One. Return of the Puppet Master

Kiba

The visitors from Suna were not new to Konaha. Not at all. It was just the three of them, flanked by a few guards: Temari, Gaara—now Gaara the Kazekage—and Kankuro. It wasn't like we were happy to see them, or disappointed, either. They just…were.

Hinata bobbed up and down in front of me, excited. "Look, Kiba! They're here—all the way from Suna. And it's been so long."

I snorted and ruffled her hair. "What are you so eager about? It's not like they're anything special."

She blushed a bit. "I'm not sure, really…I guess it's just so nice to see old friends."

"Friends?" I mused. "The most I remember is that they ambushed our village and nearly killed a few kids in the process. Is that your definition of friends?"

"That was five years ago, Kiba," Shino whispered from somewhere behind me. "I guess you still need to learn to forgive and forget. And it's not like they didn't redeem themselves for it. Kankuro saved your life, in case you don't forget."

"Maybe," I said. "But still, whatever. It doesn't matter to me, one way or the other. They're just a bunch of kids."

A yelp came from somewhere near my right hand. Akamaru poked his nose against my hand and sniffed the air. He began to whine, so I knelt down to pet him.

"Akamaru hasn't forgotten," I added, glaring up at Shino. "Remember that time in the forest, when Gaara nearly killed all four of us? People don't change that quickly."

"That…that was…so far back," Hinata said as I rose to my feet. "Gaara has changed. It's a small change, but it's there. He's happier now. I can feel it."

"Whatever," I said again. "I still don't care." I sighed and rubbed my head. "I need a drink. Shino, you want to come with?"

Shino shook his head. "I've got plans." His face was almost entirely covered, so it was hard to tell just what sort of plans he was speaking of.

I sighed. "I'll see you later, then. Bye Hinata."

She nodded her head. "Bye, Kiba," she whispered in her small voice. "I hope to see you tomorrow."

I ruffled her hair again. "I hope to see you too."

I sat down at the bar and ordered a drink. Sake for me, water for Akamaru.

Akamaru sniffed the floor, turning around several times until he found the perfect spot to rest. That's the thing about dogs—they're never thoroughly satisfied unless they're comfortable. I guess that's why I understand them so well.

Even though no one knew, I had a comfort zone I didn't like to be pushed out of. It was hard to hide, but it was there. It was just that I was the only one who knew about it.

The door creaked open, and the bell above it rang drearily. Another customer. I was surprised—most people were either in their houses or greeting the new guests from Suna today. And this bar wasn't exactly a spot people visited that often, either.

"What'll it be?" the barkeep asked.

"The strongest you've got," the visitor groaned wearily. He plopped down onto a stool next to me, burying his face in his hands. "Man, do I have a headache."

He brought his face up, leaving purple smears on his fingers. Dark circles rested under his eyes, giving him an appearance similar to his brother's. Akamaru raised his head, and I felt my jaw loosen slightly. "Kankuro," I said in a stunned sort of tone.

He studied my face and frowned, clearly puzzled. "Do I know you?"

I shook my head and took another sip of sake. "You probably don't remember, but I do. I'm Inuzuka Kiba."

A grin crossed his face. "Inuzuka, you say?" His eyes darted down towards Akamaru. "Good to see you're doing well."

"I could say the say the same for you," I said. "What are you doing here, anyway?"

"Playing bodyguard," he said. "Or at least, I was. Temari said I could take a break—I haven't slept for days now. Gaara refuses to take me off duty. Something about an assassination attempt."

"You'd think he could take care of himself," I said, rolling my eyes. "Isn't he supposed to be so incredible powerful?"

Kankuro chuckled a bit. "I know. He's been tense lately—always thinks someone is out to get him. Who'd want to waste their time? He's not that special." Kankuro put his head down on the counter and groaned. "I need sleep, dammit!"

"You're probably stronger than he is," I joked, raising my glass. I downed it in one gulp and wiped my mouth on the back of my hand, signaling for another.

Kankuro snickered. "There's a good chance of that. And at least I'm somewhat compassionate. Gaara was the one who was mass murderer by age twelve, let's not forget. Even if he did redeem himself—which he did, granted that now he's a lot better to have around." He sighed. "But for Kazekage's sake, is it too much for me to want a break? It's not like neither of us can take care of ourselves."

I nodded. "I know what you mean. Hyuuga still gets on my case about his daughter. 'Be careful, she's the heir to the family. Don't let her do anything dangerous!' She's a Chunnin. Hell, what am I supposed to do, let her go pick flowers while Shino and I do the fighting?" I rubbed my head, suddenly woozy.

Kankuro tapped his fingers on the wood. "Damn. Some people are so screwed up these days."

There was a silence as I finished my second glass.

The barkeep set a new glass in front of me. I raised it in a mock toast. "To the true warrior of Suna, Kankuro the Puppet Master!" I said.

Kankuro laughed. "I'll drink to that," he said. Then he signaled the barkeep again. "One more round!"

A little drunk and a lot unsteady on my feet, I stumbled home. Hana was waiting for me at the door.

"About time you came home," she barked. "Mom's been waiting for you. She has something she needs to talk to you about."

I trudged into the main room. If my mother wanted to talk, there was a good chance I was in trouble. She was waiting on the couch, mouth set in a thin line, legs crossed.

"Kiba," she greeted me. "I've been meaning to talk to you."

"What about?"

"Nothing much," she said, running her hands through Kuromaru's fur. "I just heard that the Kazekage is in town."

"So?"

"So I wanted to go visit him today, but didn't have the time. I was wondering if you'd give him this letter for me."

She held out a large scroll, wrapped with thick red cord. "It's a message for him. I would like to see that he gets it."

"I'll deliver it tomorrow," I said, snatching it from her hand.

She stopped me and stood up. "Not tomorrow. Now. What if he has urgent business and has to leave in the middle of the night? This letter is important, Kiba. He has to receive it."

I laughed. "If it's so important, why not have Hana deliver it? She's more responsible than I am."

"Hana has a mission tomorrow. She needs her rest. You deliver it. Now. And make sure that no one else gets a hold of it—it's for the Kazekage's eyes only. And be sure to wait for his answer, or at least ask him to send me word of it."

"Fine." I put the letter in my jacket pocket and stormed out the door, still feeling a bit woozy in the head. So much for being welcomed home.