Walking as casually as possible through the hallways around the outer courtyards, Goujun leads the others along the most direct route to Nataku's quarters. Hakkai follows close behind him, speaking quietly and asking questions of his friend, whom he has never been able to truly speak with before. Gojyo is not far behind the pair, but wears a prominent pout at being basically ignored in favor of what he considers to be an oversized parrot stealing the affections of his love—as always.
"So we weren't really friends before?" Hakkai is asking, his eyes glued tightly to the white hair and haunting eyes of the dragon king.
"More acquaintances really. Though we always respected one another, even if I did often question your choice of companions," Goujun answers with a smile.
Gojyo decides to pretend he didn't hear that.
"I may not have agreed with your methods, but I agreed with your mission," Goujun continues, "I thought it only right to put a little of Heaven on your side since so much of it was against you all. I hope you are not cross that I had to keep so much of the truth from you, but I was not allowed to take my true form in your presence."
"Not at all," Hakkai smiles."
A small glance from Goujun towards Hakkai passes something between them that is entirely intimate, as if they are speaking without words, and Gojyo isn't permitted to hear the message.
Now, he can't possibly allow that.
"So…there a dragon queen, or what?" Gojyo asks irritably, elbowing his way in step with Goujun and Hakkai.
For a moment Goujun's eyes seem to glare in a way much more reminiscent of the dragon king's old demeanor, though of course Gojyo cannot remember why the expression looks so familiar. "No," Goujun says shortly, "I never took a queen. As they say so often," he adds, glancing not at all discreetly at Hakkai, "All the good mates seemed to be…taken."
A blush spreads over Hakkai's cheeks instantly and the healer looks away. Gojyo would take this as a good sign, if Hakkai wasn't also smiling ever so subtly.
While Hakkai stares at the path as they continue along it, Gojyo makes a point to meet eyes with Goujun and makes it quite clear purely with his eyes just how much he does not approve of the dragon's behavior. There is a clear 'he's mine' in the expression, but Goujun simply smiles. It irritates Gojyo so much he has to stop himself from reaching up and yanking on the stupid, pretty-faced dragon's white braid as hard as he can.
The kappa always knew there was a good reason the parrot got on his nerves so often.
A few steps behind the three at the front walk Sanzo and Homura. Sanzo is understandably restless, his eyes darting fervently over every surface, as if Goku might appear out of the woodwork at any moment, and he has to be ready. As Goujun predicted, none of the lesser gods they pass pay the group any real mind, but Sanzo feels a dread within him nonetheless. This could all go so horribly wrong. It makes him angry that this has happened at all, and he can't help placing most of the blame on the very gods they are passing.
"They're so mindless," Sanzo snarls, glaring hard at a particularly useless looking god with a tightly bound hairstyle and several papers in his hands as he hurries along. "They all look like…like…"
"Like the living dead," Homura supplies, "I know. Ironic, seeing as how they're gods. And you wonder why I preferred my time on Earth."
Sanzo huffs. He supposes he can't really blame the half-god for wanting escape.
"Tell me, Sanzo," Homura speaks on, his voice surprisingly gentle and low as he uses Sanzo's accustomed title rather than his old name as a god. Because of this, Sanzo looks up to meet Homura's dual-colored eyes, and since he does not feel any threat or challenge from the other man, he listens intently, "Tell me," Homura says again, "You and Goku. Being together…romantically. Does it make you happy?"
The question gives Sanzo a slight start. He wonders if perhaps he has missed the presence of a challenge after all.
"I mean no ill will by asking that," Homura amends quickly, understanding the skeptical look on Sanzo's face, "I ask it honestly. I just want to know. You're very worried about him and you're not trying to hide it. I've never seen you like that before. Therefore, I assume he must make you very happy for you to be so miserable now." And there is Homura's smile, but it is actually almost sweet looking so that Sanzo doesn't question whether the half-god is speaking the truth.
It is not that Sanzo needs to think about the question—he knows the answer—but he pauses anyway, looking ahead again as they take yet another turn alongside the regal buildings. "I…didn't think I could ever feel like this again. It's…different. Very different from what I felt for my…master. I hate to think sometimes how much…stronger it feels. But when Goku's with me, and I'm not letting myself be…well…too much like me…then, yes, I am happy. I'm so fucking happy with Goku I don't…think…I can do this without him."
"This?" Homura prompts quietly.
Sanzo shrugs. "Life," he says. He knows now that if he ever lost Goku, his gun would finally have the pleasure of living out its original intention.
"So tell me," Homura says, without stopping to question Sanzo's words, "What do you plan to do to win Son Goku back? You say he's been…brainwashed against you?"
"He thinks he is still the Goku that lived here, when he was just a…child." Sanzo says, his brow furrowing with distaste. He has often called Goku a child, but he has not thought of the boy as being one for a long time now. It unnerves him almost more than anything else about this mess to think of Goku as a little boy again.
"Hmm," Homura hums, almost to himself, "A shame. That'll put quite a damper on your love life, I'd think."
Sanzo turns a sharp glare on Homura immediately upon hearing that. He should have known better than to think the other man was actually going to continue the kind ear routine. Just as Sanzo was about to open his mouth to say something biting, however, he decided against it.
"What?" Homura presses, grinning with his more common expression, "If you mean to say something, Sanzo, I would prefer you said it."
A growl builds in Sanzo's throat, but he chooses words instead. "I swear, if you have agreed to help us only to…try something."
"Goku does not belong to me or that Nataku," Sanzo says pointedly, "He doesn't belong to anyone. You hear me?"
"And you think I wish to take him for myself?" Homura asks, a great mocking hand on his heart as if he couldn't imagine a more ridiculous idea.
Sanzo just looks at him, not buying Homura's righteous act for anything.
Again there is Homura's smile, customary at first in its teasing nature, but then it changes, softens, and Sanzo knows to listen more carefully again. "Konzen…Sanzo, I do not deny the allure of our dear Goku," he says, pushing on ahead quickly so as to avoid Sanzo's wrath at the phrase 'our Goku', "But…I can promise you most readily…I am quite content with what I have." And with these words Homura lifts his left hand, displaying a simple gold band on his ring finger that Sanzo had not noticed before.
Images of the woman he saw Homura with so long ago in the dreamworld flood back to Sanzo, and he remembers how happy Homura looked while he was with her.
"The human Heaven is much more interesting than this one," Homura says, lowering his hand again.
"Rinrei," Sanzo replies, almost in a whisper, "That was her name."
"It is her name," Homura corrects, "You see, even when we lose something for centuries, we can always reclaim it eventually. You waited as long as I did the first time. Those 500 years."
500 years. The mere thought of it turns Sanzo's stomach, to imagine Goku alone in that cave for that long, unable even to feel hunger. He would kill every god in this damn Heaven if he could for giving Goku that undeserved punishment. "Believe me," he says, "I don't plan to wait that long again."
Upon these words, Sanzo turns forward and finds that he was almost about to run into Gojyo's back, since the kappa has stopped in front of him. Sanzo readies an angry protest and accompanying obscenity when he realizes that Hakkai and Goujun have stopped as well.
Before them now is a less spectacular door than Sanzo imagined they would find, but he knows it must be Nataku's quarters. A handmaiden stands in front of it like a guard, smiling numbly.
"May I help you?" she says to Goujun, since he has stepped forward and made to open the door without her consent.
"I highly doubt it, my dear," Goujun says with an equally false expression, "We have need to speak with the master of this place. He has been asleep for so long, I'm sure now that he has awakened he has the time to entertain some old friends." Goujun reaches out to grasp the door's handle, but the maiden steps just in front of it to block him.
"I am afraid Lord Nataku does not wish to see any visitors at this time. Perhaps you could return tomorrow."
On either side of Goujun, Gojyo and Hakkai give each other quick warning looks before taking the slightest of steps back. Goujun's aura changed so rapidly as the maiden said that, they both felt it tangibly.
There was danger in the dragon like they had never dared believe their little pet could possess.
"Step aside," Goujun commands, with all the authority his title suggests.
"I am sorry to say I cannot do that, my lord," the maiden says with a small, almost mocking bow.
"It would be in your best interest to listen to me, child."
"And it would be in your best interest…to leave."
Homura snorts from the back of the group, shaking his head in pity for the girl who obviously does not recognize with whom she is talking to. He leans closer to Sanzo and whispers, "This ought to be good."
Hakkai and Gojyo do not need to be told that it would be in their best interest to take a few more steps back, and they do so just in time.
Suddenly, Goujun seems to expand, his body growing large and menacing though not as large as they all imagine he could grow if he took his most true and complete dragon form. Nonetheless, wings break free from his back and he towers over the girl with every part of him larger and more threatening. His voice rumbles low with power as he speaks, and even before words can leave him, it is clear the girl wishes she had chosen her battles more carefully.
"You will leave this place now or face the wrath of the Dragon King, who has commanded these Western armies in many battles and crushed every opposition facing him time and time again. Do you understand me, girl, or must I prove to you just how true my power is?"
Offering his own snort, Gojyo is pretty sure the girl started running long before the last of those words were spoken. Goujun shrinks back to his human-like size, and since Gojyo does know better when to pick his battles, he approaches the dragon-man and gives him a hard, friendly smack on the back. "Nice," he says, and leaves it at that. Hakuryuu has certainly never been that impressive in a fight before.
Goujun nods in gratitude at Gojyo's simple comment, and then turns completely to face the whole of their group. "The more quickly we handle this, the better. Alerting other gods to Nataku's awakening, or Goku's and are own arrival will be very bad for us all."
Gojyo snorts again. "You'd think gods would already know, our little maiden there not withstanding."
"Some may," Goujun explains severely, "One other than that maiden…I am sure knows for certain. But gods use word of mouth just as mortals do, and we may still pull this off before things get out of hand. Forgive me, friends," he adds, a small almost pitying smile on his white face as he looks to Hakkai, Gojyo, and Sanzo in turn, "but you failed to fight your way free once before. I hardly think things will be different now that you are human and youkai instead of gods."
Deciding it would be better not to question the dragon king on the details of that failed escape, Sanzo steps forward, right beside Goujun in front of the door. He says nothing, but his violet eyes burn for their own sake, and for Goku's so unfairly unknowing.
There is nothing to question. They will be quick and they will be successful. No other option is acceptable.
As casually as he had opened his own office door to lead the group out into the courtyards, Goujun reaches for the door to Nataku's quarters and pulls the handle, swinging it wide to admit them.
There is nothing remarkable about the rooms they find themselves in once they enter, the door slowly closing behind them with a menacing click. The first thing they notice, Sanzo especially, is that there is no sign of Nataku or Goku anywhere. Soon, however, they begin to hear the distant, haunting sound of children's laughter. But it is not just any children.
"Goku…" Sanzo whispers before he can help himself. It is a beautiful and yet eerie thing—children's laughter. Sanzo feels himself shiver to hear Goku's voice in such a way, because he knows before they even begin to see the pair that there is dark mischief in the sound.
At first there is only a flash. A flash of white. A flash of orange. A flash of pure speed and power. The laughter follows every flash like the knob of a radio turned suddenly up and then down again. It echoes all around them and the flashes grow more frequent.
The little bastards are toying with them. Playing.
After a particularly close flash zips past Gojyo, he jolts forward as if pushed, a surprised grunt leaving him before he turns angry eyes on the room. Before Gojyo can voice any protests, the same happens to Hakkai, forcing them closer to Sanzo, Homura, and Goujun who are huddled closer together. It is as if Nataku and Goku are trying to herd them into a tighter circle. To make it easier to attack.
It may seem like fun and games at first, but one of the flashes slows enough as it passes for Sanzo to see Goku, still adult and in the form of Seiten Taisei despite his childish mindset. Sanzo sees Goku raise one of his clawed hands at Hakkai, and though Sanzo calls out, it is not quick enough to beat the strike from gouging slashes in Hakkai's arm.
Another flash slows behind Sanzo and feels a sharp pain in his back. The flash is gone when Sanzo turns and he cringes at the pain. Reaching back, he soon brings his hand forward to stare at bright trickles of blood on his fingertips. Nataku's sword. Meaning, Nataku understands the seriousness of what the pair is doing, but Goku more than likely does not. Goku would never harm someone intentionally, but if the brat thinks this is some way of playing…
"Goku!" Sanzo calls, but the flashes do not cease.
Practically snarling at the cruelty and unfairness of the situation, Goujun, dragon eyes blazing, reaches out of the circle the group has formed, and plucks Nataku right out of one of his whirlwind flashes, holding him suspended above the floor. The quickly moving form of Goku starts to slow immediately, enough that it is much easier for Sanzo to grabhim, holding him firmly, but not nearly as menacing as Goujun is holding Nataku.
"Do you think this is funny?! A game?!" Sanzo screams in Goku's face, holding his free arm that is still sticky with blood in front of Goku's eyes, "Is bloodshed a game to you? Because it was never something the Goku I know would laugh at."
Sanzo's voice cows Goku as always—a trained response. "We…we didn't really mean it," he says quietly.
"You don't," Sanzo agrees, but then he turns to stare back at Nataku still in Goujun's grasp, "He does. He'll kill us all to keep you. Don't you see that?"
There is panic in Goku's expression when Sanzo looks back at the boy, but a moment later those slit golden eyes are filled with defiance. "No!" he yells, pushing Sanzo away and easily freeing himself from the monk's hold, "You're not Konzen anyway. You're just a liar!" With his uncanny speed, Goku rushes to Goujun, freeing Nataku only too easily. The pair stays close together then, glaring at the others as Goku yells, "You're all liars!"
"All of us?"
Goku turns at the sound of this less familiar voice and finds the slightly smirking face of Homura. Goku squints, not recognizing the half-god at first, but the glow of recaptured memory fills his eyes after only a moment. "You. You're…the one who likes to stay in the flower field. I remember you."
"Yes…I used to love that field, though less when I was alone."
Taking careful, planned steps, Homura approaches the boys. Nataku has a possessive arm around Goku's waist. It is a rather humorous sight to see the smaller and younger-looking of the pair being the protective one.
Homura lengthens his smirk as he stares at them, and says, "Tell me, Goku, isn't it strange? If these men are not Konzen and your other friends then where are the real ones."
Goku opens his mouth almost instantly with a retort, but no words form. His brow creases as he tries to work out some sort of answer, but the only thing that comes to him is more panic and worry. "They're…they're somewhere. Here in Heaven where they live." Goku nods, sure of his own delusions. "Nataku and I are just playing. I'll find Konzen later."
A loud huff sounds from Gojyo at hearing that. Arms folded tightly across his chest, the redhead turns narrowed eyes on Nataku. "Tell me, kid, what were you gonna do with him when he finally went searching for us, huh?" he says, "How long did you think you could stall?"
Now, more than ever, it is Nataku who looks worried. In his hand still rests his large sword, his symbol as a god of war. It turns in his grip, glittering in warning at Gojyo's words.
Goku too looks worried, but the hold Nataku has on him, pulling him close, keeps the earth child from moving away.
Taking his own careful and well-planned steps, Goujun takes his turn speaking to Goku, another face the boy recognizes but only dimly. "Goku, there is no Konzen. Konzen…in so many words…died those 500 years ago when the things you remember as happening only moments ago really occurred. Nataku has tricked your mind." Though the words are gentle and soft, as if Hakuryuu's little chirps have found a soothing, deep voice with which to sympathize, there is a weight to the words as well.
Goku does not want to hear these truths. He shakes his head, clinging to Nataku beside him. "No…we're…just playing. Konzen's…probably in his office right now."
This time there is no scoff, but Sanzo releases a very weary and pained sigh nonetheless. "Goku…"
Homura takes another step forward, gesturing back towards the door with a grand sweep of his hand. "Then why don't you go look?" he says to Goku. The challenge could not be more plainly put.
Panic creeps its way more and more into Goku's expression and posture. He looks to everyone, Nataku last, and it is the panic in that final face that makes the decision for him.
Goku's strength and speed is so great, Nataku cannot hold him, and in a flash quicker than any before it, Goku is suddenly gone.
"Goku!" Nataku calls, and he too disappears swifter than the eye can follow.
Without thought or warning given to the others, Sanzo turns to the door, meaning to take off running, though he does not know or remember which direction to go. He is almost back out into the courtyards when Goujun's firm, clawed grip stops him. "I know a quicker way," the dragon says, eyes intent and still burning with power. Sanzo sees no reason to doubt him.
The group reaches the office that once belonged to Konzen Douji in moments, and it is clear that they have managed to beat Nataku after all. But not Goku.
The door hangs open though the room is dark and as dusty as Goujun's had been if the smell of age and mold is any indication. Clearly, no one took over the position once held by the high-ranking god, or his office. Like Goujun's, it hasn't been used in centuries. Everything is decayed, dead, and covered in film. The flowers that once rested in a vase on Konzen's desk are ashes now, leaving an empty container that seems even more eerie than the still silence accompanied only by the faint sound of a child crying.
Sanzo does not need to take any time deciphering where the crying is coming from. He hears it on a level the others with him could not possibly pick up. Huddled in the furthest back corner of the room is what should be a grown young man but sits, weeping, a little boy, lost and alone.
"He…he promised he'd never…leave me…" Goku whimpers as Sanzo moves into view in front of him. The boy's legs are pulled into his chest, and it is a haunting sight to see the figure of Seiten Taisei so broken.
It is enough to move even the once unmovable. "Goku…" Sanzo tries, beginning to move closer so he can kneel before Goku and reach out to him. He does not quite reach the boy, however, before Nataku, late but not forgotten, appears just between them to take Sanzo's place as comforter.
"It doesn't matter, Goku," Nataku says, his voice dripping with panic and desperation now. "Don't you see? He left. They all left you, and now there's only me. I'm the one you have to trust now. I'm the one who'll take care of you."
A ready snarl leaves Sanzo's lips, and he has to stop himself from reaching forward and strangling the brat. "He doesn't need to be taken care of. Look at him! He grew up a long time ago, and you can't bear it that he left you behind. I never left him. We were forced apart. But I was the one who found him. Where were you then, when he needed someone to save him from the cave? I was there!" Angry but near tears himself with how close he is to losing Goku and saving the boy all at the same time, Sanzo turns to his once charge, now lover, and forever friend even when he wouldn't admit it, and beseeches. "Goku…I heard your voice…and I can hear it now. Can't you still hear me…?"
Walking past Nataku and kneeling as he had meant to before, Sanzo reaches out to Goku as he did that day so long ago in the cave.
There is understandable fear from Goku at first as he looks at Sanzo, and back to Nataku who he thought he could trust. He is confused. He is scared. But when he looks back into the violet he has known for so much of his long life, he no longer hesitates. He takes that offered hand and allows Sanzo to pull him into his arms.
"No!" A sharp cry breaks from Nataku, and his sword is summoned suddenly into his hand. He is deathly close to Sanzo and Goku, and the intent to harm, to kill, is clear in his eyes. As he raises the blade, glaring with the fiercest of fires at Sanzo, he cries out, and Goujun alone understands the meaning in the words that leave him. "You won't take him from me again, Father!"
The singing of the sword cuts the air, but it does not meet its mark. As the blade came down it was halted, and continues to be held by a hand that knows such blades well. "That sword, child," says Homura, softly but with a touch of darkness in his words as well, "That sword should have only ever been used to protect." And because Homura too has great strength and speed, and because Nataku could never have expected it, it is only too easy to curve the blade in a great, slow arc and stab it deftly back into Nataku's body, "A pity really…that it never does."
With similar coldness, Homura releases Nataku to his own devices, and the boy falls to the ground limp, the sword dug deep into his body in gruesome resemblance of that day so long ago when Heaven knew chaos.
Goku calls out for his friend immediately, pushing from Sanzo to go to Nataku's side, and Sanzo allows it. A part of him is grateful to Homura, not only for saving him perhaps from the fate that boy intended, or for taking care of Nataku so aptly. But because Sanzo is free of having to do the act himself, and therefore free of whatever hatred Goku might have felt towards him for doing it.
"You're okay...you're okay…" Goku chants close beside Nataku's ear as he pulls his friend's body to his own. Nataku is conscious still, but in shock, from the wound and the suddenness of the act. He stares up at Goku but cannot speak.
While cradling Nataku to him, Goku does not look up at Homura, or at Sanzo behind him by the wall. Though Nataku may have tricked him, lied to him, Goku believes it was all done simply because Nataku loves him. The young mind of the young Goku only understands that Nataku is his friend, even if misguided.
"You…you have to be okay," Goku speaks on, fresh tears rising in his eyes, "I don't understand…what's going on, but…you…you're my friend, aren't you? And you…you were okay the last time…right?"
"Well…I'm afraid I may have had a hand in that."
In the middle of the room, between Hakkai, Gojyo, and Goujun just inside the door and Homura, Sanzo, Goku and Nataku by the furthest wall, suddenly stands Kanzeon Bosatsu as if she had been there the entire time.
Sanzo refrains from rolling his eyes.
"He needed to choose for himself, child," the Goddess of Mercy speaks, her eyes not quite kind but not cruel either as she looks down at Goku holding Nataku close, "Unfortunately, he chose poorly. But I suppose you can't deny what he wants, can you? I think perhaps, in a certain way, you only wanted the same."
A part of Sanzo doesn't like where this is going, and although Homura and Goujun say nothing, there is a definite desire in both Hakkai and Gojyo to make their own respective forms of witty comment about the goddess' benevolent appearance.
Just as Sanzo had before, Kanzeon kneels down next to Goku, and his wet, large golden eyes stare up at her, shimmering.
"You can…help him?" he asks.
There is a subtle smile on Kanzeon's face, perhaps impassive and apathetic, but a smile, as she says, "Not this time, Goku. This time he's going to die."
Sanzo has to admit—and Hakkai and Gojyo are right there with him—that he did not expect her to say that.
With a wave of her hand over Nataku's eyes, Kanzeon leaves them closed, and the boy's small body stills. It seems too easy, so easy that surely the goddess' own hand is somehow responsible for his seeming death, just as it was responsible for him continuing to live before.
The blame leaves Homura now as if Goku forgot entirely who it was that struck the original blow. All the anger in Goku as he begins to cry over Nataku's body directs itself only at Kanzeon. He howls, glaring at her all the while, for surely it is her fault. Surely she could bring him back, but won't.
"He must die, Goku," Kanzeon says, impervious to his whimpering, "He must die…in order to live again as your friends have."
A small gasp leaves Hakkai, loud in the quiet room that otherwise is filled only with Goku's sobs. Taking a few steps closer to Kanzeon and Goku, Hakkai is only slightly hesitant as he says, "You…will send his spirit to a human body to be born again?"
Kanzeon stands, her broad shoulders giving a noncommittal shrug before she crosses her arms in front of her. "Maybe youkai even. I haven't decided. Maybe I'll let him choose." Her smile is wider now, and she tilts her head at Goku as if he should somehow be grateful for what she has done, though currently he is still glaring. "He won't remember you when he is reborn, if you should ever find him, but when the time comes to die..." She reaches down, one long arm extending, and waves her hands over Goku's eyes just as she had with Nataku.
Panic races through Sanzo and he rises quickly to his feet. If she would even dare…
But Goku does not slump or even close his eyes. When Kanzeon's hand leaves him, his eyes are as open as they had been before, only now they are changed. They are wise and they are haunted, because there is much they have seen and much to remember.
"If he can be mortal…than one day…even if it is not until we die…we will find each other again." Goku's voice is the final clue, for he does not sound like a boy. He sounds only too old and experienced, as he does only when the true age of Seiten Taisei rises to the surface.
There is no smile or true words of gratitude offered to the goddess—Goku is still holding the still and cooling body of a dear friend who knew not how to love without trickery. How could he, when that was all he had ever been taught? But Kanzeon smiles, and touches Nataku's body with the same hand that awakened Goku from Nataku's spell.
In moments, there is no body at all.
"Nice to have you back for a time, Goku," Kanzeon says, helping Goku to his feet. She looks back at the standing and rather seething Sanzo not too far behind Goku and cocks her hip to the side before placing a well-manicured hand against it. "Konzen, darling," she says, and then passes a glance over at Gojyo and Hakkai, "And of course my favorite Marshall and General. You too Goujun," she adds, bowing her head at the dragon king, "Looking well. Some faces are more surprising to see than others, of course," she finishes.
Homura responds with his own bow, but says nothing.
"Well, best you were all getting out of here. Those sutras need to return to Earth where they belong, don't you think."
Sanzo readies a snarl, but when Goku turns to him and grasps his hand almost too tightly, whatever biting comment Sanzo had been about to hurl dies on his lips.
"Although…" Kanzeon starts, before any words of devotion or apology can leave either Sanzo or Goku as they stare into each other's eyes, "You can leave the robes if you want."
Sanzo looks up and blinks dumbly at the goddess. "What?"
"You don't really need them to drop those things off, do you? Especially since…when you return to Earth…you'll be set right outside Chang'an's door."
Instantly, there are wide eyes all around, and the small circle of gods and friends tightens around Kanzeon. It is Goku who looks back at her, his hand still holding Sanzo's as he attempts to speak, "But…you said…"
"I say a lot of things," Kanzeon break in dismissively, waving a hand at the air, "Certain…events needed to play out before you four would be ready to put all this behind you. Nataku only being one of them, of course. And there may yet be some surprises for you once you return, but…the journey as you know it need go no further."
There is silence as the four members of the Sanzo ikkou stare at Kazeon dumbstruck. Goujun might feel much as the others do, but it must be his dragon sense of pride and containment then that manages to make him look so composed. Homura merely stands there smirking.
"Oh, things are hardly settled between youkai and humans," Kanzeon continues, "and I'm sure some skirmishes will arise, which I would appreciate your help in sorting out. But…otherwise…"
"We can go home?" Goku's voice sounds very small, though not so young as his recent self. He squeezes Sanzo's hand in his grasp and looks to his other friends, amazed that such a thing could actually be possible after their long journey.
Kanzeon shrugs. "Really, darling, you can make a brand new one."
There is a rustling of cloth, and before anyone realizes exactly what is happening, Sanzo has disrobed himself rather inelegantly, and throws the rumpled bunch of fabric at Kanzeon's head. Thankfully for the goddess and for Sanzo, all of the things he usually keeps in his sleeves were unceremoniously dumped out onto the floor while Sanzo took the robe off.
Smiling dangerously, Kanzeon removes the robe from covering her face, where it leaves her hair in a tangled mess that she looks rather steamed about, but she merely tosses the robe aside and says, "One more thing, dear." Quick, assured steps bring Kanzeon closer to Sanzo, and the monk—former monk—presses back against the wall, anxious over what her retaliation might be.
It is certainly not what he expected.
The goddess, hips swiveling until she reaches him, grabs Sanzo by the face, pulls him close, and kisses his forehead soundly. Praise be to the gods for her not kissing his lips. But although the others stare—and Gojyo giggles—when Kanzeon pulls away it is clear what she has done. The mark that symbolized little Koryuu's change into a Sanzo priest is gone.
"Be free, Genjou Sanzo. Koryuu. You were always better at that than any job or responsibility I could give you anyway."
While the others expected some form of obscenity or violence in response to Kanzeon's kiss, they imagine he must have felt the mark remove although he cannot see it, because he seems to understand. He stares at her for awhile and then just nods. When she pulls away from him, leaving the blonde to lean back in relief against the wall, something not quite like a smile fits itself onto Sanzo's face, and he looks indeed somehow freer. Weightless.
Hakkai and Gojyo gather in closer, Goku already there at Sanzo's side. Goku is beaming and holding Sanzo's hand again, while Hakkai nods his approval. Because really, they have done their duty, all of them, and then some, for far too long now. All Gojyo can do is chuckle.
The attention is all too much, and before anyone can say 'shitty monk', Sanzo's annoyed scowl retakes his face. "Well? Be useful and pick up some of my shit already. Idiots." Sanzo tries to turn away from his friends, but they aren't buying his act—now that they know so fully it is only an act. Still, all three of them bend down to help gather Sanzo's fallen items. His gun is grabbed up by his own hands of course and stuck into the back of his jeans. Otherwise, each takes a sutra. Gojyo grabs up the fan in something like triumph. And Hakkai pockets Sanzo's cigarettes and lighter. The sutras that Sanzo takes, since someone has to take two, are the two that originally belonged to him in the first place. The Maten and the Seitan. But to be honest, he cannot wait to be rid of them all.
"I hate to be the bearer of such awful news," breaks in Homura's ever calm and smooth voice from behind the group, "But as much as I would like to stick around, I believe it is time I was retuning to my own Heaven. Rinrei does get so worried over me, after all."
Sanzo is the first to offer his gratitude to the half-god, but more so because he is not at all broken-hearted to see the man leave. He shakes Homura's hand, quite a feat in itself, and doesn't immediately plot the dual-eyed man's death when Goku says his goodbye with a hug.
Hakkai and Gojyo take quick turns. There isn't time for much more than a 'see ya round' even if they don't expect that to really be true until the day the rest of them die. But before Homura fades off into the same great light that brought him, Goku smiles up at him and speaks.
"I'm glad you're happy," he says.
"Same to you…Son Goku." And the dead returns to being dead only too readily.
Again there is silence. Time wanes but it is difficult, more and more so each time tragedy strikes them, to fall back into normal life.
Rightly so, it is Gojyo who breaks said silence by leaning over to Hakkai and saying, "Hey, uhh…wasn't he our ride?"
A slow smile breaks onto Hakkai's face. "I think we're covered, Gojyo."
"Indeed. But I am afraid I must ask," Goujun says, gliding in before the group with the same steady grace with which he flies as a small pet dragon. His eyes, however, turn to Kanzeon. "What about me then? I suppose…my charge is over now."
"Hmmm," Kanzeon hums, considering that, "You chose to go with them on your own, Goujun. Heaven simply gave restrictions. With their mission done now, you can of course remain on Earth if you choose, but…I hardly think the restrictions need to stay." The goddess' usual impassiveness molds into a smirk.
Hakkai's face lights up in a way that Gojyo decides he is not very fond of. Sanzo huffs, purely because he never thinks to take any 'gift' from Kanzeon without a grain of salt. And Goku, even though returned to his elder nature, bounces excitedly on the balls of his feet.
Goujun, in his great regal presence, smiles, but cocks his head at Kanzeon like a warning older brother.
"Now, Kanzeon, that doesn't sound like something the Emperor, or—"
"Oh pish. I'll worry about that," Kanzeon interrupts, waving her hand dismissively again, "You all deserve a little freedom. And, after all, dear Goujun, you are so much prettier when you have legs."
Gojyo snorts, but decides not to comment any further.
A little surprised, but pleasantly, Goujun looks to the crew he has traveled with for so long now. He spreads his arms wide, as if to give them the chance to look him over fully in his new and strange form of a man with dragon features.
"If you'll have me as I am?" he says.
Hakkai nods fervently, and much as it annoys him, Gojyo does too. Sanzo doesn't really care either way now that he can finally be rid of the burden of the last ten plus years of his life, but Goku, having gotten so much closer to Hakuryuu as of late, beams brightly.
Eventually, however, it is Gojyo who just has to ask, "Can you still turn into the jeep?"
A slight chuckle escapes Goujun, but he nods, "I can. As well as the dragon, large or small. But if you ride me too much, Gojyo, Hakkai might get the wrong impression."
Most of the others refrain from allowing the laughter that bubbles up inside them. Kanzeon does not.
With clenched fists, Gojyo narrows his red eyes at the dragon with all the practiced art with which he has glared so often at Sanzo over the years.
"Can we go?" pipes in Goku, looking longingly at Kanzeon for approval.
"Yes. But I must at least say, Goku…it'll be a shame to lose you from the Earth one day. So do make every moment count. After all," Kanzeon smirks, hand placed perfectly on her curved hip yet again, "I'll be watching."
"Did I mention how much I hate traveling like that?" Gojyo grumbles, since somehow the being sent back to earth part didn't go quite as well as the going to Heaven part. At least not for him, seeing as how he has landed rather hard on his rear in the dirt.
None of the others pay him much mind though, because the dirt he is sitting in is also the dirt of the road that leads right up to the very doors of Chang'an temple.
Sanzo has already decided that there will be no fanfare or celebration at their arrival. He stalks into the temple, throws the sutras before the three floating heads, and stalks back out. Nothing need be prolonged. He has avenged his master, brought back the five sutras, and is finally, truly free.
As Sanzo comes walking back out of the temple to where he left the others, Goku latches onto Sanzo so quickly for a very heated and inappropriate in public kiss, that even Gojyo feels like he should turn away. But it is expected. It is the first chance they have had, and Goku does not want to waste any time before claiming again what he knows is his as much as he is Sanzo's.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Sanzo." Goku rants, hugging the no-longer priest tightly to his chest, his own form still that of Seiten Taisei and seemingly forgotten, though he is careful with his claws as he clings. "I couldn't think. I couldn't remember. I didn't know who to believe or trust. But I could hear you. I could hear you, Sanzo. I'm sorry it took me so long to realize, and that I worried you so much."
"Goku," Sanzo says sternly, and waits then for Goku to look up at him, "Shut up."
They kiss again, the slow easy kind of kiss that lingers and moves in whispers because everything they need to say is said without words. There is no need for words, no time to waste on apologies or explanations anymore.
Well, maybe a few.
"And Goku…you can't call me Sanzo anymore. That's not who I am."
Goku gives a little start, and Hakkai and Gojyo too stare in slight disbelief. Sanzo has always been Sanzo. Only Goujun—or Hakuryuu, since they haven't really discussed what the dragon will be called from now on—smiles pleasantly.
Sanzo is a title, not a name. It has never been a name. It was simply what Sanzo told Goku to call him, because it was what everyone called him. Now, that must change.
"So…Kory?" Goku grins, his voice soft and small, but hopeful, because he has always liked the blonde's real name, and especially the nickname they discovered in the dreamworld.
A corner of Sanzo's mouth gives a little jump. "Well…we'll see about that. Koryuu though…I don't think I'd mind too much now…being him again."
Because this is the beginning, the beginning they have all been waiting for.
"What the hell do we do now?"
"I shudder to think what our house must be like," Hakkai says with the disdain only a mother could wear.
"Hey. Do we still have the gold card?" Gojyo asks suddenly, as if that should have been one of the first things they thought to check for.
Sanzo reaches into his jean pocket and pulls out the card, which at first look perfectly normal. He studies it, however, and after a moment, growls in frustration. "That bitch. The fucking thing has a god damn limit." Sanzo accompanies his cursing by giving the ground a fierce kick.
"Great," Gojyo groans, "Guess we need to act like normal folk now and get…jobs or something."
"Ooo!" Goku exclaims, his golden eyes brightening as an idea strikes him, "The bar!" he says, "Wouldn't that be great Gojyo? Starting a bar like in the dreamworld. All of us. Maybe even Doku and the others would want to help."
The accumulative group has to admit that that doesn't sound half bad. But the question remains, and Hakkai smartly asks it, "But…where? Here? Or in the west? There is Sanzo…excuse me, Koryuu's mother to think of as well. Most of the people we care about live quite far from here."
Gojyo shakes his head. "No. No way am I getting back on the road after all we've been through. No fucking way."
"Maybe…you won't have to." The voice comes from Goujun, a hand help up to his face to block the bright sun above as he stares into the distance. The others turn to look in the same direction, and up in the sky, flying towards them, appears in a perfect silhouetted outline the form of someone on a dragon with a few empty dragons flying beside him.
"No way…" Gojyo grins. Could the Bitch of Mercy be so thoughtful as to send word to Kougaiji to get them? It would make much more sense for her to start them off on yet another journey to the west in Jeep—who Gojyo does not have any desire to ride right now.
The group decides all they can do is wait to receive their answers after their friend lands, so wait they do. And after a few minutes, Kougaiji, and only Kougaiji touches down right in front of them, bringing three dragons counting his own.
He nods to the others in greeting, pausing understandably at the sight of their new silver-haired companion and Goku looking like Seiten Taisei but still under control.
"I have a feeling we have much to catch up on. However," the prince states, sounding authoritative and steadfast as always, "The reason I have sought you out, and am pleasantly surprised to find you have so quickly reached your destination, is because I need your assistance back at the castle immediately. I do hope the Goddess of Mercy will allow you to travel by dragon back to the west?"
"She damn well better," Gojyo grumbles, "What's going on?"
Kougaiji grows silent. His brow is often furrowed but seems especially tightly knit today. When he does speak again, he looks to Sanzo. "We have discovered something Nii left behind. And from what you once told us, I believe you will want to see him."
"Him?" Sanzo presses, as intrigued and worried as Kougaiji had sounded when he first realized that particular detail.
"Yes. But please, it would be better to bring you to the castle now and show you than explain things here. I apologize that I could only handle bringing along two dragons besides riding my own, but I will gladly allow your friend there…to…" As Kougaiji is saying this, he stares harder at Goujun and there is a definite click as realization strikes him. "Wait…that isn't…?"
"In fact, it is," Hakkai supplies, smiling over at his once-pet, "And I do believe he can fly just fine on his own."
It is not long before the group is settled on dragons—Sanzo and Goku on one, Hakkai and Gojyo on another, Kougaiji on his, and Goujun transformed fully this time into his large dragon form, which is very much like Hakuryuu only about twice the size of any of Kougaiji's dragons.
There will be time enough to explain about Sanzo no longer being a monk, although there are several abilities Sanzo believes he will retain even without the power of the sutras. There are many other things to explain to Kougaiji as well, things they will need to explain again to the others at the castle, but the journey ahead of them will offer them plenty of time to talk about those things.
"Oh, and by the way," the prince says suddenly, his shoulders tensing even before he delivers the punch line, "Yaone's pregnant."
Those things…and others.
A/N: Let me explain. I had this idea for a certain someone showing up, but I am really feeling the need to end this story. I decided on a compromise. I WILL write more, but it will be more of an Epilogue where you will get to find out who is in Houtou Castle and how he will be dealt with. Cookies for the right guess! In case it takes me terribly long, as seems so common what with the wonders of life and my Supernatural fic, know how much it means to me that all of you have taken this road with me, some since the very beginning in 2005 (holy crap!). I hope I have never disappointed, besides how long I sometimes take. I love you all, thank you deeply, and hope as always...to see ya next ficcie.