Part 4 of 4: Meeting Face to Face
The din and commotion of the crowd were nearly overpowering. The loudest and drunkest were banging the sides of the cage, at least until they went after another drink and were discreetly extricated from the premises. The babel of viewers and investors found a perfectly reasonable excuse, in the end: it was the final match, and all the bets were in. A form of supremacy would be solved tonight.
Hwoarang listened to the pandemonium of noise and cheer with surprising disinterest. The avid attention was heart-warming and mildly intriguing, but it didn't really matter. The fight, however, occupied his full attention, and the singular purpose made all the commotion fade to little more than Muzak.
He had long since realized the key to these fights: it was the fight that counted, and the ulterior motives that had driven him to sign up for this had become inconsequential. The long-term fancy of a payback had been ill equipped to compete with the reality of adrenaline rush and ensuing onslaught of endorphins. Even this fight made little difference, in the end; he wasn't desperate for the money, nor was he in it for the laurels, pitch-black though his wreath might be instead shining in gilded green. This was... a hobby. Hwoarang's lips curved momentarily before he foundered into detachment again.
The umpire motioned to him, and Hwoarang sauntered over to the cage. He threw his roll bag on the bench outside the cage, warned, "Don't let anyone steal my shit," and entered. The door closed behind him with a click.
His opponent had already been shepherded in. Jacques Salazar, better known in the outposts as Jackal, had strayed from the straight and narrow long ago, and played the part without remorse. He wasn't liked; no buddies of his showed for support, and he couldn't have cared less. Jacques got the job done: he had run undefeated so far and had no reason to assume this night would be any different. He measured Hwoarang with his eyes and deemed the opposition... not much.
"Hey, pretty boy."
Silently, Hwoarang snorted. Another one of these.
"Scared?" Jacques inquired and slapped a hand to his thigh.
Hwoarang looked through him. So far, he wasn't hearing anything interesting. He belatedly wondered how Salazar had such a Bryan Fury -esque feel to him, but he shrugged at the thought.
"I'm talking to you, pretty boy. Worried?" When his jabs failed to elicit any reaction, Jacque grew vexed. Not rising to the bait he understood, occasionally; language barrier, maybe; complete dismissal, like he was nothing, never. He changed approach. "You are a pretty one... Maybe, once this is over, I'll show you a good time. Tap that—"
"We can proceed— Why are you still wearing a shirt?" the umpire interrupted and frowned at Hwoarang. "This is like pro-boxing; the big names go bare-chested."
It wasn't an issue with Jacques, who had entered the ring in monochrome fatigues bottoms, but Hwoarang hadn't been in the loop with the code. He matched the umpire's glare with a hateful glower. His expression contorted in distaste, but then he started peeling his shirt off. The gauntlets made the task laborious, but he didn't say a word. He was down to pulling the shirt along his arms, when the reaction came.
"What the fuck happened to you?" Jacques blurted out. The exposure of the upper arms had revealed the extensive scarring on one side, angry enough to still look fresh. Jacques was gaping, and the umpire looked apprehensive as well. "That's disgusting. Cover it up," he said in dismay and addressed the umpire. "I don't care what he fights in."
Without realizing it, Jacques had dropped the earlier act and taken Hwoarang's side. Now he knew, of course, which spot to work on, but his reaction had been surprisingly human: shock and sympathy. The umpire hesitated and looked outside of the ring for support. At permission, he nodded to Hwoarang, who began pulling the shirt back on wordlessly, impervious to the whispers of the crowd. His head had already disappeared into the shirt when the sight he had just witnessed sunk in.
He pulled the shirt back on as fast as he could, but the fractions of seconds amassed, and it was far too long before his head finally cleared from the cloth. He stared at the ringside like shot, just outside the cage, but what he had seen was no longer there. He yanked the hems in place, but his eyes searched the ringside.
Jacques noticed something was amiss. "The hell's wrong with you...?" he mumbled and backed up a step.
The umpire was blind, and he proceeded with the announcements. The match was about to start, but Hwoarang didn't pay attention to the introductory tripe. His mind was racing, but he was getting nowhere. The fight was about to commence. The umpire was asking them if they were ready. He was just about to ring the bell...
"I quit." Hwoarang turned on his heels and charged for the door. "Out of my way." He pushed the man guarding the door away and grabbed his bag.
Hell broke loose once the stupefaction of the crowd dispersed. Voices filled the air, arguing over the money bet on the match and what the shock forfeit meant. Scuffles broke out, and amid the raised voices and fracas, Hwoarang pushed his way through determinedly. Some tried to stop him as he passed them, but Hwoarang paid no heed to them and shoved their hands off. He forced his way clear of the mass moments before reaching the back door and exiting the building.
Out on the back alley of the club, he stopped to draw a breath and look around him. There was no one there. He inhaled breathlessly and forced himself to look more closely, but no matter how he looked to and fro, the alley was clear. Only far out did he see a few people out having a stroll and a smoke, but even they left and returned to another building.
Hwoarang made himself control his breathing and keep the alarm at bay. He also wished he could forget about having come here in the first place; he had done it this time by abandoning the match. Now, he was standing alone in a back alley, holding a bag stupidly in his hand.
"Do you have any idea what you just did?" a voice came behind him, coupled by more creaks of the door.
Hwoarang turned to see the speaker and his company of three, and berated himself for having let his guard down. He really was losing his mind. "I don't think that is any of your concern." He strove for neutrality.
"I bet a lot of money on you, and then you turned chicken."
Hwoarang was well aware how the three were spreading, forming a circle around him, but he kept his eyes on the ringleader. He didn't know the guy, but he had seen him around and knew this was trouble. He was in it for one to four, and none of the four seemed to be rookies.
"I can't say I cared, but I have things to do. I say we skip this round. You go your way; I go mine." Hwoarang articulated the words carefully.
"I don't think so," the man spat.
Not that Hwoarang had thought for a second that any of these would go for it. The chance to pursue the hallucination that had brought him here had passed solidly, and he was left to pay for it. At least they still kept the knives stashed out of sight. Hwoarang raised his roll bag deliberately, eyes fixated on the ringleader, and tossed it aside. The bag hit the wall with a soft thud. "What are you waiting for?"
In a flash, the balance of power turned around. A third party had entered the game and dealt a vicious kick to the man at the back of Hwoarang. Hwoarang wasted no time: he charged the leader and leapt in front of him. Momentarily stunned by the proximity, Hwoarang's jab hit him in the face, and he stumbled backward. He made it just in time to detect the kick from the right-hand man. The kick missed his jaw, but landed on his upper arm painfully, and Hwoarang groaned. The thud he made landing on the asphalt added to the spasms of agony.
The right-hand man moved to intercept him without delay, but Hwoarang had been galled now. He kicked the man as hard as he could in the ankle, satisfied at the howl and subsequent sinking to the ground he got. He spun to his feet, just as the leader jumped him. This time, Hwoarang stopped him by raising his leg swiftly and striking him in the chest with his foot. The impact made him sway dangerously, but he defied gravity and retained his balance. The gamble bought him time to find his footing again.
As the ringleader made his next move, he suddenly comprehended he was getting a triumphant you-shouldn't-have-done-that look from Hwoarang, who bounced off his feet and amassed momentum for a grueling onslaught of kicks; once and for all, he established the difference between a street brawler who had cut it and a cast-iron taekwondoka. The last kick from Hwoarang incapacitated him and landed him gasping for breath on the ground. Without wasting time, Hwoarang reversed directions and delivered a leisurely kick to the right-hand man's midriff while he was still slogging his way up.
Hwoarang straightened up to catch his breath and coughed. He then strolled over to the leader, who was clenching his nose in a fist in the midst of heavy panting. Hwoarang bent his knees and crouched on his side. His expression wasn't pleasant, despite the velvety voice. "How about you fuck off?"
Hwoarang rose and looked down on the man, who stared back with all the hate in the world. He had no choice but to acknowledge his defeat, though, and with a look of wrath, he barked orders to his companions, who gathered themselves one by one and exited in shame in his tow. Eventually, they disappeared from sight, and the alley was clear again.
All the while, Hwoarang hadn't missed the combat that had taken place behind him, or the cries of pain. He hadn't turned to look once; he knew his back had been covered. Now, he stood silently, still gazing at the empty alleyway before him. "It was you."
Hwoarang inclined his head as if to nod to himself. He hadn't been seeing things. He had only seen the dark bangs and dark gaze beneath the hood at the ringside in passing and instantly... he had known. Moments passed until he finally tore his eyes off the trifling alleyway and turned around to face Jin Kazama.
"How did you find me?"
"You aren't hiding," Jin said and raised a brow. The hood of his black coat hadn't even fallen off during the fight, but he lowered it now. "And the Zaibatsu has the means of tracking down people."
Hwoarang snorted. "Figures."
Jin inclined his head, as though he had been paid a compliment.
"I thought you had bodyguards that never leave your side."
"They're here... somewhere," Jin said and gestured vaguely. "And they are making sure more don't come."
Hwoarang nodded and looked at Jin out of the corner of his eye.
It appeared Jin had been doing some scrutiny himself. "Your arm... you didn't take the surgery." His tone was no longer as placid.
Hwoarang's eyes flashed. "It was you. I knew it! I don't need your charity."
"It isn't charity. The Mishima Zaibatsu has extra securities, as the sponsor... it goes with the tournament."
"And you decide who gets offered the extra."
A silence followed his remark, until Jin finally said, "...Yes."
Hwoarang averted his eyes and shook his head, distracted. Of the ways he had imagined them meeting again, this one hadn't crossed his mind. The commotion of the club no longer carried outdoors, and a light breeze was blowing. All in all, it was quite tranquil. "Why are you here?" he said at last.
It seemed Jin had been waiting for the opener. He stuck a hand inside his coat, and for a moment, Hwoarang tensed involuntarily. He forced the reaction at bay, and then Jin produced a white letter and handed it to him.
"What's this?" Hwoarang asked. The envelope was sealed and only had his name written neatly on top.
"It is your personal invitation to the King of Iron Fist Tournament 6, one month from now."
Hwoarang studied the letter in his hands. "And you came all the way over here to give me this? Don't you have stamps in Japan anymore, or was it just too much money to get one?"
Jin merely raised a brow at him.
Hwoarang looked at the letter, but the more he thought about it, the steadier his resolve became. It almost saddened him, but his path was laid out for him. "No, thanks. I'm not interested," he said and tore the unopened letter in two and again in two. He scrunched the pieces into a ball and cast it on the street on top of all the other trash that was there. He was done with this gauntlet.
Jin sighed. "I thought you might be stubborn, and so I brought you another one." He reached into his coat pocket and dug up an exact copy of the first letter.
"You brought two?" Hwoarang was too stunned to inflict any violence on the letter.
"Don't destroy it. I don't have any more," Jin cautioned. He looked out into the sky in thought. "It is time I leave. Think about it," he said and turned to go.
Hwoarang's recall stopped him after only a few steps. "Wait a minute. Hold on."
Jin turned around.
"Why?" Hwoarang flashed the letter in his hand.
"I wish to see you at the tournament," Jin replied solemnly.
"Does it make a difference to you?"
"I need to know, Jin."
Jin faced him, but then he looked away in the distance. "I have a price on my head. My father's line wants me dead; my mother, they got already. Truth be told, I feel the same way about them. Half the people at the tournament will want vengeance on me for reasons real and imagined; the other half are simply greedy. A few will claim friendship. I would have at least one person there who won't stab me in the back. No matter how much you hated me, you would do so openly and stab me up front." Jin's voice sounded a little sad.
Hwoarang, in turn, could only blink. He was taken aback by the underhanded recognition, not to mention Jin had spoken more than he had in all the time they had been acquainted. He really didn't know what to say.
Jin seemed to know there was nothing more to say. "I hope to see you." Jin lifted the hood to cover his face. He threw Hwoarang one last veiled gaze and inclined his head. Then, he spun on his heel so fast his coat flapped.
Hwoarang knew Jin was somewhat evil, or so everyone kept telling him. Yet, that final look of Jin's was etched on his mind. Dark hood covering the dark features, the jet-black coat... Hwoarang couldn't help feeling he had gazed at the tortured soul of Anakin Skywalker for just a moment.
Jin had already disappeared from sight. Hwoarang turned to look at the letter in his hand, but without breaking the envelope open, there was little he could deduce from its appearance alone. For a moment, he considered chucking the letter on the ground, but then... he couldn't do it. He didn't want to anymore.
He looked at the empty alleyway for guidance, but nothing gave him a clue about what he should do. Yes, as he stood alone in the alley, his eyes kept drifting back onto the envelope.
Suddenly, his lips curled. Unto the breach, once more. He would see the tournament through, and he would emerge as the victor yet.
Movie allusions in this chapter: Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005) and The Jackal (1997). UFC, mentioned in one review in relation to cage fights—sorry, haven't seen. I had decided on Jin's looks in the chapter long before the official Tekken 6 images were published; consequently, the long coat look was slightly surprising.
Thanks to all who have reviewed and followed up on the story! I appreciate it. Be sure to leave feedback and make my day. Perhaps I will see you at my future stories...? Thanks for reading!
The name of this story, The Meaning of Pain, was a play on Devil Jin's taunt, "Kyoufu wo oshiete yarou," subtitled "Fear the wrath of God," meaning 'I will teach you the meaning of fear.'
Sincere thanks to Gypsie for proofreading the entire story!
Published October 6, 2009.