LOVES ME NOT -------------- Sunset darkened the visage of the giant horse statue that stood outside the museum entrance. Alani rode her silver bicycle past the imposing landmark, coming to a halt by the main front door. She quietly locked it up in the empty racks nearby, brushing her bangs out of the way of her glasses. Her brown hair was held up under a floral bandana, which matched the bright colors of her tank-top and sandals. She brushed some dirt off of her dark skirt, double-checking the contents of her satchel before entering the building. Alani marvelled at the ancient Chinese armor on display inside as she walked in the opposite direction of most of the museum's occupants. Most of the visitors were leaving, as the hours of operation had come to a close for the evening. Alani headed to the elevator, pressing the button and waiting patiently. Once she was inside, she opened the emergency telephone compartment and spoke into the receiver. "War horse," she said in a soft voice. The elevator began to move down, heading past the marked basement floors and descending towards the growing noise of a crowd. As the doors opened, Alani blinked at the dim yellow lighting, taking a small flower out of her pocket. she stepped into the steamy hallway, heading towards the source of the noise. ---- A muscular chinese man played to the crowd as his opponent lolled back and forth, dazed on his knees. The young american fighter's face was bloodied, many of his teeth no longer in his mouth. The chinese man reared back a fist, then drove it straight into his opponent's forehead with a loud crack. Alani winced, watching the beaten fighter flop to the mat. The War Horse Pit's ring was an enormous stone slab, 20 feet long on each edge with a 40-foot drop to the next sub-level when a fighter is unfortunate enough to end a match by falling. The chinese man shoved his unmoving opponent off the edge of the ring with his foot before raising his arms to the crowd's approval. Waiting for someone to arrive, Alani plucked a petal from her flower as she saw the next match begin. Tania, a brazilian girl in white tights, faced a graceful aikido artist in a flowing combat-cut kimono named Kala. The fight began on even ground, but it was clear that Tania was much better at adapting to the moment. Soon, Kala was struggling to maintain her stance on a badly-injured hamstring. "Alani, you really came!" called out a dark-haired girl in a black tracksuit. She smiled, approaching her friend. "Hi Luna." Alani grinned, looking at the flower in her hand. "Is he coming?" Kala crashed to the mat, trying desperately to escape Tania's armbar. "Yeah, Kade always shows up to watch on Tuesdays." After a pause, Luna continued. "You must really like him." "I want to prove something to him, that's all," replied Alani. Screaming after the snap, Kala rolled around on the floor, clutching her arm. Tania sat on her stomach, pushing a knee into her chest. "Well, he'll be sitting over there if you want to meet him as soon as he arrives," began Luna. "I won't be needing one of those seats," said Alani. Fresh blood spattered across the mat as Tania slammed her fists into Kala's face, the crimson flow fueled in part by the humid environment of the fighting pit. "You're...oh. Oh..." Luna nodded, growing silent. "Always thought I saw it in your eyes." Alani nodded, plucking another petal as ring attendants dragged Kala out of the ring. Tania glistened with sweat as she raised a fist to the crowd, having decided against outright cruelty to conclude her match. "I should go and get ready," said Alani. "Is...this when we shake hands and hope we don't have to fight?" Luna shook her head. "Put that kind of thinking somewhere else. We only have to focus on one thing now." ---- Kade arrived in time to see the tail end of a fight between a male grappler in gold trunks named Raja, and a female fighter called Monkey Rouge. The red-head's ape-like fighting style had completely outwitted her opponent, who fell to his knees as she sat on his shoulders and pounded his skull. Pushing him to the ground, Monkey Rouge mounted his back and continued slamming her palms against his head until she realized his movements were only involuntary spasms. Watching the attendants remove Raja from the ring as Monkey Rouge acrobatically made an exit, Kade wondered if he should have made a phone call before he came. He had recently met a childhood friend after several years of being out of touch, and only just began to feel a real connection to her. She seemed to start acting strangely when he brought up the fights, and how he used to take part in them. Kade wanted to clear up the air and see her again. "Oh well," he thought. "Maybe I'll be in a better head-space after I watch a few matches." ---- An hour later, Kade sat up with interest as he recognized a friend of his. "Our next fighter is Luna, the shifting moon!" Stepping across the extended walkway that led to the ring, Luna's long dark hair trailed behind her. The midnight blue one-piece that she wore was a stark contrast to her white-taped hands. She did a quick forward-flip as she reached the ring, raising her arms in a gymnast's pose before heading to the corner. "Fate has chosen her opponent. Berna, the crashing wave!" Glistening under the lights, Berna approached the ring. She was a girl of average build, clad in shorts and a tightly-tied top that were both made of calfskin. Her hair was messy and wet with the oil that she had applied to her body before heading to her match. The bell rang, and Berna ran straight towards her opponent. Luna was taken off-guard, grappled and slammed to the mat. She rolled away, getting to her feet as Berna closed in. Luna stepped in with an elbow strike, but her opponent turned and let the blow slide over her body before locking up with Luna once again. The dark-haired fighter could not find a grip on Berna, who maintained total control as she scooped her opponent up. She twisted and drove Luna down onto the mat once again, trying to stay on top of her and pin her down. Luna struggled, unable to get free. She threw punches up that slid over her opponent's wet skin. Berna soon pushed her forearm down onto Luna's throat as she scissored her legs around the pinned girl's stomach. Luna gagged, spittle running down the side of her mouth as she strained to breath. She reached up, pushing against Berna's chin with a palm. The oil wrestler ignored the maneuver as a last act of futility, and did not notice the incoming fist until it slammed into the side of her head. Luna's hand continued pushing up, holding Berna's head still and leaving it unable to turn and deflect her strikes. Soon, Berna fell to the side, clutching her ear and cheek as Luna gasped for air. Luna did not let her opponent stand back up, mounting her and driving her elbows and forearms down onto the girl's skull. While some strikes slid on Berna's oiled skin, many were braced by the ground behind her head and impacted solidly. She was clearly not prepared for being struck so much, soon only able to feebly cover up with her arms against the assault. Eventually Luna broke through, pounding on Berna's head unabated until the girl was laid out in a pool of blood and oil. As Luna began to stand up, Berna grabbed hold of her ankle and made a pitiful effort to wrestle her back down to the ground. Watching her opponent for a moment, Luna then pulled her foot free and hopped into the air. Turning as she came back down, she delivered a crescent sweep kick into the side of Berna's head. The wrestler slid back across the mat with the impact, yelping as she reached the edge of the ring. She began to fall over the side, whimpering and scrambling to grab hold of something. Her hands and feet slipped against every surface. Berna screamed as she plummetted to the sub-level floor 40 feet below, falling silent as her body slapped harshly to a halt. Wincing, Luna stood up and raised her hands to the crowd. She wiped some oil off of herself as she left the ring. ---- "You look like a mess," remarked Kade as Luna sat down next to him in the audience. She was still soiled from her fight with Berna, having headed straight for the crowd. "I'm not putting anything else on until I've cleaned this shit off," she said. She had left a trail of drips and bare footprints in her wake, which did make it easy for her to get to a seat near Kade. "Then why are you up here?" he asked. "Because I saw who's going to be in there next, and I wanted to tell you that she's doing it for you." Luna pushed back her hair out of her eyes, watching the ring. "What? I don't understand," began Kade. He stopped as he saw another familiar face entering the arena. "A newcomer to our honored ring, she is Alani, the flower of battle!" Alani stepped gracefully across the bridge to the ring, her wild brown hair hanging down loosely. Combat-grade contact lenses glimmered under the lights as she looked up and smiled at Kade. She stepped into the ring, wearing a green top and matching briefs. She still carried her flower, plucking one of the few remaining petals from it as she waited to see who her opponent would be. "Fate has chosen her opponent. Jun Bo, the bloodied fist!" A majority of the crowd began to chant the fighter's name as he approached the ring. Alani's eyes widened as she recognized the chinese man she had seen winning as she arrived at the War Horse Pit. He was very muscular, wearing black pants and a white headband. As he stepped on the mat, he began playing to the crowd. "Oh Alani..." Luna looked forlorn as she watched her friend prepare to face a powerful opponent. "It's what she wanted, right?" Kade looked at Luna, who nodded. "Then...it's not our place to say otherwise." He sat forward with concern. "Jun Bo's only weakness is that he is self-deluded." "Yeah," Luna nodded. "He doesn't really see his opponents anymore, just targets. Alani won't get any 'extra treatment' for being new to the pit." "That can go both ways," replied Kade. As the bell rang, Alani tucked the remains of the flower into the side waist elastic of her briefs, then raised her fists. Jun Bo stepped forward, arms down and flexed. Her foot snapped forward, catching Jun Bo across his chin. Alani stepped forward, striking a jab into the same spot. Her other leg began to rise, but Jun Bo's heel stabbed into her shin and ended the combination. As the flower girl staggered to the side, he turned and span. A spinning backfist sent Alani spiralling to the mat. She shook her head, getting to her feet as Jun Bo wiped blood from his lip with his knuckle. "She's been training," said Kade, watching Alani circle around her opponent. "Didn't tell me," said Luna. "I hope she's been keeping this secret long enough to be good at what she's doing." A hook struck Jun Bo across the face, followed by another. With each strike, he shouted unintelligably and glared back at Alani. She faltered, then ran forward and grabbed hold of the chinese man's head. Her knee lifted up, but was caught under one of Jun Bo's arms. He quickly locked his other arm around Alani's shoulders and suplexed her overhead. Not releasing her after the impact, Jun Bo performed the move again. Still not letting go, he lifted the now-unresisting flower girl off the floor. Slowly, he pressed her overhead. Alani looked bewildered, kicking in desperation. Jun Bo pushed up and released her, letting her body elevate a few more feet before falling facedown to the mat. Alani writhed slowly on the ground as her opponent walked around her. "GET UP, ALANI!" shouted Luna, standing up. "YOU'VE GOT TO GET UP!" Alani could only crawl to her hands and knees, shivering with the effort. Jun Bo stood overtop of her, slowly raising a fist. Then, he shot it straight into the small of her back. Alani's body arched with the impact, her mouth wide open as she made a strained squeaking noise. Jun Bo yanked her to her feet by her scalp, then leapt and rammed a knee into her face. Alani went back down like a sack of bricks, barely moving as her opponent worked the crowd up. Pulling her to her feet again, Jun Bo let the flower girl stand knock-kneed and dazed for a few seconds, her arms hanging loosely at her sides. With a flurry of blows, Alani's bare feet were slowly lifted off the mat as Jun Bo struck her across the face, left and right, over and over again. Spittle and blood flew with each hit, and a few teeth bounced across the mat shortly before Alani's body followed. Jun Bo held up his fist to the crowd, then caused a huge roar as he raised two fingers. "No...no, Alani, no..." uttered Luna, watching Jun Bo pull the flower girl up and onto her knees. She knew what the motion to the crowd meant. Alani's mouth hung open, strands of bloody drool on her lips. Her eyes were in an anguished expression, barely open and staring into space. Jun Bo slowly reared back his fist, then slammed it into Alani's forehead with a loud crack. Her eyes snapped wide open as her head jerked back, her entire body rigid and convulsing. Jun Bo circled around behind her, locking her neck under his arm in a dragon sleeper. He slowly tightened the hold, lifting Alani up so her toes barely brushed the mat underfoot. Then, in two swift moves, the match was concluded. Jun Bo's fist slammed into Alani's heart, snapping bones and spurting blood from her mouth. As the blood spattered to the ground, the chinese fighter flexed his arms. Alani's feet raised up off the mat, shivering and twitching in mid-air as her neck audibly snapped. Jun Bo held the pressure tightly until she was limp. There was a soft thud as Alani's body fell to the floor. She lay face-up and spreadeagled, eyes and mouth wide open. Jun Bo looked down at her for a moment, then reached to pull the flower from the waist elastic of her briefs. He held it to the crowd, then crushed it and stuffed it into Alani's mouth. Jun Bo stamped a foot onto the flower girl's broken ribs, playing to the audience before twisting his heel. Alani's body flopped once more, involuntarily. The chinese fighter reached down and took hold of her ankle, dragging the defeated girl to the edge of the ring. Without even looking down, he raised his fist in victory and threw her into the chasm. Almost nobody noticed her limp form slam onto the lower floor. "Fuck...no..." Luna's hands were over her mouth, staring at the empty ring. She thought Alani might end up in bad shape, but despite knowing the risks of the ring she could not fathom what had just happened to the nature-loving girl she'd known for years. "I don't think she's...I mean he...oh fuck, no." She turned to Kade, but was surprised to see that he was no longer there. ---- Alani slowly opened her eyes, astonished that she was still alive. The room was blindingly white, but as she turned her head she saw someone sitting next to her bed. "How...am I..." She found it incredibly hard to speak. "You had a lot of broken bones, Alani," said Kade. "Nerve damage in your spine, as well. And your heart was almost as badly ruptured as the rest of your internal organs." "But..." "You never let me finish my story, the other day." Kade leaned back in his chair, looking around. "I don't fight anymore, but I haven't retired from the scene. I've just been doing some...contract work. I headed up a few projects to create medical technology that's even more state-of-the-art than the Kumite's." Alani winced, her body aching inside and out. "You...fixed me...up?" she asked. "I snuck you in and used one of our prototypes, to be specific. You're just lucky Jun Bo's forehead punch was a little off the mark. Your skull was cracked, but he didn't cause any brain damage." Kade turned back to her. "That's the only thing we can't repair." "I don't...I..." Alani's eyes fluttered as she felt light-headed. "I'm doing work for some very rich people," said Kade. "I don't think they had us make this tech for humanitarian reasons, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to make something that could eventually save lives that would otherwise be lost." He paused, then added, "Like yours." "Just wanted to...always wanted..." "Luna told me why you were in there. And you had this on you, too." He produced the mangled remnants of a flower. "Can...will I be able to...?" "Eventually. But is it what you really want, now that I'm sitting here?" After a long pause, Alani nodded painfully. "But I also...you..." "You should get some rest." Kade stood up, pocketing the flower. "And a trainer. The way to last in this world is to know people who can make you stronger and keep you alive." As he reached the door, Kade turned back around. "I'll see you in the gym, once you've recovered," he said, before he left.