Escape Artists

BY : alienchrist
Category: Gensomaden Saiyuki > AU - Alternate Universe
Dragon prints: 645
Disclaimer: Saiyuki and its characters do not belong to me. No infringement is intended and no profit is being made from my use of them.

Nii Jyianyi was one of the greatest illusionists of his time. That was what his lavish color posters promised, and that was what he truly believed. He could read it in the faces of the crowd from the moment he picked the right card to the finale with a clockwork tree that grew real oranges and produced a girl's ring in a napkin. He dazzled and amazed them in his tailed jacket and top hat. They followed the movement of his white gloves when they should have watched his assistant. They looked at his face when they should have watched his hands. Witchcraft and alchemy were not real sciences, but this true power, smelling of greasepaint and defined by the awe of children, was true magic. True influence. Buy another ticket. Take a train to see me again. Follow me.

He had the audience spellbound. All save one.

The blond young man in the audience hadn't cracked a smile all night. Once Nii noticed that, he couldn't ignore it. Everyone else beneath the big top was entranced, munching their peanuts, their eyes wide and dazzled by the lights like farm animals. It was business as usual, typical to the point of being dull. Nii delivered all of the shock and awe his brightly-colored posters promised, and more, but Blondie barely smiled. The lad sat in a slight and sullen slouch, his hands in his lap, barely watching the show. Doves flew over his head and he didn't so much as glance upward. He looked seventeen, maybe eighteen. Nii tried to write it off as the rebellious attitude deficiencies of whippersnapper, but Blondie still got under his skin.

No wave of his bright white gloves, no tip of his silk hat, no toothy grin elicited a single reaction from Blondie. By the time the show concluded, Nii was in a fit of egotistical malaise. He cursed as he ducked out of the ring and threw off his jacket. It was saved from a mud puddle by his assistant, Gonou, an eerie young man with the best sense of timing Nii ever met.

"You did well tonight, sir," murmured Gonou. Gonou was very obedient and polite, but prone to skulking about. He was not overenthusiastic like Nii's last assistant, which Nii both liked and hated. He was as indifferent to magic as he was to everything else since the death of his sister, but that lackluster quality meant that he'd never outshine Nii. He had no aspirations or desires of his own. He would not become a competitor. More importantly, though, Gonou owed him and had no other place to go.

Nii ducked into his wagon, hanging up his top hat. After hastily lighting a lamp, he sat down in front of the mirror with cold cream. He and Gonou both wore a little eyeliner and rouge to make them more lively on stage. Take all that away and he was nothing but a smirking, bespectacled man whose dark hair could use a bit of a trim. He was handsome enough, his angular face transformed by careless grins that made people underestimate him. All part of the illusion. Nii undid his bow tie, unbuttoning his shirt at its stiff throat.

After hanging the jacket, putting away the props and lighting a few more lamps, Gonou sat beside him and began removing his stage face as well. The rouge that gave him color slowly came off, making his sallow cheeks all the more unnerving. Most nights Nii didn't bother engaging in conversation with the taciturn boy, but today he had an inquiry to make. "Did you happen to notice a lad about your age mocking me in the audience?"

"I didn't see anyone like that. Everyone seemed quite entertained by the performance. Especially the finale. You're right, the fresh oranges really do add a lot of nuance to it." Gonou spoke with hardly any inflection, leaning forward to concentrate on a particularly stubborn bit of eyeliner.

"I'm not surprised you didn't see it," said Nii, examining a bit of stubble on his cheek. "Limited depth perception and all." He grinned at the delivery of the punch, but didn't even bother glancing over to see Gonou's reaction.

Gonou kept his peace, his face blank save the green and white glint of his glass eye. Most of the circus was frightened of the man, and with good cause. He and his twin sister Kanan traveled with the caravan since they were quite young, matching each others moves in a juggling act. The fortune teller, a slimy man by the name of Yisou, took a special liking to Kanan. As she blossomed into womanhood, he decided to help her blossom a little bit further. Nii had no idea what Yisou saw in her. Kanan was a vapid girl, always smiling and laughing but never showing much beneath. She loved her Bible and pretty flowers, she loved her brother best of all. Yawn.

The day after Yisou ravaged Kanan, her eyes were blank as a soldier's, ready for amputation. She was dead inside, but still somehow afraid when she told her brother of the crime. For the first time ever, Nii found her interesting.

Nii watched their little drama unfold from a comfortable distance, at the edge of the little glen the circus parked their wagons. Gonou's voice rose a little, and she took off running. She bolted quickly from Gonou's reach and he gave chase. Nii made no attempt to stop her as she ran past, headed for the edge of a rocky ravine nearby. She didn't pause long enough to hear her brother calling. Instead, she threw herself off and away.

Beautiful. The sight inspired Nii to invent a levitation trick, later.

Recovering her broken body took the better part of a day, especially since several in the circus had gone into the local town for supplies. Even when they brought back the girl's broken, mangled corpse, Gonou's face remained drawn and expressionless. Then darkness fell all at once.

Gonou found a knife and marched back to the little ring of wagons, dragging Yisou out like a thing possessed. He proceeded to gut the man in front of the camp fire, but not before a terrific struggle on Yisou's part. He was youkai, after all, and stronger, but Gonou's rage never flagged. Stabbed in one eye and bleeding from a gunshot in the belly, the juggler just wouldn't stay down. In the end, Gonou sliced Yisou into pieces with the frightful precision of a man gone mad. As Yisou gurgled out his last, Gonou stood over him with a familiar, dead expression, then collapsed atop him. That was how the lion tamer and strong man found them shortly after.

No one at the circus was keen to have the police involved, and taking Gonou to a hospital would have exposed their little drama. Before they could reach a verdict on the young man's fate, Nii stepped in. He offered responsibility for the boy and nursed him back to health, out of curiosity more than anything else. He hadn't stitched anyone up since the war and wanted to see if he was still able. Aside from the unsalvageable right eye, Gonou made a complete recovery. Nii offered Gonou a job as his assistant.

The decision made him unpopular with the other circus performers. Nii sometimes saw the lion tamer and strong man muttering and glancing in his direction before the tight rope girl broke them up. It might have been just the typical mistrust youkai held for humans - understandable after the war - but Nii could tell from their body language that they also disliked him.

Nii crafted Gonou a new eye. He was good at imitations of life, at things too good to be true. It was all part of winning an audience over. This was his finale in the show to convince Gonou. The lad was one of those born skeptics, the type who was not only able to see through Nii's illusions, but through his act of humanity, as well. It made sense to win Gonou to his side, or at least put him in debt. And he'd needed a new assistant since the old one struck out on his own. Gonou was always perfectly amicable, calm and levelheaded and good at following instructions - not to mention he was handy with a needle and thread, and over the cooking fire. From a distance, there was no way the audience could tell he was mad as a March hare. The arrangement worked well.

Nii and Gonou sat silent in the wagon for a few minutes before there was a knock on the door. Gonou rose to get it. Nii watched him. If it was some admiring young fawn, Gonou would depart and Nii could show off his tricks. He leaned back in his chair to see around Gonou.

It was the blond lad from earlier in the night. Perhaps his iciness earlier was just an act, a coy way to cover his true admiration. Nii wasn't approached by men as often as he was by women, but he'd always consent to a conversation with an admirer. Gonou allowed the boy in and excused himself quietly.

Blondie had a handsome face that opposed his severe expression. He was dressed in machine-spun cloth, likely the son of a shopkeeper or a banker. He carried himself like someone who'd been to academy, like the clean wood floor of Nii's wagon was covered with muck he'd never get off his shoes. His eyes were violet as sunset, striking even in the flickering lamplight. He purveyed every item in the wagon, the cages of birds and rabbits. His frown was immobile. Just as Nii was about to tell him to either explain what he wanted or get out, the young man spoke.

"You're reputedly the best illusionist of the decade," he said. "I wasn't very impressed, but, sometimes the name's more important than the performance, anyway."

"Name me someone who's better."

Blondie ignored him. "I heard you and your assistant were leaving this dump pretty soon."

"We'll be touring on our own. We've been booked in the big city."

"That's how I heard of you. Look. It doesn't make me happy to say this--" --Nii wondered if anything ever made this kid happy-- "But I need you. Your creepy assistant I can take or leave, but I need an escape artist."

"If you really knew me you'd know I don't deal in escape. I deal in illusions." It wasn't that Nii didn't see the appeal of risk-taking, it was just rather pedestrian in the effort it took to impress. Why put his life in danger by performing actual tasks that were somewhat difficult when he could use a few mirrors, some trap doors and secret pockets, and the occasional clockwork orange tree to produce the same reaction?

"If I really knew you, I'd have killed you for spite by now," Blondie snorted. "I knew this was a waste of time. I should've just asked that other magician - the one who calls himself the God of Magic -"

"Kami," Nii scoffed the name of his old assistant. He'd always thought the boy so trusting and obedient. But Kami decided the best way to show his teacher his appreciation was to strike out on his own, purloining all of Nii's best-kept secrets. It was a joke, really, the idea that anyone could surpass simply through copying.

"- Or even that nut-job the Great Zakuro. I'm sure once either of them would at least listen to my offer before he started putting on airs."

"Neither of them have much reason to put on airs, but if you're willing to settle for either of them, then I'm insulted you even considered me. You obviously don't care what kind of show gets put on."

"I don't have time for this crap. You wrote this, didn't you?" Blondie thrust an old paper under Nii's nose, filled with scratchy, chaotic script. "You're Ken'yuu."

Nii recognized it as his own hand, though he hadn't written a letter in many years. Checking the date, it was one he wrote during the war.

A wave of dizziness washed over Nii. The wagon was a matchbox, a coffin, and he couldn't stand it any longer. He wanted out. He wanted a cigarette. But if he left now, Blondie would know something was eating at him. Nii didn't let on, but the kid seemed to know somehow. He didn't crack a smile of triumph, but Nii almost wished he would. Nii folded the letter back to its original form, but it was old, yellowed, creased. Sealing it up again wouldn't hide its secrets.

"How'd you get this?" Nii spoke through the angry teeth of his fake smile. This was not something anyone was supposed to have seen.

"Found it in my old man's things with all the rest."

"Your old man?" The idea of the letter's recipient being a parent made Nii's lip curl. During the war, he wrote to a famous magician, Koumyou Sanzo, as sort of a whim. The craft interested him. He was quite surprised when the magician wrote him back. What followed was a few years of happy correspondence. Nii and Koumyou never talked about the war, but instead had long, philosophical debates about audience, storytelling and perception. Those letters were the only moments of light in those bloody, muddy times, and when Nii finally grew fed up with uphill struggles, there was part of him that regretted changing his name and severing ties. He entered the world of illusionists hoping to find Koumyou, only to hear the man retired long ago. No one had heard from him for years. Bearing all that in mind, it wasn't so strange that Koumyou might have had a family and lived a normal life, but Nii found the prospect inexplicably depressing. Married people were always so boring. "He never mentioned a son in his letters." Or a wife.

"There's a lot he didn't mention. He probably figured it'd bore you. He never told me about your correspondence, either." That obviously bothered Genjyo, which pleased Nii.

"So why'd you track me down? You found out about me when you snooped through your pop's things and the curiosity was impossible to take? What's your old man up to these days?" Nii had a feeling he knew, but couldn't resist asking anyway for the potential change in Genjyo's face.

Just as he hoped, the lad's jaw tightened, his violet eyes narrowed sharply. "A copious dirt nap."

"Damn. I'm sorry to hear that." Nii couldn't give less of a hoot about whether or not this Genjyo brat lost his pa, but he genuinely regretted he'd never speak with Koumyou. He'd always wondered what the man was like. He'd even asked for a photograph of the man, once, though Koumyou dismissed the request in his reply, saying an old man like him didn't hold with such new-fangled technology. That being said, had Ken'yuu ever had his picture taken? Nii sent along a small portrait, excusing it by pointing out it was taken when he was just a child in school. Koumyou thanked him in the next letter. Nii's reply to that was the last letter he ever sent.

Nii waited many months for a reply, but it never came. Of course it hadn't. Bad luck and disappointment followed Nii like a flock of ravens, ready to pick apart the slightest good fortune. He saw it time and again. He completed school and became a physician at a ridiculously young age, but his parents barely paused from their galas to congratulate him. He became a valued military doctor, then got caught up in that blasted war. He hadn't half the resources he needed to give proper care and people kept dying the same pathetic way over and over. After all that, he found a friend, his first and only one, and the man stopped writing. Nii couldn't find him again. All attempts to replace him with another kind of connection failed.

"He wrote you back." Looking sour, Genjyo handed Nii a letter penned in that familiar, flighty handwriting. "I guess your company was on the move a lot back then. It was returned, and he tried a few more times to send it out, but it just kept getting returned. Dunno how long it took him to find out that you deserted."

Nii wanted nothing more than to kick that sullen, pinched-faced brat of a teenager out of his wagon so he could read the letter privately, but his impatience won out over his perpetual desire to argue. To think he could learn Koumyou's reply nearly a decade after the fact! It was more delicious than the delight that washed over an audience's face when he turned a hat full of milk and eggs into doves, or a rabbit.

I am actually planning to retire and focus on teaching the trade to my son, Koumyou wrote, But of course, performing with you would be a delight! Even if you know no magic, you could be the plant in the crowd or something equally amusing. Consider it something to look forward to after the war!

"So what does all of this have to do with you, boy?" Nii finally said, folding up the letter and placing it inside his vest. Genjyo glanced up listlessly feeding one of Nii's rabbits a piece of lettuce.

"The old man and I were working for this dowager in Houtou. She really likes magic, but her taste's gone to escape artists lately. Her birthday's coming up. She wants a magic show like my pa used to throw. Truth be told, I've lost the taste for doing magic of any kind. So I figured I'd go with the next best thing."

"I really don't see any reason why I should do you a favor," Nii said snidely. He thought it would be a nice blow to Genjyo's hopes after he put forth the effort of finding a strange deserter from his father's past, but the lad only shrugged.

"Because you said you wanted to do a show with him, and you didn't get a chance. I thought it'd make him happy if I at least tried to get you."

"How'd you know it was me? I changed my name and all."

"--Which is hare-brained, if you think about it, because someone's gonna connect you to Ken'yuu one of these days--"

"Your concern touches me in so many ways," Nii interrupted, "Now answer."

"Your photo. He kept it in a locket. Found it on him when he died."

A quick, fierce jealousy overtook Nii's senses. He thought he would have much preferred to have been the one to dress Koumyou's body when he died, even if they never met. It felt like Genjyo was prying, even if he was the magician's miserable offspring.

"Well, I'm not doing it."

"Thanks for wasting my time, then." Frowning intensely, Genjyo gave one of the bunnies one last pat on the head and crossed the wagon in a single step. He paused on the step down, in the doorway. "If you change your mind, that train out to the big city carries on to Houtou. You could change your tickets. We didn't even discuss how much this party'd pay you. If the lady of the house likes you, she'll not only pay handsomely, but with all kinds of presents, too. She really coddles the people she likes."

"I am not going to change my mind. I'm already sick of your face, so pull foot already."

"You don't have to tell me twice," Genjyo grunted and turned away.

"Wait -- how'd your pa die, anyway?"

"He was strolling around town one evening and intervened on some youkai hooligans beating an old man. They clawed him in the belly a few times and that was it. There wasn't even time to get him to the doctor."

"Get out," Nii demanded. "I told you I was sick of your face."

"I told you I was leaving, you sonnovabitch."

Genjyo left, and Nii sat staring at the two letters for quite some time. Gonou quietly let himself back into the wagon and settled back in to work on some sewing. It was only a moment later that Nii's thought caught up to the moment. He stood up all at once.

"He went out like a sucker! What a damn disappointment!"

"I beg your pardon?" Gonou looked up from the garment he was mending.

"I was talking to the rabbits."

Gonou shrugged and went back to sewing.

~*~

Nii never did understand what all the fuss was about trains. They were noisy and smelled of soot. All the varnish in the world couldn't make make them less like a steel and wood death trap. The first time Nii rode one in his youth, he'd been passably amused by the feat of modern engineering. Now, though, he was bored of them, quickly descending further into the black mood that plagued him since learning of Koumyou's death. Gonou and he couldn't afford a private box, which meant they had the golden opportunity to sit up all night and listen to women in tall hats prattle about their upcoming holiday. Of course, it was still a faster option, safer and smoother than taking a coach or one's own wagon, and they'd arrive with plenty of time to set up and rehearse the magic show on the grand stage. Though the train was speeding toward his big break, Nii remained in poor spirit. He didn't even mind Gonou taking the window seat so he could watch the scenery.

On the second day of the trip, the weather was cool and gloomy, so the observation car at the end of the train was empty. The observation car felt more spacious than the regular passenger car, with only a few benches to sit on and enjoy the scenery out of large windows. It opened onto an exposed deck, the rounded off end half of the train that was fashioned a bit like a gazebo or the riding area of a fancy ferry. The floors were polished wood, the metal walls painted a deep blue. There were places to sit in the open air, though the wind and sound of the train made it noisy, and the infirm weather made it cold. At least it was private. The wind whipped about, and Nii tugged up the collar of his plain wool jacket. Green trees and high-backed mountains blurred by. Nii reached into his inner pocket and pulled out the letter he'd read every day since receiving it. Koumyou sounded so carefree in that lost letter. He spoke a little about his son, the boy he'd adopted after he found him in the rushes like Moses, and discussed his growing interest in escape arts.

It's like a game, Koumyou wrote. A game of chance and skill, but mostly ingenuity. Even more exhilarating is the possibility of combining the two. It wouldn't work more than once or twice, though, but imagine an audience's reaction when they find the magician they thought had died to be alive and well in some other location. A satisfying play indeed.

Nii could think of a few satisfying plays he'd like, too, come to think of it. Maybe with that smart-mouthed son of Koumyou's. Kid ought to be taught an object lesson in respect.

If he was thinking like that, all resentful-like of some stranger's connection to a magician he'd never met, obviously it'd been too long since his last tumble. Nii considered his options. Gonou was out of the question, unless he wanted to wake up with knitting needles in his eye or his long underwear strangling his throat in the morning. Maybe he ought to mosey to the dining car, see if there were any ladies traveling alone for the duration. A train wasn't the most private place, even if he found a lady traveling alone with a private box, but the pursuit at least would detract from the blackness.

A birdlike flutter distracted Nii's trail of thought. He looked up to see a tall man entering the observation deck, his silk robes dancing in the wind. The wind buffeting the car tore the letter from Nii's fingers and carried it away. Nii jumped to his feet to reach for it, but it was too late. He watched dumbfounded as the letter did several acrobatic loops before landing in a thicket of trees far behind them. It was soon gone from sight like so much rail track.

Nii glared at the intruder, out of principle more than truly blaming him. The man was dressed in a long gray robe, silk, high in the collar, with thick white cuffs. Nii recognized it as a fashion popular in more traditional parts of the East - a chang pao. The man wore a round, flat-topped hat of black silk. Beneath the hat his hair was pale and long, gathered into a braid the wind was already pulling stray wisps from. His face was narrow, with high cheekbones, and the gentle lines around his eyes and face suggested a man entering his middle years. He purveyed the observation car with squinted eyes. When his gaze settled over Nii, he smiled. The rattling of the car, noise of the engine and gritty smell of coal were distant, and the clouds of the day gave way to reluctant sunlight.

"May I sit out here awhile?" asked the stranger.

Nii didn't even bother to adjust his posture. In fact, he stretched and slouched a little further, long legs with threadbare trousers and scuffed loafers crossed at the ankles. He took up twice the space he needed to.

"You don't need my permission," Nii shrugged. "You paid for the ticket, right?"

There was a fine enough seat on the other side of the platform, but instead, the braid-wearing man sat up on the railing next to Nii. Nii briefly imagined what the scene would be if he fell. His body would twist, all wrapped up in the silk like a spring roll. Maybe his hair would catch on the bumper or in the wheels of the train, and tear his whole, frail-looking body hither and yon. Nii returned the strange man's smile, imagining that.

"Everyone pays for their ticket, Mr. Nii." The peaceful smile grew amused and sly.

"How'd you know my name?" A fan of his work, Nii assumed, though he was sure he'd remember someone dressed in such a manner. He was sure he'd remember this man in particular.

"You dropped your ticket in the dining car." The stranger reached into his sleeve, producing the ticket with Nii's name written on it. "Your traveling companion seemed occupied, so I thought I'd return your ticket in person. Naturally, you were in the last place I looked." A lighthearted laugh. "I should have looked in the last place first!"

Nii took the ticket, slipping it into the inner pocket of his vest. He leaned forward, trying to gaze into the older man's eyes. "It seems I'm at a disadvantage. You know my name, but I don't know yours."

"My name?" As if the idea of introducing himself hadn't occurred to the man. He paused a moment, then a smile broke out on his face anew. "It's Soma."

"Nice to meet you, Soma."

The observation platform gave a perilous tremble and shake, and Soma braced one foot to Nii's chair, steadying himself with a bridge between them. Soma wore black slippers embroidered with a gold pattern of a daisy on strange, slender fronds. Nii ran his fingers over the pattern, and then up over the little jut of Soma's ankle bone. Soma neither resisted nor commented, just watched Nii with an expression of mild curiosity. Annoyed at the lack of reaction, Nii slid his hand upward further. Soma's calf was smooth as a woman's, but Nii's found in his journey upward that the loosely-fitting garment Soma wore was hiding a muscled form. Exposed to the air and the coolness of Nii's fingertips, Soma's skin grew little goosebumps. Nii inched further and further, and while Soma's expression never changed, his cheeks grew slightly pinker. Nii drew warmth from the excitement of touch alone, and soon his hand no longer raised goosebumps on Soma's skin.

Slowly, Nii's hand disappeared nearly all the way up Soma's robe. He came to rest on Soma's outer thigh for a long moment. Nii felt and saw Soma draw in a sharp breath, inaudible beneath the sounds of the train. After giving Soma's thigh a long squeeze, Nii pulled his hand away along that same slow and agonizing path. He wished Soma's gray silk fell a little differently, hung a little tighter. He was certain he'd see at least a slight bulge emerging from his flirtatious physical statement. His own trousers felt a little tight.

Nii stood, placing his hands on Soma's shoulders. "Don't you think this is a dangerous place to sit?" he said. "I could push you right off the train if I wanted. It's not likely you'd survive the fall."

Little bursts of sunlight kept darting through cloud breaks and high trees to illuminate Soma's hair. The shade of ash blond took on a honey gleam, scattered gray hairs shining like strands of silver. His skin was almost translucent, this close, but Nii felt that Soma was anything but fragile. He might wear dainty, fluttering things, but the body beneath was a fine steel trap, precise and delicately tense. Yet it rippled like small brook when Soma laughed.

"Are you saying you want to murder me? That's quite a bold statement for our first meeting. I wouldn't commit to such strong sentiments so soon."

Nii forced a laugh. It took a moment for him to loosen his grip on Soma's shoulders. He rested them instead at Soma's hips, in the small space between his hands and body. He was relieved, somehow, that Soma didn't cower or even widen his eyes. If he'd done those things, Nii was certain he would've thrown him from the train without a second thought.

(This journey was already punishing him with ennui. Let it not disappoint him with a lackluster companion.)

"I was joking."

"Oh," said Soma. "You were?" This close, Nii could see his eyes were hazel. He wondered why Soma didn't just wear spectacles if his vision was so poor he needed to squint like that all the time.

"Of course. Who'd throw a complete stranger from a train?"

"The same person who'd molest a complete stranger on a train, I imagine!" Soma said. He said it like teasing, like they old friends or old lovers, just joking around and sharing a quiet, private moment, hidden under the racket of the train and the dull roar of the wind.

"That person would have to have awful manners." To prove his bad manners, Nii pressed his lips to Soma's jugular. And then down, and down. As he pushed his body against Soma's, it became all too clear just how little space the older man had on the railing. He was all but dangling over the edge.

"Stop that nonsense!" Soma tapped the side of Nii's head with his knuckles until he stopped. Nii paused, wondering dizzily if he'd genuinely offended the man, if his first thoughts of violence were the right ones. "Your whiskers are awfully scratchy!" Soma huffed, bringing to Nii's mind the face of one of his doves when it was annoyed or offended.

"You're really not worried!" Nii thought aloud, his voice rising with manic energy. At this rate he might start laughing, a full on belly laugh that wouldn't stop until the tears came. "I could have pushed you right off, and you're not the least bit worried!"

"I don't have any cause to worry," Soma reasoned. He gently pushed at Nii's chest until the man stepped aside, and hopped off the railing. "If you killed me now you'd never reach your destination! Besides, you're a magician, right? I wanted to show you a little trick of mine."

So Soma was a fan after all. Nii was crestfallen, though he couldn't have said why. "Great," he said, not bothering to disguise his sarcasm.

"I wouldn't call it great, but it is pretty interesting!" Soma remarked. He gave a simple but gracious bow, and pulled a letter from his U-shaped sleeve.

"That wasn't a very good trick at all," Nii grumbled, "You just had it in your sleeve the whole time."

"I've never been too flashy," Soma said apologetically. "Well. Have a nice trip, I suppose!"

Before Nii could say more, Soma disappeared through the doorway. Nii followed, but was delayed by two women and their ridiculous bustles. By the time he made it back into the car, Soma was nowhere in sight.

The train didn't make another stop until the late evening. There was no way Soma could hide from him forever. It would be a diversion for the next few days, at least, so Nii resolved to take his time solving the riddle that was Soma. And bed him, since it seemed likely the man had a private box. Satisfied with his conclusion, Nii examined the prop Soma gave him.

It was Koumyou's letter - identical down to the smudged ink and the faint smell of a cedar drawer. Even the creases were in the same place. Different, though, was the vanilla-soft scent of a fancy tobacco and a hint of almond oil. Nii pressed the letter to his nose and recalled those scents in Soma's skin and hair, faint beneath the loud smells of coal and the forest winds whipping by.

"Well, I'll be damned," Nii said, and tucked the letter back into his vest. No sense in risking losing the letter again.

As he entered the passenger car, Nii was stopped by a short lad in a white uniform, his brown hair messy beneath his matching hat. He recalled having seen him help load the luggage at the station, and shoveling down his dinner in the dining car in the wee hours. Now the porter grinned up at Nii. "Ticket, please!"

"I boarded this train yesterday. You saw my ticket then." A half-truth. Gonou showed their tickets to some other attendant as they got on.

"No sir, I didn't. I gotta check tickets now and then, y'know, just to make sure no one's riding for free!" The kid was practically bouncing with enthusiasm, like a spaniel just happy to have a job to do. Probably his first job. Judging by his gold eyes, it might've been one of the better ones he could get. The kid looked youkai.

"Fine," Nii groused, and pulled the ticket from his pocket. The porter grabbed it with both hands and studied it with a frown of concentration. "What, can't you read?" Nii had a way of sneering while he smiled. He expected resentment for the shot at the kid's reading level, a sore spot when most youkai were lucky to receive past a second grade education.

Instead, Goldie met him with a wide and clueless gaze. "Um, sir. Why are you even at this end of the train? Your box is toward the back, ain't it?"

"My box?" Nii snatched the ticket back.

Nii Jyianyi, the ticket read, BOX A. CHANG'AN TO HOUTOU.

"Do you need me to show you back there?" asked Goldie, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

"No," Nii said, unable to suppress his giggle. "I can find my way."

"Of course, sir. Have a nice afternoon." Goldie edged away, blinking at the laughter Nii didn't even bother to hide. Nii laughed long and hard, until his sides ached. He was still laughing when he made it into the empty luxury box.

A satisfying play indeed!

~*~

Nii was disappointed to find the box empty when he arrived. It was much the same as the other luxury boxes he'd seen. The room echoed the landscape outside, with green velvet and polished wood, and little bursts of shining gold in the brass fixtures. There was a large bed to one side, behind half a dividing wall, and a table furnished with cushioned benches next to a large picture window. At first glance, there were no signs of life. But Nii was an educated man, detail-oriented, and a thorough examination garnered irrefutable evidence: a very long hair underneath one pillow. It was exactly Soma's shade.

He wrapped the strand around his wrist and between his fingers like a secret talisman, and waited for the mysterious man's arrival, re-reading Koumyou's letter. He was beginning to understand what had been pulled off. Was it merely a performance, or was there some deeper motivation? If Koumyou still lived and wanted Nii to perform for Gyokumen, why not make the request personally? It would have saved his sullen, sorry excuse for a son the trouble. Then again, the possibility stood that Soma was only an assistant or a plant, coincidentally Koumyou's age.

Nii sprawled out on the bench, stretching his legs along the cushion. After all, the ticket said this car was his now. He stared out the window. The cool glens and high trees were already starting to bore him. He wanted more of Soma. He raised his wrist to his cheek, smoothing his hair-bracelet against the stubble of his cheek. The strand was strong and clean, like the sinew used to string violins, or the wires he used in his act for levitation. But when Nii hooked his finger into the loop, it snapped and broke easily.

A gentle knock on the door startled his reverie. It was the short, golden-eyed porter again. He pushed a small cart with several bamboo steam plates and a shiny pot of tea. "Food's here!" Goldie called into the room, and then glanced around. "Right, it's you," he said, staring at Nii. "Uh. You hungry?" Before Nii could answer, he started setting out the plates.

There were fresh dumplings, stuffed banana leaves, and a variety of jewel-bright steamed vegetables. The smell made Nii's mouth water. He swallowed and spoke from the corner of his mouth. "Who did you expect to see in this car?"

"I get the cars mixed up all the time. I just hope I took the order to the right one..."

Nii snorted. The boy was quick and graceful despite what he said, and the food was all arranged and a cup of tea poured for Nii in very short order. He stood looking at Nii expectantly for a moment.

Nii stared right back at him.

"Mister, it's usually customary to give a tip."

"And it's usually customary for me not to tip for anything but favors," Nii sneered. "So unless you wanna get on your knees--"

"Never mind, sir, I betcha they need me in the kitchen!"

Goldie beat a hasty retreat. Nii folded up his legs, sliding to sit correctly on the bench and address his tea and snacks. A warm laugh lit the luxury box.

Soma sat down across from him, pouring himself his own cup of tea. Nii re-lived the last few minutes in his head, and couldn't place when Soma might have made it in. Even with the porter distracting him, his gaze was trained right in the direction of the door. Nii knew it was impossible that Soma had appeared from thin air, but the trick was quite streamlined. He couldn't be sure whether he was annoyed or intrigued.

Without saying another word to each other, they drank their tea and began to eat as if they'd always shared these seats. The first break in silence happened a few minutes in, when Nii offered Soma some spare rib.

"No thank you," said Soma with a little wave of his hand. "I don't eat meat."

"Religious reasons? Health reasons?" It was rare to meet someone aside from bald, humorless monks who didn't eat meat. Most Buddhists were not so devout these days.

"Yes," said Soma. "Are you going to eat that steamed broccoli?"

"Help yourself," Nii said, setting down the plate with a flourish.

Soma laughed and partook.

In the moments of silence after the meal, Soma pulled a pipe and tobacco from his sleeve. He packed the pipe with ritual care and skill, lighting it with a match. Nii was fascinated by Soma's lips as he lightly closed them around the end of the pipe, and the fine white tendrils that curled past them when he pulled away and offered Nii a puff. From its spicy notes and hints of vanilla, Nii judged it to be a fine tobacco - the scent that clung to Soma's hair and the letter he gave Nii.

"How do you like it?" Soma asked.

"It's very good," Nii said, taking one final puff before handing the pipe back. "But I think the smoke must be much sweeter from your lips."

Without awaiting reply, Nii leaned across the table to test his theory. He kissed Soma, open-mouthed and hungry. For a moment Soma was rooted to his seat, then he returned the kiss, pressing that smokey taste (and the taste of tea and vegetables) into Nii's mouth. The gentlest sweep of Soma's tongue across the line of his teeth sucked the air from Nii's lungs. He had to pull back far too soon and stared at Soma dumbfounded.

The older man smiled at him, hazel peeking through his long, pale lashes. Free from the hat he wore earlier in the day, his pale bangs rested long across his cheeks.

"My," Soma breathed, "But you are forward."

"You changed out my ticket so we could meet here," Nii pointed out, "So who's forward?"

"It's really no fun when the man from the audience points out how the trick really works," Soma pouted. "You were doing such a good job with playing along, even that line about the smoke!"

Nii stared at Soma a moment more, then sat back down across the table. Was Soma teasing, or was he not being let in on the joke? Not enough information to say for certain, yet. "I wasn't playing," he said, reaching under the table to grasp Soma's knee. "I want to screw you."

"Screw me? I'd never do such a vulgar thing." Soma was put-upon, positively indignant, and, Nii suspected, completely joking.

"Screw you, ravish you, lie with you - whatever you like. I want you."

"We're not nearly to the point where I can lie with you," Soma chuckled, "But I might lie beside you. Would that suffice?"

"I won't believe you're so old you can't take part," Nii scoffed. His hand slid further in. Soma stopped him with a firm hand, slowly lifting it from the silk of his robe entirely until Nii withdrew.

"After the finale, everyone in the audience goes home. If you end the show too soon, they'll never be satisfied."

Inside his head, Nii was cussing, mad as a polecat. But he smiled, determined to win Soma over. "I'll lie beside you, then."

Soma nodded, slipping from the booth and offering a willowy hand up. They were kissing before Nii even stood up. Nothing about Soma seemed old, nothing about him seemed reserved or tidy, let alone conservative or spiritual. He was just as hungry as Nii was, gentle but pulling and pushing with the same force. His hands were everywhere at once, tugging at Nii's scraggly dark hair, rubbing thumbs over the nape of his neck or the small of his back, squeezing his hips. Nii threw him down on the bed, but when he aimed to crawl on top of the slender man, Soma just rolled away with a laugh.

"I said beside, not atop!"

"Right," Nii growled, stretching out onto his side next to Soma, who rested on his back. After a moment he slipped a hand over the back of Soma's neck and pulled him close for more kissing. Soma acquiesced, but his kisses were cooler and slower this time. Soma cupped his chin and pushed him back, pressing a kiss over Nii's stubbled jaw, and then his ear.

"I swear I've never met such a randy man, certainly not right off," Soma whispered, then withdrew completely.

"I swear you've never met a man," Nii complained, but he did not try to kiss Soma again. Soma rolled onto his back, and Nii did the same. The bed was large enough for them side-by-side, but they couldn't manage it without touching. Nii felt Soma's shoulder pressed against his and could feel his breath. His entire body burned with temptation. His dick was quite hard, and now his balls were beginning to ache. It wouldn't be much work to force Soma to relieve it, he thought. He could barely stand to even glance at the older man, thinking like that. Thinking he might go off.

They listened to the rhythmic clatter of the train across the rails for what might have been a very long time. Soma traced his fingers over the back of Nii's hand, then between his fingers, the gap between his thumb and forefinger. He rubbed over Nii's palm. Tickled, Nii's fingers curled. Soma wove their fingers together, resting his palm near Nii's knuckles.

Nii breathed slowly and quietly, afraid if he did anything else, the moment would end. He thought of how that hand had carefully pushed his attempt to grope away before, and decided that Soma would probably be too much trouble to try and force. Besides, he'd never been so desperate as to even consider it before. He certainly couldn't admit Soma made him lose that much composure.

Soma spoke quietly. "How many people do you think are on this train?"

Nii traced the ceiling with his gaze, its slightly curved shape and the way the moving scenery threw cool gray light and occasional sunbursts across in flickering shapes. "A few hundred. It's just the beginning of the summer, soon enough they'll all be filled to bursting with wide-eyed tourists, just waiting to be dazzled."

Soma chuckled. "Do you really want me?"

"Do you really think you can fool me into believing we're strangers?"

"I thought everyone dreamed of meeting strangers on the train," Soma said lightly.

"It's not exactly believable after you gave me your copy of the letter," Nii pointed out.

Pause. Both still stared at the ceiling, joined only by their hands. "No, I suppose not."

Abruptly, Nii turned to his companion. "Koumyou--"

"Shh." Soma - no, Koumyou - pressed his fingertip to Nii's lips. He pressed his free hand flat to Nii's chest and gave him a small push. Stunned, Nii lay back again.

Koumyou squeezed his hand, and slowly guided up upward between them. Nii let his fingers go slack. It almost felt like someone else touching him, gently brushing fingers over his thigh, coming to rest as a passive weight against the flagging bulge in his trousers. Nii felt Koumyou's breath quicken, but a stolen glance to the corner of his eye showed Koumyou's gaze was still trained on the ceiling, even as he urged Nii's fingers over his own buttons.

With Koumyou's hand still guiding, Nii unbuttoned his trousers and drew out his penis. Koumyou's fingers moved to brace his wrist, giving Nii free reign to wrap his hot, trembling fingers around himself. He would have wanked himself to quick hardness, but the grip Koumyou kept on his wrist limited his movement. Made him go almost painfully slow. Just stroking like that, Nii could barely breathe. Every time he was sure he might come in writhing frustration, Koumyou would urge his wrist a little further upward or downward, letting Nii squeeze his balls or rub over his tip.

He never thought he could go all ragged and red-faced from a little masturbation, but there he was. After what felt like hours of his torture he could no longer quell the bucking of his hips, the desperation for a faster, firmer friction. "Koumyou, Hell--"

All at once it was Koumyou touching him, squeezing him. It was Koumyou pulling him over so they could face one another, kissing, and Nii could do nothing more than finish, groaning into Koumyou's mouth as he spurted into soft, cool silk. He lay panting and wide-eyed as Koumyou squeezed the silk around him, cleaned up his soft, sticky prick. He raised the handkerchief, waving it like a white flag in a parody of a magic trick, disappearing it back into a hidden pocket at his hip.

There was nothing Nii could think of to say about this, so he promptly gave up on getting smart and instead placed a hand on Koumyou, felt his rigidity through the silk of his robe. He rubbed his thigh between Koumyou's legs, pulling a soft moan from the older man that matched the slide of silk and flesh between them. But again Koumyou stopped him, pushed him back.

"I want to show you how to be invisible," Koumyou said in a shaken voice. He pulled Nii's glasses from his face, and perched them on his own nose. Then he pulled a red handkerchief from his pocket and tied it over Nii's eyes quite firmly and snugly. He tucked himself closely against the younger man, back to his chest.

"You can't touch what's invisible," Koumyou breathed. Nii denied him, but only by squeezing his hands over Koumyou's hips. Through the noise of the train, he almost couldn't hear Koumyou slipping his hands under his robes or the slap of his fingers against his hardness. But he could feel and hear how Koumyou gasped with more and more ragged abandon. Especially with his face pressed to his neck, just like that.

Koumyou cried out, his voice swallowed by the train whistle. As he lay against Nii, slack and exhausted, Nii kissed the nape of his neck, the space just below his ear.

"Now who's being forward? Now who's randy?"

Koumyou laughed, sounding happy and sated. He turned around, pulled the blindfold from Nii's face, and kissed him. Somehow, he managed to look not the least bit mussed or sweaty. It was unfair, considering what a mess Nii was. And he was at least ten years younger!

"Now lie beside me and sleep," he said. He pressed a kiss to Nii's nose. "Or I'll have to hypnotize you."

"You already did that," Nii pointed out, rolling back onto his back and closing his eyes.

A laugh. "Maybe I did."

Nii closed his eyes. "Didn't you? I've never felt as if I wanted to listen to someone."

Koumyou just raised an eyebrow. "You want to listen to me? I'll need to find something interesting to say."

Nii wanted to say more. He wanted to tell Koumyou he was contrite, that there was never anyone who could make him restrain himself in thirty-five years, but sleep pulled at him like undertow. Nii closed heavy eyes, welcomed into the dream world by the warmth of Koumyou's gentle laughter.


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