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A Quantum Destinies side story
by D.B. Sommer

All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at sommer@3rdm.net

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 note: 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.

Chapter 7

In less than half an hour it would all be over.

Daring furtive glances around shelves filled to the top with white towels and towards the closed door that led outside the women's side of the fighter's baths, Pink continued her work at the electrical box. She had to hurry and set up everything before time ran out. Timing was everything, and she still needed a great deal of it.

She did a brief inventory of all the various details that needed to be in place in order for the trap to be properly sprung. Currently, a large billowing cloud of steam was escaping from the open sauna, slowly filling the bathing area. It served to form a light fog in the room, covering everything in a light haze. But it was nowhere near enough yet. Far more would be needed to mask the presence of the other factors before the prey entered the carefully laid trap.

Another of those factors was the electrical box Pink was having only a modicum of success working on. She fumbled a connection for a moment and made sparks fly, nearly causing a massive burnout that would have forced her to restart the rerouting from scratch. This was delicate work and the thick rubber gloves got in the way, but she needed them to protect herself from shocks. The electricity that was being rerouted from the box was for one person and one person alone, and Pink didn't particularly feel like sharing in the experience it would deliver.

Suppressing panic at losing so much valuable time in the span of a heartbeat, Pink diligently went back to work. Months of combat in dog pits had taught her the value of keeping calm and persevering. Had she not been patient up to this point? Had she not waited months for a third opportunity at revenge against the little bitch that had not only usurped her rightful place as the arena's main event, but had also harmed Link twice using Pink's own traps as the method of inflicting harm? Had she not followed, no, stalked her prey, learning every detail, every nuance, every irritating habit of the thrice-damned girl so that an appropriate method of revenge could be instituted? Oh yes, Pink could calm down and prepare the trap properly. There was still plenty of time.

Circuits were tripped and wiring was tampered with. By the time the baths were filled with the thick fog of steam pouring out of the sauna, Pink had completing the rewiring job. The long whitish cable that was attached to the power box would conduct the electricity, and with it being nearly the same color as the floor tile, combined with the mist, meant the prey would never know that dangling cord of death was making its home in the large main bath until it was far too late. All that was left was a fatal pull of a lever, courtesy of Pink, and it would all be over.

Trying to make herself comfortable from her hidden position behind the bank of towels, Pink waited patiently for Shampoo to appear. Stalking her rival had paid off; Pink probably knew what Shampoo was going to do before the Amazon did. Any minute now her late night workout would be over, and she would follow her standard itinerary of changing in the locker room before entering the baths. After briefly cleaning herself off, she would enter the whirlpool nearest the door, like she always did, and unwind her taut muscles after the near inhuman workouts her trainer inflicted on her. Only this time she would unwind like never before. Oh, there might be a moment of tension at first, but once the electricity was finished with its job, the next time Shampoo grew tense would be when rigor mortis set in.

Pink could barely restrain her maniacal laughter as she waited for the end to come.

With a loud exhalation, Shampoo entered the locker room, twisting her neck back and forth in order to work some of the kinks out of it. The movement produced small cracking noises. Stretching her arms and legs out went more silently.

Tonight's session had not been that bad; just a standard two and a half hour long workout consisting of a regimen of tough, but far from impossible, exercises designed to maintain her strength and build up her endurance. Jaddo had no surprises in store for her, like the time he used a remote to control the speed of the treadmill she was using (there was little in life more annoying than being forced to go from zero to twenty in three seconds, then back to zero in the same amount of time. Repeatedly.). Or the time he made her think she was growing weak by sabotaging the bench press she always used by lowering the numbers printed on the side of the weights (she never did find out how much she managed on her last lift, but she was pretty certain it had to have been between a quarter and half a ton). He had all sorts of little 'tricks of the trade' to keep her on her toes, and held no reservations about using them. No wonder he had never married. She doubted he could comprehend developing anything other than a love/hate relationship with anyone he liked.

However, tonight had been an easy work out, and now it was all over. As she sat down next to her locker and began to undress, she planned what to do to entertain herself this evening. Jaddo was going to be busy in another meeting with Kiber, which was becoming almost routine. This meeting would be the fifth or sixth time they had gotten together to discuss something, and without her ever going along. Jaddo assured Shampoo the discussions were never about her. Actually, her mentor revealed that the talks rarely seemed to be about much of anything, and certainly not the sort of thing that a trainer like him would be useful in. He was becoming increasingly perplexed by the odd visits, but continued keeping them, partially for Shampoo's sake, and partially because the money he had been given thus far for the tasks he had been doing for OMC had been so generous that he felt compelled to do anything short of jumping through burning hoops for the head of western operations. Still, he occasionally confided in Shampoo that he was certain there was something else going on with Kiber, but nothing he could explain. The young Amazon had her own suspicions, but kept them to herself. She had no direct proof, but considering the way Kiber looked at Jaddo, and the unusual generosity, it was good circumstantial evidence that lent credence to her theory.

Pushing thoughts of Jaddo out of her mind, Shampoo was still trying to decide if she should hang out with Chingmy or eat at Beef's when Link burst into the room. That was unfortunate. Shampoo had hoped to be done with her clean up before Link finished her work out. It was highly unusual for someone to be exercising as late as Shampoo did, but on this night Link had shown up halfway through Shampoo's regimen and had engaged in a light workout of her own. For the rest of the night Shampoo had to put up with nasty looks being shot her way and returning with glares of her own. At one point, Jaddo had made some hissing cat noises at Shampoo. She let him know her feelings about the jest by dropping a free weight on his foot. That ended any further commentary on the matter.

A pity nothing had changed since the workout. The evil scowl Link was directing at Shampoo annoyed her greatly. It was like an itch she couldn't scratch. The young warrior was tempted to wipe it from Link's face, but practicality held her back. Fighting outside the arena was frowned upon, and Link had never actually done anything to Shampoo, aside from trying to strike her dead with a glance. When was the stupid girl ever going to forgive her for the case of mistaken identity that ended up knocking Link out at Beef's? It was over five months ago, and still her rage was just as great, if not greater, than before. Some people just didn't know when to let a matter go.

Shooting Shampoo the most evil glare of the night, Link proudly announced, "I am going to use the baths first. I don't want you coming in there and disturbing me either, so you're going to have to wait until I'm done."

There was no mistaking that challenge. Shampoo had more than half a mind to take her up on the offer and start a fight then and there. Had anyone else been present, Shampoo probably would have accepted the challenge and put Link in her place, but on this night she simply wasn't in the mood. It would be easier to allow Link her little victory and wait until she finished using the whirlpool. That would allow Shampoo to relax in privacy and comfort instead of worrying about being drowned. Who knew, perhaps this 'victory' would get Link to relax a little and back away from her case of irrational anger, though Shampoo held no realistic hope of that.

Hearing no objections on Shampoo's part, Link gave a smirk that almost made the Amazon reconsider, then began undressing. It was Shampoo's turn to scowl at Link as the girl hurried into the baths and slid the paneled door behind her shut. Still feeling grimy from her workout, Shampoo just stared at the door and waited.

Inside the baths, Pink could barely conceal her glee as she heard the door open, announcing Shampoo's presence. At first, Pink was concerned that she had heard Shampoo talking to someone in the locker room, but then figured she must have been mistaken. The low hum of the pumps running water though the pipes directly overhead made hearing things difficult, and Shampoo always worked out alone, with only her trainer, whose presence was an impossibility in the women's baths. One thing Pink had learned about her rival was that Shampoo kept her sleaziness behind closed doors, and if someone caught Jaddo entering the baths with her, everyone would have known of their shared debauchery by the next morning. No, it had all been a mistake on Pink's part, she was quite certain.

There was a quiet, "Damn," which Pink was barely able to make out. No doubt Shampoo was confused by the steam that was already filling the room. It was thick enough to obscure things, but not so much that she could not see the main whirlpool bath upon entering. Pink had experimented earlier with the amount of steam needed, executing her plan in precise detail. It was at just the right level.

Staying as silent as she could, Pink remained huddled down as she heard the sounds of a foot gingerly slipping into a pool of water. It was followed by the rest of the leg, then an entire body following suit. There was a soft sigh as the heat from the water soothed and relaxed a tired and worn body.

Pink cried out one loud, "Ha!" as she pulled down on the lever on the side of the power box, shooting a flow of electricity through the cable and into the water. There was the brief smell of ozone in the air, a shout of excruciating pain…

…and then all the lights went out.

The locker room outside the baths was plunged into pitch blackness. Shampoo let out a soft, "Damn," and began fumbling her way through the dark to find her clothes so that she could exit the locker room. It was just her luck that it had to happen before she cleaned up. Now she was going to have to find some other place to wash up, perhaps even bothering the head of the arena, Tetsuo, and asking him if she could use the executive showers this one time. Luckily, she was a main eventer, and he and Jaddo seemed to get along well. There was a chance he would say it was all right, though with the way things had been going lately, he was probably not even on the premises to begin with.

Why couldn't she get even a hint of good luck thrown her way?

"And then she goaded me into entering the baths first… then rigged it up… to electrocute me when I entered," Link softy moaned from her bed. "If it wasn't for the circuit breakers being tripped, I'd have been dead for sure. She's a psychopath. She wants me dead more than anything in the world. 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's charred form, the smell of ozone clinging to her once again bedridden sibling. As with the other times, Pink saw no reason to bother her sister with the details as to her being the one to actually sabotage the bath. It was obvious that somehow that bitch Amazon had ferreted out the trap and set up Link so that she was the one that would end up dead, and it had only been an oversight on Pink's part that kept events from turning out that way. It was unbelievable how much Shampoo must have despised Pink and lusted after her Thomas to lash out at Link yet again. It was pathological. Oh, how Shampoo would pay for her sins, especially by repeatedly using Link as a victim in all of these insidious plans of revenge against her. All Pink needed was to wait for the right opportunity and come up with yet another plan. It would be foolproof for certain this time. She would see to it personally, right after she got rid of that irritating feeling of deja-vu that was plaguing her.

"You can kick harder than that, girl!"

"I've already ruined two bags!"

"You should have gone through three by now. I've seen that wanna-be-god boyfriend of yours kick harder than that."

"He is not my boyfriend, and it's because of you saying shit like that that keeps encouraging him to think that I'm interested in him!"

"Watch your mouth. Guys don't like women that swear. Keep it up and the only way you'll land a man is if you get beat. And kick harder."

"I'd kick a lot harder if you were the target," Shampoo mumbled under her breath.

"What was that?" Jaddo asked from his position to Shampoo's right. Far to her right.

"I said I'd kick a lot harder if you were the target!" Shampoo snapped.

"Well why didn't you say so?" Jaddo said as he moved up to the workout bag that served as the bone of contention between the two.

Shampoo was stunned by the gesture. Was he willing to put himself on the line like that just so that she could improve her kicks? Certainly he had done all that he could for her, but this was going too far. A mental debate on what to say about his willingness to sacrifice himself for her benefit warred in her mind.

Then he pinned an eight by ten glossy of his face to the center of the bag.

All it took was one kick to snap both the chain and the side of the bag, sending it and its contents flying across the gymnasium.

"Yah. Told you you could kick harder," Jaddo said smugly.

The sound of clapping echoed throughout the gym. Since Shampoo and Jaddo were working out alone, and neither was bringing their hands together, they turned to see where the unexpected applause originated.

Entering the gymnasium was the familiar form of the arena administrator, Tetsuo Arisukoji. He casually strolled to where the duo stood. "I haven't seen anyone smack a bag that far since Won Ton fought here, and he didn't have half your skill or charm."

Jaddo tensed up. "When the administrator comes calling this time of night when you're smelly and sweaty, it's either really good news or really bad."

Shampoo tensed up as well. Holding up her arm, she sniffed herself. She only smelled a little. Her deodorant was holding up. Nothing to be excessively worried about. Still, she would be certain not to engage in any unnecessary embraces with anyone.

"It all depends on your point of view." Tetsuo continued his casual bearing, neither increasing or decreasing the speed of his gait as he drew closer.

Jaddo let out a sigh. He was getting too old to spar with words with someone as nimble as Tetsuo. Besides, he had a bad feeling about this. "Better cut to the chase."

At first, Tetsuo almost seemed reluctant to speak of the matter. "Here's what's been offered to me. A request has been lodged by the Imperial Arena. They've lost a handful of their more talented fighters lately. Since that's happened, attendance and ratings have slipped slightly and show no sign of improvement. This worries them a great deal, since they're number one, and every other program in the Empire wants that top spot. They think an influx of new talent might spark some interest and get them out of a potential nose-dive. They want me to ship them our hottest commodity to help out. Those are their words, but the meaning behind them is clear. It's obvious who they want. They've seen Shampoo and are convinced she is the answer to their woes, but they cannot ask directly. It has to at least carry the air of being a fair choice among the other fighters, or there might be an outcry of the games being rigged, or at least loaded."

"What about the usual forty victory minimum rule you need here before you can move on?" Jaddo asked.

"It's been waived. It's been done before under similar circumstances. However, to keep the protests to a minimum, there will be a special challenge match. The winner of that will get to advance to the Imperial Arena immediately."

Shampoo was struck speechless. This was it. A chance to avoid another three months of running up nearly pointless victories and taking the next to last step on the path she had embarked on. All she had to do was win one more match. True victory was almost in her grasp.

Unlike his protégé, Jaddo did not seem anywhere near as excited. "So if everything's been settled, why are you here? You could have just informed us tomorrow. Hardly seems worth the effort of you coming down here and telling us right now."

Shampoo gave him a hurt look. Slowly, she began to think she knew why he was behaving this way, and it didn't sit well with her. Not in the least.

"Very perceptive," Tetsuo admitted. "It's not as simple as you think. There are two reasons why I'm here. First, I need permission to enter her in the fight since it is a special challenge match."

Jaddo shrugged. "Don't need to ask me. OMC owns her contract. Ask them."

"I already did, and Mr. Kiber, of all people, told me that the decision was yours."

"Oh?" Jaddo asked, genuinely surprised. Kiber became increasingly peculiar each time they crossed paths, even in a roundabout way, such as this.

"But I would have come down and asked the two of you anyway, even if they had insisted she enter," Tetsuo informed them.

"And why is that?" Jaddo asked, now more annoyed than ever that Tetsuo was threatening to become enigmatic as Kiber.

Tetsuo's demeanor went from somewhat casual to deadly serious. "I would never willingly advance a fighter prematurely to the next level unless I was convinced they could handle it. Based on personal experience, I believe Shampoo is more than ready. However, I want to hear it from both of you that I am correct. If I don't, I swear to you I'll make up some excuse as to why you can't go and find a replacement for you. What do you say, Shampoo?"

Shampoo nodded her head mutely. She knew she was ready. Likewise she knew that Tetsuo was aware she was not the one that needed to be convinced of her preparedness. It galled her to think that this important decision, perhaps the most important yet, had to be left in her mentor's hands. Shampoo was mature enough now to admit she had made mistakes before, and that almost every time they had a disagreement, Jaddo had been right. As certain as the sun would rise in the East, she was ready for the Imperial Arena, but it would take a miracle to convince Jaddo of that. Damn the man for being so overprotective of her. She was going to be forced to waste even more precious time and squander the opportunity she had been blessed with. It wasn't fair!

A hand lined with scars from over six hundred fights throughout its life ran its way through short strands of hair that lay close to a scalp that only now, approaching five decades, was starting to show signs of fleeing from the previous lines that had been laid down almost since his birth. It was a man who felt every single one of those years that said, "Yah, the girl's good to go. She's just spinning her wheels in the dirt. Nothing left for her to learn here that she can't learn just as easy in the Impy Arena."

For a moment Shampoo weakened and thought her legs would give out. Jaddo not only had given her permission, but an endorsement full of conviction. Somewhat reluctant conviction, but it was there. It was more than she could have dreamed of. "Thank you, Jaddo. I won't let you down."

Jaddo turned on her, some of his vigor returning to him. "I didn't say you're ready to win it all yet. You're not. So don't get lazy and sloppy and get your ass kicked because you think you're hot shit. You do that and you'll be flat on your back putting out for one of them Arena hotshots that is going to win the tournament. Make no mistake about that, girl."

"I won't." Shampoo tried to sound earnest, but was too agitated to keep the excitement out of her voice. She was going to go to the real Arena and show the whole world what she was capable of from now on.

"You still have to get by your opponent," Jaddo warned, knowing full well where her mind really was and not blaming her for a second. Not that she would ever know that. He turned to Tetsuo. "Who's she going to face?"

"Assuming she agrees to it, Pink. If she doesn't feel up to it, or wants to wait for her sister to advance at the same time she does, Snakebite. If he wants to wait for his girlfriend, then Link will get third choice. Personally, I can't see Link turning down the opportunity to face Shampoo even if we told her afterwards she was going to be dipped in honey and covered in fire ants even if she won."

"Link's recovered from her electrocution?" Shampoo asked. That was a surprise. Everyone thought she was still bedridden by the freak accident.

"The docs have said she's battle ready since last week. I made her sit out a week just to play it safe, but she's more than ready to get it on now. And speaking of electrocutions, are you sure you don't know anymore about what happened to her? You were the last one to see her before that incident, and you were in the room right outside where it happened. Generally speaking, cables don't rewire themselves and sneak into whirlpools."

Jaddo held up a warning finger. "What about 'The Case of the Haunted Jacuzzi' back in '93?"

"That was one of the night janitors pretending the place was haunted so he could run a smuggling operation out of the basement."

"And he would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids."

"I had nothing to do with Link's accident!" Shampoo declared angrily. She had already been interrogated by Tetsuo on this matter right after the incident happened, and she had told him the same thing.

Tetsuo brought his hands up defensively, probably not a bad idea with the attitude Shampoo was currently sporting. "I was just double-checking. Rumor has it you might have been the one to do it because of a rivalry you got going with her."

"There is no rivalry! It's all in that demented girl's head!" Shampoo spat. "She's crazy. She blames me for everything that goes wrong in her life. She probably blames me for her infamous bad luck with men, never mind the fact she had it before I was ever here. I was just a scapegoat for her ever since I mistook her for Pink and decked her."

"Shampoo's telling the right of it," Jaddo confirmed.

Shampoo nodded her head vigorously in agreement.

Jaddo continued. "She isn't shifty enough to come up with half the things that happened to that girl. For example: her idea of a complex battle strategy is to scream AND leap."

Shampoo's head had stopped nodding somewhere around, 'half the things'. It was only because she felt so indebted to her mentor that she didn't attach one of his eight by ten glossies to his face and kick it in.

"So when is the fight going to be scheduled for once you get her opponent?" Jaddo asked.

"Four days."

Jaddo let out a low whistle. "They ain't exactly taking their time about this, are they?"

"They are anxious," Tetsuo admitted.

Shampoo did some quick calculations in her head. "That would make the fight on a Monday. Are they having some sort of special card then?"

"Actually, the fight is going to take place in the Tridome."

Jaddo let out a string of colorful curses. "So the high-class elite want some personal entertainment instead of the same fare the masses get. Man, I hate that highbrow fatcat crap."

The way Tetsuo's eyes gleamed in anger told the others his feelings on the matter. "It's part of the price for having this top-rated fight, I'm afraid. Once they got wind of how important the match was, they wanted to exclusively bask in the glory of the two top commodities going at it."

"Is it that bad?" Shampoo asked.

Jaddo was quick to explain. "It ain't like Hellmount or some of the illegal action that goes on in Shanghai, no. It's this small underground arena in the corporate sector that was built exclusively for the elite in Hong Kong. It's a classy place. Actually, over three quarters of the seating is box seats, and admission is by invitation only. That's why I don't like it. It's the principles involved that make me pissy. The exclusive fights they throw there are just another way for the so-called nobility to express their greed, just like the gigantic buildings they throw up. Just never cared much for elitism, is all."

"I see," Shampoo said, already wondering both what this Tridome was like and which of her opponents she would face. Any of the three was dangerous. Snakebite would most likely be the worst to deal with thanks to his speed, but either of the twins could cause problems as well, Pink probably more than her sister. The irrational hatred of the young Amazon was shared by the girls, though Link was the one that took it to the extreme. Still, Pink was the more skilled, and perhaps the more vicious as well. It promised to be a dangerous fight in any event, one that she would have to prepare for starting tonight.

As Tetsuo left the gymnasium, affording Shampoo the privacy she desired, she turned to her mentor. "Thank you for telling him I'm ready."

Giving a non-committal shrug, Jaddo said, "I only did it because you are. I've never held a fighter back or pushed them forward sooner than was good for them. Not going to start now, no matter how concerned for you I am."

Shampoo's eyebrows arched in surprise. "You openly admitted you're concerned about me."

It took Jaddo a full four seconds before coming back with, "Ah, only because it would reflect poorly upon my training if you get your ass kicked one week into your Arena stay."

That was as transparent an attempt as Shampoo had ever seen from the man. Scales tipped back and forth in the young girl's mind as she considered letting it go or to milk the slip up for all it was worth. At last, one side weighed in heavier than the other. "Of course it is." But her taunting smile told Jaddo the truth of the matter.

"Let's get back to work. Four more reps instead of three since you got a big fight coming up," Jaddo said uncomfortably as their workout resumed.

Pink could barely contain the excess of energy coursing through her. A nervous dance that shifted between pacing and bouncing back and forth on her feet refused to leave her, despite her upset stomach. The anxiousness was easily as bad as the first time she had fought in Hong Kong, standing before more people than she had ever seen in one spot in her entire life. The four days since she had been informed she would be fighting in a special challenge match with the winner advancing to the Arena, and almost as importantly, fighting Shampoo, had gone by more quickly than any other 96 hours in her life. Now her dreams were about to be made reality all in one night: revenge and career advancement It was too good to be true. The only thing that could make it better was if her boyfriend proposed to her, but even Pink wasn't that far out of touch with reality. Shampoo's blood decorating her fists as her arms were held up in victory would be more than enough to suffice. In fact, Pink was so excited, she had gone to her sister's room to talk (which was more of an enthusiastic babble) as she waited for the final hours to pass and her trip to Tridome to begin.

"I'm going to go to the big leagues. I'm going to go to the big leagues. I'm goinHEY!" Pink narrowly dodged the table lamp hurled at her head.

"Would you stop that annoying dance?!" Link raged at her.

"It's not annoying."

The sound of Link's teeth grinding against one another hard enough to wear away the enamel filled the room. "Of course it's annoying. You always do it whenever you have something go your way. Like the time the town festival held its Miss Spring contest and you won it while I didn't even get fifth place. Or the time Kenji Morisana asked you out and you accepted when you knew I had been trying to get him to ask me out for two months. Or the time you beat me in the finals of the school tournament of champions."

"I don't remember dancing in the last one," Pink said.

"How could you forget?! Right after you won the damn thing you got so excited you stomped on top of me with that goddamn stupid dance!"

"It was an unintentional accident," Pink protested.

"And stop using redundant words, you stupid moron! If it was an accident, by definition it was unintentional!"

It took Pink a moment of deep thought to understand what was really bothering her twin. "You're feeling jealous because I was the one asked to enter this match instead of you."

Tears suddenly filled Link's eyes. Giving Pink a look of intense emotional hurt, she sniffled and demurely approached her. Pink, suddenly feeling very rotten about making such an accusation of her sister, bowed her head in shame.

Link kept giving her the hurt look as she grabbed Pink by the shoulders and raged "OF COURSE IT'S BECAUSE I'M JEALOUS OF YOU! YOU ALWAYS GET ALL THE BREAKS!" At that point she began to sweetly shake Pink around, just like a rag doll. One that the child wants to break the head off of.

Pink worked herself free from her enraged sister's grasp. "Would you relax? It's just a temporary thing. You're going to make it to the Imperial Arena. It's only a matter of time. You're better than everyone here except me and Thomas."

"Most people rank Shampoo above me too," Link pointed out.

That made Pink giggle. "After tonight, Shampoo won't be a factor to anyone except the people that have to change her bedpans."

"She should be mine." Link balled up her fists and lashed out, punching out the side of her dresser.

The wood shattered with a loud crack that even made Pink jump. Her eyes goggled as she looked at the damage her sister had inflicted on the piece of furniture. She was uncertain if even she could have done that much with a snap punch like that.

"Tell me what you're going to do to the bitch to cheer me up," Link softly intoned as she picked the splinters out of her fist, not giving any indication of feeling pain.

Turning her eyes away from the dresser. Pink said, "Well, first I'm going to snap one of her legs so that she can't move around."

"Go on," Link grumbled, not cheering up in the slightest.

"Then I'll probably take out an arm. I'll admit she's dangerous with two. With only one wing, I can toy with her."

"Mess up her face. Mess it up good," Link all but whispered.

"That's what I was planning on doing." Now Pink was starting to get into it. "And then maybe I'll smash in one of her tits."

"Better. Much better."

"Rip off an ear or something. I did that to one of the guys in the dog pits, and he really screamed at the top of his lungs. Just like a little girl."

"I remember that. Yes, he did scream like a little bitch. I approve. What else?"

"And then I'll work over her ribs. Get a little internal bleeding going."

Now the excitement was starting to overtake Link "And then?"

"And then."


"And then."


"And then."

"Goddamn it, spit it out!"

And Pink did, emptying the contents of her stomach all over her sister's feet.

Link looked at the colorful matter now clinging to her slippers. "You know, I don't think puking all over her is going to have that much of an effect at that point."

"I can't believe this happened to me," Pink moaned from her sister's bed. Even with the sheets doubled up and pulled up to her chin, she was still wracked by shivering. She could not remember the last time she felt this bad, even when she five and had a case of the chicken pox.

"Nor I. This is the absolute worst timing possible. Your sister is the one that's supposed to get sick, not you."

Both sisters stared daggers at Chen Wu, the rotund individual that was their agent. Ostensibly, he was supposed to serve as their representative in arranging top ranked fights to get them noticed and trying to get them decent contracts with either a zaibatsu or a rich individual. Thus far he had proven both incompetent and annoying, barely doing them a thing for the twelve percent he was receiving from each for their winnings.

Struggling to sit up, Pink said, "Maybe this is some twenty-four hour virus and the time is almost up?" In answer to her suggestions, her stomach did a flip-flop and gave its owner a message that sent her head reaching into the depths of the nearest garbage can.

"I'm not cleaning that up," Link informed her sister as she finished hurling out more of the contents of her stomach.

Bringing her head from out of the receptacle, Pink said, "But it's your can."

"With your puke in it, which means you get to clean it out, but after you feel better."

Wu wailed as he pranced back and forth in near hysteria. "This is terrible. She's in no condition to fight. Snakebite's going to get the match. We're going to lose this golden opportunity. What are we going to do?"

Link stuck out her foot and tripped the man. Unable to regain his balance, he ended up crashing face first into the floor hard enough to make him remain motionless upon it for a moment before moaning in pain. Even Pink was taken aback by the mostly uncalled for action.

Grabbing the large man by the back of his greasy hair, Link raised his face next to her own. Leaning in close, she softly intoned, "Don't be a moron. The answer's simple. I'll take Pink's place."

There was dead silence in the room as the other two occupants stared in shock at the suggestion, which sounded more like a command.

Pink was the first to recover her voice. "It'll never work. No one will believe you're me."

Link scoffed, "Aside from the fact that we're identical twins who use the same fighting style? And I swear to god, Sis, if you say one word about how I don't look half as good in your outfits as you do, I'll hit you in the stomach so hard, you'll be dry heaving for a week."

Sensing the seriousness of the threat, Pink uncharacteristically kept her mouth shut.

It was Wu who said, "Are you crazy? You can't do that. Do you know what the penalty is for even attempting to put a ringer in a match at this level? Especially one that's this important?"

"We'll all be permanently expelled from the fighting circuit and our citizenships would be revoked if we had any," Pink said, the full impact of what her sister was proposing was only now starting to sink in.

"That's only the official punishments. It's really far worse than that," Wu hissed. "I've heard the stories of what happened to people that try to throw in ringers. In the dog pits it can get overlooked, but not once you get to the inner circuit. Every now and then some stupid fool thinks he can pull a fast one, but they always get caught. After they get their 'official' punishment, within a couple of weeks both fighters, the ringer and the real one, as well as their manager, mysteriously end up with their limbs broken permanently, so they can never fight anywhere ever again. It's worse than killing, since they continue to serve as a living reminder for the price of deceit. The Arena's too valuable a tool for the government to allow anyone to jeopardize its reputation through cheating like that. We'll get discovered, and once that happens, it'll be the end for all of us."

Through gritted teeth, Link got out, "We're not going to be discovered, you quivering mass of jelly. We're identical twins. No one can tell us apart. We even use the same fighting style. Everyone knows I'm the one that tends to get sick, so we'll spread the word around that it's me who fell ill and no one will be the least bit suspicious."

"It'll never work," Wu moaned.

"He's right," Pink said weakly from her bed. "Sooner or later, you'll screw up and we'll all get busted. You can't act like me for long; we're too different."

"I'm not going to have to act like you for long. Just for tonight." Seeing the confused look Pink was giving, Link said in exasperation, "I have no intention of going to the Imperial Arena in your place. After I win and you recover, we'll switch back and you'll go to Japan."

That cleared up some questions for Pink, but left others in their place. "If you don't care about advancing, why are you so determined to risk so much? And don't tell me it's for my sake. I know you better than that."

"If you have to ask, then you've never known me at all." There was a cold and distant tone to Link's voice that Pink had never heard before. "Can't you see? This unusual challenge match? Your sudden illness in my room on the night of the fight, where no one else would be aware of it? Even our being twins so I can take your place? It all points to one thing: it's destiny. My destiny to kill Shampoo."

Pink felt a horrible feeling settle in the pit of her stomach, one that had nothing to do with her sudden illness. "You're starting to scare me here."

A glazed look formed in Link's eyes. "Don't be scared. The only one you should fear for is Shampoo. The pains you said you were going to inflict on her were nothing compared to what I'm going do to her. I'll have her screaming so loudly even the most bloodthirsty of fans will cover their eyes and ears and try to hide from the horrors I'll inflict upon her. It's going to be the most glorious night of my life."

This was bad. Extremely bad. Pink had seen her sister worked up before, but never anything like this. The way Link was behaving reminded Pink of when she was five and their beloved pet dog, Blackie, contracted rabies. He had the same look to his eyes that Link now possessed. Or at least he had them in the moments before their father put him down. The resemblance was chilling to the core.

Something had to be done. As much as Pink despised Shampoo and wanted her dead, Link's hatred was a hundred times worse. Pink had no idea it was this bad for her twin. Link must have been storing up her rage, keeping it hidden under the surface until, like a pot left to boil too long, everything came bubbling over the rim and spilled everywhere with no end in sight.

It was not Shampoo Pink was concerned for, but rather her sister's mental health. Killing Shampoo might solve the problem, or it might make things worse, doing irreparable harm and sending Link even further over the edge. The memory of their father raising his ax and burying it in Blackie's skull returned almost as powerfully as if it had happened yesterday instead of a decade ago.

No risk was too great for Link. It was time to tell the truth. Pink cleared her throat and said, "About Shampoo and all those incidents, there's something you should know. I was sort of respons-"

The glaze in Link's eyes seemed to worsen as she came out of her fantasies that ran wet with blood. Link was only able to focus on the first handful of words her twin had spoken. "Yes. Those incidents. The beating. The drugs. The traps. Ruining my chances with men and making me a laughingstock in the arena. She just couldn't let it go, even though I did nothing in revenge to her. The electrocution was the final straw. After that, I'd kill anyone for doing those things to me. Even you." Part of the glaze then left Link's eyes. "I'm sorry. Were you going to say something else?"

Pink's jaw shut with an audible snap as she shook her head.

"You look even paler than before. Are you feeling worse?" Link asked, with the sound of caring in her voice standing out in chilling contrast to the bile-filled litany from before.

"Yes." Pink was barely able to get the words out.

"You should get some rest," Link soothed in an almost motherly way. "I'll take care of everything from here."

Pink gave an involuntary shudder as Link leaned over her and tucked the sheets in tight for her sister. A brief vision of Link picking up the pillow and smothering her until she stopped moving flashed across her mind. However, Link just leaned over to give Pink a peck on the forehead.

Giving a cheery, "Goodbye," Link all but danced out of the room in order to prepare for the upcoming match.

Wu, who had wisely remained silent during the entire incident, said, "She's insane."

"Let's hope it passes." But all Pink could think about was a dog lying motionless with its skull split open and its brains spilling out on the dirt.

A thousand recriminations raced through Pink's mind as she lay in her bed, convinced death would soon claim her given how nauseous she felt from this mysterious virus. There had to have been something, some word or action taken, that could have prevented her sister from going off half-crazed, intent on killing an exceedingly dangerous opponent. For the first time in recent memory, guilt weighed heavily upon Pink's shoulders, and it was proving a near impossible burden to bear.

A knock on the door interrupted her worrying. "Who is it?" she called out weakly.

"It's me, Snakebite."

"Come in."

As he entered, Pink almost greeted him with a "Thomas," before remembering where she was and who she was supposed to be impersonating. Of course, Thomas's presence, especially on this night, gave rise to a host of other questions, starting with what he was doing visiting her sister's room alone, since the two of them did not get along in the least. Did they have an affair going on the side that Pink was unaware of? She knew Link lusted after him, even if she would not openly admit it. Had she somehow worn down his resistance and played upon her identical appearance and successfully seduced him? If so, Shampoo wouldn't be the only person not surviving the night, or at least making it out with her limbs intact.

Snakebite pulled a plain wooden chair from the nearby desk and sat down a good distance away from the bed. Pink noted an uncharacteristic somberness to her boyfriend's demeanor which gave her pause. She could never recall him looking so pensive, perhaps that was why he had been unable to tell she was his girlfriend and not her sister.

Hesitantly, Snakebite cleared his throat. "Look, I know we don't ordinarily… Is there something different about you?"

So he had noticed. That delighted Pink. "I'm just sick."

Snakebite nodded his head in understanding, eager to continue. "Anyway, I know we usually don't get along too well, but I'd appreciate it a lot if you'd be willing to hear me out this one time. It's something that sort of indirectly involves you, and I think you have a right to hear it, especially from me."

It took Pink a moment to realize the pause was for her. She nodded her head, agreeing to listen to him.

His eyes scanned the room once, before settling back on Pink. "Well, you see, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately. Yeah, I know, I know. I'll be the first to admit I'm not a deep thinker, but I do think about the future every now and then. Anyway, with your sister getting this here opportunity to move on to the big show in Japan, well, that's sort of what got me wondering. Looking ahead, sort of.

"Now I'll be the first to admit that you're right about me. Up till now, I've been happy to describe myself as the sort of guy that just isn't ready to settle down. I'm a bit rambunctious and stuff. I like women, and they like me. I'm young, you know. I want adventure in my life, not to settle down and raise a family. That's for people that get too old and forget how to have a good time."

"Go on." Pink's voice held as much ice as she could muster with the way she felt. She failed to drop the temperature more than a couple of degrees.

As caught up in the speech as Snakebite was, he missed the change in tone of her voice. "Anyway, that's what I used to think. But once Pink got this here challenge to advance, I realized there was a good chance my honey and me might not be together. Now I admit, I've flirted with some of the other girls around here, but I haven't been unfaithful to her, which is sort of unusual for me. You'd think that with her moving on to Japan, that might really free me up and put me back on the open market, at least until I make it to the big Arena where we'd pick up where we left off. You think I'd be glad about this golden opportunity for me as well as her. But, and I'll admit it caught me by surprise, I don't feel that way at all. Instead I feel really, I guess, depressed over the idea that Pink might be leaving and I won't be getting to see her for a while. And when I realized that, and that it wasn't a momentary thing, it got me to reevaluating our relationship and what it means to me.

"It means a whole hell of a lot more than I thought. It's the first time I ever felt that sort of stuff about a woman. So I started thinking what it might be like if we, you know, had a long term future together instead of a short one. Finally considered what it might be like to have little ones to raise. Maybe getting a home after one of us gets our citizenship. Making home-cooked meals and stuff. And, well, it's got an appeal now that wasn't there before. I tried seeing myself doing it with other women, just to see if it was one of those biological clock things and some deep down need for me to settle down, but I can't see doing it with anyone but my honey. She's the only one that makes me want to do that. Once I figured out my feelings were legit, and not just some kind of momentary whim or something, well, I knew what I had to do."

His hand went into his pant's pocket. It took a second of fumbling before he pulled out a small case and opened it up for Pink to see. Her eyes widened at the sight.

"It's not that small of a ring. I've been saving up my winnings. I've had to leave in a hurry before, and it's always good to have a stash on hand. But I figured this was as good a time as any to tap into my emergency funds, since this is sort of an emergency, and get something to make it official between her and me."

It took every iota of restraint Pink had, and some she didn't know she possessed, to keep from running over and accepting on the spot. If she had not been so ill, she probably would have been unable to do it anyway, but there was a realistic possibility she'd merely throw up on her Thomas as a form of acceptance. There was no way that would be the way she would remember the day he proposed to her. Instead, she asked with an amused grin, "Why tell me?"

Snakebite replied, "Since you're her sister and all, I know you two are close. I don't want to be some sort of wedge between the two of you, since I know you don't approve of me at all. Just because I'm hoping she'll marry me, doesn't mean I want it to affect the relationship the two of you have any more than it has to. Pink loves you to death, and it would hurt me too if there was some reason you two didn't get along. So I just wanted to let you know I'm not just marrying your sister on a whim. This is for real. I'm changing my ways and everything. I just hope she accepts."

Pink saw the trembling in his hand from the confession. Her heart went out to him, even if she was unable to let him know the proposal had already been accepted. "Let me just say that as well as I know Pink, I know for a fact she'd be more than happy to spend the rest of her life with you. I guarantee that from the bottom of my heart."

That seemed to remove a tremendous burden from Snakebite's shoulders. "Then you don't have any objections against us getting hitched up?"

"No, but even if I did, it's not a sister's place to tell her sister who she can and can't marry." And Link would just have to accept that, even if she did have some objections.

Snakebite shot up his feet and gave a whooping yell of joy. He said, "I'd give you a little ole' peck on the cheek for that, if you didn't smell like vomit, sister-in-law."

"I appreciate the sentiment," Pink said, now anxiously counting the seconds until the fight was over and she could tell her Thomas the truth. She almost did on the spot, probably should have since he'd never breathe a word that it was Link taking her place tonight, but decided not to. Physically she was not up to celebrating in the slightest, and it was sort of fun to hear Snakebite speak so openly about her to her face like that. It was an honesty she had never heard from him, and she found she liked it, and didn't want him to realize that he had been tricked into doing it, lest he never do it again. Or worse, he got second thoughts about the proposal from a perceived deception, or took it as a sign of mistrust since she had not informed him of the substitution. It was definitely in her best interest to keep her mouth shut for the present.

To reassure him that he was making the right choice, Pink said, "I know for a fact that Pink has been waiting for a while for you to propose and that she'll accept, so don't be getting any cold feet now and changing your mind, or I'll beat you up and make you put that ring on her myself."

The look of relief on his face was a joy to behold, making Pink's heart soar. "No worries about that. I'm going to pop the question to her tonight, right after the match. Night, Sis."

Snakebite raced out of the small room and closed the door behind him with a slam that shook the thin walls. Pink felt nothing but sheer joy; this was the best cure for her ills. And to think, after tonight, she would be an engaged woman, once he finished proposing to…

"Oh no," Pink softly moaned. Thomas was going to propose to the wrong sister. And to make matters worse, there was Link's state of mind. Given how out of whack she had acted, there was no way to really determine how she would react to being proposed to by Thomas. It was true that Link might understand that he had been fooled by the substitution and react properly either by accepting or claming she needed time to accept and allow them to switch back into their proper roles. On the other hand, she was dangerously unbalanced, making her unpredictable. What if she refused him in an obscenity-laced tirade, or worse, attacked him? Pink was far too ill to make it to Tridome; she was too weak to even leave the arena. It wasn't like she could call on the phone, Link wouldn't respond before the match, and afterwards would be too late. There was no way to contact either person now.

More worried than ever, Pink sat back and counted the seconds until she received word of what was about to happen. Suddenly she discovered something far more burdensome than guilt: waiting.

Jaddo watched Shampoo engage in a number of exercises meant to relax her muscles as they waited in the fighter's area of the Tridome. It was a private place for her to limber up before her match. There was much more space devoted to the fighters, given the limited number of fights that were held here. It was one advantage Jaddo would admit Tridome had over the normal arena. The owners thought it best that the fighters have no contact with one another before a bout. Grudge matches were popular here, especially between two capable fighters. This fight was one of the primary reasons the private facility had been built, so the elite could have the privilege of watching the blood pour for them and them alone.

"Where will you be watching?" Shampoo asked as she gripped one leg by its ankle and held it straight up, making it as parallel to her body as was humanly possible. She showed no signs of strain at the effort.

"Kiber is letting me sit with him in OMC's box seat, near the top. Beef will be there with me since Kiber said I could bring a guest. I figured it would be a way to repay Beef for all the stuff he's done for us since he got here. Seats here are expensive, even for a guy like him."

Shampoo nodded her head in approval. She would miss Beef a great deal when she won and had to go to Japan, just like she'd miss all of the friends she had made in her stay in Hong Kong. But it couldn't be helped. She always knew this was going to happen, it was just that the date had been moved up somewhat.

Jaddo shook his head. "I still can't figure out why that Kiber's being so damn polite and gracious with me. If he wanted something from me, he should have spit it out by now. Instead he keeps treating me to dinners, plays, and offering me jobs to run training facilities for outrageous salaries. I just can't figure him out."

"He's gay." Shampoo switched to her other leg.


Shampoo's nod was full of confidence, as though only a brain-dead idiot would dare to challenge the veracity of her statement. "Absolutely. He looks at you with open adoration. He tries to hide it, but he doesn't do a good job."

"But we went to a bordello together. Although now that I think about it, he was watching me more closely than the girls."

"There you have it."

"Well I'll be. That makes sense. Perfect sense." Jaddo placed his hand to his chin thoughtfully. "How could you tell?"

"Women always keep an eye open for that sort of thing. We want men to look at us that way, so we train ourselves to recognize it. You're a man, and wouldn't think to look for it, especially in another man. That's why you didn't notice."

"But I'm not interested in that sort of thing. I like women. Only women. They don't even have to be pretty, just so long as they're women," Jaddo protested.

"Don't look at me. You're the one that's going to have to let him down gently."

Jaddo continued grumbling. "Too bad. I kind of liked the guy, but not that way."

"Unless he feels you up or proposition's you, I wouldn't worry about it. In the meantime, just accept his gifts and brag about how you like women. Eventually he'll get the message."

That made Jaddo nod in agreement. "Yeah, treat him just like a girl whose intentions are unwanted. You got to be polite about it, so you don't break their heart. Besides, the last thing in the world I need is the head of OMC trying to have me erased for refusing his advances."

A man poked his head into the room. "Twenty minutes to the fight. Make your final preparations, and I'll introduce you when we're ready."

Both student and mentor nodded. The man left.

Jaddo said, "I'd better head up to the box seat. Anything you need before I go?"

"Cheer for me." Shampoo's smile was one of total confidence, but not with the cocky airs she had held before arriving at Hong Kong. Jaddo noted this change in maturity with pride. That was good, very good. His student had come a long way. It would make what had to come next easier. Not easy, as Kyoko had reminded him in their walk through the gardens, but at least easier. That would have to suffice.

Shampoo repeated the kata slowly, intent more on calming herself rather than focusing on the graceful moves she was using. It served her, to a degree, as she gathered enough focus to slow her heart rate and coalesce her thoughts into recognizable patterns so that she would be mentally prepared for the upcoming fight.

Mental preparations were still being made when the announcer slipped into the room and informed her it was time to walk down the ramp for her introduction. Her heart rate increased, and this time she did not try to fight it. There was a great deal riding on this match, possibly more than any other fight she had been in to date. It was another step closer to her ultimate goal. She was entitled to a little excitement. Even Jaddo would have granted her that.

The walk to the ramp leading to the arena proper was short, much shorter than the one she was used to in the Big arena she had grown accustomed to. But the concrete beneath her feet was smooth, and she chose to focus on that rather than be distracted by fighting in unfamiliar territory.

There was something off about the feel of this arena. It lacked the character that the big one held. There was something about the big building that felt as though it were a grand old man that carried the scars just the same as the warriors who had fought in it. The maintenance staff did an impeccable job of keeping the place running and in top shape, but it was obvious the building had been around for a while. Chipped plaster, small cracks, even an area or two where the flooring might have settled a bit. The tiny blemishes did not detract from structure, rather they gave it a sense of identity. But not so with this place with the gleaming sheen the marble walls held and the lack of even the smallest cracks, which the walls of the real arena could never have thanks to the years. It was perfect; too perfect. There was an antiseptic feel to the place, making it feel sterile and bland. It felt more like a giant showcase than the big arena ever did.

Such thoughts were pushed from her mind as Shampoo entered the combat area and saw Tridome in all of its 'grandeur.' As she had been told, it was far smaller than the main arena, smaller than Hellmount, for that matter. There were few open seats, less than two thousand by her estimation, which only enhanced its small appearance. However to counterbalance this there were twice as many box seats lining the circular dome as there were in the main arena. They started off with one right next to the highest row of open seats. Rather than forming rings one on top of another, they seemed to spiral upward instead, with each box being slightly higher than the one next to it. It made for an unusual design. Given Jaddo's descriptions of the competition among the elite, she wondered if this too was a form of ranking they applied to themselves, with the richest and most powerful at the top, able to look down upon the others that were beneath them in every sense of the word.

Turning her attention to the boxes themselves, she looked carefully at them, her eyes scanning until, near the top, she spotted the familiar forms of Jaddo and Beef waving down at her. Beef made them easy to distinguish from the other box seats with the very large and very purple suit he was wearing. One thing the man knew how to do was stand out in any crowd. Shampoo made certain her first wave was for them, before her professionalism kicked in and she moved on to the rest of the audience. It seemed to her that the crowd seemed subdued, but there was unquestionably an air of expectation about them. Everyone sitting in the open seats was dressed as elegantly as any of the fans she had seen before, making her wonder if this event was being treated more like a large cocktail party than an actual fight.

And then her opponent was introduced. Shampoo watched closely. The Amazon knew her opponent could play the crowd as well as anyone in the business. However, uncharacteristically, she did not bother with showing off, all but ignoring the audience. Instead she walked across the concrete floor directly to Shampoo, stalking past the announcer's introduction of her as though he wasn't even there.

The moment Link's eyes settled upon Shampoo it was not trepidation, but elation, she felt as she drew nearer. This was it. Her chance. The Gods had given her the opportunity for justice, and she would savor every second of it. At this moment, no one existed, save Shampoo. And in a matter of minutes, she too would cease to exist. It would be glorious.

The crowd was forgotten as the duelists eyed each other warily.

Deciding to take the initiative, Shampoo spoke. "You don't stand a chance, Pinky." Shampoo had heard rumors Pink disliked the nickname that had so recently been created by the newer fighters and was making its rounds. Of course, most of them did not dare voice it in her presence, but then, Shampoo was not like most.

The comment was met with a sneer. "It's sad, really, that you're going to die after only discovering one truth tonight."

Shampoo knew it was unwise to pay any attention to her opponent's banter; it would validate to some small degree her boasts. However, the young Amazon could not prevent her curiosity from being piqued. "What truth?"

"That I'm better than you." Link gave an unexpectedly warm smile.

"Hardly. What's the other truth?"

"I'm afraid you're going to die without ever finding it out."

Shampoo looked more closely at her opponent's eyes. Now that she was focusing on them, she noticed that they were wide-eyed and a bit glazed, almost as though Pink had started wearing contacts and was just beginning to become used to them. It unnerved the young Amazon. Not enough to throw her off her game, there was nothing that could accomplish that, but it was sufficient to make her regard her opponent far more warily than before.

Link gave another smile at her soon to be deceased adversary. The officials had not paid attention to her when she had dressed, only giving her a cursory pat down that was done for formality's sake. The edge she had secreted for this fight had remained hidden, just as she had hoped it would. Ideally, Link would prefer to beat Shampoo to death with her own two hands, but there were more important matters than winning the match. Everything came in a distant second to righteous vengeance, especially when it was directed against the likes of Shampoo. One way or another, Shampoo was not leaving this building alive.

The two backed to their proper positions opposite from one another as the announcer prepared to start the fight.

Up in the box seats belonging to Otani Media Conglomerate, others were also assessing the situation. Two men leaned over the side, taking as close a look as they could from the high position the box held. Tridome was small enough to allow every seat to be comfortable and have an unobstructed view of the floor. From the height the duo were at, they would be able to make out every detail of the match with ease.

"That Pink girl looks like all business tonight. Shampoo might have a tough time of it," Beef commented with an eye for fighting that had been dulled by neither the years nor the acquisition of kilograms.

"She's still better than the bookend." That was Jaddo's own nickname he had created for the twins. Usually he didn't bother to give such disparaging titles to people that did not directly annoy him, but for some reason their constant verbal harassment of his protégé had rubbed him wrong, and he had dubbed the duo that. Shampoo had thought it amusing and appropriate. Jaddo had agreed it was one of the better nicknames he had come up with in some time.

Jaddo looked over his shoulder just in time to catch Kiber looking pointedly away from him, a fair indication of where his eyes had been. He elbowed Beef in the side and spoke quietly enough so that only the large man could hear him. "You ever have a gay guy hit on you?"

"In my prime, all the time. You'd be surprised by the number of wealthy men that seemed to engage in that behavior. Even considered it a few times before deciding I wasn't that adventurous. Not that I have anything against homosexuals, just that it wasn't for me. Why, do you have someone hitting on you?"

"Yeah, maybe."


Jaddo made sure his finger was hidden from sight as he pointed at his chest, directing his finger toward where Kiber was seated directly behind him.

Beef chuckled. "Then he swings both ways. I know personally some of the ladies he's romanced, and had liaisons with, though nowhere near my quantity or quality when I was his age. It's remarkable what you'll overhear in dinner conversations. Not that he tries to hide his dalliances. He's rich enough that he can woo any woman and no one would protest. Actually, he's regarded as one of the most eligible bachelors on the island."

"Then I hope he marries real soon and forgets about me."

"What would he see in a broken down old man like you when he could have his pick in handsome young studs?" Beef asked.

"Maybe he's into that sort of thing. I don't know," Jaddo said, then had to check his voice so he wouldn't' be overheard. "He's been looking at me again while my back's to him."

"Don't dress in such tight pants then."

Jaddo smacked Beef in the arm. "I don't dress in tight pants. What do you think I should do?"

Beef shrugged. "Unless he comes right out and hits on you, don't worry about it. Besides, I'm not so sure he is gay. Yes, he does look at you sort of affectionately, but not in that way, at least I don't think so."

"Then how's he looking at me?"

Beef shrugged. "Very oddly, I'll admit. Oh, I could be wrong, but my gut tells me I'm right this time, and that he's straight."

"Yah, I suppose you're right," Jaddo admitted. And he did like Kiber's company well enough. The man was witty and charming, even more likable than Jaddo had been at that age. He supposed as long as Kiber didn't try anything, they could continue getting along, even if the younger man did tend to look at him oddly. Jaddo afforded another look over his shoulder, only to see Kiber's attention riveted to something other than himself or the fighters below. "What is it?"

Kiber indicated with a nod of the head a box seat that stood directly across, and higher than them. "Someone is in the Morimoto box. They usually don't bother attending these things."

"Which means?" Jaddo asked.

Beef understood and answered. "Morimoto's involved up to its neck in illegal dealings, but they somehow manage to keep one step ahead of the law and make a bundle in the process. Just the sort you need to keep an eye on, lest they insert a nice big knife in your back the moment you show it to them."

"I wonder why they're here," Kiber said softly as he continued staring across the way.

Down on the floor, matters of much greater concern were confronting two young women that were about to engage in their duel, one fighting for victory, the other for death.

"You're dead," Link softly promised.

"Someday, but not today, and certainly never at your hands," Shampoo responded.

That made Link laugh. One that was full of far more confidence and energy than anyone had a right to. "It's my destiny. You're just a victim of fate. But then, aren't we all?"

"Enough talk!" This was completely unlike the Pink Shampoo knew. As one of her primary threats in the arena, Shampoo had paid close attention to the girl in her matches. Never had Pink approached a fight like this using that sort of talk. The Amazon did not bother trying to get around her opponent's dialogue. She knew from the look in her adversary's eyes that there were no words that would affect her, and talking would just affect concentration and waste energy. It was now just a matter of basics. All that was left was the fight.

"Let it begin!" the announcer shouted and quickly got out of the way.

Even in all the fights Shampoo had been in, from the Northman to Watambe, never had anyone come after her so fast and furiously. The young Amazon found herself put on the defensive from the outset, and a hard-pressed one at that, barely blocking the first series of blows directed at her head and chest.

Link had no regard for her own safety as she lashed out with every lethal kick and punch that she knew. The object of her hatred, the one that had been responsible for creating the black boil of rage that resided in her soul ever since her electrocution, was before Link now. It was time to lance the boil, even as she lanced Shampoo's chest with her fist and allowed both her fury and the Amazon's blood to be released and spread out for the world to see.

Thinking was no longer possible for Shampoo; there was only instinctive reaction. Deflect the punch aimed at her stomach. Evade the kick aimed for her knee. Move back and away from the fingers meant to dig out her eyes. It was no longer about fighting, it was about killing.

The unrelenting offense began yielding results for the shorter of the combatants. A light punch connected with the side of Shampoo's head. A hard chop struck the elbow cleanly, causing the joint to send waves of pain every time the Amazon bent it. A telling knee to the stomach opened things up for a follow-up punch to the shoulder that nearly broke the collarbone.

Panic began to disrupt Shampoo's composure, which, despite the ferocity of the attack, had still been in place. The stakes in this were too high for her to lose. It was more than not advancing immediately. Her opponent was intent that she not leave this arena alive, and was rapidly succeeding in making that outcome a reality.

Another kick connected with the lower spine, and for a split-second, Shampoo lost the feeling in her legs. But just as she was about to fall, the feeling returned, and the fall became a roll just in time to evade the follow-up ax kick that would have broken her neck.

The crowd, at long last awakened by the savage spectacle, cheered as loud and as hard as Shampoo had ever heard. Even the bloodthirsty horde at Hellmount could not compare with the shrieks and cries coming from the women and men who were supposed to represent the finest society had to offer. In the end, they were just like everyone else, once their masks of propriety were tossed aside and a little blood was thrown their way.

In the recesses of Shampoo's mind, a voice that sounded like her great-grandmother's shouted out that this was ridiculous. Was Shampoo not the greatest fighter of her generation? Did she not win the tournament easily, so easily that she had lamented the lack of satisfaction in her victory? And here she was, being run ragged, being beaten upon at will, by a fighter than she knew in her heart was inferior to her. It was shameful. It was disgraceful. It was scandalous to both herself and her ancestors.

It was time to put a stop to it.

Just as Link moved in for another strike, one in which she was certain a telling blow would be landed, Shampoo's fist lashed out, connecting with the underside of her jaw. Link's head was snapped back, breaking the steak of pure offense she had unleashed since the fight began.

As Link backed up to recover, something else also happened. Until that point, she had thrown nothing but a continuous barrage of offense that Shampoo had been forced to defend against or die. However, it was not Link's usual style of fighting. On the contrary, against an opponent of any higher caliber she ordinarily paced herself while allowing her foe to exhaust their strength. Once they were properly winded, they became vulnerable, and she would then step in to finish them off. But now, thanks to her blind rage, she had fallen into the same trap she set for others. Unused to fighting so vigorously so early, and allowing her body to realize that for just a moment, it began to unwillingly slow down.

No! She would not allow that to happen! Link called upon her reserves of energy, allowing even more adrenaline to pump through her body as she unleashed another volley of attacks.

But this time Shampoo was ready and met her blow for blow. It was a stalemate in the beginning, with each fighter exchanging strikes evenly. A backfist to the temple was met with a palm thrust to the chest. Crescent kick returned by a front kick. Left for right and right for left. Two fighters showing nearly identical symmetry.

Superior endurance began to tell the tale. Shampoo landed two blows to every one. Then three to one. Then it was all the Amazon's offense as she hammered relentlessly upon Link, showing only slightly more mercy than was afforded to her in the beginning of the match.

Link tried her best to prolong the inevitable. She dodged, wove, and parried like she never had before. At first, she succeeded, and dared to hope she could reverse the flow of battle and regain the initiative. Then Shampoo would pay.

Watching from high above, Jaddo felt reminded of the similarities between this and his own match with Jun Fan Li three decades ago. Surprisingly, he felt a touch of sorrow for Pink, who was fighting so far beyond her true abilities, reminding him of his own insidious desire to win no matter the cost. He knew what the outcome of this would be, and though he truly wanted Shampoo to win, he could no longer see Pink as anything other than an object to be pitied. On this night she would learn some prizes forever remained beyond one's grasp, no matter how far they stretched to reach out for them.

The final turning point came in a blow identical to the one Shampoo had landed on the 'Thunderer.' It did not drive two ribs into Link's lungs, as it had to the large man, but it was more than enough to send messages of pain through her body, overriding the ability to do anything other than bellow out in agony.

The final blow arrived with an elbow point driven right between the eyes of Link, though there had been a dozen or so strikes that landed in between, each wearing the smaller girl down. But it was the elbow that drove Link to her knees. She tried telling her body to get up, but it refused the order, and instead decided consciousness was an overrated thing and subsequently shut it down.

Shampoo watched her opponent totter on her knees then fall over. A huge gasp of relief escaped from her lips. No burns this time, but in many ways it was a far worse fight than the one with Watambe. It had not been decided on tricks and illusions, but on pure power. Muscle straining against muscle and bone meeting bone in the most primitive of struggles for dominance. And as with all of her struggles in recent memory, save the brief one with Jaddo, Shampoo had emerged victorious again. As always. And this time she did feel some satisfaction in victory at being taken near her limit.

With the match over, the Amazon played to the crowd. It had regained some measure of control with the ending of the fight and applauded in that manner that the elite were taught is gracious. Shampoo accepted their accolades, but all she was doing was going through the motions. The fight had tired her, and her body was coming down from its warrior's high. Aches from the blows, many that had landed so early on, set in. Her left arm felt like it was growing stiff from the blow it had suffered, and now every muscle was starting to inform her that they would like a relaxing break. She would play the crowd no more than thirty more seconds before bowing and retiring for a relaxing bath and massage that the administrators at Tridome had informed her they offered. Then it was off to bed. No victory celebration tonight, despite her accomplishment.

She was going to Japan.

A small smile spread across her face as she understood that this was a reality now. It was such a great opportunity that she had been certain it would slip from her grasp. It had seemed too good to be true, to shave so many weeks from her goal. But it had not, and now the match was over. Hong Kong would soon be nothing but a memory, and the winner's circle that was her true goal lay ahead. She gave one more triumphant fist to the air, directing it at the box where Jaddo stood. He applauded her in a rare open display of encouragement.

It was the applause from the crowd that roused Link from her unconsciousness. She opened her eyes, wondering what the people were cheering. And then it came back to her, the blow between the eyes, trying to rise and failing. Failing because of Shampoo. Again.

A fleck of blood shot out from her lips as a soft cry of rage slipped out of her throat, one that was drowned out in the applause. Link returned unsteadily to her feet and looked around. The people were still cheering. That meant Shampoo must have still been present. Disorientation departed as Link became increasingly aware of her surroundings. She spun in a half circle until she saw Shampoo standing there, her back to her, pumping her fist to the crowd.

Not again. Never again.

Link went down to one knee and slipped her hand into her boot. Her fingers fell on the crude piece of jagged metal, and she pulled it out. It was a crude thing, a knife she had tried to make at a forge when she had been friends with the blacksmith's son in their village. She had kept it as a memento to remind her of the past. It was hers, as pitiful as it was. As small and as jagged as it was. It was a poor sample of a knife, like the poor sample Link made of everything she tried to do. Second best to Pink in everything. Never able to be the best at anything. Always just there, never on top. Just like now. Second place again. One place away from success, which meant she was a failure, just like every other time.

No more. Shampoo would pay.

Link lunged forward with the knife. The back of her mind told her not to let loose the roar of rage that came bubbling forth from her the depths of her soul. Crying out would make her feel better, a primal way of showing the world what she felt, but it would alert her prey and prevent her from achieving her goals again. Results were all that mattered. A person died just as easily from a stab wound to the back as she would to one in the gut. What difference would it make where the blow landed, just so long as Shampoo died.

There were only six steps to her goal.

Later, Shampoo would not say what it was that made her turn around at that instant. It might have been the sudden confusion that mingled in with many of the cheers, or perhaps it was some latent ability to sense the imminent threat to her life. Personally, Shampoo thought it was the look of alarm in Jaddo's eyes as he saw Link moving up behind her, intent in plunging her shaft of blackened metal to its hilt in the flesh of her back.

But Shampoo did turn in time to see Link planting her feet and lunging forward with the knife. Reflexively, Shampoo brought her hand up and caught the wrist deflecting the stab downward. Rage and momentum sent the blade forward, and nearly half a centimeter of it pierced the young Amazon's flesh near her pelvis. There was an instance of pain, and then the Dragon's Rage flooded her body.

During the course of the fight, it had played its siren's call in her mind, but Shampoo had refused its beckoning temptation. Even as dire as the situation had been early on, she had not needed the favors the double-edged ability imbued within her. So it had remained slithered and coiled just beneath the surface, waiting to be summoned forth and protect her by crushing the things that represented a threat to her life. Even after the fight had ended it remained there, ready to lash out and protect with destruction. Such ideas were usually mutually exclusive terms, but that was what the Rage was created for. The only purpose for which it existed. Protect the body from harm, as primal and instinctual a reaction as it had been in the dawn of humankind. Though if it was let loose too long to would destroy that which it was created to protect.

As the pain from the stab wound struck, it was there, deadening that area by dulling pain receptors and preparing the body to return the violence in kind. All the aches and pains were forgotten in the flood of chemicals that surged through Shampoo's body.

Now it was time for the Dragon's Rage to be unleashed.

Link saw the wild look in Shampoo's eyes, and for a moment was stunned by the close resemblance to the fleeting image of herself she had caught in a mirror before the fight. For just a moment, the unbridled hate in Shampoo's eyes washed over and drowned the raw malevolence that had been released from Link's soul when the opportunity for revenge had unexpectedly come for her. For a moment, Link was shocked out of her dementia and could see the world for what it was again.

Now it was Link's turn to feel pain as the grip on her stabbing wrist tightened like a vice. Trying to withdraw her own limb did no good; Link could not move it forward or backward a fraction of a centimeter. All she could do was feel unrelenting pain that increased geometrically by the second.

And then the air was filled with a snapping noise as the bones in Link's wrist cracked. A wail of agony far worse than anything she had ever felt before flew from her lips and to the crowd's ears. Only the sounds of the pigs that had been slaughtered on her farm back home was comparable to the cry that burst from her. At least that was what it sounded like to her ears.

Link's entire attention was focused on her wrist, which was why she was unaware of the fist that had been drawn back with Shampoo's free hand. The left hand, that had become more akin to a vice than an appendage as it held the shattered remnants of Link's right wrist, was all she could concentrate upon as she wished she could escape the pain and power it held.

The blow from Shampoo's fist landed cleanly and lightning fast, the most powerful punch she had ever thrown, backed with the Dragon's Rage powering it. Link was completely unprepared as it caught her perfectly under the jaw. She had only a split instant, less than an eyeblink, of awareness as her head was forced back with blinding velocity. As the head reached the apex of its backward arc, there was a snapping noise from the bones in the back of the neck as vertebrae slipped from their positions and severed the nerves of the spinal column connecting the head to the rest of the body.

For the second time in the night, the world went dark for Link, but this time there was a peace that had not been present the last time night fell in her eyes. For some odd reason, the dark rage that had been in her soul, the raw hatred that had festered and spilled over, was no longer present. It had slipped away with the severing of nerves, never to return. What remained behind was a pleasant sensation of being free of anger and feelings of inferiority for the first time since she had been so very little. Now all that was left was the unique essence that made Link what she was for perhaps the first time in her life. She wished it would last forever, that feeling of peace.

And it did.

All present in Tridome knew what had happened. The way Link's body had gone limp in a heartbeat. The way her eyes stared lifelessly at nothing as the body slowly sagged towards the floor, though the strong grip on the broken wrist remained tight. The only curiosity was the soft smile on Link's lips. It was there now, but certainly had not been there when the blow landed. Why would anyone smile when they must have known they had been struck with such a killing blow? It defied explanation, and would forever do so.

High above, Jaddo gave a sad shake of his head. Why couldn't the stupid girl have let it go? Why did she sneak the weapon in and try to kill an opponent she had lost fairly to? It was such a waste. Now the twin was dead, and what did she have to show for it? Just another corpse decorating a fighting floor. No different from a broken body in a dog pit in some nameless shantytown instead of the gaudy arena built for the elite. Well, they had gotten their fill tonight. Seen what they had wanted to see. He hoped they choked on it.

"Hey, Jaddo?"

He looked curiously at Beef. "What?"

"Do you have any idea why she's shaking the girl's body like that?"

Earlier thoughts of the crowd had made him stop paying attention to his protégé. Now Jaddo refocused his attention upon her to see what his old friend was referring to. Sure enough, Shampoo had maintained her hold on opponent's wrist and was shaking the body back and forth, as though not understanding why the person that had been trying to kill her had stopped moving. He had a bad feeling about it.

Down below, Shampoo shook Link, barely aware of the crude knife sliding out of Link's hand and the wound bleeding only slightly due to the Dragon Rage's intense efforts to heal the cut. Ordinarily, as much as the Rage could cloud her thinking, Shampoo could still maintain coherent thoughts. However, due to the speed of the attack from Link, and how quickly the Rage had asserted itself, it had temporarily overloaded Shampoo's senses, making it nearly impossible to think in anything other than the most basic of terms and concepts. Likewise the speed with which Link had fallen, and that there were no other opponents despite the fact her body was ready for a fight, confused her. So Shampoo shook Link's body, not quite comprehending exactly why her opponent wasn't trying to kill her any more.

The announcer, who had made his way into the middle of the floor to hold Shampoo's hand up and declare her the winner, was equally confused by her behavior. He started to say, "Excuse m-"

The rest was cut off as Shampoo backhanded the man away, reflexively reacting as though he was another attacker. It took a moment for her to realize that was not the case, and in any event the little man with the big voice had been knocked out cold by the casual blow.

"Shit!" Jaddo said between clenched teeth.

"What's going on? That's not part of her act, is it?" Kiber asked, concern over Shampoo's behavior finally starting to register on his features.

This was a matter to be decided delicately. Jaddo was uncertain of how much about Shampoo he wanted to reveal to the man, even if he had purchased her contract. "Every now and then when she enters a life threatening situation, like when people try to stab her from behind, she gets this big time adrenaline rush she calls the Dragon's Rage. It really sends her over the top, and she has problems coming out of it, like now. Still, as long as no one tries to attack her, she'll come out of it in a few seconds."

"She might not get those seconds." Beef pointed to the floor below.

Jaddo looked at what he was referring to. A couple of men, burly guards of some kind, had emerged from one of the entryways and raced to Shampoo, obviously ready for a fight.

"Wranglers," Kiber informed them. "A while back, one of the fighters didn't like some of the disparaging comments coming from one of the folks from the stands, so he took it upon himself to jump into the stands and beat the hell out of the heckler. Unfortunately, the heckler was fast, and a lot of rich people ended up getting stepped on and punched out before the fighter got his hands on him. Since then, a fund was created to ensure that a security service provided a bunch of people called Wranglers to keep a fighter from going nuts and maybe assaulting everyone in the stands again."

"Shit!" Jaddo repeated. "I got to get down there."

"I'm sure the Wranglers won't hurt her. They're professionals that know the fighters are valuable," Kiber told him

"It's not her I'm worried about getting hurt," Jaddo called out as he headed towards the nearest stairway.

Kiber gazed over the edge to see Shampoo tossing one of the first two Wranglers, a full grown man that had to weigh at least two hundred and fifty pounds, as easily as she might toss a ball. "I see what you mean."

In the box seat reserved for the Morimoto Zaibatsu, a high, feminine laugh rang out as its owner watched Shampoo defeat the second Wrangler as easily as the first. Now other Wranglers began springing into action as they ran out into the floor in sets of twos and threes.

The woman laughed in approval again as Shampoo viciously took out the nearest Wrangler with a powerful leap kick. "I want her now more than ever."

"It shall be as you wish," a short Japanese man sharing the seats with her assured her.

"My dear Tojo, first we must make certain the item remains in working condition." She pointed to the two other occupants of the luxury accommodations. "You two, see to it that she is subdued but not damaged. I have little doubt she'll make short work of the remaining members of security, so switch to your fighting outfits quickly."

"As you wish," the two said as one. They quickly stripped off the seven hundred thousand yen suits that were their standard outfits when they were on the job and switched to their more accommodating fighting gear.

Jaddo had just made it down to the fighting area when he saw the last of the Wranglers, a sumo of some considerable size, go down under Shampoo's furious assault. She was showing none of the restraint she usually held in a fight. Luckily, most of the men were in top shape, even if they had proven insufficient for the task of restraining Shampoo. Had they attacked her all at once, they might have succeeded in overpowering her, but most of them, all men, opted to foolishly 'prove' themselves by taking her on one at a time or in pairs. Only the sumo had made much of a fight of it, and even by the end, he had fallen with barely a mark on the girl.

He made his way across the floor towards her, avoiding several of the fallen bodies. "Shampoo," Jaddo said softly, more than aware that he needed to appear non-threatening to calm her down. She had described the Dragon Rage to him before, but this was the first time he had ever seen it in action. As good as she was normally, her reflexes and strength seemed at least three times better than before, and despite the injury from the knife, she did not show any sign of the wound hampering her in the least. However, her loss of control seemed even worse than she had described it. While it was true he was confident he could stop her if he had to, he was also certain he would end up hurt as well, at least while she was in this state of mind. No, better to play it quiet and hope she responded.

When Shampoo heard someone else speak, she turned, fists still clenched and obviously wanting to hit something else. However, with the sound of Jaddo's voice, she seemed to hesitate slightly: a good sign He would work with that. "Here now, girl. You know I wouldn't hurt you. Why don't you just calm down a bit and we can talk things over?"

She took one step forward, a step that Jaddo was uncertain if it was meant to be menacing or one of relief. No second step followed as two figures came down from their jump from high above, landing between him and Shampoo. One was a girl in her early twenties, Asian, with black hair pulled into a ponytail and tied back with a yellow ribbon. She wore a black, gi that showed off a pair of long and powerful legs. A distinctive yellow orchid emblem was sewn on the shoulder.

The other figure was one that was all too familiar to Jaddo, having spent many months fighting in the same arena, even going head-to-head with him on several occasions. The giant Thai man wore only his standard blue shorts with red piping and had his feet and hands taped up, as always. Aside from appearing older, he also seemed taller and heavier, and, as impossible as it seemed, now possessed two eyes.

"Long time no see," Sagat said without bothering to turn around.

"She's mine," the woman with the orchid said as she stepped forward and confronted Shampoo.

"This is a mistake, Rei Lan," Sagat warned.

"I can take her again," Rei assured him.

The gesture was recognized by Shampoo, and she fell back into attack mode again. Unlike the Wranglers, this woman was far more skilled, and blocked and deflected Shampoo's initial attacks, though not easily. The battle waged for only about twenty seconds when Jaddo thought he saw a hole in the new girl's defense. Apparently, Shampoo saw the same thing, and lunged in. Almost impossibly, Rei Lan managed to twist away and out from under the punch, only to strike under Shampoo's extended arm with a jab with her fingers, landing them in the Amazon's armpit.

"There," Rei said. She was a bit off balance from the daring maneuver, and would have been open to a counterattack from Shampoo's right had she not already neutralized the limb by hitting the nerve cluster located there. Now Rei had to take out the other arm, then Shampoo would fall easily.

Even as those thoughts raced through Rei's mind in less than the blink of an eye, Shampoo's right connected with the back of her head. A momentary thought of the impossibility of the blow was interrupted as a reverse thrust kick met Rei's chest and drove her backward. She would have fallen had her partner not been ready to catch her.

Sagat set her back on her feet, and well behind him. "It's not like last time. She's faster and more powerful than before. Leave her to me."

Reluctantly, Rei Lan backed away and let Sagat take over.

Sagat was hesitant at first, allowing Shampoo the first series of attacks. She took him up on the unspoken offer and came at him with a series of high blows. Most would have been aimed at a normal man's head. On Sagat, the strikes only reached to his upper torso at best.

The Thai man blocked every attack, allowing many of them to glance off his arms, which he was using to shield his vital parts. Jaddo watched in surprise as the man shrugged off the blows as if they were being thrown by a five-year old rather than from a highly trained warrior that could shatter four inches of concrete in a single blow. It reminded Jaddo of how Shampoo was ignoring her own injuries, yet where Shampoo was all emotion, Sagat was ice. His face betrayed nothing as he blocked every blow that came his way. Jaddo watched everything with a careful eye. Nearly thirty years ago, Sagat was one of the hardest hitting men around, but mostly a power merchant. He would trade two or three blows dealt to him for every one he could deliver, and usually he came out ahead. But this man before him was different. He was weathering the storm, but mostly by either deflecting or countering the blows instead of absorbing them, while not bothering to use any of his own. There was no doubt he was considerably better than what he had been in the past, but his whole style of fighting had changed.

There was something about Sagat's eyes that bothered Jaddo. Aside from the fact that the left one obviously worked, and was not merely made of glass, the movements were odd in some way that he could not define. The eyes moved fast. Too fast. They darted about almost too quickly to be seen. Jaddo did not know what that meant, but he doubted it was good.

At last Sagat launched an attack of his own. He hit Shampoo cleanly in her solar plexus with an open palm thrust designed to knock the wind out of her. Jaddo assumed that it would at least slow his protégé down, but much to his distress, all it did was knock the air out of her lungs as she began breathing much more quickly while attacking just as rapidly as before.

Again Sagat parried the majority of the force behind the attacks, not allowing Shampoo to get in a single clean hit, and once again Jaddo was surprised by the ease with which he did it. Once more Sagat struck Shampoo in the stomach, though this time with a double open palm thrust. The second blow sent Shampoo back, obviously disorienting her. Sagat moved in to disable his opponent once more, but impossibly Shampoo attacked again, this time getting a clean kick in on the leg Sagat had planted. He winced slightly from the blow, and seemed angry that Shampoo had not fallen to either of his strikes.

"Just hold her still and I can calm her down!" Jaddo told Sagat. It was a chancy thing. He and Sagat had never gotten along, but considering how the current fight had unfolded, it was obvious the huge man was trying to avoid making any lasting damage on Shampoo, for whatever reason that may have been.

Sagat grunted, and Jaddo hoped it was one of approval. Again the large man moved in, but this time he made no effort to block the kick he received to his chest. A second punch hit him in the side of the face, which he took with even more impassiveness than Shampoo had. The young Amazon was about to unleash a third attack when she discovered that the first two blows had placed both her and her opponent in such a position that Sagat was able to go behind her and bring both arms under hers, locking her in a full nelson. Bringing all of his strength to bear in restraining her, Sagat kept her firmly in his grip, despite her struggles. No curses escaped Shampoo's lips, only a snarl of inarticulate rage flew out as she squirmed back and forth trying to slip out of his grasp and return to the attack. Even with all of the power she had, Sagat was equal to the task and held her firmly.

Then her squirming slowed down to almost nothing and she remained nearly motionless. Just as the Thai man was certain she had realized the futility of her struggles, she managed to bring her leg up over her head in an impressive show of flexibility and unleashed a kick that connected right between his eyes. At that angle she was only able to hit with the front of her foot, and probably stood a good chance of breaking several toes against his skull. Unconcerned, she unleashed a second kick. What surprised Sagat was the amount of force she was able to get behind the kick despite the awkward angle it was being delivered from.

"You'd better calm her down quickly," Sagat warned. The threat held the promise that he would take more desperate measures to neutralize the threat she represented to everyone around her, as well as herself, if Jaddo was not successful.

Jaddo moved in front of Shampoo. For a moment, he considered staying far enough back that she would be unable to reach him with her nimble legs. However, after a second's hesitation, he found himself stepping within her reach. Softly, with his hands raised in a placating gesture of surrender, he said, "Shampoo, calm down. No one's going to hurt you anymore."

Her foot came up, crossing half the distance between her and Jaddo before coming up to a halt. She still carried a wild-eyed look, but now it held an edge of exhaustion to it.

In that calm, steady voice, Jaddo said, "That's right. You took care of the girl that stabbed you. Everyone else either misunderstood what you were going to do, or were just defending themselves, or trying to keep you from hurting yourself. You can calm down now. Just relax and stop fighting so we can get that nasty cut looked at."

That voice seemed to cut through the red haze that surrounded Shampoo's thoughts. It was a nice voice that belonged to a nice man, despite all of the frustrations he could cause. It was a voice she had grown to trust almost more than any other, and the words were soothing and seemed to make sense. And the truth was Shampoo's body felt tired. Very tired. More tired than she could ever remember it being. A part of her thoughts, whether it was from the Rage or somewhere else, told her if she continued on the path she was on she would die, not from the actions of others, but from her own out of control power, consumed from within, just as her great-grandmother warned her might happen.

The warring in her mind continued until a huffing came from behind the group. All eyes turned to see a crimson-faced Beef, forced once again to move a large mass a long distance in a short amount of time. Between gasps, he said, "I'll tell you what, Shampoo. If you calm down, I'll give you all the pasta you can eat for a week."

The utter inappropriateness of the statement caught everyone off-guard, including Shampoo. Somehow it cut completely through the haze, allowing her to think clearly once again.

"Sure," she said. And as Sagat released her, she slumped to her knees upon the ground.

"I think I've got a bag of Raisinettes somewhere in a pocket here. Ah ha!"

The bag was snatched out of Beef's hand the moment it came into view. Shampoo poured the entire contents down her throat, barely taking the time to chew.

"You choke, you're on your own," Jaddo warned, but it was half-hearted. Seeing Shampoo physically healthy in the medical ward of Tridome, frustrating the hell out of the doctor trying to examine the cut on her pelvis as she wiggled around and tried eating nearly everything in sight, relieved him.

Jaddo had thought Beef had a voracious appetite. Despite the dark rings under her eyes and the obvious signs of exhaustion she was showing, Shampoo was putting him to shame. Anything edible and within arm's length was being devoured. Jaddo was beginning to worry if they ran out of food she might try to nibble on Beef's arm, not that he couldn't spare a pound or two.

"Oh, look, a moldy crust of bread." Jaddo pointed to the corner of the infirmary.

Shampoo turned around to see where he was pointing at for a moment before realizing what was said. She shot him a glare. The reaction relaxed him; it meant she was back to normal.

"Would you please keep still!" the doctor examining Shampoo complained.

"You've got to have something to eat around here," she complained right back.

"I have some lovely stool samples in back you can chew on," the doctor said acidly.

Shampoo grimaced. "Aren't you supposed to have lollipops or something to give your patients?"

"Along with pretty pink balloons that say, 'Congratulations on your victory'. It's what we give all the fighters here. Now keep still!" the doctor grumbled as he tried once again to examine her wound.

"Package of peanut brittle," Beef declared as he pulled a packet out of his pocket and waved it in the air triumphantly. After looking more closely at the label, he then said, "Or maybe it's peanut butter that's petrified into peanut brittle. It's hard to tell from how old it is."

Shampoo did not care. She all but ripped the package open and began chewing on the contents. There was a loud crack as she snapped off a chunk of the peanut brittle. It was either that or one of her teeth shattering as she tried to chew on the rock-hard substance. It was hard to tell, and as ravenous as Shampoo was, Jaddo was uncertain she would notice if one of her teeth had broken.

Another occupant in the room was also taking note of the food Beef was providing, although for different reasons. Rei Lan told him, "I once saw a picture of you when you were part of the Six Pack. I thought you were the most handsome man I had ever seen. I can't believe how fat you got."

"Makes you want to slam your head into a table, doesn't it?" Shampoo said through loud crunches.

Rei Lan nodded her head in agreement.

Beef said, "Ah, my dear. I might have gotten bigger, but let me assure you that every part of me has also grown. And I promise you that my vast collection of exotic techniques still can't be matched."

He winked and gave Rei Lan a quick pat on the butt. She seemed to consider the proposition for a moment before turning away and back towards Sagat.

An aide to Kiber burst into the room. His arms were laden with a plethora of multi-colored items from vending machines. Almost out of breath, he gasped out, "I have what you asked for, Sir. Everything I could get out of the closest machines, except for chewing gum. The only drink machine I could find was a beer one. I could go look for another one deeper in the complex, if you want."

Before Kiber could respond in approval at the man's quick work, the aide wandered too close to Shampoo. She grabbed him by the collar and pulled him to the examining table she sat upon. She then forced him to place all of the food and drinks on the table next to her, then released him from her grasp. In a panic from being handled so brusquely by the ravenous girl, he darted from the room as quickly as he could. Within an instant what little remained of the not so brittle peanuts was tossed aside in favor of something softer that could go down more quickly. After she ingested three candy bars in about as many seconds, she popped upon one of the beer cans and chugged its contents down.

"Well, now, this could get interesting," Jaddo softly mumbled.

"I swear to you if you don't stop moving I'm going to give you a proctological exam. And let me warn you, I have the biggest hands on the medical staff," the doctor huffed.

Kiber gave Jaddo a look. With a sigh, he said, "Girl, quit squirming around and let the doctor do his job."

With enough food and drink to work on for a while, Shampoo finally stopped moving around long enough to let the doctor examine her.

As he did so, Jaddo turned to the last occupant currently in the room, a man standing right next to him, arms crossed and doing his best impression of a statue as he remained motionless. It would not have surprised the aborigine overmuch if there had been a pigeon perched atop his head with how still he was standing.

Jaddo had to bend his neck back until it almost hurt to look Sagat in the eye. "Still in prime shape, I see."

"I work out a lot," Sagat low bass made it sound more like a rumble than a series of words.

"Is it just me, or did you get a bit bigger since the last time I saw you?"

"Just a late growth spurt,"

"Your eye seems to have grown back as well."

"You're very observant."

"I notice things like that." Jaddo quickly grew frustrated by the large man's reluctance to speak.

Beef came over and elbowed Sagat gently in the side, though if he had taken a crowbar to his ribs instead it might have done about the same amount of damage, given the rock hard texture of his stomach muscles. Seeing he had the Thai's full attention, Beef remarked jovially, "I guess I can't refer to you as my cyclopean associate anymore, now can I?" Beef chuckled at his joke using the old nickname only he had dared give to the giant, at least to his face.

It was Jaddo's turn to watch impassively. It was just like old times. Beef telling Sagat jokes while the big man looked on without batting an eye. Or so the aborigine thought until a slight smile, barely perceptible, appeared on Sagat's face.

The giant said, "You were the only person I ever knew that tried to make me laugh. I never told you how much I appreciated that. Thank you."

Even Beef was taken aback by the comment. "You smiled at one of my jokes. Surely it's a sign of the Apocalypse."

"Probably," Sagat said.

This time it was Jaddo's turn to look at the man in shock. "Give me one of those beers," he told Shampoo as she reluctantly handed one over, then returned to stuffing her face with cheese curls and peppermints.

Kiber was more focused on the matter at hand as he watched the doctor's examination with a careful eye. Once the doctor appeared finished, Kiber asked, "I don't mean to sound uncaring or cold-hearted, but I am responsible for managing my corporation's assets, and Shampoo is an important one of them. I have a responsibility to many others to run things effectively, so I need to know if she's okay, and if the cut is going to leave a scar."

The doctor pulled away from Shampoo. "She's in fine health, though she shows signs of exhaustion from her fight. And aside from the fact I can practically hear her arteries clogging from all of that junk she's dumping inside herself, she's in superior physical shape."

Shampoo deliberately overstuffed her mouth with potato chips in response to the doctor's comments.

"If you think this is bad, you should try training her for a few months," Jaddo threw in.

"I'd sooner give myself that proctological examine I threatened her with," the doctor said. "As to the wound, well, as hard as it is for me to believe, that thing is healing at an incredible rate. Ordinarily I would say one that deep would scar, but at the pace it's healing, I doubt there will be anything that would show up unless one was looking real close."

"I've always healed fast," Shampoo offered through a mouthful of half-chewed pretzels.

"Excellent! We wouldn't want such a precious commodity damaged in the least."

All eyes turned to the new speaker. It was a Japanese man, about Kiber's age, dressed in a white business suit and carrying an expensive briefcase. He was of average height and build, but possessed a more than passingly handsome face. Like Kiber, who was already in room, he radiated an aura of a man who had wealth and influence and knew how to wield both with supreme ease.

As he entered the room, both Rei Lan and Sagat took up bodyguard positions at his side. Almost by unspoken agreement everyone between the newcomer and Kiber moved out of the way, though all looked on in rapt attention. Even Rei and Sagat fell back a couple of steps to allow their superior to speak on his own.

"I'm Masichi Tojo, president of the Acquisitions Section of Morimoto Incorporated." The newcomer bowed before Kiber, who returned the bow, dipping neither higher nor lower.

"And I take it that you know who I am, else you would not be here," Kiber replied.

Tojo seemed relieved. "Excellent. Let's cut to the chase, shall we? After witnessing your fighter in action tonight, my superiors wish to purchase her contract. We are prepared to offer you five times what you paid for it, as well as an additional two hundred million to cover anticipated profits from merchandising sales."

Shampoo let out a gasp, and Jaddo's eyes nearly bugged out of his head. Even Kiber seemed momentarily taken aback by the offer. But the moment passed, and he turned his gaze to Jaddo, smiled at him, then returned his focus on Tojo. "I'm afraid I'll have to pass, although I'll admit it is a generous offer."

"Come, come," Tojo said chidingly. "Didn't I just overhear you saying something about being responsible for your corporation's assets? This is a guaranteed profit far and above what could be expected from any fighter's contract."

"Be that as it may, I'm afraid I still must refuse."

Tojo let out a tired sigh. "Very well. I've been authorized to increase the offer by twenty percent if you should prove reluctant to part with the girl."

"Triple it."

Tojo was taken aback by the statement. "I don't know if I can do that. I'll have to clear it with my superiors."

Kiber gave Tojo an amused grin that told him who had the upper hand. "I wasn't finished. I was going to end it by saying, even then it would not be enough. The contract is not for sale."

If there was an advantage on Kiber's side, Tojo gave no indication he felt the same way. "You drive an unexpectedly high bargain. I respect that. However, there is something you should know. As you are aware, OMC has recently gotten into the shipbuilding business. It has had some middling success with smaller pleasure craft, but it's currently trying to enter the business of military seacraft. Your zaibatsu is currently trying to obtain a lucrative contract with the Imperial Navy to build three heavy cruisers. At the moment, your offer is a distant second behind the Fujikawa-Misawa Zaibatsu's offer. However, my employer has certain, shall we say, influences within Fujikawa-Misawa. Their offer could be withdrawn and there would be nothing to stand in the way of your company obtaining the contract, and that would be worth far more than any ten fighters you could name. You would be a hero, and there could possibly be a promotion in it for you. And that's in addition to the money I offered you earlier. All for one fighter's contract. It's an offer you can't refuse. All you need to do is say yes and we'll make it official."

Kiber let out a slight clucking sound. "It appears Morimoto has been hiring presidents that are hard of hearing. I specifically told you that Shampoo's contract is not for sale, and here you are, making further offers and wasting my time. Not a very good way to conduct business. Not at all."

Tojo looked at the man as if he had grown a third eye. So had just about everyone else in the room, save Sagat, who seemed completely unaffected by the events surrounding him.

"I am not joking when I say the Fujikawa-Misawa offer will be withdrawn. Of course you can wait for the actual results to take place before handing us her contract if you don't believe us." Now there was a touch of pleading in Tojo's voice.

Kiber made a dismissive wave with his hand. "You bore me. If you have nothing further to say, our business is concluded."

Tojo remained looking at Kiber uncomprehendingly for another moment before collecting his wits. "I see. Very well. Given the way you conduct business, perhaps I should not worry. We'll end up owning OMC within six months with your kind of decision making."

"Now that would be a neat trick. Now please run along and tell your masters they need to send a bigger lapdog next time," Kiber said.

The insult caused the veins on Tojo's forehead to twitch, but he said nothing further and indicated to his two bodyguards they should leave.

Once the trio had exited the room and were well out of earshot, Kiber turned to Shampoo. "Tell me, do you shit gold?"

"What?" Shampoo asked, completely taken aback by the bizarre question.

"I ask because that's the only reason I can possibly conceive of them offering so much money for you." The frosty demeanor was now replaced with open disbelief, although if it was at the offer or his refusal of it, even Kiber could not say.

"Why did you turn it down?" Jaddo asked, though he quickly added, "Not that I'm sorry you did."

Kiber reacted as though he was hurt by the question coming from Jaddo. "I would never sell her contract to them. I think we all know who Mr. Tojo's superiors really were. There's no telling what would happen to Shampoo in that sort's hands. Besides, they offered too much money to just have her fight for them. They wanted her far too badly for anything so simple. Say what you will about them, they are not stupid. Whatever plans they really had in mind would have boded badly for her, of that I have no doubt."

"You turned down a lot of money," Beef mentioned.

Kiber shrugged. "We're still going to make a ton off her once she hits the Imperial Arena, and that was all we projected anyway. We lose nothing in the bargain."

Jaddo shook his head. "There might be reprisals over that little encounter. You weren't exactly congenial with Mr. Tojo."

"He's nothing more than a highly-paid lackey," Kiber scoffed. "I figured that out halfway into the conversation. It's his masters that hold the real power there. And even Shadowlaw wouldn't dare open warfare with OMC, even using Morimoto as a front. We're too powerful and have too many resources for that. And even if we weren't, we still wouldn't back down. OMC has always rode high on its ideals, and we always will. Maybe we aren't the most powerful zaibatsu around, but we are the most ethical and reliable. It's as much a trademark as our symbol." There was unmistakable pride in Kiber's voice as he uttered those statements.

Jaddo looked at the man in a newfound light. Until then, as much as he might have personally liked Kiber, he had still thought of him as a well-mannered, polite elitist that stood for money rather than ideals, but now that illusion had been shattered. Certainly he was a man of many layers. "I don't say this about too many people, almost no one, in fact. but you're a heck of a guy. Not too many folks could have passed up that kind of a deal, but I thank you for it."

Kiber seemed genuinely moved by the compliment. For a moment that concerned Jaddo, but then he decided to not worry about it. Let Kiber take the compliment for what it was, but by protecting Shampoo, Jaddo owed him a debt of thanks, though he still wasn't going to sleep with him.

"Why don't we go out and celebrate at my place? It's all on the house," Beef offered. Kiber, Jaddo, and even the doctor were quick to accept. Realizing there was still someone that hadn't spoken up, all eyes turned to Shampoo.

The young warrior lay asleep on the examining room table, buried under a blanket of multi-colored plastic wrappers and empty beer cans.

"Aww. She looks so sweet like that. We'll let her be," Jaddo said.

The others agreed and turned out the lights, allowing Shampoo her rest as they headed out to celebrate until the wee hours of the morning.

Tojo felt his cheeks turn crimson and his heart race in panic at what was to come. It had not always been this way. In the beginning, he had wielded power, influence, and ungodly amounts of wealth. He was the envy of everyone. Everything any man could want was all at his beck and call, and he demanded much. All the so-called 'vices' were his to indulge in. Drinks, drugs, women, and gambling were all that he needed to sustain his flesh. Especially the games of chance. The more illegal, the better. Tojo had been a gambler that had won all of his bets. At least until he wagered against Shadowlaw.

It was a game with the highest stakes and the greatest of rewards. He put everything on the line in attempting to do what only one other had accomplished in trying to catch the Tiger by her tail. The contest had been magnificent, everything he had thought it would be and more than he could have ever imagined. Never had he felt more alive than when he had played the game. Never had he felt his soul more damned than when he lost.

Now he found himself in the private box where they had watched the match earlier in the evening, on his knees before his mistress, having already given her the report on Kiber's refusal. Tojo wasn't stupid enough to believe she would kill him over this matter —he was too important to the organization— but importance did not mean invincibility, and punishment did not always mean death. There were things worse than death. He had already endured them once at this woman's hands. He had no desire to repeat the experience. He would do anything to avoid that, which had been proven many times over as he eagerly obeyed whatever commands his mistress ordered, no matter how depraved or demeaning they were.

The woman curled her hand to her chin, a distant look in her eye. "A pity. I did so have my heart set on that one. Especially when I learned of her special breeding. That she proved so… entertaining in the fight tonight was a delicious added bonus. Alas, it seems it was not meant to be."

"We could abduct her before she sets off for Japan," Rei Lan said. "I doubt she'll be guarded heavily, and Sagat and I could take care of any complications."

Somewhere deep within Tojo a part of him seethed at how eager Rei Lan was to make their mutual mistress happy. Once, Rei had belonged to Tojo as surely as Tojo belonged to his mistress now. But the woman had destroyed that, breaking what Tojo had with the girl he had once owned and loved. She had reforged those bonds between Rei and herself, making them even more unbreakable than what had existed before between man and woman and making him detest her all the more. But that was what the mistress could do, which was how she had obtained the rank she had in Shadowlaw. She was the very best at what she did. That he could attest to firsthand.

It was a long time before the woman answered the request. "No. She's not worth risking OMC's wrath, though we will see to it they never get their hands on those ship contracts. As much as I might wish it otherwise, even our organization can't win them all. Ah well. I shall simply have to find something else to entertain me tonight and distract me from this annoyance. Now who shall I choose to help me forget? Let me see. Hmmm."

Tojo didn't know which would be worse: being chosen or ignored. Again a part of him damned the woman, but only a tiny part.

The woman stepped forward with feline grace and cradled Rei Lan's chin. The young woman who had once defeated a dozen armed fighting men in under a minute all but melted at her mistress's touch.

Again Tojo raged in a distant part of his being.

The woman allowed her finger to play across Rei's lips, gauging the reaction and finding she approved of it. "Yes, I believe you shall do quite nicely, my sweet." She turned to Sagat "And would you like to join us?"

Sagat remained impassive to the suggestion. "You know that I'm no longer capable of responding to that sort of stimulation, and that I no longer have interests of any kind along those lines."

The woman gave a sad shake of her head. "Ah yes, a pity about that. One of the numerous drawbacks to vertebreaker technology. Such a loss of one so… manly," she drawled, running her nails across his torso hard enough to leave faint red marks which disappeared even faster than they came. Casting one last melancholy glance at Sagat, she then turned her attention to Tojo. Now directed at him, the look changed from depressed to sly. "And as for you, I believe I shall allow you to stand by and watch as Rei distracts me from the disappointments I have suffered."

So that was the punishment he was to endure for his failure. If there was a worse one that could be done as quickly with the resources at hand, he could not name it. Again he damned the bitch's eternally black soul.

She walked over to Tojo and ran her hand under his chin. Like Rei, he all but melted at her touch. "What do you say to your mistress for her graciousness?"

"Thank you, Mistress." And the worst part of it was, he meant each word. Each syllable.

Truly she was the best at what she did.

It was getting hard to breathe. The air, something was wrong with the air. It was flat and stale and lacked the ability to preserve life. It was weighing down in her lungs, like water. She was suffocating, and she was going to die.

"Listen to me, or we're going to be as dead as your sister," Chen Wu's voice warbled as much as his body did with his groveling. "You have to be Link forever. If anyone, and I mean anyone, ever tells the truth as to what happened, we're both dead. Do you understand? Do you understand?!"

He grabbed Pink by the shoulders and began shaking her. Had she not been so deathly ill, she would have broken his hands for the offense. Instead, all she could do was allow him his defilement. The shaking upset her stomach and for the third time in as many minutes she tried to throw up, but all Pink could do was give off dry heaves until it felt like her stomach would come bursting out of her esophagus.

"You need to be Link!" Wu repeated, so desperate he did not care whether she threw up on him or not.

"Thomas. I need Thomas," she sobbed weakly.

"Tell me! Do you understand? Do you understand?!"

"Yes. I'm Link. I'm Link forever," Pink sobbed, too weak to scream. "Please let me see Thomas. I need him. I need to tell him. I need him to be with me, or I'm going to die."

Wu considered that. "All right. You can tell him. He'll keep your secret safe. But he's the only one that can know."

Pink paid little attention to the words. She was barely able to stand. She was clad only in a nightgown and bare feet as she made her way out of the room and to the hallway beyond. It was late, late enough that most of the arena personnel were asleep or out enjoying themselves. She made her way through the halls, uncontested. It was difficult. With every step she felt like curling into a ball and crying or dying. Either one would have been acceptable. She was nearly at the breaking point. Physically exhausted. Emotionally worse. She wished she was dead.

Link was dead.

She was Link.

But someone was dead, so was it Pink?

No! She was Pink, who had to be Link.

It was confusing. Was she delirious? Only Thomas could set things right. Only Thomas could make her feel alive again. Thomas loved Pink, and she was Pink. He wanted to marry her. He told her so, though he thought it was Link, who she was now, so it was her sister he must have wanted to marry, but she was her sister and…

Her head hurt now. She staggered and brought both hands up and cradled it as gently as she could. A soft whimper filled the air. She thought it came from her. All that mattered was Thomas. She had to get to him. She might have had to be Link for everyone else, but not him. He only wanted Pink, and she would only be that for him. Just Pink. No Link.

Pink's tears began to flow. She had never been alone, not even in her mother's womb. Link was there. Link had always been there. They were always together, close even by twins' standards, even if their personalities were different. They had always lived under the same roof. They had been in the same classrooms. They had chosen the same career. They tried to do the same things. Where one went the other followed, and it was usually Pink that had led. Except this time. This time Link went on a journey all of her own, and Pink could not follow. Now Pink would have to be both while at the same time being alone. It was a horrible feeling, of being alone for the first time in her life.

No, not alone. Thomas would be there with her.

That solitary thought was all that remained, all that could drive her to move. It felt like days passed as she staggered through the halls. She had two more bouts of dry heaves, but no one came to help her. It was just as well. They could not help her, could not give her what she needed. Only one man could do that.

And just when she thought she couldn't make it another step, she found herself there. It was his room. She recognized the door. There was a crack down the left side of it. Pink had put that there. It was from that time she had thrown a girl into it, one she had caught trying to seduce Thomas right after they had first started going out. The girl had not tried it a second time. It was for the best. She and Thomas were meant to be together, even he saw that now. He was all that she had left.

Link was dead.

She was Link.

"Thomas," she softly pleaded into the door, too weak to knock. She tried to remain conscious and hold onto her sanity at the same time. It was a furious struggle in which she had no strength. She was alone, and the solitude was suffocating her. Only Thomas could breathe life into her again.

"Thomas," she said again, and was heard, though not by anyone from within the room.


Bloodshot eyes turned to where the voice came from across the hall. It was another American. Bertram Sykes, if Pink remembered correctly. It was hard to think. He and Thomas were the only Americans here, and they felt a kinship with one another, even if they weren't close friends. So when their rooms were located close together, they had struck a casual friendship with one another. Or so she thought. It was hard to remember anything.

"I heard what happened to your sister tonight. I'm real sorry for you," he said.

Pink thought he looked like a mouse with his small nose and soft brown eyes. Link hit on him once early on, but he didn't respond to her advances, so now he wasn't romantically linked to a corpse. Except Pink was Link now, just like he said, which meant Thomas was the one romantically linked to a corpse that wasn't dead. It was hard to think. Where was Thomas?

"If there's anything I can do for you, I'll be glad to help."

"Thomas?" she whined.

Bertram gave her a soft look. "He… he's gone. He was at the match tonight. He… oh god, the poor man must have seen her die. He came back and… if you saw the look in his eyes… he was crushed. I ain't never seen anyone broken like that, not even in the worst fights when a soul knows he's going to die from his wounds. It was like he was dead too, and just walking around. He didn't say anything to me. He just went in his room, grabbed a few things, and left. He isn't coming back."

Pink now Link looked at him in uncomprehending horror. "Not coming back?"

"He didn't say anything. But if you saw his eyes, you'd have known. He's broken, and I don't know if there's anything that can help, especially now. No. He's never coming back."

No. She needed him. She wasn't dead yet. She was alive. She needed to find him and tell him and love him so he could love her and she could be Pink for someone instead of Link to everyone and he couldn't leave her since he proposed to her and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her and told her so even though she couldn't say anything since then she had to be Link for him but that was over and she could be Pink again…

Bertram caught her as she slumped to the ground. "Oh Jeez. I heard you were sick. And with your sister and all. I'll… I'll get a doctor for you."

She wanted to scream and yell and make him let her go. She had to go out now and find Thomas before he disappeared and she would not be able to tell him she could still be Pink for him. Instead she lay there like a limp rag doll, barely aware of the world around her.

Bertram picked her up and carried her to his room, setting her on his bed before calling the medical staff and telling them she needed aid. She cried as she lay there, knowing somehow Thomas was gone and she was never going to see him again. She and the fighting had been the only two things tying him here, and with one gone and him unable to continue in the other, he would wander again and be lost to her forever. If she knew nothing else, she knew this was the truth, and she wept even harder for it.

As she faded in and out of consciousness, one other thought became as clear to her as the knowledge that Thomas Cantrell was lost to her forever.

She had lost her sister.

She had lost her lover.

She had lost her very identity.

And it was all the fault of one person and one person alone. One who had taken all of those things from her in the span of a heartbeat.


"I think I have everything packed," Shampoo said to Jaddo as she placed the last of her clothes in the steamer trunk she had purchased for this very trip. The red monstrosity would have been too big to lug around if they had been gong to travel like they had at the beginning of their journey. However, much to her delight, the days of walking were past. She was headed for the big time now and traveling in style. It was a good feeling.

"You've got a lot of stuff," Jaddo commented idly from the doorway of Shampoo's room.

"You were right about me making more money here. I used some of it."

"On clothes," he said acidly.

"Why not?" Shampoo snapped back. "I needed new ones. I don't wear the same seven shirts you do."

"One for every day of the week," Jaddo said, playing along with the joke. He owned more than that. Not many more, but more.

As Shampoo closed the lid on the trunk, a great depression swept through her. It was as though all the preparations until now hadn't been real, or more appropriately, had not seemed real to her. But now, with the lid closing, it also seemed to represent a closing of the door on this stage of her life. It was proving almost as hard as leaving her home. That had felt like that had happened eight years ago instead of eight months ago. She had done so much in so little time. It was hard to believe.

Almost as though reading her mind, Jaddo said, "Feels like your leaving it all behind, doesn't it?"

Mutely, Shampoo nodded her head.

"You made a lot of friends."

Shampoo smiled at that. They had even thrown her a going away party. It was a moving thing, since no one back home had thrown one for her, not that they had known she was going anywhere. But even if they had, it would not have been as heartfelt as the one Chingmy, Apollo, and the others had given her. It was made all the more depressing by the fact she knew it was unlikely she would see any of them ever again. Oh, there were promises made that they would try to look each other up, but Shampoo knew better. Their paths would branch off in different directions, and it would only be the purest of chance that would afford them the opportunity to meet again.

"Strutted your stuff before thousands."

Shampoo grinned at the memories of the antics she would go through to get the crowds to cheer for her. When she was in the middle of the fighting floor, winning the audience over, it was as though she were a band leader giving orders to her marching band. It was a pity she had no real desires to lead people around in that manner.

"Tasted the foods of far off exotic lands."

That made her snicker. The majority of 'exotic' food she had sampled was at Beef's. Still, the foreign dishes had been a delight.

"Killed someone."

That made the smile disappear. Shampoo looked at him curiously, and perhaps with a bit of trepidation.

Jaddo continued. "It's been a week now, and you never really talked about it. That's a bit odd. Something like that, people tend to talk about, unless you don't feel comfortable talking with me."

Shampoo shook her head. "It's nothing like that. I think about it a lot myself. But…"

"Go on."

She responded to his prodding. He was right. It was time to get this off her chest. "This might sound strange, but, I was sort of worried. I mean, I felt bad about killing Pink, but not as bad as thought I would have. I mean, she's dead. Forever, and it was because of my fists. These hands." She held them out before him. "These hands ended someone's life. And though it does depress me, and saddens me, it's not plaguing me like I thought it would before it actually happened. I'm afraid I don't feel bad enough about it, and that worries me. I don't want to end up a homicidal killer, like the Northman or something. I don't know if that makes sense, though, which is why I never said anything about it."

"Makes perfect sense," Jaddo assured her. "You see, us fighters are different from normal folk, especially when you've been on the circuit as long as we have. We see death all the time. How many people you think you've seen die since your first dog pit? Twenty? Thirty?"

"Probably over fifty by now," Shampoo said. Most of the deaths had been early on in gross mismatches by untalented fighters, but it was always there, casting the threat of its shadow on every match.

"Right. You've seen lots of people die in gruesome ways. It's a reality for us. It can happen to us, and sometimes it can happen to the others we fight at any time. You get desensitized to it, and the idea gets in your head that this can happen. It sort of prepares itself for something like this happening with Pink. So when it does come, even though it bothers you, it doesn't have quite the same impact it would if it just happened out of the blue.

"Most of us guys that were on the circuit for a while killed someone during our time. Hit a guy too hard by accident. Go all out in a fight with someone as good as or better than you. These things happen. It affects each guy differently. My first kill I felt bad about. Guy moved left when he should have moved right. Instead of hitting his face, I hit his head. Broke one of my knuckles on it, but sent parts of his skull into his brain. He died in a coma five hours later. It bothered me for a while, but not enough to affect me in my next fight. You ask Beef, it weighed heavy on him for a week. Don't think he even slept with more than one girl in that time; that's how much it bothered him. But like a good soldier, you put your life back on track and deal with it, not allowing it to eat you up alive, especially since Pink was the one that was trying to kill you after losing a fair fight. No offense, but you can't feel too bad for something that was little more than self-defense. It was too bad it happened, but that's life. Sounds like what you're doing now is getting yours back on track." He paused a moment before saying. "Makes me proud of you."

Shampoo was genuinely moved by the sentiment. "Thank you."

"No problem."

Jaddo's speech lightened the load upon her heart. She had not realized how much Pink's death had bothered her until she spoke of it to someone else. Now she felt even more parts of her discomfort falling to the wayside as she was indeed putting her life back on its proper path. It was still depressing, leaving the nearest thing to a home she had since departing her village, but as long as she had her goals in sight and her mentor at her side, all would be well.

"They're really going to be strapped around here with you moving on, Pink gone on, and Snakebite and Link disappearing like that."

The truth was Shampoo felt relief at the disappearance of the last one. Shortly after Pink's death, she had been certain Link would go ballistic and try to kill her, especially since she had blamed Shampoo for a series of incidents that she had nothing to do with. But surprisingly, after a short stay in the infirmary for some undisclosed illness, Link just upped and disappeared, just like Snakebite had. That was another one Shampoo was glad was gone. Trying to avenge the death of a loved one was a possibility for the sort of man he was, and Snakebite probably would have advanced to the Imperial Arena where the two might have met. But unlike Link, there were doubts Shampoo had about his desire to kill her. After all, the man was a faithless bastard that hit on other women all the time, not the sort to swear revenge for a lost woman when he could just seduce another. How much could he have loved Pink if he behaved like that?

As to the loss of most of the four hottest commodities, Shampoo did feel bad for Tetsuo, but more would come up in the next crop of fighters. That was the way it always worked. There might be a couple of slow months until then, but the arena in Hong Kong was too resilient to allow such a relatively minor loss to affect it in anything but a small way. No doubt it and the fights would still be going long after Shampoo was dead and buried. But not until many years after she became a citizen.

"Do you have everything packed?" Shampoo asked. Their ship's departure was within the next three hours, and she wanted to be certain they arrived there with plenty of time to spare. There was no telling what might go wrong on the way there. Knowing how rough her luck sometimes ran, it would probably be plenty.

"I do," Jaddo answered somewhat hesitantly.

Shampoo looked around the room again. "I'm going to miss this place. I think I'm going to miss Beef's food most of all, and don't accuse me of only thinking with my stomach. Do they have Italian places in Japan?"

Jaddo's discomfort seemed to grow. "Some. Most aren't as good as his, though. The man knows his food."

"That he does," Shampoo agreed with a laugh. "When we get to Japan, do you think you could show me to one of those places? I don't mean to bug you about it, but everyone says Tokyo's really different from Hong Kong and since the people will be speaking Japanese, and you keep telling me my Japanese isn't any good, even if you are the only one that says it, I'd appreciate the additional help until I get settled in."

"I'm not going to Japan with you."

The words caused Shampoo to stiffen. She gave a wide-eyed stare to her mentor. "What do you mean you're not going? I saw you packing last night."

"I'm going back to the mainland. Going to see if I can scare up some more fighters."

Shampoo's lip began trembling. "But what about the Arena? We're supposed to go there."

"You are going there," Jaddo assured her. "They don't much approve of trainers there, except only dropping by occasionally. If you're any good, you're supposed to not need them by the time you get there. You hit the big time like that, you got to be your own person. You got to stand on your own two feet."

"But I still have a lot to learn. You said so yourself," Shampoo protested.

"You do, but I'm not the one to teach it to you," Jaddo said reluctantly. "Look, I've taught you everything you need to make it in the big league. I sharpened you up, honed your skills, taught you how to play the crowd, kept your head on straight in the early days when you needed my guidance. I even stuck around extra after I sold your contract to make sure you kept on the right path. You did. You don't need me anymore."

"Yes, I do!" Shampoo protested.

Jaddo laughed at that, but it was a bittersweet one. "That's the first time you ever admitted you need my help, and it's the first time you don't need it. Now that is a good one."

"No, it's not!" Tears started to form in Shampoo's eyes.

"Now quit crying, you big baby. No one else I ever taught cried, and I don't want to hear it from you." Even if she was the fighter he had grown to care about the most. Not that he would admit that to her, even now. It would just guarantee she would bawl her eyes out, and it might be bad enough to make his eyes get moist. He was above that sort of cheap emotional crap, he assured himself.

Shampoo firmed her resolve, though her eyes remained watery. "I want you to go with me. I won't have any friends there. No one will know me and everyone will hate me."

"When we first go here you didn't have any friends here either, and only some of the people hated you, and most of them are gone. I'd say that's a good sign," Jaddo pointed out. "Look, there is like here. Oh sure, the competition is tougher and there's going to be a lot more attention on you, but when it comes to the fighters themselves, it's always the same. We got our own little subculture going on, and all the flashy stuff the Impys add isn't going to change that. You'll find a clique to belong to. You'll probably make some nice friends there. You'll probably piss some people off since you're so much better than them, so yah, it will be tough, but you'll come out on top. If I didn't think so, I would never have let you enter that fight. You'll do fine. You just got to give it time."

"But my Japanese is bad," she said. Even she would have admitted it was a pathetic attempt to get him to stay.

Jaddo's voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "Want to know a secret?"

Intrigued, Shampoo said, "Yes."

He placed his hand next to his mouth so no one would be able to read his lips. "When I first got to the Impy Arena, I spoke it worse than you." He gave her a wink.

Shampoo stared at him in disbelief. Then it happened. She did not want it to happen -she was too depressed- but it still did. A snicker slipped out. Then another. Then a third. It got progressively worse, like a snowball thrown from the top of a mountain, picking up snow as it rolled down the hill. The snickers became chuckles, then it became outright laughter until Shampoo was nearly crying from how hard she was laughing.

Once she got it under control, she asked in a much more elated, yet at the same time somber, voice, "So you really are leaving?"

"Afraid so." This time Jaddo did not hide his reluctance. "I will drop by at some point though. I should have the time to do that. Sure got the money to do it after what you racked in for me. I'll see how far you've let yourself get fat and lazy without me around. Maybe I'll make you do a workout or two to toughen you up."

"I'll look forward to it," Shampoo said, and for perhaps the first time, meant it.

On impulse, she moved forward and embraced him. After an awkward moment, he returned the gesture. He had never hugged a fighter before when they parted company. Given most of them, he wouldn't have wanted to. But Shampoo was different. As different as day was to night.

In a moment that was as rare for Jaddo as a four leaf clover growing in a field of dandelions, he said, "You know something. I've never had a pupil that kept me on my toes as much as you do. I never had anyone so cocky, headstrong, stubborn, or exasperating. I've also never had one that I've been so fond of either. Why, if I had a daughter, I bet she'd have turned out just like you."

"Really?" Shampoo asked, looking up at him.

"Yah. Thankfully, the good Lord above has seen fit not to plague the world with two of you."

Shampoo snickered at the jibe. She was going to miss them so. She remained in his embrace, wishing that she had had an uncle like him back home. Her life would have been more interesting, if nothing else.

After another minute of remaining that way, Jaddo broke off the embrace and bent down to kiss her forehead. "That's all the sentimentality you'll squeeze out of me. I'll see you to the docks and make sure you get on the ship all right. We can bullshit about all the good times we had while we wait."

Shampoo gave him an incredulous look.

Jaddo relented. "Okay, we'll make up stuff and pretend we had nothing but good times we shared."

That made Shampoo laugh. He was right. Too much sincere sentimentality did not fit him at all. She liked Jaddo just the way he was, and wanted to remember him that way, even if he found being insufferable as easy as breathing.

Looking over her bags and trunk, Shampoo turned to him and asked, "Since this is our last time together, would you help me carry some of my bags?"

Jaddo's mood changed in an instant. The smile he wore was replaced with a scowl. He went over to where the steamer trunk lay on her bed and said, "Don't be stupid, girl. Since this is our last time together, you're going to get a good workout."


Before Shampoo could react, Jaddo picked up the trunk and heaved it at her. Despite its tremendous weight, she managed to catch it, though it took a moment for her to properly balance it. By the time she had a firm grasp, he had taken the rest of the bags, tied a cord around them, and wrapped them around her neck.

"Now that's more like it. Since we're not taking a taxi to the dock-"

"We're not?!"

Jaddo unfolded a segmented meter long ruler from a pocket and smacked her rump with it. "No interruptions! Now, as I was saying, since we're not taking a taxi, you're going to have to jog with all that stuff down to the dock or you'll miss your boat."

"I am not!"

That got her another smack. "It figures the instant you think you're be free of me you'd get lazy. Now get moving. Hut, hut, hut!"

Having no choice but to do as she was instructed or remain standing for her entire sea voyage from a sore bottom, Shampoo did as she was ordered and began jogging with the trunk and bags around her. "Only three hours until I'm finally free."

"You'll never be free of me. When you least expect it, I'll pop out of nowhere and make you work out instead of letting you eat pasta and making your behind wider."

"Not if you're dead."

"Don't be stupid, girl. If I die, I'll come back and haunt you when you start slacking off!"

"Now there's something to look forward to."

Another smack was applied. "Less talk, more run. Miss that boat and you'll be swimming to Japan."

Shampoo shut her mouth and kept jogging. Despite the unexpected nature of what was going to be an exhausting workout, she wore a smile the entire time. This was the perfect way for the two of them to part ways, masochistic as it sounded. The insecurities that had plagued her since the reality of her advancement set in had disappeared. Now she felt ready to take on whatever the world would dish out and was confident she could come out on top.

It was all just one more step on the path she had set out upon.


Author's notes: This is the end of Path of the Warrior. The rest of Shampoo's story will be covered by Jurai-Knight in the main story of Quantum Destinies. Other factors, such as Pink, Snakebite, and Shadowlaw will likewise be covered in future tales either by myself or him. No, it's not a nice ending wrapped up neatly in a bow. It was never going to be. This was a tale of beginnings for many, rather than an ending for all. And so it has been.

Special thanks to:

  • L.B. Drifter
  • Chris Horton
  • Wade Tritschler
  • Jurai-Knight
  • Jim Bader
  • Ryan Anderson
  • Chan Wei Lik
  • Small Pink Mouse
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Last revision: May 21, 2007

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