Fandoms: Saiyuki and Bleach
Summary: Sanzo stumbles across a beautiful hungry ghost outside his tent. How will he and his companions deal with Ulquiorra and his attitudes?
Characters: Sanzo and Ulquiorra, 2metaldog's prompt was "a card game that goes perfectly and horribly wrong."
Genre: General. Humor and adventure? Perhaps...
Rating and Warnings: PG for a good clean fight and bad language.
Word Count: 6557
Author's Notes: Many thanks to mysocalledhell for the beta and incandescens for helping me figure out that this could actually end. *laughs* This is a very, very late birthday fic for 2metaldog because my block hit right at the worst time, but I feel good about having done this.
Genjyo Sanzo needed to take a piss, but the sleeping bag was warm and comfortable.
The fire had burned down to a glimmer in the dark. The lake by the site lapped quietly at the shore, and the liquid sounds didn't help Sanzo's bladder. Hakkai snored in his tent. Gojyo tossed about in his. Sanzo mused that it should be the other way around, but perhaps Hakkai buried things more thoroughly than Gojyo could. Luckily, this wasn't one of those nights when Goku had come silently into his tent and curled up at Sanzo's feet. No need to untangle himself from inhumanly strong hands and an unconscious determination that he not disappear.
He sighed, resigned himself, and pulled his jeans and his black leather top on while still in the relative warmth of the sleeping bag. The five-shot Smith and Wesson came to his hand the moment he was out of the bag, and he stuck it into the waistband of his jeans. The scroll containing the Maten Sutra stirred where it lay on his robes, but stilled as he didn't reach for it. It was just a piss.
Just three trees away, he stubbed his toe on a rock. "Shit!"
His exclamation startled something in the bushes. Years of being targeted by crazy assassin youkai kicked in all his reflexes. He fell to the side and heard something whistle by his head. He got his gun up, fired, and in the muzzle flash he saw a dead white face with eyes as green as spring framed by shadows. He fired three more rounds at the whiteness under the trees, expecting and anticipating inhuman speed and reflexes, and he still fucking missed all three.
He heard nothing from the campsite, but suddenly three shadows descended in the faint light from the clouds and moon. One with a gleaming crescent with chains, the other with a golden staff, and the last holding a smooth ball of light. Goku with his big staff went for the head shot, Gojyo went for the legs, and Hakkai went to Sanzo's side, ball flaring into a shield raised to include the both of them.
The slender white-clad figure sprang away with a burst of power that made them all blink and take more serious stances. This wasn't just a random mob member.
They all stood ready.
Sanzo sighed. "I just need to take a piss, idiot. Come out, surrender, and we won't hurt you."
Gojyo and Goku snickered.
Hakkai rolled his eyes.
White flickered at the edge of Sanzo's vision. All three of his companions stiffened, reflexes halted by conscious thought, halted by what he'd promised. For an instant, Sanzo silently prayed that they wouldn't all be dead because of him, and in the next, a slender figure in white stepped into the faint moonlight.
"Hf..." Gojyo's breath left him.
Sanzo sneered. "Pervy kappa." He saw a quick flash of white teeth as Gojyo's focus came back.
The boy before them was beautiful. Slender, with ragged long black hair, he wore robes of white and a helm of bone. A katana rode his hip at exactly the right angle for drawing it quickly. He felt Hakkai tense at his side, and he saw Gojyo heft his shakujou unconsciously, moonlight gleaming off the crescent's edge. Goku's eyes narrowed even as his stance widened again.
"Kill him, if needed," he said and saw the minute release of tensions. The safeties were off. They, at least, wouldn't die because of his promise.
Thus assured, Sanzo walked forward, very conscious that he only had one shot if the youkai proved to be as insane as the others or under orders to kill him.
The figure simply stood there, head cocked a little to the side.
"Who are you?"
"I am Ulquiorra Schiffer," the youth said in formal cadences.
"I am Genjyo Sanzo. Will you surrender to us?"
The bald statement made Sanzo tilt his head even as he saw Gojyo grin. "Why not?"
"Because you are just human."
Sanzo snorted and then shook his head. "Are you here to kill me then?"
This time Ulquiorra was the one that looked taken aback. "No. I was not specifically hunting you, but... I am hungry."
Sanzo stood his ground in the face of a wave of spiritual energy that flowed around him as dark and despairing as an open grave. He felt naked without his sutra, but didn't waste time or energy wishing for it, instead, his finger moved from the side of the barrel to the trigger. "I'm sure Hakkai could find you some leftovers from dinner."
Hakkai's soft huff of breath told Sanzo that he had sensed more than was apparent to the eye as well. "Certainly."
Ulquiorra bowed at the waist. "My apologies, but I do not wish to eat the mud and muck you human trash call food. I wish to eat your soul. It seems powerful enough to make a very fine meal. Although..." He looked around at the other three. "They would do as well. I am more used to eating my own kind."
Sanzo blinked. They'd run across countless stories of youkai eating humans, but a youkai that ate other youkai? Plus, this one wasn't talking about meat, it was talking about souls and power.
"Good, then you can just try an' get through us first." Gojyo leapt, red hair floating about him, chains clashing, blades swinging. The slender figure gestured and a blast of power flew from him even as he changed into a thing with thin black wings.
Gojyo dodged the center of that blast, but the edge caught him and threw him into the nearby trees, tumbling as he went. Black rain started to fall from the sky, and where it fell it burned. Sanzo swore at the sting. Before Ulquiorra could line up another blast, Goku was on him. The youth brought his golden rod down in a blur, a multitude of blurs, as both youkai picked up their speed and the strength of their blows started to shatter the trees about them and the dirt and grass clods flew in all directions.
Hakkai moved Sanzo back, and when another one of those bright blasts came in their direction, he caught it on his shield. The force of it was so great it sent them both sliding back another five feet. They both watched as a black shadow with Goku's crown and staff went flying overhead, and Hakkai sighed.
"I had hoped it wouldn't come to this." Hakkai reached up and pulled his limiters off. He handed them to Sanzo. Ivy twined about his skin as his ears lengthened into his dark hair, and his eyes slanted high. He bounded into the fray.
The heavy thuds in the dark made Sanzo snarl in frustration. Then there was a roar of power and from the light of it he could see that Ulquiorra had changed form to match Hakkai. He'd become something hugely black and bat-winged, bare now of his clothing, he had turned bestial. A rolling wave of despair came from the black figure, and Sanzo growled, they'd met that kind of emotional manipulation before. Claws ripped, steel sparked, and teeth flashed amid snarls from Hakkai. The other was strangely silent as they fought.
Sanzo swore, and was answered by string of curses from Gojyo, who limped back next to him.
"Aw... crap. No limiters?" Gojyo asked.
Sanzo nodded tightly. "Cover me when I go for the tent?"
Gojyo's lips tightened. "Where's the monkey?"
"He'll show up."
Gojyo looked like he was going to protest, but Sanzo whirled and ran for the tent. He heard Gojyo swear and follow. A scream of rage arched out over the trees. Sanzo ran faster, tearing open the door to get at the sutra, and he heard Gojyo growl, "No you don't."
The scything sound of Gojyo's blade ended in a ring of steel, and then the rasp of chain as Sanzo got his hands on the sutra itself. The living document swirled up onto Sanzo's shoulders, but then the whole tent was slapped by a giant hand and Sanzo thudded to the ground.
A claw wrapped around his ankle and pulled him up into the air. He was shaken upside-down with the tent tangled around him. As the cloth finally fell away, he looked past the monster that had him by the ankle and saw Goku, battered and limping, putting his hands to his crown.
"No!" Sanzo yelled, but the hands kept moving, and as he dangled from one ankle he couldn't begin his chant. The crown cracked, Goku roared; and The Sage Equal to Heaven hit Sanzo's captor full-on.
The impact flung Sanzo into a tree trunk, and he lay there stunned before a too-hasty Hakkai painfully picked him up and dumped him on the edge of the clearing. Gojyo was lying at that edge, gently bleeding, but watching the fight with wide red eyes. He gave them both a nod. Hakkai sighed when Sanzo handed him back his limiters and he slid them back on.
Gojyo said lowly, "Better get on it, old man. They're ripping each other apart."
Sanzo cleared his mind and began his chant. He heard Gojyo grunt as Hakkai got him clear, and that let him concentrate fully on what he was doing. He buried his mind and heart into the meaning and intent of the words, making the concepts of darkness, of willing blindness, of losing sight of the truths of existence become real through his recitation. Knowing the darkness, he made it his.
The sutra shot tendrils out in the direction of the two struggling beasts. The Monkey King and bat-monster howled, screeched, and then screamed as they were caught, entangled by their own blindness and rage. The sutra held them both, and tightened to tear them asunder.
Sanzo took a deep breath, and held onto the meaning of the sutra within his mind. It never got easy, but the pain and sheer effort of holding the sutra in existence but away from its uncaring destruction of those within its darkness was now more familiar.
Hakkai came close enough to press the warm golden halves of Goku's crown into his hands. Tendrils of the sutra caressed the youkai's cheeks. Hakkai frowned and backed away carefully.
Sanzo hated this part, but he opened himself to letting the gods' wills be done through him. The miracle came through him like a flood being rammed through a narrow pass. It hurt too, washing away some of his own hold on himself and leaving detritus, knowledge he shouldn't keep in mortal form and a longing to just leave life that he fiercely squashed. Even in the midst of it he managed to hang onto being Sanzo and he got his hands to close the crown over Goku's temples and the boy slumped even as Ulquiorra gave an involuntary groan of pain as the Sutra, relieved of one target, focused all its power on him.
"You have one chance. Will you serve me instead of trying to kill me?" Sanzo asked shortly, expecting some defiant diatribe about how he'd rather die than serve some weak human, just like all the other youkai assassins had.
That head of midnight hair bowed. "I am promised to another, but I must survive to serve him. I will surrender to you, Sanzo-sama. I shall cease trying to kill you and yours."
This time it was Sanzo that groaned. He opened himself again to the golden flood of power; and Ulquiorra crumpled, a slender golden collar fitted perfectly about his throat.
The limiter turned him human, ridding him of every aspect of his bat-form and filling the gaping hole in his chest. The slender youth was no longer dead white, but as pale as Sanzo himself. Blood moved under living skin. His white and black robes clad him again, and a katana, hilt bound in green with a curved hand-guard that made it look as if there were an eye there, rested on his hip.
The Sutra fluttered and floated for a long moment over the fallen body, and then pulled back to Sanzo's black-clad shoulders. He stroked the edge of it gently as it settled and let his focus fall away.
He sighed and found both Gojyo and Hakkai looking at him.
"You really think that's going to be it, old man?" Gojyo drawled. "He's able to go toe-to-toe with an unleashed Goku, what the hell are you thinking?"
"Only idiots question miracles, Gojyo." Sanzo walked forward, and gently tapped the limiter that had no beginning and no end.
Gojyo cocked his head at that, and came over to heft the limp body onto his shoulder. "Especially when they collar a hottie like that for you."
The fan smack and accompanying yelp were satisfying, nearly as satisfying as finally going off into the woods and finally getting the privacy he needed to water a tree.
Jeep got them all to a town before daybreak. The wounds on Ulquiorra and Goku were too deep and extensive for them to do much more than field dressings at camp, and all five of them needed a good rest and plenty of food after the fight.
With the constant care the two boys needed, Sanzo only bothered with one room. Gojyo sewed up Hakkai's scalp wound, and then got things set up for Hakkai's steady hands. The quiet man closed the wounds on the others with thread and needle and a steady application of chi. Sanzo did the fetching and carrying of water, towels, soap, supplies from the local pharmacy, food, and drinks. He helped as he could with the bandaging, and sat with Goku when he was restless with a light fever.
The next morning he was pleased to find that the local paper had stories about a lost dog, a few store front break-ins, an old lady who painted the picture in the Town Hall, and a feature on the man that was challenging the mayor in the next election and how the challenger was trying to clean up the gambling in the local inns. All news that indicated that very little was seriously wrong in town. No massacres, no long obituary notices, and no wanted posters on youkai.
He drank his coffee, read the paper, and smoked a cigarette slowly out on the tiny balcony outside the room. The day was sunny, dry, and warm. The vendors were out calling their wares, a girl sang as she walked by with a basket of flowers, three boys ran through laughing and kicking up dust. He watched it all, breathed it in, and envied them their ignorant bliss. When the small door to the balcony opened, he glanced over, and was surprised to see a shirtless Ulquiorra blinking in the sunshine, bandages covering his chest, gut, and left arm. There were deep bruises on his right side, arm, hand, and shoulder, spectacularly purple, green, and blue in the bright light.
Sanzo peered at the youth from over his glasses. The silent look didn't faze the youth at all, and Sanzo ended up asking, "Why are you interrupting me?"
"Why am I alive?"
"You said you wouldn't try to kill me." Sanzo snapped the paper up again, and read for a while, ignoring the fact that Ulquiorra had not gone away. Three stories later, he glanced up again. "What? You're still here?"
"You did not answer my question, Sanzo-sama. I am waiting for the rest." Green eyes watched him with an intensity that he frowned at, but still didn't put the newspaper down.
"I live, Sanzo-sama. I breath. I hunger only for food and drink. My... heart beats and blood flows within my veins again. I am not what I was. What have you done to me?" The last phrase was no louder than the rest, but it held the same quality of focus and clarity that Sanzo might have given the sutra.
"A miracle," Sanzo said and went back to his paper.
To his surprise, the paper was not ripped away from him, and he got to read another page about the weather, wheat prices, and how to plant magnolias in pots. He also got to smoke another cigarette in peace.
When he finally put the page down, the boy was still standing there, swaying a little, but looking at him with an expression that made him want to pick the paper back up again. It was far too much like the look Goku had given him on the mountain, just before the bars of stone had fallen away. Waiting for something with a patience so infinite that it made Sanzo feel very small indeed.
He hated running away, so he looked up into those green eyes which looked back at him. "Where did you come from?"
At Sanzo's complete lack of reaction, Ulquiorra's eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared as he took in a deep breath. "You do not know anything of that place," Ulquiorra stated with a flatness Sanzo could not read.
"I do not."
"Yet you reek of the powers of Soul Society."
Sanzo blinked. "I do?"
"This reiatsu binder could only be created at this high a power through their work."
"Reiatsu? What is that?"
Ulquiorra's nostrils flared. "How can you not know what that is when you and your companions are filled with it? Though..." He suddenly sounded more uncertain. "It is of a very different flavor than what I've come across before. It's more..." Slender fingers traced the air over Sanzo's skin, and both of them frowned. The Sutra stirred against Sanzo's shoulders.
The slender youth sighed in frustration. "It is both less and more... purer and more refined yet... there is something distinctly inhuman and very much like me to the edge of that." He indicated the scroll.
Sanzo laughed. "It is of Heaven."
"Heaven, you say."
Sanzo nodded. "The Emperor's Heaven."
"Not the King of Soul Society?" Ulquiorra asked, head tilting, green eyes dark.
Sanzo shook his head. "I've never heard of such a thing."
The youth pulled a chair out from the table and slumped into it. "I did not think anyone had sent me on."
"What are you?" Sanzo asked, honestly curious.
"A Hollow, a ghost that eats other spirits," replied Ulquiorra. "I devoured enough souls to become a Vasto Lorde, but was changed by Aizen-sama for his needs. He made me part shinigami."
"Hollow, you sound like our hungry ghosts with your appetites. Shinigami," Sanzo tasted the word on his tongue. "What is that?"
"A Death God," Ulquiorra said. "Though, they seem to be more those who lord it over the dead than actually guide them. I became his Fourth Espada in his quest to become something more than a god."
"Fourth? In time order or?"
"In capability. I am the fourth strongest."
Sanzo frowned at that. He was sure he didn't want to meet the three that were stronger.
"What are you?" Ulquiorra asked in much the same tone as Sanzo had asked him.
"I am Sanzo."
"And what is that?"
Sanzo sat back and took a sip from his coffee. "What do you know of Buddhism?"
"Not a thing."
Sanzo sat back and really looked at the boy. "Have you even heard of it before?"
"But only as some sort of state religion of China. So far as I know, there is no power behind any of the claims. Why do you ask?"
Sanzo fought his sudden inclination to get off the porch, and he checked and saw that the miracle was holding. His own reaction surprised him. He'd never thought of himself as a believer, even having come face-to-face with the Gods themselves, he hadn't believed. Believing and faith were for things that weren't right there, or they were for other people. He'd half-envied the dead monks from the Buddhist monasteries their faith, and half-despised them for clinging to it even in their deaths. Until the youth spoke the direct contradiction he hadn't realized how deeply engrained the complex spiritual powers were to his very existence.
"Sanzo is a title in the Buddhist system. I am the keeper of the Maten Sutra, one of the five Sutras. I am a high priest because of my job. "
"That is what captured me last night." Ulquiorra frowned. "That has great power, but I thought that it was your zanpakutou."
"Why would I want to..." Sanzo trailed off, thinking more about just how the sutra ripped apart the youkai.
Ulquiorra looked at him.
"Right. I can see why you'd make that mistake."
Ulquiorra sighed. "So if nothing is the same, not even the powers and the way the world and Heaven works. How do I get back?"
"How did you get here?"
The boy reached up to his eye with a long fingernails.
"What are you doing?" Sanzo rose. When the boy started pressing into his eye socket, Sanzo grabbed a slender wrist, feeling the pulse hammering under his fingertips.
The boy blinked at him.
"Whatever you're about to do, do you think it's going to work here?"
Ulquiorra frowned. "I was about to show you what had happened, but in this power-forsaken place...." He sighed and his hands relaxed even as his voice flattened out again. "I was walking in the desert at night, and suddenly trees appeared. Then I walked onto soft forest loam and I heard someone fumbling through the darkness..."
Sanzo snorted. "That's all?"
Ulquiorra nodded. "That is all. I suspect that the only clues to what happened might be back where you found me, and I will need your help to go back there."
Sanzo frowned. "We're on a mission and we've already lost so much time..."
"Then I will go myself..." Ulquiorra turned to walk away, but Sanzo held onto the hold he still had on the young man's wrist.
"Stop that. It's been such a long journey it won't matter if we take you back. What did you have for breakfast?"
"I... uhm.... breakfast?"
Sanzo sighed, leaned back, opened the door and yelled into the room. "Hakkai! Did this idiot eat his breakfast?"
"No." The reply was clipped, short.
Sanzo rolled his eyes and said mildly, "You've picked the wrong person to piss off, Mr. Schiffer."
"What? I needed my answer, and you are his master, why would he be angry at you?"
Sanzo let go of the grip on Ulquiorra's wrist, started laughing, and couldn't stop. It felt good to really laugh, so he just let it happen and let the boy watch him in bewilderment. "Mr. Schiffer, you have a lot to learn."
Sanzo shook his head that evening as the whole party, including an unsteady but ravenous Goku, went into the Inn's public rooms for dinner. "A lot to learn" didn't cover even half of what the strange youth had to get from his experience for the day: three fights, a crying maid, scared chickens, an irate grocer, and a bucket of water over the head. The boy's sheer lack of civility made even Sanzo look social in comparison.
That was scary.
Hakkai looked exhausted as he slumped into his chair, though his smile for the waitress was as clear as ever. Gojyo's lazy grin brought a blush to her face, and she returned Goku's eager, "Yay! FOOD!" with a laugh.
Goku and Gojyo fought over the food, while Sanzo and Hakkai picked what they wanted. Sanzo saw Hakkai put a few dumplings on Ulquiorra's plate, and the slender youth ate them slowly. When he was done with what was on his plate he watched the other two with a puzzled expression on his face.
"Why are they fighting? Goku is so much stronger than Gojyo, why does Goku even allow this?" Ulquiorra asked Sanzo from across the table.
Goku stared at the teenager, while Gojyo rolled his eyes and knocked Ulquiorra on the forehead with a knuckle. "Idiot."
"It is usually polite to address someone to their face, not speak to them in third person while right in front of them," Hakkai said icily.
Ulquiorra hesitated and then looked right at Gojyo and said, "Shall I fight you outside? Then I will know where I stand with you."
"Not while you're injured like that, brat."
Ulquiorra nodded gravely. "It would not be a good fight. While I am injured, I am the weakest member of this party."
Hakkai sighed, "And you're going to stay that way if you don't eat." He flagged down the waitress. "Miss... please bring another dozen steamers of whatever you have?"
She glanced at Sanzo and he gave a mock exasperated sigh. "You know the tab."
Gojyo whispered, loudly, "Don't mind droopy eyes... we're good for it."
She grinned and walked away.
"Was that not rude?" Ulquiorra asked puzzled.
Hakkai sighed, while Gojyo nearly fell off his chair laughing, before answering, "Yes. It was."
After dinner Hakkai excused himself to tend to Goku's deeper wounds.
Gojyo leaned towards Ulquiorra. "Hey, Emo-boy, you wanna play some cards?"
Ulquiorra gave him a look back and then answered slowly, "Only if Sanzo-sama plays, too."
Gojyo looked at Sanzo. Sanzo refused to blink. "All right, but only if you teach the rules, Gojyo."
"You're providing the funds, old man?"
Sanzo rolled his eyes. "Only for him, lazy kappa. You bankroll yourself."
Gojyo laughed. "Sure... looks like they're setting a poker game up in the corner. Let's go."
When they got there, the three men settling at the table looked dubious. "A priest, huh?" asked the bigger man. "Aren't you unable to lie or something like that?"
Gojyo gave his most disarming smile as he pulled out and straddled a chair. "That's right. You'll win a fortune off him."
Sanzo growled but sat down anyway. Ulquiorra sat between them.
"No, if you're all from one party I want you guys split up," said a skinny man with a scruffy attempt at a beard.
Gojyo and Sanzo exchanged looks. That wasn't a good sign if they were this distrustful to start, especially with the way Gojyo liked to cheat. It was going to get ugly if the kappa did his usual routine. Sanzo gave him a look and Gojyo sighed elaborately, rolled his eyes, and then gave him the acknowledgement he wanted. No cheating.
Sanzo settled, his three interspersed with the other three, and looked at the other three players. "I'm Sanzo. Who are you?"
"Tako," said the man who thought Sanzo couldn't lie. He was sitting to Sanzo's right.
"Jiro," said the skinny guy abruptly.
"Akeno," said the third of the group, an evenly muscled man with brown hair and brown eyes. He was sitting to Sanzo's left.
"Gojyo." He gave a lazy grin and bowed his head to the others.
"Schiffer," Ulquiorra said absentmindedly while watching Tako shuffle the cards, bridge them, and then start to deal.
Tako turned red.
Sanzo tilted his head. "May I cut?"
Tako straightened the deck out and put it next to Sanzo's right hand. "Sure."
Sanzo chuckled and cut a third into the deck and watched as Tako picked them up. "Isn't it supposed to be swapped when you put them back together?"
Gojyo snorted and Tako growled but put the cut deck together properly.
"Five card stud?"
"Sure. Nothing wild and the sky's the limit?" asked Gojyo as he suddenly ducked under the table.
Jiro's hands suddenly appeared above the tablecloth. Sanzo struck.
"Huh... why do you have this card under your sleeve, Jiro-san?"
The look Sanzo got should have fried him in his seat, but he smiled placidly back.
"I... uh... uhm..."
"Maybe it just fell out of the deck. Shall we check how many cards there are?"
It was Akeno who laughed. "Hm... I have this sealed, new deck in my pocket. How about we play with it instead? And, yes, that's what we play here, as well."
"Why that's awful kind of you, sir," Gojyo drawled. He grinned as Akeno pulled the brand new pack out and handed them to Gojyo to shuffle.
The other two looked oddly defeated before they squared up their shoulders, took half their stakes off the table, and settled in for the game.
Ulquiorra looked on like a long-legged colt watching a horse race, big-eyed and wondering, and Sanzo didn't have too much hope that the boy would pick it all up as Gojyo started nattering to him about the rules of the game, simple strategies on how to play, and did a quick run through of the relative strengths of each hand. The others looked at the youth speculatively, and then did a double-take as Sanzo pitched in for the youth's small stake.
"He's new at this," Sanzo said guardedly and inwardly groaned at the smiles on the other three faces. He and Gojyo had better make up for the youngster, though given the level of cheating already in evidence, stopping Gojyo might have been a mistake, he was head and shoulders above what they'd seen so far.
Then Ulquiorra folded his first six hands. Gojyo won two pots, and Sanzo got only one because he was distracted by the boy just never playing, despite jeering from the others at the table.
On the very next hand Ulquiorra silently pushed his whole pile on the table after the initial deal gave him a single face-up Ace of Hearts. Everyone folded and Ulquiorra gathered in the meager ante. After folding another set of hands, when he went all in again with a King face-up, everyone stayed out of the pool again.
"Ulquiorra, you can't bid your hands like that," Gojyo said as the cards were gathered up. "If you have a strong hand, you gotta bid low so that everyone else will bid in as well so you can actually get some money."
"Why?" Ulquiorra asked. "I won, did I not?"
"You won the hand, but you didn't get much money from it."
"I won the hand; and I did not lose much money when I was weak. Why would I want to look as if I would lose?"
Gojyo shrugged and gave up.
On the next hand, Sanzo got an eight of hearts face up, and when he peeked at the corner of the card, it was an eight of clubs. Sanzo let himself not react to it at all, especially on seeing the Ace of Diamonds on Tako's up card. Ulquiorra folded a five of spades, and frowned when Sanzo did not fold his hand immediately. The others noticed, too.
Tako laughed, "You're playing with what?"
Sanzo didn't bother with a shrug when an eyebrow lift would do.
"Oh, like that is it? Then I'll raise another ten dollars."
Third street went down. A Queen of Hearts for Tako and a King of Spades for Sanzo. There was a low, "Ooooo..." from some of the girls in Jiro's lap and from one of the guys that had come to just watch. Gojyo leaned back in his chair and signaled for the waitress and got another drink. Sanzo wasn't sure if that meant the kappa was setting up the cards, or if the game was just up for grabs by the Gods. He grinned a little at that. Tako glanced at him and uneasily called.
"Raise another five," Sanzo said.
Tako frowned, but Sanzo had made the bet small to lure him on. "Call." He threw in his five.
Fourth street was no better for either of them, and they both called.
The River nearly stopped Sanzo's heart. There was the Ace of Spades for Tako, but the Eight of Spades showed up on his pile. At the shout from Jiro, others came to see, and Gojyo was teasing the waitress and wouldn't look at him at all.
Tako triumphantly said, "I'll raise you fifty!"
Sanzo made a great show of frowning and then taking his courage in his hands saying, "I'll see that..."
Tako practically rubbed his hands.
"... and I'll raise you another twenty," Sanzo said slowly.
"What! You idiot..." Tako said, "I'll call that!" He threw the money onto the table.
Sanzo flipped his cards.
The room erupted in cheers and jeers, but suddenly there was a flash of metal as Tako drew a gun and pointed it at Sanzo. Sanzo put his hands up. "What the hell?"
"You were cheating!" Tako yelled.
Jiro frowned and shook his head at Tako. "He couldn't have been. I was watchin' him the whole time. He never touched the deck."
Gojyo took another sip from his drink, chair leaned back. "Yeah... how do you explain that, Tako, old boy?"
There was a snarl and the snout moved away from Sanzo. He breathed again, and hated himself for admiring the steady look on Gojyo's face as his slender hands went up in the face of the weapon. The still tension in that lean body was always worth looking at, but he didn't want his Gojyo perforated either.
"And it was a stupid play," Ulquiorra said to himself. "Who would have ever bet a pair of eights against what might have been a pair of aces?"
That statement made everyone at the table snort, and Tako couldn't help but laugh. "Oh... fuck it..."
"Tako," Akeno said in a tone of command that made everyone in the room look at him. "Holster it. He wasn’t cheating."
Tako frowned, but put the gun away.
"What the fuck are you guys trying to pull?" Gojyo demanded.
Akeno bowed his head a little and grinned. "We're part of Kanto's clean-up of the local gambling. Sorry about that, you guys are clean."
"Damn... first time anyone's said that of me," Gojyo drawled. "Maybe we should call it a night after disappointing you. Besides, I usually call the game when at least one weapon's been drawn."
He got a laugh at that, and then everyone drifted away.
When they got back to their room, Sanzo pushed Gojyo up against a wall and slammed into him. The water kappa grinned at him from under thick eye-lashes. "What? You suddenly hot for me, old man?" Red eyes slid to the side where Ulquiorra stood watching them, and Sanzo growled softly under his breath at how his own body shook with released adrenaline.
"Did you set up those cards?" Sanzo demanded.
"No," Gojyo said quietly. "I told you I wouldn't cheat when you did that first warning, and it seemed right. I think that Akeno would have caught me if I had. He's trickier than he looks."
Sanzo took a deep, shaking breath and felt Gojyo's familiar touch slide under the sutra along his back, hidden. They were safe for now and he settled.
"You usually cheat to win?" Ulquiorra's low voice sounded puzzled.
"I do," Gojyo said with an unrepentant grin.
"Doesn't that mean you don't think you can win without cheating? Isn't that an admission of weakness?"
"After decades of coming in second to him," Gojyo tilted his head in Sanzo's direction. "Wouldn't you want to cheat, too?"
"Uhm... no?" Ulquiorra said.
Sanzo laughed at the look on Gojyo's face. "Finally, something I can agree with Mr. Schiffer on."
Two days later, Hakkai pronounced everyone patched up enough that they could travel again. It was unlikely that they'd have to fight too hard, going back to a place they knew was already clear of youkai. They packed up, loaded back into Jeep and headed back up into the forest.
Everything looked different in the daylight, but Jeep knew where they had been and took them unerringly back along the rocky road and trail that they'd come down.
It was Ulquiorra's head that went up as they got closer. "There are many Hollows. It seems that whatever it was I came through, they have found as well. It looks as if I shall be able to return."
"Are they as powerful as you?"
The disdainful snort was loud. "There are a great many of them, but they will not be difficult to handle if you can get that limiter off me."
Sanzo sighed. "I don't actually know how to get a limiter off. Goku, do you...?"
Goku shook his shaggy head, eye wide. "Sorry. I don't 'member a thing after, Sanzo. It's like I just get real mad and then things go black for a while."
"Maybe there's a latch or a key or something?" Gojyo said, and got a look from Sanzo and Ulquiorra. "Let me look..."
Gojyo's long hands went along Ulquiorra's slender jaw and throat. Jeep hit a rock. The golden collar snapped open, disappeared into gold dust. Ulquiorra changed under Gojyo's hands. Sanzo watched the boy go all white of skin. Black and white. Absolutes. The hunger that radiated from the gaunt form was a hunger for order, for laws that once stated would not be contradicted.
"No wonder we make no sense to him," Sanzo said quietly and saw the knowing nod from Hakkai, a grin from Gojyo, and a blink from Goku.
Jeep stopped before the seething mass of hungry ghosts, all four of them jumped out and charged into the crowd of white, hungry forms, maws of naked bone showing in the sunlight. Weapons flashed and just like they'd always done with the youkai, the four companions on their Journey to the West turned the Hollows into dust; but the white one that came after terrified the Hollow even more and they started to push back toward the lake.
Suddenly big white Hollows simply disappeared as they touched one patch of sand by the water. Hakkai gasped, and then stilled and studied the ground.
"There's a chi vortex, there, Sanzo. I think I can close it after him."
"Good, we don't want more of those things coming back," Sanzo growled.
"And I do not wish to stumble back here," Ulquiorra said with an uncharacteristic sigh. "Thank you, all of you, for your detour. I am sure I would have made it on my own."
"Glad we could help you out," Gojyo said cheerfully and got a look from the white youth.
Hakkai just shook his head, and took a ready stance, building chi within his hands.
Sanzo gave Ulquiorra a small bow. "You're quite welcome, and thank you for surrendering to us when we gave you the chance. The price would have been too high otherwise."
Ulquiorra gave him a nod. "How could I not surrender to a greater force? Good-bye."
They watched him go. Hakkai closed the gateway after him, and then staggered from the energy loss. Gojyo slipped under his arm and he leaned against the tall red-head.
Hakkai laughed softly, and they all looked at him. "You know... sometimes that surrendering to a greater force thing sounds like it might be a good idea..."
Gojyo gawfed, and Goku shook his head. Sanzo felt oddly at home when they all chorused, "Naaaah."
"That would never work for us," Gojyo drawled. "It'd be way too boring."
Sanzo chuckled with the others, and realized that maybe he did believe in something: these people he was with. This was a kind of faith he could handle, even against impossible odds.
They all headed back to Jeep to continue their journey.