Goku's hand slipped, sweaty where it clutched Gojyo's wrist. Gojyo winced. The kid's grip was still strong, but it was a lot weaker than it had been three weeks ago when Gojyo showed up to work with Banri's new crew. Goku was paler, too, and listless. Gojyo would have to sneak him extra rice somehow, maybe some meat.
And he was going to have to come up with a plan. They'd started ignoring Goku a hell of a lot more; that wasn't a good sign. The kid was as good as dead, and Gojyo wouldn't be part of that. Kidnapping was one thing. Killing a scared, wide-eyed boy who'd done nothing but get adopted by the wrong guy was something else entirely.
"Hang in there," Gojyo said, his voice pitched low. He ruffled Goku's hair with his free hand as the kid blinked sleepily, then gently pulled his wrist from Goku's fingers and stood. The liquid gold of Goku's eyes caught the lantern light and reflected it back in the intense yellows, bronzes, and ambers of the fine inlaid cabinet Gojyo had stopped to admire during a housebreaking eight years earlier. Back then, his stupidity had gotten him caught. He was pretty sure he was in even more trouble now.
Idiots never learn, his brother had always said. And Gojyo kept proving it every day.
He backed out of the storeroom and slid the door shut. The lantern cast blurred shadows on the weathered wood, its light occasionally slipping through a dark crack between the planks to give him an impression of color and shape inside. Gojyo stood there as long as he could, trying not to listen to the wet snuffling sounds of muffled misery as he tilted the lantern to direct its beams through the bars of blackness. Goku wasn't allowed a light, and he never said anything, but Gojyo could tell he was a little afraid of the dark. He'd give the kid another minute or two before he headed back to the gang.
Footfalls crunched behind him and Gojyo tensed. Dumbass, he told himself, you waited too long. He stepped away from the storeroom door and turned.
"The hell you doin'?" barked Ran. Hiro stood at his left shoulder, glowering. The long night shadows made Hiro's eyes disappear into nothingness, except for a gleaming pinpoint of light thrown back from the lantern.
"Just checking the kid," Gojyo said casually. "He's merchandise until Banri says otherwise."
Ran eyed Gojyo speculatively, then twisted his mouth into an ugly smirk. "Merchandise. Yeah, right. He's only merchandise if he's worth something, and we haven't seen a single yen. Maybe we oughta take it out of 'im." He nudged Hiro, who leered but stayed silent. "Hey, you used to work in a whorehouse, right? How much would a night with a kid like that go for?"
Gojyo gave an exaggerated one-shouldered shrug, the movement carrying the lamp forward to mask the way he let his right hand drop near the kama tucked in his belt. Flinging the lantern at Ran's face would give him a few precious seconds to disable Hiro and then take care of Ran if he had to. Everything afterward would have to be improvisation. "Dunno," he said easily. "Bodyguards don't deal with the money, and it wasn't that kind of place."
Ran's expression hardened as he opened his mouth, but it snapped shut again when Banri's impatient bellow came from the main building. "Where are you, you assholes? These dice ain't gonna throw themselves, you know!"
Gojyo lowered the lantern when Ran turned his head to shout back, relaxing a little. Hiro's eyes stayed fixed on him, though, the gleam from the light sharpened by cunning.
It would have to be tomorrow. Gojyo would have to do something about Goku tomorrow even if the goddamned messenger showed up with an answer or the whole fucking ransom. The kid was out of time.
He followed Ran and Hiro back to Banri and the dice game, his mind worrying at the problem like a fox with a bone. Stealth was out; Ran and Hiro would be watching him, and they'd be on him before he got Goku halfway to the road. He'd need a distraction, something he could pull off in just a few minutes that would work on the whole gang. The lantern hissed a little as the flame guttered, and Gojyo smiled.
Yeah, that would work. That would work great.
Gojyo gave it twelve minutes before wandering out in the general direction of the wooded area between the house and the main road, where he turned and looked.
The first wisps of smoke seemed thin and inconsequential. Gojyo squinted against the bright sunlight and measured the length of the tendrils reaching toward the sky. The far end of the main house was further along than the outbuilding with the stores. He suspected that was where they'd concentrate their efforts, anyway; Banri's strongbox was at that end of the house. Until the oil and the little barrel of gunpowder in the smaller outbuilding caught fire, that was, and then all bets were—
A low, whooshing boom pushed the air from Gojyo's lungs as the outbuilding went up in a roiling ball of fire and greasy smoke. Shouts erupted from the near end of the house as the gang spilled out, Banri in the lead, Ran and the other four stumbling behind him, their mouths slack with surprise. Gojyo spun on his heel and made for the tiny storeroom where Goku was kept. He didn't care if he was missed in the race to put out the flames or not. As soon as they noticed the smoke near Banri's room, they wouldn't care about him at all, not until the strongbox was rescued, and maybe not until the fire was under control. By then, he hoped to be a mile or two from the village. Far enough to take some time for bigger decisions. He didn't think he'd drag Goku all the way back to Edo, but he'd get him somewhere safe, maybe send a message to his family. He could do that much.
Goku was crouched near one of the wider gaps between the wooden slats, face pressed against the rough boards. He barely turned his head as Gojyo shoved the door open.
"What's happening?" he whispered. "Is … is it—did the messenger come? Can I go h-home now?"
Gojyo ignored the tightness that bloomed in his chest at the question and grabbed Goku's leg, jamming his fingertips into the knots around Goku's ankle. They were too tight to pick loose quickly, and the coils were flush against Goku's skin. Even with the weight the kid had lost, there wasn't any room to undo them.
"Shit," Gojyo breathed, "okay. Hold still, kid, and pull. Pull away from me, hard as you can. You got it?" He pulled a kama from his belt and grabbed the rope, taking up the slack until it was stretched tight along the ground between his hand and Goku's ankle. "I mean it, stay still," he hissed, gauging the distance between his fingers and Goku's foot. Cut too far, and Goku would trip over the leftover rope as they ran. Cut too close, and Goku would lose a toe or worse if he flinched.
Gojyo held his breath and dimly noticed Goku doing the same as the kama came down. The rope parted neatly with a subdued twang, and Gojyo was on his feet and dragging the kid behind him like a bundle of clacking bamboo poles before the rope had finished slithering back toward the beam where it was anchored. The door he swiped at with his kama, catching the edge and pulling it partly shut as they dashed through it. They had to keep moving; he wouldn't even take the time to look back. They were just going to haul ass until they were out of sight of Banri's hideout, and then keep hauling until Gojyo didn't have the strength to drag Goku farther or until they were far enough away he couldn't feel Ran and Hiro's narrow-eyed glares sizing up the spot between his shoulder blades as a sheath for their knives.
Another boom shoved angrily at his back, throwing something into him with a sharpness that made his right ear go numb for a second. Gojyo stumbled half a clacking step as his geta came down on a fist-sized rock, and he cursed. He heard Goku shout, and then he realized it wasn't the explosion. It was a stone, a close friend of the one that now bounced painfully off his heel, thrown by someone: Hiro or Ran or maybe one of the other assholes. Gojyo whirled, dropping Goku's arm and going for his other kama.
Sonofabitch. They should've had more time!
Another stone, then two, three, four whizzed toward them. Gojyo deflected them with his kama, and as Shinji—alone, for now; everyone else must still be going after the strongbox—stooped to grab another one, Gojyo threw. The kama tumbled end over end, slicing through the air in a whirling blur that ended suddenly when the blade stuck in Shinji's neck.
"Don't watch, Goku," Gojyo said. He glanced away when Shinji began to fall and saw that Goku was looking a little off to the side, back toward the fires. People had started to trickle in from the village, buckets and troughs balanced on their shoulders. Goku's eyes, wider than ever in his too-thin, sharp-boned face, didn't blink. "Yeah, that's good, keep a lookout for anyone else, okay?" Gojyo murmured. Shinji's fingers scrabbled at the kama's wooden shaft, then the curved blade, and then at the ground, which turned into a thick sludge that smooshed redly between his knuckles as he clutched at it. His head jerked to the side when Gojyo yanked the kama from his neck. It jerked again more weakly when Gojyo kicked him in the hip.
"Stupid fucker, bringing a rock to a kama fight. Banri was right. You're the dumbest thug he's ever had in his gang." Gojyo wiped the kama on Shinji's sleeve and tucked it back in his belt, then bent down and ransacked Shinji's clothes. He found a small pouch that jingled with a promising metallic cheeriness when he shook it and looped its drawstring over his belt on the other side. Every little bit helped, right? It wasn't like Banri was going to pay him now, and Shinji sure as hell wasn't going to miss it. The other kama he kept in his right hand, tucked tightly against his forearm, just in case.
Goku said nothing when Gojyo took him by the arm again and led him into the village. They kept to the narrower paths, winding between the little houses and around the stacks of crates and rice and fowl cages. The village was getting louder, people shouting and dashing for Banri's place or the river or the well. Gojyo figured they had a pretty good chance of sneaking away and getting down the road a few miles, even if Banri knew they were gone and Shinji was dead. All the flailing and bustling in the roads would be as good a distraction as the fires, if they could keep out of sight, but being the only ones heading away from all the fuckery might give them away. They might need a place to hide, actually, now that Gojyo had a minute to think. Should they lie low in the village, or should he try to hide them somewhere in the woods just south of the last house? Maybe they should push on and try to make it to the next town. It was bigger, had more places to hide. Yeah. He turned around to check the smoke again and heard a soft thud and a tiny, pained whimper. He glanced down. Goku was pushing himself away from a splintery, sharp-cornered crate. Gojyo could see a nasty red welt rising just above his left eye, but that wasn't what worried him.
Goku's hands shook, his legs trembled, and he swayed forward a little, reaching out. His fingertips caught the edge of the crate, but he went down anyway. Gojyo just managed to catch him by the back of his dirty kimono.
Dammit! The kid was only what, seven, eight years old? Maybe? He'd barely eaten in the last couple weeks that Gojyo knew of, maybe the whole month he'd been at Banri's. Okay, so they needed to stop sooner than later. But … maybe Gojyo could make it to the next village, another five or so miles down the road—no, better make it eight if he wanted to stay off the main thoroughfare and make it harder to track them—carrying the kid. All right. He could do that. Gojyo bent down and hefted Goku with his left arm. He'd put him on his back once they were out in the trees, but Gojyo didn't want Goku to catch a knife or another rock that was aimed at him.
Dodging and ducking was a little harder with extra weight dragging at his side, but Goku clung to him hard like a monkey and didn't wiggle much, his face tucked securely against Gojyo's shoulder. It made the sneaking easier. Too bad it wasn't enough.
Banri and the rest caught up with them at the northern edge of the village. Banri's pale hair was gray with soot, his face streaked with ash, his eyes red with anger and smoke. Ran had an ugly, purpling burn on his arm and an uglier look on his face. Hiro and Masa looked pretty roughed up and pissed off, too. And—
Shit. Another form, tall and slender, appeared behind them. He was moving fast. But there was something weird about his face. Gojyo caught a flash of light from the man's eyes. What were those called—specules? Spindles? … Spirals? No, spectacles. This guy had contact with Westerners. He must know someone important or be an even badder dude than Banri and his crew. Great.
Gojyo set Goku down gently and stepped in front of him. The ground was gravelly; he could use that to his advantage. Nothing gave a dude an edge like flinging dirt and pebbles into someone else's eyes. He shoved Goku back and drew his other kama from his belt.
"Stay back, okay, kid? If you can run, run for the trees. I'll come get you as soon as I can."
"O-okay." Goku's hand gripped Gojyo's arm for a second, and then his fingers dug into Gojyo's skin painfully. "Hakkai!" he shouted. He made like he was going to move around Gojyo and dash for the tall dude, but Gojyo blocked him.
"Goku!" the other guy called back. He sounded very calm, but Gojyo could see the urgent relief on his face, which turned to a chilling anger as Banri and the rest whipped around to face him.
"Hakkai!" Goku shouted again, trying to run forward as Ran and Banri turned back to them and Hiro and Masa took a step toward the newcomer. The Hakkai guy calmly drew the daisho at his waist, and Gojyo caught Goku by his sleeve. He almost let him go, let him run to the sword-wielding wacko. Almost.
"No, dammit! Just—would you stop wiggling?" If Goku knew this Hakkai dude, who looked like he could be a bona fide badass, maybe Gojyo could just go. Just bolt and let this guy take care of Banri and the rest. Or maybe he could hold them off until he could get Goku to Hakkai, then run.
But he couldn't do that. Just because this Hakkai held the daisho like he knew his way around sharp things didn't mean he was actually any good. And if he was any good, maybe he was only good at one-on-one. If Gojyo left, something might go wrong, and it would all have been for nothing.
Goku twisted in his grip, and Gojyo spun around, dragging him away from the impending bloodshed. "Ack, stop that! I'm trying to help you, you little—! Just … just go for the trees, okay?" He gave Goku another shove in the right direction. Behind him, he heard the sound of steel slicing through flesh, then a cut-off gasp that swelled into a scream. "Go!" If he was lucky, maybe this Hakkai wouldn't try to gut him once Banri's crew was taken care of. He'd hate for someone Goku liked to die, especially if it ended up being himself.
The air behind him fluttered, so Gojyo ducked as he whirled to face the action. Good move on his part; Banri's knife cut through the air right about where Gojyo's throat had been. He couldn't see past him to get an idea of what the hell was going on with those other assholes and that Hakkai guy. He caught Banri's wrist on the backswing with one kama, then drove the blunt edge of the other into his gut. Banri folded over, coughing and stumbling backward to reveal Masa kneeling on the ground, his left hand lying in front of his knees, the stump pumping blood over his lap. Ran circled Hakkai with a large, thick club held at the ready; Hiro paced him on the other side, knife at a dangerous angle. Hakkai wasn't really watching them, though Gojyo didn't think he was ignoring them. His eyes were on Gojyo and Banri.
A gritty crunch of gravel drew Gojyo's attention back where it ought to be. "Don't make me do it, Banri," he said. Banri snarled and leapt for him, and the kama flashed out just as a flicker of motion from Ran and Hakkai registered at the edge of his peripheral vision. Gojyo would have torn out Banri's throat if he hadn't been knocked off balance by Ran's severed head. Instead, the point of the kama drew a deep, jagged line across Banri's brow and down his cheek, splitting the skin down to the bone and puncturing his eye. It popped like an overripe cherry. Banri dropped, his screams even more deafening than Masa's had been, but Gojyo was already turning to find Hiro, who was lying face-down on the ground. A pool of blood spread out from his stomach, turning the dirt to a sticky, coppery-smelling mud.
Two body-lengths away, Masa was trying to rise. He had his stump tucked into his right armpit in an effort to staunch the blood, and his right hand was reaching for the club he'd dropped.
"If I'm not mistaken, you'll bleed to death in less than five minutes. Unless someone sees to that," Hakkai said coolly, flicking blood from his katana. The wakizashi was already resheathed. "I believe I hear some of the villagers returning. I'm sure you'll get some help if you just stay put." He bent down and wiped the katana with a scrap of fabric that he cut from Ran's sleeve, then sheathed that, too, and made for Banri.
Gojyo glanced at Banri, his one-time friend, all-time jackass, and stepped away. He didn't bother to clean off his kama or tuck them away; he wasn't sure what to expect from this Hakkai character. He didn't know if he'd be able to defend himself if Hakkai really wanted him dead, but he wasn't going to try pissing him off or get in his way. Banri had made his choice, and now he was paying for it. Plus, there was Goku to think about.
Almost like he'd read Gojyo's mind—and, okay, that was creepy—Hakkai glanced at a point over Gojyo's shoulder and said, in a stern voice, "Goku, please stay where you are."
"It's okay," Gojyo said. "I'll go, uh, wait with him?"
"Yes, thank you," Hakkai said. He knelt down next to Banri, who was breathing hard and fast through clenched teeth, hands clamped down over the exposed meat of his cheek and eye socket. Blood trickled between his fingers and over his wrists.
Gojyo moved back a few paces and then turned to go get Goku. He was pressed against a tree. The tree nearest the action, Gojyo was a little annoyed to see. "This doesn't count as running very far," he said. "They would've caught you in a second if they got through us."
"No, they wouldn't. Not you, and no one gets through Hakkai."
"Yeah, well," Gojyo began, then looked back at Banri and Hakkai when he heard Banri grunt in pain. Hakkai ransacked Banri's clothes and then pried one of Banri's hands from his face. He got down close and asked something, fingers tightening on Banri's hand until Gojyo thought he heard bones cracking.
"I don't have it!" Banri choked out. "The request came through Imamura's gang, who got their orders from Taka's crew! I don't know who commissioned the job. We were the last crew in the chain, and the instructions were with the payment. It's all gone—the fire—"
Hakkai threw down Banri's hand in disgust and stood. From behind him, Gojyo heard angry shouts. The villagers; that must mean the fire was under control. Hakkai didn't even bother to look back. He reached the treeline and scooped up Goku immediately, then glared at Gojyo and started walking. Goku was pale and silent, but his eyes shone with happiness, and he looked relaxed for the first time in three weeks. Even with Hakkai's scary face so near his.
Okay. Getting out of Douju, that was a good plan. Gojyo hurried to keep pace, not exactly sure what he was doing or why, but certain it was important. Goku trusted Hakkai, but he wanted to be sure.
"Was it you who set the fire?" Hakkai turned to look at him, his gaze sharp and intense. Holy shit, his eyes were really green. And hard. Glittering, even, behind the glass lenses. It was kind of intimidating, if you were the sort to be intimidated.
Gojyo wiped his kama blades on a scrap of cloth he kept tucked in his sleeve and shoved them into his belt. "Yeah, I needed the distraction."
Sunlight filtering through the leaves bounced off Hakkai's spectacles, obscuring his eyes and leaving Gojyo momentarily dazzled. He wasn't so dazzled that he missed the way Hakkai's lips thinned in displeasure, though.
"Hey, it's not like I had a lot of time to think it through, okay?" Gojyo said, hating the defensiveness that crept into his voice. "Go- he was running out of time. He was out of time. Hiro and Ran were going to … " He scrubbed his hands through his hair, the strands sticking damply to his fingers, cheek, and neck. Uck. "And I don't think Banri would have stopped them. He wouldn't have—"
"I see," Hakkai said softly. "I suppose I should thank you. You thought you were doing the right thing. It's a pity you didn't think it through, though."
Gojyo ground his teeth. "I didn't realize a rescue was on its way, sorry." Hakkai glanced at him again, mild surprise on his face.
"That's not what I meant. Your Banri—"
"Fuck, he wasn't my Banri! He's just some asshole I've known since we were kids, that's all."
"—may have had evidence I needed," Hakkai continued, "evidence of who ordered the kidnapping and orchestrated the framing of Lord Kouryuu. Evidence that's now destroyed. Without it, I don't know how safe Goku or Kouryuu will be." He looked down at Goku, whose eyes were closed. His whole body had gone lax as he fell into a deep, trusting sleep. All right, so maybe, Gojyo thought, Hakkai was okay. Goku definitely thought so.
"Sorry," Gojyo said again. This time he kind of meant it.
Hakkai studied him for a moment. His footsteps never faltered, never stumbled, and he ducked overhanging and jutting branches without looking. The hem of his hakama never caught on any inconvenient twigs, either. It was pretty impressive. "Are you? Then I could use your help," he said. "I need to backtrack. I may have missed some evidence in my hurry to find Goku, tracking him from gang to gang. I can't very well just take him back to Edo and leave him with Lord Kouryuu while I retrace his path yet again. Any remaining evidence will be long gone, and they'll be in a worse position than they are now."
Gojyo snorted. How could Goku be in an even worse position than he'd been in the night before? But he saw Hakkai's point. Edo was, what, like a six-week journey on foot? Especially if they were going to be packing a little kid along with them. Even if he was a tough kid. "You're gonna need a babysitter," he said. "Great. I can do that. I was kind of doing it already."
Hakkai shot him a polite smile, the glitter of his eyes suddenly less sharp, then started walking faster. Gojyo was glad he was taller, even if only by a little. It meant that Hakkai's hustle wouldn't be too much of a bother, not with Gojyo's long, sexy legs to help him keep up.
"We'll go a few miles more, then get supplies at the next village," Hakkai said a few minutes later. "I want to stay out of sight as much as possible since I don't know who might be looking for us."
"Wait, you might still have people after you? Uh, after Goku? But I thought you—uh, okay," Gojyo said, getting it. Big conspiracy, important people. Lots of money and influence involved, especially for someone to be able to frame a lord. Yeah. "Sounds like a plan," he sighed. He didn't like sleeping outdoors, but he'd done it plenty of times before. He could do it again. "Sounds like an awesome plan. Really."
He ignored Hakkai's stare and just kept walking, pausing only to first tie his hair back at the nape of his neck and then offer to take Goku after a few miles. Hakkai handed him over without any hesitation, and Gojyo felt stupid for the warmth that spread out from his chest and down into his stomach. It didn't mean anything. Gojyo had already shown he wouldn't hurt Goku, and if Hakkai thought it was a front, a way to get rid of him and Goku both under orders by whoever-it-was that had started the whole thing, Gojyo was pretty sure Hakkai wasn't worried. From what little Gojyo had seen, he didn't think that was arrogance, either. Hakkai could probably take him. Even if Gojyo tried to sneak up on him in his sleep.
Great. The shit you get yourself into, Sha Gojyo, he told himself, ducking a low-hanging branch. Goku murmured as his weight shifted, then subsided, drooling slightly on Gojyo's shoulder. Gojyo sighed. No, he never learned.