Holding Smoke

by Tenshi

The rain clattered down on the inn roof like a hail of Sanzo's bullet casings, hard and fast and faintly musical. It veiled the distant mountains in silver curtains, granting the small village a kind of comfortable charm that was utterly lost on the occupants of the inn's only room.

"I think it's clouding up, you said," Gojyo snarled, flinging his jacket into a corner. It landed with a soggy squelch, as flat and defeated as its owner's dripping hair. "Probably just a little shower, won't amount to anything." Gojyo's shirt followed his jacket, hitting the wall and sticking to it, water running in thin rivulets down the paneling. "Certainly not, you know, a goddamn tsunami."

"I never claimed to be a weather expert," Hakkai answered, as wet as the rest of them, his monocle fogged up and his usual good spirits damp at the edges. "And it was your idea to drive along that ravine. It's a wonder we're all alive." He scooped a shivering Hakuryu from his shoulder, and settled the tiny dragon on a floor cushion by the room's one lone radiator. "We can dry out and move on once it clears up."

"I'm not even hungry anymore," Goku moaned, water puddling around his muddy boots. "I'm too tired." He tipped forwards towards the bed but didn't land, as Sanzo's hand shot out and caught him by his cape.

"You get that bed wet and you'll be praying for death," he said. "That one's mine." Sanzo carefully peeled his scripture off his shoulders and laid it across the radiator to dry, his fingers betraying more gentleness than Hakkai had with his beloved pet.

"I'll go and ask the innkeeper if he has some dry clothes for us to borrow," Hakkai said, with a tiny sigh of resignation. "Is there anything else we--"

"Cigarettes," Sanzo said, tossing his water-swollen pack into the trash.

"Dinner," Goku added.

"I thought you said you weren't hungry?" Gojyo said from the bathroom, wringing his hair out in the chipped porcelain sink.

"That was totally like five minutes ago!" Goku protested, peeling out of his wet jeans with a grimace. He was soaked through, his shorts clinging to him like a second skin. "It's almost dinnertime! And we didn't have lunch!"

"All right, all right," Gojyo relented. "I'm hungry too. Falling off a cliff into a flash-flood will do that. See if they've got something to drink too, Hakkai."

"And get me a paper," Sanzo finished.

"Maybe I should just put on a maid uniform while I'm at it," Hakkai grumbled.

"Hey, I'd pay too see that," Gojyo said, sitting on the only chair in the room and yanking off his boot. "Why don't you see if the innkeeper's got one you can--"

Hakkai's answer was his waterlogged sash smacking Gojyo in the face, and a quiet noise of satisfied revenge as he shut the door behind him.

"Even I know that was pushing it," Goku said, stretching his fingers towards the grudging warmth of the radiator.

"Ahh, maybe. Still, he'd look pretty cute in one, don't you think?"

"Ha! You've been away from girls too long if you're getting that desperate." Goku shook himself all over like a wet dog, ignoring the hiss of dismay from Sanzo as he scattered fresh water on the scripture. "You better watch it, Sanzo. You've got the prettiest face, he'll be after you next."

"Who's pretty?" Sanzo growled. At the moment, red-nosed with the chill, his hair plastered down to his skull, and his temper simmering dangerously beneath his scowl, he was anything but.

"I don't do blonds," Gojyo said, adding in a wary mutter, "Especially not that one."

"Tch." Sanzo groped around in his damp robes for his cigarettes, remembered he had thrown them away, and sat down on the rickety table in a glowering heap of wet sandals and ill temper. Hunger, torrential floods, and being crowded into a single room with his drippy companions was all bad enough, but being forced to endure it without the soothing jolt of nicotine was just insult to injury. Gojyo and Goku started up their usual argument, the clamor of their rapid-fire insults a familiar din in the background. It was not enough to shut out the sound of the rain, drumming down into Sanzo's memory, as unwelcome and unpleasant as the chilly press of his own soggy clothing.

Hakkai returned, with towels and the innkeeper, who had brought tarry off-brand cigarettes and hot dumpling soup and a battered six-pack of warm beer for his guests. It was clearly the best hospitality he had to offer, and Hakkai thanked him graciously as he left, his bald pate gleaming with the pleasure of his generosity.

"I'm too desperate to complain," Gojyo began, reaching for the cigarettes and then recoiling as a banishing-gun bullet splintered the tabletop next to his outstretched fingers. "Mother of Buddha! I only wanted one!"

"I didn't hear you asking for any," Sanzo said, smacking the box against his open palm to pack down the cigarettes.

"Now now," Hakkai said, dropping a towel on Goku's head. "If you can't share your toys, they'll be taken away."

Sanzo rolled his eyes, but grudgingly passed a cigarette over to Gojyo. They stripped out of their clammy garments, dried off, and tried to eat their dinner before Goku could lay claim to all of it. They were an incongruous quartet in nothing but towels, indifferent to each others' skin by long exposure. Barely a week passed without someone in the party needing a wound patched, and their scars were as familiar as their faces.

Sanzo finished his soup and put his face in the newspaper, while Gojyo and Goku squabbled over the last dumpling and Hakkai rigged Sanzo's sash into a makeshift clothesline across the room.

"Hey," Gojyo said, after Goku won the last dumpling by scarfing it down. "So, what are we going to do tonight?"

"We could go to bed early and get plenty of rest?" Hakkai suggested, draping t-shirts and jeans over the line.

Gojyo clicked his tongue against his teeth in a sound of disbelief. "It's not even sunset yet! Well, it wouldn't be if we could see it."

"I don't care what you do, as long as it's quiet." Sanzo turned a page of the paper, and tipped his cigarette towards the ashtray. He took a long, contented drag off the filter, and felt the taut line of muscle across his shoulders relax a tiny fraction.

"Mahjong?" Gojyo wondered aloud. "Ah, no, we lost the set, didn't we. Poker? My cards're all wet, though..."

"I know a game," Goku said suddenly, putting down his well-polished soup bowl. "It's to test your senses, and how well you know your friends." He scratched his temple. "It's better if you have more people, though it'll be tougher since we haven't got our clothes..."

"What kind of a game is this?" Gojyo asked, in tones of deep suspicion.

Hakkai laughed. "It's all right, Gojyo. I think I know what game this is. It's guess-who, right?"

"Right!" Goku nodded. "See, one person goes in a room blindfolded, and then someone else comes in, and they have to guess who it is. You can't say anything, but you can do one thing to give a hint if you want. I can usually tell who's who because of how people smell, but it's harder when we've all been rained on and without our clothes. Scents aren't so strong."

"Except for the fact that we all smell like wet dragon," Gojyo said.

From his cushion by the radiator, Hakuryu made a tiny kyuu of offense in Gojyo's direction.

"I think he says you smell like wet demon," Hakkai said, in translation.

"He's a kappa, he should always smell like a wet demon," Sanzo grumbled, from behind the Lifestyle and Religion section of the paper. "...and cucumbers."

"Can you really tell us apart by smell, Goku?" Hakkai said, smiling. "That's impressive."

"He's a monkey, not a bloodhound." Gojyo's cigarette butt hissed as he dropped it into the bottom of his empty beer can. "And I don't smell like cucumbers. Asshole."

"You do smell like water," Goku said, closing his eyes. "Like a rainstorm that's far away on a hot summer day. And like your leather jacket, and like steel chain, and butane, and beer, and... something soft, like flowers. And a very little bit like Hakkai. But he smells a little like you. I guess because you share an apartment."

Gojyo gave a low whistle. "No kidding? What's Hakkai smell like?"

"Ivy," Goku said, at once. "Ivy, and green grass over cold stone, and hot tea with rice, and ink, and something kinda electric, I think it's his chi." Goku paused, looking down his hands. "And a little... like blood."

Hakkai flinched, ever so slightly. "I guess it'll take a few more years to wash away."

"It won't ever," Sanzo said, lowering the paper to show his suddenly serious face. "Goku senses your natures, the things that have made you. It's a karmic scent as much as a physical one."

"Karmic scent," Gojyo scoffed. "You probably smell like a load of bullshit."

"How about I make you smell like freshly bullet-riddled corpse--"

"Sanzo smells like smoke," Goku said, his eyes still closed, his smile fond and distant. "Like things left behind that you can't touch. Gun smoke and incense smoke and cigarette smoke. And like rice paper, and wheat fields, and--" Goku broke off, frowned. "Like lotus blossoms."

There was a heavy silence in the room, as the drumming of the rain got caught up in their own heartbeats.

"Well," Hakkai said, at last. "We might have to plug Goku's nose for his turn. But I'm willing to give it a try, it sounds fun."

"Leave me out," Sanzo said, at once. "I've got better things to do."

"Such as?" Gojyo said. "Reading the obits like an old man? Maybe there's one for your sense of humor, 'cos it's sure dead--"

"Yeah. Want to join it?"

"Boys boys boys," Hakkai said, in his best, most infuriating teacher-voice. "Now, Sanzo doesn't have to play if he doesn't want to. I imagine it'd be hard for him anyway; they say too much smoking kills your senses."

"Ha!" Gojyo slapped his fist on the table. "Yeah, that and being an old fart, I guess it would be pointless to even try..."

"Son of a bitch," Sanzo said, flinging his paper aside and stubbing out his cigarette. "I'm going first."

"Yay!" Goku jumped up, throwing his arms in the air in victory and then snatching them down again to catch his towel before it fell off. "Put the chair in the bathroom, Gojyo, and we'll need a blindfold."

"I think this will do," Hakkai said, picking up Goku's unused dinner napkin.

"This is so fucking stupid," Sanzo grumbled, but it was too late for protest. Darkness fell early as Hakkai knotted the blindfold around his eyes, and the world suddenly was shaped by other senses.

"How will we pick who goes?" Gojyo said, more distant than the sound of Hakkai brushing past Sanzo on his way back to the room. The bathroom door closed, their voices turned into a muffled hush, and Sanzo sat in the dark and waited.

It was a pointless game, he thought, wondering not for the first time why they bothered with such things. Of course they would know each other, even naked and blind in the dark. Testing it for a parlor game was nothing more than a waste of time. But then, they had the time to waste.

The rain drummed down on the inn roof, eating at Sanzo's nerves. What was taking them so long to pick? He was on the verge of standing up and revoking his participation when there was a stealthy click from the door. Sanzo went tense in spite of himself, his body taut, his remaining senses searching for clues. He could not pick apart scents like Goku could, but he knew the sound of a footfall, the length of a step, the difference in weight on creaking floorboards. Who was there? Hakkai? Gojyo? Goku? Would they give him a clue, or would he be forced to rely on observations from a distance?

Whoever it was took a step closer, and Sanzo, for no reason he could place, knew at once that it was Goku. The game was pointless after all; Sanzo was a trained priest, and his companions bore the unmistakable aura of demons. Gojyo's was the dilute shame of a taboo child, Hakkai's the sticky bloodstain of a demon created by murder, Goku's something beyond that of any other demon Sanzo had ever encountered, perhaps something even beyond being a demon at all. Sanzo smiled, ready to announce that the game was not only over, it was useless.

But then Goku kissed him, and Sanzo's mind went as blank as a fresh roll of rice paper. It was wiped clean of everything but the feeling of small, powerful hands caught in his hair, and a hesitant mouth against his own. The longer it went on without interruption by gunplay or bloodshed, the more Goku's confidence grew, until there was something almost possessive in his eagerness. The sound of the rain was drowned out by the thunder of Sanzo's blood in his ears, the clamor of his heart against his breastbone.

The urge to reciprocate was almost overwhelming, but he could not. Goku had always been a problem, even from the beginning, when Sanzo had been compelled by some unknown urge to find him. Always there was the desire to possess him, to protect him. Goku would never have refused, and there was the crux of the issue.

Hold nothing. It was a credo meant to encourage freedom from worldly things, worldly attachments, on a surer path to enlightenment. Sanzo clung to it not out of pious devotion, but only as a mantra for a man afraid of losing everything again. He could not bear the loss of friends; so he would claim none. He bore a gun whose bullets could destroy his companions as readily as any other demons, companions who at any moment could become enemies.

Sanzo clenched his hands on the seat of the chair until the rough wood bit through the palms of his half-gloves. His nature was smoke. Lacking substance, the outline of what had passed through, holding nothing and held by nothing. Goku had spoken the truth, though he did not know what it meant. Sanzo let the intrusion of Goku's confession become a stone thrown into the still pond of his resolve, a noisy echo of ripples quivering out into nothing, until Sanzo himself was nothing but a flat mirror of an empty sky.

Goku could not help but feel the change. The kiss faltered, it broke. For a moment Sanzo's darkness was filled with Goku's uneven breathing, the bitterness of unshed tears. The door opened and closed again, and the game was over.

The storm was over by midnight. Sanzo sat by the window, watching the ragged trail of clouds sliding past a half-full moon, the gleam of his cigarette ember a tiny spark of reflection in the wavering glass of the window. Sanzo thought that with the rain ending, he could sleep at last. Just as soon as he finished his cigarette, he thought. But then one became two, then three, then four, and the moon sank slowly towards the mountains. Sanzo had been staring so long at his reflection without seeing it that when he realized a pair of golden eyes were looking back at him, he started hard enough to scatter ash from his forgotten cigarette.

"Why did you pretend not to know it was me?" Goku asked quietly, to the mirror image of the priest that would not meet his gaze. "You knew it was me."

"Tch." Sanzo studied the end of his cigarette. "It was you? I thought it was that pervy water sprite. You said yourself he'd be after me next."

"Don't lie." Goku's hands curled into tight fists, and Sanzo wondered who they were meant to hit. Sanzo? Himself?

"Maybe I didn't want to hurt your feelings."

"Since when do you care about hurting feelings?" Goku did not mean the question to sting as much as it did, Sanzo was sure. "You're always talking about how you don't give a damn, so why did you suddenly give a damn tonight?"

Sanzo had no answer the that. The ember of his cigarette flared in his reflection, casting deep shadows around his face, crinkling as it devoured the paper. Goku's eyes were like the gold-backed crystal of a Bodhisattva's stare, and they stripped Sanzo down to his own mortal shame.

"Unless," Goku said softly, "you actually do care, after all."

Sanzo felt his teeth meet through the filter of his cigarette. "You can think that if it makes you feel better."

"You think you don't, and it doesn't make you feel any better." Goku paused, waiting for an answer, but there wasn't one. Sanzo was an insurmountable obstacle, a foreboding and unscaleable mountain blocking the path to Goku's personal West.

"Smoke," Sanzo said, finally.

"You've still got one--"

"You said I was like smoke," Sanzo clarified, stubbing out his cigarette in the over-full ashtray, and sending thin tendrils of the smoke through his fingers. "You can't lay claim to smoke. You can't hold on to it."

Goku frowned, his brows drawing together under his headband. "Yeah," he said. "But the thing about smoke is, it gets into everything. In your clothes and in your hair, on your skin. It becomes part of you, whether the smoke wants to be or not." Goku scratched at his hair, turning away. "Or something like that. I don't even know what I'm trying to say. Just that, you can try to stay away from us, but it's no good. All of us... we all smell like you."

Sanzo closed his eyes, swallowed back honest words and replaced them with something more familiar. "Monkey-brats should be in bed by now, you know."

"So should you," Goku retorted. "If you fall asleep on the road tomorrow, you're gonna wake up with magic marker all over your ass."

Sanzo heard the bedsprings creak as Goku clambered back into his bed, heard his breathing even into sleep. When had he grown so used to the sound of his friends sleeping around him? Sanzo checked himself at the use of the word 'friends' even in his thoughts, and pushed himself up out of the chair. He put his back to the sleeping honesty on Goku's face, drew the blankets around his shoulders like the curtain wall of a fortress, and tried to quell the torrents of smoke pouring out of the fire Goku had lit in his heart.


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