Author's note: I'd like to take a moment to remind everyone that Saiyuki is not mine, and really, there's no yaoi here, no matter what you think is being implied. Come on, they barely know each other! Give them a few years, and something might develop…but I make no promises. Except the angst. There will always be angst. Ladies and gentlemen, we are FINISHED! Thank you for coming on this wild ride of angst, and for those of you who have been reading since the beginning, THANK YOU for your patience!
It's only a few hours before another village appears in the distance. I can't be certain, having never seen it from outside, but it appears to be the one in which Gojyo makes his home. Anticipation causes me to hurry again. How should I do this? Should I go straight to Gojyo's house? He's not likely to be out and about this early, and possibly not even awake yet if he was up late last night. It might be better for me to stop at the market and pick up something for breakfast before knocking on Gojyo's door.
When I follow the dusty road into the small town, I follow the buzz of chattering voices to the public market and wander among the carts and stalls of produce. No one gives me a second look, but then again, the doctor is really the only other one who saw me when I was here. Neither my eyepiece nor my inhibitors draw any attention and I find myself perusing potatoes and carrots just for the novelty of not being glared at or watched with disdain.
As I turn away from the carrots, a patch of bobbing red catches my eye. At first, it looks like a giant tomato or apple, but then my mind catches up to what my eyes are telling me, and I can't quite keep the mischievous smile from my face.
Mindfulness; be aware of everyone around me. I dodge shoppers and flow through the crowd, twisting smoothly to maneuver through narrow spaces between people, never taking my eyes off of my target. He saunters down the street before stopping at one stall laden with bright red apples. As silently as possible, I slip into the empty spot next to him just as he hefts one apple contemplatively.
"Miss? Give me one of these," he says, as though the simple fruit were something of unfathomable importance.
"It's a beautiful red," I say, picking up an apple of my own. "Isn't it, Gojyo?"
I turn my head slightly to watch his reaction. He doesn't disappoint me. The apple drops from his hand, and his cigarette nearly falls as well. He stares at me in shock, mouth slack, cigarette hanging awkwardly from his lower lip. Then he points at me with his now-free hand, mouth working wildly, still unable to form words. His gestures and attempts to speak get more frantic and comical; he jumps around and stamps his feet, anger and joy and shock chasing each other around his face as his tries to re-arrange his features enough to display them all.
Finally, after nearly braining a random pedestrian, he manages to gasp out "...that stinking monk!" He runs his hands through his very short hair, cigarette abandoned on the ground. "He said you were dead! I'm going to kill him!"
My smile, which had been simple amusement, broadens slightly at his exasperation. "Ah, if we're going back to Chang An, can we get breakfast first? I've been walking all night, and I'd like a chance to rest."
Gojyo's expression settles into a foolish grin, and he turns back to the lady running the apple stall. She is watching us with interest, no doubt highly amused by the display we have just put on. "Miss, give me four, instead." The purchase is concluded quickly, and Gojyo slings the arm holding the bag over his shoulder and drapes the other arm on mine. "I'm treating," he says in a no-nonsense tone as he leads me down the street, "But only because I thought you were dead. You're on your own next time." The giddiness in his voice isn't quite hidden under his tough-guy tone.
We make small talk over fruit and eggs, Gojyo talking more than me, and leave for Chang on when we finish eating. The road is much more pleasant to travel on during the day. Gojyo regales me with tales of what happened after I tried to kill myself, complete with Sanzo cracking his ribs and how much of an annoyance it was to be ordered to bed for a week with no one to keep him company. He rants about Sanzo's cryptic visit one rainy night, and how the priest simply said that Cho Gonou was dead, and something about Buddhists. He does not speak of what his day-to-day life was like, or why he has cut his hair short.
My vows now tie me to Gojyo as well as Sanzo; it is my responsibility to try to understand both of them so that I can be alert for any indication that something is wrong, and do my best to keep from causing them trouble. I listen intently to Gojyo, both to his words and the things he does not say. For all that I lived in his house for a month, I know very little about him. My smile tightens momentarily; I have no doubt that I will have plenty of time to come to understand him.
We stop for the night in the same little town I passed through last night, and part of the cache Sanzo gifted me with goes to pay for the room while Gojyo buys dinner. He strikes up a few games of cards with the other patrons of the tavern, more comfortable in this setting than I've ever seen him. I don't join him in either cards or drinking, but I don't let him out of my sight either and several times, I catch him glancing over at me as if to reassure himself that I am still there. When the crowd starts to break up for the night, we retire to our room. This tavern apparently compromises on single rooms versus doubles by just putting double beds in every room, but Gojyo doesn't seem to care that we will have to share a bed. After all, his bed is half the size, and we both managed to sleep in it.
Given the quality of the mattress, we both opt to sleep in our clothes for extra protection. Gojyo flops carelessly onto the right side of the bed, asleep in seconds. I debate a second, then blow out the candle and lay my eyepiece on the table by it. The night is chilly enough that I crawl under the blanket on the left side of the bed, the scratchy wool almost comforting after my time in the temple. Gojyo smells of cheap whisky and smoke; combined with the sound of his breathing, this holds the hallucinations at bay. I drift in and out of nightmares for a while, until something jolts me out of them and I come awake with adrenaline coursing through my blood. Mattress beneath me, rushes pressing into my right side, something pressed against my back. I hold my breath and listen, but all I hear is Gojyo's breathing. Whatever woke me, it – thankfully – is not one of my night horrors.
The thing pressed against me shifts, and at the same time, Gojyo grunts in his sleep. Repressing the urge to laugh at myself, I relax slowly. I shouldn't have been surprised; Gojyo is unused to there being someone in his bed and not holding them. Granted, when it was me, he did it to make sure I didn't thrash in my sleep and re-open my wound. As though to echo my thought, Gojyo shifts again and drapes his arm over me, fingers crawling across my stomach until his hand covers my scar.
If I ever met a man in my position...
If it had been me walking in the rain that night, and I had found a mortally wounded man and devoted a month of my life to nursing him back to health, I'm sure I would be protective of his continued wellbeing. That's not to say that having Sanzo and Gojyo concerned for me is entirely a comfortable thing; quite the opposite, in fact. I spent far too many years convinced that the world didn't care about me to be able to be at ease with other people taking a positive interest in me. It is a supreme irony that I hold my worthless life forfeit, and will be taking care of myself only because it is part of my penance. I smile, the expression one of brittle pain. I have no choice, my life is not my own. I am only alive to atone for my sins in whatever form that atonement should take – and the primary expression of that is to live in such a way that I cause no trouble to the ones whose dead faces stare back at me from the silent darkness. It would be a violation of oaths I cannot break to cause harm to myself, either through action or inaction.
Despite myself, the familiar constriction of Gojyo's arm around me and the warmth of the wool blanket conspire to lull me back to sleep.
Chang An is a huge city, and despite my impromptu tours, I am not familiar with it at all. Gojyo stuffs his hands into his pockets and glances around, uncomfortable in the strange city.
"Okay, now what?" He looks at me for direction.
With a certainty I don't feel, I lead the way deeper into the city. The Temple of the Setting Sun is visible, being on a hill, and I hope that we don't have to detour too badly to get there. Luckily, the temple must have been here before the city got so big; we only have one moment of confusion before turning down a broad street that leads right to the foot of the temple steps.
The guards at the top of the stairs actually take notice and recognize me. They inform us politely but firmly that we must wait in an antechamber while word is sent to the honored Genjo Sanzo that he has visitors. As it turns out, we don't have to wait at all. Sanzo is sitting at a wooden table when we arrive in the designated waiting room, and Goku hops down from a bench to greet me.
"Wow! Haven't seen you in a while!" He looks back and forth between me and Gojyo, and it's hard to tell which one of us he's talking to.
"Hello," I say, noncommittally, before turning my not-quite-impersonal smile on the familiar surly form of Sanzo. "Pardon me for bothering you."
"Hey, what's with your head, Gojyo? It looks weird!"
I try not to laugh at Gojyo's irritation. Once he discovered that his amateur haircut had resulted in a nearly-bald patch that got sunburned, he wrapped his jacket around his head and it does look rather awkward.
"Shut up, monkey," he growls. "Here's some food." He shoves the bag of apples at Goku, who doesn't seem to care about Gojyo's attempted rudeness.
"Oh! Thank you!" Goku practically rips the bag open as Gojyo stalks over to where Sanzo has been trying to ignore us. "Hey, apples! They look good!" He begins eating as though he hasn't seen food in a week – but from what I've seen, Goku always attacks food like that.
Sanzo does not look up as Gojyo stops beside him. After a moment, Gojyo shifts to a more belligerent pose. "Hey, you tricked me, you phony monk."
"What are you talking about?"
"What am I talking about?" Gojyo repeats, incredulous.
Sanzo moves finally, gesturing in a way that manages to be both condescending and triumphant. "Buddhism forbids killing," he says slowly, as though to a small child. "Don't tell me you thought we'd summarily execute a criminal?" The irritation in his voice is not directed at Gojyo, but the priests who tried to make his words a lie. "All you had to do was think a little."
Gojyo twitches, and Sanzo smirks at having successfully goaded him.
Goku, who had been watching the whole exchange, pauses in devouring two apples at once and looks up at me. "Then, are you free now?"
I smile at him. "Yes, thanks to Sanzo's support." The priest grunts and glares off to one side. Remembering the dawn-to-dusk meetings Sanzo went through for me, I allow some of my gratitude into my voice. "He interceded on my behalf to let me discard the name of Cho Gonou and start a new life." Goku surely knows this, but Gojyo doesn't – the whole way here, he never even asked what had happened to me since my suicide attempt.
"Then," Goku asks, practically hanging off my words, "What's your name now?"
I shoot Sanzo a startled glance, and am rewarded by a brief look of immeasurable smugness. How did he manage to go for four days without telling Goku?
"Hakkai." My voice catches in my throat, as the reality of having a name crashes down upon me again and makes me giddy with elation. "Cho Hakkai." I savor the feel of the syllables in my mouth, somehow grateful that both Sanzo and Gojyo are there to hear the first time my full name leaves my lips.
"Hakkai…" Goku tests the name out, then brightens. "Yeah, it fits you better than the name you had before!"
His enthusiasm is such that I have to fight to keep from laughing; behind him, Sanzo twitches.
"Do you think so?" I ask mildly, remembering my assertion that my name still fits despite the meaning Sanzo had intended for it.
Gojyo smirks. "Heh, you probably can't remember it with your deficient brain."
Goku rises to the bait, and the two of them squabble. I wonder briefly if Gojyo picked a fight to keep his image of uncaring toughness, the way Sanzo tries to keep everyone at arms' length.
"So." Sanzo's voice is almost inaudible over the commotion the other two are making, and I sidle closer. "What are you going to do now?"
That same tension is there, just like when he asked what I was going to do once the temple released me. If I were the one that had intervened to save a man's life, and tried to put the pieces of him back together, I would no doubt want him to find someplace to stay for a while where I could keep an eye on him without appearing to hover like a mother hen, someplace where he would be with at least one person who would also watch out for him. Somehow, I don't think Gojyo would object to my plans, even though I haven't mentioned it to him yet.
"I'll be rooming with Gojyo," I say quietly, then force my face and voice to conform to Right Speech. "…because he doesn't even remember the day for trash pickup. He just worries me to no end, so…" Sanzo snorts in amusement at the sing-song, mother hen tone I wound up with somehow.
"Shut up," he mutters quietly, but from the distracted tone, it doesn't sound like he's talking to me. "This is what a really loud vice sounds like. He's less than a monkey."
I'm not sure I was supposed to hear that. Even if I was, I don't know what to say to it – but I get the feeling that Sanzo just trusted me with something, and is waiting for some kind of answer. He hasn't relaxed any at hearing that I intend to room with Gojyo, and I wonder if I misinterpreted what he wanted to hear from me.
If you die now…
"I've seen so much death, but it's so strange…" My voice is every bit as quiet as his was. Outwardly, we're both watching Goku and Gojyo fighting, as though by not looking at each other we can pretend that neither of us has said anything. "Now, I'm afraid to die."
There's a kind of shock at hearing those words come out of my mouth, but they're true. I haven't even begun to atone for my sins, and the thought of Kanan turning away from me in disgust at the blood on my hands frightens me more than I'd ever care to admit. Tension drains out of Sanzo at hearing my confession, but we are both spared having to make any sort of response by Goku suddenly tackling me from behind.
"Hakkai! I've got your name memorized now," he declares, almost accusing me, "so you better not change it anymore!"
Does he even understand what I went through for this name change?
"All right," I say soothingly, hiding my thoughts behind Right Speech.
Gojyo wanders over, trying to act casual, and a predatory smirk flits across Sanzo's face.
"So, is that haircut your way of putting the past behind you?"
I listen as intently as I can with Goku still hanging from my back. I know nothing about Gojyo's past; what is it that Sanzo knows? What could he have possibly learned in the less than a day that they have spent around each other?
"Nope, I'm probably the same as him; just a futile struggle." There's only the barest hint of old pain in Gojyo's voice.
"Life is basically a futile struggle until you die, anyway."
…will have failed at everything important I have tried to accomplish in my life.
From the smug amusement on Gojyo's face, I don't think he was listening. Sanzo snaps at him, irritated. "What?"
"Do I look good like this?" Gojyo practically purrs, somehow managing to visibly grate on Sanzo's nerves.
"It's a little better than the obnoxious long hair." Sanzo is obviously annoyed, and trying to hide it.
Gojyo stretches and struts away. "Then, I think I'll grow it out again." He stops and grins at the glowering priest. "I'm pervy, so it grows fast, too."
"You trying to pick a fight?!"
Gojyo ignores him and drapes his arms around Goku's and my shoulders, effectively changing the subject by mentioning food. Goku enthusiastically agrees to the idea of eating, and together they browbeat Sanzo into joining us for lunch. The sun is shining when we leave the dim antechamber, and that sense of universal rightness returns as I breathe in the cool, clean air. Gojyo and Goku tease each other good-naturedly in front of me; Sanzo paces to my left in his shell of studied surliness. The sun is warm, the air is cool, and I have a name. The only thing that could improve this moment would be if Kanan were here. The complete acceptance of nirvana allows me to summon the memory of her song, reveling in the rightness of the sweet pain it brings.
Just hold on tight, because if you close your eyes, look inside yourself, you'll feel a heartbeat. Yes, I want you to believe in the future. You can take another look from the other side.
In this perfect moment, I can feel my heart beating within me. I know that this moment will pass, and my future is uncertain, but right now…none of that matters.
Cho Gonou is dead. My name is Cho Hakkai.