Disclaimer: Tekken and Tekken characters are the property of Namco Limited. This is nonprofit fan fiction.
Sa Bum Nim
The young man fled from the alley and bumped straight into the stranger. The impact was harsh, not to mention sudden, but the youth barely slowed down and scrambled to continue his way. The stranger, a forty-something man, was about to snatch him by the collar when another young man came running from the alley.
"Don't! They'll kill him!"
The first one scrambled ahead in blind panic, oblivious to his friend's calls. He barely missed getting hit by a car and just shook himself when the driver honked his horn.
"Don't...," the second man tried again, but deflated. He was undecided and visibly torn before starting after his friend with one last distressed look back at the alley. He had not taken notice of the stranger, who still stood there.
The stranger was one Baek Doo San: a man of repute in the taekwondo circles, a martial artist par excellence, and the owner of his own training hall. Baek frowned at the scene he had just witnessed; the young men, adolescents rather, could have belonged to any number of youth groups guarding their territory in the city. Baek might have even seen them on an occasion, and the local law enforcement would have recognized them for sure. They brawled about and solved their differences the only way they could, but this seemed grave. Baek stepped into the alley and explored deeper.
The seemingly short alleyway was deceptive to the eye. It eventually led to a wide opening, hidden from the street. There, a group of five youths had formed a ring around one boy, who must have been their junior by at least two years. Three of the young men circled him, while two kicked back and watched the show with malicious interest.
Tall and lean and hopelessly outnumbered, the lone youth remained defiant and held his head up high. Baek approached the scene silently, although he could have made noise and it would have been the same. The group remained oblivious to anything but the lone youth, who stood in a fighting stance if just to spite them all.
It was not just the flaming hair which stood out to catch Baek's attention. The boy's fighting stance was remarkably different to that of the elder boys'; it was more honed and much more intense than the regular street brawlers tended to display.
Now the youths were talking, but Baek could not make out the words from afar. Then, one of the three made his move: he spun a forceful kick at the redhead, who dodged it and reversed directions quickly to block the attack from the second youth.
The same repeated: the first one punched the redhead, who, despite the painful hit, spun a high kick to hold back the second one. The third one, who had now joined in, the redhead knocked down with a full-body impact.
The group's sneers turned into aggravation, and the mood changed palpably. Even as Baek now moved with alarm, one of the kids pulled out a chain. He approached the redhead from behind, flung the chain at his feet, and yanked.
The redhead, who had been in the middle of a spinning kick, was caught off guard. He barely had time to register that his direction was changed for him as he was swept off his feet. He fell high and dangerously, twisted his ankle on the way down, and hit his head on the ground. He stayed down.
"Dastard!" Baek bellowed, startling the youths.
"What did you say?"
A fourth youth stepped up from the shadows and motioned the speaker to be silent. He seemed elder than the rest and as self-assured as they came: the obvious leader. To Baek, he said, "Leave. This doesn't concern you."
Baek ignored him and addressed the youth with the chain instead. "You hit him when his back was turned. That was the act of a treacherous coward."
The leader answered him again. "Hey, slow down with the criticism. He had it coming. He was trying to play us. He's a cheat who needs to be taught a lesson."
"And this is how you plan to educate him and show him honor?"
The leader flushed. "Get out of here, old man. You don't know what you're getting into."
"I was not addressing you," Baek said coldly. He now had the gang members' full attention and none of their goodwill. They were not au courant with whom this would-be hero thought he was, but he was a fool to intervene.
"Nobody calls me a coward!" the youth with the chain seethed, and he flung his weapon at the new target. Only he was shocked within an inch of his life when Baek, almost impossibly, grabbed the chain, yanked it out of his hands, and tossed it aside.
It was too much.
The first one to jump at Baek was stopped mid-motion when Baek met him with an open-handed strike. The boy stood there in petrified shock, even as Baek refocused his attentions and gathered enough momentum for a roundhouse kick with only one single side step. The transition from immobility to iron strength, with which Baek held back, came as news to the second youth, whom Baek blindsided and flung backwards with yelp.
The third guy produced a switchblade and lunged at Baek, whose back was turned. Baek noticed, though, and his mood darkened instantly. With a quick turn, he grabbed the youth painfully by the arm and forced the knife off with a steely grip.
"Leave. Make sure I don't catch you again," he said darkly.
By now, the youths realized they had made a serious error of judgment and chose flight over fight. Two had already taken off, and the switchblade hero followed suit with a tumble. The leader picked the blindsided kid up, flung his arm around his shoulder, and dragged him off. He had lost face, but he was not a fool; he left without a second glance or a further challenge.
Baek breathed deep and sought to calm his mind. He knew he made the right choice, but this was not over yet—not as long the adrenaline rush tried to be his master. He forced himself to cool his flaring temper.
He went over to the young man, who lay on the ground, motionless and abandoned and so alone. Baek bent down and spoke, "Can you hear me?"
There was no response. Baek asked again and shook the youth gently. The youth made a weak sound before he stopped reacting to Baek's coaxing altogether.
Baek could not—no, he would not—leave the boy here. He thought he heard the sirens wailing in the distance, and soon his observations were confirmed. Someone, perhaps those adolescents who had fled the scene, had summoned the law.
Baek looked at the unaware youth and hesitated. The officers had little sympathy for syndicated youth and they might be harsh on the boy, even when he was the victim. Baek had no way of knowing if the boy was known to the police, but if he was, he would be best off elsewhere.
He made up his mind. He picked the boy up in his arms and then, as gently as he could, shifted him over his shoulder. It was an easy task, as his burden was even lighter than expected, something Baek remarked with slight concern.
He returned to the street and advanced a full block without arousing suspicion in the passers-by in the dimming evening. Their indifference would have chagrined Baek, had it not worked in his advantage. The sirens got closer, and Baek dodged into an alleyway right before the patrol car would have sighted them. Carefully, he eased the boy off and tried to rouse him again. "Are you awake?"
The boy would have slumped to the ground bonelessly had Baek not supported him.
The police crowded the street and drew attention not far from their hideout. They had obviously been called to the specific location and now, judging by the rising commotion, found nothing worthwhile to attend to. It had been the boys, then, for no one would have known to call for help. Baek and his burden were not yet safe, though; it was just a matter of time before they would be spotted, and these corners were not safe, either. Baek was hardly concerned for himself, but he had to consider the boy in his protection and leaving here was the best option for the both of them.
The hideout was still some way off Baek's apartment, which was his intended refuge. Rather than return to the street and risk exposure, Baek took his burden to carry and explored deeper into the alley, which had an outlet at the other end. No more than a couple minutes later, thanks to luck and an instinctive knowledge of shortcuts in the mazelike back alleys, they had made it to his apartment. Baek got them in and straight to the front room. Cautiously, he lowered the boy onto the sofa there and pulled pillows to support him.
Baek straightened up, and the jolt in his back muscles reminded him that he was not a youth anymore. It was a notion he did not care to explore too closely, and so he turned his attentions back to the boy.
Out cold, the boy remained unresponsive to Baek's address. Baek found a strong pulse, though, and deemed it best to leave him to wake in his own time. Black-purple marks were forming where his head had hit the ground, and Baek realized he should prepare a cold compress or two, as the ankle needed attention as well.
Baek was soaking small towels in water cooled with ice when he heard movement. He wrung the towels dry and headed to the other room to find the boy awake, rising groggily.
"How are you feeling?"
The boy reacted instantly. At the sound and sight of Baek, he scrambled up and tried to flee, only his leg gave way, and he fell onto the sofa with a pained cry. Baek moved toward him, but the boy cowered and backed away against the armrest.
Baek had not expected this, not that he had expected any of the day's events. "Don't be afraid," he tried in a low voice. He didn't have the desired effect.
"I'm not giving you any!" The boy was panicking and trying to move off the sofa. Paralyzed, Baek watched as the youth scampered over the armrest, only to have his leg give way again. He fell onto the floor with a thud and immediately tried to get up.
"Please, calm down."
It was then that the boy's words hit Baek, and the pieces connected like a lightning flash. The boy thought he... And again, that intense disappointment he felt with the world hit him full force, and Baek wavered between feeling sickened and angered. Not at the boy, of course not, but at the world, which dealt too much, too soon for adolescents to cope with. All those philosophical thoughts flew past his mind, although merely an instant passed in real life.
"You misunderstand. Please, calm down. Nothing will happen to you," Baek said in a calm he wasn't feeling. He dropped the towels and backed to the other side of the room, careful to stay within the boy's eyesight and to leave the exit free. He held his hands to his sides as a non-threatening gesture. "It is safe," he said quietly.
A moment passed before it sank into the boy, but then, suddenly, he took notice of the unmoving Baek and stopped moving himself. Moments passed. Then Baek, very carefully, sat down on the floor. Less tall, less threatening now, he spoke, "You were in a fight. You were hurt, so I brought you in here before the police came." At the mention of the police, the youth gave an alarmed look, but Baek continued, "You can leave anytime. The door is open." He gestured at the door, careful not to move anything except the arm.
The boy was still breathing heavily, but he was listening intently now. Assessing the situation. "Why would you do that? Help me?"
Did Baek even know himself? It had seemed the only honorable thing to do, and he told the boy so. Then, he added, "I saw the fight. I saw your friends flee, and you defend yourself, even when outnumbered. I could not turn my back after witnessing that."
The boy was calmer now. He drew himself up in a sitting pose with a wince, which did not go unnoticed, but Baek knew better than to interfere with it then. "I don't understand why you'd get involved if there was nothing in it for you..." His breathing hitched again.
But Baek shook his head. "I don't do this every day, get involved in street fights." The boy gave a stifled sound, and he continued, "But I must do my part. One cannot walk away when seeing injustice. It is shameful."
It was a curious choice of words, and one that many a youth would have laughed at in this day and age, even in a culture of respect. The red-headed youth seemed affected, though, and he lowered his head in a bow.
"You may leave if you wish, but you must rest and treat your injuries. If not here, then elsewhere."
"It's nothing," the youth dismissed. "They're nothing."
"Do not take them lightly. A casual injury can lead to permanent damage. An untreated sprain can end a career," Baek warned.
The boy shot him a glance and bit his lip.
"Stay for now," Baek suggested finally. "I will bring you cold towels." He rose and took the drying towels with him, bringing them for another round in the icy water, allowing the youth to move on his own without supervision or interference. An offer of assistance would have bristled the youth or, worse, alarmed him again.
Baek stayed in the other room long enough for the youth to make it on the sofa safely. "Here." He offered the cold towels without attempting to apply them himself. "The cold will reduce the swelling and damage to the tissue."
The boy nodded, not meeting his eyes.
Baek left him to take care of himself. "Have you eaten? Would you like something?" he called. The boy was not eating well; he was sure of that.
"I'm not hungry," came the mumbled response. "Thanks."
Baek sighed. What was he expecting? After a bit of hesitation, he gathered a small plate of rice cakes and other food that he could find in his poorly stocked cabins and took a glass of water to the other room.
"In case you get hungry later," he said unnecessarily and placed the plate within the youth's reach. He pretended not to notice the famished look the youth gave the food. Baek took a seat some distance away. He didn't know what to do—did a situation like this ever have a script?—but he would admit to some curiosity about the youth. "What is your name?" he asked.
"What's yours?" the youth shot back immediately. He had regained his defiant attitude, which Baek had seen a glimpse of in the alley.
"I am Baek Doo San."
"So, Baek... What is it you do?"
Baek let the glaring disrespect go. "I am a taekwondo instructor. I have a dojang."
Baek inclined his head.
"That's... nice. Must be nice." The youth's tone was wistful.
"I couldn't help noticing when you were fighting: you are not a stranger to the traditional martial arts."
"I... I have never had formal training."
"Really?" Baek's brow shot up. He didn't think that possible, and his tone betrayed his thoughts.
"I'm not lying!"
"That it not what I meant," Baek said. "But you have true talent that should be developed."
"Um, thanks," the boy said weakly. "I— I have seen it, and— and other martial arts, but I've never had real training in any of them."
Baek shook his head. Extraordinary. Somehow, he didn't think the boy was lying to him, either. Too much flare, too much honest passion about him even now, in strange surroundings and in pain, to be wasted on useless dishonesty. "Nurse that talent. Develop it. Do not waste it on the streets. There is no worse crime than wasting talent," he spoke earnestly, and the boy didn't reply with as much sting as he otherwise might have.
"Maybe there isn't always a choice."
It slipped then. The question Baek had been playing in his mind. "How old are you?"
The youth's temper flared immediately. "How old are you?"
Baek sighed. "I am forty-five."
The boy hadn't expected that. He had expected a backhand, an angry reproach, anything else but blatant honesty. "Oh." He peered at Baek anxiously, but found no signs of anger. Weariness, perhaps, but not anger. "I... am not yet seventeen."
Baek wasn't convinced if he was sixteen, even, but he nodded. "Very good. Thank you for telling me."
The boy said nothing in response, just averted his gaze.
Night and darkness had already descended, and Baek was ready to call it a day. He doubted he could coax any more information from the fascinating boy. He didn't ask if the boy's parents were missing him or offer to take him home. He was quite sure the boy would have said something, were either a possibility. Now that the initial shock had worn off, the boy was attentive and alert, with a mercurial attitude to him, and Baek did not wish to shake that fragile bond they had formed. Quite simply, he moved his sleeping mattress to another room, and indicated that the boy was welcome to use the Western-style sofa and the spare blanket Baek had found for him.
"Rest as much you can. I'll be here if you need anything."
He was already by the door when the youth spoke. "Hwoarang. My name is Hwoarang."
Baek met the youth's steady gaze. "Hwarang. That is a bold and courageous name," he mused. "From Gyeongsangbuk-do?"
The youth held his silence on any more information.
Baek was at the door, but he halted there. He had to know. His back to the room, he said, "Trust among friends."
There was silence.
Then, the youth responded, "Never retreat in battle."
A rare smile, hidden from Hwoarang's view, spread across Baek's face. "If you wish, come see me at my dojang on Sunday. I will teach you for free." He produced a business card with the address and left it next to the youth. Without another word, he left Hwoarang to himself. In the other room, he simply lay on the mattress without any changing rituals and closed his eyes for a rest.
Some time into the night, a faint sound awoke Baek, who realized that the noise came from the youth moving around. Against reason, perhaps, he chose the approach his instinct told him: he closed his eyes and did nothing.
The shambling noises approached until they were at the door. Very carefully, the door was cracked open, and the youth looked in.
It was one of those defining moments. Long, quiet moments passed, broken only by the breathing sounds. Baek kept his eyes closed and rested quietly, feigning sleep. Then, the door closed and the steps moved away. Baek still made no attempt to rise. Instead, he kept his eyes closed and attempted to fall back asleep, hoping he had passed the test.
In the morning, Baek woke to find the apartment empty. The blanket was on the couch, the towels were hung to dry a little clumsily, and everything else was as it had been. Sadly, he noted his business card where he had left it and, with heavy heart, saw that the food was left untouched. So much pride, he mused. He could only hope the youth had made it safely to wherever he was staying.
Five days later, the encounter still lingered fresh in his mind. Baek was finishing a session in his training hall. The red-headed youth had not shown, and, illogically, unrealistically, he was disappointed. For some reason, he had dared to hope to see the youth again, but chances were that by now, he had moved territory, and their paths would not cross again. He felt cheerless and curiously disheartened at the prospect.
"That will be enough for today," he told his students, and they exchanged finishing courtesies. His absent-mindedness had not gone unnoticed, but obediently, the class had shown veneration and followed his teaching as on any other day.
As the class cleared the premises, a couple of students lingered to question him for something, and he forced himself to focus on them. As the training hall emptied, Baek was left alone to mind the premises and close down.
Baek turned and saw the red-headed youth standing by the door, looking at him shyly. "Hwoarang."
"Did you mean it? That you would teach me for free?" the boy uttered in a stride and held his breath.
"I'm too late today..." The boy's voice faded.
"Doesn't matter. Come," Baek said and gestured for Hwoarang to approach with just a hint of a smile caressing his lips.
Two years later, under the intensive tutelage of Baek Doo San, there was no question of the taekwondo ace in the making and the most talented student Baek would ever meet. In return for the numerous feelings of success, the youth was also determined to give him gray hair before his time.
And yet, after another day of reproaching Hwoarang heavily for his fixed street fights, Baek did not forget that his most challenging student had given him a purpose, even though he kept that line of thinking strictly to himself and retained the stern face on the outside. He still called him Hwoarang, for that was the only name the boy had ever given him, while Hwoarang called him master and, on the good days, even meant it. Only on the good days, though.
Three years later, it was Hwoarang who had been given a purpose. He would best Kazama Jin and bring down the evil that had destroyed his master. Hell-bent though he was, he sought peace in that one pattern which Baek had taught him well before it had been time, as a shared jest of sorts. With a stern face, uncannily resembling that of Baek's, Hwoarang embarked on the set of twenty-nine moves of Hwa-Rang just as the King of Iron Fist Tournament 3 commenced.
There are different ways to romanize (transliterate with the Latin alphabet) the Korean words, despite the agreement of 2005 over a unified system.
The title of this story, Sa Bum Nim, means master or instructor.
The Hwarang were an elite group of youth soldiers in Silla, an ancient Korean kingdom that lasted until the 10th century. Their tenets included "Trust among friends" and "Never retreat in battle." The taekwondo pattern Hwa-Rang, which Hwoarang performs in the arcade opening of Tekken 3, is named in their honor.
Gyeongsangbuk-do (North Gyeongsang) is a province in the Republic of Korea. It was also the home to the kingdom of Silla. The Gyeongsang dialect, currently spoken by 10 million Koreans and thought to derive from the ancient language spoken in Silla, is somewhat distinctive from the standard Korean.
At the time of writing this, Namco has made no claims about Hwoarang's real name and origins.
Thanks for reading and reviewing!
Hearty thanks to Gypsie (Gypsie Rose) for the proofreading!
Revised July 30, 2008.
Published July 28, 2008.