Epilogue: Dawn

By Fool's Gold

Disclaimer: Garou Densetsu (Fatal Fury), Ryuuko no Ken (Art of Fighting), The King of Fighters, and all related characters are the property of SNK-Playmore. No profit has been made from this fic.

"Yo... where's Dong Hwan?" queried Duck King, stretching his cramped limbs as he exited the submarine. The twin waitresses and the now-conscious customer followed suit, giving Jenet looks of curious interest that bordered on suspicion.

She didn't even bat an eyelid. "He should be back at the police outpost by now. It's at Blue Wave Harbour – you can't miss it."

"Yeah, we know the way. Thanks." The bartender made to leave, but a sudden thought held him back. Turning to their benefactor, he gave her the once-over before declaring, "Ya know, Dong Hwan was right."


"He vouched f'ya, sayin' ya were a good person... if a lil' flaky," he explained with disarming frankness. "Dat's da only reason we agreed ta stick around – s'hard ta trust people wearin' da skull an' crossbones, y'know?"

She wasn't surprised.

"But anyway, ya treated us fairly, an' yer pretty much okay in our books. So howsabout a date...?"

"Come on, Duck," Elizabeth muttered as she tugged hard on his earlobe. To Jenet, however, she continued, "Well, the same goes for all of us. Thanks – and when the Illusion's up and running again, we'll see that King gives you and your crew a round on the house... even if it bankrupts us."

Jenet laughed heartily at the joke. "I'll hold you to that," she countered, winking at them in amusement. The tension that had lingered ever since nightfall had finally dissipated, leaving nothing but lingering traces behind as they began the long walk across what remained of the town...

...or so Jenet had hoped. But the smile on her face vanished once they were out of sight.

Really? She watched them depart, wondering if what they said was true. After all, she had other things to do...

"You don't want to be around when the cavalry comes in. Here," Dong Hwan said, coolly handing her the torch which she had given up for dead. "I recharged the batteries."

To her surprise, it actually worked. "And you?"

"Oh, the ferret and I stay. The cops should be here any minute now."

She accepted it, grudgingly grateful for his assistance. "So... I guess I owe you..."

"That goes without saying," Dong Hwan remarked arrogantly. "But this should cover it..."

He pulled her close, pressing his lips onto hers, and time stopped in the inky darkness for the pair. The world seemed to spin around them as they stood, lost and intoxicated as they continued that kiss...

...and the next thing Dong Hwan knew, he was curled up on the ground as serious shooting pains began to radiate from his groin.

"Damn you!" Jenet cursed huffily, lowering her knee. "Try anything like that next time, and I swear you'll find my stiletto so far up your ass the doctors won't find it!"

"Eheh..." Dong Hwan groaned, still in good enough shape to crack a twisted grin. "Don't deny it – you enjoyed that."

"Idiot." She looked down at him, shaking her head in disgust, and helped him up reluctantly. "Your friends are in bad shape, and all you can think about is..."

"Hey, don't give me that look," the young man protested. "Knowing my luck, I'll never get a chance to collect on that debt... Besides, we've done all we can." The last sentence was spoken in a strange manner, his mood suddenly shifting from lechery to sobriety.

He looked down at Rock and Hotaru's motionless forms on the ground, suppressing the surge of frustration that welled up when he knew that they were powerless to do anything more than make them comfortable. "Now hurry up," he chided, not wanting her to see the mournful look in his eyes – it would have been too uncharacteristic of him to even show a shred of sadness.

"Dong Hwan..."

"Don't you have something to do?"

He failed: the words left his lips sounding more like an accusation than a reminder – or at least, that was how it sounded to Jenet's ears. "I... I..."

Words failed her, and she ran off into the night.

A good person... Yeah, right. "You can come out now. The coast is clear."

A faint purple light sprang up from within the shadows on the far end of the shore, and her client walked out into the beam of the spotlights that shone from the submarine's prow.

"Good evening to you too." Kain, ever in control of himself, carried himself with a cool, composed air: there was no sign of exhaustion or fatigue on his face. If not for what she had witnessed, Jenet would never have guessed that the man who stood before her had faced Death several times over in the space of that night, or that he had done it all of his own choice – and come up the winner every time. "As always, you look wonderful."

"Shut up," came her brusque reply. "Flattery will get you nowhere – only your passage fee can do that."

"It's just like you to be straight to the point." He raised the briefcase and opened it, revealing the neatly-stacked wads of notes within. She picked up one bundle, examining the bills without her usual avarice. They were genuine – and just to make sure, she did the same with the rest of the suitcase's contents.

"They're good," she replied grudgingly. "Well, that's one promise you didn't break... for once."

Kain shut the suitcase with a snap. "I'll hang on to it until we reach our destination... just in case. And I'm saddened to hear that you think so little of me."

"The feeling's mutual. Get on board."

Rock came to, more aware of his surroundings than the nurse in attendance realised.

He saw nothing: his eyes had been bandaged up, and they were shut tight beneath the fabric. But he could feel the restraints on his wrists and legs, thick strips of leather that bound him to the bed and kept him immobile. And he could hear the slow, hissing sound of air flowing through filters into the room where he was being held...

And he remembered.

The largest part of his incarceration had been spent in a semiconscious haze; he could only remember the rare instances where he had come out of his stupor, and even then only to thrash and writhe like a madman as he found himself locked in the throes of a fevered panic. His body, weakened by exertion and pain, could muster no more than a brief struggle, but it was still enough frighten his minders – pale, vaguely human forms without faces or features – into sedating him. And then he knew little else.

He still didn't – the drug still worked its effects on him, leaving his brain clouded and his memory hazy. A part of it nagged at him, telling him that he was forgetting something... but every time he tried to work it out, his mind refused to focus on it, leaving the past sealed away. All he could manage was a glimpse into his recollections; he remembered running out of the door, damning papers in hand, and then a flash of light and the sound of rushing wind... but his disordered thoughts yielded nothing more.

He turned his foggy attention to more pressing matters. Where is this? he thought, the drug keeping him calm enough to refrain from straining against the bonds that held him down. There was no sound of wind or snow, so he knew he had to be indoors, in a place with power – that was the only way he could explain the filters. And he had been captured... but by whom, he knew not.

There was a faint sound of sliding metal, and he heard voices – familiar ones that grew louder as they approached. He recognised them instantly; the anxiety that he felt lessened slightly, subconsciously comforted as he was by the presence of friends.

" while Dad and I were fighting our butts off, you were busy gallivanting around with..."

"It's not like I had a choice, right?"

"Quit it, you two. We're in the ward already, so pipe down. Sorry, Miss, but we'd like to visit the patient." There was a rustle of curtains.

The ward? Then this must be a hospital... "Jun... Jae Hoon... Dong Hwan... What are you doing here?"

He heard a stifled cough, and then Jae Hoon's awed voice: "You're awake."

It sounded as though the young man had just seen a ghost... which wouldn't be too far from the truth, he realised. "How long have I been out, and where am I?" he asked, only just recognising the groggy slur in his voice.

"Eh, you've been in and out of consciousness for the past three days or so." Rock heard the shuffling of feet, presumably from the rasp of Jae Hoon's shoes on the floor. "But as for where we are... that's a very good question."

It was a good ten seconds before Rock raised his eyebrows in bewilderment. "What?"

"What he means," Dong Hwan continued, frustration evident in his voice, "is that we were marched off at gunpoint by a bunch of uniformed goons, blindfolded and dragged on board some helicopters, and have absolutely no freakin' idea where we are now!" He shouted the last phrase, and Rock felt the bed frame shake as something pounded into it – presumably, his fist. And then, in a slightly calmer voice, he added, "You know, this would have been so cool in the movies..."

"What? What's going on?" The haze in his head wasn't helping his understanding of the situation, and coupled to the vague answers that his friends gave...

"I'll explain it to him." A deathly silence fell over the room, leaving only the perpetual hiss in the background to fill it.

This voice was different. And there was something about that voice that made the hair on Rock's skin rise – it was one that exuded clinical efficiency, steel-tempered and controlled to precision. There was no discernible emotion in it at all, and a hated image flashed before Rock's closed eyes; his uncle had always stressed the importance of complete control.

Was the newcomer such a person too?

He couldn't hear his friends anymore: it sounded as though they'd simply vanished from the room. He didn't fault them. "Who... are you?"

"The name's Heidern. You might find it familiar."

The mere mention of that name chilled Rock to the core as he finally recognised the man behind the voice: this was the same Heidern that Terry had once mentioned in passing – the leader of an elite team of mercenaries, famed for having played a pivotal role in nearly every flashpoint around the globe in the previous thirty years... and feared as one of the most dangerous men in the world.

In his drug-addled state, Rock couldn't do anything but remain calm – and he was grudgingly grateful for it. "Where am I?"

"You're in our custody for the time being, in one of our medical facilities. Unfortunately, that's all you're allowed to know." There was a note of warning in Heidern's words, and Rock sensed that no further questions about their location would be answered.

Reluctantly, he asked his next question. "You said you'd explain things. What happened? And why am I like this?"

"What's the last thing you remember?"

Rock struggled to recall the last thing that had happened, but the sedative's effects proved too strong. He shook his head wordlessly, a gesture that Heidern interpreted correctly as one of acute confusion rather than denial. "I expected that," the commander continued matter-of-factly. "Allow me to update you, then."

Heidern recited the events of that night like a mantra, his invariant voice divorcing fact from grim reality. "At the time of the first explosions, you were seen at the house of one Elizabeth Yardsley..."

"...and you detonated the final bomb." The sound of rustling paper reached Rock's ears, signalling the end of the report. "Do you remember?"

He nodded numbly, his scattered recollections finally taking a coherent form. It sounded correct... and as he began to remember that night's events, his thoughts began to take on a despondent turn. If the truth was out – that he was the one responsible, in part, for the destruction of Second Southtown – then there was no escaping his fate. It's the death penalty for mass murderers, isn't it? "So why am I like this?" he asked perfunctorily, knowing that the answer didn't make a difference.

"When we arrived, you'd been brought back to the SSP's relief outpost by your friends out there. So we brought all of you in for questioning... and in the meantime, you injured one of my best men in your frenzy the first time you woke up," Heidern stated coldly, "hence, the restraints and drugs. As for the blindfold... you were blinded by Kain's slash. The damage isn't permanent; the doctors say it'll be a year or so before you recover your sight."

"Heh." A bitter laugh escaped from Rock's lips. "I guess that means you won't need the blindfolds when you decide to shoot me." His gallows humour was born from desperation: in the face of the impending death that he perceived, blindness no longer mattered.

Heidern remained unmoved by Rock's depression. "We have no intention of executing you, Rock Howard. I wouldn't have given you the prognosis otherwise."

What? Lost as he was in a drug-fuelled depression, he wasn't sure if he'd heard the mercenary commander correctly. Aloud, he repeated, "What?"

"We cannot hold you accountable for something you did not know would happen, and we also know that you were under impaired judgement at the time of the fight. In addition, based on extrapolation of the residual energy at Ground Zero, there was enough power stored in the last bomb to destroy half the city. As it stands, though, your act reduced the blast radius to about a hundred and fifty metres." The pause in Heidern's words allowed him to sink the point in. "You saved a lot of people."

I'm not going to die... A sudden thought cut through the fog, destroying the brief elation that he had felt in that instant: how does he know all this? The details in the report had been uncannily accurate, up to the fight with his uncle and the power source of the bomb in the basement – and there was no way that anyone could have witnessed it.

Then he remembered: someone else had been there that night. Someone who had shielded him from the explosion that would have killed him otherwise...

"Hotaru!" How could I have forgotten? He strained at his bonds, struggling to break free, but he remained too weak to loose himself from the bed. "Where is she? Is she safe? What have you done with her?" His questions shot out rapidly, the stupor wiped completely from his mind as it went through the worst possible scenarios: if she had taken the brunt of the blast in his place, it could only have meant that...

"She was better off than you were when we brought you two in: severely exhausted, but otherwise unharmed," Heidern said, neatly interrupting his train of thought. "As a matter of fact, she's been asking for you ever since she woke up. I'll send her in."

The footsteps started again and receded into the distance, punctuated at the end by the opening and closing of the doors, and Rock sank back onto the firm mattress. She's okay... In his relief, he barely realised that his heart was still pounding heavily from the anxiety and fear that had shot through him at that one moment. Let them do what they want to me now: it doesn't matter anymore...


The cry of surprise was accompanied by the sound of pattering steps, so different from the measured cadence of Heidern's march – her feet were light on the tiled floor as she ran towards him. And then, he felt her soft arms around his shoulders and her head on his chest as she hugged him tightly... "You're awake," she whispered. "Your eyes..."

"Nah, it's okay." His own voice sounded lighter now. "It'll get better."

"That's good."

"Yeah..." He tried to smile, but stopped short: there was a warm wetness on his chest, and her soft sobbing reached his ears. "What's wrong?"

"No... It's just... I'm glad." But her sadness gave the lie to her words, and Rock could hear the pain in her voice – and he could do nothing to help her.

He found himself saying, "...It's okay. Just tell me about it." And as he spoke, the floodgates were broken down – and she began to talk.

"I met my father on the way to Heinlein Tower."

"I used to think that maybe, if I found my brother, I would be able to talk him into coming back. But when I actually met him, I couldn't do anything. He was the one who led me on; it was as though I was struggling against him, instead of convincing him into giving up his ways. And it was the same when I met my father – I didn't even try to talk to him. I was even prepared to fight, but not to reason."

Rock had no words for her: he was overwhelmed by the guilt that shrouded his mind. He could not help but feel responsible for her family's death: the evidence that he had delivered had only served to poison Hotaru's mind against her family members. If he hadn't given her the documents, perhaps...

"I once believed that words were more effective than fists – that talking to them could, eventually, overcome force. But I was wrong. I couldn't save them. All I could do was argue with them, and unsuccessfully... And now, who knows what's happened to them?" It was rhetorical: there could have been no good end to that fight. "Maybe I was deluding myself into thinking that I could make a difference," she whimpered. "I... I couldn't stop them. Just like when Mrs. Yardsley died, or when everything went to pieces... I couldn't do anything." She broke down into a fit of weeping as she spoke, her helplessness pouring out in every word she spoke.

Those last words triggered a sense of outrage within Rock – and he heard echoes of his own words, spoken many days before, in hers. Hadn't he also lamented about his inability to do anything? But her case was different. She had spoken the words that had released him from his suicidal intent; she had single-handedly dragged him out of the depths which he had sunken into. "You saved me, didn't you? You broke through when there was no-one else to help me... and you kept your promise: you got us out alive. So you didn't fail..."

He instantly knew that he had spoken the wrong words – it was too selfish, too callous to even assume that his survival could do anything to ease the pain of her loss. But those were the only words he had to console her with: no similar words had been spoken to him when his mother had passed away, a nameless drifter in an alley, or when his father had fallen, unmourned and reviled by the people Southtown. All he could remember was Terry's hand silently reaching out to him on that dark night.

He had spoken in haste. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to..." He trailed off, waiting for the inevitable outburst of anger.

But her soft crying ceased, and she replied understandingly, "No, there's nothing for you to be sorry about."

It perplexed him. "What do you mean?"

"I had to pass through them to reach you; it was my choice to leave them behind. I was afraid – afraid that you would go their way, too stubborn to listen and too proud to back down. And if you had, I would have lost all hope. I wanted you to live, Rock."

The words skimmed lightly over his consciousness, leaving him stunned with every touch that it made. He wasn't sure if he had heard her correctly: what did she mean? She'd given her family up on his account... The guilt he felt only intensified, but it was mingled with something else – a strange new feeling that he couldn't quite understand.

And it didn't feel so bad.

Her hand left his shoulder momentarily, only to fall back on his cheek, and he could feel the cool dampness of tears on it. "My family is gone, and I have nowhere to return to. All I have left is here, in Second Southtown, with the one who helped me through all this. So please... stay with me."

I never wanted to see her cry. But she had cried, and nothing he did would change that. The best he could do was to work from there, to help make up for what she had lost...

The voice of doubt reached him: What makes you think you're worthy of fixing things? it taunted. What makes you think that you, the one who brought her so much grief and pain, can do anything to make things right? Your hands are only fit for destruction; you'll ruin things, just like you did before.

This time, though, he had an answer. Instinctively, he knew what his reply would be: She thinks I'm worth it. That's all that matters.

"I'll try."

Heidern retreated out of the room silently, holding in his hands the report that he had personally compiled.

In his experience, he'd learnt to assume nothing about the future; it was an unwritten law that anything that could happen, would happen. But to have to go through the events of 2000 all over again – and compounded several times over – was a disaster that should have never happened.

But it had.

The internal audit two years before had thrown up some very disturbing findings. There were discrepancies in a researcher's account; the records showed periodic deposits that were out of the range of the man's pay bracket. Further investigation localised the source of the payout to various Swiss bank accounts, an even more disturbing occurrence that deepened their suspicions about the scientist.

After several rounds of heavy interrogation, the man finally revealed that he had made some copies of blueprints from their archives for sale on the black market. A thorough examination of his computer, only accessible after thorough decryption, confirmed it: the logs of deleted files proved to be the smoking gun. And to complicate matters, all the blueprints came from their Tech archive – specifically, captured plans for weapons of mass destruction. Among these was the plan for the Zero Cannon, recovered in the wreckage of NESTS's base beneath one of Southtown's dilapidated industrial complexes.

The worldwide sting operation, launched in the wake of such a serious security breach, was almost completely successful. But one copy of the cannon's blueprints was recovered only in part; it seemed as though the missing pages had vanished into thin air.

It was now clear where they'd gone: back to their place of origin. From there, it would have been a simple matter for Kain R. Heinlein, the owner of a giant industrial conglomerate, to manufacture multiple power capacitors under the pretext of commercial appliances. And while the space-based weapon was no longer functional – they'd seen to that personally – it was easy enough to set the storage batteries to overload.

This last part was conjecture, he realised. There was no hard proof: Kain had specifically targeted his own property, wiping out any material evidence that had ever existed. Similarly, the best witnesses would have been Kain's henchmen... but none of them were to be found. From what Blue Mary had told him, the majority had been stationed at the Southtown Expo at the time of detonation, and searches had turned up no survivors.

The youth, Rock Howard... he knew nothing. His information was limited to what he had included in the confession, the one they'd found in the house that Hotaru had worked in – circumstantial evidence, at best, and all completely unrelated to the present bombings. But his men didn't deal with uncertainties. And when that was coupled to all the other information that they had gleaned, from information on Hotaru's father – a regrettable tragedy, but the girl's family affairs were beyond their scope of investigation – to the matter of Freeman's association, it formed a complicated web that would stymie even the toughest investigator.

The police would have to deal with all that; civil matters were under their jurisdiction. Their own duty was to hunt Kain down, to ensure that this disaster never happened again...

That was what we said the last time, he thought regretfully, and placed the report back into its envelope with its accompanying documents. He slipped the whole into his coat before entering the next ward, calling out, "He's awake."

Terry raised his head from his position on the bed, revealing the shadows that had collected under his eyes in the past few days. But that didn't dampen his happiness. He exclaimed, "That's a relief!"

"I wouldn't recommend going in any time soon, though." There was a note of dry amusement in Heidern's voice, even though the commander wasn't suited to such emotion. "He and that girl have some... issues... to settle."

"That's good to hear, and I don't think getting up is an option anyway," Mary noted from her place in the opposite bed, sighing in resignation. "I guess frostbite was inevitable..."

"Probably. You're lucky our medics didn't have to amputate."

Mary wondered if that was a shred of sympathy that she heard in Heidern's voice, but decided not to push her luck. "That reminds me... I know Leona's helping out with the relief operations over on the mainland, but I haven't seen Ralf or Clark anywhere."

"They're on a mission," was Heidern's terse reply, and that was all he said.

"Thank you." Kain stood atop the submarine's conning tower, watching the waves lap against the hull as they pulled in closely to the jetty. "As promised... here's your pay." He placed the briefcase in the hands of the first mate, and then leapt in a graceful arc onto the wooden planks that made up the ramshackle landing platform. Without looking back, he began to walk away...

"Just one moment."

He stopped in his tracks, turning to look at the woman who hailed him, and Jenet caught a glimpse of that odiously triumphant smile...

In a grand moment of rashness, she impetuously snatched the briefcase out of the hands of her horrified first mate and tossed it over the railing. It fell at Kain's feet and burst open, the banknotes spilling across the wet wood in a wave of brilliant green. "You can keep your filthy money."

He looked up, dumbfounded, at Jenet's smirk – and on cue, the first soldiers began to burst through the undergrowth, levelling their rifles at the surprised leader-in-exile as a man. "Freeze!"

Kain whirled around, itching to strike at the traitorous pirate, but she was well out of range – and his every move was being covered by the mercenaries' weapons. For the first time, she witnessed the cracking of the calm mask that had shielded Kain's thoughts from the world: his face was sickeningly twisted into an expression of utter disgust as he watched his elaborate plan finally unravel at the end.

"They paid better anyway. Mr. Anderson... let's go."

The submarine was sailing away at full speed, Kain's solitary figure diminishing to a dot on the horizon. "God save the Queen," Jenet sneered.

Her first mate was in a more subdued mood. "You didn't have to do that with the money, Miss Jenet..."

"I know... but it was worth it to see that look on his face." She merely flicked her hair in a practiced show of nonchalance – but inwardly, though, her heart was breaking with every thought of the fortune that had been cast away. The things I do for the sake of appearances...

They began their descent down the hatch as the submarine began to sink beneath the waves. Almost as an afterthought, she added, "Mr. Anderson..."


"We still have the bounty for Kain's capture: distribute it evenly among the crew. There's no need to save up for our New Year's drinking binge."

The first mate raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Really?"

"Yeah." She winked at him, climbing into the captain's seat. "We've got places at the Illusion."

"I repeat: surrender now, or we'll shoot!"

So this was how it ended. He, once the king of Second Southtown, stabbed in the back by a fellow criminal – it was fitting, considering what he had done. To betray, and then be betrayed in turn... Was this poetic justice? Did some greater power, perhaps, frown on what he had done and punished him for it?

It didn't matter: he had carried out his plans to completion. And now that his last duty had been discharged, there was only one road left for him to travel down.

So this is it, ladies and gentlemen. One last show...

It was a calmly defiant figure that turned back slowly to face the squad of mercenaries, his hands resting lazily behind his back.

"Put those hands where I can see them, buster," ordered their leader, waving the barrel of his gun in emphasis of his order.

"Very well..."

Shielded from their line of sight, a purple spark sprang to life – and Kain showed his hands.

They tell me the reconstruction of the city's going well, even if the scars of my uncle's folly are still visible across the island. Terry tells me that I'm fortunate, not having to see the aftermath of it all... but frankly, I've seen enough. He also told me that my uncle was "brought to justice" some time ago. A cryptic phrase, and vague – but he won't say any more. I guess I'll have to be satisfied with that and wonder at its meaning, but I don't doubt that he received his just deserts.

It's better not to dwell on such tragic matters. After all, it's April Fool's Day.

King's infant was just delivered last month, and she personally returned to the city to supervise the bar's opening. So the Illusion will open to the public on the second day of April; the night before has been reserved for a private opening party, invitation only.

We're packed to the rafters tonight – I can tell, because I can barely hear myself speak. Contributing to most of the noise would be the Lilien Knights, who are apparently enjoying their belated drinks on the house: if I listen carefully, I can hear Sally scolding Elizabeth over the validity of her 'free drink' offer as they weave through the crowd.

I pass through the throng, hearing the voices of various men and women. I'm able to identify some of them as friends of Terry or Mary, and others from various tournaments I've participated in over the past years: I'm pretty sure the two guys quarrelling in one corner of the bar are Marco and the Griffon Mask, who is hopefully unmasked tonight. Mr. Kim and his wife are around, as are Jae Hoon and Jun – and they're all looking for Dong Hwan. Judging from the sounds coming from that back room, though, I'd better not intrude into his make-out session with Bonne Jenet.

Others I don't recognise, but the boss assures me that all of them are honest people, and fighters of renown to boot. There's definitely some J-Pop being played in one of the karaoke lounges: I hear a famous singer's on the premises, but I can't confirm it. Whatever the case, it's a veritable United Nations in the bar tonight – you can hear all sorts of languages and accents being tossed around like nobody's business. It's a little too loud for me: I make my way to one corner of the room, ascend up two flights of stairs, open the door, and reach the roof.

The night's incredibly quiet compared to the cacophony of the bar. I prefer it this way: it's better to be alone sometimes, to gather your thoughts...

...and here I was thinking I'd got rid of that mentality by now.

I decide to remove the sunglasses. They only get in the way, and besides, they look ridiculous at night. It'll be a full half-year more before I can regain my eyesight fully – at the moment, I can only make out light and shadow. But I'm used to it by now. I can make it around my flat without assistance, and performing regular daily activities isn't a problem... except that I can't cook anymore. Unsurprisingly, though, Hotaru's quite a good chef herself. She's my primary caregiver, and has been for the last half-year or so – and I can't even begin to describe how well she's been taking care of me since our release.

I owe her too much. If she ever decided to call in accounts, it's unlikely that I'd be able to repay her, even if I spent the rest of my life trying.

She's downstairs at the moment. The last I heard, she was talking to some of our visitors from Japan, catching up on current affairs in her homeland. She seems more talkative these days, and it's good to see that she's put the sad affair of her family behind her.

Wish I could say the same. The nightmares don't come that frequently anymore, but there's always this nagging feeling that everything's going to come crashing down around my ears, that she'll go away one day and leave me to slip back into madness. Of course I get that feeling about everyone sometimes, but it's always worse when I think about her – it's as though I'm positively terrified of that possibility...

"So, you're Rock Howard."

I turn around to face the voice from the roof exit. It's deep and gruff, and the mental image I'm getting is that of an elderly man with a beard and a big nose – but my prejudices tend to take over at this point. "And you are...?"

"Never mind who I am," he replies cryptically. "It's just that your friends are wondering why you aren't joining the party."

"It's too noisy." I'm in no mood to celebrate, but I haven't the heart to tell him that.

I hear footsteps, getting closer: he's next to me before I know it, and we're both leaning on the parapet, his elbow next to mine. "Wanna hear a story?"

Might as well humour the old man. "Shoot."

"Okay. Back in the old days of Southtown, there lived an immigrant from Japan and his two children – his wife had passed away in childbirth. They led simple lives: he ran a karate dojo, and with the assistance of some family friends, they managed to make ends meet. But one day, things started going wrong."

His voice grows quiet as the tale takes a tragic turn. "Anyway, this man decided to clean up the town once and for all by settling things with the head honcho of Southtown at the time... who will be left unnamed. But the bad guys made him an offer: join us or die. Naturally, he was perfectly capable of taking them all on, being the master of his school, but he didn't count on one thing – they'd kidnapped his daughter. So really, he had no choice."

I get the feeling I've heard this story before, but I let it slide.

"And they cruelly used her as the lever to make him commit all sorts of crimes, with him knowing full well that if he dared to go against them, she'd die. Within the space of one week, he'd thrown all Southtown into chaos, creating the perfect scenario for the gangs to take control. And all this while, he hid behind the mask that they'd used to conceal his face – and he never dared to take it off, so ashamed was he of what he was doing."

He breathes heavily, coughing a little. "And one day, his son popped up with a friend of his, and the two young ones went in search of their missing sister. They practically turned Southtown upside down to find her... so when the son finally makes it to their base, the bad guys decided to play their trump card. They send out the one guy who could beat them at their own game – the teacher." There is a sigh. "It's a huge, huge fight – one to remember, certainly, and one where the master's caught in a trap. If he wins, his son dies. If he loses, his daughter dies. Either way, he loses – until the girl runs out and tells them to stop the fight. Then she yanks the mask off, and – horror of horrors – it's their father beneath the mask."

It's quite possible, actually, that the guy could be reminiscing...

He continues, "The father, naturally, was ashamed beyond belief; could anyone have imagined that the respectable leader of a karate school was the same man who had terrorised the town for seven whole days? A century ago, he would have gutted himself like a fish to clear the family name."

I wonder irreverently if it's even possible for fish to gut themselves, but keep my mouth shut. I want to hear the end of the story...

"The kids forgave him. But the funny thing is, the moron kept wearing the mask for quite a few years after, mostly when facing off against his children. Nobody knows why. Some people think it gave him, you know, a feeling of power – that without the mask, he'd return to his mundane state and be nothing more than a second-rate fighter. That's rubbish," he can't help but add. "His kids like to think that he's just going senile, and that the mask is just another milestone down the road to the funhouse. Or maybe, just maybe... he didn't dare to face them, knowing how he'd wronged them. Maybe it took him a while to realise that they'd already put the matter behind them."

He falls silent, and the two of us are left standing there in the dark.


"Whaddaya mean, 'and'?" he asks irascibly. "That's it!"

"No, I mean, what's the moral of the story? You didn't come up here just to find an audience for your longwinded tale," I counter, a little too scathingly for my own good.

He doesn't take offence, fortunately. "Oh, yeah. The moral. Anyway, what I was trying to say is that people aren't as unforgiving as you think. Most of the time, the person who still won't forgive you... is yourself. Gotta learn how to fix that." He pats me on the shoulder. "That's it, I'm going back down. The night is still young, and there's much to be done..."

"It's okay," I reply. "I need some time to think about that."

He walks away, leaving the door to slam shut on me.

He's got a point there. Maybe I'm regarding my friends a little too cynically; maybe I'm the one who needs to get over myself. Am I really that shallow? Is it even possible that they – the ones who have done so much for me over this trying period – can do such things and still remain incapable of forgiveness?

Obviously not. Therefore, as always, I'm the idiot.

The door opens again, and I hear Hotaru's sweet voice: "Rock, they're looking for you." Footsteps approach, and her hand lights on my arm. "Come on, it's not healthy for you to stay up here and mope around."

As always, she's right. I let her lead me back down. After all, I haven't celebrated honestly for quite a while... and I have all the reasons to do so right here.


(Hey, I finished it before the end of June. Whaddaya know.)

Well, ladies and gentlemen... that's it. Fin. "Blood" has come to a close. And with it, apparently, so does my brief career of writing anything longer than a one-shot. Life and time constraints permit nothing more.

It's got a typical fairytale ending, but I never intended anything other than that. And the plot twists, or lack thereof... Well, that's what I get for coming up with the ending before the content of the story. I'm serious: don't they always tell you to "begin with the end in mind"? (Bleah.) Anyway, I'm no good at plots.

Speaking of which, if you all find any areas that need to be amended, do tell me. I still make corrections from time to time.

"Blood" has been a pretty taxing experience, I must admit. From trying to make it remotely coherent and believable, to finding the right words for each scene... it's hard, but when you actually get the whole story sorted out, it's strangely gratifying. (Peachrocks: Now you know why I've been whining about it all the time. ;P)

But more importantly, it's been fun. I'll admit that I was quite discouraged at one point, when I thought nobody was reading... but fortunately for all of us, the moment passed. Hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have, because I've been greatly encouraged by all your positive reviews. (Yeah, I write partly for the ego boost too. I'm shameless.) Thanks for reading!

(Who knows? I might even write up a blooper reel one of these days. Then you'll see me at my worst...)