in the palm of the hand
by Neo-rin

Sometimes, Ni Jianyi truly believes he owns everything.

He owns the machinery, gray sterility painting the environment that swallows him whole (day, night, day, night). He owns the empress and he knots her hair every morning like she is his favorite doll (she is not and never is). He owns the sutra, which is very similar to owning the world, because whatever you own, only you can destroy. This is a rule. This is his life.

Once upon a time, Koumyou Sanzo watched him as he was lulling the boys beneath the underside of his hand. He was someone else then, but the basic premise of his stories were the same. The boys listened because they had been sailing the same ship all their lives, white sails painting a sky clouded by the judgments of their elders, and suddenly they crashed into Kenyuu, who was the iceberg, and they only saw the tip. So, in a way, he owned those boys, too. It would have been so easy

—and then they feared him in a way they did not even fear Buddha.

It became easier.

And once upon a time, there was a day.

On some days, Ukoku gazed skyward and pondered as to whether or not it would be a day, or his day.

Then Koumyou would appear, smelling faintly of sweet hallucinogens and sunshine, and he would stop thinking altogether.

One by one, Ukoku would thread puppet strings through the students' fingers, because they were Koumyou's until they weren't. One by one, soft, unspoken orders and Ukoku's soft-spoken hands charmed away the bright-eyed boys.

Like a shadow, he stole beside him, and, like the moon, Koumyou just accepted it, unchanging. Ukoku's arm interlaced itself with Koumyou's elbows, and the way their arms linked always reminded Ukoku of snakes, except snakes seemed such a terrible thing to attribute to Koumyou, albeit he could not say the same for himself.

"Good morning," he said, slowly, carefully, mindful of his words, enunciating them as cautiously as though they were made of glass (or the monastery's porcelain teacups Kenyuu stole, painting his name perfect and slow on the face of each cup—mine). His smile was something like anxious and something like normal.

Koumyou's arm was thin and gaunt beneath Koumyou's thick, heavy robes. Koumyou's smile was something like genuine, but it was normal, too. Koumyou's voice reminded him of moonlight, light and laughing nighttime wind. For the first minute, Koumyou's blinding smile was aimed at anything and everything, but when it directed itself at Ukoku, Ukoku felt something churn inside him—a strange, soft feeling for which he had no name, but had come to be in possession of nevertheless.

"Good morning," Koumyou said. Then, "Oh. But I guess it isn't morning anymore, is it?"

Suddenly, Ukoku knew that Koumyou knew that, suddenly, Ukoku taunted those children away. And just like that, the students were Koumyou's again, where Ukoku might have, precious moments ago, automatically labeled them his own.

Affectionately, he slid his thumb across the flat, glassy plain of Koumyou's wrists, spindly and breakable, but Ukoku did not break that which did not belong to him.

Something darker twinged within him like prairie fire. (The sort he used to create with lighters. The sort he could only reenact with incense, nowadays, in the temple they were too afraid to relinquish to his command—but it already was, and he knew it, and they knew it, and that was really all that mattered.)

"It's still light out," Ukoku told him, his nimble thumbs massaging the hollow where Koumyou's veins met the heel of Koumyou's palm.

"Kouryuu is taking a nap," Koumyou said in reply, his tone emotionless and warm in the way only he could manage it, and Ukoku felt the sudden, inane urge to sweep him up and steal him away, except he would not like that, in that exceptionally cruel, warm way of his.

Ukoku—his hands ached, suddenly, and he relinquished his grip, the one that was flitting towards Koumyou's open hands, and his own hands were trembling slightly beneath folds of white. Cold, suddenly, like the autumnal equinoxes of his discontent, when fall came early and the sunbeams that streamed through his windows were shorter.

Koumyou's fingers interwove with his with a subtlety that managed to be quicker than lightning, and the mere idea blew him away. The actual occurrence made time stop—for him, at least.

His pace slowed; his steps halted. His feet embedded themselves in the dirt, sandals rooted to the earth, and he had a vague idea that if he was only marginally lighter, the wind would take him and all his snakes and late autumn windowpanes away.

Naturally, Koumyou stopped with him.

"Ukoku?" Koumyou said, and Koumyou's voice was summertime suddenly, and there was less laughter and more something else, something inquisitive and kind, like a separate hand altogether, but still Koumyou's, winding through the pitch blackness, groping gracefully for his.

His logical mind returned to him, suddenly, and there was no blackness; there was only the grayscale, as imminent as death itself, the variegating shades of colorlessness that painted his world and dulled it.

But Koumyou's hand remained.

"Nothing," Ukoku heard himself say. "Just—a daze."

He did not trust himself to walk.

"A daze?" Koumyou wondered aloud, in a way that was not at all laced with wonderment.

"A daze," he repeated.

He gingerly tested his steps. His left. His right. Koumyou, who did not begin walking until Ukoku had taken a tentative step and a half, followed close behind. For once, he was leading, and suddenly, he remembered waltzes, and envisioned his arm cloaking the small of Koumyou's back.

"But you snapped me out of it," he told Koumyou, twisting his head a bit so his voice carried properly.

"Did I?" Koumyou said, lips quirked upward whimsically.

"Always."

They walked a little farther, Ukoku's heel kicking up a bit of dust, his eyes stealing glances at the hem of Koumyou's robe as he did so.

"…It is a nice day, isn't it?" Koumyou mused aloud, fingers tightening imperceptibly. "I can't say I don't understand how you feel; the weather is sort of distracting—"

"It's not the day," Ukoku interrupted, his voice lowering. "Can't be. You said it yourself; morning's gone."

Koumyou smiled a soft, funny little smile, and said, voice a window above a whisper, "Then whatever could it be, I wonder?"

Ukoku sighed, running his fingers through his messy hair, and smiled, mentally curling his fingers and his mind around the bait Koumyou had cast. "They say," he began, his voice crackling low in his frostbitten throat, "that only gods can destroy that which they create."

Koumyou stopped somewhere behind him, the hand on his loosening in frightful degrees. "Really," Koumyou said, tone unreadable—not for the first time, but for once he found it easy to deal with.

"Always," Ukoku said, allocating their conjoined hands to his own heartbeat, hammering at skewed rates in his sternum. The back of Koumyou's hand anchored itself to that echoing place in his chest. "Always," he said, again, and lowered their hands.

Sometimes, Ni Jianyi truly believes he owns everything.

Machinery and empress and sutra. And prince and prince's half-sister and apothecary and bodyguard. And fellow doctors. And the castle and the Buddhist disciples and the disciple and the other Sanzos and the monkey king and the demon slayer and the water sprite and all the knowledge in all the world, everything, everything, everything.

But he does not like closing his eyes for fear of what he will find, the one thing he never will own: a hand, soft and white, that he remembers taking but he also remembers letting go of. Worse yet, it remains and it is still reaching even though its owner—even though—even though the moon—is—

He opens his eyes and looks around, and thinks of the first thing he would give to have Koumyou back.