Chapter Seven: Wolves in Sheep's Clothing
Speaking up had gotten their attention, but six sets of eyes were now staring at me from different angles around the campsite. Sighing, I gestured with my hands at Nagato, Yahiko, and Konan. The adults got the hint and turned to whatever they had been doing before I spoke up. Fat chance that they weren't still listening in, though.
Once I had my intended audience gathered, my throat went dry. I really didn't want to do this but dammit, I had to. Putting it off would be worse. They had agreed to leave their own country because I had asked them. It would be wrong, not preparing them for what they were about to face in Konoha.
"So, there's this thing that I didn't tell you about myself," I began.
"Really?" Konan stared back at me expectantly.
"Yeah, so remember how I said I was the daughter of some important politician?"
"Yeah, yeah," Yahiko groused, "So you're the spoiled brat of some big blowhard. That's important why?"
"Well, um, my Tousan might be more than just an important politician…"
"Oh." Konan's little noise drew all of our gazes. "By important, do you mean like the daimyo?"
Nagato and Yahiko's heads whipped back to me, their eyes wide and questioning. I shook my head, quelling a surprised laugh. Nope. Not daimyo.
Would daimyo be better? I wondered.
"No," I answered, and the tension that had been ratcheting up in the three of them seemed to be easing, "My father is the hokage."
And then they were all yelling and Team Hiruzen was no longer pretending to not be listening anymore. Tsunade looked ready to step in. Jiraiya and Orochimaru had tensed, but were ready to defer to Tsunade. And I…
I didn't know what to do.
They were all too loud and yelling at me and at each other all at once. I didn't know who to settle down first.
Some teacher I would've made. What had happened to the classroom management skills I'd once been honing? The minute the entire class blows its top and I freeze under pressure. Where was a light switch to flick on and off or a whistle to blow when you needed it?
I was drawn out of my panic by the sound of a single voice and the silence that followed. I refocused on the kids. Konan was glaring at boys, every couple of seconds reaching over and pinching Yahiko, who kept opening his mouth to say something.
"Let her talk!" Konan hissed at him.
Talk? What was I supposed to talk about? Oh, right.
"You're upset…" I started uncertainly.
"Yeah we are!" Yahiko interrupted.
Konan pinched him again and he wilted as he went to grasp his abused forearm.
"What Yahiko means," Konan said, warning in her eyes, "Is that we're a little surprised."
"A little?" Yahiko muttered, but clammed up once more when the blue haired girl air pinched at him threateningly.
"Why didn't you tell us?" she asked, "Back in Rain."
I glanced at each of them, my gaze lingering longest on Nagato, who hadn't spoken or met my gaze yet.
"There are days I don't want to be the hokage's daughter," I answered in a non-answery kind of way.
"Why?" Puzzled, inquisitive eyes pressed me for better answers. "Wouldn't it be nice to have a rich and powerful father like that?"
"Well, it's actually kind of stressful," I said, huffing a subdued laugh, "I got kidnapped because of it, remember?"
An inkling of understanding sparked in their gazes.
"Yeah, so being kidnapped, not a fun perk of being the hokage's daughter." That managed to get a ghost of a smile on Yahiko and Konan's faces. "But it's also because I get treated differently for it. I can't make friends normally. I'm the hokage's daughter before I'm Nanako."
The look of incomprehension was returning. Of course they'd never encountered the problem of being befriended by someone for the wrong reasons. Being used for the status boost. They didn't understand how much I hesitated when I met new children in the days following my coming out at Inoichi's party. Their parents would watch me hungrily, thinking of ways to endear themselves to the hokage by using their children to get to me.
Penniless orphans worried about when they got to eat and where they got to sleep. Noble born girls worried about to whom they would be sold as a bride. Even as "progressive" as the Sarutobi clan was in comparison to others, it was not without its faults or its meddling elders. I would be in for a long battle, once I came of age, because refused to be used for clan prestige. As unlikely as it was I would ever find love in this world, I would never betray myself more and marry for anything less. I had already given up many of my morals by choosing the life of a ninja. Maybe arranged marriage didn't seem like such a big thing, but to tie myself to anyone who would get in the way of my plans would be life giving up on everything I was fighting for. Politics would not decide for me who I would spend my life with, or shunt me into the role of quiet, obedient housewife.
So really, I could spell it out a million different ways until I went blue in the face and they probably wouldn't understand my position, not from where they were coming from. Maybe when they were older, I could. For now, I would resort to a different, simpler way of explaining this.
"What would you prefer, someone seeing you as just some war orphans from Rain or as Yahiko, Konan, and Nagato?"
That got the desired reaction out of Yahiko and Konan, the former shouting, "Me!" and the latter echoing the statement quietly. Nagato was still not reacting.
"So what do you think I would prefer, someone seeing me as just some spoiled princess daughter of a hokage or as me, as Nanako?"
"Oh." Konan mouthed in understanding. "Do people actually think that about you?"
"Yes," I answered, kicking myself a little inside for knowing otherwise, "I know it's not the same, but I just want you to understand. I didn't tell you because I didn't want you to see me any different than anyone else. I'm just me. I hope that finding out now won't change that."
"Pah," Yahiko snorted, "You'll always be a brat. Being a hokage's daughter too doesn't change anything else."
Konan smiled exasperatedly at his words, but offered me nod. I looked to Nagato after that, hoping he'd break his silence on the matter. He stared back at me, his strangle purple irises searching my face. After a moment, he finally spoke.
"You're still Nanako," he insisted firmly.
And that seemed to be that.
They had a few questions, but soon those tapered off, and then they began to wander away. Not long after they had left, Tsunade came over and took a seat with me where I had propped myself up against a rock.
"That was well handled," she commented, placing a hand on my shoulder, "You know, if you ever want to talk about the problems you're having, I'm willing to listen. I understand what you're going through."
A hint of affection welled up in me. I knew she understood, a little bit of it at least. We were the same in many ways, and it was kind of her offer to listen. And it was weird, because on one side there was the child that wanted to curl into her and whine about how stupid clan politics were. On the other, there was the woman who was older than Tsunade that felt above the need for comfort and understanding.
The part of me that was somewhere in between took over.
"I'm okay," I told her, scooting into her side, "But I know you'll be there when I'm not."
She didn't seem completely satisfied with that response, but let it go and pulled me closer.
"Are we there yet?"
"No Yahiko!" Konan and I shouted in chorus.
The gates. Oh the gates. Not once had I ever seen them from the outside. I used to only glance at them in passing on my runs around the village. As someone who had a mild interest in architecture, every time I saw them I was impressed. If I hadn't been informed otherwise, I would have assumed that the enormous wooden structure had been made by the Shodaime much like the Senju compound had been. However, it was more like the monument, made by the might of civilians.
As we grew closer and closer to the main gates, I felt the impulse to go right up to the gates and hug them, whisper words of love and adoration into the wood. Like Konoha itself was someone I had missed. Like its doors were pulled wide open in a waiting embrace. I'd never felt quite this way about Konoha before.
Our walk to the Administration building was filled with chatter. I had almost missed seeing it happen, but Tsunade and Orochimaru had disappeared the minute the guards at the gate had cleared our group to go through. I wondered why, but didn't ask. Jiraiya had stayed with us at least. The children from Rain asked questions non-stop, and the man and I answered them as they came. I didn't mind it. Answering their questions was obviously easing their nerves.
When we arrived at the Administration office, we got strange looks from the occasional ninja on their way to the Missions Desk. It was understandable. How often did you see Jiraiya, somewhat infamous village pervert, passing through with a gaggle of children trailing behind him? At least the chunin secretary seemed like she knew what was going on. The minute she spotted us coming up the stairs, she poked her head into Dad's office, said something I couldn't hear, and then quickly motioned us in.
Excitement that I'd almost forgotten to have came rushing to the fore.
I didn't run in like I desperately wanted. I had enough control not to. What I couldn't stop was my hands shaking, and my shoulder muscles tightening, and my bottom lip being pulled between my teeth. Every step sounded more like a quake rattling my eardrums.
Jiraiya pushed the door open and brought all of us in. Tsunade and Orochimaru were already in there, standing at attention before Dad's desk. It wasn't that much of a surprise to see Inokatsu there as well. He gave me a strained, but warm smile from where he stood off to the other side of the hokage's desk.
The desk my father sat at.
Tired seemed to be a normal state of being for the man, but it seemed worse now than it ever had. He already had such a stressful job, and we were in the middle of a war as well. And then his daughter had been "kidnapped."
That upset feeling only increased when whatever exhaustion and tension seemed to leak out of Dad, leaving him looking so relieved and happy.
(Gut punch of family-induced guilt: Super effective.)
"Got the bratlings for you Hokage-sensei," Jiraiya announced, nudging me forward.
"You are dismissed," Dad said with quiet authority to his students and Inokatsu, "And thank you."
Both Orochimaru and Inokatsu disappeared via shunshin. Jiraiya, always the flashier of the sannin lot, sauntered over to the window, threw a grin and a wave over his shoulder, and then leapt out of it. Tsunade began heading for the door, but was stopped briefly by my father. They traded confusingly unrecognizable hand signs with one another, before Tsunade dipped her head in a respectful nod and exited the office.
Leaving me and the kids with Dad.
He had gotten up and rounded his desk so that he was now standing in front of it, in front of me. I couldn't for the life of me tear my eyes away from him. Not to glance at the kids, not look down at my feet, or out the window. I couldn't look away. If I did, I might miss it. I was waiting.
Then he stooped, his arms lifting up and out at his sides. That was it. My entire body shook as I moved to meet him, my fingers grazing his grizzled jawline as I went to loop my arms around his neck. I was alright. I was here, with Dad. And if there was Dad, there was also-
The grip Dad and I had had on each other, seemingly unyielding, broke at once. I was out of his hold and whipping around to face the office door. I hadn't noticed the door opening or anyone else coming in until I heard the call. There they stood. Not just my mother but little Aito, standing there too. My feet rooted themselves to the floor. It made going to them impossible, but that certainly didn't stop them from coming to me. I marveled as Aito, who was only just getting used to walking when I had gone, burst into a run and barreled right into my middle. We stumbled backwards into Dad, who grasped my shoulders to steady me.
From that point on, it turned into a scene somewhat similar to me reuniting with the sanin. Lots of hugging. Lots of crying. So much crying. Really. Like big salty waterfalls, times infinity. Plus lots of snot on my clothing. Not all of it was mine either.
It wasn't so bad. I mean, yeah, getting other people's snot dribbled on you is never good by any stretch of the imagination, but it was Aito. My obnoxiously large for a toddler little brother, cradled somewhat uncomfortably in my arms. And then the two of us were clutched to our mother's chest as she bawled into my hair. I was pretty sure she was getting snot on me too, but the point was that it was my family. I could take all the snot in the world if that was what it took.
(But seriously, if I caught Dad with a leaky nose, so help me-)
"Tadaima," I tried to say, but it came out a choked, wet hack instead. Clearing my throat loudly, I repeated myself, and felt my mother's arms grip Aito and I tighter.
"Okaeri," she said in answer, squeezing one last time before releasing us.
Aito refused to let go, and I was absolutely okay with that.
The little niggling thought at the back of my head, that had evolved from a tiny murmur to a screech, reminded me that this was not a solely Sarutobi Family Time moment. I glanced out from over Aito at my kids, and took a moment to get an idea about how they were feeling. What I was getting wasn't particularly great, but it wasn't altogether so bad.
As always, I could count on Yahiko to be feeling conflicted, and that usually translated to frustration and defensiveness from him if pushed about it. Nagato clung tightly to Chibi looking lost, as if he would rather not be intruding on this moment at all. Konan, at least, seemed happy. Well, maybe happy wasn't the right word for it. She was smiling at the sight of me and my family, and it felt genuine, but there was something else lurking behind her eyes.
Or something like that. Who knew if I was right?
Damn it all.
I thought I was good at reading people.
No, no, that wasn't it. I was good at reading people.
You let your emotions get in the way, a creepy little Danzo sounding voice whispered to me.
I mentally crushed the vile thought under an imagined steel soled sandal. Satisfied with its dispatching, I flashed a content smile at them, and held a hand out to beckon them closer. All three of them startled from their thoughts, and cautiously did what I wanted. Clearing my throat again, I took the hand of the one closest to me, Konan, and pulled her forward to face my parents. Nagato and Yahiko eyed the adults warily but fell into line with her and stood close at her sides. A stab of pride burst in me. Good boys.
"Tousan, Kasan, Aito-chan, these are my friends, Konan, Nagato, and Yahiko."
I kept half an eye on my parents through the introduction, even as I continued to beam reassuringly at the kids.
"And," I went on to say, mustering feeling in abundance and producing the slightest quaver in my voice, "They saved my life."
I watched the surprise play out in the kids' expressions before it melted into something gooey and tinged with embarrassment. I watched as my mother absorbed my words and how her entire countenance towards the orphans softened immensely. I watched as Aito lifted his head from where it was buried in my chest to gaze curiously upon them, eyes narrowing at mine and Konan's joined hands. And finally, I watched my father, watching everyone else even as his own features fell into his patented fatherly hokage mask.
In his eyes I saw calculation, and muted sharpness, and I knew we would need to talk about this later.
I woke slowly. Everything was so warm and wonderful, I'd probably ruin it by opening my eyes. Compromising with the more vigilant part of myself, I kept my eyes closed and reached out with my other senses. It took a moment to push past just the warmth and contentment, but once I did, there was a wealth of sounds, smells, and feelings to pick apart and evaluate.
Snores. Wheezes. Soft exhales. Rustles of fabric. Distant, muffled flutters of plants and chirps of birds.
Clean linen. Lavender. A hint of dust. And something hot, wet, and foul.
Warm. Lots of warm. Soft. Lots of that too.
This definitely couldn't be Rain. Too nice of a way to wake up. My mind eventually caught up with me, reminding me that I wasn't just no longer in Rain. I was home. This was my bed.
Although it seemed like it wasn't so much my bed anymore as it was a communal bed. Finally cracking my eyes open, I glanced around and confirmed that there were at least four other bodies in my bed with me that I hadn't started out with in the night. Red hair, Nagato, check. Blue hair, Konan, check. Orange hair, Yahiko, check. Tail, Chibi, check. I grasped the blankets that were pulled up to my chin and pushed them away, and found a head of brunet hair, belonging to the last bed invader who was attached like a starfish to my waist. The itching, scratching feeling of trapped warred with the one of comfort and love. If it had been Nagato or Konan, I probably would've (gently) pushed them off. It was Aito though.
I settled on scratching lazily at the exposed skin just below my neck.
That went on for a while as I attempted to go back to sleep. Where it had been so difficult to wrench myself from it, it now seemed an elusive place to return to. With a sigh, and with more care than I would have afforded anyone else, I extricated myself from Aito. I had to bite my knuckle to stop the enamored squeal that would have erupted from my throat when he made these sad little kitten-y keens and whimpers, his chubby little arms and hands chasing me as I pulled away.
I froze just out of reach, feeling myself paling.
(Brother complex~! an evil, evil voice whispered to me.)
Shaking my head, and then slapping myself when that didn't quite do the trick, I continued getting myself out of bed using a strange mix of creeping and rolling around to avoid disturbing any sleeping bodies. My bed was actually pretty big, and it seemed like all of the kids and the one animal had arranged themselves to be the most perfectly inconvenient set of bed-mines ever, so it took me a while. When I finally made it to the edge, I noticed my mother sitting in the rocking chair in the corner of my room, awake and staring back at me like she'd been waiting for me to notice her the entire time.
With a startled yelp and a flop, I tumbled face first off my bed.
Thankfully, my face was not acquainted with the floor. Instead, I dangled from large hands wrapped around my ankles. I felt myself lifted until I was upside down and face-to-face with my mother who smiled lovingly at me. Ah, ninja reflexes, definitely good for catching you before you fell on your face.
"I love you, kasan."
If the face she made was any indication, she had the same issue with kawaii overload as I did. I just barely turned a smirk into a grin. I'd save teasing her about it for some time in my preteen years when I would want to go through a cheeky phase. For now, maintaining the overly intelligent yet sweet and occasionally awkwardly stoic five year old persona was more my style.
Her features shifted back to her usual demure expression, and soon, faster than I could blink, she had me right way up and on my feet.
"Let's get your otouto and the rest of your friends up from bed and eating breakfast, why don't we?"
Soon, all of us, even Chibi, were sitting in the large dining room eating breakfast that Mom had started before coming to get us. The kids from Rain had been slow to approach the table brimming with breakfast food, but as soon as they were clear on the fact it was real, for them, and was not going to be snatched away, they had descended upon it like starved animals. As we ate, Mom slowly drew everyone into conversation. And at first, it seemed really nice. I was practically oozing happiness because I was home, and I had food, and my friends were eating properly, and they finally got to meet my Mom and brother and they were totally getting along.
And then I actually started listening.
How about you let me serve all of your some more food while you and your friends talk about your adventures?
How did you meet Nanako?
I'd like to know more about the heroes who saved my daughter.
Rain must be a difficult place to live. How did you make it?
Who is Hanzo?
All soft suggestions and leading comments, pulling information on Rain and checking for hidden motives from the children as they gave. away. everything.
Good God, my mother was too good at this. Datura had had nothing on her. I hadn't even realized what was going on at first. She had even played me for a bit in the beginning. And of course they talked, because why wouldn't they? Pay no mind to Nanako's sweet little mother quietly helping a toddler cut up and eat his food. It's not like she's up to anything.
Unclenching the hand holding my chopsticks, I quickly stuffed a couple bites of rice and egg into my mouth to keep it preoccupied as I thought. As I mechanically chewed, I diagnosed what I was feeling. Awe. Edged with anger and shame.
As angry as I was, it couldn't be ignored that I was the one who brought unknown children from a hostile war zone into her home. My mother was a ninja and a mother; I'd never fault her for putting Aito and me before anyone else. I'd probably be angrier with her than I was now, if she really had let them anywhere near Aito without making sure he'd be safe. Also, it wasn't as if I had any moral high ground to cast stones about taking advantage of a child's trust.
I wondered, though. Was she doing this for Dad? Was she doing this for her own peace of mind?
Had she watched us sleep?
I stuffed more rice in my mouth.
Hopefully, I thought as I watched her continue to talk to them, she'd figure out that they really were just good kids who needed some care and attention.
Besides, if anyone had any real ulterior motives at the breakfast table, it was me.
It was always me.
Days passed after that.
I'd like to say that everything was well now that I was home. Some things were better. Having Aito was better. Making sure the kids were fed was better.
For one, all of us were under something like house arrest. I wanted to go out, but I was always told that I was still recovering and that I needed to stay in and rest. Ha. Tsunade had cleared me for travel across the Rain-Fire border. Recovering my butt.
So, house arrest. The kids didn't seem to notice, seeing as they didn't want to travel out of the house unless I went with them. And since I was "recovering" indefinitely, we collectively wouldn't be going anywhere anytime soon.
There was the other thing, though.
That first night back, I had been tired enough to put my head to the pillow and wake the next morning without dreams. Every night after, that wasn't the case. I would close my eyes and cast my mind into terror. It wasn't like it was new. I'd had a nightmare or two or twenty in Rain. I just thought they would stop when we got back. After all, I had been pretty sure that the violent, unsafe environment coupled with the justifiably traumatic things I had experienced were responsible for those nightmares. As soon as I was back in Konoha, none of that would be a problem anymore.
Except there were obviously still a crap load of problems that I spent most every night I waking up and screaming over.
Also, it was hard to keep it a secret when I shared my bed with four children and a dog.
Sleeping with others was something I was not a stranger to. As cold and unpredictable as it was, it was stupid not to sleep close to one another in Rain for warmth and security. The habit of sleeping together carried over even now and Aito and Chibi had just invited themselves along. With all of them there, someone was always guaranteed to be disturbed by my new sleeping habits.
Nagato and Konan had taken it upon themselves to soothe me out of my fits. Yahiko seemed to be ignoring it, but his bleary eyed glowers over breakfast the following mornings suggested differently. Chibi and Aito could usually sleep through it, but the times I couldn't be settled quickly enough.
I didn't want Aito seeing that.
After only a week, I had started asking Mom to find ways to tire out Aito during the day so that we could tuck him away in his own bed. It was only screaming and crying now, but if I got violent like my dreams, I would never forgive myself if I hurt him. I at least trusted the others to use what I had taught them and their larger bodies to their advantage while holding me down. If I hurt any of them, I also trusted Yahiko to sock me in the nose as proper payback.
Aito was complaining. Mom was fretting. The Rain trio had rings under their eyes.
Chibi was even following me around trying to give me things like, "Hey I found this strangesoftsquishything, if I share it with you, will you stop smelling so nothappy?"
Eventually, something had to give.
It had been about three weeks since I'd returned and I hadn't seen or spoken to Dad much since the day I'd come home. We had a miniature, somewhat anticlimactic debrief of what happened in Rain and that seemed like it was it. With so little contact for such a long period of time, I hadn't expected to have one of Sarutobi main house staff members interrupt an impromptu visit by Jiraiya to bring me to Dad's study. Even more unexpected was the presence of someone else.
Frowning, I folded my hands in front of myself and dipped my upper body in a respectful half bow at Inokatsu before shooting Dad a questioning look. Inokatsu nodded as Dad stared back, most of his features carefully schooled except for his stormy eyes.
"How are you, Nanako?" he asked, his tone of voice surprisingly gentle despite his demeanor.
I glanced suspiciously between him and Inokatsu, weighing the costs of answering truthfully before opening my mouth.
"I'm doing okay. My physical recovery is very close to complete. I've been eating well, and I think I'm putting the weight I lost in Rain back on. The only thing wrong is that, I'm having trouble sleeping."
"I've been hearing about that from your mother. She says you're having nightmares about what happened to you."
The purpose of the meeting, as well as Inokatsu's presence, now seemed clearer.
"You think there's something wrong with me? Like-" I tapped my forehead.
Both men seemed to panic at my casual suggestion that they were accusing me of going nuts. A giggle slipped through my lips, because seriously? They thought I was that sensitive? As if I was going to get defensive and throw a tantrum because I thought someone was calling me crazy.
"Yeah, I don't think I'm doing so well either," I muttered, "I'm not sure if this is PTSD or what."
I glanced at the two of them and almost started laughing because they just looked so lost.
"I know there's something wrong with me," I cut Dad off, staring him in the face and marveling when he looked away before I did, "I'm not going to deny it when it's so clear."
"It's not uncommon for people to hide their mind sickness," Inokatsu hedged carefully, "Especially shinobi."
"Mind sickness," I repeated thoughtfully, "Is that what it's called?" Here?
"Hai. Did you have your own name for it?" There?
"There were many names for many kinds of mind sickness. I couldn't tell you all of them. Psy- Knowing how the mind worked," I rephrased when I realized I didn't know the right word for psychology in this language, "It wasn't something I was the most familiar with."
"But they dealt with the workings of the mind? Where you came from?" The man's eyes glowed brightly with interest.
"Hai. It was a science. People used it to understand the mind, and even found ways to use it help with mind sickness."
"Fascinating," Inokatsu breathed.
Dad grunted and Inokatsu looked at him and actually flushed for a moment before turning back to me, assuming a more professional air.
"Working with the mind in capacities outside of torture and interrogation is a controversial idea. My own clan is spearheading the efforts to develop a program that deals solely with studying and helping shinobi who suffer from mind sickness." Inokatsu's eyes flitted over to Dad momentarily. "There is not much support for it right now. But your father sees merit in our work. He believes that with your recent experiences, you could benefit from having some kind of experimental sessions with me. If that is acceptable to you?"
"Absolutely. I am one-hundred percent behind doing this." A thought suddenly occurred to me, and I felt myself shrinking. "Is this why I haven't been admitted to the Academy yet? Why I can't go out?"
"Yes," Dad admitted a moment later, "The village has been in uproar since your kidnapping and it has only gotten worse now that news has gotten out that you've returned. Your mother and I both agreed that exposing you to that before we were sure of how you were, mentally, was a bad idea."
"So once I start working with Inokatsu-san, I'll be able to go out and start attending the Academy?"
"That's what we are hoping for."
The knot that had been twisting itself inside me slowly began to loosen. I nodded slowly.
"Okay. And, arigatou. For this." I saw both men shift a bit. "I wanted help. I just wasn't sure how to ask."
A very familiar look crossed their faces. The father look, I quickly identified. That look most dad's got that was somewhere between wondrous and exasperating and endearing, and always happened when something was going on with their kid. I was curious as to when Inokatsu had mentally adopted me, but shrugged the thought off with a smile.
Poor man. He already had his hands full with Inoichi, who was utterly troublesome, and he thought he was going to take me on, too?
Poor, poor man.
"So when do we start?" I asked.
"Whenever you're ready," Inoichi answered.
"Right now. I'm ready right now." I turned my head, taking in the room. "Can we do it here, or do we need to go somewhere else?"
"You two may use my study, if it is suitable for the purpose of the session," Dad offered quickly.
"Hai, this room will work just fine. Arigatou, Hokage-sama, for allowing us use of it."
"Take care of her." They held eye contact for several seconds before Dad stood and went to exit the room.
"Tousan?" He paused, just at the door. "Can you make sure that the kids know what's going on with me? So they don't worry?"
"What would you like me to tell them?"
"The truth. I'm seeing a mind healer about my nightmares."
He nodded, placing a hand on my head and leaving it there for a while. Soon, he retracting it and took his leave, the door clicking shut quietly behind him.
"I like the sound of that," Inokatsu murmured mostly to himself, "Mind healer."
"If you can break a mind, why not heal it, too?"
"Why not," he echoed.
"How does this go?"
"I figure we start with talking about whatever you feel comfortable talking about."
"No looking into my head?" I questioned, searching his face.
"No, not yet at least. We'll save that for a later session. For now, I'd like you to tell me as much of what you think I should expect before I venture into your mind." He laughed to himself. "I learned my lesson from the last time."
"I see." I swept the room with my gaze one more time. "Will this be private?"
"The only person who will hear about anything you say here would be your father, and only if I deem it necessary." He caught my eyes and held them. "If you ask, and it's not important, I will keep it secret."
"Good. I can accept that."
"Then why don't we get comfortable?" The man gestured to the couch in the study. "I'm sure you have a story for me."
We moved to the couch, each taking opposite ends. I sat with my back against the armrest and my legs tucked under myself, angling towards him. Inokatsu had his own back to the armrest, though he left one leg hanging off the couch while he had the other on it and folded into himself. He had an arm draped over the back of the couch and the other rested in his lap. I appreciated the sight of him. It was so casual, and yet he still maintained that elegant air of a noble.
It also didn't hurt that even middle aged, the man was very handsome with his delicate Yamanaka looks.
(Bishounen, my mind cackled, and I took a moment to put my face in my hands so I could compose myself.)
"Start wherever you're comfortable," he prompted, leaning back a bit, "Start small, and work your way there."
"Okay." I fidgeted a bit. "It was supposed to be my fifth birthday. I'd gone out for my usual morning run, and everything was normal. But…"
Another story, wild and unbelievable, fell from my lips. Inokatsu only ever spoke to pull me from my thoughts when I got lost, to urge me on. Even as ghost limbs restrained me, and a knife slid down the side of my neck, and someone else's blood splashed my front, and as I choked on smoke while my body burned.
Eventually, we couldn't keep going. I was too strung out and Inokatsu looked like he needed to go demolish a training ground. Talking about it hadn't made me feel better. I reminded myself that that wasn't what this was about. If it was so easy, the problem would've stayed in Rain like I thought it would. I needed more time at this. I needed to have some faith in Inokatsu and the process.
(I also needed to find a quiet, abandoned place in the house so I could curl up with Chibi and cry before I did anything else.)
As Inokatsu got ready to leave, I caught his sleeve.
"Next time, can we talk more about what I remember about working with the mind? You seemed interested and I want to know more about your program."
The man let a strained smile spread his lips.
"I'd like that."
He patted me on shoulder and took his leave. I waited a minute before heading off myself to find the dog.
A week later, I was cleared to leave the house. My sessions with Inokatsu were far from finished, but he had deemed me mentally well enough to handle crowds and spending time with other children my own size. Both of my parents accepted the news quietly, but it was easy to see the nonverbal agreement between them that my security detail was going to be upped if I was leaving home.
There was one place I wanted to go above all others.
I decided that the day I could go out was the day I went to the Academy to appeal that I ought to be able to join right away. Even if I was several months late to join. My parents would've preferred I waited until the next year to join a class, but they knew I wasn't going to wait around.
Besides, I'd really friggin' missed Minato and Tsume something awful, so I figured making a visit out of this wouldn't be asking too much. One of the most frustrating things about this world was lacking more convenient methods of communication. Who the hell wanted to send a hawk every time they wanted to hang out with someone?
(Okay, maybe I did, but I didn't exactly have a hawk, now, did I?)
I had made a sincere attempt to leave the kids at home. Really, I had tried. But you can't argue with children. You especially can't argue with children who know how to give you that look. The one that makes your insides quiver and causes you to break into a cold sweat because the thought of disappointing them made you feel like dying.
And if said children were Konan and Aito?
Yeah. I was weak.
For half of the walk to the Academy, I sulked as the kids chattered and my mom attempted to put on a neutral face. She could only accomplish the least sympathetic look I'd ever seen on a person. Huffing, I glanced at the tree line as we marched, attempting to spot an ANBU. To spot Ox, more specifically. He'd been the last familiar face (well, not so much familiar face but familiar mask) that I'd seen that day, and for many days following. His presence would be a comfort.
It wasn't like I was afraid, though.
But seriously, where was he?
There was no flash of silver grey in the green.
Arriving at the Academy left me no more time to search the trees for errant ANBU. There were children, some with their parents, milling about. Our own group received a couple curious glances, adult and child alike, even though all of us were dressed very modestly to avoid drawing attention. My mother had even tucked her long, dark hair into a hat that hid much of her face under its wide brim. I noticed most of the glances and pointed fingers were at Nagato, Yahiko, and Konan.
Maybe they should've worn hats, too.
Soon, we were stopped by a chunin who greeted my mother with a bow, his eyes sweeping across all of us, lingering longest on me. He introduced himself as Yonemoto-sensei, and asked us to follow him.
Instead of leading us to an office to meet with whoever would be handling my entry into the Academy, he took us through the building and all the way to the back. There was a large congregation of kids, who looked like they ranged from my age to close to the orphans' age, gathered around a chunin teacher.
"Today was a very fortuitous day for you to visit. We are holding a taijutsu tournament for all of the classes," Yonemoto-sensei begin to explain, "Your children and their friends are invited to watch while we talk inside."
The orphans perked up at that, then darted expectant looks at Mom and I. Tilting her head in my direction, Mom and caught my eye under her hat. She must've seen something in my expression, because she nodded.
"Why don't you five go watch?" She stooped to our level and looked each of the orphans in the eyes. "You three make sure to look out for Nanako and Aito-chan."
"What?" I blinked.
"Aito-chan is very little, so he needs a lot of looking after," she explained very purposefully, "And of course, you know what Nanako is like."
"She does get herself into trouble a lot…" Nagato murmured.
(Were they seriously doing this to me right now?)
"Troublemaker," Yahiko chipped in with a sharp nod.
(Yes. Yes they were.)
I glowered at them, knowing better than to say anything to feed them.
"It's okay Nanako," Konan said, pulling my arm into hers, "You take care of us, so we get to take care of you sometimes too."
When Aito grabbed my free hand, all I could do was take a deep breath, gnaw my lip, and let them drag me into the crowd of spectators. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Mom watching us for a moment before turning to follow the teacher inside. I lost sight of her as disappeared over the shoulder of a girl who was much taller than me. The large swath of kids swallowed our little group up. Aito and I were put somewhere between the other three, who were slowly but surely pushing us towards the front to get a better view of the spar.
Since he insisted on standing in front of me, I had to peer around Nagato to get a good look. There were several matches going on at one time, broken up based on year groups. We were standing closest to the oldest age group, who looked to be at least ten or so. An Aburame boy was facing a girl whose clan affiliation I couldn't discern. The match's odds seemed tipped in favor of the girl. She seemed very adept with the Academy basic, every now and then throwing in a more complex move that hinted at advanced training with an alternate style. Her opponent, on the other hand, was obviously not suited to taijutsu. He was putting up a valiant fight, but in a minute or two, would probably be beaten.
My gaze strayed to another match between two girls close to my age. It looked like a more interesting match, with much livelier opponents. They were moving so fast, it was hard to track the moves from where I was standing.
Time to find a better vantage point, then
With Aito's hand still held in one of my hands and Nagato's snagged in the other, I started pulling them in that direction. I heard Yahiko squawk at us to wait, but ignored it as I got closer and closer to the match I wanted to watch. A delighted gasp passed through my lips as I finally got a good look at the contestants. Or, more specifically, one of the contestants. I'd recognize that wild, dark head of hair anywhere.
The cheek triangles were new though.
"Tsume," I couldn't help but whisper.
I wanted to call out to her, but I held back. Her match was growing more intense with every second. She couldn't afford the distraction if she wanted to win; her opponent was too evenly matched with her. But I watched her avidly, delighting in the frenetic way she used the basic style to fight. It was making this match much more entertaining to observe. I glanced at her opponent, a pale haired, bespectacled girl who was definitely civilian but very quick and good at anticipating Tsume's moves, and sneaking in ruthless counterattacks.
Something about the civilian girl had me pausing. I couldn't put my finger on it, but it was something. Whatever it was, it was forgotten in the next moment when one of Tsume's swipes at the girl's face was only just barely dodged. The pale haired girl went stumbling backwards, graceless as she tried to recover.
Tsume wasn't about to give her the time to do so.
A flurry of open handed strikes came from all directions, and the other girl was good, but one stumbled dodge became another and another, until she simply couldn't dodge anymore.
There was a resounding smack of a palm meeting cheek and then pale haired girl went spinning away. She managed to stay on her feet long enough for Tsume to grab her by the sleeve of her shirt and pull her back. Using her hands, wild girl knocked away the arms that had lifted in a feeble attempt to defend.
The other girl tried to feint a kick to push herself back and put some distance between her and Tsume, in vain. The Inuzuka stayed on her and shot a leg between her opponent's own legs and hooked an ankle with her foot. It was all over then, as Tsume took the legs out from under her. She followed it by planting her foot, pivoting on it, and threw herself into driving an elbow down into the center of the civilian girl's chest.
I felt equal parts happy for Tsume and awful for the other girl. That had been brutally awesome.
My voiced joined the others in the crowd as they cheered for her. She threw her arms, hands fisted, into the air. I watched as a couple of kids pulled away from the crowd to mob her, and realized with a jolt that I knew the two blonde haired ones among them.
"Tsume! Minato! Inoichi!" I yelled, hoping they'd hear me, see me, find me in the crowd. "Tsume! Tsume! Minato! Tsume! Inoichi!"
It was too loud. They weren't hearing me, they were completely oblivious.
Pushing forward, I decided to go to them instead. My gaze darted over to where the pale haired girl had fell, just to check on her. She'd moved, dragged herself off a bit to catch her breath and lick her wounds. There was something in her eyes, something that held me up again. Something I couldn't figure out, but it made me think of something far away. Like a corridor stretching before me with a door slowly inching shut.
I didn't realize it, but I had stopped to stare. Noticing, she turned towards me and stared back. Her eyes went wide and her entire body went rigid for a fraction of a second before all of that tension bled out suddenly without explanation. There was no confusing what I knew to be loathing beginning to simmer low in her eyes, even as her features fell into a gentle, self-effacing expression.
And there was suddenly no mistaking just where I had seen those eyes before.
Like an invisible cord was tied around my waist at one end and it was being cranked at the other, I was pulled towards her. I could see Nagato and Aito following me in my periphery. They stopped when I did, just in front of the pale haired girl. We stared long at one another before a sickly pleasant smile curled my lips and I held a hand out to her.
"Are you alright?"
"Yes, I'm fine," she answered quietly, and after a long moment, took my hand.
She squeezed my fingers hard, then harder, then achingly so. I held my smile in place as I helped her to her feet.
"I'm Nanako," I stated, easing my abused fingers away.
"Nonou Yakushi," she returned, dipping her head, "Arigatou."
I broke our terrible stare off first, and noticed that once again, I'd made a spectacle of myself. A large group now had their attention on me and Nonou. Aito and the orphans shuffled close to us, part wary and part curious of the other kids.
Great. Great, great, great, perfect way to start the day. All I needed was-
I felt myself tip and fall sideways in fast motion as something slammed into my side. Nonou's carefully schooled impassiveness was replaced with bewildered shock. Ha, I thought pettily, Got you to emote.
Of course, landing hard on my shoulder with my face pressed into the dirt and something resting heavily on my side, I couldn't do much to celebrate my small win over the other girl. I could feel my attacker squeezing me hard around my middle, as if trying to expel what little precious oxygen I had left in my lungs. I tried to take a breath and got dust in my mouth for the effort. Groaning, I lifted my head and found myself face to face with a fluffy, floppy little puppy. It whined softly at me, scooted forward, and started chewing on my hair.
"Welcome back kid," I heard someone say quietly from above the puppy.
I craned my head up a little higher and saw Minato there grinning widely.
Putting my head back down with a groan, I let myself fully appreciate that I only had myself to blame for walking into this mess.
AN: I'm not too happy that I let my writing go for so long when all of you were waiting on my. I think I will constantly be apologizing for being a really slow writer who has too much to do in the meantime. Once again, I am so sorry, and hopefully this chapter won't be too bad. I had a lot of trouble figuring out what to do and what not to do. I'm trying to push out of the childhood years into at least teen/chunin years. Hopefully I can in the next one to two chapters.
Question about the writing: How was the action? (I don't do it very often so...)
Question for question's sake: What's your favorite piece of children's literature? (If you have a favorite.)
Naruto SI Plugs: Iryo-nin Kasa by Vaengir, Deja vu no Jutsu by Vixen Tail, and Little Acorn by Colors of Iris (all of them, awesome, seriously)
AN2: I saw all the comments on excessive Japanese. Message heard. I have taken out most of them from this chapter (daisuki, daijobu, doitamashite, and aa). I will try to be better about not doing it so much in the future.
tadaima: I'm home.
okaeri: Welcome home.
bishounen: Pretty boy.