Combat Origin: A Dystopian Gamelit Adventure
It's her sixteenth birthday and Kiriai has a big decision to make. Will she fight for her dream to battle in the arena? Or buckle under her grandfather's pressure to become a healer?
Her best friend Eigo is an outcast from his scrounger family. On a recent expedition into the wastelands, he found a peculiar birthday gift for Kiriai—an AI trainer from a centuries-old, martial arts game. Could it give her the advantage she needs? Will Kiriai win the fight that decides her future?
An impossible deadline, a persuasive mentor, and her own family all stand in Kiriai's way. If she loses, she'll be consigned to a mundane life, but more importantly, banned from the arena forever. Kiriai can't let that happen.
Combat Origin is the first book in the World of Combat, young adult, dystopia series. If you like strong heroines, gamelit and a good brawl, buy a copy today.
Release date: August 1, 2019
Print pages: 335
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Combat Origin: A Dystopian Gamelit Adventure
“When the world began to fall apart, we all assumed the government would eventually show up and fix everything back to the way it was. We were wrong.”
— Anonymous Journal #21, Oath Keepers Archive of Truth, Volume 12
The blow rocked Kiriai’s head and the familiar copper taste filled her mouth. She staggered back a step and shook her head to clear her thoughts. This wasn’t the birthday present she’d been hoping for when she woke up this morning.
“Do you need a break again?” asked Sento as he waited for her to recover. “I just need to run through this new combo a couple more times and it’ll be ready to use in the dispute arena on Saturday.”
“Who are you up against? Which ’zen are you representing? What’s the dispute?”
Sento raised one eyebrow. Kiriai felt stupid. He was her only chance and she was going to ruin it by acting like another annoying fan.
“Sorry. I’m just curious about the other aspects of being a scrapper and how it all works,” Kiriai said, hoping to sound more like a serious student. “I have a lot to learn and I appreciate how much you’re teaching me.” Kiriai held her breath, hoping the touch of flattery would help pry more answers from the experienced fighter.
He considered her words as he stood in a relaxed fighting stance, hardly showing any effects from their last hour of intense training. His short, black hair didn’t have a strand out of place. On the other hand, Kiriai was a sweaty mess, clad in her faded uniform that showed her ankles after a recent growth spurt. Sento wore a tailored gi, Jitaku’s green and white patch a bright spot of color against the black fabric. His pale skin gleamed in a way that accentuated his striking looks. Even his nose, slightly crooked from previous fights, added a rugged quality to his face. A few inches taller than she, he outweighed her with muscles chiseled by his life as a hood scrapper.
“I’m fighting against Scrapper Hando,” he finally said.
“The two-striper who’s got some really good kicks?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Sento said, surprise and a touch of approval on his face. Kiriai struggled to keep a serious expression on her face when she really wanted to grin like an idiot. All those hours at the arena would pay off today. She could just feel it.
“Hando is lower rank than I am,” Sento said with a casual gesture at the fighter’s implant on the back of his neck. The flexible rectangle glowed white with three yellow stripes, tangible proof of Sento’s rank and skill. Kiriai wanted one of her own so badly she could taste it.
“—but he’s sneaky with those kicks and has surprised others before me. If you want to be a good scrapper, remember that information and preparation can be even more valuable than fighting skills sometimes.”
Kiriai nodded but stayed silent, hoping the interested expression on her face would prompt Sento to say more.
“The dispute is actually an interesting one this time, though I get paid the same as I do for the boring ones. ’Zen Tenshu, a shop owner, suspected one of his employees had been stealing from him. Instead of reporting it to the ’forcers, he set a trap in the locked cupboard where he stored the valuable jewelry at night—”
“You’re fighting in the chopped off hand dispute?!” Kiriai couldn’t help herself. The story had made the rounds of the entire hood within hours.
Sento pursed his lips. “Let’s get back to work. I still have a lot to do today.”
“I’m sorry for interrupting,” Kiriai said and ducked her head into a repentant posture. When would she learn to think before speaking? “Please continue. I know how little fact there is in gossip and I’d love to hear the story from someone directly involved, like you.”
Sento hesitated, looking indecisive.
“Please?” Kiriai looked up, hoping he’d relent. She resolved not to say a single word if Sento decided to share the rest of the story.
The older fighter sighed, but Kiriai could see the story pushing to be told. It was too sensational to keep bottled up. “Well, Tenshu posted a warning sign on the door about the booby trap. The stupid employee thought the sign was just a decoy. One night, he snuck in and pried open the cupboard anyway and”—now Sento’s eyes were gleaming with amusement—“as soon as he reached into the cupboard, the machete came slamming down and cut off his hand.”
Kiriai flinched at the visual image.
“The fixers were able to stop the bleeding, but couldn’t save the hand. Most ’zens thought it was perfect justice. The idiot showed up at hood headquarters to file a dispute against his boss for the future amount of credits he will lose being a one-handed worker. Normally the hood magistrate would refuse such a frivolous dispute, but Hood Boss Akuto doesn’t want to encourage vigilante justice, so he’s letting this one through.”
Kiriai shook her head, grinning at all the drama. “I can’t wait to see you win and teach that idiot what happens to thieves, especially stupid ones.”
Sento didn’t return her grin. “Kiriai—I’m fighting for the thief, not the shopkeeper.”
Sento scoffed and Kiriai felt foolish all over again. “Just because the ’zens get to choose their scrappers, doesn’t mean we get a choice. We fight when and where we’re told. Besides, I get paid the same for a win, no matter what side of a dispute I am on.” He took a closer look at her. “What? Change your mind about wanting to be a scrapper?”
“No,” Kiriai hastened to answer.
“Well, it isn’t all fame and glory. Not only is it a ton of brutal and painful work, there is a dark underbelly to the whole business that the fans never see. Still interested?”
Kiriai wasn’t a stranger to hard work. Making any headway as a smaller girl in the dusty rings of the youth arena was no easy task. And there wasn’t anything else like the thrill of the fight when she pushed her body and it responded, faster and harder than her opponent. Victory was so much sweeter for the number of failures that came before.
Kiriai tried to summon back a sober expression.
“No,” he said. “That smile tells me a lot.”
Kiriai wasn’t sure what he meant, but decided to keep quiet. She didn’t need any more naive words to come out of her mouth.
“You ready to go again?”
“Sure,” she said and used her tongue to probe her swelling lip. That punch had hurt. She wiped the back of a hand across her forehead and blew out a breath before putting her hands up again. Seeing she was ready, Sento gave her a nod and settled into his stance. Kiriai tensed, bent her knees and gripped the worn bamboo floor of her home dojo with her feet. Their practice session was almost over and Kiriai still hadn’t figured out how to broach the subject more important to her than anything else in her life right now. If she didn’t say something soon, she could lose everything.
Kiriai’s thoughts were scattered as Sento charged at her with the same five-move sequence he’d practiced for the last quarter hour. Her job was to give him an opponent to practice on and if she could manage it, block a few moves. He moved so fast, she wasn’t doing so well with the second. The first, though, that wasn’t difficult, just painful.
This time, Sento went easier on her, pulling his punches at the last instant. It wouldn’t do to ruin his practice partner. The sequence done, Sento stepped back and cleared his throat. He was ready to go again. She would really love to rest, but there was no way she would tell him that.
“Do you need a break, kid, or can we finish?” Sento asked as if he could read her mind.
Kiriai tamped down her annoyance. She was lucky to have a shot to work with such an experienced scrapper, not to mention one who hadn’t given away his sponsor token yet. He held the key to getting a shot at her dream, but she had to get it from him today.
She put her hands back up, but his condescension still rankled. He had been a beginner once, himself, hadn’t he?
She didn’t think before she spoke. “I’m not a kid. You’re only two years older than me. I may not be a scrapper, but I’ve been fighting and training since I could walk.” Kiriai clamped her mouth shut. She looked to see how much she’d annoyed the scrapper.
Instead of being angry, Sento barked out a laugh of surprise. He eased back, stretched his neck side to side and shook his hands out. Kiriai let out a relieved sigh.
“That’s what I’ve always liked about you, kid,” Sento said, emphasizing the nickname. “You’re fearless. That is worth its weight in gold in a scrapper.”
Her time was up. It was now or never. She couldn’t wait any longer for Sento to offer her the promised payment. Kiriai’s heart started racing and her mouth went dry. She struggled to seem nonchalant as she spoke. “I need to ask about the sponsor token you promised me.” She wasn’t able to hide the hint of desperation in her tone. “It’s been weeks now and I’m running out of time. Actually, I need it today.”
“What’s your hurry, kid? You still need more training time before you’re ready to be thrown into the scrapper ring. You think this is tough?” He shook his head and Kiriai saw how little he thought of her skills. “Besides, I only have one sponsor token. I have to choose who I think will be the best fighter for the hood before I decide who to give it to. Plus, I want someone who wins a lot. The sponsor commissions can build into quite a pile of credits in two years.”
“What?” She struggled not to yell. She’d been so patient and now he was going to welsh on their agreement. “We had a deal. I spar with you, and you give me the sponsor token. And now you’re saying it’s all about credits? You can’t give it to someone else!”
Instead of anger, a haughty coldness filled his face. Kiriai gulped. He was happy to tolerate her as a practice partner, but not if she challenged him.
“I never promised you the token,” he countered. “If you recall the terms of our ’rangement, you agreed to spar with me in private, and I agreed to give you my sponsor token when I decided you were ready to become a scrapper.” He scoffed and shook his head. “Who knows when I will decide you’re ready? What if you never are?”
The outrage that filled Kiriai at his deception hurt much worse than the blow to the head. He was right. That had been their ’rangement. Besides, she had no real power to force him to give her his token. With a sinking feeling, she realized it was in his favor the longer he strung her along.
Anger and desperation built in her chest. She had to make this work!
Her grandfather, Ojisan, had been pressuring her for a decision and today, her birthday, was his deadline. The image of him last night popped into her head, a white-haired older man pulled up to his full height, which still only reached her chin. His lined face had been stern, his finger waving, and his words were delivered with the presumption that everyone in hearing would jump to obey.
“You’ll be sixteen-years-old tomorrow and it’s time to commit to your path. I expect you to officially start your fixer apprenticeship under my direction by nightfall tomorrow. You’ve been blessed with the mind and work ethic to be a great healer. You’ll learn to save lives, like those of your parents. You need to put aside your childish fancies.” And then, as if he had been giving her some great concession, he had added, “You may take the day to come to terms with the significant commitment this signifies in your life.” Her face must have been fairly distraught because at the end he had softened enough to give her a half smile before patting her on the shoulder and saying softly, “It’s time to grow up, Kiriai-chan.”
Just remembering how he treated her, and bringing up her parents that way, made her blood boil. Just because he couldn’t save them didn’t mean she had to be stuck with a lifetime of mixing herbs and tending sick patients alongside him. It would be torture. And how could he be oblivious to how much she loved fighting, how good she was?
She had one way out: convince Sento to give her his token so she could officially become a Jitaku Hood scrapper. She refused to give up her dream without fighting to the last second.
With renewed determination, she settled back into a stance and put her hands up. “Fine. I’ll show you I’m ready to be a scrapper. Let’s go again, Sento? Or are you too tired, old man?”
He laughed in surprise. “I thought you’d had enough for the morning. But I’m happy to go another round before I have to get back to hood headquarters.”
“Wait,” she interrupted him as he moved into his own fighting stance. “Let’s up the stakes for this last bout,” she said, knowing how much he loved a challenge.
He smiled and Kiriai’s hope flared back to life.
“Sure, kid. What did you have in mind?” Then his expression sobered. “But it can’t be money. That’s like taking candy from a baby. It has to be something that won’t steal food off your table.”
Kiriai felt her face flush. Even Sento knew how tight money was in their household. She shoved that embarrassment to the back of her mind and focused on her desperate plan. She was determined to do better with the terms of this ’rangement than the previous one. This time she had to be the one to manipulate the terms to get what she wanted.
“How about if I can land a strike, any strike, on a critical target, in this last bout, you will give me your sponsor token?”
Sento dropped his hands and took a step back, looking unwilling to follow through on the reward he’d promised her for weeks.
Kiriai pushed harder. “I’m just asking for what you promised. If I can land a critical blow, then I’ll be ready, won’t I? I know I’m nowhere close to your level of skill, but I’ve learned a lot from you. If I become a scrapper it will be because of how much you’ve taught me.” She added the last, hoping to flatter both his honor and pride.
Seconds passed in silence as the young man considered her offer. Kiriai forced herself to relax and project confidence. She was a fighter. She deserved this. Most importantly, she had earned this.
When Sento’s face relaxed into an arrogant grin, adrenaline and excitement flared through Kiriai. He was going to agree.
“Maybe, kid. But you only mentioned how you would win the bet, not what’s in it for me. We have to do a little ’ranging to settle the details before we start. It’ll be like our own unofficial battle. And since you’re the one who started naming terms, why don’t you finish? Detail the win/loss conditions and prizes.”
A sudden sense of uncertainty popped her excited bubble. She was a fighter, not a ’ranger. Besides, she had already lost out in their first ’rangement with Sento. She needed all her wits to come up with the words and details that would give her the best chance of winning the token.
“Not so sure anymore? Maybe this isn’t the best idea after all.” He turned toward the pile of his folded street clothes on a wooden bench against the back wall of the dojo. “’Ranged fights outside the arena are illegal anyway. We can talk about the sponsor token in a few days when I have time for another training session.”
“No, wait,” she almost yelled. He turned around, eyebrows raised. “It has to be today. If I don’t win your token today, I’ll be starting a fixer apprenticeship with my grandfather tomorrow.”
“Taking care of injuries?”
“And the sick,” Kiriai added, dropping her voice.
Sento blanched and raised a hand. “That kind of stuff should stay behind closed doors, in iso.”
Kiriai had grown up around her grandfather’s work, but she’d run into plenty of ’zens who responded like Sento. Fixing injuries was an accepted part of a society full of arenas, but no one wanted anything to do with illnesses and the sick. Even now, generations later, whispers of the horrible post-blast plagues haunted their society.
Kiriai shrugged. “Someone has to do it. My grandfather saves lives, but it’s not the life I want. I want to be a scrapper like you. Will you give me a shot today?”
Kiriai held her breath as Sento decided what to do.
“I’m not going to just give you my token. You have to earn it. The fighter I sponsor has to be a winner.” His voice was sharp, but Kiriai thought there was some sympathy in his expression.
Kiriai nodded, trying not to look too eager. “Of course. I wouldn’t want your token if I didn’t earn it.” It seemed the right thing to say, even if it was a lie.
Sento gave her an approving nod.
“I’m ready to ’range the terms.” A crazy plan was coming together in Kiriai’s mind.
“Let’s say this is a training session with a teacher offering a reward as an incentive for doing well,” he countered. “And any ’ranging is also strictly for practice, agreed?”
Kiriai nodded and let out a breath before speaking. Her plan had to work. “I win if I score a blow to a critical target on your body during the bout. My prize―I mean incentive―is your sponsor token given to me immediately after the bout. You win if you are able to keep me from scoring a blow to a critical target for the entire bout. Your, uh, compensation for training?” she hesitated, hoping the phrasing would skirt the issue of illegal fighting. Sento smiled this time and with a grin Kiriai continued. “… is ten extra sparring sessions, your choice of day and time.”
Sento stopped, his face giving nothing away as he went over the conditions in his mind.
“Twenty sessions,” he countered, before adding, “as compensation.”
Kiriai’s heart almost stopped at the rush of elation that coursed through her body. He was going to make the bargain. She had a chance!
She took a steadying breath and forced her voice to remain calm. “Fifteen sessions is a good compromise, don’t you think?” she countered, knowing that driving a hard bargain was essential for a fighter. Sento didn’t need to know that she would have happily wagered a year of bouts for the chance at his sponsor token today.
“Deal. And two more details,” Sento said, raising his hand and making Kiriai’s hopes falter. “We need to define a critical target and the length of the bout in order to best advance your training.”
Kiriai hesitated. She had to get this right. It took a few moments for her to sift through words and phrases to find the best ones. It didn’t help that she needed to add something to distract Sento so he didn’t examine the wording too closely. Sento waited patiently. Kiriai knew he expected this to be an easy contest and hoped that his arrogance would work against him. With a last mental adjustment to the wording, she said a quick prayer to her ancestors and committed herself.
“The length of the bout will be four minutes. A critical target will be defined as a body part that, if injured, will significantly decrease the fighter’s ability to continue to fight, or,” she added, raising a hand to stop Sento before he interrupted. She had to distract him from the first part of the ’rangement. “―a blow to any portion of the head. I don’t want to lose because you argue that you could continue to fight with a bruised ear. If I can land a blow to any part of your head, that should be enough to earn the token, don’t you think?” She shrugged with a sheepish expression acknowledging how unlikely such an event was.
Sento considered her words for a few short moments before returning her grin. “Well, I did say that I liked how fearless you are. One four-minute bout and if you can land a blow to my head or another critical target, you’ll have your token before I leave. If not, you’ll owe me fifteen more training sessions.” He held out his hand. With a racing heart Kiriai shook it, sealing the ’rangement that gave her one chance at the future her heart was set on. All she had to do was earn it.
“Now,” Sento said as he stepped back to the standard starting distance for a bout, “you can’t argue that I haven’t been teaching you any fighting skills. The details of the ’rangement are sometimes more important than the fight itself. With this little lesson today, I’ve taught you the basics from start to finish, even though this is just a training exercise.”
Kiriai hardly heard a word he was saying. She felt like everything was moving too fast. She needed more time to prepare. It was crazy that the next four minutes would determine her entire future. Sento had already settled into a fighting stance, fists clenched, bare feet gripping the bamboo floor and ready to attack. His strength and skill would be obvious to any onlooker while she probably looked like a worried schoolgirl.
Kiriai clenched her jaw, chastised herself, and struggled to push aside all the emotions rushing through her. It took a few seconds, but the calm calculation of her inner fighter finally managed to take charge. She took a deep breath and released it slowly through pursed lips. She had one purpose: to hit Sento, just once, in the next four minutes.
“Screen, set bout time for four minutes, with one-minute warnings and a twenty-second final countdown,” Sento instructed.
“Four-minute bout timer set,” came the answer as their home screen mounted on the dojo wall flickered to life. The large numbers appeared on the screen, stark against the black background, just waiting for a command to start counting down.
“Ready?” Sento asked, drawing her attention back to the match.
Not trusting herself to speak, Kiriai nodded, bent her knees and tightened her focus. Her mouth was so dry, it was hard to swallow.
“Screen, begin bout timer.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Sento had exploded across the distance to her. He faked a high blow, kicked her front foot out from under her and with aplomb landed a solid uppercut in the moment she hung mid-air. The forceful blow sent her crashing backward onto the springy wood of the dojo floor and knocked the wind out of her. The uppercut had been perfectly placed, in that sweet spot centered in her torso, just beneath her ribs. She curled on the floor, every muscle in her chest spasming, unable to respond to her commands to breathe. A tiny internal voice reassured her that she would be able to breathe again soon, until it was drowned out by her clawing panic for a breath of air, now.
Sento stepped back and stood calmly as the seconds ticked by, waiting to see if she would get up. Seconds passed like hours. Finally, with an unexpected jolt, Kiriai's muscles let loose, and she gasped in the sweetest breath of air she could ever remember. Get up. She knew she had to get up. She chanted the words in her head and pushed herself to her hands and knees. Her breathing was still ragged, each breath ending in a groan.
She finally made it to her feet, settled into a shaky stance and held up her fists. Sento’s gaze met hers and she saw the self-satisfied smirk on his face. It was dawning on her how much of a better fighter he was. He really had been going easy on her, using her to test out his newer, less practiced skills. He had also been giving her a smattering of openings to allow her to learn from him. But this, this was a ’ranged fight, and winning was the goal. He looked determined to keep his sponsor token and wouldn’t leave her a single opening.
Kiriai refused to quit. An apprenticeship under her grandfather wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but it wasn’t fighting. She forced herself to ignore the pain and focus on the fight. If she won the token and became a scrapper, she’d have to get used to pain like this on a regular basis.
“Three minutes remaining,” the screen announced.
Sento seemed to think he had already won. “There’s no shame in losing to an opponent with superior training,” he said, his voice calm and confident.
His words ignited a mix of outrage and determination.
“I—” She tried to speak, only to have her voice choke without the breath to support it. There would be no chance of winning if she couldn't draw in a decent breath. Kiriai forced her lungs open with three deep breaths, releasing a loud kiai with the last exhale.
Surprise crossed Sento’s face, but was then replaced by a pleased expression. “I have to admit,” he said, “I would have been disappointed if you had quit. You have a strong fighting spirit. You just need more training.”
“Well,” she said, her voice raspy, “I’ll be getting that training after I win the sponsor token from you today.”
“No one can accuse you of a lack of confidence,” he said with a laugh.
Kiriai didn’t respond. Instead, she took advantage of his distraction to dart forward, trying a low kick followed by a sequence of punches thrown as fast as she was able. Despite her best efforts, Sento easily slipped to the side, evading her attack and executing his own series, landing a glancing sideways blow beneath her rib cage. It wasn’t a solid hit, but it made her gasp in pain and struggle to catch her breath again.
The next two minutes passed in a similar fashion. The more experienced fighter easily evaded everything Kiriai could throw at him and landed blow after blow. At least he limited himself to occasional single blows and didn’t seem inclined to knock her out or cause significant injury.
It wouldn’t do to break your sparring partner, she thought cynically to herself.
“One minute remaining.” The mechanical voice held no emotion or acknowledgment of the fact that it was counting down to the death of all her hopes.
Kiriai stood on shaky legs, panting to get enough air into her lungs. It was a fight to keep despair from winning out. She had a single minute to earn her place as a fighter and she couldn’t let it slip through her fingers.
At this point, it was impossible to land a blow against Sento. All she had left was the wording of their ’rangement and the desperate plan she’d hatched before the fight. She had to get close enough. Until now, she’d been chasing a shadow that flitted just out of her reach no matter how hard she tried to hit it.
“Twenty seconds remaining,” said the screen.
It was now or never. They had time for one last exchange. Everything depended on Sento underestimating her. If he felt assured of the victory, she might have a chance. With all the energy and speed she had left, Kiriai charged. She had given up on any kind of trained technique and simply threw as many punches, kicks and strikes as she could while throwing herself bodily at her opponent. Nothing landed. It seemed Sento had an even easier time avoiding her flurried attacks and, with a skilled sidestep, was able to slip an uppercut into her side that made her gasp in pain. Kiriai slowed. It wasn’t hard to act as if the fight were over for her. Sento didn’t bother stepping back this time and Kiriai would have smiled if she had had the energy.
“Ten seconds remaining. Ten, nine, …”
Kiriai blinked her eyes, struggling to focus her vision. She pushed the pain to the back of her mind, knowing she’d pay for it later. She had to focus. This was it. She hoped that Sento’s arrogance would give her the chance she needed.
With a desperate call to her ancestors for luck, Kiriai pulled herself up for one last attack. She knew Sento didn’t have an ounce of compassion during a real fight. She was depending on that. She kicked and punched with all the strength she had left. Even she could tell it was pathetic. Then she dangled the bait. As if exhausted, she left the entire front of her body unguarded, the perfect target for a kick. Sento took the bait, and with negligent ease, he threw a simple front kick to her unguarded center, slow and without his usual quick recoil.
Agony exploded from the point of the kick through her whole body, making even her fingers and toes curl in pain, but she acted before he could pull his leg back. Desperate, she grabbed the scrapper’s lower leg. With her last remaining strength, she brutally slammed her fist into the top of his foot, before collapsing to the ground in a boneless heap.
“Ow!” Sento yelped as he danced back and scowled down at her.
“End of the bout,” announced the screen.
“What kind of jerk move was that?” Sento demanded. The fighter tested his weight on the injured foot and winced.
Kiriai, still struggling to breathe as she pushed herself up to a sitting position, looked up at her angry sparring partner. She couldn’t keep the smile off her face. She had done it!
“That is the jerk move that won me your sponsor token,” she said in triumph.
“What?” He demanded, his face twisted with surprise and anger.
Her smile faded and uncertainty returned. “But I landed a blow to a critical target?” Ugh. She gritted her teeth at how tentative her voice sounded. She had outsmarted Sento and won the bout. Why can’t I stand up for myself?
Sento’s roar of laughter made her feel even worse.
“You think hitting me in the foot counts as a critical target?” He barely got the words out between his laughter and had to lean forward to catch his breath. “You can’t win a bout by hitting someone in the foot. Besides,” he said, recovering and taking on a more serious tone, “someone who lost his token from a punch to the foot would be a laughingstock.” Then, as if visualizing the very event, his expression turned cold as he met her eyes again. “And I will not be a laughingstock.”
“But our ’rangement―”
“Said a critical target or the head, not the foot.” Sento interrupted, his voice cold and intimidating.
“But the foot significantly affects your ability to fight,” Kiriai tried one more time as she struggled and failed to get up. It was impossible to argue her point from such a weak position on the floor.
Sento stepped closer and towered over her. The look on his face made the rest of her words dry up in her mouth and she sat back. That cold anger aimed in her direction made it impossible to speak.
“You. Lost. The. Bout.” He enunciated every word, and Kiriai knew it was over. She sagged and dropped her head into her hands. Having made his point, Sento turned to gather his things on the other side of the dojo.
“B is for Blast. The Blast destroyed the ancient world and almost everyone in it.”
— Chikara City Elementary Primer
“What in the name of the ancestors is going on here?” roared a familiar, commanding voice.
It was her grandfather.
Kiriai wanted to disappear into the floor. She didn’t know if she could take any more right now.
Sento responded before she could. “Your granddaughter invited me to spar in your dojo to train for my upcoming dispute fight. We just finished. I’m leaving.” His tone was arrogant and he’d straightened to his full height to look down on Ojisan.
Kiriai could tell Ojisan took offense at the young fighter’s tone, but as usual, he kept strict control of his emotions and merely gave the scrapper a nod as he gathered his things and stepped out through the sliding door. The bang of the door closing sealed her fate.
It was her turn.
Ojisan turned his steely gaze toward where she sat on in the middle of the dojo floor, feeling bruised and battered. There wasn’t an ounce of compassion in his expression, only irritation and disappointment. She hadn’t expected him to run over and help, but was it too much to ask for a moment to recover? She was obviously in a lot of pain. No. Ojisan had always demanded perfection—or at least the pursuit of perfection. Anything less was unacceptable.
Kiriai took a few deep breaths, smothered a groan and then forced herself to her feet to face her grandfather. She straightened her shoulders, clenched her fists and prepared for a battle.
The back door slid open with a bang and both of them turned.
“Happy Birthday, Kiriai!”
There, like a rescuing angel, stood her best friend Eigo. He had a huge grin on his face, a package in one hand and the other thrown out in an extravagant gesture.
Kiriai sagged in relief. Eigo moved across the room with a complete disregard for the standoff with her grandfather. He towered over the older man, but was so skinny he looked like his bones would snap in a strong wind. His shock of pale blond hair made him stand out in a crowd. She often felt the need to feed him, fatten him up from the skinny, practically albino boy who’d been a target of bullies since they were both young. That’s how their friendship had first formed. She’d protected him, and he’d helped her with her studies.
Eigo moved with the energy and determination of someone who was always in the middle of an important project that had to be finished right at that moment. Any room he entered brightened a few shades, and that was what Kiriai needed most right now. Best of all, he paid no attention to her grandfather’s authority and disapproval. Even more astonishing to Kiriai was Ojisan’s acceptance of Eigo’s behavior. He had always treated him like a favored pet for whom allowances had to be made. Though Kiriai was occasionally jealous, it was impossible to hold anything against Eigo for very long.
Ojisan turned to Eigo with the disapproval Kiriai had just been thinking about.
“Eigo,” said her grandfather, “I am having a private conversation with Kiriai at the moment. Would you please return later?”
As usual, Eigo ignored what he didn’t want to hear with an aplomb that made Kiriai envious.
“Ojisan, sir,” he said with deference in his tone, indicating Kiriai’s condition with one hand. “It looks like she needs some help before she can talk. I can help her and send her to you as soon as she’s recovered.” Eigo then bowed his head in a gesture that looked more comical than formal. “If I may?”
Kiriai watched in amazement as the corner of her grandfather’s mouth lifted slightly, indicating that amusement was replacing his earlier anger.
The old man unbent enough to give a slight bow in Eigo’s direction while completely ignoring Kiriai. “That would be acceptable if my granddaughter wasn’t out of time. She is disrespecting her ancestral gifts by wasting her time with these childish fighting pursuits.” His dismissive wave encompassed the whole dojo and seemed to discard everything Kiriai held dear with one gesture.
It was just too much. Why couldn’t he recognize how important fighting was to her—acknowledge her sacrifice if she gave it up to follow his path? Maybe then she could submit. She’d be unhappy, but able to submit.
Now? She couldn’t. She just couldn’t. “Fighting is not a childish pursuit. It is the basis for everything of value in our world,” she said, meeting her grandfather’s eyes and refusing to back down. “And not only have I wanted to be a fighter since I was a child, but I am good at it, really good. Why can’t you accept that?” She was almost yelling.
And Ojisan? Her grandfather was unmoved. “You were born with talents you can’t even understand and you want to throw them all away to pursue the worthless glory of the ring. I’ve never been more disappointed in you than I am at this moment,” he said in an icy voice that betrayed no emotion whatsoever.
“Perhaps there is a possible compromise?” A steady voice from the hallway to the rest of the house made Kiriai start. Isha, Ojisan’s apprentice was standing in the doorway, calm and unruffled. It took Ojisan a moment to tear his focus from his granddaughter to turn and look at his apprentice. His steely gaze seemed to have little effect on the woman as she stood calmly awaiting an answer. Even her hand holding a jar of herbs was rock steady.
When neither combatant spoke, she continued. “You have taught me that there can be a middle road found between two opposing paths, one that gathers the best from both paths,” she said simply.
Kiriai took a closer look at the woman who had taken an interest in her over the years she’d been working as her grandfather’s apprentice. Isha would have been described as an average middle-aged woman by anyone seeing her for the first time. Her hair was a nondescript brown. She was of medium height and her eyes and skin were of unremarkable colors. What had drawn Kiriai to her from the start, however, was her demeanor. Somehow, she projected a calm competence, no matter the situation. Isha was someone who could be relied upon in any crisis, and that couldn’t be any more true than in this moment. As Kiriai and her grandfather headed toward a permanent estrangement, Isha had calmly intervened to try to prevent a disaster.
Ojisan seemed to consider Isha’s words before shaking his head and turning back to Kiriai. The authoritative stoniness had returned to his face. “In this situation, there is no compromise. Kiriai, you can never become a fighter. That is final!”
Kiriai felt like she was balanced on a precipice, numb. One step either way would result in drastic differences in her future. Each pulled her, and she knew that either choice would leave her torn into pieces. The dojo was a frozen tableau, its thin walls caging another intense battle, but this time, one of wills instead of fists and feet. Her grandfather faced her, a frigid statue expecting her capitulation. Eigo watched, his expression worried. Isha stood, waiting to see what Kiriai would choose.
And then the anger came in a relentless rush, flooding through her body and mind, washing all the pain and indecision away with its intensity. It was time. Kiriai no longer cared about the consequences.
“This is my life,” she declared. “You can no longer tell me what to do. I have decided to become a fighter.” She paused, knowing there wasn’t any coming back from this. “And that is final!”
Silence. That was all the response he gave her. Still shaking from the overwhelming surge of rebellion, Kiriai wondered how she could have expected anything different.
And then, without another word, her grandfather turned on his heel and left the dojo, moving past Isha and sliding the door shut with a soft thump in his wake.
Kiriai let out the breath she’d been holding. Her shoulders slumped and as the tension left her, she realized it was the only thing that had been holding her up. Her knees buckled, but before she could hit the ground, Eigo lunged forward to catch her.
In typical Eigo fashion, the rescue turned into a tangled plummet to the ground where his chest broke her fall with a muffled, “Oomph!” The two of them lay there in a jumble for a few silent seconds, Eigo because he couldn’t breathe and Kiriai because she was drained and exhausted.
Then she felt all the stress and emotion spiral into hysterical laughter at how amusing her current situation was. It took only a moment for Eigo to join her. They sat side-by-side on the floor, laughing hard enough to cry. Even Isha began chuckling, which inspired another round of hilarity.
Isha moved to the storage shelves and busied herself with the herbs stored there. Finally, both exhausted, but with smiles on their faces, the two friends flopped back and stilled, though the occasional chuckle escaped. Peace settled into the dojo. All that could be heard was the sound of Isha moving the occasional pot or bundle of rustling herbs. A few muted street noises made their way through the dojo walls.
“Well, I don’t think it solved anything, but you needed a good laugh,” said Eigo.
“Yes, thank you. I really did,” Kiriai said seriously, turning her head to look at Eigo’s grinning face on the floor next to her.
“You know I’m always good for a laugh anytime you need one.”
“So, you came over to do something fun for my birthday and instead had to cheer me up with a bout of laughter after a fight with Ojisan?” she asked, when he didn’t say anything further.
“Oh,” he said, sitting up and reaching for something on the ground next to him. “I can’t believe I forgot your present. That’s the whole reason I came over.” He presented her with a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied intricately with a piece of twine so that the top knot looked like a flower.
Surprised, she reached for the gift. “You didn’t have to get me anything for my birthday,” she objected. “I’m just glad to have you as a friend. You don’t need to spend your few credits on something for me.”
The grimace on his face made her wish she could take back her words. She mentally kicked herself. She knew better than anyone how sometimes pride was all you had when credits were scarce. And if her friend had sacrificed valuable credits for a gift to her, who was she to discount it?
“I didn’t pay for it. It’s something I found in the wastelands on our last scrounge,” he said, his voice wooden and missing the excitement of moments before.
“Eigo, I didn’t mean…” she said, trying to find the words to undo the hurt. She tried again. “You know I’d love anything you got for me and”—she paused and tried for humor—“I’ll wait to get it appraised by the pawn man until after you leave.”
His eyes jerked up, ready for anything, but when he saw her smile, he returned the grin. “Well, at least you’re considerate enough to wait until I leave.” Smiling now, he tucked his legs underneath him and held out the package again.
Taking it, Kiriai felt the shape of a small box under the paper and intricate knot. She let go of all the drama of the day and enjoyed the simple pleasure of receiving a gift from a friend. Regardless of what was in the package, she was grateful for this.
After a few moments of picking at knots with fumbling fingers, she had the box free. Even Isha stopped working to come over, sit with them and join the simple celebration.
Kiriai started to open the lid and then pushed it back down.
“Aw, come on, Kiriai,” Eigo complained. “Just open it!”
If she could have, Kiriai would have frozen that moment and just lived there for the next few days, weeks or months. But she did as asked, and opened the gift.
Hmm. The unknown had been better than the reality. Trying to keep a grimace off her face, she removed a damaged yet intricate hunk of plastic and metal that Eigo had drilled a small hole in and threaded a chain through.
“Um,” she started to say, while holding it up with a forced smile on her face. “Eigo, thank you so much for this …” She couldn’t continue and let a snort of laughter out, “… for this hunk of plastic you’ve so nicely put on a chain so I can keep it next to my heart forever.” She got the last mocking sentence out before laughing again.
“Eigo, what is it?” she asked finally, while he just looked chagrined, waiting for her to stop laughing so he could explain.
“Well, that’s why I came to get you. I can’t actually show you until you come to my workshop, but,” he said, holding up a hand to stop her questions, “in short, it is an old fighting game, a relic I got to work on one of my cobbled together screens. And since fighting is all you ever talk about anymore, I thought it was a game we could play together.” He gave a sheepish shrug. “Since I’m not ever going to be able to actually spar with you, I thought this would be the next best thing.”
Now a real smile spread across Kiriai’s face. This was a gift from a true friend. Even though Eigo didn’t like seeing how much she got hurt in her training and didn’t share her interest, he knew how much it meant to her. So he had found a gift that allowed them to share the interest together. And while she usually just tolerated Eigo’s games, she’d be happy to give this one a try. Her grandfather should take lessons from the boy!
However, the ultimatum she’d just delivered to her grandfather was forefront in her mind right now. With a sinking feeling, she came to an unwanted conclusion—there was really only one way out of her predicament. She had to get the sponsor token from Sento and she had to do it today.
“Where are we going?” Eigo asked, panting as he tried to keep up with her pace, even though his longer legs allowed him to take one step for every two of hers. Kiriai was weaving through the late-morning market crowd with subconscious skill, her sandals deft on the uneven cobblestones of their neighborhood’s busiest section. Her mind was busy running through which strategies she’d use when she got to the hood’s headquarters. A spitting grill giving off a delicious smell pulled her attention to a small sidewalk vendor. Her breakfast of rice with a hefty serving of vegetables was ages ago and she kicked herself for not grabbing something to eat on her way out. She didn’t have extra credits for something in the market.
“Come on, Kiriai,” Eigo said. “You said we could try the new game I got you. We're headed to hood headquarters, not my workshop.”
She kept moving, sidestepping a small delivery cart on its programmed route before it ran into her. Sento would probably ignore her or order her to leave if she tried approaching him on his own. How could she make him honor the terms of their agreement?
“It’s your birthday.” Eigo tried again. “Don’t you think you have enough bruises for one day?” When she didn’t reply, he grabbed her sleeve and dug in his heels.
Surprised, Kiriai stopped. “Hey, don’t pull off my armband,” she said as she looked down at the green and white patterns of her Jitaku identification bunched up in his fist.
He let go immediately and a flush crept up his neck.
“Sorry, Eigo,” she said, feeling bad. “I'm trying to figure out my future. I don’t have time to play games.”
“You're planning to get that sponsor token from Sento, aren’t you?” he asked, disappointment on his face.
“Of course I am. What other choice do I have?”
“You have lots of choices. What you do for work doesn’t determine how you spend your free time.” Her expression must have been unyielding because he resorted to pleading. “I realize you love to fight, but you don’t have to make it your whole life. Helping your grandfather with his fixing and healing would give you plenty of free time and no extra injuries to get in the way of having fun.” He added a joking tone to the last few words and Kiriai gave him a half smile in response.
“Eigo, you know me better than anyone else. You recognize how much this means. Today is my birthday and I have one last chance to do this.” Now she was the one to let a tone of pleading enter her voice. “If I don’t try everything I can think of, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.”
She saw him falter. He understood how much this meant to her and it wasn’t in his nature to ask her to go against her dreams. She gave him a concession. “All I have is today. Help me today and, if I can’t get this to work, tomorrow I’ll beg Ojisan’s forgiveness and accept his choice for me.” The sudden vision of what that meant for her future made her sick to her stomach. What if she failed?
Eigo gave an abrupt nod and relaxed into his usual easy-going demeanor. “Then let’s go do our best to beat that sponsor token out of Sento. I’ll cheer you on,” he said and then grinned as he added, “from a safe distance.”
At least she had that. No matter what happened, Eigo would always be in her corner.
The two friends stood in front of the imposing dojo attached to the side of the hood headquarters building. Kiriai guessed her home dojo would fit many times over in the large structure. The outer walls were weathered, the bamboo of repaired sections paler than the older neighbors. Multi-layered roofs swooped down from small to large, lending a beauty to their utility in weathering the storms that crashed through the area. Bright red support posts and trim of the roof added a splash of color, setting it apart from its drab neighbors. It made the towering headquarters next to it look like a large and brooding sibling watching over an excited child.
People pushed past the pair, busy with their own business. Fighters with their bright implants, ’forcers with purpose in their steps and ’zens in all shapes and sizes coming and going with hood business. Kiriai knew she should turn around and choose the calm and ordered life Ojisan had planned for her. Despite his support, she figured Eigo also hoped for the same. Now all Kiriai had was the fragile outline of a plan she'd developed on the walk here, with no assurance it would work.
Through a window, she saw Sento shove another scrapper with a laugh. He was in the middle of a group of fighters in various stages of warming up and stretching before class started. The group had an easy camaraderie that was enviable. From across the dojo floor, Kiriai saw another man approaching the training floor. His black gi was worn to a faded gray and a brown belt with ragged edges held it closed. Thin silver hair dusted his temples with wisps dotting his bald dome. He wasn’t much bigger than she was and though age had blunted his movement, he still crossed the floor with the grace of a predator. Every eye turned in his direction and Kiriai decided if she didn’t move this instant, she would lose her chance. Once the workout had started, the doors would be barred.
Before she had a chance to overthink it, she pushed through the doors, slipped her shoes off and stepped onto the edge of the dojo floor. She did this all, while maintaining a cocky fighter’s swagger and a confident grin on her face.
“Sento, there you are!” she said, projecting her voice over the chatter of the fighters between them. The young man’s head turned at his name, but his expression did not look pleased when he saw who it was.
She spoke before he could get a word out. “Is this a good time to take care of the sponsor token business?”
That got attention. Conversations trailed off. Now, other fighters were giving her considering looks, evaluating her. The older man ignored her and turned to Sento.
“Junior Scrapper Sento, are you sponsoring this fighter? Why haven’t you registered the sponsorship before having her presented?”
Before Sento could express the vehement denial she saw on his expression, Kiriai risked rudeness and spoke one more time.
“Sensei,” she said, bowing her head when the older man turned her way, “Sento-san honored me with the chance to win the token from him by showing fighting proficiency in a bout just this morning. He knew I needed to declare my path today as it is my sixteenth birthday. I hope this is not too inconvenient.” Kiriai let out an internal sigh of relief that she’d gotten through her whole speech with the polite language preferred by her grandfather. Now, she had to hope it worked.
“But that’s crazy!” yelled Sento, his outrage making his skin flush red.
The irritation Kiriai saw flicker in the teacher’s eye almost made her smile. She was just able to keep a solemn expression on her face.
“So, you did not give this student a chance to win your sponsor token in a fight this morning?” asked the sensei in a deep, powerful voice laced with warning.
Sento must have been familiar with the teacher and hastened to moderate his tone. “I apologize, Bushi-sensei. My student is eager but unprepared for initiation. I will ensure that she leaves so we may begin class.”
Kiriai’s heart sank. Was he going to dismiss her?
“That was not my question, Sento,” said the sensei, who then waited, silent, while the young man sputtered, obviously wanting to protest. The teacher didn’t relent, maintaining eye contact with the fighter as he waited for an answer.
“Yes, I gave her a chance to win my token―but she failed, Sensei!”
Kiriai had to exert all her control to keep from protesting against Sento’s angry outburst. From the other students’ reactions, she sensed that would be the wrong approach for this teacher. She bit her tongue and stayed silent.
Bushi-sensei turned back to her, and she waited for him to address her. He gave her a slight nod before speaking. “Is this true? Did you fail, young student?”
“No, Sensei. I have no idea why Sento would say that when I fulfilled the victory conditions we agreed upon before the bout began.”
From behind the sensei, Kiriai heard Sento making a strangled sound in protest, but he was too smart to interrupt the teacher again.
“Explain the conditions,” said the sensei, no expression on his lined face to give Kiriai a clue about his disposition on the subject.
Quick to grasp the chance, Kiriai tried to keep the explanation short and succinct. She wanted to avoid trying the sensei’s patience. “We agreed that if I scored a blow to a critical target during a four-minute bout, I would have demonstrated enough skill to earn the token. We agreed that a critical target was a body part that, if injured, would significantly decrease the fighter’s ability to continue to fight, or a blow to any portion of the head. Sento’s superior skill won most the bout, and I didn't score a blow until the final seconds, when I hit a critical target and won the token.”
The sensei just nodded, silent, and turned back to Sento.
“Is this true?”
“No, Sensei. She did not win the token.”
“She did not hit a critical target?”
“No, Sensei,” said Sento, except this time his tone wasn’t as confident.
Kiriai couldn’t believe the straight-faced lie and struggled to keep quiet. She was somewhat confident the sensei would give her one more chance to speak, especially if she remained calm.
Bushi-sensei also seemed to have noticed something about Sento’s last answer and narrowed his eyes. “I will ask you one last time, did this student land a blow, any blow, during your bout?”
“It wasn’t a critical one,” said Sento, all semblance of confidence now gone.
The answer did not please the teacher, and Kiriai thanked the instincts that had urged her to keep quiet so she was not the focus of his displeasure.
In a slow and measured tone, Bushi-sensei said, “Any attempt to deceive is a lie, scrapper. No more trickery. You will explain the blow landed at the end of this bout, so the rest of us can get back to work and stop wasting our time. We are fighters, not ’rangers!” It was amazing how the teacher could somehow yell without raising his voice at all.
Cowed, Sento told the truth. “In the last seconds of the bout, my student Kiriai hit me on the top of the foot with a strong blow.”
There was silence for two seconds as the audience, now enthralled with the unfolding drama, digested the words. Snickers came from the back. “The foot?!” came an incredulous whisper.
Kiriai felt the embarrassment almost as acutely as Sento probably did. She hadn’t wanted notoriety as the student who won her place with a blow to the foot. Then again, she thought, standing up straight and keeping her head high, a win is a win.
“That’s why you’ve been limping today?” asked the sensei after aiming a glare at the rest of the crowd to quiet the onlookers.
“Yes,” admitted Sento, reluctance radiating off of him. “But it is a minor injury,” he said, still trying to argue his position.
“Silence!” interrupted the sensei. “You are limping. It was a blow to a critical target,” said the teacher with a cold finality. “Please present your student to the registrar for initiation.” Then he paused and gave both Sento and Kiriai a shallow nod of acknowledgment. “Congratulations to both teacher and student for your service to our hood. Dismissed.”
With that, he turned, walked to the front of the training floor and rapped a small bronze gong with a padded stick. The rich sound echoed through the space and the fighters exploded into action, straightening gis, finding their places, and then coming to a strict attention stance, awaiting the orders from their teacher.
In the chaos, Sento grabbed her upper arm in a punishing grip and practically dragged her off the training floor and toward the hallway leading to headquarters.
“Our venerable founders were among the first to recognize the true dangers of the plagues and the blasts that followed. We are alive today because of their quick reactions and forethought in saving our ancestors and leading them to safety.”
— A True Account of The Founding Families History by Hamilton Gerrard III, Chikara City Head Archivist.
In the airy hallway and out of the sensei’s view, Kiriai jerked her arm out of Sento’s grasp, taking a step back to put distance between the two of them.
“I can walk by myself,” she said in a tight voice through clenched teeth. “Just show me the way, and I’ll follow you.”
Sento met her eyes and seemed to be having as much difficulty as she was regaining control. She waited, not willing to get into another fight, especially anywhere that the sensei could hear it. After a moment, Sento looked like he had come to some conclusion. “I am so angry right now, I could give you the pounding you deserve for pulling a stunt like that, but,” he said, holding up a hand before she could respond, “part of me can’t believe you pulled it off.” Now a wry grin had softened his features. “Honestly, it’s the kind of thing I would have done to get my implant if I had thought of it. Sure you humiliated me, and yourself, but you want to be a scrapper and are willing to do anything, anything at all, to get what you want.”
He shook his head, like he couldn’t believe what he was doing. With a grin, he held out his hand. “I wouldn’t be much of a scrapper if I didn’t congratulate you on winning your fight against all odds.”
Astonished at the abrupt turn-around, Kiriai froze for a moment before lifting her hand to shake Sento’s. Since she had assumed her actions earned her a bitter enemy, Kiriai felt a rush of relief at the second chance being offered her.
“That doesn’t mean I won’t give you the pounding you deserve if you do something like that again,” he said, his face quickly becoming serious once more. “Just make sure that what you get for it is worth the beating I’ll give you.”
“Like a fighter implant,” she asked, before she could think better of it.
That startled a laugh out of the taller fighter. “Yes,” he said. “I’d take a beating any day for my implant.” Then, seeming to hear what he’d said, he gave her a sardonic smile. “In fact, I usually do.”
“Sento, I owe this all to you,” she said, trying to explain, “I didn’t want the whole foot thing to get so out of control like it did—”
“Don’t,” he interrupted her. “Don’t apologize for doing whatever it took to become a fighter. And we can take care of the whole ‘foot’ thing easily. By the time I spin it, everyone will be wishing they could teach their students to be as sneaky as mine.”
At her surprised look, he continued. “What? Did you think battles are all about honor and skill?” He laughed when she still didn’t appear to understand. He clapped a hand to her shoulder and said, “Kid, between the tactics of the ’rangers and the hood ’forcers, we’re lucky we even get to use our fighting skills at all. Being cunning can give you more victories than your abilities. Why do you think I’m talking to you now instead of yelling?”
A sick feeling started in the pit of Kiriai’s stomach. If she hadn’t before, she now knew she was entering a world she knew very little about. Some of what she was thinking must have shown on her face because Sento nodded grimly.
“Yes, this is a very cutthroat world and I’m offering an alliance. I saw some talent in you or I wouldn’t have wanted to use you to train. And now, you’ve not only demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice whatever it takes to get what you want, but also the craftiness to actually do it. I can use you and your skills as an ally. What do you say? Allies?” He held his hand out one more time.
The jumble of thoughts that stormed in and out of her mind were too chaotic to harness. What was he asking her to agree to? What did it mean to be allies? Did Sento have enemies who would become her enemies if she allied with him? Would he be furious if she didn’t agree right now? Panicked almost as much as she had been in the middle of their bout, Kiriai couldn’t lift her hand and was afraid not to at the same time.
She cringed when Sento laughed again, dropping his hand. “See, this is exactly what I’m talking about. Any other newbie would have been eager to grab an alliance with me, and instead, you’re calculating all the advantages and dangers that might go along with it. You’re just proving that I’ve chosen well. How about this,” he said, raising his hand one more time. “Let’s agree to try to watch out for the other as long as it doesn’t interfere with our own goals?” He waited, eyebrows lifted.
“No other obligations?” She had to be sure before she agreed.
“None,” he confirmed.
Kiriai reached out and shook his strong and calloused hand, trying not to be suspicious of his satisfied smile. She forced down the knots of foreboding she felt at the unknown and dangerous territory she had entered.
Kiriai heard a cry from behind as she and Sento prepared to enter hood headquarters. The voice was very familiar, and a sinking feeling filled her as she turned. Sure enough, the awkward figure of Eigo was hurrying down the hall to catch up to her and Sento.
She heard a noise of irritation from beside her. “While I may admire your skills, kid, your friends, not so much. I’ll wait for you at the entrance desk just inside the door,” he said, before turning and walking away. “Don’t take too long,” he added over his shoulder before disappearing through the door.
Kiriai turned back as Eigo came to a stop in front of her, breathing heavily, face red with urgency and exertion.
“Eigo, what do you want?” she asked. “Never mind. I can’t deal with anything right now. I’m on my way to get my fighting implant. Please, save whatever it is until later. I have to go!”
“That’s just it,” Eigo said, holding out a hand to stop her from leaving. “I wasn’t going to say anything, and I’m happy that you’re going to be a fighter like you’ve always wanted, really I am—”
“Eigo,” Kiriai said, interrupting the flood of words. “Please just tell me what you need and keep it short. Sento is waiting for me and I can’t mess this up. I just can’t!”
Eigo seemed frozen for a moment, now at a loss for words after she had ended her deluge. She made an impatient gesture, knowing that he froze when he felt under pressure, but needing him to hurry, regardless.
“Are you sure?” He finally blurted out the three words with enough emotion for hundreds.
“What do you mean?” she asked, confusion momentarily interrupting her urgency.
“Are you sure?” he repeated, more easily this time, now that he had gotten his question out. When she didn’t answer, he continued. “The fighting implant is permanent. Even the older fighters still have them, just deactivated. Plus, you can see these scrappers. I mean, look at them,” he said, sweeping his hand back toward the dojo. “They beat each other to a pulp day in and day out. Sure, there is some skill involved, but it’s brutal. Brutal, every day. I just—” He choked on the next words, looked down at his feet and took a moment to finish. “I just hate to see you hurt and I’m afraid if you do this, that’s all I’ll be seeing from now on. Are you sure this is what you want?”
It seemed he’d finally said all he wanted to. Kiriai was surprised at the strength of the sharp stab of pain filling her chest. Eigo had always supported her—until now. How could he desert her, too?
Kiriai waited until he finally lifted his gaze to meet her eyes before speaking. She wanted him to know how much he’d hurt her. “I expected this from Ojisan, because anything that doesn’t conform to his opinions must be wrong. But you’ve been my friend since the two of us were little and you know how much this means to me.” She’d been calm up to that point, but then the betrayal and sadness bubbled up inside her. “Now, you’re just one more person trying to tell me what to do. Why can’t you just support me, Eigo? Why are you trying to ruin this for me when you know how hard I’ve worked for this?” Kiriai’s voice broke. She sucked in a breath and straightened. She couldn’t lose control now.
“That’s not what . . . I didn’t mean—”
Then Eigo just stopped, his face was stricken. He took two steps backward before turning and disappearing down the hall. A small part inside Kiriai wanted to call after him, fix things. But he’d been the one trying to stop her. And she had an important appointment waiting for her.
Turning on her heel, Kiriai straightened and walked toward her future. She’d spent her life working to get here and she wasn’t going to stop now.
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