Lost Faith: 3

Sanzo woke up with a start, clear and alert and with none of the tell tale side-effects of recent drugs polluting his body. Not even so much as the throbbing head of a hangover, which in and of itself was suspicious. He lay for a second on sheets worn soft from long use and many, many washings, staring at a warped wood ceiling with a thick layer of blue paint. Sunlight striped the bed sheets and the worn carpet on the floor between it and the barred window.

Barred window . . . . Sanzo cursed, memory flooding back like a slap in the face. He scrambled up, throwing off sheets, setting bare feet on the floor, scanning the immediate area for weapons. Any weapon that might be used to separate certain youkai from their lives. Of course there were none. Just the bare bones of furniture. The bed, the wardrobe, the spindly table where the wash basin had set . . . that basin no longer there after he’d smashed it up side the head of an unlucky youkai. Fuck.

The curtains billowed a little, drawing his gaze back to the window. Shadows shifted there, revealing something that he hadn’t in his panic, noticed before. Or maybe that something simply hadn’t been there. Homura leaned against the side of the window, half obscured by blue drapery, lashes at half-mast, covering miss-matched eyes, lips curved up in an amused smile.

Sanzo hissed, snatching blindly for the bed sheet, not prepared to show fear, but unable to quite discard bodily modesty. He wrapped it about his waist and stood there, trailing a good deal of sheet, glaring at Homura.

“Please, don’t go to any trouble on my account, Konzen.” Homura’s gaze trailed up his body with supreme leisure. “I’ve seen it all anyway. What a fine piece of entertainment your auction was. Who would have guessed you’d have ended up on a youkai block. Kanzeon must be smarting . . . her pretty pet fallen so low.”

“Fuck you, you demented bastard. I’m nobody’s fucking pet.”

“You’ll be anyone’s pet who’ll pay from now on.” Homura corrected, pushing himself off the wall with a faint rustle of chains and moving into the room with a grace that stank of power and ill-intent. Sanzo tensed, hair prickling, all too aware of the unearthly aura that surrounded this man who claimed godhood. All too aware that there was something less than entirely sane behind those miss-matched eyes. He had no weapons that would make a dent in Homura at the moment, save his words and Homura had proven less than prone to reason in the past.

“What do you want?” It was still worth a try to force calm upon himself and try to worm his way out of this regrettable situation.

“What do you think I want?” Homura tilted his head, stopping close enough to touch, impressing upon Sanzo the difference in height. Homura was taller than Gojyo and broader about the shoulders. There was a solid weight to the corded muscle of his body that would have been impressive even if he hadn’t had the strength of a god to back it up. Sanzo had felt the weight of those chains attached to his wrists before and anyone forced to carry them around for long could not have helped but to build up considerable muscle mass. Homura acted as if they were not even there.

“You want the sutra.” Sanzo looked up, unblinking into Homura’s amused face. “I don’t have it with me.”

“Yes. That’s rather self-evident.” Homura let his eyes drift down Sanzo’s bare torso again. Sanzo’s knuckles cracked of their own accord, he clutched the edges of the sheet so tightly.

“And Son Goku? Where is he? He’s usually dogging your footsteps like the faithful dog you’ve convinced him he is.”

“I’ve convinced him of nothing. I’m not his keeper.”

Homura laughed. “Surely you don’t believe that, Konzen. You’ve been his keeper from the day your destiny’s crossed. Preordained. A puppet to a greater will . . .”

Sanzo hissed, that last observation hitting on all too raw wounds. “You want him. Go find him. Knock yourself out. I couldn’t care less. Take the sutra too, for all I care, just leave me the fuck alone. And stop calling me Konzen, its not my Goddamned name.”

Homura chuckled, reached out and caught Sanzo’s jaw. “Ah, you are amusing in your tantrums.”

“Let GO!!” Sanzo drove his fist towards Homura’s throat and connected with nothing so substantial as empty air as the half-god leaned back, then snatched hold of Sanzo’s wrist faster than Sanzo could easily follow and spun him about with that snared limb, pulling him back and trapping him against his chest. The chains lay heavy against him, hindering his free arm when he tried to slam an elbow back into Homura’s side. It was an ineffectual blow and Homura caught up the other arm and drew it up with the trapped one, catching both wrists in one long fingered, steel gripped hand and holding them tight against Sanzo’s shoulder. Sanzo cursed and bucked, tossing his head back in efforts to smash his skull into Homura’s face, but Homura proved immune to the efforts, hunching over a little to press his jaw against the side of Sanzo’s neck while he very casually loosed the tucked edges of the sheet that tenuously clung to Sanzo’s hips.

Sanzo felt it slipping away, felt the cool air on his legs and the sensitive skin of his cock and balls. He saw red. Just ceased for a few moments to have rational thought at all in his efforts to escape this embarrassment. He must have made an impact of some sort, for Homura didn’t seem amused when Sanzo’s vision cleared. Seemed rather put out, in fact, even though he still possessed the unquestionable upper hand.

They lay across the end of the bed, the mattress half off the bed frame, Homura bracing himself on the floor, leaning his weight down on Sanzo’s trapped wrists, the chain lying heavy and strangling across Sanzo’s neck. Perhaps that was what had brought Sanzo out of his frenzy, the lack of proper breath.

“Do you know how easy it would be, to snap that fragile neck of yours?” Homura said, and as if he willed it the chain grew heavier, like a pair of hands tightening around Sanzo’s throat. He gasped and the red came back in spots, this time not accompanied by berserker rage, but by sickening dizziness and mounting fear of strangulation. “Do you know how much control it takes not to break this mortal body you wear, Konzen? And still you insist on fighting me.”

Sanzo might have had something to say to that had he had the wind. As it was vision was fading and the fight was draining away, all of it whirling down a dark spiral of dizziness.

The pressure let up of a sudden and air flowed freely. Sanzo drew in a great gasping breath and shuddered. It took a moment to realize the weight was off his body, another to realize that the lurching he felt was not the room spinning around him but Homura heaving the mattress with Sanzo still sprawled upon it back up onto the wooden bed frame.

“Shit.” He wheezed and tried to bolt up, but Homura slammed him back down with the palm of a hand against his chest. That impact stole his tenuous breath and he floundered like a beached fish, momentarily useless for anything resembling self-defense. Homura flipped him over and drew one arm behind his back, fastening cool metal around his wrist, then the other. Sanzo lay there, wheezing, beginning to feel the accumulated hurts, beginning to feel the sickening sensation of fear that he’d told himself he wouldn’t allow in. To admit fear meant admitting some sort of defeat and he wasn’t prepared for that.

Homura’s fingers touched his hair and Sanzo ground his teeth. He made to twist, to roll away, but a hand on his back kept him down.

“So what – -” Sanzo hissed, face pressed to the mattress. “You can’t handle a mere mortal without restraints? Pathetic.”

Homura did not rise to the bait. He simply grasped Sanzo’s hips and dragged him to the edge of the bed, legs on either side of Homura’s jean clad hips, all the vulnerable places between his legs exposed.

“Always so arrogant. In this life. In the last. How long do you think it will take them to strip that arrogance from you, little priest?” The chains rested across the small of Sanzo’s back, trapping him more than the manacles prisoning his wrists. They shifted minutely as Homura worked at the buttons at the front of his pants, then without preamble, his thumbs dug into the pliable flesh of Sanzo’s buttocks, parting flesh, exposing him more. The heated head of Homura’s cock pressed implacably against Sanzo’s opening, forcing its way in with no more lubrication than the warm precum that leaked from the tip, proving that Gods were no less weak than men when it came to rutting like animals.

It hurt. It hurt a lot. Even at Gojyo’s most desperate and hasty penetration he took more care than Homura did at preparing the way. Homura simply overcame the resistance of fragile flesh and plowed into Sanzo’s bowels like he was proving a point, or carrying out a dire punishment. It felt very much like the latter. Sanzo opened his mouth in a silent cry of shock, stubborn pride overcome by the unexpectedness of the hurt. He’d had blades enter his body that hadn’t quite hurt so much. Though he couldn’t see the particular weapon pummeling his body, it felt considerably larger than anything previously inserted. There was nothing vaguely sexual about it. It was assault pure and simple, though he had to assume from Homura’s quiet grunts that he was getting something out of it other than the simple satisfaction of pounding Sanzo into the mattress with enough force to bruise his hips and smash his shriveled genitals into the edge of the bed.

It went on forever. Every grating stroke a fiery lance of raw agony. Sanzo was immensely proud of himself for not uttering a word or a cry of pain. He thought he’d uttered other sounds, involuntary gasps and grunts that a body could not help but make with the air pressed out of it on every inward stroke. Homura finished spurting half inside of Sanzo and pulling out to finish up across Sanzo’s ass and back. He felt the hot, sticky substance on the palms of his hands, trailing down the crack of his ass, down his thighs. He wanted to scream. He pressed his mouth tight and stared at the iron headboard. This proved absolutely nothing other than the fact that Homura was stronger than he was. It meant nothing.

“Happy now?” he asked bitterly and heard Homura pause in rebuttoning his pants.

“No.” Homura said. “I imagined having you . . . differently. I imagined you moaning like a whore, Konzen. But after a while here, you may yet. This was simply a testing of the waters, so to speak. An establishment of hierarchy. Next time, when I have more time, we can be more creative.”

“If you live that long.”

Homura laughed at him. “You think you can kill me? Haven’t you learned anything?”

“You’re going after the sutra, aren’t you and Goku?” Sanzo asked and Homura frowned taking the threat Goku represented somewhat more seriously than he took a mere mortal Sanzo.

“Perhaps.” Homura said. “It depends on my mood.”

There was the grating of a key turning in an old lock, the squeaking of hinges as the door cracked open. Homura seemed not surprised at all, in fact crocked a finger when the person on the other side seemed to be taking too long to make an entrance and the door swung inwards, compelled by his will. A skinny youkai boy stood there, mouth gaping open, eyes wide, a whole, if not old, pitcher in his hands. It was the boy Sanzo had seen before, upon his entry into this detestable brothel. The boy could not take his eyes off Homura, youkai senses alerting him to the dangerous power that stood mere feet from him. Sanzo rolled painfully to this side, sitting up as best he could, drawing a knee up instinctively to shield himself. It hurt moving, twinges of hollow aches reverberating through his muscles. He ignored it. It was harder to ignore the wetness coating his thighs, the stickiness on his hands and back. Just thinking about it and its source made bile rise in his throat.

“Tell your master, little one, that he may barter the monk’s services as he choices, but any irreparable damage that occurs will be taken out tenfold upon him. Understand?”

The boy’s eyes widened even more, amber iris’s surrounded by bloodshot white. He nodded and in a flash of wind and sparks and light, that made both Sanzo and the youkai boy squint their eyes tightly shut, Homura was gone. Fucking smug, showoff.

Sanzo shuddered in reluctant relief and blew tousled hair out of his eyes. The youkai boy was still standing there, staring at the spot where Homura had been, so Sanzo glowered at him, embarrassed and uncomfortable and snapped.

“Are you just going to stand there? Come or go, but make up your mind.”

The boy blinked, shifting his wild gaze to Sanzo. “You’re a monk?”

Sanzo glared, recent disputes with that profession making him press his lips tight and refuse to voice an answer.

The boy did not press the issue, squaring his thin shoulders and hurrying to set the new pitcher in the basin. Water sloshed and Sanzo was distracted momentarily from his pique by the strong desire to wash Homura’s foul leavings off his skin.

“If that’s for me, then release me so I can use it.” He suggested, rattling the manacles.

“You – – you’re supposed to be still groggy from the Numb.” The boy said warily and Sanzo guessed that was the local slang for whatever opiate the brothel master had forced into his veins. Homura, he surmised, had wanted him sober enough to appreciate their interaction and stripped him of its effects. Gracious of him. Fucker.

“Just undo the manacles.” Sanzo said through gritted teeth, forcing himself not to scream at the boy. Not to simply scream.

“I – – can’t. If you tried to escape – – I’d get punished for letting you go.”

“Goddamnit, Just . . .” Sanzo stopped, took a breath and gathered the edges of his badly frayed temper. “I won’t. Not right now, okay? I’m not in any shape to break through a house full of youkai at the moment.” Which was nothing but the truth, with all the aches and pains presently plaguing him. Simply sitting up was a strain. “Just toss me the key to the cuffs if you want and lock the door behind you. Send your master’s goons in later, I don’t give a fuck, I just want to wash away the . . . ” The filth. The cum. The embarrassment. He swallowed and stared, waiting.

The boy stared back, clearly troubled, but finally he made his decision and moved towards the bed, hesitantly gesturing with the key to the manacles and Sanzo leaned forward, eyes shut in a moment of relief, to let the young youkai unlock the cuffs. The boy stepped back quickly enough, and Sanzo caught a glimpse of a skinny bare back, laced with pale, wicked looking scars. Whip marks maybe. Or claw marks. Either was possible in a house that catered to the ‘rough’ trade as master Vhan Kai had boasted. Though for a boy, even a youkai boy of no more than twelve or thirteen to be so abused, that seemed criminal for even a rough youkai brothel.

Sanzo was not in a generous enough frame of mind at the moment to ask. His own problems loomed rather too starkly to give the boy more than a thought, other than wishing him gone from the room so he could lick his wounds in decent privacy.

“Go. Wait outside the door if you must. Tell them that bastard Homura released me. Tell them flying monkeys did. I don’t care. Just get out and shut the door.”

The boy did, responding much as Goku did to Sanzo’s ‘authoritative’ voice and scurrying out, shutting and locking the door behind him. Which left Sanzo free and alone and for a few wretched moments, too shaky and weak to take advantage of it. By force of will alone he uncurled his legs and pushed himself off the bed. His knees almost gave way under him and the muscles in the general area of his buttocks screamed in burning protest. Something that was more than likely blood rather than come leaked out, trickling down his leg. He blanched, head going just a little faint and held onto the bed post to steady himself while it passed.

There were marks on him that were fresh and vivid that he had not even realized that Homura had made. On wrists, arms, hips and thighs. He shuddered again, but this time it was more in anger than weakness. Of all the foul, miserable luck. If it was luck at all and not some malicious retribution by the powers that be for his rebellion.

He found clean rags in the drawer under the basin and washed as thoroughly as possible, regardless of tender spots and torn flesh. The water in the basin was pink with blood when he’d finished. He limped about the room afterwards, the sheet around his shoulders, looking for something better suited for clothing. There was nothing. The huge, heavy wardrobe was locked tight and no amount of effort on his part threatened to open the doors. It didn’t contain things for the room’s occupant to use, he shivered to think of what it did have hidden in its depths. The only thing other than the half full pitcher and basin and the sheets in the room that he could use were the manacles, heavy metal cuffs connected by a short span of chain. He hefted them thoughtfully, a very slight, grim smile crossing his lips as he imagined the satisfying sound the cuff would make as it cracked the skull of the fat youkai brothel master.

Telling Goku that the monk was in the hands of ruthless slavers was one thing, explaining the possibility that he’d more than likely end up flat on his back in a youkai brothel was quite another. There were some things that Goku just didn’t need to hear if they wanted him to function rationally at all. Like Sanzo not pissing off his captors to the point of homicidal madness and actually making it past the first day alive. Sanzo raped and killed – – or killed and raped depending on how pissed off the youkai were, in a youkai brothel was just was not the sort of image Goku could carry around in his pea brain and not go berserk. A berserk Goku was not a safe Goku . . . for friend or foe. It wasn’t particularly an image that Gojyo was finding much comfort with, himself and he’d had thoughts about strangling the monk on many an occasion himself.

So, he told Hakkai the bald facts and they gave Goku a censored version of what Gojyo thought had happened to their wayward monk. Goku, of course, was all for taking off down the river right then and there, on foot if need be, but Hakkai, who had the tendency to ask around about such things, warned that the land route to Ruvan was difficult and chancy at best, not at all suited for hoofed or wheeled transport, which was why the river trade was so strong. You could reach Ruvan in a day aboard a fast moving barge where it would take four times that to navigate a path through the treacherous cliffs and hills on either side of the river by land. Goku wasn’t happy, but he wasn’t about to ignore complete common sense and go storming off without them on what was likely a fool’s errand through the overland route. Gojyo kept him occupied, buying supplies for the trip while Hakkai bartered for boat passage. Even angry and worried, Goku couldn’t help but find some interest in the buying of foodstock to fill their packs.

By the time Hakkai had bartered their passage down river on a dubious barge, Gojyo and Goku had filled their packs with the sorts of food that would keep over days of travel and be easy to prepare on the road. Gojyo stood on the docks and entertained serious doubts about the water worthiness of the boat. It looked to have seen better days, with wood obviously rotting in spots. It road low in the water, loaded down with canvas wrapped cargo. The boathouse consisted of nothing more than a frequently patched canvas tent at the rear of the boat. Gojyo hated to imagine how dark, wet and cramped the belly of the boat might be. All in all, the boat was small enough to be claustrophobic if too many bodies were crowded upon it for too long and just likely to sink if bad weather tossed it about to strenuously.

Still, the river wasn’t that wide and Gojyo didn’t mind a good swim if push came to shove, so stepping onto the warped deck was distasteful, but not frightening.

“Its all I could afford.” Hakkai explained, only a very slight tightening of his lips indicating that he was not quite so easy with their choice of transport. Jeep fluttered his wings nervously, long body curled about Hakkai’s neck. Gojyo didn’t know what the little dragon had to be nervous about. He could fly away when the boat started to go down.

The captain and his one surly crewman told them to go to the prow and stay there and not to interfere with their work as they pushed off from the dock and let the current pull them slowly out into the dark river. That was fine. Gojyo sat down upon a canvas wrapped lump, tapped out a cigarette from a new pack and watched Tinto town recede. Goku stood at the prow, hands gripping the wood so hard his knuckles were whitened, eyes glued to the hazy river horizon ahead of them, as if he could see Ruvan miles and miles away. As if he could see whatever trouble the monk had gotten himself into. Better that he couldn’t. Sanzo wouldn’t like it, them worrying over him. Sanzo would like even less them pitying him for whatever damage he’d taken from his captors. You had to be careful with Sanzo when it came to dealing with his wounds. There was a fine line between practical concern and compassion and Sanzo just didn’t tolerate the latter very well. Soft touches and kind words made him pissy as hell, at least when they came from the people that were of necessity closest to him. It had to be an act though. Had to be, because nobody was that jaded. Nobody that wasn’t pure evil and though he was damn sure Sanzo was far from the pious man his position demanded, was ill-tempered and surly and careless of priestly codes, he was far from evil. He’d just been hurt somewhere along the line and Gojyo knew from damned miserable experience how being hurt – – really hurt where it counted inside your heart – – could make a man put walls up. It was hard tearing the walls down sometimes. It was like tearing down part of yourself. It took courage and trust and Sanzo just didn’t have the trust part down. Of the courage part, Gojyo just wasn’t sure. There was the courage to face down a pack of howling youkai out for your blood, then there was the courage to admit a mistake or take the plunge into something that might end up wounding you in the long run. They were entirely different things. It was a lack of that latter, Gojyo thought, that had sent the monk running in the first place. So he supposed he could consider Sanzo a coward of sorts and would happily tell him to his face – – if the monk didn’t have gun in hand – – if they could find him. He looked forward to it, to putting to words his epiphany about Sanzo’s behavior.

“Gojyo?” Hakkai tapped him on the knee, looking up from the nook he’d made himself in the cargo.


“You’ve just been sitting there for a while with nothing but a cold butt in your mouth.”

“Oh.” He examined the end of a long exhausted cigarette, then flicked it into the water. That’s what he got for deep thought, complete loss of time and place. It was a wonder Hakkai didn’t drive them off the road more often than he did, as much as he hashed things out in his head. Also a wonder that Goku wasn’t more perceptive than he was, considering that there wasn’t a lot of inward musings going on under that thick skull of his.

It was a slow, lazy ride down the river, but the air was fresh and the breeze cool and despite the tension it was easy enough to nap. He could be pretty sure that Goku was too wound up to sleep, so felt confident that the kid would be on watch in case the caption and his first mate decided that slitting their throats while they dozed, robbing them and dumping them in the river was as good a plan as ferrying them down it to Ruvan.

It was an uneventful journey, interrupted only by Jeep’s furious, protective squawking when a beady eyed river rat scurried too close to their nook at the prow. Gojyo cracked an eye and peered at the indignant little dragon clinging to Hakkai’s shoulder, its wings flapping agitatedly, its long neck outstretched so it could properly show its small white teeth off to a rat that seemed indifferent to any of their presenses.

It took the better part of a day and night to reach Ruvan. The winds were sluggish, the captain explained and the boat drifted along a little slower because of it. Only a few hours behind schedule though, which put them into Ruvan port at the ass crack of dawn. The hazy dimness of such a early morning arrival may have been the best way to be introduced to Ruvan, the lack of proper sunlight casting a kinder face on the ramshackle docks. Most certainly the town was poor, the buildings dilapidated and weather worn, but there were ample signs of vandalism as well, things only human mischief could achieve that made the place seem dismal and dangerous. A fight broke out on the docks before they’d even set foot off the ship. A snarling tangle of two drunken youkai that attracted a crowd of jeering onlookers. No one seemed willing to break it up and the human captain hung back warily, cursing the youkai under his breath.

“Thank you for the passage.” Hakkai performed the civility out of habit.

“Your funeral.” The man snorted.

At least with the fight, no one paid their entrance to the town much heed. There were not a lot of folk out and about at this hour, but the majority of those that were, were clearly of youkai blood. The last time Gojyo had been around so many full-blooded youkai that weren’t immediately going for his throat had been – – well the devastated monastery in the mountains where he and Sanzo both had almost lost their lives.

There were human faces here too. Surly, angry men that would as like to cut your throat as talk to you. There weren’t many places left where you could find human’s and youkai living together, even if it was a sty like this.

“The madness, it hasn’t touched them all, here.” Hakkai observed as they skirted the crowd around the brawling youkai. “Not yet.”

“It’s touched those two,.” Gojyo said, tight lipped, hesitating just a little to stare at the fight within the circle of onlookers. It was animalistic. They were snarling and growling like beasts rather than men. Blood freely flowed from wounds made by claw and tooth alike. Perhaps that was why no one bothered to break up the fight. These two had gone feral and it was just as well that they kill each other now than be trusted loose in a town desperately trying to keep its head afloat in a tide of desolation and youkai madness.

They passed on, down the dockside street towards a string of buildings that might have been taverns or inns. The best place to start after all would be to find the slavers who had hijacked Sanzo to begin with. If they were still here, chances were they wouldn’t all leave the docks and their boat unprotected. Which meant some of them were likely to be found at portside bars.

The gangbangers weren’t up yet, but there were other surly characters loitering in the deep shadows of buildings that watched their passage with interest. They must have looked like ripe marks, two human seeming travelers and one half breed that could just as well pass for full human, if the darkness dulled the stain of hair and eyes.

Gojyo almost wished someone would make a move on them. It would be an excuse to violently extract information. It might even gain them a little money to add to their almost non-existent funds. They were going to have to get Hakkai into a game of chance and soon, if they wanted to have enough to buy information that would otherwise not come to them willingly.

They walked into a tavern that was open even at this hour, catering to the rivermen that had come into town with the tide. It stank of watered down beer, sweat, smoke and piss and a good many of the men inside were passed on rickety tables or sprawled in corners, easy pickings for any industrious pick pocket who was sly enough and quiet enough to slip up and empty their pockets. There were a few conscious patrons though, rough looking youkai dock workers, a huge human riverman covered in fading tattoos and a drowsy barkeep behind a much worn, much scarred bar. They might have walked in bearing the marks of plague bearers for the looks they got. Hostile and suspicious, men crouching a little closer over warm drinks, hands surreptitiously drifting to weapons. No matter that their clothes were travel worn and rumpled, they lacked the look of sullen rage or rock bottom despair that most of the other faces in this place held. It made them outsiders and outsiders were not to be trusted.

Gojyo sauntered up to the bar, figuring the red of his eyes and hair would make him a little more reliable in the eyes of a man used to youkai clientele than Hakkai and Goku’s human masks.

With the very last coin he had to his name he bought a beer and settled at the bar while Hakkai and Goku found a table in the shadows and sat down to let him chat up the barkeep. He asked about games of chance first. Where the best local action was. Told a sob story about his lack of luck up river in Tinto town. The barkeep was well acquainted with runs of bad luck and grudgingly mentioned the names of a few local haunts where games of chance could be found. Gojyo elaborated on his tale, mentioning a friend of his gone missing from Tinto town, mentioning the suspicious that river borne slavers had had a hand in it. Asking which places slavers were known to frequent.

The barkeep closed up at the mention, eyes going narrow and wary. Scared maybe of retaliation if word should get back to the slavers that he had sent trouble their way.

“Don’t know nothing about that lot. Don’t want to know nothing.” the man jerked his stubbly chin towards Hakkai and Goku. “They drinking? If not, be on your way.”

Gojyo finished the last of his watery ale and didn’t argue the point. It would be useless to antagonize the first source they met. Word would spread faster that way and their prey would go to ground and they’d never find them. Or Sanzo.

Gojyo nodded amicably and pushed away from the bar. “Don’t want any trouble. Just asking.”

If he’d had money he might have turned the man’s attitude about, as it was the next stop they made would of necessity, have to be one of the games of chance the barkeep had told him about. They were not going to get information out of the goodness of anyone’s heart here. They’d need to buy it.

* * *

It had been a long, frustrating night full of dead ends and false leads. Ruvan town was less than hospitable. It was down right harsh and unforgiving, draining the hope and spirit out of a body like some sort of karmic sponge. The people here didn’t talk to strangers, especially strangers asking questions about Ruvan’s most notorious inhabitants. They had hit a dozen taverns, chased down numerous shifty, dangerous characters who seemingly believable sources had claimed might know something about a recent shipment of shanghaied captives brought down the river from Tinto way. They’d found their way to several seedy slave markets, but no one had seen a particular golden haired monk, even when their memory was tested under threat of violence or pain. They’d busted quite a few heads in the process of their search, most of which had come asking for it.

Both the human and the youkai population of Ruvan were seething hotpots of rage and despair and it took less than nothing to set them off. Goku wasn’t much better, frustrated and miserable and so scared for Sanzo that he was walking around tight lipped and quiet. So scared that he hadn’t eaten or complained about the lack of since they’d gotten on the river boat from Tinto. Course scared and frustrated for Goku meant his fuse was hair thin and Hakkai and Gojyo didn’t much have to worry about bruising their knuckles upon the various rock-headed trouble that came at them. Easier to step back and let the kid work out issues and maybe at the end of the fray get a little information out of the survivors.

Not that the information was much good. They’d spent a day getting nowhere, the only gain being that between Hakkai and Gojyo they’d won enough spending money in various games of chance or skill that their pockets were full and lack of appetite or no, they were able to find what passed for a decent inn and settle down to get a few hours rest in preparation for starting it all over again in the morning. Which also meant buying a bottle of what passed for good whiskey and barricading themselves in the room they’d rented to work out the kinks of the day. Gojyo hadn’t procured shot glasses to go with the bottle, so he and Hakkai passed it back and forth while Goku sat with his knees up, glowering at the wall. By the time there was a finger’s left of amber liquid at the bottom of the bottle, Goku had nodded off, Hakkai was still stone sober and Gojyo’s head was swimming under the influence of cheap liquor. Hakkai had won the narrow bed in a coin toss, leaving the floor to Goku and Gojyo. Gojyo sat on a thread bare mat, with a pillow at his back, a mostly smoked cigarette dangling loosely between fingers. There was a ruckus of some sort going on downstairs in the inn’s tap room. There always seemed to be a ruckus going on somewhere in this town. They’d seen countless fights break out for no apparent reason. They’d seen youkai in the throes of madness attack passerby and either kill or be killed in the process. They’d seen robbings and rapes and all of it the people of Ruvan seemed mindless of, walking blindly past as if all of it was common as dirt. Sad thing was, it probably was. What sort of law could get a handhold in a place where two thirds of its citizens were likely to go mad and feral without warning. They’d been told to avoid the worst of the slums at the outskirts of the city, because that’s where the mad youkai, the one’s that weren’t killed outright when they turned, the one’s that weren’t smart enough to blend in . . . gathered, hunting like feral animals upon any stupid enough, or foolhardy enough to venture into their domain.

If Sanzo were here, he’d probably suggest taking a trip out there and cleaning up some of the mess. Not that he was altruistic, Gojyo thought bitterly, he just didn’t much like infected youkai.

Gojyo took a breath, glaring at the smoldering remnants of his cigarette. Maybe that wasn’t all true. Maybe Sanzo had picked up a little slice of altruism from his years at the monastery. He just hid it well. He bitched like crazy about going out of his way to help out somebody in trouble that wasn’t on his direct route West, but sometimes the bitching was just a front. Sometimes, Gojyo thought, he was hoping there’d be enough of an argument put up that he could fold and still save face.

Stubborn bastard. Intractable, egotistical, narrow-minded monk. Not really likable at all, if you came right down to it. If it wasn’t for that pretty face . . .

“I don’t know why we’re bothering.” Gojyo grumbled, taking a swing of warm liquor from the bottle. The stuff had started out tasting pretty bad, it was palatable now. “Even if we find him . . . he’s not going to thank us. Made it pretty clear he didn’ want anything more to do with us.”

The bitterness and the second thoughts came so much easier when he was drunk. It was simpler to drown out the concern.

“Sanzo was upset.” Hakkai said reasonably. Hakkai was always reasonable, even during the most stressful of situations. Hakkai always thought things through and came up with the stolid solution. “He’s in trouble and he needs us.”

“You’re too fucking charitable.”

“You’re drunk and you’re hurt. You’d be sorry if we didn’t help him.”

“Fuck if I would. An I’m not hurt. He shot the kid, not me.”

“I know.”

“I don’t even like him.”

“Umm.” Hakkai raised a dark brow at him. “It seems to me that you do.”

“No.” Gojyo raised a finger to clarify and leaned forward to whisper, just in case Goku wasn’t as soundly asleep as his faint snores suggested. “I fuck him. Doesn’t mean I like him. Better off really, not liking – – you know, really liking – – the people you sleep with. Only stings more when they stab you in the back later.”

“Oh? Well. That’s a rather cynical view.”

“You would know cynical, wouldn’t you, Hakkai.”

“I’m not cynical.”

“The fuck. Maybe you hide it more than the damned monk, but you are. S’why you and him get along so well.”

“But you like me.” Hakkai reminded him.

“Damn straight.”

“You’ve slept with an awful lot of people, Gojyo. You mean to say you never really loved any of them?”

“Women . . . women are soft. Feel so good to touch, to taste, to get inside of . . . god. Really good. But, when it comes right down to it, they all want something from you and if you can’t give it . . . or won’t, all that softness goes away. You get attached . . . you lo – – like them too much, and all you get is hurt in the end.”

“And you call me cynical. Gojyo, I don’t believe that.”

“Yeah, well, to each his own.” Gojyo ground the stub of the cigarette into the floor under the bed. He felt shaky of a sudden, airing all this, even to Hakkai who he knew, absolutely knew wouldn’t judge him. He had always loved women, always enjoyed their bodies and their scents and the soft touch of their hands – but he knew what Hakkai who’d only ever had his one lover, didn’t – – what they were really like deep down. He had scars to prove it didn’t he? So you could love the package, but trusting it was a different matter all together.

“So what,” Hakkai asked softly. “Does all of that have to do with Sanzo?”

Gojyo opened his mouth. Shut it. Wished he had a cigarette handy to stick between his lips and gain him a few extra seconds of time to gather the strands of an answer to that question. What did his ingrained mistrust of women have to do with a surely monk? He might be pretty as a girl and bitchy as a woman in the worst throes of her monthly flow, but he was most definitely male and most definitely not soft and deceptively sweet. Maybe because of that, Gojyo had deep down past all the protective barriers of reason, hoped for a little more. Hoped for that camaraderie that you only really were able to share with members of the same sex. Maybe he’d thought that Sanzo couldn’t hurt him like a woman could so he’d let his guard down and damned if he hadn’t gotten burned for it. Foolish thing to do, knowing the monk as well as he had before they’d ever set foot in bed. Masochistic, really.

“Nothing.” He said softly, finishing off the last of the whisky. “Not a damned thing. I’m just saying . . .” he hesitated a moment, trying to recall what they’d been talking about before he’d gotten off track. Ah, he remembered. “. . . just saying that he’s probably not gonna thank us when we get there. Wherever the hell there is.”

Sanzo thought seriously, that if Gojyo, Hakkai and Goku showed up to get him out of this, he might actually throw pride to the four winds and drop down to his knees in gratitude. He was getting damned desperate.

The brothel it seemed, was open for business. Vhan Kai had dragged his fat ass up the stairs to inform his new acquisition of that very fact and come face to face with Sanzo’s makeshift weapon of the metal cuffs the boy had taken off him not two hours earlier. If youkai heads weren’t so hard, Sanzo might have ended his problem right then and there, but the iron circlet at one end of the short chain bounced off the brothel master’s skull, tearing skin and flesh away in the process and before Sanzo could wind up for another swing to finish the job, the two burly sacks of flesh covered muscle behind the staggering Vhan Kai rushed in, one of them taking a good hit from the manacles before they brought Sanzo down, cursing and flailing under their combined muscle mass and weight.

The next thing he saw, when his breath returned and his vision cleared was Vhan Kai’s bloody face glaring down at him with murder in the youkai’s tiny eyes. Before he could open his mouth to share his regret that he hadn’t split the fat bastard’s skull, Vhan Kai’s fist buried itself in his gut, chasing all his newly acquired breath away again. Before he could begin to hunt it down, Vhan Kai’s fingers closed firmly around his balls, twisting hard enough that loss of breath seemed a minor problem at best.

Vhan Kai leaned close, blood trailing down his cheek from the scalp wound Sanzo had given him. A drop of it fell, hitting Sanzo’s jaw. Vhan Kai gave his balls a terrible wrench. He saw several shades of red.

“You don’t need these to please the clientele, you little shit. In fact there are those that would pay a pretty penny for the pleasure of removing them. You remember that next time you lift a hand towards me or mine, cause it’ll be the last time you do it with your family jewels intact, understand?”

Sanzo glared. It was a painful, watery glare at best. It was hard to hold a look of disdain when it felt like the bastard was ripping his nuts out by the roots right then and there. Another wrench and the overwhelming urge of self-preservation took over and forced a nod of acquiesce. Vhan Kai held the grip a moment longer, jowls quivering in rage, then he snatched his hand back and gestured sharply for one of his men to help him to his feet.

Sanzo pushed himself back, until his back was against the wall, fighting the urge to curl his hands protectively over his throbbing balls. He needed to get up, get his feet under him, but trying too soon and failing would be beyond humiliation. He needn’t have worried.

With a jerk of his head, Vhan Kai’s men moved in and laid hands upon Sanzo, yanking him up, pressing him back against the wall while their fat employer waddled forward, hand digging in the pocket of his robe and coming out with what appeared to be the same glass syringe he’d used on Sanzo before.

“Not that I don’t trust your word . . . well, I don’t . . . and your first customer is one of my best patrons. A fine man with discriminating tastes and deep, deep pockets. He likes first crack at the new flesh, but being an elderly gent, he’s not much for a fight. Likes a nice, sedate session an’ since I don’t think you’ve got the manners for that yet, a little Numb will make things right as rain, eh?”

The needle plunged in. Sanzo cursed, clenching his jaw in a fruitless effort to fight off the rapidly creeping effect of the drug. His heartbeat thudded in his chest, fast at first, like a scared animal, then slowing, rhythmic, regular beats that echoed inside his skull drawing his attention inward.

“Hey!” Fingers gripped his jaw, squeezing hurtfully. He felt the sensation right away, but it took a moment for his mind and his reflexes to catch up. He had trouble focusing his vision on the round face in front of him. Had trouble recalling the name. Kai – – Kai – – Vhan Kai.

“You behave, hear? Be hell to pay if you don’t.”

He didn’t like this man. He truly didn’t. It took a moment to formulate the words and a moment more to remember how to make his vocal chords work. “Fuck . . . off.”

Vhan Kai shook his head in disgust. “More damn trouble than you’re worth, that’s what I’m starting to think.” He waved a hand and the youkai holding Sanzo’s arms propelled him towards the bed. He hit the edge and had enough physical presence of mind left to him to clutch a sheet to haphazardly cover himself before he collapsed backwards, attention snared by the lazily dancing motes of dust revealed by the light from the barred window.

He must have zoned out, snared by the Numb, because there was distinctly less clatter in the room, less bustle of over muscled goons when the weight of another body made the bed sag. He blinked slowly up at the heavy form. Fat, but not Vhan Kai. An old, immensely overweight youkai with piggy little eyes deep within the folds of wrinkles and skin of his face. An obese body that was already devoid of clothing with pale fish belly skin stretched taut over a huge, drooping stomach. Rolls of flesh sagging off of once were probably muscled arms, flabby legs covered in a mat of dark hair. He was obviously male, but his genitals were overshadowed by the bulk of his belly. A hand reached out and dragged the sheet away and it hardly occurred to Sanzo until well after the fact that he might want to prevent that. A slow smile creased the old youkai’s face, making his eyes almost invisible. There was already a sheen of light sweat glistening on the folds of flesh.

The bed sagged more as the youkai eased his heavy body further upon it, leaning over to run a hand up Sanzo’s leg, fingers quivering ever so slightly in excitement or perhaps some sort of palsy. Even with the Numb deadening his reflexes, clouding his reason, Sanzo’s stomach flipped in revulsion. This was beyond nightmare. Beyond any sort of reasonable punishment for his rebellion against the powers that be. If it were those lofty personages at all, that were responsible for this miserable situation and not simple human calamity.

“He was right, you are a pretty one.” The youkai wheezed. A little spittle flew from his lips as he spoke. There were dried patches of white at the corners of his mouth. This would have been easier if Vhan Kai had given him a larger dosage of the drug. He could have drifted away and not come back until it was over and done with, but the drug wasn’t as strong this time, he couldn’t quite find the utter oblivion he had before. He supposed that most customers preferred their whores at least partially conscious to enjoy their attentions.

The man’s weight pressed him into the mattress as he leaned close to touch Sanzo’s hair, covering him, obliterating the cool fresh air, gagging him with the stench of acrid sweat and the stale scent that so many old people, both youkai and human carried with them like the portent of death.

“God . . . God . . . God . . . get . . . off . . . fat . . . bastard . . .” he could barely breathe. He could barely think, but that panicked, overwhelming desire got through even the invasive effects of the Numb.

The weight on top of him didn’t shift. Hot breath tickled his cheek as the man laughed, wheezing as he did.

“He said you were a feisty one. Said you weren’t tame yet. Doesn’t bother me, I know how to take care of bad boys. There are things in the cabinet there, that you probably don’t even know about, but I’ve been in this room before with other naughty boys who had no respect for their elders and Vhan Kai left me with the key . . .”

Goku was doing more damage than good, with his frustration levels at all time highs, his mystical bo ready at hand to thunk heads at the slightest provocation and his not so childlike glower that was scaring the hell out of the people that they otherwise might have gotten some semblance of cooperation from. Gojyo could have probably narrowed down a few leads by now if it hadn’t been for the moody weight of a five hundred year old adolescent on a mission dragging at him. Goku was a problem, and to some degree Hakkai was, with his clean cut human appearance, the grungy denizens, both youkai and human, of Ruvan port just didn’t feel comfortable ratting their brethren out with him around.

Which meant, after a frustrating morning of getting nowhere, Hakkai and Gojyo decided that splitting up and letting Gojyo, with his halfblood coloration and his ability to slink into the seediest of taverns and appear to belong, go it alone.

Which was how he’d ended up here, standing alone at the bar of an off dockside tavern with a watered ale that he was only sipping at in front of him, and a pair of tough looking youkai tavern wenches hanging by his elbows like he was the first clean thing that had walked into their lives in weeks. It wasn’t making the patron’s down the bar that had been trying to catch the attention of the tavern’s feminine – and he used that term loosely since either one of these girls could probably bench press Goku without much effort – look upon him with kindly eyes. If anything there were plans of back ally murder being planned.

“You come downriver from Tinto, huh, gorgeous?” One of them had interesting mid-drift tattoos.

He shrugged, casually eyeing the trailing curve of the tattooed design that disappeared below the band of her low hanging skirt. “A little tame for my tastes.”

“Oh, we like the sound of that.” The other one had half a dozen cheap silver hoops in her tapered ears. They reminded him of the gold hoop in Sanzo’s ear. Strange freaking act of rebellion on the monk’s part, but it had looked good hidden under pale golden hair.

“Nothing tame about Ruvan port.”

“So I see.” Gojyo fished for a smoke and the tattooed wench struck a light for him, her eyes glittering in speculation beyond the flicker of the brief flame.

“You got the best of both worlds,” Ear hoop said, leaning her shoulder against his, reaching out familiarly and stroking the trailing ends of his hair. “Most half bloods, they don’t look so pretty, eh, Skory?”

Tattoo, or Skory, he assumed rubbed her ample bosom against his other arm, nodding her agreement. “I got a cousin with human blood mixed in and all he looks like is a mongrel. Got the blood hair, but its coarse as dog’s fur. Act’s like a dog too, ‘cept he ain’t got the teeth or the claws to back it up. Your hair, it feels like fine silk.”

“What would you know ’bout how silk feels, Skory girl,” The closest of the rebuffed youkai tavern patrons snarled, taking a moment to lift his face out of his mug and glare down the bar at Gojyo and the two women. “You ain’t never felt nothing better than hand me downs from the other twelve bastards your bitch of a mother whelped.”

“You shut up, Eliah.”

It looked like there was going to be a row. Gojyo didn’t have the time or the patience to sit through it. Flirting with the two tavern wenches hadn’t gotten him anything so far other than an invitation to a three-way.

“Listen.” He said, snaking an arm around Skory’s waist, drawing her attention away from the drunkard down the bar. “Maybe the two of you can help me out. Remember when I said I was looking to collect a debt?”

“We remember.” Encouraged, Skory purred like an ally cat with her heat on, her hand grazing his thigh, bolding making for more sensitive spots. He caught her wrist before she could incite reaction that he certainly didn’t need right here at the bar, and brought it up to brush his lips lightly across her dirty knuckles, banishing the possible hurt of rejection. He looked into her eyes over her trapped hand.

“I heard that maybe the bastard that owes me came down river the last couple of days aboard a slaver. Maybe even got himself in a situation where he sailed down as cargo rather than passenger. You know any body from a boat like that, that might be able to point me in the right direction?”

The girls leaned forward a little over the bar, exchanging looks. Gojyo took a drag from his smoke, not pressing the point,

“Well,” Skory said looking past Gojyo and her friend towards the darkened interior of the tavern. The other girl followed her gaze, the both of them staring at a back table where a group of men sat in a haze of smoke, playing some game of chance.

“Don’t say we said,” Hoops whispered, “But there’s a few river rats over there that deal in the skin trade.”

“Really.” He sucked in a deep drought of smoke, holding it for a few seconds in contemplation, eyeing the none too pleasant group of men across the room. Well, three men, four youkai and all of them big and dangerous looking. There were boathooks and knives visible, who know what sort of sharp, prickly toys they had hidden. If they took violent offense to his questions, taking on the seven of them, plus whatever other tavern patron that decided to jump in and pound the stranger in town, would be a risky venture. Not that he wasn’t up for risky ventures, he’d just rather go into them with a card or two up his sleeve. Goku always tended to make a good ace in the hole.

He was contemplating maybe waiting until they left and following them out where there wasn’t such a possibly hostile crowd, when one of the youkai jumped up, crying foul. An indignant hush went over the tavern at the accusation of cheating, a frozen moment where everyone waited for violence to erupt. The youkai had a nasty looking boathook in hand and seemed just ripe for attack. The human man he’d accused pushed back his chair and rose, and instead of pulling out a knife, reached into his jacket and pulled out a shiny, snub nosed revolver. Even if guns weren’t scarce as diamonds around here, it still would have been familiar.

Gojyo took a breath, going very still himself.

The youkai took a step backwards, lowering the boathook, eyes wide and scared. There was a mumbled admission of mistake before he took off at a run. No bullet caught him in the back as he fled. A surprising act of mercy. Or maybe simply a hoarding of bullets. The man with the gun kept it out a moment longer, just to impress upon the rest of the tavern what power he held, then tucked it away back inside his jacket and called for another round of ale.

The women whispered among themselves, as did a good many other patrons, all of them casting wary looks at the river men at the back table. Gojyo gave it a few minutes, smoked half his cigarette down, before stepping away from the bar and the tavern wenches and sauntering across the dirty floor to the back table. He stood there a moment, casually taking note of the seated men, where their weapons were, the bulges under their clothing that suggested hidden threat.

“What do you want, breed?” The man with the gun sneered, catching note of him, sharp eyes looking Gojyo up and down with a certain calculation that hinted that this man was always on the lookout for possible advantage . . . or profit.

“Just saw you had an open seat. Thought I’d try my luck.”

Every crafty, suspicious eye around the warped, stained table was fixed upon him. A few of them shifted briefly to the man with the gun, as if he were the man with the last say. That man looked beyond Gojyo to the two tavern wenches he’d left behind, then back again.

“You leave that sort of company for the likes of us.”

“That’s a whole different sort of game and the odds are just . . . well, stacked in my favor. Where’s the sport?”

He got a few glowers for that bit of arrogance, a few blank stares from the one’s too slow to follow. The man with the gun ran a thumb across his bristly, cinder block of a jaw, still assessing, still trying to figure out Gojyo’s angle, then finally he shrugged, a slight smile crossing his mouth.

“Your coin’s as good as these lugs. Sit your ass down, then.”

It was a nightmare. An absolutely hellish nightmare that even the effects of the Numb couldn’t drown out. Perhaps the drug even heightened the horror, with its dulling of mental and physical sharpness, but not of awareness. Sanzo would have rather a dozen sessions with Homura over the fetid old lecher who had entertained himself with his body. At least Homura had been quick about it, and not deluded himself into thinking that Sanzo was anything but disgusted with his attentions. The old man had thought differently, senile, fat, sweaty old pervert that he was. The old youkai had pawed and slavered over Sanzo’s body like he was at some long awaited banquet, talking more to himself than Sanzo the while. Making use of the various ‘instruments’ hidden away in that cabinet when his own antiquated cock had failed to hold an erection longer than it took to position himself over the supine body beneath him. The old youkai had come, but it had been quick and unexpected and spilled nothing but a few drops of watery seed on the bedsheet near Sanzo’s legs.

He thought the fat old bastard had left happy. Waddling out amidst the youkai at the door who’d no doubt been standing in wait for some sound of misbehavior from Sanzo. As if he were capable. God, if he’d been capable of anything more than slow languid blinks and the occasional sluggish attempt at speech, he would have strangled the old youkai with his bare hands.

He lay afterwards, floating in the daze created by the drug, sprawled in the last position the old youkai had left him in and unable to garner the energy to move out of it. They left him alone for a while. Without movement or sound in the room, he drifted deeper, loosing track of time and place. When the door creaked open he had enough self possession to start, to actually lift a hand and reach blindly for something to cover himself – – to defend himself. If it was another John, he thought he might scream, even though the drug.

But it was only the boy, slipping into the room to tidy up, to gather the things the old youkai had used, wipe them down and put them back into the cabinet, locking it up behind him. He came to the bed with fresh sheets, small brow furrowing when Sanzo didn’t move.

“Are you okay?” the boy asked. “Did he hurt you? Old Lhud doesn’t usually do damage. Can’t even get it up, most times. Just likes to touch.” The boy shudders a little, as if he’d had personal experience. “Can you sit up?”

Sanzo blinked at him, wishing him away.

“Oh, it’s the Numb, isn’t it?” the boy figured it out. “It okay. When you’re new to the Numb, it hits you harder, even in small doses.” The boy tried to comfort him. Horrifying, misguided comfort that it was. “It’ll get easier to function after you’ve been on it for a while.”

He made to roll Sanzo to his side and pull the fouled sheet out from under him. More from sheer effort of will than recovery from the drug, Sanzo forced his limbs to move, pulling himself up by the iron bars of the headboard to avoid the boy touching him again. The boy looked at him apologetically and went about spreading a clean sheet on the bed. As he was bending to tuck a corner under the mattress, his thread bare, too small tunic shifted, revealing the clear marks of scars that Sanzo had glimpsed before. It took a deep wound for a youkai to hold a scar. He recalled vaguely what he’d been told before coming here, that life in a brothel that catered to youkai was often short, especially so if the youkai that came to be serviced were mad. He wondered if this boy had more duties here than tidying rooms?

“You . . .” Sanzo started. He had to stop and wet his lips before continuing. “You’ve been . . . with him?” he couldn’t formulate a more cohesive question.

The boy looked away, thin shoulders haunching a little, then straightening out. “Not since . . . since . . . well, not for a while. Customers don’t want me no more.” He offered up a watery smile. “I do clean up now. Like it better.”

Sanzo shook his head slowly, trying to chase away Numb induced cob-webs. “Are you ten, yet?” It didn’t seem likely as skinny and frail as the child seemed.

“Twelve.” The boy lifted his head with a sort of stubborn pride, as if he’d been mistaken for younger than he was before. As if it were a source of embarrassment for him. As working in a brothel weren’t shame enough.

God. A twelve year old whore. A retired twelve year old whore. This could not have been a life the boy had chosen for himself. No child, human or youkai deserved such a life.

“What – – where are your parents?” Words were coming easier. Blood was circulating better now that he was sitting up.

Shame, real, red faced shame stung the boy’s features. “Dead.” He said shortly, gathering together the dirty sheets and whirling, ready to flee what was obviously a painful memory.

“Wait.” If the boy left, someone less savory would come to replace him, Sanzo felt it in his bones and it was as much desperation for his own sanity as a budding curiosity about a skinny, scarred youkai brat that made him call out. “What happened?”

“Why do you care? You’re human. Human’s don’t give a shit about youkai, ‘cept to look down your noses at us when we’re honest and kill us when – – when the sickness comes.”

“Is that what happened to your parents? Did the sickness come?”

The boy stood there, wrinkled sheets trailing from his arms, small face frozen in a mask of denial of the pain he felt. But twelve year olds, even ones hardened over and over by cruel fate, didn’t always have the strength of will to pretend the pain wasn’t there. “Yeah. My dad first . . . then not long after, my mom. She was fine one day, cooking dinner – – then she just changed. You know. Like she didn’t know me at all. Tried to kill the man that ran the shop below our room. He killed her first. She really tore the place up . . . so . . . so he sold me to master Kai to help pay for it. I was five, I think. Master Kai – – he said it runs in the family – – the chance for sickness. That he ‘spects me to get it any time. Says he’ll put me out of my misery right quick when it does.”

Sanzo clutched at the bed post, shaking a little, feeling a nausea that hadn’t threatened to rise since the start of the session with the fat old youkai. It curled in the pit of his stomach, getting past his defenses, his anger, his self-erected shields. Guilt. Plain and simple. Maybe it was the fact that this boy, this youkai boy had gone through the same thing he had, ten fold, a hundred fold maybe and had survived seven years in this hell hole and all of those years he’d been expecting a worse fate. He’d been expecting to loose his hold on his sanity, his morality, his sense of self and become a monster, one more potential youkai victim to the resurrection of Gyumaoh.

“It doesn’t . . . work like that.” He said softly.

The boy canted his head curiously.

Sanzo shook his, trying to clear the fog. “Its not . . . genealogical. Doesn’t run in families . . . it just . . .” hits the weakest first and then the strong. The fact that this boy had escaped the madness so far was simply a statement that he was stronger of will than either of his parents had been. But he was right. It might hit tomorrow, it might hit a year from now. There was no way of telling, but at some point it probably would. Unless something were done to stop it. Unless the people who could didn’t turn their backs because of . . . He shuddered, lying his cheek along the cold iron of the headboard, feeling a traitorous trickle of wetness at his lashes. Furious at that sign of fickle weakness, exasperated at the drug that was playing foul with his emotions.

“It’ll be okay.” The boy said, still capable of concern after this life he’d led, thinking that it was the prospect of such a life that effected Sanzo. It wasn’t. It wasn’t pity for this boy whose name he didn’t even know. It was absolute ire that They’d won. That They hadn’t even had to chase him down and make an argument themselves. That this boy had accomplished it using a path of reason that Sanzo hadn’t really seriously considered among his list of incentives before. Saving the youkai had never been a motivating factor for him. The youkai were the tools of the enemy. Other than his three, who were safe from infection, who really could hardly be considered youkai at all. Could they?

“If you just stay on master Kai’s good side and pretend with the customers that you like it, nobody’ll hurt you.” The boy was still offering his advice on survival in the brothel.

“Unless,” Sanzo opened his eyes, meeting the boy’s concerned stare. “They turn feral on you. Is that what happened to you?”

The boy blanched, nodding slowly. “Master Kai, he’ll be careful who he sends to you though, being human and new. Least while he can charge a high price for you. You just pretend, that’s all.”