written by Victar, e-mail
Victar's Archive:

Chapter 18: Trials of the Heart

   "Even I know a trial when I see one."
   "No. Not the third type."
   "Third type of what?"
   "The third type of trial. Physical, moral - those you can walk away from when they're done. If you're not dead. But the third - the third is gyve. Enchainment. Cloistering. Caesura. Captivity. Arrestment. Often accompanied by bewitchment. You can't walk away from that. It holds you immobile. You turn into something you're not."

         -Nancy Kress, The Prince of Morning Bells

February 14, 2018
6:45 a.m.

         Happy Valentine's Day!
         I got you chocolate, I did, I did! And it's the extra sweet kind, not caffeine-free, although that was pretty tasty too, where did you find that? My friends at school told me that on Valentine's Day here, women are supposed to give chocolate to men, isn't that funny?
         I got chocolate for Jin, too. A big handmade chocolate in the shape of a lightning bolt!
         I like it here. We get to celebrate more. We never celebrated Valentine's Day at the Temple of Light; everybody was too busy training all the time.
         You're gonna love your chocolate! I tasted a couple pieces just to be sure!
         Say, are you seeing me 'cause I get to have another interview? Are you? I promise I'll stick to your pretend-I-don't-know-you rules, I promise.
         Now I can tell you all about my first biiiiiig match in the Iron Fist Tournament! I was supposed to fight Gun Jack only Julia had to fight Hwoarang and Jin was afraid she'd get killed, so he went to his grandpa and switched the matches and I fought Julia instead! She tried to act really tough, she said she wouldn't go easy me, but I squared off against her and-
         That's not fair.
         Julia already told you everything?
         That's not fair at all. It's not even like I really hurt her, you know. Jin used his sorcery to fix her, just like I knew he would, in minutes she was all better. But she was really, really unhappy. She was so unhappy she ran off, and Jin had the rest of us go away. Except for Crazy Shingo, Jin kept Crazy Shingo around 'cause he was the only one who could get through to Julia. I wondered if that meant Julia was crazy too, since only a crazy person could talk to her.
         It wasn't fair. I just won, I beat Julia perfect and I was careful not to really hurt her, but then she was a sore loser and no one was paying attention to me anymore. Jin only told me to go home, along with the medics he'd brought for Julia. I told Jin he'd better not be mad at me for hurting her, not when he arranged our fight to begin with, and he said he wasn't mad, he only wanted us both home safe.
         So, I went home with the medics. Taki just disappeared, and Mitsu left for his big date with Anna.
         He never did tell me what happened on that date. Anna wouldn't tell me either, I could never get a straight answer out of her, she always acted so mysterious. Are you gonna interview Anna about her big date?
         Are you?
         Aw, c'mon! I wanna know what happened! What's the point of making a record that tells everybody everything if you won't-?
         Oh, phooey.
         Fine. Be that way. But then I'm not gonna tell you about when Jin was taking me out either, so don't even ask!
         Okay. I can tell you about that.
         But I still think you should interview Anna about her big date. That came first. It was the morning after when I woke up really early and went looking for Mitsu, so we could have another training fight. He'd said we could meet for another fight this morning, and I was expecting to find him but I couldn't.
         I looked everywhere.
         Up and down and over and under and ran through the syndicate and asked everyone I saw and no one knew and then finally, finally, just as I figured I'd have to give up, I found him. And by then it was after seven, there wasn't any time left for a practice fight before I had to eat breakfast and go to a half-day of school, 'cause Jin's funny school has a half-day on Saturdays.
         Mitsu was in the hall with the big open area off to the side, the same hall where we'd practiced fighting before. I'd run by it twice while I was looking for him and he wasn't there, only he was there now. He was in his black suit like always, sitting with his knees all drawn up, and he was writing in his black-book diary. His back was to the wall, but he didn't see me even though I walked right up to him and looked down and still couldn't make out what he was writing.
         So I set down the wooden practice swords I was carrying, and took away his book.
         "Hey!" Mitsu cried.
         "We were supposed to practice-fight this morning. Why'd you miss our practice-fight?"
         I jumped back and looked at his little black book. His handwriting was hard to read, all scratchy and tiny and he crammed so many words on each page, but there was one thing that really stood out 'cause it wasn't in Japanese, it was in blocky English letters and I read it out loud:

         My dearest lady
         Lightning Scarlet stole my heart
         I love you always

         "GIVE THAT BACK!" Mitsu shrieked at me, he really shrieked, flushing like someone just dipped him in hot oil! He ran at me and tried to grab his book! So I jumped way over his head, flipping and still holding the book, and instead of running into me he ran into the other wall.
         "Is this poetry?" I asked. "It's really funny poetry."
         "It's a haiku, and it's PRIVATE! You-"
         Then he stopped, and his flush mostly went away, although he still looked really embarrassed. "You think it needs work?"
         "Why'd you write it in English? Is it 'cause this poem is for Anna? Is it?"
         "It's not that bad, is it? Do you think I should try some other style of-?"
         "This poem is for Anna!" I laughed. "Your date must've gone well, really really well! See, all your worrying was for no reason. I told you she'd like you. I like you!"
         "Please give me my journal back?" he begged, holding out his hands.
         "Okay. But you gotta warn me if you're gonna miss training with me again! I was all over the syndicate looking for you!"
         "Uh, sorry about that. I promise it won't happen again," he apologized, and I gave him back his book.
         "So, what happened on your big date with Anna? Huh, huh, what happened?"
         He smiled, all happy and dreamy-like.
         "C'mon, I wanna know! Didja go to a movie? A really scary movie in a dark, lonely theater? Didja sneak your arm around her and steal a kiss, huh, didja?"
         He just leaned against the wall, holding his book over his heart and smiling like he was the happiest person in the whole wide world.
         That's when Taki showed up.
         There was something wrong with Taki. Anyone could see it. I don't mean the gritty-sandpaper sound in her voice, and the way she always hid her face behind a mask, there's nothing wrong with that. I didn't know why she was like that, although I wondered if maybe she'd been in a really bad fight once. A fight where her throat got hurt and her face got cut something awful, and that's why she always talked so harsh and wore a mask. But I never asked, 'cause like I said, there was something wrong with her. Like she was sulking or spiteful or cruel all the time, and nothing made her madder than when other people were happy. So she didn't like me, she never liked me, but she was extra mad 'cause Mitsu was really, really extra-happy.
         I didn't see where she came from and that was funny, because I'm usually good at spotting people, the Temple of Light trained me to always be alert like a fighter. But all I saw of Taki was her sword swinging. Mitsu reacted to her before I did, he reacted and put his arm up in front of his neck, and Taki's razor-keen blade stopped right on his wrist. She actually cut him. It was only a teeny-tiny cut, but I remember I saw blood.
         "Nice block," she said. It wasn't praise; she said it really mean and nasty.
         "You're too kind," Mitsu said. It wasn't being humble; his happy look broke and he stared at her deadly serious.
         "If I had been an assassin, you would have lost your hand and your head, rather than just your head." She used his suit to wipe the blood off her sword.
         "Lucky for me you're a 'pacifist,'" Mitsu said, like he was not gonna give her one little inch.
         "You idiot!" She put her sword back in its scabbard, but slapped him on the face with her other hand. He didn't try to stop it, he just took it like it didn't even hurt and looked straight back at her.
         Taki made a funny sign with her hands. Her right hand was up like she was praying, but her left palm balanced on her right fingers in a T-shape. There was a swirling, flashy yellow sparkle on her fingers; I felt a pinprick tingle on my skin. She cast a spell, I know she did! And at the same time, I heard a whiny crackle-screech, it came from up behind me. I turned around and looked up, and guess what I saw? I saw that yellow flashy sparkle glowing around one of those tiny mounted cameras that dangle from the ceiling everywhere in the syndicate!
         Mitsu put away his book and looked at Taki, with a question on his face.
         "What we say now is not being monitored," she told him, dark and mean and just as deadly serious as he was.
         "All right."
         Taki jerked the side of his black jacket open. Jerked it so hard I think she ripped off a button or two. I saw Mitsu's white undershirt - hey, was that lipstick on his collar? A red smear of Anna's lipstick? But what was really obvious was that he had some sort of holster strapped to his side. It looked like a gun holster, like what Lei Wulong Super Police would carry around, only it was empty!
         I didn't know Mitsu carried a gun. Only he didn't have it now, and if it wasn't in his holster and it wasn't in his hands, then where was it?
         "Anna Williams stole your weapon," Taki spat, letting go of Mitsu's jacket.
         "No," he denied, with one shake of his head. "I gave it to her."
         "You what?"
         "Offered her the holster too, but she didn't want it."
         "You WHAT!?"
         "I hate guns. They're made exclusively for killing people. I won't-"
         "So you gave yours to ANNA!?"
         "It's different for her. She's a woman all alone in a strange city; she needs it to protect herself."
         "To protect-!? Do you have any idea what that - that witch did to her first opponent in the Iron Fist?"
         "Anna is not a killer. She won't use the gun unless she has no other choice."
         "Then I feel sorry for the guy, but the Iron Fist is honorable single combat, and he must have known the risks when he signed up." Mitsu folded his arms and looked Taki straight in the eye, tall and strong and not backing down. "I tried to tell you how sick that gun made me feel when you forced me to carry it, but you wouldn't listen."
         "ALL security personnel have to be armed WHENEVER they leave the syndicate!"
         "Except you."
         "I have my sorcery! You have nothing!"
         "All right. Maybe I'm not in your league. And maybe I wasn't smart enough to get a good lawyer like you did, before I signed my contract with the syndicate. But even though I want to serve Mishima-sama, I can't do it with a gun any more than you can. Otherwise, I'd have tried to join his Tekkenshu a long time ago. If that means Mishima-sama has no further use for me, then I'm sorry but it's the way things are. Even if you made me carry another gun, I'd never be able to use it."
         "You are a fool."
         "Are you going to get me fired over this?"
         "Would it break your heart if I did?"
         "No. Anna loves me for who I am; as much as I want to serve Mishima-sama, I have to stay true to myself first. And to her."
         Mitsu... it's funny...
         He was very serious when he said that, strong and stern and believing, but lemme make something extra-clear, okay? He didn't say it like he was trying to hurt Taki, or make her mad, or bait her, or anything like that. I'm certain of it; I remember really well. And this is important, because of the way Taki reacted.
         She went totally crazy.
         It doesn't make sense, how Taki went completely and totally crazy. Because if Mitsu wasn't trying to hurt her, then why did what he said make her so mad?
         Maybe he said something bad to her without realizing it?
         Maybe, whatever he said just happened to connect with whatever already made Taki so mean and angry on the inside?
         I don't know. It doesn't make sense.
         Taki made this wild, horrible scream, like someone had just stabbed her! I mean it, you'd really think someone had stabbed her in the back. Then she whipped out her sword, and she tried to stab Mitsu in the gut!
         Not a fake teaching-stab, either. She was really trying to kill him!
         I yelled "NO!" but Mitsu was faster. He started moving even before Taki moved. Lemme think... if I go back and look at this again, I think Taki was kinda slower than usual. I've seen her train Mitsu sometimes, and she is so fast when she wants to be, but now she was slower, and stopping to make that scream slowed her down more. So maybe, somewhere deep inside, she didn't really wanna hurt Mitsu. That's only a guess and it's hard to explain, 'cause Taki's sword dug a foot deep into the wall while Mitsu twisted sideways. He just barely got out of being skewered like a shish kebab.
         Mitsu dived for the practice swords I'd brought, dived and grabbed one and rolled with it. I was getting really scared here, scared that Taki would try and kill him again when he only had a stick of wood to stop her. Taki was already ripping her sword outta the wall. It shoulda been stuck so deep she couldn't get it out, but she ripped it out like it was a toothpick; she's a lot stronger than she looks. So I was scared Taki was really gonna kill Mitsu. I started to run up to her and stop her, when Mitsu shouted, "Xiaoyu, don't!"
         "Stay back. I mean it!"
         Taki didn't act like she'd heard either of us; she just screamed again, awful and horrible and hurt my ears. She put her head down and her blade in both hands and rushed Mitsu all mad and hating, like she was really gonna skewer him this time.
         It's funny.
         I hadn't seen Taki fight all that much, but I remembered she was normally not only faster; she was smarter too. She wouldn't make such an obvious attack, from so far away, giving her enemy so much time to think about it and plan his reaction and then do his reaction. Because you gotta understand, Taki was a better fighter than Mitsu. She'd trained for a long time, maybe even her whole life; she was his teacher, while Mitsu had been learning for only a few days.
         I guess he learned enough, though.
         Enough to stop Taki's attack; even though it was obviously coming, she was still running very fast and I'd miss it if I blinked. A split-second before Taki's sword was gonna cut Mitsu's belly open, he swung his practice sword with both hands, swung it down to up and caught her sword's flat side. If it had been the edge she would've sliced the wood and gutted him, but it was the flat and he dodged as he turned it, turned it away from his body and guided her straight into the wall again. Her sword stuck and he spun behind her and smacked her really hard in the back with his wooden blade! He smacked her so hard she ran up against the hilt of her own sword, stuck in the wall; its handle pushed in her stomach and forced her to make an awful gasp!
         Mitsu didn't mess around. He shifted his wooden sword and held it different, like it was a pole instead. He shifted it, and tucked its pole against the front of Taki's neck, trapping her in a chokehold from behind! And that's how he trapped her, with each hand on either side of a stick choking her!
         "Teacher, stop it!" Mitsu shouted. "Stop it, now!"
         Taki struggled, but it wasn't like a teacher, it wasn't like someone who knows how to get out of holds. It was like a trapped animal that's gone crazy, and I felt sorry for her but I didn't know what to do.
         "I said NOW!" Mitsu demanded, and Taki stopped moving.
         Really stopped moving.
         I don't mean she dropped dead, but almost. Like all the strength and all the mad went straight out of her, just as fast as it came; she sagged limp and sad and heavy.
         "Now," Mitsu said, softer, "promise me you won't lose control like that again."
         Taki didn't answer.
         "Promise me! I'm not letting you go until you give me your word!"
         Taki didn't say anything for the longest time.
         I was wondering if I should do something. Get some more syndicate security to help Mitsu deal with poor, crazy Taki, and just as I made up my mind to do that, I heard Taki's hard, rough, voice in a teensy-tiny whisper. She said, "I... promise..."
         Mitsu let her go. She coughed and fell to her knees. Her eyes were all crowded and fuzzy with something. It was like tears, only there weren't enough to run down her face.
         "Fool," she told him. "Don't you know how little my promises are worth?"
         "I think you have more honor than you give yourself credit for," Mitsu said, quietly.
         She wouldn't look at him. Just stayed kneeling with her head down.
         "Teacher, what happened to you?"
         She still wouldn't look at him, or give any answer.
         "This isn't you. You're mean-spirited, but you're not homicidal. And I shouldn't be able to beat you like this, not for another hundred years. You don't fight this badly; you don't act like you're a wild animal."
         Taki was like a stone that's trying to cry tears and can't.
         "Something must have happened to you last night. Something bad."
         Cold, dark, stone that isn't moving and can't cry.
         "Anna... Anna told me about a rumor she'd overheard. She said that Prototype Alpha of the Cyborg Army had gone missing in Tokyo. That Mishima-sama had sent his Tekkenshu looking for it, and they couldn't get it back."
         Huh? What was Mitsu talking about?
         "Did you go looking for it, too?"
         I had no idea what Mitsu was talking about.
         "Did you find it?"
         Should I ask him what he's talking about?
         "Go away," Taki whispered, through her mask. "Just go away."
         "All right, Teacher. I'll train on my own, for a while. But if there's anything I can do to help-"
         "I said go away."
         Mitsu bowed to her, and he left.
         I still didn't get any of this.
         Except maybe - maybe I did pick up on something. Something that maybe even Mitsu didn't notice. I looked at Taki, looked at her body really close, at how she was all curled in on herself with her face in her hands, and I noticed something.
         She reminded me of the girls in Jin's high school.
         I don't mean that the high school girls were always as mean or unhappy as Taki, I don't mean that at all. But I remembered - I remembered this one girl who made Crazy Shingo mad with a mirror, did Julia ever tell you about that? This one girl made Crazy Shingo mad, and he made her stand in the hall, and she was crying really hard. There was something like that about Taki's body and her tears and the way she was shaking. Something just like a high school girl.
         Taki wasn't as old as she looked.
         The first time I saw her, and probably the first time anyone saw her, she looked so sharp and mean and tough, like a really expert fighter. And she was an expert fighter, and she could use magic. But even though she looked all grown up and strong and adult, like in her late twenties or maybe even thirties, that's just how she was on the surface. This was the first time her act broke in front of me, and I could see under the surface. I'm not as good at seeing under the surface as Uncle Wang was, but I could see this time.
         Taki wasn't as old as she looked. Just like I'm not as young as I look. She wasn't that old at all; I'll bet she wasn't any older than Mitsu, and he told me he was only twenty.
         "Taki...?" I stepped closer, staying careful. If she snapped and tried to stab me like she tried to stab Mitsu, I'd be ready.
         Taki whispered, "I couldn't face him."
         "I've... I've dreamed of this day for so long... when he'd come back... he'd come back to me and I could... I could tear him apart... or sometimes the dream would have a happy ending... but now the dream is real. My wards and warning spells told me, at first I couldn't believe it, but it's all real... and I can't face him. Can't go near him. Can't even let him see me. I can't face him until the day I die."
         Her tears dripped down her mask. It made me feel really sad, and I still didn't know what was going on. Maybe I should have asked her to explain, but it was so sad to see her cry. I didn't wanna make her more sad, and I didn't know what to do.
         I said, "Is there anything I can do?"
         She said, "Abandon the Iron Fist. Leave the syndicate, and don't come back."
         She wasn't the first one who said that to me. Lei Wulong also said that to me, and I knew Seung Mina wanted me to go back to the Temple too. But I had to say no to Lei, and my reasons for saying no hadn't changed.
         "I can't," I told Taki. "I'm sorry."
         "Then you will be destroyed. Just like Bryan was destroyed."
         I wished I knew what was going on. It was a good thing I wasn't like Julia, or else I'd have gone nuts wondering what was going on. But I wasn't like Julia, and now I remembered I was late for breakfast, and that would make me late for school too. I had to get going.
         "You'd better take off that spell or whatever you did to the cameras, okay?" I told Taki. "'Cause if it stays on for too long, you could get in trouble. Okay?"
         Taki didn't answer that, but I guess she must've taken off her spell or whatever after I left. Actually, I met Mitsu and Taki both for a practice-fight after my half-day of school, and by then it seemed like Taki was pretty much back to normal.
         'Normal' for Taki meaning 'nasty and spiteful,' you know.
         Mitsu was back to normal, too. If by 'normal' you mean 'totally in love with Anna.'
         And I also saw Jin later that day, he met me and asked me-
         -wait a second. I said I wasn't gonna tell you about that part, and I meant it!
         So there.

February 14, 2018
5:15 p.m.

         Happy Valentine's Day.
         I got you Toblerone chocolate; it's the best kind.
         Actually, Jin doesn't care for chocolate. He finds it too sweet, for his tastes. He's accustomed to less sugary fare.
         No, I don't claim to understand it either. I personally enjoy a small amount of indulgence, every now and again. But if I gave him chocolate, he'd feel obligated to eat it, and I wouldn't want to put him through that for a food he doesn't like.
         We're going to a concert tonight. I'm looking forward to it, very much. As soon as you and I get this interview out of the way, and yes, I haven't forgotten your special rules. Before we begin, though, there's one thing I want to ask.
         When are you going to interview Anna?
         About her first date with Mitsurugi, of course.
         I for one would be extremely interested in what happened. No one ever told me any details. Not even Taki would give me much gossip, and she seemed to have inside information on almost everything else. As for the lovebirds themselves, well, Mitsurugi would never say anything. He'd just smile and act like he was on a cloud in Heaven. And Anna - actually, I avoided Anna. I was, after all, the one who had banished her half-sister off the face of the Earth. Anna presumably didn't know that, and even if she did she might have understood that I had no choice. Still, why risk forcing the issue?
         Anna is an expert in the bone-breaking Arts, you know.
         So. When are you going to interview her about her big date?
         'Not relevant' indeed. Do you realize what you're implying, here? I have to tell you everything about myself, including the foibles of my so-called 'love life,' while Anna gets off the hook. Now I ask you, is that equitable? Is it truly?
         No, I'm not looking to take over your job. Jin chose you to make this record, and I respect his decision. But I want you to make a note of my objections, all right?
         This honestly does not appeal to my sense of fair play.

         Should I start with the morning of December 9th?
         It's as good a place to start as any, I suppose. After all, it was the morning after Xiaoyu eliminated me from the Iron Fist.
         Eliminated my pride.
         Eliminated my dignity.
         Eliminated my self-respect.
         Squashed it all like used chewing gum, under her tiny pixie heel.
         The next morning, I was a wreck. I'd recovered enough to sluggishly go through the motions, take a shower, get dressed, and so forth, but...
         ...I couldn't put on my feathered headband.
         Its cardinal red plume was a symbol of strength. Of my mother's heroic legacy. Of pride in myself as a Navajo, and I had nothing left to justify it. So I dumped it in a drawer, slipped on an unadorned headband instead, and lethargically plodded outside my room.
         I still couldn't face Jin.
         Or Xiaoyu, or Mitsurugi, or anyone else in the syndicate. Kept my eyes to the ground the whole morning. Skipped breakfast. Furtively took a detour to get to Jin's high school so I wouldn't accidentally cross paths with him. During class, I moved like I was underwater. Wandering at the bottom of the ocean, assisting Professor Shingo Yabuki with all the speed and efficiency of a diver shut in a deep-sea suit.
         It was a fairly normal half-day of school, apart from my state of utter despair. Then it was noon. The bell rang, and everyone left.
         Almost everyone.
         "Julia?" Jin asked. He tried to speak gently, but the stress of guarding himself against the other students' thoughts had taken a toll on his voice.
         I still couldn't look at him.
         "Julia, are you all right?"
         "Sure," I lied.
         "I'm fine," I lied again. "Just go home, okay?"
         "Could we... walk back together?"
         "Um... are you sure?"
         "Have to organize Shingo's office." This was another lie. Shingo didn't expect me to start that project until Monday morning.
         Jin had to know I was lying. He probably didn't need his telepathy to guess it. But he merely said, "Okay. Take care of yourself, all right? If you miss dinner again, just check the kitchen. I'll make sure they save something good for you."
         And he left.
         Shingo and I locked up the classroom. I slowly meandered to the school's front steps, sat with my head bowed, and waited. Let all the other students drift away and scatter, off to enjoy the sunny afternoon.
         Thirty minutes ought to do it, I decided. Thirty minutes, and then I could go back to the syndicate. Go back to my room, lock the door, and keep it locked for the rest of the weekend.
         A piece of paper was at my feet.
         A piece of paper with my name on it.
         Huh? What's that? How did it get there? I didn't remember dropping any papers.
         I picked it up. It was a torn-off leaf of a small pocket notebook, and it had a message in dark pencil: 'Chang-san. Meet me.' There was also a sketchy diagram of the high school grounds, and an arrow pointing to a smallish, wooded-over alcove east of the soccer field.
         I recognized the bold, sweeping strokes. It was Shingo's handwriting.
         Had he left this note for me?
         Although I scanned the area, I didn't see any sign of him. Nor had I seen him deposit the note. I hadn't heard him, either. You'd think that it would be difficult for him to move silently, what with his artificial limbs and all.
         How had he-?
         Oh, forget how. Xiaoyu's stupid Panda could have delivered the note while I was wallowing; I wouldn't have noticed. That left only the obvious question: why?
         What did Shingo want?
         Well, you know me. Never one to back down from a riddle. Following the diagram, I reached the alcove in a few minutes. The trees enclosing it were mostly conifers. I got several pine needles in my clothes and hair, pushing my way in.
         Past the thick tree-border was a broad clearing. In summertime, the clearing would have been quite shady, and had a luxurious carpet of green grass. Now, the grass was all brown and dead, yet it still made the loose soil fairly soft.
         "Glad you could make it, imouto," Shingo said, sounding very pleased indeed.
         I looked at him. At the wooden prosthetics that replaced his left arm and leg; at the glass eye situated in his left socket; at the blackened scar that marked the loss of his left ear; and at the claw cane on which he leaned, ever so nonchalantly.
         "Shingo, please don't address me like I'm your little sister. I'm Julia Chang, okay? You can call me 'Julia' if you want."
         "Oh, yes. That's the name you're using now, isn't it?"
         "It's the name I've always used."
         "Yes, yes, of course."
         "What do you want," I sighed, too despondent to make it a real question.
         "To fight you," he replied, with a benevolent smile.
         "Not to the death or anything like that," Shingo hastily added. "Just a friendly sparring match, if you don't mind."
         "Well, you've been rather depressed, haven't you? Ever since last night."
         "And this is supposed to cheer me up?"
         "Worth a try, I thought."
         "You have got to be kidding."
         "Oh, no, not at all. Humor me?"
         I could think of twenty reasons why that would be a bad idea. Reason number one was:
         "Shingo, you're physically challenged. I can't."
         "Oh, you mean my broken bones?"
         "No, I mean you're a double amputee."
         "Don't worry, I've written up just the thing. Etto... doko da, doko da..."
         He trailed off, mumbling, as he used his good right arm to search the lining of his gold-buttoned school uniform jacket. At last he reached cross-body and found what he was looking for, in the jacket's left inner pocket. He drew the item out, and proffered it to me.
         An envelope?
         An envelope with my name on it?
         I half-expected that it would say 'imouto,' but no, it had my name. With a puzzled frown, I opened the envelope. Inside was a lengthy letter, scribbled on a sheet of fine stationery. Don't ask me to reconstruct it from memory; the language was so convoluted that I could barely comprehend any of it. Something about the challenged party of the first part being completely indemnified of all damages as withstood by the challenger party of the second part.
         "What is this?"
         "A legal disclaimer," he explained, cheerfully. "It means that I can't sue you, or have you fired, or be angry with you, or hold you personally accountable for any actions that you take, in response to my challenge. You are absolved of all responsibility."
         "You still have the option of suing me, by the way. I wouldn't recommend it, though. Never, ever sue poor people."
         "...this is..."
         "A friend at Serenity Consolation taught me how to properly word these things. He used to be one of the best lawyers in the business, before his minor breakdown."
         "Come on, imouto. Just one round?"
         "I'm not your dead sister!"
         Shingo smiled, benignly.
         I should have known better. Any spoken words that contradicted the hallucinations of his shadow world automatically got the short circuit, in his semi-autistic wreck of a human brain.
         "Okay," I conceded, replacing the letter and stashing the envelope inside my shirt. "Okay, I'll make you a deal. I'll take you on for just one round. And if I win, you will never pull me into another stunt like this again, all right? You'll leave me out of your demented illusions and senseless challenges. Got that?"
         "As you wish."
         "Swear it by Kusanagi-sama." I didn't particularly believe in his outlandish best-friend-turned-into-a-god story, but he believed it, and that was what mattered.
         Shingo's expression turned darkly serious.
         He straightened. His hand went to his chest, and he took a long, deep breath, exhaling it slowly. Then he rested his chin in his fingers, and looked at me. It was a look I'd never seen from him before.
         He was appraising me.
         Sizing me up. Narrowing his one good eye. As if he were carefully evaluating my strengths and weaknesses, and didn't intend to leave anything to chance.
         "Yes. I swear it, in the name of Kusanagi-sama," he said, deliberately.
         Shingo shifted position, presenting me with only his right side. His claw cane stayed in his right hand, but I noticed he wasn't putting much weight on it anymore. Instead, he balanced solidly on his right foot, using his cane and his artificial leg for a bare minimum of additional stability.
         I brushed my hair back, just to be sure it wouldn't get in my eyes, and removed Jin's monitor-band from my arm - I didn't want him to panic if by some miracle Shingo actually inflicted a minor scrape on me. Then I assumed my own fighting stance. Full-forward, one foot set a half-step in front of the other without dipping too wide, hands up to protect my chest.
         "Okay," I muttered. "Let's get this over with."
         Shingo smiled.
         It was not his usual smile. Not his standard, amiable-bordering-on-vacuous congeniality. It was pure excitement. A vibrant light flared in his working eye. Intensely zealous enthusiasm blazed on his face.
         Great Spirit. What have I gotten myself into?
         Oh, never mind. All I have to do is take him down fast, preferably without inflicting undue pain, and this will be settled. Shouldn't be too hard; he's blind, deaf, and dead on one side. So, go for the weak spot. Dart up to him, dash around to his left, and-
         Shingo instantly, I mean instantly pivoted to keep up with me - no, it was more than just speed, he probably expected all along that I'd blunder for his left side as my first target. Before I was in reach of attacking him, his right hand snapped out. He grabbed my collar. Seized it just like that; no time to dodge, no time to react, no time to-
         -even stay on the ground; the whole world flipped up and over. I caught a whooshing glimpse of Shingo's white headband, stirring in the breeze, and then the dizzying parabolic ride ended with a heavy thud. Fortunately, the grass and the earth beneath it were soft enough to cushion my fall.
         One hand.
         He threw me - hurled me right over his head - with just one hand.
         Now, I'm not really all that heavy. Only around one hundred and twenty pounds. Even so, Shingo hadn't been limited merely by having one hand; he'd also had only one leg to brace against the fulcrum of his back. How in the world-?
         As I rolled away and scrambled to my feet, I thought I saw the answer. The right sleeve of Shingo's jacket was rolled up past the elbow, and Great Spirit. His arm was very powerfully muscled, like a professional bodybuilder's. I'd never noticed before. Not even moments ago, when I'd been scrutinizing him. I'd been staring so much at his destroyed left side that I hadn't gauged the strength of his right.
         Okay, so this might be a little harder than I thought.
         I'll just have to be more careful. Mix up my attacks. No, better - go low. His balance is already precarious; if I can just knock out his one good leg, or take away his claw cane, then I'll have the advantage.
         All right, it's a plan.
         Stepping forward, I started to bend down, preparing to stab my right heel at his ankle-
         -and while I was slowly, ploddingly thinking all this out, he had already launched himself in a new attack. Using his claw cane as a pole vault, leveling his body into a horizontal spear, he hurled himself at me with the abandon of a swooping eagle; a flying kick that would normally have caught my gut hit my chest instead. Looking back, I believe he was deliberately restraining his momentum - going easy on me - otherwise I would have been hurled into the nearest conifer. Instead, the breath whooshed out of my lungs; I gasped and fell to my knees.
         He had me by the collar again.
         Tossed me in the air-
         -scuffed my chest with a blow from his wooden shoulder-
         -jumped and hit me with his hip-
         -all I could see of that was a spinning, propeller-like glimpse of his right arm.
         Oh, my. When did I land on the ground again? I don't remember landing on the ground. Better get up and-
         "Hey!" I snapped. I was stomach-down, and I couldn't get up because Shingo planted the claw of his cane on my neck, and leaned on it. This pinned me face-first in the dead grass, firmly enough to keep me trapped, yet not so hard as to cut off my breathing.
         "Do you surrender, Chang-san?" Shingo inquired, graciously. At least he was using my name, this time.
         "Let me UP, damn you!" I shouted into the grass. Even managed to get my hands on the base of his claw cane, but in that awkward position I didn't stand a chance of freeing myself.
         "I'm sorry, Chang-san. Kusanagi-sama says the fight isn't done until you surrender."
         Two thoughts occurred to me, one right after the other.
         The first one was that if Shingo were a real enemy, not just an eccentric nutcase, he could easily use his trap to claim my life. All it would take was a little more pressure on my neck, or a good stomp with his working foot, and crunch.
         That was a disconcerting idea, but as soon as it came, a second, more reassuring thought followed. If Shingo truly were homicidal, I'd probably be hurting. A lot. I remembered how much my body ached during my match against Xiaoyu, the tiny pixie sprite. Shingo was much larger, heavier, and more muscular. Yes, he had definitely been going easy on me - if he'd put a tenth of his full Power into his blows, I'd be feeling it right now.
         No, there was no need for me to be afraid of him. He was just a hundred times better than me, was all.
         Great Spirit. Outclassed by a cripple.
         "I surrender," I sighed, letting go of his cane.
         "Yosh!" Shingo declared. The pressure on my neck vanished. I rubbed the slight soreness, and sat up.
         "I did it for you, Kusanagi-sama!" Shingo raised his clenched, sun-sign gloved fist to chin level, and his eyes to the sky. He joyfully proclaimed his victory as if talking to God himself, and from his point of view, I suppose he was.
         Then Shingo looked down at me and asked, "Are you all right, Chang-san?"
         Well, I guess so, but...
         You'd think that I would have been even more devastated than before, wouldn't you? Crushed first by a tiny fairy girl, now by a handicapped lunatic.
         Only, Xiaoyu was different. As much as I may scorn her, she - she - well, she had all her limbs, okay? Shingo, however...
         How on earth did he-?
         Look. I know now that I'm not a world-class fighter, or even a professional-class fighter. But I also know I'm not that atrocious! How did Shingo get so good that he could dispose of me without working up a sweat? How did he move so fast, or keep his balance? Where did he develop the acuity, the strength, the reflexes to compensate for his disability?
         He couldn't even run, dammit!
         Shingo must have seen the question forming on my face. He tilted his head as if intrigued, and said, "Yes?"
         What was going through my mind was, 'How can a helpless cripple like you, who can hardly get around high school unless I carry your stuff, fight like such a blasted demon!?'
         What I actually said was, "How... how did you do that?"
         He showed me his third type of smile.
         Not standard affability. Not the thrill of combat. This was true elation; a limitless flood of genuine, heartfelt warmth. I have no better way to describe it.
         I'd never seen that sentiment in him before. He seemed on the verge of shedding joyful tears.
         "I thought you'd never ask," he confided, swallowing a lump in his throat.

         And that's how Shingo became my teacher.
         For the whole afternoon, evening, and well into the night, he demonstrated the answer to my question. And more. Much more. Drills. Techniques. Punches. Kicks. Tips. Suggestions. He was familiar with my mother's Art of kempo, and helped me refine my working knowledge. He had me practice, corrected my imbalances, spotted my weaknesses, and encouraged me to develop my speed and strength. Also, he showed me some techniques of his own - ancient Kusanagi school of fighting arts, he called them - and had me drill in them repetitively. Some of these techniques were rather exotic. Once, I complained that I would never use anything as loopy as a jumping, full-rotation spinning uppercut in a real battle.
         "That's all right, Chang-san," Shingo replied. "Even if you never use it, learning it will make you stronger. You especially need to work on the muscles of your upper body."
         Once in a while, I'd start to tire and he would notice. He'd call a break, and tell me one of his stories about the heroes, demons, and mercenaries of the King of Fighters Tournament. He had so many stories; they could fill a whole book by themselves. Or a whole series of books.
         He'd brought an extra lunch for me, too. And he'd remembered that I was a vegetarian.
         Evening came in the blink of an eye. I didn't want to stop learning yet; when I told Shingo as much, I could swear that he brushed away a small tear of true happiness. He hung a variety of self-contained lights on the trees in the clearing, and then used their illumination to help guide me through the mechanics of an overhead elbow strike.
         Night fell. The half-moon rose, and it hovered luminously in the dark sky when Shingo finally said that we should quit. I didn't want to stop - I felt like I could keep training until dawn - but he was my teacher, so I bowed and accepted his wisdom. Putting my armband back on, I returned to the Mishima syndicate.
         I hurt, but not from standard physical pain. Rather, my body ached from the most intense workout I could ever remember performing. As soon as I got back, I knew I'd have to spend another half hour stretching out or else I'd cramp up something fierce.
         But you know what?
         I felt pretty good.
         I could hold my head up.
         It was something I'd thought I could never do again, but I did. Held my head straight up and proud, walked directly into the syndicate like I owned it. Because I had just spent the last ten hours making myself stronger. I was in a good mood, a very good mood, and no one could ruin it.
         Not even Taki.
         "Do you mind?" I insisted, when I encountered her lounging outside the door to my room.
         "Just thought you'd be interested in a little information," she indolently returned.
         Has anyone told you that there was something wrong with her?
         Something cold, dark, and empty. Something hurting. As if she had a sharp knife buried deep inside, carving up her intestines, and the only way she could make it hurt less was to plant more knives in the intestines of other people. So, I had a very suspicious glower as I said, "What is it?"
         "Ling Xiaoyu had quite a time with the Devil, while you were gone. They spent the whole night on the town."
         "For the last time, Jin is NOT a Devil!" I demanded. Fiercely. Not backing down. Ready to defend it with my fists if I had to.
         "Oh - perhaps he isn't, then," Taki acknowledged.
         It was a limited victory. I probably couldn't change how she thought of Jin, but if she'd stop calling him names right in front of me, it would be a start.
         "He is a young man, is he not? A rather attractive young man, if you can inure yourself his evil aura. A powerful young man. An immensely wealthy young man. The sole successor to the Mishima syndicate. The heir apparent to a third of the world."
         "Get to the point."
         "Didn't you hear me the first time? He has taken an interest in Xiaoyu."
         "So he likes the pixie kid. So what?"
         "She is not a child. She is sixteen."
         "You've never looked closely at her, have you?" Taki mused. "Never tried to see her through a young man's eyes. All you bothered to notice was her size; you did not see her shape. She is a young woman, and she has a young woman's body."
         Xiaoyu is... sixteen?
         "A plain, poverty-stricken wastrel such as you shouldn't play hard-to-get with the rich and powerful. They don't need to chase haughty, pretentious lowlifes, not when they can have their pick of what they desire. Now you've lost your chance. But then, perhaps you never had it. The young master is of the House Mishima, and the House Mishima is founded upon Strength. You are not strong. Ling Xiaoyu is a thousand times stronger than you can ever hope to become."
         And she... she's sixteen...?
         "Have a pleasant evening."
         I didn't even notice Taki's departure.

         ...and when Sunday morning came, I wondered why I had been so freaked out.
         It wasn't any business of mine what went on between Jin and Xiaoyu. Besides, I hadn't come to the Mishima syndicate to entangle myself in some ludicrous soap opera. I came to save the world from the Toshin, and bring Heihachi Mishima to justice. And hopefully, save Jin's life. Saving Xiaoyu's life would be a bonus; she was in as much danger as anyone for staying here.
         And why shouldn't Jin and Xiaoyu share a happy ending, after all this was over? If the Mishima syndicate wound up in their hands, they'd either purge it of its corruption or bankrupt it entirely. Either option suited me just fine.
         As for my own strength, well, that would take time. Time to learn more, practice harder, and become better. I'd prove myself by bringing Heihachi to justice, finding evidence of his crimes and using that to warn Jin. It would all work out, now that I had my resolve back, and now that I could face Jin again.
         I could face Jin again.
         I am going to walk out that door and face Jin again.
         Okay. Why don't I skip past my harrowing last-second hesitancy, and just let you know that I made it to Sunday morning brunch with Jin. It was only the two of us-
         Oh, I knew he'd invited me to brunch because a syndicate servingwoman had given me a note with the morning wake-up call, do I have to recite every last detail to you? Do I have to tell you about the consistency of the broth, the texture of the rolls, and the calorie content of the margarine? Do I?
         I really was able to face Jin again, perhaps a tiny bit shakily, but I could look him in the eye.
         I meant to greet him with, 'Good morning.'
         What I actually said was, "Where's Xiaoyu?"
         "In her room, I think," he answered. "I assume she's sleeping too soundly to come. She stayed up pretty late last night. I'll have the staff leave a morning meal in her quarters."
         "That's very considerate."
         "It's the least I can do," he mumbled, breaking eye contact for a moment.
         "Beg pardon?"
         "Um, nothing, never mind. Truth is, I'm glad you could make it. You were out pretty late as well. Is it all right if I ask where you were?"
         "You couldn't read it through the armband?" I suggested, in a quick bid to distract him.
         "Oh," he said, lowering his eyes. "You know about that?"
         "Lei Wulong told me."
         "It really is an emergency beacon to summon Grandfather's Tekkenshu."
         "Oh, yes. It just has a couple other purposes. Like marking my current locale, or transmitting you a simple monitor spell of my physical condition."
         "Xiaoyu wears one too, and it's exactly the same-"
         "That's all right, I'm not upset. Just curious. Does it really shut off if I'm not wearing it?"
         "We can still find it in an emergency, but we're not using it to constantly track you."
         "The monitor spell goes dormant, though. Right?"
         "Right. And even when you wear the armband, its spell doesn't transmit anything unless you're greatly distressed, seriously hurt, or under an intense strain. Why? Were you in danger last night?"
         "No," I told him, truthfully. "Not in the slightest."
         Jin relaxed. It wasn't until then that I realized he'd been somewhat tense.
         "I may take the armband off from time to time, though," I warned him.
         "I wish you wouldn't," Jin sighed, "but I suppose I should be grateful you don't hate me for holding back part of the truth."
         "We all have our secrets," I shrugged.
         He smiled.
         "And you have another secret you're not telling me."
         The smile froze.
         "I heard a rumor when I got back, last night. Something about you and Xiaoyu...?"
         "Oh - ah - that." Jin brought his hand to his face, as if rubbing an itch in his eye. It was a futile attempt to hide the slight reddish tinge to his skin.
         "Well, it's probably none of my business, anyway. Just something I heard."
         "We went Christmas shopping," Jin explained, a little too hastily.
         "Yes. At a mall. It was busier than either of us expected. We - when we got back, she was talking about going again this afternoon, but she probably needs to rest today."
         What activity on EARTH could wear out that hyperactive fast-forward buzz-fly so much, she'd have to rest for a whole DAY!?
         No, wait - I'm not going to ask that question. I'm not.
         I don't want to think about it.
         I really don't want to think about it.
         So what I said was, "I didn't know you celebrated Christmas."
         "Sure. Especially by exchanging gifts."
         "But you're not Christian. Are you?"
         "Uhh... Grandfather says it's good for the economy."
         "Do you celebrate Christmas? I thought you believed in, um, Navajo religion."
         "Not exactly, no. The simple answer is, I believe in a Great Spirit. The more complicated answer would take an hour."
         "I see."
         "But your grandfather is right. Christmas gifts are good for the economy." I smiled, to show my holiday goodwill. "There's just one thing that worries me."
         "Are you sure you want Xiaoyu's help picking out Christmas presents? Because if you ever, ever try give me a bright orange jumpsuit like she wears..."
         Jin chuckled. "I can imagine."
         "No, really," I teased, daring to push my inroad a hairbreadth further. "Is there a special reason why you like being with her?"
         The humor left Jin's face. He looked away. Distance crept into his eyes.
         I had crossed a line. For a moment, I feared it was the border between harmless teasing and hurtful antipathy, but seconds passed, and I saw no signs of hostile resentment in Jin's expression. No, I think the line I crossed was the one that separated lighthearted banter from somber thoughtfulness.
         "She isn't afraid of me anymore," Jin mentioned, quietly. And perhaps a little nervously, as if he were holding something back.
         "Jin, are you okay?"
         "Fine, I'm fine. It's only..."
         "Julia... just how bad do I get?"
         "At the end of the school day, I mean. Or during it. Or even when I'm walking to school. I know I turn bad, I see reflections of it in other people's eyes, but I can't see it through my own eyes. It must be a nightmare, like, like - what was that story I've heard about? Doctor Jelly...?"
         "'Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'?"
         "Yes, that's the one. It's like, if there are too many people around me, I turn into someone else. Someone monstrous. It's so hard to keep everyone's emotions out, the slightest provocation makes me vicious, I fight like a rabid mongrel if I'm cornered, and I swear I must look like the Devil half the syndicate thinks I am."
         Only half?
         "Julia... I saw the look on your face, when we first walked to school together. It was as if I'd shape-changed into a slavering beast, right in front of you. Xiaoyu won't walk to school with me anymore - she avoids me while I'm there - because she doesn't want me to scare away her new friends."
         Am I understanding this right?
         He's upset because Xiaoyu shies away from him during the school day?
         He... he must really like her...
         "There is an old saying," I told him, "attributed to the Cheyenne tribe. It goes something like, 'Do not judge your neighbor until you walk two moons in his moccasins.'"
         "A type of shoe. What it means is, I'm not a telepath. I can't truly know how hard it is for you. But from what I can see, it's so hard that I have no business passing judgement."
         "I really do turn into a monster, don't I."
         "Even after four years of trying to improve." He shook his head. "It's not enough, is it? It's not nearly enough. You can't bring yourself to tell me in so many words, but it's true."
         "It could be worse," I offered, in mitigation. "You could be like Shingo, when he sees a mirror."
         "That reminds me. Were you really organizing his office until close to midnight? He shouldn't be keeping you that late. It isn't right to make you work such long hours."
         Oh, hell.
         I could have told Jin the truth, of course. Told him that I was so miserably, laughably, pathetically weak, the only way I could earn back my pride was through private fighting lessons. Told him that a handicapped madman had easily quashed me in single combat.
         Sure. And then I'd crown myself Empress of the Iron Fist.
         "It's kind of hard to explain," I evaded. "Shingo and I got to talking, and we lost track of the time."
         "Ah. Did he tell you any stories about the King of Fighters Tournament? He must have a lot of them."
         "Uh, yes. As a matter of fact, he does."
         I had better not blush. I had better not be showing my embarrassment. So I'm not as strong as Xiaoyu. I'm learning, aren't I? I'm learning to be better, and that's the best I can do and I'm not going to be ashamed anymore.
         You've lost your chance. But then, perhaps you never had it.
         I shook my head, determined to clear myself of bad memories, doubts, and fears. Fear was a weakness, and weakness would not help me against either Heihachi or the Toshin. In the meantime, it was good to have Jin as a friend. And it was good to have Xiaoyu as, if not exactly a friend, then at least a non-enemy. Nothing Taki could say would take that away from me.
         "This was delicious," I said, pushing away my polished plate. "My compliments to the chef."
         "I'll be sure he gets them," Jin affirmed.

         I spend most of that Sunday digging through the Mishima syndicate library. Looking for clues. Hints. Ideas. Information of any kind that would help me with my original quest, my quest to prove to Jin that his grandfather was a monster.
         Of course I didn't find anything.
         I mean, come on. Is Heihachi really going to be so stupid as to leave a telling piece of evidence lying around in his own home?
         Eventually, this unfortunate truth sank into me, and I was reduced to wandering around, trying to think of a new plan. The sun was setting. Maybe I should put in a good workout instead. Exercise the body, and perhaps the mind would follow.
         Maybe I should train with Xiaoyu? As intimidating as the idea was, perhaps I could learn from her.
         I found her hand-feeding raw bamboo shoots to her Panda. It gobbled them up, greedily. If I didn't know better, I'd swear those big, black ursine eyes carried a shining sparkle of affection for their new mistress. Jin had warned Xiaoyu that her Panda would have to go back to Tokyo Mishima Zoo, if it couldn't adapt to life in the syndicate. Yet, as I inspected the great bear's hearty appetite and thick, healthy fur coat, I had a strong suspicion that it was here to stay.
         "Hiiiii!" Xiaoyu called, waving to me.
         "Um, hello," I said. "I was wondering if..."
         "Yeeees?" She giggled.
         How could any man find that infantile giggle attractive?
         Then again...
         Taki had been right. I hadn't looked closely at Xiaoyu before. She was small, but she truly did possess the body of a young woman. Her chest and hips were indeed developed, showing soft, supple curves. She had a natural grace, fine skin, and an almost cherubic appeal...
         "Julia, why are you looking at me funny?"
         Oops. "Um, um sorry. I was just thinking-"
         "You wanna know something? Mitsu and Anna are going on another date tonight! Didja know that, huh, didja?"
         "He didn't ask me for any advice this time, though. Did he ask you?"
         "I don't remember seeing him today."
         "What should I get him for Christmas? Or Jin? I wanna get 'em both something nice, but I don't know what to shop for, no one was ever big on presents at the Temple of Light. The Temple was all about giving things up, not giving them to other people. I like it here!"
         Christmas presents...
         "Julia? What's wrong?"
         "You really did go Christmas shopping with Jin last night, didn't you? All night?"
         She giggled again. "I'm not supposed to say!"
         "Jin asked me to keep everything about last night a secret. Everything, everything! I wish I could tell you but he asked me real nice and-"
         "-he did get you a Panda," I finished.
         "Yeah, yeah. You understand, okay?"
         "Sure. And I'm sorry I can't help you; I don't really know what kind of gifts would be appropriate for..."
         "Sorry, I'm a little tired," I said, turning away.
         I'd decided I'd skip my workout for the evening. All I wanted was to go back to my room, lock the door, and sleep until dawn.
         Tomorrow was Monday morning, and I'd promised Shingo I'd meet him early. I had to help him organize his office.

         And now, I think we've reached a turning point.
         I could try to give you the whole month of December, day by day, all the way up to... but let's not get ahead of ourselves. It would be rather difficult, however. The first few days that I spent in Tokyo were memorable, because they were the first, and because I was getting to know so many strange people - friends, enemies, and questionable acquaintances.
         As for the rest of the month, though...
         My life quickly settled into a pattern. Not to say that it was boring; I was still caught up in my grand crusade to bring Heihachi to justice. It's just that, when your start following a routine, it becomes harder to pick out one specific day and remember, 'Ah, yes. That's when I discussed the Mishima Eleemosynary Foundation with Mrs. Neko Tonegazawa.'
         It was a nonsense sentence. I'm being grandiloquent. Work with me, all right?
         My point is, I think now is a good time to give you a feel for the rhythm my life settled into, over those weeks. If you need more details, I can give them to you later. I'll mention a few snippets of detail myself, but I'd be hard-pressed to remember exactly when most of them took place.
         Okay. Here goes.
         The Iron Fist Tournament continued. Its battles were spread through the whole month of December, allegedly to give its finalists time to recover in between matches. I didn't pay that much attention to the Tournament's overall structure, due to my personal humiliation. However, I did attend Jin's matches, and cheered for him. He soundly defeated two more opponents, in the weeks before Christmas. One was Yoshimitsu, a masked, armored swordsman. I fretted over that battle, but it was amazing. Jin grabbed his enemy's arm in the middle of a sword-strike, and tumbled him on his back. Yoshimitsu's metallic armor proved to be a very good conductor of electricity; Jin, the Fatal Lightning, never took a scratch.
         Jin's next antagonist was King, a jaguar-masked wrestler. Actually King the Second, I'm told. Jin seemed almost reluctant to battle King, in a wistful sort of way, but persevered and just barely won. He reversed King's own figure-four leglock, then dragged himself away on hands and elbows. I shared a little of my life-force to help Jin mend his legs, in time to walk to school.
         Jin was slated to fight one more opponent in December, sometime after Christmas. His grandfather warned him that he'd very likely have to face her, sooner or later. This prospective enemy was Anna Williams. Although Jin never openly admitted as much, I could tell that he worried greatly about the upcoming battle.
         I worried for Jin, too.
         Anna's half-sister Nina had damn near assassinated him, largely because he couldn't bring himself to hurt a woman. Not even if she's trying to snap his neck. Anna had just as much bone-crushing skill as Nina. And even though Anna wasn't possessed by the diabolical God of Fighting, something almost as ruthless drove her. She despised Jin, for reasons best known to herself. If I were to guess, though, I'd say it was on account of what Jin's father Kazuya once did to her. Rise and Fall of the Devils summarizes the whole, violent story. But you've already interviewed Anna about it, haven't you?
         Speaking of puissant female fighters, Ling Xiaoyu also scored a couple more victories in the Iron Fist. I didn't attend any of her matches, though. I was too involved with my crusade to find proof of Heihachi Mishima's evil, and bring Jin to his senses.
         Following my glorious quest, I searched practically every library in Tokyo; even tried to track down and interview people directly. Bought a tiny pocket tape recorder and carried it all over the place, ready to secretly catch any telling snippet of incriminating dialogue at the touch of a button. Tried to navigate the Mishima syndicate corridors looking for evidence. Tried everything I could blasted think of.
         I found a lot of suspicious things. A lot of malevolent suggestions. One newspaper article, dated just last month, especially disturbed me. It reported how twenty specially hired linguists, working for the Mishima syndicate, had all died in a mysterious 'accident.'
         Yes, I found dark shades and twisted whispers aplenty. But I couldn't find proof.
         Not one shred of proof.
         I didn't know where to start looking for proof.
         And I was hampered by time constraints. Really, I say I put all this work into tracking down Heihachi's villainy, but it's not completely true. I mostly put work into it on weekends. The rest of the time, I was usually busy. During the day, I had my job as Shingo's assistant, and then...
         Well, as I told you, Shingo became my teacher. I'd meet him after classes let out, and then he'd train me until late. It was hard, exhausting, sweaty work, but I could feel myself benefiting from it. Even though some of it didn't make sense.
         "I don't understand," I said once, after I unsuccessfully mimicked the ancient Kusanagi-style technique for generating a storm of fire. "I'm sure the Kusanagi family is a bloodline of sorcerers, but I'm not a sorcerer and neither are you. We can't use magic. We can't summon flames. Why did you bother learning this? Why teach me?"
         "Learning Kusanagi-style techniques will make you strong," Shingo answered. "It doesn't matter whether the flame is in your blood. You must find the flame in your soul."
         "I don't understand."
         "There was a time when I didn't understand, either. I thought if I kept doing this long enough, I'd be able to summon jets of fire to my fingertips, just like Kusanagi-san. He was smart enough to let me find the truth for myself. Don't worry, and keep practicing. One day, you'll find the truth, too."
         "Um, this Kusanagi... god? Person?"
         "Kyo Kusanagi-san. He was mortal when he taught me."
         "Are you sure he was a good teacher?"
         Shingo laughed at that.
         "Oh, Kusanagi-sama, I'll have to beg your forgiveness, but... I have no idea whether he was a good teacher. I never saw him try to be any sort of teacher. He would demonstrate a technique for me once - only once! - and then I had to figure out the rest for myself."
         "That's it? That's all he did for you?"
         "I'm not the warrior he was. I'm not the hero he was. I could never be a god like he is now. But maybe, just maybe, I can be a better teacher than him. We'll find out, won't we, imouto?"
         I tended to stop asking questions whenever Shingo called me 'imouto.'
         Certain things especially tended to trigger that dreaded pet name. Such as whenever I tried to express my gratitude to him, or ask him if there was any way I could repay him for his time and trouble. Every time I said anything like that...
         "Think nothing of it, imouto. I enjoy it, I really do," he would reply, very sincerely, and I wouldn't say another word. Being called 'imouto' bothered me.
         A lot of minor things bothered me.
         I mean, I appreciated the chance to learn from Shingo, especially since he was so discreet. I could have died from embarrassment if anyone found out what I was doing. And I trusted him about as much as I trusted anyone, in this strange country so far from my home. There was a negative side, though, and that was the ill effects I started to see in him.
         It was an accumulation of little things.
         He was careful never to slip up and address me as 'imouto' in the classroom. Just like I was careful not to be overly familiar and call him 'Shingo' in the classroom; for the sake of face, it was only proper to address him as 'Professor Yabuki' in front of his pupils. But outside teaching hours... when we were alone... as the days passed, he used my name less and less. To him, I really was 'imouto.' I couldn't deny it. He truly saw me as his dead little sister, either reincarnated or come back as a ghost.
         And that was only the beginning.
         He'd talk to me about his parents, as if they were my parents too. And as if they weren't dead.
         He would ask me if Dad had said it was okay for me to stay out this late. Or if Mom expected me to help make dinner tonight. Sometimes, he'd start telling me about a vacation. A trip I was going to take with Mom and Dad - he wouldn't be with us, he had to stay and fight as soon as his 'casts' for his 'broken bones' came off. He'd give me travel brochures of Kyoto and Osaka. He'd ask me to send him a postcard.
         His appearance started getting more disheveled.
         Not in major ways. He was always a cleanly person, and remained so. But his white headband would be messed up, its knot fumbled and tilted to the side. He'd start the morning with soaking wet hair, as if he hadn't so much as toweled it off after his morning shower. Sometimes, the white T-shirt he wore under his solid blue school uniform would be inside out; I'd see the tag protruding from the back of his neck. The uniform itself acquired wrinkles, as if it hadn't been ironed or folded right. He started to get a five o' clock shadow around his chin. I thought maybe he'd decided to grow a beard, but when I asked him about it, he said, "Oh, I don't really need to shave very often. Maybe I will in another year or two, but for now..."
         He started having trouble with calendar dates.
         It was as if he'd been infected with a Y2K variant - anything past 1997, he would set back by a century. His own lecture notes never had the right year on them anymore. During his Contemporary History class, I had to take over writing the calendar dates on the chalkboard.
         He started talking to Kusanagi-sama more often.
         Occasionally even in class. He used to be more reserved about invoking his god's name before his students, especially in the middle of a lecture. As the weeks passed, though, he'd tend to take breaks - he'd give all the students a short 'moment of silence.' No more than a minute or two, but during that time, he would put his hand over his heart and mouth a prayer. I tried reading his lips during one of these sessions; he was giving thanks to Kusanagi-sama. And possibly to Yuki-sama, the divine girlfriend of Kusanagi-sama.
         Are you getting a general picture, here?
         It was never anything so severe - so blatant - as to instigate a panic on my part. In a way, it was so gradual that I hardly noticed it at first. I had other mysteries on my mind.
         Such as: what the heck were Jin and Xiaoyu doing almost every day?
         It was none of my business, I knew it wasn't, just as Mitsurugi's ongoing relationship with Anna was none of my business. I still couldn't help wondering, I just couldn't. Taki liked to unnerve me with gossip, but she'd never tell me more than fragments. I'm not sure whether that was because she didn't know, or she was deliberately holding things back. If I had to guess, though, I'd say it was the latter.
         I knew that Jin was frequently taking Xiaoyu shopping. Or to popular restaurants. Or to nightclubs, or to karaoke bars, or to... well, you get the idea. Taki told me that they'd hold hands in public, from time to time. As I learned more about the foreign culture surrounding me, I started to understand the importance of that. The seemingly innocent act of holding hands implies significantly more intimacy in Tokyo, Japan than it would in AverageTown, U.S.A. Some of the older generation here might even consider such a public display to be in extremely bad taste.
         And do you know what really drove me up the wall?
         Jin was buying things for Xiaoyu, on these trips. Never anything as extravagant as another Panda, for goodness' sake, but, let me think. Meals, outfits, toys, training gear, all sorts of stuff. Taki told me about some of it. Also, I'd occasionally see Xiaoyu with a new goody or trinket, and I wouldn't have to ask who got it for her.
         Yet these excursions were only the corner of the metaphorical ice cube. Jin and Xiaoyu would also just disappear for hours at a time. No one knew where they went or what they did, while they were alone together. Or rather, anyone who did know wasn't talking about it.
         Such as Xiaoyu herself.
         "Say," I once worked up the courage to ask her.
         "Yeeeees?" she returned, as high-spirited as always.
         Xiaoyu was dressed in a brand-new Wu Shu outfit Jin had bought for her - some kind of lovely dark blue fighting dress with gold trim. She balanced on her hands, atop a wooden beam in one of the syndicate's many training halls. Her graceful handstand kept her delicate face about on level with mine, only upside down. Her gymnastics did not interfere with her ability to converse in any way.
         "You know," I drawled, "I hear a lot of rumors about you and Jin. Rumors that he takes you out all the time, and that the two of you occasionally disappear together."
         Xiaoyu displayed an angelic smile. "Jin warned me people might talk. No one can keep anything a secret in here, can they?"
         "Mm, there's at least one secret I'm wondering about."
         "Reeeeally?" She spread her legs in a wide Y-shape.
         "What do you two do together, when you're all alone?"
         "I promised not to tell. Promises are really, really important, Uncle Wang and Seung Mina taught me that and I believe it." She brought her legs back together.
         "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone else."
         She turned her handstand about, brought her legs down, and perched on the beam in the oddest way. Resting on her inner shins and thighs, legs bent at the knees, in the outward-spreading W-pose that my kindergarten teacher denounced as bad for the body.
         A mischievous sparkle danced in her exuberant cocoa eyes.
         "You really wanna know?" she chirped, winking at me.
         "Yes," I replied, deciding that direct honesty was the best approach.
         "Oh, yes."
         "Xiao-chan, come on."
         "C'mere, closer."
         I took another step.
         "Closer, closer. Get in really, really close."
         I was right next to her now. Leaning, brushing my hair away from my ear, and holding it scarcely an inch from her dainty lips.
         "AAAAAAAAAH!" she screamed, and if she had been any louder she would have blasted a hole in my head.
         For the rest of the night, I was as half-deaf as Shingo.
         The experience didn't stop me from wondering, however. It sure as hell stopped me from interrogating Xiaoyu again, but it didn't stop me from wondering. I wondered a lot.
         She was sixteen...
         That's not so young, you know. When I was going to high school... when I was sixteen and a sophomore... lots of my female friends were dating cute guys. Or not-so-cute-but-still-likeable guys. I remembered what it had been to be in high school, practically swimming in teenage hormones. And I'd wonder...
         Well, let me tell you something about my old high school. It was an off-reservation school, by the way; there were some other Navajo students there, but not that many
         If I were to pick up a photo of my high school sophomore class, I could point to at least half the faces, female or male, and tell you with some certainty, 'Oh, yes. He slept with her, and she slept with him, and she had some self-esteem problems, I think; she'd sleep with a different guy every other week.'
         Hey, I lived in a gossipy high school.
         My own face in the picture is another story. Who has time for boys and dating in high school, anyway? Oh, I admired a cute guy as much as most other girls, even had a crush or two, but I also had so many other things to worry about. I could never fulfil my dream of being an archaeologist if I didn't attend college, and I could never attend college if I didn't get outstanding grades in high school, and I could never get good grades if I committed a large part of my life to some guy. And to me, the whole idea of 'casual sex' was an oxymoron. How could anyone get so physically close to another person, and still consider the whole matter 'casual'?
         Am I rambling? Maybe I am rambling.
         But even though I was curious about the relationship between Jin and Xiaoyu - even though part of me wanted very badly to know what was going on - there was a deeper part of me, a stronger part, and that's the part that liked Jin.
         As a friend, I kept telling myself. I like him as a friend.
         I liked him too much to directly question him about his personal life, especially when it would make him uncomfortable for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity. And I was slowly, grudgingly, starting to like Xiaoyu too. Almost against my will. It's hard to hate a friendly face, when you're a stranger in a strange land.
         I saw her and Jin at the breakfast table, most mornings. And then I'd see more of Jin as the day went on, and I don't just mean sitting in the corner of Shingo's classroom. Xiaoyu wouldn't walk to school with him, or spend lunch period with him, so I did. He actually seemed rather pleased by my company. He always tried his best to act natural, in spite of being crowded by the other students' hostile thoughts.
         We talked a lot. About the Iron Fist, about Jin's classmates, about our respective backgrounds, and so on. I told him more about traditional Navajo ways than I thought he'd ever want to know, and he told me so much about Japanese customs it still makes my head spin.
         Sometimes, our talks would turn serious - politics, religion, and so on. We didn't agree on everything; overall, he was somewhat more conservative than me. We could usually agree to disagree, though.
         Once, I dared to turn our talk serious in a way that was hitting closer to home. I dared to ask him about Hwoarang.
         "Yes?" Jin said, evenly.
         "You said that Heihachi was going to cure him of his curse..."
         "Yes," Jin concurred, with unshakeable conviction.
         "Has he?"
         "Grandfather is doing everything he can."
         "By which you mean, 'no.'"
         "You can't expect Grandfather to find a cure for vampyrism as easily as-"
         "It's been over a week. Have you even seen Hwoarang, or asked him how he's doing? I haven't seen him at all."
         "He won his Iron Fist match against Gun Jack."
         "That isn't what I asked."
         "I think Grandfather is requiring him to stay out of our sight. But I can promise you that we are studying his curse with every possible resource. Just two days ago, I donated blood."
         "You - you let Hwoarang suck your-?"
         "Oh Julia, don't be ridiculous! No, Grandfather's medical team has been taking generous samples of my blood. I think they intend to mix it with Hwoarang's, or perform some tests on it, or something. My blood has a unique composition; it makes me immune to most diseases or poisons, but it can't be safely given to other people. If there's any way that we can modify it, and use it to help find a cure... why are you shaking your head like that?"
         Because I had a bad feeling about this. A very bad feeling. There was nothing I could do about it, though. The one topic that I could not argue with Jin - that could only make him angry if I tried - was anything to do with Heihachi Mishima.
         And now, let me tell you about another talk we had. This one turned serious in a more personal way.
         It came about mostly by accident. Late in the month... it didn't seem fair to me that Jin's high school kept having classes all the way through December, with only Christmas Day off, but that was the schedule and there was no escaping it. It was December 23rd that I was talking to him; I remember that there were only two days left until Christmas.
         "Say," Jin mentioned to me, offhandedly, as we started walking to his high school. "You've picked out a Christmas present for Professor Yabuki, haven't you?"
         "Um." The truth was that I hadn't. I was uneasy at the thought of giving Shingo anything. If I did, I had this sinking feeling he would say, 'Oh, thank you, imouto! I've left a present under the tree for you too, and so have Mom and Dad.'
         "I'm indebted to him," Jin continued. "If he hadn't consented to teach my class, I might have had to drop out of high school. Do you know if he likes fresh fruit? I could arrange to send him a basket of - Julia? What's wrong?"
         Jin didn't intend it that way, I'm sure. But the combined mental juxtaposition of 'Shingo' and 'fruitbasket' set off a reaction in me, and for once, I let my inner defenses down, just a little. For once, I asked for help, in my own, skewed way.
         "You're a telepath."
         "Oh, good. You remember," he verified, drolly.
         "Would you know if - could you tell if...?"
         "Is Shingo getting worse?" I had to exhale it all at once, in a single rush of nervous air.
         "What do you mean, 'worse'?"
         "More deeply drawn into his shadow world. Less in touch with true reality. If we arbitrarily presume he was half crazy and half sane before, then would the proportions be sixty-forty now?"
         Jin's brow furrowed.
         "Sixty-five and thirty-five?"
         "It can't be seventy-thirty, I know he's not that far gone."
         "Are you saying you've seen a change in him?"
         "Haven't you noticed how he has trouble with calendar dates?"
         "I have trouble with calendar dates. My score on that last history quiz was-"
         "You know what I mean."
         "Um, I noticed you've taken over writing chalkboard dates for some of his lectures, but I just assumed he found it helpful."
         "Then you don't think he's any different?"
         Jin became quiet.
         "What is it?"
         "He has changed," Jin softly admitted. "He has changed a great deal. So much I can hardly keep it out. Rays of it filter through the cracks in my psychic barriers."
         "Rays of what?"
         Jin folded his arms behind his back.
         "What? What are you picking up?"
         "He's happy," Jin said at last.
         "I've only known him for a couple months, and he's almost always been pleasant. But I've never felt him like this before, especially not over such a sustained time. Julia, I can hardly describe... how much he looks forward to the start of the school day. He looks forward to the end of it even more. He enjoys being with you more than anything in the world."
         "What... what are you...?"
         Jin reached inside the jacket of his school uniform, and drew something out.
         An envelope.
         An envelope with my name on it.
         "You dropped this, a while ago. I've been meaning to give it back to you for some time now... I'm sorry."
         "AAAH!" I cried, snatching Shingo's written disclaimer of liability from Jin's fingers. "Y-you- you didn't-!?"
         "Read it? No. I was tempted to, but - no. However, I do recognize Professor Yabuki's handwriting, and his personal stationery. I don't need to open the letter to know that he penned it away from the school, and lingered over every word."
         But, Jin hadn't actually read it?
         Well, he didn't seem to be lying. Good, good. Because if he were to read it, then he would have irrevocable proof of just how weak I really was. Proof far above and beyond my miserably failed Iron Fist match against Xiaoyu.
         I thought about tearing the disclaimer up, but then what would I do with the pieces? What if someone found them and reconstructed the damn thing? No, I'd better just stow it in my pocket, for now. I'd destroy it later.
         "...isn't he twice your age?"
         Jin was studiously not looking at me. "It's... it's none of my business, really, I shouldn't be saying anything, but..."
         Great Spirit.
         "W-wait a minute. What are you-?"
         "Sorry, I'm sorry. Your personal life isn't any of my-"
         "What are you-? No, wait, for once I don't want to know. Look, whatever you're thinking about Shingo and me, just stop it, okay? For goodness' sake, I work with him!"
         "The Mishima syndicate policy against employee fraternization is no longer strictly enforced."
         "Come on. Do you honestly think I don't know about Mitsurugi and Anna? I used to struggle to block out his fear of me. Now, I'm about ready to give up blocking out his love for her."
         Great Spirit. He's comparing Mitsurugi and Anna to Shingo and me!?
         "Wait, slow down!" I cried. "Why - why would you ever think that I-? That Shingo-!?"
         Jin stopped walking.
         He turned and regarded me, very closely.
         He said, "Where do the two of you go, almost every day? What do you do together? Why do you always take off your armband when you're... alone with him?"
         This was yet another chance to tell the truth. 'Well, Jin, there weren't any ten-year-old children available to teach me, so instead I've been taking martial arts lessons from the most famous loser of the King of Fighters Tournament. And at the rate I'm improving, I just might be able to beat a ten-year-old child in a fair fight. I'm still nowhere near handling a sixteen-year-old, though.'
         Oh, sure! And then I'd crown myself Supreme Goddess of the Iron Fist.
         I must have been practically hyperventilating, caught on the verge of outright panic, when I suddenly realized how unfair this was.
         "Hold it right there. Where do you vanish to with Xiaoyu? What's going on between you and her? What - what kind of relationship do - 'twice my age' indeed, isn't she half your size!?"
         My last-ditch counteroffensive worked.
         It worked, and then some.
         "She is not!" Jin denied, way too quickly. That mortified flush returned to his face. "She - she's closer to two-thirds."
         "Mm-hm. Okay, let's have the rest of it. I know you like to take her out on the town, and I know you like to buy her stuff, and I also know you like to disappear with her. She never talks about any of it because you make her promise not to. Exactly what-"
         "I - I'm sorry, all right?" Jin rushed. "I never, never should have questioned you - I'm so sorry, I'll never do it again-"
         "What are you acting so embarrassed about? What's going on?"
         "Please," he begged, covering his face with both hands. "Can we call a truce?"
         Perhaps I could have forced an answer out of him. But if I did, then I'd be obligated to reveal my own, horrific secret in exchange. Hypocrisy is a trait I despise in others; I could not condone it in myself.
         "All right. Truce."
         Jin heaved a deep sigh of relief.
         I said, "Um."
         "Uh... yes?"
         "There's still the original problem."
         "The-? Oh. You think Professor Yabuki may be getting worse."
         "Yes. Can you - would you be able to find out if he is?"
         "You mean, telepathically scan him?"
         "Or have him evaluated by a mental health professional."
         Jin sighed.
         "What is it?"
         "Do you have any specific evidence that he's getting worse? Other than his problems with calendar dates?"
         "Just a number of trivial incidents. None of them would have very much meaning if taken alone, but I worry about the combined picture."
         "Well, the syndicate originally had a difficult time persuading Serenity Consolation Asylum to release Professor Yabuki. The asylum staff didn't think that he could handle living in the outside world, so I can guess what they'd say if they re-examined him. As for a telepathic scan..."
         "If you asked him, then he would allow me to do it," Jin quietly finished. "And if you asked him to go back to Serenity Consolation, he would do that too. It would have to be your request, though. He wouldn't give up his freedom for anyone else."
         "Wait - what are you saying? Are you saying that if he is getting worse, the only thing to be done for it is to ship him back to the loony bin?" This was not an idea that I liked, for more than one reason. It wasn't only that Jin and I both needed Shingo to teach us. Shingo was currently giving Lei Wulong shelter, and hiding him from the watchful eyes of the Mishima syndicate. If Shingo returned to the asylum, then who could Wulong turn to? Wulong was too sick to get by on his own.
         Jin said, "There is one other option."
         "If you think your - um, I mean, if you think the time you spend with him is somehow aggravating his dementia, then you don't have to work for him anymore. Or, uh, see him anymore. We can always find you another job, and him another assistant."
         "But you're not convinced that would make him better."
         "I'm not sure he's worse to begin with. If anything, I... envy his happiness." Jin was careful not to make eye contact when he said that.
         I didn't particularly feel like making eye contact, either.

         And now, I'm going to tell you something I've never confessed to anyone before. Ever.
         Not even Jin.
         Especially not Jin.
         It happened to me late that evening. It was close to midnight. I think... I'd overdone it, training with Shingo. Sort of a retroactive compensation for all the frustrations and worries that were eating at me. Including the notable fact that I was not one ounce closer to finding conclusive proof of Heihachi's evil.
         I was dragging, on the way home.
         Walking all alone, on the deserted Tokyo street. Stars sparkled in the sky, like twinkling, faraway eyes. I was so fatigued that I stumbled once or twice. My mind was going in circles. Was Shingo really getting worse, or was it all in my imagination? Was Jin really having a secret love affair with Xiaoyu, or was I misinterpreting their relationship on every possible level? And how on Earth, how in the Universe was I ever going to obtain hard evidence of Heihachi's crimes?
         That's about when I passed the fashion store.
         Have you seen it? Near the corner of - oh, I can't remember the street names, but it's between a hair salon and a tea house.
         Well, its location isn't truly important. All you need to know is that, amidst its window display mannequins in fine dresses, it has a grand, full-length mirror inserted directly into the window glass. Any passerby can glance in it and see themselves, top to bottom, as they stroll. I'd never taken much notice of it before, but at the moment, Shingo's instability was weighing heavily on my mind.
         This mirror would strike mortal terror in him, I realized. He feared even the smallest looking glass; he thought mirrors were portals to demons who trafficked in human souls. It was nothing more than a ridiculous phobia, one more facet to his insanity...
         ...I'm deliberately not looking in the mirror.
         Come on, this is ridiculous. Just because Shingo is my teacher, it doesn't mean I'm going crazy like him. I may be taking lessons from a madman, futilely searching for nonexistent criminal evidence, and pondering the love life of an alleged Devil, but it doesn't mean I've lost my mind!
         And I'll prove it. I'm going to look in the mirror and not be afraid.
         Why am I afraid to look in the mirror?
         I am not afraid to look in the mirror!
         And so I looked. Put my hand on the glass, leaned forward, and looked. In the cascading illumination of the great, scythe-like street lamps against the midnight sky, I looked.
         I looked at the young woman in the mirror.
         She was a brash, eighteen-year-old girl. White, pale-skinned, brown-black eyes. Dressed very casually; white-laced red sneakers, blue jeans, dark red cutoff top, tape wrapped around her elbows, that multipurpose armband, and a simple, unadorned headband restraining her brown-black hair. The headband did only a mediocre job; a large clump of her bangs flopped between her eyes, even though the rest of her hair was bound in a clumsy, self-tied single braid.
         I tried to evaluate her as... well, as a young woman.
         If eyes that were not mine alighted upon her body, what would they see? What would they really see?
         She was rather worn and haggard, but that was to be expected, from a long day. Even so... even if she were at the peak of her energy...
         ...she was unremarkable.
         No starlight beauty here. A trim, small-to-medium figure; perhaps she could be mistaken for as young as fifteen or sixteen, even as Xiaoyu could be mistaken for thirteen or fourteen. There was no special luster to the face, no exceptional curves to the bosom. Not much of anything to distinguish the mirror-girl from any other girl, especially since she was too weak to wear the cardinal red feather of her heritage.
         She looked ordinary.
         Very, very plain.
         Why should anyone look twice at such a mediocre girl?
         "Whoa there. Let's put a brake on the self-pity, all right? Take another once-over of your zit-free face. Believe me, there's plenty of teenyboppers who'd give up a kidney to be that clear!"
         I didn't say that. No one to the right of me said that; nor did anyone to the left of me, nor did anyone behind me. It was-
         "Hey. HEY! Don't you look away from me, sweetie; we got a lotta ground to cover, and it's getting covered now!"
         -the girl in the mirror?
         Her pose no longer mimics mine. Instead, she glares into my eyes and defiantly sticks her hands on her hips. Pride makes her stand tall and strong. She carries herself like a true Indian princess, not an estranged tribal reject.
         "This isn't real," I whisper. "I'm hallucinating. Fatigue is making me - or sorcery?" No, it can't be sorcery. I don't feel so much as a tingle of magic.
         "Yes, yes dearie. Go ahead. Rationalize all you want; it's what you do best, isn't it?"
         "This isn't real," I repeat to the girl in the mirror. "You're not me. You can't be me. You don't even talk like me."
         "No I don't, do I honey? Not most of the time. Because you won't say what's in me, you have to talk nice and logic-style, a place for everything and everything in its place. No cuttin' loose, no trimmin' corners, no just blank-the-damn-grammar-and-say-what-you-FEEL! You can't even HEAR me unless you're half dragged out of your bloody skull!"
         She taps her finger on the glass, pointing to the left side of my chest.
         "I'm your heart, darling. Remember? That lovely little thing that slaves in your ribcage all day? That piece you consider SO damned INFERIOR to your precious Head, with all its Scientific Rules and Reasons!"
         "The human heart can't talk, think, or dream. It's only a specialized muscle."
         "AGAIN with the goddamn SCIENCE!" she screams, clawing at her hair. "No, darling. You shut up. You shut up right now, and listen to me.
         "You're screwing this up. You're risking everything, and I don't mean everything you've got - you're also risking everything that everyone else has ever loved about you, and you STILL have no damned IDEA what you're doing! Wulong was right - you're not a detective, you have no backup, and your chances of finding the perfect fact to pry Jin away from his homicidal granddad are abysmal. The one way you DO have of hooking the young stud is something you won't even let yourself TRY, no matter how badly you want to! Once - just once - can't you speak through me? Can't you tell him how you feel?"
         "What do you mean, what I feel? I don't-"
         "You feel SOMETHING! You're not a goddamn MACHINE! Even if you don't know exactly what it is you feel, can't you at least tell him THAT!?"
         "I... I don't think that would be a good idea."
         "Julia, honey! It's the one thing you really WANT to do! Why else are you driving yourself to exhaustion with these absurd fighting lessons? Are you telling yourself that a better uppercut will do you one whit of good against old man Heihachi's private army? Are you?
          "Look. Making yourself stronger isn't bad, by itself. Problem is, you don't want to be strong for you. You want to be strong for the Fatal Lightning, so you can justify offering your genes to the next generation of cute little Kazamas. But this is THE WRONG APPROACH! I'm sorry, but Xiao-chan's got too much of a head start on you. If you wait until you can outclass her before you go after the man you want, you're gonna lose him. Just like you lost the Iron Fist."
         "Now wait a-"
         "I want you to get him - I hope you get him - but you can't do it by making yourself into something you're not. Either he likes you for who you are, or you're not his type, but you'll never know if you don't take charge and ASK him! Ask him, just once!"
         "He's... he's already in a relationship."
         "YOU DON'T KNOW THAT, HONEY! All you know are inferences, deductions, extrapolations; your pretty little head is swimming with them and YOU'RE NOT LISTENING TO ME! I'm not saying you have to propose to him, sweetcake. I'm not even saying you have to lose your virginity to him, Great Spirit forbid. Just ask him out? Once? Would that be so hard?"
         "Xiaoyu is a friend of mine. I don't want to hurt her."
         "Oh, come off it! You know yourself better than that, and you know her better than that. You see her with your favorite cutie every morning. Sure, she likes him, but do you really think she's head-over-heels in love with him? Have you seen one sign of that in her? Do you honestly think it'd scar her for life if he told her, 'let's just be friends'?
         "You've gotta get a backbone and talk to your cutie, and you've gotta do it now. Because the sooner you stop stringing out Shingo like a piece of wet laundry, the better."
         "Don't play dumb with me, darling. You are me."
         "I - I never-"
         "If I spit it out in the crudest words you know, will it sink into your pretty head? Will it?" She wrathfully snaps her hand in an obscene gesture, middle finger protruding straight up while the rest of her fingers fold in a fist. "You are fucking that poor man every which way but literally."
         "Now JUST A-"
         "Oh, don't you dare act innocent! You remember damn well what he said to you, the night Xiao-chan whipped your butt!"
         The girl in the mirror hunches her back slightly, and puts out one hand, as if leaning on an invisible claw cane. With a perfect copy of Shingo's bland, placid smile on her face, she repeats, "'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.'"
         Dropping the impersonation, she continues, "Don't you get what's going on? Projection. Displacement. You're hounding him for fighting lessons, just like his dear, departed sibling once did. Ta daa! You're the perfect proxy for his darling 'imouto,' pulling him deeper and deeper into the past. That's why he's getting crazier with each passing day. You're fitting into his shadow world, making it more 'real' to him. The most despicable part is, you're not doing this out of any misguided kindness for him - you don't even RESPECT him, to you he's just a loser and a freak! You're doing this for YOUR sick needs, so you can get what YOU want!
         "Listen to your heart, honey. This is a real person you're screwing over. Just because he's chopped up and whacked out, it doesn't mean he has any less of a soul. What you're doing to him is wrong. Your heart knows it, and it's time your head figured it out. If you destroy an innocent man for your own selfish reasons, then you're no better than Heihachi himself!"
         "Wait," I insist. "Wait, stop acting so - so accusatory. Jin said - I don't need to take Jin's word for it, I can see it myself. Shingo likes teaching me. It makes him happy."
         "Sure it does, honey. Shooting up heroin makes people happy too." She smacks the back of her right hand against the vein of her left forearm. "That doesn't mean it's right to deal the stuff."
         "Then what are you saying I should do? Quit my job? Or make Shingo go back to Serenity Consolation? They kept him shut away for twenty years, and they couldn't cure him!"
         "Cure him? No. But they did get him good enough to function in the outside world. How will you feel, if he degenerates so much they have to padlock him for another twenty years? What will you say, if he turns catatonic? 'Oh well. At least he's happy.' Is that what you'll say?
         "Look, darling - I don't have all the answers. That's the whole point. I can't have all the answers, because I'm part of you, and YOU don't have all the answers! You have got to accept your limits. The last time you snubbed your own limits, Xiao-chan beat your ass - but now it's more than just your ass on the line. You can't let this continue. You've got to break out of this rut, and you've got to do it now.
         "Listen to your heart. Why can't you listen to your heart?"
         I'm crying.
         I do not remember when the tears started to fall; they drip in silence, and I can't explain why, or how, or for what reason. It's just that I am so tired and miserable, all of a sudden. Can't even stand on my own. I rest my arm on the glass, and then my forehead. Shutting my tearful eyes, I close out the vulgar, terrible, defiant she-demon with my face.
         My eyes opened.
         I was leaning against the mirror, heavily. Blinking and swaying with dizziness, I righted myself. Rubbed my eyes and looked in the mirror again, with more than a little anxiety.
         It was just a normal mirror. An ordinary looking glass, with a few fingerprints and tear-stains, framing the typical reflection of a plain young woman.
         I'd fallen asleep, leaning on the storefront.
         I'd dreamed the whole thing.
         I resolved to hurry back to the syndicate, and go straight to bed. Drying the last of my tears, I set off at a brisk walk. All the while, I tried to black out the disturbing experience I'd just had. It was nothing more than a dream.
         Listen to your heart, honey.
         A dream that I couldn't put out of my mind.
         Listen to your heart.
         No matter how much I wanted to.         
         Why can't you listen to your heart?
         I quickened my walk to a run.

End of Chapter 18: Trials of the Heart