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This article, When Fates Collide, is property of ShonenChicoBoy.

This article, When Fates Collide, is property of Shen Yi.

Republic city bridge

Cooking Up Trouble

“Thank you,” Yuan said as the last remaining customers prepared to leave the restaurant for the day. “Please come again soon.”

“Like hell I would,” the man mumbled, “That was the driest komodo chicken I’ve ever tasted in my life.” He turned to his wife, “This place is a sham!”

“Well what did you expect?” she snapped back at him, “It’s not like you can find authentic Fire Nation cuisine in Republic City, after all.”

Yuan’s left eyebrow, which was notched with a small scar, twitched. “You folks enjoy the rest of your evening,” he told the couple with a forced grin. But as soon as the door slammed shut behind them, his grin dropped into a sullen frown. Didn’t even leave a tip. The woman’s comment about the food’s quality stung, but when he glanced down at the plates they had left on the table he saw that she had been right. The over-salted slab of something that passed for komodo chicken meat swam in thick, grayish sauce, and his own stomach turned against him. He sighed and began clearing the dirty dishes from the tables. Only then did a suitable comeback for the man’s comment occur to him: Well it’s wetter than your... nah. He shouldn’t go there. Appetite. It’s wetter than your appetite.

Normally, Yuan worked in the kitchen, and in fact he still wore his knee-length apron even as he doubled as a busboy. Tabe-Mashu had experienced a recent change in head chef, and Hwang hadn’t liked most of the wait staff. He also hadn’t taken kindly to the thought of having a seventeen year old kid who knew how to handle a kitchen knife better than he did around. Yuan assumed it was a matter of pride, but since Hwang happened to be missing three of his fingers, he figured it would be best not to cross him in his home turf. He could stick to dishwashing for a week, even if he had learned how to cook better, "authentic" Fire Nation food from his mother. The door of Tabe-Mashu’s kitchen was was a revolving one anyway.

“Hey kid,” Hwang himself called out from the kitchen. Speak of the Blue Spirit... “I want you to degrease the tables tonight after you’re done with the dishwashing.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Hwang.”

“I’m heading home early. Don’t let the place burn down.”

“Okay, see you tomorrow, chef.” He often hated how much of a bootlicker he sounded like, but so far it had been the only way he had managed to keep his job.

Yuan carried the tray of dishes to the kitchen... and groaned when he saw its sorry state. The sink was completely full, unwashed woks had been left on the stovetop, various pieces of garbage such as egg shells and ash banana peels littered the floor, and grease practically dripped from the vented hood above the stove, presenting an obvious fire hazard.

“How?” he asked aloud, sure they were currently committing every health code violation in the book. He set the tray down on the counter and rolled up his sleeves. It was already an hour past sundown, but it looked like he would be getting home even later than expected that night.


Yuan started by scrubbing down the tables like Hwang had asked. He had just stacked the chairs off the floor, preparing to mop, when the bell above the door rang. Three rough-looking men, who walked with their hands shoved into the the pockets of their jackets, entered the restaurant.

“Sorry," Yuan began, “I must have forgot to put the sign out, but as you can see we’re closed.”

“Oh we won’t take up much of your time,” the apparent leader of the group assured him. He had a horizontal scar that cut across the bridge of his nose, and kept the brim of his hat pulled low over his eyes.

“Besides, you couldn’t pay us to eat here,” the skinnier man with a ponytail chimed in with a snort.

Now was that really necessary? Yuan thought as he shot him a look. But he kept his mouth shut. He knew instantly who these guys were—members of the Agni Kai Triad. It hadn’t been all that hard to figure out. He had simply put their aggressive stances and peculiar, clipped dialect together with their garishly red attire. So the real question wasn’t who they were, but why they were there.

“How can I help you then?” he asked. He quickly sized up the other member of the group: a tall man with a wide girth and a permanent scowl on his chubby face. His beady eyes glittered menacingly, and Yuan quickly looked away.

“The name’s Shanzhao,” the lead Agni Kai stated as he jabbed a thumb at his chest. “And you must be Yuan. Pleased to make yer acquaintance.”

Yuan’s grip on the broomhandle tightened, but he decided to play along. He didn’t know how they knew his name, but he knew it didn’t mean anything good.

“Nice to meet you, Shanzhao,” he said, with a slight traditional bow normally seen in the Fire Nation. The permanent smirk in the corner of Shanzhao’s mouth nearly soured. He wasn’t used to having people counter his false niceties with the same strategy. This kid might be harder to pressure than he had originally thought.

“Say, you’ve worked here for, what? Three years now?” Shanzhao asked as he started to walk through the dining room, pretending to take interest in the tacky ink paintings of dragons hung on the walls.

“Four actually.” Yuan watched as the other two men also moved—“Slim” towards his right and “Beady” circling around to his left. They were well-coordinated, but Yuan pretended that he didn’t notice. He swept around the table in the center of the room, careful to keep it between him and Shanzhao.

“Does it pay good?”

Yuan shrugged.

“Tips always help,” he said, and the implication beneath his words was clear. A strange expression crossed Shanzhao’s face and he stopped. So did everyone else.

“Do you have any idea who I am?” he asked, dropping all pretense from his tone.

“Sure, you’re Shanzhao.” Yuan responded. Slim snickered, but stopped when Shanzhao’s eyes narrowed.

“You must think you’re pretty smart, huh?” Yuan saw him tilt his head to the side, and things happened quickly after that. Beady lifted the table up, sending the stacked chairs crashing onto the floor, and Slim’s foot slammed into the small of his back. He used the broom to keep his balance, but Shanzhao grabbed him by the collar and pulled him down. Yuan resisted, bracing himself against the table.

“Listen kid, I don’t like that smart-mouth of yer’s, so I’m gonna cut to the chase.” They were close enough for Yuan’s to smell the tobacco on the man’s breath.

“You’ve got my full attention,” Yuan told him. Shanzhao growled, then shoved the table into his waist. That time Yuan did lose his balance, and stumbled back into the chair Slim had set up behind him.

“We’re business associates of your father’s, see,” Shanzhao began, “Kyang borrowed quite a large sum from our loan office a few months ago, and as you know, these things accumulate interest.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Yuan responded, and while he maintained his nonchalance, there was a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. “But I don’t see how that has anything to do with me. I barely see my old man these days.”

“Oh I know. But I also know that you know where he is.” When Yuan did not respond, Shanzhao’s slick veneer returned, knowing he had finally found the barb that would stick. “That’s right, Yuan,” he said as he sat on the edge of the table. “Your dad doesn’t come around to see yer little family holed up in Dragon Flats borough anymore, does he? And let’s see, yer mom works nights, and you have what... three siblings?”

Four. He had four siblings, but this time he didn’t correct him.

“I heard it’s been pretty hard to find places that are low on rent these days,” Shanzhao continued. “Fortunately, I’ve got a pretty generous friend of mine who just so happens to own the entire block where you guys live.”

The tips of Yuan’s ears were burning, and his knuckles had turned white as he gripped the broomhandle.

“Say, I might even be able to get him to waive the notice of eviction on your apartment.”

There was no notice of eviction, but that wasn’t what was important. Somehow, Shanzhao knew all about Yuan’s family, which meant he could do anything he wanted to them. The police barely touched Dragon Flats, but Yuan also knew it was the only place they could afford. The triads had total control. Throwing them all out onto the street was probably the least of their measures.

“How much does my father owe you?” he asked, defeated.

“Well to make things easy, I’ll round it to an even number for you. 3,000 yuans.”

“Three thou—” Yuan stopped himself. Where the hell was he gonna come up with that kind of money? He only made 500 yuans a week. It would take him a month and a half to pay back everything, and that was assuming they could live off just his mom’s income during that time.

Think, Yuan told himself. Don’t give these guys any more leverage.

“You look a bit down there, Yuan,” Shanzhao continued. “Tell you what, if you pay us back the entire amount by Thursday, you won’t have to pay any interest.”

“What’s the rate on this ‘interest,’” Yuan questioned warily.

“That’s up for us to decide.”

Yuan glared at him, and Shanzhao grinned.

“Now that's more like the spunk I was expecting to see. I was starting to think you weren’t a firebender at all.” Yuan’s eyes widened. He knew that too? Exactly just how far had his father dug himself into the Agni Kai’s debt?

Shanzhao tipped his hat. “We’ll be back on Thursday. If you have the full amount by then there won’t be any issues. See ya then kid.”

He turned to exit the restaurant, Slim following behind him. The latter kicked over the mop bucket standing next to the door on the way out, drenching the wood floor with soapy water. Beady was the last to leave. Yuan had almost forgotten he was there.

“Here,” he said, tossing a piece of paper onto the table in front of Yuan. “And uh, good luck.”

Yuan looked up, but Beady was already headed out the door. It slammed shut for the second time that night, and Yuan simply sat there for a while, stunned.

Finally, he picked lier left lying on the table. It was an advertisement for a one vs. one amaeteur bending tournament. "Boxed Bending," it said, and the championship pot printed in large gold letters at the bottom of the flier read 3,000 yuans. He frowned.

Just what were the Agni Kai up to?

The Bet

“Next in line,” the man at the table called with zero enthusiasm, and Yuan stepped forward. Beyond the table he finally caught a glimpse of the arena. It really was shaped like a box, and surrounded by a circle of stadium style seating. Bright, Saturday afternoon light flooded through the arena’s skylight, causing the metal bars of the large cage set over the fighting ring to gleam ominously. The man at the table grunted, and Yuan handed him the flier with the Boxed Bending advertisement.

“What’s this?” he asked as he chewed on the stub of a cigar.

“Don’t I need this to sign up?” Yuan asked. The man gave him a blank expression, and Yuan guessed the answer was a no.

“Fill this out.” He said as he pushed a form across the table. Yuan grabbed the pen and quickly jotted down the requisite information in each box. Age, weight, bending element...

“You a first time fighter?”

“Eh, I was in a couple of bending arts tournaments as a kid. I wasn’t too shabby. Definitely not pro.”

The man’s expression didn’t change, but Yuan could sense he was still unamused.

“Let’s just say I’m a beginner,” he said with a nervous laugh. He handed the form back to the man, who sized him up and down.

“You’ll be in the lowest weight class,” he stated flatly, and Yuan cringed. He couldn’t exactly help the fact that he was skinnier than a viper-rat.

“Okay.”

“What’s your name?”

“Yuan.” The man at gave him a deadpan expression before rolling his cigar to the other side of his mouth.

“A stage name. This is Boxed Bending. Gotta be catchy.”

“Oh.” Yuan pressed his thumb into his chin as he thought for a moment.

“How about the Red Flame?”

The man’s expression did not change. “Uh, the Flamin’ Chili Pepper?” Desperately, Yuan scraped the bottom of the barrel for another suggestion. “Wait I got it,” he exclaimed as he snapped his fingers, finally drawing inspiration from the Saturday morning Mover show his siblings liked to watch. “Sparky-sparky Boom Man!”

“Red Flame it is,” the man said as he stamped Yuan’s card, closing the discussion. He handed him the ID and a schedule.

“Locker room’s down the hall to the right. Now move it. Next.”

Locker room? Yuan glanced down at his faded brown jacket and loose, knee-length trousers. He hadn’t thought about bringing a change of clothes. If he got back home covered in dirt, he would have to invent some kind of an excuse. Not to mention that he felt a bit out of place in street clothes. But at least his signature red headband meant he wasn’t totally out of place. Nonetheless, as Yuan stepped around the other men in the locker room, he began to realize just how much of a lightweight he really was. Muscle-bound earthbenders and sharp-angled waterbenders crowded the benches, and that along with the sweat-choked air made the atmosphere of the room even more stifling and hostile. He picked his way gingerly around them, but couldn’t help but draw a few scowls from the hunks of warriors he passed. They probably thought he was some kind of cocky upstart, he realized.

Yuan finally found a locker that seemed a bit out of the way and removed his jacket before digging out a roll of flame-resistant bandages from the cloth satchel he carried. As he sat down to wrap his hands and feet, he noticed the man next to him glancing in his direction. Yuan tried not to make eye-contact, but couldn’t help but notice how utterly depressed he looked. He was probably somewhere in his late forties, and was skinnier than Yuan was, with a concave chest and bony elbows. His drooping eyes matched the angle of his nose, and his long gray hair hung in limp clumps around his ears. Yuan realized he was shaking.

“Uh, first time fighting?” Yuan asked him, hoping to make things less awkward. The man nodded. “Me too,” he said, trying to reassure him.

“M-my name’s Gak,” he said. “I’m a w-waterbender.”

“Nice to meet you, I’m Yuan.”

Gak breathed a small sigh of relief. “I’m glad to see a friendly face like yours,” he said, “I was starting to think everyone here was t-twice my size.”

“I feel the same way.”

“W-what are you?”

“Hm?”

“W-what do you bend?” Yuan smothered a grin at the man’s awkward phrasing, resisting the urge to make a half a dozen snarky comebacks.

“I’m a firebender,” he stated. Gak’s eyes were still as lifeless as ever, but they widened to about the size of dinner plates.

“A-ah-I d-didn’t realize,” he began to stutter nervously.

“Did I just hear you say you were a firebender?” A deep baritone voice addressed Yuan from behind, and he looked up at the mountain of a human being that towered above him. An earthbender, apparently.

“Yeah? Is there some problem?” The earthbender reached down and twisted the front of Yuan’s shirt before pulling him up to eye-level.

“Listen here,” the earthbender growled, practically spitting in his face. “We all know how much of a crooked setup your outfit runs at this joint. But don’t think for one hot second that just ‘cause the refs are weighted in your favor that you’re gonna win.” He shoved Yuan into the lockers before he let him go. “We’re sick and tired of your kind rigging any kind of competitive bending, so today we’re gonna teach you a lesson you won’t forget!”

He glared down at Yuan, holding his stare for a moment. But having apparently concluded his speech, he spat on the ground before he turned and stomped off to the other side of the locker room.

“What’s that guy’s deal?” Yuan asked Gak. But he only looked at him sadly. “What’s wrong Gak?” He stood up and, with a forlorn, almost apologetic look, headed towards the arena.


The next time Yuan saw Gak, he was flying through the air, having been tossed like a rag doll to the other corner of the fighting ring. He landed hard, and didn’t move.

“And we have a winner!” the announcer roared over the speaker as the crowd cheered. Yuan would be up soon. He took one last sip of water—ironically, firebenders had to stay well hydrated due to the heat caused by their bending—before he placed his bottle back under the bench and stood up. He danced in place a little, trying to warm up. Glancing to the side, he watched the more professional-looking fighters around him to mimic their movements, punching the air to limber up for strikes, or something. Yuan had to admit he was nervous. The last time he had fought in a competition he had been ten years old, and that had been in a highly rigorous tournament held by his firebending school. He didn’t know what to expect from Boxed Bending, and he certainly didn’t know what it would be like to fight inside a cage. His range would be limited, that was for certain, and range was typically one of his advantages. Not to mention, he kept thinking about what the earthbender had told him in the locker room. Were these things really rigged? Yuan tried not to imagine the dozens of problems that might cause if that really were the case.

On the other side of the ring, Yuan spotted who he suspected to be his opponent through the bars of the cage. With his dark hair and emerald-green eyes, he appeared to be brooding and tense. But Yuan’s view was blocked by the stretcher that carried out Gak’s limp form, and Yuan was distracted by the pang of sympathy he felt for the man. There was no way a guy like that had signed up for Boxed Bending willingly. It was more likely that he had been in a situation very similar to Yuan’s—and he was only there because it had been his last option.

“And for our next contestants,” the announcer began, “We have benders number 26 and 13. The Red Flame and the Vicious Viper Monkey!”

Here it was. Yuan climbed the steps that led to the arena, and stepped through the door of the cage. It slammed shut behind him, and suddenly all the noise around him didn’t matter. He was there for one thing only: he had to win.

Light poured down from the skylight above them, leaving a circle in the middle of the two benders. A thin haze of dust could be seen in the air. Yuan could feel his heart pounding in his chest, and blood rushed to his ears. He reminded himself to breathe, widening his stance as his gaze searched for his opponent’s. Then, he smiled. Never hurt to be friendly, after all.

His emerald eyes locked forward. A red haired fighter with a fiery headband wrapped tightly around his head. This was going to be his next opponent. He knew it. And the man could tell that this would be the person the Agni Kai were using for their own personal gain. Regardless, he took a deep breath...Maybe with this money she would finally stop fawning over him. The Vicious Viper Monkey hardened his gaze and stepped forward.


Earlier

The Earth Dragon Inn. Probably the largest hotel in Republic City and the only place which offered the famous Ba Sing Se hospitality. It was a more imperial building, filled with the art and culture of the heart of the Earth Kingdom. An exquisite design, one would think that the Emperor himself would stay there during his visits. But to Jin, everyone who stayed they deserved the Emperor treatment.

"It says that early check in is available! why isn't my room ready!" A woman shrieked. Her gigantic physique told Jin that she never worried about food. Besides the clown makeup, Jin almost erupted in laughter at her over exaggerated complaints. But he managed to keep his composure after several deep breaths.

"Well ma'am, it depends on the occupancy of the previous night. I believe you were here at the ceremony as well. We have to get everyone out, clean the rooms and prepare it for our new patrons-"

"I don't care! I don't work here, you do. I want my fucking room or else I'm not paying!" She snapped. "Pei Ming! Gather the children!"

"Yes dear." Ah. The sign of an overly pompous housewife. A shy, quiet, submissive husband whose only concern was assuring that his wife had enough money to suck out of him. It sickened Jin to the stomach.

"Your room is ready." Jin sighed. It wasn't really ready but he was set to leave in a few minutes. They can deal with the aftermath. She snatched the keys from his hands and marched off.

"Wooooow." Kyeon teased. Jin couldn't dare to look at the laughing beauty. His stomach turned in embarrassment. "If that was Sun, he would've flexed and she would've ran. Maybe you should ask him how to be more, y'know, manly?"

Sun. Sun. Sun. That muscle focused ugh! That's all they spoke about. Even when he wasn't here, that's who all the girls argued over. Jin was just a normal guy because he didn't spend hours training his muscles to look big. But if they knew what it was he was capable of, they'd surely forget about Sun. As of right now, his coworkers and friends had no idea about master Po Yi and the Vicious Viper Monkey.

"I ain't scared of anyone." Jin tried to flex. But his lean body was given a disservice by his clothes. He looked like every other mediocre earthbender in Republic City. Nothing like the Earthbending warriors of Ba Sing Se. Kyeon laughed, almost spilling the water next to her. To which Jin sulked... "I'm leaving. I have a big day."

"Go ahead, it should be dead until the evening shift gets here. I'll hold it down. Good luck studying."

"Thanks Kyeon!"

Studying. As if. As Jin walked through the massive doors of his job, his face shifted from the happy go lucky guest attendant to the visage of a fighter. He ran down the street, entering a nearby back alley.

Three knocks.

"Who's it?"

"Open the door ugly."

"The name's Oogway! Dammit Jin, i'm going to kill you one of these days."

"Yeah yeah, Oooglay." He chuckled. The door shot open and a fist emerged from the darkness. Jin ducked beneath it and slipped inside through the giant's left hip. Slamming into a wall of masculine funk. "Its like nobody here ever showers."

"Not everyone has a 9 to 5. How does it feel working for a boss for pennies?"

"Better than being paid to only open and close a door. We could train a monkey to do that for bananas."

"I hate you so much Jin Chanzi."

"Good. Now where is Master Po?" Jin asked. "Heard he had something for me."

"He's somewhere around here. Uhhh...He should be ringside We have some new talent coming in."

Jin nodded and started through the crowd of fighters and degenerates. An older bar. On the TV was numerous martial arts tournaments being held throughout the world. This was a fighters sect. An organization where people would join under the love of combat and martial arts. Under this banner, benders and nonbenders were upon equal footing. Even enemies of opposing gangs were allies when within these confines. People from all walks of life gathered beneath the banner of this guild. Under the desire to eventually find fame, fortune or power.

But Jin searched for something else...

Eventually he found his older master standing ringside as two young nonbenders clashed. They fought using their own martial form, swinging around one another. They were at war.

'You called me, Po Yi?"

"You could never call me master huh? You disrespectful piece of-" He couldn't finish. Jin's grin was all too familiar. Instead they erupted in a shared laughter. A joyous shout which showed the universe the type of brotherly bond most favored among fighters. "Are you ready for the tournament?"

"Of course." Yes. Jin was a regular in the monthly Box Bending matches. These fights were great for amassing money. And he could use it to finally ask her out. His heart raced at the thought of... "But I heard those Fire Triad guys signed up as well." He continued. "You know they always pay off some official for the purse or end up extorting the winner."

"Well fighting has always been a corrupt sport. As long as gambling is allowed, there are incentives for people to take a fall and still win big bucks. However, the Vicious Viper Monkey of the Po Yi Guild has garnered quite the attention."

"They've taken several wins from me already. If it happens again-"

"Don't let it."

"What do you mean?"

"Well. The only way to fix a match is to make it look like the referee has some form of backing. Winning by points or by stoppage often allows for corrupt decision making. But if you beat the shit out your opponent to a bloody pulp, even the blindest would question a shady call. And there's a lot of blind idiots betting on those fights."

"We've played nice for too long." Po Yi stated. "We need to scare off these leeches and restore the honor of the sport."

Jin sighed. He hated the idea. The Vicious Viper Monkey enjoyed fighting for the honorable sensation which surged throughout his body during battle. But he refrained from going past a certain line. He often won off points or stoppages. What use was it harming an opponent too far? But these gangs were ruining the sport with their persistent gambling and greed. Maybe beating the shit out their fighters would scare them off. "Got it." He cracked his knuckles.


Is destiny real?

Jin has only fought for several years. But his innate ability to learn helped accelerate the process. And the combination of a unique martial art with his earthbending amalgamated into a fighting style that was unseen. Allowing him to gain the upper-hand on his opponents. But did Po Yi want him to kill anyone? Could he?

Jin laid on his bed in his empty room and sighed. The house was filed with people like him. Young students and working class people looking to build themselves. But even filled, Jin felt totally alone in this darkness. Most of his family died or left. Whatever. He turned to the side and stared at the empty wall. There's too many people alive anyway. Not everyone has a purpose. Not everyone exist with a reason. There were countless fodder. And the most painful thing in his chest was a realization that perhaps...maybe...His eyes closed..


The locker room was filled to the brim with fighters. People of immense reknown and no names hoping to make something of themselves. He had enough clout for others to avoid him. But not enough to instill fear in anyone. He won several fights in this particular circuit. However, the Agni Kai Triads and Triple Threats have stolen countless purses from his grasp.

"So you're here?" Snap emerged from outside. He wore his usual dirt covered suit and cheesy fedora. "Have you decided to finally fight for us? You know the Agni Kai are fixing this right?"

"So what's the point of fighting for the Triple Threats?" Jin answered starkly.

"Well, the reason the Agni Kai are able to fix this is because of questionable decision making. We simply lack the talent to permanently put away fighters but-"

"I've already heard all of this. It seems like everyone is getting tired of the Agni Kai Triad."

"We are." He lit a cigarette and blew smoke in Jin's face. The stinging of tabbaco pinched his cheek. "We can give you better business if you help the Triple Threats."

"Noooo thank you." Jin said with a gentle smile. "Gang life was never my thing."

"I guess neither is making money." He joked. "Enjoy living in that room for the rest of your life then." Snap quipped before walking off.

It stung. But he knew that he would eventually catch a break. He was only 22. He had to catch a break someday. Someday. His eyes lowered as he continued changing into his outfit. In the corner of his eye, two newbies becoming friends. Probably the worst thing to do at a fighting competition.

And the Winner Is...

“And for our next contestants,” the announcer began, “We have benders number 26 and 13. The Red Flame and the Vicious Viper Monkey!”

The Red Flame? What's next, the Dark Night? Jin chuckled. He loved fighting some no name. But today was the day he would instill fear in the Agni Kai. Perhaps he didn't need to go too far? Maybe a good ass whooping would show the Agni Kai that this isn't a game for money. He climbed the steps in his signature attire. A black shirt and loose pants. He waved to the crowd and bowed to his opponent before approaching. This firebender...He didn't look like a fighter at all. Why would the Agni Kai send someone like this?

The idea pissed him off even more...Were they planning to have this newbie win? It made sense. Have an up and comer off the street enter. Market him as this undiscovered talent for clout. Ugh!

"I am the Vicious Viper Monkey. And I'm going to break every bone in your body." Jin said nonchalantly.

“Oh good,” Yuan retorted, “I wasn’t sure if I should call you ‘Vicious’ or ‘Monkey brain,’ he said with a smirk. “Thanks for clearing that up.” His opponent’s hostility had thrown him off a bit, but the fact that he bowed showed that he at least adhered to the external forms of bending decorum. Yuan returned the bow, Fire Nation style, even though he hadn’t let the opportunity to make a snide comment pass by.

The referee strolled out onto the mat between the two contestants.

“Alright you two, pipe down,” he said. “Since this the first match of the day for the uh, Red Flame here, I’m going to go over the rules again, so listen up.”

He pulled out a clipboard and flipped to the last page before reading out the rules. His monotone voice couldn’t have made things any duller, but Yuan paid rapt attention to what he said. He didn’t want to accidentally step over a line and end up disqualified. Plus, the way he saw it, if the game really was rigged than his best option was to play so unquestionably by the rules that the refs would have a hard time pulling any funny business. He glanced at his opponent. Or monkey business. Heh.

“So here’s the scoop, nine points wins a round, and there are three rounds to a match. If you hit your opponent in a vital spot such as the abdomen, chest or head, that’s two points. If you hit him in the limbs, one point. If you hit your opponent and cause him to fall resulting in full contact with the ground, an extra two points will be added to whatever strike you’ve scored. Knock-outs or stoppages count as automatic wins, obviously. Eh let’s see...” he checked the bottom of the page, and Yuan frowned slightly. Did the ref not have the rules memorized? That didn’t look good.

“As for fouls. Earthbenders cannot submerge their opponents beyond waist level. Firebenders cannot use lightning. You cannot weaponize the cage. Crotch shots are fouls. I’m skipping the waterbending part since that’s obviously not relevant here... Let’s see... Grappling is allowed. If you ground your opponent you may proceed to attack until the opponent taps out, loses consciousness or you are stopped by the ref," he said. "And speaking of which, the ref has the final say on any call," he emphazied. "Are we clear?”



“Wait,” Yuan started, noticing a discrepancy. “You’re saying if we get knocked onto our asses and then knocked-out, that’s a possible total of eight points, but with the automatic win it counts as nine?”

The ref’s gaze glazed over a bit as he quickly re-checked the numbers.

“Yes.”

“Ok and one more question,” he cut in, “What do you mean by ‘weaponzing the cage?”

“Metalbending, obviously.”


“But we can use it for anything else?”

The ref sighed. “Yes.”

“Okay and then you said no crotch-shots, but you also said that an earthbender can submerge someone up to waist level, which would also submerge the crotch so technically, wouldn’t that be counted as a—”

“Would you just shut up!” the ref snapped.

“Sorry.”

The ref sighed and pulled out a coin from his pocket. 

“This decides who attacks first. Heads or tails?” he asked Yuan.

“Uh, tails I guess.”

The ref flipped the coin, and the gold glinted in the air before he snatched it and clapped it onto his wrist.


“Well you’re out of luck kid, that’s heads,” he said. “Wait until the bell,” he told Vicious as he exited the ring.

Great. If Yuan had been nervous before, he was even more-so now. Wait, what was he thinking? Who the hell cared about Boxed Bending anyway? At least the rules didn’t seem as arbitrary as Pro-Bending, so it more closely resembled a real fight. But still, Yuan didn’t agree with the idea of turning the bending arts into a form of competitive combat, and Boxed Bending was only proving his opinion to be right.

“Sorry about the delay folks, we’ve got a new fighter in the ring,” the announcer made the obvious even more obvious over the loudspeaker, and Yuan once again felt extremely out of place.

“Just so you know Vicious,” Yuan told him, “I’m not gonna take anything you throw at me personally, and I hope you’ll do the same for me,” he said.



It’s just that I have to win.

Then the bell chimed three times.

The match had begun.

Earthbending was a strong art. A form of patience and neutral jing. Waiting for the perfect moment to strike. And such it fit perfectly with his boxing style of combat. However, the focus on speed while retaining a connection to the ground created a unique martial form. One which Yuan would have never suspected. Jin took his signature stance. Legs wide and bent in a squatting position. His profile slanted with his left hand up before his face and his right touching his chin slightly. A strong position. He hopped on both feet before launching a jab. A flicker of the wrist. But the top layer of earth seemed to shave off, sending a wave of sand and gravel towards Yuan. He twisted his core, turning into a right straight. A column of earth shooting from the earth towards Yuan's stomach.

Twisting his body into his bending allowed him to launch his punches with extensive torque. They were fast and full of force. And as his chi followed his movement, he was extensively throwing his bending. Allowing it to erupt from at a greater pace. It was a one two move which followed a consecutive beat. "Eesh. Eesh." Each movement accelerated by a sharp exhale. While his right fist rocketed forward, he slightly adjusted his left foot so it was more outside.

Fortunately, Yuan’s keen analytic abilities are what saved him. As Vicious had assumed his stance, Yuan had watched him carefully while keeping his own posture ironically neutral. He had searched for the signs of weaknesses and markers of style that would give him any scrap of information about his opponent’s skill set. Earthbending was already somewhat unpredictable when compared to say, firebending, as one couldn’t quite tell if the bender was going to go for a ground attack or an aerial attack until they were actually executing the technique. Yuan knew this because he had had experience fighting against all four forms of bending, and earthbending happened to be one of the more common forms he had run up against in the past. But Vicious’ form was far from common, and at first the way he assumed a high guard, with his fists held in front of his face, reminded Yuan of a firebender. Or a Pro-bender. That was it. He realized. Jin most closely resembled a pro-bending fighter. But that stance... the wide, low stance was typical of traditional earthbending. That definitely wasn't pro-bending.

Alright so how am I gonna take this guy out, he thought.

Earthbending was known for its strength and stability, along with solid forms of defensive. Pro-bending however, emphasized speed and sharp, punctuated attacks. Considering everything he had surmised about his adversary, he knew he should expect some kind of mixture of both. But how was that even possible?

That entire process of thought ran through Yuan’s mind before Jin initiated his attack, and his theorizing was cut off when, suddenly, he found himself facing a screen of gravel that flew towards his face. 

Where the hell did that come!?

At the same time, he spotted the small pillar of earth jutting towards his stomach, apparently initiated by a simple punch that the earthbender had thrown.

There was no time to think.

Yuan had dropped down towards the ground to avoid the wave of sand, and as the column shot towards him he planted one hand beneath him and whirled around, bringing his right foot so that his shin collided against the column of earth. It stung a bit, but the rock crumbled and Yuan continued the direction of his spin, bringing his left leg up and behind him.

In the next moment he executed a graceful, backwards kick which had somehow reached the height of Vicious’ chest. And that wasn’t all. There was a roar as a concussive burst of fire shot towards the earthbender, crossing the distance between them with a burst of flame that mirrored the concentrated, snapping power of the kick itself. Yuan somehow kept his balance on his right foot throughout the duration of the strike, and turned so that, when the kick ended, he was once again facing his opponent.

At that point Yuan's newness to fighting shone through. He should have followed up the kick with another blast of fire, as a swift uppercut with his right hand would have been completely hidden by his body. But Yuan hadn't thought of that in the moment, falling back into the traditional forms that he had practiced at his firebending school. Even know he had assumed a distinctive firebending stance, with one foot placed slightly in front of the other and his fists at his sides, leaving himself vulnerable to another earthbending attack.

Please. Jin's arms shot upwards in a swift, explosive uppercut. Earth shot up before him, shielding him from the arc of fire. He sent forward a right cross followed by a straight punch at a lowered position. From the slab he had conjured up second before, two pieces were shot forward without enough force to shatter upon impact. He completed this with a side step to the left.

This kid was new to fighting, but he possessed a certain instinct for movement. However, Jin was no ordinary earthbender. He took an art meant for strength and power and made it follow his principle of speed and maneuverability. And such, each feat had a certain explosiveness to it. Earthbending wasn't an art meant for combat. The exaggerated movements and strong stance made it troublesome against the other more fluid bending forms. Earthbenders often stood their ground while waterbendings, firebenders and airbenders danced around. Jin had to take Earthbending and introduce a form capable of keeping up with the others. Using their concept of speed and efficiency instead of overwhelming power. His strikes were precise and effective as opposed to dramatic and fatal.

But Yuan didn’t flinch as the chunks of earth shot towards him. Instead he took a step to the side, allowing one of the pieces to brush past his chest, as he quickly extended his right hand, keeping his palm flat. He emitted a burst of flame, disintegrating the piece of earth flying towards his face. But he had countered a bit too late, and a small piece of debris scraped across his cheek. He felt warm blood begin to ooze from the cut, but ignored it.

When it came to speed, Vicious attacked like a firebender. And he still had the advantage of using earth to block Yuan’s attacks. That meant Yuan only had two options: either corner his opponent so that he was unable to defend himself, or break his root. Recalling the words of his firebending instructor, Yuan settled on the latter—the traditional approach.

His eyes narrowed. Vicious was leading with his left foot, and so that is where Yuan would concentrate his attack. It wasn’t going to be easy, as earthbenders were known for their solid stance. But he figured it was worth a try. Yuan breathed in… and took the offensive.

He struck from his waist with his fist, curling his hand slightly before ending the punch with a sharp snap. A spiral of flame shot towards his opponent’s abdomen, and Yuan took one step forward as he mirrored the attack with his right hand, adjusting his aim so that the stream of fire arced towards the side of Jin’s head. Again, he ended the strike with an abrupt snap that increased the speed and power of the flames, following the rigid form of the taolu typical to firebending. But then, as he began his step for the second strike, Yuan angled slightly to the side and lunged, sliding his foot forwards to send a line of fire towards Jin’s leading foot. It seemed like such a maneuver would imbalance Yuan himself, but even though he seemed over-extended, he was in perfect equilibrium, attesting to what was perhaps his greatest skill as a martial artist.

He was adapting. The perfect fighter didn't exist. His trainer would often say that one's true self would only surface during an actual war. And so, Yuan seemed to answer Jin's challenge with his own. Hell, he managed to deduce that the earthbenders power came from balance and a connection to the earth. Another uppercut. A slab of earth protected him from both the blast of fire. However, it blinded him from seeing the following motion, leading to Jin mistakingly pivoting around his construct in hopes of surprising the kid with a quick attack. Unsuspectingly colliding his feet with fire. He jumped to the floor sloppily, barely dodging the extreme heat. But Jin's blackened feet was visibly hurt.

"Shit." He spat. he quickly regained his posture and entered his stance once more. "You're not half bad Red Head. But I'm going to have to kick it up a notch."

A three punch combination. The dangers of his style of earthbending lied in the rapidness of his manipulation. A quick jab to send forth an earthen spike from in front of Yuan, a feint. Followed by a rear uppercut, a slab of earth shot up behind the firebender. A lead hook to end with a column of earth rocketing to Yuan's side with extreme force. He fought in combinations with each punch serving a particular purpose. The worst movement was a wasted one.

However, apparently ignoring the unspoken rule about efficiency of movement, Yuan reacted to Jin’s initial feint a little too eagerly. With one step he was airborne, using the earthen spike in front of him to propel himself up and over the pointed rock, which inadvertently cleared the path for the slab coming up behind it. Jin’s two attacks crashed into each other before crumbling, neutralized.

Time seemed to slow as Yuan kicked once in midair during his descent towards the ground. The concussive blast of fire he released from the tip of his foot drove towards Jin, but before the brightness of the flames impeded his view, he saw a flicker of movement as his opponent curled his fist slightly to the left.

Yuan’s eyes widened.

There was a blur of movement at his side. He attempted to twist out of the way, but the battering ram or earth slammed into him with all the force of a speeding train. In one moment Jin was standing in front of him, in the next Yuan was staring up at the open skylight through the bars of the metal cage, somehow having ended up lying on the other corner of the ring.

That’s odd. Yuan thought.

The crowd roared with excitement. Maybe Vicious was more popular than he had realized. It was better than thinking they were cheering because some kid had gotten himself pummeled in the arena, at least.

“And with a quick attack from the side, the Vicious Viper Monkey scores four points!” The announcer shouted above the crowd.

You don’t have to remind me. Yuan thought bitterly. Still fighting for breath, he rolled over onto his knees. The ref had come over to see if he was okay, and even though Yuan had had the wind completely knocked out of him, he waved to indicate that he was fine.

Still clutching his side, Yuan stood and walked slowly over to face Jin once more. Despite his high tolerance for pain, he was in a world of hurt and just hoped the impact hadn’t cracked a rib.

No more stupid mistakes, he told himself.

One of Yuan’s greatest weaknesses was that he accommodated to anyone. As such, he knew that while he had been able to match the rhythm of the fight up to that point, Vicious had been the one the one setting the pace. He needed an edge, and the only way to do that would be to break free of the taolu ingrained into his style of fighting.

If he hoped to win, he would need to start getting creative.

“Man you weren’t kidding when you said you’d take it up a notch,” Yuan said, attempting to play off his injury with his signature amicability. “You punch like an ostrich horse,” he said before realizing what an odd mental picture a punching ostrich horse struck. “Er, I mean...

The ref cut him off to confirm that both contestants were ready to restart the match. Yuan nodded, then took a deep breath as he shifted his weight into a ready stance. Even though it burned, the pain helped to clear his head. His senses sharpened, and he narrowed his eyes as he focused on one, singular objective.

The bell dinged. This time, Yuan didn’t wait for his opponent to make the first move. He instantly raised his hands, with both wrists turned down in a strange gesture before circling his arms and striking forwards. Again, the sharp snap of his elbows and extended palms increased the force of his double-handed attack, and a torrent of fire blazed through the air. The wind-up and combined streams of flames meant the attack had enough concentrated power to burst through any hastily thrown earth barrier, and Yuan hoped it was just enough to knock his opponent back a few paces.

The crowd cheered when Yuan was sent soaring across the field. Sometimes, the brutal nature of this sport's fans sickened him. They only enjoyed watching two people fight. These warriors fought for more than their entertainment. It was the combined effort of endless work. Sweat covered visages and blood pouring from their mouths. Yet they only clapped and cheered when someone was hurt. Whatever. The Vicious Monkey took his stance once more. Usually, earthbending required neutral jing. Waiting for an opening or creating one for one's self. Something which he had accomplished in the previous round. But with Yuan's experience, dragging out this fight would only tire Vicious out. And so he decided to take initiative...or so he thought.

Jin launched a straight forward, hoping to send another blast of earth. But the sudden blast of fire interrupted his attack. Hell, he could only help to pivot to the side of the flaming wheel. It possessed enough force that it actually knocked Jin off his balance, disrupting his connection to the earth and halting his ability to actually counter. He was purely on the defensive now. And there was nothing more dangerous than a firebender on the offensive.

Yuan could sense that Vicious had become unbalanced, and he took a sliding-step forwards, sending another wave of flames across the ground towards Jin’s feet. But this time it was a distraction, and simply meant to drive Yuan’s advantage home. As he slammed the sole of his right foot into the ground Yuan launched himself into the air again, bringing his left knee up. Three quick kicks in mid-air utilized the length of his shin to provide mass and reactive force behind the concentrated spheres of fire that shot towards Jin’s head and chest, rapping out like an explosive drum beat.

His aerobatic maneuver had eliminated the distance between the two combatants, even though Yuan knew he was entering the danger zone being so close to Vicious. He landed in perfect balance, with his weight distributed evenly between both feet. Then, he did something that probably no other firebender would have done. His forearms snaked forwards, and Yuan attacked with a flurry of fast, hammer-like strikes. If Jin had been watching closely, he would have seen that Yuan had altered the shape of his hands, keeping his fingers flat with his thumb pressed underneath, as though he had formed a bird’s beak. He was using a long-distanced technique in close-range in order to increase the power of his firebending. The end result was a volley of rapid-fire, short blades of flame that pelted towards Jin like bullets.

Yuan had switched tactics. Instead of trying to follow the rigid forms ingrained in his style of firebending, he had simply decided to speed things up, and began to cobble together forms that would have disrupted the flow of any performed taolu. But this wasn’t about performance, this was about functionality. Still, it was obvious that Yuan had preserved the circular motions and controlled breathing distinctive to the purest styles of firebending, and it added a certain amount of elegance to his frenzied attack.

Yuan managed to press Jin for the first time during their fight. He answered the earthbender's challenge with a war of his own. So much so, Jin had to rely on pure instinct instead of an actual plan. Although Jin's earthbending mimicked the various other natures, it was still earthbending. And such he unknowingly entered Jin's territory. Rather than defend against the wave of fire at his feet, he quickly hopped backwards using the strong springs that were the balls of his feet. His emerald eyes were open but zero'd in, focus beyond his flaming enemy. He slipped between the balls of fire using his hips as the lever. But although none actually connected, he could feel the intense heat. Shit. He spat. Jin needed an opening. Unfortunately, this constant onslaught made it impossible for him to properly use neutral jing.

Luckily, Yuan turned this battle into one of close-range combat. Some would say that Jin was perhaps one of the only benders in republic city capable of completely holding his own in a normal combat situations. When in predicaments where opponents removed his earthen surroundings, Jin could still dispatch his enemies accordingly. However, Yuan took away the key ingredient. A chance to breath. That's right! During the endless assault, Jin subconsciously held his breath during his movements. Not only removing the explosive nature of his strikes and maneuvers, but also rapidly tiring him out. He needed to breath and bad. He weaved between the first few strikes, but felt a hammer of power and intense heat send him flying backwards.

The crowd was silent...Was this the end for the Vicious Viper Monkey?!

Of course not. Jin stood up with several deep heaves, regaining his composure. To think this amateur firebender could actually pose a threat...and draw so much blood from Vicious's head. But Jin smirked. "You know...I'm glad you're able to hold your own. This'll make killing you so much fairer." Yuan's rapid switch to this...more unique style of fighting had thrown him off. Yet, Jin now knew what to expect. And so he took his boxing stance once more. However, a much wider and lower stance in preparation. His stomach hardening as it filled with air.

“Wow. Who died and made you Edge Lord?” Yuan retorted with a smirk. However, he was breathing heavily as well. The hit he had taken to his ribs really had done a number, and even though he had ignored the injury while attacking, now that he was in a neutral position his breathing was shallow and difficult. He knew he couldn’t keep up the pace of his last attack. If he wanted to last in the fight much longer, he’d either have to finish it quickly or try to conserve his energy. Neither of which seemed like a viable option at that point.

“The match is tied at four to four folks!” the announcer’s voice echoed in the stadium. Yuan frowned, immediately noticing the discrepancy. Jin had fallen down, but he had hit his head on the ground. Yuan hadn’t actually made contact. That meant the refs were skewing the match—in his favor. The question was why?

I should back down. Yuan thought to himself. Not that Vicious was the nicest person around, considering the death threats and all but... well, it would be the right thing to do. Plus, Yuan didn’t know what the Agni Kai were up to, but was certain they had something up their sleeves with the fudged numbers. At the very least he could say something to the ref.

But then, Yuan thought of his siblings all crowded around their small couch to watch one last episode of the Legendary Aang before bedtime, the long hours spent helping his sister with her homework at the kitchen table, and the times his mom came home exhausted from working late but helped him with the dishes anyway... And he thought of his dad, sleeping under a bridge with a bottle clutched to his chest.

Yuan closed his eyes, and his easy-going grin vanished. The apartment was all they had. He couldn’t afford to lose it. Those were the stakes on the table, and he knew it.

When Yuan opened his eyes he was frowning, this time angry.

Vicious had assumed another earthbender’s stance: wide, low, and as solid as a brick wall. Yuan considered how much effort it had taken to break his stance the last time, but instead of growing disheartened he settled on another method of attack. He fell into a high stance, curling his hands into fists which he kept in front of his face, mirroring Jin’s own characteristic stance if only for a moment. Then, he took off running.

Yuan didn’t head directly towards Jin. Instead, he cut towards the side, dancing in a wide circle around the earthbender as he swung again and again to fire hardened fists of fire in Vicious’ direction.

“I hope that knock on your skull didn’t make you dizzy!” he called out as he sent flames rocketing towards Vicious in patterns of three. He intended to force Vicious to move—to turn in circles as he followed his quick-footed movements. Then, to finish of the attack, he took a step with his right foot and leaped high before spinning all the way around. While Yuan was tall, he still had to gain the upper ground as he executed a high, 540-degree kick followed by a downward lash of fire—one that was meant to fall squarely across Vicious’ head and shoulders.

"Four for four." Vicious growled. Impossible. The only wound on the ebony earthbender was a gash he sustained from the ground. While Yuan had managed to successfully push Jin back, the firebender lacked the offensive experience to actually wound him. Hell, Jin doubted that Yuan could even stomach the idea of hurting someone. He seemed soft. Not in the stereotypical gangster meaning. But in the idea that he valued life and relationships more than the foolish criminal lifestyle. Something they shared in common. Unfortunately, Jin couldn't debate the idea of a new friend. They were fixing this fight fast. So he needed to focus.

"Guess I can't hold back."

Footwork. Footwork as key. His master always taught him that martial arts based on bending had a bad habit of exaggerating their movements. And such, they sucked at manipulating their trajectory mid-maneuver. To counter this, Vicious would focus on small and precise setups. Altering his foot positioning in between his defensive and offensive actions, changing the angle of his body and preparing for the next action in his sequence. Jin slipped between the first of fire, using his hip as a spring in order to narrowly avoid each blast. Jin slightly adjusted his left foot with each slip, bringing it outside Yuan's front foot.

"What comes up must come down." He thought. The earthbender followed Yuan's movement, predicting that he would launch a downward strike. Jin answered with an uppercut, summoning forth a wall between Yuan and Jin. But rather than step outside, Jin followed with a second uppercut, hidden behind his barrier, in order to send a spike from beneath Yuan. "Go ahead and dodge this!" A pivot towards Yuan's flank followed by a jab, cross jab combination. The earthen wall before Jin, just as he had done before, shot towards Yuan in three massive chunks. However, each punch was done with an open hand.

"You move faster when your body is relaxed. But more power is delivered by tight fist. Thus, you must learn to contract your body at the moment of impact."

His master's words echoed in his psyche. Before the slabs of earth would make contact, he would tighten his fist during the last jab. Breathing them apart into smaller pieces. Without losing momentum, they would fly forward like small cannonballs. Still, this wasn't meant to actually hurt him. No. Jin dashed towards Yuan.

Yuan was still in midair as the ground beneath him shot up in another spike. The way that his body was angled from the kick meant that his abdomen was fully exposed to the attack. With no time to think, Yuan acted reflexively. He pushed both hands towards the pillar of earth and unleashed a stream of fire to propel himself away from danger. This threw his momentum forwards, and he was forced to tuck his head in and throw his feet over his body to avoid face-planting on the other side of the spike. He executed the backflip perfectly, and like always landed on the soles of his feet in perfect balance.

Unfortunately, he was facing the wrong direction.

The shower or rocks pelted into Yuan’s shoulder blades, and because he hadn’t been expecting the attack, he was sent sprawling across the ground. He tried to slide on his shirt, but his elbows managed to scrape across the hard surface anyway. Yet he couldn’t just lie there, as he felt a tremor beneath him as Vicious pounded towards him.

Damn it.

Yuan pushed himself up before quickly repositioning his hands directly below his center of gravity, placing his palms flat on the ground. He had seen this move preformed before—not at his firebending school but in the street when bend-boxing dancers preformed at traffic stops. He hadn’t actually attempted it himself though, but as the saying went, having a vicious earthbender bearing down on you was the mother of improvisation.

Or maybe it was that necessity was the mother of invention? Whatever.

Yuan swung his feet behind him and then around him, spinning all the way around as he unleashed two streams of fire to form a perfect circle around him. It was meant as a defensive measure, to protect himself long enough so that he could regain his footing. And he did regain it, by kicking upwards after the spin and throwing his mass up into the air. Yuan pushed off with one hand, and this time when he landed he was actually facing his opponent.

The crowd was cheering again after Yuan’s frantic display of acrobatics.

“...And Vicious gains a two-point lead on the Red Flame!” He only caught the last part of what the announcer rapped out, but knew the points still didn’t add up. Yuan spat to the side and tasted blood. He must have bit his tongue when he had fallen. But considering how close he and the earthbender now were, he suspected that the real beating was just about to begin...

An uppercut. Earth shot upwards, creating a slight ramp over the flaming circle. Upon which he ran and leapt over before pressing onward like a maddened beast. He knew what he needed to do. Most benders were so busy hurling elements at one another, that they forget that the strongest weapon in one's arsenal is their own body. What would happen when Jin was on a blimp and far from the earth? Or a waterbender trapped in a metallic building? Maybe firebenders and airbenders didn't have to worry, but the earthbending boxer lacked that pleasantry. And so, his master taught him ways to avoid losing composure in situations lacking his element. And while this wasn't one of those times, Jin often found that switching to a more personal method of combat often caught benders off guard.

No way this fight was even...not even close. Yeah blood poured from a wound upon Jin's forehead. But the firebender had yet to actually wound the earthbender himself. Hell, this was the first time in the entire battle that Yuan started to fight back. The only time he managed to bring the heat and make Chanzi sweat. Jin knew the Agni Kai triads were behind this. They used the wound Jin sustained from colliding with the ground as evidence for their manipulation. Yet only a blind fool would think a firebender could cause concussive damage.

Which meant in order to win this, Jin had to beat this kid to a pulp!

When within distance, Jin did a summersault while digging his hands deep into the earth. Once back onto his feet and in his initial fighting stance, his arms were covered in an earthen gauntlet. He bounced forward and side to side before throwing his first combination. A straight left for speed, followed by a dip at his knees. He changed levels and launched a devastating cross to Yuan's stomach. Ending by using the twisted form of his body to launch an uppercut which gained immense power from the rotational unwind.

Yuan’s quick reflexes showed as he ducked to the side, avoiding Jin’s first punch. He felt wind brush past his face as the earth-clad gauntlet barely missed his ear, and knew that even if Vicious wasn’t chucking rocks at him, if he were to be hit with one of those it would be lights out for a toothpick such as himself. But while Jin was light on his feet, Yuan was lighter, and it was as if he was keeping the most minimum amount of static between the soles of his feet and the surface of the ground, ready to turn or dodge at a moment’s notice.

The cross towards his stomach came and Yuan stepped back out of harm’s way, raising his knee to block with his shin, although he had jumped back far enough to where such a measure wasn’t necessary. This also placed him out of the explosive uppercut’s range. Specks of rock and dust followed the direction of Jin’s punch, standing out in stark detail against the blurred line of motion. Yuan whistled under his breath, impressed and also intimidated by the display of sheer force.

Then, finding a mark on his adversary, his feet went into action.

Yuan switched leads in an instant. Raising his right foot, he delivered three fast front kicks. The concentrated bursts of flame he released from the tip of his foot shot towards Jin’s face and chest, point blank, and he followed with a rapid crescent kick, snapping across from the right to the left to cut a swatch of flames across Vicious' forearms and prevent him from striking a counter-attack. Continuing the momentum of the spin, Yuan twisted around and landed on his right.

Now, he was set up for perhaps the strongest kick he had executed yet. Yuan kicked behind him with his left foot, driving backwards with a powerful kick even as he himself moved forward. The play of force as he transferred energy from one end of his body to the other was amplified by the sudden twist of his hips, just like Jin himself had done. He knew instinctively that it was important for him to keep his distance. As such, the stream of flame released from his heel was aimed directly for Vicious’ torso: meant to knock him off balance, drive him back, and put him on the defensive again.

For a moment Yuan was fully extended, his body like a cracking whip, as he drove the attack straight towards his opponent.

“Kai!” the yell exploded along with the blast of fire, but it masked a gasp of pain as Yuan’s skin pulled tight over his ribs—it felt like the muscle had pulled free from the bone. Yuan completed the kick he came to rest in a neutral position, holding his fists lightly in front of his chest as he faced Vicious, but groaned suddenly and grasped his side with one hand as the color drained from his face.