Splitting Hairs

The following story is from a fan fiction I wrote for the game City of Heroes, which has since been closed down. It was a great loss to the gaming community, and the writing community as well, as I’ve met a ton of awesome people thanks to CoH. While it would be wonderful if CoH would return, I treasure the memories and the creativity it engendered in me, allowing me the courage to not only create stories, but actually put them out for others to read. Please enjoy it.

With thanks to the original crew at Cryptic for allowing me to play in their universe, and to the RPC for allowing me to join their escapades in Paragon City.

 

In a gym in Kings Row, a man knelt in the middle of a mat. Dressed in a loose gi, he was surrounded by fourteen gaily colored balloons. Each was tied off a different height off the ground. A katana was at the man’s side, his hand on the sword’s handle. His breathing was slow, measured, steady as he gripped the handle a bit tighter. Without warning, the Kensei drew the blade and sliced through the center of each balloon. His focus never wavered as three wooden blocks sailed through the air at his head. The Blade of the Swordmasters made six more cuts, turning the three blocks into twelve smaller piece of wood. The miniature blocks tumbled to the ground more quickly than the pieces of rubber that had once been children’s party balloons. Never breaking his movement, the Kensei homed the sword as he knelt again. His breathing was no heavier than it was before the exercise began.

Three other men stepped forward into the harsh light of the practice mat. Each wore a similar look of admiration for the demonstration they had just witnessed. They knew

what the English translation of the Japanese word kensei was, and the sword master had proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

“Aye, twas verruh impressive, laddie,” Connor King said, his Scottish burr making him barely understandable. “Noo, ye mind tellin me wot me an these other bloke’re doin ere? I go things ta do.”

Removing the blindfold from his eyes as he stood, Kensei turned his head to the side quizically. “Sumimasen, Connor-san. I did not mean to cause you inconvenience. I am

merely indulging in my hobby.”

“Your hobby’s cutting up balloons and wood?” Takyon’s voice was aged by the armor he wore to be able to walk and fight injustice in Paragon City. “Buddy, you need to get out

more.”

The lone caped figure nodded. “Even I get out of this costume every now and again, even if it’s just to watch Springer.” Ralph the Skul smiled a bit more easily than he used to,

which softened the imposing seven feet tall frame he possessed. “Have you thought about cross-stitch?”

Connor chuckled. “I go a bitter question.” The archer tossed the swordsman a towel which was caught without looking. “Wot brought on this desire ta ave a obby?”

“A chance comment, Connor-san.” Kensei moved to a nearby bench and sat serenely. Though he had been kneeling for over three hours, his joints and muscles rode easily on

his bones. It had surprised his guests to find him kneeling as such when they had arrived fifteen minutes ago. It had surprised them more to find detailed instructions on what they were to do. The three men had finished setting up the balloons one minute before Kensei sprang into action. “Victrix Victoria-san had made mention that I needed a hobby.”

“The blonde in th CCCP?” Connor mused. “Aye, she’s someone ta listen to, if only ta watch er work.” A wry smile formed on his face. “So why’d she say that?”

“Apparently, she did not realize that my training from birth precluded me from idle pursuits.”

“So you’ve been doing this since you popped out? Do they make swords in munchkinsize?” Takyon laughed, his voice made tinny by the voice modulator in his armor. “No offense, Kensei, but I have a hard time seeing you as a kid.”

“I was learning to disembowel an enemy before I was properly trained in the use of a toilet, Takyon-san. When I was six, I graduated from a simple knife to the wakazashi. At

ten, I was using a katana. I received the Blade of the Swordmasters in my eighteenth year. My sensei did not see relevancy of idle pursuits.” There was no bitterness in the Kensei’s words; merely the statement of simple fact.

Connor, Takyon and Ralph felt some sympathy for Kensei. It was Connor who spoke next. “Wot aboot yer mum? Yer da? Surely they allowed ye some time ta be a kid.”

“Connor-san, we have known each other for years, yet you are unaware of so much of my past. Suffice it to say, my parents were no longer a concern after I was born. I never knew them, nor was I allowed to ask of them.”

“So why’d you bring us here? Besides the decorating, I mean,” Ralph said.

“I wish to gain a hobby that does not require swords or fighting. I beleive that this is what Vickie-san was speaking of.”

“Any ideas of what you want to do?” Ralph asked.

“I trust the judgement of the three of you, Ralph-san. If anyone can show me how to ‘get a life’, as the saying goes, you three are it.”

The small apartment used by the Skul brothers was located in Galaxy City near the exit to King’s Row. Bob, the squat muscle-bound brother, was out cold in his room, the snores brought on by four gallons of tequila reverbrating through the apartment. He never noticed when his tall lanky brother Ralph switched on the noise dampener he had had installed soon after moving in. A teddy bear was clutched loosely in Bob’s hands as he rolled over. As soon as the noise dampener activated, the sound of the snoring ceased.

Ralph looked in on his older brother and smiled. Bob never changed. He’d be awake in several hours, just in time to go out and find some trouble to get into. He had been that

way before the crossfire with the Skulls and Hellions, and the only change now was it took ten times the amount of alcohol to get him into a drunked stupor.

“Your brother sleeps soundly, Ralph-san,” Kensei said. He was in his civilian attire, which he looked not at all comfortable in. “He is well, I trust?”

“Hmm?” Ralph turned around. “Oh, yeah. Bob’s fine. He’s my big brother. He can handle anything.”

“Your big brother?” Kensei sounded dubious. “He is short.”

“I mean, he’s my older brother. Here, come on and have a seat.” Ralph shifted some of Bob’s clothes off a recliner in front of the television. “Sorry about the mess. Bob’s not

much of a housekeeper. Can I get you a drink?”

“Water will be fine.”

Talkative sort, isn’t he? Ralph laughed inwardly as he went to get water for his guest, a Mountain Dew for himself. Since his fusion with an alien Kheldian, Ralph had become

something he never really wanted to be: A hero. The young man smiled as he remembered seeing the squid-like thing burst through the hospital room window. He got

a glass from the cupboard and filled it with tapwater from the sink. “Ice?”

“Please.”

Ralph brought in the refreshments and turned on the television. “This is what I like to do in my downtime. I used to do a lot of it before the squid in my chest made me get up and beat up bad guys.”

“You have a squid in your chest?”

“Sort of. He’s a Kheldian, an alien race.”

“Ah. I am familiar with them. Please continue.”

“Well, I’d watch Springer alot. I look at it as entertainment, you know? The stuff you see on here… Well, you be the judge.”

From the first three minutes of the broadcast, Kensei knew he would not be able to be a watcher of television. He waited another four minutes before asking questions of his host. “That woman, Ralph-san…”

“Yeah?” The human/Kheldian fusion was engrossed, chuckling as the censors bleeped out five curse words by his count.

“She is a garden tool?”

“Huh? Oh, no, that’s slang for a whore.”

“A prostitute?”

“Yeah, but she’s not a whore. She just did the deed with her husband’s best friend, his dad, two guys he works with, his sister, three guys down at a bar she works at and a

pastor at her church.”

“‘Did the deed?'”

“Yeah, you know, had sex with ’em.”

“Ah.” A pause. “Why?”

Ralph paused at this. “Umm, well…” Thinking quickly, Ralph said the only thing that came to mind. “She likes to do it.”

“Ah.” The only noise in the apartment came from the television as the husband went after the father, who came back swinging. “Why are they fighting?”

“Well, that’s the dude’s dad. He got busy with his son’s wife.”

“Because she lay with him as a man lays with a woman.”

“Exactly.”

“Why are they doing this on television?”

“Ratings. Gotta make a paycheck somehow.”

Time passed, and Kensei became more and more sure that television was a tool of some global conspiracy to make idiots out of those who watched it and those who performed

on it. He sat through it stoically, pondering how the “fights” were not fights at all. He could see how they were staged. The women who appeared, while not unattractive, were

seemingly fools who latched onto men who were crass, crude and without any redeeming value. What to make of this “Jerry” person? He seemed to be more intelligent than

anyone else on his show, yet he asked the most inane and inflammatory questions. His “Final Thought”, which made quite a bit of sense, was a moment of peace after a

tumultuous show.

“So what did you think?” Ralph said. He was still laughing about one of the women guests who had her hair ripped off onstage.

“It was… educational, Ralph-san. I will have to think much on what I have seen.”

I will never watch television again, he inwardly shuddered. It will take many hours to cleanse this filth from my mind. “If you will excuse me, I must return to my home. I need to

sharpen my blade.”

“Sure, man. It was great having you over. Maybe next time we can watch some wrestling. Bob’s got me hooked on it. See, this guy…”

Kensei tuned him out. If he was going to find a hobby not involving violence, he would need to look elsewhere.

“You live here. You have… interesting decorations.”

This was an understatement, as Kensei was so fond of making. Sean McCarty, the hero known as Takyon, lived alone in a penthouse apartment, funded by his work with

exoskeletons that allowed parapeligics to walk, quadrapelegics to move at all and other medical uses of his designs, both great and small. Everywhere were framed prints of

heroes of Paragon City, anime characters and science-fiction television shows. Action figures dominated two bookcases, each still in their plastic cases. Four more bookcases

were filled with books of the fantasy and science-fiction genres. On one wall were two autographed pictures of the Statesman and Positron, given pride of place. Both men had

saved Sean’s life when he had gotten sick from chemicals in the water in his old neighborhood. On the opposite wall was a computer setup that would have made NASA

drool.

“Thanks, Kensei. Home sweet home.” Sean smiled and offered a chair to his guest. “So I guess TV isn’t for you, huh?”

“I did not enjoy it as much as some would. It was… difficult to understand.”

“Ah, that’s because non-interactive entertainment is on its way out. Over here? This is entertainment of the future!” Sean activated his computer screen, a monster that was

thirty-five inches diagonally. “Kensei, meet the internet.”

Kombon-wa,” the Kensei said, bowing to the monitor.

Shaking his head, Sean removed his helmet. “I meant that figuratively. Here, sit down and look up a few things on the Net while I put on my ‘at-home’ exoskeleton. This armor

can get tiresome sometimes.”

Hai. Arigato gozaimas.” Kensei sat at the keyboard, unsure of how to proceed. He typed into the search box “criminals still at large” and pressed enter. When he saw the hit

counter in the millions, he sighed. People did this for fun?

A few moments later, Sean came out in shorts and a t-shirt, the metal of his braces barely discernible on his legs. “Much better. Having fun?”

“I do not know, Sean-san.” Kensei peered at the words on the screen. “Why must I hit this picture of a monkey with a brown pile of—?”

“Whoa… Bad idea. That’s just an ad, man. Don’t take it seriously. Anyway, let me show you some cool places to go.”

“We are leaving?”

“I mean on the Net. You really don’t get out much, do you?” Sean began to type in addresses to places he frequented. “See, this is a political forum. Nothing new here. Just

this politician has his head where the sun doesn’t shine, that one walks on water. Kinda dull, if you’re not into politics.”

“I am not.”

“I figured as much. Here’s a good one I go to quite often. It’s the Statesman fansite. I post here alot. I met Statesman a few times.”

“You have fought at his side?”

“No way, man. He’s Captain Kirk, I’m just barely a red shirt.”

“You do not wear a red shirt.”

Sean laughed. “You really need to get out more. Anyway, here we have a good thread on a game forum. In the game, you’re a superhero.”

“You are already a superhero.”

“Yeah, but this doesn’t hurt as much when you get beat up. I played it a lot before I could get my exoskeleton built. It’s really fun. See, I play a guy who run really fast and jump

really high. His name’s Decathlon. He beats up bad guys and saves the world alot.”

“Is that not what you do already?”

“Yeah, but when I get hit, I’m not worried about my armor cracking or getting multiple lacerations from some torqued-off Tsoo. It’s a good way to relax for me.”

“Ah. What else do you do?”

“Well, he has a big honkin hammer that he pulls out of thin air and—“

“I meant you, not your… character.”

Sean looked sheepish. “Oh, sorry. Well, I download fan films by people who like certain shows. See, this one’s from Star Wars.” Sean started the movie. Two women with

glowing swords performed an intricate battle, though it seemed obviously staged to Kensei’s trained eye. Obvious openings were not taken advantage of and it dragged on for

five minutes longer than it had to be. “Pretty cool, huh?”

The Kensei attempted a smile. “Hai. I beleive I will have to ponder this ‘internet’, Sean-san.”

Kensei inwardly sighed. His search would have to continue elsewhere. He could not imagine sitting motionless in front of a screen for hours on end. It ran counter to

everything he was. Perhaps Connor would have the answer. He had one last question for his host.

“Sean-san, why did the picture of a barely-dressed woman wish to have my credit card number?”

Bright lights outside the club momentarily blinded Kensei as Connor King guided him towards the entrance. Kensei usually enjoyed Talos Island, though he had not been in this section before. The night was lit with neon, words leaping out into the air, announcing the names of clubs up and down the strip. Connor waved at those who shouted his name, smiling and laughing.

“Och, laddie, this is where ye needed ta be. Ye don’t need any o’er hobby than seein the nightlife.”

“I see enough nightlife on patrol, Connor-san.”

“Aye, but ‘ere, they won’t be tryin ta rip yer soddin ‘ead off. Hey, lad!” Connor said to the bouncer as he approached. “Kin I get myself and this strapping young lad in?”

“Mr. King.” The bouncer was over seven feet tall, and four feet wide. His hair was slicked back in a small ponytail and sunglasses covered his eyes. “A pleasure to see you

again. The wait is quite long, however.”

“Noo, ye knoo I nivver cause a fuss ‘r bother, lad. Kin ye get oos in as a favor ta me an my friends?”

“Friends, sir?”

“Me friend here an me friend Mr. Franklin.” The archer passed the bouncer a hundred dollar bill.

“Of course, sir. Right this way.” The bouncer removed the velvet rope and allowed the two men to enter.

Kensei felt rather overwhelmed. So many people around him, yet none were trying to harm him. People yelling and laughing, but in pleasure, not in madness or anger. His eyes adjusted to the dimness of the building. It was set up as a bar would be, with one notable exception.

“Connor-san?”

“Aye, lad?” Connor was looking for a pair of open spots near the exception. Finding two seats, he sat Kensei down next to him.

“What is the name of this place again?”

“The Helen A Go-Go.”

“What kind of establishment is it?”

“Ye’ll see, lad. Ye’ll see.”

The Kensei was about to ask again when a loud voice from the public address system blared, “And now, folks, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! She’s in town for one

night only from the Left Coast, and she’s been waiting to show her stuff to the folks of Paragon City! Please give it up for… Marlena van der Wahl!” Shouts and catcalls rang out as a perfectly proportioned woman slid out to the music.

Kensei recognized it as “You Shook Me All Night Long,” but could not remember the name of the perpetrators of that noise. Marlena wore scarcely anything at all as she backflipped across the stage. As she flipped a piece of her diminished clothing came off. It landed right on Kensei’s head. Slowly, the swordsman pulled the gossamer cloth from his head, his mouth gaping. He was speechless as Marlena danced in an almost impossible way, her shoulders going one way, her hips another, her arms yet another way.

Connor was beside himself with laughter. Aye, this is wot ‘e needed! Joost a bit o time ta remember that ‘e’s ‘uman, and enjoys tha same stoof any man likes. He threw a twenty dollar bill onto the runway and called Marlena over.

With a smile, the nubile woman sauntered over, her five-inch stiletto heels clicking on the runway. The music blasted over the club, but Kensei heard everything. She leaned over, still gyrating as she greeted Connor King. “So, Haggis-boy, this the guy you told me about?”

“Aye, lass. ‘E’s me best friend. Treat ‘im like ye’d treat me on a good day!”

Marlena smirked and shrugged. “You got it.” Still in disbelief, Kensei offered no resistance as the woman put her foot in his chest and pushed him back. He fell onto his back, his mouth still agape, barely registering the pain. Marlena then proceeded to perform a dance on Kensei which would be better imagined than described.

As the song ended and the DJ whipped the crowd into a frenzy, Marlena looked down on the Kensei and smiled. “He’s cute, Connor. He available?”

“Noo, luv, ye’ve got ta remember oo this is.”

“Oh yeah… Listen, I gotta finish my set. I’ll come down afterwards and you can buy me drinks. Get me drunk so I can take advantage of him.”

“Aye, lassie, I’ll see ye then.” He turned to watch Marlena leave, admiring the view as he always did. Though she was young enough to be his niece, he could not help himself.

With a heavy sigh, he turned to set the Kensei back up in his chair…

Only to find that the Kensei was no longer on the floor, nor anywhere in sight.

“Bugger,” Connor cursed under his breath. With his naturally keen eyesight, he saw the path his friend had taken. He seemed to be heading for the bathroom. Connor gave two men fifty dollars apiece to watch his seats and took off after his friend.

The sound was muted in the restroom, which was to say it was a dull roar instead of a solid thing. Kensei stood at the basin, splashing water on his face. Seeing how pale his

friend was, Connor asked what was wrong.

“That… woman,” Kensei said, his voice slightly uneven. “She… was unclothed.”

“‘At’s wot she does, lad. Tis her job. Have ye nivver been in one o these places before?”

When Kensei shook his head, Connor nodded. “I shoulda known. Well, tis nothin ye’ve nivver seen before, aye?” Another shake of the head.

Enlightenment dawned on the Scotsman. “I unnerstand, lad. Well, she’s taken a shine to ye, soo ye might want ta play up on that. Ye might get looky.”

“I believe I should leave. This place is… unpleasant. Please convey my humblest apologies to Ms. van der Wahl.” Without another word, the Kensei left the club.

The Kensei wandered the streets of Talos Island, gazing at the stars. He hoped he had not offended Connor King, but he knew he had been in the wrong place. Places such as that were not for him.

He walked up and down Talos Island’s streets, his civilian clothes somewhat damp from the humidity. Kensei sighed, the first inklings of defeat in his mind. Why was it so difficult for him to find a hobby? Find something to do besides defeat the enemies arrayed against him, was this so harsh a task? Was his life so empty that nothing awaited him save a glorious death on the field of battle? For the first time in his life, Kensei wished he had had something of a childhood.

As midnight came and went, the Kensei walked more, his feet carrying him wherever Fate willed him to go. He was wondering if he should return to Connor to try the place again when he heard some muttering coming from an alleyway. Steeling himself for attack, the Kensei willed his blade to appear in his hand. Approaching carefully, he drew back and saw…

An old man sat on a wooden box, his old ratty coat barely hanging on by a seam. The rest of his clothes were no better. A bushy beard and moustache hung low on his face, and wrinkles creased the elderly man’s features. It was obvious that the man was a street bum, ekeing out an existance on other people’s garbage.

Still somewhat wary of a trap, Kensei approached with his blade laying against his right arm. “Sumimasen, but may I offer assistance?”

The old man glared frightenedly at the imposing six foot tall wiry man. “Let me alone, yew filthy crook! I ain’t got nothin left ta steal!”

“My apologies, honored one,” Kensei replied, doing his best to keep his voice soothing. “I am no criminal. I merely wish to give you help. Is there somewhere I may take you?”

Defiance faded from the old man. “I usedter be somebody in this town, boy, yew know that? Someone important! Now I’m just a bum. A raggedy hobo with nothin left but a bottle of rot gut and a gut that’s rotten.”

“Perhaps I may help you to a medical facility? Afterwards, I could get you something to eat? Would this be acceptable?”

Turning a jaundiced eye toward the young man, the bum asked, “How we gonna get past them kooks, Freaks an hopheads? They’ll tear us apart.”

“They will let us pass, honored one.” Scooping the old man up in his arms, Kensei took flight. His years of mastering the art of flying paid off as he flew towards the hospital. Below the two men, Talos Island gleamed like a multi-colored, multi-faceted jewel.

“Yew one of dem heroes?”

Hai.

“Figgered as much. I usedta be one myself, back in the Big Two. Don’t noone want ta hear about that ancient history anymore. Kids these days just care about th’ Rikti. I fought against the Ratzis before you were a twinkle in your daddy’s eye! Ah, you don’t wanna hear about it.”

“Honored one, I will listen to you by the hour when we make you well again.”

The old man was quiet for a moment, then decided to take the plunge. “Think you could help a friend of mine, too? She needs ta get to the shelter…”

Epilogue:

It was lunchtime at the Second Chance Homeless Shelter on Talos Island. Standing behind the counter was a young-looking man whose eyes were too old for his face. With a smile that looked long unused, he served bowls of stew to any who stood in line. He was deferential to those who had little more than the clothes on their back, a fact that made those down on their luck feel more important and stand a bit straighter. After the last homeless person had gone through the line, the young man came out to sometimes talk, but mostly listen to the stories of the homeless. He greeted each by name, bowing his head to them in something not given them in many years.

Respect.

Across the room, another slightly older well-dressed man chuckled and smiled. It may not be a hobby, but it seemed Kensei was enjoying helping the citizens of Paragon City in a way that didn’t involve swords. Connor King turned to walk out of the shelter, his contribution of six figures easily helping the shelter to remain in business. As he walked past the serving area, he heard, “Did you see the way he chops those vegetables? Two knives at a time! He must be a superchef!”

Connor walked out, laughing and cheering his friend’s newfound happiness.

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~ by Walker on January 10, 2013.

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