In which Pucca realises it's time to grow up and, rather unexpectedly, Tobe decides to join her.
Tobe had a plan – a meticulously crafted, carefully deliberated plan. This was the plan to top all other plans. He and his ninjas had stayed up all of last night, pouring over how-to-trap books and data they had collected on Garu until their eyes were rimmed in red. He then ordered an all-day nap until now, this evening, when the plan would take place.
It was a great plan. A marvellous plan! So splendid was this particular scheme that Tobe had trouble not celebrating his sure victory before he had claimed it. He was so confident, so elated. Tobe looked back on his youthful self and laughed at his naivety. Such silly plots he had devised. Now he was older, smarter, far stronger, and, if it was possible, somewhat more dashing.
Soon he would meet up with his ninjas to put his best yet anti-Garu strategy into action. But for now, he had some final arrangements to make. He could not afford for any mishaps. This would run smoothly (just so long as his idiot followers didn't mess it up this time).
He needed some items. A grass skirt, yes. Flower bracelets, check. Coconuts, I can get them at the beach— He stopped walking, stopped mumbling instructions to himself, and stared.
She sat on the cliff, bathed in a patina of orange from the descending sun, dark hair tightly woven into two knots on the top of her head, dressed in red, dressed in black. She was just as she always was, the way Tobe had always seen her, yet today – for some reason inexplicable to him – he stopped. He stared.
Pucca may have looked the same, but she felt different.
Tobe didn't often pay Pucca attention. She had been a nuisance in their younger years, a source of distaste a while after, but then she had just disappeared. Well, not so much disappeared, she was always around, but her presence had waned. Pucca had no longer been around to intervene in his and Garu's fights, no longer there when he demanded the early ninja special at the Goh-Rong, no longer there to stumble across his traps. He didn't really get out much, not really, but when he did go out- primarily when seeking vengeance or noodles- he didn't see her. Not as much as he once had. Once she had been anywhere and everywhere Garu had been, stalking, meddling, giggling, fighting, kissing— Horrifying, Tobe thought, as an image of an eleven-year-old Pucca accidentally kissing him instead of Garu flashed to the forefront of his mind.
She was certainly no eleven-year-old now. A good six years had passed since then. Though, oddly, nothing much had seemed to change. Everyone went about their business as they always had. The only change of any drastic force he could tell of was Pucca's lacking presence in Tobe's life.
Yet now she was before him, clear as the light of day. Thoughts of hula dancers, ninja seduction techniques, and coconut bras slipped straight from Tobe's mind. Without thinking much about anything, he stood still and watched Pucca sit rigidly in the last of the day's light.
Her legs were crossed, her back was straight, and she settled her hands on her lap. She breathed, slowly, calmly, almost like a martial arts respiratory exercise. But Pucca had never taken any interest in training – not like her friend with the chicken, not like the shirtless man, not like his rival had. She had decidedly remained a noodle girl, an astonishingly strong noodle girl at that. How strong could she be if she trained? The notion came to him swiftly. And would it be possible to tap into that power for myself? Undoubtedly the raw power Pucca had demonstrated in the past would, if in his hands, help Tobe finally triumph over Garu once and for all. No doubt, recently he had been doing much better in his fights, but with just a bit more strength—
It was a daft idea. He didn't linger on it.
What was he doing? He had a plan to execute. He didn't have time to stand about watching noodle girls sit. Today could very well be the day he gained vengeance against Garu, after years and years of painful embarrassing failure. He couldn't dilly-dally here. He had coconuts to find.
He turned, determinedly, fully prepared to leave for the beach below, but once again Tobe found himself stilled. She had breathed in a deep shuddering breath, one that made Tobe face her again and even walk further up the cliff path to a point where she was bound to become aware of his presence. He may be a man of guile, a man of calculation, but he was also a man of instinct. Pucca had spiked his interest. He was curious and this curiosity was an instinct he most always followed.
Pucca jumped as he approached. She wouldn't have been expecting anyone this far away Sooga Village. After all, he hadn't been expecting anyone. Her head snapped towards him in a violent jerky manner that was so unlike her. For a moment, Tobe was convinced she was going to attack him and he readied himself in a stance to meet her, but then the moment was gone and she went back to facing the ocean, letting her vigilant eyes shut as they had been before. She was being peaceful, then so would he. He had learnt throughout the years that engaging in unnecessary combat was both a means of wearing himself out and making a fool of himself.
He stood beside her, watching the waves lap up the jagged cliff side for a while. But he was not a patient man. Quickly, he grew tired of the silence and decided to breech the source of his curiosity directly. "Why are you all the way out here?"
Pucca opened her eyes again and let them settle on Tobe. He was surprised to see a certain sombreness there. How Intriguing. At first, Tobe waited for an answer. Her silence was enough to raise his ire. He felt himself bristle, almost ready to ask again yet this time in the harsher tone he was better known for. But then, Pucca gave a noncommittal jerk of the head towards the mass of blue waves that crashed and swirled along the coastline, a sigh escaping her lips as she did so.
Tobe had practically forgotten that she, like Garu, had taken a vow of silence. He hadn't seen her in such a long time... He had forgotten.
It was a bizarre thought, or lack of thought he supposed, to not recollect a fact he had grown up with. Tobe blinked, still feeling rather startled at himself, and asked a new question. "You're here to see...the sea?"
Initially she shrugged, but then she seemed to mull it over, and gave him a stiff head nod instead. "Ah," Tobe said in acknowledgment, simply because he felt it would be rude not to acknowledge it. But then when had he cared about being rude?
He was finding it strangely hard to talk to a person who didn't talk back, considering how much time he spent yelling at Garu. Garu didn't talk to him, or yell even, and he didn't find it disconcerting in the slightest. He reasoned that in a fight you hardly stopped to worry about the momentum of conversation. Conversation was the last thing on his mind.
Tobe continued to stand, shifting awkwardly, until some crazy part of his mind decided it was a good idea to take a seat next to her on the patchy grass. If Pucca was alarmed or bewildered by this she didn't show it. Isn't she meant to be the open book type? He could only wonder where all her openness had gone.
Silence had fallen again, something Tobe was now discovering he hated. He felt the urge to fill up the quiet, an urge he had never had before – not around all his ninjas. It must be a lonely life to be under a vow of silence. A feeling swept through him, one he was quite unfamiliar with. It made his chest pang. It wasn't sympathy, was it? He tried to shake the sensation away.
"You're pretty far away from your boyfriend," he said, smirking at his cleverness. His wordplay could hit two birds with one stone, to satisfy his curiosity and gather intel on Garu. Ingenious, Tobe. You are ingenious. He tilted his masked head towards her, raising an amused eyebrow at his own brain's workings. "Lover's Quarrel?"
Silent lover's quarrel, he amended mentally.
Pucca said nothing, as expected. All the same, Tobe had expected some kind of reaction. A scowl at the very least, if not a full blown defensive explosion at the mention of Garu. She did none of the sort however. She remained still, hands clasped in her lap just as they had been a moment before, eyes forward just as she had kept them previously. It took him a while to realize she was shaking. Her lips trembled.
In a sudden, aggressive movement her hands went flying up to her hair, wrestling the ribbons out of their place. It was fierce, the way she yanked at her hair. Angry, Tobe thought. Or maybe angry wasn't quite the word for it. Aggravated seemed a better fit.
In a tumble of dark locks, her hair came out of her odango style and fell over her eyes, where frustrated tears were beginning to form. Tobe had been completely taken aback by the reaction, not expecting her to break in such a way at the mention of Garu. Least of all had he expected her to cry. Tobe did not do well with crying.
"Th-This is s-stupid!" Her voice came as a shock. It was a strangled, guttural sound that was no doubt meant to be a shout, but after years of silence would only come to her as a hushed crackle of human voice. Hearing herself only made her cry more. "I'm f-fed up. I'm sick and tired of this."
Tobe didn't know what to say, what to do. He could only manage to exclaim, "You spoke— Your vow?"
"It doesn't matter." Her voice was starting to come back to her. It was getting louder, stronger. "I took that vow when Garu took his. I kept it up as Garu kept his up." Tobe was getting what he had wanted from Pucca – this was the information he had poked for. So why did he feel so wrong for hearing it? This was the deepest depths of Pucca's mind pouring out in a flood of pent up emotion. He felt rather stunned by it all. She had been an enemy figure for so long. He had a right to be stunned by it.
"It doesn't matter anymore..." Pucca repeated bitterly.
Tobe wasn't sure if he actually wanted to push Pucca anymore than he already had, but he did anyway. It would hardly do him good to stop his pursuit of knowledge now. True ninjas did not lack resolve like this. "What doesn't matter?"
"Feelings," she said, "Not when they're not returned."
"Why doesn't it ma—"
"Because it hurts. A lot," she choked it out before Tobe could even finish his question. She was bursting with what she had repressed. He could practically see her coming undone at the seams. Apparently even Tobe made a good catalyst for conversation. "That's why I've got to grow up. I can't be the little noodle girl in her odangos looking for love. Not anymore."
Tobe wanted to ask more, but he faltered, his question slipping away before it could even pass his lips. He felt rather stupid to keep probing the topic. Interrogation didn't feel right – not when the person being interrogated was crying and entirely willing to spill everything on her mind. A true ninja had resolve, of course, but shouldn't they have integrity too?
He was almost happy for Pucca to ask the question this time, if it wasn't for the subject matter. "What's that?" She sniffed, pointing to the grass skirt he held in his lap with a tear splattered hand.
"A-Ah..." He had forgotten all about his plan. He had to leave now if he wanted to be ready in time for Garu to get home from his evening training session. But now, as he gaped, wide eyed, gaze switching between the grass skirt and Pucca's glumly curious expression, he suddenly felt ashamed. Grow up? It was a notion that had never seemed to cross Tobe's mind, or anyone in Sooga Village for that matter. He had thought he was grown up. He was twenty-one – strong jawed, well built, tall – a man. He had to shave, for heaven's sake. But that didn't make him a man, did it? Not really. He thought, and thought, and then it struck him. The realisation of how little he had changed since he was fifteen was startling. He was no more mature than he had been six years ago. Still he concocted schemes that often resulted in his own comical failure, still obsessed over Garu, and still lived bunking with a multitude of other young men in what may be called a clubhouse by some.
Perhaps it was time for Tobe to grow up too.
In one swift motion the ninja threw the grass skirt over his shoulder. "Nothing. It's nothing," he told Pucca. He fumbled for a moment with the edge of his mask, but quickly managed to peel it off his head. Like with Pucca's odangos, he took away his mask. Tobe wanted to move away from what had defined him for so many years, just as Pucca had surely wanted to do for herself.
Pucca blinked in surprise for a moment and then her lips twitched. Her breathing had suddenly become rather sporadic and breathy. At first, he panicked that she may have been having some sort of fit – he wasn't good with medical issues – but soon Tobe realized that she was laughing. How rude! His face was no cause for laughter. He had a handsome face... Right?
Tobe felt unexpectedly self-conscious now. "What?" he barked, scowling.
Pucca did her best to stifle her giggle but she really wasn't doing very well with it. She tittered for a while longer, her laugh becoming fuller and louder with each second that passed. Tobe watched her sourly. She was not crying anymore, but he was not happy that this change of mood was at his expense. And he still did not know the why she laughed at him. "Spit it out," he demanded. "Tell me the cause of your annoyingly vehement laughter!"
She pressed a dainty hand to her mouth, physically having to quell her laughter in order to answer him. "Well, a few things I suppose."
The reply was far too vague for Tobe's liking. "What things?"
"Oh, I suppose the first would be..." She motioned up to his hair and performed and twirling motion with her finger. "It's a bit crazy."
Tobe quickly understood. His hands shot up to his head, where he promptly set about flattening it. He was mortified to realize his face was heating up from the embarrassment. "Mask hair," he muttered shamefacedly, "It's troublesome. What are the other things?"
Pucca was near grinning now, not quite, but nearly. A smile definitely suited her face better than tears. Is this what she had looked like all those years ago? Tobe had never paid any attention. He was now though. "Next thing," – It was quite an enchanting smile she had – "I have never really seen your face. Not recently at least. You look a lot older."
"And that is something to laugh at?" Tobe frowned, feeling somewhat indignant. How was his age, something he could not control, amusing to her?
"Oh no, you have a rather lovely face. I find it funny that you keep it hidden so often."
Somehow, Tobe's face was more flushed than it was even a moment ago. She knew how to make him uncomfortable, that was for sure. Was she doing it on purpose? Was she poking fun at him?
No, no. She couldn't be. Tobe sighed. He was being too guarded. He had wanted to grow up. He would act like it. "As of recently I have taken to wearing my mask less." As of a few minutes ago more like.
She hummed a laugh. "Good." Pucca turned back to the sea, looking far more energetic than the state he had discovered her in.
He found himself reflexively smiling along with her. It was an infectious expression. "So... Is there anything else that made you laugh at me?"
Surprisingly, no more laughter came from Pucca. In fact, her smile slipped straight off her face. Tobe had not been expecting that. "Yes, there is," she replied, in a tone Tobe would have to call distant. "That you're here and I'm here and both of us are nowhere near Garu."
There was melancholy in her words, a nostalgic glumness. She laughed again, but this one felt empty. "Childhood is harder to let go of than I thought."