PHOENIX REBORN

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



Chapter 14: Teacher's Pet


   "Why will you say that I am mad?"
         -Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart


TELEVISION DOCUMENTARY EXCERPT
"The Orochi Blood Riots: Tragedy or Conspiracy?"
Hosted by Michiko Iwakami
First aired June 8, 2017, 6:00 p.m.


IWAKAMI: To this day, there remains a great deal of controversy over the cause of the Orochi Blood Riots. Ms. Kagura, would you tell us in your own words what really happened?

CHIZURU KAGURA: There are those who claim that the Orochi Blood Riots were a crisis that almost destroyed Tokyo. There are those who say that all of Japan nearly collapsed. Such assessments underestimate the scope of the true threat. The entire world was on the brink of ruin. Orochi, the ancient serpent-god, sought to annihilate Life as we know it.

I: But we're still here, aren't we?

K: Thanks only to the sacrifice of those who fought and died.

I: Do you speak of the participants in the King of Fighters Tournament, most of whom disappeared during the Riots, and some of whom never returned?

K: Yes. A handful of these brave fighters resisted and ultimately defeated the true purpose of the Tournament.

I: Which was?

K: Human genocide. The creation of a new world, ruled by devils and demons. All this, The King of Fighters was meant to foster, in the summer of 1997.

I: Sounds like the Great Invasion all over again.

K: It nearly was. Although the Great Invasion had failed, it severely weakened the dimensional barriers that blocked Orochi's return to our realm. Unthinkable horrors became all too imminent.

I: Did Orochi return?

K: Briefly. The death of his avatar banished him. Let us pray he remains sealed forever.

I: If Orochi's return was "brief," then why did so many present and former Tournament fighters vanish for over a year after the Riots?

K: Rushing to fill the vacuum of Orochi's departure, there came a successor evil that called all of us elsewhere. The whole truth is difficult to explain, and cannot be proved. Suffice to say that the soul of Rugal Bernstein, a megalomaniacal inheritor of Orochi's vile Power, tried to surpass his patron and become a god himself.

I: Did he succeed?

K: We're still here, aren't we?

I: Ah-heh, of course. Ms. Kagura, do you know which of the vanished fighters are dead, and which are still alive?

K: Not necessarily.

I: I beg your pardon?

K: It has been twenty years. Anything could have happened to those returnees who elected to keep a low personal profile.

I: Ah, of course. More specifically: it is known that nearly forty Tournament finalists mysteriously disappeared, in the summer of 1997. Approximately half of these men and women have no traceable whereabouts today. To your best knowledge, how many of them survived the aftermath of the Orochi Blood Riots?

A sad, thoughtful expression settles on Kagura's face.

K: That depends on what you mean by "survived."





INTERVIEW WITH JULIA CHANG, section 4
February 12, 2018
9:45 p.m.


         Back for me again? So soon?
         That was fast. You must be getting better at transcribing interviews. It's the practice that does it, I suppose.
         Just tell me where you'd like to pick up. I assume you still want everything by your rules?
         sigh
         No, I'm all right. I like to sit on the roof after dark, and view the constellations. I used to stargaze quite a bit, back home. Here in the syndicate, you have to be on the roof in order to truly see the stars. They're almost invisible if you look through the windows.
         I remember the first time I looked through a syndicate window. I'd just woken up, after a long sleep. I'd endured a harrowing journey, a vicious clash with Nina Williams, an exhausting psychic link to heal Jin Kazama, and a nerve-wracking negotiation with Heihachi Mishima.
         The bastard.
         Heihachi had murdered my grandfather. His sons had murdered my mother. He'd stolen the sacred medallion of my Navajo tribe, and reduced my proud, noble grandmother to tearful pleading. And what did he say when I confronted him?
         You have no proof, he'd said, comfortably protected by his immense wealth and power.
         The bastard!
         I'd show him. I'd show everyone. I had allied with the House Mishima because the Toshin was a bigger threat, but as soon as the Toshin was vanquished, Heihachi would be next.
         When I say that, I don't mean that I was going to kill the old man, or even hurt him. I took tremendous, self-righteous pride in being "better" than that murderous power-monger. No, I was going to put Heihachi behind bars. Lock him up and throw away the key. Truth and justice would prevail! Heihachi would rot in prison, raging helplessly at the clever heroine who had put him there, until his dying day!
         It sounds so trite and laughable when I say it out loud, doesn't it?
         Still, it made for a very satisfying fantasy. My dream of a triumphant revenge over my family's mortal enemy was so vivid, it was still dancing before my eyes when I woke up.
         Hm?
         No, I don't think the sacred medallion was influencing my dreams this time. It was no longer in my possession, after all. Besides, the medallion's dreams were never so self-indulgent.
         When I woke up, cherishing my fabrications of revenge, I assumed that I had slept late because the window in my room was dark. Except I could see no stars through it. And was that lighter area a rising moon, or-?
         No, it was the sun. Just beginning to peek over the horizon. The view was darkly shaded because the glass was tinted black.
         The sunrise meant that it was early morning. Yet I felt fully rested, and I remembered that it had been close to morning when I fell asleep. Had I slept through a whole day?
         And why was the damn window tinted black?
         Oh, I knew why. Because it helped Jin block out Tokyo's psychic background noise-
         -huh?
         I had not deliberately deduced that piece of trivia. I certainly hadn't learned it when I was researching Heihachi and the Mishima syndicate. The back of my mind just informed me automatically. I clutched at my head. How was it that I suddenly knew a fact that I hadn't known yesterday, without figuring it out, and without being told?
         Jin. It had to be because of the telepath.
         I'd initiated a psychic link to help him heal the injuries Nina had dealt him. The link had left behind some side effects, mostly in the form of assimilated memories. Jin had doubtless acquired a few of my memories, too. Hopefully nothing too personal, though.
         I yawned, showered, dressed, and stepped outside my room.
         Now what?
         What I need to do, I thought to myself, is gather as much incriminating evidence on Heihachi as I can. But how was I going to do that? The old man took every precaution to make his dirty deeds appear clean. Jin himself was fooled. He thought his grandfather was the very soul of reformed nobility. And I knew from Jin's memories that the Mishima syndicate's surveillance system was first-rate; no matter what I tried, I'd almost certainly be seen and heard. I also knew most of the syndicate's layout, including its myriad "secret" passageways. They weren't so "secret" to the devices that painstakingly monitored them, though. Heihachi had promised that no harm would come to me within his home, but that wouldn't stop him from sabotaging my crusade to bring him to justice.
         This was a tough problem.
         My tribal name, "Restless Gopher," is a fitting one. When I'm wrestling with an especially difficult conundrum, I sometimes get so restless that I can't stand still. So, I gave myself a walking tour of the syndicate, while trying to deduce its weaknesses. I passed several security guards here and there. Most of them ignored me, and I returned the favor. A couple of them blocked my progress, saying that certain areas were off limits. They addressed me as "young mistress," and asked if I needed anything, to which I would answer in the negative.
         One guard stood out, however. Mostly by the company he kept.
         He was a young man, and rather thin compared to the other guards. But he had this look in his eye; I think it was unyielding determination. Either that or voracious hunger.
         The guard seemed to be practicing kendo, with a wooden sword. He bowed respectfully, and held out his sword in both hands, his eyes focused on a line extending past the weapon's furthest tip. Just like I'd expect a samurai to hold a sword, not that I would really be one to know. He stared with fanatical, ruthless implacability at his opponent.
         A little girl?
         Yes, the antagonist he regarded so seriously was a young, slim Chinese girl. Her hair was tied in bouncy, upward-pointing ponytails, and she was dressed up in - hmm.
         Let me take a moment to emphasize how atrocious her school uniform was. It had a nerdy sailor suit top, with a ridiculous puffy blue bow and an egregiously short, crosshatch pinstriped skirt. What type of slobbering lecher designs a girl's uniform with a skirt that short, anyway?
         This girl wasn't inordinately disturbed by her outfit's immodesty, though. Her general attitude was radically different from her opponent's. Where he was stern, she was playful. Where he was intense, she was flippant. While he firmly gripped his sword by its wooden "hilt," she loosely spun a matching weapon by its "blade," as if it were a baton. The girl tossed her sword-baton over her shoulder, kicked it back up with her heel, and caught it in her right hand.
         "Hey!" cried the security guard. "You're not supposed to treat a sword like that."
         "You may criticize her technique when you can consistently defeat her in single combat. Not before." That was the third member of the ensemble, an adult woman in a black, form-fitting bodysuit. A tight mask completely covered her face below the eyes. The sound of her voice sent a shiver through my body, and not just because of its roughshod, grating rasp. My gut reaction was similar to the panicked way I reacted to Jin, when I first encountered him. This time, however, I was fully aware of my inclination to prejudge, and I promptly stepped on it.
         The little girl jumped in place once, bowed without lowering her eyes, and settled into a delicate, light-footed stance. She held her wooden sword in one hand, virtually horizontal and at waist level; her other hand fluidly drifted above her hip.
         "Begin," said the masked woman, casually.
         The guard bellowed a fierce battle cry and charged the girl, raising his weapon high over his head. She twirled like she was dancing, flowing both arms about her in a great, lopsided circle. There was a heavy smack sound, and the next thing I saw was the guard on the floor, with a startled expression on his face. He hadn't let go of his sword, though; if anything, he clutched it in a death-grip as he scrambled for another attack.
         "You must be Julia Chang."
         I never saw the masked woman approach me, yet suddenly her voice sounded from two feet to my right. The categorical part of my mind noticed that she did not address me as "young mistress." Shouts and thudding from the kendo fight echoed in the background.
         "And you must be Taki," I replied, before I could think about what I was saying. The fact that I knew her name startled me more than it did her, though it shouldn't have.
         Taki's eyes gained a nasty gleam. She had to be smiling underneath that mask, and it wasn't a warm or kindly expression. I was contemplating what to say next when an especially loud crack obviated the need.
         "IwinIwinIwinagain!" cheered the exhilarated little girl, dropping her sword and clapping her hands at rapid staccato speed. She pressed her palms together and dipped in an overly cute bow, saying, "Hah!"
         The guard was on his knees, woozily holding his head with one hand.
         "Rematch," he slurred, as his wooden sword crumbled into two pieces.
         "Can't, not now! Later, okay? Right now I'm hungry I want breakfast and I'm supposed to go to school."
         "Breakfast?" asked the guard, a gleam of hope lighting his face.
         "Not you," said Taki.
         The guard's head fell despondently forward - shot down without mercy.
          "Hey! Oh, hiiii!" the girl called, suddenly giving me a big wave. "You're Julia Chang, right? Jin told me all about you! I'm Ling Xiaoyu, I just entered the Iron Fist Tournament and I'm gonna win it and Heihachi is gonna build me an amusement park!"
         I knew that.
         "Hey, have you met Mitsu? He works here actually he's in training but his great-great-great-lots-more-greats-grandfather or something was a legendary samurai, isn't that right Mitsu?"
         "Mitsu-rugi," the guard corrected, his speech still a trifle groggy. "Heishiro Mitsurugi."
         "Hey Julia, you're going to school with me today, aren'cha? The classes are boring, but they won't be as boring if there's kids like you there! Will you be in my class?"
         "I'm not in elementary school," I sniffed, disdainfully.
         "It's a high school, silly!"
         "I graduated from high school. Valedictorian of my class."
         "That's funny. Jin said for sure you were going to school! And Heihachi doesn't approve of freeloading, Jin told me that too. Are you gonna do something else for the syndicate instead?"
         "This is ridiculous. Even if I didn't have my diploma, what would I do at a Japanese high school? I can't speak Japanese."
         That produced a distinct response in all three of them.
         Mitsurugi looked at me, quizzically. Taki's invisible smile grew broader. Xiaoyu's pencil thin eyebrows doubled over her bright eyes as she said, "Huuuuh?"
         "What? What is it?" I said.
         Only the actual syllables falling out of my mouth were, "Nani? Nan desu ka?"
         This wasn't a sudden development. I'd been saying syllables like that for some time, on a completely unconscious level. It was only then that I first realized it. I thought back to everything I'd said since getting up, and how one of Jin's bodyguards had been so startled the other night because I could understand him...
         My hands were shaking. I curled them into tightly wound fists, and it didn't stop the tremors. My teeth were grinding together. I had to bite back a roar.
         "Kazama Jin wa doko desu ka?" I hissed, my need to find the damnable telepath automatically translating itself into the correct tongue.
         "At this time of morning, he's usually in the Mishima family training hall," Taki offered, out of either mischief or helpfulness.
         I sprinted away before I could attack her out of misguided rage. Of course, I needed no directions to find the training hall.
         Jin was there, dressed in only a pair of drawstring slacks with flames painted on the right leg. He looked like he'd just finished his morning workout, for he was removing a sparring glove from his left hand, and setting it on a rack filled with similar gear. A plain white towel hung around his neck. He used it to mop sweat from his chest, face, and static-stiff hair.
         There was a large, jagged black mark on his left upper arm. Like a pair of zigzag slashes, overlapping one another. It couldn't have been a scar or a burn; it was too neat, too intricate. Perhaps it was a tattoo, but Jin didn't strike me as the type to engage in such things. What-?
         Stop it, Julia. You're not here to get curious; you're here to get mad.
         "KI-SAMAAA!" I screamed.
         Jin turned toward me. An absolutely bewildered look crossed his features.
         "You! What did you do to me? I know the side effects of a psychic link, and THIS ISN'T ONE OF THEM! What did you put in my mind, you - you - WHAT DID YOU PUT IN MY MIND!?"
         Jin blinked. "Is this about the subconscious translation protocol?"
         Great Spirit. I didn't think he'd admit it so easily.
         "Is that the only thing you deliberately planted in my head, or did you put more? Do I have some unconscious command to-"
         "It's the only thing," he reassured, still appearing confused at my vehemence.
         "Why? Why did you warp my mind?"
         "I would hardly call it 'warping' your-"
         "WHY!?"
         "You asked for it."
         I damn near hit him.
         The only thing that held me back was sheer outrage. It sounds like a contradiction, I know, but I couldn't break off my inquisition for an attack until I learned-
         "What the HELL are you talking about!?"
         "Don't you remember? You were blindly tunneling through my memories, on some scavenger hunt for information about the Toshin. Only most of my memories were in Japanese. You were saying it over and over again, so loudly I could hardly concentrate on healing myself: 'I want to understand. I can't decipher the words, it doesn't make sense, I want to understand!' If you weren't talking to me, then who were you talking to?"
         I...
         "I didn't say that," I huffed. "I thought it."
         "Then it was a sincere thought, representing a wish from the depths of your soul. You saved my life, Julia; I was grateful to you. That's why I put my language in your mind. I thought it was what you wanted. It was what you wanted."
         But...
         "The translation protocol is like any other form of knowledge. If you use it often, it becomes ingrained; if you don't use it, it becomes forgotten. It shouldn't interfere with your command of other languages."
         But... but...
         "And you know," Jin added, folding his arms and looking a trifle irritated, "I didn't ask you to dig through my head with all the subtlety of a bulldozer, while I was lying there helpless. That was your idea. You didn't even think to ask my permission. The only reason I didn't say anything was that I didn't want to forfeit my match in the Iron Fist Tournament."
         "What?"
         "I'm supposed to fight tomorrow. Without your strength to speed up my self-healing, I would have had to forfeit the-"
         "You were about to forfeit your life!"
         Jin's thick eyebrows came together, inquisitively. "No, I wasn't. Did you think I was?"
         "You were dying. I saw it. I felt it. You just said I saved your life!"
         "Yes, you did, when you banished Nina Williams. She was about to tear my head off. I'm still in debt to you for that-"
         "You were dying from the injuries she gave you. I felt you fading away!"
         "I was about to pass out, yes. Lapse into a healing trance, and let my Power restore me over the course of a week or two. I'm so sorry, Julia; I never meant to mislead you. I tried to tell you it was okay, remember?"
         Stay calm.
         I am a person of logic. I am a person of reason. Intellectually, I know that Jin had been in no shape to give me an in-depth, self-referential medical diagnosis, at the time.
         And now, I did remember. I remembered who led me to believe that his grandson was dying, without actually saying it in so many words.
         "Did Heihachi Mishima know you could heal yourself without my help?"
         "Yes, I told him. But he wanted me to recover in time for my first match in the Iron Fist."
         Oh, he wanted a lot more than that.
         He wanted me to link with his grandson. He wanted me to be weak and disoriented from the aftermath of sharing my life force, the better to pressure me into an alliance with the House Mishima. Like a good corporate salesman, schmoozing a client by getting her drunk first.
         That's another one I owe the bastard for!
         "Um... you're still angry, aren't you?" Jin asked, uncomfortably.
         "I'm thinking about it."
         Jin did have a point. Not about any 'wish' I allegedly made to have a goddamn English-Japanese dictionary planted in my head; I never specifically requested that of him and he knew it. But he was right about one thing: I didn't ask his permission before I started rooting through his memories, in search of knowledge about the Toshin.
         What I did was... wrong.
         What Jin did was also wrong, though.
         Two wrongs don't make a right. But can they cancel each other out, and eliminate the need for an embarrassing apology on either side?
         I looked straight at Jin and said, "I promise never to thoughtlessly ransack your psyche again, if you'll promise never to grant my 'wishes' without expressly asking me first. Deal?"
         "You're still angry," he said, softly.
         "Not with you. Do we have a deal or not?"
         "Yes." He bowed, deeply. "I must apologize for my thoughtless behavior. It was inexcusable of me, and will never be repeated. This do I swear, on the honor of my family."
         Damn. Just as I was hoping I wouldn't have to - wait a second.
         If Jin had been reading my mind, he would have known that offering an apology was not what I wanted him to do, and he would have refrained. Unless he was being devious, but I'd been inside his head; he was about as devious as two-week-old kitten. Which meant that he wasn't reading my mind. Even though the temptation to look for my psychological motives must have been extraordinary, given how I'd barged in on him like a flash flood.
         It's nice to know that your privacy is being respected. In this case, it was nice enough to defuse my bad mood.
         "I, uh, I'm sorry too," I muttered, looking away. "Won't happen again. Ever. On the honor of my tribe."
         "You're hungry."
         "What?"
         "I just realized something. You've been asleep for a whole day. You must be starving, but you haven't eaten yet, have you?"
         He... he was right.
         I was hungry. Very much so.
         "You know the way to the dining room, don't you? I'll tell the kitchen staff to make your favorite breakfast. Okay?"
         "Um, okay."
         I had stormed into the training hall in a fit of rage. I left feeling somewhat remorseful, and I was still sorting through my emotions when I reached a dining table covered with fresh, piping hot waffles. And butter. And strawberries. And maple syrup. Complete with knives and forks to eat with, as well as comfortable chairs to sit on. I know now that Jin arranged all the Western-style trappings for my benefit. I've since gotten used to kneeling at low tables, although I doubt I'll ever make a pair of chopsticks do what I want them to.
         The waffles were marvelous. Light, fluffy, and golden brown, with just the right chewy texture. The syrup was a rich, sugary maple, neither too sweet nor too thin. The butter was whipped so fine it was like cream. And where had they found fresh strawberries in December?
         I decided that I liked Jin after all.
         Xiaoyu was also there. She greedily devoured a massive stack of waffles and reached for more. I tried to act a little less greedy, but it was a relief to fill the gnawing void in my stomach. This whole morning had not been the first time I'd been so wrapped up in a problem that I'd forgotten to eat, but it had been one of the most severe.
         Between mouthfuls of hot breakfast, Xiaoyu babbled, "Hi! Are you okay? You looked like you were really mad at Jin just a little while ago! Didja beat him up, didja, didja?"
         "No."
         "Are you still mad at him?"
         "No."
         "How'dja make up? Was he nice to you?"
         "We came to an understanding."
         "He's not really so bad; I thought he was but he isn't. He looks like he's mean, but he's really like his grandpa, you know? Scary on the outside, nice on the inside."
         "Heihachi Mishima. Nice on the inside," I extrapolated, dryly.
         "He's gonna build my amusement park, isn't he? Can't get any nicer than that!"
         I could have torn her utterly fallacious judgement to shreds, but that didn't strike me as a good idea. Not as long as we were under the watchful eye of the Mishima syndicate's surveillance cameras, such as the one hanging from the ceiling no more than thirty feet away.
         Fortunately, the chatterbox little girl switched topics. She went from how 'nice' Heihachi was, to how she wanted to invite everyone at her new school to the grand opening of her amusement park, to...
         "...and you know what? I had a scary nightmare last night! I dreamed Heihachi finished building my amusement park and it was allll ready to go, it was called XiaoyuLand and it had everything I liked most, including a big Panda friend who liked me and listened to me and wanted to play with me. Only Heihachi pulled the power switch and suddenly it became HeihachiLand! All the rides were shaped like giant Heihachis and the roller coaster had Heihachi's face and there were helicopters flying over a giant gold Heihachi statue. Heihachi's a good guy, but his face all over my park was so UGLY! The only people who'd ever wanna go to HeihachiLand would be balding old salarymen. Heihachi was laughing at me, too, with lots of colorful fireworks exploding behind him! So I magically transformed into my fighting outfit and beat him up! I tapped him on the shoulder, and when he turned around I hit him with my Hydrangea into the Fortune Cookie Power Punch, and my Rain Dance Dark and Stormy, and my Art of Phoenix Skyscraper Kick! And I was thinking maybe I really screwed up when I made a deal with him! But then I woke up and I'm so happy it was only a dream."
         I interjected the occasional "Mm," "Mm-hmm," and "Beat the living daylights out of him, did you say?" as I ate.
         Jin showed up around then. He looked much neater; clean, dry, and changed into his school uniform. His crosshatch pinstriped slacks matched Xiaoyu's skirt.
         "Good morning," he said.
         "Good morning!" Xiaoyu cheerily exclaimed, standing on her chair and waving.
         "Morning," I acknowledged. Jin helped himself to a waffle. He seemed unaccustomed to a knife and fork, but handled them moderately well.
         Jin asked me if the food was all right, and I said it was excellent, my compliments to the chef. Xiaoyu reiterated her dream; I saw Jin flinch when she prattled about brutalizing Heihachi. Just as I was tuning both of them out...
         Julia. Is it all right if-?
         Jin's mind-voice was quiet, and he wasn't looking directly at me. It took an instant for me to realize what was happening.
         If you speak to me telepathically?
         Most people prefer to avoid psychic communication, if at all possible.
         I don't mind. What is it that you don't want anyone else to overhear?
         It's a direct request from Grandfather.
         Oh?
My bitter hatred of Heihachi surfaced.
         Please, hear me out, Jin patiently urged. It's about Hwoarang, Nina Williams, and the Cyborg Army prototype that attacked you - gods, I'm so sorry-
         Uh, please, don't apologize.
         Ummm... okay. But Grandfather has classified all information about any of them; can you promise us that you won't breathe a word to anyone else?
         What about you? Can you tell me anything more about-?
         I'm not allowed to say much. Nina's sister Anna is working for the syndicate now. Anna is pretty hot-tempered; for your own safety, it's better if she doesn't learn about what you did to her sister. The Cyborg Army project has been suspended, because of what happened to you. I'm sure Grandfather will never restart it.

         Yeah, right. And I'm sure I couldn't make a balloon stick to your static head.
         I heard that.
         You weren't supposed to.
         I have to reduce my mental barriers for us to talk like this in the first place.
         All right, all right. Sorry. I give you my word I'll... be discreet about Hwoarang, Nina Williams, and this 'Cyborg Army project.'

         Jin looked at me, nodded, and smiled with warm acceptance.
         Correct what I said before. He's as devious as a one-week-old kitten.
         "Hey!" Xiaoyu suddenly exclaimed. "You're ignoring me. You're both ignoring me!"
         Jin appeared startled. I shrugged and offered a dreamy smile.
         Xiaoyu folded her slender arms. "I want a panda."
         Jin said, "What?"
         "I think it's only fair. Heihachi promised me an amusement park if I won, but even if I'm not winning I'm still helping you, aren't I? 'Cause you need lots of strong people to fight in your Iron Fist Tournament, you need 'em so bad Heihachi went alllll the way to the Temple of Light to look for 'em. I'm real happy to fight for you, but I deserve something for it! I want a panda."
         "You do have a modest spending allowance," Jin pointed out. "I'm sure you that if you shopped around in Ginza-"
         "Not a stuffed toy. A real panda bear!"
         "Where on earth did this come from?" I mused.
         "I've always wanted a panda of my very own," Xiaoyu declared.
         "No, you haven't," Jin said.
         "Okay, not always. But for a long, long time; I used to get lonely at the Temple of Light and wish for a special pet. You can buy a panda, can't you? You're rich!"
         "It isn't just a matter of money. Wild animals are not meant to be pets, and pandas are an endangered species."
         "Heihachi has a pet grizzly bear! Taki told me so."
         "The bear's name is Kuma. Grandfather raised him from a cub, and takes very good care of him."
         "I'd take good care of a panda!"
         Jin raised an eyebrow.
         "Don't look at me like that! I know how to be responsible; do you think I learned how to fight by goofing off every day? I can take care of a panda."
         "Do you even know what pandas eat?"
         "Mostly bamboo shoots and roots, but they sometimes eat little animals too. That's why scientists call them meat-eaters-"
         "Carnivores," I corrected, automatically. "Species name Ailuropoda melanoleuca."
         "-even though they need to live on bamboo."
         Jin looked at me, inquiringly.
         "It's all true," I confirmed. "Check an encyclopedia if you don't believe me."
         Jin shook his head. "I don't think I can get you a panda, Xiao-chan. If you wanted a dog or a cat, it might be possible."
         "Oh, no, no! I love kitties, I really do, but if you got one I'm afraid my panda would eat it!"
         And besides, a weaned kitten would be at least twenty times as devious as its owner. Either of them.
         "Xiaoyu, no."
         "Just think about it, okay?" She winked at Jin, merrily. "School's gonna start soon. Gotta run!"
         "You're in a hurry," I commented.
         She hunched next to me, spared a furtive glance to Jin, and whispered in my ear, "You don't wanna walk to school with him. And you don't wanna be around him until classes let out."
         "What do you-"
         Xiaoyu straightened and loudly announced, "I promised my new school friends I'd meet 'em before the bell!" She waved at us both, then scampered out of sight.
         "She's right about one thing," Jin added, checking a watch on his wrist. "School will start soon. You'd better hurry if you're going to arrive in time to introduce yourself."
         "Who, me?"
         "Didn't you-?"
         Jin briefly looked puzzled. Then he reached into his pants pocket and withdrew a slim billfold. When he opened it, he lightly clapped one hand on his head. "I forgot! I was going to have this delivered to your quarters, along with a message to explain everything." He took out something that looked vaguely like a credit card, and handed it to me. The card had my picture and physical statistics on one side, and a dark band on the other.
         "It's your IdentiCard," Jin clarified. "You should carry it everywhere you go. It's like an all-purpose visa."
         "Where'd you get my high school senior picture?"
         "Computer download."
         "I never got a copy of my senior picture. We couldn't afford it."
         "I'd be happy to order as many copies as you like."
         "Never mind. What does any of this have to do with me going to your school?"
         "Well..."
         "I've already graduated from high school. And I'm not staying here long enough to attend any Japanese colleges."
         Jin looked at me.
         It was dead silence. A complete and utter break in conversation. As if some unearthly force had frozen the passage of Time around him.
         "Jin?" I prompted, and the flow of Time returned to normal.
         "Sorry," he muttered, rubbing his forehead. "What I mean to explain is, you have a job at the high school. You're the new temporary aide to one of the teachers."
         "I'm not licensed to teach high school."
         "Don't worry, you won't be expected to. He just needs your help with carrying stuff and, well, you'll understand when you meet him."
         "Was this your idea?"
         "Yes. Because Grandfather feels that you should have some sort of job while you're here. He-"
         "-doesn't approve of freeloading?"
         Jin nodded.
         Great. Here I am trying to figure out how to expose the Mishima syndicate's corruption, and I'm not even going to be in it eight or more hours a day.
         "I'm not wearing one of those godawful school uniforms."
         "I don't think they're so bad."
         "You wouldn't. You're a guy."
         "There are certain dress code guidelines for the faculty. I doubt that most of what you're wearing would be a problem, but do you need to keep that headband with the red feather?"
         "Yes, I do. Very much." The feather was an honor that I had earned as a Navajo, and a reassuring anchor in this chaotic syndicate of megalomaniacs, telepaths, and hyperactive little girls.
         "Ummm... well, I suppose it'll be all right. Professor Yabuki is very accommodating."
         "Professor Yabuki?"
         "He's the one who needs an assistant, ever since his last one quit a few days ago. He's an independent man, but he has a difficult time of it on his own. Would you at least meet him? Try the job for one day?"
         Hmph.
         I still didn't like the idea. On the other hand, what if I refused? Maybe I could get away with it, and maybe I couldn't, but in either case I'd draw Heihachi's attention. That would only hinder my quest to bring him to justice. Heihachi was probably watching me like a hawk anyway, but...
         "All right. One day."
         "Wonderful," Jin smiled, sincerely. "Do you know the way to the high school? It's straight down the street from the syndicate's front entrance. Just show your IdentiCard to the staff, and they'll take you right to Professor Yabuki."
         "Aren't you coming too?"
         "I, uh, have to run an errand. I should make it in time for the morning bell."
         "Of course. See you." I waved and strolled out of the dining room, through the syndicate's main hallway, and out the front entrance.
         And waited.
         Expectantly.
         Sure enough, Jin exited the syndicate a moment later. Right through the same set of doors.
         Forget kittens. He's about as devious as an inchworm.
         I thought about covertly shadowing him, but I honestly didn't have it in me to take advantage of someone so naive. So I quickly caught up with him, and matched his stride.
         "Julia?" he said in surprise.
         "What's this 'errand' of yours?" I quizzed.
         Jin snorted. "Does your brain ever shut off?"
         "Is it something 'classified'? Or-"
         "What will you do if I tell you to quit following me and go to the school?"
         "I'll probably acquiesce."
         "Uh-huh. And then you'll interrogate everyone there about where I go at seven-thirty every other Friday morning."
         "Oh, no."
         "No?"
         "I won't ask the inchworms."
         Jin let out his breath in a dispirited puff. "It's not a secret. If you're determined to know, then you may as well come with me. Just follow my lead, and save the questions until we're done."
         "Okay, but could I at least ask where we're going?"
         "We're here."
         I looked up at a large, flat building, with a roof low to the ground. Embossed gold on a plain white sign above the entrance read, "Serenity Consolation Asylum."
         Jin walked inside like he knew exactly where he was going. Odd that I didn't - wait, that shouldn't be odd. It wasn't as if I had assimilated all of Jin's memories; if anything, I probably retained less than one percent of them. Mostly pertinent current information and deeply ingrained habits. Which would suggest that he had been coming to this place for a least a few weeks, but not more than a few months.
         Jin exchanged quiet words with an orderly. She unlocked a door and led him to a cramped, narrow hall. Adjoining the hall was an expansive room, with wall-to-wall carpeting in calming shades of blue and white. I could see the carpeted room through a rectangular window.
         One-way mirror. It had to be.
         There were a few scattered furnishings in the carpeted room: brightly colored picture books, bean bag chairs, and big, hollow plastic blocks. There was also a man.
         He was a large, muscular person. Heavy, although not obese. Definitely a full adult, past his youth and heading into middle age. He had a thick, unshaven beard. His clothes were clean, if a bit drab, including an open-necked shirt with short sleeves. I saw blackened scar tissue on his right arm, and on the top of his chest.
         The man lay on his stomach, paging through one of the children's books and apparently humming to himself. Yes, he was definitely humming; I could hear it when Jin touched a button on a speaker built into the wall, adjacent to the window frame. The humming sounded like a nursery rhyme.
         The orderly that I'd seen before entered the room. She kneeled next to the man, who innocently looked up at her.
         "How is the book?" she asked.
         "I'm on page three. This word's hard. I wish the Professor was here! Why'd he have to go away?"
         "You can keep learning to read on your own. You know you can."
         "Yeah, but it's hard. Really hard."
         He reminded me of Xiaoyu. Only younger, and without the hyperactivity.
         Jin wordlessly brushed past me and stepped out of the hallway. I followed him. The orderly joined us.
         "Any change?" he asked her.
         "Perhaps. But it's too slight to measure over such a short time." The orderly fidgeted, laced her fingers in a tight lock, and flitted her eyes back to the room she'd left.
         She was afraid of Jin, I realized.
         "Thank you for taking such good care of him," Jin said, with a deep bow.
         "You are too kind, young master."
         "Goodbye for now." As I trailed Jin out of the asylum, I wondered why he hadn't bothered to make any introductions. Perhaps he thought we were running late for school, and there wasn't time. Perhaps he resented my tagging along. Or perhaps-
         "You can start asking questions now," Jin said, tiredly.
         "Why didn't you introduce me?"
         "Because Ms. Akashi is terrified of me, and she'd only transfer her terror to you. You'd have a much better chance of getting along with her if you introduce yourself on your own, at a later time."
         "And the man we saw-"
         "Eijiro Fujisawa."
         "-he'd also be terrified of you, right? That's why you watched him through a one-way mirror, instead of visiting him directly."
         "If he saw me, it might undo all their progress. At the very least, it would certainly upset him."
         Progress?
         "He seemed to be acting like a child," I said.
         "About six years old."
         "Was he born mentally disabled?"
         "No."
         I thought of the marks I'd seen on him. They could easily have been burns. Then I thought of Jin's Power to summon deadly electricity at will.
         "You're the one who-?"
         Jin sighed.
         "About two months ago, I, well, let's just say I got into one too many fights at school. Grandfather was very angry with me. I escaped my bodyguards, fled the syndicate, and went wandering around late at night. It was a pretty stupid thing to do. Grandfather has warned me many times that Tokyo isn't as safe as it used to be."
         "You shocked Fujisawa in self-defense, didn't you?"
         "I was trying so hard to block out the world that I never felt him sneak up on me. And then he had a knife at my throat. He demanded all my money, and I wasn't carrying any."
         "So you fought back."
         "I'd never have been able to face Grandfather if I hadn't. He respects strength, and despises weakness."
         "And you resisted Fujisawa with a psychic attack, as well as with sorcery?"
         "I had to. He cut my throat."
         "What?"
         Jin made a slicing gesture across his jugular. "Healing your own cut throat is a demanding task. If you screw up, you'll bleed to death before you get a second chance. I had to distract Fujisawa while I worked the sorcery. So I used physical contact to project a psychic link, and let him know what it feels like to have your windpipe slashed open."
         "Ugh."
         "He went berserk. I panicked. By the time it was over, four buildings had been burned to shells, and Fujisawa was, well, you've already seen."
         "The Ikebukuro disaster?"
         "So, you have heard about it."
         "I read a couple articles when I was researching the syndicate. None of them ever suggested that you caused it. Are you saying that you did, and you were never caught?"
         "Not exactly. The police came and took Fujisawa away, but when I showed them my IdentiCard, they just sent me home. They didn't even want to question me."
         "Justice," I murmured, "for the scion of the Mishima syndicate."
         "It's not what you think," Jin insisted. "They were lenient with me only because no one got hurt in the fire. I even called the Tekkenshu to help the firemen put it out."
         "You're lucky. If even one Ikebukuro salaryman had been working late in the wrong building, Heihachi could have had to cover up a homicide."
         "Grandfather wouldn't do that!" Jin snapped, sounding more insulted by the allegation toward Heihachi than the allegation toward himself.
         "Wouldn't he?"
         "Absolutely not!"
         "He'd only cover up a massive amount of property destruction, then?"
         Jin flushed, a little. "The burned buildings were Mishima syndicate property. If someone else had owned them, we would have compensated him or her in full."
         "Mm-hmm."
         "You're completely wrong about Grandfather," Jin stressed. "At first he thought Fujisawa had started the fire. But when I told him the truth, it persuaded him to drop the arson charges against Fujisawa."
         "Heihachi dropped the arson charges?"
         I raised an especially suspicious eyebrow. Wouldn't the option of pressing or dropping arson charges be up to a District Attorney, or the Japanese legal system's equivalent thereof?
         Just how tightly did Heihachi control Tokyo, anyway?
         "Grandfather didn't want me to have to take the witness stand in Fujisawa's defense," Jin explained, completely missing my implication. I forgot it myself, as I realized what he was saying. I knew that Jin had an idealistic streak, but-
         "You were going to defend Fujisawa in court? After he tried to kill you?"
         "He wasn't the one who started the fire. And he has... already paid a high price for attacking me." Jin looked down at the sidewalk. "My Power... every time I think I finally have it under control, there's another crisis and it lashes out of its own accord. Or maybe that's just a poor excuse for my worthless self-discipline, I don't know. I never intended to destroy another person's mind, Julia. I swear it."
         "His mind isn't completely destroyed. It may even heal into something better than it was."
         "You're an optimist."
         "You talk about fixing your own cut throat as if it's like wrapping a tourniquet, and then you call me an optimist?"
         Jin shrugged. "It's always been easier for me to heal myself than to coax my Power into healing others. And a cut throat is nothing compared to what Nina did to me."
         I shuddered. "That was horrible. I was terrified she'd broken your neck."
         "Um."
         Jin's side of the conversation abruptly faltered. I fixed him with a direct look, but he wouldn't meet my eyes.
         "She didn't break your neck," I said aloud. "She couldn't have. Sorcery can't heal a broken neck, no matter how much life energy your pour into it."
         He still wouldn't look at me. I stepped in front of him, forcing him to halt in mid-stride, and asked, "What are you?"
         That irked him, but at least he looked me in the eye.
         "You've been in my mind; you tell me."
         "I'm beginning to think you really are part inchworm. Or maybe part earthworm. Something that can happily regenerate after being chopped into pieces."
         "I don't believe this," he snorted, pushing past me.
         "Well, then, what can kill you?" I pressed, following him.
         "Why?" he snapped, starting to sound genuinely disgruntled. "Do you want to take a shot?"
         "Um... that's not what I meant."
         Jin rolled his eyes.
         "Sorry. Maybe I am prying too much."
         "Decapitation," he muttered under his breath.
         "Uh - did you just say-?"
         "Starvation. Thirst. Suffocation. Fire. Hypothermia. Blood loss. Brain damage. Extreme bodily trauma. The same things that can kill anyone else, except that I'm more resistant to most types of physical harm."
         "'More resistant'?"
         "Even my Power has limits."
         "But..."
         Jin sighed. "It isn't exactly right to say 'Sorcery can't heal a broken neck.' It would be more accurate to say, 'Sorcery can't repair damage to the spinal cord.'"
         "Aren't those one and the same?"
         "For most people, I suppose they are. But when my Power sensed that my neck vertebrae were about to fracture, it dissolved the bones and temporarily formed a more flexible, protective sheath around my upper spine."
         "How?"
         "All human beings have the natural ability to wear down and reconstruct their own bones. Cells called osteoblasts and osteoclasts-"
         "I know basic anatomy."
         "My Power simply worked at a much faster pace, and provided an energy substitute in the interim. It was maintaining that substitute, as well as reconstructing my neck vertebrae, that took such a high toll on my life-force."
         "Did your Power do all of this by itself?"
         "I was in no condition to consciously direct it. Not at first, anyway. It has always worked to automatically heal my injuries, as long as I can remember. I was surprised to learn that it could apply itself to such an extreme degree, though. I wouldn't care to test its limits like that again."
         "Understandable."
         "I don't think I could save anyone else from a broken neck, either. Timing is the key. Once the spine has been severed, there's nothing I can do. No human being has the ability to replace dead nerve cells. Not even me."
         I nodded, sagely. Another mystery explained.
         "Your turn," Jin declared.
         "My turn?"
         "Oh, yes. Why aren't you afraid of me?"
         "Should I be?"
         "That's not the point. The point is that everyone else is afraid of me, whether they should be or not."
         "Xiaoyu's not afraid of you."
         "Xiaoyu is suppressing her fear. A few people have learned to do that, but no one likes to think about what I can do with my Power. Even Grandfather doesn't want to be reminded, and he's the only other person who has ever asked what can kill me. You want to know all these horrific, terrible things about the monster that is Jin Kazama, but I can't see or feel one hint of fear from you. Not anymore. You haven't merely buried your fear, or fought it back with courage; it's completely gone."
         "You're not a monster, Jin."
         "Why aren't you afraid of me?"
         "I just told you."
         Jin folded his arms behind his back. His face set itself in a dark mask. It occurred to me that he had been gradually getting more ill-tempered, ever since we left the asylum.
         Had I offended him?
         "Did I... um, I mean, are you-"
         "No," he stated, flatly.
         "Then why are you upset?"
         "Not because of you. I hate this school. I hate the students in it. I hate the way they look at me, I hate the way they think of me, and most of all I hate how they fear me. It's all I can do not to burn the damn place down!"
         I looked ahead.
         A couple blocks down the street was a high school, built from off-white bricks, with a great clock affixed near the roof of its foremost building. A low-heeled outer wall with an open iron gate enclosed a paved inner 'courtyard.' As we came closer, I could read the words 'Mishima Industry Senior Specialty School' painted in vertical calligraphic script near the gate.
         There was a gathering of students around and inside the courtyard. Male and female, ranging from age fourteen to eighteen, all wearing uniforms. Many of them chatted or fooled around with friends. I spotted Xiaoyu by the gate; she was animatedly talking to two other young girls. She looked at us, waved, and quickly hustled her associates inside.
         You don't wanna walk to school with him. And you don't wanna be around him until classes let out.
         The sound of teenage banter hushed, as we came closer. Some of the students turned their faces away. A few of the girls sprinted through the gate and into the school's front doors. More students, both girls and boys, followed at a brisk walk. Others tried to ignore us and continue their own business.
         Still other students stood their ground and glared at us. Spitefully. Most of these were boys, but there were a few girls who stepped nervously behind this or that boyfriend's elbow, and added their own, venomous stares.
         "I had no idea you were so popular," I reflected, with a sidelong glance to Jin.
         He growled a low croon. Like an angry cat.
         His telepathy must make it worse, I realized. Even I could practically sense the cold river of hate and fear washing over us both. How much harder did it have to be for him, who had to actively fight off a thousand different minds filled with terror and loathing?
         "Twelve hundred minds," Jin muttered.
         "What?"
         "Sorry. My barriers aren't in very good shape around here." By then, we were walking through the crowd. They were like statues, except for those who hastily stepped aside to let us pass. Hating, fearful, or frozen statues, hardened into granite by the Gorgon in their midst.
         "How do you block it out at all?"
         "You build walls in your mind. Thick, black, impenetrable barricades, mortared with your will and reinforced with white noise. A musical chorus, an algebraic equation, a repetitive chant, anything that you can concentrate on while leaving your upper consciousness free to respond to the outside world. It isn't easy."
         "Why do you even come here? Why not hire a private tutor?"
         "Grandfather says it's part of my training. Psychological and social, as well as educational."
         We just continued talking as we passed through the statuary, and if any of the students were curious about our conversation, they kept it to themselves. A few of the young men looked like they wanted to take a swing at us, but something held them back.
         Fear.
         I recalled what Jin had said about getting into fights at school. Then I remembered the extent of his Power, and his training. There was no doubt in my mind who had won those fights.
         His classmates didn't like him. They didn't want to be around him. But they feared him.
         "Maybe it wasn't a good idea for you to arrive with me," Jin muttered. "You'll be hated by association."
         "Don't trouble yourself about that; I'll be fine. I'd like to meet Professor Yabuki, though."
         "All right." We walked through the metal gates, crossed the courtyard, and entered the main school building. Students wandered the halls, on their way to class. Jin still received plenty of hating or fearful looks, but at least we weren't in a statuary anymore.
         "Oh, wait." Jin stopped short, and the aggravated glower on his face broke for a moment. "You're not carrying any mirrors, are you?"
         "Mirrors?"
         "Reflective surfaces of any kind. You have no compacts, make-up kits, shiny metal jewelry, or-?"
         "Nothing like that. Just the IdentiCard you gave me."
         "Good."
         "Why?"
         "Professor Yabuki doesn't like mirrors. We had to take them out of all the restrooms before he'd agree to teach here." Jin resumed walking.
         "What is he? Another vampyre?"
         "He's as human as I am."
         I cleared my throat, discreetly.
         The aggravated glower returned to Jin's face. "As human as you are, then. He's not even a sorcerer."
         "He just doesn't like mirrors."
         "That's the only thing you should be careful about, around him. Except..."
         "Except?"
         "Julia - go easy on him, all right?"
         "What do mean, go easy on him?"
         "It's not your fault; it's the nature of your soul. You're a... a..."
         "A?"
         "A truth-seeker," he finished, carefully choosing the phrase. "Look, I don't care if you cross-examine me about this, that, and the other; it's nice to talk to someone in this whole damn building who doesn't fear me. But please, try not to press Professor Yabuki too much. Remember that you're here to help him. All right?"
         I still didn't understand, but Jin's tone was darkly serious. So I said, "All right," and nodded.
         "Here you are." Jin stopped before a simple wooden door, ornamented with a framed paper tag. The tag carried an unfamiliar name, which had been crossed out with a heavy black marker. A new name, 'Yabuki,' had been penciled into the white space of the tag's top margin.
         "You may as well go in," Jin suggested. "He's expecting you."
         "Aren't you going to introduce me?"
         "I'm not sure that's a good idea."
         "Why not?"
         "He thinks I'm a Devil."
         That statement provoked a host of more questions in my head, but before I could ask any of them, Jin departed down the hall. Fearful and hating glances still followed him. A few students continued to look at me with suspicion, but the overall level of hostility dwindled considerably after Jin rounded a corner.
         Nice place, this high school.
         Enough cynicism. Time to meet the mysterious Professor Yabuki. I took a deep breath and opened the door.
         It was dark inside. The only light came from a tiny clip-on lamp, atop a desk covered with scattered papers and lizard-shaped paperweights. I took a step closer, and nearly slipped on someone's history quiz.
         This place was a disorganized mess.
         Folders. Binders. Bags and backpacks. Filing cabinets with their drawers pulled open. Bookmarked textbooks haphazardly spilled on the floor. Cups filled with unsharpened pencils and pens missing their caps. Tests and homeworks and rolls of shiny foil stickers. A computer monitor precariously rested on the edge of that note-strewn desk. A digital clock balanced, precociously, on the arm of an overstuffed guest chair.
         No wonder this man needed an assistant. More than an assistant; he needed a whole battalion of secretaries, and I wasn't sure I qualified. Although a tiny, neatnick piece of myself eagerly yearned for the challenge.
         I squinted in the darkness, and focused on a shadowy figure in the dim glow of the clip-on lamp. He was seated at the desk, on a wheeled office chair that looked ready to fall apart. The desk faced to my left, so that the man had his left side turned to me. His head was down, and his left arm was folded close to his body, in a rather atypical manner. His right hand gripped a pen, and he seemed to be scribbling on a piece of stationery.
         There was something odd about his sitting posture. He hunched his spine in a decidedly unhealthy manner, but what most alerted me was how his left leg stuck out, ramrod-straight, at approximately a forty-five degree angle to his bent right leg.
         "Umm... Professor Yabuki?" I addressed, humbly.
         No response. He just kept writing. I saw that he pressed down rather hard on the stationery, and that his script was given to long, sweeping strokes.
         Had he heard me come in?
         I stepped around the desk, so that I was directly across from him. The light from his clip-on lamp gleamed against something shiny on the desk's right side. It was a rather well made claw cane. Dull grey, nonreflective steel; firm rubber grip on the angled handle; and a cross-formation support-claw on the bottom. All the better to distribute any weight put on it, I suppose. The support-claw also allowed the cane to simply stand where it had been set down, rather than lean against the desk or lie flat on the floor.
         Clearing my throat and strengthening my voice, I repeated, "Professor Yabuki?"
         He blinked and looked up. I couldn't get a good impression of his face.
         "Do I know you?" he asked, pleasantly. "I can hardly see you."
         "Uhh... well, I'm-"
         "Think you could get the lights for me? The switch is right next to the door - watch your step!" His voice was an informally energetic tenor. Like a high school student's. A real high school student, that is; not those statue-people Jin and I had passed.
         I worked my way back to the door. There was indeed a light switch next to it; only the extended drawers of a nearby file cabinet blocked my access. One of these drawers had been completely yanked out of its slot, and lay crossways atop another open drawer. I lifted the thing - no small feat, since it was filled with some twenty pounds' worth of folders - shoved it back in its slot, shut the other cabinet drawers, and turned on the lights.
         "Ah, wonderful! Much better, much better." I heard the soft click of Professor Yabuki switching off his desk lamp as I turned around. "No, I don't think we've met before at all. You must be my new assistant, is that right? Julia Chang-san? They sent me a dossier about you."
         "Um, that's right. A pleasure to meet you, Professor Yabuki." I uncertainly showed him my IdentiCard. A memory that wasn't mine implied that I should bow, so I did, putting my hands at my sides.
         "Oh, please, call me Shingo." He flashed a wide smile and nervously scratched the back of his head with his right hand. "Nice to meet you."
         "'Shingo'?" I repeated, drawing my eyebrows together.
         "That's my name! Shingo Yabuki, age seventeen." In retrospect, I don't think 'smile' properly conveys his true expression. He was positively beaming. "Just give me a minute to finish this, all right? I always forget to mail these if they're not done before class."
         I know I shouldn't have looked, but I couldn't help peering at the letter he was signing his name to. All I could read was the top line: 'Dear Mom and Dad.' Then Shingo quickly stuffed the letter into a stamped envelope. His motions were somewhat sloppy, I noticed, because he only used his right hand.
         Shingo rested his right hand on his claw cane, scooted his wheeled chair away from his desk, and eased to his feet. I assessed him, carefully.
         He was the strangest teacher I have ever seen, or probably ever will see.
         Contrary to his introduction, I would most assuredly not place his age at seventeen. The wear and tear of years had advanced upon his body, roughened his skin, and left deepening lines in his face. He had to be in his mid-thirties, at least.
         His clothing reflected his allegedly juvenile status, though. He was wearing a high school uniform. It wasn't the pinstriped design of the Mishima Industry Senior Specialty School uniforms, but rather colored solid blue, with gold buttons. His jacket hung open over an untucked white T-shirt. Tight-fitting, fingerless black fighting gloves covered his hands. Gold bands marked the gloves, and their backs carried a special decoration. It was a circle, with a multitude of short, wavy lines radiating outward. A solar symbol, perhaps?
         Shingo's overall appearance was... I want to say 'messy,' but that's not right; he wasn't dirty or stained. I think the word I'm looking for is 'disheveled.' His face was mostly clean-shaven, yet he had several light cuts or slightly fuzzy spots on his cheeks and chin. His brown-black hair, though clean and trimmed very short, was completely tangled; as if he hadn't bothered to brush it after his morning shower. A sporty white headband was sloppily tied around his forehead. He had earthy brown eyes, but something wasn't quite right about them. Or rather, something wasn't right with one of them; his right eye focused on me clearly, but his left one didn't pay me any regard at all. And its color didn't precisely match his other eye, though it came close.
         It was...
         Glass?
         There was something wrong with his left ear, too. It wasn't there. All he had was a blackish scar on the left side of his head, spreading to the back of his cheek.
         No wonder he hadn't seen or heard me, when I first came in. And the way he moved, bracing himself so heavily on that claw cane-
         Great Spirit.
         Shingo's left leg did not bend at the knee to accept his weight. A closer look at his feet showed - well, it showed that he had only one foot. The other was a wooden stump. And if his knee was locked straight, then I'd presume the wood went all the way up to his hip, at least.
         Now I could clearly see his left arm. It, too, was made of wood, carved in a rigid L-shape. The false arm hadn't been obvious at first because his uniform's jacket draped over it, and he'd fitted his left sun-sign glove on its 'hand.'
         He's an independent man, but he has a difficult time of it on his own. In retrospect, I should have guessed from Jin's description that Shingo was physically challenged, yet the actual surprise hit me so hard that I stared like a goldfish.
         Then Shingo asked, "By the way, do you have a preference as to what you'd like to be called?" and I resolved to act natural. If I were in his place, I certainly wouldn't want any smart-aleck young assistants staring at me as if I were some sort of - well, I just wouldn't want anyone staring at me.
         "Anything is fine," I mumbled.
         "Note: calling Chang-san anything is fine," he repeated to himself. At the same time, he dextrously extricated a pocket notebook and a pencil from somewhere within his jacket. Shingo balanced the notebook on his folded prosthetic arm while he scribbled down the details. Then he clapped the notebook shut, and tried to put it away. It slipped through his fingers, though, and would have hit the floor if not for a string that fastened its spiral backbone to his inner jacket lining.
         "Uwah, ahryarya!" he exclaimed, unsteadily keeping his balance on one leg while using his working hand to pull the notebook up by the string. "Sorry. Can't seem to keep anything straight today! Say, could you get my lecture notes and lesson plans? They're in the black backpack - yes, that's the one. Is this your first time in the school? Yes? Then let me show you where our classroom is."
         "Um, okay," I said, opening the door for him.
         His beaming smile settled into a more serious, yet still quite friendly expression. "Thank you very much for helping me. I hope it won't be too much trouble."
         "Uh, no. Not at all."
         "It shouldn't be for long in any case. Just a couple more weeks, and then the casts can come off."
         Casts?
         I did a double take as I followed him through the door. No, he wasn't wearing any casts. He was genuinely, permanently crippled. Besides, if Shingo were merely injured, then Jin would have used sorcery to heal him without delay.
         "Excuse me?" I said out loud. "Did you just say-?"
         "Well, possibly another month, but with the blessing of Kusanagi-sama, I'm sure it won't be that long. It's too bad, really; I'd wanted to sign up for the Iron Fist Tournament."
         "You're not wearing casts. Your limbs are artificial. And who is Kusanagi-sama?"
         "Uwaa! Kusanagi-sama, she doesn't even know who you are!" Shingo didn't say that to me; he was looking off to his other side. But nobody was there.
         This was beginning to get weird.
         "Oh - you're right, of course. She's not from around here, and not everyone watches tournaments on TV." Shingo turned back to me. "Kyo Kusanagi-sama was an upperclassman in my old high school. He was so generous; he taught me everything I know about ancient Kusanagi-style fighting techniques. And he was the ultimate hero of the annual King of Fighters Tournament. Have you ever heard about that? It was a prime-time ratings grabber all over the world, especially back when the Iron Fist went on hiatus. We really smashed everyone who challenged us, didn't we Kusanagi-sama?"
         Shingo was looking at nothing again.
         "Uh... there's no one there."
         "Hm? Oh, well, no, you wouldn't be able to see Kusanagi-sama. Divine Sanctions, and all that."
         Forget 'weird.' This was getting downright creepy. What-
         Wait a minute.
         'King of Fighters Tournament.' Did I hear something about that once? Read about it? Something in connection with...
         In connection with...
         The Orochi Blood Riots.
         Yes. I did read about that, two or three years ago. In my Contemporary History class. My textbook had spared a paragraph about the Riots, describing them as a violent aftershock to the Great Invasion.
         Was that how Shingo had been mutilated? In the Riots?
         "Um," I ventured. "This Kusanagi-sama..."
         "He can hear you perfectly well, you know," Shingo mentioned, affably. "Even if you can't hear him."
         "Is he a friend of yours? Someone who... died in the Orochi Blood Riots?" A queasy feeling settled in my stomach.
         I'm not as terrified of ghosts as many Navajo are. To a Navajo who holds the traditional beliefs, a ghost is the evil part of a dead person's spirit, come back to spread misery, sickness, or worse. There is an ancient tribal taboo against so much as speaking the names of dead.
         My grandmother taught me to walk my own path, and the route I have chosen does not always embrace the traditional ways of my tribe. Just as some of them do not embrace me as a member, but rather shun me because of my family's connection to 'witchcraft.' For example, my belief in a Great Spirit is something I've adopted from outside; my grandmother's religion doesn't have anything directly analogous. Nor am I a rigidly strict observer of all the countless Navajo taboos. I've occasionally combed my hair at night, rather than wait for sunrise. I once had the misfortune to kill a rattlesnake which was about to bite a child; yet I did not tell my grandmother, because she would have bought me a purification ceremony that she could not afford. And I have spoken the names of many dead people, in everything from answering census questions about my family to giving oral essays for history class. No vengeful spirits ever troubled me for it.
         Even so, I couldn't repress an agitated shudder, and nervously bit my tongue.
         "Waa-?" Shingo gasped. "No, never! Well, no, I mean, of course Kusanagi-sama is a friend, it's an honor to call him my friend, more than an honor, it's a divine blessing. But he's not dead, in the name of Heaven no. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to give you that impression at all."
         I breathed easier.
         "No, he's a god."
         I damn near had an asthma attack. And I don't have asthma.
         "Your best friend is God?" I repeated, in shock.
         "What? Oh, my. I think we're having a basic linguistic misunderstanding, here. How long have you studied Japanese?"
         "Uhh..."
         Shingo raised the eyebrow over his one good eye. "You haven't studied Japanese?"
         "Well, no."
         "Indeed? Don't tell me, let me guess. Kazama-san helped you with a translation protocol, didn't he? That's how you can understand what I'm saying?"
         "Uhhh... yes, he did."
         "They can be tricky, those translation protocols. We had them in the King of Fighters Tournament, did you know that? Kagura-san wove her holy rites around our fighting arenas, and that's how everyone from all over the world could understand everyone else. But the protocols aren't perfect. Sometimes you misinterpret little things, or hear confusing side effects. In your case, you seem to have missed an important distinction about Kusanagi-sama."
         Shingo cleared his throat.
         "Kyo Kusanagi-sama eezu noht 'Goddo' een sra way srat you sreenk ofu a seenguru, aru-pawafuru 'Creatoru.' He eezu a goddo. He hasu beekamu wahn ofu sree godzu ofu Raito."
         It wasn't until Shingo paused that I realized he had been speaking in English. Something about 'Kusanagi-sama' being 'a god of Light,' I think. Shingo's grammar was seemingly impeccable, but his accent was so overwhelming that decoding it required intense concentration.
         Perhaps I looked confused, for he cleared his throat again and switched back to Japanese. "In my language, the difference is expressed through the choice of grammatical particles, as used to convey a meaning similar to the definite and indefinite articles of English-"
         "Um, that's all right. I think I understand now," I awkwardly interrupted. Fortunately, the high-pitched ring of a bell brought our combined grammar and theology debate to a close. Shingo paused before the open door to a classroom, and took a small keyring out of his jacket.
         "Here. Do you mind locking the door once we're in, and fishing out my lecture notes? They're the ones with today's date."
         "Okay," I acquiesced, accepting the keyring.
         Inside was a rather typical high school classroom. There was a wide blackboard with lots of colored chalk, desks with cavities for storing school materials, a row of chest-high windows across from the door, and a small closet in back. About forty students filled the room; all seniors, I'd say.
         I recognized Jin at the far corner desk. He kept his face turned away from the crowd. Some of the others gave him furtive or fearful glances, but many of them were just chatting with friends, sneaking bites from their sack lunches, frantically finishing their homework, or doing any other assortment of things high school kids are normally inclined to do.
         Shingo also surveyed the class, as I moved to give him his lecture notes. I noticed that there were no signs of hatred or terror on his face when his gaze passed over Jin, even though he allegedly considered Jin a Devil. Instead-
         "Dowaa!" Shingo shrieked, as if he'd been physically struck. I was so startled that I dropped his notes on the floor.
         "NAMAE BOSHUU CHUU!" Shingo screamed, viciously slamming his open hand on a front row desk, next to the windows. The student at the desk, a girl my age wearing an excessive amount of makeup, practically turned white with panic.
         "I-I... I-!"
         "WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? And what - WHAT makes you think you have the RIGHT to exercise such SELF-CENTERED VANITY!?" Shingo's hand clutched something on her desk. A small, circle-shaped, open makeup case.
         Sporting a shiny mirror.
         "You will never, NEVER carry such an EVIL THING into MY CLASSROOM! DO YOU HEAR!?" His hand clenched, forcing the case shut, and his fist shook with enough rage to fuel an earthquake.
         The poor girl trembled like a frightened mouse.
         "Professor Yabuki!" Jin suddenly stood up at his desk, pained concern showing on his face. "She just transferred here, she didn't know-!"
         "Shut up!" Shingo snapped. He whipped his arm faster than I could see-
         -backhanding the window. Shards of glass flew outward from the impact, and cut gashes in his skin. He let go of the makeup case as he struck, effectively hurling it away. The girl cried out and covered her head. Her mascara streamed with tears.
         Shingo's demeanor softened, a little. He still looked very angry, though.
         "There will be no permanent mark on your record - this time. But don't you ever do something like this again! Chang-san, have this young woman stand in the hall for the rest of the period. Kazama-san, send for one of your people to destroy that damned thing."
         Jin nodded, as if he'd complied with such a request before. For that matter, none of the other students appeared nearly as shocked at the whole scene as I was.
         "Ssh, don't be afraid. It's all right. Just come with me, okay?" I whispered to the stricken, crying student. With patience and soothing words, I gently coaxed her out of the classroom. I took one last backward glance as I guided her out the door, and saw Jin using his Power to heal the cuts in Shingo's hand.
         "Wh-what did I..." sobbed the girl. "Why did he...?"
         "You brought a mirror into Crazy Shingo's classroom, didn't you?" piped a familiar voice.
         "Xiaoyu?" I asked, looking across the hall. "What are you doing?"
         "Not something I wanna do!" she retorted. She peevishly tapped her foot, just outside a different classroom door. Her right hand balanced a metal bucket on her head. Frustration turned her face into a frown as the bucket started to slip. "Dumb old teacher says I talk back too much. I hate him! But at least he's not Crazy Shingo!"
         The other girl stopped sobbing, although she still appeared shaken. So I asked on her behalf, "'Crazy Shingo'?"
         "It's what everybody calls him. Everybody except Jin."
         "I can't imagine why," I said, dryly.
         "Because he's loony, that's why!" Xiaoyu exclaimed, apparently immune to the concept of sarcasm. "He thinks he's best friends with God or something. He tried to tell me that Jin's a Devil, can you believe that? And whatever you do, don't ever, EVER show Crazy Shingo a mirror! It's like waving a big red cape in front of a bull!"
         I made a mental note to thank Jin for getting me this job. Not just any old manner of thanks would do, however. It would have to be something unusual and exquisite.
         An extended session of Chinese water-torture, say.
         The thought occurred to me that I should walk out in protest. To hell with Crazy Shingo and this damn job. But I'd promised Jin that I'd tough it through an entire day, so I quietly asked the female student, "Will you be all right by yourself? I think I should go back inside."
         She nodded. I eased back through the door. There were some janitorial supplies in the classroom's back closet; I used them to sweep up the broken glass and mop the splashes of Shingo's blood. I assume someone else had retrieved Shingo's notes, because they were stacked neatly on his podium. He occasionally checked them as he delivered a calm, informative lecture about the Meiji Restoration.
         When the second period began, Shingo asked me to bring the hallway girl back inside. He smiled at her, forgivingly, and gestured for her to sit. He even encouraged her to participate, a couple times. She still seemed shaken, but slowly recovered her composure with the passage of time. As for Shingo, his restored good humor remained utterly unruffled for the rest of the day. Even when one mischievous student hit him in the back of the head with a paper airplane.
         For what it's worth, Shingo did appear to be a competent teacher. His lectures were insightful, he always took time to carefully answer questions, and so forth. He even had me demonstrate pronunciation during his English lecture, saying, "Wee aru baree foruchunato tsuday, beecauzu wee hafu a nateebu supeekaru wiss us."
         During lunch recess, I fetched two trays of food from the cafeteria; one for Shingo, and one for myself. He suggested that I could take a break, but I had too many questions that I wanted to ask him. Starting with-
         "Why were you so angry with that poor girl? All she did was accidentally bring a mirror."
         "I don't know how you can drink that stuff," he observed, with a mildly sickened frown.
         "What, this?" I looked down at the small carton of skim milk in my hand. "I'm a lacto-vegetarian. Are you lactose-intolerant?"
         "Oh, never mind. What were you asking again?"
         "It just seems strange that you were so angry because one student was carrying a-"
         "Ah-ah," he warned, holding up a cautionary finger. "Don't American high schools forbid their students to carry dangerous things?"
         "Of course. My own school had a metal detector at the gate."
         "To stop anyone from bringing in knives or guns?"
         "Or bombs."
         "Mirrors are just as dangerous," he stated, with a perfectly straight face.
         "As dangerous as a bomb." Come to think of it, Shingo's reaction to that girl had been as if she'd been carrying, say, a switchblade. Maybe he equated a small mirror with a small weapon.
         "Knives, guns, and bombs can only take away your life. Mirrors are like beacons, entry portals for demons that can steal your soul."
         "But mirrors are everywhere. You know that, don't you?"
         "I can't keep the whole world safe. Only my class."
         "That's another thing. Why do you teach the same group of students all day?"
         "Yes, I know it's unusual. The other teachers specialize, and rotate from class to class-"
         "What?"
         "Wait - that isn't how they do it where you're from, is it? I think I remember hearing something about that. It's the students who move from room to room over there, is that right?"
         "Umm... yes."
         "Well, this way, you have fewer stampedes in the halls. I'm sort of a special case, though. I'm here specifically to teach Kazama-san's class. The other teachers help me; they lend me copies of their lectures and lesson plans for different subjects." A thoughtful look crossed Shingo's eyes, or should I say, eye. "You're living with Kazama-san, aren't you?"
         "I'm staying in the Mishima syndicate, for now. I wouldn't call it 'living with him.' If anything, both of us are living with his grandfather."
         "I see." Shingo's expression turned serious. "You do know that Kazama-san is a Devil, don't you?"
         He said 'Devil' with a certain amount of stress, as if to convey a capital 'D.' However, he didn't say it fearfully, or hatefully, or with any strong negative emotion. Instead, the feeling of his voice was one of profound concern.
         "Jin is a Devil," I repeated, just to be sure I'd heard him right.
         "Half-Devil, actually. On his father's side. But you know how the Divine Sanctions work; if you have one drop of Devil blood in you, you're considered to be a Devil."
         "When you call Jin a Devil, do you mean it in the same way that you call 'Kusanagi-sama' a god?" I challenged, skeptically.
         "Exactly. The Divine Sanctions are supposed to prohibit the existence of offspring like Kazama-san in our world, but-"
         "What are you talking about!?" I snapped.
         Shingo studied me, meticulously.
         "You know that he is a Devil," the teacher concluded. "Your heart just doesn't want to accept it."
         "You're crazy."
         "He doesn't believe it, either. I've told him, but..."
         "Jin is one of the kindest, most idealistic, and most honorable people I have ever met."
         To my surprise, Shingo nodded in complete agreement. "Yes, he is. A very few Devils choose to resist their dark heritage. Fewer still are successful. Their blood calls to Power, and Power itself calls to corruption.
         "You must understand something about Devils, Chang-san. When the curse of their blood consumes them, they turn upon friends, enemies, and family alike. Kazama-san is particularly dangerous, both because he is a very powerful Devil, and because he does not comprehend his own true nature. Not yet. But it's only a matter of time before..."
         Shingo looked off to the side, and a distant tone crept into his voice. "It wasn't called 'Riot of the Blood' for nothing, was it, Kusanagi-sama?"
         "If Jin is so terrible, then why aren't you scared of him?"
         Shingo looked back to me. "I am, a little. But I've held my own against Devils before, and this one needs my help. It's nice to be needed, I suppose."
         The teacher's good-natured smile returned. At the same time, though, he curled his right hand into a fist and held it close to himself, clearly displaying the sun sign on the back of his fighting glove. "I know the risks I'm taking, Chang-san. I'm ready to protect my class, if it comes to that. You, however, live in the Devil's home."
         "So does Xiaoyu."
         "That is true, and I've tried to warn her as well. I'm not quite as worried about her, though. Between her speed, her fighting skill, and the fact that she does not completely trust Kazama-san, she is much better protected than you are."
         "What's that crack about 'fighting skill' supposed to mean?"
         "You're not a fighter, Chang-san. Not according to the dossier on your background. Unless you've been secretly training for years, under the instruction of a great master?"
         "I'm in the Iron Fist Tournament."
         "You are?" Shingo's eyebrows darted straight up. "Oh, dear. I hope you have health insurance."
         This was beginning to vex me, and I let it show. So that Shingo hurriedly continued, "I'm only saying this because I'm concerned about you, and because you deserve to know. I realize that I'm younger than you, but trust me, I've lived long enough to have experience with-"
         "You are not younger than me."
         "You're eighteen, aren't you?"
         "You are not seventeen. You're in your thirties. You just admitted to being around during the Orochi Blood Riots, didn't you? That was twenty years ago."
         Shingo quietly coughed and said, "If you believe that, then it should make what I'm saying even more worth your consideration, shouldn't it? Coming as it does from an 'elder.'"
         "What's this 'if you believe'? You know the Orochi Blood Riots were twenty years ago. You know the age you were then. Can't you do the math? You were teaching advanced trigonometry thirty minutes ago."
         "You're getting lost in distractions. My point is-"
         "I understand your point. Tell you what: I promise you I'll think about it, if you promise to give me some answers."
         Shingo closed his eyes for a moment, then nodded to himself, firmly. "Yosh! I accept your bargain, with Kusanagi-sama as our witness. What would you like answered?"
         "You're not seventeen!"
         "That isn't a question." He didn't say it as if he were toying with me. More as if he were genuinely puzzled.
         "Why do you pretend you are?"
         "I'm not pretending," he denied, tolerantly.
         "You can see your real age! Even if you won't look in a-" I caught myself before I could say 'mirror.' "-at your own reflection, you can look at a calendar and see the number of years it's been since your birth! Otherwise, you wouldn't be able to write today's date on your notes. And you must be able to see that you're not wearing casts; you're obviously missing an arm and a leg!"
         Shingo shook his head. "She's certainly an emphatic young woman, isn't she, Kusanagi-sama?"
         "And do you hear voices like this 'Kusanagi-sama' talking in your head or what?" I added, wondering if he suffered from auditory hallucinations.
         "Well, it's not like how you hear Kazama-san, when he uses telepathy to communicate with you. The Divine Sanctions strongly discourage such direct contact between gods and mortals. It's more a matter of knowing that Kusanagi-sama hears us, and knowing how he thinks."
         "And?"
         "And what?"
         "You are not seventeen. Not just because you say you are!"
         "You're not an Indian," he returned, with no hesitation.
         His tone was very different from mine. There was no frustrated exasperation, or irate petulance; he remained placid and amiable as he continued, "You should know you're not an Indian. You don't have an Indian name on your IdentiCard, and you don't have any Indian blood in your veins. Why do you pretend you're an Indian? Dressing up with a red feather in your headband, and all."
         "I... I'm a Navajo by adoption. My grandmother-"
         "Are you accepted as a Navajo by the entire tribe? Or most of them?"
         "What, am I supposed to take a survey?"
         "Do you believe in the Navajo religion, then? Do you live by Navajo customs?"
         "None of your business."
         "If you don't, then why do you say you're a Navajo when you're obviously not?"
         "That's different. My identity as a Navajo isn't something you can mathematically refute."
         "Except that your tribe doesn't really think of themselves as 'Navajos,' do they? They actually call themselves, um, the dossier said it was 'Diné' or something like that. 'Navajo' is what outsiders call them. Why do you use an outside word to refer to your own tribe?"
         "No one knows what I mean if I say 'Diné,' but they understand if I say 'Navajo.'"
         "Why should that make a difference? Are you afraid that if other people don't know you're a Navajo, you won't know it either?"
         "It's not your place to decide who is a Navajo!"
         "Then you're a Navajo just because you say you are?" Shingo shrugged, helplessly. "I'm sorry, Chang-san. I wish I could understand your questions, but you're contradicting yourself."
         I'm contradicting myself? I am contradicting-?
         -oh, damn. This must be the rest of what Jin was trying to warn me about.
         "Never mind," I sighed. "I'm out of line for asking any of this in the first place."
         "Think nothing of it," he reassured, peaceably.
         Well, I'd promised Jin that I would restrain the 'truth-seeker' side of my personality around Shingo. That conversation was about as close to 'restrained' as I could get, believe it or not. The unrestrained Julia Chang would have kept digging at the truth for the rest of the day, at least.
         I was much quieter during the afternoon class periods. I knew that I should be thinking about a way to expose Heihachi's crimes, but my mind kept wandering back to everything Shingo had said. Including his matter-of-fact classification of Jin as a Devil. So that I suppose I also kept my other promise, as made under the auspices of the inscrutable 'Kusanagi-sama.'
         'Kusanagi-sama.' Hmph. If I believed for one second in a god named 'Kusanagi-sama,' I'd have prayed for his divine intercession against 'Mishima-sama.'
         My ponderings kept me preoccupied until classes finally let out. I helped carry Shingo's course materials back to his office.
         "Do you, um... have any guidelines you want me to follow for organizing this?" I asked, gesturing to the mess of folders and papers. "Or should I just have at it?"
         "Waa? Is it really that bad?" Shingo blinked, as if looking at his own working space for the first time. "Ah! I suppose it is, isn't it, Kusanagi-sama?"
         I laced my fingers, uneasily.
         "Kusanagi-sama is right," Shingo concluded. "You've worked hard enough, adjusting to your first day, and Kazama-san will need your support tomorrow. If you really want to help me sort things out, then maybe we can try Monday morning. Say, an hour before class. Would that be all right? Or do you plan to stay up late on Sunday?"
         "Umm... Monday morning is fine."
         "You are too kind." Shingo bowed, transferring most of his weight to his claw cane as he did so. "It has been a pleasure, Chang-san. I look forward to seeing you again."
         "Uh, likewise." I matched his bow.
         "By the way, just so you know - women bow with their hands in front of them. Like this." He could only demonstrate with one hand, though. "It's men who bow with their hands at their sides. Not that it makes a shred of difference around a third-rate teacher like me, mind. I just thought you'd like to know in case you have to show respect to someone important, hm? Such as Kazama-san's grandfather."
         Oh, yes. I wouldn't want to be disrespectful to a lying, murdering, power-hungry criminal like Heihachi, now would I?
         I thanked Shingo for the advice anyway, and started heading back to the Mishima syndicate. And nearly tripped over Jin, who was sitting on the school's front steps.
         He looked exhausted, hunched over with one hand partly covering his eyes. Despair marked his face. He reminded me of a marathon runner who has just come in last.
         I scanned the general area. Most of the other students had dispersed, so Jin probably wasn't under quite as much of a psychic strain anymore. Thank goodness for small favors.
         "Rough day?" I asked.
         "Always," he groaned.
         "Do you feel up to walking back to the syndicate?"
         "In a few minutes, maybe."
         "I can wait." I settled down beside him.
         "So," he muttered. "How was your first day working for Professor Yabuki?"
         As I shuffled through my recent memories, I found a mental note about wanting to torture Jin. I mentally tore up the note, since Jin was already tortured.
         "It was odd," I answered. "Very odd."
         "Was it."
         "You could have warned me more thoroughly, you know."
         "I didn't want to bias you. Will you keep working for him?"
         "Hmm... could I ask you a few questions, first?"
         "Uh-huh."
         "What's wrong with him?"
         Jin shifted his hand, enough to peer at me through his fingers. "That's kind of general."
         "Is he mentally ill? He wouldn't exactly say whether he hears voices in his head-"
         Click.
         Wheels turned in my mind. I felt a connection forming, blocks falling into place. "He's from Serenity Consolation Asylum, isn't he? Eijiro Fujisawa mentioned a 'Professor' who was teaching him to read. That was Shingo, wasn't it?"
         Jin nodded. "I first met him during a checkup on Fujisawa."
         "What kept Shingo from losing his temper over the one-way mirrors?"
         "Only the observation room has one of those, and they just recently installed it."
         "Jin, I don't mean this in a bad way, but... what on earth is he doing in your high school? Doesn't the Mishima syndicate have any standards?"
         "Professor Yabuki is a good teacher," Jin defended.
         "Is he a real professor?"
         "Um, technically. His credentials are from an Internet correspondence college. That's not what you should judge him on, though; you saw him in action yourself."
         "I also saw him turn schizoid over a tiny mirror."
         "I'm sorry about that. But Julia, trust me - he was not going to actually hurt that girl. He would sooner die than harm a student."
         "Would he."
         "You think I can't tell?"
         "Well... you probably can, at that," I conceded, remembering Jin's telepathy. Heihachi and Hwoarang were insidious enough to deceive it, but I couldn't place Shingo in their psychological league.
         "Professor Yabuki isn't a danger to himself or others. I know because he agreed to let me scan his mind, as a precondition to being hired. He would never hurt a student, or another faculty member, or you. Even if you did accidentally show him a mirror."
         "Let's say this is true. You still haven't explained why the Mishima syndicate hired him."
         "I used to get into fights at school..."
         "Do you still?"
         "Not as many. Not anymore."
         "And?"
         "My former teacher tried to break up one of my fights. I was being attacked by six people, so I didn't see him until too late."
         "What do you mean, 'too late'?"
         Jin held up his free hand, and displayed the smallest crackle of indigo energy on his palm.
         "You electrocuted your teacher!?" I gasped.
         Jin winced. I'd say it was more from internal shame than from any external snappishness on my part. "He's fine now. Really. Five weeks of bed rest, all paid for by the syndicate, and-"
         "-and now, a teacher would have to be crazy to step in the same classroom with you. Crazy, and desperate to get out of a loony bin."
         "I would hardly call Serenity Consolation a 'loony bin.'"
         "Didn't you talk to the staff about Shingo? Find out his background and such?"
         "Uh-huh."
         "What did you learn?"
         Jin removed his hand from his forehead, and drummed his fingers against his knee. "Professor Yabuki's dementia doesn't seem to have a detectible neurological cause."
         "Then why...?"
         "How much of an interrogation did you give him, anyway?"
         "Umm..."
         "Don't worry, I knew you wouldn't be able to completely hold yourself back. I'm just asking what you've already learned."
         "He said he was in the King of Fighters Tournament, once. And he mentioned the Orochi Blood Riots."
         "Yes. Have you heard him talk about Kyo Kusanagi?"
         "I've heard him talk to Kyo Kusanagi."
         "Around twenty years ago, Kusanagi was a champion of the annual King of Fighters Tournament. He was also Yabuki's high school senior classmate, best friend, and idol. He allegedly taught Yabuki how to fight. In any case, Yabuki resolved to follow Kusanagi into the Tournament. Yabuki entered the Tournament in the summer of 1997 - the year it erupted into the Orochi Blood Riots.
         "Yabuki once had a family: mother, father, older sister, and younger sister. They were going to take a vacation abroad, but when Yabuki qualified for the Tournament, they got ringside passes to cheer him on instead."
         "Caught in the Riots?"
         "Yes."
         "Killed?"
         "All except his older sister. She didn't attend the Tournament because of, I don't know, college placement tests or something."
         I thought of the letter Shingo had been writing to his parents. "Do you know for certain that his family is dead?"
         "Yes. Police records. They brought Yabuki in to identify the bodies."
         "Oh... no." I let my gaze fall to the steps. "He was seventeen at the time, wasn't he?"
         "Yes. He also survived the Riots with only minor injuries, as far as I know. After he confirmed the identity of his family's remains... he just bolted out of the morgue, absolutely devastated, and that's the last anyone saw of him for over a year. When he turned up again, he was pretty much as you see now. Maimed, delusional, and paranoid of mirrors."
         "When you say 'delusional'..."
         "Doesn't believe he's permanently handicapped. Identifies himself as seventeen. Convinced that his family is still alive. Frequently conversing with 'Kusanagi-sama,' whom he calls a 'god.'"
         "Is Kyo Kusanagi also dead?"
         "Presumed dead. He disappeared in the Riots, and was never seen again. The Kusanagi family didn't hold a funeral, though."
         "What about Shingo's older sister? Is she still alive?"
         "Yes. And married with, um, two or three kids. She is Professor Yabuki's legal guardian."
         "Oh?"
         "Well, he's been declared incompetent to manage his own affairs. We had to negotiate with his sister before she'd agree to let him work for us."
         "'Negotiate'?"
         "Yes, negotiate." Jin's brow darkened. "What, do you think we sent twenty thugs to her house and told her, 'Sign this or we'll beat you up'?"
         I wouldn't put it past Heihachi, but I didn't see any point in pressing the tangent.
         "So. Are you going to keep the job?" Although Jin tried to ask it offhandedly, I detected an anxious undercurrent in his voice. It could have simply been the remnants of a hard day...
         "Yes, I am."
         For the first time since early that morning, Jin smiled. "Thanks. He really needs you."
         "His last aide quit because she was afraid of working for a lunatic, didn't she?"
         "Professor Yabuki is eccentric, but you have nothing to fear from him. I wouldn't let you near him if you did."
         "If I don't fear you, what makes you think I'm going to fear him?" I snorted. Then, a wistful thought settled on me.
         "Jin... can't you heal him?"
         "I can't restore his left side any better than it's already mended. Healing sorcery doesn't have the Power to regenerate-"
         "I mean his mind."
         "Oh."
         "You said you've scanned him..."
         "Enough to know how tightly he holds on to his delusions. They are real to him, Julia. As real as everything around you and me, right now. And..."
         "And?"
         "He was under the influence of a dreamweaving spell, once. A powerful one. Much, much stronger than anything I could create, even if I studied illusion sorcery for a hundred years."
         In literal point of fact, Jin's description of the spell's strength wasn't as impressive as he meant it to be. Before any sorcerer can cast an effective illusion, he must first have the intention to deceive, something that was most assuredly not Jin's forte. Even so...
         "If Shingo is under a spell, then can't you break it?"
         "That's just it. The dreamweaving is broken, and has been for many years. That's how I know it was so powerful; if it weren't, it wouldn't have any traces remaining. I don't know if it permanently damaged his mind, or if he clings to its tatters because he wants to. Maybe both."
         "He must retain some understanding of true reality. Otherwise, he wouldn't be in any shape to teach high school."
         "You're right, in a sense. I don't claim to fully understand how he thinks. All I can say for certain is that Professor Yabuki lives half in a shadow world - an endless, dreamlike memory of the King of Fighters Tournament. The only way I know to make him abandon the shadow world would be if I burned it down."
         "Would it cure him if you did?"
         "It might. Or it could destroy him." Jin slowly shook his head, in resolute denial. "I've already shattered one man's mind, Julia. I won't risk it happening again."
         "You'd be at risk too, wouldn't you?"
         "Yes," he responded, as an afterthought. "Yes, I would."
         I brooded over this, for a time.
         "I think I'm ready to walk home now," Jin stated, massaging his forehead as he stood up. "Coming?"
         "Sure," I said.
         "Hey!" called a familiar, high-pitched voice. "Wait for me!"
         It was Xiaoyu, sprinting across the courtyard while holding her arms outstretched like an airplane. "My dumb old teacher gave me a detention can you believe that? He said I fidget too much I can't believe how long you're supposed to sit still in the same stupid place in this stupid school I hate that I hate that!"
         "Hello, Xiao-chan," Jin greeted, with a wavering smile.
         "So, when are you gonna get me a panda?"
         "It isn't going to happen."
         "Nyahhh!" she teased, sticking her tongue out at him.
         "That isn't going to make it happen, either."
         "When Heihachi offered me a deal, I should've held out for a panda!"
         "That's right," I agreed. "You should have."
         "Hi, Julia! So, what's it like working for Crazy Shingo?"
         "Well, for one thing, it's..."
         I trailed off.
         Jin had stopped walking. Xiaoyu and I had taken several steps past him without realizing it. We were all on the paved school courtyard. The gate was across from us, but someone else leaned against it. He was an older man, with an ash-grey streak in his sable hair, and he did not appear to be in good health. The darkness in his eyes told me that he wasn't going to let us pass.
         I knew him.
         I'd never met him before, but I recognized his face. Almost anyone would have. He'd been in movies, television commercials, and public service announcements. He was a personal hero of mine, especially from when I was enamored of becoming a detective.
         I glanced at Xiaoyu, and saw her mouth drop open from jubilant delight.
         I looked back at Jin. Great Spirit! His reaction was the diametric opposite of Xiaoyu's. The hatred on his face - it was not as strong as it had been the night he accused Hwoarang of murder, but it was close. A warning crackle of indigo electricity snaked around Jin's hostile form. He clenched his fists and teeth, and he matched his antagonist's haunted stare.
         "Get out of here," Jin spat, threateningly.
         "Is that any way to talk to your father?" rasped Lei Wulong, Super Police.


         My throat is sore. Let's continue this tomorrow morning, all right?
         No, I'm okay. I was just thinking about Lei Wulong. I've read all the records he left behind, you know, and I... I wish I'd had the chance to know him better than I did.
         Then again, maybe I did have the chance. And I threw it away.
         I wish...
         Well, I wish for a lot of things. I suppose we all do. And maybe it's for the best if our wishes aren't always granted.


End of Chapter 14: Teacher's Pet