Actions

Work Header

How Strange, Innocence

Chapter Text

Chapter One:
First Breath After Coma

 


 

The day was ending, darkening the skies. Streetlamps and car headlights provided the only useful light. If it wasn’t enough that I worked for a factory where even in the administration workers started before the sun rose and finished after it set, it was also raining today. The windshield wipers of my old car beat back and forth as fast as they could to try and keep the rain from blocking my view. A podcast played over the speakers of my car, providing a replay of a news segment which I missed every day while I was in the office. I listened idly, trying to take note of what they were talking about. Why I lived as far from my work as I did, I wasn’t sure, but it required something besides just music to keep my mind engaged so that I didn’t start to drift on the long drive. After one too many close calls where I found myself dozing off while driving, I had to figure out a way to keep myself alert. Podcasts seemed to do the trick.

Two sedans sped past in the next lane going far too fast in the heavy rain. They could have been racing one another, I wasn’t really sure. To be honest, most of the traffic was going too fast for how heavy the rain was. The Interstate was notorious for jamming, and they would be hard-pressed to stop fast enough if we came up on one.  An eighteen-wheeler rig in front of me was going slower than the rest of traffic, so I tabbed the blinker on my car, getting ready to pass.

The rig twisted to the side, jackknifing so that the cab was faced the wrong way as it forced to the side by the momentum of the trailer. It slid off to the side of the road. I panicked and stomped my foot down on the brake of the car, watching in front of me as what the rig was trying to avoid came into view.

A glowing black and yellow sphere, at least twenty feet tall, cast its own bright yellow light across the highway. The sphere was yellow on the outside, with tendrils twisting like a spiral in the darkness of the center, devoid of color.

The bald tires of my car failed to grip well on the asphalt, hydroplaning my car closer and closer to the sphere. I watched in horror not able to control my body as I overcorrected the steering in terror trying to avoid it. The old sedan swerved to the side and my car stopped sideways in the lane, just feet away from the sphere. I had only a moment of relief before movement to my right side caught my eye and a car which had been behind me slammed into the right side of my car. I didn’t even have time to scream as my body jerked violently – seatbelt locked, holding me in place – from the momentum as my car was propelled the last few feet, pushing my car drivers’ side first into the sphere. The last thing I saw was blinding yellow light consuming me from the left.

 


 

Unknown Date, Unknown Time
Unknown Location

 


 

‘What is going on?’

No other thought flew through my mind. Cold air buffeted me, howling in the black darkness of night. I was on a ledge, maybe six feet across, and beyond it was an inky darkness.

‘How did I get here?’

Nothing.

Blank.

Nothing was coming to mind. What had I been doing before this? No. it's not possible. A sinking feeling started to crawl up from the pit of my stomach threatening to choke me. I can't remember anything. What’s my name? How did I get here? Where is here?

My neck hurt, the muscles sore and locked into place. My chest burned with pain when I breathed in and out.

My vision started pulsing with little black dots as I leaned forward onto my knees and started hyperventilating. A few moments later my stomach roiled, and I leaned forward and vomited.

I looked over the side of my little ledge, glanced, really. The wind clawed at me and made my eyes dry and start to water. As my eyes adjusted, the pitch blackness of night turned slightly, and I started to discern light. There was a city below me sparkling and shimmering with thousands of little lights, each one blurring together with the tears filling my rapidly drying out eyes. My head felt light and packed full of fluff. I was scared to move an inch; the ledge was so small. I screamed for help but the wind caught my words and threw them away. I screamed again and again. No one came. No one responded.

I felt the world tilt as my vision bled fully into black, the shimmering twinkling lights of the city below disappearing.


It was still dark when I woke up.  My eyes were sealed shut and it took a few moments to them open. My eyelashes brushed uncomfortably against rough fabric. I was slowly beginning to realize, panic rising in my stomach, that I was sitting in a chair with my hands tied behind my back, wrists and fingers numb, and a blindfold covering my face. The thick rough feeling in my mouth wasn’t a severe hangover, it was a gag.

I moved my head slightly, regretting it almost instantly as I felt the soreness in the muscles. I groaned at the feeling.

From behind me, I heard a deep rough male voice. I couldn't understand what he said.

Footsteps sounded as they circled around in front of me. The gag was roughly yanked out, dragging against my teeth and leaving a bad taste of rotten eggs.

I cracked my chapped lips. "Water, please," I moaned out softly.

My cheek stung and my head snapped to the side. They, whoever they were, had slapped me. I felt nauseous and I could feel the blood rushing through my temples and my smarting cheek.

Several voices spoke around me, one shouting. I cringed into the seat. A more menacing deep voice started talking and saying what sounded like questions.

Then repeated again. "Anata deska?" A large hand roughly grabbed my chin. "Anata deska?" It repeated louder this time.

I started crying. "I'm sorry," I whimpered. "I don't understand you."

"Anata deska?" Louder again, bordering on a shout.

"Please, I don't understand you," I pleaded. That just earned me another blow to the face and a punch to the stomach. The air rushed out of my lungs and I doubled forward as far as my bound arms would let me, unable to breathe.

"Anata deska?" Was repeated once again, a shout this time, and accompanied by someone kicking over the chair I was in. A lot of other words were repeated but I only recognized those two as they were the most repeated.

I was crying; I didn't care. I kept begging them to let me go and they kept screaming at me in that foreign language of theirs. At times they would hit me, kick me, I wasn't sure. A knife was held to my neck. I felt the razor sharp edge slice into my bare skin in a long thin line as whoever held it questioned me again. My wrist snapped as they hauled me back up into a sitting position but it only joined the rest of the hurt I was feeling. Blood pounded in my ears. I couldn't think.

Sometimes when they asked a question it would be delivered in a soft tone of voice, like they were merely asking about the time of day, or if I would prefer spaghetti or pizza for lunch. Sometimes they would scream at me like they were about to put a bullet in my head. Every question was accompanied by a blow.

Always.

I almost broke in that place. I still wonder how I didn't. Maybe I did. I’m really not sure of much anymore.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 2:

Catastrophe and the Cure

 



 

Sometimes I was so messed up and didn't have a clue. I ain't winning anyone over—I wear it just for you—I've got your name written here in a rose tattoo. In a rose tattoo, in a rose tattoo, I've got your name written here, in a rose tattoo.


It was actually rather amazing how that blindfold hadn't shifted, hadn't moved once in this whole ordeal. Even after every time they'd hit me in the face, knocked my chair over, punched me, that blindfold stayed on.

I assessed what I could. Something wet trickled down my cheek from a stinging diagonal area. Most likely a gash on my head. One of my shoulders felt dislocated and the other broken at the upper arm and the wrist along with several fingers. I kept cataloging the various injuries of nicks and bruises all over me. After a while the pain blurred together and what I could only assume was shock descended over it all, weighing it down like a heavy blanket so that I could barely think.

A door creaked open behind me, maybe twenty feet away, and heavy booted feet came through. Three people, maybe four. This wasn’t something I was good at discerning. Two stopped a good ways behind me while a third walked closer and came to rest in front of my little chair.

I braced myself for the first blow cringing away. Tears ran down my face again, and I was ashamed that I was crying before we had even started.

The blow never came.

A large hand gently came to rest on the crown of my head. This was a psyche game, I knew it. After all the blows there was no wa—

Oh, God, the pain.

What I can only explain as a spike of energy split through my forehead driving into the center of my brain.

Oh, but it hurt!

Underneath the pain something moved. A pressure, like something or someone was in there with me. Blonde and a glimpse of a face that I wasn’t seeing with my eyes flashed through.

My surroundings became white as far as I could see, even the sky above me and I was no longer tied to a chair, instead laying on the ground. Relief flooded through me. I couldn’t feel the pain anymore. I rolled over and pushed myself to my feet, looking around me for any structures or objects. 

I jumped and turned when I heard a noise behind me only to see a man standing right behind me. He was taller than me by at least a foot. The top of my head only just reached his shoulder. He had pulled back blonde hair, and his cold blue eyes narrowed on me only made me even more afraid.

I started to run and had only begun to move to take my first step when closed the space between us and grabbed my arm. He threw me to the ground and pinned me there. Funnily, the impact didn’t hurt. I struggled as much as I could, but he didn’t move an inch. The blonde man placed his hand the top of my head and around us images started moving. They flashed and split, breaking up. I wasn't controlling them, but some seemed familiar, but I didn’t recognize them. I tried to make them stop but I had no control. They had no similarity except that they were convoluted, sound was broken up, vision split with white spots in random places, glitching and corrupted like computer data after a virus had swept through and destroyed everything it could but there were fragments remaining. An image would glitch and fail only to have another one immediately called up. People, places, explosions, animals, a field, a classroom, a blue sky, a man’s face, they were all random.

I had to get away from the blond man to make it stop. If I stopped the man, the images would stop. I couldn't, though. I was pinned to the ground and was going nowhere. I had to make it stop. I had to.

"Get out," I whimpered, "get out."

He wouldn't move and every time I spoke, he glared and tightened his grip painfully, a knee driving into the center of my back. Images flashed by even faster, broken sounds of speech. I begged and pleaded for him to stop, tears running from my eyes.

Before I knew it I was crying, "Get out!" over and over trying in vain to free myself until everything went black.

 



 

 

I woke up again. I immediately wanted to go back to sleep, to pretend that this was all a bad dream.

This time I wasn't blindfolded. I was in another white room, lying on a cot of some kind, rather like a futon, and my left arm was bound in a sling. The room I was in looked like a padded cell. The walls were blinding white while the floor was a black and white checkboard pattern. There was a door but it had no handle. A camera in the corner watched the entire room and a speaker rested next to the camera.

My head pounded with the worst headache in my life; someone was sitting up there with a hammer just pounding away and to top it all off my stomach was sloshing around. My stomach flipped and I spotted a trashcan by the door and immediately lurched in its direction. Not two seconds later I was vomiting into it over and over. I almost didn't make it in time. After puking my guts out completely until I was vomiting a rancid yellow-green fluid and then dry heaving I collapsed on the tile floor.

Several minutes later I shifted and realized that along with everything else that was injured, my rubs were bruised if not broken. Wherever I was, I was fucked.

The door opened and slammed into my shoulder.

I let out a moan in pain. I hurt all over and now my shoulder was added to it. The cold floor was actually kind of comfortable. Soothing, really. Like an icepack. I was already cold, but it helped with the pain.

Some guy stepped through the gap, jamming the door even farther into my shoulder in the process. I groaned again.

He started saying something when he stepped in. I got a good look at his shoes. Some big open toed boots, like a pair of combat boots fucked a pair of sandals and this was the result. He could have used a pedicure, too with those nasty toenails. He picked me up with his huge hands. I didn't offer much resistance as he draped one of my arms over his shoulder and half-carried, half-dragged me out of the room. The hallway he took me through had several turns and staircases. I didn't try to remember any of them.

God, I could have used some painkillers right then.

Eventually we came into a large room with a beautiful picture window that wrapped around an entire side of it and had a huge wooden desk with a middle-aged man sitting behind it. While not old, his face was lined and had the beginnings of sunspots on his tanned face.

The guy set me down in a chair in front of the desk. I looked up at his face for the first time and was greeted with a blank looking cat mask made of porcelain painted with a few utilitarian red lines and a smile that creeped the hell out of me. If I hadn't already been in pain, exhausted beyond belief and mind so tired that I could barely think, I would have been very weirded out and having an Alice in Wonderland moment.

Hell, I was having an Alice in Wonderland moment even though I wasn't one hundred percent sure who Alice was.

The door to the office opened again and a tall blond-haired man wearing a pig mask that smiled just as creepily as the cat masked man entered. This one was wearing proper combat boots, not that hideous sandal monstrosity the other had on.

Pumba, my mind supplied. I'm not sure where from.

Something about him was familiar but I couldn't quite place just what it was. He walked in and exchanged a few words with the man behind the desk before standing stiffly in front of me with his arms crossed for a moment, considering me before he moved.

His hands and fingers moved, weaving with each other and forming strange signs and for a moment I was confused. Then, he put his hand on my forehead. Not a second later an energy spike split my head and I wanted to vomit again. Sounds and symbols flashed and I found that I was recognizing them, associating them with different things. How, I don't know. I groaned, holding my head in my hands, folding my body over.

Finally, the sensations ceased and I sat up in my seat and tried to blink away the black spots that were appearing all over my vision.

The man at the desk in front of me said something, I didn't understand exactly what. He repeated his words and I lifted my head.

"For the last time, I don't understand you!" I whispered vehemently. I felt on the verge of tears from the pure frustration and helplessness.  I looked up at him with a tired look and he steadily returned my gaze. I looked away quickly, he practically exuded power and authority. I didn't want to get crushed. I felt like a bug waiting to be squished in his presence. I flinched and ducked my head when the pig masked man put his hand on my shoulder, a chill running down my back.

A rustle of papers caught my attention and a sheaf of papers was pushed in front of me. The writing was all groupings of graceful symbols but somehow, they made sense, like they almost shifted into words that made sense in my mind but stayed the same on the paper. The Village Hidden in the Leaves, it was in my head, but on the paper said Leaves-Hidden of Village. There were more words than that but I didn't read further. I just stared at those three symbols.

I guess my reaction meant something because the two men started talking above my head.

I brushed a finger over the symbols lightly, as if they would crumble away any moment. There was so much that I didn't understand. How I got here, who I was, where I was from, why I was being hurt.

I blinked back moisture from my eyes and looked down at my lap again. I had never wanted to cry more in my life, but I felt that it would be ill-received by these men. I held back the tears. Barely.

The two men talked in rapid words that flew completely over my head. I was done trying to understand what in the world was going on. They spoke for several minutes though by the tone of it the unmasked man was giving all the orders. I offered no resistance when the pig masked man tugged on my arm not in the sling in an obvious command to come with him and did my best to limp out of the office. Almost all the way out of the office the pig masked man, tired of my slow progress, muttered something and slung my good arm over his shoulder. I hissed in pain when his shoulder made hard contact with my bruised (broken?) ribs. Once out of the office I was unceremoniously dumped into a chair in a waiting area. Immediately the blond man walked away and back into the office we had just come from.

The waiting room was a tasteful cream color, a desk at one end by the door where an attractive black-haired woman sat filing and sorting papers. Several chairs sat along the wall and there was a small low table with chairs around it off to the side. Besides the black-haired woman and I, the room was empty and except for the rustle of papers coming from the receptionist's desk there was no sound. I don't know how long I was sitting there but my vision was getting hazy after a while of sitting there.

Just as I was about to fall asleep the door to the office opened and the blond man walked out. From somewhere, I didn't catch where, the cat-masked guy who escorted me from my cell to here appeared. The two men faced each other but they didn't say anything, communicating non-verball. After a moment, the blond man left and the cat masked guy come over to where I was seated and indicated for me to get up. Once I had pulled myself into a standing position he slung my arm over his shoulder and I winced at the pain again. He helped/dragged me back to my cell.

 



 

 

Calming chakra. That's what the medics who inspected the girl said.

Could be a bloodline. Could be something else. The ANBU on duty reported that even standing outside the girls cell while she was unconscious made them relax a bit, although while she was under interrogation or duress the effect was not present.

Hawk had observed the girl for the last few days since the ANBU guards had realized the calming effect they were experiencing was from their newest 'guest'. So far, she seemed..

Inconsequential.

Her appearance was explained only by a badly botched summoning seal created by a Hidden Stone chūnin team. The intruders were quickly located a few hours after a chakra spike caused by the activation of the seal announced her presence. They Hidden Stone team was currently being tended to by Yamanaka Inomaru and his young apprentice, one of the Morino clan.

Honestly, the girl had caused quite the stir with the Linguistics division of the Cultural Liaison department when it was discovered that she didn't speak Fire Dialect. In fact, the Linguistics experts were divided between whether or not the girl was speaking a language from a country from far to the East across the ocean or if she was speaking a dead language. A smaller faction within ANBU believed that she spoke gibberish, plain and simple.

It had taken one of the Yamanaka interrogators several hours rooting around in her head to gain a basic grasp of the language that she spoke and to determine that there was hardly a single stable memory that could be accessed before metaphorically tossing the interrogator out.

The girl had retrograde amnesia caused by trauma which made it near-impossible to get any information.

Amnesia caused by repression, a Yamanaka interrogator had informed him, could be blasted through by the interrogators' mind techniques and read like an open book, but it had the annoying side effect of ripping apart other parts of a prisoner's mind. Amnesia caused by trauma, however, made memories completely unstable because the cells in which the memories were stored were injured or in the process of being repaired. It explained a lot about why it was so easy to get access to memories in the heads of captured enemy shinobi. It was one of the reasons many enemy shinobi would commit suicide rather than be dragged back to Hidden Leaves during wartime.

A mind technique used by the Yamanaka would hopefully give the girl knowledge of how to speak Fire Dialect, but the technique was still in the experimental stages and mind techniques were tricky at best. It could grant the girl the ability to speak Fire Dialect, it could give her a working knowledge of writing, it could theoretically mess up the language part of her brain, or it could do nothing. Time would tell but the couple of times that she had interacted with her guards since being taken to the Hokage's office she hadn't made any indication that she understood what was being said to her.

They would have to wait and see if the language barrier had been breached by the Yamanaka technique before they could question her further.

At any rate, the girl would have to prove herself useful in some regard—civil or military—or she would likely be executed if proven to be a threat of any kind. The Hidden Leaf Village couldn't afford to take in anyone and everyone who showed up at its gates. The war was just finished and there was rebuilding to be done.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 3:

Stable Song


Ring like silver, ring like gold. Ring out those ghosts on the Ohio. Ring like clear day wedding bells. Were we the belly of the beast or the sword that fell…we'll never tell…


"Calming chakra, you say."

"Yes, ma'am."

"How did the medics describe this phenomenon?"

"Extremely smooth flowing chakra, ma'am. Similar to water, in their words, flowing smooth enough that it would emit a very calming effect that acts in a soothing manner, not unlike that of nature chakra or even the effect that a fetus feels from the chakra of its mother while in the womb. According to the medics the two are similar." The ANBU agent trailed off as if he did not really understand the explanation that was given to him. While unusual chakra natures cropped up from time to time no one really knew what caused the deviation from the norm except for those who studied chakra extensively, and many times even those experts did not have all the answers or could not answer in a way that anyone else could understand what they were talking about.

The woman leaned back in her chair and glanced out of the corner of her eyes at her fellow councilors. Their faces were all heavily lined from years of stress with the exception of Koharu who had aged as gracefully as a kunoichi of her prowess could. To a civilian, the age of forty-one was not considered old, or aged. To an active shinobi, living to their mid-thirties was a huge accomplishment, forties was rare. Most of those who lived that long rarely saw active duty, something that could not be said for Koharu.

Utatane Koharu knew that she was the most compassionate one of the three council members gathered, and the one most likely to seek what other options they could besides execution. Her teammate, Mitokado Homura would be the one to weigh the potential assets and liabilities of the situation before making a decision one way or the other, he balanced out Koharu's passionate tendencies with his even temper and calculating nature; even in their youth he had been the one that was never ruffled no matter the situation. Shimura Danzo, on the other hand, would be the one to lean toward eliminating a potential threat as soon as it was found. Danzo never was one for letting a situation play out and see what would happen, preferring to strike from the shadows before something could turn into a threat. Though it had saved them before, this hasty thinking had cost them allies and assets over the years despite how well-intentioned or well-structured his plans were.

Though Danzo was not on Koharu and Homura's official team which included the current Hokage, Sarutobi Hiruzen, they had all made up an extremely well-balanced team that could overcome most anything that was thrown at them; each balancing the other out. Which was another reason the three of them made up the Hokage's Council, they all thought about problems in different ways and because they had known one another for years they could be frank with each other without fear of offending. Danzo would always urge the Hokage to war, while Koharu would demand action of some kind, and Homura would always analyze the situation before giving his advice, and the Hokage would always look for the decision that would be the most beneficial in the long term for the Hidden Leaf. Between the four of them they had prevented the next Great Shinobi War many times over. A village's leader needed a support system that could take some of the weight of responsibility off of him otherwise he would drown under minutia that came with the paperwork combined with the tough decisions.

Contrary to popular belief, the three did not sit up in the Hokage tower thinking up all the ways they could advise the Hokage to be more aggressive toward the Hidden Leaf's enemies. Much of their time was wrapped up dealing in the politics so that the Hokage could be free to make the decisions that he had to and gathering intelligence. Though their bodies weren't as young as they used to be their minds were as sharp as ever. They knew the repercussions of any actions that might be taken and acted accordingly.

No, despite what the younger generation wanted to believe, the three of them were a product of the times in which they had grown up and lived—breathtaking violence and years upon years of bloody war—and were appropriately paranoid about the world and their enemies. You could be damned sure that every other hidden village had councilors just like them advising their respective Kage. The current Hokage, Sarutobi Hiruzen, was an idealist at heart and had adjusted to the long years of peace that had separated the First Great War from the Second better than his teammates had.

Oh, how Koharu longed for the days when she could move as only a kunoichi could and was still in her prime. Though dangers of those days were more numerous than the present she and her teammates did not have to rely on others to do what needed to be done.

While they were prepared to sacrifice for the village, they were also reluctant to let a possible asset out of their grasp. After several weeks of observation by ANBU, the calming effect exuded by the civilian woman who had been dubbed Yamada Hanako by her guards was found to create a relaxed feeling in those around the woman. The effect was described to be similar to the feeling of home and warmth, comfort, even. After a few hours of discussion with the current ANBU captain assigned to Torture and Interrogation the trio had come up with the idea of keeping the woman somewhere, whether with the hospital (unlikely according to Koharu, she'd only be in the way), near the ANBU barracks (unlikely according to the ANBU captain because of the constant distractions she would pose), or kept hidden within the ANBU headquarters in order to utilize this calming effect. ANBU operatives were wound up tight by the stress of their missions, and it was imperative to their health—mental and physical—that they be allowed to de-compress in some way. Some took up hobbies, some gambled, others lost themselves in drink.

After a while the idea was proposed by Homura to allow citizenship to the woman and have her housed somewhere within the shinobi districts and assign ANBU agents that were beginning to be affected by the more demanding missions to guard her. Officially, the woman would have ANBU guarding her so that they could keep an eye on here and watch for either suspicious behavior or any effect besides her unusual chakra nature. Unofficially the woman would be a tool to help with the mental health of ANBU agents and help give them a place besides ANBU headquarters that they could relax.

The masked captain brought up the possibility of agents seeking out the woman's company even when not assigned to guard duty and suggested that it might be prudent to make the safe-house a larger location than a simple-person apartment. To everyone's surprise, maybe even Danzo's himself, Danzo declared that if they were going to create a safe atmosphere so that their more paranoid agents could relax and not end up snapping from constant stress, then why forbid agents not on missions from seeking that out if they felt that they needed that calming presence? Besides, he added, it was possible that the woman's chakra nature would be passed on to any children that she would have, so it would make sense to encourage her to willingly establish herself within the village. And if, however it might or might not happen, that the father any potential children were a shinobi, then the child would be an asset either by joining the shinobi forces or by providing the same effect as the mother.

Koharu was surprised by Danzo's thinking; he rarely thought that far ahead on matters such as this. Maybe the birth of his first grandchild was causing him to consider more the future generations of the village than the current dilemmas it faced in day-to-day matters. Though the thought that a child would be a result of what they were going to do was a darker one, it was prudent and realistic to plan for it. Koharu knew exactly how higher level shinobi coped with stress. Although at least Danzo hadn't suggested a breeder route. Some villages contained departments that dealt with the—cultivation of bloodlines. Such a thought disgusted Koharu and left her with a dirty feeling. She would avoid that for the Hidden Leaf at all costs. Some things weren't worth the methods they took to get there, even for shinobi.

Then again, Danzo could be up to something. The members of the council and Hokage were in a constant struggle against one another; after all these years of knowing one another it was difficult for them to one-up each other and they would usually take the opportunity to rub anything in their peers' faces. They did the same thing when they were Genin, Chuunin, and Jounin, but their machinations didn't have as far-reaching effects as they did now.

God, Koharu missed the old days.

The days when she did not have to virtually sentence a woman to having a child because that was the only avenue she had to making sure another soul was not executed by the Hidden Leaf. The war had already taken enough to satisfy any blood-lust she might have held. Her village might have the reputation of being the 'good guy' of the shinobi world but that reputation was a façade every village tried to maintain that hid the things they did that left a sour taste in Koharu's mouth.

No matter.

After all these years that taste was all Koharu knew.


Things are weird now. Ever since I went into the office with the old man and the pig-masked man—Pumba— I could understand things. For whatever reason, I can now understand writing. Well, sorta. The symbols I'm reading—kanji, the bird-masked guy called them when he pointed to the words on the page—make sense. It's not like they rearrange themselves and turn into English on the page, but I can understand them. Like in the way one reads another language they're fluent in and understands what the words mean. I can't understand a word of what these guys are still saying. And the symbols themselves, well they're not a phonetical system.

I communicate with the guards, because that's what they really are to me, by writing back and forth. It's very strange and disorienting for me to think of what I want to say in English and then just knowing what shapes and lines to create to describe what I want to say in another freaking language. When I try to go through the process slowly in my mind, much like a musician practicing a single measure rather than an entire phrase, I get a slight headache. I still have that original piece of paper with me—the one that says 'Leaves Hidden of Village'. Or rather, after I mentally decipher it and try to think of it in a working way, 'Village Hidden in the Leaves.'

They gave me a small leather-bound journal. Just as "screw you" to them, I've been writing solely in English, rather than their language. A few things are coming back to me. I can remember why I want to call that guy Pumba, it has to do with a story about lions and a monarchy. There's a meerkat and a warthog involved, the warthog's name is Pumba. Pig equals Pumba. Other than that, I've just been writing down what's going on, writing down what's happened to me over the past few days. Also, I'm about seventy-five percent sure these guys are speaking Japanese, from what I can remember. Random snippets are coming back to me now: my name's Elizabeth, I prefer Elle, I was in college... No, I graduated. I was working before I got here—wherever here is—and I was pretty into working out. I remember that I was a business major, worked in accounting, but not much else. My family was large, but I can't remember if the blurry faces are siblings or cousins. Just small details, but the details that make, well, me.

Oh, the bird guy is back. I really need to decide on a name for him. Bird Guy is so—impersonal.


The ANBU operative watched Yamada Hanako finish writing out a sentence before she snapped her journal shut in a popping sound and set it and her pencil down beside her. She wrote using solely romanji characters, he had noticed. The strange alphabet was used so rarely he knew only what one or two of the characters meant. Hirigana and katakana were used for sounding out unknown characters, not that script.

She tucked a few strands of strawberry blonde hair behind an ear and peered up at him with grey-blue eyes. Rather lucky, he thought, that her right arm was uninjured. She wouldn't have been able to communicate with them via paper if it had been. She didn't look as bad now as she had those first few weeks after her interrogation. Most of her injuries were healed or still healing. The T&I department wasn't exactly known for its gentle bedside manner. Knowing that she couldn't understand him, he beckoned with his hand for her to get up and follow him. She looked a little annoyed at the gesture, but followed along.

Hanako said something in her own language as they left the room, but Sparrow ignored it and started the walk up to the outbound processing office.

Once they reached the processing office, Sparrow gave Hanako the packet of papers that detailed where she would be going, the details and terms of her release, and the terms of her continued residence in the village. She immediately started going through and devouring the details within with a ferocity that Sparrow could understand. As far as he and his fellow ANBU operatives knew, she had been plucked from whatever realm she came from by a botched summoning seal and dumped somewhere hostile where she didn't know the language and didn't understand anything that was going on around her. What was truly remarkable was how well adjusted she was about the whole situation. On the surface at least. On the inside, she was probably a few steps from a breakdown. Still, for a civilian, she was doing rather well.

Ever since the Yamanaka had performed their experimental justu on her, things were better, but that didn't solve the spoken language barrier. The girl had been reading through all the books they had given her concerning the Hidden Leaf and the culture of Fire Country and its immediate surrounding areas. Really the books were introductory texts for academy students, but they served their purpose just as well here.

After ensuring that the papers were read through and signed, a copy was given to Hanako, and then she was free to go. Well, metaphorically speaking.

Sparrow adopting a henge in a puff of smoke that startled Hanako, and he took on the appearance of a brown haired man of medium build in his late twenties.

'This is the appearance I will take on when escorting you in public places,' Sparrow wrote on a notepad that Hanako carried with her. 'I will now escort you to your new home.'

She read it and nodded, with a quick "Hai," one of the only words she knew so far.

The elevator ride out of the T&I department was a little tense. Sparrow could tell that Hanako was still quite uncomfortable with her new watcher. The tenseness in her shoulders, though she kept her back straight and shoulders squared, belied her underlying anxiousness. The elevator dinged, and the doors slid open. Sparrow exited first and Hanako followed. The main lobby of building in which T&I maintained its 'public' face was mostly black and sleek looking, with lots of smooth stone surfaces. It wasn't a hospitable looking place, more like the lobby of a law firm or some similar place. Shinobi periodically flit in and out in streaks of motion that to a civilian would look like they were appearing and disappearing. Hanako stopped at the sight and didn't look like she wanted to go forward until Sparrow gently touched her shoulder. She flinched away at the movement, but the action snapped her back into reality, and she followed.

The Village Hidden in the Leaves was split into several distinct districts. The central district contained the epicenter of trade and was mostly markets, businesses, and restaurants. Very few people lived in the central district, those who did were mostly shop-owners who lived above their businesses. The districts directly surrounding the epicenter were more residential, and mostly segregated between civilian and shinobi, although the two intermixed in few areas. Beyond that, the outermost districts of Hidden Leaves were inhabited by clans and those rich enough to own estates of various sizes. Most of those estates, however, were passed down from the descendants of the founding of Hidden Leaves and were bound to various shinobi bloodlines. It was rare for those properties to ever change hands, and if they did, it was either a subject of great scandal, or misfortune.

Outside, Hanako looked around her with great interest. The sun had was still rising, but the early morning marketplaces were beginning. Housewives haggled for fresh produce while keeping an eye on errant children, and vendors not yet set up were standing up their booths. The air was fresh, crisp, and clean. Apparently industrialization hadn't made as much of a mark here as it had in most places in the world. The air was free of the pollutants that Hanako was so familiar with, and it only served to drive home the point that she was somewhere she didn't belong.

The streets changed as they walked. Markets and shops gave way to apartment buildings which then gave way to houses, which gave way to apartment buildings again, and then houses once more. Their destination was close edge of the line that divided the clan holdings from one of the shinobi districts, which was quite far from the village center. Sparrow led Hanako down a few small roads that branched away from the main one they had been taking. At the end of a row of houses, they reached their target: A rather unassuming house, small, painted cream with red shutters and a red door. Small flower beds were out front between the few feet of space that divided the house from the street, but they looked as if they'd been neglected for some time. Flowers grew, but a tangled mess of grass and weeds was starting to encroach.

Sparrow climbed up the five short steps and the added height only made him tower above Hanako, accentuating her slight build. He pulled a key from a pocket and unlocked the door. He gave the key to Hanako, with a gruff "Kore o toru."

Hanako didn't have any pockets to put it in, but she took the key all the same. The ANBU opened the door to the house and gestured for her to go in. Inside, it was lightly furnished. Two small couches and a coffee table were placed in the living room, and a table that sat four along with chairs was in the dining area part of it. The kitchen was at least good sized, and was separated from the living-dining area by a bar. To the right of the dining area were two doors, one which led to a bathroom and the other a bedroom. Beyond the dining area was a short hallway which contained a master bedroom with an adjoining bathroom. Both bedrooms had sliding doors that led to a back porch which ran the length of the house and faced a backyard. Hanako actually couldn't tell where exactly the back yard ended, as there was no barrier to define it. There was a ledge, however, which dropped down to reveal a river which flew from West to East. Both directions, she could see various bridges, all quite high. Hanako decided that during rain it must swell quite a bit for as tall as the banks were built.

Once back inside, Hanako began to more closely inspect the house. There were a few small cracks here and there in the walls, more a sign of age than disrepair. It didn't look like the place had been inhabited in a while. There was a layer of dust on everything, and the kitchen, while furnished with a few basic dishes and utensils, contained no food and the all the appliances were unplugged. Another door in the kitchen that Hanako had assumed was a pantry was actually a utility room which had a stacked washer and dryer, the pantry she had been looking for, and a side door leading to the outside.

The blonde started creating mental lists. Some shopping would definitely be in order: cleaning supplies, food, linens, dishes, and not least, some more clothes. The ones that she was currently wearing were given to her by the Intelligence division and were very plain, and made to fit someone slightly larger than her. Plain black pants that tightened and stopped at calf level, a loose black long sleeve shirt, and navy sandals. She looked quite unassuming and easily passed over. Hanako preferred something more—well, her own. But, she had a budget to stick to, and would have to prioritize things accordingly.

Lost in thought, Sparrow observed silently. The young woman had walked through the house, checking the cabinets and closets, taking inventory of her new home. The place was actually larger than what she would have gotten otherwise, the second bedroom was meant for whomever was currently guarding her. The house had been built right after the First Shinobi World War when many shinobi were starting to settle down after the long periods of fighting. As such, the place actually held a few tricks such as security seals that when keyed to a shinobi would alert them of trespassers onto the property. The last resident had been a war veteran who had died years before and had no heirs, so the property passed on to the village. The house had periodically been used as a safe house since, but not often enough to actually turn the water and electricity on very often.

Now, the village had a different use for it. Sparrow was well aware that his superiors thought that he was wound too tight. It didn't concern him too much though. Who wouldn't be, after the kind of missions he had been running for the past year and a half? Sparrow actually didn't think it was too bad of an idea, assigning the agents who had been running stressful missions for too long to simple guard duty like this. Safe in the village, in close proximity to some of the larger clans that ran security of their own, and assigned a low level target like Yamada Hanako who had no strategic value of note besides the effect her chakra had on those who spent an extended amount of time with her. If this were a mission assigned by the General Shinobi Corps it would most likely be taken by a fresh genin team. As it stood, any operative good enough to be accepted into ANBU would be perceptive enough to see the assignment for what it was: mandated R&R for the sake of their mental health.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4:

Remember Me as a Time of Day


Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again.


I’ve now been here for 3 months now, I believe. Sparrow, has left and been replaced by Bull. Sparrow only ever showed me that fake face—a henge, they called it— and was quite distant. I’ve seen what can only be described as magic, but it seems commonplace here. At least it is with my guards. They appear and disappear too fast for me to follow, create fake faces and appearances at a whim, walk on walls, and move so silently I almost can’t even tell they’re there. I’m not even sure that I’m in the same world anymore. I’ve seen a few maps of this country and the surrounding countries, but it doesn’t match anywhere I’ve ever seen in geography. I wonder if I’m in a coma sometimes, and if my family is waiting for me to wake up. That actually is the most likely explanation of everything; that I’m dreaming all of this and every face I’ve seen is just a passerby I’ve seen during my life. I think there was a study that proved that… or theorized that… I don’t remember which. No one is familiar, nothing is similar to home. I’ve lost—everything. My home, my family, language, culture, fuck—even my memories!

I don’t know anything here. I’m halfway proficient at using chopsticks, but these guys don’t even have forks, for crying out loud! Meals are super fun. I do my best to resist stabbing my food with chopsticks every time vegetables flop over them back onto my plate. Not just the food, but the honorifics system is difficult for me. I’m not sure what to call anyone, so I just tack a “-san” onto everyone’s name. I think that’s polite enough. No one has taken offense, as best I can tell.

I like Bull better than Sparrow. Sparrow never interacted with me, he was always just a silent presence that was just there, masked and silent. Bull took his mask off the for the first time a few days ago. At least I think he did. With as easy it is for these guys to create an illusion I can’t really be sure. I can’t really be sure of anything I see, come to think of it, if they can do even that.

Anyways, Bull has been helping me with language though. He’ll point to objects and name them, and then have me repeat it, or write down a phrase, have me read it, and then say it out loud. Sometimes when they call me Hanako I’m tempted to correct them and say “My name is Elle,” but I don’t think it’d make much of a difference. This language doesn’t have an ‘L’ sound in the first place, so it’s not even like they’d get it right.

The house that I live in is now stocked. I was given a bit of start-up money and made sure to stretch it as far as I could. Even so, I had to find a job quick if I was going to be able to eat. Right now, I’m running the payroll for a business. It’s a bit boring, just matching what names go with what rates and factoring in commissions, and taking out whatever taxes, and diverting investment funds. but it’s something. The old man I’m doing it for seems to like it since it takes quite a bit of time out of his week. Periodically, he’ll leave me a note stating that he wants to move funds from one fund to another; real estate to exchange rates, for example. Even so, it’s not too time-consuming for me, so I still have a lot of free time. I should honestly think about expanding it and seeing if other businesses would be interested in it, but common sense tells me that I should probably look into the tax laws and such here first. If they even exist.

So. Free time. I have a lot of it right now. Besides reading books and trying to learn to speak Fire Dialect, I usually go try and work out. I managed to find a rudimentary gym that’s actually a half-empty warehouse. But it has the basics. Weightlifting is universal, it appears. Not too many people use it though, I’ve only seen other people there once or twice, and they’re almost always non-shinobi but the few shinobi I did see there were absolute beasts. I’m just trying to get back in shape like I was before I came here. I know I’ll never match these guys, and they know it too, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look good.

I know I don’t really have a chance, and it isn’t very realistic, but the stronger I am, physically, the better chance I stand of protecting myself. An ex of mine taught me a little bit of kickboxing, and how to throw a punch, but I’m not about to delude myself. It makes me feel better. More secure, more… I don’t know, like I at least stand a chance.

I still have nightmares. A lot. I don’t sleep through the night very often, and I’m usually up at the crack of dawn since I can’t sleep anyways. They’re always the same though, faceless snarling monsters slashing at me, chasing me down hallways until I come to a large white room that’s filled with broken images and pictures and shards of glass everywhere. And then faces come at me. People that I think I should know but I can’t be sure reflected through the glass, distorted and fractured. They cry, asking me why I’m not coming back, why I’m being so selfish, how could I leave and do this to them… Sometimes the dreams change and turn into other kinds of nightmares, but that’s the most common one. I still flinch if someone reaches for me, too. I can’t help it, it’s just a reflex from my first weeks here. From that dark room. I still also don’t trust the motivations of everyone around me. I do my best to pretend like I do, but I just can’t bring myself to truly trust anyone.

Maybe it’ll change? I don’t know. I feel so lost with nothing to latch on to, and I refuse to latch on to my ‘guards’ when I know I can’t trust them fully. I know what Stockholm Syndrome is.


Hanako finished an entry in her journal and closed it. She was trying to periodically make entries to sort out what was going on, put it on paper so that she could look at it more objectively. It had been working rather well for her to cope with everything that had happened. It was better than moping around, that was for sure. This was practically torture for her, not being able to communicate well with those around her.

She ran her fingers through her hair and untangled a few knots absentmindedly. She was done with Mr. Eiji’s payrolls for the week already, had already visited the tiny gym for the day, and cleaned. Hanako was getting tired of all the reading she was doing and wanted a bit of a break. Bull sat on one of the couches reading a book. The man certainly fit his moniker. Hanako was a short person in the first place, but he dwarfed her by a foot at least. Even spread across the couch, the man’s muscles practically bulged from his arms and chest creating a very broad silhouette. He had to be at least 250 lbs.

The blonde sighed. Bull didn’t acknowledge except for turning the next page.

“What is it?” He asked at last.

I’m bored,” she replied.

“Fire Dialect,” Bull reminded her without looking up.

There was a slight pause as Hanako arranged the words in her mind. “Bored, I am” she haltingly said.

A brow furrowed. “I am bored,” Bull corrected.

Hanako threw her hands up in the air. “Whatever!” and got up from the dining table. She exited into the backyard via her bedroom to find something to do.

A few overgrown rosebushes climbing trellises on the side of the house needed pruning so she started on that. Spring was well on its way, and it wouldn’t be long before they started budding flowers. Hanako would rather they be trimmed beforehand, that way she needn’t worry about having to trim branches with blooms already on them. The blonde set to work, carefully avoiding the thorns as she went. Bull had silently followed and was now ambling out onto the porch where he could keep an eye on her.

Do you have to follow me everywhere?” She asked in an irritated tone when she finally noticed the bulky shinobi. Bull didn’t answer, of course. The man only spoke when he felt like it. Usually to correct her grammar.

After a while of working, Hanako eventually started humming to herself. Periodically words to songs would slip out, softly sung as she tended the plants. Her voice was better suited to an alto range, Bull decided when the blonde hit a couple of high notes. While not quite comparable to a cat’s yowling, they were slightly off pitch. But the low notes were alright.

The day was a rather fine one. The coming summer would be plagued by the humidity that made Fire Country so infamous amongst foreigners, but the Springs were quite wonderful. Deceptive, however, when compared with what was to come. Because much of the civilian population of Hidden Leaves was tied to its economy, consisting of merchants and the like, it was not unusual for the portion of the population that could either afford it or had reason to for business to relocate to the capital where the winds blowing off the ocean helped to cool them down, rather than allowing it to stagnate in its humidity.

Hanako enjoyed the healthy smell of the soil. It reminded her of what would take root and grow, becoming beautiful flowers that would display their splendor to those patient enough to tend them. Gardening gave her peace, even when she got blisters on her hands from pulling weeds. Gloves. Gloves would help with that.

After several hours of tending, she pulled herself into a standing position to observe her work. When Hanako had first taken up residence in the old house, the front flower beds had some semblance of care about them, but the back gardens looked abandoned. Overgrown and strangled by weeds, roses, lavender, salvia, and other plants Hanako didn’t know the names of had begun to grow wild. From the variety planted, Hanako assumed that someone who had liked having a good smell had lived there previously, but she couldn’t tell how long it had been since they had abandoned the small house. In addition to spending much of her time cleaning out the old house and working to get the musty smell of neglect out, Hanako had spent many hours in the garden where she didn’t feel the cloying presence of her ever-present guards as much. Where they went while she was gardening, she didn’t particularly care to know. They usually disappeared out of her sight when she was outside. Indoors, they were a constant lurking presence. Sometimes she would forget that they were there, they were so quiet, but when she turned around while cooking or looked up from a book they would usually be there, reading a book or looking innocuous. She knew better than that though.

Hanako still couldn’t stand to be touched unexpectedly, or boxed into a corner. Panic would grip her throat and her heart would pound in her ears when she felt closed in. She found that she much preferred open spaces with many escape routes to small rooms with only a single exit. She liked the bedroom she stayed in with its two exits for that reason. She was beginning to prefer the simple garden with its overhanging South-facing porch for that reason as well. It was hard to feel corralled in the open air.

The sun was beginning to hang higher and higher in the air and Hanako found herself escaping the light into the overhang of the porch. Several hooks were inserted into the beams of the roof at the edge which would allow for plants to be hung from them as well as windchimes and any other decorations she might wish. It would only take a few hanging plants with climbing vines, or a well-placed trellis to provide cooling shade for a portion of the porch where Hanako could envision placing a comfortable chair and table for relaxing out-doors. She began mentally planning what she might like to place there and the type of garden furniture.

After a few moments of contemplation and planning, Hanako opened the sliding door and entered her bedroom. She was grateful for the adjoining bathroom as she shed her clothes in the bedroom and entered the bathroom and turned on the water to clean herself off. A little of extra room in her budget gave her the funds to purchase a few plants from one of the local vendors, she thought. And scout for some potential furniture as well.

 


 

Later in the afternoon, Hanako found herself at a small shop where a middle-aged man tried his best to convince her she should buy a large set of wicker furniture she had been eyeing. She understood a little of what he was saying but was feigning ignorance to most of it, insisting on writing down every counteroffer. Bear was hanging about somewhere, she appreciated that he mostly left her to her own devices when she was out in the city.

Hanako looked longingly at the set that she had been examining as the seller smiled invitingly at her. He said something about “look at the...” and “…good price”, but she still shook her head in a firm ‘no’. The price he had written was well above what she could afford. Pointing to two smaller wicker chairs that would hold comfortable cushions and a small short table, she asked again, “Price?” The seller seemed to be enjoying the exchange and the game of charades the two were forced to engage in, laughing several times good-naturedly when they obviously could not get at what the other was saying.

After some time, the two finally came to an agreement. Still a little more than what Hanako wanted to pay, she begrudgingly admitted to herself that she wouldn’t be able to easily find a better price. It seems that charging foreigners more was a universal trait to businessmen. After a few rounds of writing down payment contracts to be completed within two months, handing over a down-payment, and a delivery address, the seller and Hanako came to an agreement. The furniture would be delivered by the end of the day, the man promised, and then the two bowed to one another. Such a formal culture, Hanako noted to herself. But no matter. She left the shop and began a search for a flower shop.

The streets of Hidden Leaves were always very interesting to her. Roads and streets crisscrossed without much semblance, and it seemed like only those who lived there could easily navigate their way through the maze. The exception being a few major streets which ran broadly to their goals while they also afforded many points where they could be blocked off. Even so, the streets were usually busy. Civilians and shinobi alike walked the roads, shopping, doing business, and carrying on their lives in general. Farmer’s markets tended to be clustered toward the outskirts of the city while established shops were farther inward. Not surprising to Hanako, considering all the twists and turns anyone setting up a temporary stall would have to take to get to a good position in the first place.

Spying a brightly painted sign with decorated with flowers, Hanako made a beeline for an open door. Yamanaka Herbal Remedies and Horticulture was written on the sign in tidy calligraphy.

The shop was slightly musty with dried herbs hanging from hooks and bins containing different assortments of roots, tubers, and bulbs. Small signs indicating what was contained in the bins were written in the same tidy calligraphy that adorned the sign outside.  An old woman with sharp eyes and grey hair pulled primly into a bun secured with hairpins sat at the counter weighing and portioning out herbs. Stacked onto shelves against a far wall of the shop were what looked like jars of powdered, diced, and ground herbs.

Hanako looked around, examining the different bins. Some of the bulbs had green growth coming off of them, but none of them looked like they’d be ready for the summer if she planted them soon. Seeds, she needed either seeds of seedlings.

Looking back at the old woman, who was watching her from the corner of her eye, Hanako pulled a small notebook from her bag and the little nub of a pencil she’d thrown into it earlier.

“Hello, ma’am.” She said before she started writing on the pad.

‘Do you have seedlings of garden herbs available?’ she wrote.

“Good afternoon, Customer-san. Behind the shop in the back garden. You will need to ask my nephew to assist you.” The woman replied. “Hiro-kun! Take this young lady out back to look at the kitchen herbs,” she raised her voice to reach someone in the back.

At this, Hiro, a young blond man of probably 15, poked his head from a back room and waved his hand at Hanako in a gesturing motion.

“Yeah, Auntie, I got it. Come on back,” he called out.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Hanako inclined her head to the old woman and followed Hiro to the back.

Once Hanako was out of the room, with surprising speed, the old woman snapped her arm out and a trio of senbon flew at a spot by the door. With a puff of smoke, they hit a block of wood which fell to the floor with a thunk.

“Easy there, Madam Yamanaka. Just on guard duty,” Bull waved his hands at her in an ‘I’m unarmed’ gesture from the middle of the shop. Madam Yamanaka frowned, eyes narrowing.

“Don’t try me, young man. I didn’t live through clan wars and two Hidden Wars for some young upstart to think he can get the drop on me,” she threatened with narrowed eyes. “Your illusion is as shitty as your attitude is arrogant. Now get out of my shop.”

Bull frowned at the ornery old woman. “Yeah, yeah, I got it. I’m going, already,” he said as he shunshined out of the Yamanaka matriarch’s shop. “Mean old bitch,” he muttered as soon as he got out of earshot. Bull observed from a nearby roof as Yamada looked for more plants with the Yamanaka kid. Seriously, there were way too many plants at the house already. Besides working for a few civilians with math and business things, Yamada practically did nothing but garden. The place did smell nice though, he had to concede. Fresh, and with windows always open to the breeze. Finally, the woman found some more of her plants and negotiated inside the shop with Madam Yamanaka for a bit until finally agreeing on a price.

Replacing his illusion – it was perfectly good, notice-me-not illusions work just fine, old bitch – he fell in step about 20 feet behind her. They proceeded this way all of the way back to the Northwest side of Hidden Leaves where the safehouse stood. Predictably, once there Yamada went straight for the back gardens to start planting her new finds. Finding a nice tree branch to relax on, Bull pulled out a booklet on the recent actions of the Mist village to catch up on while he absentmindedly stood guard. Pulsing his chakra out every few minutes to check for intruders, they stayed that way for the next hour or so. Yamada working with her plants and Bull silently keeping watch.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5:

It’s All Over But the Crying


Poor little dreams that keep trying to come true.


I got the garden planted and established. Off to one side, I have a nice area of flowers and flowering vines set up on trellises. The center of the garden area has a few rosebushes that are freshly planted, very small ones. And to the right of the garden when you first walk outside I have a nice herb garden going. The smell is so fresh and sweet. I can’t believe how much I missed the smell of basil and thyme, oregano and rosemary. I have a few other herbs growing that I don’t recognize. The oregano was hard to find though. I don’t think it’s a common herb here, but it was inexpensive. I’m thinking of expanding more so that I have a vegetable area, but I’m not sure yet. It’s too late in the year to plant vegetables anyway. I’ve trimmed the trellises on the sides of the house so that the roses that grow on vines there should be doing better. They were very overgrown when I arrived here. Hopefully by the time that it gets cold the roses I’ve newly planted will be well rooted enough that they’ll do well. Now that the god-awful heat of Summer is done and Autumn is underway I need to start getting everything ready to winter. I’ve gathered seed pods from the plants that I could and labeled them carefully in envelopes that I’m storing in my bedroom.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with the front area. I’ve transplanted a few plants from there, but I don’t know what I want to do with it long term. I’m stupid for thinking of planning for the long term here anyways, but gardening helps. Helps me clear my mind and forget about this place, my surroundings, home.

I remember more of home. Most of my memories have come back, but it hasn’t helped at all. I don’t think this is all a coma. The details are there, too precise. Things I’ve never seen before, smells and feelings I’ve never before experienced. Sir Isaac Newton proposed the idea one time that there are multiple universes, Schrodinger proposed that there could be multiple realities all happening at once. Alexander wept when he heard there were multiple universes, because he hadn’t even conquered one. I heard a story once, of a woman who could slip through dimensions at will, who traveled through space and time pursued by a group of people who wanted her for her power. Supposedly in that story, she traveled to my own world, to the future, and to other worlds. She was called something like the Old Blood, or the Eldest Blood, or something like that. Ciri, they called her. All universes overlap, like radios tuned to different frequencies, different stations broadcasting their own versions of reality. The question is, how do you move the tuner?

Maybe that’s where writers get their inspiration—they glimpse other worlds and record what they see. They cannot go there, not truly, but they view it in their dreams. Tolkien and Middle Earth. Martin and Westeros. King and the Dark Tower. The Norse and Greeks with their gods. Irish and the Fae, Japanese and the Oni. Maybe all stories are true. Events that happened not here, but somewhere. I am no Child of the Elder Blood. I cannot walk where I wish and slip through cracks the rest cannot see. I am – simply – trapped. I did not bring myself here, and I cannot send myself back.

 


 

The accounting business is going well. I’ve expanded into doing the books for several businesses. I don’t think that there are any people here who do this kind of work. Mr. Eiji recommended me to a few of his business partners and friends, and I’ve found myself working a lot closer to full time. At this rate, I could open up my own little office. I need space to do all of the paperwork, my current little place isn’t the best of setups. Of course, it’d be just me, but I think I’d like it. Like the gardening, it’s not challenging, but it helps to take my mind off of things. I think it’s because I use the GAAP system. It’s easy to understand, but I don’t think that anyone else here has ever set up something similar and standardized. It’s making me popular, mostly because the clients can easily understand what I’m doing.

I think I should do that tomorrow, go and look for somewhere to rent out as an office space. It would also make me look more official. From all the laws I’ve read on it in Hidden Leaves and Fire Country, there are no requirements for licensing for accountants or financial advisors, no certifications. Looks like the administration of the country has never gotten around to creating it before. Probably never had to. Besides the ninja and a few businessmen, there aren’t a lot of highly educated people here. And the ninja I wouldn’t even call educated. Just trained. They’re extremely good at what they do but when it comes to things like finances they haven’t got a clue.


Hanako set her pen down and ran a hand through her hair. She didn’t know why she was still writing in the journal; originally, she started because she secretly she feared losing her memories again. Eventually the fear had subsided, now she did it out of habit to keep her thoughts straight and get her philosophical ramblings out of her head.

Now that she had spent months with the guards and had been learning more and more about ninja in the village, she understood more about them. Pumba, the Yamanaka man who had originally did whatever magic spell thing that allowed her to read and write in Fire Dialect had become something of a semi-official counselor. The two met on a bi-weekly basis to talk. They regularly ‘mind-walked’ during these sessions, where he cast a spell to read her mind. It was easier to communicate that way, with no language barriers, and they could show each other what they meant when trying to explain a foreign concept. After a while, he had finally informed her of what chakra was, and how hers was calming somehow. There was a lot in there about frequencies, flow, and vibrations, but basically what she had gotten out of it was that in this world, whatever world it was, chakra existed and not how yoga enthusiasts thought. Some people could emit their chakra in a field, so to speak, and that being around hers was the ninja version of smoking a joint. The only thing they were missing was the cheap delivery pizza and videogames.

She heard a thud against the wall and laughing from the kitchen. She looked up from her place on the couch. A guard had tossed a knife at the head of another, and because they were ninja, he dodged and was laughing as if it was all one big joke. There were currently four men in the house; Ram, a new guard, and three others, whom she suspected was Sparrow, Bull, and a third she either didn’t know or couldn’t place. As the only one on guard duty, Ram had a porcelain mask still covering his face.

Slowly, more and more ninja had started trickling through the residence on a regular basis. Some came just to socialize, others would stay and read books, write in strange scrolls, play board games with one another, and some would get up to god knows what in the massive trees outside. Usually her presence was ignored, but Hanako found herself being slowly drawn into conversations over cups of tea. Mostly she was treated like she didn’t understand what was being said. Well, she understood the words, but the meaning often was beyond her. These hidden techniques, arts, and constant talks of training went over her head. She tried to follow along as best as she could. She felt like she was entering a new workplace where acronyms and nicknames were assigned to everything, but no one would explain what they really meant. Hanako was starting to pick up on things through sheer proximity, though.

Hanako had been in a real funk since the last session with Pumba. The two had talked about where Hanako was from, as best they could tell it was a different dimension. The session ended when Hanako asked him to send her back, which was when he informed her grimly that there was no way to do it. That they had no clue how to even replicate the botched summoning seal which had produced her in the first place. Hanako had burst into hysterical tears at that and begged him repeatedly to send her back, to get her out of this place. Her breathing was shallow and she couldn’t control it no matter how she tried. When her vision started going dark she realized in the back of her mind that she was having a panic attack. After Pumba couldn’t get Hanako to stop, Bull did something to her that made her pass out. When she woke up several hours later she was back in her home and Bull was acting like nothing had happened. He didn’t say anything about it, so she didn’t either. She cried in the shower that night and sobbed herself to sleep.

With the exception of her psychologist visits, Hanako’s life continued as normally as it could. She was looking into finding an office for her budding accounting firm, magic ninjas still surrounded her, and she dwelled on her memories of her old life. Even though they constantly performed feats of the impossible, she was getting better and better at concealing her shock and dismay at it. Now, when masked ninja magically teleported into her home, she barely blinked an eye. When a ninja melted out of the floor to sneak attack another ninja like cats playfighting, where it would have previously made her about have a heart-attack, now she simply raised an eyebrow and moved on with her life. After all, when you see the impossible every day, the impossible starts to lose its meaning.

Before she knew it, her home, if she could call it that, had become a hub. Bustling with activity, her small two-bedroom house had become the center of activity for a dedicated group. Around fifteen to twenty ninjas, or shinobi, as they were constantly correcting her to call them, were constantly in and out of her house. Meal times had become absolutely massive. And she meant that. Usually the ninjas would bring their own food but now she was finding that several of them would start whipping up large meals for them all in her tiny kitchen. The vegetable chopping would go on at such rapid speeds that she would sometimes watch in wonder. The precision reminded her of a tv show that showed how machines would manufacture products on assembly lines in factories. The sheer amount of food that each ninja consumed was at least three times the amount that Hanako herself ate. Even the women.

There weren’t a lot of women shinobi, kunoichi, as they were called, but the ones that Hanako had met were impressive to say the least. Self-confident, intimidating, beautiful, and intelligent. They made Hanako feel like nothing more than an ugly wallflower. A few had tried to brush it off, saying that they were too muscular, or to overbearing, but Hanako had come from a world with bodybuilders, models, and powerful businesswomen plastered across the front pages of newspapers and magazines. To her, many of these kunoichi were like a combination of the three, never mind the scars that littered their bodies. To say nothing of the men. The more comfortable the shinobi got around her, the more she found herself being accepted into their lives, and seeing more of them, literally and figuratively.

It was now not uncommon to walk out of her bedroom in the mornings at least once a week to a half-naked shinobi passed out on her couch. Sometimes even two. After a few attempts to gently wake them which ended with her on the floor and a knife to her neck, she left them alone to wake on their own. She learned her lesson with that. She also learned that the smell of cooking eggs or other breakfast foods would usually wake them up. The amount of food that her refrigerator went through in a week amazed Hanako. If it weren’t for the ninjas bringing their own food and replenishing its stock, she would spend all of her income on food alone.

 


 

At the clacking sound of a piece being placed down on a shogi board, Hanako looked up. Six ninjas were spread out across her living room. The current one on guard duty was Sparrow, but he had his mask pushed up onto the top of his head. By the matching tattoos on the shinobi that stayed around her home, Hanako had long since concluded that they were all part of the same group, and since Sparrow had pushed his mask up on the top of his head instead of concealing his face, she concluded that they all knew one another, so there was no reason to try to conceal identities. Two were playing shogi, a chess-like game, and while the others watched idly or chatted nearby.

She put her book on Fire Country history down. Licking her dry lips, Hanako raised herself to her full height and went to the kitchen to pour herself a cup of tea. Winced. It was a tad too strong. Whoever had brewed the pot had put too many leaves in it. She started another kettle of water to dilute her cup some. While the water was waiting to boil, another body joined her. The ninja made noise to announce that he was on the other side of her. Too many instances of her startling at the sudden appearance of a ninja in the corner of her eye had finally taught her houseguests to make noise around her.

“What was your world like?”

Hanako blinked at the question for a moment, not having expected it. She looked down for a moment and then opened a cabinet to pull out a small plate and arrange some tea snacks on it. She stayed silent until the water boiled and she poured some into her cup.

“That’s a – that’s a hell of question.” She began carefully. The blonde girl took a deep breath and faced the black-haired ninja fully. She searched his features. She didn’t think that he was one of her guards, he must be one of the ones that had only recently started to come by. “In what way you ask? Cultural? Environment? Military? There are many ways I could answer.”

He gazed down at her from his superior height. When you’re only just over five feet tall, everyone has superior height. He was handsome in that classical way. None of his features really stood out individually but put together he had a pleasing face. Hot, but hard to describe to someone if she had to besides tall, dark, and handsome. “Tell me about the culture.” His eyes were a dark chocolate brown, almost black.

She is suddenly aware of all the listening ears. He’s not the only one curious, just the first to outright ask her about it. Damn. She hasn’t talked about this before, mostly because she hasn’t really felt like anyone would care in the first place, but secondly because she is a bit more private of a person than to just talk about her former life to her prison guards. A split second later she makes a decision. Gesturing with her head at the ninja who must be at the very least twice her size, she picks up her cup of tea and plate of sweets and leads the way outside. Just because they all want to know doesn’t mean that she’ll make it easy on them. She also knows that with their superhuman senses they’ll probably be able to hear the conversation outside just fine anyways. Whatever, she’s making a point.

The late afternoon breeze gives a slight chill and Hanako is thankful for her hot tea as she settles herself down in one of her new wicker sofas. Her increasing income from her accounting business has afforded her more luxuries and she’s upgraded from the first few wicker chairs she bought before the summer began. She could have taken a chair but she’s curious where the ninja will sit in relation. Distant, or if he’ll make himself comfortable. While she sets her food and drink down on the little coffee table he opts to make himself comfortable and joins her on the sofa. Past him, she notices that he left the sliding door to the living room open. She tries not to show any sign that she knows or disapproves of the eavesdropping attempts. The least they can do is be subtler about it. She might not be able to do what they can but she’s not an idiot.

“Yamada-san?” His voice snaps her out of her thoughts. She’d been silent and staring at her cup.

“Ah, yes,” she blushes in embarrassment at having zoned out. “My home. To start, is much different than here. Geographia, is much different. I have not seen maps which are showing continent or country to be the same. As example, my home has seven continents and some two hundred countries.” She pauses at some points as she knows that she’s pronouncing things wrong or is using the wrong grammar.

“Technologia is different, too. There is no chakra. Well—is, but—only by some religious kinds. And not like chakra here. There, chakra is like in head. Energy that they think exist but does not really. Instead we use machine for everything. From travel, communicate, fight, everything. I see nothing like it here. Technologia is simple and low here.” Here his brows furrow just slightly. If she hadn’t gotten so adept at reading body language and slight expression cues from not being able to speak, she would have missed it. Much of what ninjas said was in their non-verbal cues and expressions, not their words. Guess it just came with the territory of being spies and mercenaries.

“But chakra here, is like magic. We have nothing like. I have read books about it, that speak of physiologia, and is different. My home, we have no chakra, system, these tenketsu, nothing. For us what you do with chakra like magic. Instead we use technologia.”

A sip of tea. Her mouth was a little dry, and she wasn’t used to speaking so much all at once. Silence reigned between the two. Hanako was fine with letting it hang in the air, if he wanted all of these details he could be more forthcoming with his questions.

She took a bite into a pumpkin flavored pastry and chased it down with a sip of tea. Delicious. Autumn was her favorite time of year, not only because of the weather, but also because of the foods and the cozy clothing. She loved large knitted sweaters and scarves. In her home world, she was a fan of the Scandinavian principles of hygge and lagom and tried to practice both in her life. It hadn’t changed here. Even though her home was constantly invaded by ninjas, she tried to keep her patio and bedroom her own. Fluffy, comfortable blankets were scattered throughout the place and she had found herself starting to consider the possibility of installing a fire pit into the backyard, or even a fire bowl of some kind, if she could find the materials to make one herself.

“So, your reaction to the hidden arts was—” he trailed off, prompting her to finish his sentence.

“Shocking. It was shocking, shinobi-san.” She shrugged, trying to play off her slight shiver. At the cold or at the memory, she wasn’t sure. “I had never seen anything like, and it frightened me.”

“And now?” He questioned.

“Now, I am surrounded. Nowhere to go. Trapped. I have to get used.” She lowered her eyes to her cup of tea. “I have no other choice but to.”

They were quiet for a few more moments before the shinobi before her broke the silence again. Hanako noted that the conversation inside had dulled to a low whisper.

“Tell me about you,” he prodded. “What was your life like?” His gaze felt heavy on her. She wasn’t often the object of this much scrutiny except in her sessions with Pumba. Usually she was ignored like the civilian she was.

She shifted a little uncomfortably under his gaze. “Me? I was accountant. I studied in university for it, studied other things too, but that was – certificate.” She didn’t know the word for degree or major. For that matter, she wasn’t even sure if there were that many universities here to give out degrees in the first place. “I also learned other things, like music and art, some other language as well.”

“Were you married?”

Hanako colored. The question was so direct especially from a people who usually weren’t. She knew why he was asking. Women here, kunoichi included, tended to be married by sixteen if they were from a more conservative family. Twenty-year-olds were questioned as to why they hadn’t settled down yet, and any woman to reach the age of twenty-five without a good reason to her unmarried status was regarded an old maid. Hanako herself, being a little over twenty-four was aware that she had reached that status. “No, I never was,” she replied. “Women in my home don’t marry as young as here. Is common to be thirty before marrying.”

The shinobi’s eyes widened slightly. “Truly? How long do people live in your homeland?” He asked.

“As average, seventy-eight. Some even to one hundred and over. I think oldest person on record was one hundred and twenty.”

His eyes really widened at that piece of information. He sat back in his chair contemplating what she had just said. He looked up at her, pinning her with his eyes. “Then how old are you?” He paused, realizing that it wasn’t always a good idea to ask a woman her age. “If you don’t mind me asking,” he added.

Lips curled into a wry smile, “Twenty-four,” she replied.

"Oh," he replied. When there were no more questions forthcoming she finished her tea and pastries at a leisurely pace before gathering up the dishes. Nodding to him, she exited the patio into the house. The ninjas inside looked as if they were still interested in their shogi game, but Hanako knew that they had been listening to every word spoken outside.

She washed her dishes and retrieved her book before retreating to her bedroom and closing the door. The lock on the door was simply a formality, she knew that the ninjas were more than capable of getting past any barriers that she might put into place, but it sent a message to engage the lock all the same.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6:

Beware the Guardians in the Dark


I'm only human, can't you see? I made, I made a mistake, please just look me in my face, tell me everything's okay.

 


 

I don’t know what to write today.


A pencil twirled around fingers before the tip came to rest at the corner of a woman’s lips. She then tapped it against the paper. Eyes closed hard, and fingers squeezed the bridge of her nose between her eyes. Her eyes narrowed, Hanako tossed the pencil overhand, point first. It sailed forward, ever closer to its target. A hand swiped out, a flutter to the naked eye, and the pencil clattered down on the floor, rolling until it hit the leg of a chair.

“Hanako, what are you doing?” Hanako looked sheepishly up at the woman now towering over her. Asuka’s violet hair seemed to stand up behind her mask of its own accord. Hanako was convinced that it was full of hair gel to do it.

The blonde smiled up at Asuka cheekily. “Just testing reflex.” Asuka rolled her eyes behind the mask and went back to her reading.

Hanako let herself fall into a laying position on the couch and rolled over so that she was looking out the window. The ground was crusted over with a mixture of ice and snow. A disadvantage of Fire Country was that it was warm enough that the snow wouldn’t last, but cold enough that there would be snow. As a result, the weather tended to snow, then melt, then freeze, then melt, then freeze, and repeat until it was either gone or a fresh layer of snow appeared. It wasn’t uncommon for non-shinobi residents to put metal cleats on their shoes so that they could gain traction on the ice that would appear on the streets. The shinobi never seemed to have a problem with it but those who couldn’t utilize their chakra did.

She threw a glance to the clock in the room to check the time. 7:30 AM. Time to get ready. Hanako padded into her bedroom and started her makeup routine. One thing that she was ever thankful for was the universality of makeup. Most of it reminded her of the Korean brands that had started to permeate the US markets. Unlike most female shinobi – kunoichi, she reminded herself – Hanako put on a full-face of makeup every time she went out. Not that her made-up face looked significantly different from not, it was just her way of making sure that she always looked her best. Often when she was at home, even if she had houseguests over, Hanako didn’t put on any products. But any time she went purposefully into public she did.

Currently it was just Hanako and Asuka in the house. A new white-haired shinobi had been in the living room with Asuka when Hanako went to bed the previous night but there was no sign of him the next morning. The crazy hair colors were one thing that Hanako had trouble getting over. In her old world, Terra, she was starting to call it, people only had different hair colors or eye colors if they dyed it or put in contacts. Here, naturally odd-colored hair, eyes, and even skin markings that looked like tattoos were common.  It took Hanako a little to get over. It was, in some ways, like being in Portland again.

Once she finished putting a wing eyeliner that she thought looked even on both sides, it always took her multiple tries to get it right, she started to put the finishing touches, mascara and a setting powder. Hanako started mentally running through her day plans. Office from 9 to 5, but she’d have a break in there. Where to have lunch? Hanako wasn’t adept at making any Fire Country dishes, and bento boxes were the accepted lunch types. She also didn’t have any peanut butter and jelly to make sandwiches with.

Hanako had started out with mostly being the accountant for businesses, but if she was honest, she had inadvertently expanded herself into providing services for individuals. It had started when she was approached in the marketplace while trying to buy food one day by a distraught woman whose son had just died several weeks before. Hanako didn’t know what it was in her that seized at the sight of this woman. She was in her late 60’s, and her son was a shinobi who had died in the recent war. Now, she was receiving all kinds of documents and information that she didn’t understand about his assets and his debts that were now not being paid. Something about the way the woman was talking struck a chord within Hanako, reminded her of her own mother, and so she agreed to help. The two women set up a time to meet the next day at a tea house and Hanako went over the task of helping the woman untangle the accounts.

The incident had only reinforced to Hanako her need to get an actual office, and so that week she finally went seriously shopping for an office space, rather than just saying that she was going to do it. She had finally found an office in an old building that had been in Hidden Leaves since its founding, the owner assured her. It was very old-style, high ceilings and windows with wooden shutters to help the heat vent out in the summer, the door to the office had a frosted opaque glass pane in it. Really, it was very noir feeling, reminiscent of a 1940’s detective movie in which the hard-drinking private eye has his own office where the damsel in distress finds him. Hanako was neither a damsel, nor a private eye, but the office suited her just fine. The rent was cheap, and from what Hanako could tell it was mostly because the building was so old and, really, out of date. The furniture there had been left by the last tenants, and was rather dated, and the building itself wasn’t the most prime of real estate. Too far from most of the city’s centers to be of significant value.

Once Hanako finished with her makeup, she selected some professional clothes and got dressed before fixing her hair into a simple ponytail. She still tended toward the business-casual style she had worn on Terra before; bankers and the like wore it here, so really since she was an accountant, it was very similar to the same thing. Grabbing her bag, jacket, and scarf, Hanako headed for the door. Asuka fixed her mask into place and with a puff of smoke assumed the form of a young black-haired women with average features and a yukata before following her out of the door. Asuka generally stayed closer to Hanako when guarding her, preferring to stay in sight rather than like some others which preferred to never be seen. Since she was friendly enough, Hanako really didn’t mind. She wasn’t rude, or overly friendly, the two women got along fine.

The streets were beginning to fill with people going about their daily business. Most of them, like Hanako, were either going to their workplaces or taking children to school or going to the markets. Blurs darted over the rooftops as shinobi traveled back and forth. Asuka held back a little and followed from a slight distance. The building that her office was in was just in the next district over, situated near the Police Department, and just south and east of the Nara and Akimichi clan compounds. From where Hanako’s home was on the banks of the Naka river, it was really a rather short walk. Around 10 minutes or so, more if she didn’t walk quickly or detour for anything. Eventually she reached the building around 30 minutes before her hours started. Being her own boss was a rather different experience. For the first time in her life, Hanako was finding that if she was late to the office, there were no repercussions. If she wanted to leave early and close up, there was no one to look disapprovingly at her. On the other hand, if she didn’t bring in clients, she wouldn’t eat. So, it kind of balanced out.

The glass front on the building with its hand-painted signs proclaiming whose offices were inside finally had the addition of her tiny business, “Yamada Public Accounting” in very small letters. She hadn’t wanted to shell out the cash for the larger sign. There wasn’t a regulatory body in Fire Country, from all the laws Hanako had checked that governed accountants, or licensed them, or even gave a definition of them. From what she could find, the capital city had some form of regulation over it in local form, but it was a field that hadn’t quite been explored in a regulatory sense yet on a national level.

She said hello to the building manager, an elderly man who sat reading the paper by the reception desk and continued up the stairs. Asuka had disappeared into the crowd some time before. Once up the stairs, her door with its frosted window was at the end of the hallway on the second floor. Luckily for Hanako, she was on the north side of the building, so it didn’t get as hot in summer. On the flip side, when it was cold like this, it also didn’t heat up as well either. ‘Hanako Public Accounting’ was hand painted on the frosted glass again, this time in larger lettering than what was on the outside of the building. She unlocked the door and went inside.

The office was small and shabby, but comfortable. It opened into a small waiting room with a desk for a receptionist, with a small bathroom and kitchen off to the right, and behind the receptionist desk and to the right were two other small offices. Currently, Hanako had set up one of the offices as a storage area for documents, and the other with a desk, a couch, and a few other things for tea if she had a client come in who needed more privacy. But for the most part she worked in the main room at the receptionist desk so that she was immediately available for anyone who walked in. She had neither the work load, nor the funds to hire an assistant. Most, if not all, of her work she could complete during normal hours. Only on a few occasions when a business client came in did she have to put in overtime, but that was usually predictable – at the end of the month most often. The individual clients were the random ones. They found her by word of mouth, generally the family members of shinobi who had died and were trying to untangle finances, or shinobi themselves trying to tie up finances so that their families would be cared for. If the situation was too complicated Hanako usually tried to refer them to a lawyer or the Hokage administration for the cases that were beyond what she could help with. But for the most part she was helping to figure out where exactly money had gone, to whom it was owed, and what was left. For those who found her asking for help making sure their affairs were in order, she suspected that most of them were going on long-term assignments, she simply gave advice, and referred them to an estate attorney for any legal things like where their assets would go if they were to never return. But she did help draw up plans for them. She didn’t always get paid immediately, usually the civilians untangling financial messes would reimburse her in other ways. She had ended up with her current tea set that way, but more often than not they would bring by food. The shinobi usually came by at later dates with money, most likely subtracted from their assignment payouts.

Setting her things down on the desk, Hanako started heating water for tea. She preferred coffee for mornings by far, but the beans were difficult to get, and expensive once found. She also pulled out a package of cookies from the cabinet. Once the water was hot, she made a pot of tea and took both it and the cookies to the private office where she set it out. Asuka wasn’t in sight but that didn’t mean anything when it came to people who could literally materialize from out of the walls.

That done, she went back to her desk. Once she tallied up her personal accounts and the business account, everything looked good. The business was in the black, and it didn’t look like there was too much she needed to worry about. There was a certain advantage to being somewhat of a pioneer in a field. Not to mention, in a world where the amount of kanji one could read was a major signifier of their education level, she had managed to get the reading and writing of someone not only educated, but an intel expert with familiarity in other dialects other than Fire Country. Even though she had trouble speaking still, she had a rather high level of education when it came to writing.  

An old radio in the corner of the room that looked like it was straight out of the 1940’s played a version of swing music faintly. The radiator, probably the newest thing in the place, emitted enough heat that she didn’t feel it necessary to keep her jacket on, but her scarf remained in place wrapped now around her shoulders

Around mid-morning, she got up to refill her tea. The pot in the other room was drained and half the cookies were eaten. Still no sign of Asuka though. Hanako refilled the pot and her cup and settled back down to work. After a while of trying to figure out where some receipts were filed and under what category in a ledger, the door opened.

A woman stepped through. A very young woman, holding the hand of a young boy. Both had pink hair and bright green eyes. They couldn’t possibly be mother and child with that age difference, Hanako thought, unless something horribly wrong had occurred. The young woman was wearing a traditional kimono, black with a black obi. The little boy was dressed much the same with a matching hakama.

Hanako may have been a foreigner, but even she knew how formal of attire the two in front of her were wearing was. She was rather astounded for a moment before she caught herself. Bowing to the degree she had been taught was appropriate and professional, “How can I assist you today?”  

The woman bowed first in response, the little boy a half second later after a subtle nudge from the woman. “Please, ma’am, I have been told that you can help us.” She straightened up, emerald eyes brimming with sorrow. “Please take care of us.”

Recognizing the traditional phrase, Hanako nodded and ushered the two into the private office while she retreated to make fresh tea for the three of them. There was a fresh pot in the private room, but it was for her guard. While her newest clients wouldn’t know, she couldn’t imagine that Asuka would think very well of it if she allowed clients to drink from the same vessel. Fire Country was a little funny about things like that, Hanako had found. As she gathered together the things she needed, food, tea, and the appropriate little cups and plates, she wondered. Funeral attire, she was sure. The two had either just come from a funeral or had dressed up just to see her, and she wasn’t sure which.

Tea ceremonies were something that Hanako had no education in, so she very simply and unceremoniously placed everything for her guests before settling down at the table with them. Once the tea was poured and everyone had a chance to take a sip, she settled back to wait for the young woman to talk.

It took a few moments, the pink-haired girl had to take a moment to compose herself and gather the emotional mask that so many in Fire Country tried to wear in social situations. Her little brother? Son? Cousin? He was trying his best, little face screwed up in what he probably thought was a brave face but looked like one of extreme concentration.

“My name is Haruno Satoko,” the girl began. “This is my brother, Souta Haruno. My parents are merchants of the esteemed Haruno clan.” Her green eyes glittered. “Four months ago, they left on a trip to the Country of Wind.  The trip should have taken only two months, but here we are two months past that, and they still have not returned.” At this, she reached a hand into the sleeve of her black kimono, which Hanako was noticing was not a simple black, but also had willow trees and camellias embroidered on it with black thread. “Three days ago, my brother and I received a scroll from the Office of the Esteemed Fire Shadow.” She withdrew a black scroll with a white seal from her sleeve and gave it to Hanako who began to read it.

“They’re not dead! I know this to be true. But the Honorable Fire Shadow has seen fit to declare them dead,” her voice shook with emotion. “I remain seven months from the age of majority. My Honorable Uncle is taking guardianship and control of our parents’ holdings until such time. Legally, I have no recourse.”

“I take it that you do not trust this uncle, Haruno-san,” Hanako said, sensing the direction the conversation was taking when Satoko paused.

Satoko shook her head. “My father told me he was a drunkard and a gambler who lived in the Land of Hot Water on the generosity of our Honored Grandfather. Because I cannot legally control my family’s holding in Fire Country, I am afraid that if he is given the chance to take guardianship of the Haruno Clan’s holdings in the Village Hidden in the Leaves, then he will sell everything for coin to pay his gambling debts and leave my brother and I destitute, no matter what my Honored Grandfather demands.” She bowed her head, pink hair falling forward. “If he arrives in The Village Hidden in the Leaves before my Honored Grandfather’s representative, there is nothing that I can do. When I told my father’s business associates of the situation, I was told that you might be able to help. That you have helped people before and not taken advantage of their weakness. I was told that you had honor, Yamada-san,” the last part was said challengingly.

“Honor?” Hanako replied. “In a shinobi village?” She huffed a chuckle. “Yes, I have helped those who need, but I not call it same as values you hold. If you will forgive, I explain.” The blonde quirked a lip. “I come from far away place, you may call it – Land of Steel if you wish – and there, things is very different. Family mean different thing. In small ways, but ways big enough to matter. In my country, we help those in need, that way if we ever in need, someone help us. ‘Today me, tomorrow you.’” She took a sip of tea. “Yes, I will help. But service not free. Instead, what you can afford. Please, not mistake my helping for something else. Your honor and mine are not same. I am from different place, there, things done different. Besides, this uncle sound terrible,” Hanako winked at Satoko and leaned back.  Satoko’s brother, who had been looking very tense relaxed a little at her words. “I help because I wish to, not because honor demands.”

“Now, I am not lawyer. I cannot do everything. What I do is with finance. I can help with money and give advice, suggestion, but please, also find lawyer to help. I not know everything,” Hanako said honestly.

“Hai,” Satoko replied. “My father always told us that one cannot take what they cannot find. Is there a way to – obscure – the money? The assets? We have only to outlast these next seven months until I reach the age to take control of the business myself. If I can keep him from taking everything in that time, then we will be safe,” she explained her plan.

Hanako thought for a moment before nodding her head. “Yes, there are legal ways. Some illegal, too, but I won’t advise any of those. Have you asked of Fire Shadow to – how do you say – step in, change situation,”

“Intervene?” Souta supplied helpfully, the first words that he had spoken the entire exchange. Satoko elbowed him to keep quiet.

Hanako smiled at him. “Yes, intervene is word.” She turned her attention back to Satoko. “Have you asked for intervening of Fire Shadow?”

She shook her head, pink hair dancing gently about it. “I have not. The shinobi of this village have traditionally not bothered with the affairs of merchants, much less civilians.”

Hanako bit her lip. “It’s risky. I not suggest this lightly, but.” She considered her next words carefully. “Shinobi have interest in merchants. They use to be undercover. To go unnoticed to other place. Where does Haruno clan have business?”

“Fire, Wind, Tea, Earth, Lightening, Stone, Hot Water, Frost, and Iron,” she replied.

“That is many places. If Haruno clan offer future help to shinobi in return for protection now, Fire Shadow may intervene. Stop uncle better than you or I.”

Both Harunos looked taken aback at her suggestion, as if the act were unthinkable. “Is just advice, possible path forward,” she gently placated. “Only to be taken if all other option is gone.” Her tone sharpening, she continued. “Now, to numbers. Yes, is possible to hide money, ownership, those things. Can create new company. Owned by you, or trusted one, that then own assets. Think of being like shell game. Where is stone? Which shell? Do you know which one to check? Will look like you own nothing, because will not know where to look,” she explained.

As the two siblings, mostly Satoko, walked Hanako through the business’ finances, she started to get a better picture of what was at stake. The Haruno clan spanned across several countries, mostly bringing goods to the capital and major cities of those countries. The clan head, their grandfather, was in Iron Country, the clan’s country of origin. The siblings’ parents had come to Fire Country to work on establishing a new branch  in it, and any word that would get to the clan head would likely be too late before their much closer uncle in Land of Hot Springs had done too much damage to the fledgling branch to save it. Satoko estimated that they had maybe four weeks before he arrived, less if he hired a shinobi escort.

Hanako marveled that the seventeen-year old was capable of such clear-headedness. Shinobi, especially, raised their children to be autonomous at much younger ages than Terra had. Even some civilians, like merchant clans, she was guessing, engaged in similar practices. If Hanako had been in the same situation on Terra, she would likely have panicked and lost her mind. She never would have thought to ask around for help like Satoko had. Granted, the girl was desperate to come to her, a complete foreigner for help, but then again so were most of those who came to her.

As they came to an agreement about how a shell company would be created, Hanako demanded that Satoko retain either a lawyer, or the two draft up a contract that would then be witnessed by shinobi. For Satoko’s own protection, she insisted. Hanako had come from a world where a lack of a contract when any large amount of money displayed the idiocy of those involved, and she wanted everything done very by the book. Eventually they sketched out a rough agreement, and Satoko agreed to return in a few days with the documents necessary to create a shell company and sign over the assets to it.

If she was being honest with herself, Hanako wasn’t sure how comfortable she was doing this. She really felt that lawyers should be involved with the situation, but Fire Country didn’t really operate that way. Verbal contracts still were the way that many people did business, and only large merchant deals took the time to draw up contracts. She wasn’t doing it for free though, in return for her services, the Haruno siblings had agreed to pay her a retainer, and a fee contingent upon the successful retainment of assets from the uncle. When they finally left near the end of the day, Hanako felt exhausted mentally. Moral implications aside, she would be drafting the documents for the creation of a shell company, maybe two, depending on how determine this uncle likely was to find the Haruno money, and all by hand. No computers to draft it and then print once ready. This would be a lot of writing mostly by hand. Hanako was about ready to invest in a typewriter, it was looking like it would be worth it at this point. If she could learn to use it effectively, it would also cut down on the amount of time she was currently spending on her other clients.

 


 

Once done for the day, she started clearing up documents and ordering them to resume the next day as well as straightening the office and washing the dishes used. As she was rinsing off the last plate, someone hopped up to sit on the counter next to her. Hanako jumped, dropping the plate into the sink with a crash. “Jiizuhs,” she exclaimed, hand over her chest to stop her heart from beating so fast. The ANBU who scared her tilted his head in an unnerving way from behind the utilitarian white wolf mask marked only with a few blue highlights. His hair was white. Maybe the shinobi from the evening before who was with Asuka.

“Jiizuhs?” He repeated.

“Jesus,” Hanako corrected, grabbing the dropped plate to rewash. “Is expression. Of surprise,” she added, glaring at him. He had white hair that stuck up from around his mask. “Where’s Asuka?”

“Gone,” he replied simply. “Her shift was over. I’m the new replacement.” His tone was light and jesting, but Hanako got goosebumps running up her arms down her spine from it. There was something off about it, like he was cheered up in a sadistic way from her being scared.

“Right,” Hanako said, quickly washing the last dish and gathering up her things. She quickly put on her outerwear while trying to disguise how uncomfortable she was. Once ready and the door locked, she set out. She didn’t watch where the ANBU went and didn’t really care to. She stopped at a few stalls on the way to pick up vegetables for her dinner, but otherwise went straight home. The day had been long and trying, and she didn’t feel like she had energy for another shinobi trying to play mind games because they were bored.

 


 

The uncanny valley feeling didn’t go away as Wolf watched her the entire time she made dinner. Usually, if a guard was a bit weird, they tended to do it away from her, went outside, sat in a tree, hid in a wall, something else. Wolf just watched.

Two shinobi joined them for dinner, Bull sans disguise and the newcomer who had asked her about her home a few weeks previously. Neither of them were in uniform. Instead the two were both dressed in more casual dark blue pants and long sleeve shirts that seemed very standard issue. The newcomer introduced himself as Yamashiro Takanori.

After dinner was cleaned up, Hanako showered before changing into some more comfortable clothes. Since the house was chilly, she forewent her usual shorts for some warmer fleece tights and an oversized off the shoulder sweater. Not surprisingly, Yamashiro and Bull were still there when she emerged back into the living room.  She curled up onto the couch in the living room surrounded by a fluffy throw blanket to do her evening reading before bed.

Even though there was only one couch, the room had several chairs, so Hanako was surprised when the two plopped down on either side of Hanako on the couch. Wolf was obviously made the odd man out. Hanako figured that he sensed that because he disappeared from his place at the dining room table in a puff of smoke.

Hanako made a face and waved at it, trying to get it out of her face when the smoke drifted through the room. “Don’t let him get to you,” Bull said lowly, lips inches from her ear.

The blonde froze. “What do you mean?” She asked.

“Wolf,” Bull said. “He’s one of the high-strung ones. Ignore it, he’s just trying to play on your nerves. Happens to some of us when we’ve been in the field too long. Taking amusement from places we really shouldn’t.” She felt the warm air from his breath play around her ear and neck and suddenly felt rather warm. “Especially when it’s from those who can’t fight back. A bit unfair, don’t you think?”

Awareness of how close both shinobi were sitting to her spread throughout her body. “Very,” Hanako agreed, nodding her head. She turned her head, looking at Bull more closely. Now that she was more familiar with the ninja, she could tell when they were wearing those disguises – henges – or not. A henge had this blurring about it, like the CGI rendering of a movie that wasn’t quite fully done. With a henge, details like the pores, individual hairs, they just weren’t there. Or weren’t rendered in high enough quality to pass. Bull wasn’t wearing a henge this time, it was his real face. Deep, chocolate brown eyes, lips on the thin side, strong chin, crooked nose. Scar starting above his right eyebrow and extending down across his nose to his left cheek.

Yamashiro moved his arm, draping it across the back of the sofa, not quite touching Hanako, and not quite – not. “We’ll protect you,” he said, winking at her.

Hanako ducked her head. “Thanks,” she said softly. It hadn’t been just her who got strange vibes from Wolf. The knowledge that it wasn’t all in her head gave her relief. She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding in. It had been a long day, and she hadn’t really needed the new addition of her very strange guard on top of it.

“Now give me some of that blanket, it’s cold in here!” Bull declared, breaking the spell and pulling part of her throw blanket over his lap before pulling his own book out to start reading.

Behind her, Yamashiro’s arm came to rest fully on her shoulder as he also grabbed part of the blanket to scoot under. The three spent the rest of the evening reading in comfortable silence, all next to one another, and if Hanako occasionally felt Bull’s hand stroking her leg soothingly under the blanket, or Yamashiro’s fingers rubbing small circles on her shoulder, she didn’t say anything.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7:

Bears and Tigers and Wolves, Oh My!

 

***********

 

Dommage, Dommage, too bad we couldn't make our dreams come true.

 

***********

 

It’s been three weeks. I haven’t been able to write in 3 weeks. What do I even say?

The weather is cold and chilly. Wet, too. It alternates between snowing, freezing, sleeting, and raining, all sometimes in the same week. I’ve invested in some sturdy rainboots that seem to get close to daily wear from me. I sometimes hate how far away the office is, I miss having a car to commute in. Like, really fucking miss it. I have to walk no matter what, and that isn’t bad in and of itself, but I didn’t choose this! It’s not like I moved somewhere, or I downsized, or whatever. I just miss home. I miss the timeliness of everything. Not having to wait at the bank, not having to wait for any government office stuff. Go to the grocery store, bam. It’s all there. Don’t have to go from place to place, it’s a one stop shop, and then get in your car and go immediately home.

I’ve done what I can to be independent. I still feel obligated though. The house, the utilities, food, they’re all paid for. Technically I get a little stipend, but I don’t need it.  Not really. In fact, most of my money goes to the accounting firm, or buying myself comfy furnishings. I’m actually quite comfortable here and I honestly don’t like it. Not really. Sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night, I remember what was done to me, what I went through. I don’t I can’t become dependent on people like that. I get the shakes sometimes. I’m not sure what sets them off, but sometimes my hands will just start shaking and I can’t do anything about it. I love and hate small spaces.

In the last month or so, I feel like a grey veil is being lifted from my world. It’s like I was numb and cold this last year, and I’m finally starting to warm up. I’m not sure I like it though. Being numb was easy, I didn’t care about my clients as much; I could keep myself emotionally distant from them. Now I feel the color bloom of emotion. Love, anger, passion, hate, hurt, pain, contentment. It’s fucked up. I’m relieved when I feel the emotions again though, I missed them.

The nightmares have been going away though. I’m still up early, but I don’t put off going to bed anymore because of the nightmares. Now I have them once or twice a week instead of every night. Looking at everything, I think that I’ve been depressed for most of the time. I don’t really blame myself, but I should have done something sooner to try and get out of it. The firm has helped the most, I think. I have a reason to get out of bed in the morning, to try and do something besides garden and stare off into the distance. Something to get me moving, motivated, people to help. It’s a bit stupid of me to take charity cases, I know. I could be making so much more, but I feel like maybe there’s a reason I was sent here. There’s a debt I have to work off. Maybe if I wasn’t such a terrible person before, I wouldn’t have been snatched away and dumped somewhere crazy. Or in a coma. Whatever this is. It could very well still be a coma, I don’t know. But I must have done something terrible to get put here so the least I can do is try to work off that debt somehow. 

Sure, I make my own money, but it wouldn’t be fair of me to say that I am not taken care of. I am. I don’t pay for the house; I get a stipend for food; I don’t have to worry about someone attacking me, that’s for sure. There was this one time when I was in the market and some little kids were running around playing chase. Could’ve been eleven, twelve at the most. Absolute most. One of them, some red-haired little chit, got the grand old idea to act like a real ninja and start throwing real knives, screaming the whole time about how she was going to be the next Fire Shadow, and she threw several of them went into the crowd instead of wherever the little brat was aiming. Real fucking smart, huh? Like, I know there are a lot of ninja that live in Hidden Leaves, but in the marketplace? Ain’t a lot of them. It’s mostly people like me. Anyways, none of the knives came close to me, but I still got flying tackled by my guard. Well, maybe tackled isn’t the right word, but they knocked the fucking wind out of me, I could barely breathe for a few minutes and I felt like I got punted across the street. One second, I was on one side of the street, Knives McGoo goes nuts, and the next second, I’m 100 feet away, can barely hear anything and can’t breathe. Guard goes over and went after the kids, gave ‘em a real talking to and dragged the one throwing knives off somewhere, probably back to their parents. Little fucker.

Besides giving me a heart attack, at least I found out that my guards are truly bodyguards, they won’t let anything happen to me if they can help it. I’m not sure they’d go all Secret Service on me, but at least I don’t have to worry about dying from some random knife-happy kid. More than I can say for the rest of the people there.

 

***********

 

A white porcelain face stared at Hanako. Well, she thought it was staring. The ANBU could have been sleeping for all she knew, she couldn’t see his eyes, just black holes where the eyes should be. This guard really liked to try to freak her out, she knew. The happy wolf just stared back.

The living area was small, she couldn’t avoid him forever. He’d been there for a week and a half with no sign of letting up. Bull’s warning still ringing in her ears, Hanako wondered if she could play this game much longer.  Before she could really think about what she was doing, her hands started moving. Two cups of tea poured, one served to him, before she started melting butter in a skillet to start scrambling eggs. She turned halfway around.

Three eggs for herself, and then she started cracking eggs. And more eggs. Around fifteen eggs overall went into the skillet. “Salt and pepper?” She asked. The most infinitesimal of nods was the reply, so she added just a hint of seasonings careful not to over-salt.

Once the eggs were scrambled to her satisfaction, she put them all onto a large plate and served them onto the table. Settings for two places soon followed, and she grabbed her cup of tea which had cooled sufficiently to drink. Serving herself from the main plate, she started eating, not bothering to verbally invite Wolf to eat.

He let the invitation stand unanswered for a minute or two before sliding himself into the chair across from her. His behavior reminded Hanako of a dog that was unsure of its new place. A dog that was simultaneously ready to fight to assert its place in the pack and too unsure to fight for its new place. The mask slid up just far enough for him to eat, no more.

She broke the silence first. “So why did you get assigned to me?” she said conversationally, acting as though the question were about the weather.

He didn’t respond, but his chopsticks stopped moving from his plate to his mouth. Hanko responded as if he had spoken. “Yeah? Same reason as everyone else, huh.” She gestured with her chopsticks and affected a high-pitched voice. “Oh no, Wolfy, you too uptight. Take time off, go watch boring-ass chick live boring-ass life. Relax, don’t be so uptight.” The still-visible mouth quirked into a small smile.

Hanako huffed. “If I could say you ‘go away, I don’t need you’, I would.” She resumed eating.

Once she was done, she took her dishes and started cleaning them along with the skillet used. Once she had finished with the skillet, an extra plate and chopsticks appeared next to her on the counter without her noticing. Those, too, were cleaned. When she turned around, Wolf was still at the table, still looking at her.

Annoyance was starting to set in. “Truly, what’s with staring?”

No response.

A sigh escaped her chest. “Look, I don’t know if staring is okay with your people. It’s not with mine. Not with civilian. Is rather rude, in fact. If that was goal, congratulations. Accomplished. You’re so good at making unarmed civilian nervous.” Hanako rolled her eyes and refilled her tea before going back to her room. Her peace offering of food hadn’t seemed to make much of a difference.

Searching through the room, the blonde started finding clothes warm enough to go out. Since it was the weekend she wasn’t planning to be at the office. She also didn’t want to stay at home with Creeper McGee so she’d rather go somewhere where he’d be forced to be less weird. Selecting a heavy sweater and a comfortable pair of jeans, she put on some light makeup before sweeping her hair up into a messy bun. She grabbed a coat and put some of the normal contents of her purse in the inner pockets before leaving the room.

In the living room she stopped short at a strange scene. Two ANBU were standing face to face, Wolf and a bear mask. Her reentry into the room seemed to break the tension between the two and with a puff of smoke, Wolf disappeared while the bear masked ANBU remained.

He, at least Hanako thought it was a he, turned to her. Bowed just slightly. “I am your new guard, replacing Operative Wolf. You may call me Bear. Please take care of me.” Deep voice, a man, Hanako decided. “Would you prefer that I remain close to you or out of sight?”

“It doesn’t make a difference. Just don’t be weird like Wolf.” She said in a surely tone. Bear nodded his head in what she guessed approximated a bow and gave him a half-hearted apologetic smile. “I’m going out, you’re free to follow along however you want.” A puff of smoke turned him into a non-descript dark-haired older man. She took her coat and the house keys from a bowl by the door before exiting and locking the door behind her once Bear was through.

Sketching a plan in her mind, she quickly decided to walk along the river until it came to the memorial park. The ice of the previous weeks had melted, leaving mud and damp streets in its wake. The only thing she was missing was headphones to block out the world. Mist rose above the Naka, it was still morning and the sun had yet to burn it all off. The river lazily ran, deceptively slow – the river was deep, and could fill with even more water before the banks would run over. It cut suddenly down compared to the land around it, causing the foreigner to wonder if it was a natural river, or one created. The cold caused breath to puff out in little white clouds. Not quite freezing, just above it. Very few people were awake and moving around. The civilians tended to stay on a later schedule, the shinobi kept to their areas. Hanako knew that there were some sparring areas nearby, she heard the faint clashing and clanging of steel often enough on her walks, but she had never gone looking for the source. She was already surrounded by enough magic and didn’t need that extra trouble. Birds chirped loudly, some trilling songs that she had never heard until arriving in Hidden Leaves.

A commotion caught Hanako’s eye, disturbing the peacefulness of her walk. On the other side of the river, at one of the rare places where the land dipped down to allow for shallows in the river, was a man and three kids. Couldn’t have been older than thirteen, maybe fourteen. The kids were walking from the shore, out onto the river, quite literally walking on the surface of the water, until they reached some point, usually a few yards out, and broke the surface tension and fell into the water with a loud splash. The splashes were quite interesting themselves, rather than the water parting and allowing them to slip in, like Hanako would have expected, the water seemed to almost, well, explode at their feet, causing them to fall in, usually accompanied by shouts of terror.

The blonde became rather curious. She’d never seen something like this before. Spying a bench a little bit off the walkway, she took a seat to watch. It was really quite comical; the kids would wave their arms around dramatically every time they fell in, yelling all the while words too quick for Hanako to understand, while the man – their teacher, she presumed – would shake his head, frown, and order them to swim back and try again.

‘So this is how they teach magic,’ she thought to herself. ‘Huh, who would have thought.’ She watched, interested, for a while. One or two people passed by, none of them seemed to find the scene playing out a slightly bit interesting. Beyond the other bank of the Naka, more and more people were moving around, going about their days. The mist was beginning to burn off the river as the sun steadily rose and the city was coming to life. Hanako’s concentration was broken when someone approached her. A tall woman, slender, but moving in that lithe, cat-like way that shinobi had. A kunoichi. Violet hair was pulled back into a ponytail that seemed to spike of its own accord in a way that Hanako found familiar. She couldn’t quite place where she had seen – Asuka! The name sprang to the forefront of her mind. Asuka didn’t pass by the bench like Hanako had halfway expected. Hanako scooted over to make space for her to be comfortable – most shinobi didn’t like to be too close to people they didn’t know well. The violet haired woman sat down, joining Hanako.

“I thought I sensed you,” she said in greeting.

“Good morning,” the blonde replied a friendly smile on her face.

For the first time, Hanako was able to see Asuka’s features. Before they had always been hidden behind a porcelain mask. She had sharp features that, while not delicate, had a classical beauty to them. Thick arched eyebrows that Cara Delevingne would kill for, and light grey-lilac colored eyes. In short, she was gorgeous. Hanako felt a little self-conscious next to her for a few moments before she shook it off. Asuka watched the scene still playing out, the kids were reaching further into the river now and the man teaching them didn’t have his arms crossed anymore, instead he was starting to give encouragement.

“They’re learning to water walk,” Asuka explained. “One can use chakra for many things, but it’s how we stick to surfaces, walk on water, and move so quickly. Those kids have probably been with their teacher for around a year, maybe two, if they’re moving on to water walking now.”

“Is it hard?” Hanako asked, curiosity piqued.

“Depends,” Asuka replied. “The more chakra one has, the harder it is to control it. But control must be trained. A civilian can’t just start walking on water one day, they would have to meditate to learn to touch their chakra in the first place before they could even hope to manipulate it.” She looked Hanako in the eye. “It’s extremely difficult to learn to touch your chakra after the age of ten. If one doesn’t start shinobi training before that age, they’ll likely never become a shinobi. Usually it’s only monks who learn to touch and then control it later in life.”

“Chakra fuels this world,” Hanako replied after a moment at the revelation. “My home, we uh, we learned to use electricity. Science was almost religion. Most people didn’t believe in gods, and if they did, were in minority. So many things here, would call magic. But more I learn, more I find that is like science for you. Used like electricity was for us.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Every day.”

The two women sat in silence for a few more moments.

Asuka rose to her feet. “C’mon. That Genin Sensei is going to get tetchy if we keep watching his team train.”

Hanako was confused. “He can tell we’re here?”

“Yup. He’d better. To be a Genin Sensei you have to prove that you can keep a team of kids from getting themselves killed. Usually Jounin level is the requirement, but sometimes Chuunin make the cut as well. If he can’t sense your signature from this far away, then he’s not worth the title.” Asuka beckoned for Hanako to follow.

The path wound away from the river a little and branched back into the park area. It wasn’t a park in a true sense of the word. There were no playgrounds or manicured lawns, the grass was kept, and dead branches removed from trees, but the bushes grew as they wished and the paths were worn dirt. In the distance Hanako could see an obelisk of black stone that she knew contained the names of hundreds, if not thousands. A war memorial, not unlike those in Washington, D.C. If they were to continue down the branching path far enough, they would find the cemetery.

The two women followed the river.

“How was your experience with Wolf?” Asuka asked lightly.

“Weird,” Hanako responded immediately. “Guy never stop staring, like he was afraid to let me out of sight.” She roller her eyes. “I don’t know problem was.”

Asuka chuckled. “I thought as much when he took over from Cat.” That was a tendency the ANBU had, Hanako had noticed. They talked about their ANBU roles as if they were a different person. In some ways, it was true. “He’s an interesting one. His clan is an animal summons clan.”

“What does that mean?”

“An animal summon is a creature that has learned to use chakra in much the same way as shinobi do. A frog is just a frog, but a frog summons is as intelligent as you or me and can use chakra. Some wear clothes and take on behaviors similar to humans, while some are content with their more natural states. Summoning contracts, which allow you to summon an animal, are rare. Extremely rare, and it is difficult to win the respect of the summons to be allowed to sign the contract. Those are just individuals.” Lilac eyes glinted. “Which means that to sign an ancestral summons contract, his clan bound themselves to their summons, taking on characteristics of those summons, just as those summons take on characteristics of humans. Theirs just so happens to be dogs.”

Hanako hummed. “Is that why Wolf is so – weird?”

Asuka nodded. “Part of it. There are a few clans in Hidden Leaves, the Inuzuka for one, Aburame, and the – Hatake,” Hanako was perceptive enough to get what Asuka was trying to tell her by lingering on the last name. “These clans, though in different ways, take on the aspects of their summons and partners. The Inuzuka and Hatake both have dog summons, but the Inuzuka’s live and stay with them while the Hatake only sometimes do. Both are very protective of those they consider to be part of their pack; they take some adjustment to get used to new people.  The Inuzuka are usually a little more laid back, but the Hatake are particularly aggressive toward enemies. They’re the last ones you want to piss off. The White Fang – he’s a Hatake – won a lot of renown in the last war by tearing apart Stone and Sand’s forces.” Asuka trailed off at this.

The violet-haired woman stared off for a moment, lost in memory before she came out of it and continued. “He’s very protective of his pack, so a stranger coming in is somewhat of a threat to him. The other part is that, like most masks who get assigned to you, he’s wound pretty tight right now. We just came out of a war but that doesn’t mean that everything wound down. He’ll get used to you eventually, he’s usually quite sweet once he accepts someone.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“Well then he’s vicious, and the scariest person you’ll ever meet. Except for maybe a couple of Shadow level shinobi out there.”

Hanako didn’t have anything to say to that and kept quiet. The explanation made sense of Wolf’s behavior if Hanako was following Asuka properly and he was from the Hatake clan. It did make her uncomfortable to think that ninja had summons. It made her think of witches and familiars, too much like magic for her tastes. The parallels were there. It did explain the people she’d seen who had what she could only explain as fangs walking with their dogs. In some cases, very large dogs. 

Asuka let the silence hang. Then, “Have you eaten yet?” Hanako replied that she had, but she could take some tea while Asuka ate. “Even better, they have coffee. Let’s go.”

True to her word, the restaurant had coffee and it was heaven. They also had some delicious pastries to go with it that offset the coffee just perfectly. A good distance from her home, closer to the administrative part of town, the shop had several shinobi clientele. Hanako still was startled at times by the abrupt actions they would sometime take, appearing and disappearing, or dropping down from the rooftops. It was more common in this section of town, as the houses were replaced by taller buildings, and the area was more densely packed. The topic of Wolf wasn’t brought up again, the two women just chatted about different things comfortably.

“What, exactly, is your business?” Asuka broached the topic at last.

“Accounting, its like money management without being a bank. I mostly give people advice as to what to do with their money,” Hanako replied. “If a client gives me the authority, I can also make small decisions for them, like sending pay-checks or paying their taxes. I try to get approval for that first.”

Asuka looked at her over the rim of her cup. “You get a lot of civilians coming to see you.”

Hanako blushed a little bit and scratched the back of her neck. “Yeah, the charity cases. I feel bad for them. I don’t really make much money from them, if at all, but I feel really bad. Husband commits suicide and wife is now in charge of money, has no clue what they’re into or what is happening. Sometimes it is families of shinobi that have died and need to settle affairs. I refer to lawyer when I can, but sometimes they just need advice.”

“Word travels fast,” Asuka replied. “You’re honest and fair. You’re making a name for yourself. Some of the shinobi have even talked about seeing you for their finances. Keep it up and you might eventually have clans coming to you.”

Hanako may have been a foreigner, but even she knew what the clans meant by now. She waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, I doubt that. Too much trouble, and they can find someone better.”

Asuka made a negative noise. “I wouldn’t be so sure. It’s a bit of a niche market. Good job security though, there’s not much competition for you to deal with.”

Hanako conceded to that. They chatted a little more before Asuka had to disappear off to somewhere and the two women said their goodbyes. She started out for home, finding some shops on the way, to purchase produce and supplies for the little house. She hadn’t been into Yamanaka Herbal Remedies in a while since there wasn’t much to do in the garden, but she still felt a temptation to go inside. Later, she promised herself.

By the time she got home, she realized that she hadn’t seen Bear at all since she had left. Eh, he was around somewhere. They always were. One of the things that had taken some adjustment was the feeling of never being alone, but always feeling lonely. Now that she was getting to know more people that feeling of loneliness was going away slowly, but it was still there a lot of the time. While she thought about her situation, she cleaned the house, sweeping and scrubbing floors clean of dirt, dusting shelves, and doing the general upkeep required of a house. By the time she was done it was late afternoon. The blonde congratulated herself on a job well done and went to go clean herself up before she enjoyed the rest of her day.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8:

Alone in the Dark


She said she told you she knows me, but the face isn't right. She asked if I recognized her and I told her I might .


Almost as if an invisible beacon had been lit, and the armies of Rohan – ahem, Hidden Leaf – poured in as soon as Hanako had finished cleaning and stepped into the shower, she heard someone enter the house by the shouted ‘I’m home!’ from the living room. From her vulnerable position in the bathroom, in the process of suddsing up her hair with shampoo, the blonde could do absolutely nothing. She fretted for a minute about what she was going to do about the sudden houseguests and how quickly she could finish her shower before a wave of sudden stubbornness hit her. The blonde certainly didn’t invite this new houseguest. They certainly didn’t forewarn her that they were going to be here. They didn’t even knock, just let themselves. Right then and there, she decided to take one the longest, most luxurious showers that she had in weeks. She reached for a conditioning hair mask that she hadn’t used in a few weeks. It would take at least fifteen minutes to properly set. When that was in and she’d pulled her hair into a wet bun on the top of her head, she turned the water on low, took out a clay mask and applied it to her face. She then started focusing on exfoliating her skin before she pulled out a razor and set to the task of removing the hair from her legs. Once that was done, there was still time that the hair mask needed to set, so carefully pulling a towel around her, she exited the bathroom and found her nail care tools and took them back to the bathroom and set to the task of maintaining her nails, pushing the cuticles back and exfoliating the dead skin from her calluses.

The entire time she was doing this she could hear various noises from the living room. There was more than one shinobi in her house apparently; the sounds of someone running the kitchen sink, laughter, and the tell-tale clacking sounds of a shogi game being set up were also making their way through the walls and under the doorway. Her name was called several times, but she refused to answer.

Finally, she decided it was time to rinse her hair out and remove the clay mask. Once her hair was wrapped up in a towel, she spent more time on her nails and moisturizing her face before she actually got dressed. The sliding glass door from her bedroom to the backyard didn’t have the curtains pulled so she had plenty of natural light spilling in. The blonde dressed slowly, leisurely taking her time. Her hair next received a good work through with some moisturizing oils. All her skin, hair, and nails were buffed, shaved, moisturized, and pampered properly. Finally, when she didn’t feel like she could delay anymore she sighed heavily, braced herself, and opened the door to the living area.

Laughter greeted her as she came out, two shinobi were in the kitchen washing and chopping vegetables while another three crowded around the dining table playing shogi. One more sat on the couch reading a scroll.

“Hey, Hanako, hope you don’t mind that we let ourselves in,” Bird said from the kitchen. “It’s Tsuda’s birthday today,” he gestured to one of the shogi players. Tsuda waved at Hanako before making a move on the board. “And none of us have apartments big enough to all get together for dinner in,” Bird finished.

Hanako was a little annoyed but tried to not let it show. If she had known that there would be a group tonight, she probably wouldn’t have minded, but as it was there was no warning, they just let themselves in. She took a mental breath. She didn’t own the house. Technically she didn’t really have a say, she never even signed a lease. The ninja, under her terms of living in Hidden Leaves, were well within their rights to show up and there was nothing she could do about it. They probably didn’t even realize that she might not like it, the rules here were different than at home.

She opened her eyes. Several large bottles of sake and shot glasses caught her attention. “Big plans tonight?” She asked.

A hand slipped around her waist and she looked up to see Sparrow. “The biggest,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows at her. She laughed and jokingly pushed him away. “Why don’t you join us?”

She hesitated to respond. “Come on, we know that you’re not working tomorrow,” Sparrow protested. “It’s Saturday and you never work Sundays.” He grinned, “We’ll keep you safe from the big bad ninjas.”

“Ninja? Where?!” Exclaimed Yamashiro from the couch, jumping to his feet comically with a knife out spinning in several directions. They all laughed.

The blonde was tempted. Very tempted. “I’ll – I will think about it,” she conceded.

“That’s almost a yes,” Sparrow said, throwing an arm around her shoulders. “Bear will have nothing to worry about.”

“Yes,” Bear said, appearing behind Bird. “Because you are the safest people in Hidden Leaves that I could possibly trust my protection client to,” the sarcasm dripped from his voice. “It’s not as though I’ve been assigned to protect anyone from harm, physical or otherwise.”

“Hey! She’d be perfectly safe with me,” Bird returned in a mock scandalized tone.

“Physically, maybe. Mentally she’d be scarred for life,” Bear replied sassily.

“That’s right, Kenta, we can’t have you scarring the poor little civilians,” Itsuo jested.

“Besides, we’re headed to the Drunken Samurai later tonight.”

 


Narrator: They didn’t.


 

Bull joined them a little before the plates were set out, still dusty from being on duty. He was promptly sent into second bathroom to clean up by Hanako, who proclaimed that he was too filthy to eat at the table with them. An extra chair was pulled up from the patio to accommodate the extra guests.

Dinner, a delicious affair which included delicious chicken skewers, grilled mackerel, a miso soup, rice balls, and tuna rolls, with pickles, salami, cheese, and crackers on the side, curtesy of Hanako. She helped make what she could, but she wasn’t very good at cooking Fire Country dishes besides a good stir fry, so the charcuterie was her contribution. Conversation was loud and lively, mostly the shinobi jesting at one another and making inside jokes. Some of them flew over Hanako’s head, but she laughed along, nonetheless.

Then, mid-dinner, the shots of sake started with shouts of ‘kanpai,’ and it started going downhill from there. Bear, prude that he was, declined to take part. Although he was probably the most responsible of them all, seeing as he was on duty. A few more shinobi joined them. Hanako didn’t take part in too many of the shots, opting to stay with her glass of wine instead, which she refilled at least twice, sharing the bottle with two kunoichi who showed up. Tsuda had taken one look at their glasses of white wine and rose and proclaimed them to be ‘girly as fuck’ and insisted they all take a shot.  Mid-way through the evening Hanako was tipsy as hell and she knew it. As she sipped her water, she watched the shinobi pound down more shots of sake. She didn’t understand how in the hell they were still standing. She had barely drunk anything in comparison to the shinobi, the kunoichi included, and they were all still acting like it barely affected them. Unless it really was acting. She wouldn’t put it past them.

She spied Bear in the corner of the room watching the events unfold like a disappointed dad with his arms crossed. Better judgement somewhat impaired, she went over to him.

“What’s deal with this?” she said, gesturing to the room. The strategy games had mostly been abandoned in favor of cards so that more people could play, and the sake was still being consumed. An old radio had been turned on in the corner, softly playing its tunes. Shinobi had sensitive hearing and too loud of music bothered them.

Bear didn’t even turn to look at her. “Deal with what, exactly? Be specific.”

“Drinking,” she gestured again. “Is unfair. I have had so little and am tipsii, and them, are like fish.”

“Fish?” Bear’s tone turned amused.

“Yes! Fish!” Hanako took another drink of her water. “Drink sake like fish swimming, but no tipsii. They fine! Not fair,” she ended crossly, as if the world was rendered broken by this injustice. 

“Shinobi can use their chakra to metabolize alcohol more quickly than civilians can, if we so choose,” Bear explained. “But you, Yamada-san, cannot, and are drunk. I recommend that you sit down and drink only water for the rest of this evening.”

“Bah, I’m fine. Look, water,” she gestured to her cup. Bear only inclined his head in response. The blonde huffed at him before making her way over to the couch. He had a point, she did feel more drunk than she had in a long, long time. She actually hadn’t drank like this since she’d been on Terra. The card game going on looked like a variation of Texas Hold ’Em, a game she had never been any good at even when she tried to learn in college. She watched for a few minutes before she got bored and went outside.

The night was crisp and clear, the air quite cold but refreshing. Once the door was closed, the noises from inside could still be heard but it was much more subdued. Since there were no outdoor lights, not really a concept in Hidden Leaves, she fished around for the matches she knew were on the patio table before she found them and lit a cluster of candles she kept out on the table for that specific purpose. A firepit would really be a nice addition to the place, she thought to herself. Once the candles were lit, she dipped into her bedroom and brought out a blanket to wrap herself in against the cold. It peaceful. The sounds of the city were still there, the night sounds of the river, the random hoots of owls, dogs barking in the distance, the murmur of shouts from various people. But there was no roar of cars. That near-constant background hum that had been taken for granted for as long as she had lived in cities. Sure, there was the city bustle of people’s voices echoing faintly, but the loud hum that had always been there no matter the time of day was now gone. The blonde had the sudden urge to walk along the river, but wrestled it down, recognizing it as a stupid-ass idea considering her state of inebriation.

“You’ll catch a cold out here like this,” a voice surprised the blonde and caused her to jump. Her water threatened to spill over the edges of the glass.

“Fuhk”, she breathed out. “Don’t do – that,” she struggled to remember the right word.

Bull took a step out of the shadows and into the candlelight. “This isn’t an excuse for a fire, and that blanket isn’t warm enough to protect against the chill.”

Well, she did have a ninja here, and they were capable of the impossible… “We do fire?” She ventured.

 


 

A few minutes and a half-drunken explanation later, Hanako was digging a hole in the ground around where she had been envisioning her fire pit would go. Well, trying. She was making a valiant effort at digging a hole in the ground.

“Are you sure about this, Hanako?” Bull asked her while he searched around for fuel.

“Yes,” she replied. “I want to do for long time. Good fire for night.”

“You’re not making much sense, honey,” Bull called back. They had decided he would search for firewood while she figured out where the firepit would go. And by ‘they’, Bull had insisted that Hanako would probably trip in the dark and break her neck in her current state, so he would get the firewood. As for himself, he was also drunk from the shots that Tsuda had insisted on, not that he would let it show.

“Gohddamm’it, ah sahd ah want ai fuhking fihr pit for ze fuhking yahrd,” he heard. Bull couldn’t help laughing despite himself. Hanako had given up on trying to speak in the Blaze dialect and resorted to her native tongue. He heard more muttering in her strange fluid tongue as he picked up more dead sticks from beyond the boundaries of the property. He fully planned on digging the pit as well but also letting her pick the spot. The last thing he wanted to do was mess up the placement of a giant hole in the ground of her precious lawn. This way, she would be the one responsible if they fucked it up.

When Tsuda invited him to his birthday celebrations, he expected it to be at the Drunken Samurai, as was tradition. When it was moved to Yamada House, as they were starting to call the residence, Bull was a little apprehensive. Tsuda was the type to intrude on others’ spaces and not really think much of it, and it wasn’t like the civilian was in a place to refuse them. When he arrived, based on the snappy way she told him to clean up all the dirt he brought with him from his mission, Bull guessed that was the case. At least the shampoo in the bathroom was a non-scented one. Usually one of the Masks on guard would refill the bathroom supplies whenever necessary.

The little civilian was the drunkest Bull had ever seen. Not that he had seen her drunk before, but she was pretty out of it, so when she left the card game and didn’t come back, he was the first to go see how she was doing outside. Bear, as much as that Hyuuga bastard insisted on following things by the book, was the type that wouldn’t interfere until she did something stupid to hurt herself. Until then he would perch wherever he chose and just watch from through the walls.

Once the appropriate amount of wood for a good-sized bonfire was gathered, he returned to the dimly lit yard where Hanako was struggling with the shovel. If he was honest, it was the saddest hole he had ever seen. An academy student could have done better. Although, on second thought, considering how drunk she was, it wasn’t too bad.

“Hanako, hand me the shovel.”

Ah goddit,” she replied testily as she tried to drive the shovel into the ground, stomping with her foot and nearly missing. That would have been a bad bruise to the arch of the foot if she had glanced it.

Bull had to stop himself from laughing and pretended to put on a stern face and took the shovel from the little drunk. Within a few minutes he had a fire pit dug that wouldn’t be in danger of throwing sparks on to the grass and starting a fire they didn’t want. Ten seconds and a fireball jutsu later, it was crackling and sending light and heat into the world. His shoulders relaxed even further.

There was a soft impact to his side and arms wrapped around his middle. He tensed reflexively. “Thanks, Bull,” Hanako murmured.

“You can call me Tetsuo,” he murmured. His arm came down around Hanako, warmth filling his chest. It was hard to get Hanako to come out of her shell. This had to be the most open he had literally ever seen her. He knew it would only last until she sobered up, and then she would be back to the cautious reserved person she usually was. While she wasn’t as expressive as civilians usually were, she also wasn’t as hard to read as a trained shinobi was. It was easy to tell that the woman wasn’t entirely happy most of the time, though it was better than it used to be. She was also often guarded around her custodians, which was almost all of the time. All things considered, she was pulling through much better than most would with a hidden core keeping it together.

Tetsuo had gotten a little worried when the White Fang was assigned a R&R rotation with Hanako. The White Fang had just gotten back from a series of especially nasty missions and was on edge. Enough so that Tetsuo and Yamashiro had taken it upon themselves make sure that she felt secure the first day with him. Not that they were worried that Hatake would do anything to her, but Hatake wasn’t exactly the best around civilians on a good day, and they didn’t need her to become terrified of shinobi in general. Since the field of calming chakra that Hanako put out disappeared whenever she was stressed—well, they were really doing it for their own selfish reasons.

 

And selfish they were; the house had become a refuge for ANBU outside of headquarters where they didn’t have to pretend to be something they weren’t. Outside hidden villages, shinobi were a myth. A phantom that people knew existed but didn’t think about because they never saw them. Inside the hidden villages, most civilians didn’t understand the true full extent of what shinobi could do and became terrified when the realized that their entire perception of reality could be controlled by a shinobi of sufficient ability. They tended to romanticize shinobi and make up their own version of how their darker aspects functioned. Even shinobi who had civilian partners and came from civilian backgrounds tended to keep those facts from their loved ones. Hanako, however, was a different case. Her appearance had led to an immediate stay with T&I and all of the tender advances the Butchers had to offer, and the Yamanaka Mindwalkers after that. Her ignorance of anything shinobi meant that she had no baseline to compare to, so even techniques as extreme as mindwalking became commonplace as just another fact of her new home. Most civilians, when they realized that a henge meant that the person they came know might actually be an imposter – well it wasn’t usually good for relationships, romantic or otherwise. Hell, it was a classified secret that mind techniques even existed, known only to Yamanaka teammates and Jounin-level nin; the official story was that the clan was one of intelligence gatherers.

Yamada House had become a place where they could relax. A harmless civilian who had gone through the most extreme vetting process Hidden Leaves had to offer, surrounded by the soothing chakra that she emitted, and the only visitors were their comrades-in-arms and allies. No spies, no enemies, no threats. It was safe, safer than some of their homes. The residual chakra meant that even when she wasn’t there, the home and the gardens surrounding it still had a calming effect. It became a place to be protected by ANBU, a precious secret tucked away in the outlying districts of Hidden Leaves.

When Hanako had started her business, there were a few who worried that it might become a problem. They worried that she might want to travel, and the denial of that freedom would upset the order that had been established between the civilian and her handlers. Hanako wasn’t allowed to leave the village without direct permission from the Lord Fire Shadow. Her papers had a Village Asset ID number instead of a Citizen ID number. Even her office was controlled by ANBU. They owned the building that she was renting from and were the reason that the price was low enough that she would select the office space she did without arousing suspicion. Almost every facet of her life was manipulated in some way by ANBU so that they could continue utilizing the resource she provided. Hell, they even went through her files to see what her clients were up to. Tetsuo didn’t feel bad about any of that, it was just a reality of life in a Hidden Village. It was the price exacted for the safety the village gave, for the security provided.

But there were times like this, when Tetsuo could see the naked sorrow on Hanako’s face, the longing for a life long past, that he did feel sympathy. He wouldn’t be a shinobi if he couldn’t compartmentalize his feelings and carry on regardless.

Hanako sat on the grass, legs pressed against her chest and her arms wrapped around them. Like a cat purring in contentment, the chakra field emitted intensified and Tetsuo felt himself relaxing. The cracking and snapping were the only sounds from the backyard for a while. They sat in a comfortable silence.

After a while, Hanako stood. Tetsuo looked at her in askance.

“Too sober, need drink,” she replied, holding up her now empty water glass in response.

 


 

 “Ready to become a fish, Little One?” Bear quipped when Hanako returned to fill a wine glass. The celebration inside had only gotten louder, and more shinobi had arrived. Several of them Hanako had a niggling feeling that she knew which Masks they were or could closely guess. Others were not known to her.

“River calls me,” she replied with sarcasm as she poured.

“Well don’t dive straight in,” he responded. Hanako made a sound at him that sounded like a hrmph, raised her glass to him, and then wove back through the crowd to the door.

“Hanako!” Bird, whom Hanako mentally renames to Kenta, exclaimed when she tried to brush past him. “Where have you been? You’re missing all the fun.”

Hanako smiled back. “We made fire in yard, just enjoying.” She gestured to the back door where she was trying to escape to. “Was little much people here,” the blonde explained.

Kenta looked at her appraisingly but let her go with a laugh and pat on the shoulder.

Outside the fire cast a beautiful orange glow on everything. The trees framing the backdrop between them and the river looked picturesque. Hanako sat back down next to Tetsuo. Their shoulders were almost touching.

“What is favorite thing about Hidden Leaves?” Hanako asked after a moment.

Tetsuo considered for a moment. “My comrades. They’d do anything for this, for me. I’d do the same for them.”

Hanako searched his face. There was no falsehood.

“The sun off mountainside in morning,” she replied.

“Huh?”

“My favorite thing,” the blonde clarified. “My favorite thing about Hidden Leaves is way sun rises in morning. Shines first on mountain, mist is on river, very peaceful.” She was honest. Over time she was coming to appreciate the beauty of the village, to enjoy its quiet mornings even if she didn’t like its winter weather. She was also coming to terms with the fact that she would likely never return home and that she had to embrace this one as best as she could. She remembers her own home and feels the pinpricks of tears in the corners of her eyes. She won’t cry. No, not now. Not in front of someone else, much less a shinobi.

“Hanako,” Testsuo said softly, catching her attention. His eyes gaze back at her, steady. She traces the scar on his face, with her eyes, wondering how he got it. She decides that she really doesn’t want to know. “Hanako, it’s alright,” Tetsuo says.

Tetsuo’s hand cups her face, brushing against her skin with his rough calluses. As soon as he does, she has a sudden spark of realization. She closed her eyes and can feel the warmth of his breath on her face, when she opens them, he is so much closer. Before she can think better of it, she leans forward and closes the gap between them.

The first kiss is tender and soft, hesitant. The second is much more aggressive and filled with longing. Tetsuo’s hand winds through her hair and he pulls her closer. He smells of woodsmoke, oil and steel, and a smell she would almost describe as gunpowder but not quite. She traces her hand along his cheek, stubble brushing against her fingertips. Warmth pooled in her stomach, her heartbeat was in her ears. When he pulls back, Hanako knows that her cheeks look rosy from the heat in them, and she’s breathing hard. She realizes how long it has been since she’s been with someone. Over a year. Most of that time here. Somewhere in the back of her mind there is a voice screaming at her to not do it, that he can’t be trusted. Hanako silences the voice with little effort. She wants so desperately to give in, and she can see that Tetsuo feels the same.

They kiss again, languidly this time, less hurried and rushed. His hair is silky between her fingers. She traces his jawline with her lips and down his neck, breathing in more of his scent. His fingers trace her neck and the line of her shoulder coming down to –

He freezes and breaks apart from her. A split second later the door to the house slides open.

“Hanako? Tetsuo? You out here?” Kenta can see them but pretends to not immediately spot them so that they have a moment gather themselves. The fire is dying but there is still enough light for a shinobi to see well.

“Over here, Kenta,” Hanako replies.

“Come back inside you two, we’re starting another game of Lightening Shinobi Bluff. Hanako, I’ll teach you how to play if you want me to.”

When Hanako doesn’t immediately respond, Tetsuo accedes in her place, saying that it’s a good idea, and he uses the shovel to cover the coals with dirt before they return inside.

Hanako watches instead of playing the poker game, her mind is still stuck on what had just occurred. She was distracted for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9:

Begin at the Top

 


Change your mind, ‘cause I wasn't thinking right. We can begin at the top. Am I waking you up?


 

‘I should never have dug that damned hole,’ Hanako thought to herself, glaring over the rim of a mug of tea at the divot in her backyard. It had been three months since that damned thing had appeared in her yard. Ah, appeared was not the right word. Summoned. Summoned by her own hand in a drunken haze when she thought that putting an unplanned hole in the middle of the fucking yard in the middle of the night was a good idea. Spoiler alert, it was not.

So, here she was, months later, still staring down a hole in her backyard trying to decide how she wanted to proceed. At this point, it would almost make sense to enlarge it and line it with large river stones. Then, there would need to be a way to ensure that when it rained it wouldn’t flood, that way it could still be used. Then, she would need to get something to sit on around it; somewhere for lawn chairs –

The blonde pulled herself out of her thoughts. She needed to figure out a lot more than how to get the hole in her yard fixed. Maybe she’d just plant a rosebush or a tree there. Oooh, maybe a bougainvillea she’d seen some time earlier at the Yamanaka Clan’s shop –

‘Stop that, Hanako.’

The rainy season seemed to be passing on; it still rained periodically but it wasn’t the constant overcast and misty weather that it had been during winter. The weather was also getting warmer, a coat wasn’t as necessary every day as it had been. During the nights, yes, but not every day.

The blonde went back inside to refill her tea before she took a brief stroll down the river. It was early still, and she had maybe half an hour before she had to get ready for work. As usual there was mist rising from the water in the early dawn. She was starting to get a normal morning walk routine going now that the weather wasn’t so god-awful miserable. Periodically she saw other people on her walks, but she’d built up a nice little circuit close to her home and not a lot of people were around there, especially that time of morning. On the way she looked for any trash to clean up as she normally did. The first few times there was a fair bit of trash to clean up. It seemed that littering was a human affliction that transcended dimensions. Now though she had gotten quite a bit of it and it was only occasional bits and pieces here and there to pick up.

Once she hit her halfway mark she turned back, still thinking and sipping tea, although the mug was almost done. The Haruno siblings whose work she’d taken on was coming along. It would be only three or so months until the elder sibling, Satoko, would come of age. While they had gone through with the shell company idea, and so far, it was working; the elder Haruno had also taken Hanako’s advice and hired a shinobi to keep an eye on the uncle. Mostly with the instruction to distract him in various ways if he came close to uncovering where the money was and prevent him from taking it if he ever did. Of course, the shinobi was also being paid out of that fund, so they had an additional incentive to keep the man off the trail. Hanako met with the young woman bi-weekly so that they could keep track of where everything was. A few weeks before a higher up Haruno clan member had finally arrived all the way from Iron country to take care of the situation. Satoko had been very excited during their last meeting, waves had already been made.

To say that Hanako was interested in what would happen to the man was an understatement. In much of Fire Country, justice was administered outside of a court system that, by Terra standards, wasn’t justice at all but vigilantism. Here, courts only stepped in if large amounts of money or nobles were involved. Past that, it was largely up to the people to enforce their own brand of justice; whether that involved hiring shinobi to dispense it when they were unable or doing it themselves depended on the parties involved. Hidden Leaves was a bit of a novelty in that the village had its own police department that focused on enforcing the Fire Shadow’s Justice within its walls. As far as the blonde could tell, they weren’t unjust or corrupt; no one that she had spoken had grumbled about them or spoken in hushed hurried tones about the enforcers for fear of being overheard. She’d heard no grumblings of unfair seizures and searches without cause. They were in a shinobi village though, and it was entirely possible that there were unfair searches and seizures, but the shinobi were skilled enough to do without the civilians knowing.

The clan system within Hidden Leaves was an interesting one. From the history books she had read about the villages’ founding, most of the shinobi villages, known as hidden villages, happened because of two or more shinobi clans came together to pool their resources. Hidden Leaves was the first and the largest village upon founding. Not only had the Uchiha and Senju come together to create it, but also their respective allies. Other clans had then joined in later at different points. The most prominent clans and political factions, though, were usually the founding groups. Within Hidden Leaves, there were some 14 major clans, and the rest were more prominent families or recently joined clans. The power fell along the lines of 3 political factions, each headed by the Senju, Uchiha, and Hyuuga, respectively. The other clans would fall in and out of line on these depending on the issues, but the those were the top three clans. Of course, all had been founding clans of Hidden Leaves.

Each district in Hidden Leaves, roughly, had one of the 14 clans in them. Since Hanako lived on the edge of two districts, her home fell on the border between the Inuzuka and Nara Districts. Technically she was closer to Nara, but for her purposes it didn’t matter. Her workplace, on the other hand, lay in the Yamanaka District. Really, the districts were defined as the areas each clan took responsibility of protection and evacuation of civilians in case of an invasion. While they had numbers, people referred to them by the clan names.

Hanako’s house came back into view. She left her outside shoes on the porch when she entered the house. There was a light-haired shinobi laying asleep on the couch covered in one of her fluffy blankets who had arrived sometime in the middle of the night. She took care to be quiet, but she had an inkling that he had awoken the moment she opened the door. She rinsed her cup as quietly as she could before retreating to her bedroom to get ready for the day. Her suspicions were confirmed when she reentered the living area, ready for work, to see the shinobi sitting at the dining table, a bowls of rice, natto, pickles, and a few other things she couldn’t see laid out in front of him.

He looked absolutely exhausted with large bags underneath his bloodshot eyes and was rather pale. Hanako fought the urge to put her hand to his forehead to see if he was running a temperature. She didn’t know Yamanaka Inotashi very well and she knew that was too much. Unless it was initiated first, she tried not to get into shinobi’s personal spaces.

“Are you alright?” She asked him. “Do you need any medicine? Should I pick something up at the market?” She placed her purse on a chair while she poured water into the teapot which had just started to whistle.

Inotashi flinched at the sound of the kettle. “No. S’just chakra exhaustion,” he mumbled before yawning. “Just gotta eat a lot and sleep ‘till my reserves are back to normal.” Hanako didn’t follow what he meant about reserves and filling them up, but she got the impression that he was spent but not sick.

“Well, you look like you’re sick. Here,” she said, placing the tea within easy reach of him and a tea cup as well. “Drink lots of tea, eat plenty, and rest up. I’m not sure if anyone is using the second bedroom right now but you’re welcome to it if it’s free.” Inotashi just nodded in response. She wanted so bad to ruffle his hair, but it was far too familiar an action to do to a ninja that hadn’t given permission to be touched. “I’ll be back around six, if you’re still here I’ll be sure to make a big dinner. There should be some leftovers and fruit for lunch.” She grabbed the lunch box she’d made the previous night for her own lunch and slipped it into her bag.

With a final command to rest and a lazy wave from the Yamanaka, she left the house, locking the door behind her out of habit. Ninja didn’t care about locks, other people did. The blonde had also seen first-hand how many shinobi her locks stopped. Spoiler alert, it was zero.

The village was coming to life. She stopped at a few shops along the way for more tea leaves and some snacks for herself. Recently she had become addicted to chocolate filled wafer sticks and there was this one small bakery that made them well enough for her to consume by the dozen. Hanako made small talk in her limited Blaze Dialect with the kindly old woman who ran the bakery with her husband.

Hanako’s official cover story was that she was from the Land of Steel, and had come to Fire Country with her father, who was a merchant. They had been attacked and he had died from his injuries after, but not before sending her on to their destination of Hidden Leaves, where he was supposed to carry out his business. Because he was now dead, the deal fell through, and there was no money for her to make her way home. For now, she was using her skills as an accountant to make a living until she could save enough to return home. Of course, the unsaid implication of that story was that her home was far enough away that she would never be able to save the money necessary and would probably end up settling down in Hidden Leaves for good. Once the bakery owners had heard about her story, the wife, Hana, had started to grill her about the foods from her home country. Hanako had done her best to explain to Hana how cakes and pies were made, drawing on her memory of making the desserts herself for holidays with her family. While Hana wasn’t making them in mass yet, she was practicing the ‘exotic’ new pastries with Hanako and a few of the regulars as test subjects. The bakery was a little more expensive than several others around, but Hana was the reason Hanako regularly came by to buy her bread and snacks.

Once she left the bakery with a bag of the wafer sticks of deliciousness, she continued on her way. More people were out and about earlier as the weather got better. She had to stop abruptly several times as schoolchildren ran by not looking where they were going. Most of them were wearing the athletic apparel that she recognized to indicate shinobi or shinobi in training. A few of them had dogs trailing after them that were obviously not strays.

Actually, now that she thought about it, the blonde had not seen any strays in Hidden Leaves. Cats occasionally, but no stray dogs. The few dogs she had seen usually had collars or Kevlar vests on that reminded her of the vests people would put on hunting dogs back home, except these weren’t bright orange. Also, most, if not all of the dog breeds she had seen were very obviously hunting or working breeds. She had seen no designer dogs, or small breeds that weren’t terriers. Even the few German Shepherds she’d seen looked closer to a Belgian Malinois, without the characteristic back curve of a German Shepherd, or possibly the disfigurement had never been bred into them here in the first place.

The office was much the same, a little warmer than it had been since the weather wasn’t quite as bitterly cold and the radiator was having an easier time keeping up. Now she kept a scarf handy for when she got chilled but wasn’t wearing a heavy shawl as often as she had been in previous months. As per usual, whoever was keeping watch this week was out of sight, in fact she hadn’t seen them at all for the past several weeks. If she hadn’t been around shinobi so much, she might have guessed that they were finally leaving her alone traverse the village by herself. She’d seen enough of them spring from nowhere that she knew that she’d never see them if they didn’t want her to.

Shuffling through a stack of papers, Hanako really felt the loss of Excel. Everything she did was now in pencil until she was certain it was correct for the official copies. She had a typewriter which operated somewhat like a keyboard, but one mistake and she needed a new copy. Most calculations were done by hand and she had multiple drafts. She’d also gotten in the habit of burning incorrect drafts instead of trashing them. Information security wasn’t a huge priority to people here, but she had no clue if there would be anyone rifling through her trash to try and steal her clients’ secrets.

Finding the right paper, she got to work for the day.

 


 

Sarutobi Hiruzen, Third Fire Shadow of Hidden Leaves, was tired. He was in his early 40’s, a rather respectable age for a shinobi. He had raised a genin team, several children, and now his genin had genin. Most didn’t live to see their thirties, and of those, few lived longer, like the Uchiha Elders Madara and Izuna who were in their early 70s. The pair were legendary greybeards in the shinobi world. Hiruzen was convinced that Izuna stayed alive because he refused to die before his elder brother, and Madara, well, he sustained himself on a steady diet of antagonism and pure spite. His heart kept beating because he knew it would inconvenience those around him. Old bastard.

Moreover, Hiruzen was tired from running a village and sending those he had come to see as his sons and daughters off to die. And now one of those that he had sent off time and time again and survived those orders, was now requesting to leave.

Senju Tsunade stood before his desk, her eyes tired and heart broken. If she had been any other, her request would have been unthinkable. Treasonous, even.

“I can’t do this anymore, Sensei,” she had said. Hiruzen had known about her struggles, the nightmares that she had after the war, and the fear she had developed of blood. She’d even reduced her role at the hospital to more of an administrative one. But this, this was unexpected.

“Tsunade-chan, are you sure this is what you want?” If it had been any other, he would have immediately refused. Even Orochimaru and Jiraiya he would have refused.

But this was one of his beloved daughters. She may have been a student, but she was more of a daughter to him than his own future children might ever be, if he and Biwako have any more children after Asuma.

“I’m useless here, Sensei,” she replied with a broken heart. “I can’t work anymore. I – Every time I try to work, all I can see is Dan in my arms again, and I’m frozen. I can’t sleep at night anymore, I see him there in the corner of my eye and when I turn to look, he isn’t there. There are enough in the hospital that I’ve trained to replace me, but like this – I’m a liability, Sensei”

Every word hit him like a hammer driving a nail home. Tsunade had been destroyed by the death of her fiancé. The pair had told few of their engagement; Hiruzen knew because he was Tsunade’s Sensei. They were to announce it after the war was over, but before it could finish, Dan passed.

Hiruzen said nothing.

“A leave of absence, Sensei,” Tsunade pressed desperately.

Hiruzen still said nothing, contemplating. This was his daughter in all but name.

“Jiraiya-kun is creating a network,” he said at last. Tsunade breathed a soundless sigh of relief. “You’ll work with him, gathering information.” He looked her in the eye. “Officially, you’ll be on a leave of absence, but unofficially, you’ll work with him in his network. We’ll keep this one off the records,” he pronounced.

“Oh, Sensei,” Tsunade breathed out, tears springing to her eyes. Hiruzen stepped out from behind the large desk and she quickly rushed to him. He wrapped his arms around his eldest student. “I lost the baby,” she whispered mournfully. “I don’t know that I can take any more.”

Hiruzen held his daughter while she cried into his chest, her sobs shaking her body. They stood for a while before she calmed enough and Tsunade moved to break free.

“Will you go alone?” He asked, pretending that her moment of weakness had never occurred.

Tsunade composed herself, wiped her eyes and cleared her voice. “With your permission, I would take Shizune-chan with me,” the blonde replied. “She has real talent and potential, but she needs training still. I can work around this obstacle with one student and enough time.”

Hiruzen nodded. “I’ll draw up the paperwork,” he said, dismissing his student.

Just before she reached the door he added, “Tsunade-chan,” she stopped to listen. “You’re always welcome home, no matter what.” She smiled gratefully before leaving.

Hiruzen sighed once he was left alone. Tsunade was always the strongest of his students, but in some ways, the most fragile. The war had piled so much on her, Nawaki, Dan, and now her child, that she could take no more. He understood her unsaid plea. If she did not go, she wasn’t sure that she would not take her own life, and for a shinobi, to take their own life while not in service to the village was an eternal everlasting shame that could never be redeemed.

 


 

 The shinobi portion of the village was in a hubbub. Senju Tsunade, granddaughter of the First Fire Shadow and student of the Third Fire Shadow, was leaving Hidden Leaves. Two of the three Legendary Three would be out of the village. Most rumors were that Tsunade was going on a mission like Jiraiya, while those who had closer ties to the hospital suspected that she was running away. Orochimaru would be the last of the three left in the village.

Hanako was quite unfamiliar with who the Legendary Three were, exactly, but she took that they were important. The middle-aged man that she bought produce was telling anyone who would listen about it.

“I saw her, I did,” he’d said breathlessly between measuring weights of beans. “She left through the main gates this morning when I was coming in with my latest crop. Had that little Kato girl with her as well, packs on their backs.”

“Why do you think she’s leaving?” Asked a dark-haired woman to Hanako’s left.

“Beats me,” the man replied. “But if you ask me,” he started even though no one had asked.

Hanako listened in idly on their chatter. She didn’t quite trust rumors, but the departure of this ‘Tsunade-hime’ seemed to be a big deal, even among civilians.

“Who are the Legendary Three?” She finally asked.

The dark-haired woman started. “Oh, dear, I had forgotten that you’re foreign and wouldn’t know. The Legendary Three Ninja are the Lord Fire Shadow’s own team! He brought them up from a genin level and now they are all jounin. They were the only survivors in a battle against Hanzo of the Salamander, he’s the Rain Shadow.”

“Named for being only survivors?” Hanako questioned.

“Oh yes, dear,” the woman said as she picked out more produce and handed it to the vegetable stand vendor. “No one survives battles with Hanzo of the Salamander. He’s as feared as our own Lord Fire Shadow or Onoki of the Hidden Stone.” She then turned to join the vegetable stand vendor in more speculation as to why Tsunade would have left.

The blonde quickly brushed off thoughts of Tsunade. She didn’t even know who the woman was. Some kind of doctor, apparently. She gathered the rest of her groceries and paid for them.

The rest of the way home she overheard snippets of conversation here and there about the woman. When she reached her little home and passed the flower beds, she started making plans as to what she would do with the front gardens for the spring. Several bulbs were starting to sprout which would turn into beautiful irises and tulips. The lights in the house were off. The blonde unlocked the door and stepped through only to let out a high-pitched scream when she was abruptly and violently jerked backwards, and three knives appeared sunken into the open door in a vertical line right where her center of mass would have been.

She awkwardly and ungracefully landed on her butt, hard. Inside the house through the open door she saw a few dark blurs flashing back and forth and heard the clash of metal on metal. “Stay back, Yamada-san!” She heard yelled back at her. Hanako would have stayed back even if the command hadn’t been yelled at her. She was frozen on the ground in shock. Another clang of metal and the sounds of porcelain crashing to the floor jolted her out of her daze and she scrambled backwards before pulling herself to her feet and fleeing toward the more populated part of town and safety.

Heart pounding in her ears, she had at least enough sense to walk once she got to where people were. If someone was after her, it would be much easier for them to find her if she was the only one running. Watching Jason Bourne movies had taught her that much. It was about all she could do stay calm. She ran through potential places to go while she walked and couldn’t come up with anything. Police station? Shops? Her office? She didn’t exactly have any friends whose places she could go to. Eventually she decided on the office; it was the most obvious but the only one thing she could think of at the time. Hopefully, it would be the most obvious, so the first option discarded.

Old Mr. Saito stopped her almost immediately when she burst inside the building. “Yamada-san, what’s wrong?” He said, shuffling over to her.

She was incoherent for a moment, her words coming out as a mixture of English and Blaze Dialect while she tried to get out what had just happened. “Attacked, at home – Shinobi fighting inside, I ran here. Don’t know where to go,” she finally stammered, repeating herself a few times to be understood properly through her accent, ready to burst into tears. Old Mr. Saito looked her over before ushering her over to his office.

“Here,” he said kindly, showing her to the break room for the building staff and pressing a cup of tea into her hands. “I need you to calm down, Yamada-san. You’re broadcasting your chakra like a beacon.”

“Broadcasting chakra, I don’t understand,” she replied. Her hands were still shaking but she was getting her breathing under control.

“Breathe, Yamada-san, breathe,” Saito said commandingly before seizing her hands in his. She felt a buzzing, almost electrical connection between their hands that sent a chill racing up her arms like adrenaline. “You feel that?” He asked roughly, and she nodded. “Good, try to pulse your chakra along with it,” he said, and the buzzing became more intense before lessening. Strangely, through the buzzing, she started to become aware of the same cool energy running through herself. It felt like the cold spike of adrenaline rushing through her veins. With some coaxing and instruction from Saito, she managed to get her own buzzing to follow along with his minutely. It felt like trying to force an involuntary chill that ran down her spine to stop.

“Good, good,” he said when she managed to make a weak pulse back. “That’s already better. You’re not spiking your chakra so intensely anymore.” He stood back up stiffly, and she felt bad. His back obviously pained him, but he had just spent some ten minutes kneeling with her to help her calm down.

“What is this?” She finally asked. Still trying to pulse her chakra like he had showed.

“It’s a basic chakra manipulation exercise for children. I’m surprised you’re even able to touch yours since you’re a civilian, but when you came in so panicked broadcasting it like that, I thought I might try.” Saito poured himself a cup of tea and refilled Hanako’s while he was at it.

Hanako took a good second look at the old man. He had scars littering his hands and a few faded ones his face as well that she had previously thought were just wrinkles and age marks. “You’re ninja,” she said in realization.

“Yes, young lady,” he replied. “Retired. I was just a young man when the village was founded.” He changed the subject. “So, tell me what you saw that had you in such a panic.”

 Much more clearly this time, Hanako relayed what had happened.

“Ah,” he said in understanding. “I’m sure your ANBU has things well in hand,” he said once she had told him what happened. “It’s good you came here, this is one of the first places they’ll look when they try to recover you.”

Hanako was surprised. “You know about –“

“About the ANBU, of course,” he cut her off. “I’m retired, not senile. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you pick a few things up,” Saito said, winking at her.

Hanako was reminded intensely of her late grandfather. Saito had a sense of humor that matched him. “I didn’t know that others realized they were around,” she breathed out in relief.

“Considering what your chakra feels like, the fact that you’re not in a lab being dissected,” Saito said, “As well as your guards, that means that you’ve been classified as an asset.”

“Dissected?” Hanako said in alarm.

Saito huffed a chuckle. “Heh, maybe a lab would be too much.” He waved a hand as if to brush her concerns away. “You’ve got a guard detail, and they won’t be happy when they can’t find you.”

“You’re not concerned about who was in house?” Hanako questioned in surprise. 

The older man shook his head. “There haven’t been any alarms sounded, you’re still here instead of dead or stuffed into an ANBU hidey-hole; it’s probably just a regular intruder and not an enemy agent. You don’t have any secret admirers that would try rifling through your panty drawers, do you?”

Hanako had to laugh at that one. “Not that I know, no.” The more she thought about it the more she laughed. The ridiculousness of it calmed her nerves some. “I don’t know what I would do if had one.” She chuckled and then groaned. “What am I doing?” She questioned, putting her head in her hands before taking a deep breath.

“There, sweetheart,” Saito said kindly. “You can stay here while you wait for your guard to come collect you. I won’t let anyone else try to take you.” He had a quiet subtle confidence in his words that made Hanako believe him. He walked stiffly, but not like a man of his age should, now that she thought about it. From what she knew of shinobi, to live to retirement age was, in and of itself, an amazing feat. She didn’t get the feeling that he was of a low rank either.

“Keep trying to stabilize your chakra like I just showed you.” With that he left to go back into the lobby to the main desk. Hanako clutched the cup of tea like her life depended on it and followed his orders.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10:

One More

 


He says, “What," so I can fall and hurt and learn but you don’t need to change a thing, that's how it is.


 

Two white masked ANBU with tiger and panda masks found her at the building a few hours later.

“Took you long enough,” she heard Saito grumble as he led them in into the break room.

The tiger masked one was in front of her in an instant checking her over for injuries. “Are you alright, Yamada-san?” A female voice asked her, hands running over her arms to verify that she was uninjured.

“I hit back hard when fell,” Hanako replied, “Maybe bruised, but am fine.” Her heart had stopped beating as hard and she had calmed down significantly, but she was still a little rattled.

“Let’s go,” the other ANBU said, twisting his hands into shapes. The tiger masked woman did the same, and there was a twisting and jerking feeling along with a rush of air. Grey smoke billowed around them and even though it was dark, Hanako recognized their new surroundings as being the roof of a building right next to where her office was. The panda masked ANBU gave Hanako a moment to let her nausea pass before he slung her onto his back piggy-pack style and the two ANBU launched off the rooftop. Wind rushed by and Hanako found herself hiding her face behind the ANBUs shoulder so that the wind wouldn’t dry her eyes so much. From the windbreak of his shoulder, she watched the city bound by. Every time they jumped off again it was surprisingly smooth and not jarring. The sensation of rising and falling with such smoothness reminded her of one time when she went on a date with a guy who took her on a flight in his two seater plane, the feeling of weightlessness and bobbing up and down as the wind buffeted the plane was rather similar to this.

As they jumped across rooftops the civilian realized that they were heading for the city center, the Fire Shadow Monuments and administration buildings. When they finally stopped, and the panda mask let her down, they were on the balcony of one of the sleek black and grey buildings close to the Fire Shadow Tower. The balcony door opened, and it was indicated for Hanako to go first. Heart rate increasing again, she cautiously walked in. Hanako instantly recognized the interior of the building as the place where she was first welcomed to Hidden Leaves. The air still smelled the same – the metallic tang of blood, sweat, bodily fluids, and that stale smell of desperation. It brought back memories of that time to the forefront.

Time froze.

She couldn’t breathe. “No,” she managed, and tried to turn back to find Tiger and Panda still blocking her way. Her mind flashed back to being bound in a chair in the dark while blows rained down on her. Blood rushing in her ears, she could barely hear anything over the dull steady roar of panic. She tried to duck past Tiger, but the woman easily caught her by the shoulder.

“No, please, no,” Hanako heard screamed and faintly registered that it was herself speaking. She scrabbled and scratched at the arm holding her, catching her nails on the arm guards the agent was wearing. Tiger lifted her by the shoulder and then slammed her down onto the ground in a takedown so that the blonde was on her stomach with her arm behind her back and couldn’t move very much.  In response Hanako kicked her legs and screamed ‘no’ repeatedly, trying to buck Tiger off her to no avail. She struggled despite the pain in her shoulder until everything went dark.

 


 

“Fuck,” Tiger cursed once the screaming civilian was unconscious, grabbing her hand which now had deep red scratches across her exposed fingers as well as her upper arm. “Little fucking cat,” she spat out.

“Didn’t expect her to panic like that,” Panda remarked dryly, picking up the now limp blonde and putting her over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry.

“I don’t fucking know why; little bitch just freaked the fuck out.”

They transported the civilian into an empty dorm room where Panda deposited her on a cot and they closed the door behind them. “Might want to disinfect those,” Panda said dryly, gesturing to the deep angry red marks, one or two of which were beaded with blood. “You could get cat scratch fever.”

“Fucking ha,” Tiger snarled back, locking the door. “C’mon, let’s go tell the captain we found her.”

Several floors down, the two reported in. ANBU headquarters weren’t a ‘headquarters,’ per se. They were a series of facilities spread out across the village. This building though, happened to house part of the Torture & Interrogation facilities along with the Village Security team. Every ANBU facility had a small barracks for those who couldn’t spare the time to go home or stay at the real barracks. This particular building housed the Village Security arm of ANBU. The KMPD policed the village, while Village Security looked after the village border and looked for intruders who passed through the border barrier without authorization. 

Their captain wasn’t happy to see them, not by a long shot.

“How long, again, did it take you to find a single civilian?” He questioned in a deadly tone. The Captain was a short Uchiha, barrel chested with thick arms, and the long black hair so typical of the prolific fighters of his clan.

“Just under two hours,” Tiger said, ashamed of their response time.

“A single, untrained civilian,” he repeated. “When Operative Toad reported an incident, it shouldn’t have taken you more than fifteen minutes to find the asset,” The Captain hissed. “Should we place a tracking seal and paint her orange, so you idiots can find her before an academy student can?”

Operative Toad had been on guard for the little civilian when Yamanaka Inotashi had attacked. Yamanaka had gone to Yamada House to recover after a mission. What he hadn’t told anyone about was the gut wound that he’d refused to go to the hospital for. By the time the civilian had returned home at the end of the day, it had started to fester, and he was in a delirious fever. Toad had saved the civilian and engaged Yamanaka to try to subdue him and told the woman to run for safety. By the time he had the Yamanaka under control, Yamada was gone. Several agents on general standby had been dispatched to help search for her. The last place they looked turned out to be the first place they should have searched.

The Captain spent a few more minutes dressing down the two operatives for their tracking incompetence before something caught his attention.

“Tiger, what is that?” The Uchiha demanded, eyes narrowed at the claw marks on Tiger’s shoulder.

Tiger’s mouth tightened in anger behind her mask at Panda’s poorly concealed shakes of his shoulders. “Nothing, sir,” she replied. “Scratch from a tree.”

Captain Uchiha didn’t look like he believed her. An internal war raged behind his eyes before he shook his head in disappointment and ordered them both to take remedial tracker training before he dismissed them. Once the pair were gone, he rubbed at the bridge of his nose. Yamanaka Inotashi was in the hospital, where he should have gone in the first place with a stab wound like that. It’d be a month at least now, before he was ready for light duty again, whereas if he’d just gone in the first place it would have been a week, tops. Toad had gotten stabbed in the fight, so there was that, and Yamada House was wrecked. Yamanaka’s feverish state hadn’t stopped him from using jutsu in a closed space, and now the house was wrecked to the point where they’d probably have to move the asset to a different safehouse. What a mess.

 


 

Hanako woke with a jolt. The room around her was dark. Some light filtered in through a high window casting shadows as it filtered through a tree. She was on a bed, no, a cot. The blanket underneath her was rough cotton. Her neck hurt as if she’d been sleeping on it awkwardly.

The civilian blinked a few times, trying to adjust her eyes to the light and see better. She identified a desk, chair, and footlocker. The air had the same stale metallic quality as the interrogation room and cell she originally enjoyed in Hidden Leaves, but the air in the room wasn’t quite the same. Dust, stale air, and stress tinged the air here. Sweat and blood was still a pervasive smell, but the undertones were different.

Her feet touched the floor with a scraping sound, her shoes were still on. She shivered against the cold air. It only took a few moments to locate the light switch by the door, which was locked, although the deadbolt was on the inside this time around. She left the lock alone and focused on the room which was now bathed in light. The desk and footlocker were empty, it looked like a college dorm room but with a furnished bed. The blonde tried the window next, putting the chair directly underneath it to boost herself up. It slid open smoothly.

Outside the night was still dark; the weather was starting to mist lightly, and she felt a cold breeze on her face. It was at least four stories to the ground with no balconies in sight. That option of escape gone, she closed the window.

Hanako stood for a few moments trying to decide what to do. Her mind was racing as to where she might be and if she was in trouble for anything. She started going through all the work she had recently been doing, seeing if anything stood out.

Nothing.

But then again, she wasn’t ‘locked in,’ per se. Maybe there was a reason the ANBU brought her here that wasn’t bad.

She breathed deeply, in and out, several times to try and get a hold on her nerves. The length of the room was crossed in just four strides to attempt to leave. Just as she was reaching for the deadbolt there was a knock.

Hanako jumped away, “Shit,” she swore with a hand on her chest. She breathed in and out again to try and calm herself, while there was another knock at the door. Gingerly, she reached out and flipped the deadbolt open and opened the door. Bear stood in the doorway, intimidating in his black and grey uniform.

“You alright?” He asked in his solid steady voice.

“What happened? Why am I here?” Hanako’s voice wavered and almost cracked.

Bear stepped forward and pushed his mask up onto the top of his head. “Little One,” he said, and his arms on her shoulders. “It’s okay, you didn’t do anything.” He said, meeting her gaze intently with his pale periwinkle-white eyes.

Hanako breathed deeply still trying to keep it together. “I don’t like this place,” she told him honestly. The blonde drank in the solid strength and stability Bear seemed to emit from his very core, trying to absorb some of that energy for herself.

“I know little one, I know,” Bear replied before he stepped away. “Come, we’ll get you debriefed and out of here. This isn’t a good place for you.” He slipped his mask down back over his face again.

Bear led Hanako down several staircases to another floor that had a confusing layout as to the twists and turns to get around. She followed until he led her into an open room which had several people in it doing paperwork and sorting through what was probably reports. In the center of the room was a short black-haired man with his hair tightly braided and pulled back into a long ponytail. It was some of the longest hair she’d seen on a male so far.

Hanako numbly listened as the Captain, a member of the Uchiha clan she noted from the red and white ping-pong paddle shaped fan crest he bore, explained what had happened. She wasn’t in trouble, after all. Apparently, the interior of her house was wrecked. The Yamanaka whom she had left to recover from a mission had an infection that he hadn’t told anyone about. He had been unconscious when she arrived home and was in survival mode when she unlocked the door, which is why he had tried to kill her before Agent Toad had intervened. The agent in question, a man in a sad-faced toad mask, was present in the corner of the room. It was nearing 5 AM, and if she wanted, Toad could take her back to her home, or she could remain at ANBU until the house was repaired.

Hanako didn’t take long to decide. The smell of the headquarters, even now, was bothering her. It smelled too similar to the interrogation rooms she had stayed in during her first days in Hidden Leaves. Even though she was trying to control it and force herself to relax, she couldn’t. Her heart still pounded constantly, and she felt like she was lightheaded constantly. She told the Uchiha as much, and didn't take long to decide.

Twenty minutes later found Hanako at her front door. At least that was intact. Toad seemed apologetic; he was partly responsible for the destruction.

Glass and porcelain littered the floor. The dining room table was in pieces, as were the chairs, coffee table, and the couch had deep gouges in it. Half of the cabinets were shattered, which was the source of the glass and porcelain shards, and plaster dust covered half the room from the hole in the wall where the blonde could only assume a man was thrown bodily through the sheetrock.  The hole, luckily for her, was only into the guest bedroom. The guest bedroom exterior door was shattered as well. But unluckily for her, the damage was not limited to the living room and guest bedroom. her bedroom exterior door was also shattered, and an assortment of knives and needles were stuck deep into her wall and bed; she could only assume that they were what had shattered the door. Several large holes and gouges were torn into the gardens, scars across all the work she had done the previous year, earth uneven and roots of grass and plants alike exposed to the elements.

Hanako stared at the damage in the early morning light. Toad shifted uncomfortably next to her.

“I mean,” he had been talking the entire time she had inspected the damage, “We can fix this, it won’t take too long. A genin team here and there and this can all be back to tip-top shape.” The civilian had been blocking him out for most of the time. His talking was mostly nervous and hadn’t really added anything useful, mostly telling her what had been destroyed when in his fight with the Yamanaka. He was walking with a limp. Hanako hadn’t missed the bandages around his chest and way he wasn’t moving his left arm. If Captain Uchiha Whatever-his-name-was had decided that Toad was fit for duty, Hanako wasn’t about to argue.

A yellow and blue pattern caught Hanako’s eye, and she knelt to press the two shards back together. A coffee cup that had been painted with bright yellow and blue flowers, one of her favorites. In the background, Toad kept blathering on about how to fix the wall. He only stopped when Hanako loudly declared her intention to sleep somehow. Toad insisted that her bed wasn’t safe, he’d have to find all the ‘senbon’ needles and pull them out, so she had settled for the ruined couch temporarily. The blanket stash had been untouched, so Hanako pulled one around her and sat there for a while, staring at the ruins of her home until she fell asleep in the morning light.

 


 

A month later, and it was April. The previous devastation had been cleaned out. The exterior doors had been fixed, though a blanket still covered the hole in the wall separating the living room from the guest bedroom. A few crews of handymen had been hired out of Hanako’s own pocket for repairs to the house; the ninja hadn’t been moving fast enough for her satisfaction. Ultimately, she decided to replace all of the kitchen cabinets, not just those destroyed, but the result was quite enough for her liking. The kitchen received a long overdue upgrade. Captain Uchiha, whom Hanako now knew better as he was involved in the invoicing and documentation process, promised Hanako that she would be reimbursed – eventually. She didn’t get the sense that she should be expecting that reimbursement any time soon and chalked it up be part of the debt she owed the world. There had to be a reason that she was sent to this hell.

Her mattress, well, it had to be thrown out. Toad, much to his chagrin, wasn't able to pull out all the needles without destroying the mattress itself. Honestly, Hanako was sure the loss of the mattress was what hit her the hardest. It wasn't the most comfortable mattress she had ever slept on, but it was hers. Every night for six hours she lay on it, and it had become familiar to her. She wasn't sure exactly how to explain it, but she still felt its loss. Her sheets and blankets which had been on it at the time also had to be discarded. Maybe that was what she felt a loss of more. She wasn't quite sure. Hanako felt herself slowly retreating back into the shell she had once been.

Ultimately, the entire experience had taught her a valuable lesson: when shinobi fought, they often weren’t the ones to pay the price for the damage they wrought. The Yamanaka – Hanako refused to think of him by his first name now – came by to apologize, he didn’t seem all that caring or sincere. Even the other usual jounin who came by seemed quite casual about the destruction and didn’t seem to realize the extent of how much it pained Hanako.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11:

Slide

 


Do you slide on all your nights like this? Do you try on all your nights like this? Put some spotlight on the slide, whatever comes, comes through clear


 

The day was bright, wind blowing gently, and birds chirping. Chatter hummed through the marketplace. Housewives shopped, children ran, and vendors hawked their wares. Not bad for a weekend. A few errant clouds rolled through the sky but the deep blue above them kept its color. The smell of a citrus stand brought Hanako closer to it as she marveled at the limes, navel oranges, mandarin oranges, and grapefruit it contained. She shifted a few aside as she searched for the best and made idle chat with the vendor.

Hanako was still an outsider with the rest of the civilians in Hidden Leaves. Not that she blamed them, of course. They were highly conservative compared to where she was from, and she was a foreigner on top of that. Remembering the small town in which she had grown up, she knew it could be a lot worse. From her own memories as a child, she remembered how many families had moved to their town assuming that they could quickly integrate into the local culture, and almost all – with the exception of those who were sports coaches or had children who were prominent athletes – they all moved on within a year or two. Hanako suspected that she got a pass for her more progressive views because she was a foreigner and ‘just didn’t understand how things worked’ here. Which was true to an extent. Hanako was unfamiliar with a collectivist culture, and some things that she would have thought were common sense just – weren’t. Many civilians bought into Hanako’s cover story and assumed that the reason she hadn’t tried to find a good husband and settle down was that she was a good and proper girl who wouldn’t dream of doing that without her father or another family head to arrange a match. They didn’t even consider that Hanako herself might have absolutely no desire to find a husband and settle down, much less enter a relationship at all.

The shinobi were much more accepting, Hanako had to admit to herself. Mostly because they were a culture apart from the civilians. The tendency to live short lives had changed something fundamental within them. With the exception of clan heirs and a few more traditional clans, shinobi settled with who they wished, and ran it fast and loose. If anyone asked Hanako, which they didn’t, she would describe them as ‘equal opportunists.’ Apparently, many shinobi didn’t discriminate between men and women when it came to their sexual partners. Sure, there were those who preferred partners to be of a specific gender, but there wasn’t really a pressure to stick with opposite genders only. It seemed that the threat of death looming over the head of each mission undertaken had an impact on the outlook of people. Although there were still things the shinobi did that were totally alien to her, Hanako often found that she fit in with shinobi better with her social views. Property wasn’t viewed the same; the concept of owning something wasn’t quite as concrete. Hanako had much more of an emotional reaction to the half-demolition of her house than many of the shinobi expected, given her conformance with many of their other views. To them, the destruction of possessions was simply something they came to terms with as a side-effect of the job and didn’t view too seriously. Things could always be replaced; some people too. Hanako found that she couldn’t fault them for the mindset once she thought about it. When life was so fleeting, what were some walls and a roof? What were personal possessions compared to one’s life?

She still had company almost every evening of the week. More and more often, there would already be shinobi at her home before she came home from work in the evenings, and more and more often shinobi would turn up for breakfast, or spend the night on her couch. Food was constantly a commodity in short supply because of that, and she felt like she was constantly shopping for it now.

Hanako displaced a few oranges during her inspection and one tumbled down off the pile. It was about to hit the ground when it was caught by a black-gloved hand. Hanako jerked back in surprise. A surprisingly kindly face greeted her.

Dark charcoal eyes framed by pale lashes looked back at her as the person smiled back at her. Some people only smile with their mouth, never letting it reach their eyes. This person smiled with their eyes as well, their entire face drawn into the gesture, creating a sincere smile. A forehead guard framed his face, his thin lips upturned in a half-smile. Silver hair was drawn back into a ponytail which swayed as he straightened and offered the citrus back to Hanako.

She took it with some trepidation and placed it back onto the stack. “Thanks,” she said before turning to continue selecting fruit. A few more and she was ready, handing it all to the vendor to weigh and pay for. To her surprise, the shinobi didn’t move on, instead staying where he was as if waiting on her to finish.

Once she paid, he fell in step with her. The sound of paws and a panting breath alerted Hanako to the presence of a very large Doberman keeping pace with them on the shinobi’s other side. He was a beautiful mottled brown and black, with tall sharp ears and a navy Kevlar vest which bore a village emblem. Hanako stopped again to purchase celery, onions, and some radishes, which increased the number of bags in her arms. She fumbled a bit with her bags but managed to count out the money without having to put any of them down, and then continued down, shinobi by her side the entire time. A few people pointed or gestured to him unsubtly. He was rather popular with the civilian populace and they didn’t exactly hide that. The blonde was relieved that the attention was on him and not her.

A sense of ingrained manners must have finally gotten to him when she purchased potatoes and the burden became rather large. “Can I get some of those for you?” It technically was a question, but he didn’t wait for an answer as he took the bags from the blonde. Thankfully, he didn’t take them all, but inexplicably managed to grab only the heaviest bags. Hanako was surprised such a decorated war hero was doing something as mundane as carrying her groceries for her.

Hanako hated it when men tried to ‘help’ and do everything for her; it made her feel like they thought her helpless and delicate instead of a capable human being. She had broken up with past boyfriends before because they had done it too often and she thought they were putting her on a pedestal instead of truly trying to be helpful.

Her load lightened considerably, Hanako stopped drooping as much. The only things left were some pastas which, were a quick grab, and chicken. While the butcher bagged her order, she also threw in some livers and kidneys as well.

Once the pair was on the way back to Hanako’s home, she was reminded of an old phrase about negotiations; the first person to talk is the one to lose.  That in mind, she kept silent as the two of them walked. Evidently, he had read the same thing because not a word was uttered on his part either as they walked. The only sound between them was the Doberman’s light panting. What was a comfortable temperature for the humans must have been more than hot for someone with a fur coat.

Once Hanako unlocked her front door, she turned to take her bags from the shinobi only for him to push his way past into the now-open house. At least he removed his shoes first, she noted bitterly. The Doberman was also well-mannered, wiping off its paws on the rug before entering and finding an out of the way spot to lay down. The shinobi knew which cabinets to put things in, so putting things away took much less time than expected. Hanako put the produce into the fridge. When she shut the door and turned around, he was a lot closer than she had expected. Too close. The kindly expression, so obviously fake now, was gone from his face, replaced by a serious expression which looked as if it was carved from stone. 

The blonde put up a hand in between them as a shield. It was ignored as the shinobi took a step forward further into her personal space. Hanako’s hand on his chest didn’t do much good as it pressed against his navy shirt. Either he was wearing armor under his clothes, or he had one firm chest.

He was the one to speak first. “I have a question for you about my wife.”

Hanako blinked. She hadn’t expected that. A threat, a salacious invitation maybe, but not that. “Alright,” she said slowly. “Let me make some tea.”

The shinobi didn’t move so Hanako had to skirt around him. Hanako found herself happy that she’d had the foresight to pick up the extra chicken livers and kidneys because when she took them out and put a few on a plate for the Doberman it perked right up and after a few suspicious sniffs started eating.

While the water boiled, Hanako crossed her arms and leaned back against the countertop. “What is your question?” She queried.

“My wife died shortly after our son’s birth,” the man started. “An assassin in the night. She protected him with her life.” The White Fang looked pained at the words. “Does your world – your home – believe in reincarnation?”

“Oh,” Hanako returned. She busied herself with pulling out some snacks from the cabinets and refrigerators and arranging them on a plate before taking them along with a few saucers to the dining table. She took the time to think, speaking idly as she did.

“My world didn’t have single religion. There were many. Most believed in heaven and in hell. Some thought of reincarnation. Others believed that dead ones would be becoming unified with stars once dead to watch over living.” She moved to pour the tea for the two of them once it was appropriately hot. “Are you wanting to know of reincarnation only?”

The White Fang waited for Hanako to take the first sip, as she had expected he would. He followed with his own only half a heartbeat later. Force of habit, she supposed. He was a living legend, according to the other civilians, even more formidable and ferocious than the Legendary Three. And here he was, asking her about the afterlife.

She decided to pretend as if he had given an affirmative response. “I grew in house with religion,” Hanako began. “In my family’s religion, all dead – good dead – are united in afterlife. Bad dead are tortured for always, in firepits and lava. But the good dead would live in perfect paradise with one another and their god.” She took a sip. “That religion, and others, had one god only. Had demon too, Deviru’, but only one. Good and bad. Other religions are like yours; have reincarnation and many spirit. I don’t know much of those.”

The white-haired man across from her lowered his head. “What does it mean to be a ‘good dead’?”

“To be good person in life. Love others, don’t do bad thing, do not lie, cheat, steal, murder, gossip, and most importantly, must have relationship with god.” Hanako replied.

The White Fang smiled ruefully, showing teeth. Hanako knew why. To shinobi, lying, cheating, stealing, and murder, were all part of their lifestyle. There were qualifications on those things of course – your allies. How could they justify themselves as good people, or the good guys, if they were fundamentally wrong themselves? Gossip? Information gathering. Cheating? You were just being smarter than the other guy. Stealing? The other person obviously didn’t care that much about their things if they’d just leave them lying about. Killing? Well, they were going to kill you first.

“I never agreed with that,” Hanako said conversationally as if the man before her had responded. “That religion was not good for me. Acted like hipocreate.”

“Hypocrite,” he corrected.

“Same thing,” Hanako brushed it off. “I think death brings peace. Whatever religion. If you pass on or stay, wait and stay with family or move on to next life. Cycle is complete, begins anew. Birth and death, light and dark. I don’t know anyone who come back. But have to believe there is peace.

“Was one religion, ancient in my world, but was religion that thought was two worlds: World of living, and world of dead. When die in living world, pass into world of dead, into Hei’diis, where would live. Then, after time, when person forgot old life, pass back into world of living. Like circle, always being born, always dying.”

The White Fang asked a few more questions about spirituality – and Hanako’s views on it – before he departed abruptly and without explanation. His companion remained for a few moments to lick Hanako’s hand before following him in a puff of smoke. She realized belatedly that his companion must have been one of the intelligent ninja animals she had heard about; a summon. She decided it was a good thing that she offered some food for it as well.

 


 

After that meeting, Hanako began to notice the Doberman around the city regularly. When she was on her way to the office, at home, on her walks, and often from a distance. Whether the nin-dog had been around before or not and she hadn’t noticed, Hanako wasn’t sure. But she did now. The Doberman wasn’t the only nin-dog she noticed but was the only one she could pair a partner with. A few Inuzuka clansmen came by her home periodically and they brought their nin-dog partners with them when they did.

Surprisingly, the Inuzuka didn’t trend toward any specific dog breeds. There were several different breeds that she recognized as Pyrenees mixes, Huskies, Mastiff breeds, and others. What she did recognize as a trend with the Inuzuka nin-dogs though, was that they were almost all very large breeds. Also, they didn’t seem to wear the same Kevlar vests as Hatake nin-dogs did. Hanako wondered why; maybe it was a mobility thing. She wasn’t sure.

Idly, the civilian leafed through a few receipts and combed through records for Mr. Eiji, her original client. She always made sure to take extra time on his documents as he was her first and original customer, and she knew that his good word had made her success possible. If it hadn’t been for his recommendations, she wouldn’t have her small business.

A few weeks before he had approached her with his suspicions that someone was taking money from his shops as his accounts didn’t have as much as they should have. The numbers worked out, but he had a feeling that there was something wrong somewhere. Hanako had agreed to take a deep-dive into his accounts and see what she could find. So far – he was right. The inventory counts paired with the sales meant that he should have a substantially larger amount of money in profits. So that meant one of two things: either someone was falsifying sales and stealing the inventory, or they were pocketing sales money and not recording the sales. Either way, the final inventory counts weren’t matching up with what should be there.

Hanako finished adding up a week’s counts and numbers and flipped another page before adding that too the ledger she had going. Working with things like this made Hanako glad that she had set up extra rules for herself. For instance, she had made it a rule that, no matter the customer, all bank accounts she had access to require her client’s signature before they would allow any changes. When she went through and cut checks for all of Mr. Eiji’s vendors and employees, she submitted a report to him with all of the numbers and receipts before he sent back an authorization slip, which she then took to the bank to order the payments. It was extra hassle, but it helped to remove her from any lists of suspicious persons when cases like what she was looking at came up.

Making notes, she tallied up what she thought were suspicious points. Really though, what Mr. Eiji would have to do is take more regular inventory counts or investigate to find out who was stealing, but she now had definite evidence to give him that someone was stealing, and it was likely one of his cashiers. Hanako figured that there was probably some moral lesson to be found there, that no matter what country, culture, or world, there would always be those willing to steal from those who employed them, and they would have excuses and reasons ready and available.

She straightened the papers; tapping them here and there so that they would form a neat and orderly stack, and slipped them into a manila envelope, which she sealed. She would make the trip across the village to give it to Mr. Eiji herself once she finished her day’s work.

Stretching arms wide and high above her head, the civilian arched her back and yawned as large as she could, taking the opportunity to flex as many of her tired muscles as she could all at once. Popping her fingers and wrists systematically as she went, Hanako got up and walked to the little kitchen to make more tea and snacks. She’d recently gained a proclivity for cured meats and cheeses, of which she had a small assortment of in the old work refrigerator. The thing looked to be about the same age as the building, and somehow it kept chugging along. It was the kind of refrigerator that could probably shield someone from a nuclear explosion. The little refrigerator that could. As she leaned against the countertop gnawing on a piece of cheese and bread, she heard a light scratching noise.

Hanako looked around, wondering if she had just heard what she thought she did. Then it came again. Deciding that it wasn’t a trick of her mind, she put down her impromptu sandwich to investigate.

The scratching noise came again from the entrance to the office. More insistent this time. Hanako opened the door, not knowing what she would find. There was no one.

A throat cleared, and Hanako’s attention was directed downward. A nin-dog. Specifically, a blue heeler nin-dog, with a vest on and scrolls tucked into pockets on the sides.

The blonde tried to control her surprise when the dog spoke. “You Yamada-san?” It said in a bored tone.

She nodded.

The dog reached back and pulled one of the scrolls out with its mouth and presented it to her. “Here ‘ya go. Message from the Boss.”

“Do I need to sign anything?”

The dog shook its head in a negative before trotting off down the hallway toward the stairs.

She shrugged and started to open the scroll. As she was about to pop the seal off, a hand touching her shoulder made her jump out of her skin.

“Jizus muther’fuhkin kraihst gahd’ammit fuk,” she squealed and about fell over. She dropped the scroll on the ground and doubled over trying to catch her breath. The ANBU who scared her looked on apathetically.

“You shouldn’t be opening strange scrolls from unknown senders, Yamada-san,” they said.

“Make noise before you do something like that,” Hanako breathed out. “Don’t do that!”

She looked at the ceiling for a moment, still trying to control her breath. Spying the scroll which was still on the ground, she snatched it up and shoved it at the ANBU. “You open it.”

The agent must have been rolling his eyes behind the mask, because he grabbed the scroll rather sassily and snapped it open with a rather dramatic flourish. A small piece of paper fluttered out which the agent grabbed easily and read, before he handed the scroll to Hanako.

 

Yamada-san,

If you will forgive me for taking up your time, would you join me for dinner tonight at 7 o’clock? If no, please send your answer with Matsu. If yes, I will collect you from your home at 7.

Hatake Sakumo

 

Hanako glanced down the hallway where the dog, Matsu, had left, narrowing her eyes at the direction the dog had taken. Either Hatake didn’t want her to say no, or the dog didn’t. Hanako wasn’t sure which.

She sighed lightly before realizing she still had an audience.

“So, what’s your reply?” He said lightly.

“Gossip,” Hanako accused. She turned and crossed her arm with a triumphant smile. “You want to know to have juicy gossip for your friends. And since there is no way to send reply, is yes.” She closed the door to the outside, taking a moment to make sure that it clicked shut.

The agent said nothing, confirming her suspicions. For people who worked in espionage, they really had big mouths when it came to their colleagues. Although, Hanako was fairly certain that they did it on purpose, and most of the rumors were false, as a countermeasure against hostile information gatherers. If the truth would get out eventually, it was easier to muddy the waters so that it couldn’t be found. Either way, shinobi gossiped like no other, even about what she would have considered non-gossip-worthy things.

She had a feeling that this one was going to be talked about though. From what she knew, the White Fang kept to a small group of people and wasn’t a social butterfly. She was curious what he wanted from the dinner; possibly more discussion? She had noticed that there were more dogs around her neighborhood that were obvious nin-dogs without any recognizable Inuzuka in sight. Although that didn’t stop their partners from doing things by themselves.

The blonde sat down at her desk as the ANBU agent strolled casually into the kitchenette and started helping himself to her food. She was too distracted thinking about what she would wear to protest the fact that he was going through her salami supply at an alarming rate. She pressed a pencil to the corner of her mouth as she thought through what needed to be done for the rest of the day. She might even take off work early today; but first she’d need to drop off papers, maybe see what clothes she had in her closet that would be nice enough to go out to eat in…

Chapter Text

Chapter 12:

Latch

 


 

I feel we're close enough,I wanna lock in your love. I think we're close enough…

 


Hanako frantically looked through her closet. Honestly, she had one or two sundresses, but she was severely lacking in the 'date-night' clothes department. Mostly what she had was either for work or lounging around the house. Before this point she hadn't had a reason for to buy anything for dates.

She took a moment to pause, relishing the light feeling in her stomach of excitement. It wasn't often in her new home that she did thing like this. If she was being honest with herself, it was one of the few times she was allowing herself to have fun. Buying new bulbs for the garden didn't count.

Finally, she decided that simple was better, and went with a black A-line tea length dress. Seeing as, you know, Hatake hadn't actually told her where they were going, she figured it was a safe bet for appropriateness. She did her makeup quickly, just making a few adjustments to take it from work to evening and pinned her hair up into a soft bun. It didn't take long for her to be ready.

Once satisfied with her appearance, she exited into the living room. There were already three shinobi in her house for the evening and another in the bathroom showering by the sound of it, one of which wolf-whistled as soon as she saw Hanako.

"Look at you, all dolled up," the kunoichi said with a wink. Two of them were wearing armor still, the purple-haired kunoichi with them was the only one who had changed out of the heavy metal plating and mail and was wearing casual clothes. Hanako noted that her hair was a deep plum color instead of its usual violet pulled up on top of her head in a damp messy pile. Since there was also someone showering in the bathroom, so she assumed that Asuka had just been the first to clean up of the four.

Hanako blushed and smiled shyly. She flopped rather ungracefully onto the couch next to Asuka. "Can you believe that this is the first date I've been on in over a year?"

Asuka grinned. "How did he ask you out?"

"He sent a dog."

"That man," Asuka clicked her tongue. "Couldn't even show up in person to ask a girl on a date."

One of the other shinobi, a man of shorter height with burn scars across the right half of his head looked over, attention caught. "Who are you going on a date with?" His voice was rough as if he had smoked his entire life.

Asuka answered for Hanako. "The White Fang himself."

"You don't aim low, do you," the man replied.

"I don't aim at all," Hanako replied in an offended tone. "He asked me."

The shinobi froze, realizing how his words sounded. "I don't – that's not, nevermind," he fumbled.

Asuka ignored the man as if he hadn't spoken and started chatting with Hanako about what had been happening in her life since Asuka had left the previous month. The two caught up for the next few minutes while Hanako waited. At one point she got water for the two of them. While they were talking the shinobi who was in the shower emerged and another took his place. Hanako had the good sense not to ask where they had been. There was no blood, but plenty of dust on them. He carried his freshly rinsed clothes with him along with dirty armor which Hanako watched carefully as he set them outside to dry along with what must have been Asuka's armor and clothes as well.

Asuka took the water from Hanako's hand gladly. There were heavy bags underneath her eyes and one of them was a deep purple that almost matched her hair, along with yellowed bruising around her temple. When she caught Hanako checking it worriedly she laughed.

"Ah, I took a hit to the forehead, it all drained down to my eye of course. Makes me look like Shinji beats the hell out of me."

Shinji, the one whom had insulted Hanako fumbled again. "I would never, that's ridiculous," he protested looking flustered. Hanako got the sense that his teammates enjoyed making him uncomfortable based on their amused reactions and laughs.

"Don't worry, darling, I tell them that I ran into the door on accident when they ask," Asuka said. Hanako raised her eyebrows slightly at the blitheness with which they were making woman-beating jokes but said nothing. Shinobi had rather stylistic brand of black humor. One of her brothers who had been a paramedic made similar jokes about relatively taboo subjects.

After a few more minutes of banter and Shinji's stammering protests there was a knock at the door. Hanako stood. "That is my cue," she said, excusing herself and gathering her purse and a light black jacket.

Sakumo was dressed simply but nicely, in black slacks and a grey long sleeve shirt. The sun hadn't yet set but the spring evenings were still chilly and the cold would set in as the light fled.

He held out his hand. She took it, nervous butterflies beating around in her stomach.

 


 

They walked to the restaurant, Sakumo leading the way. As they walked, Hanako asked questions only to receive short answers.

"How have you been since last week?" she asked with a bright smile.

"Good. It was not that bad really," he said with a shrug.

"Oh, that's good to hear. I've been busy with work; I had new client come in Tuesday and me if could start taking over payroll." Hanako shrugged, "They have a sales compensation that is little bit crazy, so it took bit of my time to set up."

"Interesting," he paused, then "Glad it's going well."

This wasn't going the way Hanako had expected it to. "Right," she said, hesitantly and bit her lip. "So, um, how's," she thought for a moment fishing for a new topic. Work obviously wasn't it. "How's your son?"

"Fine. Nothing new really. No problems."

Hanako frowned. She was running out of questions to ask that weren't too personal for their level of relationship. He was already being cagey about his responses anyways.

They continued in this manner until they reached the destination – a BBQ joint. Not one of the nice Akimichi owned ones either. The butterflies were beginning to disperse from Hanako's stomach. This wasn't exactly turning out the way she had hoped it would.

Sakumo selected a booth with a view of the entrance and took the bench with its back to the wall, Hanako across from him. They ordered quietly, her flipping through the menu examining the items. She selected some food that was a little reminiscent of home, and they settled in to wait.

"So, do you have dogs run errand for you much?" Hanako asked, wincing slightly internally as she got some of the grammar wrong. She was getting much better at speaking, but some tenses and cases still jumbled up for her.

"Halfway often; they're useful for running clan errands as well as secure messages." He sprawled across the booth seating, taking up a good amount of space. It was funny how men tended to do that when they wanted to seem attractive or dominant.

That was new information. "You're part of clan?"

He didn't reply immediately. "We're one of the smaller ones. My son stays with one of my clansmen most of the time."

"I think you stay busy. Can't be easy with many missions as you should have."

He shook his head. "Not exactly. It's not a rare problem to have."

"Do no – not clan, having shinobi. Well, what do they do?"

"The village runs special daycare centers for shinobi without clans or family."

"Ah," Hanako replied, nodding her face pensive.

Their food arrived a little later and they dug in. Hanako was pleasantly surprised with the BBQ, it was better than she had expected it would be. She fished around several times, chasing morsels around with her chopsticks as she couldn't quite grab them properly. There were one or two other customers at the restaurant that gave them periodic glances, a few of them shinobi. She guessed it was probably because the White Fang didn't go on dates very often.

"You're not talkative," Hanako said, after a while, cutting through the silence that had reigned while they ate.

"No, not particularly."

Hanako about rolled her eyes at him. She finished her food and set down her chopsticks, resolved. "Why did you ask me here firstly?" Her voice was tinged with the annoyance she was starting to feel.

Grey eyes analyzed her closely. Sakumo's casual and aloof demeanor that he had been exuding dissipated. He leaned forward, hands steepled in front of him and rested his chin to rest just above his fingers. "May I be direct?"

Hanako raised her eyebrows slightly and inclined her head.

"I'm not interested in a relationship."

She froze. That was not what she was expecting. She blinked twice. "What?"

"I'm not interested in a relationship," he repeated.

"I heard you," she replied snappily, shaking herself out of the frozen state she had been in. "If you were not interested in relationship, why ask me out?"

"Well, because I like you," Hatake replied.

It was official. This had to be one of the worst dates that she had ever been on. Hanako looked at the silver-haired man like he had a faulty circuit. "But not enough to date," she said skeptically.

She knew that Fire Country looked down on unmarried women past their early twenties, but this was a little much. Such a douchebag, she thought, staring at him. She felt her face moving into its neutral position that did when she was angry. When Hanako got angry, she didn't get loud until she was incandescent. When she was simply mad, her face went into a neutral position and she didn't say much; her voice would stay deadly calm and quiet. She would sit there, stony and quiet, listening to whatever explanation that obviously wasn't enough. Her friends had described it to her before that she looked like she was either going to eat them or fuck them, or both.

"Yes, and no." The nerve of this man. "You're a civilian," he said, as if that explained it all.

"I'm aware of fact," Hanako said levelly. "I can't melt out of wall or alter looks like shinobi. It's kind of obvious."

"Exactly. If someone ever tried to target you to get to me, then there is nothing you could do. I'm not sure I could carry that kind of guilt if you got hurt because of me."

What a load of shit! He 'couldn't carry that guilt?' What kind of line is that? The kind that naïve civilian girls are supposed to swoon over? He loved her too much to get close to her, so really, she should feel so flattered and amazed at how noble and heroic he was?

"Cut bullshit, Hatake-san," Hanako spat out. "Why ask me here? If you care like you say, would have done nothing." She could feel herself getting angrier and angrier by the second and losing her grasp on grammar the angrier she got.

He looked surprised at her bluntness. "I want to get closer to you, but I don't want you to get hurt. I don't want to promise you too much." His tone was starting to piss her off. It was the tone of a man who was confident that he was saying what he thought a woman wanted to hear. "Things like this get complicated and I'm gone out of the village on missions for the majority of the time, but when I am here – "

Hanako had heard enough. "Let guess. Want a 'friends but more than friends' relationship." She raised her fingers in quotation marks. "'No strings', 'uncomplication', you want to be close to me, but not 'too' close." Her voice was sharp in its accusations.

"No, it's not that. I –"

She cut him off. "You want to fuck me but not deal with emotion. Relationship benefit but no work. I understand," she said coldly. "Very convenience for shinobi, like having prostitute not having to pay." His eyes went wide at the accusation.

A few people in other booths were leaning around trying to get a better ear on the conversation. Hanako didn't care. She started digging around in her purse.

"If you could let me explain, you would understand better." He waved his hands in front of him in a placating gesture.

"Fuck yourself," she hissed, placing enough money to cover their meals with a tip on the table. She stood up and strode out of the restaurant ignoring the wide-eyed stares of the other shinobi patrons of the establishment, leaving the silver-haired shinobi behind.

Outside the sky was a deep blue-black, with dusk lining the western edge with an orange-red glow. The wind blew coldly, causing her to shiver and wrap her jacket more tightly around her. She walked the entire way back to her home going over the disastrous date in her mind. What pissed her off the most was that he tried to say that he liked her but not enough to actually date.

Fucking prick, she thought. If that was the case, then he should have just said nothing, not invited her anywhere, and saved her the time and humiliation of being insulted in public to her face like that. She knew that those other shinobi were listening in. The gossips that they were, likely they were curious what he had been doing with the foreigner. She knew that she'd done the right thing. If she had stayed there and even looked like she was entertaining the idea of being his fuckbuddy, then her reputation would take a nosedive.

Hanako didn't care what consenting adults did with one another, but she was still hyper-aware of how Hidden Leaves treated people by reputation. She had worked hard to make on for herself as a smart, numbers-savvy person that would treat each and every client with respect and diligence. She was not about to potentially lose any of that hard-earned reputation because some shinobi wanted to get laid, and other wanted to gossip about. If it had been a Hidden Leaves native, then it wouldn't have been such a big deal, considering that shinobi did things like that without repercussions, but Hanako was very aware that she was under much more scrutiny.

Fuck him, she firmly decided. He might be some legendary fighter, but he was still a douche.

 


Asuka's team was still at Yamada House. In fact, they had gotten very comfortable, drinking and playing boardgames after dinner. They were sprawled around the living room on couches and chairs chatting about what they would be doing during their off-time. Shinji had been explaining how much he wasn't looking forward to seeing his grandmother again after something that she had said to him before he went on their last mission when the front door burst open with the force of a hurricane.

The civilian resident of the house stormed in, slamming the door closed behind her.

Asuka, being on the best terms with the civilian, spoke for the group. "How did it go?" Asuka called.

"Terrible," Hanako replied, shivering and glad for the warmth of the house. Her jacket had not been enough to protect her from the cold, but her temper had kept her from feeling the brunt of it. She disappeared into her bedroom to change.

The shinobi all looked at one another. Shinji made an 'oooh' face at Asuka, who sighed and followed the civilian into her room. Shinji delighted in drama much more than was good for him.

Hanako was removing her dress in the bathroom and it was thrown onto the bed with considerable and violent force.

"What happened?" the purple-haired kunoichi questioned, her eyebrows raised.

"He is asshole!" Hanako cried before launching into a description of the date, pausing while she washed her face, and punctuating the story with epithets directed at the silver-haired jounin.

"Wine," Asuka ordered once Hanako had changed and settled back into comfortable clothes.

Hanako was grateful that Asuka was there. The woman had become something of a friend to her. "Please," she responded.

She repeated her tale to the other shinobi with less epithets this time and a little more detail. She snuggled on the couch under a blanket with a hefty glass of wine, eyes bright. Asuka wasn't sure that she had seen the civilian this animated in, well, ever.

The response from the other shinobi was a 'fuck him' in solidarity for the civilian. The rest of the evening was spent drinking, commiserating with one another about dates gone bad, and laughing at one another's previous misfortunes in the dating world. Hanako told a few more stories about previous dates gone bad as well.

It was as best as she could do to salvage the night. Laugh about her own bad luck in love. And life in general. Wasn't much else she could do about it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13: Runaway

 


 

Let's have a toast for the douche bags, let's have a toast for the assholes, let's have a toast for the scumbags, every one of them that I know. Let's have a toast for the jerk offs, that'll never take work off. Baby, I got a plan, run away fast as you can

 


The scratch of pencil lead on paper was one of the few sounds in the room. A breeze blew through, causing a few papers to rustle from time to time. April was a relief from the dreary winter. It was times like this that Hanako really hated having an office job. She could hear all of the hustle and bustle from the outside world and was jealous. Unfairly jealous, she had to remind herself. Though chained to a desk, she still had more freedom than many out there when it came to her life. Those outside might have more free time and more ability to enjoy beautiful days like today, but she had more financial security. Although that security came at the cost of things like this.

She leaned forward and scribbled down a few more numbers before massaging her hand and wrist. A light cough and sniffle distracted her for a moment. Hanako was brought back to the moment and reminded that she had guests. Little Haruno Souta wiped at his nose with his sleeve before his elder sister handed him a tissue surreptitiously. Satoko looked nervous but assured while she waited on the accountant to tally numbers.

After punching a few more figures into the calculator and adding and subtracting several columns, she wrote down a few summary numbers and slid the paper over to Satoko.

"This should be account numbers next month when control is taken back," she explained, walking the young woman through the sheet. "This is numbers now. Should not change unless you move money around."

"Can't I just take it all out this month?" Satoko questioned.

Hanako quirked an eyebrow. "You can, but will cost penalty, especially since contract was signed for until next month. Part of condition is to forfeit some percentage for early withdrawal, so would lose not gain," she explained. She knew what the girl wanted to do. Since the Haruno Clan's representative had come and taken the situation – and the sibling's uncle – firmly in hand and had dragged the vulture of an uncle back to the Land of Iron, she wanted to resume as much control of her late parents' assets as possible. Hanako pulled a paper out of the stack to show Satoko the terms of the investment.

As far as the inheritance went, true to her word, Hanako had devised a complicated shell game of holding companies to spirit the assets of the Haruno siblings' business away. The further Hanako had gotten into it, the more she realized that the usage of shell companies was not a strategy that had yet been created in the Elemental countries. So, the assets were safely hidden away, but still controlled by Satoko, while Hanako had placed the money itself into an investment. In return for the seven-month loan, the siblings would receive 4% in interest on the money, but the fund manager had also written in several exculpatory clauses, including one that required that the siblings forfeit 5% if they tried to withdraw early. Currently, Satoko was fifteen days or so from her birthday, and on the first business day following her birthday the money would revert back to their accounts with the interest. Not a day before. The cash assets were the first thing that Haruno Omoi had gone after as they were the easiest to trace. Hanako hadn't managed to "sell" the cash accounts like she had the other assets. It turned out that the shinobi Satoko had hired under Hanako's advice was a god-send. He had delayed, misdirected, and cast illusions on the man every time that he tried to visit the bank demanding access to the accounts. The three-week delay was enough until the main family representative arrived to drag him back. It also didn't hurt that the man was a drunk as well as a philanderer. Once the clan representative had gotten his hands on the wretch, the jig was up. Though the siblings had been placed under restrictions by their family, the two had expected the restrictions. Souta was to leave during summer to Land of Iron to finish his education by his grandfather's side, while Satoko was to stay and work to expand the business in Hidden Leaves under the supervision of another relative who was to also educate her on whatever her father hadn't yet been able to. The girl was rather business savvy, and Hanako didn't foresee her having any problems as long as she got along with whoever her clan sent.

Poor Souta, the kid basically kicked his shoes together on the floor for the next hour or so while the two women discussed the numbers and specifics of when Satoko would take direct possession and Hanako would dissolve the shell companies. He knew enough to realize that as soon as that happened, he would be leaving his sister for the Land of Iron. At one point Hanako got up and fixed a plate of small snacks for Souta and the two women to munch on. She would have served them the lemonade she had made, but since she had to hand-squeeze the lemons it was a precious resource that she hoarded for herself. And the ANBU who stole it from her when they thought she wasn't looking.

Once they were all done and finalized, the blonde saw the two pink-haired Haruno to the door. With a few final goodbyes they were gone. She looked at the clock on the wall. Around 11:30. She sat down in her chair and spun it around in circles a few times before she made up her mind. There was a little yakitori shop down the road that she really liked; whatever sauce they used was just delicious. Another spin in the chair and her mind was made up.

She locked up the important papers (you never know when someone might try to break in) and grabbed her purse. She had a few bills in it still; with as much as she dealt with the banks in Hidden Leaves, one would assume that she would carry more cash, but old habits die hard. Hanako still felt strange carrying around large amounts of cash, having spent much of her adult life with cards instead. Closing and latching the windows before she locked the door and left.

She greeted Old Saito when she came downstairs. He nodded back. "Still doing those chakra exercises I showed you, girl?" He called out gruffly.

"Every day," she replied sweetly. Since that fiasco with the injured ANBU who had been attacking everyone in feverish delirium, Saito had become much friendlier with her. The gruff old man didn't have much family left. His children had also followed the shinobi path and hadn't survived it with the exception a granddaughter left by one who had managed to live that long. They weren't on the 'long in-depth conversations' level yet, but he would chat with Hanako where he usually ignored the residents and building clients. From what Hanako understood of shinobi retirement packages and typical savings left behind by higher level shinobi, he likely had a quite comfortable retirement fund built up. Which made her think that he was working as security for the building either because he was bored and needed something to keep him busy, or he was funding a more expensive education for his granddaughter. She hadn't ever worked up the nerve to ask him which it was.

"Here," she said, demonstrating with a blank piece of paper lying on the watch desk. Hanako gummed up her best concentration into swirling the energy into her fingertips until the paper was firmly attached to her hand and she could wave her open palm around without dislodging it.

Saito laughed. "I haven't seen a face that screwed up in concentration since I was teaching my genin team." Hanako's face flushed in embarrassment. Saito waved a hand at her in response. "Keep working on that until you can stick heavy objects on your hands like that. Once you do, I'll teach you some more tricks," he said fondly.

Hanako grinned. "Does this mean I call you sensei?" She asked cheekily.

"Damned right it does," he responded.

"Want bite to eat while I'm out?" Hanako asked him.

"Dango, if you happen to pass by Madame Kurosawa's shop."

Hanako mock saluted to him and left.

On the street life bustled along. A trio of kids chaperoned by an exasperated jounin passed by headed for a ramen stand. The leader, a girl with a shock of fire-engine red hair chattered on about "the ramen, sensei, we'll miss the lunch special!" and her companions fired back denials that they wouldn't. There was something familiar about them, Hanako decided as they passed, but she couldn't place it.

She shook her head and walked on. In a village this size, there was a chance you would eventually see most people at least once even if you never knew who they were. She said hello to the people she knew, bowing slightly in the way that she had been taught. Several blocks down and she finally found the bright red and green sign of the yakitori shop that she favored. The doors and windows were kept open to the spring breeze and several tables were set up under the porch overhang outside. Hanako debated mentally for a moment before deciding on one of the outside tables closer to the side. The waiter came quickly, and she placed her order.

While Hanako waited for her order she slipped a hand into her purse and pulled out a book. The Sociopolitical Influences That Shaped the Creation of the Hidden Villages by Senju Tobirama. It wasn't quite light reading, but it was a wonderful insight into the military mentality that shaped how Hidden Leaves operated. Two of Hanako's brothers had enlisted into the military back home, falling in line with a family tradition of military service. Reading it was in a way like talking to her uncle, a career officer. He had a certain – strategic – way of thinking that showed itself even in everyday conversation. Reading this book was like talking to someone like her uncle but times one hundred. From all that Hanako had read about the history of Fire Country and Hidden Leaves by extension, Senju Hashirama may have been the diplomat who brought everyone together, but his younger brother Senju Tobirama was the real power behind the duo. Hashirama was a figurehead when it came to the founding of the village. Tobirama was the one who laid out the law, administration, village functions, and everything. Hashirama was beloved by the people, and so the books wouldn't say it outright, but in between the lines Tobirama was the real ruler.

Once her food came, Hanako found herself reading and eating at the same time. A few customers filtered in and out, but none took the tables near to her, most deigning to eat inside instead. Hanako found it very funny that thanks to the Yamanaka clan's experimental magic trick she could read just fine, but still couldn't speak well. She was the opposite of most language learners, immersing herself into classical history and literature in the new language before making herself competent at speaking.

After a little bit she finished her food. And then the blonde civilian found that she absolutely did not want to go back to the office. She could see a clock on the wall of the restaurant through a window. Another hour, then. When the waiter came by to take her plate she ordered a tea and a flakey pastry filled with sugar and nuts and kept reading.

A few pages later, Hanako's concentration was broken by a commotion building across the street from her. A little noodle stand had a few people in front of it who were getting into an argument. Shinobi, she mentally decided. The civilians weren't very big on having disagreements in public as they were usually very conscious of 'what the neighbors might think' regarding almost everything they did. It wasn't the only reason, but one of the main reasons that Hanako was as comfortable around shinobi as she was is that they were much more individualistic than their civilian counterparts.

Two, no three, men were arguing. From this distance she couldn't tell, and they were speaking too fast for her to understand more than a word here and there. She pretended like she was still reading but kept an eye on them out of the corner of her eye. Civilians were starting to edge away as their voices continued to raise. Smart – if knives started flying there would be nothing they could do to protect themselves. Usually other shinobi or the Military Police would interfere before things got to that point but there were usually stories floating around about this person or that's relative/friend that got caught in the crossfire and maimed or sometimes even killed.

She toyed with going inside and joining the other civilians for a few moments before deciding that it wouldn't escalate. Too many Leaf shinobi around to enforce the rules if there was trouble. It might be a scene, but it wouldn't be worth it for them to try anything cute.

Actually, Hanako noted with mild interest when her line of sight cleared and she got a better look, they weren't regular shinobi. That was a different uniform, she realized. Dark maroon red, with a brown heavy armored vest over it. Two of the men were not from Hidden Leaves, only one was. Scanning around, Hanako looked up to the rooftops.

There. She spied several cloaked and masked ANBU perched up high, just waiting for something to happen. They were there for intimidation, she realized. If she, a civilian could see them just glancing around and they weren't hiding, then they were making sure that the foreigners stayed under control.

As the Hidden Leaves shinobi, the one in green and blue – great coloring system to keep it straight who was friend and foe by the way – got more heated, a few more green and blue armored shinobi showed up. Several stood back observing or intimidating, whichever way you wanted to think of it, while two of them grabbed their compatriot and pulled him back. It didn't take long after that for things to die down. Hanako observed, sipping her tea occasionally as they talked some more to a few of the Hidden Leaves nin and then slunk away down the street.

"Why didn't you go inside?" A voice startled Hanako and she jumped a little, miraculously not spilling her tea in the process.

To her right, at a table between hers and the restaurant, was a shinobi casually sprawled over a chair. A chair that had been previously pushed in to the table. He hadn't made a single sound getting there, and Hanako had evidently been more engrossed and not as casual about watching the scene across the street as she thought she had been.

The blonde took a sip of tea to buy her a few seconds to regain control of herself. "I was supposed to?" She questioned.

The strange shinobi huffed. "Yeah, you were." The civilian got a good look at him. Red slashes decorated his cheeks and forehead, his eyes were a dark grey his short spikey hair was a dark cloudy color. He wore the standard uniform of Hidden Leaves, but his symbol plate thing – she wasn't sure what it was really called – was attached to a throat guard. And he was young. Like, really young. Maybe fifteen, sixteen? His face still hadn't lost the baby-fat of his teens. "Did you not see all of the sane people get the hell out of here?"

"I did," she conceded. "But also saw watchers. Foreign ones, they're not dumb. They also saw." She touched her hand to her chin and leaned forward a little. "Was risk, sure. But would be so stupid to start fight in middle of foreign land, with being outnumbered. So maybe not so risky." The blonde cocked her head to the side after a half-moment, "Also I was curious." She shrugged her shoulders and went back to her book.

He cleared his throat to get her attention again. "That," he began, "was incredibly dumb."

Hanako caught a noise of protest in her throat that came out as a half croak.

"But," he added, "you're not wrong. Those Stone fucks wouldn't do a damned thing even if Sasuke slapped one of them in the face. They'd take it if they knew what was good for them." He kicked his feet up onto the table with a carefree attitude. "So, either you're very observant, or just plain stupid." His eyes gleamed with a mischievous light.

Hanako narrowed her eyes. Obviously, he wanted her to react. She threw as neutral a look on her face as she could. "Huh, maybe," she said uncommittedly and turned a page. Then she immediately cursed herself because she hadn't read that far and had no clue what had just happened before that paragraph. She saw him frown out of the corner of her eye. She suddenly had a feeling of dread come over her and looked up at the clock, the hands were both just to the top right side. 1:10 PM. "Oh, crap," she breathed out, and started packing up her book and took the last bite out of her pastry and washed it down unceremoniously with the last of her tea.

The shinobi raised an eyebrow at her abrupt actions. "Something wrong?" he asked.

"That's my lunchbreak," she explained as she got up from the table.

Seizing the opportunity, he got up as well. "Your boss's a stickler for time, huh?"

"Not really, no," she responded.

He fell into step with her. "So, what do you do?" he asked very familiarly.

Annoyance flashed over her for a moment. "I do lot of paperwork." There. Short response. Nothing to go off of. He didn't seem deterred.

"Ahh, so do you have a name?" Hanako almost stopped up short when she felt an ominous presence that sent shivers down her spine.

"I, uh, yeah. Who are you, exactly?" She questioned, turning to face him fully.

The dark-haired shinobi looked a little off balance. "I'm Noriaki," he said and then grinned and puffed his chest out. "Chuunin combat role shinobi."

"What is that?" Hanako knew what it was, she spent the majority of her time with ANBU.

There were the main ranks, in order of skill and experience: genin, chuunin, and jounin, which each had low, mid and high designations to designate the exact position within those three ranks. However, there were also class specialties. There were a lot from what she gathered, but the main branches were Combat, Intel, and Infiltration, and a few others she couldn't remember. Maybe Medic was among those, she was halfway sure Support was another one. But anyways, she was pretty certain that there were also classifications of strength within even those branches.

Beyond those main branches, skills spread out into even more classifications. Assassination, poisons, sabotage, traps, reconnaissance, catch and kill, retrieval, combat medic, interrogation, etc. Most shinobi had more than one skill classification, usually a primary, secondary, and in some cases a tertiary skill. One of the reasons the Fire Shadow was so intimidating a figure to the shinobi wasn't just that he was smart, it was because he had somewhere in the range of six or seven classifications to his name with a high skill level. Ergo, 'The Professor.'

Noriaki launched into an explanation that Hanako halfway tuned out. He didn't stop with what he probably thought were subtle backhanded digs at how great he was and how lesser she was in comparison as a civilian. She threw in a few 'uhuh's in there. If she had a cell phone, she would have been playing on it just so that she could show how much she wasn't paying attention. What the hell was it with her and attracting these guys? Why couldn't she just find a normal guy who wasn't full of himself or didn't have to try and remind her constantly that she was a helpless civilian in comparison to him? Or wasn't so stupid as to ask her out as if he wanted to date her only to say that he didn't like her and just wanted to fuck?

"Yamada-san!" Hanako turned to see Yamashiro approaching them. Relief washed over her and she smiled brightly at him. "Who's this?" he asked when he reached the two, wrapping an arm around the blonde's shoulders.

"Umeda Noriaki," the chuunin said, bowing quickly.

Yamashiro pressed his lips to Hanako's temple in a brief kiss. "Yamashiro Takanori," he introduced himself. "Are you ready to head back?" He directed the question to Hanako this time.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm late," she replied, leaning into him and playing along.

"Ah, well, I gotta go," Noriaki started. "Gotta go train with my team." He stammered a few more excuses and then fled.

"Thanks," Hanako muttered once the guy was gone. "What in hell was that?" she asked.

"That," he said, "was Umeda Noriaki. Pathetic little shit that is always trying to get with any women he possibly can. Including those out of his league. Barely made it to chuunin rank and plays himself up every chance he gets." He gave her an extra squeeze before dropping his arm from around her shoulder.

"How did you know I was here?" Hanako asked.

"Ah," he scratched the back of his neck a little nervously, "I felt someone flare their chakra a certain – way," he said. "Felt like someone I knew so I investigated. That little shit's," he pointed the direction Noriaki had fled in, "chakra sensitivity is so dull he couldn't even feel the warning. Shouldn't've even been promoted."

Hanako nodded in realization. "Ah, so that's what feeling was," she said.

Yamashiro nodded appreciatively. "Someone's been practicing."

"I got paper to stick on hand," she said proudly.

"Keep practicing and I might be able to show you a few tricks with chakra once you get better at it."

They passed by Kurosawa's and Hanako insisted on popping in to grab dango for Saito. She didn't miss the way he protectively stood by her, warding off any bystanders that might try to approach her.

"Why did you scrare off kid earlier?" Hanako asked once they were back outside of the shop.

"It's scare," he corrected her, "and I didn't scare him off. Just let him know it was time to go."

Hanako lightly knocked against his bicep with the back of her hand. "You know what I meant," she admonished.

"Mah, you looked uncomfortable and he wasn't taking the hint." He said. "Honest," he added when Hanako raised her eyebrows at him.

"Hmmmkay," Hanako replied. "I am not in need of saving."

"Never said that you did." He smiled at her.

Yamashiro snapped his fingers suddenly. "I almost forgot, there's going to be a get-together at Yamada House tonight amongst some of us, just so you know. We'll probably already be started by the time you get there."

Hanako frowned. "Was planning on telling me?"

"Telling you now. You know how it is."

"Still, more warning would be being nice."

"It's just be," he corrected. She knocked into his shoulder again good naturedly.

They idly chatted until her building came into view. Once they arrived in front, he crouched slightly and then launched himself into the air onto a roof forty feet away, waved, and then disappeared. Hanako waved back and went inside. The dango went to Saito, who was appreciative for it. Hanako herself went back up to her office. Luckily no one was waiting for her and there were no signs that anyone had been by in the time that she had been gone on her prolonged lunch break. She was a little relieved for that, considering that she had taken twice the usual length of her lunch break today.

Depositing her belongings where they belonged, she opened the windows back up to get another breeze going in the already stuffy room and heavily settled herself down in her chair. More paperwork. Great.

She picked up her pencil and calculator and got to work.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14:

For You

 


 

For you, everything I do, every little thing I do. Since I've run away, trying make it right. So hard for me to say, trying make it right.

 


 

A hand twisted the key turning the locks on an old metal filing cabinet. Files were slotted down into the appropriate spots, further inspection showing that they were sorted first by a complicated symbol writing system, and then by a simpler 25-character alphabet. Being able to read both of those systems would have shown that the more complicated written language was sorted by name, while the simpler system was used to sort files into categories for those names. 

A split was created for the name “Eiji,” and within that divide, a file was shoved in with the self-righteous anger of one unjustly wronged. Immediately the metal drawer was slammed shut with a satisfying clang. Hanako let out a resigned sigh and leaned back against the cabinet which contained her greatest assets as well as her greatest enemy: work files. How the world operated without cloud computing, scanners, and Excel, she didn’t know. It was a complete and total hell without them. Her right hand was constantly cramped now, and she found herself taking frequent breaks to stretch out her wrist and fingers to get rid of the stiffness.

She was eyeing getting a word processor that she had seen in a store recently in the city center of Hidden Leaves. An expensive investment, but she’d rather buy a nice one than a junk one that would jam all the time. Not to mention that she finally was processing enough paperwork that it would make more sense to have something to type with than not. She used Hiragana and Katakana for most of her work rather than the more complicated Kanji that customers would see. Any files that were only for her eyes or were rough drafts were always written in English instead. So far, she had held off buying a typewriter because since the language was character based rather than phonetic, typewriters were huge, heavy, complex things that looked more like a game of hunt and peck than not. Word processors though, some new tech that had come out of Land of Tea she thought, a new import. These things used Romanji to sound out what character was desired and then select the correct one if there were multiples. Not great for formal letters but day to day, perfect. Not to mention, perfect for writing in English. It looked to Hanako like this world was treading closer to developing computers that were less than the size of a building. More PCs than IBM mainframes.

The blonde thought back to her earlier conversation with Yamashiro while she was at a small shop on her way home. She was and wasn’t looking forward to going home. Sometimes she was just too tired to be all there during the gatherings mentally, but other times she powered through it and ended up having fun. From what she knew of the shinobi, they could have been celebrating a range of things, from the safe return of a team, a birthday, a promotion, or even merely feeling like it was a good time to celebrate being alive. The blonde didn’t know what to expect when she went home. This could be a nice, chill get-together or a loud party, depending on how many would be in attendance.

Shrugging her shoulders to herself, and reminding herself that it was the weekend, she picked out two bottles of wine. Might as well be prepared for anything. She picked up a few more odds and ends that she needed, including another nail polish color she saw near the register. Since she had forgotten to bring her fabric shopping bag, she had to pay a few more yen for a paper bag to carry everything in.

Outside, the sky was starting to darken, and shadows lengthened. Most were on their respective ways home, while a few were just starting their days. Mostly shinobi, those, but a few were what Hanako suspected were prostitutes.

Lights were already on Yamada House. She heard the gathering before she saw it. Since the shinobi wards on her home kept most sound from being heard outside, it was almost like hearing loud laughter dampened through earplugs or underwater even from right outside the door. The volume spilled out as soon as she opened the door despite the open windows. Something to do with the magic wards.

The first person to greet her wasn’t a person at all. A wet nose sniffed at her thighs before she even had a chance to shut the door. Correction: Two wet noses. A mid-sized Blue Heeler and a rather large Doberman.  Matsu and – Hanako didn’t actually know the other dog’s name. She offered her hand automatically, and the two dogs accepted the quick behind the ears scratches she gave.

True to Yamashiro’s word, there was a gathering at her home. Some ten or fifteen shinobi were crowded in her living room and kitchen, a few more spilling out onto the back patio. Her prized salami and cheeses were laid out on a platter, making her heart jump into her throat for a moment and anger start to bubble at whoever had decided that of all things would make for a good party favor. From the looks of it, over half had been eaten so far. Of all the half-brained –

“Hanako-san,” exclaimed a voice, distracting her from Satan’s Charcuterie.

She turned to see who it was, items in hand as she was still putting them away. Asuka and her shock of violet hair greeted her. The blonde hugged her quickly – Asuka had been out of the village on a mission for a while and Hanako hadn’t seen her for a few months. The two started chatting quickly and catching up on what they had missed in one another’s lives. Hanako ignored some of the others there in favor of the purple haired kunoichi’s attention. She shoved the charcuterie to the back of her mind. Whoever had made it would pay, but they would pay later. A blonde shinobi gave up his place on the loveseat so that the two women could sit down. Asuka thanked him in with barely a break in her sentence as she continued to fill Hanako in on her recent exploits. Her mother had recently decided that it was in Asuka’s best interests to marry and had been parading a train of men past her, demanding that she pick one.

Hanako was a little surprised that Asuka would speak so loudly about such a personal matter in the middle of a shinobi gathering. When she expressed as much, Asuka waved her concerns off with a hand.

“Mah, they already know, it’s not exactly something the old bitch kept secret,” she said breezily.

“That’s one way to call her,” Hanako said in surprise at the epithet.

Asuka frowned and took a sip of her drink. “She earned it,” she muttered half to herself. “The pride of the Uzuki Clan, my ass.” She scoffed. “It’s not even like she was looking for shinobi men, either! They were all civilians, every single one. I wouldn’t care as much if she was at least competent in finding someone that I might like, but civilians. Does she really even know me?”

“Have you spoken to her about it?” Hanako probed. “May not know what preference really is.”

The violet-haired woman sent her a sympathetic look, as did a blonde kunoichi who was standing nearby listening in. The blonde kunoichi spoke before Asuka could. “You really are a foreigner, Yamada-san.” She continued quickly before Hanako could take offense. “Fire Country mothers aren’t just ignored. We have a rather serious familial obligation to our parents. Shinobi and those without clans are some of the only people who can defy their parents, but even for us, to talk back to your parents can be rather serious taboo.”

“And when what they want would ruin life?” Hanako said skeptically.

The blonde kunoichi perched herself on the couch arm reminiscent of a delicate bird fluttering to its perch. “Even then,” she replied. “Men get more freedom – they’re allowed to be ‘rebellious,’ but women don’t get that opportunity. Why do you think so many girls want to be kunoichi? It’s not because they want to fight and learn cool jutsu. That’s why the boys join the Academy. No, girls enter the Academy because we can be whatever we want to be, and our parents can’t tell us no.”

Hanako took a good look at the woman. Her mannerisms were delicate, her cheekbones delicate, the way she held her glass in her hand was unconsciously elegant. Her long blonde hair was swept up into a high teased ponytail, and unlike most kunoichi Hanako had seen before, she wore makeup skillfully applied, making her already striking face even more eye-catching. She made everyone around her look like a common peasant in comparison. The civilian’s automatic suspicion was that she was a spy rather than a fighter, unlike most of those who hung around Yamada House.

Asuka introduced the two blondes to one another. The elegant kunoichi’s name was Yamanaka Hayami. Hanako asked a few questions regarding the Academy and the starting ages of the children who wanted to be shinobi and how long they were required to serve for if they did. She had known, cognitively of course, that children could make a choice to be shinobi around the age of six or so, but it hadn’t really quite hit her the way it did now that they were able to make the decision against the wishes of their parents. Much more agency was given to children in this world than the one she had come from. Hanako didn’t know yet if that was a good or bad thing. Of course, the children were under their parents’ guardianship while they were in the Academy, but if they graduated and joined the ranks of shinobi, they became adults in the eyes of the laws with only their assigned sensei’s as a guardian over them. Once they graduated, their parents no longer had any real say in their lives.

Hanako took a lull in the conversation as a chance to leave so that she could change into different non-work clothes, refill her glass and snag a few of the snacks that had been placed out. Like her salami, which was being so wantonly consumed by whoever had organized the party.

Most of the shinobi were wearing either their uniforms or casual clothes; what would be dubbed athleisure in Hanako’s own world. Civilians didn’t really wear athleisure, just the shinobi. Probably because when your entire life and livelihood revolved around your physical fitness, it would reflect even in your casual clothes. She carefully laid out her work clothes out onto the hamper, taking a moment to spritz a stain remover on the neck, sleeves, and armpits of her white button-down shirt to get out any sweat stains that had gathered during the day. She looked in disgust at where the makeup stains from her foundation had made marks on the collar and spritzed that area twice. Once she’d swapped her clothes for a comfortable pair of tights and a light cotton long sleeve shirt she emerged back again.

When she returned to the living room and maneuvered around the table where a crowd had gathered around a game of shinobi beer pong, which was really just regular beer pong but with ninja cheating, she carefully maneuvered a chair out to set in the living room as her spot had been taken by Hayami. A moment or two after she sat down, she heard the clicking of nails and Hatake’s Doberman flopped down next to her feet. Remembering that nin-dogs were intelligent, she leaned over.

“We haven’t been introduced, I’m Yamada Hanako,” she said.

He lifted his pointed muzzle and looked back at her for a moment. For a moment she was about to be embarrassed for talking to a dog that couldn’t speak when he opened his mouth. “Riku. Please take care of me.” With that, he put his head back down, obviously done with pleasantries.

Hanako murmured back the proper response, only slightly subdued by Riku’s curtness, but then again, he didn’t really seem like a talker. Her attention was caught up by the game of beer pong, which looked rather intense. They weren’t opposed to using their magic tricks to blow the little balls off course, drag them to and fro, and to distract their opponents. Hanako wasn’t really cheering for either side, more excited to watch the game and the mundane, almost ridiculous usage of magic. Its casualness really drove home to her how absurdly outclassed she was in every interaction with shinobi. The best she could do with their magic was to make a piece of paper stick to her hand. Still, she watched excitedly, a delighted smile on her face, thoroughly entertained.

A short red-haired shinobi tossed his ball in a perfect arc, aimed for one of the six remaining cups on his opponent's side when it abruptly changed direction and started sailing the other way with more force than it had been thrown with. His partner batted it back with lightning-fast reflexes, and it nearly went into their opponents’ cup only to be blocked at the last moment. Cheers and jeers broke out at the last second save. The returning volley was bounced around several times. The civilian’s view was blocked by several shinobi between her and that end of the table, but it sounded just as exciting.

One thing that Hanako had observed was that ANBU weren’t all tall, heavily built tanks. There was a fair amount of them that were smaller, shorter, and far more lithe in their builds. She could almost tell which ones were in direct, heavy combat roles, and which ones were not. So far Yamanaka Hayami was the only one whom she had met that she automatically categorized as a spy-type. In a way, it was almost like trying to look at professional athletes and determine from their body-type alone what sport they played. Not always accurate, but an educated guess could get you reasonably close.

After a while, she abandoned her spot in favor of leaning against a counter in the kitchen. She still hadn’t had dinner, the snacks she had eaten so far weren’t a substitute. In fact, she was debating whether she should slip off and eat at a restaurant or snack through the fridge and run the risk of other shinobi doing the same and destroying her food supply. Considering that she had already eaten out once today, she was still waffling on the fence. But on the other hand, she could find a cheap food stand instead of a full-on restaurant. God, she missed pizza. Stuffed cheesy crust and pepperoni with jalapenos and bell peppers on top and then dipped in ranch dressing was always her favorite. She started salivating at the thought. There wasn’t such a thing here – unless she made it herself

Nope! She put a stop to the thought. There was no way she was going to try pizza dough right here and right now, especially when she didn’t know how to make it. Too much trouble.

Another cheer broke out, one of the teams had out-cheated the other and scored a point, and the opposition was taking their obligatory shots. Seizing the moment, Hanako made a slip-second decision. Grabbing her purse from its hook beside the door, she slipped out as quietly and silently as she could, masked by the sounds of the party.

 


 

The streetlights outside were already lit, the sky a deep purplish blue-black, but a blaze of red, pink, and orange still decorated the Western horizon. Dusk hung heavily while cicadas chirruped and chirped their songs. She heard the hoots of a few owls, but few other sounds rang out beside the distant barks of dogs from the Inuzuka compound. Swinging her arms loosely, she set out with a skip in her step. The civilian set off toward the city center, the only place where there would be any street food stands open in the evening. She walked for some ten minutes before she reached the area and began following her nose to whatever stand smelled best. It didn’t take long for her to home in on a ramen stand, lit aglow by its red and white lamps.

Ducking under the red hangings that gave customers the illusion of privacy, she stepped up to the counter to order. The hot steaming bowls provided a warm and welcoming contrast to the pleasantly fresh evening air. Hanako quickly placed an order for a bowl of beef ramen and settled down to wait for it. There were one or two other customers, mostly civilian save for a single shinobi – a genin by the looks of her, a cute little dark-haired pre-teen with a dusting of freckles across her face.

It didn’t take long for her to receive her bowl and to dig in. It was still slightly weird eating soup with chopsticks, but she made it work, albeit a little clumsily. The noodles were warm and settled in her stomach, making her feel satisfied as it hit the spot her hunger had created. She couldn’t help but feel a pang of satisfaction and contentment. There weren’t many moments when she felt completely at home in Hidden Leaves, but this was one of them. Ramen on a late crips Spring evening with the sounds of cicadas outside and light quiet conversation around her. She slowed down her pace of eating, intent on enjoying the moment.

When the blonde was half-way through her bowl, someone stepped under the hangings and entered the booth. She dimly heard them order in the background, but they didn’t quite register on her attention span until they sat next to her.

“Hmm? Oh, it’s you,” she said darkly as she recognized them.

Nails clicked against the floor and the sound of light panting floated to her ears.

The white-haired man at least had the grace to look slightly embarrassed, even if it was only just.

“Me,” he chirped lightly and leaned forward to grab a pair of chopsticks from their container on the counter. “Did you expect someone else?”

“Didn’t expect anyone,” she replied resentfully. “What are doing here, Hatake-san?”

“Are you, Yamada-san, it’s ‘are you,’” he corrected. “Can’t I enjoy a hot bowl of ramen on a nice spring evening with an attractive woman?”

She snapped her chopsticks at his to defend her egg from his attempt at theft. “Get your own,” she admonished.

“Now, now, no need to be rude.”

“Rude? Rude?” she replied. “After your idea of date,” she made finger quotes at the word, “I am one who is rude?”

“Ah, you’re still mad about that,” he said.

She stared at him.

“I am sorry about that; it didn’t go the way I had hoped.”

Silence.

The cook pushed a bowl forward on the counter toward Sakumo. He leaned forward to take it and started eating. In between bites, he continued. “I’m a bit out of practice,” he said awkwardly. Her expression softened ever so slightly. Sakumo it as an encouragement to go on. “What I said then, it came out a lot different than it did in my head. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings; it wasn’t my intention.”

Hanako hummed in response but still didn’t say anything. When Sakumo was about to speak again, she cut him off. “Then what were you trying to say?” she queried suspiciously.

He opened his mouth for a moment and paused, carefully considering his next words. “Unless they’re low-level shinobi, relationships between ninja and civilians don’t often work out well. The societal difference is usually more than enough to keep it from working, but there’s also the danger that enemies will target the civilian to get to the shinobi. High-level shinobi usually try to keep their relationships with civilians secret, even if they’re only, ahem, casual.”

 “I’m a high-level jounin. I don’t mean to brag by this, it’s just the truth. I don’t have much experience with dating, I knew my wife for years before we married, and she was a competent kunoichi and could defend herself. Gods help anyone who tried to hurt her.” He smiled slightly at the memory.

He paused. Hanako realized that the sounds of conversation around them had become eerily muffled and quiet when Sakumo sat down. She looked around. It was like watching a commercial on TV with the volume turned down or on mute. Sakumo had done something to quiet the noise around them.

When it was apparent that Hanako was still listening and not dismissing him outright, Sakumo continued. “I, um, what I was trying to say at the time was that I can’t be in a relationship, not a traditional one like you might be looking for. It would have to be hidden, not public, even to the general shinobi ranks. The danger that you would be targeted by my enemies is extremely high. I made more enemies in the last war than the Legendary Three. My bounty is in more bingo books than almost any other Leaf-nin.”

“Why ask me?” Hanako said, confused. “I can’t defend self, I’m just accountant. You said yourself, wouldn’t even be proper relationship.”

“Because,” he ran his hand through his silver-white hair in a stressed-out motion, “because you’re relaxing to be around. Your chakra, being around it for long amounts of time is like taking a hit of grass. The nerves, memories, ghosts, they’re not as bad. It’s why there’s a gathering at Yamada House right now instead of a bar. That’s why you’re so protected by ANBU. It’s like a shelter in a storm – sure, you can stay in the rain for a while, but sooner or later you’re going to get sick. It helps to pull us back from that edge, even if it's just a little. And since you already have a protection detail, it wouldn’t be as dangerous. It just – it didn’t come out right last time. It sounded a lot better in my head than it did out loud. So, yeah, I’m sorry,” he ended awkwardly.

Hanako nodded her head. “I see,” she said. They both lifted their bowls to drink the rest of the broth left in them. The blonde took the opportunity to turn the new revelation over in her mind. He seemed genuine to her. But then again, he could be a good actor and just saying what he thought she wanted to hear. “I accept your apology,” she said when she set her bowl back down. “You’re still an ass, but not terrible. I don’t want relationship with you though.”

The white-haired shinobi opened his mouth as if to protest but she held a finger up to stop him. “I don’t want relationship because I don’t know you well. Friends, sure, but not intimates, lovers, whatever is called. I don’t know you well and this secret –” she waved a hand at him gesturing in his general direction “—is too much. I won’t do it. But friends is fine.”

He looked levelly at her for a moment before nodding his head in agreement. “Maybe that’s for the best.” They both stood up, bowls finished and forgotten. “I’ll walk you back?”

“Sure.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 15:

Take Me Home

 


Came to you with a broken faith, gave me more than a hand to hold. Caught before I hit the ground, tell me I'm safe, you've got me now.


 

 

Asuka took one look at Hanako and pulled her to the side in the kitchen. The violet-haired woman leaned in and took a good sniff of Hanako’s hair.

“Whoa! What’s that?” Hanako leaned away.

Asuka tilted her head slightly and smiled unnervingly. “You left alone and came back with him,” she said in a low voice and gestured over her shoulder in the general direction the White Fang had gone in, “but you don’t smell like him. What happened?”

“What, no, we happened to meet outside, he walk me back,” Hanako protested.

“Mmmhmm,” like a shark scenting blood, Asuka scented a story. “You left first over an hour ago, and then he left five, ten minutes tops, after that. Then you both come back together, even though you supposedly hate him and can’t stand the asshole.” She leaned in and gave a little sniff. “And, you smell like you’ve been with him but not enough that you kissed him or anything. But closer than a casual stroll. What really happened?”

Hanako considered for a moment or two. She – well, she didn’t have many friends, and Asuka was the closest person that she could really call a friend here. The one that counted most, at least. She looked around to see if anyone was listening in – not it would actually tell her anything because duh, ninjas – grabbed an open bottle of wine and two glasses and led the kunoichi to her room. Hanako started to recount the story, making sure that she carefully recited his words as correctly as she could. Partway in, there was a small knock at the door, and Hayami slipped in.

“What’s going on in here?” she asked conspiratorially. Hanako looked at Asuka in askance.

“She’s cool,” Asuka pronounced with a nod.

“I’ll get you glass,” Hanako said, and went back into the kitchen for another wine glass for her.

They took a little bit of maneuvering to get settled and have wine poured for them all. Right as Hanako was about to start her tale, Hayami stopped her and contorted her hands in a series of shapes and signs, and then gestured for her to go on.

“What was that?” Hanako questioned.

“Privacy justu,” she replied.

Hanako shrugged, not entirely understanding what that was, and started filling Hayami in on the details of how she met the White Fang, his initial guarding, the disastrous date, and then their earlier conversation. Hayami and Asuka scoffed and laughed at the appropriate moments. When she retold the previous conversation though, Hayami couldn’t hold it in.

“He wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with a civilian because it’d be too ‘dangerous,’ but he’d do it with you because you’d be safe, huh?” she scoffed. “Bullshit.” Asuka looked like she agreed.

“How bullshit? It – it didn’t really sound right when he said, I couldn’t decide why,” Hanako said.

“Everything he told you is bullshit,” Hayami replied primly. “Yeah, shinobi don’t usually have relationships with civilians. It’s hard, they don’t always get us, what our profession is, how deeply our lives revolve around it. The only ones that really have to keep their relationships secret though are the cream of the top: kage, legendary shinobi, ones with ‘flee on sight’ orders on their heads. If you get famous enough for a nickname, then you need to watch out.”

“Then why bullshit?” Hanako questioned, confused. Hayami was repeating everything she had heard from Sakumo.

“Because if he was truthful, he would have never been seen with you in public in the first place,” she replied with a voice of authority.

“Hatake-san is an asshole,” Asuka drawled, her legs kicked up and feet resting on the headboard of the bed and her hands pillowing her head behind her, hair splayed out around her. “He’s a genius. He is one of, if not the most dangerous shinobi in Hidden Leaves. He’s a god on the battlefield. I’m glad he’s on my side. But when it comes to people, he is an unfailing asshole.”

“Like most geniuses, he is always trying to be perfect and superior to everyone else. Which is fine, when it comes to the battlefield and training. Who cares, best man wins, all that fuckery,” Asuka sighed out and held her glass for Hanako to refill. She did it with little ceremony. “He’s always trying to prove how smart he is though. It’s so annoying, and he can be such a smug know-it-all. Lording it over everybody else.”

Hanako privately thought to herself that she hadn’t personally seen that, but then again, she had only interacted with him a few times. And those few times, he had treated her like – yeah, he’s an ass.

“Fuck him,” Hanako said, raising her glass.

“Fuck him,” Hayami repeated.

“To fucking him,” Asuka thirded and giggled. “Or fucking him, or not fucking him.”

Hanako looked at Asuka with eyes narrowed. “How much have you had?”

Asuka giggled again. “Enough. Keep me away from Tsuda. We had sex on his birthday, it was bad,” she drew out the last word.

“Tsuda?” Hanako questioned. “He cute. Black hair, nice mouth. Cute little ass.”

“Hanako!” Hayami exclaimed, faking being scandalized with a hand over her mouth in a dramatic fashion. “He doesn’t have a cute, little ass, he has a big, firm, round ass.”

“Stop!”

 “Mmmm and shoulders,” Hanako continued, grinning. “Oh, gets me going!”

“So broad and thick!”

“So much must be thick.”

“And long.”

“Stop it!”

“He must be so energetic.”

“How much do you think?”

“Could go for hours.”

Asuka rolled over and buried her head in one of Hanako’s pillows. “No!”

 The other two women burst into laughter.

“Was it really that bad?” Hayami asked.

“He came and then tried to slap me on the ass but hit my hipbone and it hurt so fucking bad,” Asuka said. “And then he was so drunk that he kept asking if we had sex already and kept apologizing over and over again. I snuck out and didn’t even say anything. I don’t even want to look at him.”

Hanako made a face. “That is bad. Wait, you avoided since,” she counted on her fingers, “four months since. Four.” She held the digits outstretched.

“He was good at least, right?” Hayami said, trying to find a bright side.

“Is he here?”

“Yes,” Asuka reluctantly said.

“You avoided?” Hanako said, incredulously.

The two kunoichi looked at her.

“What? Is small house. Teeny. Have like, no privacy,” she defended.

Asuka looked ready to defend her dignity. “I’m Special Ops. I can avoid someone if I want to.”

Hayami lifted her empty glass. “We’re out of wine.”

I can’t go out there,” Asuka proclaimed. “He’s out there.”

Hanako rolled her eyes. “Fine! Fine, fine, fine, I’ll go.”

The kunoichi smiled brightly at her. “Thanks, Hanako-chan! You’re a life-saver.”

Hanako twisted her face into a mockery, imitating an imaginary dialogue, but into the living area she went, leaving the two women in her bedroom.

Walking through the door was like emerging through a sound barrier. The civilian was reminded of on time when she went into a ‘sound room’ at her old job on Terra. It was a specialized room intended to test radar systems, and every surface of the room was covered in foam pyramids. Though it was the size of an airplane hangar, it felt like the size of a small closet, as every whisper, every word, was absorbed and softened. Walking through the barrier of the magic that Hayami had created earlier reminded Hanako of the sensation that leaving that room had, as sound blossomed and expanded around her again.

Beer pong was still definitely in play, but now Hanako could smell alcohol as several drinks had been spilled. She cringed a little on the inside, wondering if it would be her that would end up cleaning it, or if some of the shinobi would be responsible enough to clean in the morning. As she was reaching into the refrigerator in the kitchen, a familiar scent reached her nose. A familiar smell.  A smelly smell. A smelly smell that smelled – smelly.

Ganja.

Grass.

The Devil’s Lettuce

Herb.

Mary Jane.

Weed.

Marijuana.

She straightened and closed the door to the refrigerator and scanned the room, trying to locate the source. It didn’t take but two seconds to see the circle that had started on the couch and sitting on the dining table chairs. The civilian rolled her eyes and set the wine down on the counter, marched over to open a window and the sliding outside door to grab a breeze.

“Hanako-chan,” a voice slurred, and a hand settled on her shoulder. She turned and saw Yamashiro. More accurately, she saw his chest. The civilian had to work hard to control her reaction. “Why are you opening the windows?”

She frowned, head tilted up to look at him. “Because is my home and I don’t want smell in house,” she said.

“It’s fine,” he said, waving his hand, and she looked at his face. More accurately, his eyes, which were red and bloodshot. He threw an arm around her shoulder. His weight caused her to stumble slightly, but he didn’t appear to notice. “S’cold outside. You’re small, you shouldn’t get cold. You could get sick.”

Hanako carefully extracted herself from his grip. “Is that true?” she questioned, with a false sense of wonderment, hoping to distract him.

He wasn’t high enough to completely take it. “Yeah,” he said, hugging her again and countering her efforts. “I don’t want you to get sick. You’re my tiny person.”

At that, he drew her in for a tight hug, and Hanako found her face squished up against his solid chest. “Mmmm,” she grunted, trying to free herself and get air. She struggled ineffectually for a few moments until Yamashiro apparently decided in his addled mind that he should let her go.

“Yup,” he proclaimed. “MY tiny person,” he said, and leaned over and pressed his lips to her forehead. “Don’t forget it,” he said gravely.

Hanako nodded at him, trying to get out of the situation. Several other shinobi were watching, she noticed. She grabbed the wine bottle and fled back to the bedroom. When she described the situation in the living room to the two kunoichi, they shrugged and suggested that they join in the smoking. She left out her encounter with Yamashiro.

 


 

 

Hanako rolled over. The room spun around her slightly, warning her that she was still drunk. It was still dark, but she could see the pale grey of early, early morning peeking through the curtains. She got out of bed, the sheets slid past her skin smoothly, and went into the kitchen. Finding a clean glass, she filled it with water and drank, several times until she felt a bit better. The room was still spinning, and she felt like she had to hold on to the counter to stabilize herself. The civilian clumsily opened and sorted through the medicine cabinet until she found a bottle of painkiller and quickly swallowed three to stave off what she knew from experience was an oncoming hangover. She stumbled back to bed, back to the warmth.

The next time Hanako opened her eyes, it was warm. And comfortable. And, slightly damp? She opened her eyes and saw an arm from the elbow down in front of her. An arm that she was using as a pillow. A very large arm. A large and muscled arm that was also slightly damp from sweat.

Another arm rested on her hip, and she realized that most of the warmth was emitted from behind her. It was a little too warm which as causing the dampness which she recognized as sweat. Hanako also became uncomfortably aware that she didn’t have any clothes on, and it didn’t appear that whoever was in bed with her did, either.

The hand on her hip moved. “Go back to sleep, sweetheart,” a voice rumbled from behind her, and the hand ran through her hair and over her cheek. “It’s early.” The blonde civilian tried to rouse herself to wake up and figure out what was going on, but her tiredness won out. She closed her eyes again with a deep breath.

 


 

 

The next time Hanako opened her eyes, it was bright outside. It only took her a moment this time to register that she was naked in bed with an equally naked man. Gone was the residual drunkenness that had dulled her mind the last time, and she registered that her mouth was parched. She moved her head to see who was in bed with her. She started a bit. Her bed was a queen size. It wasn’t massive, but it was sizeable. Yamashiro lay next to her, his large frame stretched out with one arm underneath her pillow, bare muscled chest partially exposed. His massive body sprawled over most of the bed. Hanako sat up and rubbed her eyes furiously.

‘What the fuck,’ she mouthed, eyes wide. She held a hand to her forehead, trying to remember the events of the previous night. She had dinner with an unwelcome guest, came back, had plenty of wine with the girls, and then – and then they had smoked weed with several shinobi.

Hanako didn’t smoke, and for a good reason too. She highly preferred drinking, because when she drank, she at least had control of her body. When she smoked, she felt like an outsider watching a character interacting with the world, and she could only shout suggestions to whoever was at the controls. And, she got horny. Very, very horny when she was high. 

Oh no, the memories were starting to come back. There were several drinking games, some that she participated in and some that she didn’t. Strip poker, thankfully, she had enough sense to avoid, but the bastardized King’s Cup she didn’t, and since she and Asuka were the only girls playing when fours were pulled they had to make out. Hanako and Yamashiro had been sniping remarks and flirty comments back and forth for most of the game, and after the game, she pulled Yamashiro into the bedroom after some remark that the details of which were hazy, and that was the last she could remember.

As quietly as she could, she got out of bed and padded over to her half-opened dresser and pulled out some pants and a sweater as silently as she could and put them on. The rest of the house was still asleep. She cringed immediately when she walked into the kitchen. Someone was sleeping on the couch and three futons were set up and occupied. All of them stirred slightly when she came in. No doubt they had all seen her bare ass walk in hours before to get water. Her face was red and flushed from embarrassment.

Yamashiro was awake when she returned, hands pillowing his head behind him. His dark eyes immediately trained in on Hanako. She flushed. Images scattered through her mind – lips pressed against hers, dark eyes gazing back up at her as large hands on her hips guided her up and down, hands entwined as she gasped desperately – it definitely hadn’t been a bad night.

“So, uh,” she started weakly. “Last night, huh?”

He shifted from his position on the bed and she sat next to him. “It doesn’t have to be weird, Hanako-chan.”

She leaned against his chest instead of replying, basking in the warmth of another human being. It’d been a long time since she’d been able to simply enjoy the touch of another person. Fire Country civilians didn’t even shake hands, much less hug unless they were family. And Hanako had no family.

Yamashiro’s arm came up around her and he rubbed his hand against her forearm. She turned further into him and pressed her forehead against his cheek.

“No,” she breathed out softly. “It doesn’t have to be.” She pressed her lips against his jawline.

They lost themselves in each other once. Was that really so bad, Hanako argued with herself. Nothing wrong with finding comfort in another person. He was safe, she reminded herself. Safe, reliable, and even if she didn’t love him, they could be there for each other, even if it was just for a little while.

All of a sudden, she didn’t feel quite so alone. 

Chapter Text

Chapter 16:

Happier

 


 

Lately, I've been, I've been thinking: I want you to be happier, I want you to be happier.

 


 

It wasn't hard to find the tax department. If there was one thing that governments should always do properly, it is to make filing and paying taxes easy. Shinobi flitted in and out, some in a rush, some casually strolling, and some acting like they'd rather be anywhere else. Civilians also were present, but Hidden Leaves being a military city, they were far outnumbered.

The Fire Shadow Tower Complex was a busy building. Complex, because the former village was growing into more of a city, and with that, certain administrative functions were outgrowing the original four-story tower in which it had all been housed initially. The tax department was one that had been moved out of the tower the previous year. It wasn't hard to find. Really, it wasn't. But there seemed to be a plethora of people who, for whatever reason, it was impossible to read the signs.

In Hidden Leaves, taxes were due twice a year. Hanako thought this was a bit excessive, but she knew that there were some countries that did it quarterly. She was a repeat customer of the tax department though, as some of her clients had to file for extensions or amendments. In fact, since Hanako was the first independent tax-preparer, at her request, the department created a new form just for her. It was one of the first things she had requested when she started filing taxes for her clients. Part of the paperwork for filing was a form which stated that you, the filer, were being honest and truthful and that you were aware of the consequences of lying on the filings. The penalties listed were – unpleasant. As it wasn't her fault if her clients lied to her, she immediately requested a new process for tax preparers to release her from that liability.

It took some back and forth. A lot of back and forth, actually, most of it written down so that there was no mistranslating, but Hanako had gotten to know many of the women who worked in the tax department very well. Unlike most of the civilians who came in and out of the tax department, Hanako wasn't sullen and reluctant to be there. Hanako had witnessed an old woman cursing out one of the clerks one time. It hadn't been pretty. After about ten minutes of enduring the bile coming out of the old woman's house, two active duty chuunin intervened and removed her from the building.

Apparently, the need to speak to the manager was universal.

She was still thinking about it an hour after she'd left the building. There had been no intervention by the armed guards, no matter what the old woman had said. None, up until the words 'if that old Fire Shadow' dropped from her lips. She hadn't even finished whatever obviously slanderous thing she was about to utter before she had been summarily removed.

It reinforced how far from home she was. She had gone from a country where hating on the leader was a national pastime, to one where even starting a sentence derogatorily about the leader was actively prohibited. She was in a military dictatorship.

Really, it should have been obvious from the start, even if it hadn't been for her initial welcome to the village. She never heard any civilians talking about the military side of the village. Besides talking about individual shinobi, they were always careful to never express opinions about the administration, its leader, the laws, etc. Hanako had just followed along, sensing that it was a taboo topic. It wasn't like she was fluent enough to discuss it either.

She was thinking about it at a small lunch place close to the administration complex; it was around a 30-minute walk from her office to the complex, so she decided it was easier to just eat out instead of getting hangry in the amount of time it would take to get back.

The blonde civilian was pulled out of her thoughts when a shinobi stood in front of her. Small, young, but confident. No Kevlar vest. Maybe an experienced genin?

She awkwardly stared at him, and he stared back. She waited for him to say something. He didn't. She took another bite of her yakitori. Chewed for a bit. Chewed longer. It was amazing how long it took to chew when someone was waiting for you to say something. She swallowed.

"Can I help you?" She slowly said in a tone more confused than she actually was. Shinobi tended to underestimate civilians by a long shot. Especially if they pretended to take longer than necessary to ask obvious questions. The older the shinobi, the less they tended to do this, but younger ones seemed to be cocky and sure of their intelligence and place in the hierarchy and were often gullible to the tactic.

While technically treated as adults in a legal sense, genin were by no means treated by the elder shinobi as adults. They were a good hop and a skip above civilians, but genin were baby ninja. The civilian age of majority was eighteen, but little ninja weren't treated like adults until they reached the age of seventeen, or chuunin rank, whichever came first, and sometimes even then, in the case of prodigies that reached higher ranks too young.

The genin bowed slightly in greeting. "Your presence is requested for a meeting with one of your clients, Yamada-san."

"When?" Hanako took another bite of her yakitori.

"As soon as possible, Yamada-san," was the reply.

"Emeregency, yeah?"

A head shake was the reply.

Hanko hummed and finished eating the last few bites of her meal. She was mostly done anyways. Then genin awkwardly stood there waiting on her. Once she had finished with her meal and paid, she rose to follow. The young shinobi looked rather impatient and like he wanted to run ahead of her but was just barely containing his energy.

The genin led her down several streets into an area of Hidden Leaves that she was entirely unfamiliar with. Hanako lived in the north-eastern part of Hidden Leaves, and her offices were in a neighboring district. Besides the rare business that took her to the village administration or the city center, she didn't venture far outside of those areas. They were now in what, by Hanako's mental map and estimation of the village layout, was the south-western part. If she was correct, there were a few clan districts in this area, namely the Hyuuga and Uchiha clans, along with a few other large ones, but those were the names she was most familiar with, as they were rather influential in the village's business and political interests.

After about ten minutes of walking, the genin took a rather abrupt right-hand turn through a gate. Before following, Hanako stopped and looked at the symbol above the entrance.

Huh. A large red swirl. More accurately, a red and black spiral that made a single turn within itself. Simple, but familiar. Ah, she thought. She'd seen the symbol on the backs of every Kevlar vest she saw on chuunin and jounin shinobi.

She realized that this was an entrance to a clan district, which one, she wasn't sure. She followed after the genin who had now stopped to make sure she was still following and was waiting for her to catch up.

Within Hidden Leaves, there was a myriad of hair and eye colors. From what Hanako had understood when she finally asked about it, chakra manipulation caused interesting mutations within shinobi, and after a generation or two of it, children would usually be born with unusual hair and eye colors. This then permeated into the civilian population as children born to civilians were sometimes the result of – ahem – indiscretions. After generations upon generations of shinobi, it was common to see people with hair and eyes in colors not found in nature, even sometimes in otherwise complete civilians. Now, it was common enough that the only thing it would indicate was how much interaction an area had with chakra manipulators, shinobi or otherwise, over time.

There were, however, specific characteristics that tended to come out more in certain clans than others. The white hair and steel colored eyes of the Hatake for example, the blonde hair and pupil-less eyes of the Yamanaka, and the fire-engine-red hair of the Uzumaki.

After seeing the tenth person with a shock of brilliant red hair that wouldn't look out of place on a fifty-year-old woman experiencing a mid-life crisis after ending her thirty-year marriage in a messy divorce and declaring that she was going to live her life now, goddamnit! Hanako realized which clan district she was in.

The same red and black spiral adorned many houses and gates as well as quite a few of the small shops that were built around the streets. Many of the roads were lined by walls, over the tops of which Hanako could spot rooves, fencing in the spacious yards of many of the residences. It was through the pretty arched gate of one of these homes that Hanako was led through. As she toed off her shoes to enter into the house, a custom she didn't really mind as it helped to keep dirt from getting tracked inside, she heard from inside the tail end of an argument.

"—I won't, and you can't make me!" A shrill young voice shrieked before the door was thrown open and a red-haired preteen girl blew through grabbing shoes on the way out and disappearing within the space of a few seconds.

Hanako and the genin watched awkwardly, frozen in place, not sure what to do.

A sigh drew her attention. A dark red-haired woman in her mid-to-late thirties appeared at the doorway.

"I'm sorry you had to witness that," she said wearily. She then recognized them, or more specifically, recognized Hanako. "Ah, Yamada-san, welcome. Please, come in," she said, bowing to her.

Hanako returned the bow politely. The genin immediately left. Evidently, he was just a messenger.

The house was built in a traditional style, created by support beams of wood, and walls of wood and paper, with the flooring created by mats. Hanako felt a little out of place in her modern business-clothes. Her host was dressed in much more traditional clothing and looked much more at ease in the traditional setting than Hanako herself.

Once they were seated in front of a low table, both sitting in a style Hanako had been reassured was traditional and formal for women, the woman introduced herself as Uzumaki Mitama. They exchanged the formal words of introduction and pleasantries about the weather and the village at large. Mitama was much more graceful and at ease in the uncomfortable position than Hanako was. She wasn't going through the formal tea pouring ceremony that Hanako had once sat through with a client at a teahouse. Hanako was relieved for that. When she had gone through a highly formal tea ceremony, she had to fall back on the excuse that she was a foreigner and unfamiliar with the ceremony, and had mostly sat there awkwardly not knowing what to do.

"You may be wondering why I have invited you here," she said finally once the tea was poured and they had both taken a sip.

Hanako nodded. "I admit, am confused. I don't think I have done work for Uzumaki before," she replied.

"Ah," Mitama said. "I don't exactly require your financial services," she put her cup down.

"Hmm?"

"I have heard about you," Mitama said. "Your chakra has become a subject of interest among some of the ranks of the village."

Hanako was confused. "It has?" She said slowly.

She knew, on an abstract level, that her chakra radiated a calming and soothing presence to shinobi, but she didn't think it was that significant.

Mitama didn't say anything, and Hanako felt obligated to fill the silence. "Shinobi can make illusions, jump over houses, melt out of wall. Why would my chakra be interesting? Surely must be others can do what I do," she said dismissively.

The redhead smiled innocently. "You would be surprised. For all that we're good at being sneaky and killing others, we're not that good at putting people back together afterward." She took a sip of tea. "Short of genjutsu, it's hard to affect someone's emotions without being personally close to them in a positive way."

"Genjutsu," Hanako rolled the half-familiar word around on her tongue. "You mean illusion, magic like creating sound or vision of thing not there?"

Mitama laughed lightly and politely. "No such thing as magic," she quickly replied. "Just jutsu. But yes, genjutsu deals with creating an illusion to fool any of the senses." Her tone returned to its previous levelness. "Are you aware of killing intent?"

"Like wanting to kill someone?" Hanako cocked her head to the side in curiosity.

"I will demonstrate," Mitama said.

It was the only warning Hanako had before she felt a heavy pressure in the air. Her stomach dropped, and she gained a cold feeling in her chest that she recognized as adrenaline, and it became hard for her to breathe. Chills ran down her spine and limbs, and she felt an overwhelming urge to make herself small and unthreatening. Her teacup fell from her fingers onto the table and spilled hot liquid onto the surface as it clattered onto the saucer. It felt like her time spent in interrogation all over again. Hanako was frozen in place and couldn't move. A dark blur of movement appeared as Hanako felt herself being yanked back by her shirt and she ungracefully sprawled onto the floor on her side as a grey and black armored figure stood in a defensive stance between Mitama and Hanako, short sword drawn.

Mitama still hadn't moved from her place even faced down with an armed ANBU. The two stared at each other and the pressure seemed to double. Hanako felt nauseous and could only stare. The heavy cold pressure persisted for a few more heartbeats before it suddenly let up and disappeared.

Hanako choked and gasped as the ability to breathe flooded back to her and her lungs remembered that she was out of air. She panted to regain her breath as her heartbeat raced, pounding in her ears, and she righted herself.

Hanako's silent guardian didn't move for a moment, sword still at a ready position, before he straightened and sheathed his weapon. Mitama moved to clean up the tea that had been spilled as he smoothly turned to help Hanako up. His hands were surprisingly gentle, and the white porcelain animal mask of what Hanako thought might be a marten, weasel, or another mustelid, showed no emotion, but as he gently brought her to her feet, she could see the brilliant green eyes behind the mask creased with worry. He placed his hands reassuringly on her shoulders while looking her over to make sure she was okay. Hanako did her best to calm her breath, focusing on breathing in and out slowly, counting in and out to five with each shaky breath in and out.

Once Hanako had regained control of herself and the tea table was cleaned up, the two women returned to their seats, although Hanako's hands still shook slightly. The mustelid-masked ANBU didn't leave, to Hanako's surprise, instead seating himself off to the side and to the right of Hanako, visible in the corner of her eye.

"My apologies, Yamada-san," Mitama said demurely as if she had only committed a small faux pas. "I was authorized by the Lord Fire Shadow to demonstrate that to you."

Hanako took a sip of tea to cover the trembling still in her hands. "Last time I felt that was – was when I first arrived," she said in a small voice, her voice catching as she remembered those terrible, horrible weeks. She still wasn't sure how long she had spent in that awful place. Memories of it flooded back into her mind and she had to suppress a shudder.

"Yes, well that," the redhead returned, "was killing intent."

"Was so overwhelming," Hanako breathed out.

Mitama smiled wryly. "It's a chakra technique. That feeling you felt was real. It was no illusion. You sensed an overwhelming feeling of danger from me because I broadcast with my chakra the intent to kill you. Most shinobi radiate this in combat but are able to control it when they learn advanced chakra control. High-level shinobi, such as your guard, myself, and any other jounin, are able to create killing intent upon command. It is a very direct manipulation of other's emotions by chakra broadcasting."

Hanako nodded in understanding.

"You need to understand what killing intent is, because what we don't teach, mostly because we have next to no use for it and partly because it is difficult to do, is the opposite of killing intent. Let's call it, for lack of a better word, positive intent." Here, Mitama paused to ensure that Hanako was following along. "Those who put in the effort to learn how to do it by themselves, mostly medics, have trouble maintaining positive intent for very long. What makes you unique, even among shinobi, is that you practically radiate positive intent, without even realizing what you're doing, it seems. Since you're a civilian, it should be impossible, but it seems to naturally emit from you. Except for when you're scared or distressed like now." She took a deep sip of tea as Hanako blinked at her like an idiot and took in the information. "Like I said, we're very good at breaking things, not so much at putting them back together after."

Hanako's mind immediately jumped to the fact that she was almost always surrounded by shinobi. Work was really the only time that she was left alone, and even then, she knew that there was a ninja around somewhere even if she wasn't aware of their presence. It was a rare day that there wasn't at least one ninja in her home when she returned from work, and increasingly, there were people sleeping on her couch and in the guest bedroom when she woke in the mornings, often when they weren't there when she went to bed. Two cots had also found their place in her living room, disassembled and neatly put away in the daytime, but they hadn't been there a month ago.

"You can imagine why we might want to keep someone like you around, even if you are a foreigner."

When put like that, it did make a lot of sense. Hanako had never believed that a military dictatorship city-state would keep her around for her accounting skills. Useful as GAAP accounting was, it wasn't as important as knowing the proper stabbing technique. There was a point to all this. The Uzumaki wouldn't have made such a showy demonstration for nothing.

Hanako found her voice. "So why tell me? If is not deliberate, telling me makes no change in positive intent," she carefully pronounced the new term. "Something about situation has changed," she guessed.

Mitama smiled. It wasn't a genuine smile, but one filled with regret and sympathy. The sympathy wasn't for Hanako. "Your situation has not changed, Yamada-san. You saw my niece earlier?" She didn't wait for a response. "Heard her, at least. Little Kushina-chan has gone through some – upsetting changes recently. It would be of great help if you would lend your assistance with her."

"Respectfully, Uzumaki-san, I'm not good with children. Even ninja children," Hanako replied. "What would you want me do? Teach her accounting?"

"Nothing so complicated as that," she replied. "I propose a trade. You are a foreigner. You don't understand much of Fire Country, including our culture and etiquette. There's only so much you can learn from books."

Hanako nodded, remembering a few times when she had made social faux pas with clients on accident.

"I will give you etiquette lessons once a week, if, in return, you spend time here with myself and my niece. She needs to learn patience, grace, and self-control, and having a presence like you around during her lessons will only assist."

The civilian didn't have to think about it very long. This was something she needed rather desperately if she were going to expand her client base. She didn't like kids, but once a week, it couldn't be that bad, and besides, Kushina looked like she was twelve, maybe thirteen. Annoying, sure, but growing up.

Worth it.

"I accept," she pronounced.

"Good. It will do her some good to have exposure to civilians outside of missions."

"Just one thing."

"Of course."

"Please. Never do that – killing intent – again. Please."

 


 

Hanako's ANBU guard didn't disappear from her sight until they left the Uzumaki district. The protectiveness reassured her a bit though. She didn't think that Uzumaki Mitama would have actually done anything to hurt her, but the fact that he had jumped in so quickly made her feel better about it.

She didn't have a watch, but she caught sight of the time and winced, knowing it was far past time to return to the office and picked up her pace. Not for the first time, she was glad that despite making sure to keep her appearance well-manicured, she didn't elect to wear high heels. The roads in Hidden Leaf weren't that bad, but she preferred not killing her feet just to make her butt look better in the shoes. Flats worked just fine, and after doing a lot of walking on a day like today, her feet ached anyways. Heels would only make it worse.

Unfortunately, there was a client waiting for her in the lobby of her building. Hanako was sweating slightly from the heat and her increased pace for the last ways and probably didn't look all that great when she walked into the lobby. Saito wasn't there, it was his day off, but the client appeared to recognize Hanako all the same.

A green-haired young woman in a chuunin vest around nineteen or twenty. A shinobi client. Good, as a civilian would have been judging Hanako based on her disheveled appearance right now. Ninja didn't care as much. She followed Hanako up to her office and waited as she unlocked the door and ushered her in.

Hanako used the excuse of making a cup of tea for her as an excuse to pop into the bathroom and smooth her hair out and do what she could to fix her appearance in less than a minute before reemerging.

Once she had set out some cookies and tea, they set to business. The kunoichi was interested in drafting up a will and straightening out some of her savings accounts that were spread out over a few banks. Hanako recognized the look in her eyes as someone who had recently realized their own mortality and was concerned with making sure that their affairs were in order, just in case. Most of her first-time shinobi clients entered with that look.

Hanako had some standard forms drawn up, as well as the references for three estate lawyers she had made contacts with to refer the young woman to for her will planning. She tried to simplify and explain the process as best as she could.

By the time they finished up, it was closing time for Hanako. Saying goodbye to the kunoichi, she gathered and stacked the paperwork for filing with a few banks and the shinobi administration at the end of the week and straightened up the office.

As usual, when she got home, there were people already in her house. The door was still locked, but it wasn't like that made any difference. She was greeted with a chorus of 'welcome back' as she came in. The smell of cooking stir-fry was thick in the air, and she had to admit it smelled delicious. She greeted the shinobi waving to them as she went through to her bedroom to change and deposit her belongings.

When she came back out, she froze as soon as she recognized one of the shinobi. "You!" she accused, eyes narrowed on Yamanaka Inotashi.

"Me," the blonde shinobi said, grinning nervously.

"Last time you were here, you destroyed house."

An arm draped over her shoulder and she was pulled in close to another shinobi. "Mah, don't be like that, Yamada-chan. He didn't mean to. Besides, he's been here since then."

"What?"

Inotashi put his hands together and with a puff of smoke turned into a brown-haired shinobi that had been around several times for game night.

She growled under her breath. Nothing would bring her original mattress back, not to mention all those hours she spent patching the walls and trying to fix the place back up. "You break anything, you pay to fix," she said with a glare as Shinji, Asuka's teammate half-dragged her away in the direction of the kitchen. More accurately, he lifted her off the ground with one arm and set her back down in the kitchen where Bear was chopping vegetables with precise movements.

"Little One," Bear greeted, putting down the knife to wrap his arm around Hanako's shoulder and press a quick kiss to the top of her head.

"Hey, Bear. It's been while since I saw you," she warmly greeted him. "Need help?"

"Wash those vegetables," he pointed with the knife to a few bags of vegetables by the sink. "We got back in yesterday and were given some time off."

"So, you decide to spend precious free time here, huh?" she joked, mind on what she had learned just hours earlier about positive intent.

Bear smiled in good humor. "Of course. You're our favorite civilian," he said as he started to peel cucumbers.

She bantered back and forth half-heartedly with Bear and Shinji for a bit. Bear had an interesting habit she had noticed, of not actually looking at things directly. His eyes were also a pale blue-white color without clearly discernable pupils, and if it hadn't been for the fact that she had clearly seen him reading and playing games before, she would have assumed he might be blind.

When he, still looking straightforward, raised his voice slightly and called out "Stoat, why don't you join us instead of skulking up there," Hanako was surprised to see the mustelid-masked ANBU from earlier melt out and drop down from the ceiling. Damn ninja.

"Want to tell us why she's so on edge?" Bear continued casually once Hanako's current guard joined them.

Hanako looked at Bear, indignant. On edge? She wasn't on edge, thank you very much. She just happened to live in some crazy world that wasn't hers where ninjas existed, and apparently, magic was an everyday thing, and excuse her if sometimes she was a little taken aback by it.

"Uzumaki Mitama scared the shit out of her earlier," Stoat said in a dull voice.

"That bitch," Shinji said off to the side, a beer in his hand.

"I'm fine," Hanako tried to reassure them.

"No, you're not," Shinji replied. "Your chakra's all jumpy and you're distracted."

"You'd be jumpy too," she tried to defend. "That killing intent shit isn't fun."

"She used killing intent on you?" Shinji looked like he was ready to storm off and do something rash.

"Lord Third authorized it," Stoat said.

Shinji deflated at that but still looked mad.

"I'm guessing was bad for her to do?" Hanako asked timidly, her voice quiet.

Bear replied this time. "It's forbidden to use killing intent on civilians of Hidden Leaf. It is an offensive technique that can have negative side effects on those not used to chakra techniques. It's been known to cause heart attacks and strokes when used on civilians."

"She said I needed to know what felt like, but I already felt before."

"Oh, that's right," Shinji said, making a hitting motion at his forehead. "Your welcome party. I forgot."

The conversation trailed off there until Bear directed Hanako to start slicing the cucumbers into long strips and the conversation turned to fire ninjutsu techniques and terminology that went entirely over Hanako's head. She listened in idly, more to try to improve her language skills than anything.

After dinner, Intoashi pulled out a new board game that he had apparently picked up in the Fire Country capital called Settlers of Honshu and started explaining the rules as he laid out hexagonal tiles of different colors, little houses and logs, resource cards, and a pair of six-sided dice. Hanako's eyes bugged out a little as she recognized the strategy game. The rules were all the same as the game from back home. When she asked, Inotashi replied that he didn't know where it came from but was a new game in a bookstore there that he liked. While the shinobi played, she watched, deep in thought.

There was no way. No way that a game like Settlers of Catan could possibly turn up in another universe. Dimension. Wherever she was. Not home. It just wasn't possible.

Unless.

Unless she wasn't the only one that had been pulled through some crazy portal from Earth. Maybe there were others out there like her. How the hell else could she explain the exact same game showing up? She had to find the creator of the game. Whoever they were, she had to get answers.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17:

Fade Out

 


 

 

Sorry to disappear, but I know that I can't say what you want to hear. You'll get over it. I never wanna give out fake love. Nothing you can say when my mind's made up, so sorry to disappear.

 


 

 

The backyard of Yamada House was well kept. While she was busier than she had been before, Hanako still took the time to garden when she could. Between her work, once a week trips to a makeshift gym, bi-weekly psychologist/therapist visits, and her looming etiquette lessons, she stayed occupied. After the game was finished last night, Hanako had retreated to her bedroom and found the journal she had kept the previous year. It was full of confusion, hopelessness, depression, and philosophical ramblings that didn’t quite make sense. It showed her just how far she’d come. From the sleepless nightmare filled nights, the days where she just wanted to sit and stare out at the garden, and the lack of friends or even people she could call acquaintances. It felt like the stages of grief. She was finally shedding the last vestiges of depression and moving on to acceptance.

She still felt a hesitancy toward ninja in calling them her friends. They were too capable of deception. But, Hanako couldn’t help but admit that she was becoming closer to them. Asuka was probably the closest thing she had to a best friend, and Hayami was friendly enough. If it had been a year ago, Hanako would have shuddered and refused to entertain the thought. A year ago, Hanako had still been in shock. Now, she was finally accepting her situation. She was a civilian of Hidden Leaves and would be, probably for the rest of her life.

The early morning mists coming up off the Naka River were starting to burn off as the early morning sun peeked over the treetops. Hanako was taking advantage of the coolness to weed and tend her plants before the sun rose and started to beat its heat down. She enjoyed the smell of the soil. It smelled like life and new potential. She’d left her bedroom door and window open to take in the breeze. It was the only one out of the three sliding glass doors to the house that was open. The curtains of the living room and guest bedroom were drawn to keep the light out. She was sure that none of the shinobi had left last night, all either camped out on the living room couch and cots or in the guest bedroom.

She’d forgone her weekend treat of coffee to let them sleep in peace. Bear had mentioned that they had just gotten in from a mission, so they were probably all exhausted.

She dug her fingers deeper into the soil to grab a weed below the sharp spines on its stalk. Sow thistles were a bane to anyone once they got too big and then their roots were impossible to remove. She prodded at the soil below it with a long digging tool that split into a prong at the end to loosen the roots’ hold on the sod. She tossed the weed over her shoulder to join the rest for collection and moved on to the next. Once she was satisfied that the beds had been adequately cleared, she watered them, collected the weeds in a bucket for disposal, and observed her handiwork.

Water was running off from one of the hanging flower baskets, so she moved a potted plant underneath it to catch the excess. The water made the scent of the earth float even more richly through the air. The roses were budding out and starting to produce a sweet scent, and many of the annuals that had either seeded from the previous year or Hanako had planted new were giving off soothing smells. Satisfied, she returned to the house to shower the dirt off and freshen up. She didn’t bother to close the exterior door.

The hot water steamed up around her body. The flow from the shower head beat down in between her shoulder blades, giving her an impromptu massage. She stretched and arched her back a few times to move the flow to more neglected areas of her back. Sitting under the water flow and thinking was arguably the longest part of her shower. Once the civilian was out of the shower and struggling with her long hair, she decided it was about high time she chopped it off. Or at least get rid of some of the length. Several tangles were giving her trouble to work through with the comb, and she carefully picked them loose. Once her hair was smooth and tangle-free once again, she worked some leave-in conditioner into it and moved to the closet where she picked out some casual clothes. Black spandex shorts that, if she was honest with herself, were glorified booty shorts, and an oversized light blue t-shirt that almost passed the hem of the shorts. Hanako was well aware that she looked like a sorority girl. Whatever, it was comfy and she didn’t care. Who would judge her here anyway?

She listened at the bedroom door for a few moments. There weren’t any sounds of any movement, no sounds in the kitchen. The shinobi were still sleeping. The blonde cast her gaze around the room for a moment until she spied a book on her bedside table. That would work.

She grabbed a blanket and took it out to her recently cleaned and swept porch. Arranging it on the wicker sofa she had on the porch area in front of her exterior bedroom door, she settled down to read. She’d picked it up at a bookstore a few weeks ago and never started it. Hanako smiled and giggled to herself as she read it. A romance, a really raunchy romance at that. The heroine was a strong, confident kunoichi with well-honed instincts on an undercover mission. So far, she’d met an enemy that didn’t know who she was. The enemy shinobi was, of course, a strong, tall masculine man with wolf summons and primal instincts, and masculine features. Did she mention that he was masculine? Hanako found herself simultaneously laughing and rolling her eyes at the cheesy tropes. 

Of course, there’s only one bed,” she laughed to herself in English. “Only one room left at the hotel too, huh?”

Several chapters later the sexy shinobi finds out that the client he’s protecting is secretly an enemy kunoichi and they start fighting. Hanako immediately sees where the plot is going. “Mmmmhmm, they’re gonna fight, wrestle a bit, he’s going to pin her down, and then they’re going to start having sex,” Hanako predicts to herself before she turns the page. Three or four paragraphs later, “Ooh, she pinned him. What a plot twist.” As dumb as the novel was, the civilian was thoroughly entertained.


“What are you reading, Hanako-chan?” A deep voice interrupted Hanako’s commentary.

“Huh?” The civilian arched her back so that she could see behind her from her reclining position on the sofa. The shinobi appears upside down in her vision, leaning against her open bedroom door. Bear was shirtless, a pair of sweatpants loosely hung about his hips. Two mugs of steaming liquid were in his hands.

“Oh, just some trashy romance. It’s great,” Hanako promised with a wiggle of her eyebrows and a mischievous smile.

Bear walked over and set down one of the mugs on the table next to her and lifted up her feet to sit on the other end of the couch. “The Matsumoto Affair,” he read aloud from the cover. While he wasn’t ripped with an eight-pack, he had the bulky muscle of an athlete that packed on muscle for explosive power, not looks.

She propped herself up on to one elbow and handed him the novel and reached for the tea. She took a sip of the black tea while he reads the back cover. “It’s like romance book plot not change not matter which world,” she said, settling back into her reclining position.

He handed the book back to her. “How does this one go?” he asked with a raised eyebrow and skeptical voice.

“Oh, is typical. Strong, sexy kunoichi who has never felt love before goes undercover. Her enemy is a Casanova masculine manly man who’s dangerous and has primal sexy instinct. I just got to part where they find out they are enemies, then fight, then fighting turns into sex.” She grinned at him.

Bear looked amused. “Right. What’s a ca-sah-noh-vah?” He rolled the unfamiliar word over his tongue carefully.

“Is English word. Means man that is seducer, smooth, handsome and always, um, lands, gets? Women,” Hanako explains.

“I see,” he said. Hanako returned to the book.

After she turned a few pages, he interrupted. “Hanako-chan?”

“Hmm,” the book is lowered so that she can see his face.

“What’s going on between you and Yamashiro Takanori?”

Oh, that wasn’t a question she expected. She thinks for a moment. What was going on between them?

“I’m sorry if that was too personal.”

“No, is fine,” Hanako waved his concern off. “To be honest is not much there. We’re kind of just – casual,” she says grasping for a better word that she knows is there but can’t remember. She propped herself up on an elbow again to set the book down and take a gulp of tea now that it was cooled down and drinkable.

“So, you don’t –”

“Love him?” Hanako cut in. “No, I don’t. He’s good guy, don’t get wrong, but I don’t feel that for him,” she explains. “Like said, is casual. Not like he loves me either,” she said dismissively.

“Really,” Bear says with an air of studied casualness. He leaned back against the cushions, one hand behind his head and the other resting on her ankles.

“You shinobi are too much of gossips for own good,” Hanako accuses lightly. “Look, Yamashiro-san is good man. Polite, respectful, fun to be with,” she smirked slightly at the thought. “But he is also shinobi.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” His tone had the note of someone ready to be offended.

“It means that he is gone all the time on missions, I don’t ever know when he’ll be around again. He’s evasive, can’t tell me much about his work, and – please don’t think that I’m judging here because I understand why – shinobi aren’t known for wanting long-term stable relationships,” Hanako replied gently.

“Where did you hear that from?”

Hanako was confused. “From – from you guys. You talk about it sometimes, about your flings and how you just want something short with nothing attached. Complain about civilian partners, how clingy they are, complain that it’s not what you want. How much it bothers you when your partners want that.”

The look passed from Bear’s face. “Ah, I can see why you would get that impression. Truthfully, we say that because it’s easier. The village – she demands everything from us. When you’re in the dark glade,” he said, using the term they used to refer to ANBU indirectly, “you never know if you’ll make it out alive. It’s easier to push others who aren’t in that dark glade away. She takes everything and doesn’t often give us much back except the knowledge that our families, friends, and our village are safeguarded by our actions.  For the younger guys, especially, it’s just easier to push the thought of a serious relationship away. It’s one of those things that we know the village will eventually take from us one way or another.”

Hanako nodded in understanding. There wasn’t much she had to say to that. What could she say to that? “Must be hard,” she said at last.

Bear nodded, looking away at the flower garden. When he didn’t pick up the conversation again or give an indication of wanting to, she picked up her book again. She pretended not to notice the circles Bear’s thumb rubbed against her skin around the pulse point of her ankle.

 

 


 

 

 

The next hour or two was spent in comfortable silence. The sun had risen fully and was shining brightly. The only sounds were the birds chirping, the soft cool breeze, and the occasional chuckle or laugh from Hanako as she read. As seriously as their earlier conversation had ended, it really was a funny book, and once she got out of the mood, she really was enjoying it. Trashy as it was.

Her only warning before the guest bedroom slid open was Bear stirring a little bit. His eyes had slid closed while she read, but she didn’t think he was sleeping, maybe meditating.

Shinji did a full body stretch as soon as he stepped out the door. Hands above his head, back arched, and mouth wide open, he flexed for several seconds before relaxing again. He glanced at the two as if surprised to see them together before flopping down on the lounge chair opposite them.

“You need to get a bigger house. It’s cramped in there.”

Hanako suppressed a laugh. “It’s not even my house,” she defended.

“Then get a new one, dummy,” Shinji shot back.

“Are you planning to spend – hey!” She protested as Shinji unexpectedly reached out and snatched the novel from her loose hold.

“Oooh, what’s this? The Matsumoto Affair?” He flipped through the pages. “Ko-san, listen to this one,” he lands on a page. “Sasuke positions his large masculine girth over Haruka’s quivering, wet entrance.” His voice is loud and filled with drama.

“No,” Hanako groaned and rolled into the sofa, burying her face in shame. “Don’t!”

Ko started laughing.

Shinji continues, undeterred. “He entered her slowly, filling her needy core –”

“No,” Hanako cries with a red face as she abandons hiding in shame and tries to take the book back from him.

He leaned back and stretched his arm out, holding the book beyond her reach and continued, “– his girth stretching her to the limit as she mewled beneath him.” Hanako jumped desperately for the book. Shinji just dodged her and stood up, the book held aloft higher than she could reach. “The powerful shinobi growled into her mouth, and then he started to move within her quivering depths. With every movement, she gripped him tightly with her hot, slick, silky core.” With every word Shinji just got louder and louder.

The civilian gave up trying to take the book back and crumpled on the floor in embarrassment, hands hiding her ashamed face. “No, stop,” she groaned.

Bear – Ko, was laughing from the sofa, holding his stomach as he shook.

“Seriously, Hanako-chan, this is the crap you’re reading?” Shinji jeered good-naturedly. Hanako just flushed even more, too busy dying inside of embarrassment to reply. “You should be ashamed, you can do better than this; I’ll give you some recommendations for some top-notch porn to read now that I know you’re into this shit. You dirty girl.”

Still red-faced, Hanako snatched the book back from Shinji and fled back to the safety of the sofa with a petulant frown on her face.

“Ass,” she accused. 

“Ahem, that’s an ass-with-good-taste-in-porn to you,” he corrected.

Once Ko stopped laughing and got himself under control, he asked, “Is everyone awake now?”

“They are now, after that narration,” Hanako growled.  She’s proven correct when a moment later, the curtains to the living room swished open, and the door slid open.

“The fuck is going on out here?” A bleary-eyed Inotashi peaked his head out, glaring at the trio. “Why’re you yelling about ‘quivering depths’?”

Hanako groaned again as Ko and Shinji howled with laughter.

 

 


 

 

Hanako finished breakfast first, only eating around a quarter of what the shinobi did. She took advantage of their distraction to inspect the box the Settlers of Honshu game came in. There was no mention of the origin of it or the author. She took to examining the instructions for any mention until – there! Published in Waterfall Country! Who the hell names these places, anyway? Nothing about the author, though. But Atsumori Publishing Company – that’s a start. Hanako decided she’d send a letter first asking about it. She found an address at the end of the booklet and copied it down onto a piece of paper.

Information attained, she slid back into her seat at the table and grabbed a piece of toasted bread. The shinobi were mostly in conversation about weapons, discussing tactics. It still flew over Hanako’s head. She didn’t think that she would ever understand it and didn’t bother asking questions about it.

The blonde started mulling things over in her mind. If this publishing company was in Waterfall Country, that was on the North-East side of Fire Country – no, the North-West. Next to either Lightning or Earth Country. No point in going there unless she knew for sure that whoever made the game was there. For all she knew, the publisher was just a third-party contractor.

Speaking of travel, the word processor machine that she wanted to purchase wasn’t available in the store anymore. Someone had bought it already. The store didn’t have any more in stock. More like they didn’t want to keep more than one in stock at a time. It would be an expensive outlay, but Hanako was prepared to buy one to double her output at a minimum. If she could do that, then she could start taking on contracts with larger companies doing their payroll and handling minor investments. And if she could do that, possibly open up a small office near the city center, even move into a nicer home that hadn’t been half-destroyed by a ninja fight. The plaster on the living room wall was still a different shade than the rest of the house.

If she could buy it on a payment installation as well, that would be even better.

She sat, deep in thought weighing pros and cons before making up her mind. She was going to the Fire Country capitol as soon as possible to purchase it, and hopefully make some professional contacts while she was there. It would be nice to make some friends in the banking and insurance industries, as well as get some up-to-date information about the Fire Country tax codes.

This would have to be well-planned. People didn’t often travel in the elemental countries unless they could band together with a merchant caravan or afford shinobi escorts for good reason. With shinobi being the only real law of the land and nobles reluctant to send out their own enforcers unless it was to their financial gain, the roads were practically a free for all of thieves and bandits. Hidden Leaves was deceptively safe – the world outside the walls of the village was dangerous for any individuals traveling alone. Hmmm, it would take probably two weeks to go to the capital, complete her business, and come back. Less if she could afford to pay a shinobi escort to take her.

Once breakfast was eaten, and the dishes all cleaned up, Hanako went into her bedroom to pull out her personal ledger and started a separate page to see what kind of budget she had to work with and start figuring out all the details. She tapped her pencil to the corner of her mouth as she thought and planned and re-planned.

After several hours of planning, Hanako decided that she’d make an attempt at it in three weeks. First, she would have to visit immigration services to get a visa for Fire Country, as she was technically only a citizen of Hidden Leaves. In fact, she could do that today.

Sparing a glance at the men who were all either playing card games, reading, or discussing tactics, Hanako retreated to change into clothing that would be proper for going into the city center on the weekend. Little black spandex shorts weren’t it.

Less than thirty minutes later, her makeup was fixed, hair pulled back into a loose braided bun, and Hanako was slipping into a forest green sundress that exposed a little more skin than she usually did on account of the hot weather. She pulled a pair of sandals out of the closet that hadn’t seen any wear since it had gotten cold and carried them to the living room with her to put on at the door. She hesitated while gathering her purse and identity documents and slipped another book into the purse. Hanako left the house, slipping out the front door as unobtrusively as she could. Except a few clouds rolling over in the sky, it was bright and sunny. Hanako was usually one for pants and short, but wearing a dress felt rather liberating today, felling the swish and gentle breeze curling around her legs.

Dogs barked loudly. Then louder, and then even louder. Hanako turned to see a veritable pack of ninja dogs running her direction, their partners close to them. Inuzuka clansmen on a run. Several of them were genin, but the majority were probably chuunin rank. They chatted to one another as they ran past Hanako, not even sounding out of breath, and the dogs barked happily, knocking into one another as they ran. Within another thirty seconds, they were turning down another street and gone. She could still hear the barking, muted now though. It wasn’t uncommon to see sights like that as the Inuzuka district was on just the other side of the Naka river from Hanako.

She continued her walk.

An hour’s walk later, and she finally found herself in the city center. Shinobi flitted overhead, taking the rooftops while civilians walked the streets below, intermixed with the few shinobi that deigned to take the longer route. A few times, Hanako caught sight of appreciative stares on her. She knew it was the sundress. While she wasn’t unused to gazes from the opposite gender, it didn’t happen as much when she was dressed for work. Considering and that was the majority of the time that she ventured outside her house, it didn’t happen much. A few shops had clothing and beauty supplies in the window that Hanako resolved that she would come back to once her business was done at the administration complex.

As she got within a few block’s radii of the tower, most of the civilian traffic thinned out, and the shinobi traffic remained. Instead of approaching the red tower directly, she paused by a directions board outside it to find the migration office. It had been over a year since she had filled out any paperwork to do with the office, and she wasn’t sure if it had been moved outside of the tower or not in the intervening time. Spying the label for it, she saw that it hadn’t, and was still located on the first floor of the Fire Shadow Tower.

Though the tower was painted a bright garish red on the outside, the interior was painted a much more tasteful, if not slightly dated, cream. The immigration office was right where she remembered it being, just through the main doors and to the left. Since it was the weekend, there was only a small skeleton crew managing the desk, but there also were no other customers besides an elderly woman filling out a few papers. Hanako only had to wait a few minutes for her to finish before the clerk was ready for her.

“I’d like to file for request to travel to capital,” she chirped as she slid her identity card over.

The middle-aged man at the desk didn’t even blink, just leaned and grabbed some forms without looking at them.

“Personal information here, reason for travel here, once you’re done, we’ll take your photo for the visa,” he recited in a bored tone.

Hanako thanked him and moved to the side to fill out the information so that anyone else could be immediately seen if they came in. It didn’t take long to fill out, and she returned the forms. A few of the lines confused her as she didn’t have an equivalent on her ID, but she did her best.

The clerk took the forms and tiredly looked over them, humming at each item in order. Hanako was glancing around the room, looking at the sparse decorations on the walls when his ‘mmhmm’ turned into a ‘huh.’ Glancing back at him, he took a stamp out, pressed it to an ink pad, and then stamped each of her forms with it.

‘Additional Review Required,’ she read.

His eyes weren’t bored anymore as he handed the forms back to Hanako. They were bright and alert.

“Take these to the Lord Fire Shadow’s office for approval.”

“What?” Hanako was taken aback.

“I can’t approve this visa. You need to take this to the top office and request permission,” he repeated a second time. “Fourth floor, take the stairs up. Don’t get lost and don’t go through any doors. The shinobi will show you the way once you get up there.”

“Oh, okay.”

Hanako took the forms in a state of confusion. It wasn’t a big deal for Hidden Leaves citizens to travel in Fire Country. There were actually no restrictions on them, the visas were only a formality for just in case the village got into a political catfight with the daimyo.

She climbed the three flights of stairs without any issue, if not with a faster heart rate by the time she reached the top than she would have liked. But hey, three flights of stairs is three flights of stairs. True to the clerk’s word, at the top, there was a pair of chuunin guarding the door. They regarded Hanako suspiciously. She handed her forms to the one that looked like he was in charge. He looked it over, nodded his head, and opened the door behind him. She took the papers back and slipped through.

There was something about this building that had a way of making Hanako feel vulnerable. She had only ever met Lord Third once before, and she hadn’t a clue what he was saying the entire time and was on the verge of becoming a sobbing mess the whole time. Somehow, the building itself seemed to bring that feeling back. There was an air to it of seriousness, of weighty decisions and short patience. The same attractive black-haired woman as the first time she had been there sat at the receptionist’s desk. Hanako silently handed her the visa request forms and took a seat. Hanako deliberately chose a place away from where she had sat the last time. The receptionist walked the papers into the office through the double doors after a few minutes and came back out. She gave no indication to Hanako, so the blonde pulled out a book that was in her purse. Not The Matsumoto Affair, that book she had summarily shoved in the back of her closet as soon as she could.

No, this book was a light read about a woman who inherits a bookstore after her father dies. A few pages in, the double wooden doors opened and several ninja walked out. A jounin sensei and three dirty, bedraggled genin that looked like they’d been camping out for several weeks without baths. Smelled like it too. A minute later, by some unseen command, another ninja came in through the doors by the stairs and walked straight into the office.

Hanako went back to her reading. This pattern repeated several times. Shinobi in, shinobi out. Shinobi in, shinobi out. Sometimes they would drop things off with the receptionist, usually not. A few times, the receptionist got up to make a cup of tea to take into the office. Hanako kept to her book. A few times she shifted around, her legs getting a little sore. After an hour, she asked the receptionist where the restroom was. She returned to the lobby and her book once she’d relieved herself.

Around what must have been the two-and-a-half-hour mark, maybe three, the receptionist spoke to Hanako of her own will for the first time.

“Lord Fire Shadow will see you now.” 

The civilian startled a little in surprise and then realized what the receptionist had said. Marking her place and putting the book back in her bag, she thanked the woman before walking to the double doors. No one else knocked on the doors, but she felt the compulsion to give a soft double rap half a moment before she twisted the knob to announce her entrance.

 

The Lord Fire Shadow, also called Lord Third, sat behind a large wooden desk with several stacks of papers on it. The large picture window behind him was open and a breeze swirled through the room. The view from the window was magnificent. A few papers rustled but were kept in place by paperweights. Smoke wafted from a pipe in his hands. He wore red and white robes, and a metal four-cornered hat painted mostly red with the front facing corner free of color except the word “fire” emblazoned on it sat on his head, obscuring his face.

Hanako walked to the center of the room and stood a respectful distance from the desk and waited to be acknowledged. She hadn’t expected that she would be meeting with the Lord Third personally. She assumed that one of his assistants would take care of her visa. Not – well not the dictator himself. The civilian found herself regretting that she hadn’t dressed more professionally. Her sundress might be cute for walking in the streets, but it wasn’t exactly proper attire for meeting with the most powerful man in the village.

Her fingers fidgeted with one another against her will. The civilian became acutely aware that the papers that Lord Third was reading over were hers. The very ones that she had filled out just a few hours before and were now stained in black ink. He shuffled them through, carefully reading the contents. Hanako swallowed nervously and smoothed her flyaway hairs that she knew were sticking out behind her ear. Finally, Lord Third hmmed, put the papers down, and took a long drag from his pipe. Smoke obscured his face. When it cleared, he was gazing intently at Hanako. He opened his mouth.

“Denied.”

No. No, please. Hanako’s face fell and her eyes widened.

He quirked an eyebrow and Hanako realized she must have said the words out loud.

 “Please, Lord Fire Shadow,” she bent over in a deep bow. “Please consider again request.”

His expression didn’t change, but he didn’t say anything, and Hanako took that as tacit permission to make her case. She straightened but kept her head angled down, not daring to raise her eyes from the floor. “I need to be able to make trip for business. I have contact in capital where I can purchase word processor machine,” she quickly explained, realizing that the information wasn’t on the papers. She hadn’t thought it necessary to go into detail. “With machine, I can increase speed of my work, lessen workload by sixty percent, maybe more. Without this, I cannot hope to be expanding firm. Will be impossible to do without. Please, Lord Fire Shadow, I beg you. I need this. I will do whatever necessary. My future depends on this.”

Silence. Papers rustled. Hanako peeked up at the shadow-level shinobi. He was pulling a few documents from a stack off to the side.

“You have a contact already for this.” Hanako nodded her head. “Word processors. Would these be the same machines?”

He held a paper aloft. Hanako stepped forward to take it. She read over it quickly and nodded.

“They are the same, Lord Fire Shadow.” She returned the paper and stepped back again. 

The Fire Shadow put his pipe to his lips and took a long drag. He exhaled a cloud and took another drag. The second cloud was even bigger, theatrically so.

“Two conditions,” he said at last. “One: You will pay for a shinobi escort from my ranks. You will not leave their sight the entire time. If they give you any orders, any at all, you will obey them immediately and without question, no matter what they ask,” his voice was deadly serious.

“Yes, sir,” she replied and nodded her head.

“Two: You will negotiate for the purchase of these machines on behalf of Kami Company. Fifty units should do it. The terms should be beneficial for Kami Company. Do well, and I may consider future trips. Do you understand?”

Did she understand that he was giving her one chance to prove that she was astute and capable of making sound business deals? Did she also realize that if she failed to prove herself, that she would most likely be denied any and every future request to leave the village? Yes.

“Yes, sir. I can do that.”

“Very well. The details will be sent along. Dismissed.”

Hanako bowed low again, thanking him one more time before she fled the office.

Chapter Text

Chapter 18:

Hold On Me

 


 

 

Promise everything will be – Promise everything will be fine. Gonna be a long time coming, gonna be a long time coming. Hold on me, please.

 


 

 

Hanako had the maturity and grace to not run out. She wouldn’t, however, pretend that she didn’t flee. A denial of a travel visa, and then the reversal, had left her heart pounding as she made her case in front of the Great Dictator himself. But she didn’t run out.

Instead, she politely nodded her head to the receptionist and murmured her thanks and quickly but calmly walked out. In the stairwell on floor two, where she couldn’t see or hear anyone else on the stairway, she paused and pounded her fist in a Tiger Woods motion of victory, hissed out a “Yessss,” and kept walking.

Hanako returned back to the makeup store she had seen earlier and thought while she swatched shades of foundation from a new line released by a company in Tea Country on the back of her hand.

This situation was two-fold worrying for her. First and foremost, was the implicit threat that if she failed to make this a successful trip and negotiate a contract at a reasonable rate, then she wouldn’t be allowed to leave the village again. The second was that, apparently, she wasn’t allowed to leave in the first place!

She hadn’t ever tried leaving Hidden Leaves ever before. Hanako had planned to, eventually. She had seen some travel brochures for resorts in southern Tea Country, an area well known for its beautiful and luxurious vacation spots. Hanako, in her previous world, had traveled a lot for her age between finishing college and starting her first job. She had taken trips to several countries in Europe and several more that wanted to call themselves Eastern Europe, but Europe declined to give them the honor. She didn’t fluently speak any languages, but she knew she had picked up a little. She had wanted to travel the elemental countries as well, at least to the less dangerous ones.

To think! She wasn’t allowed to leave. Hanako shuddered to think what might happen if she tried to leave through the gates without the Fire Shadow’s approval.  On the other hand, if she could pull this deal off and negotiate a good bulk-rate contract, there was a lot of possibility in Lord Third’s tone. Future business deals might be a possibility. Maybe, just like the forces he personally commanded, she would have to prove herself as a useful tool to be allowed that freedom. Money was one of the most clear-cut ways to prove useful. It was hard to dismiss a profit as a benefit. Services were intangible things, quantifiable by the subjective opinion of the evaluator. But profit and cost savings? Those were easier to argue.

The shades didn’t match her skin tone. Too orange. Hanako pursed her lips in disappointment before she cleaned off the back of her hand, thanked the saleslady, and left.

Would she have been arrested at the gates? Would the way have been barred for her? Or maybe she would have faced the consequences on her return. It wasn’t fair! How could this place, this place that she didn’t choose, didn’t want, didn’t know, tell her that she must spend the rest of her life there? It wasn’t like she wanted or chose this!

On a whim, Hanako took a different route home, deciding to take the main road which connected the Fire Shadow Tower with the Main Gates. She took in the varied people as she walked. All different ages. Hair, eyes, face shapes, they all changed and varied. Looking closer, Hanako saw more ninja than she had noticed before, recognizing the too-fluid ways they walked. They were able to anticipate movements and simply move out of the way while civilians would have paused to let someone pass. The way they walked also was again, too smooth. Not exactly cat-like, if she had to describe it, but predatory.

When she was closer to the gate, Hanako turned left down another major street she knew would lead her North to the Naka River. There, she sat for a while, watching the river flow and listening to the water. It was peaceful. Without worries. People would come and go here, but the river would flow all the same. Dragonflies darted about, some gliding just above the surface, others flying after other bugs to catch as their prey. Occasionally, a bird would fly down to the water, skimming it as they flew to take a drink.

She wasn’t sure how long she sat there for, but when she stood again to leave, the blood rushed from her head and made her feel lightheaded and dizzy. She wobbled but didn’t lose her balance. The feeling didn’t go away and she slightly dizzy and faint the rest of her slow trek back to Yamada House.

The first thing Hanako did after she entered her home was to drink a few glasses of water. She felt dehydrated. Her head ached with that pounding feeling that usually accompanied too much time in the sun. Probably the fact that she had only had a cup of tea that morning combined with all the walking in the sun wasn’t good for her. She really needed to remember to drink more water. The water seemed to help some.

After a quick wash of her feet to clean any dust that had gotten on her feet and legs and a change of clothes, Hanako found herself laying down outside on her wicker sofa. The overhang of the porch provided a relief from the heat, and the breeze cooled her off from the heat. It was just so nice out there, and her head felt like it was pounding. So nice out. And the porch was so cool, shielded from the sun. And her head was pulsing so hard. So nice outside.

 

 


 

 

Hanako woke up in her bed. She groaned and squeezed her eyes tightly shut before opening them. Morning time. The sheets weren’t as smooth against her skin as they should be – ah. She was still in her clothes. Hanako slept naked, especially in the summer. Someone had put her to bed. Hopefully – no. She’d slept in her makeup too. The sheets would need to be washed, at least the pillowcases did. With any luck, she wouldn’t have a breakout because of it. 

She tried to sit up in bed and immediately regretted it. Her neck and shoulders were so stiff and sore; they felt like they were on fire. They hurt any time she tried to move them. She must have slept on the sofa at an awkward angle for them to feel this bad. Slowly and carefully, she set about her morning routine.

When she came out for breakfast, she felt like an old woman, holding herself carefully to avoid inflaming her neck. Careful stretching hadn’t worked and only made it worse.  

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Must have slept on neck funny. Hurts like bitch.”

She slowly and delicately made her breakfast. Ko and two shinobi, whom he had introduced as his teammates, were the only ones there. Inotashi and Shinji had both went back to their respective clan homes to see family. It was only the four of them around the table.

When Hanako had asked the strange shinobi their names, they had been terse with their replies. Hiruko was a short, lithe red-haired shinobi with narrow eyes, while Ensui was a man of medium build with blue hair so dark it was almost black. Neither of them spoke much. They both had large bags underneath their eyes, and looked like they were utterly and totally exhausted.  The pair looked like they had the flu, in Hanako’s opinion. Both of them flinched when there were sounds too loud, like the clatter of dishware when putting it away or setting the table.

“Recovering from chakra exhaustion,” Ko explained when Hanako looked a little curious at their quietness. “They’re bone-tired and probably won’t want to do anything except eat and sleep for the next couple days.” As if to accentuate Ko’s words, Ensui made a large jaw-popping yawn.

Hanako nodded and continued eating her breakfast. The two were eating ravenously, practically inhaling large amounts of food. She assumed, from the conversations that she had listened in on, that chakra was like a pool of energy one could draw on, but that it refilled at a constant rate, so you could theoretically draw all the energy out of the pool, leaving nothing behind and having to wait for it to refill. Shinobi ate at least twice the amount of regular people. Stood to reason, in her mind, that copious amounts of calories helped to refuel chakra. Maybe it was like mitochondria or something. She didn’t remember enough of her college bio classes to extrapolate more than that. Mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell and all that.

The front door opened. A pang of pain came from her neck, and Hanako flinched when she tried to move her head too fast to see who it was. She hissed from the pain.

Ko greeted the newcomer with a raised hand.

Hanako twisted at the waist to see the scarred shinobi, her hand massaging the back of her neck.

“Tetsuo-san, Yamashiro-san.”

“Yo,” Tetsuo replied, beelining for the kitchen to grab food. Yamashiro settled down in a chair next to Hanako. Both of them were filthy, faces covered in dust and streaked from sweat. Their dark clothes and armor had other stains the color of rust and mud that she found it better to not wonder what they were.

“Just got in?” Hanako questioned lightly.

She politely tried not to wrinkle her nose at the smell wafting off them. Stale sweat, dirt, oil, metallic blood, and other bodily fluids. Not an enticing combination.

Yamashiro nodded his head weakly but said nothing. He looked like he was about to fall asleep in the chair. Privately wondering if something big had happened, what with Hiruko and Ensui both exhausted and now Tetsuo and Yamashiro coming in like this. It wasn’t her business, and she tried not to pry, but the mood was a bit dampened when everyone looked like they’d just finished running a marathon or like they had the flu.

Glancing at the clock, Hanako excused herself, needing to get dressed.

“Where ya going?”

“Work. It’s Monday.”

“Oh.”  

When Hanako was halfway through her makeup routine, Yamashiro entered her room. He looked a little more alert after having eaten something.

“Can I use your shower?” Through the wall, Hanako heard the other shower start running.

She nodded. “Sure, let me find basket to put uniform in.” 

Yamashiro started shedding his vest as soon as she nodded.

“Don’t touch the armor or any of the equipment,” he warned. “I’ve got some poisoned weapons in there. I’ll take care of it myself.”

Hanako smiled and nodded at him and returned to applying powder to her eyebrows to make them more defined. At the sound of the water turning on and the rustle of clothes stopping, she leaned over to stare through the bathroom doorway and wolf-whistled at the sight of his ass. He chuckled at her and stepped into the shower. By the time Hanako had slipped into her work clothes and was fixing her hair, he had finally toweled off and emerged nude from the now-steamy bathroom.

Hanako took a moment to appreciate the sight of his finely chiseled body. Scars littered his body. Slashes here and there, mostly concentrated on his upper body and arms where it looked like he had tried to block. A few that looked like larger stab wounds, one through his collarbone area and a few on his abdomen.

Arms wrapped around her from behind and Yamashiro rested his chin on her shoulder. A whoosh of air sounded in her ear as he took a deep breath in and out. Hanako leaned back into him and put her hand over his.

They stood like that for a while.

 Hanako broke the embrace first. “I have to work,” she said apologetically and turned to face him.

“Busy bee,” he observed. “Can I sleep in here?”

Hanako nodded her assent and Yamashiro immediately dropped onto the bed and wrapped himself in a burrito in the center of the bed.

Hanako smiled at the sight. She could only see the top of his hair poking out. “Need extra blanket?”

A wiggle that might have been a nod. Pulling a heavier blanket out of the throw-blanket basket, she spread it over the ANBU and tucked it in at the sides. Hanako’s last act before she left with her purse and paperwork was to draw the curtains closed.

A similar sight greeted Hanako in the bedroom, minus the nudity. The blankets she kept in the living room had already been appropriated, and the curtains were also drawn. Ko was the only one not in a futon wrapped in blankets.

“I’ll walk you to your office,” he offered.

Hanako didn’t object.

“How’s your neck?” Ko asked after the third or fourth time Hanako moved her neck and flinched.

“Terrible,” she responded. “I don’t know why I keep testing to see if still hurts. Did five minutes ago. Did a minute ago. Does now.”

“Ask Yamashiro-san to give you a chakra massage.”

“What’s that?”

“A massage. But with chakra.”

“Well, obviously.”

“It penetrates the muscles better. Perfect for getting knots out.”

“I see. I’ll ask him and see if he’s willing.”

“Just promise him sex for it.”

“Ko-san!”

Ko easily dodged her half-hearted slap at his shoulder. She flinched again at the action as her neck was aggravated again.

“Ugh, at this rate, won’t get much work done.”

 


 

 

 A clattering of nails was the only thing that warned Hanako.

The door slammed open, and Hanako tried belatedly to duck into her chair, a movement that obviously didn’t work to shield her. At all. Two dogs rushed through the open portal and immediately ran through the office, sniffing here and there all over the office.

Hanako froze, not sure what to do, eyes darting around.

“All clear, Boss,” a smoker’s voice croaked out the throat of one of the dogs, a large tan Belgian Malinois with a black face.

A dramatic plume of smoke appeared in the middle of the room, and Sakumo Hatake materialized in the middle of it, dressed in a Kevlar vest and jounin blues.

“Hello there.”

Hanako had her arms crossed and resting bitch face plastered across her face, masking all expression.

“Really?”

Hatake had the audacity to pretend he didn’t know what she was talking about, studiously picking his nails with the sharp blade of a knife. “There could have been a ninja in here. I had to make sure the room was clear before I entered.”

She rolled her eyes in response and returned to her paperwork.

“Besides, what was that reaction time? If I had been an enemy, you would be dead already.”

Hanako held up a fist with one finger aloft.

“What’s that mean? Are you proposing to me? Hanako-chan, that’s very kind of you, but I don’t think that we’re at that level of a relationship yet.”

“Ugh, what do you want?” Hanako finally snapped. She dropped her pencil on the desk and pinched the bridge of her nose. Hatake was perched on the edge of her desk with an innocent expression plastered across his face. Behind him, the dogs had hopped up onto the sofa she reserved for guests and curled up. Their ears were perked up and listening.

“I’m just here to check up on my favorite accountant,” he chirped happily, seemingly oblivious to her annoyance.

She crossed her arms and leaned back in her office chair. “Really, now,” she drawled.

“Well, also the change of guard.” He pulled a porcelain mask from seemingly out of nowhere. “Your honor guard, Lady Hanako.” He pulled the mask over his face while snapping to attention. The ANBU posed for a moment before relaxing and removing the mask. “But you know who I am, so whatever.”

The mask disappeared with a puff of smoke and a flourish. Hanako picked up her pencil to return to her datasheets. Grey and blue moved in front of her on the edge of her vision as Hatake plonked himself down on one of the two chairs in front of her desk.

“I really don’t see why you work out here instead of in the actual office. The chairs in there are much more comfortable.”

“I work out here,” Hanako ground out, “because I don’t have enough clients to afford paying an assistant or receptionist. Anyone educated to make sense of numbers costs too much, and anyone I can afford won’t have clue about work.”

“Then train them,” Hatake said simply.

“I don’t have time.”

“Make time. I know some clan kids that wouldn’t mind learning a trade like this and –”

“No,” Hanako cut him off. 

“No?”

“No,” she repeated. “No clan children. They have enough advantages.  If I take apprentice, will be one from no clan who will actually benefit from what I have to teach.”

Hatake crossed his arms and cocked his head to the side. “That’s an interesting stance to take,” he commented dryly.

“Clan children will be fine. Momma and poppa will pay for them to get job somewhere. I don’t want useless, self-centered worker who is waiting to get what they think is owed. I want someone who is willing to learn, adapt. Earn.”

“Even if a clan child would get you better connections?”

“You’re talking about taking apprentice. That is much more serious relationship than having worker. Sure, I can employ clan child as worker. But not as my apprentice. How long apprenticeship last here?”

“Three years, give or take. Sometimes longer for civilians, depending on the trade.”

“Exactly. My home doesn’t have this —” she fumbled for the word before remembering it “—equivalent. I learned at university from many professors. Would have to teach apprentice everything myself. It would take lot of time.”

She leaned back in her office chair and rubbed her neck absentmindedly as she thought over it. It would fit into her long-term expansion goals to take an apprentice, but she was serious about the no clans thing. Not only had she noticed that clan members in Hidden Leaves were much more entitled, arrogant people who thought that their influence would allow them to treat everyone else as the dirt beneath their shoes, but letting one work for her would also invite that clan’s machinations into her business, political or otherwise. People in Fire Country were collectivist. There was less of a separation between work and personal life. Business bled over into family life. Hanako didn’t trust that a clan child wouldn’t give confidential client information to their clan if pressured.

A knock at the door broke her thought process. The door opened a moment later, and a genin messenger entered. A manila packet was in the young girl’s hands and she quickly handed it over to Hanako. The civilian didn’t miss the genin’s shocked and adoring gaze of hero worship directed at Hatake while she waited for a signature to verify receipt of the package.  Once Hanako handed the signed slip back, the genin fled quickly, too nervous to even squeak out a response to Hanako’s thanks.

“Looks like you have admirers,” Hanako said as she used a letter opener to slice the package open.

“It happens,” he replied.

Her travel papers. There was no expiration date on them. Good, she could be flexible with her plans, then. Hanako pushed her chair back and took the items to her safe in the storage room. Hatake followed along, looking amused at her attempt to block his view of the safe combination.

“You know that locks don’t really work to keep shinobi out, right?”

“Not sure anything can. But it lets you know that you’re not welcome,” she replied dryly, leveling a narrowed glance at her annoying guest. She gathered up her purse and a few papers from the side and put them inside it.

“Where are we going?”

“We,” heavy emphasis was put on the pronoun, “are going nowhere. I am going to see a client.”

“As your bodyguard, I can’t let you go anywhere unescorted. It’s against orders.”

“Can’t you go sleep in a tree or the sofa, in ceiling, or whatever my bodyguards usually do?”

“No, ma’am. I must remain by your side at all times.”

Hanako cast him an irritated look. “No, you don’t. Go climb a tree or something. I have important meeting, and I don’t need you interrupting.”

“Mah, you’ll never know I’m there.”

“You sure about that?”

“I’m very good at being quiet.”

The dogs trotted after them out the office and the lock clicked in place. Their footsteps fading down the hallway taking their bickering voices with them.

 

 


 

 

It was child’s play to put the civilian in a genjutsu. First, to direct her to the Naka River, and then to knock her out. If the Fire Shadow wanted a tracking seal on the asset, then a tracking seal he would get. What he didn’t want, however, was for her to be aware of it, hence the genjutsu.

The ANBU’s eyes flared red as his snare was set and then tripped the moment she walked outside the cosmetics store and placed her hand above her eyes against the brightness of the sun. The genjutsu whispered in the asset’s ears suggestions of where to go while he killed time for his partner to grab sealing supplies. His partner caught up with him, supplies in hand where the agent had her sit down on a shady bench by the Naka. The asset’s guard stood by to make sure that no one happened by their inadvertent abduction.

“Took you long enough.”

“Had to borrow a few things.”

“Like what?”

“You know this is a delicate process. The last thing we want to do is try out a seal on the fly.”

“You sound like an Uzumaki.”

“No, I just know what I’m talking about. You keep to your fancy genjutsu, and I’ll deal with this.”

The asset offered no indication of resistance or even awareness that the agent picked her up.

“Bet I know what convinced Lord Third.”

“What’s that?”

The agent bounced her slightly in his arms, causing her cleavage to jiggle enticingly.

“All it took was those big blue eyes, a ‘Please, Lord Fire Shadow,’ and a view of these,” another jiggle, “and he was mush.”

“Shut up.”

“Stoat, agree with me here.”

“He’s a bit of a lech.”

“Fuck yeah he is. C’mon let’s get this over with.”

The trio disappeared down a manhole cover into a subterranean area where an ANBU post was laired.

Once the asset was placed face-down on a table, Eagle first copied out a draft of the seal he would be attempting before setting his brush to skin.

“Why are we going to this much trouble?” the agent asked, impatient.

Eagle was focused on the inking, so Stoat replied in his place. “Because assets like this one freak out if they realize they’re caged. Keep them oblivious, the job gets ten times easier.”

“Guess ignorance really is bliss.”

“How did you get into this organization, really?” Stoat responded, annoyed at the constant sarcasm. “You have no self-control.”

“Because I’m really, really good at genjutsu,” the agent cheekily replied, flaring his red eyes again.

“He’s just a kid,” Eagle said without looking up from his work. “He’ll grow out of it.”

“Asshole, aren’t you supposed to be defending me? We’re partners.”

“Not when you’re being a little shithead on purpose.”

They waited in silence for Eagle to finish the inking on the back of her neck and upper shoulders. Smoke rose up from the skin where the ink was applied as the chakra in the ink bonded. When Eagle finished writing, he channeled his chakra into the seal. It flared a bright white before fading to black. Then, the seal seemed to swirl, pull in, and shrink on itself until it disappeared into a tiny crescent line that was so small it blended in with the rest of the freckles above her C3 vertebrae.

An awareness awakened and filled the ANBU, joining the dozens of others already there linked through their tattoos.

They returned the asset to the bench, and the agent brought her out of the deep genjutsu she had been trapped in. She swayed slightly but didn’t pass out.

Mock saluting to Stoat, the agent and his partner left. One task down, at least fifty to go, he grumbled to himself.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 19:

Sit Next to Me

 


 

 

Come over here, sit next to me. We can see where things go naturally. Just say the word, and I'll part the sea. Just come over here and sit next to me.

 


 

 

Nakano Eiji was an older man. If she had to estimate, she would guess that he was the same age as her father, in his late sixties. Despite his age, his temples were only white, while the rest of his black hair was only generously flecked with white. He had a wife and two sons that were a little older than Hanako. However, she knew that he had once had a daughter as well. If she had survived, she would have been Hanako’s age.

His eldest son, Nakano Yoshikawa, was in training to take over their family business when his father retired. At thirty-five, he was still unmarried, a situation which frustrated his mother. Hanako had her suspicions that the reason he hadn’t found a wife yet, was that he wasn’t interested in having a wife. It wasn’t her place to say anything about that, though. Attitudes about that sort of thing were far less accepting among civilians than they were among shinobi. While the Nakano family would probably find their heir in the second son, Yoshikawa was the son that inherited the business smarts.

The Nakano family’s business was food. Specifically, grains. Being a ninja village, Hidden Leaves consumed roughly three times the amount of food a civilian city of a similar size would. Ninja ate a lot. As one of the larger importers of rice, wheat, and soy, the Nakano’s did a lot of business and had a thriving business.  Being Hanako’s largest client and the first person to take a chance on her, Nakano Eiji was the first person that she headed to about her problem. Which is why she found herself in his offices, laying out her problems to him and requesting advice.

The older man leaned back into his office chair as Hanako explained her situation to him. He crossed his arms, and one hand stroked his beard as he listened. His offices were at least twice the size of Hanako’s, with several administrative employees under him in addition to his laborers.

“You can get a discount off the top by buying in bulk alone,” he started.

Hanako nodded. “I expect no less than a ten percent discount for the bulk.”

“Do you have the ability to pay all at once or as payments?”

Hanako pulled one of the papers she had received from the Fire Shadow’s Office. The authorization papers on behalf of Kami Company. “Looks like I have both,” she said, sliding the paper over to Mr. Eiji.

“Hmmm,” he mused, looking over the paper. “With an order this size and the ability to pay immediately if you so wish, you might be able to knock it down to a twenty percent discount. That’s if you negotiate hard enough, though.” He leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling. “Last I heard, there were four merchants in the capitol who are selling word processors. That might have gone up between then and now, though. Just so happens that Yoshikawa-kun and I are making a business trip to the capital in two weeks. We’ll be there for three weeks. Why don’t you come with us? That will give you enough time to put out the word to the merchants selling these. Once they hear that you’re buying at least fifty? Well, they’ll climb over one another to wine and dine you. Plenty of time to make negotiations, and I’ll sell you the cargo space on my wagons for a good rate to transport them back.”

Hanako inhaled sharply. “You would do that for me?” The shipping costs to get the processors back had been one of the biggest problems she was looking at in the equation.

“I’m responsible for you, aren’t I?” Mr. Eiji said. “I couldn’t, in good conscience, let you go there and get taken advantage of. Not to mention, it looks like you’ll be providing the protection for the trip, seeing as it looks like you’re required to hire a shinobi guard detail for the trip.” He winked at Hanako. “Since your Da isn’t here to look after you, I’m more than happy to take up that role. My wife wouldn’t be too happy with me if she heard that I let you go off to the capital by yourself.”

Hanako smiled gratefully. “Thank you, Mr. Eiji. I truly appreciate that.” Sexist as his words were, he genuinely meant well. There weren’t many businesswomen in Fire Country that were not part of prominent clans. He was just doing the decent thing that was expected of him in his culture. As long as he didn’t try to marry her off to his elder son, she was okay with accepting his protection. Mr. Eiji’s good word had brought in many of her smaller clients and she wasn’t about to jeopardize that over her pride. There was a time and place to stand up for her pride. Her livelihood wasn’t it. Maybe once she was more established and could stand on her own without relying on connections. Just not now.

“Three weeks, though. That’s a while. Doesn’t it take week to travel to capital?” Spring was already starting to falter and turn into Summer heat. It would be in full swing by the time they returned.

Mr. Eiji nodded. “Faster if you’re not traveling with a caravan, but it takes a week roughly if nothing goes wrong.”

“It’ll be hot.”

He spread his arms. “Fire Country. It’s in our blood. It’ll boil its way into your blood sooner or later, too.” Hanako smiled at that.

His face turned serious for a moment. “I do expect that you’ll negotiate me one of those processors as well in that bulk purchase you’re going to make.”

She smiled. “One for me, one for you, and fifty for village.”

“Very good. Why don’t you come to have tea with my family later this week? We can discuss the details in better detail then.”

Hanako winced. “Are you sure? Last time we have tea, I made fool of myself.”

The older man laughed. “Ah, that was a sight to see. The hostess didn’t know what to make of you. Don’t you worry about that, my wife can show you the proper etiquette. Thursday at four?”

Hanako reached into her bag and pulled out her planner. “I have meeting scheduled for three, five might be better.”

“That’s a little late. How about we have dinner instead? Seven o’clock at Yakiniku Q?”

She nodded. “That time works well for me.”

He clapped his hands together. “Perfect. Yakiniku Q at seven on Thursday. Bring a date if you want. That young man waiting for you outside would do nicely.”

She immediately blushed. “That’s not, he’s, we’re not—” she stammered.

“You could do worse than that one. Bring him along,” Mr. Eiji said with a grin. “Never know, he might be the one you end up finally settling down with.”

Still pink-cheeked in embarrassment, she wrote down the appointment in her planner before she bade goodbye to her client. He was still chuckling at her expense when she left.

Hatake Sakumo rose from his seat in the reception area to join her. Hanako smiled at the receptionist and retrieved from her the latest weeks numbers to input and the payroll information. The two women chatted and made small talk while the information was gathered. Once she had it, she placed it in her bag made her way out. As soon as they descended the staircase and exited the building on to the street, Hatake turned to her with a mischievous look on his face.

“Thursday at seven, hmm?”

“How did you hear that?” The civilian asked in exasperation.

“Ninja,” he replied, tapping his ear with a finger. “So, what time should I arrive to escort you?”

“He said was optional, you know,” she said, maneuvering her way through the crowded streets.

“Ah, but then if you show up without me, Nakano-san will wonder why you didn’t bring an invited guest.” He was having absolutely no trouble maneuvering around people, even those who awkwardly stopped short randomly for various reasons or made unexpected turns to cut in front of others.

“You’ll be gone on a mission.” Hanako dodged around an old woman carrying an armload of bags before deciding to detour through a small park that didn’t have many people in it.

“Maybe I’ll just show up anyways. Missions sometimes end early, you know.”

She pivoted on the ball of her foot to face him. “Why do you want to go to dinner with me?” She asked with a suspicious look on her face. “Is for business. Nothing to do with ninja.”

“Maybe I was flattered by his comments,” the silver-haired man said lightly. “Really, Hanako-chan, is it that strange to think that someone might want to go on a date with you?”

 “Hatake-san, last time I went on date with you, it—”

He cut her off, “It was an unmitigated fucking disaster,” he said lowly, serious for the first time all day. “I said some stupid shit. Some really stupid shit and it all came out wrong.”

The civilian was suddenly conscious of how much taller he was than her and how tiny she was in comparison. A shiver ran down her back. Her mouth suddenly felt dry.

“Is that right?” She couldn’t stop her voice from dripping with sarcasm. Her head was tilted back so that she could see his face. “If what you said then was true, and there really is so much danger to me, then you wouldn’t have been seen with me at all. You wouldn’t being seen with me now. Technically, you are putting me in danger. So. What are you really playing at, Hatake-san?”

His storm grey eyes darkened, and a smug smirk stole over his lips as he leaned down toward her. She was very acutely aware of how physically close they were ton one another. His lips parted to say something, and he immediately fell silent and stepped back when a pack of kids invaded the park they were in, shrieking and screaming in joy as they chased each other.

She took the opportunity for what it was and walked away, continuing back to her office. She had more appointments to keep for the day.

 


 

The tendons of her knees underneath the kneecaps were straining. Sitting seiza style was very uncomfortable. Hanako listened as the Uzumaki woman lectured both herself and the very active twelve-year-old girl next to her. Uzumaki Kushina was a ball of energy Hanako had never quite encountered before. One that Uzumaki Mitama dealt with by severe thwacks with a ruler-like stick on the backs of her hands or the top of her head when she messed up.

It didn’t take a child psychologist to tell that Kushina was not a fan of Mitama. The way she flinched away in anticipation of each rap and the resentful glances she threw at the older woman after each incident spoke for themselves. Hanako didn’t think that the two were closely related. Kushina had a rounder face wile Mitama’s was heart shaped. Mitama also had a tall willowy figure, while Kushina was stockier and more tomboyish in comparison. Considering that she was only twelve, that would probably change as she matured. Hanako had never met her parents before so she couldn’t quite predict what the girl would grow into being. The color of their eyes and hair were the only real defining characteristic that linked them together. Hair so red that it looked as if it were dipped in paint.

Hanako listened to the lecture that Mitama was giving on honorifics with interest. Most of the information she had been given in bits and pieces, but never all together, and never in such detail. For instance, Hanako had never heard the terms chichi-ue and haha-ue before, but apparently, it was a more formal way to refer to one’s own parents. She didn’t quite see the point in having a formal term to use to only speak to one’s own parents and not used by others to describe parents, but that was Fire Country for you. She also found out that there were honorifics to use for Lords, Daimyo, and Princesses that she had also never heard before, as well as honorifics for business use. She marveled a little at the levels of formality and the rigidness of social rules that governed the culture. While she knew most of the honorifics, paid more attention to the rules of when the use of them changed and the appropriateness of them. 

Mitama had given Hanako a kimono to wear when she arrived, a slate grey colored garment, and had to tie the obi for her as Hanako had no earthly idea how to do it herself. Hanako also found out that the obi should always be tied in the back unless she wanted to disguise herself as a prostitute. Kushina and Mitama were dressed in much more colorful red and blue kimono with sprays of flowers patterned all over them.

Hanako subtly shifted to take some of her weight off of one leg and give it a rest. She felt the blood resume flowing and the prickles of her muscles having gone to sleep.

Beside Hanako, Kushina groused about how she wouldn’t need to use any of the information because she was ‘a super-awesome kunoichi’ which set Mitama off on a lecture about how kunoichi needed formal manners for infiltration and interacting with clients. Kushina batted back retorts in between points.

“Do you want your team to fail infiltration missions because none of your teammates know how to properly act with clients?”

“That doesn’t actually happen. No one cares about that. We’re ninja!”

Hanako felt awkward and didn’t know what to do. It reminded her of a time when she was a kid and was at a friend’s house, and they started to argue with their parents. Hanako hadn’t known what to do at the time either and just sat off to the side petting their dog.

“Our clients are often nobility, not the civilians you see around Hidden Leaves. They will demand respect of you.” 

“Doesn’t matter! This is stupid. I should be training right now, not sitting here with you and this civilian.”

The civilian in question’s eyes widened at that remark. The word itself wasn’t bad, but the derision and condescension in Kushina’s voice was palpable.

At that final declaration, Mitama seemed to hit her limit. She fell silent. Numbers were practically appearing over her head as she counted down in her head for about ten seconds. “The lesson for today is over. You may leave,” she said in a quiet, even tone.

Kushina looked aghast as she realized she had pushed too far. “But I—”

“The lesson is over,” Mitama repeated firmly.

The young girl’s face flushed a bright red. She quickly got up and rushed out of the room.

Once she was gone, Mitama turned to Hanako. “Will you join me for a cup of tea?”

“Yes, please,” the civilian said quietly.

This time Mitama didn’t bother with the formal tea pouring and led Hanako to the kitchen of the house. She poured water into a kettle and set it on the stove to heat. The redhead leaned back against the counter and gestured for Hanako to sit at the kitchen table.

“I just don’t know what to do with her sometimes,” she bemoaned, rubbing her fingertips against her temples.

“She’s what, twelve?”

“Thirteen.”

Hanako thought about her words carefully. She didn’t exactly like Uzumaki Mitama. Mainly not after she had so casually used negative intent against her. The kunoichi was dismissive toward civilians, treating them as if they were non-entities or completely inconsequential. She was giving her etiquette lessons though, and practically for free, at that. “Teenagers are hard. She’s forming own opinions, testing boundaries. In my homeland, we call it rebellion stage.”

“It certainly is as if there were a civil war in my home.”

“She is becoming adult, slowly. Forming new opinions. Just wait until day she realizes parents can be wrong. Patience?” Hanako ended weakly, shrugging her shoulders. Before, when she was still Elle, at her workplace, one of her coworkers was going through this process with her children. Hanako tried to repeat some of the advice that others had given to her old coworker. The woman’s sweet, obedient child was turning into a hellion that didn’t listen, and the woman wasn’t exactly patient with her. Doubly so in that she just wanted her kid to obey her and wasn’t focused enough on making sure that her child grew into a healthy functioning adult. The rants were almost a daily occurrence.

“I’m just – she’s not mine, you know?” Hanako nodded. “She’s one of my distant cousin’s kid. My clan is originally from Whirlpool Country. One of the branches of the Uzumaki came here to Hidden Leaves. So Kushina came here from Whirlpool several years ago.”

“Why?”

The tea kettle started to screech, and Mitama busied herself with preparing a pot and two cups. She grabbed a trivet out of a cabinet and placed it on the table to keep the heat of the teapot off of the wood and settled into a chair herself while waiting for the tea to brew.

“Kushina-chan has a condition with her chakra. It’s related to the Uzumaki bloodline limit. She came here to receive treatment and training from Lady Uzumaki Mito, my aunt. Since Lady Mito has passed, she’s become my responsibility.”

“I take it that sending back to parents is not option?”

Mitama poured the tea into the cups. “No, she’ll require constant training to be able to use her ability safely. By that time, she’ll be a full kunoichi of the Leaf and bound to serve Leaf, not Whirlpool.”

Hanako was confused. “I thought Whirlpool was country.”

The redhead nodded. “It is, but it also has a hidden village of its own. The Village Hidden in Whirling Tides has been closely allied with The Village Hidden in the Leaves since its founding. But anyways, I had hoped that having you here would also help with our lessons, that she might calm down some and actually listen for once instead of fighting back on every front.”

Hanako nodded her head once. “Ah.”

“Enough about me, tell me where you are from.”

“Me?” Hanako laughed weakly before launching into her cover story. “I am from place very far away, called Land of Steel. Father was a merchant, and I was with him on trip. We were going to find new items to bring back to Land of Steel for trade. Were attacked in – I’m not sure where. Hidden Leaves took me in, though. I’ve been here ever since.”

Mitama waved her hand delicately. “That is how you got here. How did you become an accountant? Forgive me if this is too forward, but it isn’t exactly considered a profession – suitable – for a proper woman.”

That struck a nerve in Hanako. “Forgive me for being forward, but where I am from, that attitude is considered backward, barbaric, sexist,” she said with a curled lip.  “I became accountant because I wanted to be. Where I am from, women choose what they want in life. No man can tell them different, not even mother and father.”

Mitama didn’t look offended. She had a hint of satisfaction on her face, making Hanako think that she wanted to rile her up.  

“Ah, if only we could all choose what we wanted to be in life.”

“Yes, maybe then people in Hidden Leaves would be happier with lives,” the civilian shot back. Hanako grew up in the South. She knew when people were throwing shade. It was also useful for learning how to be insulting with plausible deniability.

There, Mitama really did smile. “Did you learn accounting from your father?”

More neutral ground. Good. “No, I learned at university.”

The redhead’s eyes widened. “Your family must have been rich.”

“Well off,” the blonde shrugged. “Not as rich as nobility, but we had money.”

She didn’t know how to explain the middle class so didn’t try. The parallels between Fire Country and Terra wouldn’t quite work. Something like university education being available didn’t exist here. Even basic primary education happened at home, and schools were all private. Either a child was educated at home and was taught their parents’ trade, or they were sent to a private school if their parents could afford it. Literacy was hit or miss. With as complicated as Fire Country script was, most had only a basic literacy level. Hanako counted herself very lucky that the Yamanaka that performed the language spell on her was highly educated and experienced in the Intelligence division. He basically transferred his literacy level to her.

Mitama poured another cup of tea for them both. “Land of Fire must be very different from there, then.”

Hanako nodded. “Very different. Land of Fire is collectic, collevtic, collectivist. Yes, collectivist, while Land of Steel is very individual.”

“Individualistic,” the redhead supplied.

She smiled at the other woman. “Thank you. Yes, individualistic. We leave families at age of eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Live life on own, start own career, family, all separate of family. Parents not have say in life like here.”

“Explains why you landed on your feet.” When Hanako quirked an eyebrow at her, she explained further. “Fire Country civilians aren’t like shinobi. A typical civilian woman would have been paralyzed with fear. Maybe she would have adapted, but most likely either she would have tried desperately to marry for security or ended up on the streets and tangled up with worse. It surprised me that you, a civilian woman, came here and are practically thriving, especially considering your circumstances.”

“You do what you must.”

“That’s a very shinobi mindset, Yamada-san. Civilians don’t think that way very often. They’re very often caught up in propriety and what others will think of them. Very often they won’t take risks or do something if it’s different from what others do. ‘The nail that sticks up gets beaten down,’ and all.”

“That is sad.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Everything comes risks. Things that are worth doing are always hard.” Hanako returned.  

“I like that saying.”

They chatted a little more, making small talk until it was time for Hanako to head out. She quickly changed out of the kimono into her work clothes. It was easier to get out of the formal outfit than it was to try to piece together how it was supposed to go. The first time she came out wearing the kimono, Mitama had sent her back. Apparently, she had put it on with the right side over the left, and that was something only done for the dead. Since it was the end of the day, Hanako had closed up her office before going to the Uzumaki clan district and was ready to go home.

A nin-dog was waiting for Hanako by her shoes. Riku, the Doberman Pinscher. That meant that Hatake was lurking around somewhere. Probably polite enough to not intrude in another ninja’s home. They were strange about that. Hanako didn’t quite understand the rules that they had around interacting in one another’s homes. Ninja threatened one another casually, it seemed. There had been more than one time that they would surprise attack, poison, or throw knives at each other for seemingly little to no reason other than that they could. It really reminded Hanako of cats. Cats would play fight, ambush, and attack each other all the time, just because they could, even if they were friendly with the other cat. It didn’t seem malicious to her. It was just how ninja did. Luckily, they remembered that Hanako was a civilian and didn’t do that to her.

He didn’t say anything but kept pace with her, his shoulders almost brushing against her thighs as she walked. His ears perked up in an alert position, his head constantly swiveled as the dog kept watch. Riku took his job as her guard very seriously. A few times, her fingertips brushed against the top of his back. Hanako liked Dobermans.

She was reminded of the low supply of chicken in the house when she saw the sign for a butcher shop and detoured to go in. A few pounds of chicken later along with a pound of beef selling for a reasonable price, she was almost ready to go.

Hanako glanced down at Riku. “You want anything?”

The nin-dog sniffed primly. “Chicken hearts.”

“Pound of chicken hearts, too.”

“Certainly,” the middle-aged man behind the counter got to work bagging up the hearts.

Riku stuck to her side the rest of the way back to Yamada House.

Chapter Text

Chapter 20:

I Think I’m Okay

 


 

 

Watch me, take a good thing and fuck it all up in one night. Catch me, I'm the one on the run away from the headlights. No sleep, up all week wasting time with people I don't like. I think that something's fucking wrong with me.

 


 

 

For once, Hanako was having a quiet evening to herself. She was the only one in her house, ninja dogs excluded. The shinobi that were usually dropping in and out had excused themselves a little after she had gotten home while it was still daylight, talking about night training or something. Whatever that meant. She didn’t want to think about it too closely. Hanako was well aware that shinobi stole, murdered, fought, collected blackmail, and whatever else their employers asked of them. It was easier to not to touch that writhing morass of black moral questions. Several of them were among what she counted as her friends.  She wasn’t sure how much that friendship would hold up if she was forced to put their relationships under that kind of scrutiny. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

Her only companion was Riku, who hadn’t left her in the last two days. Besides, when he had to go do his business outside, the Doberman stayed with her. She gave him meat to eat, of course, and made sure that he had fresh, clean water available to him. He slept at the end of her bed the previous night. Hanako had protested when he had actually tried to get on the bed. Intelligent and talking he might be, but that didn’t mean that he was cleaning his paws all the time and his coat had to be dirty by then. He had reluctantly agreed, and so slept on the floor.

Hanako showered every evening and wore slippers from the bathroom to the bed so that her feet would be clean and washed her sheets weekly. Sleeping in a clean bed was something she was serious about.

Anyways. Riku had been with her for the past day. Hanako hadn’t seen Hatake since she had gone to her appointment with the Uzumaki and Riku had replaced him. She assumed that he was somewhere close by but didn’t want to talk to her since their conversation in the park. Ninja could be strangely prideful about some things.  So now she was sitting on her favorite wicker couch on the porch drinking a healthy amount of wine, eating cheese, salami, pickles, and crackers, and reading a novel. To keep from ruining the ambiance and the mosquitos away, she had lit citronella candles around her. Even with the candles, it was a little too dark for her to be reading, and she felt her eyes strain as she read.

Her first warning that someone was there was when Riku’s ears pricked up and he lifted his head. Hanako didn’t notice that he had gone on the alert until he snarled and growled lowly in the direction of the river. Besides the lights that prickled in the darkness from the Inuzuka clan holdings, there wasn’t anything to indicate in the dark where the river was. Hanako could see just a few feet past the edge of her porch and that was it. 

The civilian drew her knees up to her chest as she rose from her reclining position, making herself smaller. Riku rose to his feet, back stiff and the fur on his ruff rose up as he exposed his teeth. Hanako felt shivers of fear start to make their way down her spine as she peered into the darkness, trying to discern what had alarmed Riku.

“Calm down,” barked a voice out of the darkness. “You know who I am, Riku-san, you little shit.”

The civilian relaxed immediately as she recognized the voice as belonging to Yamashiro Takanori. He stepped into the light and frowned at the Doberman, who had stopped growling and showing his teeth, but his ruff was still up and his body stiff and tense.

“Boss told me to guard, I guard,” the dog said simply in a tight voice, lips still half curled into a snarl.

“Hatake-san’s not on guard.” Hanako blinked a few times. That was news to her. “Weevil is, and you know it. She’s fine. Go back to your master.”

Riku snarled but let the ninja pass before disappearing in a burst of white smoke.

As soon as he reached her, Takanori wrapped Hanako up in his large arms in a tight embrace, lifting her off the ground. She immediately felt safe wrapped in his arms. He took a deep breath, breathing in her scent.

“I thought you were out with others,” she probed.  

He released her finally. “I’m not on the exercise tonight. Just finished my shift.” He pressed a kiss to the side of her face. “I missed you.”

She tightened her grip around his midsection and returned his kiss, biting his bottom lip gently with her teeth.

He wound his fingers into her hair in response and made a rumbling noise in his chest. The shinobi picked her up and she wrapped her legs around his waist, and he started to move them toward the bedroom.

“Not yet,” she took a pointed sniff and smiled at him. “Clean up first.”

 


 

 

A droplet of sweat dripped down her forehead. Below her, his lips were locked on her, tongue lapping against her. He changed the rhythm and she cried out, arching above him. She rocked her hips back and forth, watching carefully in case he needed to come up for air. When he didn’t give any indication of it but instead bit her thigh, she threw her head back. He was shinobi. He could throw her off if he really needed to. She rocked her hips back and forth.

A gasp of air. It was so hard to breathe. So hard, but so good. A whimper dropped from her lips. It was all the encouragement he needed.

He pounded against her, filling her up in the most delicious feeling. She fisted the sheets in her hands in a desperate attempt to stay grounded. In vain. Pleasure pulsed through her, carrying her away on its current.

She rocked back against him, desperate for more, to be filled even further. The bastard, he withdrew, teasing her with his absence. Then, he returned almost painfully, making her eyes roll back and spine arch. The pain bordered on pleasure to the point where she wasn’t sure which was which anymore.

 


 

 

Hanako was spent. She wasn’t a blushing virgin. She had her fill of partners. But there was just no comparing to a shinobi. Their stamina was – no compare. Even as she lay exhausted on her bed, she thought back. No, not even that one guy she had a fling with that was in the military. Hanako had cried when they broke up. He had wanted children in the long term and she – well, she didn’t. So he broke it off. It had still hurt.

Not even he could keep up with Takanori in stamina.

A hand trailed down her spine, sending goosebumps shivering across her skin. A slight chill had stolen over her when she went to the bathroom to clean up after their session. That’s what it was. The room was too cold. 

“Ready for second round already?” She questioned lowly.

Lips pressed down on her shoulder. “Not quite yet, sweetheart.”  His fingers traced circles on her shoulder blade, and she nestled closer to him, feeling truly relaxed and at ease. She drifted to sleep.

 


 

 

Hanako woke up to the murmurings of her partner next to her. She couldn’t make out the words, but they sounded angry and were getting louder. She rubbed at her eyes and rolled on to her side. From the little light that was in the room, she discerned that Takanori’s eyes were still closed.

Great. Sleep talking. She debated for a moment on what to do. If she woke him, it might ruin what would otherwise be a good night’s sleep. But he also looked like he was having an unpleasant dream. Not to mention, she couldn’t sleep with him being as loud as he was.

“Taka,” she murmured. When he didn’t stir, she sleepily touched her hand to his shoulder.

In a flash, she was trying her best not to swallow or move her head as the two-hundred-pound shinobi was on top of her with a blade pressed to her throat. Her lungs cried out for air, but she couldn’t breathe in for the weight on her chest.

A thin pain bloomed on her neck as the blade sliced into her skin. Hanako tried to force her head further into the pillow to get away from it. A warm rivulet of blood blossomed and ran down.

“Taka,” she tried to move one of her hands from underneath his bulk. “Takanori, it’s me.”

His eyes were cold and dead, his empty gaze boring down onto hers.

Oh god, she thought. I’m going to die. I’m gonna die in bed at the hands of a knife-happy PTSD-crazed lunatic.

Her air was running out quickly, and she started seeing black spots in her vision as her lungs burned.

“Taka,” she gasped one last time before the dots turned into a solid black.

 


 

 

Bright. It was bright. The light was on, she dimly registered. Hands. Hands were on her, one holding her and another pressed to the side of her face.

“Hanako-chan, can you hear me?”

She blinked blearily, trying to make out the source of the voice. A face came into focus. Takanori and someone else. She reached her hand to her neck only for someone to stop it gently.

“No, don’t touch it right now. How do you feel?”

Waat ze fuk happen’d?” She tried again to touch her neck and felt gauze and medical tape.

“Hanako-chan, look at me.” She lifted her eyes to the unknown speaker.

Ze fuk did yu do tu me?

A light appeared in his hand and he shone it into her eyes one at a time, checking her pupil dilation. “No concussion, she’s just out of it.” He got up from the squat he was in and walked to a table that had tools laid out, leaving Takanori in front of her alone.

Hurt. A deep pain in her chest. Betrayal. A prickling feeling in the corners of her eyes. “Hao, hao cuud yu?” The back of her throat was getting thick and it was hard to swallow. She tried to swallow the lump in her throat anyway and it didn’t work.

“Sweetheart,” he reached out to her.

No,” she shrank away. “Do’nt tuch me,” her hands came up in a defensive gesture.

“Baby, I’m so sorry,” he tried to soothe her. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to do that.”

“Don’t,” she managed to say in the right language before bursting into tears. She felt strong arms wrap around her again, but this time instead of feeling safe, she felt caged.

 


 

 

Luckily, Hanako didn’t even have to bring up the topic of canceling dinner. One glance at her bandaged neck and red-rimmed eyes and Nakano Eiji did that himself. He only questioned her to ask if Hatake had done it to her. When she shook her head, he sighed. “Comes with living in a hidden village,” looked off into the distance. “Sometimes they forget that they’re home and safe and things happen. Some are luckier than others. Some don’t come back to their senses soon enough and –” he trailed off and moved a few items around on his desk. “Four years ago, during the height of the war, a shinobi – one of our own, of all things – well, he snapped. A few of the survivors think that he was startled when a pot was knocked over and broke. We’re still not completely sure, the ninja wouldn’t confirm anything, and the rumors didn’t help. But he killed twenty-seven people within the space of three minutes. Wounded fourteen more before the Uchiha Police showed up to stop him.” He looked Hanako straight in the eye. “He snapped and butchered twenty-seven people. And we were helpless.”

A package was delivered to her home several hours after her meeting with Eiji with tea, chocolates, and some other pastries as well as throat lozenges and a small jar of honey. Hanako recognized the kid who delivered it as one of the Nakano’s workers’ daughters. The girl presented it with a quick bow and an admonishment from Eiji to take care of herself and rest.

No one had to tell her twice. The accountant had canceled all her appointments for the rest of the week and had holed up in her room surrounded by a nest of her fluffiest and most comforting blankets and had herself a good cry. She felt upended. She had finally started to feel like she fit in somewhere, like there was a place for her, only for the truth to be harshly brought back to the light. Shinobi were dangerous. They weren’t big teddy bears. They were lethal, brutal killers, and could easily maim or kill her on accident.

It was an accident. She knew that. Takanori had been having a bad dream, a flashback, when she tried to wake him. He had sliced her throat open but came to and stopped before he cut too deep. If he had gone any further. If he hadn’t stopped, it would have gotten an artery and, well, no more Hanako. Piercing through this was her realization that she really had started to like Yamashiro Takanori. She had started to really relax around him. They had already agreed that they would keep feelings out of their arrangement, that they were just keeping one another ‘company.’ But somewhere along the way, she had started to feel a little more for him. Not quite love but affection, maybe?

It wasn’t his fault. But it was. He was dangerous, but not to her, but he really was. She struggled with her thoughts. If he ever had an episode like this again around her, there was no guaranteeing that she would survive a second fit. She didn’t have a way to defend herself. Bodyguards only meant something if they could get there in time to intercept a threat. And even then, only if they cared enough to do it in the first place.

She wasn’t safe. Not really. No civilian in Hidden Leaves ever really was. Most of them learned to deal with the danger. Like she mostly had. But she hadn’t had a lifetime to adapt. This was – it was out of her depth. She’d never been in a situation like this before. She wanted to get on the phone and talk with her mom and bawl and tell her all about it. But she couldn’t.

So she had herself a nice long cry.

To say it was cathartic would be an understatement. It felt like a steel band was snapping and releasing itself from where it had wrapped around her chest, letting her breathe again. A weight was lifted as she let the dam she had built up around her emotions break up and flow again. She sobbed and ugly-cried for a few hours, the tears would dry up, and she would wipe the snot and salt away, and then she’d think about home, and it would all start over again. As the tears came out, they carried with them her stress, her anxiety, and the worry that she had been holding inside and refusing to acknowledge. She felt tired but clean.

When the tears were washed away, she felt sorrowful but resolved. Her plans hadn’t changed but had been solidified and fixed. Business. She needed to expand and create a much larger firm, gain influence, and become valuable beyond her chakra. If she could become more valuable for her abilities as a businesswoman, then maybe she could break the chains placed on her by the ANBU. Gain her freedom. Leave the village.

But first things first. She had to make this trip. Nothing was going to happen without this venture. It was her best chance at gaining enough momentum to break through the boundaries that had been put in place.

Chapter Text

Chapter 21:

New Light

 


 

 

Oh, I want a take two, I want to breakthrough. I wanna know the real thing about you so I can see you in a new light.

 


 

 

Papers were scattered all around in the living room. To anyone who walked in, they wouldn’t have made sense.  A strange script flowed across them all, some with charts, some with bullet points, others with calculations like on scratch paper. In the bedroom, there was a total mess as clothes were strewn around the closet, some packed into bags, others obviously moved aside in a search.

In short, Yamada House was a mess.

In the center of it all was Hanako. Her hair hadn’t been washed in a day or two and was pulled up in a messy bun on the top of her head. She had slight bags under her eyes, and her skin was a little paler than usual. She folded and refolded clothes, fitting them into bags and then marking things off of her list that she had beside her. Several bags were already packed and ready to go, placed by her bedroom door.

A soft, almost indiscernible knock at the front door finally caught Hanako’s attention. She set down the shirts she had been sorting through and carefully stepped in between stacks to make her way to the front door.

The civilian glimpsed a flash of purple through the window. True to her suspicions, when she opened the door it was the sight of Asuka that greeted her.

The violet-haired kunoichi gave her a wan smile. “Hanako-chan. Can I come in?”

Hanako stepped aside in tacit permission, and the other woman toed off her shoes at the entryway.

“Just you here, huh?” Asuka tried weakly.

“Yeah,” Hanako returned. “Just me. Kinda lonely. Got used to having much people here.”

The two women stood facing one another awkwardly.

“We thought you might want some space.” 

“I did,” the blonde nodded. She then remembered her manners. “Can I get you cup of tea?”

Asuka smiled. “I’d like that, yes.”

Silence reigned over the kitchen as Hanako fixed a kettle over the stove and prepared a pot and tea leaves.

The kunoichi broke the silence first. “You’re leaving soon?”

“Yes. In six days.”

“That’s soon.”

Silence again. The kettle whistled its song and Hanako poured the hot water over the leaves.

“You know,” Asuka said as she slid into a seat at the island, “when I was a little kid, I used to jump in my father’s arms all the time. He would catch me every time without fail. I never could surprise him, either. He always knew I was coming. Then, one day, when I was about five or so, my father was home from a mission.”  She took the cup Hanako handed her as the civilian listened intently.

 “He was taking a nap on the couch,” Asuka continued after a sip. “No matter what, I could never surprise him, but today was the day. So, I snuck around the couch – well, as sneaky as a five-year-old can be – I got into position, I got a running start, and I jumped on him! He was surprised. So surprised, in fact, that he tried to gut me like a fish.”

Hanako gasped, mouth falling open. Asuka smiled ruefully. “You see, my father was a veteran of the first shinobi war. I didn’t know this at the time, she only told me later, but my mother never touched him to wake him up, she always called his name a certain way. War veterans can sometimes have a tendency of,” she paused, trying to find a way to phrase her words, “waking up on the alert. If she hadn’t been in the room when I tried that and managed to pull me away, I probably wouldn’t be here today. I never tried to wake my father up again.”

Hanako couldn’t find any words to give, so she settled for placing her hand on Asuka’s in sympathy.

The kunoichi laughed self-depreciatingly. “He was horrified, of course, when he realized what he had almost done. He couldn’t look at me for a week he was so ashamed.”

“I was terrified,” Hanako whispered. “I thought he was going to kill me.”

Asuka didn’t have to clarify who ‘he’ was.

“Oh, honey,” Asuka wrapped her arms around Hanako and pulled the shorter woman into a tight hug as tears sprung into the civilian’s eyes. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“We had slept together in the same bed before,” Hanako asked when they broke apart. “I don’t understand what I did wrong.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Asuka corrected. “I talked to Takanori-san about it. He told me that he never really let himself sleep deeply around you until the other night. I don’t think he was allowing himself to sleep soundly enough to have the nightmare in the first place. He feels terrible about all this.”

“Why can’t he tell me himself?”

“He’s afraid you don’t want to see him. He’s afraid that you’ll be scared of him now. Most of the Masks that heard about it were worried that you wouldn’t want to see any shinobi, so they left you be.”

“Well I certainly don’t want to sleep with him anymore,” Hanako muttered darkly.

Asuka laughed lightly. “That’s the Hanako-chan I know.”

Hanako took in a deep breath to chase away the sobs and shudders she knew were on their way if she didn’t try and stymie them. “What am I supposed do when that happens?”

“When what happens?”

“Nightmare, sleep talk,” Hanako said like it was apparent.

Asuka actually thought about it for a moment. “What can you do,” she mused. “For a shinobi, it’d be simple. Just be careful waking them, remind them that they’re with allies. But for you, you can’t exactly dodge a strike, now can you.” She drummed her fingers against the countertop. “Definitely don’t touch them, you won’t be able to block any attacks if they lash out. You can project your chakra some, can’t you?”

Hanako shook her head. “Not yet. Can only stick things to palms.”

“First order of business, I’ll teach you how to project and broadcast your chakra. With your abilities, it might even help you out in tense situations. If and when you can, project your chakra so that your –” she waved her hand in Hanako’s general direction, “– ‘field’ is stronger and they can get a better sense of who you are, and just call out their name gently. Start softly and increase in volume until they stir. If you get to regular speaking volume and they don’t wake up, just leave them be. If they have to wake, get someone else to wake them for you. Don’t risk yourself for that. Do your best to not startle them though. I might even recommend getting close to the door just in case you have to dodge behind something.”

“That bad?”

“It can be. It’s worse for some than others.”

They hugged again. “Thanks,” Hanako said, sincere.

“Are you okay seeing Takanori-san?” Asuka asked seriously.

Yah,” Hanako shrugged. “But I think our arrangement is over.”

“I think so, too,” Asuka agreed. “Enough about him. What’s on the line for your trip?”

Grateful for the topic change, Hanako launched into her travel preparations and started showing Asuka some of her plans that she’d crafted in the last week she’d had free.

 


 

 

The mission request desk of Hidden Leaves was a busy place. Those who made the trek to Hidden Leaves to request missions instead of relaying the requests to the outposts that were scattered throughout the Land of Fire tended to be more important or represented important people. Or very poor. Somehow, there wasn’t much of an in-between. Either they came personally to beg the village, or they came personally to demand of the village. And then there were the locals. Merchants who, as part of their contracts with the village, employed Hidden Leaf shinobi for their caravans while in the Land of Fire.

Hanako was about to join their numbers.

She waited in line at the missions request desk, between a pair of haughty looking wealthy people and watched the same as they did the ninja that filtered in and out of the hallway outside accepting and turning in missions at a different desk. When it came to her turn, she submitted her ID card to the desk clerk and fill out the information, she about balked at the prices the clerk handed her back.

A five-week round trip request for a three-man escort at a total of 150,000.00 ryo. Hanako’s eyes bugged out of her head when she saw the total. That was an entire 20% of her total yearly income.

“Are you sure is correct?” She pressed the clerk.

“The rate for an escort to the capital is 10,000 ryo per man per week.” The clerk droned. She sounded like she repeated this spiel multiple times a day with clients. “We don’t send out less than three-man squads for escorts, so you’re looking at 30,000 per week, which means your five-week request is 150,000 ryo. Leaf shinobi are the best. You want the best; you pay for the best. You can go to Hidden Grass, Hidden Rain, Hidden Whirlpool, or some other no-name village if you want a lower price. You’ll get what you pay for though, and they’re a long way off.”

“Can we negotiate price?” Hanako gestured at the quote in her hands.

The clerk stamped some papers without even looking at Hanako. “The rate is the rate, you can cut your trip shorter if you don’t want to pay that much.” The clerk looked Hanako up and down. “And, no offense, but you don’t exactly look like you have anything to negotiate with.”

Hanako’s knuckles tightened at the insult. Hanako wanted more than anything to snap back that the clerk didn’t look like she had anything to whore out either but held her tongue. Curse the bitch, but she was right. She wasn’t upper-class nobility or that rich. Fuck. The Fire Shadow was going to make her pay out the nose for this damn trip.

“Fine. I’ll pay,” she ground through her teeth.

The clerk started going over the contract with her. Since she was from Hidden Leaf, she did get some better terms. Fifty percent as a goodwill deposit, fifty percent once the job was completed, instead of having to pay it all upfront, and if she died on the trip Hidden Leaves would return the second fifty percent to her estate. They would also forfeit 25% of the fee if they failed to do their job and protect Hanako adequately. What, precisely, adequately was defined as the contract didn’t say. The rest of it was boilerplate.

It made sense, though, with how much the village was throwing at this investment. The Lord Fire Shadow’s office had sent her authorization paperwork in the name of this ‘Kami Company’ which was, in Hanako’s opinion, a shell company for the Hidden Leaf to operate through. There was no authorization limit on the paperwork. A dangerous decision, on the side of the village. Hanako could do anything with that limit, but at the same time, she was sure her ‘escort’ would be there every second to ensure that she didn’t take advantage of it. Goodwill only goes so far once money is involved.

Hanako filled out the contract and left the mission request desk, minus a bank draft for 10% of her annual income. Good god, but this trip had better pay off. She was taking out a loan from the bank for her word processor when she got it – there was no way that Hidden Leaf would pay for hers, even if she did get them a good deal on the rest. Ultimately, she was staking her near-term financial future on the success of this.

Asuka was still at Yamada House when Hanako got back. She had stayed behind that morning while Hanako went to the missions desk, and was now sitting in Hanako’s living room surrounded by weapons, oil, cleaning cloths, and wet stones of different grits that she was using to sharpen her short sword and other weapons.

“How did it go?” Asuka called out when Hanako stepped through the door.

Hanako let out a loud exhale that was more like a grunt in response.

“That bad, huh?”

The civilian took off her shoes and went over to the couch to sit down on it cross-legged. “Stupid bitch at desk insulted me. Took my money.” Hanako frowned. “You had better make bank on mission because things are expensive.”

“Make bank?” Asuka quirked an eyebrow, testing a blade with the tip of her finger.

Hanako looked at the ceiling and searched for an explanation. “Yah, is like, you making so much money, you make entire bank worth of money. So, ‘make bank.’”

Asuka nodded. ‘Right.” She continued to maintain her weapons while Hanako sprawled across the couch going over her budget for the fiftieth time, revising it now to include the cost for her escorts. She had initially projected the cost from the finances that she had done for shinobi, which Hanako estimated would be around six thousand ryo per man, but she neglected to take into consideration that the village would take its cut as well.

Her pencil scratched across the page as she wrote, erasing numbers here and there, and making extra columns for worst-case scenario calculations. “Is your ‘ma still trying to get you marry?”

“Is she still trying to get me to marry someone?” Asuka repeated. She had moved on from her weapons and was now seeing to her armor. “Yeah, she is. It’s annoying as Stone.”

“’Annoying as Stone,’ what does it mean?”

“The Village Hidden in Stone, they’re one of our biggest enemies, the shinobi village of Land of Earth. Savage, vicious, and they’re very fond of boobytraps,” Asuka explained. “So, ‘as annoying as Stone’ –”

“I think I understand,” Hanako said.

Asuka nodded and moved the armor in her hands around to get oil into a groove. “But yeah, she’s still trying to badger me into marrying some civilian prick.” The kunoichi then proceeded to mutter a few epithets softly under her breath.

“You should start give dumb reasons why ‘no,’” Hanako suggested. “Like eyes too close together, has fish lips, smells like mothballs, arms not the same length, that sort of thing.”

Asuka snorted in a rather unladylike manner. “It’d drive the old bag crazy.”

“Do you still live with her?”

Asuka nodded. “Never put in the effort to find an apartment, and I’m gone or busy often enough I don’t have to deal with it.”

The civilian thought about it for a moment or two. “You’re always free to live here. I also wouldn’t mind getting own place, if business go good,” she offered. “I know I always have – watchers, guards, whatever you call – I know is not comfortitable being watch, but you are good friend. Always welcome.”

“Comfortable,” Asuka corrected. “You really mean that?” she said, putting down her work.

Hanako smiled warmly. “You’ve been true friend, maybe only one. But,” she warned, “if I buy house to get out of this dump,” she pointed directly at the still obviously patched section of wall where a shinobi had been bodily thrown through the living room wall into the guest bedroom, “You will have to pay rent. And promise not to wreck house.”

Asuka burst into laughter. “I promise not to wreck your future house.” Hanako held out her pinky finger and Asuka hooked hers around it, in the gesture she had learned from Hanako, and they made it a pinky swear.

They went back to their respective work. After about ten minutes, Asuka spoke up. “Are you okay for having people over? Ya’know, after the whole thing?”

Hanako raised her head. “Yeah, I think I’m fine now. Why?”

“Cause you got about ten minutes until a squad pours through the front door,” Asuka warned.

Hanako groaned. “Another party?”

Asuka nodded. “It’s probably going to turn into one. We haven’t had one here in a bit.”

Hanako dragged a finger across her throat in a ‘kill me now’ motion and played dead, tongue out of her mouth and all. She didn’t move from it until Asuka bopped her on the top of the head.

“Stop being such a baby,” she chided. “You sure you’re up for it though?” She asked seriously.

Hanako frowned. “Yah, I think. Just don’t want to see Takanori-san right now, is all.”

Asuka opened her mouth to say something but Hanako cut across her response. “Motherfucker almost killed me. On. Accidedent. I don’t want to see.”

Asuka wisely didn’t correct Hanako’s pronunciation.

At that, after gathering up all of her papers that she didn’t want stepped on or otherwise misplaced, the civilian retreated to the back porch of the house to busy herself with her plants. In the previous week, during her seclusion, she had gained another seven small potted houseplants that mysteriously appeared around the place. She suspected that they all came from the Yamanaka plant nursery. She had been gifted two snake plants, three succulents that she wasn’t sure of their names, an aloe vera, and a plant with long spindly leaves that she had never seen before.  She did rearrange where they were placed but kept them inside on windowsills and on tables to add a little to the ambiance instead of outside. Except for the aloe, that one went onto her porch table outside.

It didn’t take long for there to be the sounds of people inside loudly greeting one another, Asuka one of them. Hanako glowered a bit. She knew that she was acting childish by staying outside and not welcoming anyone as the owner of the house, but she felt like she was entitled to her childishness every now and then. She didn’t necessarily like all the parties that inconspicuously just so happened to pop up at her home. It was one of the reasons she wanted to get her own house. She just didn’t feel like the home was hers, and so she had no right to refuse when shinobi wished to strike up a party. Which was at least once a week.

She was serious about what she said to Uzuki Asuka though. If her friend ever found herself needing a place to stay, Hanako was ready to offer up her home.

Hanako was almost ready to go inside and socialize when a figure materialized on her porch. More accurately, a shape dropped down from the roof of the house and swung down smoothly onto the porch. Hanako fumbled with the watering can that she held with a bit-back curse.

“Socialization not for you today?” Hatake said by way of greeting.

Hanako rolled her eyes and placed her hands on her hips with an exasperated look on her face. “Not really, some abrupt for my tastes.”

“A bit abrupt,” he corrected.

Hanako narrowed her eyes at his correction, not shifting her posture.

“May I?” He asked and stepped closer without waiting for her response, his gloved hands examining her neck.

Hanako found herself automatically tilting her head to the side to allow better access. She had taken the bandages off the day before; the cut having mostly healed. It was now a thin angry red line. She would have been shocked at the healing speed, but the medic who had checked her out had done some healing magic with glowing green hands on it and healed it most of the way. The rest had been her own body healing at its natural rate.

“I heard about what had happened,” he said softly. “Yamashiro-san came very close to hitting your artery.” His rough and calloused fingers were surprisingly gentle against her skin.

Hanako realized that his eyes weren’t just a dark stormy grey color, but were flecked through with bands of lighter grey like the edges of clouds or lighting strikes. She licked her lips, trying to find one of her usual snappy comebacks that usually sprang to her lips when she was with him, but couldn’t.

He cupped her face with his hand, thumb barely brushing the corner of her lips. She reflexively tilted her face upwards to him and felt herself rise up slightly on her toes.

That was when Sakumo broke the spell and dropped his hand and stepped back. Hanako let out a breath she hadn’t even realized that she was holding and stepped away as well. She looked away, embarrassed, and bit her lip.

“Why don’t we go inside?” She suggested, heart beating rapidly and breath a little shorter than she would have liked.

Thankfully, the white-haired shinobi nodded his head and led the way inside.

Hanako made light conversation with various shinobi, mostly greetings and asking how they had been. A few inquired as to how she had been, most giving understanding glances to her when she gave vague responses or dodged the question. More than a few gave pointed looks at her neck. Hanako just hoped that it wouldn’t scar so that she wouldn’t have to deal with the appraising stares in the future.

Sakumo also socialized, beer in hand across the room. Hanako tried to make sure that she didn’t look at him too often, but she felt her gaze drawn to him multiple times. She didn’t know why. The man was irritating, annoying, and seemed to enjoy poking at her. When she first met him, he was defensive and aggressive, but just earlier he had acted almost gentle, kindly?

Ugh, she didn’t have time for this.

A few times, Asuka came to Hanako’s rescue, verbally batting back a few ninja who asked questions a little too probing, trying to suss out who, exactly, had sliced Hanako’s neck open. Hanako found herself very thankful for the woman.

That didn’t stop her from not so subtly elbowing the kunoichi in the side and gesturing when she saw someone walk through the door. “There’s lover-man,” she said smugly.

Asuka choked on her drink and immediately moved to block Tsuda’s line of sight by moving behind another shinobi. “Oh, no,” she despaired.

Hanako couldn’t help but grin at her friend’s situation. “What would do if I call him here now?” She said with a devious grin.

“I’ll gut you like a fucking fish,” Asuka immediately threatened. “Oh crap, oh crap,” her hands moved to smooth out her hair, trying to tuck away flyaway hairs that had escaped her forehead guard. Hanako didn’t quite see the reason to wear the identifying plates constantly, but they seemed to be a mark of pride for the ninja.

“Oh no, here he comes,” Hanako whispered.

“Really?” A panicked look.

“No,” Hanako laughed.  

“You’re the worst, you know that?” Asuka shifted her position, maneuvering around Hanako and a black-haired shinobi that was caught up in conversation with someone else, still hiding.

Hanako smiled. “Why don’t just talk to him? Was just one bad night.” She could see Tsuda on the other side of the room, talking with a brown-haired shinobi, clapping him on the back as the other shinobi said something.

“Easy for you to say,” Asuka groused. “I’ve got my reputation as a professional badass on the line here. I can’t just go talk to him! What if –”

“What if what?”

Asuka struggled for words. “What if,” she waved her hands around gesticulating, “stuff. What if something terrible happens and I can’t just,” she continued to fumble for words.

“Okay, okay,” Hanako appeased. “Just play cool. You was here first.  Don’t avoid him but don’t ignore either. You avoid him, he looks like has superior position,” she advised.  

“Right, right,” Asuka straightened herself back to her full height, which Hanako had to admit was considerable for a woman. “I was here first.” She still straightened out her clothes, tugging slightly at her mesh underarmor while still keeping a sharp eye out for the man.

Hanako just smiled as she took another sip of her drink. At least she wasn’t the only one who had struggles when it came to relationships. She glanced in the direction of the kitchen where Hatake stood, deep in conversation. As if sensing her gaze, he met her eyes. Hanako quickly looked away.

Why did things suddenly feel too complicated?

Chapter Text

Chapter 22:

Come Alive

 


 

 

When the world becomes a fantasy, and you're more than you could ever be 'cause you're dreaming with your eyes wide open. And you know you can't go back again to the world that you were living in 'cause you're dreaming with your eyes wide open. So, come alive!

 


 

 

Bright and early. Too bright and early. The morning that Hanako woke up for her trip, she rose at around four am. Arguably, in anyone’s book, too early. Of course, she had breakfast before she left and checked everything over in the house one last time. Hanako wrote down detailed instructions on how much to water the plants and how often and made sure that everything was in its place. She put on her most comfortable walking shoes, shouldered her backpack and slung the strap of a heavy duffel onto her shoulder, locked everything up, and set off.

Light butterflies started dancing through her chest as excitement began to build. She was finally leaving, she was going to go outside of the village walls! In over a year she had never stepped foot beyond the gates of the village. And now she was going to Ashiya, the largest center of commerce and culture in the Land of Fire.

The sun was still just a pale blue glow below the horizon when she met up with Nakano Eiji and Nakano Yoshikawa at their family’s offices. Yoshikawa was standing outside, waiting for her while his father took care of some last-minute things inside.

Yoshikawa reached out to take Hanako’s heavy duffel from her. She didn’t refuse as it was heavier than she was comfortable lugging long-term. “What time are we supposed to meet up with the escort?”

“Thanks,” she said as she handed over the bag. “I put down in contract six am at main gate.”

He glanced at his watch. “Five thirty now. Not much time.” He filled his lungs. “Pops! We gotta go!”

Hanako winced at the sudden increase in volume more for the neighbors than her own ears, but it didn’t take but a minute for the light inside the office to switch off and the elder Nakano to appear.

“Yeesh,” he said once he joined them. “You certainly didn’t get those lungs from me, kid.”

“What were you even doing up there?”

“Signing some invoices that came in last night. Can’t just leave the business on auto-pilot for a month.”

“Ma’s got it.”

“Yeah, but she can’t sign for everything.” At that, the trio set off for the main gates.

Just outside of the village walls, Hanako knew, was what she would have referred to as a supply depot where all merchant shipments were received, checked and sorted through, and then searched before they were allowed into the village proper. Though she knew how it functioned in theory, she had never been there herself, doubly so because she had no previous reason to, but also because she wasn’t allowed past the gates previously.

In front of the big red gates decorated with the word for ‘hermitage,’ they met up with the escort. Three chuunin who must have been around twenty. A slight woman with hair the color of ink and shadows beneath her eyes who introduced herself as Nara Emi, and her two teammates Sarutobi Kohaku, a man of medium build with short brown hair and red stripes sweeping downward over his cheeks from the corners of his eyes, and Senju Hiroshi, a tall, thin, whip-like man with brown hair.

Hanako quickly explained to the three that while she was the primary client, that the Nakano’s were to be considered secondary clients as the escorts would also double as general protection for the caravan. The three accepted without protest, and with that, they left to join up with the wagon train outside of the gates.

As they crossed through the gates, Hanako felt herself lightening, as if her worries and stresses were becoming less and less the further through the gates they walked. Giddy, that would be the word. She couldn’t help the big smile that stole over her face. Freedom. Outside the village, coming maybe fifty feet from the wall, was a forest surrounding them for what looked like miles. An apt name that, ‘Village Hidden in the Leaves.’

It didn’t take long to meet up with the caravan and familiarize themselves with the wagons before they were off. Hanako’s duffle was placed with the Eiji and Yoshikawa’s bags on one of the covered wagons. Pairs of mules pulled each wagon. Some wagons were already partially filled as some of the wagons in the caravan had gone a little beyond the village and collected goods from them to be sold. Yoshikawa explained to Hanako as they walked along that at each town that they would stop at for the next week they would load up more goods to take to the capital to sell along with packages and mail that people wished to send.

“It’s not the best system in the world,” he explained when Hanako asked a few questions about the routes, “but considering that it’s the only way to move cargo, there you have it.”

“Is team of three enough for all twenty-one wagons?” Hanako asked, referring to the shinobi she had hired. 

“More than enough,” he responded. “It’s almost unheard of for wagon trains to be attacked by other shinobi, and the three of them will be more than enough to take care of any bandits.” He glanced back at one of the escorts, who was walking alongside a wagon some fifty feet behind them. “Truth be told, I usually hire samurai to do the job, and we’re not unarmed ourselves,” he revealed, pulling aside his overcoat to reveal a shortsword.

“Ah, I see. Shinobi far out, out league, rank,” she searched for the word.

“Outstrip,” Yoshikawa supplied.

“Yes! Outstrip typical bandits?”

He nodded. “Truth be told, I’m surprised we got a chuunin team. Usually, a team of three genin and their sensei are assigned these trips.” He rubbed his fingers over his short beard. “I’m going to bet you that they have a secondary mission in Ashiya.” He looked over Hanako. “Fifty ryo says that they’re going to disappear for at least two days while we’re in the capital.”

Hanako considered. “Nah, they’re going to leave just one with us. But you’re on.” They clapped hands together and shook on it.

A mile out from the village, the scenery changed quickly.

Wow,” she breathed out, struck by the sight. Somewhere in her homeworld, there were pictures floating around of her at the base of a redwood tree. These trees though, they were like someone took a redwood tree, and said ‘No. I want it bigger.’ Towering hundreds of feet into the air, the trees blocked out the majority of sunlight and created a sort of double-tiered ecosystem with the giants above and the ground cover below surviving on what light filtered down below.

She stopped off to the side and stared, drinking in the view. One of the escorts came to a stop next to her as well, Senju, she thought his name was.

“The Hashirama Trees truly are a sight, aren’t they?” He said, gazing up at the trees above. “Hidden Leave’s greatest defense, our first Lord Fire Shadow, Senju Hashirama grew these himself. His chakra still echoes inside these trees. Many Leaf shinobi come out here to commune with them and meditate with his chakra around them. Especially my clan.”

“They’re beautiful,” she responded. She wasn’t sure about a man growing the trees himself, they still looked like redwoods, just – bigger. Maybe they were redwoods, but this world’s chakra magic took their effect on them. She knew that redwoods could live for thousands of years, so that is a long time to interact with chakra and grow ever larger and more prominent.

A pretty tale, nonetheless.

She started walking again, it wouldn’t do to fall too far behind. She didn’t know anyone else in the wagon train aside from Yoshikawa and Eiji.

Above them, the three escorts leaped from branch to branch.

 


 

 

It took over a day to get beyond the redwood forest, the Hashirama Forest, as it was officially known. Their path was winding, with plenty of switchbacks, twists, and turns. Without the sun clearly above them it was almost impossible to track where exactly they were in the forest. That was probably the point of hiding a village in the middle of it.

The first night, Hanako’s feet were sore. It took her at least a minute of tugging and rubbing to get her swollen, abused feet out of her shoes and at least slightly better feeling. One thing Nakano Eiji had warned her of was to bring plenty of pairs of fresh socks, specifically comfortable boot socks. She now saw his wisdom, as her feet were smelly from sweat and the forest was humid and damp. Dry feet would be a godsend. They camped on bedrolls close to the smoldering fire to prevent mosquitoes from getting too bad. Nakano Eiji actually slept in the wagon, while Hanako and his son roughed it. She didn’t resent him for it though, he was much older than the two of them and rode in the wagon more often than he walked.

Around mid-day on the second day, the Hashirama trees gave way to smaller, normal-sized trees. The temperature also rose considerably without the tall trees to block the heat.                               

Yoshikawa promised Hanako that the hotel they would stay at in Ashiya would have a laundromat just outside it where she could get all of her clothes cleaned. She was thankful for that because she smelled of sweat, smoke, and dust. All of them did, really. It was just part of traveling in this world.

True to his word though, they did make multiple stops at different villages, picking up things from handcrafted pottery to raw materials to take on to the capital. Indeed, the trip wouldn’t have taken more than three days if it hadn’t been for the frequents stops, but there was safety in numbers. At one point, their escorts had discovered the scene of a previous attack; a family dead and their valuables gone. All lined up in a pretty row with slit throats. Eiji had insisted that Hanako walk on the opposite side of the wagon as the scene, despite her response that she wasn’t delicate and wouldn’t faint at the sight. The smell of death lingered at the scene, making them all gag. Hanako was glad she didn’t have to see it.

Fire Country was a beautiful place, if hot and humid. Plenty of streams ran through, some small enough to cross in the wagons, and others requiring bridges. A few times, downed trees blocked their path, and several of the men would have to grab axes and cut through the barriers. Shades of green and brown surrounded them the entire time. The trees were mostly broad-leaved deciduous trees, with a few pines and evergreens scattered through. Squirrels chattered and ran through around them, and the songs of birds was a constant. At night the sounds of cicadas and crickets chirped them to sleep.

Hanako thoroughly loved every bit of it. Open and free, with no walls to keep her in, no houses filled with people to flood the streets day after day, and most importantly, no customers demanding that she spend hours hunched over a calculator, pencil in hand to scratch out on paper how much money they did or didn’t have and where. A vacation away from it all. 

There also were no looming presences around her either. On the second day, Hanako realized that part of the reason she felt so good and light was that there were no overwhelming presences around her. It was like popping your ears and realizing that the music you were listening is actually a lot louder and more clear than before. She put it together when they set down to make camp, and she spied the approach of one of the guards without hearing them. Or seeing them.

It was already dark and the fire was crackling in the middle of the circle, completely ruining any night vision the civilians might have had, when she felt someone approach from her left side. She waved to them in greeting. It had been the Nara woman, who seemed surprised that Hanako saw her. At first Hanako thought that she had seen the woman, but later she realized that she really hadn’t. 

She had felt something that was almost a static electricity or heat of some kind off to the side, almost in the way that you feel the heat coming from a fire, or feel the crisp cold breath of an autumn breeze. It was hard to describe, something like a sixth sense that was a mixture of static electricity, heat, and the prickling coolness of peppermint that was just as likely to send chills up your spine as comfort you. She turned reflexively and somehow knew someone was there. She hadn’t seen the Nara at all, just assumed that she could.

After that, Hanako started paying attention to where the shinobi were. She only got the strange sensation from their directions when they were doing magic. Now with an almost total absence of the feeling surrounding her, Hanako was able to sometimes pick it out when it flared around her. When one of the shinobi made their fire, she felt a build-up and then release coming from the ninja.

The civilian realized that this was chakra that she was feeling, and finally understood what Asuka and Old Man Saito had meant when they talked about broadcasting and flaring their chakra. Surrounded by it incessantly and with such a dull ability to even grasp her own energy, Hanako had been a blind person trying to read their instructions.

That Nara woman was smart though. She seemed to know before Hanako did what the civilian had done. The only time Hanako was able to tell where she was at was only that first night.  After that, Hanako was barely able to sense anything in her direction.

 


 

 

The last night they spent on the road was by far the most interesting. Hanafuda Gai was a smaller walled city that closed its gates every night. Which meant that instead of sleeping on the ground, they could sleep in an inn because not as many people would need to stay up and guard the wagons against theft.

The inn was a travelers’ inn. Shabby, but clean enough. After three days sleeping on the ground, Hanako wasn’t about to turn down a real bed. The absolute first thing that she did was go up to her rented room and take a good shower. She didn’t care that her hair was wet when she came back downstairs to eat. What mattered was that she was clean and wearing fresh clothes.

Hanako sat with the Nakano’s and two of the shinobi – the Senju drew the short straw and was with the wagons outside. Dinner wasn’t all that exciting, they had a choice between a beef and potato stew or some kind of stir fry.  Hanako went with the soup and was blowing on her bowl to cool it down when a couple started kicking up a ruckus by the bar where the locals seemed to be congregated.

The woman couldn’t have been older than twenty-two,  and the man looked to be in his mid-late thirties. She couldn’t hear what they were fighting about, but it caught her and her table-mates’ attention in a way that a public spectacle only can. A few people tried to interfere, and the fight died down. Hanako was only half watching out of the corner of her eye when she saw a quick movement. The man slapped the woman open-handed across the face. Hard.

She went down immediately. The people around them reacted quickly, two local men got in between the two, holding him back from going at her more, and walked him out the door while another woman started to help the hurt woman. Of course, that got the attention of everyone at Hanako’s table, and they immediately started talking about it. Those who had seen it happen filled those who didn’t in on what went down.

The woman who had been struck was pretty enough; dark, long hair and a pale, delicate face. She was bleeding from her lip though, and a good portion of her face was a bright red from the blow. Another woman who looked enough like her that they could have been sisters or cousins had sat her down and was helping her to ice her face and then helped her leave.

Yoshikawa cursed small-town people for being backward, his father told him not to be so judgmental, and Hanako agreed with Yoshikawa. Women’s rights weren’t quite the same outside of Hidden Leaves, and even there Hanako found it to be a rather patriarchal and misogynistic place. Still, she followed the age-old tradition of minding her own business and not interfering. No one liked an outsider.

After dinner, they migrated to the bar, which had cleared out a little, where the men started ordering sake to drink. Yoshikawa encouraged Hanako to drink since alcohol would be much more expensive in Ashiya. Hanako, not minding a drink herself, ordered a red wine along with two of the other women who were related to a couple of the merchants in the caravan. She was drawn into a discussion with them about abuse and a few other women’s issues that had bugged her. With a few drinks in them the women were having a good conversation about it. Having traveled quite a bit, the merchant women were a lot more progressive than Hanako had expected. The conversation eventually turned to politics, where Hanako simply listened, not being very knowledgeable about the topic and not fluent enough to talk about socioeconomics.

They were in the middle of discussion whether or not the Land of Lightning and Land of Frost would continue to be close allies, as the Daimyo of Land of Lightning had done something to insult the other nation, when the woman from before returned to the bar.

Now that Hanako could see her up close, she winced. The woman would have normally been beautiful, but Hanako could see the yellowed bruises on her arms, marks from crushing hands around her wrists and upper arms. Her cheek was swelled up along with her busted lip, and she would probably have a bad shiner the next day.

Hanako wouldn’t have thought more about it, except that the woman was talking to Nara Emi, the woman on her escort team, and Emi gesturing toward Hanako, directing her in Hanako’s direction, a frown on her face.

“You’re’tha kunoichi’s, uh, client?” The woman said by way of introduction, short and to the point.

“Yes?” Hanako replied, somewhat confused.

“Name’s Hana. Can we talk?” The two women went over to a dark corner where they wouldn’t be overheard but were still within eyeshot of the bar. “I wanna hire her,” Hana said after looking around carefully to see if anyone was watching. “She says she can’t take a second contract n’til the first is done without your leave.”

“Oh. What do you –”

“I want her t’kill my husband,” Hana cut her off.

“Ah.” Hanako also looked around to see who could see the two of them talking. The locals had cleared out earlier, leaving only travelers, and the bartender. “Why wou—”

She was cut off again. “He beats me ‘n’ my family won’t let me leave. Now, can I hire her or not.”

In a previous world, Hanako would have said no. A year ago, she would have said no. Six months ago, she would have said no. The two men who dragged her husband out the door? They didn’t even really drag him, it was more like they were telling him to get some air. No one interfered for the woman. Hanako looked Hana up and down, seeing the fresh and faded brusing on her body, the haggard look on her face, the hard expression that was covering up the fear of a negative response.

Hanako didn’t have to say anything, she turned her head to where Emi was watching and gave a solid nod.

Emi pushed off the bar where she had been leaning and slipped out a side door.

“Thank you,” the other woman grabbed her hands, steely expression breaking into relief.

“Get out here,” Hanako said. “Find place better to live than this.”

“I don’t need that. I just need ‘im gone.”

 

 

Hanako never said anything about it later when it was all over, and neither did Emi.

Chapter Text

Chapter 23:

Blue Moon

 


 

 

Blue moon, you saw me standing alone. Without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own. Blue moon, you knew just what I was there for. You heard me saying a prayer for someone I really could care for.

 


 

 

The walls of Ashiya were tall, broad, and thick. She was an old city.

In direct comparison, Hidden Leaves was a very young, new, and vibrant city. Very few buildings were over two stories high, and of those that were, they were built in a very traditional style. In the distance, Hanako could see that there were a few taller, more modern buildings in the distance, but even those couldn’t have been over ten stories tall. New architecture mixed in here and there with old in an exciting mishmash of style. Most city blocks were cohesive as the buildings of each tended to the same style or era, but some blocks held a mixture of styles.

At least, that was the opinion her vantage point on a hill overlooking the city offered her.  She had a mental image of trebuchets firing flaming projectiles into the city, it wouldn’t be difficult from a raised position. Nah, the Elemental Nations had probably already moved on to mortars. But still.

As the wagon train had reached larger and more trafficked roads, it hadn’t taken long for Hanako to notice the stares that her bodyguards were receiving. A mixture of reactions, really, but most were not positive. They ran the gamut from awestruck kids to nervous, tightened, suspicious, and even angry looks from adults.

Eiji smacked his forehead when Hanako mentioned it to him. “You wouldn’t know, why would you?” He muttered. “I mean, it’s not like you’ve ever been outside of Hidden Leaves before,” he said sarcastically.

Hanako quirked an eyebrow.

 “Most people have never seen a ninja in their entire lives.” He gestured his hand around to indicate everyone around them. “If you’re a merchant like us, that chance goes up exponentially. You live in Hidden Leaves and see them hopping around like rabbits every day, so they’re normal. Everyone else? Most people tell their children to behave, or a ninja will come get them.”

Hanako’s eyes glinted with understanding. “I see.”

“Naturally, he continued, “they make a lot of people nervous by just existing. I’m sure you can understand why.” She didn’t have anything to say to that.

As for the shinobi, the mistrustful looks they received did nothing to deter them from prowling around, sharp eyes ever watchful.

As they got closer to the city walls, Eiji wrote down an address on a paper and gave it to Hanako with a little flourish.

“This here is the hotel we’ll be at. We should get there at,” he gauged the position of the sun, “around seven. ‘Proly take until around then for us to finish with all this.”

“Are you sure about that,” she said hesitantly.

Eiji snorted. “Woman, you could take a stroll through the worst district in Ashiya right now with those three,” he pointed at the shinobi behind her, “and I would be more worried about the people who attacked you.”

Yoshikawa pulled Hanako’s duffle out of the wagon and handed it off to her. “Could you make sure the hotel has two suites reserved for us?”

Hanako accepted the heavy duffle with some effort and a groan. What the hell did she pack in the damned thing? Bricks?

“If they are full?”

He brushed off her concern with a wave. “I already sent ahead about it, but you never know. If they don’t the manager should have a list of other hotels we can also go to. But meet us there at seven. Explore the city, this will take us most the rest of the day,” he finished darkly, glancing back at the wagons.

“What makes it take long?” Hanako queried.

Yoshikawa shrugged. “Taxes, mostly. The Daimyo’s administration added extra taxes recently and now they spot-check cargo randomly. It’s been a pain in the ass this year.” He glanced ahead at the road. “You should probably split off now, take the pedestrian gate in, find a map of the city if you can and enjoy the sights. The daimyo’s outer palace grounds are open for public viewing, some of the most beautiful gardens in Fire Country that the likes of us will ever be able to see. Pops ‘n’ me’ll show you around plenty, but that’s something you can do today.”

With a final wave, they were off and Hanako was left alone with her bodyguards.

The civilian took in a deep breath, steeled her shoulders, and entered the city.

 


 

Following Yoshikawa’s advice, Hanako’s first objective was to buy a map of the city. Following the basic rules of tourism, she waited until they were several blocks into the city before doing so. The ninja with her offered no directions, no suggestions, following her lead completely. Nara Emi kept to Hanako’s right side just behind her, while Sarutobi Kohaku went ahead of them and took a point position, and Senju Hiroshi was somewhere behind them.

The hotel Eiji had given Hanako the address to was located toward the center of Ashiya. The city itself was built on the Ishikari River, and a tributary of the river diverted off and ran through the city center, creating a beautiful river-walk area. The hotel was built a block from the tributary.

Called ‘The Continental’, the hotel itself was modern. Well, modern compared to the rest of the Land of Fire. Hanako’s definition of ‘modern’ style would be somewhat different than the typical. The receptionist when Hanako went to check-in was a rather chipper girl who informed Hanako that their suites wouldn’t be ready until around three or four in the afternoon, but they could leave any baggage at the hotel.

Hanako was pleasantly surprised to hear that they had suites reserved, mentally comparing the cost to what she would have paid back home in Terra. What she wasn’t happy about was how late they could get into them. She was sweaty, dusty, and nasty from the road and just wanted a shower and a clean change of clothes.

Since it was only one, she made an executive decision to find lunch somewhere and leave her bags at the hotel. The shinobi didn’t carry any bags with them, at least visibly, so it was just her duffel and backpack to leave in a locker with the receptionist. Hanako was sure to remove any sensitive documents from it first. Before they left the hotel, the shinobi all hid their non-civilian gear with a puff of smoke, appearing for all the world to be wearing regular clothes instead of their flak jackets and armor.

Since the shinobi were so content to just tag along without input, the civilian decided that the best course of action was to follow her nose. It led her, not ten minutes later, to a small curry shop where Hanako ordered a plate of some delicious, mouthwatering chicken curry. Was it hot? Yes. Did it make Hanako’s eyes water and nose run? Also, yes. Was it the first meal of non-Fire Country cuisine that Hanako had eaten since she had arrived in this world that she hadn’t made herself with sub-par ingredients? Fuck yes.

Hanako’s sinuses felt like they hadn’t had a cleansing that good in a while. She surreptitiously wiped her nose with tissue again and resisted the temptation to angle her head backward to help her nose drain. Lunch had killed about an hour, so the next order of business was to explore the immediate area a little bit.

The district they were in was gorgeous. Upscale, beautiful landscaping, beautiful buildings. It was quite obviously one of the favored areas for wealthier tourists and businessmen to stay at. Trees lined the river walk, providing precious shade and there were plentiful benches around. Tidy shops were on the other side of the road that separated the river walk from the buildings.

Hanako would have explored more, but she was anxious to get to a shower and clean up from the road rather than explore too much. She would rather be presentable and clean, even if she wasn’t going to see anyone there ever again. Grunge didn’t look good on her. In favor of killing time though, she did duck into a bookstore to find something to pass the time.

One of the things that separated the Elemental Nations prominently from home, when it came to everyday life, was the lack of technology. Specifically, the lack of cell phones. For the first few months Hanako had no idea what to do with this surplus of extra time and an inability to browse social media any time she was waiting on something or someone. So, she had to do what people did before phones became so widespread: read books and newspapers.

Hence, the trashy romance novels she had bought. They honestly weren’t that good, but then again cheap, quick romance never is.

The store assistant was perfectly content to stay at the register reading when Hanako entered and didn’t’ even raise a brow at her entrance, engrossed as she was in her novel. Hanako recognized it as a collection of haiku and other poems. Looking around the shop, though, Hanako realized that what she had initially pegged for a small hole in the wall store was actually quite expansive inside. Quite a few customers were inside, some reading at a little area at the front with chairs which was set off from the rest, and others browsing the stacks. A few book titles were eye-catching, several that promised histories of Fire Country, a few accounts of wars during the Warring States Era, and even one that promised history of the Warring Clans Era and a shinobi perspective on the tumultuous period of history.

Most of the history books Hanako had read came from Hidden Leaves, and she already had somewhat of a grasp for the basic shinobi history. She thumbed through the ones on the Warring States Era and tried to gauge how accurate they might be compared to the histories she read in Hidden Leaves. After reading a few sentences she scoffed and put it down in favor of a different one. As she flipped through the pages, she thought about it.

Hanako was never a history student. Sure, she found it interesting, but politics and business was always her area of interest. Thanks to her parents, she had at least a solid background in music and art. Her mother had put her through piano lessons her entire childhood and she could identify composers like Rachmaninoff from Tchaikovsky and even had gotten as far as playing some of Rachmaninoff’s easier pieces, but she hadn’t really picked it back up in her adulthood.

Music and art in the Elemental Nations didn’t really interest her either as she didn’t have a particular interest in shamisen music and there wasn’t much of jazz except for a radio station that could be picked only in certain spots of her house. It just wasn’t her style if she was honest. Hence, why anywhere she turned on a radio it was almost always tuned to the one jazz station.

She was starting to gain an interest in history, though. More to her interests was the politics that went along with it, but some of it was hard for her to pick up, as all of the different nations went through several periods of forming and reforming into smaller and larger nations. Land of Frost, as an example, she knew once was a part of Land of Lightning, but had split off as an autonomous region, and then declared its own independence which sparked a war between Land of Tea and Land of Lightning as Land of Tea came to Land of Frost’s rescue.

It made complete sense to Hanako. Land of Tea wanted a buffer between themselves and the rather aggressive nation which had swallowed up all of the other countries on the peninsula over the last five hundred years, and Land of Lightning didn’t want to be cut off from the land routes to the mainland.

But one thing she also understood, was that each and every historian, as much as they may want to remain objective, would have a bias in their writing that framed how they viewed events. To name something a border dispute or an invasion was just one small example, and each term benefited one side more. And what did it even mean to say that because a single ethnic group held large populations in two nations, that one country should control all of the lands in which that group resided? Or if a majority of people in a region could speak a second language, that it gave the right to a nation to annex them on that basis?

Hanako frowned. With no internet, it was next to impossible to gauge the quality of a historian’s work. Maybe she should get several books? Or accept the biased information? She wasn’t sure.

A glance at the front of the store told her that it was two fifty-seven if the clock above the door was accurate.

She hummed in mild disapproval in the back of her throat and continued flipping through the text before making a decision.

“Do you know author?” She queried the woman at the counter.

The store assistant, a middle-aged woman with fine lines beginning to appear around her eyes and mouth, took the text. “Ah, yes, Morimoto. He’s fairly well known and respected. Do you want to purchase this one or keep looking?”

Hanako nodded, and the woman began the checkout process, making small talk as she did so. “He’s actually based out of Ashiya. A professor at Ashiya University.”

“That’s interesting,” Hanako responded. “How did you know?”

The woman smiled softly. “I own this store. I make a point of getting to know prominent authors that live in here in Ashiya.” Pride colored her voice.

“Really now,” Hanako was intrigued. That wasn’t exactly common. “How long?”

“Knowing Morimoto or owning the store?”

“The store.”

“Ah,” she thought for a moment. “Going on six years now.” She placed the book in a paper bag and Hanako handed over the appropriate amount of cash. “It’s a work of love.”

“I can imagine,” Hanako responded, looking around with new appreciation in her eyes.

“Your accent is unfamiliar; I can’t quite place it.”

“Oh,” Hanako ducked her head. “I’m from Land of Steel.”

“That’s not near here, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard of it before,” responded the woman. She leaned forward and rested her chin on her hand.

Hanako forced a smile, uncomfortable with the attention. “It’s in the far East, across the sea.”

“Near Mountain Country?”

“Further.” Hanako picked up the book and thanked her before leaving, cutting the conversation short, feeling a little guilty about leaving so abruptly but not wanting to deal with the prying questions.

Emi was a few steps behind. When they were firmly out of eyesight of the bookstore, she spoke. “Land of Steel doesn’t exist, does it,” the kunoichi stated.

Hanako glanced back at the dark-haired woman. “No,” she said softly. “No, it doesn’t.” Hanako turned away before she could see Emi’s response and continued walking.

 


 

 

By the time that Hanako got back to the hotel, the suite was ready for her to go into. The two male members of her escort appeared from nowhere causing the bellhop, who really wasn’t much more than a kid, to jump at their sudden appearance. Hanako was unfazed, having had a lot more practice at remaining non-responsive when shinobi did that than the poor bellhop. The poor bellhop’s hands shook as he handed Hanako’s things over to the tall whip-like Senju.

The suite was on the third floor. The shinobi demanded that Hanako wait outside the room with the Senju while the Sarutobi and Nara both went inside to sweep the rooms.

The much taller Senju barely made eye contact. His head was cocked slightly to the side, listening, and his eyes were half-closed as if he were trying his best to hear something quiet.

There were roughly a hundred and sixty-seven ceiling tiles in the hallway, by Hanako’s estimation, and the red and black carpet had a wavy design on it that culminated periodically into curlicues in what Hanako thought was a more Turkish or Moroccan style.

Finally, after an agonizing five minutes, the door opened again and the two were ushered inside.

The suite was spacious, with a roomy, luxurious feel to it. A small kitchenette stood to one side, more for making tea or reheating food than anything along with a dining table, and a living area containing couches and chairs with a coffee table and a balcony. To the left was the only bedroom, which also included the master bath. Hanako noted idly that the two couches could also convert into makeshift beds if need be.

“Should I order for extra blanket?” Hanako asked Emi.

The Nara woman glanced at her teammates first. “Sure. These two get cold too easily,” she spoke with a low, rough tone.

“Alright,” Hanako raised a hand to scratch at her dirty, itchy scalp. “I’ll do best to be remembering on way out. I’m going to shower now. Maybe best if all showering before leaving?”

It was hard to not laugh at the enthusiastic replies from the others.

The bedroom was similarly luxurious. The bathroom through the closet, where Hanako deposited her bags. Since she was the only one there, she didn’t feel like she would need to grab a change of clothes out from the bags first.

The first spray of water was ice cold. It didn’t take long for it to warm up to the steaming temperature that Hanako preferred, and it didn’t take long for the bathroom to be completely full of steam. The jets of water were like heaven on her shoulders. She immediately started shampooing her hair, glad to be rid of the dirt and dust.

The hardest part about having a nice, luxurious shower is getting out, Hanako thought to herself. She stood under the spray, letting her mind wander and enjoying the sensations for several minutes before she finally turned off the water and toweled off. A big fluffy white bathrobe was folded up along with the bath towels, so she wrapped herself up in it.

A one size fits all type of garment, it was really meant for someone much taller than herself, but she was comfortable enough in it. She dug some clothes out of her duffel and started to unpack the rest to hang up or at least leave folded on the shelves of the closet. Somehow, Emi seemed to know precisely when Hanako exited the closet because she knocked on the door and requested permission to enter.

Slightly amused, Hanako gave it, busy working a conditioning hair oil into her damp locks. Emi disappeared into the closet and Hanako heard the shower turn on. Soft conversation between the male bodyguards was almost discernable in the living area, and Hanako took the opportunity to do her makeup before changing into clean clothes while Emi was in the bathroom. The Nara woman showered faster than Hanako expected because the water cut off and she emerged just as Hanako was pulling a blouse over her head.

Emi pulled up short, embarrassed to have seen her client in what most would consider to be an inappropriate state of undress. Hanako quickly pulled her shirt into place before she laughed and shrugged it off. After all, they were both women, and it’s not like either of them had never seen tits before. At least it hadn’t been one of the guys she had accidentally flashed.

Hanako offered for Emi to borrow some of her makeup if she wanted only to have it refused. Hanako wasn’t surprised by the rejection. She checked her makeup in the mirror one last time and made sure that none of it had transferred onto her shirt while she was pulling it on before opening the door. Once the two women came out, Senju Hiroshi passed them in. Sarutobi Kohaku seemed to be on the alert while the other two relaxed, and when Hiroshi came out of the bathroom clean, Kohaku went in while Emi went on the alert instead.

As for Hanako, she laid down on the couch, feeling the previous week’s travel settling into her bones and not really having anywhere to be for the next few hours. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more she decided that instead of going and finding some gardens in what would probably be just as intense of heat as she had just traveled to might just be too much trouble. By the time Kohaku emerged from the bathroom, hair damp, her mind was made up and Hanako announced her intentions to go take a nap.

She didn’t shut the door and just laid down on the bed in her clothes. Hanako didn’t even feel like changing back out of her clothes. After all, it’d just be an hour-long nap.

 


 

 

Hanako awoke to the sensation of someone shaking her gently. Red stripes. Not makeup, tattooed.

“Wha’s goin’on?” She asked blearily through half-shut eyes.

“Nakano Yoshikawa-san is here for you, Yamada-san,” said Sarutobi Kohaku in a low tone.

“He is? Wha’ time’ist?” Hanako put a hand up over her mouth as she yawned.

“Eight oh’seven.”

That did more to wake Hanako up than the knowledge that Yoshikawa was at the door. She sat up, only barely remembering that she was still wearing makeup and couldn’t rub the sleep from her eyes, and delicately wiped at her tear ducts instead. She rolled her head from side to side, working the stiffness from her neck.

Sure enough, Yoshikawa was waiting for Hanako, sitting on one of the couches across from Nara Emi. If any of the three shinobi had been napping, they didn’t show it.

“Yoshikawa-san,” Hanako greeted.

“Hanako-chan,” he replied. “Are you ready to go?” He looked her up and down appraising her outfit. Not knowing what to really go with, Hanako had gone with simple black pants and a forest green blouse. Not too casual, but not formal, either.

“Yeah, sorry,” she replied. “Was sleeping. Thought I would be awake before now,” she stifled a yawn.

“None of that,” he jokingly reprimanded. “We’re going to dinner and then if you have the energy for it later, a jazz club this evening. Swanky place, good music, and a good show as well. You guys,” he addressed the shinobi. “Might want to dress a little more formally than that for it.”

“Good thing I packed some dresses,” Hanako said.

 


 

 

Dinner was excellent, a delicious sushi and sashimi place not far from the Continental. The sun was starting to set by the time that they entered. While Hanako didn’t like fish, for whatever reason, she didn’t have a problem with sushi. Now, sashimi, on the other hand, she could choke down, but it wasn’t as enjoyable to her. But on a rare occasion only.

Eiji regaled Hanako with a retelling of their afternoon. And by regaled, she meant that he bitched about how much more complicated the inspection process had gotten with the newest rules. Yoshikawa just nodded sagely as if he had heard it a million times before. He probably had. There wasn’t much for Hanako to add as Eiji was on a hot streak and had an audience to vent his frustrations to. There was some important information in there about specific fees and taxes on different products, but most of it didn’t have anything to do with Hanako’s work, so she let it go in one ear and out the other and made appropriate noises when necessary. When they had filled up as much as they wanted on sushi, Eiji insisted on paying Hanako’s bill along with his and his son’s.

At the hotel, as they were riding the elevator up, he informed the two youngsters of their little group that he would be turning in for the evening and that they should go on to the jazz club without him. Hanako narrowed her eyes suspiciously, in case he was trying to set up the two of them as if on a date. His tone was innocent, not a hint of subterfuge, but a glimmer in his eyes said otherwise. Yoshikawa, on the other hand, looked exasperated.

Hanako shrugged mentally and agreed before going to change into something a little more suited for nightlife. A small black a-line dress with a high neckline was her first choice since it was the least wrinkled. It took less than ten minutes for her to change. When she emerged from the bedroom, she found that the shinobi had also changed into appropriate attire. That was, they gauged their attire off of hers and with matching puffs of smoke changed their appearances. The two men appeared to be wearing slacks with buttondown shirts, and Emi had altered her appearance to be wearing an almost exact match of Hanako’s dress, except with a slightly modified neckline and in forest green instead of black.

The civilian had to hold in a guffaw. “Is one way to change quickly,” she muttered.

She met Yoshikawa in the lobby, entourage and all, and followed as he led the way to the jazz club. It was well and truly dark by the time they trudged to the club, some ten or so blocks away from the hotel. She got a little suspicious when Yoshikawa led them down a darker side alley away from the brighter storefronts and restaurants.

The entrance to the jazz club speakeasy styled, the alley around it surprisingly clean and lit by a single blue and red neon sign. Yoshikawa opened what appeared to be a nondescript side door which opened into a surprisingly fancy jazz club. A brass band could be heard all the way from the entrance along with the crooning tones of a contralto singer. After paying the cover charge, they entered.

The place seemed to be ripped right out of the Great Gatsby. Well, without the over the top dancing and music numbers, that was.  Hanako idly wondered if this world had ever experienced Prohibition and all the cultural changes that came with it.

The club wasn’t yet full as it was a little early in the evening, so it wasn’t hard to find a table that would fit all of them. A side alcove with even lower lighting but comfortable leather seats was their choice. Hanako and Yoshikawa sat next to one another with the shinobi around them. A waitress came by to take their drinks order, and Hanako ordered the equivalent of an old fashioned. Yoshikawa ordered a gin and tonic, while the shinobi ordered beers and wine. Hanako put it all on her tab since Eiji had paid for her dinner and she wasn’t about to make the shinobi, who were technically her employees, pay for their own drinks while they working.

A young woman with a very sultry voice was singing onstage to a slow number. Hanako had to admit that it was relaxing. The lights in the place were dim, and the ambiance wasn’t overly done. They could speak without having to shout, but the music wasn’t too low. She rather liked it.

As the night got later, the club started to really fill up and get progressively louder with music and conversation. Hanako laughed to herself at one point when she had a fanciful thought that she felt like a gangster with her shinobi henchmen surrounding her. Yoshikawa gave her a funny look about it but didn’t ask.

Speaking of Yoshikawa, Hanako was becoming more and more sure of her suspicions that his father’s intentions for the two of them to be forced onto an impromptu date would be thwarted, and not by her hands. It was a small hunch that she had at the beginning, but now she was more and more sure of her theory.

For one, Hanako knew that she had good legs. She was by no means a bodacious, buxom beauty, but her legs were her best feature, and not once had Yohshikawa checked her out like that. Unlike several men that she had caught glancing at different times. And then there were the looks that he gave Senju Hiroshi when the other man wasn’t looking. Appraising looks. Nothing overt, of course. She could also be completely wrong and overthinking it, and it could be that he was being a gentleman, but she was about 89% sure that Yoshikawa was gay.

When the man in question stood up to go to the restroom, Hanako leaned over to Emi who was seated next to her.

“He’s gay, right?” She said into the other woman’s ear.

Emi’s response was immediate. “Oh, for sure.”

Hanako laughed. “Okay, I thought was just me.”

Emi quirked the corner of her mouth. “Trust me, he is. Checked out Hiroshi-kun enough times.”

Hiroshi looked uncomfortable under the gazes of the two women.

“What?” he shrank back into his seat.

Emi snorted. “Little duck doesn’t know how to handle attention yet.”  

Hanako gave a conspiratorial smile. “Aww,” she teased.

Yoshikawa came back before they could tease Kohaku any further.

The singer from the beginning of the evening had been replaced with a slightly older, curvier woman. The new performer wore a slinky red sequined dress that caught the light in a dazzling display of color to go with her crooning voice. Even though the place was full, it didn’t feel claustrophobic like some clubs tended to. The seating and bar were spaced out enough that there was still plenty of room to move around, even packed with people. Since their table was off to the side, it still managed to preserve the intimate atmosphere.

It didn’t take long for Yoshikawa to abandon them for the bar under the pretense of getting more drinks after theirs ran out and the waitress didn’t come back. Hanako wasn’t concerned in the slightest. At one point, she noticed that he was chatting with someone. It didn’t really matter though. None of her business and they were there to relax. His choice of relaxation wasn’t her concern.

He came back sometime later with drinks for just himself and Hanako. The shinobi still had their drinks, either barely touched or only partially drunk. She had noticed that they held the glasses in their hands in a relaxed manner only to keep up the pretense that they were part of the crowd. Emi and Kohaku bickered back and forth a bit. If Hanako hadn’t been close enough to pick out some of the words she would have assumed that they were flirting from their body language.

A little past midnight, Yoshikawa leaned over and asked Hanako if she was ready to go. She nodded and got up to close out their table’s tab. Hiroshi got up and went with her. The drinks were expensive, but it wasn’t anything beyond what she had already expected. Not as much of a markup as she would have expected back home, that was for sure.

Looking back at the club, she had to admit that Yoshikawa had good taste. Classy, not overly formal, and good music. A nice place to relax. Not to mention there were some rather handsome men in attendance as well that she didn’t mind looking at.

Their table was already claimed by some other club-goers when Hanako looked back. Hiroshi indicated, and she spied Yoshikawa and the others close to the exit. All ready to go, then. She checked her bag to make sure she had everything, and then they left.