Crimson sunset dyes the already brilliant trees in deeper, more fiery hues. They're in the mountains again, although exactly which mountains it's hard to say. The road, endless and grey, sang their fears to sleep, making the lines between states and ways blur. Judal's head bounces against the window as the car rumbles along the bumpy back road. They really should have gotten the car serviced weeks ago, but that's time and money they just can't spare. In the backseat, the wolg whines, scratching at the door like a bored dog. Civilization feels few and far between out here, a fever dream of the road as they follow its winding ways.
Hakuryuu smiles softly as he glances over at Judal and then back to the road. "Should I stop soon?"
"Nnn." Judal shuts his eyes and rubs at them with his left hand before slapping at Hakuryuu. "If you're not tired we should keep going. I could use some coffee though."
Hakuryuu nods, looking up the mountains ahead. "I'll try to find a place to stop. I haven't seen any signs in a while, though."
"Do we still have any in the trunk?"
Hakuryuu glances back at the wolg in the back seat, as though he'd be able to see into the trunk from there. "He could probably use a walk even if we don't. You did say you'd be a responsible pet owner."
Judal slaps Hakuryuu in the arm and sits up more. "Fiiiine, fine. Take me somewhere where we can take the dumb dog to pee."
The wolg slaps its great, spiny tail against the back seat and snarls a little.
Judal leans into the back of the car and makes a face at the wolg. "I can call you dumb if you want, I call myself dumb! I'd call Hakuryuu dumb if I thought I could get away with it."
"I'm not dumb," Hakuryuu says with a little scowl.
Judal grins at the wolg. "See? He won't let me get away with it."
They pull off at a scenic overlook and get out. Judal just lets the wolg out the car with no leash, and it bounds off to go terrorize things in the underbrush, tail whizz-thumping behind it. The coffees are all gone, but there is at least one can of iced tea that Hakuryuu picked up at a gas station a few days ago. Judal eyes it suspiciously, but it's sufficiently sweet that he doesn't complain too much, instead wandering over to join Hakuryuu at the guardrail to take in the view.
The cool mountain air is sharp and crisp, and they both just take a moment to breathe it in. The light of the setting sun feels like a brilliant knife cutting through the clouds blowing in from the east, adding another edge to the chill. Once it's gone, it'll be beyond jacket weather, and their breaths already have the threat of clouding in the autumn air. Judal breaks the silence with a sigh, hopping up onto the guardrail to sit. The earth drops off sharply behind him, nearly a sheer fall to trees and rocks, but the cliff to his back doesn't bother him nearly as much as the trance-like peace of the road. Momento mori, and all that shit- the reminder of death is just a reminder that he's still alive now.
"So where were you gonna go?" he asks Hakuryuu with a sideways smile.
"Well, since you seem satisfied with the tea, and we still have a fair amount of gas left, I was going to keep driving through the night-"
"No, no," Judal kicks him lightly. "I meant originally. Before I crashed your getaway."
"Oh." Hakuryuu blinks and scowls as he thinks it over. "I suppose I was going to… I don't know. Drive until they forgot about me? I had put all this effort into making the escape and my money untraceable, but I never gave much thought to how I'd live once I had gotten away. Maybe find some place to live on my own, but having travelled now, I know I didn't have enough money to live on my own, and it's not like I have friends outside of you…" He laughs, shaking his head. "This is hardly a more sustainable existence, but I'm glad you came along."
Judal's grin widens at that, and he playfully kicks Hakuryuu again. "Aww, you big sap! You're welcome for me saving you, because I'm basically the best there is at saving your bacon."
Hakuryuu rolls his eyes, reaching up to take Judal's outsized can of tea and drink some himself. The wolg comes tearing up through the brush after a little while longer, the whizz-thump of its tail and the rustling of the brush heralding its arrival long before it could be seen. There's blood on its muzzle, bits of fawn-brown fur caught in its teeth and in the corners of its mouth. Hakuryuu and Judal share a look, before Hakuryuu takes another long swig of the tea.
"You better clean him up before you let him back in the car."
Just as summer means berries, fall means pumpkins. Big ones, small ones, squashes that aren't technically pumpkins, but are gorgeous and strange enough to get thrown in as ornamental pumpkins. They don't have a place to keep a pumpkin, Hakuryuu argues, they can't just go pumpkin picking-
But Judal is not to be deterred.
He tromps through the pumpkin patch, picking out the largest one he can find without letting Hakuryuu protest. To placate, or perhaps just further exacerbate, Hakuryuu's patience, he picks through the smaller ornamental pumpkins as well- the luminas and french reds for color, the turban squash for their distinct looks, and a couple just regular little pumpkins because who can argue with a classic?
Hakuryuu tries to stop him, but Judal persists. They'll fit on the back windshield. And as for the big one?
He has plans.
When they've bought their pumpkins, they drive deep out into the nowheres of the mountains they came from. Judal pulls a pocket knife from the glovebox, and when he sits down to carve their jack-o-lantern, Hakuryuu just stands back. He understands magic when he sees it. He can only grasp at the shape of it- the machinations in the vague gestures and sensations of power woven into the road itself, into the places of fake magic that Judal vests such interest and passion, the stolen jackalope in their trunk, and the literal monster, tamed and sleeping in their car- but the rest is mostly lost on him.
Magic is Judal's sphere of influence. Hakuryuu deals with the material, the real, the things that can be shaped and known, and the things they need to put gas in the car and food in their mouths.
Judal's jack-o-lantern is a misshapen joke of a pumpkin, and his hands are sticky with the pulpy guts when he steps back with a proud smile. They didn't think to get candles, so Judal sticks a pinecone in the pumpkin and lights it ablaze with a flick of his wrist. Somehow, the light of the jack-o-lantern makes the stars seem further and the headlights of the car seem dimmer. Its cartoonishly monstrous and grinning visage is a mockery in the light, and Hakuryuu shudders.
They stand there in the improbable gloom for some time, watching the pulsing glow until Judal nods, seemingly satisfied with his work. Then they turn and go. They don't extinguish the pumpkin. They don't speak of it again.
It takes a long time before the headlights reach more than a few feet into the gloom.
Sometimes when they stop in strange places, it isn't of their choosing. Back when they drove through the south, there were towns they did not sleep in because the looks two gangly, kinda femme looking asian guys got meant that they might not get the next day if they made the mistake of choosing that town for their night. But there are other towns too, towns they don't sleep in because there's something else already sleeping there that doesn't want to be disturbed.
Judal treads lightly over manholes that seem to breathe, and they don't make eye contact with the windows that stare back at them.
There are things that sleep and breathe and live, and sometimes their burdens are not ones that you can shoulder. Leave that weirdness for another traveller, or for another life.
They get into the car.
They press onward.
There's probably a Motel 6 somewhere down the way that won't be too bad.
"So we missed out on the ocean in Florida," Judal says over a bad continental breakfast of stale bagels and mushy fruit. "How about we hit it out on this coast? Always sunny out on the west coast, right?"
Hakuryuu takes another drink of his orange juice. "It'll be cold if we don't head further south, but if you want me to take you out to rocky oceanfront-"
"Of course I meant further south, you dumbass!" Judal kicks Hakuryuu under the table with a grin. "Why the hell would I want to swim where it's gonna be cold?"
Hakuryuu shrugs. "Maybe you needed to do a polar plunge, or maybe you have more mysterious magic nonsense to spin and not tell me about. I wasn't going to ask."
Judal scowls and opens his mouth to protest, but Hakuryuu's satisfied little smile means he's just teasing. Jerk. He kicks him under the table, letting his laughter and scowl be his answer to Hakuryuu's ribbing.
On the TV across the lobby, a handsome man in a sharp white suit peddles some snake oil product to cure all your woes. It has the mundane magic of natural charisma, and Judal finds himself watching it despite his disinterest in As Seen On TV panaceas. In another life, he's the sort of man Judal could see himself following, and as he watches the man speak, Judal can feel him weaving not only the mundane magic of words, but something real that curls around his fingers and movements.
Judal leans a little to get a better view of the TV.
Watching magic over video feed is tricky, even with Judal's sophisticated sense for the stuff. The studio audience in the infomercial oohs and aahs as the man sells them on a promise and a hunk of garbage. Is the magic intentional? Judal can't quite tell through video. Still, the very tide of the world and the words seems to ebb and flow with this man's intention, his eyes bright and sharp as he draws the audience in to his web.
"Are you listening?"
Judal snaps from the trance, blinking hard and refocusing his gaze on Hakuryuu. Had he been distracted because he was interested, or was he legitimately under that man's spell? Hakuryuu sighs, swirling around his almost empty coffee mug to hide his obvious annoyance. The sounds of breakfast filter back in, and Judal shivers with how easily he'd been drawn in.
"Sorry," he replies, all teeth. "Spacing out. What did you say?"
"I was thinking we could hit a mystery spot that's near the state line." Hakuryuu points at a spot on their map- when did he get that out? "If that's still something you're into."
"Hakuryuu, you should know by now that I am completely about stupid shitty tourist traps." Judal leans in to where Hakuryuu's pointing, as though it will somehow have more detail on their destination than just naming major roads around it. It doesn't, obviously, but it's a better thing to focus on than the faint sound of the infomercial. "I'm so proud you've finally decided to embrace the true spirit of the road."
Hakuryuu smiles, annoyance fading as he drains the last of his coffee. "Let's hit the road then. I want to get out of this place before the late checkout rush hits."
The mystery spot is more classic foolery, like the kind they sought out in the beginning- built all at an angle without windows to help you orient yourself. Water flows "uphill" (because of skewed perspective from the angles of the house) and people seem to grow or shrink (because of the deliberately uneven construction of the floors and spacing further making things seem strange and magical). It's fake magic, sure, but there's a comforting magic all its own as Hakuryuu walks through with Judal, taking in his wickedly grinning glee.
Mystery spots aren't real, but they make Hakuryuu think of Judal now, which is comfort and magic enough.
The water's too cold to swim in, but Judal tries anyway.
Hakuryuu watches him charge headlong for it, and when the cold surf hits his feet he shrieks like a man murdered. Judal staggers back, his feet twisting in the loose sand, and when the second wave hits him at mid-calf he's knocked over into the sand and water. That's what does it for Hakuryuu. He doubles over, laughing harder than he has in a long, long time.
"Fuck you!" Judal shrieks, and Hakuryuu can't tell if it's at him or at the sea. Hakuryuu just laughs harder, though, wiping tears from his eyes. "I mean it!" Judal flails back to his feet, flipping off first Hakuryuu and then the sea. "Not my fault the dumb ocean has a mind of its own!"
"The waves aren't that hard to avoid, Judal."
"Yeah, well, you're the coward who won't even come down into the sand with me!"
Hakuryuu hangs back at the top of the dune on the wooden walkway. Behind him is the parking lot, and ahead, the expanse of loose, gray-white sand, bounded only by the sea and the horizon. Between the heavy grey clouds and the cool autumn day, the beach is empty of people. They didn't get as far south as he'd meant to before going to the beach before Judal's impulsiveness decided that they were stopping right now, immediately! Is this beach still even open this late in the season? Hakuryuu feels a thrill at how little he cares.
"Heeeey! Listen to me!" Judal chucks a piece of driftwood at Hakuryuu, but it falls woefully short. "Come down here and have fun!"
Despite what Judal seems to think sometimes, Hakuryuu isn't completely immune to fun. He pulls off his shoes and socks, tucks the socks into the shoes, and rolls up his pants before taking the creaky wooden stairs two at a time down to the beach. Judal's whole face lights up, and he charges at Hakuryuu to tackle him to the ground. Hakuryuu side steps it, and laughs as Judal faceplants into the sand.
"You're going to have to be faster than that if you want to get me." He kicks some sand in Judal's direction. "Step up your game, you useless sorcerer."
"I'm not useless!" Judal rolls out and grabs at Hakuryuu's ankles, hissing as the sand sails over his head. "When we're all free of this shit, I'll show you who's a useless sorcerer! I'll really cut loose then!"
Hakuryuu dances out of his grip, laughing, and Judal hops to his feet to give chase. They feel almost like kids again as they race across the beach, the sand slipping beneath their feet as they avoid the waves and fling insults at each other like rocks until Judal tires, and Hakuryuu has the chance to tackle him to the ground.
"For all your magic, you don't have a lot of endurance," he laughs.
"Oh, fuck you!" Judal tucks his legs up and weakly kicks against Hakuryuu's chest, but Hakuryuu just laughs. "Not my fault you're the kind of guy who got all bored and worked out in his room when we had nowhere to go and nothing to do on the weekends while I did cool shit like read books and practice magic."
"Maybe you should get better at running if you're gonna run away from home," Hakuryuu teases. "If they find us, you'll never make it to the car in time."
"If they find us, I'm just gonna do what I did back when we almost got busted for stealing strawberries and get us both there in a flash!"
"Correction," Hakuryuu says, flicking Judal in the forehead before rolling off him. "You were the only one stealing strawberries."
Judal voicelessly mocks the correction back as he sits up, and Hakuryuu shoves him while rolling his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm the worst. Come stick your feet in the water with me. It's great until you get hit with a wave."
"I am not doing that, Judal." Despite that, he's already getting up to go down to the surf. The water is just as cold on their toes as it looked from the walkway, and out here the air feels clearer, sharper. Or maybe that's just Judal- anywhere he deems worthy of stopping seems to do that if Hakuryuu pays attention too long. Which comes first- the Existence that seems to seep into those observations, or the fact that Judal says there should be? Or is all just in Hakuryuu's head, a product of him looking for some rhyme or reason to why Judal does anything?
"Did you know if you drink nothing but sea water it makes you go crazy?" Judal asks with a sideways grin. Hakuryuu watches as he picks up a seashell and chucks it out into the ocean, but it doesn't skip like a rock on a lake. "You get crazy dehydrated from all the salt in the water, and it fucks with your brain. Start seeing shit, hearing shit, probably shit your guts out too from all the sodium and fish poop, annnnd then you die!"
"Oh, is that what made you the way you are?"
"Man, you are relentless today! What happened to the little crybaby who used to think all my random facts were cool?" Judal pitches another shell into the sea, his eyes scanning the grey horizon.
"I heard his arm fell off." Hakuryuu picks a shell up and throws one himself. Is this magic? Or just for fun? He wishes he had the natural instinct for it Judal had. "Real tragic."
"Oh, man, well that's a crying shame. Sucks for him!" Judal's demeanor grows softer again, once again contemplating the horizon. "I always liked the water. Playing down in that dumb little creek near the compound, that time we all went to the beach like a real family and you got lost and cried until Hakuei found you… I like how the water feels, in a physical sense and in a bullshit magical sense, like it's the ebb and flow of the world itself."
"Were we here for magic reasons or just liking it reasons?" Hakuryuu asks.
Judal shrugs, pitching one last shell into the sea before starting back up towards the walkway. "Does it matter?"
Hakuryuu watches the waves as they roll in, heedless of their shells, of anything other than their own vastness. Lately it feels like he's second-guessing every move Judal makes, unsure if it's part of whatever plan he thinks he's sneakily working on.
"No," he says finally, "I guess not."
Here the leaves are the color of fresh picked apples, rich and desaturated, unlike the fiery leaves of the mountains. Deep, almost burgundy reds, earthy greens resisting the change til their last breaths, and crisp golds that look so inviting you could bite into them. They are a blur of color as they approach, but a vast and unchanging canvas in the distance, like a painting hung in a motel lobby.
Hakuryuu's tired, but instead of drifting his mind races. About Judal, about the road, about their journey itself… He chews on the inside of his cheek, but it doesn't do much good.
"What about you?" he asks, turning a question back on Judal without context.
Judal looks up from the battered paperback he was making himself carsick with. "What about me?"
"Where are you going on this journey?"
"Wherever you go, stupid." Judal looks back down to his book. He's been glued to it since he picked it up off a coffee shop take a book, leave a book earlier that morning.
"I- urrghhh." Hakuryuu clenches his eyes shut in aggravation before prying them open again in defiance of his tired mind. "Never mind. I feel like we spin ourselves in circles every few weeks, clashing, trying to figure out what the other is thinking and getting all upset-"
"Maybe you do," Judal interrupts with a shrug. "I'm chill."
The silence between them is far more chill than Judal could ever be, punctuated only by the turning of pages. When he finishes his chapter though, Judal does put the book down, staring out the windshield rather than make eye contact with Hakuryuu.
"I… I mean, I do want to be with you, out here on the road. That's a big thing. But the road is… It's like a web. It can be a passage for those that made it, but it can also be a trap. And I- I know traps, you know? Those dumb old men and your stupid hag mom had me in one my whole life." He gestures out the windshield at the trees and the sky and the asphalt before them. "But together we can make our own roads, weave our own web. Set our own trap. And if we make it strong enough, if we draw enough power out of the weird shit that's already here, unused but believed in, waiting to be tapped into… Maybe we have a chance of getting out of the web we've been in our whole lives, you know?"
Hakuryuu's quiet. He gives Judal's words their own time to sink in. He's not really sure what to say to them, but it's what he had expected to hear. More poetic maybe, but the pieces fit.
"I wish you would have just told me-"
"What, from the beginning? When you were like five seconds away from leaving me at a gas stop when I went to take a piss?"
Hakuryuu takes the barbs of Judal's words and smoothes them down with words of his own. "Just. In general." It's not a great subdual, but he keeps trying. "I could tell you were up to something, Judal, and I would rather be able to help you than pretend to be in the dark about it." A beat. "Unless I have to be in the dark for it to work? In which case, we've well and screwed that."
Judal gets a kick out of that at least. "Naah, I'd never pick something where I'd have to keep you out of the loop for it to work. You're too smart." He stretches, shirt riding up and revealing a tease of midriff that Hakuryuu's tired hindbrain savors, as though it isn't something he sees every other day. Judal sees the side eye Hakuryuu's giving him and hams it up even more. "And too into watching everything I do, I guess! I knew you'd figure out I was something, I'm just glad you didn't think it was something sinister."
"Oh, everything you do is sinister."
Judal starts, a look of shock on his face at the blase tone in Hakuryuu's voice, and then he bursts into laughter. Hakuryuu chuckles along too, and their shared vibe is restored. There is something sharp and hard about being in close quarters with someone for months and months, but the hardships and arguments and misunderstandings are just part of it. They don't unmake all the countless hours of joy and understanding, spoken or unspoken. They don't change the fact that Judal would die for him.
"You should read this book when I'm done," Judal says. "It sucks so hard, but in like, the fun way."
"We don't share the same taste."
"No, but I mean it, see, there's this dude with a sword, and when he realizes what the sword is, wait, but I'm getting ahead of myself. It starts…"
Hakuryuu feels his tiredness take over like a fade to black, and he straightens out the car only when he hits the rumble strip on the shoulder and Judal swears.
"Fuck! Watch it, Hakuryuu."
He rubs at his eyes, gripping the wheel tighter to force his mind awake again. "How about I pull off somewhere," he says, "and you can tell me about the book while we go to sleep?"