We-e-ll. That took longer than I would have liked, and since delays are rarely due pleasant reasons, it is best to settle for apologies for the fact. On the bright side, I finally took the time to look into web browsers and set up Firefox with NoScript. Goodbye, every single FF ad.
We have Chapter 5, and the fic progresses on its due course. I take this opportunity to remind everyone that your interest is much appreciated, and you can comfortably assume that your reviews will be treasured. Leave a comment any time on the way. Thanks!
Chapter 5: Meet Lars Alexandersson
Hwoarang woke to an empty room. The bed beside him had been abandoned and properly made. Steve had been there when he had returned, but he hadn't even stirred at Steve's rising. A vague impression that eluded full recollection was that he had heard the door at some point, but hadn't quite woken to it. Whatever the reason, Steve had left without a word.
It was for the best—the more comfortable—to be sure. Hwoarang swerved himself up. A glance at the clock put the time on the morning, late enough that night owls might still be battling post-party hangovers. There was only one way to find out for sure. Battling lassitude of his own, Hwoarang set out to follow his roommate's suit.
Out in the hallway, Hwoarang looked to his right curiously. The corridors stayed uncommunicative in their brooding, earthen furnishing, and it hadn't even crossed him that anything significant could hide off the beaten path. Yet, Jin had a room out there, somewhere. He considered taking a stroll down that way and seeing if he could find Jin's lair in the light of day, but the hunger levels were approaching critical. Even if he found the room, he wouldn't have known what to do with that piece of information. He wasn't trying to reach Jin, which rendered his interest academic.
The course of next action was clear: to the tables full of food. Not that anything so grandiose was to be expected, but it was time to tax the resources of the household. With a contemplative glance at the secluded section, Hwoarang headed to the common areas.
He was ready to breathe a sigh of relief when the trip went unimpeded. He had been able to traverse in seclusion, and the place had seemed deserted. Notions of isolation dissolved as he set foot in the kitchen. The only occupant in the room lifted his eyes from whatever he had been working on and recognized him equally fast. It was Jin's confidant, the soldier.
You're staying here, too? Hwoarang's mind reeled. What the hell kind of a game are you playing? The arrangements were growing more whimsical by the minute. It hadn't even occurred to him that the man might be in the tournament, participating on his own accord.
At spotting Hwoarang, the man drew up abruptly and fixed an attentive eye on him. Through a probing look at him, a glance sideways, and a chin lifted slightly, a greeting was formed.
Hwoarang grimaced, half-sheepish and half-irked, and strode closer. "Hi..." He would have liked nothing more than to whisk the whole ordeal away, but chances for an easy way out were slim. There was no use of running and putting the confrontation off any longer than necessary, even if his position discomfited him to boot. He drew his shoulders close, annoyed and not a little repentant. "I thought you were someone else."
"Can't imagine who that could be." The soldier looked at him quirkily and flat-out called his white lie. He cocked his head, and Hwoarang could have sworn he saw amusement.
"Hell," Hwoarang said without much enthusiasm and spread his hands. His predicament lasted only a little longer. This time, a glint of a mellow grin surfaced visibly. The man held out his hand.
"I am Lars Alexandersson."
Ill at ease, not really wanting to, Hwoarang stepped up. "Hwoarang."
The handshake was firm. The eyes showed intelligence and humor. Even up close, Hwoarang couldn't place a nationality on him. The hands were burning hot.
"Sorry about the—" Hwoarang gestured at his face with his free hand. Out for a whole round of contrite, he went on to look for the damage he had done, but was startled to find none. There wasn't so much as a bruise left. Older scars were spread along the man's face in an even distribution—discreet, but still there—but he hadn't left a mark. As their hands were joined, jolts crawled across his skin and jotted down his spine. It was almost like an electric current had run through him. Hwoarang let go of Lars' hand.
"It's all right. No foul done," Lars said. He was scrutinizing until a grin formed. "You throw a mean punch."
Hwoarang laughed dryly as he felt the embarrassment pulling him down. "Thanks." Now he really was a heel. Not many guys would have let it go, or been so upright about it. He was looking to detach himself from the situation and eyed around the room, aware how the vigilant eye still was on him. "I didn't know you were in the tournament."
Lars inclined his head and gave an inscrutable smile. "A visitor, one might say. I should leave you to your business." In a few swift moves, he cleared up after himself and then set on his way, saying, "Good day to you."
"Very much so," Hwoarang said sotto voce, fixatedly. He remained staring at the spot where the man had been, but the room was long empty. The man had disappeared like a shadow and left only a name behind. Hwoarang rubbed the palms of his hands to his jeans and scouted for something to eat. The rice package he found looked legit, but he was stuck reading the labels over unnecessarily. His heart was thumping.
He eventually flung the rice package on the desk, followed by a deserved curse. None spilled out, which he took for a good sign.
Hwoarang was barely out of the kitchen when fate interrupted his plans. The epitome of authority emerged and stopped him with a grave, "Hwarang. I will speak with you."
"Yes, master," Hwoarang said automatically. He had known the moment of truth would come, but he had hoped to ward it off for a while longer. Such hopes were futile; Baek Doo San, inspecting the premises with a regal air and a critical eye, had requested an audience and would not be parried until an audience was granted. He followed Baek's lead out of the house and onto the yard.
Away from the prying ears, Baek slowed down and settled for a calmer pace. Hwoarang slouched beside him and waited for the opening. Baek glanced at him with a furrowed brow, and the sad, stricken face would have ghosted visibly, had Hwoarang been looking. "Are you ready for this?" he said quietly.
Hwoarang started. "What do you mean?" He was even more surprised when Baek seemed distressed—reluctant to pursue the matter. The master had never shied from guidance.
"I am not unsympathetic to your ordeals at the last tournament, but revenge isn't the way. You cannot let anger control you. If you do, no matter how justified the anger, you lose focus."
The anxiety he read on Baek shut him into silence. When Baek waited for him to speak, he finally said, "It won't happen. I am ready."
"I'm not talking about justification. I am concerned for you. If the past blinds you in a match, anything can happen. There is no room for mistakes at the tournament. Earlier, it seemed like you were getting back at Kazama Jin, but you didn't even harm him."
"It won't happen at the tournament," Hwoarang said adamantly and held his head up high to Baek's scrutiny. He couldn't believe his luck. Baek hadn't picked on the extra nuances of the fight; he had taken it for a regular brawl and nothing more.
"Just as well," Baek said eventually with a sigh. "Be careful. This... tournament seems most peculiar. I am concerned."
Baek had noticed it, too? Of course he had, and it confirmed Hwoarang's feeling that something was off. "Always," he said lightly, but Baek's sharp look told him that the tone didn't hold water with the master.
"Self-control," Baek finally reminded and dismissed him.
Hwoarang bade goodbye with an impeccable bow. "I always preferred indomitable spirit, master," he said, but he took care to clear out of sight before Baek had a chance to reproach him.
Once Hwoarang was gone, Baek hmphed. Despite the worry he wasn't able to shake off, he allowed himself a smile, now that Hwoarang wasn't around to witness it. That boy had character. He hadn't missed the flash of pure fire in Hwoarang's eyes, even though he had missed it.
Something interesting caught Hwoarang's eye on the way to the training facilities. A gathering was taking place and filling the lobby. He came close to asking about the commotion when he discerned the reason for it: the lists had been posted.
That was definitely interesting. He waited until the pinnacle of attention passed before navigating smoothly through the crowd. The lists comprised two plain posters with location information and names of fighters for each round. He was reading the information charts when Steve joined his company.
Hwoarang looked at him sideways. He turned back to reading, but double-checking the information didn't give him any answers. He couldn't stop the frown when he finally nodded. "I'm reading three confirmed, one with Jin. And... a fourth?" He looked around the charts; some had a fourth fight scheduled, but the opponent was undisclosed. Not even a third match was a given; for some, the count stopped at two, followed by blank spaces in the schedule. "Who's the fourth?"
Steve was troubled; Hwoarang saw that effortlessly when he tore his eyes off the lists. "I don't know, but it's too little. Three matches to win the tournament? It's not enough to make any kind of a ranking, and with the Mishima Zaibatsu head so early on already..."
"It doesn't make sense," Hwoarang finished the thought for the both of them. He glanced around and keyed on the adjacent charts. "I don't get the locations. They are all over the place. Or maybe I am."
He rubbed at his eyes and paid an ounce of interest to the crowd still loitering about the lobby. Familiar faces were still there: Paul Phoenix and Marshall Law. Christie Monteiro, who was bouncing off her feet. No Mishimas. No ardent supporters of any side.
"It could be a mistake."
The look from Steve put him wise to having a short supply of believers. Not that he was leading by example himself, either. Hwoarang glanced at the charts once more. Things wouldn't clear with worrying. "While waiting for impending doom, want to burn off some energy?"
Steve thought it over and reached the same conclusion. "Why not?" he said, flashing a grin.
Hwoarang slapped him in the shoulder. "I was going already. You, ready to get your ass kicked?"
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize you wanted to spar with someone else."
"That so?" Hwoarang almost smiled.
"Still not so great with the kicks." Hwoarang was making his way back to the room with Steve. Dirty clothes and damp hair were trivial; the rush of a practice always produced an afterglow. Only a good ribbing made the good feeling even better. "You do great at receiving them, though."
"I'll show you kicks," Steve drawled.
"You weren't showing me any. That's kind of the point."
Crossing over the lobby cut the banter. The lists were still hanging like grim commandments. The air they cast about them was almost sinister. The men exchanged a look.
"It's weird, yeah?" Steve said quietly.
As they reached the room, Hwoarang pushed the door open. "Skill before beauty." Steve went in first, but not before giving him a push in the chest, which did nothing to wipe his grin off. Too pleased with himself, Hwoarang followed and shut the door behind him. While Steve went on to sort his things, Hwoarang threw himself on his mattress on the floor. His body thanked him immediately. He sighed deeply and rested his eyes. "Gotta lie down a minute, sorry."
Hwoarang hadn't lain for ten minutes when there was a knock on the door. Steve jumped over him and went to get it. At hearing his name, Hwoarang started hauling himself up. Their visitor in the dark was smileless and business-like; he quickly identified the man as a tournament official.
"Hwoarang?" the man repeated.
"Your room is ready. I'll show you there."
Hwoarang recovered quickly. "Right, sure. Give me a minute," he said, feeling nothing of the alleged certainty, and closed the door on the man.
"What's happening?" Steve said tightly.
Hwoarang collected his thoughts carefully. "Good things... I think," he said slowly. "They've set me up with a new room."
"Surprised me, too," Hwoarang said, but his frown was absent-minded. He tried to wrap his mind around it. Sure, he had mentioned the room problem to one single person, but... Didn't figure he'd do anything about it.
"You don't have to go."
Hwoarang shook his head, and a small smile formed. "Thanks, Steve. I think I've taken up your space too much already. I'm kinda curious to see what's behind this. It can't be anything good."
"You haven't taken up anything," Steve said certainly. "Not a damned thing. It's been good to have you around. I wish you'd stay."
Generous to a fault. Hwoarang grabbed the back of Steve's neck between his thumb and index finger, squeezing lightly. "Hey. I'll come running to you as soon as this washes out." He tried to be casual, but he wasn't sure how much joke his words held.
He let go and went on to inspect his things. There was barely anything to pack; he had kept his things in an orderly fashion, packed in his bags—ready to go at a moment's notice. He stuffed a pullover in his bag and zipped it closed, and he was done. He grabbed the bags.
Steve was still by the door. It wasn't the end of anything, but Hwoarang had the strangest urge to grab him in a hug. He controlled the urge. A nimbus of doubt crossed his mind; he could have set the bags down and told the man outside to get lost, but that wouldn't have been him.
"See you later," he said, and Steve, clearly battling himself, opened the door without taking any happiness in it. Out in the hallway, Hwoarang nodded to the man and disappeared after him to the right-side corridor.
He was long gone when Steve looked away and slammed his hand on the door. Yeah...
Elsewhere, Hwoarang followed his guide in silence. He knew the route couldn't be too complicated, but tiredness and dark shapes on the way were playing with his mind. He was led away from the common areas; he didn't know that any other contesters held quarters in this part of the house. The official stopped in front of a room and pushed the door open for him. He snapped the light on, and the pleasant lighting contrasted with the eery air of the empty corridors. A nod later, Hwoarang found himself alone in the new place.
He hadn't gotten the short end of the stick. It wasn't a bad room: the surfaces were clean, the furnishings unadorned but functional. The door had a lock. There was even storage room, and Hwoarang had the overall impression of a neat, simple place to stay. The room was secluded, though—whether that was a good thing, the jury of one was still out.
The bed was comfortably sized, though, and sinfully inviting. At the moment, Hwoarang couldn't claim much interest in anything else around. He kicked his bags out of the way and went to test the mattress.
Self-control and indomitable spirit are both tenets of taekwondo.
Sincere thanks to Gypsie for the proofreading!
Published August 7, 2011.