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Kanzuki Estate, Tokyo, Japan, 36 hours after the fight in Metro City's Dockside Park

 

"Thank you, Shibasaki.  I'd like to be alone for a half hour."

The steward bowed low before leaving the study, closing the door behind him.   

Karin played with one of her ringlet curls while her hazel eyes fluttered momentarily as she suppressed a yawn.  Her body was still feeling the effects of jet lag from the rapid two-way trip. 

The daily information briefing remained unopened on the desk.  Taking a deep breath, she picked it up and flipped through slowly. 

G's popularity was slowly but steadily increasing throughout the western hemisphere.  Crowds of hockey-masked followers held rallies in a number of major cities throughout the Americas, constantly marching through the streets of major cities to the steady chant of 'We are one!' and 'Strength through unity!'.  As a result, various governments in North and South America were being forced to acknowledge his presence, though no action had been made to curtail any of the demonstrations.  Karin wondered what would happen if some of the powers that be decided to push back.  It was only a matter of time before someone, somewhere decided to counter the marches.  How would G react to that?

He was currently in Los Angeles, engaged in 'friendly' street fighting matches with interested parties while giving speeches to decent sized crowds.  It was speculated that he would continue his public relations blitz by traveling southwards to Mexico next.  In addition to his orations, so-called "We are One!" advertisements were being shown on the internet and increasingly on television.  There were even rumors of G lecturing before the United Nations headquarters in New York City at some time in the future!

His influence was prevalent in the Americas for the time being, though he had many followers worldwide.  So far, Karin’s vigilance in the northwestern Pacific Rim kept Japan largely, but not entirely immune to G's persuasive efforts.  Her alliance with the influential Japanese underworld boss, Daigo Kazama, had already borne fruit.  He had been particularly helpful in breaking up a pair of G's intelligence gathering rings so far.

The report also contained news regarding the Illuminati.  There was confirmation that they would host another world warrior tournament, which was expected to begin very soon.  The thought of not being invited caused Karin let out an annoyed ‘humph.’  She had heard rumors of the competition a month or so before, but nothing concrete.  Karin was admittedly irritated at the snub, but there wasn't much she could do about it.  Besides, the Secret Society could be a potential ally in the fight to come, so Karin was loath to antagonize them too much.  The two factions had been co-belligerents against Shadaloo two years ago.  Perhaps they could be persuaded into a similar arrangement against G? 

The timing of this tournament was suspect.  What were the Illuminati looking to accomplish through this action?

'Are they looking for potential recruits?  Or perhaps there's something else I'm overlooking.  It hardly matters.  Ryu, Ken and even Ibuki have been invited and will participate.  I'll contact them once the tournament is over.  One way or another, I'll find out what the Illuminati's goals are.'

Karin re-read the briefing once more before she set it back on the desk.  She closed her eyes and folded her arms across her chest, reflecting on the battle at the park in Metro City 36 hours before. 

As extensive as Karin's surveillance network was, there was always room for improvement.  Hence, her decision to hire Ran and Maya as additions to a special intelligence section on G she was putting together.  Both were recuperating from their recent ordeal in the privately owned medical facility on the estate.  Heavy security had been added to guard them just in case.   

Ran's injuries in the fight weren't critical, though they were painful.  The journalist was already insisting that she could return to work in a couple of days with some rest.  

Maya, on the other hand, would need a lengthier recovery time.  Several hard blows to the head and chest by the Q had been bad enough.  More concerning were the second-degree burn injuries to Maya's hands and parts of her head from the explosion.  However, Karin's medical staff believed that the ex-CIA agent would make a full recovery, though it would take at least a couple of weeks.  Maya's daughter, Lauren, had vowed to stay by her mother's side for the time being.

'We removed Maya and Ran from danger with no further losses, while as many as three Qs have been neutralized.  I'd consider that a victory for our side.  We also gained valuable information about those things.  The argument about multiple Qs can now be conclusively put to rest.  Unfortunately, we don't know how many of them remain.'  

'The fact that Qs can also destroy themselves at will is a cause for concern.  As far as we know, no one has actually emerged victorious with a Q before now.  G is certainly leaving very little to chance.  There has to be a reason that they elect to vaporize without a trace when they're threatened with defeat.  There's still so much about G and the Qs that remains an enigma!'

The last thought underlined the reason why a special intelligence section would be invaluable, and it had already proven its worth.

Ran had barely been recruited by the Kanzuki zaibatsu when she had emailed Karin a week ago with a crucial video file attached.  There were other bits of physical information that Ran turned over when she was rescued, but the video was by far the most significant.

The investigative journalist felt the decision to email it was worth the risk of exposure, not realizing that she was already being watched.  Although Karin didn't know for certain, she strongly suspected that G had his own intelligence network sifting through communications, ready to flag anything suspicious.  Sure enough, Ran's email with the file to Karin touched off one of G's digital tripwires, pinpointing the journalist's location and speeding G’s efforts to eliminate her.  

Maya's concurrent resolution to leave the CIA and link up with Ran inevitably made them both major targets for G.  It had been a race to see who would get to them first.  G had gained the advantage through his Qs, but fate had intervened in the form of Menat and Juri, who helped fight off the assassins in subsequent fights.  The delays gave Karin just enough time to whisk Ran and Maya to relative safety in Japan.  

Karin opened her eyes and turned on the laptop that she had brought along.  She drummed her fingers on the desk's edge as the computer woke up.  Once logged in, Karin opened a video file.  She had seen the smartphone video several times already but felt the need to watch it again.  

She started to click the mouse button to start the video but hesitated.  Instead, she pulled her hand back and steepled her fingers, bouncing them lightly together.

'The question now becomes...what do 'we' do with this video?  It's difficult to know who I can trust right now beyond my immediate circle.  Most of the world has no idea that these Qs exist, much less that there's a link between them and G.'

Very few people, Karin included, had paid any attention to the mysterious man known as G when he had started his 'Let's Fight' channel on Footube almost two years ago.  He had been but one of millions who used the popular video platform.  It wasn't until a well-connected street fighter, Rashid of the Turbulent Wind, decided to have a friendly spar with G that the latter's popularity gained momentum. 

Karin had come to know Rashid during the Black Moons Crisis two years ago.  The easy-going technology-lover had been the one to deactivate the Shadaloo satellites permanently.  Very few people worldwide were even aware that he had been their savior. 

In retrospect, his fateful attempt to welcome the new arrival to the street fighter world was ill-considered.  Unfortunately, that was the problem with hindsight; it was almost always 20/20 vision. 

Karin bounced a finger gently on her lower lip.  Would she have challenged G, not knowing the danger he posed?  She reluctantly nodded her head.  It would have been dishonest to admit otherwise.

'No, I don't blame you at all, Rashid.  If I were in your shoes, I would have done the same.  Street fighting is in our blood.  We live for the challenge.  If it hadn't been you, then someone else would have given G an opening.'

She tapped the mouse for the play button.  The video showed G standing in front of a Q near an empty building on a deserted street.  A nearby streetlamp above provided ample light.  Both were standing sideways to the camera.  The burly golden tattooed man easily stood a head taller than the Q.  The addition of the black stovepipe hat gave G a towering appearance.

G placed his hand on the side of the Q's masked head and ran a finger around the area where the ear would have been.  The tip of the finger glowed for a moment before his head suddenly snapped to attention.  He frowned and slowly turned to glare with smoldering yellow eyes in the camera's direction before striding towards the cameraman.  The video ended at that point.

It had been Ran's friend, a fellow investigative journalist, who filmed and then sent an email with the attached file to her very shortly afterwards.  The email had been riddled with grammar and spelling mistakes; signs that it was written in haste.  Ran had explained that her friend had been a stickler for proper punctuation and such.  She hadn't heard from him since and feared the worst.

Although Karin had seen the video several times already, a cold lump formed in her stomach with each viewing.  Someone had died so that she could see this.  It was a sobering thought and emphasized just how high the stakes were in this conflict.

'Her friend must have temporarily escaped with barely enough time to send the email.  He must have known he wouldn't survive, but still performed his duty.  A brave and dedicated man indeed.'

Karin knew that more people would perish before this was over.  She coldly studied the still image of G on the laptop screen.  Her hands clenched tightly into fists, as if she could somehow reach in to the computer and physically grapple with him. 

'This time, I'll be ready.  It will not be like the Black Moons.'

Her face reddened when she recalled Shadaloo's sneak attack on New York City two years previously.  It had been a loss of face for the young woman.  The electromagnetic pulse, or EMP, from the Black Moon completely wrecked the Kanzuki family satellite, Red Spider-Lily.  Its destruction wasn't even the worst of it.  The burst over the city had not been selective in its victims.  Not only had the power gone out in the surrounding area with basic services lost; all aircraft in the vicinity, including several passenger jets still in the air, lost power and eventually crashed.

It shamed Karin that she had been slow to react to the threat, especially when she knew Shadaloo had been found tampering with her satellite shortly before the attack.  How many lives could have been saved if she had acted with more alacrity?

'G could very well be a far greater threat than Shadaloo ever was.  He has accumulated so much power in such a short time, calling himself, 'President of the World'.  Ha!  Clearly, he has worldwide ambitions, but to what end?  Judging from this video, he's obviously not the innocent 'unifier of the people' that he claims to be in public.'

Karin placed a hand on her opposite bicep and flexed her arm.  It was an expression of determination.

'I must stay strong.  I will not allow myself to be caught flat-footed again.  I was victorious...no, we were victorious because Shadaloo didn't strike with everything it had from the start.  I don't believe that G will make this mistake.'

'When that moment arrives, I must be prepared.  The Kanzuki family name...it's very honor, depends on it.  It must not be disgraced!'

Honor.  Did G have it?  Karin let out a derisive snort.  From what happened at the park less than two days ago, it was very doubtful.  When Karin had arrived, she immediately challenged the Q facing Maya and Ran.  It responded by trying to kill her through self-detonation. 

That had been bad enough.  The other Q didn't even bother to continue the fight, opting instead to try and kill Maya's daughter. 

The mere thought left her body shaking in anger.  That was far worse than dishonorable.  It was a maliciously evil venture at terror. 

'It's one thing to attempt an assassination on me.  Contemptible, but still...understandable.  You clearly view me as a threat, G.  That's good, because you should.  But to eliminate a bystander to fulfill a petty need for revenge-'

Karin checked her thought.  Of course, G hadn't succeeded in killing Lauren, though not for a lack of trying.  On the flight back to Japan, Karin had briefly conversed with Maya's daughter about what had happened in that ditch.  

The paused video was minimized to allow another file to pop up.  Shortly after the discussion with Lauren, Karin instructed Shibasaki to find out who this Kara woman was.  Lauren had not known the last name, though she did divulge that Kara was a nurse. 

It was enough information to start a basic search.  Karin reasoned that there couldn't be too many Karas in Metro City who were nurses.  Within 24 hours, she had a concise history of the young woman.

Karin pulled up one of the photos that was attached to the file.  It was one of Kara in high school, posing with several other high school track teammates.  Kara was in the middle, sporting a lopsided grin.  Her aquamarine eyes sparkled as she carried a trophy in one of her hands.  The other hand flashed a 'v' sign to signify victory.  The picture's innocence brought a sad smile to Karin's face.  The girl in that photograph would have scarcely imagined what was happening in her life now.

'Kara Neiland...23 years of age...honors student in high school, track and field...raised by her father until he died three years ago...mother...apparently left the family when Kara was seven.  Graduated from New York University two years ago with a BSN in nursing.  3rd in her class.  Interned at Metro City East Hospital.  Was later hired by same institution upon graduation.  Employed for two years before she recently took a leave of absence to pursue a master’s degree...nurse practitioner.  Well, she's certainly dedicated to her profession!  No criminal record.  No martial arts experience.'

'A person who has no fighting experience or intimate knowledge of how ki works somehow erected a strong enough energy barrier that protected her and Lauren from a major explosion that was only a few yards away.  From what Lauren told me, Kara had a look of shock afterwards.  It's astounding!  There are certainly fighters who use energy shielding, but it takes much training and skill to perform it.  This is all very perplexing.  I wonder what else she's capable of?'

Karin knew that Kara had arrived at the park with Juri Han, of all people.  The thought of Juri caused Karin's nose to wrinkle in distaste.  She had yet to have the 'pleasure' of facing the one known as 'the Spider' in the fighting ring, though the two had crossed paths several times in the recent past.  Juri's attitude in those encounters had been impertinent to say the least.  Karin couldn't deny that Juri was a ferocious fighter, but her social skills were sadly lacking, to say the least.

'Juri is hardly a role model to look up to.  Her manners are boorish, and her worldview is distasteful.  What could have possibly induced Kara to believe that tagging along with that miscreant was a good idea?!  It's probably something that I should look into.'

'Yes, I think keeping tabs on them is advisable, and I know the perfect man for the job.'

She checked her watch.  Her steward would check in soon. 

As expected, he showed up exactly a half-hour later.  Karin nodded her head in response to the steward's low bow. 

"Shibasaki...I would like for you to set up a meeting between Zeku and me for later this afternoon.  He's been looking for a way to be of service to the Kanzuki family.  I believe I've found a task that is well suited to his capabilities.  In addition, I want additional surveillance placed on both Juri Han and Kara Neiland.  I get the impression that we haven't seen the last of either of those two."

 

Kara's Apartment, a couple hours after the fight at Dockside Park

 

"Alright, you know the drill," Kara sighed, placing an ice pack wrapped in some paper towels on Juri's shoulder.  "Is this how it's going to be all the time?  Watching that thing slam you into the ground was really painful to watch."

Juri grated her teeth while fixing Kara with an icy glare after downing a couple of ibuprofens with some water.  She seriously considered throttling the nurse for that comment, but the pain was setting in with a vengeance now that the adrenaline had worn off.

'I fucking knew she was gonna bitch about the injuries.  Watching?  Yeah, how about actually being on the receiving end of it!  Like I was planning on that happening, you jackass!  Next time, you can take the Q on, and I'll hang back and take notes!'

Another wrapped ice pack was sandwiched between the chair's back rest and Juri's upper back.  It had been throbbing from the Q's hammer punch.

She held a third one on her stomach, which was the first injury Kara checked on when they got back.  Although Juri's body was conditioned to take hits, stomach wounds had the potential to be very critical if there was any rupture in the area.  There didn't seem to be any signs of internal bleeding, though there was a large red mark in the area where the Q's fist had connected.  It would likely turn black and blue by morning.  There wasn't much Kara could do except to keep the swelling down.  Juri still refused to see a doctor, much to the nurse's irritation. 

Kara was unaware of Juri's glare because she had turned her back momentarily before collapsing on the nearby sofa with a groan.  She closed her eyes and ran her hands through her hair.  It was still laced with dried sweat and grime from the ditch.  A long, hot shower was what Kara desired most at the moment, but she didn't have the energy to do so.  It was a major effort simply to keep her eyes open at this point.  Instead, Kara leaned back against the top of the backrest.  The top of her head grazed the wall just behind the sofa.  Then, she let out a long breath.

"Phew, what a night.  I'm sorry, Juri. I shouldn't have complained like that, just now.  It's not your fault.  I'm just really tired and frustrated that I couldn't do more.  I mean, apart from, well...and before you ask...no, I have no goddamned idea how it happened."

Juri just grunted in reply and looked away, partially mollified by the apology. 

"Well, something happened.  There's absolutely no way in hell that you two should have survived that."

The ensuing silence was deafening.  Kara chewed her lower lip and looked down.

"When you...when you do your special moves...do you have anything that you focus on?  I mean, does the move just happen naturally or do you mentally prepare for it somehow?"

Juri's eyebrows furrowed, and her fingers tapped the armrest as she considered the question.  Her ki was utilized so often in fights that she rarely thought about it anymore.  It was just a natural reaction to her at this point. 

The pain from her shoulder injury quickly arrested a responding shrug. 

"It depends.  Most of the time, I just perform the action, but I've also been doing this for a long time.  I guess I deliberately concentrate if something pisses me off.  There was this time when Guile kicked me hard several times in the chest...oh wait, you don't know anything about that.  Whatever.  Anyway, I got angry.  I mean, really fucking pissed.  I guess using anger to channel your energy counts as focusing, so sure, why not?  Heh, the kick I gave that asshole in return..."

Juri's face beamed at the memory of her fight with Guile and Cammy at the Shadaloo facility.  That had been years ago, but still...good times.  She tapped near her left eye.

"Remember what I said about this thing being able to detect ki levels?  Yours were still elevated when I got to the ditch.  Whatever the hell you did shielded you two from the blast."

A shudder ran through Kara.  She had tried to rationalize what had occurred in the park, but nothing made sense.

'I can't possibly have the abilities that Maya or Juri have, do I?  Why did this happen to me?'

Kara rubbed her forehead before letting out a long yawn.

"Why do I feel so exhausted now?  I feel like I could sleep for a week!  Ok, another question.  Do you get tired when you use your...abilities?"

Juri rubbed her chin while she considered an answer.

"No, not really.  If I do something long enough, sure, I can tire out eventually.  Everyone does.  I’m guessing in your case, it was probably the stress of the moment.  What were you doing when the Q blew up?"

Kara paused for a moment before telling Juri everything that occurred.  She held nothing back, not even her recollection of the track meet.  

"I dunno, I guess the memory triggered...well focused the ability.  I'm not gonna lie.  This...this scares the hell out of me.  I'm not sure I want this."

Juri let out a snort and shook her head.  Kara's reluctance to accept reality confused her. 

"Why not?  It saved your life.  It's a little late now to take it back.  Like it or not, you're gonna have to come to terms with this new talent of yours.  You should figure out how to consciously harness it.  It can prove useful later on.  The ability to use a shield isn't super unusual."

'Your skills could be useful to me as well,' Juri added silently.  'What other secrets are there locked away in you?

Kara swung her legs onto the couch to lay down and put her head on the sofa pillow.  There were so many other questions to be asked, but she could barely keep her eyes open.  An image randomly slipped into her mind.  Her question came out as a murmur.

"So, who was the late arrival to the fight?  The blonde, I mean.  She looked familiar.  Someone I should know?"

Juri returned Kara's squint with a cock-eyed stare.

"Seriously?  That was Karin Kanzuki, a self-absorbed, spoiled little rich bitch.  She's had a silver spoon shoved up her ass since birth."

Kara blinked her eyes in surprise.  She had been standing next to the wealthiest person on the planet and she didn't even realize it? 

"Wow, I must be really out of it, if I didn't recognize her.  Did you know a lot of the equipment we use at the hospital is from Kanzuki BioMed?"

Juri rolled her eyes.

"I could give a shit.  Karin owns a lot of garbage.  She's still a stuck-up brat."

Kara ignored Juri's retort, closed her eyes again and started to drift off.  She suddenly woke back up with a start.

"Hey Juri?  When you're healed up, do you have any idea where we're headed next?"

"Eh?  I thought you fell asleep.  Let's talk about training instead.  I did some thinking while you dozed off.  You might want to do some meditating.  That'll help with mental discipline.  You'll need to get started as soon as possible because I really don't want to keep playing babysitter.  The first thing you'll need to do is start stretching...a lot.  In fact, that's probably more important right now than learning any moves.  You'll need to be a lot more limber than you are."

Kara made a face.  She didn't appreciate the babysitter reference.

"Hey, I always stretch before I run."

Juri smirked and then giggled sardonically.

"Aw, it's adorable that you think those kiddie stretches you probably do for running count.  No, sweetie, you're going to stretch.  I'd show you what I mean, but not with my shoulder, stomach and back the way they are right now."

Juri ignored Kara's sour look and continued.  

"Look, as I said before, the people we'll be facing aren't preschoolers.  They're the lowest form of whale shit.  They won't fight fair, and you can't expect mercy.  You need to be ready for that, so I won't be going easy on you.  You might as well bring along that stupid knife you've been lugging around.  The blade might be useful, though it's more likely that you'll cut yourself with it."

Kara shivered.  Although she was excited about starting this journey, Juri's briefing scared her more than a little bit.  The combat she had witnessed over the past several days drove Juri's point home.  Kara knew she could easily wind up dead if she wasn't careful. 

'Well, I did want to go through with this.  Juri's right.  I need to listen to her from this point on if I want to survive what's coming.'

"I understand...I really do.  Oh man, I need to find my passport!  It's in my bedroom somewhere.  I also need to figure out a way to pay for this apartment each month since I'm not actually going to be here.  I'll bring whatever non-perishable stuff there is over to the local food bank in the next day or so.  There’s no reason to leave it here."

Kara cocked her head for a moment and continued talking.

"Hey, do you think G knows where we are?"

Juri shook her head but carried the hint of a smile.  At least Kara was starting to ask smart questions.  There might be hope for the nurse yet.

"I considered this earlier on the way back.  Probably not.  G thinks you're dead, assuming he even knew who you were to begin with.  As for me...he likely figured that I hooked up with Maya and the rest of those fools.  I think we're safe for now.  As for the rest of the crap you just mentioned, do what you need to do.  Once we leave here...well, I'm not coming back just because you get a bout of homesickness."

Kara sat up on the couch.  The exhaustion momentarily faded away, replaced with a feeling of anticipation.

"It sounds like you have a destination planned.  So where are we headed?  Anywhere exotic?"

Juri raised an eyebrow and the corner of her mouth curled upwards just a bit. though she stopped it short of a sneer. 

'Tch, she probably thinks we're headed to the South Pacific or something.  This isn't a damn vacation, sweetie.  Our target's a bit closer than that.'

"That depends on your idea of 'exotic.'  I had a chance to look over the list while you were driving.  I don't want to waste any time, so I picked the closest base on the list.  We might be able to get some help when we're there, too.  I know a few locals who might be interested in getting rid of some Shadaloo losers."

It would be good to get back on the road soon.  Juri was tired of sitting around.  She could feel the new Feng Shui engine calling out to her.  Once it was installed, the time would finally arrive to put some real hurt on Shadaloo.  What she had done to them up to this point was just foreplay.  Now it was time to feast on the main course.  Juri was glad that Bison had returned.  She would have the honor and pleasure of ripping the still beating heart from his chest. 

She licked her lips slowly before giving Kara a wide, feral grin.  The nurse recoiled slightly from the predatory smile, unsure if Juri's expression was meant for her.  She certainly hoped not!

"Well, um, don't keep me in suspense.  Where are we going? 

Juri's grin transformed into a less menacing smirk.  She paused for a moment before answering. 

"We're headed for Mexico."