What do you do when the world ends? When the world ends and you don't end with it.
You find yourself living in another place. Not the world, because the world has ended. Somewhere else.
I was Cho Gonou until the world ended. Then for a space I was nobody. It was... not unpleasant, being nobody. My body was hurt and it let me do very little. My mind was hurt and it couldn't do much either. Thoughts were simple, like an animal's probably are. Reduced to essentials. I hurt, I need to pee, I'm tired. I might almost have ceased to exist in that state- have slipped away from myself entirely- if he hadn't been there holding me back. The unknown stranger. My friend. He talked to me, fed me, spoke to me like any one man to another. Kept me anchored to the now of that time, the little room with its one bed and the smell of coffee in the morning. Made an everyday reality for me, all the time that his hair and his eyes kept reminding me that I was someone else and that the impossible things I half-remembered were true. Red, red all about me, like the nightmare of redness my mind flinched from remembering, saying instead I'm tired I hurt I need to pee. And Gojou's hair and eyes beneath that saying It was real. It happened. Don't forget. It happened.
I grew stronger. Strong enough in mind to bring me back to what remained of the man Cho Gonou. Strong enough in body that I could walk at least as far as the gallows' foot. So I prepared to make the amends Cho Gonou owed the world. And Cho Gonou died. But I didn't.
Now I'm Cho Hakkai, living in the other world that took the place of the world that ended. And I don't really know who he is, this Cho Hakkai, or where it is I live now. It's all different. My body works again, and my mind works again, and finally it comes home to me. I'm not who I was. I'm not what I was. Now, when the autumn rains are falling, I'm something unimaginably different from what I was five months ago when the spring rains were beginning. It's a lonely feeling. Sad, like rain falling always, somewhere inside my mind. The gods wouldn't let me die completely, and now I know that that was not mercy but justice. Before the justice of the universe, what can one man do?
Walk through his days until the strange becomes familiar. Wait and see how the new world looks. I'm back again in that place where I was nobody, consoling in its familiarity at least. But it looks different now I know that it isn't just a way-station, a reprieve, but the way the world will be from now on. Like going to a foreign city for a short visit and being told that one's own city no longer exists. That this alien place must be your home now. And how can it be home when it's full of strangers- kind strangers, friendly strangers, but not the one whose presence says Home just by existing? But I mustn't think of that. That's gone, the peaceful city where I lived for so short a while, and now I'm here.
Here in the tidy little room with its one bed and one table and the little stove. Here where Gojou comes back from his gambling and drinking, casual and kind as before, but different from before. His hair is short, and no longer says It was real It happened. He looks like someone else, and something has happened behind his eyes. He comes home in the evenings and he eats my stew and he enjoys it. He talks about the bar and the girls in town and we play poker as before. But something sits at the table with us that wasn't there before. Something unknown stands behind us as we play cards and looks at us, dumbly and with immense concentration. Gojou grows restless, throws his hand away, goes off for a shower or off to a girl. And I sit in the silence of the apartment and feel the unknown thing growing bigger and bigger and wait to see what face it has.
He's more silent than usual tonight, grunting through dinner. 'Cards?' I say when he's done, hoping he won't be driven away by whatever it is, hoping he'll stay at least till I'm asleep. The rain is falling outside, and it's always easier to take the rain when he's there. 'Unh,' he says, unenthusiastically. I shuffle and deal. Look at my hand. Discard. Pick up. The thing in the room is there, growing solid, standing at my back. He looks at his cards, the tilted strange eyes creasing in concentration. Discards. Picks up. Long capable fingers with square fingernails at the end, picking up two cards. 'Full house,' he says. 'Ahh, sorry. Straight flush,' I say. Shuffle. Deal. Discard. Pick up. Discard. Pick up. Try to read my cards. They make no sense. 'Three of a kind,' he says, tossing his hand down in disgust. 'Two pair,' I say. 'Hunh!!' he says, shocked out of his mood. 'You mean I actually won, for once??'
'Uh yes. It would seem so.' I look at his cards on the table. Look at mine. He won.
'You do that on purpose?' he asks suspiciously.
'No,' I say, in mild surprise. 'Why would I?'
'Anh,' he says. Red eyes looking at me as if at a stranger. I look away from them. Reach for the cards. His hand comes down on top of mine and pins it there.
Shock through to the ends of my fingertips. I look at his hand on my hand on the cards. I smile.
'Ahh, Gojou-- I can't shuffle the cards if you're doing that.' Stomach churning, neck tightening, waiting for the blow to fall on my head, whatever blow it is. His chair scrapes back violently, he's standing over me. Grabs my shoulders, pulls me up, and I wonder what I did to make him angry. And then his mouth is covering mine and his tongue, large and wet and tasting of cigarettes, is in my mouth. Warm, wet, private. I push him away, both hands, and then we're looking at each other, shoulders raised, chests heaving, like enemies.
'I can't take it,' he says. Face so different from before. All of it showing under the short cropped hair. Eyes naked, nothing to hide behind any more. Angry and bewildered and a long way under that afraid as well. 'You here every day- every night- and in the bath- I can't stop thinking about you. It's driving me crazy. You feel it too, right? You know this is happening, right?'
I take a breath, trying to put the world back on its feet before it falls apart too, but he goes on talking.
'I don't go for guys, you know that, I don't-- I wouldn't do it with a *guy*.' He spits the word out, but his eyes are full of bewilderment.
'But you want to do it with me,' I say. Saying the impossible fact.
'You want me to be your woman.'
His face twists, but he has nothing to say. He takes a breath.
Eyes big and desperate. Spirit churning with panic and need. Heat coming off his body like summer. So different from before- the casual steady presence in the room. The rope that held me safely above the abyss. The one solid place in the universe, the only warmth and shelter in the middle of the endless rain. I owe him for that, and debts must be paid.
I turn away from him and start undoing the buttons of my shirt.
Not mercy but justice.
'Hakkai,' he says.
I take my shirt off. He comes up behind me, puts his arms around me. Hot, his body at my back. Strange, the feel of him. So big. His arms so thick and long lying across my chest.
'Is it OK?' he says into my neck. 'Is it really OK? I don't wanna-- It's just, I gotta-' Let me at you, his body says, hot and desperate. Let me inside you. His mouth on the skin of my neck. 'Is it really OK?' he says, so unhappy.
Hands trying to ball into fists. Neck muscles solid with resistance. I want to say it's not OK no I don't want to, not *that*, but I don't. Everything's different. I'm Cho Hakkai now. I live elsewhere. Five months ago when the spring rains were just beginning and I lived in the city that no longer exists, five months ago this would never have happened. Now I'm here, and finding out what here is like. Here is like this.
I prise off my shoes with the other foot, step on the sock and pull my foot free. His hands fumble in front of me, undo the button of my jeans, undo the fly. 'I'm sorry,' he mumbles into my neck, 'I don't want to hurt you-- but just I gotta--' He pulls my jeans down. I let him take them off. Fear hollows my stomach. It will hurt, but that's not what I'm afraid of. His hands pull at the waistband of my shorts. I can't stand it, having him take the last of my clothes off, but I have to stand it. He makes me naked. I let him do it. Controlling my breathing, keeping myself together, counting in my head one two three in four five six out seven eight nine in as I learned to do long ago. He lets go of me. I hear the soft sounds as he starts to undress. Familiar sounds, Gojou undressing like he does every night. And not the same at all. Never the same again. I turn towards the bed and hear the rain falling inside me.
For two months I struggled through the rain, struggled through the dark, knowing I had to find her, knowing I had to save her. Never thinking she might be dead, because I knew she wasn't dead. Her existence kept me going on those steep roads, kept me climbing through mountains sharp as jagged teeth. And when I found her she looked at me and turned sideways and vanished before my eyes. There and gone, impossibly, and where she'd been there was no-one. The darkness took me then, and the rain, and the red pain throughout it.
I woke in nowhere. His hair, his eyes, always there, red as the pain across my belly, saying It was real It happened. I couldn't slip away. I had to go back for her, even if she wasn't there any more. Even if all that remained of her was a thing of horror I had to go back just once more. I couldn't remember why I'd left her. I couldn't think why I would leave her. I had to say goodbye because I couldn't remember if I'd said goodbye, and I had to say goodbye to her before I turned sideways and vanished as well. But she wasn't there. She wasn't there at all. There was nothing there. And I couldn't slip away. I have to stay here in this new land, wherever it is. Because there is no mercy in the world, only justice.
I look at the bed, wondering how I'm going to do this. Our ordinary bed, that now- where now-
'How you wanna do it?' he asks at my back. 'You wanna- you mind- bending over?' Voice going up in that odd way, so not Gojou. As much a stranger in this land as I am.
'I believe that's usual.' I look at the mattress. Reach for a pillow, something to hold on to, something to hide in, and put it where my face will be. Bend from the waist with my face in the pillow, counting one two three in four five six out, keeping my mind inside the tight little circle of breath in and breath out and this very moment seven eight nine in ten eleven twelve out so no hint of what happened or what will happen can reach me. One two three in something touching me back there something cool and wet (wet?) five six out something smallish and hard seven eight inside me in ten eleven twelve out moving a little around feeling- pleasant, exciting, how odd- oh right one two three in, four five six out it slips seven eight nine oh oh ohh-- no. Hard burning red *this* is Gojou red-hot white-hot like the slash across my belly. Laying me open, throbbing, this impossible and shameful joining. Gojou inside my body splitting it open. My face in the pillow, biting it in my agony, darkness and rain and the red pain throughout it. The same, always the same, always back to this, alone in the weeping dark night with the red pain burning. I want to crumple, to fold over and protect myself and close my mind up like a telescope collapsing but I can't. I'm held open as if by forceps while something comes in and something pushes me wider, forcing the bones of my skull apart, make me bigger inside, bigger and bigger like prising a box open bigger than I ought to be or can be. Bigger like when my body swelled and my fingers turned to talons and my teeth to fangs No Not that please not that again 'No,' I say to my arms, to the pillow 'No- No- No--' 'Hakkai' the voice says behind me, choked and calling to me in the darkness 'Hakkai' fingers digging into my shoulders and a face against my back, 'Hakkai' Gojou's voice sobbing trying to reach me from wherever he is in the middle of the storm that has him now. Gojou, brought to this because of me, and I never wanted it for either of us. Terrible, the things that can happen here. Terrible, the face love has in this world.
His arm under my shoulder, holding me up. Holding onto his shoulder, strong as a tree, something to keep hold of in the dark melting night. Darkness and wet around me. Darkness and emptiness in my head. Pain lancing bright and red across my abdomen with each step, and his voice underneath it all saying 'That's right, another step, there ya go, not far now,' steady, keeping me going, the only thing steady and warm in all the huge cold empty universe that washes away about me.
The darkness and the rain in my head gather together and run from my eyes. Rain falling forever into the pillow, into the thin linen that smells of Gojou. Endless endless rain running from my heart and onto the white linen hot and wet, and how odd that the cold rain should have become as hot as this.
He pulls me down onto the mattress, pulls me on to my side, hot arms around me and hot wet body behind me and hot breath into my neck. 'I'm sorry,' he says, over and over, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, shit Hakkai I'm sorry.' I put a hand over his arm where it crosses my chest. All the breath leaves my lungs, leaves my belly, comes from my fingertips it seems and out my mouth, and leaves only silence behind. The rain has stopped. Nothing falls from my eyes, nothing falls in my head. Warmth is all around me. Rainfall and heat, that make flowers grow in the burned lands. And tomorrow, I think, the sun may shine.
'Gojou,' I say.
'Where's the blanket?'
'Uhh- here.' He props himself up and reaches for it, pulls it over our legs and torsos. Lies back down again carefully.
'Sorry,' he says in a quenched voice. 'My first time. Usually I got a little technique to show. You mad?'
'No,' I say.
'Really?' as if he doesn't believe it.
'Really' I say and lean back against him once more. His arm comes round me again, tentative. I put my hand over it. Here is like this. After justice, there is mercy. And tomorrow maybe the sun will shine.