Memories are just where you laid them,
dragging waters 'til the depths give up their dead.
What did you expect to find?
Was it something you left behind?
Don't you remember everything I said when I said:
Don't fall away, and leave me to myself.
Don't fall away, and leave love bleeding in my hands,
in my hands again;
leave love bleeding in my hands.
In my hands,
love lies bleeding.
'Hemorrhage (Love Lies Bleeding)', Fuel
The sun had set; it cast its bloody fingers over the skyline, gripping at the stained canvas of the sky. Slowly, it pulled away the brightness of the day into the cloak of night. But there was still enough light for the man who stood on one of the hills to see the broken landscape laid out before him. Smashed houses, cracked open like broken eggs, their treasures swept away long ago. Grass had grown up where there had once been roads. When his single eye closed, he could easily see the village how it had been, seven years ago. Her house. His house.
He stood there a while longer, contemplating his move--walk down, into the village he knew he'd have to go through to get to his destination, or skip over it. A simple spell could clear the river, the dead village, the memories and the pain. It could carry him away from all of it. But wouldn't running away from the ghosts of the village dishonor all those who had died? Especially those he had grievously wronged. He sighed and tossed his head back, looking up at the sky. Bloody colored, another reminder. But, at least the sky was clear. Had it been raining, he didn't think he could survive the heartbreak that would grip him for standing in this desolate place.
But he walked downward, moving through the broken-eggshell homes. Clay walls had long ago crumbled. He went to Her house first, pausing. The cellar door was rotted away, and the stink of death lingered about it. He did not go near it.
He strayed to His house. The village headman had been His father, and so the grandest house of the village was where He had made his home. Perhaps that was why She had turned to him, despite their engagement. Prestige? Comfort? A simple farmer like him could not offer Her these things; their life together would have been simple, to be sure. Simple, but full of love. His love, at least. He turned away again. The monk's old house didn't even stand any longer; looking at the broken remains of the foundations, he could still place in his mind where his brother's and sister's rooms were. Where his father and mother slept. Where the rice fields had once stretched behind them. Where he had run, played, loved, lost.
He turned away again, and trekked onward. He would have to cross the river, to get to the mountains, and the pass he sought, on the other side. There was a certain village on the banks of this self-same river, named for the Rising Dragon, that he had to go to. There lived a woman and man who bore the faces that haunted him. He had a date to keep, and a Godson to see. It finally brought a smile to his lips. Ryuu Houjun. They'd named their first born son for him. A Kutouese couple had named their son for a Konanese shichiseishi. The irony pleased him, in a way. The fact that every time he saw them that he remembered his fiancée and his friend did not. But still; they were his friends. Some of the last he could claim. And so, to get to them, this river would have to be crossed.
And so, he pressed onwards. The jangle of his golden gohei was the only sound in this otherwise silent landscape; no bird sang, no cricket chirped, and the wind was silent. It was as if nature itself stood still in respect for his grief, for the pain this place inspired. He passed through a copse of trees, and willed his gaze to remain forward. He would not look over. He would not see them there, in a lover's embrace. He would keep walking. He would not stop until he was at the river. He passed on, without a look back—though he could almost hear their hushed breath, the rustle of cloth. How far would it have gone, had he not been there? How often did they steal away like that? He tried not to contemplate it, and instead, continued through.
But when he came to the river, he stopped. He swallowed the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat, and he stared at the depths; the river was not swollen. It was calm. It shouldn't hurt so much to look at it! It shouldn't bring him to his knees, and steal his breath. But it did. There he was, crushed by the weight of memory. His hands wrapped around his shakujo, using it to support his weight, as he kneeled there, head bowed. "Suzaku," he breathed, his throat abruptly raw. Why? Why after so long, did it hurt as if it had been yesterday? Why could he still feel the blood and water on his face?
His legs would not move. He took a moment to regain himself, and then reached up and tore his mask away. It was an affront to the spirits here. But the tears gathered in his eye blinded him to the peculiarity of two slithering streams, slinking up from the river and around him as if he were merely a stone in their path. Rubbing at his eye, he did not notice them converge, a pool of rippling river water with a mind of its own. He was too busy remembering. Too engrossed in voices only he could hear.
His own voice, raised in anguish, tormented. He loved her! He trusted them! They betrayed him! How could they betray him?
Her voice, over and over, choked with sorrow. She cannot marry him. She cannot marry him. She cannot marry him.
The other never spoke. Eyes downcast in sullen silence, he let her bear the brunt of the then-cuckolded fiancé's anger.
But as he cleared his eyes he realized that no, the voices were not coming from his mind. They ran in perfect time with them, but they were from an outside source. Before him, mist rose up from the river, swirling into a circular disc. It reflected the past to his single eye—displaying with raw honesty the events then. Her back bent, her face hidden as she hid herself from his rage, and could only weep. The other stood alone, his face turned away from this display, this love betrayed.
With this, he becomes terribly aware that he is not alone. Foolishly, he had let grief blind his senses, turn him away from his normal vigilance! And thus, he turned, quietly, realizing that there was someone here with him. Was it the spirit of the river?
Yes, he realized in horror. It was. And it bore a face he recognized. Clad in rich robes of station; gold, white, and red in elegant harmony: red for luck, gold for imperial station, white for death. As the monk turned his face from the illusion of his past, the noise from it grew louder, demanding that he not forget it, not forget what it was replaying for his benefit. Discordant, like children's hands banging on piano keys, it slammed against the senses, despite the fact that he could not, would not look away from the man he had once called 'brother' before him. He could hear the scream, the roar of the river, his name over the sound of the river, swollen and angry, but he could not give it the attention it demanded. He was instead caught up by a finely chiseled face, darkly framed eyes, midnight hair pulled back into a loose bun. A face he could never have forgotten.
When the illusion it had reached its climax, the scream's crescendo echoing between the two men that stood on the river bank, only then did either find their voices. The face that had only existed in memory smiled, though it was not pleasant. The expression was bitter, smug, and hateful all at once. But then the lips parted, and he spoke two disturbingly simple words, still audible despite the gentleness with which they were spoken: "Hello, Houjun."
The monk felt his heart plummet. He gazed upon his friend, as he was in turn observed. A pair of eyes were curious, but held no small amount of malice. One eye was stunned, horrified, denying the image before him. How could he be here? How could he be here? The answer became obvious as he looked just past the dead man's shoulder, and saw the wings. Hideous things; pale gray and leathery, yet seeming slick and damp, as if the membranes were soaked and watery. They resembled no creature; no bird, nor bug, nor bat had wings like those. Delicate feathers decorated points. They open and folded like a bat's might, they had strange segments, not unlike a dragonfly. He was utterly and wholly unnatural. And the dark magic he wielded only secured the horrible thought in his mind:
Hikou was damned. And Houjun was likely responsible.
"…Hikou," Houjun tried to speak, but his voice was rapidly failing. How could this have happened? How could his once-friend be standing here like this?
"Why," the demon said, his voice low, carrying the weight of his amusement at Houjun's plight, "You look like you've seen a ghost, Houjun. Don't you have anything to say to me… old friend?"
Hikou's eyes glittered as he spoke; Houjun could not remember them being so dark, so cold, in either of their lives. But perhaps damnation gave a man more then wings.
"I would think you'd have something to say, after all this time," the demon pressed on. "Don't I even get a friendly 'hello'?"
Houjun's mouth opened—but all the things that he wanted to say, over the years, jammed up in his throat with near-violent results. How often had he wanted to beg this man's forgiveness? How often had he wanted to clutch him, cry to him that he was sorry, so terribly sorry, that he still loved him and that he didn't mean for things to have happened the way they did? But even as his mouth opened, nothing came out. The years blocked his throat, and it was a miracle he manages to croak out, "Hello, old friend," in return to the demon's greeting.
The response was a disturbing chuckle; the demon was taking amusement in his distress. Hikou's hands, folded before him and tucked into the billowing sleeves, parted now, letting the long sleeves ripple around his sides as he reached out, but stopped himself, tapering fingers inches from the monk's face.
"That's better," Hikou said softly, and then withdrew his hands abruptly. Houjun was not allowed time to think about the gesture, as the demon sought to invade his personal space now, by stepping forward, forcing the monk to take a step back to keep any semblance of personal space between them.
The smile on Hikou's face grew sharper, curving into a crescent of cruelty as he advanced another step on the monk. "You seem surprised to see me, Houjun. Did you really think that you could ignore your sin for long?" the demon questioned.
Houjun blinked once, shaking his head in abrupt denial, even as he became aware of the riverbank at his heels. His feet began to sink into soft earth, and with another step he would be in the water. But still, he tried to answer Hikou's accusation.
"I never forgot my sin, Hikou. Never did I forgive myself my trespass against you. But I cannot help be surprised; I had always hoped that you had found Kouran in heaven." His burgundy eye turned sorrowful, as he regarded his 'friend', "I see that you did not."
The demon paused at the mention of Her name. "Kouran…" He said it quietly, curiously—but at least he stopped in his advance. "No, there is no place for me in heaven. Especially not with her. Not with so many other… options for me to take." He lifted his chin slightly, smug and derisive all at once. "Not with you here, living your life, fulfilled your duties, going on as if nothing had happened! No," his voice dipped dangerously low. "They don't want me in heaven. Nor would she, and I wager, neither do you."
Houjun absorbed it all with quiet patience, the demon's eyes on him, even as he tried to understand. Hikou said he had no place with Kouran? But he had seen them! Seen His lips on Hers, seem their embrace! "Kouran… you…." All thoughts of heaven were gone. The only thing that gripped him now the horrible, wonderful thought that maybe he had been wrong. Maybe she had loved him after all.
And Hikou could see it in his face, in the hope that dawned wildly in that single eye. "No, Houjun. She never loved me." There was a rueful irony to the demon's voice that he could not place—but the demon was on the move again.
"It must've been hard, then," Houjun murmured, as he gripped his shakujo more tightly. "To be refused by her, then, and slain by me. But I had hoped you would have found peace… but I can see now that you fell farther then I could have ever dropped you."
"No one could have dropped me as far as you did, Houjun."
The monk had no answer; he only knew that he had to move, lest he be backed into the river and dropped to the same death that Hikou had been. In an act of self-preservation, he leapt, and activated a spell. Crimson light took over his form—and shunted him to a hill top, far behind the demon. He landed in a crouch, and turned. He looked back just in time to see the demon turn, his hands spreading outward, sleeves rippling in a wind that was not there a moment ago.
Houjun could not hear the demon whisper, "Yes. Run. Let me come catch you. Give me the chase," but he could hear the roar of the water that the demon summoned from the river. He could see the violet energies spike wildly around the dark-haired man's form. "I have a new name, now, Houjun! See why they call me Kankei!"
Much to the monk's horror, he could easily see why the name was apropos. The river was rushing up the hill to where he stood. He did not have time to move nor run, and so hastily threw up a barrier as the water nearly overwhelmed him. But it proved futile. Hikou had the power to move the entire river as he saw fit, rushing it up from its proper course, to hurl itself against his shield.
It did not hold. Shattering inward, the crimson energy dissipated and he was struck with the river's full rage. Hikou's laughter was lost to the Suzaku shichiseishi as he was tossed between the trees like a child's toy in a game of kickball. There was a crunch of bones here. The snap of his staff there. Another agonized break over there. The temptation to simply die was strong; all he had to do was open his mouth and let the rush of water fill his lungs and stomach till they burst.
But before the decision could be made, he was unceremoniously deposited on the soaked earth, wet grass tickling his ear. He spat out blood and water, and gagged on the taste that choked his throat. Rolling to his side, he groaned in pain; his arms and ribs were broken, and he vomited bile into the grass. The acid stung the cuts in his mouth and on his lip, but it was a minor annoyance compared to the pain that he was otherwise in.
"You really are making this too easy," Hikou spoke. Houjun was unsure when he had gotten there, but he was too busy trying to get to his knees and not topple from the pain to truly mark the demon's arrival. "Please, don't hold back on my account."
Finally, the shichiseishi was on his knees. The words rung in his ears, along with the sound of the river in the distance. The dark magic was gone, the violet fire vanished. Only Hikou remained, his wings folded against his back, his arms hanging at his side.
"Are you trying to rise?" the demon asked. "I heard ribs go. And your arm is useless. Do you really think to struggle against me?"
"I refuse…to lay down and die…" Houjun breathed, "just to let you finish what I started."
"Don't give me that," Hikou snapped in return, seeking to rip apart the man's pride, cut away his sense of self. "You want this finished as much as I do. Admit that you wanted to kill me then, and we can proceed." But despite his violent words, the demon crouched before the fallen warrior, and reached out to smooth away the blood from his lip, gathering it up on his fingers.
Houjun remained still throughout the motion, discomfited by the strange game that the demon was playing. The only other man that had ever shown this sort of behavior was Nakago; the Shogun had turned a kiss into a battle maneuver, followed up by a knee to the groin and a fist to the gut. To put Hikou in the same category as the Seiryuu Shichiseishi was disturbing, to say the least. But he answered him honestly, as honestly as he knew how to.
"I never wanted to kill you." It was painful to take the breath necessary to speak, let alone to try to gulp in the air that his aching body was demanding after his near-drowning. But he had to attempt to answer Hikou's demands, even if he knew the demon would not be satisfied with his answers.
"Didn't you?" Hikou replied, as he watched the blood he had gathered trickle down his fingers. It was mixed with water and bile. Hikou considered it, before lifting his eyes to meet Houjun's gaze. Once the man was sure he held the latter's horrified attention, he slowly parted his lips, and slipped his middle finger between them, slowly stripping the blood from his skin with the same delicacy one afforded a lollipop.
Houjun was repulsed. Hikou triumphed in his revulsion, and let his hand drop to his side, leaving the rest of his blood on his skin. "We should get to the ending, Houjun. You know you want to."
"What ending would that be?" the monk asked, before turning his head to spit blood and bile from his mouth again. They gathered between lips and teeth, frothing every time he spoke, making him look akin to a rabid dog that had just taken a chunk out of his master's hand. "I suppose this won't be done until you've enjoyed yourself enough? But... where is the satisfaction for you, Hikou, if I don't fight back?"
"Where is my satisfaction? What satisfaction can I take in this? In you, beaten so?" The demon leaned forward, eyes dancing with hellish glee. "You have no idea."
And then he was pushing forward, launching from his crouch to barrel into the Seishi of the god of love. Houjun's scream was torn forcibly from his lips, even as the demon's weight was dropped against him. But Hikou remained oddly careful, as he propped himself above the broken man. "Are you such a fool, Houjun? That you would say you are guilty, yet resist my rightful revenge? You don't know the meaning of the word 'damn' yet. But I'll teach you."
"Suzaku…!" slipped from Houjun's tortured lips as his consciousness faded. He could barely breathe, and the pain of the man's weight, his legs entangled with his own, was enough to keep him from thinking or speaking coherently. Instead, he lost himself in darkness, never mind that Hikou watched him intently as the light of his eye danced in and out of sight.
"Suzaku will not answer you, Houjun," the demon whispered. "He can't help you here." Carefully, he propped himself up and slowly lifted his hand. The earlier impulse denied, he now gives into fully. Tapering fingers, cool and clammy and lacking the warmth of the living, pressed into that scar. He carefully traced the ridges, the hills and valleys of the ruined flesh where the eye had been. "Sleep," he whispered, as the fingers trailed down from scar to cheek. "I have no intention of killing you yet."
The monk's eye fluttered closed, with only an exhale of the demon's name on his lips. With a smirk, the demon rolled off him. "To think that you would take my word at face value, Houjun," the demon replied. The things he could do! Force gallons of water down his throat until he burst. Toss him into the river and let nature take its course. Take him, and…
The demon shook his head quietly and began to rise, the thought aborted before it's birth. He had other plans. Carefully, he began to arrange the shichiseishi's broken body, and hefted him up into his arms. "You were always such a fool, Houjun," he said to his sleeping passenger, carefully arranging him for maximum comfort.
"But then, so was I."
With an explosion of water and violet fire, the pair were gone, leaving the ghost-village quiet… as if no one had disturbed its deathly tranquility.