Betaed by Solo. Thank you again!


by Sylvia


There was no more than a glint of light on rain-sheened metal and a mere hint of blood-scent to alert him.

Later, Gojyo sometimes wondered what his life would have turned out to be if he hadn't stopped and turned to see the stranger kneeling in the mud. He never thought about it very hard or very long, though. It had happened, and that was what mattered.

"She's dead." The whisper was nearly voiceless; human hearing wouldn't have picked it up over the sound of the rain. The face that accompanied it was as immobile as a wooden mask. The hand that held the gun to the guy's head never wavered.

Talking people down from ledges and shit like that was something they trained people for. Drifters whose only job was cheating at poker, except when forced to fall back on even older professions, really shouldn't dabble.

But what could you do, never a trained professional around when you needed one, and Gojyo had stepped forward before he could really think about what he was doing, and then the empty, staring green gaze fixed on him and just like that, it was all decided.

"She was everything, you see – everything. There's nothing without her. And she's dead. I killed her." Even now that he was talking to someone other than the mud and the shrouded sky and himself, the guy's voice was no more than a rasp, all but drowned out by the rain.

"Hey," Gojyo said, and slowly took another step closer. "Look – that sounds really bad, but – I'm sure you didn't mean to. How about you come home with me and we can drink some beer or something and you can tell me about what happened –"

Which was the point at which the green-eyed man, whose name – as Gojyo later learned – was Gonou, smiled at the night and the rain and perhaps even Gojyo, a hint of apology in the little tuck of his chin. Then, he pulled the trigger.

"Fuck." Gojyo couldn't prevent himself from shying away from the sound and the explosion of blood and other matter. Fuck it sideways. What a fucking mess – and he hadn't needed to do it, there would have been some way to fix this, whatever had happened. Fucking asshole coward...

Now what? Was Gojyo supposed to call the cops or something? Yeah, that's right, officer, the guy just knelt there and told me he was in love with this chick he'd killed and then he blew his brains out right there. Who, me? Nah, I was just walking home from the bar, minding my own business. Yeah, I noticed it's red, thanks for the pointer. Wow, you mean the eyes are, too? No kidding! So what, is there a law against that or something?


That guy had said he'd killed some chick. What if...

What if what, exactly, Gojyo was never entirely certain. But the thing was, calling the cops would just be asking for trouble, and the guy was dead as dead could be, so what was the point? And he couldn't just shrug and go home, either. It was personal. The guy had shot himself in the head in the middle of a conversation with Gojyo – way to make a guy feel unappreciated. Really, how much more personal could it get?

The scent was difficult to trace for a while, but Gojyo had a better nose than he generally liked to let on. A haze of someone else's blood had clung to the guy from the start, and with some backtracking, Gojyo followed it down the road for a bit and through a narrow alley, past an empty yard and houses Gojyo didn't really notice anything about, right to the outskirts of the town, where a small, yellow house sat in the middle of a well-pruned garden.

Draped chintz curtains adorned the windows and flowers stood on the sills and hung in brightly colored little pots next to the door. The door stood open, light spilling out and rainwater sheeting in, soaking the cheerful rug in the hallway, turning it black with water and obscuring the pattern.

The carpet squished underneath his boots. Gojyo didn't take them off, didn't even think about it. Even before he'd stepped over the threshold, the stench of blood and death had hit him like a punch to the stomach. The hallway reeked of it, as did the kitchen – small table in the corner set for two, the butter sitting on the counter in a covered glass dish, a bright bunch of wildflowers in a vase providing a splash of color.

A young woman in a jade-colored dress lay on the sofa in the living-room, a blanket spread over her lap with her hands demurely folded on her stomach. Her long, dark braid draped over her shoulder, and a plush pillow was propped beneath her head. It had slipped, though, and the angle at which her neck lolled to the side was not natural.

He found the kid huddled in the far corner of the bedroom, sitting in a drying pool of blood, sunset eyes wide and staring; empty of everything, even despair.

Later, she always said she didn't remember what had happened. Gojyo wasn't sure he believed her, but that was okay. She didn't have to say it. It didn't matter anymore – and even if it had, he knew what had happened. It was easy to connect the dots. All too easy.

A heavy alabaster vase, lying on its side, dried flowers scattered across the floor. A kitchen knife, blade crusted with blood, dropped to the ground. A knife wound in the shoulder of a child, straight and clean. A woman lying on the sofa with her neck broken, reeking of death and someone else's blood. And a dead man in the rain, his brains splattered all over the road.

She never said by what name they'd called her. That was okay, too. He called her Ataeko and left her hair open, so that it flew about her face wildly when she ran and played. He bought her clothes in bright colors of every hue except jade, and never told her what had happened to Gonou, because she'd been abandoned often enough already.


When Ataeko was twelve, he picked her up from the floor, carried her past the body of her mother, and took her home.

Nobody asked for her. Someone came by to ask if he knew anything about the man who'd been found in the road with half of his face missing, and there was a notice in the paper the day after that about some kind of domestic tragedy, no details given except the names of the departed and some pretty lies. Schoolteachers. Respected, upstanding members of the community. Inexplicable calamity. Possibly there'd been a burglar. They would be missed. Bla, bla, bla.

But nobody asked for Ataeko. Someone must have known she existed, but nobody came to claim her, and Gojyo was glad. He wouldn't have let them take her, anyway.

She didn't speak, then. She followed Gojyo with her eyes when she was too weak to get out of bed, and later on she followed him around the house in too-large jeans and a baggy sweater splashed with huge pink flowers that clashed with her hair (he'd grabbed the first things that looked to be her size; he went back with her once she was better and they picked out some stuff that suited her. She kept the sweater, though, and even wore it from time to time, even though it really was pretty ugly).

The first couple of days, every time he looked at her or spoke to her she cringed back, as though she were trying to disappear. Every time he changed her bandage, she froze like a frightened animal, breathing shallow, resigned to her fate.

It hurt to see her, all wide-eyed and scared and pleading mutely, and Gojyo took to talking without looking at her, pretending not to notice her creep closer and then jump back, startled, when he made a too-sudden move. For half of the first day he discussed the weather and the condition of the roof and the fact that he'd never gotten around to buying a carpet or pictures or flowers and stuff, and then explained the intricacies of poker and blackjack and priest and robber and canasta and wily youkai and every other cardgame he knew, and then he told her about the guys he hung with at the bar – though he left out the bits that he thought a little kid like her might not care to hear – and then he took to just rambling on about whatever popped into his head, provided of course it was vaguely suitable.

He only went out when there was no more food. Then, he cheated some fool out of his money as quickly as he could, and shook off the women's arms with no more than a quick grin and an only slightly less quick kiss. But he made sure to get to the stores before they closed and bought heaps of stuff, like fruit and all kinds of vegetables and eggs and dried lentils and beans and bags of rice and flour and lots of other stuff he'd never used to buy. It wasn't healthy for a growing kid to live on frozen pizza, greasy take-out and beer, which had been pretty much the only staples of Gojyo's diet before. Unless you counted cigarettes.

Then, one day, Ataeko broke a mug – an ugly, clunky chipped stoneware thing, stained grey by age. Gojyo didn't remember where he'd gotten it. Maybe it had been one of the things he'd found in the cupboards when he'd first moved into this dump.

It was an accident; she'd been trying to help, but her left arm was still weak, and she dropped the mug on her way to the sink. It split into three large pieces and spilled a small puddle of herb tea onto the dirty floor ("that's my special mixture – vitamins and minerals for young women, honey," the herb hag had cackled, but he'd taken no notice because he'd been wondering whether Ataeko already counted as a young woman, and he'd just decided that vitamins and stuff that were good for a woman could hardly be bad for a girl when the witch had cracked some joke about how precious he'd look in a skirt that didn't register at all. He'd only realized on his way home that he should have made a crack of his own to make sure she knew she was being ridiculous).

Gojyo picked up the shards and looked at the puddle of tea thoughtfully as it combined forces with the assorted other stuff that he'd been treading into the floorboards for the last couple of years. Huh. Maybe he should have swept the floor more often. That is to say, at all.

When he glanced up, Ataeko was frozen in place, looking stricken. Wide eyes the color of clotted blood stared at him in something far too close to terror.

"Forgive me," she whispered, her voice hardly audible, thready with disuse. "I'm sorry, please forgive me, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I'll do better, I can do better and I'm so very sorry –"

"Hey, kiddo. No sweat." Of course she wasn't apologizing for the mug at all, but Gojyo didn't know what to say to her to make it better, because nothing really could or ever would, and so he just grinned his best grin – the one that made women melt and forget all their sorrows – and hoped for the best. "Glad to be rid of it, really. Come on, give me a little smile and we'll be good, okay?"

She stared at him, and for the first time, tears welled into her eyes. Until they began to spill over, it almost looked as though she were crying blood.

The sight slashed through him like a knife, and he swallowed and reached out slowly to wipe the wetness from her cheeks. "Ataeko, it's okay. It'll be okay, I swear. You didn't do anything wrong. Nothing. Don't cry, okay? Please, don't cry –"

She shook her head and looked down, and her hair fell forward to hide her face.

Gojyo took a strand and tugged gently, and she watched as he lifted some of his own hair and touched the two strands together, ruby and blood. "Look, there's nothing wrong with you that's not also wrong with me. D'you hate me because of this – 'cause of my hair and my eyes? Because I'm a half-breed? D'you really think I'm just some disgusting mongrel who has to apologize for his existence, because he should never have been born in the first –"

"No!" She was so horrified that she stopped crying, and he tried his grin again.

"Then quit it, okay? You're just the same as me. Those people – they..." But he trailed off because he remembered that it was possible to love them even when they hated the sight of you, and he didn't want to hurt her, even if he thought the bastards who'd done this had deserved much worse than what they'd gotten.

Still, he must have said something right, because Ataeko stumbled forward a step and clutched him and cried on him, and never apologized to him again.


When Ataeko was almost thirteen, they moved. Gojyo wanted her to go to school, and of course she couldn't go to the one in that town. Besides, neither of them had cared much for the place anymore, anyway.

When she was sixteen, they moved again, because she'd beaten a man to within an inch of his life, and people were amazingly stupid about such things. Gojyo only wished she'd been a bit louder about beating the asshole's head against the wall, because the bastard had tried to grab her behind the bar where she'd been playing poker (and beating the pants off everyone, too, without even cheating), and Gojyo had been there too, and if he'd heard the commotion and come out, there wouldn't even have been enough left of the guy to feed the pigs with.


When she was seventeen, Ataeko accidentally blew up a shed. They didn't have to move because it was their shed – Gojyo had won it and a bit of land in a card game, and had decided to give the farming life a try because really, it wasn't good for a girl, always hanging out in bars after school or waiting for her slacker roommate to come home with his winnings.

"That is the coolest thing," Gojyo marvelled when she'd dragged him out to see the rubble. It was still smoking – a strange green glow was wafting up from the broken planks and stones, just like in a ghost story. "How'd you do that? Can you do it again?"

She tried, and couldn't, but she kept on trying. She'd never been one to fold early.


They moved again when Ataeko was twenty and had learned to control the ki. They found a town where she could learn to be a healer, and where he could buy a plot of land and also hang out in bars when he got bored of being all brother-of-the-soil.

This time, they didn't introduce themselves as siblings.

It was her idea. Gojyo wasn't so sure it was a good one, in the beginning, but she thought it was brilliant, and once she made up her mind, that was that. She was like that.

It wasn't like he minded; it was Ataeko, and she was tall and strong and confident, with a loud laugh and a bold grin and a proud toss of the head and the strongest punch he'd ever seen in a woman.

She was simply far more beautiful than anyone else – even those who were more beautiful, physically. He still looked at other women, of course. It was only fair, since she still looked at other men, too. But she was more beautiful than anyone.


When Ataeko was twenty-two, a monk who looked like he'd spent the last couple of days drunk beneath a table in the sleaziest bar in town knocked on their door, with a kid in tow who bounced around so much she felt the urge to zap him just to get him to hold still for a moment. Worse than Gojyo on a sugar high.

She was fairly sure Gojyo didn't know any Buddhist monks; none high-ranking enough to carry a sutra around their shoulders, certainly. Neither of the pair was missing obvious body parts, bleeding, or hacking his lungs out, and their auras seemed okay – if decidedly strange in the case of the kid – but she couldn't always tell yet when someone was hurt or sick. She would, though, and soon. She was decided on that.

"Anything I can do for you, sugar?" she drawled. She supposed the monk wasn't bad-looking, if you went for the sleazy arrogant type. Personally, she preferred the sleazy sweet kind.

Speak of the devil...

Gojyo padded up behind her and slipped his arm around her waist, probably giving the monk and his kid the eye as he snuggled close. She leaned into him a bit, turning her head so he could kiss her neck in greeting. Hmm... bed-warm Gojyo.

The monk's expression soured further, and the annoying kid made a disgusted noise. She grinned at both of them as Gojyo disappeared again, evidently having decided she didn't need any help dealing with these two if they got fresh.

Gojyo was sweet in the mornings. Hopefully this wouldn't take too long.



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