Tea with the White Dragon

       It was one of those clear no-colour winter days, with a high flat blanket of cloud and an invigorating briskness to the air. The kind of day that makes you want to be moving, which was partly why Hakkai had walked into town instead of taking the jeep. That and the fact that Hakuryuu had seemed a bit under the weather this morning, sleeping late and showing little interest in his breakfast. Hakkai came back from his grocery shopping with the string bag heavy on one arm and fumbled the keys out of his pocket. If he started the stew now it would have most of the afternoon to simmer before Gojou got home in the early evening, and perhaps he'd get some of the laundry done while it cooked. He stepped into the one room apartment and stopped dead.
       A youkai was sitting in the middle of the room, on one of the two kitchen chairs. An albino youkai. White skin: shockingly so, like milk. White hair that seemed to possess a tinge of grey, so thick it was- great wings of it falling every whichway above the paper-coloured face. Long pointed white ears- no- those were its ears. That above them were horns. And burning in its face, the only colour there was, were two red eyes. Red not just in the irises like Gojou, but red throughout, iris and pupil and all.
       Hakkai stood frozen in the entranceway. The youkai simply sat and looked at him. After a moment Hakkai closed the door and put his bag down.
       "Uhh- good day," he said.
       The youkai nodded, acknowledging him. Not the common run of youkai, whatever it might be. Too much breeding in its movements, too much stillness in the quiet face.
       "Cho Hakkai," it said. Aristocrat, the accent said.
       "I'm afraid you have the advantage of me," Hakkai responded with a little smile. There was no sense of enmity in the other, either because the youkai in fact meant him no harm- whatever the reason and the means that had brought it into Hakkai's house- or because it had trained itself to suppress its own psychic emanations. Hakkai could as easily believe it was the latter as the former, and his reflexes were all alert for an attack.
       "My true name is meaningless to you," the youkai said. "You may as well go on calling me Hakuryuu."
       "Unh-!" Hakkai stared in momentary shock. He swallowed. A man normally doesn't find himself conversing with his means of transportation, but of course when he does--- He bowed. "Itsumo o-sewa ni narimashite," he said politely. "Thank you for your kind services."
       "Not at all," the youkai answered with a small inclination of its head. "Kochira koso. My thanks for your kind treatment."
       "Ah, well," Hakkai said, with an embarrassed smile. "Shall I make us some tea?"
       "As you please."
       Hakkai filled the kettle and put it on to boil, got out the teapot and the tea cannister. "I hope you're feeling a little better?" he asked as he placed the blue cup and the yellow one ready on the table. "You seemed unwell this morning."
       "A fever," the youkai said. Somehow Hakkai couldn't quite think of it as Hakuryuu. "Probably the precedent to this." The still face watched Hakkai's movements, hiding its thoughts behind the unreadable red eyes. The youkai seemed disinclined to unbend into further conversation. An old-fashioned formality and stiffness wrapped it about like a thick cloak. Hakkai's eyebrows creased as he poured water on the tealeaves, remembering the Hakuryuu who rode friendly on his shoulders and nuzzled his ear in contentment.
       He laid sweet biscuits out on a plate and brought them to the youkai's side. Poured out a steaming mug of tea and put that next to it as well. Sat down with his own mug. There was silence as the two drank their tea. Hakkai watched the youkai under his lashes, and the youkai-- drank its tea. The corners of its mouth turned down a little, either from habit or because its current thoughts displeased it. No telling which. That long thoughtful mouth was one used to keeping its own counsel. Rather like Sanzou, in fact, and- yes, one might as well admit it- the youkai was as beautiful as Sanzou in its own strange fashion. But Hakkai could always read in Sanzou's eyes the things Sanzou's mouth never said. Whereas here-- two blank rubies looked off into the distance, telling him nothing. The light caught the unevennesses of the youkai's skin, which resolved into tiny delicate scaling on the sides of its face. A dragon indeed. Hakkai wrestled with a sense of dislocation. However much this- person- looked human, or at least humanoid, it felt far more dragonish than Hakuryuu ever did in his dragon form. Cold, alien, aloof from human thoughts...
       "Umm..." Hakkai began.
       The red eyes turned on him. "Yes?"
       "I hope you won't mind, but I was just wondering... well, how you came to be here. Anh-- acting as my jeep, you know?" Hakkai smiled to smooth over the possibly offensive reminder.
       "You don't remember, of course." It wasn't a question.
       "Ah, no. I'm afraid not. Did I ever know?"
       "Once. No matter. In the usual way I don't remember either." Its mouth tightened. "I don't know if that was intended as mercy or punishment, that neither of us recalls who we are. It allows us a certain witless happiness, I suppose." Hakkai's face stilled. "Did that offend you?" the youkai asked. Not taunting or condescending; simply wanting to know. Not human, no; not really youkai either. A dragon. "It wasn't intended to. But now that I remember who I am, the thought of what I've become is-- distasteful."
       "I'm sorry," Hakkai said. "Who are you?"
       Red eyes looked at him, unreadable. "The Dragon King of the Western Sea, chief of the dragon tribe and general of the Army of the West in the Overworld."
       "Oh dear," Hakkai said, stunned, and then pulled himself together. "Kazukazu no go-burei wo... I really must apologize for my incivility. Please believe I intended no disrespect."
       "No need to apologize," the dragon king said. Something that might have been amusement flickered in its face. "You outrank me."
       "Uhh- I what?"
       "You don't remember. What use to tell you who you once were? You're someone else now." The youkai cocked its head on one side. "Field-marshal Tenpou of the Western Army," it said deliberately, watching him closely. "No, not even a shadow of recollection. They do their work well in Heaven."
       Hakkai considered all this, wondering why he believed what the youkai was saying when the possibility was quite strong that it was simply mad. But it didn't feel mad. The calmness and authority emanating from its spirit was unshakeable. But that being so, why was Hakkai still not able to believe that this youkai was really Hakuryuu?
       "If I understand you correctly," Hakkai said slowly, "you're telling me I was once someone called Tenpou? A heavenly general?" The youkai nodded.
       "In a former existence?" It nodded again.
       "Well," Hakkai said, stating the obvious, "what of it?"
       The youkai looked startled.
       "I'm Cho Hakkai now." Hakkai smiled at him. "As you just said, I'm someone else. Would you care for another cup of tea?"
       "No thank you."
       Hakkai poured for himself, and sat back with his cup. "So, if I may be permitted to ask, what will Your Majesty do now?"
       "You needn't call me that."
      "I'm afraid I don't know what else to call you. I'm sorry, but just as I'm not this Tenpou you speak of, you're not really- without offence- Hakuryuu. Not the Hakuryuu I know."
       "Your pet," the youkai said. "You'll miss him, I suppose."
       "My comrade," Hakkai corrected him. "Yes, I will."
       "Comrade?" the youkai said. "How so, when you can never be equals?"
       "Why not?" Hakkai asked in surprise.
       "You own him. You feed him. He depends on you."
       Hakkai frowned, perplexed. "Hakuryuu... doesn't need me. He's a dragon. He does me the kindness of staying with me now, but he must have lived centuries before I was born, and he'll live centuries after I'm dead. Isn't that so?" he asked, giving the youkai a level glance.
       "I wouldn't know," the youkai said neutrally.
       "But surely- if you're him..."
       "Dragons don't measure time as humans do. There was a period, yes, before I met you, when I was still searching for you and Kenren down here. I don't know how long it was." It frowned. "Tell me this. That monkey- Son Gokuu- he was imprisoned on a mountain at the same time that we were sent here. I see he got free somehow. Do you know how long he was there?"
       "Five hundred years," Hakkai said.
       "Ahh. Then that's how long I've been Hakuryuu. Not long as we consider time. But for you--" It looked at Hakkai consideringly. "How many human lifetimes would that be?"
       "A good many."
       "Over and over again. Being born, living, dying, being born again. How do you bear it?"
       "It's usual for humans. Living forever-- always being the same person in the same body... Never changing. I think that would take some getting used to." He thought about it. "I really don't think I'd want to."
       "It's always well to make a virtue of necessity," the youkai observed.
       "Yes," Hakkai smiled, "isn't it?" The youkai blinked fractionally. "However, seeing as I have no choice in the matter, there's no real need to discuss it. But since you're not Hakuryuu any more, I take it you'll be returning to- ahh, more celestial spheres?"
       "No," it said. "My sentence is as yours. To remain on the earth until the Emperor of Heaven permits my return. Five hundred years will scarcely have taken the edge off his anger. It will be a long time yet before any of us goes home."
       "Ahh," Hakkai said. "That's a problem. Where will you stay?"
       "Here, of course. My destiny is linked to yours."
       "I'm not sure Gojou will agree to that."
       "Gojou," the youkai said, contempt in his voice. "What does it matter whether he agrees?"
       "It's his apartment," Hakkai reminded it. "He decides who lives here. And this room isn't big enough for three."
       "Gojou cannot avoid the karmic ties between us." The youkai's mouth flattened with some displeasing thought. "He was my subordinate in Heaven. Had I kept him more in line, none of us would be here."
       "Whatever Gojou may have been once, he's Gojou now. I don't think he'll care to have a third in the house."
       "Gojou might as well still be calling himself Kenren." There was a note of disgust in his voice. "They're exactly the same. Childish and self-indulgent and intractable."
       "I'm sorry you think him so," Hakkai said. "I find him warm and generous and independent."
       "Possibly. But those qualities have been and will be his downfall. He was born for disaster. And when he goes down, he'll take you with him. As he did before."
       "Will he?" Hakkai asked. "This time it was closer to being the other way around. He was my friend when everyone's hand was against me. And if I go down with him- well, one could find worse company in Hell."
       The youkai's eyes narrowed. "How odd. I could have sworn that this time there was nothing between you."
       "Only the fact that he saved my life," Hakkai said.
       "No more than that?"
       "What more could there be?" Hakkai asked mildly.
       "What do you think?"
       "Saa ne," Hakkai said. "I really wouldn't know."
       There was silence. Hakkai sipped his tea.
       "I don't understand," the youkai said at last, sounding both perplexed and annoyed. "The others remained themselves. Gojou is Kenren. Sanzou is Konzen. The outlines of their character are the same, even if a few of the details have changed. But you... What happened to you?" Hakkai didn't answer. "Tenpou reeked of tobacco. His hair always needed washing. He walked around in toilet slippers because he never remembered to take them off." Hakkai frowned in automatic distaste. "He was untidy and absent-minded and slovenly. And he was the most dangerous man I ever knew."
       "Was he?" Hakkai asked. "Well, as you see, I'm not Tenpou. Fortunately, by the sound of it."
       "Are you not?" The youkai stood up. "Let's see how true that is."
       "Really, I'd prefer not-" Hakkai began, but the youkai had already launched itself at him. He jumped out of the way- curling over the youkai's shoulder and behind him. It was tight, but he managed to miss the low ceiling. The youkai turned swiftly and was on him again. Hakkai jumped back and put the width of the bed between them.
       "Is this necessary?" he asked the youkai, who'd already vaulted over the bed and was descending with foot out to strike. Hakkai blocked the blow with his crossed arms, pushing the youkai off-balance as it fell. Hakkai jumped on it, bearing it down with his own weight.
       "Must we do this?" Hakkai said, but the youkai heaved its body and threw him off. It was strong, certainly, and highly-trained. Hakkai rolled away from its lunge, trying to avoid the clutter of the kitchen table and the chairs. Hampered in his movements, he was a fraction too slow, and the youkai's foot caught him a stunning blow to the head as he came to his feet. He staggered, seeing stars, and managed to get the table between the two of them.
       "You are weaker than Tenpou," the youkai observed. "Do you intend merely to run from me till you drop?"
       "Well, why not?" Hakkai asked it, gasping.
       "Meet me straight on, why don't you?"
       "I don't-- care for-- violence."
       The youkai's head went back in disdain. "Let's finish this," it said with distaste. "It's painful to see what's become of you. No more." It sprang at him in full attack.
       All this while a part of Hakkai's mind had been reflexively at work, shutting his body off and concentrating its energy. Now it all came back to him, fully aware, as he braced himself and joined his hands to meet the youkai's charge. As it descended on him he threw the concentrated force of his ki at it in a solid purple mass of energy. The youkai flew backwards through the air and landed hard against the wall, then slid bonelessly onto its back. Hakkai panted a moment, dizzy with the ringing in his head where the youkai's boot had connected. Then he staggered over to the youkai's side.
       "Hakuryuu-" he said. "Hakuryuu- are you alright?" Its eyes were closed and a trickle of blood ran from its mouth, shockingly red against the white skin. "Hakuryuu--" Surely I didn't hit him that hard? Oh god-- In distress he put an arm under the youkai's shoulder and pulled him up against the wall.
       One eye opened a slit, revealing the ruby surface.
       "Ten...pou," the youkai said. It smiled, painfully, from its cut mouth. "The powers of the weak. I might have known-- you'd come up with-- something like that."
       "I--" Hakkai started, but the pain behind his eyes was becoming ferocious and he couldn't finish.
       "At least-- you wash-- occasionally..." the youkai murmured.
       "Hakuryu--" The blood-colour of the youkai's eyes seemed to be filling the world in Hakkai's sight. "Ha..ku..." A wave of blackness came behind it and he felt himself falling forward onto the youkai. Felt from far away the youkai's hand cradling the back of his head and the distinct sharp prick of claws through his hair. Felt nothing more.

       A cool cloth wiping his forehead. He groaned, even though it felt good. His head hurt. All of him hurt. He opened his eyes a slit, to a world filled with too much light filtering through a deep red veil of some kind.
       "So you're awake," Gojou said. He put the cloth to Hakkai's forehead again.
       "Ahh- yes," Hakkai said, disoriented, watching Gojou's hair a few inches from his eyes.
       "God, have you no shame?" Gojou sounded disgusted. "Imagine a grown man catching cold from his pet."
       "Uhh--?" Memory came back. "Hakuryuu!"
      "Baka!!" Gojou yelled in annoyance. "Don't try to get up--" Hakkai pushed his hand away and sat up. The world waved around him.
      "Hakuryuu- where is--"
      "Right there, ahou. Where else would he be?!" But Hakkai had already seen. Hakuryuu asleep in his basket, as always, curled around a hot water bottle.
       "Hakuryuu...?" Hakkai stared at him. He remembered clearly coming home from shopping to find a strange white-skinned youkai sitting in the middle of the room, talking about someone he'd been in another life. Making it a cup of tea- having it attack him. He remembered clearly coming home from shopping, head aching, to find Hakuryuu asleep in his basket. Making himself a cup of tea and thinking a little lie-down would help his headache. He remembered them both.
       "What's the matter?" Gojou asked.
      "I-- when did you get home?"
      "Fifteen minutes ago. And there you were passed out and burning up with fever. Now you're awake you can take some aspirin."
       "I don't need--" but Gojou had already crossed to the kitchen cupboard and gotten the bottle out. He went to the table and picked up one of the two cups on it. Two cups. Gojou picked up the blue one Hakkai had drunk from, where it sat next to the yellow one he'd given the youkai.
      "Give me the yellow cup."
       "No way. That's mine. *I* don't want to get your stupid cold." Gojou brought both cups over to the bed, handed the blue one and the aspirin bottle to Hakkai, and sat down on the bed again. He glared at Hakkai as he drank his tea until Hakkai gave in and swallowed an aspirin.
       "Take two."
       "One's enough."
      "Take two. I'm not spending the evening playing Florence Nightingale by your bed to get your temperature down."
       "Insistent, aren't you?" Hakkai sighed, and took another aspirin. "Hakuryuu..." He turned to reach down to the little dragon's basket.
       "Hakkai want doggie in beddies with him?" Gojou grinned. He scooped Hakuryuu out of his basket one-handed and put him on Hakkai's lap. "There ya go."
       "Gojou," Hakkai said mildly.
       "Yeah, yeah, warii. Don't take it personal. You two keep each other warm and get that fever out of you." He got up, picked up the evening paper from the floor, and went off to the kitchen table, back to Hakkai to indicate the conversation was over.
       Hakuryuu, disturbed in his sleep, snorted a little puff of smoke and opened his heavy eyes. At sight of Hakkai bending above him he gave a feeble piii of welcome. Hakkai stroked his mane, smiling a little to himself. His head hurt. He lay back down again, and Hakuryuu stretched himself up to lie on his chest. Fever, Hakkai thought muzzily. Fever dreams. Hakuryuu is Hakuryuu. I'm Cho Hakkai. Gojou is Sa Gojou. And the rest-- didn't happen. Good.

MJJJanuary 2001