Disclaimer: Naruto is the intellectual property of Masashi Kishimoto and various other parties. No money is being made from this story, and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Note: This is the sequel to "The Way of the Apartment Manager." It's still an AU story. In the canon timeline, Yukiko was one of the nameless casualties of the Kyuubi's attack... but in this world, she lived. Eight years later, the effects are beginning to snowball. Asuka Kureru suggested the idea that became the nucleus of this story, when she wondered if Sasuke might also end up as a tenant in Yukiko's apartment building. I've thrown a LOT of other stuff on top, but that was the original spark. Thanks, Asuka!
A recent reviewer reminded me it's been nearly fourteen months since I updated this story, and apparently I am in a "yes, go, let's write stuff!" mood, so hey, have the next chapter! (Don't ask when chapter 16 will be written, though. I did the scene-by-scene breakdown tonight, but I have a lot of other projects that take precedence - either because they have deadlines or because they are for fandoms I am currently more enthusiastic about than Naruto.)
Summary: The reward for a job well done is a bigger job. In this case, Ayakawa Yukiko's new job is a lot more complicated than anyone expected. The Uchiha massacre and its aftermath, in the world of "The Way of the Apartment Manager."
Chapter the Fifteenth, in which Naruto and Sasuke play cards, the Volcano Country border is treated with greater respect than it possibly deserves, Hidden Cloud requests a more detailed report on the circumstances of their agent's death, and a supposedly deserted patch of forest turns out to be a remarkably popular tourist destination.
The Guardian in Spite of Herself: Chapter 15
The caravan stopped for the night at a way station just on the edge of Aokouchuu, a farming village at the south end of a broad valley. The village gates were closed for the night by the time everyone had gotten their things unpacked and settled into their rooms, but Kurenai agreed to delay departure until shortly before noon the next day, to give people several hours buying or selling at the village market.
The way station was small enough that Yukiko, Seichi, Naruto, and Sasuke were forced to share a room, on the principle that they were less likely to kill each other than various other merchants and travelers. Ironic that ninja were saner than civilians, Yukiko thought as she watched a young Water Country woman argue with an older Sand Country woman about the placement of their goods in one of the two wagons designated for the morning market expedition. Then again, was exercising cold judgment over murder really that much saner than killing in the heat of emotion?
When she got back to Konoha, she was going to call in every favor she had to make sure Heika-san didn't assign her to any more assassination missions. This was screwing with her head.
"Kid, don't even think about it," she said, reaching sideways to grab Naruto's sleeve before he could sidle off to throw fuel on the two merchants' argument. "We're going to eat dinner and then we're all going to bed."
Naruto pouted, but followed her inside the way station without verbal protest.
Dinner was very plain, just rice and vegetables with a salty fish broth for flavor, but it was filling and healthy and Yukiko got Naruto to eat a full portion without having to promise too many bowls of ramen when they reached someplace with more culinary variety. All in all, that counted as a win. And Seichi's cover persona didn't tease her about motherhood, which was also a victory.
Sasuke had pulled into himself again, which was less good, but no day ever went perfectly right.
Yukiko herded the boys upstairs, handed them the pajamas she'd bought in Nagarehiya, and sent them off with Seichi to clean up. She indulged herself with a long soak in the women's bathroom before going back upstairs to the crowded little bedroom. Astonishingly it hadn't burned down in her absence. Instead, Naruto and Sasuke were sitting cross-legged on Seichi's bed, playing a game that seemed to involve a lot of hand slapping on the pile of cards between them. Seichi was lying on Yukiko's bed, shirt unbuttoned and hands folded behind his head.
"Yuki-chan!" he said as Yukiko closed the door. "You return! Wonderful. Now if only these brats weren't here to overhear all the endearments I long to bestow upon you." He glanced meaningfully at her hands and pulled one of his own free to gesture at his ear.
Yukiko sighed and wove silence and distraction genjutsu around the room. "What now?" she asked, leaning against the doorframe.
"We need to discuss the details of our mission," Kurenai's voice said, as the kunoichi wavered into visibility like a shattered reflection coalescing in slowly stilling water. Yukiko admired the effect for a moment and resolved to ask about the illusion's details some other time.
"Fine," she said. Then she waved her hand at Naruto and Sasuke. "What about these two, though? It's safer for us and them if they're out of the loop."
"Only to a degree," Seichi said flatly as he sat up and made another deck of cards appear from who knew where. "We all need to know the cover story, after all, and that's what we're nailing down tonight. We can't plan the assassination until we're in place and know our resources and obstacles."
Naruto twitched subtly. Sasuke took advantage of his distraction to grab the sizable stack of cards between them.
Kurenai sat on the luggage rack and gave Yukiko and Seichi a serious look. "You need a reason to stay in Tengai for up to two weeks. I can stay openly for two or three days on the pretext of arranging for future caravans south to Konoha, but after that I'll either need to take clients - which I can't, for obvious reasons - or pretend to return home in response to an order. Unless a perfect opportunity falls into our laps, I suggest we wait to strike until I'm undercover."
"Seichi and I are supposed to gather information, so we'd need at least a week anyway," Yukiko said. She frowned. "We're pretending that I'm teaching Tsukene about trading, but what if Seichi says he's decided that this life isn't for him and he'd rather stay in Tengai for a while? I'm sure you can find some kind of job in Amane Eiji's operation."
Seichi hummed in agreement, cards cascading back and forth between his hands. "A clerk would be ideal but even warehouse labor will do in a pinch. What about you? Why would you stay in Tengai with two brats in tow?"
"I'm not a brat!" Naruto said, slamming his hand down a hairsbreadth faster than Sasuke and tugging a thin stack of cards back toward his legs. "Maybe Sasuke is, but not me."
"You're an idiot. That's worse," Sasuke said. Naruto stuck his tongue out and laid down a card, starting a new pile.
Yukiko bit the inside of her cheek for a second, trying not to smile. Then she closed her eyes and tried to think. Why would she stay in Tengai with the kid and Sasuke? Or no, why would she stay in Tengai with Yuu-kun and his friend Sakama?
"I can hang around for a couple days to make sales and place orders for my cousin and uncle," she said slowly, "but after that I'd have to leave along with Kurenai. Unless... Kurenai, could you pretend to go home because there's unrest after- after recent events, and all available ninja are needed to defend the village? It wouldn't be unreasonable for me to stay in Sky Country for a while if you spread that rumor around. Anyone would understand trying to keep kids out of danger. Then I can look for a temporary job, which should help me gather information."
Yukiko opened her eyes and looked at Kurenai. "Will that work?"
Kurenai's lips parted slightly as she thought. Then she nodded. "I'll send a message home tonight so the orders I receive in Tengai will corroborate our story in case they're intercepted. The only remaining question is whether I should wait inside or outside the city."
"In," Seichi said, turning the queen of hearts back to front to back between two fingers. "It saves us time fetching you when we strike, and Yukiko and I have at least a faint hope of helping you if you get in trouble. We wouldn't be any use if you're out in the trees or down on the shore."
Kurenai nodded again. "Fair point. So our plan is as follows: When we reach Tengai, Seichi will tell everyone he's decided not to keep traveling, and find a job. Yukiko and I will behave normally for two days, after which I'll receive an emergency call back to Konoha and inform anyone who's expressed interest in a southbound caravan that there's unrest in Fire Country. Yukiko will tell people she's decided to keep her brother and his friend away from potential danger for a few weeks and also find a temporary job. We'll all gather information about Amane Eiji's plans and organization until we find an opening for an assassination strike. Once he's dead, Yukiko should leave immediately, using the same excuse of keeping the children safe from trouble. If possible, Seichi will remain in Tengai another week to divert suspicion. Yukiko and I will take the boys back to Konoha together. Agreed?"
"Yes," Yukiko said. Seichi nodded.
Naruto, who had now lost all his cards to Sasuke, shifted awkwardly on Seichi's bed. "Hey, hey, I just wanna ask. What's this guy done that's so bad you have to kill him? Is he like..." He trailed off and glanced guiltily at Sasuke, who glared down at the card deck.
Yukiko winced. Oh, this could be trouble. Normally she was grateful the kid had a strong sense of fairness, but sometimes real life was more complicated than Naruto would readily accept. "Not like that," she said. "But we're pretty sure Amane Eiji is doing things that could start a war, which nobody can afford after the last three. So we're going to kill him. It's not fair, but it's better to kill one person now than to do nothing and let thousands of people die later."
Naruto scowled. "But-"
"I'd rather have my brother dead and the rest of my family alive," Sasuke said without looking up from the cards he was shuffling. "Don't be a baby." His voice was far too toneless for Yukiko's peace of mind.
"Jerk," Naruto said, his attention snapping back to Sasuke. "Hey, quit shuffling and let's play again. And don't cheat! I'm gonna beat you so bad this time."
"You can try," Sasuke said with an almost invisible quirk of his mouth, and began to deal the cards.
"Last game of the night, you two," Yukiko said, walking to the closet and pulling out the bedrolls the way station manager had promised would be there. "Seichi, get off my bed. I'm going to sleep."
She'd figure out how to deal with things in the morning.
As they neared the border of Volcano Country, Kakashi peeled away from the trail his nin-dogs were tracking and gestured for Naga and the three Grass-nin to follow him slightly straighter east. It took nearly a minute for the dogs to notice and for Pakkun to race over and bite at Kakashi's sandal in annoyance. "Hey!" Pakkun said. "Wrong direction, idiot. The Uchiha went that way."
Kakashi shook the small dog off his foot. "I know. Keep following it and try to be inconspicuous. We'll rejoin the pack tomorrow, but the five of us will cross the border legally. It may save trouble later."
"Oh, so it doesn't matter if we're criminals so long as you keep your nose out of shit," Pakkun grumbled, but he dashed back to the other dogs and chivvied them into order.
"Pursuit of missing-nin is always legal in countries without a hidden village," Kafunnokaze said, almost idly, as if pointing out a small, nearly unnoticeable flaw in the presentation of a fancy meal.
"You know that. I know that. Everyone knows that," Kakashi agreed. "But civilians and independent ninja clans don't always agree with treaty provisions. I won't hand Itachi extra weapons to turn against us. We do this by the book."
"You're the boss," Suisen said brightly. "Are we going to walk up in plain sight on the trade road too?"
"Of course," Kakashi agreed. "There's no need to startle the good citizens of... what's the border town called, anyway?"
"Aoitourou," Kohaku said.
"Thank you. The good citizens of Aoitourou don't need us disturbing their peaceful lives by skulking about in the night like common thieves," Kakashi continued. "We can hunt evil perfectly well in daylight with nice stamped border passes. Assuming one of you has cash to pay for them, that is."
The three Grass-nin exchanged a complicated network of glances that resulted in Kafunnokaze sighing and pulling a coin purse from one of the many pockets in his modified tactical vest. "Here. And that makes us even for you buying dinner last night." He tossed it to Kakashi, who caught it neatly without seeming to look.
Kafunnokaze grimaced. Naga nudged his shoulder companionably as they loped along at the easy, ground-eating pace practice and chakra made possible. "Hey. Don't mind him, he's just like that. Least he can't steal your poisons like he can copy other people's moves."
Kafunnokaze wrapped his hand around hers, his glove catching slightly on her calluses, and smiled. "I know. It's just annoying to have a jounin treating us like little kids after Gachi-sensei finally turned us loose. If this is what Kakashi's like as a commander, I'd hate to have him as a teacher for real."
Naga laughed. "Me too. One month for the chuunin exam was bad enough."
"But useful!" Kakashi called over his shoulder.
Naga shoved her free hand forward, arm slipping its human shape, and punched his back just hard enough to make him take a half-step sideways to keep his balance. "Don't eavesdrop!"
"Don't make it so easy," Kakashi said, and picked up his pace. "Let's reach the border early enough to buy real food for dinner."
Grumbling, Naga ran faster, Kafunnokaze's hand still clasped in her own.
They reached the dusty, rutted trade road shortly thereafter and followed it through the last stretch of scrubland to the border. No natural landmarks distinguished northeastern Grass Country from southwestern Volcano Country. The soil was too thin and poor for much of anything, and generations of fighting had whittled cross-border trade down to nearly nothing. Yet people had died in droves to establish possession of a few miles of marginal land.
Fighting to defend your home and honor made sense. Fighting for Aoitourou? Naga made a face as they walked toward the heavily fortified town. Really, who'd want the place?
The town was ringed by three wide stone walls, braced by earthworks, each higher than the last until the town itself was invisible behind its defenses. The outermost wall stretched along the Volcano Country side of the border for nearly a mile in either direction before it gave way to a string of boundary stones. The border station itself sat a cautious arrow flight outside the town walls, right on the notional line between countries. It was a squat concrete blister with a single window, no door, and no obvious defenses.
Kohaku stamped on the road as they approached the border, cocked his head, and nodded to himself. "The whole area is mined," he said.
Figured. This town was obviously paranoid.
"Hang on a minute," Naga said. She whistled Akaruime down from his overhead watch and stroked her finger over his beak. "Don't want you shot down by crazy civilians. Head home. I'll call you back when something interesting happens."
The young raven bobbed his head and vanished in a puff of smoke.
Kakashi led the mismatched team to the window and pulled a sheaf of papers from his vest. "Passage for five on behalf of Konoha," he said, his eye crinkling in an exaggerated smile. "We're hunting a missing-nin."
The station guard, a dour middle-aged woman wearing a leather vest and arm guards dyed bright green, spread the papers on the windowsill with one hand. The other stayed out of sight under her desk, most likely holding a weapon or hovering over an alarm.
Naga couldn't decide if the guard was a civilian with some weapons training, a member of one of Volcano Country's three feuding shinobi clans, or a missing-nin who'd ditched her forehead protector altogether. She looked like she'd seen fighting, but something about her felt slightly off for a ninja.
"She's a civilian," Kafunnokaze whispered into Naga's ear. "Aoitourou's been besieged and sacked so many times it's almost paranoid enough to be a hidden village. They train all their kids to fight. If they could use chakra they'd be really dangerous, but the peace treaties don't let them try."
"They don't cheat?" Naga murmured.
"We check," Kafunnokaze said shortly.
The guard frowned at Kakashi's papers. "You're overkill for one missing-nin, and don't think I can't tell the difference between Leaf-nin and Grass-nin. Why are you really here?"
"To hunt a missing-nin," Kakashi repeated easily. "S-class, of course. He violated Grass's territorial integrity on his way, which is why those three joined me and my partner. Plus young love." He waved at hand at Naga and Kafunnokaze, and winked.
The guard sighed. "Whatever. I can't prove you're lying and your papers and fee are in order, so you get to pass. Do me a favor and get out of my town yesterday. We don't need ninja trouble inside our walls."
"We'll leave tomorrow morning," Kakashi said. "On that note, however, we'll need a place to sleep tonight. Would you recommend anyplace in particular?"
The guard's dour face cracked into a brief smile. "Oh, yes. Go to the Laughing Fish, by the eastern wall. Tell Kenta that Haru sent you, with my compliments." She reeled off a string of directions, stamped five cards, and handed them to Kakashi. "Don't lose those until you're out of Volcano Country." Then she raised her hidden hand from under her desk, revealing a device with two buttons, connected by a wire to who knew what. She pushed the blue button.
"The gates will be open for five minutes. Don't dawdle."
Kakashi led the way over open ground to the first wall and through the massive gate. The two inner gates were already open, guarded by more watchful civilians in green leather uniforms. Naga eyed them sideways as she passed, wondering what fighting style they used.
Kakashi obeyed the station guard's directions for the first several narrow, twisting blocks, then turned left instead of right at the square with an elaborate eight-sided fountain decorated with various birds of prey spouting water from their open stone beaks.
"Hey. Didn't the guard say the Laughing Fish was against the eastern wall?" Suisen asked.
"She did. And we're not going there," Kakashi said. "Judging by that guard's attitude, it's either the worst inn in town or it's a death trap full of spy holes and secret agents. We're going to the first public house in this direction instead." He smiled over his shoulder, his eye crinkled into a mocking crescent. "Come on, children, don't dawdle."
"I'm going to kill him," Kafunnokaze muttered.
"I'll help," Naga said. "But let's finish the mission first." She squeezed his hand and followed Kakashi through the narrow, hostile streets toward the promise of dinner and a decent bed.
Eiji sent one of his guards to pick up a takeout lunch and ventured down the hallway to knock on Tetsuko's half-open door. "Come in," she said without looking up from the figures she was scribbling on a sheet of scrap paper. "I'll be with you in a minute."
"I thought we could plot world domination over lunch," Eiji said lightly, and smiled when Tetsuko raised her head to meet his eyes. "Hanran's bringing food to my office, and with a bit of luck someone will get word to Ginji in time for him to join us. Will you be done with that in fifteen minutes?"
Tetsuko glanced back down at her work and tidied the papers with a decisive motion. "This can wait. You send someone for Ginji; I'll get some proper dishes for us to use."
Eiji headed downstairs, hiding a grimace as his bad leg twinged in protest at being forced into motion after hours at his desk. The office was mostly empty at this time of day, but two clerks were quietly arguing over paperwork near the back and the representative at the front desk smiled as Eiji walked past toward the main door. He motioned to one of the obvious guards Ginji had stationed outside the building and told the man to call Ginji back to headquarters. The missing-nin nodded and vanished with the baffling speed all ninja seemed to delight in flaunting around normal people, as if reminding Eiji that though he held nominal power as the man's employer, there was nothing he could do to stop any ninja should they choose to turn on him.
Eiji caught his direction of thought and told himself to stop being paranoid. He'd feel better after food and time with his family.
Hanran had set the takeout bags in the middle of his desk and was in the process of pulling out containers, opening them, and making a long chain of hand seals over each one. "I'm checking for poison," she said without turning. "Yes, it needs to be done. Ginji-san will agree with me. I refuse to shoulder the embarrassment of a client dying on my watch from something so easily preventable."
Eiji sighed and began dragging two of the heavy upholstered chairs closer to his desk so Tetsuko and Ginji would have somewhere to sit when they arrived. Ginji slung himself in through the window just as Eiji got the second chair into place and Hanran finished her tests. "All clear," Hanran said, tipping her head to Ginji.
"Good. Stand watch outside and ignore the silence barrier unless it goes down without the standard signal," Ginji said, dusting his hands on his loose black pants.
"Acknowledged," Hanran said, and opened the door, stepping neatly to the side so Tetsuko could enter with a stack of dishes and utensils. Tetsuko paused for a half second, but recovered smoothly enough that only a ninja or someone very familiar with her expressions and the way she moved would have noticed.
"Here we all are," Tetsuko said as Hanran slipped into the hallway and closed the door. "What's the food and what's the argument?"
"Pickled everything on rice, and whatever you want to yell at me about," Eiji said, gesturing toward one of the extra chairs. Tetsuko laughed, a tiny burst of half-vocalized sound, before she shut her expression back down into neutrality. She hadn't forgiven him yet. Fair enough, Eiji thought. He shouldn't have tried to leave her out of his and Ginji's plans. That didn't mean he couldn't keep trying to make her smile.
"Before you two get started, I have news," Ginji said. He scooped a blob of wakame onto his bowl of rice, added some pickled plums, and retreated to the windowsill rather than sit in a chair. "I received a hawk from Hidden Cloud this morning, with a request for a more detailed report on Hideo's death and the missing-nin involved in the supposed incident."
Eiji looked down at his hands. There was an ink stain on his right thumb. He rubbed at it, fruitlessly.
"Was there anything in your first report that would make the Raikage or the Council suspicious?" Tetsuko asked, turning in her chair to face her brother.
Ginji shook his head. "Only the fact of his death. Since whoever sent him was obviously suspicious already, that looks bad no matter how well we explain it."
"What does that mean for your little revolution?" Tetsuko asked.
"It means we have a tighter time limit than we'd hoped," Ginji said. "We're sending a few missing-nin out on every ship that leaves the harbor, and with luck we'll have a solid alliance with Akatsuki nailed down by the end of the week, but I give it ten, twelve days maximum before a team from Hidden Cloud turns up to investigate. Probably undercover." He chewed thoughtfully on a pickled plum, then added, "Probably set to double as assassins."
Tetsuko slammed her hand on the desk. "That is not acceptable. Nobody gets to kill either of you except me. If that level of trouble is building out at sea, we don't sit next to the reef and wait to be smashed to pieces. We raise sails and fly."
Eiji looked up from his empty hands and said, "Tetsuko, no. I'm humbled that you still think I'm worth saving, but I will not abandon Tengai. Too many people depend on our business and too many others have taken up our ideals. What kind of man would I be if I threw them to the sharks to save myself?"
Tetsuko's mouth flattened into a scowl. "Alive," she said.
"In body," Eiji agreed.
Tetsuko eyed him for a long, tense moment. Then she sighed and picked up her chopsticks, twirling them absently between her fingers. "I knew you were a bleeding heart from the day Ginji and I met you, and I married you anyway. I have no one to blame but myself when that virtue becomes a flaw. Fine. There was never a chance for us to stand against a whole hidden village and we certainly can't manage that now that you're already shipped away half your army. If you won't leave Tengai's people, you'd better start thinking of a plan to evacuate the whole damn town. Because you are not dying on my watch."
The nameless inn Kakashi eventually found was best described as run-down, but the single room the five of them shared was unmarred by any secret passages or spying devices, and the bean soup they bought for supper was filling and unpoisoned. Nonetheless, nobody objected when Kakashi set them on a two-hour watch schedule all night. Naga took the final shift and extended her arms to flick the others awake from a safe distance when gray light began to seep through the oiled cloth serving as a replacement windowpane.
Kakashi left payment in the middle of the bare floor and led them out of Aoitourou as silently as possible, stopping only to flash their newly stamped border passes at the watchful guards.
They followed the road for roughly a mile, then swung several degrees north, toward the heading Pakkun and the other nin-dogs had taken on the Grass Country side of the border. As they ran, Naga saw Kakashi surreptitiously shaping seals, probably doing something to the summoning bond to tell the pack where he was.
Sure enough, a dozen dogs came bounding over a low hill, their passage shaking the grass and disturbing the scattered scrubby bushes. "That way," Pakkun barked, sitting at Kakashi's foot and pointing with one forepaw. "And hurry up - it smells like rain later today. We need a solid lead in case we lose his scent."
"You heard the dog," Kakashi said with an elaborate shrug. He neatly dodged Pakkun's retaliatory bite.
They ran northeast at a steady pace, through steadily rising hills. Brown grass gave way to raspberries and scrub maples, then to stands of birch, and finally to the old-growth sentinel pines that lined the northern bay. The forest floor was as open as the land around Konoha, but tree-hopping was out of the question unless they wanted to burn unnecessary chakra: the pines grew straight up and needles stuck out like tiny daggers from even the largest branches. They didn't have the broad, accessible handholds that the deciduous forest of Fire Country offered its inhabitants.
The sensation of being trapped in the open made Naga twitchy, especially juxtaposed against the otherwise comforting weight of leaves blotting out the sky and dimming sunlight to dappled shadows.
The Grass-nin seemed much less bothered, but they were used to open plains and didn't have the same bone-deep ideas of how a forest ought to be. If Kakashi was affected, he kept it hidden well. Naga scowled at his back and resolved to crack his calm at least once by the end of this mission. Somehow, some way, she'd catch him off guard.
In the meantime, she studied the trees, trying to find the similarities and differences between Volcano Country and the forests around Konoha. The trees were different, obviously. The soil was different too, thinner and sandier, a little gray in places with the residue of ash. Hard to say if it was from local fires, or if it had ridden south on the wind after one of the coastal volcanoes blew its top. Patches of deep green moss grew like round, springy pillows here and there among drifts of fallen needles; they hardly seemed fastened to the earth at all, tearing easily away with the slightest tug of Naga's hand. The one squirrel she saw in the distance seemed smaller and redder than the gray-brown squirrels of Fire Country.
And there were no birds at all. Not singing, not hunting, not even flying away from the threat of five humans disturbing their territory.
Naga was halfway up a tree before the significance of that consciously hit her. Then she drew a breath and pitched her voice to carry.
AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I am, as always, particularly interested in knowing what parts of the chapter worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.
The revised version of this chapter was posted on 1-3-16.