A couple of things:

1) GO CHECK OUT MARIKO'S ASK ACCOUNT. Link is on profile.

2) Redheads, everywhere.

3) Debut: Sassy Sand Shinobi

4) Minato and the Hokage are so epic. Madara just got REJECTEDDD! And Sasuke...oh lol, sawyer7mage was so right.

5) ONTO THE STORY /pulling total Kishi's and loving my flashbacks/

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, but I can happily say that I can claim my world of Hurricane...and the stories, lol. I love story time!


Chapter 16: Fire


.x.X.x.


It's a long way home…


.x.X.x.


"Welcome to Sunagakure!" came the greeting, awfully sarcastic and not at all interested in the group of foreign shinobi. Under her voice, the young kunoichi muttered, "Why am I here again?"

A sharp-eyed boy elbowed her, and then turned to the group. They must've been around Hiruzen's age, a group of genin set out at a village outpost for some little mission they were ordered to complete.

"Excuse Chiyo's rudeness," mended the boy lightly. He had a bird's nest of spiky black hair that he attempted to tie down in a messy topknot, and had donned a Sand-style sash and trousers. "She tends to get snappy when she's tired."

"It's no problem," said Hyuuga Natsuki. "We are simply stopping by for some provisions."

"Konoha, right?" piped up a third boy, slightly younger with thick eyebrows and a pleasant smile. He had a similar facial structure as the red-haired girl, so Mariko assumed they were siblings. "Welcome to one of Suna's travel posts! How can we help you?"

"We just need to stock up on some provisions, and if you have any medics, we would appreciate it if he or she helped out with our one wounded," Natsuki informed the boy, who nodded attentively.

"Of course! Chiyo-nee, can you grab sensei and—"

"Ebizo, why do you ask me to do everything?" snapped the fiery young kunoichi, folding her arms. She turned to the pregnant Hyuuga woman and snapped, "What do you need? I'll get it for you."

Natsuki gave the girl a list of things they needed replenished — various non-perishable foods, more water jugs, etc. — and the girl gave them a critical onceover quickly. She scowled at all of them, peering longer at Ren, Katsurou, and Mariko, who were dressed nothing like western mainlanders that day. In fact, Ren was still wearing his Hurricane-style shirt, matching Mariko, who had stuffed an old blouse into her bag and chosen it that morning. Katsurou had taken a liking to Kumogakure region apparel, and had created a mash-up of Lightning and Frost styles.

The girl, Chiyo, squinted at them. Her gaze fell on Tobirama, who had wandered his way over to Mariko, and her eyes widened. He shot her a vicious glare, so very characteristic of him, that practically shouted, What are you looking at, girl? Move. Chiyo pressed her lips together and stubbornly refused to meet his gaze, stalking away and shoving her younger brother aside the process.

Almost like magic, visible strings of bluish light flew from her fingers, latching onto a few boxes and containers in a series of sheds behind the post. Mariko watched in awe as the girl maneuvered the objects over to their wagon.

"We've mostly got instant noodles," she said. "Sorry." She hardly sounded apologetic at all, but Mariko supposed that this was just her personality. When the girl caught Mariko's eyes, Mariko smiled gently. Harrumphing, Chiyo folded her arms and turned away. The black-haired boy laughed nervously and continued talking to Natsuki. A Sand ninja, presumably the medic, trotted over to them and went to take a look at Katsurou.

The little Wind Country townsfolk peered at their shinobi post with interest. The Konoha assembly of travelers had piqued their interest, and a few came over to start friendly conversation. Mariko found herself tucked close to Tobirama's side, greeting a few of the people. One man actually recognized her.

"Could it be, the Lady Princess?" he exclaimed, loud enough to attract some more attention. His eyes caught the blue of Katsurou's hair, and he continued, "And Lord Prince! Oh river horses above, that I'd live to see the day…"

He was elderly but friendly, with a booming baritone voice and a heavy-set, muscular body. The old man wore ragged clothing, seeing as he was a construction worker for the town, but he was all smiles. The most interesting part, however, was the fact that he had an islander's accent. Particularly, an Amethyst accent.

Katsurou perked up upon this familiar accent, turning around in the wagon and causing the already-harried medic to scold him.

"Don't move," said the Sand shinobi, slightly annoyed.

"Sorry," replied Katsurou, still straining to get a view of the Hurricane man.

"Lady Princess," cried the man, "my name is Mashima of Amethyst. It is an honor."

Mashima swept into a creaky but noble bow, kneeling before the blunette. The townspeople chattered and watched on in curiosity, slightly confused but still intrigued. The group of children, the three shinobi, curiously edged a little closer. Mariko found that Chiyo was staring at her unabashedly, but ignored the girl for the time being.

"The last time I saw you, Lady Princess," said Mashima, "was when you were born. My daughter is a medic nin, and she was on call in case the queen experienced complications."

Mariko's mouth opened and then closed without a word, a fish out of water with not much to say. Or rather, she didn't quite know what to say.

"The pleasure is mine," she finally croaked out, trying to figure out where her easy court etiquette had gone off to. She supposed her ability to speak eloquently had eloped with her automatic court grace, and she was now left with a big, blank space that she had no idea how to fill. "It is truly a surprise to find an islander so far from home," she added. From behind, Ren snorted, but she brushed that aside.

"Lady Princess, you say this, but yet you are here as well, no?" Mashima smiled, standing once again.

"I was sent to the mainland for a political—"

"To complete a marriage proposal," Tobirama cut in brashly, breaking into Mariko's awkward line. She inwardly thanked him, but at the same time wanted to elbow him. Realizing that his jacket was still slung around her shoulders — she had kept it on all day — Mariko shrugged it off and returned it to him.

Mashima the old man looked incredibly amused, but very pleased.

"With Konoha's Senju? Splendid, indeed," he chortled, firmly patting Tobirama on the shoulder. "Son, you take care of our princess now, you hear me? Us island folk won't accept anything but the best for our beloved royals."

"Of course," Tobirama answered, a small smirk tugging at his lips. Mariko tugged his shirt gently, and he glanced down. "Nothing but the best, hmm?"

Mashima chose that moment to amble over to Katsurou, greeting him similarly. A friendly conversation lasted them until dusk fell upon the sky, turning the horizon into a stretch of hazy orange and red hues. A simple meal of instant noodles, courtesy of Suna's young, hot-tempered Chiyo, was set up.

"Instant noodles go in water," Katsurou stated flatly.

"I'm not stupid," spat Ren snappishly.

"Sure," agreed Katsurou, wiggling out of a few bandages despite the dirty look that Mariko shot him, "and that's why you don't have any water in that gigantic pot of yours."

Ren scowled. "And are you going to do anything about that?"

"We could ask the Suna shinobi for water," suggested Katsurou, with a mild shrug. "Or would you prefer to refrain from stooping so low as to ask for water?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" demanded Ren, threatening to throw a large ladling spoon at the Second Prince. "Are you insulting me, island fish?"

"Is that what it's come to, you mainland prick?"

As soon as the antagonistic tension snapped into name-calling ridiculousness, Mariko broke in, annoyed.

"Will you two just shut up?!"

Both men turned to look at her in shock before settling down into a brooding silence. Tobirama, quite entertained by the meek blunette's outburst, picked up his smirk again. When she whipped around to glare at him, he dropped his smile and glared right back.

"It can't be helped that we're in the middle of a desert," Ren muttered to himself, looking sour.

"Water," Mariko told Tobirama blandly, pointing at the pot. He scoffed, offended.

"Are you ordering me around?" he asked flatly, eyes narrowing.

"Yes." She reached over and poked him in the ribs, but he caught her hand halfway. Mariko bit her lower lip and held her glower as long as she could, but eventually dissolved into a small giggle when he reached around and poked her in the side.

Tobirama finally obliged, materializing pure water out of thin air, filling the pot with ease. Ren, finally with something to do, stood up.

"I've got this," he said grandly, sweeping his arms in an overly dramatic fashion as he formed a couple of hand seals. He blew a steady stream of fire into the few branches of firewood beneath the propped up pot.

"Not-so-instant instant noodles, huh?" laughed Katsurou, causing Ren to splutter and nearly burn himself.

The old man Mashima came back around, offering each and every shinobi a bento meal, courtesy of the town.

"Save your energy for tomorrow, my Lord," he said to Katsurou. Turning to Mariko, he told her, "My wife and I wish you a good night. May the stars crown you with emeralds, Lady Princess."

Mariko thanked the kind old man, who hobbled away unevenly back to his town. Then, to the group's surprise, the two members of the young three-man cell ambled over and settled down next to them. Their sensei was still nowhere to be seen, but they didn't seem worried.

"So, are you like, a princess or something?" Chiyo asked directly.

"Well, yes," Mariko replied.

"From where?" said the girl bluntly.

"Hurricane."

Chiyo's brow furrowed, and then she replied, "The honeymooning island?"

This made Mariko smile. Hurricane was, in fact, a rather popular destination for holidays, vacations, and honeymoons. She could easily imagine a happy couple strolling along one of the pretty northern beaches, or maybe even taking a ski trip in the eastern central mountains. Mariko always liked to think that the capital city was the best hotspot, of course. While there were no long stretches of sand or snowy slopes, Esmeralda was home to beautiful architecture, wide picturesque avenues, and rolling plains. There was a little bit of everything, if one looked hard enough for it.

"That's right," Mariko laughed, offering the girl a kind smile. To her delight, Chiyo returned it, if only just a little bit. Mariko added, "I wouldn't want to go on a honeymoon there, though."

Chiyo snorted. "Of course not, that's like a I'm taking my boyfriend home trip."

At this, Mariko burst into laughter, causing several people to glance her way. Chiyo seemed to have approved of this young woman who was hardly any taller or older than herself, and grinned. She completely ignored Tobirama, who was itching to settle himself somewhere closer to Mariko, and continued talking.

"Wouldn't that be awful? To go on a honeymoon and have like, all your family there? It's like not a honeymoon."

"Exactly," agreed Mariko, tucking a strand of blue hair behind her ear. "How about you? Would you go to Hurricane?"

Chiyo paused, considering the blunette carefully.

"I would," she said after a few moments. "It's kind of far, but I think that would be nice."

"Chiyo-nee, how would you even afford that?" piped up her younger brother.

"Shush, Ebizo. I'm a kunoichi, I can deal." The two siblings began bickering until the third member of their team, the polite but stoic boy with the unruly black hair, trotted over and promptly dragged them back to their post.

Tobirama sat himself down rather unceremoniously beside Mariko, crossing his legs and watching Ren unsuccessfully dish out instant noodles.

"This is the most unconventional way I've ever seen instant noodles served," snorted Katsurou, propped up against a rock.

"You're unconventional," snapped Ren, shoving a bowl at the wounded prince. "Is eating instant ramen below you, Lord Prince?"

"I love instant ramen, thank you," replied Katsurou snidely, pointedly taking a slurp of noodles despite the fact that they were piping hot. Mariko didn't say anything at that point, though she knew that Katsurou would take a bowl of plain rice over any sort of noodle any day, even if it was the bizarre Udon de Crème that most islanders took delight in.

"What's our travel plan for the next few days?" inquired the blunette, changing the subject abruptly. Katsurou, who was still poking fun at Ren's inadequate serving issues, paused and turned to listen.

"We'll travel along the border of the Wind and Rain, and reach the point where they meet with the unaffiliated land hosting Ishigakure," Tobirama informed them. "About two and a half days."

"How do you know this," said Ren, more out of general irritation than anything personal, "Didn't you just jump along on a whim?"

"I can read a map," replied Tobirama dryly. "I'm starting to wonder why you two haven't any clue what you plan to do upon arrival."

Katsurou folded his arms and pretended to stare at the fire while Ren spluttered indignantly and began spouting some spiel on how he was doing something and something else, how he was not from this area and had not had the opportunity to study a map, plus some other miscellaneous complaints.

Mariko's attention drifted away from Ren's incessantness, and she found herself watching Natsuki, who was holding an empty bowl and conversing with her clan members. Occasionally, her hand would drift to her belly and she would pause, as if in thought. Natsuki, with her hair like a midnight blue, moonlit night, would have a beautiful child, Mariko thought. She contemplated this for a while, and began imagining what her future nieces and nephews might look like. Would they all have blue hair, or would the trait be lost on some of them? She never quite understood how the Aokami hair gene was passed down, as it often sputtered out here and there, as it did with their distant relatives in Kiri. Would Sumiko's baby be like Ren, or would it be like her? Boy or girl? Mariko kind of wanted a niece, but she thought that a nephew out of Sumiko and Ren would be beautiful as well.

She didn't realize that Tobirama had called her name four times now.

"Shorty," he growled, a hand on her arm. Mariko snapped to attention, blinking a couple times.

"Yes?"

"Have you been listening?"

"Listening to what?"

Tobirama sighed, shaking his head. Under his breath, he muttered, "Never mind."

"What? Tell me," insisted Mariko. Tobirama simply rolled his eyes and got to his feet, ambling away to meet with a cloaked Sand nin who appeared to be the children's sensei. Mariko turned to her brother. "What? What was he saying?"

Katsurou simply laughed, only frustrating her more.

"We were talking about Lady Mito's hair," drawled Ren. "and if she would have a redheaded baby or not." He snorted midsentence, glancing after the white-haired Senju. "I have a feeling that he wanted to ask you if you wanted a blue-haired baby or not." Ren and Katsurou burst into simultaneous laughter, and Mariko flushed uncomfortably.

"I don't think he would ask that," she grumbled, glaring at her hands.

"Probably not," Katsurou agreed, "but it looked like he wanted to."

"I don't think he would even think that," Mariko replied.

"Why? Because you two haven't even done anything yet?" deadpanned Ren. Katsurou made a face and tried to elbow the other man, but Ren leapt to his feet and sauntered around the messily built fire.

"That's my baby sister, Ren," Katsurou said. "I don't want to think about that."

"We're all mature adults, Lord Prince," snorted Ren. "Aren't we, Hime?"

"We're all mature except you, Ren," sneered Katsurou.

"Oh will you just drop it?!" hissed Mariko, setting her now-empty bowl down and leaping to her feet. Seriously! Mariko exclaimed inwardly, before stalking over to the lonely wagon and its two sleepy donkeys. Katsurou and Ren watched her go, smirks playing along their lips, but wisely keeping silent. Mariko found that Shiro and his dog were huddled next to the donkeys, the boy doodling on a scroll in the dark, and the dog sniffing curiously. She startled him upon asking what he was doing.

"Practicing a scroll formula that Mito-sama gave me," said the boy softly. "Well, technically, Danzo taught me."

"That's interesting," Mariko said, for the sake of a reply.

"It's supposed to summon stuff, but I haven't really decided what," Shiro explained. "Sarutobi told me to put in a bunch of pies so that I could pull them out and throw them."

"Throwing pies?" It seemed rather characteristic of the child, despite the quiet demeanor that he seemed to be playing on currently.

Shiro nodded, grinning mostly to himself. He stroked Kuro's pointy black ears, and the dog snuffled at his pockets. Mariko, deciding that he probably wanted to be alone, meandered back to the group. Katsurou had hoisted himself back onto the wagon, curling up as best he could among the burlap sacks and folded canvases. Ren, sitting quietly before the sizzling fire, was thumbing the hilt of his sword and contemplating something or the other. The dimmed light of the fire illuminated her brother-in-law's face, and she noticed for the first time that he had a mild spattering of freckles across the bridge of his nose and onto his high-set cheekbones. It softened his appearance, melting his hard demeanor and setting the mold of a young boy's innocent face, blank but thoughtful.

Ren's eyes snapped up to meet hers, and the set of his jaw tightened.

"Your brother's not feeling well," he told her dully, before returning to his listless glare at the fire.

"Is he sick, or is it his wound?" asked Mariko, glancing over at Katsurou. The blue-haired man had turned so that his back faced them, face tucked into a scratchy flap of wool.

"I think it may be both of his wounds," Ren told her, unsheathing his sword just for the sake of having something to do. "He was clutching his lower abdomen, where I've been told his older wound is."

"I'll get someone to look at him." Mariko began to stride over to where Natsuki was, conversing softly with her cousin, but Ren stopped her.

"Let him be for now. We can check in the morning before we go."

"What if he's not all right?" she insisted. "I think someone should take a look."

"Have your Senju come over, then."

"Why Tobirama?"

"Just do it." Ren put away his sword with a forceful snap, the blade clicking into a secure position within its sheath. Mariko hesitantly obliged, redirecting her path to where Tobirama currently posted himself, standing alone by a tree, leaning back on it. He nodded to her, but otherwise didn't acknowledge her presence, even when she tugged on his sleeve.

"Katsurou's not feeling well," she informed him.

"Oh?" he murmured, not quite listening.

"Tobirama." Mariko boldly reached up and touched his cheek; he whipped around and she froze, withdrawing cautiously. He was distracted, but the coolness of her fingers brushing cheek reeled him back to attention.

"What?" he asked flatly, snatching her fingers and pushing them away. Mariko glanced over her shoulder awkwardly, unsure of what to do because he had not let go of her hand, despite rejecting her touch.

"Katsurou's not feeling well," she repeated slowly. "Ren says you should come over."

"Is that an order?" Tobirama's voice was so monotone and expressionless that she couldn't quite tell if he was joking or not. In fact, he could've been angry for all she knew. Nonetheless, his larger hand had encompassed her own, and Mariko found herself marveling at how well they seemed to fit together.

"Well…" Mariko, watching Tobirama run his thumb across her knuckles absently, didn't know how to answer.

"Relax, Shorty," he sighed, dropping her hand abruptly. "Of course I'll come over."

He straightened and readjusted his jacket, putting his left hand along the small of her back and guiding her back to their now-sputtering campfire. Inadvertently, Mariko realized she had tucked herself comfortably at his side, probably leaning too much into his arm to be comfortable. Even so, Tobirama didn't say a word, only slid his hand around her waist instead.

"Lord Prince," Tobirama said curtly, when his future brother-in-law turned around at the sound of their approach.

"Senju," replied Katsurou tiredly, subtly hiding his discomfort as he gracefully swung around to face them, legs dangling off the open end of the wagon. He eyed his sister, so casually tucked into the arm of a man not from their family, but did not make a point of it.

"How is your wound?" Tobirama asked briskly.

"Fine."

"I'm told that you are uncomfortable."

"And who told you this?" Katsurou forced a smirk to his lips, but the sweat beaded on his brow and the stiffness to his shoulders suggested differently from his words. While he feigned being perfectly healthy and lively, the slight shortness of breath and the occasional hand on his side told them otherwise.

"You," replied Tobirama, nodding to Katsurou's hand, which had unconsciously touched his old wound.

"I'll be fine," Katsurou answered snappishly. "We'll be out by tomorrow, and—"

"Have someone look at you. That's all I'll say," Tobirama cut in, turning on his heel and brushing past Mariko. She grabbed his sleeve, but he didn't stop. In fact, the one to cut him off turned out to be Ren, who smoothly glided into step with the Senju. Once out of earshot from Katsurou, Ren faced Tobirama.

"I think he should head back to the village," he said in a low voice. "Or at least to the Sand, where he can rest and recuperate."

At this, Tobirama raised a brow and folded his arms. Mariko, still dawdling behind him, listened carefully.

"He's obviously not well," continued Ren, "and he keeps babbling on and on about some ludicrous reason on why Sumi almost dying was his fault."

Ren held Tobirama's gaze for a long moment, the seconds stretching out as if they were sunken in a pool of molasses. Tobirama's eyes were steady, unwavering.

"And?"

"He's not okay, all right? That's all I can say. It's hard to explain."

Mariko, with a start, wondered if she wasn't the only one who had realized Katsurou's change. His grey eyes, the dark bags beneath them, the paleness that came with a sickly body and fatigue. His face had become a bit more gaunt, features sharper and deeper set, his mouth a hard line. But he never showed weakness, if he could help it. Prince Katsurou walked straight and proud, with his shoulders squared even when his wound pulsated at his side painfully.

"Give him some time, and then we'll see," replied Tobirama, unconvinced. Ren, for once at a loss, huffed in frustration and stomped away and ran a hand through his hair. Mariko, at the Senju's side, watched the redhead snap a large stick in half and throw the twigs into the dwindling fire.

"I agree with Ren," she said softly, to the tall white-haired man's back.

Tobirama glanced at her over his shoulder, and in the quieting night, the rustle of his sleeves was strangely loud beside the crackling of the fire. Mariko, awfully aware of the sudden glaring silence, scuffed her toe in the dry soil. Her boots were old, worn leather, the travel boots with the extra thick soles that could easily serve her well in all terrains. She'd already forgotten where she'd found them, but by now, it didn't matter where they came from. Perhaps, only where they would go was important.


.x.X.x.


Dear Momma,

The delegation of Konoha was here today.


.x.X.x.


Mariko peeked round the elaborate tapestry that hung from the high ceilings to the floor. It made for an excellent hiding spot, especially when she was of such small size. Recently, she had been carrying out these types of maneuvers and missions — following guests and Ryouichi like it was her business to do so. She wanted to find out more about this "Senju Tobirama", her future husband. As of now, he was still a mysterious name on paper, documented and stamped and made official. An influx of mainland delegates had come to Hurricane, and she was intent on gleaning information from them.

Interestingly, she liked to think that this was her way of becoming a ninja, even if it was just sneaking about the palace unnoticed.

Oftentimes, the conversations of the Leaf representatives proved to be rather insightful. Either that, or completely mundane.

"You know, I really see why Mito-sama loves this island," said one.

"Ah, that's right," replied the companion, "she was delighted when she heard we were going to the islands."

"But did you see Tobirama-sama?" laughed the first man, clicking on his shinobi's jacket. It was a forest green, a protective sort of vest with pockets and pouches in which they stored the smallest scrolls Mariko had ever laid eyes on. But the name had piqued her interest, and her attention was caught. "He was angry."

"I thought he was always angry."

"I don't think he ever stops frowning, does he?" laughed the first one, strapping a few scrolls to his back.

"He always seems grumpy," snorted the companion, though it was a good-natured comment. Mariko, so far, only had a rather odd picture of her fiancé — an ill-tempered man who always frowned. Not very pleasant, in her standards.

The first shinobi turned around, then, and Mariko quickly ducked behind the tapestry, her heart racing. The Leaf nin hardly glanced her way, but she still felt as if they would suddenly turn their eyes on her. The old wall-hanging was dusty and old, tickling her nose, but Mariko pinched her eyes shut and willed herself not to sneeze.

The shinobi disappeared down the hall.

After slipping out from behind the drapery, Mariko found that she was dreadfully hungry. Her stomach growled incessantly, and she inwardly hushed it. It wouldn't do to give away her "spy" missions because hunger happened to strike. She wore her faded ballet flats and a simple, paneled skirt without any sort of mesh or decoration that would swish loudly. Just to add to the feeling, Mariko had wound a simple, light green bandanna over her hair, wrapping it up so that she looked somewhat like one of the serving girls.

And then, because she felt a little bolder than usual, she crept up behind the shinobi, within hearing distance. In her hands, to complete her disguise, she held an old rag and a feather duster. To be honest, she wanted to carry a bucket – the servant girls were always singing and swinging to a rhythm with their wash buckets, especially out in the garden and cleaning the windows – but she feared she'd be too clumsy with it. (Also, this naïve little princess also discovered that buckets filled to the brim with water were heavy.)

The shinobi and his companion paid no attention to her as she padded by, bright blue hair completely covered. Only someone who recognized her face would be able to pick her out now.

And then, to ruin it all, fair old Lemma came storming down the hall. Mariko dodged toward the tall, floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the eastern hallway they were traversing, and pretended to clean it. A miracle; Lemma barely paid her any mind. Instead, she brushed past the shinobi, an angry expression clear in the hard lines of her face.

"Sir," she said, addressing the one shinobi with the peculiar green flak jacket as she rushed by, "Have you, by any chance, seen the Second Princess?"

At this, the two shinobi were quiet, and while the companion seemed like he wanted to say something, the first man was silent. Lemma rolled her eyes.

"The one engaged to your Senju," she snapped impatiently.

"Ah," said the first shinobi, a little bashful. "No, we haven't."

"She's the only girl here with blue hair and green eyes, are you sure you haven't seen her?" insisted Lemma, slightly offended at the fact that these shinobi didn't even know what Mariko looked like. After all, she was the very reason they were here, wasn't she? "You can't possibly miss her."

"I believe I saw her further back down that hall," said the other man graciously. He had a kind, mild smile and was very polite. The first one just shrugged, and brusquely continued on his way. Lemma clicked her tongue in distaste and continued shuffling down the hall.

Mariko relaxed when the old maid slipped around the corner, waiting for a few seconds to make sure she did not suddenly return and grab her by the bandanna because she had known all along. When Lemma was truly gone, Mariko trailed after the two Konoha men into the main foyer, where Ryouichi was hosting tea for all foreign guests.

With a grace that easily surprised herself, Mariko traded her rags and duster for an empty tray, and she went around with her head ducked, pretending to collect used dishes. In fact, when a man from the Wave Country placed his finished glass of champagne on her tray, she smiled to herself and swept around lightly to the other guests.

Nobody noticed.

"The weather here is delightful," said a portly man from the Fire Country, not really associated with Konoha, but rather the mainland itself.

"It is fabulous," agreed a feminine-looking man, who wore a big hat and was supposed to be the Wave Country daimyo. "I'm sure anyone who visits can agree."

"If only you visited during our winters," Ryouichi laughed, gracefully lounging back in a heavily decorated chair. Hardly comfortable, but stylish. The rest of the seats were very cozy, very inviting, all except for the one seat Ryouichi had to sit in, simply for the sake of appearance. Mariko never liked that chair. But Ryouichi, being the somewhat stoic, witty character he was in public, did not mind. While he was truly gentle at heart, a soft being who couldn't bear to impose any sort of unkindness upon others, he was politically strong and cunning. If only subtly, he used verbal and nonverbal communication to ensure that no opportunities to unseat the head of the social hierarchy ever appeared. If they did, he stomped them out like bugs, the glint of his sophisticated glasses hiding his true expression.

But here, he appeared relaxed, the essence of a casual royal, even if he was actually analyzing each and every person in the room, scrutinizing every detail meticulously. Even if his conversation was light – they were talking about the weather, after all – his ability to read people was so fantastic that sometimes his own family members forced expressions of complete blankness onto their faces when they didn't know how to react.

"Ah, but Lord Prince," said a Kirigakure noble – it was the mustache man, Mariko realized, the one with the wispy facial hair and no eyebrows – as he sipped tea, "That is only for a little bit of the year. Even though it is cold, Hurricane hardly ever sees the types of blizzards one encounters in Lightning."

"That may be true," Ryouichi agreed. "I supposed I should be proud of that?"

The Kirigakure man laughed, but to Mariko's surprise, the Konoha delegation only chuckled tightly. They cast glances at the islanders, as if they were suspicious, especially towards those from the Mist. Shinobi relations, she supposed, were of a different realm altogether.

"It's a shame your Hokage didn't visit," continued the Kiri noble. To Mariko, it seemed like he just never shut up. "Or his brother."

"Hashirama-sama is incredibly busy," piped up the one man Mariko had been following. His milder counterpart, the second shinobi with the gentle smile, sighed. The first went on, "He certainly wishes to visit, but it is a shame that he cannot."

"There, there," snorted the Kiri man, "no need to be defensive."

"Gentlemen." Ryouichi's voice cut in so sharply that the two regular shinobi turned to stare at him incredulously, because simply calling out made every single noble in the room cringe, if only slightly. The shinobi, a total of seven including the two Mariko had followed, seemed to be rather lost on the ways of the court.

Ryouichi turned to the shinobi that had spoken.

"I'm sure he is a busy man," the Crown Prince assured him, "as am I. Running a nation is not as easy as it seems." The stress on nation made the shinobi look uncomfortable, while the portly Fire Daimyo's representative chuckled pretentiously. Ryouichi only gave the shinobi a lengthy stare, ignoring the stout man beside him. "We would be delighted to have the Hokage's presence here at court, for our government wishes to have healthy negotiations with Konohagakure."

With that, he indirectly turned the conversation to Mariko, who jerked slightly as she pretended to follow along the other maids. To her surprise, the younger servant girls smiled at her demurely, eyebrows quirked, and quietly passed whispers of what she should do next. One of them, the girl who was often her handmaid during long, formal dinner nights, ushered her over to the desserts table and silently showed her the order of little sweet cakes that were being served, and how to stack four of them to a plate neatly.

Meanwhile, the conversation continued, and Mariko tried to catch every bit.

"Speaking of healthy negotiations," said the generously proportioned Fire diplomat, "I find it a shame that the Senju brother did not join our deputation."

Mariko began to wonder whose side this man was on.

Ryouichi pasted the most charming smile on his face as he awaited Konoha's answer. Their head ambassador, a tall, cloaked man, never really spoke unless needed. He seemed quite content to let the six other members of his group dawdle about and bumble their way disastrously through court conversation.

The mild shinobi, the gentleman whose companion did not even know what Mariko looked like, spoke up.

"Tobirama-sama is busy as well," he said simply. "And if he is not busy, he, too, is a human, and is currently working out the negotiations of this political marriage."

Mariko liked this shinobi, a quiet, blonde with dark eyes and a light voice. He was very correct and very gracious, and he'd been the only other one besides their head ambassador that knew it was formally correct to drop to one knee upon Ryouichi's entrance. The rest of the group had confusedly followed suit, staring wide-eyed at the boy hardly older than themselves who was supposed to be the Crown Prince of Hurricane.

The look on Ryouichi's face was satisfied with this answer. Had it been someone closer to the family, he would have told them, "Well said. I would agree." But instead, he nodded his affirmation at this young man, who seemed to be delighted to receive the prince's approval.

However, the one unruly man whose beard was too scruffy and seemed to be the most talkative so far would not let his companion end with just that.

"Like I said," he growled, "Tobirama-sama is Hashirama-sama's brother, and therefore—"

"I'm sure he is," Ryouichi cut in. The look on his face was deadly calm, the air of nonchalance so finely exuded that one might choke from the tight control it wrapped around the listeners. If they thought Ryouichi was being critical at the moment, then they hadn't seen him at his best. For now, he simply thought the notion, I'll make them think I'm impatient with this man, and the entire room swallowed nervously.

"Look'ere, fella," exclaimed the shinobi, riled, "if you're disrespecting Tobirama-sama, then I'll—"

Mariko's friend, the one young maid, shoved a stack of trays clattering onto the floor, effectively interrupting the Konoha man. Mariko, still serving desserts, glanced over at Ryouichi. His lips almost inconspicuously tugged a smile.

"Well," the round Fire Country lord said suddenly, "I still think your Tobirama—" he rolled the name off his tongue like it was some sort of intriguing hard candy, "—should have come with us."

"He's busy," snapped the bearded man, though he was losing grounds in terms of a stable argument.

"As we all are," a random Hurricane lord murmured. A ripple of laughter crossed through the native islanders, making a majority of the mainland guests rather uncomfortable. Mariko noticed that the head of the Leaf nin, the tall man in the dark cloak, chuckled to himself and sipped tea calmly while his men exchanged wary glances. When he turned and saw her staring, he gave her a peculiar little smile that she didn't quite like; Mariko ducked away, collecting a glass from the disgruntled man with the ugly beard and dodging back to the rest of the maids. She supposed he would never really realize who she was.

As long as they didn't see her face clearly – with her scarf wrapped somewhat elaborately around her head and shoulders – and no one recognized her by her characteristic green eyes, Mariko supposed she would be fine. She gave the islanders a wide berth, cautious of anyone who was slightly more familiar with her than the others. She wanted to hear the more, not just this teasing banter, and if she maintained a good distance from Ryouichi, he would not find out either.

Of course, Mariko, being a princess, royally screwed up.

She ran straight into – who would have guessed – Lord Tetsuya from Garnet. She dropped her tray, with its few glasses, and they shattered on the floor, turning all attention their way. Mariko ducked, tugging her headscarf closer, and hastily began picking up shards of glass. If only she knew that that action gave her away completely. A properly trained maid would have known to use the tray to gather in the glass pieces as best she could, before going for a broom and dustpan to properly gather all the dangerous chips and shards that may have spread about.

"My apologies," rushed Lord Tetsuya, saving her by grabbing a broom from the nearest waiter, "let me help you with that."

"My Lord, you are kind," Mariko managed to return in practically a squeak. "I would rather you stay back than dirty your hands and possibly cut yourself on the glass."

Lord Tetsuya laughed, then.

"It's hardly a problem at all," he replied, stooping to clean. In fact, it seemed that Mariko was rather useless, and instead, the Lord Tetsuya deftly scooped up the broken glass and passed it on to yet another maid who skillfully disappeared to the kitchen to dispose of it all.

Someone grabbed Mariko's arm.

"Excuse me, Lord Tetsuya, but I need a word with this one," came the strained greeting, if it could be called that. Several in the room turned to see what had happened.

"Of course, Your Royal Highness," the soon-to-be leader of Garnet answered, immediately dropping to one knee and bowing his head. To Mariko's horror, he happened to glance up at an angle where he could see her face, and she turned quickly so that he wouldn't glimpse her identity.

Putting her right in Ryouichi's path.

He smoothly operated in a fashion that made it seem like he wanted a word with the maid, perhaps a need for an important dish made especially for his foreign guests, and this was the messenger girl to fly to the kitchens for the order. The fact that she ducked her head and curtsied politely created a good impression of Hurricane's court for the foreigners; of the utmost respect and good manners.

And then they were out of the tearoom and tearing down the hall until they came to a smaller foyer, where Ryouichi whipped around and yanked the scarf from his younger sister's head.

"What are you doing?!" The pent up energy and the well-hidden frustration for the stubborn Konoha shinobi came out all at once, and Mariko took a step back, breath caught in her throat.

"Listening?"

"Listening?"

"Yes."

Ryouichi spun on his heel and began pacing back and forth, nearly knocking down some poor vase doomed to a life of decorative standing on a pedestal.

"Mariko." Ryouichi stared at the vase for a few seconds, collecting himself. While he was naturally a gentle person, he, like everyone else, could build up a temper if given enough time. And at the moment, he was as ready to burst as anyone. People who wondered how he, Katsurou, and Sumiko could be related when the latter two were so fiery and the Crown Prince was so serene — well, they had their answer right here. Simply put, anger was something that did not come to Ryouichi easily, but when it did appear, it was as furious as any Prince or Princess in the palace.

"Sorry, Ryo," Mariko murmured, wringing the scarf in her hands. She focused on her toes, the old worn cotton that used to be a pretty little girl's pink, but had long since faded to a dirty gray. Her skirts were plain, as plain as she could get them, and the apron she'd borrowed was ruffled and smudged. Everything about her was of the perfect disguise — that is, until she saw her long, blue tresses falling across her line of sight. "I won't do it again," she said, and then added, "I was just curious."

He softened, because Ryouichi could never stay angry long. The anger itself seemed relieved to go, slipping away from his features and letting his stance droop wearily in respite.

"You may come back," he said tiredly, "in your regular appearance."

"Thank you, Ryo." Mariko never fought him, because there was simply no point to it. All she had to do was apologize or reasonably state her intentions, and she would be fine. Ryouichi was a very open-minded character, and his patience was overwhelming. And whenever he seemed so tired, so stressed, she couldn't help but feel she was causing more trouble. So, in the end, Mariko would guiltily stop her activities, even if it meant giving up her original goals. It was as if she was never able to finish any plan she created, even when they involved the smallest of things.

When Lemma found her, the old maid was glaring daggers at all who passed. Within a few minutes, she'd stuffed Mariko into one of the traditional princess's dresses that the little blunette was so used to wearing, and then squished her toes with the stiff, short heels that Mariko heavily disliked. She would have traded countless valuables for comfortable shoes.

Nonetheless, Mariko clicked back to the tearoom with a practiced ease, no longer the tilting, tippy girl who had no idea how to walk straight. As soon as she entered, all the islanders rose; they pointedly stared down the Konoha delegation until they picked up the cue and stumbled to their feet.

"Lady Princess," called one of the older men from Hurricane. He was a familiar lord, one who often stopped by to share his wonderful knowledge of horsemanship and of historic writings. A family friend, Mariko would say. "It is a pleasure to see you."

Mariko suddenly remembered that her face was covered in her white pastels, and that if she simply blinked owlishly at the group, she would look like a glaring idiot.

So she curtsied and thanked him for his kind greeting. The lord bowed back, as did several others, and any ladies in the room swept low curtsies for their beloved Second Princess.

The Konoha delegation stared at her as if she had two heads, and Mariko did not appreciate it. She almost stalked over to Ryouichi, who simply raised his eyebrows at her until she slowed her pace and smiled modestly.

"Princess Mariko, correct?"

It was the leader of the delegation, the cool-headed man with graying hair and a wan smile, looking stark but elegant in his long trench coat. He gracefully knelt before her and very elegantly kissed her hand.

"Yes," she replied, unsure of what to say. Mariko was horribly aware of Ryouichi's presence behind her, watching her every reaction. It was times like these that made her think that she did not know her brother, just the same as she felt whenever she watched him deal with the politics of the high-class world. To break the tension winding up in her heart, Mariko tried to smile. For good measure, she added, "I suppose I can't be anyone else with this hair, can I?"

The man laughed. He had a throaty voice, deep but rather reassuring. It was an odd feeling, to be so rough yet so solid. Mariko picked up on his intentions quite quickly, even though he didn't seem to show them. He was friendly, and while his team was a tiring bunch, he was genuinely interested in carrying out business with Hurricane.

Behind her, Mariko felt more than one person shift. The blue-haired girl found it interesting that she could feel Ryouichi's breathing, calm and collected, while a little ways away, a few of the suitors from her one party bristled.

"Lady Princess, if I may," said the man, returning to a standing position, "you are far more charming than I presumed."

"That," Mariko said, unsure of whether she was delighted or offended, "is the most endearing thing I've heard all day."

Ryouichi made a face, and Mariko knew that she probably had not been the best communicator in the world at the time. That was awkward, she hissed silently. Why couldn't she say something else? Why couldn't she just act natural?

Oh wait. She wasn't supposed to.

But the bearded man and a few others were staring at her, staring at her white face and, she realized, the ochre-yellow dusting Ryouichi's temples, and just the general islander appearance overall. On a whim, she lashed out at them.

"A beautiful day, hmm?" Mariko gestured to the window. "It's too bad no one important had the chance to see it."

She turned to the head of the delegation.

"Except maybe your captain and that fine fellow there," she sniffed, spinning around in a manner so similar to Sumiko — Sumiko's sass, to be precise — that Ryouichi fought a cringe. Lemma frowned, and the few former suitors at the back of the room sniggered. Lord Tetsuya looked thoroughly amused, setting his tea down for a moment so that he could refrain from snorting it accidentally.

"You brat," hissed the bearded man beneath his breath.

"Calm down," said his blond companion softly.

"But she—"

The light-haired one clapped a hand on the other's shoulder, shushing him promptly. The scruffy one growled in frustration and looked over to where Ryouichi was observing them. The Crown Prince's face was stony, not quite in anger but not quite stilled, either.

"My apologies," sighed the head of the group, walking over to his men. His long coat brushed his knees, and he moved briskly and efficiently. The ways of a skilled shinobi. "We do not intend any form of disrespect to Your Highness."

With this, he addressed Mariko, to her surprise. Truthfully, she wanted to smile gratefully at him, but under her formal paints, it would hardly make a difference. Instead, she nodded briefly, acknowledging him. Mariko never found herself arrogant; only playing her position. But the Konoha men seemed to think otherwise. Even though their leader forced a mumbled word of apology out of them, they didn't seem sincere. Only the straw-haired fellow and their aloof leader were truly understanding of the circumstances.

The rest of the neat little luncheon passed without incident. Lord Tetsuya stuck close to Mariko, despite knowing that she no longer had "suitors". In fact, all the younger men befriended her, and once in a while, she even found their ludicrous jokes funny. At her laughter, they grinned and brightened, unreasonably happy simply because their princess was. It warmed Mariko's heart to know that people didn't just pay attention to the Crown Prince, but her as well.

She was the last one to go, after all.


.x.X.x.


Dear Momma,

I'm curious to know – are we in any way related to Lady Mito? Katsurou's coming back to visit because the Hot Springs delegation is coming to make negotiations. Sumi is angry, but she's been like that lately. She doesn't want to get married. But in any case, back to the point, Lady Mito and some family are coming to visit us. I read, way back when, in some history book that so-and-so was married to so-and-so Uzumaki. A crown prince, I believe. So, are we related to our allies from Uzu?

.x.X.x.

She was thirteen and curious. The woman with the hair that shone like flames passed by, heading towards the corridor, and Mariko could not help but stare. She had known Lady Mito since she was a child, but had never been very close to her. The Uzumaki had befriended Ryouichi, who was about the same age, and anybody could tell that they were the best of friends. He was gentle while she was fiery, but he never failed to keep up a rally of witty banters that they would end up snorting at later.

In any case, the troop of redheads from Uzu was fascinating. Mariko sometimes forgot that her own hair was a source of wonder and marvel; instead, she found the vibrant sunset reds of the Uzumaki to be astounding. They were never quite the same, the Uzumaki. Lady Mito had hair like rubies, stunning like budding roses. Her bodyguards, two women – the female warriors were known to be just as fierce as the men from Whirlpool – had varying shades of red strung through their intricate braids. One had a copper-chestnut hue, while the other bordered on burgundy. All of them were beautiful, though they paled in comparison to the Lady.

"You may come outside, dear."

Mito had stopped halfway down the hall, turning to look back at the empty doorway to the foyer.

"I know you're there, Mariko-hime."

Bashfully, the girl peeked out from behind the doorway, slipping out from behind a tapestry she wouldn't be able to hide in soon. She quickly curtsied, nervous because of the two – no, three – intimidating women before her.

"Walk with us, hime," said the one bodyguard. She was amazingly tall, the one with the burgundy hair. She had countless bags and scrolls strapped to her person, a lengthy sword sheathed at her side. The other, who was slightly shorter than Lady Mito, had one long braid falling down her back past her waist. She didn't appear to carry weapons, only two large scrolls stacked on her back. Mariko assumed that she probably had countless knives hidden in the most mysterious places.

"Um," was all Mariko could manage lamely. The women weren't rude, only natural, acting as if they were familiar. She didn't dislike it – in fact, they gave her a little sense of confidence. Perhaps it was because they were all women, and she simply felt more comfortable that way. "Okay."

Mariko mentally slapped herself for sounding so lost and childish, but could only stride up to them and smile sweetly.

"You really do look more like Ryouichi, you know that?" The Lady Mito smiled, resting a hand on Mariko's shoulder. To the blunette's surprise, the lady's hand was not smooth and manicured. Her fingers were stained with ink and her slender hands were just slightly calloused. Her touch was gentle but firm.

"Do I really?" Finding her voice, Mariko straightened and attempted the conversation she'd really intended to have.

"You do. Your two other siblings resemble each other in both looks and personality, am I right?"

Mariko laughed; she was very right.

"Do you know why we're here, hime?" asked the tall one. It was a friendly question, and Mariko shook her head. Surrounded by these strong, confident women, she felt safe, tucked into a secure space. The bodyguard laughed and said, "We are here to make sure the Hot Springs are not after your hot springs."

It was the worst joke she'd ever heard, corny to the point of not laughing, but Mariko laughed anyway. Maybe it was because of her appearance – Mariko tended to appear younger than she really was – but Mariko felt like she was small, so small, with these women as her many older sisters. They made her feel reassured in a way that Sumiko often did.

"I would think that their hot springs are far better than ours, considering their name," quipped Mariko lightly, playing along with the poorly made joke. She liked it though.

"At least it's winter," Mito commented. "They won't have a chance to take a dip any time soon."

"Well, technically," said the shorter bodyguard, a girl just a few years older than Mariko with cute freckles sprinkled across her nose, "they could take a swim if they wanted to. They'd freeze, and then we could send them to Kiri as a declaration of war."

"How is that a declaration of war to Kiri?" snorted Mito, making a face. Mariko like the Lady very much, and was for once grateful that she didn't have her pastels on today, so that they could truly see her smile.

"I don't know," said the shorter woman. Her braid swished back and forth; it was so long, Mariko wondered if it was a disaster to wash. "Aggressive intentions? We'd figure it out, eventually."

"We could just send you to Kiri, and that would be war threat enough," Mito told her guard, rolling her eyes.

"Lady Mito, I think sending you to Konoha was dangerous. And you want to send me?"

"How was sending me dangerous?"

"You're quite a storm, my Lady," chuckled the tall one.

"I'm an Uzumaki," exclaimed Mito, exasperated. "You can't get much stormier."

The subject of Konoha was foreign to Mariko at the time, but she was interested anyway. This light teasing of the Lady went on until they reached the main foyer, where Sumiko was found to be bickering with a very nonchalant Ryouichi. Not quite wanting to be involved in that argument so soon, Mariko popped her question.

"Lady Mito," she addressed, waiting for the redhead to turn to her. "Are we, in any way, related?"

At this, the woman from whirlpool brightened, a beautiful smile gracing her already lovely face. To herself, Mariko thought that there could not be anyone prettier, and that whoever was lucky enough to meet Mito had had the honor of beholding a goddess.

"Actually, Mariko-hime, I think we are. Distantly, that is."

"Really?"

"Yes. Long ago, there was a woman from Uzu who traveled to Hurricane." Mito paused. "My apologies if this is at all incorrect, this is what I remember." She smiled to herself. "Now, this woman was not fond of her father, who was the clan head. She was a little like me, I think. This Uzumaki daughter stowed away to Hurricane, where she found herself immersed in all of your glorious culture." Mito stopped to glance at Mariko. "Really, your land practically glows."

"There's a cavern to the north that glows at night when fireflies enter the caves of jewels, isn't there?" said the tall one. Mariko nodded.

"In any case, this woman, a young kunoichi who always helped the local citizens, found herself up against an underground group set out to overthrow the government and take over in a brutal dictatorship. Their leader was a fearsome man, who, incidentally, was part of the high court. Basically, he played the role of the man would betray the king and take over his role."

Mariko found this familiar. She recalled reading about an internal dispute, involving such a plot, but the textbooks glanced over it briefly, primarily focusing on the king's attributes and skimming past the details on this traitorous member of the council.

"And so, the Uzumaki girl would battle various members of the underground organization until she had a few other team members on her side," continued Mito. The Lady was a lovely storyteller, her voice compelling and her facial expressions enhancing each word she spoke. "Eventually, she ran into Hurricane's most well-known vigilante group. The vigilante group was led by a hooded man who never showed his face." Mito smiled. "I like this part; it's interesting. Anyway, they started working together, pledging to stop the evil councilman and wipe out all traces of his organization. The king at the time was a just king, very fair and very cooperative with his people. He was a loved man. And so, this vigilante group, as well as our young kunoichi's followers, traveled across all towns and all provinces to take out branches of the organization."

"I love cheesy love stories," the shorter Uzumaki broke in, smirking.

"Don't ruin it," said the tall guard mildly.

"Shush, you two," snapped Mito, before suppressing a very feminine giggle and proceeding with the story. "Well, the part that I like is the cheesy love story — of course, the two fall in love. This is rather odd, because he's never shown his face. But when he does, he happens to save the girl when she's in trouble. His hood falls back, and lo and behold: he's got blue hair and green eyes."

Mariko's eyes widened, and she bit her lower lip in anticipation. They had settled in a few little sofas near where King Hiroto often hosted tea. It was late afternoon, too early for dinner, but not late enough to start preparing for the feast. As a result, it was a rather fine time for storytelling.

"He was Hurricane's Crown Prince, pronounced officially missing from the Royal Court for three months now."

"Noble," interjected the shorter guard. "I would like a willful man like that."

"Are you sure?" drawled the tall guard. She and the short woman — Anya and Laren, respectively — were constantly polar opposites. One was calm and the other was fiery. Lady Mito, meanwhile, seemed like she was in the middle.

"What are you trying to say?" snapped Laren.

"You two," said Mito exasperatedly. "Let me tell my story."

It was as if the three were best friends, and Mariko smiled at the sight.

"All right, well the Crown Prince fell in love with our lovely Uzushiogakure kunoichi. How fortunate for both of them that he'd stopped working solely within the grounds of Esmeralda, and instead ventured to the rest of his homeland to help all his people. In any case, this Crown Prince was known for his valiant efforts in many things, but the rest of those aren't that clear to me. I should brush up on history, shouldn't I?" Mito grinned, and ignored the playful bat that Laren teasingly made at the tags hanging from her tied hair. "The end results were, of course, that the evil man was taken down, and that the Crown Prince's return was heartily celebrated. The fact that he was the leader of the most famous vigilante group came as a welcomed surprise, and the beautiful woman he brought became loved. And thus, you have an Aokami that married an Uzumaki.

"Their child, however, had blue hair and green eyes as well. And then it was kind of sad, because the mother died years and years later, and because of the belief in evil spirits at the time, they believed it was the curse of a malicious wolf spirit." Mito turned to Mariko. "A little bit of history and culture, if you will."

"The thing about her face, too," added Anya.

"Oh yes," Mito said, nodding. "The child was born with what we call a port-wine stain birthmark, a capillary vascular malformation—"

"Mito-sama, in terms we can understand, please," deadpanned Laren, rolling her eyes. "Not all of us are knowledgeable in the medical region."

"Basically, a red birthmark commonly found the face," explained the Lady, elbowing Laren good-naturedly. "They thought, again, that it was an evil spirit's curse because the father had done something wrong. So, our pretty love story does have some flaws. But in the end, you probably have Uzumaki in you somewhere…very, very faintly."

"Thank you for sharing with me," Mariko said, pleased with the story. "Though I think I need to study history now, don't I?"

Mito smiled down at the blunette.

"I'm sure you'll remember this one in particular, then, won't you?"

"I will." Mariko found being a teeny bit of Uzumaki very thrilling. She wished for the strength and confidence that seemed to come naturally to these women. They stood straight and tall and were sincere no matter the circumstances. Even if she was hardly one percent Uzumaki, only a single drop of blood connecting her to Whirlpool, at least she could feel it symbolically. She wanted to be strong, too.

"Mariko," came the frustrated cry of a man who'd spent time on the mainland and now had the most awkward, crisp half-Hurricane half-Frost accent. "Where have you been?"

It was Katsurou.

Mariko leapt to her feet, so happy to see her brother after such a long time of separation, and embraced him. He was cold and smelled of wind, chilled from the winter outside, but achingly familiar. She'd missed him.

"I'm home," he said softly, the way he'd done every day upon returning to the palace.

"Welcome back, Katsurou."


.x.X.x.


Thirteen years later, the mother died of an unknown cause, presumably an unexpected heart attack. The kingdom wept, as did the royal family.

Child. Look closely with my eyes.

The man looked, and he saw what he saw. He understood why the Wolf had been smiling his terrible, fanged smile in his final moments — why, as he grasped both the queen and the child in his claws, he did not fear death.

For it seemed that he never died, only reincarnated himself.

Seen only with the Emerald Eagle's eyes, claw marks across the queen's body, invisible to the regular eye. The Wolf had stolen her, gradually, bit by bit. And the king suspecting nothing.

Child, do not be sorrowful.

"I made another mistake," the man wept.

All things have remedies, until death takes you away.

"Will you take my wife away?"

If you so wish it.

And, for the last time, the Emerald Eagle spoke to him. He saw, with his green, emerald eyes that were now his own, a black eagle lifting into the sky. With a shudder, the mighty bird's ebony wings were shed, and underneath, he had a brilliant blue coat of feathers, shining sapphire. He would have been complete, had his eyes retained their emerald hue, but instead, he had the boy's eyes, brown and quiet.

I shall leave, child, for you have lost yourself to the Wolf's evils. From now on, beware of his malice and his greed. He shall never best you again.

The Emerald Eagle turned into a man, one that uncannily resembled the king, and offered his hand.

From the casket, a woman rose; the queen. She took the eagle's human hand and they ascended into the sky, leaving the man and his daughter watching.

"Momma's gone, isn't she? I saw her go."

The man looked down at his daughter sadly, watching her deep, green eyes carefully.

"Yes, she is."

The moon that night was full, and the man felt its light pounding on him, weighing him down. He sat beside his daughter, watching the child learn to play an instrument out on the balcony so the sound could ring. It was a thought that produced a melancholy twinge in his heart — to know that the Emerald Eagle had restored his eyesight with these emerald eyes, and it was because of that he could see his daughter play her violin.

He looked into the sky.

May the stars crown you with emeralds,

and the sea wash upon a herd of sapphire horses.

The man touched one of his eyes absently, wondering if, perhaps, it was made of true emerald. But it was only his imagination; there was not a single shred of real sight, but only what he wished to be true.

May the river and its stars guide you to the heart of your destination.

Follow the path, encrusted with jewels,

A horseshoe of impossible light;

your sight is your creation.

"Emerald Eagle, give me luck. And as when I depart, may the stars return these emeralds to their rightful owner."

The midst of a typhoon, the eye of a storm,

Let the river horses take you to all but the world,

The unreached mountain watches,

As your emerald heart unfurls.

"Protect my daughters and sons, and their children too. I owe my sight to you, Emerald Eagle."

An arctic gust blew over the man, hailing the call of an impending ice storm. The man recalled his daughter inside, taking one last glance at what he hoped was reality.


The child looked at her own face in the mirror. She hated her face, she hated it so, so much. She wished she could tear off her skin like a molded mask and shape a new one. She had long, blue lashes and long, blue hair. She hated it all. Most of all, she hated the ugly red mark that people called the Wolf's Curse — though her father always told her otherwise — and let her terrible sapphire hair fall across her face to obscure the repulsive, blotchy red.

In her arms, she clutched a doll, her precious doll. She would never let go of this doll, even when she grew older. This doll was her guardian, her family, her trust. She would never let it go. This doll was beautiful; she wished to be just like this doll. Unfortunately, she looked nothing like it, except maybe the shape of her eyes and her soft lips and nose. But what she wished for most, she could not have. She could only hold her doll and fall asleep with it tucked to her chest, longing for an impossible appearance.

The doll laid alone on the bed in the daytime, an eternal smile stitched onto its face, accompanying dark button eyes.

Its hair was red.


.x.X.x.


"Welcome to Ishi, land of the turtles." Shiro was hopelessly bored, as was Mariko. She supposed she should've been attentive, but the current heat and endless stretches of sand were too much for her.

"Welcome to Ishi, land of the bubble mermaids," she suggested. They were simply coming up with nonsensical names for their destination, though it quickly grew boring.

"Welcome to Ishi, land of the fish." Shiro petted his dog. "Landlocked fish."

"Welcome to Ishi, land of the snorting chefs."

"Welcome to Ishi, land of the flying lamps."

"Land of the freezing grasshoppers."

"Land of the terrorist cats."

"Land of the dancing priests."

"Land of the angry locusts."

"That actually sounds intimidating," Mariko said, though Shiro only offered a wan smile. They were bored out of their minds, and Tobirama's refusal to talk to them didn't help whatsoever.

Katsurou slept most of the time, practically knocked out by the overbearing heat. Ren, whose energy seemed to be drawn from a bottomless vat of adrenaline, was drained. The redhead slunk along sluggishly, too tired to even fiddle with his sword. It was heavy, after all. Somehow, Tobirama didn't suffer at all from the heat, underneath his weighty armor and fur collar. He simply cast Mariko an annoyed glance when she reached over the edge of the wagon and tugged his sleeve, asking for water.

"It's not for me, it's for Katsurou," she told him.

"Sure," he replied flatly, tone sarcastic, though he still produced a cup of water for her. She was horribly aware of his eyes glued to her back when she tapped on Katsurou's shoulder to wake him up. She gently tilted her brother's chin up, helping him to take a sip of water. Every day, his wound healed up, especially with the help of Natsuki and the other medic, but he was strangely fatigued, more so every day.

"Shiro, help me up, will you?" Katsurou motioned to the boy who scrambled over and hooked one of the prince's arms around his shoulders. The Inuzuka child was surprisingly strong for his age. Though he wasn't quite as big as Danzo or Hiruzen, he could pull his own weight well.

"Lord Prince," said Shiro, "would you like something to eat?"

Mariko smiled. He was exceptionally smart, this boy. Polite and formal when he needed to be, but very capable of playing the jokester.

"I'm fine, thank you. I probably won't be able to keep it down." Katsurou grimaced and looked to the horizon. "We're…how far, now?"

"Two hours," Tobirama informed him, listening in. The Senju was still refused when it came to medical care, even though the two Hyuuga were sufficient. Both of them — Tobirama and Katsurou — seemed to be edgy with one another, and if Katsurou didn't cooperate, neither did Tobirama.

"I don't think I like the desert," said the prince flatly.

"Me neither," murmured his sister, taking a small swig out of the paper cup.

"That's mine," said Katsurou.

"Tobirama." Mariko twisted around in her seat and held out the cup. With a rather pained look, Tobirama clicked his tongue and promptly filled the cup with water. And then, for good measure, he flicked some extra into her face. Mariko scowled before turning back to Katsurou. "Here's some more."

"Thanks," sighed Katsurou, leaning back on a burlap sack of rice.

"Lord Prince," Shiro piped up again, "I could get you a feast of orange juice. It shouldn't upset your stomach that badly."

"Thank you, Shiro, but I think water and crackers will be fine for now."

"We're running out of crackers," Ren called over sardonically.

"Are we, now?"

"Of course we are, whale," Ren drawled, ambling a little closer. Katsurou closed his eyes, chuckling at his brother-in-law.

"Who's the whale, bath boy?"

"I'm sure I just said it was you," snapped Ren, rather put off at being called bath boy, a jab at his Hot Springs origins. "And can't you do any better than that?"

"Only if you give me crackers, hmm?" Katsurou weakly motioned towards another supplies bag, and Shiro quickly dug up a small loaf of bread. Not quite crackers, but something Mariko hoped Katsurou could stomach down all the same.


.x.X.x.


Everything is falling.


.x.X.x.


The moment she awoke, she was lost. It was one of those moments where, upon waking, the glaring sunlight through the window and the disoriented feeling of being somewhere unfamiliar covered her in a hazy fog. It was a warm day, and the sunlight fell through the curtains in such a manner that she could only recall days from the past. Along with this feeling, she pulled up an intense feeling of pain in her shoulder blade. The left side of her body ached, and she half expected Aunt Tari to come into the room and give her pain medication.

Instead, someone knocked on the door.

As the glaring light was dimmed by the curtains she hastily pulled over the window, Mariko realized that the room was not as spacious as she had imagined, and that the walls were, instead of cream, a brownish red. The curtain were not finely embroidered baby blue silk, but instead, plain burgundy to go with the earthy wallpaper.

Whoever was at the door was impatient, and had long since left by the time she got there. Incredibly impatient, to not have waited five extra seconds.

Nonetheless, Mariko peeked out of the room, and then, when curiosity spurred her forward, she began padding groggily out the door. Her left shoulder was still sore, as if she had fallen off the waterfall's cliff yet again. Perhaps she'd dreamed it in a dream last night, and her body remembered it vividly.

Whatever the case, Mariko, with hand on the wall, padded down towards where the kitchen was. That is, only if she was going the right way. Was she? She'd already forgotten. It wasn't a problem; she got lost in the Senju compound often. She knew that if she was near the piano room, then the kitchen was probably the other way. Hopefully, she'd hit the kitchen instead of the other end of the hallway.

A hand snaked around her waist and pulled her into the piano room. She opened her mouth, but his second hand clamped around her face so that she couldn't utter a word. He shushed her, murmuring something about Mito coming to lecture him again, as she had the night before.

"Let go," she hissed when he released the hold on her mouth. Her back was lined along the curve of his chest, and she was terribly conscious of the lean, muscled arm around her body. He was warm, and smelled like soap, his hair slightly damp from a very recent shower. He was clad in a terribly thin shirt, an old white tee that had the sleeves ripped off neatly for summer wear. She could feel the hardness of his toned chest and abdomen right through it, and her if her mind controlled her vocal chords, she would've been screaming at him.

He didn't let go, but rather, spun her around in his arms and studied her, too closely for comfort. A moment of hesitation, where he seemed to be struggling internally, and couldn't decide what to do next. She tried pushing him away, but he had a firm grasp on her shoulders, and was now staring at the blue sash that ran around her morning robe.

"You look like you just got out of bed," he stated.

"I did," she grumbled.

"Are you always this grumpy in the morning?"

"Answer that yourself."

"I think Shorty needs some coffee."

"I don't drink coffee, and don't call me that."

"Fine, Shorty, I'll get you some orange juice. Would you like a kid's size?"

He said this so directly, into her face, that she couldn't really say anything. Mariko wanted to spit a fancifully smart retort at him, but couldn't quite think of one. Instead, she pursed her lips into a frustrated pout, and didn't realize the effect it had on him. At the same time her eyes dropped from his eyes to his nose to his lips, they were already on hers, and she went rigid with conflicting desire and shock.

Her robe slipped off, leaving only a thin, white sleeveless nightshirt, and when he held her close, his hand brushed the old scar. He never spoke of it, but it seemed as if he was curious. After all, as his fingers smoothed over her eagle-shaped scar, he seemed intent on exploring every inch of her.

There was no Toka to walk in on them, this time, because her back was to a closed door, and Mito had long since passed. She had a feeling that Tobirama's skill in the sensory apartment was well aware of who was around and who was not, and if he was kissing her, then he was sure that no one would bust down the door and rip him to pieces.

"Tob—"

He silenced her, despite wanting badly to hear her say his name in a backwards sort of longing.

She was a bit disappointed that Hiruzen would ruin their moment; just a little bit. But then again, she supposed that Tobirama was even more so.

Nonetheless, the pain in her birdlike scar ceased, and she ran out after them into the blinding daylight.


.x.X.x.


When you hit the ground, it's gone.


In celebration of my 100th Microsoft Word page!...of my second Word document.

The first document was, oh, 198 pages. Hehe.

Someone told me if you double that, that's how many novel pages you have, approximately. (-ish)

So, 298 times 2? Wow... wow.

The lolz.

...MARIKO'S ASK PAGE NEEDS LOVE

SUMMER IS COMING

I'LL DRAW

:)