Alter-Ikkou


"Ai-li…check out the two tables in the corner."

"…I can't be seeing what I think I am."

"Oh, you're seeing it."

"But…how…what…why?"

"No idea."

"Do they have any idea how much they're…they're…I mean it's surreal."

"Yep."

"What are the chances?"

"Don't know. But you know what? I don't think they do either."

-----

When the Sanzo-ikkou first pulled into the next town along their route West nothing of any particular significance caught their attention. It was just another backwater village with nothing but a single restaurant and bar, and a very dilapidated inn surrounded by farm houses. It was quickly decided that they would stop here only for dinner, since a certain monkey and kappa couldn't be bothered to wait a few hours more, but that they would leave afterwards to find an inn in the following town. Only when Hakkai steered the jeep in front of the lone restaurant and bar did they notice something this town had that almost no others did along their journey.

A red truck was parked outside.

"Fascinating," Hakkai said, shifting Hakuryuu into park, "We haven't come across many other vehicles. Who do you suppose is the owner of that?"

"Who cares? Let's just eat already," Gojyo grumbled from the back, a little more snappish than usual since they hadn't had a good meal in several days. He had even blurted out a whining 'I'm hungry' before Goku did.

Goku, of course, sided with Gojyo. "Yeah, come on! I'm starving!" A second later he was out of the jeep, ready to head inside and devour whatever portion of the menu Sanzo would allow him.

The ikkou hadn't gotten more than few steps from Hakuryuu before the red truck beside them made a strange and very animal-like 'prrp!'. Hakkai stopped first, faintly curious about such a sound. When Hakuryuu made an oddly similar 'kyuu' and transformed back into his dragon form, the red truck gave another 'prrp' in response. Suddenly, with a great glowing light, the truck transformed as well, right before the ikkou's eyes, into a dragon of the deepest black. This new dragon 'prrped' one more time before dashing into the open door of the restaurant.

"Kyuu!" Hakuryuu dashed to follow without looking to his master for permission and with varyingly bemused expressions all of the ikkou had no choice but to follow also.

-----

"So who do you think the dragons belong to?"

"The group with the sexy blonde?"

"Maybe. But the group with the guy just like him, ya know with the black hair, they could just as easily belong to them."

"The guy with the monocle seems like he could own them."

"Yeah, but so does the one in glasses."

"And what about that redhead?"

"Which one? The one with the long hair or the little guy?"

"I prefer the other little guy myself, with that crown thing."

"What does it matter, they all look alike."

"Come on, Ru-bing. They're ready to order, and the last thing we need is eight angry men on our hands."

-----

The Sanzo-ikkou stood frozen by the door. The restaurant had a few single patrons throughout, most of who were sitting at the bar, a pair of waitresses, and one filled table waiting to order dinner. All attention seemed to gravitate towards that one table where Hakuryuu had immediately flown. He fluttered about one of the men sitting at the table while the black dragon they encountered outside sat on the man's shoulder spouting 'prrps'.

"Goodness, I suppose I should go retrieve him," Hakkai remarked, looking a little embarrassed about his pet's behavior while remaining innately intrigued.

"Hey, those guys have a dragon too!"

"Way to keep up with the adults, monkey." Sanzo grumbled, reaching into his robes for another cigarette despite having finished one moments before. "I'm sitting down. If you idiots want to eat, I suggest you follow." And Sanzo was true to his word, walking immediately to the largest free table which just happened to be next to the other group. The rest of his party was less inclined to follow.

Hakkai, shaking himself of his momentary distraction, smiled to his remaining companions. "Come. We really should get Hakuryuu before he disturbs those men any further."

"It's cool they have a dragon, huh?" Goku said, following behind Hakkai as the healer walked over to collect his pet. "And there's four of them just like us."

"Yes, Goku, quite the coincidence. Wouldn't you agree, Gojyo?"

Gojyo did not answer, and Hakkai, surprised that his friend would not jump at the chance to comment on anything, turned his head to see that the redhead was still back at the entrance with his eyes focused very intently on the pair of waitresses serving the room.

"Gojyo!" Hakkai called, his voice sing-song but loud in the hopes of breaking his friend's stupor, "If you would be so kind as to come along!"

Red eyes blinked the hanyou back into consciousness and Gojyo turned towards Hakkai. "Huh? Oh…coming."

Hakkai merely smiled, long ago having gotten used to Gojyo's way of things. "So," he said as Gojyo fell in step beside him, "Lovely help, wouldn't you say?"

"Caught me, huh?"

Another smile. "Please consider your manners if you do choose to pursue some form of liaison. With either woman. This is a small town, Gojyo, and it would be so easy to be run off, after all."

"What's with that either crap?" the kappa grinned. "Blonde and a redhead. One for each arm."

Hakkai shook his head with a brief sigh of exasperation but said nothing, continuing on towards the tables. Hakuryuu still appeared to be pestering the owners of the black dragon, fluttering around the other table's heads. His counterpart, settled on one of the men's shoulders seemed to be just as interested in him, but she kept herself perched.

Having all intention of offering some form of apology to the offended group, upon reaching the table Hakkai opened his mouth to speak but before any words could leave him the black dragon rose from her spot and flew—with Hakuryuu alongside her—over to the windowsill. The dragons settled themselves there looking perfectly content, and Hakkai realized he no longer had anything to say.

As the waitresses approached from behind he decided it would be best to claim a seat, and without making any contact or imparting words with the other group, he took a chair next to Gojyo.

-----

"So, which one do you think's hottest?"

"Hard to say. I wouldn't say no to being stranded on a desert island with the lot of 'em to be perfectly honest. You?"

"Can't say for myself either."

"I kind of like the skinny one with black hair on the right. Looks like he's some sort of priest or something though, with those long dark robes."

"Better than the monk sitting at the other table. Anyway, you can have them. I'll take blondie and his party. The dark one's all yours."

-----

The two waitresses reached the tables and split, much to the chagrin of Gojyo who had been hoping for a little double service. The one who chose the Sanzo party, with long blonde hair and blue-green eyes, wore a very traditional blue Chinese dress. Her fellow waitress looked amazingly similar only with red hair, green eyes and a purple dress in the same style. Each was perfectly professional despite flirtatious grins from a redhead at one table and brunette at the other.

"What would you boys like?" the blonde asked of the Sanzo party, pencil poised over her notepad. She was forced to write quicker than usually as Goku ordered half the menu in under thirty seconds. This was thankfully halted when the fan made its first appearance of the night.

The waitress tried to conceal a giggle as she watched the interactions among the men at her table.

The youngest with brown hair and a gold coronet was arguing with the blonde-haired monk about how much food he really should be entitled to order and the untimely appearance of the fan. Their companions, a redhead who wouldn't stop giving her the most lecherous look and a very courteous brunette with a monocle and friendly smile, merely sat back and enjoyed the show that, to them, didn't seem all that out of the ordinary.

"We'll have two of the dinner set on page one and that's it," Sanzo growled, holding up his gold card for the waitress, "Complain when you have money to pay for your own food."

Goku grumbled to himself but didn't bother to protest.

As pleasantly as possible the waitress accepted Sanzo's gold card and smiled down at the table, "If you need anything else just ask for Ru-bing. Your order will be out in a few minutes." She gave a little bow and retreated, passing a sympathetic look at her friend who was still taking the other table's order.

The redheaded waitresses stood, notepad at the ready, as two of her patrons argued over what to order. One of them, a very young looking redhead with violet eyes and a clear whine in his voice was currently yelling at his brunette companion. The brunette, whose hair fell well past his shoulders, was ignoring the boy and rolling like-brown eyes. It was only when the raven-haired priest—who had to be a Daoist priest if his dark brown robes were any indication—pulled a black fan that eerily resembled the white fan previously used by the blonde at the other table.

A few firm whacks were enough to silence the small redhead, but the blonde at this table, all smiles and conciliatory gestures, rose to his defense and did his best to calm the priest down. He had bright, kind blue eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses and took charge of the table with ease. When things were settled the priest gave the table's final order just as the monk had ordered before, and the redheaded waitress smiled politely before taking her leave.

"Be back in a bit, boys. Call for Ai-li if there's any trouble."

The brunette from her table leered openly at her retreating backside, which did not go unnoticed by the blonde seated next to him. "Now, now, Jun, it is entirely unfair to admire a woman when she isn't facing you to appreciate the gesture."

"Che. How the hell am I supposed to check out her ass if she's facing me, Chen," Jun replied, offering his friend a conspiratory wink. "Believe me, when she comes back, I'll be sure and admire the front side too."

Chen laughed good-naturedly and shook his head, but the small redhead with them scrunched up his nose in distaste. "Geez, Jun, why do you have to be such a pervert all the time. Tell him not to hit on the waitress, Zhao! It's embarrassing!" he said, turning to the raven-haired priest beside him, who if anything looked completely disinterested. "Besides," the little one said under his breath, "He's just trying to get extra food out of her."

Zhao, frustrated by his companions' common but annoying banter, growled and said, "Will you all just shut up. I have a headache and I don't want to deal with your shit."

"Ah, the pleasantness of dinner conversation," Chen sighed.

"This isn't a conversation," Zhao grumbled, fumbling in his pocket for a cigarette and lighter. He lit up quickly, not caring that there was a "No Smoking" sign just above his head.

"Zhao…" Chen said warningly, nodding his head towards the very visible sign.

Zhao puffed on his cigarette uncaringly.

"You know, restaurants have those signs so that beautiful waitresses such as ours do not have to work in a smoky environment."

Jun and the small redhead snickered when Zhao made a disgruntled face. "Bite me," the priest snarled.

"My, my," Chen said, "No wonder your charge has such bad manners." He reached over and affectionately ruffled the small redhead's hair. "Please don't take offense to my observation, Kuai."

"None taken." Kuai happily replied. "So…when do ya think dinner's gonna come?"

Over at the Sanzo-ikkou's table, a very similar conversation was taking place in which Goku couldn't resist whining about the plight of his far too empty stomach several times and Sanzo, thoroughly annoyed, was trying to ignore him and smoke in peace. Hakkai, of course, also made mention to the "No Smoking" sign not far from their table, but gave up after a very nasty glare was sent his direction. He didn't even bother commenting when Gojyo lit up as well.

While the majority of their table was happy to keep to themselves and pretend there wasn't a likely filled table just next to their own, Goku, between comments about dinner, kept trying to push the conversation towards the other group.

"Guys, you're not listening to me!" Goku grumbled, frantically trying to vie for his companions' attentions. "Hello, other group of four guys next to us and no one thinks it's weird."

"Now, now, Goku, four isn't that unusual of a number for travelers."

"But, Hakkai, they…they're…"

"Can it, monkey," Gojyo said, purposely blowing a bit of the smoke from his cigarette in Goku's face. "It's not polite to stare at people ya don't know."

Goku balked at Gojyo's try for sounding paternal. "Yeah," the monkey said, "Like we all didn't see how you were staring at the waitress a few minutes ago. If your eyes were any further down the front of her dress you'd have been seeing it from inside out."

Gojyo didn't respond but reached over and whacked Goku upside the head, to which there was several minutes of loud complaints.

After his argument with Gojyo died down Goku inconspicuously turned his eyes towards the other table but was forced to turn away again when his gaze met that of the small redhead, who had apparently been watching him as well.

"But guys…"

Whack. Whack. Some days Goku really wished he knew where Sanzo kept that thing.

-----

"Those dragons are so adorable, Ai-li."

"I know. I want to take one home. Let's go bring them some table scraps."

"But their owners' meals aren't done yet."

"So. No one'll notice anyway."

-----

As the waitresses came out of the kitchen carrying a few small plates of food, Goku and his counterpart Kuai were brought suddenly to rapt attention, watching the approaching dishes eagerly. Therefore, it was to their extreme distress that the waitresses completely bypassed them and went to the window where they set the food down to the vocal appreciation of the two dragons.

"Hey, they're feeding the dragons instead of us!" Goku and Kuai shouted together. This resulted in them having no choice but to make eye contact and stare at each other in sudden silence.

Hakkai spoke up first, "Really, Goku, there's no need to be upset. Dragons need to eat too."

"And you know, Kuai, kindness to small creatures is a virtue." Chen added, looking to his own companion but passing a pleased glance at Hakkai as well.

"I quite agree," Hakkai said, "Where would we be without Hakuryuu, right, Goku? If he isn't fed regularly he won't be strong enough to carry us West."

"We should thank the waitresses for being so thoughtful."

"Indeed."

By this time, Hakkai and Chen realized there was no getting around it; introductions had to be made.

"It is a pleasure to run across a fellow traveler whose philosophies stem from such refreshing logic," Hakkai said to Chen with a kind smile, "My companions and I are traveling West with the aid of my small friend there, and it seems you and yours are traveling in a similar manner."

"Quite right," Chen replied, nodding his head at the dragons in the window. "Without Fei it would be impossible for me and my companions to reach East. I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise they've taken such a liking to each other, being such rare creatures. Oh," Chen said then, as if suddenly catching himself of a deplorable mistake, "My name is Chen. A true pleasure."

"Hakkai. And the pleasure is mine entirely. My friends here are Goku," he said pointing to the brunette at his right, "Sanzo," he turned to his left, "And…"

"Sha Gojyo." Gojyo supplied. He had to turn in his chair to see the group behind him but he offered as pleasant a smile as he could muster while it still resembled his usual roguish grin.

In a chair directly behind him, the brunette at the other table also had to turn around and likewise offered his own introduction. "I'm Jun. Nice to meet you folks," he said, regarding Gojyo with an eerily similar grin. "The prissy priest here is Zhao, and our chibi goes by Kuai." He pointed to his companions respectively.

Kuai didn't feel very respected. "Hey!" he said in protest, up on the edge of his seat. "Why do you always have to—oh! Food's here!"

And just as he had observed the two waitresses with full but not quite heaping trays were bringing out the two parties' dinners. Before either waitress could even fully set her tray down, Goku at one table and Kuai at the other were reaching with anxious hands for whatever they could grab.

Gojyo, swatting Goku away, smiled politely at the blonde waitress serving them and bowed his head in the deepest apology.

"You gotta forgive the little guy. He doesn't know how to act around a lady." The kappa said, accompanying his flirtatious tone with a purposeful wink. "Me on the other hand--" Gojyo was sadly cut off from finishing his sentence when the chair he was leaning back in struck the back of his counterparts, who was—not surprisingly—involved in a similar conversation. Jun's luck, however, wasn't any better.

"You must get pretty good business around here, huh?" Jun was saying.

The redhead, carefully trying to set the remaining dishes down and dodge Kuai's grabby little hands, smiled down at him. "We do all right, I suppose. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, you know, with a pair of knockouts like you two working, all the men for miles around must come here in droves." This comment was of course combined with a suggestively raised eyebrow and a smirk.

Ai-li tried her best to keep her smile polite. When she spoke it was through clenched teeth. "Really, sir, I don't think I know what you mean." She said, and, having deposited her dishes, quickly turned to make an exit for the kitchen. It went unnoticed by Jun that her free hand was in a tight fist.

The neighboring waitress, finished now with the Sanzo-ikkou, followed after her quickly, sensing a need for damage control and to diffuse the situation before any of the new dishes were broken. Thankfully, she was used to having to deal with situations like this. She just hoped the men at their two tables didn't push things too far.

As the waitresses disappeared into the kitchen, Goku and Kuai commenced their disposal of as much food as possible in the shortest span of time. Others ate more quietly, but Gojyo and Jun, who in other situations might normally be quarreling over some of that food, were still watching the swinging kitchen door.

Leaning back to purposely hit Jun's chair this time, Gojyo craned his neck to better speak quietly to his neighbor. "Tell me," he said, "Just out of curiosity."

"Yeah?" Jun prompted, craning his neck as well.

"Which one ya going for?"

Jun grinned a little wider and turned around in his chair, sure to catch Gojyo's full attention. "Well…I always was partial to redheads," he said, and winked.

It took several moments for the brunt of Jun's words to sink in to Gojyo's mindset, but when it dawned on him that they might not be talking about the same thing anymore, crimson eyes went very wide indeed. In another moment Gojyo was spun in his chair, greedily attacking the remaining food in hopes of avoiding his counterpart, at least until the end of the meal.

It did not go unnoticed by Gojyo, however, when Chen's lyrical voice drifted back to their table. "Really, Jun, must you."

In response Jun merely laughed and Gojyo was even more convinced of keeping his attention on his own meal and his own table.

Unfortunately, Goku's hearing was as keen as ever and, having overheard the conversation thus far even between bites, the boy just had to speak up.

"Ha, sounds like Gojyo has competition for the redheaded waitress, huh?" he said, smacking his lips and beaming proudly at his observation, misguided though it was. "Guess you're outta luck this time, erokappa."

Gojyo grumbled between mouthfuls, but said nothing.

Hakkai chuckled, having understood the encounter better.

Sanzo, also getting the point the monkey seemed to be missing, shook his head. "Goku?"

"Yeah, Sanzo?"

"You're an idiot."

-----

"Ai-li, are you sure you're okay to go back out there?"

"I'm…fine. Perfect, actually. Never. Better."

"…right. Look, I'm sure he's harmless, okay? I'll take your table for you. We'll switch."

"No, you don't have to do that."

"It's okay, really. I'm happy to do it."

"Well all right. But if anything else happens…"

"Believe me, I know. Come on now. We better bring them the rest of their food."

-----

Seeing as how the men at the two tables were impressively engrossed in consuming what food they had thus far, bringing out a few dishes more was accepted with thanks but little else. For awhile the waitresses thought they might actually get away from the tables again without further incident.

But Gojyo, who couldn't help feeling his masculinity had somehow been challenged, felt a need to be supremely stupid. Especially since he was being granted the other waitress this time and had yet to so much as wink at the redhead let alone make a pass. Therefore, it seemed to him completely natural for his hand to stray a little closer to her rear than normal convention might allow.

Ai-li practically yelped. It took every impulse control in her not to deck Gojyo right then and there, but Ru-bing, quick on the uptake, started leading Ai-li away from the tables as swiftly as possible. The redhead's low muttering was clearly heard by both groups as she was carted away.

"If that redhead touches my ass one more time…" she said scathingly.

With the waitresses once again disappearing, the tables were left in sudden silence before being interrupted by the loud smacking sound of a fan hitting a very unprepared victim.

"Ow! What did ya do that for, Zhao?" Kuai grumbled, rubbing his assaulted head.

Out of the corner of his fierce blue eyes, Zhao caught sight of Gojyo at the other table, who was smirking to himself rather obviously. Zhao realized his mistake but wasn't about to apologize. "Just checking." He informed his charge. "If I have reason to hit you next time, it'll be much harder than that, understand?"

Kuai grumbled again but decided against saying anything that might incur further wrath.

Noticing that Jun had neglected to finish his eggrolls—because he was currently working on his pork—Kuai took this opportunity to very stealthily reach across the table and swipe the forgotten bits of food. Halfway back to his own plate, Kuai's hand was caught mid-snatch by Jun, who didn't look all that happy about the theft of his eggrolls.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"You weren't going to eat it!" Kuai protested.

"Just coz I'm eating something else doesn't mean the rest of the food on my plate is fair game. Now, hand it over, you little brat."

Kuai shook his head and tugged his hand to free it from Jun's grasp. "Nah uh. It's your own fault for not paying attention."

"How is eating something off my own plate not paying attention!"

"You weren't eating the eggrolls!"

"I like to save them for last!"

"So do I!"

"Damn it, Kuai, I swear--!"

Meanwhile, at the other table Gojyo was chuckling to himself as he listened to the bickering going on behind him. With his head slightly turned, he was not entirely aware of Goku's sneaky little fingers reaching for his plate until they were almost back to the monkey's own. "Hey!" Gojyo barked, whipping around to grab Goku's wrist. "I say you could take that?"

"I thought you were done."

"I wasn't done, I was pausing. Now give it back."

"Why should I? You always take things off my plate."

"Try the other way around, dipshit." Gojyo growled. "You're not funny. You're not cute. Hand over the dumpling."

"My, my…" Hakkai smiled beneath his breath. He was fully aware of the strangely mirrored occurrences happening at both tables. "The similarities between our groups seem to be increasing exponentially."

And increase it did. Kuai and Jun at one table continued to argue over the eggrolls, while Goku and Gojyo at the other table couldn't stop screaming over dumplings. They were growing quite loud, Hakkai and Chen respectively grinning to themselves over the matter, while Sanzo and Zhao were twitching in a manner that signaled certain doom. Very imminent certain doom.

In fact, the arguments continued only a few moments more before the surprising sound of two very distinct and separate gunshots echoed through the small restaurant and bar, throwing everything into silence.

The waitresses peeked their heads out of the kitchen, horrified that it really was gunshots they had just heard.

The argument was successfully stopped but the tensions were far from gone. Upon hearing a gunshot not their own, Sanzo and Zhao both whirled in the direction of the alien sound only to find themselves pointing their guns at each other. Since neither man knew quite how to deal with embarrassment yet alone allow it in themselves, they slowly lowered their guns almost as quickly as they had aimed. They did not consider one another a threat. They did, however, consider their companions to be nuisances.

"I'm getting a drink."

"Me too."

The priest and monk walked off together towards the bar, unable to admit openly their newfound camaraderie, but content enough with it to leave their companions alone, whether or not the previous arguments continued.

The arguments did not continue, neither parties feeling much like reinstating them, and though there was slight silence after the holy men left, Jun decided to break it.

He leaned back in his chair towards Gojyo and asked, "Hey, man, I was just goofing around with you before. Feel like a game a pool?"

Gojyo considered this a moment, but not seeing his own counterpart anymore of a threat than Sanzo seemed to, he quickly decided to forget his earlier discomfort. "Why not."

Hakkai and Chen also excused themselves from the tables, first to check on their dragons, still asleep, and eventually over to a smaller table where they summoned an order of sake to share while chatting amiably about various safe and common topics.

"Hey, Sanzo, since everyone left can I finish the rest of the food!"

"Yeah, yeah, me too!" Kuai piped in, looking towards his own keeper at the bar.

Zhao gave a dismissive wave of his hand and Sanzo grumbled his usual, "Do what you want."

Grinning happily, Goku and Kuai turned to one another simultaneously, and coming to the same conclusion, hopped up from their seats, pushed the two tables together, and commenced attacking both group's leftovers with equally impressive appetites.

"Hey, can I have some of those meatbuns?" Goku asked.

"Sure. Mind if I take the anpan over there?"

"Go right ahead."

"Thanks."

Goku paused with his hand reaching for the meatbuns on the other side of the table. "Wow. It's never been this easy before. Cool!"

Kuai giggled, whole-heartedly agreeing, and the two continued munching, never once having to worry about reaching for a piece of food the other wanted, and always seeming to want the things the other didn't.

At the nearby smaller table, Hakkai and Chen enjoyed their sake and their pleasant conversation, while passing pleased glances at the two younger men still eating dinner.

"It's nice seeing Kuai making new friends so easily." Chen mentioned with a slight sigh.

"Oh?" Hakkai prompted. "Is he usually a shy lad? I wouldn't have guessed."

Chen laughed politely and shook his head. "No, I suppose you wouldn't guess so seeing him now, but he didn't speak for months when Zhao first found him. We were a little worried to be honest."

Hakkai nodded, staring off a little distantly for a moment as he digested this information. "Yes…we always have to worry when Goku isn't speaking. He talks so much usually, the quiet is terribly deafening when he's not. I worry those times too. So tell me." Hakkai added, renewing his smile and directing it at his new acquaintance. "If isn't pressing too much to ask, how did your friends come upon each other?"

"Well…" Chen began, matching Hakkai's smile and happily returning it. "I've known Jun for what seems like forever. And Zhao for about the same really. We come from a pretty small town West of here. Jun and I live together these days actually." He seemed to trail off a bit then, waiting to see if Hakkai would say anything to that, but the response he received was without question or hesitation.

"Another thing to add to the list I suppose." Hakkai said. "Gojyo and I live together as well. We met a little over three year ago though."

"Really? You know, it seemed rather likely judging by your interactions, but I didn't want to assume. Assuming can be rather dangerous after all."

"I agree." Hakkai replied with an agreeable nod. "And…did you mention something about Zhao having found Kuai? Again, I don't mean to press, it's just such a coincidence, because Sanzo found Goku. He was…" Hakkai paused, gauging how he should word this. "He was trapped on a mountain and Sanzo, pulled their without much explanation, rescued him in so many words. Goku's been staying with Sanzo at the temple ever since. Going on…nearly seven years now."

"Seven years? Really? It was about that long ago that Zhao came into town demanding if anyone had clothes for a twelve year old. He runs the Daoist temple a few miles out and apparently Kuai just wandered his way there. Strange, I know, and probably just as much without explanation as you had said, but I've always thought it was good for Zhao to have the company. He had been living their alone since his master died."

Hakkai started. This was getting just a little too weird. "Died? You don't say. May I ask how?"

Chen shrugged. "Oh, of course. Heart failure. He was a very old man. I was apprenticed to the doctor of the town at the time and…well…there really was nothing to be done. It was his time to go."

"Apprenticed? So you're the doctor of the town now I take it?" Hakkai's surprise and slightly somber tone vanished, and he beamed with admiration.

Chen nodded.

"I've always wished I had the expertise to be of more service to my companions." Hakkai continued. "The road can get pretty dangerous sometimes. I practice in ki healing, and I've been doing very well at it, but there are some things even spiritual energy cannot manage."

Now it was Chen's turn to beam. "Ki healing? How wonderful. I've always wished I had that expertise, but I just don't have the discipline for it. My mind isn't quite as focused as I would like to gather that kind of energy." Chen laughed at his own expense before downing the rest of his current round of sake. Noticing that Hakkai too was ready for more—and also seemed to have the same tolerance that he did—Chen reached for the supply of sake and offered Hakkai some more.

Thoroughly enjoying the conversation thus far, Hakkai eagerly accepted the refill and the two continued their discussion. It was soon found out that the reason the other group was heading east was to call upon a particular deity that their town believed could help them overcome the famine and strange natural disasters currently plaguing them. Their hope was to do everything they could before the town got swallowed up, even if it was just one little village. Hakkai, of course, had to commend this, seeing it as just as important as their own mission to save the world from Gyumaou's resurrection. He also had to wonder, however, if the famine and disasters were being caused—as so many other things—by the minus wave.

Over by the bar, Sanzo and Zhao were having an entirely different sort of conversation. If one could even call it a conversation. For the most part the pair was simply sitting at adjacent stools, knocking back drinks, and occasionally grunting out words with some significance.

"Daoist?"

"Yep. Buddhist?"

"Uh huh."

"Don't give a shit for the rules?"

Sanzo nodded and they both took another drink.

Fifteen minutes passed as they sat in companionable silence. When one of them finally spoke again, it was Sanzo, having passed an annoyed glance back at the tables where Goku and Kuai were apparently famished enough to still be eating.

"Damn monkey's gonna try and eat a rock some day." Sanzo grumbled.

Zhao gave a humored snort. "Kuai already has."

Sanzo snorted back. They took another drink. "He learn his lesson?"

"Nope."

"Figures."

It carried on this way for quite some time. Though unknowing onlookers might think the two disliked one another, anyone who really knew them would be able to tell a firm bond had been established.

The monkeys, finally starting to wind down as the food went from copious to nonexistent, sat back in their chairs and sighed contently, grinning at one another. There was still one beef strip left, looking very tantalizing glazed and on a stick. The boys both eyed this last piece of food, and, not wanting to anger the other, immediately sat up and readied their fists…for a game of rock, paper, scissors.

-----

"Oh dear gods they've paired off."

"How much trouble would we be in if we bolted now?"

"Don't even think about it, Ru-bing. Much as I'd like to, we'd be in so much trouble. You know how much we need this job."

"Yeah, but…it scares me to think about going back out there."

"We just won't go near the redhead and that…other one."

"Uh…Ai-li. We kind of have to. They're the ones who just ordered these drinks."

"Damn it."

"Are you sure we can't bolt?"

"Yes. Unfortunately. Come on…"

-----

Gojyo and Jun were currently engrossed in a very competitive game of pool. While both were quite adept at the game, Jun was clearly winning, and the fact Gojyo was keeping up was purely by luck.

"Shit, man, you're a shark." Gojyo whistled, marveling at another amazing trick shot the brunette had just managed.

Jun moved around the table to line up his next shot and gave Gojyo a sly wink. "Thanks. Gotta admit though, I used to make a living this way."

"No shit? Good thing we didn't put any money on the game."

"I figured I better go easy on you." Jun said, and he winked at Gojyo again.

Gojyo was pretty sure Jun was just teasing him, just joking around again, but he couldn't shake a feeling of unease. He was glad when the pair of waitresses appeared, carrying the drinks he and Jun had ordered.

The redhead handed Jun his drink while the blonde gave Gojyo his. Just as Gojyo was about to corner the blonde by the pool table, since she seemed so insistent on a quick escape, Jun spoke up, addressing both young women at once.

"So…when do you lovely ladies get off? My friends and I have to hit the road pretty quick but I'm sure we could make some arrangements." The brunette was careful to include both blonde and redhead, and also careful to drown out any of Gojyo's attempts to do the same.

Since Ai-li looked about ready to snap, and quite possibly in a physical way that would definitely include both cue sticks, Ru-bing, smiling in turn at Gojyo and Jun, laughed lightly and said. "Oh, you never can tell. The cook runs things ya see. It's actually kind of nice working with your big brother." She laughed again, in a fluttery sort of way that would normally sound quite feminine and endearing but right now sounded like a threat.

Gojyo and Jun backed off.

"Heh…well…better be getting back to our game, girls." Gojyo said. "Thanks for the drinks."

The girls bowed politely, and once they were out of earshot, Ai-li turned to Ru-bing and whispered. "I owe you one. That was pure genius."

"Thanks. I just hope they don't find out the cook's a woman."

Back at the pool table, Gojyo and Jun were returning to their game while enjoying their drinks. Jun missed his next shot and it was soon Gojyo's turn again.

Try as he might, Gojyo couldn't help feeling that Jun was watching him a little more closely than normal conventions would allow. He tried to tell himself that the brunette was just attempting to psych him out, but this theory was shot to hell when Jun spoke up again.

"So…with them out of the picture now…I guess I'm just done to one target, huh?"

If Gojyo had been taking a drink he would have choked. As it was, he definitely choked on his shot, and the cue ball went flying off the table. "Dude, knock that off. If you're trying to screw with my game, it's working." Gojyo cringed at his own wording, especially having used the word 'screw.' His brain always was out to get him.

Nonplussed, Jun just smirked, reaching down to pick up the cue ball and tossing in the air a few times. "Ah, don't worry. Chen would kill me if I was actually serious. I'd never dare do anything more than flirt with another guy."

Gojyo's brain successfully shut down for half a minute. "Did I actually understand that correctly?" he asked, mouth agape.

Again, Jun just smirked. "What, it wasn't obvious? Don't act so surprised. I figured you were in the same boat." And he jerked his thumb in the direction of Chen and Hakkai, who were laughing politely over their sake. "The brunette, ya know? Am I wrong?"

"Hell yeah, you're wrong!" Gojyo almost yelled, before deciding it would probably be better if he kept his voice down concerning this argument. "I mean…he's my roommate back home and…we've great friends, but…no way. And what about you? What's with all the waitress competition if you're sleeping with…with that guy?" Gojyo couldn't quite bring himself to look over in Hakkai and Chen's direction, but who he meant was understood.

"Hey, when you've got two gorgeous waitresses on your hands the universe requires you to pay attention. Who am I to go against nature?"

Gojyo stared blankly, most of this not quite computing yet.

"Besides, friends or not, Chen and I were just friends too when we first moved in together."

"Whoa there." Gojyo said, holding up his hands in defense. "Fine for you, but Hakkai and I really are just friends. Friends. And nothing more is gonna come of it."

Jun chuckled to himself a bit before finally saying, "Give it time."

Pool game relatively forgotten for the moment, Gojyo remembered his drink, and picking it up off a nearby table, he downed it in a single gulp. He was fairly happy when Jun just shook his head, laughed a bit more, and returned to the game, leaving the conversation where it had ended.

Unfortunately, Gojyo didn't think he would be forgetting about it for quite some time.

As the pool game commenced, drinks vanished, and Gojyo slowly re-gathered his thoughts and his sanity, things turned relatively normal for a time. The monk and priest were enjoying drinks at the bar, the healers were enjoying their sake at their table, and the monkeys, having finished their rock, paper, scissors, and somehow having charmed the waitresses to bring them a complimentary plate of meatbuns—cuteness always did work better than shameless flirting—were discovering just how much fun they could have with someone their own age.

To the waitresses dismay, this soon came out in the form of playing with their food in seemingly dangerous ways. Kuai would toss a meatbun to see if Goku could catch it in his mouth, and if he did so, Goku would return the favor. This went on without incident for quite some time, but was bound to get out of hand before long. When one of Goku's tosses, a little too eagerly thrown, arched high above Kuai's head only to land atop the pool table, scattering the balls and disrupting the game, Jun and Gojyo turned on the smaller pair with angry glares.

Picking the offending meatbun up off the table, Gojyo looked back at Jun for a moment, grinning evilly, before readying himself and finally pelting the pair of monkeys with their own projectile.

Chaos ensued.

At first, Goku and Kuai ducked out of the way to avoid being hit, but then…there was that entire plate of meatbuns still. The boys' eyes met, and though it was quite out of character for either to ever waste food, sacrifices needed to be made. Before long, meatbuns were raining over the entirety of the bar, not sparing anyone, even those that had nothing to do with the ensuing war.

Hakkai and Chen acted quickly, though not quick enough, and had to dodge several rounds of fire before reaching their companions. They had the good sense to go their holy companions first, since guns had been unsheathed rather than fans, but they soon found their way over to the four 'children' and were able to pull things apart.

"Now, now. Food fights are a little juvenile even for you four, aren't they?" Chen scolded.

With a firm nod, Hakkai fully agreed. "These nice waitresses have been so kind to us tonight and now you have given them all of this to clean up."

It was then that the waitresses came out of the kitchen, staring for some time in non-comprehensive shock. They didn't look angry exactly, more stunned to silence than anything, but Hakkai was quick to intervene before things could erupt any further.

"My dear ladies, I do apologize for all this. If we could be of service in any way. Perhaps helping you with cleaning up this mess, or…"

"No, no. It's quite all right." Ai-li broke in, her hands shaking slightly as she held them up to halt Hakkai's words. She seemed to be holding her temper in check with some difficulty. "We can handle cleaning this up on our own, thanks."

"If you would like to just…be on you way…really, we wouldn't take offense at all." Put in Ru-bing, a little better at feigning calm and a pleasant countenance, but seeming just as put out and ready for the groups to leave as her fellow waitress.

The groups took the hint.

"Best be moving along then." Chen smiled.

"Oh, yes, I think we should be heading out ourselves." Hakkai added.

Taking command of the situation, both healers went to their companions and ushered them together, having to be rather careful about keeping Zhao and Sanzo from getting too close to any of the rabble rousers. After herding in their friends, Hakkai and Chen went over to collect their dragons, who incidentally weren't all that pleased about being woken or separated, and managed to say a few hasty goodbyes and thank yous to the waitresses before getting everyone safely outside.

Hakkai and Chen released their dragons, both kindly asking their pets to transform, but the dragons didn't seem all that inclined to listen. They flew over to one another instead, diving in circles around each other, prrping and kyuuing in protest to such a hasty parting.

Those looking on found this varyingly adorable and downright annoying, since some people really did want to get going. At long last, after a bit of scratching and attempts at biting that wounded Hakkai and Chen's pride quite a bit, the dragons were parted and consented to transforming into their jeep and truck forms. Zhao and Sanzo climbed into the front seats of their own vehicles immediately.

The others were more hesitant, but after a few somewhat awkward goodbyes, they did the same. Jun and Kuai, much like Gojyo and Goku, sat in the back, though it was slightly different since they were spread out in the bed of the truck, cut off from their companions who were in the cab. The window leading inside the truck, however, was open, but Sanzo, eyeing the red vehicle, couldn't help thinking how nice it would be to have more of a barrier.

There was something very strange and almost melancholy how they were turned in opposing directions, but their paths were heading for different destinations.

"It's dangerous out West. Do be careful." Chen said, smiling into the review mirror as he called back to the jeep.

"Not much better East really, so same to you." Hakkai answered.

Gojyo was struck by a sudden thought, and, laughing openly, couldn't help but voice it aloud. "Hey, if she gives birth to a couple scooters be sure and let us know!" he shouted, chuckling at the indignant kyuu and prrp that responded.

"Oh!" Said Hakkai. "You know…perhaps we should exchange addressed. One never knows when new friend may come in handy. And…after all…our dragons do seem to have formed a certain bond. Though I don't know if it goes to quite the extent as what you implied, Gojyo."

"What a good idea." Chen replied. And immediately began to write down his and Jun's address on a handy slip of paper. He handed it back to Kuai when he was finished, and since Hakkai had done the same, Goku and Kuai exchanged papers and handed them to their drivers.

"I'm afraid we won't be there for quite some time, of course."

"Still…"

"Indeed."

Hakkai and Chen started up their engines.

"Be seeing you then." Gojyo said with a half-hearted wave.

"Yeah." Jun answered with a grin. "Who knows, maybe we'll run into each other on our way back and…we can have a little fun, huh?"

Gojyo pretended he didn't hear that.

Goku and Kuai leaned out of their spots for a quick high five at their antics and all the fun they had had, saying again and again how much they would love getting to have some 'fun' if the groups ran into each other on the way home. Neither got that the connotations involved were meant to be slightly different.

Next to their drivers, Sanzo and Zhao did not offer any excited shouts or polite goodbyes, but caught one another's eye in their side mirrors and offered like, silent nods. Soon, both vehicles were speeding away with Goku and Kuai waving after one another for what seemed like an entire mile. There wasn't much said in either the jeep or the truck as the groups sped away both West and East for their different missions, but all considered couldn't help thinking they had just experienced something very…odd.

-----

"Ai-Li…how do you get meatbun off a pool table?"

"I don't know, Ru-bing. How do you get it off the ceiling?"

THE END


A/N: One day FF will learn that authors should be able to cross-post things when they just happen to be roommates, sleeping less than two feet from one another, and on an off-chance write a little fic together. This story was joint written by me and my roommate, listed on FF as Blue-eyes-green, and is only being posted as me because I typed. So...please check her out too, and review her one story so she is convinced to post more. :-) In case you didn't guess, Ai-li and Ru-bing are very much veiled self-insertions. Me, being the redhead, of course. I mean...Crimson. Duh. :-) Hope this was fun. I know you're waiting for the next Even Easy part, but I have finals and this was our treat to ourselves, planned way in advance as a date with Ben, Jerry, and my laptop Homura--yes my comp is named Homura--so...I will post for Even Easy when I can.

Thanks for reading, everyone! And as always, see ya next ficcie!

Crimson & Blue-eyes-green