The village was not empty. The people were hiding in terror. She had survived; she had come back. After so long, they knew what she might bring with her, and they were cowards...
When the Sanzo-ikkou pulled into town, they were all weary, dirty and aching from three days' travel from the last village. The quartet had hopes for something a bit larger, maybe a touch more accommodating than that place had been, but this small enclave was about the same. There was only one poor inn, with crumbling white plaster outside and curling wallpaper inside; the rooms were pathetic, but they had showers and beds, so Sanzo paid for two rooms with the gods' plastic, grateful for small comforts. Well, the other three were grateful, anyway. Before ascending the stairs, they ordered a rather large meal at Goku's insistence.
After taking time to shower and change, they still had to listen to Goku whine about his empty stomach for a half hour before the food arrived. Both Sanzo and Gojyo took pains to point out, as brutally as possible, that it would have arrived much sooner had Goku not ordered so much. A young adolescent boy brought the food to their room and asked them in a quiet, hurried voice, if he might pay them to take him to the next village when they left. Sanzo immediately piped up that they weren't in the habit of hiring themselves out, at which Gojyo released a soft grunt of laughter. Sanzo turned narrowed eyes on him, and he muffled himself the best he could. Such a request naturally piqued the curiosity of the foursome, however, prompting an interrogation. What they learned from the frightened boy immediately extended their stay.
The area was home to a band of youkai who apparently felt that they could help themselves to the local women. About two months previously, the boy's aunt disappeared, presumably at the hands of the youkai. Rumour had it that the abducted women began their captivity as sport for the leader, and then passed down the line until their bodies gave out. Rumour also had it that few lived long enough to go through many hands. The fact that no new victims had been taken was a fair indication that this latest prize was lasting longer than most. The boy's uncle, knowing that his wife would not return, had left, moving on to the next village, or perhaps the one after that. The youth's cheeks flushed with shame as he revealed this. He told them that he wanted to find his uncle and try to bring him back. Barring that, perhaps he could make a better life for himself elsewhere, too.
The priest, the hanyo and the kid had all looked to Hakkai when the boy left. What they saw was the face behind the smile he habitually wore, to hide the depths of pain and grief he carried. Of course, there was no question of taking this boy with them when they left. It was equally obvious that unless Sanzo, Gojyo and Goku wanted to walk to the next town, they were going to do something about this situation.
Three silent nods directed at Hakkai settled the matter, and they began to eat. They would set out to search in the morning, when they were rested, nourished and ready for battle.
In the end, it wasn't much of a battle. It had been laughably easy to track the youkai in the forest north of the village. They were typically sloppy and ignorant, made careless by the power the cowardice of the locals afforded to them. Wherever the four men looked, the signs of the band's passage were evident, as if they were daring the humans to find and confront them. Holed up in a cave, a few had come out to jeer at the party and boast in the face of what appeared at first to be a pitiful and monumentally stupid confrontation mounted by four of the men from the village. When the realization that three of these were not villagers, in fact, but youkai like themselves, some retreated. Others, though, became belligerent and abusive, trying to provoke a hasty, angry attack in order to have the upper hand. Their numbers should have given them the advantage, but they sensed a knife-edge on these men, and they were cautious.
As if on some silent cue, two of the men held out their hands, weapons appearing in them from thin air. At the same moment, the monk's gun appeared from the myriad folds and recesses of his robes. These stepped forward, ready to launch the attack, but the one in front, dressed in green and wearing a monocle, for the gods' sake, gestured for them to stop. They did.
"I'll let you know if you are needed," he intoned in a voice like steel, and advanced alone.
He had not needed them.
The youkai fell fast and heavy before the terrible retribution Hakkai dealt out using nothing more than his own life force. Great shining blasts of chi mowed down all in their path. When the enemy fled deeper into the cave, Hakkai followed. All the others could do was to listen to the desperate pleas and death cries from the cave, and wait. After what seemed an eternity, Hakkai emerged with the girl limp in his arms.
He was completely unharmed.
They had brought her home against her protests, because Hakkai had insisted on it. The others had not even tried to talk him out of it. They knew better. She had cried and wailed that there was nothing to go back for, everything destroyed by the months that she had been gone. She had a husband out there somewhere, and Hakkai was determined to find him for her.
He had known that there was a possibility the man would reject her. He also knew that there was a possibility that he would not, and she might manage to live a happy life in spite of this. She would never be quite the same, of course, and they would almost definitely need to move to another town, but they might just be able to make it work if they wanted it enough.
Hakkai pronounced his final word on the matter: the others could stay out here in the forest if they wanted to, but he was going to take her back. It was abundantly clear to all of them that any attempt to hinder him just now would be an invitation to grievous bodily harm, at best. Rather than risk an all-out brawl with their companion, they had silently bundled the girl into the Jeep, sobbing and half -hysterical and driven back the way they had come.
The village was like a ghost town when they arrived. Their approach was common knowledge when they were still more than a mile out, and everyone there knew what task the four strangers had set themselves. The whole town waited for their return, and then cravenly absented themselves. This girl was one of them, born and raised in this tiny place. Everyone knew her but no one would help her now. Fear of retaliation, shame over her ruin, disgust at what might even now be growing within her, all justified this rejection of one of their own.
Hakkai followed the girl's directions to her home. It wasn't difficult to find in a town with only five streets. It was a very modest affair, a single floor with two bedrooms in the back, but it was obvious that pride had once been taken in its appearance. There were flowerbeds in the front, all the flowers withered now. Just a few wilted blooms remained to speak of previous beauty. The white paint was recent, and the trim was a deep shade of green. The coverings on the windows made it impossible to make out anything inside.
The girl slowly climbed out of the Jeep with Gojyo's help. Hakkai leapt out and offered her his arm for support; she was shaky from the excitement and from shock. The others hung back a bit, in order to give the two of them some privacy. This was something only Hakkai and the girl could really understand, and it demanded respect. When Hakkai and his charge reached the door, the other three followed at a small distance. All five of them could tell the moment they entered the house that something was wrong. The air was stale, and a thick layer of dust covered everything. It was small inside, but there were no walls to divide the space, so it felt much bigger.
To their right was the kitchen, with dishes stacked neatly in the open cupboards. There was a kettle hanging in a fireplace near the cupboards, and a small, rough wooden table just left of them was clearly the dining area. There were futons and cushions just behind the table, against the wall on the left. On the wall between this space and the kitchen were two doorways covered with curtains instead of doors. These led to the two small bedrooms. Gojyo unobtrusively slipped around Hakkai and the stunned girl to check inside these rooms. He didn't smell anything strange, but it wouldn't do to rescue this poor girl and then leave her to find her husband's corpse in the bedroom, now would it? There was no sign of any habitation in them, either.
When he came back, the girl was staring around, her eyes wide and nearly vacant. Gojyo had seen that look before, and it scared him. That look had almost killed him once. People always said that women were his weakness. Well, that poor creature needed some compassion. If wanting to help her made him weak, then so be it.
Gojyo sidled up to Sanzo and leaned in close to the monk's ear to whisper, "This guy didn't leave town. Everything's still here"
Sanzo had the discretion to keep his voice low as well as he replied, "I know. We'll take Goku back to the inn and find out where he really is." Gojyo secretly thought that Sanzo looked a little too happy about that. Not that he was eager to leave here, but Gojyo could tell Sanzo was just itching to pull his gun on someone right now. Any target other than himself was a welcome thought, so he pulled Goku aside immediately and explained what they were going to do. Sanzo told Hakkai the same. Hakkai nodded tersely and turned back to the girl.
The three of them left the small, once pleasant house and headed back toward the inn. Goku opined quietly that he was actually glad to be going back to the inn; maybe he could get some food before they had to go back to the house.
"Shut your god damned belly up for once, monkey!" Gojyo snapped.
"And tell your mouth to take a hint, too," chimed in Sanzo.
"I can't help it! And don't call me a monkey, you perverted roach"
The three of them walked the rest of the way in silence, immersed in their own thoughts. Sanzo and Gojyo both lit cigarettes. Goku sulked for a bit, but since no one was paying attention, he stopped again. They found the innkeeper hiding in the pantry at the back of the kitchen. He pretended he was in there to get ingredients for supper, but he was a poor liar. It turned out he was also extremely willing to part with the information his guests were after, once he clearly understood the repercussions of not doing so.
After Sanzo had tucked his gun back into the mystifying depths of his robe, he fixed his eyes on those of the innkeeper, "Does the kid know? He didn't mention this last night."
"No. I couldn't tell him. He thinks his uncle has gone away to start again, that it's too painful for him to be here after what happened. They were his only family. I couldn't tell him he was alone, now. He might have left, and I need him here." The innkeeper bowed his head to hide the tears in shining in his eyes. "I couldn't tell him," he repeated weakly.
Sanzo shook his head, his lip curling. "You are all fucking cowards. Gojyo, Goku, let's get back to Hakkai before I lose my patience with this asshole."
The three returned to the small house they had left just a half-hour before, and found Hakkai and the girl sitting at the table, two untouched cups of tea going cold in front of them. Hakkai had been about his usual business, taking care of things, and had already built a fire, boiled water, and made the tea. The girl had obviously come to grips with the fact that her husband was not there, but she sat now with her head bowed, saying nothing. Hakkai sat beside her, covering her small hand with his. He looked toward them as they entered. The question was there, in his eyes, but he was clearly not hopeful.
"He's dead." Sanzo announced without preamble. The girl's head rose, and she stared dumbly at him. Sanzo shifted his focus to her, "The day after you were taken, he went into the woods and hung himself. The note he left said only that he was too afraid to go after you, and he couldn't live with that shame"
Tears welled up in the girl's eyes, and Gojyo, who was watching Hakkai, saw something in him break at that moment. Hakkai dropped his head just as the girl threw hers back, opening her mouth to let escape a ragged cry that tore at Gojyo's heart. He wanted to help. He couldn't, no one could. Not even Hakkai, who was experiencing this hell with her just as surely as he was breathing. Gojyo bit down hard on his lip to keep from showing what he was feeling. It would do no good.
The girl's grieved cry seemed to go on for an eternity, but eventually it lost its power, and she dissolved into helpless tears. Since no one knew exactly what to do, they all did nothing. Sanzo, Gojyo and Goku simply remained standing near the door, listening to Hakkai breathe. He was just barely managing to control his rage. Several minutes later, the tears came to a shuddering halt and the girl straightened up. She looked at each of the men in turn, and thanked them for rescuing her. She then slowly rose from her chair and moved behind Hakkai to the kitchen cupboards.
The sound of a drawer opening was loud in the stillness. Hakkai's verdant eyes widened, as he was flooded with understanding. He leapt from his chair and hurled himself toward the girl. She whirled around, a knife in her hand, and plunged the blade deep into her lower abdomen. Gojyo was later amazed at the amount of blood that issued from that wound, and so quickly. He would remember that Hakkai, lunging to catch the girl, missed and they both slipped and fell heavily into the rapidly spreading pool around her. Blood splashed up onto the cupboards.
"NO, KANAN!" Hakkai screamed as he reached her, pulling her desperately into his arms. Panic infused his face as he touched her all over, first near the wound, then her face, leaving bloody fingerprints on her cheek. Her eyes were rolling back, the lids fluttering. Inarticulate sounds of grief and rage escaped Hakkai in heaves and sobs as he ran his fingers through her hair. His voice cut through the room in fragments of words, and repetitions of Kanan's name. He gathered her to his chest over and over in desperate gestures, as if he wanted to absorb her pain, her wound, her death
A gunshot rang out into the air. "HAKKAI!" Sanzo called out, "That is not Kanan!" He lowered the gun as Hakkai whipped his head around with a feral snarl on his lips, but did not put it away. Hakkai unglued was an extremely dangerous beast.
Just when Gojyo thought that things were going to spiral out of all control, he saw Hakkai's face slacken a little. Then, slowly, a modicum of reason returned to him.
"I can fix this," Hakkai sniffed, swiping his hand across his nose. He began trying to wipe the blood away from the gaping hole in the girl's belly. Gojyo was surprised to note that she wasn't dead yet. "I can fix this, I can fix this," he repeated, like a mantra, as he tried to wipe the flowing blood away from the wound. He was trying to ascertain the degree of damage, but he was fighting a losing battle. The girl lowered her eyes to Hakkai, who was leaning over her abdomen, and whispered, "No"
"Yes, I can! You don't know what I can do! I can save you!" Hakkai babbled, still teetering on hysteria.
"No.", the girl repeated.
"Hakkai," Sanzo interrupted, "She is saying she doesn't want you to. Let her go"
"NO! It can't be like this!" then, to her, "I really can fix this. It will take hours for you to die! Please let me help you…" He was sobbing again by the end.
"No. I'm not strong enough. Please. Leave me"
Hakkai threw his head back and poured forth a cry much like that the girl had made earlier. After it subsided, his head fell forward, his shoulders slumped, and Gojyo knew that the spell had been broken. Sanzo looked at Gojyo, and motioned for him to take Goku outside. Gojyo figured he could safely leave Sanzo to deal with this alone. There wasn't much chance he was going to shoot Hakkai now, in any case.
He looked around, and saw that Goku was gone. He found him already outside, around the corner of the house. "I couldn't watch," he said simply. Gojyo grunted understanding, and leaned his back against the wall. He pulled the crumpled cigarette pack from his pocket, took one with his teeth, and lit it, inhaling gratefully. He couldn't handle this without nicotine. He looked up, surprised as Sanzo rounded the corner.
"Come on," Sanzo snapped. Then he turned his back and walked away, not even bothering to make sure they were following. They did anyway.
"Sanzo, what-," Gojyo began, but Sanzo cut him off.
"Shut up. Just walk"
Gojyo knew it was useless to ask again right now, but he resolved to get an answer out of the monk later, when it was less likely that he would receive a bullet in reply.
A shot rang out behind them. Gojyo and Goku stopped. They were both turning back to the house, when Sanzo's voice cut through the air again, "Just keep walking."
They looked at each other, and Gojyo saw the question in Goku's eyes. "Just keep walking, monkey," he said, and set his jaw. Goku didn't even react to the name. He just turned with Gojyo and kept walking.