"Master." Marshall Boyd, as his students called him, looked up in surprise. Leaning against the doorframe, a carryall over one shoulder and a soft smile on his face, was Johnny Cage.
"Johnny." Boyd smiled. He got up to offer the movie star a handshake. "I haven't seen you in, well, over a year. What have you been up to?"
"You'd never believe me if I told you. But for the past three months? I've been cashing out of the movie business."
Marshall was dumb-struck. "Sit down. I'll get some tea and we'll talk."
"Thanks." Johnny settled into the visitor's chair with an ease he wouldn't have had a year ago. Somehow having met a god had erased some deep-rooted fears. Of course, those things had been replaced with new doubts, fears and longing, but he'd ignore those for now.
They sat sipping tea for a long moment. "So what caused this change of heart?"
Johnny sighed. "The thrill is gone." He shifted subtly in his seat. "I got involved in something. And when it was over the movies just didn't do anything for me anymore. The things are nice, but. . ." he drifted off. He shook his head.
"What was this something?"
"I can't talk about it. I'm sorry."
"Why not? Are you involved in something illegal, Johnny?" Marshall sat forward. Johnny was his best student.
"No. Not illegal. Or immoral. Just. . . hard and secret. I'm sorry."
"Something knocked the mask off didn't it? You can't go back to being 'Johnny Cage' anymore. Did you enter a competition?"
Boyd frowned. "Where have you been? The rags say you went to learn how to fight in some Chinese temple."
"I didn't go anywhere to learn to fight, but I did spend two months in the Temple of Light. Not exactly by choice."
"You were hurt?"
"No. Just among friends Someplace where my name didn't mean what it means here."
"Why did you stay so long if you weren't happy?"
"Because I didn't want to come home to an empty house and an empty life. Not even a goldfish to come home to. And the person who has my heart doesn't know what to do with it."
"Broken heart doesn't equal closing up shop. Not from you. No way, Johnny."
"Not broken. Not bruised." A look of blatant determination crossed his face. "he thinks he's high and mighty and knows what's best for me. He thinks I'm just confused. And I'm about ready to scream to the sky, but he won't even answer my calls. God." Johnny put down his mug. "I'm sorry. I didn't. . ."
"I didn't know you were gay."
"I'm not generally speaking. That's the problem. I'm attached to the person, not the gender."
"And he thinks it's just a novelty for you?" Boyd set his cup down. "Johnny, listen to me. I've never seen you like this. Even when you were an angry teen, you weren't this conflicted. I know there's something else. You're welcome to teach classes. Your room upstairs I still free."
"Thank you, Master."
"Welcome home, Johnny."
Cage grinned and picked up his bag.
Johnny settled into the rhythm of Master Boyd's studio quickly. There were the usual awe-struck teens and a wealth of skeptical parents, but he treated them kindly. It was when he sparred with the upper level students that he seemed to come alive.
Slowly, the parents started to come around. Nowhere in the building was a single ad featuring his name. Johnny was just another teacher. The only reporter who came nosing around was treated to a front row seat on the curb, watching parents stream in and out with their kids, but never the rumored Johnny Cage.
"Sorry, no camera," the student minding the door stated. "Sensei doesn't allow them. They disrupt the classes. You can watch if you lock it up in 'the safe'." The teen pointed to the desk. A simple series of numbered boxes guarded by a receptionist was behind it.
Reluctantly, the reporter did so. He slipped off his shoes and joined the group watching the class. He blinked. Yes, the blond teacher was Johnny Cage, that was certain. But this young man was cheerful and friendly. He moved the class through their exercises. As the class broke up a few of the watching men gathered near Cage.
"Thought your moves were as fake as your name," the largest one, Brett Stanton, said.
"You know better than that, Brett. Don't you remember getting your ass kicked? Oh, that's right, no one knows who did that, do they?"
"Donnerson kicked your ass?" Jeff Corbin laughed. "I'd pay to see that."
"No charge," Cage stated. "So, what's your life been like, Billy?" Johnny turned to Billy Martins -- general hanger-on and lackey. Not much had changed since high-school, Johnny reflected.
"Married. Divorced. Married. You know the story." Billy had always liked Johnny.
Marshall Boyd cleared his throat. All four men plus the reporter looked at him. "Advanced class in five, Johnny."
Brett caught Johnny by the upper arm. "Come by the old place sometime soon."
"I'm sorry, we need to move the mats. If you'll please step out of the room for a few minutes." None of the men wanted to cross Boyd. The watchers cleared out. "Don't let them provoke you."
"I'm not planning on getting into any fights."
"Promise me, Johnny."
"I promise. But if he takes the first swing, I'll kick his ass again."
"You sound like a teenager."
"He made my life a living hell in high school. He hates me."
"Surely you've dealt with idiots before."
"Yes." Johnny sulked for a brief moment. He liked being petulant. It suited him. "I know what you're saying. Somehow, I expected him to change."
"He works in the public planning office," Boyd said with a shrug as if that explained it all. "What old place was he talking about?"
"It's nothing. Besides, I'm not going to do something stupid like meet him. He wants to see me fall."
"You have grown up."
"Don't remind me. Staffs?"
"Yes." The intermediate class took their places and Boyd took the lead with Mark, one of his best teachers. Johnny's head tipped to the side. He listened carefully. It was raining. He grinned. He left the studio and walked in the rain, not caring where he was heading. He stared up at the house his parents had rented. It had been given a face-lift. The rain soaked his hair and clothes, but it was warm on his skin and he didn't mind one bit. The first crack of thunder relaxed him further. It didn't matter if Rayden didn't love Johnny, he'd still never let a storm hurt him.
"James Cohen of the _Moon_Report_," Johnny responded. "My lawyer is still suing you for libel."
"We settled out of court."
Johnny snorted. "What do you want? Isn't ruining my career good enough for you? Or were you just making sure that you have?"
Cohen winced. "Come on, all those fight scenes are choreographed."
"All fight scenes are choreographed. That doesn't mean the actors don't know what they're doing." Cage still hadn't turned. Cohen was starting to get nervous. "If you'd done *any* research you'd know how good I am. You would have talked to my teacher or checked my competition records. No, you willfully ignored all the facts. I'm not giving you the satisfaction of ruining this too. I left the movies, the life-style. All of it. If you so much as sell a picture of me, I'll slap a restraining order on you and personally sue you for invasion of privacy. Maybe I'll just ask Sheriff Bronson to take you in on stalking charges."
Cohen studied the actor. Well, ex-actor it seemed. "Why did you leave?"
"The bullshit leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don't know what I'm going to do, but nothing more in movies, ever. Johnny Cage is gone."
"So this is your home-town, huh?"
"Somehow I always thought you were form California, not east-bumblefuck, Minnesota."
"It's actually a pretty big place. Suburbs. Nice. Friendly."
"Mundane. So if I look up Johnny Cage at the high school. . ."
"You'll be visiting the nice, friendly sheriff."
"Good to know. Have a good night, Johnny."
Cohen smirked. He wasn't leaving this story. No way in Hell. Let those other fumblers go after the new kids. He was going to solve the mystery of Johnny Cage -- the most effective disappearance since Jimmy Hoffa, according to _The_Sun_. The slackers. He'd tracked Cage to the Temple of Light. From there it was just a few questions to get to his hometown.
Johnny calculated how long he'd have before the storm ended. He did need to talk to Bill Bronson. He walked on, eventually coming to he sheriff's station. "Can I see Sheriff Bronson?"
"Sure, Mr. Cage. Let me buzz him."
Liu Kang closed his eyes in sorrow. He'd have to tell Johnny personally, since didn't answer his phone anymore. Or maybe not, he thought as Rayden flashed into human form.
Johnny opened the telegram.
"Sonya dead stop memorial Tuesday at 2 in LA stop Kang stop"
"Damn," he swore softly. He fished for his cellphone and laughed at himself. He'd thrown in into the sea before he left California. He went to the front desk. The studio was closed for the night. He almost wished Jimmy Cohen's face would show up in the window. He wanted to do some target practice. He opened the phone book.
The memorial service was small. Sonya Blade didn't have much family and her team was small and elite. Without even consciously thinking about it, Johnny Cage and Liu Kang withdrew to a quiet corner. "What happened?" Johnny asked.
"It was a standard operation. She went down fighting. I hear it was Kano's organization."
Cage frowned. "Bastard. Was she assigned or was she still out for revenge?"
Kang shrugged. "Who knows? It could have been both." They both paused for a long moment. "How are you, really?"
"Better and worse."
Liu blinked. "You're starting to sound like Rayden."
"I'm a little less lost about who I am. But Iím still. . ." the actor paused. "I'm still sure, Liu."
"Oh, Johnny, only you. I swear it, only you would fall for a god."
"I can't help it. I even sit out in the rain now."
"You did that all the time."
"Not before. My hair turns to straw after it gets wet. But it's comforting."
"He's just worried that you're not in love, just lost."
"What did he expect? For me not to change after all that?"
"Not really. I grew up at the temple. I just went home."
Johnny laughed softly. "I wish I knew where that was."
Liu dropped his chin. "I thought you went home."
"I went to the place I grew up. My home hasn't been there since I was ten. Master Boyd puts up with me, but it will never be really home." Johnny shook his head. "Why isn't Rayden. . ." A crash of thunder interrupted him. "Ah, there he is."
Liu watched the smile grow on Johnny's face. "You're crazy. Absolutely crazy. It'll never work out."
"Just have some faith, Kang. Just have some faith."
"So who was she?" Boyd asked when Cage returned.
"A friend, sort of. I met her a few months ago."
"At the temple?"
"Sort of. She was a cop. A good cop. But looking for revenge for he partner." He shrugged.
"Not a romantic interest?" Boyd's brows rose.
"Not *romantic* exactly."
"She had wonderful . . . attitude."
"And this might be why your love interest doesnít believe you?"
"No, no chemistry. Friends, yes. Lovers, no way."
"What's his name?"
Johnny blinked at the blunt question. He put down his fork and looked his mentor in the eye for a long moment. "Rayden."
"Older or younger?"
"Why are you here, not there?"
"He wants me to sort myself out."
"Prove it's not just an experiment or a crush."
"I'll get back to you on that."
Boyd nodded. "And you'll tell me the truth."
"It's his truth to tell."
Johnny escaped to the park. He looked out at the green grass. There was something almost sad about the little patch of nature. There was no life to it. "No one comes here," a familiar voice said next to Johnny's ear.
"Someone should. Hello, Rayden."
"Walk with me, Johnny Cage."
"Of course." They walked through the park and into the town. Rayden was wearing blue and black, traditional Chinese clothes. That garnered a few bemused stares, but Rayden's white hair made him seem old enough that no one questioned it.
"You aren't comfortable here."
"Why did you come?"
"I can see that." Johnny was wearing jeans with a pale green tee shirt, not a designer label to be found.
"Isn't that what you wanted? You're the one who threw things in my face. Once I looked at that mirror did you think I'd stay the same?" Cage was getting angry. "Life was fine, but not great. Now it's not even fine."
"Johnny, you aren't the first mortal to insist that they love me."
"So? Why can't you accept it?"
"Because it will destroy you. You cannot be Johnny Cage and be my lover."
"And your point?"
"You will have to give up everything."
To the people they passed, they were speaking Chinese. Johnny never noticed the odd looks it got him. He'd never been good with languages.
"Again, your point? I don't have much left to give up."
"Liu? Master Boyd?"
"Liu, I admit, won't be hard to see, but Boyd. . ."
"It doesnít matter. I hadn't seen him for years. He only took me in because no one else would. He doesn't need me here."
"What family? When do we leave?"
"Johnny. . ."
"You don't want me."
"I do want you. I do love you. But mortals and immortals should not mix."
"Tell Kitana that."
Rayden smiled. The lightening sparked in his eyes. "I'll ask you in a year."
Boyd watched Johnny looking through his accounts. "What aren't you telling me, Johnny?"
"Iím leaving in a year."
"You talked to him?"
"What's your proof?"
"If I'm still willing to leave here in a year. He thinks I'll be too attached to life."
"Johnny Cage, are you lusting after a monk?"
The ex-star grinned. "No, they frown on sex or love attachments." He snorted. "That's not me."
"I'd like to meet this guy."
"We'll see. His choice."
"Johnny." Boyd's voice was sharp.
Boyd sighed. "I want to meet him before you disappear again."
"Master," Johnny was at a loss for words. "Master, I can't choose for him."
"This isn't like you."
"Maybe this is more like me than I've ever been."
"Johnny, since your folks died I've been taking care of you. I didn't take it lightly then, I don't take it lightly now. I'm worried about you. More worried than when I hauled you out of the sheriff's senior year."
Boyd sat down across from his best friend's son. "I may not have always been the most approachable person in your life, but I've been there through a lot of shit. I have never, never seen you this quiet. I'm getting worried."
"Master. . . Marshall," Johnny paused. "I watched a good fighter, several good fighters, die because they were outmatched by ruthless killers. I just came back from the funeral of a cop who was outmatched by an organization that killed her partner. After you see things like that, movies are meaningless. There's no reason for masks in my life anymore."
Marshall Boyd went very still. "Johnny, have you been competing?"
"Don't lie to me, Jonathon."
"Only one competition."
"Death cage matches."
"I plead the fifth."
"And you met this Rayden there?"
"Hong Kong actually."
"Christ, Johnny, this is insane. Were you or were you not involved in some form of mortal combat?"
A smile crossed Johnny's lips. "Yes."
"And you wonder why I'm worried about you?"
"You were worried before you knew that," Cage pointed out, thoroughly enjoying the flush of frustration in Boyd's face.
"Why do you insist on pushing my buttons?"
"Because you get this little tic by your eye." Johnny pointed to the corner of his right eye. "It's fun."
"What are you up to?"
"Arranging my finances." The star shrugged. "I'm deciding which investments to keep."
"Why? So you can run off with your monk to places unknown? Johnny, at least when you were in Hollywood I knew what you were up to. Where are you planning to go where the scandal rags won't make a mess of your relationship?"
Johnny shrugged. "In a couple of years, no one is going to care about Johnny Cage at all. He'll be gone. Iím dropping the stage name. There's only one reporter I'm worried about. He's been hanging around the town. He'll drift off once he realizes that this isn't a publicity stunt. And if I disappear in a year again, no one will think it's strange. All the teachers are better than I am. In a year you'll have another one or two from the advanced class who can help out with the kids. The parents will be convinced it was just a retreat for me and that's it. Bill won't have to worry about pulling a reporter up on stalking charges for me." He looked back at his statements.
"I'll miss you."
"Like you have for the past twenty years?"
"You kept in touch."
"No I didn't. You kept in touch with me. I always respond to letters. Even fan letters. Now, everyone, even my fans think I've disappeared. In a year, folks here will think of me as Donnerson again and it's for the best."
"Johnny, I'm worried about you. By your own admission things have changed a lot in the last year for you. I don't want you to turn your back on everything you've done just because you think you're in love."
Johnny looked up, a scowl on his face. "I am in love, Marshall. I have never been as sure of anything as I am of that. This isn't some fancy that won't last out a month. I've been in lust before. Well, I've been in lust a lot," he said with a disarming grin. "But Rayden? I'm willing to wait for him. I'd be willing to wait ten years or twenty. I'll die before I give up on him."
Marshall sighed. He pulled out a chair on the other side of the table. "Can I help?"
Johnny considered. "Yes, actually, is there anything you need to keep your doors open?"
"Are you suggesting you bankroll the dojo?"
"I can set up a fund that can help out with it at least. Like the trust I set up for your retirement. If you ever decide to retire that is. I can just see you in twenty years, walking the lines with a cane and still smacking down students who think they can best you."
"I wouldn't say no to it. But not a lot, just a little bit to help out. If you aren't planning on working, I don't want to jeopardize your future."
"Give me credit, Master, I know what I'm doing."
"I should have told you to quit the arts and be a CPA. At least I'd know where you were."
"And I'd have gotten killed by the bully bastards I went to high school with. They always wanted to jump me."
"You scared them, Johnny. You still do."
"Right. Next you'll tell me my hair's gone green."
"Well, if you didn't dye it with peroxide."
"Hey! That was uncalled for." Johnny pointed with his pen in mock-annoyance. It had been an old and comfortable joke between them and Marshall was glad to see it still was. "Let me get my financial planner on the phone and we'll figure this out."
The time seemed to move like molasses as far as Johnny was concerned. It had been an agonizing three months since Rayden had made his pronouncement. Johnny was at the front desk because the usual receptionist was having her baby. There was a storm on the horizon and the ex-actor was feeling more cheerful than he had when he'd woken to a perfect, sunny day. He smiled at the parents who were attempting to get their kids into their shoes. It was one of the busiest times at the dojo. The youngest kids were leaving and the next level - middle schoolers - were coming in.
The front door banged open and he turned to give the person there a piece of his mind. Everyone knew better than to slam the door. He froze as he saw the guns. He jumped the desk. "Inside now!" he snapped at the students. They scrambled away, leaving their things. The guns flashed at the ceiling. "Now, guys, surely we can be reasonable about this," he said, smiling brightly at them. He waved the parents through the door and the gunmen let them go.
"Time to die," the obviously in-charge one said.
"Get a better writer." Johnny snapped into action, throwing the closest thing to hand at the leader. That gave him just enough time to take down one of the thugs before the door behind him opened.
"What is going on here?" Boyd demanded. He was answered by a bullet. He seemed to collapse in slow motion. Johnny stopped thinking and started fighting. He kept fighting in fluid form until the gunmen were on the floor. Then, he collapsed from the bullets in his leg and shoulder.
The rain pounded on the window and lightening crackled across the sky as Johnny surfaced. He blinked soft blue eyes. "About time you woke up," Liu said, standing up. "Do you know where you are?"
"Hospital?" Johnny croaked.
"Yeah. Let me call the nurse for you."
"He, and yes."
Johnny grinned weakly at that. "The children?"
Liu shook his head. "They think he was dead when he fell. The bullet hit his heart."
Liu raised a brow. But before he could say anything, the nurse came in.
"Mr. Donnerson, I'm Tim. I'll be looking after you until next shift. Let me just take your vitals, and then we'll get you some water. You, out. I'll call when I'm done."
"No," Liu said calmly. Rayden had told him to protect Johnny, and that's what he was going to do. No nurse in the world could scare him compared to what Rayden would do if Johnny were left alone.
Tim blinked as if he'd never heard the word. "Mr. Donnerson, can I call you Johnny?"
The blond nodded.
"Johnny, do you want him to stay or go?"
"Okay." Tim worked quickly to take the vital signs. "Looking good. Let me get you some ice. Then, I'll tell you what's happening." Tim let the ice chips melt in Johnny's mouth. "You were shot twice. We got the bullets out, but you're going to need some PT and some time to heal. You'll be on bedrest for awhile. Then, you'll have to start doing PT. Once the doctor gives the all clear, you'll be on crutches until your leg heals properly. The bullet chipped the bone in your shoulder, but went all the way through. I'll let the doctor discuss the rest of it with you, okay?"
"What am I on?"
"Just a little bit of morphine and penicillin."
Liu gave Johnny's arm a squeeze as the doctor came in. "I'm Dr. Angela Wade. I'm the surgeon who took the bullets out of you." She smirked at him. "I consider it payback for dumping on the night of the prom."
"Johnny," she replied in the same whine. "You will listen to me. You will do as your told. Or, I will go to the reporters who are salivating all over the hospital waiting room and tell them all about your high school sweethearts."
"Yes, ma'am," Johnny said. He tried for his trademark smile, but it fell flat. "Master Boyd. Did he suffer?"
Her face softened into a more comforting smile. "It was almost instant from what the ME says. I thought you'd want to know. I'm sorry, Johnny. I know what he meant to you." She took a step forward. "Now, let's talk about how you get sprung from my clutches this time." She glanced at Liu. "And you can tell me about your boyfriend."
Johnny snorted. "Liu's straight. Last I heard he was still pining over his ex. And hopefully you'll never meet my boyfriend."
"I knew it. I knew it in school, but you lied so freaking well."
"I'll sleep with pretty much anything," Johnny said with a smirk. "Too bad you didn't meet the standards I had back then."
"You slept with Karla Petrie!"
"Exactly. She was a slut. You were too picky."
"Yet, I was dating you. What the Hell was I thinking?"
"He's cute and he can beat the crap out of the captain of the football team the next time he puts a hand up my skirt?"
"Yeah, actually, that was it." She rested her hand on the prone man's ankle. She got back to the business of outlining the recovery plan. Eventually, she wound down. Johnny was starting to look drawn. "Liu, will you be staying now that he's awake?"
Liu nodded. He suddenly smirked. "This is the only way I'll have him pinned down long enough to find out what's true and what's not in the stories he's told me about high school."
"She's not married yet. Maybe you could date her. Make Kit angry."
"Do I look like I want my head cut off?"
"I'll send the nurse in with another dose of morphine. Get some rest. We'll re-evaluate everything tomorrow. And the Sheriff has warned all the journalists that if they interfere with the operation of the hospital or with your recovery, he'll haul them away."
"Want me to call your agent?"
"Nope. I'm out of the business."
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