“So explain to me what you’re doing.” Asked Ren, watching Akane retrieve a fistful of acupuncture needles from a terracotta jar beside her.
“With these needles, I am able to redirect the flow of ki to the injured areas of your body.” She explained. “Ki takes on healing properties when it encounters injured areas. The more energy that reaches it, the faster it heals.”
“That must be how I was able to recover from that fractured arm in just one weekend.” Ren remembered.
“Yeah, I get that.” She hissed, cheeks burning with embarrassment. “But what I don’t understand is why it looks like I’m about to be used for nyotaimori?” She aimed her eyes lower where she had been stripped of her battle-damaged shozoku and covered up with nothing but two fabric strips: one over her chest and the other a little farther south.
“Screw this! Not only am I practically naked, but I’m practically naked in front of Acne!”
Pretending not to hear her, Akane knelt beside Ren and with a steady hand, slid the first needle into her arm.
“Hey, careful with those things! I’m in enough pain already!” Ren cried, raising her head off the ground.
“Relax,” Akane said, pushing her head back onto the futon. “This process is painless only if you relax.”
As Akane inserted the needles one by one, slowly converting Ren into a pincushion, a smirk crossed her ruby lips. Noticing, Ren puckered her brow.
“Is something amusing you?”
“Not particularly. This is just an excellent character-building moment. Next time, be wiser in choosing an opponent, Ren-chan.”
“Oh, you must be loving this. Better get used to it, because next time, it’ll be you on this hospital bed.”
“My memory is hazy, but remind me who soundly defeated you during your blood moon exam?” Akane murmured, sliding the final needle into Ren’s forearm. Her teeth gnashed together.
The wrought, heated atmosphere was invaded by a cacophony of noise taking place right outside the paper, shoji walls of the recovery room. Ren peered past Akane toward the source of the sounds. There, she vaguely made out a huddled, shapeless mass of silhouettes beyond the semi-transparent paper wall. Small, cheering voices and what seemed like rusty wheels squeaking along a rough path softly reached her ears.
“What’s that?” Ren murmured.
“We shall soon see.” Akane stood and approached the shoji wall. She slid it open, revealing the engawa veranda connecting the room. A flock of giggling, clapping children gathered directly in front of Ren’s room upon the varnished, wooden hallway floor. Their backs, however, were facing her. Instead, they watched as a man pushing a wagon pulled up alongside the children gathered in the open-air corridor. Their cheers grew louder upon his arrival.
“What’s this?” Ren asked, scrutinizing the man as he began unpacking the wooden cart in front of them.
“This is the owner of the books and stationary store, Mr. Banashi-san.” Akane said, nostalgia twinging her tone. “He comes by this hospital every day to perform a puppet show for the ill children.”
Ren’s gaze returned to the man. She watched the cart unfurl into a two-dimensional stage, surrounded by a varnished, wooden frame. The children murmured excitedly amongst themselves.
“Doesn’t look like any puppet show I know.” Ren murmured.
“That is because the puppets are flat paper.” Akane replied. “It is called Kamishibai.”
Banashi turned toward the children and asked them something in Japanese. With her crude grasp on the language, Ren could translate what he said in her head.
“So, which story do you want to hear today?” He asked with a grin.
Immediately, every child began throwing out suggestions. “Tell us the Tale of Genji!” One of the children’s voices rose above the others.
“No, show us Journey to the West again!”
“How about Shinsatsu-no-Monogatari?” One child finally cried. The voices of the crowd diminished one by one as they all seemed to nod in agreement with that final suggestion.
“Very well.” Banashi said, turning toward the stage. He slid a stack of papers into the wooden box and slapped a tambourine hanging underneath. The children leaned in closer, as did Ren. “The Story of Shinsatsu.” Banashi pulled back the curtains of the stage. They revealed an image depicting surreally-drawn human figures of all different shapes. They each joined hands around a singular entity: a glowing, red ore, emitting straight ribbons of crimson light. “Mukashi mukashi,” Banashi began, “Even before the first Yamato Kings, gods reigned. Although their wisdom and decorum were said to be endless, they were much like us. Thus, they longed after earthly possessions, one treasure being regarded as the cornerstone of the deities and their way of life: a stone able to guide the flow of destiny, something not even they in all their seemingly infinite wisdom and power were able to accomplish.” With her curiosity piqued, Ren watched Banashi reveal the next slide over the heads of the sitting audience of children.
The next image Banashi showed was of the stone descending through the clouds toward the round earth below. Its straight beams of light continued to cross the sky, mirroring a rising, red sun.
“One day, this stone descended from the heavenly plane and found its way to earth, never to return home to the gods that once cherished it so dearly. The stone wouldn’t go without a home for long, as it was soon discovered by three wise men who forged a weapon to better channel and harness this stone’s immense power.”
Banashi turned the slide to reveal something so familiar, it spread goosebumps across Ren’s flesh. “Only the most pristine of weapons could suitably hold such a divine artifact. Thus, the three wise men went to work. The metal used for this weapon was so dense, only the fires of Mount Fuji’s volcanic magma could melt it down to be crafted. As for cooling it, the only way to quench this weapon’s thirst was to drown it in the blood of one thousand warriors. With the divine stone finally embedded in its metal, this weapon was said to be one of the only things capable of slaying a god, thus earning its namesake: Shinsatsu.” Ren stared at the image of her very own scythe as Banashi spoke his cryptic story. “Despite its namesake, the true nature of this weapon was not intended for the slaying of gods, but rather, the guiding of destiny itself via its sacred eye. All it takes is a wielder powerful or self-assured enough to challenge fate itself.”
The next slide depicted a barren, sandy landscape. At its heart was a burnt-out log bonfire, silently simmering. “However, in a sad and inexplicable occurrence, Shinsatsu vanished without a trace, as did the secrets it was said to contain.”
Slowly, Banashi revealed the next image, similar to the first, but with a small handful of ashes rising from the coals. “Children, I implore you, don’t let this story have a sad ending. I, for one, am among those who believe that Shinsatsu will surface yet again. And when it will, there will come a warrior worthy enough of taking up the responsibility of altering fate. Not only their own fate, but the fates of us all. It may even be one of us listening right now…”
Akane slid the door closed in front of Ren, severing her vision of the puppet show.
“Hey, I was watching that!” Ren protested.
“I shut that door for your own privacy. Unless you want to provide the children with a vastly more entertaining show.” Akane flopped Ren’s clothes down at the foot of her futon. Heat swelled beneath her cheeks. “Feel free to change whenever you are ready, though I would suggest letting the needles sit.” Akane murmured, approaching the exit to Ren’s chamber against the opposite wall.
“Hey, Acne.” Ren called after her. Akane paused just before the exit. Ren paused as well, chewing the inside of her cheek. “Do you really think my scythe can do all that? Manipulate the direction of fate and whatever?”
Akane peered at Ren over her shoulder. “It is a simple fairy tale, Ren-chan. I am not one to question that. And as Shinsatsujin, should you not already know the answer yourself?”
When Akane slid the door closed behind her and Ren lay her head against the pillow, staring at the ceiling, the cryptic words of Banashi’s tale once again crept into her mind.
“All it takes is a wielder powerful or self-assured enough to challenge fate itself…”
Her eyes peeled open. Ren sat up within her bed. Not an ounce of drowsiness lingered in her system. She peered at the wall where the plethora of clocks read the exact same time.
“Quarter past five. Forty-five minutes to spare before June needs me downstairs for opening.” Ren’s stomach growled loudly. “But that’s right. I have an appetite to look after.”
Jumping out of bed, she grabbed the swiped M.E.S.H. Cards from her top drawer, threw on her black hoodie, and dove out the window.
Her toes daintily touched down upon the sidewalk adjacent to the shop’s glass entrance. Her center of gravity lowered as she landed, spreading her weight throughout her body.
As she rose to straighten herself out, Ren was immediately met with an indistinguishable, speedy force. The impact swept her off her feet, knocked her hood off her head, and sent the contents of her pockets scattering.
With slow, shaky movements, Ren picked herself off the sidewalk. Her palm cuffed her forehead. A low, pained groan crept from her lungs.
“Ow… just what the hell was that?”
As she ascended to her feet, Ren spied a figure rising behind her out of the corner of her eye. His deliberate movements matched hers. His voice emitted a similar hurt moan. A familiar, raspy baritone swam in her ears. Reluctantly, Ren turned around to face the figure, distinguishing him fully.
As Angelo stood fully and raised his eyes to find Ren, his entire demeanor shifted. He brushed back his shaggy, blonde threads of hair and flashed a wide grin. “Ren! Babe! Are you hurt?” He approached her and held out his palm, aiming to tenderly land it on her shoulder.
“I was fine until you rolled on through!” Ren snapped at him, swatting his hand away.
“Looks like you dropped some things,” He said, glancing behind her back. “Please, allow me.” After picking up his own skateboard behind him, Angelo stepped past Ren, bent over, and began picking up the M.E.S.H. Cards scattered across the ground. Ren froze in guilt and fear. She chewed the inside of her cheek, waiting for the realization to set in. “Hey, wait a second, these M.E.S.H. Cards aren’t yours.” Angelo’s stunned gaze lifted toward Ren. “And that hoodie… Ren, are- are you the Incognito Bandito?”
“I, um, well,” Her words faltered as she reached into her pockets innocently.
“I can’t believe it…” Angelo murmured. His eyes shot between Ren and the heap of cards beneath her. “This whole time, it was you?”
“Angelo, I’m begging you, I know I don’t ask a lot of you, but please don’t tell anyone!” Ren whispered.
In a fraction of a second, a pearly grin stretched across Angelo’s face, shattering his look of surprise. “Ok, Bandito, I’ll keep your secret on one condition: that you agree to go to dinner with me tonight.”
Ren’s chest sank. The heavy bout of dread spread deeper throughout her. “Tonight?” She squeaked. “That’s when the movie screening with PJ is…” She feigned a smile, attempting to lighten her tone. “What if I’m busy tonight? Any other day works, I promise!”
“I’m sorry, but no can do.” Angelo shook his head. “I’ll be in Echo Park all next week shooting a music video with my cousins and tonight’s the only night I’m open, unless you’d rather have me tell the whole school instead.”
Ren’s panic descended into feelings of bitter defeat. Her head lowered. “Tonight it is…”
“It’s a date!”
As Angelo swaggered off, Ren continued to stare at the ground behind him. Sour-tasting thoughts ran through her mind. “Something’s fishy about this whole situation. Not just because Angelo’s involved, but because normally, I would’ve been able to sense a normal person’s presence approaching. So why didn’t I detect him?”
The bridge beneath her footsteps clicked as she trekked across in a pair of nine-inch pumps. A sparkly, red sequined dress donned her figure, matching her translucent ruby shoes. Ren’s hair, twisted into small spirals, bounced with each of her marching steps. Makeup accentuated the shape of her full lips, long lashes, and diamond-shaped eyes.
Traversing the halls of cloister, holding her shoes in one hand, Ren scanned up and down. She passed by Yuki and Akane silently, both of whom tracked her with thin, jealous looks in their eyes.
As Ren paused at the entrance to the courtyard, she spied Kenji seated atop one of the stairs leading down, his wide back facing her.
“Hey,” She uttered. “Have you seen PJ anywhere?”
“No.” Answered Kenji. He directed his gaze over his lofty shoulder, examining Ren. “And is that what you’re training in?”
“No, I wasn’t planning on staying here long.” Ren sighed. “I was just stopping here before this… let’s just call it an event. And it’s what I wanted to talk to PJ about.”
“Then let’s talk.” Ren heard a low murmur reach her from behind. She spun around to face PJ, whose hands reached down into his pockets. His narrow eyes, devoid of their normal cheer, swiftly evaded hers.
“I’ll leave you to it then.” Kenji rose to his feet and shuffled away.
As soon as he exited the courtyard, reaching beyond earshot, Ren released a quivering sigh. “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say Angelo told you about our date…”
“If by me you mean everyone in school, then damn skippy.”
“And you know that means I can’t go to the movie…”
PJ answered with silence.
The corners of Ren’s lips wobbled. Her scarlet nails dug into the skin of her palms enough to send pain spreading throughout her closed fists. “PJ, you have no idea how sorry I am. For everything. For going out with Angelo against your warning. For missing the movie. Look, I know you’re probably upset, but-”
“Yeah.” His voice elevated. His eyes gained a biting edge. “Yeah, you could say that I’m pretty upset. But not about any of that. I’m upset, but I guess you could call it disappointed, because you never gave me a reason why. Why would you prefer to go hang out with Angelo instead of me? Especially when we both agreed how dreadful he is.”
“Look, PJ, it’s not about that. You don’t honestly think I’d choose to go out with him, do you?”
“Then tell me what this is. I’m all ears.”
Ren paused to examine PJ’s stony gaze and unsmiling mouth. Her throat burned. “I’ve never seen PJ act this upset before. It makes me wanna curl up into a ball and roll off the nearest mountain.”
Finally, she swallowed. “Well, I have an explanation, but I’m not sure if you’re going to like it. It’s because he learned something about me that nobody else can know.”
“Is it about Iga?”
“No it’s not that. It’s because…” Ren squinted her eyes. For a moment, she tensed her jaw. “It’s because he found out I’m the Incognito Bandito.”
A beat of silence passed between them. With her eyes still squeezed shut, not seeing PJ’s reaction, she felt the air between them sizzle.
“Are you serious?” He murmured, danger looming in his tone. Ren cracked open one eye. His expression seethed. “You’re the one who was stealing everyone’s M.E.S.H. Cards? Even mine!?”
“I thought it was no big deal. You got a new one, right?”
“A new one?! Are you mad? You can’t get a new one without having to fork over a fortune! To imagine, the real reason why I’ve been missing lunch for weeks now… is you?”
“I knew this would make you upset.” Ren cast a hush over her tone.
“Upset?” PJ gave an enraged scoff. “No, that doesn’t even begin to cover it. After all I’ve done for you, sticking my neck out to save you from Martinez, going along with your whole Iga charade, and not once did it ever cross your mind to tell me the truth? That you’re an even bigger liar, cheat, and thief than a goddamn shinobi?”
Neither said a word after that for what felt like a mini eternity. Ren felt inches away from falling to her knees and busting into tears. As for PJ, he reached into his pockets once again.
“Have fun with Angelo. I hope it’s well worth it.” From his pockets, PJ removed the two movie tickets and without a beat of reluctance, tore them in half. Ren felt her heart split down the middle at the exact same time. She watched the four halves flutter to the ground as PJ spun away and thundered off.
When she arrived at June’s shop after her brief visit to Iga, Ren found a large sand-colored tarp draped over the second-story sign. The upper half of June’s body was hidden by the canvas as she stood on a ladder. Noisy hammering sounded from underneath. Ignoring her, Ren breezed inside, ringing the entrance bell. Within the store, she threw her bag down on a rocking chair and sat on one of the steps, listening to the old seat creak back and forth.
“There you are.” June sighed, coming through the door. Her overalls were plastered in paint and her face, coated in wood shavings. Ren again didn’t acknowledge her. “I have a surprise for you outside.”
As June walked to the other room, Ren buried her head in her hands, remembering the furious look in PJ’s eyes. She couldn’t forget how he threw the tickets on the ground and stormed off.
“But first, I wanna give you this.” June reentered, pinching a paper envelope. “Congratulations, partner.” She said, handing it to Ren.
Without hesitation, she tore open the seal and pulled out a check. Written at the top in black letters, it read, “Ren McCoy.”
“I set up a checking account that’s yours whenever you want it.” June explained. “Later on, I was thinking about taking you to the bank so we could cash it in together.”
“This… is a paycheck…” Ren uttered slowly.
“Yep, you’ve just about paid off your debt to me and then some.”
“It says here that my pay period started three days ago…” Ren gazed at the details. “You’re telling me you’ve been keeping me here for three whole days after I paid you off?”
The light in June’s eyes dimmed slightly. “Huh?”
Ren sprung to her feet, voice juddering. “For three damn days, you could have been out of my hair, but just because I’m decent at stacking some boxes, you keep me on this leash of yours?” She roared. “And you think some numbers on a piece of paper is an apology?!”
“I…” June stuttered. “I didn’t know you felt this way, Ren…”
Ren tore the check in half and threw it on the ground. “How about now?” June watched the two halves float to the floor. Quiet sadness swam in her pale blue eyes. “I’ve done my part and I’m moving on. I suggest you do too.” With that, Ren grabbed her duffle, marched outside, and threw the door shut behind her. A powerful gust of air in the wake of the slamming exit lifted the tarp off the sign.
When Ren turned back to look at the storefront one last time, she saw that the sign read something different.
“June and Niece’s Antique Boutique.”
She spied June enter the doorway beneath the sign. Sadness continued to inhabit her gaze. With one last hateful sneer, Ren spun around and stormed off, abandoning June and her store behind her.
“Is that the place?” A voice hissed.
“Yes.” Another replied. “We’ve tracked her residence to this very location. Where we find her, we find it.”
A small crowd exited all four doors of the black Humvee, parked in the McBurger’s lot. They swiftly trekked across the street. Their fists swung with each resounding step. Donning their forms were silk business suits, the hue of sapphire. Their eyes fixed on the sign above the entrance ahead:
“June and Niece’s Antique Boutique.”
June’s head lay asleep beside the register. Her voluminous, noodly curls concealed nearly the full surface of the counter. She awoke with a start, snapping out as straight as a pencil when she heard the bell ring. Adjusting her round spectacles, she spied the crowd of four men entering. Their gaze passed narrowly across the dim, wooden accommodations, slight sneers tugging on their expressions.
“Can I help you?” Asked June, suspiciously thinning her gaze.
The crowd of men parted, making way for one man whose large frame nearly engulfed the entire entryway. Untrimmed, greasy hair cascaded down his square shoulders. A wide, bushy brow sat over his dim pair of focused eyes as he approached the counter. “You wouldn’t happen to know of a girl who answers to the name ‘Ren,’ would you?” Asked Izumo.
June sighed and peered down. “I don’t know anyone by that name…”
An unexpected backhand to her face launched Juniper off her feet. Izumo watched her collapse to the floor as he retreated his hand. “Find her!” He barked. His Kōga flanks spread out, engulfing the entire store. In his negligence, he failed to notice June, who continued to scoot back across the floor toward the wall behind the counter. “Don’t stop until she’s caught, dead or alive!”
When June’s back came into contact with the wall, she punched a button with her elbow. A compartment above her head opened and a long spear fell into her lap. She wrung the weapon’s handle, sprung to her feet, and charged.
Izumo’s focus finally returned to her, right as she jabbed at his skull. His head swiveled to the side, evading the stab. With blinding speed, June retreated the blade and jabbed at the Kōga again, over and over as his head continued to swerve past each ambush. Izumo saw, beneath June’s bottlecap lenses, her irises bathe in an infernal, red hue.
“The zen?” He wondered. “How interesting.”
Izumo ducked his head to the right after one of June’s thrusts. Instead of allowing her to retreat her spear, however, his hand leapt out and caught the haft right underneath its metal blade. Like a twig, he snapped it off before launching the blade back at its wielder. The spike entered June’s shoulder with a heavy thwack. The impact sent her feet skidding across the ground where she landed against the wall once again.
Pushing the pain toward the back of her mind, June reopened her eyes on Izumo and attempted to dive forward. The head of her spear, however, pinned her in place as it skewered straight through her shoulder and dug into the wall. When her hands leapt up and attempted to remove it, pain shot through every one of her nerves, locking her rigid in place. All she could do was watch as Izumo marched forward. As though it was a wall made of sand, the counter separating them crumbled as he walked straight through it. In his expression, he appeared to not even notice it.
As Izumo entered Juniper’s one-meter range, his arm plowed forward, delivering a punch to her gut. A definite boom like thunder echoed throughout every inch of the store. Cracks raced across the wall, spreading as far as the ceiling above their heads. A quart of blood poured from June’s mouth in a single, sharp cough, dousing Izumo’s fist in crimson. The infernal red glow of the zen of body faded from her eyes, though they continued to bore into Izumo’s. Her body lost its rigidity. All that remained to keep her upright was the tip of her own spear.
“She isn’t here.” A Kōga said as he approached Izumo.
Ignoring his subordinate, Izumo leaned forward, lowering his lofty head toward June against the wall. Her hollow gaze aimed beneath her. He drew close enough toward her that the second-hand smoke off his breath invaded her nostrils.
“I’ll ask you this only once: where is Ren?”
June drew her lips closed, pursing them slightly. Izumo leaned even closer. Suddenly, she hawked a blood-infused spray of spit straight in his face. Izumo’s furious, unflinching glare endured.
“Sir.” Another Kōga said. “I just received word from Gento that Ren is in sight.”
“Then let’s show him our support.” Izumo murmured, standing up. “We have no more use for this place. Set the explosive charges and meet me outside once you’re finished.” He ordered, turning his back toward June and striding toward the exit. As he pushed open the door to leave, the bell above Izumo’s head chimed softly.
She took three meat skewers, held them each in the cracks between her fingers, and bit down on all of them at once. Ren drew the wide, horrified eyes of nearly half the restaurant’s patrons, among them being Angelo himself. They watched her pull her head back to pull the strips of beef off their wooden skewers. She emitted a low, savage growl from between the cracks of her bared teeth.
Once the ribbons of meat came free from the spears, Ren slurped them into her mouth like noodles. After that, she kicked up her legs, slammed them down on the table, and leaned back in her seat. With her nails, she began to pick at the morsels caught between her teeth.
“That was a lot of appetizers…” Angelo claimed, passing his gaze up and down the stack of dishes beside Ren that reached as tall as her head.
Uncomfortably, Angelo cleared his throat. “You know, at this point during a date, I think I’m supposed to ask how your day went. So,”
“Oh, you know,” She peered up at the ceiling, feigning deep thought. “My best friend is furious with me that I had to come here instead of hanging out with him, turns out my Aunt’s been using me for labor, my other good friend is missing, so I guess it could be better.”
“Whew. Good thing my day wasn’t that bad.” Angelo scoffed. “Let’s see, first, I went to the gym, then I went back home to shower since that’s where I keep my favorite shampoo. After that, I went back to the gym, not to work out, though, just to make fun of the fat people. Then I…”
As Angelo continued to praddle off his day, Ren watched his lip transfixed. His voice, however, landed against her ears as static, white noise.
“That sure was a lot of appetizers,” Ren thought, feeling her eyelids grow heavy. Her jaw began to relax. With all the blood in her body gushing toward her working stomach, she slipped into a comfortable, drowsy daze. She continued to doze off, leaning further back in her chair, until it completely fell over. Feeling her center of gravity take a plunge, her shocked senses returned all at once. Her instincts kicked in at the very last second as when the seatback landed against the floor, she somersaulted to soften the impact and sprung to her feet. She felt the restaurant’s eyes gather on her again. Her cheeks flushed.
Peering across the table at her, Angelo sighed. “You know what, maybe you’re right. This date, I mean, it is kind of pointless. My friends just bet me my sister’s pants that I could get with the new girl at school.”
“You really are the lowest scum imaginable…”
“But since you agreed to come and neither of us are having a good time, maybe we should just go home and call it a night.”
“Yes!” Ren pumped her fist into the air victoriously.
“But that does mean I’m gonna have to tell everyone you’re the Incognito Bandito, but we’re over that, right?”
“No!” Ren cried, slamming both fists down on the table. Angelo shrunk back in his seat. Ren leaned forward, drawing her head close to his and proceeded in a proximate whisper. “Angelo, I know you have a heart in there somewhere. Please don’t tell!”
Angelo leaned forward equally close. “Then how about a goodnight kiss? My final request.”
Ren’s heart sank to the bottom of her chest. “I, uh,”
“You, uh, what, Ren?” Angelo’s eyes narrowed. A sneering bite entered his tone. “Listen, if you know the first thing about me, it’s that the concept of ‘no’ doesn’t jive well. Either I get what I want, or nobody does. So if you wanna walk away today having gained something instead of lost, then I’m gonna have to gain something in return. Pucker up or have your little secret spilled.”
Ren’s pupils, shrunken to the size of ants, lowered from Angelo’s sinister stare to his thin, pale lips. Her teeth rattled. Her heartbeat swam in her ears.
“Am I seriously doing this?” Ren pondered, watching Angelo’s lips draw closer. The reek of his cheap body spray and stale mouthwash seethed off him. Her eyelids slowly began to sink. “Am I seriously about to suck faces with this creep?”
“Why would you prefer to go hang out with Angelo instead of me? Especially when we both agreed how dreadful he is?” PJ’s biting tone played through her mind. Ren’s eyes squeezed shut. Her parted lips felt the heat of Angelo’s kisser making its final approach.
“I’m sorry PJ…”
Inches away, however, Ren sensed his head halt. She cracked open one eye, seeing both of Angelo’s peering back at her, his brow nestled over them. His lips drew into a wide, pursed smile. In the reflection of his pupils, Ren spotted the dim outline of a figure behind her and the sharp gleam of a silver barrel.
Ren’s other eye flew open. Her brows knit. A scarlet hue swept over her irises.
Ren spun around and snatched the gun aimed at the back of her skull. She ripped the pistol from the man’s surprised grip and with its iron body, landed a slap across his face. As the gunman fell to the ground, unconscious, people once again glanced nervously in Ren’s direction.
A sudden impact against her turned back sent Ren staggering away. She nearly faceplanted onto the ground had it not been for her arms, flapping beside her like wings to help her regain balance. Little by little, as nervous restaurant goers rose from their tables and scurried silently for the exits, Ren’s head turned around to face what had landed the strike.
With one hand, Angelo held the bottom of a plastic jar of styling gel. With his other, he dipped his long, iron-toothed comb into the tub itself, coating each prong in that gluey, clear substance.
“Kurogane Ren…” He uttered in a poised, sturdy voice, unrecognizable from his default valley accent. Ren’s stunned gaze examined his refined stature. Angelo’s chest, puffed forward pridefully, filled out the fabric of his cerulean blazer better than his awkward slouch. A smug leer reached across his face as an inexplicable danger flashed in his eye. His stance radiated power. His expression dripped with confidence. It was as though Angelo had morphed into an entirely new persona, highlighted when he pulled his comb back through his golden mane one time, converting his shaggy locks into a shimmering, shapely pompadour. “I do have one more request: that you perish.”
“Angelo, you’re a Kōga?!” Ren blurted.
He gave a scoff. “Indeed. Though most would prefer to call me Gento.”
He lunged upon her, his meteor-sized fist aimed at Ren’s head. She dove out of the way just in time to avoid the strike. Landing crouched atop a nearby table, Ren scanned his proud posture for any potential openings. As she did, she couldn’t help but notice that his smug leer, soft, half-open gaze, and overhanging hair better complimented his jutting, large cheekbones and muscular form.
“What happened? It’s like he shed that pathetic loser persona like a cocoon right when he put on that pompadour!”
For a split second, she noticed his left arm dawdling at his side. “There!” With that brief, microscopic opening, Ren had just what she needed to bolt forward and commence their battle.
She swung rapidly at Gento’s chest, but he absorbed each of her strikes with his iron-like forearms.
“No use! His defenses are too tough.” She calculated. “Better get away and reassess my strategy.”
She dove back, but Gento’s arm reached out and caught Ren’s wrist before she exited his range. Trapped helplessly within his immense grasp, Ren watched his other arm wind up for a punch. Dread invaded her mind.
When his knuckles landed, Ren felt the earth itself break beneath her feet. She sailed backward like a flaming cannonball. Luckily, she entered her zen just as she was about to land against the wall. Her feet touched down daintily across its surface where she lingered, peering across the dim, hollow restaurant at Gento’s poised leer. Painful, deep breaths entered her aching lungs.
“Seems like you’re having a bit of trouble.” Her foe snickered. His dense arms crossed over his chest.
“So what, you think it’s impossible for me to beat you now that you have that stupid hairdo?” Ren sneered. Gento blinked his eyes. His beam receded a pinch.
“Do you really think that ridiculing my hair will work?”
Ren shrugged. “I dunno, is it working?” Gento slowly shook his head. “Alright, back to the drawing board.”
Ren sprung off the wall and zipped forward. As she approached Gento, her eyes rolled across the width of his muscular body. “He sure has power and defense covered, but his speed is lacking. If I could just use his slowness to my advantage, I could eventually tunnel through his defenses.”
Upon reaching him, Ren unleashed another, quicker flurry of punches at her foe. Instead of raising his arms to shield the blows, however, Gento allowed each to reach him as he ducked his head past every one. His incredulous gaze lingered on Ren even as his head slipped past her barrage. Her gut twisted in frustration.
“Damn it, I underestimated his speed!”
Amidst the rush of punches, one of Ren’s fists brushed against Gento’s pompadour. A ripple ran throughout his hairdo like a liquid. Ren watched as Gento’s eyes bulged, bloodshot veins running across them. He ducked forward and delivered a meteoric punch to Ren’s stomach. Although corners of her crimson vision blurred in pain, his fist didn’t carry the same impact as before.
Ren’s heels skidded across the floor in the wake of the hit. She arrived at a halt and watched as Gento’s hands desperately smoothed over his hair. Panic breaths audibly flowed through him. Ren raised a curious brow as within his expression, she noticed less of the composed Gento and more of the sleazy, sloppy persona of Angelo. Immediately, she arrived at a conclusion.
“That’s it! Gento might be too strong of an opponent for me, but not Angelo! I just need to bring the other guy out. And to do that, I need to attack his hair!”
Ren zeroed in on her foe again. Spying her, calm returning to his expression, Gento clenched his jaw.
“Oh no you don’t!”
Gento raised his fist, ready to throw an intercepting punch. But before he could swing, Ren zipped around to his blind spot and landed a quick jab to his pompadour. His entire body recoiled from the hit. He swung around to catch her with the back of his fist, but Ren darted out of the way and toward another one of his openings, again delivering a punch to his hair.
Again and again, Ren dodged Angelo’s devastating strikes. On the rebound, she administered small doses of damage to his do.
“It’s working!” She thought, watching her enemy’s body thrash about to keep up with her stream of attacks. “His gentle persona’s breaking away, leaving me with his gooey core: that slimy, predictable personality of his!”
After a certain point, Gento’s pompadour resembled a haybale atop his head. Coagulated clumps of hair, still glued together with gel, protruded in all directions. His expression exuded a look of pure desperation as sweat raced down his face and his bloodshot eyes widened further than the diameters of baseballs.
With one final uppercut to his jaw, Ren launched her foe sailing backward. His head snapped back from the meteoric strike. His body flew across the length of the restaurant before crashing through the glass window, landing on the street outside.
Ren dusted off her hands, watching Angelo’s body lie motionless across the sidewalk. “That’ll hold him.” She smirked. “Now then, first thing I should do is apologize to PJ. If it’s not too late and he accepts my apology, there still might be time to catch that movie! First I gotta grab my things.”
Ren peered behind her at the table she and Angelo once shared. When she looked for her bag, however, she noticed it glaringly absent from underneath her chair. Instead, she watched a taller, broader, even more muscle-bound man in a flat-pressed navy business suit stroll through the restaurant, approaching the back doors to the kitchen. In his ape-sized mitt, Ren found the strap to her messenger bag. And protruding from its zipper, Tsu’s handle. Her joints stiffened with fear.
“My bag… Tsu… I can’t let him get away!”
After overcoming her terror, Ren started after the man. She watched him calmly enter through the swinging double doors and into the pale, white glare of the kitchen. He briefly vanished from sight before Ren burst through after him.
Towering, stainless steel shelves, wide counters, and countless wide refrigerator doors flanked the empty kitchen. Empty save for one man, occupying the center of the linoleum tile floor. The zen-red glow in Ren’s eyes reignited. Her gaze drilled through the back of his hairy skull. Little by little, the mammoth turned to view her with his coppery, pachydermic face and bearded scowl. As his flaring nostrils faced her, she immediately recoiled from the scent of sour tobacco.
“Kurogane Ren.” Stated Mochizuki Izumo. His calm, rumbling voice caused her skin to crawl, as though a nest of centipedes made its home beneath her flesh. “I shall see to your doom myself.”
Before Ren had time to ponder for another second, Izumo galloped toward her at dizzying speeds. In the blink of an eye, he fetched a long, curved blade from his scabbard and thrust it at her head. Her palm landed against the steel counter beside her, feeling a long, narrow handle. She closed her fist around it, lifted the object to her face, and guarded against Izumo’s jab with the wide surface of an iron saucepan. As Izumo retreated his weapon, Ren swiftly swung the bottom of the pan into his square chin. All that occurred was a soft, pathetic thump as her swing landed. Izumo’s unamused face didn’t budge.
At the speed of semi-auto fire, Izumo unleashed a deadly barrage of stabs toward Ren. Spying the tip of his approaching blade, Ren expertly guarded each jab with her pot. She could sense his wrath and danger growing with every parried strike.
With one well-executed prod, Izumo succeeded in threading his blade through the handle of the pot and ripping it from Ren’s grasp. Unarmed and desperate, she reached onto the counter yet again, hoping to arm herself with another steel pan, or better yet, something to fight back with.
What she instead drew out in front of her was a bright green, leafy cabbage. Nevertheless, Ren held it out in front of her like a shield. Izumo’s blade slashed mercilessly through the bok choy until Ren only held a mere stalk. After allowing it to fall to the ground, Ren again approached her hand toward the table. Before she could grab anything, however, Izumo’s wrung her arm. When he twisted his wrist, she felt the bones in her arm creek. She gritted her teeth in agony. Izumo continued to push his weight in through her twisted arm, finally causing Ren to collapse to the floor beneath him.
“If I move from here, it’s gonna snap!” Ren’s panicked thoughts read. When she raised her eyes to peer up at Izumo, she watched him hover the tip of his sword low over her brow. She gulped. “Or worse…”
“At the risk of sounding cliché, Kurogane, this is nothing personal.” Murmured Izumo. “Your mere existence is at odds with our goal. With you out of the picture, nothing will hold the Kōga back from achieving our true potential.”
“You won’t get away with this…” Ren scowled, beaming her angry gaze into the Kōga’s dim, lofty face.
“Don’t act like a hero, Kurogane.” The slightest hint of bargaining permeated his voice. “In this struggle, there is no right and wrong. There is only imbalance. One I seek to right by any means necessary. And with the might to change destiny using Shinsatsu’s preordained power, I’ll do just that.”
Ren felt something crunch underneath her weight. An epiphany washed over her.
From her shozoku, she grabbed ahold of a round, palm-sized object and threw it up behind her. As soon as it landed against Izumo’s face, the pellet unleashed a cloud of smoke that spread throughout the entire kitchen. The Kōga’s weight withdrew in surprise, just enough for Ren to free her arm, roll over, and plow her heel into his stomach.
She somersaulted away for good measure and watching her enraged enemy rise to a full stand. Ren grabbed ahold of her bag sitting on the floor nearby. Her determined gaze found the shelf beside her, stacked high with metal platters. She grabbed a batch and threw them like disks at Izumo’s head. Without fail, he swatted each one away as he steadily approached her.
“Do you believe in the fairy tale about my weapon? With the gods and destiny and all that? You really think you can somehow rewrite fate?” Ren protested, launching another plate.
Izumo’s hand sliced through the platter like scissors through paper. “You say that now, but what happens when the thing you dread most is preordained? Then what will you think?”
Ren hardly had time to contemplate Izumo’s warning, for when she reached out to grab another plate from her arsenal, there were none left. She faced her opponent, finding Izumo looming mere feet away from her. Ren threw an instinctual punch at his face. Effortlessly, he caught her fist with just one hand. With the other, he shot his arm into her stomach with such impact, it sent Ren careening into the luminescent lights running across the ceiling above. The glass shattered as she crashed against it. Once her body fell again to the ground, crystal shards and white-hot sparks rained down around her.
Ren’s fists balled against the floor. With every last drop of might remaining in her system, she attempted to piece together her scattered consciousness. Through her smeared vision, all she could make out was Izumo, exiting the kitchen with her bag slung again over his square shoulders. She managed to spy its familiar, cloth-wrapped handle one final time before the doors conclusively shut behind him. Its noise echoed through her, attacking her chest every time she heard it ring.
She rose to her hands and knees. With her zen utterly hollow, it was the only thing she could manage to accomplish. Instead, her brain swelled with questions.
“How did they find me? Why here? Where else could they have checked?”
Her train of thought screeched to a halt. In place of her questions, a horrible realization invaded her mind.
“I have to get back to June’s.”
The closer Ren limped toward the antique shop, the more she could discern the potent odor of smoke. It singed the insides of her nostrils, drying the backs of her eyes. Its heavy atmosphere added to the weight Ren felt in her chest, though all she could perceive were the panicked thoughts running through her.
When at last, Ren turned the corner and faced down the familiar street, her esophagus coiled into a knot.
A shallow mountain of rubble occupied the spaces between the apartment complex where the cheerful, yellow shop once resided. Smoke poured from the wreckage to tower high into the air. The pillar of black fog reflected the blue and red glare shimmering across the road. Fire engines and ambulances crowded the charred remains. Men donning bulky firefighting attire raced back and forth across the premises. Meanwhile, a host of people from the surrounding buildings gathered in the parking lot of the McBurger’s safely across the avenue. Blankets hugged their figures as they consulted with EMTs.
Ren’s gaze passed over the image with increasingly shallow breath. Her eyes shared the matte consistency of lumps of coal. Though her teeth chomped down hard on her bottom lip, it quivered nevertheless.
“This can’t be happening…” Her mind cried out miserably. “The Kōga, they-”
A curtain of silence drew across the air. Both the hum of activity occurring down the block and Ren’s own thoughts fell quiet in an instant. She watched as a tight huddle of paramedics surrounding a low stretcher emerged from the depths of the column of smoke. Ren’s heart plunged.
“Ren…” A voice reached her ears. Its resonance was fragile. Its strength, waning. Even so, it collapsed the bubble of silence as it approached Ren across the vast distance. Autonomy inexplicably washing over her, she raced toward the stretcher, the direction of the weak, wispy voice.
As she reached the crowd of EMTs, she attempted to squeeze through them. They stopped their hurried escort once Ren broke through the barrier formed by their bodies. There, she approached the edge of the stretcher, eyes glazing its contents.
“Hey, this is no place for you, kid.” A paramedic uttered, landing his wide hand across Ren’s shoulder.
“It’s fine…” Whispered June. The same fragile weakness wrung her tone. Her mouth formed a delirious, joyful beam. Her pale blue eyes, one of the only thing Ren recognized, peered into hers. They reflected the night sky with all its stars above. “She’s my niece.”
Nearly the entire surface area of Junipers body, visible underneath her tattered clothes, resembled charcoal. Only tufts of hair clung to her bleeding scalp. Despite her gruesome appearance, breaths continued to flow through June at a crawl. Threads of life remained deep within her system.
“June! Thank God!” Ren cried. “Listen, I know some people who can fix you up! Trust me! You’re gonna be ok!”
The back of her head rolled across the stretcher’s surface. “No, Ren. My work… is done…”
“Your work?” Ren’s voice gained a hard, interrogative edge. “What job? All you need to do is stay alive! To be my aunt again!”
Again, June shook her head. The light in her eyes began to fade. At the same time, a familiar, hollow sensation crept into Ren’s consciousness: loneliness. “You met Nagato… It’s all that matters…”
“Nagato…?” Ren absently repeated. Her eyes began to swim with confusion until it dawned on her. “Somehow, some way, the Iga had the foresight to send Juniper for me. To look after me. To guard me. But how?”
“Sasuke…” June whispered. Ren’s eyes peeled open even further. “I never got to say goodbye to him, but at least I got the chance to meet his daughter. To defend her. Care for her as if she were my very own. All that matters is that you’re… alive…”
“We’re losing her!” A paramedic shouted.
June’s head rolled to the side, disengaging her gaze from Ren’s. Her eyes abandoned their hue, becoming grey and distant. Unrecognizable.
Tears bled down Ren’s still cheeks, pouring from her pinned-open eyes. “No…” Her lips began to quiver. “No!”
The paramedic behind Ren bumped her back, thrusting her from the huddle. As they began racing toward the back of an ambulance parked in the distance, Ren attempted to chase after them again. However, a pair of firefighters behind her took her by each of her arms, halting her in place.
“June, please!” Ren wailed. “Not like this! Please! Not after how I left things with you!”
The memory of their final encounter flashed in front of Ren’s eyes inexplicably. As she stood, eyes met with June across their vast distance, she remembered anger swelling up within her. At the same time, hurt shone within Juniper’s expression.
“All this time, I never had the strength to tell you how I truly felt…” Ren heard her calm thoughts read, blotting out the own volume of her miserable sobs. “How thankful I feel to have known you. To have shown me forgiveness. Compassion. To have taught me what it means to feel loved…”
Ren’s eyes squeezed shut. She imagined herself at last, turning away to face Juniper with her back. As soon as Ren’s sight of her vanished, darkness rolled across every inch of her vision.
“I love you…”