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A Quantum Destines Side Story
by DB Sommer

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. Any and all C&C is appreciated. You can contact me at sommer@3rdm.net

Forward: Most of the events in this take place after Chapter 19 of Quantum Destinies. It also relies on information given in the QD side story series 'Path of the Warrior', and while not a direct sequel, it gives a lot of information to the main series as it relates to the Arena, which becomes an important part in Ranma's life.

"Fresh meat's coming in!"

Shampoo looked up from the paper she was reading and toward Running Deer. The girl really needed better manners. She had opened the door to the Amazon's apartment without knocking and thrust her head in to make the announcement that new fighters, affectionately referred to as "fresh meat" by the denizens of the Arena, had shown up.

"It Monday. The meat should no arrive until Wednesday," Shampoo said. New fighters to the Imperial Arena always arrived on Wednesday, since their last fight was usually the Friday before in the Hong Kong Arena, and they needed time to rest and recover before packing and heading to Japan and the crown jewel of the Empire's entertainment industry, The Tokyo Imperial Arena, A.K.A. The Battledome.

The barely visible shoulders of Running Deer shrugged. "Rumor has it the Director wanted to rush this batch over because of the newest hot commodity in it."

Shampoo scowled. Ratings had been up and continued to rise since her arrival at the Arena. She was by far the most popular figure there, surpassing the previous top draw, Mina Li. Even at the Korean's highest point, which had long since passed (though the girl retained a solid core of fans that admired her brutal methods), she was never as famous as Shampoo. There really wasn't any need to rush someone else up. Not that holding back the newcomers would be fair once they achieved the required twenty victories more than defeats needed to move into the Battledome, but a new hot commodity always ran the risk of upsetting the balance of power in the Arena if they were strong enough. Currently, Shampoo was one of the top fighters in the ranks, if not the best, and wished to remain that way.

"Coming?" Running Deer asked.

Shampoo nodded. Scoping out the competition was always a good idea. Of late, she had been more concerned about her rivals currently in the Arena rather than those that were in the process of advancing to it, and had not paid any attention to them. Running Deer was different. Far more sensible about such things, the Apache always seemed to have one ear to the ground, listening for who might be moving up and if they had any talent. Shampoo was unaware of any potential rivals moving up, and if there was truly a hot commodity, it would be best to see them early and try to feel them out.

Both she and Running Deer were dressed casually, just tee shirts and shorts for lounging about. Shampoo preferred working out in the early evenings. It was especially true on Mondays, since if the bane of her existence, the Arena Marketing Division, wanted to do something with her they would usually schedule it for earlier in the day. While being their poster child was highly profitable, it was also tiring. But she put up with it. Fame was part of what it meant to be successful in the Arena. Being the strongest fighter around was the other part.

She had today off, though, and had used it to look over some recipes she had just received from her old friend, Biff "Beef" Wellington. He was a former member of the most famous group of fighters in Arena history, "The Six Pack", which included the most famous fighter of them all, Jun Fan Lee. Beef's own fighting days were long since behind him, and he had gotten fat (literally) on his successes. On the upside, that meant he knew good food and was happy to give the protégé of one of his oldest friends anything he thought she might be interested in. One of the recipes involving a sausage casserole looked too irresistible, and she was planning to try it in the near future. A more careful examination would have to take place later. Work took precedence over cuisine.

It didn't take long for the pair to make their way to the Arena itself and head toward the stadium's seating. Even empty, there was a feeling of being swallowed by some titanic whale out of a Biblical text. It was a huge structure that could seat over 70,000 spectators, and felt like nowhere else Shampoo had ever been. It even made the Hong Kong Arena look small. Her entire village could fit in it a thousand times over, and there would still be room for more. Truly it was one of the greatest modern marvels of the world.

It had to be imposing. Every Friday this became the center of entertainment for the Empire, with all eyes turning to it and the fights that occurred there. For decades, the floors of the Battledome had been awash with the blood of those that competed in life and death struggles there. The masses responded by selling out the Battledome every time and giving it the highest ratings on television. Spectators tuned in to live vicariously through the fighters, imagining themselves down on the Arena floor, doing battle with their favorite contender and feeling satisfaction when their proxy triumphed, or heartbreak when they lost.

If only they knew the truth, they wouldn't be so eager to imagine living through what the fighters had to endure, Shampoo thought with ironic amusement. Pain was a common enough visitor that it never left for some. Death was a common enough one as well, though crippling was a far more frequent fate for those that took their chances for the prize. Those fates hovered over everything, no matter how hard others tried to ignore it. It was something that was lived with, or the fighters would go mad.

There were other downsides too. Being watched constantly, and forced to live by the rules of the Arena, could be trying. There were no guests, only fighters and the maintenance people that ran the Arena, from cooks to guards. It was as much a prison as it was a roof to live under. While the fighters could go out in public, there were curfews to observe, and no one could travel even an hour's journey away. A prison with a furlough program. Since the majority weren't citizens, their rights were limited. While all of their needs were taken care of in the living facilities, it wasn't a very satisfying existence. But then, it wasn't supposed to be. It was only temporary, until the annual tournament took place. After that, the fighters would have to seek their fortunes elsewhere. A prison with a definite sentence structure, and no one was kept extra long for bad behavior.

Despite the drawbacks, Shampoo had adapted quite well. She wagered she was something of an exception. It wasn't a terrible way of life for someone raised to respect a warrior's tradition, such as herself, though she could have done without the controls placed on both her life and her matches. Fame and respect were hers already, and hopefully citizenship awaited her in the future. It was her personal life that lacked fulfillment. Even with Running Deer as a friend, the Amazon wanted something else. She was simply uncertain as to what that elusive thing was.

Shampoo disregarded such thoughts as being unimportant for the moment. She and Running Deer had to locate the newcomers and look them over.

It didn't take long to find them, once Shampoo and her companion walked out to one of the upper-level seating areas. As Running Deer had guessed, the group was being given a tour of the Arena in order for them to get a feel for the place. Shampoo had gone through a similar process, as did every other fighter when they first arrived. The Director wanted the fighters settled in when it came time for their first match.

They weren't the first fighters to locate the newcomers. Two tiers below the girls' perch, a number of men were gathered around a railing and looking down toward the center of the floor. It took only a moment to locate the individual most of them were centered around. Evidently, Tarou and his cronies also paid attention to events around them, and decided to observe the newcomers as well.

Shampoo and Running Deer looked over the set of a half-dozen fighters on the floor. It was a larger group than normal. Apparently they were either a good crop, or the competition had been slacking off, in order for so many to move up at the same time. At a glance, the four men and two girls did not look outwardly dangerous, but as Shampoo had learned fighting in the dog pits, the most dangerous ones tended to appear the least intimidating.

"The blonde girl is Ji-hyun Park." Running Deer pointed to a smaller girl.

Probably a Korean, judging by the name. Shampoo picked the girl out and stared intently. She was quite slender, though even at this distance, Shampoo could tell her shorter stature hid that fact. Besides that, she appeared unremarkable to the Amazon's eyes. She couldn't sense anything from the girl, but the newcomer was in a relaxed state and the distance considerable, so Shampoo's observations didn't mean much. At the moment, Park remained an enigma.

"What has she done?" Shampoo asked.

"Only shot up through the ranks faster than anyone other than you," Running Deer said.

"That not so impressive. Probably a bunch of dog meat there now," Shampoo dismissed.

One of the men among Tarou's group shouted down, "Gonna chew you up and spit you out, Meat!" It was met with a laugh among the crowd.

Shampoo watched the newcomers closely to see if any of them showed fear or doubt. By now they'd been through more than a hundred fights, and anyone making it that far should never be intimidated by such meaningless babble, not if they belonged there. Watching how the newcomers reacted would give a hint as to what to expect from them.

Most of them gave nothing more than a casual look in the group's direction before returning their attention to the person conducting the tour. One of the men made an obscene gesture toward the shouter. Odds were he had a quick temper, something he had best learn to curb before it got him into trouble. It was unwise to make more enemies than friends early in one's life in the Arena. True lone wolves were few, and most fighters had a circle of friends, or at least alliances going with other fighters, to help protect one another. Those that chose to walk a path alone frequently found themselves the targets of the more bullying cliques like Tarou and his lot. While actual fights off the Arena floor were rare, there were other ways to ostracize and erode the moral of a fighter who had little more than himself to rely upon. It was a form of unconventional combat, but so was much in life.

That was one of the reasons Shampoo considered Running Deer such a blessing. The two had hit it off the instant they met, and the girl from the North American Prefecture had helped Shampoo adjust to life in her new home quickly. While there were others that Shampoo would call acquaintances, and even more she would call allies, Running Deer was the only one she thought of as a true friend whom she'd trust anything with. The feelings were mutual on the Apache's part. The duo were inseparable in most things, including the occasional brush with trouble. Shampoo wasn't sure how she would have fared without Running Deer being there to help her.

More invectives were shouted by Tarou's lackeys. "Don't get used to the place! You're going to end up broken and shipped out soon enough!"

This time it was the Park girl that turned and said, "With cute guys like you around, I sure hope not!" And blew a kiss toward them.

The group went from trying to look intimidating to preening, each one of them acting as though the comment was directed solely at them. Even Tarou smirked and seemed to stare at the girl with a predatory gleam in his eyes.

Now Shampoo began to understand the true nature of Park's threat. While her fighting skills were undoubtedly good, she had mastered the much more difficult talent of turning on the charm and combined it with looking insufferably cute. She knew how to play a crowd and use her looks to her advantage. Her smaller height only added to the "cute little girl" effect she was employing. She knew of men, not unlike the group of wolf-whistling morons below, that were interested in that sort of look. It was something that Shampoo, with her exotic appearance and taller, more voluptuous build, couldn't master, and thus not compete against in the same manner. She could make herself look and sound cute, but not with the ease this girl managed. She would have had the same problem if she tried to compete against Mina's dark, vicious beauty, something Shampoo had never bothered with since it was a significantly smaller portion of the public who were interested in it. The cute little elfin sprite look was far more popular, and Park had it oozing out of her pores.

Those concerns were momentarily derailed when Running Deer elbowed Shampoo in the side. "Hey, look who else dropped by."

Shampoo looked in the direction the Apache indicated. At the same level a couple of rows over, Mina Li had appeared. Her arms were crossed under her own, ample bosom, as she stared daggers at the short girl that was flirting successfully with the crowd of men.

"Looks like the new girl attracted someone's attention she didn't mean to," Running Deer said in a warning voice.

Shampoo recognized Mina's glare, it was the same one that was perpetually directed at her by the Korean. While Mina's hatred of Shampoo was public knowledge in the sub-culture that made up the Arena, she could do little more than take verbal jabs at the Amazon due to her martial arts skill, prominence, popularity, and friends. The same could not be said for fresh meat just off the boat.

"We better take her aside before she get into trouble," Shampoo agreed. While she didn't need the sort of competition Park was going to give, no one deserved the sort of problems Mina could unleash on them.

Despite Shampoo and Running Deer's intentions, it took a couple of hours before the group's tour was finished and a while longer to locate Park. It was as they rounded the corner of a junction that they eventually found her in a little used corridor that connected the weight room with the showers in a roundabout way. Unfortunately, before the pair could approach, they had to wait for Park's companion to disappear.

While Park leaned casually against a wall, Tarou stood in front of her, towering over the girl while he chatted in a far too friendly manner for someone he had just met. Both of his hands were placed against the wall, one on each side of Park's head. While not physically trapped, it would require a bit of maneuvering to get out of his way, something Tarou obviously wanted to prevent. He was all but openly leering as he looked down at the girl. Park continued chatted away with Tarou, uncaring of the arms' presence.

With Tarouís attention fully riveted to the new object of his adoration, he failed to notice either one of the girls as they ducked back out of his sight.

Running Deer whispered, "It didn't take her long to attract the wrong sort of attention from the wrong sort of people."

"She seem to have knack for it," Shampoo agreed. "We better get her out of there before she get into trouble."

Running Deer smirked. "Leave it to me. I'll get rid of him."

Shampoo's eyebrows arched in surprise. Tarou wasn't one to back off easily, even from someone with Running Deer's prowess. Actually, he would probably perceive any attempt to make him go away as a challenge and respond accordingly.

Instead of heading toward Tarou, Running Deer did the opposite, softly padding up the corridor in the direction she and Shampoo had come. She had made her way a good distance down the hall when she said in a loud voice, "Why yes, Mina, I think I did see Tarou somewhere around here. Want me to help you look for him?"

Shampoo was barely able to suppress her mirth as she heard Tarou quickly excuse himself from the situation, citing he had to go back and train some more. His footsteps dwindled in the direction opposite Running Deer's voice.

Once the coast was clear, Shampoo went around the corner and headed toward Park, who continued staring curiously in the direction Tarou had departed.

The short blonde turned and looked Shampoo over. "Can I help you?"

"Shampoo just here to give advice," she said. "Park not want to mess with Tarou. Not only is he major sleezeball, but he have very jealous girlfriend that not afraid to rough up girls that flirt with him."

Park stared at Shampoo innocently. "Really? Who?"

"Mina Li," Shampoo said, which should have sufficed for an explanation. Mina had a reputation for unpleasantness. A well earned one.

Park pouted. "Oh. Is she pretty mean?"

"Borderline psycho, actually," Shampoo clarified.

"Wow! I didn't know that. Thanks for tipping me off." Park said, bowing gracefully before the Amazon. "By the way, I didn't catch your name."

Shampoo looked at her in disbelief. Was Park stupid, or had she been hit in the head one too many times? Everyone knew who she was. "Am Shampoo, warrior of the Joketsuzoku," she stated proudly.

Park's eyes goggled. "Wow! You're, like, a legend in Hong Kong."

She was a legend in Japan as well. What was with this girl? Didn't she pay attention to the world around her? "Anyway, Shampoo just here to give you advice."

Park bowed enthusiastically. "Thank you ever so much. I hope we become great friends."

For a moment, Shampoo almost responded to the offer of friendship with acceptance. One could never have too many allies inside the Arena, even brain dead ones, but there was something Shampoo noticed when Park made the offer. Something about the girl's gaze that felt… off, for lack of a better term.

"Shampoo is too, too busy. It probably not a good idea to rely on Shampoo too much. Park be much better off making friends with other girls who can help her. But Shampoo is sure we see each other around sometime," she said in a noncommittal way.

"Oh." The answer made Park look crestfallen, then she brightened up again. "I'm sure we will. You take care."

"You too." Shampoo headed back in the direction she had originally came. As she turned the corner, she noted that Running Deer had returned and was waiting for her out of sight.

Disappointment laced the Apache's voice. "That was a bit brusque of you. Even if she was pretty stupid, she was only trying to be friends."

The Amazon's eyebrows furrowed. "Something feel off about cute girl. Shampoo is no sure what, but definitely not like it."

Running Deer's mood instantly lightened. "Oh, did it? Well, intuition is a good thing to listen to. I thought you'd make a good friend, and look how we turned out."

That made Shampoo smile. "Is good point. Park seems nice. She probably make many friends before she know it. Let's go back and do something fun."

"Last one there has to buy the other cheesecake," Running Deer began rushing forward, looking back over her shoulder in challenge to Shampoo.

The Amazon couldn't resist the challenge. Cheesecake, as unhealthy as it was and murder on her figure, still remained her favorite dessert. She hurried up her pace until she was alongside the Apache, then the two began their race in earnest.

"…And then he took me to the park after dinner and we had the most romantic evening. It was like a piece of heaven." Chiang sighed as she tossed the towel she had been drying off with onto the bench and pulled an outfit from her locker.

Shampoo and Running Deer stopped dressing and exchanged private glances with one another, steam from the baths hiding the unspoken comments from Chiang.

"And how long have you been dating this one?" Running Deer asked.

"Two weeks now, though it feels like an eternity."

The pair made sure they were turned away from Chiang when they rolled their eyes. While Chiang was a decent fighter, a reliable person, and easy to get along with, she had a bad tendency to fall hard and fast for every guy she dated. When the men broke up with her, as they invariably did before long, the aftermath was twice as ugly. Usually she took her anger out on her next opponent, winning those fights more often than not. There was a sort of predictability in that. When she was dating, she lost her matches. When she was single, she won. Most unusual.

"The sex is great too. And I swear he has a prehensile tongue," she cooed.

The boast irritated Shampoo. Between her mother's rather graphic descriptions of sex, the talk around the locker rooms, and Ensign Shan's memories of her night in the Heavenly Pleasures Inn with that rather appealing Ranma boy, combined to frustrate Shampoo and her lack of a sex life. It had long since become evident that among the ranks of the fighters she was in the minority when it came to abstinence. Given the life and death nature of the fighting circuit, people tended to live fast and free, since the next fight could be their last, and they wanted to enjoy life to the fullest. That wasn't to say there were no true lovers or couples, just that relationships tended to move quickly, like Chiang's. She was just faster than most.

Chiang came out of her fantasy and focused on her companions. "Are either of you going out with anyone? Running Deer, weren't you dating that English guy a while back? The one that hasn't been doing too well of late?"

Shampoo grimaced. Running Deer's relationship with the esteemed Michael Xavier had started around the same time she and the Apache had become friends. It had been heated, very heated, as Running Deer had been eager to share all the lurid details with her new best friend. Shampoo had never approved of the man; his eye roved too much, including toward her whenever he thought Running Deer wasn't looking. He wasn't as blatant about his flirting as Tarou was, but he was essentially cut from the same mold. Shampoo had tried to warn her friend, but Running Deer showed a nasty streak at what she perceived as interference in her relationship. Shampoo quickly learned to butt out, and let things proceed as they would.

Eventually Xavier strayed. Running Deer found out, and ended up broken-hearted. Many a night saw the Apache sleeping over at Shampoo's apartment, crying in a drunken stupor over how "disgusting" men were while the Amazon tried to console her friend. That led to an awkward situation one night when Running Deer had been deep on her third bottle. As she finished it off, the Apache loudly declared that she was giving up on "the blight on humanity that men are", and promptly decided women were her thing. She proceeded to jump the surprised Shampoo, pinning her to the ground and planting a very passionate kiss on her lips while her hands roamed toward intimate areas no one other than Shampoo had ever touched.

While both the Amazon Shampoo and Ensign Shan were familiar enough with exclusively female relationships (in the village, where men were a much smaller minority, it was not unheard of for lonely women to seek relief with one another, and in the Matriarchy, there was a militant segment of the population that saw the male of the species as an enemy useful solely for procreation, and rejected relationships with them as being a sign of impurity), and Shampoo was feeling increasingly frustrated at her abstinence, she was uncertain if she was interested in that sort of thing, especially with a friend. Luckily, the groping didn't last as Running Deer snuggled against Shampoo's bosom and passed out.

Thankfully, by the next morning — after a very hungover Running Deer awakened and remained next to the toilet, vomiting repeatedly for the better part of an hour — she had completely forgotten everything from the night before, including how she had ended up in Shampoo's apartment. After that night, Running Deer's attitude steadily improved, especially after she had a scheduled bout with Xavier and used the opportunity to break several of his bones. Despite her measure of vengeance, she never broached the subject of her ex-boyfriend and became snappish when anyone mentioned him.

Now, Chiang had made the mistake of invoking his name. Shampoo braced herself for the venomous tirade that would be coming.

Running Deer gave a dismissive wave of her hand. "I broke up with him a long time ago. I haven't thought about him in ages."

Shampoo's jaw nearly dropped. Never had Running Deer been so casual regarding Xavier. Evidently she really was over him. That was a relief, assuming Running Deer hadn't forsaken men altogether. That would lead to problems Shampoo had no desire to deal with.

Chiang pressed on. "Is there someone you have your eye on?"

"Not really," Running Deer responded just a bit too quickly and turned away.

Shampoo noted the way her friend blushed as she returned to dressing. Apparently someone had caught her eye. The Amazon prayed it wasn't whom she feared it was. She was certain Running Deer never looked her over. She'd have noticed if the Apache was trying for more than friendship. She was certain.

Sensing her subject no longer wished to be interrogated, Chiang switched to the other person present. "How about you, Shampoo?"

She had been afraid of this. It was her turn to be touchy as she said, "No man here is strong enough to defeat me."

"Honey, you don't have to marry them to sleep with them," Chiang said with a knowing grin. "How about that Impie you beat last week? He's pretty good-looking, and has a nice build. I thought you were checking him out with more than casual interest that night you defeated him. I thought I'd seen you looking in on him from time to time."

"Shampoo is not interested in Ryu!" Running Deer snapped.

Shampoo felt the sharp tang of bile rise from her stomach. There was only one possible reason Running Deer would lash out with that quick, angry response: she was interested in Shampoo and marking her territory by saying the Amazon was off limits to others.

Despite having just showered, Shampoo broke out in a sweat. She had no idea how to deal with the situation. Sure, Running Deer was nice, probably the best friend Shampoo had ever known, and she was pretty and well built. Men tended to give more than a passing glance at the Apache warrior, and sales on her posters and pictures were always healthy. There was nothing wrong with her, and much that was good. But being involved with a woman?

Besides that basic problem, there were others. Would it be good for their relationship to change in that way? Shampoo had never considered it. She didn't want to consider it. It was the sort of complication she didn't need. She had her plans. Win the tournament and become a citizen. Meet a man that was strong enough to conquer her body as well as her heart. Make him her husband. Have several children and live a life of love with one another. Other women did not figure into that picture. She panicked at the idea of what she should do with the revelation. Accept or reject? Either way, it would be problematic.

The Amazon's musings were interrupted as a girl poked her head into the locker room and shouted, "There's a fight in the weight room! Tarou's working over the new Impie!"

"Ryu!" Running Deer shouted, living up to her namesake as she bounded out of the room faster than seemed humanly possible.

Chiang elbowed Shampoo in the ribs. "I guess we know why she was so insistent you're not interested in Kumon, eh?

"Shampoo knew all the time," the Amazon said with an uncomfortable laugh.

After getting over the shock of her misassumption, Shampoo realized the locker room had emptied out as the other female fighters went to see what the commotion was about. Shampoo followed.

Technically, fighting was forbidden among the fighters outside of the Battledome, the Director preferring his stock remain in peak condition so they put on the best show possible for the paying customers. In reality, fights sometimes occurred when no officials were around to put disagreements to rest. They were warriors who dealt in the commodities of pain, sweat, and blood, and that was the way most private disputes were settled. Despite the prohibited battles, half the security personnel were former Battledome fighters themselves, being employed in a field they had some training in. Most turned a blind eye to the fracases, having lived through the experience themselves.

However, the fighters were always very careful in such forbidden battles, making certain no permanent or visible damage was done. If either happened, punishment from above would be swift and severe for anyone that dared to disrupt the schedule of the fights. The ratings were God, as far as the Director was concerned, and he God's spokesperson.

Upon arriving, Shampoo saw a crowd had already gathered. They restricted her view of anything more than two heads alone in the center of the throng, bobbing back and forth. Shampoo muscled her way through the crowd until she emerged at the edge of the makeshift circle that had formed to allow the two men to have the space needed to the resolve their dispute.

Tarou was winning easily, taking his time and picking his shots as he sneaked repeated jabs into Ryu's midsection, where an injury wouldn't show. Each time Ryu tried to fight back, Tarou would evade the attack or block it, then launch another punch or kick of his own, landing more often than not.

The crowd was clearly backing Tarou, including some that disliked the violent thug. That wasn't really a surprise. Most of the fighters cared little for the handful of participants that were already citizens and had entered the fighting circuit for honor, prestige, money, or lost a challenge duel, like Ryu had. Sometimes it was the arrogance of the Impie, who perceived themselves as better than the non-citizens they fought against. Sometimes it was the envy of the fighters, who didn't like rubbing shoulders with someone who already had what they wanted, and whose presence threatened to prevent them from achieving their own goals.

In Ryu's case, it was probably a combination of both, as well as a dose of him being perceived as an outsider who was thrown in with them, rather than having earned a spot fighting up through the dog pits. From what Shampoo had heard from Running Deer (who she now understood had been keeping a closer eye on Ryu than she realized), he was antisocial to the extreme, and had made no real attempts to befriend anyone in the Arena. Rumors had circulated that Tarou had taken a personal dislike to him as well, one that seemed validated by the current fight. That would only add to the antipathy directed toward him. Few would openly align themselves against Tarou, like Shampoo had, and cheering for Ryu would have been seen as the equivalent of that.

However, there was one among the throng that showed open concern for Ryu's safety. Shampoo spotted Running Deer along the edge of the circle, shouting for Ryu to be careful. Again the Amazon forced her way through the crowd so that she could stand next to her friend.

Just as Shampoo arrived, Ryu took a particularly vicious blow to the stomach that doubled him over. Running Deer gasped, then made a move to enter the circle.

Shampoo grabbed her firmly by the shoulder, preventing her from moving forward. Running Deer shot her a look of anger, as though she would start a fight herself.

"It go worse on him if you step in now," Shampoo warned.

Reluctantly, Running Deer backed down.

Relief washed over Shampoo at Running Deer's acceptance. There would be little more damaging to Ryu than rushing in to stop the fight. At the moment, it was a fair one-on-one battle, and Ryu was in danger of nothing other than a light beating. In the subculture of the Arena, it was an honorable way to settle things. For one of the other fighters to intercede and stop the fight before one of the participants yielded or was defeated would be seen as a sign of weakness, as well as dishonor, for both the one losing and the one who interfered. Ryu was better off losing now than appearing weak before others who disliked him to begin with.

A moment later, someone from the outer edge of the crowd gave a loud "Meow!" It was quickly joined by others.

Instantly, Tarou stopped fighting and the crowd began to disperse at a signal that was universally known among the fighters. One of the Director's pet (in every sense of the word) enforcers, either Ana or Uni, had entered the room, undoubtedly to check out the cause of the disturbance.

The crowd parted for the Puma model of replicant, the cat ears on the top of her head and mismatched, vertically slit pupils the only sign of her inhuman origins. At six feet in height and a muscular, yet feminine build, Uni (recognizable from her twin only by the fact her left eye was green and right eye was blue, while Ana's were the opposite) reeked of power, speed, and a barely restrained eagerness to use both against anyone that angered her. From Shampoo's understanding, she was a top of the line combat replicant from the Genom. Rumor had it she and her sister had received illegal combat enhancements courtesy of their owner, the man simply known as the Director within the confines of the Arena. Having seen the women take down unruly fighters on more than one occasion, Shampoo found it easy to believe. They had swiftly dispatched men three times their size on more than one occasion. Even Shampoo was not entirely certain she could defeat either one of them.

While their official position was that of bodyguards to the very important and influential Director, their true job was security enforcers. They acted as the eyes and ears for the Director, as well as speaking directly for him when the need rose. Their word was law as much as his, and none ever disagreed with them if they didn't want their life in the Arena turned into Hell.

Uni, flanked by two burly security guards, approached the source of the disturbance. Today the enforcer was dressed in a khaki-style military outfit, one with a slit down the center that showed off an impressive amount of the sides of her large bosom and formed a 'V' of flesh down past her navel and dangerously low to her loins. The Director liked dressing his 'toys' in risqué clothing that showed off their nearly inhuman attributes, which added credence to the rumor that they were also programmed with top of the line sex programs in addition to their combat protocols. It also caused most of the male fighters to regard them with as much lust as wariness.

"What's going on here?" Uni demanded, combat shock stick in her hand as she unleashed a glare that was made all the more intimidating by her silt pupils.

Either unable to escape from the fight fast enough, or out of sheer arrogance, Tarou remained near Ryu, pretending to clean his nails. He leered at Uni for a moment before pointing to Ryu, who was leaning against a set of dumbbells, trying to catch his breath. "It's nothing. The Impie dropped a weight on himself when he was doing reps. He's real clumsy."

Uni looked contemptuously at Tarou, who remained in his relaxed state. She moved closer to Ryu, regarding him with a close eye. Not satisfied with a visual inspection, she poked him in the chest with the baton, not using the electrical function.

Ryu winced, a reaction disproportionate with the light touch of the prod.

"Is what he said true?" Uni asked.

Tarou became more alert as he interjected himself into the conversation. "I told you—"

"Be silent!" Uni snapped.

Tarou obeyed, making certain he was turned away from the Puma when he glared.

Ryu shot Tarou an evil look, rubbing his sore chest the entire time. "Yeah, I dropped a weight and it hit me in the chest. That's all," he said through gritted teeth.

Shampoo subtly nodded her head in approval. That Ryu wouldn't snitch to the Arena personnel and keep the matter private would do much to improve his image to the other fighters.

Uni seemed to accept the explanation. "Very well. But you must be more careful. You are an Imperial Citizen. If anything untoward were to happen to you outside of the Arena floor, it would besmirch the reputation of the Battledome. That's as opposed to—"

She whirled with lighting speed, drawing back her baton even as she spun around, building up velocity as she lashed out with the stick and struck the still leaning Tarou in the stomach with her weapon. He immediately crumpled to the ground, reflexively curling into a fetal position to protect his stomach.

"—As opposed to Tarou here, who's so worthless no one would miss him if he fell down some stairs and broke his neck," Uni said contemptuously. "Do I make myself clear?"

"Perfectly," Ryu said, finally smiling slightly.

"Excellent." Satisfied with the results of her discussion with Ryu, she leaned over next to Tarou and said softly, "That's why you'll never really be able to win over the crowds. You have no acting ability whatsoever." She patted his shoulder affectionately before walking away, guards still flanking her.

By the time she exited the room, Tarou had managed to regain his vertical base, though he still held his stomach tenderly. His own minions gathered around him, Park being one of the first to console him, and Mina being conspicuous by her absence. They exited the weight room, his entourage congratulating him on "Putting that Impie piece of shit in his place". Shampoo noted that in spite of accepting the accolades of the others, he still shot Ryu a look even more evil than usual. It appeared Tarou was blaming the Impie for his dressing down. That was going to be even more trouble than usual.

Most of the remaining people ignored Ryu. Only Running Deer seemed openly concerned and approached him. Shampoo walked behind, knowing better than to arrive at his side first.

Some of the "I'm not hurt" act disappeared once Uni had left the room. Ryu was in obvious pain, clutching his chest and stomach.

Running Deer smiled warmly. "Nice job not snitching to the authorities. And you put up a good fight." She placed a hand on his shoulder.

He smacked it viciously away. "I don't need your pity!" he snapped.

Despite the fact it was Running Deer who had set him off, Shampoo was surprised to see him direct an angry glare at her. It didn't last, as he turned away and stared at the ground.

Instead of reacting tersely to the unwarranted and nasty rebuke, Running Deer stammered out, "I'm… I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend—"

"Save it!" he snapped. He shot one more look at Shampoo, this one more enigmatic than the last, then hurried off as fast as his pain would allow him.

Shampoo shot the man a contemptuous glare for his callous treatment of her friend, who had only wanted to help. Her earlier evaluation of Ryu not being worth either her pity or concern was only reinforced by his behavior. Whatever vague feelings of physical attraction she might have felt for him during their fight were completely gone. Next time, Tarou could beat him to death for all she cared. Ryu was a jerk, pure and simple.

Running Deer did not seem to share Shampoo's opinion, as she stared worriedly after him, "I hope he doesn't get into trouble. I'd better keep a close eye on him and watch his back."

Had it not been for her early, negative experiences in giving Running Deer advice on men, Shampoo would have been quick to put him down and highlight all of the bad points Ryu demonstrated. Instead, she remained silent, shaking her head pitifully for her friend. It was a good thing Shampoo knew she was more rational than this. If she had her sights set on a man, it would be someone that was less of a jerk. And if Shampoo tried to comfort him and he reacted the way Ryu had, she'd be quick to drop him in a heartbeat. She wouldn't make a fool out of herself setting her sights on a guy that was obviously not interested in her.

Once out of sight of the girls, Ryu smashed his fist into the wall hard enough to nearly break both masonry and bone. A white fury beyond anything he had experienced before inflamed his entire being. It wasn't just the casual beating so easily inflicted on him by that insufferable asshole, Tarou. No, what enraged him was that it happened in front of her, the only woman who had ever consumed his thoughts; the Amazon who had gotten lucky and defeated him, imprisoning him in this hellhole in the first place. That he lusted after Shampoo more than any girl he had ever met only compounded the matter. He knew she wanted someone strong, that could tame her wild, barbarian spirit, and that he was the man destined to do it. But no matter how hard he tried, he was constantly shown as being weak. He cursed his luck. He needed her, yet she remained out of reach. It was like a perverse form of torture.

And then there was that tall girl from the North American Prefecture, that Running Deer who hung around Shampoo constantly. On those few occasions when she wasn't around the Amazon, she seemed to be near Ryu, stealing glances at him when she thought he couldn't see her, but rarely approaching. The few times she did were spent saying nothing of consequence. Today, she had been the first at his side, pitying him. What was her story?

In the beginning, he thought she was stalking him, perhaps waiting for an opportunity to attack when his guard was down, like so many of the foreign dogs that festered in this pit. Time proved that was not the case. If anything, it almost seemed she was watching out for him. But that was impossible. She had no reason to protect him, and every reason to hate him, like every other fighter in the Arena. He'd figure out her motives. She'd tip her hand at some point. He just hoped it was soon. There was something distracting about that curious stare. It made him feel peculiar. If only he could figure out the meaning behind it. The woman was proving herself a distraction, one he neither desired or needed.

Ryu's plans were already made when it came to women; they had just been momentarily delayed. Shampoo would be defeated by his hand and become his wife, bearing him strong children and cementing the Kumon School of martial arts as the most powerful in the Empire. From the first time he saw her in a challenge match on television, casually defeating some gaijin dog that wasn't worthy to kiss her boots, let alone become her husband, he knew the Amazon had to be his. All of Ryu's life he had been drawn to the exotic looks of foreign women over the mundane appearance of Japanese girls. There was something intoxicating about their unusual bearing and demeanor, even if they were technically uncivilized people. They interested him in sexual ways, unlike the girls he had grown up around the majority of his life. Even the ones at Furinkan Military Academy still lacked something. Although some, like Sakura, weren't exactly boring. She was like… a buddy, similar to the guys in the Combat Club he headed. Besides her, the rest might as well not have existed.

No, it was girls like Shampoo, Running Deer, and even Mina Li, that drew his eye. Being so close to them, even under these intolerable conditions, only made it clearer. Yet for all his closeness, he might as well have been a world away. They had no interest in some "Impie" that continuously lost to others. And it could turn out even worse before the ordeal was over. Unable to pay his way out, he would have to serve his term in the Arena for six months. His citizenship was no protection. On the floor of the Battledome, many a citizen that tried to prove their worth fell before a gaijin. Everyone on the floor was equal in a way that they could never be in society.

Of late, he did discover something of use to him, a factor he had never experienced before. For all of the fights in the Combat Club, all the challengers he had defeated and even gangs he had rumbles with in order to display his prowess, never did they have the sort of edge even the lowest of fights in the Arena possessed. Ryu was becoming aware of the brutal air about this place, as though life and death were one's next door neighbor, rather than something that happened only to the old and infirm. There was a sort of viciousness underlying the Battledome, which added to the excitement and pressure of fighting. Ryu was starting to learn this sort of primitive urge coming from the reptile portion of his brain. Here, one didn't have to worry about crippling an opponent, unlike in school. On the floor of the Arena, one was expected to leave with blood dripping in their wake, either theirs or their opponents. Sometimes both.

Ryu was taking the lesson to heart. Already he could feel the removal of his self-imposed limitations while his techniques took on a more dangerous bent. He was improving, even if it wasn't obvious yet. He'd become dangerous, a man that could beat fools like Tarou and claim the greatest Amazon in the Empire as his. It would just take time.

Shampoo felt a headache being brought on by the muzak as it blared from the hidden speaker in the elevator she was taking to the floor her apartment was on. She tried shutting it out by considering the events from earlier in the evening. Ryu's brusque rejection of Running Deer had served to depress the Apache enough that she canceled the evening they had planned to spend together. Shampoo shook her head sadly. She would have tried to help matters move forward by tipping Ryu off to his secret admirer's feelings, save that she didn't consider the Impie worthy of them. While the Amazon wouldn't stand in the way, she would not condone the relationship either. Running Deer could do much better for herself. Shampoo was certain she'd realize it in time. Until then she would have to wait until her friend came to her senses and gave up on the guy.

The elevator dinged and the door slid open. Shampoo was so lost in thought over the problematic situation that the elevator had already closed behind her when she realized she had gotten off on the wrong floor. It took her a moment to realize it was the one below her apartment. Apparently she was so distracted she had pushed the wrong button.

Shampoo was about to head up the stairs when one of the apartment doors opened. She turned to see who had emerged and was immediately sorry.

Mina Li had exited her apartment, shutting the door behind her. Shampoo noted the girl was wearing an exotic Chinese-style dress, black silk with gold trim that hugged her in all the right places and showed off her "charms", which, among the ranks of the women fighters currently in the Arena, were second only to Shampoo's own ample bust. It was yet another item in the long list of things Mina held against her.

Shampoo was hoping to escape before Mina spotted her, but it was too late. The Korean's eyes narrowed as she spotted the Amazon in the hallway. "What are you doing here?"

There was no way Shampoo would admit to making a mistake to the bitch. She was wondering just how to respond when it came to her. "Tarou got beat up by Uni today."

Mina stuck her nose in the air. "It serves him right for hitting on her, the idiot."

The Amazon's first impulse was to correct the misassumption, but then thought better of it. It was Mina's own fault for jumping to conclusions, and perhaps it would cause problems between the couple. No one deserved problems more than those two.

"Why tell me?" Mina asked suspiciously.

Shampoo should have known it wouldn't be that simple. As much as she loathed Mina, she had to admit the girl was smart. "Shampoo thought you might want to console him."

"He's a big boy and can take care of himself. I have more important matters to attend," Mina sniffed disdainfully.

Shampoo wondered what that was supposed to mean, then recalled what others whispered about Mina's nocturnal habits. Once or twice a week, Mina would go out as an "escort" for rich and influential men. It was one of the ways fighters earned extra money, though it was mostly the women that were sought after. The more attractive they were, the higher the price. It was a sign of a man's wealth that he could afford to have a beautiful, famous girl on their arm as they went about town.

Shampoo had never done it herself, she regarded it as beneath her. She made plenty of money through sales of her merchandise, such as the numerous posters, clothing, and occasional advertisements she did. They were even talking about putting out an action figure of her. When Jaddo had first netted her deal from Ohtani Media Corporation for receiving one half a percent of the profits, Shampoo had thought it an insult. It wasn't until afterward, when her popularity began to soar, that she discovered the actual numbers involved, which nearly made her pass out. Even with what she sent back home, she was still going to have more than enough money to retire after the tournament, if she so chose. Beef was already trying to talk her into investing some of her funds and become a minor partner in some of the new business ventures he was embarking on. She was giving it serious consideration. The man had a good head for business, as evidenced by his wealth, which was the equivalent of many minor members of the nobility. It was obvious he didn't need her money in his new dealings, and was just trying to give her a "cut of the action" since they were friends. She decided she would take him up on the offer.

None of the other fighters had the cushy deal Shampoo had, and so hiring themselves out helped raise extra money they would need once their tour on the circuit was over. For the most part, it really was nothing more than a way for men to brag about who they could buy. But for some, the "escort service" also involved sex. Rumor had it Mina was one of those women. It was probably true, given that she had overheard Tarou arguing with Mina about it once.

Shampoo looked pitifully at the Korean. "So Mina has busy night of prostitution ahead, yes? No spread legs too far apart."

Rather than get angry, or at least bluster, as she often did, Mina instead smirked and sauntered over to Shampoo, which surprised the Amazon. For just a moment, the Amazon felt jealous over the very womanly way Mina could move her hips when she tried.

Mina kept approaching until she stood next to her rival. The Amazon tensed for a fight, but none ever came.

Contemptuously, Mina said, "So, you think you're so high and mighty because you're a frigid little thing that's afraid of men, and poor little old me sleeps with them for some cash, is that it? You naÔve little fool. You're as much a prostitute as I am."

"Shampoo would never sell body for money," she snapped, not liking the air of superiority Mina possessed. Rarely was her rival this calm, especially over so brazen an insult.

Mina laughed. "What is it you think we do every week in front of the television cameras? We don't barter for sex, we prostitute our very lives for the chance at a piece of paper that forces the Empire into acknowledging we're human beings. And only one person gets that. The rest get nothing but a brief touch of fleeting fame and wounds that never heal. We're all prostitutes, my simplistic little Amazon Princess. I'm just more honest about it than you are. Oh, and I get paid for it better as well," Mina taunted.

Shampoo felt her face turn red as she seethed, unable to counter Mina's contentions. "Shampoo is not a slut!"

"Until someone that's nothing more to you than a name defeats you in that ring, then you part your legs for them even more quickly than me," Mina said, laughing. "And you think I'm the foolish one here? I'll know more about the man I'm with tonight then you'll know about yours on your wedding night."

Shampoo's hands became fists that shook with her anger, yet all she could do was turn more red-faced, unable to contradict the girl, despite wanting to with all her heart.

Despite winning the argument, Mina was unwilling to leave it at that. "I'll let you in on a little secret, Shampoo-chan." She leaned in close, feigning a conspiratorial whisper, though it was obvious it was nothing more than further scorn. "I've been around for a while, and quietly gotten a reputation for being, how shall I say, forceful with the men I'm escorting. I do it so well, they can't leave me alone. My clientele are very exclusive, only the most elite. They pay more than top dollar for my talents. And do you know what I do to those fat, obnoxious pigs? I get to beat on them, the spineless bastards. They like it when I tie them up and spank their fat, flabby asses, making them beg and grovel just for the privilege to lick my feet."

Shampoo looked at Mina in disgust at the revelation.

Mina just continued smirking. "You don't know how thrilling it is to smack them around, and have them pay a huge price for it. I have them twisted around my little finger, begging their beloved Mistress for more. They can't get enough. I've had many of them try to buy out my contract and serve them exclusively. They shower me with gifts. Jewels, bonds, credit accounts, and even a car. Anything and everything anyone would want, and I take them for everything they'll give. And you know what the funniest thing is? I enjoy smacking those Impie pigs around so much I'd do it for nothing. They think they have power over me, but I'm the one in charge. I can leave them whenever I want without thinking twice, but they can't live without their Mina. They're the prostitutes, not me. I have real power, which is something you'll never have, little girl."

Mina turned on her heel and laughed all the way to the elevator.

All Shampoo could do was stand there, hating the Korean more than ever.

The sound of poolside frolicking surrounded Shampoo as the sun beat down upon her. She lay back on her lounge chair, adjusting the skimpy silver bikini that glistened almost as much as her well-oiled body. The color had the effect of drawing attention to her ample bust, as well as managing to cover only two thirds of it. The bottoms weren't much better, with strings along the side rather than straps and not much to the front.

Her choice of swimwear was for the benefit of the men surrounding her. She posed seductively for the camera crew that focused their lenses on her form, making certain the lighting was just right. It was yet another of the numerous public relations projects the marketing department had devised to raise money, as well as make the Arena look good. This shoot was for a sort of "Life on the Inside of the Battledome" documentary or some other ridiculous thing meant to show what life was like for the fighters. All it really was, was some sort of feel-good video for mass consumption, and yet more Arena-related material for people to purchase.

Being the fighter with the highest profile currently in the Arena, Shampoo had already been interviewed twice (giving polite answers, playing to the camera as she did to the Arena spectators), filmed during a training exercise, as well as light sparring with Running Deer (in tighter outfits than either of them would normally spar in), and allowed them to shoot her apartment. All of the big name fighters were being interviewed, but only a handful would make the final cut of the video. Shampoo had caught wind from one of the PR people that she would figure prominently in it, and that a minimum of one of her interviews would be included.

Now all that was over with and this was the final day of the shoot. All of the fighters were told to take the day off and lounge about the pool area that was located on the grounds of the Arena, coincidentally showing off their fit physiques. Both men and women were all around while various cameras filmed everything. The film crews continued going for close-ups on the more interesting fighters. Shampoo was one of the first chosen.

"I think we have enough," the shoot's director informed the men filming. They turned the cameras away from her.

The head of the crew bowed before Shampoo. "Thank you very much, Miss."

"Is no problem. Shampoo glad to help." She put on a happy act for the man. It was part of her job to be photogenic and pleasant with others, something she had never envisioned being required of her when she first set out on her path to the championship. But her mentor, Jaddo, had taught her well. For the truly great champions, winning fights wasn't enough, winning the crowd was also necessary to achieve true fame and greatness. She forced herself to put up with the constant attention and pretended to revel in it. It was the way of things, and that's all there was to it. Though the first thing she would do upon winning the tournament was go somewhere far away from prying eyes. A small island with a private beach where no one else lived for miles around. It sounded perfect at the moment. She closed her eyes and envisioned it in her mind.

Her dreams were interrupted as a body plopped down on the chair next to her. Shampoo was about to bite out some caustic remark when she saw who it was.

"Done with their favorite pinup girl, eh?" Running Deer asked. The Apache was dressed in a modest crimson one piece, cut high on the leg, that accentuated her height and trim, athletic build.

"Thankfully," Shampoo said.

"They said they wanted to talk to me later," Running Deer mentioned.

"Is no surprise. Running Deer is very pretty," Shampoo told her.

"You are oh so right about that." Running Deer returned to her feet and began posing sexily for Shampoo's benefit, as though there was a camera pointed upon her as well.

Shampoo was amused by her antics, as well as the fact she had drawn the attention of more than a handful of the males around them. She was considering trying to match her friend's posing, wondering just how much attention they could draw together, when she felt a burning gaze behind her.

The Amazon turned to see it was the sullen and brooding Ryu who she had sensed. As usual, he was left to himself, alone and out of the way of the other fighters who continued treating him as a pariah. Shampoo was finding herself increasingly wary of him. There was far too much lust for her in those eyes than she was comfortable with. Even Tarou, as lecherous as he was, didn't leer at her that way. The open lust reminded her of the men who had tried to rape her back when she was in the dog pits. Jaddo had helped her move past the worst of it, but it was an event that would remain forever etched in her mind. Anything even loosely related to it always made her angry. Always.

Had it not been for Running Deer's interest in the youth, Shampoo would have confronted Ryu, and possibly beaten him senseless if he continued to bother her this way. In honor of her friend, she tolerated it, though barely. The only upside on that front was that Running Deer's numerous attempts to help the Impie had resulted in him being less curt with her, though he was still far from friendly. Running Deer was delighted in the slight shift in attitude. With any luck, Ryu would come to his senses and forget Shampoo, instead focusing his attention on a wonderful girl that was actually interested in him. While it was Running Deer's emotions Shampoo was actually concerned about, it would help Ryu adjust to things.

A voice interrupted Shampoo's musings as it acidly spat toward Running Deer, "Are you trying to imitate a stork? You look like one with those gangly legs of yours."

Shampoo scowled at Mina's unwanted intrusion. As much as she wanted to deny it, the Korean was attractive. Unlike the more slender, lithesome Apache, Mina was a full-bodied girl, built almost as well as Shampoo, though she was a couple of years older and a centimeter taller. While Shampoo's bikini was skimpy, Mina's could barely be considered there. All she wore was a top composed of two tiny white triangles and a bottom that barely hid her crotch. The back was worse, with only a thin string that was hidden between her cheeks. It might as well not be there since it hid nothing. The whole ensemble would obviously become semi-transparent when wet, and the Amazon had little doubt Mina would take a dip in the pool right before her interview. Shampoo thought it made her look desperate rather than sexy, but there was no denying it had drawn the stares of many men around them.

Shampoo wanted to defend her friend, but kept from speaking her mind. The comment had been directed at Running Deer, and she was better at verbal sparring than the Amazon.

Running Deer smiled at Mina, as though the insult had never been uttered. Instead she pointed at the Korean's bikini and said, "Why don't you just lose the suit altogether? Showing up naked is the only way you're going to get any fans back. Then they can see that 'Serving All Customers' tattoo you have on your crotch."

"It's a butterfly, you stick figure!" Mina shot back.

Running Deer handled her bosom. "Better what nature gave me than a pair of bogus tits bought from a doctor."

"My breasts are real!" Mina shouted. "You're just jealous because men actually lust after me!"

"What, like Tarou? You might want to reevaluate that." Running Deer pointed over her antagonist's shoulder.

Mina turned around to see what Running Deer was talking about, then nearly exploded as all of her previous anger, and a good bit of new, redirected itself toward a different target.

Curious at what could have caused the sudden shift, Shampoo also looked. Tarou was being interviewed, but not alone. Park, her more demure figure hugged in a cute pink and white one piece swimsuit, stood next to him, looking as though he was the most handsome, awe-inspiring fighter on earth and the object of her total adoration. On Tarou's part, he had an arm affectionately around her waist, openly enjoying her companionship. It was made all the more obvious with his hand drifting dangerously close to her bottom.

For a moment, it appeared Mina would run over and hurl Park into the pool, interview be damned. But then the Korean's ire disappeared, and instead she merely stared darkly at the girl. Shampoo didn't understand the gravity of the situation until she looked deep into Mina's eyes and saw exactly what dwelled there: a cold rage that unsettled even those it wasn't directed toward. While Mina was perpetually angry, it wasn't the loud insults and slurs that were cause for concern, it was when she became quiet that one needed to be worried. It meant she had been pushed too far.

Running Deer had once mentioned that look of Mina's when she had caught the Korean, shortly after her first defeat at Shampoo's hands, directing it toward the Amazon's back. Shampoo had dismissed her friend's warning at the time; fighters were always angry about losing, and it had been Mina's first loss. Finally able to see what the Apache had been referring to, the Amazon understood what the Korean was really feeling underneath the bluster and open hostility. The first opportunity that presented itself, Mina would do everything in her power to kill Shampoo.

There was probably nothing to worry about at the moment. Shampoo had her current status, flawless record, and a reputation of having deadly ability going for her. While it wasn't public knowledge, among the fighting circles word had traveled of the night Shampoo had killed Pink, defeated all the wranglers in the Tridome, and actually went toe-to-toe with the man the Dragon himself defeated in the finals of the tournament, all after being stabbed by an illegal weapon. Shampoo never spoke of it, not proud of the loss of control that resulted in the death of another. When pressed about it, usually by some new fighter that met her for the first time, she would simply confirm it was true and walk away. That she treated it so casually, rather than basking in the confirmation of her fighting prowess, only heightened the weight of the act and afforded her a healthy respect that went beyond her record. Not that Mina was afraid of any of those things. They just made her cautious.

Shampoo also knew Mina would not act through others to seek revenge. The girl had her pride, and she frequently boasted she'd humiliate Shampoo in front of the world before defeating her. It was only seeing Mina in her current state that the Amazon had a sense of how deeply those feelings went. More than ever, Shampoo would be very careful and not show her back to her rival.

Now it seemed the homicidal rage that had been previously reserved for Shampoo was shared by another, someone Mina had far more accessibility to. While Park was moving through the ranks of fighters, both in combat and popularity, she still had a way to go before moving into true superstar status, though it was obvious she had the potential to do so. Already she was being pushed by the public relations department, and rumor had it she figured prominently in the new video. Among the ranks of the fighters, her ability, natural charm, and charisma had made her welcomed, but she had yet to truly make her mark the way upper level fighters like Mina and Shampoo had. While she had seemed to become part of Tarou's clique, she doubted he would intervene if Mina chose to do anything to Park. Despite his roving eye, he openly regarded Mina as his girlfriend, and unless he was ready to dump her and possibly make her (and her own clique of friends) hostile to himself, Park would be left on her own. It was doubtful the girl realized that yet.

A general rule throughout the Arena was minding one's own business, unless it involved one's friends. Though Shampoo didn't owe the new girl anything, and she was proving herself incredibly stupid in continuing to pursue Tarou despite the Amazon's warning, no one deserved to have Mina after them. Shampoo resolved herself to try to help the girl one more time.

The opportunity presented itself an hour later. Mina had simply wandered off shortly after Tarou's interview, probably to keep from attacking Park on the spot. Park had continued hanging on Tarou's arm for the better part of an hour. Shampoo swore the girl was trying to play up to everyone else rather than the man she was wooing. Finally, the short fighter excused herself from Tarou, and gave him a peck on the cheek. As she stood on her toes, he cupped her bottom. She seemed surprised at the gesture, giving a painfully cute 'Ooo', and said something to him. To Shampoo's eyes, it seemed a token gesture at best, and perhaps further encouragement at the least. She was going to be dead meat in short order if she didn't back off.

Finally, Park made her way to the restroom. Shampoo followed, hoping no one else was present. What she needed to do required privacy.

Luck was with Shampoo as she entered the restroom. Only Park was present, looking into a mirror as she touched up her appearance. The moment Shampoo entered, Park perked up. It took the Amazon a second to realize the Korean was placed so that the entrance was reflected in the mirror, either by coincidence or intentionally, it was difficult to say.

Park turned to look at the visitor. She gave a cursory, "Oh, hello." And went back to primping her hair.

Shampoo felt annoyed at the casual dismissal. She was beginning to wonder if the matter was worth being concerned about. Giving in to her desire to help, and thwart Mina, Shampoo continued forward until she was standing directly behind Park, towering over the much smaller girl. "Silly girl have no idea what she doing."

"What do you mean?" Park asked.

"Mina regards Tarou as her man, even if he does fool around on her all the time, not that she's any better. She won't care about that though. She kill you for flirting with him in front of everyone."

Park gave a dismissive wave of her hand. "Oh, I doubt if she'd do that. And it's not that close between the two of us."

Shampoo could barely believe what she was hearing, and the brain dead way in which it was being said. The whole thing bothered Shampoo, starting with Park's vacuous look. There was something off about it. How could anyone possibly be as stupid as this and made it this far? And then it occurred to Shampoo. Park couldn't possibly be this much of an idiot. It was like she was trying to act stupid, rather than it being her natural state. She had the same impression the first time they met, as though something was going on there just beneath the surface.

Why would she act so stupidly, and why go out of her way to anger Mina? Was she really that attracted to Tarou, or was it some sort of game she was playing? Probably the latter. Too many of Park's actions seemed intended to elicit a certain reaction, mostly concerning Mina. It stank of some sort of scheme. She was certain of it.

Shampoo shook her head sadly at the idea. She'd give the girl one last chance. "Shampoo remember a girl like Park. It was a cadet, fresh out of the flight academy. She got highest marks in school and simulators, highest in twenty years. She thought she would light up the stars, and kill every Musky there was. She brag about it to everyone, how she be an ace quicker than everyone else and become legend in fleet in less than a year.

"She die in first dogfight. Boom. Just like that. Best score in twenty years no mean anything. Simulators is not the same as real life. Park can make all the plans she want, and pat herself on the back because she think she so smart. The Muskies not able to resist for so long by accident, and neither has Mina. Reality no always conform to plans, not even for Shampoo."

With that note of finality, Shampoo turned around and exited the restroom. She had done all she could. She was wiping her hands clean of the matter. What would be, would be.

As Shampoo exited the restroom, Park looked at her in bewilderment. "What the hell was that supposed to mean?"

For a moment, Park had almost panicked at what the insinuation. But once she thought about the matter, she relaxed. Shampoo had been guessing. She was certain of it, or the Amazon would have been more specific in her accusation and not given some bizarre, nonsensical statement. It wasn't surprising to Park that Shampoo had sensed something amiss; she had her pegged a perceptive one. No one got to be top dog in the Arena by accident. The Amazon knew how to play the game like a professional, not that it would do her any good in the long run. No matter how smart Shampoo might have been, she forgot the cardinal rule that there's always someone smarter out there. It was just her unfortunate luck that they girl was Park Ji-Hyun.

Park knew she had it all. Looks, skill, and the brains to properly utilize both. The lethal combination meant she had the ability to be top dog. There was only the small matter of removing those that were currently in front of her, and the best way to go about it.

Mina was chosen first because she was a predictable cow. Park's countrywoman was a simpleton that was easy to figure out. All meanness and hate just waiting to explode over any insult, both real and imagined, although in this case it was definitely the former. The plan was really very simple. Seducing Tarou and letting Mina find out about it would make her pissed as hell, and want to kill Park more than anything in the world. Angry people were sloppy, and one needed to keep control in order to survive. It was the first rule everyone learned in the dog pits. Once Mina was worked into a complete frenzy. It would be a simple matter to finish her off.

Park had been faking her actual skill level. She was much better than anyone guessed, and had her edge, the Razor Scissors Kick, which would give her victory in the blink of an eye. Park would prefer to save it for later, but looking past the opponent in front of you was a sure way to end up dead. Mina was dangerous enough under normal circumstances, but her plan called for her countrywoman to be off her game, enraged by Park's emerging popularity, bedding Tarou, then bragging about it afterwards. In two days time, she'd set the final play into motion. By the end of the week, Mina wouldn't be a problem to anyone ever again.

After that, it would be time for Park to start working on the plan to eliminate her next target. It hadn't taken her long to discover her true opposition's weak link. Running Deer was good, but not quite up to the true hot commodities in the Arena. Unlike Mina, Park was quite willing to use others to fight her battles for her. Once Mina was out of the way, Tarou would be easy to manipulate. He was worse than most men when it came to thinking with his balls. By the end of the night, Park would be fully ingratiated with him. Then she would encourage him to kill Running Deer once they had an official match. From there, a despondent Shampoo would do her best to kill Tarou in retaliation. No matter who the victor was, they would be weakened, then Park would finish them off, and be the only true sure bet to win the tournament.

Everything was falling into place.

The Director hummed an old show tune to himself as he looked over the latest figures on ratings and merchandising. The sheaves of paper were spread out across the desk of his elaborately furnished executive office, located in the highest tower of the Arena. All of the information seconded what he already knew; he had exceeded the annual projections, and when the editing of the newest video was complete, it would rise even higher. He had already seen some of the preliminary footage. It was so expertly done, even he wanted to buy a copy.

The unparalleled success ensured him a longer term as the true power behind the Arena, and increased his already impressive influence even further. Thanks to the insane popularity of the Battledome he was now officially a power in the Empire, albeit a very minor one in the big scheme of things. But that changed with every passing year, and all for the better. His holdings outside the Arena continued to flourish, and there were no rivals to attack his power base. It was like he was king of his own little duchy.

"And it's good to be the king," he murmured to himself.

"Pardon, Sir?" Ana asked.

The Director looked over to his two bodyguards, the only other occupants in the office. Ana and Uni were state-of-the-art replicants, unbelievably expensive and worth every yen. They functioned as his hands among the ranks of fighters, who respected physical ability over intellectual. The Director lacked the advantage of having won the annual tournament, like that annoying counterpart of his in Hong Kong, Tetsuo Aritsukoji (who would always be a Sanzenin no matter how hard he denied it) did. While the Director's mind was razor sharp, and his instincts even better, he couldn't fight worth a damn. But with loyal servants like his Puma sisters, he didn't need to be. They were seen for what they were, an extension of his will, and were treated accordingly. Most knew to kowtow before them, and the few fighters that felt the urge to test their will against his were always found wanting at the girls' hands.

Part of their success was due to the "enhancements" that heightened their already impressive combat features. While the modifications were illegal, since genetic tampering with replicants was considered dangerous, they were so subtle no one could tell. And as long as the Director continued to serve the Empire its bread and circuses, no one would bother to look closely.

Perhaps the only downside was who had implemented the modifications for the Director. But then, they were the ones responsible for giving him his initial stake, one that he gambled into a small fortune during the early days of his life when he was dubbed "The Gambler King". They were responsible for his employment as an executive in the Arena, and once he was in proper position, arranged for the unfortunate "accident" that claimed the life of his predecessor, a competent if unimaginative person whose age and tenure made him impossible to remove any other way.

Aside from those handfuls of events, the Director's successes were his own, and he felt pride at his achievements. He had repaid his backers several-fold by giving them inside information on both fights and the fighters. While none of the fights were ever thrown — the integrity of the Arena was sacrosanct — a little inside information allowed Shadowlaw to wager heavily and win big on certain matches. Also, the Director frequently encouraged certain fighters Shadowlaw wanted to seek out employment with the organization through one of its numerous dummy corporations, after the tournament was over and the losers were forced to seek jobs outside the Arena. It was an amicable partnership, and he had no regrets about it. The Director gave them what they wanted, and they left him to his own devices. Much like the Imperial Government, in that respect. Business was business, and that's all there was to it.

The Director paused in his musings to consider Ana's question. "It's nothing. Merely enjoying the spoils of my victories."

His gaze lingered over both of the Pumas. They were more than pleasing to the eye, which was part of nearly every replicant package. Currently, they wore identical black officer-type uniforms with a military flair, save for the fact the outfits were open at the neck and low enough that an excessive amount of cleavage showed. No way would those "concealed weapons" be considered military issue, he thought with amusement.

The view triggered a touch of arousal within the Director. It had been a while since he had been with a woman. Unfortunately, as appealing to the eye as the Pumas were, sleeping with them was a bad idea. He had tried it once shortly after purchasing them. While they were programmed with data files regarding intercourse, it was not their primary function, so their skill level was well below that of a properly programmed pleasure replicant. That, combined with their tendency to be very aggressive during sex, made fooling around with them more tiring than enjoyable. Occasionally, when he was bored, he would have them perform a striptease and dance for him, they interacted well together, but sexual contact with them was relegated to voyeurism.

Still, the dull throbbing from his loins informed him something would have to be done about it, and soon. While there were many female fighters and some employees like his secretary, Mai Shiranui, that were close at hand and very desirable, fooling around with the hired help always led to trouble. Instead he'd either visit a brothel or peruse his black book and find the number of one of the many gold-diggers intent on marrying him and gaining access to his influence and money, two things most women found irresistible.

He turned his mind away from such things. Tonight was a televised fight, and that meant business before pleasure. He looked over the card he had personally set up for tonight's matches. It was heavy on the newcomers again. The audience wanted to see what the fresh meat had to offer, culling the weak and boring from the powerful and exciting. At the top of the list was that Korean girl, Ji-hyun Park. That brought a smile to his face as his finger traced the kanji of her name. He had plans for her. Big plans. She was the hottest commodity to come out of Hong Kong since Shampoo, who in turn was the biggest goldmine to hit the Arena since Jun Fan Lee and the Six Pack dominated it. He couldn't have come up with a better back-story for her if he had groomed the child from birth himself. A powerful fighter and exotic beauty who could play to the crowd like a true professional, and, thanks to that silly law of hers, was lusted after like no other. Even the sensual yet deadly Mina Li paled in comparison. Though Mina was still useful, since she drew fans as well. Shampoo had the eye of the mainstream, but Mina attracted those that were interested in women that were bad news for them. It was a significantly smaller segment of the population, but a very real one, and every viewer counted.

Now along came Park, a girl who filled in the void between Shampoo's exotic looks and Mina's danger. She was the classic "cute girl" that was also much beloved among the mainstream audience. She was accessible in ways the other girls weren't, except for her ability to cripple a man in a single move if he got fresh with her. She was the sort of girl a man could bring home to show to his mother, while the other two were the type you bragged about to your friends. Already, she was nearly as popular as Mina, and polls had shown she had gained a solid core of fans in less than a month. By the time the tournament rolled around, she would probably be the second favorite fighter, right behind Shampoo, who was essentially untouchable.

This week was mostly filler for Shampoo and Mina. Tonight was meant to showcase the new fighters' talents, and Park had drawn the main event of the evening. Shampoo would be given two foes to deal with at the same time, waving the marriage clause for the fight. It was the only way to make her match interesting. Park's opponent was someone she should beat easily, a new pretty-boy whose bishonen looks had gained him a following of women, but who would never hit the big time due to his flashy but limited fighting skills. Still, he was popular for the moment, and it would be a good stepping stone for Park's growing popularity since it would be perceived she was beating an able opponent. The Director decided to arrange an interview for her with one of the popular morning talk shows tomorrow. The girl knew how to play to the camera like she was born for it. His gamble on bringing her up early had paid off in a big way. But then, all of his gambles did.

The phone in his pocket beeped out a variation of "The Sunlit Garden", effectively ending the Director's musings. Few knew his private phone number, and that particular tone signaled it was his nominal "masters" that wanted him for something. Or something from him.

The Pumas had swept the room for listening devices earlier, as they always did since many wanted to know what a man with the Director's power was up to. Safe in the knowledge the conversation would be private, he answered the phone.


"It's me."

The Director felt his heart skip a beat. It was an effect the man on the other end of the phone had on most people. He was unsettling to all but the powerful or the insane.

The Pumas, whose senses were always attuned to the man they were guarding, tensed up in response.

"What is it I can do for you?" the Director asked just a touch too quickly;

"A minor matter," the voice on the other and assured him. "I merely require a box seat for this evening."

That was all. The Director was truly relieved. Just because his masters hadn't made any problematic demands did not mean they wouldn't at some point. "You shall have mine, if that's suitable. I wasn't planning on using it anyway." That was the truth. He rarely used the box seat, which, given his importance, was one of the best in the Battledome, near where the Emperor himself sat when he visited. He preferred watching the matches on television, so he saw with his own eyes the exact same thing that the people giving him his ratings were watching. The best way to evaluate one's product was to use it. Anything that appeared unsatisfactory would be improved as he saw fit.

Still, hearing the voice evoked images of the man it was connected to. While the voice itself was unnerving, like death coated in honey, his appearance was just as bad, if not worse. You weren't supposed to see the image of one of the most famous figures in Imperial history, long since dead, walking around and talking as though they had never gone anywhere. There had to have been extensive plastic surgery involved to make the man bear such an uncanny resemblance to the legendary general, Makoto Shishio.

Rei Lan knocked on the door of her mistress' dressing room. A response of "Enter, Rei," met her ears.

She did as she was told and found her breath taken away. While the much vaunted Tigress was always beautiful, tonight she was awe-inspiring in a manner that stunned the martial artist turned bodyguard. The Tigress's face was beautiful and drew men's stares no matter where she went, but tonight there was a glow about it that went beyond the normal bounds. Her sea-blue hair was teased slightly as it traveled downward, stopping just past her shoulders. She possessed a build men lusted after and women envied. But as alluring as her physical appearance was, it was dwarfed by the aura the woman possessed. There was sensuality in the way she moved, as though every motion of her body was a subtle attempt at seduction. Her voice was a husky purr that could arouse a eunuch, and the smoldering look she could unleash could melt ice. Despite her obvious attributes, there was always a hint that this was only the surface, and that there were even more delights waiting to be discovered underneath. It was small wonder so many men risked all to try to possess her by "Taming the Tigress". And they ended up losing everything to her in the end, just like Rei's former master, Togo, found out.

Judging by her makeup and apparel, tonight the Tigress was going to prowl in public. She was wearing a flashy silver dress with small straps over her shoulders (a style she frequently employed since, with her athletic frame, she needed no shoulder pads to fill her out). The back was cut out and low, showing off one of her "trademark" features: an amazingly lifelike tiger tattoo that took up the majority of her back. The feline was identical to its mistress, radiating power and possessing a beauty that called out for it to be tamed. She rarely flaunted the image, preferring it remained hidden, unless she wanted to show it off. That she was meant it was a special occasion.

At the moment, the Tigress was poised in front of the mirror, touching up her makeup. Her attention was riveted to her image as she applied a touch of eye shadow, not bothering to acknowledge Rei's presence.

"Are we going out tonight, Mistress?" Rei asked. "I wasn't informed. I can be suitably dressed in a moment."

"I will not need either your or Sagat's services tonight," she informed her.

Rei shifted uncomfortably. The Tigress rarely went out publicly without some form of bodyguard. It was not that she was unable to take care of herself; her prowess in the martial arts was so great that Rei would not have been surprised if the Tigress was superior to her. She simply didn't want to have to bother with anyone that would dare attack her. There were legions who would do that people. She was an important woman who had done a number of things to a number of people over the years. She had enemies without number, and was a constant target for the angry or ambitious. Rei had killed many would be assassins while in her mistress's service, occasionally being injured in the process. Despite the stress, it made her heart soar to know she was so important to the woman to whose life she was devoted, both in body and soul.

Knowing that, Rei was mystified as to why she was being left behind. "Mistress, have I done something to displease you?" It seemed unlikely since Sagat was excluded as well, and he was too stoic to offend anyone. But the Tigress had tamed Rei long ago, and the very idea of displeasing her mistress made her want to break down and weep.

"Not at all. Your presence would be superfluous at this time," the Tigress informed her. "My husband is in town. We're going out. It's so rare we get any time to ourselves anymore. But that's the price one pays for maintaining our ranks in the organization."

"I understand," Rei Lan said, disappointment in her voice. But she had long since accepted her role, and her mistress's feelings regarding her husband. None could ever hold the place in her heart that he did. Rei would have to content herself to being the Tigress's plaything when her mistress felt so inclined. It would suffice.

Rei bowed once more before leaving the room to inform Sagat of their night off.

The limousine rolled up to the front of the estate's front doors. While on the outside it appeared exactly like a normal vehicle of its type, save for some extra width, nothing was further from the truth. It was heavily modified for security and provided the best protection money could buy. The exterior was encased in the strongest armor available, with shatterproof windows and puncture-proof tires. It was the same type the Emperor used when he traveled in public, though in the case of the current occupant, it was more a matter of keeping away annoyances than an actual need to protect himself. He could do that on his own without the benefit of metal and plastic. It merely saved time.

The mansion that was their destination was one of the largest in that area of Tokyo, its sprawling grounds worth billions of yen in the land-starved homeland of the Empire. It had been donated by one of the emperors from the previous century to a lord who was reputed to have saved his life. In truth, it was a favor owed to the lord who had quietly taken care of a difficult, potentially crippling problem for the Emperor. However, the lord had a weakness for gambling, and in his twilight years lost the estate to a shadowy figure who retained ownership of the lands to this day.

In time, the estate had been transformed, at least on the inside. Now it had earned a reputation that bordered on infamy among the elite of the Empire. Its title was now affectionately called "Decadence" by the most prominent figures in the land who made up its exclusive clientele. Every vice and desire, no matter its illegality, was offered within its corridors, the Empire turning a blind eye to the activity due to whom was permitted to indulge themselves on the grounds, including a high number of prominent government officials. Guests came by invitation only, and the elite of the elite were the only people on the list. Masks were a requirement, leaving the identities of all anonymous, even to each other. Only those that ran the mansion knew who resided in the halls and luxuriated in the offered treats, and they never spoke of anyone who attended. Security was identical to that of a top secret military base. No one had ever pierced the security of the grounds. Those few that attempted it did not get a second chance, since the owner had been given unspoken permission to do what he wanted to those that would dare try to learn the secrets kept behind those walls.

The owner left the actual operation of the mansion in the hands of the Tigress, who ran it with near inhuman efficiency. That was another reason for her high rank in the organization. No one was as skilled in debauchery as herself. None possessed her talented hand in training those who actually serviced the needs of the elite, as well as keeping the less carnal parts of the operation working. She still traveled abroad frequently to oversee other operations, primarily in the skin trade, which also flourished under her care. But when she was in Japan, this served as her residence and base of operations.

The Tigress was waiting outside as the limousine pulled to a stop. She walked down the front steps, elegance in every motion as the slit in her skirt flashed a hint of long, graceful legs with each step. The driver exited the vehicle and opened the door for her. She bent low and entered the vehicle.

The man in the back seat smiled at her, an unusual gesture for him. He held out his hand to help her inside. She accepted it, flowing next to him. She caressed his face with her hands but a moment before kissing him deeply. He kissed back with the same amount of passion.

The driver closed the door behind her, reentered the vehicle, and sped off.

It wasn't until the limousine exited the estate, the large steel gates of the main approach closing behind them, that the Tigress broke off her kiss. Still not content, despite the osculation, her hands began roaming her husband's body instead.

Shishio Makoto the Second, clone of the legendary general and a Mark I version of the Phoenix Project, smiled at the hunger in his wife's eyes as the Tigress's skilled hands began removing the tuxedo from his person.

"You seem unusually passionate tonight," he said.

Her hands moved even more quickly. "It has been too long since I have seen you, Airen."

The lust in her husky voice both moved and aroused him. "Don't you have your Rei and Sagat to slake your hunger? They are fine specimens of humanity. I thought that was one of the reasons you kept them around."

She had finally freed his shirt and allowed her fingers to play over his lithe, taut muscles, savoring the sensation of the rough skin beneath her fingertips. "Don't be silly. They are merely toys to play with. You're the only one who has tamed the Tigress, winning her heart as well as her flesh."

"Indeed," he said as he grasped the straps of her dress and eased them off her shoulders, baring her nude upper body for him to do with as he pleased.

Others would have been surprised to know that he felt love for this woman, since few thought him capable of the emotion, but he was. She was a true prize, far beyond anyone he had ever met. In all his years, in all his travels, from the heat of Africa to the frozen wasteland of the Antarctic, she was the only one who matched his lust, if not surpassing it. Her ardor was as inhuman as his own stamina. How fortunate so many years ago he had decided to visit his contemporaries (perhaps the closest thing to friends that one such as him could have), two of the handful of surviving fellow Mark I's, who had settled in that backwater village in China. It was during a visit there that he met her, and his life was changed forever. The instant his eyes had focused upon the woman formerly known as Lao Cane, he knew she was the one for him. Defeating her had been a titanic struggle, even for one of his tremendous skills, but he had proved his prowess to her in every way by the time the sun had risen the next day. She was easily one of the best things that could have happened to him.

Finally her hands freed the part of his body she craved the most, and then no more words were exchanged.

The pair were finishing dressing when the driver informed them over the speaker that they were approaching the Battledome.

With their mutual hunger temporarily abated, it was time for business, though each continued to bask in the other's presence. The Tigress said, "I have initiated a plan that has the potential to remove a thorn in Shadowlaw's side."

"Oh?" Shishio asked. His wife was full of intrigue. Almost as much as him. It was another of her attributes that drew him to her.

"The Kashuohs," she said. "Or, more specifically, their future, Kinnosuke. I have placed an agent in such a position that an… accident can be arranged. There are no guarantees of success, I made certain it can never be traced back to us, but there is a chance it might succeed. Even if it fails, we'll get some sense of his actual skill level, and that's potentially useful information. There is no downside to it."

"Excellent." The Kashuohs were a small and insular family that was incredibly wealthy through their exclusive ownership of Genom, and through some unknown means had gained the Emperor's ear. Shadowlaw spies had tried uncovering the connection, but had little success thus far. The Kashuohs were a clan that Shadowlaw couldn't penetrate in any way, the old man running it wary beyond measure when it came to the criminal organization.

With the Kashuohs' death grip on the burgeoning replicant technology, they would continue to monopolize the market. While Shishio had discovered the truth behind the creation of replicants, it did him little good. Simply creating their own version would be pointless and not cost effective. No, it would be better for the organization to control the already existing structure, even if it meant eliminating the people that already owned it. Luckily, the clan was small, with the only heir being Kinnosuke Kashuoh, whose own origins were shrouded in some mystery. Since the head of the clan was old, and had no other heirs, Shadowlaw could afford to be patient and wait for him to die of natural causes. Once Kinnosuke and the old man were dead, there would have to be some figurehead installed, one that Shadowlaw could bend to their will. It was a minor scheme that didn't make any difference in the long term, but it would serve them well should it be successful.

"I have some news of my own," Shishio said. "Nanashi is in the process of binding one of the minor noble houses, the Saginomiyas, to us. Better yet, he's managed to entice one of the Sanzenins as well."

The Tigress perked up at that. "The Sanzenins are very powerful indeed. Having them under our thumb would be most advantageous."

"Some maneuvering would be required," Shishio admitted. "Mikado is currently third in line to inherit control over the family. His uncle is the actual head of the clan, and still has a few years left in him, but no direct heirs since his only son removed himself from the family and won the Battledome Tournament fifteen years ago."

"Ah yes, I recall that. The man in charge of the Hong Kong Arena. Very unapproachable to us."

"It'll be to our benefit if we can control the Sanzenin zaibatsu. Currently only two other people stand between Mikado and control of the clan, two of his cousins. A car accident can be arranged for one, and the other has a penchant for drug use."

"Overdoses happen all the time," the Tigress said meaningfully.

"Since his weakness is well known, we'll wait until the uncle is about to die before arranging for it," Shishio said. "We'll dispose of the other one now, though. That way it looks more like a coincidence when the second one dies years later."

"Will Mikado know we're responsible for his ascension to head of his family's clan?"

"Informing him after he's been installed would probably be for the best," Shishio said. "Although the youth does have something of a ruthless streak. I anticipate he'll be grateful for the opportunity to control his family fortune. Actually, given how ruthless the Sanzenins already are, I wouldn't be surprised if he tries to kill them himself at some point."

"He'll fit right in, then." The Tigress laughed in amusement.

"It'll take some time before Mikado's old enough to be of actual use to us anyway. Years before this plan sees fruition, assuming Mikado survives the gauntlet he's currently throwing himself into. But we can afford to be patient."

The lights of the Battledome appeared through the one way glass of the vehicle. Shishio decided he had his fill of business talk. "It's been a while since we've had a chance to indulge in the fights."

"It's good to have a night off," the Tigress admitted. "I'm also interested in some of the stock there now. It seems most promising."

Shishio grinned. He alone could pick up on the subtle context of his wife's thoughts. "One in particular has your eye."

The Tigress pouted. "Yes. The girl from my former village. I saw her in action and knew she had true potential. Perhaps even better than Rei Lan's. There is also her heritage, which could prove useful to us as well."

"Such a person could move far in the organization," Shishio agreed. And if the girl's loyalty was to Shishio, rather than the actual head of Shadowlaw, that would make it all the better. While being second-in-command of the world's largest criminal syndicate was indeed satisfying, one could never have too much power, and having it all was very, very appealing to Shishio. For now, he would be content to remain where he was, until an opportunity presented itself.

"She's beyond our grasp, now, though. She's far too high profile to be of use," the Tigress lamented. "I never did figure out why the OMC refused to sell her to us."

"Their decision paid for them in the long run." Shishio pointed out. He remembered the conversation from when his wife's return from Hong Kong, and disappointment in her inability to acquire the lovely and talented Shampoo.

His wife shook her head. "No. There was more than money involved. They would never have sold her under any circumstances. There was something else going on. A pity their family is so insular as well."

"Sinking roots takes time," Shishio commented philosophically. "Patience has netted us influence over the Empire, and will continue to do so. We must move slowly and cultivate them to make certain the tendrils reach deep and not overstep ourselves."

"True," she agreed. "And there is still other potentially useful stock in there. This is the best group I've seen in a while."

"Let me guess." Shishio held his hand to his temple in thought. "You have your eye on that vicious Korean girl and Tarou."

The Tigress clapped her hands. "Indeed. There are others as well, but those two have the right attitude to fit in. Especially the girl. She is simply delectable."

"I've heard she's for hire," Shishio mentioned. Several upper-level members of the organization had hired the girl before, and mentioned to Shishio what she was capable of.

The Tigress gave her husband a cagey look. "Reports indicate she's already displaying remarkable talent, true. I'd still have to train her properly. Amateurs always rely too much on youthful exuberance rather than carefully honed skill. I think I'd enjoy that. She has some spirit, and those are always the most fun to break in."

"And no one does it as good as you," Shishio said.

The Tigress kissed him on the cheek. "Flatterer. Just for that, you can use her first once she's properly trained. Assuming she doesn't die or end up damaged too badly in the Arena. There's always a chance of that."

"Of course. But if she survives the fire she's been thrust into, she'll be even stronger for it." That was the way of the world. Those it didn't break, it made stronger. Shishio was a living testament to that.

"Ah, we're here," the Tigress said as the vehicle pulled to a stop in front of the VIP parking section.

Shishio gazed at the building before them. Finally, it was time to watch the fights.

The Director watched on the large television screen in his private room as the fights progressed throughout the night. Everything had happened exactly as he thought it would. There had been no upsets tonight. He had even successfully predicted the few even money fights on the card. The only mild surprise was Mina going easy on her opponent. He was an attractive man who hadn't shot his mouth off, obviously taking her seriously. She rarely beat those ones up too badly. She had a fondness for handsome men that showed her respect. It was the attractive female fighters, outside of her own clique, that tended to end up dead or crippled. Losing attractive women, especially ones that could fight, hurt ratings, so the Director tended to make most of Mina's opponents either men, weak women that weren't going to last long anyway, or ugly ones that at least had the potential of making a fight of it. She was definitely a problem child in some ways, but there wasn't much he could do. He couldn't tell a warrior how to fight once they started a match. It was tradition, and the closest thing to a code that the fighters possessed. Interference in a proper duel was never tolerated. Once on the Arena floor, it was an issue of honor and blood, no matter the outcome.

At least there weren't problems with the fighter on television now, the current Top Dog of the Battledome. She was everything the Director could pray for. At the moment, Shampoo was working over the two men assigned to fight her. They hadn't even tried functioning as a team, though that would have only delayed the inevitable; she was that much better than them. It was astounding to see how easily she toyed with her opponents now that both were sufficiently worn down so that even if they did land a lucky blow they still wouldn't pose a real threat. No, all she was doing was working the crowd, and probably her reflexes, as she intentionally allowed their blows to come closer than they should have were she using all of her speed.

The men had finally organized enough to try gaining a tactical advantage by attacking simultaneously from the front and back when Shampoo suddenly lashed out in a ballet of violence, unleashing a reverse thrust kick delivered behind her and a palm strike toward her front. The man on the receiving end of the kick collapsed in heap from the blow, while the one in front had his chin nearly become an inseparable part of his upper jaw. Both men struck the ground at the exact same moment.

The performance brought a smile of approval to the Director's face. Once again Shampoo had earned her keep and then some by making a boring fight interesting. He'd give her a raise on her clothing and food allowances in appreciation for her hard work.

The Director smiled as the crowd roared in approval. It was just another night at the Battledome.

Running Deer handed Shampoo a towel to wipe off the light sweat she had built up from her match. The Amazon accepted it with thanks, and both leaned against one of the mesh fences in the fighters' observation area as the next match began. Most of the fighters tended to dwell there, either in preparation for their fight, or to watch others' matches to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the participants any of whom might end up being their next opponent.

"Good work," Running Deer said.

"Running Deer had good fight too," Shampoo assured her. "Like the new outfit."

The girl pawed at one of the trio of eagle's feathers that were tied in her hair. She looked over the buckskin outfit that had become a recent addition to her wardrobe courtesy of the public relation department's image consultants. "Yeah, well, I never really wore anything like this back home. Some of the braves did, but there weren't many. Mostly die-hard traditionalists."

"Is better than silly 'Warrior Princess' outfit they try to stick on Shampoo." She still bristled at the memory of the gaudy leather ensemble they made her wear all of one time before she destroyed it. They wisely did not try to replace the item.

"I can't imagine how bad it chafed," Running Deer agreed. "Tonight's been kind of dull. I hate it when they try to push the fresh meat."

"Is best way to tell good ones from bad."

"There is that, but if I'm going to fight, I want it to mean something. I already wasted time in the dog pits with guys that had no business being there in the first place."

"Is only because Running Deer so good she feel that way," Shampoo said. "Most other fighters not fare so easy against new people. Is more competition for them."

"True. We are great, aren't we?" Running Deer mock punched Shampoo affectionately on the shoulder. The Amazon returned the favor, both chuckling at the exchange.

After the two were finished laughing, Running Deer turned a curious glance toward the far side of the waiting area. "Odd."

Shampoo followed her gaze, but spotted nothing. "What is?"

The Apache pointed to the figure in a black jumpsuit with a golden dragon emblazoned across the breasts. Its sinewy form traveled down and around the body until it stopped on the backside. "Mina usually lives for opportunities to make some sort of jibe when we're friendly, but she's just scowling at the floor show."

"Even her flunkies no hanging around her. Must be in serious bad mood," Shampoo said.

Running Deer spared a glance at the match going on. "It's only Tarou. He seems to be pretty happy. I've seen him smiling like that all day. He's even going easy on the meat out there."

"Ah, yes," Shampoo had a good idea as to why Tarou was so happy and Mina wasn't. Some people seemed to enjoy digging their own graves.

Shampoo was considering informing Running Deer of what had happened with Park when Tarou ended things with a swift three punch combination that rendered his opponent insensate. Still smiling playfully, he began looking helplessly to the crowd, as though he couldn't help himself.

"He is in rare form tonight," Running Deer said. "If it wasn't for the fact I know he's a complete asshole, I'd almost find him amusing. I'd like to know what it is that's made him so happy and Mina so pissed. Maybe he's been doing her in the ass."

Shampoo's face crinkled at the crass comment. "Sometimes Running Deer is too, too crude."

The Apache shrugged helplessly. "Most of the children in my orphanage were older boys. They always tried to out-tough one another shooting their mouths off like that, even if they didn't know what they were talking about. I had to do the same thing to keep them from picking on me. I guess I picked up some of their crude talk, as well as the willingness to mix it up with guys trying to mess with me. It wasn't an easy life." She turned back to the arena floor. "Last match is coming up. It's Uber-Cute vs. The Carpathian."

Shampoo knew the nicknames both fighters had been given by their fellow combatants. Park was an easy one to pick over the German. He had a great deal of flamboyance, combined with a modicum of skill that had eventually gotten him enough victories to move up, but after a few fights it had become obvious he wouldn't last. They were basically feeding him to Park to give her a chance to put on a good show for the crowd and get over with them.

As with every main event, and some of the special matches, there was an actual announcer in the middle of the Arena floor to add flourish to the spectacle of the final fight for the evening. He boldly announced the two fighters, each being given an extra amount of time to perform before the crowd, working them into a frenzy for the climax of the show

Both Park and her opponent used it to show off. It was obvious from the outset the crowd was far more behind Park than they were the German. Park played that up, making them cheer for her further.

"She's damn good." Running Deer whistled in appreciation.

Shampoo looked over to Mina, who was now right next to the fence. Her face was pressed against it almost hard enough to leave a crisscross impression from the metal. The Amazon could see the wire mesh crumpling under her strong grip. That confirmed everything Shampoo thought. She wouldn't want to be in Park's shoes for anything.

The fight began exactly as Running Deer had predicted. Park gained an early advantage, and like Shampoo before, toyed with her opponent to draw things out and add to the drama. But it could only be milked for so long. In under five minutes, the fight ended with Park defeating her opponent without suffering a single blow.

The announcer made his way back to the center of the floor while the German was carried off on a stretcher. He shouted into the microphone, "And the winner of the mat—"

His commentary ended before it began as Park ripped the microphone out of his hands. "That was too easy. Heck, I'm barely warmed up," she informed the crowd. "Don't you think that you, the paying public, deserve more?!"

A loud shout of approval rose from the crowd.

"Damn right you do," Park told them.

The girl's actions had gained all the fighters' attention. Interfering with the matches, as well as Arena personnel, was strictly prohibited.

Running Deer muttered, "Has that girl lost her mind?"

Shampoo held that opinion, though for very different reasons. Their previous talk made guessing what Park was up to fairly easy. Despite the foreknowledge, the Amazon did nothing to prevent it. Park was a fighter. She had chosen her path. Now she had to walk it for better or worse.

Park continued her speech. "I think you all deserve a special treat. That's why I am issuing an open challenge to any fighter willing to take me on." She looked at the waiting area. "So, who has the guts to accept my challenge?"

A figure in black shot over the fence before anyone else could move.

The Director grabbed a phone and dialed the direct line down to the fighters' area. "Don't let anyone answer the challenge, and cut the power to the microphone! Inform the crowd the challenge will have to take place next week due to time constraints!"

"It's too late, Sir," the man on the other end informed him.

The Director looked up to see that Mina had already entered the Arena floor. The gauntlet had been thrown, and the challenge accepted. He couldn't interfere with the match now. It would only hurt the honor and integrity of the Battledome, things that had to last beyond a single season's field of fighters, as well as a mouthy hot commodity.

For the first time in a long while, the Director became very angry. This was not a gamble he would have taken.

Park smiled coyly at her opponent. "Mina Li. What a surprise." There was more truth to the statement than Park cared to admit. Rather than looking angry, Mina appeared bored.

"Play up to the crowd. You called the match," Mina said.

Park was astonished at the reaction. Mina should have been frothing at the mouth in anticipation for the contest. She had certainly been staring daggers at her since Park had "accidentally" mentioned to one of her friends that she and Tarou had spent the night together, while Mina was in earshot. But for some odd reason, her countrywoman's demeanor was unexpectedly cool.

Park did as Mina said, though only briefly. The smaller girl wanted to get things over as quickly as possible. Since Mina was behaving oddly, and was by far the most dangerous opponent she had ever fought, she decided to use the element of surprise and go for the Razor Scissors Kick early.

Indicating she was ready to fight, Park entered a stance, adding flourish to the move to increase the drama for the audience's benefit. Mina simply dropped back into a basic position, ready to receive Park's attack.

It wasn't long in coming. Park lashed out with a series of fists aimed at Mina's limbs and midsection. She used as much speed as she could muster, employing her true level of skill and hoping to land a few blows before going for her finisher.

It did little good. Mina was like a machine, deflecting and dodging every attack aimed at her. Park became frustrated at her seeming inability to land a blow. She increased the speed of her attacks using a special technique, though it would only last for brief periods of time. Still she was unable to connect with anything.

Her initial plan failing, Park used her backup. There was more than one way to set Mina up for the move. She accepted the idea this was going to hurt, and deliberately left her midsection open.

Mina accepted the offering and landed a savage kick into Park's stomach. Tensed as she was to accept the strike as well as rolling with the blow, it still felt like someone had driven a sledgehammer into her body.

She barely avoided the second attack, which would have been out of position anyway for her finishing maneuver. A third barely missed her face. For a moment, it appeared Mina had a hole in her defense, but Park already had her plan in place. She left her right side open to an attack.

Again Mina accepted the offering and again pain shot through Park's body. She had fought heavy punchers before, but rarely had they hit so hard. Mina was even stronger than she looked. But it didn't matter. Strength would not save her. Mina had risen to the bait both times. Now it was time to spring the trap.

Park left her head open, making it appear she had tripped and was going to fall backward. Mina began to lunge for an opening, like she had the previous two occasions.

Perfect. The appearance of being off balance was a ploy. It was actually the first part of the Razor Scissors Kick. Park completed what was really a backflip, bringing her legs up and wide apart, where the extended Mina's head was perfectly located. It was over. One decapitation was coming up.

Park brought her legs together, or tried to. Instead Mina grabbed the thigh of the left leg and flipped it over her head, sending the airborne Park spinning in an altogether different direction. She landed hard on her stomach, the wind temporarily knocked out of her.

Rather than following up with another attack, Mina looked contemptuously down at the girl. "In the name of the Almighty, please tell me that wasn't the 'special attack' you've been holding back until now."

Catching some measure of breath, Park regained her vertical base, regarding Mina warily. "What do you mean?"

A condescending laugh escaped Mina's lips. "Please. Any fighter of my skill level could tell you've been holding back in your matches. It was obvious you were trying to get to me through Tarou. You probably thought you were going to knock me off my game and lure me out here so you could finish me off with your 'Super Duper Invincible Attack' or whatever inane name you gave it. Idiot. If I was that naÔve, I'd already be dead."

Park couldn't believe it. There was no way that bitch could have figured out her game and out-hustled her. Park was the smart one. Mina was just a psychotic bimbo.

Park tried unleashing the Razor Scissors Kick again. This time Mina ducked under it, lashing out with a fist right into Park's kidney.

The girl fell to the ground, her hand reflexively covering the injury as she rolled around in pain far worse than anything she had experienced before. There was internal bleeding taking place, she was certain of it. Fight with that sort of injury was impossible. She had to concede the match.

Park started to tap the ground, an indication of surrender, but Mina lashed down with a foot, breaking the hand before she could tap it again and making it look as though it was nothing more than an abortive attempt to rise.

"Now, now. You started this. It's only right you finish it as well," Mina clucked, a twinkling in her eyes that wasn't there before.

Now Park began to understand. While she had made Mina angry, the taller girl regarded Park as beneath open contempt, but not too unworthy to kill.

Park tried ending the match again. "I yie—"

A hard right met her jaw. A left snapped it back, breaking it with a hard crack, shattering teeth and shredding lips. Blood poured from the rents in her flesh.

Park lashed out in pain, finally catching Mina in the stomach. The taller girl only backed off a half step before bringing her leg into Park's unprotected ribs. Bone broke at the impact, and every breath the smaller girl took was drowned out from the fire inside.

"I'm bored now," Mina said. "Let's say goodnight to everybody."

Blood bubbled from the remains of Park's lips as she tried to protest what was to come. "The Goodnight Kiss" was Mina's finishing maneuver, one she used to inspire the crowd and strike fear into future opponents.

The helpless Park was lifted up by her head. Mina brought her face to her own and kissed her briefly on the lips. Blood was smeared over the taller girl's chin as she shot Park a pitying look.

Tears rolled down Park's face as she felt her head buried in Mina's pillowy bosom. It wasn't fair. She had what it took. She was smart. She had a plan. It was supposed to have been perfect.

Park felt her body twist slightly to the right, the second part of the move. She wet herself, knowing what was to come. This wasn't right. She wanted to give up. Retire. She'd loyally serve Mina for the rest of her life, if only her opponent would give her the chance. She didn't want to di—


Shampoo watched as Mina released her hold on the limp form she had been clutching to her bosom. Park's neck was twisted at an impossible angle from the rest of her. The body slumped to the ground, Mina smirking over it.

The survivor thrust her fist in the air in triumph. The majority of the crowd went wild over the ease of the victory of the veteran over the impertinent upstart, though some stayed loyal to Park's memory and booed Mina.

"Goodbye," Shampoo said as Running Deer made a holy sign for the departed.

"Shoot. I liked her, too," Shampoo overheard Tarou say as he headed away from the observation area.

"She really shouldn't have picked a fight with Mina," Running Deer said sadly as she and Shampoo headed back to the showers to clean up.

A couple of hours had passed after the final match before Mina made it back to her apartment. With her mood better than it had been for weeks, her entourage had reappeared and applauded her success in disposing of that cocky little snot that had tried to upstage the great and powerful Mina Li. The Korean had basked in the attention showered upon her, as befitted her position in the Arena. It was still hard for her to believe the inept runt had thought so highly of herself when she had so little actual skill. Mina had been certain she was going to put up a better fight than that.

If only it had been that damnable Shampoo, Mina thought to herself. That would have been truly enjoyable. Unfortunately, the Amazon was anything but inept and had more than enough skill to back up any challenges she could issue. Mina wasn't sure she was up to Shampoo's level yet, though she was improving by leaps and bounds. For the moment, she was going to live with an enjoyable victory that only reaffirmed her rank among the Arena's best and would teach others to stay away from her man.

Smiling, Mina opened the door to her room. Her hand went for the light switch when a lamp from further inside the apartment clicked on, showering the living area in a dull yellow glow.

Seated on a couch, next to the light, was the familiar form of Ana.

On the far side of the room, a second lamp flickered on. Uni sat there, her feline eyes gleaming with an anticipatory hope.

"We've been waiting for you, Mina," Ana said, breaking the silent deadlock.

"You know the penalty for unauthorized fights," Uni said, voice mirroring her sister's in every way.

"It was an open challenge." Mina closed the door behind her. She already knew her fate had been decided, but she was too much of a fighter to go down without some sort of struggle.

"Fighters cannot set up their own matches," Ana reminded her, as she rose from the couch, limbering up by stretching out her limbs. Her muscles and sinews caused her joints to creak slightly as she stretched out.

"Nor did she call you out by name," Uni rose to her own feet, reminiscent of a jungle cat preparing to corner some prey.

"What you mean to say is, the Director is pissed off that I whacked one of his cash cows," Mina clarified, then took a step inward. She would show no fear to these little toys, even if they were dangerous.

"You're going to be punished for being a naughty girl, Mina." Amusement laced Ana's voice as she unleashed a feral grin upon the girl.

"Will it be the easy way, or the hard way?" Uni asked, hope for the latter clear in her eyes.

Mina decided she would deny them the satisfaction. "The easy way. As you say, I did break the rules, and did it knowingly. I deserve the punishment." Which was the truth. She had known deep down inside that killing Park would result in the Director coming down on her in some manner. In a way, it was a relief to receive her punishment and end it quickly.

Ana and Uni approached her.

Ana played a finger up and down Mina's back, causing the girl to shiver. "You might want to strip. That's a nice outfit you have on, and we wouldn't it to get ruined, now would we?"

Mina obeyed and began removing her clothing. It didn't matter. A little beating was worth killing the annoyance Park had represented. A little pain would always be worth killing those that stood in her way. If it wasn't, she wouldn't have been in the Arena in the first place.


Author's notes: Just a little look at the internal workings of the Arena, which will become increasingly important in upcoming chapters. Special thanks to Steven Thesken for letting me play in his yard with all the fun toys he's left laying around.

Special thanks to Steve Thesken, David Homerick, and Michael A. Chase.

DB Sommer

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