EPILOGUE: Because I really can't see this one ending on a down note, not after the amount of time I spent writing it. –grins-

Hakkai smiled as he walked down the busy streets in the town that was overlooked by the Chang'An temple high above. The paper bags in his arms were heavy, but he still had a few places to stop before he could head back to the small house he and Gojyo now shared. They'd returned from their journey west (which had unfortunately taken almost three years to complete, though he would deny that any of that was due to faulty navigation) a little under a year ago to discover that their landlord had rented out their apartment to another tenant and had sold all their personal affects to pay for the last month of rent they hadn't kept. Gojyo had been beyond devastated to hear that his beloved place had been literally ransacked and sold off, but had recovered marginally when Hakkai said that, technically speaking, they could bill the temple for it all.

Sanzo had been less than thrilled to receive a bill for three years worth of body guarding, cooking, cleaning, chauffering, comical relief (which he argued bitterly), rent missed for the apartment, furnishings… well, the list dragged on a bit. So far, they had only collected on half of what Hakkai estimated was due to them. It was enough to purchase a small house just outside the busy little town. A small white picket fence and a yard came with it, two items Hakkai had always wanted but never thought he would have. It was worth it, even if hours of rewiring for a faulty electric system (which Gojyo had discovered by a most unfortunate accident) had come in the deal. He finally had enough yard to grow a small herb garden, including space for a couple watermelon plants at Gojyo's request.

Of course, they still were sent on missions for the temple. But life was beginning to return to normal now. The inhabitants of the town were still very leery of each other, even after a year of fairly peaceful cohabitation. The youkai who had moved back were still looked at suspiciously, but so far things hadn't been too bad. A few scuffles from some racist humans at the start of the reintroduction of youkai, but nothing extremely serious.

A lot of the peace really was due to Sanzo, though he would deny it with every breath in his body. The last time a youkai had been beaten in the street by jumpy humans, the only living sanzo monk, keeper of the remaining Tenchi Kaigen sutras, had come down and rained holy retribution on their heads in the form of a wickedly wielded fan. There were still some folks who refused to sell goods to a youkai… but no one dared attack one again. Genjyo Sanzo was highly revered by the people of the town. What he said was practically law to their pious souls.

Naturally, he himself had it easier than some of the youkai. He was already known in the town and fairly well liked. Plus, he still had his limiters. He'd only taken them off once since Goku had nearly died, but never again, not even now when the Minus Wave was no longer a threat. Gojyo teased him horribly about it, but he didn't listen. He'd take them off… eventually. Just not now.

Hakkai stopped when a window display of freshly butchered lamb racks caught his eye. While technically not on his list, they looked too good to pass up. Besides, Goku was very fond of roasted lamb with new potatoes. Maybe he could bill the lamb to the temple as well…

"Are you insane? You're seriously going to tell me it's two-twenty nine per peach? These are more like apricots than peaches!" a familiar woman's voice shouted in outrage. Hakkai's attention was perked, his reflection in the glass of the butcher shop showing that his jaw was indeed dropped in shock. It couldn't be…

"Are you suggestin' my peaches are small?" a gruffer man's voice snarled back.

"I'm not suggesting it, I'm flat out saying it! And I doubt the peaches are the only thing that's small at this stand!"


Hakkai nearly dropped his groceries at not only the voice but the insult thrown as well. All this time… and he'd though her nothing but polite! Clearly, he'd underestimated her sharp tongue. He turned around slowly, still in shock at hearing her voice all this way from where he'd last seen her tending the prince's wounds. A bag finally did slip to the ground when he saw it was her. Her hair was down and much shorter than when he'd last seen her, barely reaching to the middle of her back. She was also much thinner than he recalled, but there was no doubting that it was her. He recognized the determined glint to her eyes very well. "Miss Yaone?"

She whipped around sharply, words ready to be fired at a new target should it be needed. She paused when he smiled and waved as best he could with an armful of bags, blinking as her mouth opened and closed a few times. She shook her head to make certain she wasn't seeing things and tried again for speech. "Mr… Hakkai. What a… I mean… Hello."

He chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck as a blush flared across his cheeks. "Yes, indeed. This really is quite the surprise. And hello! Hello to you as well, Mr. Chuen. How are you today?"

"Well enough, Hakkai. My girl's readin' very well, thanks to you," the stall clerk said with a gracious nod in his direction. His scowl returned instantly as he indicated Yaone with his thumb. "You know this tart?"

"Tart?! Excuse me?" Yaone railed indignantly, slamming her palms down on the stall hard enough to send a few of the questionable peaches rolling across its surface.

"Er… you could say that," Hakkai interrupted. "She was actually the personal cook for Master Sanzo during our travels." He smiled to himself, knowing exactly the effect his words would have on the belligerent man.

Instantly, Chuen's demeanor became more agreeable. "Personal cook, y'say?" the man questioned with a calculating air to his demeanor. Clearly, the man was considering the opportunity that could arise for having sold his product to someone so closely 'connected' with the temple. "Well… that changes things a bit! For you, miss, two-twenty nine per pound."

Yaone flushed darkly and muttered a thank you as she began selecting the fruit discriminatorily from the bunch. Chuen watched her with a fairly muted glare, tucking his large arms over his chest as she tested the fruit for ripeness. Hakkai bent and scooped his bags up before approaching her and tugging on the burlap sack she had slung over one shoulder. "May I carry that for you?" He couldn't help using the polite inquiry as a way to sneak a peek at her purchases. Celery, mint, a small box of chamomile tea, a few fragile objects wrapped in tissue paper… It seemed as if she intended to stay for a while. He wondered if a certain blond in the temple already knew she was there.

"Oh… thank you, but you seem to be burdened with your own," she answered with a smile, handing over her money to Chuen with one last glare in his direction before she added the peaches to her bag. She adjusted it on her shoulder and wrapped her fingers around the strap to indicate she was fine. To insist further, even though it was impolite to leave a lady carrying so much, would only have irritated her. He knew better than to irritate an explosives expert. "I can manage, it's not a far walk from here."

"Ah, so you have a room already? If you'd like, Gojyo and I have a spare room at our place. You're more than welcome to stay with us instead of being on your own." He kept his smile entirely friendly and hoped nothing of his ulterior motive sank into his eyes. He had a pretty good idea why she was in their town, he just wanted to see how permanent it was.

Blushing, Yaone hugged her arms around her stomach and gave him a guilty look. "Actually… it's a little more than just one room. I have a small house just outside of town."

That wasn't exactly what he had been expecting, so the surprise on his face was completely genuine. He'd had a suspicion that the fairly normal groceries were because she had an apartment, but a house? Hakkai blinked and then laughed softly, his eyebrows rising a bit. "Oh, my! You've certainly been very busy. How long have you been here?"

"Four months."

"Four months?" he repeated, nearly dropping all his bags in shock. Four months of living in the same town as he and Gojyo, and he'd never seen her around before? He shook his head and wished he had a free hand to rub his eyes for good measure. "You've been living here for four months now?"

Her blush deepened until it resembled cherry stains on white silk as she hugged her bag closer to her side. "It's been… hectic. Moving, that is. The house isn't very big, and I had a surprising amount of clutter…"

"Yes, but when did you move? I'm sure we would have seen-,"

"It was done in one night, via dragon. King Kougaiji was kind enough to send me some assistance. They didn't stay for the unpacking, however, which was rather disappointing… and also what I've been doing for the last four months."

Hakkai continued to gape at her as she lowered her lashes and allowed her hair to slide forward to hide her smirk. It amused her to see him to taken off guard. Clearing his throat, he glanced up toward where Chang'An temple was silhouetted against a bright blue sky and asked tentatively, "Does he…?"

"No, he doesn't know yet. I… Well, to be honest, I'm not sure if he'd want to know. Technically speaking, we did break up."

"Ah. Well, if one wishes to be technical, then technically you two took a break." She hadn't been around after that horrid incident with Goku, so she had no idea what exactly the monk had been through. He, however, knew a good deal about the situation. It wasn't like he became Sanzo's pillow talk companion, more that the monk would talk on occasion and he would keep his mouth shut.

After Sanzo had returned from running off the night Goku almost died, and which Hakkai learned later was the same night Yaone had said good-bye as well, it had taken a little time for him to be accepted back into their group. Goku had been the first, of course, to make the first move, and he and Gojyo were quick to follow. It was the boy Sanzo had hurt the most, not them. If Goku could forgive the blond, then they could as well.

Yaone shrugged to concede the point in his favor before murmuring, "But all technicality is lost when you consider that Sanzo holds a person to their decision. I left him, Hakkai. I don't think he'll want me back."

"Then why did you come here? True, we do have some amazing scenery, and the real estate is fairly reasonable. Not to mention we're one of the few places that supports youkai-human interaction… but you left Houtu Castle, didn't you?" If she truly thought that Sanzo would turn her away, she wouldn't have given up everything she was familiar with. She was just frightened, and he couldn't blame her. This was an enormous leap for her to take.

She nodded, her lips pressing into a thin, somber line. "I stayed a year with the king to train a new healer and assist him in securing his recently won throne. I also wanted to be there for the funeral of his mother. After a year, well… he point blank asked me why I was still there. I honestly didn't know how to answer him, so… he released me from duty under the constraint that every six months I return and stay for a few weeks. So, I didn't actually leave Houtu Castle completely. My contract was renegotiated, you might say."

Hakkai chuckled, nudging her as best he could with his arms full of paper bags. She glanced over at him and smiled, but it didn't quite reach her eyes. She looked exhausted, as was to be expected from moving and unpacking for four months on her own, but there was more to her eyes than that. She still loved Sanzo, and was scared of being rejected by him this time. If she only knew… He knew for a fact that Sanzo still thought about her regularly, even a year later. He never actually said it, but every once in a while a look would cross over his face that said he was thinking about something that was equally pleasant and painful. During their trip back, they would take turns keeping watch at night for assassins that missed the memo stating the Sanzo Party was no longer enemy number one. He remembered a few occasions where he distinctly heard Sanzo mutter her name in his sleep.

Then, of course, there was the fact that they all knew the monk hadn't touched a woman since her. Gojyo had been fond of joking that the apothecary had turned Sanzo right off of women and onto men. He stopped it when Hakkai had asked if that was wishful thinking on the red head's part. The fact remained that Sanzo had simply not been interested, and they were all taking the brunt of his denied sexual frustrations. Even he had gotten a taste of Fan Punishment a few times toward the end of their journey. The fact that Yaone was now living in their town was a miracle from the gods. Perhaps the Merciful Goddess really was merciful after all.

(The goddess in question snorted and rolled her eyes, smirking down on them from her throne. "The only thanks I get is from the Christian," she drawled, irritation creeping into her voice. "How ironic is that?")

Hakkai smiled to himself, sparing a glance for the apothecary from the corner of his eye. She was nervous, yes, but if she honestly didn't believe she and Sanzo could restart their relationship she wouldn't have come all the way out east and bought a house in the town that looked to the temple. "I really don't think you need to worry about Sanzo rejecting you, Yaone," he murmured gently.

Yaone gave him an oh-really look, complete with lifted eyebrow. "Hakkai, I dumped him. He just might not be willing to try again for that simple fact. If he doesn't… God, I don't know what will happen."

"Well, I for one do know. I will simply have to take him out back behind the temple and kick his ass for rejecting a woman who loves him." His smile widened as she chuckled and tucked a section of hair behind her tapered ear. He wasn't joking, but if it cheered her up to think so...

Her laughter faded slowly as she chewed her lower lip in a very open expression of nervousness. "I don't know how to do this," she said softly, her gaze drifting upward toward the temple. "I can't exactly go knock on his door, not without a slue of monks screaming about a woman in the monastery. The only time he really leaves is if he needs to travel."

"My, if it weren't for the fact that you cared for him, I'd accuse you of stalking the great Master Sanzo," he teased lightly.

She shot him a mock scowl before a small smile managed to break free at his joke. "Anyway," she continued, running one hand up the strap to her bag to relieve some of the weight. "He never leaves there, except for traveling. And I don't think it would be appropriate to pop out of nowhere to discuss re-igniting things between us when he's working."

"I agree. He gets very irritable a few days before he has to leave. However, you're mistaken in the fact that he never leaves the temple. He comes over once in a while, usually when Goku annoys him into coming over."

"That doesn't do me much good, Hakkai."

"Oh, yes it does." Hakkai stopped walking when he came to the street he needed to turn off at, prompting her to turn and face him inquiringly. The wicked wheels in his head were already churning out a wonderfully simple, but exceedingly brilliant, plan in order to get them together. Operation Romance was in its first stages as of this moment! "It has suddenly occurred to me that this Friday, Gojyo and I are going to have a poker night. Now, Gojyo isn't aware of this fact yet, but we would both be honored if you could join us."

"Hakkai," she began, shaking her head as the red flared across her cheeks again.

He managed to hold up one finger from around the bags to stall her from declining his invitation. "I really must insist, Yaone. And I'm not above sending Gojyo to collect you from your house."

"He doesn't know where I live!" she protested with a surprised laugh.

"Gojyo is very good and finding out where ladies live. Now, food will consist mostly of finger options, and alcohol will most likely be beer. If you aren't fond of beer, then please feel free to bring something of your own choosing. Just go straight down Hsu-Yin's Lane all the way until it stops. We're number five. The game starts at seven, so please don't be late."

"Hakkai, really-,"

"See you Friday, Yaone!" he called over his shoulder as he walked away, smiling brightly at his own cunning. This could very well work. Yes, it would. It was perfect. All he had to do now was tell Gojyo, get Goku to drag Sanzo out and then devise a way for the two of them to get some time alone and everything would be perfect!

He made it home without losing a single grocery, thank God, though he did have a little trouble with the door. The lights were off in the house, which really wasn't surprising considering his roommate hadn't stumbled in until three in the morning. "Gojyo, I'm home," he called as he set his bags on the counter.

There was a sharp thud from the red head's bedroom and a groan which he took to mean I'm-glad-you're-back. Hakkai hummed under his breath as he began putting the groceries where they belonged. Instant dinners for Gojyo on the few nights that he ended up staying in the temple after a late teaching session with Goku. Fresh fruit for Goku for when he came over. Chicken, steak, pork and shrimp for various meals during the week. A few needed baking items (hmm, baking… that would keep Goku occupied Friday night) and three cases of beer for the rest of the week. Normally, Gojyo drank when he went out, but Hakkai liked to have a few beers with his own dinner, too.

He was just setting the tea kettle on with some fresh water when Gojyo stumbled out of his bedroom, squinting at the filtered light slanting in through the closed blinds. "Morning, Hakkai," he mumbled, dragging his bare feet across the linoleum tiling of the kitchen as he bee lined straight for the fridge.

Hakkai automatically yanked the milk carton from Gojyo's hand as the red head was about to drink straight from it, smiling at the sleepy confusion on his friend's face as he poured the milk into a glass and handed it back to him. "Good morning, Gojyo. How's the new mattress?"

"S'okay. Wasn't really payin' attention to it. What time is it?"

"About seven in the morning."

"Fuck, really?"

Hakkai nodded cheerfully as he set up two teacups and two metal balls full of loose tea. Eucalyptus leaves with ginseng root would be a wise choice, for the antioxidants that helped curb the effects of staying up too late.

"Fuck," Gojyo replied before sinking into a chair and holding his hand out for the pack of cigarettes that Hakkai automatically handed to him. "Y'know, you should really sleep in some time."

"I should, should I?"

"Uh-huh. It's the best damn thing since sex was discovered."

He chuckled at the comment as he poured the water into the cups and Gojyo lit his morning cigarette. "Speaking slightly on subject, I bumped into someone we know while in town. A lady."

Gojyo looked up with genuine interest at that as he blew a stream of grey smoke away from his tablemate. "A lady, huh? And someone I know? Was it Meilin?"

"No, no one you've known," he corrected, emphasizing the 'known' part for delicate clarification.

Gojyo leaned back in his chair, running his mind over the very short list of women in town he hadn't at least purchased drinks for in the past. Finally, after a few confused minutes, he set his cigarette aside and picked up his teacup as he shook his head. "I give up. Who?"


Hakkai flinched and started to raise a small chi shield when it looked like eucalyptus tea was about to be sprayed in his face. Gojyo swallowed quickly, choking on the steaming hot tea. His eyes were wide with shock and watering in pain as he shoved his chair back and ran into the kitchen again for a cold glass of water. Hakkai waited patiently at the table and sipped at his tea, pleased he had managed to startle Gojyo awake without having to go through cup upon cup of caffeine to do the trick.

Finally, the kappa returned to the table, sniffling and wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. "Sorry, but you did just say you ran into Yaone, right?"

"I did. Apparently, she's been living here for a few months now."

"Damn… how the fuck did I miss that?"

Hakkai shrugged and blew across his hot tea. Not that blowing on a hot liquid really did much good, but it at least took care of the steam burning his nose as he sipped at it. "I was actually wondering the same thing. You're getting sloppy, Gojyo."

"Screw you, I am not! She's probably been hiding in her hotel room-,"

"-House, actually."

"HOUSE? She has a fucking HOUSE?"

He nodded, watching Gojyo from under his lashes as the red head raked his long fingers back through his hair irritably. There was no arguing it now. Gojyo had somehow missed knowing that a new, very attractive, woman had come to town. Chances were more than likely that he wouldn't be coming home for the next two days to prove that he was still on his game, which meant he should probably mention Friday now before he lost the chance. "By the way, I want to have a poker party this Friday."

"Oh, yeah? Are a certain monk and a certain apothecary gonna be there?" Gojyo asked with a knowing leer.

Hakkai chuckled and gave his friend a warm look. "I knew you'd catch on right away."

"If he doesn't hook back up with her, then I call dibs. That dick of a monk would have to be an absolute jackass to pass her up!"

"I'm glad you think so, and I agree. But I really wouldn't recommend trying to woo her, Gojyo. Even if Sanzo decides he's not interested, you know how territorial he is. He slept with her, therefore he won't let you sleep with her."

Gojyo snorted and rolled his eyes. "As if he could stop me if I was really gonna do it! Not my fault he likes to pass up on something good and then bitch about someone else moving in on it. And I wouldn't woo her, Hakkai. I'd seduce her."

"It's the same thing!"

"Maybe, but seduce sounds so much sexier than woo."

Hakkai shrugged, not really interested in arguing the point any further with his friend. Personally, he rather liked the term 'woo'. It had an old-fashioned ring to it and sounded a bit more respectable than 'seduce'. But… this was Gojyo, and Gojyo was anything except old-fashioned when it came to attracting ladies. Oh, he treated them respectfully enough, but it was with a style that was unique to him. "Regardless of what you would do to her," and he pointedly ignored the lusty smirk and amused snort from the kappa, "I don't think I would allow it myself. She loves Sanzo, Gojyo."

"Yeah, and if he'd gotten his cranky head outta his tight ass sooner, he would have realized he loved her, too. So, what, the plan's to get them over here for a game of poker?"

"And after a few hands, you're going to leave on a date."

"A date, huh? Anyone in mind, O Master Planner?" the red head teased, sipping his now fairly cooled tea.

"Whether or not you actually have a date isn't important to the grand scheme of things," Hakkai replied firmly, a slight frown curving his lips downward. It was best to end that particular discussion before it came up. He really didn't need to hear Gojyo run down the list of willing bed partners he could procure at a moment's notice.

Gojyo grinned and raised his glass as if to toast Hakkai. "And because of that comment, I'm gonna make damned sure I do have a date! So, I'm going on a date. Goku is gonna…?"

"Stay the night here and bake cookies with me," Hakkai answered.

"How very homemaker of you."

"Which means," he said with another firm glance as he ignored the kappa yet again. Ignoring Gojyo was usually the best way to continue a conversation. It was unfortunately something neither Sanzo nor Goku had picked up over the years of knowing the man. "That when Miss Yaone leaves, it will be late. Now, I certainly won't allow a lady to walk home alone at night-,"

"-Amen to that!"

"-Even if she's more than capable of handling herself should the need arise. Seeing as Sanzo is the only one who isn't occupied for the evening, and her house is on the way back to Chang'An temple-,"

"-It is? Really?" The look in his eyes was a little too eager for mild or polite curiosity. An image of the red head casually strolling by Yaone's house flittered to the surface, followed by the same red head crawling back home with bullets riddled throughout his body. No… it was best that Gojyo never learn where Yaone lived, for his own sake. Curiosity could do more than kill that cat. It could piss a trigger-happy monk off enough to actually see through on one of his many death threats.

"Please, stop interrupting me, Gojyo. It's rude. And I'm not entirely certain if it is or not. She didn't disclose that information," he answered quickly. "Regardless, Sanzo will have to walk her home."

"Which means," Gojyo stated triumphantly, too proud of himself for figuring it out while massively sleep deprived to care that he had once again interrupted Hakkai. "That they get their alone time together and the monk starts getting his jollies again."

"In a rather crude manner of speaking… yes," Hakkai conceded, finishing his tea and standing up to refill his cup. "Would you like more tea, Gojyo?"

"Naw, I'm good. Hakkai, you're a genius."

"Why, thank you, Gojyo! If it works, I'll be inclined to agree with you."


Sanzo glared up through newly cut bangs as the door to his office slowly opened and a face that was starting to lose its boyish softness poked through. Those golden eyes were still wide and innocent though, despite all the death and chaos they had seen. The pen in his hand stilled in signing off on requisition forms that had stacked up on his desk due to a recent trip away from the temple. He'd only been gone for three days, and somehow enough paper work accrued that he couldn't see the darkly stained wood of his desk. He'd wanted to try and at least knock out the requisitions completely before tackling the order lists for temple supplies in the morning…

But that didn't look to be happening. There was a monkey staring at him, and it was impossible to work under those conditions. Great. "What do you want?" he demanded, repositioning his glasses on his nose as he bent over his paperwork again. Maybe if he pretended to be busy... No, that wasn't going to do anything. The day that Goku didn't bother him was the day he'd dye his hair pink.

"Um… I was just gonna ask if we were gonna go," Goku stated hesitantly, edging himself the rest of the way into his office. The boy had grown a couple inches in the last year, but it was doubtful if was going to get much taller than he was. Muscles that were once thin and lanky were now beginning to fill out and take on a more matured smoothness. It was a little disturbing to see his charge growing up right before his eyes, but it was also something he took great pride in. Goku wasn't the same frightened kid he'd picked up on some abandoned mountain top. He was now a young man who was going to be legally allowed to drink within the next year. The gods help everyone, especially himself.

"Go where and to what?" he continued, irritated that he had to pry the information out of his charge. Normally, the trick with Goku was getting him to shut the hell up.

"To Hakkai an' Gojyo's house. This Friday. For th' poker game?"

Sanzo looked up slowly from the papers, squinting at the young man rocking back and forth on his feet and biting his lip nervously. Goku met his eyes briefly before quickly glancing to the side as a faint pink coloring came to his cheeks. Something was up, and it wasn't poker on Friday. "Spill it, monkey. What's going on?"

"Nothin'! Hakkai said ta remind you about poker on Friday," Goku replied quickly. A little too quickly in his opinion. Hakkai was definitely plotting something, and Goku was definitely in on out. He was probably bribed with some form of food, the backstabbing glutton!

"This is the first I've heard about Friday at their place, and you damn well know it. Stop playing coy and tell me what's going on!"

"It's nothin', Sanzo!" Goku insisted firmly, standing perfectly still but still avoiding his gaze. Sanzo's eyes narrowed suspiciously as he waited for his charge to continue. "I just thought it'd be fun, y'know? All of us together again. It's been a really long time an' all. An' I wanna kick th' pervy kappa's ass!"

"You've never kicked Gojyo's ass, not in cards at any rate. I'm not going."

"C'mon, Sanzo! Pleeeeease?"

"I've got plans."

Goku flopped into one of the chairs and glowered at him. "Like what, sittin' 'round th' temple all night? Boooooring! Please, Sanzo? Pretty please? C'mon, pleeeeease?" Golden eyes went round and puppy like. Combined with the pleading… he knew he was screwed. Damn it.

Huffing and jerking his glasses off to toss on his desk, Sanzo rubbed his eyes as a migraine began to creep in. "Fine. Friday night poker at their house."

"YEAH! Thanks, Sanzo! It's gonna be so much fun makin' that kappa cry! Oh, an' can ya NOT wear your robes?"

Sanzo's head snapped upright at that request in order to level a suitably irritated glare in the quickly retreating man's back. "There's nothing wrong with my robes!" he snapped.

"Never said there was, but it'll be a lot more fun if you were just Sanzo for th' evenin'. Why do you wanna wear your monk stuff at a card game?" Goku laughed before disappearing out the door again with a final airy wave and at a dead run to avoid possible retribution.

Groaning as he sank back in his chair, Sanzo realized he was fucked. He was going to this thing whether he wanted to or not. And what the hell was with the demand that he change cloths? Granted, Goku did have a point about comfort, which would be needed if he had to deal with Gojyo all evening, but still... Sanzo stared at the door his charge had exited out of suspiciously, not quite trusting this whole thing. First, the invitation that Goku had tried to cover up by saying Hakkai had asked already. Then, the odd request for him to wear civilian clothing. Something was definitely way off the mark with all this.

But it looked like he'd have to wait until Friday to see what it was. And until Friday rolled around, that was probably going to be all that he could think about. Just what the hell were those three up to? He let out a low, controlled breath and dropped his pen on the desk as well. Screw the paperwork! How the hell was he expected to do any work at all now?

Hakkai gave a happy sigh as he set the final platter of food on the small side table next to the main dining one. And to think, Gojyo had been opposed to purchasing the pretty piece of mahogany furniture! It was certainly better than crowding their card space with food. A quick glance at the clock said he had about three minutes before their guests would arrive.

"Gojyo, it's almost seven!" he called as he stripped the apron off and folded it neatly before returning it to its proper drawer. He double-checked to make certain the t-shirt he wore was clean, recentered the spinning chip rack on their table and opened one more window to let in the faintly cool night breeze that came with the end of summer. "Gojyo?"

"I'm here, I'm here," Gojyo called, strolling into the room while giving his hair a final shake. He was dressed up a little more than would be expected for a casual card game, but he'd been true to his word and found himself a real date for the evening. Hakkai recognized the black button up shirt as one he had purchased for Gojyo and felt a surge of pride that he'd been correct about the size. It did look very nice against the kappa's tanned skin and red hair.

Hakkai slapped Gojyo's hand when the other man went to snitch a pot sticker from the pile of food, smiling at the scowl he got in return. The scowl was quickly replaced with a small grunt of thanks as a beer was handed his way. "Looks good, Hakkai. I guess I should marry you someday."

"Mmm… no, thanks. I'm pretty certain we already discussed what a horrible wife you would be."

Gojyo flashed a grin and took a seat at the clean dining room table, fingering the worn pack of cards in front of him with idle anticipation. "Think this is gonna work?"

"Well, the only wild card in this game is Sanzo. It depends on his mood, after all. He doesn't take kindly to trickery."

"But if it gets him his woman, he shouldn't complain. The dude hasn't gotten laid in over a year and I've got the bruises to prove it!"

Hakkai smiled and put on some light music through their new radio system, one that Sanzo hadn't seen the bill for yet. Gojyo had all but thrown himself on it when it came home in a large cardboard box. It was really quite pathetic… but it was a very nice system. A low-key jazz piece came on, a very good choice for a casual party with friends. He added an extra ash tray to the table as well as a few coasters and one dish of peanuts for Goku to munch on just as a steady pounding came to their door knocker.

"Coming, Goku! Please, don't break the door down. Again," he called, waving Gojyo back to his seat as he jogged for the door. Goku was fascinated by the brass knocker on their door, so much so that he actually broke the door by playing with it too much. If it weren't for the fact that it would have upset the boy (pardon… young man) to dispose of the newly discovered toy, Hakkai probably would have done without it completely. He never did see the point in those things.

He opened the door on a breathless, grinning Goku and a very sour looking Sanzo. "Hello, Goku. Sanzo. Please, come in. Are those the new jeans we purchased, Goku?"

"Uh-huh," Goku piped up excitedly, heading directly for the mini buffet. "They're kinda stiff but I like 'em! Hey, can I eat now, Sanzo?"

"It's not my house, why are you asking me?" the monk muttered, glancing at the new radio system suspiciously. Hmm, maybe he'd already seen the bill for it. Frowning when he saw a fifth chair at the table, he asked, "Who else is coming?"

"Oh, a friend of mine from in town," Hakkai answered vaguely. "It's nice to see you dressed in plain clothing, Sanzo." It was a very rare occasion when Sanzo would leave the temple without his traditional garb. The khaki slacks and burgundy t-shirt definitely were less intimidating than a silk ivory robe and leather shirt.

"Yeah, you look almost human," Gojyo mocked.

The monk rolled his eyes and lit a cigarette before staring pointedly at the beer Gojyo was holding. Hakkai took the unspoken hint and pointed Sanzo (who wasn't too happy about getting his own beer) to the fridge before turning to make certain Goku didn't eat all the food. "Please help yourself to the beer, Sanzo. Gojyo, I suppose we can start dealing if you want."

"Are we using money, or just friendly bets?" the kappa called as another knock, this one much softer than Goku's and also to the wood of the door instead of the brass plate, drew Hakkai's attention away from their small party.

"Friendly bets, Gojyo," he answered as he opened the door once more and stepped back to let their final member enter. "Good evening, Yaone. I'm glad you found the place alright."

"I did, thank you," she answered with an uneasy smile as she stepped hesitantly into their house. She was twisting her fingers nervously in front of her as she glanced around their home approvingly. "You have a lovely-"

The familiar thud of a beer bottle hitting the kitchen floor cut her off completely. Gojyo was up in an instant and snagging a roll of paper towels to clean up the mess as Sanzo stood completely immobile, eyes wide and jaw looking as if it were permanently wired open. Goku was grinning from over by the side table, delight radiating from his face as his gaze went from Yaone to Sanzo and back again.

Only Hakkai noticed Yaone swallow hard, her fingers ceasing in their fidgeting to press against her stomach as if she were going to be sick. He hoped she wasn't ill. He'd just steam cleaned the area rug yesterday morning. "Hello, Sanzo," she said, her voice breathy and a little tense.

Sanzo continued to gape at her, unaware that Gojyo was standing right next to him with beer soaked paper towels in one hand and a mostly empty bottle of beer in the other. He blinked when the red head nudged him, too shocked to even muster a scowl as Gojyo gave him a wide, smug grin and an arched brow. "Well, you gonna go say hi to the lady and get outta my way, or am I gonna have to shove you and do it myself?" he teased.

Hakkai was hard pressed not to laugh at Sanzo's obvious bewilderment over seeing his former lover standing not even ten feet from him. Slowly, he moved back into the living room area to allow Gojyo to get to the sink. After a few futile attempts at speech, he finally managed a choked, "Hey."

"So, are we all gonna just stand here an' talk or are we gonna play poker?" Goku demanded around a mouthful of chicken.

"Yes, let's get started," Hakkai agreed, putting a gentle hand to Yaone's back to steer her toward the table. He purposely sat her between himself and Gojyo, putting her within eyesight of Sanzo as Goku was quick to scramble into the spot next to where a beer marked Gojyo's chair. "Gojyo, what time is your date?"

"I've gotta collect Ming-Na around nine," he said as he grabbed three beers from the fridge and twisted their caps off with the speed of constant practice. He swung into his seat, passing a bottle each down to Hakkai and Yaone. He grinned and winked at her, eyes seemingly drifting lower than they actually were. Hakkai could see very well that the illusion was caused by Gojyo lowering his eyelids just enough for his lashes to cover his eyes. The effect worked, if Sanzo's quickly clenched fists and tight jaw were any indication. "Of course, I'm willing to break her heart for a chance to play with the queen of that suit."

Yaone blushed at the compliment and quickly found her beer very interesting. She shrugged out of the blue jean jacket she had on, settling it neatly over the back of her chair before reaching for her beer. Hakkai quickly hid a smirk behind the pretence of drinking his own beer when it was noted by two men in the room that the simple black sundress she wore had thin straps to it and curved perfectly to her breasts. Sanzo's jaw softened, as did his eyes fractionally as he looked her over as casually as possible. Things were definitely turning out better than Hakkai had ever hoped!

Gojyo, unperturbed and lecherous as always, casually draped his arm over the back of her chair. He was very careful about keeping any part of his arm from touching her, aware that he was on extremely thin ice with the monk still standing across the room. "You gonna stand there all night or what, monk?" he taunted. "It's fine with me if you don't wanna come play. I'm fine just sitting here-,"

The chair scraped loudly as Sanzo dragged it out and sat down with an irritated huff and a warning glare at the kappa. He held out his hand demandingly and Gojyo handed him the open beer with a malicious little smile. Hakkai was aware of that piercing violet glare on him and turned with a questioning lift to his brows. "You're dead," he hissed. "All three of you."

"Now, now, Sanzo. We haven't even begun to play yet. Best save the death threats for a little later," Hakkai chided playfully. Goku snickered, but the sound was cut off as Sanzo swung his glare around in his direction. Yaone glanced nervously at Hakkai, and he answered her with a reassuring pat to her knee under the table. He began sorting out the chips, leveling everyone at a cap of one thousand yen to start with. "Gojyo, shall we?"

Easily falling into the role of dealer for their game, Gojyo's lips spread into wicked grin as he cut the cards and began to shuffle them, fingers moving almost faster than could be seen. Goku put his head down on the table to watch, fascinated as always with the way the kappa could shuffle. "Okay, gentlemen… and lady… five cards, no jokers, no wilds."

"Aw, man!" Goku complained. "Your rules suck, Gojyo!"

"Deal with it, baby chimp! My house, my poker game, my rules. Any more complaints before I kick all your asses?"

Hakkai cleared his throat and arched a brow in Gojyo's direction. Kick his ass in cards?

Gojyo waved a hand in his direction and tossed his hair as he set the deck down in front of Goku to let the cut the deck. "Besides you, Hakkai."

"Why besides him?" Yaone ventured to ask. She was beginning to relax a little, which was more than fantastic. Hakkai certainly didn't want anyone feeling unwelcome in his house.

"Cuz nobody beats Hakkai in cards," Goku answered as he took another bite of his pork pot sticker.

Sanzo slapped him on the back of the head and muttered, "Eat with your mouth closed!"

Yaone bit back a smile as Goku rubbed his head and glared at his guardian. "That was really mean, Sanzo! Ya don't have ta hit me, y'know."

"So, the reason Hakkai is exempt from this kicking our ass plan that you have," Yaone commented as she picked her cards up and fanned them out with a sharpness of gesture that made everyone but Goku pause to look. Hakkai's eyes narrowed as she leaned back in her chair, her face instantly slipping into a perfectly calm expression. Hmm… it was obvious she had some experience in card games. That was something he hadn't expected. "Is because he always wins?"

"Pretty much," Gojyo answered before lighting a cigarette. "Or, at least no one's beaten him when he stays in the game. If his cards suck, obviously he folds out."

"Hm... Interesting."

Hakkai felt a little twinge of nerves crawl down his back at the apothecary's little hum of sound. She was marvelously smart, and very observant of a situation. He was beginning to think his initial impression of her might need some readjusting. Poker nights were going to be a lot more interesting if she was as good as he suspected. Perhaps tonight someone was going to beat him in an honest game. No bluffs, no calling… a hand to hand victory. What a thrilling thought!

Gojyo started the bet at five, which was called pretty much around the table. Hakkai glanced at his hand and carefully kept his expression blank. A two, a four, a ten and two jacks. He was split between three different options. One of them was more acceptable and more practical, and that would be going for a royal. But to be safe… he put down the two and held onto the jack, in case his luck changed and he needed to switch strategies.

Gojyo dealt out the assigned amount of cards that each player required. Sanzo took two, and by the faint flicker of clenching jaw muscles he wasn't happy he'd made that decision. Goku folded his completely and wanted a fresh hand. No need to look for subtle signs from him. He was all but bouncing up and down with delight over his hand. Gojyo threw in two himself and took two more. Hakkai waited, watching him closely. Not a single thing from him, not even a joke. He was still mulling over his hand. Yaone took two as well, but her face never changed. It was as if she had frozen herself into a perfect, comfortable expression that would never change. No nail tapping, no fidgeting. She was ice. Damn it.

The first round went to Goku be default. Hakkai couldn't draw the rest of royal to save his life and it seemed no one else could get their cards as well. Gojyo stayed in to call the man out and snarled angrily when his pairs of fives and sevens were beaten by Goku's four queens. "Un-fucking-believable!" he exclaimed. "The monkey gets all the girls, and I get stuck alone!"

"Haha, pervy kappa!" Goku crowed as he gathered his chips. "I got all your mooooneeey!"

"Yeah, yeah. You got lucky this time around. Anyone want another beer?"

Hakkai motioned that his bottle was empty before setting it into the trashcan behind him. Yaone meanwhile excused herself to get a plate of food. Goku was still carrying on about winning the opening hand while Sanzo lit a cigarette and stared as casually as he could over at the food table. He probably wasn't aware he was even doing it, Hakkai guessed, quickly ducking his head to hide the smirk. This really was too much fun!

The night wore away as chips exchanged hands. Every once in a while someone would get up for more food (usually Goku) or beer (usually Hakkai or Gojyo) and the play would stop until the missing person returned. The conversation was kept light and the fighting to a minimum between them. Three of the hands had actually come down to Hakkai against Yaone, who was a surprisingly deft player. She only won one of those hands, much to Goku's shock and Hakkai's delight. Even Gojyo seemed impressed, and he dealt with professional players on a nightly basis. The longer they all played, the easier the conversations became and the more relaxed the two the entire night had been planned around became.

They were on their last hand before Gojyo left for his date, and it was down to Sanzo, Yaone and the red head himself. Hakkai folded out early to start getting the baking utensils around, and Goku had lost interest in the game when he saw a cookie sheet pulled out. He was still sitting at the table for now, but all his attention was on the kitchen.

"So, monk, whaddya gonna do?" Gojyo taunted as he leaned back in his chair, crushing his cigarette out and blowing the smoke away from Yaone.

Sanzo gave him a slow, cold twist of lips as he replied, "You mean what am I going to do after I win this hand?"

"Like hell you're gonna win! You're bluffing, it's all over your face. He's bluffing, right, Yaone?"

Yaone smiled and shook her head, eye darting in Sanzo's direction. "I'm not telling you, Gojyo."

"So cruel! What happen to the sweet, kind, polite explosives expert who knows poisons inside and out?"

"Your beer's getting cold, Gojyo. Perhaps you should drink it a little faster," she responded with just enough of a darker tone to her voice to suggest that she'd slipped something in it.

Gojyo arched a brow, looked at his beer suspiciously, looked back at her… and slid the tinted bottle as far from himself as possible and closer to Goku's seat. "Yo, monkey! Wanna beer?"

"What? Can I really?" Goku piped up, completely oblivious to Yaone stifling her laughter and Sanzo shaking his head as he… smiled? Sanzo was smiling? It wasn't a full-blown smile that flashed teeth, but there was no mistaking the curve to his lips. Hakkai almost dropped the cooling rack in shock. He hadn't seen Sanzo give a real, honest-to-God smile in a long time! The change it made on his face was incredible.

"Suuuure. You're a man now. Go for it," Gojyo encouraged with a wink in Yaone's direction.

Goku grabbed the beer bottle excitedly and began to move it toward his mouth. He frowned, peering down the long neck at the amber liquid within. "Hey… how come it's half empty?"

"Probably 'cause I drank half of it," Gojyo snickered, grinning and holding up an arm to block the punch aimed for his side. He quickly caught the retreating fist, his grin widening as Goku's scowl deepened. A brief tug-o-war ensued as Goku tried to break free and the red head refused to let go. He finally freed the younger man when Sanzo's glare began to slip from annoyed to homicidal.

"EW! Nasty kappa-pervert-cockroach! I don't wanna drink your crap beer!" Goku exclaimed as he practically sprinted into the kitchen to throw it out, dangling the bottle between a finger and his thumb as if it were contagious. "Sanzo, are ya gonna sit there while he tries ta infect me with his lechy germs?"

"You didn't see me stand up to stop him, did you?" the monk replied as he lifted his cards off the table and took a quick look. He threw in a few chips and said, "Call." Goku continued to mutter about how mean that was as he joined Hakkai in the kitchen to begin their baking sleep over party.

"Well, everyone's called, so let's flip 'em and see," the red head drawled. He dropped his hand face up on the table, a triumphant grin on his face. "Four sixes! So, Yaone, I've showed you mine. Lemme see yours."

Yaone had to have been aware of the irritated growl coming from the monk's direction, but she ignored it as she sighed wistfully. "Unfortunately, mine isn't all that impressive," she murmured, showing that she had a pair of eights and a pair of fours. "I really hadn't expected you to stay in through the end."

"Persistent is my middle name," he replied with an edge of a flirtatious purr to his voice. He leaned just a little closer to her, once again pretending that he was looking further down her body… or maybe he actually was this time. It was hard for Hakkai to tell from the kitchen, what with the distance and his constantly having to slap Goku's hands away from the chocolate chips.

"No, it's persistent-pain-in-my-ass," Sanzo corrected as he crushed out his cigarette and drained the rest of his fourth beer. "And you lost."

Scowling, Gojyo sat back and demanded, "Is that so, asshole? Then lemme see what you're packing!"

Sanzo's lips lifted into a cold smirk of utter triumph as he slowly began laying his cards out on the table. Hakkai and Goku both leaned over the counter to see. The queen of clubs…queen of spades… queen of diamonds… and lastly, the queen of hearts. "Four queens."

"Son of a BITCH!" Gojyo exploded, jumping up from the table in disgust. "That makes two hands now where the ladies didn't love me. Two! My luck isn't worth shit tonight!"

"It's not worth shit on most days either," Sanzo quipped as he watched Yaone stack the chips back into their holder. He quickly looked away when she lifted her gaze from the table, pausing briefly on him before surveying the mess that used to be the living room. Hakkai understood the pained look on her face very well and knew it wasn't at all because of the monk's seeming disinterest. Leaving the place in such a shambles was very hard on a compulsive cleaner. If it weren't for the fact that he was actually looking forward to baking cookies with Goku, he would have been in there cleaning it up straight away.

Gojyo flicked Sanzo off and scooped his cigarettes up from the table, tucking them into his back pocket. He nodded toward the kitchen where Hakkai was setting up a mixing bowl and still slapping Goku's hands away from the chocolate chips. Honestly, he was beginning to understand why Sanzo kept the fan on his person at all times! "You kiddies have fun. Daddy's gonna go out and play for a bit," the kappa called cheerfully.

"Have fun, Gojyo," Hakkai called as he opened the cupboard that housed his new collection of cookbooks. They had been a birthday present, technically, from Gojyo. His friend had made a rather impressive amount of money during a night out and had woken up early to take Hakkai to the bookstore with the simple instructions of 'go crazy'. He did, and it was glorious. Gojyo's footsteps moved with a solid confidence across the floor, followed closely by the door shutting as he left for his evening out. Hakkai turned in time to see Goku quickly snatching his hand away from the open bag of candy. "Goku, stop eating the chocolate chips. We can't bake cookies without them."

"Sorry, Hakkai," he said guilty, his voice a little muffled by the small handful of chips he more than likely already had in his mouth.

Sighing at the futility of telling Goku to stop eating, Hakkai finally managed to find the cookbook he wanted and closed the cupboard. He did a quick index check to find the correct recipe and flipped through to it. "Now, it says we should get about 3 dozen out of this, but considering how much dough you end up snitching… we can possibly squeak out a dozen or so."

"No dough," Sanzo ordered sharply as he finished his cigarette. "The last time you let him have it he threw up all over the place."

"Ah, yes! I remember now. Those were the New Year cookies, weren't they?"

"I don't remember anything but vomit all over my boots. No dough."

Hakkai chuckled to himself as he leaned over the counter for the flour canister. "Goku, would you please get me the large measuring cup and the sifter?"

"Sure thing! Th' sifter's that funny thing with the handle, right?" he called as he began opening and closing cupboard doors in search of the necessary items.

"That's a rather vague description of a sifter, but I suppose that's what you're looking for. Oh, and don't worry about cleaning up out there, Yaone! I can do that in the morning." The apothecary had just entered with an armful of dirty dishes and platters from the buffet set up.

"I really don't mind, Hakkai," she insisted, setting her load down on the counter.

"That's very kind of you, and I'm certain you don't mind… but I do. They'll be fine until the morning."

Still looking doubtful over his decision, she didn't push the topic further and instead went to put her jacket back on. "I suppose I should get going as well then," she said quietly, a faint trace of sadness creeping into her voice. Clearly, she thought the plan had failed miserably. Little did she know that the plan wasn't quite over yet. She forced a cheerful smile and waved toward the kitchen as she made her way for the door. "Thank you for having me over, Hakkai. It was fun."

"Just a moment, Yaone," Hakkai called quickly as he grabbed Goku's wrist in mid grab for some more chocolate chip. Ignoring the younger man's hissed 'owowowows', he gave her his most innocently polite smile and said, "I really can't allow a lady to walk home alone at night."

"It's not that far, and besides-," she argued, eyes widening when she realized his intent. She turned her back on where Sanzo was watching them both with narrowed, suspicious eyes and tried mouthing the word 'no' to him. Luckily for her, Hakkai was only beginning to learn how to read lips. He had just started taking a class on it over the weekends at the same place he took the correspondence course on lock picking. Marvelous little school, really.

"I won't hear of it," he cut her off. "Sanzo, would you mind seeing Yaone home safely? I'm sorry to ask you, but Gojyo's already left and, as you can see, Goku and I are occupied at the moment."

"Do I really have a choice in the matter?" the monk asked sarcastically as he walked over to the door. He jerked it open, teeth clenched and back ramrod straight in annoyance at having walked right into the set up. Yaone, blushing a shade of red Hakkai had never seen before, mumbled her thanks again as she hurried out the door in front of him. Hakkai smiled sweetly at Sanzo as the monk snarled, "We're having a talk in the morning, Hakkai."

"I look forward to it, Sanzo. Have a good night!"

The door slammed shut after them and Hakkai let out a huge sigh of relief. Laughing nervously, he glanced over at Goku, whose worried attention was fixed solidly on the door. "Well, that went fairly smoothly, didn't it?"

"Yeah. I s'pose so," Goku muttered. "Ya think they're gonna get back together, Hakkai?"

"Yes. Maybe."

Goku groaned and dropped his head to the counter top. "It's never good when ya say 'yes, maybe'. That's two answers in one! Everything better be okay, after all we did. I'm gonna be really ticked off if it isn't."

Hakkai patted Goku's back soothingly and said, "Goku, would you mind getting the eggs from the fridge? We still have cookies to back." Goku would be pissed... but he would be livid if it didn't work.

Goddamned plotting bastards! Goddamn smarmy Hakkai and his plans! And when the hell did Yaone get into town, and why the hell wasn't he told about it immediately? Sanzo lit up as soon as the door was closed, noting that Yaone was waiting for him at the corner of the small lane leading up to the house. The curve to her shoulders suggested she was disappointed with the evening, but he didn't know why for the life of him. It was funny how he could still remember things like that about her.

He sucked down a hit of nicotine and released it slowly into the slightly chill air of late summer. In the morning, he was going to make the three of them wish they'd never taken their first breath of life. Tonight though… he was walking Yaone home.

Home. When the fuck did she get a home in his town? Hakkai would stay alive long enough to answer all these questions, seeing as he was undoubtedly the mastermind behind the entire scheme, but the other two would die quickly. Why wouldn't they tell him something like this?

It had been over a year since he last saw her, and that had been on a battlefield. Hell, a few of the scars he now sported were due to her explosives. After what had happened with Goku… he'd needed time away from everyone. It hadn't happened. That pansy prick of a bishop (who was now very dead, thank the gods) hadn't allowed for it. But the break from their group had given him a chance to think things over a bit, and had caused him to come to a near faith-shaking conclusion. Yaone had been right, completely. He couldn't expect to have any sort of relationship without allowing people into his world.

It had still taken several months after he returned to the group before he'd felt capable of trying to do just that. Goku was the first target, followed soon by Hakkai and even that dumb ass kappa to a certain extent. He was never going to be all fluffy and open and showing his emotions to the world… but it wasn't so bad admitting that he did care about some of the people in his life. Even the worthless kappa.

He paused when he was standing next to Yaone, his cigarette in one hand and his eyes fixed on her as she looked anywhere but at him. She was uncomfortable. Good, so was he. It wasn't fucking fair to spring his ex-girlfriend on him like that! He knew from the ease with which she'd greeted him upon entering the house that she'd known he would be there. A trifle irritating… but if her reasoning behind agreeing to this whole plan was for the purpose of getting his attention, he could over look it easily.

"So, are we walking or are we just standing out here all night?" he asked dryly, flicking ash neatly from the end of his cigarette.

He caught a hint of her smile at the joke as she ventured a slightly playful glance upward. "Well, I'm not sure how Hakkai would feel about us camping in his front yard… so, maybe we should walk."

Sanzo motioned for her to proceed him, seeing as he had no idea where she lived. Hell, until a couple hours ago, he hadn't even known she was in town! He walked next to her, switching his cigarette to the other hand to keep the smoke from blowing into her face. It was an automatic gesture, one that surfaced from when they'd been together. The movement was a simple one, but it stirred up memories he'd thought were firmly buried and locked away; conversations held while sitting on the floor of a random inn, the chess game from hell she'd insisted on playing on the sloped roof of another inn, sudoku puzzles over breakfast, waking up with her hair in his mouth, covering his eyes and wrapped around his fingers…

Which brought up a topic of conversation. "You cut your hair."

"I cut all of them, actually," she joked, smiling as he rolled his eyes. He'd almost forgotten the really lame jokes she liked to tell, funny only because she knew they were lame and got a kick out of making him groan with them. "Your hair's a lot shorter, too."

He grimaced and resisted the urge to finger the bare back of his neck. "It wasn't supposed to be this short, but one of the juvenile's got a little happy with his scissors. This is actually longer than the finished product had been."

Yaone's eyes widened as she covered her gasp of laughter with her hand. "Good God, was he trying to shave you bald?" she asked, the laughter coming through in her words.

Sanzo felt his lips twitch as he took a hit from his smoke and shook his head. "Who knows? I'm just glad it's coming back in at all."

"I rather like it," she said quietly, suddenly finding the ground before her feet very interesting. "It looks nice."

He arched a brow but didn't reply to that while making a mental note to just get his hair trimmed the next time he needed it. They came out onto the main street of the town, which was still fairly busy with the evening crowd coming in to the local bars. Only a few stares were directed his way from people who managed to figure out the blond in civilian attire was actually a sanzo monk. They didn't make a big production out of it, thank the gods. That was the last thing he really needed to deal with.

Yaone led him up the street about three blocks and cut right down a smaller side street that made its way back into the wooded area pressing up close to the town. Sanzo followed her as the noise from the town began to fade away into blessed silence. The apartments and inns began to break apart into large communal houses, which then began to shrink into small, private homes. He couldn't help but keep his guard up as the continued on into the section of town that hosted the growing youkai population. This section wasn't exactly the most upscale in the town, and he couldn't help the fact that he was constantly prepared for an attack still.

"How long have you been here?" he asked as the houses began to grow farther apart, allowing a little space for wire fenced yards and small gardens. A dog barked in warning from a yard not too far away, prompting its owner to come out the swinging screen door to check what it was going on about. He saw them walking, scratched a clawed hand against the back of his neck and walked back inside, unphased by two people walking slowly down a dark, deserted road.

Yaone slowed down, turning just enough to look back at him while she continued walking. "You're going to be angry when I tell you," she said with a worried lilt to her words.

"Just tell me."

"Four months." She passed under a dim light just as she said it, allowing him to see her cringe clearly.

"Shit, Yaone!" he swore, stopping dead in his tracks at that shock. Four fucking months and she hadn't bothered to even say hi? What the fuck?

"Please, don't be upset!" she said quickly, coming over to him with her hands outstretched as if to placate him.

"You've been here for four damn months without a word, and you don't want me to be upset?" he shouted, mind still reeling over that piece of news. Four months!

The dog owner came out again as the mutt began to bark with renewed vigor. The lights went on in the house they were standing outside of and curious faces were beginning to peek out. Yaone's eyes closed in irritation as her jaw tightened. Without warning, she grabbed his hand and pulled him at a quick pace behind her. The shock over how long she'd been in town was quickly replaced by the shudder that went down his spine at the feel of her familiar hand in his again. Damn…

Neither of them said a word as she hurried them along the narrow path that wound down a small hill and into the woods. The trees were thin, a few house lights dotting the darkness under the leaves, and everything had a stillness to it that was soothing. The temple was quiet, too, but it wasn't like this. This silence had a touch of life in the sound of insects stringulating and the call of nocturnal birds that carried on the faint breeze. He wasn't sure if it was the scenery that did it or the fact that even after they'd left the sights of any nosy neighbors and she was still holding his hand that did it, but his immediate irritation over her announcement had faded into something so small he could dismiss it. What did it really matter anyway? He knew she was here now, so…

So, what? Did this mean she wanted to get back together? Or was she trying to close that door completely by being here now? He didn't dare hope for the first option, even though he wouldn't have minded that at all. Chances were more than likely she was trying to make a fresh start here, as were all the youkai that were moving in, and wanted to make sure it wasn't awkward with him.

It would be just like her to do some noble shit like that.

Sanzo spotted a small house at the bottom of another dip in the landscaping. It was one story with a flat roof and he could tell even in the dim light of the moon that it needed to be painted. A small wooden fence surrounded the little parcel of land that went with it, the gate marked by two bushes that needed some pruning desperately. The house wasn't dilapidated or anything, it just needed a few repairs. It was fairly non-descriptive, and he wouldn't have recognized it from any other house in the area except for one thing; it had a front porch that stretched across the entire front of the house, complete with a swinging bench. He remembered her saying something about always wanting one of those things and knew even before she pulled the house key from her coat pocket that this was her place.

Yaone let go of his hand, much to his disappointment, to open the door. She had to push her shoulder into the warped wooden frame, earning a loud screeching sound from the door as it fought her entering the place. She fumbled next to the door for the light switch, filling the front room with a dull yellow glow from an old light fixture. "It's… a little messy," she explained as she made an embarrassed gesture at the half assembled furniture lying around and the boxes and packages that remained unopened. "But, this is it."

He nodded as he looked around, still standing outside on the porch. He noted the paint cans lined along a wall that needed to have its dry wall patched up. The kitchen was off to the left and from what he could tell it was a decent size. That and the porch swing were probably what sold her on the place. A short, dark hall way led back to what he could only assume was the bedroom. She wasn't using it yet if the futon that was currently folded into a couch position amidst the boxes and furniture pieces was any indication. There was a blanket stretched out across it, as well as a lumpy looking pillow.

"Nice," he said, and he meant it. With the exception of the work needed to fix it, this was exactly the type of house he could see her in.

She blushed lightly at the compliment, folding her hands in front of her as she looked around her house as well. He was beginning to feel uneasy standing on the porch. She hadn't exactly invited him in, but he didn't want to leave on the off chance that maybe she would. Not that she really had any reason to or anything… but just in case. Finally, after a few minutes of standing around and looking like an idiot (which annoyed the hell out of him), Sanzo took a step back from the door to leave, turning his back to her without another word. Shit!

"Um, Sanzo?"

He stopped as she called his name, his chest tight and his heart beat speeding up a little. "What?"

"Do you… I mean… would you like to stay? For some tea? Obviously, not in here, but perhaps on the porch…?"

Sanzo couldn't help the smile or the surge of relief that went through him, glad that his back was to her so she couldn't see his reaction to her question. "Sure. Why not?" he answered before moving off to the side and taking a seat on the swing, sitting on the side of his hip so he could watch her in the kitchen through the curtainless window. He could have sworn he heard her utter a sigh of relief before she began making noise in the kitchen, filling a kettle and setting out cups.

She was smiling the entire time she made tea, which brought about a return of that warm feeling in his chest he had always associated with her. It had taken her leaving him, Goku's near death and a month away from everyone before he could finally admit to what exactly that sensation of warmth was. He ran his fingers back through his woefully short hair, smirking when she jerked her finger away from a rapidly heating copper kettle. The smirk disappeared as she sucked that finger into her mouth, which prompted other memories to…

No. None of that. They were talking, that was all.

About a minute later and the shrill whistle of a teakettle announcing that the water was ready broke through the calm night air. Yaone wrapped a towel around the curving handle over the pot and set the whole thing on a tray to bring outside. She smiled a little shyly at him as she set the tray on the small white wicker table in front of the swing, pulling a candle lighter from her pocket to light the oil wicks inside the old fashioned lanterns on either side of the door. Something would have to be done about that. It was definitely a fire hazard, especially with how dry the wood was and the chipped paint surrounding the lanterns.

"I know you're not much of a tea drinker, but I'm all out of instant coffee," she said apologetically as she poured the steaming water carefully into earth brown and rusty red teacups and set a teabag into each one. She set one on a saucer and handed it to him with another quick flash of a smile before she prepared her own cup and took the seat next to him. Sanzo took a sip from the still steeping tea and tried to ignore the fact that she was sitting closer to him than was necessary. There was plenty of space for her to have put some distance between them… but he liked the fact that she didn't.

"So, your boss let you go?" he asked, enjoying the way her knee brushed against his on the seat. She was sitting sideways as well, allowing them to look each other in the eye as they talked.

Yaone laughed gently, her fingers playing idly with the much shorter ends of her hair. The last time he'd seen her hair down it was long enough for her to sit on it. Now, it barely reached mid back. He liked it better like this, short enough to be easily managed but long enough to run his fingers through… which he was not thinking about doing. "More or less," she answered. "I still have to report back every six months or so, to follow up with how my apprentice is doing and to also give Dokugakuji a break from watching Lirin."

"And how long are the return trips?"

"Only a few weeks at most. Definitely not longer than a month. Lord Kougaiji won't keep me away from my house for very long."

"How is the new king? Last I heard, he'd finished tracking down the last of Koushu's army and was shipping them away to some kind of prison outpost."

She rolled her eyes and shook her head, denying the rumor completely. "It's true he found the last of the resisting soldiers, but he's not imprisoning them. They're actually being used for manual labor, to help repair the damage they'd done to the area. It's been hard on him… but he's made an unbelievable change already for his people. I'm just glad I was able to help him get to this point."

Sanzo nodded, satisfied with the report. He was still under orders from the Three Aspects to keep tabs on how the new King of the Youkai was making out. Apparently not even the gods thought this was completely over. For once he was inclined to agree with them. "He gives you permission to do whatever the hell you want, so you come out to this hell hole?" he asked, only half joking about the hell hole part.

Yaone turned her eyes down toward her steaming teacup, catching her lower lip in her teeth in yet another gesture he knew too well. Another bolt of warmth shot through him at the sight of the movement, and just like that all his questions were answered. She really had come all this way to try and start again.

"I really couldn't think of anywhere else to go," she said sheepishly. She ventured to meet his gaze steadily, a trace of fear intermingling with the warm glow of affection in her eyes. It was enough to make his breath get caught in his chest and something that felt very close to hope course through his system. "Or anywhere else I'd rather be," she added, her voice dropping to a whisper.

His breath finally managed to escape with only the faintest trace of the relieved sigh he had to fight to keep from being voiced further. She was here to try again. She was reaching out to him one final time, making yet another sacrifice in her life for him by leaving everything she'd known thousands of miles away. He'd be an absolute moron to let her get away again, not that he ever had any intentions of allowing that this time.

Sanzo put his teacup on the table and resettled himself on the bench to face her as she waited for his response. Yaone was barely breathing, eyes wide as she studied him intently. The minute his hand touched hers, her eyes closed and her shoulders curved as the nervous tension left her completely. Her fingers curled around his firmly, as if she wasn't going to be letting go anytime soon. That was fine with him if she didn't.

His free hand trailed down her cheek gently before she turned to press her cheek to his palm, his thumb brushing across her lower lip. She was shaking a little, making him aware of just how nervous she'd been that he wouldn't want her there. It was over a year since he'd last seen her, and their parting wasn't exactly sweet sorrow… but he hadn't bothered trying to fill the void she'd left. There wasn't anyone that could, and it had taken her leaving for him to realize that.

Sanzo waited as she rubbed her free hand against her eyes, laughing with eyes that looked a little wet. "Sorry," she apologized. "That just came out of nowhere."

"You're fine," he said before giving her a mock scowl. "I thought I told you not to apologize for stupid shit."

Yaone rolled her eyes, a smile breaking across her face as he tucked her hair behind her ear. "Oh, so me crying is now classified as stupid shit?" she teased back.

He shrugged before making a quick grab for her wrist when she went to shove his chest playfully. She struggled half-heartedly to free herself before submitting by twining her fingers with his and laughing under her breath. "You're still an asshole," she muttered, but there was nothing except warmth in her voice as she said it.

"I have to be. I'm surrounded by idiots day in and day out," he shot back, smirking as she caught the implied insult.

Yaone's jaw dropped as she sat back from him, still maintaining contact through their hands. "You know, that's some thanks I get. I quit my job, pack up more boxes than I know what to do with, move thousands of miles away to the middle of nowhere-,"

"-All of which are your own fault, not mine."

"-Just to have you call me an idiot," she finished with a scowl that wasn't as threatening as he knew it could be. It was probably due to the laughter brightening her eyes.

Sanzo shrugged again and said, "You can add masochism to your list of complaints, seeing as you had to come all this way just to be insulted."

"How did I ever put up with you? I swear to God…" She shook her head in disbelief, her thumbs rubbing the backs of his hands gently.

He squeezed her hands, tugging her arms to get her attention. They'd have time to continue this riveting discussion later. Right now, he needed to fix something he shouldn't have broken to begin with. "Hey, what was that question you asked me?"

Yaone's back tensed noticeably at his words, but this time it wasn't due to nerves. She knew exactly which question he was referring to, the one that had sealed their break from each other. She cleared her throat, took a deep breath and released it slowly before speaking in a soft voice. "I… I think it was something involving love. Why?"

"I've got an answer for you now. If you want to ask it again."

She looked damned near close to tears again as she looked him in the eye and whispered, "Sanzo, do you love me?"

Sanzo held her gaze as he managed to voice his answer around the tightness in his throat. "Yes." It was a damned hard thing to get out still, even after a year of getting used to admitting that he did care for a few people in the world. Once the word was out though, it felt easy and natural to say in response to that question. He didn't think he'd ever be able to repeat the three words that were normally considered a standard response to someone admitting they loved a person. It was so… not him. But a one worded affirmation? Yeah, he could handle that.

Apparently, so could she. Yaone nodded, a smile that was nothing but pure joy lighting up her face. "Well," she said with another satisfied nod of her head. "It's about damn time you found an answer to that question. I was considering asking someone else-,"

Sanzo rolled his eyes and used her hand that he was still holding to tug her closer. "Shut the hell up. It only took you a fucking year to come and get the answer," he shot back. Before she could get a comeback in, he kissed her. It had always been a very effective way to end a conversation, and he hoped like hell he'd get the chance to keep ending conversations with her in the future.

Apparently the trick still worked, or else he was totally misreading the way her lips parted for his tongue to slip into her mouth, touching hers hesitantly. The hesitancy disappeared quickly as she responded, his hand moving to the back of her neck to angle her closer to him. She wrapped her arm around his neck, a pleased hum of sound coming from her as the kiss deepened just a little further. Underneath the taste of tea was her, and he almost forgotten just how damn good she tasted against his mouth.

Yaone pulled back from the kiss first, a small gasp coming from her as her fingers combed through the back of his hair. Yet another gesture from before that came back so naturally. Both of them breathing a little harder from the intensity of the first kiss they'd shared in over a year. "Sanzo?"

"Hm?" It was about the most verbose thing he could reply with at that moment. Damn, he'd almost forgotten how much he liked her mouth.

"This is going to sound completely wrong, and I'm not asking it for any… alternative reasons, but… would you like to stay the night?"

Sanzo felt a smirk coming on as he leaned his forehead to hers, running a hand up and down her blue jean covered arm lightly. "I suppose I could put up with paint fumes for one night."

She smiled as she pressed a light, lingering kiss to his mouth before she stood up, catching his hand as she did so. Yaone didn't need to pull hard to get him to his feet. She walked backward into the house, smiling the entire time she guided him in. Sanzo shut the door after he'd cleared the frame, kicking the stubborn wood into place all the way before locking it.

AUTHOR'S FINAL BIT: And that is officially the end of this project! A side note to those who will argue the presence of radio equipment in Saiyuki: If you look at the panels in the manga of the Jeep, there's a radio in the dashboard. Also, in a couple of the flash back panels of Gojyo's place, there's what looks like a radio of some kind. -shrugs- I'm a geek, what can I say?

A big shout out and thank you to the people who helped shape the last chapter up: Greyliliy, Qualapec-the-She-Wolf, redbrunja, ssjbento, Shinigamis Wrath... and I think that's it. Thank you guys for you wonderful in put and for being amazing plot bunny killers. Much appreciated, as is your friendship. Thank you also to LilyGinnyBlack and renegadekitsune for being a marvelously wonderful influences in certain aspects of this entire fic.

For anyone looking for more Sanzo and Yaone stories and don't wanna wait until I get the next project for them underway, here are two other authors doing something for them:


STORY: Entwined

WRITER: Qualapec-the-She-Wolf

STORY: At The End Of The Tunnel

I really do recommend both stories. They're both wonderful writers. And if anyone knows of any more fic writers doing something for this pairing, please make mention of them in a review so everyone else can enjoy them.

Also, please do check out Jessie Katz's website, where she alone has permission to post the unedited version of this fic. If anyone is truly interested in a continuation to this fic, I WILL be writing one, but it will only be posted on my Live Journal, not FFNet. The reasons behind this are a little lengthy to get into, but that's where it will be. Just do a search for my screen name (nimblnymph) or the name of my journal: Where The Muses Come To Play

And thank you to Moon'sWing for the marvelous fanart pieces. Those comics were fantastically wonderful. Happy birthday, m'dear! A thanks and hugs go out to Greyliliy and blahsblah2001 for the lovely art for this pairing as well. You guys sure know how to make a girl giggle!

Finally... I want everyone who took the chance on this story and this pairing to overdose yourself on pocky and glomp yourselves into the ground for me. I'd do it in person if I could. Whether you liked the story or not, I really do appreciate you even bothering with it. To those who reviewed for this, again positive or negative... all of your comments were read and appreciated. I'm sorry if I haven't responded to them, but they WERE read. Thank you.

And... that's officially it! Good-bye!