All I can say is... well, I finally finished this chapter after, like... 8 months? I'm not doing as well as I hoped as far as timing is concerned haha.
So, you'll notice that this chapter is less crappy than the last one. Well, at least I think so. Now with 25% more shenanigans and a little bit of profanity!
Good lord, I'm tired, so I'm just gonna get on with this and go to bed. I don't own Naruto.
Following my first assignment in months back in Ame, I was reinstated on a consistent working schedule, completing missions with Tobi as if nothing had ever changed. Despite the unbearable urge to question the sudden turnaround, I refrained from doing so. The way his eyes darkened whenever I raised an eyebrow at him was enough to convey remorse and that was good enough for me. I, too, felt guilty, but not for the same reasons. Each time we departed on another assignment, we had no choice but to leave Natsumi under the care of our comrades. She would beg and plead — even try her hand at manipulation — in order to be allowed to accompany us on our journey and, believe it or not, telling her that she couldn't was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. Truth be told, I wanted her to come with us. Since she was stuck training with the same two kids every day, her progress was beginning to diminish. The only way she could continue to learn and develop would be to fight bigger and stronger enemies. Sadly, Tobi didn't see it from my perspective.
The subject came up while we were flying back to the hideout after eliminating a target in Whirlpool, which proved to be so easy that, as I had complained to Tobi, our six-year-old probably could've done it herself with little to no interference from us. The corners of his eyes wrinkled when he grinned, presumably imagining our daughter utilizing her admirable taijutsu skills to literally beat her opponent into submission, and I had to bite my tongue in order to suppress a snide comment about his age. Instead, I suggested that we bring her on our next easy mission with us and give her a chance to test her abilities. His response was unnervingly condescending:
Sure, Deidara, let's bring a little girl — our little girl — to a battle zone and pit her against unpredictable, dangerous shinobi who'd sooner kill her than look at her. Why didn't I think of that? Idiot…
Now as I observed Tobi struggling to get his hand out of the drain in the kitchen sink, I was disinclined to offer my assistance. After all, he had called me an idiot. Instead, I opted to lean against the frame of the doorway and try not to laugh too much at the predicament he got himself into. He gazed longingly and helplessly at me one last time, then began flailing wildly and sweeping dishes right off the counter with his free arm, causing plates and glasses to shatter on the floor at his feet. I sighed and shook my head, knowing that we would be responsible for replacing what was damaged. Kisame appeared next to me with a smirk on his face as he, too, witnessed Tobi's pitiful plight.
"How did he even do that?" he wondered aloud.
"He's a dumbass, yeah."
The man-shark hybrid shrugged and slipped past me, evidently willing to do what he could to assist my imbecile partner. A familiar streak of blonde whizzed by behind me, providing a pleasant distraction from the antics in the kitchen. Natsumi skidded to a halt and turned to peek around me to see what all the commotion was about.
"What's wrong with Daddy?" she inquired, the outer edges of her brows turned downward with worry. The poor child was afraid that her father was injured. I didn't have the heart to tell her that no one really knew what ailed him, aside from the obvious.
"He'll be alright, un. He's just being himself as usual."
"Oh, okay then. I'm going to find Susumu so we can practice together."
"Have fun, sweetie. We'll come find you when your father's finished here, un."
My daughter grinned, her eyes becoming bright crescents, and sprinted out of sight. Even she understood how Tobi could be sometimes and brushed it off like the rest of us. Turning my attention back to the sorry sight in the kitchen, I rolled my eyes when I saw Kisame attempting to pull Tobi away from the sink by his shoulders. What were perfectly capable S-class shinobi doing behaving like civilians when they could simply use their unique abilities to resolve their problems? As amusing as it was to watch Tobi make an ass of himself, I liked Kisame enough to change my mind about not doing anything to help.
Striding forth, I nudged Kisame aside and smacked Tobi on the back of his head. He stopped dancing around as if he had ants in his pants and stared expectantly at me.
"There's glass everywhere, so if you don't stop acting like an idiot, you're going to hurt yourself — or Kisame, or me. Calm down and think, yeah."
His brows furrowed and he looked down at his hand, still caught in the drain, and seemed to be calculating a plan in his mind. After a moment of contemplation, he turned back to me, mouth agape with a dorky smile on his face that I hadn't seen in years. I resisted the urge to punch him in the jaw.
"I know what to do, Dei-chan! I can make a small chakra barrier around my knuckles so my hand can slip right out!"
"Go ahead and try it, un," I suggested, retreating to the safety of the doorway. The last thing I wanted to do was get covered in drain sludge and end up taking a second shower this morning. I had gotten squeaky clean less than an hour ago, not to mention I already had enough dirty laundry to wash.
Kisame, albeit intelligent, didn't get the same idea until it was too late. Just as he was about to take a step back, Tobi's hand shot out of the drain and a revolting shower of brown, murky water came with it, covering both of them in a stinky slime. I suppressed my laughter, biting my lower lip so hard that I could taste iron, but my chest heaved so violently that it spilled out, earning me a dirty glare from Tobi. The two of them looked down at their clothes, then at each other, and both of them groaned simultaneously, probably with the realization that they would not only have to clean themselves up, but the kitchen, as well.
"You two have fun!" I called cheerily as I disappeared to the safety of the bedroom. There was no way I was going to waste any more of my time dealing with Tobi's mess.
As disappointed as I was to see my partner run off, I wasn't at all surprised. Deidara was not the type of person who was willing to do actual work. The only reason we were still in Akatsuki and not attempting to secure his safe passage into Konoha was due to his laziness and unwillingness to cooperate with things he deemed unworthy of his time and effort. Evidently, he didn't realize that the only person who would suffer because of his irresponsibility was Natsumi. The longer he procrastinated, the less time our daughter would have to learn about life in a real village before being thrust onto a Genin team and expected to assimilate with the other kids.
The unexpected thought of Konoha reminded me that I had received a letter from Kakashi, which I hadn't had time to read yet since I was unusually busy lately. How was my old friend doing? I supposed I would have enough time to see what his message was between the time I finished straightening up the kitchen and the time I would have to make lunch. Wiping my hands on my pants — they were dirty, anyway — I grabbed the mop next to the refrigerator and got busy. Fortunately, most of the mess was confined to my clothes, as well as Kisame's, so it didn't take long. The majority of the time spent was sweeping up the broken ceramic remains of the dishes I accidentally flung off the counter. Deidara was probably angry about that, too.
When I finally finished cleaning up after myself, I had about an hour left before I would have to come back and cook again, so I gave the room a once-over to make sure that nothing was out of place and, satisfied that there was no longer any sign that a dishwater geyser had erupted, I scrambled down the hall to the bedroom. I was relieved to find the room was devoid of Deidara, meaning I wasn't going to get yelled at yet. He had probably gone to teach Natsumi more about his clay explosives; he hoped that she might be able to use his techniques, even without his special appendages. I just hoped she wouldn't suffer the same fate I had as a kid.
Locking the door behind me, I stripped and threw my smelly clothes in the hamper across from the bed. The letter from my former comrade lay unread on the side table in the corner. The faster I showered, the more time I would have to sit down and read it, so I shuffled into the bathroom and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror on my way to the shower. My hair had gotten longer and I hadn't even noticed. Instead of sticking straight up like it normally did, it drooped down, giving me the same general appearance as a wet porcupine. I'd have to remember to ask Deidara or Konan to trim it for me later.
While I was just standing there gazing at myself, I noticed something else that Deidara had been hinting at for nearly a decade: I was getting old. The half of my face that hadn't been crushed under the weight of a two-ton boulder was beginning to develop creases and wrinkles. How old was I now, anyway? Thirty-seven, I recalled bitterly. In less than three years, I would be forty years old. Natsumi's seventh birthday was in less than a week. Where did the time go?
I forced my eyes away from the mirror to glance at my watch. I had successfully wasted five minutes criticizing myself and making myself feel guilty and embarrassed. Sliding across the tile to the shower, I turned the water on and stepped in before it had time to warm up, which I regretted when my lower appendages instantly retracted into my body. I didn't have time to fret about my private bits, although it had been a while since they received any attention. I supposed they'd be more likely to if I did some of the things that Deidara asked me to do, such as fixing the bed frame so it wouldn't creak loudly every time one of us rolled over in our sleep. That was yet another thing I'd have to remember to do today.
Shivering under the icy cold water, I poured body wash into the palm of my hand and quickly started to scrub my skin until it didn't feel so numb, which was a result of the freezing shower. Although I would normally shampoo my hair, I was just going to get it cut later, so I decided to simply use the suds that were already on my hands. By the time I rinsed off, my five minutes were up. I shut the water off and stepped out, toweling myself dry until I realized that I had neglected to bring clean clothes in the bathroom.
No matter, I thought to myself, securing the towel around my waist. I wasn't the same self-conscious person that would cower behind a closed door until someone came along to help me. Strolling out of the bathroom, I was delighted to find that the bedroom was still empty, although the neatly folded clean clothes stacked at the foot of the bed were a sign that Deidara had come this way while I was in the shower. He tried to act like he was perpetually annoyed by my presence, but he still did nice things sometimes, such as leaving something out for me to wear when I left the shower. I guess it was his way of saying he cared regardless of the way he acted.
I grabbed a pair of shorts and a t-shirt from the pile, yanking on the former and tossing the shirt onto my pillow; I could put it on later. As long my important areas weren't exposed in the event that someone walked in, I'd be fine. Sprawling out on the bed, I snatched Kakashi's letter from the side table and broke the seal, then unrolled the small parchment, discovering that there were actually two pages. That was highly unusual, considering he never wrote more than a few lines at a time. Was something going on?
I received your letter a few days ago. I'm glad to hear you're doing well. Any news on whether or not you'll make it to Konoha by the end of the year? I know you're worried about the circumstances surrounding your partner, but I swear I'm making progress with the Hokage. In the next week or two, I'm certain we'll have reached a decision and I assure you it will allow your family safe passage into the village. There may be some conditions involved, but trust me, Obito, when I say that Deidara will be neither incarcerated nor sentenced to death. My guess would be community service for a short number of years.
Community service… that was an extremely lenient punishment compared to what Deidara was expecting, but even that may be more than he's willing to handle. Perhaps if I reiterated the benefits that Konoha would provide to our daughter, he would put his pride aside for a few years and come to terms with redeeming himself. If Konoha lowered his bounty or dropped it altogether, other villages would do the same and bounty hunters would lose interest in him in favor of targets with larger sums of money on their heads. This opportunity was becoming more favorable than ever.
Anyway, the reason it took me so long to respond to your last letter is, I ended up with another team of Genin last week and they've been running me ragged. I can't really complain since it's part of my deal to get you and your family here safely, but I have to admit… I'm getting too old for this. Hopefully I'll receive the great honor of having your daughter on the last Genin team I accept before I retire to guard duty.
My apologies for ending things on a bad note, but one of my old students is in the hospital and they say she's in pretty bad shape. She might not make it. I've got to see her before it's too late.
Write back soon.
So that's why he sent two pages — one of his students was in serious condition. All I wrote about in my last letter to him was how well Natsumi was doing and how enthralled I was with her, not once asking how things were going in his life. Now I felt like a self-absorbed ass. Looking down at my watch, I noticed I wouldn't have an ass if I didn't get mine in the kitchen, pronto.
"Try again, un."
"But Mom, this is really hard!"
"You're improving, sweetie. I know you'll get it soon," I responded encouragingly. Natsumi's charcoal eyes brightened the way they always did when she was reassured that someone believed in her and, with her chin determinedly pushed forward, she reached into the bin of fresh clay and started anew.
I watched intently as she shaped the bland chunk of wet earth into a beautiful tiny dove, roughly the size of a hummingbird, cupped in the palms of her hands. I didn't want to miss a second of her blossoming artistic abilities. It would appear she had inherited more than a few physical features from me, after all. Her eyebrows set into a perfectly horizontal line and she focused her energy, attempting to direct life in the form of chakra into the inanimate creature in her hands. I crossed my fingers behind my back.
"Mom, it's moving!" she exclaimed, her voice reaching a higher pitch than normal. She thrust the result of her labor within inches of my face. The little creation truly had started moving on its own. It was looking up at her, recognizing her as the person who gave it life.
"Perfect! Fantastic job, Natsumi! I knew you could do it, un."
"What do I do now?" she inquired excitedly. Her smile was so big that her light golden skin practically glowed. It took me a moment to recall what exactly was supposed to come next. I was all choked up, so overjoyed that I could hardly believe what I was seeing. My six-year-old daughter had mastered something I hadn't been able to at that age and, quite frankly, I was equally as jealous as I was proud.
"Er — well, you have to tell it where to go, yeah."
"When do I make it blow up?"
"That clay isn't explosive, honey. Your father would kill me if I had you setting off explosions in here… hey, there's an idea, un. Why not send it to the kitchen? Daddy will know it came from you and he'll be so proud!"
With that, she brought her hands up to her face, looked her miniature avian friend right in the eye, and told it to go see her daddy. I couldn't help but chuckle; sometimes I forgot that children didn't automatically understand certain instructions the way adults did. The dove cocked its head curiously.
"You have to tell it to find the pale man with dark hair, un."
"Oh, right! Okay, birdie, go to the pale man with black spiky hair!"
The dove stretched its wings and leaped from her hands, taking flight. It fluttered into the dimly-lit hallway and disappeared around the corner, presumably making its way to the kitchen where Tobi was, based on the scent of fried cheddar, preparing grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. Natsumi rubbed her hands together anxiously and dried clay flaked off her palms.
"Deidara!" Tobi shouted urgently, his voice echoing down the corridor.
"We should probably tell him it's not gonna detonate, un."
Natsumi and I jogged side by side to the kitchen and found Tobi with his eyes squeezed shut, shielding his face from what he believed was about to blow up in his face. The bird merely circled around his head, correct in its assumption that it had successfully located its target.
"Come here, birdie!"
The bird returned to Natsumi's outstretched hands where it nuzzled contentedly against her thumb and Tobi peeked out of one eye. When he noticed that it had obliged our daughter's command rather than mine, he put two and two together and a delighted grin swept over his face.
"Aren't you proud of her, Tobi? She's already surpassed me at that age and she doesn't have the same advantage I do."
"I am. Good job, sweetheart!"
Our daughter was radiating joy at this point, having received so much praise already this morning that she might simply burst with enthusiasm. She bounced up and down on her heels, evidently energized by her accomplishment, and Tobi placed his spatula on the counter next to the range. He reached out for a hug and Natsumi glanced down at her creation. I could tell by her hesitance that she was afraid of accidentally crushing the bird.
"Mom, will you hold my birdie?"
"Of course, yeah," I replied, holding out my hand. She quickly transferred the small dove to me and jumped into her father's outstretched arms, wrapping her arms around his neck while he smooched her cheek. The miniscule bird stared at me and I shrugged, unable to offer it an explanation.
"I'm so very proud of you, Natsumi. You're going to be an excellent kunoichi," Tobi said, his eyes warm with admiration for the little girl in his arms. That was one thing I could never hold against him; he couldn't possibly be a better father.
Lunch went, to my great relief, considerably more smoothly than breakfast had, and once I finished rinsing off my plate, I started heading in the direction of the bedroom. Sadly, I was intercepted by the only person who was still at the table.
"Tobi, join me for a moment," Pein-sama said, gesturing to the empty seat next to him. Had I done something wrong? He didn't look angry… maybe he just needed help with something.
I sank into the chair to his left and folded my hands on the table in front of me. For a while, he didn't say anything, quietly consuming the remainder of his lunch, and I began to wonder if he wasn't about to dump some bad news on me. I hoped that wasn't the case… I was so happy about Natsumi becoming proficient in manipulating her chakra to the point of being able to create and control little clay creatures like Deidara in such a short amount of time. A day like this should not be soured.
"So, I've been thinking… you and Deidara have been working hard and completing your assignments spectacularly. Why don't you take some time off, maybe have a nice vacation with your daughter?"
"I'm sorry, sir, did you say vacation?"
"That's right. I'd like you to take a week off and return on Sunday."
Well, Pein-sama was in an awfully generous mood today. As much as I knew I shouldn't question his actions, seeing as he was the boss, I had to know what I'd done to deserve a free week away from work. I mean, Deidara and I did our jobs well and always had, but time off was never brought up before. Why now?
"Pein," he corrected, gently reminding me that I was not only permitted, but required to address him as such.
"Pein, what's going on?"
"To tell you the truth, Tobi… I don't know. Konan has been uncooperative and irritable lately and I'm wondering if she's not with child again."
"If that's the case, congratulations," I said, recalling a similar situation shortly after Deidara and I found out that we were mysteriously becoming parents. Within a few weeks, he had transformed from my sweet, lovable partner into a resentful ball of tears that never wanted to leave the bed. At the time, I felt so confused and afraid that all I could do was hold him and tell him everything was going to be alright, even though I honestly had no idea what was going to happen. Thankfully, things worked out. The pregnancy didn't kill Deidara and we had a beautiful baby girl to show for it.
"I'm not so sure it's a good thing. We weren't planning to have any more children. Susumu is enough for us."
"I understand. You should try to talk to her. She'll push you away at first, but it's the hormones — once you break through to her, it'll be worth it."
"Your insight is, as always, invaluable."
Later that afternoon, I tiptoed silently into the bedroom, finding Deidara lying face down on our bed and Natsumi passed out in her own, her left arm dangling off the edge as she snored lightly. She must have drained a substantial amount of energy this morning if she was napping in the middle of the day at her age. Under normal circumstances, we had to fight with her just to get her in bed on time every evening. I pushed the door shut and noticed a slight twitch of Deidara's legs, a sign that he was awake and aware of my presence, so I slipped into the bed next to him and wrapped my body around his like a human pillow.
"You're warm, un," he whispered, melting against me.
"So are you," was my reply.
I yawned, inhaling the amazing scent of Deidara's flaxen locks, and the idea of a nap was immediately the most appealing thing in the world to me. I desired nothing more than a lazy day spent cuddling. However, we had orders to comply with that weren't to be postponed until tomorrow simply because we were tired today. I pressed my palm against my partner's chest and felt the comforting rhythm of his heartbeat, enticing me further to stay there in bed and join Natsumi in the realm of naps, but I resisted, wrenching my eyelids open as far as they would go.
"We have an assignment."
"We're taking a week's vacation."
"Mmm, Tobi… you're cruel, un."
"I'm not kidding. Pein-sama's orders."
Deidara groaned and rolled away, right off the side of the bed, and got to his feet. I, too, groaned, but only because he left me lying there without his warmth to revel in. My eyes followed his movements as he reached under the bed and produced a suitcase, then sleepily began shoving random, hilariously inappropriate items into it, such as an empty clay pouch and a single navy blue sandal.
"Let me help you, Dei-chan," I offered, somehow mustering up the burst of energy required to propel myself off the bed. Deidara blinked, seemingly realizing what he was doing, and sighed, discarding the things he'd absent-mindedly thrown in the suitcase so he could start over.
"Clothes, right. I'm on it, un."
While he took on that task, I assumed responsibility for getting Natsumi up and informing her about our mandatory leave, which she would undoubtedly be downright euphoric about. She didn't get to spend nearly as much time with us as she wanted, but now she would have nothing but her parents to entertain her for the next week, which included her birthday by a stroke of luck. What would we do for her birthday, anyway? Since we wouldn't have any time restrictions to fret about, we could theoretically let her plan the whole thing so every minute of it would be precisely what she wanted.
Kneeling next to her bed, I leaned down and kissed her forehead, then gently shook her shoulder. She stirred, but didn't open her eyes.
"Natsumi, wake up. We've got a surprise for you."
In a fraction of a second, she shot up into a sitting position before I had even finished my sentence as if she were a rake that someone had the misfortune of stepping on the prongs of. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and gazed up at me, intrigue clearly written across her scrunched up face. Surprises were some of her favorite things because they usually meant that she was getting some sort of present.
"What is it, Daddy?"
"We're going on a trip… and this time, you're coming with us."
Her wide, sparkling eyes and lips shaped in a perfect O were all I needed to know that I — not to mention Deidara — probably wasn't going to get a wink of sleep tonight because we'd be wrapped tightly around the dainty finger of our hyperactive six-year-old daughter. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Deidara massage the bridge of his nose and flop face-first across the bed, half-filled suitcase forgotten at his side. If we survived this week, I promised myself that I would make things up to him next time we had a moment to ourselves.