PHOENIX REBORN

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



Chapter 19: Unhappy Holidays


   "I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round - apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that - as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys."
         -Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol


INTERVIEW WITH JULIA CHANG, section 9
February 15, 2018
7:15 a.m.


         Back for me so soon?
         I'm sorry, I know I'm usually more awake by now. It's only that Jin and I stayed up late at last night's concert.
         So. From where should I continue?
         Mm-hm.
         Yes. I remember last Christmas Eve, very well. It was the first Christmas Eve I've ever spent away from my grandmother. Even when I was at boarding school, I always came home in plenty of time to share the holiday season with her. Now, I felt awful. During the past weeks at the Mishima syndicate, I'd been so caught up in events that I hadn't so much as sent her a postcard.
         As I awoke, on Christmas Eve, I realized that the most efficient way to see my grandmother again would be through the syndicate's video transmitter. So I marched directly to one of the teleconference studios, before breakfast. Brushed back my hair, looked at the video screen, and reached to turn it on.
         I couldn't do it.
         My grandmother feared for me. Greatly. The House Mishima had murdered her husband and her daughter; she was in mortal terror of losing me as well. If I were to contact her, she would beg me to return home while I still could. Last time, I had been able to refuse her by clinging to the armor of my crusade. But what could I tell her now? Now that I had been eliminated from the Iron Fist Tournament, and that I had failed to find any hard evidence of Heihachi Mishima's crimes? What would I say to her?
         'Hello, Grandmother. I'm sorry, I still can't come back because I've developed feelings for Jin Kazama. He's no one you'd know, just the heir apparent to the House Mishima; it isn't as if he personally massacred our family. The problem is, he's dating Ling Xiaoyu, and Xiao-chan is so strong she could crush me in less time than it takes to say all this. So I'm taking private fighting lessons from Professor Shingo Yabuki to make myself stronger, and I think it's working. Except that Shingo is crazy. He thinks I'm his dead little sister, but I'm not a ghost yet, really, I'm not.'
         Grandmother would cry, if I told her that.
         It hurt, to think of making her cry.
         I couldn't do it, I just couldn't. And as I gave up, letting my hand fall from the video switch, I remembered a disturbing dream from the previous night.
         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 to 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!
         I could deny it no longer. Shingo's residual sanity was slipping away, inch by inch, and I was directly responsible. I had to do something, and I had to do it now.
         After an hour of anxiously weighing my options, I decided to visit Serenity Consolation Asylum.
         It wasn't the first time I'd been there, but I hadn't stayed for very long before. Now, I made up my mind to personally evaluate the place that had been Shingo's home for twenty years. Or his prison for twenty years, depending on your point of view.
         I was somewhat concerned that they wouldn't be open on Christmas Eve, yet their front door was unlocked. Two burly security guards accosted me as soon as I walked inside. When I showed them my IdentiCard, they ushered me to a receptionist at the front desk.
         The receptionist, a well-dressed, mild-mannered man in his late thirties, scrutinized me and distrustfully raised an eyebrow. I could almost see him thinking, 'Gaijin little girl tourist. Do your parents know where you are?' Once he ran my card through a scanning device, though, his demeanor instantly became empathetically sociable.
         "Welcome to Serenity Consolation, young mistress," the receptionist warmly greeted, bowing deeply and returning my card. "How may we serve you?"
         I knew I was getting sidetracked, but I couldn't help myself. The part of me that is always asking questions wanted to know, "Am I suddenly getting the VIP treatment because of what's on my IdentiCard?"
         The receptionist smiled, affably. His expression was disturbingly reminiscent of Shingo. "You are an honored guest of the Mishima syndicate, yes. It is our pleasure to afford you every reasonable courtesy. Also, the display notes that you currently assist a former patient of ours. Professor Shingo Yabuki, is that correct?"
         "Um, yes."
         "Would you like to speak with Ms. Akashi? Professor Yabuki used to be her charge."
         "Uh, that would be nice. Is she here?"
         "I'll get her for you at once."
         He was true to his word. Soon, Ms. Akashi greeted me with a bow. She was a demure orderly in her mid-twenties.
         "It is an honor, young mistress," she affirmed. "How may I serve you?"
         After an awkward pause, I returned the bow. "Um, hello. I'm Julia Chang. I was, uh, in here earlier this month."
         "With the young master, yes. I remember."
         "Could you please, um, show me around a little? Give me an idea of-"
         I was going to say, 'of what it's like to live here,' and hesitated. Swallowing, I stumbled onward with, "-well, just a general idea of this place. And if I could, I'd like to ask you a few things about Shin-... I mean, about Professor Yabuki."
         "Certainly, young mistress."
         Ms. Akashi was quite cordial toward me. As far as I could tell, she didn't fear me the way she feared Jin. Good. That improved my odds of being able to effectively communicate with her.
         So, she gave me a tour of the asylum. I suppose I could describe everything from the wallpaper patterns to the brand of applesauce they served at snack time, but I don't see the point. Serenity Consolation is within walking distance of the syndicate, after all; there's nothing to stop you from checking it out for yourself.
         Overall, the place seemed rather quiet. Clean, spacious, briskly run, and efficiently practical. In many ways, it was the institutional epitome of Shingo's benignly congenial nature.
         Also, I noticed that most of the patients appeared calm or withdrawn. I talked to several, and although they ranged from childish to catatonic, none of them were particularly agitated or hostile. Some of them were on prescribed medication, but no one seemed to be deliberately controlled through sedative drugs. I asked Ms. Akashi if there was a reason why most of the patients were so quiescent.
         "Oh, it wasn't always this way," she explained. "We used to care for a broader range of psychoses. That was long before my time here, though. We almost never admit patients with a violent history anymore."
         "What about Eijiro Fujisawa?"
         "A special case, requested by the young master due to our excellent record. As it turns out, Fujisawa has proven to be no trouble at all."
         "Mm-hm. Was this change in your admissions policy before or after Professor Yabuki, um, arrived here?"
         "He wasn't a professor when he first came to us, or so I'm told. He obtained his degree through Internet correspondence courses." She gestured to a room of computer terminals, with a sign above the door reading 'AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.' "Yabuki was originally committed for his antisocial behavior."
         "Antisocial-?"
         "A violent incident, sparked by his vehement paranoia of reflective surfaces. We were never able to fully cure him of his phobia, but it is much less than what it once was."
         "I see."
         "There's even something of a legend about Professor Yabuki, here. Serenity Consolation experienced a riot, shortly after he was admitted-"
         "Did he cause it?"
         "My goodness, no. I believe it had something to do with another group of patients, who feared that their food was being poisoned. Then we accidentally received a shipment of unpasteurized milk, and people started getting sick. We had fewer security personnel in those days, so..."
         "Oh, dear."
         "Several workers were taken hostage, including the chief of staff. It didn't seem like any of them would get out alive, but Yabuki came to their rescue. According to the legend, he personally flattened forty rioters."
         "Mm-hm. So what really happened?"
         "Professor Yabuki himself insists that only four people physically attacked him. When he talks about it at all, that is, which isn't often. Legend also has it that he summoned a 'magic forcefield' to save the hostages' lives."
         "Professor Yabuki isn't a sorcerer. How could he do such a thing?"
         "It's only a story, young mistress. Please forgive me for repeating fanciful tales."
         "That's all right."
         "In any case, I'm told that's why the chief of staff made a special exception to keep Yabuki here, even after our admissions policy was changed. Yabuki eventually earned privileges above and beyond those of any other patient. We're passing the garden now - do you see that clearing? It was his favorite place in the whole asylum. He'd drill various exercises there for hours on end."
         "Exercises? Do you mean, 'ancient Kusanagi-style fighting arts'?"
         "Yes, that is what he liked to call them."
         "Did he ever teach these arts to anyone else?"
         "We couldn't allow that. It would be against policy, and far too dangerous."
         "Um, okay."
         "Is there anything else you'd like to ask?"
         There was a great deal more, starting with, 'Have I just ruined Shingo's twenty years of progress?'
         What I actually said was, "You know about Professor Yabuki's dementia, don't you?"
         "Yes, I do."
         "Did you truly believe that he wasn't ready to leave the asylum for the outside world?"
         "I would have felt differently if he'd had anyone to look after him. His surviving family has terminated all contact with him for quite some time. He has occasionally received visits from a friend, Ms. Chizuru Kagura, but she is currently traveling abroad and can't be reached. It is a blessing that Professor Yabuki has someone like you, to take such an interest in his welfare."
         Ouch. Be still, my guilty conscience.
         "Um, you also know that one of his delusions is that he believes his younger sister is still alive. Right?"
         "And that his parents are still alive, yes."
         "Has he ever, um, projected her identity?"
         "Could you be more specific, young mistress?"
         "Has he ever talked to you like you're his little sister?"
         "No, never. Why? Is he engaging in such behavior now?"
         Yes, and it scares me.
         "Possibly," I admitted. "I - I think so."
         "But you're not certain?"
         "I - well, if I were to bring him here, could you evaluate him? Or could someone else on the staff make a comparative diagnosis? And if you think he's getting worse, then could you maybe figure out what to do for it?"
         "We are at your service, young mistress. Would you like to make an appointment?"
         "Ummm..."
         "Otherwise, please do bring him by anytime. Mr. Fujisawa especially misses him."
         "What about the one-way mirror in your observation room? Professor Yabuki might have a bad reaction to it."
         "It can be taken down, if necessary."
         "And I can bring him here anytime? Even at night? Or on Christmas?"
         "We are staffed twenty-four hours a day, year-round."
         "Don't you get time off to see your family?"
         "My family lives close to here, so it's not a problem for me. I can't speak for the others, though." She answered the personal question with just as much deferential politeness as she had the professional questions.
         "Uh, thanks," I told her, with another bow for good measure. "Thank you very much. For everything."
         "You are most welcome, young mistress."


         Well, okay.
         I'm not sure what I expected from my impromptu survey of Serenity Consolation - straitjacketed, screaming crazies locked in padded cells? - but it certainly didn't appear to be a bad place. If anything, it looked like a sanctuary.
         Perhaps this was only to be expected. One of my more indelicate lines of questioning with Ms. Akashi - specifically, as to the cost Serenity Consolation levied for the care of its inmates - had revealed some interesting figures. It would appear that only the wealthy could afford the asylum's rather exorbitant fees. This is not necessarily to suggest that Serenity Consolation was inclined to price-gouging, mind. The full-time staff and high-quality care were, quite simply, expensive. Serenity Consolation could afford to be so idyllic, because they charged top dollar.
         If Serenity Consolation had a dark side, it was in the purpose it had grown to embody. It was an institution where the very rich could conveniently hide family, friends, or associates with the misfortune to succumb to debilitating mental illness. All of the asylum's inmates had some kind of well-to-do sponsor. For example, Eijiro Fujisawa had Jin Kazama as his patron.
         Except, Shingo wasn't from a wealthy family. Was he?
         Hm. Could Chizuru Kagura be Shingo's patron? He had mentioned her a couple times before. Something about 'Kagura-san' telling him that he'd 'saved the world.' He hadn't said anything about whether she was affluent, though.
         Still, if Kagura truly believed that Shingo had 'saved the world' - or more to the point, if she believed that saving the world had crippled Shingo's body and mind - then she might have felt indebted to him. Perhaps she had been contrite enough to get him the finest care money could buy.
         Oh, well. It was only a hypothesis. And now that I'd seen Serenity Consolation with my own eyes, it was time to take the next step.
         I telephoned Shingo.
         It was, after all, a Sunday; he wouldn't be at the high school. And I didn't dare seek out his apartment, because he was hiding Detective Lei Wulong from Heihachi Mishima. I probably didn't have Mishima syndicate spies shadowing me wherever I went, but it didn't seem wise to take unnecessary chances.
         Shingo wasn't home.
         His answering machine responded. Hello, Shingo Yabuki speaking. I'm not here right now, but please leave your name and number, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. May the blessings of Kusanagi-sama be upon you!
         I said, "It's Julia Chang. I'm at the Mishima syndicate headquarters. Could you please call me back as soon as you can? Remember to be careful what you say over the phone; they monitor every line here."
         For the rest of the day, I felt tired. Physically and mentally enervated, from a long month. So I spent my time resting, and meditating.
         And worrying.
         What was I going to say to Shingo? How was I going to tell him that I couldn't see him anymore? How was going to tell him that he should go back to Serenity Consolation Asylum?
         Was I going to tell him that he should go back?
         Maybe - maybe he should go back, but not for an extended time. Only long enough for the staff to take a look at him, and straighten him out a bit. Shingo had been coping tolerably enough as Jin's high school teacher, before I met him; if he could just get back to where he once was, then he'd probably be all right. Probably.
         There was one other noteworthy event in the syndicate that evening; namely, Xiaoyu's Christmas party. It was a small affair, born from the pixie girl's boundless enthusiasm for celebration and presents. She wanted so badly to share and open gifts with her friends, as soon as it was officially Christmas Day - on the very stroke of midnight. Jin could deny her nothing, and so it was agreed on the spur of the moment.
         "What?" I asked, when Jin told me about it. I'd say the time was close to eleven at night.
         "It'll just be you, me, and Xiaoyu," he clarified. "I wasn't sure you'd be awake, but I guess you're as excited about Christmas as she is."
         No, I'm anxious about something else entirely, but I don't feel like talking about it. "Only the three of us, you say?"
         "Grandfather is busy, so yes. Unless there's someone else you'd like to invite?"
         "Not exactly. I was just wondering."
         "Yes?"
         "Hasn't Xiaoyu become good friends with Mitsurugi? Why didn't she invite him?"
         "He wasn't available," Jin said, a shade too quickly.
         "Is he, mm, 'celebrating' with Anna Williams? Or does he have time off to visit his family?"
         "You could say that," Jin acknowledged, looking at the ceiling.
         Wait a minute.
         "Jin, what is going on? Where is Mitsurugi?"
         "Julia-"
         "Out with it. Now."
         "Please. Not until after Christmas."
         "Why?"
         "Xiao-chan is so fond of him... I..."
         "You'll have to tell her sooner or later. You'll have to tell me, too."
         "After Christmas. I promise."
         "Okay, but I'm holding you to that."
         As I followed Jin out of my room, I wondered if he had gotten rid of Mitsurugi - either fired him or pushed him off a cliff - out of jealousy over Xiaoyu. That didn't make sense, though. Mitsurugi had been passionately in love with Anna. Mitsurugi and Xiaoyu were only friends.
         Weren't they?
         And what was I thinking, Jin would never, ever push an innocent man off a cliff. That was more his grandfather's style.
         No, no. I knew Jin. He cared too much about other people, whether they were friends, enemies, or rivals. Jin might well have fired Mitsurugi; that pesky, black-suited simpleton always did seem rather incompetent. Mitsurugi couldn't be hurt or in danger, though. If he were, then Jin would be acting much more culpable.
         So why did I have this sick, nagging worry in the pit of my stomach?
         Probably just displacement. I'm feeling so ashamed about Shingo's condition that I'm getting distressed over Mitsurugi as well. Yes, that's most likely it.
         Just as I came to that conclusion, Jin and I reached Xiaoyu's room. There were stockings, holly, streamers, and a big evergreen tree, all lit up with gaudy, colored lights. It was, I should mention, the only room in the syndicate decked out with Christmas trappings. Heihachi Mishima was not one to festively adorn his home.
         When I glanced at the Christmas presents sloppily piled under the tree, I realized a terrible fact: I hadn't gotten Jin or Xiaoyu anything.
         I had no excuse. Especially not after how I'd done next to nothing for the whole evening. As Xiaoyu gleefully passed out boxes in shiny, hideous, bright orange wrapping paper, I began to worry. Then I began to panic. I was on the verge of faking illness, when Ishida and Kimura came to save me.
         Not deliberately, of course. They simply appeared. I heard a slight throat-clear, so hushed that I almost mistook it for the rustle of Xiaoyu's bouncy ponytails. Turning around, I saw that Jin's nearly identical pair of black-suited bodyguards had joined us. Kimura proffered a compact, cordless phone.
         "Telephone call for mistress Chang," he said, quietly.
         I accepted the phone.
         "Yes," I said into the receiver. "Yes, it's me. No, it's not too late an hour; thank you for calling me back. I need to see you right away. The usual place is fine; can you make it? Thank you. Thank you very much. I..."
         A psychic knife of guilt twisted inside me. "...I'll talk to you when we're there, all right? Goodbye."
         I hung up the phone.
         Jin cautiously said, "That was Professor Yabuki, wasn't it?"
         I nodded. "I'm sorry. I have to leave now."
         "You're not even gonna open your presents?" Xiaoyu piped up.
         "Sorry, Xiao-chan. There will be time enough for that later."
         "Julia, wait-!" Jin seemed about to say something more, but couldn't quite manage.
         "Yes?" I prompted.
         "You... you could bring Professor Yabuki here. To celebrate Christmas Day with us. He's welcome in the syndicate, anytime."
         Jin's voice wavered a little, when he said that. As if he were overcompensating, trying too hard to sound natural.
         "I'm sorry," I apologized. "It's not - I can't - look, I'll come back as soon as I can, but I don't know when that will be. So go ahead and open your presents without me, all right?"
         "Could you at least keep your armband on? If you're going to venture out in the dark alone?"
         "All right." I wasn't meeting Shingo for a fighting lesson this time, so there was no need to take the vital-systems-monitor off.
         As I turned to leave the room, my insatiable curiosity struck again.
         "Hey," I said to Ishida and Kimura. "Don't you two get to spend the holiday season with your families? Why do you have to work through Christmas?"
         Ishida snorted.
         Kimura said, "Mishima-sama requires our service throughout the course of the Iron Fist Tournament."
         "That doesn't sound fair," Xiaoyu pouted. She looked at Jin. So did I.
         Jin shirked, first from her piercing gaze, then from mine. At last settling his view upon Ishida and Kimura, he asked, "Was this Grandfather's express decree?"
         "Yes, young master," they said in unison. Or rather, Kimura said it; Ishida drawled it.
         "Then there's nothing I can do," Jin explained, in a halfhearted appeal to Xiaoyu and me.
         "As if it matters," Ishida grumbled, rolling his eyes. I was at just enough of a side angle to see it, past his otherwise impenetrable dark glasses.
         "I'd imagine that it would matter a great deal," I suggested, a little sadly. I was thinking of my own grandmother.
         "Yeah, right."
         "Cousin," Kimura reproved, still very quietly.
         "What, you don't want her to know?" Ishida snapped, taking off his shades and fixing Kimura with an icy look. "You don't want any of them to know? Will it shake you up if I tell them? Good."
         Ishida folded his arms, and regarded us through the corners of his half-slitted eyes. "My mother is always trying to get me married off to a 'nice girl.' If I have to sit through one more omiai with a desperate, homely, biological-clock-ticking- ah, forget it."
         He loosely tossed a backhand gesture, in Kimura's direction. "His mother is even less talkative than he is. And his wife hasn't seen him in three months anyway-"
         "Cousin!" Kimura insisted, and it was still only half the volume of anyone else's regular speaking voice.
         "-so what's another week or two?"
         Jin said, "I'm sure you could use one of the teleconference studios. Both of you."
         "That is not permitted," Kimura replied, in a whisper. "We are only servants."
         "Then I'll authorize the vid-calls. You just hang up when you're done talking, all right? Take as long as you like. I'll accept full responsibility."
         Kimura closed his eyes and inclined his head. "Thank you, young master."
         Ishida looked mildly skeptical, but didn't say anything more.
         I left all of them then, setting out for my meeting with Shingo.


         Our 'usual place' was, of course, the clearing near the high school where Shingo normally gave me fighting lessons. He had already arrived by the time I got there; he lived rather close to the school. He'd decorated the trees with his portable, glowing lights.
         He'd also brought something with him. A shopping bag.
         Oh, no...
         "Merry Christmas, imouto!" he cheerily proclaimed, reaching into the bag and handing me a neatly giftwrapped box.
         I am not your little sister, I thought, but did not say. It would have been useless. For perhaps the thousandth time, I studied the destroyed left side of his body, especially his wooden left leg and arm. How had he wrapped the gift so precisely, with only one hand to hold and tape the paper?
         "And this one's from Dad," Shingo added, giving me another present out of the bag. This one was smaller, and had a card attached. "He said you're supposed to open it by yourself, away from the syndicate."
         I cringed. It hurt to see Shingo so deeply buried in the false reality of his shadow world.
         I didn't want to confront him like this, but I had to. It was either that, or do nothing to stop his slow, self-destructive slide into complete madness.
         "I can't accept these," I said, setting down the presents.
         "Of course you can, imouto. Dad will be so disappointed if you don't-"
         "Shingo, please."
         My desperation got through to him. He was deranged, not oblivious.
         "Imouto?" he queried, worriedly. "What's wrong?"
         "I'm not your little sister - I know you can't hear me when I say this, but I'll say it again anyway, and I need you to keep listening even if you can't hear me. I am not your little sister. When you call me your little sister, it's a warning sign, and I can't ignore it any longer.
         "You're getting worse.
         "I can't let this continue. I'm afraid for you. You're getting sicker, mentally. Shingo... will you go back with me, to Serenity Consolation Asylum?"
         He said nothing for a long time.
         "Shingo?"
         "Go back...?" he echoed, as if repeating something from a distant dream.
         "They need to look at you. To see how you're doing, and try to heal you. At the barest minimum, they need to restore you to how you were, before you met me. I'm apprehensive that - that the time I've spent with you is hurting you. I should have realized it before, and I'm sorry, but I know now. You have to go back to Serenity Consolation, at least for a little while. And after I take you there, I... I can't see you anymore."
         "You... you can't...?"
         "I'm sorry, Shingo. I'm so sorry. If I could only undo everything that unraveled you to this point... I don't know of any other way to help you."
         "Imouto?" he begged, in a questing, querulous whimper.
         "No, Shingo. Not your little sister."
         Shingo furrowed his eyebrows in a lost, powerless pattern. He blinked. His hand went to his good right eye. He rubbed it with his fingernails, stiffly, as if trying to scratch away cataracts, and then he looked at me again.
         New emotions seeped into his composure.
         Grief.
         Remorse.
         Horrified revelation.
         He straightened. Shock gathered on his features. Tears brimmed at the corners of both his eyes, real and glass.
         Did he truly understand? Had I finally pierced the hallucinations of his shadow world?
         "Onee-san," he breathed, in misery and heartbreak.
         'Onee-san'?
         Big sister.
         Oh, no.
         "No," I denied, whipping my head back and forth, "no, Shingo, don't you remember who I really am? I'm Julia Chang, I started working as your assistant earlier this month-"
         "I - I heard you, onee-san," Shingo stressed, a quivering tremor running through his voice. "I heard you. You told me I had to go to Serenity Consolation. You told me that you couldn't see me anymore. I remember the last time you said that..."
         His head slumped. He leaned on his claw cane, as if it were the only thing that kept him from collapsing dead on the ground. Suddenly, he seemed so weak. So frail. Like a broken toy.
         "Onee-san," he implored. "Can you ever forgive me?"
         What?
         "I'm so sorry, onee-san. You were in danger from the mirror. I was trying to protect you from the mirror - it had your reflection, its demons were reaching for your soul. I never meant to hurt you, I never meant to make you afraid in your own home. The mirror was going to take you, just like it - like it almost took Mom, and Dad, and imouto. I couldn't let it take you... I love you, onee-san. Please, can you ever forgive me? Have I - have I done something wrong again, without realizing it...?"
         "No," I softly answered. "No, you haven't done anything wrong."
         "Then why - why won't you see me? Why do you return all my letters unopened? Why can't I - why can't I send your kids anything for Christmas...?" He could no longer hold back his tears; they traced uneven trails down his raggedly shaven face. "I'm an uncle now, right? Two nieces and a nephew? I only - I only know about them because Kagura-san told me, I haven't broken any of your rules, I swear I haven't. I don't even know what they look like."
         He shook his head, forlornly. "When - when Kazama-san was going to get me out, I prayed to Kusanagi-sama that I'd see you again. That you'd come by to see me again, even once. You didn't come. Instead you sent - you sent a lawyer with a black briefcase, and he... he..."
         Shingo had to swallow a lump in his throat. "I've signed everything he gave me, onee-san. Sworn my word, with Kusanagi-sama as my witness. I'll never come within a thousand meters of your home, I'll never call you, I'll never seek you out, or any of your friends or family... I signed my promise, and I've kept my promise, and I'll keep my promise until Kusanagi-sama calls me from this world... onee-san, I beg you, can you ever forgive me?"
         I didn't know what to say.
         "Please," Shingo gasped, as if pierced through the heart. He sagged. If one of his legs weren't artificial, he would have fallen to his knees. Instead, he sank to a maladroit, semi-crawling pose, his right knee bent, his left leg at an awkward angle. His cane remained upright on its support-claw; he clung to it desperately, hanging from his right hand. "Don't send me back there. No one needs me there. Kazama-san and imouto need me to teach them. At Serenity Consolation... they don't need me. I tried to help them for a long time, cleaned for them, did computer work for them, tried to teach some of the other patients to read, but I - I'm not really needed there.
         "I can't live to just be. Kusanagi-sama can't have saved me to do nothing; there has to be a purpose, a reason, or what am I still here for? Please, onee-san. You don't understand. Your husband needs you, and your children need you; you don't know what it's like, not to be needed. Please don't do this to me. Please don't punish me like this."
         "You're not being punished," I tried to explain. "You're mentally ill, and you can't help anyone else until you get better."
         Shingo lost his grip on his claw cane.
         It toppled from his slipping grasp. Shingo's right hand and forearm fell to the ground, barely supporting his upper body. The cane itself hit the dead grass with a near-silent thud.
         Shingo bowed his head in despair, the last of his spirit crushed.
         He whispered, "What about otou-san?"
         'Otou-san'?
         Father.
         "He's sick," Shingo continued, dejectedly. "He's too sick to go out on his own. I have to run errands for him, get things for him; I was out getting things for him just today, all day. He needs someone to take care of him. He's so tired now that he sleeps most of the time. He won't go to a hospital; he says it's too late, there's nothing they can do for him. And I - I think he's right."
         Great Spirit.
         "'Otou-san,'" I repeated, in shock. Then, "Lei Wulong?"
         "Lei-san... yes... that's the name he's using now."
         I looked down at the presents Shingo had delivered to me. At the wrapped, shiny box that he'd said was from 'Dad.'
         It was a gift from Lei Wulong.
         I opened it. Shingo raised his head and looked confused, but didn't say anything. Inside the box was a blue-and-white, diamond-patterned armband, identical in appearance to the combination distress-beacon-and-health-monitor that Jin had given me. Wulong's gift was rolled around an ordinary, handheld cigarette lighter.
         I opened the card that came with the gift.
         It was an ordinary Christmas card, with airbrushed artwork on the front. Inside was a folded, computer-printed letter in English. As I read it, I could almost hear Lei Wulong's dry, devious, yet somewhat wheezy voice in my head. I'll try to repeat it from memory, as best I can.


Enchanté, mademoiselle.

I'm all right. Yabuki is barking mad, but mostly harmless.

The key word there is 'mostly.' I know he's teaching you how to fight, and I know you'll never listen if I flat-out tell you to break it off. So just stay calm and keep reading while I try to warn you, okay?

Yabuki has a criminal record. Around twenty years ago, he attacked his older sister and put her in the hospital. Mirrors were involved. So if you won't call it quits with him, then at least be careful, all right? Don't provoke him. Remember that he is a lot more dangerous than he looks.

I also hear you've been eliminated from the Iron Fist. This does NOT mean you are safe. Heihachi is planning to murder all you kids. You have to get away from the syndicate, and soon. Time is running out.

The armband is for when you realize this. Yabuki and I cashed in some major favors to get it made, not to mention enchanted. If you wear it - you have to put it on your arm or it won't work - then it will make you and everyone within a few meters of you undetectable to any kind of technological surveillance. People can still see you with their naked eyes, though, so be careful. The armband will also shield you from most types of sorcery, including magical divination. Just in case Heihachi tries to use Jin to track you.

Use the armband to escape through the syndicate's secret passageways, when you finally wake up to the danger you're in. Head for Chizuru Kagura's temple in Tokyo. Yabuki knows where it is. So does Heihachi, but Kagura's wards are one of the few things that can repulse his Tekkenshu. A scientist called Doctor Boskonovitch is also hanging out there. You can trust him.

Nothing would make me happier than if you could persuade Jin and Xiaoyu to escape with you. But if they won't go, save yourself. I owe your mother that much, at least. She died a hero, and a martyr, and far too young.

If I believed in God, I'd pray for you. Hell, I'm almost desperate enough to start praying to Kusanagi-sama.

Do me a favor, and destroy this after you read it.

         The letter was not signed, but I knew it was truly from Wulong because he had begun it with 'Enchanté, mademoiselle.' He had said that to me once before, at our last meeting.
         I took the cigarette lighter Wulong had included with his present, and used its flame to completely incinerate his letter.
         "Onee-san," Shingo pleaded. "If I go away, then can you look after otou-san? Can you promise me you'll take care of him...?"
         No. I couldn't.
         Wulong was terminally ill with liver cancer. He needed Shingo more than Jin or I ever could. And Shingo needed Wulong; as a purpose for being, and as a substitute for the father he had lost.
         I'd thought that I was the center of Shingo's disintegrating universe. That latching onto me as his 'imouto' was the cause of his increased dementia. It had never occurred to me that caring for Wulong might have been the trigger, instead. And now...
         What right did I have, to force Shingo back to Serenity Consolation?
         So he was demented. What prerogative did I have to judge him for that, or strip him of his freedom? He had paid for his one crime with repentance, tears, and twenty years of his life. If he was happier living in a shadow world drawn from his past, then what justification did I have to take that away?
         What right did I have to shove my own definition of 'sanity' down his throat?
         I kneeled next to him, and rested my hand on his shoulder.
         "It's okay, Shingo," I told him. "I'm not going to make you go back to Serenity Consolation. No one is going to make you go back, not if you don't want to. Not as long as you're still able to take care of yourself."
         He sat up, rubbing his right eye, and looked at me again.
         "Imouto?"
         "Julia Chang," I corrected.
         "Imouto!" he agreed, embracing me with one arm. "It is you! Please don't ever - don't ever trick me like that again, all right? You had me so frightened!"
         I didn't know what to say.
         I uncomfortably returned his hug of brotherly love, and helped him stand again. He swiftly recovered his lighthearted composure; in less than a minute, you'd never guess that he'd just had a complete emotional breakdown.
         "Look," he said, pointing to the risen moon. "Do you know what that means?"
         Not really, no.
         "It means it's after midnight. Christmas Day has already started. Come on, imouto; won't you open your present? I got it just for you."
         Unable to deny him, I took the wrapping paper off the second box. It housed a pair of brown-black, fingerless fighting gloves. They were similar to Shingo's, only without the solar symbol on their backs. At his urging, I put them on. They fit comfortably, and felt very natural. The perfect match to my own wrapped-tape elbow guards.
         But...
         "Imouto? Is something wrong?"
         "Shingo, I'm sorry. I don't have anything to give you."
         "Oh, that's not true at all!" He tousled my hair, affectionately, like a big brother who can't help teasing. "You're giving me your precious time. You're meeting me for another fighting lesson after school starts up again, aren't you?"
         I didn't have the heart to refuse him.


         Incidentally, I did ask Shingo if he wanted to celebrate Christmas at the Mishima syndicate. He felt obligated to decline, though. 'Otou-san' was too sick to travel, and Shingo didn't want to leave him alone on Christmas Day.
         As I look back to that night, though...
         I knew Shingo was getting worse, yet I ultimately decided to do nothing. Decided to just let things be the way they were. I prayed I was making the right choice.
         Now, I think I know the truth.
         Some situations don't have a 'right' choice. All they have is a bad choice, a bad choice, and perhaps another bad choice. You're left to pick the least of several evils, and live with the consequences. Sometimes, those consequences can be cruel indeed.
         Yet I did not have the benefit of this hindsight, when I departed Shingo's grove. It was past midnight, and I felt exhausted. When I passed that one fashion store with a mirror built into its display window, I compelled myself not to look at it. I fully intended to go straight back to the syndicate and fall asleep, without experiencing any more bizarre, dreamlike encounters.
         "Hey. 'Imouto.'"
         What?
         That wasn't Shingo's voice. Shingo never addressed me with such vicious sarcasm.
         "Up here, idiot."
         I squinted above the fashion store.
         "Taki?" I said, to the shadowy figure perched on its roof.
         "Who did you expect?" she sneered. "Kusanagi-sama?"
         "You - have you been following me all this time?"
         "That isn't what you're really asking."
         "It isn't?"
         "No. What you're really asking is: do I know where you've stashed Lei Wulong, the mortal enemy of 'Mishima-sama'?" She spat Heihachi's name with exaggerated false reverence, to the point of being a curse. "Yes, I do. You can rest your pretty little head; I won't tell anyone.
         "I'll take that secret to the Black Abyss," she added, in a dark, haunted tone. It made me shudder.
         "Why are you accosting me?" I demanded, trying to sound brave.
         "You know what I am, don't you child?"
         If I gave her the wrong answer, would I be in danger for my life?
         "I know you don't have much cause to address me as 'child,'" I admitted, deciding that I wasn't a good enough liar to make a blanket denial. "It's true that I've asked Jin about you, once. You're a tender twenty years of age."
         "What else did he tell you about me?"
         "That your mother lives alone some fifty kilometers away from Tokyo, and you serve the syndicate to support her. That you're only half-Japanese. That's all I truly know. Anything else would be mere conjecture."
         "No. You know about me. I could see it in your eyes, the day we first met. Even if the young master himself doesn't know, you do."
         "All right, so maybe I know. What difference does it make? I haven't told anyone. Besides, you can't be hell-bent on murdering everybody who stands a chance of deducing it. You'd have to kill thousands, or even millions of-"
         "Shut up."
         I braced myself. Taki was a potentially deadly fighter, and a sorceress. If she attacked me, my best chance of survival would be to activate Jin's distress beacon, and then run like-
         "Catch," Taki said, coolly. She tossed an item down from the rooftop.
         An audio tape?
         Yes. The object in my hands was definitely an unlabeled audio tape.
         "Merry Christmas," Taki hissed.
         I looked up at her, with a question in my eyes.
         "I know of your foolish crusade. Your quest to find 'proof' of Heihachi Mishima's evil, so that you may turn his own grandson against him. I've been watching you struggle. You have not succeeded, nor will you."
         "Taki, what is this tape?"
         "It is the best I could obtain!" she snarled. "I tried to get the old man's journal. He writes everything in it. But he has hidden it, and protected it from my spells.
         "His archives are almost as well-guarded. The originals can't be removed without his knowledge; however, they can be copied. I've put my own spell on that particular copy, Julia dear. Just a limited aura of silence. It'll wear off by morning; you'll be able to listen to the tape then. Go get a good night's sleep. When you wake up, you can play that cassette for the young master."
         Taki's eyes narrowed in the starlight. "Be warned. If Heihachi learns what you have - if he learns what is on it, or that you intend to show it to his grandson - he will destroy you. Make sure the young master blocks the syndicate's surveillance devices, before you confront him. He has the Power, as surely as I. Not that it will save you. Not that anything can save you."
         My heart wanted to thank her. But my head didn't understand why this angry, spiteful woman would help me, and so I asked her, "Why are you doing this?"
         Beneath her mask, I could sense her teeth gnashing in a vengeful snarl.
         "You will not save the young master with it. You will not turn him away from his grandfather. No matter what he says - no matter what he believes - it is only a deception that he plays upon himself. Beneath his illusion of a mortal guise, he is a Devil. His Devil heart knows that only the Strength of Heihachi Mishima can stand against the Toshin. That is why he will not listen to you. He will remain loyal, and call it love, and his Devil soul will not let him know the truth. Not until the bitter end."
         "I have told you that Jin is not a Devil," I said to her, resolutely. "He is human. So are you. You're as human as any of us."
         "You won't save him," she repeated, as if she had not heard me. "You won't save him, and you won't stop his grandfather. But maybe... just maybe..."
         Lilac-white fire danced on her hands.
         "...you can make them suffer. Make them bleed. Be a thorn in their sides, ash in their eyes. You can hurt them, like they hurt Bryan. You can defile their grand beliefs about themselves, like they defiled Bryan's body. That will be my present."
         Bryan? Did she mean Detective Bryan Fury?
         "The Cyborg Army project-?" I breathed, my hand going to my throat in response to an unpleasant memory.
         Taki made no answer.
         "I don't think that's the only thing motivating you," I told her, on a hunch. "There's something more, isn't there?"
         Still no answer.
         "Taki, where is you student? Where is Heishiro Mitsurugi?"
         No answer at all.
         "Jin fired him, didn't he? What happened after that? Is Mitsu still in Tokyo, or-?"
         "He is dead," she stated, coldly.
         Too coldly. Colder than the chill that trembled through my spine, the ice water that flowed through my veins, and the frost that coated my heart. All in the midst of an unseasonably warm winter.
         "You don't know that!" I shouted back, shivering for reasons that had nothing to do with the outside temperature. "You're afraid for him, and you're guessing, but you don't know!"
         "I know that his lover betrayed and discarded him. He has become their victim, just as I knew he would." She closed her eyes. "For his sake, you had better pray that he is dead. Get down on your knees, and pray to your 'Great Spirit' that they have only murdered him."
         "Where is he, right now? Where?"
         "Even if I told you, you couldn't find them. No one can, because 'Mishima-sama' ordered me to hide them. It is my sorcery that cloaks them from all detection, mystical or mundane. I will not take you there, because you have a few days left to savor your life. Enjoy yourself, while you can. The night of the full moon approaches ever nearer."
         She pointed to the waxing moon, hanging in midnight sky.
         I made the terrible mistake of looking.
         It was only for a second, but when I looked back, she was gone. Though I searched for a long time, I couldn't find her. At last I gave up, dragged myself back to the syndicate, and slept for ten hours.
         Then I woke up.
         I slipped outside, and found a private corner of Tokyo on Christmas Day. I put Taki's audio cassette into the hand-held tape deck I'd grown accustomed to carrying with me, put on a set of cheap earphones, and pushed the 'play' button.
         Testing, one, two three. The date is May 15, 2013. The time is 6:04 p.m. Will replay this sample at once.
         More voices soon joined in, all preserved on a length of humble black ribbon. I listened to the tape, all the way through.
         Listened to the backstabbing.
         The screams.
         The murder.
         Listened to the last, damnable crackle of static.
         Great Spirit... Jin didn't know. Heihachi hadn't told him. Heihachi never could have told him; if Jin had possessed any idea-!
         I sprinted back to the syndicate like a madwoman.


         I was in luck. Jin hadn't vanished on one of his mysterious excursions with Xiaoyu - dates with Xiaoyu? Love trysts with Xiaoyu...?
         Stop it, Julia, stop it. You're not here to worry about that.
         I found Jin training alone, in his private hall. The Mishima syndicate has a great many training halls, but this one was Jin's personal domain. It was vastly spacious, with a hard wooden floor and sliding doors. Wall-to-wall murals decorated it on three sides. In fact, the murals were what made it expressly Jin's hall; his grandfather had little appreciation for artwork of any kind.
         The murals were drawn in that two-dimensional, tradition-laced style of Japanese art that makes you think of ancient mythology. Two of the murals, on opposite walls, showed volcanic islands rising from the sea, amid cresting waves of churning froth. The third mural was especially intriguing; on one side of it, a tiger and a leopard prowled. They kept their wary feline eyes trained upon the mighty beast that regarded them both like hunted game, from the upper corner of the mural's other side. It was a great and terrible dragon lord, and as its snakelike body twisted in the sky, it poked its mustached, crocodile head down through the clouds.
         The fourth side of Jin's training hall wasn't decorated with a mural. Instead, it had a wall-to-wall mirror, such as would strike eternal dread in Shingo's heart. Like the mirror in Jin's family shrine, this looking glass did not merely reflect. It showed a breathtaking view of magnificent natural splendor - a vast, dense forest covering either slope of a divide between mountains. Low-hanging clouds shrouded the valley in a nebulous, grey-and-white mist, dampening the deep blue of its sky and the verdancy of its many trees.
         Jin has told me that he enchanted this mirror himself. It's a sort of scrying glass, permanently fixed on a single view: the Yakushima wilderness of his childhood home.
         I think... I think I'd like to visit Yakushima with him, someday. Someday soon, if Jin says it's all right. I think I'd like that, very much. I've been working up the nerve to ask him, once your record is completed.
         There wasn't much else in the capacious training hall, aside from Jin himself. He was dressed in nothing more than his fire-leg drawstring pants, and bright red sparring gear on his hands and feet. The jagged black brand on his left upper arm was starkly visible. There was also a slim, burning candle, elevated on a simple pedestal, and the Mokujins.
         You do know about the Mokujins, don't you?
         Jin had once mentioned something about moving them here, I remembered. Something along the lines of needing to clear them out of his grandfather's training hall, so that Heihachi could use it to stage his own matches in the Iron Fist. I'd been curious, enough to ask a little more about these unusual, Shaolin-style wooden dummies. Apparently, they were some kind of ancient, sorcerous teaching aids. When approached, or commanded by an instructor, they would beat a fighting lesson into their student. Or maybe they would just beat their student.
         They looked rather odd. Like jointed sets of sawed-off logs, with lengths of chain about the elbows, iron spheres for hands, and split lumber for feet. The vaguely-male Mokujin had a branch with three leaves growing of its head; the vaguely-female Mokujin had a daisy with five petals growing out of hers. They were at the far corner of the hall, a good distance away from where Jin practiced the speed of his punches.
         He focused on the slender candle. Only on the candle; its glowing flame and droplets of melting white wax were all he allowed himself to see. I don't think he noticed my entrance. He took a deep breath, let it go, and...
         If I'd blinked, I would have missed it. Jin's left fist darted out and back, within a millimeter of the candle wick. The living flame vanished beneath his knuckles, leaving only a winding trail of smoke.
         Jin used a tiny spark of his Power to relight the candle, in preparation for another punch.
         I said, "Jin. I need to talk to you. It's important."
         The intense concentration on his face slipped, as he looked up.
         "Julia?" he said, hesitantly.
         Well, he had reason to be apprehensive. The last time I'd barged in on one of his training sessions, I'd been in screaming hysterics.
         "Could you please use your Power to conceal us from anyone who might be watching?" I asked. I did have Wulong's armband for that, but a cautious part of me didn't want to reveal it to Jin. Not yet. It was tucked in my jeans pocket, while I openly wore the armband Jin had given me.
         Jin raised one of his bushy eyebrows. "This place is always soundproof, and protected from everyone's vision."
         "Are you sure about that?"
         "Yes. I use my own sorcery to guarantee it. Executive privilege."
         Is that how he manages to 'disappear' with Xiaoyu? Sorcery?
         No, stop it. Stay focused. Stay - wait a second.
         It was Christmas Day. And instead of celebrating with Xiaoyu, Jin was merely training alone.
         "Where is Xiaoyu?" I inquired, with some trepidation.
         Jin looked away.
         "She learned about Mitsurugi, didn't she? She asked you about him, and you couldn't hide the truth from her."
         "I had to fire him," Jin explained, holding out his hands in an empty, despondent gesture. "He's lucky I didn't bring him up on charges. I should have brought him up on-"
         "Where is he now?"
         "How should I know? On his way back to his family, maybe. Or he could be off cavorting with Anna; she's gone missing, too. It really doesn't matter."
         "Yes, it does. I've reason to believe he could be in grave danger."
         "What reason?"
         "Taki told me."
         Jin shook his head. "She likes to toy with people. You shouldn't take her so seriously."
         "Then where is Mitsurugi!? Try to contact him telepathically. Or else use sorcery to divine his location."
         "Julia, don't talk to me like I'm your servant."
         "Is that what you said to Xiaoyu, when she realized Mitsurugi was gone? Is that why she's not with you?"
         "She was upset, that's all. She'll calm down in time." Although Jin didn't seem entirely composed himself, when he said that.
         "Jin, please. Can't you find him?"
         "Look - I don't know his mind very well, all right?"
         My brow furrowed. "Have you already tried to find him? At Xiaoyu's request?"
         "I couldn't reach him through telepathic contact. Or sorcery."
         Great Spirit.
         "Then he's... he's dead?"
         "Oh, don't be so melodramatic. I told you, I don't know his mind that well. And I've also told you before that I'm not very good at divination; why do you think I need you to wear that armband? If you don't have it on, then I'm not sure I could find you in an emergency. Even though I know your mind a lot better than Mitsurugi's, and even though you're in perfect health."
         Not quite perfect. I feel on the brink of throwing up.
         "Julia, what do you expect me to do? Send the Tekkenshu out hunting for him? He's a private citizen now, no longer affiliated with the Mishima syndicate."
         "I don't know what to do about Mitsurugi," I admitted. "Maybe Taki could help us find him, if we approached her right. But first, you have to hear this. And - and be sure to brace yourself; it's going to be painful. I wish I knew how to warn you-"
         "Julia, what are you talking about?"
         "Just listen for a while, all right? Promise me?"
         "If it's what you want for Christmas," Jin sighed, folding his arms. "I promise."
         With trembling hands, I brought up my tape recorder and hit the 'play' switch.

         Testing, one, two three. The date is May 15, 2013. The time is 6:04 p.m. Will replay this sample at once.
         click
         Excellent. All equipment is in serviceable order. This is Junior Officer Yamada of the Tekkenshu Corps speaking, accompanied by Senior Officer Kobayashi and a Mr., uh, Guatemala...

         Jin tapped his foot, a sign of his mild impatience.

         ...this statement remarks the inception of the first officially recorded Mishima syndicate excursion into the Toshin ruins, which we discovered in the Valley of Mexico three days prior to this time...

         At the mention of the Toshin's name, Jin stiffened.

         So, you consider the slaughter of eighty-seven prisoners of war to be a "little" incident?
         Oh, you've heard of me?

         Jin took a step back at hearing that, as if startled by the thought that his grandfather's Tekkenshu could be capable of such cruelty.

         ...Toshin, the great God of War, who sleeps beyond this gate. He is Strength. He is Immortality. His very composition is the elixir of the Divine; to partake of him is to transcend mortal being. Only blood can call him from beyond this ancient seal, freshly spilled blood, offered with reverent desire to gain eternal Life and absolute Power!

         Bit by bit, Jin's face started to lose any kind of tangible expression. Shock was descending upon him; cold, silent, stony shock.

         What? Yamada, you whimpering, sniveling little snob, I'm giving you the orders! If you don't obey now, I'll - I'll - Guatemoc! My god, NO!
         For Toshin, the God of War!
         AAAAAAAAAH-!

         Jin's arms unfolded, dangling slackly by his sides, as the shock traveled through his body.

         What-? Guatemoc, what are you doing?
         Bringing forth his heart, and pouring free his blood.
         You mean, you're really following through with the second half of our orders? But that's insane, I thought it had to be a sadistic joke-

         As the shock reached Jin's legs, he staggered.

         My... my god! H-how... who... what are you?
         +YOUR SOUL IS WEAK.+
         Get back! Get back or I'll shoot!
         gunfire
         AAAAAAAAGH-!
         +I MUST HAVE STRONGER SOULS.+

         Jin could no longer stand. He sank to his knees, incapacitated by the horrifying truth.

         All praise the Divine Toshin! O God of War, I beg of you, honor your reverent follower! Yes, yes, take me in your celestial embrace, and give me the gift of Immortality!
         +I MUST HAVE SOULS WITH GREATER POTENTIAL.+
         Ah-ahgk, Divine One, your embrace is too tight - I can't - can't... aaaaaAAAAAAAH!
         +I MUST HAVE SOULS OF POWER!+

         The tape ended with rumbling, crashing, and a crackling whine of static.
         I touched the 'stop' button.
         I said, "Jin?"
         Seconds passed, and he could not answer me. His mouth worked, forming silent words. At last, he finally managed to gasp, "Wh-what... what is that?"
         Although I dearly wanted to comfort him, I couldn't. Jin deserved to know the truth. He had to know, and I had to tell him.
         Now.
         "This is your mother's death." I was unyielding on the outside, hurting on the inside.
         "No. I was there when she died - the Toshin murdered her-"
         "Yes, it did. She was its prime target. But it didn't just appear out of thin air one day, and start hunting her. It was sealed away, in an ancient prison. Until your grandfather sent his Tekkenshu to look for it. Until they found it, and unleashed it on the world."
         "No," Jin denied, shaking his head. "No, it can't be."
         "You heard the tape; Yamada and Guatemoc were following orders. Heihachi Mishima's orders."
         "It's not possible..."
         "Do you need me to play that part for you again? It was your grandfather who released the God of War. I suspected as much, from the dreams my sacred medallion gave me, but now I have proof."
         "There has to be some mistake..."
         "Heihachi Mishima killed your mother, as surely as if with his own two hands."
         "NO!" Jin yelled, springing to his feet. "Grandfather's name is NOT mentioned on that tape, not ANYWHERE! You don't know it was his orders! You DON'T!"
         "He controls the Tekkenshu, Jin. They're his private army."
         "You - you don't even know that tape is REAL!" Jin wildly exclaimed, flinging up his hands. "It could be a trick, a forgery, ANYONE could have made it!"
         "You've seen the Toshin. Don't you remember its voice?"
         "Where did you get that damned fake! Was it Taki!? I've tolerated a lot from her, but if she's behind this, I'll-!"
         "What, Jin? You'll what? You'll make her disappear, like Mitsurugi has disappeared?"
         "ALL I DID WAS FIRE HIM!" Jin wailed, frantically. "I didn't think he would - it never occurred to me - he was angry and frightened, but he didn't feel like someone who would-!"
         "Who would what?"
         Whatever barrier that had been reining in Jin's feelings came crashing down, in a hail of psychological debris.
         "Xiaoyu wanted me to find him. So when my first attempts with telepathy and sorcery failed, I tried to contact his family. His mother moved to America ten years ago; she was unavailable. But I managed to reach his father, and he told me he hadn't heard from his son in weeks. Mitsurugi had been expelled from home, as a coming of age test. He'd failed to get into college, he'd been taking entrance exams for two years and failed them all. We were his last chance to make something of himself. We were his absolute final chance...
         "...and I tried to contact Anna Williams, and I couldn't reach her. Grandfather himself doesn't know where Anna is; he's asked me to locate her and I couldn't. But Mitsurugi - he - he was so much in love with her, I can't put it into words, I just can't. She - she was - I'm not sure she ever loved him. I think she has abandoned him..."
         "Jin, what are you trying to say?"
         "I'm trying not to say it. I'm trying not to think it. But Xiaoyu knows Mitsurugi better than me, so I asked her to be my reagent. Together, we had a better chance of finding him, yet we still didn't find him. She accidentally picked up my thought, and she was terrified it could be true-! She ran away, she's crying in her room right now, I can feel her grief and fear."
         Oh.
         Oh, no.
         "You're afraid Mitsurugi may have committed suicide," I interpreted, worriedly.
         "Julia - the last time I saw him, I swear he didn't look or feel like someone who would - who would do such a thing-"
         Indeed.
         "-and I don't know that's what happened, he could still be alive, it could be that my Power is just not working right. I don't know him like... like I knew my mother."
         Jin fell silent.
         I folded my arms, and closed my eyes in thought.
         "Do you think we should go to the police?" Jin asked.
         "No," I answered, opening my eyes. "Heihachi owns the police."
         "What? I mean, I know Grandfather is an influential man, but what does that have to do with-?"
         "Jin, I don't know if Mitsurugi is alive or dead. If he is dead, however, it isn't by his own hand. He is not a suicide."
         "You... you're convinced of that?"
         "You remember how much he loved Anna? Well, I remember what a pest he was." I shook my head. "Even if Anna dumped him like a hot coal, he wouldn't just kill himself over her as quickly as that. He'd spend at least a few months trying to track her down, or begging her to take him back."
         "You sound very sure of yourself."
         "Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think so. Taki told me something about Mitsurugi. I think that Heihachi has him, for some evil purpose."
         "What?"
         "Your grandfather murdered your grandmother, Jin. He murdered my grandfather, too. He let loose the monster that killed your mother, and that also killed a great many other strong souls. Mitsurugi is only the most recent on a long list of Heihachi's victims. If you're not careful, you're going to be next."
         "No. Not this again," Jin refused, shaking his head. "Not this again! Because of your family's blood grievance against the House Mishima, your own hatred is coloring the way you think-!"
         "Do I have to replay the tape for you?"
         "It's a fake! It has to be!"
         "Then replay it for yourself. Listen to it one more time, all the way through. If you still have doubts, we can talk to Taki about it, assuming that she hasn't 'disappeared' as well."
         I touched the 'rewind' button on my tape player, reeling its cassette back to the beginning. Then I stopped the player, and held it out to Jin. "Please. Take the tape. I know how shocking it is to hear, but if you listen to it again - listen to the Toshin's voice, exactly as you remember it - then you will understand. You'll finally have to accept the truth."
         Jin did not move.
         "Please, Jin. Take the tape."
         "I don't want it."
         "Take it. I'm begging you."
         Jin remained still for the longest time.
         At last, he slowly moved to take the tape.
         Held my recorder in both hands, half furious and half terrified. As if he were Shingo Yabuki, forced to cradle a mirror.
         Then he destroyed it.
         I don't - it's hard to say for certain, but I don't think he was deliberately planning to do so. Not entirely, anyway. He was just standing there, looking at the thing as if it were infected with the Black Plague, and indigo streaks of his Power leaped from his fingers. They didn't just crush the player. They tore it apart, melted its tape to plastic slag, exploded and electrified it into a sizzling, shattered mess.
         Jin cast away the demolished player, and its liquefied tape.
         "That was only a copy," I told him, evenly. "The original is still on file, somewhere."
         "I don't care. A fake is a fake."
         "You can wreck the tape, but you've already heard what it says. You can't take its words out of your mind."
         "Its words are not true."
         That was when I understood a different truth. A truth about Jin.
         In his own way, he was as delusional as Shingo. Just as deeply entrenched in denial. Trapped in the fantasy of his own shadow world, a world where his grandfather was a kind and noble man.
         My eyes briefly darted to the Mokujins. I wrenched my gaze back to Jin, removed my unadorned headband, and threw it at his feet.
         He glanced down at it. "What are you-"
         I slapped him.
         Hard.
         Open-handed blow, full on the left cheek, strong enough to leave a mark.
         The instant I touched him, my own face stung - backlash from skin-to-skin contact with a telepath. However, I was wearing the fingerless fighting gloves Shingo had given me; they softened the effect enough so that I could withstand the recoil and shout, "I challenge you to combat!"
         Jin's hand went to his face. His eyes widened, as if he thought I'd gone insane.
         "I've tried reasoning with you. I've tried showing you proof. Great Spirit help me, I've even tried begging you. But that's not what can get through to you, is it? You are of the House Mishima, and the House Mishima is founded upon Strength. It's the only thing you respect. It's the only thing your - your heart can love-!"
         I am not going to break down and cry. I am not.
         Jin whispered, "Julia..."
         "I challenge you!" I repeated, trying to summon the pride of my own heart. "I am Julia Chang, daughter of Michelle Chang, and heir guardian to the holy treasure of our tribe. I speak for the people your grandfather has murdered, and the survivors he has devastated! My blood commands you. My honor commands you. In the name of the Great Spirit that embodies all life, I command you! You MUST fight me, or else you will FORFEIT YOUR POWER!"
         "That's NECROMANCERS!" Jin shrieked, in confusion and indignity. "I don't steal souls!"
         All right, so maybe I got a little carried away.
         "You still have to fight me!" I snapped. "You're a member of the House Mishima; you can't dishonor yourself by refusing a challenge!"
         "Julia, wait. Stop. Think about what you're doing."
         "I challenge you to combat. Right here, right now. No rules. Any attacks permitted, even your damned sorcery. We fight to the finish."
         "No, Julia. Don't do this. I don't want to hurt you."
         I don't want to hurt you, either. I...
         ...I don't know if I'm love with you. But if I'm not, then why do I feel so miserable on the inside? Why is it so hard to keep tears from my eyes?
         "Good," I declared, fiercely. "Hold back as much as you like. I'm going to exploit that advantage for all I can get."
         "Julia-"
         "And if I defeat you, you will listen to me! You will finally listen to me! You will understand that Heihachi is responsible for your mother's death. You will help me bring him to justice for his crimes, you will help me take back the medallion he stole, and together, we will find better allies with which to stand against the Toshin!"
         The bewildered, unhappy look left Jin's face.
         A new expression descended on him.
         Raw determination.
         He brought his right, fighting-gloved hand up to chin level, and curled his fingers. Indigo electricity sparkled about his tightly clenched fist.
         "And if I defeat you," he asserted, "you will stop this madness. You will understand that Grandfather is a good man, who wants only to save the world. You will never confront me with your false accusations again. You will stay with us, and help us destroy the Toshin, and - and then you'll know that all your hatred was for nothing!"
         It was, of course, far too late to back out.
         "Agreed," I said, stepping into my fighting stance.
         Jin adopted his own, Mishima-style karate stance.
         "You can still call this off," he told me, quietly.
         I cringed.
         Turmoil, anxiety, and sorrow swam through my thoughts. I no longer tried to hide any of it, nor did I restrain my tears. A heartfelt sob choked my throat.
         The raw determination on Jin's face weakened. A pained look flickered in his eyes. He lowered his arms, and took a step closer to me.
         "Julia..." he murmured, reaching for my face. His fingers brushed my cheek, catching a tear. He looked at it, as if it were a sparkling diamond.
         That's when I hit him.
         I said 'no rules,' and I meant it.
         I didn't hold back, either. There couldn't be any room in my heart to hold back, or else I wouldn't have a prayer against him. He was stronger than me, and faster, and he'd trained for all his life; two weeks of fighting lessons from Shingo could scarcely begin to chip away the difference. My only chance was to strike him hard and not let up, and trust that his own healing Power would see him through. So I hit him. Swung my crooked left arm in a crashing uppercut, belting him in the mouth.
         He never saw it coming.
         The blow stunned him. He staggered back two steps, and even though my own mouth ached from the backlash of hitting a telepath, I seized my advantage without mercy. Ran straight into him, and rammed my elbow into his gut, then swept my right foot straight up, high above my head, in a skyscraper-tall kick that overwhelmed the last of his balance. He landed on his back, a limited distance away from the Mokujins.
         Great Spirit guide my soul...
         "Mokujins!" I shouted, with the authority of a true instructor. "Teach him a lesson, NOW!"
         Yes, it was a gamble.
         I didn't know that they would awaken. Or that they would respond to my command, and not Jin's. It was merely a guess. I was literally trying to teach Jin a lesson, the most crucial lesson of all. I was trying to teach him to let go of his denial. And so I hoped that, on some, metaphysical level, the Mokujins would understand and help me.
         It was a gamble made out of desperation. Jin wasn't just stronger than me; he was also tougher. He was of the House Mishima, and he had his self-healing Power. No matter what advantage a few dirty tricks might buy me, I had next to no chance against him, unless I called in help. I'd known this from the instant I decided to challenge him; it was why I never explicitly said I'd fight him in 'single' combat.
         Jin immediately sprang to his feet in a kippup, spitting a dribble of blood through his lips. Wiping his mouth, he growled, "Nice try, Julia, but you're not a teacher. You can't command-"
         clink
         clink

         The noise of rattling chains came in stereo. An unearthly, orange-red light blazed in the eyes of the male and female Mokujins, as they came to life. They both mimicked me; my stance, my form, and the kempo-style swing of their iron-balled fists.
         Surprise flooded Jin's face. He froze for a critical half-second, then crossed his arms against the ponderously slow punch of the male Mokujin. As the female Mokujin tried to attack Jin from behind, he looked over his shoulder and repelled the wooden woman with backwards-striking mule kick. Trapped by inexorable attacks on both sides, he didn't see me coming until too late.
         "HAAAAH!" I screamed, rushing him. I bowed my trunk, turned the side of my body, and thrust out both flexed palms, my right one ahead of me, my left a counterbalancing push behind me. My right palm struck him in the stomach, and though his muscular abdomen was practically as resilient as those of the Mokujins, my running start had given me a powerful boost. Furthermore, I hit him right in the middle of his kick.
         "Ugh-!" Jin cried. He instinctively clutched his gut with both arms, and sank to his knees.
         I nearly vomited, myself.
         I hurt. My stomach ached terribly, and with a sick feeling, I realized why I was taking this even worse than Jin's Iron Fist opponents. Unlike a typical challenger, I cared about Jin. I had sympathy for him, which intensified the backlash of skin-to-skin contact. If only Shingo had given me solid gloves - if only I'd thought to prepare by buying a pair of my own! Yet if not for the mitigating damper of Shingo's gift, I probably would have been completely stunned, rather than just winded.
         Shut it down. Shut it all down, block it all out, I have to win this fight and I am winning it now.
         "YAAAH!" I cried, relentlessly adding another fist blow to Jin's ribs - I almost didn't feel it, thanks to the part of the gloves that covered my knuckles - followed by a severe elbow strike to his clavicle. Now, it was my wrapped-tape elbow guards that protected me, shielded me from the hit that made Jin fall. He slapped his arms against the wooden floor to absorb the shock of his landing, but I didn't intend to let him get back up. I advanced on him and-
         Ow!
         Jin didn't even rise; he just tucked his chin, braced his arms, and snapped his right knee at ground level for a stiff kick to my ankle. Blind fool that I was, I walked right into it. He couldn't summon much force from that awkward position, but his kick was enough to make me stumble, and buy him time to stand. Except that the Mokujins were flanking him on two sides, and I quickly recovered enough to press my assault-
         "YAH!" Jin bellowed, springing into the air. He spun clockwise, partly tucking his left leg and extending his right, twirling like a top set loose by a supernatural hand. In a single, spinning motion, he rotated in midair. His right leg crashed against the male Mokujin, and the female Mokujin, bowling them both flat on the floor. He landed on his bent left leg, still spinning, sweeping his other foot in a whole circle. I barely jumped back in time to avoid being tripped, then crouched low and deflected his second, whole-circle kick with both hands crossed - it took all my strength and I was still pushed away-
         -and then he rose, completing his quadruple-circle spin with one more kick, this one aimed at my face. If not for Shingo's speed training, I never would have braced my guard in time. I knew how fast Jin was, knew I could not hit him with anything less than a top-speed attack, so I snapped my left fist straight out, hoping to at least distract him until the Mokujins got up.
         He caught my hand in mid-punch.
         I knew he had this skill, I knew it all along, I'd even seen him do it; his training was more than just karate, he could snare a person's limbs and break them-
         -and because I knew this, because I expected it, I reacted even as he did it. Shingo had taught me to know my enemy, beware his tactics, and be ready to counter what he tries; I knew Jin, I was wary of him, and I countered him. The instant he grabbed my fist, I brought up my right knee and screamed, driving my kneecap into his sternum. The jolt broke his hold on me, and this time my jeans insulated me from the telepathic backlash.
         By then, the Mokujins had picked themselves up and were advancing on him once more. The clatter of their wooden feet alerted him. He sidestepped the swing of the male, and rammed the female with a swift, right-handed uppercut, similar to the one I had first hit him with. Yet once again, confronting two opponents left him open to me, and I had just enough time to jab him in the face-
         AH!
         It's not real, I'm not really hurt, it's only psychic backlash, I told myself this and I knew it. Even so, I bit back a pained cry as Jin half-crumpled. Taking advantage of his distraction, I performed a quick spinning sidestep, like I had once tried to do against Xiaoyu; only this time I kept myself focused, and slipped behind him before he could see what was happening. The Mokujins were coming back as well. The male poked at him with a low kick, twisting his knee. All three of us trapped him in a closing circle-
         "YEAAARGH!"
         That was when Jin cut loose.
         He probably had been holding back all along, because he truly didn't want to hurt me. It was my own ruthlessness that forced him. I fought without rules, using every dirty trick I could think of in addition to the strength of my own body; he had to do the same.
         Jin summoned his sorcery.
         It formed a flashing globe of indigo lightning around him. He extended his arms on either side, palms flexed, and the globe expanded; its livid electric tendrils reached out to snare, shock, and shatter everything in their path. I barely dashed away in time. The Mokujins did not; the thunderstorm surrounded them and exacted its price. Jin's Power caught them, paralyzed them, electrified them in a net of pure energy. Although I was still behind Jin, he no longer had to worry about me. I couldn't approach him through the indigo wildfire. He could concentrate exclusively on shocking both Mokujins into their dormant state, and then finish me off.
         Or so he thought.
         I switched the armband Jin had given me for Lei Wulong's Christmas present.
         This was another gamble. I didn't know that Wulong's armband would be enough to protect me from Jin's thunderstorm, and it nearly wasn't; my hair turned frizzy with static, and sparking currents singed my skin. Yet I could still force my way in, and wrap my hands under Jin's armpits, snaring him from behind.
         "HAIIIII-YAH!"
         With an anguished shriek from the heart, I held him close to me and hurled him off his feet. Shingo's training fortified my muscles, and adrenaline flooded my body; Jin's sorcery sputtered and went out as I threw him, threw both of us, and smashed him face-first into the wooden floor-
         AHHH!
         The backlash was especially strong this time, holding him so close; even though I tried to lessen it by tucking my legs, driving my knees into his spine, using my jeans as a damper. I could hardly see, move, or think through the impact. I rolled away from him on instinct, and...
         ...and...
         ...and I can't go down now. I must get up, I have to get up, have to put everything into getting up; the pain is not real, it's not real, it's...
         Oh, no.
         Both the Mokujins lay still, reverted to their inert state. It was down to Jin and me now, and I didn't have much left to use on him.
         He didn't have much left, either.
         He trembled like an injured animal as he rose, bleeding from his face, showing bruises on his body, and this was the first time I honestly realized how much I'd hurt him. The backlash I'd felt had probably been only half of what he'd went through - and he had suffered true damage, not merely psychic pain. Healing Power or no healing Power, he was in a bad way, and channeling a massive amount of his life-force into that sorcerous thunderstorm hadn't helped.
         I wanted to crumple to my knees and tell him I was sorry.
         Instead, I tried my best to bait him into making a mistake.
         Putting my left hand on my hip, I waved to him. Derisively. Tauntingly. Provocatively bending my waist, first to the left, then to the right. Hello? Yes, I'm over here. Come and get me, if you can!
         Did it work? I don't know.
         Raw determination masked Jin's face. It was the unsteadiness of his body that gave away how weakened he was. He took a step toward me-
         -and his leg quivered, where the male Mokujin had kicked it. He stumbled to one knee.
         It was my chance to finish this.
         I'm sure the Kusanagi family is a bloodline of sorcerers, but I'm not a sorcerer and neither are you. We can't summon flames. Why did you bother learning this? Why teach me?
         Learning Kusanagi-style techniques will make you strong. It doesn't matter whether the flame is in your blood. You must find the flame in your soul.

         In that moment, I understood what Shingo had tried to teach me.
         I couldn't create flashing jets of fire, or crackles of electricity; yet I had a Power of my own. Power in my arms, my body, and my soul. Call it Chi, or Ki; there are a hundred different names for it. It is what drives all of us, and in that single instant, I could feel the true nature my own Strength. So I called upon that Strength, as surely as if I were a sorceress of the Kusanagi clan; channeled and focused my own energy into a concentrated inner ball, just as Shingo had taught me. I directed that energy not into a Kusanagi-style assault, but rather into my own kempo. Lifting my left leg at the knee, I bowed my head and gathered all my essence into a single, unstoppable onslaught. If I did not have vivid orange flames literally dancing on my fist, then they were there in spirit.
         "YAAAH!" I roared, rushing Jin.
         He stared me down, raw determination creasing his thick eyebrows into their characteristic V-shape. Though he could not get out of the way, he was ready for me. Even as I barreled into him, he forced his one good leg to power a rising uppercut of his own, as swift and sure as to be worthy of the House Mishima.
         As I smashed him with my final head blow, I felt a tremendous shock of pain.
         It came from two sources: one, the backlash of my own attack, and two, the irresistible impact of Jin's own, fighting-gloved fist, striking my forehead so hard as to pummel me between worlds, beyond worlds...
         ...I...
         ...I'm falling...
         ...somewhere, in the reeling, revolving hall, I caught a glimpse of Jin. Hurled several feet away from me, lying on his back, arms splayed out, eyes shut. He seemed so peaceful, resting there.
         And he wasn't getting up.
         I'd beaten him.
         I'd won.
         I'd saved him, he had to understand the truth now, he had to-!
         I'm still falling.
         No. No, I can't pass out, I can't pass out! If I can't stay standing then I haven't won, and if I haven't won then I can't hold him to his promise, I have to rescue him from his grandfather, I have to save him! No, no, I can't have brutalized him like this for nothing, I can't pass out, I CAN'T pass out-!
         I can't...
         ...pass...


         ...out?
         "Hey," Jin said, gently. "How are you feeling?"
         Well, I'm not in pain.
         Not on the outside. Not anymore. Yet I still felt lingering weakness, and dizziness. By gradual degrees, I perceived I was stretched out on a white-sheeted cot, in a clinical-looking atmosphere that smelled faintly of disinfectant.
         Jin sat next to the cot, on a simple round stool. He looked a little fatigued, but his bloodstains and bruises were long gone.
         "Where am I?" I murmured.
         "Mishima syndicate recuperation facility," he replied. "I wanted a doctor to take a look at your concussion, just in case. He says you'll probably be all right."
         Jin brushed the back of his fighting-gloved hand against my forehead, lightly.
         "How long was I out?"
         "A few hours. I could have awakened you sooner, but I thought it would be better to let you rest." He coughed, discreetly. "And I was feeling a bit drained, myself."
         I let my head fall back against the pillow, and closed my eyes.
         "Uh, Julia," Jin half-mumbled, sounding abashed. "Could you do me a favor? Don't tell Xiao-chan you took me to a draw. She'd never let me hear the end of it."
         My eyes opened.
         "A draw?"
         "You were unconscious when I woke up, but the only reason I recovered first was that my Power kicked in and revived me. You had me down for at least, I don't know, half an hour. By the time I could stand again, my candle had melted to a stump."
         "A draw..."
         "Julia, it's okay. Everything is going to be all right."
         "No. No, you're still in denial about-"
         "I confronted Grandfather."
         "You-?" My eyes flickered to a security camera perched on the ceiling, and my protest died in my throat.
         "Don't worry, we can speak freely here. I've invoked my executive privilege again."
         "You confronted-? Jin, no! Now that he knows you're suspicious, he'll-"
         "He confessed his mistake."
         I fell silent. As Jin talked to me, a grieving, internal shudder wounded his voice.
         "He was searching for Power. Power to bring lasting peace and harmony to the world. Power to ensure that humanity would follow a righteous path, long after his own appointed span of years ran out. At the time, he was an old man with no heirs; he didn't know about me, not yet. Grandfather feared that all the good he'd done with the Mishima syndicate would wither and turn corrupt, after he passed away."
         "Jin..."
         "He didn't know the Toshin was a living creature. He thought it was an artifact, a talisman, something like the Heaven's Dagger of your tribe. And his own subordinates betrayed him. Yes, he controls the Tekkenshu, but he has so many soldiers that he can't personally watch every last one. He can only try to keep discipline as best he can. Kobayashi was one day from being indicted by a military tribunal, and served justice for his war crimes. Yamada was a power-hungry junior officer with a vengeful grudge against Kobayashi, and Guatemoc was... well, he was insane.
         "Grandfather's own Tekkenshu went behind his back. Yamada and Kobayashi weren't supposed to go after the Toshin on their own; they were supposed to wait for Grandfather's arrival. Grandfather believes that Guatemoc deceived Yamada, using Yamada's hatred of Kobayashi to set the trap and free the Toshin early.
         "Grandfather never meant to release such a terrible evil on the world. He never... never meant for it to murder so many strong souls... including my mother..."
         "You've forgiven him?" I asked, uncomprehending.
         Jin looked away. His hand went to his eye and rubbed it. He managed a single nod.
         "And - and I have some good news, too," he hoarsely added. "Mitsurugi's alive. He wanted to redeem himself for - well, it doesn't matter. The point is, Grandfather has given him one last chance. Mitsurugi volunteered to be part of, um, a special project. Classified information. It's all taking place away from the syndicate, in a location shielded by Taki's spells; that's why I couldn't reach him. Mitsurugi's under strict orders not to contact any of us, and we're supposed to keep away from him, too. At least until the Toshin is dealt with. Grandfather has promised me that he'll send Mitsurugi to see us, afterward. Since we all like him so much."
         "Jin, are you sure? Are you sure about all of this?"
         "Grandfather let me do a casual telepathic scan. He wasn't lying. He's never lied to me in my life."
         "But..."
         "It's Taki who's missing, now. And of course, Anna's still gone; I wonder if she's going to show up at all for her Iron Fist match against me."
         "Taki is missing?"
         "She has been living at the syndicate headquarters for only a few months. So I don't know her much better than Mitsurugi, and in any case, she has the sorcery to protect herself from my telepathy or divination spells. I think - I think she might have fled the syndicate entirely. She never was completely stable, and these past few weeks, she's been more stressed out than ever. If she truly believed that something horrible happened to Mitsurugi, then..." Jin sadly shook his head. "I'm just sorry she ran away before I could tell her the truth."
         The truth?
         What was the truth...?
         "Julia," Jin addressed, with a look of pained misgiving on his face. "Did you really believe what you said to me, before?"
         "That Heihachi intends to murder you?"
         "No. What you said about - about me." His eyebrows creased with dismay. "That Strength is the only thing I respect. That it's the only thing my heart can love."
         What I wanted to say was, 'If that's not true, then why is Xiaoyu your paramour?'
         What I actually said was, "If that's not true, then why can't you forgive Lei Wulong?"
         Jin flinched, at the mention of his stepfather's name.
         "Do you keep a double standard because his cancer makes him weak? You've hated him all this time, because he wasn't there when the Toshin killed your mother. Yet you forgave Heihachi Mishima, when he - not only wasn't he there, he let the damn thing out in the first place!"
         Somewhere deep within, I think another piece of Jin's internal barriers crumbled.
         "My mother sent Wulong away," he confessed, in a husky, throaty croak.
         I waited for him to continue.
         "She told me that she had sent him away. I knew she sent him away, like she tried to send me away. She tricked him, without letting him know that the Toshin was coming for her, just like she tried to trick me. I knew all this, and I never admitted it..."
         He covered his eyes with one hand, as if he were resolved not to show weakness or tears before me. "...I couldn't save her from the Toshin. I failed to save her, and I had to blame someone - I had to hate someone. Even if the reason for my hate was false.
         "Wulong loved my mother. For over four years, I made myself forget that, even though I knew it was true. Wulong loved her, with all his heart and soul. He would have fought to save her, if he had known. He would have died with her, if she hadn't sent him away."
         "Then, you forgive him?"
         Jin removed his hand. His jet black eyes flashed, darkly.
         "He still murdered my real father."
         "Jin-"
         "No, Julia. You confronted him with me. You saw. He is guilty, and he wouldn't even tell me. How can I forgive him for his crime, when he won't admit to what he did?"
         "Jin..."
         "You know where Wulong is, don't you?"
         "Um, what makes you say that?"
         "Just a guess. You took such an interest in his welfare - it's okay, Julia. Actually, it's probably best if you don't tell me where to find him. All I'm asking is, could you send him a message? I... I can't bring myself to contact him telepathically."
         I started to say something, stopped, and then nodded.
         "Thank you. Tell him that if-" Jin's voice briefly gave out. He had to swallow, hard. "If he insists on taking his secret to his grave, then I will forgive him at his grave. Not before."
         "Jin, I..."
         "I'm sorry, Julia."
         "No. I'm sorry for you."
         "I'd cure him of his cancer, if I could. Healing sorcery doesn't have the Power-"
         "I know."
         "Julia, you're wrong about me. I swear you're wrong."
         "Am I?"
         "Yes. Strength is a worthy quality to strive for, but it's not - I don't - I don't judge people's souls based on the strength of their bodies. I swear I don't."
         "Heihachi Mishima does."
         "Grandfather has lived a different life. Some of his life has been very hard."
         Jin bit his lower lip, nervously.
         Then he said, "Professor Yabuki has been teaching you how to fight, hasn't he?"
         And there it was. My horrible secret exposed, in the unyielding light of day.
         "H-how - how did you..."
         "You've become stronger, in just two weeks. Much stronger. Also, your new fighting gloves look like his, only without the symbol of the House Kusanagi. Professor Yabuki gave them to you, didn't he?"
         "...know?"
         "And whatever you used to protect yourself from my sorcery - Taki's not good at defensive enchantments. Camouflage magic, yes, but she has too much anger in her heart to cast effective shield spells. Professor Yabuki may not be a sorcerer, but I'm sure he knows some from the King of Fighters Tournament. He probably had a hand in - what did you use, anyway?"
         I used the armband in plain sight, which you don't recognize because it looks exactly like the one you gave me.
         "Um, will you be upset if I don't tell you?"
         "No, it's all right." Jin's eyes darted to a corner of the room, rather than stay near my face. "Professor Yabuki must... he must really be in love with you."
         "Excuse me?" I gasped.
         "You spend so much time with him... in secret... and you were so embarrassed when I asked you about-"
         "It was fighting lessons!" I cried. "It was only fighting lessons."
         "Then why didn't you come to me?"
         What?
         "I... I could have taught you."
         A thousand excuses presented themselves to me.
         My chosen Art was kempo, not Mishima-style karate. Jin had been busy preparing for the Iron Fist Tournament, anyway. And he had seemed rather preoccupied with Xiaoyu, and so on.
         A thousand excuses presented themselves, but each one had no more than the barest fragment of truth.
         I looked down at the gloves Shingo had given me, and for the first time, I wondered why he had not marked them with the Kusanagi sun-symbol. The moment that I stopped to think about it, I knew the reason.
         Shingo was a fundamentally honest man. He knew that I did not venerate 'Kusanagi-sama,' and he knew that I held no especial allegiance to the House Kusanagi. That was why he hadn't marked the gloves. Shingo had never demanded any price in exchange for his lessons; he certainly didn't expect me to convert to his religion, or become a sworn vassal of the Kusanagi clan. Shingo only wanted me to respect the skills I had learned, and use them wisely.
         Truth. Integrity. Honor.
         These were also what Shingo had been trying to teach me.
         I told Jin, "I didn't want you to see my weakness."
         He looked at me, quizzically.
         "I was - I was afraid you wouldn't think very much of me, if you saw how helpless I really am. So I tried to make myself stronger, in secret from you. It was embarrassing. I felt ashamed of taking fighting lessons from Shingo, because he's... crippled. Physically and mentally. That was why I didn't want you to know."
         "But, what about his love letter?"
         "His what?"
         "Don't you remember? I returned it to you just the other day."
         Oh, Great Spirit.
         "I - I don't believe this-!"
         "What? If he didn't write you a love letter, then what did he write?"
         "If I still had it, I'd show it to you. I've destroyed it, but - Jin, it was a meticulously worded, legal disclaimer. Shingo wanted to set me at ease, in case I was afraid he'd fire me or sue me for hurting him. He originally persuaded me to be his student by challenging me to single combat.
         "And I lost," I sighed. May as well make my divulgence complete. "Completely devastated by a double amputee, who can't even tell reality from illusion."
         Jin's mouth dropped open. He shut it again, yet remained mute, staring at me, eyes wide and unbelieving.
         "Why are you looking at me like that?" I insisted. "Did you think Shingo and I were lovers, or what?"
         "I tried not to think about it. I tried very hard."
         "Jin!"
         "Sorry."
         "He thinks I'm his little sister. He calls me 'imouto' when no one else is around."
         "Wha-? Oh." Jin grimaced, distastefully. "That would be sick, wouldn't it."
         "JIN!"
         "Sorry, I'm sorry." The distaste turned to somber thoughtfulness. "No wonder he's been so happy, lately. To him, it must be as if his dead family is coming back to life."
         "He is getting worse, I know, but I'm beginning to doubt that it's only because of me. Whether I triggered his decline or not, I doubt it will help if I simply sever all contact with him. That's what his older sister has done, and I don't think it did him much good. I can't bring myself to send him back to Serenity Consolation, either. Not against his will."
         "You know Professor Yabuki better than I do. I trust your judgement, and I'll support any decision you make about him."
         "All right. Thank you."
         "Anytime."
         "And now, you owe me a secret."
         "What?"
         "I just confessed a major, heart-wrenching, personal mortification to you. I've been keeping my own curiosity about you under wraps for two weeks now; you must have some sense of fair play about this. Right?"
         "Uhhh..."
         "What's that?" I asked, pointing to the jagged brand on his left upper arm.
         "This?" Jin's other hand drifted to the mark.
         "Unless you're willing to tell me what you and Xiaoyu have been doing, whenever you 'disappear' togeth-"
         "It'sascarfromtheToshin'sfire," he said, so quickly that the words ran together.
         "A scar?"
         "When it - when the Toshin murdered my mother, it also burned me. I've got another set of scars on my right leg."
         "That's not a scar. Especially not from fire."
         "Julia, I remember being burned."
         "Look at it. It's too neat, too sharp. Like a written symbol. Are you saying you got a tattoo to cover up your scar?"
         "No, I've never had my body tattooed. The burn just healed like this."
         "That's impossible. Or at least, incredibly improbable. Besides, doesn't healing sorcery-?"
         "Prevent scars? Sometimes. Not always. It depends on the severity of the wound, the skill of the sorcerer, and so on. My own Power tends to be very good at preventing scars, but in this case, it didn't."
         "Why?"
         "I think... I think the Toshin was marking me."
         "Marking you?"
         "As soon as it returns to our world, I'm going to be its first target. I'm sure of it."
         "Oh."
         "Don't worry. Grandfather has a plan."
         "He hasn't told you what it is, has he?"
         "No, but it will all come together soon. With your help. Grandfather was very emphatic about that."
         Jin sighed. "I almost wish that you would leave the syndicate and go home. That way, you wouldn't be in danger from the Toshin. But then I'd... I'd miss you."
         What I wanted to say was, 'Wouldn't you be happy with Xiaoyu? Aren't you in love with her?'
         What I actually said was, "Could you tell me one more thing? Please?"
         "Umm..."
         "What happened between you and Mitsurugi?"
         "Huh?"
         "I mean-"
         Did you really fire him because you were jealous over Xiaoyu?
         "-why did you have to fire him? Exactly what has been going on with him, while I've been knocking myself out with fighting lessons from Shingo?"
         Jin chewed on his lip for a moment.
         "You'll have to promise me that you'll keep it to yourself," he required. "If word spread of what he almost got away with-"
         "I promise. I'll tell no one without your express consent."
         Jin nodded, and started to explain.
         I could repeat his story for you, but much of what he said was his own extrapolation. If I were to relate it, I'd be narrating two steps away from a primary source - and isn't that why you're talking to us directly? To get at the primary source?
         Just when are you going to interview Anna again, anyway?


End of Chapter 19: Unhappy Holidays