A Quantum Destinies side story
by D.B. Sommer
All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at email@example.com
Disclaimer: I don't own any of the folks from Ranma ½, they belong to Rumiko Takahashi, and the US rights belong to Viz Communications.
Quantum Destinies is a universe that belongs to Jurai-Knight, and he has been kind enough to let me play in it a few times.
Jurai-Knight's homepage with the most up to date Quantum Destinies chapters is http://home.earthlink.net/~sthesken/fanfics/qd.html
Author's notes: Just to clear up any confusion: when 'Arena' is capitalized, it is most probably referring to the Imperial Arena in Japan (unless it's at the start of a sentence or it's specifically stated otherwise. Any spellings where it is not capitalized are referring to another one, usually Hong Kong's in this chapter.
"So, how do you think you'll do today?"
"I'll win, just like last week, and the week before that, and every other time."
"I wish I had your confidence."
"Ha! Jaddo keeps telling me I'm cocky instead of confident," Shampoo informed her companion, fellow arena fighter Chingmy Hark. The young Amazon rested her hand on the shorter girl's shoulder and gave it a reassuring shake in an effort to bolster her friend's courage for her upcoming match tonight.
Having such a person to talk to, and even help comfort, showed Shampoo how far she had come in the month since her first televised fight and subsequent move into the fighters' dorms. Not only had she been victorious in each of her matches since then, often winning convincingly and bringing the crowd to her side, but much to her delight she had managed to make the friends she had so desperately wanted. Just as Jaddo had told her, she had found a 'clique' to belong to. The one that she fit in best was obvious, and they had accepted her with open arms. While it was true that the six people that composed their clique were what might be termed odd, that mattered little to Shampoo. She had found adapting to their idiosyncrasies surprisingly easy, once she learned about them. The young warrior did tend to spend most of her time with Chingmy, who was probably the most normal of the lot. She was just a touch on the manic depressive side. Well, more like a foot over rather than a touch, but she was still the most normal of the group. Currently, Chingmy was operating on the depressive side, making Shampoo careful not to let it affect her own mood.
The only real drawback to Shampoo's new group of friends became obvious after the first few weeks; it was unlikely that any of them would be moving on to the Imperial Arena. For the most part, they were saps. Once it became evident they would never move up from the local arena, they would either return to their homelands or stay and find a job in Hong Kong. Most would probably do the latter, since making it to this level of the fighting circuit were more than enough credentials to carve out a living in any number of physically-oriented jobs, the majority of which would pay well for a fighter of their caliber. Still, it saddened Shampoo to think that, after the eight months or so it took to accumulate enough victories to advance to the big Arena, she would probably never see any of them again.
Pushing such melancholy thoughts aside, Shampoo decided to live in the moment and enjoy her current company. The future was for later. "Your opponent is only Kei Long. He's not very good. As long as you don't get sloppy, you'll beat him."
The reassurance seemed to bolster Chingmy's determination. "You're right. I just have to stay focused. You always give me good advice. Thanks, Shampoo."
Chingmy tensed up slightly. "But how do you think you'll do against Crippler? He broke another fighter's leg last week. It was a compound fracture. That makes five out of the last seven opponents he's broken at least one limb on."
"I've seen him fight. Unless he's got a move he's been hiding for a special occasion, I can take him in less ten minutes. I could probably do it in under five, but I'm thinking of giving back some of what he dishes out. It'll take me a while to do it right since I'm not used to acting like a legbreaker."
"It'd serve him right for hurting people like that. We get pounded on enough without guys like him going out of their way to permanently hurt others," Chingmy huffed.
A voice from behind the girls declared, "Hardly a sign of nobility, it's true. No doubt the mortal cur is destined for Hades fiery realm for his transgressions. Apollo shall put in a word to mighty Zeus on the matter when next we meet."
Neither girl turned at the declaration. It was only as a large hand fell on each of their shoulders that both women let out a mutually tired sigh and reacted.
"Apollo, knock it off," Shampoo gently swatted the hand from her shoulder. Chingmy responded by moving from under it, rather than removing the offending appendage by actually forcing herself to touch it.
Shampoo turned to confront their speaker, one of the more notable members of their clique. He was a Greek, tall and swarthy-skinned, with a fiery halo of curly golden hair that fell in a mane to his neck, helping to highlight his finely chiseled looks. Only his nose shattered the image of what would have been an otherwise very handsome face to admire. It was rather long, and reminded Shampoo of a bird's beak with the way it hooked on the end. That feature alone bordered on making his face appear comical. His physical form was impressive, being one of the taller fighters at six foot, two inches and slightly over two hundred and seventy pounds in weight. His personality was nice. He was always well meaning, helpful towards others and thoughtful, a pleasant enough fellow in general.
Apollo held his hand up to his brow in understanding. "Ah, no doubt you once again are leery of drawing too close to divinity and being burned by He Who Is The God of Light and Truth. Fear not, you may bask in my presence as any other worshipers would. Apollo is not so thoughtless so as to ignore your mortal frailties."
Well, pleasant enough save for one minor identity problem. Upon first meeting him and hearing his claim that he was a god, Shampoo had assumed it was all part of his act to get fans to cheer for him. It was only after several conversations with the other fighters that she learned he was serious in his declarations. No one knew if it was the result from having been hit in the head too many times and the act became a genuine delusion, or if he had always been that way.
"We are not your worshippers, stupid," Shampoo informed him in a tired voice that projected tolerance rather than any anger.
"Ah, Apollo sees you still maintain that conflict with your own belief system and the One True Way. Have no fears. Regardless of how misguided you are in believing there is any power beyond that of Olympus, I am not vengeful. I shall forgive you for your ignorance when the day of judgment is upon you."
"You're too kind," Shampoo said dryly.
Seeking to change the subject, Chingmy asked, "Who are you fighting today?"
"A mere mortal hardly worth my effort. A warrior reminiscent of my own sister, Artemis, insofar as she is ugly, ill-tempered, and enjoys the company of other women. Her name is Donna Cheng, or something. It matters little. I shall go easy on her."
"Fifteen minutes?" Chingmy asked Shampoo.
Shampoo shook her head. "It won't last ten."
"Want to bet fifteen thousand yen on it?"
A broad grin split Apollo's face. He directed it towards Shampoo. "Ah, to see you have such faith in my abilities pleases me to no end. For you, I shall endeavor to end the match quickly, though it is my wont to stretch things out for the benefit of my legions of adoring worshippers."
Shampoo shook her head. "You don't get it. We're not betting on how long it takes for you to win. We're betting on how long it takes for you to lose."
This time it was Chingmy's turn to place her hand on Apollo's shoulder. "I have faith in you and your abilities. I'm sure you'll last at least ten minutes."
The soothing effect of the compliment was lost on Apollo. "Surely this is a poor jest on your part. Apollo is a god, while Donna is naught but a mere mortal."
Shampoo said, "If you're such a great and mighty god, why is your record five and twenty?"
Apollo's gaze went from anger directed at Shampoo to proudly pointing to the skies. "Undoubtedly it is the result of my father, Zeus, limiting my immortal might so that I might learn humility among you mortals."
"It's not working," Shampoo informed him with a smile. However, a rumble from her stomach ended further teasing. "I'm going down to the cafeteria to grab something to eat. You guys coming along?"
Chingmy held her hands up. "No way. I'm too nervous. I'd just hurl it back up."
"I have chosen to fast and pray all day to my father to grant me victory in my upcoming match."
A bit disappointed by their refusal, Shampoo still bid them both good luck in their matches and headed towards the cafeteria. Even a light workout, such as she had this morning, tended to give her a healthy appetite. As she entered the cafeteria, she saw that it was more than halfway full. Usually at this time of day it was much closer to being filled to capacity for lunch. Obviously Chingmy and Apollo were not the only ones who had decided to skip a meal on a fight night.
As Shampoo went down the line, she picked through the various offerings on display, taking only the handful that caught her interest. Much of what was offered was self-serve, allowing people to take whatever bowls or plates of the diverse foods that were available. Today it was more basic fare that Shampoo cared little for. Still, she was hungry enough to eat tree bark, so she took a couple plates.
As she looked her selections over, she found that not one of the dishes was remotely appealing. It was as she fingered a gray substance that was some sort of mystery meat (the mystery being if it was actually some kind of meat) she felt a pang of sorrow that she didn't have time to eat at Beef's. There was always great food there, and since she had made such a favorable impression, there was never any charge for her meals. She had offered to pay at first, but Beef would not hear of it, stating in no uncertain terms that her company was payment enough. Despite his size, he could be a very charming talker. Shampoo could understand how he might still be able to charm women with such sincerely delivered flattery, despite his impressive girth.
When she and Beef had free evenings, they would frequently spend hours talking about many diverse topics. They ranged from what the rest of the Empire was like, to the finer points of arena fighting, to the best of all, Jaddo's most embarrassing moments. There were a surprisingly numerous amount, even if they took place in his younger days. The discussions were always enjoyable and the food the best she ever had outside of a home cooked meal. The only reason she did not dine there all the time was that she tended to consume a bit much, as in about two times the amount of food she usually ate. It was a dangerous hobby since she had to be cautious about increasing her waistline. Unlike an enlarged bust, that sort of size increase would not make her more popular with the crowds. Currently, her legion of fans was doubling with nearly every fight. If her popularity continued to increase at its current rate, she would be the arena's top draw in a month, surpassing even the more established trio of hot commodities: the twins and Snakebite. But, as both Jaddo and Beef had warned her, she could lose it all in a single fight. The crowds were that fickle. So as much as she enjoyed the cuisine, she refrained from eating at Beef's more than three times a week, with one of the occasions always being a celebration of her victory.
As Shampoo pondered her future in the arena, and whether or not the gray substance on her tray had moved, she arrived at the end of the line where the desserts were kept. As usual, there was little in the way of selection. As Shampoo was well aware, the arena wanted their fighters healthy and in good enough shape to provide an outstanding show, and fattening desserts were not the way to better health. Still, there were always a few items offered for those that had a sweeter palate and could control it, so the arena indulged those fighters with a small selection.
It was just as Shampoo was ready to leave that she spotted it, hidden behind a sign identifying the no-fat chocolate pudding: the last piece of cheesecake. It was drowned in a thick coating of strawberries that pulled her eyes until they were fixated on the yellow-hued substance. It was unbelievable that one would be left this late in the lunch period, even with the sign positioned in front of it. But there it was, in all of its high-calorie glory. Shampoo's hands were around the plate and in a heartbeat it ended up on her tray. The last one was hers!
Shampoo's mouth began salivating like a Pavlovian dog in anticipation of the treat. There was a day right after she had moved into the dorms that she had arrived early to the cafeteria. On that day there were still a few pieces present, and she sampled the odd looking cake lathered in the red fruit. From the first bite she was addicted to its divine taste. It was unlike anything she had ever tried before or had since. From that day onward she had tried to get to the cafeteria early enough to get more of the dessert, but Jaddo usually worked her late, and it was a favorite of the majority of fighters, despite the decided lack of nutrition it possessed. She had managed all of two other pieces during the rest of her stay. And now she had managed to get her hands on some a fourth time, and on a fight day. Truly this was a good omen.
Now in an uplifted mood, Shampoo happily made her way to the seating area, trying to locate an open place near anyone she was on good terms with, so she could engage in some idle conversation while she ate. However, none of her closer friends were present, and the few people she knew well enough to dine with were either almost finished or closely embroiled in conversations with others. Not wishing to intrude on anyone, Shampoo sat down alone and began to eat her food quickly, saving the dessert for last. After her appetite was sated, she could take her time and enjoy the best of the lot.
Pink peeked from the cover of two potted plants at her target. A cruel smile played across her lips as she stared at Shampoo. The day for vengeance had finally arrived. For a month, Pink had bided her time, waiting for the proper moment to strike at the rancid little piece of filth that had tried to seduce her Thomas. And to compound her crime, the bimbo had lashed out at Pink's twin sister in an effort to get back at her for the crime of protecting what was hers. That was unforgivable.
When they were still young children, Pink's mother had made her promise to look after her younger (even if it was only by five minutes) sister. Her mother had always thought Pink was the more level-headed of the two, and it was her responsibility to look after her little sister. It was an obligation Pink took seriously. Admittedly, Link was a poor listener when it came to taking the sound advice Pink gave her, but she tried the best she could; they were twins and she could do no less. And anyone who had the audacity to dare harm Link, like Shampoo had, had better watch out, for holy retribution would be visited upon them. Just like it was about to now.
Right after the ambush upon Link had taken place, Pink had considered simply beating the hell out of the upstart Joketsuzoku for her transgressions. But after seeing Shampoo in action, and how easily she defeated her opponents, it was decided that a more cautious course had to be taken. Besides, after the incident involving the last person Pink had taken care of for humiliating her sister, Tetsuo had made it clear to both of them that they were to engage in no more fights outside of the actual battles in the arena, or else there would be severe punishments. Since getting on the wrong side of the man who controlled their fights in the arena fell under the category of a 'bad idea', she and Link had obeyed. Everything had been fine until Shampoo came along. Since there was no way the Amazon could be allowed to get away with her blatant insults to Pink, that meant a more subtle approach to revenge would have to take place. That left Pink hovering in the background, waiting for an opportunity to gain vengeance in a more roundabout way.
Now she had a plan. A very good one. It was guaranteed to work due to its simplicity. Shampoo had a match with a brute called 'Crippler,' one that she would probably win due to her unquestionably superior skills. However, if by chance she ate something that was laced with a slow-acting sedative, one that would make her groggy around match time, the results would undoubtedly be different. Shampoo would learn the price of harming Link, and if a few of her limbs happened to break during the process, well, it would simply serve to reinforce the lesson all the better.
Seeing Shampoo sitting alone, the final touches of the plan quickly coalesced in Pink's mind. Silently, she sneaked to a table halfway across the cafeteria from Shampoo. Seated there was a friend of Pink's, Gin Kwong, who was busy eating a hearty meal that was composed of some tasteless looking gray goo, that Gin seemed to enjoy. Pink sneaked up behind the girl and tapped her on the shoulder, keeping a low profile so Shampoo wouldn't see her.
"What?" Gin asked Pink, obviously startled, then irritated, at the interruption.
"I need you to do me a favor."
A low growl escaped Gin's lips. "The last time I did you a favor, I kept getting hit on by butch girls for a month because everyone thought I was a lesbian."
Gin was barely able to refrain from slugging Pink. "Of course not!"
"But you were so good at acting like one. Maybe you should consider it."
Gin knew she should leave. This was going to get her into trouble again. Pink… or was it Link she was talking to? She could never tell them apart, not that it mattered since they were both complete idiots. But she persevered and found the resolve to hear out whichever twin it was. "What do you want?"
"I need you to get Shampoo to leave her seat and come over here. But wait until I get close to her table and give you a signal."
Gin cringed. "Are you crazy? If you do something to her and she finds out I'm involved, I'll get my ass kicked. She's tough. Probably tougher than you."
"She's overrated. I can take her. Now just do as I say. She'll never know. And even if she does, she won't be in any shape to do anything about it. Not after tonight."
Reluctantly nodding to the giggling Pink, Gin agreed to the plan. After all, if anything went wrong, she could claim ignorance later. And there was some obscure chance someone might even believe her, and she wouldn't end up beaten within an inch of her life.
Gin waited until Pink was in position, then gave a shout at Shampoo. The lavender-haired girl looked up from eating and stared curiously at her. As further encouragement, Gin waved her over. After a moment's hesitation, Shampoo rose from her seat and walked over and said, "Yes?"
For a moment, Gin was speechless. She hadn't thought about what to say. "I uh, just wanted, umm, to wish you good luck for your fight tonight." Weak. It was weak. Shampoo was going to realize Gin was acting suspiciously and beat the truth out of her. It was the way her luck ran. She knew she shouldn't have listened to a word Pink (or was it Link) had said.
"Thanks," Shampoo said with a glowing smile. "I hope you have good luck in your next fight too."
"Oh, thank you so very much!" Gin said just a touch too emphatically.
Shampoo gave a nervous smile and walked back to her seat. That Gin girl was definitely an odd one, even by Shampoo's standards.
Pink smiled to herself as she exited the cafeteria. It had worked to perfection. Once Shampoo had left her seat, Pink had sneaked over and poured some of the red liquid sedative on top of the cheesecake. Luckily the colors were similar enough that, unless one was looking for it, the foreign substance would go undetected. It might make the strawberry topping slightly tangy, but not enough to drown out the taste of the cheesecake. Within three hours, right before the match, the effects would start to kick in. Shampoo was going to be nothing but meat after tonight, and she had only herself to blame. Still, the bimbo had never stood a chance in any case. After all, she was nothing but a pair of tits and a bunch of air in between the ears. She didn't have one tenth the brains, skill, or cunning of Pink. She had been hopelessly outclassed from the beginning.
Pink was so busy congratulating herself that she failed to notice Link enter the cafeteria just as she was leaving. The newly arrived Link briefly considered gaining her sister's attention, but then decided against it. It was obvious Pink was lost in her own little world, and Link felt reluctant to enter it. Her sister was such a ditz, sometimes. There was no telling what stupid thoughts were running through Pink's head.
With a sigh, Link looked over what little food had yet to be picked over. She made a face at all of it, barely choosing a thing. In this case it was literally a 'thing' since she had no idea what the gray substance being offered was. It vaguely resembled some kind of meat by texture and smell, but Link would not have bet a single yen on that.
It wasn't fair. She had a match tonight, and they had nothing decent to eat. Sometimes it seemed like there was never any good food on match days. Perhaps it was some sort of conspiracy to make the fighters meaner for the crowd since they had been forced to consume rotten food that most starving dogs would not venture near.
Irritated, Link continued cursing her luck as she tried to find an open table to sit down. As her eyes scanned the crowd, looking for someone to sit next to so she could complain, they eventually focused on her most hated nemesis. Link's eyebrow twitched as she recalled for the five hundred and tenth time the beating that Shampoo had administered to her. Worse than the physical pain, she had ruined Link's chance to date Komimasa since he thought he'd been stood up and still refused to speak to her even a month later. One of these days Link would get revenge. She was just waiting for the right moment. Then Shampoo would be sorry. Oh, how she would be sorry.
What anger Link felt towards Shampoo doubled when she spotted the piece of cheesecake sitting on her tray. How dare that violent bitch get her hands on the only decent piece of food being offered today! She wasn't worthy of the honor. Cheesecake was Link's favorite food. She would have subsisted exclusively on it if it was possible. But to see Shampoo with an untouched piece of the yellow substance sitting on her tray while Link had none was too much for her to take. She had to have it at any price. A plan quickly formed in her mind. She set her tray down at a table, then went over to where one of her friends sat.
Gin nearly jumped out of her seat when she felt the hand settle on her shoulder. "Don't do that! I'm eating."
"Shhh," Link softly intoned. "I need you to do me a favor. I'm going to leave. After I've worked my way near Shampoo, I'll need you to call her over here."
"What?! Again?!" Gin said in barely restrained anger.
Link was about to ask what Gin meant by that, but reconsidered. Details were unimportant now. "Hey, I've done you favors. Remember when I set you up with Masamoto?"
"He dumped me in the middle of our date and went out with another woman he met during it," Gin said acidly.
"What about Ruffero? He was handsome, gentle, understanding-"
"-previously a woman," Gin finished for her.
"Right. So if you don't help me out, I'll set you up with another loser."
Gin let out a sigh. "Fine. I'll do this for you if you promise to leave me alone from now on."
"Done!" Link headed off to maneuver closer to Shampoo's table, making sure to stay out of sight.
Again Gin called Shampoo over. Shampoo looked at her, then back at down at the cheesecake on her tray. Reluctantly she rose to her feet and went over to Gin again.
"Yes?" There was just a touch of impatience in Shampoo's voice.
Once more Gin was taken momentarily aback, having not thought things through again. "I uh, just wanted to wish you a good fight."
"You already did that."
"Oh, well, I mean it this time."
"I… see," Shampoo lied. And she had thought Apollo was weird. She turned away and headed back for her seat. It was for the best to get some distance between her and the strange girl before she tried something funny. Besides, she had heard Gin was a lesbian, and the girl might be trying to hit on her in some weird fashion.
As Link exited the cafeteria with her purloined goods safely in hand, she heard a hated voice boom, "WHERE'S MY CHEESECAKE?!" Playing it safe, she hurried away, just in case someone had witnessed the theft and Shampoo came after her. Once satisfied she was safe from Amazonian vengeance, Link took a huge bite from the stolen dessert. It tasted even more heavenly since it had been formerly Shampoo's. The rest of the food she had left behind could go to hell. This was all she needed.
An ever-widening smile on her face, Link took another bite as she headed back to her room to allow her food time to digest and to get ready for her fight.
Pink listened as the crowd shook the dome in their approval at her boyfriend's victory. Snakebite had drawn a middle card bout against a newcomer named Kwok who had won several of his matches in impressive fashion. There was speculation that Kwok might even become rated as an impact player, if not a commodity outright, but her wonderful Thomas had put an end to that speculation by handling the newbie like he would any other sap. Perhaps with a little more seasoning Kwok might make it to impact player, but Pink doubted it; he lacked the killer instinct needed to get beyond Hong Kong. No, she wagered his best bet would be to drop out and getting a job somewhere locally before taking a permanent injury.
Snakebite approached the fighters' area where Pink was waiting for him. He made his way past several clusters of his fellow fighters who had gathered to either wait for their matches, their friend's matches, or take notes on their potential future opposition. As Snakebite arrived next to Pink, she greeted the triumphant warrior with a towel and a kiss.
"Nice work," Pink cheerfully attached herself to his arm and pulled him to as quiet a place as she could manage in the crowded area.
Snakebite gave her a beaming smile. "Yeah. Sap had a few good moves, but nothing compared to me. Still, he's got potential. With the right kind of training, I bet he could move up to the Impy Arena. Hope he doesn't get it until after I've won it all, though."
"Until one of us wins it all," Pink corrected. Her Thomas still had a bad tendency to forget she was after the same prize he was, and that she had taken him once already. While it might have been true that Thomas had worked hard to improve since then, so had she. One of the first rules learned in the dog pits was that only the slow and the defeated never got better. It would be a hard fought duel, but she harbored no doubts who would come out on top by the end.
Realizing his gaffe, Snakebite slipped an arm affectionately around her waist. "Since we both finished early tonight, why don't we head back to my room? You know how riled up I get after a little tangle."
Pink evaded the attempted nibble on her ear, and slipped out of his grasp. "Not just yet. I want to watch the next fight."
"I thought your sister didn't fight until the match after that."
"That's right. The next fight involves that little tramp." Pink pointed toward the far side of the waiting area where Shampoo stood next to the ever depressive Chingmy and the weirdo who thought he was a god. For some reason, Shampoo looked quite irritated as she handed her shorter friend what appeared to be a considerable amount of money. It was probably for some twisted sexual favor or something equally depraved, Pink was certain.
"Oh, does it now?"
Pink saw his eyes light up and gave Snakebite a warning glare. "That hussy beat up my sister and came on to you. I want to see her get hers."
"Now, now. How many times do I have to tell you, you just have to accept the fact that women have the same great taste you do and find me attractive? Naturally they're going to try to compete for my attention?" Seeing the statement did not have the desired effect he was going for, Snakebite quickly added. "Of course what they don't realize is that someone already has my complete attention."
He unleashed his most winning smile and gently cradled her chin upward so she was looking him in the eye.
After a moment, the hard look she had been giving softened, though she still removed herself from his grip a second time. There was steel in her voice as she said, "But it's different when it comes to her. She's a slut. I hear she's been sleeping with her trainer."
"All the more reason for her to hit on me. Have you ever seen that guy? He's old and ugly. I'm surprised she hasn't tried harder to seduce me."
Pink was about to unleash another biting comment when a newcomer caught her attention. He was a Chinese man, about twenty, and decidedly unremarkable in appearance. He wore black robes with white pants that could be seen poking out the bottom.
"At last. I was afraid he'd never get here," Pink muttered under her breath. Louder, she said, "Hey, Crippler!" and waved at him.
"Don't call him over!" Snakebite hissed. "He's a complete asshole."
It was too late as Crippler cheerfully waved back and joined them. "Hey there, you two."
Snakebite opened the conversation by asking, "Break the legs on any small animals today?"
"Nah, been a slow day."
The answer unnerved Snakebite, largely in part because he was fairly certain Crippler seemed to take the question seriously.
Pink said, "I heard that you were fighting Shampoo tonight."
"And that it's going to be a massacre," Snakebite added, his smirk informing all but one who he thought would end up massacred.
The one who missed it said, "Nah, that ain't going to happen. I'm going easy on her."
"What?!" Pink was barely able to restrain herself from grabbing Crippler by the neck and shaking him like a rag doll as she watched her plans unraveling.
Crippler smiled lasciviously at Pink. "You've got to remember what's at stake. After I beat her, I'm going to be married to that hot little number. You see, the way I got it figured, I'll keep her around until I win the big tournament and become a citizen. Then I'll marry some rich chick for her money and make her my first wife. I might pick up a third later on when I get bored with Shampoo, but that's going to be at least a decade by my reckoning. She looks like she'd be a real wildcat in the sack." Crippler gave off a nasally laugh at his long term life plan.
Thinking quickly, Pink said, "I'm surprised you're taking Shampoo's comments so calmly. I guess it shows how well you can control your temper. Or that she was right and you can't argue with it."
Crippler's eyebrows rose quizzically. "What comments?"
"You mean you didn't hear?"
"Yeah, what?" Snakebite said, every bit as interested as Crippler.
Pink dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Well, you didn't hear this from me, but I overheard her say she'd never be satisfied marrying you, since you have the personality of a dead fish and that your hurting people is a sign of overcompensation for having such a tiny prick."
Snakebite let out a low whistle. "I'm impressed she could figure you out so easily. And as we both know, anyone who's taken a shower with you can certainly vouch for the last part, Tiny. Sounds like Shampoo's just as good a judge of character as she is attractive." Snakebite smiled as he hooked his little finger and waved it in front of Crippler.
"Shut up, tumbleweed, or I'll cripple you next!" Crippler looked across the room at Shampoo, shooting her a look that promised pain and suffering would soon be dropping by and making their acquaintance. "That bitch is dead," Crippler mumbled to himself as he stomped toward the fighting area, the look of blood in his eyes.
"Break a leg, and maybe an arm or neck while you're at it," Pink said cheerfully.
It was just as Crippler headed towards the battle floor that Link finally managed to make her way to the waiting area. It had taken her nearly half an hour to summon the strength to head out in anticipation for her upcoming match. Seeing the end of Crippler's diatribe, she walked to where her sister and Snakebite waited. "What was that all about?" she asked through a yawn.
"Not much. Just a case of long postponed justice about to be meted out," Pink informed her.
Snakebite shook his head. "It doesn't matter how pissed Tiny is; she's going to walk right over him."
"Want to bet?" Pink asked.
"Sure," Snakebite said. "If I win, I get to wear the chaps tonight."
Pink made a face at that. "I hate those things. The leather always chafes me."
"If you don't want to…" Snakebite trailed off, leaving the 'you're chicken if you don't accept' clear in what was unsaid.
Pink relented. "All right. But if I win, you have to wear the bridle instead."
"And make horsy noises."
"It's a deal."
"You two are the most disgusting couple I have ever met," Link said, failing to stifle another yawn.
Pink ignored her sister's comments as she watched Shampoo move to the combat area and be introduced to the cheering crowd. The fans were in for a disappointment. In a few short minutes, Shampoo was going to look like a broken little doll. The drug should already be working its magic. In her current state, the Amazon would be lucky to last a minute against an enraged Crippler. Pink had to laugh. Tricking the stupid bimbo had been easy.
"I can't believe how easily that bimbo tricked me!"
Pink was barely able to keep from cursing in agreement with her bedridden sister's condemnation. Unlucky Link had fared poorly against her opponent's fists and was injured badly enough that she would be unable to fight for at least a week, according to the doctors. The next time Pink fought Ka Shin, she would even the score, but the majority of her rage would be reserved for the one that was truly responsible for the whole situation.
"You believe me when I tell you she drugged me, don't you, Sis?"
"Oh yes. I believe you. It's exactly the sort of underhanded thing I should have expected from her." Pink had seen no reason to inform her sister that she had been the one who had originally drugged the cheesecake. There was no sense in burdening her with useless details. Besides, the whole situation was the sneaky, big-chested tramp's fault. She would pay for her perfidy. This time she had gone way over the line, and her punishment would be three times as severe as before. No mercy would be shown. Oh how that bitch would p-
"Hey, you're zoning out on me there," Link told her sister.
"Just internally soliloquizing."
"Right," Link said slowly, wondering if it was the painkillers causing her to mishear her sister's statements, or if Pink was just becoming weirder on her. "And why are you squirming around so much?"
"It's another thing that bitch has to pay for. My butt's sore and rubbed raw from the hard ride I got last night. Let me tell you, never agree to let your boyfriend wear chaps. It all started when-"
"No!" Link tried to protest, but it was too late. Once Pink had started on her rant, it took on a life of its own, shutting out all other stimuli and going into all sorts of lurid details. Link swore that having to put up with her sister's tales of sexual deviancy was another thing Shampoo was going to have to pay for.
Pink allowed herself a satisfied smile as she observed her handiwork. It had taken months for another opportunity for revenge to present itself, but soon it would all be worth the patience she had shown. Severing through the support columns and weakening the floor underneath was sheer genius.
It was times like this Pink was grateful for her interest in her uncle's construction business. Traveling with him to work, and hanging around the various sites and asking numerous questions of the workmen had taught her much. From carpenters to plumbers to electricians, asking pertinent questions as she talked with them, watching them work, even being allowed to help occasionally, had bestowed upon Pink enough basic knowledge to construct a simple house, as well as how to sabotage support struts and rewire electrical conduits. If she had not so desperately wanted to become a fighter, she probably would have entered her uncle's business. It would have been a boring, but secure life.
The actual execution of the plan had gone off without a single complication. All Pink had needed was a set of stolen coveralls, the proper tools that had been 'temporarily requisitioned' from the arena's maintenance staff, a few strategic smudges of grease on her face to hide her identity from the casual observer, and the attitude that she knew what she was doing. In many ways, the last was the most important part of the deception. It was remarkable what one could get away with when acting in an assured manner. Few people felt inclined to question someone like that for fear that the answers were obvious and the inquirer would look foolish as a result. Most would not think twice of a stranger's presence under such circumstance, naturally assuming the workperson belonged there and was doing work that needed completing.
And so it had worked out for Pink. She had arrived directly underneath Shampoo's ground level room. It was a little used section of the massive arena that was full of storage containers of some kind. Judging by the thickness of dust everything in the room had accumulated, it was unlikely that anyone had been down here since the time when Jun Fan Li was still fighting his way through Hong Kong. It assured Pink the privacy she needed.
Determining she would have some measure of peace, the work went quickly, cutting through and sabotaging all of the supports. Once Pink heard the sound of the ceiling straining from the weight that was currently resting above it, she halted her work. Judging by the noises it was making, all it would take was Shampoo's additional weight to push her floor past its limit. Then the big-chested bimbo would unexpectedly plummet through the floor, about twenty feet or so, to the unyielding concrete below. Perhaps Pink would get lucky and the rest of the ceiling would collapse after she had fallen, injuring Shampoo grievously and bringing her fighting career to an impromptu end.
Within a matter of hours, once Shampoo was finished with her usual afternoon workout, the impudent, sneaky, little tramp would be little more than a minor footnote in the annals of arena history, leaving Pink to once again assert herself as the dominant force in Hong Kong. And the best part of all was no one could blame her for the unfortunate 'accident.' She had covered her tracks too well this time.
Singing a pleasant tune to herself, Pink sneaked back to return the stolen items before they were missed and to change back into her normal clothes, insuring no one would be the wiser. And to top things off, she had a date with Thomas, just to make things perfect.
It was great to be alive.
Pink was still pleased with herself when she finally returned to her room to prepare for her upcoming date. As she entered, she noticed that she had a visitor that had let herself in the room. "What are you doing here, Sis, and why are you wearing my dress?"
Turning away from the mirror she had been admiring herself in, Link said. "Sorry about that. A water pipe broke in my room and got everything wet. I came by to ask if I could borrow a dress, but you weren't here, so I helped myself. Hey, is that grease on your face?"
Pink's hand reflexively shot up to her cheek, trying to locate the offending smudge. A smile unconsciously crept across her countenance. "I was out. Just out."
The mischievous smile and the terse answer Pink used were easily recognizable to Link. It meant her sister had done something she regarded as sneaky, but was in reality incredibly stupid. Link refrained from mentioning this since she needed a favor from her twin. "Anyway, I just wanted to borrow this dress. I know it's your favorite, but I have a hot date and want to look my best."
The mentioning of a date reminded Pink she had to prepare for one as well. She went over to her dresser and began to change. "Who's it with?"
"Liang Shen. He's one of the sales reps for Mirakodo Chemicals. He's one of their top sales people and has a real future with the company. He's not the best guy in the world to look at, but he's classy."
"He's not gay, like the last one you thought was interested in you, is he?"
"No!" Link gnashed her teeth together in anger over that stupid fiasco. Miraki was a charming, handsome, and debonair man that anything female would have swooned over. How was Link to know he had only asked her out to talk to her about one of the male fighters Miraki was interested in? He had certainly paid for leading her on by having a couple of his teeth knocked out of his head.
Pushing the bitter memories aside, Link said, "Anyway, I'm going to wear this one to really impress him for our first date."
"I wouldn't wear that if I were you," Pink cautioned.
Link looked down at the cherry-red outfit she was wearing and examined it closely. "Why? Is there a tear or a stain on it?"
"No. It just looks bad on you," Pink said matter-of-factly.
Link just stared in confusion at her sister. "This is your favorite dress. You love it, and everyone thinks you look great in it."
"That's right. I don't think it really works on you, though."
"But we're identical twins."
"We look exactly the same in it!"
"I'm telling you, it's a bad idea. Just ask anyone."
Link's eye began twitching. Just as she was about to unleash a diatribe on her sister's stupidity, there came a knock on the door.
"Hey, honey, it's me."
Both girls immediately recognized the voice of Snakebite. From where she was continuing to change, Pink said, "Come on in."
As Snakebite opened the door and stepped into the room, Link realized that with where Pink was changing and the position of the open door, his true sweetheart was blocked from his view. The only person he saw was Link, standing in the middle of her sister's room, wearing her sister's favorite dress.
So justice did exist in the world.
Link was barely able to suppress sinister laughter. Instead, she posed sexily and gave Snakebite an enticing look rather than the contemptuous one she reserved exclusively for him. "Hello, Thomas. It's so wonderful of you to drop by."
Snakebite said, "Hey there, Link. I hate to break this to you, but you look like crap in that dress. You ought to try something else."
Link's jaw nearly struck the floor as Snakebite scanned the room until he peered around the door and spotted his partially-clad girlfriend. "There you are. Hurry up or we're going to be late."
Finally rediscovering her capacity for speech, Link said, "How could you tell it was me?"
"That was easy. You don't look as good in that dress as my honey."
"We're identical twins, goddamnit! We have the exact same haircut! We even weigh within one kilogram of one another! We look exactly the same!"
Snakebite shrugged helplessly.
Pink pulled a different dress from out of her closet. "Look, just give up on the red dress and wear this nice blue one."
"You always complain that one makes you look fat."
"It does, but that doesn't mean it won't look good on you."
"Yes it does!"
"Not really," Snakebite chimed in.
Link's face turned a matching red with her dress as she gave out a scream of frustration and stormed out of the room, a litany of curses trailing in her wake. It was only after she arrived in another wing of the fighters' dorms that she had composed her temper to any degree. She continuously assured herself that the two twits must have heard of the water break in her room and realized she was going to borrow some of Pink's clothes and came up with that stupid joke they had just pulled on her. That had to be it. That was the only rational explanation.
As Link continued down the hall, she told herself she had to keep a hold of her temper. Her date was less than an hour away, and she had to show Liang that she really was a sweet girl. One that would make a really nice long-term girlfriend and not some ill-tempered, slutty bimbo, like a certain Amazon Link could have mentioned.
Pushing thoughts of her hated rival aside, lest she reignite her anger, Link continued on her way. After a moment, she realized she was heading toward her old room, which was undergoing repairs. Quickly, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the piece of white paper with the room number and key that management had given her. It was only a temporary thing, Link staying with one of the other fighters for a couple of days until they could repair the damage or assign Link a different room. Much to her relief, she discovered herself only two doors away from her temporary quarters. She knocked once, and hearing no answer, realized her new roommate, whomever she was, must have been out.
Using the key, Link let herself in. At least the room looked well kept and nice. That was good. Too many of her friends were messy, and Link was very much a 'neat freak', wanting to keep things in their proper places. Though, despite the homey feel to the room, there seemed to be something odd about it. And why was there a strange sound coming from the floor…
"…and then the damn floor came out from under me. I landed on my leg bad. The doctors say I was lucky that, after that fall, and with all of that concrete landing on me, all I suffered was a simple fracture. Still, I'm going to be out for at least a month, and it's all that bitch, Shampoo's fault. Everyone else thinks I'm nuts, but I'm telling you her unreasonable hated of me is so great, that when she found out I was being temporarily assigned to her room, she went ballistic and tried to have me killed by sabotaging her floor. You believe me, don't you Sis?"
"It's just the sort of set up she would lay for you, the tricky bitch!" Pink bristled at the sight of her sister, bedridden and with a cast on her leg. Again, Pink did not bother her sister with the details as to her being the one to actually sabotage Shampoo's floor. It was obvious somehow the bitch had ferreted out the trap and set up Link to take the fall, literally. How Shampoo must have despised Pink and lusted after her Thomas to lash out at Link instead of directly at her true rival. Oh, how Shampoo would pay for her sins, especially by using Pink as a tool in all of these insidious plans of revenge against Link. All Pink needed was to wait for the right opportunity and come up with another plan, this one would be foolproof for sure. She would see to it personally…
"Just get on with the report," Beef said in a tired voice. Already his adjunct, who was responsible for keeping up on all of Beef's diverse business interests, had droned on for an hour and had somehow managed to say nothing of any importance. It was quite remarkable that the adjunct had the ability to accomplish that feat. Usually even the most stupid and boring of people could say something interesting if they talked continuously for an hour.
"I do have something here. It's Pan Pei's report on activity with our shipping concern. It appears more pressure has been placed on him from elements of what he believes are the Toromaki Gang. They're trying to pressure him into convincing you to use our ships to smuggle illegal items to ports in Shanghai and Southern Africa. For quite large sums, too."
"Great, them again," Beef muttered. "Tell Pan to give the usual thanks and offer them a small stipend to make up for the time they wasted in trying to give us the opportunity to better ourselves. However, reaffirm what we have said before, that we intend to stay completely within the boundaries of the law and will provide no illegal services to anyone, including their rivals."
"That should placate them, sir. Especially the money."
"It means they'll come out ahead and leave with a feeling of accomplishment instead of feeling rejected. When men like that feel offended, they have a bad tendency to offend back, and I don't need them trying to pressure us into caving in. Buying extra security would cost a lot more money than the bribe. Especially with the way I hear things have been heating up out there on the docks."
"A greater number of bodies have been turning up in the harbor of late," his adjunct informed him. "It appears a major confrontation might be broiling between the Toromaki and Shadowlaw."
Beef shook his head. "Peaceforcers will break that up long before open warfare begins. This isn't Shanghai. They always step in before things boil over. And I'll wager you a hundred thousand yen that when they launch their massive raids, it's the Toromaki that end up taking the worst of it while Shadowlaw loses less interests and only in non-vital areas to their network."
"Begging your pardon sir, but even I know that's a fool's bet. After all, that's what happened the last three times there were almost gang wars."
"True. It has been getting a bit obvious of late. In any case, send a bonus to Pei for alerting me to this and not trying to run anything on the side. Also send him a case of my better wine. He's got a weakness for that, and he's smart enough to appreciate the gesture of thanks for his loyalty."
"Very good, sir."
Beef looked at his watch again. "Is that all? The fights are going to start any minute, and I want to see Shampoo in action. That girl's got the potential to go all the way, I'm telling you. Just like I almost did."
The adjunct suddenly became far more animated. "I almost forgot, sir. You told me to keep an ear out for any information concerning Mr. N'Digi or Miss… ah, Shampoo."
The chair groaned as Beef rose to his feet, obviously concerned. "Yes. What have you heard?"
The adjunct suddenly seemed a bit hesitant. "Well, do keep in mind this is only information heard secondhand. It's from the roommate of the head secretary for the branch of Otani Media Conglomerate."
"Secretaries are like janitors. No one ever notices they're there since they're considered unimportant as individuals and the jobs they do are seen as dirty or meaningless. One secretary in the pocket is worth two corporate spies, as the saying goes."
"There's an actual saying about that?"
"There is now. I just made it up."
"Very good, sir."
"Quit sucking up and spit it out, man! What have you heard about Shampoo?"
Sensing Beef was no longer in the mood for trivialities, the adjunct did as he was told. After hearing the information, Beef immediately told him to contact his chauffeur and to get his car ready. Beef was going to the arena personally to deliver the message to Jaddo and his protégé. The matter was too important to leave in the hands of underlings.
An hour later, one of the security guards stationed at an entryway that allowed access from the public areas of the arena to the more secure facilities further inside was approached by what he thought at first was a landbound whale. The image lasted until he realized the figure was dressed in a suit that cost more than he made in a year, and not just because of the volume of fabric that was used. Even the cane the man was using to help him along appeared to be made of the finest obsidian and was topped with an elaborate silver crafted wolf's head that could occasionally be seen poking through his chubby fingers.
"Can I help you, sir?" he asked as Beef stopped in front of him.
"I need to see one of the fighters before her upcoming match."
The guard sighed audibly. He received this request at least a dozen times every fight night. "I'm sorry, sir. You can't just walk on up and expect to talk to the fighters, especially tonight. Since I can see that you are obviously a man of influence, I'm certain if you contact our resources desk they'll be able to set up an appointment with the fighter you want to meet."
Beef smiled at the man. "Ring up your boss, Mr. Arisukoji, and tell him Beef Wellington wishes to see one of the fighters before her match."
The guard considered simply sending the man on his way, but reconsidered. It was unwise to anger the wealthy and powerful, even if he was just doing his job. For some odd reason, the wealthy never thought of it that way. Any refusal was seen as a personal insult, and they responded to accordingly. Within seconds someone patched the guard through to Tetsuo.
Beef could only hear the guard's half of the conversation as he spoke into his communicator. "Yes, sir. That's who he claims to be… Yes, it does look like he could have eaten the other five members of the Six Pack… He is?… But he's so big… Yes, sir."
The man slapped his communicator shut. "Mr. Arisukoji has given you the highest level of clearance. Moreover, you are allowed access to the arena at any time. Once you have a chance, go to the resources desk and they will provide you with a top level pass. It's an honor to have a legend of the Arena here, Mr. Wellington."
"What a polite man you are," Beef patted the guard on the shoulder and slipped him a ten-thousand-yen bill. "Tell me, what's the quickest way to the fighters that requires the least amount of stairs?"
Much more enthusiastically, the guard gave him the directions. Beef thanked the man again before hurrying as quickly as his large legs could carry him. He needed to get to Shampoo and let her know what was really at stake tonight.
The object of Beef's concern was watching events unfold before her with a careful eye. This was her most important night yet. Not only did she have the main event again, but this time she would be duplicating a feat she had only managed once before in the dog pits. She would fight three opponents -all men- in succession, with only a handful of minutes in-between. The only two things she had going for her were that all three were newcomers, and that each of them had to fight a bout at the opening of the card in order to have the honor of fighting her in the main event. Unfortunately, two of the matches had been dominated by the winners, and all three of her opponents had well over an hour to rest and recuperate. Since they were all relative unknowns, she would have to be extra careful in her matches, not knowing how good they really were, save by their records. All three of them had outstanding ones, but each had multiple losses (though none of them needed more than one hand to count the defeats). At least they were not perfect. Watching them in action had given her little information, save in general regards to their skills, which were impressive, even for newcomers.
The card had been touted as a night for young up and comers to make their mark in the Hong Kong Arena, and the newbies had taken it to heart. Besides the three that Shampoo had to fight, nearly all of the 'veterans' (and Shampoo was starting to feel very much like one) had been matched up against newcomers that were theorized to be comparable to their abilities, making for more evenly fought matches. The results had shown how accurate the matchmakers could judge. Two deaths so far, and Endo would be lucky if he ever walked again. There was also a host of less grievous injuries that would deplete the field for at least a couple of weeks, if not the rest of the month while the wounded took the time to heal. The only thing to balance those losses was that Link had made a successful comeback from her injury of a month ago and won in grand fashion. She could be re-added to the roster now and be expected to do well.
It was a shame, in a way, since Link evidently blamed Shampoo for the freak accident she had been injured in, and this meant she would be breathing down her neck again. The girl's rage was completely irrational, all if it originating from one a case of mistaken identity. It was an honest mistake that anyone could have made when it came to twins, but Link simply wouldn't let it go and now had a bad tendency to blame everything that went wrong with her life upon Shampoo. It was sad, really, that she needed a scapegoat for her life's problems instead of dealing with them.
Silently, Shampoo watched as Snakebite returned to the fighter's area, victorious. He did not look like the winner, not with his face a mass of bruises and swellings and his right arm dangling limply at his side. It had been a hard fought contest, the best of the night so far, and had ended with the death of his opponent: a masked man that had called himself 'The Tokyo Bullet.' It was an appropriate name, given the fact the man moved with the speed of one. He had made Snakebite look like he was fighting through molasses with the way he darted around the veteran, raining in blow after blow, giving five for every one he received. In the end, it was only superior strategy that had saved Snakebite from another loss as he feigned an injury that made the Bullet go in for a lightning quick finishing charge. Instead, Snakebite came out of his crouch early and lunged forward, catching the Bullet off-guard and clotheslining him in mid-stride. The velocity the Bullet had built up was too great and the blow snapped his neck with a loud pop that could be heard throughout the arena. It also succeeded in pulling Snakebite's arm out of its socket. It was the most grueling match of the night so far.
Pink was at his side the instant she was allowed, giving him words of comfort as her eyes threatened to tear up. In a way, her concern for her boyfriend would probably serve her opponent well, since that meant she would be in a hurry to finish him and return to Snakebite rather than toy around with the new guy as she worked the crowd. That was unless the newbie was as skilled as the Bullet, in which case perhaps it would be Pink who fell. Shampoo had her doubts about that, even if the newcomer had a trick or two up his sleeve. Pink was easily the second best fighter in the arena, after herself, and it was a close second. One of these days Tetsuo would allow them to fight to prove who the hottest commodity in the arena was. Now that was going to be a fight to remember.
Pink's contest was just beginning as Beef finally arrived at the fighter's area. His face had turned tomato red and he was huffing and wheezing as hard as Snakebite had after his battle. The large man drew everyone's stares, including those of Jaddo and Shampoo. He waved to them and moved fast, despite his previous run and his tremendous bulk. Once at their side, Shampoo attended him while Jaddo looked curiously on, leisurely resting against a wall.
"Beware the one foe we can never best: cholesterol," Beef gasped out.
"We can beat it if we watch what we eat," Jaddo said. "And time is the one foe we cannot best, not cholesterol."
"You have your sayings, I have mine," Beef said.
"Yes, but yours are stupid and mine are cool. I could probably write greeting cards, if I wanted to."
Shampoo shot Jaddo a warning glare that told him to curb his tongue. Once again she attended Beef. "Did you come down personally to watch me fight?"
"I wish that was the only reason for my presence here tonight," Beef said much more clearly, having regained some of his wind. "I have important news for you, my dear. Something you might be unaware of."
"What?" Jaddo said, his posture much straighter with the declaration. Beef's accent was slipping and carrying more than a hint of its usual English. That only happened when he was distracted or concerned. In either case, Jaddo sensed it promised trouble.
"I'm afraid that your rather arduous match tonight is for more than the simple entertainment of the masses. Apparently it is going to serve as something of a test for you. You see, from my various confidential sources, I have gathered that our friend Tetsuo was requested to give you a chance to showcase your talents. It appears you have managed to catch the interest of the head of western operations for Otani Media Conglomerate."
"So?" Shampoo asked.
Jaddo's reaction was much more severe. His eyes instantly darted up to where the most expensive box seats lay, his gaze searching until it fell upon the one that he believed was owned by the Otani Media Conglomerate. His hand came up to his forehead to shield out the glare of the lights hanging nearby as he stared at it closely. The distance was too great to make out individual faces, but it appeared that there might be more people in it than usual. It was difficult to say, since he had never taken the time to count them before.
"Is this head important?" Shampoo asked her mentor.
Jaddo turned his worried gaze away from the box. "Hell, yah. That's the group I try to sell all my fighters' contracts to. They're straight shooters and will treat you right. What I can't understand is why the head would be here."
Pride was clear in Shampoo's voice. "Maybe he wants to sign me after my match."
"Don't be stupid!" Jaddo shot back. "There are plenty of go-betweens that take care of trivial matters like signing on fighters."
"My contract is not trivial," Shampoo said in a huff.
"To you, no. To people that control the flow of billions of yen and whose individual decisions routinely affect thousands of people every day, it's about as interesting as the toilet paper they use to wipe their butts. I doubt if the head gets more than a quarterly report on fighter acquisitions. I can't imagine why he'd want to see you fight. He's never attended the matches before, from what I understand. Never heard him having any interest in them. Is it the same head as before? Otani's bastard kid?"
Beef held up a pudgy finger of warning. "Now, now. You know that no official declaration was ever made and it's just speculation. And yes, it is still him, at least as of this morning."
Jaddo ran a hand through the hair that lay so close to his scalp. Shampoo had rarely seen him so nervous, and certainly not over a matter as trivial as this. "This complicates things."
"No, it doesn't." Shampoo stated bluntly. "I'm going to defeat my opponents and show these men just how good I really am."
"You got three fights in a row coming up, and the guys you're going to fight didn't look like saps to me," Jaddo warned.
Shampoo nodded solemnly, "I know. None of them looked appealing to me, so have no fears that I'll be distracted by a handsome face. I have no intention of marrying any of them."
"And they were in previous fights, though only the first one appeared the least bit winded from it." Beef pointed out, having watched them on his limousine's television on the way over. "My advice to you is to forget about playing the crowd for a change, at least in the first two fights. Winning is far more important than impressing some stuffed shirts high overhead. If they both go quickly and well, and after you've worn down your last opponent, use your judgment if it's worthwhile to expend some energy to work them up a bit."
"Always save the best showmanship for last. That's what will stick in their minds the most after a fight: the last thing they see, not the first," Shampoo quoted.
"Absolutely correct. You've trained her well," Beef told Jaddo.
"Her head's not filled completely with rocks, no," Jaddo reluctantly agreed.
A loud cheer erupted from the crowd. The trio looked down to see that Pink had finished off her opponent in near record time. She remained around only long enough for an official to raise her hand in triumph before she ripped it out of his grasp and headed directly for the infirmary.
The ring introduction for Shampoo began. Jaddo and Beef gave her a nod, and she made her way to the center of the floor. It was uncommon for them to introduce the top draw first, but then it was more unusual for the top draw to fight three people in one night.
As Shampoo entered the combat floor and came into view of the crowd, she gave them a jiggly little bounce. On this night she had chosen a one piece green and brown outfit that hugged her in all of the right places while still allowing her complete freedom to fight. The outfit itself was just a touch on the short side, barely extending downward enough to keep from showing a scandalous amount of bottom when she leaped or kicked. It was intentional though, since the audience tended to react more strongly with the more she showed. Once she had established a large fan base, she could probably wear more conservative items, according to Jaddo, but for now she had to be flashy so that it was her name on everyone's lips as they left the arena and went back to their lives.
Once in the center, Shampoo blocked out most of what the ring announcer was saying, which was in essence the same thing they always said. From the dingiest dog pits to the classiest of arena, the words might have been different but the meaning remained the same: here are two people that are going to beat the living hell out of one another for your viewing pleasure.
Unlike the night of her arrogant challenge in the dog pit, it had been arranged that after Shampoo disposed of an opponent (assuming she did) she would be given an extended five minute rest period while her next adversary was introduced. Not a great deal of time, but enough to make the difference in a close fight.
The first of her opponents to be introduced was the victor of the first contest of the evening. His name was Kai-Lan No, and was at best a year older than Shampoo. He was the fighter that had a great deal of difficulty in his match. Shampoo marked him as the least likely of her opponents to give much trouble, but trouble he could still be, especially since she had two fights after him.
As the announcer left the combat floor, Shampoo finished mentally preparing herself for the fight, plotting out specific techniques and styles she might use. Her planning was interrupted as No was quick to strike, testing the young Amazon's defenses with a series of blows. With surprising ease, Shampoo warded off each of the fists and kicks. There was little behind the blows and certainly nothing that could get through to her. No trouble yet.
Seeing a wide opening left in the middle of his strikes, Shampoo decided to chance ending the fight early by going for a finishing attack. There was some risk involved if the opening was a feint that left her open to a counterstrike, but she thought it unlikely No was capable of that level of deception.
Her kick hit him squarely in the side and under his arm, lifting him up in the air. Shampoo managed to change his trajectory by unleashing another lightning fast kick under his back and forced him into a mid-air spin, and sustaining his act of defying gravity for another moment. The additional time was sufficient for Shampoo to reset herself, so that the instant No landed, her fist met his mid-section. His body went limp.
The crowd gave its loudest roar yet at the spectacle. Shampoo had finished off her opponent in under thirty seconds, and in spectacular style. It had barely qualified as a warm-up for her. No had been pure sap. Somehow, Shampoo doubted she would be so lucky with her second opponent.
As No's unconscious form was carted off, Lung 'The Thunderer' was introduced next. He was built like a tree stump, with shoulders nearly as wide as he was tall, which was several centimeters shorter than Shampoo. His face said that he was older, and she would have wagered he was close to the twenty-three year age limit for their fight class. His battle had lasted only slightly longer than Shampoo's just had. Judging by his stance and the careful, yet confident way he watched her, the young woman would have guessed this fight was going to be somewhat tougher.
"You can come on over if you like." He curled his finger toward her in a gesture that was directed more to the crowd than herself. Not a complete buffoon, then, since he seemed to know his way around a ring.
Accepting his offer, Shampoo probed his defenses first and opened up with a barrage of blows. He deflected many of them, and the few that managed to get through did no apparent damage. During the assault, he launched several tentative blows of his own that were easily thwarted. So far he had shown a good technique, but nothing that could really harm her unless she behaved stupidly.
Within a minute she saw what appeared to be an opening to his chest that he could not deflect or avoid easily, especially with his bulk. A two fist combination met his solar plexus, blows that should have knocked the wind out of him and would give the Amazon the advantage in the fight.
Instead, Lung struck the spot she had hit himself. "Nice try, but you'll have to hit harder than that."
Images of the Northman danced before Shampoo's eyes. Anger coursed through her, and rather than be surprised, by the Thunderer's durability, she attacked right above the spot she had struck before, this time unleashing her full might. Fists that could have shattered concrete met flesh and the Thunderer, for all of his toughness and mass, was staggered. He took several steps back before coming to a complete stop. Outwardly he appeared physically unharmed, despite the force behind the potent blows. However, he made a face and felt the area that had been struck and looked down at it in confusion. There was surprise in his voice. "You've overcome my Stone Style technique."
Eyes flashing red with intensity, Shampoo prepared to unleash another assault, targeting the head this time. Before she could throw the punch, Lung raised his hands and shouted out, "I yield!"
It took Shampoo a moment to understand what had just happened. Surrenders were uncommon enough that she had never seen anyone do it before, at least not without taking a far more vicious beating. The crowd let their own feelings on the matter be known by sending down a chorus of booing and jeering. A cascade of derogatory comments far worse than anything that had ever been directed at her, rained down upon Lung. Branded in the crowd's eyes as a coward, it would take Lung a great deal of time and a series of impressive victories if he ever hoped to have any chance to win the masses over to his side again. The crowds, as unappreciative as they could be for the most part, did possess some appreciation for the blood sacrificed in their behalf, and let their ire toward those that refused to make the sacrifices that so many others had done before be known.
The taunts mattered little since the surrender was official and final. Still standing tall, Lung made his way to the exit and allowed the next fighter to go past him. Shampoo, still a bit stunned by the unexpected early and easy victory against what she had anticipated would be a difficult opponent, again had to force herself to mentally prepare for the next fight.
Jaddo watched with a disdainful eye as Lung make his way into the waiting area. The disdain lasted until he saw the large stump of a man hold his hand up to his mouth and coughed. As the hand was pulled back, Jaddo saw the dark splotch of red on his palm. Now the reason for the surrender had become obvious.
"Get this man some medical attention!" he shouted. The physicians that remained close at hand for just such emergencies went into action. Quickly, they also realized what was wrong and began escorting Lung back to the infirmary to be treated for his internal injuries.
Jaddo returned his attention to his protégé as she made ready for her third and final bout. So far, things had gone exceedingly well, though he felt a bit of sympathy for the self-proclaimed Thunderer. Jaddo had recognized the Stone Style the large man used and recognized it for being the impressive technique that it was. Even the aborigine found himself taken aback by the amount of damage Shampoo had managed to inflict so quickly despite the technique. The girl was even stronger than he realized. Perhaps stronger than even she realized. It might be a good idea to hone her control a bit more, though he was fairly certain she was in control the entire time when knocking Lung out of the fight so quickly.
The next opponent for Shampoo was a black man named Watambe. He was a peculiar sight. He wore a voluminous brown robe that appeared two times too large for him. The sleeves were perhaps even larger, barely leaving enough room for his hands to extend past the garment, and bore concentric circles around the ends that appeared terribly out of place. A pair of loose golden bracelets adorned each of his wrists, and they made a high-pitched clinking sound with each movement of his arms. Even his white pants were extremely baggy, giving him a comical appearance instead of an intimidating one. Either the man had the worst fashion sense in the world, or there was a reason for the strange garments that was beyond Jaddo's ability to solve.
As Jaddo assessed the newcomer, he noticed someone nearby doing the same thing to Shampoo. Like the man out on the floor, he was a very dark shade of black. Unlike the other, this one wore a tighter gray sweatsuit that would have made him look quite normal, save for the large ceremonial headdress of brightly colored plumage that he wore. It was even more horribly out of place than the circles on the fighter's outfit, and Jaddo wondered if perhaps it was the man with the headdress that had chosen the Watambe's outfit. It made sense. Especially since Jaddo spotted a pair of golden bracelets on the man he stood beside. There was no question both sets were identical in appearance. The styling on the bracelets itched at the back of Jaddo's mind. There was something vaguely familiar about them.
Judging by how the man with the headdress watched both fighters, there could be little question as to who he was. Since this was a rival trainer whose student his was about to fight, Jaddo decided to take the offensive against him as well. "Going to a wedding?"
"I would not expect someone as spiritually deprived as you to appreciate the nuances of my people, Mr. N'Digi," the man answered in a deep voice that reverberated throughout the area.
"So says the man who has a dead peacock sitting on his head. Yes, very spiritual indeed."
"It is a peacock which I can remove. You, however, will look ugly no matter what. Have you ever considered wearing a mask?"
Not too bad, Jaddo thought to himself. With the initial jabs over, Jaddo said, "Your boy out there?"
"As it is your girl."
"You have me at a disadvantage."
"Which I intend to keep, Mr. N'Digi. You see, your reputation precedes you."
"Fine. I'll just call you 'Peacockhead'." Despite Jaddo's biting nickname, he was troubled. 'Peacockhead's response was bit too cryptic for his tastes. The implication from the man's reluctance to reveal his identity was that it might tip his hand at something, though Jaddo would have sworn with his dying breath that he had never met the man before. He'd have remembered that voice, if nothing else. It was the sort of voice advertisers used in their voice-overs for commercials. As his mind pondered the possible meanings behind the man's innuendoes, Jaddo decided to watch the fight with a more open eye. Something told him this latest fellow could be trouble.
On the arena floor, Shampoo again approached her foe cautiously. The last fight had been a complete bust, leaving the crowd in a displeased state, and the foul mood was carrying over to this fight as well. She was going to have to do something to raise their spirits and back her once again. This was her night; her chance to shine and make a big score if she could impress those people from the media conglomerate. If she wanted to dazzle them, she would have to do it in this final fight of the card.
But months of caution hammered into her head by Jaddo influenced her choices. As nice as it would be to shine for the crowd and treat her current foe like little more than the previous saps, she approached the situation as though it was a rematch with the Northman. Tentatively, she made several attacks to test Watambe's abilities, displaying even more hesitation than she had against Lung.
The crowd responded with subdued approval. Having been cheated out of one fight, they wanted to see blood in this one. Shampoo felt their irritation and stepped up her attacks. At first, Watambe fended off the early attacks, but seemed a bit hesitant to retaliate. Shampoo took advantage of the hesitation in her second series of probing attacks and drove him backward, landing a solid kick into his mid-section that sent him sprawling nearly eight feet away. Shampoo backed away another two steps to put even more distance between them and gauge his response to the blow. Other than rising to his feet, none came.
Shampoo gave an inward sigh. She had seen his type before. Putting the newbie in front of the crowd and the lights, and they sometimes faltered, not that this fellow seemed all that good to begin with. She could run over him at will, which, though nice in that she could call it an early evening, was not the sort of thing to really get her heart pumping. However, his inferiority would serve a purpose. She could now impress the crowd and show off some of her martial arts talent. She would hold back and not finish Watambe quickly, not until she could get the crowd's blood really pumping. She'd show those stuffed corporate shirts how to entertain the masses. It was just a question of which flashy technique she would use.
With fifteen feet between her and Watambe, Shampoo half turned away from him for a brief second and gave one of her 'cutesy' bounces for the benefit of the mostly male audience.
It was at that moment that Watambe's mysterious trainer clinked his bracelets together, producing a single high-shrilled ring that could be heard even through the crowd's approval at Shampoo's display.
The sound caught right at the edge of Shampoo's hearing, but she paid it little mind. She was just turning around to regard her opponent, who had remained where he was during her entire demonstration, and looked him in the eye—
—only to have his fist connect solidly with her face a moment later.
The crowd roared as they watched Shampoo get hit. Jaddo too, was caught off-guard by the blow landing. He watched it happen again, and was about to curse how Shampoo was getting sloppy when he suddenly recognized the style that Watambe was using, and why Shampoo was allowing herself to be hit. It was also at that moment that he recalled where he had seen similar bracelets before. He looked at the man next to him over. Many years had passed, and the skin color was much darker than before, but he always had been a tricky devil. Perhaps the trickiest of them all. "You're Dhalsim?"
Peacockhead laughed. "Hardly. He has used disguises in the past, but I am not him. He was my master, and I was one of his pupils, even as Watambe is one of mine. You are an old acquaintance of my master, I believe."
"We fought a couple of times, yah. Tricky fellow. All headgames and thinking, not much for interest in the actual fight. In my younger days I traveled to India and tried to get him to show me some stuff when I was preparing for entering the fighting circuit, but it wasn't meant to be. We didn't view the world through the same eyes. He was an optimist. I'm a realist."
Peacockhead returned his attention to the fight, but kept talking. "Yes, in the end, the spiritual aspects of his teachings eluded me. However, I learned the physical ones well enough before I left, as you can see."
"Your boy probably should have won all his fights then, if he was any good, Peacockhead. You had him intentionally tank some?"
"I had him hold back his true abilities, waiting for an opportunity such as this main event. Now in one night he will beat the current hottest commodity and become the hottest fighter around without having to wait months to soar through the ranks. It was a gamble, but one that is about to pay off. With the skills I have learned and passed down to one of Watambe's physical abilities, there is no limit to what he can accomplish, including becoming the number one warrior after only one fight."
"You should have paid closer attention to that Zen babble Dhalsim used to spout off, as you're about to learn. " Jaddo looked back out at his protégé.
Shampoo reeled from the blow. It had been as unexpected as Pink's sucker punch on the first day she had visited the arena. Luckily, there had not been much force behind it, or else Shampoo would have found herself just as out of it as way back then. Resetting herself, she turned to see that Watambe had cut the distance between them to half. His posture was completely different now, holding a confidence that had not been present before. So, he had been playing a game and making her look the part of the inexperienced fool. That was a mistake that he would pay for, starting with the next blow.
Just as she charged forward, his foot seemed to extend, meeting her chest long before she could land her own punch. Again caught off-guard by the bizarre attack, Shampoo fell backward.
Still better than five feet away from his opponent, Watambe changed his technique in way that reminded Shampoo of the manner in which Snakebite would do the same. The dark-skinned man was moving in snakelike fashion with how he undulated his body back and forth. The baggy clothing he wore only added to the effect, making it difficult for Shampoo to center in on where his body actually was.
Bringing his arms forward, hands pointed at Shampoo, Watambe began making small circles with his arms, the concentric rings on the sleeves confusing Shampoo's perceptions further. Again his arm seemed to extend inhumanly far from the folds of his sleeve and connected solidly with her jaw. The slight tang of blood danced on her tongue from her lip being split open. Angry that he was making her look foolish before everyone, and that he was somehow winning with a painfully ridiculous technique, Shampoo went on the attack, suffering another kick and punch before closing the distance between them.
Once he was within her reach, Shampoo began to attack in full force. However, she was quick to discover that her blows, while being directed right at Watambe, seemed to only end up connecting with the baggy material of his voluminous robe, which somehow appeared to be three times larger than before. There were a handful of instances where she thought her fist brushed against his body, but by using his ever-shifting snakelike moves he danced out of the way, letting her do nothing more than pound away at his fabric.
Frustrated by being outmaneuvered, Shampoo found herself momentarily blinded by a sleeve slapped across her eyes. When her vision cleared, she saw that Watambe had once again created a fifteen foot gap between them.
This time she was ready for the unorthodox fists and kicks directed at her by falling into a completely defensive posture. The first series of blows she managed to deflect; however, every now and then a few trickled through and found their mark. There was no way to avoid them no matter how hard she tried; the method of their delivery defied reality as Shampoo knew it.
Sensing his attacks were not going to stop, and knowing she could never win being on the defensive as she was, she charged close in again, suffering two more blows before arriving next to him, and still failing to connect with a solid punch before he repeated his strategy and gained some space between them again.
For only the second time in her fighting career, Shampoo was on her way to losing her fight and her single status.
"My man appears to be winning."
"Only because he is," Jaddo mumbled. "I was sort of hoping she might figure it out on her own, but it doesn't look like she's going to before it's too late."
"Figure what out?"
Jaddo continued onward. "I guess I shouldn't be all that disappointed. It took me a while to figure it out. I shouldn't have expected her to do any better."
"Figure out what?" Peacockhead asked again.
"Still, she's so much better than I was at her age. I was kind of hoping she would exceed my expectation there, too. Well, she's almost close enough for it."
The man that refused to give his name laughed. "I see. This is one of your infamous headgames. Your fighter is clearly outmatched, yet you insist on making me believe you have a technique that will allow her to counter Watambe's. It won't work. I know my master defeated you in every fight you had. You cannot-"
Now that Shampoo had drawn near enough, Jaddo shouted at the top of his lungs, "HEY, LARD BUTT. HE'S NOT REALLY HITTING YOU FROM FAR AWAY. IT'S AN -
"- ILLUSION HE'S PROJECTING MAKING YOU THINK HE'S FAR AWAY, AND HIS ARMS AND SKINNY LEGS ARE STRETCHING. DON'T LOOK AT HIM HEAD ON. USE YOUR PERIPHERAL VISION!"
Recognizing her mentor's voice, even above the roar of the crowd that was urging Watambe on, Shampoo processed the information. How could anyone do what Jaddo implied?
Another stretched fist, only partially deflected, struck Shampoo in the head. She hoped for her sake Jaddo was correct, because she could not come up with a better plan to counter Watambe's technique. Turning to the side so that she could only see her opponent out of the corner of her eye, she tried to fight sideways. At first she thought Jaddo was full of it, as Watambe appeared to be just as distant as before. However, after only a second, Shampoo could have sworn he seemed to flow up next to her. It was difficult to tell by only looking out the corner of her eye, but it did appear that way. Jaddo was right!
Her happiness was short-lived as two more blows caught her in the kidney and beneath her left breast. She started to turn to face him, but then the illusion fell back into place. Again she shifted to the side, and again the brown blur that was Watambe seemed to be right next to her. She tried a slow attack that was immediately blocked, then she suffered another couple of blows. She had fared better trying to counter the technique head on. She would never win at this rate.
"It's not working!" Going completely on the defensive, Shampoo managed to blunt the next couple of strikes and tried moving sideways to get some distance from her opponent.
"Use the technique you learned when I used to whip rocks at your head from beside or behind you!" Jaddo shouted.
"That was not a technique! It was a way for you to take cheap shots at me because you thought I wasn't paying attention to you when I really was!"
"It was a subtle training method! You were able to catch the rocks after a while! Now think of his fists and kicks as rocks and counter them!"
Obeying her mentor, Shampoo fell into the same mental state she had used during those times from months ago. Watambe's next two fists and kick were blocked effortlessly. Sensing an opening out of the corner of her eye, Shampoo lashed out with the limb that had just blocked a fist, using a ridge hand to strike the unsuspecting Watambe right in the sternum. The blow knocked him backward, the pain momentarily crossing his eyes.
"He's lost his concentration! Hit him head on and don't let him get it back!"
Shampoo obeyed, turning to face an opponent who was within easy striking distance and whose robes did not appear anywhere near as voluminous as before. Her first fist was parried, but a second connected cleanly with his chest and an elbow met squarely between his eyes.
"Reestablish concentration! Focus your chi! You can do it, Watambe! It's only pain!" Peacockhead shot Jaddo a nasty look.
Jaddo's return glance was smug. "Just because I lost to Dolly doesn't mean I didn't learn a counter to some of his techniques. Like I said, he was tricky."
There was a cruel smile on the other man's lips. He clinked his bracelets together and shouted out, "Phyrious!" to his man.
Again Jaddo felt an uneasiness creep up his spine. He wondered what was going to happen next.
Watambe was a decent hand-to-hand fighter, but decent translated into being able to survive minutes instead of seconds to a warrior of Shampoo's caliber. She continued with a relentless assault that had Watambe on the verge of defeat, her steady stream of attacks wearing him down and preventing him from coming close to reestablishing his illusions again.
And then Watambe heard his mentor's order. All but running backward, he distanced himself from his opponent again. Shampoo, wary of him trying to use his illusions, stood sideways and used only her peripheral vision to counter what was to come.
Instead of trying to raise his fist or feet, Watambe began swaying, bending deeply at the hip and making circles. Shampoo remained back, wondering what bizarre technique he had come up with, though with how deep the bends were, she wondered if it was a reaction to the pain from one of her blows. Actually, she thought it was probably just that since it looked like he was on the verge of throwing up with how much his cheeks were bulging. She began to charge forward, continuing to move sideways and avoid direct eye contact.
Shampoo reacted instantly to Jaddo's command. Just as she started to head face first into the ground, she saw a mist of spray shoot outward from Watambe's bulging cheeks towards her. Just as the cloud was released, he brought his arms forward and struck his bracelets hard, causing a spark.
The instant the spark hit the spray there was a tremendous roar as the droplets caught on fire, creating a huge ball of flame that struck where Shampoo had been less than half a second before. Face down on the ground, she felt the heat lick her lower back, caressing it delicately as would a demon lover's touch. She cringed and prayed that the flames would go no lower, for there was nowhere left to run.
The heat was gone in a moment and the roar of flames expired, Shampoo looked up to see Watambe holding his mouth, as though he were in tremendous pain. With the heat she was still feeling radiating from her back, she would see to it the pain he was currently in would not come close to preparing him for what was about to happen. Shampoo had seen burn victims before, during a huge fire in the village that had claimed the lives of a couple of families. Seeing the ravaging pain that the survivors had been left in, Shampoo had long ago decided that massive burns was one of the rare cases where dying was preferable to having to live with the unrelenting pain. And it was a fate Watambe had just tried to inflict upon her. He had failed. Now it was her chance to return the favor.
She sprang to her feet just as Watambe recovered enough to shut out the pain and looked right at her crimson eyes. Shampoo could see his lips were puffy and swollen, either a drawback to the move or a testament that he had used it improperly. She smashed him with a right to the face that he could not come close to blocking. She then used a left on the other side, sending him reeling the other way. There now, both sides of his face would match the current condition of his lips, and that was just the opening move.
The burning sensation from Shampoo's back continued to grow, even though at the time it had felt like the flames had barely touched her. Watambe was really going to pay for that. She picked him up by the arm and held him high enough to kick him repeatedly in the stomach. Convinced he would not be regaining his breath for about a month, and would not be trying to burn her again, she struck him in the elbow and saw the appendage twist oddly in her hand. As his sleeve fell back and revealed the limb, she could see that the joint had been knocked out of place, and where the end of the bone threatened to poke through the skin. Seeing the actual physical damage from her assault, her desire to inflict pain departed as quickly as it came, despite discomfort from the heat radiating from her back. She ended things with a quick strike to her helpless captive's head, rattling the contents within hard enough to send him into unconsciousness.
It was just as she released his body and let it slump to the ground that she managed to catch something Jaddo was shouting to her. It was difficult to hear over the crowd that was cheering wildly at her third victory in a row. They were more agitated than usual, almost as much as Jaddo, screaming and pointing at her.
"What?!" she shouted at him, cupping her ear and trying to pick his voice out from that of the crowd.
"You're on fire!" she finally managed to make out. That seemed an unusual thing for Jaddo to say. Was he proposing she have another fight? That would be stupid. Watambe had been dangerous, and inflicted a serious amount of damage to her. Not lasting, thankfully, but she was worn out and had no desire to fight for the next several days, especially with how her back was feeling. If anything, the sensation of heat was creeping up her spine now. And then there was the smell of something burning, even though nothing… was… burning?
"Ahh!" Shampoo shouted as the true meaning behind Jaddo's warning finally sunk in. Apparently a small lick of flame had touched her, and had caused her outfit to smolder until it combusted properly. Now she understood what was going on. Thankful that she had worn a rather skimpy one-piece outfit that could be removed quickly, she grabbed it by the bottom of the hem and threw it over her head. She was fast enough that the flames, which were only now truly starting to consume the garment, didn't touch her as the outfit was tossed far away to the side.
Shampoo let out a sigh of relief. That had been close. Had the dress remained on her a moment longer, she would have suffered some degree of burns. But now she was safe, her fiery clothing tossed off to the side. And of course, since her clothing was tossed off, that left her standing in front of tens of thousands of people clad in nothing but her athletic bra and a pair of panties.
It was turning out to be a night of surprises.
As she remained standing motionless, cursing her luck, Shampoo could not help noticing the crowd, especially the men, were cheering harder than they had ever before in her life. Making the best of what she considered a humiliating situation, she played up to the crowd, raising a triumphant fist and planting her foot firmly on her unconscious opponent, making sure to grind her heel in a sensitive spot as repayment for the situation he had placed her in.
Despite her annoyance, Shampoo kept on smiling as she slowly made her way to the exit, rotating in a circular motion so that everyone in the arena would get at least one good eyeful of her. She was a professional now, and had to play the game by the rules winners played. Besides, it could have been considerably worse; she could have had a body the crowd did not want to see.
As she arrived at the exit ramp, where she would finally be out of sight of everyone, she blew a final kiss to the wildly cheering masses, then turned around and sauntered off, exaggerating the wiggle to her behind as the final thing the crowd would see. She was delighted to find that Jaddo had prepared for her return by grabbing a sizable towel that would cover her from the top of her breasts to the bottom of her derriere. Barely, but enough to get the job done.
Jaddo opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Shampoo beat him to it. "I know what you're going to say. You're right. I should not have taken Watambe so lightly. Even though I pressed an early advantage, I should have waited until I knew for a fact that he was too beaten to present a threat to me before playing to the crowd. I should have been able to figure out that he was using a technique that relied upon illusion and come up with a way to counter it, as well as employing that anti-stone throwing technique you subtly taught me. I nearly lost. I am sorry."
"Actually I was going to tell you you did a pretty good job. He sure had me fooled with how good he really was. I fell victim to that self-same style years ago and had my head handed to me. And the anti-stone throwing technique was subtle, which was why you didn't think to use it. Even I didn't realize he was going to use that combustible bile trick until it was almost too late. And that was real smooth the way you played the crowd after tossing away your outfit, instead of covering up and acting all embarrassed. You really scored some points with them and assured your main event status for at least the next two cards. I'd say congratulations are in order."
"Oh." Shampoo was at a loss. Jaddo had never been this conciliatory before. She was uncertain of how to react.
Jaddo was actually filled with a bit of trepidation as he said, "A bit of the bottom of your hair got singed there. Looks like you're going to have to cut off about three centimeters or so to even it out."
Shampoo fingered the burned locks. "I was thinking of shortening it a bit anyhow."
Jaddo looked at her in near open mouthed wonder. "A woman that isn't perpetually worried about her hair. Will wonders never cease?"
Shampoo gave him a more than friendly rap on the shoulder for that, which Jaddo accepted humorously.
Seeing that the teacher-student conversation was over, Beef walked over and said, "Wonderful fight. People are going to remember that one for a while. And I daresay Otani Media would be fools if they didn't give you a fat, juicy contract."
"Oh, right." Shampoo had completely forgotten about them after her third fight took a turn for the worse. She looked to Jaddo, who seconded Beef's opinion.
"We should go out and celebrate," Beef declared. "Let's go back to the restaurant. Open bar and food. I'll even hire a couple of escorts for you, Jaddo. And you too, if you want, Shampoo. There's this upscale brothel called 'Celestial Bodies' that's run by this former nun I once knew from way back when. They offer a fine selection of talented men and women and are very reputable. I always recommend them to out-of-towners that can afford it."
"No thanks," Shampoo said, though the idea of simply engaging in a one night stand was not quite as unappealing as it had been when she had still lived at home. No doubt it was because of the environment she was in influencing her. Many of the fighters lived life in the fast lane and promiscuity tended to be high as blood and passions ran fast and free. Regardless, she wanted to save herself for a man that truly interested her. Then she would give free reign to the ever heightening desires her body seemed to be longing for, ones that were becoming increasingly more obvious with each passing month. She hoped she found the right man soon.
To her surprise. Jaddo said, "No hookers for me either, though I'll take you up on your offer of free booze." When Shampoo looked at him in surprise, he said, "Want to keep my energy up for proper negotiating. It'll probably be tomorrow evening or afternoon, and I want to be at the top of my game."
"I'll watch myself too," Shampoo assured him. Tomorrow was going to be one of the most important days of her life, and Jaddo wasn't the only one that wanted to be fully aware of everything that was about to happen.
"You ready for this?"
"It's just another big building to me."
"Yah, I guess it would be." Jaddo pulled at the collar of his suit. "I hate dressing up like this. Especially since I know my best outfit isn't going to be anywhere near what they're going to be wearing. I might as well wear a sweatsuit by comparison."
"I don't think I've ever seen you this nervous before." Shampoo remarked. Ordinarily, watching Jaddo squirm would have been amusing. But today her contract was on the line, and she needed Jaddo thinking clearly, not fretting about his appearance.
"Never met the head of western operations. Never even met the guys three tiers below him. I still can't figure out why in the hell he's dealing with the matter personally. It makes no sense. He has bigger things to deal with than this piddly-ass little matter."
"Please don't refer to my future as 'piddly-ass'," Shampoo huffed. "Maybe he's become a fight fan and wants to start dealing with contracts personally."
"I hope that's it." Jaddo tried stifling his worry under a mask of professionalism, but Shampoo's time with him allowed her to detect the tell-tale signs of worry at the corner of his eyes. It was hidden well enough to the casual observer, or so she hoped.
Trying to keep from worrying excessively herself, Shampoo stared out the plate glass window that made up the side of the elevator and gazed out at the world as it became increasingly smaller. Their vantage point afforded Shampoo an unbelievably wondrous view of the city of Hong Kong. Almost everything outside of the corporate sector looked insignificant, especially from amid the jungle of skyscrapers themselves. From this high up she could even see the arena in the distance, which made it look as small as a dingy dog pit. It was a very impressive sight to anyone visiting the building for the first time.
The building they were currently in, the headquarters of Otani Media, resided in the corporate sector, and like all of the other buildings in the area it reeked of opulence and excess. It was third tallest in the corporate sector, and the floor that was their eventual destination was located in the middle of the skyscraper, near where the business areas ended and the residential part of the building began. Even the elevator's speakers played a symphony that sang of wealth and success. Every part of the elevator was painted in gold and polished to a bright shine that allowed Shampoo to see her reflection as though the surface were a mirror. There was even a tiny mini-bar located in one side of the car.
"Wouldn't want them executives to get thirsty if the elevator broke down," Jaddo said as he caught her looking at it again.
"It's too much," Shampoo said disdainfully.
"Most of them ain't like this. This is some sort of executive elevator. And before you ask, I don't know why they wanted us to use it, other than it takes us directly to the boss's offices. This deal gets weirder every time I think about it."
The elevator finally stopped some seventy floors above the street. The voice of a woman speaking Japanese informed them this was their stop as the elevator doors parted and allowed them to enter the building proper.
As they exited the elevator, Jaddo turned to Shampoo and quickly warned her, "They only speak Japanese in these buildings. It's sort of to remind them of home or where their true loyalties lie or something. So that means you don't say anything unless you are directly spoken to."
"Because it'll probably cost me several thousand yen if they find out you sound like a five year old that needs a 'Hooked on Phonics' game."
"What 'Hooked on Phonics'?" Shampoo asked in Japanese.
"Just don't do what you did right there!" Jaddo insisted.
Shampoo huffed, but remained silent. He was such a silly man. She had used her Japanese with others before and no one complained about it. Frequently the men thought the way she spoke was cute and told her so. Obviously that meant she could speak it well and Jaddo was just using her so-called lack of language skills as an excuse for her to not talk to the men. She would appease him this time, but Jaddo's continued derogatory comments about her Japanese were becoming very annoying.
As they exited the elevator, they were immediately greeted by a woman dressed in a business suit that, despite appearing quite masculine, worked well with her short hair and sharp features, giving her a serious demeanor while still displaying her obvious femininity. In fluent Japanese, she informed them that they were to follow her to their meeting. Shampoo noted that Jaddo did not look twice at the attractive woman, a testament to just how distracted he was by the upcoming engagement.
The woman preceded them into the room, opening the doors for them. Rather than the cavernous meeting room that Jaddo had told her to expect, they were instead conducted to a small and very personal office. It was large enough to accommodate eight people comfortably, but still had a very personal, rather than sterile, businesslike, feel to it. There were pictures of family, friends, vacations spots, and even a pet or two set out in the open for everyone to see.
Currently, there were two occupants in the room that were obviously waiting for Jaddo and Shampoo. The first was seated behind the desk that dominated the room. He was dark-skinned, with long black hair tied back in a ponytail that glistened under the lights of the chamber. Shampoo estimated his age to be in his late twenties to early thirties, which according to Jaddo, was remarkably young for a man in his position of power and influence. His skin was very dark, as though he was perhaps native to India, but his almond-shaped eyes belied his Japanese ancestry. A half-breed, from what Beef had told Jaddo about the man. The nameplate on his desk indicated he was exactly who Shampoo had thought he was: Indra Kiber, head of western operations of the Otani Media Conglomerate.
There was a second man in the room, sitting off in a corner behind Kiber. His position was ideally suited for watching events unfold in the room while being able to remain apart from them. He appeared to be full-blooded Japanese, slightly younger than Kiber, and somewhat on the small side, with a style of haircut that was much shorter than his companion. His looks were average, and he was unremarkable save for the style of suit he wore, which probably cost as much as a small house back home. Shampoo thought there might have been an odd sort of resemblance between the stranger and Kiber, but it was so subtle she thought she might have been imagining it. Their difference in skin color really threw off her judgment.
The other man said nothing as he sat slouched in his chair, almost as though he would fall out of it if he relaxed any further. He had a hand propped under his jaw and an amused expression on his face as his eyes darted between Jaddo, Shampoo, and Kiber.
Kiber rose to his feet, and Shampoo thought him remarkably tall, if a bit lanky, under his suit. He was at least four centimeters taller than Jaddo, who was no small man to begin with. Kiber bowed in greeting. Shampoo and Jaddo did likewise, Shampoo noting out of the corner of her eye that the other room's occupant stood and gave a brief half-bow before returning to his previous relaxed position.
"I've heard a great deal about you. It is an honor to meet you at last, Mr. N'Digi," Kiber said and indicated the two should be seated. Once the duo were sitting comfortably, their female escort exited, closing the door behind her.
"As you may have guessed, I am indeed the head of western operations, Indra Kiber. The man seated behind me," Kiber turned slightly and indicated the fourth occupant in the room. "Is Masahiro Otani. He's the chief heir of Kyosuke Otani, the head of OMC and will no doubt be my boss at some point in the future."
"Well, someone has to reign you in, or you'd either have us owning half of Asia or selling everything we have to pay our debts," Masahiro said humorously, then gave a somewhat lingering nod to Jaddo and a brief one to Shampoo before returning his attention to Jaddo. "It's an honor to meet you, Mr. N'Digi. I've heard a great deal about you as well."
"You have?" Jaddo asked hesitantly.
"Indeed." The amused look on Masahiro seemed to grow.
Shampoo noted the worry lines around the corners of Jaddo's eyes increasing yet again.
Kiber stared at Jaddo for a few moments with an unreadable look in his eyes. Jaddo shifted uncomfortably under the gaze. It appeared Kiber was going to continue to do nothing but stare until a light cough came from Masahiro. That seemed to startle Kiber out of his reverie and back into the present.
"Oh yes. My apologies. Let's get on with the dealings." Kiber pulled several official-looking documents from one of the desk drawers. His demeanor completely changed to that of a deadly serious businessman, and Shampoo could almost feel a presence suddenly fill the room. If there was an equivalent to a hot commodity in the business world, this man was unquestionably it. Suddenly, Shampoo switched from expecting to hoping that Jaddo would be able to wrangle a good deal for her.
Kiber opened the discussion while Jaddo listened. "It has come to our attention that Miss Shampoo is, simply put, one of the hottest commodities to hit the arena circuit in quite some time. After personally seeing her in action the other night and the performance she gave, I became convinced she is the sort of fighter we need to have. With her history, fighting ability, looks, and that whole 'Marry the man that defeats me' thing going for her, I am convinced that with the proper marketing that only Otani Media Conglomerate can provide, we can make her a household name and perhaps the most famous arena fighter since Niles Vorherer."
"She could be bigger than that," Jaddo said, his bargaining skills finally being awakened now that he was in the midst of negotiations, even if it was with a man who made more in a year than he would see in five lifetimes.
"Jun Fan Li?" Kiber asked.
"Before he started making movies, yah, I think you could. Marketing's a lot better now, and with you guys giving her the right push, you could really roll in the dough with all the merchandising you could do with her."
"At least until she loses and stops being 'the untamed warrior' that every man fantasizes they could best and make their own," Masahiro said from his position in the corner.
"True," Kiber acknowledged, his eyes all but gleaming as he kept his attention focused on Jaddo.
The aborigine shook his head. "Assuming she does lose, and you saw her fight and know how good she is, so that is in question, you would still be able to clear millions within your first few months easily. And I'm sure between you and the Impies in the Arena, you could find ways to drive up marketing distributions as well as ratings. Ever since she started headlining fights in Hong Kong, ratings here are up. She's hot and marketable. There's never been an easier fighter to add to your prestige. The big annual tournament's about to get underway in Japan, meaning she won't be in it for almost a year. You'll have all that time to milk every yen you can out of her."
Kiber smiled. "Actually, I came to the same conclusions as well. Anyone could rake in the money with her, which is why we want to be her sponsor. Now, you've had dealings with us before, and you know we always deal honestly and treat the fighters we have under contract well."
"Yah. It's why I always try to come to your guys first once I think one of my fighters is ready to make his run in the big time. I know you're straight-shooters. I wouldn't deal with you otherwise."
Kiber seemed genuinely pleased by the statement. "How very protective of you. An admirable quality in trainers. I know there are more than a handful that would sell a fighter's contract for a quick buck without any regard for their welfare afterwards. My opinion of you has increased considerably, and it was already high to being with."
"I… see," Jaddo said, absolutely uncertain of what to make of the almost gushing statements about him. If they were trying to butter him up to let Shampoo go for less than she was worth, they should have known better. Any one of the normal negotiators would have told them that. Somehow he couldn't see men of this importance stooping to such blatant tactics to save a few yen, when a scratch in the expensive chair Kiber was sitting in would probably cost as much as any money they could save. And why was that layabout in the corner smiling so much? After Kiber's bit of flattery, the smile grew even wider, and Jaddo would be damned if he could perceive any humor in the situation, unless he was being set up. If that was the case, head of western operations and future head of the ziabiatsu be damned, Jaddo would give them a piece of his mind.
If Kiber was aware of the thoughts being directed to him, he gave no sign of it as he continued radiating his pleased smile. "Anticipating this attitude, I have personally come up with what I think is an agreement you'll find satisfactory."
The documents Kiber had previously pulled from the desk were pushed forward and into Jaddo's reach. The aborigine looked the papers over and paled. Shampoo felt her heart lurch. It appeared she might not be selling her contract after all. It was too bad; she had wanted to get this over with. Perhaps Jaddo could wrangle a better deal out of them, but it was looking worse by the moment. No doubt they would have to go somewhere else, judging by his reaction.
"This much?" Jaddo said.
"Tell me, does she facefault into the floor often?" Kiber asked.
Jaddo looked down at the floor to see the fallen Shampoo. "Quit horsing around, girl, This is serious business."
Shampoo shouted "Then why stupid old man turn so pale over being offered so much money? Is stupid reaction!"
Jaddo winced as each word left Shampoo's mouth. He turned to see both Kiber and Masahiro looking at Shampoo curiously. Perhaps they had failed to notice anything out of sorts.
"Does she always talk like that in Japanese?" Masahiro asked.
"Does Shampoo talk like what?" Shampoo asked.
"She's such a kidder," Jaddo chuckled. "Always speaking in that pidgin talk because she thinks it's cute. Right, Shampoo?"
"What does stupid old man mean pidgin talk? Shampoo does not talk like a bird."
"Oh dear god," she heard him mumble under his breath.
Kiber's response was to say, "I think it's rather cute. And more importantly, I think most of the fans will too. Keep it."
There was a note of finality in the statement for which Jaddo was eternally grateful. However, despite the lack of damage from Shampoo's little 'speech', there were still other matters that needed taking care of. "This offer is a bit much, I have to admit. I'm afraid I have to ask what the catch is."
"No catch," Kiber said, carrying an almost imperceptible hint of what might have been hurt in his voice. "Consider it part of our appreciation for the years of service you've given us in training top-ranked fighters for our organization. Under my management, everyone that works earnestly and hard for the betterment of OMC will be rewarded."
"This is quite a reward. I could probably retire comfortably on this," Jaddo muttered.
"If you so chose, no doubt," Kiber said, sounding pleased despite the amount of money that was involved. "And you'll notice Shampoo will be making triple the standard rate for each victory, as well as the standard clothing and food allowances. Rest assured she'll be taken care of as well."
"I'll say," Jaddo agreed as he continued looking over the contract, trying to find a catch. "What's this part on the end of her payment schedule?"
"Oh, just a little something I threw in to help motivate her for any extra-curricular activities we might encourage her to participate in, though there is no requirement that she do so. We are not in the habit of coercing our employees into activities they do not want to do. She is a fighter first and foremost, and that is our primary concern. The rest is just icing on the cake, if I might use the old cliché."
"One half of a percent of all merchandising profits?!" Jaddo nearly shouted as he arrived at that part.
Shampoo frowned but kept her opinions to herself this time lest she damaged her bargaining position. Still, to be offered nothing more than half a percent was insulting. At least they were paying her three times more per fight. She could live with that.
"Given what our marketing experts predict, I assure you that is nothing. If our analysis of the market is correct, so long as she is not defeated within her first month in the Imperial Arena, all of our initial investment will be covered. You can assure me she won't lose in the first month, correct?"
"Not a chance. She ain't that soft."
Kiber seemed pleased by the assurance. "As I thought. Upon watching her last night, I believed much the same thing. Now all you need to do is sign the contract."
Jaddo's hand was nearly trembling as he placed his signature on the document. He had Shampoo sign it as well, showing where she had to write her signature.
Once Kiber placed the documents in an official-looking folder, he gave Jaddo a satisfied smile. "Well, that's settles it. I must say, it's been a pleasure doing business with you. You are a tough negotiator."
A snicker rose from the corner where Masahiro sat.
The compliment unnerved Jaddo again, as did the look of intent interest he continued receiving from Kiber. He felt like every one of his molecules was being dissected and analyzed. That it was coming from a man of such importance made it even more uncomfortable to an old, unimportant (at least to someone like Kiber) trainer like himself. And then there was the perpetually smiling Masahiro. As much as Kiber's personal involvement was a curiosity, Masahiro's presence was even more so. He had taken no official part in the proceedings, and actually seemed to prefer watching events unfold from his corner. The relationship between him and Kiber seemed too casual for it to be Masahiro observing or evaluating the man that would be one of his most trusted subordinates when he took over the company, assuming Kiber still held the position at that time. And there was the inordinate amount of attention he was directing to Jaddo as well as Kiber, and how very little attention he was paying to Shampoo, presumably the reason they were here. The situation was too peculiar to deal with. Now that the generous contracts had been signed, it was time to leave.
Jaddo rose to his feet, indicating Shampoo should do the same. "It's been a pleasure, gentlemen. Now I'm afraid I have to begin an early evening workout for my student. After all, I want to make sure she's in top shape for you."
Kiber shot to his feet in a rush. Even Masahiro seemed caught off-guard by the suddenness of Jaddo's desire to leave.
"Actually, I must ask that you stay for a moment," Kiber said.
"Oh, why?" Jaddo asked, wondering what they were trying to pull now.
Before answering Jaddo, Kiber pushed an intercom button on his telephone and said, "Mari, send her in now." Turning his attention to Jaddo, he said, "Now that our business is concluded, there is someone I would like you to meet."
"Someone you want me to meet?" Jaddo did not bother trying to hide the suspicion in his voice.
"Perhaps, I should say, someone I would like you to meet again," Kiber corrected.
Realizing there was no easy way to back out of the situation, Jaddo prepared for the worst. He hated surprises.
The doors to the office parted once again for the woman who had escorted Jaddo and Shampoo to the room. Jaddo's first reaction was to say he knew damn well who the woman was, then he saw the other person that the woman had opened the doors for.
"Kyoko," he whispered softly enough for everyone in the room to hear.
Shampoo looked at the woman that had been ushered into the room and that her mentor almost seemed to be staring in awe at. She was short, no more than five feet tall, if that, and Japanese. That was easy to tell both through her bearing and demeanor. She appeared a bit on the plump side, though the white kimono she was wearing, with its obi wrapped around her midsection, hid her figure somewhat. However the round face with its chubby cheeks poked above the outfit, and from that it was easy to tell the days of being slender were far behind. There was gray shot through her hair, which was wrapped in a tight bun on the top of her head. Her features might have been attractive at one time, but age had taken its toll, and Shampoo would not have thought of her as anything other than matronly now. Not a very attractive woman, which made Jaddo's reaction even more peculiar, since he seemed almost in awe of her.
Shampoo noted the other men in the room watching with a rapt attention that had been absent earlier in their conversation, especially on Masahiro's part. There hung in the air a feeling of expectation. Silently, Shampoo decided to watch the events unfold with a close eye.
Kyoko moved daintily into the room to stand before Jaddo. He seemed to tower over the short woman, although there was no question that she now held the advantage. Softly, almost melodically, she spoke. "It has been many years."
The voice seemed to snap Jaddo out of his stupor. "Indeed, it has."
With the tension somewhat broken, Kiber stood and gave the deepest and most formal bow yet. Masahiro did likewise, saying "Greetings, Mother."
Kiber said, "Forgive me for not mentioning Mrs. Otani's presence, or her desire to meet you again, earlier, but I did not want it to affect our dealings. It was a case of business first, then pleasure. I hope you understand."
Shampoo certainly did, and was incredibly grateful for it, given the fact her mentor still seemed to be in awe of the diminutive woman before him. Given his current state of mind, had he met this Kyoko earlier, he probably would have signed her over to slavers without a second thought.
There was an enigmatic smile on Kiber's face as he said, "I'm sure you two would like to reminisce over old times. Since our business is concluded, feel free to take a walk through the gardens and enjoy yourselves. There will be no one to disturb you at this time of day. It will give you the privacy you no doubt would like."
"It would be pleasant to speak of the past, would it not, Jaddo?" Kyoko said.
Shampoo thought she detected a trace of hope in that voice, as though afraid that he might refuse the offer. There was hardly a chance of that. With the way Jaddo was behaving, Kyoko could have asked him to lead her through the pits of Hell, and Shampoo doubted he would have cared.
Jaddo answered as though he were still dazed. "Yah. Talking would be very nice. Which way is it?"
"This way," Kyoko said, and offered her arm to lead the way. After a moment's hesitation, Jaddo accepted the arm and matched her steps with a practiced ease, despite her short stride. They walked quickly, leaving the room, and were out of sight within moments.
Shampoo just stared at where her mentor had disappeared, knowing full well her presence would not be wanted. Someone offering Jaddo a free briefcase full of ten-thousand yen bills would not have been wanted. Not knowing what else to do at this unexpected turn of events, Shampoo merely remained where she was, wondering what to do next. She just hoped these two men didn't have someone from her past to meet. Knowing her luck, it would be Mousse or something.
Kiber started to say something to Masahiro when the latter cleared his throat and nodded in Shampoo's direction. She noted Kiber, the man who minutes earlier had spoken so highly of her that he offered a great deal of money to put her under contract, almost seemed irritated by her presence.
There was a finality to his voice as he said, "You can go now. There's a guest's lounge located on the floor below us. Go to the office at the end of the hall and tell the secretary there to give you directions."
Kiber's attitude was that of talking to a lowly subordinate, one that had just been dismissed. Shampoo knew better than to protest, and instead pondered what the sudden change could mean as she followed his orders and headed down the hall.
Once out of sight and the doors closed behind her, Kiber again switched back to his thoughtful expression.
Masahiro said, "So, big brother, what did you think of him?"
Kiber was pensive, though a small smile played across his face. "He was a most… interesting man. He had a very unique presence."
"He's a very unique character, all right." Masahiro agreed, even more amused than before. "For a moment there, I thought you were going to hug him."
"I'm fairly certain he'd have cracked my skull open if I tried something like that." Kiber laughed at the picture he visualized in his mind. "I admit, I liked him. I liked him a lot. Even more than I thought I would."
"Going to arrange another meeting?"
"I'll think of some excuse or other. I can throw some money at him for some inane project or something I'd like him to do for us," Kiber said, a thoughtful gleam in his eye. "But for now, it's their moment. I wouldn't take that from them for the world."
Masahiro nodded in approval. "It was nice to see mother so happy. She's been a bit down lately. I thought this might cheer her up. Father did not mind when I approached him with the idea, so I didn't see any reason not to bring her along. Since you were intent on meeting him anyway and thought the time was good, it seemed an ideal opportunity. "
"Indeed. I'm sure mother is grateful for this chance to talk with him after so many years," Kiber agreed as he continued staring at the doors they had exited just a few minutes before.
Jaddo walked through the gardens of the OMC building, which were more like a small park than any garden he had seen. It took up nearly the entirety of the floor, and served as the line of separation between the business floors below them and the executive residents' quarters that were above. It was this sort of opulence that made the corporate sector the envy of Hong Kong.
There were small groves of trees scattered throughout, each carefully maintained without a branch out of place. Thousands of flowers of nearly every species imaginable lay in beds spread throughout the gardens, displaying a carefully crafted plethora of colors that were aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Paths bisected the gardens, allowing the visitors to draw close to any kind of flower they wished. The paths were composed of dirt, giving one the feel of nature beneath their feet despite the fact the entire 'park' was surrounded on all sides by glass and concrete, even from below. Or perhaps that was why they were there, to help people forget for a brief while that they were living on the most industrialized island on the planet.
Kyoko seemed to read his thoughts. "It is quite impressive. Perhaps one of the finest tended gardens in the Empire."
"And about the only place a gardener can get a job in Hong Kong."
That elicited a soft, girlish giggle from Kyoko. One that sounded out of place on a woman of her years. "You always had such a sense of humor. I think that was one of the things I've missed the most about you."
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence on his part. After the silence became almost unbearably thick, it broke with Jaddo's carefully chosen words. "I missed a lot of things about you, too."
A bit of sadness seemed to overwhelm Kyoko's features, but it quickly passed and her soft, pleasant smile returned. "There were many things that each of us liked about the other. I'm sure that as much as we have changed over the years, those things remain the same."
Jaddo chuckled. "Actually, I've probably become sarcastic and cynical since then."
"Dear Jaddo, you were always sarcastic and cynical. You're probably just worse now."
Jaddo gave a start, then saw the little glimmer of mirth in her eyes. "Yah, I guess I was. And you're right. I am definitely worse."
The jest seemed to ease the existing tensions between the two. Both became more relaxed and comfortable with one another.
In much brighter spirits, Jaddo said, "You haven't changed much over the years. I knew it was you as soon as you walked through the door."
"Did you? I hadn't noticed," Kyoko said, not even bothering to hide the deception. "It is nice of you to say such things. After all, I have put on some weight since the last time you saw me."
Jaddo blinked and seemed to look her over again. "Yah, you're right. Well, you had several kids, so it's to be expected. But honestly, I didn't really notice it until you said it just now."
Kyoko seemed in shock at the statement, then became amused again. "Oh, Jaddo. You always were good at flattering me without even realizing it."
"I used to speak my mind around you without being afraid of sounding stupid," he said plainly.
"I was always more reserved," Kyoko admitted. "My upbringing, I suppose."
"You'd have been that way even without being raised as a 'proper' Japanese noblewoman. It's just the way you are. There's nothing wrong with that, anymore than I'm naturally brash."
The years between the two seemed to melt away with each word. "How is the leg? I never did get a chance to find out how bad the damage really was."
Jaddo shrugged. "It's not bad, really, unless I do a lot of running. Then I'll get a dull ache in it that takes a while to go away, and I can't run worth a crap. More like a quick scamper. To be honest, I've gotten so used to it I forget I have it. Not like I have to use a cane or something."
"Good." Kyoko paused a moment and detached herself from Jaddo's arm. She bent down to smell some roses. "The flowers smell especially lovely here. But not as nice as my gardens back home."
"They this big?" Jaddo asked, surprised.
Kyoko laughed again, not quite so girlishly this time. "Not at all. The Otani ancestral home isn't that large, certainly not large enough to support this sort of thing. However it's more… natural, for lack of a better term."
"Yah, there is a sort of artificiality to this place."
Kyoko looked out one of the nearby walls of glass that allowed the sunlight to come in and bathe the plants, helping to maintain their finely cultured growth. She looked over the majestic view of Hong Kong presented before her. "I confess, I never cared much for this island. I want to see the land and hear water running through streams and rivers. I want to smell something related to nature, not just gas fumes, crafted metal, and people crammed so close together that they perpetually smell of sweat."
"Definitely not the place to be if you want that sort of thing," Jaddo agreed. "I don't mind it so much. I spend a lot of time in the country now though, and I grew up surrounded by nothing but the Outback. That can get boring pretty fast. I like the feel cities got, myself. Not that I disagree about things being too 'civilized' here. You need some open spaces. Stuff like on the mainland or back in Japan. I prefer those kind of cities."
"We grow up used to one thing, so when we get older we desire something else," she said philosophically.
Another length of silence stretched between them. Finally Jaddo blurted out, "Are you happy?"
Kyoko smiled at the question. "I wondered how long it would take to get to this point. I thought for certain I would lack the patience and ask first. I suppose I am more used to small talk, given the various functions I must go to and speak mindlessly with mindless people. Never let it be said that just because a person has money or influence that it makes them interesting or intelligent conversationalists."
"You haven't answered the question," Jaddo reminded her.
"Then I shall: Yes, I am very happy."
A great burden seemed to be released from the older man's shoulders. "Then I made the right choice. I kept tabs on you as best as I could, even with how far away I was. From what I had heard, you sounded happy. And I saw a couple of pictures of you at those functions you talked about, and you had that genuine smile of yours, not that fake one you put up when it's expected of you."
"I know what you mean, though you are one of the few people I ever met that could tell the difference." To prove her point, she gave him one of her sincere smiles.
"I figured if you could smile like that, and more than once, you were happy. But every now and then, when I was thinking about the past and called into question some of my actions, I'd wonder."
"Then wonder no longer. I am a very happy woman. Not all the time, no one can be happy all the time and still be sane, but I am most of the time, and for that I am grateful."
"So am I." The conviction in Jaddo's voice could not be clearer.
Satisfied that the truth was known and accepted to him, Kyoko then said, "And now I ask you the same question: Are you happy?"
Unlike Kyoko, Jaddo considered the question for a moment before saying, "Yah, though there are still a lot of things I'd like to do. Lots of goals to accomplish. A lot of the time I'm more content than happy, and sometimes I'm downright miserable, but overall I'm satisfied with the life I lead."
"Then that is good." Kyoko said. "I never knew how well you adjusted to the life of a wandering fight trainer, if you were just doing it to make a living, or if you enjoyed it."
"Enjoy it, definitely. I'm not one of those people that needs things to tie me down to one place, though I don't think I'd object if that happened one day, especially since I'm not getting any younger. But I enjoy the freedom being a wanderer gives me, and being responsible primarily only for myself makes life a lot less stressful. Like being on an extended walkabout, I suppose."
Kyoko seemed surprised by that. "I would think you would feel some responsibility for the people you teach."
Jaddo shifted uncomfortably, "Well, I do, but they ain't like kids that aren't almost grown up already. Except the last one, she's a major pain in the butt. She's younger than most of the ones I taught and is always a real handful. She's usually brain dead dumb and hasn't got a bit of common sense. Wish I'd never run into her, and I'm glad I finally sold off her contract."
Kyoko smiled. "Jaddo, you're protesting far too much."
"No, I'm not."
There was a warning tone in the older woman's voice. "Jaddo, I know you. You always tended to complain excessively that you didn't care about people that you really care a great deal about, but did not care to admit to it."
It took Jaddo a minute to sort that out. "I always loved the way you'd string together sentences using a lot of the same words to confuse me."
"You always considered that charming, as I recall," she said with a hint of a smile. "I tried to do it to Kyosuke, but he never enjoyed it as much as you did. I haven't had the opportunity to do it in years."
"I didn't enjoy it that much." And this time Jaddo made certain not to protest too much.
"But I did," Kyoko said, still highly amused. She settled down a little as she said in all seriousness, "Do you think about the past much?"
"Are you trying to ask me if I think we made a mistake?"
She sighed at his ability to cut to the chase when the mood suited him; a habit that still eluded her. "Yes."
Jaddo considered that as well. "If you had asked me as many as ten years afterwards, I would have probably said yes. But an old man like me, that doesn't have passion flooding his body and screwing with his mind, can look at things with a clear eye and see what really would have happened without optimism and faith blinding him."
"There is a place for passion in the heart," Kyoko said.
"True," Jaddo conceded. "It gets you to try for things you wouldn't ordinarily try for and makes you feel good when you achieve them, but it also has this bad tendency to make you do really stupid things as well without the least bit of thought. Then you end up causing a bunch of pain and misery to those around you.
"When I think back to that time when I was nothing more than an up-and-coming fighter and you were the daughter of a minor noble family in an arranged marriage to the first heir of a powerful one, I remember what went though my mind and how stupid I was. I was deluded to think that I could get us out of that situation simply by winning the tournament and becoming a citizen. I mean, sure, it sounds all noble and romantic at the idea of going on television at my moment of greatest triumph and declaring my love for you, but after you get a bit older and wiser, you come to understand what really would have happened. There would be a big stink about how some dumb pug that beat his way into getting a citizenship thought he was better than a prestigious noble family that heads one of the largest zaibatsu's in the empire. There would have been a lot of hard feelings and rumors because of it. Even if somehow we could have beaten the odds and gotten you out of the arrangement, which I doubt, there would have been a big stink and plenty of perceived dishonor. Probably a lot of ostracization too. I would have felt guilty every moment of putting you through that. Sometimes I thank god Li was able to put me down in the semis so that it didn't come to that. No, so long as I know you're happy now, I don't have any regrets about not winning the tournament. Dreams might be good, but if they aren't realistic, you can't feel bad about losing them."
Kyoko nodded demurely. "I remember what it was like back then as well. Our love for one another ran so hot that there wasn't a day I didn't think about you. Actually, there probably wasn't an hour I didn't spare you a thought. I held the same romantic notion that we could somehow ignore the rules and marry and force the world to change and accept us and our love. I think perhaps I was more devastated than you when you lost, seeing you lying in that bed. It was then I knew in my heart we'd never be together. I almost wished you had asked me to go with you instead of leaving on your own in the middle of the night afterwards."
"I knew you'd accept, and after what went on between us that night, I knew I couldn't do that to you. I'd have never made you live a life on the run that you weren't suited for. I loved you enough to let you go."
There was a bit of moisture in the corner of one of Kyoko's eyes. "I remember right afterwards cursing you for being a coward and leaving me behind. I thought you had lied to me and just used me to satisfy your lusts. But after my temper cooled, I understood what you had done and why, and that you were correct. It was the only real option we had."
Jaddo let out a tired sigh, one that carried the weight of years in every sound from being locked away for so long. "I'm glad we finally had a chance to talk about this. Almost thirty years is way too long not knowing what the other felt."
"Indeed." The moisture was gone from Kyoko's eyes, and there was a look of serenity about her that had not been present before.
Jaddo gave her a sheepish look. "I heard you got married a little after I left. I admit, I felt a little jealous about that, even though I knew it was going to happen."
"Kyosuke loved me, Jaddo, I knew that even before the tournament. It was not just an arranged marriage for him. It would have been one based on love."
"You're an easy woman to love."
"Flatterer," Kyoko accused again. "He was a good man. Very noble and caring, mindful of me, and always trying to make sure I was happy. He knew there was something wrong even before that night, but I never had the heart to tell him my feelings for you. He knew there was someone else, but he never tried to find out. I discovered later that he was determined to be the best man he could be to win my heart instead of merely trying to outclass whoever his rival was. He felt that if I was to love him, it had to be for what he was, not what he could act like if he had to."
"Pretty smart guy," Jaddo admitted. "I actually looked a bit into his background when I found out he was engaged to you. Everything pointed to him being a typical nice guy. Actually, he seemed a heck of a lot nicer than most of the other nobility. I hated to admit it, but I would have preferred he was a scumbag, then I could have justified doing anything to protect you from him. I never would have left you if you were engaged to an asshole. But it wasn't that easy. He just had to be a decent guy. Probably better than me in some ways."
"He is," Kyoko admitted. "But you are better than him in other ways. Each person is unique, and you two are no exceptions."
"Even though I'm an exceptional guy," Jaddo said.
"Even though you are an exceptional guy," Kyoko jokingly agreed. "After you left, I was devastated. I thought I would never love anyone again. And then there was an incident, something I did which would have dishonored Kyosuke immensely if it had come to light. But instead of being angry or belittling me, he proved to me the depths of just how much he cared about me. Truthfully, even I was shocked by it. When I understood just how deep his feelings ran, and what he was willing to sacrifice for me, I felt that perhaps love could flow both ways between us given time. And it did. By the time our son, Masa, was born, I knew I had fallen in love with Kyosuke. I still am, even to this day."
That was a surprise to Jaddo. Not that she loved Kyosuke, he knew that a long time ago from the pictures of her he had seen shining radiantly upon his arm. What surprised Jaddo was that Kyoko had done something so bad as she described. She had never been anything but the proper noblewoman, save when it came to their relationship. Since she did not mention whatever the incident was, and that was certainly by design, he respected her privacy and did not pry. Besides, whatever it had been was nearly three decades old, and did not matter now.
Kyoko turned the conversation back to him. "And you. Has there been anyone special in your life?"
Jaddo shook his head. "Lots of different women, but none I'd want to settle down with. I'm not as bad as Beef was, mind you."
"Few people could be. Their libidos don't run that deep," Kyoko said in only half-jest.
"True," Jaddo snickered. "Still I never know when the next woman I meet might be the right one."
"I am glad you are still hopeful. When I found out you were not married yet, I feared it was because you still harbored feelings for me. I would have felt terrible if that was so."
Jaddo shook his head. "First few years that might have been true, but I got over it. I mean, I really and truly loved you as much as anyone can love another, and you'll always hold a special place in my heart that no other will ever have, but after a while, I got on with my life."
Kyoko nodded in heartfelt agreement. "The human spirit is a resilient thing. Given time, any wound inflicted on it will heal. It's just a question of how long. At least that's what I believe."
"Yah, same here. I've been around a lot of the world and met a lot of people that went through some serious crap in their lives. When they get the chance, they tend to bounce back. Even a hard-line cynic like me can agree with that. And you and me are luckier than most since we're resilient by nature. Makes healing easier."
"Though not always easy," Kyoko pointed out.
Jaddo nodded in agreement at the thought, remembering his own initial difficulties, and not just in getting over their relationship. He had lived too much of an interesting life to not have felt the abyssal lows as well as the mountainous highs that came from being willing to risk his wealth, heart, and health as often as he did.
Seemingly talked out for the moment, and each having cast off ancient burdens and uncertainties that had remained shackled to their person for what felt like an eternity, they strolled around the gardens in silence some more. Their walk remained uninterrupted. It was a curiosity, given the time of day it was and the number of residents that lived in the building, but the pair had the entire floor to themselves. Jaddo suspected this was by design more than fate. It was one of the advantages to being the primary owners of the building, he supposed.
Kyoko stopped abruptly and bent down so that she could smell some of the flowers. It was while she was on her knees, smelling the lilacs and turned away from him, that she quickly said, "Jaddo, what did you think of the men you met?"
Thinking nothing of how quickly she spoke, Jaddo considered what to say, or more appropriately how to say it. This was a bit trickier than the conversation they had before, given the subject matter. Their past relationship was easy. When it came to children, now that was hard. "Masahiro looks good. Looks a bit like you, actually. Reminds me a little of your brother. He smiles a lot, though, and it's one of those sly ones instead of a big bright one. Kind of acts like he thinks the joke's on everyone else. That can turn people off, but I don't really mind it, as long as the joke isn't on me."
Kyoko's look was unreadable as she said, "Masa does have an unusual sense of humor. He finds the most peculiar things amusing. When he was growing up and his odd behavior become obvious, I wondered about it. Eventually I just realized it was part of what made him the unique person that he is. But you're not the only one to remark upon it. Still, he is a good child. I mean man." She gave a soft chuckle that seemed to be directed to herself. "It's hard to think of them as being grown up. No matter how old they become, they will always be your child to you."
"Wouldn't know about that. Never had any myself, so I'll have to take your word for it."
Jaddo missed Kyoko stiffen slightly. "What did you think of Indra?"
"He seemed okay, but I swear he was looking at me funny the whole time. I thought I was the one whose contract he was buying instead of Shampoo's. You'd think he's never seen an Australian before or something."
Kyoko kept her face turned away from him as she said, "It is important to me that you get along with him. He is very close to the family. He and Masa were raised as all but brothers to one another, and Masa looks up to him terribly so."
"I'd say it's a bit more than, 'raised as brothers', if I was a betting man, which I am."
Kyoko turned around, startled. "You know?"
Jaddo gave a slow nod. "Yah, it's a bit obvious when you see them next to one another. You can see the resemblance in their eyes and cheekbones. Skin color might throw you off a bit, but I meet lots of people with a mixed heritage. You learn to look past that sort of thing."
The small woman seemed taken aback. "I did not realize you knew. I assumed from your earlier statement that you were ignorant of the matter. I didn't think you would guess, to be honest. I didn't believe there was anywhere near enough evidence for you to realize the connection."
"I'm a perceptive guy," Jaddo said with just a hint of cockiness.
"Much more than I gave you credit for." She saw a bit of hurt on his face at the declaration, but it was only momentary. "Now that you know, does this change anything?"
Jaddo looked at her, a bit confused. "No. Can't see why it would. But, I think there's something I should say, and I hope you won't be insulted or anything, but I'm only saying it because it needs to be said and I care enough to say it."
Jaddo placed his hands on her shoulders, not a romantic gesture, but one of friendship. "Even though Kiber is your husband's kid out of wedlock, don't hold that against him. I know it's odd to hear me say that about the guy that was essentially my rival, but it's not Kiber's fault who his parents were. And you know with what we… ah shared, it would be kind of hypocritical to dislike him or his father because of a dalliance he had, even though he did love you and all. Nobles are sort of like that. It's kind of expected of them, almost. Fidelity is defined as 'only sleeping with the people you're really attracted to' or something with them. And if he thought you still loved me, he might have done it as a way to patch up his own feelings, or get back at what he felt was a betrayal or something. I'm not telling you how to feel about it. It's just my feeling on the matter, and you know how blunt I can be, even with you. Why are you snickering?"
Kyoko could not hide her mirth. "Let us just say I have my reasons and leave it at that. Suffice to say, I most definitely do not hold Indra's parentage against him, and neither do any of his siblings. Have no fears of that."
"That's good to hear. Like I said, he seems like a good guy, except for all that staring."
"I take back everything I said about you being perceptive."
"Now if you were perceptive, you would know, yes?"
"Well, yes. I mean no. I mean why don't you just tell me what-"
Kyoko placed a finger to his lips. "I think we have talked enough about many things for today. Let us just enjoy each other's company and walk the rest of the way in silence.
A sigh escaped Jaddo's lips. He always found it hard to deny Kyoko anything, and this was no exception. Deciding her statements were probably just a case of her being playful, like she always used to be, he agreed to not say anything else as they continued their stroll around the rest of the gardens, allowing for a brief while to let the cares of world outside of garden to melt away as the basked in light radiated by each other's company.
And when Jaddo thought about how he had anticipated the day would go, and how it ended up turning out, he was left to admit that even by his standards, it had proven to be a most interesting day.
And he found himself wishing it would never end.
To be continued.
Author's notes: Yes, 'Donna Cheng' is exactly who you're supposed to think it is. I promised Donny I'd insert him as a lesbian in one of my fics.
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