Chapter 1: Meet Cute (With Katana)
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.
Chapter 2: Shit Happens, and Our Heroes Get to Know Each Other
The fire popped, flinging up cheery sparks that whirled moonward in crazy patterns. Gojyo blinked, drowsily enjoying the way the embers’ tracers stayed imprinted on his eyelids for a second or two. The rope that had bound Goku's ankle was finally reduced to ash, and it crumbled into a fine, ember-spangled dust when Gojyo gave it a halfhearted nudge with the toe of his geta.
"You'll burn yourself if you're not careful," Hakkai said as a spark jumped from the disturbed branches and landed on Gojyo's shin. He was graceful like a predator everywhere that wasn't forested or choked with damned greenery, thank-you-very-much, but Gojyo was always catching the hem of his hakama on brush and undergrowth, so he'd cut the fabric just above the knee. It was cooler for summer weather, not just convenient, and he figured it showed off his lithe calves pretty well, too. Too bad it left him vulnerable to stupid, skin-hungry embers.
Gojyo hissed at the flash of heat, then laughed. "I'm not worried." The thick, pungent scent of the salve Hakkai had smeared all over Goku's rope burns an hour ago when they finally stopped to make camp still hung in the air, noticeable even over the heady woodsmoke. He watched Goku for a minute, sleeping next to Hakkai. The poor kid was exhausted, and as soon as he'd eaten most of the quick meal Hakkai had put together, all his own share and half of Hakkai's and Gojyo's, he'd fallen into a dead sleep.
"So, what are you, exactly?" he finally asked. Hakkai hadn't raised his eyes from Goku's curled-up form for at least five minutes, and the silence was getting to him. Gojyo didn't mind quiet, but this was a vaguely tense quiet; there were still too many unknown factors. He'd never met anybody like Hakkai before and wasn't sure what to make of him. He needed more to go on than kinda scary, very serious, reeeally good with sharp things, an obvious badass, and trusted by Goku. "I mean, how do you, uh, know Goku?"
Hakkai didn't look up as he answered. "I'm his tutor."
"Uh-huh." Gojyo's eyebrows rose skyward on their own. "You're the tutor. And bodyguard and, um, apothecary? Anything else?"
Hakkai finally looked at him. Reflected red and gold firelight danced across his spectacles. The effect was pretty and sort of sinister at the same time, an effect not quite erased when he let out a low, soft laugh. "Ahahaha, and the messenger and interpreter and … well, whatever else I need to be, yes. I'm what the English call a 'jack of all trades.'"
Gojyo poked at the fire—with a stick, this time; Sha Gojyo sometimes learned from his mistakes, thanks for noticing—sending a flurry of tiny embers floating up into the sky. He watched their light die out slowly as they rose. "Yeah. I know what you mean," he said finally.
The more companionable silence continued for another minute or two, and then Hakkai surprised him by observing, "You're not full Japanese."
Well, no shit, Gojyo thought. But most people who didn't bring it up first thing, Gojyo'd noticed, never mentioned it at all. They just avoided him after a while. Those who said something right away usually took exception to it. He guessed there hadn't been much of a chance for that back in the village, though.
"Nope," he said. He felt his eyebrows rising again and pointedly ignored the heavy weight that suddenly appeared in the pit of his stomach. "That gonna be a problem?"
Hakkai smiled, and this time it looked more real, less for the sake of politeness. The weight lifted in an instant. "I was mostly brought up by American missionaries. My sister and I—" His smile faltered.
"Yeah? You got a sister?" Gojyo prompted. Hakkai's smile faded entirely.
"I had a sister. She … died. Eventually."
Ouch. Gojyo definitely wasn't going to pry; he knew how that felt. "I had—uh, I have—a brother. Haven't seen him since our dad died, though," he offered instead. He looked down at the fire again, watching the way the hungry orange light charred and powdered the branches down to fine ash, and tried not to remember the shouts. The frayed piece of net with the fishhooks caught in it, carving deep, acid-sharp lines under his eye; the tightness of the damp cord around his neck, cutting off his air and coloring his world a wavering crimson exactly the same shade as his hair. The hair that his father despised him for, the hair of the foreigner his wife had loved instead of Sha Ken. Hair the rich, shimmering red of blood by lantern light. That's what the whores used to tell him when he worked as a bodyguard at the Scarlet Orchid, anyway.
And they were right. When he'd felt the rush of breath flowing back into him and the warm wetness of his dad's blood on his cheek, his chin, his throat, his hands, its color was absorbed where droplets had landed in his hair. He'd peeled the net away and flung it from him to see Jien standing over their dad's body, a bloodied iron weight dropping from his hands.
The last he ever saw of his brother was Jien, his shoulders slumped, in the boat with Sha Ken's body in the bottom. Jien raised a hand to signal everything was okay, like he was going out with their dad on a regular run, and then the boat was swallowed by a thick, clammy ghost's-breath fog.
He hadn't come back, and an eleven-year-old boy couldn't make it on his own in a small fishing village, not with their mother's family having disowned them for Gojyo's birth. But an eleven-year-old boy with nimble fingers and a desire to please could learn housebreaking if someone made him feel wanted, and Banri's older brother, visiting from Naha, had been willing to take him in and teach him. It had been enough, even if Banri and Yuushi were poor replacements for Jien. And in the end, Yuushi had abandoned both him and Banri during the housebreaking gone bad; Banri, that slippery bastard, had managed to get away. Without Gojyo. Without even looking back. But by then, Gojyo had been sixteen, more than old enough to be responsible for himself, and he didn't harbor any hard feelings.
Until now. Stupid fucking Banri. Gojyo couldn't feel too bad about his face. Banri was more than old enough to be responsible for his own epic stupidity.
"—first watch," Hakkai said. Gojyo jumped, then tried to disguise it as another jab at the fire.
"I said, second or first watch? Which do you want?" Hakkai repeated slowly, as though speaking to an idiot. He wasn't too far off the mark, Gojyo thought.
"Whatever. I don't care," Gojyo said. "I don't need much sleep."
"Second, then," Hakkai said calmly. "Please wake me when it's my turn."
Gojyo shrugged. "Sure." He scooted away from the fire and put his back against a tree, folding his legs into a comfortable position. He could sit still for hours if he had to; it was a good skill for a housebreaker. His kama he rested across his knees.
And then he waited, watching the sparks fly up to meet the stars wheeling slowly overhead, until it was time for him to wake Hakkai and get some sleep.
Tutor-bodyguard-apothecary-translator-whatevers, apparently. Jeez.
He was going to have to get more sleep tonight, though. Goku had rebounded with amazing recuperative powers. Eating enough for two grown men and sleeping under Hakkai's watchful eye had done wonders. He only needed to be carried now and then during the day, and after a short rest on one of their backs, he was ready to hurry alongside them again. Gojyo wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't witnessed the pleading puppy eyes and handed over half of his rice and fish the night before.
"He sure is somethin'," Gojyo observed when Goku made another run at tree-climbing for the third time in as many hours. "Two days ago, I would have said he'd need a coupla weeks, maybe more to recover from—um," he finished guiltily, taking a quick, sidelong peek at Hakkai's profile.
Hakkai's face remained unchanged, the polite yet slightly forbidding look that seemed to be his default firmly in place. "I'm sure it could have been worse," was all he said. Gojyo was happy to leave the conversation there. Shit, he never wanted to bring it up again. His own involvement in the whole thing had begun to make him squirm, especially when he thought about how things probably would have ended for the kid. Getting him out when he did wasn't enough to lessen his responsibility. Never mind that he'd joined Banri after Goku was in his power. Never mind that he hadn't realized what was going on.
Never mind a lot of stuff, you dumbass, he sighed inwardly. Banri would always be bad news, and he should have known better. What else was new?
Gojyo kept his mouth shut the rest of the day, only bothering to speak when Goku rushed up to him to tug at his sleeve and drag him off to look at something he'd found, and once to ask Hakkai when and where he thought they'd make camp.
The next several days were pretty much the same: making a small camp, splitting the watch, getting up the next day and walking a hell of a lot, and avoiding the main roads and larger villages, except Gojyo managed to avoid awkward conversational topics—well, most conversation, in general—and was getting more sleep. A dude could get used to another dude's creepiness, and comfortable, even, very quickly when being shown up by a little kid, he discovered.
And then Hakkai announced that they needed to "replenish their provisions." Or something.
"I had to leave Hakuryuu in Edo," he explained, "so we'll have to reprovision more often. It's inconvenient, but Hakuryuu is distinctive. There would have been no chance of stealth if I'd brought him."
"Hakuryuu?" Gojyo didn't bother mentioning that Hakkai was pretty damned distinctive on his own, what with the spectacles and eyes the deep, bright green of mountain pines. Yeah, more and more samurai and stuff were starting to wear Western-ish clothing and cutting off their topknots in favor of Western-style hair, but he'd only ever seen two people who wore spectacles, and Hakkai was one of 'em.
"Is Ha—" Goku grabbed a fistful of Hakkai's hakama and tugged, then let go as if he'd seized a hot coal at Hakkai's disapproving glance. Hakkai twitched the fabric expertly, and the wrinkles pressed into the cloth by Goku's sweaty grip disappeared immediately. Un-freakin'-real. The dude was, like, tidy-ninja or something. Even almost a week on the road, and he hardly looked travel-stained or rumpled or even dusty. It was unnerving in the way the open-eyed sleeping and laughing had been.
"Is Hakuryuu okay?" Goku asked. He looked worried, hands clasped behind his back like he'd never touch anything again. Yeah, like that'd last long.
"He's fine," Hakkai said patiently, his tone at odds with the look he'd just given Goku's clutching fingers. "But there aren't any other red-eyed white horses in Japan."
"Plenty of ronin, though," Gojyo put in, looking meaningfully at Hakkai. "Some of 'em might even look a little like you."
"Oh," Goku said.
"We'll have to stop at a marketplace sometime today." Hakkai continued as though he hadn't been sidetracked. "But I must admit I hadn't quite planned for the rate at which we're going through the supplies." Gojyo felt a pang. He wasn't eating near as much as Goku or as much as he might want, but he was eating the same amount as Hakkai. He could do the math.
He unpicked the knot securing Shinji's drawstring moneybag to his belt and tossed it underhand. Hakkai caught it easily. "S'all I got," he said.
"Ah," said Hakkai, weighing the bag in his palm and then peering inside, "thank you; this should do well enough for now." The bag disappeared inside his sleeve, neither bulge nor faint jangle of yen betraying its presence.
… Ooookay. Full-on ninja-ninja, then. Gojyo thought about that until they hit a narrow side path that led back to the main road, and then he was occupied for several minutes wondering what he was supposed to do. Were they all heading to the marketplace, or was he supposed to lurk in the trees and keep an eye on Goku? He knew they had looped westward to avoid a crow's-flight return to Edo, and Banri and Masa were out of the picture, but he got the impression that the person responsible for kidnapping Goku had more than just a few gangs of asshole thugs on his side. Paranoia posing as caution was probably called for.
But, "I believe we've been cautious enough to all enter the marketplace," Hakkai said when they reached the edge of the town, apparently reading Gojyo's mind again. Gojyo raised an eyebrow. It was less unnerving the more often it happened. That seemed counter- … counter-whatsit—counter-intuitive?—but he was getting used to that. Hakkai wasn't normal. Well, okay, Gojyo wasn't, either, but he had, like, excuses and stuff, being half Japanese and a criminal and all. Hakkai was just … Hakkai.
"You can help carry the foodstuffs," Hakkai continued as they drew near the bustling marketplace. Stalls hung with flapping cloth banners and flags crowded the square, and Gojyo immediately reached for Goku's wrist.
"Stay close, kid," he said. Goku's eyes were shining, and he kept turning his head this way and that, taking in all the sights and sounds and smells.
"Meat buns!" he gasped, jerking Gojyo forward a step. Jeez, he was strong. "Hakkai, meat buns!"
Hakkai pinched his sleeve absently. The money, Gojyo realized. "Hmm. We might have enough with Gojyo's contribution. I suppose there's no harm in getting a few."
Goku hopped excitedly, jerking Gojyo again. "Yeah? We can? Right now?" he asked breathlessly.
"Yes. Here." Hakkai handed Goku a few coins and nodded to Gojyo, who shrugged and let go. Goku tore off in the direction of the stall advertising steamed buns, and since Hakkai had eyes on him, Gojyo took a quick look around. Being taller than most of the rest of the crowd gave him an advantage; a commotion in the northeast corner of the marketplace looked familiar. He stood on tiptoes for a second and squinted. Yep. A dice game was underway. Sweet.
"Hey," he began, licking his lips, "they're throwing dice over there." He inclined his head in the general direction. "If I go with a small stake, I bet I win enough to double what I gave you. We could get a room tonight, sleep indoors. Have a bath," he said, a little wistfully. He didn't mind the dirt of the road, of course, but he didn't mind a bath when he'd been setting fires, slicing people's faces open, and sleeping outside on the lam, either.
Hakkai's expression spoke eloquently. I am skeptical, it said. I doubt your motives. And, In making such a request, I doubt your intelligence, which was already under evaluation. However, his mouth said, and said quite diplomatically, Gojyo thought, "I'm not sure that's a good use of our time or funds."
"Nah, I'm good. No, really," he said, squashing the thread of hurt that tickled the edges of his awareness at the look on Hakkai's face, "it's not just a game of chance. Place like this, at least one guy's gonna be cheating. Maybe the thrower, even. I just gotta read the players, and I'm good at that." He gave Hakkai his most confident, most trustworthy smile. "Seriously. I used to throw back in Naha, in between, um, jobs. I was good, okay? I know my dice."
Hakkai studied him for a moment; Gojyo did his best not to squirm or let anything that didn't shout I'm confident, I'm awesome! show. He must have been judged worthy because Hakkai sighed and trickled a few glinting yen into his palm.
"Meet us at the northernmost road," Hakkai said. "Two hours. I'd like to make it to the next large village up the road. No, no room tonight," he continued, reading Gojyo's mind—or expression; it didn't really matter when the end result was the same, did it?—correctly. "But tomorrow …"
"Cool," Gojyo said. He grinned his most dazzling grin and saw the corners of Hakkai's mouth soften very faintly before they firmed up again. "Two hours, north road. Gotcha." He gave a mock salute and strode off before Hakkai could change his mind and call him back.
The game was rollicking and close, the players elbow to elbow. Gojyo pushed his way into a sliver of space that opened up between a fat guy smelling of garlic and an old guy stinking of seaweed, which was weird for being this far inland, but whatever. He could breathe through his mouth; it would make him look like a slack-jawed idiot and maybe give him an advantage.
It worked. After a cursory glance from the thrower, a few glares, some mutters about his parentage, and an intense scrutiny of his coins, the rest of the players dismissed him as unimportant. Perfect. Virtually ignored but for his yen, he picked out the two cheaters within the first two throws: the thrower, unsurprisingly, and a skinny guy in a faded green kimono two dudes to his left. He started watching them, making bets that helped him figure out their signals and their system.
A dozen throws in, he got a chance to brush against the dice on his way to retrieve a modest pile of winnings. The balance on one felt strange. Loaded, then, and expertly. The next two throws ended up in his favor, the third through fifth small to moderate losses, and then the sixth netted him almost triple what he'd given Hakkai in the first place. He wanted to walk away, but he had most of an hour left before his rendezvous and it was better to lose another throw or two before calling it quits. The next three throws netted him a gain and two small losses. Good enough.
Gojyo gathered up his winnings, tied them up in a scrap of cloth, and secreted them in his sleeve. Some of the players, Faded Green Kimono especially, looked varying degrees of disgruntled. That was just too darned bad. Gojyo ignored them and left, sauntering through the marketplace.
One stall was selling smoked mackerel, the fillets dark and rich. Gojyo's mouth watered. He had more than enough up his sleeve to get a few fillets to share on the road and add to that night's rice. The merchant was just handing over the wrapping stuffed with fish when Gojyo heard the commotion behind him. Fuckin' cheat and red-headed, half-breed bastard were all he needed to hear. He snatched the mackerel from the merchant's hand and flung down more than enough yen for it, then turned tail and slipped through the crowd, shoulders hunched and legs bent to cut his height by a hand's span or so.
Unfortunately, the town was small and the townspeople inclined to side with their own, even if their own were the damned cheating assholes. The crowed parted around him, exposing him to Faded Green Kimono and a portly, puffing man with a red face and the look of a magistrate. Well, shit. He should've known that the magistrate would take a cut of any fixed game. And he should've suspected that he could get made, no matter how careful. No such thing as a sure thing, Gojyo, he reminded himself, and there's always someone better. You gotta remember that!
He also, he discovered to his dismay, needed to find a way out of the crowd. A space opened before and behind him in a wide area of the marketplace. But all the easy exit points were blocked by bodies. He'd have to barrel through or go over a stall, and most of the sellers looked like they had easy access to sharp, pointy, or heavy bludgeoning implements.
Well, shit. Shit, shit, shit.
No, wait! A sharp wooden crack followed by several grunts and the sound of slender wood pummeling skin and cloth came from the northerly edge of the throng. Marketgoers gasped and yelled and scattered, some of them heading straight for him but not seeing him in their haste to get away from Hakkai, who was wielding two halves of a broken banner pole like they were his daisho. Considerably less sharp and lethal, yeah, but they still looked and sounded painful as hell. Gojyo grinned, then drew his teeth back in a grimace as he sensed someone coming up behind him quickly. He pivoted, the rest of the cloth-wrapped yen still in his fist, and smashed his knuckles into Faded Green Kimono's nose. It flattened spectacularly, smearing sideways onto Faded Green Kimono's cheek. Gojyo's knuckles smarted, but he followed through and finished off with a vicious kick to the stomach. Faded Green Kimono collapsed to the ground, twitching as he tried to draw in a breath. Gojyo heard him coughing and whooping as he made for Hakkai.
Two strong-looking toughs—other dice players, great—shuffled in from the left on a course to intercept, but then the farther one stumbled and fell, taking his buddy down with him with a long, windmilling arm upside the head. Grinning, Goku darted aside as they hit the ground. Sneaky little fucker, Gojyo thought approvingly and swerved around them, pausing only to press the mackerel into Goku's hand and swing him up on his back. He caught Hakkai looking over him, eyes calculating and cold, and turned around. The magistrate, face redder than ever and kneeling next to Faded Green Kimono with Epically Fucked Nose, signaled to a runner, his furious glare firmly fixed on them.
Dammit. "No room tomorrow, huh," Gojyo sighed once they were safely away. Goku squirmed, so Gojyo let him down. Goku walked close beside him, though, still clutching the mackerel.
"No." Hakkai's mouth was pressed into a thin line, but something wild and—Gojyo would have sworn it—amused flickered in his eyes. "Not for several days, I should think."
"Awesome," Gojyo muttered. "Sorry."
Hakkai studied him for a moment and then exhaled slowly. "I get the feeling this sort of disappointment happens around you quite often."
Gojyo deflated. "Yeah," he admitted. "Yeah, it does."
The whispering, burbling chuckle of the water flowing over smooth rocks sounded kind of like Hakkai's sleep laugh, Gojyo decided as he stripped down to his fundoshi. A softer version of it, but close enough. Gojyo stretched his hands over his head and leaned back in the water. The pool was deep enough that it came up to his lowest ribs and more than broad enough for all three of them. For three or four more of them, even.
"The next one will do for washing," Hakkai said. He folded his hakama and kimono carefully but with an absentminded, far-away look in his eyes. His daisho and glasses he arranged even more carefully on top of them. Gojyo registered the ugly, knotted line of scar tissue that bisected his abdomen on a diagonal, deep pink in the center fading to a lighter pink, like the blush of sakura, and then to thready outlines of white fading into the surrounding smooth, pale skin. Gojyo's fingers suddenly itched. He wondered what it felt like. Nothing like the lines carved under his left eye. It would be thick and warm, but cooler than the ridges and planes of Hakkai's stomach. The skin around it would be sensitive, maybe, and jump under Gojyo's exploring fingers, the sinewy muscles tightening and bunching under skin smooth as lacquered wood wherever Gojyo touched.
A splash behind him startled Gojyo back into awareness. He blinked as Goku paddled up behind him, stirring up waves with the flurry of his arms.
"Little deep for you, huh?"
"No," Goku said breathlessly, bobbing.
"Yeah," Gojyo replied. "I think you should go back down to that other pool." He pointed to the lower expanse of water, its surface still trembling with evidence of Goku's first splashes of excited discovery.
"Goku, I think you should listen to Gojyo," Hakkai said, his voice edged with a soft note of warning. Gojyo startled again; Hakkai was close enough to touch, and Gojyo hadn't even noticed him getting into the water, much less approaching. Gah. Even with the disturbance Goku was making, Gojyo felt like he should have noticed something, at least.
"Aw, but—" Goku began, the hint of a whine in his voice.
Goku frowned mutinously, then seemed to think better of it. He scrambled out of their pool with a little push from Gojyo and leapt pointedly into the next. He splashed all the way to the other end as loudly as he could.
"That's far enough, kid," Gojyo called. He smirked when Goku showed them his back and splashed still more vigorously. He didn't wade into the streambed farther on, though. "He's a pretty good kid," he said, turning to look at Hakkai again.
"Mm," Hakkai agreed quietly. He was standing, the water lapping at his scar, and squinting, the green of his eyes darkened almost to black by the shadows of his lashes. He looked more human, less badass, and Gojyo's fingers itched again. He crouched and float-walked backward until his shoulder blades hit one of the large, round rocks on the upper lip of the pool, then ducked, immersing himself to cool the faint heat warming his cheeks.
They enjoyed the water until Gojyo's fingers pruned and Goku's teeth started to chatter, and then Hakkai got them warmed up again by making them scrub their clothes on some flat rocks further downstream. He glanced at Gojyo, as though expecting a complaint, but hey, the only people who'd ever done Gojyo's laundry for him were some old lady when he was a kid and—for a fee—the maids at the brothel later on. Besides, crouching over and scrubbing showed off all kinds of sleek, sexy Sha Gojyo musculature. It did the same for Hakkai. Gojyo kept sneaking peeks, each one longer than the next, until he found himself hot and sweating from more than just scrubbing.
Their laundry done and hung on branches to dry in the warm air, they took another quick dip to refresh themselves and then settled in, reclothed, as the sky faded slowly from bright, clear blue to a sparkling, star-spangled indigo. Goku scraped at the ground with a stick, practicing his calligraphy with the promise of a ripe, fragrant peach as a reward for kanji well drawn. Hakkai unrolled a small map and studied it, brows lowered. Gojyo just watched everything and kept his ears open for the sounds of anything that wasn't bird, beast, fire, or the brook. A branch popped, and Hakkai cleared his throat.
"Yeah?" Gojyo said.
"We'll turn east tomorrow. We're a few hours' walk from the Imamura gang's holdings."
"And, uh, how do you know they're the right Imamuras? I mean, there's an Imamura gang in Naha, a couple in Ryuukuu, a bunch scattered all over Kyuushuu, and I bet there's even more here in—"
"Because they led me to Banri's gang," Hakkai said dangerously. Firelight reflected chaotic, flashing crimson and orange from his spectacles.
"Oh. Uh, right." Gojyo shifted uncomfortably. He was getting hot, so close to the fire. Yeah. The fire. "You got a, um, plan?"
"No. They'll remember me."
Uh-huh. Gojyo just bet they would.
Chapter 3: More Shit Happens, and Our Heroes Get to *wink wink* Know Each Other
Hakkai surveyed the broken, smoking ruin of the Imamura gambling house, bitter disappointment taut in every line of his body. He glanced over, and Gojyo flinched despite himself.
"Hey, it wasn't me. I was busy burning down that fucker Banri's place. Or maybe getting into a fight over a rigged game of dice, I'm not sure. But I was screwing things up somewhere else, okay?"
"That's not what—" A flash of green and the dull red of a smoldering ember drew Hakkai's attention, and he was off in an instant, hissing "Keep him safe!", katana and wakizashi drawn. Gojyo grabbed Goku's shoulder and chivvied him back to a more protected position next to the abandoned tea house across from the gambling house. According to Hakkai, this section of the town had been sparsely populated when he had first come looking for Goku. Since the appearance of the "demon" that had murdered all but three of the Imamura gang several weeks ago, town gossip claimed, the street had lost more tenants. And now, the remaining three Imamura, already maimed and broken after their encounter with "the hell-beast shaped like a man," had died in the fire that destroyed their main seat of operations.
"Stay here," Gojyo said and nudged Goku more firmly against the wall. "I mean it, kid, or I'll tie you to that damned crossbeam." Goku nodded, and Gojyo would have to be satisfied. He didn't mean to let Hakkai go into a falling-down building on his own, freakish tutor-translator-ninja or not.
He was halfway across the street when he heard a commotion above and behind him: feet thumping down a staircase and the slide-clack of the tea house's main door. He whirled, kama out and ready, but it was just a scared, bone-thin boy of about fourteen pelting up the street, his fright-glazed eyes getting wider every time he threw a glance back at them. Well, it was better there weren't any witnesses if something were going to happen. Gojyo took another second to find Goku. He was still pressed against the tea house wall. Good job, Gojyo mouthed, and Goku nodded once, solemnly. Gojyo turned back toward the gambling house in time to see Hakkai pause and pivot, head cocked to the side, and then he was moving over the floor, slipping through anemic streamers of still-lingering smoke, gliding across jagged holes, and leaping over fallen beams and carbonized rubble.
And then he stumbled. What the hell?
Before Gojyo could react, a triumphant, warbling voice rang out. "Ha ha!" it crowed. "The mighty Zakuro knew you could not resist returning to the scene of your victory, now the scene of your defeat!" A man with pale green hair and dressed in a garish pink kimono—and, okay, where the hell had he been hiding?—burst from the dark recesses of the gambling house's most intact corner. The wacko ignored Hakkai, who was trying to push himself up from an unsteady crouch but failing horribly, and struck a pose just where the afternoon sun was forcing its way into the blackened, jumbled interior. Gojyo was frozen with surprise and total confusion for a split second, but it was a split second too long.
A spark leapt from the fingers of the Zakuro freak's right hand to a twisted fuse set in a small wooden ball in his left. He flicked that hand sideways, and before Gojyo could shout a warning, the ball zipped through the air and landed at Goku's feet. He'd turned to run—attaboy—but Zakuro's aim was expert and his fastball epic. The ball disintegrated as soon as it hit the ground, and a cloud of thick lilac vapor enveloped Goku in an instant. Gojyo heard more than saw the pitiful thud of Goku collapsing to the ground, out cold, maybe even dead. Gojyo's heart clenched so hard his throat seized, cutting off his air for a few precious seconds.
It probably saved him. Another wooden ball exploded behind him, and under cover of the unwholesome orange smoke rising from its shards, that Zakuro asshole disappeared again. Gojyo charged into the burned-out gambling house, his lungs burning as he ran and held his breath. Hakkai was back on his feet, but he looked like he was going to go down again if Gojyo so much as brushed past him. Where was it? There had to be something … there!
A shallow metal dish holding three long incense sticks trailed cobweb-fine smoke. The same hazy smoke Hakkai had run through. Gojyo flipped the dish over and ground it into the floor, smothering the embers, then staggered over to Hakkai and dragged him back out into the cleaner air. He sucked in a whooping, wheezing lungful of warm summer air and sprinted across the street, where that fucker Zakuro was lifting Goku onto his back. The bastard looked around and froze in place for a heartbeat, Goku half-raised to his shoulders, then quickly reversed his direction. Goku lay sprawled on the ground, and Zakuro plunged his hands into his sleeves.
"You motherfucker, what did you do to him?" Gojyo roared. He leapt into the air and struck Zakuro feet first. Another of those wooden balls and some kind of spark-making device, like the lock on a pistol, skittered through the hard-packed dirt on the street. Gojyo landed with his full weight balanced on Zakuro's shoulders and rode him all the way down to the ground. The asshole's face mashed into the dirt, and he made a desperate choking sound; mini dustclouds puffed up into his nostrils, setting off more choking coughs. Gojyo dropped to his left knee, planting it squarely between Zakuro's shoulder blades, and crossed his kama over the back of his neck in an X. Their points hovered a hair's-breadth over the ground, trembling with the force of his anger.
"He's all right," Hakkai said, his voice hoarse. "He's breathing, and his color's good."
Gojyo risked a quick glance in Hakkai's direction. He was still unsteady, but less wobbly than he had been, and yeah, Goku looked all right. Thank the Merciful Goddess. The hard, heavy knot in his chest unraveled enough that he could ask questions without his voice shaking.
"Why are you here, asshole?" Gojyo punctuated the question with a small bounce on his knee. Zakuro clawed weakly at the ground, his face red and the one eye Gojyo could see bulging.
"The mighty Zakuro is no asshole," the mighty douchebag gasped when he could suck in enough air for an answer. "He is one of the finest assassins in all of Japan!"
"What do you want with Goku?" Hakkai put in before Gojyo could ask his question again, this time with incentive to answer more helpfully. Gojyo was almost sorry, but hey, the mighty dickhead might piss off Hakkai, and they both would get to incentivize. That was cool with Gojyo.
Zakuro wheezed for a moment, then spat a dust-streaked loogey that landed less than a hand's-span from Hakkai's knee. Hakkai's expression went flat, and he tilted his head so the bright afternoon sunlight caught his spectacles' lenses and flashed.
"What. Do you want. With. Goku?" Hakkai asked again. His voice had gone arctic, and Gojyo found a frisson of … of something, something electric and unnerving crackling down his spine. It wasn't exactly a bad feeling, though. Zakuro, however, stiffened, and Gojyo felt the first sign of uneasiness in the tension of his body.
"The mighty Zakuro was paid to silence the Imamura gang and retrieve the boy. He was to be taken to an undisclosed location and left there."
"'Undisclosed'? You'd better disclose it, mighty cockweasel, or I'm going to start carving away fingers. We'll see how well you can throw those fucking poison bombs with nothing but palms at the ends of your wrists." Gojyo shifted his right foot and pinned Zakuro's wrist with his geta. A kama thunked into the dirt between the webbing of the mighty fucknut's thumb and forefinger. Predictably, the fucknut flinched.
"The mighty Zakuro was not told! The mighty Zakuro was to take the boy to The Smiling Fox, where he would receive further payment and instructions. The boy was to be drugged the entire time, and the mighty Zakuro was encouraged to … to—gurk!" The mighty shitwaffle turned purple as Hakkai leaned down, barely wavering at all now, and seized his throat.
"Encouraged to what?" Hakkai asked softly. At his tone, the frisson of whatever-it-was zinged Gojyo all the way from his fingertips to his toes, and the hair on his arms and the back of his neck stood up. Holy shit.
"He can't answer if he can't breathe," Gojyo observed, feeling a little breathless himself. "Not that I care."
Hakkai's knuckles went white for a count of three before he released his grip.
"Encouraged to keep him barely alive," the soon-to-be-dead-motherfucker rasped. "But!" he cried, seeing the look on Hakkai's face and feeling the bite of Gojyo's kama as it slid under his thumb. "But the mighty Zakuro does not assassinate children! He is not above acting as courier, of course, but he would never—"
"That's chickenshit," Gojyo snarled. "Delivering him to someone who wants him dead is the same thing."
"The mighty Zakuro disagrees," the mighty shitstick muttered, bravado muted and sullenness creeping into his tone, "and he has answered your questions." Gojyo leaned more weight on his knee and squeezed another satisfying "gurk!" out of him.
"Not quite," Hakkai corrected him. "Who hired you?"
"The mighty Zakuro does not know. He doesn't! The mighty Zakuro was contacted by an anonymous intermediary who—"
"Stop!" someone behind them shouted, and Gojyo and Hakkai both turned to look. While they'd been occupied with their little interrogation, the skinny kid from above the tea shop had gone for the law. "Is that him?"
Sonofabitch! Gojyo saw, with not a little twist of self-pity mixed with extreme frustration, the runner from the dice game brawl, waving a scrap of paper with his likeness inked on it, at the front of a knot of magistrates and local guards. It was the fucking dice-game-slash-marketplace fiasco all over again, and it wasn't goddamned fair. They weren't in any condition to fight their way out, and anyway, their beef wasn't with the local law; it was with the mighty dickweed and his ilk.
"You okay to run?" Gojyo asked, already standing and putting his kama away. He grabbed Goku before Hakkai could reach for him.
"Yes," Hakkai said, getting unwaveringly to his feet. The only sign he'd been drugged was a minute hesitation as his second knee left the ground, but he was moving quickly as the justice league or whatever-they-were closed on them. He darted forward and picked up the poison bomb and sparking device. In a second it was lit and flying straight into the middle of the oncoming crowd, but they lost no time heading in the opposite direction; Gojyo stopped only to kick the mighty fucksock in the temple, knocking him out. Hopefully he'd think twice before coming after them again.
As the sound of the explosion and the cries of dismay died away behind them, Gojyo said, "Dammit, they had a paper with me on it. Did you see?"
"Yes," Hakkai said, "and that … Zakuro. He'll be able to give an apt description of you to his employer, whoever that is. I'm afraid we're going to have to dye your hair. It's too distinctive."
Gojyo bounced Goku a little higher on his back to resettle him. He slept soundly, undisturbed by the jouncing as they ran over uneven ground and ducked the thickening cover of branches and trailing greenery off the road. "Yeah. We might want to do Goku's, too. Can't do anything about his eyes, though. Or yours."
"Nor yours. But they'll be less remarkable if they don't match your hair."
"Yeah, well, I guess I could let my hair hang in front of my face if we have to go into another town," Gojyo muttered, "keep my eyes down or whatever." They jogged on a little further, and then Gojyo risked sneaking a glance at Hakkai. "You doin' okay? Not, like, unsteady anymore or anything?"
"Ah, no." Hakkai cleared his throat. It sounded weirdly broken, like it was forced, maybe. "Thank you, but I'm quite recovered."
"Okay, that's—that's good," Gojyo replied, then cursed himself for sounding so idiotic. "So, hey, the next place we come to. There's another biggish town not too far from here, right? Couple-few days?"
"That's correct, yes."
"Cool. Then if they're not big enough to have a decent herbalist's shop, you should go to the brothel. They always have good dye."
Hakkai's pace slowed, and Gojyo matched him, then relaxed into a walk. Hakkai slowed further, following him step for step, studying him.
"Dude, I used to be a bodyguard at a whorehouse, okay? And the girls would always dye their hair, especially the older ones. At least I know the stuff they use works," Gojyo said, uncomfortable with Hakkai's pointed, probing look. He felt skewered by judginess or something.
"I see," Hakkai said eventually.
"At least it was honest work," Gojyo said. He knew he sounded disgruntled, but he didn't care. "Let's keep going, just in case." He started jogging again, not waiting to see if Hakkai wanted to say anything else.
"Hold still," Gojyo said, pinching Goku's ear. "You keep that up, I'm going to write 'stupid little monkey' across your forehead, and this dye lasts forever. You want that?"
"Hey!" Gojyo warned him. "What'd I say?"
"You don't know how to write," Goku groused, "and it's hot, so why can't I go in the water? I promise to keep my head dry until the dye sets!"
"Goku!" Hakkai stood, spectacles catching the one beam of sunlight under the tree where he'd been crouching.
"I can write," Gojyo said. He poked Goku on the crown of his head, none too gently. "My calligraphy's awful, though. Stay still!"
Hakkai moved next to him, studying Goku's hair, slick and dark with the dye. "And if he couldn't," he said coolly, "I'd write it for him. Backwards, even, so you could read it in still water."
Goku's jaw dropped, and a wide grin lifted Gojyo's cheeks until he laughed. It felt good, especially since he and Hakkai hadn't really said much to one other since meeting the mighty dickwipe. He'd caught Hakkai watching him an awful lot, though, and it made him feel itchy, all unnerved and excited all at the same time. But this … . Hakkai smiled at Goku's look of shocked betrayal, and his eyes softened behind the spectacles. That turned Gojyo's unnerved itch decidedly in excitement's favor.
"Okay, you're done," Gojyo said. He clapped Goku on the shoulder to show himself how unconcerned with Hakkai he was. Even if himself wasn't buying it. "No touching until I say, you got it? Then you can jump in the water and rinse and splash all you want. You can pretend to be a kappa for all I care."
"Ew! Kappas are gross and creepy," Goku protested, "and I don't like cucumbers. I'd rather be a dragon."
"Yeah, whatever." Gojyo went down to the riverbank and scooped some water into the small bowl they were using for the dye, then went back to pour the rest of the dye in, mash it into a usable paste, and sit down next to his stuff. His fingertips were black, but he knew a trick or two to get them clean again. The gals at the Scarlet Orchid had known everything about the art of false beauty. He sat for a few minutes and watched Goku, who had been set to practicing his calligraphy again. Ha! Hakkai had him tracing the kanji for "monkey," "idiot," and "tiny." Awesome. He poked at the paste, then nodded. It was ready.
"I'll do that for you, if you don't mind," Hakkai said quietly from behind him.
Gah, Gojyo didn't say. It was a near thing. "Uh, that's okay. I've done it before."
Hakkai picked up the bowl before Gojyo could and began massaging the dye through his hair. "I insist," Hakkai said, so low Gojyo could barely hear him over the sound of Goku's sullen calligraphy and the river. Hakkai's fingers were strong and sure, and Gojyo relaxed into the touch. He felt Hakkai's fingers pause near the base of his hairline, then follow the slight ridge of a scar left there during a bar fight. Gojyo shivered, and his skin prickled all over as he broke out in goosebumps.
"You don't take very good care of yourself, Gojyo."
Gojyo shrugged and swallowed, testing his throat before he spoke. Having his voice crack like he was some horny teenager would suck. A lot. "I do okay. I'm not dead yet, right? And anyway, what about you, charging into that wreck of a gambling house?"
Hakkai's fingers stilled for a moment, but for the tip of a thumb stroking gently just above the skin of Gojyo's neck. Gojyo could feel the faint movement of the air right above the surface of his skin, and it made him shiver again. Hakkai laughed quietly, more an exhalation than a real sound, and the heat of his breath, warmer than the summer afternoon, sent a flush rushing from Gojyo's collarbones to the top of his head.
"It's my job," Hakkai said, beginning to work the dye through Gojyo's hair again. "And I knew you would look after him. You looked after both of us."
Heat suffused Gojyo's face again, this time for a different reason. He wasn't—he didn't—he—gah.
"Yeah, well, we make a pretty good team," Gojyo mumbled. He closed his eyes as Hakkai's strong fingers swept through his hair and over his scalp, spreading a tingling warmth that trickled all the way down to his toes. If it gathered and swirled in his groin and things started shifting around down there, trying to get comfortable in a constricting space, well … Gojyo shifted his legs a little to hide the slight bulge that was filling the front of his fundoshi and closed his eyes to hide what he was thinking. Not in front of the kid, he told himself. Well, his dick. Not right now. Later, if he's still—yeah.
He kept his eyes resolutely off Hakkai for the rest of the afternoon, especially when he stripped down to join them in the water while they rinsed the dye out of their hair. … Okay, maybe not resolutely. He sneaked some glances, and a few times, he caught Hakkai looking back.
The afternoon grew hotter. For Gojyo, anyway. The season was turning in favor of autumn, and a cool breeze rustled the leaves overhead as afternoon gave way to evening, then night. And every time he risked a look in Hakkai's direction, especially when he thought Hakkai was looking back or had just been looking, a flush spread from the center of his stomach outward, flowing to the top of his head and the soles of his feet. He was warm well past sunset. And Hakkai definitely watched him during dinner. Goku was rambunctious, so Gojyo engaged him in a squabble, which he fully intended to lose, over the last bit of rice and hare. It was nice to see him acting like an actual kid, with fussing and crankiness. And the squabbling worked: an hour later, under a canopy of shussshing leaves, Goku was out cold. Gojyo smiled as Hakkai bent over him, smoothing Goku's hair down and tucking his kimono around him more securely.
And then the smile skittered away briefly as Hakkai came to join him on his side of the fire. That was, uh, new. Good-new? Usually Hakkai stayed near Goku or came and sat halfway between him and Gojyo, well within immediate striking distance should anything come near the kid. Of course, now that he thought about it, Hakkai could probably just levitate over the fire or teleport or something if he had to. He snorted a laugh, then schooled his face as Hakkai sat next to him, eyebrow raised in question.
"Nothin'," Gojyo said quickly when Hakkai opened his mouth.
"Oh. I, um, thought you were going to ask me—uh." Gojyo froze. Hakkai's hand lifted, his fingertips brushed against the fine hair at Gojyo's temple, and his lips parted. Gojyo licked his own lips and saw Hakkai's gaze dart downward, then back up to his fingers.
Yeah, okay, now. Now was good.
"I might have missed a spot," Hakkai said with a frown.
Gojyo grinned. "Nah, you didn't. It felt like you didn't." He took Hakkai's wrist, pulled gently, and turned his head. Hakkai's fingertips skated across the scars under his eye and down his cheek, and then came to rest against his mouth. They brushed softly over Gojyo's lips, unfumbling and polite, and when Gojyo opened his mouth and drew them in with a gentle, beckoning curl of his tongue, Hakkai closed his eyes and gasped.
Gojyo pressed him into the crisply soft leaves of past autumns that littered the ground. They fumbled with each other's obi and himo, Gojyo managing the knots more quickly than Hakkai—working as a thief and in a brothel had made him the knot-ninja; how awesome was that?—and pushed the fabric away. It lay puddled around their hips as they freed themselves from their fundoshi and began to move against one another, slowly at first, then more frantically, skin dragging against skin with a tantalizing friction that soon grew to a roaring heat. Gojyo alternately panted against Hakkai's throat and mouth, muffling his own groans and swallowing Hakkai's. He spat into his palm and reached between them, wrapped his fingers around the searing skin of their cocks, and jerked them off together, trying to get his mouth and tongue on Hakkai's skin and to watch him all at the same time. Hakkai's eyes fluttered shut, the spectacles knocked askew and then pushed away to catch the firelight from the ground. Well, at least they wouldn't get lost. And then fuckfuckfuck, Hakkai arched against him and shook, gasping raggedly as he came, his eyes wide and dark and wild, his nails ten sharp points of pleasure as they dug into Gojyo's hips.
Gojyo's orgasm tore through him, heat and light and sensations he couldn't recognize rendering him incapable of anything but coming for what felt like forever. He couldn't even draw in air until it was over and he was wrung out, still shivering despite the heat in and around him.
"Ffffuuuuck," Gojyo murmured weakly when he had his breath back. He was sweaty and sticky and pretty much naked, and it was the awesomest thing that had ever been awesome since … Well, since always.
"Ahahaha, yes," Hakkai said against his neck.
"Hell yeah," Gojyo agreed. He hadn't touched as much of Hakkai as he wanted, the pale skin of his stomach, the ridge of his scar, the long muscles of his thighs and calves. There was a lot to explore, and Gojyo wanted it all.
He got it. He touched everything over the next couple of weeks as they traveled steadily northward, sometimes zigging east and sometimes zagging west to shake off the pursuit they both figured was behind them. Or ahead of them, like the mighty asshat had been. Gojyo kept a very keen eye out for that bit of fuckery, but neither a strand of green hair nor thread of garish pink kimono were to be found. If it wasn't much, it was at least something.
Chapter 4: Even More Shit Happens, and the Plot Thickens
"We'll be close to the Taka crew's center of operations tomorrow," Hakkai said. "Less than a day."
They were a week from Edo. And a long and hard fucking road it had been.
Well, the fucking had only started about two weeks earlier, but that's not what he meant. If the furtive groping and too-quick orgasms counted as long and hard fucking. It didn't, not in Gojyo's book. But the closer they got to Edo, the more excited Goku got, pulling them along on the roads and hurrying them down the less-traveled trails. The extra speed made him even hungrier, until he was eating enough for all three of them, sometimes even waking up in the middle of the night with a stomach growling so loudly Gojyo'd thought at first it was a rabid bear or something and had rolled out of a sound sleep with his kama in either fist. But no, it was just Goku, and the wake-ups were happening at least once a night. Un-freakin'-believable. So any fucking had to be quick and dirty.
Goku's increased appetite also meant that Hakkai had to make more stops for food, which canceled out some of the time Goku's urgency was saving them. That was okay, though; the closer they got to Edo, the closer together the villages and towns got until Hakkai had announced at dinner that they'd be staying in inns until they reached Lord Kouryuu's residence. Gojyo preferred civilization to roughing it, and anyway, they'd stick out more trying to avoid people than if they let themselves disappear among the masses in and around Edo.
And he couldn't wait until they had a room at an inn. Even a crappy inn would have futons, and they could screw properly, with the glorious cushion of a futon under his knees. Or his back; he didn't give a shit.
"Gojyo?" Hakkai sounded like he'd said it more than once.
"Uh, yeah?" Gojyo started guiltily, visions of more comfortable sex scattering and leaving his cock half-hard and throbbing. He deliberately ignored the fact that Goku would still be sharing the room with them and likely to cramp his style the same way he did now.
"I said, we'll scout out the Taka for at least a day before I re-engage with them. I have the feeling that Zakuro isn't the only assassin waiting to recapture Goku."
"Right, that makes sense." Gojyo glanced across the fire at Goku, who looked to be sound asleep. He'd already woken and eaten two more onigiri, so they might have time. He arched an eyebrow at Hakkai and smiled, the slow, inviting smile he'd used more than once at the Scarlet Orchid and elsewhere. And in case that wasn't a clear enough message, he began untying his kimono and hakama at record speed. Hakkai smiled back and took off his spectacles.
Gojyo pulled Hakkai to him, spread his legs, and guided Hakkai's head down, pressing his mouth open with the gentle pressure of his fingers. Hakkai licked at him, then took Gojyo's cock in his mouth, swallowing him down. He began thrusting, pushing in long, slow slides against Hakkai's slick tongue and tightening lips. It didn't take long at all. Gojyo came, biting his hand so hard he could see the marks even in the firelight, and collapsed onto his back.
"Guh," he panted as Hakkai freed himself from his own clothing. Still on his back, he beckoned Hakkai forward and drew him upward. Hakkai knelt over Gojyo's chest and let his arms drop to the ground above Gojyo's head, cock poised over Gojyo's open mouth. His thrusts were shallow—polite, even—until Gojyo pulled at him again, sucking insistently, and then Hakkai was fucking his throat hard and deep, stiffening and muffling a groan against his own shoulder as he came. His arms and legs shook, and Gojyo caught him by the hips and rolled him to the side before he could collapse. Not that he objected to Hakkai's dick in his face; obviously not. He just didn't want Hakkai's rock-hard lower abs breaking his handsome nose or anything if his elbows gave out, that was all. He turned his head to mouth lazily at the salty sweat and his fingermarks in the hollow of Hakkai's hip, feeling the faint shivers of post-fuck bliss trembling under the surface of his skin.
Yeah. That had been awkward and totally awesome. He couldn't wait to do it again on a futon.
"I see your time in the marketplace was well spent," Hakkai said drily.
"Yeah! These ones are even better than the ones we had two weeks ago." Goku waved the meat bun under Hakkai's nose before stuffing the whole thing in his mouth. His cheeks bulged like a squirrel's at fall harvest, and he chewed vigorously, his cheeks deflating in tiny increments with every few chomps.
"That's the last of a dozen," Gojyo informed Hakkai around a mouthful of steaming noodles. Hakkai's eyebrows rose a fraction. "Uh-huh," Gojyo said. "And this is his second bowl of ramen. I can't even—urk. Gives me a stomachache just thinking about it." He slurped his last noodle and chased an orphaned lump of pork around the bottom of the bowl with his chopsticks, then tipped his head back and drained the broth in four long swallows. "So, what'd you find out?"
"The brothel from which they ran the bulk of their business was virtually abandoned."
"Lemme guess," Gojyo said, twirling his chopsticks. Hakkai paused mid-noodle to aim a pointed look at Gojyo's fingers. Gojyo put the chopsticks down and folded his hands on the table, trying to resist the urge to fidget. It was hard, dammit. "Just a coupla older whores with nowhere to go, and they don't know anything."
"Yes. The last Taka member disappeared yesterday."
"They found his limbs and torso in separate garbage piles this morning, right? No head? I heard some stuff in the marketplace."
The final mouthful of ramen slipped between Hakkai's lips, which he dabbed clean with his sleeve. "Yes. Just like the other four I left alive over two months ago, killed over the last few days. The gang tattoo—"
"Stylized hawk, yeah?"
"—slashed by whatever was used to dismember him."
"Yikes. Sounds serious." Really serious. Actually, it sounded like the work of a major assassin, the kind who could sneak in and kill a member of the imperial family in the middle of a thousand guards or something. Holy shit. Whoever was behind the plot to kidnap Goku and frame that Lord Kouryuu dude was even more influential than Gojyo had first thought, to score a killer like that. They'd have to be super careful. "We might think about switching inns," Gojyo said. He picked up just one of his discarded chopsticks and began to roll it between his thumb and forefinger, thinking.
Goku finished chewing the meat bun. His eyes bounced back and forth between Gojyo and Hakkai, and he asked, "Why? Who got 'em? Did he follow Hakkai here?"
Gojyo dropped the chopstick when Hakkai cleared his throat and gave Gojyo's fingers a more pointed look than the first. "Sorry! Uh, yeah. If it's the kind of person I think it is. Not … um, not that Hakkai couldn't shake 'im, but—"
Hakkai sighed. He sipped the broth from his bowl, but he was stalling. Gojyo could tell. Goku could, too.
"Hakkai? Are we gonna—"
"No, Goku. If I was followed here, then we're being watched. Moving inns won't matter."
Well, great. In addition to possible death by mystery weapon-of-dismemberment, Gojyo wasn't going to get his cushiony futon sex tonight. Dammit!
"Nothing at the brothel, either," Hakkai continued.
"They let you in to poke around?" Gojyo was surprised. "How much that cost you?"
Hakkai just gave him a look. I am once again forced to entertain grave concerns about your intelligence, it said. Have you not seen me in action? I could slip through the walls like smoke if I chose and ransack every room and hidden compartment in the entire building. And I did. I found nothing.
Even worse, Goku was wearing a similar expression. His just said, Wow. You're kinda dumb.
"Oh. Oh, right," Gojyo said. Yeah, he was dumb. Awesome. "So the next move is—"
"The Smiling Fox, two days southwest of Edo. At least, I assume it's the right Smiling Fox. I haven't heard of another on my travels to Kyuushuu."
"I've never heard of a Smiling Fox at all," Gojyo admitted. "Doesn't sound like a common name."
"No," Hakkai said. Then, "Goku, it's time to wash up. Let's head down to the baths."
Gojyo ran his hand through his hair, momentarily startled when strands of black drifted into his vision. He poked at the top of his head. "Time for a touch-up yet?"
"Not quite, no. Another week, I think," Hakkai answered. That was too bad. Gojyo liked Hakkai's hands in his hair. They always seemed to drift a lot lower pretty quick.
"Huh. All right. So, the baths? That's not unnecessary exposure?"
"No. If he's watching, perhaps we'll see him."
"Right. You want me to stay behind and watch the room, just in case?" Gojyo would rather go down to the baths, but he'd stay if he had to. He might be able to slip away once Goku and Hakkai came back; if the uber-assassin had followed Hakkai earlier, he wouldn't necessarily have seen Gojyo with Goku. Gojyo might be an unknown quandary. … Er, quantity. Unknown quantity.
"Hmm. Yes, that might—yes," Hakkai said. He collected Goku and enough coins for the bathhouse, and they were gone.
At least he'd gotten his bath once Goku and Hakkai came back from theirs. He'd had to wait a while after they returned—"We're being watched. I couldn't see him," Hakkai said, "but he was there"—but he got to sink low in scalding water and relax for a few minutes. He hadn't taken as long as he would have liked, thanks to the "impending assassination attempt," as Hakkai said, but it was a hell of a lot better than nothing.
But yeah, keeping watch in an inn sucked. He was clean, they had a futon, and there wouldn't be sex. No groping, even. Crappiest thing ever.
Gojyo glanced over at Hakkai. His eyes were half open, but Gojyo could tell by the evenness of his breaths that he was sleeping, his spectacles close at hand. Goku had grudgingly bedded down in the cupboard where the futons were stored; only the promise that the door would be left open partway had convinced him to crawl in there. He had a knife, too, as a last resort. Gojyo wasn't too keen, but Hakkai had been firm. Not that a knife would help Goku much, if the super assassin got through him and Hakkai. Gojyo glanced out the window. The moon was setting, the night two thirds of the way over. Maybe they'd get lucky and …
Shit. Shitfuck! Why do I tempt fate like that? Gojyo thought as the black night shed a patch of itself from the roof just outside their window. He opened his mouth to sound the alarm and threw himself down and to the side. A heavy, sticky mass of something strong and damp, like thousands of silk strands wadded together, struck him across his right cheek and eye. It clung ferociously, and it burned where it stuck to his skin. He stifled a manly shriek of pain, clawed at his eye with his right hand, and drew a kama with his left. He held it in front of his face, angled for more protection. Sonofabitch. If that had hit his mouth and nose, he'd be suffocating right now, inhaling fine, caustic threads that would burn his throat and lungs raw. Hakkai had already leapt to his feet and drawn his daisho, blades flashing as he struck down two more wads of sticky silk aimed at him. His spectacles had somehow appeared on his face, as if by magic. Jeez. Un-friggin'-real.
"Gojyo, get Goku!" Hakkai gave Gojyo a helpful shove with his foot, and Gojyo stumbled backward toward the cupboard. The last of the burning silk fell away from his cheek, and although the vision in his right eye was a little blurred, he could see well enough. He took up a protective stance in front of Goku, both kama held ready, as the assassin swung into the room, swathed in black from nose to toe, glittering strands of wire unspooling from his … . No, wait, those were boobs!—from her fingers to create a thick web.
Wires, suffocating silk … . Awesome. It was the Night Spider. They were so epically fucked.
Hakkai stabbed at the Night Spider's chest before her feet fully met the ground, and—crap. She was as quick as Hakkai. Her fingers flexed, and the web trapped the wakizashi. Hakkai didn't bother trying to pull it free. He let go and swept his leg and katana in a half-circle, faster than thought. The Night Spider took two small, quick steps back and twisted her hands, jerking her fingers closed and open. The wakizashi flipped so its point faced Hakkai's throat, and when the Night Spider's fingers jerked, it leapt forward. Hakkai didn't bat an eye. He swept it aside with his left wrist, the blade slinging itself around his forearm in a tight crescent before flowing up into his hand. At the same time, his katana darted out in a low blow that nicked the Night Spider's thigh.
The Spider hissed and released the wires in her right hand. She whipped her left arm diagonally. Hakkai darted backward, wakizashi and katana flashing in a circular pattern that gathered up most of the wires. They wound around the blades, and Hakkai started moving forward again, blades still circling and gathering more wire. Gojyo got the impression that the Night Spider was smiling under her mask as she turned slightly, her right shoulder dipping toward the window.
Shit. She was going for more of that sticky goop. Gojyo flung himself sideways so he'd miss Hakkai and threw his kama, one at the Spider's head, one at her feet. Neither one connected, but it was a near thing, and it gave Hakkai an opening to yank the wires from the Spider's grip. The Spider hissed again, and Hakkai pressed his advantage, flinging the wires behind him and flowing across the floor to meet her.
Gojyo felt something hard prod him in the calf, and he whirled into a crouch, fists ready. But it was only Goku, poking him with the hilt of the knife. Right. It wasn't his kama, and his right eye was still messed up, but it would work all right. Gojyo took the knife and turned back to the fight. Too late; he wasn't needed anymore. The Night Spider had swung herself back out the window, her body arcing up toward the roof. Her footfalls were light and incredibly fast as they pattered overhead.
"Don't—" Gojyo began, but he needn't have worried. Hakkai wasn't going to fight her on her turf. He followed the sound of her feet, pacing her out of the room and into the hallway. His eyes narrowed in concentration, and then he thrust his katana and wakizashi up, through the ceiling. A thin, muffled scream, like the whine of far-off cicadas, rose up into the night, and Gojyo heard the thump-thump of knees hitting the roof tiles. Hakkai pulled the katana free but left the wakizashi in the ceiling. Blood dripped down from the hilt of the wakizashi and the slash left by the katana.
"I'll be right back," Hakkai said, spinning on his heel and sprinting back to the window in their room. The wakizashi clattered to the floor as he leapt onto the roof. She was free, then. Whatever good it might do her, with her feet or maybe a foot and a calf skewered clean through. Gojyo handed the knife back to Goku, who was out of the cupboard now and following the sound of Hakkai's feet overhead. Gojyo went for the small basin of water in the corner. He kept his ear cocked, listening to the fluttering thump-scrape on the roof as he tore a strip from one of the futons' sheets to soak, then pressed it to his silk-scorched skin.
"Fffthgah! Sonofa—ow." Scarlet pain washed through him as the wet cloth reacted with the burn. He regained his ability to think a few seconds later, but the only sounds aside from his own breaths, speeded up by his discomfort, was the rapid patter of Hakkai's footfalls coming back toward their window.
"Did you hear what happened?" Gojyo asked Goku.
Goku nodded. "She musta flew away or something. Her footsteps disappeared on the other end of the hall."
"She's good, but I don't think she's that good, kid."
"How else could she get off the roof?"
Hakkai swung back into the room. His face was a blank mask. Whoo, he was pretty pissed, then.
"Where'd she go?"
"I don't know. Her night vision is better than mine, apparently, and she's had days to scout out escape routes."
"Even with steel shoved through her feet?"
"So it seems." Hakkai went into the hall where the proprietor was now standing. He bowed apologetically, murmured something placatory that seemed to work, and retrieved his wakizashi. He closed the door, listening for a moment. Gojyo listened, too. Nothing. Not even the proprietor approached. Hakkai sighed, wiped his wakizashi, and slid it home in its sheath. "I wonder whether she has some drug or knowledge of pressure points that lets her forget about pain. She ran as though she felt nothing and was already halfway across the roof before I made it out the window. The blood trail just stopped mid-roof; there's nothing to follow."
"Dunno. Goku says she disappeared."
"Yeah," Goku agreed.
"She must have had some wires set up for a quick escape, just in case," Hakkai mused. He rummaged through his things and came up with the pungent salve he'd used on Goku's rope burns weeks ago. "Sit down, please," he said to Gojyo.
Gojyo sat. That stuff was pretty good. Goku's ankle bore no traces of the rope burns from his month-long captivity at Banri's. It'd probably do the same for his face. Except … "Ow!" His cheek and eyelid were very tender. Even the softest brush of Hakkai's salve-slick fingertip made him flinch.
"Be still. Still! Goodness, you'd think—"
"—my face was nearly eaten off by … by, uh, face-eating silk bombs? Well, yeah. And ow? Hey, ow. Ow!"
"I didn't complain that much," Goku said with all the smugness his seven-year-old self could muster. Gojyo glared and reached up to prod at his cheek, kinda pissed because it was true. Goku hadn't complained at all when Hakkai'd doctored his ankle.
"Ah-ah-ah!" Hakkai wrapped his fingers around Gojyo's wrist and squeezed firmly. "Don't touch it. Your skin should go numb soon, and the healing properties of the ointment will work better if you don't disturb it."
"Yeah?" Gojyo scrunched up his face experimentally. Sweet, it was already working. The hot, angry skin tingled with a blessed coolness that faded quickly to numbness. And, okay, that was great. Super great, even. So … "How 'bout you?"
"You got some blood," Goku agreed. He pointed where Hakkai's forearm was exposed by his sleeve, which had fallen into the crook of his elbow as he'd doctored Gojyo's face. Several short, thin lines, from the backlash of the wires when Hakkai had gathered and flung them away, crisscrossed halfway between wrist and elbow.
"Neck, too," Gojyo observed. He scooped a thin layer of the goop onto his finger and painted it over the three haphazard lines on Hakkai's neck, in a completely non-sexy way, thank you; Sha Gojyo could be appropriate when the occasion called for it. "There ya go. So what's next? We gonna look for the Night Spider?"
"No. Goku, please—" Hakkai said, dabbing the salve here and there on his arms.
Goku's stomach let out a menacing growl, and he suddenly looked miserable as he folded in on himself a little.
"Jeez, kid! You always like this? I don't remember it being so loud at … um." Gojyo shut up immediately. No wonder Goku was always hungry. Banri had tried to starve him.
"I can't help it," Goku mumbled. A bit of whine sneaked into the words. He brightened up immediately when Hakkai handed him a rice ball and some smoked fish, though.
"Try to get some more sleep, please," Hakkai said. He pointed back at the cupboard. "And I'd prefer that you stay in there for the rest of the night, just in case."
Goku looked like he wanted to argue, but his scowl was tempered by his very full mouth. Eesh. It was Meat Bun Number Twelve from earlier all over again. Horrifying.
"Good night, Goku," Hakkai said firmly.
"Yeah, g'night, kid. You did good."
Goku mumbled a food-muffled "gnghaahg" and retreated back to the cupboard, still chewing. He didn't close his eyes, but at least he stretched out on his futon.
"So, no pursuit?" Gojyo prompted.
"No," Hakkai said again. "She might be more dangerous now she's wounded, and I doubt we'd get anything out of her. She seems to be made of much sterner stuff than that Zakuro."
"Oh, dude," Gojyo sighed. "You're racking up seriously pissy enemies here, you know. Banri, Masa, that Zakuro fuckwaffle, and now the friggin' Night Spider. Not to mention whoever's behind all this shit. Jeez. Good thing you're so ninja and all."
"I'm not the one who carved open Banri's face," Hakkai reminded him, "or the one who sat on Zakuro and threatened to cut off his fingers one by one. Nor did I kick him in the head, as I recall."
Gojyo frowned. "Well, okay, no. But you sure as hell menaced him. I'm pretty sure that counts. And you killed half of Banri's asshole gang. That counts, too."
"Perhaps." Hakkai seemed keenly unconcerned. "We'll leave early, right after sunrise. That gives us only two more hours. I'd like to try to make it to the Smiling Fox in four days. It must be about time for Zakuro's rendezvous, if he hasn't reported his failure already."
"That guy? Really? The mighty fuckup?"
"No, I suppose not." Hakkai smiled. "Really, you shouldn't worry about them."
"Yeah, whatever. I got the rest of my watch. Too keyed up to sleep, anyway," Gojyo said. Hakkai raised an eyebrow but arranged himself on his futon anyway, and soon both he and Goku were asleep. Gojyo sat up, reminding himself not to poke at his face, and thought carefully about nothing at all as he waited for the sun to come up.
He hoped Goku or, even better, Hakkai recognized whoever was supposed to give that Zakuro dick his instructions and found the proof they were looking for. Goku deserved to be okay, and Hakkai—well. Hakkai probably preferred running all over the country, stabbing people and decapitating them and stuff. He totally seemed the type. Hell, maybe he'd go looking for the failed assassins once Goku was safe.
And maybe he'd let Gojyo tag along. Maybe. They worked good together. And they did other stuff good together, too.
Yeah. Maybe. Gojyo never lasted long with anyone; things always went bad. He always picked shitty friends. But with Hakkai and even Goku …
Gojyo frowned, then jumped when Hakkai touched his cheek, butterfly-soft.
"Does it still hurt? It shouldn't; the discoloration has faded almost completely, and you said your vision was fine yesterday." A faint anxiety pinched lines between his eyebrows.
"What? No, it's okay. I was just thinking. How're we going to know who's the messenger?"
"Ah." The lines deepened for a moment, then smoothed away. "I have my suspicions, and if it's one of the other lords in the palace, then there are a limited number of people they'd trust to carry a message of that sort."
"No hand-offs? Like, a chain of five or seven or however many people?"
"Certainly not. Too many people would know the secret that way. And you know what they say," Hakkai concluded cheerfully.
Yeah. Two people could keep a secret if one of 'em was dead. Gojyo could guess which part of that bit of wisdom made Hakkai all chipper.
"Right, okay. Ack, Goku!" Gojyo lunged forward and snagged Goku by his collar.
"Takoyaki, you guys! Look! Ooh, it smells so yummy. Can I have some? Can I?" Goku's hands reached longingly toward the stall with the sizzling octopus balls. Gojyo's lips quirked. Heh, octopus balls.
"Want me to keep him here? Just in case?"
Hakkai looked thoughtful. "I want him out of the way but close. We have enough to get some takoyaki, and if we ration it, you should be able to keep him occupied while I watch the Fox. We could also find an inn, and you could wait with him there."
Gojyo thought about it for a minute. Having Goku on the street might be dangerous; he could wander off if Gojyo let his attention lapse at all. He could be recognized. After all, his particular brand of spastic, enthusiastic energy was distinctive. So were his eyes. His hair was still blackened, but his body language and those golden eyes would give him away. Of course, nobody would expect him to be here, and nobody would recognize Gojyo, not with his hair still dyed, too. And if they went on lockdown in a room, Goku would start bouncing off the walls and driving him nuts once the food ran out. He was a long, long way from the scared, quiet kid Gojyo'd first met. He was glad, but Goku was a hell of a lot more work now than he had been. Gojyo didn't have Hakkai's cool stare and you-will-obey-or-regret-it-for-all-eternity vibe of authority.
"Let's ration the takoyaki. We'll hang out around the corner or whatever for a while."
Hakkai nodded, takoyaki was purchased, Goku was in raptures, and Gojyo herded him and his octopus balls to an alleyway not too far from the Smiling Fox, where he spent the next hour and a half keeping an eye on Goku and holding the dwindling supply of takoyaki out of his reach, releasing only one ball at a time. If he'd let Goku have the lot, he was sure to be in for a repeat of the meat bun incident, only a lot bigger. Gojyo didn’t want to go there. He wasn't sure Goku's face would explode if he crammed more than a meat-bun's worth of food into it, but he didn't want to find out. Ever.
"Okay, last one," Gojyo said. He handed Goku the next-to-last takoyaki.
Goku glared. "It is not! You have one left!"
"Don't you think we should save it for Hakkai? Huh?"
"Oh." Goku looked a little guilty, and then he brightened all of the sudden. "He can have this one!" He made a move toward the street, but then he stopped abruptly, like Gojyo'd yanked him by the scruff of his neck. Gojyo hurried to the alley's mouth and peered around the corner.
Hakkai had been standing half-concealed by the trailing banner of a cloth merchant kitty-corner to the Smiling Fox. He was now standing well in front of the banner, his hand on his katana and his stance threatening. A thin young man with pale shoulder-length hair and an ugly purple birthmark over his right eye faced him, his chin thrust forward and his eyes squeezed into cruel slits.
Okay, that must be the guy. And whoa. He had some serious gonads to look at Hakkai like that. Gojyo stood there for a minute, trying to figure out what to do. Should he go get Hakkai or try to grab his attention somehow? Hell, he could always lob an octopus ball at his head. That would probably get his ass kicked or, more likely, a disapproving, disappointed look of extremely disapproving disappointment and a reduced ration of fucking, though. Not worth it in the long run, especially since Goku would squall and break his cover. And boy, would Hakkai be pissed. Like scary, pee-your-fundoshi pissed. All right, what to do, then?
Fortunately, just when Gojyo was about to sacrifice the takoyaki and accept whatever punishment Hakkai visited on him, the other guy broke eye contact and slunk back into the Smiling Fox. Hakkai turned slightly and saw Gojyo watching.
Northeastern road. Go now. I'll meet you, he mouthed. Gojyo nodded. He didn't bother with looking back. Hakkai would be there.
"C'mon, kid," he said. "I think it's time to go home."
Chapter 5: Warm, Fuzzy Reunions and Shit Gets Resolved—Or Something
The last day and a half back to the palace was eerily uneventful, maybe because they were hauling ass too fast for the bad guys to catch them. Or maybe they caught sight of Hakkai and were too chickenshit to try anything. Gojyo was a little freaked out by how tense and intense Hakkai was now that he knew who was connected to Goku's kidnapping. He slept with his eyes wide open, and his sleep-laughing took a sinister turn, a fu-fu-fu that Gojyo could privately admit creeped him right the hell out. Even Goku was more subdued. Well, except for his appetite. Eesh. They were on their last few yen, so it was a good thing, Gojyo supposed, that Hakkai's hustle had compacted the rest of their travel time.
Finally—and all too soon, somehow—they were approaching the Imperial Palace. Gojyo started to feel all hot and sweaty, his skin prickling with anxiety. It was the same anxiety he used to feel when his dad would stare at him, his expression blearily angry with saké. He didn't belong here; this wasn't his world.
"Hey, we made it, right? Goku's back safe. I should … I mean, I don't think I—" Gojyo began, aiming for casual but clearly hitting awkward or moronic, based on the confused and then annoyed look Hakkai gave him. Once again you demonstrate your idiocy, it said. Really, don't you get tired of being stupid?
Nice. He opened his mouth to try again, but Hakkai held up a hand and gave him a hard look. Gojyo swallowed and closed his mouth.
"No. I need you. I can't protect Goku and Lord Kouryuu and continue my investigation. It's because I was gone in the first place, translating at trade negotiations, that they were able to take him. If I'm not watching him, they may try again. And this time they might not …" Hakkai glanced down at Goku, who was fidgeting. He clearly wanted to run ahead, but Hakkai had him firmly by the sleeve. "No. I—we need your help."
Goku twisted around to look at him. "Yeah, you have to stay. Hakkai's less scary when you're around."
"Oh?" Hakkai said as Goku just turned back toward the Palace and tried to take another step forward, "Well. Ahahaha."
"Wait, wh—" Gojyo began again. The hot, prickling anxiety turned to a weird, jumpy itch that made him anxious in an entirely new way.
"Please, Gojyo," Hakkai said, his voice serious. Light reflected off his spectacles and blinded Gojyo for a second as he continued. "If you abandon us now, I'm afraid Goku won't take it well, and if he's upset, it might be difficult to convince Lord Kouryuu that you've been helpful rather than just one of the gang that was holding him. He is only a child, after all, and we must make allowances for his temperament and lack of emotional maturity."
The jumpy, anxious itch turned into a strong tingling, and Gojyo closed his mouth. Well, okay, then. That was kind of messed up; that kind of emotional blackmail always was, but he could go with it.
Hakkai must've seen the shift in his expression or something because he turned away. "Let's go. Your brother has waited long enough, don't you think?" he said to Goku and allowed him to lead the way straight up to the gates and through them. Gojyo took a deep breath and followed, staying just one and a half paces behind Hakkai and slightly to his right.
Nobody stopped them. Nobody said anything, either. A few guards moved like they were going to challenge their little group, but Hakkai said nothing. He simply glanced at whoever made to approach them, and once or twice he let his hand drift down toward his daisho. They backed off in a hurry at that, one or two of them blanching and the rest muttering apologies. Gojyo could understand the impulse. A few of them did signal to guards or maybe runners ahead of them, though. Gojyo saw hurrying and movement rippling up the line ahead of them, until they were inside an entryway of some sort and an honor guard trooped in and closed off the hallways leading deeper inside.
Hakkai paused, and then at the sound of light, running feet and the flash of a beautiful green and gold kimono, he and Goku dropped into a deep formal bow. Gojyo stood there, confused for a second, and then did his best to imitate them. He glanced up through his eyelashes as a slender woman with very large breasts and elaborately arranged red-orange hair waved them to their feet.
"Goku!" she cried, "And Hakkai, thank goodness! Maybe now the daimyo will let Kouryuu out. I've barely seen him since you returned from the trade negotiations and left to find Goku—it's been months."
Hakkai went very still, and Goku tried to run forward, shouting, "Kouryuu! Where's Kouryuu? Where's my brother, where is he?" The guards around the woman closed ranks, and Gojyo snatched him back and held him. He could hear the sounds of a far-off commotion just under the commotion Goku was making. He hoped they weren't coming for him, Hakkai, or Goku. Hakkai was good, but Gojyo didn't know if he was escape-two-dozen-Imperial-guards good. He didn't want to find out, either. That would suck like—like a million lampreys.
"Easy, kid, easy. I'm sure he'll be here, okay?"
"Kouryuu!" Goku struggled, and dammit, he was strong, stronger than he'd been in all the time Gojyo'd known him. It took everything he had to hang on, and he was losing the battle.
There was the sound of more hurrying footsteps, and a tall, improbably beautiful man in a white kimono, his hair the flashing gold of the sun, his drooping eyes a vibrant violet, and his expression as sour as an old fishwife's, pushed his way through the guards.
"Who the fuck—Goku!" Gojyo saw the guy take a stuttering step forward and then stand stock-still. The pissy expression flickered for a second, stark relief washing over his features before snapping back into their angry lines, and Goku wrenched himself from Gojyo's grip to launch himself at the dude, sending him staggering back.
The pretty dude—Lord Kouryuu, obviously—let Goku cling to him for a moment and touched his dye-blackened hair gently, then pushed him away. "Get off, you stupid little ape," he said gruffly. "I should've known it was you. It's been quiet, so the first time there's shouting in months … of course it's you."
Goku dropped the fistful of kimono he'd gathered and stared up at his brother. The poor kid looked to Gojyo like he was torn between happiness and uncertainty. Happiness seemed to be winning, but still. The uncertainty was noticeable.
Well, shit. That was messed up.
Gojyo turned to Hakkai. "Wow," he said, loud enough that he knew he'd be heard and understood perfectly, "what an asshole. Gorgeous, though. Prettier than the girls I used to work with at the Scarlet Orchid. I don't know if I want to punch him in the neck or fuck him."
If Gojyo'd thought Lord Kouryuu looked sour and pissy before, he'd been mistaken. His glare gave Hakkai's disapproving looks a run for their money.
"Ahahaha, yes, I know the feeling," Hakkai murmured. Gojyo thought that was directed at him, but he couldn't be sure. Maybe he was sympathizing with that asshole Kouryuu.
Lord Kouryuu took a step toward them. Gojyo risked a glanced at the busty lady, who seemed to be enjoying herself. She certainly wasn't saying anything or shouting for Gojyo's head or whatever nobles did when street rats appeared in the Imperial Palace and started insulting their peers.
"Who the fuck are you?" Lord Kouryuu snarled.
"Sha Gojyo," Gojyo said at the same time Goku said, "That's Gojyo. He helped rescue me," and Hakkai said, "Sha Gojyo, who has been of great assistance in returning Goku safely."
The lady laughed, and Lord Kouryuu looked even more pissed off. "Looks like a useless asshole," he muttered.
"Yes, well," Hakkai said lightly, "as you demonstrate regularly, sometimes looks can be deceiving. Such is mostly the case here." His lips curved in a polite little smile that smacked of the self-satisfied, Gojyo thought. Nice. He took a quick look at Kouryuu and saw a similar thought pass over his face. He frowned. He didn't want to agree with that jerk on anything. But before Kouryuu could retaliate, the lady gestured to the guards and waved at them all.
"Now that Goku is back, the daimyo will need to reconsider their ruling. Come on. You need to go see my brother the Emperor first and show him and his advisors that Goku is back safely and you had nothing to do with his disappearance," she said to Kouryuu.
Gojyo raised his eyebrows, and Hakkai frowned.
Goku's mouth dropped open. He clutched at Kouryuu's kimono again. "Kouryuu wouldn't send me away, ever."
Kouryuu's lips went tight, and his face looked bleak. "A month after you went to find him, the daimyo decided I must've tried to get rid of him. He's a nuisance, and none of them like him."
The lady—the princess, Gojyo guessed, Princess Lirin?—shook her head. "We don't have time for this. The news is all over the palace by now," and okay, that was impressive. Gojyo'd grown up in a small village and worked in a whorehouse. Rumors traveled at lightning speed in those places. They traveled even faster here. That was … yikes.
"Fucking rumor mill," Kouryuu said. "Fine. Let's get this over with." He started forward, falling in step behind the princess. A guard stepped in front of Gojyo before he could follow, though.
"My apologies, most illustrious princess," he said, bowing, "but we cannot allow this … this unknown man in the presence of—"
The princess stopped him with a sharp wave of her hand. "Fine. Take him to Lord Kouryuu's rooms; he'll be secure there."
Lord Kouryuu looked as though someone had shoved rotten fish paste under his nose, and he opened his mouth, probably to object.
Hakkai got there first. "I'll take him myself and then rejoin you immediately. I insist," he said sharply, his face arranging itself into a polite but implacable mask when it looked like there would be opposition. The guards nearest him fidgeted away in increments, and Kouryuu twisted his lips in displeasure. He didn't say anything, though, and at a nod from the princess, Hakkai guided Gojyo through the corridors on a twisting, labyrinthine path to a small suite of rooms near what he figured was the back of the palace.
"Stay here and wait. It might be a few hours, but when I get back, we'll make our plan. And Gojyo," he said, gripping Gojyo's arm just above his elbow, his eyes dark and serious behind their spectacles, "be careful. Don't let down your guard. He has eyes and ears everywhere."
He? Oh, right. The guy who gave orders to the pale-haired, blotchy-faced dude Hakkai had wanted to skewer at the Smiling Fox. Gojyo nodded, and once Hakkai was gone, he settled down to wait, his kama on the floor by his knees.
He might not know anything about politics, but Sha Gojyo knew plenty about sneaking. He could plan for that, even if he didn't know what kind of sneaking he'd need to do. It'd be a hell of a lot more useful than just sitting there, twiddling his fucking thumbs or whatever while he waited.
"Mm," Hakkai said. His brush moved across the paper, black ink flowing into perfect lines and curves to show the layout of the rooms Gojyo would be searching. "Yes. It was the wish of the Emperor's father and Lord Koumyou, Kouryuu's father. The princess has no objections, obviously, and has been Kouryuu's advocate while Goku was missing. She and the Emperor refused to allow the Dowager Empress and daimyo to dissolve the betrothal, and even if they'd pressured him to do it, she wouldn't have gone along with it. She's very strong-willed."
"Yeah, I got that," Gojyo said. Strong-willed. What an understatement.
"Even if she weren't fond of Kouryuu, she'd marry him just to escape Lord Ken'yuu, who began pressing his suit once Lord Koumyou died." Hakkai's tone was chilly, and the already straight lines he was drawing became even more precise. Creepy.
"He's the guy whose, uh, flunky you saw at the Smiling Fox?"
Hakkai cleaned his brush and dipped it in red ink to begin sketching out the known secret corridors and hidey-holes for eavesdropping spies. The brush slashed at the paper, red ink bleeding into fine lines that stood out starkly against the white background. "Yes. He's been slowly expanding his influence over the trade negotiations with the Westerners. Lord Koumyou had the best working relationships with the English, Americans, and French; Ken'yuu worked closely with the Dutch. When Lord Koumyou died, Kouryuu inherited his contacts. He's very influential and has been responsible for numerous lucrative treaties and agreements between Japan and those nations."
"Lemme guess—Ken'yuu's jealous of his power and was hoping to grab a bigger bite of the onigiri when Koumyou died, and now he's pissed he couldn't. So he's got to discredit Kouryuu somehow, and stealing Goku and framing Kouryuu for it was the plan?"
"It seems so. If Lord Kouryuu had been forced to take vows as a monk, as the daimyo led by Ken'yuu agitated for, he would have had to give up everything, and as the man with the next greatest amount of experience, all major contact with the West would have to go through Ken'yuu. It might also have to do with the princess. To be her husband on top of controlling nearly all the trade …"
"That's a lot of power." Gojyo whistled. "So why aren't the Emperor and Princess Lirin worried about your Lord Kouryuu having it all?"
"Because he doesn't want it," Hakkai said. He dipped his brush in water, which turned crimson, thinning like blood spreading out in a lake. "He promised Lord Koumyou as he took his last breaths that he'd secure Japan's place as a major power in the world. Trade and allies are the only way to do it, and Kouryuu knows that."
A strange, wobbly feeling rushed through Gojyo as he tried to imagine what that must be like: having your father love and trust you enough, and loving and trusting him enough in return for that kind of responsibility. For any kind of responsibility.
"Gojyo? You don't have to do this," Hakkai softly.
Gojyo closed his eyes for a second and took a deep breath. "Yeah, I do," he said, glancing toward Goku and Kouryuu. "You can't go missing, not when they're still in danger." He took another deep breath. "And … I was with Banri for three weeks. I should have taken him away sooner. I have to—"
"You've already atoned for that," Hakkai said. His hand was warm where it came to rest on Gojyo's shoulder. "The whole way back here, to Edo."
Gojyo looked away. His throat felt tight, and he had to swallow a couple times before he could say, "Maybe you think so, but I don't. Not yet."
Hakkai's fingers went rigid on Gojyo's shoulder and then let go, and Gojyo looked at him. His face was pale, and his eyes looked old all of the sudden, deep and sad and filled with a faded anger and regret.
"Ah," he said. He pressed his hand against his stomach, right where the scar was. Gojyo didn't think he even knew he was doing it. "I understand."
"Yeah, okay," Gojyo said. "You'll have to tell me about it sometime."
"Perhaps when this is all over," Hakkai said. He dipped the brush in blue ink and drew a bold, snaking line over the paper, then set the brush aside. "There," he said, turning the paper around so Gojyo could see it better. He took a deep breath and bent over it. "That's your route from Princess Lirin's rooms to Ken'yuu's." Hakkai pointed. "These are the secret ways and listening posts I know of; I doubt there are many more I haven't found in the last five years. The Dowager Empress and Ken'yuu may have added some, but I don't think so."
Gojyo studied the blue and red and black lines for several minutes, then closed his eyes to fix them in his memory. Okay. He could do it. "Got it," he said. "You can burn it now."
Hakkai looked taken aback. "Are you certain? You don't need longer?"
"Nah. I've done this since I was eleven. My calligraphy blows, but I can memorize a blueprint like a champ. Really—piece of taiyaki. Want me to redraw it for you from memory?" Hakkai smiled slightly and shook his head. Gojyo smiled back a little bigger, the remaining tightness in his throat melting away. "Okay, where's the furisode, and where'm I gonna meet the princess?"
… Yeah, he shouldn't think about stuff like that. It lost its effectiveness as a motivator and crossed over into terrified paralysis territory pretty quickly. The plan was sound, and with Princess Lirin's help, it was moving forward at breakneck speed. Less than a day from their arrival, the palace was a-bustle with whispers and courtiers tripping gaily from one wing to the next, so nobody noticed the tall, slouching lady following along behind the princess back to the Imperial wing, where the Emperor; the Dowager Empress, Princess Lirin's mother; and the princess herself had rooms. She'd met him in one of the more secret of the secret corridors, smothered a laugh in her sleeve, smoothed a wayward lock that kept flopping into Gojyo's vision, and taken him by the hand.
"You're tall but very graceful," she murmured. "You even slouch prettily." She sounded a lot like she was still trying not to giggle. Dammit.
"Yeah, well, the whores at the Scarlet Orchid liked to play dress-up with the bodyguards sometimes, and I didn't see the harm in it, okay? Never thought it'd come in handy, though."
She led him down a spacious hallway where nobody was watching and said, "Do you know where you are?"
"Yeah. Two corridors west of your suite. Wish me luck."
Princess Lirin smiled. "Just don't fuck it up, okay?"
What the—? Gojyo jammed his fist against his mouth and swallowed the bark of shocked laughter that climbed up his throat. "Lord Kouryuu's a bad influence," he said finally. She just smiled again and then hurried away. Gojyo listened carefully, tuning his ears to the creaks of the palace. Ideally, he would need another day or two to get used to the rhythms and noises, but they didn't have that kind of time. Just because Goku was back, that didn't mean the daimyo believed Kouryuu was innocent. The Emperor did, but his lords held too much influence for him to just make decisions, not unless he wanted to lose all their support. And with the Dowager Empress and Lord Ken'yuu pushing …
He found the ingress point just where Hakkai had marked it on the blueprint and slipped the wooden flooring aside. He undid the knots of the obi holding the furisode shut and carefully rolled it into a slim bundle—yeah, he did make a pretty graceful chick, thanks very much—then slid through the very narrow opening. He replaced the flooring and let his eyes adjust, then began crawling, hitting an easy rhythm to the mantras, don't fuck it up, don't fuck it up and that's not a spider, that's not a spider. He couldn't see anything but the faintest slivers of pale light slipping through a crack here and a knot there, but he'd paced as many of the corridors and rooms in the palace as he could with Hakkai. It hadn't been more than a couple, but it was enough to give him a sense of scale, and a trial run under the floor of Kouryuu's living space had let him see how the floors were supported. He could use the supports as ways to measure his progress and direction, and with the small knife strapped to his wrist, he could carve marks to guide him on the way back, just in case something happened and he lost his way. Now and again, he notched small symbols in the supports, making sure to quiet his breathing and tune out the soft beats of his heart to be certain nobody was around to hear the faint sound of the knife in the wood.
The tight black silk wrapped around him, a lot like what the Night Spider had worn, made it easier to move. It covered everything from the neck down, and he had a hood to slip over his head when he emerged in Lord Ken'yuu's rooms. The silk grew warm as he crawled, heating up against his skin. Gojyo stifled the memory of Hakkai's palms smoothing the cloth down his legs and across his chest, wrapping it tightly so it wouldn't come loose or catch on anything as he made his way through. The silk grew even hotter until footsteps to his left reminded him what the hell he was doing and how bad it would be to make even the tiniest sound. Oh, for fuck's sake! Death by inconvenient lust, how friggin' stupid would that be? The footsteps drew closer—they would pass directly over him. He rolled aside and let them thump away, an arm's length to his left. His body could change the sound of the wood overhead, and anyone even half as good as Hakkai would notice the difference.
The rest of the crawl was simple and uneventful, probably because there wasn't a lot more distance to cover. He lay beneath the egress point in the corner of Ken'yuu's rooms and listened. Voices came from some distance away, soft and muffled. He stayed there for the better part of an hour, memorizing the sounds of the room and the surrounding space before he felt comfortable enough to reach for the wood above him. He rested his fingertips on the rough underside of the floorboard and was about to lift it, an exhibition of his stylish sneakiness and catlike grace that nobody would get to witness, when a flurry of footsteps arrived in the room right next to where he was hiding. Sonofabitch. Gojyo went absolutely still and listened with every bone and sinew in his hot, sexy body.
The conversation was quiet, but Gojyo could hear enough to realize immediately that one of the speakers wasn't Japanese, and then two of the party began speaking in … wait, what the hell was that? What the hell was that? Shit! A language Gojyo couldn't understand and couldn't begin to identify. He listened harder, body tense with the effort, and began trying to mimic the words repeated most often by forcing his lips into unfamiliar shapes, the faintest exhalations whispering between them so he could check his accuracy. He just had them down, he thought, when he heard a door above him and a couple body lengths from his feet slide open. Light footfalls—the lightest of the three, he thought—made their way unerringly across the floor, right to the support pillar where Gojyo planned to sneak into the room. Fuuuuuck, he mouthed. He couldn't move; he wasn't sure he could be completely silent. Maybe whoever-it-was would be an idiot and not notice the way Gojyo's body absorbed some of the sound from above. Merciful Goddess, let him be an idiot, Gojyo prayed.
He went absolutely still again, hearing not the sounds of someone puzzling over the change in quality of sound beneath their feet, but the sounds of someone prying open soft, cushioned wood, the rustling of paper, the almost imperceptible snick-tok of a close-fitting panel or lid being replaced, and the same light tread exiting the room and sliding the door shut. Gojyo let out a long, slow breath. Thank you, Kanzeon, for idiots, he sent skyward.
A couple minutes more, and he was ready. He lifted the panel with a light touch, bringing it with him as he slid out of the narrow gap, and found the hidden compartment in the vertical support beam right away; the idiot had been brilliantly moronic and left a smudge of something—Gojyo sniffed; miso paste? Hooray for dumbasses!—right at the invisible seam. He riffled through the papers, noting several strangely shaped, folded-over packets that had at one time been sealed with wax. The marks on them were strange, too; Gojyo slipped those inside the silk at the small of his back, and then a couple more that looked like they were written in code. Banri and Yuushi had sometimes used symbols sorta like that to communicate while in the planning stages of a break-in and when preparing to fence the goods. Code equaled dirty deeds, and not the sexy kind, either.
Gojyo glanced around. Was there anywhere else he should look? No. Better not push his luck. If the theft wasn't discovered right away and if the papers hiding just over his ass weren't useful, he could come back again. He slid back into the shadow-darkened hole, sucking in his stomach a little when he felt the edge dig into it, and then more when a splinter stabbed through the layers of silk. He winced but remained silent. Dammit, what an amateur. The miso moron wasn't the only dumbass in the area, apparently.
Gojyo lay still for several minutes more, trying to remove the splinter and listening to see if the three people left. It wasn't going to be comfortable, trying to crawl on his stomach with that stupid sliver of wood jabbing deeper and deeper with every movement. It was pointless, though. The silk, which was supposed to help protect him from this kind of shit, just clung to the splinter. Gojyo finally gave up and broke it as far down as he could, then bent the top half so it was comfortably parallel to his belly instead of stabbily perpendicular. It would be a bitch to pry out later, but whatever. Gojyo rolled over—dude, ow, ow—and began making his way back toward a safe place to pop out and rejoin the land of the civilized people who actually walked and stuff. He decided not to fully retrace his steps; he'd follow the path of the secret corridors between the main hallways and rooms as closely as possible. That would take longer, yeah, but it should be safer in the long run and get him closer to Kouryuu's rooms. No way he wanted to get caught just before he made it to safety.
And then he stopped, flattening himself. Someone … no, two someones were coming toward him. Two of the people who'd been in Lord Ken'yuu's second room. Not the light-footed moron, but the other two. And hey, they were sneaking. Not as well as he was, but they were definitely sneaking. Gojyo rolled further away from their path, just in case, and waited for their footfalls to fade away. Then he crawled for all he was worth, as silently as possible, until he was under Lord Kouryuu's floor.
And yeah, the look on Kouryuu's face and his angrily startled exclamation were totally worth the cup he threw at Gojyo's head.
And on a futon, finally, Kanzeon willing.
Instead, he picked up the broken porcelain, grumbling halfheartedly that he wasn't the jackass who'd thrown it, he'd only ducked, and then changed into a spare set of Hakkai's clothing. He was afraid to sit in the hakama; he wasn't tidy-ninja, unlike Hakkai, and what if he got it wrinkled all funny? Hakkai would be very disappointed. Probably give him one of those looks, eek. Gojyo frowned and bent over the coded messages. Hakkai read through the foreign-scribbles ones with Kouryuu, making notes, his brow getting more and more furrowed with every line.
And then Kouryuu's fist slammed down, startling them all, though Hakkai was the only one who didn't flinch.
"I'm going to fucking kill them. I'm going to kill them all!" Kouryuu hissed. He flung the paper he'd been reading at Hakkai and lunged for a tall lacquered cabinet across the room. He ripped a drawer out and thrust his arm in the hole, nails catching at the wood, frantic and furious. "They were going to take him back to the estate and dump him in a hole—leave him to die miserably and then 'discover' him." Kouryuu wrenched at something stuck in the cabinet, and the cabinet scraped across the floor. "Fucking dead."
Hakkai and Gojyo locked eyes. Hakkai had gone very still, his face pale with rage. Suspecting was one thing. But knowing it, having proof—sonofabitch. Who did shit like that?
Goku just watched Kouryuu, his eyes reflecting the lantern light, as Gojyo asked, "Who is it? That Ken'yuu guy?"
Hakkai glanced at the letter. "And a merchant marine from the West, a Captain Lucius Wrentmore. Probably English, with a name like that, but he might be Canadian or American. It could be an alias. And … ah. The Dowager Empress, according to this. Ken'yuu writes to the Captain assuring him that as agreed, in two weeks' time, Goku's corpse will be discovered hidden on Kouryuu's lands, and all further negotiations regarding trade with Japan will go through Ken'yuu."
"Not if he's a fucking corpse," Kouryuu said. He turned around, and soft yellow lantern light glinted off the barrel of a … holy fuck, was that a gun? Kouryuu shoved it in his sleeve and started to run in the direction of Ken'yuu's rooms.
"Shit," Gojyo said. "I don't think the bastard's there anymore. I forgot to tell you—yeah, I'll wait with the—shit, Goku!" Goku dodged him and, un-friggin'-believably, Hakkai, following Kouryuu at top speed.
"I got it, I got it!" Gojyo said. He scooped up all the papers and followed, almost treading on Hakkai's hem in his hurry. "He was meeting with someone, someone foreign. I forgot to tell you. I'm such a fucking moron!" he panted.
"Later," Hakkai said. They skidded into Ken'yuu's rooms and found the blotchy-faced guy staring at the empty space that was the secret compartment.
"Where is he?" Kouryuu snarled. He reached into his sleeve, and Hakkai grabbed his arm. Kouryuu tried to shake him off, but Hakkai held on, his knuckles going white. Gojyo winced. That was going to leave a hell of a mark.
"No," Hakkai said quietly. "We need him to corroborate."
Kouryuu glared, then wrenched his arm away. "Bring him," he said, and started off toward the princess's suite.
Their little party, now including the blotchy-faced guy, who Hakkai said was called "Kami," made its angry way to the corridor that opened onto Lirin's rooms. A few guards tried to block their way, but one look at Kouryuu and Hakkai's faces made them stand down. Instead, they chose to follow at a safe-ish distance. When they got to the princess's rooms, she was outside—warned, Gojyo guessed, by the loudness of their approach. And when Kouryuu told her what Gojyo'd found, pointed at the letters in Gojyo's hand, and dragged Kami forward, she turned and ran for the Emperor, shouting "Treason!"
"And where is the Lord Ken'yuu now?" Emperor Kougaiji asked. Gojyo noticed, pretty much in passing, that his hair was red, too, almost the same shade as Gojyo's. But he was too busy trying to remember the weird foreign words he'd heard. He moved his lips in the strange shapes, not caring if his face contorted stupidly. They were important. They were really freakin' important, and if Hakkai would just look at him, he could get his attention and tell him already.
"I don't know," Kami sniveled.
"Hakkai!" Gojyo whispered. "Hakkai, dammit!" Hakkai finally looked his way and came over, his face grave.
"Now isn't the time, Gojyo," he began, but when Gojyo whispered, bou-tu, harubo, and arrijentsu, his eyes went wide, the green bright and sharp behind the lenses of the spectacles. "Do you mean 'boat' and 'harbor'? 'Allegiance'?"
"Yeah! Yeah, that's it!"
Hakkai gave him a look, one fierce with glee and pride. "We've got him," he said, and then, raising his voice and bowing very low, "Most illustrious Emperor, the Lord Ken'yuu is making for the Allegiance. I believe she sits just outside the mouth of the harbor right now."
The Emperor nodded and snapped out orders. When a few of the daimyo began to protest, he stood and cried, "Enough! I am Emperor, and I have spoken my will," and the palace erupted in activity that spilled out into the streets and down to the harbor. Kouryuu, Goku, Hakkai, and Gojyo were ordered to stay behind. Gojyo noticed the Emperor noticing the heavy shape in Kouryuu's sleeve, but he said nothing. He issued quiet orders for the Dowager Empress to be taken into custody, if she hadn't already fled, and had Kami taken away, to be questioned further.
"I should have known," the Emperor said. "I knew they were ambitious, and I was sure they were responsible for Goku's disappearance, but I didn't think they'd go this far."
"He's gone by now," Gojyo murmured to Hakkai. He tangled his fingers in his hair and yanked in frustration. "He was leaving when I was still crawling around like a stupid mole, and I didn't remember fast enough. Dammit."
"It's not your fault," Hakkai said. "Goku's safe, Kouryuu's name is cleared. You brought us the proof we needed, and exile is almost as good as execution." He sounded like he very nearly believed it. Gojyo was sure he was lying. Execution would have been better—especially if Hakkai could have done it himself.
Yeah, he knew what Hakkai was really thinking. He was thinking it, too. And that it would be hot. Really fucking hot to watch Hakkai take Ken'yuu's head off. And … wow, that was bloodthirsty. Hakkai was a really bad influence, Gojyo decided.
In front of them, Kouryuu snorted bitterly. "Ken'yuu's a slippery fucker. He'll find a way to make trouble for us half a world away."
"Ooh, he's cheery and optimistic, isn't he?" Gojyo said.
"Fuck you," Kouryuu said. It sounded a lot like "thank you."
Gojyo smiled. "Right back atcha."
Chapter 6: Happily Ever After, and Other Shit Like That
So, yeah, they were too late to get that ultimate fucknozzle, Ken'yuu, before he boarded the Allegiance and sailed with the tide. Of course.
At first Gojyo thought the guy was a psychic weasel or something, knowing exactly when to run, but Hakkai put forward the more plausible theory that he'd decided to cut his losses when they'd returned with Goku, and they probably hadn't seen the last of him. He was just that kind of persistent fucknut, Kouryuu said darkly, agreeing. Fine. Whatever. The Dowager Empress and Kami were another story. Gojyo wasn't quite sure what happened to them—nobody seemed to know the whole story, and Hakkai just smiled that scary smile of his and laughed his creepy fu-fu-fu. Eh. Gojyo didn't care; he was busy. Playing babysitter to a bitchy lord's rambunctious little brother was a full-time job and a hell of a lot more satisfying than housebreaking and brothel bodyguarding had been. Payed better, too.
And there was the sex with Hakkai. Lots of it, and all of it—except for the kinky, spontaneous shit—on cushy futons.
Life? Yeah, it was sweet.
If there were growing rumors of a green-haired, pink-kimono'd wacko teaming up with a one-eyed bandit, the one-eyed bandit's one-handed flunky, and a propensity for severed body parts turning up in their general area, Gojyo wasn't too worried. Hakkai was totally ninja, and these days, Gojyo was too.
… Okay, so maybe he was sex-ninja, yeah, but ninja was ninja, and that's all that mattered. He could handle it, no problem.