Nii had to admit it felt good to be back at work.

After safely packing away Ukoku's trappings in a locked drawer, he'd shrugged back into a lab coat, pushed his bare feet into his slippers, slicked his hair back and ambled into the lab as if he hadn't been away for months.

Yes, Gyokumen Koushu had not been pleased that he had disappeared, but his (ever so slightly embellished) report on the Sanzo party and a few nights of raunchy make-up sex had put her in a better mood. Of course, Huang had pitched a hissy-fit, but the fact that the project had stalled without him there took the teeth out of any complaint she made.

All week long, the lab practically vibrated with Huang's sullen silence. Never much of a socializer to begin with, she now spoke to him only when strictly necessary, and she assiduously avoided making eye contact.

Nii could understand the latter; he imagined looking at an empty eye socket would be unsettling for most people. So of course he did everything he could to make her look at him. Sometimes he drew an eyeball on the plain glass lens with a marker and correction fluid, and sometimes he would just pop out the lens so she would be forced to see the sunken remains of the socket.

Today's lens illustration was a spectacular penis, spurting correction fluid come all over the side of the frame.

Huang's reaction had been priceless.

Nii reminded himself to thank Koumyou's brat for providing him with a new form of entertainment.

It hadn't taken him long to get up to speed on their (lack of) progress. They were still short three sutras (two, technically, but he wasn't sharing the Muten with them), and before he'd left Nii had uploaded several rogue subroutines into the mainframe that were intended to delay the resurrection efforts; not only a means to buy him as much time as he needed, but to prove his value when he came back. He called them up now and deactivated each one, his fingers moving over the keyboard while Bunny gazed blankly at him from atop the monitor. He squinted at Bunny's neck, scrutinizing the seam he had re-sewn after stuffing the Muten back inside. He'd never be a tailor, but none of the dimwits around here would ever notice. He gave Bunny's foot an affectionate squeeze and then picked him up.

"Time to check on the old man, Bun-Bun," he said. On his way to the immense tank that housed the Demon King, Nii made sure he passed Huang's desk so he could shove Bunny's face in her cleavage. He made wet raspberry noises while he rocked Bunny's head back and forth against her tits.

She smacked his arm aside. "Leave me alone, you piece of filth," she said, and then she rose, hastily gathering a stack of printouts and several notebooks.

"You don't have to leave on my account, sweet-cheeks," Nii said.

Huang glared up at him, the blazing anger in her gaze undercut when she blanched at the gaudy drawing on his glasses. "I do nothing on your account, Doctor." She pushed past him and strode out of the lab.

"Look what you did," he said to Bunny. "I think you and I need to have a talk about sexual harassment in the workplace."

He heard Wang cackling behind him as he climbed the wide, metal steps that led him up to the tank's main instrument panel, and he smirked at his reflection in the tempered glass. A quick glance at the gauges told him that the removal of the subroutines was complete; tomorrow he would feed his colleagues some bullshit about a breakthrough he'd had while he'd been away, and then he'd tweak a few things to improve Gyumaoh's vitals. In a few days he would bask in Huang's impotent fury, and then later on, enjoy a reward from Lady Gyokumen.

"Wang," he said, "We haven't played chess in ages."

"You're right," Wang said. "I'm glad you're back, Nii. Things haven't been nearly as entertaining without you here."

"I aim to please," Nii replied, and while Wang set up the chessboard he procured a bottle of liquor and two glasses. The two men spent a companionable hour poring over the chessboard, and while they played Nii was careful to keep Wang's glass full while barely touching his. By the time they were down to a handful of pieces on the board, Wang's chin drooped against his chest, and his snores echoed loudly through the lab.

"Checkmate," Nii said as he captured Wang's queen. "Come on, Bunny, we have more work to do."

He returned to his desk while Wang continued his drunken snoring, and with a flurry of key clicks he hacked into the lab's security cameras and replaced the active playback with a prerecorded video of him and Wang working. A few more keystrokes overrode the lock systems on the lab's entrance.

He had another project to check on, away from prying eyes. And another chessboard had pieces awaiting his next move.

Nii walked back toward the tank, but instead of heading back up the stairs he took out a key and unlocked a small panel, opening it to reveal a small keypad and a retinal scanner. He tapped out a lengthy sequence on the keypad, and then while he pressed his remaining eye against the scanner port he thanked all the gods he didn't believe in that little Kouryuu hadn't taken out the eye he'd logged into the system.

A swirling, flickering sweep of red patterns barraged his vision. Moments later the system responded with a soft whoosh, and a hidden panel slid open to reveal a door.

Another key, a flick of a light switch, and he entered the room. Glowing amber numbers scrolled across a computer screen that sat on a small desk in the corner of the room, a desk that was barely visible beneath thick stacks of printouts and notepads. A chessboard sat on a small table next to the desk, its pieces dusty, left in the middle of play.

At the far end of the room another, smaller glass tank took up the back wall.

"Hi, Koumyou," Nii said. "Long time, no see."

He set Bunny on top of the monitor, and then he went over to the tank, checking over another set of gauges before looking up to view its occupant.

Koumyou Sanzo hovered before him, suspended in the green, viscous fluid of the tank, naked save for a white cotton fundoshi. A myriad of wires and tubes swirled around him, running from the top of the tank, connecting into various places on his body. His braid swayed gently as bubbles rose from the base.

"I like playing chess with you better than Wang," Nii said, "even though I have to make all the moves these days. And drink all the sake." He twisted a few dials to make a few minor adjustments. "It's been awhile, but I think it's your move this time."

His gaze flicked over his former lover's body. Koumyou's eyes were closed as always, hiding his true self (as always), and the same serene, enigmatic, idiotic smile played on his motionless, silent lips. Koumyou's body was a thing of beauty, only faint silver scars remaining from the demon attack that had killed him. Nii touched the tank, his fingers sliding on the smooth glass, and he imagined that instead they trailed along the shallow hills and valleys of Koumyou's ribs.

His fingers stopped a handful of inches later, hovering in front of a twisted length of cotton that crossed over a jutting hipbone, when a shadow nestling in the pale flesh of Koumyou's hand caught his eye.

Was there something in his hand?

Nii frowned as he bent to peer more closely through the murky, pale green fluid.

It seemed to be a chess piece… but it looked nothing like he had in either set. Nii cupped his hands against his temples and pressed up against the glass, trying to identify the piece.

The delicate points of youkai ears, peeking out from behind twin falls of hair that framed a sensual, cruel face.

Queen. Gyokumen Koushu.

A mix of excitement and something that Nii might identify as fear sparked through his body, and he backed away from the tank, stumbling as he turned toward the table.

This was not the game—or board—that he had left. Only a handful of black pieces remained, and the black King, a snarling image of Gyumaoh, was in checkmate, with his useless pawns—Huang and Wang—too far away to help. A black Bishop remained, in White territory, and Nii blinked as he recognized his other self in the garb of a Sanzo priest. He looked for Kougaiji and the others among the other black pieces, only to find their likenesses among the white pawns that stood on the side of the board. The discarded pieces were weirdly arranged, almost as if they were still continuing to fight the other side once they had left the main battlefield of the board

One by one, Nii grabbed at the white pieces that remained in play. Two bishops had delivered the checkmate, one of them a scarred, ponytailed woman that Nii knew only by reputation—Sharak Sanzo. His lip curled when he recognized Genjyo Sanzo's scowling, beautiful features in the other bishop.

What the hell was going on?

He threw Genjyo's piece across the room and returned his attention to the board. Two riderless white knights supported the bishops; one was unmistakably Seiten Taisei Son Goku. He did not recognize the other knight at all; it appeared to be a child-like figure that wielded a deadly sword.

The white rooks were still there, too, in the forms of Cho Hakkai and Sha Gojyo. He didn't recognize the White Queen, who was off the board—a woman with big hair and even bigger tits. He picked up the White King, who was safely defended by the rooks.

A tiny, white, Koumyou Sanzo smiled back at him, eyes open, seeming to stare straight into his soul.

Nii dropped the piece as if it had burned his hand. He head jerked as he scanned the floor for footprints, the tank for any signs of tampering. Nothing. A thin layer of dust covered everything in the room, disturbed only by Nii's own footprints.

He spun to face the not-quite-living Koumyou, who still floated peacefully in the tank, eyes still shut. He slapped his hands against the glass, pressing his face close, looking for signs of life. "What is all this? What are you doing, old man?" he shouted, pounding on the tank's outer wall.

Koumyou's smile was his only answer.