What?! CavAlato updated?! Impossible...

Just kidding. Sorry guys, summer, for some reason, gives me LESS TIME to write than during the year! Strange...

I will most likely be on HIATUS for a while.

So I shall post my status so you'll all just skip over and read the bold.

CURRENT STATUS: ON HIATUS

Sorry guys.

But here's a chapter anyway!

(also, any Avatar: the Last Airbender fans out there? Still on my ATLA rush. You never know, Maiko and Urzai stuff might pop up here...)

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, seeing as Tobirama is hardly getting any panel time, but the mass amounts of OCs (if you would call them that) seem to be mine...no, they ARE mine. Mineeee nomnomnom.


Chapter 17: Crown


.x.X.x.


Slipping down the hallways in silence.


.x.X.x.


The presence of many guests residing in the Emerald Palace — an awe-inspiring castle of glass seemingly from a fairy tale — was reason to explore the grounds late at night.

At least, reason enough for a thirteen-year-old who had the habit of nosily trailing their esteemed guests. It was past her supposed "bedtime", but then again, who was it that actually enforced the rule that she had to be tucked in by 10:30 at night? Mariko had secretly shaken off this curfew more than once, often taking to her windows for brief escape to the pastures. Despite her adamant dislike of heights — she refused to call it a fear, because she was fine by the window as long as it didn't morph into a cliff by some wicked sorcery — Mariko managed to slip down along an inner garden trellis and out to the servants' gates.

But today, she wanted to be inside, not out. Clambering down a thorny patch of vines would not help her much at the moment. There were several people wandering about in the halls; if they were not maids, they were guests, taking a friendly walk-and-talk session as they toured the entirety of the palace. As long as it wasn't one of the family's upper butlers, the ones that tended to drag her back to her room should they find her lurking about, then Mariko would be fine.

She could only hope that there were no butlers.

Or roving siblings. Those were disastrous to run into.

Voices in the hall ushered the little blunette back to her bed, where she curled up within a fortress of pillows. Carefully built so that she was hidden behind a wall of decorative cushions, this fortress easily maintained its shape whenever she ventured outside for the night.

It appeared that Mariko would not be able to take the hallway route so easily tonight. Still, the garden remained a possibility, as long as she snuck back in quietly. Though she was experienced with the outside route, it was a chilly night, and she wasn't too fond of catching a cold. Nonetheless, Mariko shoved her feet into a less worn-out pair of slip-on flats and considered her closet. She had not changed into her nightclothes, sneakily pulling the covers up to her neck when Sumiko came to check on her. Inwardly, she exasperatedly tried to figure out why they had to check on their thirteen-year-old sister. She was thirteen! Old enough to take care of herself, Mariko thought.

A jacket. Mariko wanted to take a jacket, but then realized that she would look oddly out of place wearing a jacket if she reentered the main foyer. She would have to bear the cold temporarily, then.

In that moment, she felt like the vigilante from the story, the one prince who saved the day and married a lovely Whirlpool girl. Then again, there was also the talk of the current society; a cloaked man, uncannily similar to the one from Mito's story, who did anonymous favors for the people everywhere and anywhere. Hero, they called him. The invisible hero. They all wondered what his true identity was, and what his purposes and motivations consisted of. Did he sneak out through the windows like she did?

The window, which she kept well-oiled, slipped open easily. Mariko, perched on a windowsill, stared out into the dark garden. Lit only by a few antique lamps, the shadows pooled around the flowerbeds and bushes. Mariko picked her way onto the trellis, which was so overgrown with vines that a few were creeping near her bedroom windows. Dropping to the ground deftly, Mariko surveyed the path.

Finding nothing — except for the fact that it was cold — she continued on her way, weaving through the mazelike plot to another gate. Pausing, she realized that her footsteps were not her own; the eerie echo behind her was enough to stop her.

She had never been scared of her own home. She doubted she would ever find it to be that way, but at the moment, the skitter of gravel off the path and the silhouette of a person disappearing from the lamplight was terrifying. Mariko whipped around, backing up to the gate and hands gripping the metal bars. Suddenly, she thought it was the cloaked man from the story, slipping quietly through the night.

But it wasn't.

A woman was there, watching her with a bored eye.

"Lady Princess," she said simply, approaching Mariko. Now, had it been another woman, dressed suitably for a court night, Mariko would have relaxed. But this person was hooded, dressed in heavy cloaks and a dark shinobi's mask. Her stride was not hostile, but it was guarded; she had a warrior's walk.

"U-unmask yourself," Mariko attempted to order in a firm voice. She was horrible at it, and sounded like a crying baby goat, stuttering in somewhat of a bleat. Poor little princess, how tiny she looked right then.

"Of course, my Lady. I'd forgotten." And the woman tugged the hood off her head, and she was oddly familiar. Faded strawberry blonde, the hints of Uzumaki blood that once dyed her hair a bright red, and a kunoichi's stance, hands ready to whip out a thousand kunai. But at the same time, she was rather gentle. The sweep of her graying hair into a simple braid and the creases in her lined face from years of smiling, the softness to her hands that hid beneath the calloused palms. "I'm only visiting a distant cousin, is all. My greetings from the little humble town of Amethyst."

"Are you…"

"Risa," supplied the woman, looking as if she wanted to flip her hood back up. For Mariko's sake, she refrained from doing so, and strode purposefully over to the gate. She brushed past the princess and exited through the gate. Mariko recognized her; the medic nin who had healed Sumiko's ankle simply so that the First Princess could dance. The one that Ryouichi had gone through a great deal of trouble for.

"I—"

"Lady Princess," Risa cut off brusquely, "I would recommend that you go quickly."

The woman grabbed Mariko by the arm, seeming relieved that the girl was smart enough to stay quiet — or was just terrified — before pushing her towards the central halls.

"Wait a moment, I—"

The woman disappeared in a flash, and the sound of guards sent Mariko running wordlessly, heartbeat quickening. She reached the central hallway entrance without a problem, but the sight of a figure leaping from the a balcony above and flying to the other side of the courtyard took her breath away.

"West!" shouted a man, the familiar glint of a guard's badge and the length of his sword strapped to his side identifying him as one of the palace's own. He gestured wildly to the western side, where several more guards pursued the flying figure in the night. Mariko could only assume that it was Risa.

"Don't let her get away!" hissed another, like a menacing pursuer from an adventure novel.

Mariko ducked inside without even checking if anyone was passing by, and ran for the nearest wall hanging. The tapestry, as usual, was horribly dusty, but the blunette held her breath and waited. She counted out a minute, only daring to let a sigh of relief pass her lips at the count of sixty.

"Is there a game of hide-and-seek that we're missing out on, hime?"

Mariko froze. No, they couldn't possibly see her behind that tapestry, she was well-hidden behind it.

"Hime, the tapestry hardly covers your toes." The second voice, so sardonic and dry, was obviously Laren. The first, Anya, was docile but attentive. Mariko vaguely wondered why they were not with the Lady Mito, but instead here, observing the wriggling wall hanging with far too nonchalant an interest.

Abashed, the princess stepped out from behind the heavy, woven depiction of a black eagle shedding its feathers to become as blue as the sky behind it.

"Ah, there you are," Anya said. Mariko, as she had before, could not help but marvel at the woman's height. "Come with us. We're about to join Mito for tea."

She was also intrigued by the familiarity with which she addressed the Lady. In the Royal Court of Hurricane, these ladies abided by the formalities of their host nation, but when out of public view, they were completely comfortable with every member of the royal family, as if they, too, were part of it. That did not mean that the maids and butlers were quite happy with that — there were plenty that scowled when an Uzumaki or the other called Ryouichi the simple title of ouji rather than his Royal Highness or Lord Prince, even going as far as to simply call "Ryouichi" with no significant honorifics of any kind. The Crown Prince himself did not mind; in fact, he found it rather endearing that they could be so close to a neighboring ally. Katsurou often voiced if this was some odd misconception of culture, but he, as well as Sumiko, accepted it as it was.

Mariko, too, did not mind. In fact, the Uzu women tended to call her hime simply because she was an adorable little deer, a little girl who liked to wear fancy dresses. Mariko was not sure if this was offending or not, but decided to take it for what it was, because they never called her with any malice. She was, in the end, purely their little girl, everyone's favorite princess. Or, so she liked to think.

"Give me two reasons to believe that that brat from Kiri is a nice man," Laren had been saying.

"Brat?" echoed Anya mildly. "You're hardly his age."

"Nonsense."

"Laren," Anya scolded. "It's obvious you like him."

The shorter woman spluttered incredulously.

"Me? Liking him?" She laughed raucously. "He's, for one, old, and secondly, he's got no eyebrows and the most ridiculous mustache I've ever seen!"

"I once heard that the most charismatic people don't have eyebrows," Mariko interjected.

"That's because he said it," snorted Laren, rolling her eyes.

"And you seem to like these features, no?" pursued Anya, flashing a deliberately slow wink at the blue-haired princess between them. "He's quite charming. A people's person, really."

"Did you just say charming?" Laren threw her hands up, gagging. "I see nothing charming about him at all. He's an idiot, truly."

"Hush, you," replied Anya, rolling her eyes. Mariko glanced between the two women. Both had let their hair fall loose, and they were done up in such similar styles that if it weren't for the difference in hair color and in height, they could have been nearly identical. Mariko suddenly wondered if they were related. She asked. And then realized how silly of a question that was, because they obviously were fellow Uzumaki clanswomen.

"We're first cousins," Laren said. "On my father's side, because my father is the tall one. My mother is as short as I am, though I'm proud to say I'm a half inch taller than her."

"Short is fine," Mariko said.

"I agree." Laren grinned.

Suddenly, both she and her taller counterpart drew their blades, instinctively taking up positions on either side of her. Mariko, startled, was ushered to the wall, far from the windows. One of them was open, the curtains fluttering in the cool night breeze.

"Get back, hime," ordered Anya, striding over to the windowpane and throwing back the drapes. No one was there, but she surveyed the scene anyway. She seemed to have spotted something on the ledge, however, that caught her attention. Running a finger along it, the tall Uzumaki woman frowned.

"Laren. Take hime to Mito," she called over her shoulder. "Now."

The shorter girl, reading the urgency in her partner's voice, grabbed the princess's hand and began running down the hall. Stumbling, Mariko did her best to keep up. The kunoichi set a decent pace, fast, but not so much that Mariko could not follow.

"Hime, we're heading this way."

And then they were flying down the corridor, going so fast that Mariko could hardly believe she was on her feet. The energy — chakra, she thought wondrously — was tangible through their hands, rushing through her body as Laren led her forward. It made her legs float and her feet fly; she was made of air.

They slammed into the central hall breathlessly, Laren automatically locating the Lady Mito within a split second of entering. Several guests looked their way.

"Mi—"

The upper windows broke, the fabulous chandeliers swaying precariously as a cloaked figured descended into the grand corridor. She landed with hardly a sound, paying no attention to the shattering of broken glass all around her. The room went silent, all the guests frightened into wordless shock. The only royal in the room was Sumiko, and she was currently staring in horror at the woman by the window.

Shinobi drew their swords, but they were cut off by the entrance of a second figure, also heavily cloaked.

A second person? Confused, Mariko found herself wading through the stunned people towards her sister.

Within an instant, the second figure — clearly a man, though a slim, agile one — approached the woman, so quickly that he was able to throw back her hood. His own was tied off tightly, obscuring his eyes and leaving most to the imagination. As expected, the woman was Risa.

She had the strangest smile on her face, lips quirked as if she had just heard the most amusing joke.

"Ah," she said, as if recognizing the other figure. "You…"

The man said nothing, only parried the rapid swipe she dealt with her short blade.

"Not bad," she murmured, if only to produce yet another knife and jab it in an underhand stroke from the front. The man nimbly leapt out of the way. He moved as if in some sort of cautious dance, on his toes, lightly. "If only," continued Risa, "we could see your face, yes?"

She made a grab for his hood, but he ducked and deftly sprang onto a table. He was so precise that he vaulted off the stand without ever spilling a single drop of the fruit punch placed there.

"You're that vigilante, aren't you?" she called, drawing the attention to this hooded man. Vigilante. The word was so familiar now, always in the back of the mind. "How bold of you to come here, the royal palace."

Still, the man was silent, even as a few Kiri nin surrounded him.

"I've a reason for visiting," she said loudly, even as an Uzumaki seized her by the arm. Risa never struggled, only watched the cloaked man with a glint in her eyes. "Do you, L—"

An arrow flew through the corridor and landed by her feet, silencing everyone. There was a collective gasp and turn to see the shooter.

"Freeze," drawled Katsurou, rather sardonically. He had not yet lowered his bow, right hand shying towards the quiver strapped to his back. "No pun intended."

"Our Lord from the Frost," said Risa all too cheerily. "How have you been, my dear?"

Katsurou skillfully flicked an arrow into place.

"Oh, Lord Prince, would you actually shoot me? Not when I can tell you who that person is?" Risa nodded towards the cloaked man, who had dodged the trying hands of a few court guards.

"Don't move."

"Oh, but Lord Prince, you want to know who it is, don't you?" Risa smiled, and in that moment, the crazed flash in her eyes sent a shiver down Mariko's spine. She backed into Sumiko, who instantaneously wrapped her arms tightly around her younger sister. "Or," chuckled Risa, "do you already know? Do you know, Lord Prince?"

Her smile crept wide, and her laugh was the most disturbing, witch-like crow. The Uzumaki man who had her by the arm failed to notice the knife slip down her sleeve until she had it at his throat.

"Cousin," she cawed, "Cousin, cousin, would you like to die today?"

"Seal barrier: Chains!" Several Uzumaki pressed their hands to the floor, and a series of golden, chakra-lit chains formed, rising up and locking around Risa. She didn't even try to dodge, only laughed. She laughed and laughed, caring not that the Uzu man slipped out from her grasp, dodging the knife at his throat as he crawled out of the chains surrounding them both.

"You make a mistake, cousins," she cackled. "You don't simply seal one of your own, now do you?"

With a vicious ease, she tore half the chains from her body, her own chakra interrupting that of the redheaded Whirlpool shinobi.

"But," she continued, "see to it that you seal him."

It was then that everyone realized the cloaked man was making a run for the unguarded corridor — everyone had swarmed away from the windows, and Katsurou's entrance and herded the guards towards the guests to help calm the riot.

Katsurou, unsure of where to aim, pulled his arrow taught, pointing at no one in particular.

"He'll be the death of you all!" screeched Risa. "Death!"

All at once, Mito ran full force into the woman, pulling her to the ground, and slamming an insanely powerful binding tag over her. At the same time, an arrow grazed Risa's shoulder, embedding itself near a few of the guests, but still with a wide berth. Katsurou immediately turned around and aimed at the cloaked man, but was not quick enough.

The man in the dark hood cast a glance at them, eyeing each of the royals carefully, before he disappeared into the wall.

He disappeared into the wall.


.x.X.x.


A horseshoe of impossible light;

your sight is your creation.


.x.X.x.


The fact that a group of tribal warriors came at them with spears and flaming torches did not bode well the for the entrance of their group into Ishi. The leader hollered some order in a thick foreign tongue that none of them could really pick up. Immediately, a man to his left ducked away and whipped out a myriad of scrolls, from which he summoned chains and shackles.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Katsurou exclaimed, as the man tossed a chain over the wagon before anyone could stop him. The man looked up, face moist with his dark red tribal paints, and was startled when he made eye contact with Katsurou. Quickly, he looped the chain taught around the belly of the wagon, effectively trapping poor, immobile Prince Katsurou in the middle. "No one's going to help me?" drawled the blue-haired man sarcastically, glaring at the group.

Tobirama leaned an elbow on the side of the wagon.

"Nope."

"What is going on?"

"I'm not very sure, Lord Prince. Why don't you sit tight for now?"

Obviously, the sardonic smirk that graced Tobirama's features was not appreciated by his future brother-in-law.

Ren, on the other hand, had brandished his sword and snuffed a warrior's fire by lobbing the end of his flaming spear off and stomping the flame forcefully into the ground. To Mariko's disbelief, the Hyuuga sort of just milled about as the Inuzuka dogs sniffed at the foreigners. (Technically, they were the foreigners, weren't they?)

And then, to further baffle Mariko and her brother, Hyuuga Natsuki began conversing with the tribe leader in his foreign tongue, which was all tongue rolling and thick, drawn out vowels. The leader, wearing the most elaborate hat she'd ever laid eyes on — a crown made up of a combination of gigantic banana leaves, ferns, and colorful birds' feathers — began to smile, and then turned to address his group.

"Apparently, we know these people?" Tobirama suggested quietly, rather bored with the ongoing negotiations. "Hyuuga."

"Yes, sir," said the Hyuuga, though the man's facial expression obviously conveyed that he believed Tobirama was undeserving of the sir.

"What," Tobirama asked, waving a careless hand at the tribe, "is this?"

"The local tribal clan from Ishi," explained the Hyuuga. "The Hyuuga clan hailed from a place nearby where they dwell, and thus our ancestors were allies."

"That's the most bizarre thing I've heard all day," Ren said snappishly, as per usual. He sheathed his sword and plucked at the leather binding, brow pinched in an eternal sneer. Mariko, on the other hand, only heard the words, sounds and breathes being tossed into meaning. She still marveled at the variety of vocal accents among people from different parts of the mainland. If Hashirama's voice was solid, then Ren's voice was airy. She'd grown accustomed to Konoha's speech, which was clear and simple, but Ren had the funniest tendency to become nasally, as if he was pinching his nose and staring down at them all. Not that she minded it; the northern mainland near the Frost had lovely accents — that is, until you reached Lightning. Mariko recalled a delegate that spoke in such a heavy drawl that she could hardly understand a word, propelling her to escape the pointless meeting she'd been dragged to with Ryouichi.

"And why is that bizarre?" challenged the Hyuuga, clearly mocking the way Ren left the end of the word hanging lightly.

"It's not worth saying, only thinking," Ren sniffed. And knowing Ren, it was going to be some biting remark on how such a refined clan could be related to these dirty tribes. But, in fact, they were hardly dirty at all. Rich with culture, Ryouichi would amend.

"Blueberries," blurted Shiro, as he hopped up beside Katsurou. "I found a patch."

"For me?" Katsurou weakly grabbed hold of a chain, now loosened, and tugged.

"Yep," said Shiro cheerily, cradling a gigantic banana leaf to his chest.

"I would be less surprised if the Inuzuka were related to these folk," Ren continued, stroking his chin contemplatively. Whenever he had that snarky, brooding look, he looked a lot younger, Mariko thought. She attributed it to his smattering of freckles along the bridge of his nose. They made him look like a pouty little boy. A snobby one, too.

"I'll take that as a compliment," grumbled one of the Inuzuka men, absently wiping a smudge of dirt from his clan tattoos.

"So, are they letting us in or not?" cut in Tobirama impatiently.

"And why are they trying to steal this wagon?" called Katsurou tiredly, plucking the last of the heavy locks from the wagon. The man who had thrown those very chains across the wagon came scuttling back, reeling in the metal with astonishing speed.

"I'm starting to wonder how they got such refined metals," grumbled Ren.

"I'm starting to wonder why you're here," returned his new bantering partner, the pale-eyed man with the tied back hair. Ren smirked, rather pleased with this answer.

"No need to wonder, Hyuuga," chuckled Ren, jeering. "Perhaps, before you wonder, you should think."

"I'm thinking plenty," replied the Hyuuga. "You, on the other hand…"

A raised brow and an inquiry to a friendly exchange of verbal blows. Katsurou, who was the usual opponent for irritable Ren, had retired on a sack of burlap, even more exhausted though he had hardly done a thing.

Meanwhile, the one tribe member pulling the chains into his arms glanced up. He was now wearing a wide, rice farmer's hat and a ridiculously heavy cloak for the weather. Mariko noticed that he had a good amount of jewelry on him. Some of it was just polished stones strung together in a traditional, tribe style, while others were precious stones neatly carved and set into earrings and rings. He had a large one that glinted on his left hand.

Seeing her stare at him, the man quickly dodged back to his leader's side.

"A misunderstanding," one of the Hyuuga translated. "They thought we were the recent band of looters that ransacked everywhere they went."

"How could they mistake that for us?" cried Mariko incredulously. They had a man wounded in a wagon, a bumbling, pompous, redheaded foreigner, a team of elite shinobi, and a girl with blue hair who was still trying to figure out why they hadn't sent her home yet. Dangerous, if one was a patch of blueberries.

"Better safe than sorry." Tobirama very subtly glanced over Katsurou, who had fallen asleep — "like a light," according to Shiro when Mariko asked — and grimly assessed what he could see of Katsurou's healing wounds. "Let's go, we're moving. Natsuki — what's the situation?"

"Nice to see you're not bossing us around for once, Tobirama-sama," she sighed, falling back with a hand resting on her belly.

Mariko added another to her list of harmless travelers: A pregnant woman — though she was one that could probably still beat ten men senseless with her bare hands. Okay, maybe not so harmless.

"Well, these people, the Hanya, are actually very welcoming. They just wanted to make sure we weren't out to steal their dragon egg, and that our wagon wasn't full of stolen cargo."

"Dragon egg," echoed Ren, sauntering up on the other side of Natsuki.

"Yes."

"So you mean to tell me these people are…" Ren made a face. "Loopy in the head."

Natsuki burst out into laughter; Mariko could see, by the rather conflicted expression on Ren's face, that he was not sure whether to be flattered (oh sure, he was a comedian) or insulted.

"That, my lord, is a metaphor," she snorted. "Dragon egg is the name for their ancient forbidden jutsu. It's something like an evil possession jutsu that they sealed away long ago."

"That makes a lot of sense," Ren growled, rolling his eyes.

"So, where are we going?" Mariko, who had abandoned her spot by Katsurou's creaky wagon, wiggled her way in between Tobirama and Natsuki. The ever graceful Hyuuga woman nodded courteously to her, before turning to spin a pointed glare at Ren. Mariko's brother-in-law folded his arms and glanced away.

Tobirama, similarly, crossed his arms across his chest and awaited the woman's answer.

"Well, they actually told us we can't go straight in."

"They what?" most of them said in unison.

"What do you mean we can't go in," hissed Ren. "They can't stop us from—"

"Will you just listen?!" snapped Mariko, shooting her own glare at the redhead.

"Shorty, I didn't know you had a temper." She caught a glimpse of a small smirk play on his lips, and elbowed him as hard as she could. Tobirama snorted. "I thought it was all sugar and cream."

"Uzumaki habaneros," someone called over tiredly. "There's something like that in her recipe, Senju."

They all turned to see Katsurou looking rather delirious, waving his right arm in circles, as if he'd eaten something to induce a nauseous state—

"Shiro," called Natsuki. "Let me see what you just gave him."

"Am I in trouble?" asked the boy, frantically scooping up the remnants of the berries in his convenient banana leaf sling.

"No, honey," replied the woman, "it's not your fault. Did you eat any of these?"

"No, they were for the prince."

"Okay, let me—" Natsuki paused, staring wide-eyed at the berries.

"Those aren't poisonous, are they?" Ren asked, paling just a shade.

"No," Natsuki said slowly, "but they're actually medicinal herbs. They're numbing agents that basically…make you feel woozy."

"Woozy," Ren echoed.

"Do you have to repeat everything the woman says?" drawled Tobirama, eyes narrowed. Had Ren been a little boy, he would have stuck his tongue out at the white-haired Senju.

"Yes," affirmed Natsuki. "In a sense. He'll essentially be hallucinating."

"Hallucinating," Ren repeated through gritted teeth. Tobirama rolled his eyes before receiving yet another unnecessary elbow blow from a little blunette princess who still felt like being irritated for no reason.

"Shorty," he hissed under his breath. "Stop."

Elbow.

He caught it before she dug into the gap his armor didn't quite cover, and maneuvered so that she could only hit the blue chest plate.

"Anyway," continued Natsuki, "he'll be fine. In fact, it may dull the pain for him, so let's leave him be." She patted Shiro's head, and the boy sighed, in turn patting his dog's head. Kuro whined and wagged his tail as he trotted along. "They're not letting us into the north because there's a village run by corrupt officials, and they're selling young girls and boys as slaves in the slave trade."

Shiro and Mariko stared at the woman like she'd grown a second head.

Then, face pale and eyes wide, Shiro leapt onto the wagon beside Katsurou — "I swear, there were bananas in my pocket," he mumbled as he ran a hand through his bright blue hair — and hid inside an empty rice sack.

"They're what?" Mariko asked, not minding the fact that Tobirama's hands on her shoulders had instinctively tightened their grip. It wasn't that she felt unsafe, but more along the lines of security, instead. She was almost relieved to know that though she was not a small, defenseless girl — the Second Princess was as flexible as a cat, and even if she could not pack a punch, running and hiding were her weapons, in a way — having Tobirama and her family was more than enough reassurance.

"So," Natsuki went on, "they're leading us along the Ishi-Ame border, where it's safer to travel."

"So we're backtracking," Ren summed up.

"No," Natsuki corrected, "we're making progress. They know who Kakuzu is, and they know all the places that people like him like to hide."

Mariko could almost feel Tobirama smile. It was a sudden chill that ran down her spine. The sudden coldness was not from his fingers, surprisingly comforting on her shoulders, but from the absence of warmth in his expression — a shinobi out for blood.


.x.X.x.


Sometimes, I wonder if I really know who he is.


.x.X.x.


At the mention of Kakuzu, the group had propelled their efforts forward so vigorously that even Katsurou was jolted awake, the two donkeys at the head of his wagon pulling relentlessly. While the animals sometimes stubbornly refused to cooperate, there were times when they also stubbornly refused to stop. A trait that did, in fact, work in their favor this time around.

The tribe leader said something to Natsuki, and she translated:

"Kakuzu and his gang like to crisscross between here, Ame, and Iwa. It seems he's taking a stop up in northern Ame, is their guess, and then going for Iwa."

"He's trying to make a loop back to Waterfall," reasoned Ren. "That's quite the detour, if you ask me."

"They're trying to lead us astray," Tobirama interjected. "They hoped we'd go for the so-called corrupted city of Ishi."

"I think he's smarter than that," Ren said in a low voice, his expression dropping. It was then that Mariko remembered that if there was anyone out for blood, it was Ren. That, and she had to admit he was quite smart at times. Mariko herself just followed along, hoping that she'd understand the tactics of the man on the run.

Or was he really on the run?

"So it's a trap," Natsuki finished.

"No, it's not a trap," corrected Tobirama. "It's the lure to the trap."

"I'm confused," Mariko blurted plainly. The shinobi glanced at her briefly, but other than that, they paid her no mind. The blunette pretended not to take offense when Ren simply continued detailing the plan, the reason of which Mariko still did not quite grasp. She eventually took to pulling bits of grass from the dry ground — the desert had given way to some sort of soft, grassy in between, with sparse stalks shooting up from the gravelly, arid soil up to their knees.

"And then we'll cut him off," Ren was saying. "From there, the team will use—"

Tobirama turned sharply to Mariko.

"Shorty, why don't you get your brother some water?" he asked rather arbitrarily. Nonetheless, Mariko stood and ambled over to a Hyuuga, who then pulled out a large water skin and offered it to her, knowing full well who it was for.

The donkeys were stopped for the moment, as they had taken a short break despite the group's new sense of urgency. Mariko found Katsurou staring off into space, rubbing his eyes from time to time. She tried — unsuccessfully — to ignore the glaring silver of his eyes, a color so starkly different from his usual green that they were hard to look away from.

"Thanks, Mari," said Katsurou, accepting the water skin when she offered. "How's our planning session going?"

"I think I was kicked out," mumbled the princess, hopping up onto the back of the wagon and shoving a half-empty sack out of her way.

"You think?" Katsurou raised a brow.

"Ren was talking, and then Tobirama suddenly told me to get you water." Mariko shrugged, uncomfortably readjusting herself against the burlap sacks.

"He probably didn't want you to hear the plan," Katsurou said bluntly. Mariko frowned at him, and he explained. "Ren probably has something bloody in mind, so he didn't want you to hear that."

"I'm glad the woozy berries have worn off," was all she said, not minding the bemused look he shot her at the phrase.

Katsurou's insight was sharp, and Mariko could not deny that her brother's maturity often trumped her instantaneous mood-dictated decisions. Sighing, she sat by her brother until he nodded off, and upon realizing that this "short break" had turned into a full-out strategy planning session, she slipped off the wagon to stretch her legs.

The afternoon sun bore down on them, and watching the patch of yellow leave an iridescent trail of light whenever she closed her eyes became quite mind-numbing after about thirty minutes. If anything, the sun had hardly moved, and she was roasting beneath the sun. For an islander, she was pale, but Mariko was sure she looked quite golden at the moment, if not sun burnt.

A dryness had crept up into her throat, and a couple of blinks later, she realized that she'd dozed off in her position, leaning against a thin little tree with broad leaves that led into a rather tropical looking forest. The desert was, strangely enough, just a little ways away, but Mariko felt like she was engulfed in a rainforest. But oddly thirsty.

The tribe was nomads was gathering various fruits and nuts, and the one man who'd attempted to chain their wagon — a useless, rather confusing effort — paused to glance at her. He was peculiarly familiar, but then again, Mariko was sure that everyone was familiar. After all, the shinobi world tended to introduce many of the same people back to them at a certain point.

"Do you know where I could get some water?" she asked tiredly.

The man, whose leafy hat was pulled low over his face, nodded curtly and strode away. Mariko sighed, leaned against her tree, and watched him go, inwardly wishing he would go faster. Mentally, she slapped herself for being so stuck up — the picture of a needy princess. Then again, in Hurricane, some serving girl or the other would have scuttled by with a glass of water in a split second; a luxury she had departed from before the summer had begun.

The man came back with the shell of a papaya filled with water. The papaya, which would typically have been soft after carving out its insides, was unripe and stiff, providing an elongated bowl to drink from. Mariko thanked him, and he stepped aside to continue his work.

He was familiar. It was only watching him from the back that Mariko felt as if she'd met this person before.

The heat is making me hallucinate, she thought.

He stood tall, despite his tendency to shade his face from view, and his stride was long and regal. While the other members of the tribe moved with an animalistic grace, an athleticism that was part shinobi and part nature, if Mariko had to describe this man, it was…too formal. Too trained.

Sure, there were a few members of this tribe that were noticeably different. A light-skinned woman whose hair was like straw and spoke with a northern accent and was one of the translators. A group, presumably a family, with hair so red Mariko was tempted to think they were Uzumaki. Two men with skin browned by the sun and wispy silver hair, hailing from most likely Lightning. There were others, but they had olive complexions much like the main tribesmen, so it was difficult to tell who was an "addition" and who was not.

But they walked like shinobi.

How do shinobi "walk"? Mariko, after watching the life of Konoha pass her by each day, had realized that no matter what kind of shinobi it was — a girl from a noble clan or a regular boy trying to pass the Academy and make a living — they walked with strength. A confident stride.

But the man, now picking some bright orange fruit from the trees, he hardly took on the motion of a ninja. He walked like—

"Shorty," snapped an irritated voice, "I've been looking all over for you."

And here was a person even paler than she was, looking like a ghost against the darkening background of the sky. His lips were chapped and he was tired, huffily folding his arms against his chest and glaring at her.

"Sorry," she said simply, venturing to hook an arm around his. Tobirama relented, throwing the man picking fruit a quick glower before stalking away, Mariko trotting along to keep up with him.

"So," Mariko continued, "you were looking for me?"

The Senju bristled; if he were a cat, he would've hissed with his ears flattened against his head angrily.

Someone's in a bad mood, Mariko commented inwardly.

"You don't have to answer, that's okay," she said sulkily.

"I wasn't looking for you," he said darkly, not looking at her, "you were getting lost."

The fact that this comment made no sense at all just deterred Mariko from the conversation, choosing to mimic his silence because it was what he seemed to want. Halfway back to the wagon, he softened, shoulders slumping and a hand dropping to grab hers.

"That's not what I meant, Shorty, and you know it," Tobirama said, upon seeing her rather desolate face. Mariko frowned; she was never good at hiding her facial expressions, relying far too heavily on the traditional white paints to cover any sort of emotion that splayed itself across her features.

Surprisingly, he leaned down and gave her a light peck on the lips before stalking — if there was a shinobi that stalked, it was Tobirama — hastily over to the newly built campfire, where Toka was kneeling. Ren was tracing a figure in the sand, concentrating on the strategy meeting that still had not ended.

"Miss," said a low voice, accompanied by a hand that heavily clamped down on her shoulder. Mariko would have turned and screamed, but the smell of fresh fruit and a dark, wide-brimmed hat indicated the presence of that strange man. "Fresh fruit," he said lowly, nodding as he offered a basket of goods for the shinobi.

"Oh," said Mariko, still trying to brush off her initial shock. "Thank you."

She noticed, for the second time that day, that the man had a ridiculously large cloak on, not to mention that it was black. Didn't they live in the rainforest? In the desert? Wasn't he hot under that? And while many tribe members wore jewelry, most of it handmade, this man wore the strangest jewels and trinkets, many of which just seemed to be gold chains and rings slung onto them.

"Excuse me," she called after him, on a whim. "Where did you get your jewelry?"

If he was at all startled or confused by the question, he didn't show it.

"Family," he grunted, as if unwilling to speak much. At least he was one of the translators, right?

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to intrude," Mariko amended, trying for a different approach. The gems that held his cloak closed were also very polished, finely cut and shining — she couldn't help just know those weren't found randomly in the forest. She didn't quite think that he stole them, either, because he wore them outwardly with no reason to hide. "It's just that they're stunning, and I was curious as to where you got them. Especially the emeralds."

"Far away," croaked the man in a low voice. Mariko wondered if he was all right, given that he was rasping out his answers rather painfully.

"Far away? To the east?"

"Far."

"Many jewels come from the islands, see, and—"

The bands on his fingers and wrists caught her eye, only when he reached up to collect a few more fruits for the tribe. Mariko only saw plain woven wristlets and dulled, tarnished silvers, but the one on his left thumb was bright red and polished — painstakingly taken care of, despite the fact that he held his arm close to his body to keep it concealed.

"—a-and," stuttered Mariko, staring blankly at the ring. She glanced at the man, observing what little of his face she could see. His chin was slightly bearded and though he was hunched over in his cloak, his body was slight and long. He was quite tall, actually.

"Mariko?" called a weak voice. With a start, she realized that it was Katsurou hobbling out from the wagon for what he called a "revitalizing walk". "What are you doing? Is that a basket of fruit? Hey that looks go—"

All of a sudden, the man in the hat swept into a deep bow that neither had seen since they'd last stepped into Hurricane's high court.

"—good?" finished Katsurou, confused.

"My apologies, Lord Prince," said the man, "but it seems that the Lady Princess has found me out, has she not?"

Mariko stared at him incredulously, dragging her focus from his ridiculously Hurricane accent and the identifying ring on his left hand. He pulled off his hat, and the face of Lord Tetsuya — though slightly thinner with more pronounced cheekbones, and of course, a touch of stubble on his chin — revealed itself to them.

"Tetsuya?" Katsurou said, the tone of his voice so comical that Mariko was tempted to laugh. But she didn't. She stared at the man, no longer the gangly boy he used to be, despite growing into a long, slight frame that was so characteristic of him anyway. The noble boys of Hurricane were known for gathering in the royal court every now and then, and it seemed that Katsurou recognized the boy from Garnet instantly, if not by his ring.

"What—What are you doing here?!" exclaimed Mariko, so loudly that the strategists currently arguing by the fire turned sharply.

Tobirama stood and stepped over, looking intimidating with his height and cold eyes.

"Is something wrong?" he asked dryly, looking down at Tetsuya.

"Um—" Mariko opened and closed her mouth, somewhat like a fish. Tobirama was not amused.

"Senju, I introduce you to the Lord Tetsuya of Garnet, one of the largest commercial cities second only to the capital of Hurricane," Katsurou said, his voice practically empty because he was still trying to figure out what in the world a man from their homeland was doing here.

Tobirama raised a brow.

"Tobirama-sama of the Leaf," Tetsuya said, "it is an honor to meet you."

He stood then, but he hardly had any height on Tobirama. To the Senju, this was just a rough-looking boy, attempting to pass as an older man in a cloak and a hat.

"I find that your description hardly paints a picture," Tobirama deadpanned. Simply put, Tobirama could care less for Garnet.

Apparently, Tetsuya took offense to that comment, and he squared his shoulders defiantly. The two blue-haired royals stared, still awestruck, as one of their own stepped up to the shinobi without hesitation.

"I have to admit," Tetsuya said, "I've always been a boastful one." Smirking — an expression Mariko had never before seen on his rather demure court face — as he sized up Tobirama, Lord Tetsuya continued. "I like telling my friends that I was the closest to becoming the next Prince of Hurricane, if only a fire roach had not scurried its way into the capital."

Maliciousness flew off his tongue, boiled out of a conceited sort of jealousy that Mariko, for some reason, understood. Had she been less shy, her propensity for falling victim to her emotions would have borne her an arsenal of devastatingly sharp remarks as well.

Understanding registered on Tobirama's face, even if it was only a corner of his mouth dragging downwards in a displeased frown.

"I've nothing to say for the Fire Daimyo who likes to breed his roaches in peace," Tobirama said, "but to be honest, there is no merit in becoming a prince. At least, not where I'm from."

This left the rest of them to try and figure out what in the world he meant, because Tobirama hardly ever made sense when left to insult.

"I take that as an insult to my Princess," snarled Tetsuya, "and my Prince."

"Whoa, whoa," laughed Katsurou nervously, "I'm not part of this. Hey Tetsuya, I'm married to the mainland too, remember?"

It was as if the young lord heard Katsurou's words in reverse: The mainland is married to me.

"I don't really think they mind," drawled Tobirama flatly, casting an exasperated glance towards Mariko. "I could insult your dear princess all I want, and all she'll do is give me that look." He gestured to the glare that Mariko had summoned to her face, though it didn't give her much leverage in terms of power.

"Are you insulting the Lady?" challenged Tetsuya.

"Are you insulting me?" Tobirama returned caustically. His arms were folded, and the slight clenching of his sleeve under two fingers sent a vicious tremor running through the ground. Katsurou fell back to the wagon, looking nauseous as he gripped the harness of a sleeping donkey, startling it awake in the process.

Tetsuya was unfazed; at least, he pretended to be. Mariko gave him credit for not flinching the moment Tobirama's chakra sent a second shockwave large enough to make heads start turning all the way from the meager camp they'd set up.

"And here I was, taking pleasure in meeting the great Senju Tobirama," sneered Tetsuya. "Should I take that back?"

"You'd better," Tobirama answered, jaw working as he held his temper. Mariko decided, after helping Katsurou to lean more against the wagon in a better position, that going over to Tobirama and hooking her arm around his would be a good idea. Tetsuya's face was conflicted for a moment, before he huffily grabbed his discarded hat.

"Lord Tetsuya," she said softly, "why are you here?"

"I am under the orders of the Aokami family's head, King Ryouichi of Hurricane."

Mariko's hands dropped from Tobirama's forearm, and Katsurou's head snapped up, silver eyes wide in disbelief.

"Who?" the blue-haired princess whispered, backing away until she felt one of the donkeys amicably nudge her with its nose. Mariko grabbed onto its halter, for fear of falling if she didn't hold onto something. Tobirama was instantly at her side, a steady hand on her elbow and the other around her waist.

"You heard me," Tetsuya said.

"No, no we didn't," Katsurou said, strength bubbling up inside him from out the blue. He promptly marched over to Tetsuya and grabbed him by the collar, hoisting the shorter figure up by a good foot and slamming him against a tree. "And you're going to repeat it."

"No offense, my Prince, but the mainland has turned you into a ruffian," scoffed Tetsuya. The level of insult was baffling, especially from a boy they knew to be polite and proper.

"I dare you to repeat that," hissed the Second Prince. Or...was that even his title anymore?

"I am loyal only to Hurricane, sir," Tetsuya claimed haughtily.

"You—" Katsurou began.

"And the orders of King Ryouichi are final," Tetsuya finished, the leer on his face so wide that he looked like some demon in the night. Katsurou dropped him, frowning at the garnet ring that Tetsuya busied himself with, readjusting the gem aimlessly. He straightened his collar and slipped away wordlessly.

Katsurou turned to his sister. She walked up to him, slightly dazed, pulling away from Tobirama.

"Mari," Katsurou whispered.

"No," was all she could muster, because her mind was screaming no, no, no over and over again. If not no, then too soon, too soon, too soon.

"Mariko," he said more insistently this time. She listened, silently, lips dry and fingers growing numb.

"Do you believe it?" she asked breathlessly, weak at the knees.

"It's my fault again, isn't it?" Katsurou said miserably, breaking away from the loose grip she had on his arms. "Just like Mom."

"It's not!" Mariko shouted at him, loud enough that several turned.

Katsurou, in attempt to be his old, funny self, turned and pulled the corner of his eye, sticking his tongue out. All Mariko saw was the silver of his iris, mocking as it reflected the moonlight off its slate-grey flecks of color eating up the green.

"I supposed he was—"

"Shut up, Katsurou," Mariko snapped, a hiding viciousness lashing out. "Don't say anything."

"Whatever you say, Princess."


.x.X.x.


Dear Momma.


.x.X.x.


There were days when the ship would rock so intensely that she wished she could leap off the deck and swim home. But in which direction? Towards the mainland, where her brother and sister were?

Or towards Hurricane, where she had a brother who was only the afterimage of their father?

He's different, she insisted to herself.

But at the same time, he's not.


.x.X.x.


The infamous white letter message, I thought to myself numbly. It doesn't help that it's a Hurricane seal on the top, because that just means someone's dead.

And, because my sister and that dumb brother of mine are traipsing off into the Sand Village looking for some monster of a man they'll probably never find, I have to open the letter. Oh how joyously I shall look forward to it! Not.

It's bad enough sitting, for the most part, in the hospital. Mito is kind enough; she always has been. My throat is by far the ugliest thing I've seen in the Shinobi Nations, and I miss Ren terribly. Not only that, but there is a horrendous scar that runs down my collarbone and all the way to my last rib. Its hard and bumpy, the skin, and it terrifies me just to look at it.

Ah, the letter.

Someone's dead, and it's a fact I've been avoiding for the last thirty minutes as it sits next to me, unopened. It's a pretty ribbon, tied so perfectly that I know no one has taken a peek. The Lady Mito is not so insensitive as that, and certainly the Hokage knows his place. This is no ordinary message, after all.

I supposed I shall open it.

Maybe I'll see that it's actually a letter about me, announcing my own death. Wouldn't that make sense? No, just kidding, these medicines are just making me delirious.

I swear, if this letter gives me a paper cut, the hospital staff will feel my wrath, even if it isn't their fault.


.x.X.x.


She faded in and out of consciousness, wondering who it was that carried her away from the waterfall, and who it was that sobbed pitifully for her as some hospital doctor took her.


.x.X.x.


He's never really been there for us, but he's always been there. It was like he saw it coming, the way he trained Ryouichi for the past — how many, now? — more than fourteen years, it seems.

My father is dead, and my brother is king.

I suppose that makes Katsurou the Crown Prince, since Ryou doesn't have a family.

And I am the first to know.

You know, I think the hospital staff will feel my wrath, regardless of whether or not this accursed letter cuts me. One way or the other, I am angry and I am sad. There, I said it.

Mito better hope that she accidentally gave me too many special chakra pill and herbal drink blends, and the wrong ones, too, because I am certainly unwilling to reread this letter and affirm its existence.


.x.X.x.


One day, he would sit on that throne like he belonged there.

But for now, beside his baby sister, he was twelve years old and the best older brother she could wish for.


.x.X.x.


Dear Father,

Words can paint a picture, but what happens when no picture appears?


Late warning: includes mass amounts of "flashbackcharacters no jutsu!"

As in:

Does anyone even REMEMBER Risa?

I mean. Seriously.

(I actually have two Risa OCs now... one from KHR, lol)

Also: does anyone recognize the scenes that are briefly but pointedly alluded to near the end?

in any case

HOPE TO SEE YOU SOON

HAVE A GOOD SUMMER

I will return...

(hopefully soon-ish?)