Sanzo tapped ash off his cigarette and then leaned back in his chair. Across the desk from him was Kougaiji, his hands clenched into fists and his face almost as red as his hair. He was ranting about something unimportant as usual. Sanzo took another drag on his smoke.
"Are you listening to me?!" Kougaiji huffed.
Kougaiji's hands unclenched and clenched repeatedly. Somehow, his face got even redder, making his hair almost orange in comparison. This time, his voice dropped low as he said, "I'm tired of you and this entire agency ignoring me."
"You're always tired of something," Sanzo said, exhaling a cloud of smoke. "Here's a news flash: no one's holding you here. If you think another agency will give you what you want, don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out."
Kougaiji blinked, and his mouth, still open for more whiny-ass complaining, snapped shut. He turned and yanked the office door open. As he stepped out he said, "You'll be hearing from my lawyer."
Sanzo kicked his feet up onto his desk and stared at the ceiling. He really wanted a drink, but more importantly, he wanted another job. He never should've let Kanzeon talk him out of leaving the computer company. Sure, there were problems there, too, but it wasn't like this with all the … talking. And parties. And deal-making. He just wasn't good with this level of human interaction.
He was in mid-thought of updating his resume for another programming job when next to him, as if from nowhere, Hakkai appeared, handing him a glass of scotch. "I don’t think your aunt will be pleased with this turn of events."
Sanzo managed to not jump. Hakkai was a sneaky bastard who took some sort of perverse pleasure in surprising people. In fact, Sanzo was beginning to suspect Hakkai was always lurking in the room and had some sort of cloaking ability. That might explain a few things about Hakkai of course, but it was a ridiculous idea. Sanzo waved off the stupid notion.
Sanzo took a drink of scotch and said, "It won't be the first time I've pissed the old hag off, and I'm sure it won't be the last. Besides, Kougaiji was getting on my last nerve. He's done—sales of his CDs and singles have hit rock bottom, and it's time for him to switch his life up. A new agency might light a fire under his princely ass."
"So you're saying what just happened was for his own good?" Hakkai had that almost smile on his face.
"Huh." Sanzo set the glass down.
"Should I tell Ms. Kanzeon?"
"No," Sanzo sighed. "I'll do it. But you'd better call our lawyers and warn them. And get the finance department lined up to terminate that asshole's contract. I'd like to fire the pre-emptive strike. See if we have any loopholes so we can sue him first."
"I'll check. Anything else?"
Sanzo stood up and drained his class. "I might need another drink after I'm done getting my ass chewed by the old hag."
Hakkai shook his head. "I'm relatively certain I'll be able to help you with another drink, but you'll have to find another individual to administer medical attention to your ass. Thankfully that duty was not included in my job description."
"Shut up, Hakkai," Sanzo muttered as he once again wondered why the hell he'd given up a nice, dull, IT job for this shit. Nine-to-five with only the occasional midnight call for a stupid unhandled exception.
He finished his scotch and stood up. He might as well get this over with.
An hour later he returned to his office loaded down with files. Paper files, for fuck's sake; what was this, the dark ages? Hakkai raised an eyebrow at the files but didn't say anything. Sometimes he was good at holding his tongue, but Sanzo didn't think that likely this time. Instead, he suspected there was worse news coming.
Sanzo opened his office door, and sure enough, he found Gojyo waiting for him.
"What?" Sanzo said, dumping the files on his desk.
"A little bird told me you have a new assignment." Gojyo toed at one of the files that had fallen to the ground, spilling across the cheap office carpet. He looked up at Sanzo with a wide smile. "Who still uses paper?"
Hakkai stepped into the room with a tray of hot drinks and snacks.
Sanzo glared at both of them.
"So." Gojyo picked up a cup of coffee and said, "Are you going to tell us about Goku?"
"So it is Goku!" Gojyo looked at Hakkai and said, "Told ya."
Hakkai sniffed. "I was under the impression that Goku was doing quite well with that band he was in, The Gods of War or something like that."
"Yeah." Gojyo nodded and added, "He joined up with Nataku, and they were all the rage with the teenagers. What happened?"
"The usual," Sanzo said.
"They became too old?" Hakkai asked. "But they're still young."
"Let's see." Gojyo sipped his coffee. "Goku was four years younger than Sanzo, who's an old man of thirty-one now. So, Goku's twenty-seven. That's a pretty good run for a boy band."
"He suffered from Kougaiji's problem." Sanzo poured a large amount of sugar into his tea. "Goku and Nataku let themselves get stale and got dumped by their label."
Hakkai waited a minute before asking, "And Nataku?"
"He's gone on some spiritual journey," Sanzo said as he rolled his eyes.
"And we picked up Goku," Gojyo said carefully. "I assume your aunt doesn't know about your past with Goku."
"I wouldn't be too sure about that." Hakkai placed a napkin on his lap and poured himself a cup of tea. "Ms. Kanzeon does seem to know more than people usually suspect. And Sanzo was rather distraught after Goku became a star and left town."
"Che," Sanzo said, with maybe a little more force than was necessary. "Distraught, my ass. It was no skin off my nose when he took off."
Gojyo coughed. "Right."
"Will this be uncomfortable for you, Sanzo?" Hakkai asked.
"It's just another job." Sanzo ignored the feeling of unease that rested in the pit of his stomach as he stared at the pile of paper—paper he would get Hakkai to transform into database entries. They were contacts and upcoming gigs that might be a fit for Goku.
"Does Goku know you're his new agent?"
Hakkai was beginning to piss Sanzo off. "I don't know. It doesn't matter. He can ask for someone else if he doesn't like the idea."
"Maybe he asked for you," Gojyo said.
Hakkai made a sound of disagreement.
And Sanzo … Sanzo did his best to keep his features neutral and glare at Gojyo despite the unease in his stomach threatening to overwhelm him.
"Well, why not? Or am I the only one who remembers how crazy the dumbass was about Sanzo?" Gojyo's irritating smile was back. "In spite of all the abuse he got."
"That's true," Hakkai said slowly. "He was overly fond of you. What happened between the two of you, anyway?"
Sanzo ignored them and picked up one of the contract offers. He said, "All he needs is a new image. We need to separate him from his last band. Hakkai, call up our television contacts and see if they've got any things coming up we can get him into."
"And me?" Gojyo tapped his cigarette into an ashtray.
Sanzo considered. Gojyo was good at schmoozing. "See what's new out there, what we might get him into right away. Commercials, movies, TV shows, whatever."
"Oh, that sounds … vague." Gojyo rolled his eyes. "Should I look into my crystal ball, too?"
"If you think it'll help," Sanzo snapped.
Very softly, Hakkai asked, "What does Goku want to do?"
Sanzo looked over at him. "What do you mean?"
"He hasn't told anyone what he wants to do?" Gojyo said, his eyes wide.
"No. I just came from the hag's office. She told me to make him popular again, that's all. So that's what I'm doing."
"There's no need for me to talk with him. I'll do my job, and once he's established himself as a star, I can hand him off to someone else. We won't even need to speak."
"Sanzo that seems a trifle cold. Don't you—"
"We're done," Sanzo said as he pointed to the door.
They shuffled out. Sanzo did not—no, he wouldn't talk to Goku if he could avoid it. Yes, they had a past and some words had been exchanged, but that was a long time ago. They'd been much younger and far more foolish. Nothing like that could or would happen again.
But that didn't stop the feeling that he was being set up. Goku had personally joined Sanzo's agency. Just what was he up to?
Sanzo leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling again. He really should've stayed with the IT job.
When he arrived at work the next day, the first thing he noticed was someone sitting in his office.
Sanzo paused at Hakkai's desk and said, "I don't remember having any appointments this morning."
Hakkai gave him a tolerant smile. "But you do. And if you'd been good enough to let me finish talking to you last night, you'd know about it."
Sanzo had a bad feeling about this. "Hakkai, whoever is sitting it my office had better not be Goku!"
"What did you expect, Sanzo?" Hakkai said crisply as he dabbed at an imaginary speck of dust on his desk. "That he wouldn't want to speak with you?"
"Hakkai, if you don't tell him I'm not available, so help me I'll—"
From behind Sanzo, a voice he knew all too well said, "Hey, Sanzo."
"Long time," Goku said with a partial smile.
Goku was still short, but he had gotten taller. His face, while still youthful, had lost the boyishness. His long brown hair was pulled back into a sloppy ponytail and partly fell over one shoulder. And although he wore a loose t-shirt, it was easy to see he'd definitely filled out a bit, his arms more muscular and his chest and shoulders a bit wider. His eyes were still amber-colored, and that idiotic smile …
Sanzo nodded to him and raised an arm toward his office and followed Goku back in. He glared at Hakkai as he shut the door.
"So, I bet you're surprised I'm here, huh?"
"You might say that," Sanzo said. "I've already got a commercial for you next week. I'll have Hakkai send you the details."
"A commercial?" Goku said. "Wow, I guess I never thought about that."
"Isn't that was ex-idols usually do? Go into acting?"
"But I'm not really interested—"
"I'm also certain of a movie deal."
Goku fell into a chair and scratched his eyebrow. "Look—"
Sanzo ransacked the papers on his desk, thankful that there was something else to look at other than Goku. "And I know we can get you a spot on Dance Off."
Goku shook his head and said, "Dance Off? I don't think I can't do that. I don't know how to dance!"
"Immaterial. They teach you." Sanzo flipped over a file. "And the last thing—"
"Sanzo." Goku jumped up and his hands came down on the file, slamming it shut. "Aren't you going to ask me why I'm here?"
Annoyed, Sanzo looked up. Goku's eyes were narrowed, but he didn't look angry. There was something else there.
"You told me once, a long time ago, if I ever needed you, to just call." Goku smiled again.
"I never said that."
Goku rolled his eyes and said, "That offer went both ways, you know."
"What are you going on about?" Sanzo tapped his finger on the desk.
"You're bored." Goku grinned and leaned over the desk, his face an inch or so away from Sanzo's. "So am I."
Sanzo would not allow Goku, of all people, to rattle him. He didn't move.
After several excruciating moments, Goku finally pulled away. As he turned for the door he said, "I see you haven't changed, but that's okay. I like ya mean and surly. Plus, you aren't getting rid of me so easily this time!"
Sanzo tried to get his angry retort to work, but strangely enough, his throat was too dry to say anything.
WHEN FOUR_LINES_TOO_MANY THEN …
Fifteen seconds. That's all it was. Fifteen seconds and four speaking lines of fluffy, no-brainer commercial.
All Goku had to do was walk to a chair, sit down, hold up a can of that disgustingly vile brand of grape juice (with the god damn grape skins still in it, for fuck's sake! Who would drink that?) and say: "Grape Sack juice! It's full of goodness. So much goodness you'll please your mother by drinking it! I love it!" And then he had to take a drink.
That was it. The crew had gone so far as to pour out the awful Grape Sack drink and replace it with purple-colored water.
"All right, people, one more time," the director said with a heavy sigh. "Take twenty-three!"
Sanzo was pretty sure he should've stayed in bed today.
Goku started walking toward the chair. Of course, before he could sit down, he knocked the chair over. Again.
"Cut!" Sharak Sanzo, the director of this disaster and Sanzo's cousin, rubbed her temples. "All right, everyone, let's take a break."
The hair and make-up folks started working on Goku again and then Sharak made a beeline towards Sanzo. She didn't look happy.
Sanzo sighed. Sharak wasn't a patient woman, and Goku could make the most patient person insane.
"Genjo, what's the deal with this kid?"
"I don't know."
"Jesus." Sharak lit a cigarette, frowning at Hassan when he frowned at her. "I thought he was some sort of pop star. How can he be such a disaster in front of a camera?"
Sanzo lit his own cigarette.
"Look, I did this as a favor for you, but if he can't pull it off, I don't see how I can honor that favor."
"And he's like a robot when he talks. What the fuck? It's four lines!!"
Sanzo exhaled a cloud of smoke.
Sharak and Sanzo sighed together and then together they smoked and fumed.
"All right, people," Sharak said as she crushed out her cigarette on the studio floor with her shoe. "Let's try again. This time, Goku, why don't we start with you sitting down?"
Sanzo moved closer as everyone readied and Goku sat in the chair.
Goku smiled an eerie, forced smile, showing his teeth and looking more like a caged animal performing for treats than an actor. "Grape. Sack. Drink."
"Cut!" Sharak shouted and collapsed into her chair. Hassan leaned in close to say something.
Sanzo'd had enough. He took a step forward and said, "The line is Grape Sack juice, dumbass. All one sentence. Say it."
Goku nodded. "I know."
"Grape Sack juice."
"Good. Now the rest—like we practiced."
"Grape Sack juice! It's full of goodness. So much goodness you'll please your mother by drinking it! I love it!" Goku smiled at Sanzo, all bright and happy. Perfect.
"Now, just like that."
Sharak sat up straight and asked hopefully, "Got it?"
"Yes," Goku said.
"Um, great juice sack!" Goku muttered loudly and held up the can while shaking it, spilling purple water everywhere and grinning like a penned-up monkey about to be tortured.
Sanzo was getting a headache.
"Sorry, Sanzo." Goku looked at Sharak. "And sorry, Sharak! I'll do better, I promise!"
"Fine," Sharak said, not giving anyone any time to move and ignoring the mess of purple water. "And, action!"
Goku grinned the maniacal monkey grin and pushed the can at the camera. "Grape Sack juice!"
The first line was right—a little creepy, maybe, but the words were right. Sanzo held his breath.
"It's full of goodness and er … grape sacks! Yeah! So many grape sacks you'll please your mother by drinking it! But don't choke! Those things sneak up on you and—"
"Oh, for fuck's sake, CUT!" Sharak threw down a clipboard and walked out.
"Is she coming back?" Goku asked Hassan after a few minutes.
Eventually, she did come back, but it didn't matter.
"Sorry, Sanzo," Goku said pleadingly at him later in the car.
"Sixty-two takes. What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Nothing! I just don't like Grape Sack juice! Who drinks that crap?"
"You weren't drinking it, you idiot."
"Yeah, but I was telling other people to drink it. It's nasty stuff, and I don't wanna tell them to drink it!"
"Goku," Sanzo said very softly. "It's just a stupid job. That's all, that's what you do."
"But what if—"
In the driver's seat, Hakkai turned his gaze to meet Sanzo's in the rearview mirror as he asked, "Did they feed you lunch?"
"No!" Goku complained. "And I'm starving!"
Sanzo wasn't hungry. He'd have to hear about this nightmare for months from Sharak. And getting Goku another job wouldn't be easy. He was definitely getting a reputation as a difficult person to work with, simply because he was an idiot.
"Where would you like to go to eat?" Hakkai asked.
"Godai's?" Sanzo could feel his brow furrow.
"Yeah! They have the best fatty tuna anywhere, and they do this awesome ginger sauce to dip it in! I'm not sure what all they add to it, but there's wasabi and a delicate rice wine."
"And the blowfish is amazing!"
Hakkai was smiling in the rearview mirror. "Yes, I agree. Godai's might be the best sushi in town."
"But I'm not sure we could get a table, Goku," Hakkai said. "There's usually a waiting list that's weeks long."
"Nah, they'll get me in. They always do."
Sanzo was staring now. "You go there often?"
"Sure," Goku said with a smile. "But if you're not in the mood for sushi, we could go to Grazing Fields."
"What's that?" Sanzo asked.
"It's a steakhouse. They do the most amazing thing with Kobe beef."
Sanzo's head was spinning. Blowfish? Kobe beef? "I thought you preferred meat buns."
"Well, I still like meat buns, I mean, how can you not?! Oh! There's this great Chinese restaurant in Himeji that serves them to go from a window. It's kind of close to the high-class red light district, which is kind of weird, but that's okay with me. I'm not interested in the girls, anyway."
"Goku," Hakkai said with a smile. "Who taught you about food?"
Goku started to blush. "A boyfriend."
Sanzo felt odd, as if he'd been punched in the stomach very lightly. Goku having a boyfriend shouldn't surprise him, should it?
"I see," Hakkai said. "Was he a chef?"
"Yeah." Goku looked out the car's window. "But we broke up about a year ago. We're still friends, though!"
Leave it to Goku to remain friends with his ex. Sanzo said softly, "You're still the same brand of idiot, aren't you?"
"Yep," Goku said with a bright smile. "What about you, Sanzo? Are you seeing anyone?"
Sanzo turned his head and looked out the window.
"Oops, sorry. Guess I was bein' too nosy."
Hakkai cleared his throat and asked, "Have you decided what you might want to eat, Goku?"
"Yeah." Goku leaned forward and said, "Turn up here at the next street, Hakkai. There's a great restaurant a mile or so away. It doesn't look like much, but they have the best sukiyaki! And I remember that even Sanzo likes sukiyaki."
Sanzo watched the city lights from the car and tried to relax. Dealing with stupid programmers and unhandled exceptions was beginning to look like a dream job.
WHEN DANCETYPE_MISMATCH THEN …
"I really don't want to do this, Sanzo," Goku said, crossing his ankles. "I told ya that. I think I'd rather do that Wipe Out show."
"It's good exposure," Sanzo said.
"But, but, but … Lirin? Lirin?!!" Goku's face was bright red. "And a dance show? I really don't want to do this."
"The dumbass public eats this shit up," Sanzo said. "Publicity."
"But …" Goku scowled. "It's Lirin."
"Do you know her?" Hakkai asked, setting down coffee for Sanzo and a soda for Goku.
"Um, yeah," Goku said, blushing again. "I kind of insulted her before. She's kind of crazy."
"That's an understatement," Sanzo agreed, scowling with the memory of her grating voice and her unnecessary need to touch everyone. Lirin's reluctance to accept Goku as her partner made more sense now that Sanzo knew about an insult. It must've been an impressive insult because Lirin had pretty thick skin.
"But you can't argue that she's good at what she does."
Goku whined as he said, "Oh, come on, Sanzo! I don't wanna dance on TV!"
At that moment, Sanzo thought Goku resembled a kicked puppy with his big, sad eyes and his pleading. Sanzo nearly wavered.
"Please?" Goku said, his voice warm and soft, leaning forward and looking even more pathetic as he hoped for respite. Just like he'd done years before, when he'd worked hard manipulating Sanzo to get his way.
"Che, give it a rest," Sanzo said, pulling his gaze away from Goku's act. That manipulation would not happen again. "You start training in a couple of days."
"Fine," Goku said sharply, standing up and heading for the door. "If you want me to do it, I'll do it. But don't blame me when it ends in disaster."
"Well," Hakkai said, picking up Goku's untouched can of soda. "That went well."
"Hakkai, just do—"
"Sanzo, has it crossed your mind that this job might place Goku in an uncomfortable position?"
Sanzo sighed, recognizing the unrelenting tone in Hakkai's voice. Sanzo could protest all he wanted, but Hakkai was going to say what he wanted to say.
Grabbing a cigarette from the pack on his desk, Sanzo said, "So Goku had words with Lirin. Who hasn't?"
"I'm not just speaking about Lirin."
"You don't mean that dumbass Kougaiji, do you? I know he's her brother, but that's never been—"
"No. I'm speaking about Goku. You and he have a history together, and he obviously still retains feelings for you." He stared at Sanzo for a moment before adding, "Although I believe he's not sure about which way those feelings fall."
Sanzo shifted in his chair and rolled his cigarette between his forefinger and thumb.
"Lirin has been overt in her pursuit of you." Hakkai held up his hand, stalling Sanzo's gathering protest before continuing. "Yes, you've made it more than clear that you're not interested in her, but that's done little to negate her dogged pursuit. You have, in essence, just placed two of your rival suitors together in a publicly filmed dance contest."
Sanzo rubbed his temples. He hadn't thought about the situation in those terms. "Well, it's done now."
"I suppose so," Hakkai said as he straightened his back and turned for the door. "But I'll have to agree with Goku this time. He'll not be to blame when it ends in disaster."
Sanzo lit his cigarette. He watched his exhaled cloud of smoke tumble over itself and finally, after a moment of thinking about all possible scenarios, he decided that maybe, just possibly, this time he'd made a mistake.
"Wow. She's all grown up now, isn't she?" Gojyo said as Lirin took her place atop a black dais set a foot and a half above the studio dance floor. Above her, a gigantic disco ball turned a lazy rotation as lights bounced off the multifaceted surface in subdued anticipation. Lirin struck a pose, her right arm to the sky and her left leg stretched out. She was wearing sparkling red stilettos, white tights with a tiny white flip skirt, and a very snug yellow top that did little to disguise her ample physique.
"Gojyo," Hakkai said with irritation. "Please stop looking at her chest."
"Hey, I wasn't trying to, okay?"
"You could be a bit more discreet about it." Hakkai crossed his arms.
"Come on, Sanzo, help me out here," Gojyo said as he bumped Sanzo's elbow.
"She's annoying," Sanzo said. In truth, he almost felt bad for subjecting Goku to Lirin's constant, mindless chatter. Almost. "But she's a decent choreographer; she's also stubborn as they come. If anyone can teach Goku how to—"
"Yeah, you just keep tryin' to convince yourself about that, you prick, 'cause we ain't buyin' it," Gojyo said. "Truth is, you fed him to a wolf."
Sanzo rolled his eyes, but still, that almost-kernel of guilt persisted.
The music started, some horrid song declaring "You Should Be Dancin'" and Goku came running from off stage, sliding onto his knees. He was wearing a very tight white suit with a black shirt underneath, shamelessly unbuttoned to his navel. He was also wearing some silly high-heeled boots.
He leapt up into the air again, turned and then grabbed at Lirin's waist. In a surprisingly graceful move, he lifted Lirin off the platform and gently lowered her to the floor. Okay, maybe it was a little wobbly, but it was better than Sanzo expected.
Goku and Lirin twirled together around the floor for a couple of bars, some simple, but well-timed steps.
"A very nice start," Hakkai said.
"More like nice homage to Saturday Night Fever," Gojyo said with a derisive snort. "How original."
Hakkai frowned. "But they don't seem to be enjoying this."
"Yep, it's like they don't even want to touch each other," Gojyo said and bumped his elbow into Sanzo. "Imagine that."
Sanzo noticed. When the couple tangoed across the floor, their fingers barely came in contact and there was a large space between them.
Goku twisted on the stage and snapped Lirin away in a perfect pirouette and back again. Then they began some ridiculous synchronized thing—it looked as if they were speed bag punching but with some bumping and grinding. In perfect rhythm, they pulsed and waved their pelvises at the crowd, the camera, and each other. It was stupidly lewd, and even worse, it reminded Sanzo of just what Goku was like … elsewhere.
Sanzo crossed his arms and concentrated.
Goku fell to his knees and then back on his feet, springing up and down again, a parody of a Cossack dance. Meanwhile, Lirin spun around him like a cheap jewelry box ballerina. He leapt up straight again and took too many steps towards Lirin, causing his timing to falter. Somehow he still managed to catch Lirin's hand in time to lead her around the floor in two-step fashion, but they were off half a beat.
"Uh oh," Gojyo said. "Looks like they're having words."
Hakkai nodded. "That's bad form according to the judges. While they're on the dance floor they should keep smiling otherwise they'll get marked down."
Sanzo and Gojyo looked at Hakkai, who just kept staring at Goku and Lirin. "Well. I thought someone should know the rules."
"Right," Gojyo said, scratching at his nose to hide his smile. "Goku being on the show is the reason you know the rules."
Hakkai sniffed but didn't respond.
Sanzo looked back at Lirin and Goku. They definitely weren't smiling and they were definitely having words as they hustled or two-stepped or whatever the hell they were doing across the floor. But there was a lot of frowning going on.
And their moves got sloppier.
They paused, clapping their hands together and then raising their right arms and pointing first to the right then down and to the left, hips shifting from side-to-side, feet sliding. They were grinding away before crossing their arms and clasping hands, spinning together. All the while shouting at one another.
"They look as if they might be spinning a little too fast," Hakkai noted.
Gojyo snorted. "Ya think?"
From where Sanzo stood, he could see them both grasping so hard their fingers were digging into each other's flesh. They were glaring at one another and moving faster and faster. Sanzo was pretty sure the dance wouldn't end well.
They yanked each other's arms high and turned as they stepped forward, leading with opposite hips. Sanzo had seen the move performed by previous contestants, and the idea was a gentle touching hip-to-hip, a step back, and then a repeat with the opposite hip. That wasn't happening with Goku and Lirin. What they did wasn't smooth or gentle; they were slamming sides of hipbones into one another with bruise-inducing contact. For all intents and purposes, they were trying to knock one another down.
"Perhaps we should stop this," Hakkai said. His voice carried a hint of amusement mingled in with concern.
"Why?" Gojyo asked. "This is the best episode of this show I've ever seen."
"It's the only episode you've seen," Hakkai said.
"Well, yeah, but still, it's pretty entertaining."
Sanzo agreed. Yes, they were watching a disaster, but it was a stupid show and no wonder Goku hadn't wanted to do it. The inanity of the show was now compounded by the stunned silence from the small audience. Sanzo gazed out at the crowd only to see horrified expressions.
He looked back to the stage in time to see Lirin and Goku, both red-faced and shouting, raising their arms in a bridge and, in perfect step, they twirled under back to back. Also in perfect step, they tossed back their heads with violent intent, obviously attempting to brain one another. They staggered from the mutual blows, and Lirin nearly dropped to the floor but Goku caught her arm at the last minute and pulled her upright in what Sanzo assumed was a chivalrous act.
He was so wrong.
Catching the beat again and falling back into step, Goku free-spun Lirin away from him. Only he'd done it a bit too quickly and a little too strongly. She whirled like a top and tried, unsuccessfully, to right herself before crashing to the ground. She jumped to her feet and ran back to face Goku for the next move. Unfortunately, that move involved kicking.
Lirin, with her sparkling red stilettos, smacked Goku in the shins with every ounce of strength she had.
And the next moment? The "dance" completely devolved into something more primal. Goku was throwing insults and blocking Lirin's punches. Finally, Lirin simply leapt on him, practically snarling, and then the two of them stumbled off the stage and right into one of the cameras.
There was a crash followed by a small explosion. The lights flickered and went out. After a moment or two, low emergency lighting came on. Lirin pulled away from a tangle of cords and with a scathing series of colorful swear words, stormed of the stage.
"Oh, I think that might not be good; they didn't finish," Hakkai said.
Gojyo couldn't stop his laughter as he said, "And you think that's the problem?"
Sanzo rubbed his temples, but he had to admit, Goku's dance had been the most entertaining one of the night.
Even so, no one was surprised when the judges eliminated Goku and Lirin from the contest.
"Okay, it was only your first try," Gojyo said to Goku, trying to cheer him up. "We had to expect a few bumps. Besides, I thought it was pretty fucking hilarious."
"Gojyo," Hakkai said as he handed Goku an ice pack. "I don't think you're helping."
"Well, I'd have to say that judges weren't all that understanding," Hakkai frowned. "And you worked hard, Goku, practicing for it. I wouldn't feel too bad."
"I don't feel bad. In fact, I should get the trophy for just putting up with her brand of crazy!"
"It was a disaster, dumbass," Sanzo snapped, pulling out a cigarette and rolling it between his fingers.
"Sanzo," Hakkai said with controlled patience. "Goku isn't used to—"
"Bullshit," Sanzo said, turning his gaze on Goku. "You sang and danced insipid songs in front of thousands of fans. Explain."
Goku shrugged. "I told you I didn't wanna do it. Plus, she's mean."
"You wrecked a one-hundred-thousand dollar camera!" Sanzo snapped his cigarette in half.
"Hey! They had cords everywhere! Why would you have cords everywhere on a dance show?"
"He has a point," Gojyo said. "There were cords."
"And you have to admit, Lirin can be rather unpleasant," Hakkai added.
"Shut up, everyone!" Sanzo growled. He turned to Hakkai. "Take Goku home. I'll talk to the producer."
Gojyo opened his mouth. "What—"
"Get away from me. All of you." Sanzo stepped away, walking toward the producer's office and not looking forward to the conversation.
He definitely needed to finish his resume. He'd work on it the next day for sure.
Halfway down the hall, Goku shouted his name and came skidding to a stop right next to him. "Sanzo, wait!"
Sanzo turned his full glare on Goku. "What?!"
"I gotta ask. Did you really sleep with her?"
Sanzo blinked, replaying the words in his head. "What are you talking about?"
"Lirin! She said you and her had … you know." Goku was staring at Sanzo, watching him closely, his eyes wide.
"Don't be stupid."
Goku's features relaxed and he smiled. "Yeah?"
"Che, give me a little more credit than that, idiot."
"Right." Goku nodded. "You're right. Sorry about the camera. And the show. I really blew it, didn't I?"
Goku looked down as he said, "Sorry, Sanzo. I didn't mean to—she just made me so mad."
Sanzo, never good with words and not sure what to do, simply patted Goku on his head, feeling the product-laden hair crunch under his fingers. "Go home. I'll call in the morning."
Goku turned, heading towards a waiting Hakkai and Gojyo.
Sanzo resumed his walk towards the producer's office, his fingers still sticky and tingling from touching Goku's hair, his anger dissipating. The dance show really hadn't been a good fit for Goku.
Tomorrow he'd look for something better.
WHEN DIRECTION_NOT_FOUND THEN …
Even after getting out of the cab, Sanzo wasn't sure why he was here. Hakkai—that sneaky bastard—had sent him a text, only a few words but enough to spark interest in Sanzo.
"Saturday. 11:00 P.M. Goku."
And then an address. Sanzo knew the address. When he was younger, several lifetimes ago, he'd been there. With Goku. This was also where they'd had their falling out. Sanzo was certain that bit of irony wasn't lost on Hakkai.
And now Sanzo stood outside Bambino's, the not-a-chance-in-hell-was-this-building-fire-safe nightclub while a heavy bass beat, audible from two blocks away, thrummed through his body. Around him sweaty young people milled about the entrance, chain-smoking, drunk, and obnoxious. It really wasn't his type of place—well, not anymore—but then again, he'd been in much worse establishments.
But why was Goku here? Sure, Goku was established music-wise … well, he supposed that wasn't entirely true. Goku had been an idol, nothing much more than a tool to manipulate teenagers. Idols were picked for their appealing looks, not for any talent; that could be faked, especially with a limited shelf life of a few years. For all Sanzo knew, Goku had lip-synched his way through his previous career.
The noise from within the club gave a final, bone-jarring shudder and then fell silent. Sanzo stepped back and watched a flood of kids pour out of the building, some holding drinks as they reached for cigarettes and lighters. At least the owner of the firetrap understood it was a firetrap and didn't allow smoking inside.
Sanzo wrinkled his brow at the thought.
He tossed down his already dying cigarette and made his way inside, hoping that he'd timed the crowd correctly and he'd be able to get inside with minimal yapping.
A gigantic man was at the entrance. Sanzo knew him from days past, and in spite of less hair and a few added pounds, he looked the same.
"Takeshi," Sanzo said by way of greeting.
"Well, hell!" Takeshi pounded him on the back. "I haven't seen you in a while! What've you been doing?"
"I hear ya! What brings ya down here?"
"I'm here to see …" Sanzo struggled with an explanation. Why was he here? "I'm here to see a client."
"Huh? But I thought you'd quit the agency."
"I did. I'm back."
"So, you're here talent hunting?"
"Sure," Sanzo said, hoping that would stop the stupid questions.
"That makes sense." Takeshi flipped through some papers on a clipboard. "Yep, here you are—looks like Hakkai rang up earlier to get on the list. You know Goku's here, right?"
"Yes," Sanzo said. "Where is he?"
"Oh, he's in the crow's nest." Takeshi grabbed Sanzo's arm and stamped it, while saying, "This'll get you in. So, you guys got over your big fight, huh?"
"For the moment, I guess." Big fight? They'd had some words and exchanged some insults, not really a big deal. Okay, maybe a few bottles of booze and a few chairs had been broken, but Sanzo was pretty sure he hadn't had anything to do with that. Besides, he couldn't even remember what the fight had been about.
Takeshi took note of the line forming behind Sanzo and said, "You'd better hurry, the next set'll be starting soon. Do you remember how to get back there?"
"Well, it's good to see you again. Maybe we can have a beer after the show and catch up!"
"Sure," Sanzo said without meaning it. He didn't remember knowing anything personal about Takeshi's life, and he wasn't about to take interest now.
The club was dark and humid and, with the press of an over-packed dance floor, it had a strange, cloying smell of sweat and perfume. Sanzo's nose gave an unhappy twitch. How had he managed to spend so much time here when he was younger?
At the bar he ordered a beer and showed the bartender his stamp. He was waved through to the back, where he stepped into a narrow hallway that led to a set of even narrower, and steep, wooden stairs, a few with new slats in place, but most of them with ragged and splintered edges.
Some things never changed.
Sanzo blinked in the darkness, staying in the back until his eyes adjusted. The crow's nest was a small balcony big enough for about thirty people with a handful of tables and chairs. Goku was at the front.
The lights dimmed, and Sanzo sat at the nearest table. On the stage was a hip-hop band—not what he was expecting. He had little experience with hip-hop, but once his ears adjusted to the decibel level and he listened to their lyrics, he made a preliminary mental note that they weren't terrible. While ridiculously vulgar at times, the lyrics were also clever and amusing. Their timing was good and the woman on the turntables was spectacular, constantly on the move, changing records and the tone of the beat, inserting complex samples of music and speeches and even commercials. He had no idea how she kept it all straight.
And the crowd loved it, swaying with the abusive backbeat, some even dancing.
Sanzo found himself caught up in the energy of the music and the crowd. He wondered what the band's name was. And why were they still playing a backwater place like Bambino's? The sound, the thumping bass, seemed to rewind Sanzo's age. He was twenty-two again and … he looked for Goku, but his seat was empty.
Sanzo drained his glass and stood up. The band was almost forgotten as he scanned the balcony. No Goku. He searched through the milling crowd. Nothing.
The next song started for a moment, and Sanzo was confused. His gazed moved to the stage and zeroed in on Goku leaping up to join the band. He had a microphone in his hand and proceeded to toss friendly insults with the two rappers. Goku wasn't nearly as quick as the band's MCs were, but even so, they traded off-the-cuff taunts in the way of clever rhymes. Goku, his vocabulary not the most extensive, was outmatched, but the crowd still seemed to expect it and cheered for more.
Goku seemed to enjoy it, too.
"It's called freestyling," Gojyo said, setting another beer down in front of Sanzo and sliding into the seat next to him. "And what they're doing is a battle."
"Che," Sanzo said before sitting downs and taking a deep drink of the new beer.
"Don't pretend you knew it, 'cause I know you didn't."
Sanzo watched the stage and touched the pocket with his cigarettes.
"He's … not horrible," Gojyo said with a shrug.
"A thesaurus might help."
Gojyo laughed. "Yeah, he's really not very good, is he?"
Sanzo tapped a finger on the table.
Gojyo scratched the back of his head and watched Sanzo as he said, "I'm not sure why he does it, but he comes down every couple of weeks."
"Does he always perform?"
"Almost always, yeah."
Sanzo concentrated on the stage. Goku was truly awful.
Sanzo stepped out into the not-quite-cold evening and lit a cigarette. He wasn't sure how he felt about Goku's side-gig. Sanzo didn't know much about underground hip-hop, so he wasn't certain he could help with this trajectory of Goku's career. Not to mention that Goku sucked at it.
He walked down the darkened, mostly deserted street. It wasn't the best lit neighborhood and taxis shied away from the area in general.
Goku ran up to him, breathing hard. "I thought that was you! What are you doing here?"
Sanzo wasn't certain how to answer at first. But he realized he had nothing to hide; after all, Goku was his client. "Hakkai said you'd be here."
"Oh," Goku leaned over, hands on his knees, still trying to catch his breath. "I've been running all over trying to find you."
"Is this what you want to do?" Sanzo asked, waving his hand in the club's direction.
"This free-style battle rap shit." Sanzo licked his lips as he watched a bead of sweat roll down Goku's neck.
Goku's mouth opened and then closed it. And then he burst into laughter. "Hardly!"
"But, then why are you here?" Goku's hair was damp with perspiration and a strand was stuck to his eyebrow, dangling over his right eye. Sanzo could just barely pick up Goku's scent, warm with exertion, a surprisingly tantalizing combination of leather and Goku.
"Because they asked me, that's why. They're really good and they think I help give them some notoriety." Goku tipped his head to one side, a small smile beginning at the corner of his lips. "I always have a good time when I join them, but I'm pretty bad at it, if you didn't notice."
"I noticed," Sanzo said, his voice cracking just a little. He tried to swallow but his throat was dry. He couldn't tear his eyes away from that lock of hair on Goku's eyebrow. And before he could check himself, he reached out and pushed the strand away.
Goku froze, his eyes wide, they reflected an impossible shade of amber from the faraway streetlights. "Sanzo?"
Goku nodded and in dreamlike fashion, he stepped forward and slowly slid both hands into Sanzo's hair and pulled his head down into a gentle kiss.
The kiss didn't stay gentle, turning to tongues and teeth and fingers that gripped a little too painfully. Goku walked Sanzo back into the nearest concrete wall and pressed against him, hard-on digging into Sanzo's thigh.
Sanzo's ears buzzed and he was panting. Sex for him had been a long, long time ago, and his erection was beyond pleasurable, tipping into near-pain. Out on the street, where anyone could see, he didn't even protest when Goku quickly unzipped his pants and exposed him to the cool night air.
"Oh, yeah, still no underwear," Goku exhaled, fingertips curling around Sanzo's hard-on and squeezing.
Sanzo moaned, his head rolling back, gently bumping into the concrete wall.
"Fuck, yeah," Goku said, palming the head of Sanzo's cock, slicking his hand before sliding it down the length.
Sanzo's hips pushed out, keeping time with Goku's slow strokes. The noise in his head increased, and he felt the coiling of his muscles and the light-headed fuzziness that was a clear sign of his impending orgasm. He didn't even care about how quick everything was happening.
Goku's hand stopped and his forefinger and thumb squeezed, tighter than they should have, right at the base of Sanzo's cock. Sanzo made a sound of protest.
"Yeah, I know but not yet. I mean, I get that's it's been a while and stuff, but you gotta touch me, too."
Sanzo released a shaky breath and although he was disappointed, he decided he'd help Goku out. This time. His fingers were clumsy as he tugged Goku's pants open and carefully slipped the elastic of his silky boxers down. Sanzo's right hand circled Goku's cock, already slick with pre-come.
"Yeah, yeah, just like that," Goku breathed, rolling his hips with the motion. His own hand began to move again.
Sanzo gasped and grabbed Goku's shoulder, keeping himself steady. His hips were rocking again and while he'd been momentarily distracted by the feel of Goku's cock under his fingers, the buzzing in his head returned, even more intense. This wouldn't take long.
In the distance he could hear people in the street, but they didn't matter. Only this moment and Goku mattered.
Goku licked Sanzo's ear and whispered, "I can feel how close you are, come for me, Sanzo."
Sanzo shifted his feet as his toes curled. His balls tightened and he felt his cock harden with every one of Goku's strokes. Then he was coming, a hot release pouring into Goku's hand and clothes and splattering on the ground. At least he didn't shout.
"Wow," Goku said. "Good one, huh?"
Sanzo ignored him and instead concentrated on Goku's impressive cock. He'd always had a very nice one, long and thick, and when hard, like now, it was almost perfect. Not that Sanzo would ever say anything like that. But still, he wanted more.
Sanzo lowered himself to his knees and leaned closer, running his tongue over Goku's erection, tasting the tangy flavor and enjoying the feel of the soft skin covering the hard-on underneath before swallowing down his entire length.
Goku hissed with surprise and pleasure, and pressed his hips forward.
Sanzo could tell voices were getting closer. But Goku, oblivious or not caring, closed his eyes and placed his hands on Sanzo's head and pushed, thrusting into his mouth with little consideration for Sanzo's gag reflex. In spite of being out of practice, Sanzo kept up the pace, noting the quickening of Goku's breath and the insistent roll of his hips. Sanzo made a soft appreciative noise and pressed his tongue hard against Goku's thickening cock.
"Yes!" Goku choked out as his orgasm shook him and warm come spilled down Sanzo's throat. He did his best to swallow it all, but there was some overflow that dripped onto the ground.
The voices were very close now as Goku, panting his eyes still glassy, grabbed Sanzo's hand and dragged him to his feet. "Come on."
They fumbled with their clothing as they fled the scene. Sanzo felt a little dazed as he stuffed his renewed boner back into his pants and rubbed off the come that hadn't made it down his throat. His shirt and Goku's both had splotches on them from his orgasm, and Sanzo's pants were definitely sticky.
At the corner they flagged down a cab and piled inside. Sanzo, never good with words, was at a complete loss. Finally he managed to ask, "Where are we going?"
"My place," Goku said, his eyes unreadable.
"Why?" Sanzo wasn't certain how he felt about that.
"Because you are in serious need of fucking. A lot of fucking." Goku's lips considered a smile but he hesitated as he asked, "Aren't you?"
"Huh," Sanzo said and even as he avoided the question, his cock throbbed in agreement. "You know—"
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Goku said as he waved a hand dismissively. He didn't bother to hide his smile this time. "If I tell anyone, you'll kill me."
Sanzo nodded and looked out the window trying to ignore Goku's hand inching up his thigh.
Goku kept smiling as he added, "And I've missed you, too."
The next morning, the smell of food woke Sanzo. He was alone in a very luxurious, comfortable bed. He rolled over, his body aching with his every movement. But even with the pain, he felt more relaxed than he had in … maybe years.
The door to the bedroom opened and Goku backed in. "Oh, hey, finally awake are you? I brought us some breakfast." He set down a tray loaded with rice, fish, radishes, and miso.
Sanzo sat up with a groan and reached for the cup of tea on the tray. "I don't remember you being so rough before."
Goku laughed. "I didn't hear you complaining last night."
"Huh," Sanzo said as his stomach rumbled. He picked up a bowl of miso and ate some tofu before draining the bowl. Then he made quick work of the fish and rice, even polishing off the sour plums. It was possibly one of the most glorious meals he'd ever tasted.
When the plates were clean, Sanzo considered getting up and finding his smokes.
"Sanzo, about tomorrow—"
"I'll have Hakkai send a car for you."
"No, that's not what I meant. I'm not sure I want to do it."
"I thought you liked martial arts movies." Sanzo frowned and thought harder about his cigarettes. "Besides, I had to burn quite a few favors to get you the scene."
Goku picked up the tray and set it on a nearby table. He dropped his robe and crawled onto the bed as he said, "Fine, but no more after that."
No more? Sanzo knew he should ask for clarification, but seeing a naked Goku moving toward him on hands and knees derailed that train of thought.
WHEN INVALID_ACTING THEN …
The movie was called "Drunken Monkey Rampage", and Sanzo already hated it. Somehow, he'd managed to call in enough favors to get Goku a small role in the film, since he'd sworn he knew "a little martial arts." (Gojyo had confirmed Goku's ability and had worked with him before turning him loose on the set with the real trainers.) This particular role didn't even require much fighting and they could probably even manage to do it digitally but he was the name and the face, so a few moves, a few shots, and the director would get what he wanted, Goku would get screen time (even if it was limited), and Sanzo got one step closer to off-loading the happy punk onto some other agent.
All Goku had to do was go a few "rounds" with Kougaiji and then take a fall. This should be easy for him. Right.
Though, okay, there was the dancing disaster with Kougaiji's sister. And, of course, Sanzo had told Kougaiji to get lost. But surely, he wouldn't hold those things against Goku.
Uh huh. And pigs could fly.
Kougaiji stepped out of his trailer, surrounded by his lackeys. Doku leaned close and whispered in his ear, and Kougaiji's gaze moved to Sanzo, sliding over him from head to foot and wrinkling his nose. Sanzo internalized a sigh.
"Wow!! There he is!!" Goku grabbed Sanzo's forearm, nearing grinding the bones together.
"You understand he's Lirin's brother, right?"
"Lir—oh!" Goku's grip lessened. "Well, that was an accident! Besides, I didn't do anything to him."
Kougaiji's frown deepened as he looked at Goku.
"Yeah, well it looks like he didn't get that memo."
"Aw, man," Goku said, his shoulders slumping. "I was all excited to meet him, too. I told you that dance thing was a bad idea."
Sanzo agreed. "Well, chances are he's not going to pull his punches. Be on your toes."
"Oh! Wait, he's coming over!"
Sanzo rolled his eyes. Leave it to the dumbass to be so exuberant over a dick like Kougaiji.
"Ah, Sanzo. I heard you were here," Kougaiji said, his fists in the usual clench. "And you must be Goku; I've heard a lot about you."
"Yeah?" Goku's eyes practically sparkled. "You're like …my favorite martial artist!"
"Is that so?" Kougaiji quirked a small smile.
"Yeah!" Goku said, and then he shuffled his feet and made some punching moves, grinning the entire time.
Kougaiji took in Goku's smile, and for just a moment, his princely demeanor slipped, revealing a petulant child in full anger. All he needed to do to complete the temper tantrum was to throw himself on the ground. This wouldn't end well.
Sanzo briefly reconsidered the job but mostly, he just wanted a drink. "Kougaiji, don't be an—"
Ignoring them both, Goku said, "You know, I thought they'd have a stunt double for these fights—I know they don't like the stars to get injured!!"
Kougaiji's anger switched to open amusement, and it was even more annoying than Goku's cheerfulness. "Well, let's talk again after Sanzo picks you up off the ground and tends to your wounds. A real winner, Sanzo. I expect you're sorry I left now."
"Che," Sanzo said and folded his arms.
Kougaiji turned and said, "You'll be asking for my help soon enough."
Goku frowned as Kougaiji walked away. "Hey Sanzo, did you and him have some sort of a fight?"
"Not your business, but yes. At least he thinks so," Sanzo snapped, feeling even more out of sorts about this stupid idea. He'd burned up a lot of brownie points to get this gig for Goku, and he didn't need his nose rubbed in it.
"All right, sorry." Goku was still watching Kougaiji's retreat. "I mean he's kind of hot but he's really a whiner, isn't he? He doesn't seem like your type."
"We weren't a couple, dumbass."
"Oh." Goku looked over at Sanzo. "That's good."
Sanzo reached into his pocket for his lighter, even though he knew he couldn't smoke. He would not—he absolutely would not—let Goku rattle him. "I was his agent. And to call him a 'whiner' is an understatement. He fired me."
"Fired you?" Goku looked at Kougaiji again and said, "Why? 'Cause you told him he was a whiner? That'd be like you."
How had the little rat read him so easily? "Look, this really doesn't—"
"Still, he shouldn't taunt you like that, it's not cool. And it kind of pisses me off."
"It's between me and him. Just leave—"
"Goku!" The director's assistant, Zenon, shouted. "Time for your scene."
Goku ran off to meet up with the choreographer and assistant before Sanzo could say anything else.
"Well, I'd say he's becoming attached," Hakkai said from over Sanzo's shoulder. "Again."
Sanzo sighed. "Hakkai, you really are an insufferable ass."
"If you say so," Hakkai said with a sniff that was part amused and part annoyed.
Gojyo, who'd apparently accompanied Hakkai, asked, "So what's the set up?"
"Arena match, you know, the usual BS that the hero goes through in a martial arts movie to save the day."
"So, Kougaiji, the supposed good guy, has to fight his way through a series of somewhat competent but essentially second-rate fighters. A couple of the contestants might land a few punches, giving him a partial beat down before he has to face the boss bad guy?"
"It's a martial arts movie, not Shakespeare," Sanzo said.
"True." Gojyo laughed. "Not nearly so boring."
Hakkai scowled at him.
Gojyo cleared his throat and added, "But this should be a perfect role for him."
"He's been working with the choreographer for a week or so, but it's just a small scene, a couple of punches and kicks," Sanzo said, as he watched Goku bounce on his toes.
Gojyo continued, "Let me guess the rest—then through some cheesy effects, Goku flies off screen and dies gruesomely."
"And Kougaiji is supposed to be the good guy? And Goku knows that, right?" Hakkai asked with that tone in his voice, the one that warned of a coming shit storm. "Gojyo, didn't you say that Goku bested you every time you sparred?"
"Yeah. The little bastard doesn't look it, but he's fast and strong. Told me he's got a black belt in something."
"A black belt? You moron, why didn't you say something about that?" Sanzo scanned the set. All the actors were being moved into place and there was a conversation taking place between Goku and Kougaiji. Goku had a very determined look on his face and a smile Sanzo had never seen before. Kougaiji looked bemused at first, then ticked off—Sanzo knew that look well. This was not good.
Gojyo shrugged. "You didn't ask. You asked if I thought he could hold his own with a bit part in a martial arts movie."
"Useless," Sanzo said.
"Hey, if Kougaiji's really as badass as he brags about, then no worries," Gojyo said, but he was holding an unlit cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, rolling it back and forth.
The director, Homura Taishi, showed up and had a quick word with Zenon before sliding into his director's chair and reviewing a sheaf of papers.
"Quiet!" Zenon shouted.
Goku and Kougaiji squared off as the room fell quiet. Sanzo's ears hummed with the silence, and he realized his heart was pounding too fast.
Homura sat forward and nodded at Kougaiji. "And, ACTION!"
There was a blur of movement, feet and fists and bodies roiling in a flurry of striking, blocking, and connecting, all in rapid succession. The sparring began good naturedly enough, but it quickly devolved into a testosterone-laden competition. It didn't take long before the choreographer was shouting about not following the practiced moves and Homura was shouting at the choreographer to be quiet.
They were well matched, but when it became clear that Goku was more than a match, Kougaiji resorted to cheating. He threw a chair at Goku, a corner catching his forehead and drawing blood. There was a collective gasp from the onlookers that the director immediately hushed.
Goku staggered back, blood dripping away like a typical shallow head wound—but it looked impressive as hell.
"Shouldn't we stop this?" Hakkai whispered, and although he stood behind Sanzo, his clenched muscles were apparent through his voice.
"No," Sanzo said, releasing a breath he hadn't been aware he'd been holding. "It's not serious."
"I think it's about to get that way," Gojyo said.
Goku's eyes were blazing and he was grinning, almost manically—as he moved toward Kougaiji.
"Shit!" Sanzo hissed, not wanting to say out loud that Gojyo was right but knowing what was about to happen. He sidestepped to Homura keeping his eyes on the contest. "Call it."
"Are you kidding?" Homura was grinning. "The kid is good and I like his style. This is some great stuff."
"What happens if your star gets injured?" Sanzo asked as Goku landed a right cross on Kougaiji's jaw that didn't quite have all his power behind it. The punch was still enough to knock Kougaiji back on his heels, and he shook his head like a cartoon character shaking off an imaginary circle of stars.
Homura shrugged. "No big deal. This is the last action scene in the movie. The rest is just dialogue; he can do that in a wheelchair if he has to. It wouldn't be the first time we've done something like that. Besides, it's not hurting my feelings to see Kougaiji get a beat-down. He's been a pain."
Sanzo had to agree. And really, the fight was entertaining, fast, and left little question concerning realism; they were truly out to injure one another.
As they fought across the broken pieces of the set, Goku was laughing and Kougaiji began chanting some mantra about not letting himself be a loser again. In final desperation, he wrenched a light fixture loose and tossed it at Goku's head.
Goku darted forward, avoiding the heavy light as everyone in the room inhaled.
Kougaiji stepped back, braced himself and threw a low punch—a body blow, the power coming from his shoulder and hips—and left no doubt that there was pain attached to it. But Gojyo hadn't been kidding about Goku's speed and he danced just beyond Kougaiji's reach, all the while grinning like a lunatic.
He darted in again.
"What the hell is the pipsqueak doing?" Gojyo whispered none-too-softly.
Goku twisted, avoiding Kougaiji's fist to his head. He fell to the ground on his hands and then pivoted like a break dancer, changing direction so fast that Sanzo's eyes could barely keep up.
Apparently, Kougaiji's sight couldn't keep up either and Goku's left foot, swinging low and unleashed with whipcord strength, nailed Kougaiji's right knee with a sickening crunch. Then Goku gathered himself and delivered an uppercut.
Kougaiji fell in a heap.
"And that's a wrap!" Homura hollered when it was clear Kougaiji wasn't going to get up again.
"Someone get the medical crew and see if we need an ambulance," Zenon added.
"Shit. Gojyo, get Goku, we're leaving."
"Gojyo," Hakkai said as he looked over the room. "We should leave without further incident."
Gojyo looked around. Kougaiji's entourage of fans, true to the definition of the word, were notorious fanatics, and they looked menacingly at Goku. They also outnumbered Goku, Sanzo, Hakkai, and Gojyo three to one.
Gojyo smiled and said, "I think we could take them, you know."
"I'm sure we could," Hakkai said. "But how would Goku's career take it?"
"I dunno, bad boys can do pretty well."
Doku kneeled to assess the damage to his boss, finally helping an obviously groggy Kougaiji to his feet. And Goku, dripping blood from a cut on his head, was dragged away by one of Kougaiji's bodyguards.
"Hey!" Goku complained. "I wanted to talk to him!"
"Here," the bodyguard said as he shoved Goku toward Gojyo. "I expect you're fired."
"Maybe," Sanzo said and glanced over at a smiling Homura. But the set was absolutely destroyed. They'd have to figure out a way in the cutting room to let Kougaiji win.
Sanzo supposed he should be pissed off by Goku's recklessness, but in actuality, he'd enjoyed watching that insufferable pain in the ass get taken out. To Goku he said, "Come on, dumbass. Let's get you cleaned up and start looking for another job."
"Aww, too bad. I had more fun than I thought, Sanzo!"
"Huh," was Sanzo's only reply.
WHEN NO_OTHERS_FOUND THEN …
Sanzo sat in the audience with Hakkai and Gojyo as he waited for the beginning of Chefs of Tomorrow. He'd been almost pleased over Goku's enthusiasm for this gig; there'd been no whining this time.
"How is this different from Iron Chef?" Gojyo asked. "There're two chefs, one star ingredient, and one hour to make a buttload of dishes. Oh, and don't forget, three judges, none that really have much of a culinary background."
"It's not different," Sanzo said. "It's even produced by the same bunch."
"It's a bit different. It's not just one chef, and they rotate. Also, they don't have the notoriety of the Iron Chef," Hakkai said. "They have minimal exposure until now."
Gojyo shook his head. "How much you know about reality TV is truly weirding me out, Hakkai. Are you also a closet Survivor fan?"
Hakkai sniffed. "I prefer to stay informed about trends in entertainment."
"Oh, that's what you're doing? Versus keeping your ass parked in front of the boob-tube."
"That's a terrible bit of slang, Gojyo," Hakkai said petulantly, while smoothing down his unwrinkled program book.
Gojyo stifled a laugh.
Hakkai ignored it and said, "But I am happy that Sanzo finally started to listen."
Sanzo opened his mouth to ask what the fuck Hakkai was saying just as the lights began to dim and the crowd dutifully clapped.
Fog began to spill onto the stage, enhanced by the swirl of multicolored lights. Then a pinpoint spotlight followed the quick movement of a man who first went through a series of handsprings and cartwheels before collapsing to the ground. Dressed in a suit of lavender sequins, he unfolded from the ground like a flower, or, Sanzo reconsidered, more like a weed.
"Oh, hell, not this guy," Gojyo said with a groan.
"Hello, guests! It is I, your host, the Mighty Zakuro!!" Zakuro said with a flourishing wave and a bow. A stage hand ran on and handed him a matching purple cape.
The crowd shouted and cheered, although it might've actually been jeering. Jeering would restore some of Sanzo's faith in the human race.
"Welcome to Chefs of Tomorrow! Today's battling chefs are …"
Tense-sounding music rose, and Zakuro let the sound build before he finally added, "Chef Ranpa and Chef Shien!" Spotlights fell on each of the chefs, who each posed with their arms crossed, Ranpa clutching a frying pan and Shien with a whisk.
Lukewarm applause greeted them.
"And finally," Zakuro barked at the audience and sort of danced to a covered table set up equal distance from the two kitchens. He flung back his sparkling cape and placed his hands on his hips.
"Oh, brother," Gojyo said.
"Our special ingredient for tonight's battle!" The music rose again to a loud crescendo before the cover rose to the ceiling. Zakuro pointed, somehow with his entire body, as he shouted, "WASABI!!"
"Wasabi?" Gojyo snorted. "How's that a food?"
Sanzo didn't say anything, but he had to agree.
"Wasabi is actually very tasty in many dishes," Hakkai began. "It all depends on how it's handled."
Gojyo shook his head.
Sanzo watched the teams darting around the set like headless chickens. Pots were filled, knives chopped, and ovens heated. One of Zakuro's lackeys got in everyone's way as he reported what he was seeing. It was a madhouse and it was stupid.
But when he looked over, he could see Goku watching everything.
"He is intent, isn't he?" Hakkai said.
Zakuro interrupted them. "Now, let's check in with our judges! First, the previous number one super-model, Yaone!"
The audience cheered loudly for her.
"Next, she played Dr. Nii's evil sidekick from hit movie 'Go West!' Please welcome Professor Hwang!"
She received fewer cheers, and a handful of good-natured "boos," but Professor Hwang took it all in with a big smile and a wave.
"And last, but certainly not least, Son Goku!"
This time, the audience went crazy.
After that, Sanzo endured an annoyingly long interlude of steam, curious ingredients being mashed together, and odd scents wafting up from ovens, pots, and grills. Goku kept his eyes on the chaos in the kitchens.
And when all the plates were finally on display, Sanzo had to admit that the entire process was impressive.
"So, Hakkai, what do ya think?" Gojyo said as he stretched out his legs.
"I think Shien is more traditional and Ranpa is a bit more artistic. It could go either way."
Zakuro reappeared, this time in a sparkling suit of deep, royal purple. "Our chefs are finished and now the judging must commence!! First up, Chef Shien!"
Shien walked to the stage. His feet seemed to be the only thing that moved. He bowed to Zakuro and all the judges.
"My first dish is a yellowtail tartare, caviar, and fresh wasabi."
The women both thought the dish was very tasty, but Goku …
"This like a party in my mouth!" he said, cleaning up his plate. "All the flavors together, and particularly the umami edge. Nicely done!"
"Umami? Where did he learn that word?" Gojyo asked.
"Do you even know what it means?" Sanzo said.
"Yes, Goyjo," Hakkai said with a smile. "What does it mean?"
"I don't know, but I'm sure he doesn't either," Gojyo answered.
"Next dish!" Zakuro said with excessive waving of his arms.
Miniature charcoal burning grills were set up for each of the judges. "This is wagyu beef and shitake mushrooms in a wasabi marinade."
Yaone and Professor Hwang once again offered dainty critiques and then Goku weighed in again.
"Well, it's hard not to love wagyu! Unfortunately, I'm not tasting much wasabi. Maybe if it had a chance to sit in the marinade for a bit longer … but that might make it mushy. A good dish, but it does fall a little short for the main ingredient."
The wasabi ramen noodles were a hit. Goku found the cuttlefish, lime, wasabi, and daikon gyoza too green and unappetizing. But the chocolate wasabi ice cream brought "oohs" and "ahs" and Goku's undying love.
Then the crazy Zakuro showed up in a silver suit. "Thank you, Chef Shien! And now, dishes by Chef Ranpa!"
Chef Ranpa looked nervous as he took his station by the judges and started, "First up, we have an avocado wasabi salad with crunchy wasabi-tamari edamame and an avocado wasabi dressing."
"Is that grilled chicory root mixed in with the beets?" Goku asked when it was his turn.
"Why, yes," Chef Ranpa said. "You have a very discriminating palate."
Goku grinned. "Nah, I just like to eat. I've had some really nasty dishes with too much chicory, but you kept a very nice balance. I liked that it wasn't overwhelming. And although the wasabi-sesame chicken yakitori tasted pretty good, it was a bit tough."
Chef Ranga bowed his head. "Thank you."
"This is a crispy pork belly with king oyster mushrooms and a salsa of cucumber, fresh ginger, and wasabi."
"Nom!" Goku said with a grin. "I was excited to see this one! The pork belly is nice and crispy, very succulent. And the salsa is a nice complement, not too overwhelming. Nicely done!"
"Nicely said, Goku," Yaone said softly. "I think we'll just let Goku represent us from now on."
"He does seem to understand food," Professor Hwang said.
Hakkai made an amused sound, and Gojyo laughed outright.
Goku as a representative was something Sanzo would've never expected to hear. And when did he learn the word "succulent?"
Sanzo watched Goku and the two other judges eat and rate three more dishes. In spite of Goku nearly licking each plate clean, he had surprisingly informed and almost elegant comments.
He thought the wasabi and panko-coated baked halibut was overcooked. He really liked the wasabi pea-encrusted tofu with sesame miso sauce but he thought the chia seeds threw off the texture—chia seeds? But the dark chocolate wasabi and crystallized ginger brownies with raspberry and wasabi ganache were a definite hit.
When it was all over, Sanzo didn't remember who won, nor did he care.
"Looks like he did well today," Hakkai said.
"Yeah," Gojyo agreed. "No million takes, no wrecked cameras, and no brawls. Kinda boring for him."
"Well, he's definitely a hit with everyone on the show," Hakkai added.
The host liked Goku, the other judges liked him, and even the chefs liked him. And the audience? They adored him.
"They'll ask him back. This will be a very positive step."
"Finally," Sanzo said.
Gojyo turned to look at Sanzo. "So, being an actor is what he wants to do?"
"What?" Sanzo said.
Hakkai's brow furrowed as he asked, "Haven't you asked him what he wants to do yet?"
Sanzo didn't see any reason to respond. He just watched Goku speaking to the chefs.
"Oh, man," Gojyo said. "You really are a prick. I'll be outside, as far away from you as I can get."
Hakkai didn't say anything, but he followed Gojyo toward the exit.
Sanzo wasn't sure why, but he felt a little—
"Hey, Sanzo!" Goku said as he joined him in the seats. "Thanks for coming to watch, but you don't have to hang around. I'm going out with Shien and Ranpa, so see you later!"
"Sure," Sanzo said as he watched Goku run toward the two waiting chefs. Ranpa and Shien greeted Goku with smiles. For some reason, that friendly comraderie triggered some sort of unidentified conflict happening in his brain.
Near the door, Hakkai and Gojyo watched him. He got up and followed them out, wondering why he felt as if he were missing something.
IF CAREER_NOT_FOUND THEN
INSERT INTO career
VALUES (career.job_name, career.new_value);
Sanzo opened Kanzeon's office door and walked in. "You wanted to see me?"
"I did," she said, looking up from a stack of papers and picking up her burning cigarette. "I'm reassigning you."
"Reassigning? What do you mean?"
"Kougaiji is over his snit and has asked to come back. Apparently, he wasn't too fond of Houtou's practices." She snorted. "He's such a delicate flower, isn't he?"
"So?" Sanzo would've sat down but he suspected she had bad news. "Give him to someone else. I already have my hands full with the last disaster you gave me."
The old hag's eyes glittered and she tried to hide the ghost of a smile. She was about to fuck up Sanzo's day, all right. "Oh, didn't I tell you? Goku quit."
The room was very quiet for several moments before Sanzo finally asked, "What are you talking about?"
"He's put us in something of a bind, I'm afraid. The offers for him are pouring in."
Sanzo blinked. "What are you talking about? Except for that cooking show, he was a walking disaster."
Kanzeon raised an eyebrow. "Do you pay attention to anything that happens with your clients? The commercial he messed up won a Cleo Award for funniest commercial. Grape Sack juice, or whatever it's called, has asked for another contract at twice the amount of the first one."
"That stupid dance show received the highest rating it's ever gotten. That twat Lirin has landed herself a choice choreographer position in New York. The show wants Goku to be a judge next year."
Kanzeon leaned forward as she said, "And best of all? Homura has asked for Goku to be his leading star in his next martial arts movie. Some Karate in Space thing. Not to mention the cooking show—they've asked him to start his own show with a bit of a—"
Sanzo held up a hand; he didn't give a rat's ass about the contracts. "What do you mean, he quit?"
Kanzeon's frown turned into a full-blown scowl as she slid a piece of paper across her desk. "See for yourself."
There, in black and white and simple as Goku himself: I quit. Goku.
"He's already reimbursed us for expenses and any damages we've had to pay. But the requests for him are—"
Sanzo crumpled up the paper and tossed it aside as he said, "That fucking dumbass."
He walked out the door.
Hakkai was waiting for him and quickly said, "So, the rumors are true?"
Sanzo reached for his cigarettes. He had a knot in his stomach.
Hakkai nodded. "Gojyo's been to Goku's house; he's not there. No one seems to know where he's gone."
"Why?" Sanzo's fingers were shaking as he tried to light his cigarette. Why?
Hakkai's tone was teacherly as he asked, "Do you really not know?"
Sanzo finally got his lighter blazing and took a deep inhale on his cigarette. Too deep. He went into a long, wrenching fit of coughing.
Hakkai crossed his arms and waited.
"Find him," Sanzo said, stuffing his lighter back in his pocket so hard he heard fabric tear. "The little rat-bastard owes me an explanation, and then he can fucking die a thousand times if he wants."
The corner of Hakkai's mount twitched. "Very well."
Sanzo walked away, trying not to stomp.
Two sleepless nights later, Sanzo was in a very bad mood with a headache, realizing what a stupid job he had. He picked a file off the stack of contracts and offers on his desk and flipped it open. Dates, duties, expectations, and money. Lots and lots of money. And still no Goku.
"Stupid job," he said as he shut the file.
His office door opened.
"Yo, your asshole-ness," Gojyo said as he stepped into Sanzo's office.
"What you want?" Sanzo snapped.
Gojyo shut the door and sat down in Sanzo's uncomfortable visitor's chair. "Why you gotta be like that, fuckhead?"
Sanzo tool off his glasses and leaned back in his chair. "What."
"I found him, if you care." Gojyo pulled out his cigarettes. "Well, turns out Hakkai actually knew—"
"Where?" Sanzo sat up. Not fast, of course.
"Thing is," Gojyo said, inhaling smoke, "I'm not sure he wants me to tell you. He's pretty—"
"He doesn't have a choice."
"You know, he—"
"Where. Is. He?"
Gojyo smiled. "You aren't gonna believe this."
Sanzo's head was spinning as he stepped out of the dark and tiny basement restaurant. He was still thinking about what he'd just seen. Goku was a chef? And he owned this restaurant? This is what he did in his spare time? This was what he was trying to tell Sanzo about?
"Looks like he's pretty good at what he does," Gojyo said as he lit a cigarette. "I mean, we always liked what he cooked, but there were some heavy-hitters in there, food critics and chefs. People he worked with, Nataku and Homura and even Zakuro. Everyone seems to love the food. So. What do we do now?"
"I'm waiting." Sanzo lit his own cigarette. He paced, smoked, and watched as the crowd slowly dissipated. Finally, after several hours, they made their way back inside. The place was mostly empty, but Goku waved and ran toward them, his grin bright.
Sanzo had missed that, and Goku didn't seem … mad. But why should he be? Sanzo was the one who should be angry. Right.
Goku stopped in front of them. He looked shyly at Sanzo and then away. "Wow, you guys came? I didn't think you even knew. I mean, I told Hakkai, but he seemed to think Sanzo wouldn't be interested."
"Did he? That guy, sometimes he's kind of a dick," Gojyo said with his own grin.
"Was this your launch?" Sanzo asked, gritting his teeth. Fucking Hakkai.
"Oh, yeah. I've been pretty busy."
"So you've been here for four days?" Fuck that fucking Hakkai!
"Yeah. I even slept on the floor a couple of nights."
Gojyo scanned the room, seeing the tired wait staff cleaning up. "Well, apparently the hard work paid off, it looks like you're a hit. There was a line out the door."
"Yeah, I dunno if it'll fly, but I love doin' it."
"Che," Sanzo frowned. "Idiot. You should've said something."
"Well, I tried a couple of times, you know, but you weren't listening. Anyway, I did like doing some of the other stuff, too, but …" Goku shrugged.
"But, what?" Sanzo's voice was softer than he meant it to be.
Goku's face turned red and he glanced at Sanzo. "I dunno. Acting and junk, it's not really what I wanna do right now. But I didn't want to you to … you know, go away, so I tried."
"Then why did you hire me in the first place?"
Goku gave him that shy, come-hither smile, the one that always hit Sanzo right in the groin. "I just thought you'd be done being mad at me by now. You know, from before."
"That was almost ten years ago, dumbass. You really are an idiot," Sanzo said, trying to think about baseball and soccer and all the contracts he'd have to turn down—anything but Goku's promising smile.
Gojyo cleared his throat and looked up from his phone. "Hakkai's bringing the car around. Apparently he was hanging out in the kitchen, the sneaky bastard."
"Oh, yeah," Goku grinned. "He was a lot of help. And, um, I'm thinking about hiring him to help me."
"Really?" Sanzo rolled his eyes. That would sum up his night.
"I, um, also need someone who can build and run a database …"
Goku's offer swirled around Sanzo like a tempest. And from the corner of his eye, he saw Gojyo's gaze move from Goku to Sanzo and back again.
Finally, Gojyo spoke saying, "Well, whatever. Right now, I think you two need to talk," He leaned forward and looped his arm around Goku's neck and raised his eyebrows suggestively while adding, "Or something better, maybe."
"Shut up, ya perv!" Goku said.
And when the car showed up, Sanzo didn't say anything but he did slide into the back seat with Goku. Maybe he'd get his wish after all; a not-so-boring computer job.