Mother Hen: another 58 fic--of sorts--by Aki.

Slight pressure against his elbow. His brain translates it too slowly, and he hears the wet smack of a small implosion even as he turns, fingers fumbling to the fore. The egg oozes accusation from the floor. You've got a genius for being too late, it says. He straightens and grabs a bowl off the counter, nudges the slimy yolk towards its glazed rim. The shell is thin and half-crushed, not the sturdy construction of a country hen.

He remembers the way they used to fit into her small hands, brown eggs from the brown old biddy who chased all the cats away and waited for tidbits by the kitchen door. They found her in the lane, half-dead from a fox attack. Kanan clapped her hands together and said, "Oh, Gonou!" in a way that made him very glad he hadn't asked if she knew how to pluck a chicken.

Two toes were torn off the left claw and one wing was bleeding badly. He never did know if it had been broken or not, but after they unbound it in a month's time she flapped and squawked and made long awkward hops all around the yard. He once saw her make one onto the back of a striped grey tom, father of an unknown number of wild cat tribes, when he'd prowled too near for her tastes. He was hardly able to make out what was happening in the scuffle that ensued, but a few flurrying yowls and several feathers later, Grey Tom fled into the hedge, never to return in the light of day.

Kanan, who normally loved cats and left out food for them whenever there was anything to leave despite his direst threats, laughed when he told her. "Serves him right, the furry lump." When the feisty bird died, three years and many brown eggs later, Kanan cried and forbade him to do anything but bury the remains. Then she, whose cheeks were already too pale and whose fingers were too thin for his liking, refused to eat anything remotely fowl-shaped for a month. Any meat was expensive for them, but chicken was less so, and it made up a lot of nourishment in their diet. He racked his brains for substitutes until he found an old man to teach him how to fish.

We were so poor, he recalls with something like wonder, so poor and I didn't notice. The thought reminds him that he doesn't actually need to worry about losing one egg anymore, even if the floor is still clean enough to eat off of. Saving the world has allowed him to retire on a generous stipend, although his first instinct was to refuse it as soon as the school was completed. Then Gojyo pointed out that the temple was better situated to pay him than the town council was, and he reluctantly agreed.

Now, with Gojyo working nights and his freelance tutoring, their financial situation is comfortable. Sanzo still has the Gold Card, although every time Gojyo asks to borrow it he scowls and mutters darkly about credit ceilings and pushing his luck.

He looks at the egg, fragments of shell trapped in the translucent slime, and doesn't want to throw it away. With a pair of chopsticks he begins to fish for the bits, frowning in concentration as they slip away and slide down the pottery sides. When he finishes with the egg he no longer feels hungry, and begins to dust the rooms. It doesn't take long; there are only three. When he was young he dusted the long halls of the orphanage, which had classrooms and crevices with statues of saints and martyrs (they were the same thing, he was told) to work around. Three rooms takes him no time at all.

It takes him even less time to sweep the floors and straighten what furniture they have. He only turns up five cigarette butts this time, which means that Gojyo has taken his warnings to heart. He cleans carefully, all the way under the beds, but doesn't find a single condom. He isn't sure just what that means, but the activity makes him remember the time when Sanzo came looking for him, when he wasn't yet Sanzo, wasn't yet a friend. Only Justice, catching up at last.

He stares at the crumpled butts in the pan and wonders absently if he should buy an ashtray before recalling why they don't have one already. He asked once before, when they were in the potter's shop buying bowls. Wandering between shelves stacked with clay in every shape and form, he spotted it: small, unglazed, and unpretentious. He carried it to Gojyo for approval. His friend took the cigarette out of his mouth. "What's this? One of those dishes you put the wasabi in?"

"An ashtray, I think," he replied, and was surprised to see Gojyo's face darken with something he thought he recognized.

"I don't do ashtrays," his friend said, and turned away, chewing on his cigarette.

"Gojyo?" He felt his eyebrows raising in surprise. He'd heard him say that before, but he'd always assumed it to be a joke, a line from a confirmed bachelor.

Gojyo whirled. "I don't do fuckin' ashtrays, ok? I just don't." He took a deep breath, and walked away.

He stared down into the ashtray he was holding. He didn't know it was an ashtray, to be sure. It was a rectangular clay shape, an inch and a half deep, about four inches long. It could have held anything. Gojyo came back.

"...I'm sorry. Hakkai, don't look that way. Hakkai!" Gojyo was biting his lips. "Look, when I was a kid I made an ashtray for my mom." The man spoke rapidly, his eyes on the floor. "She was a smoker too. I was probably addicted by the time I was two." He grinned. Without humor the expression looked tight.

"What happened?" he asked as gently as he could.

"She threw it at my head."

He said nothing, and put the ashtray back on the shelf. They bought bowls instead, white bowls with blue fish, including the one now holding the egg. Gojyo picked them out, all the while affecting total disinterest. Real men don't shop for anything, he claimed.

Gojyo knows what real men do. He came home earlier than expected once when a town council meeting was cancelled. Gojyo was in their room with some girl. He never saw her face, but he heard the small noises, the kind that Kanan used to make. He knew they were in there and he still isn't really sure why he felt compelled to move up to the door of the bedroom when he could have simply left. He was at the crack just long enough to see Gojyo look up before closing the door. To this day he wonders what his expression looked like, and if Gojyo's was reflecting it. He can't think why else his friend would look betrayed.

He empties the dustpan into the trash, butts and all, and checks to see if all the clothes are washed. They are, because he washes them at the beginning of every week except for Gojyo's bartending shirt and apron, but he has three of those. He washes it anyway, and then turns back to the kitchen. He doesn't know how late his housemate will be tonight, or whether he is at his job. Gojyo stumbles in smelling of smoke and alcohol and perfume of all kinds every night, courtesy of his environment, and he knows better than to ask. He thinks there have been no girls since the one he didn't see, then tries not to think about it. He wonders how many there were before her.

The kitchen confronts him--he feels bewildered, without a plan. There is food in the fridge; he goes shopping on tuesdays and saturdays when the produce around the corner at Lee's comes in fresh. He never ate lunch, but isn't hungry for dinner. Instead, he tries setting out things he will need, gearing himself for cooking mode. He misses the days they were forced to make do with campfires and makeshift kitchens, everything jury-rigged and seasoned with a sense of purpose. Anyone, he reflects, would miss having Goku to cook for. Goku still eats everything and eats it loudly, with appreciation, swearing up and down that nowhere in the entire continent is there anyone to match Hakkai. Sanzo still eats like a bird, but when he comes to visit he still manages to finish two bowls of rice. Even Gojyo jokes that with Hakkai around, he doesn't need a wife. He hasn't said it recently.

He runs through a mental list of things he could make, wondering if Gojyo has eaten yet. The bar doubles as a restaurant, serving food in the day. Sometimes his friend brings home leftovers from work, especially on days when he has to stay out late tutoring. The entrance exams are drawing near, and there is growing demand for his services. It is a mistake, he finds, to assume that the progeny of the rich are any more conversant with the classics than those of the poor. But, he reminds himself, he was always blessed with a love of books.

He picks up the knife from the cutting board, eyes it thoughtfully. It's growing dull and he spends a minute or two sharpening it. He's always careful with blades and hasn't cut himself in an accident in many years. He did it once and Kanan grew very pale when she saw his dripping finger. He learned how to keep his knuckles on guard against a slip of the blade, and he doesn't let his mind wander when the knife is moving. How strange, he thinks as he looks at the blade, that a girl who hated the sight of blood--

"What are you doing?"

There's panic in the voice, enough to turn him around, startled. "Gojyo? You're back early."

His housemate narrows his eyes and crosses the kitchen in three steps. "Let me see your hand."

Puzzled, he proffers the limb for inspection, and understands when Gojyo seizes it, pushes back the sleeve, then sighs in relief. "Gojyo, you couldn't really think I'd be so foolish as to--"

"You scare the hell out of me when you look like that," his friend interrupts sharply.

"Look like what?" he feels mildly annoyed at the slight to his rationality. "My back was to you."

"I could tell." Gojyo looks at him, a searching glace that seems out of place on him. He must find or not find something he's looking for, since his next move is to collapse into a chair and ask, "So what's for dinner?" He glances at the counter and adds, "One egg? What, you competing with the bag-of-bones monk on waistlines or something?"

"Aren't you supposed to be at work?" he feels compelled to ask, going back to the fridge.

"Private party tonight, they'll only need one man working the crowd. Jiaguo's covering for me. He doesn't mind, it means more tips. Anyhow, I wanted a decent meal."

Two vegetables and a meat dish should do it. "I'll see what I can whip up. Isn't this the third time you've asked him to take your shift?"

"Ah, don't nag. When I'm there the ladies ignore him, he couldn't be happier to have the place to himself. You look pale," his friend observes, "skipped lunch again?"

"Now who's nagging?" If he's going to make eggs he'll need more than one, for sure. Fortunately there are tomatoes in the crisper. Going soft, but that works well for this dish. He needs scallions as well, and finds them on the second shelf, then takes everything to the sink.

Gojyo's voice sounds in his ear, low and loaded with the smell of Hi-lites. "If you would just take better care of yourself, I wouldn't have to nag. When you get that look on your face..."

He thinks he just might know what look his friend means. It has to do, he guesses, with a sense of emptiness. He sets the egg down carefully, because his hands want to tremble. "Then don't put it there," he says, and begins to wash the vegetables.

Gojyo is utterly still behind him. Then very lightly, hands come up to rest on his shoulders.

"Do you..." he almost can't finish the sentence, even with the house completely clean and Gojyo filling it from wall to wall, "...need me?"

He hears a strange choking noise that might be a laugh, and feels the hands tighten. "What the hell kinda question is that?"

He relaxes a little and lets the hands pull him slightly backwards. It's alright to shift his balance, to lose a little focus. He's not holding the knife, and the eggs are safely set aside. "Good," he says quietly. "I need you too."

yep. the end.

er... as usual, FEEDBACK BEGGED FOR. please? *whimper*

it was supposed to be...darker and angry because i am stressed and self-hating at the moment. but it's also 58 and i just can't. i sit down with anger and tension in my heart and then all this sap comes out and fills my brain. sorry, kat, for including kanan. i think she was in there for a reason. but as you can see, he's still moving on!!