Chapter 19: Of Jellyfish and Dolphins
"Here boy, let go of her hand."
The voice came from above him, echoing down as if the speaker was far, far away. Neji tensed, back arching, wavering on the brink of consciousness and the blackness that had swallowed him whole.
"You're safe now, she's safe. No need to hold on that tight." A low, gravelly chuckle. He turned his face towards the voice carefully, as if he was sprawled on brittle, thin ice that just might shatter with one wrong move.
He felt stretched, bone weary, limbs heavy as lead. He tried to open his eyes but couldn't – didn't really want to either, because at last he was at rest and he remembered being cold, submerged in a vast expanse of darkness that had lashed at him, tossed him up and sucked him down until he grew numb. Neji recalled vaguely instances when he had emerged from that total deprivation of sensory perception: the sharp, mineral taste of blood on his tongue before salt washed it away; the violent tug of a current that circled and circled and pulled everything down down down to what he was sure could only be the graveyard of a sea-bed; the low rumble of thunder and an enormous tentacle, wet, pale flesh lifting him slowly out of the thrashing waves; and a hand that fit perfectly in his, cold and small and rough to the touch.
A hand that was still in his, judging by the faint pulse beneath his fingertips. His thumb fumbled across knuckles faintly ridged with scars and was rewarded by a weak squeeze in return.
"Tenten," he muttered thickly, and then the ice broke and he was falling once more into exhausted oblivion.
"I... ...I was wondering, about what Naruto said before... ..."
"Why are you whispering?"
"Keep your voice down! I don't want to wake him up. He needs to rest."
A snort. "Listen to the idiot snoring... ...why are your fingers in his hair?"
"Be quiet! I don't know, I guess it soothes him when I massage his temples like this, it's what my mother used to do for me... ...now stop glaring at me."
"Anyway. I was thinking about what Naruto said the day before yesterday, before Sai came in... ..."
"What about it?"
"The Uzumaki... ...they were the clan who ruled the Empire before we were born, weren't they? I mean, I've lived under Emperor Zabuza's reign ever since I was little, but a governess of mine...during a history lesson back at the Hyuuga court... ...Sasuke?"
"Naruto... ...he's not just a common pirate lad, is he."
A lengthy pause. "If you're referring to his uncommon stupidity, you would be correct."
"Ha. Ha. Very funny, Sasuke. I never knew you could make jokes, albeit terribly awkward ones."
"Uchiha don't make jokes."
"Look, just tell me – is he, or isn't he?"
"Is he what?"
"You know what I'm talking about, Sasuke."
"You don't understand."
"I understand enough. Stop looking so glum, Sasuke. Whoever he is... ...it's not important, not really. You're right, he's not really sorted in the head, but he's a good fellow. And I know you care about him, a lot."
"You know, you're just as annoying as that idiot."
"Which would be why you're jealous that I'm massaging his forehead, and not yours."
"... ...I am not jealous."
"I might believe that, if you hadn't been glaring at my hand since that third candlestick burned out. And that pout really does not become you at all."
"Look, just because I saved you –"
"From a fire that you started, if I may so remind you –"
"Whatever. My point is, don't start getting ideas into that pink little head of yours. There are more pressing matters at hand."
"Look, I know. But I was thinking... once we escape – and I know we will - or when Tenten and the others find us...once all this is over...I'd like to go back to Leaf Island and live with you people."
"I'm sure Naruto and the others will enjoy your company."
"Oh? And you won't?"
"I...I won't be there."
"Feh. Why do you keep asking all these annoying questions?"
"Because I happen to like you. A l-lot."
"As I said earlier... ...you don't understand."
"Look what happened to Naruto. Itachi is a danger to everyone."
"What has that got anything to do with the fact that I like you? I...I realize I'm being very forward, but I've never been very good at hiding my feelings – even back at the Hyuuga court, my governess used to scold me...but I've never r-really seen the point. So there."
"Listen, Sakura. The only thing I care about is how to kill my brother. To avenge my clan."
"That's not true! It's obvious you care about Naruto at least, as much as he cares about you and-"
"And look where it got him... ...you think too much, Sakura. Once I find a way to get us out of here, get everyone back to Leaf...I'm going to stay behind. To deal with Itachi."
"And afterwards? What if we decide to help you?"
"Feh. Look at the way you're flushing up. It clashes with your hair. Badly."
"And why do you care?"
"I don't. I don't care about you. As I said earlier, the only thing that's important – the only thing that can be important to me, right now - is killing Itachi."
"And what of it? I want to know, what if we decide to stay and help you fight him?"
"I won't let you."
"Because you're annoying. I don't want to discuss this anymore."
Silence. The fifth and final candle flickered weakly, throwing a last golden glow across the steel bars between them, and then – darkness.
He came to with the warmth of sun-parched wood at his back and blinding light dousing the world in a white, shimmering haze. The sky was spotless and wiped clean of grey. Neji inhaled deeply, dazedly tasting the salty edge of ocean air scoured by a storm, the faintly metallic tang of freshly caught fish and the familiar, heady stench of dried tar.
He sat up slowly and nearly groaned at the pain that immediately shot up his back; his muscles were still too taut from the struggle to stay afloat and his fair skin, normally hidden during the scorching noon hours under a long sleeved shirt, was exposed and reddening under the sun. Looking around, he saw that he was currently lying in the middle of a tiny, rickety fishing boat, a half-full net of fish gleaming by his feet. Tenten was leaning against the side with her fingers out and trailing in the water, the other hand fingering a dull red patch on her shirt.
"You're bleeding," he noted groggily, immediately pulling himself closer, but Tenten stopped him with a shake of her head, smiling softly.
"S'okay, it's been dealt with already. The wound re-opened – I'll definitely have a nasty scar there, at this rate - but Jiraiya here fixed it up for me just fine."
"Jiraiya?" Neji blinked slowly. "The parrot?" Fixing up a flesh wound? Clever bird.
"Actually, Jiraiya Silverbeard: writer, ex-pirate-turned-fisherman, and connoisseur of beautiful women."
Neji started, recognizing the voice from before, and turned to find an old man perched at the front of the boat, blowing enormous smoke rings from a crusty pipe and smiling at them with what he obviously thought to be a venerable expression. The Hyuuga examined his appearance dubiously, noting the thick, silvery hair knotted into dreadlocks that dangled to his collarbones, the fang tattoos that graced his cheeks, the many chunky, gold circlets bristling from his earlobes.
"Sir?" he began cautiously, "You... ...saved us?"
"Found the two of you barely hanging onto a few splinters." Jiraiya exhaled luxuriously and another smoky ring drifted through the air, half obscuring his face. "You're lucky I got to you in time. These areas are infested with sharks and worse...if I hadn't felt like having some tuna for my supper tonight... ..." He shrugged, before continuing musingly: "To tell you the truth, this all reminds me of my pirating days, when I drifted through the Straits for a week – nearly killed me, that storm, and turned my beautiful ship into scattered wood – but an enormous school of jellyfish took pity on me and led me all the way to a little rocky outcrop around here. Got picked up by 'Ruka after that. Lucky break, huh?"
"Aye." A nod, another smoke ring. "Jellyfish. Pink ones. Swam circles around me then headed straight for the nearest source of land. Good hearted creatures, Lord bless them."
Tenten chuckled. "That's a pretty tall tale."
"Women!" Jiraiya threw his hands up in mock resignation. "Always so petty and suspicious. Tsunade never believed a single thing I told her either, the silly old girl."
"Tsunade? You know Tsunade?" Neji croaked, and Jiraiya threw him a small bottle of rum from his breech pockets.
"Aye," he grunted. "Most infamous cleavage in history. We were lovers for a while – she was an absolute minx in bed, that one. Heh."
"You!" Suddenly Tenten sat up straighter, an incredulous grin slowly spreading across her face. "You're the one she always went on and on about! Whenever she got into one of her foul moods she'd mutter about some thieving, perverted, unsanitary old fling of hers who wrote porn and ridiculous adventure novels in his spare time. It's you, right? To think that of all the people who could have picked us up... ...I've wanted to meet you for a long time!"
"Unsanitary? Thieving?" Jiraiya looked wounded. "I'll have you know, lass, that I take a bath once a fortnight, whether I need one or not. And forgive me for thinking otherwise, but I've always assumed that being a pirate would entail a certain amount of theft." A disgruntled sniff. "And Lord knows we enjoyed much more than a fling. I suppose she's still angry about Dan, huh."
"The parrot." He gestured towards the open sea. "Out there flying somewhere. It's how I got to you; he flew right through the storm and found his owner, the good old thing, then brought me to where you two were floatin' around. I lost him in a gamble a few weeks ago, to some filthy merchant types. Never thought I'd see him again. Though," And here his expression darkened even further, "Some filthy bilge-rat had tied his beak together with a bit o' string. Such cruelty, these days. Shameful."
Tenten frowned. "Tsunade's been angry at you for over a decade because of a parrot?"
"He was hers when it first hatched. She named it after a childhood crush of hers, or some early tryst, I don't know. But Dan stuck to me as if I was his pa, so I took care of him instead. Every respectable seaman needs a good bird. Dan's an old thing now, but-"
"Sir," Neji interrupted tiredly, head spinning from the heat, exhaustion, and this confusing talk of pink jellyfish and old flings and ancient parrots whose name turned out to be Dan and not Jiraiya. "Sir, where are you taking us now?"
"Back to 'Ruka's."
"Jiraiya told me earlier that he's a friend of Iruka's," Tenten explained, patting Neji's hand comfortingly. The Hyuuga immediately relaxed. "You remember me mentioning him back on the Kyuubi? He looks after the orphans and the newest recruits over at the Academy."
"I've been visiting him for a few weeks," Jiraiya confirmed. "Needed to lay low for a while after I ran into some trouble with the authorities... ...anyway, we should be back before sunset. Guess the storm blew you all the way out here, huh."
"Guess so," Tenten echoed, looking out into the distance and squinting against the sunlight, before murmuring in a small voice: "I hope the others are alright. Without the mainmast the Kyuubi could have tipped over, and it's not like they could have directed the ship in that kind of weather."
"Don't worry, lass." Jiraiya waved his hand expansively. "You were originally heading here in the first place, weren't you? Luckily for all of you the storm winds were blowin' in the right direction. Got you here in a much shorter time than it would have taken in fair weather. Your ship's probably in the region right now."
He was right.
A few hours later the sun was an arc of molten gold on the horizon, bloodying the sky like dying embers. Neji was helping Tenten apply fresh bandages to her wound when the first pair of dolphins appeared, sleek shadows that rippled beneath the waves before suddenly arching up and out through the air, glistening silver and pink in the fading light. They swam close by the fishing boat, nudging it gently to the left and right before Jiraiya stuck his head over the side and whistled shrilly.
"I've missed them," Tenten smiled wistfully, watching as nearly a dozen more of the nubile creatures appeared. "Aren't they the prettiest things?" she cooed softly, reaching out to gingerly brush calloused fingertips across a wet, grey fin.
Neji wondered with vague disgust why he suddenly felt jealous of said fin. Or the aquatic mammal to which it was attached.
"These are the so called 'sharks' that terrorized the Navy?" he asked distastefully, poking a blowhole. He jerked back violently when the dolphin's snout immediately appeared above the water, gaping wide open to reveal rows of sharp, gleaming ivory. The dolphin grinned widely at him before diving back down into the water, soaking the poor man with a deft flick of its tail.
"Gutted them," Jiraiya nodded, and Tenten giggled. Neji flushed embarrassedly and immediately turned away, trying to hide his reddening cheeks. (After all, men of his caliber did not blush. Ever.)
Half an hour later the coastline finally emerged from the distance, revealing dense forests that stretched seemingly endlessly towards the horizon. Jiraiya steered the boat expertly towards a shallow bay decorated by a pristine beach and the estuary of a small river, before lowering the sails and allowing the waves to carry them slowly towards shore. Pinpricks of light flickered like fireflies from the shadows and there were a few smaller ships anchored close by, drifting gently upon the incoming tide.
"What's that... ...oh!" Tenten gasped when she spotted a large, hulking silhouette sitting skeleton-like on one end of the beach, half collapsed upon the sand. The front of (what used to be) the ship was crushed, apparently by the impact of running aground. "Is that – is that my ship? Look, it's missing a mast, and there's a bit of red cloth – shiver me timbers, it's completely wrecked but how did it get here and Neji, do you see it? Oh, it hurts just to look at it...do you think the others are there?" Her fingers gripped the side of the boat until the knuckles drained white.
"Aye...they're here, all right. That your crew?" Jiraiya squinted, peering at the shore.
A small, blonde figure was sprinting out from the cover of the forest, careening into the water in a violent flurry of waving arms and legs.
"Ino?" Tenten stood up abruptly, waving back with equal enthusiasm. "Ino!"
Said blonde figure was now jumping up and down in obvious excitement; two other taller shadows were detaching themselves from the forest and ambling down the beach.
The pirate flipped off the side of the boat once they were in shallow water, rushing towards the shore without waiting for her companions. "Ino! Thank God you're safe, I was so worried –"
"Wait for me, Tenten... ..." Neji began lamely, hurrying after her but wincing at the discovery of multiple lacerations on his legs that now stung upon contact with the salty water. Ino was splashing out to meet them, followed by Shino and a pony-tailed stranger Neji did not recognize. Both Tenten and the blonde paused abruptly when they were within four feet of each other, standing waist-high in seawater and panting from exertion. For a long moment there was only the quiet lapping of water upon sand as the two women looked each other up and down - Neji glanced between the two of them nervously, wondering if this was a female thing – then suddenly all hell broke loose and they were crying loudly in each other's arms, sobbing and wailing in a flurry of teary cheeks and "Oh Lord, look at how haggard you are" 's.
The Hyuuga blinked, mildly alarmed. Sidling away discreetly, he decided to let them be and waded to shore alone, where he and Shino exchanged grave nods.
"Aburame." A firm shake of the hand.
"Hyuuga." A solid pat on the back (whereupon Neji barely managed to stop himself from coughing up excess seawater); the two of them favoured a more manly and composed manner of greeting, but it was understood that both were definitely very glad to see the other alive.
Jiraiya had come up behind them and now stalked up to the stranger.
"Look what I found, 'Ruka," he announced, elbowing the other man jovially. "Not quite what I had in mind for supper, but they'll do."
Suddenly Tenten's grubby, tear-streaked face peered out worriedly from Ino's tight hug to look searchingly around the beach. "Where's Chouji? Is he alright?"
"He's cooking," Iruka told her, smiling and rubbing lightly at the horizontal scar slashing across the bridge of his nose. "He hasn't left the kitchen after tasting what I made for supper last night. Said he's doing it for the sake of the kids." He shrugged ruefully.
"Your cooking still that bad, huh?" Tenten grinned, voice breaking slightly and rubbing fiercely at her eyes. "Let's go in, Ino. I want to see everyone."
The Academy turned out to be a large, low-lying mansion tucked carefully into a cleared part of the forest two miles from the shoreline, complete with a barricaded courtyard and a garden-turned-training-ground hidden from prying eyes by dense firs. At first glance the ivy-covered exterior gave the impression of an abandoned, derelict ruin; upon entering the enormous, iron-hinged front doors, however, Neji discovered an echoing hallway richly furnished with an exotic jumble of what were obviously spoils from countless pirate raids. Oil paintings with gilded frames hung from the walls next to ethnic tapestries from the Grass colonies; oriental ceramics of the purest bone white were clustered charmingly in the corners upon carved mahogany tabletops, stuffed with freshly picked wildflowers from the forest. The drawing rooms in the left wing had been converted into rather unconventional classrooms, with blackboards and chalk hanging next to a rack of decidedly deadly looking metal instruments and a beautifully illustrated map of the known world; in the right, various storerooms; the floor above was where Iruka and the young pirate recruits slept in their makeshift hammocks and the occasional featherbed (reserved as a treat for the more well-behaving students, naturally).
Despite there being a cavernous dining hall just next door, the shipwrecked pirates, along with Jiraiya, Iruka and the Academy recruits, had sat down in the smaller and more cosy kitchen for supper. After Neji and Tenten had been given a thorough wash and their wounds tended to, a beaming Chouji (healthy looking and cheerful as ever, despite a long scar that wound down his right forearm) had set out a veritable feast, though the attention of a certain pretty young thing was currently centered on something far more attractive than food. Barely sixteen and already flirtatious as a barmaid, with a shock of frizzy red hair, Moegi was eyeing the ex-Navy officer with barely concealed interest.
"Who are you, and what have you done with our Tenten?" the young recruit demanded coyly, gracing the poor man with a grubby-faced smile.
The brunette choked into her glass of water. "Moegi!"
"My name," Neji replied, putting down his fork and mustering as much dignity as possible, "Is Capt – er – just Neji. You can call me Neji," he told her lamely. "I have recently been accepted into Tenten's crew, and despite your insinuations I assure you that I have not made any dishonorable attempts towards her, as she will no doubt testify herself. None whatsoever."
Yet, mouthed Ino to Tenten, smirking when her friend immediately began to flush crimson.
"Porn," Dan contributed slyly, having flown in barely half an hour ago and was now perched comfortably on Jiraiya's wide shoulders.
Tenten coughed. "So," she began loudly. "Any news?"
It turned out that the Kyuubi had, as predicted by Jiraiya, been blown violently eastwards by the storm after the mainmast had been broken off. Luckily the other masts had remained relatively intact, and Shino had managed to harness the incredible wind to direct them to what was nevertheless a sickening crash into the bay.
"We got here yesterday noon," Ino told them through a mouthful of grilled tuna. "Spent the afternoon trawling for you in the nearby waters, but not even the dolphins could find a thing, and Iruka had set every single one of them out. So then I told Shino and Chouji to stay here while I spent the night in Konoha, with Moegi and Udon, just to find the latest news."
"I'm the best in the Academy for reconnaissance work," Moegi offered modestly, batting thick lashes at the Hyuuga. Udon, the gangly teen by her side, merely sniffed.
"We infiltrated most of the harbour inns and even some of the inner-city ones," he told Tenten seriously, arranging his eyepiece with impressive gravity. "Rumour has it that the Naval galley commanded by Captain Uchiha Itachi is going to arrive in Konoha by tomorrow afternoon, with both the Hyuuga heirs – who had been thought dead and drowned at sea - several newly captured pirates and," he set his elbows on the table and leaned forwards ominously, "Accompanied by a Sunagakurean Naval Patrol, headed by none other by the Suna Commander herself."
"Temari's with him?" Tenten frowned. "That can't be good."
"Any word on the prisoners held by the Uchiha?" Neji asked intently. Ino nodded.
"Apparently there had been some dispute between Itachi and Temari over who would be responsible for their incarceration, so it's obvious that Shikamaru and the others are involved," she reported tightly. "Good news is: they found Sasuke. Bad news is, Itachi has him. The Emperor himself has already sent a congratulatory message to be received by the Captain when his ship docks, for his re-arrest of the Uchiha clan murderer, along with various accomplices. Meaning Sakura, most likely."
Tenten leaned back into her chair heavily, rubbing at her temples in obvious frustration. "Where is he going to keep them?"
"Word is that Temari made Itachi promise the prisoners would be put in joint custody – probably so that she could keep an eye on them for us – meaning, an independent prison owned by a clan trusted by both parties, instead of the Naval one, which is practically run by Itachi anyway – with guards posted from Uchiha's and Suna men."
"Shame." Jiraiya shook his head. "Clan prisons are a lot harder to break in than the Naval one. Privately bought security and all."
"And has any clan offered their prison?" Tenten asked urgently, food all but left forgotten on her plate. She blinked when both Ino and Chouji turned their heads towards the far end of the table, where Shino had remained silent throughout the entire meal.
"Aye." He set down his knife and fork, patted his mouth politely with a napkin, and met Tenten's confused gaze with an unreadable expression on his face. "The Aburame."