He was there.
It was the last thing that Sanzo had expected. In this place. In this way.
One season, and two, and then in autumn he had walked out of his life. To disappear, amongst the falling leaves, leaving no trace.
Or perhaps it had been the other way around. Between the winter, and the following spring, and now in the ensuing summer, the memories had been warped by acid fury, bitter regret, and ceaseless time.
He was seated, head bowed, on a chair pilfered from goodness-knew where. Almost lost in the shadow of his shikigami, whose impassive yellow gaze locked with Sanzo's own eyes. Impassively. Almost accusingly. And all around them, gunmetal walls, still splattered with the blood of absent corpses. The smell of death hung heavy in the air, but nowhere as heavy as the accusing silence that pressed down on Sanzo's shoulders and made it hard to breathe.
"Leave," Sanzo had said. Back to the slighter Bishop, facing the open window. Watching but not seeing the trail of smoke that curled from the end of his cigarette. Hearing but not listening to the quiet words that were being voiced, the questions, the persuasions, the arguments. Feeling but not heeding the conflicted ache in his chest, the one he would put down to old wounds, except that he knew better.
Knew and did not want to know.
"How?" he asked, and light glinted off silver as the other sat up. He was changed, aged by the passage of time. The easy smile that had once adorned his face... lost, or at least absent. The difference made something in Sanzo's throat burn, some misplaced desire to
see him smile, the way sky blue eyes would light up when he neared
But some things remained the same. And Hazel still picked up on his thoughts even without the benefit of words to get in the way between them.
"By the grace of God." A smile now, but a bitter, lifeless one that mocked the memory of the others of seasons past. A rustle of fabric as he stood. "And you rather took your time. Sanzo-han."
"I wasn't aware that I was supposed to hurry." Sudden anger, old anger, that tainted his words.
Hazel settled his hat upon his head. "No matter." A gracious nod towards the far doors. "Shall we?"
And then Goku snapped out of the paralysis of sudden shock that seemed to have gripped the rest of his companions. "How did you get in here?"
"With words." A crypticness all too reminiscent of the days when they had first met and suspicions had run high. But Sanzo could guess now, postulate that perhaps the man had come with an offer for Nii Jieni, perhaps even something to do with the pendant. Been brought to Houtou Jo on a flying dragon, outpacing even a Jeep often waylaid by attackers.
"And whose side are you on?" Gojyo challenged, blunt and brusque.
Pale blue eyes flicked over. "Gyuumaou lies beyond these doors. The research team is dead, but too late. The resurrection is completed... held in check only by my power."
"Your power?" Hakkai asked, glancing significantly at the pendant.
"My methods are my own, Megane-han." But there a light note to his voice to soften the words. "The rest, I'm afraid, is up to you."
There was nothing when Sanzo shouldered past. No lingering touch of gloved fingers on his wrist, a desperate attempt at reconcilation. No soft words to fall upon deaf ears. There had been a time for that, once, a long time ago. But time and distance had done their job well.
He did not turn to face the emotionless gaze. Could not, for all that he had been the one to fling the wall down between them.
"Non-attachment. Beholden to no one and nothing--"
"But enslaved to the philosophy itself. As you wish, then." And then he was gone, a flutter of white and the barest breath of wind to make his passing. By the time Sanzo had arrived at his door, some minutes later, he was already gone.
Nothing after that. No hints, no rumors, and not for lack of asking. He had disappeared off the face of the continent as abruptly as he had appeared. And ended up here, with blood on his white gloves and a strain that he couldn't hide on his face. Help unlooked and unasked for, at the darkest part of their journey. And Sanzo couldn't find it in himself to feel anything but the smouldering of old accusations.
"Don't interfere," Sanzo said, something, anything to break the silence. To break the voices in his head that he didn't want to hear.
"This is my business as well," the reply came back.
"You should have finished it before I got here."
"It is beyond the ability of any one of us to do so alone. You will understand when you see it."
And the doors swung open before any of them had the chance to ask Hazel what he meant.
It was red and black, and a distant feeling neither hot nor cold that one part of his brain registered as pain beyond anything he had known. He couldn't see beyond the red in his eyes, couldn't smell beyond the tang of iron, couldn't think but for the memory of silvered steel sweeping down towards him, its edges burning with flames.
He could hear, though: the thunder of distant bullets from guns not his own, the cries of his companions -- or companion, for only one was left standing, and it had to be the damned kappa. And of the other two he didn't think, refused to think, refused to--
--white split the red in his vision, coaxed it from the darkness back to the light. There was silence now, but for the curious ringing in his ears. White focused to silver, and then blue.
Hazel knelt over him, dabbling the blood away from his face.
He opened his mouth to speak, to force the words out through sheer willpower, for surely his vocal chords had been destroyed in the flames. "I... will... not... shiki...ga..."
"I know," Hazel replied, and Sanzo had to wonder at his voice as well, cracked and broken. His eyes were red veined, the lines under them harsh against skin paler than its norm. Surely he hadn't been crying. "But I was a healer before all else," the Westerner said. Light glowed, a soul called forth from the pendant.
Sanzo tried to protest, to raise hands to shove the bastard away. Leaden limbs and soundless voice failed him, as blackness sucked at the corner of his vision.
I will never become your shikigami, the mind raged furiously in protest. Let me die in peace.
"If you have never trusted me before, trust me this once," Hazel said.
He could not.
How could he? When he knew nothing about this stranger and his absurd, unnatural powers. How could he, when his shikigami had attacked their party, when
Once he had wanted run his fingers across those high cheekbones, to flick away the moisture that trailed, unnoticed, across them. Had wanted to forget everything that made him Toa Genjo Sanzo Houshi and just fall into entangled trap of illogical emotion.
"But it is your own self that you distrust," a voice in the dark told him. "And I suppose you can never trust another as a result."
And a star went nova in his vision, a blue that cut through the darkness, splintering and scattering the black.
He heard the rumor a week after it was supposed to have happened. Heard it and turned them back immediately, putting Jiipu back on the western road when they should have been headed east to Chou'An.
By the time he fought off the initial panic to override blind instinct with conscious thought, they were already at the town where it had happened. And there was resistance from an unexpected quarter when he demanded that they around and head east again.
"You owe him this much," Hakkai said, gaze flinty and unyielding. "He saved our lives."
And so he followed the trail to its end, where it lay amidst white flowers in a field of grass. For the sake of a thank you never said. For the sake of a sliver of time long past. For the sake of some part of him that still twisted on long nights when he looked up at the moon.
When his fingers traced the unfamiliar western script that a certain Westerner had taught him to read a million lifetimes ago, he couldn't see for the black that seemed to cloud his eyes.
Requiescat in Pace.
Rev. Hazel Glosse.
And now he was beholden for life, for there was no way to repay the debt.