At two a.m. she twisted and turned in her bed. She opened her eyes, closed them, covered her forehead with a hand; it came back slicked with sweat. Yes, she was still here. Every now and then she needed reminding.
The dreams came and went as they pleased, nowadays. She could never recall them in detail, but they left her with an empty yearning in her chest and a dry taste in her mouth, as if she'd swallowed sand.
She looked out the window, the snowflakes showering the streets and the rooftops in glittering white. For the past week an unexpected winter smothered Ciudad Juarez like a pillow over a screaming mouth. But even with blinding storms and hollow winds, it did not force the wolves indoors. The city's more dangerous inhabitants clung to their turf and to their drug wars as frost to metal; they carved mazes through the snow and killed as they pleased.
Juarez's nicknames were enough to deter the average person from ever setting foot in the place: The City of Lost Girls, Murder City, City of the Dead. But she never considered herself average. She thought it was still newsworthy even if the rest of the world didn't, especially since the Mishimas had quietly weaseled their way into the trade for a share of the gold.
Everyone called her crazy for wanting a stab at Juarez and thinking she could win, if she even survived at all. But she could be a different person now. She wanted to be. She was, in her mind, though her heart was always a few beats too slow to follow.
She lifted herself from the bed, slid on a shirt and shuffled downstairs. The fight wasn't until tonight, but still her muscles ached from the anticipation. At the cupboard, she felt blindly for the chocolate she knew was there, and then for the light switch that would reveal it. The kitchen, now flooded in white, brought the world into focus. She unwrapped the palm-sized parcel and placed it in the boiling pot and turned on the heat. As it melted, she grabbed the milk from the fridge, the chili powder from the shelf, the egg-white mug from the dishwasher. It was King's chocolate caliente recipe, "perfectamente para los enfermos." ¿Y para enfermos del mento, del mundo?
When the chocolate liquefied, she added the milk and set it to boil, and as it did, the slow white smoke hissing into her face, she sprinkled several pinches of chili powder into the mixture. Cook a spell to break the spell.
But she wasn't Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, both of whom required love to awaken her. She'd already woken a long time ago, painfully, and sought a different sort of kiss, one that would let her slumber, one that would quell the memories and the world's growling belly.
As the stove cooled, she sipped the hot chocolate and liked the way it scorched her tongue. Sweet, but with bite.
Outside the wind moaned and slapped at the windows. She turned on the television to blot out the noise. On the channels were old things, two-year-old infomercials and sitcom reruns, and on she flipped through them, through the faces and the images, through the time ticking its unforgiving power in its clock on painted wall, until everything blurred.
How long had it been?
The phone, as abrupt as a knife through flesh, pierced the quiet. Only King would know she was still awake at this hour.
"¿Bueno?" she answered, her throat still burning.
"Go to sleep. You've the biggest fight of your life tonight."
"Don't remind me."
"You sure you're ready?"
"When am I ever not?"
"Since the insomnio."
"I'll be fine. Te prometo. I'll give Mishima a show he'll never forget."
"You better. Asuka's counting on you. We all are."
She hung up and gazed at the frost's slow crawl across the windows, her thoughts wandering to King. She and her feline mentor had agreed never to meet in person unless the masks were on. No one need know who she was and she'd no desire to know anyone else. They'd been undercover for a year now, so there was no point in exchanging anything other than business. The mask and the name provided a second mind, a second heart, one that knew no pain and bore no memories. The other name, that life, was dead as winter. Dead as Juarez. She liked it that way.
That evening she sat in the locker room with King hovering over her and Asuka, her tournament partner, his voice muffled from behind the jaguar mask as he reviewed strategies, moves, opponents' weaknesses. She stared at the mask, at the snarling, fanged mouth, open as if in preparation for a bite, at the sleek rosettes and green eyes. He must be terrifying to any enemy he faced; intimidation was his forte.
But she'd tried a different tactic when she began training under him. The day they'd first met for costuming she'd appeared in feathers, pink, and thigh-high boots. In the past, she never would have selected such an image, but it was exactly the point. The mask was lightweight and the feathers and rose-pink fabric added an airy innocence, even as the neckline of her suit plunged into cleavage so obscene she simply had to have it. She mocked innocence, mocked most the idea of danger: she was a bird of prey under the guise of a flamingo; she was only a curious onlooker in Mexico's heart of darkness.
King hadn't liked the concept at first—though even he couldn't say no to the bulging cleavage and thighs—but they both knew deception was the key.
The announcer was already speaking. King was still speaking. She wasn't listening. She just wanted to feel the lights in her eyes, the nothingness in her chest, the adrenaline like morphine in her veins.
And then they were stepping into the stadium. She greeted with a smile, a wave, a flex of her arms; she was only power and strength in here.
"Por favor dan una bienvenida a la guapa, la fuerte, la irresistible—"
Briefly, she placed a hand over the silver and turquoise pendant she wore about her throat. It was a secret defiance, a clue, so she could never forget what happened and why she was here, even if she wanted to. She glanced at King and Asuka on the sidelines, both of who subtly signaled her that touching the thing was a bad idea; there was to be no thinking of the past when in the ring.
La única lucha importante es la lucha en tu corazón, para tus sueños.
The name exploded across the stadium. She leaped into the ring and pumped her fists, but all she was aware of was the sweat on her cheeks and mouth, the tightness in her stomach. In the crowd she found him, the one she'd been hunting for months, and she was grateful for the mask hiding her true emotions.
Heihachi Mishima stared at her with a long, slow smile. He looked years younger from the new anti-aging drug he'd manufactured, the same one he'd introduced to Juarez's black markets.
It all was real, then. Yes, she was still here.
Despite the trembling in her heart, she met his gaze and smiled back, clenched her fists, and bellowed a war cry. The audience chanted her name, two short, fierce syllables.
Only one silently called out, Julia. Julia. Julia.
She would be the snow on a burning world.
All would turn white.
perfectamente para los enfermos - perfect for sicknesses
¿Y para enfermos del mento, del mundo? - And for the sicknesses of the mind, of the world?
Por favor dan una bienvenida a la guapa, la fuerte, la irresistible - Please welcome the beautiful, the strong, the irresistible...
La única lucha importante es la lucha en tu corazón, para tus sueños - The only important fight is the fight in your heart, for your dreams.