written by Victar, e-mail
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Chapter 16: Personal Business

   "He's good at putting things together. In any case, I know that he'll try. In fact, knowing Vlad..."
   "He might very well try so hard he gets himself killed."

         -S. K. Z. Brust, Orca

EXCERPT: private journal of Heishiro Mitsurugi
December 7, 2017

         I don't know what to make of today.
         It started out badly enough. I tried to train my swordsmanship against Ling Xiaoyu, the holy terror of a pixie girl. I've still got a couple bruises to show for it.
         It's not that I mind losing to her, in and of itself. She's skilled enough, and pleasant enough, for a hyperactive chatterbox. She's been showing me all sorts of tricks with her weapon; I think I might even be learning from her, like I'm slowly learning stuff from Taki.
         It's just that being repeatedly pummeled by such a little mayfly is so humiliating.
         The next time I practice with her, it's got to be somewhere private. Where no one else can accidentally wander by and see how much I suck.
         And I wish she'd get my name right. It's not 'Mitsu,' it's Mitsurugi. I've told her more than once, and now I think she's calling me 'Mitsu' just to tease me. I wouldn't mind if she wanted to use my first name, or even 'Shiro'; that used to be my nickname in high school. But, 'Mitsu'? Aaaaah!
         I wonder if she knows she's literally calling me 'Honey.'
         As in, 'Sweet stuff made by bees.'
         She didn't remember to bring me a steamed pork bun after her school let out, either. It wasn't just forgetfulness, though; she was in tears over something, when she came running home. I was wondering if I should ask, but it's probably none of my business.
         Also, her new pet scares me.
         Xiaoyu did promise she'd make up for forgetting to bring me food. She talked to the young master, and got me a spectator gallery seat for his first match in the Iron Fist Tournament. Tomorrow, I'll watch him fight, along with Xiaoyu and, um, that Indian girl with the red feather in her headband. Damn, I should remember her name, I know I heard it earlier today. Taki consented to let me attend the Tournament, on the off-chance that I could learn something from it.
         So, by around eight p.m., the evening had warmed up from bad to mediocre. Oh, Taki was 'training' me some more, and it hurt like always, but you know what? I think I'm getting better at it. Really, I'm pretty sure I am. I still can't get a blow in edgewise on her, but I was more successful at parrying some of her attacks. Not all of them, but some.
         Then the day rose from average to ecstatic.
         I saw Anna Williams again.
         There was no way I could have missed her. She was dressed to stand out, in a bright scarlet, sleeveless red jersey. A tan belt suspended her shiny black pants. Matching black gloves graced her tender hands. A gleaming pearl necklace ornamented her immaculate throat.
         I couldn't take my eyes off her.
         She is so beautiful...
         "Hey, ROOKIE! Pay ATTENTION!" Taki's hoarse demand seemed like it came from very far away indeed, and perhaps it was a good distance removed, seeing as how I blinked and my face was on the floor again.
         I struggled to raise my head.
         Anna looked at me. This time, our eyes definitely met.
         She has such enchanting eyes. Light blue, like sunny morning sky...
         Her arm moved, and her gloved index finger curled toward me, a little. I only half-glimpsed this, because her scarlet jersey was so revealing that I could see part of her bra. I'm almost sure that's a violation of the syndicate's dress code, but I can only feel gratitude for whoever made an exception for Anna.
         "Oh, for-!" Taki followed my longing gaze, in time to see the living goddess walk away. Anna's scarlet high heels clicked delicately with each, finely graceful step she took. Had she just told me to follow her?
         Taki stepped on the back of my neck, hard enough to pin my face into the ground.
         "That does it. I'm taking a break," my teacher spat, virulently. "There's no way I can beat even the most basic lessons into you, when you're like this."
         The pressure of her foot lifted, but when I managed to rub away enough of the soreness to look up again, she was gone.
         I wonder how she disappears like that?
         It's not as if I searched for her, though. If anything, I was happy for a moment's freedom.
         Anna had told me to follow her!
         Or had she?
         What if I hadn't seen right? What if she'd just had an itch, or a stiff finger, or something? What if-?
         Doubts plagued my mind. With each step I took, my heart beat louder. By the time I found the half-open door to her office, I was practically trembling.
         Stop it! Stop it, stop it. This is no time to be afraid. If it is all a mistake, I'll, um, I'll just make up some excuse. I'll say I came to welcome her to the Mishima syndicate, or something. I'll-
         My hand's already knocking on the door. I didn't tell my hand to knock, not before I had what I was going to say ready!
         "Come in," Anna offered.
         Her voice - it was so wondrous to hear, clear and ringing and every bit as melodiously beautiful as she was, certainly a welcome break after hours of Taki's grating rasp, or Xiaoyu's high-pitched squeal. Just one problem.
         She was speaking in English.
         I'm good at writing in English. I'm pretty good at listening to English. But speaking in English, um, that's another story. I should have known, I should have known-!
         "Aren't you going to come in, darling?" Anna invited.
         Can't back out now. I'm staying in a terrifying job with a Devil boss and a sadistic teacher in a nightmare syndicate full of murderous monsters half because of this incredibly beautiful goddess, I am not going to run away now!
         I pushed the door fully open.
         Anna was sitting on her desk. Not at her desk; on her desk. She looked rather relaxed for a secretary, or a clerk, or whatever her job is supposed to be. Then again, I would think it was after her normal quitting time, wasn't it?
         Did she stay late just so she could see me?
         No, no, it can't be-
         "Can you understand me, darling?" inquired the vision of loveliness. "I could try your language, but I'm not very good at it, I'm afraid. My tongue is so clumsy. One of the nice men who work here told me your name, and I'm so worried I won't even get that right - will you be offended if I can't?"
         I nodded. I actually meant to confirm that I understood her, but I remained paralyzed a little too long, and inadvertently nodded in time to accuse her of offending me. Which could not possibly be true, so I frantically shook my head.
         "Oh, darling, you're so generous. I'm Anna Williams; perhaps you've heard of me?"
         She was smiling at me - scarlet lips warm and luscious and loving, she was actually smiling at me!
         I could get lost forever in that smile...
         "You're not mute, are you darling?"
         "Iie... I m-mean, nnno. P-pleased to meet you, M-miss Williams." It was an awkward, halting, horribly inarticulate stammer. But I said something to her. I actually said something to her!
         "Oh darling, call me Anna."
         "I-I'm Mitsurugi Hei- I mm-mean, Heishiro Mitsurugi," I stuttered, remembering at the last second that she would be accustomed to putting the given name first. Maybe I should have bowed, but I didn't want to take my eyes away from her beauty, I really didn't.
         "Y-you can call me 'Mitsu.'"
         Why did I say that?
         I can't believe I said that.
         "You're so sweet," Anna beamed. "Just as I was hoping. There was something I wanted to ask you."
         She thinks I'm 'sweet'?
         She - she likes me?
         She really likes me?
         And - and she really did want me to follow her, after all?
         "Mitsu darling, were you staring at me?"
         Oh. Oh, no.
         "I remember you from yesterday. I could have sworn you were staring at me. And today, why, it looked like you were staring at me again. And even right now; you just can't take your eyes off me, can you?"
         I didn't know what to say.
         It probably was rude to stare so much, but she didn't sound angry or upset. And if she didn't want people looking at her, then why did she make herself so beautiful?
         Maybe she couldn't help being beautiful?
         "Gomen - I m-mmean, sorry. D-didn't mm-mean to..." I trailed off from necessity; my palate had just drawn a blank on possible English infinitives to complete the sentence.
         Anna smiled again.
         I could sell my soul for that smile...
         "It's all right, Mitsu dear," she murmured, forgivingly. "There's one other teensy little thing I'd like to ask you about. Do you ever read these?"
         Read what?
         She was holding something. A folded part of today's Tokyo Sunrise newspaper. It was open to the classified advertisements. Anna pointed to one section of the ads.
         The personals?
         I squinted to get a better look, because my legs were shaking too much to actually step closer. Yes, that's what it was - personal ads. 'Men Seeking Women,' 'Women Seeking Men,' that sort of thing.
         "Nnno," I managed, as if talking underwater.
         "A pity. They can be quite diverting."
         Anna smiled a third time. I have never seen a more beatific...
         "...just not very well - darling?"
         "Nan... I mean, wh-what did you-?"
         Anna tossed her head, exposing the smooth, supple skin of her exquisite neck. "Would you believe me, darling, if I told you I've had a 'crash course' in your lovely, yet very oddly written language over twenty years ago? Sewn directly into my head, no less. And now, I'm struggling to remember enough to understand this nice paper? I've loved reading the personals since I was sixteen. It's my second favorite way to start the morning. Or end the evening."
         "Anoh..." Stop. Swallow. Take a deep breath. I can talk like a normal human being. I can do this. "D-do you nnneed help r-reading the paper?"
         "Just a teensy bit of tutoring, maybe? If you're not too busy. I wouldn't want to be a bother."
         "Nn-no, it is no bother, nnnever!" Calm down. Calm down. Take it easy. Even if I am in the presence of a living goddess, and she just asked me to-
         "Unless..." Anna mused, a secret gleam dancing about her sky-blue eyes.
         "Unless," she repeated crossing her elegant legs, "you'd like to go out with me yourself. Then I wouldn't have to search the personals for a date, now would I?"
         I fainted.
         Well, almost. Managed to catch myself before I sprawled on the floor like an idiot, but I did buckle to both knees, desperately trying to curb my panic.
         "Oh, Mitsu dear! Are you all right?" Anna trilled, crouching next to me. Which of course only made it worse.
         "I-I'm f-fine," I managed to gasp. Settle down! Be calm! Now! "Y-you're... y-you just asked me..."
         Anna waited, expectantly.
         " ...ahh... 'yes'?"
         The fourth appearance of that smile was almost too much for me.
         "Meet me tomorrow night," Anna whispered, passing me a tiny scrip of colored paper - when had she written on it? The paper had the address of a nearby hotel, and a time: 9:00 p.m.
         Her face hovered enticingly close to mine. "Don't be late. I do so hate to be stood up."
         And then...
         Something brushed my cheek, but I couldn't believe it was there. That any of this was happening, that-
         I fainted for real, this time.
         When I woke up, Anna was gone.
         Taki stood in her place, spitefully glaring down at me. I sat up and touched my cheek.
         My fingers came away with a smattering of lipstick.
         Anna's scarlet lipstick.
         It wasn't a dream. She kissed me - I don't believe it, Anna actually-! Gods! How is it that I've received such a divine blessing? Was I really a great hero in a past life, or something like that?
         "She doesn't love you," Taki said, coldly.
         I looked up. The mask over my teacher's face could not hide the wrathful contempt in her eyes.
         "Anna Williams cares nothing for you. She did not choose you for your spindly looks, or your wavering strength, or your extremely limited intellect. She chose you because you are obviously, hopelessly, impossibly smitten with her. Your youth, naivete, and slavish adoration make you easy to dominate. Easy to steal from, and she'll take everything she can get out of you. Tools, tasks, favors, pleasure; it doesn't make a difference. She doesn't love you, and she is not going to love you. When your lust is of no more use to her, she intends to throw you away and forget you ever existed. Assuming she doesn't kill you first."
         I looked at my masked teacher, in puzzlement.
         I'd heard her say things like that about Anna before. They got me mad. But I couldn't get mad now; how could I get mad, when the most gorgeous woman I've ever known had just kissed me? I was only curious.
         "Why are you saying all this?" I asked Taki, in a daze. "It can't be because you're jealous over me. You don't even like me."
         "I can't afford to 'like' you, not that it matters. It would not save you if I did."
         A slight change passed over her. It's hard to describe. As if the acid in her voice and the scorn in her eyes weakened, a little. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe she was only tired from a long day. It's difficult to tell what she's really thinking, especially through her mask.
         Taki turned away from me. "I will permit you to leave the syndicate for your 'date.' Try to come back by seven the following morning, if at all possible."
         "What? Mm... morning?"
         "Or earlier, if she plays 'hard to get.' She won't, though."
         "Now wait a minute!" I exclaimed, flushing. "Stop making snap judgements about Anna!"
         "You should turn in early, tonight. Don't stay up late, writing endless inanities in that ridiculous little diary of yours; you're going to need your rest."
         Rest, hell.

Tokyo Sunrise: "News You Can Depend On"
Section 2A
July 17, 1973


SHINJUKU: Heihachi Mishima, president and CEO of the multi-industrial Mishima syndicate, released a statement to the press today. In it, he addressed rumors about the recent disappearance of Kazumi Mishima, his wife of five years. President Mishima announced that his wife had passed away on the night of July 10, 1973, of sudden heart failure. Mrs. Mishima was 29 years old.
         "She has been buried in a private ceremony, as befits her station," President Mishima said. He also confirmed that this personal tragedy would not delay or interfere with his duties to the syndicate.
         In addition to her husband, Mrs. Mishima is survived by her father-in-law Jinpachi Mishima, and her four-year-old son Kazuya Mishima.

February 13, 2018
7:45 p.m.

         You're early, for the moonrise.
         Then again, so am I.
         There is something that I'd like to mention, before we begin. In tonight's interview, I'm going to tell you some rather personal things about Jin's family. One reason why I needed to put this off until tonight was so I could talk to him about that. He has made it clear that he wants you to record everything you think applicable. I have his unequivocal permission to relate all that he once told me in confidence.
         What? You had him sign a consent form?
         So that's why he had that 'I've-been-through-this-before' look on his face. Hmph. You could have told me, and spared me a little embarrassment.
         Uh, what do you mean by-?
         Oh. Jin is... doing well.
         It's true. I think he has fully recovered from the trauma your past interviews inflicted, when they repeatedly disturbed his memory block. Do you know, Lee was teaching both of us a couple card games this afternoon? Mostly for fun, but also as a training exercise for Jin. Helping him learn how to keep a so-called 'poker face.' Jin is not and never has been particularly good at hiding his own feelings, but it's always laudable to work on improving one's weaknesses.
         Jin also... had a message for you.
         He wants you to set up another interview with him. Eventually.
         I don't know, I don't know. My advice is, put it off for as long as you can. When you do interview him, try to make it - try to make it about something nonviolent. Something that wasn't a fight, or a hostile confrontation. That should lessen your chances of disturbing his memory block.
         No. That's as specific as you're getting out of me. If Lee doesn't want to tell you exactly what the block covers, then neither do I. Not until it's the right time. I'll confess when we reach the proper moment, but not now. Just not now.
         I wonder if this is how Lei Wulong felt...

         So. There I was, walking 'home' to the Mishima syndicate - hm? - oh, it was Thursday, December 7th. A little before ten in the evening, I'd say. Jin had contacted me psychically at nightfall; I'd told him where I was, and that I wouldn't be returning until late. I felt an echo of his discontent, but he respected my wishes like a gentleman.
         I'd just survived an extremely strange day. Between my new job assisting Professor Shingo Yabuki, and my unexpected role as mediator between Jin and his estranged stepfather Lei Wulong, well... I was almost relieved at returning to the relative normality of the syndicate.
         Ha. That's a good one. As if anyone or anything in the syndicate can ever, EVER deserve to be called 'normal.'
         Yes. Including you.
         Do you know the first thing I saw, when I reached the syndicate mansion's front lawn?
         I saw Xiaoyu.
         And her panda bear.
         I stopped. Blinked. Stared. Blinked some more.
         It was a panda. It really was a giant panda. A great, bearlike omnivore, native to the mountains of central China and eastern Tibet. Thick, wooly white fur with distinctive black markings on the eyes, ears, and nose, black legs, and a black band running over its shoulders. Round ears and stubby black tail - oh, do I honestly have to describe a prime specimen of Ailuropoda melanoleuca to you?
         Not to be confused with the lesser "red" panda, Ailurus fulgens.
         This particular creature looked gigantic, even for a full adult. Xiaoyu was playing with it. The panda had one especially distinctive feature: it wore a bright, orange-red bracelet around its left front paw. Two huge, golden jingle bells adorned the bracelet, and they made audible clink noises as the panda moved.
         I remembered what Xiaoyu had said, about being afraid that her panda might eat young cats or dogs. Maybe she had put bells on it to warn smaller pets, in the same way that some people bell their cats to warn away young birds.
         "Hi, Julia!" Xiaoyu called, cheerily. "Hey have you met Panda? She's from the Tokyo Mishima Zoo and Jin says I can keep her only if I treat her real well and take good care of her and she doesn't slack off eating or get sick or lonely he says if she isn't happy here then she'll have to go back to the zoo, so be extra nice to Panda okay?"
         'Panda' gave a great, ursine yawn, showing off her toothy mouth and bright pink tongue.
         I still couldn't believe it.
         Jin had gotten her a panda bear. He'd really gotten her a live panda bear, like he promised. Either he was as fanatical as his grandfather about keeping his word, or he was a lot fonder of Xiaoyu than I thought.
         Or both.
         "Say, you better go see Jin. He's kind of worried about you I think; do you know where he is? He's in his um, whatchamacallit, inside that big front room with the pretty carpet-"
         "The antechamber?"
         "Yeah, yeah! You know where that is, right?"
         "Yes," I muttered, darkly.
         "I gotta take Panda to her new bed now. Tomorrow night's my first match in the Iron Fist, and I've gotta be all rested and ready and you'd better go to bed soon too, goodnight!"
         I reciprocated the sentiment and entered the syndicate. Moving at a brisk pace, I didn't stop until I reached the antechamber.
         Or rather, someone made me stop.
         He was lounging outside the ornately carved doors to the antechamber. Not looking at me. Just leaning against them, arms folded, staring off to his left. I immediately recognized his gang leathers, hawklike face, and deathly pale skin.
         Hwoarang. The immortal, blood-drinking vampyre. The centuries-old victim of an undead curse, which perpetually enslaved him to whatever being defeated him in single combat. The lost soul who had begged Jin to murder him. Jin had defeated him in single combat; therefore, Jin was the only one who could grant him the death for which he longed. But Jin hadn't been able to calmly and casually take a life - not even as a mercy killing - and now the vampyre was here.
         Why had Hwoarang come to the Mishima syndicate? Had he accepted Jin's offer to find a cure for his curse? Or was he pursuing his threat to murder Jin?
         I put my hands up in a kempo guard. If Hwoarang had come to hurt either Jin or me, then he would have a fight on his-
         "I am not talking to the girl," the vampyre said, tonelessly.
         He wasn't looking at me, or acting as if he acknowledged me. He just kept staring off to his left, letting the words fall on empty air.
         "I am not talking to the girl - I am not!" Hwoarang gripped his watery-red hair in both hands and shook, like he was succumbing to a virulent toxin. "If I speak when the girl is in the area, it does NOT mean I am talking TO the girl!"
         This was creepy, but also intriguing. Hwoarang was behaving oddly, and there had to be a reason for it.
         "The girl is a fool. Almost as big a fool as me. I should have hunted her. I saw how savage the Devil was when he thought I'd murdered a girl he never knew; killing a girl he'd known for even one night would have had the same result. But I didn't want to murder the girl, did I? Not even for death itself. She reminded me too much of you."
         He still wasn't addressing me. Instead, he reached inside the front of his dark violet shirt, and withdrew something on a chain around his neck.
         It was a diamond-studded crucifix. Yukie's crucifix. The treasured possession of Hwoarang's faithful follower, whom Toshin-Nina had murdered. Hwoarang continued talking to the cross, as if it were his dead girlfriend.
         "If only I had hunted the girl. Then it would all have been so easy. I murder her, the Devil takes revenge on me. It's over. It's finally over. But no, I can't bring myself to hunt an innocent girl, now can I? I have to hunt old man Heihachi instead, and now look what's happened!"
         Hwoarang's fingers clenched the cross, tightly. He squeezed his eyes shut. "How much more of a monster do I have to become, before the Devil will show me mercy...?"
         "Jin is not a Devil," I denied, with some annoyance.
         "I wonder if the girl understands. If she can figure it out. I assume she has a brain in her head. Or does she? Would she stay in the syndicate if she did?
         "Can't she smell it? Does she have any idea? These halls stink of death, of souls ripped from their bodies. The girl should run away. If she had a grain of sense in her, the girl would run away. How dare she forfeit her worthless life, when I could have murdered her for my freedom!"
         Wait a minute. I'd heard a similar warning three times before, from three different people, and it was beginning to sincerely aggravate me.
         I said, "I'm not going to-"
         "THE GIRL IS SUICIDAL!" Hwoarang threw back his head, voicing the cry like the despairing call of a mortally wounded falcon.
         Then his demeanor became colder. Crueller. He still wouldn't look at me, but he hissed, "If the only way to make it stop is to be a monster, then I will be a monster. I can't hurt the girl right now; I'm under orders. But I am also ordered to fight the girl in the Iron Fist tomorrow, and fight her I will. I will crush her neck like dry kindling. When I take the girl's life, a life worth nothing when she's as good as dead for staying here, the Devil will set me free. The Devil will have to set me free.
         "Unless the girl is not really suicidal. Unless the girl, who is not a fighter, who is not a sorceress, who has no Power of her own, understands how weak and helpless she really is. If the girl runs away now, forfeits the Iron Fist, gets the hell away from these halls of death, she might live. She might have a chance at living.
         "More of a chance than you had," he whispered to Yukie's cross. "More of a chance than you."
         "I am not afraid of you," I told the vampyre, defiantly. "And I'm not running away, no matter how many threats you make."
         Hwoarang looked at me.
         He narrowed his hateful eyes, eyes the rotting brown of death and decay. Yet I did not back down, even when confronted with four centuries of undead loathing.
         At last, he looked away, grimacing his contempt and revulsion. "I am not talking to the girl. I couldn't talk to the girl even if I wanted to; I'm under orders."
         Hwoarang stalked away from the double doors. It wasn't until he was gone from my sight that I realized I had been holding my breath.
         With a sigh, I pushed my way inside the antechamber.
         I'd never been to this place before; I had only a vague intimation of it from Jin's borrowed memories. The antechamber was a vast, empty room. No furniture. Just a luxuriously plush expanse of deep blue carpeting, highlighted with colorful patterns. The patterns culminated in a central red-and-gold design, shaped roughly like an even-stroke cross within a circle. There was very little light. I could hardly see as I took several steps inside and called, "Jin? Are you here?"
         No answer.
         Had he left? Or was I in the wrong room?
         Just as I was thinking that I should go, I saw it.
         It was beautiful, in a haunting, netherworldly manner. An indigo-white ellipsis of pure energy, opening in the center of the dark room. It glowed so brightly that it took my breath away.
         "Jin?" I whispered without air.
         The dark silhouette of a young man formed within the shining disc. I could only gaze, astonished, as the silhouette stepped out of the light. His features gradually became more visible the closer he approached.
         "Ah, Julia, there you are," Jin said, smiling with a certain amount of relief. "You missed dinner. I had the kitchen staff save something for your return - you are a vegetarian like me, aren't you? You're lucky you're with us; it's difficult to find meatless cuisine in general Tokyo. I've looked."
         "You'd better eat quickly and then go to sleep. We have another long day at school tomorrow. And I have to fight in the Iron Fist Tournament; if it's not too much of an imposition, I rather hope you might- Julia?"
         He waved his hand in front of my eyes, which did not track his fingers. I was still staring at the brilliant portal.
         "Julia? Are you all right?"
         Jin looked over his shoulder, at the hovering disc of energy. "Oh, that. It's... I, uh, thought you already knew about it?"
         "What is...?"
         Jin bit his lower lip for a second. "It's only that... well, what with my first fight in the Tournament tomorrow, I usually find it calming to... and, uh, I was a little worried about you, I know you told me not to be, but... I was just visiting my family, is all."
         I thought his family was dead. Except for his grandfather and stepfather, that is. But I couldn't imagine Heihachi Mishima sitting in a pool of light, and I knew Jin wasn't on 'visiting' terms with Lei Wulong.
         As if suspended by a preternatural force, my arm raised and pointed to the illuminated portal. My mouth opened, trying to ask the fascinated question one more time. I couldn't get any words out.
         Jin touched his fingertips together, nervously. "Would... w-would you like to meet them?"
         "My, uh, family. I'm sure they'd be quite pleased to, um, get to know you. If you'd like. U-unless you're too tired, in which case never mind, I'll just show you back to the kitchen and, um."
         I had to swallow a lump in my throat.
         Do you remember when Professor Shingo Yabuki questioned my identity as a Navajo Indian? Perhaps the query that hurt the most was when he'd asked whether my own tribe accepted me as a Navajo. The truth is that among the Navajos I have lived with, there is only one who unconditionally loves and accepts me. That is my grandmother. Catsclaw also accepts me without question, but he isn't a Navajo. He belongs to the Cherokee tribe.
         As for the rest of the Navajos... some have been kinder to my family than others, and a few have been very kind. My tribe is quite large, so of course many of them don't know me at all. Among those who do, though, I can't be certain of a single one who would completely trust me.
         No, not because I was adopted. Because my adoptive 'mother,' Michelle Chang, was a witch.
         To a Navajo, witches are macabre, deadly creatures. Evil portent, sickness, and life-threatening danger spring from the spirit-child of a witch. Especially if the spirit-child has a restless curiosity that compels her to disregard taboos, or peer into mysteries that any sane Navajo would avoid.
         And so, Shingo's verbal barbs had struck me deeply. So deeply that, looking back, I have to wonder if they were true. Because any Navajo who believed - who paid even the slightest heed to tribal wisdom - would never, ever even consider entering an unearthly portal to visit spirits of the dead.
         Ghosts are a source of mortal terror, to a Navajo. Even grown men are reluctant to wander alone in the dark, for fear of encountering a malevolent apparition. The spirit of a dead person, whether in the form of a human, a coyote, an owl, or a glowing spot of fire, will return only to menace the living. It doesn't matter how jovial or forgiving a person was when alive; encountering his shade will always have evil repercussions. If a Navajo sees a ghost, in his travels or his dreams, it is a sure sign that he or a relative of his will soon die. Unless the proper treatment ceremony is quickly and successfully performed, that is.
         This is why my grandmother had been so terrified, when she dreamed that Kazuya Mishima would murder me. That Kazuya had been dead for twenty years only made her nightmare a thousand times more ominous.
         But I'm not truly a traditional Navajo, am I? I'm not anywhere near as strictly cautious of ill omen. The mere fact that I was fearless of Jin said as much. After all, Jin was the Fatal Lightning, who could call an electrical thunderstorm to his fists. While a Navajo who truly believes, or even a Navajo who only loosely believes, is naturally leery of lightning. Trees struck by lightning are harbingers of misfortune, and should be avoided.
         I'll tell you something more. Maybe other Navajos should distrust me as a 'witch.' Not because I have any powers of sorcery - I don't - but because only a Navajo witch would have said, "Could... could I really go in there?" as if dazzled by wondrous, fantastic delight.
         "It would be my pleasure," Jin warmly agreed, leading me to the incandescent portal.
         "Um-" a last-ditch flash of self-preservation gripped me, an instant before I crossed the nether gateway. "You - you do promise that I can go back to the Earth Surface afterwards, don't you? Living as I am now?"
         Jin looked taken aback. "Uhh, sure."
         I didn't really think he intended to abandon me to ghosts. But if you're ever going to visit a realm of spirits, it's always best to make your guide pledge to your safe return.
         I walked into the light. There was no particular feeling on my skin, as I crossed the shining threshold; only resplendent brilliance in my eyes.
         "Oh, watch your step," Jin called, a fraction of a second too late. Failing to anticipate an abrupt drop in the floor beyond the portal, I sprawled flat on my face.
         "Ahh! Julia, I'm so sorry, I forgot all about that. I've never had a guest in here before," Jin apologized, following me through. He offered to heal any bruises I had, but I told him that I was all right. Behind us, the glowing portal folded in on itself and winked out.
         "Where are we?" I breathed, looking around.
         It was a spotless metal floor, composed of flat, hard steel squares with wide-topped rivets driven in neat rows along both sides of their borders. The floor stretched in a much greater square-shape; it was roughly the size of the antechamber. Beyond the floor, there was...
         Darkness surrounded the floor in all directions. For that matter, I couldn't tell how there was enough light to see anything at all. There were no electric lamps, burning candles, or anything like that. Rhombus-shaped sections of the floor about Jin and me had a minimal amount of illumination, as if muted spotlights were tracking us, yet the 'spotlights' shined from no apparent source.
         I moved close to the metal floor's edge. A gulf of featureless black stretched as far as my eyes could see. I even lay flat, and dipped my head over the rim. There was no downward-sloping gradient. I craned my neck further, all the way around the inch-thick edge.
         The entire metal patch of "floor" simply floated in the void. Underneath, the floor had the same, riveted design as on top; neither the top nor the bottom set of rivets fastened the hovering surface to anything
         "Careful!" Jin warned, and I wondered why; it wasn't as if I'd leaned far enough to fall off. Then I saw the blur of his moving hand freeze, with his arm dangling over the edge. My feathered headband was in his fingers. It had slipped off my brow while I pursued my curiosity.
         "Wouldn't want to lose this," he suggested, returning the headband.
         "Um, thanks." I put it back on, and tried to muzzle my embarrassment for being such a scatterbrain. "Jin-"
         "I'm not sure where we are. A pocket dimension of some kind, I think."
         "You come here, yet you don't know where it is?"
         "All I can tell you is that it isn't anywhere on Earth."
         "How do you know that?"
         Jin smiled.
         It was a rather pleasant smile. Come to think of it, his whole demeanor had relaxed considerably since he followed me in here. It was the antithesis of how he'd been when he was attending school.
         When the emotional press of twelve hundred hostile minds had battered him into a nervous wreck.
         "You can't sense anyone's thoughts in here, can you?" I inferred.
         "Not if they're outside. Unless I use divination sorcery to spy on them, but I've almost never had a justifiable reason to intrude on someone's privacy like that. I'm not very good at divination, anyway."
         Jin's nodded toward a great, rectangular mirror, about the same size as a wall from his high school classroom, across the floor from us. It would have sent Shingo into a frenzied panic, if he'd seen it; except that the mirror didn't reflect a normal image of Jin and me. Instead, it showed a bird's-eye view of the outside antechamber. I presumed that it was currently functioning as the extravagant, sorcerous equivalent of an apartment door peephole.
         Jin drew and exhaled a complacent breath, closing his eyes. "I'm grateful I found this haven. It's more peaceful than the deepest forest."
         A memory stirred in the back of my head. It was one of the old stories Catsclaw had once told me about the Great Invasion, and its foremost war criminal Kazuya Mishima.
         "This place was once Kazuya's 'inner sanctum,' wasn't it?" I mused out loud. "Where he commanded the army that almost eradicated all hope for the world."
         Jin's smile faded. "I've tried my best to cleanse and purify this place of its past crimes. I'm the keeper of this dimension now; I won't let it be used for evil again."
         I studied the great mirror with renewed interest. In the stories that Catsclaw had told me, Kazuya's inner sanctum was once encircled by numerous mirrors, all reflecting one another. Then again, the stories had also emphasized the savage final battle that took place between Lei Wulong and Kazuya Mishima. Their fight had been so fierce, Catsclaw said, that it reduced the surrounding reflective surfaces to a shatterstorm of broken glass. Perhaps this was the only mirror that had survived the titanic conflict. Or perhaps it was a new mirror.
         Another, insistently nagging question sprang to mind. "Does Heihachi know that you've inherited Kazuya's Power to travel here?"
         "Yes. I'm not certain Grandfather is happy about it - he never likes it when I use sorcery - but he agreed that this was the best place."
         "The best place for what?"
         Jin made a sweeping gesture with his right arm.
         "Hello, Mother. Father. This is Julia Chang. She's the one who saved my life, two days ago."
         I followed his line of sight to the main feature on the mostly empty floor.
         It was not excessively lavish. Nothing more than a plain set of wooden shelves, hosting an assortment of things. Freshly cut flowers. Burning incense, giving off a faint, smoky pine scent. A few minor knickknacks, such as small bowls of food or delicate bamboo carvings. There were also an assortment rectangular tablets, with names etched into them.
         And pictures.
         A variety of pictures.
         Two of the pictures especially stood out, because of their central location, and because they had somewhat more embellished frames. They were both photographs of people in their prime. One depicted a woman; the other, a man. They were angled to slightly face one another. I recognized the gentle, compassionate woman from Jin's memories.
         Jun Kazama. His mother.
         As for the man, his widow's peak and angular face resembled Jin's in almost every way. Almost, but not quite. The man in the photograph was a handful of years older. He kept his bangs sharply swept back, rather than letting them dangle in front of his jet black eyes. And there was a darkness in those austere eyes; even calm, they reflected hidden menace.
         Kazuya Mishima. Jin's father.
         Most of the remaining pictures showed other members of Jin's family. There were only four of them, although there were several additional names carved on those small tablets. One picture was of a kindly woman, and I'll get back to her shortly.
         The second was of a weary old man. I recognized him from my past research: Jinpachi Mishima, the original founder of the Mishima syndicate. Jin's great-grandfather.
         The third picture wasn't a photograph, but rather a shaded, shadowy pencil sketch of Lee Chaolan. Jin's uncle.
         The last picture was especially unusual. It was also a shadowy, hand-drawn sketch, but it wasn't of anyone in Jin's family. I remembered the young girl, partly because colored pencils had recreated the violet vibrancy of her flowing hair.
         Yukie. Hwoarang's murdered follower.
         Jin... I think he blamed himself for her death. He still does. Because his accidentally spilled blood had lured Toshin-Nina to Yukie's favorite hangout. So that Jin now honored Yukie to show his remorse, and appease her innocent soul.
         "This is...?" I started to say, indicating the shelves and pictures.
         "The shrine to my ancestors. I come here to pray, when I need guidance."
         Jin was looking at me out of the corner of his eye. As if he expected me to do something.
         This was all a little foreign to me. As a Navajo, I'm familiar with wanting to placate the dead, but not with wanting to visit them. However, I could extrapolate from Jin's behavior, and...
         I clasped my hands in front of my waist, even as Shingo had taught me, and made a deep, respectful bow.
         "It is an honor to be here," I said to the pictures, and I sincerely meant every word.
         The smile returned to Jin's face. "You... understand."
         Well, maybe I did, at that.
         The wheels in my mind were turning, though. Scarcely two minutes into this ethereal place - a place that Jin had made into sanctified ground - and I was already thinking of how I could best turn this to my advantage.
         "Jin, if you don't mind telling me..."
         "Are you sure your grandfather doesn't have any surveillance devices here? Any means of watching us, or listening to us?"
         "Grandfather wouldn't do something like that. I know he monitors the rest of the syndicate, but this is our family shrine."
         Oh, not this impenetrable wall of denial. Not again.
         "He's never been here, in any case," Jin added. "No one else has, since I discovered the gateway. Only you."
         "And you're the only one who can open the portal and let people in?"
         "As far as I know."
         "And you've never accidentally left the gate open, when you were away from the antechamber?"
         "No, of course not."
         "You're sure about that?"
         "Yes. Why?"
         "I want to talk to you about something, and I'd rather the Mishima syndicate didn't overhear us."
         "I don't think your ancestors would mind. If anything, I think they'd find it very important. Especially if - I mean, um, since they're watching over you."
         Jin raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Go on."
         "It's about your grandfather."
         "This is very important, Jin. And it's crucial that you listen to me, all the way through. I don't mind if you use your telepathy to casually scan me, while I'm in here. That way you'll know I'm telling the truth."
         "I don't need telepathy to know how earnest you feel, about this. Whatever it is."
         "Will you hear me out? Completely?"
         "If it's that important to you."
         "And will you promise not to let your grandfather know about anything that I say?"
         "I don't like the sound of that, but all right. You have my word."
         "Thank you."
         "This has something to do with where you were all night, doesn't it?"
         I nodded. "I was in the public library-"
         "Yes, you told me. You know, you could have just visited the syndicate library. Our collection is much better updated, I think."
         "Um, I'll consider it. That's not important right now, though. Read this."
         Reaching inside my pocket, I withdrew the folded library printout of a short Tokyo Sunrise newspaper article. It was dated from 1973, and had the title, 'Wife of Mishima Syndicate President Dies.'
         Jin scanned the article. "This is about my grandmother."
         "Yes. Kazumi Mishima. Kazuya's mother. Heihachi's wife."
         "Read it again. Closely."
         He did so. "Your point is...?"
         "Doesn't anything strike you as wrong?"
         "Such as?"
         "Is this what usually happens when someone disappears, and is announced to be dead? Everyone just accepts that she passed away peacefully, and that's the end of it?"
         "I don't understand."
         "What do you know of your paternal grandmother?"
         "Not a great deal. My father inherited his telepathy from her. And his sorcery." Jin gestured to the shrine photograph of the unfamiliar young woman. She had a loving smile on her face. She looked quietly beautiful, and in her mid-twenties.
         "That's magnified from a picture inside a locket my father used to own. It was the only image of her that I could find. After her death, Grandfather destroyed all syndicate surveillance tapes with any footage of her."
         "Did he."
         "I can't blame him. It must have been painful, to suddenly lose his wife at such a young age."
         "Does Heihachi ever speak of her? What do you feel from him when he does?"
         "I... I did ask about her once, when I was setting up the shrine. I shouldn't have overheard Grandfather's thoughts, but my psychic barriers were worn from a long day."
         "What did you pick up?"
         "I shouldn't really tell you..."
         "You have my word that it won't go outside this shrine, unless you say otherwise."
         "He was thinking, 'Gods curse me.'" Jin sighed. "Even after all these years, he still feels regret."
         "Really. Is that your interpretation."
         "I think that's why he never remarried. Losing my grandmother hurt him too much."
         Interesting theory. I had some remarkably different theories, myself.
         "Jin, do you know anything about my grandfather?"
         "Your grandfather?"
         "Yes. Bernard Chang. Michelle Chang's father. He used to work for the Mishima syndicate, around forty years ago."
         "Then I certainly wouldn't know much about him. It's difficult enough to keep track of who works for the syndicate now, let alone twenty years before I was born."
         "Do you know how he died?"
         Jin's eyes arched up and back, reflecting an internal sort-and-search process. "When my mother was telling me about the Great Invasion... I remember, she once mentioned that Michelle Chang used to be a friend of hers. Mother said that Michelle fought so ferociously because she had lost her family... oh, I can't remember what happened to her father. Kazuya - my father - kidnapped Michelle's mother, but she was eventually rescued, wasn't she? So it all worked out for the best."
         "Michelle died in the Great Invasion, Jin."
         "Oh." Jin looked down, abashedly. "I'm sorry. I forgot that part."
         "It's all right."
         "I don't understand where you're going with this, though. What do my grandmother and your grandfather have in common?"
         Time for the Moment of Truth.
         I steadied myself, looked Jin squarely in the eye, and said, "They were both murdered by Heihachi Mishima."
         Do I have to paint a picture for you, here?
         You know how emotional Jin is. How sensitive he is. And most of all, you know how much he trusted his grandfather. Jin dearly loved the old man, a love so strong it completely blinded him to Heihachi's corruption. So do I really have to tell you about the pain, the horror, the absolute disbelief that thoroughly permeated Jin's entire being?
         Well, I don't think I should. Not if whoever's following your record has been paying attention.
         "Julia-!" he gasped, in shock.         
         "You promised you'd hear me out, remember?"
         Slowly, the shock wore off. Chafing vexation replaced it, layer by layer; yet Jin held his rancorous feelings firmly in check. All he said was, "Yes. I promised."
         "Then listen to how my grandfather died.
         "The syndicate sent Bernard Chang to rob my grandmother. To steal the sacred medallion that she guarded with her life. But he fell in love with my grandmother, and married her, and couldn't bear to turn against her. She warned him that untold misery could befall the whole world, if the medallion's Power were to fall into Heihachi Mishima's evil hands. So my grandfather refused to give up the holy treasure, and tried to resign from the syndicate. Heihachi had him beaten to death for his treachery."
         "Who told you all this?"
         "My grandmother."
         "Did she witness Bernard Chang's beating?"
         "No, she found him after Heihachi's men were done with him. It took him three days to die."
         "I'm sorry about that, but then how do you know who really killed him? Or why?"
         "My grandmother was at his deathbed. He told her everything."
         "That's it?"
         "What do you mean?"
         "Bernard Chang probably had some grievance with the Mishima syndicate, if he was so eager to leave it. He could have wanted to spite Grandfather with his last breath. He may even have believed he was attacked on Grandfather's orders, but that doesn't make it true." Jin tilted his head, pensively. "Here's a question for you: how common are incidents of random violence on the, um, reservation where you live?"
         "You didn't research that in the library, did you? But I happen to know that violent crime is generally more frequent in America than it is here. Sometimes there isn't even a motive; people get drunk, high on drugs, or just plain deranged, and they take it out on innocent-"
         "What are you saying?"
         "I'm saying that you have just accused Grandfather of a very serious crime, with no evidence whatsoever. It doesn't make sense. If Grandfather really wanted to 'murder' everyone who retired early from the syndicate, he'd have to kill thousands, maybe even millions of-"
         "Wouldn't surprise me."
         "Now you're being ridiculous!" Jin snapped, hotly.
         "And you're not listening like you promised. I told you, Heihachi was especially angry with Bernard Chang because he wouldn't relinquish the sacred treasure. The treasure that Heihachi has since stolen from me."
         "Grandfather told me that he'd borrowed Heaven's Dagger from you, because we may need to use it against the Toshin. Hasn't he promised to return it to you, in due time?"
         "That's not the point! The point is that he wanted it, and my grandfather wouldn't give it to him. It's a clear motive for murder."
         "I want you to recognize the grief-stricken bias of your grandmother's story, and you won't. Is that a clear motive for me to murder you?"
         "I'm serious, Jin."
         "I should hope so. I would hate to think that you'd incriminate Grandfather as some kind of joke," he grumbled, shaking his head. "And your accusation that he murdered my grandmother makes even less sense. He loved her."
         "Did he? Does he even know what love is?"
         "Are you deliberately trying to bait me?"
         "Check the article. He didn't mourn her loss. This is a man who will isolate himself for months to train his fighting skills, but who wouldn't take one day off from work to grieve for his wife."
         "You-!" Jin's face contorted through a medley of emotions: outrage, exasperation, confused wondering, rationalized conclusion. "I assume you're talking like this because you're from another country, and you live differently. It's not the same here; you're not supposed to hold up your pain for everyone to see. You can't. Especially if you're running a whole syndicate like Grandfather was; he had to be strong. He had to show all his people that his loss wouldn't change things, that the syndicate would continue to prosper like always. No matter how much it hurt him on the inside."
         "Think, Jin. Think about what the article on Kazumi Mishima's death says."
         "If I tell you to enlighten me, then just how much am I going to regret it?" Jin cynically muttered.
         "It says she died of 'heart failure.' And it says she was only twenty-nine. That's awfully young for a heart attack, isn't it?"
         "It's not unheard of."
         "If she had a heart condition, then maybe. But in that case, why didn't Kazuya inherit a bad heart? Or you?"
         "Human genetics is not that simple, and you know it."
         "Look at her," I pressed, pointing to Kazumi's picture. "Look at how healthy she appears. Does she look like someone who had a problem with her heart?"
         "That picture is from a few years before her death; the original in the locket shows her holding my father as a baby. Not that it makes a difference. None of what you're saying means anything."
         "By itself? Maybe not. When you combine it with the other clues, though, it points to the truth."
         "What other 'clues' are there?"
         "You said it yourself: Heihachi destroyed all the syndicate surveillance tapes with his wife's image."
         "Including the image of her murder. If he killed her somewhere in the syndicate, and he probably did, then he wouldn't want any evidence of-"
         "Do you have any idea how far-flung your insane speculations are?"
         "It gets worse, Jin. Look at the dates. Kazumi Mishima disappears, and a week later, Heihachi shows up to say she died. There wasn't even a wake; all he says is that she was buried in a 'private ceremony,' whatever that really means-"
         "Are you that desperate to know!? Then I'll tell you what Grandfather told me. He laid her to rest in the heart of a live volcano. He took her there by private helicopter- oh, gods, why are you reacting like that?"
         "A live volcano?" I gasped, genuinely horrified. "Heihachi hated her too much to bury her in a normal cemetery? He had to cast her into the closest thing the Earth Surface has to the fires of Hell?"
         Um, well, maybe I was pushing my intensity a bit too far. I didn't want to needle Jin; that would only make it harder to convince him of his grandfather's evil. It's just that, for a moment, my own imagination possessed me. A vision flashed in my mind. I saw a younger, more temperamental Heihachi Mishima, carrying the limp body of his wife to the lip of the volcanic crater. Letting her fall from his arms. Watching her corpse strike an igneous shelf on the way down, and disappear into the lava. The fiendish smile on his face as his helicopter carried him away, while the volcano spit fire and molten rock in response to its sacrifice.
         I don't know if that's how it truly happened. Maybe it isn't. My own mind made it real, though. And given what I know of Heihachi, perhaps it isn't too inaccurate.
         "I promised I'd hear you out and I will," Jin continued, rigidly regulating his breathing. "But if I were hearing this from anyone other than you, I would be mortally insulted; do you understand me?"
         "Yes. Angering you is a risk I have to take, because more than anything else, you need to be warned."
         "This is beyond insanity."
         "Just keep listening. The worst part, the most damning evidence, isn't in what the article says. It's in what the article leaves out."
         "Which is?"
         "No time of death. No place of death. Nothing about Kazumi Mishima being taken to a hospital, or seen by a doctor, or even a coroner pronouncing her dead."
         "The syndicate has private doctors."
         "Okay. Which one of them diagnosed Kazumi Mishima's 'heart failure,' and why is his official pronouncement never directly mentioned?"
         "I'm not going to interrogate Grandfather over your groundless-"
         "I didn't think you would, and I wouldn't want you to. You'd only alert him to your suspicions, and that could be very dangerous."
         "I promised you that I'd hear you out, and keep what you're saying a secret. I'm not suffering to honor my word on the former just so I can break it over the latter."
         "Okay. Now, I should mention that the most detailed account I could find of Kazumi Mishima's death was this tiny little column. And with her body conveniently 'laid to rest' in a volcano, I imagine there isn't any autopsy report on her, is there?"
         "Grandfather is very traditional. He strongly disapproves of such invasive procedures on the dead."
         "Oh? He didn't have any problems with turning the bullet-ridden corpse of Detective Bryan Fury into a 'Cyborg Army prototype.'"
         "I told you we've suspended that project, and Julia, this is different. This is Grandfather's wife you're talking about."
         "Which is exactly why the police should have been looking at him."
         "Now what are you getting at?"
         "This is a very suspicious situation. A young wife dies, of alleged 'heart failure' confirmed only by her husband. The husband is careful to completely destroy her body, without going through any official channels. Five hundred years ago, private disposal of the dead might have been routine, but this took place in the twentieth century.
         "Any police detective knows that when someone dies under dubious circumstances, then the first person you should suspect is the spouse of the deceased. The police should have been looking at Heihachi. They should have been looking hard. At the very least, Heihachi should have been fined for improperly disposing of a body. Nothing like that happened, as far as I can discern. What does that tell you?"
         "I have a sick feeling that you're going to tell me."
         "It says that the police were manipulated. The only reason why they weren't suspicious, why they didn't even question Heihachi, would be if it was murder, and he deliberately exerted his influence on them!"
         Such was the triumphant conclusion to my damning assessment of Heihachi's crimes.
         Ha. That's another good one.
         Jin said, "Are you finished?"
         "Let's set aside how you are defiling the name of my grandfather, of the only family I have left, of a good man for whom I would give my life. Let's conveniently ignore how you have constructed a web of elaborate suppositions from nothing but specious hearsay and hollow speculation. And while we're at it, let's nicely overlook how you ambushed me with these horrible, monstrous accusations in my family shrine, before the memory of my ancestors!"
         Uh, okay. I kind of appreciated setting those things off to the side.
         "Don't you know what my telepathy senses about people? I know a murderer when I see one. I see the blood of their victims, staining them with shame. If Grandfather had truly murdered my grandmother, then I would know. I'd have seen the blood of his crime when he told me about her."
         That was a lot easier to address. "Not necessarily."
         "Heihachi Mishima isn't like your stepfather. You see blood on Lei Wulong's hands because he feels guilty about whatever he may have done to Kazuya Mishima. The reason you don't see blood on Heihachi is that he doesn't feel guilt for murdering any of his victims. He's a remorseless sociopath."
         Jin clawed at the natural spike of his static-strewn hair.
         His eyes screwed themselves tightly shut. His teeth ground together. A sharp, infuriated streak of indigo energy crackled where his fingertips dug into his scalp. Then he heaved a tremendous breath, and allowed his tension to drain.
         "I knew I shouldn't have left you alone with Lei Wulong. I knew it," Jin helplessly declared, tossing his arms in a loose shrug and gazing at the darkness above us.
         "Now what are you talking about?"
         "He planted this idea in you, didn't he? This need to discover Grandfather's 'evil,' and 'warn' me of it. Wulong is half driven mad from his desperate desire to 'save' me, and now he's pulled you into his warped view of the world."
         "I knew Heihachi was a monster long before I came to the syndicate."
         "Do you deny it, then? Do you deny that, based on what Wulong told you, you decided at once to rush to the library, in search of 'clues' to slander Grandfather's good name?"
         "No, not exactly. But Wulong didn't tell me to do any of this. He told me to go home to my grandmother."
         Jin nodded. "Reverse psychology."
         "He was sincere."
         "Reverse psychology doesn't work if you aren't. I know how deceitful that man is, Julia. For fifteen years, he raised me and kept my real father's murder a secret. I never suspected, even when Wulong let me into his mind."
         "You still don't know that Kazuya was murdered," I retorted, for lack of a better rebuttal.
         "And now you're taking Wulong's side. He's really turned your head around, hasn't he?"
         "No, I am not 'taking Wulong's side.' I'm not convinced that he murdered Kazuya, but I'm not ruling it out, either."
         "Is that so."
         "In fact," I continued, drawing myself up straighter, "I tried to draw Wulong out a little more after you went away, and he told me something. Something that feels like the true key to his dark secret."
         "Uh-huh." Jin sounded like a disillusioned babysitter, acknowledging the sloppy crayon drawing of a toddler eager to show off.
         "He told me that he once made a promise to your mother, during the Great Invasion. He promised her he'd do everything he could to see that Kazuya was taken alive."
         "I think part of the reason why he feels so ashamed - why he feels like he's lied to you and your mother all this time - is that he broke his promise. Or believes he did."
         "Yes," Jin agreed, derisively. "Murdering my real father in cold blood would tend to break a promise like that."
         "I don't understand you!" I insisted. "How can you be so forgiving of Heihachi Mishima, and so unforgiving of Lei Wulong?"
         Jin started to snap something, then stopped. As if he were actually considering the question.
         "Wulong is not completely evil," Jin admitted. "Or even mostly evil. He tried to be a good husband to my mother, and a good 'father' to me. He has done good things, just as Grandfather has done things he regrets."
         "So why...?"
         "It's personal. Wulong deserted my mother when the Toshin came for her. Maybe he couldn't have saved her, maybe he could only have gotten himself killed, maybe he made the smartest choice when he left her to die. But if he had loved her as much as she loved him, he would have been there, and he wasn't. And he murdered my real father, Julia. I know what my real father was, and what he did. Even though he wasn't responsible, even though a Devil controlled and used him, his atrocities were so horrible that they must have demanded a blood price. I understand that, and I can't forget it, but he... he was still my father. I've never had the chance to know him, because of what Wulong did."
         Jin had to pause, and settle himself. Continuing in a quieter tone, he added, "It would be different if my real father had been tried and executed by a court of law. It would be different even if Wulong had been the hangman. What Wulong did to my father wasn't lawful justice; it was cold-blooded murder. I can't forgive him for that. Maybe when Nature has finished taking revenge on him - when he finally dies of his cancer - maybe then I can consider him punished enough. I think... I think I can forgive him then. But I can't forgive him while he's still alive. No matter how much... how much reason he may have had..."
         Jin couldn't look at me anymore. He turned and walked away for a few steps, bringing him before the great mirror.
         "Are you all right?" I asked, after several moments.
         "It's nothing."
         "I'm not so sure." I moved closer to him.
         The great mirror had ceased to display a view of the outside antechamber. It had gone back to being a normal mirror, which was a subtle sign of Jin's distraction. I glimpsed Jin's face reflected in the glass. He had one hand covering his eyes, pressing against their lids.
         "There is something different about you," I reasoned. "About how you're acting. Before you probed Wulong's mind, all you could feel for him was hatred; now, you're relenting a little. Like there's been a change. Like you learned something, and it's giving you second thoughts."
         "He murdered my real father. I have no doubt of that."
         I didn't know what to say, for a while. When I did speak, it was without thinking.
         "I'm sorry it hurts so much," I murmured.
         "Are you."
         "I once saw my mother's death, through mind-to-mind contact."
         Jin removed his hand from his eyes, and looked at me. His expression gradually changed, cheeks and mouth relaxing their tense mistrust, eyebrows uncertainly coming together.
         "You're not a telepath..."
         "No. Neither is Catsclaw. He is a minor sorcerer, however, and I was experimenting as his reagent."
         "So that's what you meant," Jin realized, half to himself. "When you volunteered to be my reagent, and claimed that you knew the risks."
         "I saw Kazuya torture my mother. And I saw Lee Chaolan murder her."
         "Your mother," Jin repeated, quietly. "Michelle Chang."
         I nodded. "It put me in shock for weeks. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, reliving it."
         "I'm an idiot," Jin mumbled, shaking his head. "Bringing you here, prattling on about my father, even making you pay homage to his picture... I'm sorry, Julia."
         "You're not responsible for what your father did. Or what your uncle did, or what your grandfather did. You're only responsible for what you do."
         Jin looked away.
         "What I'm trying to say is... I'm sorry it hurts. I know it hurts. I wish I knew what stops the hurt. Sometimes it helps just to let time pass. Sometimes it helps to talk about it..."
         "You really want to know what I saw in Wulong's head, don't you," he inferred, dryly.
         "What am I saying, of course you do. It's how you are."
         "Nn-not... not if you don't..."
         "It's all right. It's the least I can do. You've been thoughtless in here, but at least your thoughtlessness was motivated by sincere personal conviction. My thoughtlessness was inexcusable; it came entirely from ignorance, when I truly should have known better."
         Jin brought his right hand near his chest. He closed his eyes in silent concentration, remembering. Slowly, he gestured to the great mirror.
         Our reflection swirled, shimmered, and disappeared. Crackling, illusory flames danced about the bottom and sides of the mirror. They burned without heat, boiling like solar flares, and parted before a black background.
         I saw Jun Kazama.
         Not the mother of Jin's memories, fast approaching middle age. This was a youthful Jun Kazama, in a thin, sleeveless white vest that revealed her slender figure. Jun Kazama, looking as she must have when she fell in love with Lei Wulong. She rested the first and second fingers of her right hand against her lower face, thoughtfully. A long, white barrette drew back most of her dark, chin-length hair, yet stray bangs drifted across her forehead.
         She was like Jin, that way.
         Jun blinked. Her image receded and moved to one side. A new image appeared.
         I saw Kazuya Mishima.
         Haughty and cruel, relentless and ruthless; wearing only ragged white drawstring pants, a black karate belt, and red fighting gloves. His arms were folded over his brutally scarred chest. Kazuya had his back to Jun. She looked away from him, with an expression of... worry? Concern? Apprehension?
         Kazuya's image zoomed closer. He turned his face, as if able to see me watching him. Inclining his head, he bared his teeth in a malignant, demonic smile. A sudden onrush of irrational fear almost made me take a step back.
         Indigo lightning flashed, forming a multifaceted star; it split the picture, radiating outward in uncountable points.
         I saw Kazuya again.
         No longer a menace. No longer a source of terror. Only another corpse, even as he had rendered so many victims. He was broken. Beaten. Utterly destroyed. He lay on his back, atop the same, riveted metal floor where I currently stood. Darkness and shattered mirror-fragments surrounded him. His exquisitely tailored, navy blue dress suit was torn and bloodstained. A red, trickling rivulet dribbled from the corner of his mouth. His face was frozen in the final moment of his death - spiteful and hating, but also oddly sad, in a lost, miserable sort of way. I realized I was seeing him as Lei Wulong had, at the very end.
         In Catsclaw's stories, Kazuya had committed suicide when Wulong defeated him in single combat, thus breaking his necromantic Power. Kazuya had struggled to hold on to all the souls he'd enslaved, knowing that to defy their emancipation would kill him. Now, I carefully studied Kazuya's remains for any evidence to belie what I was told - any sign to suggest that Wulong had coldly murdered him. I couldn't find anything. No ligature marks on the throat, or exaggeratedly crushed angle to the neck or the spine. However, Kazuya's dress suit covered almost his entire body; it could have hidden the hallmarks of a lethal beating. Possibly even a deliberate, execution-style beating, after his Power was already broken. He could have died of internal hemorrhaging, or fragmented ribs cutting into his pleural cavity. For that matter, he could have been stabbed in the back, and I wouldn't have seen.
         The mirror's view faded to shadows, then gradually reverted to a normal reflection of Jin and me.
         Jin swayed.
         "Are you okay?" I whispered, half-reaching to steady him. He held up a hand to stay me, and kept his balance.
         "Yes, yes. It's only... seeing my father like that..."
         "I know."
         "It's not just that it hurts. He... you know how much he looks like me... it's almost like seeing myself in the mirror. Like I'm seeing my own future."
         "Not if I can help it."
         "That was all Wulong would show you?"
         "Yes. When I tried to look further - when I tried to see how my father died - part of Wulong was blocking me."
         "But you felt something, didn't you? You felt something in addition to the vision, and it hurt even worse."
         Jin gazed into the ordinary mirror.
         "You said my father tortured your mother... Michelle Chang..."
         "Yes," I softly confirmed.
         My mouth parted. It took several seconds before I could gather what I needed to say the words. "A forced mind-probe."
         "He raped her mind," Jin rephrased, emotionlessly.
         "I... don't like that metaphor. It's not accurate."
         "Was that all?"
         "Did he do anything else to her?"
         ", not that I saw. She was too strong for him to break telepathically, so he told Lee Chaolan to murder her. Lee killed her with a single dagger blow to the heart."
         "At the height of the Great Invasion, my father captured both my mother and Lei Wulong. They were his prisoners. He held them in chains, in the same room. They were able to escape eventually, but..."
         Jin's voice receded to a faint echo of its former self. "In the stories my mother told me, about her role in the Great Invasion, she said... she said she fell unconscious for a time, when she was taken prisoner. She said Lee woke her up, and then, well, a lot of other things happened. She said Wulong was awake when she opened her eyes. And Wulong... Wulong never talked about what happened when he was held captive. He never talked about what happened to him, or what happened to my mother. I still don't know. It's just that... Hwoarang said something to me a few days ago. It hurt, sharper than being stabbed. He said that my mother was Kazuya's... I don't want to repeat it. And then I felt something in Wulong's mind. Part of it, I can't put into words at all. But I felt that he once hated my father, and then I saw my mother's face.
         "Ever... ever since I first learned I was Kazuya's son... since my mother told me... I assumed. I just assumed that - I don't know, that she had a secret love affair with him. That it broke her heart when he died, and she turned to Wulong in her grief... some comforting fairy tale like that..."
         "You're wondering whether you're the product of rape," I interpreted, quietly. "And whether Wulong allegedly murdered Kazuya in order to avenge your mother."
         "Whenever my mother said Kazuya's name... even when she told me he was my father... I couldn't feel any hatred in her. Not for him. She only felt sorrow. Sorrow for what he was, pity for what became of him, and, I don't know. I couldn't tell. Is that even possible? Is it possible for someone to suffer that kind of... crime... and survive it without hating the criminal?"
         "I'm sorry. That's not something I can answer."
         Jin closed his eyes and bowed his head.
         "But maybe I can help you answer your first question."
         Jin opened his eyes and looked at me.
         "How old are you?" I asked.
         "Just bear with me for a little while, please. I promise I'll explain."
         "All... all right."
         "How old are you? You're still in high school."
         "It's my senior year. I graduate this spring."
         "Have you been held back a year or two?"
         "Not exactly. You know the troubles I have getting along at school, though. I've always had them. My mother educated me mostly at home, and I learned a lot, but it was difficult to directly apply her teachings to the standardized placement tests. So I got assigned to only eighth grade, when I first came to live with Grandfather."
         "Okay. I'm just curious because my own high school didn't have any students who were twenty years old. So, I was wondering if you're not really twenty."
         "No, I'm not. I'm nineteen."
         Ah ha. This was getting interesting.
         "Are you sure you're only nineteen?"
         "Julia, I know my own age."
         "When were you born?"
         "May 20th, 1998."
         "Are you sure about that?"
         "Very sure."
         "Your parents told you when your birthday was, right? And you're absolutely positive they couldn't have been adjusting the truth, a little?"
         "Yes, Julia, I am absolutely positive," he verified, somewhat patronizingly.
         "And Jun Kazama wouldn't have been in stasis or cryogenic suspension for several months after the Great Invasion ended, would she?"
         "No, not at all. My mother worked with Sanctuary during that time, helping them renew the world's devastated ecosystem. There was only so much her sorcery could do, however. Many lands remained barren, until Grandfather used the resources of the Mishima syndicate to turn them green again. She always respected him for doing that."
         I nodded, resolutely. "In that case, I have the answer to your question."
         "You do know when Kazuya died, don't you? It was roughly two weeks before the Great Invasion ended."
         "Let me think... Mother said the Great Invasion ended in 1997."
         "February 23rd, 1997. February."
         Jin blinked, vacantly.
         "Uh, Jin. You do know it takes a woman only nine months to carry a baby, don't you?"
         "Of course I - oh."
         "Exactly. Kazuya died fifteen months before you were born. So he couldn't have assaulted Jun Kazama, at least not if you were the product. Probably not in any case. All the accounts I've read portray him as reclusive and paranoid, rarely leaving his inner sanctum for any reason after the Great Invasion began. Certainly not to have sexual relations, whether with captives or anyone else."
         "But... but..."
         "This leads to another question: how is it that you exist? I have an idea, but first I'd like to rule out other possibilities. Have you ever had any reason to believe that Jun Kazama might not be your biological mother?"
         "Have you-"
         "No!" Jin sharply insisted.
         "You're absolutely sure about that."
         "You need it spelled out, don't you?" he retorted, fractiously. "You always need everything spelled out."
         "If you don't mind."
         "Ever since I was a child, I noticed that I didn't resemble my so-called 'father' Wulong very much. I asked him and my mother if I had been adopted. They said no, and I felt that they were telling the truth. I know Wulong isn't my real father, so I know who my real mother has to be, or else I would have been adopted. Is that proof enough for you, or do you want to hear the story of my birth?"
         I did want to know, but I decided not to press Jin on it. He was already rather agitated.
         "And now you're thinking that you do want to know, but you're not going to press me on it because I'm already rather agitated."
         "You gave me permission to casually scan you, remember?"
         "Oh. I did, didn't I."
         "Shouldn't say it if you don't mean it," Jin admonished, rolling his eyes. "The story's not that graphic, anyway. Wulong tried to be Mother's childbirth coach; except that when the big moment came, he fainted dead away."
         "You're kidding."
         "No, it's true. I overheard Mother teasing him about it, once."
         "Lei Wulong Super Police, the courageous champion who can brave hails of gunfire without breaking a sweat, keeled over like an anemic debutante at your own-?"
         A half-smile flickered across Jin's face.
         It was the first time I'd seen him react with something other than negative emotion, in response to Wulong's name. The smile vanished almost as soon as it appeared, however.
         "Okay, so Jun Kazama is unquestionably your biological mother. Next possibility: could she have undergone artificial insemin-"
         "PLEASE - slow down-!" Jin blanched like a dead fish, and held both hands palm out to stop me. His eyebrows shot straight up, and startled embarrassment spilled over his features.
         "It's a fairly widespread medical procedure."
         Jin hid his face in both hands.
         "Would it be so horrible if it were true? All it would mean is that your parents wanted you so much, they got a little outside help to create you."
         "Uhh... I suppose, but..." Jin removed his hands and shook his head. "That can't be it, anyway."
         "You're sure?"
         "Yes. Mother didn't care for modern technology. She didn't hate it, but she lived in the Yakushima wilderness to escape it. She would have resorted to medical technology to treat an injury or sickness that her healing sorcery couldn't cure, but not for something like... like having children."
         "Not even if her husband were sterile?"
         "Lei Wulong. Is he sterile?"
         "That's not exactly something I've ever asked him," Jin said, a tiny note of hysteria creeping into his voice.
         "You are an only child, aren't you?"
         "Yes, but-"
         "If your mother was as averse to modern artifice as you say, then perhaps she was reluctant to use artificial birth control as well. That would very likely have engendered several more young Kazamas, unless one of your parents was-"
         "How can you talk about all this so - so-"
         Jin started to pace back and forth. "None of this is going outside this dimension, do you understand that? Not one word of this is getting outside this dimension. Ever."
         "I promise. On the honor of my family, I tell no one without your consent."
         "And, about your mother's beliefs regarding artificial birth control..."
         "I don't know, I really don't. She did teach me about it, and she stressed how important it is to always be strictly responsible, but... for herself personally, I think she believed in letting Nature take its course."
         "Which is why I don't think I'm - agh. What I'm saying is, Mother wouldn't have turned to technology to overcome Nature, even if Nature had decided that she and Wulong couldn't have children."
         "Yes, this all fits my theory."
         "What theory?"
         "I know a little bit about sorcery. Catsclaw taught me, because I was curious. I'm not a sorceress, but I do remember one thing about fertility spells: they tend to burn themselves out once they've achieved their goal. That's probably why you're an only child."
         Jin looked almost as disconcerted as when I'd mentioned artificial insemination. "A fertility spell?"
         "Sort of. The actual sorcery to make your existence possible must have been much more complicated, and more powerful, than any fertility magic Catsclaw knew about. Your parents presumably didn't tell you any of this because then you'd know Kazuya was your biological father, and that would make it harder to hide you from Heihachi Mishima."
         "But Mother wouldn't have used spells to defy Nature, any more than she would have used technology."
         "That ties into another clue to my theory. When Lei Wulong was talking to me, I didn't ask him anything deeply personal, but he did let something interesting slip. He mentioned that Kazuya once decided to 'play God' with his physical body, and that many of the alterations lasted after Kazuya's death."
         "I know about that. Wulong was made into a demon-" Jin broke off, as he belatedly started to put the pieces into place. "My real father used - fertility sorcery?"
         "On Lei Wulong. Making him into a carrier for Kazuya's genetic-"
         "WHY!?" Jin exclaimed, semi-frantically.
         I shrugged. "Kazuya was a megalomaniac."
         "We know that he took enough of an interest in Wulong to turn him into a demon. And if Wulong really were sterile to begin with, then Kazuya may have decided to 'cure' him by-"
         "I don't understand." Jin crumpled to one knee. "I don't understand any of this..."
         "There is one other possible reason."
         Crouching by Jin's left side, I rested my hand on his sleeve. Directly over where his jagged black brand marked the skin of his upper arm.
         "Maybe, deep down inside, Kazuya knew he was headed for destruction. Maybe - just maybe - he hoped that an uncorrupted piece of himself could continue, after he was gone. Even if it was only one chance in a thousand, maybe he hoped that he could plant that piece in Wulong, and it would survive. It would one day become a legacy... a legacy that could remember the good man Kazuya once was."
         Jin's jet black eyes sidled to mine. "Despite what he did to your mother... you think my father was...?"
         "I've studied Kazuya. I know he wasn't always a monster. Perhaps the Devil didn't completely control him. Perhaps there was just a little bit of good left inside him, and that's why Kazuya didn't simply murder Lei Wulong, when he had the chance."
         "Do you really believe that?"
         "I think it sounds pretty logical, actually."
         Jin rested his arm on his bent knee, and rested his face in his arm. "I need some... time to take all this in. And to pray. Pray very hard."
         "Don't stay up too late. You'll need your sleep for the Iron Fist Tournament, tomorrow. And, Jin..."
         "You're right. It was thoughtless of me to come in here accusing your grandfather, yet armed with so little proof."
         "It's not your fault. History has given your family reason enough to hate mine."
         "No, it was a mistake. A sloppy one, at that."
         "I forgive you, Julia. I'm sure my ancestors do, too. And so will Grandfather, once you truly know him."
         "You really do love the old man, don't you?"
         "With all my heart," Jin confirmed, emotion shading his voice.
         "Then next time, I will have proof."
         "What?" Jin looked up.
         "I'm going to find irrefutable evidence that your grandfather is not to be trusted, no matter how much you care for him. I'm going to show you that evidence. And then - I don't know for certain what we'll do next, but at least Heihachi won't be able to extinguish the one, good piece of Kazuya's legacy as easily as that."
         Jin's squinted at me. "You don't give up, do you? You won't stop digging. Not for anything."
         "My tribal name is 'Restless Gopher.'"
         "It fits."
         "Please don't be angry with me."
         "I don't see any point in being angry. The only way I can think of to deal with this - this vendetta you have against Grandfather - is to wait it out. You'll dig, and you'll dig, and you'll find nothing, and you'll still find nothing, and then Grandfather and I will save the world from the Toshin. Sooner or later, you'll have to admit that you were wrong."
         "I'm not so sure."
         "If I thought for one second that you intended to harm Grandfather, I wouldn't let you stay in the syndicate. I'd warn him, and have you sent back to America."
         "I don't want petty revenge. I want Heihachi brought to justice. And most of all, I want to make sure Heihachi doesn't murder you."
         "That's why I don't have to worry. It doesn't matter how much you dig. You... you may find that he used to treat my real father badly, but that was a long time ago, and I know Grandfather has changed. You won't find anything else to persecute him for, because it doesn't exist. He is a good and honorable man."
         "Goodnight, Jin."
         Jin raised his hand, and summoned the indigo-white gateway out of the chamber. I turned to leave through it.
         "Oh, before you go-" he said.
         "Uh, could you come to my Iron Fist match tomorrow? I've arranged a seat next to Xiaoyu for you, in the spectator's gallery."
         "I'll be there if I can. Unless my own match is concurrent."
         The indigo-white gateway abruptly dissolved.
         Jin said, "What?"
         "Hey, that's dangerous! What if I had been midway through that portal when you-?"
         "You're fighting in the Iron Fist?" Jin gasped, his slanted eyes growing wide with sudden anxiety.
         "Of course I am. I told Heihachi that I would, when I agreed to an alliance with the House Mishima. If a monster like him is going to be so strict about keeping his promises, then I have to be equally strict."
         "But-" Jin's mouth worked, mutely trying to form words. He finally managed to say, "You're not a fighter! You could be killed!"
         Great Spirit, not this AGAIN-!
         "Why is everybody telling me that?" I crossly demanded, putting my hands on my hips.
         "Oh, I don't know. Maybe because it's TRUE!?" Jin yelled, standing. His held his hands out and turned them palm up, fingers clawing as if to rip Truth itself from the air.
         "I'm not taking any more of this. Especially not from you. Just because I'm a woman-"
         "Your gender is a disadvantage in the Iron Fist," Jin asserted. "It means that you have less physical strength than someone like me, but that's not the real problem. You're not trained, Julia. I've been in close contact with your mind; you don't have the psyche of a professional martial artist. Just because you practice a little kempo every once in a while, it doesn't mean-"
         "I'm not listening to another word of this!"
         "No. You're not listening, are you?" Jin groaned. "I've discovered the one thing you can't be 'clinical' about."
         "Let me out of here, Jin."
         "Do you even know who you're supposed to fight tomorrow?"
         "Yes. Hwoarang."
         "Oh, gods, no. Julia, you know how dangerous he is! You've seen me fight him, and I just barely-"
         "I've come this far. I'm not running away now. Not from the Tournament, and not from Hwoarang - and exactly what is he doing in the syndicate?"
         "I saw him, briefly. He was acting as if someone had enslaved him again. I thought you released him from your control?"
         "Yes, I did. I hoped he'd come to the syndicate willingly, so that we could find a way to cure him, but instead he tried to assassinate Grandfather."
         "He tried to - Great Spirit, no!"
         "Grandfather's all right. I'm just grateful that-"
         "Don't you see what this means? Hwoarang is Heihachi's slave now! Fighting in the Iron Fist under Heihachi's orders!"
         "I know it sounds terrible, but what else is Grandfather to do? If Hwoarang is freed a second time, he could try to kill Grandfather again. Or you. Or me."
         I remembered Hwoarang's threats against me. "You're probably correct, but that doesn't make it right."
         "Grandfather has told me that he intends to have his best scientists study Hwoarang's curse. We'll find a way to break it, save him, and restore his humanity."
         "Are you sure that's what Heihachi plans to do?"
         "Have you talked to Hwoarang, since he fell under Heihachi's control?"
         "No, Hwoarang is avoiding me. It's just as well; his mind is so tortured that I can hardly function around him."
         "It'll work out for the best. You'll see. In the meantime, though, Hwoarang is far too deadly an enemy for someone like you to face in single combat. Julia, you must not- you're refusing to listen to me again, aren't you?"
         "Everyone keeps telling me, 'go home little girl, you don't have what it takes.' Everyone. I'm sick of it, and I'm through with it. I'm fighting in the Iron Fist tomorrow, and that's that."
         "And nothing that I can say will change your mind?"
         "Nothing at all."
         Jin heaved his greatest sigh yet, raised his hand, and reopened the shining gate. "I'll see you tomorrow, then."
         "See you tomorrow," I agreed, leaving the shrine.

         I should have guessed that wouldn't be the end of it.
         The last thing that I glimpsed on Jin's face was an unmistakable 'I-have-to-do-something-about-this' look. I simply assumed that it didn't matter. Heihachi controlled the Iron Fist Tournament, and he was the one who had originally wanted me to fight in it.
         Even so, Jin must have appealed directly to his grandfather. I don't know exactly what transpired between them, but-
         -oh, you have the surveillance tape?
         Can you play it for me? I have got to see this with my own eyes.

End of Chapter 16: Personal Business