By Eline (Kanzeon on

Note-type-thingies: This is a little bit AU . . . as in a small side-track off the main timeline.

Warnings: Violence, cussing, extremely unpleasant situations and only one recognisable character . . . Because Sanzo's the only Saiyuki character here.

Worn-out disclaimer: I own nothing and fanfic is copyright infringement, I know, but it's not like I make any money out of it . . .

Timeline: A little while before Sanzo found Goku.

Dedicated to sf--don't stress yourself out too much over your Prelims. (I didn't hurt Sanzo . . . much.)

* * * * * * * * * *

Dusk. The sun was setting on an autumn day.

Dust. Clouds of it kicked up by mule-teams or herds of livestock driven through this particular country road. Everyone was in a hurry to get home before nightfall. Back to families. Back to dinner and bed for those who had them.

The ferry at this crossing was not particularly crowded. It was a rural area, with only farmers using the crossing for bringing goods to and from larger towns. Some merchants used it as a shortcut to the prosperous cities of the eastern seaboard, thus allowing some enterprising soul to set up the ferry operations at the river. There was a small inn and hostelry on the other side of the river, catering to cart-drivers, weary shepherds and the like.

* * * * * * * * * *

The bartender had wanted to kick him out because the youth did not look of age to be in a taproom, but the look in his eyes was old--old beyond his years. And there was the matter of those monk robes . . .

But money was money after all and the laws were never very rigidly enforced out here.

Genjo Sanzo, protector of the Heavenly Land and Infernal Land Sutras, sat in the public room of the inn at the ferry point, poking disinterestedly at his noodles. He was much more interested in adding to the number of empty beer cans stacked up beside him. It had been an acquired taste, much like the cigarettes he had been smoking despite the stares of just about everyone in the room.

He ignored them, accustomed as he was to the incongruous picture he presented.

So . . . he was headed east now. The circumstances that had lead to his current path were still fresh in his mind.

He had showed up at the gates, bloody and weary from the last encounter with renegade mountain youkai who had thought that a lone human would be easy meat. Most of the blood was youkai blood.

But they had let him in, of course. Into their sanctified ground and their temple because of his title. Because of the easily recognisable chakra on his forehead, no doubt.

As if he was anywhere near holiness, godliness or the next best thing. Whatever that was.

They liked to come up to him, talking about things he was sure they would never have voiced if they had spent a week beyond their safe walls. Philosophy. The ancient teachings. Koumyou Sanzo, his esteemed Master.

As though they had any right to say anything about his Master. His Master was years dead, torn apart like a rag doll.

He had not seen the grave. It housed only a corpse. The flesh was not important when the soul had departed. And yet . . .

And yet he supposed that he would go back there. To the temple he had known all his life. When all this was over, however long it would take . . . Perhaps he would lay the Sutras at his Master's grave and . . . And *what*?

He had gone outside to smoke, more to avoid any annoying monks and their scandalised looks than anything else. Like they had never seen anyone smoke before.

Even out in the shaded courtyard, he was not alone. Novices, craning their necks to have a gander at Genjo Sanzo, who was lighting up and trying to get a moment of privacy.

Oh for crying out loud . . .

He glared. They scuttled off. But he was interrupted a few minutes later by the remarkably mellow tones that had welcomed him into this temple barely five days ago.

"Ah, Sanzo-sama. You appear well."

The abbot was a spry old man for all his years. It made him uneasy, having a sixty-year old man differing to him . . . He had a feeling that the abbot knew and used it to his advantage.

"Well enough. Thank you for your concern." He stubbed out his cigarette irritably, losing the inclination to smoke entirely.

"Hmmm . . . Scandalising the rank and file again?"

"The rank and file are far too cloistered."

"True, very true." The abbot nodded in a genial fashion. "But what would you have us do? We chose seclusion over the distractions of the outside world, believing it to be the less of two evils."

"Why should there be only two paths? Or any at all?" Sanzo asked rhetorically. That was a question his Master had poised the novices once.

"Ah, Koumyou Sanzo's influence . . . I meet your Master once. Remarkable chap."

"He had more tact."

"Sanzo-sama is very blunt," the abbot observed dryly. "If you don't mind me saying, the years out in the world have aged you."

He was seventeen--that much he was sure of. His Master had marked the day he had been found in the river. But the abbot was not talking about his physical age, which tended to lead most people into underestimating him.

"And it's not often that monks such as yourself go about armed."

The frailty of his appearance was deceptive . . . but it also led both humans and youkai to believe that he was easy prey. Considering the places he had been to in order to source out the information he so desperately sought, that had been a drawback and an ever-present annoyance.

"Such is the world that we have removed ourselves from. It's not an easy path you've chosen for yourself, Sanzo-sama."

But it had been his choice. His choice to go on living while he pursued his never-ending quest. It had been four years, and the leads were still slim.

"We have heard also of your reluctance to accept aid from other temples."

They did not have what he needed. He had sought the youkai killers who had slain his Master, and that meant mingling to the shadier elements of society. The monasteries he had passed through on occasion knew nothing that could help him. All they wanted was someone named "Sanzo-houshi-sama", so it was imperative that he avoided and distanced himself from them. But sometimes, it was the only place he knew that would afford sanctuary to one wounded teenager who did not even look like a monk.

That fact galled him to no end.

Sanzo glared into the distance. "And so?"

The last growth spurt had ensured that while he would not loom over most people, he would not remain a runt for the rest of his life. It also meant that his wardrobe was dwindling down to the threadbare remnants of the last time he had accepted a temple's charity. Those robes had no doubt been burned by now--torn and bloodstained as they had been. He usually would not accept the clothes they lavished on him. It was also unlikely that the remarkably new monk's garments he wore now had came out of any store of second-hand robes, but he let them continue with their little deception. It was either that, or go around mother-naked and scandalise the rank and file even more.

The abbot smiled to himself and looked up at the reddening leaves.

"You're not the type to go around with an alms bowl. Or ask for help."

No, he was not. He had tried that before. When he was thirteen and new to the world outside the temple. But few people actually gave anything without demanding something in return. And then he discovered the nature of the world without the constraints of the temple walls and its rules. From all the propositions and the lewd remarks thrown his way, from the various attempts to rob him or worse--from the bodies he left in his wake--

Nothing for nothing. Kill or be killed.

"Perhaps it is time to rethink your options?"

He had options?

It was going to be another offer to wall him up in a monastery again--

"I could write an introduction letter to Hongfu Temple in Chou An," the abbot said, blithely breaking into his train of thoughts. "You should go--there has not been a Sanzo there for almost a decade.

"Besides, it comes with a stipend," he added delicately.

The abbot, Sanzo had to concede grudgingly, was a clever man. He knew all the weak points of a hastily-chosen path that had not changed since that boy who was no longer Kouryuu had ran away from Kinzan Temple all those years ago.

"I still fail to see how that will help me accomplish my mission," Sanzo ground out icily.

The abbot shrugged. "In Chou An is also the Temple of the Setting Sun. The one with the shrine of the Three Aspects--marvellous place it is . . ."

"I don't believe in gods." He had found that that line usually shut a lot of priests up.

"Oh, each to our own," the old abbot said calmly. "But you really should go see it at least once in your life."

"What's this?" he asked suspiciously. "First you want to tie me down to a temple and now you want me to go visit some shrine?"

"Did your master ever speak of it to you? No? Ah."

It still grated, it did, this other man speaking of his master as though he had any right to mention him at all. The abbot was going on about how the Three Aspects were the earthly mouthpieces of Kanzeon Bosatsu herself when he noticed the expression on Sanzo's face.

"So you don't bend your neck to anything or anyone?"

"No. Not to the gods."

Especially not to the gods he had barely believed in four years ago. For therein lay the thorny heart of his discontent . . . If the gods existed and watched over them every fucking moment of the day, then where had they been on the day his Master, a servant of those same gods, had spilled his lifesblood out on the hallowed grounds of a supposedly holy temple?

There was no reason to believe in them now. He had himself, and that was all he needed.

"The Three Aspects are not gods as the layman would define the term . . . More like a kind of oracle," the abbot pointed out. "And perhaps the Three Aspects could tell you where you should go on your search, Genjo Sanzo. It must be tiring to wander about without any sense of direction . . ."

For once, he did not retort or snap back. The abbot had hit on a particularly sore point. When all else failed, there was always the faith that he barely even practised. But it was his Master's faith after all . . . and he would complete his search at any cost.

"I'll consider it," he said, more to stop the old man's incessant prodding than anything else.

The abbot spoke of a great many things in the next few days--whether out of the mistaken belief that Sanzo would be interested or merely to prattle about the monastery, the countryside, the state of religion this back-wood area to an important guest, he would never know.

In the end, he had accepted the letter from the abbot of Louyang Monastery to the Patriarch of Hongfu Temple reluctantly--just in case he changed his mind on the way--and set off, intending to find some place that served drinkable beer. Despite all his protests, they would have secreted new robes, provisions and a little cash in the bundle that they swore contained leftovers from yesterday.

He had gone east in the direction of Chou An--not because the abbot had suggested it though. One thing Sanzo never ever disclosed to anyone was that his wanderings were not entirely as aimless as they appeared to be. There was always this . . . *instinct* that drew him onwards. And something that could have been a voice--calling, always calling him . . .

Admitting to anyone that he heard voices in his head was the surest way of landing up committed to an asylum by well-meaning people like the abbot of Louyang.

Brooding about it would not do any good now. He drained the can and asked the barkeeper for directions to the privy.

"Out the back." The barkeeper jerked a thumb at the back door of the public room.

The back courtyard of the inn proper was not that well-lit, but the arrow and sign to the privy was clear enough--foot high characters painted on the wall that also warned of the penalties for urinating, defecating and vomiting anywhere other than the designated toilet. Sanzo hoped that most of those yokels could read--he only had one extra pair of slippers.

Following the light of a very feeble lamp on the far wall, he made it to the archway in the wall separating the front of the inn from the back half. The kitchens and a sheltered courtyard lay beyond, occupied by various staff members taking their evening meal or drinking to pass the time. The privies were at the far end of the compound, no doubt in close proximity to the river where everything could be disposed of out of sight and out of mind.

When he strode past, he heard the noise of some altercation near the kitchens.

"Get the hell away from there, stupid old hag!" The innkeeper was berating some drudge out by the courtyard wall. A few ferry-hands on their dinner break were watching with ill-concealed amusement. "What did I say about you coming here? I'll thrash the living daylights out of you! Be off!"

The servant did not seem fazed by this outburst at all. Spindle thin and grey, she looked at the landlord in a considering fashion before shuffling away through a darkened arch to what could have been the staff compound or storage area.

"Oi! Boss--the little woman giving you trouble again?"

"The gods alone know why I married the bitch!" the innkeeper snarled to his lackeys. "If you layabouts are done with your meals, clear out!"

It was none of his business--merely background noise. He made his way to the privies and back to the inn proper. Before he reached the barroom however, he scented a cool zephyr of damp air that signalled the approach of an autumn gale.

When Sanzo got back to the bar, he ordered the strongest liquor they had--straight up.

Later, when the customers had thinned out and the drinkers remaining were well beyond the dead-drunk phase, the priest was still at the bar, a three-quarters empty jar of the region's most potent rice wine in front of him. He had smoked his way through the box of Marlboros as the rain poured down, his mood as sodden as the ground outside.

When the cigarettes ran out, he decided to call it quits for the night. However, his legs were not that sure of themselves when he started to get up.

"Oi, young master, you look like you might need some help," said the thickset man who seemed to be a bouncer of some sort who had been helping groups of inebriated customers out the door, sometimes not very politely. Sanzo supposed that customers who were staying at the inn got slightly better treatment.

"No need." He should not have had that much to drink, really, but--

Despite his protests, the man--who looked like he was used to this sort of thing--got Sanzo's arm over one stout shoulder and headed for the stairs. "A good night's sleep will do you good and we've got the just the thing for next-day-hangovers . . ."

If he had been any less drunk, that man would have died for his presumption. As it was, he was stuck trying to walk in a straight line up the stairs. Tripping slightly on the landing, he swore fluently.

"Hey, careful there, young master--"

Sanzo registered the man's murderous intent just in time to avoid the blow meant for his head. Ducking aside, he pulled away and fumbled for his gun, silently cursing his ill luck and his carelessness. He had not sensed the undercurrent of danger until now--

Some clarity returned to him as he forcibly shouldered aside the effects of the alcohol. Survival instincts, honed fine by years of living on the proverbial edge, kicked in almost instantly.

There were others just ahead and a few coming up from behind. They reeked of violence, these lawless men. It made it easier for him to sense them in the gloomy stairway. The main problem was that there were too many of them and it was not a particularly spacious staircase to begin with--

The "helpful" member of the inn's staff lunged for him, intent on finishing what he started.

His first shot--fired too hastily at close range--got the man in the thigh. The noise of the gunshot was deafening in the enclosed space.

Then the other potential robbers were there, armed with clubs and sticks. He dodged their clumsy attempts with ease and raised his gun again--

But it was far too cramp for his speed and agility to work to his advantage. And to top it all off, the alcohol he had been imbibing was beginning to take its toil on his reflexes.

Someone landed a lucky blow in the dark. It caught him hard on the temple and he moved backwards instinctively to avoid the press of bodies that was threatening to trap him--

Through the blaze of pain in his temple, he could tell he was falling.

Damned stairs--

* * * * * * * * * *

End Part 1.