There was blood, and her crying, smiling face, and more blood, everywhere, all the same shade of red, until he couldn't tell which body was hers, and inside he was screaming but he could make no sound aloud, nothing but the in and out of his panting breaths rasping in his ears. The only sound he could hear and it wouldn't stop. He couldn't stop breathing.
He awoke to a warm weight pressed against his arm, opened his eyes and saw the top of Gojyo's head, the half-youkai sitting on the floor with his head resting on his folded arms and crimson hair draped over them. The color of blood, and yet looking at it, the first memory it sparked was not the recent nightmare, but a years-old flash of those locks cropped short. Gojyo, leaning over the apple stand, his hair a perfect match to the fruits' waxed red skins. Gojyo's expression, when Hakkai had greeted him...
When Hakkai sat up he saw Goku curled on the floor beside the bed, his head pillowed on Gojyo's thigh. Moving carefully so as not to disturb the mattress and Hakuryuu coiled into a sleeping ball at his feet, he climbed out of bed and pulled on his shirt and boots.
A soft cough stopped him as he reached for the doorknob. Looking back, he saw Sanzo, seated in the chair between the beds with his arms folded over his chest, but his head was up, violet eyes open and aware.
Hakkai raised his head to that searching look, met it firmly. "I just thought I would go out and get some breakfast, before they wake up," he said, quietly to not disturb the others.
Sanzo looked at him a moment longer, then nodded. With a flick of his fingers he sent the gold cash card spinning across the room. Hakkai snatched it from the air, and Sanzo said, "Get me some Marlboro Reds."
He only wondered for a moment if he dared. "What's the magic word?"
The heat which flickered in those violet eyes warmed him as much as Gojyo's sleeping face, as Goku's quiet snores. "Menthol," the monk hissed.
The smile curved his lips with no effort or will on his part. "The shops are nearby, right? I should be back in half an hour."
Outside, the sun had just risen; the morning dew wasn't yet burned away, and the air smelled fresh and damp with the faint scent of coming rain. Shopkeepers were unlocking their doors and people at the market were setting up their stalls, arranging produce and raising canopies. They called friendly greetings to Hakkai as he walked past, and he nodded back politely.
He found the local general store just as the owner came down from his lodgings above it. The old gentleman helpfully took the gold card, went inside and brought him out the packs of cigarettes a minute later, handing over the bag, the card, and the receipt with a casual, comfortable thanks. He pointed out the bakery across the street at Hakkai's question; they were already open, and the smell of warm baking bread filled the air in harmony with the brightening sunlight.
It took him several minutes to decide from the wide selection, and the baker pressed a few more filled buns on him when she heard he was shopping for four--"You're with that golden-eyed kid, aren't you? Better take these to fill that bottomless stomach!" The big woman laughed and winked at him as she slipped an extra pastry into the bag with everything else. "Treat for a new customer, to keep you coming back. I'd eat it quick, before your friend sees it."
On the way back to the inn, Hakkai stopped at the fruit stand, now set up and open for business, its wares a rainbow under the plain beige awning. Oranges, grapes, melons, apples--it had been a while since they had had apples, and these were a delicious shining red and mottled green. Bags slung in the crook of his arm, he hefted a large one in one hand, feeling for bruises.
The bright high sound of children shouting echoed through the quiet square, as two little boys ran past, shrieking insults at one another. Hakkai automatically stepped out of their way before he could be run down, and someone with the same intent bumped into him from behind.
"Excuse me!" the girl said, stumbling. "Those brats--"
Hakkai steadied her with a hand on her arm. "It's no trouble."
"Oh, they're plenty of trouble," she returned. "I should know, one's my nephew." She pushed auburn curls out of her eyes, looked up at him. "Hello," she said. "You're new here?"
"We've been in town a couple days," Hakkai said, "my three friends and I. We're staying at the inn now."
"Ah, I see." She said it as politely and friendly as everyone else had spoken, but she peered at him with a strange intensity, studying his face with searching hazel eyes. She was a pretty enough woman, just Gojyo's type, Hakkai thought, if on the young side; but something about the focus of her gaze made him uncomfortable, and not because it was flirting.
He was about to excuse himself when she said, "You're his friend, aren't you. The boy with the beautiful red hair. He's got a couple scars here," and she indicated her cheek.
"Yes, that's Gojyo," Hakkai said, not surprised, though he wondered a little that she didn't know his name. Gojyo usually gave his trysts that much.
"So there's four of you now," she said. "Last week weren't there only three?"
"I...wasn't with them last week," Hakkai said.
"Ah," she said again. "So that's..." She touched her chin thoughtfully for a moment, and then smiled, a flash of white teeth that changed her face from pretty to almost beautiful. "So you might be staying in town a while? I heard last night that your friend was asking about renting Lin Gao's place."
"Yes, he was..." Hakkai looked over her shoulder at the town square behind her. The market stands, sellers calling cheerful hallos to one another as the first customers of the day arrived, as they must do every morning. The two boys had caught each other and were wrestling in the muddy street, laughing. Around them spread the town, little one- and two-story houses huddled together behind the gray walls, and beyond that the green forest, leaves brilliant in the sunlight. There were a few clouds now, and more gathering in the northern corner of the sky, but the sun was rising in the clear blue east.
Gyuu-maoh was thousands of miles away, too far for the people in this peaceful town to have even heard of him. Perhaps someday youkai might come in force enough to be a danger. For now, however, it was safe here. Lovely and quiet, the kind of place you could settle and grow old, and live every day as content and tranquil as the day before and the day before that.
He would still be awakening to nightmares of the past for sometime yet, he knew that. But when he woke up, they all would be there, reminding him of all the years, and more, that separated him from the memories. How he was not who he had been then, and never would be again.
But then, if they were in another inn in a different town, on another road in a different forest, they would still be with him. On the road, no one could be sure of what the next day would bring, every morning something different, somewhere different. But they would be there. Awake or sleeping, broken or fixed, they would be there.
Someday he could come back to this town, or the one where he had lived with Gojyo before, or another like them. Maybe a town far away in the northeast mountains, with heart enough to accept a pair of halfblood twins as its own, in spite of the taboos. The towns would still be here after Gyuu-maoh's threat was gone, and these peaceful days could go on, tomorrow and the day after and every day after that.
But not now. Whatever you want, Goku had said, and now, standing in this gentle town square with an apple in his hand and the scent of rain in the air, Hakkai knew what that was.
"No," he told the girl. "My friend was asking about the cottage, but it's not what we're looking for after all. We're going to be leaving today. This morning, I think, as soon as I get back."
"Oh," she said, perhaps a little surprised, not really disappointed. "If it's going to be so soon..." She cocked her head at him. "Would you mind passing on something to your friend--Gojyo, was it?--from me?"
Hakkai suppressed a sigh with a patient smile. "I wouldn't mind at all," he told her.
"Then please give him this," and she rose on her tiptoes, took Hakkai's face in her hands and kissed his cheek, a quick warm press of her lips.
"Thank you," she told him as her hands fell away. She was barely blushing, only the faintest hint of pink risen to her cheeks.
Hakkai felt his own warming, forced it down. "Is that all?"
"No," she said. "There's one more thing," and she leaned forward again, lips almost brushing his ear. "Take care of yourself," she said. "For him, and the other ones, too."
Then she turned and walked away, heels clicking on the cobblestones, waving and calling back over her shoulder, "Have a good trip!"
"Thank you." Hakkai waved back, then glanced at the fruitseller. The man was watching and trying to pretend he wasn't. From her make-up and dress, and the expression twisting the man's face, he could make a reasonable hypothesis as to the girl's profession.
But then he wasn't likely to be back here for a long time anyway. Hakkai smiled directly into the face of the vendor's embarrassment, remarked, "Such a pleasant young lady makes the whole morning brighter, don't you think?" and bought four apples and a few ripe peaches. Those wouldn't last long jouncing in Hakuryuu, but Goku would easily finish them off before they bruised. He stopped at the next seller as well and purchased enough meat buns for an evening meal.
The storm clouds had almost covered the sun, but not quite, and he enjoyed its last rays as he crossed the street back to the inn, shifting the shopping bags to free a hand to open the door. Goku and Gojyo were up; he could hear them as he climbed the stairs, Goku's hungry whine, "He said he was getting breakfast?" and Gojyo demanding, "He said half an hour? Hasn't it been longer? Are you sure--"
"I'm back," Hakkai said, opening the door. They all turned toward him, Goku beaming as he saw the food, Gojyo grinning at him, and even Sanzo came close to a smirk as Hakkai handed over his cigarettes. Hakuryuu gave a high glad cry and flew to him in a flurry of white wings. "Please go outside to the street," Hakkai requested of the dragon, "we'll be down in a minute."
Hakuryuu chirped obediently and glided out the window. Hakkai looked at the others, the three of them watching him. Waiting for him. Sanzo with his impatient endurance, Goku eager and helpful, Gojyo anxious but trying not to be, trying not to put any more pressure on him than what he already exerted just by being. What they all put on each other.
Waiting for him, as they always would. As long as he needed.
And in that, he had all he needed.
"Are you packed?" Hakkai said. "We want to leave as soon as possible. It's going to rain soon."
So, here we are, almost three and a half years after this story was begun. It's been a long ride, and I hope it was worth it. My sincere and thrilled thanks to everyone who's read it through, whether you were there from the beginning and returned for the conclusion (I salute your endurance!) or whether you've just found it now - a story's not truly a story without an audience, so thank you for making this a true story. I must in particular thank Gnine, for (as usual) starting me on the path of this story and driving me to the scene of Gojyo holding Hakkai that she wanted; stitcher2ficcer for various beta-duty and necessary encouragement, and Naye for always saying the best things, both what I want to hear and what I need to know. And my especial thanks to everyone who took the time to leave a review and made my day by letting me know you liked it, that it moved you, that I entertained you. Every compliment feels like a standing ovation and I bow to all of you (though that can be difficult to see in a text medium, so you'll have to take my word for it).
And of course, all my gratitude to Minekura-sensei, who created characters as marvelous as these. Gojyo, Sanzo, Goku, and Hakkai are such incredibly vivid, intense souls, and their relationships are so complex, that playing with them is well-nigh irresistible. If I managed to get them recognizably in character, then the credit must go to Minekura-sensei, who writes them such that I have trouble seeing them any other way. All mistakes otherwise are my own.