The bridge deck of the Ryo-Ohki was nearly entirely dark, with only a single circle of light standing out in the shadows. Six figures sat there cross-legged on the floor, gazing across at each other intently in the almost complete silence.
Ryouko stared at her hand for a moment, as if she could change the cards in it by the force of her will alone before she slapped them down with a softly muttered curse. "I cannot believe this is happening," she grumbled.
With an impish little smile on her face Ayeka raked in the large pile of credits. "I warned you," she said with a casual shrug, "I do not bluff."
"You have some interesting hidden depths," Kiyone noted with a soft sigh. She hadn't been fully cleared out just yet, but considering the card playing capabilities Ryouko usually showed, plus Ayeka's newly revealed gift for gambling, she thought it was only going to be a matter of time.
"I would have warned you," Funaho said with a laugh, "if you had asked." She and Misaki had both decided to stay out of the game, sensing there were sharks in the water.
"I'm out," Mihoshi sniffled. She had foolishly bet against Ayeka twice, pretty much clearing out her available funds.
"If it helps any," Ayeka smiled, "there's a better gambler than I am out there."
"You have got to be kidding," Washu blinked. The only reason she was still in the game was due to her computer-like mind, and even that wasn't saving her.
"My friend Rhione is even better at this than I am," Ayeka chuckled.
"Then I'm glad we didn't have her on this ship too," Yume sighed before throwing in the towel, "I'm out."
"One more hand so that I can try to get some revenge?" Ryouko looked across at Ayeka with a dangerous twinkle in her eye.
"Lets," Ayeka nodded regally, "though you'll only be adding on to my winnings." She looked over at Kiyone, "You in?"
"What the hell," Kiyone shrugged, "I'm in."
"Mom?" Ryouko looked over at Washu curiously. Her mother nodded resignedly and Ryouko grinned over at Ayeka, "Deal the cards."
Over on their companion ship the Swordbreaker Galaxy Police officer Mitsuki was having a restless night. Adjusting to another ship's clock could be difficult, especially now with their trying to match up with the day rotations of the Earth when they arrived. With a sigh she got out of bed and dressed, deciding to go for a walk.
'This ship is sparsely populated, really,' Mitsuki soon noted. With the advanced systems that Washu had installed, it could very nearly fly itself. And looking out the viewports wasn't particularly enjoyable, as she could only see the blackness of hyperspace.
"Hey, Nicole," Mitsuki called out, finally seeing a familiar face.
"Ms. Mitsuki," the pink haired boy turned around to nod to her cheerfully. "How are you doing?" he asked.
"A little bored, honestly," Mitsuki admitted. She looked over at him curiously as they fell into step, "So what's the story with Ruri?"
"Ruri-chan," Nicole's eyes got big, throbbing hearts in them.
"Eeep," Mitsuki took a cautious half step away.
"She, Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley were all rescued a few years ago from a band of slavers," Nicole explained, "who were altering their captives to sell on the black market."
"Altered?" Mitsuki repeated questioningly.
"Hmm," Nicole nodded, "Ruri was changed to be able to interface with any ship, at will. She doesn't even need a control panel to fly the ship."
"And Ayanami?" Mitsuki asked.
"They started the same process on her, but never fully completed it," Nicole answered, "and Langley was lucky that they hadn't started in on her yet. Minagi lead that rescue mission personally, she was the one who got the captives out, and all three of them are fiercely loyal to her."
Mitsuki nodded to herself thoughtfully, having seen how the three of them had crisply obeyed all Minagi's commands, working together like a team. "Didn't Manticore try to return the captives to their families?" she asked him quietly.
"They did send most of the people the slavers took back home, but the three of them asked to stay on with the fleet," Nicole smiled. "When they found out that Minagi would be commanding the Swordbreaker, all three put their transfer requests in the very same day," he added cheerfully.
"A interesting little band on this ship," Mitsuki admitted.
"One of the best in the fleet," Nicole said proudly.
They reached the ship's galley, and Mitsuki just had to smile at the long line-up waiting for some of Sasami's cooking. She turned to Nicole, "You mind if I grab a midnight snack?"
Nicole laughed, "No problem. I'll see you later."
'Nice kid,' Mitsuki though as he walked away with a jaunty step. 'If only his gender matched the name,' she grinned, 'Nicole would have a chance.'
"Hello, Mitsuki," she heard someone call out. She turned in surprise to see Rhione sitting at one of the dining tables, eating a bowl of pasta.
"Rhione," Mitsuki blinked, "what are you doing here?"
The noble lady gave her a enigmatic little smile, "We couldn't let Funaho and Misaki travel unattended, so I volunteered to come along." Rhione shrugged slightly, "And I was curious about seeing this planet Dirt, as well."
"Earth," Mitsuki corrected her gently.
"Dirt, Earth, whichever," Rhione shrugged, but there was a teasing lilt to her voice.
"Just don't do that when we get to the planet," Mitsuki chuckled. She smiled, "Would you mind if I join you?"
Rhione gestured to the chair opposite of her, "Be my guest."
Mitsuki hesitated, not quite sure how to ask what she wanted to. She looked over at her intently, "You are aware this could be dangerous, correct?"
"Of course I know," Rhione said to her calmly. "But it's an manageable danger. Besides, considering the luck and skill that Ryouko and the others have shown, I think it's an acceptable gamble," she finished.
Mitsuki looked across the table at her, taking in her almost unreadable poker-face. "You don't play cards, do you?" she asked.
"Oh, I dabble," Rhione said with an airy wave of her hand.
From the next table over Ruri observed their interaction before calmly stating, "Idiots."
Asuka sighed softly, digging into her food. "You know how unnerving that can be to people," she pointed out, "so why do you do it?"
Ruri looked thoughtful before answering entirely deadpan, "Because it's fun?"
"She's got you there," Rei pointed out softly.
"Don't you start," Asuka gave her a look. Both girls gave her matching cool looks, making her groan out, "How did I get stuck with you two?"
"Just lucky, I guess," Ruri smiled slightly.
Rhione shook her head before turning back to Mitsuki, "You know, I think I like her."
"An interesting group of people," Mitsuki agreed. 'I wonder if I fit in with this rag-tag bunch, too?' she wondered, 'And if so, what does that say about me?'
Back on the Ryo-Ohki, Ryouko looked at her hand, then over to the calmly smiling Ayeka, trying to read what was behind that gaze. Washu had already folded, as had Kiyone, which just left her and Ayeka trying to win it all.
"Match, raise or call," Ayeka said simply.
Ryouko looked down at her hand, knowing that it was a good hand. Any other player, and she would have felt safe with it. But Ayeka had already shown she was very good with the cards, and she couldn't rest on her laurels.
"I'll match your credits," Ryouko tossed the credit chips in, then a few more, "and I'll raise you another hundred."
Ayeka nodded thoughtfully. She dealt Ryouko then herself another card each, and then added to the massive pile of credits. She studied her hand, then looked up to meet Ryouko's eyes. "I call," she said to her simply.
"Queen's court," Ryouko lay out her cards with a smile, "or what some people like to call the empress' hand."
"Not bad," Ayeka agreed, "but not quite good enough." She lay her own hand out with a smile, "The Kings's court beats the Queen's, I think."
Ryouko looked at her cards, then at Ayeka's. "Well, damn," she said mildly. She tossed Ayeka a grin, "I can't wait until you sit in on our games on the Washu's Revenge." She smile became positively evil, "They'll never know what hit 'em."
Ayeka grinned back, "I can hardly wait."
"M'love, you're dangerous," Ryouko added with a grin. They got up off the floor together, leaving the other gamblers laying there to sleep it off.
"Do you really think we should have broke out the sake?" Ayeka looked over at Mihoshi and Kiyone, who were both out cold leaning on each other.
"We still have at least a day before we reach Earth," Ryouko said with a smile, "plenty of time for them to recover."
"Do you think they'll be trouble once we get to Earth?" Ayeka asked Ryouko softly as they walked down the hallway together.
"I hope there won't be," Ryouko said as they reached their suite, "but I'm going to be prepared for it if it comes." She keyed their door open, and the two walked inside.
"We know those cloaked ships came from there," Ayeka said with a sigh, "even if we don't know who, exactly, sent them."
"We'll find out," Ryouko reassured her. She looked up, "Ryo-Ohki, any messages?"
"Myah!" the ship answered cheerfully.
"Good," Ryouko nodded, "give us a wake-up call once we hit morning, ship's time."
"Myah, myah! Myah," Ryo-Ohki said cheerfully.
"I have got to learn how to speak Cabbit," Ayeka muttered.
"She'll wake us up come morning," Ryouko explained. "Do you want to try to get some sleep, or..." she trailed off suggestively.
"You're insatiable," Ayeka laughed good naturedly.
"Me? I'm not the one who woke me up for a quickie," Ryouko protested.
A wicked chuckle was all the answer she got.
To be continued...
Author's Note: the card game they crew of Ryo-Ohki are playing is Poker, more or less. I still don't know where the idea of Ayeka being a card-shark came from, but I kind of like it.