They stumbled into the kitchen with what was not precisely panic, but was certainly far from a precise, orderly retreat. Questions of precedence didn't even come into it as they jostled through the door, and nobody queried Hakkai's possible failure in courtesy as he slammed and bolted it behind them.

"I guess we'll have to apologise to Bie Liao," Doku commented, then broke off as he saw the empty chair at the centre of the room. "Oh, shit."

"I thought you tied her up," Goku put in.

"I did," Doku muttered, running a hand through his hair while looking around for potential squads of guards that might materialise from the ceiling. Or the corners. Or the doors. Or even under the tables.

"I thought you said you were good at tying people up."

Someone choked off a snicker, but when Doku looked round, all faces were set in expressions of bland innocence, ferocious unconcern, or invincible and cynical purity.

Kougaiji sighed. "Yaone, Doku, please take Lirin with you. Lirin, you were extremely brave in coming here to warn me, but now that the Princess has been dealt with, but now I'd like you to go back with the others."

Lirin pouted. "Aww, big brother . . ."

"And no buts!" He restrained himself from pointing a finger at the kitchen door and ordering everyone out on pain of pain. That would have been far too like his father of extreme memory, however temporarily satisfying it might be to rid himself of monks and morons alike.

Sanzou coughed, pointedly, and jangled his manacles meaningfully.

Kougaiji sighed. It would, under certain circumstances, have been extremely easy to just hoist the manacled monk over his bare shoulder and teleport off with both him and sutra together. The safety of his mother made it an imperative. He couldn't bring himself to show pity or mercy just because they'd narrowly escaped together from a lustful spider youkai princess. It would be unthinkable. He had no valid reason not to take action.

A corner of the kitchen exploded, shatteringly loud in the tense silence, in billowing clouds of flour and flame, enveloping the entire kitchen in dense white dry mists.

Several screams and thumps and general running around in confusion later, Kougaiji brushed floury hair out of his eyes and inspected the surroundings. "Lirin," he said, gently, "that's a table-leg, not one of the Sanzou-ikkou. Who, in fact, seem to have fled while we were distracted."

"It attacked me!" Lirin protested, then looked around. "Oh. They ran away. Spoilsports!"

"I think they escaped," Yaone explained redundantly, picking herself up off the floor. She tried vainly to get the flour dust off her belt of vials, then gave up. "Someone must have set fire to those flour sacks in the corner, Kougaiji-sama. Flour is astonishingly explosive when . . ."

"Yeah." Doku was rubbing the back of his neck and wincing. "Someone like a little white dragon. I'd been wondering where that little bugger got to."

Kougaiji took a deep breath, and tried not to feel too relieved or regretful. "Out, all of you," he directed. "I'll catch up with you later."


The jeep came to a halt several miles later. The downpour had changed to a steady drizzle, dampening Sanzou's robes and Gojyo's hair.

"Did we have to run away?" Goku protested.

"Get these damn things off me," Sanzou snarled, indicating his manacles again.

Gojyo didn't bother saying anything. He was too busy stripping off dress and corset with a deep sigh of relief. Standing there in his boxers, he rubbed at the lines the corset had left on his torso, and wondered despondently how long it would take for the blonde rinse to wash out of his hair.

"There," Hakkai finally said, "that does it. Yes. I rather thought that key on Yaone's belt had to be the one to the manacles, it was so unlike the rest of her outfit." He picked up the chains from where Sanzou had dropped them, and carefully tucked them into one of the front compartments of the jeep. One never knew, after all. "Well done, Hakuryuu, very well done indeed . . ."

Sanzou faced the western horizon, where a thin glimmer of light was beginning to show pale against the darkness, and lit a cigarette. Several deep nicotine-laden breaths took a little of the offended fury out of his shoulders. "Next time," he said flatly, "we leave the damn idiots to it."

"Still, it was pleasant to see everyone in such good health." Hakkai dusted his hands off cheerfully. "I'm afraid it's going to be a couple more days before we come to a village again."

"Desert crossings?" Gojyo asked. "Ice? Snow? Damn mountains which you slide down two steps for every one you manage to climb? Hurricanes and sandstorms?" He shivered in his underwear. "Lead me to it. And hey, Hakkai, where did you put my clothing?"

"Oh, it's in the back of Hakuryuu -- somewhere -- I think . . ." Hakkai trailed off uncertainly. "I'm sure you'll find it eventually," he added helpfully.

Sanzou snorted, as he watched Gojyo hunting through the various pieces of impedimenta. "And . . ."

"Sanzou, I'm hungry!" Goku complained. "I never got to finish my buns, because we came to rescue you!"

"You weren't rescuing me," Sanzou pointed out through gritted teeth.

"Oh, listen to the worldly monk now," Gojyo commented, hauling his trousers on.

"Maa, maa, at least we're all out of there . . ."

And the sun slowly rose on the horizon.


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