Explanatory note:

When Animage first began carrying articles about the new Saiyuuki movie that was scheduled to come out, I found myself very taken with the scenario they described. Our guys in a large house, separated from each other, with (unspecified) odd things happening. I began writing this for fun, to describe some of the things I thought would happen in a settei like that. But it turned out to be one of those slow-writing stories, and was only half the present length when the movie came out and I got to see it. Of course there were points of resemblance, but in general the producers and I had utterly different ideas about what would happen and, rather more to the point, what we wanted to see happening. So this story, as far as it goes, is a kind of A/U Requiem if you like, but mostly it's just a bunch of ideas of my own.

 

"So I Danced with the Dolls in the Dolls' House"

 

            Sunset was burning redly behind the twisted dark hills as the plateau they'd been crossing began to narrow. Hakkai slowed down.

            "I think we're going to have to stop soon," he said. "The road's beginning to drop towards the plain, and I'd rather not try negotiating that in the dark."

            "Mh," Sanzou morosely. "And not a house in sight. We'll be sleeping in the jeep again tonight."

            "Let's stop now and cook dinner," Gokuu said. "I'm hungry."

            "What dinner?" Sanzou said.

            "Huh? You mean--"

            "We can catch something," Gojou cut in, before Gokuu's complaints could begin. "Seen enough rabbits in the scrub this afternoon to feed an army."

            "Yabbut--"

            "That's what I said. Yabbuts."

            "Hunh? But we don't have any--"

            "Is that a house?" Hakkai said.

            "Where?"

            "Up ahead." Hakkai coasted another thirty feet and came to a halt. It was indeed a house, sitting all by itself nestled among the encroaching foothills. The lowering sun flaming behind it made it seem even darker than it was. Empty windows and blank stone walls, with an air of long abandonment.

            "Well, at least we sleep under a roof," Sanzou said, getting out and stretching.

            "Funny place for a house," Gojou said, working the kinks out of his back.

            "Yes," Hakkai agreed, eying it with a frown.

            They walked up to the large wooden door. Hakkai pulled at it. It wouldn't move.

            "Locked? Still?" Sanzou said.

            "Break it down," Gojou suggested, scythe already out.

            "No, wait," Gokuu said.

            "Hanh? What's up?" Gojou frowned.

            "I think- someone's in there," Gokuu said.

            "I don't sense anybody," Hakkai said.

            "No- it's just- there's a smell of people..."

            "Try that," Sanzou nodded. A metal chain ran down the right side of the door. Hakkai took hold of it, and somewhere in the house a bell sounded. The echoes reverberated unnaturally, as if ringing through empty rooms stripped of their furniture. They waited.

            "No-one's here," Gojou said. "Just let me at that door..."

            There was a scraping squealing noise above them. Something opening on the second floor, behind the balustrade that blocked their view of the windows. They stepped back and looked up. A short figure was standing on the narrow balcony and peering down at them where they stood in the half-light.

            "Hello?" a voice said. Light mid-alto, with nothing to say male or female about it.

            "Excuse us," Hakkai said. "We're travelling through here and we wondered if we could stay for the night."

            "Stay?" the figure said, as if it hadn't heard them clearly. "Here?"

            "Yes, if it wouldn't be an inconvenience. Just a room to sleep in is all we'd need."

            "Oh well- certainly, if you like. I'll come down and let you in." The window creaked shut.

            There was an appreciable wait before they heard the locks inside sliding back, and the door opened. Standing in the doorway was a short... person. Short as Gokuu, wearing a shapeless grey robe like a lay monk's or nun's, and looking rather like a daikon radish given limbs. Short pudgy arms and small pudgy feet appeared from a round cylindrical body. His, or maybe her head was disproportionately large, with very little neck to be seen, and the hair was cut mid-length to the shoulders- longer than Hakkai's, shorter than Gojou's, and still absolutely unisex. But the broad face was calm and good-natured, and the dark eyes blinked at them mildly.

            "Aahh," said the smooth light voice. "And you would be--?"

"This is the monk Genjou Sanzou, who is travelling to the west on important business," Hakkai said, "and we're his companions- Cho Hakkai," he bowed, "Sa Gojou and Son Gokuu."

"Anh-- how do you do?" He or she looked at them with cheerful interest. "I'm Housou."

            Sanzou gave a brief nod. "Our thanks for your hospitality. Not to inconvenience you unduly, my men can catch something for our dinners-"

            "Men--??" Gojou hissed, but Hakkai put a restraining hand on his arm and pressed. Gojou swallowed annoyance.

            "Oh, no need. There's plenty of supplies in the kitchen. You can help yourselves. Come on in." Housou moved away from the doorway. They walked into a large hallway, dimly lit by a brazier in one corner. Housou trotted ahead of them, leading them up a steep flight of stairs against the wall, and then along the short gallery to the corridor that branched from it at right angles.

            "There are rooms down that way," Housou said. "I don't use them myself, but they're all furnished still." Housou opened a door along the hallway. There were beds and tables and chairs, all old-fashioned looking but solid. "The linen- umm- I think you'll find it in the chests there."

            "Thank you," Hakkai said warmly, putting his bag down inside. "This will do wonderfully. And if you'll tell me where the kitchen is, I'll start getting dinner ready."

            "Down the stairs and through to the back. Take anything you like. Now, if you'll excuse me, I do have to get back to work--"

            "Our apologies for interrupting you," Sanzou said. "Don't let us keep you."

            "Would you do us the honour of dining with us?" Hakkai asked, ignoring Sanzou's frown. "Unless that would disturb you more--"

            "Ah? Oh." Housou looked surprised. "Thank you. I'd like some dinner. But I really must finish the current project..."

"Very well. I'll bring it to you when it's ready. Ahh- where...?"

            "My study's back that way, on the other side," Housou said, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the stairs. "Now if you'll excuse me..." and the round figure trotted away down the corridor.

            "Queer bird," Gojou remarked when Housou was out of sight. "Whacha think- is that a he or a she?"

            "An it," Sanzou said, throwing himself into a chair.

            "Hunh- how?" Gokuu started, but Hakkai intervened, sending Sanzou a frown over Gokuu's head.

            "Housou-san is our host. I think that's all that really matters. Thanks to him, or maybe her, we get a proper meal and a roof over our heads for the night."

"And we don't have to share," Gojou added. "Quiet night's sleep for once."

"Wadda ya mean, for once?" Gokuu bridled.

Hakkai sighed and left them to it.

 

            Half an hour later he carried a laden tray up the stairs and round the corridor to their rooms. Gokuu poked his head out from a door well along the hall.

            "Dinner!" he said in evident relief. "I'm starving."

            "Well, come in here then. Where are the others?"

            "Down that way somewhere. Sanzou wanted a room with a bigger window and Gojou wanted one with a double bed."

            "Anh?" Hakkai looked over at the narrow casement window covered in oiled paper. "Ah well then." He started ladling rice and stew into bowls. "You could go call them--" but Gokuu was already spoon deep into his first bowl. Hakkai went down the corridor, peering in the rooms that opened off to his right. "Sanzou? Gojou? Dinner's ready." There was no-one there. He went farther, to where the hallway turned a bit. "Sanzou! Gojou!"

            "Keep it down, wouldja?" Gojou complained, appearing at one door. "What is it?"

            "Dinner," Hakkai said.

            "Well fine. Bring it here."

            "It's back in the room at the front."

            "And so's Gokuu. C'mon Hakkai. We got a chance to be shut of him for a bit."

            "I really don't think--"

            "What don't you think? I'm sick of seeing those guys' faces. We finally get a chance to be by ourselves for a change and now you don't want to eat with me?"

            "It's not that. It's just- I don't think we should all be apart like this."

            "I do."

            "Gojou--"

            "It's been weeks since we've been attacked by anything bigger than a mosquito. We're in the middle of a fucking desert. No youkai could even find us here."

            "They've found us before, in the middle of a desert."

            "Shit. You're gonna be such an old woman, forget it. Cancel that invitation. I'm eating alone."

            Gojou pushed past Hakkai and headed back towards the front of the house. Hakkai's mouth tightened. He continued along the corridor, looking for a sight of Sanzou. The house was much larger inside than it appeared from the front. He came to yet another cross-corridor and looked down it uncertainly.

            "Sanzou?" he called, but there was no answer. Hakkai hesitated, sending out his ki questioningly. If Sanzou wanted a room with a window, then Hakkai ought to keep going down the original corridor, because all the rooms along here would be windowless. Only--

            He started down the cross-corridor. "Sanzou?" he called again. A door was open farther down, and from it came the smell of cigarette smoke. Hakkai poked his head in. Sanzou was lying on the bed, robe loosened and feet bare.

            "What?" he sounded annoyed.

            "Dinner's ready, back in our rooms." Above Sanzou's head a window looked out on a wide expanse of tender blue evening sky above the last of the sunset's glow.

            "Oh," Hakkai said perplexed. This corridor must be the back of the house, then, and the corridor he'd come along must lead to a separate wing.

            "Oh what?" Sanzou showed no signs of moving.

            "The layout of this house. It's a bit complicated."

            "Mnh."

            "Are you coming?"

            "Later maybe." There was a beer can on the bedside table.

            "It'll get cold."

            "Mnh."

            "Sanzou-- Is it really alright for us to be separated like this?"

            "Yes."

            "Sanzou--"

"I want a break from seeing the damned lot of you day in and day out. Now get." Sanzou's purple eyes blinked contempt and dismissal at him. Something curled itself up tight inside Hakkai's chest.

"Ah," he said neutrally, and left. He made his way back to the front of the house, frowning a little as he passed the door of Gojou's room, tight shut.

In Hakkai's own room Gokuu had made deep inroads into the stew. Frowning some more, Hakkai filled two bowls and put one to the side.

"This is my dinner," he told Gokuu. "Please don't touch it."

"Yeah but--" Gokuu's eyes went to the cup or so that remained in the big bowl as if measuring it against his hunger.

"Don't touch it." Gokuu blinked a little at his tone, then hunched his shoulders sullenly.

"OK, OK, I heard you the first time," he muttered. Hakkai looked at him expressionlessly.

"Ch'-" Gokuu turned himself around, back to the temptation of the table. In silence Hakkai arranged the tray with a bowl and spoon and went in search of Housou's room.

           

            "Come in," the voice said and Hakkai eased the door open. The room was blue with smoke. He stifled a small cough. Housou sat at a table with pots of ink and brushes scattered all about, and was working at a piece of white paper attached to a slanting board that sat on the table's top. An ashtray overflowed with butts, and numerous beer cans stood up among the squat ink pots. Well, that settled the question. Housou was a quasi-monk, not a quasi-nun.

            "Your dinner," Hakkai said. "Should I put it here?" eying the cluttered table top dubiously. 

            "Mhh- yes. Thanks." Housou sat up, smiling cheerfully. He pushed the wooden stand away with a pudgy white hand, sending a couple of cans toppling to the floor. "Oh dear--"

            "It's alright." Hakkai laid the tray down and stooped to retrieve them. "They're empty."

            "Ah, yes. I really should tidy up... That smells good." Housou picked up the spoon and took a mouthful. "Mmhh, delicious."

            "Thank you," Hakkai said. He was looking at the paper. Rough figures were outlined on it, standing forms in long robes. A small area in the centre showed thick strokes of black ink- folds of drapery, a hand with fingers curving. "You're an artist."

            "Umh," Housou nodded.

            "Ahh. So this would be a design for a temple wall-painting, I suppose?"

            "Oh no," Housou said, surprised. "Nothing like that. This is just for me." His eyes had gone back to the paper. He took another spoonful of stew, then put the bowl down and pulled the stand back again. His right hand reached for a brush and held it ready while he contemplated the unfinished drawing. His left hand picked up the spoon and absently brought another portion of stew to his mouth, but his eyes never moved from the paper. Hakkai, forgotten, quietly withdrew.

 

            Out of beer, and the room was almost dark now. Sanzou sighed, figuring he might as well get dinner, if Gokuu had left any, and a few more cans. He flicked his lighter and lit the wick of the oil lamp on the table. A little pool of golden light warmed the room. Another by the bed, if he recalled correctly. Sanzou looked about with a small feeling of satisfaction. In the soft double light the place seemed almost homey. Clean, comfortable and, best of all, empty. Sanzou made a fast trip to Hakkai's untenanted room where the supplies were, and found to his slight surprise that Gojou hadn't taken all the beer for himself. No surprise that Gokuu had eaten all the food. Sanzou got himself a heel of bread, an apple Gokuu had overlooked, and another six-pack, and went back for an evening of serious solitary drinking.

            "Ah, Master Genjou. It's good to see you again."

            Sanzou stopped and waited while the world that had quietly come apart quietly put itself back together. He closed the door.

            "O-shishou-sama."

            He smiled. "Koumyou, now. Equal rank. Master Koumyou if you must."

            Sanzou put the beer on the table.

            "O-shishou-sama," he repeated. "Have a beer?"

            "Thank you, I don't mind if I do."

Sanzou handed it to him and sat down. Looked at his master after all these years and felt the world gone right again. He'd forgotten how easy it was. Ground under his feet, the sun up in the sky, the earth spinning calmly on its axis. The universe with a centre again. It was like being relieved of a fifty kilo load he hadn't even noticed he was carrying.

            He took a swig of beer, watching Koumyou drink his own beer in small sips.

            "You were wrong," Sanzou said, breaking the silence. "Dead wrong. I tried to tell you but you wouldn't listen."

            "Wrong?"

            "I'm not a Sanzou. I never was. It's been a fucking pain trying to play this game."

            "Trying?" The corners of Koumyou's eyes crinkled in amusement. "There's no trying about it, Genjou. It's what you are. You couldn't stop being a Sanzou if you wanted to." He took another sip.

            "If I'm a Sanzou then Sanzous are nothing to write home about."

            "Naturally." Koumyou gave him the serene smile he'd always reserved for the lovable oddities of the world. They drank their beer. Sanzou watched Koumyou and thought about how it felt when something chronically wrong got fixed at last. How you forgot what rightness felt like after a while, so it came to you like a revelation. Oh yes- it was like this once. A time when it didn't hurt. A time when you weren't alone, because that unmovable calmness was there, trustable as the fixed stars and the eternal mountains. Something to depend on, outside himself. Something that he could depend on, at last.

            "It's been hell," Sanzou said again, but even as he said it the memory of what a hell it had been was fading, wiped out by the reality of the way it was now.

            "My poor Genjou. I suppose it has. But it would have been anyway."

            "Why?"

            "Because you are what you are. Two contradictions wrapped in the same body, and always at war."

            "Hmph. Might have been easier if you'd stayed."

            "Maybe that's why I wasn't allowed to."

            Sanzou's lip curled. "Always the hard way. That's what monks keep saying. But who said you have to suffer to learn in the first place?"

            "You did."

            "Crap."

            "You were always so hard on yourself. You wouldn't take the easy way even when it was offered you. Fastidiousness, maybe? Or snobbishness?"

            Sanzou's eyebrows knitted. "O-shishou-sama..."

            "Koumyou." Mirth in the pale blue eyes. "If you're going to lose your temper, do it to some purpose."

            He wasn't losing his temper. He didn't have to with Koumyou, who was beyond reach of Sanzou's feelings, whether anger or love or devotion. And what a relief that was.

            "I don't look for the hard way," he said. "The way is just hard. A fact."

            "For you," Koumyou said. "Others simply let go of themselves and walk it as if it was a hallway. Easier if you have no self to hold you back. But you would never let go of your Self and take that easy way."

            "My self is all I have," Sanzou said. "If I let go of it..." There'd be nothing. Nothing at all.

            "Paradox," Koumyou said. "Only by losing yourself can you find yourself fully. The self you hold on to is a prison. I thought you'd have learned that one by now. If you let go of it- destroy it- you can see the wide blue sky that you've only glimpsed through the bars."

            "No," Sanzou said.

            "Ahh." Koumyou leaned back in his chair. "And there you are."

            "Yes," Sanzou said, iron in his voice. "Here I am." He took the gun from his sleeve and pointed it at Koumyou. "No easy way out for me. No happy dreams." He fired. Blood spurted out of the hole in Koumyou's chest. Splashed in an arc across the table, splashed onto Sanzou's own robes. Koumyou's eyes gave him one look, a look of deep pity.

            "Poor boy..." he whispered, before his body slumped sideways in the chair and his face went vacant. Sanzou waited for the illusion to fade. There was a small noise and a sudden warm smell of shit.

            "Go away," Sanzou said in contempt. "You're not real." The body lay bleeding in the chair. The smell hung heavy in the air. "Go away," Sanzou said again. He looked at the illusion of Koumyou, fury beginning to build in him.

            "Alright," he said, "if that's how you want it, you bastard, that's how you'll get it."

            He marched out of the room, back to the gallery at the front of the house. "Housou!" he yelled. "Housou, I'm coming for you!" No answer. "Housou!" he yelled again as he walked along the gallery. Back that way, the monk'd said, somewhere in this direction. A single door stood at the end of the gallery. Sanzou thrust it open, finger on the trigger of his gun.

            "Housou--"

            Smell of shit, smell of blood. Koumyou's body slumped sideways in a chair. Sanzou's breath hissed beneath his teeth.

            "Not funny," he said to the air. Anger was making his vision swim. He calmed himself, yanking his rage back like a snarling dog on a leash. He turned and went back to Hakkai's room. The door was closed. Without preliminary he shoved it open.

            "Hakkai? You in here? We're leav--"

            Smell of shit. Smell of blood. He went still, looking at the body leaning in the chair.

            "I'm not playing your game," he said after a minute. He went over and lit the lamp by the bed. Lay down to wait for Hakkai. "You're not real." Dark spatters of blood on his robe. Not real either. He got out his cigarettes and lit up, watching the smoke curl in the darkening air, and not looking once at the mangled body that wasn't there.

 

            Hakkai came back to his room. The door was closed. He opened it and stepped in.

            "O-kaeri," Kanan said, looking up from her book with a smile.

            "Tadaima." He put his briefcase down by the door and stepped over to kiss her. He couldn't quite remember what had been in his mind as he'd come up to the house- some fleeting thought of the orphanage perhaps, there and gone- that had reminded him that it hadn't always been like this. That once Kanan hadn't been there and he'd been alone and desperately lonely for her. That shadow of a memory made him hold her tighter and kiss her with increased satisfaction.

            "Mh?" she said, eyebrows quirking.

            "Nothing," but he pulled her to her feet so as to go on kissing her more comfortably. Kanan's arms came around his back and her plump breasts flattened against his chest. Arousal drew its string tightly inside his body.

            "Gonou..." she said.

            "Mhh." Dinner was waiting, she was saying, but on the other hand... His right hand gathered the fullness of her long skirt, hiked it up until he could reach beneath it up the smoothness of her leg. She reddened a little, and pressed closer to him. Rubbed a little up and down against him. His senses started to swim with the feel of her, with the sudden split vision he always had, as of himself in two bodies at once. The narrow hard body with the throbbing between its legs and the rounded soft one, with the soft breasts and the soft hips and the soft wetness here where his hand was. So wonderful to be one in two and to have everything so easy, so sweet and easy, as this. How does anyone live alone? It's not being alive at all.

            "Gonou," she said again, voice gone tight the way her thighs were clenched tight about his hand. Yes indeed. He swung her up in his arms and carried her over to the bed. They tumbled down on it together, her skirts and petticoats foaming up about her as she sank into the soft mattress, and he quickly unsnapped his jeans, unzipped and opened them, let himself out and straight into her in the sea of white cotton eyelet and fluffy cotton bedspread and brown hair spread all about them. His mouth found the smooth warm skin of her neck, firm as a fruit's, and she moaned and laughed together as his lips nibbled at her there and his hips moved back and forth where he was imprisoned inside her body. Her hands were on his head, her fingers in his hair, holding him close. The rushing feeling was coming on him, faster and faster, and he watched her large brown eyes beginning to lose themselves too, watching his as he was drawn close to the edge, as if the last thing either wanted to see before the end came were your eyes as we go together.

            "Ah," he said, as he came back to himself.

            "Mh," she said where she lay curled up against his chest. She reached a hand and ran it through his hair, letting it fall off her finger. Her down-tilted eyes were dreamy and gone-away, the way they were when she thought or read or listened to music. The two of them drifted in the same sleepy content, a little laziness now that nothing needed doing immediately except to feel happy together. Later he'd have to prepare his classes for tomorrow, but that was later. And there was dinner of course. Dinner would be nice, actually. He was feeling hungry suddenly.

            "I'll go get it," she said.

            "No, I'll do it." She was still feeling the warm-happy-lazy that didn't want to move. He kissed her on the cheekbone, that lovely edge of flesh. Got up, pulled his jeans back on and went into the other room. The bowls were on the table. But there was only one bowl on the table. Confused, he picked it up and felt the world turn obscurely inside out. He stared at the bowl in his hand, at the table in front of him, and his mind tried not to see, his mind did what a wounded body does and became slow and unwilling to move, because it senses at the level below thought that paralysis may save its life. Yet his mind was moving anyway, pulled as if by gravity to look at the table he didn't recognize but did, the bowl he didn't recognize but would in just a minute. Trying not to see or understand, his mind moved into that hideous place called Now.

He looked at his hand that held the bowl and knew with a slow cold despair that what he saw wasn't there. It seemed to be his hand, but it wasn't. It was only the illusion of what his hand had once looked like. A simulacrum. A lie. Kanan was in the room behind him. If he turned he would see her, but there was no room behind him though he had just come from it. There was no room, there was no Kanan, there was no Gonou. He was in Now, and he was alone, more profoundly alone than ever before, because now there was no longer any possibility of finding that missing part of himself. It was gone forever. He was going west with the people he'd met somewhere since losing Kanan. Three strangers who gave him a reason to get up in the morning, as long as he didn't remember- didn't remember when he hadn't needed a reason, when it had all been a joy and as natural as breathing.

I'm dead. Why can I not die?

There was nothing. He could live with nothing only as long as he kept from remembering what something had been like.

"I'm dead," he said aloud.

"You are indeed," the voice said with dry satisfaction. "Now you know what it's like- Cho Gonou."

He turned. Corpse white and corpse grey sat at its ease in a chair across the room. Flesh seen under water, lifeless hair with all colour gone. Only the eyes were alive. Bright yellow, fixed on him with a strange delight, as if he were the only thing in the world that mattered and the only reason the cold blood moved at all in the dead body. There was a horrible intimacy in their look. I see you. I alone see you. There is no-one else who will look at you as I do. There is no-one else to care whether you live or die. But I do. Ohh, I do. I know you. And I'm the only one who does.

Gonou stared at it. The youkai smiled, long mouth turning up at the corners like a famished wolf's.

"Lost her, have you? How terribly sad. But not without some profit, yes? Now at least you're free of those sugary lies you used to tell yourself. 'My soul- my other self- like half of my own body.'" The smile turned disgustingly arch. "How odd that you didn't know when half your own body had a youkai's thing shoved between its legs. So much for that little fiction." It patted its hands as if brushing off dust.

Gonou said nothing. He watched the dead obscenity posing and gesturing, watched its mad yellow eyes, and listened to the dead silence in his heart.

"You were always like that," the youkai said. "A liar from your birth. Soft and vulgar and sentimental on the top, cold and vicious and hateful underneath. Have you dropped your pretense yet, Cho Gonou? Are you ready to admit to what you are?" It stood up. "One of us. One like us. Take those silly pieces of metal from your ears and admit the truth to yourself at last."

The yellow eyes bored into him, bored into his body, and touched the numb and frozen core of him like a focussed ray of light on a piece of paper. Warmth was beginning inside him. Heat moved through his trunk and limbs, hotness from the glowing happy thing that smoldered where his heart was. His eyes reflected the yellow eyes. He began to smile. Something of my own. I have something of my own after all.

"Are you sure you want me to?" he asked mildly. "The last time did you no good." Smiling, looking at the disgusting dried-insect body of it, the heart mummified in malice and ill-will. Hateful, hate-full, every bit of it poisoned and poisonous like a spider shrivelled in its web. I hate you. I will always hate you. How wonderful that I have you to hate.

It laughed shrilly, amused and vindictive. "Did *you* no good. Not then, not now. Do you really think you can be rid of me?"

"Why yes, I do," Gonou said.

It smiled madly into his eyes. Come and take me, then. Gonou's heart swelled, huge and hard in his chest, satisfaction and happiness and fierce delight carrying him like a wave onto the disgusting thing-- that fat-fed self-satisfaction, that loathsome complacency, rip it apart, see the knowing smile change to a scream as his fist caved the chest cavity and his nails ripped flesh peeling away from bone like wallpaper, see the face contorting into agony Good, good, die- again and again and again as he slashed through the hideous thing and turned it to dust. He smiled with the joy of it. And the chalk pale face, grey as dust in the corner, grinned back at him, its glowing eyes delighted by his anger. Gonou's rage grew more furious, became like a coat round him, blood hot in his veins and pounding in his head, as he smashed and tore at the body- at the body- at the body that was solider, larger than before, even more there and even more hateful.

"Always," the voice hissed. "I will always be here, hating the rotten guts of you. You lying hypocrite- you cold self-regarding shit. You fancy yourself so much, but what have you ever done in your life? Killed innocent villagers and slaughtered a tribe of youkai. How magnificent." It clapped sardonic hands. "You are nothing, Cho Gonou. You have nothing. Only me. Look well at what your great deeds have earned you." 

Gonou stopped, panting and staring.

"I hate," it said precisely. "You hate. I kill. You kill. I despoil. You despoil. Who is your true twin, Cho Gonou? Who is your true other half? Face the truth for once, coward. Or do you think the truth will simply disappear if I'm not here to speak it to you?" All its teeth showed as it smiled, a smile like a snarl. "I am you and you are me. If you want to be rid of me you'll have to tear your own black heart out of your rotting body."

He was going to burst. His hatred was so enormous it was going to rip him apart. His hand went to the metal cuffs on his ear and the thing in front of him watched in approval.

"Never learn, do you?" a dry voice said behind him. The words made no sense, but the voice was one that held his fingers motionless.

"I can say it till I'm blue in the face. 'Let nothing hold you, let nothing keep you back on your Way.' And the day you listen to me will be the day pigs fly." He heard the click of a lighter, smelled the smoke of a cigarette, stared on at the yellow eyes smiling back at him. Like stopping at the moment of orgasm, as hard as that. He ached with the desire to rip the metal from his ears and fall on his enemy. Smash and destroy and erase it from the earth once and for all.

"Sanzou," he said, trembling.

"Hnph," Sanzou snorted, dismissing him.

He took a deep breath as he teetered on the edge. Took another. Took another. In the instant's relaxation he let the Nothing come into his soul, let his Self wink out. In the darkness of not-being he looked at Sanzou's words, weighing the truth of them against the desire that still cramped the muscles of his body. He took another breath and came back. Looked again at what was before him.

"You're not Chin Isou," he said to Chin Isou's watching eyes. "Chin Isou is dead. He's not here."

"But I am."

"Yes. I see you are. But you're not him. You're only the hatred I feel for him."

"Only?" it said. A claw came out and slashed. A line of blood rose on Hakkai's wrist.

"You live because I give you life," Hakkai said. "You grow strong because I feed you. Oh yes-" he smiled a little sadly, looking at his bleeding wrist, "you can hurt me indeed. So-- I must be done with you."

"You can't," it smiled, certainty and triumph mixed. "All these years, and you still call to me."

"I know. But I can't afford you any longer. There are things I have to do, and you get in the way."

"Oh, a mission, is it? How marvellous. You still fancy yourself as much as you ever did."

"Do I?" Hakkai wondered. "Then I do. I have a life to be lived as well as I can do it. Remembering you, remembering what happened, hating you-- regretting what happened, even- that gets in my way."

"You have a debt," the youkai said. "To the past. To the men you murdered. To the guilt you bear. You cannot drop that so easily."

"I will pay my debts. The men I killed lost their chance at life through me, so I must live my life for them as well as for myself. I owe their spirits the best life I can manage. There's no place in it for you."

He looked at the phantom and thought of nothing. I am Cho Hakkai. It's now, it isn't then. I am travelling to the West with Genjou Sanzou because there's a great wrong that has to be put right. Chin Isou is dead, and Kanan is dead, but Cho Hakkai is alive.

He was alone in his room in Housou's house. Chin Isou was gone, yes, and Sanzou was gone too, if either had ever really been there in the first place. The lamp burned on the table, and his bowl sat next to it. Hakkai picked it up. It was still warm. He ate his dinner methodically, put the bowl down, and left the room with a purposeful step.

  

            Gojou finished his beer. Only one can left in the pack. The room was getting dark and he was, dammit, bored. Drinking alone was no fun. That asshole Hakkai... And anyway, it wasn't a guy's company he wanted. Ages, it seemed, since he'd last had a girl by his side, someone to flirt with and laugh with and take to bed afterwards, all comfy and warm. Shit. He was alone and he was tired of being alone and he'd always be alone... the old sadness started to well up in him and he shifted in his chair, trying to shove it away. That was what girls were for, so you didn't have to be alone and thinking about being alone, except it never lasted with a girl, cause if she didn't get tired of you then you got tired of her and it always ended the same way, you alone and feeling vaguely disgusted with yourself. Which was what friends were for, your buddies who hung out with you and didn't expect stuff from you cause they could look after themselves. Like Hakkai... Your buddies who should stay with you except they never did because... if they didn't get sick of you then you got sick of them, dumb guys and their dumb ways and their dumb fights, so boring there were times you thought you'd die of it. No-one stays because no-one ever does because you had your chance and you lost it...

            He shifted in the other direction. Jien was sitting in the other chair, hunched up and staring at the floor. "This is all your fault," Gojou told him. Jien's shoulder jerked minutely and he turned his face away. "Everything would have been fine if it hadn't been for you."

            Jien's shoulders were tight like something was hurting him. Good. Let it hurt him.

            "Don't know what the fuck you thought you were doing. What've you got between those pointed ears of yours-- dogfood? Can't even use your *eyes*."

            Jien put his hands to his bowed head. "Look," he said. "I did the only thing I could. What else could I have done?"

            "Ohh right. 'I didn't have a chooice,'" Gojou said in a falsetto. "'I meant it for the beeest.' Well, your best is pretty damned poor, nii-san. Useless. You're fucking useless."

            "I know," Jien said, between his teeth. "I know. I did my best and it wasn't good enough. I couldn't save Mom. I couldn't protect you. I couldn't- shit." His claws sunk into his skin.

            Gojou watched him in satisfaction. Ten years he'd sat on this feeling and now it was coming out, and about time. He didn't have to feel this cold black deadliness alone. Jien was here and Jien was going to get his share of it right in the face. Let's see him walk away this time.

            "She'd have loved me, if it hadn't been for you," he said. "A minute more and she'd have loved me. She wanted me dead and I would've been dead and then it'd have been fine. But ohh no, you knew better. You hadda come in, stupid dumbass, you hadda butt in and decide just how it was going to be---" The realization of what Jien had taken from him hit him full-force. His throat went tight with rage and he couldn't speak for a minute.

            "He was hurt," Jien said. "He was hurt so bad. I don't care who started it, it was the bunch of you that did it." Jien glared at him, misery twisting his face. "I had to do something. I had to do something then, or--"

            "You had to do something. Big brother, make-the-world-right-for-everybody, make-everybody-happy. Oh yeah, you had to *do* something. You couldn't have maybe thought first, could you!?"

            "There wasn't fucking time. He'd have died, dammit! I had to see that he was OK--"

            "It's not OK. It'll never be OK. It was my only chance and you took it away from me. Are you listening?! You took it away from me and now I'll never- I'll never- she would have loved me but you went and killed her, you fucking asshole!"

            "What else could I have done?!" Jien yelled. "What would you have done, Mr. Know-It-All?!"

            "I'd have stayed!" Gojou yelled back. Into the heart. Right into the heart. He could see it, Jien's eyes gone huge as he felt it, Jien's face gone blank with the shock and the pain and the knowing it was the end. Run through. Right through the heart.

            "I should have stayed," Jien said- Jien's lips said, though there was no sound. His face was crumpling, falling apart in front of Gojou's eyes. "I shouldn't have left him. I shouldn't ever have left him. Why didn't I stay?" he asked, like a puzzled child. He bent over, doubled up like his gut hurt him, fingers in his hair, making the small noises a guy does when he's hurt bad and the life is going out of him.

            Hey, Gojou thought, staring at him. Wait a minute. Wait a minute.  I didn't want... His eyes felt huge in the darkening room. I didn't want this. I wanted-- I didn't want *this*--

            He got up stiffly, walked over to his brother's side. "Hey," he said. Hunkered down. Jien's face was twisted, lips skinned back across his teeth. "Hey," Gojou said, a hand on his knee.

            Jien didn't even look at him, eyes squeezed tight shut between his hands.

            "Hey," Gojou said, kneading Jien's muscle a little through the white trousers. "It's OK, you know? It's OK. There's times you have to, and when you hafta- it's OK." Jien's leg was rigid. "Like puking when you're drunk. No-one minds. You do it. It'll make you feel better." Two lines of wetness were crawling down Jien's cheeks. Yeah, well. You don't have to stand by and watch when a guy has to do it either. Gojou got up, perched on the chair arm back of Jien, put a loose arm round his neck.

            "Shit," Jien said, his voice muddy. His back was like granite under Gojou's arm. "I don't want- I don't want- this-"

            "Don't worry. No-one minds. Go on, get it out of you. You'll feel better." He rubbed a bit at Jien's shoulder with his other hand. Jien tightened momentarily against his touch, then dropped his shoulders. Gojou could feel the shaking deep inside them. It made his stomach feel strange. Like before. Gojou's mind sped down the long corridor of the past to that awful moment years ago. This wasn't the time to tell Jien, and maybe there'd never be a time to tell him-- but what had scared him most back then wasn't his mother with the axe raised above her head, wasn't knowing he was going to die, wasn't even seeing her lying there with the blood running from her, suddenly not there any more and never going to be there any more. It was the tears running down Jien's face that had terrified him, that had told him something terrible has happened, this is the end, it's all over and nothing will ever be right again.

            But that was then. Gojou blinked at the dark room around him. He wasn't eleven years old any more. He rubbed at his brother's shoulders with both hands, looking down at the back of his neck and the spiky short cut hair like he'd never seen it before. Which he hadn't in fact, not up close like this. He was a man now, older even than his brother had been then. He was so far away from that little kid that he didn't have to keep the memory of him locked away any more, cause now he couldn't be hurt by it.

            "Hey- Doku," he said. "Hey. I know-- I mean, I know you were just being strong for me, back then. Back when we were kids. Maybe that was the only way we coulda got through it at all. But you don't have to do it any more, ya know? It's OK to say it hurts if it does. It's not like once you start crying you'll never be able to stop."

            "You wanna bet?" Doku said, voice muffled in his hands. "It's never going to be OK, no matter what I do."

            "So," Gojou said. "You live with that. You do what you gotta do. You don't need me to tell you that one."

            "Mh."

            "Just stop thinking that it's all up to you. It's not your job to make the world right for anybody. No-one's gonna blame you if life sucks sometimes, least of all me."

            Doku gave a huge sigh. "I wanted to look after you." He wiped at his eyes with a large hand.

            "Yeah."

            "Protect you- see you weren't hurt... And I couldn't--" His voice went again.

            "Asshole." He squeezed Doku's shoulders, half-sympathy and half-annoyance. "No-one can. You 'n Hakkai, the pair of you- always trying to look after everybody. There's stuff you can do and stuff you can't, and no point blaming yourself because you're not God."

            "God." Doku's voice was bleak. "If only there was. Something. Not just us down here, fucking trying to do our fucking best and fucking failing every *fucking* time--"

            Gojou grabbed him, both arms around his shoulders and his neck, chin in the top of his head, cause if he didn't grab and hold him he was going to hit him, and that wouldn't help at all. He couldn't stand Doku going all limp and hopeless like this. And he knew Doku hated it too, he'd never act like this if he could stop himself. But since he couldn't it was up to Gojou to make him. Don't talk that kind of crap, Gojou started to say, and then stopped like he'd heard a gun fired.

Don't talk like that.

Don't cry.

Don't---

I never talked like that and I never cried. I didn't need him telling me not to. I already knew you mustn't. So was it him saying Don't cry, or was it me? Was he just telling me out loud what I was telling him in my head? Don't cry. The world will be over if you cry. Because then I'll know there really is something to cry about.

            He hugged his brother harder, mind dazed with the confusion of what had been and what was now. Doku's hands came up and held his arms. Big hands, long claws, his brother's hands. He shoved his face into Doku's bristly hair. "Oi," he said. "I forget. Did I ever say thank you? For my life. I appreciate it. It's a nice life and I really like it. Best present I ever had. So thanks."

            Doku was still a minute, then he sniffed the tears out of his nose. "Yer welcome. Could ya stop strangling me now?"

            "You gonna talk sense? Cause I don't like it when people run my aniki down, even if it's my aniki doing it."

            "Yeah," Doku said. "I'm gonna talk sense." He sounded exhausted but he looked a lot better. He wiped the wetness off his face. "More if you'd give me a beer. Got any?"

            "One. We'll hafta split it." Gojou let go of him and went over to the pack on the table. The beer was almost room temperature by now. "Hey, hate to say this but it's piss-wa--" He was alone. There was no-one there. There wasn't even another chair besides his own. For a long moment Gojou stared at the emptiness where Dokugaku had been sitting and his face hardened. And then there was a knock at the door.

            "Gojou?" Hakkai's voice said.

            "Yeah?" he said, not moving towards the door, hand reaching already for his scythe.

            "May I come in?" Something odd in Hakkai's voice too.

            "Door's open." It opened. Hakkai stood in the entrance, face bland, body tense. Their eyes met. Both relaxed a little. Hakkai stepped inside and closed the door.

            "Funny place, this," Gojou said.

            "Indeed. Should we go look for Sanzou and Gokuu?"

            Gojou grimaced. "I'm for going straight to the source, myself. That's where they'll be headed too."

            "If they can," Hakkai said. "They may be... occupied."

            "Yeah," Gojou agreed grimly. Hakkai gave him a swift glance, as if confirming a guess.

            "And we may not be able to find him," Hakkai continued. "If this is a kekkai, it's totally under his control."

            "Yeah. However that shit does it, it's pretty damned convincing."

            "Ahh," Hakkai said neutrally. So he'd been through the mill too. "But the alternative is to wait till they come to us, and somehow..."

            "Umh-hmm. Somehow I just don't want to wait."

            "So let's go and see what we can find, shall we?"

            They left the room. "This way," Hakkai said, "if we can get there." Down the corridor, around into the front landing, and along the hallway that seemed to be growing darker and narrower as they moved down it.

            "Where?"

            "That door at the end."

            They moved warily towards the door. Something invisible was pushing against them, making their legs heavy. They sweated the last few feet as if walking into a typhoon wind. Gojou took out his scythe.

            "Let's go," he said, and pushed the door open with a crash.

            "Gojou?" Hakkai said in astonishment, turning from the desk he'd been standing at. Gojou didn't hesitate. He threw the blade of his weapon at the illusion in front of him. It sliced through Hakkai's torso, and Gojou's stomach lurched. Even in illusion, seeing Hakkai's blood and guts spring out of him wasn't fun. It didn't last. The thing faded and disappeared almost at once, even as Hakkai gave a shout behind him. Gojou whirled. Hakkai was loosing an energy bolt at Gokuu, whose three-part-staff was swinging through the air towards him. Gojou caught it with the chain of his scythe before it could hit Hakkai, and saw Gokuu fall heavily to the floor, neck broken with the force of his impact. Hakkai was breathing heavily and Gojou's own heart was pounding. He checked the room for the next attack. Nothing.

            "Housou," Hakkai's voice said, iron. "Come out. We've had enough of this."

            No answer.

            "The fuck--" Gojou said as he edged into the room. A desk. Paper, beer cans, brushes, a pot of ink. Ashtray overflowing with cigarettes.  Nothing else.