written by Victar, e-mail
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Chapter 17: Tough Love

   "Be gentle with me; it's my first time."
         -Shermie, King of Fighters 1997 live television broadcast

VIDEO TRANSCRIPT: Mishima Syndicate Tokyo Headquarters
video surveillance cassette X0111887
Presidential Office
December 8, 2017
6:06 a.m.

The field of view shows Jin Kazama, urgently speaking with syndicate President and CEO Heihachi Mishima. Heihachi is at his desk. His elbows rest on its surface, and his fingers are laced together.

HEIHACHI MISHIMA: What you ask is impossible. You should not even be here; you should be preparing for your first match in the Iron Fist.

JIN KAZAMA: I can't make myself think about that, right now. There has to be a way-

M: It is the very day of Miss Chang's battle. If her participation in the Iron Fist troubled you so deeply, then why wait until now to come forward?

K: I - I didn't know at first. Julia told me about it just last night. I didn't know what to do. And then, when you had the list of today's matches delivered to me this morning, it said that I should come to you if there were any problems-

M: How should Miss Chang's upcoming battle qualify as a 'problem'? This is the Mishima syndicate, and I am King of the Iron Fist. I have little tolerance for weaklings. Miss Chang would have no place within my home, if her soul were not strong enough to help us against the Toshin.

K: Her soul is indomitably strong. It's her body I'm worried about.

M: Oh?

K: You've put her against Hwoarang - Hwoarang, of all people! You know how dangerous he is; you've fought him yourself!

M: Do not stray into tangential matters. And the pairing is according to the custom of the Iron Fist. You know as well as I that most other participants have long been given their matches, and some have already fought. As late entrants, it is only natural that Miss Chang and Hwoarang shall battle one another.

K: Grandfather, she could be killed!

M: A risk taken by all who enter the Iron Fist.

K: Then if - if you can't take Julia out of the Tournament, then can you at least command Hwoarang? Tell him not to use any attacks that could kill her, or cripple her? He has to obey your orders.

M: Such an instruction would violate the spirit of the Iron Fist.

K: But Grandfather-!

M: The Iron Fist is Strength. It is Truth. Its fighters champion our crusade. Blood, bone, and soul; they risk it all to survive. We do not tell any warrior how he must fight. We cannot. That is for him to decide, and him alone, else the true purpose of this Iron First is for naught. The Immortal Toshin, God of Fighting, will pay no heed to a Tournament bound by petty restrictions.

Jin takes a deep breath.

K: All right, Grandfather, then tell me this. What would you say are Julia's odds of surviving a fight with Hwoarang? I don't mean winning. I mean surviving.

Heihachi closes his eyes, and does not answer.

K: You're the one who talked her into this. Who made her promise to be in the Tournament, as part of her alliance with the House Mishima. Do you want her blood on your hands?

Heihachi's eyes snap open.

M: Careful.

K: I'm sorry, Grandfather, but it has to be said. It's-

M: Quiet.

Heihachi unclasps his fingers, and stands up from his desk. He paces in a circle about Jin.

M: What is your true motive for coming to me?

K: Grandfather?

M: So far, there have been a few others in the Iron Fist as unskilled as Miss Chang. Some of them have already suffered dearly for it. Why is this girl special to you?

K: I...

Heihachi stops pacing.

M: Are you in love with her?

Jin flushes, and looks away from Heihachi.

K: I've known her for only a couple days.

M: You are not answering my question.

K: Grandfather-

M: Nor do you need to. The look on your face is answer enough.

Heihachi returns to his desk.

M: If you want this girl, then you may have her.

Jin stiffens.

K: Wh-what?

M: As your bride. I give my blessing to your marriage.

K: Grandfather - what-?

M: May your souls love and comfort one another in eternal matrimony, once the Toshin's menace has been forever vanquished.

K: Grandfather!

M: Is she not good enough for you?

K: No, that's not-! I-! She-!

M: Calm yourself.

Jin takes a few seconds to comply.

K: Grandfather, even if I were... even if she were... even if her family...!

M: Well?

K: I... I don't think she's into arranged marriages. I really don't.

M: Then you shall have to win her heart.

K: But-!

M: Only heed this.

Heihachi leans forward and narrows his eyes, threateningly.

M: I have given Miss Chang my word that no harm will come to her, within the grounds of my home. Even if I had not given my word, I would feel the same about this, so listen and do not protest.

Jin nods.

M: You are not to seduce her.

Jin pales. His mouth drops open.

M: Under absolutely no circumstances are you to mate with Miss Chang, before the two of you are married. Do you understand this? You will not dishonor your future bride or the House Mishima with any such puerile behavior. I will not allow it. Do you hear me?

Jin hides his face in his hands.

K: Grandfather... what do you think I am...?

M: Do you hear me!?

Jin removes his hands from his face.

K: Y-yes, Grandfather. I promise.

M: Good.

K: But, Julia's still in the Iron Fist...

M: Yes.

K: Isn't there anything you can do?

Heihachi closes his eyes.

K: Anything at all...?

Heihachi reopens his eyes. Taking an ink brush and a small blank paper from his desk, he swiftly writes four sets of strokes, one set upon each corner. Heihachi draws a crisscross pair of lines to connect the strokes, and pushes the paper away. Jin picks it up.

K: This is...

M: The best I can offer.

K: ...perfect.

M: Oh?

Jin smiles, broadly.

M: I shall be the one to inform Hwoarang.

K: I'll make the rest of the arrangements at once. Thank you, Grandfather. Thank you, thank you so much!

Jin bows very deeply, several times. He leaves with a final bow, closing the office door.

Fifteen seconds pass.

M: You are welcome.

Heihachi's mouth curls in a tight-lipped smile.

EXCERPT: private journal of Heishiro Mitsurugi
December 8, 2017

         I still don't know what to do.
         I've got a date with Anna tonight - a date with a living goddess, I bet she could be a model if she weren't working for the Mishima syndicate, no one that heavenly has ever so much as talked to me before, what am I going to do?
         I don't even know what she really likes. Does she want to go to a movie? A fine restaurant? A play? A karaoke bar? She'd be a wonderful singer, she has such a lovely voice. We're supposed to meet at a pretty late time, too. 9:00 p.m. That kind of limits the number of places that'll still be open, but I assume she's a night person. I wish I knew Tokyo better; I've no idea where the most romantic hangouts are.
         What am I going to do?
         I tried to get some advice today, during the young master's match. It was early in the morning, like around 7:00 a.m. Anna was actually in her office before then, and I bolstered enough courage to ask if she wanted to come see the young master fight, but she declined.
         I don't think she likes him.
         It's impossible to blame her - he is kind of scary, you can take one look at him and know he's a Devil without being told, but - well, maybe there was something more. Something about the spectators' gallery. When I mentioned it, a chill settled on Anna; only for a second, and then she brushed it away with her warm, loving smile. It makes me wonder, though. I know she was in the Iron Fist Tournament a long time ago; maybe it has bad memories for her?
         Note to self: avoid discussing the Iron Fist with Anna. At least, not unless she wants to talk about it. I'm not even sure when her first match in the current Tournament is supposed to be, or if she's already fought it, or what.
         Anyway, I went to the young master's first match in the Iron Fist, and took a seat in the spectators' gallery. It's a pretty nice place, closed off from the actual arena. There's a big glass window that lets you see everything, though, and some kind of speaker-grill that lets you hear.
         Ling Xiaoyu was there, jubilant as ever. Her female Indian friend was there, lost in thought. And Taki was there. She was standing, not seated like the others, with her arms folded across her shapely chest. I hadn't expected Taki to be there. Maybe she wanted to study the young master's moves, or something?
         I don't know any of these women very well. Certainly not well enough to trust. But I'm away from home here, away from anyone else I could turn to for help. This date with Anna has to go well, I really need it to, this is the single greatest chance I've ever had with any - I can't screw this up, I just can't. What am I going to do? I don't know what I'm going to do.
         These relative strangers might be able to help me, though. They were women. Okay, maybe calling a little squirt like Xiaoyu a 'woman' is pushing it, and maybe Taki has already made up her mind that I'm a complete idiot, and maybe I didn't remember the Indian girl's name, but still, they were women. As women, they know what women like. They'd have a hundred, a thousand more times insight into Anna than I ever would. Right?
         Who else could I have talked to, anyway? Ishida? Kimura? They don't respect me. These women don't exactly respect me either, but at least they're not as likely to smack me just for asking a question.
         Well, Taki would be likely to smack me. But the other two wouldn't, I think.
         Taki's presence couldn't be helped, though. She was there, the other two women were there, and this was probably my best chance to get any advice at all. So, a few minutes before the young master's fight began, I screwed up my courage and asked, "What should I do for my date with Anna?"
         Xiaoyu said, "Huuuuh?"
         Taki said, "Don't be ridiculous."
         The Indian girl said, "Hm? Do I know you?"
         Maybe it was a pretty sudden broach of the topic, but I've never been an expert at being subtle.
         "Oh, I remember," acknowledged the Indian girl. "You're Mitsu, right? I saw you training with Xiaoyu, yesterday morning. She really kicked your-"
         "Mitsu-rugi!" I snapped, trying to hide my embarrassment. "Heishiro Mitsurugi."
         "The living legend," she appended, with a patronizing smile. "And by 'Anna,' do you mean Anna Williams? I heard she was working for the syndicate."
         "That's right."
         "Why would she go out with a bottom-level flunky like you?"
         "Wimps are easier to control," Taki interjected, dryly.
         "Mitsu! You didn't tell me you got a girlfriend!" Xiaoyu teased.
         "Um, well, she just asked me out. Our date's tonight, and I was wondering-"
         "Mitsu's got a girlfriend! Mitsu's got a girlfriend!"
         "-what should I do?"
         "Mitsu's got a girlfriend! Mitsu's got a girlfriend!" Xiaoyu dissolved into helpless giggles.
         "Why are you asking us?" inquired the Indian girl, looking at me with a raised eyebrow.
         "You're women, aren't you?"
         The Indian girl arched her other eyebrow.
         "Aren't you?"
         Her eyebrows abruptly flattened. "Xiaoyu didn't punish you enough, yesterday. You need one more good smack over the head."
         "I'll do it," Taki volunteered.
         "Hey!" I said. Almost got mad, but held it back; the last thing I need is to make more enemies in this syndicate of horrors. "Look, I just need some advice, Miss - Miss - um, I mean, young mistress. Please?"
         "You forgot my name, didn't you."
         "I'm not surprised, considering what Xiaoyu did to you moments before she mentioned it. She really made you into salad, didn't she?"
         "I'm Julia Chang. Go ahead and call me Julia, Mitsu honey." The girl presented a devilish sneer.
         "What have you got against me, anyway?"
         "You work for Heihachi Mishima."
         "It is an honor to serve Mishima-sama."
         She rolled her eyes and said, "I'll try not to hate you too much."
         Xiaoyu said, "I like you. You're fun! Wanna have another quick practice match, after Jin's fight?"
         "Can I watch?" Julia asked, with exaggerated pleasantness.
         "Anytime," Taki agreed.
         "HEY!" I yelled.
         "You can't always pick the time or place of your battles," my teacher maintained, sternly. "Many in the Iron Fist Tournament have already learned this truth; the sooner you get accustomed to it, the better."
         That was about when the young master walked into the arena. He was wearing his pinstriped high school uniform - why was he fighting in his high school uniform? I guess he seemed mostly confident, although there might have been a trace of unease in his jet black eyes. Those evil eyes briefly passed over us. Was he looking at our faces, or our very souls?
         He still scares me.
         He scared me so much that I lost my train of thought. However, he was far enough away that I could regain control over my fear. Especially when his opponent took the field; now there was someone so unusual, it makes you look twice.
         The young master's enemy was a big, foreign man, a black man, with his hair tied up in stiff, curly cords. Looked to be in his late twenties, judging by the smoothness of his skin. Light glinted off his rings, hooplike earrings, and even one small loop piercing his eyebrow. He had a loose, green-and-yellow outfit on, cutoff jersey and slacks or something. It had purple English letters across the chest, and the same letters in yellow down his left leg. What did they say, 'FAISCA'? I've never heard of an English word like that. Maybe it was the name of his clothing designer.
         He also moved weird.
         I mean, really weird. Arms circling around, back sort of hunched, legs always taking wide, rhythmical steps to either side. Like he was dancing to a drumbeat that only he could hear. It sounds silly, I know, but there was a powerful grace to it. Something so smooth, so flexible, so naturally fluid, it was dangerous. Flowing. As strong as it was deceptive. It made me glad that I wasn't in the Iron Fist, that the young master was fighting this man and not me.
         Something occurred to me, just then. Something I'd never thought to wonder about, before.
         Turning to Taki, I pointedly asked, "Why aren't you fighting in the Iron Fist?"
         She pretended as if she couldn't hear me.
         "I'm not good enough to enter it, but I know you are. Wouldn't you like to win it? Mishima-sama has promised to give the champion whatever he or she wants most for a victory prize."
         "Taki's a pacifist!" Xiaoyu piped up, unexpectedly.
         I said, "What?"
         Julia said, "What?"
         "It's true, it's true, Jin told me, I asked him why Taki's so mean and he said she isn't really mean, she's a-"
         "You are not a pacifist!" I accused, glaring at the masked teacher who has been beating me black and blue these past few days.
         "You're not a legend," she returned.
         The black man stretched out his arms one final time. At least, I think that's what he was doing, as he whipped them about in circles, and twisted his trunk back and forth. The young master turned toward us. He clenched his right fist a little below his chin, and readjusted his fingerless, right-hand fighting glove with a last-second tug.
         "You're not listening to me!" Xiaoyu peevishly insisted. "Taki's a special kind of limited pacifist; she doesn't wanna kill people, she doesn't like doing that. So when she agreed to work for the syndicate, she had it written into her contract, big and clear and no mistake and lawyers checked it. The syndicate can't ever, ever order her to kill someone else, or force her to do something where someone could get killed, and since a few people sometimes die by accident in the Iron Fist they can't make her fight in it, either. That's why she's not fighting in it; she doesn't wanna risk killing anyone."
         "Strictly speaking, that doesn't necessarily make one a 'pacifist,'" Julia observed, without looking at us. "More like a 'conscientious objector.'"
         I squinted at Taki, trying to see through her mask. "During the Ogre-woman's attack, when you held your sword to my ribs..."
         "It was not a bluff."
         "They can't order me to kill. I can do it just fine on my own, if I see the need."
         This was all so stunning that I completely missed the start of the young master's fight.
         "Oh, no." Julia recoiled, sympathetically. I looked just in time to see the black man hook his feet around the young master's neck, and drag him to the ground.
         "Anyway," I continued, in a quieter tone, "about my date with Anna-"
         "Hush," Julia dismissed, closely watching the fight.
         "Don't be so worried!" Xiaoyu encouraged. "I'm sure she'll like you. I like you!"
         Taki said, "You can charge any expenses against your forthcoming salary."
         I said, "Huh?"
         "Almost any business in Tokyo will accept your credit through your IdentiCard. However, the syndicate does level a ten percent monthly interest rate for the service."
         "That doesn't sound so bad."
         "You haven't seen how they collect overdue payments."
         "It doesn't matter. I need this date to go well. It has to go well. It has to."
         "Then you had better learn to relax. Too much performance anxiety can lead to unfortunate, flagging disappointment, in a man. Even a young man such as you."
         "Wh-what - what do you mean by-?"
         "All right!" Julia cheered, as the young master seized his opponent's wrist in both hands. I saw my boss turn around, twisting the snagged arm. He was back to back with the dancing man, and he used his own spine as a lever. The young master pulled the dancing man over his own shoulder, like hoisting a heavy knapsack, and slammed his enemy face-first on the ground.
         "Umm..." I said, trying to interpret the advice Taki had given me. It - it sounded as if she were warning me of-
         "Isn't Anna a Muslim?" Julia suddenly mused, looking at me through the corner of her eye.
         "A what?"
         "Believes that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah. Obligated to make a holy pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in her life. Prays five times a day. A Muslim."
         "Huh? She never said anything about that."
         "She must know that you don't share her religion," Julia speculated. "Either she's very open-minded, or she hopes you might convert."
         "You do know that Muslim men are supposed to be circumcised?" Taki added, nastily. "Perhaps Anna hopes to 'convert' you herself."
         I involuntarily crossed my legs. "Ummm..."
         "I'm sure you and Anna will work it all out between yourselves," Julia shrugged. "Just treat her with kindness and respect, and see how your relationship develops. Except-"
         Julia turned her head to watch the dancing man perform a dazzling set of flipping attacks. Tumbling in a handless cartwheel, he kicked with both legs; the young master brought his arms up to ward against the force of his enemy's heels. My boss tried to counterattack as the dancing man landed, but he misjudged his enemy's speed. The dancing man launched aloft again with a great turning kick, keeping both his legs solidly together; both his heels belted the young master firmly in the face, knocking him on his back. Landing, the dancing man put his hands on the earth and pushed off again, flipping through the air and driving both feet into his enemy's stomach. The young master made a strangled, gagging noise.
         Julia flinched from the sight. She partly sidled her eyes back to me. "Are you sure the syndicate will allow you to date Anna?"
         "Huh? Why wouldn't they?"
         "You both work in the same building. If you start a personal relationship, it could bring all sorts complications into your professional lives."
         "The syndicate does have a strict policy against fraternization," Taki confirmed. "However, it is not currently enforced. Not even by the Devil."
         "Jin is not a Devil!" Julia snapped.
         "Technically, he would have sufficient grounds to terminate any employees caught in an unprofessional liaison."
         "Jin believes in respecting people's private lives," Julia insisted.
         "Hey, look!" Xiaoyu exuberantly exclaimed. "Look, everybody! Look!"
         Julia looked.
         Taki looked.
         I looked.
         The young master crouched low, spinning as if in a clockwork dance of his own; spinning once, spinning twice, his left arm close to his chest and generating streaks of indigo lightning. His right arm wasn't part of the spin; it flopped, impeding his motion, but not by too much. His enemy started to move in a counter dance, placing his left hand palm-down on the ground, keeping his arms and back straight, swinging his stiff legs low, locked in a wide V at practically a right angle to his brace. He swept his flexed heels close to the earth, hoping to trip the young master-
         -but he wasn't fast enough, as elemental lightning met mere human flesh and blistered, burned, seared its mark in an electrifying burst of raw force. The young master shouted with the Power of his Devil ancestors, as he erupted in supremely powerful jumping uppercut, his left fist stabbing the sky. The explosion hurled away the dancing man in a vivid, indigo-white flash.
         The young master staggered, landing from his all-or-nothing attack. Darkening bruises marred his face. He coughed, spitting up drops of blood. Something had to be wrong with his right arm; it dangled loosely, fingers open and unresponsive. He shook and swayed, struggling to remain upright.
         But the dancing man did not get up at all.
         "Jin won!" Xiaoyu announced, joyously. "Look, everybody! Jin won! Jin won!" She enthusiastically tore out of the spectators' gallery. Julia briskly followed.
         "Aren't you going to congratulate him, too?" I asked Taki.
         She smacked me over the head.

         I thought Taki was mad at me.
         She's been mad at me ever since I decided to stand up to her, and it can't be helped. She was extra mad when Anna asked me out. Even though she gave me advice for my date, everything she said had a cold, 'I-don't-care-if-you-live-or-die' attitude. So, after we finished watching the young master's fight, I expected her to 'train' me with the beating of my life.
         That's not what happened.
         She said I could have the day off. Suggested that I rest up, even take an afternoon nap, or something. Later, she came up to me and said I was invited to Julia's first match in the Iron Fist.
         You know what?
         After some of the things that smart-mouthed Indian girl said to me, I think I do want to see her fight. Julia doesn't seem like a dummy, and she can talk mean, but there's something lacking in her. She's not constantly alert like Taki, or speedy like Xiaoyu, or brutally remorseless like that Ogre-woman. Unlike practically every other woman I've met since I started work here, Julia Chang does not intimidate me. Not even one little bit.
         I wonder if she's really a fighter at all.
         Yes, I'm definitely looking forward to seeing her match. And then I should have plenty of time afterward to meet Anna for our date.

         Okay. Right now, Taki has just brought me to where Julia's going to fight - gods, this place is weird - and the big event is going to start in another ten minutes. When it's over, I'm going to pick up some nice stuff, flowers and chocolates maybe, for my date with Anna. I don't know what the rest of the night will bring, but overall, today has been pretty good. Except that when Taki told me it was time to leave the syndicate, she gave me something.
         What she gave me... I almost wish I'd gotten a beating instead.
         She gave me a gun.
         Fully loaded, handheld automatic, um, .32 or .43 or some decimal I don't know, it's this sleek black thing with a holster and a smooth handle and a squeeze trigger and she held it out in her hands.
         I should be excited, right?
         Almost no one in Japan is allowed to carry a real gun. It's against the law. But Taki said it's legal for Mishima syndicate security personnel to carry guns; she said it perfectly straight and serious.
         I wonder why the law makes an exception specifically for the syndicate? Is it because Mishima-sama's Tekkenshu are so important in keeping peace around the world? Are we like an unofficial extension of the National Self-Defense Force, or something?
         It's so unbelievable. Guns are the ultimate forbidden fantasy weapon. There was a guy in my high school who loved to collect replicas, he thought they were so cool. I see guns on TV all the time, and you'd think I should be fascinated or thrilled to have one of my own, but that's not how I felt when I took it.
         I felt scared.
         Like I was holding my own death.
         The black thing in my hands might as well have been a writhing viper, about to sink its poisonous fangs in my wrist. I'm still floundering to understand why it makes me feel this way. How to explain this ill, miserable, disgusted, nauseous feeling in my gut. The feeling is still there right now, so strong I can't swallow a single bite of my ration stick, and I'm really hungry!
         Why is this damn thing bothering me so much? I know my dad hates guns too, but that doesn't completely explain it. Logically, a handgun is just a weapon, a tool.
         Except that it isn't, really.
         A gun is so much more. It's a special device made not only to kill people, but to kill them effortlessly. A sword is also made for killing people, but it doesn't always have to be used that way; its blade has a flat side, which can stun instead of murder. A gun is a tool the way cyanide is a tool.
         "Why do I have to carry this, anyway?" I blurted to Taki. "I don't see you with any gun!" And there's no way she could have hidden one, not in that shapely cloth bodysuit of hers.
         "You know the privileges of my contract with the syndicate. I expect you never bothered to read the fine print on your own contract, did you?"
         I hate it when she's right.
         Okay. Now that I have this weapon, am I supposed to be practicing with it?
         I'm beginning to wonder. Does Taki secretly despise guns too? If she's really a 'pacifist' or a 'conscientious objector,' then maybe she does. It would explain why she didn't bother to tell me anything about this weapon after she gave it to me. I'm not even completely sure how I should hold it.
         I wonder if I should try to find a firing range? It's funny, because Taki didn't tell me about any firing ranges, or anything. Does the syndicate have a private firing range? If so, where?
         Even if I did know of a place where I could go try out this gun, I don't want to.
         I really don't want to.
         To hell with it. To complete and absolute hell with it. I'm just not going to draw the damn thing, ever. Taki says I have to carry it, and I can't afford to make her mad by refusing - can I? No matter how much I hate this awful instant-death machine. No matter how much I instinctively want to throw it away and never see it again. So I'll take the next best choice, and never, ever use it. It stays in the holster strapped to my side, and never comes out, and that's that.
         I feel better already.

February 13, 2018
9:45 p.m.

         So that's the tape.
         The tape of Jin's heartfelt appeal to his grandfather.
         It's funny.
         longer chuckle
         This is really funny.
         I knew that Jin had confronted his grandfather, and probably tried to make him eject me from the Iron Fist. But I never guessed...
         Jin never guessed either, though. He loved the old man too much. Jin never once looked past the surface of what Heihachi told him; he never looked with his eyes, and he never looked with his telepathy. Even I, caught up in my shining crusade to rescue Jin from his murderous grandfather, never suspected what Heihachi was truly planning.
         For both of us.
         If I had, I just might have run like hell.

         Of course, I was equally slow to guess what 'arrangements' Jin had made for me, in the Iron Fist.
         A humble, polite syndicate servingwoman gave me a wake-up call, on the morning of December 8th. She had two messages for me. One listed very brief instructions for my first match in the Iron Fist Tournament, little more than a time and a place. The time was 7:00 p.m. The place was some Tokyo address. I wasn't sure whether it was within official syndicate territory, even if Heihachi unofficially owned Tokyo lock, stock, and barrel.
         There was also no mention of my opponent's name. That didn't matter, because I already knew I was going to fight Hwoarang, the immortal vampyre. He was a treacherous enemy, and he had threatened to murder me, but I was confident that I would triumph.
         Perhaps I could even grant him the death he longed for, afterward.
         The idea of killing as a mercy was extrinsic to me, and I did not relish the thought. However, I knew that Hwoarang had suffered badly from his undead curse. That suffering could only have increased, now that Heihachi had exploited the curse to enslave Hwoarang. As cruel and distasteful as the idea of killing in cold blood was, letting Hwoarang remain in such torture felt even worse. Jin would be horrified, but...
         ...well, before I could give Hwoarang mercy, I had to defeat him. Such were the terms of his curse; only those who could break him in single combat obtained the ability to control him, or to end his life. I had to prepare myself, for tonight's battle.
         As for this morning, I had another battle to attend.
         The servingwoman's second message informed me that the 'young master' - Jin - would take on his opponent in syndicate's main arena. Jin's challenger did have a name listed: Mr. Eddy Gordo, I believe. In any case, I followed the syndicate's halls according to an unconscious map in my head, and took a seat in a cozy little spectators' gallery.
         I studied Gordo carefully when he stepped into the arena, and he looked dangerous indeed. Despite the literal translation of his last name, he was not 'fat' in the slightest; he was a tall, muscular, powerful black man, with his hair tied back in dreadlocks. He towered nearly half a foot over Jin's head, and he moved like a true capoeira master.
         I suppose you want an exciting, blow-by-blow replay of the whole match?
         Sorry. Can't do it.
         All I remember of the actual fight are bits and pieces, because the other spectators kept distracting me, dammit. Xiaoyu and Taki - what was Taki doing there? - and especially Xiaoyu's new best friend, Mitsu the living legend.
         Excuse me. Mitsu-rugi.
         And he was a 'legend' the way I was a 'Navajo.' Which is to say, it depends on how generous your definitions are.
         Mitsurugi didn't seem to understand that, as a bottom-level Mishima syndicate flunky, it was in his job description not to speak unless spoken to. He kept pestering us for the whole match. Something about needing advice for his big date with Anna Williams. When I asked him why he was questioning us, all he said was, "You're women, aren't you? Aren't you?"
         What did he think we were? Hermaphrodites? Transvestites? Female impersonators?
         Exactly what was going through that black-suited idiot's head, anyway? I'd never met Anna Williams. Did he think that, just because she and I were both women, we had some magical, mutual insight into one another's deepest desires? Did he?
         I wanted to tune him out, but you know how my mind works. It locks on puzzles, starts processing them, and won't stop. I tried to pay minimal attention to Mitsurugi, and focus on Jin's fight, when of course my brain would allow me to do no such thing. Especially when I remembered that Anna was a Muslim, according to a book I'd read. Rise and Fall of the Devils, I think it was. It's a biography of Kazuya Mishima and Lee Chaolan, but the Williams sisters figure prominently in one chapter.
         So, I split my conscious awareness between an inane conversation, and Jin's pulse-pounding battle. As a result, I have only a hazy memory of either event.
         But it doesn't ultimately matter how many details I can remember of Jin's fight, does it? It doesn't matter whether Gordo performed a handstand helicopter kick, or whether Jin trapped his leg and pushed him to the ground. What matters is, Jin won. Xiaoyu ran out to congratulate him; I followed at a brisk walk. Mitsurugi and Taki stayed behind.
         I don't think either of them had any fondness for Jin. Their fault for judging by appearances, I suppose.
         In the end, Gordo was stretched out motionless on the floor. Jin wasn't in good shape either. Yes, he had won, but the victory had not come easily. He was a battered wreck, with bruises on his face and blood dripping from his mouth. He shuddered, and slipped to his knees, clutching his unresponsive right arm. His teeth clenched in a pained grimace.
         What's that?
         Oh. Jin's natural Power to heal himself works quickly, but not instantly, especially not when he has other demands on his body and mind. It may give him a limited edge in a fight, but not by that much. Even as Xiaoyu rushed to his side, he seemed too shaken, too disoriented to consciously perform healing sorcery.
         "Be like water," he whispered to himself. "Mind clear. Face expressionless. Soul focused on the fight..."
         "It's okay, Jin," I comforted, reaching him. "The battle's over. You won."
         Two others joined us. I didn't recognize them, but judging from their stethoscopes and bulging bags of equipment, they were private paramedics, employed by the Mishima syndicate. They brushed past Xiaoyu and me, trying to examine Jin-
         "No," he refused, coming out of his stupor and shaking his head. "I'm fine, I'm fine! See to my opponent, both of you." With his working arm, Jin pointed to the unconscious Gordo.
         One of them said, "But, young master-"
         "I'm giving you a direct order."
         "Yes, young master." They bowed, and hurried to comply.
         "Are you sure you're fine?" I asked Jin, cautiously.
         "I... will be..."
         "Your shoulder's dislocated, isn't it?" Xiaoyu piped up.
         "One of his kicks, I think... he has such powerful legs..."
         "No problem! We can fix that."
         "Hey, Julia! Grab his other arm, okay? Both hands, real strong, brace real strong, yeah, that's it."
         "Wh-what are you doing?" Jin stammered, but he lacked the strength to resist me. I gripped his left upper arm, roughly where his school uniform sleeve covered the overlapping pair of backward-Z shaped brands on his skin.
         "I mean, I know what you think you're doing," Jin hurriedly continued, "but I don't think you should-"
         "Julia, you distract him, okay?" Xiaoyu told me with a wink, grasping Jin's dislocated arm in her slender fingers.
         "Why on earth did you fight in your high school uniform?" I asked him, in part because of actual curiosity. "Now you've gotten it all messed up and bloody, and you don't have time to wash it before classes start."
         "I can change into an extra uniform. And the layers of clothing are helpful; they're a screen against telepathic contact whenever someone hits meAAARRK-!"
         Jin yelped a pitiable shriek, as Xiaoyu planted her dainty feet and put her back into pulling his right arm. Then she let him go, with a happy smile.
         I released Jin's other arm. He blinked, winced, and curled the fingers of his right hand a small amount.
         "Yes," he said, sounding rather surprised. "Thank you."
         "You're welcome!" Xiaoyu's smile became broader. "Seung Mina taught me all about first aid and stuff; she's a real doctor you know."
         Jin returned her smile, then looked at the two paramedics and Gordo. The paramedics were talking quietly and tersely among themselves. They fitted a bright, plastic neck brace on the insensate man, as preparation for loading him on a stretcher.
         "How is he?" Jin worriedly asked.
         "Alive," one of them said.
         "Is he going to be all right?"
         "We will send him to Tokyo Mishima General Hospital at once."
         "Wait." Jin staggered to his feet, reaching out with one hand. "I can-"
         "No you can't," I denied, stepping in front of him. "Not in your condition."
         "You are barely in any shape to heal yourself, let alone anyone else. What if something went wrong with your sorcery? Have you ever seen what happens when a healing spell goes bad? Have you?"
         "You're right," Jin sighed, looking down. Then he noticed that Gordo's paramedics were hesitating, and demanded, "Go on, take him to the hospital!"
         They put Gordo on the stretcher, and carried him away without another word.
         "Wait a minute," Jin abruptly said to me. "Have you ever seen what happens when a healing spell goes bad?"
         "No, but I imagine it would be pretty horrible. Besides, try to see it from Eddy Gordo's point of view. What could he find more humiliating than being stitched together by the enemy who just creamed him?"
         "I would hardly say I 'creamed' him."
         "You know what I mean."
         Xiaoyu chimed in, "You did really well, really really well! He looked so big and mean and scary; how'd you get him, how'd you get him?"
         Jin closed his eyes in thought.
         "He was so angry," Jin whispered. "Filled with pain, despair, and the need for revenge. And hatred, such hatred, especially when he saw my face. I don't know why. I've never met him before."
         "Maybe the Mishima syndicate murdered his family, too," I speculated.
         Jin's eyes snapped open. "Stop accusing Grandfather for no reason."
         "It could have been Kazuya. A lot of people died in the Great Invasion."
         "Oh. I... should have realized..."
         He shook his head, confusedly. "I don't understand. Grandfather taught me to use my hatred as a strength, to channel it, to call on Vengeance as a driving force. But hatred sabotaged my enemy. Even though it lent Power to his blows, it also blinded him, stripped away his caution. He left himself open too much. Like he didn't care what punishment his body took, as long as he could hurt me. How can the same emotion make someone so strong, and yet so vulnerable?"
         "Maybe the way your grandfather sees things is wrong," I suggested.
         Jin glanced at me, sharply.
         "Or maybe Grandfather's view just works better for him than it does for other people," he amended, in a neutral tone.
         I wondered if I'd ever get through to him.
         "In any case," Jin remarked, "thanks for coming. Both of you."
         "Now you gotta come to my first match!" Xiaoyu shouted, delightedly. "You gotta, you gotta, it's only fair. You gotta come to my first match!"
         "And mine," I added, smoothly.
         Jin said, "Of course."
         Xiaoyu giggled.
         "What?" I said, regarding her with suspicion. "I'm fighting in the Iron Fist, too. Against Hwoarang, and don't you dare try to talk me out of it!"
         "Who, me?" she chimed, acting all cute and precious. Jin avoided looking in our direction.
         "What's going on?" I demanded, crossly. "Jin, what did you do?"
         "You asked Heihachi to kick me out of the Tournament, didn't you? Didn't you?"
         Jin tried his best to look innocent. Which wasn't very innocent-looking at all. "Grandfather would never do such a thing, even if I appealed to him directly."
         "Did you make him command Hwoarang, then? Some order to go easy on me?" If Hwoarang did not fight me for all he was worth, then our match would not count as true single combat, and I couldn't free him from his curse after I won.
         "Grandfather would never do anything like that, either."
         "Then what are you acting so culpable about? What?"
         Jin deliberately studied the ceiling. "Maybe I was too quick to judge you."
         "I've never actually seen you in a pitched, full-length battle. So I'll be there at your first fight, and I'll be watching. It could be that you're a lot stronger than I thought. Maybe I'll have to apologize for what I said last night."
         "If you prove me wrong, that is."
         "I'm going to hold you to that."
         "Would you like me to invite Mitsurugi and Taki, too? I noticed you've made friends with them."
         Had I made friends with them? I didn't remember making friends with them.
         "If they want to come," I said, with a shrug. Then I glanced down at Xiaoyu and asked, "Will you be there, too?"
         "Oh, suuuure!" she agreed, a touch too eagerly.
         "You have your own match to prepare for today, remember?" Jin stressed, looking darkly at her.
         "I think I'll be at Julia's fight anyway!" Xiaoyu broke into giggles again.
         The little brat.
         Shingo Yabuki, Lei Wulong, Hwoarang, and Jin Kazama may have all derided my fighting skills. But at least they didn't laugh at me, dammit.
         It didn't matter. Let Xiaoyu come. Let everyone come. I'd show them all how strong I really was, and then they'd have to take me seriously.
         They would have to!
         "Wait a minute," I realized. In a sudden onset of distrust, I showed Jin the message I'd received that morning. "Is this the real place and time for my fight?"
         "Julia," he said, looking emotionally as well as physically wounded. "Do you really think I'd give you false information about-?"
         "Answer the question."
         "It's the right place and time. I promise."
         "I notice it's not within the Mishima syndicate headquarters. Is it on official syndicate territory?"
         "It's gonna be!" Xiaoyu chirped. "Heihachi's gonna buy it!"
         "We don't own it yet, though," Jin clarified. "Part of this has to do with Grandfather's promise that no harm would come to you, within the grounds of his home. He has to keep the letter of his word, even though you've volunteered to be in the Iron Fist."
         "Exactly how do I get to this place?"
         "I can take you there, after school."
         "Oh, no you don't. On second thought, I'll find it without your help."
         "I'm sure you wouldn't intentionally get us lost and make me forfeit the match. I just want to spare you the temptation."
         Xiaoyu offered, "I can take you! I know where it is!"
         "I'm not sure I trust your sense of direction either. No offense."
         "Okay. See you there!"
         "It's not too far from the school, anyway," Jin sighed.

         So, you tell me. Just how big a fool was I?
         Oh, shut up.
         It would have been nice if I could have taken the whole day to train, meditate, and ready myself for the coming battle. Unfortunately, being in the Iron Fist didn't absolve me of my responsibility to assist Professor Shingo Yabuki, any more than it absolved Jin or Xiaoyu of their responsibility to attend school. Jin's healing Power automatically treated his injuries. Physically, he looked pretty much recovered by lunchtime. Mentally, he was strained from blocking out everyone else's thoughts, but that was to be expected.
         Jin also received a written message around lunchtime, hand-delivered by an unobtrusive servant. When I asked him about it, he mentioned that it was a status report from the hospital. Eddy Gordo was in stable condition, and had recovered consciousness.
         Aside from that, the school day was pretty unremarkable. Especially since no one triggered another of Shingo's semi-psychotic episodes by showing him a mirror.
         I wondered what was at the root of Shingo's catoptrophobia - his irrational dread of mirrors.
         His life had been all but destroyed in the King of Fighters Tournament, twenty years ago. Could a mirror have been involved in the catastrophe that crippled his body and mind? I remembered his calm, collected assertion that mirrors were deadlier than knives, guns, or bombs. Mirrors, Shingo claimed, were entry portals for demons that could steal your soul.
         Patently ludicrous.
         Or was it?
         Kazuya Mishima, the Devil-possessed necromancer, had used enchanted mirrors to spy on his enemies, during the Great Invasion. He had also enslaved many strong souls, to fuel his strength for the unholy war. Then again, I'd never heard anything about Kazuya using a mirror as an 'entry portal,' or stealing anyone's soul through a mirror. In order to get his victims' souls, he'd had to attack them directly, or have them killed within the necromantic grid that he'd woven into the mortar of the Mishima syndicate.
         Furthermore, he had been able to spy on people whether they had other mirrors around or not. Destroying every mirror in one's path, as Shingo was inclined to do, would not have protected anyone from Devil Kazuya. I doubted it would give one overmuch insurance against any lesser demons or devils, either.
         Perhaps Shingo's excuses really were nothing more than delusion.
         Perhaps the true source of his fear was different.
         As I watched and worked with him, from morning to afternoon, I wondered if maybe he was more than just catoptrophobic. Perhaps he was also eisoptrophobic - especially afraid of looking in mirrors.
         Afraid of seeing his own face, worn by middle age, marked by the loss of his left eye and ear. Afraid of clearly viewing the wooden prosthetics that replaced his left arm and leg.
         Maybe Shingo was terrified of mirrors because they showed too much truth about who he was, what he was, and what had happened to him. Maybe, just maybe, they exposed the lie of the shadow world entrenched within his head. The world where he was wasn't crippled, merely recuperating from 'broken bones.' The world where he was only seventeen. The world where his family hadn't perished in violence; where he was patiently waiting for his next chance to compete in the King of Fighters Tournament. The world where God was his best friend.
         Excuse me. Where his best friend was a god.
         "Chang-san?" Shingo addressed, pleasantly. "Classes are over for the day. It's time to lock up and go home."
         What? Already?
         The classroom was completely empty, except for the two of us. I hadn't even seen Jin leave. It was 5:15 p.m., according to the clock. I had to get moving, if I was going to reach my Iron Fist arena with enough time left over to properly warm up.
         Where in Tokyo was this stupid address, anyway?
         "Ah?" Shingo inquired, looking curiously over my shoulder. "What's that?"
         "Oh, uh. Nothing." I hastily folded the paper in half.
         "It's the location of your first match in the Iron Fist, isn't it?"
         "Uhh... how did you know?"
         "Just a guess. You looked distracted today, like you had something heavy on your mind."
         Isn't that typical of me?
         Anyone else - especially anyone sane - would have spent the whole day either fretting about or psyching up for their big fight. But no, I spared scarcely a thought for any of that; instead, I'd spent the day wondering about Shingo's personal mysteries. It's just how my mind works. It naturally prioritizes riddles and secrets, whether I want it to or not.
         I said, "Don't try to talk me out of fighting again."
         "Oh, I wasn't trying to talk you out of the Iron Fist, yesterday. I was only trying to warn you. If you insist on entering such a deadly competition, especially with so little training to prepare you, then you really do need health insurance. I know a great company-"
         "Stop right there. Please."
         "As you wish." Shingo leaned on his claw cane and smiled, kindly. "But you have no idea where that address is, do you? Or else you'd already be on your way."
         "I'd be happy to take you there."
         "You know where it is?" I didn't quite figure him for someone who took frequent strolls around town.
         "Yes, yes. Although I'm surprised the syndicate would use it as an arena. They couldn't be trying to draw a crowd; the place is closed during winter."
         "Mm-hm. How do I know you really want to take me there, and not just trick me into missing the match?"
         "Ahh, well..." Shingo's smile became a little embarrassed, and he let go of his cane long enough to scratch the back of his head. "Actually, I was... it's a terrible imposition, I know, but I was wondering if I might be able to attend your fight?"
         I blinked.
         "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I know it's extremely rude to come out and ask when I wasn't invited. It's just that, well, watching Tournaments is my second favorite thing to being in a Tournament, and I can't do that until my casts come off. It would be a special honor to witness a match in the Iron Fist Tournament; you must know that this new Iron Fist is shrouded in great secrecy, not broadcast on TV like other-"
         "It's a deal. Show me where this place is, and you can have a front-row seat." Not that there would be more than one row, but hey.
         Shingo's face lit up. "Really?"
         "Uh, what if there are mirrors there? Or we run into any mirrors on the way?"
         "Don't worry, Chang-san. I'll protect you."
         That wasn't what I was worried about, but...
         On second thought, I may as well skip past the suspense-ridden account of My Travels with Shingo. We arrived without incident, and in plenty of time.
         Plenty of time for me to gape, that is.
         Great Spirit!
         "This is my fighting arena?" I gasped, frozen by the penultimate horror.
         "Unless your address is wrong," Shingo confirmed, with a shrug.
         It was demented.
         It was grotesque.
         It was... it was...
         Although it was closed, someone - the Mishima syndicate? - supplied electricity to its colorful lights, warding away the nighttime darkness. Rainbow brilliance showcased everything, in all its hideous glory. The fast-food stands, such as the one with the proud sign reading 'Italian Tomato.' The video arcade that boldly featured 'Galaxian' as its spotlighted title. The shuttered gaming booths, including one that called itself 'Wonder Eggs 2' in bright, white-and-pink neon. The sideshow stalls, like the one with the green, insect-winged prop dragon perched on its roof.
         And let's not forget the centerpiece, shall we? Let's not forget the massive merry-go-round, elevated atop a gigantic, circular pedestal of wide, shallow steps. Yes, it was a gleaming, grandiose merry-go-round, complete with lovely golden horsies on its poles.
         "Somebody shoot me," I murmured.
         "There, there," Shingo consoled. "You can't always pick the time or place of your battles."
         I couldn't let it get to me. I couldn't. Have to be strong. Have to prove to everyone that I was strong. And it would be extremely embarrassing if I lost this fight over a pulled muscle, so I had to stretch out properly. There were about forty-five minutes left before the big moment; Shingo probably could have gotten me there sooner, if he hadn't been slowed by his limp. Not to mention his tendency to furtively detour through shadows whenever we came within fifty feet of a reflective surface - but I told you I'd skip that part, didn't I?
         It was a good thing this carnival didn't have a funhouse full of mirrors. I'd rather not speculate about what that could have done to him.
         The others started arriving about fifteen or twenty minutes before the appointed time. Jin was there first. I remember that he was surprised to see Shingo - no, it was more than surprise. For a couple seconds, Jin looked honestly perturbed. A minuscule electric crackle darted across his static-spike hair. He quickly settled down, though, and smiled at me. There was a pair of other men with him; they carried stethoscopes and plain black bags. More syndicate paramedics, I presumed.
         Hmph. Hwoarang's immortality meant that he could regenerate from almost anything. Therefore, these paramedics had to be for my benefit. I could view this as a reasonable precaution, or as a personal vote of no-confidence. Especially since Jin could use his own sorcery to heal me of most possible injuries.
         Oh, whatever. I decided to consider it a 'reasonable precaution,' and leave it at that.
         Mitsurugi and Taki showed up within another five minutes.
         Taki watched me like a lazy cat. One who sees a plump, tender baby bird flutter from its nest. Whose tail involuntarily twitches in response to the live prey. Yet who, in her well-fed feline indolence, is too lethargic to actually nail the little squawker.
         As for the clearly flustered Mitsu, well, he nearly tripped over his own feet. Twice. I assumed that his big date with Anna was after my fight, and that the pressure was eating at his nerves. Sitting on the merry-go-round steps, a significant distance away from Jin and Taki, he took a pen and scribbled in a small black book of some kind. Not a pocket notebook, such as Shingo liked to carry; this was a deluxe, leather-bound volume.
         What was he trying to do, write the Great Japanese Novel?
         You don't say. He was rattled because Taki had just given him a gun? I didn't notice a weapon on him, but then, I wasn't looking for any. It must have been tucked under the jacket of his black business suit, or syndicate security uniform, or whatever it's called.
         As the moment of my battle drew nearer, I kept an eye out for Hwoarang, but didn't see him. That was strange. He'd be here, though; he had to. Heihachi had ordered him to fight in the Iron Fist, and Hwoarang could never disobey his master's orders.
         Come to think of it, wasn't Xiaoyu also missing?
         This ridiculously hokey amusement park would be like her dream come true. Didn't she say she was going to come? Of course, she did have her own Iron Fist match tonight. Maybe she couldn't make it. Maybe her own match was at...
         "Hiiiiii!" Xiaoyu greeted, as buoyantly cheerful as ever.
         Great Spirit.
         You do remember her godawful Wu Shu outfit, don't you? The one that's even more freakishly bizarre than her pinstriped school uniform? Hideously bright orange jumpsuit, matching puffy bracelets around the wrists, curly white flame sigil on the back? Not to mention the humongous, floppy yellow bow tied around her waist, like she's some kind of giftwrapped love slave?
         If absurdity could kill, I'd have dropped dead.
         Then again, perhaps that was the idea. Her aberrant fighting costume had its uses; its sheer glare could blind an enemy, while its abominable ugliness would paralyze him in his tracks. I pitied the poor fool who had to...
         Who had to...
         Click, click, wham! It all made sense. The look on Jin's face, Xiaoyu's sly laughter, this moronic choice of an arena, Hwoarang's unexpected absence, everything came together at the same time. And it only took me the whole stupid day to figure it out.
         "You?" I said, pointing to Xiaoyu in numb shock. "I'm fighting you? The miniature pixie girl!?"
         She giggled again. There should be laws against that giggle.
         "I was supposed to fight Hwoarang!" I exclaimed, trying to sound righteous. It came out more like a petulant whine.
         "I was supposed to fight Gun Jack!" she blithely answered, seeing my pitch and raising me an octave. "He's this big mean robot with lots of metal parts colored wires and glowing red eyes he's left over from the twentieth century some remade Cold War weapon thing and now he has guns-that-don't-work in his both arms and he's THIS TALL-"
         She jumped, kicking up her heels, and raising her delicate hand to a height well above seven feet.
         "-and I know I shoulda told you but Jin asked me not to he asked me real nice and he did get me a Panda you know he did!"
         "JIN!" I screamed, wrathfully. "You did this, didn't you? Didn't you!? YOU SWITCHED OUR MATCHES!"
         Jin winced, and held his hand against his temple. It had only been a couple hours since his school let out, and he had to be psychically fatigued from a long day of shielding himself from hostile thoughts. My emotional fury must have been particularly hard on him.
         Except that, someone else cleared his throat. Someone who met my angry glower with calm, steady patience.
         "Wait, Chang-san," Shingo advised.
         "After you prove yourself against Ling-san, then I'm sure you'll have plenty of opportunity to battle stronger warriors. It doesn't matter who you're up against right now; we'll all be rooting for you. Won't we, everyone?"
         "Huh?" Mitsurugi mumbled, looking up from his black book.
         Taki's eyes crinkled in that nasty, hidden smile of hers.
         The paramedics were like statues.
         Xiaoyu cantankerously squeaked, "Hey! Isn't anyone gonna root for me? Anyone?"
         Jin turned his head away, and pressed his other hand against his temple.
         That was when I realized what I had done. I'd given Jin the psychic equivalent of a slap in the face, and that was wrong of me. It is not right to use violence, physical or psychological, outside of self-defense or honorable combat. Catsclaw had taught me this, and it was something I believed in my heart. No matter how much I resented Jin's offensive, condescending interference, I should have known better than to lash out like a spoiled child. For one brief, thoughtless lapse, I had acted more immature than Xiaoyu.
         "Sorry," I said to Jin, under my breath. I more or less meant it, too.
         "Apology accepted," he muttered, taking his hands away from his forehead. Then, for the second time that night, he gave Shingo an odd look.
         A very odd look.
         Shingo didn't notice the miffed confusion that drew Jin's bushy eyebrows in a perplexed V-shape, but I did. It was an unspoken question. Perhaps the most accurate interpretation would be, 'Why does she listen to you? You're a total nutcase and she knows it.'
         Nutcase or not, though, Shingo had accurately summarized the solution to my distress. I could fight Hwoarang later. There would be nothing to stop me, once I'd soundly won this match. It didn't matter whether I faced Hwoarang in the Iron Fist; I could challenge him to single combat anytime. His curse would compel him to meet me in battle, and then I could set him free. Yes, that was exactly what I planned to do, once I finished kicking this hyperactive little girl's-
         "Don't worry, Julia," Xiaoyu reassured. "It'll be okay, I won't hurt you too much. I won't - I won't make a mistake like I made on Heihachi's boat, I won't I won't I won't. Not ever again."
         "I'm not going to hold back against you at all," I warned her.
         "I know, I know. Jin said you wouldn't. That's okay; I can still handle you, easy. You're not even a real fighter, I don't need Jin to tell me that."
         That does it. This little freak of Nature is toast.
         Forcing myself to be respectful - yeah, right - I put my hands together and bowed to her. She did one more happy, heel-kicking jump, and reciprocated my bow, probably with ten times the sincerity. She never took her eyes off me, though.
         "Both of you, remember, there are no combat restrictions," Jin counseled. "On my signal, you fight until one of you is unconscious, or voluntarily surrenders. Are you ready?"
         I'm ready, you tent-stake-haired, woolly-caterpillar-browed, Zorro-sign-marked, glorified lightning rod.
         "Ready!" Xiaoyu laughed.
         "Then... FIGHT!"
         The quicker I finish her off, the better. Contrary to what I'd said a moment ago, I knew I'd have to hold back at least a small amount. Jin would feel terrible if I accidentally killed this perky little firecracker, and I'd probably feel bad too. Probably. However, there was nothing to stop me from merely pounding the living daylights out of her, secure in the knowledge that Jin's sorcery would swiftly patch her back together.
         My mind made up, I launched into one of the strongest direct attacks of my mother's Art: the lunging Twin Arrow. Rushing forward, I bent at the waist, extending my fists in a dual blow to Xiaoyu's solar plexus.
         From her point of view, it must have been as if I were moving in slow motion.
         That's only a guess, because from my point of view it was as if someone had just zapped her with a fast-forward button. Twice.
         I didn't see it; I felt it. The one-two slap of her pixie hands in my face, whack-whack. Looking back at the moment, perhaps I did catch a reeling view of her poised on one leg like a tiny flamingo, one knee raised and slightly bent, a split-second after her right hand smacked my cheek-
         -no, I am not going to let her do this! Bringing up my arms, I deflected her third, bird-beak slap. She twirled like a falling helicopter seed, spinning her extended arms and bending her legs so much she was almost on one knee, sending her left hand in a chop to my midriff. I caught it, but Great Spirit, the centripetal force! It was stunning to imagine that such strength could possibly come from such a mousy frame.
         No, no, I can't afford to be amazed; I have an opportunity now. The pixie girl's strike had left her with her back turned to me. I reached to grapple her shoulders-
         -and she kicked up her left heel, just like I'd seen her do a dozen times before. Only now, it wasn't a joyous jumping jack. Although there was an exuberant, fun-loving light in her eyes as she peered over her shoulder, hopping on one leg, while the other one caught me square in the shin. It stung more than it actually hurt, but worst of all, it made me stumble, and by the time I righted myself she was nowhere to be seen-
         -because I was looking ahead, not down, at the bright orange pixie menace to society. She was squatting, no, lower than squatting, she was on her hands and swinging her legs in a horizontal circle barely an inch above the ground, scuffing my ankle-
         The second circle-kick was worse; it started to make me crumple even as the pixie girl instantly sprang to her feet, sweeping her right foot down to up and high above her head in skyscraper-tall kick. It beat soundly against my chest, pushing me back, and I had a freeze-framed picture of her, left arm elegantly posed over her head, right arm in an equal yet opposite pose across her waist. Then the little flower stormed at me with a terrific lunge of her own, instantly snapping into a wide-legged stance with her left side toward me. Her right arm gracefully angled over her head just as left arm shot out in a palm strike, hard enough to shove me off my feet.
         I couldn't even remember how to fall right, and cracked my head on the carnival pavement. As I painfully moved to get up, I saw her put one hand on her hip, smile, and wave at me.
         The little gypsy moth was waving at me!
         Time to get serious.
         Ignore the aggravated wheeze in my breath. Ignore the lingering twinge in my chest, the unpleasant almost-twisted feel in my ankle, and most of all ignore the throbbing, dizzy way the world was tilting on its axis. Concentrate on taking this ruby-throated hummingbird down. Great Spirit I hate her smile, but as long as she's just waving she can't defend against me; I can go for her hip and nab her miniature willow branch of a left wrist-
         Got her!
         "HAIII-YAH!" I yelled, swinging my other fist to bash her face. It should have worked, except-
         -except she twisted out of my grip the instant I made it, stepping back and turning the hard edge of her radius bone against the weak spot of my grasp, between my thumb and my forefinger. And so she jerked her trapped wrist free with a single tug, in plenty of time for my sluggish axe strike to whiff against empty air.
         Where did she go again, anyway?
         Aha, there she was! Trying to confuse me with a quick cartwheel past my side, into my blind spot; well, I'd show her. I could match her dodge and beat her with her own trick. Turning in a flat-footed pirouette, I brought my arms close to my chest to accelerate my spinning sidestep, and kicked out my right leg in a high strike to her chin.
         I missed her by about, oh, one hundred and eighty degrees.
         "Hai!" piped the fairy-sprite, behind me.
         She had my leg.
         The deceitful little midget had my right leg in both hands!
         I looked over my shoulder, but by then it was far too late. The diminutive brownie screeched like fingernails on a chalkboard, as she summoned all the strength in her lilliputian body. She cranked my leg like the handle of a jack-in-the-box, wrenching it fully around, over her head, and the rest of my sinews had no choice but to follow, flinging and twirling me in midair.
         I still couldn't fall right. Hit that pavement twice as hard as before, and now I was honestly beginning to hurt. Something in my right leg had been seriously pulled; muscle or tendon, I don't know. My head was throbbing. Part of me truly did not want to get up.
         Do you know what I saw, as I shakily rolled to my knees? I saw a swaying, double-vision glimpse of the people watching me from the merry-go-round steps. Shingo, intently jotting down details into one of his pocket notebooks. Taki, with that carnivorous gleam in her almond-brown eyes. Mitsurugi, with a smile twice as broad as Xiaoyu's spreading across his face... oh, yeah. I had teased him pretty mercilessly about his own training against the pint-sized fruitbasket, hadn't I? Just that morning, no less. No wonder he was enjoying this so much. Poetic justice, you could say.
         And Jin...
         I wished he'd gloat. Or act smug and superior. Or have an obvious 'I-told-you-so' expression on his face. What I saw was worse. Infinitely worse.
         He looked worried.
         Worried for me.
         As if he very badly wanted me to give up. He'd said I could end the fight by surrendering...
         No. No! Not to that - that spray-painted cockroach! Not in front of EVERYONE!
         Xiaoyu was somewhere near me, I could feel it, but where? There was a whisper of sound, flat-soled Chinese shoes on a stray piece of gravel, I heard it off to my right and yelled "AAAAH!" at the noise.
         It worked. It actually worked; startling her for an instant. Making her break off whatever she was planning. Now, if I could only...
         If I could only...
         Dammit, my head hurts... where was that fledgling robin, again?
         I saw her, as I tried to wobble to my feet. Saw her and froze.
         She was in the strangest stance - was it really something from Wu Shu? I wasn't sure, I could only stare as she raised her arms, palms flexed, framing my face in her line of sight. She took slow, steady steps, following the arc of a circle around me. Fixing me with those cocoa brown eyes, draining my will to focus with her hypnotic movements. I hesitated, until she suddenly dipped in a low coil. She balanced practically on the edges of her feet, yet with her knees fully bent and almost touching the ground. Starry carnival lights sparkled on her shiny outfit, as she wrapped her body and arms like a tightly wound spring.
         No, no! I'm not falling for this trap, I'm not!
         Breaking free of her mesmerizing spell, I concentrated everything I had left into a rising punch. It wasn't the same as Jin's jumping lightning uppercut, but it still channeled my strength from feet to upward-thrusting fist into a single, savage hit.
         Xiaoyu's coil sprang into devastation.
         I didn't see or feel what happened next. It was more like hearing the rumble of thunder, as if from very far away; stretching out in my hogan, and listening to the soothing hiss of rain ease me to sleep.
         When I opened my eyes, Jin was holding me.
         The syndicate paramedics were also nearby. One of them had a chilly stethoscope on my skin, while Jin supported my upper body against his own chest and knees. Jin's hand brushed against my temple; I dimly felt a gentle tingle, as a streak of vibrant indigo made the last of the pain go away.
         The pain on the outside, that is.
         From somewhere beyond my view, I heard Xiaoyu whimper, "Is she gonna be okay? Is she?"
         "She's waking up," Jin quietly answered.
         One of the paramedics said, "Pulse steady. Respiration normal."
         "Whaaaat..." I slurred.
         "Back off. Give her space," Jin said to the paramedics, and they immediately complied.
         "You've been out for the last few minutes. Don't worry, you're going to be fine; just rest for a little while."
         "Nnnngh..." I pushed him away. Or rather, he helped me settle on my own knees, once I made it clear I wanted some distance; in the shape I was in, I couldn't have pushed away a housefly.
         "So, who do I get to fight for my next match? Gun Jack or Hwoarang?" Xiaoyu pealed, off to one side.
         "It may be someone else. Grandfather determines the matches, although there is a certain element of chance involved." Jin looked in the direction of Xiaoyu's voice, thoughtfully. "I knew you'd trained at the Temple of Light-"
         "Seven years! Almost every day!"
         "-but I had no idea you possessed such a mastery of-"
         "Hakke Ken and Hike Ken and Bagua Fist, those are my favorites!"
         "Very impressive," Jin praised, respectfully.
         They said more back and forth, but it all trailed into droning chatter as the horrid truth seeped into me. Worked itself into my bones.
         I had lost.
          No, I didn't just lose. I lost badly. Atrociously. Laughably. Without inflicting so much as a broken nail on my opponent. I lost, and lost miserably, to... to a bright orange pipsqueak!
         And it all happened in front of everyone watching me.
         "...must take months of practice to learn the - Julia!" Jin gasped, as I ripped his damn instant-location-and-health-monitor-or-whatever band off my arm and threw it at his feet. "What are you-"
         He took hold of my wrist; his skin against mine caused a telepathic link. I'm not certain whether that's what he intended, but I felt his desire to reassure me: it was okay, he wouldn't let anyone tease or make fun of me, he and his grandfather still needed my help-
         Leave me ALONE! I screamed through the link, and it startled him so much that I successfully pulled my hand free.
         I fled.
         Ran away as fast as I could, dashing past the merry-go-round and into the darkened recesses of the deserted amusement park. I ran into the shadows and the shapes and the night, ran like a thousand ghosts were chasing me.
         The last thing I heard was Shingo's drifting voice: "Let her go. She needs a little time to herself."

         I huddled in the car of a roller coaster, perched high up on a great latticework track. Tucking my arms tightly against my gut, shuddering from waves of nauseated self-loathing, and crying tears of mortally wounded pride.
         No matter how I examined it, no matter how I turned it over and over in my head, I kept coming back to the same, irrefutable conclusion.
         Jin had saved my life.
         He no longer owed me for rescuing him from Nina Williams. He'd repaid that debt in full.
         Because when Jin switched the matches - when he arranged to pit me against Xiaoyu and Hwoarang against Gun Jack - he put me against a far, far kinder enemy. Hwoarang had threatened to murder me, and meant it. He was stronger than Xiaoyu, almost as fast, and he'd learned how to fight over four tortured centuries, rather than a mere seven years. If I'd faced Hwoarang in single combat, he would have made good on his lethal promise. All it would have taken was one unfortunate opening, and he would have broken my neck before Jin or any paramedics had the chance to help me.
         I... I couldn't free Hwoarang from his curse. I'd wanted so much to set him free - to end his horrible torture - but I couldn't. If I tried, I'd only get myself killed. I was too weak...
         ...effortlessly crushed by a bright orange ladybug...
         I knew that compassionate mind-voice. Should have guessed there was nowhere I could run to escape it.
         Where are you?
         Go away. Go away. I can't leave the theme park, I can't face you again, I can't face anyone in the syndicate again, ever. Not after how I fared against that tiny butterfly.
         Go AWAY! I'm fine, I'm fine, all right? Just stop worrying about me and go away, I can't go back, I can't talk to you, I can't go back...
         The mind-voice faded, but my tears returned.

         "Hello? Helloooo?"
         Was that Jin's voice? It didn't sound like Jin's voice.
         "Chang-san, I know you're here."
         No, it definitely wasn't Jin. I recognized that congenial, easygoing tone, and if I could just stop hurting inside for one moment, I'd know that-
         "It's me, Shingo. Come on, I like a good game of hide-and-seek as much as anyone else, but haven't you escaped from reality for long enough? All nice and secluded in your private little world of shadows..."
         If he had been anyone else, I would have sat tight and waited for him to pass me by. But to hear Shingo, of all people, making that sort of intimation-!
         "Go away," I said from above.
         "Ah, there you are!" he responded, espying me. "Are you all right?"
         "I'm fine."
         "You don't sound like it. Could you come down here? Please?"
         "I'll have to climb up there to reach you, then."
         I had a sinking intuition that he wasn't bluffing. He certainly was crazy enough to try. If I didn't come down, he'd put his back into scaling the carnival ride, even though he had only two working limbs to scale with. I couldn't allow that. He could seriously hurt himself, if he fell from halfway up.
         "All right," I sighed, and in a few moments I was on the ground.
         "Thank you, Chang-san. I'm not quite so good at climbing things, lately."
         "How did you know where to find me?"
         "The will of Kusanagi-sama," he beamed.
         "Mm-hm. Jin told you, didn't he? He sensed that I was still in the park when he tried to make telepathic contact." And he sent Shingo to fetch me, because he knew I couldn't face anyone from the syndicate.
         "Kusanagi-sama works in mysterious ways."
         "What now?"
         "Well, if you don't mind..." He inclined his head, pensively. "Have you figured out what you're going to do?"
         "About being eliminated from the Iron Fist?"
         "About everything." His tone turned soft, gentle, and very serious. "You must realize that the Iron Fist Tournament was only the least of the dangers that threaten you."
         I looked away. My legs felt extremely weak, as weak as the rest of my miserable self. Seeing a nearby bench, I sagged on it, listlessly.
         "Are you going to go back home, Chang-san?"
         You and your grandmother will eke out your days in the desert, forever in hiding from the monumental events of destiny that shape the rest of the world. If this is the pathetic existence you would choose for yourself, then what further interest have I as to when or how it ends?
         "I can't," I whispered, remembering Heihachi's scornful contempt.
         "Then, are you going back to Kazama-san's home?"
         "I... can't," I repeated, burying my face in my hands.
         "Oh, dear. That does leave you in something of a dilemma, doesn't it? I'd invite you to move in with me, but I'm not sure that would be proper for a young woman, especially since we're both only teenagers. Nothing personal. You'd find it pretty crowded, anyway; I've already set up a futon in the front room for Lei-san."
         My tears and sniffles had stopped, but the miserable feeling in my gut remained.
         "I've lost a lot of fights too, you know," Shingo mentioned, offhandedly.
         "No kidding," I muttered, eyeing his artificial limbs.
         "Oh yes, in the King of Fighters Tournament. Couldn't find any teammates, you see. Kusanagi-san - he was only a mortal then - Kusanagi-san already had his trusted friends, and Kagura-san had her trusted ladyfriends, and, well, I had to challenge whole teams of enemies on my own. It wasn't exactly conducive to a long winning streak."
         Lei Wulong had mentioned something about that. Something about Shingo's Tournament battles being televised as comedy relief.
         "So why didn't you give up?" I mumbled.
         "Ah, let me think. Loyalty to Kusanagi-san... wanting to be strong like him... wanting to test my own courage... maybe just wanting to be alive."
         "And little sister loved to see me fight. She'd always pester me with questions, and ask me to show her Kusanagi-san's techniques, when I hadn't really mastered them myself yet. Do you know, she's not that much younger than you are, now? She'll turn fifteen next January."
         "Your little sister is dead, Shingo," I tonelessly corrected. "She's been dead for twenty years."
         It had no effect on him, of course.
         I'm sure his tympanic membrane vibrated in response to the sound, and that the cochlear branch of his acoustic nerve carried the signal to his brain. But somewhere, in his electrochemical process of neurotransmission, the meaning of what I said became lost. Garbled, misprocessed, and buried beneath endless layers of dementia. Mere spoken words could not penetrate the mirage of his shadow world, much less disrupt or destroy it.
         "Kagura-san said I saved the Earth," Shingo remarked.
         I looked at his face. Couldn't get too clear a view of it, in all the darkness, but a sparkle of starlight gleamed on the glass of his left eye.
         "Did you?"
         "Oh, I don't know. But Kagura-san has never lied to me."
         "And she said you saved the Earth."
         "Not all by myself, if that's what you're thinking. It was Kagura-san and her ladyfriends who actually defeated Bernstein-san. Just before he'd gathered enough energy from our Tournament to destroy the world, or rule the world, or rule and then destroy it, or destroy and then rule it... I forget exactly what his evil plan was."
         "Whose 'evil plan' was this, again?"
         "It's a long story. All you need to know is, Rugal Bernstein-san was a very bad person. He'd make Heihachi Mishima-san look downright nice."
         "If you say so."
         "It's true, I was there. And I should tell you, it was really Kusanagi-san who saved all of us from Bernstein-san's final revenge. Kusanagi-san gave up everything. His hobbies, his passions, his hopes, his dreams... he sacrificed all of it to follow his one true love to Heaven. He could only save us - save the whole world - if he became a god. It wasn't what he wanted, but he gave up everything he loved in his life for it.
         "Everything except Yuki-sama herself, that is," Shingo amended. "Kusanagi-sama watches over me, but I think Yuki-sama is watching over you. She is the goddess of those who love courageous fighting souls."
         I furrowed my brow. "What...?"
         "Come, now. It doesn't matter what brought you here originally. You can't be putting your life in peril to get revenge for your grandmother, can you? Not when the one thing your grandmother would want most is for you to come back to her, safe and sound. No, I think the real reason why you've held out this long - why you can't bring yourself to go home even now - is that you want to help Kazama-san. You might even be falling in love with him.
         "And you probably want to save the rest of the world, too," Shingo added, as an afterthought.
         "Exactly what has Lei Wulong been telling you about me?"
         Shingo only smiled.
         "Because you had better not believe everything Wulong says. And your other story doesn't even make sense. Assuming it's true, then how should you get any credit for 'saving the world'?"
         "I was an insect."
         "An annoying little mosquito. The kind that makes you itch, breaks your concentration, until you can't stand it anymore. So you swat it. You swat it so hard that you accidentally tear open tiny rips in your great dreamweaving, the one you've been casting to trick everybody. And that alerts sensitive people like Kagura-san and Kusanagi-san to the real threat. Blows your cover, as it were.
         "At least, that's what Kagura-san tells me. My own memory is fuzzy in places; I took a couple hard knocks to the head, at the time."
         "You challenged this 'Bernstein' menace on your own," I interpreted, piecing together Shingo's words with something he'd said the previous day. "And you got swatted like an insect."
         "Lucky for me the casts are coming off soon. It gets rather tiresome, limping around on a cane all the time."
         "I can only imagine."
         "What I'm trying to say, Chang-san, is that maybe you're hurting inside because you just had your fantasy shattered. You thought you'd fight your way up through the Iron Fist, crush Mishima-san in single combat, and then triumph over - what did Lei-san call it-?"
         "The Toshin."
         "Yes, yes. Nasty thing, according to the story he told. As I was saying, though, maybe you have a different destiny. And just because it's different, doesn't mean it's any less important. Especially when the whole world is at stake."
         "It's my destiny to get squished like an insect?"
         "Ah? Oh, dear. That wasn't exactly what I meant."
         "Sounded like it."
         "Don't worry about it," I sighed. "And you're right about one thing."
         "I can't stay here. I have to decide where to go next, and it certainly isn't going to be your apartment."
         He patiently rested on his claw cane.
         "Uh, Shingo..."
         "Is Jin still...?"
         "Waiting for you? Right on the merry-go-round steps. The others are all gone, though."
         "That's a relief."
         I started walking back the way I'd come, moving at a measured pace so that Shingo could keep up. As we approached the great merry-go-round, sure enough, there was Jin. He was sitting on the bottom step, with his feet on the ground, arms resting on his knees. His head was down, and he held my blue-and-white armband in both hands.
         "You go on ahead," Shingo recommended. "I'll see you and Kazama-san at school tomorrow."
         "Oh, didn't you know? We have a half-day of school on Saturdays. I've heard that American schools like to give whole weekends off; that must be very nice."
         "Umm... I guess it is, at that."
         "Take care." He started to turn away.
         "Uh, Shingo - wait!"
         "Thank you," I told him, meekly looking at the ground.
         "You're quite welcome, imouto," he returned, affectionately.

         At the time, I didn't know what it meant.
         As much as part of me wanted to solve this new puzzle, I knew I'd already made Jin wait for much too long. It was hard enough simply to approach him, apologizing very humbly for my selfish behavior. He said he was just grateful that I was all right, and wrapped the blue-and-white band back around my arm. We returned to the Mishima syndicate together.
         I still couldn't bear to look him in the eye, not once. Instead, I distracted myself with aimless, empty-headed wondering.
         It wasn't the first time my 'translation protocol' had faltered. Jin had telepathically put a highly astute knowledge base in my head, and for the most part it allowed me to speak and understand Japanese with unconscious fluency. Once in a while, though, it would glitch. Sometimes, exotic or hard-to-translate Japanese words would reach me in their original form, rather than in concept and meaning. Much more rarely, ordinary words would be pronounced with such inexplicable nuance - or such confused intent - that they would also remain in their original form. This was the first instance that's significant enough to be worth emphasizing.
         I was sure that I'd heard the word 'imouto' before. Heard it and spoken it, all processed through the protocol without a hitch. Only now, I couldn't remember. Perhaps because I'd recently taken multiple bashes to the head.
         Jin would have known what it meant, and he certainly would have told me. All I would have had to do was shake off my complete mortification, look at him, and ask.
         Sure. And then I'd crown myself Queen of the Iron Fist.
         Instead, I excused myself when we returned to the Mishima syndicate headquarters, and investigated the syndicate's private library. The syndicate library was a coldly ostentatious place, with seemingly endless shelves of reference books. So vast and impersonal and stunningly large that it took me some fifteen minutes to locate a Japanese-English dictionary. I flipped through it, looking up the word by its phonics.
         'Little sister.'
         Now, I remembered. I also remembered something else about the word, from using it through the protocol. If you're being respectful, as Shingo almost always was, then 'imouto' doesn't mean 'someone else's little sister.' That's 'imouto-san.' A strictly specific definition of 'imouto' would be, 'my little sister.'
         It didn't necessarily mean anything, I reasoned. Perhaps it was just a term of endearment. Intended in the same spirit as when young people sometimes call elder acquaintances 'Grandmother' or 'Grandfather.'
         It wasn't until later that I realized the truth.
         That was the moment. That was the turning point.
         The point when Shingo really started to lose his mind.

End of Chapter 17: Tough Love