ASHES OF THE PHOENIX

written by Victar, e-mail vctr113062@aol.com
Victar's Archive:
http://www.victarfanfics.com


Chapter 9: Broken Promises


    First the man takes a drink, and then the drink takes a drink, and finally the drink takes the man.
         -Chinese saying


         Lei had never seen Jun this angry before.
         Accusation burned in her almond-shaped ginger eyes. Building fury traced irate lines in her face and constricted her graceful figure. Her wrath was as fierce as the inner pain that constantly wracked him.
         "You threw our fight!" she shouted, every word a searing blast of fire.
         "Uh, I'm not sure what you're-"
         "Our match in the Iron Fist Tournament! You were attacking so foolishly, relying on the same pattern over and over. You never reacted to anything I did. I couldn't be sure before, but now I know you're - you're not that STUPID!"
         "Whoa kid, take it easy with the compliments or my ego will explode," the cop muttered, rolling his eyes.
         "Why did you do it, Lei? Was it because you didn't have the stomach to fight back against a weak, helpless little girl?"
         "Well, I wouldn't say that-"
         "You say it every time I turn around! You won't even speak my name; it's always 'kid' this, or 'kid' that!"
         "You're inflating this out of proportion," Lei soothed, spreading his hands in a gesture of peace. "So I took our match easy on you. So what?"
         Jun gritted her teeth and clenched her fists, grappling with her emotions. After a few seconds of internal conflict, she slowly brought her hands to her sides. "At least now, you admit it. Why did you lie to me before?"
         "Huh?" Lei was visibly startled. His mahogany eyes widened; one hand unconsciously clutched at his collar. "Hey, I never-"
         "You said that you underestimated me, that you'd lost your edge! Neither of those are true, are they?"
         "I never flat-out said either of those things," Lei refuted, shaking his head. "Maybe you jumped to those conclusions, but that's hardly my fault, is it? I can't be responsible for what you think."
         "You misled me!"
         "You misled yourself," he corrected, folding his arms.
         "And you fed lies to Kung Lao, too! You told him that you lost to me because you had an 'off day'!"
         "No. My exact words were, 'Haven't you ever had an off day?' It was a question, not a statement. A question can't be proven true or false, and therefore can't be a lie."
         "But you meant for both him and me to take it the wrong way, didn't you? Didn't you? The essence of a lie is the intent to deceive, and that intent was in your heart!"
         Lei bowed his head and covered his eyes, blacking out the painful sight of her rage.
         "Why can't you be honest?" Jun's demand seared through the fog that clouded his mind.
         "If I had been, would you have thrown a tantrum?"
         Jun's anger settled into a steady simmer. "I could answer 'no,' but you wouldn't believe me, would you? Because as far as you're concerned, I'm just an undisciplined 'kid.' That's all I'll ever be to you, isn't it? A little girl in need of a chaperone!"
         She abruptly spun on her heels, and stalked out of the White Lotus temple.
         "Hey... hey! Where are you going?" A sudden, nervous lurch nearly made the cop trip over his own feet as he stumbled after her. "You can't walk away from me. You're supposed to be guarding against my curse, remember? Use the bracelet and call someone to take over if you have to, but don't just-"
         "Urusai!" she snapped, without breaking stride.
         "Okay, okay, you want to know why I threw our fight? Because Kazuya was kidnapping anyone who became eliminated from his Iron Caltrop or whatever Tournament, that's why. It was the only lead I had on the bastard, so in order to set myself up as bait I had to lose a match."
         "Why throw your fight with me?" Jun charged, sparing him a brief, spiteful glare. "Why not any of the other four finalists you fought?"
         "Um, give me a moment." Lei scratched his head and looked at the sky, piecing together fragmented memories of the Tournament.
         "I didn't know about the kidnappings at first. Then this guy I beat - Sichuan Chinese, experienced martial arts teacher, very speedy, quick temper - was supposed to meet with me and compare notes on Kazuya's henchmen, especially Baek. He never showed. Drank myself under the table waiting for him.
         "That was when I began to have suspicions. I picked up more stories of sudden disappearances, and a pattern started to form. So I decided to set myself up, but my next three opponents were an outlaw swordsman, a freaking Cold War robot, and a bone-breaking assassin. There was no reasoning with any of them; believe me, I tried. If I'd let down my guard, they probably would have killed me.
         "But you - kid, you don't have the bloodlust. Hell, I don't know what you were doing in that blasted murderous competition in the first place. I figured that if I left myself open for a quick defeat, you wouldn't hurt me too much. And I was right."
         Tell her the rest of it, crooned a quiet whisper in Lei's head. Tell her how you couldn't bear to risk letting such a beautiful, caring person fall into Kazuya's clutches. The cop clasped one hand tightly over his brow, attempting to smother the bodiless sound.
         "You defaulted to me because you think I'm harmless?" Jun hissed through clenched teeth.
         "Eh, well-"
         "A harmless little 'kid'?"
         "You're no killer," Lei stated, folding his arms behind his back and dropping his eyes. "I know. I'd know even if I hadn't studied your psyche profile, because I've killed people."
         "Soo desu. If you give me one more lecture about your curse-"
         "Before that. I killed an innocent young woman once."
         Jun came to a halt. Wary concern creased her brow.
         "I'd been on the force for barely a month. The operation was supposed to be by the numbers. We'd finally closed in on - eh, you wouldn't recognize the gangster's name, but he'd violated parole and we had a warrant for his arrest. Better yet, he'd made the very big mistake of getting away from his mob bodyguards, because he wanted to be alone with his mistress. We'd been tipped off, and we thought we had him cold.
         "No one told us that his mistress was one of his bodyguards.
         "She just seemed to conjure that tiny pistol out of nowhere. Took me completely by surprise. She was probably more scared than I was, because her aim wasn't very good. Or maybe her little .22 automatic couldn't target worth dirt, I don't know.
         "Well, I tried to shoot the damn weapon out of her hand, but she was directly across from me. My bullet didn't stop at her hand; it went through her arm, and into her chest... there wasn't enough time to get her to the hospital.
         "Poor thing was barely out of her teens, too."
         He sighed, and shook his head. "Dammit, if only I'd been a little quicker on the uptake, I could have stopped her without hurting her. I've practiced sleight-of-hand stuff ever since, trying to familiarize myself with all the tricks, so I'll never be surprised like that again."
         Jun bit her lip. For a moment, her anger seemed to recede.
         "This woman... did she shoot first?"
         "Yeah. Got me, too - here and here." The cop indicated the edge of his right collarbone, and his left hamstring. "I was laid up for a few weeks. Once in a while, the old wounds act up, and I have to be careful which joints I stress."
         "And you still describe her as 'innocent'?"
         "Everyone's innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, kid. Everyone."
         Her indignation abruptly came flooding back, darkening her face and congealing in her eyes. "My name is Jun Kazama. Use it when you address me."
         Lei turned away his face.
         "Say my name!" she directed, putting her hands on hips. "If you know my name, say it this instant!"
         Is it such a terrible request? prompted the silent voice.
         "This is the last time I will ask. If you can ever see me as anything more than a little child, then say my name."
         Lei peeked at her from the corner of his eye. The night breeze became a stiff wind, howling faintly as it stirred her raven hair. She was emotionally poised on the thin bridge that divided affection from repulsion, affinity from antipathy.
         It would be so easy.
         Just tell her how beautiful she was. How her charm and benevolence had begun to stir feelings he didn't understand. How one of the few ways he could hold those sentiments in check was to verbally categorize her as something off-limits: a 'kid.'
         You can never love her. You can never feel love, joy, or contentment again; only the crushing void. If she knew, I think she would cry for you.
         The memory of Liu Kang's calm pronouncement tipped the balance. Members of the White Lotus Society never lie.
         Lei shook his head.
         "Tamarimasen!" Jun cried. Her hands clawed at her hair, and she pulled as if to tear it free from her scalp. Despair strained her voice. "I thought that in time, you could come to respect me. I thought I was your friend. After all I've done, you won't... you'll never..."
         Lei croaked in an anxious whisper, "Please, kid-"
         When he called her that detestable label one more time, the last of her restraint dissolved. She could bear it no longer. Days of suppressed exasperation and entreaties fallen upon deaf ears detonated within her. Glimmers of frustrated tears formed in her eyes. The whole of her outrage and desperation surged into a scream.
         "I HATE YOU!"
         Lei became stiff. His eyes squeezed themselves shut; one hand pressed against his forehead, and his forearm dug deep into the pit of his stomach. He shivered as though trapped in a winter storm. All of Sanctuary's scorn, which he had endured and pushed to the bottom of his mind, came bubbling to the surface.
         You are disgrace to our profession.
         It's your fault they died.
         You're lying through your teeth.
         You're one of them!
         I HATE YOU!
         The cop drew and exhaled a long breath. When his eyes flickered open, all warmth had drained from them, leaving only dull sheets of ice. He took his hand away from his forehead and stared at it; it trembled uncontrollably.
         "Join the club," he coldly exhorted, clenching his fingers into a quivering fist. Then he veered away from Jun at a brisk pace.
         "Hey..." She watched him go for several seconds before reality sank in, then dashed to catch up. "Hey! You can't walk away from me; I'm guarding against your curse! Come back here! Where in Sanctuary do you think you're going, anyway?"
         "Wô xüyào jiû," he growled, without turning his head.
         "And what is that supposed to mean? You know I don't speak-"
         Jun broke off, realizing that she did understand. She'd heard him say those words before.
         They had just reached the edge of Sanctuary's central square. Most of the lights and activity came from a single building. A few people lounged against its front wall, puffing their cigarettes. Various levels of animated chatter came from past the swinging front doors. Gold and red paint decorated a wooden-plank sign. It had no words, only the picture of a half-full shot glass. The night wind carried the revolting smell of fermented grain.
         "No." Jun shook her head in a burst of panic. "You mustn't go near that place, Lei; you're an alcoholic-"
         "Damn straight, and I can't take one more second of being dry."
         "But you swore you would never drink agai-"
         "I don't care! If you can break your promises, I can break mine!" Two soldiers and a Native American, disturbed from their smoking, turned their heads.
         "What are you talking about? I haven't - Lei, don't go in there!"
         If she really hated you, would she try to stop you now?
         "Shut up, voice," Lei rebuked, shoving open the swinging doors. "You're the last thing I want to hear."



         Chief Thunder listened to crackling flame.
         An altar of fire rose before him, fueled with dry tinder-branches and grass stalks. The summit of the golden flame reached well above his head, and the great altar was so wide four men would have to join hands to encircle it. Stylized pictograms of spirits and totem animals were carved into the holder's base.
         Chief Thunder crossed his hand-axes and chanted, sending out his will. Through the fire, he could feel the warmth of Sanctuary's hallowed ground. Echoes of sunken power beckoned; he stretched out his arms, calling so that the strength of his life-force would fill where past reverberations had faded.
         Someone was behind him.
         The presence was a stealthy one, hidden from the senses of sight or sound, yet the fire whispered and fluttered in response to its approach. Chief Thunder spun about, ready to bury a hand-axe in the newcomer's neck.
         "Who goes there!?"
         "Just me," Michelle returned. No fear showed in her cinnamon-brown eyes, despite the keen steel edge held dangerously close to her throat.
         Chief Thunder retracted the blade. "What are you doing here? And how did you get past my guards?"
         Michelle dropped to one knee. "Forgive me, my Chief. I used concealment magic to sneak past your guards. My purpose was to show you how lax all of Sanctuary has become. If I were an enemy, I could have struck while your back was turned and shown you no mercy."
         "You could have tried. I was aware of you from the moment you walked within the shadow of my fires. Rise, and tell me what is on your mind."
         The young warrior stood. "Nightwolf is not here. Sanctuary's protective spells are weakening in his absence; I can feel it. Not by much, not yet, but the rate of decay will increase the longer he is gone."
         "That is to be expected. I am compensating for the loss of our Mystery Man."
         "With all due respect, my Chief, you are only one person. You're trying to carry by yourself a burden you once shared with Nightwolf, aren't you?"
         "Fear not. The power of the Phoenix sustains me. And now you have revealed the true reason for your visit - you have come once more to petition for the privilege of maintaining Sanctuary's mystic defenses, have you not?"
         "I-"
         "It matters not whether you formally request a hearing or creep in unannounced. My answer is ever the same. Your heart is darkened with grief and frantic with rage; of late, the emotions have rooted themselves within you many times more deeply than ever before. Until you have purified your soul, I cannot let you approach this altar."
         "But-"
         "I have spoken."
         "-I'm the only remaining citizen of the Nation with the natural aptitude to do it! You'll completely exhaust yourself well before Nightwolf comes back. Assuming he comes back at all!"
         Her eyes momentarily closed in thought, then sprang open. "What about the rest of the Chosen Ones, then? Can't Liu Kang and Kung Lao help you?"
         "Should I grow weary beyond my limits, I will formally request their aid. Yet the wards that keep Sanctuary safe are not lightly entrusted to foreign hands. I have faith that Nightwolf will return before that becomes necessary."
         "And if he doesn't? Remember, my Chief, you have invited a demon within Sanctuary's inner bounds. What will you do, if it attacks while you are weakened from a long night of sorcery?"
         "The demon is no threat. It cannot betray its Oath."
         "Why not? Do you really think that witch Jun can contain it? She can't even kill!"
         "Enough. It is time for you to go." Chief Thunder's resolute tone, strong and true as the side of a mountain, would brook no argument.
         Michelle gritted her teeth, swallowed, and nodded. As she turned to leave, the Chief's deep voice sounded again, this time quietly resonant with commiseration.
         "I am sorry about Catsclaw."
         Her fingernails compressed deep creases in her palms. "Don't be. He's in a better place than any of us, now."



         Catsclaw had given up pulling against the iron shackles that chained him to the wall of this hated dungeon, or yelling insults at his captors. It was a waste of effort, and he was determined to save his strength for the right time and place.
         The sergeant spared his new cellmate a glance.
         "Mori," they had called him when they dragged him in here, kicking and punching him as casually as a thresher beats his harvest. They spat a great many other things to him as well, but Catsclaw did not speak enough Japanese to decipher their insults.
         Mori was an unusually stocky Japanese man, perhaps mid to late forties, dressed in the same midnight suit as most other Mishima syndicate henchmen. A coarse, unkempt mustache and beard covered his lower face. His right arm had been set in a crude wooden splint. Catsclaw could discern little more in the gloomy darkness, though he assumed Mori's many bruises would heal within a few hours.
         "Quit staring at me or I'll flay the skin off your bones," Mori groaned, painfully.
         "I am not your enemy."
         "No. You are a mangy pit bull waiting to be set against the other animals. They put me here because they know it is a disgrace to have the likes of you for a neighbor. I should not be in this cage!"
         "So why are you?"
         "Go to hell!"
         Catsclaw leaned against the wall, and leisurely clasped his hands behind his head. "Well, if you really don't want to tell me..."
         "He never gave a damn before." Mori tried to sit up; his strength failed him, and the best he could do was turn his head toward the barred window in the cell door.
         "Who?"
         "The silver-haired devil! For as long as I've known, he cares nothing of how we treat the prisoners. Then all of a sudden, he takes it into his head to tell us what we can or cannot do. Pretentious little upstart! He isn't even a true Mishima, just a gaijin dog trained to act like one!"
         Catsclaw unclasped his hands and dug his fingernails into the cracks running along the stone floor.
         "You're right. Chaolan is a dog. And I'm going to kill him like one." The sergeant's eyes closed, resisting a burning itch that formed in their corners. "Dark Mane's spirit cannot rest until he dies."



         Michelle pushed open the bar's swinging doors and swept the environment in a single glance.
         The place appeared surprisingly clean and tidy, though any dirt would have been invisible in the dim lighting. There was a constant background mumble as the mostly soldier patrons engaged in small talk, or interacted with brightly lit machines in the back. The press of the crowd made her a touch claustrophobic, and she almost reeled from heady liquor vapors.
         Michelle wrinkled her nose. This place was distasteful, but she needed to do something to assuage her grief, doubts, and resentment. Every time someone examined her essence and declared her unworthy, a little more disgust poured into the mix, until she felt ready to scream.
         She moved to the front counter and took a stool. In a flat, hard voice, she instructed the bartender to serve her a Bloody Mary.
         "It won' make th' pain go away, y'know."
         The young warrior shifted her eyes. Out of their corners, she saw the demon seated on the bar stool next to her. He was slouched all the way forward, resting his face and folded arms on the rough wooden grain of the countertop. His left hand curled tightly around a shotglass half-full of golden-brown liquid. Judging from the shaky tremor in his fingers, the flush in his skin, and the slur that soaked his muffled voice, he was quite drunk.
         Michelle searched for the demon's keeper. She quickly spotted Jun, alone in a booth on the far side of the room. Both the witch's hands gripped a tall, thin-sided tumbler. Jun made eye contact with Michelle for a fraction of a second, then quietly keyed a sequence into her dull silver bracelet.
         Shadows could not hide the strife creasing the witch's face. For once in her life, perky, self-righteous, I-can-feel-the-anger-in-you Miss Kazama was stewing in her own rage. Well, good.
         The bartender served Michelle a brimming red goblet. There was something repugnantly pulpy about its smell. Michelle sampled a mouthful of the crimson stuff, and grimaced at the awful taste - a burning, stringent chemical mixed with coagulated-
         "This is vegetable juice!" she spat, wiping her mouth and slamming her drink back down. Liquid red splashed out of the goblet.
         "Wha'd y' expec'? Real blood?" Lei adjusted his head without rasing it. The ash-grey forelock in his hair fell to one side, exposing the black mark on his skin.
         Michelle drew her fingers through her spilled drink and raised them, watching crimson droplets hang from her nails. "I still want to kill you, demon. You're the same kind of monster that... that murdered... you have no idea how much self-restraint I am exercising right this moment! I want so badly to tear off your head!"
         "So why don' ya?" Neither apprehension nor hostility clouded the reply, only a distant wisp of curiosity.
         "Too many witnesses."
         "Ah. Goo' reas'n." Lei struggled to lift his head off the counter. It was a touch-and-go effort; he had to brace his upper body with wobbly arms. "Bu' seri'usly, M'chelle, 'm... eh, 'm seri'us. Th' drug won' make it stop hurtin'. It'll jus' make y' high f'r a li'l while. Then it'll alllll come crashin' down."
         "Why are you telling me this?"
         "'Cause y' nev'r hadda drink b'fore in y'r life."
         Michelle licked the blood-colored droplets off her fingers. "What makes you say that?"
         The cop chuckled; it was a raspy, somewhat forced sound.
         "S'funny. Ev'ry time someone messes wi' m' head, I get m' own look a' wha' they're like on th' inside. I don' think s' poss'ble t' read anoth'r p'rson's mind withou' showin' a piece a' y'r own.
         "K'zuya's a bloody ruthless bast'rd. To'ally c'nsumed wi' rage. More 'n anythin' else, he hates his fath'r. I tell ya, if Heihachi really is alive, s' not 'cause K'zuya didn' try. K'zuya 'riginally b'came 'King a' th' Iron Palm Tree' when he beat th' stuffin' outta his ol' man an' pitched 'im inna biiiiig ravine.
         "Liu Kang's obsessed wi' one thing: d'stroyin' all 'is en'mies, an' by th' way, I think 'm on th' list. S'all he really cares abou'. Kung Lao's been running th' Whi' Poppy 'r wha'ev'r S'ciety almos' on 'is own ev'r since th' 'poc'lypse, 'cause Kang don' give a damn anymore.
         "An' you, M'chelle..." Lei clumsily lifted his shotglass to his lips. Quivers in his hand and arm spilled a third of its contents on himself.
         The young warrior became tense with alarm. Anxiety briefly crossed her face, and her brow furrowed in lightning calculation. "What did you see?"
         "Well..." He did not so much set the glass down as let his arm go slack, until the counter stopped its fall.
         "Tell me!" she demanded, baring her teeth in a threatening snarl.
         "Notta whole lot. I know y've nev'r got drunk b'fore; somethin' abou' y' 's too ord'rly an' c'ntrolled f'r tha'. Bu' I felt y' hurtin' bad, on th' inside. Th' kinda pain tha' comes from losin' ev'rythin' y' ev'r loved."
         Michelle turned her face away, determined not to let him know how right he was. Her eyes itched with that strange, recurring burn; rubbing them helped relieve the soreness. She doubted she would ever become used to the sensation.
         "'M sorry. Didn' mean t' upset you. Look, if it makes y'feel any bett'r t' hate me, y'go right on ahead an' do tha'. Bu' if y' wan' m' advice-"
         "I don't."
         "-don' ev'n star' wi' th' drinkin'. S' not worth it. B'sides, aren't Indians s'posed t' be more suscept'ble t' it than mos' oth'r folks?"
         "Look who's talking. I'm surprised Jun let you come here."
         "Hey. She don' own me."
         "She's been dragging you around Sanctuary all day long, hasn't she? You may as well have a leash around your neck."
         "Eh, I don' have t' do wha' she tells me. I don'. Y'hear? I don' have t' do wha' anyone tells me!" Lei shouted, slamming his open hand on the counter.
         Insight sparkled in Michelle's cinnamon-brown eyes. "The two of you had a lovers' quarrel."
         Lei's eyebrows came together. He scratched his scalp, a ragged, unsteady action that nearly unbalanced him.
         "Right noun, wrong adje'tive," he finally slurred, dipping his head in an exaggerated nod.
         "Oh, come now. I saw you both sneak back inside Sanctuary."
         "Wasn' sneakin'. Walked pas' th' guards."
         "You and she must have had quite a time together, alone, late at night, in the romantic woodlands."
         "Quit talkin' 'n riddles. 'M too smashed t' figure 'em out," Lei muttered, swilling his drink.
         "I imagine you had all the privacy you needed to consummate your carnal desires."
         Lei's eyes widened in mid-swallow; he choked and spewed a mouthful of golden-brown liquor as he fell off his bar stool.
         "Y'got - <hack> - an ov'rac'ive 'magination," Lei wheezed, fumbling for the counter and using it as a handhold.
         Michelle smiled maliciously. Watching him stumble in a tortured fluster was even more amusing than she'd thought it would be. "Don't play dumb. I've seen how she dotes on you, and I've touched your disgusting morass of a mind. You're in love with-"
         "Ssh!" Lei had almost climbed all the way back up; when he made an uncoordinated hushing motion with one hand, he collapsed again. "Tha's not 'xac'ly right. I can't be feelin' wha' y' say, an' y'know damn well why."
         "Hm... on second thought, I can see how being Kazuya's slave would inhibit you. He probably wants his fiancée back untouched."
         "No, no, no! 'M no one's slave, 'specially not t' tha' evil bast'rd! I wanna d'stroy 'im!" With a concentrated heave, Lei hauled himself back on the stool.
         "That's what they all say. You may as well enjoy Jun's affections while you can, because sooner or later the Nation will have to kill you."
         Lei shook, then cradled his spinning head. "Y'got th' kid wrong. She isn' inneres'ed in th' likes a' me."
         "Oh? Then why has she been so sweet on you? Everyone else hates your guts," Michelle probed, nastily.
         "Eh, y' haddit right th' firs' time, M'chelle - t' her, 'm jus' a pet she fished outta th' sew'rs. Prob'ly 'cause she felt sorry f'r me." Lei raised his shotglass to his lips for five seconds, then slapped it down in disgust when he realized it was empty. "I hate bein' pitied, I really do.
         "Y' wanna know wha' we was really doin' in th' woods? She wanted me t' meet all her oth'r pet critt'rs." He lifted the pitch of his voice into a reedy mockery of Jun's. "'Hiya Rover, an' Fido, an' Rex. Thi' is Lei, th' new dog. Now play nice, 'kay?'"
         Michelle laughed, not at the joke, but at the misery that underscored it.
         Lei joined in with his own drunken hysterics, but they soon disintegrated into a forlorn whimper. His head slumped forward. "I... always knew she'd get tired a' me, soon'r 'r lat'r. I jus' didn' think it'd cut so deep."
         "Poor little lovesick puppy," Michelle sneered.
         "No. S' not like tha', I can't really be 'n love wi' her, 'cause a' wha' K'zuya did t' me. Nah, wha' 'm feelin' 's jus'... desp'ration. Gotta be. She can't cure th' pain 'r th' cold, bu' sometimes bein' near her c'n take m' mind off it f'r a while. A shor' while. 'M not able t' off'r her real love; 'm jus' desp'rate f'r a d'straction." Quivering resolution mixed with doubtful uncertainty troubled his voice, as if he were struggling to convince himself.
         "What difference does it make?"
         Lei flopped his arms on the counter and rested his head upon them, like before. Seconds added up to a whole minute. Michelle was nearly convinced that he'd passed out, when she heard his creaking murmur.
         "I used t' have a reputation."
         "If you refer to yourself as 'Super Police' one more time, I will make you eat broken glass."
         "Not tha'. Used t' have a rep f'r bein' a... a... whazza word? No morals. A hussy?"
         Michelle rubbed her finger against the edge of her goblet, causing it to ring quietly. "'Hussy' is female. I think the word you're looking for is 'lecher.'"
         "Wha'ev'r. M' rep was 'xaggerated, an' not by me - if I hadda nickel f'r ev'ry joke Jiao told, I'd... I'd a' spent all m' nickels long ago onna drinkin' binge. Tha's how it worked; I'd get drunk, an' if some freewheelin' woman d'cided she liked me f'r the night, wha' th' hell. Long 's she wasn' a hook'r, tha' is. Thi' sorta thing didn' really happen all tha' often, bu' I did kinda attrac' th' gals. Think s' 'cause a' m' looks. They could pr'tend they're wi' a movie star. Heh. Y'know, I really hate bein' called 'Jackie.' 'Specially by someone in-"
         "Don't say it."
         "Hey, 'm drunk. I c'n say wha'ev'r I wan', 'cause 'm not gonna 'member much a' anythin' t'morrow. Anyway, tha' all changed when I really did fall f'r someone. An' I thought she loved me too, bu'..."
         The back of his hand tightened, and he drew his fingernails across the splintering counter. "It wasn' her fault. I hadda reputation f'r not carin'. An' I was nervous abou' tellin' her m' feelin's; she didn' know how I really thought a' her 'till I was on my knee, off'rin' th' mos' 'xpens've diamon' ring I could get legal. She used me f'r fun, an' walked away, an' it wasn' her fault..." He rubbed his eyes.
         "It hurt. Hurt worse 'n anythin' I'd ev'r felt, a' th' time. No one, no one ev'r d'serves t' be hurt like tha', 'specially not th' only p'rson in Sanct'ary 's been really nice t' me. An' she would be hurt; she's not th' type who don' care. She's not wha' I used t' be. Bu' she hates me now, so it don' matt'r anyway. Any oth'r questions?"
         Michelle sipped her Bloody Mary, and was about to respond when she heard a thunderously heavy tread.
         She turned on her stool in time to see T. Hawk enter the bar. The human Colossus had to hunch his back in order to fit through the doorway's low arch. Though the ceiling was high enough for him to stand comfortably, he could have touched it with his palm. His umber eyes reflected overwrought ill will. Other patrons stumbled over themselves to clear a path for the wrestler, as he approached Michelle.
         "I received your message," he told her, in a voice coated with unease. "What are you doing here?"
         "What's it look like? I'm having a drink with the devil."
         "But you despise him."
         "Sometimes people like t' be aroun' people they d'spise," Lei mumbled, without lifting his head. "Makes 'em feel superior. An' if 'm not here t' make oth'rs feel bett'r abou' themselves, then why?"
         T. Hawk gritted his teeth; his fingers curled and uncurled. The wrestler finally wrenched his gaze off the besotted demon and addressed Michelle. "Let us leave this place at once."
         "No. You made me wait; now it's your turn. Go sit in the back. I will join you after I finish my drink."
         "But I came as quickly as I-"
         "I said, after I finish," Michelle intoned, forcefully setting her glass down.
         Hawk heaved a sigh and shuffled toward the back.
         "Y'know M'chelle, I think he likes you," the cop muttered.
         "Does he?"
         "Yeah. I don' think he'd be so quick t' do wha' y' said if he didn'. D'ya like him?"
         "Hmph. He doesn't lecture me because I don't feel as happy-goody-goody as everybody else wants me to feel; I'll give him that much."
         The cop cleared his throat, pushed up his head, and changed the inflection of his voice to a remarkably accurate imitation of Kung Lao's. "Well, there y' have it. Y'like him, an' he likes you."
         Lei coughed and patted his chest, until his usual deep tone of voice came back. "So, why's a pretty gal like you still hangin' wi' a drunk like me, eh? Wai', don' tell me - s' m' scintillatin' conv'rsation, right?" A leering smile crossed his face.
         Michelle stared at him. "Are you making a pass at me?"
         "Huh?" He thumped his fingers thoughtfully on the countertop. "Heh. If I was, wha'd be y'r answ'r?"
         "I would hit you."
         "Then maybe I oughtta jus' let y' wond'r, huh?" Lei chuckled and slapped his knee. "Eh, who 'm I tryin' t' fool. May 's well shave m' head an' join Lao's mon'stery. 'Cept then I wouldn' be allowed t' drink. Can't have tha', c'n I? Now lessee, where'd tha' bartend'r go?" He languidly peered from one end of the counter to the other.
         "Ah hell, I'll jus' have yours." Lei picked up Michelle's Bloody Mary and downed half its contents in a single gulp, before she could think to react.
         "You-!"
         "Now y' don' have t' worry abou' finishin' y'r drink," he grinned, affably. "I'll take care a' it f'r ya, ev'n if s' weak an' watered-down compared t' wha' I like."
         Michelle's hands knotted. "I'd tell you to give it back, but now I wouldn't touch it with a stick."
         Lei's smile vanished. "M'chelle, I mean it. Don' ev'n star' wi' thi' stuff. It won'-"
         A shivering fit interrupted him. He bent in half, pressing his free arm into his gut, below the ribcage.
         "It won' stop th' cold," he gasped, through chattering teeth. "Won' fill th' void. Wish it could. Should know by now tha' it don' help, any more than it helped th' las' hunnred times I got drunk." Moistened trails trickled from the corners of his eyes.
         "You're breaking my heart," she sniffed, contemptuously.
         Lei's head snapped up. Internal agony wrenched at his countenance, but now something different superseded the suffering - a rush of righteous indignation. "Hey. I nev'r broke anyone's heart."
         Michelle's eyebrows rose in skepticism.
         "Y'heard me," Lei rumbled, easing off the bar stool. He had to grip the counter with one hand to remain standing. His other hand rocked the half-full Bloody Mary in a grip so tremulous, red liquid splashed over the cup's sides and stained his clothing. "No matt'r wha' y' think a' me, there's at leas' one thing I c'n be proud of: I nev'r broke anyone's heart. Nev'r duped 'r pressured anyone jus' t' sleep wi' her. Nev'r used anyone who wasn' usin' me in 'xac'ly th' same way. I NEV'R BROKE ANYONE'S HEART! Y'hear!?"
         "I hear you," Michelle snorted.
         "Well. So there." Lei nearly missed the stool when he sat back down.
         "But there might be someone in Antarctica who doesn't."
         "If he comes an' gets me a real drink, I'll repeat it f'r 'im," Lei grumbled, distastefully eyeing the Bloody Mary. He shrugged and swallowed another gulp.
         Michelle laced her fingers, and rested her chin on them. "I'm sick of your prattling. How much longer are you going to stay here, wallowing in your misery?"
         "Eh, dunno. Prob'ly 'till I pass out onna floor."
         Her eyes flashed, and her lips flattened into a thin line. "Not good enough. I want you out of my sight, now."
         "Hey, I was here firs'. If y' don' like tha', sit somewhere else."
         "No. I won't abide your presence one moment longer. You are leaving the premises."
         "Oh, yeah? Lemme ask y' somethin', M'chelle: if she-" Lei jerked his thumb in Jun's general direction. "-if th' one p'rson who's been nice t' me can't talk me outta drinkin' m'self blind, d'ya really think y' gotta snowball's chance 'n hell? Y'- agck!"
         Michelle cut off his slurred rambling when she seized his hair with both hands and wrenched his face close to hers. "Unlike Jun, I have no compunctions about causing you harm. If you do not crawl under a rock this instant, I will make you suffer, until she drags your broken wreck of a body home."
         "No kiddin'?" Lei weakly tried to twitch out of her hair-pull and failed, wincing. "Well, I got - ow! - news f'r ya. I already been through more 'n y' could - ah! - ev'r hope t' dish out. So go ahead. Do y'r worst!"



         An apprehensive quiver rippled through Mori when the cell door creaked open.
         Catsclaw turned his head. He glowered at the tall, limber silhouette in the doorway, recognizing Lee Chaolan at once. Four of the syndicate's musclemen followed him inside, including Ishida and Kimura.
         "Sate doo surun desu ka, waka-shujin?" Mori snarled. <You've already had me beaten as badly as I ever gave that old geezer.>
         Lee drew on a long cigarette poised between his second and third fingers. <This one time, perhaps. But I'll wager you haven't attacked him only once, have you? How many times have you taken your whip to the helpless prisoners, Mori? And what about the animals you train? I've seen you lash them until they cry out. I used to know... someone... who would be outraged by that.>
         <So? If you're going to kill me, get it over with quickly!>
         <The thought had crossed my mind. It is not what you've done that upsets me; it's that you disobeyed my orders to do it. You knew I had forbidden any further torture in these halls, yet you attacked Wang Jinrey, expecting his whip-marks to heal well before anyone figured out the difference. Completely intolerable. Yet I did promise that I would not kill you.>
         Lee's stagnant auburn eyes scrutinized the defiant animal keeper. <Ishida. Kimura. Has his arm knit yet?>
         The two bodyguards tore the splint off Mori's arm and forced him to stand.
         <Yes, young master. He is fine,> they chorused in perfect unison.
         <Good. Mori, your sentence is to face the Proving. Pass, and you will see my brother's New Era; fail, and you obviously won't. In either case, you will have paid for your crimes.>
         <Who do you want me to fight?>
         <Kuma.>
         Mori face twisted with fear. He shook so violently that his chains rattled. <No. Not Kuma.>
         <Why so worried? You should know him better than anyone else. Or maybe that is why?> Lee smiled with callous amusement.
         <But I... I...> Mori frantically twisted his head, searching for any venue of escape. <I'm not the next in line for the Proving! This one has been here longer! He should face Kuma first!> The animal keeper pointed to Catsclaw, who raised an uncomprehending eyebrow.
         <Though his external wounds have long since closed, his grief is another matter. But you wouldn't know about that, would you Mori? To be hurt on the inside, one must first care about others, yet you and I have both given up that petty capability. Ishida, get him over here.>
         Two black-clad assistants unlocked Mori's chains and fitted him with handcuffs. There was no opportunity for Mori to struggle; Ishida trained a long-barreled rifle on him at all times. Lee's guards roughly shoved the helpless captive toward their master.
         "Wait. What are you going to do with him?" Catsclaw rasped.
         "You really want to know? Then I'll let you see for yourself," mused Lee. <Kimura! Bring this one along as well.>



         T. Hawk searched the bar for a friendly face; the closest he could find was Jun, who fixed her eyes firmly on the tumbler she gripped with both hands. He approached her booth, trying his best to shut out the overpowering sights and smells that surrounded him.
         "Do you mind if...?" he muttered.
         She shook her head a tiny bit. Hawk squeezed into the other side of the booth. It was a tight fit, and the table's edge dug into his stomach.
         "You..." Jun paused, swallowed a mouthful, and tried again. "You can take over now." She undid the dull silver bracelet around her wrist. "If he gives you any trouble, use this; it's more humane than choking him."
         "What?"
         "Didn't Sonya send you, in response to my signal?"
         "Your assumption is wrong. Lieutenant Blade has made it clear that the demon is not my responsibility."
         "Then I guess I'll have to wait a little longer. All I know is that I need some time off. I..." Her shoulders hunched as she replaced the bracelet. "I can't take it anymore."
         Hawk eyed her glass. "The fiend has driven you to drink."
         "This?" Jun stared into her container. "It's spring water. I no longer drink alcohol, not even sake on New Year's."
         Curious, Hawk peered at her tumbler. The perfectly clear liquid within did not give off the strong tang of beer or liquor, and Jun herself showed no sign of being intoxicated.
         "I can order you one if you like, Hawk."
         "No, that won't be..." the wrestler covered his eyes. "Sorry. It is this place. By the Great Maker, what is she doing here?"
         "Michelle?" Jun sipped her water and cast a sidelong glance across the room. "Right now, she's sharing her drink with Lei."
         "What!?" T. Hawk's hands jarred the table as he twisted his neck around, watching Lei swallow Michelle's Bloody Mary.
         "I don't understand it, either. They've been laughing and joking together for a while now. I thought she hated him."
         "So did I. What could they be talking about?"
         "I don't know. This place is so noisy and stuffy that I can hardly feel the wind spirits." She listlessly drummed her fingernails on the tabletop. Her voice dropped to a tiny, forlorn ghost of its former self.
         "Hawk, why is Lei drinking again?"
         "Because he is sick. He needs no other reason."
         "When I tried to remind him that he'd gone clean, he said that he didn't care because I broke my promise. What promise?"
         "It doesn't matter, Jun. The final choice was his; you must not blame yourself."
         "He just brushed me off and marched right in here. What was I supposed to do, beat him up? Turn the bracelet on him? Lock him in a cell?"
         "Those ideas have appeal."
         "Why doesn't he respect me? He won't even call me by my name. Every time I confronted him about it, he'd pretend he couldn't hear me, until finally I lost my temper, and-"
         Jun's eyes widened. Her hands shook, and her face paled from anguish. "Shimatta!"
         "What is wrong?"
         "In... in the sewers. When I first persuaded Lei to join us, I promised that I would never yell at him again. I... I broke my word." Tears congealed in her eyes. "That has to be it; I didn't realize what I was-"
         "It is not your fault."
         "But I went back on my word; I made him start drinking again!"
         Lei's drunken bluster of, "I NEV'R BROKE ANYONE'S HEART!" surged above the murmur of the crowd. Jun sniffed back a half-formed sob.
         "Listen to me, Jun. It is the nature of an alcoholic to blame his failings on others. Do not fall into the trap. If you take the guilt for his actions upon your own shoulders, then it will poison you as surely as his disease poisons him." The emphatic, sonorous underscore to T. Hawk's voice commanded her attention. She did not need the wind spirits' insight to know that his intensity came from the depths of bitter wisdom.
         "That doesn't change what I've done."
         "Bah! Yours was an unreasonable promise to begin with. You are kindhearted and patient by nature, Jun, but even you are only human. Like all other humans, you have a boiling point, to which he clearly pushed you. Yet do not be fooled - you cannot control his decisions. You did not force him to come here, and you do not make him bend his elbow."
         The high-pitched cacophony of breaking glass caused Jun and T. Hawk to turn their heads.
         Lei had dropped the Bloody Mary. The goblet's shattered pieces spread outward in a spiral, while its crimson contents splashed on his loafers and the floor. His hands hung limp at his sides. His knees sagged. He might have fallen over backward if not for Michelle, whose fingers tugged firmly at his hair.
         They were kissing. Michelle's eyes screwed shut with gut-wrenching revulsion; Lei's stared blankly.
         Jun's fingers tightened. A flash of vivid white Ki engulfed her right hand; her tumbler cracked into jagged shards, lacerating her skin.
         Shock consumed T. Hawk's face.
         Michelle screamed a wailing shriek. "Beast! DON'T TOUCH ME!"
         The young warrior wrenched her pursed lips away from Lei's. She used her grasp on his hair to hold him in place for a powerful, open-handed slap to his cheek, let go, and hit him again with the back of her hand. Lei grunted from the stinging collision and flopped on the floor. A reddening welt offset the drunken flush of his face; dull maroon blood dribbled from the corner of his lip.
         T. Hawk's surprise immediately deepened to urgent concern. He squeezed out of the narrow booth and rushed to Michelle's side, calling, "Are you all right!?"
         "It was horrible! Hawk, I'm scared," Michelle cried, clinging to his arm. "I was only talking to him, when suddenly he - he forced me to- I think I'm going to be sick!" Her shoulders cringed, and she covered her mouth with one hand.
         "Huh?" Lei mumbled, in a daze.
         "Do not worry. The demon will not harm you again. He will never dare to harm anyone again, once I am finished with him!" The wrestler smacked his fist into his open palm.
         Lei stared at them both with total incomprehension.
         "Dunno wha's goin' on, bu' Hawk, if y' wanna be her boyfrien', then be careful," he winced, gingerly touching his bloody mouth. "I think she likes it rough- urk!"
         Lei's slur became a choking sputter as T. Hawk wrapped his massive hands around the cop's throat, lifted him high, and throttled him up and down like a goose.
         "Hawk!" Jun's piercing cry froze the wrestler in place, but he did not let Lei go.
         "Yes, Jun?"
         "Agck-hghhh..." Lei gasped.
         Jun's teeth dug into her lower lip. Blood and water dripped from her right hand, leaving a splotched trail as she approached. "You... you must stop this; his curse could trigger if you strike him on the chest or stomach-"
         "Then I will not strike him there." With both arms, T. Hawk flung Lei into the booth Jun had vacated. Lei was far too drunk to even attempt a proper breakfall; the booth table's edge cut into his back, and his head banged against the hard surface.
         "'Kay, so y'like bein' rough too..." he groaned, sliding to the floor. "Tha' settles it. Y'r perfec' f'r each oth'r."
         "Stay with Jun," T. Hawk instructed Michelle. "This won't take long."
         Advancing upon Lei, T. Hawk adopted an unorthodox battle stance. He bent and suspended his arms at shoulder level, with the palms parallel to the ground and pointing toward his enemy. His hands traced small circles, in rhythm with his tread.
         "Hawk, no!" Jun's targeted her bracelet on the wrestler. "If you don't step away, I'll have to-"
         "Oh, so y' wanna fight?" Lei growled, painfully pulling himself to his feet. He perched on his right leg, lifting his left knee above the waist. His right arm curved above his head, while his left clutched at the table's edge to hold himself upright. "Great! I didn' take y' on b'fore 'cause a' m' Oath, bu' 'm assumin' y'r laws lemme accept a challenge!"
         His life is naught save a hollow mockery. You refuse to allow him death. The fight is all he has left; would you take that from him as well?
         Liu Kang's calm, candid description of Lei reverberated in Jun's mind. Members of the White Lotus Society never lie. No longer sure of the right course of action, she pulled the bracelet closer to her body.
         T. Hawk scoffed, "'Challenge'? This is not a duel. Predators such as you are beneath that!"
         "'M warnin' ya!" Pivoting his heel toward his enemy, Lei hopped forward, flattened his back and extended his left leg in a wobbly, out-of-range side kick. His arms flailed in a losing battle to maintain his balance. "Give up now, 'r feel th' pow'r a' m' style!"
         "Try it."
         Unsteady, asymmetrical ripples of azure Chi flared about Lei's bent leg.
         "PHOENIX KIIIIIICK!" he screeched, as he spun in an erratic counterclockwise circle. His momentum peaked in a twirling, jumping kick that whipped his right heel in a savage crescent slash-
         -or would have, had the wrestler waited patiently for him to complete his slow aerial turn. Instead, T. Hawk rotated with calculated speed and precision, thrusting his own leg in an upward-angled line while his torso dipped low for counterbalance. T. Hawk's mule kick caught Lei in the small of the back, knocking him out of midair.
         "Ugh!" The cop landed on his shoulder and rolled to his knees. "Aright, now y'r askin' f'r it!" Springing from a crouch, he lunged forward, staggering and drunkenly swinging his fists at the larger man.
         T. Hawk easily pushed aside the sluggish, misdirected blows, one after another. Lei stumbled past the wrestler and blinked in confusion, looking left and right for an enemy who happened to be directly behind him. T. Hawk's open-handed chop to the back of his neck transformed the world from a watery blur into an explosion of red sparks.
         "You inhuman monster!" T. Hawk grabbed Lei's collar with his right hand, dragging him within reach. Holding him close in a Titan grip, T. Hawk chambered his left elbow and repeatedly smashed it into the cop's face.
         "We have opened our home to you, despite the sickness that stains your breath, and how do you repay us? By wantonly assaulting one of our own! Your evil is a deadly threat to Sanctuary! You embody everything I DESPISE!" Each blow snapped Lei's head backwards, leaving a blue-purple bruise or a trickle of blood. The cop absorbed the savagery in relative silence, broken only by the occasional gagging noise.
         Jun hid her face from the horrible sight, but when she tried to summon the will to intervene, her voice died to a creak.
         "Hawk really does like me, don't you think?" Michelle mused, as she watched the violent spectacle with relish. Her lips parted, exposing her even teeth in a heartless smile. It was not the expression of a terrified victim.
         "Nani...?" Jun's eyebrows dipped low, as the significance of the details became clear. "You... it was you! Lei wasn't holding on to you in any way, but you were pulling him toward you by the hair! He didn't force that kiss on you at all; you forced it on him!"
         Michelle shrugged. "You were too weak to keep your pet demon away from his precious booze, so I sacrificed myself. Once Hawk is done with him, you should have no trouble making him go home. We both get what we want. Kill two birds with one rock."
         Jun shook her head in disbelief. "This can't be happening. If you want Hawk's affections that badly, surely there must be some other way to get his attention."
         "Don't pretend you're upset. I know how badly your pet offended you when he spurned you for a liquor bottle. You're glad he's getting punished-"
         "No, that's not-"
         "-or else you'd have stopped it by now."
         Swallowing her protests, Jun compelled herself to look upon the brutality once more. Lei's nose was smashed to a pulpy wreck, and his pupils rolled behind the upper eyelids. His arms jerked reflexively with successive impacts.
         "Hawk!" she cried, assertively.
         The wrestler paused in his vehemence. Lei became completely flaccid in T. Hawk's grip. The cop's head sagged all the way back; blood from his nose reversed its flow, coursing across his forehead instead of down his chin. A dry rattle came from his throat.
         "I tire of these interruptions, Jun." The wrestler sounded more than a little irritated.
         You're being manipulated. If she told him, would he believe her? She scarcely believed it.
         "I... think you can put him down now. Isn't that right, Michelle?" Jun pressed, with a piercing stare toward the young warrior.
         Michelle shivered and clasped her hands together. The cruel smile Jun had seen an instant ago was gone, subsumed by the appearance of nervousness.
         "I guess so," she agreed, meekly.
         "Very well. But only because you consent to it," the wrestler rumbled, nodding to Michelle.
         Shifting his grip to around Lei's chin, T. Hawk made a short hop, using only one massive arm to whip the cop's unresponsive body in a vertical circle. Lei's back and heels smacked against the ceiling. The wrestler smashed the back of Lei's head into the ground. Aftershocks vibrated in the floor. Lei's limbs sprawled listlessly.
         "Just one moment." Without wasting effort, the wrestler riffled through Lei's blazer and extracted the cop's holstered .38 revolver. "We never should have armed this monster. He is already too great a menace."
         "Let's go, Hawk." Michelle practically beamed with warmth and gratitude. "That was very brave of you, confronting a demon just for me."
         "Uh, it was nothing. Anyone else would have done the same," T. Hawk replied, a trifle embarrassed.
         "HssssSSSSSSS..."
         Jun's heart caught in her throat when the sibilant, furious hissing came from Lei's broken form. The last time she'd heard him make that noise had been moments before he tried to kill her.
         Targeting her bracelet on the cop, she was shocked to see him unchanged.
         Lei drunkenly shambled to his feet. He swayed as he stood. His face was a battered wreck, and crimson blood streamed from his mangled nose. One eye was swollen shut; both sported black rings. But that was all. His skin retained its washed-out tan, his open eye kept its mahogany iris, and his hands did not grow wickedly recurved claws. He was not transforming into a demon.
         She kept her bracelet trained on him, just in case.
         T. Hawk whirled about, anticipating a fresh assault.
         "HsssSSSHAH! Ssh-hhgck..." Lei's shoulders heaved. He pressed both arms against his midsection and doubled in half, spitting blood and vomit.
         T. Hawk frowned. Lei raised his head and wiped his mouth, then pointed his stained index finger accusingly at the wrestler.
         "gckh... y'... y' hyp'crite!" coughed the cop.
         "Haven't you had enough?"
         "Y're... a... freakin'... HYP'CRITE! Y' don' wanna protec' Sanct'ary, y' jus' wanna 'mpress y'r girlfrien'! Y' don' really b'lieve 'm a threa' t' y'r home, 'r else y'd... y'd..."
         Lei shuddered. Inner torment threatened to collapse him, yet somehow he remained standing. "Y'd take tha' gun outta th' holst'r an' use it. Now."
         The wrestler's eyes became dangerously narrow.
         "Y'heard me! I've f'gured it alllll out. Y'r Oath don' stop y' from hurtin' 'r killin' someone if y' think y'r actin' in Sanct'ary's bes' innerests, does it? 'r were y' jus' showin' off when y' beat me up?"
         Jun lowered her bracelet. "Masaka..."
         "Ignore him, Hawk," Michelle urged, linking her arm with his. "I need to talk to you about-"
         The wrestler drew away from her and shook his head. "Keep back. This isn't over yet."
         "But-" the young warrior's eyes grew wide as songbird eggs when T. Hawk opened the holster and withdrew the loaded weapon. "You can't-!"
         "Hush."
         "Tha's th' one," Lei raggedly hissed, eyeing his own revolver. "Wha' y' waitin' f'r? 'M s'posed t' be K'zuya's pawn, 'member? 'M jus' waitin' f'r th' chance t' murder innocen' people, an' if y' let me live, tha's wha' 'm gonna do! Isn' tha' wha' y' think? Don' tell me y' have doubts!"
         Michelle edged toward Jun.
         "This wasn't supposed to happen!" the young warrior whispered, her eyes darting to the two men. "Use the bracelet; stop it now!"
         "Michelle..."
         "A beating is one thing, but are you going to let Hawk kill your pet? You're colder than I thought." Bafflement crossed Michelle's face. Jun countered with a probing stare, yet to the best of her perception, the young warrior's trepidation was genuine.
         T. Hawk wrapped his hands around the gun's handle and held it close to his shoulder, its muzzle pointed skyward. His umber eyes locked upon the cop's unfocused gaze. "When I look at you, I see nothing but corruption. You are sick. Pitiful. You personify all that I hold in contempt."
         "QUIT MAKIN' SPEECHES!" Lei shrieked, flinging his arms apart. "D'cide NOW! Are y' a hyp'crite an' a bully? 'r are y' tryin' t' save y'r frien's from a monst'r?"
         "Be quiet, demon."
         For the first time that night, a wave of apprehension crossed Lei's face. His legs shook. He almost took a step backward, then gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, waiting.
         T. Hawk held the gun's cylinder upside down and shook out its unfired bullets. They bounced and rolled on the wooden floor.
         "Ha!" Lei laughed through split lips. "I knew y' didn' have th' guts t'... t'... HEY!" His sneer became a shrill whine when T. Hawk curled his free hand around the barrel of the gun, and strained with both powerful arms. "What're y'-"
         The .38's barrel snapped off in T. Hawk's hand.
         "AAAAAH!" Lei shrieked, falling to his knees as though he had indeed been shot. "M' .38! Y'- y' didn' have t' do tha'!"
         "Do you value this metal killing device more than your own life? You're even less than I thought," T. Hawk snorted, dropping the weapon's broken halves.
         "Hawk hates guns," Jun explained to the dumbstruck Michelle. "When a mad militiaman and his private army forcibly relocated Hawk's tribe to Mexico, sparking a firefight that killed people on both sides, Hawk vowed to regain his homeland without further gunplay. He has never discharged a firearm since. Lei was in no danger."
         "You could have told me."
         "I was worried about you, Michelle. I still am. But at least now I know there's hope for you."
         "Hmph." The young warrior turned away from Jun. "Come on, Hawk. Let's go."
         "Agreed. And what was it that you wanted to discuss?"
         "Many things, but the most important one is Sanctuary's safety. We don't have nearly enough guards posted..." Michelle's voice trailed into the distance as she and Hawk exited the bar. Sensing that the excitement was over, various customers returned to their drinks and gambling.
         "...y' didn' have t' do tha'..." Lei moaned, reaching forlornly for the remnants of his weapon. He wobbled on his knees, and fell on his face.
         Jun examined the cuts in her right hand. They were superficial, and already mending; a brief application of her power finished the process. Satisfied, the healer kneeled next to Lei and said, "Here. Let me have a look at you."
         "Eh?" Lei pushed himself off the floor. His good eye squinted.
         "Oh, s' you, Jun." His mouth parted in an acrid grin. "'Jun.' There. I said it. Y' happy now? Huh? Are you? Hell, why y'even still HERE? Y' HATE me, 'member Jun?" He threw back his head and laughed, sarcastically. "Why y' doin' thi' f'r me, huh Jun? S' 'cause y' broke y'r promise an' made me get drunk, isn' it? Y' feel 'sponsible f'r cleanin' up y'r own messes, don' y' Jun?"
         Jun tapped her bracelet. Lines of roseate energy streamed from it, holding Lei mute and paralyzed in a field of shimmering force while she examined him.
         "Sub-Zero's diagnosis was correct. Whatever bad effects your curse may have had, it's also made you physically tougher than an average human being. You're not nearly as bad off as you should be, considering what you just went through. None of your bones are broken, though your pride might be."
         She sang the first verse of a soothing song, passing her hand over his bruises. Her call went deep, through the floorboards, into the earth below and the life that it nurtured. The spirits answered her entreaty, willingly yielding their strength and the power to channel it for mending. Lei's bruises faded, and the swelling in his right eye went down.
         Jun's song came to a close. She switched off the bracelet. "You'll be fine by morning. We'll talk when you're sober."
         "What happened?" demanded a familiar voice from behind.
         Jun peered up at Sparky. "Did Sonya send you?"
         "Yeah. Sorry I'm late; I was just rotated off my shift with mask boy. Which begs the question; what the hell happened?"
         "Later. Right now, I need you to take over for a little while. I want to visit some friends."
         "Nobody ever tells me anything," Sparky grumbled, accepting her silver bracelet.
         "I'd tell ya," Lei cackled. "'Cept I'd jus' be feedin' y' lies, right Jun?"
         She fixed him with a stern glare.
         "I said, we will talk when you are sober." With that, she turned and went.
         "Where y' goin', Jun?" Lei slurred to her retreating figure. "Off t' see y'r oth'r pets? Wha', 'm not obedien' enough f'r y' anymore? An' aft'r y' trained me t' say y'r name an ev'rythin', Jun! JUN! JUUUUUN!"



         Cast iron bars divided long, deep blocks on either side of the high-ceilinged wall into cells. Some of the prisons showed signs of recent use, but all were empty. Catsclaw memorized each turn and twist of the corridors, searching for a means of escape. There was nothing he could do now, with both hands cuffed behind his back and Kimura's rifle trained on his throat. If only his hands were free! Lee wasn't even looking at him; all it would take was a split-second with his hands around the silver-haired devil's neck. Then Dark Mane's spirit could rest easy, and nothing else would matter after that.
         "I know what you're thinking," Lee commented, exhaling a murky cloud of smoke as he walked. "You feel your friend's soul railing within these walls. Or was she more than a friend, perhaps?"
         The sergeant clenched his teeth, refusing to give an answer.
         "rrrRREEEOOWL!" A grating, feral cry, brimming with the need for vengeance, startled Catsclaw.
         "Damn noisy beasts," Mori glowered. "After I Prove myself against Kuma, I'm going to slit Alex's throat." He glared menacingly at one of the cells as they passed it. Inside, all Catsclaw could see were twin vivid-yellow pinpricks of fury, gleaming in the darkness, and the white sheen of jagged isosceles teeth. Something dry-skinned and limber made a rustling noise.
         "RRRRAAAAWL!"
         The sergeant's eyebrows came together. He could almost remember hearing something like that before... but where? How long ago?



         "Aw... crap." Lei folded in on himself like a collapsible box, tucking both forearms against his midsection and slumping on his side. His eyes flicked shut.
         "Hey, fella." Sparky prodded his inebriate charge. "You can't sleep here."
         "Lemme alone. 'M not both'rin' anyone."
         "Your quarters aren't far. I'll take you there." The second lieutenant grappled with Lei's sixty-five kilograms of dead weight, pulling him to his feet.
         Lei went completely limp. His head drooped, and his knees buckled like blades of grass. "Not like I nev'r slept onna floor b'fore. 'r a gutter. 'r a bin fulla garbage... they're pretty sof', y'know."
         "C'mon, don't make me carry you with the bracelet. I'm supposed to save its power cell for emergencies. Can't you put a little more effort into standing up?"
          "'r wha'? Y' gonna hit me too? Almos' think 'm used t' it, now. S' not tha' diff'ren' from th' dreams."
         Sparky's eyes glittered. The corners of his mouth turned up a little, as though he knew a tantalizing secret. "If you come along quietly, I'll tell you a story."
         "Ffft. Big freakin' deal."
         "It's about me and an old friend of mine. He was a good person. Half of Sanctuary wouldn't be here if not for him. Once - was it only a year ago? - the demon sorcerer Shang Tsung had us both at his tender mercy."
         "Tsung? Lao told me abou' 'im. He takes people's souls, don' he?" The pressure on Sparky's arms lessened, though his charge still leaned on him heavily for support. "Did... did he...?"
         "He wanted to, that's for sure. But he wanted Lieutenant Blade to fight in his wicked Tournament even more. So he dangled me and my friend in front of her as hostages, threatening to suck us both dry if she didn't do as she was told."
         "An' who's thi' frien' a' y'rs?"
         Sparky's smile broadened. His charge had become hooked with surprising ease, and was docilely staggering by his side.
         "According to his army registration, he was Jake Feldspar. But he insisted that wasn't his true name. I can hardly blame him; my given name is supposed to be Lance, and I've always hated it, too. Everybody who knew him, knew him as Catsclaw..."



         Alex's piercing shrieks echoed after the sergeant, and had not faded entirely when he smelled a nauseating, putrid odor on the stale air. It became stronger the further they went.
         Lee stopped their march in front of a new cell. This one was more brightly lit. Catsclaw peered within, and swallowed his rising gorge.
         The place was a charnel house.
         Decaying flesh, bones, and dried bloodstains covered the floor. There were no intact bodies, but most of the... pieces... had once belonged to human beings. Here was hand, three of its fingers chewed off, the ripped shred of a dark green cuff around its severed wrist. There, a thigh bone had been broken in half, its marrow greedily sucked through the splinters. The rest of the amputated leg was well-chewed; Catsclaw spotted a dirty moccasin around the foot. Torn clothing, fragmented ribs, crushed skulls, and spilled entrails formed a macabre pattern of carnage. And in the center of it all-
         "That is Kuma?" gasped the sergeant.
         "He used to be old man Heihachi's darling pet," Lee affirmed, conversationally.
         -was the biggest damn grizzly bear Catsclaw had ever seen. The ursine monstrosity was as massive as Sonya's bulletproof army van, and probably almost as tough. Shaggy brown fur parted around its elongated claws. Its thick, heavy head had been resting on the floor, but now it drew a snuffling breath through its nose and opened its beady black eyes.
         "Hurrrr..." rumbled the bear. Its pink tongue darted over its lips and licked its rows of yellowed, arrowlike teeth. Kuma shambled to its four feet; a metal clank sounded as it stopped several yards in front of the sliding cell door. A wide iron shackle around its neck chained it to the prison's stone wall.
         "Remember, Mori," Lee said in a level tone, "to pass your Proving, you need only to survive and remain conscious for at least two minutes." He withdrew a shiny silver stopwatch from the pocket of his vinyl slacks. Etched on the timepiece's cover was a kneeling unicorn.
         Catsclaw burst out, "You don't mean to put him in the cage with-"
         "...rrrrRRRRHHUUL!" Kuma reared on his back legs, swiping futilely at the newcomers. Flecks of white foam dripped from its mouth.
         A stiff prod from the barrel of Kimura's rifle reminded the sergeant of how precarious his situation was. Mori stared him down with contempt and spat, "Goddamn mad bear! I've tried to discipline Kuma for a year now. Damn incorrigible beast deserves everything I've done to it."
         He shifted his hateful glare to Lee. "I just want you to know how little I think of you. When I agreed to serve the house Mishima, no one said anything about bowing to gaijin rats. I only hope Mishima-sama has the sense to destroy you before you turn on him."
         Lee snapped his fingers. One of the silent guards uncuffed Mori's hands and opened the sliding door to Kuma's lair.
         Lee said, "You will walk inside, or we will drug you and throw you in."
         Catsclaw's father had called it "Warrior's Pride."
         When fear becomes secondary to dignity, when the resolution to face what one must settles upon one's bearing, when one chooses to calmly brave the jaws of destruction - that is the essence of Warrior's Pride. Catsclaw had, very rarely, seen it before. It was on Sonya's face when she followed the crimelord Kano upon a ship of unknowable evil. It was in Dark Mane's eyes when she defied the master sorcerer Kazuya Mishima. And it was in Mori, of all people, who scornfully turned away from his captors and entered the cage of death.
         A guard slid the door shut, latched it, and threw a coiled whip through the bars. Mori claimed his weapon, unrolling it fluidly in his hand.
         "Remote lock 2784-Alpha: Disengage!" In response to Lee's flat command, the iron shackle around Kuma's neck split open and clattered upon the floor. The ursine killing machine was free.
         "HRRRUUUGH!" Kuma roared as if in joy, leaning way back and throwing its massive bear-arms wide. Its claws lashed down and forward, coming together with critical force, yet Mori had already darted out of their lethal reach.
         "Rrrrgh..." The frustrated bear flinched from Mori's whip, and advanced on the human with a steady, shambling gait.
         "You ugly beast, don't you know your master?" Step by step, Mori backed up. The cell was none too spacious, though; he was soon pinned against the side wall.
         Kuma made a low, tentative paw-swipe. Mori jumped, letting the deadly claws pass underneath him, and snapped the whip when he landed. Kuma's moment of recoil was the crucial second Mori needed to slip around the beast, buying himself time to retreat to the other side of the cell.
         This wasn't a battle. This was a game of cat and mouse, predator and prey. Mori's whip only irritated the massive monster, made it more stubborn. The animal trainer's one chance was to stall for time. And stall he did, using his greater speed and intuition to lead the beast in circles.
         "Sixty seconds remaining," Lee said, calmly. "Ishida, Kimura, be ready." With precisely synchronized nods, the two bodyguards trained their rifles on the chaos inside. The other guards watched Catsclaw like a pair of gargoyles.
         "Dumb brute! I'll make you into a rug!" When Kuma tried to wrap its massive arms around Mori, he ducked underneath the bear's reach and cracked his whip with an underhanded motion, nicking its chin.
         "Fifty seconds."
         Kuma jumped. The huge beast should never have been capable of such an action, but it bounded forward, mouth frothing, muscles rippling, teeth and tongue eager to taste fresh blood. Mori, too, reacted faster than should have been possible for a man his age, diving and rolling underneath the animal's flight trajectory. Kuma landed with a ground-shaking thud.
         "Forty seconds."
         "RHUUUL!" Incised with blind fury, Kuma galloped toward Mori on all fours. The animal trainer watched its blind charge, waiting until it was almost upon him, then at the last moment dodged out of the way and lashed his whip. It wrapped around Kuma's neck. Mori slipped behind the monster, pulling tight; the bear made a reedy, rasping sound.
         "Thirty seconds."
         Mori's mouth split in a fierce smile as he choked the beast. Kuma railed and turned, but Mori turned with it, keeping the whip in a stranglehold about its neck. When the bear tried to claw at the binding cord, Mori only wound it in a tighter noose, circling in front of the animal.
         "Twenty seconds."
         "Ha! You're not so tough," Mori triumphantly leered, reeling the whip in hand over hand. "Your head will make a fine trophy over my-"
         "HRRRAAAUGH!"
         Kuma suddenly lunged forward. Mori had committed so much weight to his pull on the whip that he staggered, unprepared for the sudden slack. The bear's massive arms enfolded him in a rib-crushing hug before he had the chance to right himself. Kuma's pincer-like jaws clamped on his throat.
         Mori didn't make a sound. He no longer had an intact trachea with which to cry out. His limbs flailed as the bear's teeth tore and swallowed bloody chunks of flesh from his neck and face. The brute threw its broken meal to the floor, roaring in ecstasy, then lunged forward and batted Mori's lifeless body as if it were a river salmon.
         "That was close," Lee reflected, clicking his watch to a stop. "A little longer, and he would have been the second man to survive a struggle with that monster."
         "You are the real monster!" Catsclaw snarled to the silver-haired devil. "No matter what he may have done, he didn't deserve to die like that! Why didn't you have the manhood to face him yourself, you misbegotten coward?"
         "I did want to kill Mori personally, but broken promises are like ghosts. They tend to haunt you." Lee appraised the sergeant with an analytical glare. "Perhaps you have recovered as much as you ever will. You're ready to face the Proving again."
         "This time, I will kill you."
         "You've already had your chance against me. But I may give you another one, if you live to see the New Era."
         "Are you going to throw me in with the bear, too?"
         "No." Lee glanced at Kuma; the ursine monster had buried its muzzle up to the eyes in Mori's viscera. "He's too busy with his latest plaything."
         "Then I will face Alex."
         One of Lee's silvery eyebrows rose, curiously. "Will you."



         "Y' was r'scued by a buncha freakin' lizards?" Lei queried. Sparky's story had just taken a turn for the dubious.
         "Not lizards. They'd be more closely related to dinosaurs, or perhaps modern-day birds. They called themselves something that means 'Us,' or 'the People' in their native tongue. When the masked ice-ninja betrayed us all, Sonya became captured, but the Reptiles fled with me and Catsclaw to their jungle home.
         "They were the most peaceful, patient, and civilized beings you could imagine. More humanitarian than most humans I've known. The Reptiles took care of us for a few months, until we were well enough to travel, and they helped us find our way through the jungle, back to our own kind. All they asked in return was that we swear never to reveal the secret location of their home to any other soul.
         "Sometimes I wonder if they escaped the Apocalypse. A few weeks before it hit, me and Catsclaw asked Liu Kang to contact the Reptiles with a telepathic warning. All he got was static. Maybe their minds work too differently from ours to communicate effectively, I don't know.
         "Certainly, me and Catsclaw had a rocky enough time talking with them. Oh, they were swell fellas, but none of them spoke two words of English - except for the one Reptile who used to be Shang Tsung's bodyguard, and he didn't escape with us. They talk in this weird medley of hisses, clicks, and caterwauls. I could never make sense of it, but Catsclaw, well, he's got a sharp mind and a slick tongue. He'd sit across from one of them for hours, listening to and repeating the strangest sounds."



         "RRREEYOWWL! YOWWL!" Alex screamed.
         Catsclaw hissed and made a series of clucking noises. "Sssrawwh, sssrawwh," he urged, keeping his lips pursed close together. To a saurian, revealing one's teeth is a dire threat.
         "Nihun gurai da," Lee growled, checking his stopwatch and glaring at one of his guards. <Why aren't they trying to kill each other, Kimura?>
         <I'm Ishida.>
         <Shut up!>
         The creature threw its head back and uttered a high-pitched, frantic wail that made Lee's ears hurt. Its green-and-black mottled scales quivered with barely contained rage, and its elongated crocodile-snout gnashed. The vertically slitted cat's pupils crossing its vivid yellow eyes narrowed to slivers.
         Alex was slightly less in stature than a typical human being, for it stood on crooked, birdlike hind legs. Its front legs were short and stubby. Yet Lee had seen the hooked claws on its three-toed hands and feet make short work of hapless enemies before; what Alex lacked in raw strength, it compensated for in natural weaponry, scaly armor, and animal frenzy.
         Still, it did not attack.
         "That does it," Lee snorted to Catsclaw, extinguishing the stub of his cigarette against the cell's bars. "What's going on with you and that lizard? Don't tell me you're actually talking to him."
         Catsclaw did not give the silver-haired devil the respect of eye contact. "No. She is talking to me. Her inflection is unfamiliar, but most of the core vocabulary is recognizable. If I understand correctly, you fiends kidnapped and smuggled her from her home. You took her away from her eggs. Her brood has doubtless perished by now, without a mother to care for them. She wants vengeance for her lost children."
         "You don't say."
         <When he opens the door,> Catsclaw told Alex in the True Speech, <we rush them. I'll take the ape-mortals on the left; you take the ones on the right. Remember, Silver-Hair is mine.>
         <Fool,> Alex hissed, <do you really think they are that stupid?>
         "Well, well. This is quite unusual, Sergeant, but you are indeed still alive and conscious," Lee noted, closing his stopwatch. "Congratulations. You've passed your Proving. Ishida!"
         The suit-clad bodyguard leveled his rifle on Alex and pulled the trigger.
         "What? No, DON'T!" Catsclaw cried, but there was no time to react; in the space of a heartbeat, two thin, fletched darts protruded from Alex's pale grey stomach scales.
         <I... hate... this part...> she clicked, clutching at the missiles. Her legs folded beneath her, and a cloudy third eyelid closed sideways over her corneas. She slumped on the cell floor.
         Catsclaw realized that a third dart had buried itself in his neck, though he couldn't remember how or why. In fact, he couldn't concentrate on much of anything, except how the room was spinning, spinning so fast...
         Lee's calm voice floated serenely above the maelstrom. "Don't be afraid. A better world awaits you."



         Five hours' immersion in Nature helped.
         Jun had washed her hands in the crystal-clear stream, felt the ageless wisdom of the earth, and stood motionless in the cool breeze. Sanctuary's sacred wilderness did not have all the answers. It had something much more important: peace and acceptance. She looked deep within herself, examining segments of the complex puzzle that embodied her problems.
         A few of Jun's nocturnal friends and companions accompanied her during the long walk back to Sanctuary's inner settlement. Above, a brown-feathered owl cast a shadow across the moon as it glided in perfect silence. A red-furred squirrel perched on her shoulder; its whiskers tickled her ear. Nightwolf's spirit-brother trotted by her feet. The squirrel chattered fearlessly at the wolf. She said a silent goodbye to them all when she reached Sanctuary's inner gates.
         Jun turned recent events over and over in her mind.
         Sonya was right about me, she finally concluded. I did want to heal everything wrong with Lei, and thought I could do it all by myself. She looked down upon her hands. White sparks flickered on her fingertips. The wind spirits stirred the air and whispered in her ear. She listened to their truth, and stored it deep in a secret place within her heart.
         I've always had a tendency to overextend myself. When I was young, I used to care for so many animals that I'd struggle on as little as four hours of sleep a night. When I cast healing spells, I frequently pour myself into the magic until I lose consciousness. This is one situation where I have to accept that there are limits to what I can do, and what I am responsible for.
         But...
         She held her shining hand close to her heart and thought of the aid Lei had given to Sonya's scouting party, even after Liu Kang had wronged him. How Lei had saved her life from a golden-horned Centaurian, and guided her across a wasteland infested with enemies. How he quietly and humbly endured Sanctuary's collective scorn. The skillful fighting lesson he had freely given Kurtis Stryker.
         Perhaps most important of all, she thought of the sincere, desperate ring to Lei's voice when he'd said that he wanted to free himself from his addiction, and pledged to do exactly that. At the time he made the promise, he'd wanted very badly to keep it. He'd wanted to be sober so much that he willingly accompanied Sonya's patrol, knowing that he would have to confront his inevitable withdrawal symptoms on the open road.
         I won't give up hope for you, Lei. I only pray that you haven't given up hope for yourself.
         Sparky stood at attention outside the closed door of barracks room 13.
         "Thank you very much for all you have done," Jun told the second lieutenant with a demure bow. "I am in your debt. How is he doing?"
         Sparky shrugged. "Sleeping like a baby. Really Jun, he's been no trouble at all. You know, I was just about to call for a replacement, 'cause I've been on my feet for ten hours now."
         "Well, I'm ready to resume my watch."
         "Um..." Sparky scratched the back of his head. "Okay, I'll be blunt. Why did you let him get beaten up?"
         Jun folded her arms. "Lei and T. Hawk were baited into a fight. Lei was so drunk he could barely stand, so he received the worst of it. I allowed Lei to answer the challenge because my duty is to guard against his curse, not to control his life."
         "Uh-huh. Next question: did you get any sleep during your time off? You won't be in any shape to watch him if you're dead on your feet."
         "I'll be fine. Nightwolf and Chief Thunder have taught me how to borrow strength from the sacred power of the living land; it will sustain me for up to another twelve hours. I want to be there when Lei wakes up, because I told him that we would speak when he was sober."
         "So you did. Well, all right," Sparky acceded, returning her bracelet. "Though I'd appreciate it if you didn't give the guy too bad a tongue-lashing. He seems pretty decent, as killer demons go. Besides, any friend of yours is a friend of mine."
         She accepted the dull silver object with a smile. "I'll tell him that."
         "Gotta crash and burn. By the way, you know I happen to be quartered down the hall, right? Room 27. You have any problems, just yell my name."
         As Sparky left, Jun fastened the bracelet around her wrist. A paroxysm of worry suddenly troubled her. Deciding to verify Lei's welfare, she pushed open the door to his room just a bit.
         Lei sprawled prone on his bed, still fully dressed except for his blazer, which had been sloppily thrown over the far bedpost. His right arm and leg drooped over the mattress' edge, dragging on the ground, while his head rested on its left side. His face was placidly expressionless, both eyes closed, and his left arm curled around a bunched-up pillow.
         Near as she could tell, he was sleeping peacefully. Or was he? He did have that talent for pretending to be unconscious.
         Lei didn't snore, but the wind spirits carried the quiet rustle of his steady breathing. That in itself was reassuring; at least his latest drinking binge hadn't triggered another respiratory shutdown.
         Jun opened the door a little wider. The portal's swinging edge jostled the twig-and-feather dream-catcher she'd suspended by the archway. A line of yellow light from the hallway splashed across Lei's motionless form.
         Streaks of his own dried blood discolored his face.
         Jun stepped inside and silently riffled through the pockets of Lei's blazer, until she found his embroidered, sky-blue handkerchief. Scanning the smallish room, her eye fell on the boxlike mini-refrigerator in the corner. It wasn't running, since Sanctuary had little in the way of electrical generators, but maybe...
         Jun opened the insulated refrigerator, and was pleasantly gratified to find a still pool of cool water collected in an old ice tray. She moistened the kerchief and approached Lei. Brushing his bangs aside, she used the damp cloth to gently clean the crusty reddish flecks from his face.
         I still can't believe Michelle put you through all that, just to win Hawk's heart. If she weren't so wrapped up in her own world, she'd have known it was completely unnecessary. It was also wrong. In the morning, we can hold her legally accountable for her actions. Everything will be all right. You'll see.
         Jun's right hand was trembling, just a tiny bit. She transferred the wet kerchief to her left and very lightly dabbed the dried blood from Lei's lips.
         "Mmm... heh." Lei stirred sluggishly, though his eyes did not open. He clutched the pillow a little tighter. "M'chelle...?"
         The kerchief, now stained purple, slipped through Jun's fingers and slapped the floor. She took a step backward, then another, until she had retreated through the doorway. Her right hand constricted around the doorknob.
         "Baka!"
         Jun violently slammed the door. Buffeted by the rush of displaced air, the dream-catcher was caught between the door and its archway. The viselike collision crushed its twigs and tore apart its delicate strands. Its supporting thread pulled taut, dislodging the miniature tack that had held it. The dream-catcher's crumpled halves fell on either side of the closed portal.
         Jun leaned against the outside of the door and hugged herself, slowly sliding to the ground.
         In the morning, she thought, clinging to the comforting whispers of the wind spirits. She pressed her fingertips tightly against the inner corners of her eyes, as if to seal off any possibility of tears. Everything will be all right in the morning.
         Everything will be all right...



End of Chapter 9: Broken Promises