Don't look now...but she's back. Sorry, Saiyuki boys. Not going to say too much about this one yet, but it's shaping up to be quite a bit longer than my last, and it's a different sort of story. This time I'm indulging my love of angst. Ah, angst.

Please enjoy.

Remembering to Breathe

It was the fourth bar in as many nights, and the last this pathetic excuse for a town had to offer. After the last three nights the doors of the others were closed to him. After tonight, this one's would be as well, gold card or no.

They had already suggested he leave twice. The first man just had bruises to show for it; the second, a sprained wrist. Or maybe broken. Gojyo wasn't sure. He misjudged his strength when he was drunk.

Only he wasn't. Not really. Not enough. He called for another bottle. Vodka, this time. Cold and clear, back to the basics.

The bartender studied the collection of empty carafes next to the filled ashtray, said, hesitantly, "Sir, perhaps you've had enough..."

Gojyo raised his head, slowly; it was too heavy to jerk up. He watched the man recoil with bitter amusement. Late night, with the only illumination from the dim gold bulbs above the bar, he knew how his eyes looked. In daylight he could pass for human; the sun softened their hue to rich mahogany. But at night they were blood red.

Or maybe it was something else in his face that made the man shy back. "Vodka," he said, enunciating each syllable carefully. "Your best."

"Yes, sir," and the barman scuttled off, muttering under his breath. Cursing him out, most likely. Fuck him. Where else was he supposed to go? Only four bars in this gods-forsaken town. And no way he was going back to the inn, not with the kid's gold eyes watching, watching too damn quietly, even his "I'm hungry"s were subdued. Not loud enough to pick a fight over. Not even enough that Sanzo brought out the fan.

Not that Sanzo had done anything at all since signing them into the inn. Just sat there burning through one pack after another, until even with open window the room was filled with smoke and even Gojyo coughed on it. He hadn't slept at all, Goku had said, which after a hundred hours was going beyond sheer stubbornness and becoming completely impossible. Not that he would put it past the monk.

That wasn't for him. Gojyo had no interest in being awake. But there didn't seem to be enough liquor in the whole damn town to put him down. He kept waking barely past dawn, would lie there and pretend he wasn't, until the monkeyboy finally would notice and drag him down to a breakfast he wouldn't be able to stomach. Afterwards he would leave Goku to fuss over the monk and the dragon, and go walk the dull marketplace with all its worthless trinkets and rotting fruits, until the bars opened and he found his way to one which wouldn't lock him out.

Sure the hell was easier to toss over the credit card than gamble for cash. There were card games going on in the corner here, as there had been in the other three, but he ignored them, all the cheating and bickering and scrabbling for a few coins you'd only lose tomorrow, or the night after that. No one keeps on Lady Luck's good side forever.

The bartender bustled back, planted the vodka bottle on the bar in front of him and set a shot glass beside it. Gojyo smirked at him. "Thanks, my good man."

His manners earned him a tight-lipped nod, and the man retreated. Gojyo picked up the bottle, squinted at the label, but the room was too hazy for him make it out. Probably garbage; everything in this bar was shit. But booze was booze. He shrugged, poured the clear liquid into the glass and gulped it down. Swallow before it killed the nose or tastebuds, that was the key. Drink fast enough and you could almost believe it was plain water.

As he filled the glass again he noticed the bartender at the other end of the bar, head close to a lovely young red-head. Not real red like his, but orange curls, shimmering brown and gold in alternating light and shadow as the girl nodded, round made-up face turning toward him. He raised the shot to her before drinking. This ploy he knew; use honey if force won't get rid of them. But it was more to his advantage than the bouncers.

Gojyo watched her saunter over, losing himself for a moment in the sway of her hips. He had at least had enough that all women looked fine, but then, that never took much. And she would be a beauty anyway. Better without the blush and powder hiding the bags under her eyes, but whores took a lot of crap in a town this small.

"Hey, boy, looking for something to do after this dump closes?" she purred as she slid onto the stool next to his.

He looked her up and down again, smiled slightly. "Don't see any boy here."

"Don't tell me you think only a man can hold his drink," she said, and plucking the glass from his fingers she downed the next shot.

Gojyo leaned over, close enough to smell her perfumed hair. Lilac and strawberries, bad combination, and too strong. But the curls were soft against his cheek. "You take credit card, huh?"

"What kind of girl do you think I am?" she whispered back, her lips almost brushing his ear. Then she tossed back her mane, pushed out her chest and smiled at him. "But no. This one's on the house."

His mouth quirked. "And I thought it was my charm." He picked up the bottle, stood. "Sorry. I never buy. Even when there's someone else paying." Then he leaned down to her again, muttered, "But don't tell him that," and he tilted his head toward the bartender, keeping a surreptitious surveillance on them. "Walk out with me and you can come by tomorrow, pick up your price for the job. I'd double it, if I were you--I'm difficult to satisfy."

Her grin made him revise his estimate of her age a few years down, and he was that much gladder that he had refused. Though it would have been nice, having something warm in bed. Maybe would help sleep come a little easier.

The shithole of a bar didn't even have level floors, he realized as he headed for the door. He hadn't noticed when he had come in, but now they were slanting at a different angle with every step he took. Then the girl was next to him, ducking under his arm to pull him upright. "Whoa, there," she said. "So you can't hold it after all?" Before he could protest she was walking him toward the door, guiding him down the only safe, flat path the bar must have. And she had his vodka. He made to grab it back but she held it out of reach, shook her head. "You're just gonna drop it."

"Like hell I would," he snarled, suddenly furious. "You sayin' I'm drunk?"

"Boy, you are wasted."

He laughed, and even to his ears it sounded weirdly hollow. "I fucking wish. If I were then I wouldn't have to be working this hard to..."

She was staring at him, her eyes open wide, and in the murky light they were...

He blinked and they were hazel, muddy puddles of olive and bronze, not that pure, deep evergreen of a winter fir. So green you could see it even in moonlight, even in a dark room.

He hadn't seen the knife come down. Gojyo had looked up just in time to see the light leave those green eyes as he fell, and then there was no color but the red of his blood, spreading over the floor...

He was going to be sick. Pushing the girl away he staggered to the door, barely made it outside before he was, noisily and painfully. Afterwards he leaned against the rough plaster wall. The night breeze was cool on his face, but not comforting, and his stomach still churned.

Twice, this made it, that a blow he hadn't seen coming had ended his life without even touching him. His brother had been crying, but this killer had been masked. Professional.

Gojyo ran his hand over his face. Sweat, but no tears, not this time. He didn't know how to cry anymore. Even wasted. Not one of those fucking sappy drunks, sobbing in his cups. He laughed again. A harsh sound in the night, but least he still could do that.

"Hey?" The smoke and clamor of the bar accompanied the girl into the street, and then the door swung shut and the night was quiet again. "You okay, boy?"

"Don't call me that," he said, closing his eyes so he wouldn't have to see what color hers were in the darkness. He rocked his spinning head back against the wall. "Won't be called that by a whore who could be my little sister."

He deserved a slap for that, or a kick, but none came. But she was still there when he opened his eyes, standing there a couple feet in front of him with a strange look on her face. "What's wrong?" she asked. "What happened to you?"

"What happened to me? Nothing happened to me. I'm still alive, aren't I?" He had to be. He could hear himself breathing.

"You didn't seem like a bad guy. I thought you'd maybe gotten dumped or something," she said. "But there's really something wrong with you."

"No, you're right. I just got dumped. That's all." 'This is the second time someone good looking leaves me.' 'Did you sulk?' 'Kind of...'

She opened her mouth, but before she said anything shadows materialized out of the alley behind him. Seven total, and the biggest towered over him. Then the girl stepped in front of him, spread her arms. "You guys get out of here," she said. "He doesn't have anything."

"That's not what my brother said," one of the men replied. "He said this guy's been waving around a damn gold card. He saw it--before loverboy here broke his arm."

Gojyo shoved himself off the wall, with difficulty found his footing on the cobblestone. "And you want a break to match. Isn't that cute."

"Don't!" the girl protested. "You can't fight them--"

"Watch me."

"Get outa the way, girlie," one of the others spat, and something long and thin came whistling out of the darkness. Snake? he thought blankly, and then whip lashed around his legs and yanked him to the ground with a thud. He picked himself up in time to roll out of the way of a second strike.

The girl cried out as the whip cut her cheek, and the half-youkai snarled and leapt for the guy wielding it. His roundhouse punch knocked that man down, but off-balanced Gojyo enough that he fell too. Sprawled on the ground, he shook his head groggily, cursing the lazy spiral the world was turning around him. Maybe the vodka had been overkill--

"Behind you!" screamed the girl, and he threw himself to the side, narrowly dodging the long blade's downward stab. The swordsman smiled at him, bloodthirsty as any mad youkai, drew back for another strike, and damn it, the girl was crying. He hated that. He particularly hated it because he suspected she might be crying for him, and the thought that he might have caused a woman to shed tears enraged him enough that he ducked out of the sword's sweeping path, lunged up and slammed his fist into the man's solar plexus.

He went down, hard. But the girl was still wailing, and as out of the corner of his eyes he saw three more men charging him, metal gleaming in their hands, Gojyo realized she might have reason to.

Sudden, unexpected light cut a swathe through the attackers, who gasped and choked as something rammed them in the gut. As they fell around him, Gojyo blearily blinked up at the figure in their midst, smaller than any of the men, and the diadem nestled in his brown hair gleamed gold.

"You didn't have to save so many for me," Goku complained, twirling around Nyoibou to crack one of the two men still standing sharply on the crown. Before he had hit the ground, the kid had disposed of the last one with three punches as rapid as jackhammers. Then he looked at the girl. "You okay?"

She nodded dumbly, and he went to Gojyo, gave him a hand up and steadied him when the world persisted in spinning. He groaned, concentrated on not throwing up. Couldn't be much left in there anyway.

"Where'd they hit you?" and the kid actually sounded scared.

"They didn't, I don't think," the girl said. "He's just dead drunk. You his friend?"

"Yeah," said Goku, not even hesitating.

"You should've come get him sooner," the girl told him, like she was scolding a little brother. "He's really messed up."

"I know." Goku sounded downright miserable. "I thought...I knew where he had to be, this was the only bar left, so since I didn't have to go looking everywhere I thought I could wait...I didn't think he'd get into this much trouble."

"Guy like him, he doesn't need to look for trouble. It'll come right for him. Sharks can smell blood on land, too." The girl sighed. "You got your work cut out for you, keeping him."

Which was bullshit, he didn't need anyone to take care of him. He hadn't for years. Maybe he wanted it, but it was never going to happen, that's not what life is, there is no such thing as security, and only a complete moron would ever believe there is. And why the hell were they talking like he wasn't even there? With difficulty he raised his head--Goku was too damn short, leaning on him like this he had to look up to meet the girl's gaze. But he gave her his best grin anyway. "Hey, everything's okay. Met you, didn't I?"

He heard Goku mutter, "Ero-gappa," and for a single moment everything was normal, as it should be.

She shook her head, and her hair hid her eyes. Then she bent and kissed him, lightly, on the forehead, like a mother with a sick kid. "Take care of yourself, boy," she murmured, and she was gone. He wondered if she had gone back to the bar, or was taking his suggestion and returning tomorrow. Didn't matter. He wouldn't be going back there again.

They had to get out of this town. It was too damn small. Not enough bars.

Not enough alcohol. He still remembered. Not just the blood. The crimson strands which got in his eyes were always a reminder of that. He was used to it by now.

But there were three years that had fooled him into believing happiness was more than an abstract concept, and months after that which he had mistaken for something even better. Those he could forget. Those he would do anything to forget.

He wasn't sick again, but wished he were. There was a weight in his chest that he couldn't expel, and his head was whirling.

"Come on," said Goku, bearing him up resignedly. "We have to get back to the inn. You need to sleep, and Sanzo will want more cigarettes."

"Can't deny the great Sanzo-sama his smokes," Gojyo mumbled, around a tongue which seemed to have become only an obstacle in his mouth.

"At least I don't have to go out looking for him."

Gojyo was too drunk to have any good answer to that. "Sorry," he said. "I'm sorry."

He could feel the kid's shoulders rise and fall in a sigh. "It's okay," Goku said, as if he didn't know that it wasn't, and never would be again. "Let's just go back," and they began making their slow way down the dark street.

To be continued...