Small dark eyes focused intently on their prey. Unblinking, the lithe, light body pushed forward, bare feet soundlessly pressing against wooden floorboards.
He froze with caution as his prize shifted its weight, but it's large, alien eyes remained closed and its sides, heaving in slumber, continued to rise and fall in a foreign rhythm.
He placed his solitary weapon, a freshly sharpened kunai, between his teeth to have better use of his arms. The taste of metal was sharp against his tongue and his fingers flexed in anticipation. He rocked back on his heels and then forward onto the tips of his toes, crouched, counted to three, and jumped.
Only to be met with the rough thrust of a slimy arm, slinging him forcefully away and smacking into the wall.
He slid to the floor weakly, crumpling forward, bereft of breath and head ringing in pain.
"Asuma!" Came his father's aggravated cry. "What have I told you about harassing that toad?"
Asuma blinked his teary eyes up at the ceiling from where he lay curled on the floor. He could hear the hard thumps of his father's sandals against the floor, leaving the upstairs study and heading in his direction. He closed his eyes just for a moment and when he opened them again two strange golden orbs were looming inches from his face.
"Ahhhh!" He jumped up and lashed out with his kunai, but his wrist was arrested mid-motion by a firm, experienced hand. In one second he was unarmed and dangling in the air by the back of his shirt, being roughly shaken like a misbehaving kitten.
"What did I say about Jiraiya's toad?" Repeated the Hokage, grip tight on his son's shirt.
"What in the world is going on? It's two in the morning!" Asuma turned pleading eyes on his mother as she entered the room, hands fumbling as she tied a sleeping robe shut over her nightgown. Her trained gaze honed in immediately on the matter she deemed to be the highest priority. "Is he bleeding?"
"I'm so sorry, Hokage-sama," croaked the toad, swaying uneasily from side to side. "I was very much asleep, or I wouldn't have been so startled. I would never intentionally—"
"No, no," growled the Hokage, drawing a weary hand down his face. "I've told him a hundred times to leave you be and—"
"Decent ninja are trying to sleep here!" Came the masculine bellow yell from the second floor, muffled by the wooden beams separating the parties.
"Be quiet, Mikio!" Asuma's parents yelled back, in unison.
Asuma accompanied their retort with one of his own. "Shut up, dumbass!"
His father returned to shaking him.
"Don't shake him, Hiruzen!" Biwako hissed at her husband as she retrieved her child and held green hands to his forehead. "He could have a concussion!"
Asuma peered around his mother's fussing hands to try and see his father's expression. His father looked like he thought Asuma'd deserve it even if he did have a concussion. Asuma bit his lip and glared down at the floor. Of course his father would be more worried about the stupid toad. It wasn't hard to see where he ranked on his list of his father's concerns.
"Asuma-kun," huffed the Sandaime. "Why were you bothering Gamamaru? Especially when I've expressly told you to leave him alone at least three times today?"
Asuma remained silent and continued to glare at the floor. He knew the toad was important. The toad was supposed to bring Jiraiya-san and Minato-senpai back from their missions tomorrow. Which was supposed to be his day with Dad. Dad had promised and then made other plans.
He'd been forgotten.
Other things were always more important than Asuma.
"There now," clucked his mother, running her fingers through his bangs. "All fixed up."
"You have nothing to say?" His father's face was flat, eyes hard. "Nothing at all?"
Asuma scowled at the floor, leaning into his mother's soothing hands running through his hair. No way was he going to tell Dad that he'd hoped if the giant dumbass talking frog was gone maybe they could have their afternoon together tomorrow. Like he'd promised.
"Let's just all calm down and get back to sleep and talk about it in the morning," chimed his mother, fingers pressing firmly against his shoulder blades.
"No, I've had quite enough of this." His father put his hands on his hips, wearing the expression that meant that Asuma was going to be doing all his own chores and Mikio's too for at least a week. "When I say no, I mean it Asuma. Gamamaru is essential for the success of a mission, if you'd caused him to disperse to his home—"
"The toad wasn't hurt," blurt out Asuma, unable to keep quiet. "I was!"
Hiruzen raised an eyebrow. "Yes, you were. And you would have been fine if you'd left Gamamaru alone in the first place. He wasn't rushing at you with a kunai." The Hokage stared at the confiscated weapon. "Where did you get this anyway? You know you're only allowed to use live equipment at the Academy, under supervision." His father's eyes narrowed. "Did you break into the weapons chest again?"
Asuma muttered something under his breath.
"Oh, Asuma-kun," his mother sighed.
"What was that?" His father tapped his foot impatiently.
"It's one of Mikio's, he left them out when he was cleaning them the other day." And that was just unfair. Even his stupid older brother got to see Dad more than he did—he got to be useful and go on missions and things.
"We'll revisit the topic of not stealing from your brother in the morning," said his mother with a yawn. "But for now, back to bed." She pushed him out the door.
"Mikio knows better than to leave them out," Asuma retorted hotly. "Aren't you going to yell at him?"
"You should know—I don't—Bed!" Shouted his father, red in the face and pointing upstairs.
Biwako and Hiruzen watched him flee, listening carefully for the taps of his feet against the floorboards and the creak of wood as he jumped forcefully onto his futon.
Hiruzen stroked his beard. "I just don't understand what's gotten into him lately. He never used to misbehave like this. It seems like every time I'm talking to him lately I have to scold him about something."
Biwako levelled an unamused expression at him.
"What?" The Sandaime Hokage blinked at her in surprise.
"Would you have made time for him otherwise?" She sniffed and combed her fingers through her long, long brown hair, re-working the braid she'd put it into for sleeping.
"I don't think that's quite called for," said Hiruzen gruffly. "Biwako, dear—" He reached for his wife, but retracted his arm when she pulled away from him. "Darling, we're on the threshold of a war, it's taking everything I have to try and keep the Village together."
His wife of thirty years pursed her lips. "Maybe it doesn't need to be all on just your shoulders anymore."
Hiruzen threw his hands in the air. "Who else would you have me entrust it to? Do you want your children living under Danzō's thumb?" Unintentionally, his voice rose with anger. "Because that world is still entirely possible!"
"I can hear you!" Thumps came from the second floor, pieces of wood flaking from the ceiling.
"Go to bed, Mikio!" Biwako and Hiruzen snapped.
Hiruzen took a moment to take a deep breath and rub futilely at the pressure gathering near his temple. He felt Biwako approach, her shoulder nudging his gently. He let his arm fall and wrap around her, pulling her closer.
"Teenagers," he muttered bitterly into her hair. "When is he moving out again?"
"When he finds someone who cooks better than I do and who will do his laundry," Biwako retorted with dry humor.
"Remind me why we wanted more children again?" Hiruzen meant the question to be light-hearted, but Biwako tensed immediately in his arms, drawing back to glare at him fiercely.
"You didn't." She hissed. "I did. I wanted a dozen, but we had two and I'd appreciate it if you at least made an effort not to permanently alienate the ones we were lucky enough to have!"
"That's not what I meant," he raised his hands to rub her arms reassuringly. "That came out wrong; you know I love our sons with all my heart, however trying they might be."
Dark eyes continued to glare at him with hurt. "People love what they pour their time and energy into. I'm not sure you can say that when your children are fortunate if they see you for thirty minutes a week."
"Biwako, we're at wa—"
She held a finger up to his lips. "I know," she fumed. "We were before, we may be soon, and we probably will be once again ten years down the road. But you have two sons in addition to a Village. No one else is going to be their father, no one else is going to take the time and try to make this family work. It's up to you to figure out how to find some time to be there for them. Especially Asuma, Mikio's nearly full grown and was lucky to have your attention to himself through ten years of peace, but Asuma—"
"Fine, fine." Hiruzen nodded, although he had no idea how he was going to accomplish what Biwako was asking of him.
"Don't 'fine' me!" Her eyes narrowed. "How are you going to make good on that 'fine'? That's what matters to me."
"I'll-," Hiruzen licked his lips, tilted his head in thought. Maybe he could talk with his secretary, move some meetings—
Biwako slapped his shoulder and gained his attention once more. "I'll tell you how you're going to make it work. You have three students you've been whining about slacking on responsibilities haven't you? Well, Jiraiya-kun has a daughter now, Orochimaru-kun and Tsunade-chan need students of their own, and Dan has been moping about Tsunade not having time for children for years now. Stop putting them on the frontlines and start giving them some of your administrative duties that let them stay in the Village for a while!"
Hiruzen balked. "Biwako, dear, I can't just take our strongest ninja off the frontlines when we're at war."
"I'm sorry," she looked around the room curiously. "I thought my husband was the Hokage. My mistake, could you direct me to—"
"I am serious!" The medic nin snapped. "I'm very serious. Tsunade has outstripped me in every way; she's completely capable of taking over as Director of Medical Treatment and Research. The only thing preventing her is the fact that you won't let me retire. So, if I'm not allowed to retire then you better be putting her to good use elsewhere. And Orochimaru-kun is doing no one any good stuck in a lab where he doesn't interact with anyone all day, especially if you're serious about thinking of him as a possible successor. And it will be good for Jiraiya-kun to be in the village more often now that he has a daughter here. That boy has craved family ties of his own for as long as we've known him, don't take the opportunity to experience that away from him now that it's here—"
Hiruzen released his grip on his wife and waved his hands in the air in distress. "And who am I supposed to be putting on the frontlines then?"
"Oh I have no idea," drawled Biwako, rolling her eyes. "Perhaps you ought to look at a few of those brilliant shinobi we have who are around the same age the Sannin were when they gained infamy. There's a particularly loud red-head with a fondness for ramen I could point you to. She has a brilliant boyfriend who might be helpful to your cause as well. And then we have this huge clan with a world-renown dōjutsu; they always have a prodigy or two lying about. I'm sure if you ask nicely they might let you borrow one. And of course, there's—"
"Fine! Fine!" Hiruzen threw his hands up and rubbed his eyes tiredly in defeat. "You win woman; I'll work on assigning my students more administrative responsibilities. I can't take them off the frontline roster completely, but I'll delegate what I can to them." He dropped his hands, only to find Biwako beaming at him, looking ten years younger in her joy even with the silver that was beginning to thread through her hair.
"Thank you." She stood on tip-toe to kiss his cheek, cupping his face with the palm of her hand. "I know it's still an incredibly stressful and dangerous time, but if you can just find an extra hour or two a week for the boys, you won't regret it. I promise. You won't."
"I won't," he agreed with a sigh, wrapping her in a familiar embrace and letting his head rest atop hers.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Chiyoko gently murmured the words in her daughter's ear as she rocked the small girl slowly against her.
Katsumi kept her face pressed close, fingers wound tight in her mother's robe and the blanket Chiyoko had securely wrapped around them.
Chiyoko stifled a sigh at her daughter's continued silence and looked out the bedroom window. She couldn't see anything outside from where the two sat curled up on the bed, but the light filtering in through the blinds indicated that the sun was just beginning to crawl slowly over the horizon.
"That's three nights now that you've woken up screaming, sweetheart." Her fingers trailed through her daughter's soft brown locks. "I can't help unless you tell me about it."
Katsumi made a small, pained sound that felt like fingernails digging into Chiyoko's heart. She frowned, but she knew from experience that nothing would make Katsumi talk until Katsumi wanted to talk.
"I've got to start getting ready for work." She gently eased Katsumi from her lap and tucked the covers securely around the child. "Why don't you try to get a little more sleep, ok?"
The school teacher began her morning routine, starting with a shower and then drying her hair and pulling it up into a simple twist. Looking in the bathroom mirror, she could see Katsumi laying on the bed—a small, unmoving lump hidden under the covers.
She dabbed on a little makeup to hide the dark circles that were beginning to develop under her eyes. Neither she nor Katsumi had been getting good sleep lately. She'd stopped Minato the last time he'd dropped off Katsumi to see if he'd noticed anything odd, but he seemed to think that things were fine. The only strange incident he'd observed was a minor meltdown a few weeks ago when Jiraiya had left Katsumi and not said goodbye 'properly.'
Katsumi was funny that way; she had this order that certain things had to happen in, and when that order was messed up she tended to, well, fall apart, for lack of a better word. Her sister-in-law Eri had called it a temper tantrum, but Chiyoko didn't think that was quite right. It wasn't like Katsumi was screaming at all, or yelling out of a desire to have something or because she didn't get her way. It was more like Katsumi was so gripped by terror that she stopped functioning for a little bit. Katsumi didn't seem to like those moments any more than her mother did, but they'd not found a way to avoid the incidents other than humor Katsumi's rituals and desire for organization. Of course, sometimes Katsumi's tendencies were stronger than usual, like now. Izumi, who at least had some medical training, had a theory that it had to do with stress and how Katsumi was trying to control situations that were otherwise out of her control, but—
Her second alarm went off, and she finished slipping on her dress so she could go throw a hasty breakfast together. She quickly set out some bowls of ozone and a couple of iyokan fruits on the table. Her toast popped up right as a gentle knock sounded against the front door. She almost tripped in her socks as she scurried to greet today's babysitter. She wasn't going to have time to make lunch today, but fortunately Rin didn't seem to mind making an extra bento for Katsumi and she could grab something at the store on her walk to the school—
"Chiyoko-san," Rin greeted, sounding slightly dismayed. "Activating the seals is for your protection, you know."
"I know," Chiyoko grimaced as she beckoned the girl inside. Rin was almost always the first one here in the morning. From what she understood, Kakashi considered this valuable training time and Obito was habitually late. Minato would join them when he was in town, but he'd been away for the past three days. "Katsumi was just so tired last night that I didn't want to ask her to turn them on."
Rin cast a curious glance towards the bedrooms. "Is she still having trouble sleeping?"
"Yes," Chiyoko sighed, carefully swallowing a mouthful of toast before adding to the conversation. "She won't tell me what's she dreaming about, though. " She wished she had more time to try and work through Katsumi's problems, but time seemed to be in short supply these days. Even for Jiraiya-san, she hadn't seen him for almost a month. Come to think of it, when was the last time Katsumi saw him? We should probably talk about that. She caught some crumbs in her hand and tossed them in the trash. "Are you sure she's not read anything or seen something disturbing when she's with you or your teammates?"
"She's seen us train, and we've taken her around Konoha." Rin scrunched her brow in thought. "But I can't remember anything we've done or that she would've seen that would cause such a reaction. Certainly she went through worse experiences on the way to Konoha and didn't react this way then."
Chiyoko finished her toast and took a sip of green tea. "Maybe it's a delayed reaction." Life had certainly been rushing by at whirlwind speed lately. It was possible that Katsumi was only beginning to grasp what exactly could have happened to her when she was kidnapped by those Kusa nin.
"Maybe," Rin agreed. "I could ask her about it if you'd like me to?"
"No." The schoolteacher fluttered her hands dismissively. "If it keeps bothering her, she'll talk to me about it eventually. She just likes to try and work things out on her own first. Eventually she'll get frustrated enough to speak up. Of course, if she brings it up to you, feel free to talk with her then."
She convinced Rin to take a seat at the table and went to rouse Katsumi from sleep and say goodbye for the day. She wished she could ask another teacher to take over the tutoring and makeup exams this weekend, but she was still a little too new at this job to feel comfortable doing so. Still, she could try and make a nice dinner on Sunday night…try and invite Jiraiya over? Was he even in town? Would he come?
Chiyoko dropped her boneless child in the chair next to Rin and placed a parting kiss to her daughter's head. "Please be good for Rin and her teammates, ok?" Fuji-sensei seemed to like cooking, maybe she'd know where the best deals in the market would be; she'd have to ask during the lunch break today. "I love you and I'll see you tonight."
Katsumi grumbled what might have been a return of sentiments as she blinked bleary eyes at her breakfast, only capable of focusing on one thing at a time this early in the morning. She obediently let Chiyoko lead her through the motions of a hug and a kiss goodbye, mumbled something about being safe, and then dropped her head onto the tabletop in an attempt to go back to sleep.
Chiyoko frowned and poked her into a sitting position before she caught sight of the clock and almost flew out the door without her shoes. She steadied herself against the door frame as she slipped on her sandals. "Rin-kun, Please tell me if you notice anything strange, but other than that, enjoy breakfast and have a good day!"
"We will!" Rin promised with a sweet smile. "Have a good day at work Chiyoko-san!"
The door clicked shut, leaving the two girls alone in the apartment.
"'Bito-nii's late." Katsumi mumbled around a spoonful of soup.
Rin hummed in agreement. "He'll be here soon enough; you know how much he likes free breakfast. Here," she gestured toward Katsumi's fruit. "Give me that and let me peel it for you."
Katsumi obligingly rolled the citrus fruit toward the older girl.
Rin took out her kunai and cleared her throat. "Ok, Katsumi-chan, I have a quiz over joints of the body this evening, so let's review the material together."
Katsumi sighed dramatically. "Ok."
"Good! This is the same stuff we've been studying the past few days, so I'll make up some questions and you try to answer." Rin brightly began her inquisition. "Which of the following bones could be classified as being part of a synarthrosis: Atlas, patella, calcaneus, or ethmoid?"
Katsumi's green eyes narrowed rebelliously.
Rin carved off a piece of fruit with her kunai, holding it out on the blade tauntingly. "Get it right and you get a slice!"
The four year old shrunk grumpily into her chair, small feet kicking uselessly back and forth in the air.
"Come on," coaxed Rin. "I know you remember it. You had all of these memorized two days ago."
"And why is that?" Rin asked, still grinning.
"Because it's your head," added Katsumi, holding her hand out for her iyokan. She chewed it thoughtfully for a moment, swallowed, and titled her head to one side as she regarded her present company with a deeply thoughtful expression. "I'm not a dog."
"No," agreed Rin, a bit puzzled by the declaration. "But you are exceptional at memorizing things considering your age." Rin smiled charmingly and Katsumi's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "And if we learn together, that keeps us both busy, right?"
The medic-nin in training carved off another piece of fruit. "What's the medical word for head, used in the context of joints?"
She hadn't tried Katsumi on abstract questions yet, but she'd come to realize that the key to keeping Katsumi out of trouble was to keep her busy learning things—and if Rin could kill two birds with one stone by including the girl in her studying—regardless of how much of this Katsumi retained long-term—the better for the both of them. Besides, maybe the medical field really would resonate with Katsumi-chan. Konoha could always use more medic-nin.
"They won't be ready." The Village Elder's voice was flat and low, his disapproval evident only in the narrowing of his visible dark eye.
Orochimaru raised his ink brush, letting his notations dry before he continued. It wouldn't do to smudge his calculations just as he'd completed them. He took his time answering the man. Danzō might be operating on a tight schedule, but the Snake Sannin wasn't bound by the same limitations.
"I'm not sure I understand your question," the Hokage's student eventually replied, dipping his pen in his ink before continuing with his marks. "This is all theoretical; I don't actually have permission to advance to live experimentation."
Shimura-sama scoffed. "We might be at war in the morning, and you care more about having your paperwork in order."
"Well," drawled the Sannin, enjoying the smooth movement of the brush as he spread the ink down the scroll. "Last time I checked, you weren't the Hokage. This is still his Village, after all."
Orochimaru did so enjoy the minute stiffening of Danzō's jaw whenever he made that particular jab. The man was powerful of course, but not unfettered. And Orochimaru intended to keep it that way. He enjoyed the man's patronage, certainly. But, in the end, Danzō's interests were in military domination while Orochimaru's lay with immortality. The two concepts occasionally intersected, but ultimately Orochimaru's pursuit of his own desires would no longer serve to further Danzō's goals.
Danzō had a habit of destroying resources that didn't serve his interests.
The Sannin set his current project down to dry on the desk and pulled out a scroll from a drawer, handing it out to his visitor. "Those results are the ones from the rat trials, the version Tsunade and Sensei were provided with was edited as requested. I do wonder why you are so invested in keeping your interest in dōjutsu from their attention."
Shimura-sama accepted the scroll. "That is not for you to concern yourself with."
"Of course not," agreed Orochimaru, pulling out his next set of notes for review before heading down to his labs. "But Sensei has ordered Tsunade to tighten up our control of medical supplies. I won't be able to obtain any of the samples you're interested in without her knowledge."
Danzō tsked. "It would be easy—"
"I'm not one of your agents," hissed Orochimaru, suddenly venomous.
The elder paused, eye widening faintly in surprise. "No, I suppose you're not." The bandaged man hesitated by the door, hand resting on the frame. "You could be, of course. The offer still stands. I wouldn't limit your access to the resources you need."
Orochimaru turned away. He already knew the subtext of that offer—his access to materials wouldn't be limited as long as his research and Danzō's desires aligned. He incurred a large enough headache working around Sensei's strange sense of 'morals.' He didn't need to try and serve two masters.
Danzō laughed, deep and dry. "One day Orochimaru-kun, Hiruzen is going to open his eyes and realize that he has as tight a grasp on you as the air he breathes."
"Sensei knows who I am," murmured the Sannin, dismissing the man with an elegant twist of his wrist.
"I'm sure he thinks he does," agreed Danzo, tucking the scroll inside his yukata. "But he's a busy man. It's so easy for him to lose track of time, look up, and realize the world has marched on into dark corners while he's been napping."
Danzō's gaze turned shrewd. "We're not so different, Hiruzen and I."
Orochimaru sniffed, keeping his back turned to the man.
"Hiruzen is an idealist, where I'm a realist. But we both cherish that which serves our purposes." His cane tapped against the tiles as he walked out. "Are you still serving your Sensei's purposes, Orochimaru-kun?"
Orochimaru buried the sliver of unease caused by Danzō's unwanted commentary. True, he and Sensei did not always see eye to eye, but the man had always encouraged Orochimaru's growth as a shinobi. Had always accepted him and indulged his quirks, praised his curiosity. He didn't quite understand why he and Sensei disagreed regarding certain issues, but as long as he was allowed to continue increasing his knowledge—researching and working toward his intellectual goals—why should he upset the status quo?
"Have you been to Ajibana-san's store? That's where you need to go for most of your ingredients, his family has run it for over twenty years now and they rotate sales depending on the day of the week. Today should be spices, if I'm remembering correctly." Fuji-sensei tapped her cheek with delicate pink nails. "Is there anything particular you were wanting to make?"
"No." Chiyoko opened up her hokaben, only feeling slightly embarrassed that the shop owner at which she bought the pre-made bento now knew her by name and she hadn't even been in Konoha a month. Her mother would be so horrified that her daughter couldn't find the time to make her own lunch and was instead wasting money on store-made food. In the town she'd grown up in, this would have been seen as her mother's failure to teach her daughter to cook and run her household efficiently. And more evidence that Chiyoko was an unnatural, immature girl, not suitable for marriage—
Chiyoko shook her head to clear her thoughts. "I'm just so new that I have no idea where to go to get anything, it feels like."
"That's right," Fuji-sensei bit back a giggle. "I keep forgetting that you're new to the Village, not just the school. " The cheerful brunette waved to someone behind Chiyoko and another woman slipped into the empty seat next to her.
"Kinoshita-sensei," greeted the dark-haired woman, voice much calmer than that of her boisterous friend.
"Hirano-sensei," Chiyoko acknowledged with a nod. The newcomer also nodded to the woman sitting to Fuji's left, who hadn't looked up from whatever novel she'd been reading no matter who sat down at the table.
The teacher's room on the first floor was large but plainly furnished. It was lined with bright windows which cast a cheery light, echoed by the generally happy chatter of teachers that sat in smalls groups of desks pushed together throughout the room. Most teachers sat with teachers of the same age group over lunch, discussing how each class was handling the units which were being simultaneously taught to the age group. Since Chiyoko's schedule changed frequently depending on who she was substituting for, she tried to rotate who she sat with depending on the class she taught.
Today she was teaching the third year students. However, the other third year teachers were either naturally taciturn or didn't enjoy her company so she decided to sit elsewhere until she could determine the root of that problem.
She'd wanted to speak with Fuji-sensei anyways, and when she'd arrived Fuji-sensei was busy chatting the ear off of another clearly disinterested teacher.
Fuji-sensei was exceptionally lively and outgoing, and sometimes oblivious to the fact that not everyone was as eager to socialize as she. Fuji-sensei taught five year olds. And loved it.
In contrast to Fuji-sensei's buoyant, youthful countenance, Hirano-sensei, who appeared to be the same age, was much more reserved and graceful. Hirano-sensei also taught five year olds—just, not so enthusiastically. Her manners and movements were so refined that Chiyoko at times felt uncultured and a bit outclassed. Perhaps the woman was related to nobility? But they were in a civilian school. In a shinobi village.
Chiyoko had no idea who the older woman at the table was. She'd seen her around several times now, but had never been introduced. It didn't seem like the unnamed teacher was looking to make friends, either, if the slight downward twitch of her lips that occurred every time Fuji-sensei squealed wasn't coincidental.
"Kinoshita-sensei was asking where the best places to shop are for good deals." Fuji-sensei's hands fluttered in the air as she eagerly worked to catch her friend up on the state of the conversation.
Hirano-sensei's expression remained serene and unmoving. "I'm afraid I wouldn't know," admitted the woman as she smoothly pushed a stray strand of long dark hair over her shoulder. "I don't do the shopping."
Fuji-sensei made a rude noise. "I forget how very much not-fun you are sometimes."
Hirano-sensei didn't appear to care about how fun she was, but was apparently too well-mannered to physically shrug in response to the accusation.
Fuji-sensei gave a loud sigh of disappointment. "I don't know why I eat with you every day; this is easily the most boring lunch table in the teacher's room!"
"You only come over here when you are ignoring your duty to monitor the children's lunch period." Hirano-sensei offered her observation before taking a small bite of rice.
Fuji-sensei's cheeks colored and she puffed up defensively. "Well, it's just that Nakano-sensei doesn't bother me if it looks like we're busy!"
The unknown teacher gave an impolite snort that both the younger women ignored.
"Kinoshita-sensei wouldn't mind filling in for me, I'm sure?" Fuji-sensei eyed the youngest teacher in an unpleasantly calculating manner.
Chiyoko choked a bit on her tamgoyaki, hoping if it appeared like she couldn't breathe the other teacher would change the subject.
Hirano-sensei sniffed. "Don't abuse your authority that way. It's one matter for you to choose to be irresponsible, but another completely for you to try and bully someone who doesn't even have security in her employment here."
Fuji-sensei wilted immediately, sheepish and apologetic. "I'm sorry, I didn't think about it like that?"
"It's fine," Chiyoko forced herself to push down her embarrassment and give a strained smile. "Why don't you tell me what your favorite dishes are to make? Since you're so knowledgeable about the markets here you must be quite the cook!"
"Uh, well," Fuji grew flustered and waved her hands. "I'm still learning about the whole cooking thing; I do certainly try a lot of recipes though!"
"Fuji-sensei grew up as a silk merchant's daughter, " Hirano-sensei remarked, as enthused as if she were noting the day's weather. "She did not have the opportunity or need to learn to cook."
"Yeah," Fuji gave a deep, wistful sigh, leaning back in her chair. "I lived in the capital with my mother most of the time and my father traveled a lot. But then I went with Daddy on a caravan one summer and met Hiroji-kun, he's such a dreamboat! He's a tokubetsu jōnin, you know." She held her hand out as if whispering a secret to the other women. "Daddy was horrified, of course, but true love only comes once in a lifetime!" She dissolved into happy giggling.
Oh dear. Chiyoko felt a bit dismayed. Hopefully Fuji-sensei admired more about her husband than the mystery of being forbidden.
"I do miss the capital sometimes though, the high fashion and the art and all the beautiful people. You don't even have kabuki here. There was always something new to do or see, it was amazing—" Fuji's eyes lit up in fright and she bolted upright, frantically looking back and forth from wall to wall. "I mean it's nice here, it's really lovely, don't get me wrong!"
Hirano pursed her lips. "No one is going to throw you to the Interrogation Units for waxing nostalgic about the capital."
Chiyoko blinked in alarm, lowering her chopsticks. Were they really that strict here? What was Fuji-sensei worried about? Wasn't Konohagakure part of the Fire Daimyo's domain? Why would it be wrong to talk about the capital?
Fuji twitched. "I know that." The woman didn't sound convinced in her own words. "I just," she looked around quickly, before lowering her shoulders and ducking her head. "I've been here a year and I'm still learning what's ok to say and what's not."
"I don't understand," admitted Chiyoko, feeling very confused. "Why would you be worried about talking about the capital?"
Fuji-sensei looked at Hirano-sensei in concern, as if searching for permission to speak.
Hirano-sensei didn't look up from her meal. "You're from Grass Country, correct?"
"Yes." Chiyoko admitted freely. "I'm afraid I'm completely unfamiliar with the political situation here. I didn't follow the news about Fire Country's Court."
The awkward silence that followed made Chiyoko shift uneasily in her seat. "Did I say something wrong? I'm so sorry, I don't understand."
"There's nothing to understand." The unknown teacher spoke up, placing a ribbon in her book to mark her place before closing it and rising to her feet. "Politics aren't anything we should be worrying about. Do your job, serve the village, and let the Hokage worry about how best to serve Fire Country."
And that was apparently the end of that conversation, as the other teachers bowed in submission to the older woman and began clearing off the table in preparation for returning to work.
"Owwie," commented Katsumi, gazing seriously at the dark haired boy in front of them, collapsing to his knees on the wooden boards of the pier.
"Yes, owwie." Rin agreed, momentarily dropping Katsumi's hands so she could shuffle through her pack for the burn cream she'd put together the other day.
"I almost had it that time, right?" Gasped Obito, rubbing a weary hand across his face, nudging his goggles upwards slightly.
"Lots of smoke." Commented Katsumi eventually, watching the remnants of the failed technique waft away into the air.
Rin said nothing. She didn't see any improvement, but she also had no idea where Obito was going wrong with the jutsu and couldn't advise him on how to improve.
"It's a good thing you wear those monsters," teased Rin, flicking a lens as she settled next to him with her jar of cream. "Otherwise you'd singe those pretty eyelashes of yours right off!"
"Rin-chan!" Obito's face scrunched up in a predictable pout. "Men aren't pretty; we're rugged and manly, weathered by the fearsome power behind our—Ouch! Hey, that hurts!"
"Stop wiggling!" Rin laughed a bit as Obito flinched under the pressure of her hands. She dutifully applied the cream to the burns that always scattered across his face when he practiced the Uchiha clan's grand fire-ball jutsu.
Sensei was still away on a mission with Jiraiya-sama, so the team had fallen back to its usual routine for Sensei-away circumstances. This meant practice in the morning and picking up a few D rank missions in the afternoon—although now they were limited to any that could be accomplished while watching Katsumi-chan of course. They'd come out to the Uchiha clan property to work on water walking that morning, as their usual training ground didn't have a body of water big enough. However, Kakashi had finished lunch early and headed on over to the Tower to pick up their D rank assignments for the day, leaving his teammates to finish lunch with Katsumi-chan and slip in some extra practice.
"Is the Brat back yet?" Obito muttered bitterly, flexing his gloved hands.
"No, there must have been a long line at the mission desk." Rin internally sighed at Obito's refusal to practice this jutsu in their youngest teammate's presence. She knew he was sensitive to Kakashi's criticism, but Kakashi would probably have more insight as to why Obito was struggling with the technique. "I'd still call it quits though, I think you've collected enough burns for one day."
"Katsumi-chan," she called out, part of her new habit of always making sure the younger girl was engaged in her surroundings rather than engaged in planning how to wander off at the next opportunity. "Come tell me what's in this burn salve. Do you remember what the primary ingredient is?"
Katsumi stopped peering precariously over the edge of the pier into the water. She looked up innocently and clutched her rabbit tightly. "Um, it's raw honey and beeswax and…" she bit her lip in thought. "Aloe vera, right?"
"One more," quizzed Rin cheerfully, pulling away from her teammate's wincing face.
"Some type of oil?" Katsumi picked up the jar and looked at the cream curiously.
"Coconut oil." Rin wiped her hands clean on her apron. "That's what accelerates skin regeneration—"
A loud, red-ish gust of air swept by the genin and Katsumi was gone.
Obito gaped at the suddenly empty space. "Seriously?"
Rin blew air out between her teeth and bent over to pack up her cream and the remnants of their lunch.
"That's like, the fifth time in two weeks!" Obito straightened, running a hand through his dark hair in vivid agitation.
"I've got our D ranks," said Kakashi, appearing suddenly in a shunshin. His head bobbed to and fro as he looked flatly at their surroundings. "Where is the girl?"
Obito gave a dramatic groan and fell onto his back, kicking his feet against the ground.
Rin shrugged and gave a sheepish, helpless grin.
"I was gone for fifteen minutes," bit out the youngest boy, clearly unimpressed. He eyed Obito's burn marks speculatively.
"Three guesses," moaned Obito. "And they all have red hair."
Kakashi put away the scroll with their afternoon assignments without so much as a twitch of an eye. He sliced his finger and summoned Pakkun.
"Do we have to go through this?" Obito rolled over on his stomach and pounded the dirt with his fist. "We know who she's with. Probably."
That made Kakashi's eye twitch.
"Oh, yes, Hokage-sama," muttered Kakashi sarcastically. "Our client vanished before our eyes and we did nothing because we think we know who took her. We decided it'd be more expedient to see if she showed up for dinner rather than spend any effort tracking her down. That certainly won't add to our lead as record holders for consecutively failing the same mission."
Kakashi's pug announced his presence with a sneeze.
Rin's eyes widened owlishly in wonder. "Did you just make a joke?"
The chūnin ignored her and knelt down to pick up Katsumi's toy rabbit, holding it out to the pug with what practiced ease.
The pug looked nonplussed. "You lose lots of baby."
"We lose the baby a lot," corrected Obito. "Just one baby," he insisted, as the team fell into position following their pair of trackers. "And she's not really a baby; she's a very intelligent, devious four year old. And we didn't lose her, she just got kidnapped. Again. And she didn't get kidnapped so much as taken under mysterious circumstances by someone who is likely her other babysitter but likes to make us sweat and thinks that it's her duty to make training exercises for us when Sensei is out of town. And it's not like she's that put out by the whole thing anyway—"
Jiraiya grunted as Minato crashed on top of him and sent him smashing into Sensei's courtyard.
"Why is it," he mused, words muffled as he spit out one of Biwako-san's tiger lilies—he'd be blaming that on Minato-kun. "Why is it that when one person is reverse-summoned it's as easy as blinking and being somewhere else, but when two people are reverse-summoned it feels like gravity picks you up and punts you through a wall?"
"I think that should be your next research topic, Sensei." Minato sounded unusually tired, hoisting himself upright with the latticework and holding out a hand for the older man.
Jiraiya groaned and let himself be pulled up to his knees. Belatedly, he tried to put the lily back in the ground and un-smoosh the once pristine flowerbed. Geta weren't kind to fragile flower beds.
"What's all the racket—"
A young voice drew their attention to the engawa.
"Oh." Asuma greeted them flatly, raising one hand in a bored wave. "It's you two."
"Hey Brat!" Jiraiya grinned, teeth gleaming, "How've you—"
"I'll go get Dad." Asuma turned smartly and disappeared around a screen door.
Jiraiya blinked in surprise at the abrupt dismissal. "Was it something I said?" He looked to his blond companion, but Minato simply shrugged before bowing to Gamamaru and dismissing the summons.
"I swear he liked me the last time I was here," the Sannin insisted, crossing his arms with a huff.
"Dad," they heard Asuma yelling in the distance. "That toad guy and his student are here!"
The Sannin huffed. "And he was all, 'Minato's so cool' last time too. Leave for two weeks and we're out of style, kid."
Minato ignored his teacher's mutterings in favor of peering about their surroundings curiously. "What a lovely garden, I've never seen some of these flowers before."
"Thank you," greeted a new voice, both men turning toward it. "I'd forward your compliments to my wife, but then she'd know who squashed her medicinal lilies and I'm not sure you need yet another nickname, Minato-kun."
Jiraiya rose quickly to his feet. "Of course not, better see to Minato's safety and leave the area of the crime as fast as possible."
The Hokage chuckled and beckoned for the men to follow him inside.
Minato, far too used to being blamed for his Sensei's behaviors, settled for rubbing the back of his head with a sad sigh and trudging after the two older men.
Surprisingly, Asuma stood outside his father's study, glaring bitterly at the trio as they made their way inside.
"Thank you, Asuma-kun," acknowledged the Hokage. "That will be all, please go finish washing the windows before your mother gets home. The Sandaime slid the door shut on his sulking child and crossed the room to sit at his personal desk, waving at his guests to take seats in the chairs opposite him.
"What's with your kid?" Jiraiya hooked his thumb over his shoulder. "I don't think I've seen him this grouchy before."
Jiraiya watched closely as his Sensei shook his head, looking more old and tired than his forty-eight years should account for.
"It's a phase, or something," mumbled the Village Leader. "I hope."
"Ah," said Jiraiya, as if he understood what his teacher was talking about. "I thought I squashed his puppy or something and he was too nice to tell me."
"No, no," the Hokage gave permission to Minato to pour the trio some tea. "I'm sure it's my fault; but quite frankly, I haven't the time to sort it all out at the moment." He took a cup from the blond jōnin gratefully. "I'll handle him eventually. However, I'm most concerned with your report, so, if you would, please—"
Jiraiya's face grew grim and he pulled a slender scroll out from his vest, holding it out across the desk. Sensei set aside his drink for the information, gently unfurling the document and quickly scanning its contents.
Minato sat silently next to him, face serene and seemingly content to warm his hands with the heat of his tea cup.
The Sandaime's face fell as he read the report's contents. "So many, then?"
"We can't be completely sure, of course." Jiraiya gestured to the scroll. "But we're fairly confident, as you can see from the notes as we traced the money, that these are the nobles who've hired Iwa-nin in the past year."
The Sandaime stared at the scroll, fingers tracing the notations. "The Daimyo won't be pleased."
"When's that man ever pleased?" Asked Jiraiya, failing to lighten the mood. He sighed and picked up his own cup from where it sat neglected on the edge of the desk.
"I just don't understand…" the Sandaime trailed off, brows furrowed. "We've been cracking down on this since the Daimyo first requested it of us a year and a half ago. " He tugged on his beard, deep in thought. "We've tightened and increased patrols, sent out shinobi to reside in cities across the country in secret, held awareness campaigns with the nobles, bugged and mined fields and forests, spent an inordinate amount of funds on technological surveillance—how are the Iwa shinobi still getting in to accomplish these missions?"
Jiraiya grimaced down at the dregs of his tea. Both he and Minato had turned this topic over and over the past week. The fact of the matter was that if things were truly operating as they should, it should be physically impossible for that amount of Iwa-nin to be moving unnoticed through Fire Country. An assassin or two were one thing, but teams of ninja were an entirely different matter. It pointed to a third party intervening, potentially even treasonous actions by some of their own. But Sensei knew this too, and as hard as he was looking for another answer, the downturn of his lips and the displeased creases in his forehead indicated he knew the most likely answer to his own question.
Missing nobles, dead nobles, suspiciously adept instances of blackmail—clearly there were problems in the courts of Fire Country that were far above the capabilities of the general nobility. Well, the nobility of Fire Country were always a bit of a soap opera. Still, the upward spike in instances of viciousness had captured the Daimyo's attention. While the scents of the individuals who'd accomplished the tasks were long gone, there were still trails that could be followed—money lasted a lot longer than fingerprints and perfumes.
Early investigations had pointed to Iwa, and the Daimyo had banned Iwa-nin from the country, ordering Konoha to see to enforce his orders as the offenders were foreign shinobi. Konoha had obliged, but despite rounding up Iwa-nin, forbidding them travel through the country, and tightening the borders, the problems in the courts persisted. Konoha had escalated its' attempts to oust Iwa, and their efforts had yielded some fruit—such as information that Iwa had crept into Kusa and was setting up bases in Grass Country in violation of both civilian treaties between Fire and Grass countries and treaties between Konohagakure and Kusagakure.
Sakumo had led a team to investigate—and that had gone to complete and utter shit. It was the shittiest shit Jiraiya had to deal with in a long time. And it was still raw. The mere mention of his friend's name was enough to—He didn't want to think about it, there was just this gaping dead space inside—
"Pardon me for asking, Hokage-sama." Minato's voice pulled both the older men from their equally depressed countenances. "But why is Iwa so intent on getting into Fire Country and accomplishing these missions? The money trail we discovered and followed is significant in terms of continuity, but the amount of money, at least in my opinion, doesn't seem like it should be enough for another Village to risk waging war."
"Well," drawled Jiraiya with dark amusement. "Iwa's always been one of the more belligerent Villages. Earth Country's so miserable they've literally got nothing better to do than pick fights."
Sensei snorted. "While that may be true, I agree with Minato-kun that there may be a deeper motivation at play here. Iwa's always desperate for funding as their own Daimyo is more than a bit uninterested in the survival of their Village. He just doesn't see the necessity of supporting shinobi when his own realm is well fortified by natural terrain and he doesn't have the rich resources that would tempt his neighbors to come calling. However, his lack of support and the significant population Iwa boasts has created a greedy, cutthroat village that is known to drive hard bargains. It's the compensation we can't find a trail of that worries me the most."
Sarutobi-sama paused, a sudden thought clearly crossing his mind. He reached into his desk and pulled out a letter bearing the broken seal of Kusagakure. "For example, take a look at this." He slid it toward them. "I'd ask that Jiraiya read it first, as it concerns him."
"What is it?" Minato asked, looking slightly alarmed as he watched the curiosity on Jiraiya's face swiftly transform to anger.
"It's a request from Kusagakure, to return Katsumi-chan." The Sandaime sipped his tea calmly.
"Well they can just fuck off," growled Jiraiya, thrusting the letter at Minato. "Just because she was a 'promising prospect' for their shinobi program doesn't mean they have some type of 'right' to her. She's fucking fine right here. Did you tell them that?"
"Not in those exact words, no." The Hokage watched as Minato's blue eyes scanned the paper critically. "I do believe the sentiment carried across in my response, nonetheless. Did you catch it?"
"Catch what?" Jiraiya's grumble was unamused and agitated.
"The signature line." Minato spoke up, voice thoughtful. "He signs it as the 'Kusakage.'"
It took a moment for the significance of that to sink in for Jiraiya. His dark eyes swiveled back to his teacher. "Don't only the five great villages have recognized 'Kage' as leaders?"
"At this time," agreed the Sandaime, holding his hand out for the return of his correspondence.
"Well," said Jiraiya, mouth dry. "I guess we know what Iwa's promised Kusa then."
"Ok, Katsumi-chan," whispered Kushina-chan hurriedly as they snuck into the hospital through an open window. Kushina balanced the girl on her hip as she tip-toed through a snoring patient's room and quietly slipped into the hall.
"Remember when I talked about the universe aligning and optimum outcomes?" Kushina leveled unexpectedly serious violet eyes at her charge.
"Yes." Katsumi nodded, green gaze somber.
"It's time to act," continued the red-head gravely. She made her way through the maze of corridors, cautiously peeking around corridors and dodging certain nurses who she knew would be alarmed and complain of her, and raise an alarm upon merely noting her presence.
Yes, she technically wasn't supposed to be here, but still—it was public property, right? I swear, you put slugs in the nap room beds one time and you're never forgiven.
Tsunade had thought it was funny.
Ok, no she hadn't. But Dan and Jiraiya had laughed.
She smothered her chakra presence as much as possible (which wasn't much considering her little furry parasite) when she heard the voices of their targets. She pressed her back firmly against the wall and addressed Katsumi with one more last minute mission brief.
"You remember what you're supposed to do, right?" Kushina winked when she received a confident nod.
The voices around the corner continued their rhythmic conversation. Good. She'd been slightly afraid she'd be ratted out by the sensor-nin, but he seemed willing to play along today.
"Smile number three," she instructed her companion, wiggling her fingers helpfully. "And give it extra sparkle!"
Katsumi twitched in eager anticipation in her arms.
"Alright," she began to count. "Three, two, one—"
She threw them around the corner. "AUNT TSUNADE!" Both girls exclaimed with bright squeals and grins, bounding up to the startled woman in the middle of the hallway.
"I'm not your Aunt!" The blonde snarled, cocking a fist out of habit. She abruptly aborted the motion when she noted Kushina's company. Eye twitching, she cracked the pen in her hand instead and transferred her glare from adult to child. "I'm not your Aunt eith—"
"Is this Katsumi-chan?" Dan leaned forward with an amiable grin. "How are you, sweetie?" He held his hands out for the child and Kushina was happy to comply, shifting the child's weight into his arms.
"Hi, hi!" Katsumi chirped up at him. "I'm supposed to say thank you to you and Aunt Tsunade for my toys."
"Ah, you liked those then?" Dan beamed. "I'm so glad. See Tsunade, I told you I had good taste."
"I'm not your Aunt," growled Tsunade insistently, placing her hands on her hips. "Don't call me—"
"Of course you can call her Aunt," Dan nodded knowingly, dismissing his fuming fiancé. "And I'm Uncle Dan, ok?"
"See, Aunt Tsunade, it's perfectly fine—"Kushina ended that sentence with a high pitched squeak as Tsunade slugged her in the shoulder, no longer pulling her punch as Kushina was toddler-free.
"Look what you've started," hissed the blonde jōnin. "Stop that. You are expressly forbidden from calling me that—you don't even have the excuse of being four and cute!"
"Fine." Kushina stuck her lip out in a pout and rubbed at her shoulder. She'd gotten what she really wanted anyway. Tsunade needed someone small popping up and annoying her from time to time. Shizune-chan, adorable as she was, was just a little too easily cowed by the Senju Princess to ever try her patience. Katsumi-chan was obviously more naturally inclined to civil disobedience.
'Aunt' wasn't the most appropriate description for her relationship with her cousin anyway. But, as brave as she was, Kushina wasn't going to test the waters further by calling Tsunade 'nee-san.' She hadn't done that since Nawaki died.
"—And I have a niece named Shizune who's only a year older than you." Dan explained to the girl in his arms. "We'll have to set up some time to meet her; I think the two of you will get along great!"
"Can we play in the park?" Katsumi asked curiously, focusing on the man willing to give her his undivided attention.
Tsunade huffed. "Look what you've done," she grumbled to the red-head, gesturing at the pair. "We were talking about possibly securing another vendor for gauze and how to fund the purchase of that old farming silo in the historic district to stockpile medical supplies, but I'm not going to get anything worthwhile out of him as long as there's a baby around for him to play with."
"Is Aunt Tsunade's office here?" Katsumi looked around the hallway, taking in all the strange doors.
"Oh no, it's down this way, I'll show you." Dan began walking down the corridor, spouting off various facts about Shizune-chan and the girl's favorite hobbies and how wonderful the Academy was and how much Katsumi was going to love it here in Konoha—
Tsunade sighed and tugged one of her two ponytails over her shoulder.
Kushina wove her fingers together behind her back and stretched. "Gotta follow them. I think I'm sort-of responsible for her at the moment, dattebane."
The older kunoichi rolled her eyes. "I thought that boyfriend of yours and his brats were responsible for the girl?"
"Yeah," Kushina drew the word out slowly. "But I'm so much more fun! And it's a good training exercise to keep them busy while Mina-kun's away." She ignored Tsunade's confused expression. "Lucky bastard," she muttered under her breath. Minato got all the good missions lately. She'd not been out of the Village in half a year; she was desperate for Sarutobi-sama to let her go do something. It felt like she was being grounded. And she hadn't done anything nearly bad enough to earn it, 'ttebane! The thing with stealing all the '9's from every sign in the Village totally didn't count.
Tsunade hummed in sympathy. "Sensei's still not letting you out?"
They stopped as Dan ducked into Tsunade's office, presumably to give the toddler a 'grand' tour. Considering that the amount of filing cabinets in the office left room for little more than a desk and two chairs, neither woman was eager to join the pair.
"No." Kushina scuffed the tiles with the toe of her boots. "He and the Council don't want to let me out of the Village while things are still so up in the air. They don't want to put it at risk or antagonize anyone." She bit her lip. "I've got it completely under control, 'ttebane! I'm going to lose my mind if I don't get out this place sometime soon!" She eyed the nearest window with thinly veiled desperation.
"Oh no!" Tsunade reached out and snagged the back of her jacket. "If you're leaving you're taking your toys with you. Neither Dan nor I have time to babysit today!"
"I wouldn't mind babysitting!" Dan poked his head out of her office, eyes bright.
"No." Tsunade held her ground sternly.
Kushina understood. If Tsunade let Dan take the girl home, Katsumi-chan might never see her mother again.
Tsunade cratered almost instantly when faced with Dan's disappointed expression. "Why don't you make arrangements to take her out for ice cream when you pick Shizune-chan up from the Academy tomorrow?"
"Ice cream?" Katsumi perked up at the mention of treats.
"That's a wonderful idea," Dan agreed, grin back to supernaturally blinding. "Katsumi-chan, I take Shizune-chan out for ice cream after the end of every school week, would you like to join us this time?"
"And then the park?" Katsumi tugged on the sleeves of his uniform insistently.
"And then the park—"
"What's this now?" Bellowed a familiar voice. "Are you stealing my kid, Dan?"
"Daddy!" Katsumi shrieked and wiggled to be let down, running toward the man as soon as her feet touched the floor.
Jiraiya scooped her up in a hug, a movement he seemed to have become accustomed to performing.
Kushina tilted her head. Come to think of it, when was the last time she'd seen Katsumi walk anywhere under her own power?
"Hey brat!" He tossed her up and caught her. "How've you been?"
"Daddy, I missed you!" Katsumi wrapped her arms around his neck. "You were gone forever!"
Jiraiya's face scrunched in confusion. "It was just two weeks," he protested.
"Forever," repeated Katsumi firmly.
Awww, he's kind of cute with her. If only he behaved so well around women in general. Kushina's heart skipped a beat when she saw Minato rounding the corner a few seconds after the older man, trotting to catch up to the group.
She promptly glomped him, sending him crashing back into the wall. "You're back!" She peppered his embarrassed face with kisses, enjoying how quickly he could become so pink.
"Ughh," Tsunade interrupted, pulling her off the blond jōnin with a grunt. "Go be full of teenage hormones somewhere else; you're in the middle of a hospital!"
Kushina hung off her boyfriend's arm. "You're good, right?" She gave him a once over, patting his ribs where he frequently left himself open and was known to hide wounds. He didn't wince. She smiled up at him and snuggled against him, reaching up to pet his fluffy hair. "You're good."
He looked a bit exasperated, but didn't push her away.
"Have you been good for Minato's team while I was gone?" Jiraiya asked his daughter, waving to Tsunade and Dan over her head.
"Maybe." Katsumi looked at him with bright eyes. "Did you bring me a present?"
Jiraiya scoffed. "Your past behavior can't be contingent on something that happens right now!"
"Present?" Katsumi persisted with her inquiry, beginning to poke around in the inner pockets of his vest, where she'd probably seen him store things on previous occasions.
"Uh well," Jiraiya stuttered through an explanation while simultaneously batting his daughter's hands away from finding dangerous items. "There wasn't really time to-how about I take you out for dessert later?"
"No," Katsumi frowned. "Uncle Dan's taking me for ice cream with Shizune-chan tomorrow. I don't need more sweets." Her eyes turned trembly. "Did you forget me?"
"No!" Jiraiya's dirty look at a sheepish Dan turned into panicky backpedaling. "That's not it all, I just uh—lost it—"
Minato pulled something from his pocket and pressed it into the older man's hand.
Jiraiya blinked down at a glittering green and gold disc on a pink ribbon. His eyes flickered quickly to meet Minato's amused gaze.
"Of course he remembered you, Katsumi-chan." Minato adopted his 'soothing the client' tone.
Kushina tried to lean around him to get a better glimpse at the object.
"He just asked me to carry it home because he didn't trust himself not to break it!" Minato gave the girl a cheery grin.
"That's right," Jiraiya jumped on the explanation, handing the necklace over to Katsumi for inspection.
"Wait a minute," Kushina peered at the gift, puffing her cheeks out in displeasure. That thing looked nice. "Did you bring me anything then? Where's mine?"
"Right here," assured Minato with a laugh, pulling a similar item out of his pocket. "I worked with a glass-blower to get some quick change. It's amazing how useful a lightning affinity and some fire jutsu can be in a tradesman's shop. These two were mistakes actually, they were going to be scrapped. I thought they looked neat though and that you might like them."
Kushina looked at her bauble, holding it up to the fluorescent hospital lighting and admiring the way the light filtered through the colored glass. "How pretty! It's probably even better outside, right!" She twirled toward her boyfriend. "And you made it Mina-kun! I love it!" She kissed him on the cheek and bounded over to Katsumi to compare the two trinkets.
"Look Katsumi, mine's red!" She pulled the child away from Jiraiya and set her down, working to adjust the length of Katsumi's cord so the necklace would hang properly around the small girl's neck.
"I didn't know you'd fine-tuned your control over your secondary affinity that well," Jiraiya remarked.
Minato rubbed the back of his neck at the praise. "I've been practicing a lot lately."
Minato's blue eyes widened in surprise at the loud exclamation. They widened even more as his three students and a dog came skidding around the corner, flustered and huffing.
"We found you!" Yelled Obito, sprinting down the hallway and pointing vehemently at the red-headed kunoichi.
Kakashi said nothing, but his narrowed gaze spoke of impatience and overexposure to the company of his peers.
"Stop yelling," shouted Rin, trailing behind them by a mere few inches. "This is a hospital!"
"Oh no!" Kushina hissed at the rapidly advancing team. "Come Katsumi-chan, we can't be caught this easily!" She cackled loudly and scooped the girl up in her arms. "The game's afoot!"
"Thank you for my present!" Katsumi called back over the shoulder of her captor. "Buh-bye, be safe!"
Kushina ran farther into the hospital, ducking into the nurse's lounge and most likely out the window.
Jiraiya could only wave belatedly in response. "Bye?"
"Can't stop Sensei, gotta get the kid back!" Obito and Kakashi barreled past the group, intent on catching up with the red-head. "Hi Sannin-samas, Bye Sannin-samas!"
Pakkun tripped over his paws and rolled to a stop against Jiraiya's feet.
"I'm so sorry Tsunade-sama," called Rin as she chased after them. "We'll stop running in the halls, I promise!"
"What the hell is that about?" Tsunade turned to Minato, demanding an explanation for his students' erratic behavior.
Pakkun stumbled up on four paws, shook himself, and then promptly sat down again. "I find baby, I no run more forever." He delivered his words in a stately, formal fashion.
Dan's lips twitched.
"I'm so sorry." Minato's hands fluttered uselessly in the air. "I'll go talk with them!" He bent down and scooped up Pakkun and jogged off in the direction that the group had disappeared.
"Does that count as child abduction?" Jiraiya was uncertain whether he should be concerned with whatever it was that had just happened.
"I think Kushina-chan's just going a bit stir crazy." Tsunade waved her hand dismissively. "Was there a reason you came here, other than to cause chaos in my domain?"
"Uh, yeah," Jiraiya shook his head, turning to head into Tsunade's office and beckoning for her to join him.
"You're not actually hurt are you?" Her assessing gaze gave away her sincere concern and it was Jiraiya's turn to wave dismissively.
"I'm fine, fit as an ox!" He boasted, patting his arm.
"Why did Minato-kun need to work for a glass blower?" Mused Dan, following the pair inside the office.
"That's irrelevant," Jiraiya scowled. No way was he fessing up to blowing their spending money in the red light district the first few nights of the week. They got valuable leads there anyway, so it was money well spent. Women in those places always had the best gossip, were good at ciphering fact from fiction, and were fairly open, if you knew how to ask and how to listen.
Minato had long since picked up an odd assortment of talents to help earn spare money on their missions, he knew how it worked. It'd gotten to the point where Jiraiya didn't even ask him anymore what he got up to in his spare time—he could be chopping lumber, lock-smithing—he'd told Minato all those D ranks would come in handy one day.
Anyway, back to business. He cleared his throat and reached into his vest and pulled out a scroll, unrolling it across his teammate's desk.
Both Dan and Tsunade leaned forward curiously as he released the seal, a dozen small vials wrapped in paper and tied with twine popping into existence before them.
Tsunade pulled on some gloves from a drawer. "What am I looking at," she asked briskly, picking up the first package.
"Blood samples." Jiraiya pointed to the vials. "Ten of those are from recently deceased civilians, all related to or vassals of Fire Country nobles residing in the capital."
Dan looked uncharacteristically grim, eyes dulling. "You think they're from Earth Country?"
"Unfortunately," the toad Sannin sighed. "I'm confident the samples will reveal the poisons are those commonly used by Iwa-nin. But it never hurts to test the materials and make sure we're not dealing with somebody else too."
"I hope not," murmured Tsunade. "The Kazekage keeps saying they're upholding their trade embargo against Earth Country in return for our goods, but Suna's poisons are still known as the best. "
"But Suna is supposed to have tight control on their poisons right?" Dan reached for a glove to examine the vials more closely himself. "I thought Orochimaru told me once that Suna's poisons were created by a shinobi guild that kept close guard of the recipes, ingredients, and distribution. Is that still the case?"
"Supposedly," agreed Jiraiya.
Tsunade pulled at some twine and unwrapped the paper around the vial. "These are notes?"
Jiraiya nodded. "Victim and characteristics, symptoms of poisoning, autopsy results, everything you like."
"Good." Tsunade nodded. "That'll make this go quicker."
"What are these last two?" Dan picked up one of the two vials that didn't have notes attached to it. He squinted to examine it, rotating the vial in his hands. "Is this an actual poison?"
"Maybe." Jiraiya grunted. "A contact got it from a geisha who purported to have been paid to put it into a frequent customer's drink. I brought it back for Tsunade to test too, I don't know enough about poisons to actually take a look at it myself. Well, for Tsunade and Snake-boy to look over, but he wasn't in when Minato and I stopped by."
Tsunade snorted in amusement. "I'm glad to hear you've developed a sense of self-preservation in your old age, although it doesn't surprise me that Orochimaru would make himself scarce when you wanted him to do something that would take him away from his own research." She beckoned for Dan to pass her the vial in question. "Who was the intended victim?"
"I don't know." Jiraiya grimaced, rubbing tiredly at the scruffy growth on his cheeks. He needed to shave soon. "The contact refused to reveal the identity of the geisha, and I'm not sure the geisha told him who the intended victim was in the first place. I think her customer's just lucky that the girl happens to like him more than the person who gave her the orders to poison the poor bastard. And, honestly, Minato and I were under strict orders to simply ferret out whether Iwa was still acting in the blackout, not actually stop any plots that might be underway. With the way missions have been going lately." He swallowed, reluctant to voice that line of thought to its conclusion. "I decided not to test Sensei's patience too much."
"This sounds like some type of civilian plot," murmured Dan, tapping the desk with his fingers. "I don't know any Village that operates that way—they all would have sent their kunoichi in to do the job themselves."
"It's entirely possible, the Court's such a mess recently that this may be a simple, local plot." Jiraiya stood with a yawn. "But it doesn't hurt to have Tsunade check it, just in case. Daimyō's pissed at us enough as it is that we haven't been able to end Iwa's influence in his city. Sensei says its top priority, by the way." He flicked his fingers at Tsunade, indicating she was now in charge of the mess. "Once he has this he can send the results of the last investigation off to the Fire Daimyō, and then hopefully they'll send a joint missive off to the Earth Daimyō and the Tsuchikage requesting that they cease and desist or face the consequences."
Dan's lips twisted.
They all knew how unlikely such a request was to be followed.
"Maybe we'll be able to resolve things once we can confirm their violation of the Daimyō's orders." Dan made a poor attempt at optimism. "It's not war yet, after all."
"Maybe," murmured Tsunade, attention more focused on examining the vials presented to her than actually participating in the discussion.
Dan's gaze trailed sadly over the vials sprawling across his fiancé's desk.
"I'll show myself out," Jiraiya said with a sigh. He understood his comrade's concern. They'd all lost a lot in the last war. There was no telling what this one would take from them.
He stopped for a moment outside the hospital, watching the sun sink low in the sky. He turned away from it, relying on muscle memory to guide him home as he mentally reviewed the day's events. He was desperately trying to think of something that Sensei or Orochimaru or Tsunade or Dan or the Elders or anyone had missed about this scenario. Surely there was a way to avoid further violent escalation of violence.
He didn't come up with a solution. The most brilliant minds in his country had been working on this problem for months, how was he going to find an answer they missed?
His thoughts drifted to the novel he'd started so many years ago, dusty and abandoned. He'd thrown it in a drawer at the end of the last war—when victory was theirs but the cost was far too high. Tsunade was broken and hysterical in her grief; refusing to set foot in the hospital for months and so deep in her cups he was half afraid she'd drown in them. Orochimaru'd shut himself in his lab, terrified of their mortality and intent on throwing all his brilliance into finding ways to cheat death.
Jiraiya himself had gone on a three year drinking/travelling/find himself journey to try and forget the five children that had been his to train and yet hadn't lived despite his best efforts. He'd been shaken enough when Minato's teammates had each perished. When Danzō had told him those three kids from Ame had died too—
He was lucky Minato and Sakumo cared enough to keep tracking him down and dragging him out of whatever hole he'd crawled into. It wasn't the prettiest time in his life—he'd met fascinating people and learned fascinating things—but he'd also behaved fascinatingly poorly.
He'd told Sensei he'd been trying to figure out how shinobi could live in peace with each other. It'd been the truth—once. What a silly dream. The older he became the more impossible it seemed. The more futile any efforts to obtain it seemed too. He kicked some pebbles out of the road in his irritation. He still didn't have an inkling of the answer for his protagonist. He didn't even have a good outline for a plot —
He looked up at the greeting, shielding his eyes as the glare of the sunset prevented him from seeing who was calling to him.
His shoulders relaxed as he recognized the woman's profile. "Chiyoko-san. Good to see you." He paused. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm walking home—I'm working at the school over there." She pointed to a large building a block away. "I just finished supervising the after-school study hall."
Jiraiya mentally filed the location of the building away in his head, in case he needed it later.
"Let me walk you home," he offered. Those types of things were expected in these types of relationships, right? Not that he wanted more than a friendship—er, working parent-ship with Chiyoko-san. She was a lovely girl, but really not the type to flirt with or—well, he got the sense that she was the type of woman one didn't start something with unless it was serious. To do otherwise would be…rude or something. How the hell did we have a kid in the first place? He scratched at the back of his head in wonder as the mother of his child continued to chatter away.
"I'm glad to see you," Chiyoko parroted back at him, stepping closer. "Katsumi-chan hasn't seen you in a while and she's been asking for you."
"Ah," he nodded. "I was away on a mission, but I saw her about an hour ago. She's with Minato and Kushina and the kids, I'm sure they'll have her back soon."
Of course he knew how they'd had a kid. Sometimes he even thought he might remember a little about the time he first met her. She'd hold her head a certain way or laugh—and then the flicker of memory vanished and he was forced to remind himself that this was why he'd stopped drinking so heavily with female company. It wasn't good that he couldn't remember encounters with foreign women. How many other kids out there could he possibly have? Those three years were pretty blurry.
"Oh good," Chiyoko babbled. "I know she enjoys spending time with them. And she'll be glad to see Minato-kun again too. I was wondering—"
Maybe he'd met her when she was in a rebellious teenage phase? He never did ask her how old she was—he'd have to sneak a peak in Tsunade's medical files. Wait, Tsunade didn't have medical files on her, did she? Chiyoko was a civilian. He knew she'd started one on Katsumi, but would that have her mother's date of birth?
"—that's only if you're ok with it of course. I don't mean to impose—"
How the hell was he supposed to ask her how old she was and not have it come across as the rudest, most ridiculous question? Did other men wind up in these predicaments? Did he really need to know—this was going to bother him for the rest of the week, he just knew it. He should just say she was in her mid-twenties and be done with it. Surely that was ok? She couldn't be older than thirty—
He caught Chiyoko looking expectantly at him from the corner of his eye.
He backtracked, "I'm so sorry, I was lost in thought! Did you need something?"
She giggled. It made her look younger. Shit, maybe she really was in her early twenties? He really hoped she'd been at least 16 when they first met. He didn't usually care enough to ask, but the possibility that she was that much younger than him and he'd left her with a kid in a super-conservative town on her own because he was drunk and careless and selfishly engaging in whatever it took to make the pain stop for just a few seconds-ughh, it wasn't the nicest feeling.
"I asked if you would have dinner with us on Sunday nights," explained the woman with a pretty smile, completely oblivious to Jiraiya's internal monologue. "I know you're busy during the week, but if you don't make time to see Katsumi, you won't see her at all. So, if you'd like, I was hoping maybe you could start coming over to dinner regularly on Sunday nights."
"Oh," Jiraiya responded gruffly, at a loss for words. That was really nice and thoughtful of her. The last person who'd made him dinner had been Biwako-san, and she hadn't had the team over for a meal in years. He supposed she thought they were all grown-up now and could take care of themselves.
That and Asuma had been an attention-hungry little gnat since birth.
"I'm afraid that I'm out of town a lot," he confessed. There was no avoiding that. "You might wind up making a meal that I won't show up for."
"That's fine," Chiyoko brushed a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "Maybe you could send a note or a toad if you can't make it. But if you're in town, we'd love to have you over."
He still felt a bit off –kilter. Was this normal?
How stupid, of course family members eating together was a normal thing. They were the abnormal ones here. But Chiyoko-san was trying to fix some of that, for Katsumi-chan, so that Katsumi could have that family thing.
Jiraiya hadn't had it, growing up. He'd been fine on his own, enjoyed it for the most part too. There were moments though, where being the only person in the room got a little lonely.
When he was young, he fought the ache of silence by searching for adventures. The responsibilities of adulthood made that a bit harder to do.
Still, just because he liked being on his own didn't mean Katsumi did.
Wouldn't hurt to try. Could be nice, even, just for a while.
"I'll be there then," he said gruffly.
Apparently that was the correct answer because Chiyoko beamed back at him, beginning a barrage of questions about what types of foods he liked and if he was allergic to anything and warning him that Katsumi would probably want him to stay long enough to read to her after dinner.
He thought of his book again, entombed in its drawer. Would Katsumi like it if he ever finished it, if he read it to her? Maybe he should.
After all, she was his daughter.
It made sense that he should try to teach her about what a shinobi should be. That they weren't just tools to be hidden in the shadows and brought out only to do the work that no decent person would lower themselves to do.
The world they lived in would work hard to convince her that she was a weapon, meant only to do her master's bidding without complaining and as efficiently as possible. The nobles would tell her that, the civilians would spit that at her, jealous and disdainful at the same time. Heck, even her friends would parrot that goddam rule book at her—fuck she was already quoting that awful thing, wasn't she? Minato had told him that.
He ought to find something to give her hope, before life stripped it away.
He'd finish the book.
A/N & FAQ
1) Does Katsumi have OCD/OCPD?
As a SI, Katsumi is based on my childhood self. She is operating with the same mannerisms and tendencies that I did as a child. As a four year old, I had rituals, which if I left unperformed, I was convinced people would die or horrible things would happen. I had a fixation on organization and order, especially with colors, toys, books, and clothes. Was I ever diagnosed with OCD/OCPD? No. Do I understand what those are? Yes, I have a BA in Psychology with a focus on adolescent development.
If I really behaved that way as a child, why weren't my parents concerned/ why didn't they take me to a psychologist? Because my mother had her masters in Child Developmental Psychology and money was tight. Right or wrong, she decided that she could deal with whatever issues her children had. She taught me how to manage my anxiety/stress/fixations with rituals and orders based on her extensive education and experience in that area.
Please don't accuse me of 'appropriating' OCD/OCPD. These are my own behaviors and my own experiences that I'm writing about. If it's not 'true' to your experience with OCD/OCPD, that doesn't mean I'm doing something wrong by writing a character who has tendencies somewhat similar to those disorders. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, move on, this note isn't for you. I'm writing this particularly for a few anon. reviewers who can't seem to leave this alone.
2) The Sarutobi Family:
Biwako was from a small clan that joined Konoha after it was founded. While her clan was small, her immediate family contained seven brothers and sisters. She grew up in a large family with lots of children and enjoyed her siblings. Despite, or perhaps because she lost most of her siblings in wars, she has always wanted to recreate a large family for herself. She married Sarutobi Hiruzen when they were fairly young. Their relationship has endured two wars and is about to be put through a third. Because of various circumstances including the demand of her husband's job, the demands for her own skills on the battlefield as a jōnin medic, the existence of wars and various political feuds, she never got her large family. After suffering a few miscarriages, she had one son, Mikio, and she shelved her dreams for more children. Instead, she focused on mothering her own child, and the orphaned students that her husband collected. Hiruzen thought this was perhaps for the best, because with his position he not only had very little time to give children, but he'd also automatically put any child in significant danger and burden them with significant expectations.
However, fairly late in life, when Biwako and Hiruzen were 41, Biwako discovered she was pregnant with Asuma. Biwako was ecstatic, Hiruzen privately thought they were a little old for dealing with newborns and teething and toilet-training again but wisely kept his mouth shut. Of course, his personal trepidation about having another child fairly late in life did not diminish his love for Asuma in the slightest.
3) Will this ever be posted on AO3?
Yes, it is. I finally got around to cross-posting it there. FFnet will always be updated prior to AO3, but if you prefer the reading format of AO3 you can find it there too. Same story title and author name..
4) About Reviewing…
Yes, please review. Tell me what you liked. Tell me what thoughts and questions got stirred up in your head. I don't promise to answer them, but I do like to hear what your impressions as a reader are. Tell me your favorite line, what made you laugh, what tugged at your heartstrings,what got you excited about reading this fic, what reminded you why you loved reading this fic.
Please DO NOT: try to tell me what to write next, point out spelling/grammar mistakes, argue with me about the characterization of any OCs or the SI, demand an update, or whine about Katsumi not being central to this particular chapter.
5) Thanks: ElectraSev5n and Elelith, who took the time to look over this chapter and give me some feedback prior to posting it out to the world.