing to let the conversation drop if I was bored with it. Sanzo looked ready to break a jaw, but then again he always did around Gojyo. I was nowhere near ready to let this go, but upon receiving an explicit glare from Sanzo, I settled down, able to translate the meaning behind those flickering amethyst eyes very easily. Stop defending me to him.

            "Now that you're acting a bit more civilized," Hakkai broke the next bout of silence, "tell me how the dinner is?" The wicked gleam in his eye prompted all of us, even Sanzo, to quickly offer up opinions and compliments. Even an angry Sanzo couldn't top a pissed off Hakkai. I wondered how Gojyo survived sometimes, given his tendency to forget he was in a committed relationship. Especially in restaurants and bars, where Hakkai was frequently with him. 

            "Like you haveta ask me. I always come over for your cooking." I was talking with my mouth full again, but I couldn't help it. I was still starving all the time, and when it came to food from Hakkai's kitchen, I wasn't picky.

            "Yeah speakin' of that," Gojyo interjected, "Baldy, you better start keeping a tighter leash on him. He's comin' over every other night to raid our fridge."

            "You're always welcome to visit, Goku," Hakkai promised.

            "I think he's bored with you cherry-chan," the kappa continued, nudging him playfully. "I mean, you feed him rabbit food, and you're not exactly China's greatest conversationalist, or Mr. Personality. In fact, you tend to be Mr. Bitchy."

            "That's not why I come over here you asshole! An' stop callin' him that—that nickname doesn't even make sense anymore!" I was of course referring to the foremost epithet.

            Sanzo colored, and Hakkai covered his smiling lips with a napkin. Gojyo guffawed. Once again, I was at a loss. Was I not supposed to say that? Well certainly if there was something I wasn't supposed to say in 'civil society,' as Hakkai put it, I could at least say it in front of these guys. I don't think any of us consider ourselves part of society anymore. We're the deviants, but in a good way. And like hell if we're civil.

            "Baka," Sanzo hissed, rapping me lightly on the head with his harisen. Gojyo stared at the gentle scolding jealously, rubbing his scalp, undoubtedly still sore, in thought.

            "I guess you're right, Goku." He admitted, face a bit more serious now. "Sanzo, I officially renounce the use of your former nickname. I'll just have to come up with a new one to replace it."

            "Or you could just call him by his name," Hakkai offered, rising to go inside for a moment. Hakuryu darted out when the sliding door separated from the wall.

            "Nah." Gojyo shrugged. "That'd be boring."

 

            Hakkai brought out dessert, a bowl of diced watermelon and a chocolate cake—I finished half of both—and when it grew dark and the mosquitoes thickened, we went inside.

            Around the empty fireplace, Gojyo regaled us with stories of random customers who had come into Beagles' or Fred's, men he had lost money to, won it from, and a woman who nearly cut off his ear. Hakkai listened with the expression of someone who had heard the tales before and knew what to expect, but enjoyed them all the same. Sanzo feigned boredom, hiding behind his newspaper, but I knew he was listening because he only turned the page once, and he's not a slow reader.

            I sat beside him on the couch and put in my two cents every so often, not forgetting to ask my other, kinder host about his work and what he was doing while Gojyo was off winning (and losing) money. He briefed us on the book he was reading, and Gojyo suggested that maybe Hakkai should write one, given all the reading he's done.

            "Well, you have a lot of experience. And when you speak, it sounds like it should be in a book," Gojyo shrugged. "Out of all of us, you've definitely got the best shot of getting published."

            Hakkai laughed, probably because only half of our party was literate, but he knew Gojyo had meant it kindly. I noticed that the kappa really looked up to him, and I guess someone as observant as Hakkai saw it too. It must have pleased him, to have some effect on Gojyo, who seemed so impervious to the world.

            Outside thunder struck, and the pleasant night trickled off, giving way to a mild rainstorm. I looked up to Sanzo, who showed no external signs of the usual tension storms brought for him, but I stood up, knowing he would want to leave. "I guess we're gonna go."

            "But it's raining," Hakkai protested like the good host he was. "You should stay the night. We have a guest room; Hakuryu can sleep with us." The small dragon chirruped his assent from Hakkai's shoulder.

            "No. We'll go." Sanzo decided, following me towards the door. Gojyo tapped him lightly on the head with an umbrella, pressing it into his hands when he turned around.

            "Don't get wet, Baldy. You'll melt."

            "Tch."

            "Thanks," I accepted a second umbrella from Hakkai, promising to bring it back when I came to visit next. "Thanks for dinner too Hakkai!"

            "Be careful walking home," he advised for manners' sake, waving us off kindly before closing the door.

            The rain was cold, a lot colder than the air around us, though the temperature had dropped considerably since we had dined outside two hours ago. I walked alongside Sanzo, listening to my boots squish in the grass and occasionally splash up to wet my ankles.

            "You okay?"

            He looked to me with slight surprise behind his eyes, nodding. "Fine."

            "The rain still makes you sad."

            He looked as though he were about to say something, but nothing emerged. His lips parted as if to taste the rain, and then closed again in a thin line. I nudged him gently and changed his stride, slowing our pace. We were just out of Hakkai and Gojyo's yard, beneath a thick-limbed tree. I could see inside their bedroom through the glowing square of the window, fringed with green curtains. It was empty for the moment.

            "Let's just wait under here until it slows a little bit," I leaned into the dry bark and folded my umbrella with a little sigh. Lightning startled me into looking up, and I was quickly distracted by the fair-haired man beside me. I couldn't help admiring the way the ivory cameo of his profile stood out against the dark shadows in the distance; his sharp cheekbones and straight nose gave him an aristocratic appearance, but his lips were joined in a fine line, brow tensed along his chakra. I touched his arm, and the muscles of his face slackened a bit, as if in relief.

            "You look beautiful like that," I said quietly. He scoffed, rolling his eyes at me and muttering something about how Hakkai's sentimentality was rubbing off on me.

            "Maybe." I tugged at his sleeve again, moving to balance my weight on the tips of my round-toed boots. I leaned into Sanzo and pushed him into the rough, dry bark of the oak behind us. Arms slid up around his neck, and one hand flicked at the ends of his hair, grasping mostly air. He obliged, tilting his head down and pressing his mouth against mine with a little "mmnf."

            I didn't mind straining my calves, and I would have stood like that all night if Sanzo would just continue kissing me. He brushed a palm through my hair and let another slide down my back, drawing me closer to him. When we broke for breath, I beamed up at him, cheeks flushed. His were too, and more noticeably so because of his complexion. I noticed the tension of his brow had eased.

            "If I kissed you like this at Chang'an, would you be mad?"

            "Saru, we do more than this at Chang'an all the time."

            "I mean, if I kissed you in front of someone else there, would you be mad?"

            "What do you think?"

            I grinned cheekily, arms still slung about his shoulders, mouth brushing his collarbone through the thin silk of his robe. "I think you'd be mad." He ched and pressed his lips to my forehead. I craned my neck upwards. "Is it 'cause you're embarrassed of me?"

            We had been through this once before, when we argued over whether or not to tell Hakkai and Gojyo about our relationship. He hadn't wanted to so do much as provide them with a hint, and I wanted them to know right off the bat. It was important to me because they were my friends. Keeping our love a secret at Chang'an had never really bothered me because I didn't know many of the monks well enough to need to tell him. (Though if it were my decision, everyone everywhere would know how much I love Sanzo.) Fortunately I got my wish without having to go against Sanzo's to do so; Gojyo's peeping finally culminated in something useful to more than just him.

 But lately unwelcome thoughts had been creeping into my head, and I just had to know for sure. If he didn't want me to, nothing would change. Really. But that didn't mean I wanted to be kept in the dark.

            "We've never told anyone, or kissed where anyone could even hear, much less see us. Is it 'cause you're afraid of what they'll think of you for kissing me right there in public?"

            "No. It's not as though they don't know, but rather that I choose not to flaunt it. Unlike the dirty kappa," he plucked gently at my hair, straightening it a bit, "I don't have to advertise what we have to the world to be content with it."

            I began to read between the lines—after so much time with Hakkai, how can a body not start doing this out of habit?—and I sensed sheer possessiveness. I knew there was logic there too; he didn't want to rile the others and risk anymore "suggestions" that I be removed from the monastery for good. He didn't want to make trouble for me or himself, but moreover, he didn't want them to see that side of me. I began to understand it then, and I have a much better grasp on it now; Sanzo isn't a private person. The majority of his secrets aren't secrets at all, but those few he holds dear, the few he hides away, ought to be his to do with as he chooses. Our intimacy seems to be one of those things, and I don't mind it at all. It tells me he treasures what he has with me as much as he treasures the memories of Koumyou, and nothing could make me happier.

            So I leaned back on my heels, smiling up at him, and let my hands trail down his arms. "Okay, Sanzo."

            He grinned and dipped his head to kiss me again, arms slipping tightly about my body. "Because you are mine you know, saru," he whispered.

            "Yeah," I breathed back, damp hands trailing through his hair, down his cheeks, to rest on his chest. And I thought I would like nothing better.

            The rain wasn't slowing down, but we leaned our umbrellas up against the opposite side of the tree trunk and stayed put, keeping each other warm as best we could without lying down in the damp moss and grass. About twenty minutes after our departure, I heard a distant creaking, and then Gojyo's voice carried across the open space between his glowing window and our tree.

            "So!" He grinned and leaned out the sill, oblivious to the rain. "Monks do know howta give tongue!"

            Sanzo growled and cursed him beneath his breath, drawing away from me while under the kappa's gaze. I saw Hakkai enter, though I couldn't make out his features until he approached the window and said something to Gojyo, who replied with a series of gestures that, despite the space between us, were plenty obvious.

            "Why don't you come back inside?" Hakkai called out. "It's not about to stop anytime soon. You're welcome to spend the night!"

            I looked to Sanzo, knowing how he hated accepting hospitality out of necessity. On the road, it had always been different because he was purchasing it. With his money. This time it was an offer, and from none other than the redheaded cockroach.

            "Let's go back Sanzo huh?" I tugged his sleeve. "It'll be warmer."

            The lights were still on when I looked back up, but Hakkai had withdrawn, leaving only the kappa to wave us over to the window. "Come on! Wouldn't you rather do that laying down anyways?"

            "Someone ought to shut him up," Sanzo grumbled, snatching the umbrella and striding quickly towards the window. Before I arrived, I saw him give Gojyo two good thumpings before turning to approach the front door, which Hakkai opened quickly, welcoming both of us inside.

            "Hakuryu is with us," he smiled. "It's going to rain all night. You should stay warm in here."

            "Thanks Hakkai," I spoke for both of us, following Sanzo into the spare room and noting that it was still more spacious than most of our shoebox hotel and inn lodgings. The bed was a double—since when did dragons need so much space?—and covered in a burgundy comforter. The pillows were forest green, fringed with gold, and an extra blanket lay at the foot of the bed, though it wasn't quite that cold outdoors.

            I peeled off my damp pants and, finding my shirt halfway dry, decided to fold it, rather than dropping it on the wooden floor or draping it over a chair. Sanzo removed his robes and leathers, but slid into bed in his jeans, though they were halfway unbuttoned for comfort. I snuggled beside him, cheek pressing into his chest, one arm draped about his waist. He drew the sheets up over us, and I found that they smelled like clover and faintly of laundry detergent and lemon. Hakkai sure used lemon for a lot of things.

            "You're cold."

            "No, you're just a furnace," Sanzo explained, running a hand down my arm and chest. "You're always two or three degrees warmer than most."

            "Is that why I'm a summer?"

            "Maybe." He ducked a bit to kiss my chest, flicking his hands out over my sides and pressing a sensitive place at my left, right beneath my ribs. I hissed in pleasure, trying not to move and startle him out of it. He'd never done this with me outside of our room at Chang'an. I still wasn't sure if he would.

            "I guess we make a pretty good team then huh…you're kind of a winter, to me. But you're melting," I murmured, gasping softly when his mouth descended beneath my navel, nipping the sensitive skin directly below.

            "Melting am I?" His mouth returned to mine, and I moaned my answer against his suddenly pliant lips, hands raking through his hair and down his back.

            "Sanzo…"

            "Shhh!"

            "Sorry," I lowered my voice and tossed him a conspiratorial grin, cheeks blushing brightly, judging by the heat flooding my face. Between the two of us, I made more noise by far. I bit my lip in silent promise to keep quiet, hands sliding to the waistband of Sanzo's jeans in question. He nodded once and slid out of them, pressing his heat against me with a little exhalation.

            "You're trembling."

            "I'm fine," he whispered back, nudging my thighs apart with his knee, flat stomach heaving now as he adjusted against me. We didn't have oil or anything else to make do with, but it wouldn't be the first time. I didn't mind; I withstand pain well, and Sanzo's mere presence seemed to ease most of it anyway. That's not to say I didn't leave a series of scarlet bites along his shoulder in an attempt to silence my cries. But even the love bites on his neck were easily hidden by his leathers; and I assumed, by his little, half-muffled gasps of pleasure, that he would accept them without complaint.

            It didn't last as long as it usually did between us, and I don't know if that was because he was nervous, or because we were both tired. Regardless of that, it was good. He let me sink my teeth into the junction of his throat and shoulder without a word of protest when I climaxed, ignoring the small rivulets of blood streaking down his chest and emitting no more than a low grunt of reaction. I laved the wound clean with my tongue afterwards, apologizing quietly only to be hushed by long, lingering kisses. I molded myself to his body in sleep, content to feel him close, hear his steady breathing, and revel in his musky, rainy scent.

            After Sanzo was asleep, I heard soft cries from down the hall. Hakkai must have heard us, and assumed it was acceptable that he and Gojyo—given it was their house after all—not change their nightly routine either. I could tell easily which noise belonged to whom. Hakkai's breaths were short and staccato, and an octave higher than Gojyo's, though together they formed a strange sort of unison through the filter of the wooden walls. After the noise died down, my mind began to drift toward sleep, my eyes to the window.

            The heavy burgundy curtains were tied back; our room faced the front of the house, and I could see the dim glimmer of the road, slick with rain, and where it ended in tufts of sodden grass and bent wildflowers. The sky glimmered after the summer storm as though each star had been polished by the downpour. A waxing moon peered down at the Earth, flooding it with a silver light I once considered to be sharp, harsh.

            Looking down at the floor, I was pleased to find that the light felt in neat, elongated rectangles, mocking the pattern of the windows. There were no harsh, dark shadows slicing through the only source of illumination, no bars before my eyes, taunting me from a small rocky prison. And I wasn't cold. It felt so good to look out at the wet, moonlit world without having to experience it directly, and without having to be alone.

            I had been a decade free that night, and I owed my life as I knew it to Sanzo. Sometimes he'll ask me what I think the future holds for us; he'll look at me so sadly without saying a word, but his eyes will ask, "What happens when I die, and you can't?" But I'm not worried about that. I know we've lived together before; I can feel it, even if he doesn't, just yet. And I know without a doubt we'll live together again, even if I have to wait another five hundred years. And I will, too. For him.

            He calls me summer. Says that I melted the ice he had entombed himself in, thrust him into my light, and pulled him from a cave and prison of his own. He recognizes that he's changed, and that I changed him. Sometimes I ask him if he minds so much, needing someone every now and then. He'll shake his head and sigh, as though I had asked a painfully obvious question. He'll say he doesn't need somebody, he needs me, the way anyone else needs the sun.

            I once told Sanzo that without him, I couldn't live, I could only exist. He tells me that, before me, he could do both well enough, but after, and without me, he could do neither.

It was these thoughts that found my unguarded, exhausted mind before sleep did, swirling lazily about like the blue, wavering smoke from the ash tray near the bed. Ensconced in his warmth, his scent, his protection, I surrendered myself to slumber. When I woke up, it was to the luster of a room dazzling with sunlight; every polished surface reflected the morning rays; they streaked across floorboards and the bed stead, the chair in the corner and the dresser. A warm hand at my shoulder shook me again, and I turned over to face the source of that heat. Looking up into violet eyes, I squinted a bit at the halo of light hovering about Sanzo's golden hair. I gave him a tired, goofy grin, 

"Sanzo you look like an angel."

            He was startled by the comment, and then he reddened, glancing over his shoulder to the open doorway. I heard soft laughter, Gojyo's, and then a muffled chuckle in a silkier tone.

            "Get dressed, saru. We're going home."

            Home? I smiled in spite of myself, taking comfort all of a sudden in the warm laughter from the hall. Home. I liked the sound of that.  

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