"Sensei! Hey, sensei! Like this?"
Rikyu launched an attack heel-first at a bush on the side of the road. Yoshio, who was walking beside his sensei, flinched sympathetically when Rikyu overshot his target and went soaring into the underbrush.
"Well, uh… yeah! Sort of!" Naruto-sensei said. "But maybe you should wait until we stop for the night before practicing any more, right? You're kind of using up a lot of chakra."
"As if attacking a stationary object meant anything anyway," Akiko grumbled as she adjusted the pack on her back. Her normal disinterested mood had turned black. Just outside the gates that morning, Naruto-sensei had confiscated the only book she'd brought with her.
Rikyu created a racket disentangling himself from the bush he'd tried to take out. A few seconds later they were moving as a whole team again, Rikyu jogging a little to catch up with the others and simultaneously trying to dig a cluster of burrs off the front of his pants. He had a shallow red streak running across his face, too, but he didn't seem to notice in the least. "My brother was so jealous when I told him we were going to Suna! He's like… he's all trying to practice for the chunin exams again, and I told him about our mission, and he was like, no way! He pretended he didn't believe me! Sensei, can you believe it? Hey, hey, is it true that the Kazekage's killed a thousand ninja? That's a lot, right? I mean, like, compared to other ninja?"
It might have been the fact that they were on a real mission for once, or it might have been the fact that Rikyu was doing something his older brother never had – or it might have been that he'd experimentally tried a couple soldier pills before setting out and had a lot of energy to kill, but ever since they'd left Konoha, Rikyu had not been able to keep his mouth shut for thirty seconds straight.
Naruto looked really uncomfortable for a second, but then, instead of answering the question, he said, "Hey Rikyu! I've got a challenge for you!"
Rikyu's face lit up with excitement. "Okay! Yeah sensei!" He punched a fist into the air, having completely forgotten what they had been talking about.
"See how far ahead of us you can run in five minutes, and then see if you can ambush us when we get there!"
Probably to show off, he did a very clumsy and transparent kawarimi, and then he became a blur of dust far ahead on the road.
Naruto sighed and paused in his tracks while his other two genin stared him down. "Sensei… is that really safe?" Akiko asked.
"Letting him go off like that – he'll probably get into some kind of trouble, and then we'll have to slow down to get him out of it."
"Oh well... it'll be a lesson to him! And you should remember it, too: eat soldier pills one at a time. In fact, that's today's lesson."
Akiko looked less than impressed. Yoshio started walking again, and as he did he took the kusari-gama off his back and started to idly twirl the chain. Akiko skipped a few steps to get even with him. Naruto didn't join them right away, but Yoshio didn't bother turning around to see why.
"…I mean, that was today's first lesson!" Naruto's voice rang out behind them. Akiko and Yoshio stopped again and turned toward him.
Naruto looked supremely satisfied with himself about something – which naturally made his two remaining genin nervous. Whenever he got excited about teaching them, something bad was sure to happen. "For today's second lesson, I'm going to teach you how to travel like real ninja!"
Yoshio noticed that Akiko had tensed up suddenly. "What do you mean, travel like real ninja?" Akiko asked nervously. He remembered that she had only just learned how to climb a tree with chakra.
Naruto seemed to remember this at the same time. "Yoshio – you go on ahead. Yeah, try to sniff out Rikyu's trap! That will be your next lesson for today! And Akiko, ah, well, uh… we're going to have a review session!"
Akiko was speechless with horror.
Yoshio smiled to himself meanly as he walked past her. "Good luck," he said out of the corner of his mouth. He noticed that her hand had automatically reached for the pouch on her leg where she usually kept her book, but since Naruto-sensei had taken it away from her, her fingers searched fruitlessly. It looked like she wouldn't be able to hide this time.
Yoshio could hear the excited cadences of Naruto-sensei's lecture-voice as he continued down the road, swinging the chain of his kusari-gama again. Rikyu would probably try to attack from behind – given that Rikyu would assume that kind of attack would be more likely to succeed. It wouldn't, though. Yoshio was no more full of himself than any other twelve-year-old, but he knew that he was stronger than Rikyu, and he'd worked with the guy long enough to pick up on a lot of his idiosyncrasies – like the almost guaranteed attack-from-behind strategy. As much as Rikyu trained, there was just something that he couldn't move beyond. He was so fixed on the idea of winning a fight that he didn't think about how he could make himself stronger, only how he could inflict damage on the other guy, who was usually Yoshio. But by now, Yoshio really didn't think he had much to be afraid of. Rikyu might be strong, but he was easy to predict.
After walking for a long while, Yoshio sensed Rikyu's not-so-subtle little spike of killer intent. That was another thing that Rikyu was not good at: masking his chakra. Yoshio was pretty sure that Rikyu didn't actually want to kill him, but the guy was definitely out for blood, and he never seemed to care whose. Yoshio could almost see the movement behind him. Rikyu would have been hiding in one of the trees by the road, cloaking himself (but forgetting to cloak his chakra), waiting until Yoshio was just in front of him, and then he'd probably try to drop on Yoshio from above with that extremely destructive vertical heel-kick that Naruto-sensei had shown him the other day…
Yoshio spun around at the last split-second and easily dodged Rikyu's foot. While he moved he angled the twirling chain of the kusari-gama so that it caught against and wrapped swiftly around Rikyu's still-falling leg. Yoshio stepped carefully out of the way of the arc of the weight at the end of the chain, trying to move with the conservative grace that Neji was always trying to teach him. Let there be no wasted movement. Even the slightest breath is a waste if it is unnecessary.
He slid left and jerked the chain just enough to make Rikyu too unsteady to land on his feet. And then he stared at the road. Because Rikyu wasn't lying there like he was supposed to be. In his place there was a squirrel. One with a bloody tail. Rikyu's aim had improved a lot lately.
These thoughts passed through Yoshio's head in less than a second, and as soon as he comprehended that he'd been had by a kawarimi, he spun on the ball of his right foot. Too late. Rikyu's fist met his cheekbone, and Yoshio reeled.
The good thing was that this had happened once or twice before, and Yoshio knew better than to let himself get distracted – Rikyu would take advantage of any split-second Yoshio was out of it. Yoshio ducked reactively and avoided a roundhouse blow, using the blunt handle of his kusari-gama to swipe at Rikyu's ankles. He was still unbalanced from the first hit, so there wasn't a lot of power to it, and Rikyu dodged in time.
Fights with Rikyu were usually short and brutal, but no matter what Yoshio did he couldn't seem to end this one with the usual ease. Rikyu was being unexpectedly creative – or maybe he had just learned a few new moves. Yoshio realized with a start that he'd just about doubled his speed compared with what it was when their genin team formed. Not only that, but there didn't seem to be any move with the kusari-gama that surprised him. It was almost like Rikyu had actually been paying attention to what Yoshio was doing lately – but that wasn't possible, was it?
The sun climbed in the sky while the fight burned on. Yoshio was surprised by what he was up against, but he was determined not to give Rikyu the satisfaction. Sweat beaded on his forehead and was quickly whipped off when he had to spin-dodge, and although Yoshio was getting slower with exhaustion moment by moment, Rikyu seemed to be speeding up – it was almost like the idea that he might be gaining on his teammate was enough to energize him.
They finally came to a stalemate – the tip of Yoshio's weapon held up against Rikyu's stomach, while Rikyu pulled his punch short and let his fist pause just when his knuckles were squarely against Yoshio's forehead. It was a remarkable show of control from someone like Rikyu.
Paused like that, their eyes met.
After the moment had passed, Yoshio removed his blade from Rikyu's stomach, and Rikyu's fist vanished. It wasn't a win on either side, but it was probably the best fight they'd ever had. Yoshio was almost going to say something a moment ago, but the expression Rikyu was wearing totally killed any sentiment he might have had. Rikyu was furious. "Damn it! You're just lucky. If I wasn't so worn out from walking all morning I could have beat you easy," Rikyu said.
Yoshio didn't deign to comment. He sheathed his kusari-gama and started walking again.
"You're such a girl," Rikyu taunted from behind him, obviously trying to bait him for another go. "You don't have the guts to be a ninja, you, you pansy…"
Yoshio kept walking.
A few moments later Rikyu joined him with a cold shoulder.
They walked hours like that, and Yoshio started to realize something: silence from Rikyu was about as friendly as conversation with a normal person. In a weird way, it was a step up. They didn't so much as glance at each other the whole time, though – just kept walking and staring straight forward.
Rikyu never even asked where the others were. He was even more surprised than Yoshio when, later that afternoon, Akiko sprang out of the trees and landed in front of him. Her face was red, her hair was a mess, there was a hole in her pants over a bloody knee, and she looked downright pissed. She was almost panting too hard to say, "Naruto-sensei is a hateful man."
Before Yoshio could figure that out, Naruto-sensei dropped down beside her, grinning as widely as ever. "Okay! Hey! How many lessons is that today? That's three, right? That's at least three! I'm the best sensei ever! Hey guys, guess what? Akiko-chan can teach you how to travel like ninja now!"
"I can do no such thing," she said irritably.
"Sure you can! You got this far, didn't you?"
"I'm tired," Akiko said.
She looked it. Yoshio judged that she'd gone through most of her chakra already.
"Sensei… are you going to teach us to travel like ninja too?" Rikyu asked with renewed energy.
Naruto smiled widely. "Yeah! You want to?"
"Yeah! I bet if we go real fast we can make it to Suna by tomorrow!"
Akiko looked like she wanted to cry.
Tenten knew that this would be the hardest part.
It took every scrap of spirit she had left to keep her back straight as she walked into the clearing. It looked like Neji had just finished meditating and Gai and Lee had just gotten through their ridiculous round of warm-ups, and they seemed to be talking with each other. She felt a pathetically wistful pang when she realized that she wouldn't get to be on this team or join them for missions for months. It might as well have been years. Neji, naturally, was the first one to notice her approaching. He didn't say anything, but the alertness in his eyes gave him away, and then Gai and Lee were staring at her too.
It would have been nice to dissolve into the earth, or to vanish out of existence in a puff of air like a clone. But she was over that phase now. Reality was a bitch, but it was what it was. She kept her back straight when she walked toward them. She surprised herself with the realization that, out of the three of them, Gai was the one she was least looking forward to seeing. He had an unreadable expression now, his rarest of faces. She'd overheard someone saying that he was sobbing about it at a bar the other day and wondered if that could possibly be true, then decided that she really didn't want to think about that.
Something came over her sensei all of a sudden and his face broke into a wide smile. "Tenten! What fortune you came to join us today! I have uncovered a fascinating pair of scrolls from the library regarding steel weaponry of the far west, which the Hokage has been so kind to lend me!"
Tenten felt something ease out of her chest, and she smiled at him. The feeling was short-lived, and her face fell in a moment. "Ano… it is only fair for me to tell you that I won't be able to fulfill my role on the team for… some time."
She'd just spoken about it with the Hokage that morning. It was, by far, the hardest thing she'd ever had to do. Even alone with the Hokage, a person she could trust even if she trusted no one else, all the questions were painfully embarrassing. I need to know if the paternity issue will cause a problem. Whatever you say here will be held in strict confidence. Is there any reason you would not want the father to know about this?
The Father. The damned Father. That was all that anyone seemed to care about.
"The Hokage says… that she has two new chunin, both weapons specialists, who might be able to fill in… which would cause the least disruption in the team dynamic, she thinks," she said.
You might even find a permanent replacement for me, she added to herself.
Gai nodded dumbly, obviously not knowing what to say. Blushing hard, she excused herself and left her shell-shocked team behind her.
She sped off to one of the more distant training fields and pulled a bow out of one of her scrolls. It was so much easier to deal with weapons than to deal with people. After setting up a simple bull's-eye target, she took her place at the far end of the field. She gauged the distance, tested the wind with nothing more than the skin of her face, pulled, aimed, shot. The arrow landed precisely on the target's center. After breathing in and out, she nocked another arrow. Doing this, she felt more like herself than she had in days.
It hadn't been an easy decision, and she was almost certain she'd made the wrong choice. She'd lost a lot of sleep over it. She'd come very close to just walking into the hospital and getting the abortion over with. But in the end she couldn't, and the only serviceable answer she was able to come up with was: cowardice.
She'd probably killed a lot of innocents already in her career – what was one more?
But she couldn't do it. There was something in the back of her mind singing a refrain she didn't want to listen to (a ninja's life is short, this may be your only chance) and for some reason she couldn't ignore it. It was a good and noble thing to have a child for Konoha, supposedly. The bigger the population, the better. The bigger the pool of shinobi-in-training, the better the cream of the crop would be. A ninja village thrived on numbers. So she was doing something good for Konoha in the long run in spite of the fact that she was taking herself out of action for a while. In a way it was a kind of charity, like donating a bag of blood at the hospital, only she would be donating slightly more than blood.
She nocked arrow after arrow. The six following the first made a perfect hexagon around it. Symmetry was always such a comfort to her. The fact that she was still capable of this was even more comforting.
A familiar prickle on her neck told her that she was being watched with Byakugan, and little to her surprise Neji appeared at the edge of the clearing a few moments later. What did surprise her was that Lee was with him. She acknowledged their presence, but didn't pause in her exercise. For a minute they just watched her, and even though this should have made her uncomfortable, with the bow in her hands she felt like nothing could touch her.
"Look, I'm giving it up to the orphanage," she told them. "I've spoken about it with the medics and… it won't be that bad. I'll just be off the roster for a while."
Lee looked like he wanted to say something, but he was tongue-tied. Tenten ignored it and let fly another arrow. She was busy dealing with her own mixed feelings – she couldn't handle everyone else's.
"How long?" Neji asked.
"Seven months, about. After that it'll probably take me some time to get back in shape." She found it was much easier to deal with this if she just thought of the situation in terms of her body. She was going to gain a lot of fat and lose a lot of muscle, and she'd need to deal with that as soon as possible… after. The sooner she had this kid and could put the whole ordeal behind her, the better.
"What about the father?" Lee asked.
She nearly dropped the arrow in her hands. Happily, she still had enough muscle memory to keep her fingers moving. "That's none of your business," she chided him.
"Have you told him yet?" Lee pressed.
Tenten spared one sharp look at him (that left his face beet-red) before going back to her target practice. She was careful not to give away anything else, but she could feel Neji's sharp eyes studying her, and she knew she was naked under his gaze.
It was a dangerous moment to be under that gaze, because Lee had hit on the worst part of the whole mess.
Have you told him yet?
How can I tell him when I don't even know who he is?
"You have genin now? You have genin?" Kankuro asked, dumbfounded.
"Yeah, so? That's not as bad as what I heard about you," Naruto said, squinting his eyes at the puppet-master and crossing his arms defensively.
"I heard you were going to be a father."
He waved it off. "That's different. You don't exactly have to pass any tests before… well, you know."
They'd arrived in Suna exhausted and bedraggled in the morning but had delivered the medicine on schedule. By the time they'd reached the city hidden in the Sand, Yoshio was too tired to even remember why he'd wanted to come in the first place. His feet killed from traveling through the desert all day and he had a bad sunburn on his nose and ears. It was probably dehydration that enabled the three genin to pass out completely as soon as they reached the beds in the room they'd been given. Akiko fell face-first onto her mattress and was drooling on her pillow before she could even kick off her shoes. Rikyu and Yoshio wordlessly passed a tall bottle of water back and forth until they had emptied it, before collapsing on their own beds. Naruto-sensei had disappeared before they fell asleep, and they didn't see him again until that evening, after the three of them had already woken up and bathed and sat around the barracks wondering what to do with themselves. No one seemed to want to venture out onto the street.
The towel stung Yoshio's face when he dried it off, the material chafing the red skin of his nose. Glancing in the mirror, he saw why Akiko had laughed at him after they'd woken up. His cheeks were so bright, it looked like he was wearing blush. Being pale and freckled herself, she'd had the foresight to be prepared for the desert sun.
Note for next visit to Suna: bring sunscreen.
If his mother had been around, he was sure she would have reminded him, but when they'd left she still hadn't come back from that mission. It wasn't unusual for a mission to take longer than expected, so he wasn't surprised, but he had the strangest feeling that she was drawing it out on purpose just to avoid talking to him. Which was just another reason for him to take matters into his own hands. Which brought him to the ninja that Naruto was talking to now.
"What is it with babies lately!? Everyone has to go and have babies!! It's not right. We're ninja! We're not supposed to be doing things like that!"
"Sure we are," Kankuro said. "Shinobi life is short. If we don't get on with it, we won't have time to make more shinobi."
Yoshio saw Akiko clap a hand over her mouth to stop herself from laughing.
Sabaku no Kankuro, without his face paint, was not immediately recognizable. Yoshio hadn't realized that it was him since Naruto-sensei hadn't remembered to introduce them. He thought they wouldn't make a big deal out of a genin team in Suna to deliver medicine, and even though they were being escorted to the Kazekage's office it didn't occur to him that their ninja escort might be the Kazekage's brother. But as they walked out of the building where they were staying, Akiko tugged on his sleeve and whispered this information to him. Rikyu looked askance at this but didn't say anything – he was too awed by the strange shinobi and was hanging on the man's every word.
It was a short walk from that building to the Kazekage tower. Kankuro and Naruto spent it either talking about people they knew and the crazy people they'd married and had babies with or conversing in some kind of code that Yoshio couldn't follow. By the time they reached the Kazekage's office he was more aggravated than anything else. Could this man be his father? What was the evidence for that, again, exactly? He looked at Akiko as if to question her, but she just shrugged despondently. She was still sorely missing her book.
To their eyes, accustomed to crowded, shady streets and the omnipotence of the color green, Suna seemed completely dead. Buildings in Konoha had a tendency to grow out of one another. If someone thought their house or business was too small, the place would sprout new wings like tumors. When someone wanted more space, instead of moving away, they tended to just build up and out. Architecture wasn't generally an art of planning, but one of figuring out how to make what was already there keep standing up. Suna was totally different. Everything was a monotonous tan, the houses and towers all matching like a set of blocks, and it seemed like the only living things were people and dogs. All the buildings had edges rounded by wind erosion, and if it were any darker they would have blended in completely with the street, like anthills poking up out of the earth. The little round windows made the similarity even stronger. Yoshio thought it was kind of neat, but after a few blocks, his eyes started to hurt. He focused instead on the shinobi in black that was leading them through the village, trying to pry away any detail that might give the man away as his father.
By then the sun was getting low. Kankuro nodded at a guard and opened the door to a tall tower in the center of the village, then ushered them in.
"Uzumaki Naruto," a dry, gravelly voice said, commanding the genins' attention immediately.
Yoshio couldn't say why, exactly, having never heard that voice before, but he knew right away that this would be the Kazekage. Even if he hadn't recognized the red hair or the gourd on the ninja's back, he would have known. Sabaku no Gaara wasn't the tallest ninja in the room by far, but he had a way of making everyone around him feel smaller. The air seemed to crackle when he looked at Naruto-sensei. It could have been Yoshio's imagination, but his sensei almost seemed a little bit nervous.
"Hey Gaara! It's been a while!"
Yoshio couldn't tear his eyes off the Kazekage's face. Neither could Akiko or Rikyu. It was no wonder the people of Suna made him the Kazekage. He had a dead glare that was completely unnerving, one that made you think he was coldly calculating something, sizing up the situation – like if he found that someone was more trouble than they were worth, he would eliminate them without batting an eyelash. Yoshio had the feeling that if he looked away for a second he'd be murdered. He suddenly didn't question Rikyu's comment about the Kazekage having killed thousands. This ninja looked like he could kill at least that many and call it a day's work.
"Yes. A while," the Kazekage said. "Three years."
The hair on Yoshio's neck started to stand on end.
Kankuro, however, didn't seem to notice the murderous ambience in the least – if anything he looked slightly bored. While Naruto-sensei just babbled awkwardly. "Yeah… I've been really busy lately and I haven't had any missions outside Konoha for ages. … Hey! Did you see I have genin? Tsunade-no-baa-chan made me do it. It's pretty cool, though…" He trailed off.
The Kazekage didn't say a word, but his dead glare seemed to suck all the warmth out of the room
Kankuro cleared his throat. "This is the kind of situation where normal people would go out for a drink or something."
Some mission, she thought.
It was a moonless night, the only light was from the stars, they were far from any human habitation and, on top of that, they were close enough to the desert to be uncomfortably cold – they could even see their breath. A civilian would have complained. As an elite team of ninja, they could only focus on their mission.
Well, the mission was a bust: right now all they could do was avoid capture and get back to Konoha. They'd managed the first so far, but the second was currently out of the question. The enemy had cut off all paths of retreat and had the uncanny ability to figure out where they would fall back to next. Not only that, but they were definitely trying to split the team up and capture them each individually, and their tactics were starting to work. Neji and Tenten were huddled together at the base of a small outcrop. Lee was elsewhere.
Tenten shivered involuntarily. Normally she'd be able to control that kind of reaction from her body, but exhaustion was starting to get to her. She could see it in Neji as well, now that her eyes had adjusted to the dim light. She recognized the hollow look in his eyes from long experience. Also, he had a few stray hairs. When Neji's ponytail was coming undone, you knew you were in trouble.
"What are you smiling at?" he asked softly, surprising her with his attention.
She shook her head. "I'll tell you when we get out of this. Any sign of Lee?"
Neji had spent the last five minutes scanning with his Byakugan. It was a serious drain on his chakra, but he considered it more important to find Lee than to conserve his energy. "Half a mile south-southeast. The idiot is sleeping in a tree."
Tenten's face was a mixture of relief and anger. "Of course he's sleeping. You're the one who has the last of the soldier pills."
"He's the one who lost his pack."
"He wouldn't have if you hadn't insisted on retreating instead of…" Tenten stopped and steadied her breathing. "Let's not do this. Just tell me how we're going to get to him."
Neji shook his head. "He's surrounded. We're going to have to set up a diversion."
"How are we going to do that when we know they're watching every move we make?"
"I don't know," he said.
Tenten slouched back against the rock. This was a bad situation if ever there was one. She closed her eyes and racked her brain for ideas. No matter what she came up with, she almost immediately had to rule it out. Against her will she felt the desire to keep her eyes closed, to just sit here with her back against the stone wall for a while and rest her eyes…
"I think we should get some rest," Neji said.
Tenten's eyes shot open. "What?"
"We're going to have to fight to get to him, and we need actual sleep if our bodies are going to recover enough chakra for that. I think Lee may have the right idea."
Tenten softened. "You want to go first?"
She sighed and leaned her head back against the stone, closing her eyes again and trying not to feel too happy about it. This was already the worst mission they'd had in a year, easily, and apparently it was far from over. For the first time she allowed herself to consider the possibility that they might not make it back. The enemy was strong enough that this was not just her exhaustion talking: this mission had been a well-planned setup, and although they were giving their opponents a run for their money, it felt like they were doomed from the first confrontation.
She indulged herself. So this was it. Team Gai's last stand. Of course it would happen just before she could marry Neji. Of course it would. The timing had never been right for her and Neji, so it made perfect sense that just when it looked like it would finally work out, fate would throw one last wrench into the works. They'd even talked about having kids together. They'd even talked about names. They'd had plans, damn it.
And there was so much she had to tell Yoshio, still. So much left to teach him. He wasn't strong enough to protect himself yet. He wasn't nearly as strong as he would need to be.
She heard a rustle of fabric and sensed Neji settling in next to her before she felt his body heat. She was shocked awake, though, when she felt his arm circle around her back. "Neji?"
"It's freezing," he said, pulling her closer.
In spite of everything, she grinned. She let her head topple onto his shoulder, which was much more comfortable than a wall of stone. "You're not going to try to play that 'we only have one blanket' trick on me again, are you?"
"I would, if we had a blanket."
She laughed, once, softly, and then she started to drift off. Why was he doing this? They'd made a deal to keep it professional during missions as much as possible. Just before she lost consciousness it occurred to her that maybe he was thinking the same way she was: they might not make it back. They might as well enjoy what they could while they could.
That was a horrible thought, but she didn't dwell on it. She knew that when she woke up she would be completely alert again and focused on the objective of getting home alive. But for now, she could fall asleep with her head on his shoulder, just in case.
"Rikyu!" Akiko snapped.
"You're drinking sake!"
"So? Everyone else is."
"You're only twelve!"
"This is Suna," he stated, as if this excused all offenses.
Yoshio wasn't entirely convinced that there was no drinking age in Suna. He was pretty sure the bartender was only giving them whatever they wanted because they were in the same group as the Kazekage, and Yoshio didn't blame the man.
"Well of course this is Suna, but that doesn't give you the right to… I mean… it's against the law!"
He rolled his eyes at her and took a large sip. Yoshio noted the fact that he was fighting back a grimace.
Meanwhile, Akiko seemed to be grabbing for arguments. "Don't you even know what that does to your reaction time? Not to mention, if you do it too much, it'll stunt your growth."
Rikyu eyed her from across the table. Then he grabbed his little bottle of sake in his fist and chugged the entire contents. After he'd slammed it back down on the table, he looked at her and burped.
"Rikyu!" she admonished.
He stuck his tongue out at her.
She looked to Yoshio in her desperation. "Could you help me out here?"
Yoshio shrugged. "I'm not going to stop him." If he was totally honest with himself, he was kind of curious to see what would happen.
"I'm going to get some more," Rikyu announced.
Akiko crossed her arms and glared, splitting her fury between Yoshio and Rikyu, who quickly disappeared into the crowd. "He's going to get us in a load of trouble," she said.
With who? Yoshio wondered. He sincerely doubted that Naruto-sensei would punish them for drinking sake, and none of the Suna ninja seemed to care. They did get the odd stare, especially from some of the younger ninja, but Yoshio guessed that had more to do with the fact that they weren't from Suna. Yoshio didn't like the way the locals watched them out of the corner of their eyes – like he had three heads, or like they expected his team to launch an attack at any moment. He was on edge himself. Suna was definitely not what you would call a friendly place.
If there was tension in the air, though, their sensei was oblivious. He was now sitting in a corner with the Kazekage, rosy-cheeked and talking rapidly with a lot of hand gestures. The Kazekage did not look like he was amused at all, but then, Yoshio thought, he wasn't the kind of ninja to ever show emotion, even when off-duty – and come to think of it, the Kazekage was never really off-duty. Kankuro, on the other hand, was leaning back and staring at their sensei and laughing at his speech, clearly entertained.
Akiko suddenly stood up from the table. Yoshio raised an eyebrow at her. Ignoring him, she proceeded to stand on her chair and scan the entire restaurant. "Yoshio…"
The scene that greeted them on the street outside the restaurant was not the kind of thing that was going to encourage inter-village relations, Akiko reflected.
In the middle of the street stood Rikyu. He had his sleeves rolled up, and he was flexing the muscles of his arms.
Approximately ten feet in front of him stood three Suna ninja. They looked like teenagers. More importantly, they looked like chunin. Akiko was tempted to point out that ninja wars had been started by lesser altercations, but she wasn't entirely sure that this would dissuade them. Yoshio just stood there with his arms crossed obstinately on his chest, looking at the scene as if the whole thing was below him. For all that he was an excellent shinobi in most situations, Akiko dearly wanted to sock him.
Him and Rikyu. Boys were so stupid.
Something had to be done, clearly. "Rikyu, be reasonable," she said, her voice wavering a little. "I'm sure this is all a misunderstanding."
"Yeah, right! You should've heard what this guy said about Konoha."
"What did he say?"
"I'm not repeating it," Rikyu said darkly.
"I'll repeat it," the tallest Suna chunin offered. He had blond hair and seemed to be the leader of the little gang. One of his comrades looked like he weighed about 300 pounds and, when he grinned evilly at Team Nine, revealed a chipped front tooth. He winked at Akiko. After a moment of utter shock, she scowled at him. Rogue!
"You just keep your mouth shut!" Rikyu cried. "When I'm done with you, you won't be able to say anything!"
The blond nin took out an oversized kunai and stared at it thoughtfully. "You know, I've never gutted a little boy before," he mused. "I wonder if they die faster."
"You could cut out his tongue and keep it as a trophy," one of the others observed.
Akiko was well aware that intimidation was an age-old ninja technique, but it was not one that had any observable effect on Matsumoto Rikyu, unless it was to get him even more riled up. "You just try it, you, you… sand crawler!"
The blond snorted. "Oh. Oh god. Now I'm really scared. He's calling me names."
The big fat gap-toothed one laughed and pounded a fist into his palm.
"Quit stalling and fight me, you coward!" Rikyu said. "We're not out here just to mess around!"
"Could have fooled me."
Rikyu's brow lowered nearly to his nose. Akiko would have laughed if she weren't so scared. But what could she do? If she tried to stop him, Rikyu would just push her out of the way, and he'd already proved that she wasn't a match for him. Besides, it would be kind of embarrassing for Team Naruto to fight amongst themselves when faced with a threat from another village. Not unexpected, but definitely embarrassing.
The blonde Suna chunin laughed, but his eyes suddenly narrowed, causing the hairs on the back of Akiko's neck to stand on end. Rikyu readied himself for launch. Oh please oh please oh please, someone stop him – I don't want to start a war!
But Akiko was paralyzed with fear. Her legs didn't budge an inch.
Rikyu was in the air with a sailing punch that was aimed at the blonde's head when he stopped suddenly and jerked back as if he'd caught his uniform on something. Everyone stared in surprise for a moment.
Akiko couldn't figure out what had happened at first, but when she looked closer she saw chakra threads glowing in the air. They were firmly lodged on Rikyu.
"You're going about this all wrong," Sabaku no Kankuro said to the Suna chunin. "Look, if you really want to intimidate someone, you have to cut back on the fake laughter. It's just not working for you."
When the blonde saw Kankuro, the grin fell off of his face and his skin went visibly pale. "Kankuro-dono, I… uh, we…"
"Give it a rest. I hope you've got better things to do than pick fights with genin. Tell you what – disappear in the next ten seconds and I'll forget I saw you out here."
The chunin didn't second-guess their luck. They disappeared in a lot less than ten seconds. Then Kankuro let go of his chakra strings, allowing Rikyu to fall onto the ground in an uncoordinated heap. "Okay kids, now that you've seen all that Suna has to offer – bars, fighting, and sand - it's time to call it a night," he said.
Akiko breathed a huge sigh of relief. Crisis averted! She turned to smile at Yoshio, but she saw that his eyes were fixed on Kankuro, and he wasn't paying attention to her at all.
"I'm bringing you guys back to your rooms. It's your bedtime," he said. He started walking down the road and motioned for them to follow them. Yoshio kept his arms crossed and the cool, suspicious look didn't fall from his face. Rikyu, looking somewhat impressed with the Suna jonin, skipped ahead to catch up with him.
"We're ninja, we don't have a bedtime!"
"Yeah, well if you want to pass out from exhaustion in the desert tomorrow, that's your call."
"Can't we go back inside?" Rikyu said. Akiko's pulse picked up again. He was probably just looking for another fight. (Nothing baffled her as much as the idea that someone could actually want to fight all the time.)
"You'd better not. Your sensei probably wouldn't want you to see him… in a few hours. He gets stupider than most after so much sake."
"I didn't realize this whole mission was an excuse for Naruto-sensei to get drunk with the Kazekage," Rikyu grumbled.
"Cut them some slack," Kankuro said. "They have a lot more in common than you will ever know."
"This is really dumb,"Akiko said.
Yoshio stuck his hands in his pockets and slouched against the balcony's railing. He completely agreed with her, but he wasn't about to tell her so.
"I admit you might kind of look like him…" she began. He shot her a dirty look in response. "It makes sense. Maybe they couldn't admit that he's your father because it would cause an international dispute. I mean, she obviously wanted to raise you, but he's the brother of the Kazekage and the son of another Kazekage. I read that there was all kinds of legal trouble with his sister because she married a Konoha ninja, and she lives in Konoha permanently now… so maybe it makes sense. But this is ridiculous. Why can't you just ask him yourself?"
"Just because, okay?"
She sighed dramatically through her nose. "You know, for someone whose mother's famous for spilling ten times her own weight in blood in one battle, you're kind of a wimp."
"Where did you read that?"
"You don't know anything, do you?"
"Look, are you going to do this or not?"
She stomped one foot. "I just don't know what you expect me to do!"
"Do what you usually do," he said. "Get out your little notebook and pretend to be really interested in him." He'd realized a few weeks ago that the reason Akiko got along with adults so easily was that they always felt flattered when she started writing down what they said.
"I did want to get some information on puppet techniques…" she said. "Oh, all right. But you really owe me after this. Next time Rikyu tries to do something stupid, you have to stop him."
She stormed off into the room, red braid bouncing behind her.
Yoshio stayed on the balcony. In the parlor down below, Kankuro had hung around drinking tea and talking to some other ninja who was staying in the same building, a messenger from Kirigakure. Yoshio knew Akiko would be able to worm her way in. She always did. She wasn't shy when she was being nosy.
It was getting kind of cold out, and he thought about going inside, but he sat down on a chair on the balcony instead. He took all his kunai out of his pockets and dug out his polishing cloth too, and he sat and cleaned and tried not to think about the fact that Sabaku no Kankuro might be his father.
You didn't really notice it until the wind blew, but Suna nights were cold. The desert didn't hold in any heat. He kind of liked the look of it at night more so than in the day. Suna by day looked bare and lifeless, but at night the sky above was absolutely clear and you could see all the little round windows glowing. It wasn't that bad a place, he decided. It just wasn't somewhere he'd ever be at home.
When had his mother been here before, he wondered? Had she had a lot of missions here? Did she like it in Suna? He lost track of time while polishing his weapons and wondering again about all the things he didn't know about her.
On the roof above the guest quarters where the Konoha team was staying, Kankuro suppressed his chakra carefully. He didn't know much about the kid, but if his mother was training him he'd probably be pretty sharp for his age. He was totally engrossed in what he was doing, however, even though he'd obviously been at it for a while – there was a pile of newly-shined kunai and shuriken in the chair next to him. He angled his head a little to the side so he could get a better look. Yeah, the brat had changed a lot, but that was pretty much to be expected – the last time Kankuro had seen him, he'd been a toddler. He still looked a lot like his mother, Kankuro reflected fondly.
Out loud, he said, "That was pretty low."
Yoshio's hands froze and he looked up immediately. Reflexes aren't bad, Kankuro thought. Yeah, she's training him.
He leaped down easily and landed on the balcony, totally at ease, leaning back on the railing. Yoshio's stare was intense. "Asking a girl to do your dirty work for you, I mean. That's just not right. Almost sounds like something I'd do."
The kid looked like he wanted to deny it at first, but he didn't say a word. He gathered up his kunai and stuck them back into various pockets with so much care and seriousness that Kankuro wanted to laugh. He sat in the cleared chair next to Yoshio instead and stared out at the village. Yoshio sat rigidly next to him and was so obviously uncomfortable with the silence that followed that Kankuro wanted to laugh again.
Tenten winced. There was a root digging into her back, just below her right shoulder blade. Staring up into the forest's canopy above, she found that, if she concentrated on the feeling of that intrusive little root poking at her, the pain in the rest of her body was easier to deal with. Wasn't that something she'd learned from Gai-sensei? She couldn't remember… it was starting to get hazy…
Angrily, she chomped down on the inside of her cheek. The acute pain gave her body a tiny shot of adrenaline and her eyes slid open again. How long until she died, she wondered? And where was Lee? The last time she'd spoken with Neji he said he'd lost Lee. How could he? She knew this was a weak point of hers: she got so used to being with Neji and his Byakugan that she felt completely lost without him. And Neji was nowhere to be seen or heard. She wasn't even completely sure when she'd lost him and ended up on her own. She was fighting for her life against another weapons specialist, a bitch with swords (and that was so typical, the girls going after the flashy weapons – why did they all have to have swords? why couldn't they just pick up a kusari-gama and get the dirty job done? they were ninja, not ballerinas, for goodness sake…).
She'd killed the girl from Ame – it was a necessity. She wouldn't have lasted even this long if she hadn't. She'd made the mistake of letting her walk off with only a fatal injury the first time, and look how that had come back and bitten her in the ass. When she died, it would be her own fault.
And she was dying. Probably.
Oh, they'd been in worse situations before. Sometimes she felt like they'd seen everything. Team Gai specialized in combat and generally got some of the roughest missions Konoha would take. As a result, she'd been through this: the desperation, the frustration, the rationalization, the slow acceptance of fate. Always before she'd been saved at the last minute. Once, it was Gai-sensei appearing out of nowhere and stuffing a blood pill down her throat. Once it was Neji pulling her out of the water after she'd already lost consciousness. This kind of thing had happened more times than she could count.
Unfortunately, just because she'd been saved before didn't mean that this wasn't the real thing.
There was so much she still needed to teach him. There were things she couldn't teach him – what was she going to do about that? She'd never gotten a chance to talk to him and explain everything he wanted to know – so how was he going to find out without her? And what would he think of her when he found out on his own?
Naruto would take care of him, she was sure, and would probably train him to death – and so would Neji and Lee, if they ever made it home. It was all right. He could never be too ready. He could never be too strong. (But what if it wasn't enough?)
She could feel more blood seeping out of the gash that she'd cut in her leg to drain the poison from the Ame girl's sword. Damn it, the girl wasn't all flashy. They'd chosen her opponent well. Even though Tenten had won, she knew the poison in her bloodstream was the kind made to kill. All she could do was lie still, drain the wound as much as possible, and hope someone who didn't want to kill her found her before she died from the blood loss. But strangely enough, she was more worried about Yoshio than herself.
This was so weird. Yoshio had no idea how to start a conversation with a guy that might be his father. He really wished Akiko was there to break the ice.
"I didn't recognize you when I saw you. I'd forgotten your name," Kankuro said. "I should have recognized you. You look a lot like her. So," he said, leaning back and lacing fingers behind his head, staring up at the sky, "she didn't tell you either?"
"Tell me about what?"
"Who your father is."
Yoshio felt his heart start beating oddly with excitement. Did that mean…?
In response to Yoshio's questioning gaze, Kankuro shrugged and said, "Well, you know what they say: kunoichi are allowed to keep their secrets."
Something broke in Yoshio's chest, and he suddenly realized he was happy - incredibly happy that this guy wasn't his father. Which was a weird thing – that was what he'd come here for, wasn't it? Wasn't it why he'd gone through the trouble of getting his team this mission even though they were obviously not ready for it? Why did he suddenly feel like there was a load off his back? This guy wasn't so terrible, and he was supposed to be a really scary ninja… but for whatever reason, Yoshio was completely relieved that they weren't related.
Kankuro was looking up at the sky. Yoshio looked up at it too. So this guy pretty certainly wasn't his father. Good. That was definitely good. But it still left some unanswered questions, and Yoshio realized something that had eluded him up until now. "How come I know you?" he wondered out loud.
Because he did know him, somehow. He had recognized Kankuro in his mother's picture. Even now, without his make-up, there was an annoying feeling in the back of his mind that he was missing something he should have seen before.
Kankuro seemed to be thinking about it for a minute. "She and I used to be friends when we were younger," he said finally, not looking at Yoshio. "The second time I went for chunin, she was there with her team as well, and she kicked my ass in the final round of the exam," he added, as if that explained everything.
Yoshio felt like he was grabbing at a half-formed memory. He thought he might remember the face, but not much else.
"I visited her in Konoha a few times," he said. "You were way too young to remember much. So… what's she up to these days? Still doing missions with eyebrow guy?"
"His name's Rock Lee," Yoshio said. Just saying the name made him think of the grossly wide eyes, the embarrassingly tight bodysuit, the thumbs-up, and the unrealistically white teeth. And with that thought came the memory of muscle pain. He couldn't help grimacing to himself.
Kankuro laughed. "Yeah. Rock Lee. And Hyuuga Neji."
Kankuro seemed to be thinking about something for a minute, and the uncomfortable silence descended again. Yoshio scraped his toe along the floor of the balcony. "So she beat you in an exam?"
"Yeah. Shit, she got me. I thought I had her pegged, but she was half a step ahead of me the whole time. She's good with strategy. And she's fast. Damn it, it was embarrassing. I thought that match would be over in half a minute… I guess she had it out for me. She kind of had a grudge against my sister… long story."
Yoshio was already starting to drift off in his mind while the man continued to talk. Okay, if not this guy, and not any of the people he'd met before, who?
Tenten ran the back of her hand across her forehead, mopping off sweat as she walked. It was a hot summer day in Konoha, and so humid she could even see the haze under the canopy of the forest. Lee, walking beside her, handed her his bottle of water and she had to exercise self-control to not finish it off.
"Are you sure you don't want to have lunch with me?" Lee asked for what seemed like the hundredth time.
"I told you I'm not hungry," she said, quirking her lips at him. "How come you never listen?"
"Well… the medic says you don't eat enough."
"How do you know that?" she asked him sharply.
He was silent for a minute, apparently waging a mental battle, and then he broke. "But Tenten, it is vital that you eat enough to nourish the life force inside of you!"
She couldn't help it – she grinned. "And I thought I told you never to call it that."
"Sorry!" he said.
"It's okay, Lee." And she smiled at him to show that it was. Lee breathed a sigh of relief.
Lee was one of the few people she could stand to be around for any amount of time these days. He refused to do any taijutsu with her or sparring of any kind, but he saw nothing wrong with making sure she kept up her conditioning as much as she could. She had just passed the point of no return in her pregnancy, as far as she was concerned – the swelling wasn't just noticeable to her anymore. Her form-fitting tops had ceased to be form-fitting. It made her too uncomfortable to walk around in public most days – she didn't like the way people she knew stared at her.
But when training with Lee, she almost felt like things were normal, and for a few hours she could forget that they weren't. He treated her differently than he used to – it couldn't be helped – but at least she still felt like his teammate. Neji wouldn't even train with her. Whether this was because he was afraid of hurting her or because he felt too awkward about it, or some other mysterious excuse the Hyuuga had invented for this purpose, she was sure she would never find out from Neji. She didn't – couldn't – hate him for it, but she did wonder why. Almost enough to ask Lee…
They were just reaching the road – he would head off to the village to get lunch, and she would slip home the back way. It was now or never. "Lee," she started.
"Tenten?" he responded expectantly.
She looked at him, but the question died on her lips. She couldn't bring herself to ask it. "Tenten?" he asked again.
"If you buy me a good flank steak and a pound of broccoli, you can come over for dinner," she said, smiling.
He was so overwhelmed with joy that he completely missed that she had hidden anything from him. He thrust his fist into the air. "It will be done!"
He saluted her playfully and turned to run off to Konoha. She watched him go a little wistfully. She missed Lee – working with him, anyway. A mission with Lee was never boring. She could use a mission right now. Any distraction was a good distraction.
She made the walk home quickly. She'd learned to keep her eyes aimed straight forward so that she wouldn't have to stop and talk to anyone she knew. Since the unfortunate encounter with Kiba she had successfully avoided every other Konoha ninja she was on a first-name basis with, with the exception of Lee and Gai-sensei, of course. When she wasn't training, she only left her apartment for food and other necessities. And Gai had been happy to find her even more esoteric scrolls on weaponry and any manner of ninja art she felt a need to read about. She wasn't about to let her down time go to waste. As soon as her body was done with what it needed to do, she wanted to be back in top form. Better than top form. Good enough so that her team would take her back.
She stepped in and closed the door firmly behind her, breathed a small sigh of relief, and slipped off her shoes. (The apartment had the distinct smell of the chicken curry she had made two days ago. She would have aired it out, but she didn't like leaving the doors and windows open.) She turned her head and froze: there was someone sitting on her couch that she did not expect to see. She hadn't sensed any foreign chakra when she walked in, but then again, that level of masking was to be expected.
"Tenten," the visitor greeted.
"Tsunade-sama," she said.