"So that's an elephant," Koumyou said. "How charming it is in real life! I don't think the artists who drew the ones in illuminated sutras had ever seen one."
"Yeah, charming," Ukoku said, eyeing the pile of dung. "Are you sure you want to chance this? It seems a ridiculous mode of transport."
"Shh," Koumyou said. "The locals are being very polite." He raised his joined hands to the smiling townspeople and scampered up the steps to be helped onto the elephant's back.
With a sigh Ukoku followed and sat down, glaring at the world. The elephant was painted all over in bright colours so that it was difficult to see that it was actually grey. With a great blast of brass musical instruments they set off for the monastery outside the town, their seats on the elephant's back swaying with every step. It was a long, very long two miles.
"How sea-sick are you?" Ukoku muttered grimly.
"Horribly," Koumyou said smiling down at children bouncing around the elephant's feet. "We shouldn't speak Chinese, Ukoku, we both know Sanskrit."
"If you want me to give my clear and unvarnished opinion in Sanskrit –"
The elephant's hindquarters swayed even more dramatically as the beast turned up a steep path toward the walled complex atop a hill. Both Koumyou and Ukoku swallowed hard and maintained a holy and saintly silence. At last, at long last the creature came to a halt in a courtyard inside the walls, saffron-clothed monks all gathering around to stare. Two exceptionally tall and beefy monks came and held their arms up as apparently elephant-descending steps were too worldly for the place to possess. Koumyou slithered down the beast's side, his robes riding up over his knees, and was caught in their arms.
"Have you no shame?" Ukoku said from on high.
"None, you know that! Come on!"
Ukoku held his robes closed so that the adoring crowd didn't get too much of an eyeful and slid down the elephant's side himself. The monks' arms were firm and pleasantly muscular, steadying him as he landed. He looked the taller of them up and down speculatively; how seriously did they take their vows out here? Probably too seriously, given the way they all seemed delighted to have sanzos suddenly wandering around. They were escorted deeper into the monastery complex to an inner courtyard where the monks drew themselves up in a bright, saffron crowd in front of an elderly man who was introduced as the abbot Vimala.
"How honoured we are to have such eminent visitors from so far away," Vimala said.
"We're the ones who are honoured to come and talk to you!" Koumyou said. "I'm so excited to be in the land of the Lord Buddha's birth!"
Ukoku frowned slightly at some of the whispers about the good fortune that the visitors would now have to learn some proper Buddhism and the utterly charming and old-fashioned grammar-book nature of Koumyou's Sanskrit.
"We're sanzos, you half-baked peasants," he snapped in Chinese.
"This is my young colleague, Ukoku," Koumyou said in a somewhat manic fashion, tugging him forwards. "He's awfully happy to be here too!"
Ukoku endured being blessed by the abbot and then further endured mass prayers with the monks and finally being allowed to curl up in a small chamber to sleep. He slipped next door to find Koumyou gratefully stripping off his robes.
"It's so humid! Maybe we should wear the local robes while we're here, what do you think?"
"I worked hard to be able to wear these, Koumyou. Do you really think I'm going to give them up so that I can wrap myself in cheerful colours and fit in?"
"I worked hard too! And I really tried not to! Phew, wool holds everything in, doesn't it?" Koumyou said, peeling off the under layers.
"You could just go around like that," Ukoku said, waving a hand at Koumyou's almost total nakedness. It wasn't really polite to look at people in a state of undress, but if it was part of a joke – It was still best not to look too long. He stored the image of Koumyou clad only in a loincloth up for later. Dressed in his robes he gave the impression of being just a slim – skinny, even – man of middle years. Out of them and the well-defined muscles were visible, showing him as he was, a man with long years of training and experience of fighting. If they were just using their Buddhist skills, Ukoku knew he could give him a good run for his money. If it was strictly hand-to-hand physical combat – Well, even with Koumyou being twenty years older, he was fairly sure he'd be thoroughly spanked before his spaced-out opponent had even worked up a sweat. He stored that image away for later as well.
"Are you all right?" Koumyou said. "You look like you have indigestion or are you thinking about something?"
"Um? Oh, nothing. They think we're rubes from some backwater! I studied in Luoyang! And you're from – wherever. Have they seen where they live?"
"Everyone always thinks they live in the centre of civilisation," Koumyou said absently. "I mean, you think you learnt something at university."
"I refuse to rise to your bait."
"Ha-ha! Well done. This is a very ancient and respected monastery and we're lucky to be here. Go to bed, Ukoku, we have religious debates all day tomorrow. You can fight for Zenou's honour in the field of theology."
That was - alarming. Luckily, there was a good answer.
"Me? No, I'll leave that to my elders and betters. It's up to you, Koumyou-Sanzo-sama."
"Me? Nonsense, what do I know? I'm a very simple man and wouldn't presume to cross swords with the big brains of the best Indian and Chinese universities and monasteries. I'll listen to you with all humility, Dr Ukoku."
"Why do you hate me?" Ukoku said.
Koumyou giggled, and shoved him out the door.
* * *
"I'm developing a very uneven tan," he groused, comparing his bared shoulder and the one usually covered in saffron cloth. "How come you don't seem to be tanning at all?"
"Factor 100," Koumyou said. "You really should wear sunscreen."
"Maybe I'm not vain."
Koumyou looked at him as if he'd started speaking some barbaric western language. "You're incredibly vain, Ukoku! You love boasting about how clever you are and your university days! And I've seen you check yourself out in shop windows."
"You have not," Ukoku said, appalled. He had assumed Koumyou was far too unworldly to notice any such thing. "I may have – once or twice – checked that the Muten wasn't askew. Isn't that phrase too up-to-date for you anyway?"
"Is it?" Koumyou said vaguely, immediately making Ukoku wonder who he'd been checking out on their journey. "Your nose is sunburnt. Do use sunscreen in future!" He produced a tube from within the folds of his robes and squished some whitish cream onto his fingers, reaching out and smearing it on Ukoku's nose before he could be fended off. "Much better!"
"Gah! Koumyou, please! I'm not a kid!"
"Oh. No, no, of course not."
"I bet you do that to your little Kouryuu."
"He's very fair-skinned! He'd burn to a crisp if I just let him run around naked in the sun. He makes that exact face when I put sunscreen on him."
Koumyou's expression was a mixture of teasing and yearning. Infuriating. What did he want with some puling toddler, anyway?
"I'm not four, Koumyou."
"That exact face."
Ukoku rolled his eyes and went off to find a quiet corner tucked away on an inner wall where he could contemplate the beauty of creation and put his stored up images of Koumyou to good use. His mental version of the man was far more cooperative than the real one, and didn't come armed with a steady stream of nonsense or sunscreen or a desire to treat him like a little kid. Finding somewhere without a monk who wanted to ask his advice, or just wanted to sit at a sanzo's feet was damn difficult. He just wanted to jerk off, dammit, and none of the monks who wanted to keep him company were his type or looked like they were interested in actually keeping him company.
"Is there any beer in this place?" he said, frustration boiling over. This secluded spot had seemed so promising, half hidden from everyone behind some decorative plaster moulding. Even if he could be seen from below it would only be from the chest up. Luckily he'd still only been sorting through his mental images when he turned his head and found he had an audience.
"Beer, Lord Sanzo? No," his latest admirer said.
"Is there any in the town?"
"I assume so, Lord Sanzo."
He waited. He sighed. Did he have to spell everything out?
"Please go and get me some beer. Now. As many bottles as you can carry."
The man looked at him in some alarm, then bowed his head.
"At once, Lord Sanzo."
Alone at last. He peered around. No one. Surely he had at least five minutes before anyone showed up looking for him, and he was so wound up that that was more than enough time. He tucked himself further into his corner and concentrated on his imaginary Koumyou. By the time the beer was delivered by his worried-looking friend he'd been left alone for almost an hour and had calmed himself thoroughly. Several times over.
"Well done! You must have sprinted down there."
"Yes, Lord Sanzo," the monk said, wheezing a little. "I'm sorry I couldn't run back, but I thought it might make the beer too fizzy." He carefully unwrapped ten bottles from the sling he'd made of part of his robes.
"No, thank you, Lord Sanzo."
Ukoku looked at him carefully. "Go and lie down in the shade for a while. You've done well."
"Thank you, Lord Sanzo."
Blessed peace reigned once more. He was almost done with his second bottle when Koumyou plopped down beside him, sunscreen in hand.
"Nope. No. Stop."
"Just let me do your back."
Ukoku opened another beer against the wall and handed it over. A lazy feeling of goodwill crept over him. It would make for a good addition to his night time imaginings.
"OK. Do my back."
He slipped the folds of fabric down to bare both shoulders and tried not to sigh at the first touch of Koumyou's hand. The sheer pleasure of feeling his fingers against his skin made him want to find another deserted corner right then and there, which was ridiculous. What he wanted was for this annoying, oblivious man to actually notice and reciprocate. But he might as well wish for the moon; Koumyou was too much of an innocent to understand that anyone could desire him. It made Ukoku want to slap him and kiss him in equal amounts. He smiled, feeling sympathetic and superior in his worldly knowledge.
"Thank you," he said.
"You sound pleased. What are you looking at down there? Ooh, I see. Beautiful novices. Dear me, Ukoku, I see you've fully recovered."
He focused on the boys in the outer courtyard just as one of them looked straight up at him, a teenager as slender as a reed and with a face that would put a lovely girl to shame. The boy smiled brilliantly and waved quite cheekily before retreating in a fit of giggles with his friends. Koumyou stepped in front of him and waved merrily to the boys who all scarpered.
"There's a family of demonic tigers that the abbot thinks we might help with," Koumyou said, turning back to fix him with a resolute expression. "They're very fierce and we would have to concentrate on nothing but our Buddhist powers. It would mean intensive meditation and lots of hiking through the woods. We might even have to fast first and perhaps pray under a waterfall or two. I can hear Jikaku laughing even as I speak."
"To keep carnal thoughts at bay."
"The abbot said what?"
"Oh no, that was me."
"I'm not after the novices!"
Koumyou looked astonished. Absolutely bewildered. "You're not? Didn't you see that one? His eyes, Ukoku." He drifted away down the walls, beer in hand, shaking his head.
Ukoku stared after him, speechless.