Even over the pulsing drum beat of the music playing in Pao Pao's Cafe the laugh of Terry Bogard could easily be made out. It wasn't like Joe Higashi's braying laugh that sounded like cracking glass or the restrained chuckle of Kim Kap-hwan. Instead, Terry's laugh was loud and deep, sounding both sincere and completely open. It was a sound that Rock had found comfort in during many difficult years.
"By this point he's screaming at me, 'What are you doing?' Like I'm going to explain to this clown why I'm in the hotel lobby without my pants. So I say 'Eh, just hanging out.'"
As everyone at the table burst into another fit of laughter Rock quietly settled back into his seat. Although Rock had been wondering what was so funny he was now happy he had missed whatever bawdy story Joe had been telling. While Rock often found the discussions among the professional fighters who gathered at the cafe to be fascinating the highlights of their adventures sometimes turned out to be more than he was ready for. As the others at the table drank beer and discussed women in embarrassing detail Rock was acutely reminded that he was a young man who was nursing a flat soda and who still had trouble talking to girls. Even though the people around him were friends and mentors who would never intentionally try to exclude him Rock still occasionally felt as if he was intruding on a much more adult world.
"Lucky for you nobody recognized your face," Terry said, "The last thing you need is cell phone pictures from that posted on a fighting web page."
"Trust me, nobody was looking at my face," Joe cackled. Even when out of the ring Joe was like a compressed spring with every motion and sound conveying a sense of pent-up energy. Rock wasn't surprised that Joe took his Muai Thai so seriously, the constant activity was a good release valve for Joe's excessive vigor.
"Not to change the subject but Joe's story does bring up a good point," Kim said. "Why haven't you had anything to tell us recently Terry?"
"What? You want me to run around being as stupid as Joe?"
"No, nobody can be as stupid as Joe-"
"I'm the one and only!" Joe shouted.
"-but he is pursuing relationships, no matter how badly they turn out. Isn't it about time you thought about finding someone?"
"I'm only saying it as a friend. While all the wandering you have done for your training has been of benefit you could use some more stability in your life."
"I don't know about that. I have Andy, Ukee, Rock and all my friends so it's not like I'm all alone in the world." Rock blinked when he heard himself listed after Terry's pet monkey but decided that Terry was innocently listing the things in his life and not setting up a joke at Rock's expense. "But it's funny you should bring up the idea of stability. Just the other day Mary asked me to become her business partner."
"Now this is news," Kim said. "So what will you two be doing?"
"I said she asked me to join, I didn't say I accepted. Instead, I declined the offer."
"You said no to someone like Mary?" Joe spat. "Geez, do you even know what to do with a girl?"
"Hey now, I'm not Andy! I just turned down the job offer, that's all. Just the job. Anyway, I've helped her out a few times but I don't think that whole private investigation thing is really for me. I want to keep doing my part for Southtown but I'm not sure that's the best way for me to go about it."
While he never had the same unbridled love for Southtown that Terry did Rock could appreciate parts of his home. In some ways living in Southtown had given Rock a sense of the larger world around him long before he had been able to travel. Immigrants from around the world had settled in Southtown, turning the city into a showcase for many different cultures. That combined with the warm air that blew in year round from the ocean made Southtown seem like a perfect place to live. But for all its benefits it had just as many faults. The different cultures huddled in their own neighborhoods and had never fully come together to make a solid, unified identity for the Southtown. With a weak, squabbling city government and people who were more interested in themselves than the city as a whole it wasn't surprising that single crime lord could set himself up as a strong-man leader. Even the climate was indicative of Southtown itself. Because of the perpetually pleasant weather there was no sense of the change of seasons or the passage of time. Nothing ever changed in Southtown, even the parts that should.
What could anyone do for a city like that? Terry had done the seemingly impossible by bringing Geese Howard's entire operation to ruin. But even with the removal of the self-proclaimed ruler of Southtown the city had not changed. There had been a brief attempt at urban revitalization with the Second Southtown project but all that really accomplished was tacking another word onto the name of the city. There were even those who were so content with the status quo that they looked the other way when rival gang leaders started fighting over the scraps of Geese Howard's territory. It seemed that most people had become too comfortable with the corruption to want or even know what to do when presented with the chance for a fresh start. While Terry's strength was enough to shake the city to its core it wasn't able to create something that wasn't there.
Any thought about Southtown inevitably led to Geese Howard. Rock knew he should feel something for a man who was technically his father but for as much as they had interacted the late criminal might as well have been a stranger. The only emotion Rock felt was revulsion for a person who must have been so insecure that he not only had to force his will onto an entire city but would sponsor fighting tournaments for the sole purpose of proving himself stronger than the competitors. Thankfully, Terry's lack of pretension and sense of equality was the opposite of Geese's dominating world view. While Rock was grateful that he had Terry as a role model instead of his actual father he still wondered why Terry had taken him under his wing. Was Terry actually concerned about him as a person or was Rock just one more piece of Southtown that needed protecting? It ultimately didn't matter but the question occasionally nagged at him.
What did matter was that Rock was letting himself get lost in his thoughts. It was one thing to be quiet during a conversation; it was another to ignore it altogether. But as animated as the others at the table were he doubted they even noticed his silence. It seemed the conversation had drifted to Kim discussing his latest batch of unwilling students.
"In the end all four of them gave up the terms of their parole in order to leave the dojang and stop their training," Kim said. "It's too bad, really. Although I am glad they are willing to pay for their crimes I think my classes would have been a wonderful source of personal discipline for them."
"They would rather be in jail than train with you?" Terry asked. "That's... pretty intense of you there, Kim."
When Rock first began to associate with Terry he had thought Kim was an unlikely drinking buddy. Not only was the Tae Kwan Do master several years older than most of Terry's colleges but he was a dedicated husband and father who was fanatically earnest about the training of himself and his students. It wasn't until Rock began to tag along on their evenings out that he understood what it was that Kim found so attractive about the friendship. Part of it was because Terry was one of the few people Kim had met who was as strong as he was. But the main draw was the free spirited nature of Terry and his friends. Kim enjoyed associating with that sense of energy from time to time since it was a luxury he never allowed himself in his own highly disciplined life.
"Still," Terry added, "I give you credit for being willing to teach a new generation of fighters. Even though I would like to do it, a guy like me will never run a school."
"Why do you say that? I've always thought you had the proper attitude to make a fine instructor."
"Yeah, Kim's right," Joe agreed. "Besides, Southtown could use a real place that taught people how to fight. The only academy in town is the Kyokugen school and, well, we know what they're like. If you opened up a gym you could write your own ticket."
"Nah, it wouldn't work. Both of you guys are from long standing martial arts traditions. But the way I fight comes from a lot of different styles that I put together myself. If I tried to start a school I would have to invent everything from the ground up, including a name for the style I was teaching. It would look like I trying to cash in on my fame more than anything else. Yeah, I can teach moves to a single person-" Terry motioned to Rock who flicked off a quick salute in acknowledgment "-but I don't see myself handing out belts or diplomas or anything like that."
Although that sounded reasonable, Rock remembered another incident that could have made Terry reluctant to take up instruction. It was after a particularly impressive sparring match between Andy and Terry. The two brothers had been competing against each other long before Rock had joined Terry's extended family. Although Rock had never spent much time with the younger Bogard he could still sympathize with him on the fact that they had both lost far more matches against Terry than they had won.
After the match Andy sat reposed and unmoving as a statue while Mai fussed over a cut on the side of his head. No matter how much Mai hung on him Andy never publicly returned her affection. This only spurred Mai on to fawn over him even more. Rock did not understand their relationship but the two of them seemed happy with the arraignment.
"Sorry about that last kick," Terry said as he sat down opposite of Andy. "I put more into it than I meant to."
"It's nothing," Andy replied. His expressionless demeanor faltered for a second as Mai rubbed a cloth filled with iodine into the wound. "Not being able to avoid that kick only shows that I still need to work on my training."
"Oh come on Andy," Terry laughed, "when do you not work on your training?"
"Guilty as charged," Andy smiled back. "But it's obvious I still have a ways to go when you continue to win so many of these sparring sessions. How can I consider myself a true warrior if I can't even beat my own brother?"
"Don't look at it like that. You're never going to get anywhere if you're thinking of this as a case of sibling rivalry. Besides, these are just practice bouts, they're not important."
"That's easy for you to say considering you have the winning record right now." The smile on Andy's face dropped as he became serious. "But you are right that I'm letting something get in the way when we fight. You have the strangest fighting style I've ever come across."
"Hey now, that's not much of an excuse," Terry replied as he cracked open the seal on a bottle of water. "With everything we've seen do you expect me to believe that?"
"Yes, we've seen almost every kind of fighting style out there, including some that are flat-out impossible," Andy replied. "But that's not what confuses me about you. All the Shiranui and koppo arts I've been trained in have taught me to be measured in my movements. Every attack I do is supposed to be as fast, precise and careful as possible. But you throw your entire body into everything you do. There is so little restraint in how you attack that sometimes you are literally punching the ground. The entire groundwork of what I've been taught says that you should be a terrible fighter. But somehow you've created this patchwork style that works against all the odds. When we fight I don't feel like I'm fighting any known martial art but instead the willpower you are using to hold that collection of awkward moves together. It's far more intimidating than any regular style I've ever seen."
Terry noted that he had never thought of that before. Although he quickly went back to the glib, cheerful person he usually was, Rock did see that Terry was struck by Andy's words. While Terry had always prided himself on being a self-made man it wasn't until then that he realized he was unique and could never fully pass on his legacy to others.
Rock snapped out of his reverie when Terry slammed his beer glass down on the table.
"But enough about that," Terry said. "Here's some news; I recently got an invitation to a fighting tournament and I need to set up a team. You guys in?"
"You bet!" Joe said. "Just let me know when and where we're busting heads."
"If it's that tournament in Osaka next month I must decline," Kim said. "I'm in the process of putting my own team together for that competition."
"Oho!" Terry laughed. "Then we'll see you there. But that still leaves me one person short."
"Pfft, it's not like you don't know plenty of fighters," Joe said. "Just here in Pao Pao you could probably recruit Richard or Duck or Bob or... say, how about Rock?"
"Me?" While Rock had heard what Joe said he couldn't tell if he was serious.
"Hey, that's a good idea," Terry said. "What do you say Rock? Are you up for it?"
"Uh, yeah. Sure!" Rock was having trouble believing that he was being asked to take part in something that the men around him took so seriously.
"Right, it's settled then." Raising his glass, Terry said, "Here's to a great tournament."
Rock sipped at his soda while the others at the table drank heavily from their glasses of beer. Terry and the others loved this sort of thing. No matter how many battles they entered the anticipation of a new opportunity to prove themselves made them giddy. Rock wondered if he would feel that way after he was a veteran of as many fights as they were. All he felt at the moment was a sense of apprehension that he was getting into something where he would have to be the equal to people whose strength and abilities he had admired for years.
Although he had not been participating, Rock had spent a great deal of time on the sidelines of fights watching every victory and mistake that occurred. So while he had extensive knowledge of what went on in the battles it was the view of an outsider. He could share the enthusiasm of the others but it was tempered by memories of far too many tournaments that had gone disastrously wrong.
"Yeah, you kicked that fire tossing pretty-boy's ass!" Joe bellowed.
At Joe's shout the crowd surrounding the fight burst into cheers. Terry smiled back at the adulation. Raising an arm that was still smoking from a blocked fire attack, Terry waved to the throngs that were congratulating him on his victory.
"You should show a bit more composure Joe." Even though Andy was chiding his teammate the look of satisfaction on his face showed that, in his own way, he was as ecstatic about the win as Joe.
"Not a chance," Joe replied. "That guy was the odds on favorite to win and Terry just knocked him flat. This tournament is as good as ours."
"Shush up guys," Mai snapped, "I want to hear this."
Normally Rock tried to avoid Mai. At that point in time Rock was of an age when even the most ordinary girl in his class could cause him to feel a rush of desires and emotions. Being around a woman who reveled in her sexuality the way Mai did was far more embarrassing for Rock than he cared to admit. But even though Mai was attired in her typical revealing style the flirty, outgoing manner she usually maintained at tournaments had been dropped as she listened intently to her cell phone.
"What is it Mai?" Andy asked.
"Something about an international crime league working behind the scenes or... I don't know, it didn't make any sense," Mai said as she shook her head. "But the explanation doesn't matter, what's important is that the tournament has been cancelled!"
Rock could feel the mood of the crowd shift as the weight of what Mai had said hit everyone. The applause was replaced with murmuring as people digested the news.
"The prizes have been rescinded and there will be no official winner," Mai continued to shout out the details as they came over the phone. "As for the fights, all matches are to stop immediately and there will be no official recording of the tournament rankings and the fights that have already taken place."
"So this whole thing was a waste of time for everyone who entered?" Joe shouted, "What the hell?"
Further ranting from Joe was drowned out by the now animated crowd. Some people were yelling into their phones, trying to confirm the details for themselves. Others talked amongst themselves, wondering what this meant for the outside bets that had been placed and the corporate sponsorship deals. All of these conflicting conversations created a wall of noise in which no single voice could be made out.
While Rock was trying to get his bearings in the middle of this chaos he caught a glimpse of Terry. Even though the fights were over Terry remained in the ring. The injury he had shown off as a sign of his victory a moment before was now little more than scalded skin as his arm hung limply at his side. Standing silently, covered in bruises and burns, Terry looked very tired.
Rock snapped out of his remembrance when he felt a hand placed on his shoulder. Looking up he saw a waitress standing over him.
"Are you guys ready for another round?"
"Sure, and put it on his tab," Joe said as he jerked a thumb toward Terry.
The waitress glanced at Terry with a confused look on her face, uncertain of whether or not she was supposed to know who the large man at the head of the table was.
"Ignore him, everybody else does," Terry said. "Yeah, I think we're ready for another pitcher."
As the waitress left Terry leaned into the table and whispered, "Easy Joe, that's girl's new here. She doesn't know me from a hole in the wall."
"Please, this is Southtown," Joe barked. Although Terry had been trying to keep the conversation quiet so the waitress wouldn't accidentally overhear it Joe had no such qualms. "Everybody should know who you are."
"Nah, people only recognize me when I'm wearing a cap or that really hot bomber jacket or something else I'm identified with. Otherwise I'm just another muscle head in a town that has plenty of those already."
"Maybe, but you're the only legendary lone wolf of Southtown, or whatever you're getting billed as nowadays," Joe replied. "Considering your track record you should at least be able to get a free beer or two in this town."
The idea of Terry being viewed as some sort of solitary hero always struck Rock as somewhat silly. While Terry was certainly unconventional in the rambling life he led he was far from a loner. With his extraverted and relaxed attitude Terry was the type who naturally drew people to him. He was never at a loss for friends no matter how remote a location he was in. Although he had learned a great deal from Terry, Rock had yet to learn how to be as comfortable around others.
But although Joe was complaining about Terry's place in the world mostly just to hear himself talk there was a certain amount of truth to what he said. Terry had never achieved any real success in spite of his notoriety. The corporate sponsorship opportunities were few and far between for a champion of something that most people viewed as brutal back-ally brawling. Most merchandising deals had fizzled out as well. One of the worst was a PVC statue made by a company in Hong Kong that was so poorly constructed and ridiculous looking that of the few people who bought it most were Terry's friends who gave them as gag gifts to each other one Christmas. Even the press seemed to forget about Terry half the time; most sports writers were uncomfortable covering blood sports that were often unsanctioned and gossip columnists ignored him because Terry was remarkably clean cut for a man who beat people for a living. Too decent to be an outlaw and too far out on the fringe to be a full celebrity, Terry was stuck in a limbo where the best he could do was maintain a small cult following.
"Speaking of beer, if we're getting some more to drink I should make room for it," Joe said as he pushed his chair back from the table, "I'm going to head to the little fighter's room before the next round comes."
"I'll be back in a moment as well," Kim said as he pulled a phone out of his jacket pocket. "The play that my family went to should be over by now and I promised that I would call to make certain they made it back to the hotel."
"Hey Terry, don't you want to settle down and have some stability in your life?" Joe said. "Then you can have a curfew just like Kim."
"Hrmph, at least I know I'm not sleeping alone tonight," Kim replied.
As Kim and Joe moved away from the table Terry turned and said, "What are you thinking about Rock? You've been even more quiet than usual tonight."
"What makes you think there's something on my mind?"
"Rock, I've known you for a long time. You're a great guy but you brood a bit too much and it's obvious when you're in one of your moods. So out with it, what's up?"
"Okay, fine, but I don't know how I should put this. I've been thinking about your fighting career and... well, why do you do it? You avenged your father's name way back during your first tournament so that can't be the reason. You have warned me about the dangers of fighting since I first met you but you still work out every day in order to be ready for your next bout. Nobody has ever become rich from fighting alone but the only time you take a real job is when you get bored or the prize money from the last fights starts running low. So, why? Why are still in the game?"
Terry listened to everything Rock said but only nodded and ran a hand through his long mass of blonde hair instead of responding.
"Forget it Terry, that was a stupid thing to ask," Rock said as he shook his head. "It's none of my business."
"You really have been thinking about things, haven't you?"
"Ugh, I'm sorry I brought it up."
"No, no, don't beat yourself up Rock, it's a good question," Terry replied. "Thing is, you're the first person to ever ask me that so directly so I needed a second to think about it, that's all. So why do I do what I do? Part of the reason I've been out there fighting for so long is because I like it. Stepping into the ring is a unique thrill that I never get tired of. I'm certain you've felt those same emotions in the fights you've been in. The fact that I can actually dedicate myself to that experience is great. Not everybody can say that they enjoy what they do for a living so in that respect I feel lucky. Also, not only do I like fighting but I'm also pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. I may not win every tournament I participate in but I'm certainly better than a lot of those poor chumps who only seem to enter competitions just so they can get pounded by the eventual winner.
"But full contact fighting is a very dangerous sport and, like you said, there's not a lot of money in it." Terry leaned back in his chair as he continued. "I've told you time and again how tough this life can be but if I was serious about keeping you out of fighting all I would have to do is show you just how little money I have in my bank account. Between the poverty and the chance of getting your head kicked in the life of a professional fighter isn't glamorous or even a particularly smart idea. Even the reason I got into fighting was poorly thought out. It took me way too long to realize that the best way to honor my father wasn't through exacting revenge but by trying to make the world a better place like he had. If I had any sense I would have become a lawyer or a politician or some other career which would have let me do something meaningful for Southtown. Instead, I spent most of my younger years learning to throw a punch. While I try to do the right thing there's only so much you can do for the world by knocking people out. I guess the reason I fight is not only because I'm good at it but because it's the only thing I'm good at."
"Now I'm even sorrier I brought it up," Rock replied.
"Don't be," Terry laughed. "I don't look at it as a bad thing. I've had a lot of great times and no complaints about how things have turned out."
"Have you thought about what you're going to do next?"
"Keep going until I can't do it any more, I guess. Either I have a few more years in me or, if I'm lucky, I'll be like Master Tung or some of those old coots and manage to stick it out for the rest of my life. Whatever happens, I had fun with it while it lasted." Terry laughed again and raised his glass of beer. "I'm a terrible role model for you, aren't I?"
"You're honest with me and I appreciate that," Rock replied. "I'm sorry to keep going on about this, but it does make me wonder about not only what will happen to you but me as well. Do you think there's any future in fighting?"
"That's something that every fighter would like to know. All I can do is make some guesses. My guess is that for every one competition that works out there will be three tournaments with no funding and terrible rules. I don't think the glory days of beat downs are ever coming back to Southtown. Speaking of which, I think those fights back then had their share of problems as well, in spite of what some overly nostalgic types may feel. It may be possible to become rich and famous through fighting but that gravy train is long gone for anybody we know. The best I can probably hope for is that things don't get any worse. But all that may just be the beer talking," Terry said with a smile.
"But the big question here is what do you think Rock? I've been at this game for awhile but you're just getting your feet wet. How do you think the life of a fighter is going to play out as time goes on?"
"I'm trying to get a handle on it all but right now I just don't know," Rock said, shaking his head. "The only thing I know for certain is that I love fighting."
"Okay, that's what I wanted to hear! As long as there's somebody else out there willing to give it a shot I'll be there. The only thing you need for a fight is an opponent."
"So that's it then?"
Terry looked around Pao Pao Cafe. Many people in the restaurant were friends he had met either because he had fought against them at one time or because they were fans of physical combat. Whenever a tournament came to town the dance floor often served double duty as a make-shift arena. The wall behind the bar was covered with framed pictures memorializing the victories of Terry and other regulars. Although the wall was jammed with photos over half of it was intentionally left bare. This way the wall was not only a memorial to past glories but was still open to triumphs yet to come.
"It's not much, but it's something."