Bearing Gifts/Baring Grievances
One Cécile Levasseur, more famously known as King, was immobile in a hospital bed, scowling miserably at the ceiling. Another year, another chance at hauling in the fat cheque from winning KOF lost. So close this time, too... She and her team were no pushovers, but this tournament was always known to attract absolute monsters in terms of power levels. This year, the Women Fighters Team had, against all odds, downed some of those monsters and strong-armed their way to the semi-finals.
And then another team of monsters cruelly snuffed their chances of advancing any further.
Not for the first time she sighed irritably, sinking deeper into her pillows. It stung to have all her blood, sweat, and effort suddenly go up in flame. Somewhat literally at that.
Her fractured ribs throbbed at the memory of her defeat. Of the lone blue eye boring coldly into her own through a smashed sunglasses lens and snowy fringe. Of vented metal knuckles slamming mercilessly into her side. Of the flare of heat and deafening explosion of flame that sent her hurtling away with a fist-sized hole of her dress shirt charred away.
That cocky little shit... scoffing at her over an "expected outcome" while she choked and writhed on the arena floor, struggling to breathe. She'd hoped to throw him off his A-game by playfully riling him up pre-match — to play into, and exploit, his infamous temper so he'd make more mistakes. Instead it had backfired rather miserably; he'd sharpened his irritation into making his moves more pinpoint and aggressive, bringing their fight to a somewhat quick and humiliating end.
Poor Yuri and Mai hadn't fared much better either. That goddamn tank of a man had shrugged off Yuri's attacks like she was a fly buzzing around him, and swatted her down just as easily. She was bruised to high hell and still a little scrambled from her concussion, even two days after receiving her beating. Mai had probably gotten the worst deal of them all; covered in lacerations and requiring emergency treatment for hypothermia. The little girl that had done it looked and acted so innocent, but with the amount of power she wielded, she was arguably the scariest of that leathery trio.
Her silent seething was interrupted by a couple of knocks, drawing her gaze to the door. A visitor? Her nose scrunched, predicting it might be Ryo or Takuma. She really didn't want to deal with their brand of nonsense right now...
After a stretch of seconds, contemplating whether or not she should answer, the decision was taken from her hands. She was surprised when a much larger (so tall, in fact, that he had to stoop to peer inside) and hairier fellow than either of the Kyokugenryu practitioners opened the door to her room. Upon catching her startled gaze, he offered her a friendly smile and a slight wave.
"Hey there," he greeted in English, deep voice as polite and friendly as his expression. He gave off a sort of 'uncle' vibe that was almost comforting. "Is it ok to come in?"
She almost didn't recognise the man, a tacky Hawaiian button up and jeans replacing full body armour plating. But it was the thick sideburns sprouting from the sides of his face that gave away his identity and sent King's brows drawing downwards.
Maxima... one of those three monsters who had crushed her team to dust.
"Not if you're here to gloat," she responded coldly.
"Nothing of the sort. Scout's honour." He held up a placating palm. "I actually came bearing apologies."
"Apologies," King repeated flatly. Was he for real?
He nodded. "Yes. May I come in?"
She continued to scrutinise Maxima's face, suspicious of his motives. He remained at the door's threshold, body language loose and relaxed, and maintaining the same placid smile. He seemed sincere enough, she supposed. And looking back on the fight from two days ago, he'd at least had the decency to pull Yuri from the crater he'd planted her into and hand her over to the on-site paramedics. Still a monster. But a monster with a shred of decency, at least. She huffed through her nose, having made her decision, but not wholly happy with it.
"Fine. But make it quick."
Maxima inclined his head and murmured his thanks. Maintaining his stoop, he angled his torso at a diagonal so he could actually squeeze his massive frame through the door. As he shuffled further into the room, straightening back to his downright towering height, King noted the small wicker basket he held in one ham-sized fist. She jerked her chin towards it.
"Part of the apology." Maxima strode to her bedside, holding it towards her in offering.
Brow quirked, she slowly and carefully — so as not to further aggravate her healing ribs — moved to accept the strange gift. Within was a jar. Removal of the jar for closer scrutiny revealed there was a crush of tiny translucent pink bodies inside. King couldn't help but release a snort (that kind of hurt).
"Gummy bears. Seriously?" Was he trying to patronise her or something?
He laughed at that, a warm and hearty sound. "I know, I know. Trust me, though, they are definitely not for kiddie tastebuds."
Sceptical, King unscrewed the jar's lid. She plucked one of the bears from captivity, squishing it between her fingers. Gave it a sniff, halfway expecting some sort of acrid poison stench. What instead graced her nostrils was something light. Fruity? Perhaps floral? It seemed vaguely familiar. Now she was well and truly intrigued.
The bear was plopped inside King's mouth for a slow death by dissolving. She rolled it around her tongue, soaking up the taste of sugar... some sort of currant... the earlier floral notes...
Maxima grinned. "Bingo. I heard you were something of a wine connoisseur. Glad to know that information was on the money."
She wondered where he might have heard that. The two of them had barely crossed paths despite participating in the same tournament year after year.
"I see... They're very nice," she grudgingly admitted. Neither the sugar nor the wine was overpowering. Both flavours blended together rather harmoniously. Two more bears were selected for death — quickly slipped into her mouth to join their partially-dissolved brother — and the rest resealed and tucked against her side for later consumption. "Where'd you buy them?"
"Made them from scratch, actually." His smile became sheepish at that admission. A thick finger scratched at a pink cheek. "Cooking is something of a hobby of mine. Bloody nightmare keeping this particular batch away from Kula, though."
"No kidding." Cécile didn't think she'd ever seen that girl attend a tournament without something sugary jammed in her mouth. Several times she'd had the idle wondering of whether that was the only kind of food the girl ever ate. Using her tongue, she coaxed the alcoholic gummies to the sides of her mouth so she could gnaw on their rubbery little bodies between talking. "But rewind a sec; you cook as a hobby?"
Definitely not what she had expected from the walking tank of a man. From passing observations, he had always looked so stern. She'd always assumed he was a more grounded and calculating, but equally cold, mirror of the leathery bundle of rage always plastered to his side. It was hard to imagine him doing something as homey as cooking meals just for the pleasure of it. Yet here he was, sledgehammering her assumptions with his easygoing friendliness and homemade gummy bears. It was rather jarring, truth be told.
"I do. It's soothing." Maxima huffed out a small laugh. "Well... it is when I do it on my own."
King's brows shot into her hairline. "Those two help you cook?"
Surprises upon surprises. Did either of them even have enough sense to be allowed near the sharper cooking implements? Especially Kula, who seemed abnormally naïve and spacey for a girl her age. And the broody shithead seemed more liable to stab someone than to cut food properly.
"Well... Kula at least makes an effort. Even if she has a terrible habit of taste testing everything in the early stages. But K'..." Maxima visibly winced. It looked as though some memory was causing him physical pain. "Despite my best efforts, that boy still can't cook to save his life. If it isn't microwaveable, it's liable to become charcoal."
In spite of her earlier wariness and the original reasoning for his visit, Cécile found her intrigue growing. The Team K' trio were people who kept to themselves a lot; rarely, if ever, mingling with others. And now one of them was freely offering her a glimpse of what lie beneath those standoffish exteriors. And this sliver she was seeing was shockingly human for such a dangerously destructive mob. Truth be told, she was curious to see how far this hidden humanity of theirs extended — particularly since Maxima seemed willing to divulge information. Cécile did, however, also still hold a massive grudge over her loss in the tournament. Thusly, she squashed her growing smirk over the leathery fire hazard's cooking ineptitude, replacing it with a brand new frown.
"Look, that's real cute and all, but we're getting off topic here. I don't see K' here to deliver this apology you're promising me. Y'know... the person who actually broke my ribs. That K'."
Another, more pronounced, wince from Maxima as he rubbed at his neck. "About that... He's not coming."
"Why the hell not?" she snapped, seething anger quick to rear its head. If her injury wasn't so debilitating she would have shot out of the hospital bed, grabbed him by the front of that hideously tacky button up, and yanked him down to her level for a better tongue-lashing. Instead she had to settle for a vastly less threatening scowl from her lounge of starchy hospital linen. With a captive audience of tiny alcoholic bears next to her. "Wasn't that literally the entire point of you showing up here?"
"To deliver an apology? Yes. For K' to be the one delivering said apology? No. I hate to say it, but I never promised you that." Maxima spread his hands helplessly, still with that damnably honest expression on his face.
Cécile ground her teeth. And what was left of the gummy bears between them. The person who kicked Yuri's ass to kingdom come without breaking a sweat shouldn't be this humble and affable, damn it!
"You've had a taste of his lacking social skills," Maxima continued. "I'm sure you can guess how much easier pulling teeth would be than convincing him to make peace with you."
Utterly miffed, and with no constructive way to vent her frustration, Cécile exhaled hard. She flopped back against the too-stiff pillows, ribs complaining anew upon impact. With furious little digs and prods of her tongue, she picked out stray rosé bear flesh from between her teeth and gulped it down.
"I'll bet. I don't know why I expected anything more from such a sour brat with a fat ego in the first place." Couldn't take a compliment — even a lightly teasing one — that he would be cuter if he smiled in a normal manner. But he was more than fine with rubbing her nose in her defeat and acting high and mighty; like she'd never even had a sliver of a chance at victory to begin with. "Dunno how you can stand that bad attitude every day."
"Well, for what little it's worth, he's not a bad kid." Maxima dared to sidle up closer to finally retrieve the wicker basket, hooking a single finger under the handle to lift it up and away. "Not deep down. He's just a little... maladjusted, thanks to a bad upbringing."
"Just a little? That's the understatement of the century, tin man."
His lips quirked at that as he straightened. It was a smile, of a sort. But one with no real humour to it. "You got me there. But I don't think you'll ever know the full extent of it."
"Why not enlighten me then? Pull up a seat and tell me this intriguing little bedtime story; I've got nothing but time on my hands." So saying, Cécile flicked a hand at her body in all its bandages and scrubs-clad glory.
"Because it's not my place to go around divulging his trauma." Further warmth leeched from Maxima's expression, the remaining traces of his smile downturning. He didn't appear angry or upset with her. Just pensive. "Just know that the bad attitude that you know today is, believe it or not, a vast improvement to how he used to be."
She barked out a laugh, hoping to deflect from how uncomfortably close to home the trauma divulging comment had hit her. "What, he was even grumpier than he is now?"
"No. He wasn't even capable of that much emotion when NESTS first assigned me as his handler."
Cécile opened her mouth. Closed it. Blinked several times, her already limp smirk fading and brow furrowing as she slowly digested that nugget of information. K' was already severely emotionally constipated, even for a boy his age. Anything less would mean... "Are you trying to tell me he was, like, an utter husk?"
A silent nod.
"Let's just say that NESTS have done some unspeakably awful things to human beings," Maxima interjected curtly. "And that the less you know, the better."
The frankly frightening look in his eyes made her believe it — it was like the warmth dial had been cranked from Teddybear Hugs straight to Hellfire. Clearly the things he had witnessed were some unfathomable level of evil if his personality polarised just from mentioning NESTS even this vaguely.
Cécile herself had no concrete knowledge of her own regarding NESTS, aside from the fact they had hosted one tournament and possibly pulled strings behind the scenes for the two preceding it. Everything else she'd heard was secondhand from the tournament rumour mills; crackpot theories brewed up that had sounded utterly farfetched. The whispers of clone armies, for instance, had been almost campy; too dumb and unreal sounding to be believable. And maybe those kinds of rumours were hoaxes. But abuse of any shade was a real and tangible thing. And if Maxima wasn't bullshitting her (and she honestly didn't think he was), the level of intensity it sounded like K' had endured was staggering. To have absolutely no sense of self? No autonomy? That alone sounded like the stuff of nightmares. But dwelling on the steps taken to drag him to that point? The hypotheticals made her hair raise. Maybe it was a good thing she'd never learned anything about NESTS beyond those tiny scraps of information... Because what Maxima was telling her right now sounded like horror movie mad scientist type stuff.
Her attention was pulled away from her inner musings by Maxima clearing his throat lightly. She must have looked as spooked as she felt, because the expression he was giving her was a mix of concern and apology.
"Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you. That's just... a rather tender subject matter, to put it mildly."
Cécile shook her head, still a little dazed by the newfound revelations. "It's... it's fine. Uh, sorry for prying."
What a weird turn of events... apologising to the guy who had made this visit explicitly to apologise to her.
"No harm, no foul. I understand that you were just curious." Back to wearing that easygoing smile again. Was he truly this laidback, or was it a front? It was hard to tell now after witnessing that attitude flip earlier. "Speaking of apologies though... It's a little overdue now, but I'm truly sorry for how poorly K' acted towards you during your match. Regardless of his history, I'm not here to excuse his bad behaviour."
"Yeah, well, thank you for the apology — and the bears — I appreciate you taking the time to do both. But I'm still pissed at the kid." It had been a nice thought on Maxima's part to try mending things, and she truly did appreciate his attempt at playing peacemaker. But the fact of the matter was, he hadn't been the one to wrong her. Thusly, to put it bluntly, his apology was kind of useless. Her nails rapped lightly against the lid of gummy bears to no particular beat. "So keep working whatever magic it is you've been using on him to make him... vaguely... social, and get him to make that apology himself."
"Heh. Roger that." He offered her a two fingered salute. "I'll get him to work on that in earnest."
Cécile hummed neutrally. He could promise all he liked, but until it happened before her very eyes, she would remain sceptical. And even on the off chance it did happen, she didn't expect it to be in a timely fashion.
"Sure. Until then, good luck with the semifinals. You're going to need it if you're going up against Yagami and those secretaries."
A gentle prod that she wanted things to wrap up so she could be left alone again. It had been a relatively pleasant visit, and he was nice enough company to chat to, all things considered. But she'd had her fill of socialisation and wanted to be left alone now. Especially in her miserable, injured, state.
"We sure will..."
Cécile spotted the faintest knit to his brow. So even monsters could be worried about clashing with other monsters, huh? She couldn't imagine the what's or why's, considering Maxima himself seemed physically strong enough to grab any one of those three and snap them in half over his knee like fleshy toothpicks. And his little fire and ice demons could hold their own well enough with their respective powers. Not to mention Yagami himself was handicapped by his new lack of flame. If anything, the big lug should be confident in victory. Most curious...
"Anyway, I suppose I should get going. I've taken up a lot of your time, as is. Please take care, Miss King."
"Ah. Sure. You too," she mumbled, returning his parting wave with an awkward one of her own. As she watched him duck to squeeze his hulking frame through the doorway again, she called out to him on impulse. "Hey! Before you go... uh. Why were you so nice this whole time?"
Maxima paused midway through the door, still bent double and his massive torso twisted at an angle. One broad shoulder lifted in a shrug. "I'm Canadian."
A final cheeky wink then he was gone for good.
If the K'/King fight as well as Maxima's gift seem familiar, it's because they are mentioned in chapter 2 of illyrilex's fic In And Out of Control, which was published waaaay before this. Which shows how long I've been struggling to finish this piece lol. We'd discussed it some time prior to her publishing it and to this day, I'm honestly still super flattered she wanted to use and adapt it into her work. I also can't thank Illy enough for her advice on writing King, and for giving me her blessing to make so many massive nods to her version of King.
I also need to thank David Tai for Maxima's closing line about being Canadian. It was a silly spitball he'd tossed at me aaaaages into the early draft stages and I decided I wanted it in the end product lol.
Final side note that I'm mulling over poking at the aftermath of the Yagami/K' fight. If I get a more solid idea of what to do with the scenes I've got then it'll come here... eventually.