- Title The Scarlet Phoenix
- Author Lykotheia
- Pairing(s) 53, Dokux8, past KoumyouxSanzo (it's AU people!) and HazelxGat if you squint reaaaaal hard
- Rating NC-17
- Summary or description- An AU fic in which two corrupt officers use a Leavenworth inmate to glean inside information about an illegal weapons cartel and the infamous Scarlet Phoenix Organization. Sanzo, a victim of the state, ends up falling for the man he's supposed to turn in and meanwhile finds out a mysterious figure from Phoenix Headquarters is after him, and wants Gojyo's head on a plate. 
 Disclaimer- These characters are the exclusive property of Kazuya Minekura. I only claim the plot and the conversations.
The names of the gangs mentioned in the story are fictional, though the Golden Dawn is based on a late nineteenth century occult order in Europe that was disbanded by the early twentieth century. Leavenworth does exist, and the brief snippets of history concerning it are factual. 
- Warnings- Sex, drugs and rock n' roll? How about VLDS? Violence, and lots of it, coarse language, drug-use, and sex.

 

 

The sound of boots shuffling over concrete woke him. One moment he was peacefully unconscious, the next, painfully awake, alert. The tension in his shoulders that never left increased.

            He heard the familiar grind and creak of his cell door being pried open, sliding along the rusty grates with an ear-shattering scream; he thought it sounded like something out of a low-budget horror film.

            "Get up."

            "What the fuck do you want?" He hissed, bright eyes piercing the darkness of the room in a manner he had been told, once upon a time, was terrifying.

            "Get up," the blue suit repeated to him, tapping his heavy wooden club against the palm of his left hand. The blond rose, body tense, muscles aching in complaint; it couldn't be more than four in the morning. Apparently three consecutive life sentences for a crime they practically thanked him for wasn't sufficient torture.

            "What?" He spat, no more afraid of the guard than he might have been of a street cop. What was he going to do, extend his sentence? He couldn't possibly stuff him into a tinier room, and the fair-haired man wasn't claustrophobic besides. Beatings were a source of pride, not pain. And they knew better than to try it against him. The last three guards who had ganged up on him, in the manner in which prison sentinels were accustomed, wound up with a total of two split lips, four snapped wrists, and at least eight missing teeth. The blond wasn't certain, but he thought he had cracked a rib or two in the process. They knew better than to mess with him. So what was the suit doing?

            "Just get up, punk."

            He was already standing, loose brown clothing barely clinging to his narrow frame. His instincts urged him to scan the room for anything he could use in self defense, but his memory made him ignore them. There was nothing. A shelf nailed into the wall, a bedstead screwed to the floor, and a small stack of plastic cups, one half-filled with water.

            "Turn around."

            "Is this how you get your kicks on the night shift?" He hissed wickedly, feeling, rather than seeing, the guard's face flame in a mixture of anger and humiliation. He heard the club move, but it never touched his back. Apparently, the blond thought ironically, his captor wasn't feeling lucky.

            "Hands behind your back."

            He obeyed because he didn't have anything better to do. The cuffs snapped on, and he felt the familiar caress of the icy metal on his narrow wrists. He tugged, twice, to test the titanium chain between, hissing when the cuffs tightened around his skin, pinching painfully. New cuffs.

            "I'm working on getting one for the neck, just for you," the guard growled against his ear.

            "Don't you think your wife might get jealous?" That did it. He grunted when he felt the club slam into the small of his spine, sending him forward, against the wall, but only for a moment. He had learned well over the years to block out pain in times that required it. The blond swung about, using his tightly bound hands as a club, the metal hilt of which inflicted sufficient damage. Idiot should have seen it coming. He knew what the prisoner was capable of.

            "Sergeant!" The guard bellowed, and quickly two much taller men flocked to his side, each grabbing one side of the prisoner's body, holding him still and stepping on his feet for good measure. The fair-haired man stilled, looking pleased as his attacker rose stupidly from the floor, rubbing his red jaw and spitting out a sticky wad of torn gums and blood.

            "Bill," one of the tall guards shook his head and clicked his tongue, "I toldya when you first took this floor, don't mess with anyone past cell 8-C. 'Specially this prickly bitch." The object of conversation twisted against his captors again, unable to obtain sufficient leverage to strike a blow.

            "He's put several guys in the hospital. Damn state won't let us execute him, and there're rules about beatings. Unless he strikes first, of course." The other guard just nodded, humming his answer from the back of his throat.

            "No one oughta listen to those rules. He's nothing more than an animal," the bloodied blue suit hissed angrily, still cupping his jaw and, from a distance, glaring daggers at the fair-haired man.

            "Why were you in here? Where do you want him?" The voice behind the prisoner's head made his ears hurt; it was grating, the sound of a smoker who sucked on unfiltered, cheap cigarettes. Maybe cigars.

            "Wilson's office."

            "Wilson?" It was the name of one of the parole officers, the one who usually dealt with prisoners in for a long time, usually the result of multiple homicides.

            "What the hell would he want with this one?" They were already transporting him through the hall, stirring other inmates with their noise. The lights were still off; one carried a flashlight, the other, still cradling his injury, a glowing electric lantern. The glow bounced cruelly off of sharp angles and narrow, rusty bars. A few grunts and curses emerged from the cells, but the injured suit shut them up quickly with vicious threats.

            "He's got a deal, apparently," came the answer when they reached the stairwell. The tallest of the men tensed, surprised.

            "They ain't gonna let him loose are they?"

            "I dunno; Wilson's crazy anymore. He uses these beasts like they were people, to capture more of 'em and make our lives hell."

            The prisoner was silent for a change, not spitting curses out or thrashing cruelly against his captors for a change. He was listening.

            "I heard this one, 'cause of whatever gang he was in, has some value to the Chief."

            "Tch. My dog has more value."

            "Hey but your dog doesn't bite," the silent guard finally spoke up, garnering a snicker from his partner and a grunt of disdain from the injured man in blue following behind them, watching carefully.

            "'S'awful late for Wilson to be working."

            "Guy's a night owl, what can I say? And he loves his fucking job." Tittering followed, and, fifty-four steps later, a door was pushed open on the third floor, and a brown-clad prisoner was pushed through it, roughly prodded and kicked down the hall in the direction of the oak door, imprinted with "Mr. H. C. Wilson," and directly below it, "Parole Officer." The blond had been promised he would never live to see that door if he reached eighty. At twenty-three, he thought they must have made a grievous error. Grabbed the wrong guy. Disturbed his sleep for this?

            One of the guards knocked sharply, and a surprisingly smooth voice answered from the other side.

            "Come in."

            The injured man crept forward first, followed by the blond, a scowl on his face at the sharp, fluorescent lights of the office. The guards behind him nodded to the brunet behind the desk, who removed his glasses and smiled.

            "Thank you gentleman. You can leave him with me."

            "Uh, we dunno if that's sucha good idea there, Mr. Wilson. This one's not like the others. He's from Block C."

            "That's quite alright."

            "He's dangerous, Sir." The quiet one spoke up again.

            "As I said, gentleman, I assure you I can handle him." A small, well-polished revolver was plucked from a drawer of his desk and laid, delicately, on top of the shining cherry wood.

            "I see Cadet Thomason finally received his due for taunting the inmates." Mr. Wilson pointed out, a smile on his face as though he'd cracked a joke. One of the guards behind the prisoner coughed, "Sir, this'un just attacked him for no real reason."

            "Oh I doubt that." The brunet named H.C. answered, his smile never faltering. "See yourself out, gentlemen."

            The two forceful hands and arms released the prisoner, shoving him down roughly into the armless leather chair situated directly before C.H.'s imposing desk. The door clicked behind him, and the fair-skinned man continued to smile pleasantly, flipping through a small manila folder on his desk.

            "State your name." It was an order that came out sounding like a request. How unnerving.

            "Genjyo Sanzo."

 

            Sanzo had no idea what the hell they had woken him up for; he knew—for he'd had several judges tell him—that he had no chance of parole, or the shortening of his sentence. What would it matter, when he was doomed to spend three lifetimes in here anyways? Nothing he did would shorten or lengthen his stay.

            "Genjyo? That's odd. You're listened under "Kouryuu."

            The monk stared at him without response, violet eyes cut like amethysts, sharp and unyielding. It didn't affect this strange man's smile. He put his glasses on again and flipped through the pages of his files.

            "Did you change your name?"

            There was a long silence; H.C. was very patient. Annoyingly so. The cuffs were starting to chafe.

            "I don't go by that name anymore."

            "Very well." He smiled handsomely, scribbling something onto the folder before turning the page again. "Genjyo it is. Or would you prefer I simply call you 'Sanzo'?" He didn't give him time to answer. "I see you're in for a triple-homicide, but aside from that, you have no prior records with the police. Does this mean you took no interest in vandalism and drugs, or does it mean you were just very good at what you did?" He laughed lightly, hollowly, and turned another page. Sanzo was getting annoyed.

            "I have here a note from one of our specialists, a certain Mr. Sammonth, who studies symbolic markings and gang tattoos. He says that you have the mark of the Golden Dawn on your lower back and spine?"

            Sanzo wondered if he was asking to see it. He seemed the type.

            "A simple nod would suffice, Mr. Sanzo."

            "I have the mark." He allowed, still staring at the impenetrable emerald gaze.

            "Mm. I see…" More page-turning.

            "Why the hell did you drag me up here?"

            "I didn't intend for you to be dragged," H.C. frowned, but only for a moment. "But you see I have a proposition for you."

            Sanzo watched in silence, waiting.

            H.C. smiled. "According to our records, you joined the Golden Dawn at the unusual age of thirteen, and left it at sixteen, though you had continued dealings with various members up until last year. That's nine years of experience within a group we have very little knowledge of."

            "I don't have amnesia," Sanzo snapped, riled at having his past splayed on a sheet before the man. He hated the idea that anyone could just pick up a copy, glance over it, and assume they knew the entire private life of Genjyo Sanzo. They looked at him and through him, at best with malice, at worst, pity.

            "Of course. Forgive me. I didn't mean to outline your life for you." He smiled again. Sanzo was becoming incredibly pissed off. "I meant this as a point of departure for a more important conversation." He folded his hands before him, never so much as glancing at the gun to his side. But the weapon wasn't what kept Sanzo from leaping over the desk and taking him out. He didn't quite…want to. There was something about the man that held him, rapt, and made him answer every question posed thereafter.

            "Frankly, you have more recent experience with gangs than anyone else here."

            "So."

            "So," H.C. went on, "I have a…business proposition for you. I know very well that you wouldn't be willing to act against your own people—I couldn't ask that of you—but perhaps you would be interested in rooting out a few notorious criminals from the Scarlet Phoenix?"

            Mr. Wilson noticed no change in the man before him at the mention of the gang. He pressed; "Are you quite familiar with them?"

            "Enough." Sanzo allowed, revealing nothing.

            "I take it you wouldn't be averse to seeing some of them brought down? You don't have any…affiliations with them?"

            "No."

            "Good." Mr. Wilson smiled again—didn't that make his mouth hurt?—and cracked his knuckles individually. "As far as I know, your people and the Scarlet Phoenix are not enemies. Is this correct?"
            Sanzo nodded.

            "Well. Let me get on with it then. What I want you to do is to ferret out the location of the Scarlet Phoenix's headquarters, and the locations of a few specific men of interest. I know it won't be easy, and may even be a very time-consuming process, but it's certainly not impossible. You would have to plead interest in joining those of the Scarlet Phoenix, and then probably undergo some sort of ruthless hazing—but you'd be familiar with that, wouldn't you?—but once you're in, information will be easily supplied."

            "You want me to infiltrate another group's core and parrot their secrets back to you?"

            "Precisely."

            "I could get killed. What am I getting in return?"

            "Well that's up for discussion. Obviously I can't shorten your sentence—even taking fifty years off of it wouldn't prove useful to you. But I can certainly make your stay more tolerable."

            "How's that." Sanzo looked bored all at once, not able to think of much that the man could do to make him risk his ass in the Scarlet Phoenix's territory.

            "I could give you access to what is currently off limits."

            "Such as?"

            "The opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree, for one."

            "And do what with?"

            "Conjugal visits."

            "Who the hell do you think I have to visit me?" He snapped.

The officer laughed and moved a file on his desk in a nervous habit Sanzo did not fail to pick up on. "Of course; I forgot. You're a monk." He chuckled at his own pun, referring to the nickname—or perhaps it was a title?—that Sanzo had earned amongst the Dawn members. He opened and closed the folder again before pushing it farther yet; when a small name plaque was nudged out of the light's way, the reflection dimmed enough for the blond to read it. "Hakkai Wilson." Well that explained the H, anyway.

            "Forgive the slip. It was only when I saw you smoking that I thought you must have forgone the Augustinian code."

            Sanzo glared daggers at Hakkai, who seemed completely unmoved by it, and simply flipped through a second folder, looking for something with which to tempt the priest.

            "Most men are easier to placate. Tell me..." His eyes traveled to Sanzo's fingertips, noting the clean pink nails, and then to his lips, tracing them with his eyes. "How long has it been since you abandoned that nasty little habit?"

            "My time in here. Nine months." Sanzo tried not to remember the first two weeks of his stay; it had been hell, deprived all at once of nicotine. He had traded various assets with other inmates for fractions of a pack, not even his own brand; food, a snatched up and all too precious newspaper, once his water rations. It was when they started asking for his company in bed that he decided it was time to quit.

            "You seem remarkably well-controlled for someone who quit cold turkey."

            "It's easy not to smoke when you don't have any cigarettes."

            "Oh yes of course." But Hakkai caught the gleam of interest in Sanzo's eyes. "As much as I hate fueling bad habits, I think this one may have its benefits…if you help us, outside of getting time on the outside, I could remove you from your solitary confinement to a slightly more...accommodating room."

            "Define 'accommodating." Hakkai knew what he meant by it, and chuckled in amusement. He drove a hard bargain, and rightly so. It was his life he had anted.

            "Well, most men find their space a bit larger, lighter, perhaps occupied once a week by a favorably-endowed woman. For you I would suppose the space would hold the daily newspaper and a pack of Marlboros."

            Sanzo snorted in disdain, not bothering to ask how Hakkai had known his preferred brand. "I'm not tossing my life into the air for cigarettes and a newspaper."

            "Fair enough. What about if the room were, say, outside of Leavenworth?" This caught Sanzo's attention. He had spent the last nine months of his life in the misery that was Leavenworth Correctional Facility, situated just north of Kansas City with walls towering forty feet overhead and another forty feet beneath the Earth. Since 1906 the place had served as a hellish last home for thousands.

            Sanzo nodded, barely, for him to continue.

            "There is a correctional facility associated with Leavenworth East of here, medium security, lavish, by comparison. I have associates there who would be more than willing to make arrangements for you, as they would be equally grateful for the extermination of the Scarlet Phoenix. It has branches throughout the North East."

            Sanzo sat in silence, pondering the offer, and leaning sharply towards no. It was still a prison, and he would still spend his life there. A nagging voice in his head reminded him that such a life might be made somewhat easier by newspaper and Marlboros, but there was no guarantee, and the values didn't exactly balance out in his favor. The only real temptation, he concluded, was the brief freedom he would have when he would be permitted onto the streets again, to slip under the Scarlet Phoenix's barrier.

            "I see you're disinclined to accept." Hakkai murmured, turning a page in the folder once again. It rattled with the sound of old paper, settling quietly atop his palm. Sanzo wondered if the man thought he would find a list of his prisoner's weaknesses and favorite foods somewhere in there to further persuade him.

            Sanzo nodded.

            "What if I said…not everyone we're after is a member of the Scarlet Phoenix?"

            "So?" He feigned disinterest.

            "What if I told you one of them was only a wandering assassin, hired from the dying strains of the Eclipse Gang, almost completely filtered out of society."

            Now he had Sanzo's attention, and he knew it. He couldn't help but wonder if perchance Hakkai had found that in his folder too.

            "There's a certain Nii Jienyi who requires exterminating…if he were, say, to die in a squabble between gangs…well there's really nothing we could do about it. It's not as though another life sentence would much affect your future anyways."

            Was he allowed to do this? Tempt him with the opportunity to escape the prison walls with the intention of committing another murder? Suddenly Sanzo didn't care whether this Hakkai Wilson was or was not permitted to make the offer; if he could make good on it, it would be accepted.

            "Why, you're tense, Mr. Sanzo." His smile looked wicked when the overhead lights flickered. "Do you need a day to think it over?"

            "No." He stood, noting that the slender brunet before him didn't even flick his eyes towards his gun. He was an awful cocky bastard, to think he already had Sanzo where he wanted him. Maybe he did.

            "I'll do it."

 

            Rain lashed at the window of the car, pelting the glass furiously as the rubber wheels skidded underfoot, causing the entire vehicle to lurch precariously to the left. The officer driving swore under his breath and accepted a cup of coffee from the man to his right. Mr. Wilson was unaffected, only glancing slightly at Sanzo, with whom he sat behind metal latticing, in the back seat of a police car. Sanzo had forgotten what it felt like to be in a car. Not that he had logged many hours in one on the outside; he didn't even know how to drive. He had traveled mostly on foot, or on the back of someone's motorbike.

            "Aren't you the least bit interested to know where we're taking you, Mr. Sanzo?"

            "My guess would be the downtown precinct."

            "Aa yes quite right. We need to run through the plan by you, and explain what we intend to do."

            "Fine." He turned away again, looking to the rain-slicked concrete and pavement outside, rarely glimpsing so much as a spare shrub or wilting weed poking up between the cracks in the sidewalks. And then suddenly they pulled up to a red light, stopping all at once and nearly throwing Sanzo up against the back of the seats and the icy metal grate separating him from the drivers.

            Outside the window there was a little flower shop, squished between the wide end of a twenty-story bank building a bustling bar and grill, with a line poking out the narrow front door. At the tail, umbrellas had popped up.

            Tall daisies bobbed humbly in the window of the shop; a little flowerbox full of geraniums hung low, threatening to fall off in the wind. Beneath it sat a wide pot overflowing with sopping petunias, their petals torn and turned inside out by the rain shower. The sudden burst of color amongst the gray of the city surprised him; the oranges and pinks looked uneasy, and the yellow daisies appeared downright terrified. But it was the faint blue of a hydrangea that he saw through the glass that startled him the most. It was one that had been dyed, but most of the dye had evaporated from the soil or been absorbed by the plant over a period of months; its hue was no longer azure or robin's egg, but more like the sky. Sanzo hadn't seen that color in a very long time; he thought, a week or so ago, that he had forfeited that right along with everything else.

            The image of such a pale and yet striking shade returned each time he closed his eyes, even after they had long passed the little flower shop. Only when he remembered it, the blue didn't decorate the fingernail-sized petals of a bushy plant; it peeked up at him from beneath fair lashes, blinking fast. And suddenly he was back, seven years ago, holding his dying savior in his arms and trying to staunch the flow of a most offensive crimson with ivory, rain-washed hands.

            Rivulets leaked out between fingers, down a pale pink mouth, a delicate, harshly-clenched jaw. The echo of the gun's thunder reverberated in the distance; no one else could hear it but him. He watched fingers, so much like his own, tremble over the wound, releasing it and drowning in a deluge of Scarlet. Sanzo wasn't certain from whom the keening groan cracking the air between them came. It didn't sound like his voice, but his throat ached.

            The weight on his lap, in his arms, was cooling off quickly, his heat pouring out through his lifeblood, streaking the crumbling sidewalk and sinking into his clothes. Wheat-colored lashes beat back the rain and fierce, sky blue eyes peered up at him. Sanzo drew him closer, hoping the panic in his chest wasn't in his eyes.

            "Let go." Was the whispered command, gentle, red stained hand covering his with icy, trembling fingers. His head fell back over Sanzo's right arm, long blond braid splashing in the leaf-clogged gutter, tied fast to the bottom of the shallows by the amber-studded clasp holding it together.

            Suddenly his face looked so much whiter, like marble, a harsh engraving on a stele, all sharp angles and lifelessness. Sanzo was shaking, his cheek pressed in the icy, rain-soaked folds of the man's cloak, staining his face with red petals of blood. His words echoed.

            Let go.

            Cruel golden eyes peering over the hilt of a forty-four mocked him wickedly; a lifeless smile, not intended to be cruel anymore than it was to be joyous, leered. Sanzo knew then that Jienyi would die, and by his hands, no matter the cost.

            And he couldn't let go.

 

            "Mr. Sanzo?" Hakkai stressed, tapping his shoulder and jerking him out of his reverie. "We've arrived, and you can get out now."

            The door of the car was open, rain pelting the featureless interior, devoid of a handle lest the captive become suicidal. Sanzo stepped out carefully, ignoring the looks from passersby, tourists, if they weren't used to seeing inmates; he followed Hakkai inside, walking under his umbrella only because the brunet kept pace with him.

            "We're going to meet with Mr. Dokugakuji Carerra; he's a specialist in gang-related crime and organization. Of course I doubt he knows much more than you about it; please forgive his questioning. You're obviously not under interrogation; he's simply a very curious man," Hakkai promised, leading him down a narrow corridor, lined only with two or three doors in total, painted a sickly beige that was peeling around the cracked crown molding. Sanzo heard his wet shoes squish against the terracotta tile below, and Hakkai's miraculously dry heels clicked smartly with every step.

            They stopped suddenly before a door with Carerra's name on it; room 8D. Hakkai tapped lightly before entering, but didn't wait for a response. "Mr. Carerra your office becomes more disorganized every time I see you."

            "Maybe that's a sign you should up your meds there, obsessive compulsive."

            Hakkai laughed hollowly and gestured for Sanzo to sit; he did. The chair was shockingly comfortable, not metal or lined in vinyl, but something softer. He hated being pulled into furniture, and was relieved to find the lining was firm. Not that it gave him any advantage, a step away from hand cuffs as he was. But it allowed some level of personal pride to peer through, even if he wasn't permitted his own clothing.

            "I'm Doku Carerra," the man behind the cluttered desk said with a grin, holding his hand out only to draw it back in, repulsed by the stare. The hesitance wore off quickly.

            "This is him?"

            "Indeed," Hakkai sat in the chair beside him, beaming. "I've already explained to him the basics of what we intend, and your area of expertise. I suppose you have questions for us both."

            "Actually, I'm more interested in him." Doku turned to Sanzo, and for a change the two seemed to recognize that he was an actual presence in the room, a person capable of comprehending what they were saying, and possibly storing it away for later use. Most guards and officers didn't see inmates as more than silent (and not always) pets, in front of whom anything could be said. They blended into the shadows, their individual rights and identities taken away along with their humanity. Sanzo didn't particularly care one way or another, so long as they would see through on their promise. He wanted a gun in his hand, and Jienyi within shooting distance. If he had to plot and arrange it himself, he could do so.

            "Sanzo huh…'Kai why'd you scratch this out?" Sanzo realized that the relationship between the spiky-haired bureaucrat and his parole officer was more intimate than a career usually permitted.

            "The name he's registered with is not current. I believe Genjyo is correct now, is that right, Mr. Sanzo?"

            Before Sanzo could piece together any sort of retort, Doku shrugged and picked through the folder carefully, "So you were with the Golden Dawn up until about ten months ago…"

            "No. It's been almost seven years." Sanzo corrected him.

            "Oh? Just random dealings with them then?"

            "On occasion."

            "I see…so you entered way back in…shit you must've been like…what, fifteen?"

            "Thirteen."

            Doku whistled and shook his head, "That long ago, your marking must be the more detailed one, the tri-color flourish with the half-sun, right?"

            "Yes."

            Hakkai turned to peer at an image on Doku's desk of such a marking, and its general location on a gang member's body. "My that must have hurt terribly. It looks like it would take several hours to complete, with all that detail. The Celtic Knot of gang signs, I suppose."

            "According to the only other two we've ever extracted details from, it takes between four and six hours," Doku nodded his appreciation. "For you?"

            "Four or five." Sanzo shrugged, his memories of the event unclear.

            "Are you still in contact with anyone from the Golden Dawn?" Doku queried, scribbling something down on a yellow pad of notepaper.

            "No."

            "I guess you don't have anything you wanna up and volunteer, huh?"

            "Not a thing." Sanzo agreed, staring at the man behind the desk. He didn't like him. Not that he particularly cared for Hakkai, but this one seemed too happy. Wilson's was an obvious mask, and Sanzo could respect that, but Doku appeared genuinely thrilled to be talking to him.

            "So, be straight with me," Carerra folded his hands atop his desk, "What made you take the deal? I doubt anything Wilson would've offered would make you risk your skin."

            "What made you choose me?" Sanzo retorted, curious besides. Why would they trust a man with three homicides (and at least another half dozen they didn't know about or couldn't prove) on his record with a gun, set loose on the streets?

            "Because you're the only one we have whose arrest wouldn't have been publicized, or known of, amongst street populations. You left the Golden Dawn years ago, had sporadic dealings with them, and then nothing. No one who knows of you knows where you are, or what's become of you. This way, if you suddenly come out of the shadows to ally yourself with the Scarlet Phoenix, you won't be remembered as someone who was arrested. Or as anybody at all."

            You won't be remembered…as anybody at all. Well wasn't that the truth? Doku was right; anyone who might have remembered him was dead now. He would even wager that the Golden Dawn was under an entirely new hierarchy, and had probably been re-arranged several times since his leaving seven years ago. For all he knew, one too many coups had brought it down entirely. Apparently it was evading whatever radar the cops were using, ducking under it, or simply not producing enough chaos to set it off.

            "You're also a worthy candidate because of the nature of your crimes," Hakkai suddenly had a clipboard on his narrow lap, flipping papers over every so often. "Because you have no criminal records before the homicides, and all three murders were of Eclipse gang members, most would be inclined to believe that this was a personal vendetta. As far as we know, you never so much as glanced sideways at an innocent passerby."

            "Tch."

            "Well was it?" Doku asked, causing Hakkai to sigh in aggravation. Their approaches were different; Hakkai's sly and cautious, Doku's more akin to jumping into the deep end and hoping to resurface.

            "I don't see how any of that is your business."

            "It is if you want to do this," Hakkai reminded him. "If you want the chance to see Jienyi put away."

            "Yeah! Him. He's the leader of that group, isn't he?"

            "You're telling me you don't know?" He had a feeling that such a vital piece of information was more than likely in the records. Were they testing his knowledge, or simply desperate for conversation? Sanzo snorted in disdain, "Fuck no wonder you have so much trouble catching anyone."

            Hakkai smiled wryly, perhaps to placate the prisoner, but Doku looked annoyed. "Listen, you're gonna answer our questions and follow our orders whether you like it or not. If you don't, you can go back to rot in Leavenworth."

            Sanzo just stared at him, and then, after a long moment (in which he could visibly detect Doku's jaw tightening), he bit out, "Yes, Jienyi is the head of Eclipse."

            "As we thought," Hakkai murmured. "But they seemed to have collapsed, or taken up charity work, because there's no real evidence of activity in their districts."

            "The most recent report of Jienyi that we have is seven years ago. He's been hiding out, I guess. Someone shot at him, and some of his men, killing them. He escaped; the cops on that case never found him."

Sanzo twitched, and Carerra cocked his head to the side. "Safe to assume it was you, shooting at them?"

"Think what you like."

"Now listen--"

"A confession really isn't necessary," Hakkai interrupted. "When he was caught, it was for an attack on other Eclipse members. Perhaps after the same man…?" He looked to the blond with some interest, fingers tapping the table in thought.

Sanzo gave him a look that reminded him that he was very aware of his own past, and didn't need to be reminded again. The very mention of the man's name brought back the taunting golden eyes, the lifeless, meaningless smile as he walked away, stuffing his gun into his coat, and left Sanzo holding the trembling, crimson-stained—

            "Erm right." Doku was unnerved. Good. "Anyways, our plan has nothing to do with them, though we've had a few reports of former Eclipse members being hired out as freelancing assassins through the Scarlet Phoenix. They, by the way, have expanded their territory threefold since they rearranged their Order. Their leader—we know his work and little else—is like the Kambyses II of Kansas. He's got territory all over the state, and he's mean as hell when it comes to keeping it."

            "Yes. His proverbial head would be quite a boon for our precinct. We would be eternally grateful to you if you aid us in catching him." Hakkai put the clipboard back onto Carerra's desk.

            "What makes you think I can do it?"

            "It's more a question of, given that we can't, who has a chance at it?"

            "Yeah," Doku nodded, "this is serious shit, and despite all we do know, we're not nearly prepared enough to go into a situation like that without experience, without knowledge of the inner workings of the Scarlet Phoenix."

            "And what do your betters think of all this?"

            Hakkai smiled, and Carerra looked nervous. It was Hakkai who answered. "Well now, I'm sure you, being a victim of some of your 'betters' in the past, might understand why we need to keep this under wraps."

            Sanzo grunted noncommittally.

            "I know how much this opportunity means to you, or I wouldn't be sharing this information, making this proposition. It's a gamble, no doubt, but one I think will turn a significant profit. Besides," he leaned back on the desk, hands avoiding the clutter without having to look, "who would believe you if you decided to tattle on us?"

            Another grunt, and Doku asked again how well Sanzo knew the Scarlet Phoenix.

            "I never had dealings with them." Sanzo said flatly, beginning to understand their reasoning. It was cruel and Machiavellian enough for him to respect. To send a valuable officer, a decent, tax-paying citizen, into the abyss of Phoenix headquarters would be akin to murder. He, however, a non-citizen and arguably non-human, not to mention a money pit for the state, was entirely dispensable.

            "But the Golden Dawn was never an enemy of them, and you have greater experience in that world than any of our officers. But that aside," Hakkai's voice was strict now; he was done chit-chatting. "We've made our offer very clear, Sanzo. You told me you'd do it—are you ready?"

 

            He was sitting on a metal table top in an eerily sterile room, shirt off, left pant leg rolled up to his knee, and Doku was kneeling on the floor below, snapping a titanium band around the lower section of his calf.

            "There, all set."

            Hakkai was sitting on a chair nearby, watching the exchange in a manner Sanzo found mildly unnerving. The man seemed far too preoccupied with his inmate's naked torso.

            Sanzo slid off the table, barely able to feel the band about his leg; it was incredibly light and thin, molded to his skin despite the cold.

            "It's so that we can track you, wherever you go. Safety precautions," Doku shrugged. "Also, if it's broken, it alerts us of that too. I wouldn't try anything tricky," he admonished, "our officers don't like being sent out to corral runaways. They tend to get trigger happy."

            "Duly noted." Sanzo said flatly, snatching at his shirt, which Hakkai was delicately handing to him.

            "It really is a work of art," he murmured, glancing once more, before brown cotton cloaked it, at the tattoo covering the back of the blond man's waist and the delicate curve of the small of his back. He was probably wondering just how far down the rest of it went.

            "Tch."

            "We'll have to get you something appropriate to wear, and a weapon, of course." Hakkai promised. "And we'll brief you on the Phoenix's new territory, and various markings used to indicate it. Doku has a list."

            "Right-o," Carerra agreed far too cheerily, guiding them back from the inspection room, or whatever that windowless cage was called, to his office. Sanzo noticed the distinct smell of cigar smoke when he entered; perhaps he hadn't sensed it before because of the way the hallway cleaner muted it. After spending half an hour in the sterilized steel chamber, every scent jumped out at him.

            "Take a look here," Doku unrolled a map of the city, half of it covered in colored circles. "Everything circled in red is theirs."

            Sanzo noted that the wide range of the Golden Dawn's control had dwindled significantly since its most powerful leader's death. It was circled in violet.

            "The headquarters, we suspect, are in the oldest and best-established district, but we have no real proof. Needless to say, without knowing where that is, we'll have an awfully difficult time finding enough evidence to accuse them of pirating unlicensed weapons, among other things."

            Sanzo watched his strong fingers glide over the map. He was mildly amazed at the difference between these two officers and the many others with whom he had been forced to deal in the past. Neither of them seemed disgusted or even put off at the idea of conspiring with a criminal. Maybe it was because they were going to get what they wanted in the end, and use that to justify the means. But Sanzo wasn't stupid. There was no way they were going to bend the rules and send him to a prison with lower security. That was useless wishing. Their only useful bait had been Jienyi's life. As far as Sanzo knew, he was alive, and he sought to rectify that. And to break down a powerful pillar of the black market, these two officers were going to look the other way if "something" happened to go down between their inmate agent and the renegade Eclipse overlord.

            "So we're sending you to what we call 'Sector C' of the Phoenix territory, basically everything between Stockholm Road and the back tracks of Rhodes Avenue. We've got a little more info on the leader of that division; he's one step below our Kambyses, and probably his strongest support. You need to use this guy, who goes by the name of Sha Gojyo, to get to the head hauncho."

            Doku pushed a rough sketch over the map, tapping it lightly. "This is supposedta be him, though it's not like we've got a photo. I ugh…gut feeling, this is pretty accurate."

            Sanzo studied it carefully, wholly unfamiliar with the face. He had a strikingly red mane and eyes darker than wine, tinted garnet. The two claw-like scars beneath his left eye that might have marked another man in a crowd probably went unnoticed under a mop of such bright hair. Strong jaw, straight nose, a generous mouth…hair aside, he might be anybody.

            Doku leaned over the desktop only slightly. Hakkai turned to Sanzo and promised him a change of clothing and a weapon by the next morning, if he hadn't changed his mind. They rose and left, and Sanzo spent his last night in his cell at Leavenworth Correctional Facility.

 

            By morning Hakkai had informed him of where he would be sleeping and returning every night to give a full report of what he had discovered throughout the day. He continued to instruct him even as he pushed a pile of clean clothing into the man's hands, followed by a small bag of various other hygienic products.

            "You're under my supervision, and this is my proverbial hide on the line," Wilson reminded him in a gentle tone that belied his threat. Sanzo was fairly good at reading people off the bat, and he'd had enough time to with Hakkai to confirm what he had originally suspected; beneath that smiling façade was a mentality more dangerous than that of most of his inmates. The only difference was the level of self-control and will power between them.

            "So you'll shoot me if I fuck up," Sanzo filled in the unuttered words, tying his left sneaker carefully. He hadn't had anything with ropes or so much as shoe strings since he had been locked up. Dangerous, the guards told him. They didn't want their inmates forming weapons, or committing suicide. That last concern baffled the monk; it would be one less mouth to feed, one less prisoner to guard over and watch menacingly. Not that he would have given them the satisfaction. No, with any sort of weapon, he most likely would have opted for the former.

            "Precisely." And Hakkai beamed.

            "You're a creepy guy, Wilson."

            "I could say the same about you."

            The man shrugged, looking up when Hakkai held out a plum-colored shirt, the sleeves a little too long, stretched out neatly over a hanger. He was already wearing jeans, which, after almost ten months in cotton jump pants, felt rough, tight, and exquisite. The harsh scrape of denim against his skin was a welcome change.

            When Hakkai saw fair eyebrows rise in silent question at the color, it was his turn to shrug. "I thought it would go nicely with the color of your eyes."

            "Am I going on a date?" He snapped back at him, buttoning the shirt up quickly. Hakkai didn't miss another opportunity to stare blatantly at the intricate art winding up his lower back.

            "Hm. Probably not, but you never know when the emphasis of your assets may come in handy."

            "Assets?" Sanzo blinked back at him. "I hope you're talking about my gun."
            "Actually I was referring to your facial features; you're very attractive. I don't know nearly enough about your 'gun' to make comment."

            Flushing darkly, he tossed his tan, oversized uniform onto the chair, glowering at his parole officer. Hakkai thought that those amethystine eyes could pierce metal with their ferocity. No telling what they could do when aimed against an enemy in battle. "Where is it?"

            "Excited aren't you? Well it's probably a bit simpler than what you're used to, but I'm not about to give you a forty-four." He laughed hollowly and handed over an empty—Sanzo could tell by the weight—silver pistol, a comfortable fit for his lean, nimble hands. Turning it over, the blond saw Smith & Wesson scrawled on the side in Corsiva script. A six-shooter, tiny bullets, perfect grip. It would do.

            "You're welcome." Hakkai teased, suddenly all too-friendly, as he dusted Sanzo's shoulder off as he might for a friend going on a first date. "So you know the drill. Come back by midnight, and report." Sanzo realized with disdain that he was being given a curfew.

            "Don't forget," and now Hakkai was tucking a thick wad of bills into his front right pocket, hand far too comfortable roaming through the empty denim. Sanzo shrugged him off, stepping forward quickly. It didn't shake his friendly hand.

            "You're looking for a decent gun. For a good price, but one you don't have to worry about registering. This, rather than drugs, seems to be the hub of their trade circle. If you can get in this way, you'll have a shot at professing loyalty later."

            "Fine, but you wanna get your hand off my thigh?"

            "Of course." Unabashedly, he removed his palm and smiled to Sanzo in a manner that would have screamed seduction on anyone else's face. On Hakkai's, it just looked like any other spare smile.

            "Oh and Sanzo?"

            He was pulling his coat on against the brisk wind that had picked up outside, tucking his pistol—he had found bullets in the coat pocket—into a hidden pouch on the underside of the jacket.

            "What?"

            "If you do come back, and bring me something useful, I'll make it worth your while."

            He wrinkled his nose at the offer; it wasn't that Hakkai was an unattractive man—he was, very, actually—but he was his parole officer too. His keeper. Nothing like chains to turn a guy off. Well, most guys, at least. "I don't think I want any of those surprises from you."

            Hakkai smiled. "It's not that, Sanzo-san. Trust me, this, you will appreciate."

            Before his curiosity could be further stirred, Sanzo was ushered out a side door, down three steps, and onto the city street.

            "Good luck now," Wilson waved cheerily before letting the door click shut and locked behind him.

            "Shit."

            After spending ten months in a walking-total of about one thousand square feet, the entire city was almost bigger than he remembered. The fresh air (fresh being an extremely relative term) made him crave a Marlboro ten times more than he had behind bars. Even the thunder grumbling in the distance was a welcome sound, not muffled by ten-foot walls and iron bars. His feet wanted to take him down shady alleys, guide him towards a most likely long-abandoned hideaway. His. Theirs, really. And he'd have time to pass it, too, on the way back. He wanted to wait until moonrise, when it would become a more familiar sight, each shadow, each angle, jumping out at him despite the dark. The crackling brick, broken, rusty gutters, surprisingly warm and dry wooden floors. He shook the thought from his head, nudging shoulders with a passerby who muttered his apology. Sanzo had to look down at his clothing again to remind himself that he wasn't in the telltale costume of a criminal, but rather that of a citizen. A layman.

            Yeah he knew where he was supposed to go, and the gray skies, threatening rain, didn't deter him in the least. He walked downtown, and twice sprinkles dotted his cheeks, the backs of his hands, but the rain clouds stayed shut tight for the most part, dribbling only when their burden became too heavy to hold. They were moving East, and Sanzo, West.

 

            Hakkai's telephone vibrated against his side, and he plucked it out, pressing the flashing green dot. "Wilson."

            "It's me."

            "Doku. What is it?"

            "Nothin' much; did you send him out yet?"

            "Oh yes, about half an hour ago."

            "Aa."

            "Why—having second thoughts about this?"        

            "No, more like third and fourth." He laughed without humor, nervously. "I can't help it. If he screws up, it'll be our heads. This is totally against protocol."

            "It's against a lot more than that, haha. We've already determined the severity of the results if they don't turn out in our favor, Doku. We know it's a gamble."

            "I just…I keep thinking, what if the fucker goes berserk or something and kills an innocent bystander?"

            "I really don't think that will happen, Doku."

            "But we can't be sure." He heard the phone shift shoulders, and papers rustling. Doku was working late. "I mean, 'Kai…we could be responsible for that. And if the Office ever finds out, we're dead men. Losing our jobs will be the least of our worries."

            "We've discussed this." Hakkai sounded mildly annoyed, even to his own ears. "But things will unravel as predicted. He'll bring us the information necessary, we'll send our men to bust the ring, and claim it was all an anonymous tip. Who's to be the wiser?"

            "We don't have a warrant."

            "We both know that the D.A. will overlook that happily when he realizes what a coup he'll have pulled off. He'll get the credit in the public eye, and give us our dues privately. Naturally we'll agree to defer to him in all the details of the investigation, and in the end no one will know that we and a homicidal inmate did the dirty work. People are always very happy to take credit from others."

            He heard a shaky sigh from the other end of the line. "What makes you so sure he's gonna help us? We're just bluesuits to him."

            "Oh, Sanzo's not doing this for our sake. It's for his own. We've already made an arrangement."

            "About that Jienyi guy, right?"

            "Precisely."

            "Why…why does he want him dead?"

            "The details are a bit hazy, but what I've gathered from my research is that Sanzo was caught and arrested when he was shooting up Jienyi's men a second—or perhaps third--time. The leader himself escaped; we have no idea of his whereabouts not. All I know is, for some reason, the man is bent on revenge against him. I don't know what he did. I assume he killed a relative, or perhaps a dear friend. Maybe he hurt Sanzo personally."

            "We're in for some serious shit with him aren't we?"

            "I wouldn't go that far. I think he'll be content to have a shot at exterminating Jienyi, and we'll be easily rid of one more psychopath."

            "One more?"

            "The other three Sanzo took out were wanted men, one of whom was on the FBI's list. In my opinion, he deserves a medal, not three consecutive life sentences."

            "He killed them in cold blood, 'Kai."

            "We don't know what they did to him first."

            "I think you're warped, man. Honor killings aren't legal anymore—didn't you get the memo?" Doku snickered at his friend's reactionary tendencies. "Can't shoot a guy for popping your sister's cherry."

            "I do believe it was more serious than that."

            "Still. Can't shoot a guy. This premeditated shit is especially tricky."

            "When did you become a voice of morality?" Hakkai was packing up his things as he spoke, and clicked the briefcase shut atop his desk, glancing to the side where his empty gun lay, gleaming.
            "I don't know, but I can tell you when I stopped."

 

            This was by far the seediest side of town. He'd seen a total of two pedestrians despite the relatively pleasant fifty-degree weather, and one of them looked dazed, eyes glazed-over pleasantly as he strolled, arm scraping the sides of buildings, knocking over trashcans. The other was fairly running, hands stuffed in his pockets. Sanzo ignored them pointedly, keeping his eyes out for the telltale markings of the Scarlet Phoenix.

            That morning Hakkai had briefed him on the various graffiti art and tattoos attributed to the gang. The most prominent of them, the one all members boasted, was almost as intricate as the old mark of the Dawn. Sanzo had seen two sketches and a photograph, and by now he had the hallmark burned into the back of his eyes. A crimson phoenix, its feathers melting into flames, head tossed back in a silent call. Hence the name, he supposed. Hakkai told him that, according to Doku, most members wear it over their left breast, so it was difficult to see, but another, more obvious marking, was one worn just below the right shoulder and held by senior members: an intricate feather, each little wispy line done in great detail.

            That would be easy enough to locate. He kept his eyes peeled for a man of Officer Wilson's description; with red hair like that, he should stick out like a sore thumb among the rain-slicked concrete and jet macadam paving, crackling in places, pitted with potholes that the city was bent on ignoring.

            Leaning against a surprisingly dry concrete wall, half-shaded by a holey awning, he skimmed the red and silver décor smeared up and down in jagged, three-dimensional letters. This was their territory alright. Maybe even one of their buildings, though he wasn't about to knock and find out. Suddenly he was itching for a cigarette, and his fingers went so far as to dip into his front pocket in search of them. He felt only the sharp edges of crisp fifties, and quite a few of them at that. He would've gladly traded half of his Grants for a single Marlboro at that point.

            "Hey." A raspy voice startled him; he was getting sloppy, to let someone sneak up on him like that. The weight of his gun pressed against his chest through the coat's thin lining, and he heaved a mental sigh of relief. He had loaded it along the way.

            "What the hell do you think you're doing here, pretty boy?"

            If he hadn't been called that a million times already, he might have shot the guy for sport. He hated that. But his luck picked up quickly. The man wasn't wearing anything more than a tank and tattered jeans that barely clung to his waist; Sanzo could see the rugged outline of a feather on his upper bicep.

            He was blonde, beneath a layer of grime and grease, and rather lanky, built for street fighting, rather than wrestling. Judging by the significant bulge in his baggy pants, he was a frequenter of public street brawls. Or maybe the referee.

            "That mark on your arm. You're with the Scarlet Phoenix, aren't you?"

            The gun was out in a flash, and pressed far too close to Sanzo's throat for comfort. He couldn't barely breath with the pressure.

            "Depends. You a cop?"

            "Get real." He rasped, forcing his body to loosen up. He would have killed for a cigarette. Literally, of course. "I'm lookin' for a piece."

            The pressure of the muzzle eased up, and, when the sandy-haired man looked him over a second time, it was put away. "Who told you to come to us?"

            Sanzo took a shot in the dark. "Some hooker on Eleventh. Brunette. Blonde, some nights." The man before him gave a toothy grin and wicked snigger, running a hand through his hair.

            "You mean Sheela." Bull's eye.

            "I don't ask their names."

            "Fine, fine. Yeah she sends us high-spenders. You lookin' to outfit a crew or somethin'?" He kicked open the poorly latched, peeling door of the building Sanzo had been leaning against. The air smelled heavily of mildew and stale smoke.

            "No. Just me."

            "Jus' you? Why? You got a band of old men chasing you down?"

            Sanzo didn't grant that a reply; he watched the slightly taller man kick around some boxes and tug a cell phone out of his back pocket.

            "…Who're you with?"

            Again he shrugged, "No one." It was easy enough to fall back into the life he had been leading for seven years before getting caught for it.

            "I ain't buyin' that shit. I think you're a fucking cop!" Sanzo had to wonder if this guy was high, changing his mind so quickly and slamming him up against the concrete wall so that his lungs had to go into overdrive to breathe.

            "Fuck you're an idiot aren't you?" Sanzo hissed back, skillfully jamming his sharp knee into the man's belly, just above his groin. Hey, he didn't want to make any permanent enemies. The gun was out again, and Sanzo's Smith & Wesson met it head on, his violet eyes narrowed.

            "My profession doesn't allow me to pass out business cards," Sanzo seethed, "If people want a job done, they know to come to me."

            His opponent must have caught on. A grin spread over his wide mouth. "Hitman."

            "Bullseye."

            He grinned and lowered the gun, carefully, and only when Sanzo had done so as well did he hold out his hand, meeting a much cleaner, more slender appendage in a rough handshake and grasp.

            "Banri." He said, stuffing his pistol back into the droopy pants. Sanzo brushed his into the pocket of his coat, not offering anything in return.

            "So what kinda piece are you lookin' for? I'd think, for your job, you'd want somethin' with a good range on it." His cell phone was back out, and he was muttering into it, informing someone with a gruff tone to meet him at the corner of Twelfth and Hillock.

            "Something with a working silencer."

            Banri flashed a grin at him and stuffed his phone back into his pocket. "Okay. So I take it you don't want me to get it numbered for ya?" He joked.

Sanzo smirked to stay on his good side. "I like to give the suits a run for their money."

"Always a fun time." Banri strode towards the opposite wall with such intent that Sanzo was certain he planned to walk right into it. Maybe through it. Instead he ducked, kicking the lower end of a crumbling cement block beneath an old shelf, and nudging it out like a Jenga block. "Sorry, I don't work outta the office," he jested, following Sanzo out, "but meet me at 'leven at Twelfth and Hillock, and I'll get you the deal."

            "Fine."

            "Want?" He offered, holding up a poorly rolled joint visibly laced with a thin line of white powder. "Not that I wanna fuck up your aim later t'night. With your hit or Sheela," he joked.

            Sanzo shook his head in distaste. If you live your life in perpetual danger, why would you want to make yourself that much more vulnerable? He had always hated the loss of control over his body; he'd spent too much time forking over free will in Leavenworth to ever risk doing it again. Even his sleep was jerky, troubled.

            "Ooh." He frowned teasingly, snickering once he inhaled. "Lemme guess, you're a Virginia Slims man?"

            If Marlboros weren't made available soon, he might be, the monk reasoned silently.

            "What? Stop glarin'." He put it away, along with his lighter, and kicked the loose brick back into place. "You're a pretty unhappy fellow," he drawled, eyes still sharp, focused, despite his words. "Maybe this'd loosen you up."

            Staring at him coldly, he wondered if he'd even be at the corner that evening, and if so, how he was going to wheedle his way into his confidences—if he had any—and get a hold of Sha Gojyo? "I'm leaving now." Sanzo spoke crisply, as though lack of enunciation might baffle the man before him.

            "You got it. Hey hitman."

            Sanzo turned with a frankly annoyed stare.

            "Come alone."

           

            Ducking out of the Phoenix's territory, he stepped into the neutral strip of roads between it and the newly expanded Dawn. He recognized the yellow paint on various sheds and underpasses, and, unlike most, could read the twisted letters scrawled vertically along posts and train cars. Apparently now the void between the two territories had thinned drastically, leaving only the space from thirteenth to sixteenth, barring half of Poplar, as impartial ground.

            The old five and dime, long abandoned, sat at the corner of fourteenth, closer to the Phoenix than the Dawn, though not by much. Even when he was very young, he could remember the boarded up windows and flimsy locks on the doors. It had been easy for them to get in. Easier yet to make a retreat out of it, keep it clean with frequent use. The third floor, a loft, where no one else could see in, became his haven. It wasn't until red rivulets ran down the gutters, and a blond braid fell into a shallow puddle, that he stopped coming.

            The building was done in turn-of-the-century architecture, painted a deep green, though most of it had peeled and faded by now, leaving a helpless white and naked brick exposed to the rain. It was almost raining now. Evening, sunset, and clouds blocking the stars. The moon would peek out on occasion, spearing the trees with silver bolts.

            He didn't have to think actively; while reminiscing, his feet took him there. He knew to look up when they stopped moving, meeting the smooth arches of the windows and sharp, torn metal of ancient gutters with worn eyes. Ducking around to the alley in the back, he tested the door and, when it refused to give, jerked the knob up at a forty-five degree angle, to the right. It sighed under a familiar hand and squealed when it was opened. The warmth of a well-made building enveloped him as the door clicked shut. Light flickered poorly through the thin windows, boards long-since rotted off, that lined the narrow stairwell. His eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness; it didn't make him nervous in the least. Who would come here but him?

            He mounted the steps, dodging the third, and the sixteenth, both of which were rotted through. He turned when he hit the second floor, and moved up the next staircase, pleased to find even the rickety handlebars smooth and dry, untouched since he last came here.

            Gods when was that? He mused quietly, counting back the days. It was almost seven years ago since they last met here. The moon was not quite full, missing a sliver of silver; it had illuminated the entire room, casting everything in an ethereal glow. Their hair, twined together, had glistened like platinum, inseparable by glance alone. He pushed open the door of the third floor, finding the air stale, empty, unused, unbreathed, for more than half a decade.

            Everything was dry, what remained of the furniture was clean—what would settle on it? Perhaps someone, the owner of the property, or a relative, was maintaining it in the semi-decayed state in which Sanzo had first found it. Or maybe it took more than seven years for a building to die. They were bigger, stronger, than people. Its insides were still warm, functioning. Perhaps it would stand another twenty years.

            He let out a sigh that almost sounded like a word. Not one he had intended, or could make out. He pulled boards from the windows, finding the glass panes had been replaced, only one or two broken since. So someone was keeping it up. But, he noted, it didn't seem to be in use. Everything had been pushed to the side, some of the tables, the bed too, covered with a tarp to protect it from dust that didn't exist.

            Sanzo wondered how long the room had stood empty. Few would inhabit the building, given its dangerous location, walking the tightrope between Phoenix and Dawn territories.

            The squeal of irritated metal on wood forced him to clench his jaw until the bed was righted, put back against the windows, tarp thrown off to find a pristine covering. They weren't the sheets that had been left on it, but newer. Maybe prepared for a possible renter. As if anyone would risk driving, never mind walking, through the neighborhood. Sanzo smiled ironically and finished prying the boards from the windows, pleased when the clouds parted long enough to let a waxing gibbous flood the room with light.

            He removed his coat despite the chill, tossing it onto the bed and stretching out on top of it. From that angle, he could see clearly through the windows, the building across the street and the flickering orange glow of a streetlamp smudged with graffiti. Stars twinkled dimly, dustily, from behind a film of clouds. He shifted

            and felt a familiar weight settle over his body, hands trailing through his hair, cupping his face gently. Kisses peppered his hair, his forehead, ghosting across his smooth forehead, between his eyes, and down his nose. He let out a fluttering gasp, his own slender hands knotting in a thick, wheat-colored braid, urging.

            "You're bleeding." Sanzo's voice sounded so much lighter, softer.

            "It's only a cut. Minor skirmish," he promised, exhaling softly against callused fingertips, kissing each digit, and laving it with his tongue. "You're quiet." He observed.

            "Mmn." Sanzo felt his shirt being plucked open, soft lips gliding over scarred skin. "Sorry."

            "Don't be. Go wherever you need to," he murmured, "even if it's not here."

            Sanzo closed his eyes and permitted himself the escape, crying out in response to the sharp dash of pain followed by a quick, throbbing heat that slowly blossomed into pleasure. The stars were blazing pinpricks of light in the pitch of the sky; the moon beamed like a smooth pearl amidst diamonds, without facets, without angles. And then he could smell rain and herbs, the faintest flicker of clover. Lips that tasted like a storm fluttered over his own in light caresses. He almost thought he heard those words again, through the movement of the body over him, the hesitance.

            Are you certain this is what you want?

            Oh yes. Oh Koumyou…

 

            Sanzo let out a short gasp, sitting up again and glancing at his watch. Its glass face caught the moonlight, hiding the time. With a flick of his wrist, he read quarter to ten and sighed in relief.

            Turning to the window again, he found the stars too dim, the moon a shade too yellow. The bed was too cold. Sanzo rose, raking a hand through his hair and trying to picture what Koumyou would look like now. He would be thirty-six. He had looked almost as old then, though by no fault of his own.

            Koumyou wasn't like the others; he had worried. Especially about Sanzo. It drew premature lines on his face, though when he smiled, they would vanish. Sanzo realized he met him a decade ago, and hadn't seen him for almost as long. Three years was painfully short.

            "Hn." He sat again, ignoring the icy sheets beneath his legs, glancing up at the head of the bed, familiar with the low brass headboard and the slim bars he could just fit his fingers around. He remembered that night, their first night, and the guilt in his eyes that Sanzo couldn't wash away. Hadn't he said that was what he wanted? It had been. He'd never regretted it.

Sanzo would deny as hotly today as he would have ten years ago that Koumyou ever hurt him, or tried to take advantage. As the leader of the Dawn, he had rights the others did not, but he only made them known when it came to protecting the youngest member of their group. Sanzo didn't know how many scuffles he had gotten into that required bailing out by his protector. An expert gunman, he had picked off potential enemies over the boy's shoulder numerous times, always using his body as a shield, his words as a safety net. He was like an older brother, a defender Sanzo had never had in life. He took in a starving runaway, on his own time, and sheltered him, welcoming him warmly, rather than dragging him over the coals as would be expected of an initiate. His argument had never been "he's too young," though the others bickered and dissented amongst themselves over their leader's decision. It was always look at him. You can see it in his eyes—would you test a lion's claws?

            There was anger amongst the others because of the ease with which the blond was accepted and taken to their leader's side. They assumed Koumyou was having him, even then, at thirteen, and he had put a slug in a man's mouth for uttering it in his presence. Sanzo had taken out a few himself for making such crass statements. But that was not how he had earned his title, monk, it was merely an added irony.

And Koumyou had been so much like a fallen monk, and he was always the first to admit to it. It was surprising how easy it was to plummet into the trap of Dawn life. One wasn't born a killer; that was something that developed circumstantially. Koumyou had been a good man who had fallen prey to the sin of vengeance, and his fall had been irreversible. Maybe he hadn't wanted Sanzo to fall beside him. Living with him, accepting the mark of the Dawn at thirteen (for safety, not for life, he had said), how could it have turned out otherwise? But the man had always been stupidly optimistic, after all. Sanzo would tease him for it, and receive a faint smile in return.

They called Koumyou "monk," because of his kindness, his so called "soft spot," for Sanzo and for others. Sanzo had inherited that title, though not through any similarity to its namesake.

Koumyou hadn't killed indiscriminately; in fact he rarely killed at all, and, after his initial taste of revenge, abandoned the business of it all together. He ran a well-organized, highly disciplined company that dealt mostly in illegal arm and drug trades. Assassinations were out of his jurisdiction, though no one crossed him.

What Sanzo learned from the man helped him to survive, later in life. After Koumyou's death, though he took on the nickname-turned-title, he never returned to lead the Dawn. It more or less dissembled, and he dedicated his life to vengeance, knowing his lover would not approve, but might understand. Three years into it or so, he recognized that his intentions were selfish. Koumyou wasn't the sort of man who wound himself up in such affairs. He recognized the danger in them, and he wouldn't want Sanzo to thus entrap himself. Especially not for seven years. Eight in counting, given that, to him, the hunt wasn't over.

He felt his lover frown somewhere in the distance, and placated him with kind promises to settle once he had this over and done with. There was a flickering smile given in return.

The memory made him ache. A once so familiar face was fading in his mind. He remembered the rough hands, pressing over his and showing him up to level a gun, aiming with both eyes open, never squinting. But a part of him believed that he was seen, even by sixteen, as a child corrupted unjustly, a symbol of a contagious sin. As if he hadn't had free will, and hadn't decided to make the Dawn his life, never mind the reasons. Sanzo had never felt like a child in his life; he couldn't remember ever not having freedom. But Koumyou looked at him as though he trapped a beautiful wild creature for his own pleasure, tried to teach it tricks, train it, and then realized too late that, if he released it, the fair-haired being wouldn't survive. To make up for it, he loved him. And even at fifteen, he wasn't being "had." It was a wholly mutual agreement, initiated, surprisingly, by the younger of the pair. It was done out of love. Or whatever aspect of love they were capable of attaining.

            If his body had been fifteen then, his mind had been at least twenty five. He was pretty close to Koumyou's age now, the blond estimated, glancing down at the thin scars on his palms, one trailing up the side of his finger. His hands rested in his lap calmly, and he let his eyes flicker shut, pushing back memories as he rose to his feet. Koumyou would tell him it wasn't healthy to be there, and he would have done better to go after a pack of Marlboros. Sanzo smiled faintly at the thought, tossing a glance back at the window as he pulled his jacket on.

            "Hey!"

            The gun was out before he could clearly see the figure standing there in the dark.

            "Whoa, hey." Hands rose, and burgundy coat sleeves rolled back. "I think you may be a little confused," the voice murmured, shadow of a body turning just a bit. Sanzo spotted the orange glow of a cherry, bouncing up and down as the man spoke. "See…this is my pad."

            So it was being rented out. Sanzo lowered the gun, clicked the safety on, and pushed it into the side of his coat.

            "So…why are you here?" The man stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight, wincing a bit and blinking. Sanzo's lips parted in a small O of surprise as, beneath the light, the man's coat turned from brown to burgundy, and his muddled black hair to a fiery Scarlet. With eyes like dark, dark wine.

            "Sha Gojyo?"

            "Aw hell is this another hit?"

            "No." Sanzo shook his head, closing his jacket. "It's not."

            "Good! So…what d'ya need?" He grinned cheekily, not at all perturbed by the idea of Sanzo's headhunting.

            "I was looking for you." He said stupidly, shocked by the man's casual acceptance of his breaking and entering, not to mention his raising a gun at his head.

            Gojyo flopped back on the bed, stretching out very long legs so that his ankles propped up at the footboard; arms slid behind his head, pulling the coat apart to reveal a thin tank beneath. Edges of ruby red feathers peeked out from the left side of his chest.

            "Okay." He agreed. "What can I do for ya?" And now he was grinning. Leering, really. "Here for a bed to sleep in, Goldilocks?" He offered huskily, generous mouth closing to better display the firm, blood-red of his lips. Sanzo shuddered, but he wasn't sure why, nor willing to analyze it.

            "I don't think so." He snapped, and, reining his temper in, he forced his face to relax. "It's not that. I've…heard about you."

            "So've a lotta folks."

            His attitude was so disarming that Sanzo wasn't certain of what to say, or how to make himself convincing. The redhead exuded an air of comfort, tolerance, placidity.

            "I've heard, more appropriately," he began again, "About the Scarlet Phoenix."

            "Ooh. So you read newspapers," he jested. Sanzo thought it was unwise to joke with a man packing heat, but for all he knew, Gojyo was too.

            "I want to join."

            "Do you?" Interested now, he sat up, grinning slightly. Out came the gun—impressive—a forty-four in his cargo pants. "How then, do I know you're not a cop?"

            "Ask Banri."

            "Yeah you know Banri? So how do I know you're not a hooker?" He was smirking again, and Sanzo had heard the safety being clicked on.

            "Do I look like one to you!" He snapped in annoyance, cheeks flushing faintly. Gojyo was staring at him as though he might turn into one, if he wished hard enough. The redhead traced his figure with undisguised appreciation, tongue touching his lower lip.

            "If I answer that, you might shoot me. Why don't we talk about Banri then?"

 

            An hour later he was walking beside the leader of the Scarlet Phoenix's local division, listening to him prattle on uselessly, but, thankfully, declare Sanzo a "shoe in."

            "We just put you through a little initiation, ya know, and then you're in." He shrugged.

            "And you can say this without consulting anyone else about it?"

            Gojyo gave him a lopsided grin, plucking a back of Hi-Lites from his back pocket, and a Zippo lighter from the front. "This ain't a democracy, Goldilocks."

            "You call me that again and your clan will be one monarch short."

            Gojyo laughed. "Sorry. Sanzo." The blond tched in reply. "But yeah, you do one favor for me, and in return, I'll give you the protection of our name."

            Sanzo was silent, waiting for elaboration. The faint smell of nicotine and smoke hit his face, and he bit his tongue, almost wishing he had detoured to pick up cigarettes first. He still had the money Hakkai had given him to buy un-registered weaponry. It looked as though he might end up with that for free within a day or two, and the money would serve to fan the embers of a dormant addiction.

            "Here." Gojyo stopped in the middle of the street, between an auto-repair shop that had seen better days and some old-fashioned bank building that had been closed since the early seventies, by the looks of it. The redhead led Sanzo down a narrow alley and around back, shoving through a door and flicking on a series of naked bulbs hanging low overhead. Sanzo was just short enough to walk safely beneath them, but the taller man had to dodge the glowing pendulums, and he did so without effort.

            "Welcome to my office," he snickered, barring the door from the inside and hitting another switch, this one illuminated a formerly hidden stairwell and half of a second room above. The wooden walls were old and not particularly well taken care of, but they weren't falling apart, or showing signs of rot. Sanzo estimated that touching them would result in an unpleasant series of splinters.

            The man's "office" was nothing more than an old metal desk, three chairs, all threadbare and creaking, and a bookshelf that was almost empty, save for a few skinny binders and moth-eaten books. There were two glass ashtrays, and one on the desk, half-full. When the redhead gestured, Sanzo sat, staring ahead. "Well?"

            "Well." Gojyo repeated, that smug grin plastered across his face once again. He ashed a Hi-Lite against the dirty side of the tray to his left. "Tell me why you want in, and what makes you think you can handle whatever I throw at you?"

            "What makes you think I can't?"

            "Aw, you want me to come out and say it, Goldi--" he stopped himself just in time, smiling too broadly to look even mildly regretful.

            "I'm a good shot." When Gojyo failed to respond, he added, "and I've had practice."

            "Killed a guy?"

            "Would I be in this shitty profession if I hadn't?"

            "So have you done time for it?"

            "I'm not stupid enough to get caught." Sanzo retaliated, affecting an appearance of annoyance at Gojyo's question. His interviewer looked pleased.

            "Any inhibitions about killing more?"

            "Depends on who they are."

            "I'm not talkin' about mommies and daddies here, Sanzo. These are guys like us, except with half our skill." His face turned serious. "I don't fuck with the innocent unless they fuck with me first." He stated somberly. "But you just happened to come at the opportune time. We're in a bit of a…contest…with some guys in Eclipse." He must have noticed the sudden tension in Sanzo's navette-like eyes. "You're familiar with them?"

            "Yeah."

            Gojyo nodded. "How about the Dawn?"

            Sanzo shrugged. "I've heard of them." He was surprised at how easily lying came to him. He had never had to do it before. He'd never wanted to.

            "We trade with them. They're sort of our allies. The enemies of our enemies are our friends, anyways." He shrugged. "Apparently they still have some vendetta against the Eclipse too, from years back."

            Sanzo glanced off, hiding the hatred he knew must have sparked in his eyes. "I'm not here for a history lesson." He stood. "Give me my target."

            "You're awfully eager. Not that I'm complaining." His teasing tone was threading its way back through that silky murmur. Sanzo wanted to deck him for eyeing his lower half so intently, but held back. "Just one question, though."

            "What?"

            "You on the run?"

            Sanzo stared.

            "Are the cops after ya? Why'd you come here?"

            "Because I don't have anywhere else to go." It came out so easily, without forethought, and Sanzo realized it was because it was truth.

            Gojyo looked solemn once again, nodding. "Okay." But a flicker of a smile graced those generous lips. "Forget about Banri tonight. I'll get you the weapon you wanted. You can come get info on your target tomorrow night." At the questioning gaze presented him, he smiled, "Gotta keep you comin' back, don't I?"

            Sanzo rolled his eyes. Gojyo smiled. He must have noticed his initiate's eyes watching his left hand intently, because he pulled the back of cigarettes from his pocket once again, holding it out in offering. Sanzo would have hesitated, but the draw was too strong. He plucked one from the bent packaging easily, and Gojyo rose to light it, leaning closer with his red-handled Zippo than was truly necessary. Sanzo pulled back the moment he saw the cherry glow, leaning into the wall—no splinters after all—and inhaling the strong, bitter taste. Not his brand, but who the fuck cared? It had been months. He let out a sigh of relief that sounded vaguely like a moan, drawing the thick smoke down his throat with a muted shudder.

            It took him a moment to register the garnet gaze fastened on his every movement; he tossed a sharp glance at Gojyo, who was leaning against his desk. "Do you always orgasm when you smoke?" He quipped, watching the fair-haired man's face color brightly, despite the dim lighting. He didn't relinquish the cigarette.

            "Asshole."

            "Not denying…" Gojyo couldn't stop grinning.

            "So spit it out."

            It took the redhead a moment to register what was being asked of him, but quickly he slid off the desk and strode to the stairwell. "Come up here with me."

            Sanzo followed, cigarette still pressed firmly between his lips, though nearly smoked to the butt by that time. Gojyo lit another and leaned forward to press it between the other's lips; a slender hand snatched it away to position it himself.

            "Any preferences?" The lights overhead were startlingly bright, glinting off of the redhead's mane. He kicked a couple floor boards and pried out tarp-wrapped bundles. Sanzo watched discreetly from the door way.

            "Something small and easy to hide."

            "Like the one you've got there? It's not bad," Gojyo murmured, drawing a silver weapon from its hiding place followed by a handful of bullets. "So how'd you get into this business?"

            "How does anyone get into it?"

            "Fair enough," he allowed, lanky legs bending again to replace hidden treasure. "You want anything else?"

            Sanzo exhaled, muffling a soft sigh. The smoke after months without made his voice gratifyingly gruff. "No."

            "My gift to you, Goldy," Gojyo grinned, pressing it into his palm and, as if imitating Hakkai, he pressed a handful of bullets into the blonde's front pocket, thumb trailing dangerously close to the inseam. Sanzo jerked his hips and turned away with a muttered curse. "What the hell!"

            "Oh come on." A wide half smile greeted his protest; the man was too handsome for his own good. Sanzo wanted to put a bullet between those glowing eyes. "I haven't exactly been subtle."

            "Tch. Spell subtle."

            Gojyo threw his head back in a bark of laughter, tugging a strand of fair hair as he strode to the door. "You're a real spitfire aren't you?"

            "You wanna mock a guy you just armed?"

            "It's kinda hard to stop." He leaned against the door frame with a wry smile and flicked his tongue over the edge of his cigarette, waving it about between full lips. He had to appreciate the new initiate. The guy was gorgeous, though he supposed telling him as much would earn him a bullet—perhaps one of his own. He looked like he would do well as an assassin; he was quick witted, and, Gojyo assumed, quick on his feet. Of narrow, slender build, wiry and probably, the redhead mused silently, quite flexible. He had an aristocratic face that a body didn't see much these days; firm nose, rather narrow lips, though Gojyo thought they could be made useful with training. And his eyes…well who had purple eyes anymore? They were dangerous in their appeal. The redhead assumed he had about a snowball's chance in hell with the sputtering flame that was glowering at him now. He shrugged.

            "How the hell does a guy like you end up running an underground conglomerate?"

            "The secret of the trade, my friend," Gojyo grinned. "Skill, of course. And luck."

            "I'm leaning in favor of luck."

            He laughed. "Can't deny it. But to be lucky, a guy's gotta be in the right place at the right time. I've got good instincts, and I usually am."

            Sanzo watched him flick off the lights, and began following him down the hollowed out stairwell. "So where's the right place now?"

            Gojyo turned as his foot found solid ground, whirling on the man behind him with a dangerous grin. "I'd say your bed," he murmured darkly, "but I've got a feelin' I'm gonna have to work for that."

            Sanzo shoved him off roughly with a grunt of disgust, pushing past the smiling shadow towards the door. "Fuck off."

            "See you around, Goldilocks!" Gojyo called good naturedly from the door, watching the glowing blond head disappear into the angular shadows and obtrusions of the alleyway.

           

            Once again, Sanzo mused ironically, I'm working with idiots. Both sides of the law seemed to be run by morons, he thought as the extra weight of his newly acquired weapon bumped against his chest. He stopped at a gas station, one that was open all night, and smoked half a pack in the flickering glow of a dying neon light. It gave his reflection in the dirty window a scarlet tinge. He didn't know why that irritated him.

 At eleven on the dot, he returned to the side door of the precinct. Hakkai smiled widely.

            "Good to see you in one piece, Sanzo. How did it go?"

            Sanzo removed the gun, watching Doku, who appeared shortly after, jerk his hands up in surprise. Hakkai watched idly as the weapon, followed by bullets, was dropped onto the table.

            "Success, I see. Did you happen to get the name of the man who sold it to you?"

            "Yeah, and by the looks of things, I could have his phone number for you too," Sanzo wrinkled his nose in displeasure at the thought of returning to work for that arrogant idiot.

            "Oh really?" Eyebrows lifted over dark emeralds. "And that is?"

            "Sha Gojyo."

            "Gojyo?" Hakkai looked impressed. "You work fast."

            Sanzo shrugged. Doku looked impressed. "Where am I staying?"

            "Well not back at the jail," Hakkai assured him, noticing how his shoulders relaxed at the news. "Since you're rather under my care, you can sleep in the office. I pull late shifts all the time."

            Sanzo stared at him blankly.

            "What is it?"

            "Maybe he's afraid you'll feel him up," Doku offered with a toothy grin, finishing off the last of a diet coke and resting it on Hakkai's desk. He received a sharp frown, and Sanzo couldn't decide if it was for the innuendo or the littering.

            "You'll be quite safe," Hakkai assured him with a light pat to his shoulder. "There's a couch that folds out right through there."

            "No windows." Doku reminded him. "So don't try digging a hole through the floor."

            Sanzo pointedly ignored him, turning to Hakkai when he heard him make a small sound of surprise, inspecting the gun. He hadn't noticed anything special about it, carrying it back.

            "I almost forgot." He put the gun into Doku's hands, followed by the bullets, and moved to his filing cabinet. "I promised to make it worth your while if you came back on time."

            "Yeah you promised that to me too," Doku drawled. Hakkai laughed hollowly, but made him no answer. He was digging through a dented filing cabinet; Sanzo could see the manila envelopes over his shoulder, all neatly alphabetized and labeled.

            "I'm afraid it's not much of a gift, as it did belong to you a few months ago. It was taken because of the sharp edges, and the cord," officer Wilson explained, a shock of dark hair falling over his right eye. He pressed an amber-studded pendant into Sanzo's palm, lips soft in a frown.

            "When they took this, you were livid. Is it that it belonged to someone very important to you?"

            Sanzo stared vacantly at the familiar token, running his thumb over it, watching the fluorescent lights catch the bubbles of air within the amber; it looked as though it were glowing.

            Hakkai kindly stood back and didn't press his question.

            He looked up, too shyly for someone who had done this before, he thought with some embarrassment. His eyes focused on everything but the glowing pair overhead, darting uselessly about the room until a gentle hand stroked the centre of his chest, calming him. The glint of moonlight on amber distracted him; as the shirt slid off, he noticed the amulet, swinging like a pendulum and hanging from his throat. He had never seen him without it.

Long blond hair slithered free of its braid, tangling in the gold cord, stilling the object's movement. Sanzo thought the amber inlay looked like a cat's eye, and he watched it with interest for a stolen moment, until he heard a pair of muslin pants hiss into a pile on the floor, followed by his own rumpled jeans. He turned back to a familiar pair of eyes and—

            coughed, closing his slender fingertips over the heavy metal before pressing it into the safety of his jeans pocket. He removed the heavy roll of bills Hakkai had given him originally and placed it atop a pile of papers, snatching a few of the greenbacks from the top. Hakkai raised his eyebrows in silent question, and received a shrug in response.

            "You don't expect me to work without nicotine do you?"

            Hakkai smiled. "Not a problem, Sanzo-san."

            "So you didn't pay for the gun? This guy just gives it to you? How the hell does he know he can trust you?" Doku was pulling his coat on to leave.

            "No, yes, and how the fuck should I know how that idiot's mind functions?" Sanzo hissed, irritated at once when reminded of Gojyo.

            "Huh. Never seen it before. You must be one smooth talker," Doku nodded to him and then leaned close to squeeze Hakkai's shoulder, mouth almost brushing his ear in a murmur. "Call me."

            Hakkai nodded, the same meaningless smile on his face as he waved Doku off. "Well I'm in for a long night. You might as well just make yourself comfortable in the back room. There are some blankets on the couch. It pulls out. I'm sure you'll figure it out." And with that he shut himself off, sitting in the creaky wheeled office chair and poring over a series of papers, all jumbled with names, numbers, and statistics.

            Sanzo returned to the back room, pleased to see that, although there wasn't a door separating it from the central portion of Hakkai's downtown office, the couch was at an angle that couldn't be seen from where he sat at his desk. Sanzo tugged out the bed and threw a blanket over the naked mattress. Fabric hissed as it dripped off of his narrow shoulders and onto the edge of the bed. He sat down with an obnoxious squeak and plucked the familiar locket-shaped pendulum from his pocket, draping it about his neck. The weight was familiar, a comfort to have on again. It was almost warm.

 

            "I want to give this to you."

            "Your necklace?"

            He smiled, familiar lines creasing his face. "Yes. You might need it, one day."

            "Why is that?"

            "It's sort of a …good luck charm. You never know when you might find it useful. I'll tell you more about it someday…" He draped the square pendulum, patterned in amber, about the youth's neck, pressing a kiss to the cord just above his shoulder. "Keep it on you all the time." Sanzo didn't believe in luck, only circumstance, but Koumyou had always been the sort to put stock in things like Fate. And he liked to see him smile.

            "I promise," came the whispered reply; fingers stroked the small love token, thinking that, with its width, it might have been a locket, only there was no slit or opening present. He looked up in question, and felt a hand pat his head, silencing him for the moment in a way that said Trust me.

           

            Sanzo jerked awake at an unmarked point in time, glancing about the windowless room and scanning cluttered bookshelves and table tops for a clock. There was nothing, only piles of books, folders, and the occasional vase or miniature globe. A decorative map hung on the wall, drawn grossly out of proportion. Above the couch hung a framed "Mappe Monde," foreign animals and princes decked out in faded regalia stared down at him. He drew his shirt on and, barefoot, walked across the carpeted floor to Hakkai's office.

            There was a clock above his desk, ticking softly and reading four in the a.m. Green-sleeved arms pillowed Hakkai's right cheek; Sanzo noticed him stir gradually at the sound of footsteps.

            "Mr. Sanzo?" He smiled blearily. "Oh I must have dozed…" Consulting the wall clock, he gave his charge a curious frown. "Can't sleep?"

            "I did sleep."

            "Oh my you don't need much to run on do you?" Adjusting his monocle, he tapped the stack of manila envelopes beneath his fingertips. "Well I was done for the day anyhow. I suppose, since you're already awake, you wouldn't mind regaling me with the tale of your first day on the outside?"

            "Not much to tell."

            "I would be appreciative of anything you could give me."

            "Fine."

            Hakkai gestured for him to sit, and he did, unnerved at the extended glance given his bare feet. He pushed them behind the lower rung of the chair, drawing the officer's gaze up to meet his own with a beginning syllable. He recounted every detail with monotonous accuracy, emitting only his prolonged stay at the Five and Dime at the corner of fourteenth. He told Hakkai he "walked, and walked some more" during that stretch of time, running into Gojyo by accident between territories, so that they both ended up pulling their guns. Naturally he excluded the kappa's unrefined pick up lines; they were of no significance to the department, and Hakkai would only look amused in that sickening manner of his. Sanzo wasn't in the mood.

            "Well you did a lot of walking." Officer Wilson concluded, looking pleased, though not entirely convinced, by the inmate's story. "Regardless, I am grateful for the information you were able to bring us, and the weapon. If you can continue to supply us with information and, eventually, lead us to their headquarters, I'll see to it that you're removed permanently from Leavenworth."

            "You mentioned that." Sanzo said flatly, clearly no longer enthused by the idea. He'd never be put in anything less than a medium security prison, and his reason for continuing on in the department's services was the slight chance he might have of catching up with that dark-eyed bastard and feeding him lead.

            "So this 'initiation' you're describing—did he give you any hints of what it might be? Really there's no standard, as I'm sure you know. It would be helpful if we--"

            "I'm not trying to get into a fraternity," Sanzo snapped irritably. "This is a gang; what the fuck do you think he's gonna have me do?"

            "Well I really can't be responsible for your shooting anyone. You mustn't do that."

            "Then you're fucking out of luck, aren't you?" Sanzo seethed, his nerves coming undone under Hakkai's seamless smile and glowing eyes, as though he had the power to read every word printed on the inside of Sanzo's skull. It was sickening enough that he had access to a basic outline of the man's life from age thirteen and onwards, but to stare at him as though he were some orphan the kindly officer rescued from the streets made Sanzo's trigger finger itch.

            "Hmm," Hakkai mused in silence, the smile never faltering. "Well I suppose sacrifices must be made. I'm just not sure how to cover this up for the time being. It will be happily overlooked if we manage to capture the Phoenix's headquarters—I am assuming your target will be a killer much like yourself—but if any random acts of violence are discovered before then, I'll be forced to retire you to your cell, permanently. Quite a quandary."

            Sanzo detested the way he said that, a killer like yourself, and the implied "and therefore totally dispensable and useless to society." For a moment the blonde's indignation surged up in his throat, threatening to burst free in a series of condemnations and useless explanations. He choked it back. To the state, it didn't matter who you killed, only that you did. It didn't matter that it was just payback, that he had to take the life of the man who had taken Koumyou's. His own.

            His lips parted, but nothing came out. He wanted a cigarette.

            "Tell you what. You go through with whatever it is you need to do," Hakkai murmured, thinking as he spoke, "and tell me only what behooves you to admit."

            "Don't I do that already?" Sanzo smirked, rising, and retired to the side room again, slipping his shoes on, and then the outer coat.

            "Mr. Sanzo?"

            Silence.

            "You can't wear the same thing again. Let me find you clean clothing."

            "Tch." Sanzo couldn't hold back a grin at the sudden, well, motherly tone. When Officer Wilson strode through the gaping doorway with a black shirt on a hangar, he was humming.

            "I think it's a handsome shirt. It's silk, like the other," he promised, pressing it into Sanzo's lap and gazing at the man's sharp profile. "Like a cameo."

            "What?" A tense voice snapped, and suddenly blazing amethystine eyes met dull emeralds, fogged by sleeplessness. Laughter resounded in response.

            "Just put it on. I've left your things—from your cell—in the little side bathroom there for you. You can leave to feed your nasty addiction whenever you like, only make sure to come back by midnight."

            "Or what, I turn into a pumpkin?"

            Hakkai laughed brightly at that. "Haha, of course not. I'd have to shoot you."

 

            When Gojyo stumbled into his ramshackle office, Sanzo was already resting in the chair, feet propped up on the weathered desktop, perched neatly beside a half-emptied back of Marlboros. He had one between his fingertips, and the other hand laid atop his pistol. "You're late."

            "Did we specify a time?" Gojyo purred, not seeming to mind the seat his initiate had taken.

            "If we did, would you even remember?" Sanzo groused, stuffing the Marlboro between his lips again. "You know why I'm here."

            "Hell yes. And don't worry, I've got your guy. I had to do some double checking. You know, make sure he's actually still alive. Got a location. Sort of."

            "Is there a more competent overlord I can appeal to?" Sanzo deadpanned, expecting to get a rise out of the redhead; to his great surprise, Gojyo only laughed. The lanky, long-legged sharpshooter was the most laid back assassin Sanzo had ever met. And perhaps the most exasperating as well.

            "Nope, not in this region. Word on the street is we've got a new boss. Old one got shot in the face, twenty times. By his hooker." A grin spread over that generous mouth.

            Yes, definitely the most exasperating creature I've ever met.

            "Sad for him. I hope she let him finish."

            Gojyo's grin seemed a permanent fixture on his face. But it was bemused, genuine. Not like the shield Hakkai wore.

            "Well I can't say I know the details, but good news for you is the guy we're sending you after drinks like a fish. It'll be a cinch; easier than a shooting range."

            "You think I can't handle a serious target?" Sanzo didn't know quite why he was so riled up about it. It didn't matter one way or the other; his real "target" was the redhead standing before him. Everything before that was just busywork.

            "Ya didn't let me finish."

            "So do so."

            "His name is Hazel Grosse. And he's a rich bastard who's been the monkey on my back for years. Problem is this: he has a body guard to rival the Secret Service."

            "That many?"

            "Who said anything about many? There's one guy—nicknamed Gat, because he shoots like a gatling gun. Never misses either. The guy's built like a tree—he's at least my height, and he probably eats guys like you for breakfast."

            "I'll be careful to avoid his mouth," Sanzo sneered in irritation.

            "Do that." Gojyo's face was serious now. "I tried to dissuade some of the guys from pushing you into this. It's not absolutely necessary to kill Hazel; we could find another way, but this one's the easiest, and cheapest. And to them, you're entirely dispensable."

            Not an uncommon point of view these days. "I'll kill him." Sanzo promised.

            "You sure?"

            "What the hell do you mean 'am I sure'?" Sanzo dropped his feet back to the ground, riled. "If you think I'm so easily intimidated, I clearly gave you the wrong impression when we met." Sanzo jammed the muzzle of his gun up between Gojyo's ribs, face as close as it could be without his standing on the tips of his toes. "I'm not running to you for protection. This is business to me. You give me an assignment, I do it, we're even. Don't insult me with your patronizing bullshit."

            Instead of drawing on him, Gojyo backed up, hands in the air, a faint smile pulling at his lips. "Okay, Sanzo. You got it." He nodded, whistling. "But damn a man has to appreciate spirit like that, hellion. And a fine body to boot."

            "You're impossible." Sanzo felt the beginnings of a headache coming on. "Give me a location."

            "Can do. Corner of Third and Main, little ways from the BP station: the Trackside Tavern . He rents a room up top that little bar there. Sometimes I wonder if he an' his bodyguard are a pair, ya know?"

            "It doesn't matter."

            "Just don't try to get Gat drunk. He'll get suspicious, and you'll die of alcohol poisoning before he even gets a buzz."

            "I don't plan on drinking." Sanzo rose to leave.

            "So what, you bringing me back a scalp? Some Scythian cups?" Gojyo chortled. "Underpants?"

            "Get bent!"

            "Ooh. Feisty. Don't screw it up, Goldilocks," Gojyo murmured leaning against the doorframe as the blond disappeared into the shadows. He realized he could still smell the softer, sweeter stench of Marlboros, and turned to find one fizzling out in the ashtray, tipped against the edge. He sucked it down to the filter.

           

            It was half past eleven, and he had won special permission from Hakkai and Doku to remain out "as late as it takes." Given that he didn't have John Wayne's miraculous luck, Sanzo decided to gradually melt into the background of the bar and, from the perspective of a fuzzy outline perched on a stool near the counter, track down his guy.

            He had a description, but it was vague, and Gojyo promised he would "know him when he saw him", by the hulk of a bodyguard dogging his shadow. Sure enough, the frail, fair-skinned blonde with a fondness for Western dress waltzed in under the shadow of a hulking jet-haired man. Sanzo had to admit, he hadn't expected this. But muscles didn't deflect bullets, he reasoned, and Gat didn't know who he was, or why he was here. He'd work when they retired, and it would be a cake walk.

            Just as Sanzo was beginning to think that Gojyo had made this too easy, the only other blond in the bar strode over to his corner and wiggled over the surface of the nearest bar stool, making the un-oiled hinges squeak.

            "Well I've never seen you before," the man commented prettily, long lashes already working overtime. "Can I buy you a drink?"

            "I have one," Sanzo pointed out, tapping a fingertip against the amber-filled, round glass inches from his wrist at the bar.

            "So you do." He smiled, and Gojyo noticed the hulking shadow had left his place at Hazel's heels. "You look like a man who could use a little Southern Comfort."

            "Like I said, I've got a drink."

            "Who said anything about a drink?"

            Sanzo made a mental note to shoot Gojyo in the face upon returning, the precinct be damned. That bastard redhead was probably laughing his ass off right now. "I think we're done here." Sanzo rose, but Hazel laughed, tapping his arm lightly and gesturing for him to sit again.

            "Oh my, you're fussy aren't you? I'm hesitant to make any more recommendations."

            "Good."

            "Though if I were you, I'd try the Famous Grouse. It's a blended--"

            "Yeah I'm familiar with it." Sanzo remembered that, for all intents and purposes, he didn't know Hazel's full name. Or first. He feigned ignorance at the idiot's jest, tapping his fingertips atop the wooden bar. How long did Gojyo say it would take for this idiot to get plastered?

            "Are you?" He looked thoughtful for a moment, pushing stray strands of hair behind one ear and glancing at Sanzo with a false warmth in his eyes. The blond attributed it to whatever he had already drunk and a poor attempt at sincerity. "Well," he stuck out his hand until Sanzo's staring persuaded him to put it away again. "My name is Hazel. It's nice to meet you Mr….? What did you say your name was?"

            "I didn't."

            "Would you?"

            Sanzo bit back a growl and improvised. "Luke."

            "Well Mr. Luke," he waved the bartender over and ordered some malt liquor or other; long, slender fingers twirled about the glass as he debated over the syntax of his question. "Y'know I just happen to be visitin'; this isn't exactly my 'home town,' though I'm sure you deciphered that already, given my accent."

            "No kidding."

            He laughed hollowly, and it reminded Sanzo of Officer Wilson. "Yes well...are you a frequenter of this bar?"

            Sanzo shook his head.

            "Aah, well you know, it's rather old. I spoke with the owner hours ago—it dates back to the early 1900s."

            How intolerable would this blabbermouth be when he left sobriety behind completely? Sanzo began mapping out his revenge on Gojyo, listening to Hazel chatter on with half an ear. The man's voice was truly a nuisance in itself; he could be reciting poetry and still give listeners an ear-ache. That damned accent…

            "…thought it might be fun." Sanzo snapped back to reality at the sudden dip in octave to his left. He raised his eyebrows.

            "Come again?"

            "I said I was contemplatin' askin' you up tonight. I thought it might be fun. For both of us."

            Oh yes. He was going to die. Sanzo forced a halfway civil expression, clenching his jaw as Hazel plucked at the black fabric of his shirt. He slid back on the stool a bit and, meeting the scrutiny beneath pale lashes, shrugged. "Yeah. Fine."

            Hazel practically beamed. "Wonderful."

 

            "Gojyo."

            "What?" The redhead looked up from a fistful of spades, eyebrows cocked in mild annoyance. Banri was fucking with his game. He never beat Yaone at cards, and for once he had a flush. "Spit it out."

            "News." He handed over a small, tightly rolled piece of paper. It was sealed with wax and stamped with what looked like a signet ring. New boss must be old-fashioned, the kappa mused ironically, popping it open and scanning the note. Good lord the man wrote it out by hand. Either it was incredibly important, or the new leader of the Scarlet Phoenix had way too much free time.

            "Well?" Banri was fairly peering over his shoulder; he shooed him away with a flick of his wrist, claret eyes narrowing. "Well fuck. Turns out Hazel Grosse is no longer on our 'most wanted' list."

            "Does that matter?" Banri queried, bored already with the seeming triviality of the message.

            "It will if Sanzo's done him in yet."

            Yaone frowned, her perfect lips falling into a familiar pattern. "You sent an initiate to assassinate Hazel?" Long nails tapped the tabletop in annoyance. Gojyo side, folding his cards and letting them fan out in disarray.

            "Yeah, and he could've done it too. Hell, he might've gotten to it already, given Hazel's tendency towards whiskey. This guy's a pro—or so he says. I don't know. I've never actually seen him work."

            "How do you know he's not a cop?"

            "Trust me," Gojyo dragged his coat over broad shoulders, "he's not a cop."

            "Which means he's handsome," Yaone filled in, rolling her eyes. "You didn't put him through any sort of background check did you? Or send someone to follow him for a day?"

            "Psh I'd have done that myself if I wasn't afraid of getting shot. The guy's a firecracker." Gojyo realized that he was grinning widely as he said this. "Anyhow, gotta go stop him from filling Hazel's ass with lead. I guess th'new boss made some sort of deal with him. He's given us too much trouble to let him off the hook for no good reason…"

            "Maybe he wants Gat on our side." Yaone pointed out, following Gojyo halfway down the street in conversation. He could tell she was interested in the new member of their branch, and fishing for details.

            "Maybe." Gojyo allowed, lighting up and increasing his stride. She was almost as tall as he was, and had little difficulty keeping up. He could hear her high-heeled boots snapping sharply at the crackling pavement below. "We can continue our game when we get back, yeah?"

            Yaone shook her head, snatching a Hi-Lite from the redhead's coat pocket. "No can do. Plans tonight. I accept your forfeit." With a twitch of her fingertips she was off, turning the corner sharply and vanishing amongst the slick shadows. Gojyo realized he would never convince her now of his full spade flush.

 

            "Hey, it's past midnight. Where's Cinderella?" Doku leaned against the door frame, a beer in one hand. He was off the clock.

            "I gave him permission to stay out as late as is necessary." Hakkai's chair squeaked as Doku's hand pressed down on the back of it, sliding over the rough fabric to press gently at the younger man's shoulder.

            "You think we'll have a little more time alone before he gets back?"

            "I have no idea when he'll be back."

            "Well what's he doing?"

            "I don't know. I told him not to tell me if…you understand."

            Doku grunted in agreement, his other hand finding Hakkai's unoccupied shoulder, kneading the tense skin and dusting his lips across a smooth nape. "You're tense…"

            "Haha, imagine that."

            "You work too hard, man."

            "Only enough to keep us afloat, you realize."

            "Maybe that's too hard…I think you need a vacation."

            "Perhaps I can take one when we're through with this sordid business." He tilted his head back, glasses glinting under the fluorescent lights. Doku kissed his forehead softly, trailing fingertips down his chest. Hakkai jerked up into a sitting position when he felt a button pop.

            "Hey. That's a nice shirt."

            "Sorry," Doku grinned bashfully, not at all sorry, and swiftly bent low, head tilted to press his lips flush with Hakkai's throat. "I just wanted to see what was under it so bad."

            Hakkai made a sound in the back of his throat that was like humming and then shook his head. "Not tonight, Doku. We're here for a reason." He tugged amicably at a shock of short hair. "Tomorrow afternoon." He allowed, sensing a full-lipped frown behind him. "Your place."

            "Gotcha," Doku promised, giving both shoulders a squeeze.

 

            The bar was practically closed; no one but the owner and a waitress running late occupied the main room. Gojyo mounted the creaking stairs, receiving no more than a raised eyebrow from the man behind the counter. Apparently Hazel regularly received guests at this hour. It was almost one.

            He ran into a wall of muscle and two forty-fours the moment he hit the top step. Gat didn't recognize him—why should he?—but Gojyo sure as hell knew who—or what—he was facing. "Hey."

            "You have the wrong room," Gat informed him politely, but with a glare that threatened serious pain if he did not evacuate the premises at once. Gojyo grinned in return.

            "Ugh, I don't think so. I'm lookin' for two blond guys—kinda slender-like, one of 'em a serious firecracker."

            Gat looked confused for a moment. "You're with him?"

            "Hell yeah." Gojyo wasn't sure what he had affirmed.

            "I didn't see you in the bar."

            "I blend in with the furniture," he jested, leaning back against the wall as Gat gave him breathing space. "See I just need to speak to the bitchy blond real quick. It's important."

            Gat shrugged. "Fine, your eyes."

            "My eyes?" Gojyo frowned tightly in concentration—it wasn't as though he hadn't had some whiskey himself that evening. "Shit. You mean they're--" But Goldilocks wouldn't consent to that. It must be part of his trick. That meant he had relatively little time.

            "Doesn't three make it a party?" He forced a grin, hurrying down the narrow hall to the room at the end and shoving the door open to a scene that didn't surprise him in the least.

            "You son of a bitch!" Sanzo hissed at him, not moving his eyes from his target, who sat half-dressed facing the butt of a Smith and Wesson pistol. Sanzo's finger was on the trigger.

            "No need for name-calling. I'm here to, ugh, relieve you of your duty."

            "I figured this was a set up."

            "A set-"

            "I don't care. I'm going to kill him anyway."

            Hazel raised a hand in protest and Gojyo lunged, pinning Sanzo against the wall and hearing the gun go off behind him, hitting something against the wall that shattered on contact.

            "You crazy sonuvabitch!" Sanzo writhed against him, unable to escape the vice-like grip Gojyo had him in. His hands, though warmer, served as manacles.

            Gat entered quickly, both guns raised, and Hazel slid off of the bed and slunk to his side. "I have no earthly clue what is goin' on." He said simply. "The redhead saved my life. Shoot the blond."

            "No wait!" Gojyo drew back only to slam Sanzo against the wall a second time, managing to knock his head against the side of the window, temporarily stunning him. His fists never left the slender wrists. "It was a mistake! You made some kinda deal with…some kinda deal with the Phoenix, didn't you?" He panted between words, feeling Sanzo struggle against him again, though he had dropped his gun.

            "Oh my, are you tellin' me this was a hit?" Hazel looked more flattered than terrified. Gojyo nodded with an embarrassed smile, shrugging.

            "Uhm sorry?"

            "May I ask why you thought it necessary to put me out of my misery?" After a few hissed curses, Gojyo released the enraged blond, refusing to let him have his pistol back, and watched him glare at Hazel, seething.

            "You were on our list. I thought I'd send Blondie here after you, but it looks like he was more interested in getting you into bed than a coffin." The joke went over well, stroking the man's ego though they both knew it was a blatant lie. Gojyo was just glad he had disarmed the livid man beside him. "But see…now you're off. So maybe call off your watch dog, and I'll take this poodle home with me?"

            Hazel laughed hollowly. "Well I suppose it would be bad form to kill the man that saved my life…but don't think for a minute that I'm through with you." His eyes leveled on Sanzo, and suddenly they were sharp, opaque; Gojyo thought that must be what the man looked like before he shot someone. He certainly had a record of that, even if he traveled under Gat's gracious shadow.

            "It's okay, Gat dear." His voice was like ice despite the smile plastered across his face. Phony was the only word Gojyo could think of to describe him. Everything on the exterior was smooth, delicate, polite. But anyone familiar with his criminal record knew Hazel was a madman. At least Sanzo was upfront about his anger issues.

            "We're just going to mosey on out of here…" Gojyo wheedled, Sanzo's gun in his back pocket, the man's wrist in his hand.

            "Do that." Hazel smiled. "Nice meeting you, Mr. Red Hair. And as for you…Sanzo…" Suddenly the smile looked crooked, with too many teeth showing. "I'll see you later."

           

            "Did you have to go fucking ballistic!" Gojyo snarled at him the moment they were on the streets. Sanzo responded with a sharp punch to his jaw, snatching his gun back as Gojyo whirled on his heel, barely maintaining his balance.

            "What the hell!" The redhead swung and missed, momentarily paralyzed by glaring violet navettes. "What is your problem!"

            "Mine!? You send me on some joke mission and stop me before I could fill that pervert's mouth with lead under some stupid excuse?"

            "Hey! It was no picnic hunting you down and trying to stop you from fucking us over without getting shot in the process! I wasn't lying. The guy's not just a pervert, he's a psycho. He's actually been institutionalized. It was the real deal, when I told you I wanted him dead."

            This barely pacified him, but at least, Gojyo thought with a mental sigh, he wasn't shooting. He didn't know if he could bear to fire back. He was such a sucker for a pretty face…

            "He's been on our list, but I got a message today that he's turned coat, or whatever the hell you wanna call it. He's with us. Or doing something for someone upstairs."

            "Your boss?" Sanzo asked, features softening in curiosity.

            "Yeah. New one. Got a letter that took him off the list. So no more hits on Hazel. However," and now he was grinning, rubbing his cheek. "You little hellion…you woulda done it, wouldn't you have?"

            "You have no idea what the past hour was like."

            Gojyo's eyes widened, his mouth falling slack. "What? You mean you and him…?"

            "I had to sit there listening to his drunken babble—that bastard doesn't even breathe between words—for over an hour. I should kill you for that."

            "Aw don't be like that. You said you wanted a tricky mission. How much more difficult does it get? But regardless, you don't have to kill him. Or anyone you don't want to, yet. You're in. Show up with your metaphorical scalp tomorrow 'round noon. I'll send for someone to tattoo you."

            Sanzo glanced up, biting off his syllable neatly. "Where?"

            "My apartment—the one you broke into. And on your chest." Gojyo grinned. "I was hopin' you'd pass. I just wish I knew how to use a needle; I'd do it myself."

            "You're going to hell, you know." Sanzo informed him flatly, a smirk on his lips.

            "And you're not?"

 

            Sanzo was back by half past two, having stopped for Marlboros—after that night he was prepared to suck down a whole pack of them before bed—and then four aspirin. He had a headache.

            "So good to see you back," Hakkai murmured tiredly, waking from his place on the sofa. "Any big news?"

            "I'm in. Tattoo tomorrow. Guy named Hazel and his bodyguard bedding down above Larry's Tavern." He knew right away that Hakkai was familiar with the name.

            "Hazel Grosse?" He murmured, hurrying to his desk and already pressing one of the call buttons on the wide phone jack.

            "That's him. And don't you dare call it in."

            "What—why?" He lowered the phone carefully, adjusting his glasses.

            "Because it will be too obvious," Sanzo lit up with a small sigh of relief. "I was there to off him tonight. The cops find him within hours of my near-miss, and they'll know. The criminals on the streets are the smart ones, Hakkai."

            Officer Wilson nodded his agreement, apologizing for being so exhausted and not properly thinking things through. A feather-light smile, but shockingly genuine, fluttered over his lips when Sanzo addressed him by his first name.

            "Of course you're right. Good luck with the tattoo tomorrow. I assume, after the one you had put on, that this will be a cinch. You don't happen to have any other gang-markings on your body, do you?"

            "No."

            "Aah good. Just be careful that they don't see the one on your spine."

            Sanzo rolled his eyes, already working on his second cigarette. "I'm not about to take my clothes off, Officer."

            "Hm no, I suppose not," Hakkai mused. "Though you never know; that Gojyo seems to be a very persuasive person."

            "When hell freezes."

            Hakkai opened his mouth and closed it again quickly. Now was probably not the best time to remind Sanzo that, according to Dante, that had long since passed.

           

            Heavy oak doors swung open, splashing light across the shadowed room. Bookshelves lined the walls, and heavy tables, empty except for unused lamps, sat beneath the windows. Curtains blotted out the nightlights, Scarlet velvet trimmed in gold. At the sudden intrusion, dark eyes glanced up; long fingers tapped at a worn oak desk. "Yes?"

            "Boss." The man nodded, his gangly limbs still swinging with the effort of his climb. They were five stories up, and the elevators were still in disuse. His poor posture and nervous temperament didn't mislead the dark-eyed man in the least; he knew Gyu was one of his best, a deadly shot and blissfully unaware of the concept of a conscience.

            "I assume the letter arrived safely?"

            "Yes." The deep, grating voice returned with his breath, and Gyu didn't move.

            "Good." He smiled. "And Mr. Grosse…?"

            "Safe and sound." The words sounded eerie, coming out of Gyu's mouth. His overlord nodded, finished his writing, and glanced up. That Gyu had been dismissed was implied, and yet the man still stood before him, filthy shoes dirtying the Persian rug under his feet.

            "Something else, Gyu?"

            "Why save Hazel? He's no more likely to side with us than with anyone else." Usually such questions would not be permitted; the man in the high-backed leather chair mused at his underling's bravery, knowing he only behaved this way because he could get away with it. He was indispensable; his talents with everything from complex explosives to simple .38 handguns made him worth his weight in gold, and then some.

            "I am currently indebted to Hazel Grosse," he explained. "You see, he's discovered something I've spent the better half of a decade searching for."

            "What's that, Sir?" Vagaries wouldn't work with Gyu; he was as sly as the man he worked for. That was why he had risen through the ranks so fast, accompanied by a few other small favors.

            "He was the first to locate a certain young man. Genyo Sanzo."

            "I know that name…" He hesitated, brows furrowing; "He was with the Dawn, years back. I thought he died."

            "No, he's still quite alive…" Long fingers tapped atop dark wood, wound about a narrow ink pen.

            "Why do you need him? I've heard of his talent with the gun…but he's too young to have amassed sufficient experience."

            He laughed at Gyu, a hollow ringing sound, though it was as genuine as his amusement ever was. "My relation with Sanzo is of a more personal nature. I want to see him again, before he dies."

            "You just want to kill him?" He didn't put it below his chief, but only thought that it was inefficient, and rather old-fashioned.

            "Oh, that will come." He waved his hand in dismissal. "What's more important is that I believe has, or at least knows the whereabouts of, something I want.

 

 

The walk took less time than he anticipated. He was able to cut right through Phoenix territory this time; no one accosted or even so much as questioned his presence.

Whistling overhead, an irritated wind promised rain. The swirling yellow marks of the Dawn had withdrawn from their side, south of Fourteenth Street; the Scarlet Phoenix's graffiti crept closer yet, though Gojyo's apartment was still in technically neutral territory.

Sanzo had never seen the apartment over the old five and dime in the daylight. It looked completely foreign to him, and if it weren't for the address, he might not have recognized the building at all. The ethereal glow of the window panes and the eerie sheen of wet, naked bricks were absent. Creaking under his hand, the door refused to budge; even the knob was immobile. Fisting his thumb, he rapped thrice at the rickety wood. Footsteps, a muttered conversation, and then it swung open, revealing a grinning kappa.

"Hey there." His smile was saccharine, one hand reaching out to guide Sanzo in. "Come on up."

He followed the redhead to the second floor, stumbling on the rotted third step and cursing beneath his breath. How could he have forgotten? He had skipped over that step every time he came for years…

"Careful, some of these are fallin' through. Don't worry though, I'd catch you," the rake promised, winking broadly. "You're not afraid of needles, are you?"

"What do you think?" Came the annoyed response; he was careful over the sixteenth stair.

"Well good. This is Billy, and he'll be doin' the hard work. I'm just here for the show."

Billy looked up from where he was running his needle through a glossy white cloth and nodded, grunting his hello. Sanzo decided he liked him better than Gojyo already. He noticed that Billy, unlike Gojyo, didn't have the scarlet feather on his right bicep; he had instead a thin lightning bolt trailing about his left wrist. It wasn't a mark of the Phoenix, nor was it one of any gang Sanzo was familiar with. The Dawn only used a single elaborate mark, and, occasionally, the obscure semi-circle with rays radiating out from it in dark colors. He could remember seeing that on the underside of various members' wrists.

"Ready?" Gojyo offered, beckoning Sanzo to the chair with a sweeping gesture of his hands. He seemed to be Billy's interpreter for the moment, instructing Sanzo to sit and take off his shirt. Green today, at Hakkai's insistence.

Sanzo unbuttoned the front and glared at Gojyo as if challenging him to insist upon more.

"Nice necklace," the kappa commented without sarcasm, though perhaps a bit of curiosity. He bent to touch the amber-covered pendant, and his hand was swatted quickly away. "Touchy, touchy."

Billy disinfected the area swiftly and without question. He seemed bent upon doing his job and doing it fast. Gojyo was enjoying it far too much for Sanzo's liking.

"What—suddenly you're shy, Goldilocks?" He teased, leaning back against the door frame as though it were built to support him, one arm stretched across the opening in an unintentional display of the red mark near his shoulder.

"I don't even see why you're here." Sanzo growled at him, mostly irritated by the sudden stinging at his chest. It wasn't as though he had never had it done before, only that it had been ten years since, and the guy was heavy-handed.

"Gotta supervise."

"If you're looking for a show, you might want to head to Larry's."

"Hey. I'd say I'm not into whiny blonds, but that would defeat the purpose entirely." He lit a cigarette. "I guess there's just something special about you in particular, Goldilocks."

"You wanna step a little closer and say that?"

"Don't move so much." Billy instructed, never looking up from where he had settled his gaze, right above Sanzo's left pectoral.

"I wonder if we shoulda done purple for you," Gojyo mused, stepping closer despite the kindling fire in his target's gaze. "It'd match those gorgeous eyes of yours…"

"When he's done, I'm going to shoot you full of lead."

Billy tensed and stopped, glancing up with raised brows at Gojyo. The redhead laughed and waved his hand, "Go on, Billy. He says that to me all th' time. It's his version of foreplay."

"You're full of shit." Sanzo seethed, careful to paint an angry expression over his suddenly curious one. He had been so long outside of a close-knit tribe like this one that he'd forgotten entirely how taboo threats were against the leader. And here he had been firing them off without so much as a frown from the redhead. Did that idiot seriously think he was so harmless? Or was he stupid enough to believe he was going to get Sanzo into bed with him?

His pondering didn't get him an answer, but what he discovered, watching Billy and exchanging mindless banter with Gojyo, was that the hierarchy very much existed. Almost to the point of monarchy, putting Gojyo somewhere below the king. Billy looked ready to lick his boots if asked, and Sanzo couldn't figure out how such a bumbling moron could manage so much respect.

"Jus' don't mess it up," was the last thing Billy said to him before striding out, leaving Sanzo to patch up the sensitized skin with cotton and tape. He did so quickly, slapping Gojyo's hands away each time he tried to help.

"Stop it."

"I'm just trying to help." That ridiculous smile never left his face. Sanzo buttoned his shirt.

"Why do you treat me differently?"

"What are you talkin' about? The flirting?"

"No. You let me bitch at you—not that you don't thoroughly deserve it—but somehow you manage to strike fear into the others. I've seen them around you—talking about you. Banri. Billy."

"Huh." Gojyo paused in thought, barricading Sanzo against the back of his chair as he rested a hand on either arm, kneeling on the floor. Their height differences made Sanzo, sitting, a few inches taller than Gojyo on his knees. "I guess…" He leaned forward, and the blonde, back, as far as he could go. Gojyo moved closer still. "I jus' have a soft spot for you. I think it's your eyes." He smiled faintly, a genuine expression that sent tremors through the slender body attempting to dig through the wood of the chair. Suddenly he was so intense, as though a completely foreign aura radiated from him. He leaned closer, one hand shifting from the side of the chair to run up Sanzo's tensed thigh.

"You're really beautiful, you know."

When Gojyo's hand slid too far north, his mouth too close to Sanzo's, the blond jerked to the side, stumbling rather gracelessly from the chair, cheeks flushed, to see Gojyo tip forward.

"Cut that the hell out," he hissed, hurriedly buttoning the top half of his shirt.

Gojyo laughed, and this time it sounded false. Like Hakkai. How many people had he heard laugh like that in the past few days? He used to think he liked the sound of laughter, regardless of its source. In jail you didn't hear any of it. Just grunting, grumbling, wailing. The occasional keening. Sanzo wasn't one to fake anything. He never laughed the way Hakkai did, Hazel had, Gojyo was just now. He only ever did anything because he meant it. As a result, he realized he had forgotten what his own laughter sounded like.

"You'll just have to get used to that." Gojyo promised, one hand ghosting down Sanzo's arm. He leaned a little closer in passing, "but you're in now, regardless. I'm throwing a little welcome party for you."

"You're what?" Was this a gang or a day camp?

"I'm just kidding. It's for me, really. To win back the cash I lost to Yaone—I swear she cheats—but she's damn good at it. Poker night. You can bring cash or drugs—Banri'll trade it out. But I bet a nice guy like you doesn't have much of that, huh?"

"I don't trade control over my body for pleasure."

"Well that's a damn shame. If you decide you're coming, corner of seventh and Alpine. New guy brings the beer!" They had made it down the stairs, and suddenly Gojyo was gone, vanishing about the corner. Sanzo looked to the closed door behind him, tried it, and found it stuck once again. Locked, though he knew there wasn't any sort of device on the other side. Jiggling the handle in frustration, he stalked off, thinking what a futile attempt at revenge this was, and how he was beginning to have doubts about this entire mission. How was he supposed to find out where these mysterious 'headquarters' were if he was working for the most untalented and uncoordinated branch of the Phoenix? Led by an idiot…

           

            "They're led by an idiot." Sanzo gave voice to his thoughts as he unbuttoned his shirt at Hakkai and Doku's request, peeling back the bandage. He pretended not to notice the officers' messed hair and Doku's miss-buttoned shirt.

            "Hmm he's not too much of one, if he's managed to keep away from the police for so long. There were reports of a drug bust last night in Phoenix territory, but only two men were caught, neither of them possessing this mark…my it's in excellent taste for being done in such a hurry. Did it hurt?" He made no mention of the pendant swinging about Sanzo's neck.

            Sanzo wasn't given a chance to answer as Doku traced the skin around it in interest. "Real artistry. Too bad the needle was probably filthy."

            "It was clean. These guys aren't poor."

            "Where'd you go to have it done?"

            Sanzo gave them the address, and informed them of his plans for the next night, requesting extra bullets. Neither looked surprised, though Hakkai was hesitant to hand them over.

            "Do try to avoid any unnecessary bloodshed."

            "I don't shoot anyone unless it's 'necessary.'"

            "Ah, haha." The fake smile. "Wasn't that your opening line in your trial?"

            "You've read too much about me." It was a little creepy.

            "Hakkai's got a head for words," Doku informed him as he buttoned his shirt again. "So you've given us a couple good locations; we scout them out more often now, and have increased the number of officers who regularly patrol those areas. Five guys share the same beat. But we're not seeing anything."

            "Regardless of their leader," Hakkai murmured, "they're not stupid. And we're not looking to break up too much of their black market dealings. We need them to linger and feel relatively comfortable, immune from the police."

            "So you send more guys out?" Sanzo asked dryly.

            "Only to watch for felonies. Arson, rape, murder. Most officers are too nervous to intrude upon a drug trade alone; it's very dangerous, and it's a rule that there must be at least three or four present. We've lost too many that way." Hakkai tapped the edge of a pencil to his lip, glancing up at a faded watercolor over his desk. "They're expanding their territory, aren't they?"

            Sanzo grunted his agreement.

            "Well with your talent, and the…appreciation…your boss seems to have for you," Hakkai smiled wickedly, scribbling something down on a yellow notepad, "you shouldn't have much trouble rising through the ranks. Take any plausible opportunity to discuss or meet with higher-ranking officials. We'd like to pull this weed out by the root, you see. Plucking off one leaf will result in numerous buds in undisclosed places."

            "That was lovely Hakkai." Doku grinned wryly at his partner. "They're like little gun-wielding and crack-sucking dandelions."

            "I think I can feel my IQ dropping." Sanzo sighed, rising and striding restlessly into the other room. "Where's the paper?"

            "Hey princess." Doku glowered, ignoring Officer Wilson's urgent tapping at his shoulder. "This ain't a resort. You're lucky to be outside of your cage."

            Sanzo whirled, and Hakkai, without so much as glancing up from a manila envelope, thrust a folded map at Doku. "Will you please go over these, Dokugakuji? I've highlighted the regions with the highest potential for being centers of black market trade. Also, the Dawn and Phoenix's regions are marked out. Sanzo, I'd appreciate it if you'd look as well, and double check my findings."

            Sanzo shrugged, accepting the folded newspaper Officer Wilson handed him with a grunt of thanks. Doku took the papers and thrust open the rickety door, striding down the hallway and into his office before it had time to close. Suddenly the air was much thicker, laced with a physical tension, a silence.

            "Mr. Sanzo…"

            "What?"

            "Would you mind if I asked you a personal question?"

            His first inclination was to say yes, I would, but he shrugged. Hakkai would just find a more subtle way of doing it. He didn't have to answer.

            "Why did you kill those men of the Eclipse gang?"

            That again.

            "Like I said, it was for someone."

            "When did you tell me that?" Hakkai appeared baffled, perhaps roaming through the files of his meticulously organized memory and scolding himself for having misplaced a vital fact.

            "I said it in court. I assumed, given that you've already quoted me once, you knew." His skin was starting to itch under that scathing green gaze. Hakkai's eyes were powerful. He didn't permit himself to appear intimidated.

            "But it wasn't a hit."

            "No. It was revenge."

            "An honor killing," Hakkai murmured, nodding very slightly. He appreciated Sanzo's reasoning—accepted it? Or was it merely an acknowledgement of understanding?

 "Who died?" He whispered. And his eyes were suddenly sad, the intense glimmer fading with a breath, replaced by something darker, damper. Sanzo thought the irises looked like folded leaves after a storm.

            "That pendant you gave me…" And Hakkai understood.

            "A lover's?"

            Sanzo didn't respond.

            "I am sorry," he spoke as though the air were glass. "I know it doesn't matter what I think, but I would have done the same."

            Sanzo cocked his head in Hakkai's direction. "Would you?"

            And the man's eyes were deep again, an abyss, the iris almost swallowed by the dark pupil. He nodded imperceptibly. "I almost did."

Sanzo shook his head. "Almost isn't doing, Hakkai."

 

            Dark eyes glinted in the dimly lit room as he flicked his fingertips atop the icy metal of the safe. Impenetrable, specially made to withstand just about any force of man or nature. Except perhaps explosives, which had already been considered and passed by. For all he knew, they might totally destroy the contents of the treasure trunk. Unfortunately that also meant slicing it open was not a possibility.

            Gyu opened the door without knocking, a recently developed habit, and closed it in silence behind him. Dark eyes glanced up in question. "Have you prepared the men?"

            "Yes. There were enough left near Leavenworth to take care of it, for the most part. I sent a few local recruits in as well, last night."

            "Good." His attention returned to the safe, pondering what might be in it. Regardless of the form it took, that hunk of metal's innards were worth, at the very least, 16.5 million dollars. Perhaps they held bank statements, pass codes to larger safes, land titles to half of the state, but, more likely, raw cash and perhaps a wealth of gemstones. He was a business man, and this was the final transaction between him and a longtime enemy. His body was slush by now, but his fortune would be put to good use. The only trouble was the key. He had had numerous locksmiths attempt to pry it open with makeshift keys, or so-called master keys, but nothing worked. There was not a combination to be cracked, or an actual slot for a skeleton key. Rather, the box was seamless, a thick heap of titanium and solid iron, pierced only by a slight, square-shaped indention near the bottom.

He hypothesized that a unique sort of key must fit into it, but for some reason objects of equal contour and size would not open it. He supposed the actual key had slight indentions along its edges that fit beneath the overhang of the dip in the box's surface, something he couldn't see or make a clay form of, for fear some of it might jam the lock.

"Your orders were sent with them, Sir."

"Good." They were very simple orders; exterminate the Leavenworth sector of the Scarlet Phoenix, kill their leader, Sha Gojyo, if necessary, but bring Genjyo Sanzo to him. Alive.

"What is it this Sanzo fellow has that makes him so valuable?" Gyu mused, more to himself than his chief. The dark-eyed man answered him regardless.

"Why he has the key to the safe, Gyu. And that aside, I want dearly to see him again."

 

 

            The room was underground, in an old cleared-out basement of a grocery store that had seen its last customer at least forty years ago. It was practically gutted, pipes and electrical wires exposed like so many innards, hanging from the ceiling and crawling up the walls. There were small windows revealing a star-studded sky pressed near the top of the room; it stretched farther back than the building overhead did, and there were card tables and a smattering of other furniture dotting the floor from one end of the open space to the other.

            It was bustling with people, not all of them members of a single gang, some stacking zip lock baggies up in front of powder-filled tins, others working their way through a drinking contest. Weapons were out, strapped to waistbands and poorly concealed beneath vests; some lay scattered across tables where greasy-haired patrons were bargaining like Arabs at a bazaar. Sanzo descended behind a particularly tall youth—he would guess not much over sixteen—and spotted Gojyo in the crowd right away; he was standing beneath a naked, glowing light bulb, his hair lit up like fireworks. Likewise, the redhead saw him right away too.

            "Sanzo." He grinned, abandoning the women he had been speaking to. "I didn't think you'd actually show."

            "You forgot the balloons."

            Gojyo snickered. "Nah, they're just deflated right now—in the back. Straight from Columbia you know."

            Sanzo wrinkled his nose at the implication of just how those balloons traveled. "I'll pass."

            "Thought so. But you'll play poker; I bet you're a sharp."

            Sanzo actually hadn't played it in quite a while. He shrugged his acceptance, led to a felt-covered table where one of the women to whom Gojyo had been talking was already seated, chattering with another who was smoking a Virginia Slim.

"Aah," the dark-haired and full-busted woman turned. "This has to be Sanzo."

Sanzo glanced in question at Gojyo who, to his great surprise, was blushing fiercely.

"Yeah, this is him," he admitted, plucking a crisp deck of cards from his pocket.

"Well here I thought he was exaggerating," the dark-haired woman chuckled, "you really are gorgeous." She stuck her hand out over the table, nails unpainted, a single sterling band about her middle finger. "Yaone."

            He was surprised at her grip, and covered it by glaring daggers at the man to his left. "Do you torment everyone, or did I just get lucky?"

            "Knowing Gojyo," the familiar, hissing voice behind him send a chill straight down his spine, "he'll be bored within a week. Stick it out."

            "Banri. I'm glad you made it," Yaone waved at him slowly, "and I hope you brought cash this time. You still owe me, you know."

            "I don't owe you anything!" Banri plopped down in the foldout chair to Sanzo's right, between Virginia Slims and Sanzo. "Tell her, kappa."

            "Tch, I'm not sticking up for you again. I say pay up."

            Kappa?

            "Three hundred by the end of this week. You'd better win a helluva lot to make up for what you owe me, nevermind Gojyo." Yaone snatched a cigarette from Virginia, inhaling with a sigh and a noticeable rise of her chest. Sanzo wasn't particularly drawn to women of any figure, but he couldn't help but follow every other male glance at the table with some interest.

            "Hey!" She smacked Gojyo, the nearest, "dirty kappa. Start dealing."

            Gojyo obeyed, grinning to the small circle. "Alright, prepare to lose your cash. If you run out," and here he looked pointedly at Sanzo, "feel free to bet clothing."

            This brought a low chuckle from Banri and Virginia, through Yaone only exhaled in annoyance. "Shuffle faster, Casanova."

            As he was dealing, he called his game. "Five card stud, hole card's wild if it's face or ace." Sanzo peered at his own, expression untainted when he saw a jack of diamonds facing the green felt.

            "Ante?" Yaone insisted, tapping her foot against the cement floor. She was wearing heels.

            "Oh right. Ugh, what do we wanna do? Ten?"

            "You're so cheap." Yaone rolled her eyes and pushed a ten onto the table, watching everyone mimic her shortly. Sanzo's money came from Hakkai—in theory the detective was going to get it all back and then some, when he busted the headquarters. Like a flustered parent (and he did pick out Sanzo's clothes again, though the source of all the silk shirts was still a mystery), he had encouraged Sanzo to socialize "as much as possible."

            "Yaone." She was to his left.

            "Fifteen."

            "An opening bet!" Banri seethed, pushing the cash forward. No one folded, and the round progressed. Sanzo watched as a ten of diamonds followed a three of hearts. His fourth, a second jack, gave him three tens, and his fifth proved useless, a six of spades. The pot ended up around 350, and Banri folded by the fourth round. Flipping over her neat fan of cards, Yaone revealed a full house. The swish of paper sliding over felt was muffled by background noise and curses from two of the three men at the table.

            "My deal." Leaning forward—and thus drawing the attention of three sets of prying eyes—Yaone snatched up the deck and shuffled, bridging them in a single hand.

            "Seven card stud, low hole card is wild, last one down and dirty. Aces go both ways—Banri if you say 'that's what she said', I'll cap your ass—but four-card flushes are a no-go."

            "Rules, rules," Banri muttered, grinning toothily at the pretty girl across from him. She was working through her ninth cigarette. Sanzo wondered vaguely if she was the Sheela mentioned before.

            "No one beats her, I swear," Gojyo muttered by the fifth round, looking at a pair of kings and a queen facing up beneath Yaone's hands. Sanzo silently weighed his options—his money or not, he wasn't going to give it away—he had an ace in the hole already, so his last card didn't matter, and an ace face-up along with a jack and nine. That gave him nine, ten, jack, queen, and if he got a king or an eight, he would have a decent mid-way straight. The likelihood of that, given Banri's pair of eights and the three kings split between Yaone and Gojyo, was slimmer than he would have liked.

            "Twenty," Yaone pushed a Jackson forward with a broad wink at Banri. He folded, followed by Virginia. Gojyo and Sanzo called.

            With another ace face-up and his hole card proving to be a miraculous third Ace, Sanzo found himself, with the aid of permitted wild cards, holding a royal flush. The only thing that would beat his ace-studded flush would be a natural one. Gojyo folded at Yaone's forty-five dollar bet, and Sanzo raised by ten. She winked at him this time—he was beginning to wonder if it was a twitch—and fanned her cards out. A high straight flush, starting with a king. Sanzo plucked his own cards from the spread, startled by a sudden whoop from his left.

            "Shit if I've ever seen sucha close call. Yaone you're off your game," Gojyo smirked, snatching up the cards at Virginia's insistence, claiming she could hardly play, let alone shuffle.

            "That's why we keep you here baby." Banri cooed.

            "That's why we keep you here," Yaone smirked, borrowing the other woman's lighter. "You're pretty good," she smiled softly to Sanzo. "Best damn poker face I've ever seen."

            "Oh, that's not his poker face," Gojyo filled in, bridging the cards between his large hands. "That's how he always looks. 'Cept when he smokes." A wide grin graced the redhead's mouth as he peered at the monk, as if they were sharing in some mutual secret. Sanzo wanted very badly to inform him that, after so many months without, anyone might have.

            "I'm going for a beer," Banri rose, heading to a shadowed corner.

            "Pick me up one. Make it two," Gojyo amended, looking to Sanzo. "You drink, don't you?"

            "If I didn't, I would by now."

            Yaone snorted in laughter. It was more endearing than annoying. Sanzo wondered what she did for the organization. He could see the tips of red feathers peering out from atop her left breast, and an elongated plume peered out from below angel-cut sleeves.

            "Here, lazy-ass." Banri plunked two glass bottles before Gojyo, popping the lid of his own with a thumbnail. Gojyo pushed one in front of Sanzo and received a murmured thanks.

            "So Sanzo," Yaone began, twirling the deck in her left hand and piercing it occasionally with slender fingers, "how did you get involved in all of this shit?"

 

           

"He could come back at any minute, you realize."

            "That just makes it that much hotter." Doku growled against his ear, pressing himself to Hakkai's tensed thigh. They were resting, both, in Hakkai's chair, Doku practically on his lap. "C'mon get on the couch."

            "I really would rather we…ah…please don't…" Hakkai shivered, thighs clenching about Doku's cupped palm despite his words, grinding against evasive fingertips. "Oh…"

            "You have no idea how hot you look…" He felt his glasses being removed, and suddenly Doku's hand was sliding up the front of his shirt, tracing the thin scar on his stomach.

            "It's really not…ungh…wise…here…" Hakkai's faint words fluttered and dissolved in the air. He arched his back in an attempt to push closer to his lover's palm. He was practically radiating heat, Doku thought, beginning to sweat from mere contact.

            "Not like we can get back home at a decent hour…c'mon…you're already up." He smirked cutely at the double-entendre, leaning in to deliver an intense kiss, knowing, as Hakkai's arms slid about his neck, hands fisting in his hair, that he had won.

 

 

            The night wore on, and Sanzo ended up with a balance of three thirty more than he had come in with by half past one.

            Gojyo was just at tipsy, a sharp contrast to Banri's being steps away from smashed. Yaone hadn't touched a drop, and was raking in everyone's money with a beaming smile.

            "Aw c'mon, pretty lady. How can you sit there and take our money like that? How'm I gonna eat tomorrow?"

            Just as Sanzo was beginning to think that Gojyo could not have possibly earned his position at the head of the local Scarlet Phoenix division, he witnessed a most astounding transformation.

            Guns and lights went off upstairs, and in an instant the tightly packed room began to hiss with scraping and toppling furniture, breaking glass, and muffled curses. People began to filter out, clogging the narrow passageways on the East end. Their table was nearest the staircase, and before anyone could so much as twitch, Gojyo had kicked the card table onto its side and, dragging Sanzo with him, dove behind it. Sanzo recalled later thinking that the man leapt like a gazelle in one long, elegant arc, landing neatly on his feet.

            The old wooden door snapped like firewood with a fierce kick from overhead; it tumbled off to the floor as heavy footsteps threatened to break the splintering staircase. Firing from behind the thin tabletop shield, Sanzo found himself leaning elbow-to-elbow with the redhead, who didn't miss a single target. The room rang with smashing glass and the crunch of wood; even the whiz of bullets through the air and the sickening smack they made upon contact with flesh was a deafening roar. Curses and yelps escalated in volume as a group of dark-clothed men and women invaded the little hollow, shooting anyone in their path. Sanzo assumed, in his few brief moments of thought, that they were a rival gang from whom the Phoenix had stolen territory. This location was rather out of the way, farther from the heart of the city than he had expected.

            "Banri! Sonuvabitch," Gojyo snarled, reloading with the skill of a soldier and leaping easily over the shambled table to kick one intruder in the gut and smash the butt of his gun into the jaw of another. He was marvelously unbiased in battle, Sanzo noted between skirmishes against his own tormentors. He was just as willing to shoot a woman between her eyes as he was a man, and didn't hesitate to step over the corpses if it meant avoiding stray bullets himself. Sanzo simply couldn't figure out why he would run through the midst of things and risk his own life for Banri's. The man was expendable to say the least.

            The redhead's level of skill was awe-inspiring, and he moved as if with some sixth sense of where the bullets would be in seconds. He managed to drag Banri from the heat of it—the man was too drunk to do more than trot along after him, panicked and devoid of his gun—and take out three or four on his way.

            "Shit wait my--"

            "Leave it!" Gojyo bellowed, forced to stop long enough to gain traction on the blood-slicked floor and drag Banri forward. The woman he stepped over twitched, hand still on her pistol, and moved to clench at the trigger. Sanzo fired twice, stilling her hand, and jerked Banri up the stairs roughly enough to dislocate his shoulder. "Move it fucker!" Gojyo came up behind them, taking the stairs two at a time and backwards, his gun firing, hissing some sort of incentive that got the idiot between them moving. Yaone was long gone, escaped through some tunnel in the back.

            Three were waiting for them upstairs, and Sanzo picked them off just as Gojyo mounted the last step. He was panting slightly, but managed a quick, "hey thanks," before they were able to scramble out a side door.

            "Who the hell--"

            Gojyo shook his head. "Some rag-tag local gang, maybe. I couldn't tell. Too dark. They fucking shot off most of the lights. Banri get the hell off my leg." He shook himself free, watching Banri scramble off in another direction with a muttered goodbye. He and Sanzo strode quickly into more familiar territory, down the winding length of Main Street, within a quarter of an hour. Sirens began to sound behind them.

            "We should lay low," he said after ten minutes of silence, gesturing to the run-down building of his "office" that was glinting under a streetlight.

            Sanzo made a sound of agreement.

            "So…you really are quite a shot." Gravel crunching beneath their feet, he held the side door open to Sanzo, ducking in after him a flicking the light switch.

            Sanzo shrugged, seating himself on the edge of the metal desk and lighting a Marlboro.

            "I'm impressed."

            "You should be," Sanzo returned bluntly. A grin spread over Gojyo's face. "So where the hell does a nickname like 'kappa' come from?"

            "What you didn't know? Everyone calls me that." He shrugged. "It's like a water sprite?"

            "A fish?" Sanzo smirked. "You don't much look like one." And he didn't, standing there in the dim light soaked in sweat, bronze skin gleaming through a half-opened shirt. The muscles of his arms clenched slightly as he drew the heavy chair out from behind his desk, straddling it backwards. But damned if Sanzo would let him know it. "More like a…cockroach."

            "A river deity." Gojyo corrected with a laughing roll of his eyes. "Known for its sexual prowess, of course. I don't know how it started; Yaone, probably."

            "She got out?"

            "Hell yeah, faster 'n any of us. She's used to these little raids, though she doesn't usually pack heat. A gun, I mean."

            "You're lovers?"

            "No." Gojyo looked a little surprised. "Even the great Sha Gojyo can't turn 'em. At least not usually." He shrugged. "However, I'd probably sell my soul—or what's left of it—to see her and her girlfriend get it on."

            Sanzo wrinkled his nose in distaste. "I'm sure your soul already has loans out against it."

            "What, you prefer entertainment of a different variety?" He lifted his eyebrows suggestively.

            "I'm not here to be entertained at all." He said flatly, exhaling in the kappa's general direction. They smoked in silence, watching the swinging light bulb overhead. "So why'd you save his ass?"

            "Who? Banri?" Gojyo shrugged. "Dunno. Used to it, I guess?"

            "He doesn't seem worth it."

            "He's one of our own." It was spoken with a startling level of sincerity. 

            Sanzo had forgotten that sort of devotion. He had had it, once, himself. But it had dissolved over the years, leaving him loyal only to himself. Who else did he have to protect?

            "I guess a guy in your profession isn't used to running with a pack, huh?"

            "Not really."

            "Well, you're in one now. If you're ever in a fix, you send for me."

            "Psh."

            "Hey, I'm serious. You're like, family, or somethin'." Gojyo smiled gently, tapping the back of his hand. "I'd kill for you now, you realize."

            "You kill a lot of people." He slid off the desk. "What's that worth to me?"

            Gojyo frowned, and it was one of the few times the monk had ever seen it. A hand ghosted through a curtain of blood red hair. "But not without reason. And not anyone who doesn't deserve it."

            "Who are you to administer justice?"

            "I could ask you the same question."

            Silence stretched between them. Gojyo sighed. "Look, the offer stands. Whenever you need m—any of us. Same goes for you. You're on call twenty-four seven now."

            Sanzo sighed around a Marlboro. "Good thing I don't have a cell phone."

 

            By the time Sanzo returned to the precinct, Hakkai was dressed, hair neatly combed, and working late at his desk. Doku was napping with a satisfied smile on his face, draped lazily over the couch. The slam of the door startled him awake.

            "Oh Sanzo-san. How was poker?"

            "Fan-fucking-tastic."

            "Is that blood?"

            Glancing down at his shirt, he noticed it was torn in more than one place, and speckled with blood. "I guess it is."

            "Mr. Sanzo!" Bracing himself for a barrage of admonishments, he was surprised when Hakkai simply fretted about the expense of the shirt, and how he was going to start giving him t-shirts instead.

            "Did you get into a fight with your flirtatious sponsor?"

            "No. Let me see your map." As Hakkai plucked it from a squeaky drawer and unfolded it, Sanzo drew the red lines farther West. "As far as I can tell, all of this street too. There's a building, around here, with an underground tunnel. Probably a series of them. Whatever group called this their territory beforehand got pissed tonight and tried to take it back."

            "Hmm…" Hakkai mused, glancing over the map once again as he cleaned his eyeglasses on his shirttail. "You're sure of who they were?"

            "No. Just that they were shooting at me."

            "Well. I am most relieved that you're unharmed." Hakkai smiled. "So when do you go back?"

 

            "I am most displeased, Gyu. This was your team of crack troops, and you jeopardized the entire mission. Genjyo Sanzo was almost killed."

            "The men got a little excited, Sir."

            "They're not dogs, tracking a wounded deer—they're men," he snarled, hands slamming palms first down onto his desk. "Control them."

            "It won't happen again," Gyu vowed quietly. He would go himself, except for his precarious position at Headquarters, where he was in charge of one of the country's largest and most lucrative drug cartels. He couldn't ask anyone to cover for him; no one knew the business as he did. "I'll see to it."

            "You do that," came the heavy voice from behind the desk; a hand swiped across the stubble of his chin. "I don't expect failure from you."

            "I know." Gyu ducked out, greasy hair swinging atop his shoulders. He heard his boss curse quietly and return to the mystery of the Safe. It was plaguing him as it had been since he managed to obtain it, six months ago when invading the territory of the Golden Dawn, now much reduced, thanks to his little Leavenworth sector's expansion. The iron box had come from the central building, mostly underground, and the leader's bedchamber. It wasn't his—they were dirt poor now—but belonged to the practical founder, a man who had died around seven years ago in a shoot out. Gyu didn't know much more, only that, at the time, the Dawn had controlled everything, save for the scant holdings of the Eclipse. They ran a small, tight, and incredibly profitable illegal arms trade. Undoubtedly the safe was packed with wealth. But Gyu had never known his chief to do anything solely for money, regardless of the amount. It wasn't as though he needed more. There was, he decided, something a bit more personal involved. He knew it was best, in light of his recent failure, not to pry.

 

 

            Sanzo went back multiple times over the following month and found only scraps of information that would be useful to the precinct. Hakkai was often more pensive than usual, trying to find a way for Sanzo to discover more without being completely obvious. The monk's usual retort was that gang members, despite a startlingly basic vocabulary, weren't stupid.

            "If you think the criminals you can't catch are dumb enough to let me waltz into their headquarters, what does that say about your officers?" Hakkai would laugh dryly, assuring him, "point taken," and leave most of the planning to Doku, who seemed better informed about modern gang hierarchy.

            "It's not really a horizontal monopoly anymore," he sighed around a cigarette. "It's actually a lot like the mafia—am I right Sanzo?"

            The blond grunted his agreement.

            "They've got pockets of powerful people all over the country; it just so happens that they're incredibly active here, and their headquarters probably aren't far away. I would assume the areas of greatest financial success are surrounding a hotspot of trade—isn't that usually where the capital of these mobile nations are?"

            Amused at his comparison—Sanzo certainly didn't feel ethnically connected with either the Dawn or the Phoenix—he nodded nonetheless. "Usually. Either that or you've got a mastermind behind a local branch."

            "And do you think Sha Gojyo would qualify for that?" Hakkai asked quietly, reminding Sanzo of a psychiatrist the way he gently drew the answers from him. He was waiting to hear, "and how does that make you feel?"

            His first reaction was an amused no, or, better yet, hell no. But he thought about it. Gojyo was quick on his feet, and, from what he had seen, his mind didn't lag too far behind. Usually. There was no way to tell just yet. The man put up the most baffling shields, switching them out like masks depending on his mood and whom he spoke to. Sanzo wasn't certain if he was a mad genius or a bumbling idiot who happened to be in the right place at the right time. He settled on a mixture of both.

            "I don't know."

            "You've spoken with him numerous times." Hakkai had an awful habit of reminding people of their histories and stating the obvious. Sanzo wanted to tell him, "Well you're wearing a blue shirt," but refrained, shrugging.

            "That doesn't mean I can read his mind. He comes off like an idiot, but in a fight he's quick. I think, when he needs to, his mind can plan a few steps in advance of his body."

            "I am assuming he has some sort of skill, being able to evade the law so effortlessly. I'm almost tempted to test him, but I fear we'd chase off whoever rests at the top of the Phoenix's pyramid. We can't have that." As he spoke, he glanced at Doku; something passed between them too quickly for Sanzo to interpret.

            Doku nodded his agreement. "Pluck them out by the root."

            "You did mention a newer leader, didn't you, Sanzo?" Hakkai pushed a green glass ashtray across his desk in the monk's direction, noticing ash floating to the floor.

            "Yes. When I went after Grosse, Gojyo brought it up. It's why I didn't kill him."

            "Mmm." Hakkai hummed in the back of his throat, lost in thought.

            "Maybe the newbie will slip up." Doku offered hopefully. "If not, you might have to start workin' it with this guy, Sanzo." He smirked, crushing his cigarette—a Camel—against the side of the tray. Hakkai sighed when ashes tumbled over onto the wood.

            "Like hell." His nose wrinkled in distaste.

            "He'd go for you."

            "What the fuck?"

            "Jus' sayin'." Doku shrugged. "Gut feeling," he explained after being glared at by steely pinpoints of violet. "Try it. We don't exactly have an unlimited window of opportunity here. Crime rates are gonna soar if they push their territory any further. Tax payers really can't afford the increase a bigger police force is gonna cost them. And angry, impoverished tax payers just means more crime. It's a vicious cycle."

            "My sympathies," Sanzo sneered in annoyance, rising and lighting a second cigarette. "I'm not doing that."

            "Fine. But work a little faster."

            Hakkai took it all in in silence, a tiny smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. After an uneasy tension in the room began to simmer with frayed nerves, he smoothed a palm over Doku's shoulder. "Sanzo does, in all fairness, have more experience in this than we do. He's been bringing us decent information."

            Doku shrugged, and Sanzo glanced at the clock. "I'm going."

            "Oh, where?"

            "I'm not sure yet. That idiotic redhead has a 'surprise' for me." He snapped his head around to gaze threateningly at Doku, daring him to make a joke of it. The officer only smiled and waved him off, bursting into laughter as the door clicked shut.

            "I bet he does."

 

The surprise was less than appealing, sprawled out over a wide, high mattress decked in satin sheets, covered—and barely—by lacy undergarments. Sanzo sighed in mild distress, glaring at the kappa behind him. "Another initiation test? Can't I just shoot someone?"

Gojyo guffawed, slapping him on the shoulder. "Man, this is a gift."

He looked at the girl. Did being referred to as a 'this' not offend her? So much for an increase in feminist activism in Kansas.

"Oh, Gojyo's a long-time customer," she explained prettily, flipping a mop of dark hair over one shoulder as she efficiently read his mind. "I put up with a lot. But the payoff's nice. And he tips well too," she jested, pressing a bare foot to the kappa's thigh. "So what? Both of you? That would be fun…"

"Hell yeah," Gojyo seconded, draping an arm about Sanzo's shoulders and giving his arm a squeeze. He jerked back when he heard the safety of a revolver being clicked off, hands held up before him. "Or not. Really."

Sanzo stared at them both, thinking they could be siblings if they weren't business partners. They both had that wily gleam in their eyes, brows cocked expectantly.

"I'm leaving now," he informed them, turning on his heel and heading back out onto the rain slicked street. It had been sunny moments ago.

"Apparently the weather's as temperamental as you are." Gojyo sounded only slightly put off. "I thought you'd like it. Her. Since you're obviously not into guys. Or is it just me you're not into?"

"That's not what I'm here for."

Now he frowned, deeply, and Sanzo found himself thinking it was an unattractive look for the redhead. He was used to seeing that generous mouth posed in a come-hither smile or, at the very worst, a sardonic grin. "You can't live for your job, man. Especially when that job is killing."

They walked in silence, the taller man dogging the blonde's heels. Eventually he sighed, giving in. "Have it your way. You're a pretty pissy guy, you know. That's why I feel like a real ass for trying my hand at you again." He tugged his sleeve, drawing him to the side of the street as they passed a bar.

"At least let me buy you a beer, yeah?" And the randy grin was back, eyebrows raised playfully, waggling at him so that his defenses fell limp. Sanzo shrugged and lit up a cigarette, "yeah."

The obnoxious neon lights flickered over damp pavement, but disappeared once they were inside the dimly lit room. Chairs and tables lined the walls; a few were pushed out in the center of the floor. Gojyo seemed to know the bar tender, he held up two fingers as they crossed over the threshold, and by the time both men were seated atop squeaking stools, the barkeep met them with two shot glasses and a brand of strong whiskey Sanzo had never tried before.

"So." Gojyo murmured after downing the glass; now he was tapping the rim, and seemed unlikely to follow up with anything more substantial. Sanzo glanced around the room, noting the way most of the patrons seemed to blend into the woodwork. None of them were making enough noise to be heard individually; only a single sound, a multi-voiced murmur, could be made out. The steady drone would have shielded anything Gojyo had to say from prying ears.

"So you don't like women."

"What the fuck?" Sanzo glowered at him from over a mug of beer—the barkeep had slid that to him down the slick countertop.

"What?" Gojyo shrugged. "It's cool. I just didn't know. I thought, ya know, since you kept turning me down…"

"You're an imbecile." He sat flatly, careful not to give Gojyo any direct hints about his "preferences" at all. He didn't want any more surprises.

"So I've been told. You know for such a pretty guy, you're an awful bastard."

"So I've been told," Sanzo mocked him, taking a drink. This didn't rally his anger, but rather brought forth a burst of laughter. The blond assumed he was either a lightweight or a true moron.

Gojyo plucked a worn deck from his back pocket, pressing it to the bar between them. "Cards?"

"Very good." Sanzo scoffed. "Can you spell that?"

The kappa rolled his eyes and began shuffling. "If you beat me, I'll spell it for you," he promised, tapping his glass to Sanzo's with a wink. "Or, you know, do whatever else you like."

"That would involve an awful lot of dynamite."

The redhead looked amused, and dealt. Sanzo couldn't help but notice the way long tanned fingers dusted expertly over the cards, snapping them into a bridge and then out onto the table in a neat fan. They played in silence to pass the time; Gojyo was fond of drinking, and Sanzo, of silence. The imaginary stakes had shifted in the monk's favor, and the clocks and accumulating cluster of empty glasses told him an hour or two had passed. It was easy to get sucked into the dull buzz of the place, feel dizzy and maybe a little sleepy, without really accomplishing anything. Sanzo glanced at an ashtray piled with Marlboro and Hi-Lites butts. All the corners were dusted with ash. Gojyo tossed back another shot of whiskey, and Sanzo reached forward to nudge his shoulder, fully anticipating he would topple right off of the stool. He did not.

"Hmm? Is that a forfeit I hear?" He smiled cockily, and the blond thought his voice was far too steady for all the whiskey he had ingested. Sanzo felt a slight buzz, nothing worth paying for—the taste hadn't been that great either—but enough to make him question his balance. He'd been drunk before, and was nowhere near it now. He could probably still aim a gun if he had to. But he feared his tongue had loosened in his head; he bit down on it and grunted noncommittally. Nimble fingers dealt, fanning his hand out before him.

Gojyo broke the silence Sanzo had been hoping to impose. "So how did you get into this business anyway?"

He had been asked this before, and was as disinclined to respond in detail as he had been originally. "How does anyone get into it?"

"Well, that really varies. I know how I got into it. I know how Banri got into it. But I can't see a guy like you just…slipping through the cracks. People would notice you."

"No. They didn't."

"So what, your parents were bastards? How old were you when you started?"

"Thirteen."

Gojyo whistled his appreciation. They were still playing cards, a distraction for the hands rather than the mind. His wine-dark eyes told Sanzo he was intent on the story he was prying out of him. "That's awful young. Why did you leave home?"

"I didn't." He blew a cloud of smoke to the side, lighting up another cigarette before continuing. "I just got passed around a lot, between sets of parents." He never really considered any of his foster parents' houses and apartments to be home for him. He liked to think he found a home with Koumyou instead. It was a long time in coming, but the best things usually are.

"Your parents died?" He asked softly. Sanzo shrugged.

"Maybe. I really don't know. I grew up in three or four different households, and they all told me different things. I have no idea who my parents were. I don't really need to know," He added, not wanting any more piteous looks from the redhead. He began to shuffle again.

"That's tough."

"That's life. I didn't starve."

"Still," Gojyo insisted, scooping up the five cards he had been dealt and peering at them between glances at the monk. "So what happened at thirteen? I can't see you playing hitman as a kid."

"I wasn't." He hesitated, unsure of how much he should reveal, and wondering, if he invented something on the spot, how much of it he would remember. He opted for a foggy version of the truth. "I got taken in. By a guy who did this. A group," he corrected himself, "who did this."

"What, like the Mafia?"

"Not really."

"I can't see a guy just picking a kid up off the road and teaching him to shoot." Blinking, something sparked in the kappa's eyes, and he blushed. "Ah—oh."

Sanzo snapped at him, "Don't assume that, pervert. He didn't touch me."

The fierce defense of the unnamed gunman sobered Gojyo the slightest bit; he took another drink to balance out the effects of being yelled at, smiled, and shrugged. "Okay."

"I wouldn't have stayed."

"No." He smiled faintly. "You wouldn't have."

Sanzo frowned sharply, mostly in thought, and the kappa's eyebrows twitched upwards in a way that reminded Sanzo of caterpillars. That was how he knew he was a little too close to drunk.

"So this guy taught you what you know?" Gojyo spoke after two hands of silence.

"Yeah."

            "Was he a hitman too?"

            "…sometimes." Sanzo allowed, not wanting to veer off course into dangerous territory. Gojyo didn't need to know he was the leader of the Dawn. It was better he thought of him as some independent branch too small to be of much significance.

            "What was he like? Ach, sorry. Don't mean to pry." He rubbed a hand through thick hair. "I just can't picture it—ya know? I never woulda picked some kid up off the road, much less trained him. You don't hear of that every day."

            Sanzo felt his lips pull into an almost-smile, leaning one elbow against the counter. "I don't know what to tell you. He was eerily patient. Always acted like he had all the time in the world, and he was never in any hurry to get rich, or revenge."

            "He sounds more like a holyman than a hitman," Gojyo chuckled, and Sanzo smiled at the irony. The kappa misread it, and he let him.

            "So where is he now?"

            Sanzo hesitated, and Gojyo drank, letting him gather his thoughts. "He died."

            "I'm sorry." The kappa sounded confused, as though he wasn't sure whether he was truly sorry or not.

            Sanzo shrugged. "It was a while ago."

            "Yeah?"

            "Seven years."

            "Damn. I wouldn't have guessed."

            "How's that?"

            Gojyo frowned, leaning a little closer. "The look in your eyes when you talk about him. It's like you just saw him. I dunno." He tugged a shock of hair in thought, then smiled faintly in realization. "You were lovers."

            Opening his mouth to deny it, Sanzo's face betrayed him in a pink flush. Gojyo chuckled, sipping at a beer. "Don't bother; it's written all over your face."

            A sigh escaped him, and Gojyo was kind enough not to ask how he died. He probably already knew. There weren't that many options, given his lifestyle.

            "What about you?" He returned, lighting up another cigarette and pushing the filter of another from his mouth into the ashtray.

            "Started a couplea years ago, when I was nineteen. I was outta the house by nine, when my dad died. I was supposedta be with some distant relatives—you must know the story—but I ran away."

            Sanzo frowned, peering carefully at him. "You lived on the streets at nine?"

            "Hell yeah. I was a regular pickpocket." He grinned proudly, "like those little British kids who snag shit from old men's pockets, right?"

            Sanzo nodded his understanding, fingers wrapped around a warming bottle, disinterested in its contents.

            "Well it's not like I was totally alone," he shrugged. "I had an older brother who would help me out every so often, give me money. He tried to get me to live with him, but…"

            "But?" Sanzo blanched, embarrassed at having nudged him. He was forgetting that he wasn't supposed to care.

            "But I couldn't stand to see him, just then, for very long. Our mom was batshit crazy—drugs, and probably something genetic." He shrugged. "My brother…" Shaking his head, a sigh escaped his lips. "He used to haveta beat her off of me."

            Sanzo felt his eyes widen of their own accord, pupils wide in the dim lighting of the room.

            "Hey, hey, it wasn't that bad. It's not like she came at me with a knife." His lips pulled into a shadow of a smile; the form was there, but not the energy behind it. Suddenly Sanzo suspected he was lying to protect his brother; he still loved him, but perhaps his brother could no more bear to see Gojyo than Gojyo could bear to look upon him.

 "But I couldn't stand to see him just then, because I'd remember that. Being near him gave me nightmares. He tried to get me put with a foster family—like you—but I managed to slip away every time. A lady took me in…" He paused, emptying half of his glass in thought and gazing at the worn grain of the counter for a long moment, as though it were moving beneath his hands.

            "But he was really good to me, my brother." Gojyo smiled softly, a genuine one this time. "He'd pick me up out of scrapes—he was a good nine years older 'n me, so he could—and he'd let me stay with him whenever I needed to. Tried to keep me there, but I'd sneak out. Stupid kid, huh?"

            Sanzo shrugged, understanding the motivation, the need to avoid what caused him pain. He wondered if his brother was still alive.

            "I miss him, sometimes. You know what he does now?"

            Sanzo shook his head just the slightest.

            "He's a cop. Isn't that a riot?"

            "You haven't seen him since," Sanzo guessed, receiving a nod in return.

            "Yeah. Once I started this shit up, he saw me once, asked me to turn myself in, and when I refused, we sort of just…drifted. No clue where the hell he is now—maybe not even in the city-- but I know he doesn't keep tabs on me."

            They turned on their stools to watch a drunken brawl in the corner of the bar, but it ended quickly, one man collapsing uselessly to the sticky floor below. They returned to staring down into amber liquid and empty glasses. Sanzo flicked a glance to a curtain of red hair, noting the two little scars beneath his dark eye. Both men realized, slowly, through the fog of alcohol and thinned blood, that they had probably said too much. To balance it out, they exchanged scathing insults as Gojyo paid the barkeep and they walked into a wall of water beneath the streetlights.

            "Fuck it's wet."

            Sanzo heaved a sigh, glancing at the watch on his arm and wondered how it was already three. It would be a long walk back to the precinct. He'd probably catch a cold, and his cigarettes would be too soggy to smoke. He doubted Hakkai had any.

            "How far are you?"

            "What?" They were huddled under the narrow awning, Gojyo trying uselessly to light up.

            "How far from here is your place?"

            "Couplea miles." Good, vague.

            Gojyo shrugged. "Mine's closer. Come on." He took off in a long-legged stride towards fourteenth street. Sanzo followed for lack of anything better to do; the rain was like a sheet of ice, pelting at such a pace it stung upon contact. By the time the old five and dime came into view, they were both sopping wet, clothing clinging to every curve and angle. Sanzo could feel his hair dripping down the back of his shirt.

            Gojyo worked the lock of the side door, pushing it open and slamming it shut when they were both inside. It was chilly, but dry. Sanzo reminded himself of the collapsing stairs on their way up, but found himself temporarily distracted when the redhead peeled off his second skin, tossing the sopping cotton mass to the side. He stumbled with a curse, and was tugged up quickly by a pair of sunburned hands.

            "Gotta fix those one day," Gojyo grinned, leading him into a room with which he was already more familiar than the kappa knew.

            "I gotta blanket around here someplace," Gojyo promised, digging through a particularly deep drawer—the dresser looked to be from the 1970s, though Sanzo had never seen it before. The bed—the bed was exactly the same. Whomever Koumyou had rented the place from hadn't done much redecorating since.

            "Here." Gojyo turned to find Sanzo still in his wet clothes; he shrugged, draping the heavy blue cover over the fairer man's shoulders. "Gonna catch cold in the same clothes."

            "I'll survive," he muttered, sinking back onto the bed out of habit. There was no other furniture in the room, and Gojyo didn't seem to mind. He was still rifling through drawers; when Sanzo turned to look at him, he heard the snick of a lighter and saw the kappa with a dry pack of cigarettes—those disgusting Hi-Lites—and little else. He had undressed, and was inhaling a throatfull of smoke as he air-dried and searched for spare clothing.

            "Put your fucking clothes on," Sanzo snapped, glancing away in irritation and trying to banish the image from his mind. Unsuccessfully.

            "Where'd you get that, anyway?" He murmured.

            "What, you don't have one?" Gojyo snickered, and Sanzo heard the distinctive buzz of a zipper being tugged up. He turned to glare at him, taken aback when he flicked on a dim light and strode, barefoot, over to the bed. The red phoenix on his chest shimmered with a garnet dust; the muscles of his chest, defined by water and shadow, arched appealingly as he flopped back onto the mattress.

            "Idiot. The scar, I meant." Sanzo shook his head and glanced off to the side, not having to feign annoyance.

            "On my leg? Few years ago," Gojyo explained. "Little skirmish with some guys and a knife." Sanzo turned to peer at him again, recalling the dark depth of the mark trailing halfway up the side of his thigh, ending just before the faint curve of his--

            "Ass."

            "What!" Gojyo protested.

            "I didn't lie to you."

            "Didn't you?" Gojyo smiled without humor. "Okay it wasn't a skirmish," he admitted. "And it's more than a few years old."

            Sanzo frowned, something in the centre of his chest telling him already how the scar was obtained.

            "I told you I was on the streets young. My brother—Jien—he never knew about this. No one does, really. Just Banri."

            Sanzo stored his questioning glances away for later, urging Gojyo to continue by his silence.

            "I was like thirteen or fourteen, and I got into a fight I couldn't handle. Alone." Tensing, he suddenly had the feeling that he kappa wouldn't be telling him this if the whiskey hadn't pried his tongue and better sense loose. "They didn't want my money." Gojyo said quietly.

            He nodded, turning away and hoping that a similar truth didn't reflect in his own eyes. Drawing the blanket a little closer, he let his gaze rest on the windowsill. He remembered that too, that God-awful fear and panic, foreign hands pushing at clothing and tearing at skin, raking through hair with greasy nails and pressing hot, sweaty lips over smooth flesh. Sanzo bit his tongue. Hard.

            "Banri rescued me, though." Gojyo murmured softly. Suddenly Sanzo understood his formerly inexplicable loyalty to the man. "He pulled me up out of the muck. That's how I got here, because of him. So even when he fucks up—and he fucks up a lot—I go after him."

            The loyalty he professed was of a nature Sanzo hadn't witnessed in a long time. Gojyo looked a little embarrassed, as though the effects of the alcohol were already wearing thin. He sat up, pushing damp hair behind his ears. "But who doesn't have a shitty story?"

            Sanzo grunted his agreement, idly wondering how the kappa could sit there, shirtless and wet, without shivering. To him the room was freezing.

            "Sorry I don't have another blanket," He said softly. "This isn't my only place. I usually don't come here that often, but my car's in the shop, so I've been crashing. You really should take your clothes off."

            Sanzo glowered at him, and he smirked, shaking his head. "It's worse to be in wet clothes when it's cold out. See? You're kinda shakin' there. Come on, I won't look." He winked, and Sanzo stood, dropping the blanket for a moment and glaring. "Fine then, don't."

            Gojyo turned his head in mock consideration, listening to the sound of rumpled, damp fabric being tossed off. He waited for the buzz of a fly, but only heard Sanzo's "tch," as if to say, "you can turn around again," when he had replaced the covers.

            The monk was careful not to turn around, even in the slightest, in case Gojyo decided to peek. He reasoned that, so long as he kept the blanket secure about his back, the tattoo peering up from the waistband of his jeans would be concealed. He had to admit, he was considerably warmer with the woolen cover bound about his naked torso and arms.

            Gojyo whistled, eyes tracing the V of pearly flesh that ran down the center of Sanzo's chest. "I shoulda peeked," he teased. "You're awful shy."

            "Only because you're terribly perverted." Sanzo retorted, letting his long legs dangle from the edge of the bed. He wished Gojyo had a couch, or at least a folding chair. The kappa was suddenly far too close.

            "You're shivering again," he whispered, pushing damp shocks of hair from the man's cheek. Sanzo twitched, jerking away.

            "I'll live."

            "I can't have you catching a cold now can I?"

            "Stop coddling me you stupid--" And suddenly a warm mouth was pressed to his, dry, callused hands plucking at the blanket around his shoulders and pushing it down to bare his chest. Sanzo parted his mouth to breathe, to pull away, and Gojyo nipped his lower lip affectionately, taking the gasp as one of pleasure. The blond slammed the heels of his hands into a hard chest, shoving Gojyo away with a sputtering curse.

            "What the fuck are you doing!"

            "What the hell kinda question is that! I know you've been kissed before. A perfect mouth like that…"

            "Shut up! Just shut the hell up," Sanzo hissed, struggling into his wet shirt again and reminding himself in the nick of time not to turn his back on the kappa. Gojyo noticed his almost apologetic glance at the bed. He didn't understand.

            "Look—I'm sorry okay? You seemed to like it just fine when we--"

            "There is no 'when we.'" Sanzo hissed. "Don't touch me again."

            "Why the hell not? You can't tell me you're still in mourning for that guy!" Sanzo felt his shoulders tense at Gojyo's perceptivity. The kappa noted it.

            "Fuck, Sanzo…he died seven years ago. You meanta say you haven't gotten laid in seven years?"

            A bright flush flooded his ivory complexion, and Gojyo only smiled faintly, shaking his head. "You musta fought off a helluva lotta folks. Look—if you don't want me to, I won't touch you again. I promise. I can respect that—your mourning, or whatever it is," Gojyo explained, moving to stand in the doorway while keeping his word, hands up before him harmlessly.

            "Just stay the night."

            Sanzo colored again, and Gojyo strove to correct himself. "No, no—not like that. I'll sleep downstairs, even. I won't touch you," he promised, as though talking to some nervous, fidgeting virgin. It incensed the man before him, almost to the point of decking him for using that tone, but the kappa seemed sincere.

            "Please. Tonight was just…weird. Okay?"

            Sanzo mentally nodded his agreement. That was the perfect word to describe it.

            "Just…look. It'd be stupid to walk across town in this shitty weather. Just stay here, and I'll leave you alone, okay?"

            Sanzo knew it would be wiser to leave, but exhaustion, the effects of too much whiskey, and the cold changed his mind. "Get me the cigarettes," he growled, stalking back over to the bed. Gojyo beamed in victory, digging through his dresser drawer and pulling out the spare pack and a lighter. He left them on the nightstand.

            "Ta da." A small smile. "I'll be downstairs, okay?"

            "Tch."

            "G'night," he grinned cheekily, closing the door, and the monk marveled at his resilience. He ought to have decked him. Kissing him like that…Sanzo shook his head in disgust. He could have pulled away from those scalding lips, from the wide palms, much more quickly. He was sick inside over having hesitating, asking himself without words, are you sure you don't want this? Don't want him? A ragged sigh escaped him, and he lay back in the familiar bed, cigarette between his lips, and asked Koumyou for forgiveness he didn't merit. Sleep found him quickly, just after he stubbed out a third cigarette on the top of the bedside table.

 

            "No, no, don't ever fully extend your arm. The backlash of the shot could seriously hurt it, even with a small pistol."

            Sanzo let his elbow bend a little, feeling a warm hand press against it and help him take aim. "Like so."

            The gun went off, and the bull's-eye in the distance had a bullet shaped hole in its second circle out.

            "Not bad."

            Sanzo was displeased, and long after Koumyou left, he continued his practice, pitting three different targets with holes. A mixture of frustration and determination built in him, and it seemed to better his aim. Koumyou drew him from the shooting range at sundown, chuckling at his resolve and warning him that his arm would pay for it in the morning.

            Sanzo was quiet, following him down the street to Headquarters. When they passed the building, he suddenly knew where they were going, and strove to catch up with the long-haired man ahead of him. They were nearing Fourteenth Street.

            "Aren't you tired?" Koumyou teased, tapping his arm. "I saw you practiced with both hands."

            "I don't have a preference," Sanzo explained, cracking his knuckles, stiff from their exercise.

            "Ambidexterity comes in handy," he promised, slipping in through the side door. "I wonder sometimes if I should teach you to grapple."

            "You should," Sanzo agreed, a faint smile pulling at his lips as he followed the blonde shadow up the stairs, dodging the rotted steps. Soon he fell back on the bed, arms beneath his head, and peered out the window; the sky was upside down, and it looked just the same. It was a bright night. He heard Koumyou changing, but didn't sit up.

            "Isn't grappling usually done on the ground?"

            "It is," the older man nodded; the smell of cigarettes wafted faintly through the room. "It'll make you sore."

            "Perhaps a little less, if we do it in the bed." Sanzo mused, a small smile on his mouth. He heard a bark of laughter and sat up to meet warm kisses, arms looping about his neck.

            Fair eyes met his, asking, are you certain? He nodded, tilting his head to meet his lover's in a gentle kiss, reveling in the smooth, cool touch of his skin. Moonlight stained the room silver, and Sanzo let his eyes fall shut.

            Suddenly the mouth over his was wider, softer, warmer. He moaned, fingers tangling tightly in a red mane. There were bolts of pleasure between his legs, and then a tumble of Scarlet, wine-dark eyes peering up playfully, a smooth smile on a generous mouth…

 

            His own quick gasping startled him awake. Blinking, he rapidly surveyed the room, hands tight in the sheets that smelled far too much like a certain redhead's musk. The faint scent of lotus and gunpowder that had lingered in his dream had long since vanished. A hand pressed to his mouth, and a foreign sound escaped. He felt heat behind his eyes, but nothing followed. Koumyou…

            He wanted to apologize in silence for his dream, but found he couldn't quite find the words. Sleep claimed him, and this time it was tinged with neither silver nor Scarlet, only a blessed, blinding white.

 

            "You get up early," Gojyo groused from where he had fallen asleep at the desk. It never struck Sanzo that there wasn't an appropriate place to bed down on the main floor. Serves him right. Asshole. He couldn't quite bring himself to say it aloud.

            "No. You're just lazy."

            "Says the man who stole my bed," Gojyo teased, stretching and wincing when he found his muscles to be tense and cramped. "You okay?"

            "Why wouldn't I be?"

            "Dunno. Heard you yell up there. I almost went up, but I figured you were just dreaming of running me through with a spear or somethin'." He shrugged, smiling softly, a tint of concern in his eyes.

            "You must be psychic."

            "Leaving?"

            "I have shit to do." Sanzo explained, tossing his hand up in a simulation of a wave as he strode out, purposely neglecting to thank the kappa for his hospitality. He might have, if it weren't for that damned kiss and everything after it. He shook the fragments of the dream from his mind, looking up at a gray sky and anticipating a stern lecture from Hakkai for failing to make it back before sunrise.

           

Gojyo, tripping up the stairs to his now vacant bed, fell forward with a groan, the beginnings of a headache teasing him mercilessly. Inhaling sharply as he hit the pillow, he caught the distinct scent of the blond who had occupied it minutes ago. He sighed contentedly, wondering where that perfect mixture of lavender and musk came from. It must be a gift of nature, he reasoned, unable to imagine Sanzo using any sort of perfumed soap. For his own safety, Gojyo thought wryly, it would be better not to imagine Sanzo using any sort of soap.

Fuck if he didn't look so damn gorgeous last night… Gojyo hadn't really thought about kissing him—he just acted. Sanzo had looked cold; his sharp features were softened a bit by the dim lighting and his exhaustion. The man was beautiful, though he'd probably heard that too many times, and from all the wrong people, ever to want to hear it again. He was surprised to find that Sanzo had gone through a lot of the same shit he had, minus the crazy mother. But minus the aid from an older brother, too. He didn't even know where he belonged, though he made his way in the world well enough without such guidance, Gojyo thought appreciatively.

He couldn't help but admire the way he carried himself, though he could stand to open up a bit more, or at least smile once in a while. Gojyo thought he would look very handsome smiling, or panting, he added mentally, a sleepy grin tugging at his lips.

He may have resisted, but Gojyo had kissed a lot of people, and he knew damn well when someone liked it. And Sanzo had liked it. What made him pull back, loyalty to the man who had been his lover seven years ago, some personal sense of honor, Gojyo didn't know. What he was sure of however was that he was going to win him over. Without touching, as promised. Hell, since when did he need to touch someone to make them fall head over heels for him?

            Creaking beneath him as he stretched, the mattress seemed to echo his self assurance. The redhead grinned, but desire was muffled by exhaustion, and he fell into sleep.

 

            As anticipated, Hakkai was pissed off when Sanzo returned. Doku just grinned sleepily at him from the fold-out couch. Sanzo thought it was terribly obvious what they had been doing, and vowed to himself never to sleep on that sofa again.

            "You can't do that without warning me first." His voice was sharp as a whip, lashing the air; the monk blinked.

            "What, you don't trust me?" Sanzo retorted wryly. Hakkai let out a hiss of frustration, glaring at Doku as if he ought to be helping him out in this.

            "We can't risk your running wildly about the city—how am I supposed to know you didn't kill anyone?"
            Sanzo pulled out his gun, startling Doku, and popped the back open, revealing all six bullets tightly packed in their chambers. He wheeled it about and closed it, pressing it back into his jeans.

            "That's beside the point," Hakkai insisted, furrowing his brows at the state of Sanzo's clothing. "Did you fall into a well?"

            "It was raining."

            "Did it?" Hakkai had clearly been occupied the night before, Sanzo thought with a shake of his head, glancing between them to let them know he was aware.

            Hakkai blushed uncomfortably. "What did you find out?"

            "Nothing. He got drunk." Sanzo glanced off.

            "So where were you all morning? I very much doubt there's a bar in town open past three. You don't look exhausted."

            "What are you, my mother?"

            "He was with Gojyo." Doku smirked, shaking his head. "He finally got you into bed didn't he?"

            "Shut the fuck up," Sanzo grumbled. "I wasn't that drunk."

            Doku grinned. "But he tried, ne?"

            "What does that have to do with anything?" Hakkai asked, sitting back in his chair. "I have to say, I'm losing faith in our mission here. Sanzo, if you have to get a little…close…to him to find out what we need to know, do it."

            "I'm not sleeping with him for information. Or anything else." On that, he wouldn't budge.

            "'Kai, eventually Gojyo's gonna have to go to headquarters. We just have to wait 'till then, and hope Sanzo's far enough onto his good side," and here he glanced encouragingly at the blond, "to tag along."

            "Yes, well. At least we know the locator is working well," Hakkai offered. "We thought it might have broken last night, when you ended up somewhere along fourteenth—is that Phoenix territory now too?—for the evening."

            "It's not. It's neutral."

            "Aah."

            "So Sanzo." Doku grinned. "How do you suggest we ensure you're in Gojyo's good graces?"

 

 

            "Do y'want sugar or cream with that?"

            Gyu shook his head at the waitress, flipping through the newspaper atop the shiny plastic counter of the restaurant. It was all plastic and chrome, meant to look like a 1950s diner. Vintage Coca-Cola posters were framed and plastered all over the walls, along with chrome-framed clocks and antique memorabilia featuring poodle skirts and saddle shoes. His coffee arrived promptly, and he sipped at it as he scanned the paper. A local gang, name unknown, made the second page, and his boss had been pleased. It was Gyu's sector that had successfully passed weapons across state lines while distracting the police by exposing a competitor's load. Their measly fifty thousand dollar transport had landed them in prison, and no one had looked to Gyu after the car crash he had incited, except to ask him if he was alright, and if any of the guns had gone off upon impact. Playing the frazzled accountant, prop glasses askew beneath his wig, he'd given the cops the right story and watched with a silent sneer as the last of the Phoenix's competition was herded away by the bluesuits.

            Meanwhile, his boss had been doing some house-cleaning. Many of the former Phoenix members had been removed from office; some by force, while others simply…disappeared. The drug cartel's sector had been almost entirely restaffed, and mostly by former Eclipse members. Gyu wasn't too familiar with that particular gang's history, given that it had never expanded much outside of Leavenworth. His boss seemed to know it well, most likely because it could provide competition if not quickly conquered. He himself had been selected to aid in rounding up old recruits and sending them on their way with a surprisingly generous pension. To keep their mouths shut, his superior had assured him. And if they looked dissatisfied, or ready to sing, they were shot. There wasn't really a place to hide, either. The Phoenix owned Topeka, and they would know who came in, and who left.

But Gyu had another, more trying assignment next, involving the extermination of Sha Gojyo's Phoenix subdivision. He had promised his chief that, this time, it would go well. He had orders to kill everyone and anyone who got in the way, so long as he brought Genjyo Sanzo back alive. And that was the message he passed on before sending men out from a more southern location. Why his boss wanted Sanzo, really wanted him, Gyu didn't know. But it wasn't his place to, and so long as he got the job done, he would be getting what he wanted. In the meantime, the boss would just have to be patient.

 

            Something was going to go down. He could sense it, and he knew Banri, in this rare, sober state, could too. The fair hairs on the back of his arms were prickling; he couldn't smooth his hackles down either. It wasn't just the weather, though the ominous southern sky promised strong storms. It was a tense silence in the air, broken on occasion by the rattling of a door or the click of a pistol's safety lock.

            "This doesn't feel right."

            "Fucking never feels right," Banri muttered. "Look, even your antennae are twitchin'."

            "They're not antennae," Gojyo muttered, not able to muster his usual gusto. "The area's too quiet. I haven't seen a single person on the streets." This alone wasn't the sign that worried him; it supported a hunch, a gut feeling that Gojyo had learned to trust from age nine. It was a sixth sense, one of self-preservation, that he supposed most animals had, and humans had grown out of as they developed a general sense of security in the walls of their city. Banri naturally had it too.

            Sanzo arrived around noon, cigarette between his lips and looking peaked. Gojyo suspected he sensed the same thing. The man was content to sit on the edge of the sofa, inhaling nicotine-flavored air and listening to the drone of an old car in the far distance. For once that spark of fire faded into the background; he looked content to be forgotten.

            The door rattled open, its screen nearly falling out, and the clunk of high heels resounded throughout the room. "Boys." Yaone nodded her greeting, mouth pinched into a tight line.

            "Where you been?" Banri murmured, flipping a playing card over into his upside down baseball cap. It missed, and fluttered to the floor.

            "Looking around. We're in a bit of a mess here, you know."

            Gojyo looked up at her, frowning. "What do you know?"

            She looked surprised that he didn't, shaking her head so that the large medallions piercing her ears jingled. "Our new boss is hiring Eclipse members."

            "So? They freelance all the time. They don't have much territory left, or trade."

            "Not as freelancers. They're working inside, with the rest of us. And a lotta guys've been killed. Dissenters, mostly."

            "The fuck?" Banri hissed, hands going out of instinct to the pistol inside his vest.

            "Where? And who's been killed?" Gojyo pressed.

            "I don't know—the offices are all the way in Topeka. I can't even get ahold of my girl there." Yaone's face looked as pinched as her mouth all of a sudden; Gojyo tugged her onto the sunken couch beside him. She resisted, continuing to pace like a caged lioness, long fingers flexing into fists. "Rhi hasn't been responding. You know she works at the headquarters, and she's practically always there."

            "Sounds like we just need to replace some traitorous satraps with men of better-known loyalty. How many have died?"

            "I don't know. I'm lucky to know what I do—guy from Headquarters, I never met him, came down here for shelter. Hell if I know where he went. And then there's Lirin."

            "Shelter…?"

            "What if it's a coup?" The words exploded from her mouth before she could smooth them over.

            Gojyo felt his eyes strain at the very word; he pushed the heels of his palms into them, rubbing away the beginnings of a migraine. "Fuck no. What about the new boss? Maybe it's him? Or the guys around him? Who's issuing the orders?" He had no mind for secrecy at the moment; the situation necessitated immediate communication. What could he fear that Sanzo might find out? Hell, if the man could get his new boss' name, he'd be grateful. Besides, he was one of them now.

            "I don't know. They won't tell me anything. Nothing's working the way it used to." Yaone was suppressing a whine in her voice, and Gojyo felt a pang of sympathy for her. She was worried about Rhi more than their "company." The Phoenix would bounce back, or its members would scatter, but Rhi could be dead.

            "Run this by me again," Banri interrupted, lighting up a cigarette. Yaone took a deep breath.

            "A lot of 'upper-management' have been taken out. The ones who disagreed with taking on so many former Eclipse members."

            "This isn't exactly a democracy," Gojyo pointed out.

            "Yeah, but on the national level, it's not a monarchy either. We're multi-faceted, and suddenly this new guy is killing off some of his best men. Massacring them, even. It's as if he's trying to make them examples for others who might have diverging opinions about his new plan." She continued. "I got all of this information from Lirin."

            The two men nodded; Lirin was a younger recruit serving just outside of Headquarters. She had abandoned her former occupation, with her brother in the Dawn, and gone to work for the Phoenix, minor jobs that weren't too risky. She had complete access to its inner workings, and was, for the time being, a reliable source.

            "She said that they were hired assassins—no one else could've killed the guys they did. They're at Gojyo's level, and well-guarded to boot. All she knows is that they're definitely being supported by our new boss, who, by the way, I only have vague descriptions of."

            Gojyo shook his head in thought, wondering just how the former perished. He knew it was a brawl of some sort, but the details were fuzzy. Little information leaked down from above. Theirs was a tightly packed and highly secretive system. "I liked the old man, too."

            "He's weeding out anyone with the potential to hold power or chip away at his own. And he's obviously not an idiot." Yaone cracked her knuckles. "We're the second largest co-op in the country. He's going to purge Leavenworth next." The unspoken "What are we going to do?" hung in the air between the three of them; two looked to their leader.

Gojyo stood, cocking his gun. "Right now? We're going to have to fight."

 

 

He wasn't wrong. Within minutes, as if on cue from some backstage war god, a small cluster of armed men, two women trailing behind, broke through the screen door with a clatter. Dressed in black and navy, all bearing the telltale black crescent tattoo on their throats, the Eclipse converts scanned the room, most eyes focused on Gojyo. A muscle in his gut clenched tightly.

 The leader of the five opened his mouth to speak—maybe he was only the herald?—and Yaone shut it for him with a sharp kick to the groin, following it up with a round of bullets that shredded the thin strip of flesh that was his throat.

Gojyo's skin prickled in the same familiar sensation that always accompanied a serious battle. Fight or flight? His body asked him. Four on four was fair; they could take them. Fight.  He sensed more than heard Banri and Sanzo behind him, guns out and firing within an instant. Rattling mutely beneath the clatter of firearms, the backdoor must have opened at some point, because suddenly there were at least seven other men in the room, all armed to the teeth. They were massively outnumbered. Flight, now.

He felt himself bawl out "Move!" but couldn't hear it for the life of him, swinging up over the railing of the stairs that led to the rooftop, tugging Yaone by the back of her shirt. She was trying to reload. In seconds the rickety stairwell vibrated with the thud of eight feet; Banri held the base and retreated only at Gojyo's snarling command. The old door was barred with furniture, and soon ventilated by a barrage of bullets and strong shoulders. It bought them seconds.

Gojyo thought fast because he was trained to, kicking through a window and sliding out onto the glass-strewn roof. It was slanted, stripped of most of its shingles, and slicked by moss. The others followed, and he guarded their backs.

Yaone tumble gracefully despite her heels, long fingers latching onto a rusty gutter and flipping her neatly to the ground below. A black-clad figure burst from the ground door with a cry; Gojyo noted blankly that her arm was soaked with blood from a wound just above the shoulder. Yaone shot her in the side of the head, waving her hands to the rooftop.

"Step it up a notch huh?!" She hissed, watching their fair-haired new recruit slide easily off, landing with a thud, followed by Banri—he had a wound in his lower leg that made him curse—and then Gojyo. The moment he landed, tumbling amongst broken glass and a fallen gutter, they were being fired upon from above and below. Sanzo had little trouble picking off the three in the window; he almost thought he heard Gojyo whistle his appreciation at his handiwork.

They scattered, Yaone taking off in the direction of the downtown, Banri farther into the inner-city, and Sanzo, instinctively, darted off towards neutral territory.

He was winded. Ten months without a chance to run for his life had put him sorely out of practice. It was almost embarrassing, how easily he was panting, though a superior sense of self-preservation kept him moving. Three blocks later, weaving between buildings just in case they had missed some of the men, he leaned back against a slick brick wall, one hand over his mouth to quiet the sound of his breathing. There was a long period of silence, and then the mad thud of feet on gravel and trash. Sanzo snapped his gun up, firing as the shadow burst from around the corner. Recognition came almost too late; bright red hair and a sweat-slicked face greeted him, and his wrist twitched, sending the bullet to the side, buried within a dumpster.

"It's me!" He hissed, hands up before him. "Damn you run fast."

Sanzo took it as an insult, though they had all been running, and it must have shown in his face, because the kappa quickly strove to correct him.

"It's a good thing. I don't know how many they've got, but whoever our new 'boss' is, he wants me dead."

"Funny, it looked like they were shooting at all of us," Sanzo growled, filling two empty chambers in his gun with bullets from a small pocket on the inside of his coat. Gojyo watched him closely, shaking his head.

"It's my head he'll be after, whoever the fuck 'he' is."

"When the hell did you get so disorganized?" A chain link fence blocked them into the alley, and Sanzo realized that left them in a vulnerable position. He scaled it easily, hopping over onto the other side; Gojyo followed with a rattle.

"I wish I could tell you. Hey—do you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

There was a heartbeat of silence, and then the skid of sneakers on pavement as a troupe of three leapt from a car, all dressed in shadows, crescents on their throats.

"Fuck!" Gojyo cried out in surprise, watching a second car pull up behind them, people tumbling from the windows. He could hear more in the distance.

 Sanzo emptied a round into the fray, putting each bullet to good use. He was running low, and the kappa already advocated flight.

"Gonna get shot!" He hissed a warning at Sanzo, slamming him up against a wall and out of a bullet's path with a little gasp. He jerked him roughly into a retreat, weaving to discourage easy shooting. Sanzo would turn back every so often and fire into the mass of their pursuers, picking off one or two with luck. He noticed Gojyo did not, and in fact was more winded than he was. It wasn't until five blocks later, after leaving a trail of at least five corpses between fifth and ninth, that the kappa collapsed with a little grunt.

"Fuck get up!" Sanzo moved to stand over him like some Ajax over the fallen Patroklos. The remainder of the troupe approached, hollering out. Gojyo staggered to his feet, gun held out before him with a trembling hand. Sanzo realized with a start that he was bleeding heavily from his side, and his breath came short, unevenly.

"Put it down!" They drew to an abrupt halt, guns thrust forward yards away in a filthy alley. "Sha Gojyo, you're free to go. We're not after you, though we have no orders not to exterminate you."

"The hell are you shooting at me for!"

The shorter of the pair jerked his head in Sanzo's direction. "We're under orders to take him."

Gojyo looked confused, or in pain. "Sorry boys, you've got the wrong guy. He's a new recruit. Here by mistake."

The shorter shook his head. "Turn him over. We're under orders to bring back a Genjyo Sanzo."

"Orders from who!" The kappa's voice trembled, jerking in octave as he would gasp for breath. He still held his gun forward in pretense, as though they couldn't easily pick him off at this range, and Sanzo besides.

"That's not your affair. Lower the weapon."

            Sanzo knew, regardless of how quickly he moved, he would be shot by the survivor if he fired. That or Gojyo would be. He grit his teeth, not trusting the kappa's reflexes in such a state.

            "Can't," Gojyo grinned shakily. "See, I like him. He's gonna stay with me a while, I think." A shot was fired, and Sanzo responded by instinct, pistol aimed at the man nearest him before he had time to register who had been taken out. He hit—right between the eyes—and the taller of the two returned fire, sending Gojyo to the ground with a muffled grunt. Sanzo fired at him, almost picking up chase as the man dashed off. But then there was Gojyo.

            "The hell is wrong with you! You fucking missed him!" He pushed him onto his back, tearing his stained shirt open with a growl of irritation, skimming bronzed skin for the wounds. One in his left side, the other, by coincidence, inches below.

            "Yeah well I had a little hole in my side," Gojyo ground out, trying to sit up.

            "They weren't shooting," the Sanzo hissed in response, shaking his head as he worked to bind up the side and prevent hemorrhaging. "You're such a stupid bastard. Hey! Listen to me when I'm talking to you!" He despised the sudden shakiness in his voice, but recognized his nerves when he heard them. The kappa was fading in and out, and needed to be kept conscious.

            "Yeah but…they were gonna take you. I had to try somethin'. Knew they wouldn't shoot you."

            "And how the hell do you figure?" Sanzo was tearing long strips of his own shirt now to secure the man's side.

            "'Cause they woulda shot you on sight. Someone obviously wants you. Alive." He coughed, spitting up strings of thin blood; Sanzo helped him raise his head, lip curled in disgust.

            "They wouldn't want me. And you're stupid to have gambled on it."

            "They knew you." He whispered.

            Sanzo shook his head. "They're mistaken."

 

Even though he looked like a drowned rat, sopping with water and sticky with blood, the redhead managed to flash one of his becoming smiles in a general upward direction. "Where'd you go Goldilocks?"

"Call me that again and I'll finish the job," Sanzo groused, striding to the bedside with clean bandages. "Impatient idiot."

"Hey I've got holes in me here!" Gojyo protested, wincing a bit as slender hands ghosted over his skin, brushing the wounds and setting them on fire. "Fuck if that doesn't hurt." He squeezed his eyes shut and arched his back a bit; Sanzo saw his knuckles, a bright white, against the bed sheets. He had had some trouble carrying Gojyo, who outweighed him by about forty pounds, all the way back to Fourteenth Street. He had been conscious enough the first leg of the journey to limp along, assisted, but collapsed by Eleventh in a heap of blood-stained clothing and scarlet hair. Now it was night, and he was resting more peacefully, body tense, but at least recumbent.

"I don't suppose you know how to get a bullet out?"

"Of course I do. But it'll hurt like hell." Sanzo reminded him, glancing at the small first aid kit and pair of tweezers he had picked up at a gas station after getting Gojyo to bed hours ago. That was where he had purchased the disinfectant and proper bandages too.

"Better do it. I can't exactly go to a hospital."

Sanzo made a sound of agreement, listening to his footsteps as he wandered the length of the room, trying not to look directly at the kappa in their bed. His bed, now. He shook his head in aggravation, trying to rid it of the thought.

Why the fuck is the moon even out? It's raining. It should be hidden.

He had explained what had happened to Gojyo already, and the kappa hadn't pried, content to be thankful. Sanzo didn't tell him that he almost left him there, almost turned on his heel and ran for the other side of Fourteenth. He had come so close to deserting him, the man who had fired first to save his life. And after taking a bullet for him four blocks before.

 It's not, Sanzo reminded himself, as though I asked him to protect me. But he had done so nonetheless, and it almost didn't make a difference.

For an instant he had panicked, looking at the crumpled form on the street, long hair awash in red water, trailing off towards a leaf-cluttered gutter. So much of the red was on him, too, streaking his hands and clothes where he had tried to support Gojyo, draw him back to his feet. And just then, the kappa looked lifeless for the longest time, barely breathing in the chilly onslaught from overhead, a bright scratch of color on a grey street, under a slate sky. And for a moment his hair was gold, blood-stained clothes clinging to a much narrower, paler frame. A startled sob escaped him, and thunder rang in the distance, waking him. The man at his feet was breathing, no thanks to him. He scooped him up with a grunt, cursing him in his unconscious state, and stumbled back to the only refuge he knew.

"Something wrong Gol—Sanzo?"

"It's your own damn fault you were shot," he murmured, going through the first aid kit and plucking out more disinfectant, a needle, and sterilized thread.

"Didn't say it wasn't."

"I didn't ask you to defend me."

"You didn't," he agreed.

"Now find something to bite down on, because this is gonna hurt." Sanzo sat on a tilted crate near the bed, unwrapping the loose bandages and peering into the wound. He'd done this a few times before, once for Koumyou, even. That was how he learned.

"Knife in the drawer."

"Nice point," Sanzo murmured, peering at it closely and dousing it with the alcohol. He watched Gojyo slide his belt out and place it neatly between ivory teeth. He gave him a thumbs up and a wink, and Sanzo peered at the bullet farther north, lodged deep in his side, though it must have missed all the vital organs. The idiot was alive, after all.

He gave no warning, and at first Gojyo made no sound but a muffled groan as Sanzo wedged the fine edge of the dagger against the underside of a tiny bullet, drawing it out and trying to avoid further damage to the muscle and nerves there. He grasped it roughly with the tweezers, listening to a hiss that emerged around leather and clenched teeth.

Dripping onto towels, blood ran in rivulets down copper-colored skin; his breath came hard, paining him. Sanzo withdrew the bullet, fingers slippery in a metallic scented paint. He rested it on the side table, disinfecting the open gouge he had formed without warning, startling the kappa as though he had cauterized the wound instead. Sewing next, neat handed as always, he had it miraculously tight, evenly-stitched, within minutes.

"Ungh." Gojyo arched his neck, arm muscles tensing and relaxing inadvertently. "Give it a rest before you do the other." He managed, keeping the moan from his voice this time. Sanzo had seen very few weather pain like that. He made a mental note to avoid looking impressed by it.

Gojyo peered at his wound, attempting a whistle through dry lips. "Nice handiwork. I guess all that needlepoint paid off?"

Sanzo held up the knife again with a blank gaze. "You were saying?"

"You could be a doctor," Gojyo amended with a shaky grin, lying back and breathing deeply. "Good thing I think ahead huh?"

"You said Banri left the kit here."

"Yeah well, he does get into more scrapes n' me." Gojyo spoke hoarsely, and then not at all. Rising with each breath, his damp chest gleamed under a sudden deluge of moonlight. The slight indentations of each muscle were streaked with rainwater and sweat, reflecting light and emphasizing every well-formed twist and bend.

"What is it?" A breathy murmur; wine dark eyes were peering up at him. Sanzo looked away.

"Nothing. But we should get the other one out." We?

"Yeah. Go for it, Doc."

Sanzo found the second one easier to remove; it seemed to cause Gojyo less pain too, though he moaned once, a mixture of agony and exhaustion. The stitching hurt less, and soon the kappa was deep asleep, snoring faintly with his head tilted into the plush of the pillow.

Sanzo cleaned the skin around his wounds with an untouched cloth, jerking the filthy towels beneath him out with a grunt, surprised it didn't startle him awake. A faint smile played around his lips, flickering like a flame until he snuffed it out with a little huff of indignation. He didn't ask to be saved.

He kept himself busy and awake, on his feet for twenty minutes, cleaning up blood and equipment, when he noticed the kappa's labored breathing. It would hurt worse when he awoke; Sanzo knew this from experience. He winced in pity, striding towards the moonlit bed and gazing at the bronze form stretched out atop it. His shirt was gone, torn to shreds for bandages, and his jeans were splattered in brown sunbursts, unbuttoned at the top and tugged a few inches down his narrow hips, so that Sanzo could have access to the lower wound. He had chosen a fine day not to wear underwear, the blond mused in annoyance, as though Gojyo had had it all planned out this way. He could see a small V of red hair and smooth, almost delicate skin, a little more each time his flesh rose with a breath. He was like a moth, staring so hard at something that he didn't recognize the danger of it until it was too late to turn back. Garnet eyes fluttered open.

"Sanzo?"

"You're shivering." He said stupidly, blinking at the other. "Where're the blankets?"

"Top drawer, other end of the room." The monk felt dark eyes following him every step of the way, watching his hands as he drew out a heavy blanket—one he had used, in fact—from the drawer where it had been hastily folded. He spread it out over a prostrated form; Gojyo thanked him softly, letting his eyes fall shut again.

"Hey man…" He was speaking long after Sanzo had been certain he slept. The blond himself was nearly out, leaning on a wooden chair, cheek pressing into the rail of the back.

"Hng?"

"I appreciate it." He murmured.

"Tch."

"Eloquent." Gojyo smiled faintly, eyes closed again. Sanzo thought he would sleep this time and curb his conversation.

"Sanzo."

"What?" His eyes flicked open this time, curiosity overpowering any other sentiment present.

"How come they want you?"

 

 

"You left quite a trail in your wake, Sanzo. Officers have found a good number of bodies, though a proper investigation won't begin for at least another twenty-four hours, while they determine the cause of death."

"I thought the bullet wounds would make that fairly obvious."

"It's not funny!" Doku fairly snarled from his seat, earning a glance of surprise from even Hakkai, who seemed used to his unusual temperament. "You killed a lotta people! And we let you out—that makes us responsible!"

"What the hell did you want me to do?" Sanzo had already gone through the entire story—twice—and explained everything he knew and heard through the Phoenix.

"Yes, you did have to defend yourself…I still have trouble believing Gojyo took a bullet for you," Hakkai mused aloud, tapping a pen to his lower lip in thought. "I can't imagine why members of the Eclipse would be here, either. We can't be certain they were hired by Phoenix lords."

"Why the hell not? They knew exactly where we were and how to find us. They knew Gojyo."

"Yeah," Doku agreed hesitantly, "they've been inactive for years. I doubt they've started staging pointless raids. What else would they have had to gain? Unless Gojyo's got some secrets he isn't sharing with you."

"How the hell should I know?"

Doku shrugged. "How are the wounds?"

"What wounds?" Sanzo snapped. Had the man not been listening to him?

"Gojyo's."

"They're not mortal—why the hell would you care?" His short temper was born of a lack of sleep, and not nearly enough nicotine in his system. He had run out of cigarettes early that morning, around four, and not wanted to risk going out for more. Not with Gojyo twitching in sleep every so often, and breaking out into fits of shivering. Shit, I should have. I'm not his fucking nurse.

"Well if what you say is true, then we're going to have a lot more trouble in getting you in to see this mysterious new leader. Perhaps, next time they come for you, you should go with them?"

"I'm not stupid," the blond growled from his chair, leaping up to pace the length of the room like a caged lion.

"With the detector on your ankle, you'd be under our protection--"

"Like I was last night?"

Hakkai quieted. "We weren't aware you were in danger."

There was a long silence between them; Doku popped a can of diet soda open, but didn't drink from it.

 "I don't know what the hell he would want, or how he would know me."

"'He'?"

"Phoenix's new leader."

"Aah." Hakkai frowned tensely, tapping his pen against a pad of yellow paper covered in notes. "Perhaps he's heard of you? Through the Dawn?"

"It's been seven years. The Dawn is practically disbanded by comparison with the Phoenix. No one would know me now."

"Perhaps not." The officer sighed, plucking off his glasses to clean them. He glanced at Doku, and spoke more kindly. "But you should go back to check on Gojyo."

A nail tapped at the aluminum can; "there're pain killers in the top drawer, there. Take those with you."

Sanzo cast them a curious look, scooping up the narrow package on his way out.

"Thanks."

 

            Gojyo was sleeping when he got back, but jerked awake at the sound of the door being shoved open. He had a gun in his hand, raised shakily until his foggy gaze registered Sanzo's presence, and it lowered, fingers loosening from the weapon.

            Rain pelted the windows once again and cloaked the room in blue and gray shadows. Gojyo looked too pale, beneath his tan.

            "Hey." He smiled to the blond, "Come to check up on me?"

            "No."

            "So why're you hear?"

            "To shut you up." He popped the lid of the bottle in his left hand, pressing two pastel pills into his palm. Gojyo saw the label on the tinted container and raised a brow.

            "How'd you get prescription drugs huh? Rob a Walgreens?

            "You gonna take them or just sit there bitching?"

            "Sorry, sorry," he swallowed quickly, wincing as the motion disturbed his stitches. "Thanks, man." A smirk grew on his lips as the "tch" he received in return; Sanzo darted out of range before he could touch him.

            "You didn't get hurt, did ya?"

            "You ask me this now?"

            "Well you seemed fine last night, temperament aside."

            "I'm not hurt," Sanzo affirmed, sinking back onto the wooden chair and tilting his head so that the maple arch behind him supported his neck. "Just fucking tired." He lit up a cigarette, refusing to share it when the kappa made his plea.

            "So why don't you lay down?"

            "You have to ask?"

            "Come on. I won't touch you. I'm still in stitches here," Gojyo protested with a sleepy grin, propping himself up with one arm. "Guess I'll have to get another bed over here, if you're gonna come visit so often."

            "Don't bet on it." He lit a second cigarette, passing it to the kappa when he tossed him a forlorn frown. Gojyo groaned his appreciation, and Sanzo rubbed the arch above his eye.

            "You gotta headache?"

            "Every time I see you."

            "Ha, ha," Gojyo offered dryly, a faint smiling still pulling at his lips. "You gotta like me at least a little bit though."

            "Your reasoning?" Sanzo had risen to rifle through the old bureau at the other end of the room; he drew out a second blanket, and then a third, though they were threadbare and fraying at the corners.

            "You came back. You brought me medicine. You sewed me up in the first place," Gojyo concluded, looking far too in control for Sanzo's sense of well-being. The blond tched, shaking his head.

            "Don't look too much into it." He chucked the bunched up pile of blankets at Gojyo, rather than spreading them out. He didn't want to get flack for that too. The kappa hastened to smooth them over, one side of his face still lifted in an expression of amusement.

            "Aw, lookit that, you do care." Clicking, the Smith & Wesson emerged, and Gojyo held his hands up in mock surrender, the shit-eating grin never fading. "Okay, okay," he amended, meeting the monk's stubborn behavior with a forced apology. "Sorry. You don't care at all. In fact you probably want me to catch syphilis and die."

            "There ya go." Sanzo lowered the weapon and slid it into a hidden pocket on the lined inside of his jacket. Creaking beneath him, the rickety chair sighed and decided to support his weight, only protesting further when he twitched on the hard seat. "Now tell me why the fuck those guys were after us, and what's going on at headquarters."

            "You look at me like I should know." Gojyo shook his head; "Those guys who came after us—you must know the crescent symbol they wear?"

            Sanzo nodded, a muscle in his jaw twitching at the thought. Yes, he knew the sign of the Eclipse.

            "Well, it's just what you heard Yaone say. We don't know anything else." He made a small sound of frustration. "Look, since you already know what's going on—stuff you really weren't supposedta hear—you may as well help us out."

            "What's in it for me?" The question was asked in a bored tone; he lit a second Marlboro and flipped the lighter end over end in his palm. Gojyo's heated response startled him, and the plastic cylinder fell to the floor.

            "Maybe you don't get it yet," he hissed, pushing himself farther up on the bed, "but you're one of us now; you don't work alone; you're part of a group. What we need, you need." Tense fingers cupped the deeper of his two wounds, knuckles whitening as his jaw tightened. Sanzo felt a stab of trepidation; it shot through him like an icy gust, wriggling down his chest and numbing the tips of his fingers.

            "Fine," He agreed with a shrug, leaning back. Gojyo didn't seem to comprehend that his anger had affected the fair-haired recruit before him in the least. "How do we find out just how far this little coup d'etat has gone?"

            "We call a local universal, and see just how many of our own are left. If there're enough, we go to Headquarters, and see who's been fucking around up top."

            "Just like that? How do we know we're not gonna get shot when we walk through the doors?"

            Gojyo grinned. "We don't."

            "That's the fun part?"

            "Now you're getting it."

 

 

            "You've failed me again, Gyu."

            "I'm sorry." And he was sorry. So sorry. He had fallen out of favor, and was dangerously close to losing his position. Maybe more, if he didn't shape up. "I will go down there myself, shortly. It won't happen again."

            "No…" The dark-eyed man mused, a humorless smile on his face, "It won't." There was a pause, and then, "I've hired someone else to take care of it, Gyu."

            "Sir?"

            "You proved yourself quite incapable. It's a good thing I hadn't decided to have Mr. Grosse assassinated after he brought me the information. I was beginning to think he was useless, but he surprised me, I found a new purpose for him, and I let him live. Wasn't that generous?"

            Gyu nodded dumbly, tension coiling in the pit of his stomach. He knew this voice. It was the same voice his chief used before he took someone out.

            "Hazel and Gat will be taking care of the Phoenix for me, and bringing Genjyo Sanzo to Headquarters. I'm most enthused."

            "Forgive me, Sir."

            "Now, now. Like Hazel, you appear useless to me now, but perhaps later I will find some worth in you, some use for your skills."

            A spark of hope ignited in his chest, and Gyu thought he might have a chance of coming out of that office alive. He nodded, concealing an encouraged smile. "I will do whatever you ask of me," he vowed. "To try and be useful."

            His boss was still smiling, looking at him. "Of course. Well then, I have a mission for you, Gyu. Something simple that I know you won't fail."

            "Yes, Sir."

            "Mr. Grosse has stopped by, and is waiting downstairs, in the lobby. Please be kind enough to show him up."

            Gyu nodded and hurried out, stepping into the elevator, now fully operational, and striding into the lobby. He saw the fair-haired man seated beside a hulking presence that could be none other than his body guard, the Gatling Gun. The ridiculous cowboy hat he wore was cocked to the side of ease of conversation, and it looked as though he was holding up most of it. Gat's mouth didn't move.

            "You must be Mr. Grosse."

            "I am," Hazel stood, a smile on his lips, as he shook Gyu's hand. "So nice t'meetcha. An' this here is Gat." They exchanged pleasantries, as Hazel seemed used to doing, and shuffled into the elevator. It rang four times as they passed various floors, then slid open to red carpeting on the fifth.

            The dark-eyed man watched them enter, nodded to Hazel and Gat, then gestured for Gyu to come forward.

            "I assume you know who they are."

            "Yes, Sir." Gyu nodded. He had never laid eyes on them before, but recognized them both by Gat's presence. Hazel's eccentricities had never been mentioned, but apparently he was a freelancing mastermind; Gat was the sharpshooter. Brains and brawn.

            "They're here to complete a mission you failed, twice." He pulled a drawer open in his desk, and drew something from it.

            "I am sorry, Sir." An eerie note had crept into his boss' tone, and it was setting his nerves on edge, grating against them so that the hair on the backs of his arms stood up.

            "They have to clean up your mess, twice."

            Twice? One interference should suffice to fix what he had—

            The gunshot barely registered with him, and though the pain was paralyzing, it was very short. He heard the echo of voices in the distance, as if through a tunnel, and watched the dark ceiling swirl, coming down over him like a tornado. Above the whirl of wind, he heard Hazel's laugh.

            "If you expect me t'clean that up too, we'll have to renegotiate payment."

           

 

Gojyo healed quickly—his body must have been used to it—and in the meantime Sanzo stayed put, trying to keep off the streets unless he had a reason to be out. He didn't want to run the risk of getting cornered by any more Eclipse mercenaries; he only left the precinct for the necessities. And smokes.

Gojyo told him, as far as the local "universal" went, he was off the hook. It was for the upper echelons only, to draw in as much information as he could before barging into Headquarters. He and Banri would attend; Yaone was already farther north, nearing Topeka. It was scheduled for eleven, and the message passed easily from member to member. Sanzo, the kappa assured him, had the night off, and would better spend it picking up a box of smokes.

It was on one such cigarette run that he spotted the black slash of a crescent, half-hidden beneath a man's turtleneck. He was at a BP, pushing a twenty over a slick countertop in exchange for a red-lined packet of Marlboros when the man, walking in and out of aisles, captured his attention. Pushing the crumpled change into his front pocket and the now bent packet into the back, he strode at a civil pace to the aisle directly before the corner occupied by the tattooed man. He occupied himself by glancing over the colorfully bagged products on the shelves, trying to see through the openings in the racks.

The man, dressed like a shadow, all in black saved for the flash of a silver belt, turned to the side, and Sanzo peered over the top of salsa jars at his profile, memorizing it instantly. He didn't recognize him, but he would if he were to run across him again: a sharp hawk nose highlighted in the center by a thin white scar, strong, bristly jaw, narrow, onyx eyes. Sanzo noticed, somewhere in the back of his mind, that the man was twitching on occasion.

 When he bent to scoop up a case of beer from the bottom shelf, the edge of his turtleneck slid forward, and the full crescent was momentarily exposed. What idiots, Sanzo mused, to wear their mark where anyone could see it.

Maybe they do it because they don't have anyone to fear, anymore. It was true enough; the Dawn was decrepit, purged of their most powerful leader by the Eclipse itself, and as of now, the Phoenix appeared to be on a downhill plummet. This man might have information, he thought with a thrill of urgency running through him. He would be worth investigating, and it was just the boost he needed, taking on an opponent who was at least physically worthy.

The blond made himself scarce, vanishing through the glass-plated doors to lean against the side of the building and wait for the tattooed figure to exit. He lit up, resting the edge of his skull to the stuccoed building, and hardly moved when the unoiled hinges squealed and the man—a bit more intimidating up close, and at least six feet tall—exited. He tossed the butt of his cigarette into the stranger's path, thus catching his eye. He lit a second, exhaled, and flicked his gaze in the direction of the small building's corner, between the nearby carwash and dumpster. He'd seen plenty of drug deals, and he knew that the decent ones—those you actually made money from—didn't involve "Hey kid wanna try some dope?"

Neon lights from the carwash flickered on, illuminating greasy puddles and slick macadam with obnoxious pink and orange tints. The sun had set less than thirty minutes ago, and Hakkai wouldn't be expecting him back anytime soon. For some reason, he encouraged him to "check up on" Gojyo frequently; Sanzo thought the man put too much stock into friendly alliances.

"What." The man behind him—he knew he would follow—fairly barked the words out. Sanzo turned to him with a bored expression, plucking the cigarette from his lips. "You want to buy, or what?"

"Buy what?" The man growled, catching the inside of his lower lip between his teeth in what must have been a nervous habit.

Sanzo rolled his eyes at the novice ignorant act, "Shrimp out of my van," he sneered, "What the fuck do you think?"

The man paused, inclining his head with mild interest. He didn't have to ask how Sanzo knew he was a potential candidate; all good dealers could spot a user a mile away; those who couldn't, just got arrested. Coincidently, Dawn members weren't too shabby at picking them out either. "What do you got?"

"What you need." He didn't have to feign impatience this time.

"Eight ball." The man hissed, and Sanzo almost whistled at his good fortune. No one carried that much cocaine on hand, or in a vehicle. No one with half a brain, anyways. It wasn't for fear of being arrested, but rather being robbed. The perfect excuse to draw the stranger farther than an abandoned parking lot.

"That's expensive shit," Sanzo reminded him. "You think I carry that on me? He rolled his eyes, "Corner of fourteenth, ten-thirty. Do I have to tell you I don't take checks?" He brushed past him, moving at a comfortable pace between buildings until the shadows of the city swallowed him up.

 

            The man was there on the half hour, as Sanzo suspected, leaning up against a lamppost and looking almost nervous; he had a tick, most likely the result of drugs. Or a lack of them. He gestured for him to follow, and the great hulking shadow behind him muttered something about this being Phoenix territory.

            "'Phoenix territory'?" The blond smirked, "Don't worry about that, unless you're on their bad side for some reason. I'm a…special friend of theirs."

            "I knew they pushed drugs, but I didn't know they hired out," the man mused aloud, almost having to duck to slip under the doorframe of the building.

            "They don't hire just anyone."

            "This your place?"

            "Yeah," he lied, shrugging as the man looked around. "I'm not married." He explained, deadpan, and a snicker escaped the other. Tugging open a drawer of Gojyo's heavy desk, he jerked out a pistol, the safety already off, his finger on the trigger. The man before him snarled at the betrayal, and his hand strayed instinctively to his jacket, where he must be keeping his own gun.

            "I wouldn't try that if I were you. Shooting people isn't a hobby for me, it's a career; you move an inch where I don't want you, and you're dead." Sanzo explained calmly, narrowed violet eyes on his target.

            "What do you want?" The giant wasn't anywhere near as frightened as he should be, Sanzo realized with a frown. He would have to change that. "You some kinda cop?"

            "No. I don't give a shit what your drug of choice is. It has a lot more to do with that tattoo on your neck."

            "You're with the Phoenix, aren't you?"

            "Not quite. Like I said, I'm a 'special friend.' Now here's how it's gonna go. You're going to drop your weapon, slowly, and have a seat in that chair right there."

            With a muttered curse, he was obeyed. Dark eyes, smoldering in anger, met his. The room was very dark, despite the naked bulb swinging overhead. It threw oblong shadows in every crevice of the man's face and clothing; Sanzo kept his finger on the trigger.

            "Tell me who you work for."

            "Tch, I work for no one."

            "Do I look stupid to you!" Sanzo kicked the man's gun roughly as he approached, sending it skidding across the uneven floors to a web-covered niche behind the stairwell. "Say it."

            "What's it to you?"

            "Not your fucking business!"
            "You're in with that Gojyo guy aren't you?" He turned his face to meet Sanzo's, and froze instantly when the muzzle of a pistol was jammed against his cheek.

            "Like I said, not your business." He maintained a calm voice, gritting his teeth in impatience. "Don't think of taking this away, either. I'd shoot you first, and I have a second gun, loaded, in this coat."

            "Is that a fact?"

            "Do I have a reason to lie?"

            He grunted, shifting uncomfortably in the seat; the legs of the chair scraped obnoxiously against the wooden floor. Sanzo could tell the man clearly didn't believe he would be shot; perhaps he assumed his captor feared the repercussions, and didn't want to endanger his own life by killing a member of the newly empowered Eclipse. Sanzo had no such reservations. He would have to get his attention the hard way.

            "So why don't you tell me," he growled, "why the fuck your men are killing ours!?" The side of his gun came swiftly down to meet the giant's skull in a rough blow, nearly knocking him from the chair.

            "You're in the way!" He hissed, "Why the hell do you think?"

            "In the way of what?"

            He muttered something, and the butt of the gun came down across his jaw, spilling a mouthful of blood and a few teeth onto the floor with a cry.

            "Speak up!" Sanzo bellowed, circling him with wary eyes, slamming a fist into his back when he spat out a curse.

            "I don't know!"

            "That's a bad excuse. I'm just going to have to keep hitting you." His knuckles might have broken had he used his hand the next time, so forcefully did he slam the side of his gun into the man's shoulder bone, and then, when he rose as if to fight, into his ribcage. He heard a distinctive snap, and his captive howled.

            "You gonna start talking?"
            "Like fuck. I just told you I don't know anything! I'm an underling; all I know is they're trying to pick you guys off."

            "You're going to have to do better than that." The gun came down again, striking a blow at his temple so that he yowled, a hand cupping the bloody mess that had missed his eye by inches.

            "Who's controlling the Phoenix from headquarters?" He snapped, and the man winced in anticipation. "I really don't know, you sonuvabitch!"

            "You'd better figure it out before I start shooting off appendages."

            "If I pass out, what good am I to you? You watch too many movies, kid." Sanzo responded with a growl and a twitch of his finger, putting a bullet right through the man's foot. A scream erupted from his throat, and Sanzo drew the muzzle of his gun up a little farther, aiming at the juncture of his legs.

            "Still don't know anything?"

            "It's Hazel! Hazel Grosse! He's in good with whoever's on top—I fucking swear I don't know—that's why the hit on him by the Phoenix was canceled last minute. Hazel's boss here, locally, and that freaky guy that follows him everywhere—G-Gat, I think—he's dangerous, and he shoots better 'n anyone I've ever seen."

            Sanzo removed his Smith & Wesson from his coat pocket, jamming the other gun at the man's groin, and leveling his own at his skull. "Now tell me where his headquarters are."

            "I—I don't know don'tshoot! I know where he is now!"

            "Better say it."

            "He's at the local Phoenix headquarters—he—he got word of some local universal, and he's there, under orders, maybe—I don't know!—to pick off Gojyo and his men."

            Gojyo! "What time is it?"

            "But I—What?"

            "What fucking time is it you piece of shit!"

            "He held a shaking arm up, pressing the face of his watch close to his eyes. "Eleven."

            "Fuck!" Stepping back, he tried to decide what to do with the idiot he had here. He certainly didn't need him running off to warn the others, or enacting some sort of revenge, later. He stepped back, gun held before him, and the man held his arms up.

            "Please don't shoot!"

            "Fuck if I'm not getting soft. I'll take care of you later." He slammed the butt of his gun into the back of the giant's skull, watching him pitch forward onto the floor. With a hole in his foot, he wasn't liable to go very far. Just to make sure, he snapped his ankle with a quick stomp, pushing his gun and Gojyo's spare into the hidden pocket of his jacket, and wondering if he would regret not simply shooting the man later.

            No time to think of that now…

            His feet took him by memory in the direction of the kappa's local headquarters, his and Banri's hideaway, where Sanzo had first heard about the infiltration of the Eclipse. He didn't have a watch, or a way of reading the hour, but panic began to thread through his bloodstream at the thought that Gojyo might have already been gunned down. The man was quick on his feet and had excellent aim, but that wouldn't save him against a horde of Eclipse sharpshooters, especially if Hazel—that sick bastard—had brought his human gatling gun along with him.

            For a moment, his frayed nerves affecting his sense of logic, he could have sworn he heard footsteps behind him. Craning his head without slowing his pace, he could have sighed in relief to find the alleyway devoid of human life, empty and dripping with gutter runoff.

            Suddenly the wind was knocked from his lungs in one quick clout, and the ground rose up to meet the back of his head. He scrambled for the weapons he heard skitter out on pavement.

            "Whoah—Sanzo." Banri grinned to him, placing the Smith & Wesson in his palm, and then Gojyo's spare gun. "Sorry there." His words slurred together, and his eyes seemed to be floating in his head. "Reflexshes are a lil' outta whack. Izzit eleven yet?"

            "About that," Sanzo informed him, rising and rubbing the back of his head as he thought, strangely, he had never been so relieved to see Banri slacking like this. "You didn't go to the meeting."

            "I'm gonna!" He protested angrily, "I'm just a lil' late."

            "No—don't go. Yet. Listen to me idiot," He snatched the loose collar of the man's shirt, hauling him to his feet and knocking the bottle from his hand so that it shattered on the cracking pavement beneath. "Are you focused?"

            "Quite." And his voice was crisp all at once, as though years of practicing public drunkenness had taught him to, at the very least, feign sobriety.

            "The Eclipse is going to attack at eleven, and Gojyo's already there. I need you to find as many men as you can, and as many guns as you can, right away. Are you fucking listening!" He snarled, shaking the man before him madly until Banri's hands tightened about his wrists, pulling him off.

            "I'm drunk not deaf you idiot. I'll do it. But what are you--?"

            Sanzo thrust him back against the wall, darting off. "Gonna hold 'em off while I can! Get going!"

            Banri took off with amazing agility for a drunkard, and Sanzo saw no more of him when he wheeled about another corner, panting as he broke into a sprint.

Had he not been panicked and winded, Sanzo might have paused before thoughtlessly kicking down the door of the building and rushing headfirst into the unknown. Unfortunately tension was high, and oxygen low, and he found himself staring into a small army of crescent-tattooed assassins. There were bodies slumped on chairs, tables, and drenching rugs in blood, bearing both ebony and Scarlet markings. The surviving Phoenix leaders were bound, some unconscious, and seated along the side of the wall. Gojyo was in the center of the room on his knees, arms bound behind him; Hazel stood over him, trailing the muzzle of his own short pistol along the kappa's sharp jaw line.

            Red eyes widened in shock, lips parting in recognition. "Sanzo!"

            "How nice of you to join," Hazel purred, a smile on his face, beneath the shadow of his hat. "This must be so awkward for you, given that the last time I saw you, you were trying to shoot me."

            "What's new?" Sanzo hadn't lowered his weapon, but neither had the wall of at least a dozen men behind him.

            "This may be a gamble, but if you shoot me, Sanzo, I'll do away with your pretty redhead here." He gave Gojyo's thick mane a tug before smoothing out the silky hair between his fingertips.

            "He's not…mine…" Sanzo spit out, a flush tainting his cheeks despite the circumstances. Hazel laughed like the bastard he was, nails drifting down the Gojyo's cheek.

            "Well then, you won't mind if I follow orders and dispatch of him?" The gun cocked, and before Sanzo could blink, the muzzle was aligning with Gojyo's temple.

            "Stop! Alright—look." He held his hands up, and obeyed when Hazel insisted he lower his gun and rest it on the floor.

            "Very good. Now come over here—Gat, keep an eye on him—and let me tie you up…" Hazel took far too long tying a simple knot; Sanzo felt hands brushing over the back of his shirt in places unnecessary to simply secure a rope. When they wandered too low, he snarled a warning.

            "My dear, I don't believe you're in any position to be warning me. But all the same, you're nowhere near as vulnerable as I'd like you to be." He raised his eyebrows and pushed fair hair back from his brow, dusting his lips across a sweat-lined forehead. Sanzo jerked back with a hiss.

            "Fucker."

            "We'll see." Hazel patted his head as if he had dismissed a small child from his presence, turning to the wall of black behind him, and Gat, whose guns were still leveled at Gojyo's and Sanzo's heads, respectively.

            "Who the hell are you taking orders from!" Sanzo riled, despite Gojyo's glances of warning and fierce head-shaking. Hazel only laughed.

            "God, of course. How else do you think I earned my nickname?" He flashed a patch of skin on his lower stomach, a B in script.

            "Bastard?"

            "Bishop, Sanzo. Now," he turned, striding to the center of the room, "You men know what to do with the others, Gojyo included. We have our orders. Sanzo's transferal, however, is going to be delayed. And here he turned back to the blond, walking slowly to him before dropping to his knees. "I have special plans for you. Don't worry, you'll be quite comfortable." He brushed fine hair back from where it had fallen over amethystine eyes.

            "So dark they're like jet…you're stunning, really. That would explain Gojyo's denial of your presence. He wanted to keep you all to himself." He leaned closer yet, mouth so close that soft lips brushed his ear, "Don't look so shocked. I already know I'm not the first holy man you've spread your legs for."

            His reaction was instantaneous, and effective, despite being bound. He slammed the knotted mass of his fists into the man's throat, sending him to the ground. A glance at Gat confirmed his suspicions; whomever it was he was being "transferred" to, he didn't want him dead. Gat wouldn't shoot. It gave him an opening, and soon he had Gojyo's spare gun, drawn at an awkward angle from his jacket pocket, pressed tightly to the soft place beneath Hazel's jaw. "I should've capped your ass the first time."

            Hazel, dizzy from the blow, but still too confidant for his own good, grinned, "I was thinking the same thing."

            "Son of a bitch!"

            "Hey stop mackin' on our new recruit!" Banri cried out as he burst through the already fragmented door with a small crew of armed men and women behind him, their weapons pointed forward, already seeking targets. The firing began immediately, and Sanzo made sure to give Banri's men a leg up by distracting the Eclipse's secret weapon. He stroked the trigger.

            "Bishop, tell your bodyguard to back off, and start untying my guys."

            "Oh I don't think I can do that."

            "Do you really think I'd hesitate to kill you?"

            "Gat would go ballistic," Hazel warned, blue eyes wide and innocent in such a cruel face. He smiled. "He'd kill you, and the handsome redhead you risked your life for."

            At an impasse, Sanzo was merely grateful that Gat was too occupied watching the gun pushing against Hazel's throat to inflict much damage on Banri's guys. He held him down in the corner, watching Gojyo untangle himself with Banri's aid and join the fray. Five minutes of shooting ended it, with half of the Eclipse's men escaping, the other writhing on the floor, or lying stone still. Banri was unscathed, and, while the surviving Phoenix recruits untied the wounded and stunned, he followed Gojyo to stand over Hazel.

            "Oh my, I feel like the center of attention…"

            "Shut up." Gojyo snarled, cocking his gun to shoot; Sanzo shook his head violently.

            "Idiot! You'll get torn up in an instant if you touch him. You think he's going to follow orders if the bastard's dead?" He jerked his head in the direction of a hulking shadow, torn between risking a shot and remaining still, thus ensuring Hazel's survival.

            "What the fuck are we supposed to do with him then!"

            "Drop the guns." Sanzo barked, slamming his muzzle roughly against the bishop's throat. "Drop it, or I'll start by shooting off his dick."

            Hazel swallowed hard, suddenly silent. Lingering members of the Phoenix approached, circling their small group and reloading guns. Across the room, as if all connected by an invisible string, shoulders tensed and feet spread in preparedness at the sudden blast of a siren. Sanzo clenched the butt of his gun.

            "Oh fuck!" Gojyo hissed, watching the group disband at once, any promise of a successful shoot out ruined by a series of whining car engines and not so distant shrills of the state police. The sirens hadn't been a remote sound, fast approaching; when they had been turned on, they were no more than two or three blocks away. Sanzo glared at the detector hidden beneath his jeans, and as the sound intensified, they scrambled. He saw the black tail of Hazel's coat as he vanished through a back door, Gat dogging his heels. 

            "How the hell did they find us?"

            "With all that noise?" Sanzo dashed after him, trusting Gojyo's knowledge of the streets over his own; they were darting between narrow, abandoned alleyways; his foot slid for a moment on the fat tail of a rat, and he heard an indignant squeak of protest in return. "C'mon. They probably heard us from the precinct."

            Gojyo made no reply, and Sanzo saw his hand steal to his side, where his wound must have still been hurting him. The question escaped him before he had time to consider it.

            "You okay?"

            Gojyo gasped, skidding in a puddle as he turned a sharp corner, "Jus' fine."

            They met up with Banri—how did that guy always manage to find them?—behind a collapsing garage, its second story, perhaps once rented out, looked ready to tumble through the ceiling of the first. With a flash of red hair, Gojyo ducked under the awning and jerked the rust-covered door up, revealing a tarp-covered corvette, painted a modest midnight blue. Sanzo could still hear the sirens ringing in the distance, though he was sure they stopped to investigate elsewhere, as the sound grew no closer.

            Igniting the engine, the kappa slammed on the accelerator, shooting out of the dilapidated building and kicking open the front door. "Your carriage."

            Sanzo leaped over the side into shotgun, and Banri into the back. Before he could snap his seatbelt into place, he was thrown into the leather-covered seats, and the convertible darted through narrow streets towards the highway.

             After a pause, Gojyo made a noise akin to a growl. "So Hazel works with them."

            "Hn." Sanzo's input.

            "That creepy little bastard freaks me out," Banri shuddered. "Always touchin' and sayin' shit like that. No wonder no one's killed him yet; scaredta get close."

            "I don't think that's it." Sanzo murmured darkly.

            "Where do you want me to drop you off, Banri?" Gojyo's voice was tense, almost brittle. Banri made him an answer, and shortly it was only the monk and the redhead in the vehicle. They were on the interstate, and had long since passed the exit that might have taken them to Fourteenth Street.

            "Where are we going?"

            "My place, if you don't mind," Gojyo said softly. "It's safer."

            "Fine." Sanzo agreed, slumping back in the leather seat.

            "That was one hell of a rescue. I was surprised you didn't have Indiana Jones with you too." Sanzo shrugged his response, gazing out the open window.

            After a moment, Gojyo asked, "How did you know?"

            "Beat it out of a guy." Vague, but the kappa would put it together.
            "How'd Banri know?"

            "I ran into him on my way to save your sorry ass. He was drunk."

            Gojyo made a sound of understanding, smiling faintly at Sanzo. "You sure put your guns down fast for me."

            "Don't make something of it, idiot."

            "I just meant to thank you," he quieted.

            "Tch. We're even, then."

            "Yeah. Even."

 

They arrived at Gojyo's house after a forty minute drive, made mostly in silence. It had started to rain; fat, icy droplets a degree or two away from becoming snow pelted them both as they huddled beneath the narrow porch awning, the redhead fumbling with his key.

            The house was enormous, a two-story with potential for a third in the arched roof of the attic. The windows dotting the front and sides were dark, and even the lamppost in the front yard had burnt out, leaving the building beneath cobwebs of night. It looked more or less like every other house in the neighborhood; Sanzo had noticed that as they pulled past the sign advertising "Oakridge Estates," lit up by small gold-tinted lights tucked neatly in the grass below it. Intimidating in size, simplistic and repetitive in design, it featured the same arched doorway, lack of landscaping, and winding drive as every other building on the block. It looked far too large for a single person to occupy, but Sanzo assumed it was more of a status symbol than a real home.

The inside was chilled from disuse, and Gojyo cranked up the thermostat before doing so much as turning on the lights. "Fucking freezing in here."

"You were away a while." Sanzo deadpanned, his sneakers squeaking wetly on the tile floor of the entry way. A light switch was flipped, followed by a second and third as Gojyo swung around the entrances of two different rooms, one arm outstretched.

The paint job was, he knew, how the house had come. The hall was devoid of furniture and art alike, and quickly he was drawn to the right where he sunk a good two or three inches into a plush beige carpet. Opposite a grand fireplace sat a pair of overstuffed leather covered sofas, and a set of mismatched chairs, angled at one another as if to fight for the stray ottoman between them.

"Homey." Sanzo said dryly, waiting for the echo. The other snorted in amusement, snatching a thick blanket from the back of the couch and dropping it over Sanzo's lap.

"I oughta thank you again, ya know. For savin' my ass."

"Just drop it," the blond murmured uncomfortably, shifting in his seat.

"Yeah well, it was pretty brave to burst in there, guns blazing and cussin' out Hazel. Badass too." He grinned, flopping down at Sanzo's side. "Appreciate it."

"Like I said, it's fine." The sudden warmth of the house after an icy deluge coupled with the abrupt death of his adrenaline high left him dizzy with exhaustion, and he could have sworn the cushions of the sofa were sucking him down into the massive piece of furniture.

A hand clapped over his shoulder, squeezing gently and drawing a strange, tired look from dark purple eyes beneath damp bangs. Gojyo just smiled, leaning forward and brushing a kiss across his rescuer's forehead. "Wanna go to bed?"

That snapped him out of it. "What the fuck! Haven't we been through this you stupid--"

"In the guest room?" Gojyo finished tersely, frowning at the fierce rebuttal. Sanzo calmed, rubbing the cuff of his sleeve across an itch on his forehead as he followed the kappa up a winding staircase. Stupid bastard. As if he didn't know just what that sounded like.

 

He slept deeply in the soft mattress of an otherwise naked room. There wasn't a single piece of furniture outside of the wide bed, and Sanzo was content to draw a sheet over him and collapse into the dim blue light filtering through the shades.

            He awoke with a jerk at a snap of thunder from outside that shook the floor of the room. A soft moan escaped him; he had never slept so comfortably. It was funny, he thought, how safe he felt where he was. Safer than at the precinct, and safer even than on Fourteenth.

            A scratch at his door, and he grumbled, "What?"

            Gojyo entered, a bottle of vodka in hand, unopened, and twin glasses. "Thought you'd be up. Thunder's fucking loud."

            "Are you scared?" Sanzo smirked, kicking the sheets back and letting Gojyo sink onto the edge of the mattress.

"If I said yes, would you hold me?"

"Get bent."

They smirked at one another, and Gojyo passed a glass to him, filling it halfway. "If I remember correctly, you like your Absolut."

"Yeah."

They drank in silence for a short while, gazing at the lightning that flashed across the sky like spider webs, snaking down to the ground of the horizon. The warmth of the vodka spread to his cheeks after the third glass, and he settled to hold it between his palms thereafter, watching the clear liquid lap at the edges.

"Why are you really here?" Gojyo murmured out of the blue; Sanzo started in response, back going rigid.

 "What the hell does that mean?"

Gojyo smiled faintly. "Just what it sounds like. Why did you agree to come with me here, when it's pretty damn obvious you can't stand me?"

"It was raining."

"So you'd melt?" He grinned, nudging the monk's shoulder. "No really. Why did you decide to? Do you really feel safe here?"

"I don't feel safe anywhere," Sanzo lied. "But I figured I had a smaller chance of getting shot up at your place than mine."

Gojyo made a sound to show he was listening as he tossed back the last of his third glass. "You must trust me."

"I don't see how you pull that from what I just said." Sanzo shifted uncomfortably in the sheets.

"Well, you know damn well I want to get you in bed, and maybe more besides. But you still came here."

"Maybe all that means is I trust my own good marksmanship," the blond murmured darkly, wringing a pale laugh from his company. After a moment's pause, he added, curiously, "and what else is there?"

"Besides sleeping with you? Plenty. Kissing you, for one." And suddenly he was too close for comfort, face much nearer to Sanzo's than it usually was.

"I was of the belief that kissing usually comes before sex."

"Not for me. Sex is easy, and it can be good or bad. It's like eating, sometimes. You can pay for it and get it trouble-free, but kissing. That's different."

Intrigued by his logic and held fast by a strange web of sensuality (Sanzo blamed the vodka), he listened without shoving the kappa from the bed.

"It's intimate, touching someone else's mouth. And their hair." A hand moved to brush quickly over a fair mane with a teasing smile.

"I don't kiss much, you know?" Ducking out of the heat he radiated took effort, and Sanzo struggled against it, violet eyes rolling heavenwards. "I'd imagine not."

"I was that bad huh? This coming from a guy who hasn't gotten laid in seven years?"

Sanzo bristled. "I thought you just said kissing and sex were totally different things?"

"They are, but sometimes they go well together," Gojyo amended, leaning a bit closer, his mouth brushing over Sanzo's shoulder, not minding the fabric that got in the way. It felt good, and Sanzo thought for a brief moment that maybe Gojyo had underestimated his own technique. "Maybe I can show you."

"I don't think you can." The blond riled, shrugging him off with a show of indifference, and lighting up a Marlboro.

"That sounds like a challenge to me, Blondie."

"You're delusional. Now piss off; saving your sorry ass is hard work, and I'm tired."

He bowed out gracefully, standing and accepting the emptied glass from his guest's hand. "As you like it. But don't think I'm about to give up, either," Gojyo warned.

            "Piss off," Sanzo repeated, tugging the cool sheets up around his waist. Gojyo had a smile in his voice, "Well Mr. Hitman, I know you've heard it a million times, but I do think I'm falling head over heels for you."

            The door shut with a quiet click, and Sanzo let out a longsuffering groan; he could feel the beginnings of a headache coming on. 

 

They left in the morning, returning to Phoenix Headquarters—now conveniently moved to a more secretive location, the basement of an old brewery that still stunk faintly of stale beer. Gojyo set up a desk and chairs for his own amusement, rather than for expediency, and seemed to enjoy having Banri and Yaone sit across from him, on slightly lower fold-outs. Sanzo leaned against the wall smoking like a chimney. Very little had passed between them.

 He had since reported back to headquarters, updating them and making sure Hakkai took Hazel and Gat's names down. There should be plenty of evidence, he told them, and gave the address of the former local headquarters a second time.

"The bodies should still be there, unless that idiot has a thing for necrophilia too."

"I've heard of him," Hakkai mused with some interest. "He's a rather unusual criminal, isn't he? They have a name for him, too. Don't they call him the priest, or the cardinal or some such thing?"

"Bishop," Sanzo supplied. "And he's got a human Gatling gun that follows him everywhere."

Dokugakuji was familiar with this particular criminal. "Yeah he's the best shot out there, they say. I've seen his work, though never in person. Just the results."

"Are he and Hazel allies, or working together for some sort of profit, do you think?" Hakkai queried, pushing strands of dark hair from his eyes. The room was stifling, as if the heater were on overload. Sanzo was eager to exchange the hot, packed room for the open breezes of the street. The smells wouldn't matter; they were muted by the cold, dry air anyway.
            Repeating his question, Hakkai seemed completely unfazed by the sweat beading at his temples.

Sanzo shrugged. "I'm pretty sure they're together for more than just convenience."

"What makes you say that?" Suddenly Officer Wilson looked like a psychiatrist, tilted back in his chair, notepad in lap, monocle perched over the bridge of his nose.

"I think they fuck." He said with a slight twitch of disgust, doing his best not to picture anything remotely similar.

Hakkai noted it with a small sigh. "And as far as this Eclipse coup you've mentioned…anything new?"

"Hazel's obviously working for them."

"Yes." Hakkai agreed. "But any hints as to who your new head of state is, so to speak?"

"None. Gojyo's more interested in figuring it out than you are, and even he hasn't managed to find anything."

"Now that's interesting." Doku butted in, earning him a scathing glance from his employee.

"What. Is." Sanzo bit out, recognizing the gleam in his eye. It was the very same one the kappa had had the night before.

"You called Gojyo by his name, instead of 'he,' or 'the idiot.'"

"So?"

"Is he still flirting with you?"

"Aren't you supposed to be concerned with drug cartels and assassinations? Why the fuck does this idiot's sex life interest you so much?" He was grateful to be able to pass the blush off as a result of the heat from the overworked furnace.

Hakkai was smiling now too, as if they shared a secret they weren't about to let him in on, and Sanzo rose with a snort of disgust.

"I'm leaving now."

"Be back for tonight, please." Hakkai requested pleasantly. "We need to start keeping closer tabs on you. Wouldn't want you to run off and elope," he chuckled.

Sanzo slammed the door behind him.

 

"They must be slicker than I thought," the dark-eyed man admitted, looking at Hazel and Gat with raised brows. "To have outwitted you…and out shot you." He moved his gaze between them. But they hadn't proven themselves useless yet; no, quite to the contrary…they had discovered a vital piece of information that would make life a little easier for him. Genjyo Sanzo had willingly lowered his weapon, endangered his own life, for Sha Gojyo. He would, the dark-eyed man surmised, be willing to do it again.

 "But if the police interrupted," He continued, nodding to Hazel, "you really can't be blamed, though it's obvious your weakness lies in your…attachment to one another. They used that against you very effectively, I've heard."

"You underestimate Mr. Sanzo and his red-haired friend, if you think their entire organization can be so easily taken down," Hazel sighed.

"You didn't mention this when I sent fifty of my men out with you."

"Well that'd be bad business," Hazel chuckled suddenly. "I can't go advisin' my employers; that'd be plain rude. And besides, this way, I make a little more, workin' longer hours and such." He smiled, all shining, ivory teeth. He knew even the madman behind the desk couldn't touch him, not with Gat standing there.

The dark-eyed man conceded, "A true entrepreneur you are, Mr. Grosse. I trust you'll be on call, when I develop a more efficient strategy?

He nodded politely, concealing his smile this time. "Of course."

 

 

Another month passed, with Hakkai and Doku keeping a close eye on their charge, insisting on more detailed reports, as they discovered that the espionage process was a lengthy one, and required more patience than they had to invest. Hazel and Gat could not be arrested, given their alliance with the Phoenix's higher-ups. Things were calm for a change, and Hakkai didn't want to rock the boat until Sanzo had discovered a way to infiltrate the center of the gang's operations.

Sanzo kept close to the Phoenix, especially Gojyo and Banri, but made sure to duck out come nightfall, heading back to "his place" to avoid getting lectured by Officer Wilson, who was having enough trouble as it was covering for his absence. Sanzo had no idea what sort of papers he had to push, or palms he had to grease, to get away with this. There was no way a parole officer could be assigning an inmate with three consecutive life sentences to community service and volunteer work. Hell, he had three lives without parole. How the hell did Hakkai manage?

His lies were much easier. Gojyo never asked him where he spent his nights, and assumed he was more dodgy than usual because of the kappa's advances the night after Hazel's attack. If Sanzo's questioning became a little more focused, detailed, he didn't notice.

Nights became longer, fraught with painful dreams and little sleep. His mood deteriorated, and the officers noticed, but said little. Maybe they were afraid he was losing it, Sanzo thought with amusement. Going mad, so early on. Not likely. He still had too much to do to surrender his sanity so easily. Grief couldn't win every battle.

His dreams repeated the same message endlessly, playing back fragmented memories in the mute void of his mind, forcing him to watch Koumyou shudder in death each time he closed his eyes. It was as if he, too, was unable to rest until avenged, though a part of Sanzo knew that his lover would never place such a burden on his shoulders. He was above that, and he knew Sanzo well enough to know that the blond was not. He would kill, asked or not. Jienyi was living on borrowed time.

Shallow, golden eyes, light as topaz and glinting in the rain, peered over the top of the slick gun; a mad, distant smile dripped from his mouth. His hair ran like tar down the sides of his face, against his nape; his glasses were broken on the sidewalk.

Sanzo heard himself sob, a dry sound of disbelief; the second became stuck in his chest, pounding the underside of his heart. What he felt wasn't mere alarm, but genuine horror on a level his mind couldn't yet process. The warm weight in his lap was cooling fast, and long fingers grasped wordlessly at his own. Red streaked the pavement, dribbling into the potholes and pooling with rainwater.

He was going fast, and fright receded into incredulity; purple eyes met a familiar face, watching him gasp for breathe as gunshots echoed nearby, and people fell. The dying man must have seen the future in those violet eyes; he shuddered, clutching the smaller hand within his own. "Let go."

No!

"Should we wake him?" Officer Wilson's voice pierced the grey fog of the dream, shattering the silver mirror of the sky so that it came raining down over the shadowed figures, slicing them in bright streaks of scarlet.

"They say you could give a guy a heart attack, wakin' him up in the middle of a real intense dream. Sure let's try it."

"You would," Sanzo groaned, pulling himself up off of the couch at the sound of Doku Carerra's voice.

"Hey, sleeping beauty's up."

Now where have I heard that line before?

"Fuck you."

"Sorry, I'm taken. But seriously," Officer Carerra's eyes narrowed. "I have a special little mission for you."

 

 

But Sanzo had a mission of his own. He decided it was time he ask Gojyo for his aid in tracking down Jienyi. He had been off the streets for ten months, and lost the man's tracks. It used to be easy to pursue him, one had only to follow, literally, the trail of bodies he left behind. That was how Sanzo managed so many run-ins, and so many unfortunate near-misses. It was during one such attack that he was caught and imprisoned, after having shot down a handful of Eclipse men; Jienyi, as always, got away.

But now his trail had gone cold, and for one reason or another, he wasn't active. Most of the murders in the city were the work of the Phoenix, or the unfamiliar, younger faces of Eclipse members serving the higher-ups centered in Topeka. Gojyo was still fumbling to find out the name of his new overlord, but very little information was passed down to him, and for the moment, his operation was running smoothly. Guns came in, guns went out, money came in, and what happened to it after that, Sanzo wasn't sure.

"Hmm so what can I do for ya huh?" Gojyo asked, tearing open the top of a packet of Hi-Lites, and offering his half-filled ash tray to Sanzo, who tapped his cigarette to the edge before returning it to his lips.

"I'm trying to find someone."

"Well I'm not a private eye, but maybe I can still help you out. Is this a hit? 'Cause ya know, fine print of your contract says you can't freelance anymore," Gojyo shrugged, grinning as he spoke, "and I don't remember giving you any assignments."

"It's personal."

"Is it now?" His voice lowered in a conspiratorial whisper, leaning forward with his elbows on the desk. Sanzo noticed a thin scar running up the length of his left arm. It looked old. "So who is it? Do I know him—or her?"

"Nii Jienyi."

"Jienyi!" Gojyo balked, "Why the hell are you after him? Fuck, that's a dumb question. Who hasn't he fucked over? Well—he's never hurt me personally, though he's blown up a couplea cars transporting some goods up from Mexico. Sure hurt some of my guys."

"He's a madman." Sanzo agreed without any particular intonation. Gojyo narrowed his eyes, leaning closer to the blond haired man before him; he couldn't read that tense, motionless expression.

"What'd he do to you?"

"Like I said, it's personal." Sanzo shifted in his seat, stubbing out his cigarette and lighting up a second.

"Yeah, but I like to think we know each other on a sorta personal level, don't you?"

"No."

"Tetchy today."

"You gonna help me find him, or do I have to go somewhere else?"

"Hey, hey," holding his hands up in self-defense, he exhaled to the side, the tip of his tongue touching his lower lip. "Yeah I'll help, Sanzo. I'll do whatever I can, though he's been layin' low lately. The last I heard of him, he'd taken out some bank in the northern part of town. Jeez though, he's been out there a long time; the guy's gotta be like, forty."

Sanzo shrugged. "I just need to know his whereabouts. Pick up his trail." Again.

"I'll see what I can dig up for ya, man. The guy's probably on the FBI's most wanted list, don'tcha think? I remember the first time I heard about him, I was fifteen. He'd killed the head of the Golden Dawn, I think. Shot him dead in the street."

Sanzo felt himself grow tense, and he glanced off, fearing the kappa's uncanny ability to glimpse the truth in his eyes. A warm hand settled on his shoulder, squeezing gently.

"Did he kill someone important to you too?" Gojyo guessed, thumb brushing across a sharp collar bone. Sanzo twitched, the place behind his eyes heating up, prickling in a mixture of anger and agony.

Wheat-colored hair, soaked in the black water of the street and turning a burnished gold under the rushing current; startling eyes reflecting the silver sky, an iron-clad grip suddenly slackened, and the breath went out of him. "Let go."

Gojyo watched the emotions play out in his eyes; save for a twitch of his lips and lowering lids, his face was a noh mask, unreadable. Standing, the kappa strode to kneel before the folding chair Sanzo was perched on. He flicked fair hair from the man's line of vision, thumb trailing down the tense, but dry cheekbone, ghosting across his jaw, right under his lip.

"That guy you told me about—the one who saved you…" The tension beneath his fingertips told Gojyo before he finished his question. He rose, a hand on his friend's shoulder, massaging the muscle. "I'm sorry."

Sanzo pulled away, dropping his burnt out cigarette onto the pile they had created.

"Sanzo--"

"Just…" His voice shook, only slightly, and his hair hung over his eyes from the side; Gojyo couldn't see him. "Help me find him."

"I promise." 

 

Days later, Gojyo got back to him about it. He had in the meantime been doing Carerra's dirty work, menial little tasks like picking up various weapons from the four different sectors of the Phoenix. If their leader knew of it, he didn't mention it to Sanzo. Perhaps he thought he was preparing the ultimate hit on Jienyi.

"I've had my guys keep their ears open, and even done a little digging myself," Gojyo began, "checked out the old Eclipse hideaways too, though there's not much left, now that they've disbanded, most of 'em going over to our side. Well, my boss's side, wherever the fuck he is."

"And?"

"And nothing." He threw his hands up in a gesture of innocence and ignorance. "Not a trace of him. No one's seen him since the bank heist, and some folks don't even think he was actually present at all. It's like guy's slipped underground. Maybe he's dead." Gojyo shrugged.

"Dead?" Sanzo echoed stupidly, his fists flexing at the thought. No. Jienyi couldn't be dead, because he hadn't killed him yet. He hadn't had his revenge, and that monster was too crafty to die easily.

"Yeah, you know. Bang, bang? Probably a ton of folks out to get him. He can only run for so long. Or maybe it was drugs. Who knows? All I know is, no one's seen him or heard of him in a long time."

"He's not dead."

"How can you be sure?" Gojyo's voice softened as he began to realize his friend's need for Jienyi to be alive, someone to hunt, to give direction to his life at the time. His grudge against Nii had spurred him on, and given him reason. Gojyo backpedaled quickly.

"Then again, I mean, the guy's a master of his business. If he didn't want to be found, I guess he just wouldn't be. Maybe he's lying low—planning something really big. Shit I hope that's not it."

Sanzo looked convinced, grasping at straws, and a rough hand came down on his shoulder, giving the narrow bone a gentle squeeze.

"I told my guys to keep their eyes peeled, okay? If we see anything of him, you'll be the first I tell."

"Thank you."

Gojyo beamed, leaning in a bit closer. "I should charge, ya know, for all this private eye stuff."

"Pft, like you need money."

"Who said anything about money?" Waggling his eyebrows, the kappa slid his arms about Sanzo's waist, chin resting at his shoulder from behind. "Maybe we can work somethin' else out, gorgeous."

Sanzo was back to himself in a trice, shoving the redhead off with a practiced growl of annoyance, content with the knowledge that Gojyo would never really take it further than that, so long as he kept his guard up. "Idiot."

"Aw c'mon!" Laughing, he followed Sanzo through the building, and out into the darkened alley. "You could pay me in orgasms?"

"Shut up and die!"

"Aw, that's not nice," Gojyo laughed, noticing he had slowed down enough that the kappa could catch up with swift, long-legged strides. "How about you pay me with a drink then, huh?"

Violet eyes met his in a level gaze of consideration, and shortly they were at Vinny's, a bar and diner of questionable repute, tucked into a corner booth with cracking vinyl seats and peeling laminate tables. Gojyo ordered beers, and ended up paying for them too, brushing off Sanzo's money at the last instant.

That the beer was delivered in bottles, rather than iced mugs, spoke of the bar's financial conditions. Though packed with patrons, none of them looked as though they'd be able to afford more than a few drinks, and the greasy odor floating out from the kitchen chased off anyone who had come in for dinner. Their waitress clunked the dark glass bottles down before them, tossing a few napkins onto the centre of the table as an afterthought. She reminded them with a grin to remember to tip their server, and as if to ensure they did so, leaned over to display a prominent bust line, fairly bursting from a plunging neckline. Sanzo was surprised to see Gojyo didn't even look up, and apparently so was she. The brunette left in a huff.

"I could've paid." Sanzo said.

"Yeah I know."

"I hope you know that doesn't mean I'm paying by other means."

"'Course not. You're a classy guy. I wouldn't expect it." Gojyo grinned to him, tapping the edges of their bottles together before tipping his over into his mouth. He took more of the neck past his lips than was really necessary, and suddenly a tinge of pink appeared through the dark glass as his tongue slid up into the glassy cylinder. The implication wasn't lost on Sanzo, and he rolled his eyes, kicking Gojyo beneath the table.

"Idiot."

"What?" Gojyo drawled, putting the bottle down and folding his arms atop the table. "Isn't that how you drink from a bottle too?"

Sanzo opened his mouth with a sharp riposte, but was interrupted by a shrill "It's Gojyo!" and pursed his lips again, wry amusement dancing in his eyes. The kappa had the good grace to flush and look uncomfortable, but only for a moment.

Two women, their professions unquestionable, drew chairs over to the shadowed booth, crossing their legs so that the skirts of their uniforms slid up the length of their thighs.

"So good to see you! It's been at least a month. I thought for sure you had found a new bar," the blonde one whined, twirling her hair about a painted nail. As she leaned back a bit, into the dim overhead lighting, Sanzo was able to see dark roots at her scalp.

"Yeah well, I've been busy," Gojyo croaked, clearly embarrassed at their attentions, though Sanzo assumed he must have been used to it, given the level of familiarity with which they addressed him. Or were all hookers like that, he wondered.

"Jewel and I have been just dying to see you," the blonde one continued, her darker haired friend sitting quietly until she shut up.

"We've been worried; given your line of work, Gojyo, anything could happen," Jewel murmured, a hand clasping the kappa's atop the table. "It'd be real good to see you tonight, too." She wasted no time. But Gojyo didn't seem put off; something passed between them with a glance, and if he had blinked, Sanzo knew he would have missed it. 

"Hey!" Blondie squeaked, lips pulling up into a grin, "Aren't ya going to introduce us to your friend?"

"Maybe he'll be our friend too," Jewel murmured, tilting her head to the side in curious invitation as the stiletto of her heel trailed over Sanzo's ankle. He removed it, tossing Gojyo a glare, and the kappa shook his head.

"Sorry ladies. He's a business partner; I don't mix business with pleasure."

Their whining sighs were in unison, perhaps practiced, and Blondie addled forward, arms crossing beneath her breasts to push them further up under the thin fabric of her shirt. Sanzo did his best to look away, though he couldn't help but wonder at the kappa's response. He half expected Gojyo to reach out and grab them.

"Maybe we can see each other tomorrow night, then?" Blondie heaved a sigh, popping one of the loose buttons.

"Is business bad?" Gojyo asked, and the fair haired girl looked insulted.

"Well no! I just happen to seek out my best customers first, is all. We've got plenty a' folks…"

"Best customer am I?" He grinned, finishing off the bottle of beer. "I didn't think I tipped that well."

"Not talkin' about your tips, Gojyo-san," Blondie drawled, and then, less covertly, "everyone knows you're like an animal between the sheets." Sanzo scoffed, and Blondie snuggled closer, her breasts pushing up at Gojyo's bare arm. Jewel had to draw her back, and for an instant, Sanzo thought he caught a knowing gleam in the girl's eye. She was at least two years younger than Blondie, maybe more. The makeup made it hard to judge. How did she know him, and why was his scalp suddenly prickling with frustration? He was impatient for them to leave.

"I think Gojyo's gonna be busy t'night," Jewel urged her friend up, directing her towards a rather heavy set man in decent clothes perched at the bar. Blondie took off, and Jewel took her seat.

"And yes, actually, business is bad." She admitted, "Though better for us than for some." Lean fingers pinched the bridge of her nose in aggravation, and she cast a glance at Sanzo, green eyes flickering beneath heavy lashes.

"I think I've seen your friend before, Gojyo."

"I doubt that babe. He doesn't pay for his."

"Not like that." She uncrossed her legs, head tilted to the side in thought; Sanzo realized it must be a personal affectation. "I can't put my finger on it just yet, violet-eyes, but I've seen you before." She smiled distantly, pushing the chair back before he could respond.

"So have a good night, Gojyo." Her hand gave his hair a tug, and his shoulder a pat, as she strode off.

"Friends of yours?" Sanzo drawled, intent on abusing the sudden leverage he had over the kappa. He was already blushing.

"You could say that."

"To think," he mused aloud, tilting back the bottle of Bud and finishing it with a quick swallow, "Sha Gojyo pays for sex." A chair crashed in the distance, and two drunks rose to duke it out. Blondie squealed. A second round of beers was delivered.

"Paid." He emphasized the past tense, barely sparing the brawl a glance. "And it wasn't like it looks. They were bad off, and I was drunk. So I helped out a little."

"How charitable."

"Come on, you've never once thought about it? Two girls at once…?"

Sanzo snorted in derision, pushing the bottle across the peeling surface of the table. "No. I haven't."

"Aah, one more hint in the Mystery of Sanzo's Sexual Preferences," Gojyo snickered. "You make Clue look easy, man. I can't figure you out."

"Nope." Sanzo agreed, content to keep it that way. "How come not tonight, then?"

"What? Go with them? Not feeling it." Sanzo felt an inexplicable surge of delight at the answer.

"They said they were bad off."

"They always say that to me." Gojyo shrugged. "They just come because I'm a preferable customer, see? I mean, good looks aside," He ignored the gagging expression on his companion's face, smirking widely, "like Blondie said, it's not my tips they're after."

"So humble."

"If you got it, flaunt it." He tipped the bottle back to his lips.

"I think that applies to women."

"That might be considered sexist. You'd better watch out—Jewel hates guys like that." His hand gestured vaguely behind him, where he suspected she was standing, near the bar. Sanzo couldn't see her.

"That's why she sleeps with them?"

"Oh hey, that's her business. Gotta be nice to the customers." He waved down the waitress moments later, ordering another beer for both of them.

They played cards, carrying on mundane conversation as the chrome-framed clock above the bar ticked silently, timing arm-wrestling contests, pacing heavy drinkers, and scaring off the college students with curfews.

Blondie disappeared from the background, her platinum waves leaving a vortex of shadow behind. Sanzo noticed the wide man wearing Polo had left the bar too. Jewel was chatting with the waitresses, one hand on her hip, and casting a longing glance at Gojyo every so often.

They were on their fourth round when Gojyo spoke again. "So, if you don't mind me askin', why is it you're so closed-off? Sexually, I mean." That he understood Sanzo's reasons for being emotionally aloof was implied.

Sanzo fired up an appropriate retort, and Gojyo looked ready for it, not expecting an actual answer. The blond shrugged, tense shoulders slumping a bit, perhaps relaxed by the alcohol, and continued the deal.

"I don't think I am. I just don't jump into bed as willingly as you do."

Gojyo peered at his hand, lighting up a cigarette, and offering Sanzo his Zippo. "Yeah, but neither do a lotta guys. That doesn't mean they keep their chastity belts on."

"I've been busy." Sanzo said flatly.

"Is it a lack of physical attraction?" Gojyo pried, "I mean, you haveta know you're gorgeous. Maybe," he wheedled, "you want someone to match up?"

"I'm not hung up on appearances." He spat, rather insulted that Gojyo might think so. He, like any other guy, could appreciate a beautiful woman or a handsome man, but lack of them was hardly his reason for abstention. He wasn't about to divulge that over beers and cards in a seedy bar either.

"'Course not." Gojyo agreed, holding up two fingers, and exchanging his cards. Sanzo laid out three threes, and Gojyo, three fives.

"Oops. I'd be takin' your money here, Mr. Sanzo," He grinned, raking in the cards and shuffling them beneath wide palms. "What time is it anyhow?"

"You suddenly have a curfew?" Sanzo glanced at the clock. "Two."

"Naw, but Banri's comin' this morning. We've got a big order going out you know," he murmured, though beneath the whine of a jukebox in the corner, grumbling patrons, and the hiss and clang of cookware still being jostled about in the kitchen, there was little chance of anyone overhearing.

"Out of state, or out of country?"

"Mexico. It's about half the size of our usual haul, but hey, we've got limited employees, as you know." He put the cards down and stood, stubbing out his cigarette on the way. "Going for a piss. Be back."

"I'd assume." Sanzo drawled dryly, sucking at a Marlboro and watching the red plastic coating on the table peel before his eyes at the moisture from their empty beer bottles.

Jewel startled him.

"Hey." She smiled falsely, taking Gojyo's seat across from him.

"Business still sucking?" He ignored the unintentional pun, and hoped she would too.

"Yes." She didn't flinch. "But that's not why I'm here. I'm not stupid."

"Gonna give me one of your feminist speeches?"

"He told you about that huh?" She smiled again, this time genuinely, and tapped fake nails against the table top, pushing back more of the worn plastic coating. "Gojyo's a good guy, you know."

"That's debatable."

"No, it's not. He's a good man, no matter what you hear of him. I know he does some seedy stuff sometimes, but he's never hurt anyone who didn't thoroughly deserve it."

"You must know him well."

"I do. We used to go together, him and me."

Sanzo raised his eyebrows, but said nothing, waiting for her to reach the point. She was clearly quicker than her friend, and undoubtedly better at her job for it.

"Stick with him, okay?"

"What makes you think I wouldn't?"

"I don't mean stick with the job," she hissed, "I mean with him. He needs someone. He's been alone a lot in life, and he needs a little protecting. You two seem like you get along well enough—have you been together long?"

"Define 'together'?" Irritation sprung into his voice, and she laughed.

"You don't have to be embarrassed about it. I already know all about that—Gojyo n' me are friends too, not just 'business partners,'" she teased, her hand patting the back of his. Leaning closer beneath the light overhead that had been flickering for the past hour, Sanzo noticed she was much older than she appeared in the shadows. Or maybe she was just very tired.

"I care about him, you know. A lot. So take real good care of him, okay?"

"I'm not--"

"And I can tell you're not there just yet, but you will be," she hurried on, glancing up over Sanzo's shoulder in the direction of the restrooms. Rouged lips brushed over his ear, and she grinned, "and he is a sex god in bed, incase you haven't found that out yet."

"Why the hell would I ever want to--" And she was gone, across the room in seconds despite the five inch stilettos between her and the floor.

Gojyo slid into the booth this time, snatching up his cards and tucking them into one of the deep pockets of the cargo pants he had worn that evening. "What were you two getting so cozy over here about?" He chuckled, leading Sanzo out the door.

"She says you owe her some cash, cheapskate."

The kappa threw his head back in a bark of laughter, knowing he wouldn't get the answer that evening.

 

They wound up back at the five and dime of fourteenth; where Gojyo had ferreted his car away this time, Sanzo wasn't sure, so they walked.

"So you wanna crash here? You said your place is in the downtown." He shrugged. "You can have my bed, if you want."

"Yeah, fine," he agreed, moving to the stairs.

"So you're not gonna tell me what you two were talkin' about?" There was a hint of worry in his voice, and Sanzo frowned.

"Why?"

"Curious."

            "Bullshit. What'd you think she told me? I can't imagine she could tell me something about you that's worse than what I already know."

            Gojyo forced a smile, but his "yeah," seemed hesitant.

            "She asked me to take care of you." Sanzo explained.

            Gojyo blushed, afraid of that, and sat back on the smooth surface of his desk, legs folding beneath him. "She did?"

            "Why would she tell me that?"

            Gojyo would have shuffled his feet, had he been standing. He shrugged, coming around to it gradually. "She kinda helped me out, a while back."

            "Oh." Sanzo didn't pry; he was equally sensitive about his own past. But Gojyo seemed eager to push himself out of his comfort zone, somehow insistent upon disclosing this to Sanzo.

            "That wasn't fair of me. She didn't 'kinda help' me, she practically saved my ass, and more than once too. I told you my brother helped me out, on occasion, but Sophie—that's her real name, not Jewel—kept me alive."

            "How old was she, when you were young?"

            "I was twelve, she was twenty. Her business was booming—and I was a shitty pick-pocket. She took me in once, before Banri found me. Let me live with her, help her out. She was working in a joint partnership at the time, not solo." At Sanzo's expression, he shrugged, "a brothel."

            The blond nodded.

            "She was real protective of me. Said I reminded her of her brother. She never, ever let anyone else touch me. Not her customers, or her co-workers. She was one helluva tough lady—still is, though you wouldn't know it from tonight."

            "When did you leave her?"

            "When I was fifteen, and I met Banri. There were those guys, in the park…" He let his sentence trail off, picking up with a new one, "anyways, Banri rescued me, and to repay him, I turned his shitty little Phoenix sector into the second most productive in the whole country." He grinned for a moment, but Sanzo saw it slide.

            "So then, when I had money, I went to pay Sophie back. She said she was happy for me, but she didn't take charity. So that's how we hooked up," he shifted again, turning to face Sanzo as the blond sat at the other end of the desk, one leg crooked, balanced on the edge of an open drawer. "Made a business deal."

            Sanzo wasn't foolish; he knew there was a deep-rooted emotional attachment there too. Perhaps of the same sort he had had with Koumyou, one that was difficult to get over. Sophie, whoever she really was, had been his savior; she'd pulled him up out of the muck the same way Koumyou had rescued Sanzo.

            "She was your protector." And later, he realized, his lover. Did all such relationships end that way?

            "Yeah," he smiled softly, "she was. I…I guess I sort of fell in love with her, though I can't say for sure if it was because she saved me, or for something else. I was a really confused kid." His laugh was too quiet, forced. "Is that how it was with you and your guy? You loved him for saving you, and then, maybe, for something more? For who he was?"

            "Koumyou."

            "What?"

            "That was his name. Koumyou."

            Gojyo smiled fully this time; the sentiment reached his eyes. "Koumyou. He was a real good guy, wasn't he?"

            Sanzo nodded, suddenly aware that Gojyo had moved closer, and their shoulders were brushing. "He was."

            Sensing his discomfort, the kappa lightened the mood with a broad wink, "So did Sophie tell you anything else? Perhaps that I am an undisputed master of foreplay?"

            "Tch. She's too generous with you," he scoffed playfully, "'sex god' were her exact words," he explained, wringing a laugh from the redhead.

            "That might be pushing it," Gojyo acknowledged with a modest blush, leaning a bit closer, the smell of alcohol and nicotine faint in comparison with the sudden musky scent of earth surrounding him. "But I've never had a complaint," he murmured, his forehead touching Sanzo's bangs, loosening them to cascade over his eyes. A delicate swipe of his hand brought them back, tucked neatly behind his ear, and suddenly Gojyo was kissing him, gentle, chaste motions of his lips, nuzzling Sanzo's in reassurance, keeping his hands politely at his sides.

            Sanzo wasn't shocked, and he doubted the alcohol was responsible for much more than slowing his reflexes by a few degrees. He felt everything, and registered it with a clear head; Gojyo's remarkably hot mouth, soft, warm, dusting his with gracious restraint, ready to pull back at the slightest sign of discomfort. The monk found himself responding, hesitantly, to the sweet touch, letting Gojyo nip his lower lip, run his tongue across the smooth skin and retreat without further suggestion.

            The mere tilt of his head was invitation to more, and he felt the jolt of shock run through Gojyo's body; the kappa proceeded cautiously, as though with one who had never been touched, to deepen the embrace. Pressing his mouth firmly over Sanzo's, hands hovering at his sides, he did his best not to startle him off.

            A breath of exclamation parted them; it was almost a gasp, staccato and sharp in the damp silence. Gojyo withdrew, eyes still on the other's mouth, wet from his kisses, pink from the pressure. "Are you…was that…okay?"

            Sanzo wasn't sure if he meant his technique, or his overstepping boundaries, or maybe both. He nodded, body suddenly flooded with a surging heat he'd come to forget after so many years. It was a fierce thrumming, a vibration beneath his skin, coursing through his blood, and begging for the pressure and friction of another's touch.

            Gojyo, smiling as shyly as a school boy, touched his hair again, ecstatic with his progress. He didn't know what to say, fearful of drawing out the man's anger or self-consciousness.

            Sanzo, disgusted with himself, realized that they must look like two teenagers, fumbling through their first kiss. He stiffened, squaring his shoulders, and saw Gojyo frown.

            "If we're going to do this, you have to touch me." Sanzo snapped, startling and encouraging Gojyo at the same time so that suddenly arms were about his waist, on his back and shoulders, touching him as he laid back against the chilly surface of the desk.

            They met in a fierce kiss, all tongue and teeth and muted growls, hands raking down sides and spines. Sanzo clenched fistfuls of Gojyo's shirt, and the kappa stroked his shoulders, his mane, touched his cheeks and temples. Red hair fell in curtains about them, and Sanzo felt hips undulate over his own, a hot, hard weight grinding against his thigh.

            Already?

            A sense of urgency prevailed, and Gojyo flung his shirt off and across the room with a flick of his wrist, baring a toned abdomen that appeared dusted with bronze in the dim lighting. Ivory hands slid over it, long, spindle like fingers flicking at copper colored nipples, tracing thin white scars and reveling in the response he felt pushing into his thigh as well as his hands. Gojyo tilted his head back and gasped, hips jerking against rough denim, trapped within layers of fabric.

            Sanzo swore as buttons popped from his shirt, ricocheting against various objects and clinking as they fell to the floor; Gojyo's hands swept over his skin, pausing at the sight of an amber locket, barely brushing his fingertips over it.

            "Pretty," he murmured, dipping his head to trail kisses down the body he had ached to worship, groaning at the chryselephantine beauty submitting to him, nipping at the smooth, snowy skin. Sanzo was intoxicating, and Gojyo made sure he knew it.

            "Aah…" The first of his sounds, a little sigh; Sanzo bit the back of his wrist, body still tense beneath corded muscle, hesitant to react, to permit himself anything more. Soon Gojyo had the waistband of his jeans down, and tugged the denim from his legs as Sanzo toed off his shoes in haste. He remembered the thin, titanium band at his ankle, and wondered if it was even noticed. There was no sign, as the kappa was shortly upon him again, peeling back his cotton boxers with a little groan of delight, watching the fair-haired man flush a bright, rosy hue that covered his face and chest in a heartbeat.

            "Gods you're gorgeous," Gojyo hissed, a hand palming his arousal, pleased to see it pressed flush to his stomach, completely erect, and from what, a few simple caresses? The kappa fairly purred his delight, fumbling with his own zipper as he applied a feather-light pressure with his spare hand, listening to heavy breaths from the monk.

            "Mnn a true blond," He purred his appreciation, fingertips slipping through fair colored fleece, sending echoes of pleasure through Sanzo's form.

            "Do I look like the type to dye my hair?" He rasped back, receiving a shy grin in response. He watched as Gojyo retreated long enough to disrobe, kicking off his denims and doing away with his boxer shorts.

            Sanzo grew restive as he watched, intimidated—though he would die before admitting it—by his size. He'd never be able to take that. Gojyo must have noticed; he grinned bashfully, stroking himself for a moment to tease him, and then leaned forward to pepper his throat with reassuring kisses.

            Shortly, he slid a palm between Sanzo's thighs, and up and around the back of his right, grinning at the subtle, nearly non-existent curve of his ass, and gliding his fingertips back up, aiming for the crook of his knee. The sudden jerk of the body beneath him drew his hands to a halt, and he nearly climaxed at the sight of the tight-laced, venom-spitting blond suddenly writhing beneath him in near-ecstasy. His breath came heard, chest and smooth belly heaving at the effort. Gojyo grinned, "Sweet spot?"

            Dipping his head, he laved his tongue over the back of his right thigh, just inches above his ass, and then bit. Sanzo choked out a cry, and the kappa was shocked to see his back arch right off of the table, muscles tightening as he pushed forward, spilling copious amounts of his excitement over the flat planes of his abdomen.

            "Fuck you're sensitive there…" Gojyo whispered, pressing a reverent kiss to the reddened patch of skin before rising to glide his tongue over the monk's damp stomach. Sanzo calmed, made a face of disgust at the action, and jerked a fistful of red hair.

            They fell into a frenzy of heated kisses and rough, almost painful groping. Their breaths were sharp distortions of air, smelling of alcohol and nicotine and mint, dampening one another's skin. Blood on fire, coursing southward, neither had a thought for anything but pure sensation. Suddenly everything was a turn-on; Sanzo felt his sex surge at the sound of Gojyo's ragged breaths; the brush of fingertips over his shoulder or his wrist made him ache. A growl urged the kappa on, and swift preparations were made, spit and suckled fingers sufficing.

Gojyo knew better than to ask, "Are you sure?" It would insult him, and potentially drive him off to boot. He groaned a warning instead, jerking his hips forward to sheathe himself in Sanzo's heat. His body jerked in pleasure, a bestial groan torn from his lips as a scathing vice tightened about his organ; glancing down made his head spin. He was coupled with Sanzo, body pressed between his thighs, one ankle balanced, trembling, on his shoulder, the other pressed to the side of the desk. Hips canted forward, and paused, stroking the heavy arousal resting between them, slicking his stomach and chest with Sanzo's heavy, musky scent.

            They both whimpered, keened, cried out to one another, stifling harsh breaths with longing kisses. The wet sound of flesh contacting flesh in swift collisions was muted by lingering moans; everything he did brought Sanzo closer to the edge, writhing and bucking soundlessly as Gojyo made love to his mouth and his body.

            He felt it before he heard it, the fierce constriction of his lover's insides about his sex, clenching as every wiry muscle in his form became iron hard for an instant, pleasure snapping in his chest like a tightly strung cable. "Oh!"

            Sanzo climaxed between them in scalding arcs; blunt, crescent-shaped nails raked down a bronzed back, tearing at smooth skin as he jerked his hips upward in completion. Gojyo crested while his lover shuddered through the last throes of ecstasy, filling him with an unbearable heat and gasping his name as he rode out the last of his own desire.

            They lay tangled together for a long moment atop the desk, damp and sticky in blissful satisfaction, mouths fusing in heated kisses as rapture gradually wore off. The chords of Sanzo's body, stiff for years with inactivity and the lack of sexual fulfillment, were suddenly vibrating with energy and longing in a way he hadn't experienced since Koumyou's death. Gojyo smiled tiredly at him, kissing his throat with soft moans, stroking his chest and stomach, and then licking his fingertips.

            "Baby that was fucking amazing…" Gojyo panted, nuzzling his chin.

            "Don't call me baby," Sanzo murmured, suddenly distracted by a prickling sensation at the back of his neck. He remembered where they were, and the pain of regret seared the centre of his body like a brand. He glanced at the stairs thoughtfully, and clenched his fist.

            "You okay? Did I hurt you?" Gojyo sat up, kissing him tenderly and cupping the side of his face.

            "No. I'm not hurt." He slid carefully from the table, glad his shirt, or what remained of it, was still intact, covering his back. He was careful to keep his front facing the kappa, regardless, as he struggled into his clothing.

            "You know, for not doing that in seven years, you haven't forgotten a damn thing."

            "Well what the hell did you expect?"

            "Cobwebs." Gojyo joked, kissing his neck, the backs of his hands. He had stood, but wasn't dressed yet. "Let's go to bed…"

            "I have to go."

            "What? Sanzo—why? We just fucked—I think we can share a bed now…"

            "I have to go." Sanzo repeated, fumbling with what few buttons remained of his shirt. Gojyo draped his coat, a light jacket, worn and tan, over his shoulders, kissing him once again.

            "Come back?"

            "Yeah," Sanzo nodded, slipping into his shoes and pushing the creaky door open.

            "Good night…" Gojyo glanced at the stairs, wondering what his lover had seen there that made him run off so quickly.

 

 

"What the hell happened to you?" Officer Carerra looked up from Hakkai's paperwork, hand sliding from his partner's shoulder a little too slowly.

"Nothing." Sanzo brushed past him to the back room, glad he had thought to zip up Gojyo's jacket before entering. He didn't know quite how he looked—was there a telltale sign of ravishment outside of his messed hair?

"Nothin' huh? You look like you got into a fight. Nothin' you can't handle, I guess," Carerra muttered, turning a page in his notebook. He had one of the guns Sanzo had brought him resting on the desk, and was making a quick sketch of it.

"Bad mosquitoes, Mr. Sanzo?" Hakkai asked without looking up; the lights glinted off of his glasses.

"What the hell does that mean?" The blond snapped, pulling out the couch and then, remembering what it must be used for regularly, closed it, determined to sleep on the cushions. Those had to be safe, right?

"Your neck," Hakkai pointed out, letting his voice trail off. Doku picked up the slack, grinning ear to ear.

"You slept with him didn't you?"

"Is this a fucking soap opera?"

Doku smirked at him, leaning against a filing cabinet, diet soda in hand. "If it was, this'd be the part where you get in trouble with your parents for staying out late and fucking a degenerate."

"My parents huh? So who's 'mom'?"

That shut them up.

 

 He slept poorly that night, tormented by confusing threads of Memory, all sliced up by glassy shards of Present, whirling about his head in some invisible cyclone. The sweet heat of Gojyo's mouth melted into Koumyou's and then back again until he wasn't sure whose hands were touching him, whose lips he was kissing.

Smoke floated upwards, blue and violet in the dim light. Gojyo wanted him to stay, to sleep beside him. In Koumyou's bed. The thought made his gut clench in revulsion; he could never do that. It would feel too much like a desecration; he had given himself to Koumyou in that bed; they used to make love there. And now Gojyo…

Gojyo.

He arched his back against the edge of the window, managing to balance on the sill as he sucked in another mouthful of smoke. Just what the fuck am I doing with him? He's gonna get caught, in the end. Probably stuck at Leavenworth like I was. Maybe even in my cell.

Pangs of betrayal doubled, licking at the walls of his chest like acid. The only two men in his life who had ever shown a lick of concern for him, and he'd failed both of them. 

 

When he came in the next morning, Gojyo was seeing the last of his "supplies" off; Banri stood beside him sucking on a joint and fondling a new weapon—unloaded, he hoped—in his spare hand. The kappa grinned when he saw his newest recruit, striding over to sling an arm about his shoulders.

"Hey there." He slid the arm back to his side at Sanzo's glare, hands up in mock innocence. "Ooh touchy this morning." The show put on for Banri's benefit ended the moment they were out of hearing; the redhead frowned.

"You okay, Sanzo?"

"Fine." He shot him a curious glance. Hakkai had loaned him a turtleneck, black, to wear beneath his coat; it hid the highest of Gojyo's marks, and Sanzo's cheeks had burned accepting it from Officer Wilson.

"It's just that you got outta there so fast last night…I was worried you'd changed your mind."

"A little late for that."

"No, I mean, about me. Man, you got real white; looked like you'd seen a ghost…"

Sanzo blinked at him. Maybe I did. "Just had to go."

Gojyo shrugged it off, "Okay, man." He smiled awkwardly, bumping his arm into the monk's with a shy expression. "So…does that mean you're still interested?"

"I don't know, am I going to end up having to wear turtlenecks all summer, too?"

Gojyo laughed, tugging back the material and peering beneath it; he managed to keep up as the blond tried to sidestep him. "Damn. I didn't realize they'd show up like that…you just tasted so fucking good--"

Sanzo elbowed him sharply as Banri strolled up, slapping him away with an annoyed sigh. Banri chortled.

"Leave 'im alone, Gojyo. He ain't inta that shit. Persistent bugger," He winked at Sanzo, "But he's good at 'is job, so we keep him."

"You keep me?" Gojyo shoved his shoulder good-naturedly, snatching the joint from his hand and stepping it out. He received a dirty look in response. "Clear your head. I need you for something later t'night."

"Gotcha," Banri agreed, leaving the smoldering wad of cannabis where it fell and lit up a Camel from his back pocket; he hummed as he saw the last of the workers off. They were riding in a car that he had stuffed with illegal arms the night before.

"Specially built," Gojyo informed him. "Couple in the tires; there's a dropaway compartment in two parts of the roof with insulation that'll trip up metal detectors, ammo sewn up into the seats, and a little cupboard behind the glove box."

"Nothing in the floor?"

"Oh, I thought that was a given. Hell yeah, the floor's packed. About two hundred grand in that damn thing—so if they fuck up, I'll be after their heads." The way Gojyo said it made Sanzo uncertain of whether he meant that proverbially, or literally.

"So what's going down tonight?"

"Well I thought we could go back to my place--"

"No. What did you need Banri for?"

"Oh. Guard duty. I've had three or four guys down here at Headquarters every night now, ever since that Eclipse attack. Can't have them stealin' my stock too, though most of that is headed al sur at the moment."

"Four is enough?"

"When you've got machine guns and a fortress it is." He grinned. "New imports. You wanna see?"

He knew Officer Carerra would be interested, so he shrugged, following Gojyo down into the cellar and blinking in the dim light. There was a second passage that Sanzo had missed, directly beneath the stairwell that led to a deeper portion of the basement. The air was heavy with moisture, and Gojyo popped the lid of a wooden crate, revealing rows of gleaming metal, dry in the padded security of their box.

"Sixteen .30 caliber LMGs, the same sort used in the U.S. army, actually. They call it the S.A.W.: M249 Squad Automatic Weapon. Seven hundred fifty rounds a minute."

Sanzo could hardly imagine wielding it. "What about the recoil?"

Gojyo shrugged. "Brace yourself against a wall. They're issued to individual soldiers in the army. For long-distance shooting. Imagine the mess it makes up close."

Sanzo knew what sort of mess that was; he'd seen an automatic weapon turned against a man before. It shredded flesh in an instant; death was quick, but messy for anyone within a ten foot range.

"I'm not keeping them. Just a few, for now. The rest are scheduled to go out in less than a week."

"To Mexico?"

"Canada. By air, actually. Why? You want a second job?"

Sanzo shrugged. "Just curious."

 

None of that information found its way back to Hakkai and Doku; they would bust it, he knew, right before it crossed the state border and left their jurisdiction. There would be little danger in it, given that it was not uncommon for the police to bust illegal arm trades without inside information. Sanzo just didn't happen to think this particular trip was going to aid them, but it would sure as hell hurt Gojyo. Better that they didn't find out.

"I find it hard to believe there is so little going on," Doku grumbled from his place on the sofa. "You think he's holding something back?"

"Well considering the little coup going on at the gang's mysterious headquarters, it's not that difficult to believe that Gojyo doesn't have much to do for the time being," Hakkai said simply. "There are other ways of finding out what he's up to, you know."

"No, Hakkai." Doku shook his head. "If I walked into their territory I might as well paint a bull's eye on my back."

"You don't have to wear your uniform. Go as Dokugakuji, rather than Officer Carerra. To see your brother."

"He'd just as soon shoot me as look at me."

"I don't think that's true at all. And who knows, you might be able to coax something out of him Sanzo is unable to," Hakkai pointed out, snatching a cigarette from his hand. "That is a nasty habit."

Doku relinquished the Hi-Lite with a little sigh; "I don't think so, 'Kai. I haven't seen that kid in six years. At least, not outside of mug shots. They never can hold him very long."

Hakkai gave his friend's shoulder a gentle squeeze, wanting to sand the lines of anguish from his skin with a word, but he knew there was really nothing he could say. The two were so similar, and once, so close; it was the greatest irony that their paths in life had forked so sharply.

"If that bastard is hiding anything," Doku began, "we could always scare it out of him."

            Hakkai nodded, humoring him, but inside he was suddenly laughing. Who on earth could scare Sanzo?

 

            As it turned out, the information Sanzo had generously withheld for Gojyo's sake proved worthless within the following twenty-four hours. The kappa's shipment had been destroyed before it left the city, blown up on the interstate. It was all over the news, accompanied by gory photos of the aftermath. The two men driving the car had been incinerated instantly, body parts flung from the vehicle at the impact of the explosion. Officers found the remains of all the weaponry as well as portions of a homemade bomb. Though the activity couldn't be traced specifically to the Phoenix, the fact that a car sneaking weapons across state lines was rigged screamed gang warfare.

            Gojyo was beyond displeased; he was positively livid. The men in charge of seeing them off were cross-examined multiple times, and nothing came of it. He didn't really expect an answer from his own; they were lackeys, but fiercely loyal. Besides, they would have had far more to gain from the safe journey of the two hundred thousand dollar cargo than from its destruction.

            "I think it's pretty obvious the Eclipse was behind this, and maybe some of our own men from up North." Gojyo paced the length of his small office, hands clenching and unclenching, cigarette pinioned between a set of ivory teeth.

            "There's not really much we can do about it, especially considering we can't find any of them." Banri had a half-emptied bottle of gin in one hand, and was suspiciously lucid, as if he could command his sobriety when the situation called for it. "But they're gonna cut off all their little stations across the country, by th'looks of it." He shrugged. "I say we bust 'em."

            "Headquarters? They have better sharpshooters than the fucking FBI," Gojyo growled. "We wouldn't even get in, never mind out, alive. I can't figure out why the fuck they're doing this—why destroy one of their posts? We bring in more than all the other, smaller ones, though a couple of them have been shut down too, I've heard. Same kind of attacks.

            "With Eclipse mercenaries and all," Banri groaned, running a hand through his short, greasy hair. "Well Blondie, what's your theory?"

            Gojyo looked to Sanzo too.

            "I don't know. But if they've managed to scare the others into closing down, they either think they can scare us, or they want something here, and won't attack directly."

            "What the hell are you talking about? I almost got my guts shot out, and then my head, because a' them! I think they've been pretty fucking direct."

            "If they attacked en masse, we'd be dead right now." Sanzo pointed out.

            "And they did mention that they had new orders to kill me," Gojyo added. "And to bring you in alive. Why the hell would they want you?"

            "I told you. They mistook me for someone else, obviously."

            "I don't think guys who kill for a living do much mistaking. You should know." Gojyo peered at him curiously, and inside, Sanzo was flinching under his steady garnet gaze. It was unnerving, as if they were connected now, in a way they formerly hadn't been, and the kappa could see straight through his eyes to the writing on the inside of his skull.

            "I don't know why they'd want me. I don't know any of them," that, at least, was truth, "and I've hardly worked for you four months."

            "You ever pick off one of their guys?"

            "Not that I know of. But when I get an assignment, I don't ask for a back story."

            Gojyo nodded his understanding and began to wonder who was dishing out orders. That was still as much a mystery to him as who the current Mafia lord was. In his own business, too.

            "Maybe we should lay low for a while, Gojyo." Banri pushed. "Just keep activity down to a minimum. It'll throw the cops off for sure, and maybe trick Headquarters into thinking we've been cowed."

            "Yeah, but then what?" Gojyo was determined to maintain his hold on the city. He wasn't letting some new superior frighten him off. There was no way he could recruit enough trained guys to take the places of everyone Gojyo had in his employ. They knew the territory, every street, every cop's beat, and all the best hours for comings and goings. There wasn't much point to this reseeding, and Gojyo's stomach twisted up in his torso when he realized the new chief must want something else. It bothered him even more that he didn't know what.

 

            "Come to my place."

            "What?"

            "Goin' deaf? Just for a few days, Goldilocks. It'll be safe there. I'm going to call in a few favors uptown, and see if I can't figure out what the hell's going on."

            Sanzo stared at him, "And you need me to hold the phonebook for you?"

            "Aw, c'mon Sanzo. Are you still angry at me? I don't even know what I did this time—you're actin' like a chick, getting too hard to read." He dodged a punch for that comment and laughed good-naturedly. "Seriously! Just for safety purposes. Banri's hiding out too."

            "But not at your house."

            "Hell no. Have you smelled the guy?" Snickering, he jerked open the door of his car, gesturing for Sanzo to take shotgun. "Look, your place downtown isn't the safest right now, unless you've got a mote and drawbridge."

            Sanzo shrugged at the simple logic and slid into the front seat. The band about his ankle would tell Hakkai and Doku where he was; he'd been there before, and they'd recognize his purpose. He hoped. If he came back to a series of uncouth jokes, he swore to himself he'd give his Smith & Wesson some exercise.

            Gojyo was oddly quiet on the ride, his usual wit and caustic humor subdued by circumstance. Sanzo, naturally silent, didn't bridge the gap between them, and simply watched out the window as the lights of the city flew by and they approached the interstate.

            "Hungry?" Gojyo asked after a while, pulling towards an exit before Sanzo could answer. The blond shrugged, and as if he heard it over the whirr of tires on pavement, the kappa made some mention of a pub that had halfway decent food. "My treat," he promised. "They have edible food, at least. And the beer's good."

            It was out of their way, and Sanzo realized Gojyo had selected it for safety's sake. They sat at the bar with drinks, waiting for food in the noisy pub, and both smoked like chimneys, maintaining a steady silence. Lights flickered, chairs scraped the floors, and somewhere in the back kitchen a man swore as he burned his finger on a hot surface.

            "Dammit George!" A waitress hissed at a man by the stove, hurrying over to place trays before the two men at the bar. She winked at Gojyo, recognizing him perhaps, and gave Sanzo a wary glance. "Here ya go guys. I swear I've seen you before," She was smiling again, twirling a strand of auburn hair about one finger in thought. "You been here before?"

            "Not in a long time, sweetheart. You must be confusing me with some other unimaginably sexy guy." Gojyo grinned, and almost laughed when he heard Sanzo snort into his beer. The woman chuckled, shaking her head, and returned to the kitchen.

            Apparently Gojyo frequented this place too, Sanzo realized, as a group of guys drew him away for a game of pool, wagering beer and dinner on their game. A cue ball snapped as it cracked the triangular formation of worn pool balls, sending a striped one into the corner pocket. Sanzo turned back to the counter and lit a Marlboro.

            "Hey."
            Suddenly Gojyo's seat was occupied, a brunet sat there, feet barely brushing the floor, and Sanzo's first instinct was to ask him how he got in. Keeping his mouth shut, he gave the youth a nod.

            "Gonna eat that?" He asked, gesturing to Gojyo's plate.

            "Not mine," Sanzo answered truthfully, smirking a bit around his cigarette as the boy finished it off in seconds flat, folding one leg beneath him atop the wide stool.

            "Never seen ya here before."

            "Never been."

            "Well my name's Goku." He held out his hand, soft fingers belying a strong grip.  

            "Sanzo."

            "Did anyone ever tell you your hair looks like the sun?" At the blank stare he received in return, Goku only laughed. Sanzo thought he acted a bit like a monkey, constantly moving around and making noise.

            "No, I can't say that anyone has."

            "Well," he finished off the last of Gojyo's beer too, "it does." He leaned closer, still smiling widely. It was an expression full of innocence, and once again Sanzo wondered how old he was. Or perhaps he was only a very good actor.

            "So, you have a girlfriend?" Fingertips brushed across his hand, and he riled.

            "Why, do you need a nanny?" Sanzo snapped back, surprised to see Goku only laughed.

            "Do I look that young to you? Some guys're really turned on by that." He wrinkled his nose at the thought, "I'm twenty-one."

            "You're no more than seventeen," Sanzo countered flatly, receiving a snicker in reply.

            "Okay ya got me—but I am. I'm eighteen, and a few months, okay? And I'm not some little kid either. I can show you, if you want," he smiled, still friendly, and nudged his shoulder against Sanzo's. "I could take you to a real dinner, or dancin'. You look like you'd be good at it. I just mean 'cause you're tall, and stuff." He shrugged.

            "What makes you think I'm even remotely interested in you?"

            "I dunno. I can just tell, with people. I don't usually pick guys up in bars—or ever, really—but I saw you, and I hadta take a chance." That would have sounded like a well-worn line coming from anyone else, but Goku made it feel fresh, like an honest admission. Maybe he was telling the truth.

            "I'm usually really shy—no lie." He blushed on cue, as if to further convince Sanzo, and moved his hand back to the older man's. "So can we go out?"

            "I don't think--"

            "Oi! Chimp!" Apparently Gojyo recognized him. "Get offa him." He strode back to find his dinner missing, drink drained, and ignored it with a passive glance, focusing his anger on Goku's hand, currently resting atop Sanzo's.

            "Piss off."

            "Jeez, Gojyo. I didn't know he was with you!" Goku rolled his eyes, sliding off of the stool. "I wouldn'ta tried it, honest." The boy smiled uncertainly, almost frightfully, at Sanzo, ducking away from the kappa's ire.

            "Go pick up someone else's boyfriend, moron." Gojyo rolled his eyes and turned back to Sanzo as Goku stalked off.

            "What did you just say?" He stared at him, shell-shocked.

"What, aren't we?" Gojyo smiled innocently. "I mean, we hang out together. We go out to eat, for drinks, we fuck. Doesn't that make us boyfriends?"

            Sanzo pushed him right off of the stool and stalked out of the restaurant. Boyfriend! What was that ass thinking? Probably nothing, as usual.

 Once outdoors, he lit up a cigarette and leaned into the side of the building, letting his anger cool. It was chilly out, and the sky hung dark and low in the sky, threatening snow, maybe hail. He heard the door nearby squeal on its hinges, and Gojyo stomped out.

            "What the hell! He thinks I just got dumped!"

            "Maybe you did, asswipe."

            "For what! You're awfully sensitive for a guy who was willing to--"

            "Would you shut up about that?" He was beginning to think that was the greatest slip-up of his life. Gojyo read too much into things. He, of all people, ought to know that sometimes a fuck was just a fuck.

            "Aw, c'mon Sanzo," he wheedled, lighting up one of his own disgusting cigarettes and nudging the blonde's shoulder. "I really like you. We can be lovers," he added cheekily, "if that sounds better."

            "What makes you think we're anything? Or that 'we' even exist? I work for you. End of story."

            "Well that's not very romantic. And I sorta want there to be a 'we,' you know?" He shuffled his feet and leaned in a little closer, lips brushing over silky hair. Sanzo twitched and side-stepped him.

            "I work with you. I don't want any sort of attachments." For him, they rarely ended well. He worked better alone, and this job was almost over. Once he found Jienyi…

            "But I like you." Gojyo protested simply, his claret eyes glowing in the dim neon light radiating from the side of the building.

            Sanzo stared at him in shock for a moment, the simplicity and honesty of the statement taking him aback. "You're stupid," he managed, stumbling over his words. Gojyo smiled in quiet triumph, but there was nothing cocky or contrived about it. He was genuinely happy.

            "Give me a chance, Goldilocks," he cajoled, dipping his head to press a soft kiss against Sanzo's cheek, then his jaw line. "I could be good for you too, if you'd let me."

            "What the hell could you possibly do for me that I couldn't do myself?" Sanzo said flatly, though Gojyo saw amusement in his eyes.

            "Well I know you're flexible, Mr. Sanzo, but I doubt," his voice dipped, mouth close to the man's ear, "even you could bite that hotspot on the back of your thigh." A hand drifted to caress said locale, and Sanzo smacked it away with a little growl, shoving Gojyo into the side of the building.

            "Listen, baka. We are not 'boyfriends,' or 'lovers.' We're just fucking for convenience, got it?"

            Gojyo nodded happily, thinking quietly to himself that that was, at least, a start.

 

            His house was cold, and he turned up the heat to fight the icy fingers seeping in from the outdoors. The carpet hadn't been treaded upon for three days or so, and it had been a good week since the sheets had seen occupants.

            It was half past midnight when they arrived, and after messing with the thermostat, Gojyo offered to show Sanzo his room.

            "I remember where it is," the monk assured him.

            "Nuh uh," Gojyo dashed up after him, "you're not sleeping in there again! Come on, my bed's warmer," he promised, drawing Sanzo down the hall by his wrists, a wily grin on his face. He hadn't shaved all day, and his chin was peppered in Scarlet stubble. Sanzo found it attractive against his will.

            "I'll brave the cold, thanks," he muttered sarcastically, tearing free of the kappa's hold for a brief moment, and then suddenly he found his feet in the air, and Gojyo hovering over him. The carpet shifted below.

            "Put me down you asshole!" He writhed, and Gojyo obliged, laying him gently back atop a wide, king-sized bed covered in dark sheets.

            "As you wish," he jested, slipping over Sanzo's body and pressing him into the mattress with a deep kiss. The blond wriggled for a moment in protest, but stilled, arms slipping about Gojyo's shoulders with a groan as he relented.

            "When Goku was flirting with you…it drove me nuts," Gojyo panted, mouthing his lover's throat and tugging his shirt up a few inches further, mindful of the amber locket resting beneath it.

            "The thought of you fucking him…" He shivered, palms gliding down naked skin, kissing his ribs and nipples with hot lips, "don't get me wrong—it'd be hot as hell—but you're mine."

            "Yours?" Sanzo looked up to him with wide eyes, somewhere between angry and stunned. Hadn't they just had this conversation? "I'm not--"

            "You are," he breathed, a hand slipping between Sanzo's thighs, cupping him tightly through the denim. Throwing his head back in a groan, the blond writhed beneath his lover's expert touch, hips canting upward in eager response.

            "Bastard."

            "Cock-tease." He jerked the zipper down, thumb pressing tightly against the thin, damp fabric of his boxers, caressing the sensitive slit.

            "Fuck!"

            "As you wish," Gojyo breathed again against his lips before plunging his tongue past the soft barrier, moaning into the most erotic taste he'd ever experienced, a mixture of tobacco, beer, and, faintly, cinnamon.

            Suddenly Sanzo was responding beneath him, as if he had clicked the off switch on his rigid self-control. The blond tore at Gojyo's shirt, stripping him of it in seconds, then slid eager hands down the slick, bronzed skin of his chest, thumbs flicking over erect, copper-colored nipples. Gojyo thought he could climax right there when he felt that venom-slicked mouth caressing a sensitive bud, suckling tenderly and avoiding the use of his teeth. He moaned softly, mouth in his lover's hair, at his temple.

            "Gods you're fantastic…"

            Sanzo growled his response, shucking off his jeans and, shortly, his boxers, as heat built between his thighs. He was doing this again? With Gojyo? As the kappa stepped back to fully disrobe, he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block the image of Koumyou from his mind.

            Are you angry with me?

            And there was laughter.

            "Sanzo?" Gojyo frowned, prowling over him, nude, with soft eyes. He kissed a smooth mouth and stroked his lean side. "You okay?"

            "Fine," he muttered, pushing his legs apart, able to feel the slick slide of the silk sheets on the sensitive backs of his thighs. Fingertips stroked naked skin, and he bit back a whimper. "Just do it."

            "Not very romantic," Gojyo chided him, gently unbuttoning the rest of his shirt, drawing it to the side to kiss his chest. "Let me make love to you."

            No. He wanted to deny him that, but found himself breathless, and thought it wouldn't be worth the effort. Let him continue whatever it was he thought he was doing, Sanzo reasoned, closing his eyes and panting at the products of his logic. Amazing hands, versatile mouth and slick, hot tongue…

            Gojyo put your hands on me, all over me…

            He couldn't voice his thoughts, but he gave Gojyo the reins, body bucking and writhing beneath his control. The only thing he refused him was the removal of the rest of his shirt. He drew Gojyo's attention to the more prominent issue at hand, and gasped breathlessly as a hot mouth descended upon it.

            The damp pressure brought him close, and, feeling it, Gojyo drew back a moment too early, wringing an unsatisfied whine from his lover. The vulnerable sound would have made him blush, and perhaps leave, had the rest of him not been ringing with the intensity of desire. "Fuck, finish it!" Sanzo groaned, back arching right off the bed with frustration. Both his hands were pinned above his head at the wrist before he could do anything to further his condition; Gojyo waited for the crest to pass, and released Sanzo with a purr, kissing him passionately.

            He lay between the blonde's thighs, hips grinding to press their mutually disgruntled arousals flush with one another. Sanzo's leg rose to wrap about both of Gojyo's, increasing the tight friction with a grunt of delight; arms slung about his neck, hands tangled in his hair, and Gojyo touched every patch of skin he could lick, kiss or fondle.

            They tumbled in the sheets, breathless and agitated, cleaving to one another despite the slick perspiration beading like crystal down damp chests and flanks. Sanzo's hair had turned a burnished gold in the dim lighting, and Gojyo's was almost black, spilling down his back and over his shoulders like wine.

            "Sanzo you're beautiful," he panted, smiling rakishly and silencing a protest with another kiss. The formerly sharp mouth was pliant, willing, beneath his own, muffling cries against Gojyo's long tongue.

            The kappa drew back, ignoring a mewl of displeasure, and lowered his head, nudging Sanzo's legs further apart. His teeth found the sensitized flesh at the back of his right thigh, and he stroked it longingly with a hot tongue, wringing sharp cries from his lover. He never thought he'd get to hear or see Sanzo in such a state of abandon, and he couldn't help but pull back to watch him writhe against the sheets for a moment, leaving his hand to fondle the tight skin just below his buttock.

            Sanzo's hips jerked into air, and, wicked smile passing over his face, Gojyo dipped his head a second time, kissing the sweet spot and then pulling his lips back to bite into it, little nips turning into slightly more aggressive gestures. Apparently Sanzo liked it rough, because his only form of feedback escalated in octave and volume; he felt the bed shake beneath him at a sudden jerk of the man's hips.

            Laving his tongue over the agitated flesh, he heard Sanzo moan wetly, and suddenly he climaxed, gasping soundlessly and slicking Gojyo's naked shoulder and chest, as well as his own abdomen. The redhead sat in awe for a moment; he hadn't even touched his arousal. That was one hell of a sensitive spot, and Sanzo definitely liked it rough.

            Lying back, he snatched a clear-colored bottle from his nightstand drawer, applying the lubricant with little hitching breaths as he watched his lover gradually fall out of his afterglow, coming back to reality in stages. He nudged his ankle with one foot.

            "Mnh, what?" Violet eyes blinked at him, and Gojyo nudged his erection against Sanzo's thigh in quiet reminder, kissing him deeply.

            "Yeah," Sanzo acquiesced, arms rising and sliding over Gojyo's shoulders as he bent almost double, sheathing the kappa's long, hard blade with gasps of effort and pain. Trembling, the mattress cushioned the hard thrusts, and Sanzo's little grunts became eager cries each time Gojyo managed to nudge his sensitive prostate. Legs bent, thighs pressed tightly to the kappa's sides, he was certain the man could feel his pulse; there was not a part of them unconnected.

            Gojyo's climax came shortly after his thrusting became erratic and rough; Sanzo felt a rush of warmth enter his body, and it stimulated a second orgasm, intensifying the sudden heat between them. Collapsing, limbs entangled with Gojyo's, the blond lay quietly in his arms, catching his breath and listening to him murmur nonsense that neither would remember by morning.

            "Fuck you're amazing," Gojyo whispered, kissing him again, hands gliding down his sides. "Such stamina," he teased, "for someone who claims to be out of practice."

            "Tch." He waved his caressing hands off, turning over in the wide bed. Gojyo laughed, plucking at the fabric of his shirt.

            "Forgot about that. C'mon," he motioned to help Sanzo off with the shirt, but the man didn't budge; he was exhausted, and couldn't quite come up with a viable excuse.

            "Okay," Gojyo relented, smiling to him and giving his nape a gentle kiss. He spooned himself around Sanzo's back, one arm resting about his waist. "You know…" He drawled, watching fair lashes flutter in an attempt to stay open, "I've never seen anyone come like that without even touching their cock."

            "Is that supposed to be a compliment?" His voice was gruff with exhaustion, and Gojyo bit back laughter. Drawing sheets up over their bodies, he pressed his nose to a sweet-scented, sweat-slicked nape and let sleep claim him.

 

            He woke with a start, realizing Sanzo was no longer in the bed. A quick glance about the room, where his clothing was still scattered, verified that he was still present. Probably. Gojyo slid hastily into his boxers and wandered down the wide stairwell, feeling strangely exposed in the open air of the house's large, almost empty rooms. It was a reminder as to why he so rarely slept there. "Sanzo?"

            "Hm?" It was a sound muffled by walls, and Gojyo traced it to the kitchen, where Sanzo sat at the head of the table with the newspaper, cigarette in hand and a piece of plain toast atop a plate. He was wearing one of Gojyo's shirts, sleeves rolled up to his wrists, the shoulders a bit limp at the edges, and a pair of the borrowed sleeping pants as well. He looked comfortable in them, and a bit lost. His frame was shorter, more slender than the wide clothing, though he had corded muscle wrapped about every limb. And Gojyo ought to know.

            "Oh. Hey." He grinned, allowing relief to course through him now that he saw Sanzo, verifying his presence. "You okay?"

            "Why wouldn't I be?" He glanced up from the paper, and Gojyo bent to kiss his forehead, then his mouth.

            "You look sexy like that."

            "Eating?"

            Snorting in laughter, he shook his head. "No, just…" in my house? Wearing my clothes?

            "Idiot."

            "Good morning to you too. Since when do you cook?" He joked, gesturing to the toast. "And are we outta jelly?"

            "I like it plain."

            "And burned?"

            "Yes." Sanzo affirmed, biting into it sharply as if to prove his point. Gojyo kissed him again. He couldn't help it.

            "Gonna shower?" He asked, tugging stale cereal down from the cupboard.

            "Is that your subtle way of saying I stink?" Sanzo didn't glance up from the newspaper, but snapped it in his hands as he turned a page.

            "No, I just wondered if you needed some company."

            "No thanks." He bit into another piece of toast, violet eyes scanning the paper. "Look your car made second page." He peeled the page of print away from the bundle, handing it over the table to Gojyo.

            "I can't believe that happened. Something seriously fucked up is going on at Headquarters."

            "Haven't thought up a plan yet?"

            "I was kinda occupied last night, y'know," He didn't have milk—at least not any that was drinkable—so he ate the cereal dry, skimming the report. "I wish Yaone would get back to us, bring some kinda news. It's been weeks."

            "Maybe she got caught up," Sanzo offered generously, knowing the chances of her even being alive were slim. Gojyo simply shrugged, uncertain. After a moment, Sanzo felt a prickling at his nape, and glanced up over the edge of the paper.

            "Stop staring."

            "I can't help it!" He grinned cheekily, "seein' you sitting there in my clothes with your sex hair…"

            "My what?"

            "That's what you call it," the kappa informed him, "after getting your hair all messy from tumbling around all night and, y'know." He rose, empty bowl in hand, and pressed his mouth to Sanzo's ear, "getting fucked into the mattress."

            Against his better judgment, the blond felt a trill of desire shoot through his chest. He coughed, "So this mess at Headquarters. You should send in some underlings to investigate. They'll recognize you a mile away."

            "They'd recognize all of us. The tattoo."

            "So hire someone."

            "I don't trust anyone nearly enough to send them into that rat trap. Whatever's going down requires someone with intimate knowledge of such an intricate hierarchy…and a lotta guys besides. I don't even know how we'd get them in."

            "Disguise them as salesmen; they have to get at least half a dozen in every day," Sanzo pointed out, drinking from the mug of now tepid coffee.

            "Okay. But who do we get? Back to square one," Gojyo mused. "They know my face, and probably most of my guys' too. Yaone for sure, though I don't even know where the hell she is." His shoulders drooped in thought. "They'll check for marks—they aren't stupid. They'll suspect, of course, that I'll try something like this…"

            "There really isn't any other way to get in, aside from storming the place. And I'd bet my life that they have enough weaponry in there to destroy all of Topeka, never mind us."

            Gojyo's long fingers tapped at the table in thought. "If Yaone could just give me some sort of information…"

            "Can't depend on her now. She has her own issues." He remembered the woman's shocked face when she mentioned Rhi.

            "I know." He swallowed. "Sanzo, why do they want you?" That question again.

            "I don't know. I've never had any interaction with the Phoenix before this," Sanzo said truthfully. He had no clue how they would know of him, and less still why they would want anything to do with him if they did.

            "Well they're not the sorta guys to mix up identities. At least not by accident. They obviously know you, want you for something. Hazel didn't mention it, did he?"

            "No." Sanzo shuddered involuntarily at the thought that Hazel might want him for something too. But he wouldn't get Phoenix backing for it. He was working for them, not the other way around.

 

            He informed officers Carerra and Wilson of any updates he saw fit for them to hear. Hakkai looked pensive, Doku, worried.

            "I wish there were a way for him simply to take you there and straighten it out. Then, with the aid of your anklet, we'd be able to locate the foundation of this multi-tiered crime ring." Hakkai's hands tapped the desk.

            "There's no safe way to get in. They've already tried to kill Gojyo, several times, and they want me."

            "I can't imagine why."

            Sanzo shrugged. Nor could he.

            "So you're sure you've never had dealings with the Phoenix? Maybe something that went awry while you were working with the Dawn?" Doku pressed; Sanzo shook his head.

            "The Dawn had dealings with them. I wasn't involved. I was no one, at that time. Since, I've had sporadic dealings with the Dawn, but not many. And never with the Phoenix. They shouldn't even know my name." It was eerie to him that they did, and that Hazel, somehow, knew about…

            "I suppose there aren't any clues you're conveniently leaving out?" Hakkai cocked an eyebrow, and Sanzo glanced a way, exhaling a mouthful of smoke. He noticed Carerra practically vibrating in the corner, fiddling anxiously with a lighter. 

            "Nope."

            "It's interesting that Hazel Grosse is working for them. Do you think it's of his own free will?"

            "Probably."

            "So where's your redhead hanging out tonight?" Doku asked casually, plucking a cigarette from his back pocket and lighting it, though without touching it to his lips. Hi-Lites again.

            "Probably in Storage. It's empty now," Sanzo informed him with a shrug, "but it's always cool down there, no matter how hot the nights get."

            Doku nodded, and Hakkai turned to question Sanzo further about Hazel and Gat's involvement.

            "I want to see him." Doku's voice broke their simple dialogue, and Hakkai shot a dangerous glance at his partner. "It's getting dangerous, and I need to make things right."

            "Doku!"

            "I want to see him. Gojyo." The taller officer continued, looking at Sanzo. "You get me to him."

            "Are you deranged? Do you want to blow my cover? He'd shoot us both," Sanzo snapped angrily, "You wouldn't be able to keep your mouth shut five minutes—interrogation is a good way to get yourself riddled full of holes."

            "I don't think he'd shoot at me, and you don't have to be there," Doku assured him. Hakkai's hand clenched about his shoulder; the younger man was shaking his head and calming informing Carerra that it wasn't a good idea.

            "'Kai." He turned his gaze to the side, eyes smoldering. "I just…he almost died, Kai."  A shaky sigh escaped him, and the couch caught his fall. "He almost died twice. I wanna see him again, before he does anything too stupid. Off the clock. I need you to be discreet."

            "You know I wouldn't tell a soul," Hakkai murmured, sinking onto the sofa cushions beside his partner and lover. Slender hands covered his. "But what you're doing is dangerous, Doku. You haven't seen him in years…"

            "What the hell?" Sanzo growled, "You have a relationship with Gojyo? How the hell do you know him?" It seemed unlikely to him that an officer and the boss of a massive crime ring should be so well-acquainted.

            And then it hit him. Their relationship did, in fact, make perfect sense. Dokugakuji's taunting and teasing, the medicine he sent with Sanzo after Gojyo was shot. The fact that he seemed to know so damned much about the kappa's preferences.

            "You're his brother?" Of all the fucking cops in the fucking city.

            "You know about that?" Hakkai looked at him with wide eyes.

            "You want to arrest your own fucking brother!" Sanzo was suddenly livid, flames licking at the insides of his chest and making his blood snap and pop within his veins; Hakkai looked nervous, Doku, chastened. They had never seen him truly angry, he realized, and it scared them. He was, after all, the only convicted killer in the room. "What the hell is wrong with you!" Sanzo jerked him up by the collar of his shirt and flung him with surprising strength into the wall. Hakkai restrained him quickly, cursing beneath his breath and losing his ever-calm façade.

            "Sanzo you can't assault an officer!" But he wasn't listening. Sanzo remembered Gojyo's eyes when he told him about how he met Banri and Sophie, both of whom had been there for him when his brother was busy playing cop, refusing to associate with a criminal. Easing his guilt by distancing himself. You abandoned him when he needed you. And he still defends you, you bastard.

            "You're trying to drag in your own brother!" He railed, jerking against Hakkai's shockingly strong grip and snarling when he felt the icy clasp of handcuffs. "You sonuvabitch! Do you know he still defends you! He talks about you like you were some sort of fucking saint!" Hakkai was taking him to the doorway.

            "I'm putting him in a holding cell for the night, Doku," he informed him, Sanzo struggling the entire way.

            "Son of a bitch! He could've died because of you!" Sanzo bellowed, wanting nothing more than to wrap his hands about the man's neck and throttle him. "And now you're trying to kill him again!"

 

 

            It was tricky to find his hideaway.  Doku had known well where the fort was on a map—Sanzo's tracking device had ended up there numerous times—but actually finding it, even when one could narrow it down to a street, was tricky. Gojyo knew how to hide, when he wanted to.

            He hadn't brought a weapon, though perhaps that was a mistake. While he was convinced his brother wouldn't shoot him, he wasn't so certain about the man's associates.

            Ten steps down, he banged at a rickety storm door; footsteps sounded in the distance, and slowly approached. He heard a gun click before the heavy iron door behind the screen was flung open, and held his hands up in defense.

            "Don't shoot, man. Here to see…" And it was Gojyo standing there, nearly two feet taller than he had been when Doku had last seen him, no longer a wiry kid but a man, matching his brother's height and build. He still kept his red hair long, drawn back this time in a horse tail. "…You." He finished quietly.

            "Doku?" The gun was put aside, the rickety screen door opened. Slowly.

            "Chill. I'm off the clock," Doku whispered, stepping into the dark room and letting his eyes adjust. It made the dim alley half a story up look bright. He blinked a few times, and it registered that the place was empty. Gojyo was alone. And letting him in.

            "So…what're you doing here?" His brother gave him a bashful smile, and Doku read it in his eyes. He was happy to see him. Not scared.

            "I came to see you," he explained, "Look, for the past few months—hell, let's be honest, years--…I've had shit rattling around in my head. I have to make things right, between us."

            "What d'ya mean, right?" Closing the door, Gojyo led him through a series of labyrinthine rooms, pat curtains and doors, through small dens lined with oil lamps, to a windowless place that must have been the basement of the building overhead. "Gonna quit bein' a cop and join up with me?"

            "No."

            "How did you find this place? How did you know I'd be here?"

            "Lucky guess." Doku shook his head, "No, that's a lie. It took a lot of looking, and a lot of asking around." That was still a partial lie. "Look, Gojyo…I wanna ask you to quit."

            Gojyo leaned back against the wall, Hi-Lite in hand, and stared blankly at him.

            "Quit?" He echoed.

            "Yes. Look—what I'm doing is illegal--"

            "Then you're in good company."

            "—But I want to warn you. There's an investigation pending involving the Scarlet Phoenix. Cops are on it, and they're going to uncover everything. Even I don't know how massive your weapons cartel is, but I know that if they catch you, you could die."

            "I 'could die' every day. I'm not turning myself in. If that's all you came here for, you know where the door is."

            Actually, Doku had no idea where the door was, now. He doubted if he could find his way back without Gojyo's aid.

            "I just want to tell you, it's getting close. Time's running out. I'm not gonna turn you in, like this. But if I catch you on the job…"

            "I know where you stand, man. You made that clear a long time ago." Gojyo's eyes looked dark, veiled with hurt, and Doku felt a stab of guilt.

            "I can't believe…" Doku pushed his short hair back and fiddled with a cigarette, then the lighter. "Fuck. I just can't believe I'm lookin' at you, in person." There was a pause, and then he continued. "It's just…I've seen all these photos of you, mug shots, mostly, and kept thinking 'well that can't be my brother.' Gojyo's not six foot, he's barely five two. And there's no way he's that broad in the shoulder now." Gojyo snorted in laughter, looking self-conscious and Doku stepped closer.

            "And then I see those scars…" A wide thumb traced the twin lines on his left cheek, "And my chest hurts, because I know it is you. It's like we're living on different sides of a gorge, and we can't bridge it, can't hardly even see each other anymore."

            Gojyo let out a shaky breath, clasping Doku's hand in his own, tightly, and then jerking him forward in a rough embrace.

            "I am sorry, you know," his brother breathed, cheek against his hair. "I'm sorry I wasn't there when I should've been, but even then, you scared me. Fuck, Gojyo…" He held him tighter, then released, stepping back. "I fucked up, didn't I?"

            The redhead laughed softly, shaking his head. "No, I don't think so, Doku."

 

            Sanzo seethed in the white-washed cell, pacing the length of it restively, fingers flexing and itching to pull a trigger. That bastard. This entire time he'd been sending Sanzo out to gather information on his own brother. Gojyo who trusted him, spoke well of him, even after what he did.

            And then Hakkai's words drifted back to him, what he had said while pushing Sanzo into the cell and uncuffing him from the safety of the hall. "Why does it matter so much to you? I thought your relationship with Gojyo was purely for personal benefit, for your assignment. You seem very angry for his sake, considering your mantra of nonattachment," and his shoes had clicked in retreat.

            It wasn't as though Sanzo was attached. He just thought Doku was more despicable for such a betrayal. Loyalty was one of those few noble traits Sanzo still possessed, and he held it in high regard. He would never betray someone he truly cared about. Fortunately for him, he didn't have to worry about that anymore. He was on a mission to avenge the only person who had ever loved him, and would stop at nothing to do so. That was loyalty.

            A niggling voice in the back of his head forced him to consider Gojyo, and just how companionable they were becoming…they had crossed the line between hesitant business partners and allies a long time ago, but how close to actual friendship had they come? The blond wrinkled his nose at the thought; it didn't make sense. He was using Gojyo—Gojyo was nothing to him, and would betray him at the drop of a hat too—to get closer to avenging Koumyou.

            But had Gojyo started to trust him? Truly rely on him? He winced when a resounding yes played back in his head. Fuck. Now what did that make him?

 

            Hours later, Gojyo had uncrated imported beer—all legal, he'd promised Doku—and they were sinking into the cushions of a battered old couch in the windowless room, playing cards and talking through a comfortable, drunken haze.

            Neither was plastered, and both could maintain organized, well-enunciated conversation. The few bottles they had had merely loosened their tongues and lessened their trepidation. They were both willing to pretend everything that had happened and everything that was, wasn't. It was a comfortable truce, lost in time; when the sun rose, they would part ways, and, for all the kappa knew, he wouldn't see his brother again until bars separated them. But for now they watched each other warily over a fan of playing cards, trying to read one another's faces as they had done in childhood, neither very successfully. Conversation was initiated gradually, and by Gojyo, with a comfortable topic and teasing tone. After recounting a list of semi-fictitious conquests, the redhead asked Doku who he was seeing, and if she was anywhere as gorgeous as his former chief had been.

            "That chick had to have been a double D," Gojyo reminded him. "So how is it now?"

            "Someone considerably more…flat-chested," Doku chuckled; his brother nudged him in the thigh.

            "C'mon. Spit it out. Mmm, lemme guess. Dark hair."

            Doku nodded, "yeah, black."

            "Nice legs?"

            "Very."

            Gojyo pondered eye color for a moment, then, taking a shot in the dark, guessed blue.

            "Green, actually." Doku corrected, reaching for another bottle and tossing in his hand at Gojyo's victory. "Gorgeous emerald."

            "'Gorgeous'? Someone's smitten." He shuffled on his lap and lit up another Hi-Lite, this time from Doku's back.

            "Yeah well. I ugh…that's not quite everything."

            Gojyo glanced up. "Yeah? She's got a great ass, too?"

            Doku chuckled, peering at his hand and exchanging two cards from the fan held out before him. "Well, yeah. He does."

            "I figured—'he'?" Gojyo grinned toothily, "So fagdom runs in the family."

            "Tch." He was relieved at the response; there was no merciless repartee, only a knowing smile.

            "Well I have you beat."

            "We don't even have our second hand yet," Doku pointed out, and his brother shook his head, shifting on the couch and jostling the heavy cushions.

            "Naw, don't mean that. I've got the sexiest blond you've ever seen, though getting him into bed is a battle every time. But fuck if it's not worth it." Gojyo grinned widely, drinking from a half-emptied fourth bottle. "He's all teeth and claws, a real hellion."

            Doku knew right away who the fair-eyed firecracker was, but played along. "Masochistic bastard."

            They both guffawed, swapping stories and elaborated upon anecdotes between poker hands. Halfway through the night, neither knew for certain if he was winning or losing, and they were hardly paying attention to the cards.

            "So what's this guy's name, huh?" Gojyo pried. "Do I know him? Been arrested by him before?"

            "I don't think so; he's a transfer from just two years ago. Hakkai."

            "Oh Hakkai," Gojyo laughed uproariously at something that a mind smeared with alcohol might find funny. Doku demanded an explanation between chuckles—they were contagious—and the kappa explained.

            "It's just—that sounds like one of those names that's real convenient for screaming. I mean, yours, it's way too long," He elaborated, "it'd suck the breath right outta ya. But Hakkai. That's handy."

            Doku shrugged in a manner that implied "Maybe so."

            "So."

            "So what?" He finished off the last of his cigarettes, tossing the Zippo to Gojyo.

            "So do you scream his name?"

            Doku blushed, realizing that Gojyo was trying to decipher who played which role in their relationship. It looked as if the redhead expected to hear an embarrassed "yeah," and that riled him. "Pft. If you had something that tight wrapped around your dick, you'd be screaming too."

            Gojyo threw his head back in laughter.

           

Doku wandered back to the precinct a half hour before dawn, and found Hakkai asleep on the sofa in his office. The poor guy hardly ever went home anymore. Brushing a kiss atop his temple, Officer Carerra, back on the clock, covered him up with a blanket and slipped wordlessly out of the office, headed to his own.

            He was starting to get a bit of a headache, and downed half a coffee and four Advils in anticipation. Strains of his and Gojyo's late night conversation wafted back to him in the sudden silence of his office. After bragging about slightly exaggerated sexual escapades, the nature of their relationships was questioned. It was brief, done in a typical male fashion; simply, "So, you gonna stay with this guy or what?"

            Doku had shrugged. "Yeah. Things are good. What about you?"

            "S'long as I don't get shot at." They had laughed, and that was it. Women made things far too complicated; there was really only one question that ever needed asking.

            But later in the evening, with Gojyo dozing on the couch, a little radio crooning in the corner, Doku had stirred himself enough to walk back. He nudged Gojyo with a goodbye, and the kappa waved him off, telling him not to make "Green-eyes" mad at him for keeping him out so late.

            "Hey Gojyo."

            "Mngh?" Red eyes flickered open, and behind the haze, Doku could see he was completely cognizant.

            "This guy you're with. Do you love him?"

            A wide, lazy smile, the same he had had as a boy, bloomed over his face. "Yeah. Yeah I think I do."

            Doku sighed and bade him goodnight, and the gnawing at his gut hadn't ceased since. If anything, it had intensified.

 

            He had been watching the crisp white paint peel on the ceiling for hours once his anger abated enough to permit him to lie down on the cot. Though he never slept, he hovered between worlds, hearing the sounds of his dreams alongside the noises of the offices down the hall, and other men scurrying and pacing about their holding cells. He wasn't certain why he had become so defensive of Gojyo; the man really couldn't mean anything to him. He hardly knew him. It was just, he concluded logically, that Officer Carerra meant less.

The cell door groaned on its hinges, and Sanzo stirred from a state of semi-somnolence; he was craving nicotine in the same way he had when he was first locked up. "What," the blond barked out as Wilson entered, his mouth a grim line.

            "I'll attribute that to withdrawal," Hakkai said generously, still unsmiling. He looked strange without false courtesy plastered across his face. "I'm here to let you out, for a time, if you think you can control yourself. Under ordinary circumstances, I wouldn't, but Doku was the one to plead your case."

            Sanzo stared at him impassively. He had known they would let him out again; they needed him now because they were in too deep to pull out.

            "You can't assault an officer again." Hakkai warned, gesturing for him to come forth; Sanzo followed him out of the cell and down to his office; it wasn't like Leavenworth, though the holding cell had been just as cramped. There wasn't an air of violence and despondency throughout the building, but rather one of clinical efficiency and sterilization. Like a hospital with a holding tank for questionable patients.

            "We're going to put you back on the case." He explained simply, "But Gojyo must not know of this."

            "No, I guess you wouldn't want to tell him his own brother is about to lock him up."

            Hakkai glared, a fierce gleam in his left eye that didn't quite reach his right. Sanzo noticed light bounding off of it, as if there were no depth, no real tissue behind the lens. "He's doing his job, and Gojyo is on the wrong side of the law, Sanzo. Just like you. Which brings me to my next question. Just how attached are you to Gojyo?"

            "What the fuck is that supposed to mean!" Sanzo growled, fingers itching for a cigarette. He saw the box of Marlboros on Hakkai's desk, but didn't bother reaching for them. He had a feeling this Inquisition would last a while.

            "You know exactly what it means. Your loyalty to him appears to be more than a ruse. Is he your ally now, your friend, perhaps?"

            "I've given you what you've asked for." Sanzo stated bluntly. "I'll finish the job. The rest of it isn't your business."

            "On the contrary, it is all my business—your freedom is a danger, and it's my ass on the line. You've already got three life sentences, but I don't have a stain to my name."

            "Good for you."

            "I don't think you understand," Hakkai riled, his voice becoming brittle with anger, threatening to shatter. "If anyone finds out, if this goes awry, we lose. Doku and I. Your chance at getting back at Jienyi depends on our favor. And our favor depends on your behavior. So spit it out; are you going to defend Gojyo? Take his side over ours? How deep does this devotion run?"

            "Devotion?" Sanzo sneered, "You're delusional."

            "Am I?" He interrupted the beginning of an angry retort; "isn't it true that you've saved his life on a number of occasions, even at the cost of your own?"

            "For your stupid fucking mission."

            "And that you consort with him outside of business?"

            "A gang isn't a company, idiot."

            "And that you've slept with him?"
            "How the fuck is that any of your business!" Sanzo's hackles rose in self-defense; hadn't it been Hakkai who had told him to use 'any means necessary' to procure Gojyo's trust? Well here he had it, and his methods were in question? 

            "Because now I am seriously considering your loyalties. You're enamored of him."
            "I'm not," Sanzo bit out, "but regardless, your logic doesn't add up. What am I gonna do, tell him? He'd shoot me on the spot."

            "I don't know that he would."

            "Well I fucking do! I'd be a dead man, and I'm not going to risk my hide to spite you. You're not worth it."

            The door swung open, and Dokugakuji entered, a heavy coat wrapped tightly about his wide shoulders. "Interrupting something?"

            "No, come in," Hakkai beckoned, dusting flakes of snow from the man's sleeve in afterthought as he let his temper simmer.

            "Calmed down a little bit?" Doku asked, tossing Sanzo his cigarettes and lighter, knowing that might pacify him and mute his ire for the time. He was a recovering smoker himself—and indulged far too frequently to be truly called "recovering"—and he knew the power the drug could have on aggravated nerves.

            "So what's the story?" Carerra queried after Sanzo had sucked down half the stick. His partner sighed, running a hand through his hair and cleaning the backs of his glass lenses with his shirt tail.

            "I have no way to know, really. He's all we've got. We can't turn back."

            Sanzo snorted from his seat, looking up at them in a way that made both officers feel as if their positions had been reversed. Sanzo could be dying in a pool of his own blood and still manage to look down at the world.

            "Get us to headquarters." Was all Doku said. "After that, we'll take care of things."

 

           

            "I can't do this, 'Kai."

            "We can focus on our break-in at headquarters, Doku, and claim Gojyo aided us—which he did, technically—so we cut a deal with him. He'll avoid the death penalty."

            "No good. He'd die in here. My brother's never been confined in his whole damn life; he wouldn't be able to survive. He's not as stubborn as Sanzo is, though you'd never know it, talking to him."

            "Doku he's a criminal," Wilson reminded him quietly, one hand ghosting down his partner's arm, stroking his wide palm. "And he'd be safe in here."

            "From his enemies. But not from himself. I don't know if I can do this, Hakkai. I saw him…"

            "You shouldn't have gone," green eyes flashed, then tilted towards the tiling. He tapped the toe of his shoe against shiny squares, eyes following crooked lines of grout. But what was done was done. "We can't take you off this particular case. You're the only one in it with me."

            "I know. But…fuck, 'Kai, he really cares about Sanzo."

            Hakkai gave him a funny look.

            "No—stop that. I mean it. I spoke with him. That idiot's fucking in love with him."

            "In love with Sanzo?" It didn't seem possible; the man was such a pill, and Gojyo spent far more time with him than either officer ever had to. "I find that hard to believe."

            "You wouldn't if you grew up on the streets; Sanzo's done everything just right; it's no wonder Gojyo trusts him. He saved his ass; he doesn't talk easily; and, apparently, he's got a soft side."

            "A soft side?" He asked incredulously.

            Doku shrugged. "They kiss."

            Hakkai had trouble imagining Sanzo kissing anyone, let alone another male. Gojyo. His partner's brother and the head of a veritable Mafia.

            "The only real variable is how attached Sanzo is," Carerra continued, knuckles cracking in the fist of his other hand. "Can we risk it?"

            "We'll have to."

 

            "You're actin' funny." Gojyo exhaled in the blonde's general direction, lighting a fresh cigarette before he was finished with the one between his lips. He was itching to say something, as he had been since Sanzo's arrival half an hour ago, when they started going over possible plans of attack on headquarters. Gojyo interrupted their third potential halfway through, "You know somethin' funny happened last night."

            "Did it?"

            "Yeah. I mean—you remember how I told you about my brother, a cop?"

            Sanzo nodded.

            "He came to visit last night."

            "Came here? Headquarters?" Sanzo asked, disbelieving. As though Dokugakuji had no way of knowing where the mysterious Phoenix's headquarters might be located. The kappa shook his head.

            "No, of course not. To one of the emptied out storage units, underground. He found me by askin' around, same way you found Banri, I guess." And Gojyo was smiling; Sanzo felt pinpricks of—sorrow? Guilt?—in the base of his stomach and tried not to tense.

            "Justa talk. Not to try and convert me to the 'right side of the law' or some bullshit like he usedta try when I was a kid." Ivory teeth flashed in a grin, "Would you believe that? Just out of the blue. I shouldn't be so surprised he was able to find me, though; he works in that part of the Department—tracking down gang members and identifying everything from graffiti to tattoos."

            He had never seen Gojyo quite so talkative.

            "Do you ever think he might be using you, trying to get information?"

            Claret eyes darkened; "No. Not Doku. He separates this stuff, just like I do. When we're together, we're just brothers."

            Sanzo felt the needlelike sensation intensify; for a man who was lied to on an almost regular basis, as a part of his job, Gojyo could be painfully gullible. He couldn't imagine ever trusting someone so much, not now.

            "Be careful." Was all he advised, knowing that to accomplish his mission, he ought to be encouraging their conversation with each other. But somehow the thought of seeing Gojyo betrayed by one of the few people he so dearly trusted was revolting. He couldn't stomach it.

            "So what about you; where'd you get off to last night? You have a habit of doing that, y'know. Vanishing."

            "Why, did something come up?" He knew for a fact nothing had.

            Gojyo shrugged, "Well, you could say that." A broad wink gave the comment lecherous undertones, and Sanzo gave a longsuffering sigh, ashing his cigarette over Gojyo's knee.

            "Ass."

            "That had something to do with it too."

            Sanzo rose from the sunken chair with a growl, Marlboro clenched tightly between his teeth. Gojyo mistook his broiling anger towards Dokugakuji as irritation at the comment, and slid an arm about his waist, drawing him back.

            "Oh come on, I'm just kidding—though I really did miss you." His head dipped to the side, lips brushing over his lover's neck and shoulder. "Gonna come back with me t'night?"

            "I don't think so."
            Gojyo gave him a curious look, but didn't push it. "Okay, so you wanna go out for beers? We can keep an eye out for any suspicious looking cowboys and Indians, if you know what I mean. They're obviously still working with whoever's on the throne in Topeka."

            Sanzo nodded.

            "That bar he liked—what was it?"

            "Trackside Tavern."

            "Good memory. Let's go."

           

            The lights were dim and the floor was greasy; Sanzo could feel his shoes sliding along the wood from a spilled drink that no one had bothered to clean up. They skimmed the room before entering, but Hazel and Gat were nowhere to be found. Gojyo decided that even Hazel wasn't cocky enough to be walking about Phoenix territory after what he had pulled.

            "Drink?" Gojyo passed a twenty to the bar tender.

            "Yes, it is." Sanzo forked over his own bill to the bartender, asking for a Heineken and receiving a Miller instead. He lit up a smoke.

            "Too fancy for this town, Mister," Gojyo teased, tilting his head to the side so that he could watch Sanzo's clean profile, an ivory cameo against a gritty, dark backdrop. The man really was elegant, closer to beautiful than handsome, though Gojyo would never say as much aloud. Sanzo was still armed, after all.

            "What."

            "Just lookin'." He smiled and glanced back at his own glass, eyelids heavy all at once. "Ya know…this thing we're talkin' about. You don't have to come."

            "What's that supposed to mean?" The sharp tone of his voice, ringing through the air between them, startled Gojyo .

            "It means just what it sounds like. It's dangerous as fuck, and we're probably gonna lose a lotta guys." The din of the bar covered their voices, and regardless, they were vague enough that they might have been talking about a tractor pull. "You're not in the upper echelons, and we can't really expect you to risk your neck."

            "I thought you said what was good for one of us was good for all of us."

            "It is. But I just thought I'd--"

            "Spare me." Sanzo finished for him. "Keep me aside because—because what? You like to fuck me?" He saw the hurt in wine-dark eyes and felt a responding pinch in his gut. "I'm going." He would brook no argument. "Besides," the blond mumbled, lips at the edge of his glass, "you're such a fuck-up, you're gonna need someone to watch your back."

            A smile bloomed over Gojyo's mouth, and Sanzo had the feeling he might have been kissed then and there had he not stood up, glass empty, and stabbed out his cigarette.

            "Don't get lost." He warned before heading off in the direction of the bathrooms. Just before he reached the small door, he cut a sharp right, sneaking up the back steps of the tavern to the three or four bedrooms on the second level, where he had first lured Hazel for a fight. All the doors were open, and they were unoccupied, practically empty, save for beds and immobile furniture. Not even cheap prints hung on the wall.

            He walked into the now-empty room Hazel had formerly occupied, leaning against the rotting wooden frame of the window to peer down at the parking lot below.

            So he was guaranteed an in. Definitely headed to Headquarters; Wilson would be pleased, maybe Carerra, too. They would have no trouble tracking him, and following in their own cars. Because they were officers of the state, rather than of Leavenworth alone, Topeka was within their jurisdiction; they would have authority over the officers in the capital, mostly, and be able to run their own investigation based around an "anonymous tip." And then right back to working near the smaller Leavenworth, right on the border of little Kansas. The Lion and the Tin Man. He supposed that made Gojyo the scarecrow; the thought brought a snicker to the back of his throat, but it dissolved quickly when he realized he'd put himself in the role of Dorothy.

            "Ugh I should be drunk right now," he muttered to no one in particular, breath fogging the dirty glass.

            All this and he hadn't found a single thing on Jienyi. Fuck. Maybe that son of a bitch really was dead. It seemed so unfair to think of him lying in a gutter somewhere, shot down in a petty fight or dead from a drug-induced seizure. Sanzo deserved more than anyone else the right to take his life. He had dedicated his adult life to hunting that bastard down and avenging Koumyou, and thus far had nothing to show for it. Not even a lead. It hurt even worse to think that he'd come so close, before, only to watch him slip away like so much dark fog, vanishing into the night. And then he'd had to cope with the assurance that he'd never have a chance at vengeance again; even the most stubborn of men didn't last three lifetimes in prison. Most never made it through one.

            He remembered his trial in bits and pieces; it was over a year ago now, but seemed to be an entirely different lifetime, segregated somehow from his collection of memories before and after the incident.

 He had been in a state of mild shock throughout the entire investigation, if one could call it that. The only man he had ever trusted, cared for, or truly known had died because of that man. He'd spent seven years chasing him only to locate him, shoot, and watch him get away. That he managed to gun down three of his comrades was no consolation.

Because it was pre-meditated murder, he doubted he had much of a shot, even if he were to recite the story of his shitty life. Besides, he didn't want pity. And he wouldn't plead, though it might have helped his case, his lawyer had said. The man was a state-appointee, nervous and stumbling over his words, because Sanzo couldn't afford anything more. He had sat in an icy metal chair, wearing clothes that weren't his, with only the amber pendant at his chest for comfort. It felt cold too.

            The judge has asked him why he'd killed those men, and now he rather wished he could change his answer.

            "I had to."

            Psychologists and psychiatrists jumped on this— He wasn't a child, but he was still quite young, twenty-two, and many forms of schizophrenia didn't emerge full until well into one's twenties. Had he had to because of impulses, because of voices in his head? Did he live and die by personal gratification?

            No. They killed someone I loved. I had to. But then they would ask who, and then Koumyou's history, and Sanzo's too, would be dragged forth for the jury to spit on, the press to shred, and the judge to evaluate. Koumyou's memory deserved better. Sanzo was locked up for two weeks while the jury deliberated, reached a standstill, and then a new one filed in. The same nightmare was repeated, and this panel of faces was less indulgent, less accommodating, than the last.

            His lawyer persuaded him to clarify, in part, what had happened. Revenge—an honor killing—was explained and defined to the jury. It wasn't enough. They had to have the details, pick the bones of grief and humiliation, and then review them. 

            "Mr. Genjyo, do you realize what you're on trial for? That you killed three men?" The judge peered down from his mountainous podium; the way he spread his elbows out, fanning his robes as if trying to make himself appear larger, scarier than he was, reminded Sanzo of a wild animal.

            "Yes."

            "Do you realize what may become of you if you don't give the jury some reason?"

            The same thing, he wagered, that would become of him if he did. "Yes."

            "And do you have a reason?"

            "I've given you my reasons."

            That he was given three life sentences didn't surprise him in the least; he wasn't afraid of the jails, or the men in them. They learned very quickly he wouldn't play their games, nor was he easily intimidated. The only interaction he had with anyone was for the sake of the cigarette trade, which, as the prices climbed higher and higher, reached a fee he wasn't willing to pay, ended quickly. He quit cold turkey, and he had never known such agony in his life. His body screamed for it, pelting him with migraines that could take out a large animal and shudders that left him freezing through steamy July nights. But he got over it.

            Fuck if he hadn't missed those cigarettes, Sanzo mused quietly as he sucked a Marlboro down to the filter, watching smoke mushroom out over the flat surface of the windowpane.

            He had started wondering, lately, if giving the jury his entire story might have helped. Probably not. But if he had known it would, could he have brought himself to open his and Koumyou's life for public inspection? No. It wasn't just loyalty to Koumyou, either, but to the entire Dawn. He had no emotional ties to them, and didn't regret that he had severed them long ago. But he was still loyal. That was a concept idealized by the Western world, but rarely acted on; a panel of foreign faces had condemned him to eternity in a cell for one of their oft-praised virtues.

            A rattling below jerked him from his reverie, and he stubbed his second cigarette out on the windowsill, letting it float to the ground in the shoddy room as he returned to the main floor. Turning back around the corner, Sanzo felt his eyes widen of their own accord, almost instinctually, when he spotted Gojyo across the room. No longer at the bar, he was perched on a chair at a corner table between two well-endowed women. A third sat at the corner of the table, one curved thigh crossed over the other; a pointy Scarlet shoe tangled from painted toes; her nails were painted to match her heels, and clicked noisily over the rough wood of the table. Something told him that, unlike Jewel, what these women did was a hobby, not a job.

            Gojyo was oblivious of Sanzo's approach, though to his credit, he looked a bit uncomfortable, as if he might be trying to weasel his way out of the situation.

            Not good enough, kappa. Sanzo seethed; it wasn't as though they had taken him prisoner; he had every opportunity to leave, or, better yet, not to have budged in the first place. The brunette at his left leaned much too far over him, her tight bodice about to burst by the looks of things, and pressed a deep kiss over the redhead's mouth. Sanzo felt a sharp surge of fury rise through him, flushing his skin, and when Gojyo's hand slipped up to cup the woman's breast, he strode over and struck the man on the side of his head.

            Two of the girls gasped, and the one Gojyo had been kissing pulled back with a little cry of discontent, glowering at Sanzo. "What's your problem Blondie? We're not for sale." She jerked her head towards the other end of the room. "Ask them if you want action. I'm Gojyo's girl."

            Gojyo leaped to his feet, nearly knocking the chair over in the process. "No she's not! I've seen her here like twice, Sanzo." He turned pleading eyes on the blond, moving to touch his shoulder; Sanzo slapped his hand away in annoyance.

            "Sanzo listen--"

            "Shut. Up." His eyes must have been blazing, because Gojyo did exactly that. Sanzo turned towards the door, "move it; we're leaving," and the redhead followed at his heels, mind whirling with potential explanations. The women at the table chattered and commented wryly that he was "whipped," but a scathing glance from narrowed violet eyes shut them up.

            In the car, Gojyo tried to explain himself again, but Sanzo simply snapped at him to "just drive!"

            The redhead obeyed, taking them both back to his place and, halfway there, he managed to open his mouth halfway before Sanzo stopped him with a "shut the fuck up."

            Gojyo was unsure of what to expect when they entered; the monk was packing heat, as usual, and just crazy enough to turn it against him. The silence between them had been a tense one, and Gojyo feared the worst. Sanzo was perversely creative, and he knew there was no shot anyone would find the body. He was, after all, a professional.

            Stepping back, Sanzo waited for Gojyo to cross the threshold first. The door slammed so hard against its frame, he was sure he heard it crack. Tensing, he expected a rush of furious epithets, a bullet, a punch if he was lucky. Sanzo slammed him back into the door with a snarl, one hand on either shoulder, and crushed his mouth to Gojyo's in a brutal kiss.

            Red eyes strained in their sockets, disbelief, not yet relief, coursing through him. He raised his hands to touch Sanzo in return, but they were pinched at the wrists and slammed back into the door. Getting the message, he kept still, only moving his mouth and head to return Sanzo's frantic, frenzied kisses. When they broke for breath, the blond, a few inches below his eye level, smashed Gojyo back into the door a second time.

            "You belong to me," he fumed, "and you let someone else touch you like that again, you're dead. Got it?"

            All he could manage was a mute nod, silenced by shock, and then Sanzo was on him again, kissing him deeply though the aggression of the gesture didn't abate. As a ferric tang sprung up between their lips, Gojyo steadied his thoughts enough to understand; one word came to mind.  

            Possessive.

            Possessive? Sanzo was jealous.

            There was no need to imagine it as Sanzo might have seen it; he was there himself, and would have been pissed off too, were their positions switched. But in all truth, he hadn't intended to touch any of them. It was just harmless flirting, something he was prone to; he didn't know Ruby was going to kiss him like that. Or that, in trying to push her away, his hand was going to land right over a heavy, curved breast. The fondling had just…happened. Gojyo reasoned that it was practically instinctual; his hands were trained for cupping breasts.

            "If I didn't know better, Sanzo," Gojyo panted as they drew apart, "I'd say you sounded jealous."

            A hard punch to his shoulder, and then another rough kiss. "How many fucking times," he panted, "do I have to tell you?"

            "Mnnng one more time," the redhead purred, suddenly liking this side of his lover; Sanzo was biting his neck and collar just right, pawing over his abdomen and thighs with inexpert force, but still managing to stumble across all the right places.

            "You. Belong. To me. Bastard."

            Gojyo smiled right through the following kiss, and raised his eyebrows curiously when his lover jerked the fly of his denims open.

            "Now get on the couch."

 

            An hour later, they both lay tangled quietly with one another, a blanket haphazardly dripping from their bodies and onto the floor. Gojyo yawned, and Sanzo moaned, shifting his position to get comfortable.

            "I really didn't meanta grab her like that, ya know."

            "My ass you didn't."

            "No, your ass I love grabbing," Gojyo reemphasized by slipping his hands over Sanzo's sensitive spot, then cupping shallow buttocks in large palms. "See?"

            Jerking his hips to the side, he dislodged callused hands. "I know you like women. But while you're fucking me," Sanzo stipulated, "you'd better not be fucking anyone else."

            "I don't know anything about fucking," Gojyo drawled, "but if you want to be the only one I make love with, that's fine with me."

            He heard a snort of derision against his chest and smirked. "I love hearing that though, that I'm yours." Purring his contentment, he queried, "Does that make you mine?"

            "Don't be stupid."

            Whether that was a yes or a no, Gojyo couldn't be sure.

            "You don't have the best taste in women. I don't want you in my bed if I don't know where you've been."

            "Sure, Sanzo. That's why."

            "Fuck yes that's why."

            Gojyo couldn't help but smile at the vehement denial that had begun crumbling between them that evening.

            "Well, regardless, baby, don't worry. I'm all yours, as long as you want me."

            "Don't call me baby."

 

            Within the month, Hakkai and Dokugakuji grilled Sanzo constantly, trying to drain every last piece of information he held, with little success. There were small, random attacks on Phoenix territory, but never anything terribly significant. Most of the faction had shut down for the time, and Sanzo reported only that he had been staying with Gojyo. Hakkai looked displeased upon hearing this, though he had doubtless already known, thanks to the tracker—recently updated—that Sanzo wore about his ankle. Dokugakuji failed to express any emotion, and kept quiet.

            "I don't know much right now." Sanzo said simply, "The entire gang is pretty inactive. A lot of them are in hiding."

            "Why? Because of a few isolated attacks?" Hakkai sat before his desk, a map of the city sprawled out before him, color-coated based on territorial borders between gangs. Some of them went right through buildings, dissected streets, and even ran through parks and public spaces. Circled in red were sites of recent attacks.

            "Because a lot of people are dead." Sanzo snapped back, glowering up at Gojyo's older brother, who didn't rile.

            Hakkai sighed and picked up a worn thread of conversation as he rose from his seat, "Sanzo I am beginning to worry about your priorities…"

            "My 'priorities' are the same as they have been," he growled, "Get a chance to find Jienyi, and then the fuck out of Leavenworth."

            Hakkai nodded patronizingly as he cleaned his glasses on the tail of his shirt, "of course, but I mean your loyalties towards Gojyo."

            "Shouldn't you be more concerned about his" he jerked a thumb at Dokugakuji, "lack of loyalties?"

            "Hey you son of a bitch," Doku seethed; the sudden noise from his corner of the room seemed to startle Hakkai, who stepped back a little as his taller partner advanced. A hard fist grabbed at Sanzo's collar, slamming him up against the wall only to feel the wiry body tense out of instinct, and perhaps self-restraint. Sanzo glared menacingly, and Doku had no doubts that the man really wanted him dead. Hakkai did his best to separate them, ignoring Doku's shouts.

"My brother is none of your fucking concern! What we--"

            "Doku. Dokugakuji!" Hakkai managed to open one fist and gradually draw him back, "This isn't the matter at hand, Sanzo. We recruited you for very specific purposes."

            "Illegal purposes."

            "Are you lecturing me on legality?" Hakkai asked dryly.

            "Hardly. Only pointing out that if you don't lay the fuck off of me about this, I might screw up."

            "You'd be locked away again. Forever." Hakkai didn't look very frightened, and that lack of fear intimidated Sanzo in turn. He knew, somehow, that Sanzo wouldn't.

            "You think that ensures I won't do anything to fuck this up for you? Rat you out?"

            "No." Hakkai smiled cruelly over a stack of papers, taking a seat at his desk again while Dokugakuji fumed in the seat nearby. His eyes laughed at him, mocked him, in the way of a man who knew something and wasn't about to let on how he had come to. "But your affection for Gojyo is motivation enough to keep you quiet."

            "You're blind if you think there's anything more than business between us."

            "No, Sanzo. I see things very clearly."

 

            That evening he was back in his cell, without a cigarette but with a head full of Hakkai's unspoken implications. That he was getting too close to Gojyo.

            Haven't I been through this already? Haven't we done this? He asked himself, fingertips practically tingling in time with his tongue for the sweet burn of nicotine. Turning over on the cot, bedsprings creaking, he groaned into his pillow. Maybe he was.

            Fuck, he definitely was.

            The truth had come upon him so gradually that it failed to jar or shock him. Denying it would be stupid; he wasn't blind; he knew what he had done with Gojyo hadn't been purely in the interest of his mission. And furthermore, Hakkai was right; Sanzo would do what he could to stay in contact with Gojyo, though what he planned to do with the information he had, he wasn't yet sure.

            It was obvious Dokugakuji was nervous, and maybe Hakkai too, behind the poker face he always wore. Although telling Gojyo everything wasn't a good plan—he really might get shot for it—it was an option. And it would put both officers in hot water. That would really be the only consolation.  

            His conscience—that dreaded little thing he had long since assumed dead—picked at the back of his mind, threatening a migraine. He gradually began to question himself, and the niggling little thought that Gojyo doesn't deserve this continued to resurface. With a groan and a roll of his eyes, he slammed the pillow down over his face and attempted sleep before his skull split open. It was to little avail, as he woke in the middle of the night with a searing headache and tattered remnants of dreams further agitating the wound.

 

            A week later, things started to go awry.

            There were three attacks on the Phoenix's Kansas headquarters, and two of them involved rather destructive arson and explosions. The cops were swarming the entire neighborhood within the hour, and, when a battalion of mercenary Eclipse members blew up an entire street's worth of buildings, killing five officers and wounding at least seven others, the city was forced to concede the problem to officers of the state. Ironically Dokugakuji was added to the force, being familiar with local territory and history. Gojyo finished summarizing their predicament over dinner, and Sanzo heaved a sigh into his glass.

            "Well they're obviously looking for you."

            "Me? If I recall, they didn't want me dead until recently, when they must've found out it was my call to recruit you."

            "I have no relation with them." Sanzo said simply, stabbing out a half-smoked cigarette in frustration.

            "Then why the hell would they be after you? And why can't you tell me?"

            Because I really don't know! Sanzo wanted to shout and perhaps throttle the man until he stopped hearing and started listening. "I don't know, Gojyo. I've never had any dealings with the Phoenix before this."

            "What about the Eclipse?" He asked suddenly leaning over the table. "You said you were after Jienyi—you asked me for help to find him. The man's done some sick solo work, and given your history as a solo artist, I figured that's how you met. Am I wrong? Did you have some sort of connection to his gang?"

            "I've killed a few of them." Sanzo admitted, truthfully.

            "What about him? How did you meet him?" He sensed this was dangerous territory, but pushed on heedlessly; Sanzo's knuckles whitened.

            "He killed someone."

            And suddenly Gojyo knew who. He opened his mouth to frame the man's name in sound, but Sanzo shook his head quickly.

            "Yes, Gojyo," He said sharply, his jaw clenched tight enough to crack bullets.

            "I'm sorry."

            Violet eyes remained veiled by dark lashes, staring at the tabletop.

            "That still doesn't really explain why our overlord would go to such trouble to have you exterminated. It doesn't look like it would benefit him much. I mean, it's the Phoenix directing the Eclipse recruits."

            Sanzo was still tense, and Gojyo assumed it was due to the mention of his lover; he rose, pressing warm hands down over the blonde's shoulders and massaging gently. "I'm sorry for bringing it up."

            "It's not that."

            "What do you mean?"

            "Forget it." He shook his head, casting Gojyo a pleading glance as he rose from the table. The redhead quieted.

            Someone came to the door later that evening; at first Sanzo had believed it to be Banri, but to his great surprise it was Yaone, returned from Topeka. She sat with them that evening, the low hum of her voice filling the room.

            "It's bad."

            "How bad?" Gojyo prompted, and she shook her head.

            "I got close enough to Headquarters to find out that they're planning on destroying you here, completely wiping you out."

            "We figured as much."

            "Do you know that they want Sanzo too? And you—dead?"

            Gojyo bobbed his head in a nod, "But do you know why?" Sanzo's ears pricked up hopefully. 

            "I know they want you because of your influence, but whoever's giving orders wants Sanzo for something more personal."

            The blond wrinkled his nose at the implication, and the issue was once again shrouded in mystery.

 

 

            That evening Gojyo took him to bed, sprawling over him comfortably and blanketing his narrow form with scalding heat as they moved together, pushing and pulling and tangling hair and limbs. The bed was pushed up against the window; Sanzo could hear the mattress bumping the wall at steady intervals. He moaned in appreciation, long fingers stroking strong arms and shoulders as heavy, damp heat bloomed between his thighs. He was able to feel the smooth caresses to his skin and the callused fingers that mapped it; sweat, sticky and warm formed between ivory and bronze like dew. Gojyo's panting was hot and rough and matched the pace of his hips; Sanzo's came a half beat later, ornamented by little gasps of surprise each time the kappa managed to nudge a tight bundle of nerves.

He could smell him. That thick, musky odor of sex, and something beneath it that was unique to Gojyo, spicy and woodsy like cedar. He could taste the vodka on his tongue from dinner, and the acrid remnants of a Hi-Lite; the wet, sweet heat of his mouth was overwhelming, muting his other senses until they drew apart.

            "Sanzo," Gojyo panted, slowing his pace to a maddeningly gentle gait, "Look at me."

He forced his eyes open—when had he closed them?—and flushed anew at the expression the kappa wore. The man over him was young—younger than him—his skin as dark as Koumyou's had been fair, and the long hair dripping down around them was a flaming Scarlet. Sanzo forced himself to look longer, noting the sharp eyes gazing down at him were claret, the mouth he had been kissing full and pulled into a gentle smile.

Koumyou.

But Gojyo could not have heard him. His lover united them to the hilt, like dagger and sheathe, and Sanzo let his head fall back against the mattress, tilted upward so that the window's light pooled on his face and chest.

            In the distance, moving trees cracked and fragmented the moonlight, sending it through in awkward shards as a fierce wind tumbled through pine boughs. The stars overhead looked frozen, covered in ice and cold enough to shatter in the sky. And suddenly he could smell rain and herbs—clover. The mouth over his, panting and gasping life into him, tasted like fire, slick and hot, nothing like the cool release of a storm. Crying out, his back formed a perfect arc as the moon in the distance, glowing like a pearl, splintered and burst into a thousand rays of light.

 

            "Sanzo."

            His eyes opened gradually at the sound of a low, gratified drawl. Soft lips moved over his, a tongue flicking out. "You alright?"

            "Fine," He breathed, pushing himself up by his elbows. He saw Gojyo laughing at his side, lying in the bedding with an arm draped casually about the blonde's waist.

            "You got real quiet there for a little bit. Did I hurt you?" He treaded carefully over sensitive ground, and Sanzo shook his head.

            "I'm fine." He had taken great care to hide his feet amongst the tangles of sheets, and laid carefully on his back, shirt completely removed. He had trusted the darkness of the room to keep his secret, and suddenly was no longer so certain he wanted to.

Gojyo smiled almost shyly at him, like a schoolboy, placing hesitant kisses over Sanzo's jaw.

He doesn't deserve this.

            "Gojyo--"

            The wily redhead grinned at him, pushing him back down into the bed and covering his face and neck with messy kisses. "Mmn?" His particularly amorous attitude that evening made it more difficult; Sanzo couldn't help but think of how much Gojyo must trust him, to make himself so vulnerable.

            Sanzo swept a hand through burgundy hair, kissing a damp temple in return, a tender gesture that surprised his lover.

            "Sanzo?" He raised an eyebrow curiously, pressing up against his thigh. His expression was one of utter shock at the response.

            "I can't…do this." He breathed, watching dark eyes light up in concern. He slid carefully from the bed, drawing on his jeans. Gojyo followed, still naked, as the blond hurriedly buttoned up his shirt.

            "What—why?"

            "You--"

            "What did I do?" Rather than appearing defensive, Gojyo looked hurt, his face suddenly strained by the burden of confusion.

            "It's not what you did," He said quietly, pushing shaggy hair from his eyes as he took a step back, and then two, only to find himself backed up against the sliding glass doors of the closet. The carpet was cold beneath his bare feet, and the air of the room dried the sweat on his back and chest quickly.

            "What then?" Gojyo frowned sharply, reaching forward to cup his lover's face between wide palms; Sanzo pushed him back.

            "Please don't think what we did...that that…wasn't real," he breathed, tilting his head back to look at the redhead, who was standing quite close.

            "Why would I think…?" Gojyo let his voice trail off as Sanzo gradually unfastened his shirt again, dropping it about his ankles. Opening his mouth to speak, his breath hitched as he caught a glimpse of the bold tattoo in the mirror's reflection.

            "That's the Dawn's mark." Gojyo said quietly. Sanzo nodded, self-consciously touching the brightly colored ink with the back of his fingertips. It felt like the rest of his skin, only colder.

            "You worked for them, then?"

            "Yes," Sanzo said quietly, and, when met with an unusual silence, continued. "The man Jienyi killed—he was Koumyou."

            "Koumyou? That Koumyou? The leader of the Dawn?" Another nod.

            "I gotta admit, while this is mind-boggling, I don't see how it--"

            "That's not all, Gojyo." He spoke carefully, one hand balling into a fist with the effort. "I wasn't in this to help the Phoenix."

            "What do you mean?"

            "I joined to get my hands on Jienyi."

            "So you want him dead—why join our gang? Didn't you have your own connections?"

            "Not from where I was. I joined to get out of jail," He spoke mournfully, ashamedly, and it took Gojyo a moment to pick up the pieces and put them together. Sanzo almost hoped that they wouldn't fit, and that he, too, was mistaken.

            "You're working for the cops?"

            Sanzo nodded, tensing, although Gojyo had no weapon on him. He raised the leg of his jeans, revealing the slender, skin-hugging device.

            "I stopped giving them information months ago," he said quietly. "At least nothing they couldn't learn from the newspapers. But they still know where you are—I can't remove this. But this is enough—I'll get Jienyi on my own time; that son of a bitch has to be out there still. And I'll find him. But I can't keep doing this. So kill me if you're going to—I'm not stupid enough to think I can run from a hit. If not, I'm going back. Their fucking game is over."

            Sanzo waited a moment, perhaps anticipating Gojyo would go for his gun, or strike him. He tensed when the redhead moved, but, seeing it was only to take a step backwards, he lowered his gaze and moved past him to the door.

            "Where are you going?"

            "Back."

            "Are you crazy!?"

            "What?" He turned, hands on the buttons of his shirt.

            "You can't go back to them! They'll lock you up forever!"

            "Did you hear anything I just said? I have to leave—you're fucked if I don't leave. Don't you know what this--"

            "You're throwing me under a goddamn bus here!" Gojyo cut him off vehemently, "Don't you get it you self-centered bastard? I love you!"

            All Sanzo managed was a graceless "wuh" before Gojyo had him pinned to the wall, hands restraining his arms, a warm body pressing him into place. "Just listen to me. Please." His breath was soft and warm against fair skin, and turning to face him, their noses brushed.

            "I don't care if you were with the Dawn. You're loyal to me now. I trust you more than anyone—I can't do this without you. Everything's falling apart here. Please don't leave, Sanzo," Gojyo murmured, head dipping low as his gaze and energy faltered. "Please don't leave me stranded. I swear to God you're the only thing I've got going right now, and it sounds like I'm your only chance out. So let me help you out; if you won't stay forever, just stay until I can get you away."

            He watched Sanzo's jaw clench tightly, a muscle rippled along it in thought, and he made a small sound  that Gojyo could only describe as a hybrid between a laugh and a sob, "You stupid son of a bitch." Arms slid about the kappa's neck, linking at his nape as their mouths met quickly, crushing together to leave bruises. "Stupid." Sanzo accused between kisses, "Stupid bastard."

 


            The planning took a week. Doku and Hakkai didn't know, though to keep them quiet, Sanzo began feeding them false information. Weapons were horded and the Headquarters' underground was transformed into a veritable fortress.

            It only went to prove that when Gojyo wanted something done, all he had to do was snap his fingers. The adjoining building served as an armory, loaded with bombs that Sanzo was pretty sure were only issued in the U.S. Army. How Gojyo managed to obtain them was a mystery.

            Members crept cautiously out of hiding, those with the feather on their upper bicep, and those without. Men and women floated in and out of the local Headquarters and up and down thirteenth and twelfth with such regularity, Sanzo was surprised none of the local cops discovered them. Most did little to conceal their weapons, though the larger pieces and machine guns were brought in undercover, often in vehicles and tarp-shrouded boxes.

            Planning was done during the day, moving at night. Sanzo and the few surviving members of the upper echelons stood around a fold-out table, their chairs abandoned in the corners, unused, as Gojyo ran his finger along a crumpled blueprint of the building in Topeka they were planning on storming.

            "We owe Rhi the greatest of thanks for this."

            Yaone smiled tightly, gesturing to several markings in pencil that were not part of the original design. "These are shafts that have since been added; no one knows about them, but Rhi managed to bribe a guard for the information."

            No one asked if she was one hundred percent sure of their presence. To run into a corner meant death.

            "As far as bombs go, I did a little investigating myself while I was there; there are a ton of guards. They cover the business' true nature with a research company's name plastered on the front of the building. They even went to the trouble of hiring employees, secretaries that never get paid, but have degrees. No one questions it. They probably think the Mob runs it."

            Gojyo snorted, "If they did, it would be a helluva lot easier to break into. These guys know all our tricks already."

            "That means we'll have to think of some new ones," Banri exhaled a mouthful of smoke over the crinkly paper, gesturing to the elevator shaft already drawn in. "They're gonna know your face, Gojyo, and obviously Blondie's here, since they're after him. But would they know mine?"

            "Probably not," Gojyo agreed hesitantly, "But you're not going in alone."

            "I think a small army might arouse suspicion," Yaone countered, gesturing impatiently that Banri continue.

            "I would need backup, but I can go in looking for a job. Maybe I heard it from the friend of a friend, that they pay real well, and the workload is light." He glanced about the small circle of faces and shrugged, "They have metal detectors up?"

            Yaone shook her head, "Rhi would have mentioned it."

            "Stuff a couple of bombs in my pockets. I'll plant them in the elevator, get off, and make like hell for the stairs. I can set 'em so I've got enough time."

            Gojyo looked wary. "Fine idea, but let's send someone else."

            "You think I'm gonna fuck this up? And who else would you trust? Who else knows half what I know about bombs?"

            Sanzo sensed Gojyo's hesitation to let his friend run such a high risk, but interrupted to give it time to settle in, "Where do the rest of us come in?"

            "Get some guys at all entrances; we're going to have to hurry like hell to get in and out quickly, and then set bombs off around the base of the building. Powerful ones."

            "Can you make them?" Sanzo asked as Banri took a breath, and the scruffy man nodded, rubbing at the stubble of his beard.

            "Oh yeah. But it's going to go sky high, so we have to get the fuck out of there before the cops come."

            Sanzo thought it would be infinitely easier if somehow they could set the bombs off without having to enter the building, but that would in no way guarantee the death of the Phoenix's new leader; they were there to obscure the evidence and kill any lingering guards. Banri didn't have a bomb powerful enough to destroy the building completely without doing serious harm to nearby infrastructure and potential passersby. Of course the smaller bombs might do minor harm, but those were justified means. Anything more would practically be an act of terrorism.

            "The cops are going to come fast, too. Topeka is more used to this than Leavenworth," Yaone pointed out; she didn't notice the wary glance that passed between her leader and the newest recruit, who seemed to have attained the role of a minor captain over night. Sanzo himself wasn't sure he should participate, given that his tracker would lead the police right to them after the bombings. Gojyo instructed Banri to memorize his route well—they would arrive on Sunday night, just before one in the morning--, then gestured that Sanzo follow him outside.

            "What?" The door clicked shut behind them, and they stood against damp concrete, smoking.

            "Your cops are already gonna know you're headed to Headquarters, or they wouldn't let you go in the first place. If we went without you, they'd know once it happened that you favored us over them, and hid information. So you have to go."

            "We'll have to run in different directions."

            "Nah." Gojyo shook his head, "We'll pop that thing right off; they'll know, but that ain't gonna help them find you. Topeka's a big enough city. And they can't exactly rat you out without revealing themselves."

            Sanzo nodded, "How many men do you have?"

            "A phalanx," Gojyo joked, "But not quite. We can't bring an entire herd; it's too risky. I've found forty, ourselves included. The others will be working backup from here. I've designated an 'heir' of sorts, just incase this doesn't turn out well for me."

            Sanzo felt the sudden inexplicable urge to tap at the wooden railing nearby.

            "Where am I going to be?"

            "Right with me; we'll wait outside until the first explosions, then head in through the east door, out the west one. Naturally I'm going after whoever the fuck is on top of all this. He'll be on the third floor, so wear your running shoes."

            Sanzo grunted his agreement, "He might have an army with him by then."

            "Banri's distraction should be enough."

"What if it isn't?" Sanzo pressed. "What if it ends up us against thirty guys?"

"Guess you'd better bring your rabbit's foot."

 

            Tensions were strung high, and Sanzo finally told Hakkai they had been summoned to Headquarters in Topeka, and he was going in a week. Hakkai, so relieved to see the end of his journey in sight, didn't question in. Doku hadn't been present at the time.

            "That's wonderful. I mean, not for you. But don't worry, we'll have officers on it the moment it happens. Just give me a date and time, and I'll make sure you're covered." Hakkai could have the entire state guard in there in a heartbeat if he needed to. Sanzo suspected he planned to call Topeka's police department with the results of an "anonymous tip" from a familiar of the Scarlet Phoenix in the Leavenworth area. He knew they would catch him right off the bat, before he had a chance to get at the third floor, never mind escape.

            "We're supposed to come at three in the morning." He feigned a small look of apprehension," I don't know what the fuck they need us for so late."

            Hakkai frowned. "I assure you, we'll have officers there pronto, right at three."

            Sanzo nodded, looking unconvinced. "We're staying on Elmshire. It's some shitty dive, but that's where they told us to stay."

            Hakkai was not as surprised as Sanzo's cooperation as he might have been had information not been coming to him in a steady stream for the past few weeks. He had no reason to believe or disbelieve it, but thus far a few kernels of truth Sanzo had slipped in amongst the lies had led to little finds for Hakkai, and that kept him somewhat assured.

            It wasn't a complete lie; the Headquarters were on Elmshire street, so if Hakkai were to check the radar, he would find Sanzo there all evening. By the time he noticed his escape, he would have chucked the tracker. Timing was everything, and if anyone fucked up, they would be dead.

            "You're certain about all of this?"

            "As sure as I'm standing here."

 

            He didn't sleep. He ate poorly. It was a recipe for disaster, and Gojyo told him so. They shared the same bed every night before their planned departure, and Sanzo felt free to move about as he liked, no longer restrained by secrets.

            The night before, they bedded down at headquarters with several others, ready to be gone by morning. Banri snored, and Gojyo behaved too intimately for Sanzo's liking in front of the others, so he wriggled out from beneath the kappa's heavy arm with a growl, prowling outdoors to smoke.

            He wasn't sure why he was nervous. He had put himself in danger numerous times in the past—had nine months in jail softened him to this extent? It was pathetic. He couldn't remember his stomach tied up in knots over perilous hits in the past, nor even during carefully plotted attacks on Jienyi. Instead, he remembered distinctly fearlessness, a subtle hope covered by tension that always comes before a fight. He hadn't been scared to die, and a part of him had thought of it as a welcome relief. It was a win-win situation; if he killed Jienyi, Koumyou was avenged, if he died, he had done his best, and he would be free. Ironically neither of those things had happened, and perhaps if he had known the unhappy Limbo of Leavenworth was a possibility, he would have been frightened.

            Why now, then, did the thought of hauling a semi-automatic into a room full of unsuspecting but potentially deadly strangers alarm him so? It was something close to panic, even.

            Am I afraid to die? No. It would be an inconvenience, but not a fear. But all the same he was afraid of Death; not for himself, but for another. This, fuck it, this is why I knew better than to get involved with people. Then I have to worry for them. Caring was a serious hassle.

            The end of his cigarette singed his fingertips, and he dropped it, carefully lighting another. The guard on the other end of the block swore—perhaps the same thing had happened to him—and the sound carried in the dead of night.

            As the night sky darkened, he began to discover how deeply rooted this terror was, and how finally, finally, he wasn't willing to go so calmly into death. He had never gotten anything permanent in his life; good luck and bad, both had come and gone. Koumyou was dead, and Jienyi was out of reach. But there was Gojyo. And he wished he did not have to toss the dice on him, too. But they were going; a glance at his watch proved it; they would depart in an hour. Already people indoors were stirring; Sanzo heard crates being moved, vehicles being packed.

They say the Fates were lovers of irony, and Sanzo found no proof against it. For as it turned out, they had no need to go to Topeka; Headquarters came to them.

 

It was Gojyo who heard it first, pausing in his work to look up in the dead of night as the distant sound of purring engines—at least five of them—filled the stale air. His first thought was that the police had found them, traced Sanzo's tracker, but as the vehicles drew closer, he knew by the stealthy silence of the tires and rich growling from beneath the hood they weren't standard issue police cars.

"Fuck!"

Banri was already tearing open boxes and flinging machine guns out as people burst from the building. Sanzo wasn't sure how they had all fit; there were at least sixty of them total. He supposed there were underground tunnels connecting most of the street's worth of buildings. And all packed with weaponry.

Sanzo draped cartridges about his shoulder, hooking a steel-plated gun beneath his arm and slipping two pistols, the safety on, into the inside of his coat. People darted in and out, snatching up gleaming iron, and the entire street filled with the eerie clicking of guns being loaded and low-throated whispers.

He found Gojyo pressed up against the wall of the dilapidated grocery, inches from an alley way if need be. Several men were with him, two women, and moments before the sleek black vehicles turned the corner, the streets were bare. Sanzo saw brief flashes of headlights on metal in the windows, though he doubted they could be perceived from within the car. Men and women occupied the entirety of Twelfth Street, from rooftop to basement, and everything in between. Sixty was a scanty army, but if matched with an equal number in opposition, it would be more than enough to attract attention within five minutes of initiation.

"You should go," Gojyo whispered, "This wasn't the plan. They'll track you here." It was obvious he wasn't worried about the police finding them; they might be his key out alive, after all. Sanzo flushed faintly in embarrassment, shaking his head.

 "If I run, they'll know why. Besides, you're a little short-handed here. I can hear more cars in the distance." He paused, peering over his shoulder. "I can handle it, asshole."

Gojyo grinned and shrugged, finger stroking the trigger of his weapon. "Kiss for good luck?"

"Bite me."

In the brief moment of silence before the storm, Sanzo was able to peer either way down Twelfth, taking into account the decrepit old line of shops that might once have been packed with customers; they had long since been abandoned, and their owner undoubtedly wrote them off on his taxes every year, knowing no one would pay to rent them in such dangerous territory. It was a step above a ghost town, unoccupied by the public, but still swarming with life below the surface.

As the vehicles neared, his thoughts took a more sinister turn, and he began to count the beats of his pulse in waiting, and the soft sounds of Gojyo's breathing nearby.

The long line of cars that looked like a Mafia parade drew to a halt at almost exactly the same moment; doors flew open and the clack clack of boots on gravel and pitted asphalt drowned out their whispering. A stripe of white against the dark night, hovering in a darker shadow, leered at them.

"I'm not here to sack your city, Gojyo." He tilted his hat back, blue eyes gleaming opaquely like thick ice. He had to have known how many weapons were trained on him and his men. But he had his own; they were slipping like liquid out of cars, dripping down the streets and hunching up against walls, equally well armed. More flooded in from around the ends of the streets, huffing as they ran past. How Hazel had managed to park so close to their precise location was baffling.

"Gat." A snap of his fingers, and the giant followed him, two forty-fours in either hand. Sanzo had never seen him shoot, but he had to have been good; even Dokugakuji had claimed he was impossible to catch.

"I told you we'd be seein' each other again." He took a hesitant step down the street, and then another few. The air was charged, one side waiting for provocation, another for orders. Sanzo could feel Gojyo clenching his teeth and tensing his tendons in anticipation.

"We can leave, real calm like, if y'all just bring forward who we're wantin'. There doesn't have to be a fight." His smile indicated he didn't care either way, and was, for all Sanzo knew, only there for amusement. "It's mighty hard to talk to a wall."

            Banri, flanked by seven others, stepped out; they had been concealed within the building directly behind Hazel, and startled him. Gat shot out of instinct, but cocked his wrist at the last moment, recognizing him, and the bullet veered. Two stray shots were fired haphazardly from either side, and then the air cleared when the two men held up their hands in a sign of pause. It was as close to safe conduct to parley as anyone in the business ever came, but because honor was a fleeting sentiment, Banri was toying with virtual suicide. Sanzo could feel Gojyo lurch a bit, as if wanting to warn Banri off of it; too late.

            "And what is it you're 'wantin'?" Banri mocked, a sneer twisting his mouth up in amusement.

            Hazel glowered, "It's a very fair trade. We'll be takin' Mr. Gojyo and Mr. Sanzo, and leave y'all as you were. Supposin' you aren't plannin' on another full-blown attack."

            Banri snorted, hand flicking to the trigger of his gun; Gat raised his arm.

            "No."

            "How about a little altruism boys? Two for the price of—what, fifty? Sixty, maybe."

            Banri shook his head, and Hazel didn't look surprised, though he himself had no particular devotion to any one leader, nor had he ever. Sanzo recalled Gojyo's telling him how Banri had saved his skin when he was fifteen and given him a place to stay, a life to make. Even if it wasn't the best, he wasn't dead, was he? And Gojyo had put his own life on the line several times since; loyalty ran deeper than it externally appeared, and Sanzo felt a prick of memory, recalling his own fierce allegiance to Koumyou. That had come before love, but lately he had learned it didn't always have to.

            Hazel affected mild annoyance, sweeping off his hat and twirling it between his hands idly. "Your devotion," he said generously, "is quite a virtue. I suppose it'll get you into Heaven someday." He smiled wryly, holding his hat out to the side, two fingers pinching the brim. "But here on Earth it's just another manifestation of stupidity." The hat dropped, a light white arc against a backdrop of smeared gravel. Sanzo realized a second too late that it was their signal, and shoved Gojyo back against the wall with a grunt as the street erupted with gunfire.

            "Banri!" By the time they could see through the smoke of a tossed, handmade bomb, the near-distance was empty, though blood and the body of a dark-haired recruit cluttered the threshold of the shop. Hazel was surrounded by his own men, Gat at the forefront, and gunfire rang as steadily as church bells from all the windows bordering the narrow battlefield.

            Men fell into one another in a mad dash for cover, barricading buildings as their facades were torn to shreds by wavering lines of machinegun fire. Bombs smashed through glass windows and were hurled back out of them, bullets were exchanged for screams and vice versa.

            They could have escaped through the alley, but Gojyo was having none of that, and Sanzo followed like a shadow, firing at his side as they crashed into the fray. It was nothing like a hand-to-hand battle, nor a formal line up. One dove beneath or behind the nearest serviceable barrier and fired until running out of bullets or blood.

            With his nerves on edge, his senses took in everything, but his mind, fully occupied with the challenge at hand, registered little. Diving beneath a pile of wooden crates, he felt the side of his knee tear, smelled blood and gun oil, but thought only of aiming and firing at the men ducking behind their own vehicles, their throats and arms painted with a black crescent.

            It took three rounds for him to realize Gojyo wasn't right beside him, and that he would have felt better with a dagger stashed somewhere on his person. Reloading, huddled beneath the massive crates, he was nearly tumbled from his location when a young brunette, probably not even legal yet, flung herself at the wall, crouching beside the faded red writing of the crates that read "Flammable." Thankfully they were long since emptied.

            She spared him a glance, reloading, and he noticed her thigh was leaking profusely as he locked his rifle back into place. Holding his position, he unleashed a round of lead into two Eclipse mercenaries who had sought security behind a toppled car, but foolishly left their sides exposed. He was a crack shot, but in such a mess, and with such a weapon, didn't need to be. Loosing another bout of missals, he was jerked to the side as the device jammed and forced to duck into cover again. A light click and hiss alerted him to the sudden presence of a grenade, and, rolling out of the way just in time, managed to take most of the blow to his back. He tumbled down the pavement, the side of his cheek grinding painfully into the faded chalky line of a parking barrier. It was only after he had scrambled behind the wall of an old apartment building to take stock of his situation that he was able to peer back at the smoldering boxes. He saw the girl's foot poking out from the pile.

            Pressing into the filthy siding of the building, he popped the side of the gun open to tear out the offending missal, reloading in a heartbeat. A bullet flew by from an unknown source, tearing open the side of his elbow; he would worry about feeling it later.

            Crawling to the side after firing rapidly about the corner, he heard the snapping of glass, and realized he had backed his foot right through the narrow, ground-level window of the basement. Kicking it thoroughly through, bending even the rusty iron, he slid backwards into the shadows, landing on his ass with a grunt, his weapon scattering to the side.

            Because of the darkness outdoors and sparse street light, his eyes adjusted quickly, taking in the web-infested basement of what must have once been a drug store. There were still shelves and tables lining the walls, many filled with half-emptied bottles of varied colors and shapes. He ran his gun like a bat across the table, sweeping them all onto the floor and leaping cautiously atop the rickety wood, just below a window facing the street. Jerking at the rusty handle, he popped it open and fired with stealth from his makeshift foxhole, violet eyes scanning the crowd madly for a flash of red. All he saw was blood.

 

            Gojyo couldn't find Banri, and he didn't have the luxury of looking very long or hard. By the time he had risked hide and hair crossing the road, the scene behind him had been completely erased, replaced with broken bodies, glass, and tumbled vehicles. He sought temporary shelter within the building with at least a dozen others, ducking instinctively, when his gut told him to, and mercifully escaping the messy fate most of the others succumbed to. The red-haired man on his right—he was from a more distant sector of the Phoenix, outside of Leavenworth by a few miles—didn't know who or where Banri was. He couldn't say he'd seen a lean blond with angry eyes either. Gojyo didn't know where he had lost him, but he had better sense than to panic; Sanzo was better with a gun than he was.

            His mind ran a mile a minute, tumbling over itself in eagerness and tangling up important details until Gojyo forced himself to breathe, hunching up in a corner just as a compact, homemade bomb flew through and slammed into the redhead's face, hollowing it and splashing Gojyo with debris. He turned away.

            They have a helluva lot more than sixty. Maybe a hundred. Maybe more. Where were they coming from? He hadn't seen enough cars in the street to account for so many, and imagined they must be parked nose-to-nose just outside of the area, maybe closer to Fourteenth and the old five and dime.

            "Gojyo!" Yaone burst through the door, skidding in her boots on the blood-slicked floor. "We need to get the hell out of here. Now."

            "But Banri--"

            She shook her head, "Now. They're setting everything on fire. There are cops—at least twenty, but nowhere near enough to do any damage. They're probably calling everyone within a fifty mile radius. We're going to get killed one way or the other."

            Gojyo swore, glancing at his watch to see how much time had passed—an hour, maybe five minutes?—only to find the face smashed in from a tumble he had taken, and one of the hands torn off. When he looked up, Yaone was gone.

            "Gotta find Sanzo."

            He took off out the same door, turning a narrow corner only to burst into the general store's old storage unit, guns held up before him. They almost went off, too, eager to tear that smirking face into shreds, except that Gat was behind him, one gun leveled at Yaone, the other at Gojyo. He drew up.

            Hazel frowned, "Where's your little friend?"

            "I should ask you that."

            "Hm. Come with me—you're needed. Gat." The giant gladly exchanged his hostage, forking Yaone over to Hazel's watch; a small pistol kept her in line.

            Gojyo was prodded up against a wall, and then Gat placed the muzzle of his gun, hot with recent use, against his nape. He heard him say, "Kneel," and then Hazel's lighter weapon being cocked.

            "Mr. Gojyo, I should warn you. This is going to hurt."

            There was a bright shock of pain, and then, too quickly, darkness.

 

            When Sanzo woke, he came close to panicking. He was certain he was dead. He must be dead—he was in a coffin. The tiny space was pitch black, closing in on all sides. It smelled faintly of metal and rubber, and only when it bounced, thunking the back of his skull against the scratchy lining, did Sanzo recognize it for a car trunk.

            Soon the buzzing in his head cleared enough that he could hear the whirr of the road beneath him, and the occasional groan of the vehicle in which he traveled. His hands, bound in rough rope, ached painfully. The open wound on his elbow was starting to hurt. He was not claustrophobic, but being bound and stowed away in a trunk was enough to incite panic in almost anyone. He forced himself not to gulp the air, but drink it slowly. This was not where he would die; his captors were taking him somewhere. He forced himself to think.

            Where was I last? The basement of the pharmacy. Reloading when someone must have struck him from behind. He hadn't been shot—no, they really did want him alive—and couldn't feel of any other wounds, save for the bright pain at his nape and scalding wound at his elbow.

            Would the police come after him? Surely if he were being taken far, they would know. Hakkai would track him. He shifted his ankles together for comfort, and was shocked to feel skin against skin. The device had been removed.

            "Well fuck it."

            Although he didn't sleep, at some point he began to drift in and out of consciousness, desperately playing the scene out in his mind again and again, trying to determine the hour, how much time had passed since he had last seen Gojyo alive, and the likelihood that he still was. Remembering Hazel's orders to kill him, Sanzo's stomach knotted painfully in realization that, if he had already been captured, that likelihood was nil.

            He wasn't sure how much time passed, but the air was getting thin by the time the trunk was popped up and two men, neither familiar, jerked him up and out. He recognized the dull brick façade of the building on the corner, and glimpsed a street sign as he was jerked about and into another car, this time the back seat. They were near Quincy, and he would know that courthouse anywhere, where he had had his own trial. He was in Topeka.

           

When Gojyo came to he was sitting up, the back of his head hot and damp with blood, but able to focus. Rather than chained to a radiator or dead, he was half-reclined in a leather wingback chair, facing a wide oak desk flanked by potted plants and oil paintings. The heavy burgundy curtains had been drawn closed.

"Pretty, aren't you?" The voice came from behind him, but before he could turn his head, a fistful of hair was snatched up in a wiry hand and jerked to the side, baring his throat. He felt eyes appraising him before he was released. The door creaked, and Gat materialized out of nowhere. The man hovering above him took a step back, smiling without emotion, not cruelty or relief, only a twitch of muscle.

"I take it Hazel has our quarry?" He registered that the man's voice was cruel; it had a sharp edge to it, like steel sliding through satin, like a voice used to being obeyed.

"He wanted the pleasure of bringing him to you himself." It was the most he had ever heard Gat speak.

"Good. I don't suppose he'll cooperate without proper incentive. He'd rather die than listen to reason."

As his captor backed up to perch atop the edge of his desk, Gojyo found that he was perhaps nearing forty, if not yet there, and a little taller than Sanzo. His face was flecked by stubble and looked peaked, though he doubted it was age; still in possession of a full head of rich black hair, the man might have passed for younger on a better night, were it not for his eyes. They scared Gojyo, Gojyo who had seen more killers than he could count, more malicious rapists, thieves and murders than most. On the surface their beady golden lenses showed amusement, a front. Below that, anger, greed. But Gojyo had seen all that; it was the core that shook him, because pushing past the fury and desire, there was an inhuman hollow: absolutely nothing.

 

Sanzo was blindfolded. He hated it more than the trunk—at least in the trunk he could assess his situation, look at his surroundings, even if there were none. A weapon had been trained on him, metal recently cooled nudging the side of his throat. He tolerated it without question for the moment, but silently reserved the right to swallow a bullet the moment things turned. Perhaps it would have been wiser, he thought, to have put up a fight ahead of time. It could only get worse.

"Okay Gat, I've got him now," Hazel's smooth voice assured him; Sanzo's skin prickled at the man's touch, which lingered far too long. "You go on up. We'll take the elevator."

He crossed tiled floors—he could hear his shoes clicking—and supposed the building was a clean once, fancy even. There was air conditioning running despite the hour, though very little light seeped in past the thick fabric bound about his eyes.

A distant smell of cleaning fluid and Fabreeze struck him as they paused, listening to the dinging of an elevator. Hazel was holding a gun to his side, and used his freehand to steady his shoulders.

"You know I hope he doesn't kill you. I like your spirit."

The doors slid open, and Sanzo stumbled into the little box, hearing it rattle as it began its ascent, accompanied by the unmistakable sensation of rising against gravity. Hazel's hand smoothed down his arm, and he jerked out of the way. The press of the muzzle tightened.

"I'd like to have you, you know. But only if you'd like it too." He said it as if he were asking out a prom date, and Sanzo would have traded his soul to have his hands unbound long enough to deck him.

"Yes, you've been so subtle," Sanzo sneered, "You'd better just shoot me now, because there's no way in Hell you could get me to do that."

Hazel merely replied with a contemplative, "Hm," and then gently but firmly guided his prisoner from the elevator seconds after the doors shuddered open.

The walk took longer than it otherwise might have; Sanzo didn't trust his guide; though walking into a wall was the least of his worries at the moment, instinct prevailed, and he stepped cautiously.

"Turn right here," Hazel's voice, sing-song, had sharpened. They were near to their destination, wherever that was.

"You're lucky you know," A southern drawl reminded him, "Very few fresh recruits like yourself ever get to meet the overlord of the Phoenix. Most people can't even believe there's such a tightly organized and neatly run centre of crime in a little, unsuspectin' place like Kansas."

"Are you running for election?" Sanzo hissed, suddenly jerked forward a second pair of doors creaked open.

"I have him here, your prize," Hazel jested, shoving Sanzo twice in the back until he staggered forward, working to keep his balance.

"Sanzo!"

"Gojyo?" He turned his head in the direction of the sound, and then heard a low laughter in response, to his left. Something flared in his memory, and the voice confirmed it.

"I hate that we have to meet on such terms after almost a full year, Sanzo, but you made it awfully difficult to catch you."

His body froze, every tendon hardening with a sudden spur of tension. He could hear his heart slamming against his chest, rising up in his throat as the blood beneath his skin rose close to the surface.

"I see you recognize my voice. How many nights, I wonder, did you hear it in your head, wishing me dead? They say vengeance is unhealthy these days, but what isn't?"

The voice faded in and out like waves, drowned in the sound of his maddening pulse; his own voice sounded foreign for a moment, choked. "Take it off."

That laughter again. "Yes, Hazel, take it off. It's been such a long time since I've seen those eyes glaring death at me."

The band of fabric was loosened, and his eyes blinked twice, adjusting with ease because of the dim lighting. It was how Hazel knew about Koumyou. How the Phoenix knew how he was—why they wanted him, and alive.

 He saw his face—haggard but healthy enough, lined with longer hair than he used to have, peppered with an attempt at a beard. Smiling white death and narrow golden eyes that once sneered at him over a gun…

"Bastard!" He lunged, heedless of his injuries and state of bondage, slamming his foot into the man's gut. Jienyi toppled back with a grunt, holding his hands up when Gat raised his guns. He didn't have the breath to laugh, but the shell of a smile was planted on his face as the giant dragged Sanzo back.

"Don't shoot," he wheezed, struggling back up. His voice cleared after a few moments, and Gat was forced to hold tightly to Sanzo, who lunged with every breath, looking maddened.

"There's so much more we have to do."

 

"What the fuck is this?" Gojyo growled from his seat, not daring to rise, now that Hazel had his weapons out too. "What the hell are you doing here?" Although he addressed Jienyi, he couldn't take his eyes off of Sanzo. He had never seen such blatant fury; the man would have torn his captor asunder with his teeth and nails alone if he had been freed. The blond looked ready to rip his throat out, the way he glared at it. And how not? This was Koumyou's murderer.

"Can't you guess? I've been running this place for months now. You must admit I've done wonderfully." Jienyi paused, gesturing that Gat should hold Sanzo more firmly, and approached him, fingertips ghosting across his cheeks. Sanzo froze.

"I'd tell you exactly how I did it, but I rather suppose you can figure that much out on your own, and I'm not vain enough to waste my time recounting such a minor exploit." He leaned in to brush his mouth over Sanzo's forehead, slipping a hand down the centre of his throat, then across his torso. He pushed tiny buttons aside so that they popped open, baring his naked chest. Gojyo rose, but a click of Hazel's gun settled him.

"You're still quite beautiful," Jienyi murmured, and Sanzo jerked to the side turning his head in preparation for something Gojyo saw in advance, but Jienyi didn't expect.

He heard their heads crack as they met, but Sanzo was hardly fazed, and only surged forward in another attempt. Gat held him more tightly, and Jienyi cradled the side of his head with a wicked grin. "I should have expected that from you." He jerked a knife from his boot, and laughed hard at the sudden expectation in Sanzo's eyes.

"Oh no, you're not getting off that easily. I'm not stupid; I know you'd die in an instant before letting me have anything. That's why he's here." And his gaze fell upon Gojyo; suddenly the kappa had a gun pressed neatly to his temple—Hazel's—and Jienyi drew the fine blade across the top of his thigh, dangerously close to the inseam.

"I can do so much worse, so behave. I know you don't want me to kill off another one of your lovers. You have such nasty luck with that." He approached slowly, and Gojyo knew the sudden motionlessness in Sanzo's body was a true indicator of danger. Jienyi dragged a palm down Sanzo's breast, cupping his side just below his ribcage. "Haven't you noticed it?" He breathed, "Doesn't it make you wonder? Does everyone you fuck die?"

Gat had had him in such a strong hold that Gojyo doubted even a trained wrestler could evade it. Sanzo, who was half his weight at best, produced a furious snarl that couldn't be called anything but feral and twisted free. Even Gat looked shocked, and snatched back at him only to find he had torn the ropes at his wrist, and was on Jienyi in an instant.

Gojyo didn't even see Hazel's motions; he felt the deep, slow burn of the icy metal as it buried itself in the side of his other leg. It was his scream that made Sanzo stop, frozen and panting with his long fingers inches from Jienyi's throat, no longer fighting Gat.

Gojyo struggled to breathe as pain inundated his senses.

"I suppose I should have armed myself, but then where'd the fun?" Jienyi rose shakily," Gat, keep a better hold on him. Do I have to bring in others?" Gojyo suspected he didn't want the others to see what he had planned, or he would have the room ringed in gunmen.

"Hold him firmly," He hissed, glancing with purpose back at the redhead loosely bound in the chair, beside whom Hazel stood posted. Sanzo was still.

"Now." Jienyi pushed the shirt off of his shoulders, but wasted no time stroking, only snatched the amber pendant that hung from his throat, snapping the chain. "This is it."

Now even Sanzo looked confused, and Gojyo was using his hands to staunch the flow of blood from his thigh; he felt light-headed already, and the sticky mass was clotting. A glance at the door yielded a click from Hazel's revolver.

"Did he ever tell you what this was for?" Jienyi queried in a sing-song tone, fondling the pendant lovingly.

It was evident by the expression on Sanzo's face that he had not.

"Hm." Jienyi moved to the wide windowsill where a safe rested; it was sleek and black, not a rim or ridge on it. Tilting it cautiously to the side, he slid the small, intricate ornament into the bottom casing, hearing a snick and letting out a low growl of excitement.

"He left this for you, I suppose. To go on managing the Dawn, or whatever the hell you two planned. It's undoubtedly more than I've ever made, or would, and convenient enough that I can spend it without question overseas. People rarely question payment in gold."

The bottom of the safe slid open, and Jienyi peered inside with a laugh of delight, drawing out not the heavy gold bars Gojyo expected, but coal-cluttered crystals, some of them of immaculate clarity. One was blue.

"Crystal?" Hazel sneered, watching Jienyi fondle its edges; it more than filled his palm. It was too large to be anything else.

"Diamonds." Jienyi corrected, "Pristine, flawless diamonds; this one must be thirty carats. Undoubtedly from his brief foray into Russia." He drew out stacks of foreign bills, land deeds, and then heavy sacks of dentelle-cut emeralds. "These from a trade in Brazil," he marveled, apparently forgetting his audience in awe of the pre-twentieth century jewels. Further, he drew out a sold jade carving, and Hazel scoffed openly at its worth.

"The value isn't in the stone," Jienyi snapped in annoyance, fingering the cracked relic. "It's ancient. And museum quality. A good luck charm, they say."

Gojyo thought, from what he could perceive through encroaching agony, that Sanzo was mystified. Had he not known Koumyou's influence stretched so far? Or perhaps Koumyou himself had merely inherited it—or been very lucky. But when he spoke, the kappa realized it had nothing to do with how Koumyou obtained it at all.

"Money?" Sanzo rasped. "All of this for money?"

"What else?" No more profound words had ever been spoken.

"You killed him for money!"

"I killed him because it pleased me to do so. I killed him because his sickening little whore was going to make off with what would buy my escape from this damned country. You think it's easy to get out when every level of the government wants you dead?"

Sanzo moaned as if in physical pain, unable to cope with the petty reason for his crime. Perhaps he had expected it to match the eloquence and gravity of his grief.

"There, there. You shouldn't look so anguished; haven't you immunized yourself against the effects of hatred by now? You've had long enough." Striding to his desk, he pressed several buttons on the wide base of a phone, "Send Gyumaoh up, please, and a small band of guards to escort something of mine out of the building."

"Where'll you be wantin' us to take Mr. Sanzo?" Hazel asked, flicking a sideways glance at the smoldering blond. "He looks mighty ornery."

"He always has." Jienyi smiled, "No need, gentleman. I'll be leaving this evening, but before I go, he and I have some business to attend to."

            Gat was barely holding him now; he didn't need to, the threat on Gojyo's life seemed to have stalled even Sanzo's fury in its tracks. The kappa could see him clenching and unclenching his fists, back teeth grinding as muscles in his jaw rippled with tension. But he didn't lunge forward, not once. For a moment, violet eyes met his, and the shock traveled strait to the frayed edges of his nerves. Sanzo looked scared. Gojyo couldn't imagine what would have provoked terror strong enough to overcome his rage. 

            "What sort of business might that be?"  Hazel asked, though as little more than a hired hand, it was none of his affair. His tone was clipped, almost aggravated, as though he knew something the others didn't.

            Just then, the door opened and several armed men took the safe—which had been locked up again, the pendant stashed in Jienyi's front pocket—escorting it out with the greatest of care, clutching it like a child. Gojyo wondered how he could trust them with such a prize; even if they didn't know what was in it, he had hardly concealed his desire to possess its contents. That alone made it valuable.

            "Take it to the car please; just leave the keys in the ignition; I should be out shortly, after attending to an affair." He peered out the front window of the building with a small smile.

            It struck him then, watching Jienyi turn his back on disgruntled armed guards and two well-trained captives, that it wasn't trust in his underlings that permitted him to let the treasure out of his sight, but trust in his own power. He wielded fear the way some men wielded firearms, and Gojyo had never seen anyone manipulate it better. There was something to be said for fighting with psychology.

            "What sort of business might that be?" Hazel repeated in the same tetchy tone, as though they hadn't been interrupted. Jienyi glowered.

            "Nothing out of the ordinary." Gojyo thought, for Jienyi, that might entail anything. "Take the redhead to the basement. Shoot him."

            "No!" Sanzo snarled, attracting his captor's attention once again, though only for a moment.

            "Do it." He snapped at Hazel, "His only use was in forcing Sanzo to behave. For what I plan, he can be as feisty as he likes."

            Gojyo, formerly fading in and out of consciousness, suddenly jerked awake at threats on his life and Sanzo's well-being. "Son of a bitch! Like fuck you're going to do that!" He struggled up, and heard Hazel's gun shift; glancing at him, he found with surprise that it had been lowered slightly, almost sagging in his hand. He snatched at it.

            The gun went off, pitting Jienyi's desk with a sizeable gash as Hazel struggled after it for a moment. Gojyo couldn't help but wonder at his luck—what sort of hitman let his guard down like that?

            Pressing the muzzle to Hazel's throat, he bade him stand still. Jienyi whipped out his pistol with ease, prepared to shoot Gojyo no matter the risks—Hazel had done what he'd hired him to—and then seemed to remember Gat's presence.

            Still holding onto Sanzo with one cast-iron fist, the other raised a forty-four, aimed evenly at Nii's skull.

            "That's right Gat," Gojyo breathed raggedly, unable to stem the flow of blood from the wide wound on his thigh. He could fell the limb growing numb. "I'll kill him, just like that, if Jienyi shoots." The three-way stand off lasted almost an entire minute as Gojyo struggled with what to do, trying to calculate how much time they would have to get away, and whether he could run it. And whether Gat would let them.

            Just as he made up his mind to insist Gat shoot Jienyi between the eyes—he'd rather take his chances with the silent giant than the dark-eyed maniac—the door burst open with several of Jienyi's guards, all tattooed with the inverted crescent. Guns went off all at once in a deafening crack of sound that seemed to split the air into halves. Gojyo shot two of them before collapsing with a second wound to the same leg. He jerked a chair onto its side to crouch behind, firing until the revolver was out of bullets, though he clutched the empty weapon to his chest afterward. He saw no one shot at Sanzo.

            "Take them—both of them—to the basement," Jienyi hissed, clutching a wound at his wrist that was bleeding profusely. He bound it shortly with a strip of curtain. "Take the redhead too—if he hasn't bled out in the morning, I'll find something creative to do with him." The men nodded and escorted their captives down the hallway; Gojyo limped along, trying to memorize the pattern of their path so that he might find a way back, or get some help. But everything—the criss-crossed pattern of the carpet and endless peach paint of the halls blended together in an impossible mess. He felt as though he could collapse and sleep for ten years. The click of the door closing behind them, with Sanzo on the other side, jolted him back into the present and his dire circumstance.

            "Move it." He must have paused, because the muzzle of a gun jabbed him none-too-subtly in the spine. He stumbled, but righted himself, ignoring the screaming nerves of his frayed muscles with great effort.

            "Where are you taking us?" He managed in a haggard tone; Hazel had the good sense to keep silent, and the guard shoved him roughly.

            "Where you can't come back."

 

            "Looks like it's just you and me," Jienyi smiled, toying with his revolver, which was trained on Sanzo.

            "What the fuck do you want?" The blond hissed, glaring straight past the weapon and into his eyes. Jienyi failed to look impressed at his nonchalance concerning the gun; he supposed Sanzo had wanted to die for a long time now.

            "I suppose I should have kept Gojyo up here? To use against you? But then who indeed would I have skilled enough to hold him off while I'm…incapacitated? Hazel seems to want the same thing."

            "Fuck off and die!" His prisoner spat, keeping his distance. "You think that's going to dissuade me from biting your throat out if you come close?"

            Jienyi laughed, "Sadist."

            "Monster."

            "Hm." He looked thoughtful, tapping long fingers against the desk top. "Perhaps. Say," he began, a smile creeping over his features as though he had just stumbled across the idea, rather than planned it from the onset, "I can still quite easily use Gojyo against you. You can't hold it against me that I like my privacy." He pressed the button off his phone, and a fizzy voice on the other end responded.

            "Tell you what," He said with a stomach-churning grin, "I'll leave it on speaker phone, and if you decide not to play along, I'll have your lovely little redhead skinned alive. It takes longer to die than you'd think," he reminded him happily. Sanzo spat.

            "Hear that, Gyokumen?" He spoke into the speaker, and the female voice on the other end affirmed that yes, she did, and would pass the order along.

            "This way it's not quite so public," Jienyi smirked. "I do wish I could make it last longer, but in this sort of situation…" He approached, and Sanzo, backed up against the paneling of the wall, winced at his touch. To resist would mean Gojyo's death, and to try for his own would undoubtedly result in the same. 

            "I can see the hate in your eyes. You know you might try another look, sometime. That's a real turn off." He stripped Sanzo of the rest of his shirt, head dipping to press vicious kisses along his collarbone. The blond jerked to the side, and he only laughed, fisting a handful of fair hair and forcefully baring his throat to sharp teeth.

            Sanzo gasped in surprise, pushing away out of instinct, though to little avail, and then Jienyi lunged. They grappled with one another for a moment, tumbling on the thin carpet until Jienyi, glancing up at the phone, taunted, "Gyokumen…" Sanzo fell quiet, panting motionless on the floor, either wrist held by manacle-like fingers. His shirt lay crumpled to one side, Jienyi's on the other. A hot tongue ran the length of Sanzo's torso, and he felt the waistband of his denims plucked open by teeth. A trill of panic crept into his shoulders, and he shuddered fiercely in response, heart thudding crazily within its cage.

            With each tentative stroke, his muscles contracted violently, hips canting to the side to avoid the icy touch. Refusing to give him the satisfaction of crying out, he turned his head so that his cheek pressed into the rough carpeting, eyes focused on the way the curtains pooled against the wall. He imagined they had been sound-proofed, not that he had anyone to call for. Any sound I make will be muffled…

            "I wish I could make this last longer for you," Nii purred overhead, "But I see you're determined to fight me. Just think of your pretty little redhead."

            Nii made the mistake of slipping both of his wrists into one palm, counting on his acquiescence. Sanzo grew still as the idea struck him, looking to the curtains, and then to his shirt without so much as tilting his head. Jienyi, far too intent on stripping him, allowed the clue to pass unnoticed. It would have to be done quickly, before any sound could be made that Gyokumen could hear. Sanzo wanted badly to calculate what angle he needed to strike at to get the best leverage, and estimate the length of Nii's arms against his. But when he felt a cold hand slip down beneath the thin fabric of his underclothing, he decided it had to be then and there.

With a grunt of effort Sanzo vaulted himself upward, snatching the frayed violet fabric with one hand and toppling Jienyi with a kick of his foot and the guidance of his right elbow, which lodged messily into the side of his jaw. Shortly Nii was on his back, the thin silk strung about his head and in between his lips, effectively gagging him; Sanzo tightened it to be sure, and the man gagged, gurgling some sort of warning to the woman on the other end of the line. Sanzo knew she would assume the grunting sound to come from his victim, and didn't bother to cloak his own ragged breathing at the effort.  He had him pinned with the weight of his body, all pressed forward onto one hand, which lay pinned against his throat. Knees secured either leg, and he held off one hand with his own. This wasn't going to last.

He spared a backward glance to where the gun was, lying just beneath the desk where it had landed; Nii's foot must have kicked it there. Temporarily crippling him with a two-handed chokehold that, in his position, Jienyi could not fight off, he lunged for the rifle, grasping it and whirling just in time to see Nii stagger to his feet near the door.

"Get the fuck over here."

He had jerked the gag down, and his throat was already purpling from where Sanzo had throttled him. He obeyed.

"Kneel."

Jienyi did so, an expression of utter shock painting his face, tinted with disbelief. Perhaps he really thought someone was going to come in to save him.

"Mr. Jienyi?" Gyokumen's voice. "Mr. Jienyi?"

"Answer her," Sanzo whispered, cocking the weapon and leveling it at his head. He thought by the numbing ache in his muscles that he must be smiling maniacally, though he couldn't recall ever having started. "Say you're having a good time, and not to bother you."

Nii repeated the words in a croak, and the voice on the other end went silent. Sanzo unplugged the phone.

"Tell me where you put Gojyo."

"So you can kill me and go rescue him?" Nii coughed in a smile, shaking his head. "If I'm to die, so are you."

"You want to die with your ass full of lead?" Sanzo barked, striding forward to slam the side of the gun brutally against his temple; the slick spray of blood that dotted the carpet and coating his hand was hot, and smelled like freshly forged iron. He didn't know how much time he had, only that it wasn't enough. Jienyi wouldn't talk.

"I wish I could make this last longer for you," He hissed, jerking him up by his collar and kicking his chest until the narrowed golden eyes focused on his. "What you took from me can't be made up for with your worthless life. This isn't for Koumyou." He leveled the gun between Jienyi's eyes, and with pleasure recognized realization; he knew he was about to die.

"This is for me." He jerked his finger back on the trigger and closed his eyes to protect them from the scalding spray of blood and tissue that followed, dropping the body back onto the ground with a little groan. The satisfaction was nothing like he'd imagined. Koumyou was still dead, and Jienyi had escaped. He really had been worthless; even in taking his life, none of the ache had subsided.

With a curse, Sanzo raided the desk drawers for keys, not surprised to find them empty. He did, however, find spare bullets for the gun, and stuffed them into his pockets as he hurried past the motionless form and an increasingly deeper pool of blood seeping through the carpet. He paused, turning, and snatched the amber pendant—key—from Nii's front pocket and tucked it into his own. Without a backward glance he darted out into the hallway on silent feet, navigating with great caution.

It was when he realized he had no idea where he was going that he remembered Gojyo's map of the building, and the back elevator shafts that he had planned to enter through originally. Sanzo summoned the blueprint image to his mind's eye a second time and crept through dark halls, all closed up for the night, in that direction.

Just as he began to contemplate turning about, the shudder and sigh of rickety machinery stopped him in his tracks, and he recognized the sound of an elevator. So it had been the right direction, but it appeared they were occupied.

He threw himself against the side wall, panting despite a lack of exertion, and waited as the doors slid open, gun cocked. There was no beep or ringing of a bell, and the tracks were well enough oiled that it was a footstep that alerted him. He swung around to shoot, jerking his arm up and to the side in the process as he recognized the grime-covered face hovering before him.

"Banri?"

"Sanzo! We thought you were dead!" He whispered fiercely, waving the six men he had come in with to hurry into the hallway. "Where's Gojyo?"

"The basement."

"Shit, let's get back on." They huddled into the small contraption, and Banri looked him over, glancing down at the open gash on his elbow, though it had long since dried.

"Where've you been?"

"Busy as hell. They're going to be swamped with guards—did you bring more men?"

"Don't got more." He opened his vest, "But I got these." Six bombs, all neatly attached to the canvas-like material, hung strung with wires against his skin. "Figure we can set 'em off on our way out to stall 'em."

Sanzo nodded, accepting a semi-automatic from one of the others and tucking his revolver into the belt loop of his pants. As the elevator slid down the shaft towards the basement floor, they began to hear voices, muffled through the walls. Sanzo slammed his fist into the circular red button and Banri swore at him.

"Now they're gonna know were coming you fuckup!"

"Good. Shut up and give me one of your bombs." He pressed the button in reverse until the doors slid open on the second floor, which was silent and thankfully unoccupied.

Setting it for eleven seconds, Sanzo positioned it in the corner of the small carpeted elevator box and pressed the arrow pointing downward on the paneling, leaping out as the doors shuddered closed. "We'll have to take the stairs."

In the nearby stairwell, they heard the thunderous explosion as the bomb went off, but were at enough of a distance not to feel anything.

"Any idea how big this basement is?" Banri breathed, trying to keep up as Sanzo and two of the men in front of him practically toppled down the stairs, taking them by twos and threes.

"No fucking clue."

They split into two groups, Banri led three men in one direction, and Sanzo took three others, not bothering to ask names. They darted through the underground tunnels, blinded by fluorescent lights falling on white plaster and polished concrete floors. Pipes hung exposed overhead, some leaking down the sides of the walls and puddling in corners.

            Sanzo pushed open every door they passed, and shot through the locks on those that wouldn't budge. Upon receiving a dumbfounded look from one of the Phoenix guards, he merely kicked through another barred room, angry to find it empty. "No time to be subtle," he grunted as one of them worked to pick a lock; his revolver broke the handle off and caused the door to swing open easily, revealing a storage room painted green.

            At the end of the hall they met up with Banri, who shrugged uselessly, "Everything's empty. Are you sure he's down here?"

            "What else could 'take them to the basement' mean?"

            "Them?" They were already striding down another narrow corridor, the combined sound of their feet was enough to track them by.

            "Hazel and Gat too."

            "What? I thought they were workin' for him? He turned on them?"

            "Does that really shock you?" Sanzo made a sign for silence as they approached a wide set of double doors, ducking out of view of the small inlaid glass panels near the top. There were voices coming from the other side, gruff orders being made.

            "How many are in there?" Banri whispered, and Sanzo, peering cautiously through the paneling, made a quick estimate.

            "A dozen."

            Banri shrugged, "Element of surprise?" And kicked the doors open.

            The wave of gunfire caught them off guard, and before anyone thought to fire back, five were dead, and two mortally wounded. Sanzo went for one, disarming him wit ha shot to the wrist, as Banri and his crew swarmed the last few.

            The rifle was too unwieldy; Sanzo pressed the hot edge of his revolver against the survivor's temple, "Tell me where the prisoners are being kept."

            "What!"

            "Deaf!?"

            "Here! They're in the basement! They're down that hall," He struggled to point, and Sanzo saw his hand tremble and realized he wasn't more than a kid.

            "How old are you?"

            "Sixteen!"

            "Tch." He was technically fair game, but Sanzo disarmed him and shrugged him off, "Come on."

            "What!?" The kid squealed, taking a tentative step forward. "To show you?"

            "No he wants your dance card," Banri sneered, "Move it, brat!"

            He protested that he didn't have a key, "I swear!" but Banri shot the locks off of the holding cell without much trouble; Sanzo was through the doors without looking, an incredibly stupid move in hindsight, though he got lucky. There were only two guards in the anteroom, and Banri had them both bleeding from the head before Sanzo could raise his arm in defense.

            The cage-like space was small, furnished only with two chairs and slabs of concrete. He saw Gojyo first, propped up against the wall with blood-stained fabric bound tightly about his thigh; the same material covered several other wounds. It didn't escape Sanzo that the base of Hazel's tunic was shredded; the man had a nasty bruise beneath his left eye, and was resting his head against Gat's shoulder.

            "Sanzo! Banri!?" He looked ecstatic, hobbling up. "How much time we got?"

            "Not enough for your gimpy leg; move it." Sanzo snagged his arm, draping it about his own shoulders. "Banri?"

            "This'a way; there's another shaft not far from here." Sanzo passed his revolver to Gojyo, doubting he could handle anything bigger in his state.

            "You're on your own. My gift to you's that I ain't gonna ventilate your head," Banri snapped at the other two prisoners. Perhaps he had noticed the bandages as well. Sanzo was about to protest when he remembered Hazel's slip up in Nii's office, something one as well-trained as him would never let occur by accident. He closed his mouth and, slipping an arm about Gojyo's waist, hurriedly escorted him towards the lift.

            "You have a car for us?"

            "Do I!" Banri grinned, "Prettiest thing you've ever seen. It'll blend right into the night. The cops are already swarming this place—which, by the way, is a helluva whole lot bigger than the prints show. The shafts and back stairwell are the only way to the basement; they'll be finding that soon."

            "So where's our ride?" Gojyo asked, pausing to listen as the elevator surged open. Before Banri could answer, the parting doors revealed a clutch of armed officers, at least seven, all aiming at them. Suddenly the cluster of men in the elevator drew apart, slamming into the tight space against the wall for cover as they fired. Sanzo felt the floor shudder as two, then a third, went down. Banri popped the top of a grenade and sent it flying; it exploded just as its target scattered, and with their backs conveniently turned, they were picked off with ease.

            "No time; move," Banri hissed, helping drag Gojyo out over the three bodies; the other three men followed at their heels, weapons ready.  

            Gojyo faded in and out of consciousness as they passed through hallway after hallway of ecru paneling and scuffed up wainscoting, dotted with potted plants and bullet holes. Fuck it's like a real business. Twice he startled awake only to realize Sanzo had been practically dragging him—leaving  telltale bloody track behind—and apologized in a mumble.

            "Don't be stupid," the blond growled at him, giving his body a jerk forward. "Just move!"

            On their way to the back lot, having to take numerous detours to avoid the sound of voices, they lost two. Only a blond remained, watching Sanzo and Banri's backs. "Y'know I always wanted to die surrounded by three blonds. I just kinda assumed they'd be women," Gojyo drawled, disoriented. Sanzo elbowed him—hard—and bit out that he ought to shut up or he'd make that wish come true in a heartbeat.

            For what felt like forever he moved his feed in an artless pattern, trying to walk, though his injury had numbed most of the muscles in that leg, and clung to Sanzo for dear life. The sound of panting and muttered curses drowned out the occasional scrape of his shoes against the carpet, or a grunt of pain when he hit a corner. The building was hot, and seeing the wide double doors just up ahead made Gojyo hope the night had cooled off since his drive up. Banri kicked them open, bombs in either hand, and found four police officers standing there, guns forward. Before they could shout "Don't move," or the classic, "Drop your weapons," Banri had chucked them forward at the vehicles. Sanzo had thrown himself backwards onto the floor before the motion, body halfway over Gojyo's. The explosion of three state trooper cars snuffed out the ping-ping of the guns; the nameless blond Banri had recruited took one in the face and didn't get up. Gojyo felt Sanzo's body jolt on top of his, but a squeeze to his shoulder before he was hauled up told him it was superficial. Debris shot up into the air and through several upper story windows; undoubtedly the entire force would be there in minutes. Three of the four that had confronted them were face down, and the fourth, bloodied but having escaped the worst, held his gun out with a shaking arm and shot twice, missing both times. His gun ran out, and he dropped it into a pool of oil and rainwater; Sanzo winced. He looked like a kid.

            Banri jerked out his own revolver, and Sanzo batted his arm away, ignoring the, "Oh Jesus," and whine of annoyance that followed.

            "Get him to the car! I'll follow. That idiot's leaking enough to leave a trail." Gojyo cursed him quietly and Sanzo approached the young officer, whose strained blue eyes followed every twitch of his weapon.

            "This is gonna hurt a hell of a lot when you wake up," He warned him, snapping the butt of the gun forcefully against his temple; only a thin trickle of blood emerged, but it effectively rendered him unconscious; Sanzo nudged him over onto his side and took off, surprised that he was unable to find Banri. He nearly tripped over Gojyo, who was sprawled out on the sidewalk, panting. His first thought was that the bastard abandoned him.

            "What the fuck are you doing down there!?"

            "Keep yer voice down," Gojyo groaned, "And help me the hell up. Banri went to create a diversion," He grinned, though it ended in more of a wince. "Car's down the block in an alley, follow me."

"You're gonna lead huh?" Sanzo slid his partner's arm about his neck, following his directions and managing the quickest limp he had ever attempted. The parking lot was the hardest to cross; although most of the lights overhead were out, there were enough left on to make dodging their glow difficult. To skirt the entire block would have been a waste of time; Sanzo had no idea how much area the cops had covered. More were undoubtedly coming. A glance at his watch proved that the entire ordeal, from his killing Nii to where they were now, had taken twenty minutes. It felt like a year.

After the parking lot they passed down several streets, sticking like shadows to the sides of buildings and ducking into alleyways at the slightest hint of noise. It had rained lightly, and the cement and pavement were slick with puddles; overhead the moon was a sliver, a yellowed thumb nail poking out between clouds. Sanzo could feel the track on his side from the bullet that had grazed him beginning to ache, and he inhaled sharply, thinking that he had never craved a cigarette so much.

Five minutes passed, and Sanzo found it hurt to breathe. Although they had left the building long behind, paranoia began to settle at the base of his spine. He paused to look back every ten seconds, convinced that their wild panting and the thick, ferric odor of Gojyo's leaking wound would lead the cops right to them.

            "Iss'around here I think," the redhead moaned, his adrenaline losing its effect as their hobbling slowed.

            "What sort of car--" But he saw it then, a sleek black Mercedes, almost invisible in the night. It looked freshly washed and waxed, and had he been in a clearer state of mind, he might have wondered how Banri obtained it, and why he didn't opt for a less conspicuous vehicle. But there was little time for that.

            "You got the key?"

            "In the ignition, Banri said. In case the one carrying it didn't make it, you know?"

            Sanzo grunted his understanding, leaning Gojyo up against the side of the car, very close to the dirty brick wall of the alley, when a voice rumbled with angry thunder, "Freeze!"

            They whirled; Sanzo's gun was out fast, but the cop already had his aimed at them. Sanzo let his hand drop, wincing against the green glow of the streetlight that reduced the officer and his weapon to a silhouette. As he approached, Sanzo recognized Dokugakuji.

            "Lose your tracker, princess?" How on earth had he found them? Obviously he hadn't seen them escaping, or he would have come with more men. That or he wanted this prize to himself.

            "They took it off me you idiot," he sneered, watching the large weapon, much more powerful than the local officers they'd already taken out had borne, that Doku carried.

            "Drop the weapons. You're coming with us. If I can't get credit for Nii, I'm damn well going to at least get it for bringing your sorry ass back to Leavenworth."

            "I'm not going back there alive, so you may as well just make up your mind to shoot." Sanzo had a gut feeling he wouldn't, but it was still a gamble; Doku looked furious, his dark eyes wild with rage and something else. That made Sanzo wonder where Hakkai was.

            "Doku?"

            Gojyo must have come to; He hobbled out from the niche in which he had been concealed, one hand on the car, and then the wall of the nearest building, as he trudged forth.

            "Gojyo." He looked surprised to see him there. Perhaps he had assumed him dead.

            "Doku—you know Sanzo?"

            "I wish I could have told you earlier," Dokugakuji growled, shooting a scathing glance at the still-armed blond. His weapon remained trained on him. "Sanzo's been working for us."

            "For you?!" Gojyo coughed hard, eyesight blurring. "Of all the cops in the city, you get stuck with my brother? Why wouldn't you have said something!"

            Sanzo frowned. "I didn't want you to know it was him. Because he set me up against you, and you spoke well of him."

            Dokugakuji's face tightened; his mouth looked pinched and too pale for the rest of his face. Obviously he hadn't been aware that Sanzo had already leaked the rest of the story to Gojyo, and had been expecting a more volatile response. He covered for it. "You realize we intended to go after the big dogs—not you. You were just our lead."

            Gojyo nodded, his eyes still on the gun, and Doku was foolish enough to look wounded by the hesitance he saw in his younger brother's face. He didn't trust him anymore. Maybe he shouldn't.

 Sanzo silently admired the way Gojyo transitioned from love and respect to wary caution and distrust, all in a moment. He put the present situation first, and swallowed the hard rock of emotion that had welled in his throat, opting to deal with it at a later and more convenient time.

            "So you gonna take us in?"

            "I have to." Doku was still aiming at Sanzo. "Gojyo you've killed cops--"

            "And your cops have killed my friends!" Gojyo snapped back, shaking his head, "You're not taking me, and you're not taking him back."

            Dokugakuji growled, "You're in no position to be making--" Whatever else he had said was drowned out by the hollowed out ring of thunder in the distance. A burst of light lit up the sky behind a few blocks' worth of buildings, mushrooming like a gaping tear in the night. After the tremble and shudder of the explosion slowed, the remaining illumination was enough to reveal Doku's face, drained of color.

            "Banri." Gojyo breathed, grinning victoriously. So that bastard really had intended a diversion. Sanzo supposed he had rigged a particularly powerful explosive somewhere beneficial—maybe a car. The entire building would be on fire by now. And surely that idiot had the good sense to escape.

            "Hakkai!" Dokugakuji looked panicked, and, cursing violently, slammed the heavy gun to the ground, shattering parts of it against the concrete; he was torn between duty and greed, but duty won out fast. He shook his head. "This is it, Gojyo. Don't cross my path again—this is the last time I let you off!" His voice caught at the end, hitching, before he took off. Sanzo wondered who he was looking at when he said that, the hardened criminal limping from a gunshot wound or the kid brother he had abandoned to the streets. Maybe neither; maybe he hadn't seen anything at all.

Dokugakuji seemed unaware that his bared back gave Sanzo an opportunity, but Sanzo had better things to do that take it. The blond jerked the doors of the vehicle open, dragging Gojyo inside and slammed his foot onto the pedal the moment he heard the engine rev.

            "I thought you didn't know how to drive," Gojyo murmured; Sanzo thought his voice sounded hollowed out, with only a shadow of the gruff depth it usually carried. Perhaps it was exhaustion and injury, but he doubted it.

            "I don't."

           

            The sun rose on the interstate to find Gojyo collapsed riding shotgun, Sanzo still pushing eastward, aiming his vehicle for Chicago. He had already explained to Gojyo, while he was conscious, that there was a branch of the Dawn still there that would help. The man—someone named Kougaiji—was an old friend of Koumyou's. He had met him only once, but knew his marking would get them both through.

            He had made on pit stop, although it had set his nerves on end the entire time. A small local hospital's emergency room had taken care of Gojyo's leg; after asking to see insurance, Sanzo paid in what cash he had, using the remains of his appropriated smoke money in his back jeans pocket to cover the kappa's bill. They had just better not run out of gas.

            He gave fake names, fake back stories. He supposed that their haggard expressions served as decent disguises, effectively aging them by ten years at least. Sanzo had the gash on his arm sewn, and the tear in his side patched while he waited. Gojyo dozed pleasantly now with his cheek pressed into the sun warmed glass, twitching in mild discomfort if the car rolled over a pothole or train track. All we have to do is make it to Chicago. There we'll be invisible.

            He hadn't forgotten Banri. Before even leaving the block where the Phoenix Headquarters had been situated, he'd asked Gojyo where they were supposed to pick up Banri, but the kappa shook his head. "He said not to; too dangerous. I told him I'd try to get back, and he said he knew he would. Mentioned that he'd find a way to contact us regardless."

            Sanzo didn't see how he would do that, but didn't say as much; Gojyo sounded hopeful. But to drive back would have been insanely risky.

            It was two when they arrived, driving through the seedy part of town and making such inquiries as were necessary; they had both grown up on the streets, and were familiar enough with proper conduct.

            It had been Gojyo who had first spotted the insignia of the Dawn, scrawled broadly over the underside of an overpass. "We must be in their territory."

            Sanzo grunted in assent, driving further into the suburbs and past dilapidated buildings that didn't look so different from Leavenworth, save for the tufts of people growing up along side them.

            They drove twenty minutes down streets without luck; Sanzo was looking for the writing, and Gojyo for an opening. Pausing on Briar Street, they found it. A man with tanned, darker skin, a Latino probably, was passing something over in exchange for cash to a dark-haired female. He wore loose cargo pants that barely clung to bony hips and a stained t-shirt with a faded Kings of Leon logo.

            "Man what a city. Drug deals out in the open, sign me up." Gojyo might have smirked if he hadn't been so tired. He slid out of the car with a wince; Sanzo followed, clicking the safety off on his Smith and Wesson. Their target's gun was out in an instant, but too late; his customer, a youngish girl who didn't seem to be a stranger, ducked off.

            "It wasn't mine! You cops?"

            "No, but great excuse." Sanzo glanced at Gojyo, then to the Latino, "Actually, I'm looking for Kougaiji."

            "You are cops."

            "No. Gojyo." The kappa pulled out his gun, and Sanzo tucked his into his belt loop, drawing a borrowed t-shirt over his head. He turned, and the man whistled.

            "You don't look old enough to have that one. Haven't used it in years."

            "I joined young," Sanzo informed him, bringing the light cotton back over his head and flipping fair hair from violet eyes. Smith and Wesson re-emerged. "Kougaiji won't remember me. I only met him once. But he'll remember my…he'll remember Koumyou."

            "I'll see what I can do." The man smiled, revealing three gold teeth and two gaps. "And who's he? Is he Dawn?"

            "He's a friend. And he's good for it. We kind of got into a scrape."

            "I can see that." The man glanced pointedly at the wide bandage beneath Gojyo's leg, visible through the tear in the denim, about the dried blood. "Come in. We're due for a universal this week. You'll come to that."

            He didn't ask questions, didn't pry, nor did he take down names. Sanzo thought that within the folds of some gangs, as poorly spoken of as they were by almost everyone outside of them, it was like having a second ethnicity or nationality. If you had the mark and had a name, you were welcomed. Of course this didn't mean one went unarmed; that was never advisable.

            They discovered their host's name was Pablo, and he was originally from Vera Cruz. Pablo found out their names and, after offering them separate beds, that they would rather share. That tore a laugh from him, "No wonder you know Kougaiji. He's got a taste for both too."

            "Man Sanzo," Gojyo whistled, "There must be like half a dozen fags in the word in our business, and you just know all of 'em don't you?" He grinned, receiving a rough blow to the side in return.

            "So that mark on your arm." Pablo spoke up, looking to Gojyo's torn shirt. "What's with the plume?"

            "Ever heard of the Scarlet Phoenix?"

            Pablo's eyes creased in the corners; he took a drag off of a suspiciously fat cigarette and nodded. "Yeah. They still operatin'?"

            "I doubt it." Sanzo and Gojyo exchanged glances, and Pablo shrugged it off.

            "Aren't they down in Texas?"

            "Kansas." Sanzo corrected, "And were."

            "Aah." Pablo nodded in vague understanding, offered whiskey, and then jerked his thumb in the direction of a dilapidated staircase. "Maid's off duty," He joked, and Sanzo barely remembered climbing the creaky wooden stairs, turning into a room without a door, and staring uncertainly at the sheets before Gojyo spread his coat out over the pillows and pushed him forward. He pitched into fourteen hours of darkness.

 

            They met Kougaiji in a study building with a facetiously broken down exterior. The inside was freshly painted green; the floor was antique maple and well cared for; wainscoting painted eggshell ended in a pronounced cherry chair railing that had been coated with a fine finish. Sanzo twitched as the seat of the eggplant urn chair he had taken sank in, making rising difficult and graceless. Gojyo took the matching seat opposite of him and tilted his head back, glancing at the crown molding as though he expected it to match the sagging gutters outdoors.

            "I feel like I should be wearing tails," the kappa jested, drawing out a pack of Hi-Lites, recently acquired, and offering them to Sanzo who declined. "Bet he even has an ashtray."

            "You must feel out of sorts," The blond said dryly, eyes focused on the wide arch that led into the corridor whence they had entered; Pablo had left them at the sidewalk, only giving directions.

            "Is it just me, or did he seem abnormally nervous?"

            "Where did you park the car?" Sanzo asked instead, knowing in their location it would be lifted in a heartbeat unless Gojyo got creative.

            "Pablo pointed out a garage out back. Even if it doesn't collapse, I doubt we'll see that thing again."

            "Just as well. Who knows who saw us with the plate? And driving without one is just as conspicuous. We'll get it back from him if necessary, long enough to trade or pawn it."

            "Maybe this Kougaiji fellow has a taste for classy vehicles?" Gojyo offered, fingering the butt of his gun idly.

            "Sorry, no." A powerful but politely toned down voice came through the archway before its source, a slender man of medium height with hair a shade darker than Gojyo's. "I don't drive much."

            Sanzo stood quickly, grasping his hand and watching the faintest shadow of a smile pull at thin lips.

            "I'll be damned. Everyone was so convinced you were dead." Kougaiji smiled then, "I heard about Jienyi's enterprise. And that he was shot in the head."

            "Imagine that." Sanzo smiled back, thinking to himself that Kougaiji hadn't aged; he looked no different than when he had last seen him seven years ago, though he must be almost thirty now.

            "Who is this now?" Sharp eyes were already focused on Gojyo's tattoo, though he grasped his hand tightly in welcome.

            "Gojyo."

            "This is the mark of the Scarlet Phoenix. The source of Jienyi's coup."

            "Yeah," Gojyo nodded, accepting Kougaiji's inexpressive but genuine sympathies. He scratched his cheek, where stubble was already peppered.

            "What can I do for you, then?" He gestured for them to sit, sinking into a wide wingback chair with cushioning the color of wheat, all braced in maple. "Sanzo you know your…talents…are always welcome here. I assume you're still as good a shot as I left you?"

            Sanzo grunted noncommittally. It was Gojyo who spoke.

            "We're looking for work. Got an application?"

            Kougaiji sat back. "None necessary, if he can vouch for you." At Gojyo's look of surprise, he smiled indulgently, "It's true I don't know him that well, but I knew Koumyou. Very well. And he knew people; if he trusted Sanzo, I have no reason not to. The same goes for Sanzo's trust in you. Of course," He added flippantly, almost reminding Sanzo of Hakkai for a moment, "if you prove me wrong, I'll have to shoot you."

            Gojyo grinned, "Fair enough. Where do I sign?"

            Kougaiji promised to "initiate" them at the next universal, though he supposed it would be more like a magic show, bringing Sanzo back from the dead. Gojyo was surprised to hear that his lover was so well known amongst his own, even out of state. Apparently his name was one closely associated with Koumyou's, and his skill with a gun was as unparalleled as he had advertised when offered initiation to the Scarlet Phoenix.

            They were provided lodgings on Kougaiji's dollar—nice ones at that. They were settled into the Drake and given curious stares as they entered the richly colored lobby in torn jeans and poorly mended shirts. A man who insisted on being called Lobo and nothing more brought them clothing and footed the bill; he was a representative of Kougaiji's and had a slight twitch in his left eye, but the staff of the hotel respected him. It would not have surprised Sanzo to learn that Kougaiji's mafia all but owned the hotel, and likely a third of the city. They were more powerful here than they ever had been in Leavenworth. There were newer branches, he learned, in New York and Jersey too.

            "I could get used to this. Can't help but wait for the next shoe to drop though." Gojyo spoke as he fiddled with the sleeve of his coat, an Armani recently purchased at Kougaiji's insistence that they not "stand out." The Drake was the only place on the block where an Armani was the norm. Sanzo's own was ivory and confining after spending so long in baggy Leavenworth apparel, and then loose button-downs and t-shirts. Ironically Kougaiji had sent him a violet-colored silk to wear below it as well, but had had the good sense not to comment on the color of his eyes. Gojyo, on the other hand, did not.

            "You look good in that."

            "Stop drawing attention to yourself," Sanzo grumbled, listening to their shoes click along the cement of the parking garage's third floor.

            "What'd I do!" The kappa protested, "I can't even compliment you now?"

            "Do you have to leer?"

            "Have you looked in a mirror?" Gojyo smirked, glancing up as Lobo waved them down; he was dressed in a tux; either he was going to a meeting or had just come from a wedding. Sanzo secretly suspected a hit, but asking wasn't good business.

            "Kougaiji mentioned you brought this with you." He passed over the keys to the Mercedes, and Gojyo looked shocked.

            "Pablo was the one to bring it up, actually." He clicked his tongue to the roof of his mouth twice and winked at them, heading out.

            "Hey, not staying for drinks?" Gojyo unlocked the door as he spoke, holding the passenger side open mockingly for Sanzo, who shoved him in.

            "Sorry. Work tonight boys. How is it they say? No rest for the wicked?" He laughed and waved them off, hurrying to the door that led into the third floor lounge; it was glowing orange and gold against the glass panes in the wall, flickering each time someone walked passed it.

            "Hey, like hell I'm letting you drive again. You're not licensed?"

            "I'm not licensed for a lot of things," Sanzo argued, maneuvering the stick shift cautiously as he backed up; they heard a slide and thud, and as the breaks heaved, both piled out of the car.

            "What was that?" A quick glance beneath the vehicle yielded nothing, and Gojyo ducked into the driver's seat to reach the small lever beneath the dash, popping the trunk.

            "I swear to God if he stuffed a body in there, he'll be next," the kappa muttered, still wary of accepting their vehicle back, no strings attached. The wide-eyed expression on Sanzo's face practically confirmed his suspicions. "Well don't just stand there starin' at it! Let's haul it--"

            "Shut up."

            "Well fuck me!" Gojyo felt the grin splitting his face before he heard the laughter bubbling up out of it; he found he couldn't stop staring at the contents of the trunk: a singular titanium box, smooth around each edge and baring no hint of a handle or lock, only a small inset square made for a unique key near the base.

 

            They spent the rest of the week at the Drake, repaying Kougaiji out of pride, genuine gratitude, or thanks, Gojyo wasn't sure. He was still in awe of their marvelous luck—and this after so many signs that whatever gods there be hated them. Was it an ironic form of luck that Sanzo's long-time stalker had parked his escape vehicle so near to Banri's, loaded for take off, keys in ignition? It sounded more like ingenious divine planning than mere coincidence. He could almost see some warped deity sniggering over it now, and when he said as much to Sanzo, he only snorted. "Please, what sort of goddess helps men like us?"

            "A merciful one?" Gojyo offered, still smiling.

 

 Sanzo took care to secure most of their funds within the week, although the larger stones would have to keep until they could find a proper buyer. An offshore account—how clichéd, Gojyo had drawled—was created to house most of it. Several smaller accounts popped up around the country in just the right places; Sanzo went through Kougaiji, who knew people who wouldn't ask questions.

            As a second week passed, they'd bothered to purchase their own place, a flat downtown with less of a disguise than Kougaiji's, but a good deal of security. Furniture shopping was comprised of Sanzo grumbling about Gojyo's poor taste in everything from color to fabric, but that stopped when the kappa reminded him he was propagating a stereotype.

            The mattress to the bed frame would be delivered the following day, but the desk came that night, and Gojyo pleaded with Sanzo "for old times' sake?" and endured his grumblings the next morning about a sore back with a wide smile on his face.

            "I could get used to this you know. It's a lot homier than my place was," Gojyo commented as he hauled the last of chairs up the stairwell to the kitchen. Sanzo was sitting at the table eating a burned piece of toast; Gojyo had noticed his tendency to avoid breakfast, except after sex.

            "Mattress guy comes tonight." Gojyo said.

            "I don't know why you're so excited," Sanzo replied, unfazed. "Sofa guy doesn't come until tomorrow."

            He heard Gojyo's laughter from all the way down the hall.

 

            They fell into a comfortable pattern. Kougaiji's sector worked mostly with illegal arm trade, nothing foreign to either of them, and pulling off the occasional hit against competing gangs. It wasn't difficult though, to defend territory that was so cleanly marked out. They had very few contesting their rights to rule Chicago, and Sanzo got used to it faster than he had expected. Gojyo didn't even exhibit a transition, but slid effortlessly into this new life.

            They found a bar they could both tolerate and, after disposing of Nii's Mercedes, a vehicle that suited Gojyo. Sanzo had no desire to pick up a license, though he drove on occasion, generally only if Gojyo was wounded or drunk off of his ass, the latter being far more frequent.

            Notice from Banri came their second month in, through one of Kougaiji's men oddly enough. Apparently he had found his own escape car unused, and assumed Gojyo and Sanzo dead until he had done a bit of inquiring. The Phoenix was dead, he communicated to them, but a few of them were still scraping out a living. Banri himself had moved to some tiny town in Arkansas for the time being, but promised to contact them again soon. Gojyo bet anything he'd either found a really good woman, or a really good dealer. They didn't hear from him again.

            Sanzo did his best not to think on their past, something Gojyo did enough for the two of them. None of it was pleasant or particularly worth dredging up, and memories of Koumyou still ached like old wounds. It was only on rare occasion, almost always while he was alone, that he allowed himself to remember.

A gradual sensation of security began to seep into his conscious mind, and the tension ever present in his muscles waned day by day, by fractions small enough not to be noticed. It wasn't until they had been unmolested in Chicago for six months that Sanzo became convinced that Kansas had forgotten them, or assumed them dead.

            It was late on a Thursday evening, nothing planned for the following day, that Gojyo sidled up to him in the bar, having abandoned poker in the back room, and asked if he was ready to go home yet.

            The word home sounded funny; not because it was inappropriate, but rather just the opposite. "It's not even midnight."

            "I know."

            They drove back in a light drizzle and walked in companionable silence to the door; Gojyo fumbled with the key, and Sanzo locked it behind them. Before he could flip on the lights, the kappa had his arms about his waist and was kissing him gently.

            "Oh." Sanzo whispered conspiratorially, "So that's why." He kissed him back, tongue teasing his wide lower lip, "You're horny."

            "Well, yeah." A rakish grin and he shed his coat, crooking his finger to led Sanzo down the hall and to their bedroom. As the door clicked shut behind him, he caught him from behind in an embrace. "But it's more than that."

            They undressed one another with practiced ease, hands cupping familiar curves and angles, tangling in dark hair and reverently stroking lighter. Gojyo eased him onto the bed, pulling back the sheets in a sudden wash of moonlight from the window; clouds were pulling back now; the rain had stopped, and the roomed glowed blue and silver with night light.

            "You're so beautiful," he breathed shakily, hovering over Sanzo and pressing deferential kisses over his chest and shoulders.

            "Quit that." He didn't sound angry, but welcomed Gojyo over and into him, thighs clenching as his body began to pulse with the kappa's slow, tidal rhythm. There was no haste, no frenzy this time, only the long pull of pleasure and a pause for breath.

            Steady breaths hastened only near the end, when Sanzo heard himself gasp out too much: Gojyo's name, but rich in undertones. His lover was not a subtle man, but seemed to sense the same message from the pull and take of his body's cadence.

            "Sanzo." His generous mouth smiled so softly that the shadows hardly caught the corners; he looked like a statue doused in dew save for the rise and fall of his chest. Leaning forward, he kissed him, a more tender, affectionate gesture than he regularly bestowed. Gojyo felt a palm cupping his jaw, tracing the curve of his cheekbones. He tasted like water, clean and bright, as he went willingly into the fold of darker arms.

            "Sanzo, I love you, you know."

            He felt a small sigh run through his partner's body, and a reciprocal kiss was placed over his lips, violet eyes hooded with pleasure and sleep. He knew better than to expect words in return; it wasn't in Sanzo to give them, but the message was all the same. He slept with a tangle of fire and water drawn to his chest, content to feel a similar heartbeat thudding against his own.

            Sanzo lay still almost an hour without sleep, despite the exhaustion of his body. When he felt Gojyo's breaths deepen, his body growing heavy, he drew away to sit up in the slick slide of silvery sheets, watching the way they bent and pooled about their bodies, all full of angles and sleek curves.

            The moon was still out, throwing squares of light onto the carpeting as it filtered through the windowpanes. It was often after making love that thoughts of Koumyou resurfaced, as though he felt the urge to apologize every time, and force himself to relive the same incident until he felt the pangs of regret. He had begun to recognize the injustice of it. It struck him doubly that night, looking at the peaceful line of Gojyo's mouth, the trusting, vulnerable position of his body, curled protectively where it had lain against him.

            I can't keep apologizing to you. This has to be it—the last time I think on it, the last time I remember it like this. He paused in the still of the night, as though he expecting Koumyou's voice to answer him.

            I've avenged you. I know his life isn't worth nearly enough, but it's all I have to offer. I know you too well to think you'd want mine, too. And the greater part of him was no longer willing to offer it.

            Sanzo sat up a little straighter, careful not to wake the man beside him, and saw eyes like the sky peering up at him from beneath wheat-colored lashes, blinking slowly as he gasped out his life. A long blond braid caught in the rushing waters of the gutter, and Sanzo watched long rivulets of blood course down his own hands, bubbling up from a wound and pouring out between his fingertips as he held a heavy weight atop his lap that was quickly growing cold. It was the first time he was able to remember more than background noises, but what he had said.

            "What did you do! What did you do!"

            The body shuddered against him in a death rattle, and his hands clenched tighter, pulling him closer. "Please no." The words were spoken in hot, voiceless desperation, taking on a hollow tone of disbelief as the trembling subsided. "Don't go damn you!" The shout tore at his throat; he shook slender shoulders. He would have gladly pleaded anything, bared his soul if it meant the man would come back to him, open his eyes and sit up, hardly winded. He offered it up to no avail. "I need you! I love you!"

            Sanzo bit the inside of his lip in guilt. He had said that to Koumyou only upon his death. He was not even certain it had been heard—what was that worth, a declaration of devotion that couldn't be enjoyed, or even heard?

            He turned to shake Gojyo awake, rattling him by the shoulder until red eyes snapped open groggily.

            "Wha—what is it?"

            "I love you. Idiot. Now go to sleep."

            Gojyo's mouth parted in a small O of surprise, and then widened in a sleepy smile. Sanzo's glance warned him against reciprocating with anything ridiculous, and his eyes fell shut again in contented sleep.

            Sanzo lay back at his side, wondering how it was he'd never remembered exactly what he had said—pleaded—until that night. The rest of it was easy; he had thought on it almost every day for seven years, watching the last long look blue eyes had given him before the light went out of them, an intense suggestion, almost a command.

            Let go.

            And Sanzo did.    

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