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Cherish What You Protect.

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         Drinking was just something his disciples loved to do. It was pleasurable for them, it was socializing for them, and when you come from militaristic backgrounds, it was a coping mechanism for war. This, Sanzang understood. It’s why, when he’d put such restrictions on things, they were just that: restrictions. He had not banned the consumption of alcohol fully. Usually, the limit was only one cup. It left the taste of alcohol in his disciples’ mouths and it allowed them to loosen up just a bit. And today, when he allows his disciples to drink just a bit more than what they usually do, he sees the actual wisdom of his restrictions in the first place.

         Each of them reverting to their true forms, it was a sight to see: a pig snorting and sloppily eating food as his cup refilled slowly. The way he chattered, the way he snorted was very much disgusting. He truly was a pig. A water monster heartily engaging the people around him, surprising nearly everyone in the group that he could conversate as well as what he was now. A charismatic character hiding in the shadows of his brothers, he shows a side that Sanzang has never known. But the monkey, of course it was the monkey, the monkey took the cake. Fur different shades of brown and red and blond, his monkey face didn’t startle the hosts too badly. And he didn’t have to drink much to get drunk. WuKong’s skills of mischief making and storytelling seemed to be in peak form. He enraptured their hosts with stories and performed all sorts of tricks until the hosts needed to retire for the night.

         After, when all the food was consumed and the alcohol could be consumed, both Pigsy and Sandy eventually passed out in odd positions on the bedspreads. A fat pig, sprawled out and snoring heavily on his back, and a water monster who slept almost like the dead on his belly made for quite the sight. Sanzang notes that they couldn’t be moved so he could cover them with blankets, and sighs. There was still one challenge that he needed to tackle. And that challenge was drunkenly eyeing him as if Sanzang had stated such a thing out loud. “Master,” comes the slurred drawl. “You know, it’s really nice to drink. But you don’t even touch the stuff, let alone look at it. Why not?” True to his nature, WuKong was curious as ever. And in his true form, the golden eyes he’d grown to love so much seemed oddly clear despite the amount of wine he’d seen the monkey consume.

         A person’s true character could always come out under the influence of alcohol, and Sanzang wonders if this would hold true for his eldest disciple. “I had a cup when I was younger,” he states simply. “Since then, I’ve never liked the taste or smell of any alcohol. It’s… Rather unpleasant. I had a headache when I woke the next morning, and though I didn’t do anything to embarrass myself, I still dislike such a thing.” The first disciple stumbles to his feet and shuffles over to the monk before slumping down beside him. Despite the drunken state he was in, it was oddly graceful. He almost wonders out loud how the monkey could manage to drunkenly stumble about and make it seem as though he were still gliding on clouds. But he refrains. It seemed best if he did so.

         “You should try some heavenly wine,” WuKong states. His hands rest on his knees, his shoulders loose and relaxed. Despite such a casual pose, there was an eerie sharpness to WuKong, as if the King wasn’t truly so drunk as he appeared. “That stuff doesn’t taste anything like this…” His nose scrunches, and the cringe that sets about his face is one that Sanzang wonders at. “This stuff is bitter and lingers in the back of the throat. No, Heavenly wine is much better. It melts like honey on the tongue. It’s warm as it slides down your throat and into your belly. That warmth spreads through your chest, and it’s not unlike taking a bath much warmer than you’d prefer. But you deal with it because it tastes good.”

         The monkey yawns. His jaw stretches impossibly wide, his fangs sharp and gleaming for the brief moment they slipped from behind his ruddy mouth. Sanzang forgets just how deadly those fangs could honestly be at times, noting that they could definitely be used just for ripping out throats. “Why is it that you look like this in your true form and not like that small demon I’d met at the cave?” The question is asked so bluntly, so forwardly, that Sanzang wonders if he’d actually asked it. WuKong seems to be frozen in his mid-yawn before a single golden eye cracks open. His maw slowly shuts, and he stares at his master so keenly that the monk could almost feel a chill run up his spine. Whatever he was searching for must’ve been found, because the monkey simply tilts his head before deigning to finally answer his master, several moments after the question was initially posed.

         “Baldy.” He straightens his spine a bit, sitting properly now instead of slouched comfortably. “With time, and certain people, things change. It is the nature of humans to change. It is the nature of beasts to adapt.” Sanzang feels as though he weren’t simply speaking to his disciple, but a true demon, a true King of wild and untamed beasts that learned just enough about humans to mimic them. It was both an incredible and terrifying discovery to be had. “When you met me, I was angry. I was bitter. I was a demon. I did not have to change as I was for Heaven. I did not have to change as I was for my previous Master. And I didn’t want to. I was me.”

         Pausing, the first disciple gathers himself. “I still am me. But I’ve learned. I’ve changed. I had to. It was necessary to survive and best to serve this order I’ve been under.” Golden eyes blink languidly, and the monkey seems to twist his lips before continuing. Maybe the question was much more personal than the monk could’ve anticipated, but that the King was divulging such information to him made him pleased. It showed trust to give him such sensitive information. It showed that WuKong believed that the monk was worthy of holding onto something of such a personal nature. The monkey seems to have already made that realization, and simply accepted it instead of cherishing it like his master now does.

         “Perhaps I’ll change again,” he states. “No matter my face, no matter what I look like, I am a monkey. I am the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven. And I am your disciple. Those things will never change.” Dipping his head, he seems hesitant to continue. But patience is one of his master’s strongest suits, and one that the monk never seemed to be out of despite his constant scolding. That was a blessing that WuKong would challenge, time and time again. Testing the limits of his master’s patience. Testing the limits of his master’s kindness. But time and time again the monk never seemed to fail him. He took him back and forgave him like no one else would bother to do so.

         “Then again, it does seem rather odd. I’d never wanted to change so badly. I hadn’t even wanted to change when I met you. But once this journey finally rooted itself, once this journey took its meaning… I’d never wanted something more. I am not a good person, Master. I’d done what I thought was best, and I’d done it out of selfishness. But now. Now I’m still doing things out of selfishness. I’m still not very good. I’m just as prideful as we’d started—if not more so—and I still enjoy pranking people no matter how important they’d believe themselves to be.” His eyes are oddly cool as he considers the monk before him. And Sanzang finds himself nearly holding his breath, wanting desperately to hear whatever revelation his first disciple had come across.

         “Now I’m doing things to protect something. I didn’t care to protect that something at first. And I don’t know what changed or how, and I don’t care to find out. But that something if important to me. That’s what matters most to me now.” Sanzang isn’t sure how to process this information, aside from it being a kind of confession from his eldest disciple. He wonders if there was more to it than what was plainly stated. And if he were being honest with himself, he would only have to stare at his disciple a moment longer to find the truth of it. The monkey held no shame for anything he’d done or does. And if it was truly a confession of the heart…

         WuKong would have no shame in that either. “Then I would hope,” Sanzang states. His voice does not waver, though his hands subtly shook. “That you cherish that something to protect. Such a thing is a rarity in these times.” It was as bold as he dared to be. It was as bold as they could be. Even with second and third brother asleep, they knew that listening ears would be and could be around every corner. It was a risk they couldn’t afford so far into the journey.

         His answer to such a bold statement is given nonverbally. The curl of lips, the gleam of a fang behind a ruddy mouth, and the sudden keen warmth that lights up in golden eyes was all the answer the monk could ever need.