What was most concerning about this whole situation was the fact that someone managed to sneak up behind Yori without her knowing it. Her silence was impeccable, worthy of the most highly-trained operative of Yamanouchi. Yori wondered where she had learned such skill and secretly applauded her stealthy approach. But now was no time to be commending her opponent.
Her hands raised and her back turned, Yori was at the mercy of this mysterious woman. Standing in the middle of an open room with no cover or obstacles, she had a clear shot of Yori and was far back enough that the ninja could not touch her. All she could do was wait for the opportune time and strike if necessary. For now she would make no sudden movements. The woman obviously did not want to kill her or she would have done so by now. But then, she may not want a ruckus to occur out in the hallway. That would definitely attract unwanted attention.
But so would a gunshot. Was she even carrying a gun? Obtaining firearms was illegal in Japan and only those with channels to the underground could hope to obtain such a weapon. It might not even be a gun at all. A knife or a baton wouldn't be farfetched and if that was the case then Yori would have no problem taking her down.
Still, anyone who could sneak up on Yori was a force to be reckoned with. Yori would not underestimate her opponent. Until the time came she would wait and bide her time. Should the need for a quick escape arise…well she was only four stories up.
"Turn around slowly," she commanded. Now at least, Yori would get an idea of who she would be up against. When she finished, Yori found herself staring down a middle-age woman in her early thirties, with unkept black hair lazily sprawling down her shoulders. There were lines under her eyes as if she found sleep as elusive as a comb. She was wearing a long-sleeved gray shirt with a rip over the right shoulder and stained in the middle. Her jeans were blue in color, heavily worn and clinging to a pair of muscular legs. Surprisingly enough, her sneakers looked brand new as if she'd just bought them. Or stole them. Given by her appearance she didn't look like one to afford such commodities.
She was holding a brown paper bag in her left hand, which she clung to her hip as if clutching a wound. Then it hit Yori – she was hurt! A dark stain creased her side and Yori need not be closer to realize it was blood. A slight crackle of the paper bag was what had alerted Yori to her presence. Still, combined with her bleeding hip, that she was able to get the drop on Yori only boosted her respect for her.
The woman's eyes widened. "Yuriko?"
Yori had no idea to whom she was referring to, but upon further inspection she found that the "weapon" the woman was holding was nothing more than a lighter. It was shiny as if only recently purchased. She would not be surprised if that was stolen as well.
"I don't believe this." Lowering the lighter, the woman's face softened. "You look just like your mother."
"Yuriko." Her gaze drifted upward. "That belonged to her."
She realized that she was referring to her hairband.
"Though I have to say," She went on, "you have your father's eyes."
Yori paused. "You know my father?"
"That's an understatement." She cringed all of a sudden and fell two steps back. On reflex Yori moved to help her but the woman raised her hand. "It's okay. It's only a scratch." She took one peek at the gathering black mass on her shirt. "Okay maybe more than a scratch but I've seen worse." She forced herself to stand, pride taking over. "Sorry our first meeting in eighteen years couldn't have been under better circumstances. I'm Kimiko, but I guess you already figured that. You can call me Kim."
"You're the woman who summoned me."
"Asked more like it. I hoped Master Sensei didn't force you into this."
"I came of my own accord."
"Good." She smiled. "So you're Yori," she stated.
"You've grown. Last I saw you, you were just a baby. Bloody, wet, and crying your little heart out."
"You knew me when I was a baby?"
"I helped deliver you." Kim's eyes became distant as if they were looking into the past. "That was a happier time. Your parents were so proud of you and your brothers,"
"Brothers?!" Yori's mouth gawked.
Kimiko stopped. "You mean you don't know?"
"I thought I was an only child!" Her head felt woozy all of a sudden and for a moment she could not look Kimiko in the face. "I…I don't believe it. How can this be?"
"Well you see your mother and father loved each other very much and sometimes, when they were in the mood, they would,"
"I know how it happened!" Yori became so flustered she allowed her voice to rise. She quickly covered her mouth and settled down. "What I want to know is…why didn't Master Sensei tell me about them?"
"You ninjas love keeping secrets. Though I guess it's not just you." Her voice grew solemn.
Looking back, Yori asked, "What are their names?"
"Takashi and Yusuke Ishimura."
"Ishimura," Yori said. "So that is my family name."
"Your master didn't even tell you that?" Kimiko shook her head. "What did he tell you?"
"That my mother passed away and that my father…he went away."
"Talk about holding back punches." Kim tried to approach Yori, "Listen," but cringed again when the pain shot up her left side. This time, she allowed Yori to help her from falling. "Sorry, but I've got to deal with this first. You mind taking me to the bed?" Yori did not mind at all and assisted her in making her way across the room. Once she sat down, Kimiko opened the bag and removed a small bottle, some medical bandages, and some cotton swabs. Opening the bottle, an oily scent permeated the room. Iodine. She slowly lifted up her shirt and Yori could make out a deep cut just above her hipbone.
"I met a guy I didn't like."
Yori sat down beside her. "And he cut you?"
"Actually his friend did. After I broke his nose." Kimiko took a swab and dipped it into the iodine before slowly applying it to her wound. She winced as the chemical did its work. "Some guys can't take no for an answer."
"The cut is deep. It will require stitches."
"My thoughts exactly. There's a bag underneath the bed. Take it out, and open up the first inside pocket. I have a kit in there."
"You mean to do it yourself?"
"Unless they teach Surgery 101 in that school of yours I don't think you can."
Grimacing, Yori bent down and looked for the bag she saw upon her earlier inspection of the room. She pulled it out and found the stitches in the exact place Kimiko told her. Other than a few articles of clothing and what looked like some money in an envelope there wasn't anything suspicious in it contents. The kit came with threads and Yori felt uncomfortable with the idea of putting it through one's skin. Once she disinfected the wound, Kimiko took the kit and began putting a thread to the needle. Then, in front of Yori, she began to close herself up.
"Dammit, this is my favorite shirt." She turned to Yori. "Could you get me a wet towel from the bathroom? Make sure the water's nice and cold."
"Sure." Yori left to do just that. When she returned she found Kimiko had removed her shirt altogether. What she saw stopped her in her tracks. There were marks all over her exposed skin. It was as if she'd been whipped, dragged, punched, kicked, stabbed and thrown so many times that her untouched flesh was almost indistinguishable from the rest.
Kimiko caught her staring. "It's been a rough eighteen years."
"Forgive me. I didn't mean,"
"Don't worry about it. It's the life I chose." Saying that made Kim pause. Many years ago, eighteen to be exact, she had said something along those lines. That was the day Kimiko turned her back on a normal life. It was the day the old Kimiko ceased to exist.
"Is something wrong?" Yori asked when she'd been silent for too long.
Coming to, Kimiko returned to her stitching. "No. That is, I guess when you live long enough, you start looking back on all your decisions and wonder if you really had any choice at all."
Coming to her side, Yori offered the wet towel. "What do you mean?" She asked as she took it.
"It's a long story." She bit her tongue as the needle pierced her flesh and came out the other end. "But I suppose you have the time."
Yori knelt before her. Her eyes almost pleading. "I came here to learn about my past. Master Sensei said you are the one who could tell me. Whatever his reasons, he obviously holds you in high regard so I will too. Please, Kim-san, tell me about my family."
"You may as well pull up a chair. You don't mind if I talk while I work, do you?"
"No. But perhaps it's best I wait until you finished."
"Nonsense. Grab one of those stools. Feel free to open up the window if the smoke is too much."
Yori did both. "Do you smoke often?"
"Actually I'm cutting back. Bad for your health and all." She wiped the blood with the towel and continued working. "That's something you don't have much of in my line of work."
"What is it you do exactly?"
Kimiko waited until Yori pulled the stool up and sat herself down like an obedient student awaiting the lesson to begin. "I'm a gopher."
A bewildered look crossed Yori's face.
"It means I go for things. You know, gopher this, gopher that. It's a play on words."
"It's stupid, I know. But I can't exactly go around telling people I'm a freelance assa…" Kimiko caught herself before she could finish, though the look on Yori's face told her it was too late. Sighing, Kimiko went on. "It's tough being a lone woman in today's world. One can only find so many things she's good at out without having to take off her clothes or put on a wedding ring. Some of us are meant to be dancers, some mothers. A few like yourself manage to do something few girls could ever do in their lifetime. As for the stragglers – well we take what we can get. We find a trade we're good at and we go for it. Gopher. Get it?"
"Anyway, one day I found myself having to make a choice." Kimiko became very serious. "Do I pick up the gun and shoot, or do I just stand there and die? Before I knew it, I found something I was good at. It's amazing what you can accomplish when your life is at stake."
"You killed a man?"
"Several in fact. It's what I do, Yori."
Having been spoken to in such a familiar manner with a woman she didn't even know – and a dangerous one to boot – Yori felt uncomfortable. This woman seemed to know everything about her; this meant they were on uneven grounds. But the more Yori listened the less she wanted to know at all.
She was halfway through the stitching process when Kimiko smiled. "You know I was scared at first. Your father assured me that I had no choice. That when the time came I acted on instinct and that was what saved my life. I used to have nightmares so bad I soiled myself every night. But little by little, I came to realize that when push comes to shove, the world still lives by the Law of the Jungle: kill to eat, or to keep from being eaten. The problem is once you've tasted first blood, the thirst becomes too powerful. You become something you didn't want to and in the end it's the only thing that will keep you alive because there's no returning to the life you once had."
Yori remained silent.
"Eventually you come to realize you can't trust anyone. All you have to rely on is yourself, yourself, and yourself. It's a lonely existence, but it's the only one open to people like me." Kim barely felt the stitches anymore and continued as if she were only coloring her nails. As the final needle went through, Kim washed off the remaining blood, put the needle away, and pulled out the medical bandages. She unfurled one and began rolling it around her waist. When she had finished her impromptu surgery, Kimiko placed all other items to the side and reached for the bag Yori pulled out. She got herself a new shirt, a sleeveless green one with an anime dog giving a puppy-dog pout.
Putting it on, Kimiko pulled her legs onto the bed and crossed them beneath her. "But you didn't come here to hear about my sad life. You want to know about the Ishimura clan don't you?"
"Okay." Kim agreed. "Let me just start by saying your mother was a beautiful woman…"
The bar was dark, crowded, and reeked of liquor; just how Hoshi liked it. What better place for an outsider to hang out than with the dregs of society? Here she didn't stand out the way she did in other places. Here, the clientele, or most of it anyway, were focused solely on her body and damn where her parentage came from. Hoshi didn't mind all the stares she received just by walking through the door. Most ninjas would tell you it was best to hide in the shadows. To Hoshi, the best place to hide was in plain sight.
Hirotaka put on a brave front but she could tell he was sorely out of his element. His eyes darted from one table to the next, staring down anyone who gave him a dirty look or complaining whenever someone "accidentally" bumped into him. No one seemed to care. Hiro didn't belong here. He was the prettyboy, the heartthrob, a guy more suited to beach parties. Compared to Hoshi, Hirotaka was the proverbial nail, and as the proverb states, the nail that sticks out gets hammered.
Speaking of hammered…Hoshi ordered them a couple of drinks the moment they sat down. The booth she had chosen was at the far back of the room with a good view of the place. Hoshi relaxed, crossing her legs beneath the table and taking in the scene. About two booths down, behind Hirotaka, was a karaoke set where a middle-aged man in a sweaty shirt and wrinkled tie was attempting to sing an American song called "Barbie Girl." His groupies cheered him on despite his lack of talent. Japanese loved to watch others humiliate themselves for their enjoyment.
"So what's the deal with you and Yori?" The question came out of the blue and Hoshi was dancing in her seat to the upbeat tune as the man hit the chorus.
"You know what I mean. You two are real tight, huh?"
"Yori-chan and I are close."
"How close is close?"
"We are comrades at arms."
"Is that all?"
"Should there be more?"
"Answering a question with a question is another way of avoiding the question. Do you love her or not?"
Such an upfront inquest stifled Hiro's stoic façade but he hid it well. Hoshi could try all she liked; she would not get the better of him like she did at the airport. This time, Hirotaka was ready.
"Would it bother you if I said yes?"
"Why would it bother me?"
"You're avoiding the question."
"Touché," Hoshi began to snap her fingers with the beat. "It wouldn't bother me at all."
"Well that's too bad. I would think, with the way you've been eying me, it would spoil your chances with me."
"And what makes you think I want to be with you?"
"You asked me here."
"Don't read too much into it, Hiro. You and me ain't happening."
"The night is young."
"And it would have to be pretty old for me to even consider being with you."
"There's always alcohol."
"You're out of your league. Yeah! COME ON, BARBIE, LET'S GO PARTY! AH, AH, AH YEAH!"
Their drinks arrived. "What is this," Hiro asked.
"I can't pronounce the real name, but locals call it the Devil's Concoction. Try it." Hoshi took a sip and let out a yelp. "Makes you feel alive!"
Eh, how bad could it be?
Moments later, Hirotaka was in the men's restroom coughing his lungs out. By the gods, he thought, I think I am about to meet my ancestors!
Back at the booth, Hoshi had taken it upon herself to finish both her drink and Hirotaka's. She placed another order and began singing in tune to another song called "BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!" This time the man was joined by one of his cohorts and they sang a duet. Gods they were horrible, but they were having a good time.
Hoshi almost pissed herself from laughing when Hirotaka stumbled back into their booth. "You okay?" She asked through fits of laughter.
His eyes were red and sweat glistened his face. "My stomach is on fire."
"Anything named after the Devil will do that. I thought you were smarter than that, Hiro."
So did I.
That's two for Hoshi. Hirotaka knew that if he wanted to get on the board, he'd have to take drastic measures. "It's too damn hot." Slowly, he began to remove his jacket.
Hoshi's eyes told him all he needed to know. Seeing Hiro's powerful arms exposed and covered in sweat sent chills down her spine, and to other nether realms. But she played it cool. She knew the game he was playing if he thought she didn't know.
"So if you and Yori aren't together, is she seeing anyone?"
"Why? Are you interested?"
"Would it turn you on if I said yes?"
"Avoiding the question."
A devilish smiled appeared on her face. "Yes, Hiro. I am secretly in love with Yori. In fact, I've been in love with her all my life. Seeing her again has brought up a well of emotions I thought I'd forgotten. She's so hot." Her voice turned sultry. "If I had the chance I'd take her back to my place, rip off her clothes and have some hot, nasty, girl-on-girl sex. Does that turn you on?"
"If I were into that sort of thing."
"Oh come on! Every guy is into that sort of thing."
"I'm not every guy."
"Oh really?" She saw someone approaching out of the corner of her eye and raised her foot beneath the table, creeping its way forward. "Then what's this?"
Hirotaka shot out of the booth, slamming into the waitress who was bringing their drinks, knocking the tray over and having him bawl her to the ground. Half the eyes in the bar turned in their direction. He apologized so many times that his face turned red. In the booth, Hoshi was laughing tears. The waitress bent over to pick up the tray and the cups. Hiro tried to help her but she politely waved him off. Secretly she was cursing his guts out. Only having so many witnesses prevented him from strangling Hoshi then and there.
The debacle concluded, Hiro sat back down and glared daggers at Hoshi. "That was uncalled for."
Feigning shyness, "But Hiro, I just want to have some fun."
"At my expense."
"That's the best kind. What fun is it when everyone is laughing at you?"
Any angrier and fumes would be coming out of his ears. He grabbed the edges of the table. "You are the biggest disgrace I have ever seen."
"Then you haven't seen much, because I can guarantee you there's far worse out there than me."
"I doubt it."
"No really. One time I met this thief; she was a real bitch!"
"Where were you?"
"All this time, where were you?"
The sudden change in subject distracted Hoshi from her planned evening of taunts and teases. Hiro looked her square in the eye when he had asked the question, making sure to keep his own legs crossed to avoid any more "incidents."
"Oh you mean after I left," Hoshi concluded. "Around."
"So you've done nothing with your life."
"Nothing you'd enjoy."
"Apparently." He folded his hands on the table. "If you've spent the last four years lounging about in places like these it would explain a great deal."
"So you're analyzing me right now?"
"It's part of the job. If you remembered our lessons you'll know that a ninja tries to learn as much about his opponent as he can to acquaint himself with his strengths and weaknesses. Your tactics involve confusing your opponent by throwing them off guard and striking when they're most vulnerable. A commendable strategy and most effective. However, it only works when you have the element of surprise. Against a prepared enemy, you wouldn't stand a chance."
"Like back at the airport?" She teased.
"Funny you should bring that up. Despite your initial attack I managed to adapt and fight back on equal terms. There were a few key moments where I could have struck at a vital position and bring you down for good. Do you know why I didn't?"
Placing her chin on her hands, smiling, Hoshi bit. "Why?"
"Because I was studying you."
"And what did you find out?"
"That you are a very angry person. Your technique is fast and precise, every bit as good as Yori's. I daresay even a bit better. But your heart is somewhere else. Every blow you struck, every attack you parried, I felt rage within you. Only your body was fighting, but not your soul. You only thought of playing a little game, knowing full well I wouldn't go all out in such a public space. In a test of will, I can say with all honesty that I would have won. And still can."
She curled an eyebrow. "Now that's a pathetic excuse for losing if I ever heard one."
"Talk all you want. You can't defeat me in a fair fight."
"I don't fight fair."
"That's the point. You'll lose."
"We all lose sometimes. Life is not only about winning."
"Why can't you just admit I kicked your butt?"
"Because I know I am right. And Yori would agree with me."
"You guys are that tight, huh?"
"We are, as informal as I can describe it, best friends. Do you have any?"
"One's coming up right now."
"Hm?" Hirotaka turned to see the waitress return with a couple of new drinks. He apologized to her one more time before she left and turned to find Hoshi had already finished half of hers.
"So when did you lose it?" He asked.
"Lose what? My virginity?"
"The hell are you talking about?"
"People who are running away search for a place to hide their woes. This 'friend' of yours seems to give you great comfort."
"Always there when I need him."
"But do you need him other than to make you forget something you don't want to remember?"
Bringing the glass down rather hard, Hoshi leered at Hiro. "Look, doc, you think you've got me figured out but you don't. Now I'll be the first to admit I'm not the kind of girl you bring home to mom, and I sure as hell ain't the perfect ninja, but I do NOT run away from anyone or anything. Yamanouchi didn't want me so they kicked me out. End of story."
"I thought you said you left."
"They wanted to. I just saved them the trouble. You don't know what it's like being a, how did you put it, gaijin. People only see the side of me that isn't Japanese. They say I talk funny. I act strange. I'm weird. Let me ask you something: what's so fucking great about being normal? Everyone tries to act like everyone else. It sucks! I wasn't put on this Earth to live by anyone else's rules. If people want me they can take me as I am and if not, fuck them!"
"Is that you talking or the alcohol?"
"Both actually. Told ya we're good friends."
"And how long have you two known each other?"
"Long enough." She finished what was left. "You and Yori have your training; I have my buddy, here. Life can get tough and we all have our little Fortress of Solitudes. That's a Superman reference in case you don't know. You guys want to do that with your lives then go ahead. But don't try to convince me of the error of my ways. My ways have seen me through more crap than you can think of. I'm not much, Hiro, but I am a survivor."
Hiro's face softened.
"You gonna finish that?" He shook his head and she gulped down his beverage. Slamming it down and letting out a contented sigh, she looked to him and said, "Come on." Hoshi got up and moved over to grab Hiro by the arm, pulling him out of the booth.
"What are you doing?"
"Let's go. I want to introduce you to my other friend."
Kimiko lit up a cigarette. Standing by the window, the woman took a deep puff, savoring the taste of nicotine. Her mind relaxed, she half sat on the windowsill, her other leg propping her up. Telling that story took a lot out of her. Took a long time too. She could really use a drink of water but as of now her body craved one thing and one thing only. Who was she to deny it after all she put it through? It was owed.
She let out a wisp of smoke, watching it deteriorate as it flew through the air. The night was warm, the humidity high. Kimiko missed the cool breezes of her home; the air rustling through the leaves and over the lakes. She hated city life. It was crowded, polluted; the people weren't as nice or as friendly. People were too dependant on technology. Henry Thoreau had it right when he said human beings should return to a more simple form of life; a life where they were dependant only on themselves and not some blasted machine.
Kimiko learned to become self-reliant quick. Kenji made sure she knew how to handle herself in every situation. If there's one thing that old bastard taught her well was how to survive. Problem is that was the only thing she knew how to do now. Always on the move, never staying in one place for too long, looking over her shoulder, around corners and behind doors; she'd made dangerous enemies in her years who wouldn't think twice about killing a young girl. Well Kimiko was no longer young and certainly no longer a girl. All she could do was stay one step ahead of them. That was getting harder every day. With each year she became slower and that made it harder to run. Someday, a knife might find her where she least suspects. Or a hand her neck. Or a bullet her heart.
That's okay. She didn't have much of a heart left anyway.
"Damn it's hot." She looked up at the fan. "Piece of shit."
Yori had not said a word. She was sitting on the stool; her back to Kimiko, her head lowered as if the weight of all she'd been told was weighing it down. Kimiko regarded her with sad eyes. "You alright?" Since she last saw Yori, Kimiko never imagined she would one day be speaking to the daughter of the man she swore her life to. Yori had been a baby then. Seeing the young woman she'd become filled Kimiko with a sense of maternity. She wasn't the nurturing type; not anymore at least, but her ties with the Ishimuras could never be completely severed. They had been her family. She had loved them. How could she not feel something for little Yori?
"You want something to drink? There's a soda machine around the corner. I could be right back."
Kimiko took another whiff. This time she let it out slowly, the smoke coming in a steady stream. She looked at her cigarette. The butt glowed red and was burning out. How symbolic. Kimiko felt burned out too. Each time she smoked was another day off her life. She wondered if she would die with one in her mouth, her life force going out with the cigarette.
"I would offer you a cigarette, but I don't think your father would approve. He hated it when I picked up the habit. He used to tell me dulling your sense like that made you more vulnerable, easier to get the drop on. I told him, hell, in our line of work, what does it matter if we live to reach eighty? Least I'm the one killing myself and not some tattooed punk. This way when I meet the Almighty I can say I gave it my best shot, eh?" No reply. "Okay, bad joke. Not a lot of practice. I try to be optimistic. Helps what I do seem a little bit easier." When Yori still said nothing, Kimiko took one last puff and threw the cigarette out the window. "Look if it makes it easier, all the people I've killed were bad. I'm not a monster, Yori."
"It's not that," she said at last.
"Then what is it?"
"For so many years I've wondered about my father, my mother and now I find out I have brothers. Hiro-chan told me I might not like what I found out. He was right."
"A friend from Yamanouchi. He came with me when I left."
Kimiko sat silent.
"My father…he was Yakuza. My mother was murdered. And now you mean to tell me you've no idea where my brothers are."
"Master Sensei would know. I just don't understand why…why would he keep all this from me?" Her hangs began to clench her skirt in frustration. She clenched her eyes shut, forcing back the pain behind them.
"It was to protect you, Yori. The men that came after your father that night worked for a very dangerous boss. If he knew where to find you he would have hunted you down. Your dad pissed him off royally when he left the Yakuza and those guys that came for him were nobodies compared to the army he has at his disposal. They would have killed you all, or worse. By separating you, your father knew you would be safe." Kimiko thought a moment. "Though I didn't really agree with their decision to keep you separate."
"Why didn't they send my brothers with me to Yamanouchi?"
"He wanted you to have a new life."
Yori looked at Kimiko.
"Your father," Kimiko went on. "If you stayed with your brothers you would have discovered the truth from them. You'd have known what happened to your mother and what your father set out to do. Kenji wanted you to start over in a place where he knew you could grow up in peace."
Yori looked to the floor.
"You would have loved him. He was a good man."
"Who'd rather I not know about my past. Not know where I came from. Who my parents were. That I have siblings. He'd much prefer it I have no history whatsoever."
"He'd much prefer you were safe."
"By living in ignorance."
Kimiko stood up. "Look, I don't agree with them keeping you in the dark for this long. I figured you'd find out the truth eventually…just not from me." Kimiko held her arm. "It's not my place."
"But you were a part of my family." Yori looked at her. "In a way that makes you my sister."
But Kimiko scoffed. "You don't want me for a sister."
"Just…because." Kimiko turned around.
Not leaving it at that, Yori left the stool and walked toward her. She stopped. "You did not tell me everything, Kim-san. What happened to you after you and my father left?"
There was a loud sigh. Whatever it was, it was obvious the older woman did not want to speak about it. She had given Yori back her past by telling her about her family; their names, where they lived, their favorite foods – she helped connect Yori with a part of her she thought lost forever. But after the death of her mother and their separation, she had no intention of revealing anymore than that. It's not like she needed to know. But there was still Kenji. And her brothers. Kimiko didn't know where to begin.
"We traveled a lot," She finally said, taking to pacing around the room. "Along the way your father trained me. I learned how to fight, how to use a weapon, how to stay hidden and keep a low profile." He did a good job, Yori thought. "You remember that man I mentioned to you, the one I killed? It was self-defense. Kenji didn't arrive in time and I had to fend for myself. It was a tough fight but I managed to get my hands on a gun…and I used it for the first time. When your father saw what happened he knew, as much as I did though I did not know it yet, that there was no turning back. I had become a part of this world. I was sixteen."
"The first five years we went place to place; mostly around southern Japan. Kenji had a lot of old friends and used those contacts to get us weapons and a roof over our heads. When we weren't running, eating, or sleeping, we were training. By the time I was eighteen, I could kill a man using a paper clip. Kenji had made me into a machine. His machine. Between the two of us there was nothing we could not do."
"The first time we struck back against the bastard who ruined our lives was in Yokohama. He was running a human trafficking operation out of the docks, bringing in poor girls from the Philippines, China, and other parts of Asia. They were to be sex slaves for Yakuza bosses and shady corporate businessmen. Not to mention a few corrupt ministers and district attorneys. When I saw what they were doing to those girls, some as young as twelve, I wanted blood. We snuck inside, killing every one of those sick fucks. By the time the cops arrived we were long gone. We split from Yokohama and moved on from there."
"We took down one operation after another. We left a trail of bodies behind us as a message to the Oyabun: your days are numbered, we are coming for you. Of course that did not mean we got off scot-free. The Oyabun sent agents to kill us. Time and again we became the hunted, tracked down by the deadliest bounty hunters in Japan. At one point, Kenji and I were forced to escape to Korea to lie low. Try as they might, the Yakuza could not strike at us there without dealing with the Korean Mafia, which Kenji had befriended years ago. For the moment we were safe. We spent two years in Korea preparing for the time when we would return. But as the days wore on, Kenji started to lose touch with our mission. He began having nightmares about Yuriko, far worse than anything he had before. Being separated from his children, not knowing where they were or how they were doing, it ate him alive inside."
At the other end of the room, Kimiko stopped. Reliving those memories were painful, but talking about it seemed to sooth her. She hadn't had anyone to talk to for some time now. Perhaps she was looking for a way to justify everything that they had done, to find meaning within the years of violence. Either way, it was nice to have someone listening.
"He loved you all so much. It killed him not seeing you. At night, I would hear him crying. Here was a man I'd watch kill his enemies without so much as batting his eyes and yet he'd fall to tears at the very mention of your names. Heh. Guess life's funny that way."
"Then…it was good my father had you with him. To remind him of what he was fighting for."
"He and I were partners – and so much more."
"You must have be…wait! What?!"
Kimiko's smile was resigned when she looked at Yori. "We were lonely. Things happened."
Yori did not even realize her mouth was hanging open. "Y-Y-You mean…you…and…my f-father…"
"Life's funny that way."
Now granted Kimiko was still an attractive woman, scars and all, and she was still of child-bearing age, but the notion of her and Kenji together churned Yori's insides like spoiled rice. "Forgive me for saying so, Kim-san, but you were young enough to be his daughter."
"I was legal."
"When a man and a woman need each other, Yori-san, age does not matter. It was only a few times so don't let it get to you."
How many times is a few?
Kim decided it was best they moved along. "We returned to Japan a few months later. Our Korean friends told us about a meeting going on between the Yakuza leaders. One of them was Saito." The mention of that name brought a steely glare to Kimiko's face. No manner of discipline could hide the contempt she had for that man. "He was the bastard who started all of this. Your father told me about him. Saito was a nephew of one of the old bosses. Back then, the Yakuza followed a strict code of rules which demanded honor and loyalty above all else. Kenji respected what they stood for then, but men like Saito changed all that. The new recruits were corrupt and greedy. They cared nothing for the old way of doing things. They wanted power and were willing to do anything to get it."
"But Saito was different. His ruthlessness was surpassed only by his ambition. He sought to become the most powerful of the Yakuza crime lords. His goal was to control the Japanese Underground, in effect forging his own shadow empire. Saito worked his way through the ranks, eventually becoming the right-hand man of one of the oldest and most-respected Yakuza bosses, Fujimori. Even then Kenji saw him for what he really was. He tried to warn Fujimori about Saito's corruption, but Saito was as charismatic as he was manipulative. He could turn an enemy into a friend; turn his staunchest opposition into his most loyal supporters. Eventually, he became Fujimori's most trusted advisor. That was the day Kenji decided to leave."
"They just left?" Yori may not know much about the criminal underworld, other than it was populated by scoundrels with no concept of honor, but she figured they did not just allow anyone to leave their ranks. The secrets those people knew, it could fall into the wrong hands, in their case the police. Once you were in there was no getting out.
"Your father was a close personal friend of Fujimori. To Fujimori, Kenji was like a son. He loved him. Kenji could get away with things no one else could. To the other Yakuza bosses, he was untouchable. So trusted was he that Fujimori was only too ecstatic when Kenji asked for his daughter's hand in marriage."
Kimiko knew she was about to drop the bombshell but felt it was best not to stall. "That woman was your mother, Yori."
Yori turned pale.
"When your father told me the truth I found it hard to believe. Yuriko was the last person you'd suspect of being part of a mob family. But she was. She was Fujimori's only daughter…and the light of his life. He loved her more than anything. So when Kenji came to Fujimori telling him he wanted to leave the clan with Yuriko he did not deny them. There were many dissenting voices and only Fujimori's position kept there from being any bloodshed. But as powerful as he was, there was still a price to pay. Next to Yuriko, Fujimori had another prized possession, something that no other Yakuza boss held. Only by sharing this secret with the other Oyabun were Yuriko and Kenji allowed to leave in peace."
"What was it?" Yori asked.
But Kimiko only shrugged. "Couldn't tell you. Kenji swore an oath to keep that secret. Even after leaving he still retained loyalty to Fujimori. So I never found out what it was. It must have been something, however. If it kept Fujimori's enemies from coming after your parents then it must have been something indeed."
"But I've strayed. Forgive me. I was about to tell you the last time I saw your father." She heard Yori's intake of breath when she said that. "We planned to kill Saito but we knew it wouldn't be easy. The crime bosses were meeting in an old estate which had once been home to a high-ranking Daimyo in feudal times. It was impregnable. But your father still had friends within the organization. He contacted one of them and he managed to sneak me in as a Geisha girl. I managed to coax one of the guards away from his position with promises of some late night frivolity. This brief lapse in attention allowed Kenji to sneak in. We took out the guard and I donned his uniform to keep up appearances. I made my rounds while your father snuck inside."
"Our plan was to kill Saito in his room. Sounded easy enough. A simple assassination. I was still patrolling the perimeter when I heard gunshots. The entire place was up in arms and I thought your father had been spotted. Then I realized there was a coup attempt. Saito's men and those who had switched allegiances had started killing everyone in the estate. It was a bloodbath. Luckily the guard I impersonated was one of those who had sided with Saito so no one suspected me as of yet. I managed to get inside, eliminating those who saw through my disguise. When I arrived at the dining room I found the bodies of all the Yakuza leaders. All but one…Saito."
"It was his coup all along. He lured all his rivals into one place so as to take them all out at once. Had to give it to him, it was a brilliant move. With no opposition, Saito effectively controlled the Yakuza and hence all illegal activities in Japan. But I didn't think about it then. I was busy looking for your father. I searched far longer than I should have with so many enemies about. Eventually I was found out. I managed to escape but not without being wounded. Took me four days to reach a safehouse. By then, Saito's people were everywhere."
"That happened about five years ago. I went deep into hiding, moving from one place to another. I contacted the Koreans but even they wouldn't help me. Saito was just too dangerous. Japan, my home country, had become my prison. I couldn't sneeze without looking over my shoulder. I tried once or twice to find out what happened to your father but all leads turned up cold. Finally I turned to the last person on Earth I felt could help me. We kept minimal contact with Master Sensei who would provide some aid without getting too much involved. Interpol and Japanese authorities were leaning too hard on the Yakuza and too much interference may have jeopardized Yamanouchi so all our dealings were under the table."
"Truth be told, I didn't want to get Yamanouchi involved either. This was my fight. This was the task I had signed on to when I joined your father. It wasn't until recently I figured out it was shame that kept me from calling you sooner. I was too ashamed to admit defeat. I felt I could take on Saito on my own. I was wrong. It took some time but I found a way to reach you. I also wanted to speak to you personally." Kimiko stepped up to Yori, looking her straight in the eye, "Yori," she pulled her into a tight hug. "I am so sorry."
Yori was taken aback by the sudden burst of emotion. She could hear Kimiko sniffling back tears and her chest convulsed with soft sobs. Ultimately she returned the hug and spoke in a nurturing voice. "You have nothing to be ashamed of, Kim-san."
"I tried to find him, Yori, I really did. I just couldn't live with myself."
"You've done more than anyone could have asked for. Without you I'd have never found out about my parents, my brothers, or my history. If my father is as you say then I know he would be proud of you…" her voice dimmed. "Wherever he is."
Suddenly Kimiko cringed. "That's just it." She pulled back to look Yori in the face. "I know where he is."
"It was last week. I managed to discover his whereabouts. You don't know what it was like finding out he was still alive after all this time. Heaven knows what he's been through." Kimiko wiped her eyes. "It must have been hell for him."
Yori's hands clasped her arms. "Where is he? Please, you must tell me." The urgency in her voice was very apparent. Suddenly she had the chance to see her father. Be he in Japan or the farthest reaches of the world, Yori would find him and bring him back.
"Saito's powerbase. He's being held in the basement of a corporate building. No one would suspect it would actually be a holding cell for Yakuza prisoners."
"The Nakasumi Tower over in Shinjuku."
"Shinjuku. Got it!" Yori brushed pass Kimiko who grabbed her hand rather forcefully.
"Wait! Where are you going?"
"I'm going to rescue my father," she told her as if it was the most obvious question in the world – which it was.
"But you can't. It's too dangerous. Return to Yamanouchi, talk to Master Sensei. He will figure out a way to rescue him."
"This is my mission. Besides, I have Hirotaka to help me."
"Two ninjas does not an army make. You have no idea the resources Saito commands, Yori. There are more than thugs and hitmen at his disposal. Saito has criminals from all over Asia at his disposal. Fallen monks from China, terrorists from Mindanao, supernatural beings that can manipulate shadow, and monsters from the deepest ranges of the Himalayas. Even with the element of surprise there is no way you two could penetrate that tower all by yourself. You need Sensei's help."
"Returning to Yamanouchi would take too much time. Tokyo is much closer. And…" she paused.
"Rallying the school would only reveal my family history to the other students. Yakuza are criminals, Kim-san. If it were found out my parents were both Yakuza and that my father was once a high-ranking lieutenant, it could make me lose face with my peers." Her eyes closed. "I do not want my heritage to become common knowledge."
"Hirotaka and I are more resourceful than you think. Master Sensei taught us well."
"Pride goeth before the fall, little one. Do not overestimate your abilities but most of all," her grip tightened. "Do not underestimate Saito."
Yori turned to her. "Will you help me then?"
Kim's grasp loosened until she finally let go.
"You've been fighting Saito for years. Your knowledge of his operations would prove invaluable to us."
"I just…Yori, I've failed too many times."
"You can still,"
"No." Kimiko went over to the window and hung her head. "I am sorry."
"You told me you were ashamed. That is why you did not seek outside help until learning what happened to my father. Now you have the chance to redeem yourself and you choose not to do anything?" Yori then added, "Have you lost more than your pride? Have you lost your confidence?"
"You wouldn't understand. You can't. Not unless you've been what I've been through."
"I think I understand enough. You are scared of failing again."
"I am here now. Between you and I, we can fix everything so that it is back to the way it was."
"It will never be back to the way it was."
"We can rebuild,"
"Enough!" She yelled, rearing on Yori as if about to attack. "Don't think you know where I am coming from. All the years you've been safe at Yamanouchi, training, eating three square meals with a roof over your head and warm bed to sleep in…what would you know what I have been through? I have suffered things no young woman should have to suffer from. I've done things too terrible to imagine. I became that which I was fighting against. What little humanity I have left is hanging by a thread. You think I'm afraid? Girl, you do not understand what fear is. I've fought things you only see in your darkest nightmares. I've killed human beings. Have you ever done that? No."
"People may look at you and see a skilled warrior; someone to be respected. But I look at you and I see a feigned little girl who's no idea how cruel the world can be. The type of enemy you'll going against is more heinous than you can possibly imagine. You are not ready. No amount of training can prepare you for the world I grew up in so don't you dare patronize me!" Kimiko was on the verge of losing it. Her teeth were bared and her fists clenched. Breathing heavily, she was almost spitting out those last words.
Watching her now, Yori saw a completely different woman. Her gaze was not one of anger but of pity. Things that happened to Kimiko, things in her past, they had twisted this once wonderful person into a killer. Survival was all she knew now. Going up against Saito, the most powerful Yakuza in Japan, was nothing short of suicide. It went against her very nature.
With a solemn voice, Yori folded her hands before her. "I am sorry." She bowed reverently. "I did not mean to anger you. You have done more than could ever be asked of anyone. I thank you." Then she stood up. "But I am still going to see my father." She turned and went to the door. Halfway out, Yori stopped. "I do not think any less of you for not coming, Kim-san. But now I see it's not what I think that really matters. Somewhere along the way you lost yourself. Until you can find the person you once were then you will never be at peace. If not, then survival is really all you have left, and that's no life at all."
Kimiko heard the door close. She sounds so much like Yuriko, she thought. Her mother's strength of character combined with her father's courage. Truly the Ishimuras were blessed.
And Kimiko…what did she have? Kimiko felt her latest scar. Another reminder of a miserable life.
Yori felt the leering eyes of the bouncers as she approached the bar. One tried to stop her but she told them that Hoshi sent her and he let her through. The inside was a bit livelier as people cheered and drank to their heart's content. Searching for her fellow ninjas, Yori spotted Hoshi chatting up a storm with the bartender, a man who clearly had too much of an interest in her.
His eyes lingered upon her sensuously until he spotted Yori walking up to them.
"Hoshi-san," Yori said as she ignored him. "Where is Hiro-chan?"
"Yori. I was wondering when you were gonna drop by. So how'd it go?"
"Our meeting was…informative. But we must go."
"Go? Go where?"
"Tokyo? Why the hell for? It's too loud over there."
It's too loud in here, Yori thought. "Sometimes you may be called upon to travel to various places during a mission and," she paused when she saw the bartender eyeing her. "Do you mind, sir?"
"Not at all." His voice sounded like he was choking. The smell of smoke and liquor was all over him. Yori held her nose.
"Pardon us." She grabbed Hoshi and pulled her away, the man not taking his eyes off their receding bums once.
"Hiro-chan and I need to leave for Tokyo immediately. Can you find us a mode of transportation?"
"Shit I can take you."
"Please do not curse. It belittles you. Besides, your priority was to assist us while in Nagasaki. We will not be here much longer so your task is done."
"What are you going to do in Tokyo?"
"I am afraid it is a private matter, Hoshi-san. Forgive me."
"I haven't had a real assignment in a long time. It'd be nice to hang with you guys again."
"This is not a game."
"So we play for keeps, my kind of style. I can have us a plane in ten minutes."
"Hush." Hoshi silenced Yori with a finger to her lips, curving it back rather comically. "I'll take care of everything. Have a few drinks and relax. You look tense."
"I dnt drnk," Yori mumbled with Hoshi's finger still in place.
Hoshi grabbed her hand. "That's funny." She took her to the karaoke stage. "Your boytoy doesn't seem to have a problem with that."
"My boytoy?" she found out what Hoshi meant when she found Hirotaka singing on stage with two guys. All three were drunk, barely standing. The men in suits had their shirts open and out of their pants. Hiro had his arms around each of them in a brotherly embrace, all trying to sing into the mike while keeping straight. "Quit playing games with my heart," was all she managed to make out as the rest became indecipherable.
Upon hearing her voice, Hirotaka cried, "Hey, Yori! Come sing with me."
"Get down here!"
"You come up here!"
"What are you doing?"
"Singing. These are my friends Kanzaki-san and Miyamoto-san. They didn't think I could sing but I showed them."
Turning on Hoshi, "Did you put him up to this?"
"We sang a couple of duets earlier. Got to admit he can carry a tune better than most men. You should have seen him when we played Ricky Martin. Boy was shaking his Bon-Bon like nobody's business."
The picture sent a shiver through Yori. "You are a manipulative woman."
"We all are, Yori. Deal with it."
"Hey, Yori! Come sing this song with me." Hiro's friends stumbled off the stage as the song ended. "Come on!"
"I do not believe this. Hiro, come down now!"
"Oh I can get down."
"No I mean off the stage."
"Because we're leaving."
"Just one more song."
"This one's for you!" A new tune started to another very popular boy band.
Quit playing games with my head.
I'm a sport but I'm not a toy.
Let's not analyze what I said.
I don't want to be a complex boy.
I can't tell if you're serious.
When you are so delirious.
Are you just playing me, baby?
Is that a yes, no, or maybe?
And Hiro just went on. Yori hid her face in embarrassment. Then she realized the one who should really be embarrassed was Hirotaka. She would hold this over him the rest of his life.
A lot of dialouge in this one. Sorry, but I needed to get the backstory out of the way. Least now we know what Kenji and Kimiko have been up to all these years. What did you guys think of the new Kimiko? I tried to make her a tragic character, though I'm not so sure I did a good job. Also, I like to apologize if all the talking bored you. This was the main reason I installed the Hiro/Hoshi sequence so as to add humor and break up the monotony. The next chapter will have plenty of action, that I promise you.