La Verità Dolce
Despite the late hour, Neji hadn't left his study. He could scarcely remember the carriage ride home and was hardly aware of how he'd actually managed to make it upstairs. Everything passed by in a haze; his normally alert and observant nature had failed him utterly. He kept replaying the conversation he'd had with Jiraiya over and over again in his mind.
"I'm not aware of any family the poor girl might have left besides some distant relations on her mother's side. None of them would want anything to do with her if they did know about her. She's probably better off without them, if the rumors are to be believed about Haku's father. I don't know anything about the young man she's marrying, but your cousin Hinata is going to be living in the Grand Vizier's household. She may be in danger."
Neji had reprimanded Jiraiya for giving credence to malicious gossip and reminded him of his uncle's sterling reputation. If Hiashi had an inkling the older man was telling people such stories about him, he'd likely put a very permanent stop to it. Neji had a mind to go tell him at least a dozen times since he returned home, but something stopped him every time.
"If that sword means anything to you, I suggest keeping a very close eye on it. Fujimoto swords are disappearing from esteemed private collections all over the city. Feel free to disregard my information; however, I urge you to follow my advice."
Neji had given no indication that he'd heard, and was relieved when the door shut behind him. Safe within the familiar walls of his study, Neji realized that he wasn't truly "safe" anywhere if Hiashi didn't want him to be. For the first time he could recall, Neji felt vulnerable in his own rooms. He knew his uncle could hardly afford to have him killed, but there were plenty of ways to make him suffer—of this he was aware. Saddling him with some empty-headed rich girl was a very real possibility, or Hiashi might elect to bind him to some conniving, materialistic shrew. The fact that his uncle had a huge say in selecting the mother of his future children worried him immensely.
Neji took great care and lived a disciplined life. He didn't need some outside force uprooting all the hard work he put into it. Tenten was a very serious threat that could not only endanger Haku and Hinata's marriage but also his family's good name. Neji had originally found it odd Hiashi had her barred from the premises but realized that perhaps some older members of the household may recognize her if she resembled her mother. Neji couldn't say he found her particularly feminine, but then, he had in no way expected to find a female.
Fujimoto and Yukarin had languished in poverty for years until misfortune and illness struck them down. Their daughter was left alone with no means of providing for herself, because her father had seen it necessary to educate her rather than find her a husband like a responsible father should. He had attempted to instill some admirable qualities, but they were unlikely to be appreciated in the countryside where most people couldn't even read. Most peasant girls are married by fourteen, an age Tenten has passed some time ago.
Shaking his head to clear himself of the lingering effects of Jiraiya's finest alcohol, he absently toyed with a small trinket on his desk. Hinata had brought him back a small fox statue from her trip to the Netherlands. Its fine craftsmanship won it coveted space more than any emotional value he attached to it, but he had acknowledged long ago that was the kind of person he was. His mother, long departed, had left behind a vast collection of collectables, but he found none of them appealing. His own father had urged him to at least keep one or two of them, but sentimentality never won out.
I will not let my emotions stand in the way of anything that needs to be done. Tenten, your father's gallant efforts will not be enough to save you from me.
Tenten barely registered Sai's slim fingers prying hers from her knife. Her hand was covered in something warm and sticky, and the dark-haired man tried not to wince when he got it all over himself. She watched his lips move without hearing a single thing he said. She fixed him with a glassy stare until he actually gripped her shoulder and shook.
"Sai, I think Tenten's still in shock." Naruto gently detached his older friend's concerned grip from her lest she pick her knife back up.
The burning in Sai's lungs had dulled to a deep ache that left him drained, and as the artist stared at the blood coating Tenten's skin—and now his own—he was filled with a sense of dread. "What happened after I left?"
Running a hand through his hair, Naruto looked around helplessly. Shikamaru was hovering anxiously over Sakura as she attempted to stabilize Ino. Kankurou was barely clinging to consciousness, but the nobleman had brushed off Naruto's attempts to help until he knew Ino was safe.
"Lord Sabaku and Tenten fought Kakuzu until he lost, and then Lord Sabaku fought Hidan. Kankurou managed to win, and just barely, but was seriously injured. Zetsu woke up and tried to finish him off. Tenten had no choice and used the knife Hidan had pulled out of his back. Tenten took a pretty hard blow to the head during the struggle and might need stitches, but it's nothing serious."
Tenten might not ever be the same, Sai thought. He realized it would have never occurred to him before he met her, to feel sorry for someone else for merely surviving, and his frown only deepened. And Ino…
"Kankurou is about two minutes away from passing out from blood loss, but keeps refusing medical care until he knows Ino's going to make it. We probably won't even know until she survives the night." Naruto's voice dropped. "If she survives, that is. I want to find every single member of Akatsuki and make them pay."
The dark-haired artist changed the subject; too much blood had been spilt in his opinion, since all three Akatsuki members were dead and Ino and Kankurou were nearly there. "The master's okay?"
Naruto shrugged. "More or less, at least physically, but he's pretty shaken. You'd probably know better than I would; you've known him much longer than I have."
Except that I wouldn't, Sai admitted to himself. I'm not good with interpreting emotions and Shikamaru isn't good at expressing them. Asuma's death did lasting damage but he hid it fairly well until tonight.
"The police should be here soon," Naruto informed him. "Help me get Kankurou to the carriage."
"Gaara, get your coat!"
Gaara lacked the experience to adequately console his sister when she flew howling and crying into his bedroom. Between the tears and the sobs, he gathered that something had happened to their brother and his presence was required immediately. He allowed her to pull him towards the door reluctantly. By the time they reached the foyer, he finally managed to calm her down enough that details began to emerge.
"I knew that party was a bad idea," Gaara couldn't resist saying, because it was. It was a testament to Temari's distress that she completely ignored his insult as she began to recount what happened. Gaara nodded distantly through party details in which he really took no interest, until a change in her voice alerted him to the fact she'd stopped talking about floral arrangements and the wine list.
"—And that was when the Akatsuki showed up."
"I thought Shikamaru wasn't associated with the guild."
"He's not. Akatsuki forced all the guests to leave except for the Naras and a few of his students. I didn't realize Kankurou wasn't with me until they locked us out. I hid nearby because I didn't want to leave without him."
"Where is he now?"
"Doctor Sakura is treating him at her clinic along with the others."
Gaara visibly relaxed. "You made it sound like he was dead."
"She's not sure if he will make it," Temari's voice was sharp. "And that's not even the point! You should be at his bedside."
"What good is that going to do if he's not even awake?"
Gaara backed up against the wall when he found Temari's finger in his face. "This could be our last night with our brother! Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
Gaara blinked and accepted the garment his servant offered wordlessly. He'd predicted for some time that his brother's interest in Shikamaru's wife would lead to trouble, but this was a unique situation that not even he could have foreseen. And now Temari was all caught up in the drama too. Gaara had been blessed with siblings who had been either discreet or distant up until now. He wondered if there was something about Rome that was bringing about all these unwelcome changes in them or maybe just the Nara family.
The sound of water coming to a boil of Sakura's wood stove jarred Sai from thought. Shikamaru was still being interrogated by the police and would likely spend the entire night with them. Tenten was confined to Sakura's bed; the pink-haired doctor feared a mild concussion and had Naruto split his time watching over her and Kankurou's condition to report any immediate changes. "Why did you send Naruto and Shikamaru away? Won't they be able to help you better than I can?"
"Don't sell yourself short," Sakura advised. She glanced at Ino sympathetically. "I'm not saying fault lies with Shikamaru, but Ino and Kankurou's injuries were indirect casualties of his feud with Akatsuki. The least he can do is deal with the police for me so I can work uninterrupted. There's nothing he can do for her here, at any rate."
Sai carefully placed each sterilized instrument on Sakura's cloth-covered tray. "And Naruto, then?"
"He's too emotional right now," Sakura informed him. "You're different."
"Different because I don't have emotions?" Sai countered, a sharp edge to his normally flat tone.
Sakura gave him a pointed look. "You misunderstand. I've seen you upset before. You just don't turn into a useless idiot like Naruto does. I had to lecture him for ten minutes so he wouldn't run off and attempt to murder every member of the guild. Someone like that has no business being anywhere near a patient. He allows himself to be consumed by rage. Have you ever tried talking to him when he's angry? I need someone who can take direction. Anger makes you focus."
Narrowing his eyes, Sai watched her pick up a tiny pair of forceps. "How do you figure that?"
For a few minutes Sakura said nothing as she gently probed the wound in search of the bullet. Sai felt a tad green, watching rivulets of blood gush from her wound with each tiny movement. When the forceps finally emerged holding a tiny lump of lead, she examined it to see if it was intact.
"Anyone that's led your life is bound to pick up no small measure of resentment," Sakura observed absently, gaze still fixed on the crimson-coated bullet. She dropped it into a small dish and rinsed it carefully. Suddenly she lifted her green eyes to meet his. "I don't know details, but look at all you've accomplished in your effort to distance yourself from your former life. You're not even twenty."
An unfamiliar feeling pooled in his gut and he was hesitant to identify what it could signify. Pride? Contentment? Affection? He could understand the first two, as he was impressed at her deductions and pleased to have his accomplishments recognized, but the last one? He'd long ago conquered his dislike of her, going so far to say he truly didn't mind her company, but actively liking her was a completely unfamiliar concept. The friendship Naruto spoke of was beginning to become a concept he could understand, or at the very least, recognize.
"I have to stitch the wound. Could you please bring the light closer? I need you to hold it still as possible, but you always have steady hands."
Lips twitching unconsciously at the compliment, Sai lifted the lamp as close as he dared. Ino had a sheet draped over her for modesty and the pristine white cotton was only a shade paler than her skin. His teacher's wife was a true, classic beauty. If the situation weren't so dire (and if it weren't in such blatantly poor taste), he would have sketched her in her morbid splendor.
Despite the rather wretched state of some of Sakura's clothing, her skills with a needle were unparalleled. Sai was fascinated at how she closed up the wound expertly, at the strange expressions she made as she concentrated. Sakura bandaged the wound and glanced up at him, surprised to find his eyes on her face.
"Please start boiling that pot of water for me," she instructed softly. "Once it's on the stove I'll need your help with Lord Sabaku."
Sai nodded mutely and spared a glance at Naruto shuffling back and forth between patients. Sakura had been wise to assign him his task—it required enough of his attention to take his mind off of being angry. Sai could practically see Naruto's eyes burning holes into Kankurou before Sakura instructed him to observe Tenten.
"I feel Lord Sabaku is going to have a hard recovery ahead of him. His ilk makes a notoriously poor patient, especially when they lead such busy lifestyles. Some noblemen are content to laze about during the day, but Kankurou is quite the active cavorter. He's always attending a play or a party, and often spends his days meeting with various writers and poets. He is a big supporter of the arts."
"I believe Naruto mentioned you met him last year?"
"Yes, someone tried to poison the poor man," Sakura said, wetting the handkerchief that had fused to the dried blood on Kankurou's chest. At least the nobleman had the foresight to stop the bleeding. "The official story is that he was targeted by a rival port owner."
"And what's the unofficial story?"
Sakura hissed as she peeled away the offending square of silk. "He got a little too friendly with another man's wife and he hired an assassin to poison his wine."
"Being friendly with married women is an ongoing theme of his, I suppose," Sai observed.
Sakura's forceps banged the table loud enough that Sai was surprised Naruto didn't emerge from the next room over.
"At least someone decided to care! This poor woman has been suffering for months because of her husband. I saw the bruises on her whenever I came to visit. I didn't speak up because I've dealt with battered wives in the past and trying to get involved does more harm than good. I know now that he wasn't the cause of them, but all Shikamaru had to do was ask her what was wrong."
"Then wouldn't all she'd have to do was ask for help?" Sai countered before he could help himself.
Sakura was practically snarling. "It's not always so simple! When was the last time you asked for help?"
Sai opened his mouth to retort automatically but carefully slid it shut. She had a point. If his life was in danger, he wouldn't risk even further harm coming to him by introducing an additional liability—namely another person—into things. He would rely on himself, as he always had, because there was no one else he trusted more. Ino had no real friends to speak of, and Sai knew for a fact she felt responsible for the wellbeing of the servants and Shikamaru's students. She had taken on her burden partially to keep him safe.
It struck Sai suddenly that Ino trusted him more than she trusted her own husband. She'd asked him to fetch her ingredients and he'd mixed something up to help her cover he bruises. Whenever there was an important appointment, she told him, not Shikamaru. Sai knew his teacher had no experience with sword fighting, but he hadn't even attempted to protect his wife the way that Naruto, Tenten, Kankurou, and even he had. His hand flexed and he could still feel the imprint of the wine bottle he'd thrown earlier that night.
At Sai's continued silence, Sakura cleared her throat awkwardly. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to snap at you," Sakura apologized. "It's just—"
"Every year, the Académie des Beaux-Arts in France has a gallery show widely considered the most important annual art event in Europe," Sai said quietly. "I've wanted to go ever since I started painting, but Shikamaru says I should focus on what Italian painters are doing. He never allows me the time off to attend. Ever since she found out, Ino has had her former French tutor scour the newspapers to send me every review they publish."
For the first time he could remember, Sai actually stammered. "Ino, she—she makes sure I'm okay when Shikamaru overworks me. She buys my favorite kind of bread from the baker, even though it's more expensive. She mixes dried rose petals with the cedar she puts in my linen closet because it reminds me of the house I worked at before my brother died. Well, she doesn't know the last part, really, I just mentioned that it smelled pleasant, once. I can't really even say that I like her very much because sometimes I really don't, but I would…miss her. I definitely would."
He experienced it then, an odd and unfamiliar ache in his chest when Sakura gave him a dazzling smile. He wondered if she felt it too, because suddenly her cheeks turned pink and she stared quite fixedly at Kankurou's wound. The emotions he'd been suppressing since his brother had died were starting to leak out. He was drained, overwhelmed, and slightly giddy at having evaded death. It felt good to get a second chance. He only hoped Kankurou and Ino were so lucky.
I am a murderer.
Still afraid to meet Naruto's eyes, Tenten stared intently at the wall beside her bed. There was blood drying underneath her nails but she didn't want to trouble anyone; Sakura and Sai were fixing up Kankurou and Ino, and Naruto was watching over her to make sure she wasn't more seriously injured. He'd shut the door to give the doctor some privacy, but it only served to make both of them more anxious.
Tenten was curious as to why it wasn't Naruto out there with Sakura, but wisely decided against asking. She wasn't sure if she would be able to talk to him normally again—wasn't sure if he would be able to talk to her normally again. She was a killer; she should be in jail! At least that's what she always thought. She knew she'd only picked up the knife to save someone else, but Akatsuki was powerful. What if they retaliated? It was clearly self-defense, but Tenten hadn't ever really expected to have to ever take a life, even though her father raised her to be far from helpless.
One word from Lord Kankurou and the police didn't question me any further. They just stared at all the blood on my hands—literal blood—but didn't arrest me. Zetsu was going to kill him if I didn't do something! I didn't even think, I just acted, and now a man is dead because of me. An evil man who was hurting Ino for the past few months…no one even knew it was happening.
Naruto's insistent, tapping feet managed to briefly penetrate her despair. "Tenten, I can't tell if you're awake or not when your back is facing me. Sakura doesn't want you to fall asleep. She said if you got hit hard enough, you might not wake up."
Feeling his gaze burn holes into her back, Tenten relented and flopped over. Her aching muscles protested the sudden movement but she managed to swallow down a groan. Instead of the revulsion or pity she expected to see in Naruto's gaze, she found only concern.
"I might not wake up? So would I die in my sleep or just continue sleeping until I died?" Tenten hoped Naruto didn't think she was teasing. Her potential prognosis was rather alarming. In her mind it was merely a bump on the head.
"That's something you can ask Sakura," Naruto grumbled. When Tenten started to get up, he shot off his chair and motioned for her to lie back down. "She said you need to stay put."
"Can you at least poke your head out and check on them?" Tenten asked sweetly. "I don't want to get in the way."
"Neither do I."
Tenten was surprised by how uncharacteristically churlish his voice was. She thought back to her earlier question and actually posed it to herself: why was Sai helping Sakura and not Naruto?
Perhaps sensing her confusion, Naruto shifted uncomfortably. "She doesn't think I handle myself well under stress. I guess tonight was proof of that. I nearly got killed trying to rush at Hidan." Naruto could tell from the expression on Tenten's face that she was thinking the same thing. "I guess you and Kankurou are just cut out to be heroes."
Tenten's arm shot out faster than Naruto ever thought possible. Her nails dug into his wrist and she yanked him off the stool. He nearly landed on top of her, his hands managing to grab the sheets and brace his weight before they collided painfully.
"Naruto, there was nothing glamorous about what we did—about what we were forced to do. Our lives were in danger. Kankurou almost died and Ino very well still may. Killing someone to protect your loved ones doesn't make you a hero. Please don't think it does. I know you want to be Hinata's champion, but you might find that laying down your sword really would be the best answer. Hinata won't like you cutting down her family members just so you two can run off and live happily ever after. Have you ever thought of that?"
Naruto could feel his cheeks heating up. "It's not like I want it this way—"
"The second you learned I could fight you begged me to teach you; you didn't even stop to consider things first. I'll admit that I didn't either. But now…" Tenten trailed off but did not let her gaze drop, "now you're going to do some serious thinking. You were fighting for your life tonight. The situation was dire. And you couldn't even remember the basics I taught you. You didn't panic, but you couldn't control yourself. Hidan would have shot you if Sai hadn't thrown that bottle at him."
"I can't believe you're trying to talk me out of this after all this time." Naruto was a combination of annoyed and defeated.
"I told you from the beginning this was not a great idea," Tenten reminded him. "But I share some blame for not talking you out of it."
At the expression on Naruto's face, Tenten raised a hand to silence him. "Hiashi has grounds to terminate his contract with Shikamaru; after tonight, you might not even get within ten miles of Hinata, let alone anywhere close enough to mount a 'rescue.' There are probably army bases less protected than his compound. He barely even lets her leave."
At that, Tenten crossed her arms and shifted back over on her side to stare at the wall. She missed the thoughtful look that slowly transformed Naruto's expression from sad to hopeful.