La Verità Dolce
Blood blossomed on the front of Ino's gown like scarlet flower petals slowly unfurling. It crept up the fabric at an alarming rate in the seconds after the gunshot. She made an odd sort of choking noise before falling back into Shikamaru's arms in shock. Her blue eyes were unfocused as her head lolled on his shoulder. The artist found a clean handkerchief in his pocket and pressed it to the wound in an effort to staunch the bleeding. He realized the only reason he had it was because Ino must have put it there.
Tenten took a deep breath, trying to think amidst Naruto and Kankurou's shouts. She knew this confrontation had to end, and end soon if Ino was to survive. Of the four swords in the room, Kakuzu had two of them and stood between Kankurou and the third one he'd placed on the table. Zetsu had sheathed his blade to watch the spectacle of Ino getting shot, and with that thought, Tenten had decided her next course of action.
Adrenaline burned through Tenten as she made a daring dash past Kakuzu. She hoped that Kankurou would make the most of this temporary distraction and go for his sword, consequences be damned. Tenten drove her shoulder into Zetsu's chest and the pair went flying. She gained control after a brief scuffle but he wasn't making it easy on her. Zetsu wasn't extremely powerful but he was squirmy and was starting to wriggle out of her chokehold. She managed to detach his sword from his belt and the metal clattered across the floor as she fought for control.
In the ensuing chaos, Naruto had foolishly gone after Hidan and was currently getting his brains bashed in by the musket. The gun took ages to reload but it made a very effective club. In his rage, all of Naruto's training was slipping away, and if Tenten weren't so distracted she would have been dismayed. Kankurou was trying to hold his own against Kakuzu's two rapiers and superior reach, but he didn't seem to mind the disadvantage. He was absolutely livid and would likely get himself killed if he didn't back down.
Tenten flinched when she saw movement out of the corner of her eye and realized something large and green was hurtling towards her. It turned out to be a wine bottle clutched in Sai's hand, and it brought a swift end to Zetsu's struggle. Sai pointed to his weapon she'd discarded moments earlier.
"I'll try and help Kankurou," Tenten told him breathlessly.
Sai looked grim as their blond friend fell to Hidan's vicious swing. "Naruto's going to get himself killed."
Tenten nodded and sprinted off after Kakuzu. The bottle Sai threw at Hidan missed him by a mile but it distracted him long enough for Naruto to wrestle his gun away. Blood was dripping into his eye and he tried in vain to blink it away. A hurried wipe with his sleeve sent a streak of crimson through his yellow hair.
"Sai!" Naruto shouted. He ducked Hidan's fists. "Go get Sakura! The clinic isn't far and she'll be the only doctor on call this late!"
Sai nodded uncertainly but went about unbarring the door. Hidan started moving towards him but Tenten threw her pocketknife swiftly into his back. It landed in one of his shoulder blades, hardly a lethal hit, but he howled in rage. Naruto tackled him around the legs and they toppled over. It had devolved into a competition of brute strength.
Kakuzu was being slowly worn down by Kankurou and Tenten's combined efforts. The two had never fought side by side but she found the nobleman to be a very crafty ally. He balanced aggression with caution and was very careful to avoid predictability. Kankurou lacked brute strength but was fueled by the intense, sincere desire to kill his opponent.
Tenten shot him a look and he nodded, understanding that the quick flick of her rapier point towards Kakuzu's injured arm was no mere accident. Kankurou started to drift farther from Tenten, which let him move more freely without worrying he'd hinder her attacks. It also made it harder for Kakuzu to keep his eye on both of them simultaneously and worked his injured arm even harder.
"I swear to you that artists' lives are rarely this exciting," Tenten quipped anxiously as she parried the blade in Kakuzu's right hand.
"Maybe just the artists I know," Kankurou conceded, hissing when Kakuzu's sword sliced through his sleeve. Blood was drawn but Kankurou did succeed in slipping the point of his own sword through the filigree of his opponent's weapon. He wrenched it savagely from his hand and Kankurou didn't hesitate to skewer the taller man without hesitation.
Tenten gasped as she watched Kankurou's sword sink down to the forte; she heard rather than felt Zetsu's sword fall from her limp fingers. Pure shock gripped her and she wondered if Neji had delivered an equally brutal death to his opponent. Fighting the Akatsuki at the Nara estate was different – she hadn't come close to killing any of them and probably wouldn't have been able to bring herself to. It was a step Tenten wasn't sure if she could ever make, even when her life was in danger.
Kakuzu dropped to his knees beside the rapier Tenten had dropped. A groan escaped his lips and he tipped over, the blade that took his life still embedded in his ribs. Kankurou bent down to retrieve it —Tenten tried not to wince at the slick noise of metal sliding through flesh — and walked purposefully towards Hidan. The platinum-haired man yanked the knife from his back and stood his ground.
Naruto wisely grabbed the gun and scampered away to give Lord Sabaku the space he needed. He ran to Shikamaru's side. The couple was too preoccupied to react when he started to tear strips of silk from Ino's petticoats; he paid attention to Sakura when she practiced medicine and knew how to stop the bleeding. The blood-soaked fabric in Shikamaru's grasp was nearing uselessness. He swapped them quickly, the crimson seeping through the pristine white cloth Naruto pressed against her.
"Sakura will need to remove the bullet," Naruto winced. "We just have to make sure she doesn't bleed to death before she gets here."
"How very gallant of you, to confront the Akatsuki in the fallen lady's name," Hidan remarked coldly. Even though Kakuzu's cold fingers still clutched his weapon, Zetsu's blade was still out in the open where Tenten had unwittingly dropped it. She made a move for it and barely dodged Hidan's swift jab when he reached it a half second before she did. The pitiful whimper that escaped her mouth would have embarrassed her if she wasn't so terrified.
"Someone has to end your influence in this city," Kankurou countered, and Shikamaru tried not to wince. "I think getting rid of you would be doing a service for mankind. Anyone that would murder an innocent, unarmed woman doesn't deserve to live."
"You're already going to bring the wrath of Akatsuki down on your family for killing my associate. Don't make it worse."
"If I kill you and that piece of garbage over there," Kankurou pointed to the unconscious Zetsu, "no one will ever know what happened here tonight."
Hidan scowled. "You're pretty confident."
"I already got one out of three." Kankurou was still breathing hard from fighting Kakuzu but aside from his injured arm, he looked up to the challenge.
Hidan spat. "Finally, someone willing to get his hands dirty. I never thought a nobleman would be so obliging, Lord Kankurou."
Shikamaru's fingers went momentarily lax over Ino's wounds. He hadn't been present for the deaths of Asuma and his family. Kakuzu lay in a pool of scarlet, unmoving, and Shikamaru couldn't even say he was happy about that, even after all he'd done to him. He'd never seen someone die until tonight. Ino's blood was hot against his fingers and he remembered that she wasn't gone yet. Shikamaru watched her blue eyes flutter open at the mention of Kankurou's name. Her hand closed over his.
"Ino, don't move," Shikamaru commanded, surprised at the strength of her grip.
"He could die," Ino gasped. Her face was tight with pain. A tear rolled down her cheek as she watched Hidan and Kankurou circle each other cagily. She bit her lip to keep from crying out; she knew better than to distract him, but wanted him to know she wasn't dead, not yet. He didn't have to get hurt because of her.
No one should, Ino thought.
"Sai's going to get Doctor Sakura for you," Naruto reassured her, misreading her fear.
Ino blinked, barely hearing the words. Her eyes were fixed on the end of Hidan's rapier. The clash of steel barely registered, but she knew the fight still hadn't ended. Everything was all her fault; she should at least be seeing things through. She tried to sit up but Shikamaru's hand on her shoulder kept her down. Through her haze of anguish, she distantly registered that since marrying her he hadn't touched her until tonight, until—
Until the last day of my life, Ino realized. As she drifted closer to unconsciousness, she savored the warmth of Shikamaru's arms and a sweet, tingly numbness that settled into her limbs as she slid into the abyss.
Neji stared mutinously at his wine glass, which Jiraiya seemed to view as a wine bucket, or perhaps even a wine drum. The downside of indulging in alcohol so rarely meant that he didn't have a tolerance, but he was confident the amount he'd consumed would be viewed as plentiful even by the standards of a drunkard, a quality in his host he was beginning to clearly recognize.
"You seem to have nothing but good things to say about this man," Neji observed after another one of Jiraiya's grand litanies.
"It's a shame you never got to see why for yourself. You seem like the type to appreciate subtle, understated genius. I guess that's how he caught her eye. I think you'll agree with me that most noblemen are pretty uninspired: they know their money will get them what they want, so there's no reason to actually earn it. You and your uncle are the exception, working hard for the betterment of Roman prosperity."
Neji couldn't deny that he held the majority of his peers in contempt. "So I take it this blacksmith took full advantage of his education?"
Jiraiya nodded. "He was very well-read and talented. Fujimoto was devoted to his sponsor, and his sponsor's family had a marriage lined up for the young heir to a foreign princess. She wasn't necessarily against the arranged marriage, but her intended was just like every other nobleman she met. She neither liked nor disliked this young man, but meeting Fujimoto changed all that."
"I don't see how."
Jiraiya leveled a glance at Neji, his eyebrow raised. "You've never been in love, I take it."
Neji rolled his eyes, not caring if it was impolite because he knew his host would not take offense. The wine might have also had something to do with it. "Why do people keep asking me that?"
"You wouldn't understand unless you have been, is merely what I'm saying," the silver-haired man said with a shrug. "It wasn't that the young man was lacking in any way, he just wasn't right for her. Arranged marriages take finances into account, but not the desires and temperaments of the participants."
Neji couldn't argue that. "So this indentured servant was caught in a compromising situation with this apparently foolish princess?"
Jiraiya smirked. "Hardly; Yukarin was uncommonly bright and engaging. She didn't fall prey to any elaborate scheme of his. Her intended was attempting to court her but since he grew up emotionally stunted and sheltered, he just couldn't inspire any passion in her despite his very genuine regard for her."
"She wasn't interested in such a fine match?" Neji's question was laced with derision. "She doesn't sound worth it to me."
"Yes, because you can't wait to settle down with whatever witless headache your uncle will undoubtedly pick for you," Jiraiya leveled a discerning look at Neji, who frowned. "Like all rich families, the nobleman relied on his servant to relay his messages and deliver their correspondence. Fujimoto saw far more of Yukarin than her intended ever did. She didn't know what to write in her letters to someone she barely knew, and asked for advice from the man who knew him best. This was never a sordid affair in any way. They were friends. They confided in him that they were starting to develop feelings for each other."
Neji winced inwardly. While he couldn't fathom the deluded actions of two people that fancied themselves in love, he knew this story couldn't possibly end well. "What happened?"
"Fujimoto was immediately expelled from the household onto the streets. The nobleman promptly ended the engagement after seeing to it that malicious rumors were started. She was, of course, disowned by her family and her name no longer mentioned amongst them. It's like she never existed. Had Fujimoto not married her and relocated, Yukarin would have died penniless on the streets."
"So Fujimoto's swords are so rare because he was blacklisted by a nobleman?"
Jiraiya gave Neji an unreadable look. "It wasn't just any nobleman that was spurned, Neji. It was your uncle. Hiashi made sure Fujimoto could never work in Rome and has been quietly buying up all of his blades and having them destroyed."
"What?" Neji stood abruptly and slammed his hands on the desk. "You accuse my uncle of such treachery?" He could understand Hiashi's actions had an illicit affair been happening under his nose, but Jiraiya had said no such thing. Two naïve and well-meaning people had tried to do the honest, right thing. Imagining his uncle dismissing a servant was simple enough, but without any actual crime, Hiashi had likely violated the contract he'd signed when Fujimoto became indentured to him. Now that was unbelievable.
"Neji, your uncle was heartbroken," Jiraiya said sadly, shaking his head. "He very likely still is."
Neji saw sadness and pity in Jiraiya's eyes. "Just because you are a sentimental old man doesn't mean my uncle was." But it explained so, so much.
"Neji, nothing went on between the two that couldn't have easily been diffused with some maturity. Any normal family would have 'redistributed' Fujimoto to the townhouse to work on business and that would have put a swift end to it. The amount of resources that had gone into Fujimoto's training would have ensured Hiashi was likely punished behind closed doors by his parents."
Lee popped into Neji's mind. It wasn't even the monetary commitment; the sheer amount of time it took was immense. Plus, similarly to Lee, Fujimoto was likely privy to sensitive business information and indispensible during negotiations.
"Your uncle disgraced one of Europe's most powerful royal families due to his little tantrum."
"My uncle is the master of social decorum," Neji reminded his host. "This doesn't sound like him."
"This was decades ago; he would never do something so indiscreet nowadays."
Self-control prevented Neji from gasping. "So that's why my uncle is so adamant Hinata and Haku marry each other. He wasn't able to unite the families and is still paying for the mistakes of his youth."
"Haku's father very nearly didn't become Grand Vizier because of his wife's sister," Jiraiya informed him. "But once he did he made trade rather difficult for your family. Hiashi blew everything out of proportion, that's why the scandal grew the way it did."
Understatement, Neji seethed. "There was no wrongdoing, at least nothing to warrant what actually happened."
"Yukarin was the only thing that his money could never buy. He caught a glimpse of a life he could have never imagined in the limited scope of his childhood. He only saw it as a lesser man stealing what was rightfully his. If you met a woman and fell in love with her, what would you do if your money and status didn't matter to her?"
"I'm not the type to fall in love," Neji said simply. "I hope for a match with an attractive woman who isn't annoying. I don't think that's asking too much."
"You're short-changing yourself." Jiraiya was trying very hard not to smile at Neji's complete naïveté. "And it's arrogant to assume you're immune to the very thing that nearly undid Hiashi. Love doesn't inspire logical and sound decision making, and it's hardly up to you whether or not you feel it. Just because someone doesn't mean to hurt you doesn't necessarily make it hurt less."
For some reason, half a dozen misunderstandings between him and Tenten came to mind. Neji could see the wisdom in this statement. Tenten certainly didn't intend to carelessly reference his father's fate. And it isn't always my intent to make him stomp off angrily after I've inadvertently insulted him…
"Accidental offenses are a part of life," Neji conceded. "But forgive me if I have trouble believing what you just told me. It flies in the face of everything I know about my uncle, and I know him far better than you do."
Jiraiya shrugged and sighed. "Very few dare to talk about what happened and even fewer know the actual truth. I was a close associate of Fujimoto because of his skills as a blacksmith, but Lord Hiashi made sure he was kicked out of his guild. It sounds like something out of a romantic novel: a brilliant peasant saves a beautiful noblewoman from an arranged marriage…"
"…Where they live in poverty and squalor for the rest of their short lives," Neji continued.
"Fujimoto died only recently. His wife has been gone for awhile now."
At least this, Neji already knew. "Yes, their son is an orphan now."
Jiraiya's eyebrow raised but for a long moment he said nothing, merely studying the young nobleman sitting in front of him. "A son, you say?"
"For someone so well informed, I find it hard to believe you didn't know that." Jiraiya's lips gave a weird sort of quirk that Neji couldn't quite decipher. "Are you laughing at me?"
"What makes you think they have a son?"
"I met him," Neji insisted when Jiraiya merely grinned wider. "I've had several conversations with him. We even shared a short carriage ride."
Jiraiya laughed in earnest until the look of irritation and consternation on Neji's face was simply too much for him. After dabbing the tears at the corner of his eyes, he straightened up in his chair.
"Lord Neji, I hope this isn't too much of a shock to you, but Fujimoto and Yukarin never had a son."
All the breath in Neji's body left in a sudden rush: it was an unpleasant, constricted feeling deep in his chest. He tightly gripped the arms of his chair to hide his distress, but it must have been obvious on his face, because his host sent him a very sympathetic look.
"Why would he tell me such a lie?" Neji asked softly, to no one in particular.
"What was this mysterious man's name?"
"Tenten." The terse syllable was practically spat.
"Tenten," Jiraiya said again, something off in his tone. "Now that does make sense."
"You know him?"
"I know of him," Jiraiya began slowly, "but it's not that simple."
A dark look came over the older man's face and Neji could tell he wanted to say something. For the first time, he saw traces of age and sadness. Neji knew his piercing eyes had extracted more than one or two unwilling confessions in the past, and had no problem fixing his gaze on his host. He'd already seen the crack in the armor and had always been taught to exploit it.
Neji's voice was soft but insistent. "How do you know Tenten, Lord Jiraiya?"
"Fujimoto and Yukarin never had a son," Jiraiya repeated, carefully avoiding Neji's eyes, "but they did have a daughter."
Neji wanted to say a hundred things and ask a hundred questions. Tenten never mentioned a sister! But Tenten isn't really their son. Why would he lie about that? Why did I believe him? His grief seemed so real! What did he have to gain from—
In a sudden epiphany that would have chopped his legs out from under him had he been standing, it suddenly came to him. Of everything he expected to discover to find out tonight, this was not something he could have anticipated. It overshadowed the epic drama Jiraiya had recounted earlier, in every way, this quiet little revelation. "A daughter, you said?"
Jiraiya nodded slowly.
"A daughter named Tenten."