My muse is not dead, it seems. I've been very hooked on Saiyuki lately and this Sanzo-centric story suggested itself to me one morning. I've only seen about half the series, so I haven't allowed myself to read fanfic for fear of encountering spoilers ... hopefully this doesn't mine all-too-familiar territory.

Gensoumaden Saiyuki is (c) Kazuya Minekura.



Cigarettes and River Glass


We camped on the bank of a river, as we so often do. I paid no attention to its name; we've crossed so damn many of the things that I hardly care, as long as we're still heading west. One river is entirely like another, just like the one that carried me to the monastery when I was an infant, abandoned to its waters. Wide and wet and deep, with cold black secrets underneath.

It was past daybreak but we seemed to be taking it easy this morning. Nobody'd asked me what I wanted — as if any of these idiots would even think of bothering themselves that much — and in fact nobody'd talked about it as far as I could see, but here it was with the sun already riding high above the trees across the river, and the camp was still not broken down.

It'd been a few days since we were last at a town and Kougaiji's assassins had been thick in this forest, perhaps honoring their master's peculiar aversion to unnecessary property damage in inhabited areas. So we'd been fighting hard the last few days and I wasn't surprised that those lazy slackers would want to take the morning off, even though we'd probably be attacked at any moment. Well, if we were attacked, they could certainly defend themselves, I mused. If they wanted to slack off, I wouldn't lift a finger to help them.

I turned the page of my paper and settled myself more comfortably on the warm grass, my back against a tree. The newspaper was several days old and I'd already read this page, but somehow that seemed unimportant. So the news was out of date. I didn't much care. I re-read a story I'd already read half a dozen times and tried to make my low supply of cigarettes last. If we didn't come to a town soon, I might have to help myself to some of those nasty low-class ones that Gojyo smokes. It's my due as leader of the group. Everything they have was bought with my credit card anyhow.

From this tree at the top of the sloping, grassy bank where we camped, I could keep an eye on the whole group. Not that I really cared what they did, but I'd learned from experience that this bunch wander off the minute I take my eyes off them. At least I could make sure everyone stayed together and we got on the road at some point today.

The sun beat down on my hair through the sparse branches of the tree. Its warmth would become unpleasant heat as it climbed higher in the sky, but right now it eased the tension out of my shoulders and made me disinclined to move.

Just down the hill from me, Hakkai was sipping tea by the remains of last night's campfire. He'd started a half-hearted attempt at packing up, but at the moment his attention was absorbed by the other two morons, who were swimming in the river. Or, rather, Goku was swimming like a fish, his golden crown flashing in the sunlight when he'd dive. Gojyo remained stubbornly in the shallows, resisting the monkey's attempts to lure him into deep water.

What nonsense. Whoever heard of a water monster who can't swim?

Aha, Gojyo scored a hit, dragging Goku's head underwater. Let's see how the little monkey likes that one ... Not very much, from the look of him as he surfaced, spluttering and cursing. Gojyo was laughing his head off, but not for long, as Goku quit playing nice and grabbed him around the knees, yanking him out of the shallow end. A lot of thrashing followed, with a flash of red hair or a long arm showing every once in a while. Now Gojyo was trying to climb on top of Goku like a small, squirming flotation device. Well, what did the little idiot expect?

The sound of half-muffled curses in two different voices echoed off the distant hills as I returned my eyes to my paper. I could hear Hakkai laughing softly under his breath, trying to keep it low so the two didn't notice they were being laughed at — although in the current situation, I doubted if they'd notice someone standing three feet away yelling at them. I don't know why I should be cursed with such a bunch of idiotic traveling companions.

My fingers brushed the corner of my mouth as I raised my cigarette to take another drag, and that was the first time I realized I was smiling too.

My finger lingered there for a moment as the precious cigarette burned down toward my hand. I remembered it, muttered something blasphemous and returned it to the curved piece of tree bark I was using as a makeshift ashtray.

It's just strange, that's all. I'm not the sort of guy who goes around smiling for no reason, like certain foolish people I could name.

Another scream and a splash. This was like one of those street theatre shows that the ignorant take for entertainment — you can feel your intelligence dropping as you stand there and watch, but it's oddly difficult to tear your eyes way. I lowered the paper to rest on my knees and see if either of them had drowned yet. Unfortunately they were both still alive, although possibly not for long since Goku was now sitting on Gojyo's head, holding him underwater. Now Hakkai was down at the edge of the water, leaning on a sun-warmed rock with his cup of tea and trying to offer advice while choking back his laughter. He didn't seem to be doing a very good job with either task.

"Goku ... heh! ... Goku, if you don't let him up, he'll drown. He may be a kappa, but he's half human; he can't breathe underwater."

"What about me? He tried to drown me first!"

"And now I'll finish the job!" Gojyo roared, erupting from under the kid in an explosion of spray.

"Ha, come and get me!" Goku made a dash for open water and freedom, but halted with a squawk when Gojyo snared the waistband of his pants. Both he and Goku were stripped only to the waist; I hoped they'd bother to change clothes before getting into the jeep, but knowing those two, they might not think of it. As soon as they get out of the water, I told myself, I'm going to let them know exactly what I think of this sort of stupidity. Just now, however, it wasn't worth getting up to do it.

Down they went again. Amusing, but repetitive. I looked back at the paper, wondering about this weird lassitude that had enveloped me. Vaguely like drinking, not like being actually drunk but just a little buzzed, the way you get after a beer or two, just enough to take the hard edge off the world.

Contentment?

I laughed to myself, just a little, and dragged on the cigarette until I could feel the heat of the coal on my fingers, and the smoke burning in my lungs made me cough like a novice smoker.

Hakkai noticed me coughing, glanced up quickly and then, apparently deciding that things were okay, turned his attention back to the idiots in the river. He's that aware of the people around him. Any little thing, and he has to check and make sure everyone is okay. It's like traveling with a goddamn mother, not that I'd know what that's like, or being back with Koum—

—with—

—nevermind. Damn it ... stupid thought.

I crushed the cigarette butt between my fingers, relishing the brief thrill of pain before the coal extinguished, and flipped it away into the grass. That wasn't quite enough, though. I slipped my hand into my robes and felt the cold, hard butt of my gun slide into my palm, its icy touch thrilling the slightly burned places on my fingertips. And that felt good and right, and it filled the empty place the same way the beer and cigarettes do, so I took my hand out and lit another cigarette.

Yeah, the crazy thing was, the way I'd felt right then, the way I still felt in spite of my attempts to jar myself out of it ... that sense of warm lassitude, of peace and contentment with the world around me ... the last time I could remember feeling that way was sitting on the porch with Koumyou Sanzo, watching him make those stupid damned paper gliders ...

... orange paper, it has to be orange paper ...

and watching them fly against a deep blue summer sky

... the orange against the blue, it enhances them both, the differences contrast and make them more than they were separately ...

and I know better than to ever feel that way again, because I know how you get addicted to it, and I know what it feels like when it goes away. And it always goes away. Unlike beer and cigarettes, that's one addiction you can't rely on; you can't make it happen whenever you need it, the way you can buy beer, the way you can buy cigarettes. Because it requires other people, and other people will always live their own lives, go their own separate ways.

I sank my teeth into the end of the cigarette — didn't realize that I'd done it until it was done. I spat bits of tobacco and damp paper into the grass. Great; take an inch or so off one of your last cigarettes, Sanzo you genius. Now I was definitely going to have to borrow some of that damn kappa's smokes.

Borrow? Stupid way to think. I would take them. I was the leader of the group, and it was my credit card that was funding the whole damn mess, and if I needed something that belonged to someone else, I would damn well take it, and hell with what they thought about that. I didn't care what they thought of me, what any of them thought. After we get to India, assuming the unlikely event that we survive this thing, we're all going to go our separate ways, and nothing that happens on this journey will matter a damn bit then. Yeah, all off in our separate directions, even me and that blasted monkey who seems to think he's joined at the hip with me. I could probably send him off with Hakkai or Gojyo, and he'd be perfectly happy. He can barely remember yesterday, after all.

Screams and splashing from the water. That warm feeling of contentment was pretty much gone now — the feeling that all's right with the world, and the sounds of my companions bickering is just a pleasant backdrop to it all, a sound that's always been there and will always be there and means that everything's all right ... but it's a lie because everything ends, and nothing lasts, and now I was just annoyed by it all, and if they didn't shut up right now, I was going to come down there and shut them up.

My hand was on my gun before I knew it, my hand free with my teeth clamped to my cigarette again. I left the gun where it was, though, and took my hand out, and took the cigarette from my mouth with careful smooth economy of motion, and laid it back down on the bark ashtray.

I really might kill one of them someday. Because it's better to leave than to be left, and I'd rather part with them hating me than with soppy promises of reunions that will never be fulfilled.

Something fell on my newspaper, soaking into the cheap pulpy paper. Water. I raised my eyes, my irritation and anger coiling tightly inside me, wanting to explode, to find someone to hurt before it burst out from the inside and shattered me.

"Goku, you're dripping on me."

"Oh, sorry, Sanzo." He backed off a couple of steps. "Hakkai sent me to tell you we're getting ready to leave."

I looked past his shoulder. Hakkai and Gojyo were breaking down the camp — Gojyo still in his wet clothes, his hair dark and lank on his shoulders. Hakkai's white dragon had transformed back into its jeep form so that they could pack the supplies in the back; it was listing slightly on the sloping bank.

"Go tell that kappa," I said, biting out each word, "that the two of you had better change into something dry, or we will leave you behind. If you must do stupid things, the least you can do is not bother other people with them."

I saw his face fall at my harsh tone. Irritating brat ... I know that using my voice on him that way, I might as well be using a whip, with those big-eyed hurt looks he gives me; but it isn't healthy that one person should bother themselves about what another person thinks of them, and I really wish he would learn that. Even though I didn't want the responsibility, I did free him from that prison (for some stupid reason), and since I'm stuck with him now, the least I can do is teach him that much.

If you don't care about people, then you don't get hurt when they leave. I keep trying to get that through to him, and sometimes I wonder why in the world I bother. If I die, like Koumyou did ... if the kid cries his eyes out ... like I did ... what's it to me? Why should I take the time to spare him that pain?

"Sanzo?"

"Didn't I just tell you to do something?" I growled at him.

"Yes, I know, but Sanzo ..."

"And aren't you still here?"

"Yes, but Sanzo ..."

He was going to apologize or something, and I really wasn't in the mood. "So GO!"

"Okay, Sanzo." He ran off down the hill towards the other two.

Idiot kid. Idiot me, to put up with it. I took my time folding my newspaper. Help break down the camp? Why bother? Isn't that why I've been saddled with these incompetents, to do those kinds of things instead of me? I certainly didn't feel the slightest guilt about not pitching in, and if I didn't look in that direction, it was only because I didn't want to see that kid giving me his big-eyed look. Stupid monkey.

"Yo. Tall, blond and grouchy." Great, just the person I wanted to see when I was in this sort of mood. Looking up, I saw Gojyo standing over me, blocking the light. Behind him, the jeep was fully packed, Hakkai in the driver's seat and Goku in the back, leaning over his shoulder while they chatted about some pointless topic.

At least Gojyo was in dry clothes now, his damp hair twisted back in a rough knot; Goku must have delivered my message in some fashion.

"Not that I would mind too much if we left you behind," Gojyo said. "But for some reason the others thought I should let you know we're leaving now. Thanks for helping pack up, by the way."

I gave him a level glare, crushed out the butt of my cigarette and started to shake another into my hand. Stopped. The pack was empty.

Gojyo laughed. "Got a problem there?"

I raised my glare to meet his laughing red eyes. Obviously he knew exactly what I was going to ask. It hovered on the tip of my tongue, but that coiled ball of irritation and resentment rose in my throat, blocking the words. I didn't need these people, didn't want them around me, and damned if I was going to rely on them for anything. Without a word, I rose and started towards the jeep.

Gojyo stopped me with a hand on my arm. I started to cuff it off — I hate people touching me — until I noticed the slightly crumpled pack of cigarettes in his hand.

"You can pay me back in the next town, ya bum," he said, dropping it into my hand.

"Didn't you buy these with my money?" I demanded, shaking one out into my palm and tucking the rest of the pack up my sleeve.

"Didn't you tell us it's not really your money at all?" he countered, ambling beside me back to the jeep. One step ahead of me, he slid into the front seat beside Hakkai.

"You're in my seat," I snapped.

Gojyo grinned up at me. "Since I'm Mr. Generous today, I get shotgun. Unless you wanna fight for it."

As if I'd stoop to that level. But the others were watching curiously now, and I raised my head with feigned nonchalance: "I couldn't care less where you sit." Goku moved over to make room for me in the back.

As the jeep bounced up over the bank, heading for the road and the nearby bridge, I leaned back, stared up at the sky and tried to ignore the presence of the others. It was hard to do, with the taste of the unfamiliar brand of cigarettes in my mouth. The sky was cloudless ... deep and blue like the river where Koumyou found me ... and oddly mesmerizing ...

... orange against the blue ...

... brings out the best in both of them ...

"Sanzo?"

Oh, now what. Just when I was feeling tranquil again. I looked sideways at the kid. "What?" I snapped.

"Want to see something neat that I found in the river?"

"You're going to show me no matter what I say, so why bother asking, idiot monkey?"

Sure enough, he was holding out one small, square hand, with something blue in the palm. Despite myself, my curiosity got the better of me and I leaned over to look.

"It's just a piece of glass."

"Yeah, I know," Goku said. He ran one finger around the blunted edges. The blue was deep and translucent, a high-quality glaze. "But look how smooth it is. It's been in the water for a long, long time. Hakkai says it musta traveled a long, long way, to get so smooth, with all the rough corners rubbed off by the rocks."

Is that what journeys do ... rub off the rough edges? For river stones, maybe.

"I think it's fun to think about it came from," Goku said. "Maybe a girl was dipping a jar in the water, and it broke. Or maybe a pirate robbed a merchant on the river, and this glass thing fell into the water when his boat sank, a long time ago."

"Or maybe rain washed a midden heap into the river," I said shortly. "You have an overactive imagination."

Imagination was never a trait that I would have ascribed to Goku, but maybe that was how he kept himself sane all those years in the mountain ... by telling himself stories, and fantasizing about what never was and never would be.

I hate those kinds of fantasies.

"We'll certainly never know," I added. "Useless to wonder about it."

"I know," he said, staring at the glass. I could see its reflection in his big, rapt golden eyes.

... orange and blue, blue and orange ...

I took another drag on my cigarette to wash away that flash of memory. Instead, the taste of the unfamiliar brand refused to give me that oblivion.

You can pay me back in the next town.

What's it like to trust people like that ... without stopping to think, without doubt or qualm? I wonder ...

"I guess you're right," Goku said. "It's just a dumb rock, really."

He flipped the piece of glass over the side of the jeep. It sparkled as it tumbled, and then was lost in the weeds at the side of the road, already receding behind us.

A strange thought occurred to me: He really wanted to share that with me.

"Don't look back on the past like that, idiot," I said. "We're going forward, not back. All that matters is what comes tomorrow, not what happened yesterday."

He seemed to reflect on this for a moment, and then looked up at me, his gold eyes bright and glowing. "Yeah, I guess you're right."

For an instant I saw the reflection of that blue piece of glass in the gold-flecked depths. Only a chance reflection of the sky, of course. "Naturally I'm right."

"I'm bored," Goku added, wriggling down in his seat and gazing up at the sky. "And hungry."

"You just ate. Take a nap." At least if he'd do that, he wouldn't be fighting constantly with Gojyo — and since I was sitting more or less between them, this was the last thing I wanted at the moment.

Goku didn't answer, but looking at him sideways a few minutes later, I saw that his head had fallen sideways against the seat. He really was asleep. Probably tired himself out playing with Gojyo in the river. Gojyo and Hakkai, in the front, were talking about something or other; snatches of conversation drifted back to me, but it was all an indistinct mutter, and I didn't try to pick out the meaning in the words. The cigarette had burned itself down to a nub; I tossed the butt over the side, and lit another. At this rate, I was going to burn through the entire pack in no time. Well, Gojyo would probably give me another. He's not the type to say no.

I was getting used to the unfamiliar taste. In fact, I rather liked it.

I rested my head against the seat and put my arm up over the back. If my hand should happen to slip down onto Goku's damp, tousled hair ... well, it was just a chance of the jolting jeep, and no meaning need attach to it.

Staring up at the sky, cigarette resting loosely in the side of my mouth and the kid's hair warm and soft under my hand, I let myself relax and ease back into that comfort, that peace. It wouldn't last. Nothing does. But somehow, at that time, in that place, just for the moment, it didn't matter.
~fin~