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I'll Stay By Your Side.

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         There were very few things that could shake WuKong. The first being smoke. The second is being trapped. And the third… The third is this. His master, a gentle and indecisive man that’d been trying to bash morals through WuKong’s ever thick skull, was pressed against him. It was not a motion of intimacy. It was not a motion of desire. It was a motion that WuKong, admittedly, did not know how to react to at first. The bald monk, in his strange and human behavior, clung to the king with his face buried into the monkey’s shoulder. To onlookers, it merely appeared as an embrace. To onlookers, it might just appear to be intimate. But WuKong felt the shudders. WuKong felt the shaking, muted sobs. And WuKong swiftly understood the reasoning behind his master’s actions before any of his brothers did.

         There were no onlookers here. There was no living being within the entirety of this village. Before them lay a decimated people. And the carnage that was wrought here was something he would’ve preferred his teacher not to see. Bodies strewn about carelessly, limbs detached at odd angles, and other such things would leave the monk with night terrors for weeks to come. And WuKong knew he would be up with Sanzang, comforting the teacher in the only ways he knew—granted, they were not very good ways, but allowing his teacher to speak and grieve always seemed to be enough to allow the man to let go.

         To grieve, to express sadness, to mourn these people… That was what must come first before making a plan of vengeance. This he understood. “Sandy. Pigsy. Start making graves.” His orders were immediately followed, the brothers not even bothering to bicker this time. It was not the time, nor the place for such a thing. The monkey wraps an arm around the monk, a protective gesture. Should a demon appear then, the first disciple wasn’t sure he’d be able to restrain himself from slaughtering the damned thing. As it stood, he needed to bring his master away from this sight. Beckoning the horse close, he takes the reigns and begins leading the small group away from the village. The outskirts weren’t so bad, and even had a wall to remove all the carnage from behind the wall from sight.

         “What,” is the first thing his master manages to gasp out. “Could’ve possibly been heartless enough to kill so many?” Rare is the day does he see his master so angry. Rarer still does he ever see the man so vulnerable. He could say anything right now, anything at all, and it would destroy every single bit of efforts they’d made during their journey. Hell, he could even convince the man to remove the headband for eternity, and start running. He had every single possibility at his fingertips, so many options to finally seek freedom from this hell of a journey.

         “A demon,” is his answer. “But, more accurately, a monster.” His fingers come up, wiping away at the tear tracks that stained his master’s cheeks. “For the moment, Baldy, we should put the dead to rest. Then we can gather information and do something about it. It’s not the time to make these decisions.” WuKong’s voice speaks reason, something that the human didn’t want to hear. Sanzang grits his teeth, his brow furrowing. But he sees the wisdom in the monkey’s words, and sighs, his shoulders sagging.

         “When did you become so mature,” he chides. “When did we switch places?” This makes the monkey start laughing, a rich sound that soothes the monks heart more than he could say. “Alright. You speak sense. Let us tend to the dead. It’s the least we can do.” As the monkey turns and leaves, Sanzang doesn’t follow immediately. Instead, he watches the monkey walk away, feeling a sense of pride. They’d come so far along on their journey. They’d been together on this journey for many years now, and his first disciple is so much different than what he’d used to be.

         “Master,” he hears the monkey drawl. “If you don’t catch up soon, I might just go and hunt down that demon by myself right now.” Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps the monkey hadn’t changed much at all and was simply becoming just a bit soft. But it’s enough of a prompt to make the monk protest and follow. Little wonder how the king had become to beloved and cursed at the same breath. He could lead an army, he could make allies nearly anywhere he went, and he most definitely lead their group alongside Sanzang. His lips twisting as he considers this, he thinks it’s rather good that the King was by his side. It lessens the problems he could cause elsewhere, the mischievous monkey being able to put himself in whatever troubles occurring in Heaven or otherwise.

         The day passes slowly as the mass grave was dug out, the disciples unable to discern which limb belonged to which villager. In the end, it was easier to bury it all together, ensuring that there was nothing left for the crows to feast upon. Reading rites wasn’t something Sanzang was fond of, but he did so now to ensure the villagers passage to their next life. It was exhausting, and by the time they’d finished, it was night time. Sanzang refused to bed down in the village, and the brothers had agreed not to take anything from inside it, regardless of how hungry they could be.

         They’d gone about a half a mile away from the village before they set up camp, and there was a silent agreement between the disciples as for what their chores would be. WuKong would keep watch, Sandy would cook, and Pigsy would gather up the supplies they’d need for their next leg of the journey. It made Sanzang pleased to see that the brothers could work so seamlessly together. He hoped they’d turned over a new leaf, but knew deep in his heart it was far from the truth. They’d been shaken just as much as he had. The silence gives him enough time to think.

         The night passed slowly. When Pigsy and Sandy volunteered to sleep first, easily tucking themselves away from sight, it was a signal for the King to come down. “At first,” Sanzang says to him, “I’d thought you always took the position of watch so you could be farther from the group.” The King is silent, tilting his head as he watches the monk. It was a chat, then, that he’d be entertaining to keep the monk’s demons away. “But truthfully, you do so because you want to protect us. I’d always wondered why a social creature would refuse to be social.”

         His head dips, and WuKong silently prompts Sanzang to continue further. “I’d also thought,” he says, “that you always teased me and such because you disliked me. But you… Never truly hated me, did you?” The King’s smile even reaches his eyes. Perhaps this human wasn’t so naïve as he’d once thought. “You hated what I’d done. You hated my actions and reasonings. But you could never truly bring yourself to hate me. You most definitely wanted to hurt me. You absolutely wanted me dead in the beginning. But… I think you realized that I never selected this. Not for you. Not for me. Not for anyone else for that matter.”

         When WuKong speaks, he’s picking out his words carefully. The care he’d taken to pick them makes Sanzang’s heart warm just a bit. “It’s not hard to figure out what Heaven’s goal is. And there are some things that Heaven can’t always take care of. That’s why we were selected. Why you were selected. And why this journey is to take place. We were, and still are, terrible demons. But we’ve learned things that demons don’t get a chance to learn. Compassion wasn’t in my dictionary, and still isn’t in my dictionary, unless you’re involved.” He’d been softened by the monk, yes. But how else do you form something new out of stone unless it softens?

         “You’ve grown quite a bit,” Sanzang states. He says this with pride. And in a way, he misses how WuKong would always brashly go into things. In a way, he’s sad to see that their journey was starting to come to a close. “When the journey ends, you need to promise to visit your old master.” The feelings he’d developed for the monkey still lay deep inside of his heart, and he couldn’t bear to speak of them yet. It wasn’t the time or the place. “I don’t know what lies in store for us at the end of the journey, but promise me that much.”

         WuKong, in his rather typical fashion, snickers. It’s a terribly mischievous snicker, one that spoke of how he knew something that the monk did not. That worried Sanzang for a moment. And in that moment, he wondered if the monkey only showed how he’d matured just so he can show how much more of a mischievous terror he’s going to be once he has his freedom. “I won’t promise you such a thing,” he states. “Because that’s implying you’ll be far enough away for me to need to visit.” It takes Sanzang a moment to understand what the monkey was saying. And when it clicks, he could swear that WuKong heard the skips in his heart. “No. I’ll stay by your side, Sanzang. That much, I will promise you.”

         He isn’t sure if WuKong fully understood the weight of what was said. Or if the King could actually read minds, and he was stating such in order to soothe the ache that’d been developing in Sanzang’s chest since he realized that the journey was nearly over. But it does, and the master is able to relax just a bit. “That’s… A relief to hear as such.” WuKong tilts his head back just so he could peer at the sky. It’s littered with stars, with the homes of deities that were so very far away. Sanzang couldn’t help but watch this, nearly entranced with the serene view of a resting King. He’d called WuKong handsome many times. Never to his face, and never out loud, but he most definitely did. He couldn’t help but be smitten with the monkey who’d ensnared the monk so thoroughly.

         Rough edges, a rougher tongue and a hint of softness were things to describe the King. And even now, as he watches the stars glitter out of reach, he still held that untamed feeling. “Earlier today,” he states. “I could’ve told you anything. I could’ve gotten you to even remove the headband. I could’ve even turned this entire journey upside down. But I didn’t.” In hindsight, the monkey was absolutely correct. Sanzang had left himself open. He’d left himself in the most vulnerable position possible for the monkey to take advantage of. And he didn’t. WuKong leaves it at that, letting the monk ponder on the reasoning behind it. He couldn’t see the answer immediately, but he’s sure that the answer would reveal itself soon enough.

Chapter Text

            Monk Sanzang. A brave man who faced every day with a kind smile and a kinder heart. His disciples were a lot of unruly demons that strike fear into every single human they meet. Demons and Heaven sent beings alike strove to cease their journey, to or make them grow stronger to face the troubles ahead. Each day was left in a question mark. Each morning was a dare to face the world. And each night was one that brought about insecurities. At this moment of time, Sanzang reflects upon this, waiting at camp with both Sandy and the white dragon horse. Both WuKong and Pigsy had left in order to search for information about the demon or demons that’d massacred the village.

            Returning first was the younger brother, his delicate face oddly frustrated. “I found nothing.” His voice is clipped, his brow furrowed with his rage. “I searched every single nook and cranny, and yet… There was nothing to be found. Master, I’m worried. What it wasn’t a demon, but a spirit instead?” A spirit, one that was twisted and evil for committing such a crime, would be much harder to hunt down. But WuKong had not returned yet. And that brought Sanzang some hope for additional information to be had. Minutes turned to hours. Hours burned away the day into night. And there was still no sign of WuKong.

            Sanzang worried. Of course he did. It was his first disciple. It was a student he took vast amounts of pride in. It was a person he—Sanzang pauses, in that thought. But he lets it continue, though he was afraid of admitting such a thing to even himself. Sun WuKong was a person he loved deeply. And though it wasn’t the first person he loved so deeply, he was sure WuKong was going to be the last.

            The other disciples turn to bed for respite of the day. And Sanzang knows he should sleep too. But he doesn’t. Wanting to see his disciple, the damned ape, had become far more important to him than sleep. It neared midnight before the disciple finally returned. And when he did so, he looked haggardly in his true form. Sanzang stands swiftly, a silent cry on his lips as he dives towards the male. WuKong even sags against him as he’s lead to sit near the dying fire, the King exhausted. Sitting him down proved difficult, the monkey dragging the monk down with him. Sanzang didn’t mind, the disciples arm heavy on his shoulders.

            “Are you alright,” it’s the fervent question passing from his mouth before he could care to stop it. The monkey’s face didn’t speak of pain, just tiredness. But it didn’t mean much, the male easily recovering even from the worst of injuries with swiftness that made the Heavens jealous. “What did you find out?” WuKong grunts, and it’s the only answer he receives for a few moments. The monkey shifts, and his tail peeks out from under several layers of clothes, comfortably wrapping itself around Sanzang’s waist. Sighing, his runs a hand down his face, and when he peers at his master, the tiredness seems to grow even more.

            “It’s a spirit,” he states. “And it’s got issues.” It’s what he says, but his eyes told the monk that there was more to the story. “Lots of issues.” When the monkey gets comfortable, he plucks a carved wooden pipe from inside his pouch at his side. Though he does not smoke, and though Sanzang was sure he wanted to, WuKong only places it in the corner of his mouth. It’s how he thinks, how he processes information. An odd way to go about it, but the king hadn’t steered them wrong while doing so.

            “The spirit is one that takes many forms. It doesn’t shy away from people, nor is it… Particularly evil. Though what it’s done here is evil, I’m sure Sandy would relate to it well given how he’s come about.” Saving a child by the riverside, Sandy had been accused of kidnapping and was forced to drown in the same river. Angry and betrayed, he hunted down the villagers and brutally murdered them in revenge until Sanzang had come along. “This spirit… Doesn’t really exist besides itself. It’s like a conglomeration of souls melted into one person. It’s how it shifts forms, how it exists outside of humans. One of those spirits it’d taken and absorbed was one of a wizard. Not a strong wizard, but a clever one.” Which made it all the harder to fiddle about with.

            Sanzang frowns. “How are we supposed to bring such a thing to justice if it’s so clever?” The question is one that makes WuKong’s head tilt, a hand coming up to pluck the pipe from his mouth. He sighs, sagging against the rock that supported his back. “Is it… Possible? We can’t just leave this be, WuKong. It might not be able to differentiate between the people who’d done wrong and who’d done nothing to it.” The King peers at Sanzang, his amber eyes searching for something that the monk could not understand.

            “You’re stating that it was fair for what it’d done to those villagers for the sake of vengeance?” The question hung in the air, and Sanzang considers it. In truth, his words had implied as such. He knows that he hadn’t spoken well, and thinks on how to correct the statement. That was usually their point of arguments—Sanzang would make a statement that WuKong would understand one way, but the monk had meant differently. At least, for the moment, the King understood that there was a communication error that existed between them.

            “Yes and no.” His head dips, his eyes carefully trained on the first disciple. “I can understand what it’d done and why it’d done it. I can understand the need for vengeance. But to go to such an extreme in this situation is not acceptable. And who knows exactly how long until the spirit becomes unstable and a threat to outsiders? If there’s so many spirits or souls absorbed to form one, it’ll only take one voice strong enough to drown out the others to make a decision.” It was human nature to seek reparations for trespasses, but human error to resort to violence for such things.

            WuKong nods in understanding, a slow nod that supports the monk. Though the monk was still naïve, still green to the world, he understood that humans would be imperfect and make such imperfect decisions. “For the moment, we should rest. We’ll make a battle plan tomorrow and continue from there.” Shifting, he unwraps his tail from the priest, and his arm falls limply by his side. “I might have to call in some allies for this one…The spirit isn’t that powerful, but a strong mind can overturn the tide of battle over a strong body any day.”

Chapter Text

            Night turns to day faster than what the group would like. WuKong quickly gives his brothers the updates needed to begin their journey. He seemed almost nervous, the way he shifted about. Was the spirit truly that difficult to deal with? Sanzang could only wonder this as he stays behind. Pigsy, the second strongest of the group, would be staying behind with him this time. Sandy would follow his older brother in attempts to gather allies for the upcoming battle. After they left, both the second disciple and the master were feeling anxious.

            Of all the battles they’d faced, nothing had ever shaken WuKong as much as this. Nothing shakes the Monkey King, ever. But this, this did. Sanzang frowns, running a hand down his face. It’ll be days before the brothers return. But they could spare the time, knowing that the spirit wasn’t aware of being hunted yet. And the spirit had exacted its revenge upon the village, currently exhausted in its power. Unlike regular creatures, those that have passed have a limited amount of power to use until it’s exhausted. It cannot be regained. It’s why they needed to take care in this. After absorbing a wizard, WuKong knows intimately that it won’t take much energy for the spirit to strike out effectively. And he didn’t want to risk Sanzang’s life in such a callous mistake when he knows to gain allies.

            Sanzang stands, stretching and popping his shoulders. He doesn’t know that the motion is one that his first disciple frequently does, but Pigsy notices, muffling a snort. The two were closer than any other in the group. And briefly, the pig wonders if either of them would act on such a thing. He knows that Sanzang might not, but what of WuKong? That damned ape would most definitely act upon such emotions, not knowing any better. Perhaps it was a game then? Seeing who could outlast the other? What an odd game to play so late in their journey.

            “I’ll go and collect more water,” Sanzang hums. It’s a menial task, one that he could complete easily enough without the assistance of his disciples. A small blessing, he thinks, that he could do something even as simple as that without issue. The river is quiet, unstained by the gore from the village, and burbles merrily down its way. Taking a sip, he finds the water refreshing and cool. He fills the waterskin he has with him and the others used for cooking before deciding the head back. There is still no sign of WuKong. Pigsy merely greets him with a wave upon his return.

            Finding it odd that the usually vocal second disciple doesn’t greet him more than that, Sanzang peers at the pig curiously. “Bajie,” he murmurs. It’s quiet, something not easily heard. He knows his disciple should’ve heard him. But the pig does not turn. Sanzang frowns. Something was wrong. Something he could not pinpoint. And, with this in mind, he feigns tripping over his own two feet so he could discreetly kick a pebble at the second disciple. To his horror, it goes right through him.

            “Clever one, aren’t you?” The voice echoed. It’s hollow sounding, amused and layered with many other voices. Sanzang pales, turning his head. What greets him is a small creature, about the size of a child. The face is hidden by a cowl, and in its hand is a staff glowing with remnants of magic. “That spell is known as Silent Image. I can only cast a handful of those spells a day, you know. Well… I used to. But I suppose now that limit is even shorter.”

            Sanzang isn’t quite sure what the creature is babbling on about. He wished desperately he could call upon WuKong, but the King was still nowhere in sight. “Who might you be, little beggar?” It’s asked with a different voice. One softer, a touch more delicate. “And why do you hunt us? We’ve done nothing wrong. We wanted our revenge. And we got it. We’ll be leaving. But you hunt us.”

            Knowing that it thoroughly expected an answer, Sanzang swallows down his fear. He had to. “I am Sanzang. I am a monk who is travelling West in order to gain the sutras that will bring religion and peace to my people. My disciples and I had wandered across that… Carnage you call revenge upon the village. I can understand the need to press vengeance, but you’d taken it too far.” The creature is silent, thoughtful as it inches more into the camp.

            “We left no carnage.” Male, this time, takes over the voices. “We left dead, but we left no carnage nor blood. And we’d only taken vengeance on those that wronged us. The village you saw was a peaceful one.” The head tilting, Sanzang can glimpse sagging, discolored skin. “We did nothing to the villagers. Only the corrupt religious folks. What did you see?” Sanzang debates on telling them the truth. If it so happened that they were being truthful, how was he to explain to WuKong and the allies he was bringing?

            “The entire village was ripped apart,” he states. “There were bodies everywhere. Limbs everywhere, and we couldn’t even put them with the correct bodies in the end. So we had to make a mass grave in order to settle the spirits of those there so they could move on.” The creature stands straighter, reaching almost three feet in height now. It seems startled, upset even, at the sound of such a tragedy. “We’d gotten information that a spirit was the cause of it. So we began—”

            The cry that comes from the spirit is a mournful wail. Sanzang can glimpse oddly sharp canines under the cowl, and a maw that resembled that of a cat more than a human. “We did not know! We should’ve—We would’ve—!” The creature is fumbling, clutching its head as it begins sobbing. “We knew there were demons nearby. We knew! But we’d taken care of the religious order here, taken care of the people before a curse got to us and killed us!” Lifting its head, it stares at the monk with a wild gaze. Gleaming amber eyes peer at him from inside the cowl, and the monk could only wonder exactly what kind of creature he was dealing with. “Lookout!”

            Pain. Excruciating pain. It blossoms from the middle of his chest, just under his ribs, and he was far too afraid to look down to see what might be there. In his ears, he can hear a low, rumbling chuckle. “Looks like we caught the last human. Funny that. Didn’t think there were more.” The taste of iron was thick on his tongue. Something slips from the corner of his mouth, and his hand comes up to wipe away at it. When he pulls his hand away, he can see it’s stained red.

            “No.” The voice that comes from the spirit before him is horrified. “No.” Fire begins to fill the area, and the demons shrieking voices begin tainting the air. “No.” Sanzang knew little else, seeing the fire engulfing the area around him. The pain is only magnified as whatever had lodged into his chest is pulled free. He drops to his knees, spluttering and unable to grasp exactly what is happening. When the fire clears, the area of camp is left in ashes. The spirit and himself were left.

            “I… I cannot end my journey here.” He says this, as if he were pleading for his life. The creature, the spirit, moves fully into the camp. He can see the sparks on the edge of his vision, and vaguely recognizes them as alarms. “My disciples need me. My country needs me. WuKong—” Holding up a hand, he can see that it almost appears human, the spirit quiets him. It sighs, shaking its head as it stares at this monk. It seems to have come to a decision.

            “We were hoping,” it says. It’s the first voice it’d taken with him. A dry, amused kind of voice. Vaguely, it reminds him of WuKong. “To find someone to separate us before we passed on. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here, little beggar.” Reaching out, it touches his chest. The pain is slowly taken from him. “You will not die here. With what little magic we have left, we will fix you.” Once the pain leaves him, Sanzang is left exhausted. The spirit tugs out a small scroll, sliding it into the monk’s hands. It feels oddly warm to touch. “We ask that you tell the truth when you speak of our tale, as you’ve informed us the truth on what’s happened to the village we once called home. Thank you, little beggar.”

            The spirit fades from view. And just as it vanishes, he can hear a faint yelling in the distance. It sounded familiar, and as his vision decides to fade, he could swear he saw a flash of red hurdling towards the camp. “WuKong.” That’s what it reminded him of, at least. His body gives out on him, and he can feel the world tilting. Oddly, there was no pain that he could register as he falls over. It’s something for him to consider later on, he thinks.

Chapter Text

            Waking up had never felt like such a blessing. The priest mumbles quietly, something incoherent, before attempting to move. “Eldest Brother,” Pigsy snorts. “Much as master appreciates your doubled efforts to keep him safe, I’m sure that he’d like to move now.” The monk can feel something shift behind him, and what’d felt like iron bands around his middle were slowly loosened. Turning his head, Sanzang finds the strength to open his eyes and see his first disciple. He’d been cradling the monk, refusing to allow anyone else near him under threat of feeling the true weight of his rod.

            “WuKong.” It’s said quietly. It’s said as both praise and familiarity. The monkey’s amber eyes were streaked with an angry red observe the monk. His nose scrunches, and allows the monk a short respite of his embrace. “When did you return?” A hush falls upon the group, the question hanging in the air. Stepping forward, the one to get his attention was none other than Er Lang Shen. The male was impossibly tall now, dressed for battle and ready to take down any foe.

            “When we’d arrived, the area was engulfed in flame and ash. When the fires died down, you were facing the spirit on your knees. You’d appeared to be injured. The spirit casted a spell that took the rest of its energy, bringing you back from the brink of death, before fading away. What happened, monk Sanzang?” When Sanzang tries to speak, it’s a croaking sound that pulls from his throat. Immediately, several waterskins were offered. He plucks the one from WuKong’s hands and drinks from that.

            “The spirit wasn’t the issue.” When he says this, the group falls silent, disbelief written across many faces. “The spirit… Those people who’d combined into one had taken care of a different issue in the village before their death. They succumbed to a curse and died. Truthfully, they’d wanted to find a way to separate themselves in order to pass on. But they never got the chance. Something had falsely accused them, setting them up for the blame of what happened in the village.” Looking at the little Sage, the monk’s eyes were wide. “There are demons that slaughtered the village without any mercy! They’d even attacked me from behind! I’m not sure if there are any left, but please Lord Erlang Shen, there needs to be something done!”

            Being silent for this entire time, WuKong decides to speak up. “It’s because we’re close, isn’t it?” The question is biting. It’s sharp and accusatory. “The demons are getting desperate. When we obtain the sutras, there will be little else for them to do except disappear.” If humans began cultivating themselves, began caring for each other, it would destroy the majority of the demon population. Erlang Shen frowns, but nods.

            “It would seem so. But I will still send out a group of men to clear the area. Such an atrocity will be met with great prejudice. The question is now, Great Sage: How long until you reach the western haven by your guess?” WuKong falls silent once more, but Sanzang could nearly hear the thoughts and calculations churning about in the monkey’s head before an answer is given.

            “A week. At the very least, if we push ourselves and stay on track. One week.” A week. Seven days left with his disciples. Seven days left until their journey was completed. Seven very short days for all of them. And the weight of such a statement was crushing. It wasn’t long until Erlang Shen leaves them. And it was even less time for the group to reorganize itself into a semblance of functionality. When Pigsy turns to the monk, he winces. “What’s wrong with you, Idiot?”

            Sanzang is pleased that WuKong got to the question before he did. “That spirit had ah… Snuck up behind me.” Frowning, Pigsy drops down the shoulder of his top. There was a clear, vicious bruise there, a deep purple staining his skin. “I guess it really wanted to speak with Sanzang. But why. And why take this out on me!” Sandy chuckles at the pig’s discomfort, stirring the pot of congee he already began work on. “You got something to say, Fish?” Lifting his head, the water spirit sneers at the second disciple before deigning to make a remark.

            “It’s obvious, ain’t it? The spirit didn’t feel threatened by Sanzang. It told you all of that stuff about what happened to the religious order and the village, right?” At the monk’s nod, the third disciple seems to sigh. It’s a tired sigh, one that spoke of far too many years weighing on the spirit. “It needed to speak, to understand what was going on. Though it was a weaker wizard, that spirit seemed perfectly capable of killing Sanzang should it have had the desire to. Nah. It wanted comfort. It wanted to talk to someone with words, not fists.”

            The group falls into silence, and carefully sort their own thoughts as they blankly get through the meal and set up for the night. Sanzang had a distinct impression that WuKong wanted to speak on his own terms, without the listening ears of his brothers. And when they were tucked away into sleep, the monk and his first disciple carefully pull towards the river for a bit more privacy.

            The monkey is silent at first. And Sanzang was worried that he wouldn’t be speaking to him for quite some time for doing something he shouldn’t have done in the first place. So to fill the silence, Sanzang speaks. “The spirit didn’t look anything like I’d thought it could.” Sitting upon a boulder near the edge of the river, he peers into the calm waters. The moon is reflected clearly, a serene audience to their conversation. “It looked half human, half cat. Those people… They’d wanted to protect their village from something corrupt. With their success, they were cursed to death and worse. But those evil people had already attracted demons far worse than what anyone could’ve expected. I’m sad to see that the spirits couldn’t get what it desired.”

            Sitting by his feet, WuKong hadn’t bothered to shift out of his true form. The tail he’d grown so fond of wraps around one of his legs. “Guan Shih Yin is looking into it. If anyone could do something about it, she could. They’d done exactly what they were supposed to do. Apparently, the wizard held promise, and it looked as though it would gain immortality soon enough. It loved helping the people with its magic, and did plenty of good deeds to ensure their safety.” A hand runs down his face, and WuKong finally looks at Sanzang.

            There’s a dialogue going on, Sanzang thinks, between WuKong and whatever else resides in that monkey’s head. When he decided on finishing it, he speaks. “I was very close to losing you.” It was a harsh statement. A true, cold statement that sent chills down the monk’s spine. “When we’d arrived, we saw what’d previously been of the damage before it fully healed. And the spirit fixed you up to send you on your way while it disappeared.” WuKong, though he didn’t show it, was extremely upset.

            “I’m sorry,” Sanzang murmurs. “I—” Holding up a hand, WuKong continues.

            “On top of all that, you discovered the monsters that’d truly been behind the destruction of the village. First hand, you understand their cruelty. First hand, you discovered the truth. And you would’ve died from it if not for your damned, stupid luck.” Blunt nails scratch through coarse fur, a rapid, annoyed motions that instilled guilt into the monk. “What the hell am I going to do with you?” His voice was rough, and Sanzang would swear he saw tears starting to drip down the disciple’s face. He couldn’t be sure as the disciple runs his hand down once more, erasing any evidence of what might’ve been.

            “Stay with me.” It’s with a small voice that Sanzang says this. Amber eyes peer up at him. They’re hard and intense, but not cold. “Stay by my side. Until this journey is over. And even afterwards.” It’s what he says, so very close to spilling the truth that lays deep inside his heart. But he doesn’t dare take that step forward. He doesn’t dare find the elusive strength to say those words. It would be too much. It would be too inappropriate, given the time.

            WuKong seems to consider these words, staring down his master with all the untamable emotions raging through himself. Untamed and wild, the trickster was so much more than a simple monkey. “I already made you that promise, Baldy.” It’s what he says, but he leans against his master’s legs. It’s a tired motion. An exhausted motion. “You’re gonna be stuck with me for an eternity. There’s not gonna be a chance in hell that I’m leaving. And you’re just going to have to deal with it.”

            Sanzang smiles, his hand reaching down and patting his disciple. His fingers eventually find their way to comb through the coarse fur. “I think I can deal with that,” he states. “I’ve dealt with you at your worst of tempers and worst of tantrums, WuKong. I can handle you for a bit longer.” He doesn’t see it, but WuKong smiles. It’s an odd smile, one that isn’t seen often on the stone monkey. But it’s soft. It’s gentle. A foreign language spoken across the features of the monkey’s face. Before the monk, WuKong did not know of softness. Before the monk, the King did not know softness. With this knowledge now obtained, he’d prefer to keep it close to his heart. It would remain close to his heart for at least an eternity.