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Saiyuki: Altitude

Title: Altitude
Series: Saiyuki
Rating: G
Pairing: None

Summary: Goku looks to Sanzo, forehead now resting on the dashboard, left hand gripping the low door. His blond hair is dark with sweat, his hand shaking.

Missing scene from Blast.


“We’re going to lead them back to headquarters. Carefully.”

The Kouten Squad, dressed in saffron-coloured gi and carrying rifles, step back cautiously from the Jeep – from Sanzo. They’re tall and well-built, and when their leader gives them an order they obey it unquestioningly. Still, they lack the military precision Goku has encountered in some of the human towns they’ve passed through. A militia, he concludes, and a well-armed one. Their leader seems capable: in one look, he deduced the threat Sanzo presents – and the opportunity.

Although right now, honestly, Sanzo’s not up to much. He’s curled inwards in the passenger seat, arms wrapped tightly around himself as if for warmth, shoulders trembling. Goku can smell his acrid sweat despite the cold air. Hakkai and Gojyo aren’t faring any better; both are bowed inwards and fighting for breath.

“Can you drive?” asks Hassan, glancing skeptically at the three men in the jeep.

Goku looks towards Jeep. He’s never considered driving – it’s solely Hakkai’s domain, as much a part of the youkai as his ever-present smile or monocle. Sitting in that seat feels wrong, like a trespass. But Hakkai’s clearly in no state to be navigating the treacherous mountain roads, and they can’t stay here. “I can try,” he says uncertainly.

It takes a minute to help Hakkai out of the driver’s seat and boost him up into the back where he and Gojyo huddle together, united in misery. Goku hops up into the driver’s seat, staring out through the dusty dash. His feet barely touch the pedals; he has to lean down to pull the seat forward. “Let’s go slow, okay Jeep?”

The truck’s lights flash in agreement. Goku lets out the clutch like he’s heard Hakkai do a thousand times and shifts carefully into gear. The tires crunch over the gritty road as he jerks suddenly forward towards the cliff edge and then hits the brakes in sudden panic, Sanzo giving a pained grunt beside him. “Sorry!” He tries again, this time getting off to a smoother start.

The men form up beside him, and they’re off.

***

At the speed they’re going – closer to a crawl than anything else – it takes more than an hour to reach the Kouten Squad’s base. When they come through the narrow mountain pass that leads to it, Goku inadvertently brakes hard and stalls Jeep.

Hidden here in the heart of the mountains is an immense keep, built strong as a castle and elegant as a temple. It features a huge circular retaining wall with narrow windows inset into the thick stone for archers, or snipers, to fire from. The gate is tall and made of wood reinforced with iron; the road leading to it has been beaten down over the centuries by foot traffic. Inside, Goku can just see the top of a pagoda-like tower.

“Wow,” he says. It’s not as beautiful as Chang’an with its canals and reflecting pools full of lotus flowers, but it’s nearly as impressive.

Hassan stops beside him, rifle slung over his shoulder. “This is our stronghold. You’ll be safe here.” As he speaks the doors open, pushed out from inside by more men in saffron-coloured gi. Goku looks to Sanzo, forehead now resting on the dashboard, left hand gripping the low door. His blond hair is dark with sweat, his hand shaking. Goku can hear his laboured breathing, the way he shifts uncomfortably as if restless in his skin. He’s seen Sanzo laid low by fever and injuries before but even he, poor patient that he is, rarely looks this miserable. Whatever symptoms this altitude sickness brings with it, they’re clearly crushing him.

Goku re-starts Jeep’s engine and urges him through the looming doorway. Inside there’s a circular space surrounding the pagoda-like temple; it has a look of sparse efficiency to it. There are few decorations, no banners or flags, no children playing or women cooking or men working. Just them and the Kouten Squad.

Once inside the large wooden doors are pulled to and fastened shut with hulking timbers lifted into place by four men. Goku steps out and comes around to stand beside Sanzo. He catches Hassan watching the priest, his eyes guarded, and wonders what he’s thinking. Whether he’s summing up Sanzo against some inner scale. Goku knows better than most that Sanzo defines quick classification.

“Your companions need medicine to treat the altitude sickness. They can lie down and relax while we prepare it. Once they’re feeling better, I’ll take you to meet Sharak Sanzo.”

Another Sanzo. It’s not impossible – they met one that black night on the mountainside, their Sanzo broken and bleeding and screaming like an animal in pain as the other one used strength and magic and mind games to grind him down into the mud. Goku had never seen Sanzo so defeated, so utterly overpowered. Perhaps it takes a Sanzo to beat a Sanzo – and if so, what will this one bring?

“I’ll help Sanzo,” he says, as the Kouten Squad step forward to assist Hakkai and Gojyo out of the Jeep; he hangs protectively close to the priest. Since beginning this journey Sanzo has come increasingly to rely on him, now trusts only Goku to carry him when he’s sick or injured. It’s a trust Goku never wants to lose.

The inside of the keep’s inner walls are lined with circular wooden platforms leading into small, dark rooms. Goku pulls Sanzo’s arm over his shoulder and, conscious of Sanzo’s queasiness, follows Hassan slowly as he leads them up a set of stairs and along a cloister-like hallway. He stops before two doors. “You may use these rooms to recover. I will have medicine brought to you. Take as long as you need.” He opens the first door and Goku glances in before stepping forward.

It’s a small, narrow room, its inside and outside walls rounded by the shape of the keep. There’s one window looking outwards with a rattan curtain rolled up above it. The stone floor is covered by colourful rugs in strange patterns – unlike rugs at home in Chang’an which usually feature flowers and animals, these feature geometric shapes in elaborate designs. Large, tough-looking pillows are scattered around; there’s also a wooden bench which is more a large chest with carved and painted drawers.

“There are mats and blankets inside,” Hassan says, gesturing at the bench.

Goku nods. “Thanks!”

“Your companions may rest next door,” he says, moving to open the second door.

Goku can understand why he didn’t put them in the same room – this one has hardly enough space for two people to lie down comfortably. There’s a candle stand in one corner covered in dribbling wax, the bench alongside the wall, and no other furniture.

Goku brings Sanzo over to the bench and lies him down, then starts exploring the contents of the drawers. He finds several rough-knit blankets in dark colours, as well as thicker and more worn woollen pads to serve as pallets. He pulls out a blanket and tucks it over Sanzo.

“How d’you feel?” he asks, squatting down beside him.

“Like shit.” Sanzo’s hair is plastered to his pale skin, his face drawn and tense with malaise. Even under the blanket he’s still trembling; Goku puts the back of his hand against his forehead. His skin is cool despite the sweat, his lips bluish. Goku pulls out another blanket and drapes it over him.

“You don’t look so good either, Sanzo.”

“Really,” drawls the priest, without opening his eyes.

“I’m sure the medicine will help,” adds Goku, with conviction he doesn’t feel. There’s a silence, filled only by the rough sounds of Sanzo’s breathing. “Sanzo?”

Sanzo grunts. Goku rests his fingers on the edge of the bench, feeling the roughness of the woollen blankets.

“Do you know this Sharak Sanzo?”

Sanzo’s eyes flicker open, revealing a thin sliver of violet. For a moment he stares up at the ceiling, before his eyes slant to the side to meet Goku’s. His voice, when he speaks, is sand-paper rough. “No. You knew there was another Sanzo out there. This could be him.”

Goku twists his fingers into the edge of the blanket, his fingertips slipping between the wide stitches. “What if it’s not?”

“Then I’ll put a bullet in his brain.” Sanzo’s eyes slide closed. His face tenses and his body stiffens beneath the blanket. Goku rests his hand on Sanzo’s wrist and smiles slightly when Sanzo doesn’t shake it off. Sanzo’s so set on not showing weakness, on never relying on anyone else. The exceptions he makes speak far louder than the words he’ll never utter.

“The people here seem nice.”

Sanzo coughs, shoulders shaking. “We’re not here to make friends.”

“What if it is a real Sanzo? Maybe he can come with us – maybe we’ll get stronger.” He knows it won’t happen even as he’s saying it. Sanzo will never allow anyone else to join their group, and especially not another Sanzo. Sanzos are solitary, always. It’s far too dangerous for them to gather together.

“Use your head, monkey,” replies Sanzo wearily. “We’ve already got enough idiots on this godforsaken quest. We don’t need another.”

“I guess so.”

There’s a knock on the door; Goku gets up and answers it, finding a young woman with two ceramic cups on a wooden tray. “Hassan sent me. Medicine – for your sickness.”

“Thanks! But I only need one. Um, and could I get some water and a cloth?” he adds, thinking of Sanzo’s sweat-soaked skin. She bobs her head and hurries off. Goku returns to Sanzo. The cup is warm and smells of acerbic herbs; the liquid inside is brown and thick. “Here’s the medicine Sanzo.”

Sanzo groans again, trying to push the blankets off and failing. Goku kneels beside him and slips his free hand beneath Sanzo’s shoulders, helping him up. He holds the cup to Sanzo’s mouth and slowly pours the thick liquid between his lips. Sanzo gags once, breaking away to cough; Goku’s heart catches in his chest. “Sanzo?”

Sanzo’s rolled over onto his side and is panting, form tense as a spring. “Fuck,” gasps the priest, between paroxysms. Goku watches as he fights for breath, feeling utterly powerless.

There’s another knock at the door, this time the same young woman with a wooden bowl filled with water and a cotton cloth. “Great – thanks.” He takes them hurriedly from her; she smiles and closes the door softly.

Returning to Sanzo’s side, Goku puts down the bowl on the ground beside the cup of medicine and soaks the cloth, wringing it out. He sets about cleaning Sanzo’s face – the priest shies away from his touch at first, then stops fighting it. Goku tenderly washes his forehead and the bridge of his nose, wiping the sweat from beneath his eyes and down the sharp lines of his cheeks. “Feel better?” he asks softly.

“Just get the goddamn medicine.” Sanzo sounds tired, resigned.

Goku picks up the cup again and helps Sanzo lift his head again, pouring the medicine into his mouth. Sanzo drinks slowly, gradually downing the cup.

“Tastes like fucking shit,” is his conclusion when it’s finished; he drops against Goku’s arm, leaving Goku to lower him carefully to the bench’s hard surface.

“You’ll feel better soon. Maybe try to sleep a bit.” He twitches the blankets higher over Sanzo’s shoulders. Sanzo sighs, chin tucking in against his chest. He really must be feeling like crap.

Goku sits down, back against the bench, and leans his head back to rest beside Sanzo’s. When the priest’s ready to go on, he’ll be here waiting.

END

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