Author's notes: Woah-hey, hey. Look who it is. It's that guy who's eating the meat out of your sandwich right now- Sleyman!
It's been a hell of a long time coming (but you know how it is: entropy, spot-welding, demonstrably efficient indexing), but I finally motivated myself to finishing a chapter of something. So, as promised, here it is; Shikotsumyaku: Epilogue II, Brilliant Years (not a lemon, unfortunately)!
The summer sun was high overhead by the time Kimimaro got around to the task of repairing the roof. Cicadas were making themselves known and sparrows flitted in and out of view restlessly. Kimimaro reached tentatively for the split tile that he assumed was the cause of the leak he had noticed during the tail-end of the rain the day before. Whether the damage had been caused purely by age, a hasty shinobi jumping off it, or a rather fat bird landing was not readily apparent. He tried to gingerly ease the tile out from between the rest and was rewarded by a sharp snap that could not have been mistaken for Good News. His hand came away with a lengthways half of the tile, and the tile that had been next to it was now also snapped in half. A slight frown creased his face.
'Hmm...' They were old and brittle to be sure. He was going to need more tiles than he had hoped.
'Heeey! Kimimaro!' Kimimaro turned towards the source of the voice, and found a grinning Kiba leaning against his fence leisurely and waving at him. Akamaru, a short distance away was urinating against a tree and gave a husky bark in greeting. Kimimaro lifted a hand and bade them good morning. Kiba responded by shrugging and pulling a quizzical face that seemed to ask "why are you on your roof?" Kimimaro returned the shrug with a half tile in either hand and an exaggerated expression of unhappiness.
'Need a hand?' Akamaru, finished marking his territory, moved to sit by Kiba and panted at Kimimaro happily. Kiba scratched the dog's ear absent-mindedly.
'I should manage- but, could I get you to pick up some new tiles for me?'
'How many?' Kiba asked without a hint of hesitation. Kimimaro still had a hard time asking for favours, so when he was forced ask out of a need for expediency, Kiba was always enthusiastic (or at least casual and off-hand) about accepting.
Kimimaro considered the tile-wide hole in his roof thoughtfully before responding. 'I don't think I could possibly break more than ten.'
'No problem! Come on, Akamaru!' Akamaru gave an affirmative bark as they whooped off across a few handy rooftops towards the market district. That was one thing Kimimaro could say about fixing his roof; it was practically a public service, as rooftops are the traditional traffic lanes for shinobi on the job. That in mind, he turned his attention to the now two half-tiles and tried to slip them out, much more carefully than before. He managed to get one out without incident, the other one snapped before it was completely out and Kiba returned while he was partway through his moderately unsuccessful attempt to remove the trapped piece with his fingers. Kimimaro was surprised to see that not only did Kiba a four tall stacks of tiles hanging from each hand, but that Akamaru was saddled with an equal amount.
'Planning on fixing your roof as well? he asked, half amused and half confused. Kiba lived in a small apartment near his clan's estate, and had a flat stone roof which doubled as a patio on occasion. The joke was not lost on Kiba.
'The shop was having a sale,' Kiba explained, setting the tiles down in the yard, and helping to relieve Akamaru of his burden. 'The shopkeeper said this was the season for doing the whole roof- nice girl.' Girl? Kimimaro tried to think of the best way to phrase his suspicion.
Failing that, he simply asked; 'did you chat her up for a discount?' Kiba barely batted an eyelid at the question; a fair indication that he had guessed correctly.
'When have I ever done that?' he asked, feigning offence. Forty seconds later, Kiba asked Kimimaro to please stop listing incidents for fear that potential future girlfriends would overhear his exploits.
'You know they'll get wise to you if you keep pushing your luck like that,' Kimimaro observed, not for the first time.
'No way! They say I'm "ruggedly handsome." And if you didn't already have a wife, we'd have the ladies hanging off us all the time.' Kimimaro snorted at the idea and gave the fragment of tile one last irritated flick. It shot off unexpectedly and the tile above it, no longer receiving the benefit of having some weight taken off it, snapped itself in half and fell through the slowly widening hole. 'See? They're too damn old. Probably all need replacing anyway.'
Kimimaro rose his hands in defeat. 'You're probably right, fair enough...' he hopped down from the roof lightly to join Kiba on the lawn. 'Do you think there are enough tiles there?' he indicated the stacks Kiba had bought.
'Near enough, you might need some more. I dunno. I'm not a carpenter.'
'I should probably ask someone who knows what they're doing, in any case. Plus, I don't have time to do the whole roof.'
'I hear that. How are your preparations going?'
'...As well as I expected.'
Kiba whistled, pretending to be impressed by Kimimaro's plain-spoken opinion. 'High praise, for sure. I'd say you have some last-minute ass-kicking to do then. The festival's only a day away now-'
'I know. It's pretty much make-or-break time for a few that worry me.'
'Ouch. Just remember that it's meant to be fun, not perfect-'
'I know. You're worst than my wife.'
'Of course he is,' said a voice from inside the house. A moment later Sakura appeared, dusting her hands off. 'I like you just the way you are,' she gave Kimimaro an affectionate peck on the cheek, which he leaned into slightly with an expression that made Kiba grin. 'How are you today, Kiba?'
'Oh, not so ba-'
Kiba was interrupted before he could finish by a unified, excited yell of "KIBA-OJISAAAAN!" by Kimimaro and Sakura's two eldest children, Momiji and Ayame.
Momiji, the eldest, bore the dusty black hair and most of the classic facial features of the Kaguya clan- from what Kimimaro could remember, at least. Naruto, among other people, swore blind that Ayame was the spitting image of a young Sakura; although Sakura insisted that she had Kimimaro's eyes. Kiba grinned broadly, dropped to his knees and held his arms out, ready to receive them.
'A-hah! And here come my two favourite kids in all of Konoha!' Momiji came charging out the open door, Ayame a step behind, and they both jumped straight at Kiba, who caught them. 'Oh, no... Oh noo~'Kiba slowly tilted himself backwards until he fell onto the grass with both children squealing with delight in his arms. They then proceeded to climb all over him. Kiba struggled weakly before calling for assistance. 'They got me, Akamaru! Help!' Akamaru dutifully gave all three of them a solid lick across the face before trotting off. The children chased after him while trying to wipe saliva off their faces. Kiba picked himself up, laughing and wiping his own face with a sleeve.
'You're so good with them,' Sakura said, giggling.
'Hah, what can I say? They bring out the best in me.'
'Oh?' Kimimaro said mildly, in a tone that drew a scowl from Kiba as he recognised it as the precursor of a joke at his expense. 'I would have thought that they gave you an excuse to not act like an adult.'
'That...' Kiba thought for a moment, his expression radiating indignity at the suggestion. '...Is a baseless accusation, which I must admit is completely correct,' he finished and laughed haughtily.
Kimimaro covered his eyes with a hand and sighed deeply while his wife laughed at the both of them, familiar with the comedy act.
They watched for a few more minutes in silence as Akamaru played with the children. 'I hate to cut it short, but there's a few things I have to see to today,' Kiba eventually said, breaking the silence.
'Eeeeh? You're leaving already, uncle Kiba?' Momiji called from astride Akamaru's back (who looked surprisingly regal in the role of "Noble Steed," Kimimaro thought).
'I'll see you both tomorrow, don't worry,' he said in an unsuccessful attempt to placate them. Ayame would allow nothing of the sort.
'But you just got here!' she pouted, taking hold of Kiba's pant leg and shaking it accusingly.
'Yeah, that's not fair!' Momiji agreed, dismounting Akamaru and seizing his other leg.
'What's this? My legs feel heavy all of a sudden. I had better walk it off...' both children immediately wrapped themselves around his legs and screeched happily when Kiba took a careful step forward without bending his knee. He took both of them for a short ride before getting Akamaru to lick them off again. They ran back to their mother, shielding their heads with their hands.
'Say goodbye to Kiba,' Sakura encouraged the children.
"Bye-bye uncle Kiba!" they called in unison.
'Haha, bye. I'll see all of you tomorrow!' Then, he and Akamaru made their escape.
'Stop,' Kimimaro said wearily, waving a hand in a dismissive gesture. The dancers had seen the movement enough by now to know that it meant "take a five-minute break while I have a quiet word with someone." Konohamaru scuttled away with the rest until a conspicuously maintained glare left him with no excuse to pretend ignorance. He sidled over to Kimimaro with all the eagerness of a dog that expects a kick.
'...I did it again, didn't I?' he asked dejectedly when Kimimaro wouldn't say anything.
'Every time,' Kimimaro agreed, a little more harshly than he intended and Konohamaru shrank under his gaze. Kimimaro sighed inwardly. He was getting frustrated by Konohamaru's repeated mistakes, and he knew the young man had the ability to do it properly.
'Full-turn, half-speed' he said, his eyes showing a near-infinite patience his voice did not convey. Konohamaru hesitated a moment before taking a step back and doing as he was told. He lifted his left foot and did a slow turn exactly as he had been taught.
'Sun, moon, earth, full-turn, at-speed.' Now doing the three movements that preceded it, Konohamaru lifted his right foot to do the turn. He realised his mistake, wobbled awkwardly and lost the momentum of his turn, leaving him in poor form for the following set of steps. He made an apologetic face.
'You see where the problem is, don't you?'
'...Yeah,' Konohamaru sounded bashful, probably more irritated with himself for making such a simple mistake than Kimimaro was with him.
'Alright. Just remember to lift that left foot. I know you can do this,' he added as an afterthought. Konohamaru nodded and wandered to the nearest wall. When he thought nobody was looking, he gave the wall a sharp kick with his left foot before pulling a face that suggested he had struck with more force than was probably a good idea. Kimimaro sighed and took a sip of water.
The schedule for this year's festival was a tad on the brutal side, and insufficient time to prepare had been given- one of Uzumaki Naruto's organisational affectations, so far as Kimimaro could tell. The previous year's Harvest Dance Procession (proposed by Kimimaro and endorsed by the festival committee) had been so well received that it seemed Kimimaro had secured himself a life-long post as dance coordinator. And, though in a fit of arrogance he might agree that there was nobody more suitable for the role in the village, he was having a hard time finding the patience needed to deal with dancers less skilled than he. The dance was fairly fast-paced -considering the distance they would travel through the village- so the dancers were all shinobi, who were therefore used to prolonged physical exertion. They also had the necessary flexibility and coordination, though some just didn't seem to have "the knack" for it. Rock Lee, who now led the procession from behind Kimimaro, had surprised him by being amazingly duck-footed when it came to dancing and the two of them had spent many hours correcting his missteps. He had improved significantly once he got the hang of it, hence his important position.
A few stragglers, such as Konohamaru, persisted in their ungainliness; even to the point where the hour of their live performance loomed over them like a huge, grizzled old man who had decided he didn't much like them. Their own nerves were hindering them now. On reflection, kicking the wall may have been a fair idea. The pain would be a reminder of which foot to use (hopefully). Of course, it could have the opposite effect if he'd seriously hurt himself. Kimimaro sighed again, finished his water, and sauntered back into the centre of the Dojo that was currently serving as a dance studio. Not having really needed much of a rest, the dancers proceeded to their positions and a full half of them adopted the correct stance for the eighth sequence before he had a chance to say anything. Rock Lee managed to sneak a thumbs-up, grinning from ear-to-ear. While Kimimaro was tempted to thwart their efforts and have them practice the tenth sequence instead, they had pre-empted him accurately. He gave them a stiff nod of approval and motioned the small quartet band waiting in the corner to begin playing. The sound of pipes, bells and drums crept throughout the Dojo and the dancers moved.
To his satisfaction, and mild surprise, Konohamaru made no further mistakes.
'Kaa-san...' Hinagiku complained, pulling on her mother's hair impatiently in order to attract attention. 'Where's Otou-san?'
Sakura extricated her hair from the diminutive hand and attempted, once more, to adjust her daughter's Kimono. Hinagiku frowned in consternation and contorted her upper body lazily. The Kimono slipped almost entirely off her shoulders again.
'Otou-san is getting ready to dance for the festival,' Sakura said levelly. 'And if you don't wear that properly you'll have to stay at home tonight.' The threat almost sent the child to the point of tears, but Sakura was then able to dress her without additional resistance. 'There. Now go and show Ino-obasan how pretty you look,' she assured her warmly and patted her head gently, attempting to neaten her daughter's light grey hair as she did so. Hinagiku wiped her misty eyes with a sleeve, sniffed heavily and trotted off to join her sibling in the main room where Ino and TenTen were distracting them.
As though evoked by the thought, Sakura's fourth child, Kaede, burbled at her incredulously from where Sakura has set him down.
'Yes, yes, it's your turn now,' she said patiently, leaning over and hoisting him a little closer. He stared at her for a moment like it was the first time he had ever laid eyes on his mother, then positively screeched with laughter and waved his tiny arms gleefully. Sakura rolled him into his own miniature kimono expertly and checked the baby carrier was secured around her shoulder correctly. As she did so, Kaede, with an intense look of concentration on his face, patted himself down clumsily and let out a soft "waaah" of amazement at his new attire. He was then scooped up and deposited in the carrier at a speed that was bewildering to him. Then he realised that he was now occupying an enviable vantage point and cackled happily.
Sakura bounced him gently a few time to be doubly sure the carrier was secured properly, then followed Hinagiku into the main room.
Ino and TenTen, her enlisted assistants for the day, were combing the hair of Ayame and Hingiku, who looked delighted with the situation. Momiji was sitting off to one side by himself, making a show of wanting no part in the "girly" activity. On the other hand, and considering the neatness of his hair and the fact that he had been ready before any of his siblings, it was fairly obvious that he had already been fawned over at some point.
'Sorry to keep you waiting,' Sakura said, observing the scene. Ino looked up briefly from an intense scrutiny of Hinagiku's hair, before returning her attention to it.
'I was just thinking of braiding Hina-chan's hair,' she said with noticeable disappointment.
'I don't think we have time for that-' Sakura stopped when she saw her daughter's crushed expression. '-Ah... How about a ponytail?'
Hinagiku's eyes flew open. '...Ponytail? Like Ino-obasan?'
'Yeah, you can be just like me, Hina-chan,' Ino agreed enthusiastically, seizing on the idea. Hinagiku sat even more quietly than before, with a huge smile on her face, while Ino combed her ashen hair into an approximation of Ino's own hairstyle.
Sakura turned to check on Ayame, who had been unusually reticent throughout the entire exchange. Her eyes appeared to be trying to roll into the back of her head, an unsuccessful attempt at looking at the top of her own head while TenTen experimented. At the moment, she seemed satisfied with combing her hair into pigtails, and Sakura couldn't decide if they looked more ridiculous or adorable. Without being asked, Momiji made his opinion on the subject clear, and Ayame stuck her tongue out at him in response.
'That's enough you two,' Sakura chided them quickly. 'We'll be leaving ass soon as Hinagiku's hair is done.'
Kimimaro sat motionless under a tree just outside the village gate (the assembly point for the dance procession), staring at the piece of cloth between his hands. He had initially been thinking about how it was not dissimilar to a forehead protector, with the notable exception of the riveted plate of iron and the fact that it was white, but had long since stopped focusing on it. He was enjoying the feel of the cool night air, the sound of the forest, and thinking about the rest of the night's activities.
Neji, who headed the far-right edge of the procession, stepped into his peripheral vision. He was probably concerned that Kimimaro would remain in his present state for too long and delay the start of the dance. He tore his eyes away from the headband.
'It's almost time.'
'I know,' Kimimaro assured him. He smoothed the headband against his forehead and used his fingers to run the fabric around and under his cascading hair, taking a moment to carefully tie it at the back of his head to his satisfaction. It was only a shade or two lighter than his own hair, and matched the completely white clothes he wore. This particular combination of white-on-white, he was told, made him look quite like a ghost. And this was most likely intentional.
'Are we all ready?' he asked, rising slowly. A series of prompt and unique confirmations by the Row Heads (leaders of the dancers behind them) rattled back to him, save one. 'Chouji, where are you?'
A surprised snort issued from behind a nearby tree, followed by the appearance of one Akimichi Chouji, hastily wiping his mouth. 'Good to go whenever you are,' he said with a grin, tucking something into his sleeve hastily. Out of sight, out of mind.
'Very well,' he turned back to Neji, 'is the band ready?'
'It has been for some time,' Neji replied, giving a little mock-bow. Kimimaro snorted at the spectacle and grinned for the first time that evening.
'Alright then. Everyone! Assume your positions!' At his direction, the Row Heads strode to the start point and formed a line. With satisfying speed, the rows of dancers formed behind them in almost complete unison. Contrary to what Neji seemed to be thinking, he hadn't merely been zoning out this whole time. And he had reached a decision. This year's dance would not be just a repeat of last year's.
'Gentlemen,' he began, coming to attention at his nominal position at the head of the formation. 'I've spent these months teaching you how to move correctly, and going over the full sequence from start to finish. I think you all know, more-or-less, what you're doing now,' he paused to let this sink in and forced himself to not glance in Konohamaru's direction. 'However, dancing is not merely timing and precision. It is also expression. Therefore, while keeping to the confines of our formation and the routine, I want you to have a little fun, and express it with your body. But nothing too outrageous, please. I'm looking at you, Lee.'
Lee laughed and rubbed the back of his head sheepishly while a babble of chuckles rose around him. Lee probably was the most likely of the older dancers to do something crazy, but accepted the light-hearted caution with a smile and a nod to show he understood.
'Alright, let's get going then!' as he spoke, he turned on his heel, gestured to the band and assumed the starting pose modified to look like a parody of Jyuuken. Neji scoffed in surprise and laughed before everyone else picked up on the joke.
Ahead of them, one of the musicians cleared his throat. 'One, two, three...' and the music started.
At strategic points around the village, Taiko drums had been set up to begin playing when the drummers caught sight of the dance procession. This was only sensible, since Taiko drums are by no means an easy-to-carry instrument. After breifly explaining this concept to her children, Sakura had a moment's respite from ceaseless queries about their father's exact whereabouts. The children themselves had located the nearest Taiko drum and were watching the drummer, who was having a quiet smoke, with hawk-like attentiveness. The drummer seemed unaware of their scrutiny, and lit a second cigarette while he waited.
Reasonably sure that the children weren't about to run screaming into the night for the sake of it, she turned back to the women keeping her company.
'I think the animal display was quite good this year,' she noted, referring to the last moving performance that had been interesting enough to distract the children for longer than five minutes.
'Especially Kiba,' Ino commented with a roll of her eyes. 'Though I'm pretty sure that Akamaru was the one who was meant to be showing off,' she added scornfully. TenTen giggled, but otherwise refrained from commenting, as did Sakura. Ino and Kiba seemed to get together and break up with surprising frequency, but with unpredictable lengths of time in-between. Praising or admonishing him in her presence, without knowing which was correct to do, was an old tactical nightmare that Sakura preferred not to participate in.
'The Aburame clan's "Bug Animals" were pretty spectacular as well,' she said instead. Ino was about to say something else when the Taiko drums suddenly leapt to life, the first deep tone booming out as the drummer strove to pick up the beat from the moving band and crush his cigarette underfoot simultaneously. A cacophony of cheers, highlighted by the high-pitched voices of three young siblings, put the conversation on hold. In fact, the children were so excited by the noise that they failed to notice Kiba, changed out of his performance clothes, had appeared among them. He nodded in greeting to Sakura and TenTen and made a face when he saw Ino eyeing him with a pensive expression, trying to decide whether her previous disapproval of him was outweighed by the impact he had made with his performance. Almost without thinking, Kiba's face set in determination, and he struck up a conversation with her before she had made up her mind.
Sakura suspected they would both disappear to one or the other's apartment before too long.
As the dance performance passed, as near to "capering" as Kimimaro would allow, amid cheers and catcalls and the enthusiastic applause of children up past their bedtime, Sakura could tell that this would be a night to remember, and that the festival would be hailed as "the best yet."
Author's Notes II: Yes, yes, I know you're disappointed that there's no lemon. But if you bug me reeeally persistently, and at length, I may change that.
I could totally include a part about a street pedlar named Hourai selling lemonade.