Chapter 12:

Chapter 12: Zen - Part 2

Ninjutsu Saga


Before he could land against the floor to join Izumo’s body, a figure burst through the window directly behind him and caught him from underneath. Takeshi’s dim, unfocused eyes struggled to make out the figure through the crushing darkness and blurry fatigue.

“Kenji…?”

“Are you ok, Takeshi?” Kenji whispered, peering down into his relaxed face.

“I’ll be fine, boss. I’ve weathered worse than this.” Takeshi let out another ironic, painful snicker. He looked down into Kenji’s arms, already occupied by Yuki’s body. One hand lay over her stomach as if to hide the gaping tear in her abdomen. Her eyes were shut peacefully while her mouth rested slightly ajar. The edges of Takeshi’s mouth started to wobble. He felt the back of his eyes grow hot. “Kenji, I’m sorry about Yuki. I was too late…”

“Not really…” Yuki’s lips mouthed. Her eyes peeled open to reveal her smiling, radiant gaze. “You came just when I predicted. I’ll be fine and so will you.”

Her words setting his heart at ease, Takeshi shut his eye and allowed himself to smile. Kenji scooped him up with one arm, moved Yuki to over one of his shoulders, and draped Takeshi across his other. Toting both his teammate’s sleeping figures, Kenji began toward the trapdoor leading one floor below.

Before he took the final step, Kenji’s gaze turned, as if pulled by a string, toward the pool of blood on the ground where Yuki once lay. There, floating motionless on its surface, he spied a scrap of paper with three lines of writing facing the ceiling.

“Could this be…” Kenji pondered, approaching the paper to examine it closer. “The last lines of the fortune? The one Yuki couldn’t transcribe before?” As he reached a distance where the tiny, scrawled penmanship became legible, another emotion crossed his expression: dread.

“But be weary,

For you shall share

In Ninjutsu’s doom…”

He peeled his gaze away from the paper and through the window ahead at the ensuing chaos. In particular, he spied two figures: the Kōga shinobi wielding Shinsatsu, and Ren, steadily approaching him from behind.

~~~

Diego’s careful, calculating green gaze studied the endless ocean before him. The water caught the sky’s darkness, uniting upon the horizon to form a vast, beckoning void. The soft sand cushioned his feet. He felt Shinsatsu’s long, powerful shaft gripped tightly in his palm, emitting a cool, crimson light from its crystal. Waves of calmness washed over him at the same tempo as the tide bubbling across the shore. The red, infernal chaos erupting just behind his back failed to reach him in those moments until suddenly, he detected a presence.

Unhurriedly, Diego pointed his gaze over his shoulder where Ren made her silent, gradual approach. His jade eyes flashed with aggression, matching the mayhem consuming the landscape behind her.

“Ren…” He thought, sneering. “I hope you’re ready to die tonight…”

Catching a full view of his stabbing, emerald eyes, Ren felt a rage spark within her, amounting to an unquenchable, roaring fury. Letting the anger flow through her, Ren charged at her enemy.

“I may not know who you are, but no matter what, I’ll make you wish you never messed with me!”

Diego assumed a fighting stance to intercept Ren. As she reached him and unleashed a string of slices with her drawn short sword, Diego blocked each of her attacks with Tsu’s haft. His ki flared up as he blocked a descending swing aimed for his head. He then batted Ren’s sword out of her hand where it slid across the sand several feet away.

“I have no time to retrieve it,” Ren thought, watching her blade soar out of reach. “But my new plan doesn’t need it.”

She closed in on her opponent, empty handed. Diego backed away, knitting his brow.

“No weapon? What’s her game?”

Three kunai fell from her sleeve and into her open palm. Holding each blade between her fingers, she mauled at his chest, tearing his lapel to shreds as if trying to tunnel through him. Diego howled in pain as the blades pulled blood. He swung Tsu’s blunt bottom edge into Ren, knocking her away in the same direction of her fallen sword.

Ren retrieved the weapon, bolted in, and chopped at Diego’s neck. However, he ducked back, removed one hand from Shinsatsu, and funneled his ki into his closing fist. With it, he landed a destructive uppercut against Ren’s jaw, sending her teetering backward.

Drawing in sharp, furious breaths through her gritted teeth and cradling half her face in agony, Ren spied her enemy. Her heart burned with hatred. All it took was another glance into his emerald stare to realize it.

She suddenly remembered what Akane had told her: “The shinobi you encountered was far out of your league.”

“Oh, gimme a break.” Ren clenched her jaw even tighter. “It doesn’t matter which clan we come from or what styles we’ve mastered, rage is rage. For that reason, we’re on the exact same playing field.”

Together, they advanced. Faster than ever before, they swung their weapons. With no style or strategy, their blades clanged wildly against each other’s and carved deep, bleeding gashes across their bodies. They pushed beyond the point of feeling pain. Beyond the point of wanting to back down.

Their weapons clashed one last time, their metal grinding together like two imperfectly-matched cogs. Tsu’s tip hung inches away from Ren’s brow. She struggled to hold it at bay with her sword against its iron shaft. When she pressed her palm against the flat of her blade, she drew Tsu’s tip downward with the might of both hands. The hook entered the sand beneath them. Ren stomped her foot down on the moon-shaped bane, pinning it firmly to the ground.

Ren drew her sword back, revving up for a jab aimed straight at Diego’s unguarded chest. Right as she launched her tip forward, a sapphire blur lunged between Ren and Diego. A fleshy, metallic scrape permeated the air. Her blade tore inadvertently into the Kōga thrust ahead of her.

“What on earth?” She blinked her eyes in shock.

Diego, however, peered into the face of the figure between them, whose torso Ren had pierced. Her long lashes fluttered. Her brown eyes shimmered with sadness as she gazed into Diego’s stunned face. The alive gleam in her pupils grew further and further distant. A single thought blew through his mind again and again like howling wind.

“Erika…”

When autonomy finally returned to Ren, she backed away, plucking the sword from Erika’s torso. Her body immediately collapsed into Diego’s arms. There, he felt her sink lower while her soul grew lighter. Under the weight of Erika’s lifeless body, Diego fell to his knees. Shinsatsu’s beckoning, scarlet hue cast deep shadows over his creasing brow and shuttering shoulders.

After laying Erika softly on the bed of sand by his feet, Diego’s fists closed again around the scythe’s handlebar. His own fingernails dug through the skin of his palms. Blood oozed from between his knuckles, soaking the blade’s metal handle. The taste of copper and smoke filled his mouth. Upon a boiling sea of hatred, Diego felt his mercy drift away.

Finally, he resumed standing. Ren watched the blood from his palms mix with Erika’s along the curve of Shinsatsu’s blade. Impatiently, she bounded through the air and swung at his face. Diego caught her arm effortlessly and twisted it downward. A sharp ache erupted through her shoulder. However, Ren’s perfect opportunity stared her right in the face. She lifted up her good arm, exposing the Kōga’s ribcage, and plowed her knuckles into him with all her might.

A sickening snap filled Ren’s ears as the two stumbled away, hardly containing the will to go on any further. The muscle fiber in Ren’s fingers felt snapped. Her head throbbed, each time firing off hot, fresh sensations of pain. Seeing became burdensome and pockets of air filled her ears, deafening her. Regardless, Ren’s eyesight flickered red with the zen of body.

“I can’t give up… I won’t! My opponent knows this as well as I do. I have to end this now…”

Simultaneously, Ren and Diego hobbled toward one another. Their ki steadily rose until it burned the hottest it had ever been. Their stumble evolved into a run. Before they knew it, their feet departed from the ground as they soared through the air toward each other.

At precisely the same second, their feet plowed into each other’s faces. The muscles in her jaw screamed in hurt as she plummeted backward. Her enemy landed in a heap beside her across the sand. Pushing herself up, Ren noticed that the fabric wound around the shinobi’s head lay beside him, exposing his true identity. As she adjusted her blurry eyesight on him, struggling to rise off the ground as well, her heart nearly imploded.

“Diego?” Ren murmured, her voice too strained to express her true surprise. Diego peered at her with slight bewilderment that she had recognized him. With trembling hands, Ren pulled down her scarf as well, revealing her own face. “Diego, it’s me,”

Opposite to Ren’s soft-mannered plea, Diego maintained the same solid determination across his face. They both rose, continuing to peer at one another. His gaze continued to singe her just to look at.

“Diego, why?” Ren wheezed, struggling to push the words through her dry windpipe. “Why did you join them?”

“Why?” Diego cocked his head to the side. “Look around you, Ren. All of this because you had to come along and disrupt the natural order of things. Izumo was always meant to lead Iga and Kōga together. I was always meant to hold Shinsatsu. And you were never meant to play a part in this at all. All you’ve done is caused this war to reach a boiling point.”

Ren started to approach Diego. “It’s true. I was never meant to fight in this battle. But now that I’m here, I might as well end it.”

Diego broke out into a full-on sprint. The sand lifted in his wake behind him like rocket exhaust. Ren watched his expression, twisted in fury, rapidly close in. Her gradual advance accelerated to match Diego’s speed. As he unleashed wild, mad howls, Ren’s heart burned with something else.

“I know what I can do to end this. I know how I can stop this fight.” Her eyes focused on Shinsatsu, brandished in Diego’s hands. “And it doesn’t involve fighting!”

As they entered each other’s range, Diego swung the scythe. Ren, meanwhile, felt her feet lift from the ground. Her eyes shut lightly. Like wings, her arms reached out to either side of her, appearing as though offering a welcoming embrace.

A scream of intense agony exploded from her lungs as Tsu’s blade ripped into her chest. Her hands leapt up to grab the weapon before it could enter her torso any further. Wretched pain shot through her like electricity. Clouds filled her mind. Numbness poured over her. Her senses slowly smeared into oblivion. All she could perceive was the sound of her own agonized breathing.

“It all comes down to this, Ren!” Diego hissed through gritted teeth. “Me and you! Shinsatsujin against false Shinsatsujin!”

“You don’t have to do this…” She gasped. “The future is big enough for both of us!”

“Is it, Ren?!” Diego leaned in closer. “The only thing the future has in store for me is pain. Just look at my life. First, I lose my parents. Then, my dignity. And finally, the only person I ever truly loved.” Tsu slid further into Ren’s chest. She shrieked once again. “But was I ever bothered by that? No… because one day, I knew that I could take it all back. And now that day has come. The universe answers to me. I am fate.”

With Shinsatsu still lodged within her, all Ren could focus on besides the searing pain was her own crying thoughts. “Why… why did I allow myself to be stabbed? I can’t last like this! I’m gonna die at this rate!”

Memories inexplicably flashed across her vision: the lofty, surrounding figures of Kenji, Akane, Diego, and Nagato as she lay in the futon during her first introduction to Iga. The immense scythe standing before her, its ruby emitting a welcoming glow as she found Shinsatsu within its crate. The slip of paper handed to her through the doors of June’s shop by the pair of detectives and the weight of her finger as she punched in the phone number.

“All this time, I never really had a choice, did I?” Ren’s lip quivered. “Everything was set up for me to just go along with it. I really can’t change fate! Shinsatsu, it’s really just a fraud!”

Her senses suddenly ignited, engulfed in a brilliant, glowing red. The same red that radiated off Tsu’s gem and her own irises. Ren’s strength slowly started to return, but not as fast as she felt them fade.

“What’s going on? The zen of body? Why now?”

Next, a layer of deep blue pulled across her vision. Her mind felt a cool rush of knowledge and answers wash through, but it was only slight progress.

“And now the zen of mind? Why is this happening to me?”

Her panicked thoughts fell silent. Everything, her heartbeat, the explosions quaking the earth behind her, all ceased in a single moment. Her eyes squeezed shut, dousing her vision in black.

“No. That’s not what I should be asking. The real question is: why am I doing this? Why am I choosing to do this?”

Her eyes opened. Ahead, Ren found nothing. The blazing hellscape of Venice Beach, Diego, Shinsatsu, all had vanished, clearing the way for a vast, dark void to swell up in its place. Her pain, similarly, had vanished. As did the rest of her senses. For a moment, she existed in the unfeeling emptiness.

Gradually, however, a tranquil shade of green appeared in the peripheries of her eyes. An energy permeated her, its frequency unlike anything she had ever felt.

“This power, it’s… different. Not like the jagged rush of the zen of body. Or the smooth flow of the zen of mind. This power is filling me. It’s bringing attention to me. Is this… the third zen? The zen of spirit?”

Within the jade corona that lined her vision, an image slowly came into view.

What is this?” She thought. “A memory?”

The scene was dark, almost too difficult to make out at first. But as Ren examined it, she could make out discerning details. She spied the midnight setting where patches of light from streetlamps overhead provided the only visibility. A lofty, lean figure, stuffing his hands down his pockets, trudged through one of the spotlights.

“PJ…”

“Explain.” Uttered a voice behind PJ. He spun around with a start. “Why are you upset?”

PJ sighed, his breath ringing with more irritancy than relief. “Oh, it’s you, Akane.”

Ren watched her approach PJ, her crimson hair entering the same circle of light. “I know the true reason you are angry at Ren-san. I know it is not because she deceived you or stole from you. I know that you know. What I do not know is if you have the strength to admit what you know.”

PJ closed his eyes and breathed out through his nostrils. “I’m angry with Ren because… because all I want is the best for her. Having to live on the streets, alone, with no one to look out for you has got to be one of the worst things imaginable. What she’s doing is choosing to cut herself off from us and to stay alone when all around her, there’s people who care. Genuinely care. She just has to learn to see it. No.” He paused to shake his head. His eyes opened, focusing on Akane with a determined glimmer present in his expression. “She has to choose to see it.”

“Well, you are certainly not helping the situation by lurking here all by your lonesome. Ren-san needs our help. Now, if what you claim is true and you care about your friend, then you must follow me.” Akane commanded.

The two stood deadlocked for a prolonged moment. PJ’s unblinking gaze lingered. Ren held her breath.

Finally, he removed his hands from his pockets. “Lead the way.”

Ren clenched her fists, watching the vision fade back into the lightless void. “All this time, he’s believed in me. He’s believed in my ability.” Her mind focused on Shinsatsu, its radiance reaching out toward her. “Tsu never chose me for this purpose. I chose Tsu. I get it now. I can change fate, but I have to choose to take up that burden. The burden of strength.”

“You’ve gotten strong, Ren…” A familiar voice pranced through her mind.

“Those choices might not have seemed real. Whether to stay with Iga or to abandon them. But it’s real to me, and I’ll make this choice my own choice!”

Then, she imagined the immense, dark body standing before her, occupying the view ahead. The name of her father rang slightly in her ears. But as the figure turned and plodded off, it cleared the way ahead of her. Without anything obscuring what lay ahead, a pure, blinding light washed over her.

“I am not my father.” Ren heard herself murmur. “I’m Kurogane Ren. I’m Ren McCoy. I am Shinsatsujin and my future is mine alone.”

When her eyes flew open, pain once again wracked her form. Towering flames burned in her peripheral vision. Diego’s dark silhouette engulfed her view. That time, however, Ren knew just what to do.

With every ounce of willpower, she put a lid on the agony shooting through her nerves. Everything returned to her in a flash. Her senses, her strength, her memories, all came pouring over her in a split second. A bright pinwheel of red, blue, and green swam throughout her pupils as all three zen activated at once.

“Diego…” She enunciated over the ringing in her ears. She saw his wild pupils thin when she uttered his name. “The universe works in ways we can’t even imagine. And no, it hasn’t taken everything from you. You still have the power to choose. Do you really want to see me die?”

“It isn’t about what I do anymore, it’s who I am.” Diego blared. His voice cracked. “All my life, all I’ve wanted was to be something.”

“But you always were something.” Ren whispered. She watched the mad glimmer in Diego’s eyes fade just the slightest bit. “To Nagato, to Erika, and to me most of all. You’re my friend…”

Diego’s icy shell had melted away through his emerald stare, revealing his gooey, molten core. His mouth hung open with his bottom jaw quivering slightly. One inch at a time, Diego drew Tsu out from Ren’s chest. And once the blade came free, his hands unwrapped around its handle, letting it fall to the sand. Relief spread through Ren’s body. Her eyes returned to their dark hue as the power vanished from her form.

At the same time, they both collapsed to their knees. Diego, in an act of pure spontaneity, threw his arms around Ren and drew her in. It seemed as though in that moment, the whole world fell silent.

“Diego…” Ren whispered. “You have to get out of here.” He pulled away and peered at her, frowning. “If Iga ever finds out what you did, that you joined the Kōga, you’ll be hunted down. Please, if you wanna make it, you have to get as far away from Los Angeles as you can.”

Diego’s eyes were suddenly drawn to the right. Ren followed the direction of his gaze, discovering Yuki, PJ, Takeshi, Akane, and Kenji, all surrounding them at a distance. Kenji gave a subtle nod.

Diego sighed and matched eyes with Ren once more. Neither spoke a word. Slowly, he rose to his feet and backed away. As Diego turned around to start down the sandy coast, Ren could tell from the soft glimmer in his green eyes that they thought the exact same thing.

“The war might be over,”

“But this won’t be the last time I’ll be seeing you.” Diego glanced over his shoulder one final time at Ren. As she peered back at him, she could have sworn seeing that smile of his she so desperately missed, trek across his face. “But for now, this is goodbye, Ren McCoy.”

~~~

Darkness continued to envelop the sky. As the group marched down the mountainside road toward Kashiwabara, Ren spied a figure beneath the red torii archway marking its entrance. The nearer the Oniwaban drew, the more they could identify the man.

They came to a slow halt once they entered Nagato’s five-meter radius. He met their knowing gazes with an inexplicable, tragic air.

“Sensei.” Kenji murmured, leading them in a bow toward their master. Nagato returned the greeting. As they rose, he and Ren traded brief, exclusive glances.

“Diego.” He uttered. “What became of him?”

“He’s…” Ren began to say.

“Dead, sir.” Kenji interrupted. The Sentai’s surprised looks gathered on him. “The Kōga, they killed him. None of us could stop it.”

Nagato averted his gaze, hiding his expression. An indistinguishable sigh emanated from him. “I see.” He whispered. “How unfortunate.”

Ren studied what she could see of his face; just his thin lips and unblinking eyes. “I don’t know if he bought our lie or not, but what I can tell is that it doesn’t matter to him one way or the other. The simple truth, whether Diego’s dead or not, is that Nagato will never see him again.”

“I see little use standing out here now.” Nagato murmured at length, turning around to face the gates. “Do come in.”

He proceeded slowly toward Kashiwabara’s shut entrance. The Oniwaban shuffled after him. But as the gate swung open, the somber cloud hanging over their heads was blown away by what lay within.

Throughout Iseji, activity percolated the air. Cheerful greetings and hearty laughs were shared by all present. The boisterous sound of the village’s clamor and the soft, fluttering tone of a flute in the distance swept Ren into a helpless daze.

Red, paper lanterns hung from the wires strung from building to building and sparklers waved by people on the rooftops showered the air with colorful radiance. Small children like the ones she saw outside her hospital room raced up and down the gravel streets.

“What is all this…?” Takeshi murmured, his awed expression brightening.

“A celebration, it appears.” Kenji replied in his same cold manner. “For the narrow avoidance of all-out war against the Kōga.”

“Well, I’ll celebrate to that!” Yuki cried, pumping both fists victoriously in the air.

“Me too!” Shouted Takeshi. Kenji, however folded his arms.

“I’ll pass.”

“No you won’t!” Yuki and Takeshi cried in unity. They both took Kenji by each one of his arms and whisked him off his feet, into the celebrating crowds.

PJ and Akane departed without a word, mingling with the festivities as well. Ren, meanwhile, continued to follow Nagato’s solemn plod. Her lips pursed uneasily and her fists squeezed the hems of her shozoku’s top, the town’s festivities visibly failing to reach her.

“Are you sure about this…?” She whispered in a voice she wasn’t even sure Nagato would hear. Surely enough, though, he paused and turned halfway around to face her, prompting her to continue. “After all I put the Iga through, after Diego…” She squinted her eyes, seeming to flinch at her own words as she spoke them. “I mean, do you even still want me here anymore?”

When Ren’s eyes slowly opened, her lids pooling with tears, she spied Nagato’s face again. And there upon it was something she never would’ve guessed at, even given a million tries.

Nagato brandished a wide, sunny beam, seeming to remove years off his face. His eyes, similarly, glowed with a light Ren had never seen from him.

“What happens to you now depends all on you. You chose Iga. Which is why I was preparing to offer you a place to stay here in Iseji. The council approved the Oniwaban’s use of Tamuro’s old shop and on the second floor, there is residence. And I assure you, it would be our privilege to have you here.”

The tears broke free from her eyes, though not for the reason they formed. Ren lunged forward and threw her arms around him, trapping Nagato in a tight embrace and nearly tackling him off his feet.

“Ren…” Nagato wheezed, crinkling his eyes slightly. “My ribcage…”

“Oh, right.” She said, releasing him. “I forgot you were so old.” Nagato’s smile evaporated as he raised a single eyebrow. Scratching the back of her neck, Ren laughed nervously.

“So, thus concludes this chapter in the history of Ninjutsu: the end of the Kōga menace.” A man with dark, wide tattoos scrawled across his bald head approached her. Ren shifted her attention from the man’s disillusioned leer to his two cronies standing beside him; one with ruffled black hair and a thin goatee, the other towering, massive, and slightly cockeyed. Ren scowled, recognizing all three of them instantly.

“Ren,” Nagato muttered, forsaking some of the cheer in his voice. An expression similar to hers appeared instead. “I would like to introduce you to Tomo Sukesada. Once, the most powerful son of the Kōga province’s Tomo family, now the Dai-Chūnin of the Iga-ryū. And these are his two associates, Kido Yazaemon and Ishikawa Goemon.” He motioned toward the pair flanking him.

“Believe me.” Ren’s gaze thinned further. “We’ve met.”

“Yeah.” Goemon, the cockeyed one, exclaimed.

“Ah, yes. According to that Detective G and Y experiment I conducted to prove your allegiance to Iga, combined with what I’ve heard from your peers, it appears you’ve proven yourself to be quite the asset.” Uttered Sukesada. For a moment, Ren believed that he would actually compliment her. “However, who can really trust the outcome of one fraudulent trial and the words of a simple genin? It appears you’re just going to have to prove your worth all by yourself. Think you can handle that, child of Sasuke?”

Ren balled her fists. A vein protruded across her right temple.

“This bastard…”

A sudden noise caught Ren’s attention, emerging beneath her. Her fists unraveled. She lowered her gaze to search for the noise, and that’s when she remembered Angelo’s stolen cell phone still hidden within her pocket.

Immediately, every member of the crowd fell silent and turned to view Ren. Their faces widened in terror. Their stares landed against her like knives. Heat racing to her cheeks, Ren gradually ascended her gaze and spied Sukesada and his goons again. All three shared an identical, snide grin.

“Sorry.” Ren mumbled, reaching for the phone. “I’ll get it.”

The crowd watched her draw the device from her pocket with unexpected speed. Their gaze traveled upward where the phone soared high into the air over their heads. Underneath, Ren reached her arm over her shoulder and drew Tsu from behind her back. As the phone fell toward her, she swung her mighty weapon, cleaving it clean in two with its massive bane. Its split halves crashed against the ground, echoing conclusively. The crowd broke out into a round of encouraging cheers. Liveliness returned to the atmosphere. Tomo’s face, meanwhile, coiled with sour disappointment.

Ren’s eyes swept over the jovial sea of bodies. She managed to distinguish Kenji, leaning against the pillar of Itadaki’s Ramen, overflowing with customers. He folded his arms and shut his eyes, though his face wore a slightly less perturbed expression. Yuki and Takeshi danced circles around their leader’s still, lofty figure. Their arms swayed with each exaggerated, swaggering step they placed. Hattori Hanzo and Tanba Momochi bickered back and forth to each other as they sat side by side at the Izakaya. Hanzo’s face matched the crimson hue of his headband. As she looked amongst the celebration, however, Ren failed to find one figure in particular:

“PJ…”

Inexplicably, Ren’s eyes were drawn over her shoulder. They landed upon the dim, hollow space between two neighboring buildings, too shallow to be called an alleyway. There, leaning against one of its wooden walls with her back facing the celebration, she found Akane. Her red hair was let down from its typical bun to spill over her pale, freckled shoulders. Her thin arms hung at her sides. As Ren departed from the main area and entered the corridor, Akane’s chin lifted. Her chartreuse eyes faced in the direction of Ren.

“What’re you doing out here, Acne?” Ren murmured, her back landing against the same wall directly beside Akane. “You’re being an even bigger stick in the mud than Kenji.”

“I am simply enjoying the festivities from a distance, thank you very much.” Akane huffed, turning away from Ren again.

“Whatever. As long as you’re having a good time.” She shrugged, hiding her hands down her shozoku pockets.

“Of course. After all, this town and these people did help to raise me at a young age.”

“What’s that? You were raised by a whole town?” Ren lifted a questioning brow. “Explain to me how that works.”

Akane tilted her head up to gaze at the moon. “It may come as a surprise to you to realize that I am not Fujibayashi Nagato-san’s true daughter.”

“I figured as much, yeah.”

“I was discovered one day in Iga as an infant. I have no knowledge of who left me there or for what purpose. My true parentage was and remains to be a mystery. The three jōnin agreed that I would live knowing that truth. That I would be raised without a mother or father, but instead, by the people of Iga, all having a hand in my growth. However, throughout my early childhood, I would persist in calling Fujibayashi-san my father. They assumed this was simply childish ignorance at first, but as I expressed to them that I realized I would never know my biological parents, Fujibayashi-san conceded. In a sense, I adopted my own father.”

“That sounds backwards.” Ren snickered, shaking her head.

“I do not think so at all, and the fact you do leads me to believe that it hasn’t changed at all.” Akane released a sigh that rang with disappointment. Ren gathered her suspicious glare on her.

“What hasn’t?”

“I speak of your naivete of course. I told you one day you would realize the truth, but you have yet to grasp that blood is far from the only thing that determines your family. To me, that word has always been defined by those whom I hold dear to my heart. Fujibayashi Nagato-san is close to my heart, and thus he truly is my father. Tanba-sensei and Hattori-sensei are uncles to me. Then there are my brothers and sisters; Kenji-san, Yuki-san, even Takeshi-san. Not to mention PJ-san. And you.” Ren’s eyes widened. “You were never without family, Ren-san. Not when you met us.”

A mass of tangled, noodly, blonde curls, a tall, wiry frame, and a pair of shimmering, ocean eyes magnified through round spectacles flashed in front of Ren’s vision. In her mind, June smiled warmly one final time.

“Oh,” Uttered a somewhat startled voice. Ren turned, finding PJ looming awkwardly at the entrance of the alley beside them. “If you two are talking, I’ll leave you to it.” His tired gaze faced away. Ren watched desperately as PJ began to plod off.

She gave Akane one more quick glance. Her eyes swam with urgency. “I gotta go. Enjoy the rest of the party, Acne.” With that, she sprung off the wall before jogging to catch up with PJ.

“Family or not, I still find you repulsive!” Akane called after her.

“The feeling’s mutual!”

Ren darted toward PJ, approaching the quiet perimeter of Iseji at a sulk. The festivity’s noise failed to quite reach the riverbank where he paused. As PJ noticed Ren’s speedy approach, he turned halfway toward her. A frown continued to drag on the corners of his mouth. His eyes swam with indifference.

Once Ren joined him at a lax distance, she laced her fingers timmidly below her waist. Her shoulders drew forward, shrinking her frame.

“Look,” She began. “I know there’s probably a long list of reasons why we shouldn’t be friends. In fact, there’s probably an even longer list why you should run off and call the cops on me. I lied to you, stole from you, went against all your advice, but I’ll admit now that what I did was wrong. And I am so sorry.” A shudder ran through her. “PJ, you are so funny, and sweet, and kind, and honest, and a thousand other words that all mean to say that I like you. A lot. Please, don’t let this get in the way of our friendship…” Her hands opened. She extended one toward him to shake. “What do you say? Chums?”

“Chums?” PJ muttered. He turned to face Ren fully. His fist closed. He raised it to his chest, pounded it twice over his heart, and held out his V-shaped fingers. A beam swiftly took the place of his sulking mien. “We’re mates.”

Ren’s offered hand closed. Slowly, she returned the gesture. Her glowing beam matched his.

“PJ, Ren, there you are.” A voice behind them called. Their gazes broke apart as they both peered behind them. There, they watched as Takeshi, Yuki, Akane, and Kenji all marched toward them. Shared across each of their faces, Ren spied a determined glimmer.

“What’s going on?” She asked, a tone of seriousness cast over her voice.

“I came to inform you as soon as Sukesada passed down the word to me.” Kenji began.

“We have a new mission!” Yuki interrupted, throwing her arms above her head in excitement.

“A new mission?” PJ’s blinked. “Already?”

“That’s what I said!” Takeshi groaned, gripping at his tussled mane with one hand.

“To which I replied, that is the simple nature of things.” Akane’s arms folded. Her glare held its typical scathing edge, aimed at Ren ahead of her. “Whether you like it or not, Ren-san, this is the true manner of shinobi life.”

There was a quiet beat. The Oni Sentai’s eyes fixed on Ren. Together, they watched the corner of her mouth curl to form a mischievous smirk. She made a quiet scoff.

“Then what the hell are we waiting for?” She uttered. The united air surged again with resolve. “A new job, new family, a brand-new life…” Takeshi smirked in a similar defiant manner. Yuki’s eyes twinkled. Kenji bowed his head agreeingly. Akane rolled her eyes. And next to her, PJ grinned from ear to ear. “If you ask me, sounds pretty Fantástico!”