(Author's note / disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or any of the characters in this story, Masashi Kishimoto does.)
"Come on, Taki-chan. Get up."
Temari Nara placed her hand on her daughter's shoulder and shook her gently. Takarazuka Nara – Taki for short - groaned and rolled over to face the wall. Temari shook her harder, and Taki opened one bleary eye. "Mum? What is it?"
"Don't you remember?" sighed Temari. "Do you have to be reminded again? We've been preparing for this for the past few months. Today is the day that you're moving to Sunagakure to join the Puppet Squad."
"The...puppet...squad?" mumbled Takarazuka. Her eyes slowly moved across the room, eventually coming to rest upon a pile of bundles. The tallest one contained Kitsune, the battle puppet that had been presented to her on her tenth birthday, and her weapon of choice. It was currently swathed in bandages, its five wooden tails tucked neatly between its legs.
"Yes, the puppet squad," snapped Temari. "Get up, now. Honestly. You're as bad as your father."
Takarazuka reluctantly dragged herself out of bed and fumbled around for a hair tie. She scraped back her dark hair, pulling it upwards and tying it into a scruffy ponytail. Yawning, she pulled on a pair of khaki shorts and a white cotton t-shirt; it was ridiculously hot in her mother's native village. Slowly, she padded to the bathroom and began to wash her face.
Temari, meanwhile, went downstairs. Her son, Shikane, was already finishing breakfast. Unlike his lazy sister, Shikane was full of energy, always up at the crack of dawn and eager to go out and train with his team. The Chuunin exams were coming up, and Shikane's sensei believed the kid had potential to become a Chuunin way before the other kids, just like his father. Albeit without his father's lazy streak, of course, Konohamaru had added mischievously. Temari had laughed along with him. Shikamaru might be an examiner, a leading jounin and an advisor to the Hokage to boot, but he was still not averse to the odd spot of cloud watching.
There was a knock at the door, and Shikane leapt up to answer it. His team mates, Inosuke Yamanaka and Chouyomi Akimichi, were waiting for him.
"Morning!" said Shikane cheerfully. "Where's Konohamaru-sensei meeting us?"
"At the war memorial," answered Inosuke, while Choyomi fished in her bag for another pack of crisps. "He said something about our formation attack. Hi, Nara-san," he added as Temari appeared in the doorway behind Shikane, and bowed. Chouyomi followed suit.
"Morning, Inosuke. Morning, Chouyomi," said Temari. She turned to Shikane. "Got all your stuff?"
Shikane quickly checked his bag and pockets, and nodded. "Taki! Get your arse downstairs and say goodbye to your brother!" Temari bellowed up the stairs.
Takarazuka slouched down the stairs and mumbled, "See ya, Shikane."
Shikane grinned. "Have fun in Suna! Don't forget to come back and visit some time!"
"Fun?" snorted Takarazuka. "I'm going to be training with the Puppet Squad, twenty-four hours a day, in a burning hot desert. I'll probably get sand in my shoes all the time and my clothes will stink of sweat and I won't get to have any catnaps. It's so troublesome."
"Ah, shut it," laughed Shikane. "You always say being a puppeteer is troublesome, but we all know you love it really. You're like the youngest chuunin on the Puppet Squad, Mum says. And you get to play with the dogs..."
"Hey! Shikane-kun!" interrupted Chouyomi, poking her team mate in the ribs. "Are you coming to practice or what?"
Shikane took the hint. "Bye, Mum! Bye, Taki-chan!" he called, running after his departing team mates.
The third InoShikaChou formation, Temari thought. Talk about keeping it in the family.
Takarazuka dropped a piece of bread into the toaster and made herself a cup of green tea. She's so like her father, Temari thought. She has his eyes, his ability to beat everyone at Go – except him, of course – even his ponytail. And his bloody laziness. The only thing Takarazuka had not inherited was her father's jutsu. That had gone to Shikane, who, with his sandy hair, emerald-coloured eyes and aggressive, forthright way of speaking, was a younger and male version of his mother.
Although she had been born and raised in Sunagakure, Temari was amazed at how at home she felt in Konoha. The trees and cool breezes and hot springs were a welcome relief after twenty-seven years of living in that bloody desert, the quality of life was generally better, and the atmosphere of continuous tension in her home village was absent in Konoha. She missed her brothers, but the villagers were almost like another family to her. She understood now what all that Will Of Fire business was about. They were a tough bunch, the citizens of Konoha. So many losses in the last Great War, and yet they kept on battling till the end. So many jounin had fallen – her husband's sensei, Asuma, was only the first of many. Genma Shiranui, the Elders of Konoha, Yamato, Anko Mitarashi, Maito Gai, Kakashi Hatake, the Fifth Hokage herself – they had all fallen in battle. Kurenai Yuuhi, the aunt of Shikane's sensei, was one of the few who had survived, along with Baki, Temari's former sensei and an advisor to the Kazekage; Ibiki Morino, a tough veteran and torture specialist, who was still working as an examiner; Iruka Umino, one of the Academy's most-loved teachers and a great friend of the Hokage; Shizune, the Fifth Hokage's assistant and a top medical jounin; and several members of the Konoha clans, including – thank goodness – her father-in-law, Shikaku.
Kakashi's death, Temari recalled, had sent shockwaves through the village, as had the death of the Fifth Hokage. He had died protecting the Sixth Hokage, killed by the very same man who had previously murdered Jiraiya, and indeed, his death was said to be one of the catalysts in the Sixth Hokage's rise to power; the death of his sensei had filled him with so much rage and fearsome energy, it was as if the gods themselves were guiding him. He had single-handedly beaten the leader of those Akatsuki bastards in combat. Now, every year, just like her husband and his former team mates did with their late sensei Asuma, the Hokage and Sakura Haruno, his wife and former team mate, paid their respects to Kakashi's grave.
Temari looked over at her daughter, munching on a slice of toast. "Is that all you're going to eat, Taki?" she asked. "We've got three days' journey ahead of us. You're going to need energy. Have some fruit or some more toast or something."
"I'm not hungry," Takarazuka argued.
Takarazuka saw the look in her mother's eyes, and decided not to argue. She put two more pieces of bread into the toaster, as Shikamaru entered the house. Temari kissed him. "So, how's Hokage-sama doing?" she asked. "Did you give Sakura the medicines?"
"Ah, he's fine," Shikamaru replied, scratching his chin. "And yes, I did, and yes, before you ask, we've still got a week's leave, it's OK. He understands, it being Sand business and everything. Told me to say hi to Gaara-sama for him." He raised an eyebrow. "Sometimes, when I talk to him, it's like we're ten years old again and in Iruka's class being shouted at. He's got Neji taking care of things while I'm away. So, when are we setting off?"
"Once the kid's finished her breakfast," Temari said, aiming a pointed glance at Takarazuka. Takarazuka grunted and shoved green tea and toast into her mouth. Brushing the remaining crumbs off her face, she padded up the stairs to her bedroom. She flung open the door, breathing in the familiar scent of green tea and yellowing paper and sakura blossoms from outside her room, and began to gather her bundles together. One for clothes; one for sleeping gear; and lastly, Kitsune. Kankuro, her uncle and the jounin in charge of the Puppet Squad, had made it for her and presented her with it four years ago, when he'd decided that she really did have the potential to be a puppeteer. Plus, as he put it, "she's not going to bollocks up Karasu anymore".
"So long, old childhood home," she muttered to herself, and schlepped her bundles downstairs to where Shikamaru and Temari awaited her.
Takarazuka stood in the desert, her arms extended, palms facing forward, chakra strings emanating from each finger. The five tails of Kitsune hung in the warm air, ready to strike. Concentrating intensely on Kuroari, her uncle's puppet, she lowered her arms, crossing them in front of her.
"Kuro Higikiki Ippatsu!"
The five tails whizzed through the air, blades extended, towards the slots in Kuroari's body. Thunkthunkthunkthunkthunk. Four of them hit the slots, the last was a little off-centre, and slammed into the puppet's side.
"Idiot! Do that again!"
Sighing, Takarazuka pulled out the blades with her chakra strings, as Kankuro glared at her. They had been practising this jutsu together for what seemed like an eternity, although it had been only a few days. Each jounin in the Puppet Squad picked an individual chuunin to train with, and Kankuro had insisted on working with his niece; not because of blood ties, but because, in his opinion, she needed training more than anyone, she needed a kick up the arse, and who better to give her that kick than the man responsible for the Puppet Squad's resurrection?
The first time Takarazuka had complained about her uncle's harsh training, Kankuro had slapped her and told her that she had no fucking clue about anything. She learned very quickly that he did not tolerate laziness of any kind. However, the two of them had built up a working relationship, and she had come to grudgingly admire him. It was Kankuro who had chosen her name, after all, and it was also Kankuro who had noticed that she had potential as a puppeteer, back when the five-year-old Takarazuka had been spotted creating tiny chakra strings.
"She takes after her father," Temari had said proudly. "The kid's definitely a genius in the making. She's already learned to play Shogi, she even beat Shika-kun the other day..."
"Is that so?" Kankuro had replied. "A little strategist, eh? And she's got chakra manipulation abilities already, it seems. A good combination for a puppeteer. Any idea what kind of jutsu she'll specialise in?"
"Ninjutsu, I guess," said Temari with a shrug. "I don't think she's the taijutsu kind, she's not aggressive or physical enough, and I can't see her being a genjutsu type either. Not if she takes after Shika-kun." A thought suddenly hit her. "She's good with her hands, Kankuro. She helped fix the toaster the other day. She's got this kind of...inbuilt ability to sense where things go."
Kankuro stroked his chin thoughtfully. He was silent for a while. Then he spoke up.
"I'd like to train her in future, Temari-chan. If, as you can say, she can fix stuff, and she's apparently a genius, and she can make chakra strings like she's doing now, she could surpass me as a puppeteer one of these days. And another one in the family wouldn't hurt. It's not like there are many of us."
Back in the present day, Takarazuka, sighing, raised her sweating arms, and the parts of Kitsune with them. The blades hung suspended in the air.
Concentrate, girl, concentrate. The blades should be at the right angle to the slots...looks like it...now...arms down, palms in and crossed over your chest...
"Kuro Higikiki Ippatsu!"
Thunkthunkthunkthunkthunk. Four blades hit home. The fifth missed again. There was an evil expression on Kankuro's scarred and painted face. Takarazuka bit her lip.
Blades out, arms up, palms outwards, eyes on the position of the blades in relation to Kuroari's slots. .
Come on, Taki-chan. Don't piss your uncle off. A small stream of blood trickled down Takarazuka's lip. She winced.
"Kuro Higikiki Ippatsu!"
Thunkthunkthunkthunkthunk. And another of the bloody blades missed.
"Uncle Kankuro..." began Takarazuka. Kankuro held up his hand to stop her.
"Takarazuka," he said, with menace in his voice. "How long have we been practising this jutsu now? A month, right? And yet, so far, you have failed to sink all five tails into Kuroari. An enemy inside him could survive that attack, the way you're going. So four blades have hit home, and he's bleeding, but what if just one vital area is missed? What if he still has enough chakra, enough blood, to smash his way out of Kuroari? Use your fucking head, girl. You can get four of the tails in there, why not all five? I thought I could pass on my jutsu to you, so you could have a couple of other jutsu in your arsenal besides your own. But now I'm beginning to wonder if you can hack it."
You're pushing me too hard, Uncle Kankuro, Takarazuka wanted to say. But wisely, she kept her mouth shut.
"Again, please. And we are not going home until you get it right. Am I making myself clear?"
Forty attempts later, she finally got it right, and as she swang her arms down and screamed, "Kuro Higikiki Ippatsu!" all five of the blades hit home. Kuroari stood with the five tails sticking out of its body; had a prisoner been inside it, blood would be streaming down its front.
Takarazuka was exhausted. But it was worth it, just to see her uncle give her the thumbs up.
Kankuro summoned the rest of the puppeteers, and called a halt to the training. "See you all tomorrow," he said, as the squad packed their puppets into bundles. Takarazuka folded up Kitsune and wrapped it up.
Takarazuka and Kankuro said little to each other on their way home. She was too tired, and he was evidently lost in thought. He did that sometimes; it was to be expected, given the amount of pressure on him. Not only was he the head of the Puppet Squad, he was also a proctor at the Sunagakure Ninja Academy, and sat on the village council. Naturally, as the Kazekage's brother, he attracted a lot of attention anyway. The older generation knew about Kankuro's family and his troubled past.
As the pair approached the domed mud-brick house that the two Sabakuno brothers shared – the Kazekage had the top level and Kankuro, the bottom one - a black and white dog charged towards them in greeting. It was followed by Kiba Inuzuka, Takarazuka's third uncle, Kankuro's husband and an emigrant from Konoha.
"Evening, you two," said Kiba, throwing himself on Kankuro like one of his beloved dogs. He gave Kankuro a kiss on the cheek and laid a restraining hand upon the dog's back. "How was training, Taki-chan? I see your uncle's not killed you yet."
"Not quite, no," said Takarazuka wryly.
"She finally did it, Kiba-kun," interjected Kankuro with a grin. "She mastered the jutsu I've been teaching her. And about bloody time, too." He turned to his niece. "I should be making you your own Kuroari. Now go and sit down. You've earned yourself a rest."
Normally, Takarazuka helped her uncles prepare dinner. Kankuro had insisted that she contribute her share around the house, and another thing that she had had to learn quickly was that her uncle was not very tolerant of mess. Kiba's dogs, fortunately, were housetrained; Takarazuka was another matter.
As Kankuro began chopping vegetables while Kiba fed the dogs, Takarazuka collapsed onto the sofa and peeled off her sandals and the black bandana her uncle had insisted she wear, mainly to protect her neck from the heat of the sun, but also to act as camouflage. He himself wore a black hood, known as the 'cat hat' because, with its two points on top, it gave him the appearance of a human-cat hybrid. According to Kankuro, 'cat hats' was originally traditionally worn by puppeteers in the Bunraku school of theatre. He'd taken her to Bunraku plays in the past, for 'research purposes'.
Kiba called from the dining room that dinner was ready, and Takarazuka went to sit down with her uncles. They were having some kind of chicken katsu tonight, it seemed. She wolfed the food down; training had made her ravenous. Kiba was telling Kankuro about the latest news from Konoha; his former team mate, Shino Aburame, had become a father for the second time, and the baby was currently being turned into a human vessel for an army of insects, as was the Aburame clan's custom. "I think I'm the only one of the Rookie Nine who hasn't got a litter," he said teasingly to Kankuro. Kankuro, who hated children – with the exception of his niece and nephew – grunted and chased a mushroom around his plate.
Late at night, as he spooned with Kankuro, his arms wrapped around his husband's thick waist, his now limp cock pressing slightly into the small of Kankuro's back, Kiba thought about Shino and his two children. The comment about Kiba being the only one of the Rookie Nine without children wasn't entirely true. The treacherous Sasuke Uchiha had never had children either; but then he had died years ago. None of Team Gai's team had had children either. Neither had Gaara, his brother-in-law.
And look at us all now, Kiba thought. Team 10 all married with kids. Shikamaru with my sister-in-law, Chouji with that girl who worked in the steak house, Ino with that weird Sai kid. His former team mates, also with children; Hinata had married someone from the branch family of the Hyuuga clan (although Hiashi had arranged it), and Shino had ended up with a woman he'd met in the ANBU. Tenten from Gai's team, now with Shizune. Oh, the scandal it had caused, but he'd still been relieved to know that someone else in Konoha understood how he felt. And Naruto Uzumaki, once the scapegoat of Konoha, was now Hokage, with Sakura Haruno at his side, and a son to boot.
But not everyone had ended up being paired off. Tenten's team mates, for one. Rock Lee had dedicated his life to taijutsu and becoming the strongest ninja in the village. The death of his beloved sensei had, it seemed, destroyed part of him forever. Lee's face when he'd received the news had stayed with Kiba since that day. Hinata's cousin Neji had never married either. He was, in Kiba's opinion, the most asexual creature he had ever come across, save his brother-in-law. Gaara had never married, never had children, never even had a partner. Kiba wasn't surprised. Kankuro had told him everything. Gaara was far too damaged.
And now Hinata was mentoring genin who needed extra help and specialising in espionage and surveillance, leaving her sister Hanabi to represent the main branch of the Hyuuga family in battle. Tenten and Lee were leaders in their fields of weapon summoning and taijutsu. Neji and Shikamaru were advisors to the Hokage; Ino, an interrogator and medic; Sai and Shino were in the ANBU; Temari had brought her wind jutsu to Konoha; Chouji was among one of the most feared and respected jounin for his incredible strength and courage, and he and Shikamaru and Tenten were all teachers at the Academy. Kurenai's son was one of the few practitioners of genjutsu in the village, and his cousin Konohamaru was another fine ninja from the Sarutobi clan, and his current head. They had survived. Some were scarred physically, others mentally. Shikamaru walked with a slight limp, while his father needed a cane; Neji had lost fingers; Chouji had an enormous scar on his stomach; Shizune was blind in one eye; Lee had Ninja Syndrome. But they were all still there in Konoha, repairing their lives, raising their families. Kiba missed them.
Kiba still had the occasional nightmare about the war. But he wasn't on his own any more; he had Kankuro by his side. When Kankuro was inside him, fucking him hard with Kiba's legs wrapped round his back, their bodies glistening with sweat, Kiba was at his happiest. He was no uke – he was perfectly happy to top, particularly when he was feeling horny and feral and had the urge to shove Kankuro up against the wall and ravage him until he came – but he loved the feeling of unity that he got when Kankuro's huge cock was in him and their bodies formed a whole. Almost like a sexual equivalent of Kiba's Gatsuuga jutsu, but Kankuro in place of a dog. Just thinking about Kankuro filling him up, his hot breath on Kiba's neck while his beautiful hands grasped Kiba's own cock and pleasured him, would have made Kiba hard if he wasn't so damn spent.
My beautiful Kankuro, Kiba thought. I don't know what I'd have done with my life if I hadn't met you.