It is with distinct pleasure that I invite you to share with me in a special belated 21st birthday greeting to Jadesword in the form of the following angst-laden story. Hopefully, this will catch her completely by surprise and since I've done my best to tailor certain elements to her likes and dislikes, I sincerely hope that it brings her a smile or two.

Details regarding how this tale came into creation are available at my own page (username "e_sama") at LiveJournal.com for those of you who are interested.

Due to fanfiction.net's anti-lemon policy, the two stories that fall between "Fateful Encounters" and this one are not available here. They are, however, at MediaMiner.org and are "Happy Birthday, Baby" and "Best Wishes, Gojyo", both of which are heavily referenced in this piece. That said, it is worth mentioning that this tale does *not* include lemon, hence it will be posted here as well as MM.org.

Uplifting comments are more than welcome and will help determine whether this is the end of this particular story arc or not.

Enjoy the Angst!

Enigma, a.k.a. E-sama the Llama

(who firmly believes there can never be enough stories featuring this wonderful pairing and hopes some other fans share that view)

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Title: Shattering [chapter 1/6]

Book 4 of the "Encounters Arc"

Author: Enigma

Series: Saiyuki

Written: September - October, 2003

Rating: R

Main Pairing: (Gojyo + Hakkai)

Category: Dark! Yaoi, Angst, Romance, Blood. AU-OOC. Giftfic.

Archive: fanfiction.net & mediaminer.org [author: "E-sama the Llama"]

Warnings: dark! yaoi, high angst, tortured romance, bloodshed, coarse language as per the anime, and explicable though atypical characterization. AU-OOC. Giftfic for Jadesword.

Spoilers: This story is set after the events in episode 13 of the anime and therefore contains spoilers.

Disclaimer: "Saiyuki" is the property of Kazuya Minekura, et al. This unauthorized work of unpaid fanfiction is intended for entertainment only; please do not sue me.

Notes: Can Gojyo help Hakkai overcome the shattering effects of a horrific incident or is he, too, doomed to fall apart as a result of divine interference?

*****

On November nineteenth, Gojyo found himself solo, leaning self-indulgently against a tree in a small parkland outside yet another nameless village encountered during the epic journey westward that he and his comrades were enduring.

With a relieved smile, he gazed up at a cloudless, early afternoon sky that was so intensely blue that it almost hurt his wine-colored eyes. Chuckling softly to himself, he remarked rhetorically, "Looks like another fabulously rain-free, low angst day." He was obviously thinking of his lover's reactions to such things more than his own as he stated, "Good. One less thing to worry about."

Deciding that the best way to celebrate such a promising observation was with a cigarette, Gojyo crouched down so he could search through the bags sitting on the grass near his feet. The parcels represented his own efforts to make their stopover in this less than exciting place a quick one since Sanzo had proclaimed rather loudly that they were staying here only long enough for him to find supplies for the maintenance of his overused Smith & Wesson.

Rummaging through several six-packs of beer, a few other bottles of alcoholic beverages, as well as two cartons of cigarettes, his fingers brushed something that elicited yet another chuckle.

"I don't much think I want to leave *that* in there," Gojyo remarked as he pulled forth a small bottle filled with a clear, colorless fluid that he immediately secreted in one of the large pockets of his beige pants. With a slight frown, he recalled the incorrectly knowing expression on the face of the apothecary he had purchased it from who had assured him that it was the gentlest of the baby oils that he sold.

Muttering to himself, the half-breed grumbled under his breath, "Well, it damned well better be the gentlest. It's for *my* 'baby' after all and if this pathetic excuse for a town had a fucking sex shop like most decent-sized places, I'd rather have gotten some top-quality lube instead. Oh well. It's better than nothing which is all we had left after our layover at that farm last week."

A small smirk quirked the corner of his mouth as he recalled the wonderful hayloft that Hakuryu had found for them to use for their recent trysts. The dragon who was currently accompanying Hakkai had thoroughly endorsed their relationship from the very start, suffering physical injury even to gain them recovery time two months prior.

Trying not to think too much about the utterly wonderful way that he and his soulmate had celebrated their birthdays that year, he set about getting a pack of his favorite cigarettes out of the new carton.

Rising to his feet after that task was completed and then leaning against the tree that was the group's designated rendezvous point, Gojyo pulled out the silver-plated lighter that had been a gift from his lover. Like usual, he paused to admire the death's head symbol on it before happily using it to ignite the hi-lite that dangled casually from his sensual lips.

While taking in a long, slow drag, Gojyo turned his face skywards once more enjoying the warmth of the sun as he wondered how soon his beloved housemates might rejoin him. Of course, he would rather have accompanied Hakkai when he had gone off in search of provisions as well as some food for the lunch break that they planned to take before departure. However, the characteristically ill-tempered blond priest had vetoed that with an unusual warning that he had a bad feeling about this place and that the sooner they were gone, the better.

With an angry huff of breath, Gojyo grumbled, "Whatever bug's crawled up Sanzo's ass had better not be another bunch of damned weirdoes sent by Kougaiji's whackjob step-mom. That damned bitch hasn't got the sense of justice my bro's 'liege' has and I really don't want to muck around with more crap like those freaky faux-mini-monks."

His expression turned dark for a moment as he recalled the incident involving the ninjinka tree, but it didn't last long and with a shrug he set that worry aside entirely. After all, they had defeated the pathetic Goku and Lirin clones almost too easily and the only thing he truly regretted about the incident was that the youkai princess' elder half-brother and his own half-brother hadn't come to reclaim her as they usually did.

"I would've liked getting to see Jie--um, no, I mean 'Dokugakuji' again," Gojyo said with a nod. Before taking in another lungful of smoke, he added unhappily, "He and I *really* need to sit down and have a good heart-to-heart sometime soon. Get caught up on shit and all that good stuff."

As the acrid smoke burned its way down his throat, he pondered yet again what type of relationship his brother and Kougaiji really shared.

During their brief time together during the first encounter with Chin Iisou, it had been completely clear to Gojyo if to no one else that there was more going on than the usual relationship between a sworn protector and the one he was guarding. Then again, it was entirely possible that his own soul-deep connection with Hakkai caused him to unfairly assume such things.

After finishing his cigarette with a final, hard draw before flicking the butt away uncaringly, Gojyo ran both hands through lengthy, sanguine hair that was held back by his blue headband as always. Encountering a small snarl that he had failed to eliminate with his hurried brushing that morning, he considered asking Hakkai to help him with it wherever they ended up for the night.

He remembered how damned good it always felt when he brushed it for him and it was a valid excuse for closeness even if they were stuck camping out in the open. Not even Sanzo could take exception to something so seemingly innocent, or at least, that was what he hoped.

Thoughts of the blond priest brought to mind the human's constant companion and this in turn, gave Gojyo another reason to laugh to himself as he remarked, "I wonder if the monkey is behaving while Sanzo tries to find something that'll work for his gun? I doubt it." His nose had already detected the wonderful aromas wafting from what he assumed was a nearby marketplace and he just shook his head. "Nope, not a chance in hell the kid's not whining and begging to be fed even though 'Kai went to get us all lunch, but that shouldn't be a sur--"

Gojyo's words were interrupted by a sudden explosion that erupted from the direction that the fragrance of cooking food had come. His long-lashed eyes went impossibly wide as a greasy ball of smoke shot straight up and then mushroomed out hugely, shading the people below who were unfortunate enough to be nearby.

"Holy fuck!" Gojyo exclaimed inelegantly as he automatically sprang into a battle-ready posture and then was momentarily paralyzed like a life-sized version of a child's toy.

Within seconds, the agonized screams of those beneath the cloud reached his ears. This brought to mind a realization that if the marketplace was the best place to pick up items for a picnic, then that was exactly where a very important green-eyed youkai would most likely have been and this launched him into action.

"Hakkai!" Gojyo shouted uselessly even as he raced away from the already forgotten supplies.

No matter how much he wished it was otherwise, the half-breed's booted feet simply didn't traverse the distance fast enough. Deep inside himself, the voice of a long dead warrior was raised in a similar cry, but as always Gojyo could not hear Kenren or even grant him control when an experienced military man might have handled things better than he himself did.

There were too many squatting, crowded buildings and too-narrow twisting walkways between them for him to make good time. All he knew for a few horrific minutes was that somewhere ahead of him, the sounds of men and women screaming in pain were growing louder and louder, yet none of them matched the pained shouts that he would never forget from the day of Chin Iisou's horrors.

The absence of Hakkai's cries gave him false hope, something he discovered the moment he broke past the last of the hovels blocking his path.

Once more frozen by the shocking tableau before him, Gojyo felt the heat of the remains of a burning food stall from quite a distance and shielding his face with a hand, he scanned the many bodies strewn in front of the conflagration.

Those farthest from the fiery site were struggling to their feet intending to help the others who were less fortunate, whereas those closest were ominously motionless even as wisps of smoke rose from their lifeless bodies. In between these disparate groups were those whose fates were less certain and it was in this third group that he found the person he had feared finding there, face down and clearly unmoving.

"HAKKAI!!" Gojyo shouted at the top of his lungs even as he pushed past the few stunned onlookers and survivors that separated them. Totally disregarding the increasing heat as he struggled to get closer to his fallen lover, the half-breed failed to note a somewhat soot-darkened white form that clumsily winged its way towards him.

"Kyu!!" Hakuryu keened in a voice roughened by smoke and agony of its own.

Barely able to tear his gaze from Hakkai long enough to confirm what his ears told him, Gojyo shouted, "Dragon! Is he alive?! Is Hakkai okay?!" Fear filled garnet-hued eyes told him nothing, but the uncertainty in the responding kyu was all he needed to move more forcefully past the last obstacles and then drop to his knees onto the ground beside someone more important to him than life itself.

There was no way that only a glance would tell him if Hakkai was living or dead, however. The fabric of every garment the converted youkai wore had been torn to shreds in various places leaving paths for blood to run freely from him to lay in an expanding crimson pool around his body. [1] Even the silken lavender sash now fluttered in the heated air from the fire in thin ribbons like a sad flag on a battlefield.

Nearby, shattered beyond use, lay a familiar monocle which would never again grace a simple leather pouch lovingly given as a birthday gift less than two months prior. Thankfully, there was not an additional trio of metal earclips laying there, too. If Hakkai had lost his power limiters as well as his monocle, things could have gone from terrible to catastrophic in a hurry.

Also nearby yet unnoted were several packages of steaming carry-out containers that had been filled at the same stand that was now ablaze.

Through what seemed like random chance yet was actually divine intervention, Hakkai had completed his purchases and had turned to walk away mere seconds before the blast erupted. If he had remained there when the container of highly flammable cooking fuel had been knocked over and thereby caused the explosion which had left the stall's employees charred lumps of flesh, he, too would have been as dead as many of the other unfortunates around him.

Throat closing up due to emotions he did not even bother to try to suppress, Gojyo pleaded quietly, "Please, baby, don't be dead…" His words trailed away as he placed a trembling pair of fingers against the side of Hakkai's throat. The relief that he felt when he detected a pulse was like cool water to a parched throat and with a joyous expression that was premature, he turned to the dragon nearby and exulted, "He's alive, Hakuryu! Hakkai's gonna be okay!"

"Kyu!" Hakuryu responded with a doubtful smile and then added worriedly, "Kyu?"

Shaking his head, Gojyo answered, "I don't know for sure how bad off he is, dragon, give me a sec." With the greatest care, he gently gathered Hakkai into his arms, not only revealing the additional damage that had previously been hidden but also the truth that it would be quite awhile before he could be described as "okay" by any save the most blind of optimists.

The front of his clothes was not as tattered or torn as the back had been since it had been shielded from the various bits of shrapnel expelled by the blast, yet the skin on the side of Hakkai's face had been shredded by impact with the rocky, unpaved street. As blood flowed freely from the severely torn cheek, more did the same from a serious wound that had actually ripped through the forest green headband around his forehead.

Even though the implications of these two injuries alone were almost more than Gojyo could bear, he forced his eyes back into motion. He felt a chill of dread as he saw that the palms of Hakkai's hands were as badly damaged as his face had been. These new injuries brought to mind the damage done by a large splinter encountered while chopping wood outside a farmhouse and with a groan, Gojyo admitted these wounds made that incident seem like nothing.

In the first reassuring bit of news, there was thankfully no sign of blood coming from either torso or legs, but that did nothing to assure that there weren't broken bones hiding within the tattered garments.

As he gathered the motionless body into his increasingly gory arms more firmly and tried valiantly not to scream out in sorrow, Gojyo absently noticed when one of Hakkai's shoes slipped off his foot and bumped into the other one where it had been laying. If there had not been so much other damage to judge the situation by, the fact that the former teacher had been literally blown out of his shoes by the force of the explosion would have clarified matters completely.

"Oh, gods, 'Kai," Gojyo moaned in mounting terror, "don't die on me, baby! Please, don't die!"

With a mournful kyu, Hakuryu limped closer and nuzzled a dangling, bloodied hand that failed to respond.

Luckily, the magical creature's own injuries had been only moderate since it had been on the wing headed away from the marketplace intending to alert Gojyo about Hakkai's imminent return when the blast occurred. Yet it had been close enough to have been caught by the edge of the concussive wave following the explosion and had been slammed into a building because of it.

Despite the fact that he was unable to even acknowledge the screams, shouts, and cries of the humans around him, Gojyo could hear the quiet expression of draconic misery and that helped him gather his wits enough to command, "Go get Sanzo and Goku, Hakuryu! Hakkai's too messed up for me to be able to do anything for him by myself!"

"Kyu!!" The dragon agreed and then rose into the air on unsteady wings which then carried it away as quickly as possible. The injuries it had suffered would ordinarily have ruled out flight at this point, but Hakuryu was as desperate as Gojyo was to aid Hakkai, therefore it would gladly risk hurting itself worse for its friends' sakes.

Alone with the wreckage of the man who had changed almost every aspect of his life and had forced him to redefine his own senses of both self and sexuality, Gojyo barely held himself together mentally.

There were tears in his eyes as they were in virtually all of those around him due to the noxious smoke surrounding them. Yet the ones in scarlet orbs burned with an agony unfelt in three long years. The last time Gojyo had wept the way that he was now was when Sanzo had relayed word that Gonou was dead and he did not regret his tears now any more so than he had then.

The scorched wooden skeleton of the flaming food stall suddenly shuddered and collapsed.

The noise caused Gojyo to reflexively tighten his hold on the blood-slicked body in his arms. There was no whimper of pain, no expression of discomfort, nothing at all from Hakkai, and that only made the tears flow down a scarred cheek more freely.

Small, brightly glowing embers flew upwards in the thick smoke above the now dying fire and the crackle of the flames did nothing to soothe Gojyo's agony as he waited for the only ones he could rely on for help. He was unaware of it, but shock was setting in and his reactions were growing slower and his thoughts less organized with every passing moment.

*****

Shortly thereafter, some of the townspeople formed a bucket brigade to extinguish the flames before they could spread throughout their crowded little town and bring a far greater disaster than they had already suffered. The sparks were especially dangerous, carrying potential destruction wherever the wind blew them.

This would have been meaningless to Gojyo except that he was being urged to move by a uniformed official of some sort who commanded, "The two of you have got to get out of the way! If he's not already dead, get him over to where someone can help him, but if it's too late, get on your feet and help us fight this fire!"

After whipping an anguished face upwards and staring wide-eyed at the man for a moment, Gojyo replied with far less force than he wanted to, "Fuck you! Hakkai's not dead! He can't die! I won't let him!"

Startled by not only the fact that this was a complete stranger he was speaking to and not one of his constituents but also by the look of shocked fear in deep red eyes, the official replied as gently as he could, "Okay, okay, take it easy. He's not dead, that's good, I guess, but get yourselves out of the way, all right?" He gestured towards the smoldering heap and the buildings near it that were beginning to emit smoke of their own as he added urgently, "If we don't stop this here and now, the whole town will go up in flames!"

Gojyo wanted to reply that he certainly did not give a tinker's damn about their little town, but his tongue was no longer responding to his brain's instructions.

Instead, he just forced trembling legs into motion and he rose unsteadily before shambling towards what he assumed were local healers or hopefully doctors bent over some of the other victims. His uncertain feet had to wend their way past corpses and those in their death throes as well as those already mourning the dead. It was a hellish experience, to put it mildly.

Upon reaching the small clump of survivors, Gojyo carefully knelt down, keeping Hakkai's horribly mutilated back in his arms rather than placing him upon the earthen walkway. As he was about to call out for someone, anyone, to come to his aid, the body in his arms finally stirred.

"Hakkai?" Gojyo begged simply by calling his lover's name. A wordless moan was his only reply and so he repeated more loudly, "Hakkai?! Can you hear me?!"

Eyelids fouled by dirt and blood struggled to open. After a false try or two, beloved green eyes were finally uncovered to Gojyo's great joy. However, they lacked clarity and were clearly unfocused.

Before Gojyo could plead further, Hakkai's head lolled to one side and his gaze fell upon a fatally wounded, middle-aged woman who lay dying unattended nearby. The laundress' short, gray hair was arrayed around her careworn face like a dingy halo and near her lay the basket of clean linens she had been crossing the marketplace to deliver.

A horribly lacerated hand rose shakily and pointed at the woman as Hakkai moaned, "Kanan!"

A new sense of horror filled Gojyo's heart upon hearing the name of the child-like girl whose death more than three years past had very nearly cost Gonou his life as well as his sanity. Knowing full well that the dying woman looked nothing at all like the girl who had died by her own hand with Gonou's blade, he shook his head hurriedly and urged, "That's not Kanan, Hakkai! That's some stranger."

Empty emerald eyes rolled towards him and words that were worse than poisoned arrows to his heart fell from lips that he had kissed so often, "'Hakkai'? Who's that?" Not allowing a reply, the eyes slipped away once more and Hakkai feebly reached out again while pleading, "Kanan! She's injured, I must go to her!"

"That is *not* Kanan, 'Kai!" The sense of anguish Gojyo felt intensified and he begged, "Baby, please! Stop this!"

Due to the head wound that had torn his headband asunder, Hakkai could not comprehend the words that the man holding him was saying and simply repeated his own entreaty, "Kanan!"

Giving in to Hakkai's frantic pleas since in his current state of shock it seemed better than to torture him by holding him back, Gojyo let his own tears of agony resume as he moved the brunette close enough to touch the dying woman.

As her last breaths were shuddering through her smoke ruined lungs, the laundress was utterly unaware that she was not dying alone as she had always assumed that she would.

Though they were horrible, painful things to hear, Gojyo heard Hakkai mumbling the name of his deceased girlfriend over and over, something that the half-breed simply could not bear. Turning his head away ostensibly to search for signs of Sanzo, Goku, and Hakuryu, he failed to note a faint green glimmer forming on the dripping palm of a ruined hand which bespoke of healing energy that was being uselessly invoked.

The only thing that Hakkai's ki-channeling ability was accomplishing was draining what little vital force he himself had left, yet he was just as unaware of that fact as he was of the woman's death rattle as the final breath left her body.

Gojyo, however, was not unaware of her passing and turned back intending to comfort the man he expected to be destitute. The sight of the familiar green glow which had saved his own life roughly two weeks earlier terrified him and he reached out to disconnect Hakkai's hand from the corpse while exclaiming, "No, Hakkai! You can't *do* that!"

When his efforts were resisted with unexpected strength, he added urgently, "You've got to *stop* that, baby! You'll *kill* yourself if you keep trying to reanimate a damned corpse!"

Despite his attempts to interfere, there was no lessening of the wasteful flow of life energy from the man he was desperately trying to save. Things were rapidly spiraling completely out of control and Hakkai would most assuredly have killed himself if it were not for the timely arrival of a holy man and an immortal earth spirit who were lead by a faltering white dragon.

"Gojyo! Hakkai!" Goku shouted above the screams and cries surrounding them as the newcomers pushed past the bucket brigade and the villagers involved in the tragic scene.

"What the fuck happened?!" Sanzo cried out, the hem of his robe flapping behind him as he ran towards the two youkai on the ground.

Sudden hope dared to rise in Gojyo's eyes as he shouted back, "Hakkai's going to kill himself, Sanzo! I can't make him stop!"

Intense iced amethyst eyes took in the scene before them and it is completely understandable that the blond snarled something truly foul when he noted the paranormal power being wasted so flagrantly. As one hand darted into a deep sleeve-pocket, Sanzo deliberately shoved Goku down onto the ground roughly so that his ward could not interfere with what he knew needed to be done.

"Hey! Sanzo, what did you do *that* for?!" Goku demanded angrily since he'd been prevented from reaching the sides of his blood-drenched friends. Upset and confused, he scrambled back to his feet and hurried towards Gojyo and Hakkai with Hakuryu close behind him.

Sanzo totally ignored the boy's protests even as he pulled forth the infamous Smith & Wesson. Flipping the banishing gun so that the barrel was in his hand, the priest unerringly brought the butt down firmly on the back of Hakkai's skull, sending him into a state of profound unconsciousness and adding yet another injury to deal with later.

The moment the green glow was extinguished and Hakkai's body went limp, Gojyo pulled his soulmate back against himself firmly and sighed, "Oh, thank the gods!"

With a furious snort, Sanzo was about to retort that, no, it was thanks to him and not some nebulous, unreliable beings, yet he found his hands literally full with an enraged young youkai who had not seen the way that Hakkai was unwittingly committing suicide.

Practically attacking Sanzo with his bare hands, Goku grappled with the taller man and demanded, "What the hell did you do *that* for, Sanzo?!? *Why* did you hurt Hakkai like that?!" There were tears of rage in his amber-gold eyes as he screamed, *Why*?!?"

Under other circumstances, Sanzo would have wrested his arms free of the anguished boy and no doubt would have laid into him with his paper fan, swatting him firmly until his point was made. This time, however, he showed amazing restraint and simply speared Goku with an intense gaze, forcing him to freeze before he commanded in a voice deep with emotion, "Look at them, Goku." He flicked his head towards the two youkai and added firmly, "Just *look* at them."

Sanzo saw the very essence of tragedy in the heart wrenching tableau created by two of his traveling companions. It reminded him of a touching statue in Rome, Italy, that the priest had seen a picture of during his education by his now deceased mentor. The image of an anguished mother cradling the form of her crucified son's corpse was unforgettable regardless of its religious implications.

"Huh? Why, Sanzo?" Goku responded in bafflement, then turned to stare as Gojyo's head hung limply over Hakkai's unconscious form, agonized tears of fear, loss, and more etching wet trails down ruddy cheeks unchecked. Previously clenched hands loosened and let the saffron-colored robe they were crushing slip free as he turned towards the others. The sight of Hakkai's bloodied face and hands combined with the gore liberally splashed across Gojyo's own clothes hit him hard.

Turning back to his guardian with new terror in his large, trusting eyes, Goku asked, "But why did you hit him with your gun? I just don't understand!"

Carefully disengaging a powerful hand that had unwittingly dropped onto his leather-clad wrist where it clung fearfully, Sanzo replied as gently as he could considering his nature, "He was irrational and needed to be knocked out before he could hurt himself worse than he already was, Goku." Raw yet unspecified emotion filled his voice as he said, "Even Gojyo knew it and that's why he was so relieved when I did it."

Crestfallen, the umber-haired boy replied, "Oh." After a quick glance at the little dragon who had finally made its pained way back to its dearest friends and was currently keening softly, he added, "Is Hakkai going to die, Sanzo?"

Regaining some of his usual iciness, Sanzo snorted, "Not if *I* have anything to say about it! None of you lot are allowed to die unless *I* say so!" With an utter disregard for the sea of humanity surrounding them, he cleared his throat noisily and commanded, "Let's get out of here. Gojyo? Can you carry him or do I have to do it for you?" The second question was asked with a biting, scornful tone that was totally lost on his audience.

"Say what?" Gojyo answered as he lifted his face to the man who seemed to tower above him. Smoke-tainted, crimson hair fell away from his tear stained face as he asked, "Where are we going?"

"What does it matter, idiot?" Sanzo replied and reached down as if to take Hakkai away from Gojyo who was clearly no longer functioning normally. Predictably, the half-breed tightened his grip on his wounded lover and then somehow struggled to his feet. As Goku moved to help Gojyo gain stable footing, the blond stated, "We'll go find some place in this flea-bitten town and hole up for awhile. Get a doctor to look at him or something."

Gojyo frowned and insisted wearily, "But Hakkai needs a hospital, Sanzo, not just a doctor!"

While Goku was gathering Hakuryu's exhausted body into his arms, Sanzo growled derisively, "Do you really think a pathetic little broken-down piece of shit town like *this* has a hospital, moron?" Turning and beginning to walk away since he couldn't stand to see the defeated expression on the half-breed's face, he added with an aggravated sigh, "We'll be lucky if we can even find an inn or boarding house to stay in."

Rushing to catch up to the man who had saved him from a stone prison some years in the past, Goku offered, "I can go ask someone about it if you want me to, Sanzo."

After making sure he heard the steady plod of booted feet behind him, Sanzo reached for his cigarettes and lit one before replying, "Go ahead, bakasaru. *Somebody* in this damned group of fuck-ups ought to be good for something!"

Ignoring the angry words since he knew they were intended to conceal the concern the human did not wish to express aloud, the immortal youth nodded and promised, "I'll be quick." After turning to look at Gojyo intending to offer words of encouragement yet finding them dying in his throat, Goku looked at Hakkai who dangled in Gojyo's arms so limply that he appeared already dead. Swallowing his own fear, he said, "I'll ask about doctors, too, okay, Sanzo?"

Blowing out a puff of smoke, the priest responded, "Do whatever the hell you want, ape, just get your ass in gear and go do it!"

"Right away," Goku promised again and then dashed off intending to keep his word as quickly as possible.

Duly noting that Gojyo had not said a word since they had risen and began leaving the abattoir that the marketplace had become, Sanzo drew in another deep, unsatisfying lungful of cigarette smoke. He wondered whether it would do any good to even try to talk to him at this point. With a firm shake of his head, he decided against it and simply kept walking, the assumption that Gojyo would continue to follow him regardless of their destination being unspoken.

Awareness of his surroundings or even of the man ahead of him had dwindled to nothing as Gojyo trudged along holding close the only being worthy of his attention at that moment. Hakkai's head was turned towards him and the badly ravaged right side of his face was fully on display to his agonized red eyes.

Clotting had already begun despite the fact that the wound had not been cleansed of the dirt from the street. Unfortunately, this only assured a higher likelihood of infection, something Gojyo had spent many hours fearing long ago when he had become a stranger's caretaker and nurse.

Even though his tears had slowed to a trickle due to shock and exhaustion, Gojyo could not help the shuddering breath that left his body and sounded like he was still crying. It had taken him a very long time to accept the fact that he had fallen in love with the man whose life was hanging in the balance and the very real possibility that he would lose him before the day was out tore him deeply. Like his step-mother and even Jien, Hakkai was going to leave him behind and that thought brought a true sob of sorrow to his lips.

Glad that Gojyo could not see his face, Sanzo let his eyes close briefly in remembered pain of his own.

Unbidden, images of his beloved mentor who had been slaughtered before his very eyes rose in Sanzo's mind's eye, and it was all he could do to force himself not to commiserate with Gojyo. Even though it seemed even more heartless than usual, he knew at least one of their group of five who traveled together had to remain calm and in control, so Sanzo took that role for himself as always. For once, though, he wished he could toss aside his aloof façade and reach out in fraternal care for the sorrowful soul behind him.

Being a leader was not the easy job so many people tended to think that it was.

Wordlessly, Sanzo continued to put as much distance between himself and the smoldering remains of the marketplace behind them as possible without overtaxing the heavily burdened youkai behind him.

Equally speechless, Gojyo kept placing one foot in front of the other and let the world pass him by as he fearfully counted each and every difficult breath that the body cradled against his chest breathed. Smoke inhalation would not be a fatal injury for Hakkai as it had been for the ill-fated laundress, but it would interfere with his survival to at least a minor extent.

Some small distance away, a boy carrying an injured dragon exchanged what little he knew about the fiery destruction for information on housing and medical assistance, something he would soon share with his friends.

Far away, above all of this and not directly involved at this point, a beautiful goddess watched over her warriors not the least bit remorseful for the loss of human life caused by her need to force the Sanzo-ikkou to become stronger. Considering the fact that if Gyumaou was resurrected the entire human race might be destroyed, the deaths of some random townsfolk seemed an insignificant price to pay.

The act of tempering steel involved the flames of a forge, the blows of hammers, and the quenching chill of water. Using this as inspiration, Kanzeon bosatsu had chosen to use fire and injury to challenge not only Hakkai but also those who journeyed with him as well to see if they could rise above their current levels of inner strength.

As long as the Sanzo-ikkou were the goddess' chosen weapons, they were destined to be subjected to one horrible ordeal after another, yet somehow what was to come of this most recent trial exceeded even her own expectations. In truth, it had never even once occurred to the celestial being that instead of bending and becoming more powerful, Hakkai might shatter entirely and that was an error that could cost too dearly if her other emissaries were not strong enough to bear it.

*****

To be continued.

Author's Notes:

[1] Please note that since this is a giftfic for Jadesword, I've specifically included one of her favorite phrases regarding Hakkai. Whereas I've always used "human-turned-youkai" to remind myself if no one else that he was once a normal man, she prefers a term to highlight the change slightly differently. I hope she will enjoy seeing her phrase here in my fic in homage to her own delightful fanfiction.

Please be advised: Chapter 1 will be posted alone.

Posted: 21 October 2003 ~2:30am EDT