Chapter Nineteen Valley of the Shadow

The wrestlers gathered around Reiko. The welling of blood from the vertical cut did not seem too severe, and was already staunching. She said, "I'm all right. Leave me alone." Ignoring this protest, Dixie began work dabbing at the blood with a handkerchief.

Aisha said, "At least she didn't take your eye out like she planned."

A groan came from behind them. Candy Cane was staggering to her feet. Her hair was dishevelled, her green, feline eyes darted this way and that, and she looked like she was about to be sick.

She said, "This ain't happening, dudes." Taking in her surroundings, she added, "What is this tacky joint?"

Leaving Dixie to attend to Reiko's wounds, Benikage and Aisha went to the teenager's assistance. Holding out a receptacle for Candy to throw up in, Aisha said evenly, "This here's my mansion, and I'd be obliged if you'd keep the floor clean."

"Yrggh!" Candy gagged, then projectile vomited. Only a small amount hit the basin.

Aisha shook her head sadly. "That Persian rug was imported specially."

Benikage said, "After being imprisoned in the dark for so long, some disorientation is understandable."

Candy said, "Dark? Prison? What are you talking about, dude?"

Aisha said, "That crazy nurse kept ya prisoner, didn't she?"

"All I remember is being in some swish hotel room with this creepy broad, Anesthesia. She said she was going to donate lotsa money to the orphanage I was brought up in if I helped her out. I was trying to enter the tournament to save it from closing down, but the dickhead organisers said I was too young. Anyway this nurse character was being like over-friendly, offering me drinks when I was under age and all. I thought what the hell, but then I kinda blacked out."

Aisha said, "She must've drugged ya."

"Omigod! Gross! I figured she was upta something the way she was eying me up! I would've done it anyway if it meant saving the orphanage."

Aisha muttered, "Hey, ya seem like a real sweet kid."

Benikage said, "She intended you to become a tool of evil."

"Wha …?" Candy stared in puzzlement at the ninja.

Aisha said, "She doped ya into becoming her private thug. Her enforcer. Capiche?"

Candy said, "The bitch! Still, I guess it could've been worse." Aisha rolled her eyes despairingly.

Uncertainly, Benikage asked, "Do you not remember being in a dark cell? Of me trying to rescue you, then the fighting?"

Candy said, "Dude, I have no idea what you're on, but you're getting me totally confused with someone else."

Benikage persisted, "Are you an initiate of the fifth grade at Takeo Temple?

"Tackyo what? What kind of nut job are you? I barely made the Fifth Grade at school." Candy rapidly surveyed the room. "That does it, you guys are freaks, I'm outa here!"

The two wrestlers tried to bar her exit, but Candy nimbly sprung onto one of the broken window ledges. A chorus of shouts wasn't enough to stop the teenager jumping. There was a heavy thump, followed by a yelp of pain.

The wrestlers raced to the window. Candy was no longer visible, but a clear trail of footprints led from the shrubbery beneath to the garden wall.

Aisha commented dryly, "Dropping down into a soft flower bed to escape. Done it m'self a hundred times when I was a kid." She shrugged, "Hope she ain't damaged my Azaleas."

Benikage said, "I can track her easily. I will follow and return her to her teacher's care."

Dixie said, somewhat grudgingly, "Is there any chance you could stay and help us sort out this goddamn crazy plot and that goddamn crazy doctor. You being a super secret agent, and a ninja and all."

Benikage said, glancing at Reiko, "I'm sorry, but I cannot."

Aisha asked, "Why the hell not?"

"I have broken the ninja code, even if I did so to prevent a great evil. All such are hunted down without mercy. There will be no hiding place for me anywhere for long. If I stayed, I might only bring trouble."

"If you have to go, you have to go." Reiko sounded bleak. Dixie looked at her sharply. With a trace of longing in her voice, Reiko continued, "Is there any chance you'll be back sometime?"

Benikage considered, then smiled. "Have no fear. The shadow returns when the flames of evil flicker. Until then …" She traced the air in a complex gesture of farewell. There was a bright flash, followed by smoke, and when it cleared, she had vanished.

"So, she's gone," Dixie didn't sound very disappointed. Reiko said nothing.

"Can't she walk out the door like a normal person?" Aisha complained. "All that smoke's gonna dirty ma curtains."

"Well you're just gonna havta get them cleaned up," Dixie retorted. "Like the rest of this hacienda." Her voice suddenly full of concern, she continued, "I done forgot! Gotta get that face wound of yours attended to, Reiko. If we can get ya ta hospital before it starts healin', it won't scar so bad and then with a li'l plastic surgery, ya'll look good as new."

"No sweat," Reiko said. "Actually, I prefer it like this."

Dixie turned to examine Reiko closely. She took a step back.

"Hell, no," she said.

Reiko had a strange, faraway look in her eyes. She said, "I'm sorry Dixie."

"NOOO!" Dixie lifted her arms, as if appealing against inexorable fate. Then she said desperately, "You overcame it, didn't you? I thought you had it under control."

"No, I didn't." Reiko's voice seemed drained of emotion. She sat down in the middle of the floor, looking up at Dixie in a world-weary fashion.

"But …"

"All I did," continued Reiko bitterly, "was to prevent myself falling under Dr. Cutter's influence. To keep hold of my purpose. Not that …" she added in the same cynical tone, "it matters much now."

"But you helped to defeat her." Dixie was vehement. "You, your original self, its still there. You can change back, just like me and Aisha."

Reiko shook her head. "No, I can't."

"Yes, you can." There were tears in Dixie's eyes. "YES, YOU CAN!"

"Yeah, like she says," Aisha added uncomfortably. "We're both of us fine now, ain't we? Well, ain't we?"

Reiko face took on an expression of bored impatience. She said, "Look, I'm only gonna explain this once, but simply, so even Miss Brain of America here can understand it."

"Why, ya li'l …" Aisha began in outrage.

"Shut up, cain't ya?!" Dixie thundered. Then more calmly, "Go on, Reiko."

Reiko turned to look straight ahead, as though thinking back. She said, "I told Dr Cutter, or rather Anesthesia, that I'd avoided the nightmares which the black roses had given to almost everyone else. She tried to pretend that wasn't important, but I could tell she was lying. The roses must have been intended to bring you under her control, to make you into her miserable stooges. Later on Dr Cutter tried to make up for this by giving me a massive dose of the drug. But I was damned if I was gonna let anyone boss me ever again, and certainly not that bitch. You, on the other hand, couldn't resist because she'd been slowly poisoning your minds."

Aisha said dubiously, "I guess that kinda makes sense. But all it needed was a good beating to get us back to our own selves."

Reiko gave a snigger. "You think so, do you? Well maybe you should be asking yourselves why it was so easy."

Aisha said, "I ain't followin' ya, now, girl."

Reiko smiled sardonically. "Slow then, aren't you, Miss Double Platinum? It was easy, because Sista A and Sergeant Clemets weren't so far removed from the two reprobates I see here before me."

"What you talkin' about?!" If Aisha's anger was a volume control, it would have been turned to eleven. "That Sista bitch was like a complete arsehole!"

"That …" smirked Reiko, "is exactly the point, of course. And they say it's hard to see yourself as others see you!"

Dixie grabbed hold of Aisha before the nearly incandescent singer could express her rage more explicitly.

"Let's say you might be right on that one, Reiko," she muttered, struggling to hold back Aisha. "We're neither of us boy scouts for sure. But why is it different for you?"

"Well there's more than one reason, Dix'." Reiko folded her arms. "See, you and Aisha have still got roots in your old selves, you've got something to go back to. Aisha's got her six or seven mansions and crappy records, you've got that smelly cattle ranch and Makoto, of course, has that senile old fool of a grandfather. I, on the other hand, have nothing and nobody whatsoever."

Aisha's anger level had gone completely off the scale, but she was prevented from further comment by Dixie kneeing her in the stomach.

"Nothing?" There was a break in the Texan's voice. "No one?"

"I'm afraid not, Dixie." Reiko gave a smile which seemed a little sad. "No, please don't offer any protestations of your affection, because you'll be talking to the wrong woman."

"I'm talking to you, Reiko." Dixie spoke loud and clear. "I love you, more than I've ever loved anybody."

"Hey …" Aisha gasped.

"That's certainly very touching, Dix'." Reiko sounded anything but touched. "But unfortunately the person you knew as Reiko Hinomoto doesn't exist anymore."

"Yes, she does." Dixie sounded like she was trying to convince herself. "I know she does."

"You see …" there may have been the faintest of catches in Reiko's voice; "… Reiko Hinomoto was at bottom a sweet, innocent girl, who believed everything would turn out for the best. Oh she could be streetwise, sexy and even strong at times, she was no Makoto. But in the end, she could never accept that she'd been betrayed by everyone she loved, including her own mother and sister."

"Reiko." Dixie addressed her as if talking to a child. "I told ya everythin' Dr Cutter would say to ya would be lies. I told ya she was like the devil. Your mother would never have abandoned ya. Neither did Fujiko. Neither have I."

"No, you're wrong." Reiko's conviction was absolute. "Dr Cutter spoke the purest truth, and once I took the drug it became completely clear to me. My mother never loved me for myself; I became part of her ambition to succeed, just like Fujiko did. And Fujiko hated me because she saw I'd accepted my role in life, like a mindless doll. That's why she left. And you …" Reiko looked down to avoid Dixie's pleading eyes. "You believed I was my mother reborn. And I thought you were the mother I never really had. But we were both wrong."

"No, Reiko." It was all Dixie could muster.

"And so …" Reiko continued, as if Dixie hadn't spoken, "when the good, innocent Reiko met her other self, the one who had always suspected the truth, but had been locked away like a neglected child in an attic, the old Reiko was shattered into a thousand pieces. Because innocence, once lost, is destroyed forever."

There was a dead silence while the other two absorbed the impact of these words. Reiko got to her feet, and refolded her arms, regarding her erstwhile companions cynically. Her eyes locked with Dixie's, but this time it was the Texan who looked away.

"Ain't arguing with ya on that one, ho'," Aisha finally managed. "You is the skankiest bitch in town, and I know what I'm sayin'."

"Shut your trap and lemme think a moment, will ya?" Dixie was frowning with intense concentration. Then she said, "No, I won't give this up. Listen Reiko, or whoever you are now. Ya'll got bitter 'cos ya think things haven't gone well for ya, people ain't treated ya right. Welcome to the adult world, sugar. You've learned that good people can have a horrible, dark side they prefer not to think about, that they can sometimes hurt those they love. Wake up and smell the coffee. Like I've always said, your saints can as easily become your sinners. That's just the way things go. Sure I might not've acknowledged myself what an evil bitch I kin be in the ring. I guess I havta now. I'm doing it. But that doesn't mean ya'll should give up on everything that's true and righteous and holy. You've grown up a little, that's all. And maybe you'll never be quite the same again. Deal with it, darlin'. C'mon, let's drop this pile of crap and go home."

There was another pause, and Aisha looked up hopefully. Then Reiko began a slow handclap. Dixie stood there while she did it, staring straight ahead, her chest heaving.

"Bravo, great speech Dix'! I see a new career for you in film or television. You'll have them weeping in the aisles. The trouble is, you mistook me for someone who still cares. Evil? Good? It's all the same garbage. Go home, you say? There's no home for me anywhere. Reiko Hinomoto had a home, and people she thought cared about her. I don't have any place to go.

I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm leaving. I'll be on that highway until maybe I find someone who's lost everything like me, who accepts me for who I am without any bullshit.

Just give it up, won't you? You can see I don't give a damn anymore and, to be quite clear about it, I don't care jack about you. I'm going now." She dropped her mobile to the floor. "And I won't be needing this."

Dixie said, "I won't let you leave." She barred Reiko's exit, her feet planted firmly apart.

Reiko raised one fist, and the new-grown muscle rippled along her arm as she flexed it. "Do you really think you can stop me?" She gave a hollow laugh. "You know, maybe you would've had a chance. Three Count Cowgirl, she never gives up, does she? Except that you don't have it in you anymore, do you? Your guts have all gone along with your heart. You'd be humiliating yourself for nothing. Stand aside."

Reiko's voice rang out like iron. Dixie bowed her head. She stepped back to let the Japanese woman walk past. As she did so, Dixie asked brokenly, "Will I ever see ya again?"

Reiko stopped to look over her shoulder. She said, "I should think so. You've got something hanging on your wall that belongs to me. I'll be back to collect it sometime." She turned and walked down the grand staircase.

Dixie ran over to the window. Below she saw Reiko go over to her motorcycle, wind her white scarf around her neck, shrug herself into her black leather jacket, mount up. She revved the engine repeatedly, until it whined like a soul in torment. It seemed then as if she paused to look up, but the Texan couldn't be sure. The musical horn sounded in several tones, and the next moment the bike had roared away into the night. Dixie stared until long after the red taillight had vanished into the darkness.

Aisha watched her a little anxiously. Then she asked, "So how's it going, sista?"

Dixie ignored the question, and seemed to be talking more to herself. "She said she's comin' back. For the belt. Well, fine. 'Cos when she does I'm gonna tan her hide so good she won't know who she's supposed to be from one moment to the next. That should fix things pretty good, one way or another."

"That's the spirit, Dix'!" Aisha declared enthusiastically. "That smart mouthed bitch deserves a sound thrashing anyways!"

The Texan began to walk away towards the stairs, ignoring Aisha. Not taking the hint, the singer followed at her elbow. "Well, it's just us two left," she continued blithely. "Like old times for sure."

Dixie turned long enough to give her a discouraging stare. "What you talkin' about, Aisha?" she growled. "There is no us anymore."

"Now doan take like that, Dix', old girl!" Aisha refused to be intimidated. "I mean, what ya gonna do for a tag partner now Miss Sour Puss has taken herself outa the runnin'?"

"Aisha, unless I dreamt it, we kicked your arse outa the tournament." Dixie began descending the stairs.

"Hell, that ain't nothin' to worry about! I'll just have me a li'l word with the committee. You'll see, Rodeo Drive'll be back in action in no time."

From the room above, the sound of twin sets of footsteps pattering down the stairs could be heard. On the floor lay two discarded masks and a mobile phone. The two voices echoed up from below, becoming fainter all the time.

"The day any of that'll happen they'll be readying me for ma coffin. So don't be getting any ideas …"

"Dix' c'mon!"

"Quit yer hollerin'. Sounds like your latest CD to be sure."

"Now you've really done it!"

"Aw, just lemme be!"

"Don't you walk away from me! Cowgirl, you get back here! Dix'? Dix'!"

The voices died away, leaving the mansion in silence, moonlight forming a pool around the three objects that remained. Then Reiko's phone began to play Junction Rainy Blue.

"Whoa!" Candy Cane threw her hands in front of her face with exaggerated melodrama. "How did you sneak up on me like that, dude?"

Benikage considered whether the question was meant seriously, then decided it was rhetorical. She said, "You need not fear me."

Shaking her head, Candy said wonderingly, "Maybe I should if you're gonna keep doing that." She stretched herself, pulling the black PVC suit tight across her breasts.

The ninja was somewhat taken aback by the teenager's facetious tone. Her recent experiences must surely have been traumatic. She continued to speak in what she hoped would be a reassuring manner. "I will not harm you. I am an enemy to your enemy."

Candy gave her what she knew her teacher would call an 'old fashioned look'. "You sure talk like someone in a Kung Fu movie." She conjured up a grin. "I guess that figures. Well, Miss Spencer taught us a saying about your enemy's enemy being your friend. Is that what you're trying to tell me? 'Cos I'm a little short on friends right now."

Friends? Benikage had barely got used to the idea that she might have friends. Treason on every hand looked to have ended that dream forever. Her masters' treachery, leading to her own betrayal of her clan. The transformation into a stranger of the person she had come to care most about. How could she trust or be trusted by anyone? But however crushed into the dust they might appear, dreams seemed to have the ability to spring up anew. Perhaps so they can be trampled down again, she thought bitterly.

She said, "I am here to help you. I can escort you to your teacher. She has been looking for you, and will take you under her protection."

"Miss Spencer?" Candy sounded incredulous. "She came after me? Well that beats everything!" Her expression became thoughtful. "I never realised she cared for me so much."

It is for the best, of course, that she is with someone familiar after her ordeals. Even if ….

Aloud she said, "She has encountered … difficulties, and even suffering in her search. She will need you as much as you need her."

Candy made a sour face. She said, "Look I'm grateful to her and all for trying. She's a good lady, at bottom. But, seriously, she's also an awful square. She'll be keelhauling me back to school and, man, am I jacked off with it. Why can't people just let me do the things I want?"

"Then your family …"

"My foster parents are even worse jerks. I tell you, I'm better off on my own."

She does not understand what that truly means.

Candy looked Benikage up and down, in a peculiarly calculating way. She asked, "So, what, are you a real ninja, or just a freak who looks like one?"

She's making me smile when I have almost nothing to laugh about.

"I am a ninja no longer. I have broken from my organisation, and now they will hunt me down to punish me."

"You mean kill you, don't you? I bet those guys don't take any prisoners. Or if they do, it's so they can … hang you up by your toes over a slow fire, or something." Candy's imagination seemed fired up. "Gee, so you're on the run, a fugitive? How cool is that!"

She has watched too many movies; she is little more than a girl.

"I will soon be in great danger, and so will you, if you remain with me. That is why I must deliver you to someone who will care for you."

Candy's red lips shaped themselves into a stubborn line. "No way, dude, you're not delivering me to anyone."

"But … what else can I do?"

Suddenly changing tack, Candy adopted a softer wheedling tone. She said, "You can take me with you, of course."

What is this madness?

"I tell you, you will be in great peril as long as you are with me."

Candy shook her head again sceptically, mimicking the ninja's voice. "Well it looks like I'm gonna be 'in great peril' anyway. Do you really think that whack nurse is gonna leave any of us alone? And where's the first place she's gonna look for me? Home and school."

Benikage paused to consider. The girl certainly had a clear way of thinking.

"Nevertheless …"

Pushing her argument like a lawyer cross-examining a witness, Candy continued, "Isn't it better that I'm with someone who knows the score, who can handle herself, can teach me to protect myself better?"

Teach? I could do this, yet she is perhaps too old to begin the full training.

"Not that I'm exactly helpless right now."

The way she jumped from the window, landing without harm to herself …

With the air of someone catching a sudden inspiration, Candy said excitedly, "And who are they all going to be looking for? A circus-show act and a red headed punk? But not a mother and her cute blonde daughter."

She has the kind of low cunning for which we were rightly feared and despised.

Benikage laughed suddenly. "Or even a daughter with her father."

Their eyes met, for the first time in accord, as though a partnership had been formed.

Candy said, "Ninja are masters of disguise, right?"

Benikage nodded, "It is true."

Candy said, "We could go anywhere, be whoever we wanted to be."

Perhaps even live something like a normal life?

"Then when they've forgotten about us, we'll make that creep pay!"

Revenge. It is a new thing for me. To make Dr Cutter suffer, to utterly defeat and humiliate her. How sweet that sounds.

Benikage felt herself coming to a decision. But she said only, "Do you know how to write poetry?"

Candy said, "I guess. Miss Spencer has given us enough lessons."

She has chosen this. When did anyone ask me what I truly wanted?

Stretching herself, and shrugging back her shoulders, the girl walked a few steps away from Benikage, looking around her reflectively.

"Gee, you could write a cool poem right now. I mean, look at the moon. It's like a great white boat, floating in a dark storm. And the light falling on the cypresses, like silver poured over black bones. The sound of the night breeze whispering in their leaves. You know, I think I prefer the darkness more than the daytime."

"So do I," said Benikage, and smiled.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil, for thou art with me …

Psalm 23, verse 4.


*Goalkeepers may not, as Camu suggested, fear the penalty, but authors often fear the ending. This may be because it's almost inevitable that some readers will be disappointed by it. For the consolation of those of you who are, and for the edification of the rest, I present this short meditation on the fate of the two main characters, explaining something of the reasoning behind it.

Reiko Hinomoto/Rowdy Reiko: Reiko has learnt a lot about herself and her relationships with others during the course of the story. But this knowledge has been hard to acquire and even harder to take on board. It has not brought her happiness. For her to return to her previous life with Dixie would be impossible in the short run, and she is faced with a long and difficult road before there's any hope of a turning.

Benikage/Yasha: Like Reiko, she has learned much, in particular how to appreciate life outside of her calling as a ninja and, with Reiko's help, to reconnect with her deepest feelings. While she has suffered what might seem the ultimate betrayal, her experiences have allowed her to adapt to the new situation. Denied a happy ending with Reiko, her unexpected partnership with Candy Cane gives her a chance of a new and emotionally richer life.

For those who might be hoping that some of the loose ends will be tied up, I have to tell you that I've no plans for another sequel. However I would not be surprised to find myself writing more Rumble Roses fics in the future.

As is customary, I would like to thank all my reviewers, including one who felt he couldn't bear to read to the end. I hope he will eventually manage to do so in his own good time.*