Gojyo got up from the chair to throw in a few bits of wood into the fire. In the morning, he would have to send the monkey out to get more firewood. Or more fish for breakfast, maybe.

He glanced over at Hakkai while he was up. His friend was lying on his side, face was hidden from view. Gojyo figured he was asleep from the sound of his breathing.

Well and good, Gojyo sighed to himself. Damn fool's about to work himself sick trying to heal Sanzo.

The priest had not moved at all from the time Gojyo fell asleep for the first time that night, and it may have been his imagination, or an illusion of the dying firelight, but the body on the bed seemed a little more ashen.

_Wake up or die already,_ were the words that were in his mind, but something else about him just said _Please wake up,_ and that was the "something" that showed on his face.

He knew they would all be kicking themselves to the ends of the Earth if the monk died. Goku, most of all. He didn't think he could stand much more of seeing Goku the way he was. The boy had never been so silently desperate, and it ate away at Gojyo to not be able to do anything about it.

Earlier that night, Goku had caught some fish for their dinner. He was laying them out and counting them loud, even if before he came bounding in, the abandoned stable they were staying in had been still as a graveyard. He knew why Goku did that, talked as loud as he could, while he could -- he was hoping to wake Sanzo with his noise. It was a childish reasoning, but Gojyo and Hakkai indulged it. Besides, when Goku was done he would fall into a depressive silence, his feeble hope dashed to the ground.

Gojyo glanced over at him asleep by the fire, back turned to the chair, his bed, his friends, his world.

_Where the hell is that Kanzeon-chick when you need her?_ This question had been on his mind for the last five days, but he figured it would do no good to let anyone see him seething. _If she were here now and a kiss could make Sanzo better again, I'd be all for it. Even a dozen of it..._

Gojyo snorted and glanced back at the body on the bed. _You'd shoot me the instant you find out I was worried about your unholy ass._

Not for the first time, Sanzo struck Gojyo as incurably delicate. That tough-guy attitude, waving that nasty gun in the air and screaming like a big man on top of his lungs, did little to disguise the fact that he _wasn't_ tough, physically, wasn't even tough for an ordinary human. A wrong fall could kill him. A bad dream could kill him.

"You're such a bother. You know the Journey's over without you. Sanzo." Gojyo sighed, leaned forward as if he knew Sanzo could hear him. "We have to get that Sutra back. And we need you for that."

-=-=-=-=-

There was no end to them. Sanzo fired and reloaded, fired and reloaded with a fury that approached lust. They came at him from all sides, trapped him in that vast melting wilderness beneath the quicksilver sky.

The golden-haired human wearing old white robes was making himself as difficult a target as he could with just his Smith and Wesson, and the speed afforded him by his tired mortal legs. There was a clear, clean radius around his moving feet, like an invisible barrier protecting him and keeping him afloat in that sea of shadows.

He looked up at his objective: the tower, which only seemed to move farther from his sight, every time he looked at it. He wasn't even sure what tower it was, only that the thing he had lost and needed to recover was _there_.

It may have looked like Gyumaoh's tower. That would have been odd, if he had known it for sure; he was moving too fast to get a closer look.

Where the _hell_ were his idiot companions? They were supposed to be watching his fucking back! This was entirely too many demons for the Makai Tenjou to take care of. He was running out of bullets and after a while he wouldn't be able to do much more than dodge and run. And he bet the sea would swallow him whole before he could get very far...

Yet even as he thought this, he heard the whirr of thin edged steel flying past. Close by him, a stream of blood burst toward the sky in a trail that resembled wildfire, tracing the path of a certain crescent blade attached to a long iron chain.

Sanzo threw a glance over his shoulder, hoping to find the source of the stream. But the other end of the chain was obscured by a curtain of demons who, coincidentally, were still after his hide.

Without warning the crescent swung again, taking with it a mess of youkai body parts, screams and showers of demon blood. The youkai ahead of Sanzo fell back in alarm, and Sanzo seized the chance to sprint through the path they made for him.

_About bloody time, you moron,_ Sanzo thought.

_WHO THE FUCK YOU CALLING A MORON?_

The priest stopped in his tracks, surprised by the voice. He hadn't been aware that the wielder of the strange steel weapon was anywhere in the immediate vicinity. And the voice sounded like it came from right beside Sanzo's ear.

One particular demon pounced on Sanzo and came perilously close to swiping his head off. At the exact moment when the demon's talons were bearing down, there was a flash of movement, a sound of hard iron hitting bone -- and the demon was gone. There were a few drops of blood on the ground, marking the spot over the air where the demon had hung.

Sanzo looked around, but saw nothing except for hungry claws, fangs and eyes.

_ARE YOU GOING TO STAND AROUND ALL DAY, YOU FAKE MONK? DO YOUR DAMNED DUTY! LEAVE THIS TO ME AND GET IN THAT TOWER *NOW*!_

Sanzo nodded, mumbling beneath his breath, through gritted teeth, _I know, I know, shut up, I'm killing you after this..._

He reached out and touched the tower's ivory handles.

Taking a deep breath, he pulled the great doors open.



As he had perhaps expected, the hall that greeted him was large -- grandiose. Just looking around, he felt like he needed to cross another wilderness to get to the far end -- where waited a host of demons flocked around...something. A thing trapped high at the center of the long high wall, which, from where Sanzo was standing, seemed to be composed entirely of living vines.

The "thing" caught in the vines wasn't what he had come into the tower for, but Sanzo felt drawn to it anyway. Like there was no other passageway in that tower open to him until he'd rescued the "thing" from the demons at the far end.

Ch. Troublesome "thing," whatever it was.

He was able to approach the demons undetected. He fired at one of them, and the rest broke off from their meal -- as it obviously was -- to turn their angry eyes in his direction. If these had been smarter demons, they would've fled, but they were reduced to pure eat-kill instinct, as would happen to some of them bombarded with the Negative Waves.

Sanzo also noticed, vaguely, that the creatures in the hall were all women. And women of a particular breed, scaly-skinned and lank-haired, with webbed fingers. Water-demons...?

There was no time to think anymore. When they came within range, he started chanting. The Makai Tenjou bore down on the enemy, brushed them aside in one fell swoop.

Hmph. If there was one thing he liked about that technique, it saved him bullets. He ran up to the thing at the center of the vines.

What he first saw was the mess on the floor, beneath the thing itself -- flesh, bone and blood, looking not so much chewed as regurgitated. A foul, dead smell issued from the mess. Sanzo gagged and hung back. There was more blood than actual mass.

Human remains, he became sure of after a while -- though not all of a full-grown human. Where was the rest of it? There should at least be a skull, or part of a skull.

He looked up.

The thing tangled in the vines suddenly seemed human to him. Those two appendages stretched out and taut, grotesquely elongated, were arms. The tatters it was covered with used to be clothing -- rough clothing -- was it denim?

It was only the upper half of a body tangled in the vines. The lower half was gone -- ripped out, or eaten away. Some entrails still hung from the body, dripping, no longer gushing, fresh blood. Its wait had been too long. Sanzo had been too late.

Sanzo found himself transfixed by the sight of the red curtain that turned out to be the body's head. It had a name...he knew the body had a name -- no one else he knew had hair like that. He couldn't tear his eyes away. Not even when the head slowly raised itself. The red curtain parted slightly.

Two points of absolute crimson fixed themselves on Sanzo. And the young priest watched in horror as the lips spat out in syllables of blood, "A...San..."

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

Gojyo snapped awake when a hand slapped the back of his head. "Itee!!" he exclaimed. "What's your problem?!"

He knew it was Goku, he could tell that slap apart from every other kind, but he stopped short when he looked over his shoulder, and saw that it was Goku wearing a distressed apologetic expression. That look always got to him. It made him want to take back anything he had just said.

"You're sleeping on the job," Goku said flatly. Not a single note of resentment there.

Gojyo whined, "Give me a break, saru. I got a right to be tired too." Goku didn't reply, so Gojyo said, in a softer voice, "You can't sleep?"

Goku looked at the floor. "Is it my turn to keep watch?"

It occurred to Gojyo then that if Goku hadn't been able to sleep, he must have heard it when he and Hakkai were talking. He must have heard Hakkai say "If he doesn't wake up before dawn, it'll just be harder to hope."

And dawn wasn't so far away.

_Aw dammit, kid..._ The position of the stars said it was still a good hour or two before Goku's turn to watch, but Gojyo left the chair. Pulled it up for Goku. "Yeah," he said, and made way.

Goku laid a hand on the back of the chair, but didn't sit right away. He stood still looking at the floor, and somehow Gojyo understood his hesitation.

Gojyo ruffled his brown hair with old energetic affection. "Listen, kid. He's going to be all right. You hear?"

Goku didn't raise his head. "Yeah...I hear."

There was nothing left to say to that. A final light punch to the boy's arm, then Gojyo made his way to the spot by the fire that Goku had vacated. It was at least warm there. And he could lie on his side, watching the sitting boy's pensive face through the flickering light, watching Hakkai sleeping his healing sleep, watching the monk fighting for every breath, until weariness took over again.