Gojou dropped his cards on the table top and stubbed out his cigarette.
"Heeeinh, it's getting on. Suppose we should be turning in. The chimp here can barely keep his eyes open."
"'M not a chimp," Gokuu said, running a hand across his face. "I'm Gokuu- Son Gokuu. Can't you even remember that?"
He was tired, Hakkai thought, or else he'd have put more energy into that. Aloud he said, "It's a good idea, maybe, if we want to make an early start tomorrow."
Gojou grunted and began to pick up their cards. "Nothing but early starts these days. Tell ya, I'll be glad when we get to the west. I like it better when I go to bed at six, not get up then."
Hakkai was gathering Gojou's empties into a paper bag.
"Let the maids do that," Gojou said as he dropped the pack of cards into his pocket. "That's what they're here for."
"It's no trouble," Hakkai said. He began collecting the cigarette ends that had overflowed from the ashtray onto the tablecloth.
"Putting off having to deal with old Grumpface?"
"Sanzou's probably asleep by now," Hakkai said, not to be drawn. "He's had a lot on his mind lately."
"Ne, Hakkai," Gokuu said, watching him from heavy-lidded eyes. "Is Sanzou really alright?"
"Yes, of course," Hakkai answered cheerfully. "All he needs is to get a good night's rest. He's been having trouble sleeping lately, and you know how that is."
"Uh-- no," Gokuu said. "I don't."
"Ah well, no, I suppose you wouldn't. It makes people, mmmh, short-tempered. Irritable."
"Like our Sanzou-sama wasn't that way all the time," Gojou said, getting up and stretching.
"No he's not," Gokuu protested automatically. "Not like he's been lately--"
"Heyy, don't worry, monkey." Gojou leaned over and patted him reassuringly on the head. "Nothing wrong with Princess Sanzou that a little Midol wouldn't cure."
"Hunh?" Gokuu looked confused even as he batted Gojou's arm away. "What's that?"
"Gojou," Hakkai said warningly.
"Ask Hakkai, chimp. He'll tell you all about it." Gojou stuck hands in his pockets and sauntered to the door. "Night, all," his voice drifted back. "Don't forget to mention the super-plus tampax he uses as well, Hakkai."
Hakkai inhaled deeply to calm his breathing. Gokuu was saying "Ne, Hakkai, what's he talking about?" Hakkai exhaled.
"Just Gojou's idea of a joke," Hakkai smiled at him. "Nothing you'll have to deal with until you're much older." If then, because to the best of Hakkai's knowledge youkai females were different from humans. And Gokuu was- wasn't he?- a youkai. Sort of...
He shook his head to clear it. "I'm tired too. Let's get off to bed."
Gokuu got up wearily and yawned. "Mnh. G'night, Hakkai." He drifted out of the inn's common room and turned right.
"Good-night, Gokuu," Hakkai said and turned left down the corridor in the opposite direction. Coming into town late at night always meant they had to take whatever left-over rooms were available, and today they were at opposite ends of the hallway. He opened the bedroom's cheap wooden door silently, in case Sanzou was indeed asleep, but the precaution wasn't necessary. Light pooled from the one table lamp next to the armchair where Sanzou sat slumped, robe down about his waist, drawing on a cigarette and looking at nothing. Four empty cans stood on the table beside him. If they'd been intended to put him under, they hadn't worked.
"Ah. Still awake?"
"Maybe we should get to bed, if we want that early start--"
"Urusai," Sanzou said, flatly but without heat. Hakkai shut up as ordered, not taking offence. Sometimes Sanzou wanted to be chattered out of a mood and sometimes he didn't. Hakkai removed his shirt and trousers and folded them over the bed's end, took off his headband and glasses and put them on the side table, and arranged his socks and shoes neatly by the bedside. He opened up the bedclothes and heard Sanzou say, in a low brooding tone, "Gokuu."
"Mh?" He looked over at the ring of light where Sanzou was sitting. The sharp shadows of the lamp made it hard to see Sanzou's features clearly.
"Gokuu," Sanzou said again. "He's not a youkai."
"Ahh- no, I believe not. He was made from the concentrated aura of the earth-"
"And born from a rock," Sanzou finished for him. "Not human and not youkai." He drew on his cigarette. "And Gojou. Both human and youkai. Which means he's not really one or the other. Each cancels the other out."
"I suppose," Hakkai said, frowning as he sat down on his bed, "if you look at it that way, it's true."
"Which leaves you," Sanzou went on. "The only true youkai of the bunch."
"Ahh-" Hakkai said in surpise. "Well, yes, I suppose- again, if that's how--"
"How you look at it," Sanzou finished for him again. There was silence.
"Is that how you look at it?" Hakkai asked.
Hakkai said nothing.
"It's so easy to forget with you- wearing your limiters, acting so unthreatening- there's nothing to remind people of what you really are. 'Gentle Hakkai, meek and mild.'" Sanzou's heavy gaze moved over Hakkai. "So we let you into the midst of our company and forget all about what it is that runs in your veins. That violent murdering youkai blood of yours."
Hakkai sat very still. Sanzou was drunk, drunker than four beers alone could make him. This was more than alcohol talking. So now we find out what the trouble's been lately...
"I see," Hakkai said. "Are you afraid of me?"
Sanzou smiled without mirth. "Afraid? Afraid that your real nature will come out and make you turn on me? Afraid to have you at my back in case you rip my body apart the way your murdering fellow ripped my Master's? Of course I am. I'm not a fool."
"I don't believe you. It was you who said I'd never betray you. You made me believe that when I doubted the truth of it myself."
"I said that to make it true. Whistling in the dark. No more."
"It worked. It is true. You know it."
"Do I now?" Sanzou stood up. "Or is it just more convenient for you if I believe it? If I forget what kind of bloody-handed monster is hiding under that wouldn't-hurt-a-fly fake front of yours." The gun was in Sanzou's hand before Hakkai even saw him reaching for it and the barrel was against Hakkai's forehead. Hakkai looked steadily into Sanzou's eyes. Anger there, and the fury of a wounded animal, and something else.
"If you shoot me," Hakkai told him, "it'll at least save me having to bite my tongue out. Much faster and a lot less painful. I'll be in your debt."
"Would you ever bite out that smooth lying tongue of yours, youkai?"
"Before I'd harm you, yes. Just as you said."
"Let's put that to the test," Sanzou said. His other hand went towards Hakkai's left ear. Panicked, Hakkai caught hold of it before Sanzou's fingers could reach the cuffs there.
Sanzou's face twisted with triumph. Hakkai let go at once and dropped his hand at his side.
"Sanzou--" he breathed.
"You'd never harm me," Sanzou jeered. "You'd never betray me."
"Not when I'm myself," Hakkai said, begging him to understand.
"You're not yourself in that body."
Hakkai's lips moved, but he found nothing to say.
Sanzou towered above him, pressing the barrel tighter to Hakkai's forehead. His smile held no mercy at all. "Let's see what your real self does."
"Very well," Hakkai said, staring sightlessly before him. Fear walked catfooted up his spine. He fought its cold little paws. It's alright, he has the gun, it's right next to my skull, he can shoot me pointblank if I- if it happens- if it's like it was before... Sanzou's delicate fingers plucked off one cuff, the next, and the--
Like a tidal wave roaring in, the strength, the violence that swept through his body. His torso swelled so that the loose t-shirt he wore fit tight as a glove, constraining and too short. It was power, youkai power, the spiritual strength he'd tried so hard to train and focus as a human translated directly into its physical and psychic counterpart. His hands were still lying on his lap, large and long-taloned, their nails sharp as razor blades. He could slash the innards from the human before him before it even knew he was going to move. His hands lay still on his lap. He dropped his eyes to them.
"Odd," he said, and his voice was lower than before, a full-timbred bass rumble.
"What's odd?" the human asked through tight lips.
"These hands have killed only once. My human hands have killed more people than I can count." He turned them over slowly. "I always see blood on my human hands when--" His voice died in his throat. On the palm of his youkai hands the little vine pattern ran down, ran from below his index finger across his palm and down, ran exactly where the short life-line ran on his human hands but here ran down to the wrist and beyond, curving almost to the elbow. He followed it with the sharp brown talon of his other hand, prick-prick at the delicate little leaves on their thin stem. Maybe it gets shorter for every life you take, Hakkai thought. He smiled involuntarily.
"It's just-" he looked up at Sanzou, the smile still on his lips, "it seems a paradox, you know? Not what you'd expect. It's the human me who's the killer."
Sanzou looked at him along the length of his arm, along the length of his gun. Utter misery shrouded him, clear to Hakkai's youkai eyes as mist rising from a mountain valley. "I won't betray you," Hakkai said. "It's true. You made it true by saying it."
"Crap," Sanzou said. He dropped his arm and tossed the cuffs at Hakkai. Hakkai caught them, all three, in one hand before they could fall to the floor. He didn't put them on. Sanzou stood still, looking at Hakkai. Hakkai sat still, looking at Sanzou.
"Your eyes," Sanzou said. "They stay the same."
Misery black as a mountain's shadow when the sun rises. "You owe me," Sanzou said. He smiled that smile- anger, and the fury of a wounded animal, and the thing that said Make it different. Make it different from what it is. "If I made you unable to hurt me, then you owe me the same. Pay me back."
"You'll never hurt me," Hakkai told him. "You'll never betray me." And said, because only the truth could convince Sanzou, "You can't. My heart isn't large enough to hold anyone inside it, so I never gave you a place there to hurt and betray me from." Sanzou looked away. As you wanted it, Sanzou. This is the logic of your situation. Hakkai put the cuffs back on his ear. Shrank, diminished, became his neat self again in baggy t-shirt and loose boxers. Sanzou lay down on his bed, back to Hakkai, black leather corselet and black gloves trying to blend with the black shadows of the room. "But if you need to hear it said out loud, there is someone you'll never hurt. Not because you can't, but because you won't. I don't think you'd go so far as to bite your tongue out first," he said consideringly, as he went over to the table and switched off the lamp. "That's not quite your style. But certainly you won't ever betray his belief in you." He made his way back to bed in the gloom. "Not even to prove me wrong for saying this. Part of you would die if you did, and you're adamant about staying alive. Quite noisily insistent, in fact."
"Urusai," Sanzou's voice said from the dark. "I'm going to sleep. Any more talk and I'll kill you."
"Hai, hai," Hakkai said as he slid down in the bed. "Good-night, Sanzou."