Disclaimer: I do not own Saiyuki or anything else that anybody in the known universe could sue me for. I own nothing.

At the End of the Tunnel

Yaone urged the dragon higher. She closed her eyes and let the wind blow over her. Usually the rhythmic sound of beating wings carried her to a sort of blissfully free state. Usually the nothingness was a wonderful break; just her, the dragon, and the endless sky. On any other day she couldn't deny the coil of freedom in her chest. Usually she enjoyed these short trips to collect herbs she needed.

But this time all she could think about was the monk who was probably being tortured at that very moment. Not even for information! Just the simple fun of a sadist! And what could she do about it? Absolutely nothing. Not. A. Damn. Thing. The only coil of emotion she felt in her chest was the steady presence of smoldering rage, professionally contained.

Forcing the dragon to dive downward, towards a small lake she did her best to push the thoughts from her mind.

Besides, she realized as a second dragon came into sight, she wasn't really alone. It seemed the solitude would have been ruined anyway. Having an apprentice was more work than it seemed, even when the apprentice was making baby steps of progress. Now not only did she have to factor in her work as Kougaiji's apothecary and Lirin's babysitter, but also Sanzo's healer and Lirin's teacher. For a moment she wondered what exactly she'd done to make Karma mad. She'd asked for less work and all she got was more! If the heavens had some sort of a rewards system either it was terribly screwed up or they'd made a clerical error.

On the bright side, Nii had been going easy on Sanzo in the last four days (as in nothing spectacular like electrified bedsprings and barbed wire). Her treatments of him consisted mostly of preventing infection and strengthening his immune system. Today she wanted to get some Mint so she could make a balm for his smaller cuts. Also she wanted to find some Marigold, she was afraid Enchinacea alone wasn't going to keep the large gash on his back from becoming infected. As a matter of fact, she was beginning to fear it already was.

Yaone wondered if the sudden pang of fear was just due to the fact that it was her who hadn't put the bandages on his back the first night. It could be her fault it was infected.

That was something she wasn't too keen on focusing on. Once she thought about that, all she could think about was trying not to think about all the horrible kinds of microbes could be crawling around that place...not even considering what Nii could purposely infect Sanzo with. Despite her efforts her mind rattled off at least the top four.

"Hey! Yaone!" Lirin yelled from below, already having landed, "Cummon, slowpoke!"

Yaone wondered when it became proper to call a teacher 'slowpoke'. Still, she kept her mouth shut as the dragon tried to clobber the ground with its feet. She rubbed her bumped elbow. That was much harder then usual, if not for the saddle straps she might have been knocked clean off this time. She couldn't help but glare at the dragon before whispering, "What did I do to you?"

The dragon twisted its head around so it was looking at her, then cocked its head. Like a dog that you just yelled at and it has no idea why it was just yelled at, so it tries to look as cute as possible so maybe you'll stop yelling. Until this moment she'd never thought it possible for a dragon to look cute, but damned if this one didn't pull it off. Yaone shook her head and steadily patted the beast's head. Maybe it hadn't been the dragon at all; maybe she was just snappier than usual...from the workload, not worrying about flesh eating bacteria.

"Lirin," She called to her apprentice, who was tying her dragon's lead to a tree like a pro. Yaone could remember a time when the girl couldn't even tie her shoes right...

Heavens...how long had she been with Kougaiji?

Lirin came running over, "Stop it."

"Stop what?" Yaone may never have had the teacher/student relationship before, but she was pretty sure she was the one supposed to be giving directions.

"That look. You look all sad an' stuff."

Yaone sighed, how could she explain this, "I'm dealing with some things right now. This isn't a sad face this is a thinking face."

"Oh..." Lirin said, for a heartbeat Yaone dared hope that the girl would just let it drop. "But I know your thinking face. You don't look sad like that while you're measuring gunpowder."

"I'm not sad..." Yaone said, then decided to get back at the girl, "Now, Lirin, what do we use Marigold for?"

Lirin answered, "You just told me this morning. We use Marigold to disinfect cuts."

"And mint?" Good, it seemed Lirin's attention was successfully diverted. There were times a child's abbreviated attention span came in handy.

"Mint...mint..." She looked like she was struggling a little. "Lots of uses...mostly on the digestive tract. But it's also known to help fight off colds in the early stages."

"Okay...there's a difference between Spearmint and Peppermint. What is it?"

Again Lirin's face distorted as she tried to think of it. "Uh...Peppermint is stronger, and it's not safe to use on little children. We use Spearmint for that. Oh yeah! And the menthol in Peppermint is good for infections!"

Yaone nodded approvingly, "Don't forget that regular Mint can help with muscle cramps and headaches, and Catmint can help slow down fevers. Peppermint, Spearmint, Catmint, and Mint are some of the most primary herbs we use. Do you remember where we find Mint?"

"I remember that! By water sources."

Yaone smiled again, "Just remember all of this. I'll quiz you on it tomorrow just to make sure today wasn't you getting lucky...Now, come, I know a little clearing where Marigold grows. Then we'll see if I can find those different mints to show you the difference."

"Hey, Yaone," Lirin said.

The apothecary wasn't feeling as bad anymore, Lirin was making progress. It was slow, but even memorizing a couple herbs was better than not knowing any. At least her time wasn't being wasted. "What is it?"

"I just remembered another use for Mint: we put it in food!"

VVVVV

Sanzo wondered, in the midst of severe pain, how Goku was doing. Not that he had an idea in heaven or earth why he thought about the boy. It definitely wasn't that he was worried about the boy...or about how he was handling all of this...or if he was focusing on his fighting instead of worrying about...

The thought was cut off at the feeling of flesh ripping and tearing as the thin strings were pulled out of them. He breathed heavily as the horrible pain set in. Amazingly, it was more torturous to make the effort not to scream then the actual torture. It was incredibly hard to fight one's primal urges.

He writhed on the chair for a moment. Being belted down to it, it wasn't like he could go anywhere else. When the urge to convulse was over he glared up at Nii...or at least he thought he was glaring up at Nii. The insanely bright light shining in his eyes blinded him to the world beyond its glow. For all he knew he could have been in some little shack in the forest, inches away from freedom. But it was far more likely he was in some empty room for torture in the prison outpost. "Is that all you got?" He asked.

The only reply he got was a hand and a pair of tweezers coming out from the shadows (disappointingly, not where Sanzo thought he was) and tore another one of his wrist stitches off. This time he tried to think only about the warm blood slipping down his wrists and not the pain. He was forced to close his eyes, trying to focus on his senses other than the nerves that were going crazy. He regained himself in a matter of moments. "You aren't going to hear me scream." Nope. Never.

He didn't have to see Nii to know that twisted smile was there, "Such a big, strong, boy you are...Cummon, scream for daddy."

"If you think I'm going to scream, or if you're my father, then you can just take your fucking medication," Sanzo snarled. "Though keep in mind: just because you're handicapped by psychosis doesn't mean I'm not going to blow your kneecaps off before I do everything to you that you've done to me here."

"Why do you still think you're getting out of this alive? Is it misplaced optimism? Or are you banking on a shred of human decency in me?" When Nii spoke this time, with a strange premeditated calm, he managed to make the normal persona he put on look sane...almost.

"Oh, I know I'm not getting out of this alive. Just so happens I'm a big fan of going out swinging. And by the way, sociopaths have no human decency."

More of the premeditated calm was in Nii's next words. In a way it was more unnerving then the blatant insanity. Everything that Nii was seemed bared in those few moments. All the hate, cruelty, apathy, malevolence, and darkness that he seemed to drip with became apparent as he spoke. " 'tis better to die on your feet than to live on your knees'," He quoted thoughtfully. "It's amazing how like him you are...and sickening. He died that night...A match only gets one chance before it can't support the flame anymore...this much of him shouldn't live on." He laughed suddenly, "Damn it, Koumyou! You cheated!"

Sanzo almost said something terribly snide, but for once common sense interrupted the words and turned them to ash in his mouth. He would never admit it in a million years, but this strange, detached side of Nii scared him. This was a part of Nii that truly showed you how capable of cruelty he was. Well, he was always capable of it, but this side of him...was malicious. He was easily angered and would have no desire to play with Sanzo once angered...he would strangle him without a second thought and watch as the light went from his eyes. Not for amusement, like the other Nii, but simply because he could. Like some teenaged jackass tearing off a birds wings.

Sanzo didn't know why he knew this side of Nii so well...even though he'd only seen brief glimpses of it. In all the honesty of the universe he didn't want to know why he could stare into the heart of darkness and understand that soul entirely.

He gasped in surprise as thin hands came from behind and were placed on his cheeks. Gods, he hadn't even heard him move...

"Are you afraid?" Nii cooed.

Sanzo wisely stayed quiet.

One hand suddenly slid down from his cheek to his chin and neck, the other shifted position slightly. Both hands were in perfect positions to snap his neck with just a single quick motion. Sanzo realized, that in this moment he was walking the tightrope between living and dying. That was all right, he'd been there before plenty of times. He just did what he'd always done, it seemed to work seeing as he was still here. "If you want to kill me, go ahead. I can go to hell and laugh my ass off that you took the easy way out."

His heart lurched when slight pressure was applied to Nii's hands. The other man's grip intensified, like he was preparing for the break. Sanzo didn't pray for his life then, he only prayed that Nii wasn't seeing the sweat dripping down his forehead and neck, or feel the pounding of the pulse in his neck. For another intense split second the pressure increased. Finally Nii's hands were quickly lifted away. It was like if he stayed like that for a second longer he wouldn't have been able to help murder.

"You were lucky, Priest Sanzo."

"I've been-" Sanzo couldn't finish, what with being punched out of nowhere and everything.

Now, he was no stranger to getting hit in the face with blunt objects; fists, baseball bats, clubs, chairs, etc. the strange thing was is that as he was passing out and choosing a topic to think about instead of the splitting headache he thought about the apothecary...Yaone.

VVVVV

When Yaone came that night, she saw something that would change her view of Nii forever. She'd always known he was insane, evil, crazy, sadistic...but the creature she saw that night...was...

He was standing over a passed out Sanzo, looking for the entire world like an angel of death or a collector of damned souls. Maybe even some kind of vampire. He looked pale in the light; his lab coat didn't seem that many shades whiter than his skin. The black slacks and hair contrasted the pallor beautifully.

What was he?

She flew to the Prison Outpost, like was becoming habit for her, only to find that Sanzo wasn't in his cell. She had considered sitting around and waiting for Sanzo's guards to escort him back to his cell, but decided against him. For one thing she had limited time, and she wasn't going to be kept from her duties once she was there. For another thing she wanted to use any excuse she could to ease his suffering. So she'd wondered down the dungeon hall, towards the area that was classically used for varying types of torture. And she'd managed to stumble onto the sight of Nii standing over Sanzo.

She was just coming down the stairs and opening the door when she first saw what would be burned in her memory forever. The room was lit by a single bright light, shining on the two like a spotlight in some play. Sanzo was strapped to a chair, similar to the kind that dentists used. Nii's hand was tracing the outline of the priest's jaw and neck. As if pondering or mapping out what he was going to do next.

Sanzo, with his hair the purest golden fire, was the very image of light. While Nii looked the very image of darkness. Yaone would not deny the fear, but she also couldn't deny there was beauty to this sight.

Yaone realized how the effect of fear Nii usually had on her was intensified. There was no fight or flight syndrome this time, just a desire to run that was etched into her very bones. Something inside her was screaming that this was not a safe place to be. It was jumping off the walls and slamming its hands against the cement Yaone carefully kept it contained with.

Because of that she couldn't turn her eyes away from him...She didn't know what gods forsaken thing she was staring at, but she knew that her patient was at the mercy of said horrid thing. "Dr. Nii," She called out bravely, he turned to face her with eyes blacker than sin. She kept the shake from her voice, barely; she'd never known his eyes were that black before. "I believe you're shift is over...He's my patient now."

When Nii stared at her she realized how terribly out of it he was. For a moment he didn't even look like he recognized her. She got the impression of being was some kind of strange foreign object that was looked at with curiosity and annoyed contempt all at once. He'd been in some other place, when all of a sudden something came along to drag him away from it.

When he smiled it was almost a relief to see the apathetic pervert she was used to. "Just admiring my handiwork, little apothecary." As he walked by her his grin grew wider, "Just a little head's up, he tore his stitches and he has a severe concussion. I'd take measures to prevent clotting if I were you." Then he walked away.

"I can do my job, thank you," Yaone waited to make the comment until after he'd left the room, even at that she only said it in a whisper. As soon as she knew he was gone she practically collapsed from the post-adrenaline shakes. She pressed her back to the closed door behind her before automatically going through her collection in search of something to calm her nerves; she doubted she'd be much help to Sanzo if she were shaking out of her mind. It didn't take her long to find the Thyme she'd been looking for. After fumbling to get the bag open she downed as big a dose as she knew was safe. It didn't take long for the nervous adrenaline jitters to go away.

"That was brave, and stupid," She suddenly heard Sanzo say; she jerked her attention up to him. He was still placed exactly how he was when Nii was there, bound by strips of leather to the chair. His eyes were still closed, blood marred his wrists and the array of wounds and bruises on his chest were exposed fully. Still, he must have been awake the entire time.

She laughed nervously, "Tell me about it..." Then more seriously, "What is he?"

It took him a long time to reply, she was beginning to think he'd passed out again when he spoke, "He's just a human. A damned ambitious, evil mutherfucker of a human, but still a human..." He opened his eyes, "Do you know why he got the job working with Koushu."

"Because he's a pervert and she's a slut?"

Maybe it was the concussion on his part, or maybe her view was somewhat clouded, but she could have sworn she saw a quirk of his lips. "I'm sure that's got something to do with it, it probably only helped that he happens to have the Muten scripture..."

Yaone stared down at the man, "He's a...Sanzo priest? Like you?"

"No," His voice was as if he was speaking to someone rather slow and getting agitated, "Not like me. If you look closely enough you'll see that he doesn't have the chakra on his forehead. He was never chosen by the gods."

"When I saw him it took everything I had not to run."

"Good, you're smart..." He opened his eyes and quickly looked away, "Turn this damn light off, my head feels like I swallowed a bottle of rubbing alcohol."

Yaone mentally smacked herself for not thinking of that herself. Momentarily she fumbled on the wall next to her before finding a light switch so she wouldn't be in complete darkness once she turned off the surgical light. It turned on an overhead light in the middle of the room and one in the other end.

It took all her self-control not to throw up to see the rusty (she hoped that's what it was) collection of torture devices placed neatly all around the room. Yaone even managed to pick out the cat o' nine tails that Nii had used on Sanzo last night. However, the more hideous devices looked either too mundane for Nii or too old to be used. Still, her demonic ears picked up on the slightest change in Sanzo's breathing. He clearly thought the same thing she thought, and hoped more than she did.

To get her mind off of it she walked over to him, "Look into the light."

"I thought you healers are supposed to prevent that?"

Yaone smiled, she couldn't help it. "I need to see if you really have a concussion."

Reluctantly he looked up quickly into the bright light above him, Yaone was pleased to see the violet pupils contract. "Congratulations, you don't have a concussion."

"As great as that is," He began, "I do have a headache. So for my reward could you please turn off the light?"

"Of course," Yaone switched it off and began to work on the leather straps. As she did so she felt a little insulted to see her stitches from the night before removed, and the skin around it torn to shreds. The possibility of scars was beginning to look more and more like a probability. At that she felt rather sick; a device of her healing had been used to cause him pain. She took particular care when removing the blood caked leather around his wrists. As soon as she was done and he was mobile she said, "Can you move?"

"If I have to," He hissed.

She smiled, "You have to."

A grumbling Sanzo rolled over, and would have fallen over if Yaone hadn't helped him up. Yaone noted when he grabbed her shoulders that he had already regained use of his left shoulder, five days was good for healing a dislocated appendage. There was a rush of something as he relied on her, an alien fluttering in her chest. It being alien, she ignored it.

It might have been wiser to use the better light of the room to treat him by. But she thought it might be healthier for him to get away from the devices lined up on the walls. She would bet every penny she had that Nii set it up like that. Although she was pretty sure the glimpse into his insanity she saw wasn't part of his plan. "So," She said as she guided Sanzo out of the room and onto the staircase, "What on earth did you say that made Nii...act like that?"

"I said a lot undiplomatic things. One or more of them must have had the desired effect."

"'Desired effect'?"

"He's my enemy, I'm spending a lot of quality time with him these days. I felt the need to dig for all the information I could."

Fair enough. Yaone knew she would do the same in his position. "You were saying something about the Muten Scripture you claim he possesses?"

"He's a Sanzo because he has a scripture and a holy name, but there can only be one explanation for not having the chakra: he took the scripture by force. Meaning he never would have completed the training required for bearing the weight of a holy scripture."

Yaone caught on, "He was already demented enough to kill a priest for his scripture, the added weight of the scripture must have just made it worse."

Sanzo grimaced just before they hit the top of the staircase, "Yes, that's exactly what I'm thinking...Very good. A whole hell of a lot better than that good for nothing kappa."

"...I never got the relationship between you two."

As they reached his cell she slowly placed him back onto the mat he slept on. He grunted, "It's pretty simple once you get to know us: he annoys me and in turn I detest him. There's a mutual understanding between us that as long as Hakkai's breathing I don't kill him."

He was hurting, and trying to talk tough. For some reason she found that amusing.

She began to work, starting immediately with the Peppermint Oil and Marigold Juice she'd collected that morning.

Then he said something that surprised her, though it probably shouldn't given his observant nature.

"What? No Echinacea this time?"

Oh? So he had been paying attention. "No. I'm afraid it's not strong enough to prevent infection. I'm using Marigold Juice and Peppermint Oil."

"It stings," He muttered irritably.

"You get used to it. An infection will hurt a lot worse."

VVVVV

Yaone let the hot water rinse over her face, trying desperately to retain the heat she'd lost as soon as she'd gotten out of bed. But as per usual she wouldn't have time to let it warm her properly before having to climb out and go to work. In the last eight days, work had included: Getting up at about six o'clock so she could make it to her lab before Lirin, spending the next four to six hours showing Lirin the ropes as she tried to get some of her concoctions premixed, then she would let Lirin go play while she focused on making more gunpowder and explosives for about four hours, if she had time before dinner she would try to get some practice in with her spear, at about six o' clock she would start flying to the Prison Outpost to care for Sanzo, afterwards returning to Hotou Castle whenever she was finished with him. Meaning that whenever she finished she still had to get up at six A.M and start the whole goddamned process over again

Last night she'd only gotten four hours sleep because Nii went a little crazy with a pair of tweezers and Sanzo's stitches. She'd been forced to stitch up the mutilated skin around the ripped stitches; a difficult task Oh...how she wanted nothing more than to just stand there in the shower, absorbing the heat and lost in thought. Actually, no, she'd been lost in thought too much lately. Unfortunately the thoughts she was getting lost in weren't of the relaxing nature. Every time she tried not to think about him all that happened was she thought about him more. All the thoughts were of the depressing sort, involving things like the hell he must have been going through.

She immediately revised her wish. She wanted to stand there in the shower, absorbing the heat and let her brain melt away. Just for a little while, that was all she wanted. Yaone closed her eyes. Steadied her breathing. She focused only on her breathing...only on the immediate sounds and feelings all around her. The aim was to focus on the here and now so the thoughts of the past, present, and future could just fly away.

It worked...For two blissful seconds...

No sooner had she found that lovely place of emptiness did someone knock on the door to her room. It took everything she had not to scream.

Angrily she shut off the shower and grabbed a towel. She seriously considered walking out there naked, that would teach Kougaiji or Doku a lesson or two. Instead she settled for wrapping a towel around herself. That would make either of her male friends uncomfortable enough. Yaone allowed herself a wicked smile, which would of course be sweet as pie by the time she got to the door. She walked across wood floors and carpet before finally reaching the door to her room and pulling it open.

Just as she'd suspected it was Kougaiji, and the second he realized exactly what she was wearing (or rather what she wasn't) his tanned face went beet red. "Yes, Lord Kougaiji?" She said, perfectly mimicking the Girl Next Door cliché.

He squirmed a little. But he got no sympathy. It damn well served him right for snapping her out of the few moments of true peace she'd had in the last week. "Um...I came to...uh...Ask you about Lirin." He said the last bit quickly and looked back into the hallway as if checking for something.

"Yes, what about her?"

He seemed to be having trouble finding a place to focus his eyesight on. The demon prince ended up focusing on a place on the carpet behind her. This amused Yaone to no end. The son of Gyumaoh was polite enough to look the other way. "Do you think she's...s-serious?" He said in a voice nearly a stammer.

That really wasn't a question she wanted to answer dripping wet, wrapped in a towel. But she answered it anyway. "Well, she has come every day the past week, always of her own accord. And she is making some progress. So, yes, in my opinion she really wants to learn." Her voice was calm, and reasonable. But as she stood next to an open door she understood the subtle screw-overs of karma. She wanted to give her lord an eyeful, so she ended up soaking wet and forced to stand in the middle of a cold draft talking to him.

Almost as soon as the thoughts crossed her mind it got worse. Doku chose that moment to come strolling around the corner. "Hey, Yaone-" He stopped before the sentence could take full shape. He gawked for a moment or so before doing an abrupt about-face and placing his back to the wall outside her room. It was moments like those when she could hardly believe Doku and Gojyo were related by anything other than genealogy. Kougaiji seemed to snap out of whatever daze he was in and did a similar about-face, suddenly mumbling something about equipment checks. He seemed like he couldn't leave fast enough. Yaone wasn't very worried about repercussions; he probably just wanted to pretend this whole thing ever happened.

She smiled at the remaining member of their party, even though he couldn't see it, "Well, Doku, what did you want?" This was an amazing release of stress. So much so it took everything she had not to laugh...she failed. She ended up laughing so hard it hurt her stomach and she was forced to retreat to the bathroom to keep from dropping her towel entirely. When she was in there she grabbed a much less revealing robe before walking back outside, still laughing.

Doku took a glance to make sure she was decent before turning to face her entirely, "You did that on purpose didn't you?"

"Yes."

"You're evil."

"I know."

VVVVV