"You're so mean, Kunzo," Jeanette-- the redheaded one-- drawled around a red lollipop as she watched him lock the register, bent forward with her forearms crossed over the counter to give him the easy glances down her blouse which he never bothered to take. She was seventeen, and one of the small flock of schoolgirls and women whose members were each determined to win the heart of the frustratingly even-tempered and vague Japanese. Although his scheduled hours in Stacy's store changed weekly they always managed to find him, and traipsed in alone or in pairs to muster small talk and flirt as he shelved new CDs or checked inventory.
"Sorry," Miyama Kunzo offered ellusively as he slid from behind the counter, smiling faintly to himself as he circled the store and closed the blinds over the handful of windows. The enflamed sun was just dipping below the plains and it shot its orange light into the store at a vicious angle. "Got some other stuff to do."
As he drifted about Jeanette turned and watched the back of his head, wanting to touch the ponytail of thick, inky hair that spilled around the brown sweatshirt hood thrown back against his neck. They were the only people left in the store. "That's what you always say."
"Can't help the truth," he returned, mustering an apologetic tone and a shrug as he returned to the counter, his head canted at a small and lazy angle.
"Well how 'bout tomorrow night?"
"Dunno," he said as he ducked into the office long enough to turn off the computer's monitor, flip off the office lights, activate the alarm and grab his keys with a jingle. The sound of it was usually a casual hint for the sharper girls, but that did not include Jeanette. Just behind the register was the small pile of in-store music, and he stopped to choose something for the ride home.
"You're not really seeing somebody in Japan, are you?" Jeanette asked, peering at him carefully. She rolled the candy idly with her tongue.
Finding nothing that fit his mood, Kunzo propped his hands on the counter and leant his weight into them, returning the girl's gaze for the first time in minutes. "Where'd that come from?" he asked, his curiosity mild but genuine. He'd kept the fact to himself for almost two years and had finally let it slip only several days earlier. Apparently the news was spreading fast.
"Just a rumor. Is it true?"
Kunzo didn't answer until he'd slid out from behind the counter again. "Yeah. It's true."
Jeanette swatted his arm before following him towards the door. "You're /so/ mean. Why didn't you tell anyone?" she whined teasingly, trying yet again to decipher his cool grin.
Before stepping out into the harsh, waning sun, Kunzo turned back towards her. The smile remained on his face as he reached slowly for the stick of her lollipop, and she opened her lips curiously as he took hold of it. Plucking it free, he replaced it between his own. "You want a lift home?"
/Tuesday. July 18th, 1999. 8:32 pm./ The date echoed in Kunzo's mind as he pulled into the parking lot of the Alice Springs Public Library, filled with a quiet and long-dormant dread. He guided Stacy's pickup into a space and cut the engine.
The library was a plain wooden structure, and to Kunzo it seemed a grossly underwhelming sight for the resources it contained. Nudging the truck's door shut, he flicked away the soggy lollipop stick and stood in the parking lot momentarily to appraise the building even though he had visited it often since his arrival. It seemed now a foreign and tentative place. Irate with the notion, the hooded man raked coarse fingers through his long, spidery bangs, only to feel them skitter back into place against his forehead and over his eyes. He approached the entrance, the automatic doors slid open, and he traded the warm, dry evening for the library's bleached artificial light and quiet air.
For the third time in as many minutes, he withdrew and unfolded a weathered duplicate of his patient record at Alice Springs Hospital. His shrewd gaze moved instinctively to the time and date of arrival. /Tuesday, July 17th, 1999. 8:32 pm./ After a moment more he refolded the document and shoved it back into his jeans pocket.
Kunzo and the librarian traded salutory waves as he sank into a chair in front of one of a long row of computers, and he exhaled slowly as he pulled himself to the keyboard. He stared at the monitor dumbly.
/What am I so scared of?/ he berated himself.
But he knew answer, of course, with the same lucid reasoning with which he now regarded all of his fears and wishes. He was scared of his own suspicion, a weak thread of intuition that had lingered in his mind, gaining his unintended strength and support until it was formidable enough to raise in him first a sense of doubt and now finally the urge for action. He would put his fears to rest easily enough with the library's online news archive, housing full-page scans of numerous daily newspapers from all major cities worldwide.
Kunzo selected the year 1999, the month of July, and ran a search for Japanese articles.
Within Japan, the press-- the tabloids especially-- treated the Mishima Financial Empire and the King of the Iron Fist Tournament as palaces and their occupants as royalty, subject to and deserving of obssessive coverage which frequently bordered on objective gossip. Kunzo was unlucky enough to fall into both worlds of documentary and critique. Thrust into the harsh journalistic spotlight almost six years ago, the day he had arrived in Tokyo in search of his grandfather, and almost blinded by its intensity in the months before the tournament, seeing publications with photographs and editorials dedicated to himself still never failed to amaze him. Sifting through the brief and insignificant mentions, he found the headline he expected and opened its article.
"Grandson of Mishima Heihachi Vanishes in Wake of Assault," it announced.
He looked at the date.
July 14th, 1999. Friday.
A tiny, chilled shiver coursed through Kunzo which he recognized immediately as fear, and as he experienced it he felt it expand, stretch back through time to swallow three days of his life for which he hadn't a single memory.
Kunzo rose from the computer and closed the program. Haunted by implications that froze his heart, he turned and walked out of the library, saying goodbye to the librarian on his way.
Sifting through mail at the small kitchen table Stacy was unphased when she heard the truck pull noisily into the driveway.
"It's late," she said vacantly as Kunzo closed the front door behind himself, without bothering to lift her eyes from the letter in hand.
"Drove someone home and stopped by the library." He tossed the keys onto table next to the scattered pile of letters, expecting his teacher's usual amused commentary of his unwanted popularity, but she said nothing. He watched her a moment. "What's up."
"We got letters today," she said, her voice strange, drawing a large one from the mass and offering it to Kunzo as he pushed back his hood.
The Mishima insignia on the envelope, a stylized drawing of his grandfather's leering face, was impossible not to recognize. He looked at Stacy, who at last raised her eyes to meet his. "Is this it?"
"This is it," she said.
"A month from today."
Opening the mail Kunzo skimmed the contents of the letter, his face still composed even though his pulse was racing. The freshly-printed notice of the tournament; the guidelines and regulations for the matches; an explaination of the prize (What was Mishima thinking?); a contract; a lengthy injury waiver; a plane ticket for a flight to Tokyo in three weeks; a preaddressed return envelope; and all of the official registration forms for Miyama Kunzo, patiently awaiting nothing more than his signature. It struck Kunzo suddenly as a mockery to see his name printed on official Mishima stationary. He dropped his hand, glancing expectantly at Stacy. "You too?"
"Guess someone likes us," she quipped, showing him her own wad of folded documents.
Kunzo carefully sat opposite her, wiping the keys and other mail to the side of the table with his arm. He spread the paperwork out before him. Stacy continued unhurriedly perusing her own. For a long time, neither spoke.
"Are you ready?" Stacy asked, calmly turning her large brown eyes yet again on Kunzo's face. She waited as he opened his mouth, paused, then closed it. He sighed through his nose, staring at the mosiac of pages that held all the weighted promises of his fate-- the promise of violence and murder; the promise of freedom from the chains of a life that still struggled to ensnare him; the promise of a chance to rediscover and reclaim the thing he loved most. Kunzo thought of his mother's sad gaze, of the evil burning in his blood, of his grandfather's twisted smile, of Stacy's waiting stare, of Takeda's imploring voice. But most of all, he thought of Joon.
Kunzo turned his face slowly to the window. The last weak traces of sunlight were retreating from the sky, leaving in their wake a smouldering, star-scattered night. The feathered hands of a breeze high above the earth carried in their hold a stoic web of clouds, and beyond even those, one calm, pale eye was there, watching him with an eternal gaze.
"Yeah," Kunzo said, and closed his eyes. "I'm ready."
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