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blood on the saddle

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“You and Master have something in common, you know,” Bajie once tells him, words muffled by layers of cloak and cloth. The pig snout sits under fabric, and only tusks poke out,  stained with rain and desert sand.

And weighed down by pails of water heaped across his back, held together by only a beam from end to end, Wujing asks, “What might that be, second brother?”

Bajie looks him in the eye,  a punchline on his tongue. And though Wujing’s a good few heads taller and at least one body bulkier, he bows his head anyway.

“Nobody can tell if you two are kind or dumb,” Bajie says with a laugh.

Wujing rolls his eyes, but bows again. “Thank you for the insight, second brother.”

“And see?” the pig says, “so serious too. I was just trying to get a laugh from you.”

“Master’s not dumb,” is all Wujing says, nine skulls jingling around his neck, blue scalp violet under the cloudless sun, itself as red as the friar’s own hair.

Bajie prepares to speak when something pops behind his ear. The pig yelps, and behind him, the first disciple laughs. Perched on Bajie’s shoulders, Wukong sucks in his sallow cheeks and makes that pop-click sound again, for no reason other than the fact he can .

“Monkey!” Bajie cries, “that hurt!”

And Wukong cackles, tears bubbling at the corner of each eye, right above the layer of devil pink masked across his lids. When he’s done, the monkey grins, toothy sharp, and says, “That was funny! Old Sha, don’t you agree?”

Wujing can’t help a small chuckle, but he hides it and bows. “It was very creative, eldest brother.”

“Ah, ah, what a bore you two are,” Wukong says, arms now wrapped around the second disciple’s head. He twists a leg and bites on the end of one shoe. The boot comes off, and his foot free, the monkey lifts his toes- almost fingers- and scratches the crown of his golden head, pointed ears twitching.

“Master,” Bajie calls, “eldest brother’s bullying me!”

Some feet ahead in that forest trail, the Tang priest stops his horse. Sanzang turns his tender face- though the disciples have learned by now the monk’s temper is anything but- flags shifting with, and says, “Wukong! That’s enough!”

Boot still between his teeth, the monkey retorts, “What? Yell at me and not the idiot?”

“Wukong , get back here! It’s almost nightfall and I don’t have time for your aping around!”

Then, angrier, the priest says, “If we need to find lodging, we must do it now. You should know by now how hard it is with your mugs being as ugly as they are!”

Wukong tosses the boot back onto his foot, and with a swish of tail, slides off Bajie’s groaning head. He lands on all fours, climbs forward, tiger kilt dragging, and laughs. “That’s true! We’re quite homely to these humans.”

“I really ought to make you all wear masks,” Sanzang huffs.

Wukong takes the white horse’s reins, and stroking that fair mane, he says, almost purs, “That’s not fair, Master. Anyone’s ugly compared to you.”

“You wicked ape,” the Master says, resigned, although there isn’t much anger there.

“That, I am!” the monkey chirps.

Bajie adjusts his scarves, ruffled by where Wukong had touched, and walks on. Wujing follows, deferring behind, and listens to the water slosh. The sun’s eaten half the sky by then, an orb of fiery red as cranes fly past. The monk and monkey bicker ahead, their horse silent, and all as it is. And thus, another day west should have passed.


But it doesn’t.


The old woman comes to them at sunset, hobbling on frail feet, her withered face hidden under a burlap cloak. They’ve set up camp by then, and Wujing’s too busy starting a fire to see her come.

“Venerable elder,” she rasps, too weak to cry, “help me.”

The third disciple lifts his head, in time to see the woman fall on her knees, one gnarled hand clenched around the Master’s sleeve. The shock passes across Sanzang’s face first, then that look of pity they all know too well. He holds her up, and says, “Bodhisattva, where did you come from?”

“My village,” she gasps, “is just over those woods.”

“Here,” Bajie says, scrambling to the monk’s side, a bowl of water in his hands, “drink this!”

“Thank- thank you,” she says.

Wujing leaves his spot and approaches, heart softened at the sight of a helpless elder. He never could withstand those in need. Maybe, he sometimes thinks, because he’s never quite forgiven himself. Why else then, would he still wear that string of skulls.

“Master,” he says, “the fire’s ready. Let’s bring her over-”

Then the woman gasps, a rush of frightened air let out, and falls back into the Tang priest’s arms. Trembling, she points at Wujing and says, “De- demon.” And only then, she sees Bajie’s face. Paling, she twists, only for Sanzang to keep her held.

“It’s alright!” the monk says, “these are my disciples! Their faces are rough, but I assure you, their hearts kind!”

The woman moans against Sanzang’s chest, no doubt scared witless.

“Please, bodhisattva, have some more water. And we’ll warm you by the fire. Perhaps, then you can tell me what troubles you?”

She gulps, then nods, shaking as she clings onto Sanzang’s neck.

“Poor old thing really got a shock from your face, eh?” Bajie mutters to Wujing.

“Second brother, you’re not exactly a beauty yourself,” the third disciple mumbles back.

Sanzang stands, pulling the old woman along, her weight atop his, and his arms over hers. They head towards the fire, pace small and measured. And just before Sanzang can set her down, Wukong drops from a tree, like a rock come down. His tail squiggles, its fur stiff on end, a sign that the first disciple is on edge. Wukong leers forward in a creeping slouch, wrists bent against his staff, the as-you-would cudgel practically sinking into earth. He’s barely taller than Sanzang’s chest, a head or so under the shrunken woman’s height, and yet the shadow of a demon is no doubt there: wild, bitter, and thirsty for blood.

“So how long were you planning to keep this up?” the monkey asks, a grin on his mouth and a frown in his eyes.

“Wukong, what are you doing?” Sanzang says, aghast.

“I’m not talking to you, old man. Let the demon speak.”

The woman gapes, clinging onto Sanzang as if she could bury herself in his red cassock, and fear apparent in her sagging eyes, whispers, “Elder, it’s not true. Please, please, believe me.”

Wukong snaps out a laugh, harsh as old bark. “You rehearse that? Master, how about this. I’ll welcome the bodhisattva with a taste of my cudgel and you can see who’s lying for yourself.”

Then he kicks the staff into one hand, flips it into both, and crouches, fabric shifting as shoulders arch.

“And if she’s innocent, Old Sun’ll gladly bash his own brains out for you,” he says, with all the menace of desert venom.

“Elder, please,” the woman begs.

“Oh, come now, eldest brother!” Bajie says, “you’re scaring her to death. You think Master wouldn’t be able to spot a demon after all this time?”

“Wukong, we’ve been through this.” Sanzang presses the elder farther in, his arms circled like a shield, and turns, until she’s blocked from Wukong’s sight. “Must you do this every time?”

“And I’ve been right every time,” the monkey shoots back, “they’re always taking us for fools and I’ve had quite enough.”

Sanzang levels him with a glare, one the first disciple gladly returns, and for a split second, all Wujing can hear is the crackle of fire and flutter of dusk wind. And then, Wukong waves his hand, the cudgel shrinking into a pin needle. He kowtows instead, a quiet, “As you wish, Master” on his lips.

“That’s more like it!” Bajie says.

But Wujing’s not so convinced, because falling back is not the first disciple’s way, and just as he says, “Eldest brother-” the white horse whinnies.

Bailong breaks from his tether by the fire, and in a dragon’s fell swoop, slams into the woman’s back. With a cry, Sanzang lets go, and the elder tumbles away. And as she falls, Wujing sees, a glint of silver in her hands, the curve of a dagger, and a smooth, young palm. Bailong tackles her, but his hooves land too late, and the horse is left with only a dusty cloak.

“Master!” Wujing yells, already dashing towards where the dazed monk stands.

A clawed hand grabs Sanzang before the third disciple can reach. Nails dig into that cassock and pull him back, tendrils of white hair lashing onto him like a silk cocoon. The priest shifts, eyes turned until he’s face to face with the demon’s head, streaked with blue and deathly pale. It grins, victorious, veins stretching as its jaw stretches open.

But before the demon can gobble him whole, it’s smashed from behind, a cry of - “change!” - on Wukong’s tongue. The staff extends, thick as a ricebowl, and crunches hard against the demon’s skull. Blood and brain splatter out, but the devil gasps for one last breath. It topples left, Sanzang still tangled in its white strands, and that dagger falls. With a groan, Sanzang’s hands close around its handle. And he fumbles when the demon steadies and roars. The staff shrinks, and Wukong twists, until he’s between man and demon, and there, the monkey pries the devil away with bare hands. All three tumble and fall, and in Wujing’s next blink, there’s nothing left of the demon’s head, crushed to dust by their eldest brother’s hand.

Wukong rolls to his feet and claps the dirt from his hands, tail flicking left and right. Sanzang’s still struggling to escape that bundle of hair, Bajie now poking his rake in and out. Wukong takes a look and laughs, a short breath heaved, all the delight of a child proven right.

“See, old man?” he says between each chuckle, “I told you so!”

“Quit mocking your Master!” Sanzang says, “get me out of here!”

There’s a pool of blood blanketing grass, that demon’s flesh broken to bone by the as-you-would staff. Sanzang lies at the center of all its tangled hair, his hands stained red and those locks pink. Wukong blows a strand of fur his way, itself transformed into a needle sharp and thin. When Sanzang’s cut free, Bajie and Wujing rush to lift him up.

And Bailong whinnies once more, soft and subtle, no louder than a cricket’s hop. But Wujing hears. The prince is always silent, and he would never make a sound if he saw no need. So Wujing flicks his eyes their way. But Bailong stays still, and only Wukong’s walking towards that fire, staff swung behind his head. The sun has set by then, the sky a wash of red before blue night comes. Then it must be a trick of the light, Wujing thinks, because for a moment, he sees a shadow on the monkey’s waist, almost the color of blood.


Except it’s not.


They’re on the road before dawn comes, not another soul for miles on end. But it’s alright, the Master has said, we have each other. And of course, Wukong said he’d rather not have Bajie, and the pig accused him of bullying, and the white horse was silent. Wujing, however, rather likes the sound of that. When Juanlian was in heaven, faces passed and went, every acquaintance more formal than the last, every friendship an alliance, and every alliance a word.

He can’t quite remember his companions from then. Because they left you to suffer and die , some bitter voice says. But his brothers, at least, he knows, from Bajie’s floppy ears to Wukong’s furry tail. And he thinks, in a crowd of a hundred monks, he would be able to pick out the Master’s head. These thoughts, though, he’d keep to himself, because he knows Bajie would laugh and Wukong would call him a fool. And as always, Bailong would not say a word. Ruminating on this, Wujing removes the canteen from his belt and holds it up for a sip.

“Lend me your water,” Wukong says, scurrying past.

“Wukong, get back here!” Sanzang calls from his place atop their horse. And again, Bailong whinnies. Thrice in two days, Wujing notes.

“Don’t you have your own?” Bajie sighs.

“Tsk! Would I have to ask Friar Sand if you’d just give me yours?”

“Don’t you know how thirsty I get on days like this? Have some compassion, big brother!”

“Mark me, idiot, I’ll remember this!”

“Master, he’s threatening me!”

Wujing hears Sanzang sigh, but without looking back, the priest says, “Wukong, leave Wuneng alone. Wujing, let him have a few sips.”

Without waiting for the third disciple’s consent, Wukong’s already climbed atop him and curled himself around the friar’s bicep.

“Thank you, old Sha. You’re a good brother, unlike some people!”

Wujing holds up his canteen, and the monkey takes it with eager hands. Wukong gulps in a couple swigs and tosses the object back, its cap following suit.

“Eldest brother,” Wujing says, “did you lose your water?”

“No, I finished it.”

“You should pace yourself,” Bajie comments, “your stupid monkey bladder can’t hold so much water at once.”

“Ah, leave me be, pig.”

Wujing grunts when Wukong’s tail pokes his eye, unintentionally, he hopes. “Second brother has a point. Why did you finish your water so soon, eldest brother?”

“Grandpa’s really thirsty today.” Then Wukong shrugs and hops off Wujing’s shoulders, no more to be said. But that tail keeps swishing and Wujing can’t help but think there’s more he should know.


And he should.


They don’t eat until long past noon, a meal of fried greens and cooked grains leftover from a salted box. Wukong fidgets, chopsticks in his feet, and spends more time scratching the back of his head than poking his food. The first disciple’s never been a picky eater,  but he’s never been a big eater either.

“I don’t see why eldest brother can’t take his cloud into the nearest village,” Bajie says between bites of rice, “you’ve always done it before, monkey. Now we’re stuck with this sorry meal.”

Wukong humphs and says, “Our meals have always been sorry. And I’m not your slave. Old Sun does whatever he wants.”

“Don’t pressure one another,” is all Sanzang says. He has one bite left, but it never enters the priest’s mouth.

And Wujing finds he’s lost his appetite as well.


Then he thinks.


They camp in a clearing at night. Sanzang sits by the fire, meditating, but his light snores give the sleep away. Bajie’s sprawled in his blankets, mouth open wide and tongue lolling down. And only Wujing lies still, breaths even, the illusion of sleep upon his face. Wukong’s huddled close to the fire, his tiny shape lost to a quilt the shade of earth. Bailong stands awake.

And Wujing wonders. Bailong is usually the first to go, the most tired of all after a day’s walk. And Wukong- the monkey’s told him before, “I hate sleeping,” a waste of time, he deems it. But that night, Wukong lies down without complaint. He doesn’t twitch or grumble, or so much as flip in his sleep. On nights like these, when it’s neither cool or hot, Wujing expects the monkey to clamber to his side and chatter away about nothing and nothings. Wujing suspects, because Wukong likes the sound of his own voice.

But Wukong keeps to himself. He only wakes once, near midnight, and says in a slurred murmur, “It’s cold.”


It’s not.


Wukong’s the last to wake at dawn. His eyes don’t open until Bailong nudges his head, and even then, they stay bleary for a few minutes more. Wujing and Bajie have spent a good portion of the morning trying to get him up, but sleep proves stubborn. Sanzang readies himself then, without Wukong’s help for once, and says, “Are we quite ready to go?”

“Would you look at that,” Wukong says, wiggling his way out of his quilt, “Bajie’s not the one sleeping in today.”

“So you ought to go easier on old Zhu, eh?” the pig says.

Wukong pops his bones and pulls on his robes, smoothing out each wrinkle again and again. Then he says, “It’s a cold morning, isn’t it.”

“Not if you ask me,” Bajie answers first.

Wukong doesn’t wait for Wujing’s answer. He yawns and takes his place by Sanzang’s side, hands and feet on the ground, as if walking on two is too much a task this morning.

“Stand upright, Wukong,” Sanzang sighs, “this is poor form.”

“Fine, fine,” the monkey says. He jumps up, then, and lets that tail flick. Then he says, “It’s a cold morning, isn’t it.”

“Eldest brother,” Wujing tells him, “you just said that.”

“Did I now?” Wukong looks to the sky, lost in thought, and walks on. “Come on, old Sha.”


Then he follows.


In the afternoon, Wukong walks straight into a tree. The monkey spits out a mouthful of bark as Bajie laughs.

“I knew you didn’t like women,” the pig chortles, “who knew you liked plants!?”

“Shut up, idiot,” Wukong growls, “or I’ll make you.”

Bajie bends down, until his eyeline is almost even with the first disciple’s, and says, “You know I’m only joking, big brother. I’d never get on your bad side.”

“Ha! As if you’d dare.”

Wukong swats Bajie away and again takes their party’s lead. Then Wujing sidles up to him and asks, “Eldest brother, did you get enough sleep last night?”

“I’d say old Monkey got too much sleep,” Bajie mutters.

“I’d have gotten more if it wasn’t for your snoring,” Wukong quips, and he hops away from both, more than eager to return to Sanzang’s side.


Too eager.


Wukong goes missing in the night, and though nobody asks for him, Wujing goes looking anyway. He finds the monkey counting stars on a rock. Wukong’s staring into the sky, golden eyes glossed over. In the dark, those irises glow like soft candlelight.

“Eldest brother, come back to camp,” Wujing says, taking a seat beside him.

“No, you lot are noisy.”

We’re noisy?” the third disciple says, amused, “really?”

“I don’t like your tone, old Sha.” Then Wukong sucks in a breath and says, “When you were in the River of Sand, what did you think of the stars?”

It’s a question nobody’s ever asked. Wujing blinks, scratches his rough beard, and replies, “I thought they were mocking me. They just made me think of merry celestials. I know it was petty, eldest brother, but that’s what I thought.”

“I thought so once too.” And Wujing can hear the smile in his voice. “Under Five Finger Mountain. But after a while, it didn’t matter to me anymore. It was nice, really, seeing them there. Then I could pretend someone out there still remembered me.”

“Eldest brother-”

Wukong laughs, and clicks his teeth in mockery. “Never mind. Grandpa Sun’s out of sorts. I’m not some sentimental fool. That’s Master’s job.”

“Do you want to return now?”

“Alright.” Wukong hops off the rock and takes in a sharp breath. Wujing walks by his side, unsure if the monkey’s slouch is lower than usual.


It is.


The next day, nobody sleeps in. And for a while, Wujing lets his guard down. He takes in the scenery and admires the wildflowers along their path. Birds come and go, free and unbound, and he thinks on that chain of skulls. Then there’s Bailong’s reins, Wukong’s band, Bajie’s scarves, and their Master’s too-heavy hat. And their promise of freedom lies west. For Wujing, at least, he can shed his skulls. Absolution awaits, and he can taste it on his tongue.

“Do you know why the flowers are so beautiful, Master?” Wukong says, holding up an orchid to Sanzang’s nose.

“Why?”

“Because animals peed on them.”

“You base macaque!”

Flustered, Sanzang pockets the orchid and looks away with an angry sigh. Wukong giggles beside him and says, “Not my fault if you have no sense of humor, old man.”

“Crudeness is not humor.”

Then Bailong stops in his tracks. And Wukong puts a hand to his ear, the cudgel rolled out.

“Master, brace yourself,” the monkey says.

“Against what?” Then Sanzang yells, the horse having bucked him off. Wujing catches the Master just as that ragtag band of demons come, a small group of foxes biting off more than they can chew. Bajie flanks him, rake pointed up, and whoops as Wukong leaps into the fray, staff stretched out.

“Wukong, wait-” Sanzang cries, but Bajie cuts him off. “Relax, Master. Eldest brother can handle a hundred of these weaklings in his sleep!”

Paling, Sanzang turns away, muttering prayers as Wukong makes short work of the demon band. He does not see- but Wujing does- their leader land a foot upon the first disciple’s side. And it’s quick, almost a spark of wind, but Wujing knows what he sees to be true: Wukong winces, slight enough, and grits his teeth. Then he slams the fox down.

“Barely standing and still fighting us?” the demon hisses, “just let us have him, Great Sage . Haven’t you betrayed enough devils now!?”

Wukong cackles, because it surpasses a laugh. “No, I haven’t ‘betrayed’ enough.”

And the staff comes down.


Then everything else.


They leave the foxes burning on a pyre and move on their way. It’s almost sunset when they come across the river, the pink sky in its coursing path. Wujing gathers his pails and again fills them to their brims. The canteens come next.

And while Sanzang rests by Bailong’s side, the horse chewing on bits of grass, Bajie yawns and stretches along that bank. Next to Wujing, Wukong stands up to the friar’s thigh. He stares at himself in the river, gold fur bristling in wind and stained with demon blood. Wukong stays rooted, ignoring Bajie’s taunts and the rippling water, too distracted by the reflection he sees. The tail flicks.

“I always knew he was a narcissist,” Bajie laughs, “but this is a whole new level!”

“Eldest brother,” Wujing says, tapping a hand against the monkey’s shoulder, “your feet are soaked.”

“Oh.”

There’s something else Wujing wants to ask, but the thought is obscene, somehow wrong and insulting and blasphemous against the Great Sage’s name. Barely standing and still fighting us. No demon would have the audacity to say that to Sun Wukong’s face, much less a low level devil like that.  

“Come, eldest brother. Let’s have supper and be on our way.”

The sun glares down, crimson over earth. And Wukong smiles, a lopsided grin. “I’d like a bath first.”

“Eldest brother-”

Splash.

Pilgrim falls, and the river runs red.


He runs in.


Sun Wukong does not fall. He does not need Wujing to fish him from the river or Wuneng to cut his clothes apart or either of them to dig at his fur until they find a spot of red, a gash across his gut, deep in flesh and tangled in scarlet gold. This much, they all know.

If anyone falls, it’s not him. It’s Bailong who breaks his hind leg when he’s knocked off a cliff. And it’s Wukong who throws the horse atop his back and climbs back up. It’s Wukong who sets that leg and soothes his mane, with these words- “Xiao Bailong, you did well, so well.”

It’s Wujing who collapses in the middle of a storm. And it’s Wukong who hops away on his cloud, then returns with a satch of Gobi sand. It’s Wukong who pours the sand over Sha Wujing and laughs, “I knew you’d be fine!”

It’s Bajie who almost dies when he’s tricked with a poisoned cake. And it’s Wukong who finds the baker and beats out a cure. It’s Wukong who pinches the pig’s ear and dumps a herb down his throat, all while saying, “Idiot, die on me and I’ll find you in hell!”

And it’s Sanzang who stumbles and falls and screams, again and again. And it’s Wukong who pulls him back and up and up again. It’s Wukong who says, “I’m tired of saving you, old man” and does it anyway. It’s Wukong who’d cried, “I never want to see you again!” but came back anyway.

Because Sun Wukong does not fall. And Sanzang does not need to cradle his head, hold his tears back, and say, “Why- why is he bleeding? He said he was fine.”

He said it was nothing.

Sanzang does not need to cling to Wujing’s collar, eyes wide and words incoherent as he babbles, “Wuneng, Wujing, Xiao Bailong- Wukong will be fine. He has to be. What do we do? What do I do?”

“Master,” Bajie says, “calm down, it’s not your fault.”

With a groan, Sanzang’s hands close around its handle. And he fumbles when the demon steadies and roars. The staff shrinks, and Wukong twists, until he’s between man and demon, and there, the monkey pries the devil away with bare hands. All three tumble and fall, the demon pushing Wukong back as Sanzang prepares to slice those strands. The blade points up and touches the monkey’s flesh, past fabric and fur until blood splurts out. Wukong turns, wordless-

-and in Wujing’s next blink, there’s nothing left of the demon’s head, crushed to dust by their eldest brother’s hand.

“But it is!” Then Sanzang buries his face in the friar’s chest, sobs undone.

The pilgrims do not need Wujing. But he knows they do. So the third disciple holds their Master close and says, “Master, it’s going to be fine.”