PHOENIX REBORN

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



Chapter 13: Unlikely Alliances


   "Extremists who know when to stop are a rare breed. These men know how to insert the knife right through the heart of one opponent, and then invite all the others to dinner."
         -Thomas L. Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem


AUDIO TRANSCRIPT: psionic verification session
Re: interview of Anna Williams
Mishima syndicate files H28001-EF
Mishima syndicate phonic records tag 12440-GH
December 6, 2017
10:30 a.m.

[begin recording]

KAZAMA: This is Jin Kazama, acting vice-president of the Mishima syndicate speaking. With me is my grandfather, syndicate President and CEO Heihachi Mishima. Grandfather, would you please make a statement to-

MISHIMA: Forget the formalities. What is taking them so long? Where is the woman?

K: Ishida and Kimura should arrive with her any... minute now...

short pause

K: ...that can't be Anna... or any of our people... who...?

M: Quiet. They are coming.

K: That... that has to be Anna. Grandfather, please-

M: What is it?

K: Just - please be patient with her. She saved my father's life once, and I - I think he hurt her. Badly. Her outrage and misery are so strong-

M: That will work to your advantage. If she is in turmoil, then she will not be capable of concealing treacherous thoughts.

K: But...

footsteps

ISHIDA & KIMURA: Glory to Mishima-sama!

ANNA WILLIAMS: Let me go, you brutes! Get me out of this thing! Release me, or Allah will curse you with His divine vengeance! LET ME-

gasp

W: In Allah's holy name-!

K: Anna?

W: Kazuya...?

K: I'm not-

W: You spawn of SATAN!

muffled thumps

K: -Kazuya Mishima, I'm his-

W: I'LL SEND YOU BACK TO HELL!

tearing noise, outcries

K: -son Jin Kazama.

hard thump

I: Hey! That hurt, you oversexed slu-

KIMURA: Hush, cousin.

W: LET ME OUT OF THIS THING!

M: Your restraints are for your protection, Miss Williams. You will remain bound until you convince me that you are not a danger to yourself or others.

short silence

W: Aren't you dead?

M: Do not test my patience.

W: Why shouldn't I?

M: Because you owe me.

W: I do not!

M: On the contrary, Miss Williams. For over twenty years, the Mishima syndicate has expended considerable resources to preserve you and your half-sister in coldsleep. I could have dismantled cryogenic unit Alpha at any time, knowing that the shock of an unmoderated thaw would most likely kill you both. Yet I did not. Instead, I sustained your hibernation, in the hope of one day obtaining the means to safely awaken you. Now that the two of you are revived, Nina Williams has repaid me with betrayal. She has slaughtered hundreds of my soldiers, and cost me a fortune in damages.

W: H-... hundreds of people? My sister killed...?

K: Not of her own will. The Toshin possessed her-

W: I wasn't asking you!

M: Miss Williams, I can afford a measure of tolerance for your disrespectful tongue, since you are still recovering from your abrupt resuscitation. However, I cannot so easily absolve you of your other obligations.

W: So send the bill to my estate.

M: I already have. After the Great Invasion, probate ceded what was left of the Williams estate to the Mishima syndicate. I have held the remaining property in trust for twenty years.

W: What do you mean, 'remaining property'?

M: Your father had certain creditors, to whom he owed a great deal.

W: Our house alone was worth millions!

M: And it was the only item of value left, once your father's creditors were paid. Its collateral worth was just sufficient to finance your extended hibernation. Now, because of your half-sister's criminal rampage, your family owes me. You owe me. Dearly.

W: Where is my sister now? What have you done with her?

M: That is classified.

W: Did you kill her? Did you kill my sister!?

M: No.

W: Then where is she? You're holding her somewhere, aren't you! Where are you holding her!?

M: That is all classified.

W: WHERE IS MY SISTER, DAMN YOU!

M: Ally with us, Miss Williams. Enter the Iron Fist Tournament once more. It is the only way you can see your half-sister again.

W: And what happens after I see her?

M: If you win the Iron Fist Tournament, then in addition to forgiving your family's debts, I shall grant Nina Williams a full pardon for her crimes against the syndicate. If you refuse to participate, her fate will be sealed.

W: I WANT MY SISTER!

K: Good. We'll need your help to save her.

W: What?

K: I couldn't save her by myself. If we're going to reach her at all, it has to be through you. Otherwise, there's nothing any of us can do for her. The Toshin's grip on her soul is too strong.

W: No. Not again. I've heard this line before, and I am not falling for it again!

K: Please, Anna. You're her only chance. You're her sister, and I can feel that you love her-

W: Get out of my head, you DEVIL! I WON'T LET YOU VIOLATE ME!

K: I... I swear I'm not probing your memories-

W: Shut up! You're the whole reason that 'Toshin' thing took her over, you and your damned family! Because of what YOUR father did to her! She became its slave to get revenge on YOU! I hate you, you hellspawn! I hate you! I HATE YOU!

M: But will you ally with us?

short silence

W: I want my sister back. Damn you. May Allah damn your name!

M: Release her.

I: What the-

KIMURA: At once, Mishima-sama.

paper rustling

M: Sign this.

W: Not so fast.

long silence

M: I assure you, there is no trickery written into your employment contract. The only unbreakable requirement is that you fight in the Iron Fist Tournament.

W: You lie.

K: No, Anna. It's the truth.

W: You shut up!

pen scratching

M: Excellent.

W: I'm not doing this for you. I'm not doing this because I want to! I only want my sister back!

M: You are dismissed. Ishida and Kimura will instruct you in your new duties.

K: Thank you, Anna.

W: I told you to shut up! Don't talk to me again. Don't look at me again. You will not live to propagate your blasphemy! Allah will strike you down with His divine justice, even as He judged your Devil father!

door slam

retreating footsteps

M: Well. Do you expect her to help us, or turn on us?

K: I don't think she'll try to hurt you, Grandfather. Or me.

M: Oh?

K: She's strong-willed and very angry, but she isn't a killer. I think that's probably why the Toshin couldn't or wouldn't possess her like it possessed Nina.

M: Indeed.

K: Even though Anna doesn't want to help us, she does want to help her sister, and she should know that turning on us won't accomplish that. But, Grandfather-

M: Now what?

K: Why can't we tell her how Julia used Heaven's Dagger to banish Nina? It's like torture for Anna, not knowing what has become of her sister.

M: You will not divulge classified information to anyone.

K: I - I'm sorry, it's only that-

M: Quiet! Consider this: Miss Anna Williams is obviously distraught over the fate of her half-sister. She may not seem murderous at first glance, but you know full well that even the mildest souls can succumb to uncontrolled rage, when their loved ones are harmed. Miss Anna Williams can hardly be described as 'mild.' If she were to learn the whole truth, can you be certain that she would not take revenge on Miss Julia Chang? Are you willing to stake Miss Chang's life upon it?

K: I... didn't think of it like that.

M: Of course not. You never do.

[end recording]





EXCERPT: private journal of Heihachi Mishima
December 6, 2017


         Invaders and chaos have conspired against me.
         My plan to lure the Toshin has had an unexpected drawback. The Toshin's essence hovers so close to this world that it can possess minions to use against me, such as Nina Williams, the so-called Silent Assassin. She caused monumental destruction. Loathe as I am to admit this, only blind fortune removed her before she could level the syndicate. The press will be the ruin of me yet. Even now, rumors of the Mishima syndicate's weakness circulate, rumors that must be crushed with a heavy hand.
         Determined to prevent another such catastrophe, I required my grandson's assistance in the interrogation of Nina Williams' half-sister, Anna Williams. Gods curse me for keeping them both in cryogenic suspension all these years. I thought they might one day prove useful, if I could only discover how to safely extract them from the coldsleep machine. If I had known that either one of them would bring such calamity, I would have destroyed them a long time ago. It is a mistake I shall not repeat.
         The Silent Assassin must die.
         My knowledge of the Toshin suggests that when it is summoned into my ambush, she will be its herald. I will deal with her then. The only question is whether she will suffer the slow death she deserves, or whether necessity will force me to destroy her quickly. Even if Anna Williams does prove strong enough to win her half-sister the full pardon I promised - an absurdity that will not happen - it will not commute my enemy's death sentence. I could, if required to keep my word, find it within myself to pardon what the Silent Assassin has done under the Toshin's control. I cannot allow such a dangerous foe to live.
         It required concentration and focus to conceal my hatred of Nina Williams from my telepathic grandson. However, my own self-discipline measured well against Anna Williams' uncontrolled, womanly passions; Jin was far too overcome by her true feelings to suspect mine.
         Once the interrogation was effectively complete, I dismissed all save my grandson from the premises. After a brief exchange, Jin moved as if he also intended to depart.
         "Where do you think you are going?" I warned, for I had not given him permission to leave. His unthinking disobedience troubles me more than ever, as of late.
         "I'm, uh, already hours overdue for school."
         "Put that out of your head for now. You have greater transgressions to answer for." I folded my arms and allowed my displeasure to show.
         Jin's face flushed with contrition. He bowed his head.
         "This morning, I found Doctor Abel sprawled unconscious, on the floor of his laboratory. Prototype Alpha has disappeared. All files on the Cyborg Army project have been destroyed, our surveillance systems show evidence of tampering, and the south exit guards report being recalled on your orders. Worst of all, Abel suffers from amnesia. Try as he may, he cannot recall a single facet of his Cyborg Army research, or any circumstances concerning the prototype's disappearance. His highly selective memory loss can be no accident.
         "This is all your doing." It was not a question. It was a bitter statement, so intense that I could barely rein my temper.
         "Yes," Jin admitted, without raising his head.
         I wanted to strike him. Perhaps even strike to kill.
         "Why?" I demanded.
         "Because the Cyborg Army project had to be stopped."
         "That is not your decision to make!"
         "It had to be my decision. I'm responsible for what Bryan did."
         "Who?"
         "I mean, um, Prototype Alpha."
         "And what did it do?"
         "It tried to murder Julia. On Abel's orders."
         Almost too late, I realized my error. It was a grave risk to directly confront Jin about this matter, not without many more preparations than I had already taken.
         When I sanctioned Abel's attempt to slay Julia Chang, it was partly out of frustration. I needed her medallion, and the headstrong girl refused to surrender it. Now, I risked paying the price for my temper. If my grandson had used his Power to learn what truly happened, my four years of toil could all be undone.
         Four years! For four long years, I have guarded my thoughts, exported the syndicate's darkest activities, and virtually arrested the growth of my empire, all to keep the naive trust of my telepathic grandson intact. All to maintain my hold over him, so that I may use him to lure the Toshin and gain Immortality. Now, as I approach the fateful day of my ascension, this threatens to upset my plans!
         Inner strength kept me calm as I softly queried, "Do you know whether Abel acted alone?"
         "I - no, I don't." Jin raised his head, with widening eyes. "I was only looking through his recent memories, and I broke contact as soon as I confirmed - could he have had an accomplice?"
         I might have suspected that my grandson was only feigning ignorance, if I did not know him so well. He cannot hide his true feelings to save his life, a weakness that greatly simplifies the otherwise arduous task of controlling him.
         "Should I try another scan of the doctor?" Jin asked.
         "No!" I snapped. "You will never engage in the unsanctioned mind-probe of an employee again, let alone instill a memory block!" Shame returned to enshroud my grandson. His sincerity was my relief.
         "I will assume responsibility for investigating this crime," I told him. "If Abel had any accomplices, I will deal with them accordingly, as well as the doctor himself. You are to wash your hands of the entire travesty!"
         "Should I - should I remove his memory block?"
         "No." That might reveal certain memories which Jin missed the first time, a risk I cannot afford. My hold over him has to come first. I need him as bait for the Toshin. I need my Immortality more than a thousand Cyborg Armies. "The Cyborg Army project is suspended, for now. A team of Tekkenshu are hunting the rogue prototype as we speak."
         "Grandfather, no. Please, call them off."
         That further incited my ire.
         "Are you insane?" I erupted, in sudden outrage.
         "I - I know how this must sound, but-"
         "You have loosed a deadly weapon on the streets of Tokyo! Do you wish to provoke another massacre!?"
         "-something has happened to the prototype-"
         "Did you even consider what could happen if someone were to capture the prototype, and glean my Cyborg Army technology from its workings!?"
         "-it thinks it's your son."
         That shocked me into momentary silence.
         I had sensed something abnormal about the prototype, the last time I saw it. There was a vague familiarity about its eyes, and the dim feel of possible hidden Power in its presence. But I never imagined-
         "Kazuya?" I breathed.
         "No. Your other son."
         It took several seconds to recall the name.
         "Lee Chaolan," I muttered.
         "Yes. I think Lee's mainframe software contains a hidden artificial intelligence, complete with a memory cache of information about his personality and background, which accidentally insinuated itself into the prototype-"
         "Quiet." Jin's rambling fantasies were laughably specious; Lee Chaolan never had the intellect to create such advanced technological designs. However, Chaolan always did have a possessively vindicative spirit. Like a rabid mongrel, eager to bite the hand of its master.
         Chaolan's weakness betrayed me in the Iron Fist Tournament. His spite betrayed Kazuya in the Great Invasion. His very name has come to mean "traitor" for good reason. It takes little imagination to picture his soul extending its revenge beyond the grave.
         If my worst suspicions were true, then a legion of Tekkenshu might not be enough to destroy the renegade prototype. I should have incinerated the cursed thing when it turned on me, Abel's objections be damned.
         Using the intercom, I contacted the Tekkenshu field commander and demanded an update of their hunt for the prototype. He reported ill news. The one unit that had successfully tracked the prototype had suffered a complete rout. By the time reinforcements could arrive, the prototype had escaped. Even worse, growing trouble with street traffic and the press complicated the Tekkenshu's prime directive to carry out their hunt in utmost secrecy.
         "Excuse me," Jin softly interjected. "Did the prototype hurt or kill any of our men, in the struggle?"
         No human casualties, the commander's voice promptly answered.
         "Enough," I said, and disconnected the link.
         "Now do you see?" my grandson pressed. "If the prototype really were a menace, it wouldn't have spared the Tekkenshu you sent to destroy it. Please, Grandfather. Call them off, before any innocent people get caught in the crossfire."
         Worry creased Jin's eyes, a warning signal of the erosion in my hold over him. This would not do. I need his blind trust in me. I need him under my control.
         "You should have shown me more faith," I reprimanded. "If I had known the whole truth, I would not have assigned the Tekkenshu to this. I will continue the hunt for the prototype, but not with soldiers. If it crosses paths with you again, you will return it to me. Do you understand?"
         "Yes, Grandfather. Thank you, Grandfather."
         "Do not thank me yet. There is still the matter of your punishment." I shook my head. "You have disobeyed me, and placed the entire syndicate at risk."
         "I... I know, Grandfather."
         "Your motives do not excuse what you have done. In particular, they do not excuse your failure to obtain my approval before you took action! Until you have learned to behave responsibly, I can no longer entrust you with any syndicate affairs. Your executive privileges are denied. Your access to all syndicate projects is denied. Your duties as acting vice-president are hereby suspended; you shall retain the title in name only. Do you understand?"
         Jin looked away. His eyes closed, and the muscles of his jaw tightened, while his neck fell forward from poorly suppressed despair.
         It was the perfect choice for a punishment. Not only did it cause him a greater wound than corporeal blows - a wound that he could not so easily cure with his sorcery - but it was precisely the excuse I needed to demote him. He has never had deep involvement in syndicate affairs; his title is primarily to give him the illusion of respectability to the outside world. But now, it is best to completely curtail his influence, as I make preparations to gain Immortality.
         "Begone," I instructed. He opened the office door, stepping outside-
         -and halted.
         "Something is wrong," Jin said, apprehensively.
         "Oh?"
         "There's an intruder in the syndicate. Not far from here. He's hiding in your private study."
         "And why did you fail to mention this before?"
         "I didn't know it before. But I was lowering my barriers just as the session with Anna was about to start, and I thought I sensed something that didn't belong. It's clearer now that she's left the area."
         "Indeed."
         "I know that silent scream. It's - it's Hwoarang!"
         "Who?"
         "He must have slipped inside when I recalled the guards. Why did he feel the need to sneak in? I told him that he could-"
         "Answer my question!"
         Jin answered.
         At length.
         I interrogated him thoroughly. His story seemed fantastic beyond belief. Yet, if it were true-
         "Who else knows about this?" I demanded.
         "Uh, Julia does. And Hwoarang himself, of course."
         "Is that all?"
         "Um, well, I don't remember telling anyone else. Not even Ishida and Kimura. And Julia couldn't have told anyone in the past several hours, because she's been asleep. She gave so much of her strength to help me that she probably won't wake up until tomorrow."
         "Good. When she does awaken, you will impress upon her that all information concerning Hwoarang is classified, in addition to everything she knows about Nina Williams, the Toshin, or Prototype Alpha of the Cyborg Army. Install a block in her memories if you must."
         "Grandfather!" Jin exclaimed, in alarm.
         "You would do such a thing to a loyal employee of four years, yet not to a girl you just met?" I snapped.
         Jin looked down in shame.
         "Very well, then. Be sure that your words alone successfully persuade her to silence. Just do not hurt her. I gave her my word that no harm would come to her within my home."
         "I-I would never... Grandfather..." A pained, plaintive look crept into Jin's eyes. It was truly sickening to behold.
         "Enough! Now, tell me: does this Hwoarang intend violence upon you?"
         "I don't know. He did make threats. But I promised him that if he came here, we'd try to find a cure for him."
         "What is his state of mind now?"
         Jin raised his eyes. They lost their focus for a moment. "He's... seething. Watchful. Predatory. I think he's..."
         "Yes?"
         "...hunting," Jin confessed. Tension creased his face, as his skin became a shade paler. "Grandfather, he's hunting you!"
         "Indeed."
         "No! I won't let him hurt you. I'll confront him and-"
         "You will do no such thing."
         "What? But-"
         "Quiet! You will depart the premises, and attend your school for the remainder of the day. You will not use telepathy or any other means to contact anyone in the syndicate while you are gone. I will deal with Hwoarang."
         That shocked him.
         "Grandfather, no! He's too dangerous!" Genuine fear - fear for my welfare - clouded Jin's eyes.
         "I am King of the Iron Fist. This challenger has invaded the sanctity of my home. There is only one response to be made."
         "But he could kill you!"
         "You should have contemplated that before you compromised the syndicate's defenses."
         "No, Grandfather - no! You can't-"
         "I bid you silence."
         Jin fell silent.
         "Now, go. Take the remainder of this day to reflect upon the consequences of your thoughtless deeds."
         Jin almost opened his mouth for one last protest, but I faced him with unyielding will, and he did not say another word. His eyes closed tightly. He bowed his head and left, his shoulders hunched with dismal remorse.
         It is a paradox. A most regrettable one.
         Jin's disloyal actions today are only the latest link in a long chain. For four years I have taught him, and watched his strength grow. Yet I have also seen his Power grow, and time and again it has wreaked destruction. The incident with his former teacher. The Ikebukuro disaster. The slum brawl with Hwoarang. And now this. His previous instances of disobedience were beyond his control, which is bad enough. His latest transgressions have been through deliberate, conscious choice, which is infinitely worse.
         I cannot abide betrayal. Especially not from those closest to me. The mounting body of evidence points to an inescapable conclusion. One that I have understood and prepared for all along, even as I have become increasingly loathe to accept it.
         My grandson must be destroyed.
         For over four years, I have known this to be so; yet I never expected to feel such regret. When I first laid eyes on Jin Kazama, his resemblance to Kazuya was so strong that I yearned to slay him on the spot. It was an instinctive hatred that only Time itself could soften. But with the passage of that Time, I have learned that Jin's love for me is indeed sincere. He truly would give up his life for mine. In this respect, at least, he is what Kazuya should have been.
         I pity him.
         He does not understand that his blood is dirty, tainted by the impurities of his crossbreed mother and Devil father. More than ever now, he is growing to embody the deadly forces that once possessed Kazuya. It is a cruel fate that has cursed my grandson, but for the good of humanity, his unholy lineage cannot be permitted to endure. There is no other way. I must sacrifice him to the Toshin, once it has been summoned, and so bring an end to the doomed dynasty of the House Mishima.
         Jin shall exchange his life for the peace that I, as an Immortal leader, shall bring to the world. I can only pray that his soul shall also know peace.





INTERVIEW WITH LING XIAOYU, section 3
February 12, 2018
7:15 a.m.


         Oh, hi!
         I missed you. This is another weekend you've just up and disappeared! Where'd you go this time? Was it any fun? Did you bring me back a present?
         Oh, goody, thank you thank you!
         'Caffeine-free chocolate'? I didn't know they made that.
         Are you gonna walk me to school again? I got more stories for your big book or record or whatever Jin is paying you to write. You want 'em, you want 'em?
         And are you still playing by those silly rules? Pretend I don't know you, pretend I don't remember you - it's so silly! Uncle Wang taught me not to talk to strangers; if I really didn't know you I wouldn't talk to you at all!
         You do wanna talk to me, don't you?
         Awright!
         I can tell you all about my first big fight in the Iron Fist Tournament! Or the day I threw the huge power switch and lit up my whole amusement park nice and pretty and running! Or-
         That? You wanna know about that?
         But it's kind of boring. You sure? I can tell you all about my biiiiig fight with-
         Okay, okay. You really wanna know how I made up with Jin? After I first met him?
         Because the first time I ever met him, it went really bad. He scared me. He was talking in my head once, using his mind to say things instead of his mouth, it was a funny feeling but it wasn't what made me feel bad. What made me feel bad was what I felt from him. He was mad at me because - because of what I did to his friend Shiina. I... I didn't mean to do it, Shiina tried to shoot me, I just wanted to knock him out so he'd drop the gun... I-I'm not going to go on and on and on, that's all I'll say about it. I didn't mean to. But Shiina was dead and Jin was mad at me and I could feel how unhappy he was. He just took me by the shoulders and I could feel in my head how much it hurt him to lose his friend, it reminded me of how much it hurt me to lose Uncle Wang, and everything scared me so much I ran away crying, I ran all the way back to the room Heihachi set up for me and locked the door and cried myself to sleep.
         I slept through the whole night.
         It was late in the morning when I got up, much later than anybody ever let me sleep at the Temple of Light, I knew 'cause I looked out a window and the sun was pretty high up. It was a funny window too, tinted so dark like I almost thought it was night, but I could make out the sun through the dark glass so it had to really be day.
         So I got out of bed, and do you know what I like about living in the syndicate? I like how they have hot showers and baths right next to your room. At the Temple of Light you had to heat up this basin of water with coal or wood or something. Sometimes there wasn't any coal or wood, and you'd have to take an ice-cold bath, ick!
         There was even fresh clothes set out for me - really funny clothes. White-on-black top like a sailor, and a really super-short skirt. I've gotten used to it now, but it's still funny to wear this school outfit thing. The skirt's so short it flips up easy; I have to wear jogging shorts underneath or it shows off my panties! And it's kinda cold in winter, too. Whose idea was it to make a girl's outfit like this, do you know? At least the guys can wear pants and stay warm. It's not fair.
         Anyway, when I woke up I felt a lot better than I did last night. All the crying gotten out and done with, at least for now. It still hurt that Uncle Wang was gone, and I was still scared of Jin, but I was also bored. And hungry. And curious. Here I was in this strange new place; Heihachi said I was gonna fight in his Tournament, but I guess my first match wasn't today or someone would've told me. I wanted breakfast. And I wanted to go exploring. I'm not sure which one I wanted more. So I decided to go exploring for someplace that would have breakfast.
         The syndicate sure is a big place, isn't it?
         It's so easy to get lost even if you know where you're going, and I didn't. I dunno how long I wandered around alllll the hallways. I didn't see very many people, just the occasional guy in a black suit or whatever. They always pretended like they didn't see me. I hate it when they do that.
         Then I saw one of 'em was following me.
         He was kind of funny. Like he was trying to hide. He didn't get that if he could see me, I could see him, and it didn't matter how flat he pressed himself against the wall; did he think he was made of paper or what? I turned around and almost asked him where I could get some breakfast, but he made this funny squeaking noise - kinda like a baby bird - and darted around a corner.
         Was he playing hide-and-seek?
         I hoped so. I was so bored, I liked having someone to play with!
         He was actually pretty fun - so much fun I forgot I was hungry. He followed me everywhere! I'd run around at top speed and hear him straining to catch up, I'd jump down from a balcony and dart behind the stairs and watch him fall flat on his face when he tried to jump down too. Then I'd zip through big, open rooms faster than he could follow and hide in a storage closet until he blundered past, then go the other way until I'd lost him, then circle back and pretend not to see him when he spotted me and I'd run away again. It was so much fun!
         Poor guy wasn't in the best shape, though. He was panting and wheezing from all that running around, while I was just getting warmed up. I was sliding down this one stair rail, eager to see if my new playmate would slide down too or fall off, when who do I find at the bottom of the steps but Jin.
         I got scared again.
         You know how Jin is. It's not just that he looks scary. Although y'know, he is sort of a cross between handsome good-looking and sinister evil-looking, isn't he? But if you don't know him, it's really easy to think he's a bad guy; you get this nasty, ugly gut feeling like you shouldn't trust him at all. I don't know why that is. I really don't.
         Then again, Uncle Wang taught me to always be careful about judging people based only on how they look.
         Jin didn't act like he noticed me. He was kneeling at a short table - not a meal table, I think it was for greeting guests or something - and he had his elbows on the table, fingers laced tight together, head down, eyes closed, and a very unhappy look on his face. He looked like he had something really bad on his mind, something that scared him and made him feel awful.
         Was he still mad at me?
         I could have turned around and run away from him again, but then my stomach growled. I was beginning to get really hungry. If I asked my other playmate where the food was, I wasn't sure he'd answer me and it would spoil the game anyway.
         Maybe Jin knew where the food was?
         Of course he did! He lived here, didn't he?
         There was something else that helped change my mind. You see, the whole reason I came here - the whole reason I was gonna fight in the Iron Fist Tournament - was 'cause I wanted my amusement park. Heihachi was gonna build my amusement park if I won. But he made me promise something. He made me promise that I'd try to be friends with his grandson Jin. I didn't like Jin, but I made a promise, and if I didn't keep it then Heihachi might not build my amusement park. I really, really wanted my amusement park!
         I was scared of Jin, but I wanted my amusement park even more!
         Maybe just one more try? If he's mean to me again, I'll beat him up. Yeah, that's it.
         I want my amusement park!
         "Hey!" I called from the bottom of the stairs. "Wha'cha so down about?"
         Jin looked up. He didn't act surprised to see me. Didn't act mad, either. "What are you doing here?"
         "Asking you a question, silly!"
         "You should be in school."
         "Me? What about you? I don't see you at any stupid school!"
         He looked away like he was getting depressed again.
         "And, um, where's the food? You do have food in this place, don't you? I'm starving! I'd give anything for really good food, like steamed buns or shrimp or-"
         "Up the stairs, go left, right at the third intersection, pass three doors on your right and enter the fourth."
         "Huh?"
         "That's the way to the kitchen."
         "Oh." He'd rattled off the directions so fast, and I was so hungry, that the words didn't stay in my head. I can repeat 'em for you now only 'cause I've lived in the syndicate long enough to know the way for myself. "Um, I don't remember what you said so good. Can you come and show me?"
         Jin didn't answer. He looked awful, like he was so scared and hurting inside he didn't even hear.
         "Hey - hey what's wrong? Are you-?" I swallowed, took a deep breath, and said it real fast so I'd get it out all at once. "AreyoustillmadatmeaboutShiina?"
         At least that broke his awful mood.
         "What?" He blinked and shook his head, like he was coming out of a big, thick fog.
         "I'm - I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to do it."
         "No, you-" He stopped and shook his head again. "I'm the one who should be apologizing. You acted in self-defense. I'm sorry. It wasn't your fault."
         "You... you really think so?"
         He nodded.
         "Then what are you so down about?"
         Jin looked at me funny. "You must have slept through the whole thing."
         "What? What did I sleep through?"
         "An assassin attacked the syndicate. She murdered a lot of good people. And..." He sighed, really unhappy. "I'm not sure anymore if I did the right thing."
         "What did you do?"
         "After the assassin was gone, I... well, I let something out, and someone else got in. Someone dangerous. Now, I'm worried about Grandfather. He told me to attend school and let him face the intruder in single combat. I'm afraid Grandfather could get hurt, or even killed."
         "So why don't you help him fight this bad person?"
         "Grandfather told me not to. I've disobeyed him too many times as it is."
         "So why don't you go to school like he said?"
         "He could get hurt, or even killed."
         "You said that already."
         Jin's eyes got narrow and nasty for a moment, but then he looked away like he was ignoring me. I HATE being ignored!
         "Look!" I snapped. "If you just stay here, you'll make your grandpa mad and you won't be helping him, so you make a choice! Help him or go!"
         Jin clenched his teeth. "It's not that simple!"
         "Yes, it is. Just ask yourself: is your grandpa strong enough to beat up this meanie you let in or not?"
         "He..."
         "Yeah?"
         "He said I should have shown him more faith," Jin slowly thought out. "I'm trusting him to destroy the Toshin. If I don't leave like he said, he'll think I don't trust him. I have to trust him." Jin nodded to himself. He still didn't look happy, but at least he didn't look so miserable either. "Come on, Xiaoyu. Let's go."
         "Where?"
         "To school. I'll introduce you to the faculty, and you can take the grade placement tests."
         "But I don't wanna go to school!"
         "It's either that or get a job working for the syndicate. Grandfather doesn't approve of freeloading."
         Uh-oh. I didn't wanna go to school, but at least if I went, maybe I could meet other kids my age and make friends. This big old syndicate was pretty lonely, except for my playmate and maybe Jin. Maybe.
         "But I'm hungry!"
         "I'll buy you something to eat on the way. You said you like steamed buns, right?"
         "Will you buy my playmate something to eat too?"
         "Who?"
         "The guy in the black suit who's following me."
         "One of our security people? Is he your bodyguard?"
         "Um, I don't know. Would he tell me if he was?"
         "Hmm." Jin's eyes got funny and out of focus for a minute. He cringed a little and touched his arm, like it was sore all of a sudden. "I don't recognize the feel of his surface thoughts. He must be someone new."
         "You're scary when you do that."
         "Actually, you're the one he's scared of."
         "Who, me? Why?"
         "Well..."
         "Oh." I looked down at the ground. "Can you tell him I didn't mean to-?"
         "First, I want to know why he's stalking you. Wait here for just a little while, all right?"
         I waited. Jin went out of the room, but not up the stairs; he went out a different way.
         I waited, and tapped my foot, and fidgeted with my hair, and just as I was getting really bored I heard this yelp. It was my playmate, and he shrieked like an icky spider was crawling up his leg!
         A couple minutes later, Jin appeared near the top of the stairs. He quickly came down and said, "Oh, before I forget - are you carrying your IdentiCard?"
         "My what?"
         "Haven't you been issued one? Well, we can take care of that in less than five minutes. Right this way."
         "Umm..."
         "Yes?"
         "What did you do to my playmate? I heard him yelp. You didn't hurt him, did you?"
         "Hurt him? Oh, good grief no. He was a little surprised to meet me, that's all."
         "But what did you do to him?"
         "I just asked him a few questions. Don't worry. If everything goes all right, you should be able to 'play' with him some more after you get home."
         "What if everything doesn't go all right?"
         "It will. It has to."
         "But..."
         "It just has to," Jin said, crossing his fingers and holding them real close, like he was wishing with all his heart and all his soul.


         Not very exciting, is it?
         I mean, I could go on and on. I could say how Jin took me to a funny photo room where a guy took my picture and it was a really bad picture stuck on this card filled with facts about me, and I carry it everywhere now like everyone in the Mishima syndicate is supposed to. I could say how I asked Jin some questions about what it's like to be a telepath, and he asked me some questions about Uncle Wang and Seung Mina and the Temple of Light - he was really curious 'cause they all used to be best friends with his mom, he told me that. Or I could say how I started my first half a day at school, and got put in the tenth grade. I made some friends with the other school kids, got in an argument with my teacher, and one of the other teachers was really weird, I mean REALLY weird, all the kids would call him crazy and make fun of him behind his back. But I bet Julia can tell you a lot more about him, she got to know him a lot better than me.
         Still, you get the idea, right? Just an ordinary day. Not really boring, I guess, but nowhere near as exciting as my first biiiiig fight in the Iron Fist. You sure you don't wanna hear about it?
         Huh?
         Oh, you're right - here we are. Time for class. And there's a geometry quiz today, too! I hate math. Quick, I forget, how do you figure out the size of a cone?
         No, silly! Pi-radius-squared is the size of a circle. And that's only 2D; a cone is 3D!
         I'm gonna go ask my teacher.
         Bye now!





EXCERPT: private journal of Heishiro Mitsurugi
December 6, 2017 (continued)


         I've only been working here two days, and I already need a vacation.
         I'd settle for a good meal, though. Anything, as long as it's food. Real food. ANYTHING that's not a goddamn ration stick, and the IV fluids they've been dripping into my arm don't count! You know what I really wish I could eat, right now? A succulent helping of steaming hot sukiyaki


long smudge


         Damn. Taki must've made me smudge the whole page. That's another one I owe her for.
         When she disappeared, I figured she'd left me alone to recuperate from my aches and pains. Then suddenly, her arm came out of nowhere and snagged my writing hand.
         "Get up," Taki ordered.
         "Wh-what?" I stammered. "Y-you said my next lesson wasn't until-"
         "That is for combat. I have been assured that your injuries are not serious enough to prohibit lighter training. Get up, or I will make them serious."
         What could I do? I got up. Even though my muscles were so cramped and aching that I winced repeatedly when I stretched out.
         Taki's idea of "lighter training" was to let me skip wearing the heavy armor. Oh, and she didn't beat me into the ground - I mean, she didn't "spar" with me. Instead, today I was supposed to learn "stealth." She took me to a long hall in the Residential Wing, and pointed to a girl wandering at the far end.
         The girl was a short little thing. She looked pretty young, but I've never been good at guessing ages, so I don't know. Her hair was in the queerest style - tied up in springy ponytails, sticking up and out from either side of her head like insect antennae, and they bounced with every lively step she took. She was wearing a typical sailor-suit high school uniform. Well, mostly typical. I can't remember the last time I saw a girl in a skirt that short. Maybe it was in a movie?
         "Follow her," Taki instructed. "Do not let her see you, if you can help it."
         "But I-"
         "No excuses."
         "-don't think I can stay hidden," I hurriedly blurted. "There isn't enough cover-"
         "You had better try. Unless you would rather train in single combat against her."
         "Who, me? Beat up a little kid?"
         "She is no ordinary child. Her name is Ling Xiaoyu. Perhaps you remember?"
         Ling Xiaoyu?
         Oh, no. No, no, no!
         A trembling fit gripped me. I knew about this girl - Ishida and Kimura said she took apart a whole boat full of fighters who got in her way! She'd even murdered a guard named Shiina!
         If she got mad because I followed her, would she murder me too?
         I've been almost killed twice since I started this job, but at least both times were by something formidable. Now, I was in fear for my life from a tiny little girl!
         I wasn't just scared of dying. I was scared of dying in a really embarrassing way.
         "Get moving, rookie," Taki said, casually fingering the hilt of her short sword. I remembered the press of its blade against my chest, a sensation I did not want to feel again.
         This is not what you call a win-win situation.
         I can't remember the last time I felt such a mix of humiliation and terror. I mean, I've been feeling a lot of just plain terror lately, but-
         -well, exactly why am I being threatened by so many women lately? First Taki, then that horrible Ogre-woman, and now this tiny little creature zipping about like a magical pixie or whatever. A couple times I was almost sure she'd spotted me, and I'd press against the wall, with my heart pounding like a siege engine. It's ridiculous; I used to babysit kids about her size, and I was shaking in a thinly contained panic because of her.
         Could the gossip about her be wrong?
         But Ishida and Kimura had been so sure. Especially Kimura. He's so calm and stable; I can't imagine him being misled as easily as that. I just can't.
         Damn little hyperdoll certainly has enough energy to take out the crews of a dozen boats, anyway.
         My training today wasn't as violent as a typical session with Taki, but it was almost as exhausting. Gods, that little girl can run! She let me on a crazy chase all over the syndicate; I was getting lost half the time, and the other half I was tripping over myself in an effort to keep up. My muscles hurt, and my arm especially stung where splinters had pricked it the night before. I could hardly stagger in a straight line without wincing, while the girl was so wound up she'd do flips and somersaults, apparently out of sheer elation. And she was heedless of what her short skirt failed to cover during her gymnastics.
         Her panties are dark blue, I noticed.
         I really should have paid more attention to what I was doing - at the time, I was trying to follow her jump straight down from a tall balcony, and I landed flat on my face. The impact was so hard that my forehead hurt and my nose bent out of shape, and when I looked up, I couldn't tell where the girl had gone.
         And then-
         That was the moment.
         The moment absolute beauty crossed my eyes.
         There was no advance warning, no fanfare whatsoever; she just strolled right along the balcony I'd fallen from. She was incredible. Unbelievable. Indescribable. The most gorgeous woman I've ever seen, in real life or out of it. Tall, exotic, radiating confidence and raw magnetism. I can't even remember what she was wearing, just the - the - how am I supposed to describe her body? Seeing it was rapture. Curves I could get lost in, a face I could only bask in the shadow of, lips that I could only long to touch from afar... I don't have the words, I just don't.
         And then the miracle happened.
         She looked at me.
         I wasn't making any noise - was I? - and I'm sure I wasn't in her line of sight, but she paused in mid-stride and looked at me like she knew I was worshiping her. Not a direct look, exactly. More like a flirtatious side glance. Her precious, deep crimson lips curled in a singularly alluring smile.
         If I am struck blind tomorrow, I won't be sorry.
         "Why are you stopping?" drifted a harsh voice, but even its jarring presence could not break the luscious eternity of the moment. "Your office is down the hall!"
         I knew that voice. I didn't particularly care to look at the speaker, not when I had such supreme wonder occupying my eyes. However, I did belatedly notice Ishida's and Kimura's virtually identical, indistinguishably average outlines, flanking my vision of beauty. I think it was Ishida who had just spoken; the words were way too loud and irascible to have come from Kimura. I guess the two of them were escorting her, or something.
         "Sorry, boys," the living goddess purred. Her voice was the music of Paradise.
         "If you please, miss." That was Kimura, I think. I mean, it was practically the same accent and timber as Ishida, but so quiet I could scarcely hear.
         The vision of absolute beauty swept herself from my sight.
         I almost cried over the loss.
         Gods! I thought Ishida and Kimura had been practically in disgrace. How did they redeem themselves? What did they do to earn the heavenly reward of attending to a living goddess? It's not like they risked their lives fighting any Ogre-woman! And how could they stay so calm in such a divine presence? Couldn't they see the superlative magnitude of her voluptuous female beauty?
         Are they gay?
         "Kimura's married." Taki's grating, sarcastic voice painfully dragged me down from the clouds. "As if that's proof one way or the other; hell, he hardly ever gets to see his wife. As for Ishida, your guess is as good as anyone else's. He hates all sexes equally. His family has been trying to rope him into an arranged marriage anyway; I expect it'll be another three months before he caves in. Or maybe he should share Kimura's wife. It's not like she could tell the difference."
         What?
         "I d-didn't say anything out loud," I gasped to my teacher. "I know I didn't!"
         "I can read lips. Your mouth works when your brain shuts off. Which is quite often, I've noticed."
         "Is - is that how you know so much about everyone? Because you sneak around and read their lips?"
         A nasty glint sparkled in her eyes. I don't like it when her eyes get that glint. "If only it were that easy. Not everyone in the syndicate is as brainless as you."
         Hey!
         Calm down, calm down, don't get mad, don't lash out, she is my teacher and I know she could take me apart without breaking a sweat. Besides, I can take a few insults if it puts her in a good enough mood to tell me-
         "Can you at least let me know who the godde- who that woman was? The one they were escorting?"
         "That would be Anna Williams."
         'Anna'? Was that her name?
         It had to be. 'Anna' - such a ringing chime of clearest beauty...
         "Wake up!" Taki sharply snapped her fingers in front of my face. "Forget her, rookie. She's the half-sister of that possessed bitch who nearly killed you last night."
         "But - but that's not Anna's fault, is it?"
         "She's also a veteran of Iron Fist Tournament. She could break both your arms in the time it takes you to inhale."
         Wait a minute...
         "What do you mean, 'veteran'? The last Iron Fist Tournament was before I was born. She's not that old."
         "She's been frozen in cryo for twenty years. Word is, Heihachi wants to her to pay off her debt working for the syndicate, and fighting in the Iron Fist. He probably made her an offer she could not refuse."
         Frozen for the last twenty years?
         Poor Anna!
         What must it be like, to go to sleep and wake up in a world twenty years past the one you knew? Did she have any friends or family left to help her? Anyone she could turn to?
         Anyone at all...?
         Taki drew her short sword, and idly studied its blade. "Question and answer period is over, rookie. Quit daydreaming and get back to work."
         "But - but do you know if Anna-"
         "Are you going to get back to work, or do I have to cut you?"
         I got back to work.
         Hunted in circles before I spotted the pixie girl again, and off she led me on more crazy chases. All the while, I secretly hoped the vision of beauty would reappear, but no such luck. I was running out of breath when my hyperactive target slid down a banister, and settled next to this older guy at a table. The guy wasn't that much older, though. He looked closer to my age.
         I ducked behind a wall. The girl was just close enough that I could still hear her voice if I listened hard, but she wasn't talking all that loudly, so I had trouble making out what she and other guy were saying. Well, whoever the other guy was, he seemed pretty brave, just hanging out with a murderer like it was no big deal. Maybe he didn't know?
         And why did he look so familiar?
         He couldn't have been another security guard; he wasn't wearing the black suit of the syndicate's dress code. His outfit was kind of dark, but it wasn't black and it wasn't a suit; it was a pinstriped high school uniform. I felt for sure like I'd seen him before. No, wait, it was more like I'd seen his picture before. In a book or something. Or maybe on TV.
         I couldn't help it. I knew I was supposed to focus on the girl I was tailing, but I got distracted wondering where I'd seen her new friend. Think back...
         Thinking, thinking...
         Oh, no.
         No, no, no!
         I remembered who the guy looked like. He looked like Kazuya Mishima, the traitor of the Great Invasion! But Kazuya was dead. Which meant this had to be Kazuya's devil son - Jin Kazama, the "young master," the mind-reader, the engineer of a project to turn dead people into cyborg zombies, the-!
         Fear intensified the soreness in my throbbing muscles to quivering fire. I tried to force my galloping heart to be still.
         Stay calm. Stay calm. Do not cry out. Do not run away. They can't even see me; I can't see them. If I'm lucky, maybe they'll kill each other? No, no, that's ridiculous, but they still don't have any reason to notice me. I'll just freeze until the little hyperdoll murderer runs off, and then I can sneak away from her devil friend. I have nothing to be afraid of. After all, Kazuya's son doesn't have any particular reason to turn me into one of his zombies, does he? No, no, he's not going to do that. He's not going to zap me with his lightning Power, or suck out my soul and eat it, or...
         I couldn't move.
         I couldn't think.
         Something was behind me. Something dreadful. It was just like when the zombie had ambushed me, only this time I was excruciatingly aware of it, felt its stiff fingers touching the back of my neck, and I couldn't even blink in response. Frozen with absolute terror. I saw energy flash before my eyes - jagged indigo streaks of deadly lightning. The other presence had my life in its unholy grip, and I still couldn't - couldn't even-!
         I broke my paralysis with a scream.
         Well, not really a scream. More like a terrified yipe.
         In full-fledged panic, I sprang away from the monster behind me, and reached for a wooden sword that wasn't there. I wasn't training with my sword today. So I put both hands up in a karate guard that would have been much more imposing if my arms weren't shaking like grass blades in a stiff wind, and I stared, astonished, at the fiend incarnate.
         "Feel better?" he asked.
         What? What was he talking about?
         "I'm talking about your arm," the devil clarified, amiably. "And your muscle cramps. Any pain left?"
         Actually... no. The soreness in my body had disappeared. Every last ache.
         Did he use his evil Power to heal me? But that didn't make sense. Evil Power isn't supposed to heal people, is it?
         "My Power does what I tell it to. Most of the time. You've probably heard rumors about me, but I don't suppose you could spare the benefit of the doubt before you judge?"
         I don't want to answer that, I really don't. It would be impossible anyway; I'm shaking so badly I could never fit a coherent word through my stammer-
         "Oh, it was a rhetorical question. And if your stammering persists, then perhaps I can set you up with a speech therapist. Is it a recurring problem?"
         -what's going on here? He can't be reading my lips like Taki was; I'm too petrified to move my lips.
         Is he reading my mind?
         "At this close range, it's extremely difficult not to. I don't suppose you could tone down the raw terror just a little? Then I might actually have a chance to block out your surface thoughts."
         AAAAAH!
         His thick, jet black eyebrows flattened over his piercing gaze.
         Stop that this instant! he demanded, his demonic command resonating directly in my head.
         I stopped.
         "Now. Could you please tell me why you were following Xiaoyu?"
         Umm... uh, that is, I, I, I-
         "I don't have all day. You know, most syndicate employees prefer to avoid telepathic communication, but if it's the only way you can bring yourself to tell me-"
         Nothing like a little incentive to push me into doing the impossible.
         "T-training," I gasped, in a whimpering rabbit squeak.
         "Under whose instruction?"
         "Mine," Taki's voice sounded. My boss blinked in surprise as she stepped into our common line of sight, just like that. I was only a little less startled. Does she know how to turn invisible or something?
         "I wanted to gauge his natural stealth," Taki continued. "It is roughly on par with that of an elephant."
         Hey!
         So now I'm an elephant, am I? Well, you're a mean-spirited bi-
         "Taki is one of our best. Don't underestimate what you can learn from her," my devil boss reprimanded, fixing me with a stern glare.
         AAAAAAAH!
         "I told you to stop that!" he snapped, rubbing his forehead. "What is your name, anyway?"
         I... I know I should answer him, but all I can think about are ancient legends of demons who use your true name to steal your soul-
         "What's his name?" my boss curtly requested of Taki, an irritated frown crossing his face.
         "Heishiro Mitsurugi," she smoothly answered.
         "You?" my boss asked, pointing to me as he raised a questioning eyebrow. "You're the descendant of the legendary Mitsurugi?"
         He didn't have to say it like it was so hard to believe.
         "Somehow, I thought you would be taller," he mused, folding his arms. "Say, you're the one who helped test the safety disengagement protocols of Prototype Alpha, aren't you?"
         Oh, gods. The last thing I need is to be reminded of that; I'm terrified enough as it is!
         "I just want you to know that even though we're suspending the Cyborg Army project, I sincerely appreciate the effort you've made to fill in for me." A warm smile touched his lips. "If you have the inner strength to face down a cyborg during your first day on the job, then maybe there's more legend in you than meets the eye."
         Did he say the Cyborg Army project was suspended?
         He's not turning dead people into horrible zombies anymore? Really? It almost sounded too good to be true!
         "That's nothing," Taki commented. "You should have seen the rookie take on last night's invader. It's a miracle he's still alive."
         "Oh?" My boss raised both his sinister eyebrows. "That is impressive."
         Wait a minute - was Taki suddenly sticking up for me? Why? I thought she didn't like me.
         "In any case," my boss continued, "about Xiaoyu-"
         "I-I d-didn't m-mean to frighten her," I gasped, fighting off a fresh wave of panic. "F-forgive me, please! I'm so sorry, I'll nn-never bother her again-"
         "Relax. It's all right," he reassured. "You're far more scared of her than she is of you - undeservedly so, might I add. She would never want to hurt you, unless self-defense left her no other choice."
         I'd feel more relieved if I weren't hearing this from a devil.
         "In fact - Taki, do you think you could spare your student for another couple hours this evening? I think Xiaoyu enjoyed 'playing' his little game. She'd probably appreciate the chance to make better friends with him."
         Uh, no, no, I don't think so. I'd need to make a whole lot of enemies before I'd want a 'friend' like that vicious little-
         "As you wish," Taki returned.
         -do I get any say in this at all?
         "In the meantime, there's something very important that I must ask you," Jin continued. His voice dropped lower as he looked Taki straight in the eye. "As soon as I leave the syndicate, Grandfather intends to personally confront a very dangerous enemy in his private study. I'm sorry, I can't brief you with any more information because it's classified. But I need you to - well, don't interfere unless you have to, but do keep an eye on him, all right? Don't let him get killed. I'm counting on you. Do you understand?"
         "What about his honor guard?" Taki languidly inquired.
         "Umm..." my boss bit his lower lip, an oddly human gesture. "They're out of the picture, sort of, and I don't think he's selected a new honor guard yet. He plans to face this threat alone. I can't order you to become involved, but if you could find it in your heart to watch over him, then I'd be very grateful. Will you do it?"
         No! No, no, no!
         "Of course," Taki agreed with a bow.
         "Thank you. I won't forget this." He returned her bow and left, down the stairs and out the room. That lethal hyperdoll girl went with him.
         "B-but-" I finally managed to stammer. "But - but-!"
         "Come on, rookie," Taki instructed. She started down the hall at a brisk run.
         "Why did you tell him yes?" I exclaimed, struggling to keep up with her. "Why!?"
         "Would you wish to incite his wrath with a direct refusal? Knowing what he could do to you if he so desired?"
         Umm... well, when she put it that way...
         "Perhaps he is right, and you are not a total loss after all." She said that offhandedly, without even breathing hard, though she was running faster than me at full tilt. Or maybe it was more like gliding; she made scarcely any noise as she moved. "You have shown almost tolerable bravery, standing your ground against the devil Jin Kazama. He has reduced men twice your size to the mental capacity of preschoolers."
         You know, every time I think I can almost cope with this awful, violent, insane job, she says something like that and I'm sweating in terror again.
         Or maybe I was just sweating from the run. Because I was short of breath when we reached a humble door. Taki picked the lock in seconds. I followed her into a huge, darkened study, filled with crowded wooden shelves of musty old books. There was a big rectangle of clear space in the center of the carpeted floor, maybe fifty meters wide by seventy meters long. It seemed like this place didn't receive many visitors, what with the poor lighting and the dust gathering on the bookshelves, but it wasn't deserted now.
         And old man kneeled in the center of the clear space, resting his hands on his lower thighs. He wore a traditional hakama and wooden clogs; nasty scars crisscrossed his bare chest in a forbidding X. Two tall, stiff grey bristles of hair pushed over his ears, marking the sides of his stern, weathered face.
         Heihachi Mishima.
         I recognized him from the cover of Time magazine - they made him Man of the Year in 2012. But I would have known who he was even if I'd never seen the issue. There was something about the old man, an overwhelming presence even more profound than what I felt from his devil grandchild. Jin Kazama exuded so much evil sorcery that it made the hairs on the back of my neck stick straight up, but the feeling I got from his grandfather was different. Not just raw energy, although there was a definite tingle to the air. Not merely black magic, or the intimidating anxiety of a malevolent spirit peering into my soul. This feeling was at least a hundred times stronger, and it was... it was...
         Authority.
         That's the best word I have for it. This old man was the living personification of righteousness, power, experience, wisdom. A soul of strongest steel, forged in fire and tempered through decades of strife. A natural leader of men. The undisputed master of the nigh-omnipotent Mishima syndicate.
         Wow.
         I couldn't help being scared of him, but my fear was nothing compared to my awe. Just one look - just one first impression - and I'm beginning to understand why so many people like Ishida and Kimura would lay down their lives for this man. I know why they call him "Mishima-sama." In a fight-or-die world, where you survive or suffer with your boss, this boss was more than just a survivor. He was an absolute ruler. I felt like I should get on my knees.
         Mishima-sama's eyes were closed. Not like he was sleeping; more like he was concentrating really hard on a tough problem. Well, if I were responsible for a third of the world, I'd have a lot to think about too.
         There were three more people in the room, I slowly realized. Two of them flanked Mishima-sama, protectively. The third one was leaning close to Mishima-sama and whispering something in his ear. I didn't recognize any of them; they were all just more security guards in black suits like me.
         The old man dismissed his entourage with a single motion of his hand. They vanished into the darkness. I guess they left through another exit, not that I saw exactly.
         I wondered why Mishima-sama had sent his men away. Then I remembered what Jin had told me: Mishima-sama wanted to face this unknowable danger by himself, without interference from his guards or his grandson. I'll bet Mishima-sama's messenger had just said something like, 'The telepath has left the building.'
         "You two. Why do you trespass here?" the old man gruffly requested. His voice was so powerful; it wasn't excessively loud, but it dominated me more strongly than when I felt a telepath speaking in my head.
         "You know why," Taki replied. How could she talk so casually to such a great man?
         Mishima-sama's lip lifted a fraction of a centimeter, as if in the faintest impression of a snarl. I quailed. Taki didn't blink.
         "My grandson sent you," the old man growled.
         "He is concerned for your welfare." The funny thing is, Taki didn't say it like she shared that concern. More like she was secretly amused.
         "Do not feel immediately obliged to obey his foolish requests again. Ever."
         "I never said I felt obliged."
         Mishima-sama opened his dangerous eyes. His face tightened in a direct glare at Taki as he said, "Get out of my sight."
         Taki bowed and retreated.
         I was supposed to follow her, right?
         I mean, Mishima-sama hadn't told me to get out too - had he? I didn't want to offend him by leaving before I was dismissed. But I didn't want to offend him by overstaying my welcome, either. And I didn't want to offend him with my rabbit-squeak voice, impertinently asking if he meant for me to go too-
         "Why are you still here!?" Mishima-sama harshly demanded, turning his dark, all-seeing gaze on me.
         Well, at least that answered my question. But now I had a new problem. Talking to Mishima-sama's devil grandson had been hard enough; did I have any chance at all of forcing out a coherent answer to this global patron? Or maybe I shouldn't answer, maybe I should just leave. Yes, turn around and leave before he gets any angrier. Turn around and make myself leave.
         I can't turn around.
         I can't move.
         No, no, got to think positive, I can do this. Damn it, stop shaking! I can turn around and walk out of here, step by step, just breathe deep and stay calm and dammit stop shaking-!
         I was half-twisted about, and almost one full step closer to the exit when Mishima-sama roared, "Taki! Who is this trembling coward, and why does he wear the uniform of my men?"
         Oh, no. Oh, gods no.
         Taki reappeared on the edge of my unsteady visual field. "He is Heishiro Mitsurugi."
         Um, wasn't she forgetting to add something?
         Something about how I was her student? Therefore implying that I should be given a break, because I've been in training for only three days? Or something like that?
         "THIS frightened weakling?" Mishima-sama boomed, rising to his full, terrible height and gesturing to me with one hand, fingers flexed like tiger claws. "THIS is the descendant of the legendary Mitsurugi!?"
         Mishima-sama... he...
          ...he really didn't have to say it like it was so hard to believe...
         ...did he?
         "Terminate his contract!" Mishima-sama snapped. "I will not allow such weakness to pollute my syndicate one day longer!"
         What?
         I should have been happy. After all, this job has been hell on me, I've almost gotten killed more than once since I came here, but...
         ...but...
         ...but the Mishima syndicate was still my best chance of getting into a college. Of realizing my dream of being an editor. Maybe even my only chance. To think I could just stand before Mishima-sama's noble greatness, in the presence of a man who has brought so much order and hope to a world filled with chaos and despair, only to be rejected as unworthy-!
         And Anna was working here too, wasn't she? If I left now, I'd probably never see her again. Even if I did, what reason would she have to look twice at a quitter?
         No, I had to speak up. I had to. If I didn't, I knew I'd regret it for the rest of my life.
         "W-wait!" I squeaked.
         Mishima-sama bared his ferocious teeth.
         "G-give me a ch-chance to prove myself! Please!" Now I really did get down on my knees, touching my forehead to the floor. "Th-there's something bad here threatening you, right? L-let me protect you from it! I'll take on anything!"
         I held my breath.
         "Hmph," Mishima-sama snorted. "Very well. You may have your chance."
         Really?
         With incessantly trembling arms, I pushed myself off the floor, but Mishima-sama was no longer looking at me. Instead, he declared, "You have not lost the advantage of surprise; it was never yours to begin with. Show yourself. Attack him. If you crush this whelp, then I shall face you next in single combat: no weapons, no guards, and no tricks. Is that not what you desire... Hwoarang?"
         'Hwoarang'? Was that like a name or something? Just who was Mishima-sama talking t-
         The attack came before I could finish the thought. Something grabbed my right hand, cold and clammy like a live fish; it wrenched me all the way around, and this heavy lock like a convict's chain wrapped around my arm, only it wasn't a chain. I think it was a leg; the knee joint locked with my elbow and I was forced to fold in half. The lock lifted upward and pulled me off the ground. An awful wrench almost yanked my arm out of its socket, twisting me in the air like a twirl-toy-
         WHACK
         The floor hit my back at the same time as the boot heel dug into my chest. Sight and sound disconnected, then slowly filtered through the corners of my perception. Whatever had grabbed me let me go, for the moment. I tried my best to get back up.
         "I remember your sword-freak ancestor," hissed a cruel, serpentine voice. "Looks like all his strengths have been lost to genetic drift."
         Shut up, you! I'll show you how good I am with a sword! I'll-
         -oh, no. I still don't have my sword.
         How am I supposed to fight without a sword?
         Maybe it would have helped to look at my enemy before I attempted an attack, but by the time I located the source of his voice, a fist hit me in the face.
         Wham.
         Another one.
         Wham.
         I didn't have a chance to react. No opportunity to summon any fighting spirit, or whatever it was that let me get a few blows in edgewise against the cyborg zombie or the Ogre-woman. Just pow, right between the eyes, and with the double head blow came a profound inability to focus on anything. All I got was bits and pieces, between the dizziness and the terrible headache; not enough to keep track of my opponent, never enough to fight back.
         It was a series of kicks, I think; they rushed so fast that I was reacting to a high one and another hit me low instead. My ankle twisted from the force; a tendon screamed bloody murder and I couldn't stand, but even as I fell another kick slammed me against what must have been a bookshelf. Still another strike crushed my gut against my spine, making me spit dry heaves. A follow-up blow to my ankle forced me to topple, but a particularly solid heel to my chin lifted me back up before I sprawled. There was a lightning fast flash of red and black, and glinting spurs like shooting stars. Something sharp grazed my forehead. Drops of my own blood stung my eyes; the bookshelf behind me split in half, wooden boards crunched to bits.
         Hardcover volumes spilled on me.
         Ouch. Ouch. Ow!
         I just barely covered my head before the avalanche battered my neck and back, pinning me flat on my stomach. One last book landed on its spine, right in front of my eyes, and flopped open to a diagram of human pressure points.
         "Interesting style of Tae Kwon Do," commented Mishima-sama's gruff, oddly distant voice, and I knew he wasn't talking about me. "Its ruthless bloodletting is reminiscent of Baek Doo San."
         "You think?" sneered my attacker. "No more stalling. You made a bargain."
         "Indeed."
         I could barely see over the open book, let alone lift my head. My vision was cloudy, and filled with reddish blotches. One of the blotches gradually resolved into a straight, chin-length layer of watery-red hair. Somehow, through the grinding pain of my beating, I was able to get my first, wavering look at the destructive powerhouse that had crushed me without a second thought.
         A teenager?
         I got the stuffing kicked out of me by a teenager?
         He couldn't have been a day older than me, I swear. He was way too thin and slight; even his punk black leathers made him look more like a petulant young rebel than a tough guy.
         Was this Hwoarang?
         Whoever he was, Mishima-sama afforded him the strict respect due a veteran warrior. Indigo electricity crackled about the old man, framing him in a thunderstorm nimbus as he stood, arms at his sides. He settled into a defensive stance, legs moderately wide, left hand held well out in front of his chambered right. The teenager's stance was much more agitated; he practically bounced on the balls of his feet.
         One moment, they were just standing there, opposite each other.
         When they moved, it was so fast I could hardly see.
         I think it was Hwoarang who attacked first, a black and watery-red blur. I didn't see his actual kick, only the freeze-frame instant of its hyperextension, his upper body tilted low to balance over his pivoted instep, his heel brushing against where the old man's chin had been an instant before. Mishima-sama had whisked himself away and to the side, stepping through shadows in darkness and silence, his wrinkled head down, his back to the shelves of books.
         Hwoarang scarcely paused; he shot forward into the shadows, thrusting his fist like a rapid-fire machine gun. I think the old man tried to sidestep again, but this time it was less successful; he caught two quick strikes to the face, then stumbled as Hwoarang's spur cut his ribs, gouging a bright red crease. Mishima-sama's gritted teeth gleamed deadly white in the darkness; his powerful arms reached, and snagged the arrow that was Hwoarang's body in mid-motion. Locking his piston of a left upper limb around the teenager's neck, Mishima-sama forced his enemy's head down, and used his free right hand to grab Hwoarang's tangled hair. Brilliant streaks of searing indigo energy coursed about the old man's fists as he held the teenager in his trap. Hwoarang's body convulsed. I smelled a foul, charcoal odor - like burning rotten meat. Strands of Hwoarang's hair started to catch fire.
         "Why," demanded the old man, "do you seek to assassinate me?"
         Hwoarang grunted, "Ahhgh-"
         "Answer or I break your neck! Did someone hire you, or are you here to fulfill your own vendetta?"
         "Y-you-" Hwoarang gasped through the choke hold, "-you..." His hands shook with outrage, building to a volcanic peak.
         "YOU MORTAL FOOL!" Hwoarang's furious howl increased his strength five - no, ten, it had to be at least ten times what it was before. He shoved his right fist up and through Mishima-sama's headlock like it wasn't there, actually landing a solid blow on the old man's chin. Hwoarang seized the opening, grappling and spinning the old man's body. He hooked his left front thigh on Mishima-sama's leg, using that intersection like a sliding pulley to flip the old man and throw him on the ground supine. It was unthinkable to see, someone as great and prideful as Mishima-sama being cast to the ignoble earth.
         Hwoarang tried to stab his boot heel through Mishima-sama's neck, but the old man rolled lengthwise out of the way just in time; the floor quaked from the crushing impact of the missed stomp. Mishima-sama's roll halted next to another laden bookshelf, this one vertically narrow. He was breathing heavily as he hustled to his feet, but at the same time, Hwoarang drew his left leg into a chambered kick, tucking his folded knee close to his balanced upper body. Perhaps Mishima-sama was moving to evade an oncoming left kick; I don't know, because it seemed as though the teenager switched strategies in mid-attack, faster than the speed of thought. He lashed out not with his left leg, but with his right, spinning clockwise and shifting his pose in a three hundred and sixty degree twirl. His right heel snapped in a horizontal whip curve, not at the crouching old man, but rather the bookshelf towering nearby, savaging dusty volumes with a blow so massive, it cracked the shelf's foundation. Ancient woodwork split in half, and an avalanche of volumes spilled upon Mishima-sama. The old man roared as they fell; clutter and chaos filled my eyes-
         -replaced with an explosion of indigo Power! Mishima-sama had no time to avoid the threat, only to destroy it. He thrust his arms straight out in an almost supernatural counterattack, palms flexed, left palm pointing up while the right pointed down. As if emanating from a demon maelstrom, the sheer pressure wave of his strike and its cavalcade of indigo energy smashed aside the brunt of the hardcover avalanche. Yet Mishima-sama still suffered a double toll - one from the stray volumes that hit and bruised his upper body, and one directly from Hwoarang. The teenager had landed from his shelf-splitting kick in his stork stance, this time chambering his right leg. He spun in a jumping counterclockwise whirl, again turning all the way around to scissor his legs and lash out high with his right instep. He got the old man's face. Mishima-sama buckled with the blow, which hurled him clear of the fallen debris, deeper into the shelves and shadows.
         Hwoarang's breathing was labored, not from fatigue, but rather the ugly, blotching bruises that laced his neck - or were they burns? The old man's strength had left its marks, and the teenager remained acutely aware of it; instead of charging headfirst into the darkness, this time he advanced warily on his prey. He hissed, poisonously, his words dripping with hate and loathing.
         "Despicable, self-centered mortals. You think the only reason you should die is for money, or revenge?"
         An evil, sharp-toothed grin creased Hwoarang's lips. It was not humor. It was insanity.
         "No. It's not your fault, not directly; just your bad luck. It has to stop. He's my best chance for making it stop, but he won't. Not on his own. I have to force him. I know who he cares about most; it was in his head. Not the girl. I could have gone after the girl; I could have. But he barely knows her, while you - you-...!"
         Somewhere in the darkness, Mishima-sama faltered. I could hardly see, but the crackling indigo energy around him broke, just for a moment, betraying his weakened posture. Mad, shaking anticipation wracked Hwoarang's stance, as if the very sight of Mishima-sama's blood spurred him into a renewed frenzy.
         "YOU'RE THE ONE PERSON HE LOVES!"
         Hwoarang threw himself into the bloodlust, unable to hold back; he charged forward at a dead run-
         -into the brunt of Mishima-sama's lethal fist.
         I didn't see the actual blow. I saw Hwoarang's run, his leaping kick, his left leg chambered and starting to extend in a bone-crushing airborne spike; then there was a flash of indigo strobe lights, and the teenager's body hurtled on a reverse trajectory. Mishima-sama stood, out of the shadows, his side to the enemy, his legs in a sideways horse stance with a limited bend at the knees, and his right fist extended straight. Pure strength defined him in that moment, force and will and greatness that lesser mortals can only aspire to.
         Hwoarang slammed into yet another bookshelf, rocking it, and almost collapsed at its base; but he held his ground. Mishima-sama hurtled at his enemy in a flying kick. Instead of striking high, as Hwoarang had done with most of his kicks, the old man hurled himself low to the ground, landing on a pivoted wooden clog as he thrust his left leg at Hwoarang's shins. The teenager had prepared himself for a chest-level attack. Natural speed and uncanny desperation were not enough to stop the old man's assault, but Hwoarang had just enough opportunity to counterattack at the same moment. The old man grunted as Hwoarang's heel caught his right shoulder, hard, but the teenager had his support cut from underneath him. The rocking bookshelf behind Hwoarang stopped his freefall, with the unkind impact of hard wood against skin and bone.
         Mishima-sama raised his left elbow overhead, preparing to finish off his enemy with a savage concussion. At the same time, Hwoarang forced his bruised body to obey his will, pushing away from the teetering bookshelf to whip his right leg in a full circle, his final target being the old man's vulnerable neck.
         Mishima-sama attacked.
         Hwoarang attacked.
         Both blows struck home.
         There was an enormous flash of energy, so bright it burned my eyes. I saw Mishima-sama, strong and deadly, with a furious, hating glower on his face; Hwoarang's boot lodged in the wedge between his left shoulder and his neck, with a dull red stream of blood coursing from the deep bite of the metal spur. Yet Mishima-sama had locked Hwoarang's extended leg in the crook of his weathered left arm, and the old man planted a heavy wooden clog on Hwoarang's own chest, pushing with triple the Power.
         "rrrRAGH!" With a mighty shout, Mishima-sama kicked Hwoarang away from him and into the bookshelf, toppling it. The falling shelf hit another, which hit another, setting off the rumbling catastrophe of a massive domino effect. Hwoarang slumped on his back, still struggling to move, until Mishima-sama bent on one knee and drove his wooden clog directly into Hwoarang's exposed ribcage.
         The sound was horrible.
         It was like the crunch of breaking a bushel of wet twigs. Hwoarang spasmed, violently, and choked. Blood started running from his mouth. He couldn't get up.
         He was dying.
         At least, I thought he was. Taki has told me about the different ways a person can die. She tells me during combat training, talking without breathing hard while I huff and puff and strain to land a single hit on her. She said once that a hard enough chest blow can kill, if it crushes the ribs and drives splinters of the very cage that protects the heart and lungs into these most vital organs. Hwoarang's breath was sputtering, fading; a bluish tinge started to touch his lips, especially visible against his unnaturally pale skin. He was dying. He had to be.
         I'll never forget how Mishima-sama looked, towering over the broken wreck of his vanquished foe. The old man had been battered. Severely. Bloody, streaming cuts ran down his neck and chest; a black ring circled his swollen left eye; ugly, purplish bruises marred his face and gut. His right arm hung limp and red-streaked. He looked like he should collapse, but he was standing tall and regal.
         Mishima-sama's face showed more than pride, or conquest. His expression was one of utmost exhilaration. The fierce joy of a born warrior, answering the call to victory. It was the look an invincible champion - I don't care how many blows Hwoarang dealt his body; inside, his soul was invulnerable. I'm not worthy to serve such strength. Not yet, anyway.
         I could only stare in reverence of Mishima-sama's triumph. I could only feel pity for his dying victim.
         But then, Mishima-sama said to his enemy, "You will not perish by my hand."
         That's all he did; he didn't summon a doctor, or perform first aid, or anything like that. He simply declared his will, insurmountable as the rising sun. And just like that, Hwoarang's breathing settled into a regular rhythm. The bluish tinge left his skin. His rotting brown eyes widened.
         "No," the teenager whispered. "No-!"
         "I do not choose to take your life," the old man continued, as if speaking an imperial decree - and you know, I think he was. "You will atone for your assassination attempt by serving me. You will fight in my Iron Fist Tournament. And you will not harass my grandson again; you will not even communicate with him unless I so approve. Nor will you talk to Julia Chang."
         "He told you about me," Hwoarang gasped. "He told you everything!" Horror, disgust, and misery gripped the teenager's face.
         "Damn you!" Hwoarang's voice turned shrill, tortured, a thousand times more agonized than when he'd been physically beaten. "Damn you! DAMN YOUUUUU!"
         I didn't understand. I still don't. Mishima-sama had spared his life; he should have been grateful.
         Shouldn't he?
         Well, it's not like I feel sorry for him anymore. I mean, he tried to assassinate a world leader, and his only punishment for it was to work for the guy. Am I really supposed to be sorry for him because he now has a job like mine? No, of course not.
         So why does my gut tie itself in knots whenever I think of that scream...?
         Taki's voice sounded, close to my ear. "Heads up, rookie. We're leaving."
         I honestly hadn't been aware of her during the entire fight. It's not like she was involved, or even in my direct line of view. Only then did I realize she'd been scooping books and boards off me the whole time. Mishima-sama's battle with Hwoarang must have lasted less than a minute or two; it had only seemed like much more.
         "Got any broken bones?" Taki whispered, hoarsely.
         I tried to answer that. Talking hurt. Moving hurt more. Like something big and bear-like was squeezing my chest. I managed to get out a pained, "Ugh-"
         "Better hope not," she returned, hoisting me off the ground like a sack of flour.
         The squeezing sensation in my chest became a buzzsaw.
         I think I passed out from the pain.


         ...and when I woke up, the devil was tending to me.
         I almost reacted with another yipe. Caught myself just in time. He was healing me like before, only this time I was back on that stupid cot, and he was touching my chest. The devil-
         No, wait. I shouldn't call him that, even if it's true. He is Mishima-sama's grandson, after all. And he's still my boss, next to Mishima-sama himself.
         "Ah, you're awake," observed Jin Kazama, the young master. "How are you feeling?"
         Um, well... no more pain, at least.
         "Good," he said, removing his hand. "You had three fractured ribs, a concussion, and a mess of minor cuts and contusions, but you should be fine now."
         Uh, thanks, I guess.
         "You're welcome. But how on earth did you get hurt in the first place? Your training shouldn't be so severe as to endanger your life."
         Ummm...
         I'm pretty sure I didn't think the answer in words, but the young master's question prompted a quick, unpleasant flashback of how I got pounded by-
         "Hwoarang?" my boss exclaimed, with a shocked expression on his face. "Why? How?" Turning to Taki, he angrily charged, "I asked you to watch over Grandfather, not some student with scarcely three days of training to his name!"
         Taki only shrugged.
         "She didn't force you to fight Hwoarang, did she?" my boss demanded to know.
         Uh, no, not exactly, it's like - I was-
         "You're afraid of losing your job?" The young master's eyebrows shot straight up. "Why? You've done nothing but strive above and beyond the call of duty since you came here."
         I wasn't sure how to explain, or even if I could explain.
         "I'm sure you have nothing to worry about," he reassured.
         But, Mishima-sama said-
         "If Grandfather wanted you gone, you wouldn't be in the syndicate right now. I don't know why you think you've offended him, but even if you have, the fact that you're still here means he's given you a second chance."
         "R-really?" I almost pleaded.
         He smiled, as benignly as possible for a monster in human form. Which was actually rather benign. "Xiaoyu would like to get to know you better after dinner, if you feel up to it. I hope you don't mind. Take care." He bowed from the neck and left.
         'After dinner'?
         "Is it dinnertime already?" I muttered, woozily. "How long was I out?"
         "Several hours," Taki growled.
         It wasn't her normal, bad-temper growl. It was worse. Much worse. Frustration and rage all mixed up into a vicious, low-pitched croon, like how my kitty used to warn other cats off her territory. I looked at Taki with bewilderment. Her muscles were constricting from bottled emotion, and her almond brown eyes flashed, spitefully.
         I said, "What's wrong with y-"
         I knew she was going to slap me before she moved.
         She telegraphed it. Everything about her body looked like she was only barely holding back, like the mere impact of sonic vibrations would set her off. Maybe that's why I reacted just as she drew her hand back, and caught her wrist before she could touch my face. It was the first time I'd successfully blocked a real blow from her. I had to stop her with both hands, too; her one arm was so strong that two of mine could scarcely keep it back.
         "What is wrong with you?" I repeated, genuinely wanting to know.
         "You IDIOT!" she screeched, wrenching her hand free. "I tried! I tried to save you! And what do you do? You cast yourself into the Devil's maw! You'll never be free of the syndicate now, not until you're a corpse!"
         She tried to-?
         "You set me up," I gasped, my jaw dropping from sudden insight.
         Taki only glared.
         "That's why you were so eager to 'watch over' Mishima-sama, when you were asked to. And why you were so quick to drag me along. And why you were deliberately trying to psyche me out before I met him. And why you defended me in front of the young master, but not to Mishima-sama himself! You were hoping I'd make a fool of myself in front of Mishima-sama and get fired for it, weren't you? Weren't you?"
         "He is not 'Mishima-sama'!" she exclaimed. "He's as much of a Devil as his grandson; the only difference is that he hides it better!"
         "Don't play the hypocrite," I returned, coldly. "I've seen you behave more like a Devil than Mishima-sama. Ever since I first met you. You're the one who seems to enjoy inflicting pain."
         "You have no idea," she spat.
         "Well, I'm ready for it," I returned, getting off the cot and meeting her glare. "I'm ready to learn everything you have to teach me. And then, I'm going to spar with Xiaoyu, if she'll condescend to show me a few moves."
         Taki said, "What?"
         "Bring it on."
         "How many of those books hit you on the head?" she shot, like a sniper. "Where is the terrified coward who only wanted to run away?"
         "I am not a coward!" I shot back. "Sometimes I get scared, but I'm not running away! Not from monsters, not from the syndicate, and especially not from you!"
         "What changed your mind?"
         "Mishima-sama did. Now I know who I'm working for, and why it's an honor to serve him."
         "Even an impressionable fool like you wouldn't throw his life away for 'honor'!"
         "I also need this job. Badly."
         "Liar," she snarled.
         "It's true."
         "Don't pretend your half-truths are whole!" Her short sword was in her hand again. "It's Anna, isn't it? You saw her, and now you want her, and suddenly nothing else matters. Not even your own survival."
         I thought about denying it. Then I decided that I honestly didn't want to keep making excuses to Taki. It would be the same as trying to appease her, and I was through doing that.
         "I have to be stronger," I explained. "She's a veteran of the Iron Fist Tournament. There's no reason for her to give me the time of day until I'm her equal. I have to train harder, learn more, get better, until I'm worthy of her. And I'll face any challenge it takes to get there."
         Taki shook her head. "I should have known it was too late for you the moment you saw her. Only one Darwinian instinct can override another."
         "Don't talk about Anna like that!" I shouted. "You only wish you could be like her!"
         Taki reacted to that.
         In a big way.
         I thought she was angry before. Now it was like she went wild. For the second time, I knew she was going to attack me before she did it, and I reacted in time to block; only I couldn't. She pushed aside my arms like bamboo stalks. I don't know if it was rage or something deeper that gave her such superhuman strength. In seconds, she had my back to the wall, in a replay of last night; only this time, her sword hovered near my neck instead of my heart.
         "Don't you ever compare me to her," Taki breathed through grinding teeth. "I may be a monster, but at least I don't pretend that I'm not!"
         I'm proud to say I didn't flinch.
         "You're trying to intimidate me," I said, "but it's not going to work. I know you have a sense of honor - enough that you won't kill me when you know I've saved your life. Maybe not enough to actually treat me like a human being, but that's just too bad."
         Taki's eyes narrowed to vicious slits.
         "You're right," she said, sheathing her sword. "I'm not going to kill you. Anna is."
         I folded my arms, defiantly.
         "You don't understand, you naive, trusting child. You have no idea; you've never been close to her kind before. She is hate. She is vendetta. She will manipulate you for her own ends, and then she will leave you. It would be kinder to murder you now."
         "You don't know what kindness is."
         "You don't know what Anna is. Your lust is going to be the death of you."
         I flushed.
         Taki was deliberately trying to embarrass me, I know. It shouldn't have worked, but it did. I wanted to retort with a deep, poetic, ominous declaration, like 'It is your unceasing hatred that is going to be the death of you, if you do not learn to control it.'
         What I actually said was, "Oh, yeah? Well, you're a mean-spirited bi-"
         "You want to learn how to be strong from me, remember?" Taki coolly interrupted, her flaring hatred remolding itself into insidious venom. "If you expect me to continue teaching you, then you had better be nice."
         So I was nice.
         I was nice all the rest of the night. And I was also nice to Xiaoyu, who actually turned out to be pretty friendly, for a puny killer. But I'll say this, just between these pages and me:
         Taki really is a mean-spirited bitch.
         I'm through feeling sorry for her, too. She still won't let me eat real food!
         Tomorrow, I'm going to see if I can talk Xiaoyu into bringing me a steamed pork bun, after her school lets out.


End of Chapter 13: Unlikely Alliances