Chapter 2: Wherein the residents of Keni Manor become acquainted and Kisame has a revelation.
A/N: I feel like I'm being very wordy, lately. Maybe my writing style is changing?
Rock Lee was on a Very Important mission. Tsunade herself had assigned it. He was to keep an eye on Konoha's most recent financial success story, i.e. Sai. Tsunade didn't trust the young heir; after all, once a Root, always a slightly-scarred orphan with Danzo's twisted value system cemented in his brain.
Now, Lee would never stoop so low as to suspect a man that Sakura herself trusted with all her lovely heart, but he could admit that Sai, not being a man of the world (unlike the dashing Rock Lee), might find himself in trouble. The world of money could be a cruel and treacherous one, and it would be best if Lee watched Sai from afar, guardian angel-style.
And with Lee's brilliant alias and disguise as a common gardener, Sai would never suspect his true identity or purpose. It had been with great sadness that Lee had laid aside his green suit and styled his hair back to its former pre-Gai-sensei drabness, but he had been rewarded when he found that even Hinata-chan didn't recognize him.
He wasn't entirely sure what she was doing there, but it occurred to him that she was also on a spy mission, albeit not as successfully as Lee. He could understand why she hadn't bothered with a disguise... or maybe she had... whenever she came near in her maid's outfit, Lee's focus tended to disintegrate, and his eyes tended to wander around her body... a genjutsu, perhaps. But she hadn't even changed her name! She was lucky that she and Sai hadn't been on familiar terms in Konoha.
Lee didn't reveal himself to her, of course. That would be bad form, and might jeopardize both their missions. But "Brock Lee" the gardener did go out of his way to befriend Master Sai's little maid. This wasn't suspicious... Hinata had the kind of personality that made everyone want to befriend her... at least, everyone in the mansion that Lee had regular contact with... that is to say, the cook seemed very eager to make her acquaintance.
About a week after he had begun working at the mansion, he realized that Master Sai had taken an interest in her, as well.
He had just finished the hedges. He had spent all his waking hours on them, and a well-trained young man like Lee had many more waking hours than sleeping ones. But it was important that he fit his role, and, in any case, those bushes really were in a deplorable state. He snipped the final overgrown branch from the final boxwood, and jogged back to the kitchen for some water and a breather.
The kitchen had a backdoor that lead to the gardens via the vegetable plot, and was one of the few rooms in the estate that wasn't covered with depressingly-dark wallpaper and ornate pictures. The floors were good plain tiles, the walls were white, what little was visible of them behind the myriad of counters and cupboards, all either white or plain wood. Most of the culinary action, however, took place on the island in the middle, where there could usually be found several large and sharp knives, several piles of minced foodstuffs, and a tray containing Sai's upcoming meal.
The backdoor didn't open directly on the chaos of the main kitchen; instead, it opened into a sort of clear aisle, bounded on one side by main preparation area, and on the other by a wall of windows and plain wooden table where the servants usually ate dinner together, on the basis that the kitchen was a lot more user-friendly than the rest of the house. Kisame was sitting in a chair there when Lee entered, hunched over a cookbook and absently tossing one of his knives in the air.
"Hello, Kisame-san!" Lee declared at the top of his lungs as he swung the door open.
Kisame winced, missed his timing, and almost impaled himself on the knife. "Lee, remember what I said about indoor voices?" he growled, yanking the knife out of the table top.
"When you're outside, you can yell, but inside, you'd damn well better keep your mouth shut!" Lee repeated dutifully. Kisame looked at him, trying to decide if he was being smart. Lee got that look a lot. Finally, the oddly-colored chef smiled.
"You look like you got in a fight with an Ent," he said, with a pointed look at Lee's twig-covered body.
"I finally finished the hedges!" Lee explained with a bright smile as he made his way to the fridge to retrieve a bottle of unnaturally-colored energy drink.
"Good to hear," Kisame said, going back to tossing his knife and squinting at a recipe for roast grouse. Lee sat down as well.
A few minutes later, the knife was still rhythmically flipping into the air, being caught, tossed, caught, tossed, suddenly snatched out of the air, flipped around and slammed into the book... or rather, stopped a mere fraction of an eyelash from the page. Lee could almost hear the paper scream in fear.
"Fuck this," Kisame growled, setting the knife down gently and standing up, lifting the book, still open. "Excuse me, Lee."
Lee nodded and Kisame sprinted off towards the main house, yelling, "Itachi? How the fuck do you 'braise' something?"
A few minutes later, Hinata walked in quietly, wearing a sheet... and pretty clearly nothing else. Lee turned bright red behind his bottle of lime-o-ade.
"Hi-Hinata-chan," he stuttered, "Do... do you need me to do laundry?"
Hinata shook her head and blushed. "No, I did a load last night... but I'm doing Sai-ku... Master Sai's tonight, if you want me to throw something in for you, I can."
"N... No, I meant..." Lee stuttered as Hinata grasped her sheet with one hand and opened the fridge with the other. "You... you're wearing a sheet."
"Oh, this?" Hinata tugged at the cloth. "Yes... Um... Sai was painting a character from a novel he's been reading, and... well, I was dusting and he asked if I could model..."
Lee looked puzzled. "So did he spill paint on your uniform?"
Hinata shook her head. "No, it's a nude painting... apparently there's a scene where she-,"
"NUDE?" Lee gasped. "Hinata-chan, you don't have to do that!"
Hinata looked at the two bottles of soda in her hand. "I-I know it's Itachi-san's job to get food, but I wanted to stretch a little, so I offered-,"
"No, I mean, you don't have to strip just because he wants you to! Whatever your position in this household, you have basic rights. Nobody is allowed to exploit you just because they're paying your rent!"
"And food and board and a weekly stipend for extras," Hinata said. "Don't get upset, Lee-kun. I volunteered."
"N-no... he was really uncomfortable when I suggested it, actually... but... well, my uniform doesn't really give a good view of my form, and I thought it would be easier for him. The picture looks very nice."
"Hinata-chan, as your fellow ni- as your fellow servant, I want you to know that-,"
Hinata turned as deep a red against her sheet as she could manage. "I actually like modeling..." she whispered. "It's fun."
Lee suddenly realized, Sai's perversion must be giving her results in her mission. But this... this was going too far. "There are other ways to gather-,"
Hinata shook her head. "I should be getting back... but... um... if you want to come in and watch, I'm sure that will be fine. Um... though..." She looked down at her sheet again. "Could you maybe... um... change your clothes and take your shoes off before you come into the main house? I just finished vacuuming."
Lee stayed where he was, stunned, as her sheeted figure minced off carrying the sodas. He would drop in after his shower, he decided. Not long, of course, as his co-worker's time was her business, but just at random intervals, to make sure that Sai's new power and money wasn't going to his head.
Hinata shook her head as she walked up the stairs, dragging her sheet. The same reaction as Kisame, almost down to the words (Kisame swore more and sputtered less). She wondered what it was about modeling that made them so uncomfortable. Maybe they had never tried it.
It wouldn't have occurred to her that it was the idea that Sai was looking at her naked. Everybody in her clan walked around half-undressed all the time, and anyway, there was nothing sexual about her and Sai.
Embarrassed and flustered, Hinata stormed through the large reception room, up the ballroom stairs, tugging her sheet behind her. She hated that she always seemed to have the most energy when she was in no mental state to use it.
She didn't notice that she was passing Kisame and Itachi, quietly discussing how to dress a fowl from the shadows.
"There she goes," Kisame, bored with the conversation at any rate, changed the subject. "Poor thing... Itachi, you should go talk to her... I tried, but I don't think that she takes me seriously after the incident with the oatmeal."
Itachi glanced up from the cookbook in his elegantly-gloved hands, uninterested in the interruption. "Talk about what?"
"About that little teenage pervert ogling her breasts... and other bits."
"You and Lee do it all the time, don't you?" Itachi asked calmly.
"What!? Well, er, that's different, anyway... she's got her clothes on! And she doesn't pay us any mind, but a shy girl like her, a rich, cute boy like Sai, he could... er... I just don't want to see the little chicklet in a position she doesn't want..."
Itachi rolled his eyes and swept after Hinata, who was still struggling up the giant staircase. Her sheet caught as she climbed the next step, and she fell backwards with an unthinkable amount of speed... the soda bottles flying from her grasp, her sheet slipping off in graceful folds, because, as mentioned earlier, Hinata put a very small value on her modesty, and flailing her arms around to regain her balance took priority any day. The stairs were huge, and if she landed on anything other than her legs, she would go flying down them, hitting every bump on the way, no-doubt breaking her neck, shattering her skull... But it was too late to prevent it, she was falling too fast...
Into the steadying arms of Sai's butler, who appeared, as he often did, out of nowhere. His arms were wrapped around her, one coming around her chest, deftly holding the sheet in place, as though he had snatched it out of the air and wrapped it around her before she could notice, and in the other hand...
Hinata and Kisame gulped in unison. Itachi's other hand held the two soda bottles, which should have been lying in sticky, sugary, sharp bits across the stairs.
"Are you all right, Hinata-chan?" Itachi asked politely, as though he had not just defied the laws of physics... or as if he defied them so regularly that he didn't think it worth mentioning. He carefully positioned Hinata on her feet again, turning her carefully to face him. Hinata was never sure later if he had placed the sheet in her hand, or if she had grabbed it unconsciously, but she was holding it securely as he placed an arm on her shoulder, checking to see if she could stand.
"I- I'm fine..." she stuttered. Itachi smiled down at her, faintly but not unkindly. "Th-thank you for saving me, It-It-Itachi-san."
"It was no problem, Hinata-chan," he assured her. Hinata did not converse with Sai's aloof butler often, but she enjoyed his company, nonetheless. He said 'Hinata-chan' the right way, the way that her family said it. Everybody called her that, but very few people said it the right way.
He reached down gracefully (Sai's butler was nothing if not graceful), picked up the trailing sheet that had tripped her the first time, and handed it to her politely. "Do you mind if I walk with you for a while? I need to talk to you."
Hinata nodded. Her tongue tended to tie when attractive men spoke to her, but her silence seemed polite enough for Itachi, because he took her elbow very civilly and led her up the stairs. Hinata wondered if the conversation was an excuse to make sure she didn't fall again.
"Hinata-chan, there have been some concerns raised about your relationship with Master Sai," he said once they were walking down the hallway towards Sai's studio.
"Well, you see, you and our master are both very attractive young people, and he is an artist, which is, of course, a very passionate profession." Hinata looked at Itachi, trying to decide if he was being a little wry. Sai-kun didn't have a passionate cell in his body. "It may not be appropriate for you and him to spend so much time together in such a passionate occupation."
"I-Itachi-san!" Hinata gasped, breathless in her haste to clear her name. "Sai-ku... Master Sai and I aren't... we never-! I only model, he paints, we don't even... touch, or..."
Itachi increased the pressure on her elbow slightly, as if to sooth her. "I know this, of course, Hinata-chan. None of us here would suspect either you or Sai of impropriety. But, among the aristocracy... rumors spread. There could be a scandal."
Hinata flushed red. A scandal... she hadn't changed her name or anything, if the rumor got out where she was and that she was sleeping with Sai, the time that Kakashi had stolen her bra would be a picnic compared to the aftermath at the Keni manor.
"Kisame and I were concerned for your reputation should such gossip start to spread," Itachi explained further.
"But..." Hinata sighed. "Sai's paintings are so pretty... I wouldn't want to-,"
"Oh, I'm sure that you can continue your work for him. Nobody is telling you how to live your life. I just think that, in the name of discretion, you could put some clothes on before leaving the studio?"
"Oh... of course..."
Itachi released her then. "Thank you, Hinata-chan. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go replace these sodas with some unshaken ones."
Kisame was waiting at the foot of the stairs when he returned. Itachi expected him to look anxious over the outcome of Hinata and his conversation, but instead the spy/chef seemed amused to see him.
"Hello, Itachi," he said with a smirk.
"...I'm sorry, is something amusing?"
Kisame affected a husky, flirtatious voice. "Oh, Hinata-chan, are you all right? Itachi, I've never known you to have eyes for a girl before."
Itachi blinked at him. "You've lost me, Kisame," he said, "Now, where were we on the grouse?"
"Don't try to play emotionless, Itachi," Kisame said, "Well, at least I know you won't let that little rich twerp mess with her."
"Master Sai is not involved with Hinata," Itachi said coldly, "The two of them are more innocent than you, the thought would not have crossed their minds."
Kisame had to hand him that one, the young master did seem awfully oblivious to some things. "Well, that's a load off of my mind... now I've just got to make sure that you don't take advantage of our resident ingenue."
Itachi closed his eyes in mild annoyance. "If you must know, Kisame, (and I know that you must, or you will persist in this line thought for weeks), Ms. Hyuuga was the daughter of friends of my parents," he said, with carefully measured patience, not opening his eyes. "We have not seen each other since she was a very small child, and I doubt that she remembers me at all, but I would no more take advantage of her than I would my own brother." (Kisame made a noise that Itachi did not hear, which suggested that he did not believe this statement gave Hinata good odds.) "But I've left that part of my life behind me. Hinata and I are nothing more than business associates. Now," Itachi opened his eyes and licked the finger of his glove to turn the page of the cookbook, "How many minutes do you saute the fennel seeds before adding the garlic?"
It is perhaps safe to say that Kisame was a sharp observer, more so than Lee, Sai or Hinata... perhaps more than Itachi. So perhaps nobody in the Kine mansion realized what was happening before him. Perhaps nobody but him ever realized, in concrete, definable terms.
Where it started was difficult to say. For Kisame, it had started when Leader-sama had dumped the skinny, detached thirteen-year-old Uchiha on his metaphorical doorstep with orders to keep him out of trouble. But it had reached its climax after those first few weeks had passed in the Keni mansion.
One of Kisame's favorite observations about this mission was that every last soul in the Keni manor was pretending to be someone else. Lee sometimes had to ask which plants were weeds and which were flowers, just as Kisame consulted the glossary in his cookbooks to find out what "to taste" meant. Sai had no previous experience in being 'the young master', and Hinata's hands were just a little too soft to belong to a mere maid. It was a beautiful arrangement; nobody challenged anybody else's ignorance, because nobody wanted to be called out on their own. It made for a fun climate.
There was Brock Lee, the spastic gardener. On the battlefield, Kisame would have taken great pleasure in killing such an enthusiastic warrior, but in the gardens, or at dinner, he found Lee's antics entertaining. At first, Kisame spent the most time with Lee, since Lee usually made frequent stops in the kitchen throughout the day, and Kisame welcomed the shrill brat as a break from the horrors of learning how to cook.
Kisame knew sushi. He could shave a fish to capture-your-eye and melt-in-your-mouth perfection. There was an art to it, a sort of balance about it. Itachi knew he enjoyed making elaborate dinners during the Akatsukis' downtime, which was probably why the quiet little genius signed him on as a chef. He had no idea that Kisame's expertise ended with slicing. Kisame could dice twelve large onions into paper-thin rings in moments, but ask him to caramelize them, and you would get twelve onions' worth of perfectly cut carbon rings.
Itachi could pull himself out of bed to make Sai's breakfast, but it wasn't fair to ask the poor little tyke (Itachi would always be that odd little thirteen-year-old to Kisame) to do everything. Being a butler in an understaffed mansion was all-inclusive enough.
Kisame was willing to do his share, but Itachi explained, patiently, that Sai would probably grow tired of sashimi after being served it for breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner, and midnight snack, for several weeks in a row. No accounting for taste, Kisame supposed, and rolled up his sleeves to learn the delicate art of actually applying heat to food.
Kisame had a short attention span for this sort of thing, though, and Itachi knew it, so after several crash-courses in the kitchen and many pages of assigned homework from texts like "The Merriment of Food-Preparation," Itachi devised a competition between himself and his pupil. Sai was in his studio, deeply engrossed in something or other. Hinata was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the steps of the recipe to whichever contestant asked, and otherwise ensuring that the boys didn't burn down the house.
"Pecans?" Kisame called out, frantically groping for a measuring cup.
"Half cup, lightly chopped," Hinata called out, her finger following the recipe closely.
"And basil?" Itachi asked.
"About four fresh leaves, lightly crushed and thrown into the-,"
"The oil and nut mixture," Kisame finished her sentence for her. There was some more frenzied scrambling, and then Lee came in, wiping leaves and sweat from his face. His eyes lit up when he saw the spectacle before him.
"Heat it on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the nuts are-,"
"I KNOW, Hinata-chan!" Kisame snapped, but Hinata resolutely finished reading the steps.
"What's all this?" Lee asked in a barely-contained whisper, slowly moving towards an empty chair. He pulled it away from the table, but didn't seem inclined to sit at it.
"Itachi-san is teaching Kisame-kun how to cook... they're having a contest to see who can make dinner the fastest and least-burnt," she explained, suddenly shouting, "Two and a half teaspoons of that!"
"I know, Hinata-chan," Itachi said with a quick glare at her
Hinata turned to Lee as the men went back to their game. "The largest part of the winning entry goes to Sai... the losing entry is our dinner, so I want to make sure it's edible," she smiled over at Lee, only to notice that the gardener was sobbing. "Oh, Lee-kun! It's ok, I'm sure that Kisame-kun and Itachi-san are both perfectly capable- Medium high heat!"
"I KNOW, Hinata-chan!"
"And I'm sure that if something is really awful, we'll just have macaroni and cheese again, like we did last week," Hinata went back to trying to comfort Lee.
"Hinata-chan!" Lee gasped, "This is beautiful! The grace of their movements, the speed, the discipline required to nourish your self and your fellows!"
It is perhaps a testimony to Hinata's family's general insanity that she didn't scoot her chair away from Lee.
"Kisame-san!" Lee shouted, almost causing Kisame to drop his spoon. "Your dedication to your trade has shown me the beauty of food! And someday, I, too, will be able to match your natural talent!"
"Yeah, that's great, Lee," Kisame growled. "How many onions again, Hinata-chan?"
"There aren't any onions in this recipe, Kisame-kun."
Sai had spent the day alone, and when he communicated this to Hinata, she invited the full staff up to Sai's dinning room for a group taste-test. Lee exclaimed over the preparation and asked questions about everything, so the conversation was plenty lively. Kisame noticed Lee's new interest with amusement, but the part of the evening that he remembered most vividly was the small smile, more a flash of unexpected warmth and joy than an actual expression, that crossed Itachi's face when Kisame's dish was unanimously declared the more delicious.
He stopped seeing Lee so much after that. Lee would wake up even earlier than usual (and usual was already before anyone else), slip into the garden, and not be seen until everyone was going to bed. They left his dinner on a plate in the fridge, and he seemed to find it... or someone did, anyway. The garden began to decline slightly, and in the section near the garden shed, Hinata swore that is smelled vaguely of stir-fry.
But Kisame really preferred gardens that weren't too artificial, and he supposed that Sai agreed, since the young master never remarked on his gardener's absence, even when he was outside for hours looking for likely scenes, with Itachi dutifully carrying his art supplies around after him.
There was Hinata, as well, the quiet, sweet-tempered maid. Kisame would go help her with the housework when he got bored. Most of the room were still closed off, but the open ones created more than enough dust for both of them. Not that he followed her around, but he would find a room she had been neglecting and tidy it up a little. Once or twice she caught him at it, and sent him back to the kitchen by blushing and stammering apologetically. She offered to do the dishes after dinner as a repayment, and it was all he could do to stop her.
The servants took to eating dinner with Sai, which made sense. The main mansion gave Kisame the creeps, and he figured Sai would beg for company rather than eat alone in that vast dining room. This was where he witnessed the most interaction between Itachi and Hinata, and how he became convinced that Itachi was telling the truth, there was really nothing but a mild fondness between him and Hinata. Kisame seriously wondered how far Itachi's eyesight must have deteriorated, that he could keep his baby reds off her. Kisame certainly had problems concentrating on other people when she was in the room. But Itachi sat quietly and listened to the conversation, just as though it was another day with Akatsuki. But whenever Hinata asked him a question, he always responded with the utmost courtesy, as though he worked for her as well as Sai, and his eyes carried some of the same warmth they did when somebody complimented Kisame's cooking.
And, of course, there was Sai, the awkward young man that they had all taken to calling "master" for no other reason besides its suitability to the huge house they all occupied together. A house like that needed a master, and to Kisame, it seemed plain that the Keni manor would have no one except for its very own Master Sai. Itachi spent more time with Sai than the rest of them, waiting on him hand and foot, befriending him, for Sai had no experience in business matters, and even a butler's opinion was very valuable to him. It was part of the mission, of course, building this rapport, but Itachi went above and beyond what Kisame considered necessary.
And that was what had happened, the thing that the sharp-witted Kisame had observed before anybody else. Itachi was happy here. He enjoyed the company of the little family of servants, enjoyed listening to them talk as they sat in the kitchen together. He watched after Sai as though he had been trained from birth to be a butler of the Keni family. Kisame knew the reason. He knew that Itachi had never been happy in the Akatsuki. No happy boy Itachi's age would be so emotionless. Itachi had once been a very wealthy heir himself, after all. Maybe he missed his old life a little. Or maybe he had been unhappy in his old life, maybe he saw in Sai a young version of him, a young Itachi with a chance at happiness.
Actually, everybody was happy here. Well, it was hard to tell that Lee had ever been unhappy, anywhere, but the rest of them had clearly been through some things they'd rather forget.
So, life went on in Keni Manor, with Kisame watching optimistically.
One particularly warm evening, they decided to dine outside. Hinata dug up some lamps and a little citronella oil, Lee had returned from wherever it was that he disappeared to, so he swept one of the patios, picked some flowers, and helped Itachi move some of the lighter furniture outside. Kisame was given permission to make sushi, and they had an unusually coordinated dinner.
Lee praised Kisame's sushi-creating ability, Hinata's lamp-polishing ability, Itachi's furniture arranging ability, and Sai's foresight in suggesting this idea, with his usual enthusiasm. Hinata blushed and picked at her food, and Sai tried to fill Lee in on the happenings while Lee had been... wherever Lee was. And then the fireflies came out.
Hinata tried to catch one as it flew by. She missed, but Kisame turned his empty wineglass on top of the little bug as it came closer to him. It glowed, illuminating the etching in the glass.
"That's so beautiful," Hinata whispered.
"We used to make lanterns with them, when I was growing up," Kisame said. Hinata nodded.
"Me, too, but we never used the good dishes..."
"We used mayonnaise jars," Kisame said.
"For what?" Sai asked.
"Catching fireflies," Hinata said.
"Hmm... I've never heard of doing that. Why do you do it?"
Itachi, who was sitting next to his employer, tapped his shoulder. "I believe that it's a game. I think we still have some old jars, if you want to try it."
"We do..." Hinata stood up, picking up her plate. "I can just tidy up, and we can-."
"Oh, Hinata-chan!" Lee stood up, and Kisame had the presence of mind to grab the table before it overturned. "Don't worry about the dishes when Sai-k... Master Sai. A beautiful night like this is for running around collecting fireflies!"
Sai tapped the upturned glass. The firefly inside glowed briefly. "It is pretty..."
"You kids run on and play," Kisame said, laughing with the absurdity of the whole thing. Weren't these teenagers a little old to be playing in the yard? "Momma Itachi and I will clean up."
"Momma?" Sai asked. He turned to Itachi. "I thought you had a penis."
"I think Kisame is being facetious," Itachi said. "But you should go ahead and catch fireflies if you want... after all, this is your garden."
"Well..." Sai looked at Hinata and Lee, smiling eagerly. His face broke into a smile, himself. "Ok. Let's."
As the three young people ran through the garden, Kisame realized, with a start, why Itachi was so happy in his role as a butler. It was not the work itself, but Sai. Sai looked so much like another young boy from Itachi's former life, one whose name Kisame and the rest of the Akatsuki avoided saying, because no point in making Itachi brood when you had to share a house with him. Butler Itachi was a throwback to Itachi's old life, caring for his little brother.
And then Kisame felt stupid, because he should have seen it immediately. And then he felt a little worried, because, as much fun as the Keni Manor was, their mission was not to take care of a wealthy artistic Sasuke-substitute.