It's not until four AM, when they're eating breakfast at a diner just off the highway in Bumfuck, Nowhere, that the gravity of what's been done sinks in. The whole place smells like breakfast, as though bacon grease and butter were used in lieu of mortar to brick the building.
"Oh my god," Hakuryuu says, head in his hands, "oh my god. I'm so stupid. Crazy even." He fists his hands in his hair, hoping the sting will ground him.
It does not.
"Yeah, you're pretty much both." Judal drains his coffee and wanders off to the counter to weasel more out of the pretty young waitress. Hakuryuu's pretty sure she likes him. It probably has something to do with his unseasonably revealing belly shirt and his six pack abs, and Hakuryuu wants to tell her he's not worth the trouble. Judal returns a cup of coffee richer though, with a slice of chocolate silk pie to boot. "You done your little freak out?" Judal plunks both prizes down on the table.
Hakuryuu lifts his head out of his hands to glare at Judal. "I better not be paying for any of that."
Judal gives him the cheekiest smirk in return, as though Hakuryuu's glare is just as much a reward as the pie. "These? Hell no. I never pay for things, I just get people to like me enough to give it to me for free!"
On the list of things Hakuryuu will never do for Judal, 'like him' is probably number two, beaten out for the top spot only by the even worse idea of trusting him. Number three would probably be something like 'loan him money,' but as he surveys the table, Hakuryuu realizes that he may have already made that mistake.
"So how far do you intend for us to travel together?" He takes a sip of his own cup of coffee. Judal hmmms into his pie, making of show of considering the question, and Hakuryuu can almost feel his blood pressure rising. "Just answer the damn question, don't pretend like you need to think about it."
"A while," Judal finally answers. "I can't drive, so I need you to get me further away."
Hakuryuu massages his temples with his off hand. "You are a supremely powerful being of pure magic but, fine. Fine. You want to play at being an incompetent loon, fine."
Judal tips his coffee to Hakuryuu. "I'm playing the nonmagical loon who doesn't get tracked by Al Tharman. If I go flying off on my own, they're gonna find me in no time."
"And if you stay with me, then we're both going to get caught." Hakuryuu can tell though; Judal isn't budging. He takes a bite more of his food, and it tastes of greasy ash in his mouth. "But I suppose, for now, you can stay here."
Judal smiles and sips at his coffee like a cat enjoying a fat canary. "Much obliged."
Hakuryuu had planned leaving so well. He had escape routes and drop points for all his essential vitals. He took every necessary precaution to make sure he was never found out. He had money and supplies and a car that he'd bought with cash from a used lot and registered under a false name.
It had been his secret.
And yet somehow it had all gone to pot, it had all been found out, because after he ditched the car his mother had bought him for his sixteenth birthday and hiked for two days to get to the new car that he'd bought with cash and parked in a national park, he found Judal sunning on the hood with a grin on his face.
"Mind if I tag along?"
Where had everything gone wrong? Who knew other than Judal?
How long until his mother catches him?
Judal can sleep in the car or not, it doesn't make much difference to him. But Judal also doesn't know how to drive, not well at least, and so it falls on Hakuryuu's moods to decide when they stop. The diner revitalizes him enough to drive until the moon's silvery light fades and the early pale of morning casts a different filter over the endless stretch of highway. Judal brought a book on tape with him, and Hakuryuu's surprised that he doesn't completely hate it.
It's some trashy fantasy book, with swashbuckling heroes and young assassins and wicked wizards, and the narrator sells it with gusto usually reserved for campfire stories. It's surprisingly engaging, but even better than the story is the way it shuts Judal up. Hakuryuu's not sure he's seen him that quiet in years, not since they were both little kids and Judal would sneak away from religious studies to raid the pantry for snacks.
Dawn turns to day, and then it's the sun that keeps Hakuryuu awake, almost blinding in its harshness as the road opens up to endless fields of grain and corn. Judal dozes, but Hakuryuu still drives. The narrator on the radio hisses through his teeth about a narrow escape from a wicked cult of wizards, his voice rising as the heroes run, certain they'll be caught, their blades drawn, ready for the moment their pursuers catch up. Hakuryuu grips the steering wheel. The cult they flee is relentless. Omnipresent. Hakuryuu bites his lower lip. The heroes can run, they do run, and maybe they'll escape, but the confrontation can't be avoided forever, they can't run, he can't run-
Hakuryuu punches the radio off, and the silence jolts Judal awake.
"Hey, I was listening to that!"
Hakuryuu stops at five o'clock on the dot to try and catch a quick dinner so he can cram in more driving, but by the time his food arrives, he can barely keep his eyes open. Judal chats up their cashier for directions to a no-tell motel, but Hakuryuu's not so tired as to hand the keys over. He waits in the car, almost asleep, as Judal goes in to give a fake name and a wad of cash to the desk agent. He returns triumphant with a set of keys and drags Hakuryuu to his feet, full of all the enthusiasm that only an incredibly manic man lording his restfulness over an exhausted compatriot has.
Hakuryuu accepts the hand up and stumbles after him to their room, asleep before he even hits the pillow.
Time is a funny thing on long trips.
You don't measure it in hours or minutes after the first day, not really. And measuring in days seems insufficient, too. And so, it becomes measured in other things. Chapters of an audiobook saga you're beginning to suspect may never end. Cars you pass with Canadian license plates. Pennsylvanian towns with bizarrely sexual names.
Judal, however, seems to have decided they should measure time in tourist traps.
"How about this one," he asks, shoving an off brand smart phone with a by the minute plan in Hakuryuu's face. Hakuryuu's eyes, fixed on the road as they are, understand little of it, and must rely on Judal's explanation when he pulls the phone back to grin at it. "Gravity Hill. I saw the brochure at that last gas station. It's a warp in reality where your car will roll uphill! And at the top of the hill, well, that's where things getreally weird-"
"You are, quite honestly, one of the most gullible men I've ever met." Hakuryuu means it honestly.
And Judal's shit-eating grin back is just as honest. "Well, if I can do shit like cause an ice storm in the height of summer and fly through the air, why should I doubt that there's a hill cars can roll up?"
Hakuryuu doesn't want to see another mystery spot, or another giant ball of yarn, but he already knows how this ends. "Where is it?"
Judal's grin turns triumphant. "Take the next exit and then stay left at the fork. There should be signs."
And there were- signs that lead them away from the highway, past an almost haunted-looking gas station, to Mystery Spot #2 of their trip, Roadside Attraction #3. Signs which, when they reach their destination, order Hakuryuu to put his car in neutral and to allow the supernatural reversing of gravity to drag his car up the hill.
For those who don't know, Gravity Hills are real in a sense, and that sense being that if you put your car in neutral, it will roll uphill. They are full of shit, however, in the sense that the sensation of rolling uphill is an optical illusion, caused by rolling hills and mountains that break up the sense of which way is truly up. Your car may go "uphill," but only in the sense that it is truly going downhill in the truest sense of things.
Judal loved it.
When they reach the top, there is a small shack that promises further wonders: live jackalopes, brooms that stand on end, rooms that cause people to shrink or grow. It's a veritable wonderland of touristy, illusionist garbage. Hakuryuu cuts in before Judal can even open his mouth. "No."
Judal frowns. "Fiiine!" And yet even that can't dampen his spirits, and he's grinning again before they even reach the highway.
It would be nice if life was as clearly labeled as tourist traps. Hakuryuu follows signs for highways and roads, signs that lead him to gas stations and cheap hotels and a parade of cheap diners both good and bad, but there aren't signs that tell him exactly where to run. There are no road signs to safe houses from his mother.
Judal charts their course, strange as it would have seemed the night they set out. His path of roadside oddities zig zags like a man drunkenly running from an crocodile. Hakuryuu trusts that no one in Al Tharman will be mad enough to figure out where Judal will take them next, since Judal barely seems mad enough to know himself.
They lay awake one night in a park-and-ride, seats leaned back as far as they can go, and trace their route so far on a map with their fingers.
"So," Judal laughs, "when do I get kicked off?"
"You're useful," Hakuryuu rebuts, "for now. I highly doubt Al Tharman will find me with the mess of a path you're charting."
Judal smiles at that, because he can tell Hakuryuu means it, and there is little feeling better than that of being useful. "Of course they won't."
Hakuryuu's fingers find Judal's in the dark. There's something crossed there, some line that had been dividing them smudged out. Hakuryuu's not sure what he feels.
Judal's fingers squeeze back.
Strawberry picking isn't a roadside attraction, but they stop for it anyway, riding a haywagon away from their car and out into the fields, tramping down lines of plants to find the ripest, most perfect berries. Hakuryuu's scandalized when Judal eats one right off the vine.
"You are going to get us thrown out."
"Am not," Judal protests, his strawberry-stained smile catching him red-handed. He shoves another into his mouth. "Besides, we're still gonna buy some. What's it matter?"
Hakuryuu can barely process his horror. "It's against the rules. They can't properly charge us for what you've eaten. And you have no way to wash your mouth out, they'll know you've been stealing them!"
Stealing hangs in the air between them, pauses Judal's hand as he's about to shove another berry into his mouth, and for a moment Hakuryuu thinks he's won. However, on the list of things Judal would never do for Hakuryuu, let him have the last laugh was definitely in the top ten.
Judal pops the berry into his mouth and then rubs his sticky, juice-stained fingers over Hakuryuu's lips. "There," he says through a mouthful of berry. "Now we both look like thieves."
Hakuryuu stares in horror, frozen by the brazenness of the action, the softness of Judal's fingers, and then overwhelming urge to beat the ever loving shit out of Judal. His mouth slowly works, and he raises a hand to his lips to feel the stickiness there.
Then he takes that hand and uses it to punch Judal right in his smug grinning face.
Judal sprawls, foot snagging in the strawberries and sending him to the ground. Hakuryuu leaps after him, to punch or to yank at his hair, but Judal catches his throat in his hands with his longer arms and pulls his knees up to keep Hakuryuu from landing on him fully. They tossle in the mud and plants, crushing berries and plants beneath them.
"Hey! What are you kids doing?!"
They jolt apart, look up to see someone coming. Someone with authority. Someone a good head taller than Judal. They look at each other, and back at the man, and they run, basket of strawberries in hand, across the fields and back to the parking lot, Judal's wind magic pushing them faster, nearly putting wings on their feet. Hakuryuu scrambles the car open, and Judal hops inside after him with their stolen berries.
"Go, go, go!"
"You don't have to tell me what to do," Hakuryuu shouts back as he fumbles the keys into the ignition and guns them from the parking lot.
Judal falls backwards into his seat and laughs himself hoarse once he's sure they've escaped. "There's no way I could have eaten as many berries as we just crushed."
"Shut up, Judal," Hakuryuu snaps back, but he glances over with a little smile on his face. "Besides, I would never underestimate how much stolen fruit you can eat, because I believe in you."
Motel beds are a crapshoot. They can be surprisingly soft oases, making a life in a car seem almost livable; they can be horrifying, bug ridden cesspools still soaked with the fluids of their last occupant that make you want to flay your skin off just to be clean again; but most often they are disappointingly adequate, with something unignorably off but still survivable enough to serve their basic purpose.
This one is fine, other than one suspect stain, but the inner blanket feels simultaneously slimy and itchy. Judal kicks it away, not wanting to feel it on his skin as he gropes ineffectively at Hakuryuu. Hakuryuu gropes back though, pulling Judal close, and their mouths meet in the middle in an uncomfortable clack of teeth.
"Fucking-" Judal starts to swear, but Hakuryuu tilts his head, corrects the kiss. It's better this time, if a bit moist. "Ah, yeah."
"Yeah?" Hakuryuu repeats, his voice breathy with excitement.
Judal feels stupid as he grins back. "Yeah." He reaches down and grabs a handful of Hakuryuu's crotch, trying to knead it in his hand. "How about that? Yeah?"
Hakuryuu makes a choked squeak. "No!"
Six mystery spots in is when Judal finally breaks the law while Hakuryuu is looking. There may have been earlier times, but Hakuryuu didn't see them. That means they aren't real. It's like Schrodinger's Cat: it's only real if you can observe it.
The strawberry field doesn't count, Hakuryuu insists to himself, it doesn't count. They didn't have a choice, they just panicked. It was an innocent mistake. Not a crime.
Hakuryuu slaps Judal's hand when he goes to lift a stuffed rabbit with Shope Papilloma horns sprouting from its face.
"Don't," Hakuryuu warns.
Judal considers it for a moment, and then gently touches the stuffed rabbit. It flickers under his touch, in and out as if deciding whether to exist or not. It settles on not, and the display is empty. Judal gives a ha-ing grin.
"Judal!" Hakuryuu hisses back.
"We'll want him later, I promise." Judal glances around. "Nothing else real in this dump, anyway. Shall we move on?"
There is no home waiting at the end of the road. They don't have one anymore. Not a house with bricks and stones, not a place to lay their heads at the end of a long journey. There are no people waiting for them at the end of the road.
"Quit being dramatic, Hakuryuu," Judal groans, kicking his feet up on the dashboard to glare at the traffic snarl they've been stuck in for the last three hours. "We've got plenty of people waiting for us." He snickers. "Waiting for us to fuck this up that is! And then we can get dragged back home to Mother Dear to be punished like the bad little boys we are."
"You're not helping," Hakuryuu grumbles, scrubbing his face with his hands. The gradual creep of traffic has finally brought them close enough to see the cause: a flipped over Winnebago, which rolled itself apart like a cheap tin can across the highway, insulation and metal and formica furnishings strewn across all three lanes and the median. Neither of them comment on the horror of it, and how the absolute devastation of the motorhome makes it pretty clear that anyone who was in it is dead now. "I know she's looking for us. And waiting. That isn't home."
Judal shrugs, sinking more into his seat. Realizing any gory details have already been cleared away, he's lost interest in the wreck. "Guess this car's all the home we've got then. Let's hope it goes better for us than for the poor bastards in that fuckin' RV. Hah! Losers."
"You probably shouldn't have let me come along," Judal says one night when he's sure Hakuryuu is asleep. They're words that he knows Hakuryuu knows, things they both know to be true in their heart of hearts. "Your mom would have waited for you to just come back, but me? Hah, she'll chase me down. I'm useful, in her eyes. And she doesn't like to give stuff up." His hands feel empty, he feels empty, and so he flexes his fingers, calls the taxidermied "jackalope" from the trunk so he can hold it.
Judal stares down at his stolen stuffed rabbit and feels the magic pulsing around it, feels the realness of it. Just like the Velveteen Rabbit was made flesh by belief, this thing practically pulses with people's hopes and superstitions, their desperate need for things that aren't mundane to be real. It's a useless thing on its own. But here, in his hands?
The rabbit is a deep, dark pool, filled with a magic just waiting to be called on.
"She'll come for me, Hakuryuu. She'll come for me, eventually. But I…." He grips the rabbit tighter, the pulse of its power the only thing grounding his thoughts. "I hope I'll be ready."