He heard the scream from outside as he walked up their house's path, shrill and piercing and wrong in every way. Not the normal scream of thinly veiled madness, cutting the air with its very existance, but one filled with pain and rage. Dropping everything, he ran. Through fresh mud and dry grass, kicking up patches of earth as he tried to get there. Faster, faster, not stopping but slowing as he reached for a weapon- sharp, blunt, enough.
Ten steps away and he could smell it.
Seven and he saw the first line of blood.
Five when it hit him, what had happened.
Pupils like pinpricks in red, cuts on his cheek, Gojyo laughed. Hysterical, relieved, terrified...
"She was comin' after me. She was. I had to..."
"I had to, you know. I had...Jien? Jien! Is it over?"
He didn't even know where to begin.
Gojyo had been having a very bad day.
Most people would say his whole life had been bad, had told him that when they could spare a moment to spit those words towards the red-haired mutt, but he didn't care much for what they said. How would he know, after all, how bad his life was? There was no basis for comparison, not out here, perched by a dark forest and a simple town. It was his life and it was the only one he could remember having.
But he had to admit that it was a bad day.
It had started with sun barging into his small room, sneaking past half-open curtains and attacking his eyes far, far too early. He could have fallen back to sleep, given a chance, but he wasn't and the banging of pots swept the soft feeling of semi-consciousness away with little effort.
"Stupid no good Jien," he remembered muttering as he'd rubbed sleep out of his eyes and crept towards his door, checking to see if the coast was clear just as he had every morning of his life.
The door at the end of the hall was still closed, no shadows moving through the light spilling at the bottom.
The minute he had entered the kitchen-dining room, Jien had turned and offered him a bowl of rice. "I could hear you coming down the hall. What's wrong, baby brother? You wet the bed or something."
A strong hand had ruffled his hair and Gojyo had swiped at it angrily. "Hell no. You woke me up with all your noise." A pause. "Bastard."
Jien had laughed, carefree for that moment, and pushed him towards the table. "Someone's gotta wake your lazy ass up."
They'd eaten in silence. Golden silence, so different from the kind that took its place when Jien left for work. That kind was eerie, lonely, sad, and sometimes deadly.
"Gotta get you a hair cut soon, kid. It's getting too long."
"I like it long."
The silence shifted. "Yeah, but that red mop of yours is sticking out more and--"
"I like it," he had ground out, stubborn and determined to have his way.
"Later. Now I have to get to work. Stay out of trouble."
Gojyo always stayed out of trouble. He really did. But trouble wrapped itself around him like an old friend, slung over his shoulders with guilt and the sense of 'wrong' he knew like the back of his hand.
He remembers looking down the hall again, at the door, so many hours ago. And he...and he...and he...
Hands were shaking his shoulders, making his head crack against the wall once, and the world lurched into focus, into the present, and suddenly he didn't want it to be now. His heart started fluttering in panic, tongue tasting copper-salt and hands feeling sticky with something. The grains of wood beneath his fingers were too sharp, too prominent. Shadows too dark and light too bright.
And there was red that wasn't him.
The hands were still there. "Gojyo! Gojyo! What happened? You need to tell me, now, what happened. Why is...she's...Gojyo, what /happened/?"
"She was comin' after me," he felt himself say. The one phrase running through his head, the one image, and he clung to it like a safe-line. "I didn't mean to. I was quiet. But I wasn't doing my chores, like I should have." Gojyo looked up, eyes wide, as if this was the most terrible thing in the world. As if Jien should focus on that, should know it, because it was an important fact.
A hand through his hair, not ruffling but soothing. "It's okay. It's okay, kid. It's..." and the comfort stopped, because the next word was a choked, "Mom. You...Mom's dead."
"She was comin' after me."
Jien had always been kind. Jien had always watched out for him, best as he could, since life here had begun for Gojyo. Jien was the strong one, the one to handle matters, the one to protect.
Jien probably hated him now, more than he loved him.
Gojyo thought he was drowning. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry but."
"What happened?" Jien asked, tears pushed aside. "I need to know. Please."
So Gojyo decided to tell him. But he couldn't look at his older brother, not now, so he focused on the red stain that was his Mom, splayed across the rough wood floor. Cooling, cooling, and hair turned crimson.
For a sick moment, Gojyo felt pride. Felt justice. Felt so much better. "I was just here, like always," he explained, voice stripped of the colored tones and phrases that usually marked his speech.
"I went outside for a bit, when I heard her coming out. I ain't stupid, you know," to which he added a brief curl of his lips, "so I went outside and threw rocks towards the forest. Then the others came by. The townies' kids. And they...you know."
Of course Jien knew. There had been cuts and bruises and punches to treat since the first day Gojyo had ventured into the town square on his own. And there had always, always been the verbal equivalent.
"Did you get into a fight?" Jien asked, patient but impatient, hands gripping Gojyo's arms tightly. He looked like he wanted to shake the redhead more.
"No! I didn't. They were just talkin' and I know to ignore that." Gojyo's eyes went blank and his shoulders hunched up a bit. "Actions speak louder than words, you said."
And Jien thought 'oh, no'.
"So," Gojyo continued, "So I came back inside. And it was quiet for a while. Then Mom...Mom had an attack." They always called it an attack, with her as the victim. Even the townies, with as little as they knew. "And I tried to talk her down, to tell her it was okay. I was going to cut my hair. I was going to go out. But she wouldn't /listen to me/."
Gojyo stood in a sudden, fast movement, still leaning heavily on the wall behind him for support. But the height difference helped. He swiped hair away from his face, fighting against the pieces that stuck to his cut up cheek, pulling it apart from force so new rivulets of blood spilled out.
Two lines, crisp and sharp and cruel.
Jien knew they'd never heal.
"Mom cut me. With her nails. That was okay, though, cause I think I'd called out for you before that. It was my fault. But then." Gojyo paused, trying to remember what happened when without reliving it. "She left and I thought it was okay. Maybe she was going to..." he stopped and scuffed his foot against the floor.
"She was going to patch you up?" Jien asked, soft and sad.
Gojyo nodded, bit his bottom lip, and thought I ain't stupid but didn't really believe it. "But she had the wood ax. She screamed and laughed and chased me. She tried to KILL ME!" he shouted. He felt like he was being accused, read the accusations in Jien's eyes and lack of words. "I acted. I acted and you told me to. It's not my fault.
"It's not my fault. It isn't. It's not and my face hurts and you'll hate me and I deserve it and it's /not my fault/." Gojyo was breathing hard, ragged breaths, fingers scrabbling at the wall behind him for some purchase but finding none.
Jien sighed, rubbed his forehead wearily, and stood from his kneeling position. His hands were clenched in tight fists, nails biting his palms. "It's alright, Gojyo. We'll figure this out. Calm down."
If things were normal, Gojyo would have scoffed at the idea that he was anything but calm and kicked his shin.
The half-demon took deep breaths, slowing down, eyes focused on the body Jien wouldn't look at just yet. He looked too old, too battle-worn, for a kid his age.
Jien wondered how old he himself must look
Taking a deep breath of his own, he turned. Frozen eyes stared back it him.
With a ragged howl, Jien turned back around, fast enough and hard enough that his fist went through the wall as if it were paper. "It wasn't supposed to be like this!" He drew back one arm and exchanged it for the other, adding one more hole to a growing collection.
Gojyo hiccupped and slid down to the floor again.
Then the anger died, snuffed itself out as he withdrew his fist from the wall, duly noting the scrapes and soon-to-be bruises that would only last a day or so. Easily mended, like the walls. Jien though that if he could only think about that for the rest of his life, of walls and stains to clean, he would be happy. No more fighting, no more protecting anyone. Just a normal life.
But that would come later.
Jien dropped to the ground next to his half-brother-Gojyo was so many halves but never a whole-and pulled the younger boy to him despite the protests. "C'mon, Gojyo. Calm down. It'll all work out; I'll make it work out. Calm down."
But Gojyo was calm, perfectly calm, now and simply staring at Mom-at what used to be Mom. "She looks relaxed. Don't ya think?" he said in a wondering tone. "Are they going to stone me?"
Jien felt his heart wind itself into a knot. "What?"
"When they find out what I did. Everyone. They don't like me. Sometimes the other kids throw rocks at me, cause I'm half demon. Or half human. Which is it? They throw them and I think, maybe, that everyone else will too." Because it was a black and white world, from what Gojyo had seen, and anything that messed up the picture couldn't stay. Wasn't welcomed with open arms and smiles, but narrowed eyes and side-steps on the street.
A small hand twisted into Jien's shirt, sticky red and scarred. Jien tightened his grip on the redhead and stared straight ahead. "No, they won't stone you. Think of the mess," he joked, but half way through he realized it wasn't even close to funny. Not now. Not with her lying there.
But Gojyo didn't freeze or get angry. Just said, "You're right."
They sat in silence for a while, minutes crawling by. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. Always silent, the only sounds being the faraway chirping of birds and the wistful rustle of leaves as the wind passed by. The world was moving on outside their small, ruined house.
"I'm having a bad day," Gojyo mumbled, an hour or more or less later. He looked washed out, worn away, and hung out to dry.
Jien blinked down at him, brain processing the words, then threw his head back and laughed. Gojyo stared at him as if he'd finally lost it, and that made him laugh more until he noticed red eyes darting glances towards the ax thrown a foot a way.
It sobered him up in an instant.
Kids grew up and grew old fast when they had no choice.
"Gojyo, are you alright?" Jien asked, and almost laughed again at the absurd question. The look Gojyo shot him told him what the boy thought of the question as well.
"I'm fine. I-"
Outside, a group of kids ran by, laughing and clapping and running as they played. No doubt coming back from the river, rushing to get home in time for dinner.
"We need to bury her," Gojyo said, determined, ignoring things he couldn't have for himself. This burial would be the final step towards whatever he'd put into motion. He was sure of it. "I'll...I'll clean her up, so she can be pretty again, and we'll..."
Jien shook his head sharply. "No. I'll do it. You don't need to. You've..." /done enough/, he wanted to finish, before he caught up with his thoughts and stopped himself from saying it out loud. When he realized what he'd almost said, he let go of his younger brother and shifted away, disgusted. At himself, at what Gojyo had done, at the world.
And that too would probably fade before anything came from it.
He hoped. He wished.
And he had time to do neither.
So he thought fast instead.
"Gojyo, listen to me."
But Gojyo was shaking his head slightly, eyes unable to move away from the image of Mom. "It wasn't my fault. Wasn't. They'll kill me too and it wasn't my fault. And she'll be there again."
"Listen to me." Jien twisted onto his knees, one hand grabbing a fist full of red mane and shaking gently until Gojyo stopped muttering. "It's isn't your fault. At all. It's mine."
Bleary red eyes slowly trailed their gaze from body to floor to man. "No..."
"Yes. If anyone asks. If anyone says anything. It's mine. I did it, I had too, because she would have killed you instead. I could never let that happen, you understand? Never."
"I did it. To protect you. That's all anyone needs to know." Jien shook him again, as if that would make him understand what needed to be done, blue eyes determined and sad and brave and pitying. "Right?"
And he had no choice but to nod, mind still playing over what he'd agreed to, what he'd seen in someone else's eyes. What it meant, the things it changed.
Gojyo felt, insanely enough, that something had been stolen from him.
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