Summary: Running away from himself, Sha Jien trips over a shard of frozen jade.

Disclaimer: Unprofiting fanwork. Saiyuki and everyone of importance mentioned belong to Minekura-san.

Notes: A 58 fic Gojyo didn't show up for. I can't believe I've never posted this here; it's neck-and-neck in my top three (imo, but then, I'd think that about anything completed that has anything remotely resembling a plot). Please review!
—But let's also please, please, o Mercy, not have an argument about my leaning towards pinyin over kanji romanizations in a Chinese-flavored Japanese Western translated into English. I do promise not to spell Hakkai's name Bajie, Wuneng, or even Goneng like my much-appreciated but also kind of awful fansub did, if that helps; I'm just going with the subbed vocals. ;)

Spoilers for episode 37: Taciturnity.


Pay it Forward

by nightfall


The junk took Jien as far as Tianxi, where the Wei trickled out. Unloading him with their cargo, the crew turned around, headed on the long journey back north to Taiyuan. He settled his knapsack on his shoulders and headed northwest. They could always use another guard at the Great Wall, or maybe he'd find another junk to get a berth on, heading down one of the Yellow River's tributaries. Maybe he'd just keep walking.

He worked on the Wall that winter, shivering the nights away by the meager fire in the guardhouses on the top, climbing forever stairs every day. They stretched on to infinity, and every time he thought the top was in sight, they curved around the mountain and there were another hundred steps. But the view from the top was spectacular, all grey stone and blue or black sky and stubbornly green mountains. Even in the heart of the fire he never saw anything crimson.

It was the kind of winter to freeze a man's lungs in his chest, and the rawness of it kept him too miserable to think. He was grateful for the cold, and even for the damp.

Then the rumors caught up.

It wasn't a problem, not really. There was nothing to connect a polite and rangy human kid with scruffy hair and punk earcuffs with that youkai, that terrible, oedipal Sha of Xienyang. Even in those days most youkai found it wisest to wear limiters, if for no other reason than to keep the advantage of surprise on their side. Certainly he hadn't, although he considered himself a simple man most of the time, been simple enough to travel under his own name. He called himself poison.

But even if rumors of that faraway youkai washed over just-Doku of eh-you-know-hick-town-nowhere-special, nothing could separate him from the Jien who had stood with his heart pounding while his mother's blood ran down his blade, who had met bewildered crimson eyes and fled, left them alone to an empty house and a body to bury.

So.

When he ran out of Yellow River to follow, he aimed for the Yangtze, going south. The weather was getting beautiful now. The world had turned a uniform yellow-green with sprouting things, and some days he managed to think about nothing at all.

But the air turned warm, and then hot. He was used to loving summer. Summer meant plenty of work on other people's fields, plenty of food, fishing with his brother (it wasn't to be thought of), cold beer in the evening with his friends and helping the kid catch fireflies (don't think about it) and scuffling with him in the dusty streets, and his mother (don't think, don't think) too torpid with the heat to be cruel five days out of seven.

Now all it meant was dust in his clothes, dust in his hair, in his throat, in his eyes, dust caking his fingernails and turning to hot slime on his sweaty palms. Sometimes, even when he lifted his hands into the light and stared at them head on, his imagination turned them red.

He had to get somewhere that had air conditioning before he went the rest of the way out of his mind. It wasn't just a luxury anymore. So he stopped at the first town he came to, and walked straight to the biggest building he saw.

It turned out to be an orphanage, run by monotheist nuns. The Eldest Sister was an older woman with kind eyes, and she gave him a futon in the basement and meals with the rest of them in exchange for janitorial work. Jien didn't mind. Scrubbing wooden floors and walls was exactly the kind of energetic, mind-numbing activity he was looking for, and there was something miserably satisfying in cleaning the windows and lending a hand to the endless supply of laundry.

Besides, he'd always been good with kids. Maybe he wasn't one anymore. Grown men always said you never knew you were losing your innocence until it was gone, but he'd traded his away with open eyes, life for life.

Either way, he could play hard enough to keep them happy, and say yeah-right-forget-about-it casually enough to keep them in line. They adored him. He kind of liked them back.

The Eldest Sister's darling was a grey-eyed girl with brown pigtails, one Xiaohei who Jien detested on sight. She was, once you'd subtracted a decade, exactly the kind of sweet-voiced, wide-eyed popular girl who used to try to flirt with him as though he had no connection to the skinny, scruffy little redhead they edged away from in the streets. Xiaohei was an edger, too. Most days saw her flinching away from her grim and silent seatmate, who completely ignored her and her discomfort.

He hated girls like that, girls who were sweet and modest like they weren't superior, egocentric, narrow-minded bitches. If he ignored her long enough, if he didn't do it coldly and give her a challenge, he figured, she'd leave him alone.

She didn't, though. She brought him apples and water, homework and problems, just like most of the rest of the kids. She treated him like a favorite teacher, and she didn't act coy with him like she did with most of the boys her age. Grudgingly, he warmed to her, especially after she actually reached out to her seatmate on the Eldest Sister's suggestion. He hadn't wanted to tell her to, himself. He was afraid of what might have come out of his mouth on the subject of people who despised the suffering of others, for one thing.

For another, he wasn't sure he had the right to talk. He hadn't made any headway with the boy, either. He hadn't even tried very hard. His casual feelers had all been ignored, and although he kept making them he hadn't stepped up the intensity the way he maybe should have.

In any case, the boy slapped her down so hard, cold, and indifferent that she came running to Jien crying. At least, she said he had. She said he'd asked her how she could smile. It seemed like a fair question to Jien, from a miserable orphan to one who managed to touch happiness once in a while, but Xiaohei said that the way he'd said it made her feel like winter.

If the kid was starting to spread his pain to other people, Jien couldn't just let him get on with it anymore.

[tbc]

Further notes: Doku by itself (with, I think, different kanji) is 'poison.' Dokugakuji as Minekura-san writes it seems to mean something about a German corner, if I believe the translation site, which I'm not at all sure that I do! I like to think about Kougaiji taking Doku's hairshirt and Jien's name and brute-forcing something clean-slate-like out of them both, even if it does leave everyone with something of a mouthful (g).
Please review! You never know, enough support might move me to post ahead of schedule, so we can get to actual dialogue... (tempt, tempt)