Sometimes catharsis for one person has to hurt another. "Your Chin Yisou, is he dead or is he you?"
An Ether Twist
The warm, familiar hands slip around his throat for the second time, and the initial pressure on his Adam's apple is bliss. He is being caressed, massaged at first, touched like a lover and petted like a cat; he opens his mouth to purr, but no sound comes out. The grip is firmer now, more sure and all the less loving for it. He tries to draw air into his lungs, but cannot manage to do so against the force of the thumbs pinching his trachea closed. They move together in a circle, slowly and counterclockwise, grating soft tissue against the bones of his spine.
He fights against the automatic surge of adrenaline and instinctive reaction of panic. He wishes he could swallow, but it's just not possible any longer; soon he will open his mouth and let the excess saliva trickle out on its own. It hasn't yet been thirty seconds, but his lungs are already aching with desperate biological need and he wants badly to give in to them. With the reluctance of a sleeper waking from a wonderful dream, he opens his eyes and stares up with the glassy gaze of the oxygen-deprived. The hands tighten, making him feel nauseous. "Sanzo..." He jerks upon hearing the epithet, used so frequently that he has come to think of it as his name more than his title. With one hand, he reaches up weakly and hooks his fingers into soft, loose cloth.
He closes his eyes again, calmly allowing nonsensical words and phrases to meander the depths of his memory, slowly making their way through the sludge of forgotten pasts to his immediate consciousness. Sanzo Sanzo I am Sanzo. Riverbed driftwood dead pleasedon'tbe oh he's dead and I'm sorry Iguess Iguess I guess I'm Sanzo. The mattress is soft beneath him; he thinks, perhaps, that he is on a cloud, because he can't remember lying back like this and the world feels so fuzzy around the edges. But something is shaking him, shaking him hard, jarring his eyes open, lifting his torso and dropping it down again. There is a heavy weight straddling his hips and-it's funny-but it all seems so familiar.
He looks up into a pale face that is drawn into a tight, unreadable expression. The cheeks are pink and blotchy with exertion, but the rest of his skin is so white that he looks ill in the harsh glaze of the moon's light that streams through the room's open window. He can feel this man pushing urgently against him, wrapping sweat-slicked fingers again and again around his neck, twisting painfully. Everything is familiar, everything is reminiscent of a memory that hovers just out of reach, except for the eyes of the man doing the dirty work; they are sane, controlled, needy eyes that glisten with sweet moisture just begging to be licked away. He finds himself wanting to believe the shining tracks on the man's smooth cheeks are the result of perspiration, though he knows that is not the case. Tonight tonight to night we wait and give thanks to the night. Whose doll will you be to night for night to my night my doll, puppet, object, Hakkai who gave me eight kisses and eight names and then strung me up and killed me because I let him bite off his tongue first, oh, it's so hard to be used to night. He remembers cold, angry eyes that could not reflect the light; dead eyes seeing through the flesh of another man, moving the body's limbs against the will of the body's mind as if that living, breathing creature was nothing more than a sophisticated marionette.
You were a dead thing by the side of the road. Warm breath tickles his nose as, catlike, an errant tongue licks at the trickles of saliva at the corners of his mouth. Oh, you bad dead thing, youyouyou don't want to be like him. You were both dead and not dead things, trying to pretend you were alive. Are you alive now, now that you're killing me? Blood rushes in his ears, pulsating like the roaring ocean; he is no longer choking, but drowning. His body begins to relax, falling limply against the tightly strained muscles of the man perched atop him. Your Chin Yisou, is he dead or is he you?
The world becomes dark and not dark; a great weight has been lifted from his chest. He is sure he will have to open his eyes and see heaven and hate it. For the briefest moment there is no pain, there is only the eternal pause of existential uncertainty, the limbo between the event and the comprehension. Then he takes a habitual inhale and fire sears his throat and lungs; sweet, rewarding fire borne of oxygen and the lingering impurities of cigarette smoke. He begins to cough in great, whooping heaves, so painful that he rolls, unrestricted, to one side and curls foetally inward. And still they are some of the sweetest breaths he has ever taken; the pain is just the bitter reassurance that he has yet to shuffle off this particular mortal coil.
The springs of the mattress shift and soft footsteps seem to ring harshly in the air, like a bell that evenly tolls the hour. The world pulsates with the steady throbbing of his heartbeat, thudthudthudding away in his ears and sounding so curiously like the ocean. Every breath rasps like a death rattle, and the irony of a cigarette craving is not humorous. He wishes the heaviness in his chest would dissipate, along with the feelings of lightheadedness and the lump in his throat. Cautiously, he strokes the side of his neck. The pain is considerable, even when he swallows; it is not the pain of a sore throat, that dull inner ache, but of a sharp knife-prick to his esophagus. He coughs and the world swims before his eyes as rheumy tears accumulate and blur his vision.
As he tries to sit up, a cup is placed into his hands; those fingers that had been choking him just a moment ago wrap around his own, sculpting his flesh around the coolness of the glass of water. He tries to pull away, to stand under his own power, but an arm around his shoulder weighs him down. "Don't." The voice is soft and different, the voice of a nurse in a hospice. "Wait." Blond hair, heavy and dark with sweat, is pushed from his forehead, and he drinks, grudgingly obedient despite the pain. The water is cold, and it feels like ice as successive swallows slip down his esophagus and curl around his heart. Cold hands, cold heart, numb throat, and a little "tsk, tsk" noise in his ear. "That's going to bruise." Fingertips drift over his neck apologetically, barely touching his flesh.
"You and your stupid baggage," he coughs, and Hakkai smiles with just a little sadness flickering in his eyes.
"Insults already?" He pulls Sanzo closer, snaking his arm around his narrow waist and resting his head on the other man's shoulder as if he is the one who needs to be comforted. "I suppose that's a good sign."
Sanzo snorts. "I take it you found out what you wanted." His voice is hoarse and it wavers at a point barely above a whisper. Hakkai's reply is muffled by Sanzo's robes, and so Sanzo shrugs his shoulders, feeling a slight jarring shudder through his collarbone as Hakkai's cheekbone clunks against his flesh. "Didn't catch that. Try again."
"I just wanted to be sure I could stop. On my own, if and when I wanted to." He rolls one mournful eye up to look at Sanzo and sighs. "I suppose it is a bit stupid."
Sanzo takes another thoughtful sip and clears his throat, judging that it is still a little too soon to have a cigarette. "Self-indulgent," he corrects absently.
Hakkai sighs. "I apologize."
"Don't." Sanzo says. "Apologies aren't worth shit and you know it."
"I guess I do." He looks up. "You knew I would stop, didn't you?" Sanzo shakes his head.
"I wasn't thinking about it. Either you would stop or you wouldn't."
Hakkai bites his lower lip. "Would you have preferred one over the other?"
Sanzo shrugs again, nudging away Hakkai's embrace. "Get me my lighter off the dresser," he murmurs; Hakkai laughs gently and stands, his lanky body unfolding slowly as his hand slides reluctantly from around Sanzo's waist.
"Yes, sir," he says and as he crosses the room, Sanzo laces his fingers around the outside of the empty water glass, clears his throat softly, and thinks, you might have been dead before, but you're far more alive now than I've ever been.