"Hey, mister!" A small hand tugged at Hakkai's sleeve, and he looked down at a round, red-cheeked face and lively eyes. The little boy turned his hand palm up and unfurled his fingers to reveal a brilliantly red, cellophane-wrapped candy. "For the carnival. Everybody gets one!"
Hakkai took it gently and pulled at the ends. The cellophane unrolled with a sticky crinkle, and the bright, sweet scent of pomegranates filled the air. He glanced at his left shoulder to offer a bite to Jeep, but he wasn't there. He must have gone his own way, and Hakkai hadn't noticed him leaving. How odd. He looked around, and then up at the sky. Kites swooped and dipped in an ecstatic dance high above, and Hakkai saw a flash of white wheeling around and through them.
"Thank you," he said. The boy grinned widely before dashing off to offer candy to someone else, and Hakkai sucked on his piece thoughtfully as he began walking toward the carnival booths set up way off to the right. He thought he could hear Gojyo's warm, rich chuckle and Goku's exuberant laugh in the distance. Sanzo's grudgingly amused "hmph" underscored the other sounds.
Sanzo, amused? Well, that was rather surreal.
He turned the candy over on his tongue, letting it clack softly against his teeth, and then almost choked on it as a tiny white elephant trotted in front of him. He narrowly managed to avoid death by confection, thanks to inhaling pomegranate-infused saliva instead and letting out a few vicious, hacking coughs. The elephant started, trumpeted shrilly, and zoomed away, its legs kicking up dainty clouds of dust with every step. Hakkai was nearly—no, he was quite—certain he'd imagined the actual zooming sound as it had accelerated.
"Shiro!" cried a high, distressed voice. Hakkai smothered his last cough in time to see a girl of about nine years old, running after the elephant. She was out of breath and clearly tired, and her face was flushed and tear-stained. "Shiro, come back!"
"Wait, please," said Hakkai in the voice he'd used once upon a time on upset students. He tucked the candy against the inside of his cheek. "I'm afraid I startled him, and you look as though you've been chasing him for a while. Let me bring him back for you. Don't worry." He gave his most reassuring smile. "I'm good with, ah, unusual animals."
The girl's face lit up, and she drew her sleeve across her eyes. "Would you? Really?"
"Yes, really." Hakkai reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. It seemed to be stuck, so he gave it a tug, and another handkerchief, and then another, and yet another spilled out into his hands. Hmm. That was … unexpected. "Ahahaha, my goodness. I suppose I'm better prepared than I thought," he said. He extricated the first handkerchief from the wad and handed it to her, then stuffed the rest back in his pocket. They disappeared as easily as they'd materialized, and his pocket seemed none the worse for the wear. How strange! But he had more pressing matters right now.
"Thanks, mister," the girl said as she wiped her face. "He went that way." She pointed to a midway that hadn't, he was sure, been there a moment ago. Calliope and hurdy-gurdy music tinkled and hooted in a discordant cacophony, somehow avoiding being unpleasant, and over it all he heard the elephant's shrill trumpet again.
Hakkai gave the girl a reassuring nod and then plunged into the crowd that filled the midway. The other festival-goers mostly ignored him, though one or two gave him quizzical looks as he slipped through and around them. Once or twice he caught snippets of conversation, excited "Did you see it?" and "Yes, it was so tiny!" that he followed further down the midway, past the game stalls. A pair of clowns twisting balloons into animal shapes were building a herd of small elephants, but none of them were white. Still, there was no reason not to ask.
"Excuse me, but has a small white elephant gone past you in the last few minutes?"
The clowns paused in their balloon-twisting, the shorter of the two adopting an exaggerated expression of surprise. His partner just kept manipulating the balloons, the squeak, squeak, squeak growing more rapid as he disassembled the elephants and reconfigured them into a large building.
Hakkai frowned. Perhaps they hadn't heard him. "I'm sorry to disturb you, but it's rather urgent. You see—"
"Shh," cautioned the shorter clown. The look of exaggerated surprise shifted into one of extreme conspiracy, and he gave a jerky nod at the balloon building. A surreptitious flick of his oversized shoe sent the remaining balloon elephant bouncing toward the balloon doorway, from which it squeakily rebounded, being a few centimeters too wide to actually fit. The clown's eyes went shifty, and he beckoned Hakkai closer. Hakkai bent forward obligingly. "Not to scale," the clown whispered.
"Ah, I see," Hakkai said as he straightened up. "Thank you." He memorized the shape of the balloon building as the clowns nodded at him, their heads bobbing up and down in the regular motion of a bird drinking water. He levered himself onto his toes and turned, surveying the carnival grounds until he zeroed in on a bright red and purple building that matched the model's outline. When he turned back to the clowns to thank them once again, they were gone, and the balloons burst in a flurry of sharp, firecracker-like pops as he walked away.
The crowd thinned considerably as he drew closer to the building. Nobody seemed to be looking at it, and after a quick once-over, Hakkai could guess why. The maniacally flashing letters above the garish red and purple doorway chased one another around the building's roofline, proclaiming it to be
the mightiest and funnest house in the world!!!
Enter at own risk. Please show ticket upon entry.
Yes. That was the thing, exactly. He would find an attendant.
Hakkai climbed the eight asymmetrical steps that led from the midway's hard-packed, straw-strewn dirt to THE FUNHOUSE's door. It was shut, the handles padlocked together with a thick chain and secured by an ostentatiously large lock encrusted with glitter. Brittle flecks of gold flaked off onto Hakkai's fingertips as he touched it.
That was strange. How was Shiro meant to have gone inside if the door was locked and the building unattended? Hakkai wrinkled his nose in irritated confusion, and his monocle slipped down his nose. As he adjusted it, he heard the soft creak of poorly maintained hinges off to his left. He resettled the monocle and took a half step back, then turned to face the diminutive gray fox that emerged from a swinging flap cut to the left of the main doors.
The fox wore an employee's smock and hat, and as Hakkai's eyebrows rose in polite disbelief, it sat back on its haunches and spoke, its voice stuffy and officious.
"Excuse me, sir, but this attraction is open to special ticket holders only."
"I see," Hakkai said. He showed his teeth in his most civil smile, certain the gesture would be understood. "I'm not sure I need to get inside, but if you could tell me whether a tiny white elephant has entered and, if he has, where to procure a ticket, I'd be very grateful."
The fox's ear twitched, and its muzzle twisted into a grin. "Oh, Shiro!" it said. All at once, its voice was considerably less stuffy, bordering on friendly, even. "Yes, he just arrived. As for a ticket," the fox continued, its nose wiggling thoughtfully, "you already have one. Through the door and straight ahead."
"Ah, thank you, but I'm not sure I understand—"
The fox's grin widened, its teeth gleaming in the irregular light of THE FUNHOUSE's sign. "The candy. Let me guess. You haven't hit the gooey liquid center yet, have you?"
Hakkai wrinkled his nose again, then repositioned the candy with the tip of his tongue. He bit down, and a warm, tingling sensation flooded his mouth, a cinnamon-laced heat cutting through the pomegranate sweetness of the candy's outer shell. The warmth spread until it coated his lips, and Hakkai sucked in air to try to cool the growing burn. Instead, as soon as the air hit his lungs, the tingling began to diffuse itself throughout the rest of his body. It was both pleasant and unnerving, like an unscratchable itch lurking just under his skin.
"Excuse me," he said a little breathlessly, but when he looked down toward the fox, it was gone. The midway and THE FUNHOUSE's main door were gone, too. He stood in a long, murky c o r r i d o r. More doors with glittering padlocks and chains interrupted the walls at irregular intervals, but one door, far down and to the right, seemed to be ajar. Hakkai could hear a faintly familiar laugh and Shiro's trilling trumpet from that direction, so he began to walk briskly down the h a l l.
The h a l l was far longer than it looked, he soon discovered. For every hundred steps he took, he appeared to advance no more than a third of a meter. The air felt thick and humid, clinging to his skin and weighing him down. He untied his sash and unfastened his collar, opening the front of his shirt to release some of the heat. As the flap of his collar cooled the moisture at his throat, the c o r r i d o r wavered and warped around him, dissolving into a dense gray mist that shimmered into a number of strangely shaped, poorly cast mirrors. Their surfaces reflected a hundred Hakkais, a thousand, all with outsized or misplaced heads and limbs. The mirror directly across from him showed his face, comically stretched, and the expression of extreme annoyance he felt spreading over his features twisted into something grotesque and goblin-like.
"Now, really," Hakkai said, some of the heat from his skin transferring to his voice. He almost expected his lips to blister when he snapped, "This is getting ridiculous! I would appreciate an ex—"
A flash of white—a tiny, curling trunk and a flapping ear—suddenly showed in the reflection of a mirror just to his left. The elephant didn't appear in any of the other mirrors, though. Aha! That was the trick: he must be behind it. Hakkai took a step forward and raised his hand, preparing to break the glass just as a low, rolling chuckle welled up from the ground and swelled, filling the room. The laughter bounced off the mirrors, rising in volume and distorting in pitch as it continued. Hakkai reached down inside to gather his chi, but instead of the bright golden energy at his core, he touched something hot and flickering. His blood fizzed and sizzled, and he froze, unwilling to go any further but just as unwilling to back down.
"Who are you?" he called over the doubled and re-doubled echoes. The sounds were starting to press into his skin, like the heavy, humid air, and their weight, along with the warmth inside and out, was making him feel uncomfortably constrained. That sense of oppression would quickly translate itself to a sullen urgency that Hakkai was very familiar with: he was about to lose his grip on his patience. "I'm not interested in any trouble. I'm here for Shiro—the white elephant. His owner is very upset by his absence."
The laughter stopped abruptly, and the mirror that had shown his goblinesque face shimmered again, morphing into a small replica of THE FUNHOUSE's door. The miniature padlock was open, and the chain hung slack between the door's handles.
"That's not what you're really interested in," the voice said, its tone sly and knowing. Hakkai gritted his teeth. Yes, the voice was indeed very familiar, but he hadn't heard it for quite some time. And he remembered it setting him on edge previously, just as it did now. "The elephant is just a metaphor."
"A metaphor." Hakkai kept his tone even, noncommittal. Aha. He was being mocked. In fighting the forces of chaos and doom nearly every day, sometimes twice a day, they'd been mocked by the best. Hakkai, more than Gojyo or Goku or even Sanzo, could instantly tell when any shade of mockery was directed at him.
All right, then. He'd had enough. The doors were hinged to swing outward, but when had a trifling detail like that ever stopped him?
The energy at his center wasn't his chi, but he didn't care. It blazed through him, an angry, pulsing scarlet that roared up through his chest, down his arms, and out through his palms. The doors never stood a chance. But instead of splintering into a million metal shards or painted wooden splinters, they disintegrated in a shower of sparkling red and gold confetti. Hakkai sneezed manically, knees wobbling at the force of the rapid-fire hakushous, and clutched at the jamb.
Jaunty, jangling music of the sort played in haunted house amusement rides washed over him. Hakkai shook his head and blinked several times, but the scene before him remained unchanged, and his head still felt hot and floaty, like it might drift ceilingward at any moment.
A huge, glittering skull that looked to be embellished with all the rhinestones in the world stood across from him. The walls, ceiling, and floor were covered in wide stripes of blue, purple, black, and red, and eight disco balls overhead whirred at a blinding speed, throwing bright green sparks that touched everything in the room. An octet of winged pink piglets soared between trapezes hanging from the ceiling. The piglets pirouetted, barrel-rolled, and loop-de-looped from one trapeze to the next, clasping their trotters and flinging each other here and there as their wings fluttered, stirring the green sparks into ecstatic squiggles and spirals. Over the sound of the music, Hakkai could hear high-pitched giggle-oinks of porcine glee.
But Hakkai barely spared the piglets and disco balls a glance, for there he was, reclining in the skull's wide, gaping grin, wearing only a pair of clinging leather hot pants and a predatory smile. The hot pants, Hakkai observed with a sniff, were tacky, obvious, and entirely appeal—er, appalling.
"Welcome to the Mighty Zakuro's House of Wonders," said Zakuro.
A shrill fanfare—the sound of Shiro's trumpeting, increased eightfold—rang throughout the room, and hundreds of bright green streamers burst from the ceiling. Hakkai's skin, even through his clothes, went bitingly cold and then incandescently hot where they touched him. Zakuro gasped and shuddered, arching his back, as a few of the streamers trailed over his chest and thighs before fluttering to the floor and melting into nothingness. The whole thing left Hakkai feeling increasingly agitated and out of sorts. Between the tingling itch under his skin and on it, he was uncertain how much longer he would be able to maintain his … equilibrium.
Zakuro just smiled more widely and let his legs fall open in the sort of obscene come-hither gesture Hakkai had seen in some of Gojyo's more lurid … ah, recreational magazines, and Hakkai's heated agitation ratcheted itself up several notches. It dialed even higher when one of Zakuro's slender fingers trailed down his sternum and stomach, then circled the clearly outlined, clearly growing bulge in his hot pants.
Oh. That … it was … well. Ahem. Hakkai's lips tingled, and a sympathetic energy jitterbugged down his spine. He tried to ignore it with far more effort than should have been necessary.
And he failed. He failed miserably and painfully if the creeping tightness in his trousers was anything to go by.
"I'm not interested," he said, face blank and his posture rigid in an effort to ignore everything going on below his nose.
"Pfft, please," Zakuro snorted. "That's why you're here. The Mighty Zakuro is a SEX GOD, and he is ready to be worshiped." He gave Hakkai a sultry look, licking his lips as he flicked open the top of his hot pants and tugged. The shining, purpling glans of his penis peeked out, and Hakkai swallowed. His muscles thrummed with feverish tension as he took an involuntary step forward.
"The Mighty Zakuro," Zakuro continued, his voice lowered to a husky, inviting murmur, "is also bendy. Very, very bendy." He smiled again and lifted a slender, muscular leg, which he crooked easily and nonchalantly behind his neck.
Oh. Oh. Well, really! This was all too entirely absurd, and yes, it had been quite some time since he'd—
Zakuro tugged at the waistband of his hot pants again, and his fully engorged penis sprang free from the snug leather. Hakkai was one hundred percent certain he'd imagined the boi-oi-oingggg reverberating at the lower edge of his hearing range. Zakuro ran his fingers lightly up and down the shaft, his thumb gently circling the glans and growing slick from the pre-ejaculate collecting at its tip. His eyes closed as he began to thrust into his own fist, his still-raised leg turning the motion into something both strangely obscene and sensual. Hakkai's breath caught in his throat as a sudden, animalistic lust shivered through him. The striped walls bent inward, then rebounded outward with a rubbery whoing-whomp, and the floor between him and the skull contracted. Hakkai stumbled a little, his head swimming, but then an electric jolt sizzled through him and snapped everything into bright, garish clarity.
Zakuro's long, lean leg, the muscles of his inner thigh flexing and quivering, had moved from behind his neck to around Hakkai's waist. Hakkai found himself leaning over Zakuro, his shirt and undershirt inexplicably off and folded neatly over one of the skull's back molars.
And then Zakuro … undulated. That was the only word that could describe it. His body flexed in one full, sinuous move that drew Hakkai closer and rubbed against Hakkai's straining erection. Every muscle in Hakkai's body seized as a pure, blazing urgency rippled through him.
"Shiro—the elephant!" he gasped, one final, hold-out corner of his rational mind grasping at a last straw. "I promised to find him."
Smooth, slick fingers slid into the waistband of his trousers, undoing them and pulling out his erect penis. There was no sound effect this time, just the roaring of blood in his ears and a hot breath puffing against the side of his neck as Zakuro said, his voice smug and infuriatingly sultry, "I told you, the elephant is a metaphor." Zakuro's hand began to move, his fingers fluttering and twisting, and Hakkai licked his lips, his breath coming fast and shallow.
"M-metaphor. For—oh. Ohh." Hakkai moaned breathlessly, realization and pleasure dawning simultaneously. Elephant trunks. Phalluses. How utterly, embarrassingly sophomoric.
Zakuro chuckled, obnoxious arrogance blunting Hakkai's lust not at all. "That's right. The Mighty Zakuro, incomparable and bendy SEX GOD, is what you want." He lifted his leg from around Hakkai's waist, resting it behind his neck once more, and twisted his hips to pull Hakkai off balance so he lay atop Zakuro, their hot, flushed erections sliding against one another in Zakuro's tightening grip.
"Hardly," Hakkai muttered. He—there was no polite or sexy way to put it—rutted against Zakuro, grinding against slick flesh. "I just want to—ah. Ah!"
The music still playing in the background sped up, the tempo increasing to a frenetic, merry-go-round soundtrack that bore no resemblance to the haunted house melody it had been at first. That change, Hakkai thought darkly between thrusts and rising spikes of pleasure, was probably representative of another ridiculous metaphor. He and his subconscious were going to have a long, stern sit-down once he—once … once he—
Hakkai threw his head back as cymbals crashed and Zakuro's penis swelled and jerked between them. Slippery semen eased the glide of Hakkai's thrusts further, and the world seemed to spin, the colors on the walls smearing into a rainbow that bled colors through his closed eyelids. A series of cascading calliope notes and a trilling trumpet note crescendoed as the tingling energy inside him finally crested, thundering through him and shattering into a multicolored shower of glittering confetti that drew him down, into the soft, quiet dark of completion.
Hakkai opened his eyes cautiously some indeterminate amount of time later. He felt a little breathless and dizzy, and a lingering lassitude weighed down his limbs. It felt suspiciously post-coital, but he was fully dressed and in a room that looked as mundane as mud. Jeep was coiled next to his head, and he craned his neck, eyes bright as he looked Hakkai over.
"Oh, hey. Welcome back," Gojyo said. He bent down and offered Hakkai a hand, which Hakkai took. He let Gojyo pull him to his feet and swayed a little before a deep breath settled his equilibrium. "Whoa. You probably wanna take it easy. We got pretty messed up in the desert, remember?"
Ah, yes. The desert. Sunstroke and dehydration. He remembered. And now they were heading into the mountains, further west. Hakkai cleared his throat. "Goku and Sanzo?"
"Waiting on you," Gojyo said. He crossed to the door and opened it. Bright sunlight spilled into the room, and Jeep darted outside.
If the flash of sun on Jeep's white scales reminded him, however faintly, of a tiny white elephant … well. Hakkai wasn't going to think about it. At least, not yet.