Disclaimer: I don't own The King of Fighters…

A/N: Hello, fellow readers and writers. Yes, I know that it has been quite a long time, and I know you … probably didn't notice much. But if you did, I do apologize for the long delay. Nevertheless, we're getting into the action; I admit it's a little abrupt but just stay with me. It's been a while, so let's not waste any more time. And here … we … go:

The King of Fighters XVI: Where the Heart Is

First Round: Technicality

Everything was ready. All the parties had ended. All the paperwork was settled. The stage was set. All there was left was to battle. However, while the feeling was jubilant for most, that aura was already shattered for a few groups of fighters, with the underlying threat made known to them in advance. Now, with a familiar salvo from a desperate faction ready to be fired, the teams on alert proceed cautiously and adamantly to prevent the treacherous plan's success … because failure to do so will only result in disaster.

New Delhi, India

Approaching the site of their first match, Hiroshi, Vice, and Mature walked down a brick road through a garden of rows of finely-manicured shrubbery. Soon, their final destination appeared looming over the horizon: a majestically-large domed building resembling a white flower, enclosed in massive 'petals' that form the dome. Four beautiful and pristine pools in the ground surrounded it, completing the sight. This was the widely-known Baha'i house of worship or the more aptly-named Lotus Temple.

Speaking what was on his mind, Hiroshi asked, "Shimai… there's something I need to ask you both."

Mature nonchalantly replied, "You're going to ask us anyway. Just spit it out, kid."

Hiroshi hesitantly began, "Well, it's about Orochi … and Leona."

Vice and Mature paused from the serious implication, faced with the possibility of question they would rather leave undisturbed, and exchanged knowing looks as they braced for what was surely on the way. Fortunately, a built-in reprieve was already waiting for them as the team arrived at the battle area.

"Actually, save it." Vice pointed out, "The other team's already here."

Standing in the temple's reserved courtyard were a teenage girl, a young man about Hiroshi's age, and a gorgeous woman, the girl and young man playing on handheld game devices. All three dressed in high-tech gear, this team completely stood out against the humble and modestly beautiful setting. The teenaged girl had her orange-red hair spiked backward with white and black stripes dyed on the sides. Her brown eyes were partially covered by round glasses. She wore a yellow top, black tights under yellow boots, and black gloves partially covered in the back by her sleeves. The entire outfit had black stripes throughout, giving her a resemblance to a bumblebee.

The woman of the group, beautiful and voluptuous, had ruby-red eyes, and golden hair curled at the ends and held with a black hair band. She wore a very form-fitting yellow and black catsuit, zipped down the front to reveal her ample chest. Green nodes sat on the suit's shoulders and the backs of the hands, and an elaborate and advanced green wristband on her right arm. The young man of the group had blue eyes and brown hair with blond tips in the front, and wore a red-and-white jumpsuit over red and white tennis shoes, black fingerless gloves, a pair of advanced 'watches' on his wrists. Upon noticing Hiroshi, Vice, and Mature, the woman alerted her younger teammates, who quickly put their games away, and the two teams faced each other…

The female voice of the announcer suddenly rang out in accented English, "Welcome to The King of Fighters Tournament XVI. This first round battle is: Yuki, Nagase, and Lien Neville, The Special Ops Team, versus Vice, Mature, and Hiroshi Amaterasu, the Heaven and Earth team! Teams, please decide your order and send out your first member!"

As the special operatives huddled, Hiroshi asked, "How do you want to tackle this? There's no more shifting, so order is crucial now."

Sizing up their enemies, Mature analyzed, "They've got a lot of tech. Odds are they've already seen what we usually do. I think it's best we go with something we haven't tried before."

Hiroshi figured out, "So that means… I'm up first. Okay, wish me luck."

Vice quipped, "Yeah, just don't embarrass us out there."

Vice and Mature patted Hiroshi on the shoulder as he stepped into the fight area, and Nagase also stepped up as Yuki and Lien exited…

Nagase, shifting her goggles momentarily, sarcastically scoffed, "Great, another 'pretty boy' in the fray."

Caught off-guard by the preliminary assessment, Hiroshi asked, "I'm sorry; I don't think I understand."

Nagase condescendingly asked, "Let me guess: you think you're pretty hot with the ladies. Am I right?"

Hiroshi courteously answered, "I do well enough, I suppose. My girlfriend likes me, at least."

Nagase proceeded with calm disdain, "Just what I thought; just like all the others around here. I can't take two steps without running another one of you: a bunch of pretty boys and not a real man in the bunch."

Hiroshi replied, relatively unaffected, "That's pretty harsh. I guess it depends on the person, but … just what is your definition of 'manhood', if I may?"

Nagase conceitedly deferred him, "Forget it; little kids like you never understand."

Mature and Vice stifled chuckles as Hiroshi said in slight puzzlement, "Kid? But your profile says you're 16 yourself; you're three years younger than me."

Noticeably taking offense, Nagase shot back, "So, that's how it is? Well, you're about to regret that … 'cause you're gonna lose to this kid."

Hiroshi tried to appeal to her, saying, "In that case, don't judge me just yet, at least not until after our fight. Let me show you what I can do … then determine how much of a 'man' I am."

Nagase scoffed as she got into position, "Mmm, no thanks. I don't fill out requests for losers like you."

Hiroshi went into fighting stance as well, saying, "Nagase-sama, it's obvious you're headstrong and quite capable… But I don't think you should disregard me so fast. I may surprise you…"

Seemingly reacting to the commotion, robed men and women in colorful saris had gathered around to see what would happen next. The Special Ops team's theme, 'TKO: Technological Knockout', began to play, signaling the only words yet to be said…

The announcer proclaimed, "Round 1! Ready! Go!"

Immediately, Nagase gave credence to her resemblance, buzzing around viciously like a bee; it became apparent really quickly to Hiroshi that she was some kind of ninja despite her brightly colored attire. Her skill set obvious, Nagase employed a lightning-fast, hard-hitting style of hit-and-run: she used a bouncing fireball called 'Unrelenting Fire'; mid-air throwing shuriken, 'Shooting Stars: Twinkle' and 'Shooting Stars: Sprites'; a teleport attack from above or below, 'Aerial Tricky' and 'Tricky Rounder' respectively.

Hiroshi had a hard time even getting close to her under such heavy offense. Finally, he managed to weather the storm; he used his 'Heavens Fall' spinning axe kick to move around an 'Unrelenting Fire', and ducked under a 'Shooting Star: Sprites', closing in just as she landed … only for her to grab him by the vest.

"Got ya; here it is!" Nagase exclaimed as she catapulted into the air with Hiroshi in tow.

Nagase flipped abruptly in midair to change direction, and planted him with a spinning piledriver, his body exploding in flames on impact. Hiroshi was shaken by thunderous drop, but he recovered relatively quickly. Wanting to avoid the attack again, he immediately tried approaching by air, but Nagase intercepted him by teleporting into the air, grabbed and spiked him with another spinning piledriver of dynamic impact from the air. The aerial slams were her 'Nagase Spiral', and 'Aerial Spiral', and Hiroshi quickly realized they were her most damaging attacks.

As he struggled back to his feet, Nagase haughtily asked, "That drop was crazy, right?"

Nagase proved to be a completely thorough combatant with a complete skill set, well-equipped to hit-and-run and chip away but also capable of applying pressure from all angles Hiroshi was constantly tested as he had to switch strategies quickly. He gained ground with his 'Divine Press', a dashing explosion grab, and 'Heavens Brace', a parry where he spun around an attack to deliver a fire-infused kick to the back. Eventually, he became acclimated to Nagase's timing, and started reacting properly to her every move, rushing when she was running and baiting when she was rushing. Understandably, Nagase was a bit thrown as Hiroshi began to get the better of her.

As the match hurtled fast to the finish, Nagase eventually froze in stance and Hiroshi froze in reaction as well. She fully expected to see presumptive excitement or even cockiness on her enemy's face, but Hiroshi was simply steely with only quiet anticipation even apparent. In truth, his level of calm only managed to anger her more, incensed that he could be at ease under heaviest offense. Aggressively, she threw out an 'Unrelenting Fire' and a 'Shooting Stars' before disappearing, but Hiroshi used 'Heavens Fall' around both of them. Nagase slashed from below with 'Tricky Rounder before dropping from below with 'Aerial Rounder. Hiroshi back-flipped to avoid the first attack, and then fortunately, leapt up and caught Nagase with a full 'Sky Scraper' chain, a three-part climbing spiral kick…

"Are you … joking?" Nagase labouredly exclaimed as she hit the ground.

The announcer proclaimed, "KO! Hiroshi wins!"

Nagase incredulously spoke to herself as Hiroshi, "This can't be right… There's no way… I got beat by this loser?"

Reaching his now-former opponent, Hiroshi bowed to her, especially low considering this particular girl, and silently offered his hand to her. Nagase did not respond at first and initially thought it was a mocking gesture, but she recognized his posture as unassuming…

Nagase reacted hostilely, "Keep it; I don't need your pity."

Hiroshi stayed bowed and replied cautiously, "I don't pity you. I respect you even more after that excellent battle."

Nagase paused for a moment before defaulting into taking no quarter, "Yeah, well… don't patronize me; I still don't need your help."

Hiroshi slowly and reluctantly drew his hand back and said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you."

The Amaterasu Son backed away as Yuki and Lien came in and helped Nagase out of the fight area…

The announcer's voice blasted through the area, "Special Ops team, please send out your next member!"

Lien stepped forward, and Hiroshi bowed to her as well…

He greeted her as the gentleman he was, saying courteously, "Ms. Lien Neville, a pleasure to finally meet you. I am humbled by your skill and beauty."

Folding her arms in front of her, Lien replied, intrigued, "You know, you sound like a stray dog when you bark brainlessly like that."

Hiroshi cordially reacted to the comment, "Can you blame a stray dog for admiring, how did you put it … a fox?"

Lien let out a brief chuckle of amusement from his knowledge, and then said, getting back to business, "It's light's out for you, kiddo."

The announcer proclaimed as the two went into fighting stance, "Round 2! Ready! Go!"

A polar opposite to her teammate before, Lien was a consummate technician, noticeably stressing the execution in executioner. Her every move was about precision, accuracy, and hitting just the right weak spot. Every attack had a target: 'Zaniah' was a clear-cut chop to the neck; 'Yed Prior' was a dashing strike to the liver; 'Azelfage' was a diving kick aimed right at the clavicle; 'Al Niyat' dashed forward with an energy shot to both sides of the throat.

Hiroshi, battered and worn down, was still feeling the effects of the previous battle. Fortunately, he had just the counter for Lien's fighting style, and combated her patient and methodical technique with a thoroughly urgent rush. He pressured 'Divine Press', 'Heavens Fall', 'Divine Dive' a diving cross chop, 'Angel Rush' a rapid-dashing palm thrust, and his 'Angel Spark' fireball. His full-scale blitz succeeded in disrupting Lien's game plan, keeping her from getting clear shots or getting much traction, and soon he began to wear her down. In desperation, Lien decided to try something completely new … to everyone. Hiroshi, looking to take advantage of a brief hesitation by Lien, rushed in again … until he saw all three special ops members glowing at once!

"Requesting back-up…" Lien said into her wristband.

As a light suddenly shone down over him, Hiroshi looked up in confusion, commenting, "What in Heaven's name…"

BOOM! The Amaterasu Son was buffeted by Lien's Shien Ose satellite attack, shot backward into the air. Nagase stepped in next by catching him in midair with 'Mirage Assault', punishing him with vicious blows along with a clone of herself. All the while, Yuki was obviously gathering power in his watches, soon slowly rising into the air as Nagase got clear, and finally blasted the still aloft Hiroshi with a massive beam of blue energy! Hiroshi had just received an 'All Guns Blazing' Danger Move, the Special Ops team's 'Tactical Endgame', and could only let out a cry of agony as he hit the ground…

Vice and Mature stood in surprise at seeing this for the first time, Vice managing to force out, "Wow. They … got him."

The announcer blasted over the grounds, "KO! Lien wins!"

Lien ominously offered to her fallen opponent, "Sleep calmly … in your depression."

As she and Vice entered to help Hiroshi up, Mature couldn't help but point out "Well, I bet you're regretting that new rule right about now?"

Hiroshi answered in pain as he fought up with his sisters' help, "I guess I should at least be glad the 'AGB' attacks are a success… But a Kill Sat? I mean that has to be overkill, even for KOF, right?"

As Hiroshi eventually exited the ring, the announcer loudly exclaimed, "Heaven and Earth team, please send out your next member!"

Vice entered the area, and the interaction between the two combatants was noticeably shorter than the two prior. Lien and Vice looked each other over briefly, scoffed at each other, and went right into fighting stance as 'Technological Knockout' faded out as 'Reunion', Heaven and Earth's new theme, faded in…

The announcer's voice soon boomed over them, "Round 3! Ready! Go!"

Dealing with a completely new opponent, Lien unveiled a new facet of her strategy: the ability to project energy upon contact, sacrificing precision for damage: 'Syrma', a ground pound of energy; 'Shaula' a heel drop for a large burst of energy; 'Rose', a small energy projectile shot from her mouth, into 'Thorn', a step-up kick; and 'Moerae', an aerial grab with either a knee drive, 'Clotho', or a launching sidekick, 'Lahkesis'. While an effective surprise, the new strategy's weakness played right into Vice's strength; Lien's range suffered the most from the change and so she had to stay close.

Vice ultimately was the main beneficiary as the close proximity meant she could liberally toss Lien around with 'Nail Bomb', 'Deicide Slayer', 'Gore Fest', and the rest of her arsenal. Lien was already worn down from the fight with Hiroshi, so Vice's thrashing took her to the edge quickly. Vice eventually knocked Lien into the air with a 'Mayhem' shoulder tackle, leapt after her, and then slammed her into the ground with a 'Tranquility' hurricanrana…

"It can't end this way!" Lien regretfully cried out as she bounced off the ground from the impact.

The announcer's voice boomed through the air, "KO! Vice wins!"

Vice callously quipped in response, "Sorry, 'fox', but this is exactly how it was going to end."

As Yuki helped Lien out of the ring, the announcer called out, "Special Ops team, please bring out your final member!"

Still recovering, Hiroshi got out words of caution, "Vice-chan, be careful. This guy is no slouch; don't take him lightly."

Vice, almost offended by suggestion, replied, "What are you saying, kid? Don't worry your pretty head; I can handle it."

Hiroshi persisted in asking for vigilance, "I'm sure. It's just… He may seem … odd but he's a highly-trained military operative. Please don't let his looks fool you."

Vice slightly scoffed, "I said I'll handle it. Settle down before you break a stitch or something."

She turned back around to see Yuki, her opponent, dressed in a brightly-colored jumpsuit and making elaborate hand gestures. Immediately, she recognized the style…

"Oh, no…" Vice expressed with disgusted exasperation, "One of those sentai clowns?"

Offended by the loud slight, Yuki shot back, "Clown? Trust me; what I do in this fight won't be funny."

Her irritation persisting, Vice continued, "Spare me your tough-guy talk; you're still a walking punchline. I don't even know if I should bother."

Yuki, getting an idea, suggested, "In that case… You could just forfeit. If you're not into it, it's not a real battle anyway."

Vice snickered, snapping back to seriousness quickly, "Just because you make me sick doesn't mean I won't snap you in half. That's actually something I'm looking forward to."

Yuki and Vice went into fighting position as 'Technological Knockout' faded back in…

The announcer emphatically proclaimed, "Round 4! Ready! Go!"

As Hiroshi warned, Yuki was much more than his appearance let on; he was surprisingly relentless and incredibly fast when chasing or evading, his 'Riding Hero' air dash making him mobile even in flight. Vice was at a clear disadvantage with this kind of opponent; Yuki's agility and dexterity made it hard to trap and catch him, and his suddenness allowed him to go from evading to attacking in an instant, 'Riding Hero' even negating her air chases, 'Misanthrope' and 'Tranquility'. As a result, Vice absorbed a great deal of damage just trying to catch Yuki with anything.

If that were not enough, Yuki had another advantage to his game: he was a natural juggle master. Many moves were designed to send his enemies airborne like his 'Mutation Combination', a volley attack, and 'Submarine Screw', a burst of energy that curves upward, or attacks meant to keep opponents in air like his 'TNT Punch', a dashing energy punch, 'Lightning Fist', a vertical attack that additionally damaged with bolts of electricity, and 'Beast Buster, an invisible projectile. Putting an exclamation point on his blitz, Yuki launched Vice with a 'Submarine Screw', keep her afloat with 'TNT Punch', and ended his assault with a 'Lightning Fist'…

"This isn't happening…" Vice cried angrily as she hit the ground.

The announcer forcefully called out, "KO! Yuki wins!"

As Hiroshi and Mature came into the ring, Yuki triumphantly stated, "You might wanna check your pockets again, 'cuz I'm no regular guy."

The announcer soon loudly requested, "Heaven and Earth team, please send out your final member!"

Mature, as summoned, stayed as Hiroshi helped Vice out of the area. Yuki, meanwhile, was checking his 'watches' and his other equipment, and liked what he saw…

"It's time." Yuki declared, again making elaborate hand motions, "My legend begins here!"

Mature responded with a sly smirk, "From the looks of things, I agree completely."

Hearing the seeming endorsement, Yuki proposed, "You do, huh? Then, maybe you should've teamed with me."

Mature, folding her arms in front of her, elaborated further after a brief giggle, "I don't think you understood. When I said 'Legend', it's because your life is about to become distant history. Gaia only knows how you've survived this long."

Yuki simply stated, "I don't know about Gaia, but I know one thing: I have the power of a god right here in my fists!"

Mature laughed briefly before saying, "Talk about sacrilege… But if you really don't know her … I'll simply send you to her in pieces soon enough."

As they both assumed fighting stance, the announcer's voice soon boomed over the area, "Final Round! Ready! Go!"

Mature's instincts kicked in immediately as she mentally replayed what she observed in the prior round, and she realized why Yuki dashed around so much: his weakness was his poor range and need for combos in order to make any progress. She exploited this shortcoming by staying at medium range, and attacked with her safest attacks, 'Despair', a flipping slash, and 'Sacrilege', a multi-hit twirling slice. Whenever he tried to get up to speed, Mature would cut off his momentum with her faster attacks: 'Metal Massacre', a dashing slash, and the first attack of 'Death Row".

In escalation, Yuki revealed one more option, another simple wrinkle but it was a big one: charges or 'memory cards' he would add to augment or enhance his bracelet's powers. 'Beast Buster' became a triple shot. 'TNT Punch' traveled faster and further. 'Submarine Screw' turned into a spinning uppercut. 'Lightning Fist' produced even more electricity for more damage. Yuki's diverse arsenal and advanced techniques kept him from being overwhelmed by Mature's progress. Also, his relentlessness caused him to keep pace with and even edge out Mature.

Caught off-guard by the entirely new facet of her opponent's game, Mature started obviously wavering but Yuki was coming again. Then, something struck her mind, something she had seen earlier but had not thought to use before. She gave a subtle signal to her teammates, Hiroshi and Vice got ready, and all three glowed briefly…

As Yuki only barely noticed what was coming, Mature mused, "I'm going to enjoy this so much…"

Mature, before he could even react, tossed Yuki into the air with her version of 'Deicide'. Vice leapt up toward him, caught him in midair, and drove him forcefully into the ground under a pillar of red energy with 'Overkill'. Mature dashed behind her, grabbed Yuki off the ground mid-stride, and viciously slammed him into the barrier under a pillar of red energy with 'Heaven's Gate'. All the while, Hiroshi was preparing, focusing energy into the hand as streams of light sped toward him, when Mature threw Yuki toward him. The Amaterasu Son finished the onslaught with 'Infinity Overload', barraging Yuki with a massive column of white flames as the image of a woman rose into the air behind the wall of fire.

Enduring Heaven and Earth's 'All Guns Blazing' DM, 'Ethereal Collaboration', Yuki let out a pained cry as he hit the ground…

The announcer finally blasted out, "KO! The Heaven and Earth team wins! Please proceed to the next round!"

Hiroshi started to speak, as he usually did, but considering the intended audience, he decided against it., and the trio started on their way…

"Well, that sucked." Nagase quipped, deadpanning in reaction to the loss.

Yuki, talking into the phone on one of his watches, reported, "NEOGEO… we failed; I'm sorry."

An agency operator replied reassuring on the other end, "No need to apologize, young operative. The research you've gathered will be most helpful."

Abruptly, another operator spoke over Lien's bracelet, "Ms. Neville, there is someone that wishes to communicate with you. Should I patch them through?"

"Someone wants to talk to me? Now? Who would even…?" Lien thought to herself before finally conceding, "Yes, connect us."

"Hello, Lien…" The person on the other end softly began.

Shocked, Lien instantly froze and went pale, her usually cool demeanor shattered at the sound of the person's voice…. Away off by this point, Vice, Hiroshi, and Mature were on their way to the next round, when Hiroshi picked back up on something he had to cut short.

Cautious, the Amaterasu son began, "Shimai, about those questions I wanted to ask…"

Vice slightly groaned in response, "Ugh, I thought you'd forget those by now."

Mature soon sighed, "Alright, fine. Ask away."

"It's about … Orochi." Hiroshi started. Vice and Mature, like before, stopped cold and looked back at him apprehensively as he explained, "I know you're both connected to him, or it, I guess. Still… What happened two years ago wasn't a fond time for me, but I understand this is definitely a lot different than that … so I guess what I'm asking is… Where do you both stand on all of this? Should I go ahead and brace myself for you leaving now … or worse?"

The two women paused for a moment at the strangely difficult question, unsurprised as nothing was ever simple with their younger companion, until Vice elaborated, "You're right; Orochi is our master. Our duty, our purpose, is to serve 'it', as you put it. But, what that means is we won't let anyone abuse its power for themselves. That's why we're going to help stop these idiots from messing with Orochi."

Offering a different viewpoint and also trying to ease Hiroshi further, Mature added, "To what you're probably worried about though… Orochi is the source of our power, the reason we are who we are, but Orochi doesn't exactly micromanage us especially when dormant like now. We haven't really heard anything in years even. We're mostly free until we're called. Basically what I'm saying is…" She lightly patted the side of his head as she relayed the reassurance, "As long as Orochi sleeps, you have don't have to worry about us."

Hiroshi gained some solace from their words but oddly not enough; he brought up something else on his mind, "Okay, then there's one more thing I want to ask. I already have an idea about your answer, but I'd like to hear your answer personally" Leona… What do you honestly think of her?"

Mature let out an ominous chuckle and replied, "Do you really want us to answer that?"

Hiroshi persisted, "Of course; I'd like to know what my sisters think of my girlfriend."

The two women shuttered ever so slightly before Vice snidely commented, "Trust me, you don't want that answer. You won't like what we say."

Hiroshi sighed disappointedly, conceding, "That's what I thought."

End Chapter

A/N: There you have it. First of all, I am very sorry for taking so long with this chapter. I really have no excuse, so I just hope you accept my apology. More importantly, I hope you didn't forget in all this time. In any case, the next chapter holds an update on an earlier character as well as earlier conflict. I hope you come back. Thank you so much for reading (and waiting to read), I hope you enjoyed, and I hope you come back to read more. Please R&R, and as always, Rant, Rave, and Review.