PHOENIX REBORN

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



PART V: DEPREDATION


Chapter 22: Reflections of the Soul


   Mirror mirror on the wall
   The face you show me scares me so
   I thought that I could call your bluff
   But now the lines are clear enough
   Life's not pretty even though
   I try so hard to make it so

         -Styx, Snowblind


INTERVIEW WITH JULIA CHANG, section 11
February 17, 2018
7:45 a.m.


         Right on time.
         So. Once again, you're back to interview me.
         You've been doing a lot of that lately, haven't you?
         No, that's all right. I don't mind. If anything, I'm flattered that you consider my viewpoint worth focusing upon. Except...
         You haven't interviewed Anna in over a week, have you?
         Mm-hm. I didn't think so.
         Jin has told me about the trap that almost destroyed her, and I don't mean merely her life. Sooner or later, you'll have to talk to her about it, if your record is going to be complete. Unless...
         I could conduct the interview in your place, you know. Just this once.
         Are you sure?
         All right. My offer stays open, though.
         Where was I going to continue from, anyway?
         Oh.
         Shingo...
         It's not only that I feel remorse for being cruel to him. I feel... well, I feel embarrassed. It's unlikely that he could have kidnapped me, if I hadn't walked right into the abduction.
         I truly should have seen it coming. Shingo Yabuki called me 'imouto,' because he saw me as the beloved little sister he had once lost, along with his parents, his sanity, and two of his limbs. But no, I'm so captivated by secrets that a whisper of one was all he needed to lure me into his apartment. Then he sealed the door with a ward from his enchanted gloves, and boom. There I was, confined in a sorcerous prison, with Shingo entreating me to 'wait until Dad comes home.'
         I couldn't wait.
         I'd finally realized that the Mishima syndicate New Year's Eve party - the very celebration that Shingo wanted to protect me from - was a deathtrap. A deathtrap for Jin Kazama, and probably also Ling Xiaoyu. Time had run out for both of them. I had to escape Shingo's snare, immediately.
         Even if it meant using the weapon I'd brought with me, hidden in my pocket.
         Even if that could destroy him.
         I didn't want to hurt him that way, though. Not if there were any other possible course of action.
         "Shingo," I addressed, ominously, "if you won't remove that ward from your door, I'm going to take your gloves and do it myself."
         "I can't let you have them, imouto," he said, unhappily looking down at his real and wooden hands. His right hand was still holding one of Lei Wulong's tasers, the one that I had tried to grab earlier; Shingo's ward on it had inflicted such pain that I'd dropped the electric stun gun. Shingo flicked the weapon off, and absently stowed it in the pocket of his gold-buttoned jacket.
         "Don't make me threaten you," I warned. "You may be a better fighter than me, but right now you're in bad shape. You recently gave up a lot of your life-force to help Lei Wulong, remember?"
         "Even if you could take Kusanagi-sama's gloves away from me, you wouldn't be able to use them. They work only for his faithful. You still don't believe he's a god, do you?"
         Damn!
         Shingo could have been lying, but I doubted it. He was too honest by nature. It was how I'd known to carry a concealed weapon in the first place. He'd had too much integrity to set me up without looking uncomfortable, sending out subconscious signals that something was wrong.
         So be it. There was only one choice left.
         I turned on my heel, and stalked out of Shingo's kitchen. Away from the pile of Lei Wulong's weapons. Marched right back into the front room, folded my arms, and glared at the warded door.
         "Imouto..." Shingo begged, following me at a limp. He was so enervated that he couldn't quite step with his wooden left leg; it scraped against the floor as he moved. Relying heavily on his claw cane, he hobbled into his own front room.
         He didn't look like a consummate master of Kusanagi-style martial arts.
         He looked like a broken-down cripple, blind, deaf, and dead on one side.
         Shingo came to a stop between his front door and me. "Imouto, how can I make you understand? You think you're immortal, and you're not. You think you can win against the white-haired Devil, and you can't. The gift of Orochi's Power fills him. It blazes from his right eye. It makes him a master sorcerer. You can't hope to survive against him. I can't let you challenge him on your own."
         "Heihachi's hair is grey, not white," I contradicted. "And he's not a sorcerer, any more than I am-"
         Oh, no.
         "You're not describing Heihachi Mishima," I realized. "You're describing Rugal Bernstein, aren't you?"
         "It doesn't matter what he's calling himself, now. If you go after him, he won't have mercy on you. He will tear you apart."
         "That's what happened to you, Shingo. It was you who challenged Rugal to single combat, not me."
         "I'm sorry, imouto. I can't let you near him."
         Although I knew I couldn't talk sense into Shingo, I had to try one more time. One final, desperate attempt, before I resorted to the worst.
         "Shingo, this is your last warning. I have to save Jin and Xiaoyu, at any cost. If you won't let me out of here, then I am going to hurt you, do you understand? I'm going to torture you until you let me go, just to make it stop!"
         Shingo sighed.
         "It doesn't matter what you do to me," he stated, sadly. "I almost lost you once. Not again. Never again."
         There was no more to be said. There was nothing left that I could reason with.
         So, I used my weapon.
         Great Spirit forgive me, I used my weapon.
         In a single, steady motion, I drew it from my pocket and pointed it directly at Shingo.
         He paled. His breath rushed out of him. He stumbled backwards, dragging his claw cane, and nearly collapsed against his own door. His earthy brown eyes - or rather, his right eye, the one that wasn't glass, the one that was bloodshot from lack of strength - grew wide. Wide and desperately fearful.
         "Imouto, NO!" he shrieked. "YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING!"
         And what, may you ask, did I have trained on him?
         A hand mirror.
         A simple, round-shaped hand mirror. Harmless to anyone else. Indescribable torture to Shingo, who suffered from a devastating phobia of reflective surfaces.
         "NOOOO!" he cried, slipping to his right knee - an act made doubly awkward by the stiffness of his artificial leg. "Don't do this, don't do this-!"
         I lowered the mirror.
         "Let me out of here, Shingo," I demanded, evenly. "Take that ward off your door and let me out."
         Shingo sobbed.
         It was a thick, choking sound. He slumped forward and fell on his right hand, his arm trembling to keep his body propped up.
         On the inside, my heart was breaking. On the outside, I refused to let it show. If I were to falter now, Jin and Xiaoyu would pay for it with their lives.
         "Shingo, let me out or I will show you the mirror again."
         "Nn-no..."
         "I don't want to do it either, but I will if I have to. Are you going to let me out?"
         Shingo didn't answer directly. He started trembling.
         "Are you going to let me out?" I repeated, cold and ruthless.
         "Nnngh... no. I'm - I'm not - I won't-!"
         "Then look at yourself. See yourself as you really are."
         I pointed the mirror at him again.
         "NO!" he yelled, recoiling like a frightened animal.
         "You can't look away!" I stressed, dark and fierce and inexorable. "You can't run, you can't hide, and most of all, you can't cling to your shadow world of lies!"
         Shingo could not make any effort to cover his eye, or even close it. He was paralyzed now, frozen by horror. He could do nothing but watch, as I showed him his own face.
         "This is you. This is what you look like. This is what you are. You are not seventeen; you're a middle-aged man. You are not healing from broken bones; you're a cripple, coping with wooden prosthetics."
         "That was a dream," Shingo denied, in rising panic. "That was only a dream-!"
         "Maybe you can twist what you see with your own eye," I charged. "But you can't sustain your illusions when you look in a mirror, can you? That's the real reason why you're afraid of mirrors, isn't it? It's not that you're terrified of losing your soul. You're terrified of seeing the truth; the truth of what has happened to you, the truth of what you've become!"
         "You don't understand," he pleaded, frantically. "You don't understand! Imouto, get rid of that before it's too late! Get rid of it before you hurt yourself!"
         "I can't be hurt by the truth, Shingo. I can only hurt you, and I will continue to hurt you, until you let me go!" As I took a step closer, I kept the mirror in perfect line with his face. He could not defend against me. He could only scream.
         "AHHH-!" Shingo's wail abruptly cut off, in a smothered whimper. His hand pressed at the corners of his eyes, real and glass.
         "Let me go, Shingo. Let me go before I destroy you."
         "It doesn't matter what you do to me," he wept, in terror and pain. "It doesn't matter what you do to me-!"
         I felt sick.
         Physically ill.
         I still couldn't back down. Not when I was so close to breaking him. Jin and Xiaoyu were counting on me.
         "Imouto..." Shingo moaned, in torment.
         "No. Not your little sister. She died twenty years ago, in the Orochi Blood Riots."
         "That was a dream," he disavowed, on the edge of hysteria. "That was only a dream!"
         "I am Julia Chang. Daughter of Michelle Chang, and heir guardian to the sacred treasure of our tribe! I speak for the family who once loved you, and the friends who still care for you. My honor commands you. My Truth commands you. For the lives of Jin Kazama and Ling Xiaoyu, I command you! LET ME OUT OF HERE, NOW!"
         "NOOOOO!" Shingo howled, a haunted, anguished wail. "I can't lose you again, imouto! I CAN'T!"
         He was almost crushed. On the verge of giving in. I knew because of how he talked to me. Instead of remaining oblivious to my denunciations of his shadow world, he was actively protesting what I said. His mirage was coming apart, breaking into pieces inside his own mind.
         "Maybe you can twist what you see with your own eye," I reiterated. "But you can't sustain your illusions when you see the truth in a mirror, can you?"
         I moved my arm to a forty-five degree angle, making the hand mirror the tip of an invisible triangle connecting Shingo and me.
         "This is what I really look like, Shingo. This is who I really am. And if you still think I'm your little sister, then it doesn't matter if you let me out - because I'm already dead."
         "No!" he shrieked. "NO! YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING!"
         I angled the mirror so that Shingo could see a clear reflection of my face.


         Shingo was right, though.
         I didn't know what I was doing. Didn't have the slightest idea.
         I'd thought that I could use his phobia to bully him, until I forced him to open the door and let me leave. I was desperate to save Jin and Xiaoyu, heedless of the consequences. So I used the mirror carelessly. Recklessly. Foolishly.
         Lei Wulong had warned me not to provoke Shingo.
         It is only because of the Great Spirit's mercy that I am still here to tell you of it.


         Shingo screamed.
         Not like before.
         Not a petrified whimper. Not an agonized yelp of pain.
         It was a scream of pure madness.
         It was a scream from the pits of Hell.
         In a single motion, he snapped to his feet and screamed. Throwing wide his arm, leaning back like a doll bent out of shape, rolling his right eye virtually into his head, he screamed.
         Then he attacked.
         Seized his claw cane and swung it at me like a club. All with the swiftness of a hellfiend, all with the strength of a Beast from the Pit. His weakness was gone. His weariness was gone. Insanity fueled him; insanity and feral bloodlust. He didn't just knock the mirror from my hand. His cane traveled to crack the side of my skull, hard. Sent the whole front room revolving about me, until the floor touched my cheek.
         Shingo screamed again, repeating his tormented pose with his arm flung wide. Echoing his inhuman wail of blood and madness.
         I grabbed for the electric taser, dangling from the pocket of his uniform-
         AHH!
         Shingo's ward was still on it, inflicting pain. Again, the sorcery made my hand burn as if it were on fire. Again, I staggered away, on the brink of shock. But this time, I knew it was not real. I forced myself to withstand the fire. If I can't take the fire, then I can't get out of here, I can't save Jin and Xiaoyu. I have to endure the fire, have to keep holding the taser, have to switch it on!
         As Shingo's possessed howl died in his throat, he turned toward me.
         Great Spirit.
         His glass eye retained more humanity than his living eye. He looked like a rabid animal, consumed by the virus ravaging its doomed body. He did not lean on his claw cane; his back hunched forward, arm dangling loosely with his cane in hand. His breathing was heavy, labored.
         Was this how he had looked, when he turned on his older sister?
         Shingo growled. Dangerously.
         My teeth gritted from the fire burning my hand. My hair stood on end from the pain, yet I managed to point my active taser at him. A livewire crackle of vivid blue electricity danced between its prongs.
         Shingo straightened.
         Recognition flashed in his working eye. In a transition between seconds, shadows, and worlds, he changed from mindless insanity to livid psychosis.
         "Shermie!" he hissed, gripped with unholy, fanatic hatred.
         Who?
         "YOU MURDERING DEVIL!" he screamed, lunging at me, and I saw death in his eye.
         My death.
         He was going to kill me. There could be no mistake.
         I tried to use the taser on Shingo, but my hand was almost inert from the burning ward, and he saw what I intended to do. Shingo hooked his cane's claw on my wrist and twisted it, forcing me to drop my weapon. If he'd had a second hand to strike with, I might have been dead then and there, but it was I who had the advantage of two hands. If I hadn't been so frightened, I might have thought of a better way to fight back. As it was, I retaliated as if I, too, had descended to the level of a rabid animal, and clawed at his face.
         My nails gouged his cheek, his forehead, and his left eye. Hard enough to draw blood. Shingo screeched and threw his head back. As I ripped my hand away, his glass eye fell from its socket. I heard it shatter on the hardwood floor.
         "DIE!" Shingo raged. He swung his cane at me, with the brute force of madness. I dodged it on instinct, just barely fast enough-
         "MOERO SHINGO!" he roared, throwing himself at me in a shoulder ram; I blocked his wooden shoulder on the guard of my crossed forearms, but Great Spirit, the strength his own psychosis gave him! It made me stagger, threatened to trip me-
         "MOERO SHINGO!" he roared again, louder. Unbalanced from blocking his first shoulder ram, I was nearly helpless against the second. The blow hurled me backwards. In a dark irony, it was Shingo's own teachings that enabled me to fall right, slapping my arms and legs to absorb the shock of my impact.
         Shingo threw his arm wide and voiced his terrible, tortured scream one more time.
         I'd landed in the corner of his front room. I couldn't roll away - there was nowhere to run - so I rolled toward him instead, gathering myself, and then sprang from my roll into a feline pounce. Diving headfirst into him, I caught him before he recovered from his wail, knocked him flat on his back, and landed in another forward somersault. While Shingo scrambled to right himself, I spotted my dropped taser and made one more dash to pick it up-
         AHH-!
         I should be used to this by now, I know what pain is and I will NOT let it stop me!
         "Shermie," Shingo spat, "you murdering Devil!"
         He was insane. Reasoning with him would not work.
         So I baited him.
         "Bring on my next victim," I sneered. Viciously. Like the blood-soaked fiend he thought I was.
         It worked.
         If I had tried to deny being a murderess, or calm him down, it might have put him in a rational enough frame of mind to think. He might have started calculating his attacks, like the master fighter he was. But when I incited him to the heights of fanatic frenzy, he lost all reason. Lost all cunning. Lost everything except the hunger for revenge.
         "BODEE GA AMAIZE!" he bellowed, so loud it tore at my ears; yet he was blindly rushing me again, as I had hoped. He struck at me with his right hand, in a long-range punch. Tucking my chin, I sidestepped the anticipated onslaught, and thrust my crackling taser against the rumpled white shirt that loosely draped his torso.
         His final scream seemed to go on forever.
         It was still ringing in my ears after his voice gave out; after his jaw turned slack and his eye wavered. His body jerked, falling off the electric prongs, twitching, sprawling on the floor.
         Shingo convulsed for a little longer, then lay still.
         My arms fell limp. The taser dropped from my burning fingers.
         My breath was heavy, wheezy. Windy. Delayed fight-or-flight response made my heart pound like a drum. I sank to my knees, dizzy and heaving. Rising bile clogged my throat.


         And that's how I won my first battle.
         My first ever victory.
         Funny, isn't it?
         Whenever I trained with Catsclaw, or with Shingo... whenever I fought in any kind of match, be it playful sparring or true competition... I dreamed of winning as if it would be a wonderful thing. A glorious, triumphant thing.
         I never thought it could make me feel so sick.
         I learned something, that day. A harsh, bitter truth. I learned that a true fight for survival is not a thing of glory, or triumph. It is a facet of Hell, upon the Earth Surface. It is darkness and pain, brutality and hatred.
         This was why Heihachi was using the Iron Fist Tournament to lure the Toshin.
         This was why Heihachi's Tournament could have no combat rules. No regulations to restrict how injurious an attack could be, or to protect the fighters' lives.
         The Toshin was murder and destruction incarnate. Its evil existed to feed off the violence of strong souls.
         Every fighter who suffered or died in the Iron Fist was a blood sacrifice, calling to the God of War.


         When my hyperventilation settled down, Shingo was still inert.
         Oh, Great Spirit no.
         He can't be dead. I can't have killed him, I-
         -crawled to his side and examined him, whispering prayer after prayer under my breath-
         -and slumped on my knees again, clasping my hands, when I saw a slight rise and fall to his chest. Tears formed in my eyes, the tears I could not allow myself to shed before. I gave thanks to the Great Spirit, offering all the gratitude in my body and soul, for sparing Shingo the worst. For sparing us both the worst.
         Shingo groaned.
         He tried to move, and didn't get very far. His right arm and leg twitched. His head jerked a bit. That was all.
         "Ihh..." he moaned. "...imouto..."
         I wiped the tears from my eyes.
         "...h-help me..."
         Though I wanted to, a twinge of fear held me back. He had tried to kill me just a couple minutes ago.
         "...please..."
         To hell with fear.
         To hell with fear, and torture, and fighting. To hell with all of it.
         I questioned Shingo about his injuries; though I didn't think I'd broken any of his bones, it's always good to check. His answers were only semi-coherent. Still, he didn't seem to react badly when I helped him sit up, and settled him with his back against the wall of his home.
         "...ih-... imouto..." he repeated, shuddering. "Th-the dream... it keeps coming back. It won't go away-!"
         Indeed.
         "Could you tell me about this dream?" I asked, gently.
         Shingo's eye closed. For a time he said nothing; then he slowly took a ragged breath, and began to speak.
         "I was in the King of Fighters Tournament. You came to watch me fight, along with Mom and Dad. I challenged the New Face Team. But they... they weren't interested in me. They wanted blood. Blood and destruction, for their god Orochi. They needed violence to bring Orochi into our world, and they were using the Tournament to create that violence. So when a huge crowd gathered to see us fight, the New Face Team ignored me... awakened into their Devil forms... used their Orochi Powers to start a riot. Earthquakes... electrocution... fires... a mass panic... people fleeing, trampling each other to get away...
         "I tried to stop the Devils... I tried...
         "I fought Shermie, the she-Devil with the Power of Lightning. Kusanagi-san's teammates joined in to help me; they fought her Earth Devil consort and her Fire Devil foster son. We just barely got the better of them, made them run away... but...
         "...when it was all over... when the Riot of the Blood had died down... I looked for you. I looked, and looked, and I couldn't find you, and I still couldn't find you. And then they came for me. The uniformed men came for me.
         "They showed me police badges. Asked me my name, like they wanted to be sure who I was. Asked me to come with them. Wouldn't answer any questions. They just took me to a... a cold place.
         "It was so cold...
         "Painted white...
         "And there were... there were cabinets. With long slabs. They pulled out three of the slabs. There was something heavy on the slabs, covered with white sheets. The policemen drew back the sheets, and asked me to look.
         "I didn't want to look.
         "I looked at the ceiling.
         "There was a mirror in the corner of the ceiling. I could see everything in the mirror. The whole room was in the mirror.
         "Mom's face was in the mirror.
         "Dad's face was in the mirror.
         "You were in the mirror.
         "What was left of you..."
         Shingo choked.
         He still couldn't move properly, but enough of the stun had worn off so that he could spasmodically bring his right hand to his eyes. Or rather, to his eye, and his hollow socket. To the tears that dripped from both.
         "It was only a dream. It had to be only a dream.
         "I know - I know it was only a dream, because I saw you again, later. Like nothing had ever happened. I saw you again, and you're here now, aren't you? It had to be only a dream. I was so sure it was only a dream...
         "...wasn't it?"
         Shingo's tattered breath settled into a more even, quiet rasp. Thickness gathered in the back of his throat, and his voice faded to a croak.
         "Imouto... it was only a dream, wasn't it?"
         I didn't know what to tell him.
         The truth had almost destroyed him, moments ago. It was a miracle that he had retained his life, and a remnant of his sanity. If I were to answer him honestly, could he withstand it?
         If I were to lie, would that be any better?
         "Please," Shingo entreated, forlornly. "Please tell me. I... I can't see right. My senses don't... they don't work as well as they used to, it's harder to see, harder to hear, harder to remember. I can't... I feel like it's all in chaos sometimes, I can't think right, can't keep the dreams apart, they mix until I don't know which one is real anymore.
         "Please, imouto. Tell me the truth. Was it only a dream?"
         The truth?
         "Shingo, are you sure that's what you want? The truth?"
         "Y-... yes," he confirmed, barely able to voice the sound.
         "It was not a dream."
         Shingo didn't say anything for the longest time.
         His eye drifted away from me, staring straight ahead. Staring at nothing in particular, other than his moderately cluttered front room.
         "Jin told me that your mother, father, and younger sister died in the Orochi Blood Riots. That the police had you identify their bodies. That you fled in panic afterward, and no one heard from you again for over a year.
         "The mirror in the corner of the morgue's ceiling... Jin didn't know about that. It's what really triggered your phobia of reflective surfaces, isn't it?"
         Shingo still didn't answer.
         "Uh, Shingo?"
         "Where am I?" he murmured, at last.
         There was something different about his voice. It was deeper than before. Still a tenor, but now on the lower end of that range. His words came slowly, as if it were hard for him to select the right ones.
         "Um," I responded, hesitantly. "You're in your apartment."
         "My... apartment?"
         "You've been living here for the past few months, I think. Ever since Jin got you out of Serenity Consolation Asylum."
         "Ever since..." Shingo's eye fluttered closed. His eyebrows pressed down, as if he were straining to remember something. "What year is it?"
         "It's 2017."
         "The... twenty-first century?"
         "In less than an hour, it'll be 2018."
         "Twenty years...?"
         He looked down on himself. His eye traced his folded wooden arm, and lingered on his wooden leg. Then he scanned the floor of his front room, and rested his gaze on the hand mirror that I had dropped.
         "Could you show me?" he breathed, tremulously.
         "Uh, are you sure-?"
         "Yes. Please."
         I fetched the mirror. With a heavy dose of trepidation, I let Shingo see his own likeness. I was tense, ready to immediately hide the looking glass if he reacted badly.
         Shingo shivered. As if he were staving off an anxiety attack.
         "Take it away," he whispered, averting his eye.
         I pocketed the mirror.
         "It was so real," Shingo said, without looking at me.
         "What was?" I inquired, trying not to sound as relentlessly curious as I actually felt.
         "Everything. Absolutely everything. It was all so real, as real as everything here now. More real.
         "When... when Orochi was banished from our world... it caused an explosion of Power. Such Power. A man took advantage of the Power. A black, evil soul caught between worlds. He should have been dead, should have been destroyed, except that he carried a piece of Orochi's Power inside himself. It blazed from his right eye."
         "Rugal Bernstein?"
         "Yes. He called all of us - everyone in the King of Fighters Tournament, living and dead, bodies and souls - he used the eruption of Power to bring all of us to him. I don't know where. Kagura-san called it a Demiplane of Souls, I don't know.
         "With the dark Power of Orochi fueling him, Bernstein-san had become a master sorcerer. He wanted to use us - our fighting, our violence - to gather energy. So much energy that he could become a god. But we wouldn't have fought for him, if we'd known. He was a madman, a butcher. He'd murdered countless innocent people, and he wanted to commit genocide on the human race.
         "So, he used his Power to craft a dreamweaving. Covered the whole demiplane with it, drew it from all our minds, all our memories. We all thought we were in the King of Fighters Tournament again. He kept us there for over a year, dreaming and fighting and generating energy, and... and...
         "It was so real. Bernstein-san... his dreamweaving...
         "Mother was there. And Father, and imouto, they were all there, as I remembered them. Their shadows brought back to life, in my fragment of the mass hallucination. You have to understand how real it was. The dreamweaving fooled everybody, even Kusanagi-san, even Kagura-san. It was so real.
         "If I... if I had known that challenging Bernstein-san would disrupt the illusion... would unravel the dreamweaving, destroy the false world with my shadow family... I don't think I could have done it. Kagura-san tells me I alerted her to Bernstein-san's true purpose, sacrificed myself to help save the whole world. But if I had known what I was really doing, I don't think I would have had the courage. I didn't want to let the dream-world go. I didn't want to let my family go. Even after the dreamweaving was dispelled, and Bernstein-san destroyed himself, I still didn't want to let any of it go. No one could make me let go, until they all gave up trying.
         "Except you. You never did give up, did you? Not completely."
         Shingo looked at me, as if seeing me for the first time.
         "Who... who are you, again? I know you've told me your name before, but..."
         "Julia Chang. I started working as your assistant, earlier this month."
         "And the sick man I've been caring for?"
         "Lei Wulong, Super Police."
         "Is... is onee-san all right?"
         "Your older sister is fine, as far as I know. It's just that she has, um..."
         "Cut off all contact with me?"
         I nodded.
         "I was afraid that part was real," he acknowledged. "She-"
         He stopped himself, abruptly, and regarded me with apprehension. "Are - are you all right? Chang-san?"
         In fact, I was still a little lightheaded, and my body ached from fresh bruises. However, I didn't feel like I had any broken bones.
         "I'm okay," I told him, and it was close enough to the truth.
         "Did I - did I attack you? Try to murder you?"
         "It's all right. You weren't yourself."
         Shingo hung his head. "I'm sorry, Chang-san. I'm so sorry."
         "Hey. I'll forgive you if you'll forgive me. Deal?"
         "I..."
         "Deal!" I declared, seizing his right hand and vigorously pumping it in a handshake.
         His brow furrowed in puzzlement.
         Then, for the first time since his awakening, a slight smile formed on his face.
         "Very well," he agreed. "It is a deal, with Kusanagi-sama as our witness."
         I let go of his hand.
         Shingo almost certainly saw my reaction on my face, because he quickly insisted, "That was real, Chang-san. The rest was all delusion, but that part was real. Kyo Kusanagi-san really did ascend to godhood, along with Yuki-san, his one true love."
         "Umm..."
         "Do you think I'd be here, otherwise? After what Bernstein-san did to me? I bled to death, on the Demiplane of Souls. No mortal could have saved me, not even a sorcerer. It is only because of Kusanagi-sama's divine blessing that I am here now. The same blessing that he invested in his gloves."
         "Well..."
         "Kusanagi-san didn't want to give up his mortal life, but he accepted Bernstein-san's stolen Power, and became a god in the murderer's place. He healed me, sent all of us back home, and protected our world from the demiplane's collapse."
         "He healed you?"
         "Yes."
         "If you don't mind my saying so, he could have done a better job of it."
         "There are limits to what even a god can do," Shingo conceded, looking down at his dead left side.
         Then, "I have got to get myself some better prosthetics. These are heavy."
         I took a deep breath.
         "Shingo..."
         "And I need to see Kagura-san - wait. She's not in Tokyo, is she? She left on a... a trip... oh, now I remember. There's a terrible monster coming to our world; I think it's the 'Toshin' that Lei-san told me about, isn't it? It'll be here in - in another five months by now, right? Its proximity is tearing open dimensional rifts. I think that's why our climate is all wrong, why it's so warm in the dead of winter. The sky would probably be raining hellfire if Kagura-san weren't out there, protecting us. She said she would look for help; she didn't know that Mishima-san was planning a new Iron Fist Tournament to lure the Toshin-"
         "Shingo!"
         "Ah, yes?"
         "Jin and Xiaoyu are in grave danger. I have to save them. Would you please take that ward off your front door, and let me out of here?"
         Shingo bowed his head. "Please don't ask me to do that, Chang-san. Please."
         "You know I'm not your little sister, don't you?"
         "Does that make your life any less valuable?"
         And there I was. Full circle.
         I'd brought Shingo from madness to sanity, and I was still as trapped as before.
         Now what could I do? Try to take his gloves by force, and make myself believe in Kusanagi-sama?
         Threaten Shingo again?
         No. Absolutely not.
         Then how-?
         My head only went round in more circles, no way out of the prison. But my heart...
         My heart told me what to say.
         I said, "Shingo, have you ever been in love?"
         He raised his head.
         "Me?"
         I nodded.
         He looked away.
         "Once. A long time ago."
         "Before the Riots?"
         Shingo inclined his head, slightly. "She... at first we were just friends. Then I thought we were growing closer to something more. Maybe. But that was all before. Before what Bernstein-san did to me, and what I did to myself.
         "She's married, now. One of her kids goes to the Mishima high school. The boy has his mother's eyes."
         All right, then.
         "Shingo, if it were your... if it was the woman you loved who was walking into Heihachi Mishima's deathtrap, could you make yourself stay where it's safe? Could you live with yourself, knowing that you did nothing to save her?"
         "I couldn't even save my family."
         "That wasn't your fault. There was nothing you could have done, because you didn't know what was going to happen. This is different. We both know what's going to happen, and that I can do something to stop it. I can help Jin and Xiaoyu escape, if you will only let me out of here!"
         "Chang-san..."
         "Please. I think I may be in love with Jin."
         "Isn't he dating Ling-san?"
         I flinched from that. "So I've heard."
         "Does it hurt?"
         "Some," I admitted, cringing on the inside.
         "Yes," Shingo mused, wistfully. "Yes, that's love all right."
         I gulped back a rising quiver in my throat.
         Shingo raised his right hand, extending his fingers. His front door flickered deep green for a moment. The energies within it spread apart in a radiating spider's web, and vanished from sight.
         "Thank you," I told him, with a grateful bow.
         "Wait. Take some weapons with you."
         "Umm..."
         "I've removed their wards as well. But Chang-san, don't take any lethal weapons unless you're prepared to kill with them, and prepared to live with the consequences of killing. If you carry a gun into the syndicate, and you don't have it in you to pull the trigger, then it can only be used against you."
         I found a small half-cloak with internal pockets, put it on, and stowed lots of smoke bombs within it. Although I thought about donning a flak jacket, it seemed too bulky to conceal, even under a half-cloak. If I were to wear one openly, it could raise suspicion.
         I also thought about taking another taser with me, or even some true explosives, but decided against it. Shingo's warning against weapons that could kill echoed in my head. A taser can potentially be fatal, and I was not certain that I could bring myself to wield one again, in hot blood or in cold. For that matter, I wasn't sure I could use explosives - one misstep and I'd be a red stain.
         When I returned to the front room, Shingo was trying to stand. He had retrieved his claw cane, and barely managed to support himself on it.
         "You can't come with me," I told him, anticipating his thoughts before he could say them aloud. "You're too drained. Even if you were in perfect health, you can't run. You'd never make it there in time, any more than you could make it out."
         "Kusanagi-sama, am I making the right decision?" he prayed, struggling to remain upright.
         "It's not your decision to make, Shingo. It's mine. There's only one person who has responsibility for it, and that person is I."
         "But you don't even have a plan, do you? You have no idea where you'll go or what you'll do, after you get Kazama-san and Ling-san out of the syndicate."
         "Umm..."
         "Do you know where Kagura-san's Temple is? It's completely protected from Mishima-san, and his Tekkenshu soldiers."
         Oh. Wulong had told me about that place. I could have kicked myself for not remembering.
         "You don't know where it is? Then listen to me, carefully."
         Shingo gave me very precise directions, and had me repeat them aloud.
         "Okay, good," he assented. "Now, give me your gloves."
         "My-?" I looked down at the brown-black, fingerless fighting gloves that had been Shingo's Christmas present to me. "Do you want to enchant them? I can't let you do that. You're too depleted."
         "It's just a temporary enhancement. Very minor. Trust me, I know my limits."
         With reluctance, I gave him my gloves. Clutching them both in his right hand, he mumbled a few words; my gloves glowed deep green, then returned to their normal color.
         Shingo swayed.
         He dropped my gloves, and couldn't remain standing. I had to settle him down with his back to the wall again.
         "Don't look so worried," he mouthed, weakly. "I'll be fine."
         "What did you do?" I asked, putting on my gloves.
         "...minor homing spell. In case you get lost. If you concentrate on Kagura's Temple... the spell will guide your feet there, automatically. When you reach the Temple grounds, the spell will make your gloves glow. The acolytes know what my sorcery looks like. They'll know that I sent you. All of you. As you come close to the Temple, its wards against Devils will weaken Kazama-san, but the wards won't kill him. The caretaker knows that Kazama-san is an honorable Devil. He will invite Kazama-san in."
         Even sane, Shingo was still calling Jin a 'Devil'?
         Well, there was no time to argue the point.
         "Thank you," I said, with another bow. "Thank you for everything. Take care of yourself, all right? Take care of yourself and Wulong. We'll all meet you at Kagura's Temple, as soon as we can."
         And I left.


         Great Spirit forgive me, I left.
         Because from what I'm given to understand... what I know from reading Lei Wulong's records...
         I missed them by such a small amount of time.
         I missed the emissaries from Kagura's Temple by no more than an hour, definitely. Probably less. Maybe even as little as ten minutes. They came by Shingo's apartment, to bring him to Kagura's Temple.
         If I had only waited...
         If only Shingo had delayed me a little longer...
         I'd thought that time had run out, that there was none left to detour by the Temple and get help. Shingo hadn't known that Wulong would arrive at the Temple, or send emissaries. So I went to the Mishima syndicate New Year's Eve party alone.
         If I'd had even one Temple acolyte with me...
         Even one sorceress to help me out...
         Well, I don't know that anything would have turned out differently. I don't know that my rescue attempt would have been any more successful.
         Or that the ultimate toll would have been any less.


         As I sprinted back to the syndicate, vaulting over puddles from the rainstorm that had just recently ceased, I prayed that I would make it in time.
         Did I?
         Mmm, yes and no.
         It was around eleven forty-five when I arrived, breathless. I knew Heihachi wouldn't be at the syndicate New Year's Eve party, not yet. The trap had not been sprung. However, Jin and Xiaoyu had to already be there; they were supposed to show up at eleven-thirty, and Jin was almost always punctual. So I didn't slow my run until I reached the grand ballroom, where the party was being held.
         Now, I'm not going to go in depth on this.
         If you want it down to the arches on the ceiling chandeliers, then you can ask anyone else who was there. There were hundreds, maybe even a thousand syndicate employees, packed into a single open space. All of them lavishly dressed. In addition to the partygoers, there were more than a few black-suited security guards, dutifully watching the crowd.
         I looked for Mitsurugi, and didn't see him. Not that I'd expected to, but...
         There's one other thing I should mention about the party, and that was the wine.
         There was a lot of wine.
         I can't remember how many crystal punchbowls there were - ten? Twenty? Thirty? More? Elegant and Western-style, with ladles and matching crystal cups. Each bowl had a different variety of alcoholic drink. There was also a long table of Japanese rice wine, against the back wall. A number of traditionally attired young women seemed to have the appointed task of pouring drinks, and offering them to people.
         And may I add, there was no edible food of any kind.
         Where were Jin and-?
         "WHEEEEEEEEEE!"
         I knew that squeal. Great Spirit save my bleeding ears, I knew that pixie squeal.
         I'd found Xiaoyu. She was dressed in a perfectly tailored kimono of white satin, with long sleeves and a trailing hem - wait a minute.
         A white satin kimono?
         An ill feeling rose within me. I swallowed it back.
         "Vroom, vroom, vroom! WheeeeEEEEeeeeEEEEEEEE!"
         Xiaoyu was way, way beyond her usual ebullience. The sixteen-year-old girl had taken to zipping around at almost supernatural speed, her delicate arms stretched out, sleeves flapping behind her like avian wings. She dashed in spiraling circles, blissfully oblivious of the crowd, of the drink tables, of everything in her way. Any unfortunate individual not quick enough to move aside immediately found himself a stepping stone, as the fairy princess launched herself over his shoulders and beyond, flying like a magical creature out of legend.
         She was, of course, plastered out of her wits.
         And there was nothing Jin could do about it.
         I spotted his face, amid a sea of faces, and he seemed to be the opposite of Xiaoyu. Where she was passionately exhilarated, he was completely withdrawn. He pressed both hands against his temples, and clenched his teeth.
         It was the crowd, naturally. The massive, drunken crowd. As a hypersensitive telepath, Jin was practically a hostage to the overwhelming psychic tide. He just barely managed to keep a semblance of control.
         This was how I had realized that the party was a trap for Jin. In this setting, he would be extremely ill-prepared to resist his grandfather's ambuscade. If only I had figured it out sooner - but never mind regrets. Now that I'd found him, I had to-
         Oh, no.
         "May we help you, young mistress?" Kimura said, quietly, as he stepped directly between Jin and me. Ishida was right next to him, but for once, the more vociferous of the nearly-identical cousins had nothing to say. He did look more than a little agitated, however.
         Ishida and Kimura...
         Jin's bodyguards.
         Jin's bodyguards - who owed their absolute loyalty, body and soul, to Heihachi Mishima.
         "Uh, yes," I admitted. "I'd like to see - hey, Jin! Over here!"
         "Rrrgh?" he grunted, squinting at us.
         Then, a look of gratified relief washed over his face. Like seeing an oasis in the desert, or a port in the typhoon.
         "Julia! I was afraid you wouldn't come!"
         "Sorry I'm late," I apologized. "I got kind of locked down."
         Jin smiled broadly at me, happiness mixed with desperation. As he gestured for me to come closer, he reassured his bodyguards with, "It's all right, I invited her."
         They didn't look very reassured, though. Ishida in particular looked downright disturbed. As if my arrival had somehow made a bad night even worse.
         How was I going to get Jin and Xiao-chan out of here, with this matched pair watching us like hawks?
         Hm. I'd definitely need some kind of distraction. And I would need to remove Jin's and Xiaoyu's armbands, the ones that let the syndicate track them. And I'd need-
         "I'm so glad you came," Jin professed, warmly. "I don't know how much more of this I can take. It's a good thing Grandfather is coming soon, and - Julia?"
         Great Spirit.
         It was not the place, and definitely not the time, but I couldn't help it. I stared at Jin. I stared at him, and my jaw dropped open, and I kept staring at him, and I couldn't close my mouth, and I still stared at him.
         He... he looked...
         He looked RIDICULOUS-!
         Okay. This, I have to describe. Just bear with me, all right? It was so overwhelming it momentarily brought my whole rescue to a crashing halt. I have to make you picture this:
         Bright yellow.
         Bright, gaudy yellow.
         Bright yellow with dark black running along the sleeves, down to where they were rolled up, their white inner lining tucked into neat cuffs. Bright yellow with black swaths along the shoulders, a black line down the midriff beneath the collar, which was loosened enough to expose a triangle-shaped patch of his bare chest. Bright yellow with a black character written on the back, and various other thick black streaks.
         Like a banana that's been left out for a few days.
         There were also his black leather pants, with hotrod red stripes outlined with white, running from outside hip to ankle. The leathers even had thin white lines along the inner legs, and straight down the center of the crotch. Don't get me wrong, I don't have anything against that area in a man, but - oh, skip it. Let me just finish this with a note about his horridly clunky black boots.
         Taken as a whole, he was a walking disaster area. Still, it was the banana yellow that almost did it.
         I am not going to laugh. I am not going to laugh.
         "Julia..."
         I am not going to laugh. I am not going to laugh.
         "...why are you gawking at me like that?"
         Uh-oh.
         "You look handsome tonight," I complimented, with an allegedly loving smile.
         "Do you really think so?"
         "Oh yes," I assured, quite sincerely. Jin's accouterments might have been an astoundingly ludicrous travesty of good taste, but Jin himself was indeed a very handsome young man. Nothing could change that, not even the most preposterous-
         "Xiao-chan selected that outfit for you, didn't she?" I queried, holding back a snicker.
         "She gave it to me for Christmas, yes. How did you know?"
         "Mm, just a guess."
         Somewhere in the background, Xiaoyu pealed, "WheeeeEEEEEEeeeee!"
         Wincing from the pixie queen's antics, Jin lowered his voice and confided, "She's never had anything to drink before. And she's such a small person, with a small liver; I think she overdid it, a little."
         You don't say?
         All right, all right. Time to get serious.
         I clasped Jin's hands in my own. Fingers to fingers, skin-to-skin contact.
         His jet black eyes widened, somewhat. As if he were surprised by my sudden familiarity, although he did not appear offended.
         Jin, you and Xiaoyu both have to leave the syndicate with me, I thought, through the link.
         What? he thought back.
         Our communication was whisking over the topmost crest of his psychic barriers. I could feel echoes of an ongoing struggle, within him. It was like rising tidal waves crashing against a weakened dam, wood straining to hold back water, buckling fortitude, last-ditch resolve. He was even more hard-pressed than he looked.
         You're in danger. So is she, and you're at your weakest, in this crowd.
         It's not for much longer. Grandfather is going to be here soon-
         That's the point. Heihachi will use this party to ambush both of you!

         "Julia," Jin said, crossly. "You can't believe that Grandfather would-"
         No, don't say anything out loud, your bodyguards will hear!
         "Ishida. Kimura. Could you go to the other end of the room, and stay there for a while?"
         Kimura said, "Mishima-sama's orders are to keep close watch upon you and mistress Ling. We cannot disobey."
         Ishida turned to his cousin and said, "Like hell."
         "What?" Kimura gasped, stiffening.
         Ishida took off his black shades.
         His eyes...
         His dull brown eyes were dark. Sleepless. Hollowed and bloodshot, as if from some terrible nightmare that denied him rest. It hadn't been obvious before, but he looked almost as drained as Shingo had been. Almost as torn.
         "I can't be a part of this anymore," Ishida growled.
         "Cousin!" Kimura hissed, low on volume, high on tension.
         "No. It's - it's - just no."
         "Cousin, have you been drinking!?" Kimura yelled - though for him, a yell was only half anyone else's normal speaking voice.
         "I wish I could get myself a drink. It would make this easier. It would make everything easier."
         "Quiet!" Kimura seemed on the verge of panic. "Just be quiet and do your duty. Your family owes it to the House Mishima!"
         "My father died for the House Mishima. So did yours. Isn't that enough?"
         "They perished in service to the traitor Kazuya, not-"
         "There is no difference! Don't you get it? Don't you-"
         "Cousin, stop it. Stop it now. This is unprofessional, this is-"
         "I am getting myself a drink," Ishida spat. "I can't run away, I can't fight back, I can't change what Mishima-sama wants, I can't do anything, but I can get myself a drink. And if I can just get drunk enough, I might be able to forget tonight ever happened."
         Ishida stalked away.
         "Cousin!" Kimura cried, and he was so shocked, so distraught, that he almost sounded like a normal human being. He looked at Jin and me, then looked back at his cousin's retreating form.
         At last, blood proved thicker than wine, and Kimura chased after his recalcitrant relative. Kimura's soft voice became lost in an instant, but I could see him still trying vainly to reason with Ishida, who never so much as broke his stride.
         "Good grief," Jin said, under his breath. "I knew they were upset over being separated from their families for so long, but I never had any idea-"
         Xiaoyu started to narrowly circle us then, squealing "WHEEEEeeeeEEEEEE!" So, I didn't quite hear about the idea Jin never had.
         Jin, this is deadly serious, I insisted, through our telepathic link. I need you to-
         "WHEEEEE- huh?" Xiaoyu suddenly screeched to a halt.
         She swayed, like the tipsy little nymph she was. "Juuulia, why're you hoooolding hands with Jin?"
         Oh, no.
         I hadn't meant to make her jealous. I truly hadn't.
         "It's - it's not what you're thinking," I corrected, hurriedly letting go of Jin's hands and stepping away from him. "Jin, tell her. Please."
         "Whaaaat I'm thinking?" Xiaoyu twittered, drunkenly. "Jin's the one who knoooows what I'm thinking!"
         "Um," Jin gulped. "Actually, Xiao-chan, I'd appreciate it if you could just stay back."
         "Whaaaat am I thinking now? Guess what I'm thinking now!"
         "Uh, later - argh, please later, I can't-!"
         "I'm thiiiinking..."
         "Xiao-chan, I'm begging you-"
         "THISISHOWYOUHOLDHANDS!"
         All I could do was watch, amazed, as Jin's pixie girlfriend rushed him. If he hadn't been so psychically battered, he might have had a chance to evade her, but alas. She seized his hands in her own, and pumped them so vigorously she twirled her arms in a loop, flipping him head over heels. He hit the ground on his back.
         The other partygoers gave all three of us a wide berth.
         Xiaoyu dissolved into endless elfin giggles, jumping up and down and clapping her hands.
         Jin groaned.
         "Are you all right?" I asked, crouching next to him.
         He tried to sit up.
         Slipped and landed on his back again.
         Tried to sit up a second time.
         Made it, but looked like he could hardly keep his torso stable, even with both hands propping him on either side. His head slouched. His eyes drifted in and out of focus.
         "Zh... Zhulia?" he slurred.
         "I'm right here. Can you-"
         "'m SO glad you're here!" he exclaimed, hugging me.
         Just out of the blue. Wrapped his arms around me and squeezed me like a plush toy.
         "Great Spirit," I whispered. "You're drunk!"
         "Me? Naaah. I nnnnev'r drink!"
         I didn't mean he was physically drunk.
         Worse.
         He was psychically drunk. Xiaoyu's assault had been the final act of sabotage. His barriers had come crashing down, leaving him defenseless to the intoxicated crowd. I could feel a resonance of it, through his embrace; the churning tidal waves had drowned the broken wreck of his mental dam.
         "Heeeey!" Xiaoyu plopped on her rear and wiggled her legs, utterly unaware of the destruction her magical pixie powers had just unleashed. "Whaaaat kinda game you playing? I wanna get in, I wanna!"
         Jin let go of me with one arm, but kept the other hooked around my neck. "Zhulia wan's us t' run away from-"
         "Ssh!" I hissed, glancing around for spies. A few security guards were looking at us suspiciously, but they were distant enough so that I could probably whisper without being overheard. Probably.
         I was in a bad situation, but it wasn't too late to make the best of it. At least Jin's inebriation seemed to have left him notably more amenable to the idea of escape. And if Xiaoyu really thought this was a game...
         All right, it's a plan.
         "Come here, Xiao-chan," I whispered. "Get real close and listen. This is what we're going to do."
         I collected the syndicate-monitor-armband that she wore under her sleeve, as well as Jin's armband.
         Put Lei Wulong's armband on Xiaoyu. This had the nice advantage of hiding our immediate plans from any technological surveillance.
         Gave her my gloves, which Shingo had enchanted with his homing spell. Fitted them on her slender hands; they were a little loose, but didn't seem about to fall off.
         Whispered a prayer to the Great Spirit for her. For all three of us.
         Then, I quickly explained as much as I could to Jin and Xiaoyu, in terms simple enough for their drugged minds to grasp. Jin seemed especially confused, yet when I smiled sweetly at him, he flashed a lopsided grin and slurred, "Sure, Zhulia. Anythin' f'r you."
         "Now remember," I instructed Xiaoyu, "once you're outside the syndicate, don't stop until you reach Kagura's Temple. Just think to yourself, 'Kagura's Temple, Kagura's Temple' and keep running until you're there, all right?"
         "Thisis the funniest race I've eeeeever heard of!" she laughed, merrily. "I'll beat you both, I will I willilil!"
         "We'll see about that. Don't forget: Kagura's Temple."
         "Kagura's Temple Kagura's Temple Kagura's Temple!" she repeated, in fairy triplicate.
         "On the count of three. One... two..."
         "WHEEEEEEEEEEEE!" she elatedly proclaimed, tearing through the ballroom like pixie hell on wheels, knocking over innocent bystanders left and right.
         "Three," I sighed, and used one of Lei Wulong's smoke grenades.
         Now. Do I have to tell you about the chaos?
         About how I tossed smoke bombs all over the place? How Jin freely used his Power of Lightning to blast apart tables and glass wine-bowls? About the general mini-riot we started, about throwing my half-cloak over the head of a guard that blundered in our way, about slapping Jin's and Xiaoyu's armbands on two random partygoers in the whole, messed-up lunacy?
         Hmph. Well, I don't think I should have to tell you any more than that. Not when there's a thousand other people you could interview about it.
         There was a problem, though.
         Jin couldn't run.
         He could barely stagger in a straight line. Xiaoyu had no trouble zipping round in circles and out the ballroom - I think she flattened the poor guards at the entrance - but I had a much worse problem with Jin.
         He was heavier than me. I might have been able to carry him, but not quickly, and not for long. And I was running out of smoke grenades.
         In the end, I resorted to pushing open one of the ballroom's hidden doors, and dragged us both into the shadowy tunnel beyond. I knew where all the syndicate's secret passages were, thanks to memories I'd once gleaned from Jin, supplemented with my own explorations. Shutting the entrance, I insisted, "Jin! Use your sorcery; seal the door, and make us invisible to any devices monitoring us!"
         "My exec... exec'tive priv'lege?"
         "Just do it!"
         "Oookay!"
         Jin threw his hands in a wide, sweeping gesture, which might have accidentally knocked me over if I hadn't been quick enough to duck it. Indigo lightning flared from his fingers, in a radiant pattern.
         All right, that bought us a few minutes. Not too long, though. It wouldn't take much time for Heihachi's men to figure out what had happened, and come looking for us.
         "Y'like the color indigo?" Jin asked, feverishly.
         "Sure, sure. Now-"
         "I c'n do others. Pink! Yellow! Purple!" With each new color, he flung a cascading shower of the appropriate sparks. "Wha'cher fav'rite?"
         "Not now. Jin-"
         "Don'cha hava fav'rite?"
         "Jin, listen to me. The walls in your mind. Can you rebuild the walls in your mind?"
         "Huuuuh?"
         "Your psychic barriers. You have to get them back up, now. Please?"
         "Uhhh..."
         Jin flopped with his back against the wall of the secret passageway. His legs propped him against it in a stiff triangle. He closed his eyes, pressed his hands against his head, and gritted his teeth.
         "Rrrr..."
         Jin's back slowly slid down the wall, until he was sitting. His legs splayed out, and his look of total concentration intensified.
         "...rrrrgggg..."
         I kneeled next to him, biting my lip - do you know, I think that's a habit I've picked up from him?
         "...ggggh-!"
         Jin's hands fell limp. His breathing settled into an easy rhythm, and a dreamy smile spread across his face.
         "Jin?" I asked.
         His eyes fluttered open.
         "Green!" he laughed, tracing a rainbow of chartreuse sparks. "Tha's y'r fav'rite color, innit? Innit?"
         Actually, chartreuse is my favorite color - how did he know? - but admitting as much would not have helped the situation.
         Damn!
         "Aww. Whassa matt'r, Zhulia? You don' feel happy."
         Of course he couldn't sober up on his own. His barriers were down because he was drunk, and he was drunk because his barriers were down. The source of his psychic intoxication was scarcely twenty feet away, past a flimsy false wall; he'd have to be much further removed before he could regain control of himself. And if he couldn't regain control, then I doubted that I could get very far with him. How do you dry out a telepathic-
         "Y'r hurt," Jin noticed, his drunken mood shifting from dreamy to doleful. "Y'r bruised! Why didn' y'tell me?"
         "Not now, Jin. I'm trying to think of what to-"
         "I c'n fix tha'," he breathed, heavily.
         "Wait a-"
         He hugged me again.
         Squeezing close.
         And I...
         ...I was wearing one of my usual cutoff tops, leaving my midriff bare. When he wrapped his arms around me, he pressed his forearms against my back, and his hands on either cross-side of my midsection. His left cheek was touching my right, and I felt his warm breath on my neck, even as his healing Power soothed the leftover aches from my battle with Shingo.
         Skin to skin contact with a telepath...
         With a drunken telepath...
         It was getting harder to see, and not because of the darkness. My head was dizzy, and not because of the concussion Jin was healing. A new feeling descended on me, wrapping itself around the pain, easing it, sending it floating away. It was a feeling from outside, from a mind that wasn't my own. It was... it was like...
         Being worshiped.
         Adored.
         Lavished.
         Easing into a steaming hot bath, the warmth and gentleness washing all your tension away...
         "Y'r beautiful," Jin murmured, softly.
         "You really are wasted," I shot back, trying to squirm free. I couldn't quite do it. Not because he was holding me all that tightly, but because I didn't really want to disconnect myself from this feeling. This warm, wonderful-
         "I love you."
         My heart skipped a beat.
         That couldn't - he couldn't have just said - I couldn't have heard that right, my translation protocol must be on the fritz again-!
         "I love you!" Jin repeated, gushing, heartthrob emotion rising like a tsunami, drowning thought, drowning shyness, I might have lost myself completely if he hadn't taken that moment to change his hold. One hand on my shoulder, the other clumsily pawing at my hair, but at least now I wasn't sharing direct physical contact anymore. The feeling of being flooded with adoration remained, only partly diminished in raw intensity.
         "You're drunk," I whispered to him, in shock. "You don't know what you're saying."
         Jin pulled off my headband, and the red binder that held my hair in a single braid. He unwound the braid and spread my dangling tresses over my other shoulder, drawing them across his palm like fine fabric.
         "Y'r so beautiful..."
         "You're not only plastered, you can't see worth a damn in these shadows," I protested, weakly. Somewhere in a logical corner of my mind, I knew I should not be getting stalled by this; there were other, much more urgent problems clamoring for my attention. If I could only think straight for one second, I'd remember what they were.
         "Stay wi' me," Jin urged, shifting his arms to hold me like a tango dancer. "Stay wi' us, 'n th' synd'cate. Don' go away, aft'r th' Iron Fis'. I don' wanna lose you. I love you."
         The black sea of adoration returned to engulf me, more fervent than ever.
         "Y'can have anythin' y' wan'. I'll buy y' anythin'... give y' anythin'... get y' anythin'... jus' stay. Stay wi' me."
         You have to understand something here.
         You have to understand how hard it is to think clearly, or even form rational concepts, when you're overwhelmed by feeling. The threat of Heihachi's trap was pushed outside of my consciousness, as I drowned in such irrepressible amour. The worst part of it... the part that made it hardest to resist, the part that was pulling me ever deeper into shared psychic drunkenness... the worst of it was, I wanted to drown. If I resisted now - if I were to get Jin back to sobriety - he might never feel this way about me again. Not when he was in control of himself, not when he was back with Xiaoyu. He might-
         No.
         No, I realized, for reasons that had nothing to do with the trap that had long since fled my short-term memory. My head was helpless in the sea of emotion, but my heart still contained enough presence to speak, and it said to me: no.
         No. I can't let this happen. I can't let this go on.
         I can't take advantage of him like this.
         Not when he doesn't know what he's doing.
         Not when he's so far gone he can't tell the difference between Xiaoyu and me.
         And he truly couldn't tell the difference, not in that state. He was talking to me like I was Xiaoyu. For all I knew, he might have thought I was Xiaoyu. Why else would he be trying to bribe me, by promising me wealth and all my desires? It was Xiaoyu for whom he had gotten a panda bear, Xiaoyu whom he had been taking on shopping sprees, Xiaoyu who had entered the Iron Fist so that she could have her own amusement park.
         I've nothing against money in and of itself, but I won't take it as a bribe. Especially not to win my heart. If Jin didn't know that about me by now, then he should have. Maybe he really did think I was Xiaoyu?
         I could have told Jin that I loved him, and it would have been honest. But there can't be true love without respect, and if I ignore what is right for what is blissful, then it will mean that I have no respect for him.
         This ends, now.
         I am going to make it end.
         You build walls in your mind. Thick, black, impenetrable barricades, mortared with your will and reinforced with white noise. A musical chorus, an algebraic equation, a repetitive chant, anything that you can concentrate on while leaving your upper consciousness free to respond to the outside world.
         Jin himself had once told me this, and now I put it to use. It was either that, or lose myself to the bottomless whirlpool of his drunken worship.
         Concentrate.
         Concentrate harder.
         I'm not musically inclined. My singing voice is as clumsy as my hands. Algebra? While I'm not bad at math, I need a pencil and paper to do it right.
         A chant, then. Concentrate on a chant.
         Concentrate on...

Sa-min, sa-ya
Sa-min, sa-ya, sa-moh, sa-mah
Sa-min, sa-ya
Sa-min, sa-ya, sa-moh, sa-mah

         I thought this, without moving my lips and without voicing a whisper. Over and over again, I thought this. Focused on it. Solidified it. Built with it.
         What?
         Oh. I guess I should make that clear.
         No, this wasn't a traditional Navajo chant. Or any other Native American chant, not that I know of. Such rituals are sacred and holy things; I've neither the knowledge, the training, nor the right to call upon them. I was not chanting out of reverence, but only to resist my own selfishness.
         No, this refrain was just something I invented on the spur of the moment. Invented it, clung to it, reinforced it, fueled it with my own strength and my own mind. I can do this, I will do this, I will make it strong and real and concentrate-
         -concentrate harder-
         -block everything else out-
         Sa-min, sa-ya, sa-moh, sa-mah
         I could think clearly.
         It was not easy. Half my mind had to constantly do nothing but repeat, repeat, repeat the chant, don't let it slip, don't let it falter. I could feel the black sea of worship submerging the tiny dome that was my seamless barrier, and yet I remained in control.
         Drained and shaking, but in control.
         My eyes could see through the semidarkness.
         I was sitting, with my back to the wall of the secret passageway. Jin was half-draped over me, one arm around my neck, his head lolling against my chest.
         I stared down at him.
         "This..." I exhaled. "This is what you have to do every day? All the time?"
         "Y'r walls 're beautiful," Jin mumbled. "Beautiful li' you."
         A rapping sound came, from nearby.
         I heard voices.
         "It's stuck-"
         "You sure they're in here? They could be anywhere-"
         "Kick it down!"
         I'd wasted too much time, sinking into drunken dreams. Heihachi's servants were on our trail; the old man himself might even be after us. I had to escape with Jin, now. Except that he was practically inert, wasted out of his mind. He wouldn't sober up until-
         That was it. That was where we had to go.
         I scooped up my headband and hair binder, so as not to leave too obvious a trail.
         "Jin," I said, sweetly. "Did you mean what you said, about giving me anything I want?"
         "Huuuh?" he drawled.
         "What I want is for you come with me, as quickly and quietly as you can. Will you do that? Will you use your Power to hide us, and to stun anyone who gets in our way?"
         "Willll... will y' stay wi' me, if I do? Stay wi' me, 'n th' synd'cate...?"
         "I promise you I'll think about it," I pledged, batting my eyes, as I forcibly hoisted Jin to his feet. He staggered, but was able to stand with a little assistance.
         "Woooond'rful!"
         He tried to hug me again, yet I quickly stepped back as I clasped his hand. Skin-to-skin contact made it even harder to maintain my barriers. Still, with an extra burst of mental energy, I kept the black sea of his adoration at bay, myself an island in the ocean.
         "Come on," I urged, half-cajoling, half-hauling him at a loping run.
         It was a game of cat and mouse that we played, with Heihachi's men. Jin's sorcery made us invisible to the syndicate's surveillance devices, but not to actual people sent into the hidden corridors to hunt us down. We had an advantage, though. The advantage of misdirection. Xiaoyu was out there somewhere, raising a sensational ruckus. I assumed she was outside the syndicate by now, or at least, I hoped she was. Heihachi had probably learned of her flight, and speculated that Jin and I were also headed for outside the syndicate. Only we weren't.
         We were headed for deeper inside.
         We ran across trouble twice. Both times, though, Jin enthusiastically used his Power to electrocute the security guards in our way. He didn't kill them, but he left them stretched out on the ground.
         Yes, I realize the irony of using Jin like the taser I had left behind in Shingo's apartment. It couldn't be helped; I'd spent all the weapons I'd brought with me.
         By the way, I didn't recognize any of the guards we encountered. If Ishida and Kimura had joined the general hunt, then they didn't cross paths with us.
         At last, holding my breath, I pushed open the secret door into the syndicate's antechamber.
         I think... I think it was the same door, and the same final tunnel, that Lei Wulong had once crept through. Back in the Great Invasion, when the noble Super Police was closing in on his arch-nemesis, Kazuya Mishima.
         Yes, I'm sure of it. Twenty years ago, Lei Wulong followed this very corridor, only to find Bruce Irvin guarding the portal to Kazuya's inner sanctum. Now, I encountered a different sentinel.
         Hwoarang.
         The blood-cursed vampyre.
         Dark and poisonous, evil and hating; murderous undead eyes staring into my soul, and scorning what they saw.
         How had he known where to intercept us?
         Two possibilities spring to mind. One is that Hwoarang knew enough about Heihachi's trap, and about Kazuya's inner sanctum, to anticipate that I would bring Jin here. Another is that Hwoarang's immortal blood made him particularly sensitive to Jin's Power.
         "Heeeey," Jin said, to Hwoarang. "Zhulia's been askin' abou' you. How've y'been?"
         The vampyre bared his fangs, like he wanted to bite us.
         He was Heihachi Mishima's slave, by rite of conquest. Hwoarang doubtless couldn't kill Jin or me, because Heihachi had ordered him not to. Even so, I had to repress a traumatized shiver.
         "Is there any reason why I shouldn't capture the girl for 'Mishima-sama'?" the vampyre wondered aloud.
         "Because you have no more reason to like him than I do," I answered, with no hesitation.
         "He will still find the girl. And then he will order me to capture her."
         "We're still going to free you. One way or another, we're going to bring Heihachi to justice, make him release you from your slavery, and find a cure for your curse."
         "The girl is not going to do anything but die."
         He turned away from us, disgustedly, and waved his hand in a dismissive motion. "The girl should do herself a favor. After she drags her man into the inner sanctum, she should have sex with him."
         "What?" I demanded, wondering if I was hearing this right.
         "It's her last chance. She won't get another."
         "Whaaaa's goin' on?" Jin drawled, in a daze.
         "Uh, later," I told him, with a benevolent smile. "Right now, I need you to open the portal to your family shrine. Can you do that for me?"
         "Bu' why?"
         Um, think fast.
         "I want to get your ancestors' blessing," I appealed.
         "Y'... y' do?"
         "Yes."
         "Mom! Dad! Zhulia wan'sa see you!" Jin proclaimed, eagerly wrapping his left arm around my waist. He reminded me of a ten-year-old entreating, 'It followed me home. Can I keep it?'
         Jin stretched out his free hand.
         His face screwed itself into a frown of intense effort.
         The portal to his family shrine - the pocket dimension that had once been Kazuya's inner sanctum - gradually opened. Instead of shining indigo-white, though, it shimmered through a variety of different colors, from pink to chartreuse.
         I heard noise from outside the antechamber.
         "Almos' got it stable," Jin mumbled. "Almos'..."
         I heard the sound of doors swinging open.
         "We have to go through, now!"
         "Bu', s' not big enough-"
         It wasn't kind, delicate, or diplomatic of me, but there wasn't a single second left. I just clamped my right arm around the back of his neck, so firmly I forced him to bend over. Clasping his head against my side, I sprinted for the receding portal. Caught in my headlock, and still clutching my waist, he had to run with me. As I jumped through the luminous gate, I yelled to boost my inner strength. I tucked my legs and head, barely fitting into the diminishing disk, pulling Jin practically horizontal, past and through and beyond.
         We arrived on that riveted metal floor, drifting in a formless black void between worlds. I landed on my rear, with an uncomfortable jolt to my tailbone; Jin hit the floor face-first. Behind us, the portal shriveled to a dot and winked out.
         When I let Jin go, a new feeling overwhelmed me.
         Relief.
         Freedom.
         Space.
         We had, I realized, been sharing a psychic link. From the drunken crowd to him to me, so strong that just being near him had given me waves of what he was going through, even though I'd managed to erect mental barriers. Now, we were alone in a place far distant from Earth. He was telepathically disconnected from the crowd, as I'd hoped, and since we were no longer touching, he was also disconnected from me. It was finally safe to let my walls down.
         When I did, however, a rush of intense exhaustion hit me. As if I'd just run a marathon. All twenty-six miles.
         "Hey," I wheezed, to Jin. "How are you feeling?"
         He groaned.
         Stirred.
         Half-picked himself up, off the floor.
         Then his eyes bugged wide. His hand went to his mouth, and he scrambled for the edge of the floating floor. Collapsing on it, he tucked his head over the side and hurled dry heaves. He didn't actually throw anything up, because he hadn't drunk anything to begin with, but his agonized, choking sickness lasted a good fifteen seconds or so.
         "That well, hm?"
         Jin gagged, coughed, and crumpled.
         I unsteadily crossed the distance between us, and crouched by him. If I had been in better shape, I wouldn't have teased him, but I was sapped too. So before I could even think about what I was saying, I flashed a sloppy grin and suggested, "Still want to get your ancestors' blessing?"
         "Please not loud-!" Jin whimpered, covering both ears like he wanted to crush his own skull. "Loud is not good."
         In fact, I hadn't been speaking forcefully at all. However, I accommodatingly lowered my tone to a shade above Kimura's natural whisper.
         "You've got a psychic hangover, don't you?"
         "Aargh..."
         "Well, at least you're not drunk anymore."
         "Not-?"
         Jin removed his hands from his ears. "Julia, what... what happened?"
         "Don't you remember?"
         "When I try, it makes a scratching noise."
         "Heihachi set you up."
         "What?"
         "He deliberately put you in a room with hundreds of drunken people, in order to make you totally helpless. It's a miracle you held out for as long as you did, before Xiao-chan broke you. I brought you here because it was the one place where I knew you could sober up."
         "Xiaoyu..."
         I shrank inside, when he said her name.
         "...where is she now?"
         "I pray that she escaped safely."
         "What do you mean, 'escaped'?"
         "I've given her a couple devices to improve her odds. Heihachi's people might have tried to stop her, but you and I both know what a terrific whirlwind she is. I gambled that she would be better off if she split apart from you and me; she's a lot faster on her own than either of us."
         "Exactly what do you mean, 'escaped'?" Jin slowly reiterated, as if he were finding this very hard to grasp.
         "Jin, didn't you see how she was dressed?"
         "The white kimono? Grandfather gave that to her, for tonight's party."
         Indeed.
         "Did Heihachi give you something to wear, too?"
         "Um, yes. He had a dress made for you as well, but you left the syndicate early on some errand, didn't you? Grandfather was sort of perturbed about that, but he calmed down when I told him you'd promised to meet me at the party. He was convinced you'd come back in time for the celebration."
         Really.
         "Was the outfit that Heihachi gave you also colored white?"
         "No, no. I know I should have accepted Grandfather's present, but I... I just couldn't make myself put it on."
         "What was it?"
         "Uhh... I'm sorry. Is it all right if I don't tell you?"
         Whatever it was, it must have been pretty horrible. Especially if Jin had been reduced to wearing Xiaoyu's gift instead. In front of hundreds of people, no less.
         "Okay. I can't say I'm not curious, but it isn't that important."
         "Julia, I don't understand. What does Xiao-chan's kimono have to do with anything?"
         "Isn't white the color of death, in your culture?"
         "That's an old tradition, yes. But it can also mean purity, or innocence, or-"
         "Heihachi is a strict traditionalist, Jin. He planned to sacrifice Xiaoyu's life, along with yours and mine. She was dressed to die."
         "Julia, you're not making sense. Grandfather is a good man. You're talking about him like he's the leader of a doomsday cult."
         Oh, no.
         I was up against the wall again. The wall of Jin's impenetrable denial.
         "And if you really have sent Xiao-chan out alone, on the streets at this hour, then she may well be in danger. I've told you how a mugger almost killed me once, haven't I? We need to-"
         "Xiaoyu could take apart a dozen muggers in her sleep, and you know it!" I cried, in a sudden burst of heartbreak. "I know you're in love with her, but can't you give her a little credit!?"
         That shocked him.
         I mean, that really shocked him.
         "Julia-?" he mouthed, voicelessly.
         "You... you're not in love with her?"
         "Wh-what-?"
         "Then are you... are you just using her?"
         "W-wait a minute, what-?"
         "Or is she using you?"
         "I-I don't know what you're-"
         "You're - you're just having a good time together, is that it?"
         "You are definitely talking in innuendoes, and I don't understand what you really-"
         I stared at him, point-blank. "You're habitually absconding with her on private love trysts, aren't you?"
         That struck him completely mute.
         His mouth worked like that of a fish, gulping, yet unable to utter a word.
         "You'll eventually have to bring your relationship out in the open. I'm sure the whole syndicate already knows, anyway. Even Shingo knows, and I don't think I told him-"
         "Julia, WHAT do you think I AM!?" Jin finally managed to shriek.
         Then he gasped, "Aaah-!" as he pressed his hands against his forehead, in agony from his renewed psychic headache.
         What?
         I'm not sure what kind of reaction I'd expected from him, but it wasn't this. Not this kind of - hurt? Distressed anxiety? Outright panic?
         As if I'd accused him of a loathsome crime.
         "Hey," I said, not understanding. "What do you think I think you are? Uh, I mean, why are you so upset? So you're having a love affair with Xiaoyu. Why should that-"
         "SHE IS A CHILD!" he screamed, frantically clawing at the air with both hands.
         Then he yelped, "Aaah-!" and tucked his head under his folded arms.
         What the-?
         "She - she is not!" I sputtered back, blanching. "She's sixteen!"
         Jin stared at me.
         "Okay, so it's not the legal age to vote. But it's the age of consent in many states where I come from, and isn't that true here, too? It's certainly the age when most teenagers' hormones kick into overdrive. In my old high school-"
         "Xiao-chan is not sixteen," Jin grimaced, massaging his temples.
         What?
         Had Taki lied to me about Xiaoyu's age?
         "If she's not sixteen, then how - how old-?"
         "Oh, in terms of physical biology, sure. She was born in 2001. But up here-" Jin paused to tap his own cranium with one finger. "-she's more like twelve or thirteen."
         Now it was my turn to be struck dumb.
         "It's not her fault, really. Some children are just a little slower to mature than others, and I think Xiao-chan is making progress. In a few more years, I imagine she'll be a fine young woman. Right now, though, she's certainly not ready for anything like - like what you're saying. Julia, how could you ever believe that I would abuse-"
         "I - I never said - I never thought you were-!" I protested, vainly.
         Then, "All right. Just what are you doing with her, whenever the two of you 'disappear'?"
         Jin looked very uncomfortable.
         "She never talks about it because you make her swear not to, and you act mortally embarrassed whenever I bring it up. It wouldn't normally be any of my business, but after what I went through to bring you here, I feel like I've earned the right to ask."
         "Uhh..."
         "Why won't you even discuss it? Jin, I - I know you were drunk out of your mind when you said you loved me, but can you at least talk to me straight about what you and Xiaoyu have? Is that too much to hope for?"
         Fresh shock descended upon Jin's face.
         "I... I said what?"
         "You don't remember any of it, do you," I sighed, dejectedly hanging my head.
         My crouch weakened. My feet spread outward. I rested on my inner shins and thighs, legs bent at the knees, in the outward-spreading W-pose that my kindergarten teacher denounced as bad for the body.
         Jin stammered, "It's - it's all tangled and blurry, I can't-"
         "It's all right, it's all right. You weren't yourself. I know better than to take anything you said seriously."
         "Julia, what happened? What did I do to you?"
         "Nothing, really. I promise I won't blackmail you," I joked, weakly. "All I'm asking you for is... is... would it make you feel better if I promised not to tell your secret to anyone else? You trust my word, don't you?"
         He looked at the floor.
         "Jin?"
         "The only reason I made Xiao-chan swear," he admitted, "was that I didn't want you to find out. It doesn't matter if anyone else knows."
         "Knows what?"
         He bit his lower lip.
         "What, Jin? What's going on? If she's not your lover, then what is she?"
         "She's my..."
         I chewed on my own lower lip, in jittery anticipation.
         "...sparring partner."
         What?
         In the name of Sanctuary - what-?
         "That's it?" I said, incredulously. "That's your terrible secret?"
         Jin had to swallow a lump in his throat.
         "Julia, you - you remember how close Nina Williams came to killing me, right? Not just because the Toshin possessed her. Because she's a woman. Because ever since my mother was murdered... fighting a woman, any woman, brings it all back. I can't use my full strength, no matter how lethal my enemy is. Do you remember that I was supposed to fight Anna Williams, in the Iron Fist Tournament?"
         "Um, yes."
         "She's almost as deadly as her sister. Grandfather warned me that I would probably have to battle Anna, and I didn't know what to do. I knew she would almost certainly beat me, or maybe even kill me, if I didn't - if I couldn't find a way to make myself - uh, do you remember your Iron Fist match against Xiao-chan?"
         "Too well."
         "That's when I first saw what a gifted martial artist she is. Julia, she wasn't just willing to help me out. She was happy to. She genuinely loves sparring, and she's a strong enough opponent that - well, that I was able to train with her, on equal footing. Train my skill, my stamina, my reflexes, and most of all, train myself to fight women in honorable single combat. I know Anna eventually forfeited her match with me, but Xiao-chan enjoys our sessions so much, and I'm learning new things from her too. So we kept on-"
         "Wait a minute, wait a minute," I interjected, shaking my head. "If all the two of you ever do when you 'disappear' is spar with each other, then why keep it a secret in the first place? Why do you act so flustered whenever-"
         Click.
         Click, click, snap! The pieces fell into place, and they had been painfully obvious all along. I should have known. I truly should have known, I of ALL people should have known!
         "She beats you up, doesn't she?" I smiled, pointing to Jin. A giggle skittered along the edges of my lips, straining to become a full-fledged laugh. "That tiny little fairy princess slaps you flat on your-"
         "No!" Jin exclaimed.
         I put my hands on my hips, skeptically.
         "Not all the time," he grumbled, flushing.
         "Mm-hm. This still doesn't explain why you're dating her."
         "Why I'm - what?"
         "Well, what would you call it? Taking her out to restaurants, karaoke bars, buying her presents, and goodness knows what else. You even got her a panda bear!"
         "The bear is a special case, and if it weren't happy living here, I'd send it back to the zoo."
         "You know what I mean."
         "Okay, okay. So I buy stuff for her. Julia, if you were to total up the value of everything I've purchased, it's just spare change. Barely a fraction of what an expert like her could reasonably charge, for her extensive personal training. I'm probably exploiting her. If Grandfather doesn't build her an amusement park after the Iron Fist is over, I'll owe her one out of my own pocket."
         "Buying presents for her is one thing. Jin, you take her out all over the town, and you hold hands with her in public! If that's not dating, then what is it? Are you going to tell me it's also part of your 'training'?"
         Jin looked like he wanted to dig a hole and crawl into it.
         Hold on...
         "It wasn't a miracle that you held out for so long at the party," I realized, in dawning truth. "Not completely. You have been training. With her. You've been practicing your mental endurance, for whenever you're among a crowd of people."
         "Xiao-chan said she wasn't afraid of me anymore," Jin explained, helplessly. "I can't - I have trouble with my telepathy; if I'm around too many other people for too long, I turn vicious. Even my bodyguards have failed to keep me under control, sometimes. No one who works for the syndicate would ever volunteer to be my reagent; they're all afraid of me, and you know that a reagent has to be a true volunteer. Xiao-chan - she - she isn't afraid, she doesn't mind. She's happy to help train me. We go into a crowd, and I hold out for as long as I can, and when I'm on the brink of collapse she lets me draw on her strength. Then I confront the crowd again, and we keep it up until we're both depleted. All she asks for in return is that we go to fun places. That, and trinkets. And meals of her favorite foods."
         "But why-?"
         "I saw how you looked at me, the day we first walked to school together. Like I'd shape-changed into a slavering beast, right before your eyes. Xiao-chan won't have anything to do with me during the school day, because I get so bad. I wanted to make myself better."
         "That's not - what I meant is, why didn't you come to me?"
         Jin averted his eyes.
         "I'm not a good enough martial artist to help you refine your fighting techniques, but I... I could have been your reagent. Why didn't you ask me? Why didn't you even tell me what you were doing?"
         "Y-you seemed pretty busy with Professor Yabuki," Jin hurriedly excused. "Xiao-chan had a freer schedule. You probably wouldn't like karaoke anyway..."
         He trailed off, and looked down at himself. At the crazy banana yellow outfit that Xiaoyu had given him for Christmas.
         "I didn't want you to see what a monster I am," Jin confessed.
         "Jin, you're not a-"
         "I know you keep an open mind. You're not afraid of me any more than Xiao-chan is, and I can't put into words how much that means to me. But we both know the truth, and the truth is that I'm not normal. I'm this - this freakish - sometimes I wish I could just get rid of my damn Power, and be a regular human being like you!"
         Do you know, none of this had occurred to me before?
         I mean, I knew that I felt unworthy and insecure. I'd just never imagined that Jin could feel that way, too.
         Funny, isn't it?
         Really funny...
         I couldn't help it. Of course I didn't mean to mock him; it was as though something inside me had frayed at the seams. There were other, more important things that I should be thinking about, or worrying about, yet all I could do was chuckle affectionately, and...
         ...I feel so tired... it's hard to keep my head up...
         ...the twenty-six mile marathon is over. My heart rate has slowed, and my runner's high has worn off. I've been resisting total collapse all along, but now the last of my borrowed time is running out. I'm so overburdened I can hardly stay awake.
         "Julia?"
         Jin's voice drifted from somewhere nearby. I reached for the source and threw my arms around it, holding on to him like a life preserver in the ocean.
         "Julia, what-?" His tone held surprise and concern, but no vexation at my sudden familiarity.
         I said, "I love you."
         There were a thousand other things I could have told him, but that was the most important one. My heart was sure of it.
         "Julia, you're..."
         "I love you, and I'm scared for you, and that's the real reason why I've been staying in this horrible syndicate, when the sane thing to do would be to run away. Heihachi wants to murder you, and I've got to - I've got to stop him somehow. I've got to get you out of here. I've got to... I don't know what to do. All I know is that I love you, and I don't want to lose you!"
         "You're..."
         "There has to be a way out of this... a way we can escape the syndicate... you can't teleport, can you? If you only knew how to teleport-!"
         Jin cradled me. Gently. Cautiously. Taking care not to let any of his skin touch mine.
         "You're suffering the aftershock of psychic trauma," he said, sorrowfully.
         "No!" I denied, though I knew his diagnosis was, strictly speaking, true.
         "I attacked your mind, didn't I? When I was drunk and out of control."
         "That's not... that's not accurate..."
         "I knew something was wrong from the way you were talking to me. You're too docile. The Julia Chang I know would be screaming furious with me, for invading her psyche."
         "I love you!"
         I was crying when I said that, though I couldn't remember how or when the tears had started to fall. Whether it was frustration or misery, fatigue or shock that crumbled me.
         "You're not yourself, right now. You don't know what you're saying. It... it could even be something I forced inside your head."
         "Nn-no, that's not... it isn't..." Though I tried to explain, I was shivering with weakness and sapped of coherent voice.
         "What you need right now is rest. A long sleep should heal you. I'm... I'm so sorry, Julia. I'm afraid that you - the real you, when she's restored - I'm afraid that you'll never forgive me, and I don't know what I can ever do to deserve your forgiveness."
         "...I... I really do love you..."
         "Except, there is one thing I can do. I can see that you get the time you need to heal. I'm going to open the portal and call a female servant for you, okay? She'll look after you, take you back to your quarters and stand guard at your door, until you've recovered. Then... well, we can deal with tomorrow when it comes."
         "But..."
         Jin helped me to stand; I was too weary to remain stable on my own, and had to lean against him. Steadying me with one arm around my shoulders, he raised his free hand, and recalled the indigo-white gateway into the pocket dimension.
         I saw something, illuminated by the expanding pool of netherworldly energy. A glimpse of his face, framed half in light and half in shadow.
         Sparkling, shining reflection, glinting in the corners of his eyes.
         "Why are you crying?" I whispered, all other thoughts lost to that one, timeless question. "Why...?"
         "Ssh. You'll be all right. As long as you'll be all right, the rest will take care of itself. You'll be all right. Everything will be all right."


         That was, of course, when everything went to Hell.
         For as soon as Jin's portal was wide enough, a monster trampled its way through. It - he? - on some level, I knew he wore the semblance of a human being, but in my degenerating frame of mind, I saw him with my soul more than with my eyes.
         I saw him as the dragon Smaug.
         Great and terrible, hoarding and jealous, and beyond all, consumed with greed. Greed for wealth; greed for Power; greed for Immortality; driven by a dragon's hate, a dragon's vengeance. Though he might once have been honorable, any true nobility within him had long since succumbed to his voracious avarice. All that remained was a rapacious, grey-scaled monstrosity, with sweeping horns and spreading wings - no, not literally, but that is how I saw him.
         "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!?" roared Heihachi Mishima, the corrupted serpent of fable and legend. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HER!?"
         "Grandfather!" Jin gasped.
         It happened so fast I could hardly see, much less react.
         The dragon seized me with reptilian strength; one taloned claw gripped the back of my belt and wrenched me out of Jin's embrace. I flailed helplessly, suspended high above the ground. My startled cry was lost between worlds; the indigo-white of the gateway flashed past my eyes. I landed on the soft carpet of the antechamber, disoriented past speech, having been bodily hurled outside the pocket dimension.
         Heihachi's booming dragon roar raged through the diminishing portal.
         "How dare you - how DARE you! HOW DARE YOU DEFILE YOUR BRIDE!?"
         'Bride'?
         Was Heihachi referring to me?
         Jin's remorseful appeasement followed. "G-grandfather, I swear I didn't-"
         There came a sharp impact. The sound of a fist battering a face. I heard a pained "Ugh-!" from Jin, and the light from the gateway winked out.
         A cruel, poisonous voice behind me said, "Sedate her."
         There was just enough time to turn around.
         Turn around and see the legion of Heihachi's servants.
         Hwoarang was with them. It was he who had given the command. He watched with contempt as I vainly struggled against the grasping hands, the drugged needle piercing my arm.
         The world around me grew darker. I prayed to the Great Spirit that at least Xiaoyu had gotten away. That at least...
         Jin...
         Grandmother...
         The darkness thickened, smothering my thoughts, my will, and my spirit.
         "Careful!" Hwoarang snapped, to one of my many restrainers. "Hold her, but do not harm her. 'Mishima-sama' was very explicit about that."


End of Chapter 22: Reflections of the Soul