Red Lily

Something Special

Written By | Series: Air Master

Notes and Disclaimers: The characters and premise of Air Master are the property of Toei, Umakoshi Yoshihiko, NTV, VAP and Shibata Yokusaru not me. Mori-sempai is mine, but only in the most superficial way, since she is directly inspired by the show itself.

The show kicks ass, literally and figuratively. Watch it as soon as you get a chance. My dream job would be writing episodes for a show like this.

There are three unexpected things that happened during the writing of this story:

1) When I began this story, I was not in any way injured – nor did I expect to *be* injured. However, sometime shortly after I started to write this, I had a fall off my bicycle, which broke my arm and gave me a nasty knock on the head. More than a month later, I’m still bruised and sore. As a result, I had to put aside working on the thing – but more importantly, I needed help dressing, am still in constant pain from the injury, and had all the fun of collapsing unconscious in front of someone who was trying to tuck me into bed.

I am not unaware of the irony.

2) I began this story after seeing only a handful of the anime and none of the manga. Nonetheless, in Episode 12 the anime actually uses one of the gags I wrote into this story. I didn’t know they used it, since I hadn’t seen the episode in question, so it’s not like I copied the gag. I howled with laughter when I saw it used.

3) After I completed this story, I purchased the manga for this series and found that not only did it use several other gags I wrote into this story, it practically has the same exact set up to get Mina and Maki together, only with a lot more fanservice than I used and less overt resolution. Rather than make me feel as if I’ve plagiarized the series unintentionally, I feel vindicated…clearly this *is* the way they are meant to be. So, you can read this story and know that basically, I’m right about this, it does happen in a really similar way. :-)

My thanks to the folks at the FR, especially Adam and Alan, for their fine-tooth combing of this story. And special kudos to Alan for making me watch this in the first place. You understand me *way* too well, my child.

If you enjoy this story, I’d like to know – email me at yuricon@gmail.com

“Worldshaking Fanfic” supports Yuricon and ALC Publishing, because the world needs more decent yuri and shoujoai.

WSF also supports the Fanfic Revolution, because fanfic doesn’t have to suck.

 

Something Special

 

“It’s got to be really cool,” Yu-chan said. “You know, ’cause Maki-chan’s so cool.”

“Yeah, but what can you get a street fighter?” Michiru asked rhetorically. “Brass knuckles?”

“Stupid,” Yuu snorted in derision. “She fights with her feet.”

“How about something to eat?” Renge supplied.

Three girls turned towards her in friendly exasperation.

“Renge-chan,” Mina chastised gently, “that’s what *you* would like.” Before Renge could build up a head of steam and cause a fuss, she turned back to the other two. “But it should be something that makes her feel special, don’t you think?”

“Brass ankles?” Michiru refused to let go of her former idea, and was pointedly ignored by the others.

“But,” Mina hesitated, hugging her arms around herself, as she often did when emotionally distressed. “But don’t you think whatever we give her should be…”

“Hey, Michiru-chan, what did you get for your last birthday?” Yu-chan spoke, heedless of the tears welling in Mina’s eyes. She was too used to it to take any special notice.

“Me?” The blonde thought for a moment, “Some CDs.”

“Well, that’s no good…” Yuu mused.

Renge jumped up and down, trying to gain the others’ attention. “I got a new schoolbag!” she shouted over and over, until Yuu was tempted to muffle her.

“No, that won’t do. Mina-chan, what did you get for your last birthday?” Even as the words slipped from her lips, she realized it was the wrong question.

“Dinner at La Tour Argent.” Mina answered with no dissembling. “And a show.”

Three girls sighed heavily at the unfairness of it all.

Mina looked from one to the other, concern engraved on her face. “But we can’t do that for Maki-chan, can we?” She sighed, and sat down suddenly, making her large chest jiggle. Yuu and Michiru glanced quickly around to see the reaction of the men around them, grinning at the apish faces of three salarymen and a construction worker, before they turned back to the matter at hand

“I don’t know,” Yu-chan mused. “I feel like this ought to be something…different, not just a CD or something.”

“I think we should take her for a meal,” Renge grumped. “Everyone likes food.”

“I think,” Mina said with a determination that made the others pay attention, “that we should get something that makes her feel…like a girl.”

“Eh?”

Mina blushed and ducked her face away from her friends. “It’s just that she’s always fighting and having to be so tough – but we know she’s really our age…and she’s not really tough at all.” In her head she continued, *And she looked so good in her bathing suit and was so surprised that we thought so too.*

Yuu nudged Michiru, but nodded seriously at Mina. “I think I know what you mean.”

“Hey!” Michiru jumped at a thought. “We could take her shopping, like for a dress or something!”

“Mmmm, I don’t know, it’s not really Maki-chan’s thing, is it?” Yuu considered. She looked at her watch, shaking her head. “Well, I gotta get going – I have to do the shopping today. Let’s all think about it and when we meet tomorrow, we can decide.”

***

“Something special, something special, something special…” Mina murmured the phrase over and over as she walked home. The noise of traffic and surrounding crowds retreated as the girl racked her brain for an appropriate gift.

She knew she was on the right track…more than the others, she knew *she* understood Maki-chan. Maki was something more than just cool, more than a genius street fighter – she was a woman. And whatever Mina gave her for her birthday was going to make her feel like a woman.

Mina stopped mid-stride, blushing down to her chest at the thought. Feel like a woman? She didn’t mean it *that* way…Mina jumped as a car beeped at her, then scurried across the street, away from the drooling men who gaped at her chest. She hated being stared at like that. Only Maki never stared at her and made her feel like an exhibit. Even Yuu and Michiru teased her about her oversize breasts, just to watch her squirm.

Mina’s mouth tightened. She didn’t care about the others, then – *she* would make Maki’s birthday special.

***

Renge yawned hugely, a lone udon noodle hanging from the corner of her mouth. “Where’s Mina?” she asked, looking around as if the girl could possibly be hiding in the small noodle shop.

“She said she was busy,” Michiru said with a shrug. “I didn’t want to pry.”

“Why not?” Yuu asked, her eyes huge. “Mina’s *never* busy – she always has time to hang with us, I can’t believe you didn’t ask!”

“Sorry, sorry.” The blonde seemed unconcerned.

“Hey,” Yuu grinned nastily, “maybe she’s out buying lingerie or something to give Maki-chan a really special birthday.” Her tone and expression were lascivious, but neither of the other two girls seemed to care.

“Who’s out buying lingerie?” Maki’s tall form blocked the sunlight from the street, casting the three into shadow. “Hey, where’s Mina-chan?”

Yuu grimaced up at the latecomer, embarrassed at the thought of being overheard. She changed the subject rapidly. “No clue. You weren’t here, so we decided that you’re paying. Grab a seat and have a bowl of ramen.”

Maki blinked a little at the girl’s audacity, then shrugged. Seating herself at Yuu’s side, she ordered the large ramen bowl resignedly. Knowing she was paying, Maki didn’t bother rushing her meal, or ruining it with pointless conversation.

Michiru watched the redhead for a short while, then blurted, “Maki-chan, what do you want for your birthday?”

“Michiru-chan!” Yuu was scandalized. “It was going to be a surprise!”

“What was?” Maki asked, looking from one girl to the other.

“Your birthday present…whatever we decided on.”

“Oh, well, thanks.” As usual, Maki gave almost nothing about herself away.

“So, is there anything you want?” Michiru asked again. “We couldn’t think of anything, well, special.”

Maki considered the question, nodded, “Yeah, you guys could pay for the food once in a while.”

Yuu and Michiru laughed, Renge only looked indignant.

“No, seriously,” Yuu insisted.

Maki looked at her friends, her face open. “I was being serious.”

Yuu laughed, “You’re so funny. We…”

“Aikawa Maki…I’ve been looking for you,” the voice came from behind them. It was rough, gravelly and very annoyed. “Where the hell have you been?”

Slowly, Maki turned in her seat, her mouth hanging open, half-chewed pork and ramen clearly visible. She stood, swallowed, and carefully moved away from her friends. The three girls stared at the grossly over-muscled woman that faced them, her unattractive face scowling unpleasantly.

“Mori…sempai?”

***

Mina grinned happily. It wasn’t much, she knew, but it was perfect. She clutched her bag to her, pressing the contents closer. This was going to be the best birthday Maki-chan had ever had.

***

“Yeah,” the woman’s arm muscles rippled as she clenched one massive fist. “And I’ve been looking for ya, Maki. We have some unfinished business – and I wanna finish it.”

***

Despite the late hour, there was little traffic on the street. Maki stood in the middle of a deserted sidewalk, facing the woman who had taught her so much – and who had introduced her to the brutal, inside world of street fighting.

Mori was even tougher than Maki remembered her. When she had been the other woman’s junior, back when she had grown too tall for gymnastics, Mori had been scary; masculine, muscled, the kind of person other people naturally left alone. But Maki, too depressed to care if she got on someone’s wrong side, had spoken to Mori anyway, and had made a friend…or so she had thought at the time. She had been wrong, of course.

Mori cracked her knuckles loudly, grinning nastily at her former protégé. “Geez Maki, I think you’re even bigger than the last time I saw ya. It’ll be a pleasure to kick your ass into the next prefecture.”

Maki smiled politely. “But you’re exactly the same as always, Mori-sempai.” The redhead rolled her head lightly on her neck. “I thought we finished what we had to finish, last time I saw you.” The last time she had seen the other woman, Maki had walked away bloody, but she had walked away. In Mori’s violent world that counted as a victory she had had to award Maki. It had obviously rankled.

Mori lifted a lip in a snarl. “Heh, well you would think that…Air Master.” The woman spit onto the ground. “Stupid name.”

Michiru leaned over to Yuu. “She’s scary.” Yuu and Renge nodded solemnly in agreement.

“Maki-chan’s sempai is,” Renge whispered hoarsely. “scaaaaary.”

Yuu and Michiru nodded.

Renge and Michiru turned towards Yuu, apparently waiting for her to repeat the formula. Yuu scowled. “Um, I already agreed, do I have to say it too?” The two continued to stare until Yuu rolled her eyes and capitulated. “Yeah, wow, scary.”

All three girls nodded.

***

Mina could hear it before she saw it. There was an uneasy silence over the area – no birds chirped, no traffic could be heard. Then came the first shock of noise and vibration, followed by the shouts from a crowd and a cloud of dust rising in the distance.

She stopped, gazing above the buildings, her eyes squinting against the late afternoon light. A few moments passed, then she saw it – a black shape silhouetted against the glare of the setting sun. Mina smiled as it spun in place, hanging in the sky for an impossibly long moment, then disappeared from sight in a blink.

Again and again, the speck was visible; flying upwards, spinning, and plunging towards the ground; followed by the noise of impact that reverberated between the tall buildings on every side.

As Mina’s feet once again began to move, she was already calling out, “Maki-chan! Keep it up, Maki-chan!”

***

“If that’s all you’ve got, kiddo, this isn’t gonna be any fun!” Mori’s fists pummeled against Maki’s stomach unmercifully. Maki could see each individual muscle flex and extend, as blow after blow pounded into her torso, robbing her of breath.

Maki smiled back at her sempai, even as the next flurry of punches doubled her over.

Mori stepped back, her right arm cocked for a finishing blow. “Here it comes, little girl, and I think we know which one of us is the better fighter now, don’t we.”

“Oh yeah,” Maki said, forcing herself upright, “I think I do.”

The fist came forward at lightning speed, but Maki wasn’t there. The force of the blow caved in a section of wall, causing bricks and dust to fly into the air. Mori spun around, but it was too late. Maki was nowhere to be seen. Mori scanned the street, looking at all possible places her former friend could be hiding, until she noticed the small group of three girls standing together by the restaurant door. One of them had a nasty grin on her face. Mori cracked her knuckles again and sneered back, taking a step in their direction. Maki might be a coward, but she’d have to come back if her friends were being threatened. Mori clenched and unclenched her hands ominously.

Mori paused; something was wrong. The three girls didn’t look worried. She cocked her head slightly at them, wondering what on earth was going on, when the little runty one grinned at her and pointed upwards. She leaned her head back in time to see the dark form of Maki spinning crazily in mid-air, plummeting to earth at an amazing rate. The foot that slammed into Mori was moving at something like 80 miles per hour.

When Mori came to, she was staring up at Maki from the ground. Her junior had her arms thrown out to the sides, as if she had just stuck a perfect landing off the horse.

Mori saw red.

The one thing she had hated about this girl, more than anything else, was the effortlessness with which she landed.

Mori shook herself free from the rubble around her. She cracked her neck on either side, shook her shoulders to loosen them and spat the dirt from her mouth.

“You know, kiddo, you never were very pretty, even in that cute girly gymnastics outfit.”

Maki turned with a smile on her lips. “Yeah, but I’m still prettier than you.”

And then the fight was on.

Mori was earth-bound, it was true, but she knew Maki – or had known her – well. Maki was able to surprise her more than once with a new technique, but Mori hadn’t been idle in the past few years either. Her techniques had more power than Maki had ever had to deal with before. Her old sempai’s uneven blue and black locks whipped around her head in a surreal corona, as she threw devastating attacks with feet, knees, elbows and fists. Only Maki’s speed and aerial ability saved her from being pounded unconscious, Even then, the few blows that she didn’t manage to avoid did enormous damage.

Maki spun in place, her feet slamming Mori’s face repeatedly, until the older woman was unrecognizable. But one arm came up to trap Maki’s right leg, and with a twist, her left leg was grounded, and suddenly, Maki found herself pinned to the street by an unmovable object.

“Oh yeah, Maki,” Mori growled low in her throat. “You’re a lot better than you were. But I didn’t want you thinking you’re better than me. Not then, not now,” and her lips pulled back, baring her teeth, “not ever.”

The fist was unavoidable, and so was the one after it. Maki’s eye swelled shut after the sixth blow, and she could feel consciousness slipping away rapidly, even as Mori’s mocking voice kept telling her that she was nothing, nothing much at all….

***

“Maki-chaaaaannn!” It was too much like a nightmare to be real, Mina kept telling herself. “Maki-chan! Maki-chan!”

She had come around the corner just as a repulsively brawny blue and black-haired woman in leather pants and sleeveless t-shirt lifted Maki’s limp body and smashed a blood-covered fist into her face. Maki fell to the earth like a human-size weight, her face unrecognizable.

Mina dropped her package and ran as she had never run before towards the scene. The woman stretched, ran her fouled hands through her hair and laughed. “Hellfire and damnation, that felt good!” she shouted. The woman turned, an evil smile on her ugly face, and waved Mina closer. “Come on, little girl. You can have her now. I think I told her everything I wanted to say.” She nodded at Mina, who was heaving in great breaths from running. “Nice jugs ya got there kid, I bet ole’ Maki’ll appreciate leaning up against them – once the swelling goes down.”

Later, when Yuu, Michiru and Renge told Mina that she literally launched herself at Mori, looking like a female jaguar protecting its babies, she laughed, embarrassed, but she never really believed them.

Mori smirked at the chesty girl, who shrieked incoherently and attempted to slap her. The older woman just pinned Mina’s arms together, then held her over Maki’s inert form.

“Too cute, it’s all too cute,” she laughed gutturally. “Here ya go, kiddo – something warm and soft to rest your head on.” And she tossed Mina’s body at Maki and turned away, slapping her hands together. “Bye girls, it was nice to meet ya.” She waved a crimson hand and walked away down the street chortling, ignoring the crowd that had hung around to see the action.

Mina lay, sobbing quietly, her head on Maki’s stomach, until she was sure that the other girl was breathing. With a shake of her head, Mina waved her friends away as they approached. When Yuu stepped closer, Mina looked up and shouted, “Get away from her! Just go away. I’ll take care of her.” Muttering Maki-chan’s name and a variety of comforting words, Mina struggled to get the taller girl upright.

“Mina-chan,” Michiru’s voice was soft. “Let’s get her off the street, okay?” The three girls moved in slowly, as Mina lifted a tear-stained face.

“Okay.”

Between them, they wrestled the street fighter onto the sidewalk, where she lay with her head on Mina’s lap, not moving.

After a few nerve-wracking minutes, Maki’s chest suddenly rose and fell more strongly, and she groaned.

“She’s awake!” Renge cried out to passers-by who pretended not to see the scene. “She’s alive!”

“Maki-chan? Are you able to move?” Michiru prodded Maki’s arm, until Yuu slapped her hand away.

“Yeah,” Maki’s voice was barely intelligible with her lips so broken, but she nodded slightly, then moaned. “Yeah, I can move.”

“We should get you to a hospital.” Yuu said firmly.

“No,” Maki’s voice was stronger now. “I just want to go home.”

“I’ll take you home, Maki-chan,” Mina said and shot her friends a look that brooked no argument.

***

“Whaddaya want?” The girl’s voice was rough and deep, as if at 14 she’d already smoked a lifetime of cigarettes.

“Um…I saw you fight yesterday. In the alley behind the movie theater. You were pretty good.”

“Yeah? So?”

“Teach me to fight like that.” Maki looked straight into the older girl’s eyes, hands clenched by her side.

Mori’s face split into a slow, unpleasant smile. “Come on then, show me what you got.”

***

They took a taxi, despite Maki’s protests. Mina didn’t want the other girl moving any more than she absolutely had to. She had the cab stop in front of a pharmacy, ran in for supplies, then had him speed his way unsafely through the traffic towards Maki’s manse.

***

Maki stood in the doorway, panting with the effort of moving. “Um, thanks, Mina-chan, but I can take it from…”

“I’m not leaving.” Mina slipped under Maki’s arm and stood in the small apartment, her arms folded firmly across her chest.

Maki tried to scowl, but her split lips and swollen cheeks didn’t allow for much motion.

“Get your clothes off and I’ll clean you up,” Mina demanded.

Maki’s face was burning from the pain, but she was pretty sure she felt it burn hotter at this. “No, really, Mina-chan, I’ve been hurt before. I can do it.”

Mina hadn’t moved. One arm pointed towards the bathroom. “Go.”

Maki acquiesced, hunching into herself. She tried not to notice how messy she had left the apartment, hoping like hell Mina wouldn’t notice, either.

Undressing was slow and excruciating. The shower hurt bad enough that she cut it short and slouched back into the room, not willing to meet Mina’s eyes or think about her robe clutched awkwardly around her body. She hadn’t been able to get it over her shoulders. To distract herself from her embarrassment, Maki let her gaze roam around the small space, letting out an audible groan when she realized that Mina had washed the dishes in the sink.

“Are you all right?” Mina came over, reaching out solicitously. “You probably should go to the hospital, you know.”

“No, no, I’m fine. Just some bruises…maybe a rib or something.” Maki started to lower herself into a sitting position, but quickly thought better of it. She ended up standing awkwardly by her bed. “I’m used to it, really.”

Mina shot her a look, half worried, half disapproving. “Let me get your injuries bandaged up.” Mina retrieved the first aid supplies she had bought. She pulled out antibiotic wipes and bandages, then looked up at the embarrassed redhead. “I can’t reach you from here. You’ll have to sit down.” Mina smiled gently. “Once you lay down, you won’t have to get up again, I’ll get anything you need.” When Maki hesitated, Mina said, “It’s all right, you know, I’ve taken classes in first aid and nursing.” The confident tone with which the dark-haired girl made this last pronouncement was enough to convince Maki that she would be better off with the help than without.

With Mina’s assistance, Maki lowered herself gingerly onto her bed. The last movement was too much; she reached across her abdomen with a loud grunt. “Damn it. I think I broke a rib.” The effort of speaking through the pain made her pant.

“First things first, let me get your face done, then I’ll wrap your ribs.” Mina’s fingers moved softly over Maki’s face, probing gently, causing discomfort, but no real pain. “It’s not so bad,” she pronounced at last. “It’s all swollen, but I don’t think anything’s broken. Let me get some antibiotic cream on it and bandage it up. You’ll probably be fine in a few days.” The cream was cool against Maki’s skin. Maki closed her eyes and let Mina play nurse. It wasn’t long before she could feel the other girl lean away.

“It isn’t pretty, but it’ll be fine,” Mina repeated, pleased with herself. When she saw the look on Maki’s face, however, she flushed with embarrassment. “I didn’t mean that! I meant that with the bandages and all…” Mina’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”

Maki reached out to capture one of Mina’s hands, and her attention with it. “It’s okay, Mina…I know what you mean.” Maki looked away quickly. “Anyway, I know I’m not pretty.”

“But you are!” Mina said admiringly. “I mean, I always thought so. You looked really good in your bathing suit and it’s not like you look like that woman who beat you up – *she* was ugly.” But the words petered out, when Mina realized that Maki’s eyes were tearing up.

Mina grabbed a handful of gauze and wiped away the tears that squeezed past Maki’s swollen eyelids. “I’m sorry…” she tried again.

“No, no, really, it’s not what you think.” Maki paused, then took the gauze to her eyes once more. “It’s nothing.” Mori hadn’t been the first to comment that she wasn’t good-looking…she knew Mina was attracted to her, but it still boggled that she’d actually find her attractive. Maki took a deep breath but cried out, reaching for her ribs once more, glad for the distraction from her fragile emotional state.

Immediately Mina became efficient. “Let’s get that wrapped up and get you to sleep. You need time to heal.” She reached for Maki’s robe, but the bigger girl swatted her hand away.

“No way. I’ll do it.”

“I’ll do it.” Mina’s childish voice took on a surprisingly firm tone.

“No, c’mon. Just leave…hey, let go! Ow!” Maki tried to stop the other girl, but hampered as she was by poor eyesight, limited mobility and sharp pains throughout most of her body, she lost the fight. Even her ears were blushing as Mina removed her robe, revealing a severely bruised upper torso.

“Oh no, poor Maki-chan….” Mina murmured, as she passed her hands above the darkening spots all over the other woman’s arms, shoulders and chest. She was glad that Maki’s eyesight wasn’t very reliable, because she knew she was blushing fiercely as the sight of Maki’s naked body, but she forced herself to pay attention to the more important matter of dressing her wounds.

It took some time, as Mina had little experience in such matters, but she knew the basics well enough. Although it seemed an eternity, eventually Maki’s injuries were all treated and her ribs carefully wrapped. Mina handed Maki a clean t-shirt, and excused herself to the bathroom, to allow the other girl some privacy to salve her wounded ego.

Mina stared at herself in the mirror, not at all surprised that her entire face was red. She splashed cold water over her hands, then slapped herself sharply on each cheek. It wasn’t like she hadn’t thought about Maki in this way (and she had certainly made it plain enough to Maki practically since the day they met)…it’s just that she hadn’t ever expected to actually *be* this close to her. It was nice, but also horribly embarrassing.

“Uh, Mina-chan?” Maki’s voice was muffled.

“Yes?” Mina opened the door, then closed it again quickly. Maki was standing, half-dressed, in the middle of the small room.

“I’m stuck.”

Mina opened the door slowly, staring fixedly at the other wall, only looking at Maki from out of the corner of her eyes.

“Help?” Maki’s voice came from within the confines of a sleeveless t-shirt. “Soon?” The redhead’s arm was stuck half through the sleeve hole of the shirt, and she groaned with pain.

Mina leapt to Maki’s rescue and helped her injured arm through the sleeve, then pulled the shirt down around her head. Maki leaned heavily on the shorter girl, panting once again with the effort of dressing.

“Sorry,” she gasped. “And thanks.”

Shaking her head, Mina took the injured arm and slung it gingerly over her shoulders. “You should get in bed, Maki-chan, and get some sleep. Do you have any painkillers?”

“Nah, I don’t believe in ‘em.” Maki grunted as she sat on the small bed. “I’ll be okay. Thanks.” She debated asking Mina to stay, but decided that was asking too much. “You’d better get home now, I guess.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Mina blurted out unexpectedly. “I’m not leaving you tonight. You can barely move – what if you need help?” She stalked the three steps over to the kitchen area and rummaged through a cabinet. “I’m making you some tea. Do you have food in the house?” Her lips were tight with resolve.

“Um, yah.” Maki watched her, amused and amazed at Mina’s hidden strength. “In the fridge.” She found it a little frightening, to see Mina so strong – she was usually so passive. But some part of Maki was enjoying the sensation and the rest was too exhausted to fight. After all, it was usually she who helped Mina out of a tough situation – it would be nice to have Mina take care of her for once.

Mina’s motions became more confident as she cooked an omelet, deftly folding it and sliding it onto a plate. Grabbing up a fork, she stepped back to the bedside, where she knelt, cut a slice of the omelet and held it out to Maki. “Open up.”

“I can feed myself, you know!” Maki exclaimed, reaching out for the fork, but recoiling quickly from the pain in her ribs. “Okay, maybe not.” She made to open her mouth wide, but her lips cracked and began to bleed. Defeated, she sighed unhappily.

“Maki-chan, just let me help you, please?” Mina spoke quietly, almost apologetically. Maki nodded, torn between relief and misery. Mina fed the other girl slowly, alternating tea and omelet, until both were gone.

“I feel ridiculous, you know?” Maki shook her head ruefully. “It’s not like I haven’t been injured before. I managed for myself, then.”

“But you didn’t have a choice. This time I’m here to help you.”

“Yeah,” Maki smiled through the bandages. “I guess so.” Her face fell as something occurred to her. “Well, I guess I’m looking forward to another rotten birthday.”

Mina, who had brought the plate and cup to the sink, looked over at the redhead in surprise, covering her mouth with her hands as she remembered the package she had dropped.

“Oh, no!” she cried. “Your present!” Tears welled in her eyes at the thought of Maki-chan’s birthday present, lying in ruins in the street. “Oh, Maki-chan…I…” she sniffled. “I wanted to get you something special, but I didn’t know what to get and you don’t talk much about yourself, so all I could think of was a teddy bear kit. I was going to make it myself, for you.” Tears spilled down her cheeks at the thought of her failure to make Maki-chan’s birthday special.

Maki watched Mina through eyes that were burning and bleary. “You were going to make a teddy bear for me?” her voice was rough, more from emotion than the earlier beating.

Wiping her eyes, Mina nodded unhappily. “And now it’s gone. I’m so sorry, Maki-chan.”

The redhead said nothing. Mina looked up at the other girl, worried.

“It’s okay, Mina-chan,” Maki said, at last, her voice sounding as tired as she felt. “I appreciate the thought.” She felt dizzy. Her body hurt in more places than she could name; her old sempai, a woman she had once respected, if never liked, had inflicted the damage, and she was likely to be grounded for days if not weeks. But the thing that really bothered her was the thought of Mina crying, because she couldn’t make Maki a teddy bear for her birthday. Maki’s throat felt very tight.

“Your face is all flushed,” Mina reached up, laying a hand on Maki’s forehead. “You’re not feverish, but you need to get some sleep. Wait right here.” She got to her feet, her breasts jiggling directly in front of an already dizzy Maki.

Maki closed her eyes against the vision and tried hard to think of anything else. But the image of her head, resting comfortably against that chest, filled her mind, absurd as she knew it was. Even if the other girl was always holding onto her, hugging her, it wasn’t like it was *real* or anything. It was just a silly crush.

“Mina-chan?” Maki managed after a few false starts. “Why don’t you take the bed? I can sleep on the floor.” She braced herself for the storm that arrived a mere moment later.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Mina exclaimed, her hands on her hips. “I’ll take the floor….” Words flashed through her mind – words that were supposed to have hurt. An idea popped into her head. “Unless…” she ventured tentatively.

“Unless?” Maki found herself hunching against whatever the other girl was going to suggest, sure it would be too mortifying to survive. Or too close to what she wanted for herself, too close to having Mina there….

Mina laughed uncomfortably, her cheeks once again scarlet. “Nothing.”

“No, c’mon, what were you going to say?” Perversely, Maki now wanted to know.

“Really, it was nothing.” Mina started to turn away, but the larger girl reached out with her less-injured arm to stop her.

“Mina-chan?”

The dark-haired girl wouldn’t look at her, but Maki kept her grip firm.

“That woman who hurt you – after she knocked you out – she told me that I had a…”her voice faltered, but Mina forced herself to finish. “…a big chest and that you would like laying on it while you recovered.” The last words were half-sobbed.

Maki’s hand slipped from Mina’s arm. “Oh.” Maki rubbed her face with her hand; she felt beyond exhausted. “She said that, huh?” She started to grimace, but her face hurt in too many places and her lip threatened to split once more. “I’m just going to have to kill her, I guess.”

Mina still stood facing away, her shoulders shaking just perceptibly. Maki, with much effort, stood to her full height and laid a hand on the other woman’s shoulder, leaning into it to steady herself. She felt ready to pass out.

“Hang on a sec.” Keeping her grip on Mina’s shoulder for balance, Maki opened the closet and pulled out a shirt. “Here. You can wear this. It’s my father’s.” She leaned back, swaying slightly.

Mina turned quickly, catching Maki under the elbow and lowering her slowly to a sitting position. She took the shirt without a word and retreated to the bathroom.

When Mina returned, her face looked hastily scrubbed and she was wearing the over-size shirt. Maki could see that it was too long by almost half a foot, but still not wide enough across the chest for the other girl. Maki closed her eyes, but the room spun and she opened them quickly.

“I’ll get in first, then you can…” Mina’s voice was barely a whisper.

It was all Maki could to do to grunt in response. She could feel the movement as Mina crawled into her bed and settled herself, but black spots were swimming in front of her eyes and it felt like something happening far away.

“Maki…chan…” Mina’s voice drew her back from the brink once more. Maki could feel herself being lowered to the bed, her head resting on something soft; then nothing else, except the vague sensation of unusual warmth and unreasonable comfort.

***

“Not bad, kiddo.” Mori ran a hand across her face, smearing the blood that poured from her nose.

“So, are you going to teach me or not?” Maki cradled one arm in the other, trying not to show any weakness.

“Yeah, sure.” The older girl nodded, unsmiling. “I guess I can teach ya one or two things about street fighting.”

***

When Maki awoke, she was alone. The sun had climbed high enough to shed light into her little room. She shielded her eyes from the glare, but her vision wasn’t clear enough to see if she was alone. Sitting up slowly and carefully in her bed, Maki listened for any noise in her apartment. After a few moments punctuated only by traffic and train sounds, she decided she was alone after all.

One arm was swollen and bruised, but functional. The other wasn’t moving. Maki prodded a bit, trying to determine if it was broken. Some slow, painful motions indicated that it wasn’t, but it hurt like hell. The redhead took inventory. Her legs were scraped, but otherwise unharmed; she couldn’t take a deep breath because of her ribs. By moving slowly, she was able to get herself cleaned up and mostly dressed. The right arm would be fine in a few days, but the other would take longer. And her face…Maki turned away from the mirror. It wasn’t like she was ever going to win a beauty contest anyway.

The door opened and Mina entered, carrying several bags. Maki took the one from between the dark-haired girl’s teeth, receiving a thankful smile in return.

“Good morning! I’m sorry I wasn’t here when you woke up,” Mina began. She pivoted to close the door with an elbow. “I wanted to get a few things.” She smiled brightly at the redhead. “You look much better today!”

Maki smiled back, bemused. “What’s in here?” She opened the bag and peered in. All she could make out were some random vegetables and a box whose label she couldn’t read.

“Just some ingredients for soup, more first aid supplies and a few things for me. Since I’m going to be here for a while.” Mina beamed at her friend happily.

“A while?” Maki asked.

“Mmm. You’re too injured to do much on your own, and,” Mina looked away quickly, “you don’t keep much food on hand, so I thought…”

Maki kept silent from sheer surprise. A while? Sharing her small apartment with someone else? “But…” she took a deep breath, “but what about your family? Don’t they wonder where you are?”

Mina closed the refrigerator, and started on emptying another bag. “I told them I was taking care of a sick friend.”

“Oh.” Maki didn’t know what to say to that.

“Soup will be ready in a little while,” Mina said cheerfully. “Why don’t you have a nap and I’ll wake you up when it’s done.”

She wanted to say that she didn’t need a nap, that she had just woken up, but Maki’s arm was aching and her head seemed very heavy. As if the mere mention of the word ‘nap’ was enough to set her off, she crawled into bed and was asleep seconds after her head hit the pillow.

***

Maki landed lightly on her feet, Mori just scowled. The girl was good – almost as good as she was.

“Am I ready yet?” Maki asked, turning to face Mori.

“Nah, I don’t…” Mori stopped. She looked hard at her “student.”

Maki had grown a lot in the last few months. She now stood head and shoulders over the older girl. But one thing hadn’t changed. No matter how hard Mori pushed her, not matter how hard she beat her, Maki had always came back, tougher than before, ready to take the hits and learn the moves. She stood proudly, glowing with energy and youth.

Mori’s lips curled back. “Yeah,” she said. “You’re ready.”

***

“…aki-chan, Maki-chan. Soup’s ready. Are you awake?” Mina’s gentle voice and the smell of simmering vegetables brought Maki gradually back to consciousness.

“Can you feed yourself today?” Mina asked pleasantly. “You managed to dress.”

Maki nodded and swung her legs over the side of the bed. She reached up to take the bowl and chopsticks from Mina’s hand, their fingers briefly touching. Mina blushed, but said nothing. Maki set the bowl on her knee, and looked up at the other girl.

“Have I thanked you yet?” Maki couldn’t remember if she had. “For helping me and cooking and everything.”

Mina turned with a smile. “It’s my pleasure, Maki-chan.” She seemed about to say something else, but turned back to serve herself some of the soup. She joined Maki on the bed and they intoned grace and ate.

By the time Maki had finished her meal, she felt much better. Always a fast healer, she could now safely say that a week would see her at 80%; two weeks and she’d be fine, as long as she didn’t get hurt again in the meantime. But that meant a few more weeks of retraining before she could get back on the streets. Maki rubbed her neck above the injured arm, pressing into the muscle knots. She could feel Mina shift on the bed.

“Let me do that for you.”

“Uh, no that’s o…” Maki’s voice petered out as the other girl’s fingers began to press into her back, tentatively, then more strongly. She moaned softly with pleasure. “That feels really good.”

Mina said nothing, but her ministrations became a little surer.

Maki found herself wondering if this was what having a wife was like. Someone to clean her room, make her meals, tend her wounds. She had to admit, it wasn’t a bad feeling. She turned around, one hand coming up to grab Mina’s wrist.

“Mina-chan,” Maki began, but found the words sticking in her throat. Mina looked up at her, surprised. “Mina,” she tried again. Mina’s large brown eyes were wide, looking up at her, waiting. She opened her mouth to tell Mina to stop, to ask the other girl to leave for her own good, but instead, she leaned forward and placed a kiss lightly on her forehead. “Thank you.”

Mina’s eyes went soft and her hands moved to Maki’s shoulders. Lifting her head, she pressed her lips against Maki’s. When she pulled away, her hands moved to cover her face, but Maki stopped them.

“You can’t say it was a piece of rice this time,” Maki said quietly.

“And you can’t say it wasn’t a real kiss,” Mina said seriously.

She squeezed Mina’s hand and stood, smiling slightly. “No,” she said, “you’re right. I can’t say that.”

***

Maki looked down at her opponent, who lay spread-eagled on the street. She looked up when a large hand clapped her hard on the shoulder.

“Good job. You’re getting pretty strong. I think you’re ready for the big time.” Mori smiled up at Maki.

***

It was Sunday.

Neither of them had any commitments, and the day passed quietly. Maki spent her waking hours stretching and exercising every muscle that could be moved without agony. Mina alternated her time between preparing and serving food, redoing Maki’s dressings and reading. When night came, they lay in bed, Maki’s head resting on Mina’s chest once again, and slept.

***

It was late, Maki was tired. She’d had a long day at school, and an ever longer one training with Mori. She was hungry and tired and ready for a hot shower.

Preoccupied as she was, she didn’t notice the footsteps.

***

Almost a week had passed. Maki’s bruises began to purple; her muscles protested, but most now functioned properly. Under Mina’s care, her ribs and arm were recovering nicely.

Mina reported daily on the activities of their friends. Yuu, Michiru and Renge all had requested time to stop by, but Maki was oddly reluctant to allow them to see her. Oh, she justified it to herself; telling herself, and Mina, that she didn’t want them to see her all bruised and beaten. But the truth was, she didn’t exactly know why she didn’t want them coming over, except for a vague feeling that she just wanted things to stay the way they were. Sort of private, except for Mina being there. Some part of her – a large part of her – liked it this way and wanted it to stay like this as long as possible.

They had a routine of a sort, now. Most days, Mina was gone by the time Maki woke up. Breakfast would be waiting on the counter, usually with a little note of encouragement. After the first morning, Maki had begun saving the notes, sticking them in her desk drawer, tucking them out of sight underneath an envelope.

Mina would return in the early afternoon, with news from the others, and food, or more medicine or bandages; sometimes a little item or two that Maki had always meant to get, but had never had the time or money. Maki protested, embarrassed that Mina was forced to buy a scrub brush for the pots, or a decent alarm clock, but Mina simply refused to discuss it at all.

***

The first one was big and strong, but Maki was sure she could take him. But then he was joined by a second, and a third and her confidence dropped. Nonetheless, she stood firmly on both feet.

“Looking for a fight?” she asked pleasantly.

The three shook their heads slowly. “We’re not here to fight. We’re here to deliver a message.”

Maki cocked her head at them, waiting.

The big one on the front made a fist and held it up. “Mori says, ‘Go to Hell.’”

***

Another week slipped by.

Maki rolled her shoulders, grimacing at the pain. Both arms were now mobile, but her flexibility was gone and her strength non-existent. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to complete a series of stretches in both arms, then kneeled carefully to pull her weights from beside her bed. Only…they weren’t there. She felt around blindly, but found nothing.

“Mina-chan?” Maki asked, debating whether to lie down and look, then deciding against it as the bandages around her ribs squeezed until she was short of breath. “Have you seen my weights?”

“In the closet on the rack.” Mina didn’t look up from the recipe she was following.

Maki’s brows furrowed at this. As she pulled open the closet, she was saying, “I don’t have a…” She stopped when the door opened fully, presenting her with a compact weight rack, all the levels filled neatly with her weights…and a few she didn’t remember having before. “Oh.” She grabbed the lightest weights and started in on a few agonizing reps.

But now, as she looked around the tiny apartment, she saw things differently. The closet held not only her own sparse wardrobe, but also dresses and shoes that were most certainly not her own. And the bottom drawer of her dresser was, she knew, full of Mina’s personal items. She was sure that that picture on the wall hadn’t been hung a week ago – although she had been meaning to get it up on the wall for weeks. And the teacup that sat on the desk matched the teacup on the counter. Maki was pretty sure she had never owned any cups and saucers with a pattern at all, much less one that matched.

As she completed a third, and incredibly painful set, Maki realized that in a few weeks Mina had almost completely changed her entire life. Maki replayed the times they had spent together before this…Mina telling Sakamoto Juliet that they were lovers, Mina sitting on her lap at the wrestling arena, Mina in her arms after the prolonged battle with the Black Alliance…and now, Mina in this little flat, where Maki had lived, alone, for years.

The weights were lowered to her side. Maki just stood and stared at the other girl’s back, as she realized with some surprise that she didn’t mind, really, at all. In fact, despite her injuries, this was, perhaps, the happiest two weeks of her life.

Mina hummed tunelessly as she cooked, unaware of the epiphany occurring behind her. When Maki’s arms slipped around Mina’s waist, the brunette yelped with surprise. Then she felt Maki’s head against her back.

“Maki-chan?” Mina asked tentatively. Her heart began to pound so hard she was afraid Maki could feel it.

“Mina-chan….” Maki’s voice was husky. “Thank you for taking care of me.”

Mina forced a light laugh. “It’s my pleasure. Maki-chan. After all, you saved me from the Black Alliance, and you’re always so nice to me…you never make me feel strange, even when I do strange things like sit on your lap, or tell people that we’re lovers…” She laughed again, nervously.

“I liked it when you sat on my lap,” Maki said quietly.

They stood in silence, frozen in the moment, for a long time. The pot on the stove began to boil, but Mina didn’t move until the liquid threatened to overflow. She reached out to turn the range off.

“Maki-chan,” Mina spoke carefully, tentatively. Her chest hurt and she was having trouble breathing, as her heart continued to beat unpredictably. “Do you like me?”

Maki stood up at that, her arms loosening their grip, but not letting go. ‘Yes, of course I do. We’re friends.”

Mina stiffened slightly. “Friends?” Her voice quavered, despite her growing resolve.

“Well, I mean, good friends, really.”

“Good friends.” Mina repeated her words quietly. “Maki-chan,” she turned where she stood, forcing Maki to let go of her and step back slightly. “I love you.”

Maki didn’t respond. She hoped her face wasn’t as red as it felt, but with her coloring, she feared it was worse than that. The words, so long understood, were still a surprise to actually hear spoken.

“I, uh…” Maki moved her mouth, but nothing further suggested itself.

Mina took a step closer, now once again within arm’s length. Maki forced herself not to step back away from the other girl. Mina took a deep breath, her immense chest practically touching Maki’s stomach. “I love you,” she repeated, her voice breaking. “I want to be with you, to take care of you. I love you, Maki-chan!” She threw herself at the taller girl, wrapping her arms around Maki’s waist.

Maki found herself holding a sobbing Mina, comforting the other girl, while she simultaneously tried to sort out her own feelings. She wasn’t entirely sure what she felt, but she knew she didn’t want Mina crying, or letting go of her…or leaving. As she stared down at the dark head, a vague idea that had been flitting through her mind suddenly crystallized into a concrete thought.

“Mina-chan,” she said at last, “why don’t you move in with me? At least, until you can’t stand me anymore.”

***

Maki’s eyes focused slowly. Her head hurt terribly, so did most of the rest of her body. She tried to remember where she was and how she got here, but all she could see was tall buildings reaching up into a sky too bright to look at.

“Got my message, I see.” A deep, unfriendly laugh brought Maki’s attention to her left. She could make out jeans and boots. She couldn’t see the face, but she knew the voice well.

“Sem…pai?” Maki choked. Her throat was dry and sore.

“Stop calling me that, you stupid piece of shit!” Mori pulled back one steel-tipped foot and launched a kick into Maki’s side. “What is *wrong* with you? I beat you up every friggin’ day and all you can do is smile at me? I slam your head into the pavement and you jump up like you’re the Queen of the fuckin’ Universe!” Mori kicked Maki again. “I’m not your friend, you idiot – I’m not your “sempai.” I’m the person who wants you dead. Got that? Do you?” The last lines were punctuated with fresh kicks.

Maki moaned into a foul-smelling trash bag.

“Do you get it now, kiddo? I hate your freaking guts! Do us all a favor and just die, okay? No one wants an ex-gymnastics Queen around. You’re not cute, you’re not sweet – you’re just another piece of unwanted trash.”

***

The day passed slowly, with few words to break up the tension. As night approached the few words became none.

Maki made the first move. “I guess,” she said suddenly over dinner, “we should get the bandages off.” She gestured to her abdomen, her face already pinking.

Mina started to reply, then realized what that entailed. Her face reddened in answer to Maki’s. “Do you think it’s been long enough? Will your ribs be healed enough?”

Maki smiled reassuringly. “I think so.”

After dinner, Maki, with some assistance from Mina, got undressed. She breathed slowly, as deeply as the wrappings would allow, trying not to let embarrassment overwhelm her. Mina took her time, carefully removing the stiff tape and bandages, trying not to hurt the redhead, trying not to let her heart fly out of her chest.

When Maki was eventually free of her binding, she inhaled carefully, noting the only mild pain and discomfort at the end of the breath. She lifted her arms to the front, then the sides, and relaxed, satisfied that she was well on the road to full recovery. She turned to thank the other girl, but was met with a stare so round-eyed that the words died on her lips.

“Wait here,” was all Mina said, and she disappeared into the bathroom before Maki even had a chance to respond.

A few moments later, Mina reappeared, once again clad in the man’s shirt she had worn on the first night. Maki smiled at that – Mina had since taken to wearing her own nightgowns, very ladylike things that fit her much better than this old castoff. But still, somehow, Maki thought she looked better in this.

Mina sat down on the bed next to the taller girl and gently put out a hand. Maki had felt Mina’s touch before, when she was tending her wounds, and once or twice before that, but there was a very different feeling this time. A very different atmosphere in the room, too.

Mina breathed a soft sigh. “Lovely.”

For her part, Maki was staring at the open collar of the shirt Mina wore. The dark-haired girl had left the top three buttons open, revealing an impressive cleavage that left Maki nearly paralyzed with terror.

Now it was Mina’s turn and she knew it. “You can touch me, if you want.” Her voice was barely audible, also obviously terrified.

Maki was slightly reassured by this. She groaned out loud as her hands met the soft, pliant flesh, then groaned again, as Mina’s hands traced their way down her own chest. She grabbed at Mina’s hands as they moved away, bringing them back to her skin.

The next several hours were tentative and awkward and achingly sweet. They set boundaries on their intimacy, only to push the boundaries aside as curiosity won over fear.

They made love, but did not have sex that night, nor the next day. There was too much in between them and that particular act. Mina had a lifetime of embarrassment to move past, and Maki had years of loneliness to get beyond. They took turns reassuring each other until both embarrassment and loneliness were sufficiently distant.

***

It was nighttime. Maki followed the sound of the crowd until she found what she was looking for. A loose circle of humanity that defined a ring. In the ring stood two figures; one with arms crossed, one swaying lightly on his feet. The latter lurched forward a step, then another, then, swaying once again, crashed to the ground to the roar of the crowd.

The first figure lifted up an arm in victory, turning as she celebrated. “Any of you assholes feel like fighting tonight?” Mori nudged the unconscious figure with a boot. “This one wasn’t even a challenge.”

Maki stepped forward into the ring. “I’ll fight you.” She smiled coldly. “I have a reply to your last message and I wanted to hand deliver it.”

***

For three days, they stayed in bed, leaving only for necessary interruptions and occasional meals. As each day passed, they grew more comfortable with themselves and each other, speaking of their lives when they weren’t learning about each other’s bodies.

Sleep, when it came, was deep and dreamless for both women.

***

Maki stood on the railing, balanced precariously against the buffeting wind. She closed her eyes for a brief second and let the air hold her up – then she flew.

***

The knock on the door was followed by another, sharper knock, and a third, pounding noise.

Mina was up first, dressing sloppily, still half asleep.

She answered the door automatically. “Yes, hello?” She yawned and rubbed her eyes.

The door swung open and Yuu stepped into the doorway. Her mouth was open in greeting when she stopped where she stood, and gaped. Taking in Mina’s unevenly buttoned man’s shirt and Maki’s mostly naked form visible upon the bed. Yuu’s face split into a huge grin.

“Way to go, Mina-chan!” she said energetically. “I see you got Maki-chan something special after all.”

Mina’s face flamed, but she decided to brazen it out. Holding her head high she retorted, “I told you it should be something that made her feel like a girl.”

Yuu snorted at that and chuckled. “Well ya got us beat on that.” She gestured to the slowly awakening form of Maki. “We brought a party for Maki, but we’ll go for a short walk around the block, so you guys can get dressed. Don’t take too long, the ice cream’s already melting.” Taking hold of Renge, who was trying to push past Mina, and nudging Michiru with another snort, Yuu turned and led the other two away.

Mina turned to find a mortified Maki sitting up in bed, clutching the blanket to her. A crooked smile broke across her face at the sight of Mina’s rumpled form. “I guess we’d better get dressed,” she said.

***

This was it, she knew. The killing blow. Mori, already unsteady, was no match for the flurry of kicks that Maki launched at her. Face, body, arms, legs – Mori was defeated and she knew it. Through swollen eyes, she glared her hatred at her “student,” even as she fell to the ground.

Maki landed on one foot, arms outstretched, head back. Her breathing was deep and even and she felt better than she had in months, than since her mother died. She stepped forward, standing just over Mori, then leaned down to address her sempai.

“I think I said all I have to say.” Maki stood and walked away.

Mori struggled to her knees, calling after Maki to wait. The redhead paused but did not turn.

Mori coughed, and spit blood. “This conversation isn’t over yet,” she rasped. “Next time I’ll have the last word.”

Saying nothing, Maki walked away from the scene. Behind her, she could hear the whispers. “She flew,” they said. “They call her Air Master.”

***

By the time the three girls returned, now accompanied by Sakiyama Kaori, Shinnosuke and other recent enemies-turned-friends, Maki and Mina had at least put the apartment in some semblance of order.

Yuu led the procession into the tiny apartment, forcing Maki and Mina against the wall, as the space filled with far too many people.

“So,” Yu-chan began with a ceremonious clearing of her throat. “While none of us will ever be able to rival Mina’s present to you, we wanted to present you, Maki-chan, with this gift for your birthday.” She held out a largish, rectangular item, wrapped in fine rice paper.

Maki accepted the gift, completely taken by surprise. She unwrapped the parcel carefully, and peeled the paper back.

“We really hope you like it,” Yuu said, leaning forward to catch Maki’s reaction, “because they cost us a fortune on an online auction.”

“I’m,” Maki hesitated, staring down at the thing, “I’m speechless.” She held up the frame, so Mina and everyone else could see the three prints. On the left Maki hung in mid-spin, the buildings that framed the picture black against the bright sky; in the center, she was suspended in the camera mid-kick, her opponent no more than a blur of color. The photo on the right showed Maki making a perfect landing, arms outstretched, a beatific look of accomplishment upon her face.

Mina burst into tears. “That’s beautiful,” she exclaimed. “You’re beautiful!” And she threw her arms around Maki’s neck, blubbering into it. Maki grinned, her face the usual red, but she didn’t try to move the weeping girl from her position.

“Thank you,” she said to her friends, her voice rough with emotion. “Thank you.”

Sakiyama Kaori stepped up and thrust a hastily wrapped box at Maki, not meeting her eyes. “Don’t think that this means we’re friends,” she muttered through clenched teeth. “I just want you to get better so we can fight again.”

Maki smiled and thanked her for the gift, promising that she’d beat Kaori down anytime.

Shinnosuke stepped up, a flush spreading up his neck to his ears. He stared at Mina, who was still draped around Maki’s neck and the flush deepened.

“Sorry, Shinnosuke-kun,” Yuu poked him in the ribs, “you’re out of the running.”

His eyes looking past her shoulder, Shinnosuke presented Maki with a gift and a formal wish for a happy birthday. This was followed by an antique wrestling mask from the Lucha Master, and a number of other tokens from street fighters she had defeated.

After presents, Renge happily broke out the treats they had brought; cake and ice cream and pastries, which they all shared, chatting about nothing and everything.

At some point, Maki removed her hand from Mina’s and gestured around the room, at her friends and the gifts and food, and said, “You know, I think this is the best birthday I’ve ever had.”

***

“When I got your message, I thought it was a joke.” Mori cracked her knuckles loudly. “You can’t possibly be back to 100 percent yet, and you want me to beat you up again? You aren’t just still ugly, you’re obviously still stupid, too.”

“Let’s just say that I’m motivated.” Maki’s eyes were hard, belying the smile on her face.

“Oh?” Mori’s eyebrows shot up. “What’s got your knickers in a twist this time?”

“You insulted one of my friends.”

“I insulted…oh, you mean the girl with the big knockers? That wasn’t hardly anything, I was just…” Mori’s hair whipped around wildly as she looked over at the crowd where Mina and the others stood. “Ooooohhh,” her ugly face split into its usual nasty sneer. “You mean your *particular* friend?”

“I mean,” Maki said quietly, but firmly, “that Mina-chan is my important friend and I won’t forgive your rudeness to her.”

Mori rolled her eyes. “Important friend, is it? Well, we wouldn’t want to insult your *important* friend, now, would we?” Her voice became even more mocking than usual, ending the sentence in a baby-ish voice. She spat on the ground and screwed one massive fist into the palm of the other hand. “I guess I just don’t feel like apologizin’ today, Maki.”

Maki’s eyes narrowed and her smile widened to something feral. “Good.”

The fight was instantly more brutal than anything any of the spectators had ever seen. Although many of them were hardened street fighters, most of whom had seen defeat at Maki’s hands, none could be sure of the outcome. Lucha Master confidently expressed the opinion that Maki would have to dig deep to win this. Reiichi, his fighting bicycle at his side, looked up at the older street fighter and shook his head. He wasn’t sure anyone had *that* deep to dig.

A tall dark-haired man in a purple suit stood next to Mina, calmly watching as Maki used the momentum of an uppercut aimed at her jaw to launch herself into a corkscrew that ended with a knee in Mori’s ribs. The blue- and black-haired woman grunted with the force of the impact, but remained on her feet, slamming an elbow fiercely into Maki’s temple.

Mina clenched her hands together and willed herself not to faint. “Come on, Maki-chan, you have to win.”

“Yes,” the dark-haired man said, looking down at Mina with a placid smile. “She must win so I can marry her.”

Mina looked indignant for split second, then her face relaxed. “I don’t think that’ll happen,” she said quietly and turned back to the fight.

Sakamoto Juliet then turned to the man to his left. “Why?”

“Why what?” Shinnosuke never took his eyes off the combatants.

“Why does this girl doubt that I’ll marry Maki-chan?”

Shinnosuke’s eyes wavered, then turned, sizing the man up. He laughed shortly and turned back to the fight. “Because you haven’t got what it takes.”

“But why?” Sakamoto grabbed yet another spectator.

Kaori shook his hand off her shoulder and grimaced at him. “Well, for one thing you’re a meat-head.” She thrust a clenched fist upwards, miming a punch. Maki’s fist mimicked the motion and connected with Mori’s solar plexus, which pushed the woman back several feet, her boots scraping against the asphalt.

“But…” Sakamoto Juliet never took ‘no’ for an answer. He had had rare occasion to do so. When Maki had refused his bed, he assumed it had been a fluke; that she’d come around in time. When she defeated him, he was only more convinced than ever that they were perfect for each other.

Yuu reached out and dragged Sakamoto to one side, “You’re blocking the view!” she growled, then shouted as Maki sent Mori flying across the street with a solid kick to the face.

Sakamoto Juliet looked around, but not a single person took note of his presence. They were all focused on the bloody battle on the street. Sakamoto Juliet looked around once again, then shrugged. Maki would be his, but first she had to win this fight.

Mori was quicker than she looked, Maki thought. Her former sempai intercepted a roundhouse kick, wrapping an arm around the knee and immobilizing the ankle. Pressing down on the joint, Mori forced Maki out of the air towards the ground, head first. But Maki executed a handspring into a walkover and Mori was flipped in mid-air. Mori retaliated by driving her elbow into the knee, causing enough pain that the redhead couldn’t land. Maki spun her other leg over and peeled Mori off by way of a foot to the side of the jaw.

The two fighters stood, wiping blood from their faces, smiling at each other.

“Not too bad for a piece of shit,” Mori said. “When I’m done with you, I think I’ll take your girlfriend home and screw her good. I bet you suck as bad in bed as you do on the street.”

Maki grinned at that. “I was wrong about you, sempai. One thing has changed – your mouth is even filthier than before.”

Mori’s face grew dark. “I told you to stop calling me that.” She threw herself forward.

But Maki was already up, and away. She climbed rapidly, using windowsills, signs, whatever a building had to lift her into the air. Her flight was magnificent; she soared, arms outstretched, pulling in closer and closer, until her spin was too rapid to watch.

Mori stood, one arm outstretched in an obscene gesture, as Maki plummeted towards her. Mori had one hand up, then two, to meet Maki’s spinning form as it fell from the sky.

Maki landed on the uplifted fists and came to a stop. So lightly and suddenly did her movement end, that it was a full three heartbeats before Mori though to move. For that second, Maki stood, poised upon Mori’s upraised fists. Then she was gone, and all Mori saw was an axe kick descending like a hand of god.

Mori went down, face first, into the cracked asphalt. Maki stood over her, arms crossed, waiting for the other woman to rise.

The redhead turned toward the crowd and, catching a brief smile from Mina, said. “This one’s for you, Mina-chan.” She reached down and lifted a struggling Mori and set her on her feet, holding one arm until she stopped swaying.

“Mori-sempai,” Maki said, completely seriously. “You taught me a lot. You taught me about street fighting, about going past your limits of pain and weakness. You taught me about perseverance. But,” Maki paused while the other woman focused hate-filled eyes on her. “Now I’ve surpassed you and you’re not much more than a trash-mouthed loser.”

The final kick settled deep into her solar plexus, lifting Mori off the ground, flinging her into a large trash dumpster in a corner of the alleyway. Maki walked over to the dumpster and dragged Mori’s nearly unconscious form out. Half carrying her, half dragging her, Maki threw Mori to the ground in front of Mina.

“Now, apologize to the lady,” Maki commanded, her eyes no more than thin slits in her face. “Then go away and never come back.”

“Ahb zoddy, razhy,” Mori murmured, then fell, completely unconscious, at Maki’s feet.

Mina leapt into Maki’s arms, and the redhead soon found herself surrounded by friends and well-wishers. As they headed out for some much-deserved beef bowls, Maki looked down at the girl on her arm and said, “Yeah. Now *this* was something special.”

Mina laughed and squeezed Maki’s arm, as they led the group down the street and away from the past.

 

The End