Saiyuki, not mine. (Like anyone had any doubts?) Starts sometime after vol. 9 of the manga, veers off into AU; I've probably also lifted some stuff from the anime. Weirdness factor likely at least equal to "Project Tatterdemalion", with added implied yaoi. And amorous vines. And smut. You've been warned. I suspect this could be classified as tentaclefic.
Beta-ed by tag.
He didn't count seconds, as one hand tried to clamp the bright red flood from his neck. He counted shots, and swords, and shredded halves of youkai assassins flying through the air as Hakkai's claws went to work—
Too many. Too damn many.
But there'd been too many a hundred times, and it didn't matter how much bloodlust burned in their eyes. Or how soon it was after that mess with Kami-sama. Or how this batch had had the brains to dump a whole landslide on them, knocking Hakuryuu and the two idiots who knew where, and sweeping him and Hakkai down and away with rocks that'd broken far too many bones. It didn't even matter that white robes were bleeding red; bleeding meant not bled out yet, and he was going to take at least one more of these bastards with him—
The sword swinging down disintegrated along with its wielder, and Hakkai was on him; sweat and blood and the odd, green scent of his vines wrapping through Sanzo's senses.
Literally wrapping; vines wound around his throat, waking unfriendly memories of Hakkai's fingers doing the same, months back. But even then, the intent had been to save....
"Don't try to talk."
Easy for you to say, Sanzo glared at the youkai, not moving. Hakkai didn't have bits of vine-flesh poking where no human or youkai ought to be poked. Hard, sharp bits; most of the vines were supple and smooth as new leaves, but that one tip had bitten like a sandspur into raw flesh—
And even with the warmth of Hakkai's chi, the world was spinning, and it was getting harder to breathe, and damn it, not now.
"Hang on, Sanzo. Hang on, I've got you."
It would have sounded better, Sanzo thought fuzzily, if Hakkai's voice weren't shaking....
Endure. Heal. Live.
It spoke to the heart. It was their nature. It was right.
The warmth around them was fragile, off; injured, and that deeply. Too soon that warmth could fail, and cool, and leave them stranded. Would it not be better to wait, and sleep, and seek another?
So another... would not suit. And there was food to support the warmth; chi like a flood of sunshine, binding the worst injuries.
This was theirs. This could live. If—
Cracking their hard shell, the first thin threads of roots ventured outward.
The bleeding's stopped, Hakkai thought, panic finally easing.
Eerie, to be able to taste that as well as see it, the vines that usually lingered unseen on his skin now reluctantly slipping free. The life they'd held in had been so painfully fragile....
Still was, Hakkai admitted to himself, deliberately checking for other injuries when all he wanted to do was throw Sanzo over his shoulder and get them both out of there. After all the fights and bad falls, the priest hadn't ended up paralyzed yet, and he was certain that was a record Sanzo would prefer not to break. He could already imagine what Sanzo would have to say about how his life had been saved....
Well, no, that was wrong. Sanzo knew he was youkai. He'd hardly complain that fact had saved his life. Again.
I'm the one who's shocked, Hakkai knew. I didn't realize I could do... that.
He'd smelled the blood, seen the spurting crimson, and known that every second was another Sanzo could not afford to lose—
Vines had been faster than fingers. He should be grateful for that.
After all, now he could ever so gently remind Sanzo that guns were meant to be distance weapons. And that if the priest let an enemy get that close again, they were going to have words....
Sighing, Hakkai untangled his vines from the semi-conscious blond. Again. Really; feeling protective of the lone human in their group was acceptable, so long as Sanzo never got wind of it. Acting protective led to glares, curses, and bullet wounds. Or would, as soon as Sanzo was conscious enough to inflict them.
But right now, he's not. I can move him, if I'm careful; we need to find Hakuryuu and the others. And he's lost more than enough blood; we shouldn't add hypothermia on top of it.
Practicality satisfied, Hakkai wrapped Sanzo up again, trying not to pay too much attention to the purr of satisfaction that rose in his throat. It was... nice, to hold another person this way. Very strange, but nice.
Three years, and I still don't really know myself.
Not something he liked to dwell on. Fortunately, he could hear a few distractions heading this way.
"Um. Hakkai." Leaning on his shakujou, dusty jacket and jeans much the worse for wear, Gojyo drew up short, obviously counting bodies. "You, ah, missing some jewelry?"
"They're not missing," Hakkai said mildly. "They're in my pocket." Really, Gojyo. You've seen this before.
Goku didn't hesitate, though gold eyes widened. "Sanzo!"
"Gently," Hakkai warned. "We need to find shelter. Which way is the road?"
Thread by thread, they sipped and explored.
Alone. Shouldn't be alone.
Seed-memory, root-memory, knew that to be so. There should be others.
Kin seeded. Kin should be near.
They just couldn't sense kin. Not yet.
For that, they needed more. Warmth and blood; it was theirs by right – but gently, gently. What held them was still fragile.
Taints of other blood, within warm flesh. That, they could drink in eagerly – but still, a sip at a time. What held them had choreographed a grudging dance of balance with the ever-deepening weight of not-its-own. Tip it too soon – disrupt the dance, without enough of their own substance grown to whirl into the other's place – and all could unravel.
Another taint; this one within the blood. Like death, ash... smoke.
With an interested wriggle, they grew toward sustenance.
Scratchy sheets. A thick drift of lavender, trying to cover stale cigarette smoke and travel dust. Metal lump properly under his pillow. Three sets of familiar energies and breathing; one patient in a chair beside his bed, one kyuuing softly on his bed, and one snoring.
Stealthily, Sanzo snaked a hand out from under the covers, to rest on spiky hair and divine gold.
"Mmm... meat buns...."
"Good to know some things don't change, isn't it?" Hakkai murmured.
Caught. Damn. Sanzo pried an eye open and glared. "Did you feed my monkey?"
"Once I convinced him he wouldn't be an effective guard if he fainted, yes." Hakkai eyed Sanzo's deepening scowl, and let his own smile turn vaguely disapproving. "You need one, at least for now. That was a lot of blood... and we didn't have Kanzeon Bosatsu to lend you any of Gojyo's."
"Good. We know where he's been—" Sanzo eyed the mug in Hakkai's hand, and did his best to sit up. And never mind if it dumped off a startled dragon. "No."
"Sanzo." Mild, ever so mild reproof.
"I'm awake. I'm alive. Get that away from me." He could smell it from across the room, ugh. He didn't need medicine; he needed a cigarette, a drink, and all of them back on the road. There'd been plenty of assassins, but Kougaiji hadn't attacked them personally in way too long. Which meant a change in the youkai prince's plans. Which meant nothing good for the rest of the world. West. They had to go west.
"Sanzo. You need to get your strength back."
And Hakkai had the "this is for your own good, really," smile on. Even shooting him might not budge him. Sanzo judged the distance from bed to door, the way the room spun whenever he shifted too fast, and decided to change tactics. He nodded at the dragon flitting indignantly to Hakkai's shoulder. "I'll drink it on the road."
"I don't think so," Hakkai sighed, with every appearance of real regret. "You need rest. Not bouncing around in a jeep about to be attacked at any moment."
"I know, the roads aren't your fault," Hakkai said hastily, petting white scales. "But Sanzo really shouldn't be moving."
"And if I don't, we might as well put up a banner saying 'Assassins enter here'," Sanzo objected. "I'm not dead—"
"Because you rested," Hakkai said sweetly, advancing without mercy. "This should help you replace all. That. Blood. That you lost. And sleep." Some of the steel in his voice softened. "I promise, we'll be right here."
Sanzo scowled at the cup. "We're short one idiot kappa."
"Well, you were running low on cigarettes."
Sanzo raised an eyebrow.
"She's blonde. And human," Hakkai admitted. "He promised he'd be back right about—"
Sanzo sighed, sensing the hanyou's aura approaching. "Fine." He drained the cup; it did taste as bad as it smelled. "What was that?"
"Not something I'd dare use on Gojyo," Hakkai shrugged. "But when I tell you no alcohol for the next twelve hours, I know you'll listen."
That smile, Sanzo reflected, was likely the last thing uncounted youkai had ever seen. "Lethal?"
"Probably not," Hakkai said brightly. "But you wouldn't like the hallucinations."
Given I'd have a gun, neither would you. Still glaring, Sanzo strangled his pillow. "If I die, it's your corpse I'm haunting."
Rest, added chi, and the small addition of fresh resources had been enough. Just. Roots now tasted the dust of warmed, moist air, steadily adding its nourishment to what they'd already gained. Barely a taste, for now... but enough to ease the drain on that which held them, and strive toward balance. More than enough to sprout.
And none too soon. Something had changed in the taste of the air. Something that tilted the balance of the blood bathing them, and sent them madly scrambling to shift it back before—
The room didn't smell like lavender anymore.
And there were claws aiming for his heart.
Sanzo didn't need to see – not after so many years hunting and being hunted by youkai. He knew.
Twist. Trap his claws in the covers – won't last, but a second's enough. Keep twisting, kick—
Watery muscles betrayed him; he hit the floor hard. Vision flashed red and black—
Bastard's wearing a mask?
Nose and mouth were covered with something pale, muffling the usual taunts. Ignore them. Ignore the gun now badly out of reach. Ignore that the youkai could see his weakness, and was all but drooling at his sprawl on the floor. Focus. Move.
Most martial arts focused on standing strikes and parries. It made sense, from a certain point of view. The legs carry some of the strongest muscles in the body – and what sane person, fighting for their life, deprives themselves of a weapon?
A priest, however, no matter how irreverent, is expected to spend a fair amount of time sitting and meditating. Meaning, if you're a priest who's regularly attacked by youkai – or if you were trained by a priest who anticipated you'd be attacked by youkai—
Wait, wait— Now!
Trembling muscles – what the hell was in the air? – still had enough strength to twist his body left and up, claws skimming black leather to gouge into the floor. Which brought the assassin down to his level, and when Sanzo fell back down, twisting right, elbow braced—
Damn. Damn, he'd gotten the larynx, not the bastard's spine – it'd take minutes for the youkai to die. He could almost feel claws already at his throat, tearing—
Something tore, and the world whited out.
Vision wavered back in, rainbowed and watery, but nothing made sense. Something dark and flexible constricted around the youkai's throat; it glimmered green in the moonlight through the window – which had to be wrong, damn it, his eyes were only human. But that wasn't as wrong as the way the floor was melting into an icy river, and his fingertips tasted blood, and the unconscious idiots scattered around the room supposedly guarding him were floating in mid-air—
Hallucinating, Sanzo realized, feeling the dispersing flux of energy that meant his enemy had somehow decided to kick it after all. Know I didn't drink, so – depressant? Mask. Knockout gas?
He was moving even as the floor washed out from under him, scooping up the lavender-scented candles their hosts had so thoughtfully provided; candles that no longer smelled like lavender at all....
Glass shattered like bells, and cold night air chased him into darkness.
Clean air, tasting of dawn, breathing through flesh and roots. Relief.
It shouldn't be that way. Root-memory said close-kin should be with them, nurturing them; guarding them, until they and home were strong enough to defend themselves. Kin should be there, at the very least.
Kin, even close-kin, could have seeded them and perished. It could have happened.
No! Wrong, hurts, don't want—
A breeze swirled through shattered glass, wafting tastes and scents of the room's corners to them.
Drugged, from the taste of air. As home had been. Good thing home had been more stubborn.
Good home. Don't die.
Their home had dealt the killing blow; they weren't strong enough to strike death, not yet. But hasten it, draining blood and chi the assassin had tried to use to cling to life— that, they could do.
They'd drunk deeply, and well; shoots growing greedily, far faster than their wounded home could have supported. But it wasn't enough. No one had the right to harm them like this. No one.
Yet their foe was dead, and beyond all—
Well. Not quite.
Decided, tender new growth curled across the floor, settling on cooling flesh. There was still chi here, after all... not a great deal, but enough to cleanse the most dangerous toxins from the blood nurturing them.
Waste not, want not.
The cold draft was a like a slap in his face. Put that together with the taste in his mouth like the aftermath of first meeting Yaone, and Gojyo was up and grabbing for his shakujou, taking the room in with quick glimpses.
Dawn. Broken window. No other auras but us. Hakkai and the monkey, out cold. I was supposed to be on watch. Sanzo....
The blond was on the floor, curled up on himself the way he always did when it got cold. And by him—
Paling, Gojyo dismissed his weapon – if whatever did that was still here and he couldn't sense it, they were so screwed – and shook Hakkai awake. Fingers on the healer's mouth for silence, because maybe it was still here, and – oh boy.
Meeting startled green eyes, he pointed.
"Oh, dear," Hakkai whispered. Licked his lips, and actually grimaced. "We were drugged." His gaze swept the room, more clinically than Gojyo's quick glances, but almost as fast. "I think it may have been the candles; Sanzo appears to have thrown them out the— oh, no."
Barely skirting the remnants on the floor, Hakkai pressed fingers to Sanzo's throat. Let out a slow breath, green shimmering from his touch. "He didn't get as much of a dose. He's hallucinating, but he's not in any danger."
"Him?" Gojyo muttered pointedly. "What about us?"
Oh yeah, and you'd better think about that, Hakkai, Gojyo thought sourly. Sanzo in his right mind was scary. Sanzo hallucinating....
The last time the priest had gotten plastered, four barflies had almost had an up-close and lethal encounter with the Maten Sutra. No, thank you.
"Take Goku and the gun," Hakkai directed, gathering up the limp blond. "I'll take Sanzo and the sutra." Green eyes glanced up, sober. "We should go. Now."
"It's your neck," Gojyo muttered, checking the gun wasn't cocked before he scooped up the monkey.
"Mmm... huh?" the brat grumbled into his shoulder.
Could sleep through an earthquake. "Come on, kid," Gojyo shrugged, heading down the corridor at a good clip. "We're gonna shake people down for breakfast."
"Breakfast?" Goku perked up immediately. "Hey! Lemme go!"
"Ow! I said put me down, not drop me, you cockroach!"
"Kitchen," Gojyo reminded the monkey, relaxing a little with the room safely behind them.
"Huh! There just better be somebody up," Goku sniffed.
There was. Which, oddly, didn't make Gojyo feel any better. Maybe it was the way the innkeeper and his wife were sweating over the morning rice.
Goku brightened. "All right—"
"Hold up, monkey." Hanging onto the back of the kid's collar, Gojyo eyed the innkeeper. "Candles."
"I— I don't know what you're talking about, good sir!"
Sir. Right. From a guy who'd looked at Gojyo when they arrived like he knew every last bad legend about red-haired hanyou. Even Goku could tell the guy was lying.
"Candles?" the monkey asked, suspicious.
"Never mind. We'll eat on the road." Giving the couple a tight smile, Gojyo dragged the protesting boy out, hand itching for his shakujou all the way.
They didn't feel like youkai. But they'd obviously helped one... probably the same poor bastard now lying dead in their room.
And if they hadn't – then they probably had something to do with why said poor bastard was now nothing but polished bones and claws. And anything that could do that....
Hakkai was right. The more distance they had from this place, the better.
So the divination was true.
Confined to a human seeming so as not to alarm the sweating innkeeper, Kemushi's sense of chi was dim, muffled. But what the bloodmoth youkai could not sense, as he fingered the flesh-stripped bones of his former assassin, brought a cruel smile to his face.
Many creatures feasted on youkai flesh. He did, himself, on lesser creatures. But all his clan's lore spoke of only one that devoured chi even from the marrow of the bones; drinking its prey, as a pitcher plant did those that fell to their watery doom.
Seedling. An innocent name, for such a ruthless killer. A being legend said sprouted from blood upon blood – though no two stories agreed on what and how. The heart's blood of an innocent child, the sacrifice of a hanyou, the spreading pool of warriors betrayed to death and defeat. One tale even suggested the blood of a thousand-slayer; yet that couldn't possibly be right. The last rumor his clan had had of such a human stated it'd been condemned to death by the Sanbutsushin themselves.
The last nae, his grandsire had once said, sprinkling an intoxicating, cherry-red powder over a ceremonial meal, had perished centuries ago, at the hands of clan lords desperate to slay those few perilous beings Gyumaoh had missed. Most clans had forgotten the creatures, or thought them lost to myth and time, dead as Houtou Castle's lord. And were grateful for that.
Though if Kemushi were honest with himself (he generally tried not to be), he'd admit he could have shared his ancient relatives' fear. Not of death. Youkai fed on humans, fed on each other; what was one more predator?
But a creature that legend said could pollute youkai bloodlines, leading some noble clans to mate with—
Ugh. It didn't bear thinking about.
If the divination's right, it's far too young to have set seed, Kemushi calculated. There's no risk. And much to gain.
He still remembered the taste of that meal; a heritage of slaughter, long ago. Nae blood-sap, dried and preserved; rich with all the energies the creature had devoured. Pure, intoxicating chi, that had strengthened his clan for centuries. Kept them strong enough, even now, to stand neutral from the brewing war.
And this was a young nae. Weak enough to catch. Weak enough to hold.
Let Gyokumen Koushu plot to resurrect her cold corpse of a husband. His clan would seek a far more manageable power.
And with it, crush their enemies before them.
Sunlight. Temptingly close.
But creeping stealthily out of the darkness in that direction brought the taste of open air, and scents of three youkai. One was kin, and would know how to keep secrets. The others....
Not-kin. Can't be trusted.
They were alone, save for kin; and root-memory said they should not be alone. That there should be others like them – even more like than kin.
But they were alone. And blood-memory whispered they had always been alone, home had always been alone, since....
Youkai killed home's close-kin. Left home alone. As we are. Youkai tried to kill home....
Had youkai killed their close-kin? Was that why they'd sprouted alone? Why the wind itself seemed to carry a gentle whisper of beware, and stay hidden, little one?
Don't risk it, blood-memory murmured. Safer not to trust. Everything I trust dies....
Kin could be trusted. They were sure of it. But not-kin's scents carried bits of old blood, of other youkai slain before.
We will not be slain. This is ours.
Which meant caution. They were still young. Still fragile. Not as fragile as home was, but – better not to risk. Even though they wanted sun, oh so much....
Blood from those directions tasted of warmth, of skin-drinking-sun. Not as strong as the first direction they'd chosen, not as close, but....
Flattening into skin-tracings, they investigated.
Light cloth over skin. Enough to hide. Not enough to block all of the delicious sunlight.
Deliberately not scratching his itchy neck, Sanzo glared at the mirror, and the reflections of two idiots in the back seat.
"—Let go, you pervy—!"
Drew his gun.
"—Finders keepers, monkey! The meat bun's mine!"
Thumbed back the hammer.
"Ah, Sanzo, really...."
"Ow! Don't bite me, you little brat! I'll—"
One shot between. One sizzling through spiky brown as both idiots recoiled. One a bare moment later, clipping a strand of violent red hair. Dump spent cartridges. Snarl.
Ah. Peaceful, wide-eyed silence.
Sitting back down, Sanzo calmly reloaded. "Hallucinations?"
"Ah, yes," Hakkai reluctantly admitted. "It seems our hosts should really speak to whoever makes their candles. Whatever the lavender was adulterated with— well. You didn't react well to it. You were right; we should have driven on."
"Hmph." Way, way too easy. Even if Hakkai was driving at a leisurely pace, the better to provide a smooth ride to his supposed patient. "Could have sworn there was an assassin."
"Many hallucinations do draw on familiar experiences," Hakkai said cheerfully.
Not a no. Something was up. Definitely.
"Come on, Sanzo! We were watching you all night," Goku protested. "Sheesh, can't even trust us in a dream."
"That is one of a hallucination's worst effects, Goku," Hakkai informed him. "When the mind is receiving unreliable information, there are no facts for reason to use to counter any less than rational fears."
Violet eyes narrowed. I'll give you "less than rational", Hakkai—
"Hell, you know how tough His Crankiness is," Gojyo snorted. "We could all be drugged to our eyeballs and he'd still rip the heart out of any assassin idiot enough to get that close—" Teeth almost clicked together as Hakkai suddenly took a bump.
Hallucination, my ass. There had been an assassin, the idiots had fallen asleep on the job, and once again, he'd had to save himself. As always.
And now, the two grownup idiots were hoping he wouldn't shoot them both.
Like I'd waste my time. "I hate scented candles."
"They do seem less than fortunate," Hakkai admitted.
Silence. Blissful, restful silence. Sanzo let his head fall forward, bangs shading the afternoon sun, one hand reaching up a sleeve to scratch a nagging itch; must have gotten some blood dried there, felt like hairs tugged out of place—
"Hey! Since when do you get to grab the last turnover?"
"Wouldn't be the last if you didn't steal 'em all for breakfast, kappa—"
Snatch. Smack. Munch.
Kanzeon Bosatsu, you've got a lot to answer for.
"My Lady?" Jiroshin approached hir seat by the lotus pool with... due reverence and respect, that was the appropriate phrase. Not trepidation. Not wariness. Certainly not defeated resignation at whatever insanity se was about to unleash on an unsuspecting world. "You've been staring at that vine for hours."
"Orchid, Jiroshin." Se brushed the vine twined around a living tree branch, pale green buds swelling at hir touch. "It's an orchid."
"Some people call it a parasite."
Oh dear. Se was in one of those moods. Which were usually inspired by that maniacal mob of four heretics se had haring off into the West. And what did a parasitic plant have to do with any of them?
...Then again, did he really want to know?
"It's not, though." Se stroked a leaf, encouraging a thin emerald tendril to curl around hir finger. "It drinks sunlight like any other flower. Soaks in rain through these odd shoots, and tastes the dust of the very air for its soil. All it truly needs, that make it different, is a helper to feed its seeds when it's young – most of the time, a fungus – and a place to cling, and rest." Se glanced at Jiroshin, amused. "Usually, another plant."
"A useful lesson for mortals," Jiroshin ventured. "So many of them need another's support."
"Not quite what I was getting at, but... I suppose it would have been, for the youkai. A long time ago." Dark eyes were sad. "The union of human and youkai wasn't always taboo. There were ways. But it took blood, love, and kindness... and most of all, power. And where there's power, there's someone who will try to take it." Se shook hir head. "The nae have been dead a long, long time."
"The nae?" Jiroshin dared a step closer. "I don't believe I've heard the name."
"No reason you should have. Heaven didn't consider them that important. What was one more small clan for Gyumaoh to wipe out? And those he didn't kill, the Bloodmoth clan did."
Another terror wrought by the dead demon king, then. He couldn't blame the Merciful Goddess for recalling them; not when hir favorite band of heretics was out to stop his resurrection.
"They weren't even really a clan, to most," Kanzeon mused. "Some were born nae, but others... well, let's just say they were adopted."
"Adopted?" Jiroshin exclaimed in disbelief. "My Lady, everyone knows you can't be adopted into a youkai clan. They're born Bat, or Crow, or Centipede...." Ah. Oops. "Except for thankfully rare instances such as that demon-slayer."
"Thankfully?" Kanzeon smirked. "There was a time, long before Shangri-La was at peace, that people like Cho Hakkai weren't that rare at all. Not common; humans with that much strength of purpose are hard to come by. But they turned up often enough that the clan lords petitioned Heaven for... compensation. An assurance, you might say, that one race would never utterly destroy the other."
Oh dear. That smirk didn't bode well for anyone, even youkai long dead and returned to the Wheel. "Is that why you intervened with the Sanbutsushin to send Sanzo after the demon-slayer?" Jiroshin asked, curiosity for once outweighing trepidation. "Upholding a promise the youkai themselves have forgotten?"
"Not all of them forgot," Kanzeon mused. "Rasetsunyo would remember. Though I doubt she ever told her son how she knew the nae...." Shaking away memory, se winked at him. "And I'm the goddess of Love and Mercy. Helping people like Hakkai is what I do."
Now he knew se was up to something. "What in Heaven does Cho Hakkai have to do with a clan that died centuries ago?" Jiroshin ventured.
"A clan that was murdered," Kanzeon corrected him. "You'd be surprised how much murder calls to murder." Se glanced into the pool. "We'll just have to see."
Aspirin, Jiroshin decided. Lots and lots of aspirin.
"But the Wheel turns, and death can lead to new life," Kanzeon mused. "For youkai, and other creatures. Like orchids. So strong, so apparently pure... you'd be surprised how many of them can only sprout and bloom where something else has died."
Se brushed the buds again, red lips bending into a wicked smile. "And, you know... there's something else that makes orchids interesting. The blooms are perfect." Se wriggled suggestively. "Just like bodhisattvas."
Jiroshin blinked. The wriggle, the way the vine embraced hir arm, the buds... wait a minute. "Kanzeon Bosatsu. Are you molesting that plant?"
"Really, Jiroshin!" Se tched. "It's of age."
Not comfortable. Just not.
Drifting in the annoying half-daze of broken sleep, Sanzo tried not to swear. Hard, lumpy, cold....
And he was missing something.
Eyes firmly shut, Sanzo tried to burrow back down into his bedroll without actually moving. The more you moved, the more you thought about moving, the more your damn traitor mind woke up—
Gods damn it.
Eyes barely open, Sanzo slipped out of his tent. Maybe cool air would help. At least to chase away stray memories of lavender and claws.
Not that he had nightmares. He never had nightmares.
And he'd shoot anyone who suggested otherwise.
Night air, and an annoyed flux of auras that was Goku and Gojyo arguing – again – instead of just trading off watches like sane people. Which should give him a moment's peace, before he had to head back into the tent to avoid awkward questions.
Use it. Breathe.
Suddenly exhausted, Sanzo closed his eyes and ducked back under a door-flap. Blood loss sucked.
But the roll seemed a bit more comfortable, now. Better fluffed. Warm. And in the air....
Sanzo breathed in, almost melting under the covers. There. That was what he'd been missing. Life, and blood, and green.
Nestling closer, he slept.
Yes. Kin. Safety.
Rest and heal. Here, under kin's shade.
Such a wonderful, intelligent home they had. Willing to listen to body as well as mind, find what it needed, and act. And here they were, warm and safe and healing. And with a little luck....
Leaves sank into other-skin, soaking up chi like misty rain. Delicately; kin could keep secrets, but better not to give him secrets to keep. They just wanted a sip, after all. Just enough to build up a reserve, in case home was forced to do something foolish again. Not that fighting for their lives was foolish. And yet—
Too close. All our healing, all our feeding – still too close.
Droplet by droplet, they drank in energy. Not much; not nearly as much as they should have by right. But they liked their home's stubbornness. It fit them. So if peril came, they would make do. Just as he would.
After all, the warmth of kin, of not being hidden, was even better than a feast.
The drain was small; just a trickle of chi, like dewdrops beading together to drip away into thirsty earth. Most youkai would never have noticed.
Then again, most youkai hadn't spent three very intense years trying to discover just what their new limits were. Cho Hakkai knew his chi intimately; even the stealthiest predator couldn't drain it without his knowledge.
What he didn't know, was why he had the oddest impulse to ruffle the thief's hair and feed it a cookie.
He's still here.
Hakkai held himself still, as if deep in sleep, feeling the dimensions of warmth pressed against his skin. Someone in his bed wasn't exactly unusual; Gojyo might be a staunch devotee of the opposite sex, but there were plenty of nights the hanyou came home without company. And sometimes Gojyo just didn't want to sleep alone.
The short hair almost under his nose, scented with incense, leaves, and strong cigarettes, was not Gojyo.
The priest muttered something unintelligible into his shoulder, nestling closer.
For a long moment, Hakkai weighed his options. Panicked flight was probably the most sane. Sooner or later Sanzo would wake up, and whatever unholy impulse had driven him to Hakkai's tent, from that tang of burnt gunpowder, it had not overpowered the priest's trained reflex to bring his gun along. Hakkai had been shot before. It was rather less than pleasant.
Doing nothing was another option. The drain of chi was small. And Sanzo might be more amenable to a calm, reasoned discussion of the matter in the morning—
Optimist, Hakkai told himself ruefully. This is Sanzo.
So. That left investigation. Careful investigation.
Eyes shut, Hakkai traced the drain, and slowly turned his head. Opened one eye, a hair's breadth at a time....
The tracery of vines inked across his shoulder was all too familiar. But his limiters were on; he could feel the silver gripping his ear.
And with a second glance – that vine was far too thin to be his.
It looks... young.
A few more smooth, unhurried movements, and he'd twisted just enough to see where leaf-traceries had to leave his skin and become a vine again. Leading back to—
Eyeing where supple growth slipped under the neck of Sanzo's leathers, Hakkai smiled ruefully. So that's why he was trying not to scratch.
A whisper of shock, echoing through his skin. Followed close by fear of discovery, retreat—
Hakkai was faster, snatching the vine-tip with gentle fingers. "Easy," he murmured, invoking a soft glow of chi. "I won't hurt you."
The vine trembled in his grip, strong all out of proportion to its size. Youkai-strong.
But it was hungry. And even stronger than the hunger, was a longing to trust. Longing to touch.
Deliberately, Hakkai pooled chi in his hand. Left it on the surface of his energies, easily accessible. "It's all right," he whispered. "I don't mind."
Wary, leaves curled around his fingers. Lapped at his energies, scratchy and soft as a kitten's tongue.
Young, Hakkai concluded, after a few minutes' feeding left whispers of sleepy and just enough echoing down his nerves. Reluctantly, the vine began to uncurl—
Thumb still free, Hakkai stroked a leaf.
Hesitation. Coiling – and stretching out, to nudge against his fingers.
Kitten, Hakkai smiled to himself, petting tendrils and leaves. With all the teeth and claws that undoubtedly implied.
A thought struck him, and he stifled a laugh. Oh, poor Gojyo! All day on the road with no complaints – well, fighting with Goku didn't count, really – and they'd brought his youkai-eating monster along in the front seat!
Muffling his giggles in his bedroll, Hakkai shook his head. Gods help them if he woke Sanzo up now... but oh, if he could see the look on Gojyo's face—!
Reassurance. Quiet blood. Resting. Pet more?
Curious, Hakkai risked a quicker turn, examining Sanzo more closely. The priest's face wasn't exactly peaceful, but... it had that quiet, lost expression Sanzo usually got in the depths of the night. "You can keep him asleep?"
Trust. With kin. Safe. Petting?
Hmm. That wasn't exactly a yes. But if he was careful.... "I'd like to look at you."
Kin. Trying to trust.
Delicately, Hakkai pulled the neck of Sanzo's leathers open, tracing the vine back to where it'd sprouted through human skin. Almost looks like a fresh bruise.
In a very memorable location.
But I cleaned the wound! I healed it! If the youkai infected him, I should have known—
Confusion. A flicker of arrogance. An image of one of the nastier infectious demons they'd fought – and the impression of vines devouring it whole.
Our home. Others will not take. Protecting. As kin wanted. Tendrils nudged his fingers again, smug as a cat.
Hakkai stroked them automatically, thinking fast. As I wanted? When did I—?
Memory flared; he could almost smell the blood. Sanzo down. Fear shooting through his veins like ice as he knew how bad it was. Wrapping torn flesh in vines – in himself – with every fiber in his being willing the man whole, healing—
Will that had crystallized into certainty, confident as sunrise. Certainty, and relief; as if another pair of hands had fumbled into place exactly where he needed them.
Kin. The vine stretched languidly under his fingers. Good.
Well, it does look as if I might have done this, Hakkai admitted to himself. So, before Sanzo shoots me on general principles... what exactly is it that I did? Letting his fingers stroke down to the vine's base, he touched darkened flesh.
It's not a bruise.
It likely felt like one to Sanzo's fingers, and would for a day or two yet, from Hakkai's sense of chi. Roots had bitten into flesh quickly here, drawing the blood they needed to survive. But now that the vines had a reserve of energy, even a small one.... Hakkai felt delicately at the tender flesh, eyes full of wonder.
New blood vessels. Very fine. Almost like a brood patch.
It's not just healing him. It's inducing his body to feed it.
Which, again, made him tense, wondering why he hadn't sensed a parasite—
Vines flicked at Hakkai's fingers, offended. Home!
So it doesn't believe it's a parasite, Hakkai concluded. But it knows it's taking some of his blood... what does it feel it's giving in return?
Then again, where did the rest of those roots lead?
They weren't easy to trace, wrapped in Sanzo's flesh and chi and an echo of Hakkai himself that felt like chasing mirrors. But Hakkai tracked them down, through muscle and blood, into a taste of smoky wind....
They're in his lungs.
And seemed happy to be there, if Hakkai was reading the flow of energy correctly. Like a mountain pine, rooted into precisely the right cracks in a barren cliff to trap the soil needed to survive. Or some of the odd hanging mosses he'd seen on their journey, content with nothing but sun and rain and wind-blown dust....
One brow lifted, Hakkai touched Sanzo's neck. Gently.
He's feeding it. But – it's feeding him, as well.
Tiny pulses of energy. Almost too small to sense. But enough to mend bits of injured flesh, speeding its healing as if Sanzo were fed and resting in a proper bed, instead of a slightly-starved, cranky priest on the run.
Sweeping his senses through Sanzo's system again, Hakkai shook his head. "So you're not a parasite."
Our home. A second vine snaked out from under the leather on Sanzo's shoulder, nudging him for its own share of petting. Home is not to be eaten!
"As opposed to everyone else?" Hakkai murmured, stroking vines and leather. Now that he knew what he was sensing, he could feel the youkai energies tracing along Sanzo's skin. "Yes, you're definitely mine." Skin I understand, but why his lungs?
Which was what Sanzo and Gojyo each said of their respective cigarette brands, disparaging the other's, but— Oh. If that flux of energies was what he thought, they really did mean taste. I suppose there are minerals in that smoke... what else are you up to?
Leaves radiated innocence.
I don't think I believe you. But he could wait on full truth, for now. Daring, Hakkai sniffed Sanzo's neck, enjoying how green blended with smoke and incense. Which, pleasant as it was, reminded him of other potential problems. "Goku's going to notice."
Smugness. Kin-scent. Home-scent.
Well, yes. Having his own scent on Sanzo would confuse matters. For a while. "He may not notice tomorrow, but eventually, he will." Hakkai eyed the vine. "And even without Goku's nose, Sanzo will realize something is not... normal."
Dismay. Home. A tendril tugged at his hair. Kin helps. Help kin.
Blackmail. Help it, so it could keep healing Sanzo. Oh yes, definitely his.
And he would be lying if he said there wasn't something appealing about the thought. Sanzo was... well, he wasn't fragile. For a human.
And Sanzo would be equally cranky if he were told, as if he found out on his own. Emotional upset the man simply did not need, not while he was still healing.
Another day can't hurt.
"Just be careful. And don't let yourself be seen." Hakkai stroked a leaf, and carefully snuggled back up to Sanzo.
After all, some nights, it was good to not be alone.
Something was up. Goku just knew it.
Grabbing his breakfast while Gojyo was looking the other way with a cigarette, the young youkai chewed and thought. It'd started back at the inn, whatever it was. Probably another assassin, from what people had said yesterday. And what they hadn't. But if that was all, then why did Gojyo still smell so worried?
Hakkai didn't, though. Hakkai smelled like secrets. Which sucked all over again; how come everybody else had secrets?
And how come Hakkai's secret smelled like Sanzo?
Hakkai's tent thrashed, which made no sense given Hakkai was out here—
Annoyed, pale, and disrobed, Sanzo tumbled out.
But, obviously, not unarmed.
"Explain," Sanzo bit out, aiming at them all.
"You were... restless in your sleep," Hakkai obliged, putting together a bowl. "I thought it would be better to make sure you stayed warm."
Violet narrowed. "Cold's not going to kill me."
"Probably not. But it will slow down your healing," Hakkai pointed out. "Which means we make worse time. Of course, if you don't want to be back on the road as soon as possible... breakfast?"
Growling, Sanzo stalked over to them. And if his hands trembled on the chopsticks, Goku wasn't crazy enough to mention it.
"I dunno, Hakkai," Gojyo drawled, blowing smoke. "He was dressed like that all night? You're either the nicest guy around, or way too kinky—"
No fool, Goku ducked.
It wouldn't be breakfast without gunfire.
Quiet days, Sanzo reflected, made him suspicious.
Paranoid, Gojyo would say. Like it could ever be paranoia when things were out to get you. Usually, lots of things.
But right now it was quiet, and he hated it.
"Get me a beer, kid."
"Get it yourself, cockroach!"
But Sanzo wasn't about to start shooting. Yet. Not with Hakkai driving without a care in the world, smile upgraded from his usual "what a lovely day!" to something that verged on smug.
Hakkai, the priest thought suspiciously, was Up To Something. And given he wasn't talking about it, it was going to be a surprise.
Which most people would have thought was just fine, Sanzo was sure. But then, most people didn't know that surprises by way of Hakkai were less of the girl-in-the-cake variety, and more of the what do you mean, they don't know how many bodies yet?
Fighting an urge to just laze in the sun and sleep, despite the idiots in the back, Sanzo glared at the healer. "I don't like surprises."
"But to one who holds nothing, how can anything be a surprise?"
Philosophy. Wonderful. Whatever Hakkai was up to, it was going to be bloody. And likely worthy of getting him shot—
Demonic energy fluxed, and Sanzo drew his gun. "Incoming."
Three ambushes in one day, and still no Kougaiji. On the edge of their camp, Sanzo sat and smoked as the others finished supper. Thinking.
According to what he'd pieced together after the desert Sanzo-eating witch youkai mess, Kougaiji's bunch might have been ordered after the other sutras. One sutra in the desert. One – according to the Sanbutsushin – already with whomever was trying to resurrect Gyumaoh.
The Seiten Sutra....
Focus. So. That left three, one of which was firmly back on his shoulders. Meaning two.
How long is it going to take Kougaiji to mow down two Sanzos?
Well. That depended. Were they proper Sanzos? Holy, pious, believing in the sanctity of life and therefore useless as a wet paper bag in a fight? Or were they more like him; Sanzos who combined Heaven and Hell?
Doubt it. The Sanbutsushin – and Kanzeon – would be a lot less interested in me if they were.
So. Assume, one way or another, that the other two sutra-holders were living on borrowed time. Kougaiji's people were strong, even for youkai. And they weren't idiots. Unless somebody'd locked the other two Sanzos in a vault somewhere, they were toast.
Question was, when?
Gods, the priests back at Kin'zan would be having heart attacks.
Not that they'd be surprised he would coolly calculate how much time another's death would buy him. Not the demon-child.
Idiots. I didn't set Kougaiji on them. I didn't tell them to get close to the Buddha by not killing. And the gods ought to be watching out for them at least as much as they do me. They've got sutras; if they can't use them to save themselves, I can't save them.
Couldn't save them, couldn't figure out how long it might take Kougaiji to take them down. All he was doing was giving himself a headache. And there by the fire was Hakkai, not quite frowning at him. Which was warning to any sane man that he was at risk of being looked after.
Growling under his breath, Sanzo lit another cigarette. Drew in a deep breath of smoke, and held it, waiting for the familiar burn to cut through his distracted thoughts. A meditation of death and fire, to balance other priests' use of water and life. But even the balance was an illusion, for all things were one, and the gardens of the Setting Sun were the fire in his lungs....
And... Sanzo was breathing out, eyeing the plume of smoke with a baleful look. These were his cigarettes, not Gojyo's; he could feel the nicotine hitting his veins like silver needles.
So why was it just like breathing fire-warmed air?
"My, you look thoughtful tonight." Hakkai, making no effort to be quiet. Which put him ahead of both the monkey and the kappa; sneaking up on a cranky priest was not exactly a sign of intelligence. "If you're interested in sitting quietly, perhaps you might do so in your tent, where I can examine you?"
"Hakkai," Sanzo growled. You're pushing it.
"Looks like we could use a little more water to wash up," Gojyo announced suddenly. "Think I'll go down to the lake." Snatching a bucket, he sauntered off, moving fast.
"Since when do you ever—" Goku glanced their way, and jumped up. "Right! Dishes!"
"Cowards," Sanzo grumbled, glaring at Hakkai. "I told you, I'm fine."
"Your aim hasn't suffered, but your reload time is noticeably slower," Hakkai said practically. "Of course, it's still remarkably good for anyone, especially someone as badly injured as you were two days ago. But you're used to being faster. If you were separated from us, fighting alone...."
Damn. He wasn't going to win this one. Not when Hakkai had facts on his side. "Fine." Will kept him straight as he rose, stalking off to his tent.
Hakkai followed, graciously ignoring any trembling as Sanzo sat down on his bedroll, shrugging off the top of his robes—
Even in the darkness, Sanzo saw Hakkai's eyes widen in utter shock.
Good. "Humility, Hakkai," the priest growled, still brandishing his fan. "You're getting your way. For now. Because there's a reason."
"I... see." Hakkai's smile turned rueful. "Of course."
"Hmph." Point made, Sanzo set the fan aside. Sat, rigidly, as Hakkai ran lightly-glowing fingers across his neck and back. He didn't move to take any of his leathers off. Hakkai wanted that, the healer could damn well ask for it.
A second pass, and fingers lowered enough to gently knead taut muscles. "You know, it wouldn't kill you to relax a little," Hakkai said matter-of-factly. "Not while I'm here. Awake. You must have an awful headache."
"Mmph." So? He had to deal with three idiots all day, with only a few breaks when the latest band of assassins crashed the party. Who wouldn't have a headache—
Fingertips dipped into the neck of his leathers, and Sanzo bit his lip. Hard.
"Ah!" Hakkai's voice bounced back to its usual cheer, with more than a touch of genuine good will. "I think I found a knot."
A knot? That hadn't felt like any tense muscle Sanzo had ever—
Hakkai's fingers dove back in, glowing with chi, and rational thought decided screw this, I'm getting sun, a mai-tai, and sand between my toes.
Dimly, Sanzo registered that Hakkai had gotten his shirt off – not the kote, which would have meant war, just the shirt – and had gently pressed him face-down into the bedroll, kneading muscles and spine. It wasn't the first time Hakkai had worked him over like this, not by a long shot, but....
Nice. It was... nice.
Muscles tight from shooting and fighting and just dealing with the idiots seemed to melt, headache evaporating with them. The sudden, blissful absence of pain was—
That damn well better not have been a whimper. I don't whimper. And if Hakkai mentions it, ever....
Hakkai, apparently, still had enough good sense to say nothing at all. Even when Sanzo unconsciously turned his head, so gentle fingers could get at that one spot that— it wasn't sore, exactly, it just needed. Touch. More. Please.
I. Don't. Beg.
"Everything's all right," Hakkai murmured. "You're doing very well." Longer, firmer strokes; thoughts unraveled in the rhythm, finally achieving the empty mind Sanzo had been trying for.
Trying too hard. Beginner's mistake....
Night and touch and rest were one.
He could see the moment Sanzo fell asleep; muscles easing, vines uncoiling from their subtle tracery on skin. At least three now; one that liked to coil around Sanzo's throat, and two longer vines that had traced down to uncovered arms before their host's eyes closed. And – yes, there was a fourth, just sprouting through reddened skin as he watched.
Smiling, Hakkai brushed the youngest tendrils, finger caught by a fern-soft coil. "How many of you are there going to be?"
"I suppose that doesn't translate," Hakkai murmured. "Should I have asked, how much?"
Hmm. As much as it thought it was safe for "home" to support, apparently. Hakkai's own vines had never given him any difficulty... but then, they were his. And he was youkai, not human.
Though given how many youkai he knew Sanzo had killed over the years, Hakkai sometimes wondered if the priest weren't on borrowed time. And not just from his nicotine habit.
Other-blood in home-blood, for eating. Slowly.
That felt self-satisfied, tinged with a healthy dose of caution, calculation, and clever home! Hakkai frowned, probing—
The energies were faint. Under normal circumstances, he'd never have been able to pick them out of Sanzo's regular chi. But with the vines there to contrast.... There was something foreign in Sanzo's blood. Something now being steadily swept against roots in effervescent bursts of chi, to be broken apart and devoured. And with every drop destroyed, the roots grew deeper.
Too much, hurts home. Too little, hurts home. Balance.
Hakkai stroked skin and leaves, considering that. The vines seemed to be worried about disrupting a balance in Sanzo's energies. As if something there were delicately poised... yet so far as he knew, nothing should be. Sanzo had some of the best control over his own energies Hakkai had seen in anyone, human or youkai. Spell-casting demanded no less, and Sanzo's skills were supposed to have passed Rikudo's... at thirteen.
Yet – when had he last seen Sanzo cast spells?
Oh, the priest used the sutra, certainly – but only under extreme duress. Breaking Kami-sama's barrier, restoring Goku's limiter, reinforcing his own bullets with nin for particularly powerful opponents; outside of dire emergencies, Sanzo used about as much magic as an... ordinary human.
Yet he's using his control every day, Hakkai knew. He wouldn't have such awful headaches if he didn't.
What is he doing?
Foreign chi in Sanzo's system. Foreign blood.
Gods – how many youkai has Sanzo killed?
It was like the moment Hakkai had looked at a trick drawing in the orphanage, and seen it flux from silhouettes to a perfect vase. Sanzo's chi looked human, because he made it look human; because iron will and determination said, I am Genjyo Sanzo, the thirty-first of China—
And I am not a youkai.
Hakkai winced. If whatever he'd inadvertently seeded Sanzo with was growing in place of youkai blood the priest had already absorbed....
Well. Removing it might not be simple.
If we want to remove it, Hakkai thought suddenly. If it's devouring the other youkai traces... surely, one foreign chi should be easier to control than hundreds.
They'd fought Kami-sama, and they'd won. But given his magic, his strength – it had been a very near thing. And whoever Kami-sama had called Sensei....
If the universe is kind, he's already dead. But somehow, I doubt we're that lucky.
Smiling ruefully, Hakkai shook his head. So. It really is that simple.
He wanted to live. He wanted all of them to live, survive this mad journey, and stop the Minus Wave. And hopefully, kick quite a bit of evil youkai ass in the process.
And if this seedling would give Sanzo the strength to do that – if it could free the strength the priest already had—
I'll help you, little one. As much as I can.
Smug satisfaction, tinged with just a shade of relief. Kin. Trust. Energies seemed to unknot, inviting him to look, and aid.
Curious, Hakkai probed the roots again. Something about what he'd sensed in Sanzo's lungs last night, and the way the blond had glared at his cigarette tonight—
"My," Hakkai breathed, almost smirking. "Aren't you clever." Roots were just where he'd thought; at the interface of cells and air, dissolving years of soot a grain at a time.
If Sanzo catches me at this, Hakkai knew, being shot will be the least of my worries.
But it'd been so long since he could touch, and feel accepted. Understood. With family.
"Kin," Hakkai breathed, blond strands tickling his nose as he bent to nuzzle changed skin. After all, if being caught meant being shot....
Then he wouldn't get caught.
Coffee, Sanzo thought blearily, stalking out of his tent in pre-dawn dimness. Wood-smoke, fire's warmth, a taste of water, Hakkai eyeing him after setting a pot to boil— "Gnrgh?"
"It'll be a few minutes yet," the healer stated.
"The lake is quiet," Hakkai said mildly, "if you'd like some time to meditate. Before the others want breakfast."
"Mmph." Nodding thanks, Sanzo stalked off.
Finding a good rock, Sanzo sat half-lotus, sweeping his senses out to check for enemies once more before emptying his mind.
Sunrise. Quiet. A reshuffling of the weight of lives on his soul; priest and killer, striving to balance without destroying each other. Senses blending together in an unfiltered mind, until dawn's blues and golds sang in his ears and fingertips quenched thirst in the rush of fresh, cool water—
Sanzo blinked, gaze whipping around to catch the fluttering blue and violet of a middle-aged woman's skirts as she put on an impressive turn of speed, her basket of laundry spilling abandoned on the lakeshore.
Still woefully short of coffee, the priest frowned. Reached out with his senses again, reluctantly blinking away sunlight. There, there, and... there. Huh.
The only youkai in range were his personal idiots. But that had been real fear in her voice—
Hakkai had a steaming cup of coffee in one hand, equally useful for waking up bleary-eyed priests or scalding unfortunate attackers. "Is everything all right?"
"Ones we got yesterday must have come from around here." Sanzo zeroed in on caffeine, closing fingers around the mug. "Locals are spooked."
"Ah. Yes, that would make sense." Smiling, Hakkai released the cup.
Sanzo eyed him. Something was up. Hakkai was hiding his relief well, but not well enough. Coffee, or grill the healer?
There was a mingled wind-in-sails thwump and a metallic crash. Characteristic of a tent brought down in a manner that guaranteed it wouldn't be going back up again without major repairs.
"You take that back!" Goku yelled.
Draining his coffee in one fuming gulp, Sanzo stalked back toward camp. Monkey and idiot kappa first. Plotting healer, later.
Driving as fast as the roads made practical, Hakkai finally allowed himself a breath of relief. That had been just a little too close. When he'd heard that shriek, and arrived in time to see a flicker of wet green disappear up Sanzo's sleeve—
Well. You didn't need a diviner's tiles to guess what had happened.
At least Sanzo didn't see anything, Hakkai thought ruefully. Or I'd be healing a few holes.
How would he explain, when Sanzo finally caught one of the clues dancing just beyond his grasp? So far the priest had been well and truly distracted; both by his own injuries, and by the pair currently pulling each other's hair in the backseat. But Sanzo was healing – faster than normal, which the priest had to have noticed – and as soon as mind and tongue were back to their usual acidic sharpness—
And... were those torches, coming from the opposite direction? In the middle of the day?
Catching sight of the flickering flames, Goku ducked out of Gojyo's grip. "Are those guys really carrying pitchforks?"
Gojyo straightened from his usual sprawl, giving the oncoming mob a considering look. "Fire, pointy farm tools, and all the foaming at the mouth menfolk in a three-village radius. Either they know we're coming, or that last left fork we decided not to take has got a mad scientist's castle at the end of it."
Goku's eyes widened. "You really think they're after us?"
"Shut up." Sanzo's eyes cut across to Hakkai. "Keep driving."
"Right," Gojyo said dryly. "And they're just going to let us go right on past, because we look so friendly and innocent."
"We are innocent!" Goku protested. "Well... kinda."
"I said quiet." Fingers pressing on his temples, the priest suppressed a growl. "Those aren't people right now, Goku. That's a mob. Until it breaks up, we'd better not look innocent. Mobs want something to kill. If you're innocent, you're just easy prey."
"That sounds like the voice of experience," Hakkai said carefully. Over three years he'd known the man, and sometimes he still felt as though Sanzo was the same apparition of Retribution that had appeared at Gojyo's doorstep. A hell-sent spirit in priestly robes, striking fear into evildoers everywhere.
But even Sanzo must have been young once, before leaving Kin'zan with a gun, a sutra, and a mission of vengeance. At thirteen. Alone.
That last fact wasn't so surprising, now that he knew Sanzo. And yet... of all the monks in Kin'zan Temple, not one had offered to join Sanzo on his quest? Not one?
At least in the orphanage, the sisters didn't let me go until they thought I was old enough.
"Just drive," Sanzo stated coldly. Violet eyes looked half-asleep, but from the way shoulders tensed, Hakkai knew he was searching the mob for weak spots, leaders, or any weapons beyond the norm.
Schooling his face into mild curiosity, Hakkai pulled as far over to the side of the road as he could and still drive, dropping Hakuryuu's speed to a near-walk. Softly, softly; let the mob see they were merely passing by, not trying to cut through that angry purpose....
There were grumbles, mixed in with cries of "youkai!" and "murdering scum", but most moved aside enough for them to keep driving. A few hot-tempered teens lingered in their path, but were quickly scowled out of the way by an older uncle or grandfather.
One of the more prosperous looking of the bunch took the opportunity to stomp right up beside Hakkai's door, matching the jeep's pace. "Have you seen it?"
"Seen what?" Hakkai said innocently.
"The Demon of the Lake!" A work-roughened fist shook. "Twenty feet tall! Covered with venomous green tentacles! Swallowing the very waters, and poisoning what remains with its accursed touch!"
The four looked at each other, then back at the mob. "Sorry," Gojyo shrugged. "I think we missed it."
"And well for you that you did!" The mob's would-be leader shook a finger in Hakkai's face; the demon-slayer had to quell a momentary impulse to bite it off. "For over a year now, the crops have suffered, and the flocks have gone missing – but now we shall rid ourselves of the cause! We shall— eyagh!"
"Sorry!" Hakkai called back over his shoulder, as Hakuryuu's rear wheel rolled off the man's toes. "We're in a hurry, please pardon us!"
Catching the glint in his eye, the more intelligent stragglers dove out of the way – just before Hakkai gunned it.
Dust swirled between them and the vanishing mob, and Hakkai breathed easier.
"Wow," Goku grinned. "Twenty feet tall? Really? And tentacles? Cool! Sanzo, we gotta go back—"
"But we're just innocent travelers," Hakkai said mildly. "We couldn't possibly be any help to those good, brave townspeople."
"Idiots," Sanzo snorted. "The only youkai back there were us."
"Three youkai and a priest," Hakkai agreed, neatly avoiding that verbal trap. "But they'd never believe that." Oh yes. Sanzo was definitely suspicious.
So what to do about it?
I'll have to tell him, Hakkai decided. Just... not yet.
"Finally," Gojyo groaned, sinking into a blissfully hot bath. Ignoring, as much as humanly possible, the splashing and humming as the monkey kicked up the other side of the tub. It'd been a long, long, long long day. Hot water, plus some flirting with the ladies and card games after, was just what the doctor ordered.
Today? Weird. Big time.
Screaming housewives. Howling mobs. Sanzo ignoring Hakkai, in the dark way that meant, I know you're up to something, I just don't know what yet, but I've got a bullet saved for when I find out. Hakkai mild as milk right back, which meant, Me? Up to something? Whyever would you think so?
Well, mostly mild. When Hakkai made that crack about mobs....
Mob chasing Sanzo? Anyone who's known His Holiness for ten minutes could see that coming, Gojyo thought. Mob chasing Sanzo 'cause he "looked innocent"? Not a chance.
No, that had to be part of Hakkai's strategy to rattle the priest. Along with taking off his limiters this morning. At least, that's what Gojyo guessed had happened. Green tentacles, after all. Sure, Hakkai wasn't anywhere close to twenty feet tall, but he was damn scary.
Still. Why would Hakkai—?
Ah, you're just giving yourself a headache, Gojyo thought, indulging in a few splashes of his own. Man, almost wish we had been ambushed.
Quiet steps and the thump of a gun-heavy bath basket heralded the chief reason why. Gojyo listened, but didn't peek through the steam. Outside of necessary bandaging, Sanzo didn't like people staring at his scars. Which was a weird place for priestly modesty to kick in, given all the other rules the guy broke, but what the hell.
Or maybe he was over-thinking it, and Sanzo had some of the same problems he and Hakkai did; scars that might have healed in body, but still ached in the soul.
Nah. His Crankiness, have the same problems as us lowly mortals? Not gonna happen.
"Ow," came from the other side of the tub. Meaning Goku had forgotten a life-saving lesson; Gojyo peeked, and yeah, the monkey was staring at the red mark on Sanzo's neck. "That looks like it hurts," the younger youkai winced.
"Or like someone had my kind of a good time," Gojyo smirked. Hey, the kid deserved a rescue now and then. Kind of.
"Die, kappa." Washing off, Sanzo glanced at Goku. "It's not bleeding. Ignore it."
"But—" Goku started.
"Let him scrub; looks like some dirt got past those pretty white robes." Still smirking, Gojyo dragged his gaze from the prickly blond, and dunked a monkey.
The ensuing water-fight almost covered Hakkai's sigh. And mostly washed out splashes and snarls, as the two front-seaters cleaned up and pointedly slipped into their own tub. Though the noise was cut, momentarily, by an imperious "Kyuu!" and Hakkai's soft chuckles as he washed his dragon.
And then was shattered completely, by the ambush Gojyo had been waiting for all day.
"Hand over the—"
Gunshots echoed before the hapless youkai could even say sutra.
Bodies flying, chi blasting; Gojyo swirled his shakujou with a stylish twist, flinging severed limbs everywhere. "When are these guys going to learn, we're never unarmed—"
Someone screamed, high and painful as a soul dipped into lava.
Hakkai got pissed, was Gojyo's first, aghast thought, seeing vines strip flesh from still-shrieking bones. Followed hard by, Wait a sec, Hakkai's over there—
Jaw dropping, Gojyo stared at a naked, wet, extremely ticked off priest. Whose vines were currently rendering the closest assassin into deboned cutlets, with the most ungodly quiet slurps he'd heard this side of a youkai-eating spider lady.
Hell with this. I'm killing the guys on the other side of the room....
I'm going to kill Hakkai.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, the small part of Sanzo that tried to track how ordinary people thought (the better to avoid the resulting idiocy) was aware that the more usual response would have been "Oh gods!" punctuating a mantra of "this can't be happening."
The hell with that.
He felt the flesh and blood dissolving into the vines, a warm glow of predatory satisfaction keeping him steady on his feet when he knew his hands should be shaking enough to make reloading problematic. He'd slipped into the tub grimly aware he might need Hakkai's help to climb out; cranky and sore and just tired, fed up beyond any reasonable man's patience with being stuck in one small jeep with three insane idiots all day.
He wasn't tired anymore.
Which was good. Because after these suicidal bastards were dead, he was going to deal with Hakkai.
Stripped bones clattered on the floor as he shot, and shot again—
Quiet. Except for harsh breathing, blood dripping, and Goku swearing. "S'okay, Sanzo, I'm gonna get that out—"
Hakkai's warning came one grabbed vine too late. Surprise hit Sanzo, followed by breathlessness, blinding pain—
"Everyone, stay still," Hakkai said sharply.
"No problem," Goku groaned from a hole in the wall.
"Sanzo." Hakkai approached, steps unhurried and fluid. "Are you all right?"
"Hell no," Sanzo gasped. Youkai-eating vines in my skin, and you think I'm all right? But he kept that complaint for later, after the slightly more critical, "Can't breathe...."
"The roots!" Moving in a blur, Hakkai pressed glowing hands over abused flesh. "Try to calm down. I don't think they'll attack me, but I imagine they're not very happy."
That was an understatement. Sanzo could feel flickers of anger and pain and the sort of crankiness with allies that usually kicked in when Gojyo and Goku had done something particularly stupid....
Only none of it was his.
Chi ceased to flow, and Sanzo could breathe again. "You." He glared at Hakkai, trying not to watch the flex of green turning dark as some of the vines settled back on his skin. "You knew about this."
"Ah." Hakkai had the good sense to look sheepish. "I can explain."
"Yeah?" Gojyo inched closer, voice strained, eyes wide in a way that said he'd really rather be running, thanks. "This is gonna be good."
Still rubbing his head, Goku sat up abruptly. "There's people coming this way!"
"Stall them." Hakkai grabbed a bathrobe and tossed it at Sanzo. "We need to get you out of sight; they won't want to hide while you're still threatened—"
"What the hell are they, Hakkai?" Sanzo said flatly.
"People are going to be asking questions, and we don't want them to notice!" Hakkai's wave of hand indicated silver earcuffs, and Goku's diadem. "I promise I'll explain."
I hate it when he has a point. Wrapping himself in terrycloth, gun in his pocket, Sanzo followed the healer out, fast. Corridor, stairs, hall; always moving like they knew exactly where they were going and what they were doing, as excited locals brushed past. Face perfectly calm, though Sanzo could feel things writhing....
Hakkai locked the room door behind them, and Sanzo sat down on a bed. Hard. "What. The hell. Is inside me?" He fixed Hakkai with another glare. "You've known about it since that assassin with the damn sleep candles—"
"No." Hakkai shook his head. "I didn't encounter your guest until the next day. When it, ah, went looking for a midnight snack."
Did I hurt anyone?
"It only sipped a little of my chi," Hakkai added quickly, reading his expression. "It wasn't trying to hurt me. It was only trying to be sure it'd have enough energy to make sure nothing else would hurt you."
Which made no sense at all. Make sure nothing else would hurt me? "You're a healer," Sanzo bit out. "How could you not sense a—"
"It's not a parasite!"
Defensive. The way Hakkai got when he was protecting those who would otherwise be defenseless; particularly, when he was protecting— Sanzo stiffened, trying not to pale. "Hakkai. What is this?"
"...I think it's from a seed."
This is not going to end well. I just know it. "Yours," Sanzo said flatly.
"I didn't know this could happen." Hakkai sat down warily beside him, ready to move at the slightest hint he wasn't welcome. "I just— I wanted you to live, Sanzo. And then... I was sure you would. I didn't think about why." He hesitated. "I suppose I didn't want to."
Honesty. Good. "I want it out, Hakkai."
"Sanzo, it's been healing you—"
"Out." He was not watching something green and leafy snake its way down his sleeve. Definitely not eyeing it suspiciously, as the vine rubbed against Hakkai's fingers like a kitten asking to be petted....
Hakkai stroked the soft tip, and Sanzo's breath hitched.
The healer glanced up, startled. "You can feel that?"
"It—" Gods. How long had it been since anyone touched him and felt safe? Besides Goku, but Goku never seemed to know how much was too much. "It doesn't matter."
"I'm afraid it does." Hakkai slid closer, one hand gently holding coiled green while the other hovered above the nape of Sanzo's neck, warm with chi. "It's not just in your lungs. It's grown into your nerves, as well."
Hell. "Out," Sanzo rasped, mouth suddenly dry.
"It's not that simple—"
"Get it through your head that I. Do. Not. Care!" He could feel them lashing, quickening with his heartbeat. "I'm not a youkai, and I'm not having this thing—"
"I don't have enough hands for this," Hakkai murmured. And plucked silver free.
Fleshy vines wrapped around him, and Sanzo froze. He'd felt coils touch, and it was.... "You're a dead man, Cho Hakkai," he got out, breath ragged.
"Quite... possibly," the healer managed, voice even more unsteady than his own. "I don't suppose... you can reach my limiters?"
Arms well and truly pinned, Sanzo snorted. Tried to ignore the rippling shiver, as leaves brushed leaves. "If I could reach them, I'd feed them to you."
"Perfectly understandable," Hakkai allowed, voice barely quavering as he drew Sanzo closer. Close enough for breath to feather over Sanzo's throat, tickling....
The blond shivered. And couldn't stop; every movement brushed leaves and vines and skin together, and it built like ripples in water. Stay calm. Live through this. Shoot him a lot—
Hakkai's tongue licked skin and new shoots in one slow swipe, and the world whited out.
"...It's really quiet over there."
Gojyo glanced at the monkey, but couldn't really argue. It was quiet in the next room. Too quiet.
A glance at each other, and they pressed ears to the wall.
Still quiet, Gojyo thought uneasily, listening hard. And was it a good thing or a bad thing that he'd been hoping for gunshots?
There had been some thumping, earlier. Nothing that couldn't be explained by one of that stubborn pair banging the other's head off a wall. Probably both.
Now, there were just a few soft creaks – like people sitting on the same bed – and some odd rustles. Like a forest, swaying in a night breeze.
Gojyo's mind added leaf-noises, vines, and Hakkai's youkai form, and decided to scamper off into safer territory. Mass graves, maybe. Or minefields. Goku's stomach, gods help them all.
Goku swallowed. "You don't think he'd eat him, do you?"
...And that just dragged Gojyo's mind all kinds of bad places. Before he tried to figure out which he, and which him. "Think that'd be a lot louder."
"But Sanzo couldn't be— I mean – Sanzo doesn't have claws! We would've seen 'em!"
The blood of a thousand youkai. Gojyo might call the priest lazy, but Sanzo had never been shy about wading in hand-to-hand when he had to. And that didn't even count the blow-back from that damn revolver at close range. "Yeah," Gojyo agreed. "We would have." Unless this fight was just enough....
Goku fidgeted. "Sanzo thought Hakkai... did something."
"Thought he knew about it," Gojyo corrected. And the healer hadn't exactly said he was wrong. "Maybe."
"But how could Hakkai—?"
"Don't know," Gojyo shrugged. "Bet Sanzo's going to get it out of him."
"Yeah." Goku looked a little more cheerful at that. "They're gonna get that out, an' Sanzo's gonna be just fine!"
Well, of course he would. Tight-ass priest was too tough for even parasitic vine-things to digest. "It's not Sanzo I'm worried about," Gojyo grumbled.
"Hakuryuu'd tell us," Goku said positively. "If something really bad was gonna happen, he'd come get us."
Must be nice, having that much faith in the universe, Gojyo thought. How could anybody stay that much of an optimist, living with Sanzo?
"So what do you think happened?" Goku asked, wide-eyed.
The hanyou snorted. "My guess? Something tried to eat the priest. I could've sworn we've warned people about that."
"Yeah, but the ones we tell mostly end up dead," Goku snickered. "And why would Hakkai—?"
"Hey, it's Hakkai. Who knows?" Gojyo drummed his fingers on the wall. Remembered Hakkai's ears were at least as good as his, and backed off a step. "Sure, I didn't see a twenty-foot-tall youkai with green tentacles. Good one, Hakkai."
"You think that was Sanzo?" Goku blurted out.
They looked at the wall again. Listened.
Rustling. Very quiet.
"...Maybe we should check out front," Gojyo said at last. "See if Hakuryuu's out there."
Nodding hard, Goku followed.
Good home. Good kin.
Purring, they entwined with skin and other-leaves, warm and happy and safe.
They were home.
There were worse ways to wake up than with Sanzo's revolver pointed at your head, Hakkai reflected, blinking in the early morning light. Just, not many.
Though in a way, the day was looking up. Sanzo hadn't shot him. Yet.
Then again, from that cold, betrayed look in violet eyes, Sanzo might have far crueler ideas than simply shooting him.
Dressed, Hakkai reflected mournfully, eyeing the pure white robes, the bamboo armor-piece. Which was both good and bad. Good, in that Sanzo out of his robes at a time the priest considered himself on duty was cranky, edgy, and inclined to bite. Bad, because....
He doesn't want to see it. Doesn't want to accept.
Ah, yes, Hakkai reflected. And a certain demon-slayer had never been guilty of that.
Daring, Hakkai cleared his throat. "You found my limiters," he observed, feeling the lack of fangs in his mouth. "Thank you."
Sanzo's voice could have cut glass. "Get out."
Hakkai tamped down a rush of anger. "I don't think either of us were entirely ourselves last night—"
"Which is the only reason you're not full of holes right now." The gun didn't waver. "Get dressed, and get out."
The gun didn't waver. But Sanzo.... Hakkai nodded, face bland as if he'd never seen that shiver. "I'll bring back breakfast."
Not responding to that obvious idiocy – the vines had taken in a great deal of energy last night, true, but Sanzo was still healing – Hakkai lifted Hakuryuu out of a nest of his clean clothing, and started pulling on his pants. "It would have been very easy for most people to panic last night, given the situation. I'm grateful that you didn't." Shirt. Shoes. Sash. "If it helps, I think you're almost healed."
Hakkai nodded, but stopped just before the door, calling Hakuryuu to his shoulder. Risky. This is so risky. "Last night was... very peaceful."
Hakkai smothered a chuckle. Not what you expected. "Coffee, then? If you don't want breakfast."
Stepping out into the hall, Hakkai made certain the door was closed and locked before allowing himself a smile. Goku would have blushed. Gojyo – gods alone knew what he might have said, after a night like the last, but Sanzo would likely have been on his third reload by now. At least.
Which just went to show how unobservant their two companions could sometimes be. Given the choice between openly expressing the slightest affection and a bear trap, Sanzo would fling himself into steel jaws every time.
Not healthy, Hakkai knew, heading down the hall. Everyone needs to be touched.
And oh, how Sanzo had wanted to be touched last night....
Patience, Hakkai reminded himself, stroking a curious dragon. The vines want Sanzo healthy. They're healing him. And if being touch-starved is bad for him....
Another early-rising guest saw his smirk, and dove down the stairs to get away.
"Cheep!" Hakuryuu gave him a red-eyed look askance.
Obliging, Hakkai toned down the smile. But couldn't help whistling, ever so slightly. He hadn't been lying, after all. Last night had been peaceful.
...After one of the most tongue-tingling, leaf- and toe-curling, sinfully delightful bouts of snuggling he'd had in a very, very long time.
Stepping into the inn's common room, he spotted Goku and Gojyo at a corner table, and waved as he crossed the room. "My! What a beautiful day!"
They looked at him.
Hakkai blinked innocently.
Groaning, Goku banged his head on the table. Gojyo just sighed. "Okay. Where do we hide the bodies?"
Peaceful, hell, Sanzo fumed silently, listening to Hakkai's footsteps fade down the hall. Last night had been a lot of things, but peaceful wasn't one of them.
A blur of hands touching, tendrils catching and coiling. Fingers brushing leaves brushing fingers, and the mist-green shattering moment the echo of vines stroking blossomed into pure feeling—
After that, last night had been fairly peaceful. If you counted being literally tangled up in the same bed with Hakkai peaceful.
There was a lot more to peace than just sleeping better than you had since— in a long time.
Even if he hadn't had something youkai in his system, sleeping in the same bed with Hakkai was a bad idea on oh, so many levels. There was a reason everybody got separate tents, and it had nothing to do with liking the extra set-up work. The four of them were in that jeep, practically in each other's pockets, almost every waking moment something wasn't trying to kill them. Anything that cut down on what little privacy they did get deserved to be terminated with extreme prejudice. And then set on fire.
Privacy aside, this was Hakkai. If he were interested – and he definitely wasn't – saying the man had a bad track record with relationships was like saying Heaven's problem with Gyumaoh was just a little misunderstanding.
"I am not his damn sister," Sanzo muttered to empty air, taking off sutra and armor, then reluctantly sliding back the top of his robe. Just for a few minutes. Cloth on his shoulders... bothered him. "Thank the gods."
"So nice to be appreciated," came an all-too-familiar chuckle, with a chime of golden bracelets. "That was a thousand and ten, in case you were wondering."
Sanzo glared at Kanzeon Bosatsu, unimpressed that se'd appeared without using anything so mortal as a door. "What the hell are you talking about, hag?"
Se shook hir head, and tched. "What do you think I'm talking about? You've left quite the trail of corpses on your little trip. If it hadn't been for a bit of friendly assistance...." Se brushed fingers over his shoulder, smirking at the coils of green that investigated hir fingers. "Aww. They're so cute."
"Cute, hell," Sanzo glowered. "I want them gone."
"Destroy an act of love and compassion? What kind of bodhisattva do you take me for?" Elegant brows arched, then softened into a more honest worry. "I know you've never had a reason to keep count. Not after you'd hunted Koumyou's murderers so long, years before you tracked down Hakkai. But I have." Se tugged gently on warm green. "If this seedling hadn't rooted in you days ago, if it weren't eating the blood as fast as you spill it – you might well share Cho Gonou's fate. And given you have no heir to pass the sutra to, I can't let that happen."
Sanzo felt chill. The chakra that marked a Sanzo was a sign of Heaven's favor. And favor could always be withdrawn.
"Breathe," se said dryly. "Heaven's full of dried-up old sticks. Why should it matter if a priest is human or youkai, so long as he protects the sutras? But until I have time to talk them into admitting that, you need to stay human." Se grinned. "Well, mostly."
Painted nails toyed with tendrils, and Sanzo glared. "I don't like it."
"Aww. Not even just a little?" Full lips bent in a wicked smile. "Your companions are youkai, but also human; it gives them the strength to resist the Minus Wave, even as it binds their fates to yours. You might say, Hakkai merely returned the favor."
"You might," Sanzo growled, trying to disentangle himself. "Damn it, hag, let me get dressed!"
"And smother yourself? That can't be comfortable." Hir fingers slipped into a white sleeve, came out with a bullet. Which glowed in hir hands, bright and golden as Goku's diadem—
Sanzo caught it automatically, not flinching at the black cord that suddenly strung it like an amulet. There was a vibration in it, like....
Swallowing bitterness, Sanzo slipped the cord around his neck, and closed the clasp.
Quiet. Quiet that burned like fire.
He breathed, and craned a glance at his shoulder, seeing only unmarked skin.
"You'll have to take it off some of the time," Kanzeon said matter-of-factly. "At least nights; your temper's bad enough as it is. And you should try to get some sunlight." Se winked at him. "I want to see you bloom."
Before he could aim, se was gone.
For once, he'd had all the breakfast he wanted, Goku reflected, munching a meat bun. And he still felt confused.
Though by the dazed look in Gojyo's eyes, at least he wasn't alone.
At last, the hanyou shook his head. "So Sanzo's got—?" He wriggled his fingers, about chest-high.
"It seems so," Hakkai nodded, tea in hand.
"Right. But he's not...?" Gojyo clawed air, screwed his face up into a toothy snarl. Goku had to stifle a snicker. If Gojyo had any idea how he looked....
"No, apparently not." Hakkai sipped his tea. "I can't explain it. Though I – ah – appear to be responsible. Evidently, that particular method of healing has... side effects."
"Great," Gojyo drawled. "Like we didn't stand out enough already."
"We could always dump the jeep and shave you bald," a familiar voice said sourly. "Where do you have to go for coffee around here, back to Chang'an?"
"Sanzo!" Goku shot out of his chair, grinning. Hit the priest about waist-high, taking a deep breath of relief—
The ferns-and-forest scent around Sanzo was muted. Not hurt. Not covered up. Just... distant. Goku glanced up, worried.
"You and your nose," the priest grumbled. A sharp violet glance checked that the rest of the patrons' views were blocked; two fingers dipped into the high black throat of his shirt, tugging up a strand of black cord. "Seems Kanzeon doesn't want me terrorizing innocent bystanders. As if there are any left between here and the West."
Goku grinned as Gojyo's jaw dropped and Hakkai looked... less than perfectly calm. Sheesh, you'd think a goddess was a big deal or something.
Hakkai cleared his throat. "Kanzeon Bosatsu gave you a—?"
"I don't want to talk about it." Violet narrowed. "Not here." Not anywhere, that look growled.
But that kind of snarl meant Sanzo was really hurting, and Goku couldn't leave him like that. "That is so cool," he breathed.
Violet eyed him, and fingers twitched for a fan.
"Well, it is!" Goku said defensively. "I hate it when they try to eat you, just 'cause they think a Sanzo'll make 'em immortal or something. Next scorpion-lady that grabs you is gonna be real sorry."
"They always are," Hakkai mused. "I believe Goku saved something for you."
Sanzo eyed the plate of thin pancakes and sliced peaches. Goku tried not to hold his breath. He'd picked it special, out of everything this inn offered. 'Cause maybe Sanzo would sit down and eat, but when he was upset like this, it was a lot more likely that—
If he hadn't been watching, Goku never would have seen that flicker in violet eyes; regular, everyday hunger warring with a sense of duty that had driven Sanzo across mountain ranges in the dead of winter.
Deft fingers rolled pancakes around fruit, tucking it all into a napkin. Hopefully for later nibbling. "Pack up. Let's go."
Grinning to himself, Goku dashed off for Sanzo's coffee.
"So the nae is with the Sanzo party," Kemushi muttered to himself, pulling another chi-stripped bone out of the mass grave with a scowl. Cowardly humans. The town should be using the bodies to warn off youkai that might prey upon them, not dumping them into a hole and hoping they'd be forgotten with their slayers' departure. "This... could be inconvenient."
The Bloodmoth clan was noble and powerful, yes. But he wasn't arrogant enough to believe nobility was enough to cross Gyokumen Koushu with impunity. Not until after he'd secured the nae, and had it safely subdued.
But she doesn't want the whole party, does she? Kemushi considered. Just the sutra. And that damn priest who carries it.
Meaning, with luck and strategy, he didn't have to cross her at all. Just separate the human from the youkai, and let the priest go his solitary way while Kemushi picked out the nae from the rest. After all, if the Bloodmoth clan never so much as touched the sutra, Gyumaoh's mistress would have no reason to take offense, would she?
So long as she does not realize I have the nae, Kemushi thought darkly. Her lover had lusted after their flesh along with humans... and there were reasons it took War Prince Nataku himself to subdue the horror Gyumaoh had become.
So. How to split that troublesome little group apart, yet leave the weakling human intact? Or... mostly intact.
They're heading west.
Smirking, Kemushi eyed the nearby mountain range.
I'm going insane.
Grimly putting up his own tent, after a few well-placed shots convinced Hakkai a few minutes alone wouldn't kill him, Sanzo gritted his teeth and waited for the latest wave of lightness to pass.
Not lightheadedness. He might want to stuff a certain overprotective healer into the deepest, darkest hole he could find, but Sanzo was not crazy enough to hide actual, physical symptoms from Hakkai in mother-hen mode.
This... wasn't physical. It was just – off. As if he'd put on his robes, and somehow missed the familiar weight of ammo.
Move, and meditate. Pole, place, strike.
Form out of formlessness. Feel the transitory nature of things as a wind-drift of cloth transformed into a fortress of angles, geometry conquering topology. What was the world but the surface of illusion? And here and now, this surface must be reshaped to that....
With balance, it stands.
As he stood, centered and ready. The lightness was... not quite gone. But its remnants had shifted, settling; as if a faint band of lead had dissolved, leaving every step freer.
What the hell is this thing doing to me?
He'd rather be shot than ask Hakkai. Rather be drugged and poisoned by another scorpion youkai, if it came to that. Though if they ended up with another Kougaiji-Seiten Taisei-suicidal idiot mess, he was going to introduce Goku to his fan in a whole new, nightmare-causing way.
Not like I'd get a straight answer out of the idiot healer, anyway.
No. He was going to grit his teeth, grab something that would pass for a snack, and steal an hour or two to meditate before his watch. Whether or not Hakkai thought he needed sleep.
And if that smug bastard thought he was going to sneak into Sanzo's bedroll again....
"Please don't use holy magic on civilians," memory reminded him.
Too bad for Hakkai demon-slayers didn't count.
Worst you're gonna get is the fan, Goku told himself, being extra careful not to sneak up on Sanzo while he was leaning against a tree Ignoring Them All. Worst you're gonna get is the fan....
Though hearing Hakkai's surprised squawk as Sanzo threw him out of the tent last night almost was worth getting shot for.
Another deep breath, and Goku held out a mug. "Um. Coffee?"
Snatch. Slug. Violet blink, and a snort. "Somebody still feeling bruises?"
Goku snickered, and leaned a little closer. "He's pouting."
A blond brow went up.
"Well...." Goku scratched his head. "It's Hakkai. So, not really, but... he kinda still looks like somebody hit him with a fish. He almost burned breakfast!"
Sanzo smiled. Just a little.
"But, um... I really came over to say sorry," Goku got out in a rush. "'Cause, I thought they were tryin' to eat you, an' I didn't think... are you okay? 'Cause—"
"Goku." Violet caught his gaze before he could duck his head. "I didn't know. You didn't know. There's nothing to be sorry about." Sanzo glanced toward Hakuryuu and the remnants of camp. "But if you happen to bang Gojyo's head off the back of a certain smug demon-slayer's seat...."
So it really was all right. Goku smiled. "So... can I see 'em?"
Sanzo's glance was level, but not cold. Yet. "Why?"
"I just—" Goku scuffed a toe in the dirt, trying to put a jumble of hope and worry and curiosity into words. "I never know what happens. When my limiter's off. It's all blood and white and nothing, and then – then I wake up with you guys, an' I know something bad's happened. Hakkai doesn't want to talk about being youkai, ever, and... I never know what it's like. To just be able to take it off, and not worry about it." Goku screwed up his eyes; he was gonna get smacked, he just knew it—
"Get over here."
Blinking, Goku scrambled over to the tree, and took back the empty cup. Looked up.
Jaw clenched, Sanzo unsnapped the clasp.
Kougaiji's aura was a firestorm. Yaone was a domino-fall of tiles, sharp-edged as glass and bitter herbs. Hakkai was night and knives and regret. Sanzo....
Sanzo was like hanging onto the top branches of the best peach tree ever, looking out at the storm. Tasting lightning and peaches and leaves, and knowing you could take anything the storm could throw at you.
Goku held still as a vine wavered between them, remembering Hakkai's stay still. If he didn't hurt it, it wouldn't hurt him. Right?
Tendrils brushed the back of his hand, curled around his wrist, and Goku giggled. "Tickles!"
"...Crazy little brat."
No fan. So Sanzo wasn't mad, not really. "So?" Goku dared. "What's it like?"
Sanzo stood silent a minute. "Like stepping out of the mountains down to the shore, all at once. It's easier to breathe. But you can't see as clearly."
And Sanzo always wanted to see. I guess it kind of sucks, Goku thought sadly. No fair. Sanzo could really... but I guess if you gotta make someone have fun, it's not fun after all. "Don't think that's what happens to me."
"Your chi burns like fire."
Goku glanced up from soft leaves. "You mean, like Kougaiji's?"
"A volcano's like a bonfire, I guess." Sanzo's gaze was level. "But you're still the same bratty, violent, peach-stealing monkey. Heaven must be full of idiots if they couldn't figure that out."
Goku grinned, warm all over. That was Sanzo. Like stepping out of the cave, into sunlight....
A flicker of memory, and he grabbed for shiny gold.
"The hell, monkey—!"
"Pretty!" Heart warm, Goku took a good sniff of vines and hair. Like ferns, and forests, and sun.
A handful of wildflowers in a glass vase. The only freedom on a desk swamped with stack after endless stack of forms....
Click. "Count of five, brat. One, two—"
Goku let go, stepping back as far as a grabby vine would let him. "Sorry. Thought I 'membered something."
The gun wasn't aimed at him. Much. "And what does my hair have to do with what's rattling around inside your empty skull?"
"It's like the sun." And he'd said that before, he knew it. But... not to Sanzo?
"It better not be worth getting shot for."
...And sometimes Goku hated it when Sanzo said stupid stuff like that. 'Cause Sanzo was worth getting shot for. Always.
He didn't say it, though. Sanzo was redoing the clasp, and he wanted to see.
A shimmer of light, and Sanzo was glaring at him. "What?"
"...You looked different."
"I had vines, monkey. Different doesn't exactly cover it."
"Not that!" Goku said indignantly. Hakkai had vines when he wanted to. What was the big deal? "Just – different."
"Different how?" Sanzo pounced.
Goku opened his mouth; shut it again in the face of that faint, controlled waft of fear. "Like you," he shrugged.
"I looked different, like me." Sanzo's face was expressionless.
"I've said it before, monkey," Sanzo brandished his fan. "Speak human!"
"Ow... I dunno, okay?" Goku rubbed at the welt, secretly relieved. Now things were going to be okay. "Maybe, you didn't look tired?"
"If one more person asks how I slept last night, so help me—"
"You rustled," Goku said innocently. "All night."
Yep. Now it was time to run.
It's not fair. Hakkai switched gears with a bit more force than necessary as they climbed toward the snowy mountain pass.
Which, truly, wasn't a reasonable thought. He knew that. He was the healer, true – but Sanzo was the leader of their little band, and if Sanzo decided he wanted to refuse perfectly legitimate treatment for his... condition, he had every right. No matter how idiotic it was—
Hakuryuu squealed at him. Hakkai made himself loosen his grip on the wheel. "Sorry."
"Ooo. Somebody's tense," Gojyo smirked.
And yelped, not quite dodging a boot to the head. "Leave 'im alone!" Goku scowled. "We don't bug you about the blondes. An' the redheads. And—"
A fan-smack ended Goku's attempt to – ah – help. Such as it was. Hakkai fixed a smile firmly in place, and drove on.
After all, he had a sneaking suspicion that Goku might have good reason to be worried about him. Particularly given that he was far less irritated at being compared to Gojyo – of all people! – than he was with the quiet lump of self-inflicted misery in the seat beside him. Really, was it such a horrible imposition to put aside pride in your own stubborn self-reliance and let your body have what it needed to heal well? Even if some of that need wasn't entirely human?
And it certainly hadn't been necessary to catch a poor, unsuspecting healer off guard with an arm bar, a vicious kick to the back of a knee, and a toss that had left Hakkai all but spitting out dirt. Outside Sanzo's tent.
Do you think it was easy, listening to you shiver in the dark? You're changing, Sanzo. I know you don't want to think about it, but that seedling is rooted in you now. And it's growing.
Noticeably so. If he dragged his attention away from Sanzo's aura from an hour or two – there were differences. Subtle, but there.
Like a stagnant stream, slowly clearing with spring melt....
It was refreshing just being nearby. Was it so wrong to crave closer contact? When part of what was now Sanzo's being didn't want to be alone?
Really, it just wasn't—
Sanzo sat up suddenly, and shoved him. "Everyone, down!"
Something hit like a cobweb full of hammers, and the world went black.
Goddamn mountains! Find the god who came up with the idea and tie his ears into a knot....
Situation check. Sutra, monkey, gun—
No monkey. Sanzo scowled into the chill darkness, tasting rock and snow and a hint of something sticky. No youkai; not close, anyway. Plenty of demonic aura, but no people. Damn it, if I've been dumped by another landslide—
Only the rocks hadn't come from above them this time. They'd vanished out from under Hakuryuu's tires; stone and snow not sliding away, but dropping all of a piece, like—
Trapdoor, Sanzo realized, peeling a line of stickiness away from his face. Feeling a waft of cold air that hinted he'd better be sure where he stepped actually had some kind of solid surface under it. Damn it, if we have to deal with another spider youkai, I am going to fry her hour-glassed abdomen with a sutra—
Flame blazed in the darkness. "Hakuryuu!"
"Cheep!" Desperate. Half-strangled.
Om ma ne hatsu un.... "Makai Tenjyo!"
The power to break the darkness....
For a moment, even without sight, he could see. Rock walls rising about them, swathed in webbing. More webs, black and scarlet and violet, crawling and swirling like living things. One had snared Hakuryuu's wings, and only the dragon's quick flames had kept it from smothering him—
Power struck, and webs blazed into ash.
And... they were back to pitch-black again, as the sutra settled back onto his shoulders and malevolent silk whispered in the wind. Terrific. "Hakuryuu?"
"Kyuu!" Clawed feet gripped through cloth to leather, just above the sutra; warm scales and fur shivered against the side of his head.
Sanzo reached up blindly, stroking the frightened dragon. "You in one piece?"
"Kyuu." Low and mournful. Then, more hopeful, "Cheep?"
"Of course we'll find them. I'm not going to get rid of those idiots this easy." Sanzo listened to rustles in the dark, gun drawn. Though what good bullets were going to be against animated cobwebs, he didn't like to think.
Reinforce them with nin.
Sure. Fine. Two problems. One – his energy reserves had limits. Had had, for a long time. Use too much, and... things would slip. Not in a good way. Two – focusing spirit energy into an attack worked a lot better when you had at least a glimpse of where your attacker was. He needed one hand for the wall, and one for the gun. Which meant unless he got Hakuryuu to make like a lighter so blind human eyes could see, he'd be wasting more energy. And even that would make them both better targets—
Human eyes. An impossible flash of green in moonlight.
Fuck. I do not want to do this.
"Cheep!" Hakuryuu launched off his shoulder, a puff of flame shriveling a whip-strand of web.
Right hand rising off the wall, Sanzo unsnapped the clasp. The world shifted—
Three fast shots, and lunging webs were dust.
Shades of gray, Sanzo thought, battling back the heady rush of energy. Story of my life.
Not enough light for color, apparently. Even Hakuryuu was a slightly grainy pale shape, as if Sanzo were standing under a clear, moonless sky.
Like I'd get that lucky. Sanzo glared up at the silken weave turning day to night. Not quite like the last youkai spiderweb he'd seen. This was more like wild moth silk, to the point he wouldn't be surprised to see—
Fuzzy bodies whipped out of webs like squishy constrictors, and they were both too busy to think.
Which was just as well, given Sanzo didn't want to think of exactly how he was seeing. Or how his neck and shoulders suddenly crawled with predatory anticipation, and—
Hate. Burning, loathing, they all need to die.
Hate insects, Sanzo growled silently. Hate 'em... damn lucky you're a centipede, Hakkai....
Centipedes might remind most of insects, but Hyakugan Maoh's clan ate meat, the blond realized in one last burst of clarity. Human, youkai, animal – didn't matter. They ate meat. Not vines.
Rage flooded up like magma, and he moved.
Ow. Ow, my head.
Thoughts were slow and sluggish; Hakkai could hear someone calling, as if through deep water.
Tastes a bit like that assassin's candles... could it be we found his master?
"—Kai? You gotta wake up; I dunno where they took Gojyo, and Sanzo—" chains clanked, as Goku let out a sudden, piercing whistle. "Dunno where he is, but he's mad."
"How mad?" Hakkai got out, throat dry. From the weight and muffled clinking as he tried to move, he was chained as well. He'd have to do something about that. Any minute now. "Stolen peaches, or... attacked in the bath?" He didn't doubt that Goku was right. Whatever inexplicable bond linked the priest and the heretic, it had always held true.
"Um... kinda worse," Goku admitted.
"Worse?" Hakkai shook his head, not certain he'd heard right. More details of their prison swam into focus. Not the usual stone walls and iron bars he'd seen from all too many of their unimaginative youkai opponents, but a rounded glossy-gray hollow that rather reminded him of the inside of a—
Trying not to panic, the healer swept his sense of chi through himself, then Goku. And breathed a sigh of relief. No sign of a parasite. Not that he'd really, logically expected one. Parasitic wasps didn't encase their victims in silk chambers, and trapdoor spiders tended to simply eat their prey. "False alarm," he smiled. "For some reason, I simply had the impression that this place might have been built by something that fed on other lives." The idea seemed to linger in the very air, like faded perfume from a withered blossom.
That sounded thoughtful. Which was mildly alarming, given this was Goku.
Or – was it? After all, he hadn't once mentioned—
Hakkai let out a sigh of relief. Definitely Goku. "You said they took Gojyo? Who?"
Chains clinked as Goku shrugged. "Dunno, didn't wake up in time to catch 'em. But it smells like he was here. An' I don't smell Sanzo or Hakuryuu."
Meaning the odds were good Sanzo and his little dragon friend were together. Thank goodness. He was still going to inflict serious harm on whoever had interrupted their drive, but that pair were probably serving up their own brand of chaos this very minute—
"You gotta stop scaring Sanzo."
Hakkai blinked, focusing on fierce gold eyes. "Goku, I'm not—"
"You are," Goku insisted. "Yeah, the vines're scaring him too – but he's worried about you. Like—" The younger youkai shrugged helplessly, silk woven through his chains muffling the rattle. "Kind of like how you smell, when Gojyo picks up the girls who cry after."
Hakkai grimaced. That usually didn't happen; Gojyo might be one for the ladies, but he was always considerate. And yet – yes, some cried. Usually, the ones who already had problems; and uncharitable as it was, those were the ones he hated most of all. Because they were using Gojyo as an excuse to feel guilty....
Hakkai swallowed hard, feeling as if he'd been dashed with ice water. But I don't— I wouldn't—
After all, it was his seed that had rooted in Sanzo. Shouldn't he feel guilty?
Focus, Hakkai told himself. Whether or not he should feel guilty about Sanzo should wait until he actually had Sanzo safely back to feel guilty over. Particularly given— "How angry did you say Sanzo was?"
"Um." Goku grinned weakly. "Well... after we get out, and get Gojyo back? He's not gonna be hard to find."
Hakkai raised an eyebrow.
"Just – look where things're on fire."
Hakkai blinked. He'd never seen Sanzo do anything of the sort; for all his threats of casual violence, the priest was a very controlled man.
But if Goku said the priest was currently incinerating pieces of landscape....
Well. Time to invest in something fireproof.
Gojyo's closer, Hakkai told himself firmly. Find him first, and we'll all stand a better chance. "What else did you smell about those who took Gojyo?"
A few times, when he'd been a kid out picking flowers, Gojyo had decided to catch butterflies. In retrospect, maybe not the brightest of ideas, as torn jeans and an aggravated older brother could attest, but what the hell. He still remembered the black and gold glitter of scale-dust on his fingertips, the faint scent of something that wasn't like flowers or feathers or fur, yet wasn't like anything else either.
A thousand times stronger, it hit him now. Plus another, not quite human scent that... yeah. "Butterfly youkai," Gojyo grumbled, tugging at the steely webs binding him to a wall like steel wool. "Think I'm starting to see what kind of beef Sanzo's got with insects."
"Butterfly?" an outraged voice hissed.
"Never let sustenance distract you, Tsuki."
"My lord Kemushi." The withered youkai woman in tattered, bone-decked robes stepped back, freaky antennae-eyebrows twitching as she bowed. "My divinations have been... inconclusive."
"As expected." Same freaky eyebrows, younger model. "Legend states the nae were skilled at concealing themselves. Not that it saved them. Not from Gyumaoh."
So, this Lord Kemushi knew something about Gyumaoh. Not good. And instead of a youkai lord's usual fine robes and jewelry, the guy was dressed more like a wandering monk. With the same kind of pinched, prissy look Gojyo had always associated with those who wouldn't think of demeaning themselves by eating meat.
And... why did that somehow strike him as being even worse?
Nae? Seedling? I've been called a lot of things, but never— "Shit!"
Things were swarming up his jeans; caterpillars, inchworms, you name it. From little bits about as thick as three hairs, to fuzzy tubes as big as his arm. Clawed feet clinging, mandibles chewing....
Chewing air, Gojyo realized after a heart-stopping moment. Tugging at his clothes, sure; if this kept up, he was going to look like he'd been mugged by wool moths. But they'd had plenty of chances to bite skin, and hadn't.
"Is he, my lord?" Tsuki demanded.
"Patience." Kemushi's face might have been carved from stone. "The test is not swift, but it is sure. Even one newly sprouted should know its enemies."
"Enemies to what, a salad? Sure, the local gardens are fleeing in terror." Sprouted? Seedling? Gojyo squirmed against the wall, trying not to think about what was crawling inside his jeans. "Look, I don't know how you got your runes crossed, lady, but you got the wrong guy. And when my friends catch up with you—"
"The other two are restrained with measures that would hold a nae, much less ordinary youkai," Kemushi cut him off, bored. "There will be no rescue. You would be wiser to submit, and accept your fate. After all, we don't want to kill you." A cold, measuring look. "You can't drain sap from a dead tree."
Sap? What have these guys been drinking— Wait a minute. "No rescue, huh?"
"You may as well forget the human," Kemushi stated clinically. "The Bloodmoth clan would never dream of crossing the noble Gyokumen Koushu—"
Translation: we're gonna stab her in the back the moment we've got a clear shot.
"—So we've done nothing with the priest." Kemushi's lips curved, almost a smirk. "Nothing. At all."
Dumb move, Gojyo smirked back. Sanzo's gonna—
Sanzo. Alone. In a mountain pass, and probably drugged the same as he'd been. Meaning no way he'd wake up in time to get anywhere lower before nightfall.
And even the most heretical, vicious, stubborn priests weren't immune to freezing to death.
Kemushi picked up an obsidian blade, a small smile gracing his lips as the edge drew blood from his fingertip. "I think," he mused, "we might have a way to shorten the test."
The knife flashed.
Deliberately, Sanzo blew out his breath, trying to ignore the dragon shivering against him.
The pure, outraged fury had passed once the first swarm of caterpillars was sucked dry, leaving Sanzo himself again, if shaken. And angry. And completely clueless as to where he might be now. Outside of somewhere away from Goku – he could feel the monkey calling – still in the web-maze, and obviously high enough up the mountains to freeze to death.
I should keep going—
"Cheep." Chattering; they fed Hakuryuu generously, but the little dragon didn't have any weight to spare.
Sanzo sighed. Took off his chestpiece, and opened the top of his robe. "Get in here."
Scales still shivered against leather; Sanzo frowned, and backtracked. Temper might have painted the world red, but he could have sworn he remembered sensing....
It took half an hour's patient search, but he found it. More of a crack in the wall than an actual cave, but it was out of the worst of the wind. And there was dampness trickling down one side of it, enough to lick droplets off his fingertips.
It'll have to do.
Listening for any new attacks, Sanzo gathered armfuls of non-moving web. Longer pieces to wrap the inside of the hollow, away from the dampness. A sheet-like section pressed to the wet wall, weighted with a shard of rock over a cellophane wrapper he emptied of cigarettes.
"Cheep!" Hakuryuu protested as Sanzo settled into his improvised nest. Tugged at his hair. "Kyuu!"
"You'd freeze before you could fly low enough," Sanzo said bluntly. "Trust me." Though it's been years since I've done this....
Dragon bundled close, he breathed.
The fire is always inside you, Koumyou's voice murmured in memory. Reach inside; let it flow.
Some monks used this to steam-dry frozen towels. Sanzo didn't have anything so flashy in mind.
Just keep us warm enough for the night. It's going to cost me; who knows how much energy I've used swatting bugs. But I should have enough. Just.
"Don't worry," Sanzo muttered, "there's no way I'm handing Hakkai back a frostbitten dragon."
Breathe. Meditate. And sometime in there, he must have slept.
It'd been frigid cold, like winter's depths, and then home... had warmed. And stopped fighting.
Which was startling, after that last horrible night. Home had been stubborn and mean and not listened to them at all.
Though, somehow, that wasn't really surprising. Home was used to being alone – and with them, home was not alone. And they were hurt, and kin was hurt – but they would live. And now it was warm, and everything was balanced, and there had been enough. Finally.
Drawing inward, they grew.
Sanzo woke to the thin gray light of dawn filtering through webs, and the boneless snoring of a toasty-warm dragon.
...And a horse-sized mound of caterpillars, curled up against the outside of his nest.
Wonderful. I don't have enough ammo for this—
Hunger and thirst uncoiled inside him, echoing in time to the vines rising off his skin. Sanzo tensed—
Everything stopped moving.
Hunger. And want. Like stopping himself from reaching for fresh cookies. But he could stop.
I'm not— I don't want—
Hakkai hadn't said it, but from what he hadn't said, the vines had been growing. Steadily. Strengthening, feeding on his own blood and that of the youkai he'd been tainted with to create something – other.
Which was probably part of why the healer had tried to keep him so close. Hakkai knew what it was like to go from feeling, needing things that were normal and human, to... not.
Damn. He hated it when Hakkai was right.
Under most circumstances, he'd tough it out and move on. The cold ought to keep the little monsters quiet at least a bit longer.
But if the idiots hadn't come for him by now, they were in deep trouble.
At least Master Koumyou took me places where they eat fried insects. Grimacing, Sanzo let himself reach out....
Which worked, for the edges of the pile. The ones in the middle as drained skins slipped away, though, were just a little warmer, and mandibles lashed out like lightning.
For a few frantic minutes, he wasn't sure who was going to eat who. But striking blows still worked on things that went squish, and when something bit down he hissed and slashed—
Fingers dripping, Sanzo eyed the gory pile for movement.
"Breakfast in bed," Sanzo said dryly, wiping off his hands on a bit of web. "Want any?"
"Don't blame you." Sanzo stepped over to the seep, and carefully picked up the wrapper full of water. "Here."
There was enough for a dragon to drink, and he wrung out another mouthful for himself from the web. Then, and only then, did he look at his hands.
Breathe, Sanzo told himself harshly, when the world wanted to spin. Kanzeon's got the giggles, and you didn't expect this? You should know better.
They weren't as heavy and thick as some he'd seen; daggers, to most youkai's cleavers. But they'd done the job....
And there was no way on Earth anyone could mistake them for fingernails.
Sanzo flexed his claws, and tried not to feel. He needed to be calm. He needed to find his monkey, and the other two morons. He needed to burn this place down....
So much for calm. "Damn it, hag! If this is so funny, why not come down and share the joke with some answers?"
A full-throated chuckle. "At least you know how to ask."
Sanzo froze, struck by the oddest sense of... not double vision, but doubled impressions. There was the so-called Merciful Goddess he served, in all hir heavenly glory, and yet—
Se never changes. What kind of calamity is se planning to drop on my desk this time? As if the monkey wasn't bad enough. Why me? If se wants to keep it in the family, I'm not—
"—Sanzo?" The goddess actually looked mildly worried.
"You looked different, like you," Sanzo muttered. "Great. Now I'm making as much sense as the monkey."
"I did, did I?" Kanzeon looked intrigued, anklets chiming as se stepped close enough to let a leafy length twine about hir fingers. "Hmm. I didn't expect that."
For someone admitting to being surprised, se looked all too pleased with hirself. "Just tell me this thing's done with me," Sanzo bit out. Though he expected it wasn't. His teeth felt a little sharper, but definitely not fangs, and a furtive feel of his ears hadn't turned up anything abnormal. Obviously, to the Merciful Goddess, mostly human left a hell of a lot of wiggle room.
"Close," se said thoughtfully. "You still need some time to mature, but... oh. Of course. The nae were gifts of Heaven; there would be a resonance. Especially given you're the first in centuries—"
"The what?" Sanzo said in disbelief. Being a Sanzo was hair-raising enough. He didn't need anymore gifts from Heaven, thanks.
"It's a long story." Kanzeon looked half-inclined to tell it anyway, then shrugged. "Ages ago, humans and youkai were at war. And the youkai clans weren't nearly as skilled at sorcery as they are now. So lords of certain clans petitioned for a way to stop the fighting." Se smirked. "And they got one."
"Kill a thousand youkai, become one yourself," Sanzo said sourly.
"You know Hakkai," Kanzeon countered. "Do you think that would have worked?"
Not really. It'd stop a sane person... but he'd pretty well established that Gonou had not been sane.
"Though we did alter those who changed," Kanzeon mused. "Did you ever wonder why no one else in the Centipede Clan has vines?"
Given he hadn't had a lot of contact with them pre-Gonou mess, no. "I figured that was his business."
"And now you know it's not," Kanzeon said simply.
Shit. "You're telling me people like Hakkai are infectious?" Sanzo demanded.
"Not to everyone," was the candid shrug. "Only to those humans they care about, who've also absorbed a great deal of youkai blood." Se smirked. "Now, that helped stop the wars."
Damn right it would. A sudden outbreak of youkai in the middle of whatever human group had seen the most fighting – yeah, that'd shake up alliances damn quick.
"So most humans are perfectly safe from being seeded." Se paused. "By Hakkai." Se smirked again, letting the implications sink in.
Sanzo let out a sharp breath. "I won't do that to innocent people!"
"Who's innocent?" Kanzeon said wryly. "With a limiter on, you can't affect anyone. And you're not grown enough to set seed anyway. Yet." Se shook hir head. "It's meant to be a gift, Sanzo. To heal breaches between clans, and races. Children are the best healers, after all; and those changed by a nae don't have children of taboo." Se winked. "Rasetsunyo could tell you that."
Sanzo's eyes narrowed. "Kougaiji." Hair, red as any hanyou's. Eyes – not quite red, but distinctly red-violet. And youkai.
Youkai, but with a will and compassion he'd rarely seen in that race lately....
"He probably doesn't know," Kanzeon said frankly. "Gyumaoh fed on humans; if he'd know his lady wife's history – well." Se paused. "And Gyumaoh fed on nae. But when he was sealed away, the Bloodmoth clan kept up the hunt."
Moths. Caterpillars. Go figure. "And they found me," Sanzo said sourly.
"Have they?" Kanzeon grinned. "After all, the original nae were gifts of Heaven. And, sad to say, behaved accordingly."
"Peaceful, pious worshippers?" Sanzo said dryly. "No wonder they were lunch."
Chuckling, se stepped closer.
No. Se is not going to—
Se hugged him, cheek to cheek. "I missed you." Hir voice was soft with wry regret. "I know you don't remember how or why... but someday, you might. Maybe someday soon. So take care of yourself." Se stroked gold hair. "And it wouldn't hurt to let this grow out, sometimes. Goku's not the idiot some think."
A whisper of wind, and se was gone.
"Hospitality around here sucks," Gojyo groaned.
"It does," Hakkai agreed, tending the hanyou's wounds as well as he could. Their bonds barely allowed a trickle of chi to move, which meant what little energy he could raise was best used making sure no infections took hold. Fortunately, most of the cuts were shallow; more painful than life-threatening damage.
Or not fortunate at all, Hakkai thought darkly, senses reaching out – futilely – for any trace of Sanzo as he reflected on what Gojyo had already told him of their captors. If Kemushi's intent was to extract just one of their group, without offending Gyokumen Koushu more than necessary... yes, it made sense.
"Gotta give 'em plus fifty for nifty bad guy toys, though," Gojyo shrugged, eyeing silk walls. "No doors, no jailer. Just wiggle your fingers, and the stuff moves. If you're one of them."
Which was how a still-chained Goku had dropped out of sight with a yelp, before the patch of web holding Gojyo had sifted up into his place. Hakkai frowned, considering that. If their captors' holding wasn't a building as most knew them, but more a series of linked cocoons—
"Couldn't even lure the guy into a 'look how smart a villain I am' speech," Gojyo said ruefully. "Either he's smart enough to know that's a bad idea, or he really doesn't think we're human." Red eyes glanced at Hakkai, inviting him to share the joke. "So to speak."
"We know he's searching for a youkai that can conceal its nature, but should hate caterpillars," Hakkai mused. "One of a clan he claims Gyumaoh hunted – yet he called it newly sprouted. Curious."
"Good thing none of us are like that," Gojyo said levelly. "Don't think I'd like being tapped like a lacquer tree."
"No, that wouldn't be pleasant at all," Hakkai acknowledged. "Though I am curious how he constructed our bonds. And why those to hold a nae would need to be stronger than those for an ordinary youkai."
With an effort, Gojyo sat up. "Wondering just how strong that is?"
"Oh, yes," Hakkai agreed. "Well... that, and – do you still have your lighter?"
Gojyo eyed him. Glanced at the walls. Winced. "You are one crazy bastard, Hakkai."
"Why, thank you."
"Backtracking," Sanzo grumbled under his breath, hands on the steering wheel as they hurtled down the road, Hakuryuu taking care of more delicate details such as gear-shifting. "I hate backtracking."
The jeep's squeal seemed to agree. A pause, then a more inquiring squeak.
"No, I'm not leaving them behind. I don't care how tempting it is. The mess when we had to go rescue the damn kappa was bad enough. Leaving three idiots to their fates would probably get me struck by lightning."
"Don't sound so goddamn smug about it."
At least now Hakkai's gentle pace the past few days worked in his favor. It was late afternoon when he pulled back into the town square, but there were still a few hours until dark. Which was a good thing, because from the yelling in his head, a certain monkey was still some distance away. And in pain. Lots of pain. Which meant something was going to die.
He probably should have packed up that thought for later instead of leaving it out in public, Sanzo reflected, as townsfolk paled and backed away from the jeep. Evidently, he was scaring the straight crowd.
That, or some of them were smart enough to put together the direction he'd come from with the big plume of smoke still hanging in the sky from burning webs, and decide he wasn't anybody they wanted to know. Ever.
Stepping out of the jeep, he fired a shot in the air.
"I'm going to say this once," Sanzo bit out, voice pitched to carry to half the town. "Where do I find the Bloodmoth clan?"
"Well, that didn't work so good," Gojyo said dryly.
Only Hakkai, Gojyo thought, could manage to sound so politely indignant after a living web had wrapped itself around him, leaving nothing visible but a glitter of annoyed green eyes. Panicked green eyes. Which was not good. At all.
"So the webs don't like being burned," Gojyo observed. "Who knew?"
Wriggling in a web of black and scarlet, green glittered a little more petulantly. And darted around the cell again, checking for something – make that, someone – that most definitely was not there.
And then Hakkai glanced innocently back his way. As if he hadn't been looking at all, really.
Gojyo tried not to laugh. Really. It hadn't been fun, finding out their captors had laced chains with webs so that burning any part of your bonds sent the heat right back to you. And it wasn't exactly easy on the nerves when living webs had swarmed through the walls, muffling the lighter for good, and bundling Hakkai up like yesterday's leftovers.
But watching Hakkai ever so subtly freak out because Sanzo wasn't in grabbing distance – that was funny. In an odd, twisted way his mind didn't want to look at too closely.
Come to think of it, that was Hakkai all over.
Seriously, 'Kai. Sanzo? Mr. Ice Prince himself? That guy's not celibate because of any temple vow; he stays out of the sack because he hates people. Trust me on this one.
Not that Gojyo was going to say that. Exactly. He kind of liked his intestines exactly where they were. Not to mention, thinking about those two in the same tent, vines and all—
His mind shied like a spooked horse, stampeding back to safer territory. Stinging torture-cuts, featureless web-walls, a quietly morose demon-slayer....
Ah, hell. "Well, we got one good thing out of this," Gojyo reflected.
Gojyo waggled a web-wrapped hand. "If this is what he's got for guards, all we've got to do is get these chains off and cut our way out."
Hakkai arched an eyebrow.
"...Okay, I'm still working on a few details."
"I am!" Gojyo insisted. "You think I want to let Sanzo rescue my sorry ass?"
"Mhmm." Green eyes were sad, and thoughtful.
"Yes, he's coming back to rescue you too," Gojyo sighed, exasperated. "And you know why? Because somewhere, deep down – really, really deep, we're talking mineshafts – under all the robes and asshole priest, there's a sort of good guy." The redhead paused. "I think."
"Damn it, Hakkai, he knows you didn't do it on purpose, okay?" Gojyo almost growled. "And in case you hadn't noticed, even Sanzo's not enough of an asshole to blame people for things that aren't their fault."
Hakkai blinked at him, startled.
"Yes, he threw you out of the tent. Get a clue, Hakkai! He throws everybody out, all the time." Gojyo frowned. "But he didn't shoot you. I don't know; whatever you did before breakfast back at the inn must have been the right thing. Got any idea what that was?"
"...Hmm." Hakkai's gaze warmed, hopeful.
Okay. Now he had to ask. "For the love of Heaven, Hakkai, why San—"
Web fluttered, and the demon-slayer dropped out of sight. The gray floor parted like loom-threads, and a chained, bloody monkey rose into the cell.
"Ugh... Gojyo." Goku rolled over to look at him, gold eyes bleary. "An' I didn't get why Sanzo hated insects."
"Goes for all of us, kid," Gojyo grinned. "You okay?" Not that anybody could be okay with cuts like that, but they'd all had worse.
Goku nodded. "There's more of 'em than we saw." He pointed. "Down that way, somewhere. Don't think they're as strong as Kemushi or Tsuki, but I can smell 'em." He sobered. "I'm callin' him, Gojyo. But... if these guys are tough enough to keep us, an' they want this—"
"Never mind what they want," Gojyo cut him off. Don't say it. Don't even hint. "They wanted Sanzo frozen to death, and they didn't get it." And how the priest had pulled that off, he'd love to know. "Burning the webs doesn't work. Got any other ideas how to get out of here?"
Mischief gleamed in gold. "Maybe...."
"You've got to be kidding me."
Concealed at the base of what looked like the world's biggest gingko tree, Sanzo eyed the gray webbing swathing half a forest, and tried not to swear. Much. "How the hell do I find the idiots in all that?"
"Easy for the flying dragon to say," Sanzo grumbled. "That's a hundred feet if it's an inch, and Goku's the tree-climber in this bunch. Unless you've got a ladder handy—"
Sighing, Sanzo dug into the jeep's various storage compartments. Tents, beer, first-aid kit, a bundle marked In case of quicksand.... Ah.
Taking out a particular pack, Sanzo shook out a rope, eyeing the lowest branches. "Don't try to catch it. Just keep it from slipping."
"Kyuu." White soared up into the darkness.
Dusk had deepened into full dark by the time he got up to cocoon level. Braced himself, and took out one of the other odd items in that particular survival kit.
"Told Hakkai we're going west," Sanzo muttered, hacking away at gray strands with Hakkai's razor-edged machete. "Deserts, mountains, rivers... and he's still packing this. What's he think is over the next ridge, a jungle?"
Then again, this was Hakkai. A machete might never have been meant for plants—
Steel sliced partway into silk, and stuck.
Son of a fucking— Breathe. Calm. Focus. He didn't cut with a blade; he cut with his will, reaching through leather and steel.
Struggling turned to a clean, swift rip, and steel sliced free.
Not ordinary silk. Figures.
Bracing himself, Sanzo poured spiritual energy into steel, making three fast cuts. Warm air gusted out—
Blade up, he jumped inside.
White wings fluttered to his shoulder as Sanzo found footing on stiffened web. The priest grimaced, bracing himself against bone-deep loathing.
Okay. I don't like things that want to eat me. Moving on—
Twenty-odd slashes and several dragon-fire bursts later, a smoldering Sanzo stalked down the closest thing this nest had to a corridor, following the hot-and-cold of a nerve-jangling, silent Sanzoooo!
Damn it, monkey, I'm coming already—
A faint breeze wafted by, and his knees almost crumpled – even as he had to physically hold his hand away from the limiter's clasp.
Someone's in danger. Someone's in pain.
Kin is. Hakkai.
Gods, what the hell did this thing do to me?
No one should drag that impulse to protect out of his scarred soul. No one but Goku, at least – and who knew what twisted idiocy in his head had made him go that far for the monkey, memories of Master Koumyou or not.
But it was there, gods help him. He wanted to find Hakkai, and kill whatever had hurt him, and wrap him up so he'd be safe—
None of us are safe. We can't be. We've got a mission. People to save. Humans and youkai. Not that any of them are going to thank us for it.
Okay. Listen. Feel for the monkey... no good, not really; the way these webs intermingled, he might chase his tail through half the guards in this place trying to get to Goku. Taste the air; nerve-wracking as that was – if he was sensing Hakkai, damn it, he was going to use it.
Too many air currents, Sanzo knew; not sure how he knew. Webs are absorbing some of the scent. No way to be sure where it's flowing from.
At least, not without dipping deeper into that well of youkai-tinged instinct. And given the last time had seen him mowing down caterpillars with very little regard for Hakuryuu's or his own safety – no. Stealth, that's what he needed now. And the ability to think.
I need to find somebody. A local. Alone.
"Boy. These guys are good."
"Like that's a treat, not a problem," Gojyo grumbled. Trying, again, to call his shakujou. No dice. It was there, he could feel it; it just wouldn't – quite – come.
"Yeah, well... blocking chi's kind of easy. Limiters, all kinds of youkai prison thingies – we've seen 'em before, right? But these bloodmoth guys put together something that blocks a curse." Goku eyed his chains with the kind of look the monkey usually reserved for a tree with a full load of fruit, just out of easy grabbing range. "An' Sanzo says that's hard. 'Cause curses are all divine-glittery; like blessings, only not so pretty."
Gojyo's jaw dropped. "Are you telling me Sanzo gave you a lecture on curses? And you paid attention?"
"Yeah! Well – kinda. Most of it." Goku ducked his head. "I did somethin' bad in Heaven. An' I can't remember. I dunno if I was cursed not to, or if... if it just got buried under all the lonely." Sadness was bounced off Goku's face by a determined grin. "What you gotta remember is, curses and blessings get the gods' attention. You know, like Sanzo's got Kanzeon's?"
"Okay," Gojyo said slowly, thinking that through. "Wait a minute. You saying that if Sanzo were locked up in these—" he rattled chains "—he'd disappear?"
"I don't think so," Goku answered, after a minute of scrunched eyebrows. "But he'd be real hard to find."
And Hakkai thinks these guys meant to get Sanzo, Gojyo realized. Only they didn't think a human could be their nae.
But if they didn't think a Sanzo was what they wanted, then why bonds that could cloud Heaven's sight?
Screw it. Focus on the important things. Like, if I have to let the priest rescue me for a trap meant for him, I'm never gonna live it down....
A grab, a twist, and Sanzo had a youkai cook in a lemon-stained apron pinned against a cold-storage door, Hakuryuu flying watch in case a server came back for seconds. "The foreign youkai. Where are they?"
"A human?" The antennae-browed youkai bucked against his hold, spat a curse when it didn't break. "One shout, and you'll—"
Click. "Be picking my way through what's left of your brains," Sanzo said levelly. "Talk."
"Betray our lord?" The cook sniffed. "Even if he's hopeful enough to believe Mistress Tsuki's divinations have finally produced results, none of us would ever...." His voice trailed off, and he sniffed again.
Damn. And he had to pick now to remember that moths had a good sense of smell? Murmuring under his breath, Sanzo began to chant.
"I should never have doubted our lord," the cook whispered.
Focus. I need information. I can't get it if he's dead. Or I am.
"You're not a human," the cook went on, "you're a— aaugh!"
Pain, Sanzo chanted, muffling the youkai's shout with his sleeve. The pain of knives tearing at raw flesh; of desert sun beating down, blistering and burning. "Tell me where they are."
"I will not— ah! We know your kind, we'll devour you—"
The hell you will. Still chanting, Sanzo tightened the spell's grip, pouring in just a little more energy—
The youkai snapped at his fingers.
I will not be eaten!
Rage blazed free, sweeping power with it. Under his touch, the spell twisted, white flames flowering from youkai flesh.
The cook didn't even have time to scream.
"...Cheep?" Hakuryuu managed, back-winging away from fast-spreading flames.
"Fuck," Sanzo agreed. A quick breath, tasting air to learn which of the three web-tunnels smelled most of Hakkai—
Choice made, he ran for it.
"The thousand-slayer." The youkai lord scowled at him after Tsuki unwrapped Hakkai's face, wiping his hands on his robes as if they'd both touched something foul. "It was said you were executed."
"Not a very good student of Buddhism, are you, Lord Kemushi?" Hakkai smiled. "They don't believe in taking life. How can they execute anyone?"
"There are ways." Tsuki eyed him with contempt. "You should have been assigned to fast as penance. The full fast. For a very long time."
Ah. As in, politely starve to death. Hakkai had heard, afterward, that certain of the temple priests had suggested such a sentence. Very forcefully.
But not as forceful as Sanzo.
"Why burn up a dirt rag?" Hakkai could imagine Sanzo stating, staring down priests easily twice and thrice his age. "We could still get use out of it."
That would have been his argument, no question. It might even have been part of the reason; Sanzo wasn't selfless enough to turn away a person he had use for.
But he chanted the sutra. Even if it wasn't for Kanan... he cared enough to give me peace. Even just for a little while.
Like Sanzo cared about Goku; violently, true, but the younger youkai truly could not behave like a civil person. Like he cared about the hapless innocents they met in their travels. Trying to keep them away, so inevitable attacks would harm as few as possible. Allowing a hostage-taking youkai to think it had the upper hand, if he had to, until they could win them free. No matter what it cost him. Sanzo had bled more for children than most parents Hakkai had ever met.
And he'd swear to his last breath he doesn't love them, Hakkai reflected. Doesn't like them, certainly. Would rather never deal with them, ever, definitely. But love? Oh yes. It's there.
Not that it was easy to make that out, through the gunfire.
"We follow Buddha here better than most humans," Kemushi snorted. "No meat has entered these halls. Not of human, nor animal."
An interesting qualification. "So you do eat youkai," Hakkai said politely.
"The way does not demand that a being forsake what it needs to survive." Kemushi frowned.
"He could be," Tsuki muttered. "The legends are incomplete...."
"He's been wrapped in webs for hours," Kemushi said, obviously not pleased.
"And a nae should have betrayed itself by now?" Hakkai inclined his head. "Yet hate does not always lead to fear, Lord Kemushi. It can drive a being to simple flight. Or sometimes to denial, of even the harshest reality. And sometimes, to murder...."
Air gusted into the chamber suddenly; Hakkai tasted smoke. Heard screams, shouts, a distant, familiar roar—
Fire. This place is on fire.
Coughing, smoke-stained youkai started tumbling out of a web tunnel. "Lord Kemushi—"
"Impossible!" Tsuki hissed. "Our home has carried spells upon spells for centuries. No mortal flame could—!"
"And sometimes, if you are truly unfortunate," Hakkai smiled, "fear leads to... well, a very, very angry Buddhist priest."
Sanzo loomed out of the smoke, revolver aimed. "You couldn't have just shut up and let me shoot them?"
"Ah." Hakkai smiled innocently, as Hakuryuu flew over and began roasting his bonds. "But that wouldn't have been nearly as satisfying." He paused. "For you."
"You're right." Sanzo eyed Kemushi. "The lord of the Bloodmoth clan, I presume."
One hand free of chi-muffling web, Hakkai finally managed to reach his lockpicks.
"This is none of your concern, human," Tsuki snarled, tiles clattering between her fingers. "My lord was merciful, and left you to a quiet death. Now, you will perish at our hands—!"
The revolver cracked, and she dropped, chi dissipating in the wind.
"You have violated the will of Heaven," Sanzo said levelly, flames encroaching on the webs behind him. "The nae were never yours to feed on."
"The will of Heaven?" Kemushi spat. "Nae made humans youkai!"
"Yeah." Violet eyes smirked. "Funny how that works out."
Color drained from Kemushi's face. "You?"
"Him." Hands free, Hakkai ducked under the gunfire.
Compared to a normal day on the road, the rest of the fight was decidedly anticlimactic. Gunfire, chi blasts, dodging, the odd knife-hand blow to a vulnerable neck—
And one particularly vicious ripping blast to a youkai who had dared to try to grab Sanzo by the shoulder.
No one touches him. He's mine!
Foe nicely crisped, Hakkai froze. Oh gods. Goku was right.
That wasn't the reaction of a concerned traveling companion for a recently-ill friend. That was – it was – and Goku had seen it first....
"We don't bug you about the blondes. An' the redheads. And—"
Well. At least, unlike Gojyo's endless parade of lovelies, it was just the one blond.
If the gods were merciful, I'd die of embarrassment. Right now.
Apparently, a sinner such as himself didn't deserve that much mercy.
Oh gods, what do I do, Sanzo will kill me if he thinks that I— There!
His blast and Sanzo's bullet struck the fleeing youkai lord, and not even ashes remained.
Trading glances, the pair bolted for the nearest unburned tunnel, Hakuryuu soaring ahead. "Any idea where the other idiots are?" Sanzo snapped.
Hakkai pointed down and sideways. "Though we can't exactly get there in a straight—"
Machete in hand, Sanzo slashed through the wall.
"Of course." Hakkai joined Sanzo at the rippling edges, peering through the night to pick the next web-tunnel they could cross to. "The lighter wouldn't burn them, but if you reinforce flames with nin—"
"I didn't." Blade in hand, Sanzo jumped.
Hakkai followed, touching down on the papery outer layer before stepping closer to where Sanzo had driven in the blade to keep his footing. "Sanzo?"
"...I was questioning one of them. In a hurry." The priest's jaw clenched. "He tried to bite me. I lost it. Put too much power into the spell. He just...." Grimly, the blond gestured toward the encroaching flames.
"Oh, my," Hakkai murmured. I was right. I was right! "We saw Rikudo teleport, Sanzo. I've known you were powerful for a long time. Though I've been worried that you haven't... had as free access to that power as you should. But with one foreign chi, instead of hundreds—"
"Does this feel like a foreign chi to you?"
Anger. Pain. Hakkai had to reach out to it, even though he knew it was risky as trying to free a trapped fox—
But Sanzo held himself still, even as Hakkai's touch ghosted across his energies. Oh. "You're—"
Not youkai. But not human, either. It hung between them like a razored pendulum, ready to cut in any direction.
He's hurting enough, Hakkai knew. Don't push it. "I think we were moved from somewhere... that direction." He pointed. And blinked. "Oh dear."
"Of course the idiots have to be on fire." Sanzo took off, half-bouncing across the webbed top of the tunnels.
Following close, Hakkai skidded on his knees to a not-yet-burning patch. "Gojyo! Goku!"
"Hakkai? About time!" the hanyou yelled.
"Sanzo!" came Goku's gleeful shout.
"Hang on, we'll cut you out—" Hakkai started.
Web shuddered under them. Shifted.
Trailing screams, the bottom of the prison tore away. Flaming bits showed their still-chained companions as they dropped—
—Bounced, kind of—
—Collapsed with their webs to the ground, like a settling sheet.
"Fuck." Sanzo wiped sweat off his forehead, shoulders squirming for a moment under the sutra, as if he'd bathed in poison ivy. "Now we have to go down there and dig them out...." He eyed Hakkai. "And what are you grinning about?"
"Grinning? Really?" Hakkai said innocently.
Still. Hearing Goku's nauseated groan, he couldn't help but feel a little bit better.
One of these days, Sanzo reflected through a prickly, hot haze, this bunch of morons was actually going to get on the road when he told them to, and stay on until they'd eked out every last bit of available light.
But evidently, not today. It was still light out – light again? – but the jeep wasn't rumbling under him anymore, there was a sssh and curses of a tent going up, and where the hell was his gun—?
"Gojyo, get his feet!"
"Son of a— I need those teeth, you lousy excuse for a Buddhist!"
"'S not Sanzo's fault he's got a fever, pervert!"
"Yeah? And how the hell did he manage that, Hakkai?" A pause. "Um. Hakkai?"
Gripping silk that smelled of bloody leaves, Sanzo smirked. Mine.
"...I think I'd better take him inside."
Cloth dimmed the sun; Sanzo grumbled a protest—
"West, yes, I know. We will. As soon as we find out what's wrong with you. I know you used a lot of nin—"
So? He could have used more; that lightness hadn't left his soul, and he was finally getting used to the shifted balance. If only the itching would stop....
"Itching? Where? Ah, Sanzo, I don't think you want to take that off—"
"...Oh dear." A rueful laugh. "And a few days ago I wanted to have you like this."
Shut up and scratch, damn it.
"That's odd. These look somewhat like... bud scales...."
With an effort, Sanzo pushed back the fever. "Get over here," he said thickly, "and stop talking."
Fuming under the ink-scented avalanche, Konzen Douji took a deep breath, counted to ten, and reminded himself that it wasn't technically possible for a god to be killed by something as idiotic as a collapsed bookshelf.
Though apparently, Field Marshal Tenpou had given it a damn good try.
"Hang on," Tenpou said ruefully. "I'll get some help—"
"Are you insane?" Konzen growled. "Just dig me out of here!"
"All right, but it will take awhile, and—"
"I don't care!"
Footsteps. Casual, laid-back, booted footsteps, followed by an all too familiar snicker. "Well, well. You two look busy. Should I come back later?"
"Oh no, Kenren. Come in." There was a definite laugh in Tenpou's voice. "I was just telling Konzen I was expecting you."
The monkey is so dead for getting me into this.
Boots stepped nearer; with a rustle and slide of tomes, some of the weight started to lift. "Figured out the way to a man's heart is through his scrolls, huh? I'd kind of expect that from Tenpou, but you, Konzen... I'd think you might want to get away from that endless stack of paperwork—"
"I'm here about the paperwork, you perverted asshole!" The books had shifted; Konzen shoved, and managed to knock off enough of those covering him to reveal General Kenren's knowing smirk.
Not exactly an improvement.
"Oh, of course, the paperwork." Kenren reached in to yank at his wrists, silver skull necklace jingling; saw the look of pure murder in Konzen's eyes, and went back to lifting books. "Forgot I was dealing with the guy who has to look fun up in the dictionary."
"I'll bury you under here; you can see how much fun it is," Konzen threatened.
"Good point," Kenren admitted. "Alone, wouldn't be much fun at all. But with the right company...." He winked at Tenpou.
"Konzen's just here to find a form, Kenren," Tenpou said patiently, labcoat sleeves rolled up as he removed volumes in some arcane order. "It seems Goku used it as a bookmark—"
"And the damn monkey can't remember which book," Konzen growled, shoving again. This time, he fell free.
"He has borrowed quite a few," Tenpou admitted.
Dusting himself off, Konzen snorted. "Don't tell me he actually read them."
"Well, he tries." Tenpou pushed up his glasses. "It helps if it's about food."
"When is anything with that idiot ape not about food?" Konzen demanded. Unless it's about Nataku. That's not going to end well....
"Much as I love to see you two dancing around your mutually unrequited love affair...." Kenren waved a creased, crumple-edged piece of paper. "Doesn't look like a bookmark to me."
A glance, and Konzen snatched it. "I don't have love affairs, General. Unrequited or otherwise."
"Of course not." Tenpou smiled wryly. "Really, Kenren! You should save your imagination for playing with Goku."
Turning on his heel, Konzen left the two officers to bicker. Or whatever it was they did that Tenpou actually enjoyed Kenren's company for. He wasn't going to listen in. He behaved better than that – better than any too-curious monkey, any day of the week.
And he definitely didn't overhear a sad murmur of, "Even in Heaven, that'd take a miracle...."
"And I thought they'd be pure white." Painted nails brushed firm petals, fondly as a kitten. "This is much more interesting."
Still blinking away memories, Sanzo took in Kanzeon, and silver-edged white blooms with a pinprick of crimson, and groped for his gun. Damn Hakkai, where had the idiot put it? "You."
"Feeling better?" Kanzeon smiled brightly. "A nae's first bloom is always the hardest. It helps if you're... with a friend. A very good friend."
Even wrapped in vines in his sleep, Hakkai looked joyously smug.
Stall. Sanzo knew the gun was in here somewhere; he could almost taste the gunpowder. "I'm not a nae."
"Yes, you are. The first in five hundred years," Kanzeon stated. "We'll straighten it out with Heaven eventually."
Sanzo rolled his eyes. "Like you straightened out Kenren being locked up and tortured? Oh, wait; that was Tenpou, wasn't it? You just smirked and acted like you'd set it up to come out right all along."
Se blinked, delighted. "Konzen?"
There! Finger wrapped around the trigger, Sanzo came up firing. "This is for sticking me with the monkey, twice!"
Gunfire, Hakkai realized, blinking at the fresh holes in the tent. At least it wasn't aimed at me....
Ah well. On the bright side, it was good to know he did know Sanzo that well. "Good morning," Hakkai hazarded, clipping his limiters back on. "Though it looks a bit closer to afternoon...." A bit of light shone through the holes, and the healer blinked.
Wreathed in a waterfall of vines and flowers, violet eyes narrowed. "Not. One. Word."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Hakkai assured him. And knew, even as he said it, he was lying. So beautiful.... "Are you still feverish?"
A moment's consideration, and Sanzo put the revolver away. "Don't think so—"
"Everybody alive in there?" Gojyo's voice came through thin fabric.
"We're fine, thank you," Hakkai called back. "If you could give us a few more minutes?"
"Does this look fine to you?" Sanzo hissed.
"Compared to how delirious you were last night," Hakkai nodded. Remember what Gojyo said. I want him near... but I have to move slowly. Like taming a wild bird. "May I check you?"
Sanzo's lips thinned, but he sat down. "Do what you have to."
Still a little warm, but it feels as if that's normal now, Hakkai judged, fingers brushing Sanzo's shoulder. Let's see.... Delicately, not touching sensitive skin more than he had to, he examined both sides of Sanzo's neck. "You seem to have a matched set, now."
"Wonderful," came the quiet snarl.
I would say so, yes; you haven't been this healthy in years. But Hakkai didn't say it. Sanzo was still angry; at the world, at fate, at himself. "What you said to Kemushi, before we killed him – you spoke as if you knew what the nae were."
"Are." Sanzo's shoulders were tight. "According to Kanzeon, this isn't the first time humans and youkai have tried to wipe each other out. Heaven slapped both sides by making nae – making a means to make nae – to stop the fighting." He snorted. "Only they turned peaceful enough to get eaten, and there hasn't been another thousand-slayer to plant a nae seed in someone who's just killed hundreds of youkai for almost five hundred years. Until you came along."
Sanzo vibrated under his hand; with a shock, Hakkai realized the blond was growling.
"Damn it, I bet se's had this planned since you hit a thousand...."
They betrayed him. Fully aware of the wrath he was about to bring down on his own head, Hakkai dropped a kiss on the side of Sanzo's throat.
It was almost worth the slash to his cheek. Definitely worth it, to sense some of Sanzo's tension uncoil, now that he'd been given something he could fight. Though that tingling....
"Sanzo?" Hakkai managed through a mouth suddenly numb. "I think you might be venomous."
Violet widened, and Sanzo swore. "Gojyo! Goku! Get in here!"
Could have been worse, Sanzo reflected, as they made camp for the night. Hakkai had been ruefully good-natured about the whole venomous mess; Hakuryuu hadn't tried to bite the priest more than once. Gojyo and Goku had both seen him, embarrassing petals and all, and the world hadn't ended.
Though after Goku's grinning "Cool!" he almost wished it had.
"Well, I suppose we know why the bloodmoth youkai learned to move prisoners without touching them." Hakkai's hands still shook as he finished dinner, but he assured them it would be gone by morning. "The toxin reminds me of yellow pitcher plant extract. Neurotoxic, mostly voluntary muscles... I imagine it'd be much worse for an insect youkai."
"'S that why you're cold?" Goku wondered.
"I can't shiver as well as I'd like, yes."
Not feeling guilty. Not. Glancing away, Sanzo eyed Hakuryuu. "Snuggle up with him tonight."
"Cheep!" The dragon looked cheered.
"Oh, so that's why you didn't freeze," Gojyo said knowingly. "Freeloading monk."
"Actually... that's not possible," Hakkai said slowly. "The difference in mass alone, unless he found a good supply of firewood...."
"No," Sanzo snorted.
"But you were up in the mountains," Goku objected. "That Kemushi guy thought you were frozen dead!"
"Like Hakkai said, he was a lousy Buddhist," Sanzo said dryly.
The other three looked at each other, then back at him. "Okay, I'm missing something," Gojyo admitted. "What's eating vegetables and wearing silly robes got to do with frostbite?"
"Not a damn thing," Sanzo said bluntly. "But any monk who spends time above the timberline learns the fire breathing meditation. If he wants to stay a monk, and not a frozen corpse."
"It's not a spell. It's not even hard. Just dangerous. You're messing with your body thermostat; Hakkai can tell you what a bad idea that is," Sanzo went on. "And no, Goku, I won't teach you. Not unless you can learn to meditate enough to pull off one of Hakkai's chi blasts. Or do I have to repeat that it's dangerous?"
"Aww...." Goku pouted.
Gojyo shook his head. "Let me get this straight. You can't freeze?"
"Anybody can freeze, idiot." Sanzo shook his head. "But one night isn't going to kill me. Hell, it wasn't even above sixteen thousand feet."
Another silence. Gojyo eyed Hakkai. "Okay. His Holiness? Officially scary."
"You saved Hakuryuu," Hakkai said quietly.
"He wouldn't have needed saving, if he'd done the smart thing and left me," Sanzo said flatly.
"He wouldn't," Hakkai mused. "Thank you."
Goujun always was too loyal at the wrong times. Sanzo kept the thought unspoken, as he had scores of others since he'd woken knowing... who he had been. A long time ago.
Se's my aunt. I'm never going to live this down... what in Heaven is se up to?
Because they were all here. All of them, who'd been caught up in Heaven's tangled mess. Goujun. Goku. Kenren. Tenpou....
Sanzo glanced at Hakkai, and looked away. He still loves to learn. I guess we really don't change.
Though when he looked at Goku... it was startling, seeing him older; less the dirt-spreading terror of Heaven, and more of a dangerous young man. Still cheerful, but a little more thoughtful, with a hidden weight of sorrow.
They did that. To my monkey.
If he ever got the chance, someone in Heaven was getting shot. "Stop making assumptions, monkey."
"Huh?" Goku blinked.
"So Heaven locked you up. You think it's because you did something wrong. How do you know? Maybe you just broke a celestial vase." Sanzo hesitated. Don't say too much. The hag's got to be pulling off some fancy footwork just to hide that I remember. Goku on top of that – better not risk it. "Or maybe, just maybe, there was already a mess up there, and you just stumbled into it trying to help." He snorted. "Given how that usually works out... there's gardeners in Chang'an who still hide when they see you coming."
"It is kind of funny." Goku grinned, though he still looked puzzled. "Sanzo?"
"...Nothing." They locked you up. "One who delights in the ephemeral." You who have to see and feel and be – and they locked you in a cage with nothing.
You're a pest, monkey. But... I'm sorry I wasn't there sooner.
Finished, Sanzo stepped around the fire, and laid a hand on the surprised kid's head. "Next time you see a god, feel free to kick its ass."
"And you." Sanzo pointed at the startled healer. "You're not going to do us any good if you get sick because you're cold. If you promise to lie still...." Violet eyes narrowed. "Otherwise, I will shoot you."
Point sufficiently made, he stalked off to his bedroll, leaving the idiots to handle the dishes. Hakkai could join him later, or not. He didn't care.
And if Sanzo kept telling himself that, maybe he could finally sleep.
Three heads drew together by the banked fire, whispering quietly. "Maybe he's still sick?" Gojyo ventured.
"Uh-uh!" Goku shook his head vigorously. "Sanzo's nastier when he's sick. Not nice."
"I think it's a bit more complicated than that." Hakkai frowned, considering what few further details on nae he'd managed to drag out of Sanzo, together with what he'd sensed in his examinations. "Nae were shaped by Heaven to create new clan members. For the youkai... and the nae themselves. They aren't meant to exist alone. They need there to be kin in the world with them – at least as close kin as I am. They need it. As we do air." Hakkai paused, the magnitude of that finally crashing down. "Once he sets seed—" and I think that's going to be soon, gods help us "—he's going to spend the rest of his life wanting to... change people. If he's alone."
"Creepy," Gojyo muttered. And winced. "And with the Minus Wave—"
"Yes," Hakkai said simply. "Exactly." He sighed. "I imagine it might be like trying to deal with you, if you'd suddenly been banned from the opposite sex."
"But that's just if he's alone, right?" Goku looked him dead on, worried. "We're here."
"We are," Hakkai nodded. "I suppose, in a rather less than graceful fashion... Sanzo is simply trying to accustom himself to the idea of not being alone. So he won't risk hurting anyone."
A whisper of power, and Nyoi-bo thumped him on the head.
"If he just didn't wanna be alone, he'd have me in there," Goku said pointedly. "He asked you!"
"Kid's right, for once." Gojyo grinned at him. "So. Last dessert for the condemned man?"
"But—" Hakkai protested. "He— it's not personal—"
"With His Crankiness? Everything's personal." Gojyo shoved him steadily toward the tent. "Just try to stay alive, got it?"
Shadows in shadows. Some roughly angular, like the bedroll and neatly folded robes; others twined with white and green and gold, mostly snuggled down into a bedroll. "Noisy," Sanzo grumbled.
"Ah, I'm sorry...."
Which could mean, I was sleeping, until you interrupted, or, I will sleep, and if you try to stop me, there will be pain. Or....
Daring to take the most optimistic translation, Hakkai lifted blankets and vines, and gingerly eased under them.
"Hmph." Breathing slowed, and Sanzo drifted off.
Tangled in sleepy vines, Hakkai finally smiled. Well. I guess I just have to see what happens tomorrow....
"That was my spring roll!"
"Heh! Too slow, pervert!"
"I'll show you slow, you overgrown ape—"
Driving, Hakkai sighed. "I suppose some things never change."
"Apparently not." Not even in five hundred years, Sanzo thought dryly.
Then again, this time around....
Smirking, he pulled his gun.
Last modified September 22nd, 2013.