For Choji, the hardest thing has always been getting out of bed in the morning. But he’s not, you know, like Shikamaru, who has to dig deep to find the will to face the world. Or Ino, who has to be dragged bleary-eyed from under her covers because she stayed up so late the previous night. Choji lives for mornings.
He lives for quiet winter-time mornings when he doesn’t have any missions and Asuma-Sensei pushes training back to the afternoon, when he can just stay in bed, let the pale sun warm his face through the eastern-facing window, and not think of anything at all.
He lives for noisy 7am summertime mornings like today—birds singing, civilians hollering, the clang-bang of the garbage pick-up, the sounds of his mother sharpening shuriken in the kitchen and humming over her work…even if he only has a few minutes before his alarm goes off, it’s in these moments that Choji feels the most happy. He feels like the day will stretch on pleasantly for as long as it’s supposed to, feels as if there are no limits to what he might be capable of while the light lasts.
“Choji , please!” his father begs, for probably the third or fourth time.
And the illusion is finally shattered. “ Fucking— fuck fuckering fuckery fuck,” Choji grunts into his pillow, then, “just a minute, Dad!” he calls out agreeably.
“The more you say that, the less I believe you!”
Choji sighs — and he gets his ass out of bed.
When he gets to the kitchen, his father is waiting for him, coffee in hand.
“Here,” Chouza says, oddly cheerful now, passing off the mug.
Choji looks at it dubiously. “It’s Sunday,” he says, slowly, gears turning. “It’s —” he glances toward the clock, “7:02. What’s going on?”
“Drink your coffee,” is all Chouza says.
Choji squints and sits at the table next to his mother. She’s still conscientiously sharpening shuriken.
“You going on a mission?” he asks her, and pushes the coffee towards her, untouched.
Akimichi Fumi lifts the mug and takes a long sip . She grimaces. “Hot,” she mutters. Then picks up another shuriken.
Choji knows his mother is a woman of few words, but he’s starting to lose his patience. “I asked — wait, is that my weapons pouch?”
And then the doorbell rings.
Once Chouza has left the kitchen to answer it, Choji rounds on his mother. “Mom, what the hell?”
Hearing his tight, panicked whisper, Fumi pushes the whetstone aside and meets her son’s eyes. “God bless you, kid,” she says.
It takes Choji a beat to figure out the pinched expression on his mother’s face. She’s trying not to laugh.
Choji steels himself for the worst.
“This is the worst,” Choji informs his mother later.
Fumi is carefully tucking scrolls away in his pack. “Hm.”
“ HMMMM ?” Choji buzzes back at her, savage as a yellowjacket.
But Fumi is cricket-quick as she whirls around and snatches Choji’s chin in her hand. “Reevaluate your tone,” she says slowly.
Choji deflates immediately. “ Mmmrff ,” he mumbles, around his confined jaw.
Fumi’s hand moves to his hair, gentle, just like that. “What’s the matter with you,” she asks bluntly. “Haven’t you been whining for the last week about how unfair it is that Naruto gets to go on a training trip with Jiraiya of the Sannin while you sit in Konoha suffering from the effects of secondhand smoke inhalation ?”
“I’d rather just stay here with Asuma-Sensei and die of lung cancer.”
Fumi snorts and turns back to the scrolls. “Don’t let your father hear you say that. Ebisu was his student.”
Choji sneers. “Yeah, great job he did teaching him. You’re honestly okay with letting your only son spend months with this dude? Ino says he’s a perverted freak bitch who peeps into women’s bathhouses.”
Fumi’s hands flex and stiffen over her work for a moment. But she just shakes her head minutely and carries on. “He’s a tokubetsu jonin, and this is an excellent opportunity for you.” She glances over her shoulder at her son. “Of course Ino’s right — he is a perverted freak bitch who peeps into women’s bathhouses. And if I ever hear of that kind of behavior from you, I’ll let Ino twist your balls off.”
Choji just sighs and flops back onto his bed. “How am I gonna do this without her and Shika? I always thought we’d go on a training trip together.”
“You won’t always have them to fall back on, kid.”
“What about Inoshikacho ?”
“Being the sixteenth Akimichi clan head is a one-man job.”
Choji lets the weight of such a thing settle on his shoulders for a moment before allowing it to drift out the window, formlessly, on the warm breeze. Responsibility .
“I don’t even know what that means,” he admits.
Fumi turns surprisingly soft eyes on him. “Neither do I,” she confides. “Your father was already clan head when I married him. I didn’t know him while he was learning to wear that mantle. So I’ve got no clue how to raise a son to lead a noble family…” She trails off, looking at Choji a little helplessly. “I just want you to be strong, and happy, and good. Maybe give you the opportunity to see the world a little.”
Choji’s eyes sting with of hot tears, but Fumi allows it. She zips his pack and hands it to him.
“Ready?” she asks. They go downstairs.
“I literally cannot even summon up like, an ounce of jealousy right now. I thought I would be jealous. I’m just — ”
“Literally not jealous?” Shikamaru finishes Ino’s sentence.
She jabs him in the stomach without turning her narrowed eyes off of Ebisu, who’s tapping his foot and trying to look as impatient as possible over by the guard station.
“Heh,” Shikamaru grins. “I flexed. That didn’t hurt.”
“Flexed what?” Choji pokes at Shika’s scrawny middle.
“Young man!” Ebisu finally calls out. “Are you just about done?”
Ino twists her ponytail in one hand and fingers her kunai pouch with the other. “Do you want us to get rid of him for you?”
Shikamaru leans away. “Don’t say us. I, for one, think this is an excellent learning opportunity for young Choji.”
Choji lets their bickering wash over him. It warms him as much as the late morning sun does.
“Promise you’ll write to us,” Ino finally insists. So Choji promises.
Thanks for sending the hawk. Things are going well. Ebisu-Sensei keeps me on a strict training schedule, and I think I’m learning a lot. I asked Ebisu-Sensei if he could take me to the Valley of the End, and he said yes, but I think we’re heading in the opposite direction. I know he’d rather stick to the routes around towns and HOT SPRINGS. Please tell Mom I’ve been thinking about her training a lot, including the BALL TWISTING maneuver. Also, tell Ino and Shikamaru that I miss them, and love them, and respect them. Specifically, tell Ino that I really RESPECT her. Actually, feel free to not communicate any of the above to Shikamaru. Ok the hawk is pecking at me goodbye I love you.
Personality quirks aside, if Choji is trying to be totally objective (which he often tries to be, though not always successfully) Ebisu isn’t technically a bad teacher, per se. Not that Choji has all that much basis for comparison. There’s been Iruka-Sensei, and obviously Asuma, and his parents too. Oh, and that one week that Yuhi Kurenai helped out when Asuma-Sensei was suffering from chakra exhaustion… that was a good week. And Kurenai-Sensei was, objectively, a very good teacher. Striking and intelligent and a little bit mysterious, and beautiful —
“Fuck!” Choji steps back from Ebisu’s stinging blow. “I’m sorry, I’m trying to concentrate.”
“Don’t lie,” Ebisu sniffs. “You’re not trying at all.”
“I am trying, and if my efforts are proving unsuccessful, it’s just because your perversions are infiltrating my mind!”
Ebisu pauses. “... What? ”
“Forget it, let’s go again.” Choji breathes deep down as he can, and forms a loose ram seal.
Ebisu slaps Choji’s hands apart. “Your hand seals are weak, and therefore your chakra control is weak, ” he seethes, sour breath hot on Choji’s face.
Choji recoils, disgusted. “Either hit me or don’t, Sensei. But slap me one more time and — ”
“And what? Why are you so angry, Choji? Can it be that I’m a convenient target for your frustration, an excuse so that you don’t need to hold yourself accountable for your lack of ambition?” Ebisu slides smugly into a taijutsu stance. Bait, that’s all it is.
But Choji doesn’t want to fight anymore. He turns abruptly away.
“Where are you going, young man?”
“To take a piss.”
“Piss where I can see you then — shinobi don’t storm off like bratty children in unfamiliar territory.”
“Ebisu-sensei,” Choji exhales, exhausted. “I just need a minute.”
Ebisu is stone-faced. “Go then.”
Choji wanders, lonely, for a minute, then an hour. Wanders and picks wildflowers he thinks Ino would like, before tossing them petulantly aside.
It’s like there’s nothing good to think about. Despite the vastness of the Land of Fire, or even the vastness of Choji’s imagination—he just can’t find anything to fill up his brain. He’s disappointed in himself. Okay, more like… he feels shit worthless. With nowhere to go, Choji starts looping back towards Ebisu.
Later, Choji will find all sorts of ways to blame himself for what comes next. He shouldn’t have stormed off, he should have sensed something was wrong, he should’ve acted faster, should’ve been stronger.
But there’s nothing, nothing Choji can think of that makes sense of this.
He’s close to camp and practically on top of them when Choji catches a whiff of blood, and starts running.
Ebisu is dead. The roguish looking shinobi looting his corpse is, upon closer inspection, just a lanky kid with his hair slicked back and shaky hands. His bloody knife is discarded in the high grass. It’s a nasty looking thing, but it did it’s work well. Ebisu is pretty slashed up.
It’s only a matter of a flick of a few of Choji’s shuriken, and if the kid’s not dead yet, he will be soon.
“I’m sorry,” the kid says through a mouth soggy with blood. “I didn’t mean it. I just needed money.” Choji wonders if the kid’s ever killed before. He’s quite a bit older than Choji, but he looks like he’s been living rough. How he got the drop on Ebisu, Choji can’t figure. Ebisu probably didn’t think he was a threat.
“It’s okay,” Choji says, because the kid is dying in earnest now.
“He said—he said he didn’t want to lie out here. He said he wanted to go—”
“Home,” Choji helps him. “Konoha.”
“Yeah. You can leave me here. I don’t care. Let me rot in the sun.”
It’s enough, now. Choji finishes the job. Sends the poor kid along.
Choji looks down at Ebisu. He was a dirtbag, but this seems like overkill as far as karmic retribution goes.
He hasn’t the slightest clue what he’s supposed to do now. So he sinks to the ground and waits for a sign from the universe.
He doesn’t have to wait long.
“Sensei!” someone calls out. It’s a young man—a kid probably around Choji’s age by the sound of him. He’s got a warm, mellow voice. He’s a few hundred meters away. Maybe he’s friends with dead kid. Maybe they’re coming to finish the job. Choji decides against moving.
“Sensei, I think they’re this way,” the kid says, getting closer.
“ YEEEEAAAAH,” another voice booms. “But watch where you step Omoi, these ninja could be rough and tough. Don’t talk the talk if you can’t walk the walk.”
“I know, Sensei. And where’s Karui anyway?”
“I’m here,” a third voice says, not close enough for the others to hear, but Choji gets the message loud and clear. “And you’re dead.”
“I really don’t need to be,” Choji says delicately. There’s a katana laying carefully across his neck.
Choji rolls his eyes back in his head to get a look at the girl, careful not to jostle the steel poised at his jugular.
She’s beautiful, because of course she is. Choji figures it’s par for the course, keeps his trap shut, and waits for the girl—Karui, they called her— to make the next move.
But the other two beat her to the punch. The kid whose voice Choji had heard, the one called Omoi, stumbles across them. Choji almost laughs, because he’s even prettier than Karui.
“Oh my god, two dead guys,” he frowns, jumping back from Ebisu and dead kid’s bodies. He looks at Karui. “Karui, what— oh my god , an alive guy. What are you doing to him.”
Karui sighs. “Bee-sama,” she shouts. “Over here.”
Choji meets Omoi’s eyes. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Omoi replies, startled. “I like your face tattoos.”
“Bee-sama!” Karui snaps.
“I’m comin’, I’m comin’. But girl, if you wanna cut your teeth, you gotta settle your own beef.”
Choji doesn’t know what bizarro universe he’s fallen into, but he’s content to let it all play out. He waits with bated breath as the high grass moves around them, and the last of the strange shinobi comes into view.
The man’s built not unlike an Akimichi—he’s heavy and sturdy and strong—and the tattoos on his face and arms strike Choji as very familiar.
But what makes this man so different from the shinobi Choji knows is the way he carries himself. High-level Konoha shinobi are all simmering, barely-leashed chakra just under the skin. But this guy—he’s got warm, bubbling, overflowing power spreading out in all directions, no pretense. Oddly, he reminds Choji a little bit of Naruto. Except… well, Naruto doesn’t rhyme so much.
Choji is star-struck.
“Hey there young man, everything alright?” The man studies Choji, then Ebisu, then dead kid, and understanding seems to pass across his face.
Choji says nothing. Judging by their appearance, these are Kumo shinobi. In Fire Country. And they haven’t killed him yet. Because one of them is inquiring politely about his well-being. Choji has no basis for comparison as far as past experience goes.
“Easy, Karui,” the man instructs gently, and steps forward. “Let the boy breathe. He just lost his father.”
Choji chokes. “My father —?”
The shinobi lowers his head respectfully. “I was a little younger than you are now when I lost my daddy. But you’re truly never ready to see your father die, no matter your age.”
“But that’s not my—”
The man perks up, and swings back into verse like he never stopped. “So if family’s what you need, you found the right crew indeed.”
Choji sputters. “ Who —?”
“Hah! Bust a move, kid, put the needle to the groove! I’m the great Killer Bee—I got rap skills that’s iron-clad, and it looks like I just might be your new Dad! These are my students, Karui and Omoi—they’re orphans too.”
“Hey...again,” Omoi grins shyly and waves.
“Bee-sama,” Karui groans. “You can’t just adopt a kid from Konoha. He looks like shinobi.” But, Choji notices, she sheathes her sword all the same.
“Says who, I can’t?”
“Laws! Conventions! Do you want to start a war?”
Killer Bee shrugs and eyes Choji. “Your choice, little man. You can hang with us. Of course, you’re free to go. We can even take you safely to your city, if you don’t want to be alone. Alls I’m sayin’, it can be hard to know what direction to go after the death of a loved one.”
Choji looks at Ebisu’s crumpled form. And the kid Choji killed. He thinks about bringing home the body of his father’s student. Thinks about the funeral. Reports and hearings. Thinks about Shikamaru grumbling, how troublesome. Thinks about Ino frowning at him and saying, I knew you shouldn’t have gone without us.
Choji is, abruptly, very sick of it all. So he looks at Killer Bee instead. Looks at Karui. And he looks at Omoi, too—who winks. And that seals the deal.
“I’ll tag along for a little while, I guess. Eventually I’ll have to go back to my village.”
“Unbelievable,” Karui says, and stomps off into the woods.
Bee sighs and shakes his head, watching her retreat. “I’ll give you a last moment with your Pop,” he tells Choji. He carefully starts to scoop up the dead kid.
“No,” Choji says. “Leave him.”
Killer Bee nods, and follows Karui into the forest.
Omoi waits until they’re out of earshot. “He’s not actually your father, is he?”
Choji’s brow crumples in disbelief at the whole damned affair. “Oh my god, of course not. Just a jonin from my village. Not even my real sensei.”
Omoi scuffs at the dirt with his foot. His hands are in his pockets, and he’s got a toothpick hanging loosely from his mouth. He looks so much like Shikamaru that Choji has to laugh a little bit.
Then they’re both laughing. And then—“sorry,” a look of horror is dawning on Omoi’s face. “I shouldn’t…”
“It’s okay,” Choji says. “He was kind of an asshole.” Choji’s face screws up suddenly with too many conflicting emotions.
“I know a sealing jutsu,” Omoi cuts in quickly. “For...the dead. Sensei taught us. I can show you, if you want. So you can bring him back home.”
Choji wonders if he’s going to let the wind blow and push him around for the rest of his life. But all he says is, “thank you.”
An hour or so later, Choji and Omoi are sitting in nearly the same spot. Ebisu is tidily sealed away in an intimidating looking scroll a conscientious several feet away from where the two boys are eating sunflower seeds that Choji fished out from the bottom of his pack.
“My name is Choji, by the way.”
“I’d been wondering,” Omoi laughs, dimpling. “I, uh...I got nervous because I thought I waited too long to ask.”
“You’re good,” Choji tells him. “But now I have to ask you something.”
Omoi reaches for another handful of sunflower seeds. “Shoot.”
“What the fuck are you guys doing in Fire Country?”
Omoi sighs. “If you’re gonna hang with us, you gotta learn that Sensei doesn’t follow rules. Or, uh, laws for that matter. He says borders are an invention.”
“You don’t agree?”
“Guess not. For a migrant kid, roaming around...it all felt plenty real when you were held up by military police for questioning. Doesn’t happen to me much anymore, but it used to.” Omoi looks for something in Choji’s face, and apparently finds it. “Probably shouldn’t tell you this, but now that I’m with Karui and Sensei, we usually get out of those types of situations pretty easy. Sensei is the little brother of our Raikage, Ay-sama.”
“Oh! Alright. Wow.”
Omoi winces. “Don’t worry! We’re not trying to start anything, I promise. We’re just traveling. Sensei doesn’t like to stay in one place, even though Raikage-sama wants him to.”
“I don’t understand anything that’s happened in the last three hours,” Choji admits after a moment.
“I kinda feel that way every day, so.”
“When are they gonna come back for us?”
“Oh,” Omoi spits another sunflower seed, like, impressively far. “They won’t. Sensei will let us find him when we’re ready.”
Great. It puts the burden of choice squarely on Choji’s shoulders. There’s no one coming to take him back to Konoha, and no one here who will drag him away.
“I hate making decisions too,” Omoi says, rather diplomatically.
That’s it. Choji stands and shakes himself off. “Fuck that. I’m in.”
Omoi grins. “Thank god. Don’t know if I could stand another summer with just Karui for company. You’re sure, right? I mean, I shouldn’t pressure you. Do you feel pressured?”
Choji’s already gathering his things though. He places the scroll gently in his pack, and his skin nearly crawls away, but he manages. He closes his eyes for a moment, and prays to every deity he can think of that his father will forgive him the detour.
“Lead the way?” Choji asks, and they set off to find the others.
Choji only looks back at the dead kid once or twice. Maybe it’s his imagination, but Choji could swear he sits up and waves goodbye.
I hope this letter reaches you, assuming you haven’t died of lung cancer yet. How are things at home? I miss you guys.
Sensei—you know, I think I finally understand why you ditched Konoha and joined the Guardian Twelve. It’s good to get away from home, right? Experience different things, learn from different people?
I’m referring to Ebisu. Obviously.
Anyway! Next time someone sends the hawk back, please send him with a takeout box from Yakiniku Q.
Your faithful student,
Choji’s never woken up in a pit of snakes before.
He’d like to be very firm in stating this fact. “I have never— never …!” he points out to Omoi, once he’s mostly extricated himself. First of all, Choji didn’t even expect to wake up here. The fact that this is actually happening, that he didn’t dream yesterday’s events… well, if he wasn’t still shaking a sunbeam snake out of his pants leg, it would probably be foremost on his mind. But as it is— “never,” Choji repeats.
“Good morning,” Omoi yawns, and lifts a golden brown python to rest heavily on his shoulders. “Never what? You don’t have animal spirits in Konoha?”
“Not like this,” Choji shudders. “Not so...familiar. This one looks dangerous,” Choji gestures to a banded, venomous-looking thing.
“That’s Kazuharu,” Omoi scoops him up as well. “Choji, Kazuharu. Kazuharu, Choji. He’s got a wicked bite, but he mostly just chills. Honestly, he’s kind of lazy.”
“Nice to meet you,” Choji offers.
“Oh, and that’s Kanako, behind you.”
Choji jumps about six feet in the air, and punts the snake.
“Don’t kick Kanako! She’s my baby.”
“Sorry,” Choji winces, and looks down at the slender silver and rust red snake which darts, insulted, over to Omoi and twines up his leg.
“She’s shy,” Omoi explains. “But—oh, so she loves grapes, right? She drinks the juice from them. Sensei says snakes inspired the gods to make wine.”
“Cool,” Choji admits, despite himself. “And who’s this?” The sunbeam snake is still partially stuck up in the leg of his pants.
“Nobuko. She’s, like, ancient. Old as dirt.”
“And that one?” The brown python sitting on Omoi’s shoulders is peering at Choji shrewdly.
“Why is Nobuhiro staring at me?”
“He’s a philosopher. Maybe he finds you interesting.”
“Do you,” Choji asks Nobuhiro, “find me interesting?”
Choji doesn’t mind that he doesn’t get a response. That’s something he really wouldn’t have been ready for, at least not before coffee.
“He usually keeps his observations to himself,” Omoi shrugs. “Hope I’m not weirding you out too much.”
“Don’t sweat it. My best friends back home got you beat. One manipulates shadows from the underworld and the other can break into your mind.”
“The Nara clan and Yamanaka.”
Choji whirls around to find Karui, her back turned to them, fussing over a pot of something which reminds Choji how very hungry he is. Okay, but first: “How did you know that?”
Karui places her wooden spoon gently atop the pot. “I’ve read a book or two in my life. I’m not stupid. And I know you’re an Akimichi.”
“Akimichi?” Omoi asks, curious.
“One of Konoha’s four noble clans,” Karui answers.
“Yeah,” Choji grumbles, angry to find himself on the defensive. “That’s my family.”
“That’s cool,” Omoi grins. “So you’ve got a last name.”
“I—yeah. You...don’t, I guess?”
“Nah.” Omoi crouches down between Choji and Karui, picking up the abandoned spoon and stirring at the pot thoughtfully. “Heh. Such is a commoner’s lot,” he says, loftily. He winks at Karui, cheeky.
Karui snorts. “Orphan’s lot, more like. You’ve heard of those, I guess?” she drawls at Choji.
“I’m a shinobi. Half my friends are orphans.”
Karui takes the spoon back from Omoi and starts portioning breakfast out into three wooden bowls. It’s oatmeal. “I guess we can let him hang, Omoi. Half his friends are orphans, so he’s cool. He understands.”
“Lay off, Karui,” Omoi groans. “You’re making me anxious.”
“Everything makes you anxious.”
They eat. “Where’s Killer Bee?” Choji asks, eventually.
“Writing, somewhere,” Karui answers, and takes Choji’s already empty bowl. “Want more?”
“I’m good,” Choji lies. “Thanks.”
Karui reaches out for Omoi’s bowl as well, then snatches her hand back in disgust. “What am I doing? Go wash your own damn bowls, I already cooked.”
“Aye-aye Cap’n,” Omoi salutes, and gestures for Choji to follow him.
Choji, sheepishly, gathers up Karui’s and his own dishes. “Let me get that for you,” he mumbles.
Karui doesn’t respond, just hums—one short, low note of approval. Then, before Choji and Omoi get too far away, “I don’t think Bee-sama should know you’re an Akimichi.”
Omoi turns around and regards them both. “She’s got a point. If he knew you were part of a big important family, he’d make you go back to Konoha.”
Karui scowls. “Like that’s my concern. I just don’t want your name making any trouble for us. So let’s all just...keep it on the down-low, okay?”
“I won’t say anything if you two won’t,” Choji agrees.
“Okay, okay, get outta here, go wash those things,” Karui dismisses them, looking a little flushed.
Choji takes off after Omoi, and they make their way silently through the woods, towards the gurgling of a creek nearby.
The forest is damp, and the sky is a cloudy dull yellow, but the birdsong is rich and heavy. Choji, oddly, feels good. He looks around inside his brain for the guilt, the anxiety he ought to be feeling, the repercussions for his actions. It should be sucking him down bodily into the cold wet mud, but his footsteps and his heart feel light. Maybe it’s the company. He glances at Omoi. “Hey.”
Omoi chuckles. “Hey. Sorry ‘bout Karui.”
“It’s okay,” Choji says, and means it.
“She’s…” Omoi scrunches up his face as he thinks. “Well, I mean, she’s the best person I know. But you’ve got to earn her trust.”
“I think she likes you though.”
“No, I’m not. I think she likes you. Problem is, she doesn’t know you.”
“You don’t know me either,” Choji points out.
Omoi shakes his head. “Nah, I know you. Doesn’t take me long to figure people out.”
“Oh yeah?” Choji laughs.
“Yeah. We’re gonna be good friends. Is that weird to say? Maybe I did read it wrong…”
“No,” Choji tells him firmly. “I knew right away too.”
They glance at each other, shyly, a giddy, slightly uncomfortable silence falling over the pair briefly, that feeling of getting in deep with someone new, quicker than you were ready for. The feeling lifts when they reach the creek, and they kick off their shoes and wade in the freezing, clear water, and stoop to scrub their bowls.
They spend the afternoon there, skipping rocks and shooting the shit, until Bee shows himself when the sun sits high in the sky.
And by shows himself, Choji means that he suddenly rises up out of water that should have been too shallow to hold him. Rises up like something more than human, and shakes off droplets of water and settles down on the shore next to Choji and Omoi, jaunty as you like. He’s still got those little sunglasses on, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.
Choji, wide-eyed, looks at the man, and Bee looks back. “How you doin’, kid?”
“Good, fine. Settling in.”
“Don’t get too settled,” Bee warns. “We’ll be movin’ on soon. Where would you like to go?”
“Ooh, yeah,” Omoi chirps. “Choji gets first choice. Pick somewhere cool.”
More choices, more freedom, more than Choji’s ever known. Fine. They asked. “I want to go to the Valley of the End.”
Bee hums. “Alright, small-fry. So we shall.”
The stone sitting in Choji’s belly gets heavier and heavier as, unbeknownst to the rest of the group, they retrace Sasuke’s steps, and the steps of those who followed after him.
Last summer feels like a lifetime ago—like Choji’s aged more than he can count—he just has no idea what he has to show for it. Anxiety, maybe? A boy’s blood on his hands? Two boys, now , Choji remembers. A new haircut? It’s useless to think about it.
Bee doesn’t lead them on the same path entirely, of course—but Choji can still feel it when they reach a point which means they’ve gone farther than Choji ever made it that day. He keeps it to himself.
“Hm,” Bee muses, staring up and up and up.
“Mmmmm- hmm. ” Omoi hums his assent.
“Hey,” Bee adds, wryly, “guess you gotta go on a killing spree to be somebody. Well, no siree, not Killer Bee.”
Omoi frowns, glances at Choji in concern. “Oh, well, anyway, it’s a beautiful part of the country...that’s for sure— right, Sensei?”
“I admire them,” Karui cuts in.
Choji looks at Karui, stunned. "Really."
She just keeps looking up, awe written all over her face. "They were giants."
Even Omoi can’t hold back a scoff.
Karui cuffs him. "No, really. Their like was never seen then or since. To change the world in one single lifetime... that's rare."
Bee places his hand affectionately on the top of Karui's head. "You got a point baby girl. I may not agree with you, but you got a good brain in that noggin."
Karui scrunches up her nose, but doesn't duck away. "Corny, Bee-sama. Corny."
"And what about you, Choji?" he asks.
"I don't know. It's funny, I think about this place all the time. It—" Choji laughs. "I guess the way I imagined it... well, it was never sunny, in my mind."
"Stark, dark, and stormy?"
"Yeah. I think I might be disappointed. Is that weird?"
Bee grins. "Sure is. You Konoha kids, man.... all doom and gloom. I wouldn't have pegged you for one a those. Say," Bee strokes his chin. It's a habit. "Who is you, Choji?"
Choji, Omoi, and Karui share guilty glances. "Huh?" Choji stutters.
"Who is you, really. Deep down at your core, who is you. "
What a question. What a place. What a man, and these two kids, and what is Choji doing here, and who the fuck IS he.
"I dunno," Choji says. "I'm just a kid from Konoha. Mostly I'm just," he swallows, "trying to do my best. Trying to get a good night's sleep and enjoy some good barbecue every once in a while. Trying to get out of bed in the morning. I killed a guy not far from here last summer. I almost died, too. Trying to forget about that maybe. Or own it, I don't know. Let's change the subject."
Killer Bee claps a hand to Choji's shoulder. "Sure thing, kid."
"Race you to the top?" Omoi asks. So they race to the top. Choji even wins.
The good weather doesn’t hold, and they make camp in the massive shadow of Uchiha Madara’s robes in order to beat the rain.
Karui and Omoi are diligently wiping down their swords with oil, under Bee’s careful scrutiny. It reminds Choji, in a very vague, hazy way, of home. He probably ought to write to his mother. He drifts in and out of focus, the sounds of oiled cloth on steel and water on stone sending him somewhere else.
“Hm?” It’s Karui. Bee and Omoi are asleep. “Yeah?”
She’s looking straight ahead, out towards the falls. Choji waits.
“Does it make you feel different?”
The truth is that Choji doesn’t feel all that different. He’s aware, at least, that something has shifted. He thinks of those kids often. But he, too, still feels like just a kid. It seems like an ugly truth. He doesn’t want to tell her that it didn’t change him. Doesn’t want to know what she’ll think of him.
“A little,” Choji says. He can’t tell if it’s more truth or more lie, but either way, he figures, the rain washes it all out anyway.
Choji grimaces. And sneezes again.
“Bless you,” Omoi repeats, robotically.
“Stop sneezing,” Karui mutters.
“Okay,” Choji says. And sneezes.
Omoi groans. “I can’t concentrate.”
“Nonsense,” Bee chides. “Sounds all around you in a wood, you can’t get distracted by a sneeze.”
Choji sneezes, and Karui’s knife slips, taking a chunk out of the long, flat stave of elm she’s working on. She looks at the bow, dejected, and places it gingerly on the forest floor. “Sneezing doesn’t occur in nature, typically.”
“Sneezin’,” Killer Bee says thoughtfully, and with intent, “is always for a reason.”
“The reason, ” Choji counters, “is the chest cold I came down with, that night we had to sleep out in the rain at the Valley of the End.”
“Nope,” Bee insists, and gently picks up Karui’s bow to inspect it. “You know what sneezin’ means. Someone’s talking about you.” He hands Karui’s bow back, with a smile. “I wonder who.”
“How’s mine, Sensei?” Omoi asks.
“Not bad, Omoi. Nothin’ like a nice sturdy self-bow. Elm too, like they used to make ‘em. Now gather ‘round, bambinos, and I’ll teach you something.”
The three of them gather close, and Killer Bee begins.
“For as long as man has walked this plane, he has known only one thing sho-nuff, and it’s this: there is no dependence but the bow. The bow allows us to be part of the give and take of nature. First,” and now Bee brandishes several reed and bone arrows, “I will show you how to take what you need.”
“Well,” Bee hems. “That’ll make a nice... supper…”
“Maybe we should stop in a town,” Karui quips. “We can go to a restaurant, or just get Choji some cold medicine.”
Choji sucks his teeth and holds in a sneeze.
“You look like you’re gonna start sneezing again,” Omoi laughs. “It’ll be silent as hell tonight if you scare off every animal in the forest.”
“Hush,” Bee says. “Enough sweatin’ and stressin’.” He picks up the paltry squirrel that they managed to kill before Choji’s sneezing fit gave them away. “We’ve got plenty of other food. Now, grab your kunai, and I’ll teach you how to give offering.”
They take turns learning to skin the thing. Everything, Bee explains, must first be separated. The meat goes to the side to supplement their dinner. The bones are tucked away to deal with later. They’ll eventually be cleaned and carved and made into arrowheads. And the innards…
Choji peers at the guts, so small piled there on a broad leaf. It doesn’t disgust him, the milky-pink sliminess of it. He looks to Bee for the next step.
“Build a fire,” he says. And Choji goes to work.
They get it blazing high and hot, and then Karui—with some coaxing from her Sensei—nestles the bundle carefully among the logs. The fire leaps and licks at it quick, as if it were waiting.
“Look,” Bee says to them, “at how heaven swallows the smoke.”
I'm suffering greatly in the wilds of this continent with an abominable chest cold. Or at least, I must be, because I keep sneezing. Think of me wasting away in my illness next time you see our waste of a sensei hack up his disgusting carcinogen phlegm.
Love you. Write soon.
The days ebb and flow, or maybe they bud and bloom, or ripen and rot. Yeah, Choji thinks. That’s it. Ripen and rot. It’s too motherfucking hot. And then he halts his forward march and groans from somewhere deep inside the reservoir of his soul, because Akimichi Choji is rhyming inside his own fucking head.
“You run outta gas, crab ass?” Bee calls from somewhere ahead, hidden by dark umbrage in this damn swamp in Hot Water country. Aptly fucking named, is what Choji thinks of it.
“I’m not a crab ass,” Choji protests.
“It sure bitches like a crab, doesn’t it, Omoi?” Karui says, a bit haughtily as she sloshes past, but Choji sees the sweat that beads her forehead and hears the thinness in her voice and knows it for an act.
“I’m not exactly having a great time either,” Omoi says, though of the four of them he’s the lightest on his feet, and therefore the driest.
Killer Bee makes his way back toward the trio and eyes them critically. “Let’s take five, beehive.”
The problem is, there’s nowhere to rest. Omoi claps his hands briskly and calls for Nobuko. She surfaces from the muck and flicks her tongue at him, listening almost as if Omoi were speaking to her. Then she slips back into the murky water, and is gone.
"Omoi, she’s not going to find anyplace dry,” Karui says, fake-calm all in her voice. "We just need to get through it so let's get through it ."
"I can't do this," Choji realizes, suddenly panicked, because this shit must go on forever.
Nobuko pokes her little head up from the muck. Her expression is, for a snake, decidedly grim. "Shit," Omoi sighs.
"Oh god." Choji's getting worked up now. "Oh god."
In the next second, Bee's a whole lot closer than before. "Breathe, son."
"Don't call me son," Choji snaps.
"Choji," Omoi murmurs
"What am I doing here," Choji seethes. "What am I doing here."
"Keep talking, kid," Bee encourages. "Speak what you’ve seen. Rhyme, kid, and if you can't rhyme steal the rest from the world around you. Rhymin' and stealin'. Try it."
"I’m not rhyming."
"Then don't. Look around you and speak ."
"I hate this place," Choji explodes. "I hate this swamp and this country."
"Because the air is wet and heavy and I have a body in my backpack. It's heavy and slimy and evil, and so's the air and the droopy weepy trees, they keep touching me, the trees are eavesdropping on me and whispering about me and they're saying I suck. ‘Cause I do, I suck massive hairy balls. FUCK."
"That was incredible," Bee says, quiet and hushed. "You got it , son."
"Don't. Call. Me. Son." Chakra is flooding Choji's system, hot and sticky. "You're not my father. This place blows and you brought me here. I have a dead man in my bag, who's, by the way, also not my father. If you had just listened to me you would know he's not my fucking father. And neither are you. I have a dad, home in Konoha, which is where I should be right now. Not here, with strangers from another country."
Somewhere, above, a hawk cries out. It cries out again, and again, saying who knows what. Bad news , is all Choji knows. Bad news.
"I know I'm not your father, Choji," Bee says bluntly. "Know he wasn't neither."
"Let's keep moving," Karui whispers.
By the time they make it out, they’re exhausted, hungry, and tense with silence. No one wants to keep going, but no one wants to stop either, because stopping means they have to look at each other.
But time is passing and Choji is getting hungrier and hungrier. “If you guys want to make camp, I’ll go hunt something for dinner, give you some space,” he says, and he sounds like machinery.
Killer Bee calls a halt. “Choji’s right. I’ll be damned if I let any fightin’ or incitin’ get in they way of a hot meal. Take my bow, kid.”
It’s probably more than Choji deserves at the moment, based on the way Omoi turns away, shoulders hunched. Choji wants to reach out to him, apologize, but Karui doesn’t hide her scorn as she steps in front of her friend protectively.
Choji dredges up the courage to open his mouth again and thank Bee before taking the bow and darting off.
It all feels, disgustingly, like being back at square one, like the day Ebisu died when Choji stormed off and left him behind. He’s immensely angry at himself. To lose his temper so embarrassingly in front of people who’ve been so kind to him, so like family to him…
And all of a sudden it’s way too much to handle, and Choji sits down on a log to cry. Because on top of everything, Choji’s volunteered himself to bring meat back to camp, and everyone knows damn well that Choji hasn’t successfully hunted shit yet. The only thing worse than knowing he won’t be returning with anything to show for his tantrum is knowing that they know it too, and sent him on his way anyway. And with Bee’s bow, no less.
For the first time, Choji really looks at it. It’s rather short—shorter than Choji would have expected. He runs a finger along the single, rough and unpolished limb. Elm. Like they used to make ‘em.
Choji scowls. “No dependence but the bow,” he says aloud. And, hating himself, leans back against the trunk of a tree and falls asleep.
The world turns as Choji reorients himself, but he can’t quite seem to get it right. It’s dark out. Did someone touch me?
Choji lurches to his feet. So stupid to have fallen asleep like this, out here alone. Something must have awoken him.
“Choji! Heeeeeey, Choji!” It’s Omoi. Time to face the music.
But then again.
Choji’s blood runs cold. No, no, that was it. A twig snapping? He heard it in his sleep, and it woke him up. It’s so much nearer than Omoi’s voice.
It’s almost funny. It’s the perfect noise out of the scary stories Choji and his mother would tell each other around the hearth fire on winter nights. Snap, crack, his mother would whisper. Be quiet when you hear it. It means the gods are passing by.
So Choji listens. And the next time he hears it he takes off after the sound, bow in hand, heedless of Omoi’s and Karui’s far-off cries of his name.
It is running now too, and Choji is pursuing. He nocks an arrow.
“Here’s a riddle for you.”
Choji jolts, but keeps running. The voice doesn’t seem to have a gender, or an age, or to even come from any direction in particular, but Choji draws and looses nonetheless, and nocks another.
“A hopper of ditches.”
He looses his arrow.
“A cropper of corn.”
Choji’s close now. He shoots two arrows in quick succession.
“A wee brown cow with two leather horns.”
Another arrow, and he’s following it up a hill.
“What am I?”
“Have you guessed? Enough arrows now, boy. I’m nobody’s supper.”
“Show yourself,” Choji calls out.
“ Choji!” It’s Killer Bee now, shouting after him, but Choji remains focused.
“Show yourself,” the voice mocks lightly. “I could say the same to you! You nearly pierced me through.”
Choji creeps upwards, bow ready, towards it.
“Ah, there you are. See what you’ve done?”
Choji sees. Within a circle of six arrows, sits, lit by the moon and proud as anything—“A rabbit?”
“No. I was gnawing that which no other beast gnaws, I was dancing and boxing in the March fields when the rabbit was young. I am a Hare. Look for me in the full moon and you’ll see.”
The hare is brown as the branch of a tree and big as a small dog.
“What the fuck,” Choji hears, whispered behind him. It’s Karui and Omoi, swords drawn but hanging in loose grips, wearing twin expressions of comical shock.
“Friends,” the hare remarks mildly. “How nice. And where is your teacher?”
“He’s…” Omoi starts, uncertain.
“Right here,” Bee says lightly, coming to stand in front of all three of them. “How do you do.”
“Well as the land does, aye, and twice as old!” She rises from her crouch and stretches out her long legs carefully. “Let me out from this circle, would you? It’ll look bad for you if you keep someone so harmless as me trapped with no door to leave by.”
Killer Bee laughs. “Oh, I don’t know about harmless. But I guess I’ll help you out regardless.”
He steps forward and plucks a single arrow from where it’s buried deep in the earth, allowing the hare to pass through. “Your shooting’s improved, Choji,” he says.
The hare bounds forward and inspects Bee. “You’re a familiar one.”
“Not quite,” Bee shakes his head. “But no doubt you know a friend of mine well.”
“I don’t understand,” Karui interrupts quietly. “Bee-sama?”
“This one,” Bee gestures to the hare, who could almost be smiling, “has been here since the bijuu walked the earth.”
“But that was then,” she says cryptically, “and this is now.”
Bee nods in understanding. “So it is, so it is.” He rocks back on his heels, at ease now, and it makes Choji realize how tense he was before.
Bee glances over his shoulder. “Anything to say for yourself, Choji?”
Choji would like to say quite a lot of things right now, but everything’s stuck in his throat. Omoi elbows Choji in the ribs, but Choji’s just happy Omoi’s acknowledging him again. “Say sorry,” he grits out.
Choji lurches forward. “Sorry,” he blurts. “I wouldn’t have shot at you if I’d known, well… you startled me, is all. You reminded me of a story my mom used to tell. About how when men sleep in the forest, the gods come out to frighten them.” Choji almost cringes. He’s not sure why he said that last part.
But the hare laughs, and not unkindly. “You’re an interesting child. You may call me Tama.”
Even Choji, who feels so terribly out of his depth, has an idea of the significance of such a gesture. He dips his head, a bit self-consciously. “I’m Choji. What can I do to make this right?”
“Promise me one thing.”
“Never hunt a hare again.”
“Never,” Choji promises.
“Good,” Tama says. “I’ll be off then. Say hello to our mutual friend,” she tells Bee.
“Wait,” Choji says. There’s an idea, forming in the blackness of the deep parts of his mind. He looks at the people around him, and the old god who called him an interesting child. And lastly, at the five arrows, and the sixth in Bee’s hand which means that he was able, for a moment, to trap her. If, of course, that wasn’t part of her plan in the first place.
The thing is, Choji’s always been a good kid. Maybe, at least more than people realize, he sometimes has even been a bit of a troubled kid. But no one’s ever called him interesting before. So Choji bows, low as he can.
“Tama,” he says. “Will you contract with me, human and spirit, as our kind have done for generations?”
Choji hears a gasp. Omoi, probably. He feels Bee’s chakra spike and settle in the high clearing on the hill. “Oh,” Karui says, hushed.
Choji doesn’t dare look up. Sweat is starting to bead on his forehead and upper lip.
“Spirit?” Tama muses. “I am not that. But from time to time, a wily god has been known to bestow a gift on a wily man. Perhaps, even, a wily child. Lift your head Choji, and look at me.”
Choji looks Tama in her animal eyes, and waits.
“No contract,” she says, firmly. “But call on me, and I will answer.”
And then, inexplicably, she’s gone. As if she were never there at all.
The morning’s dawning pink and blue. A perfect cotton candy sunrise.
Bee stokes the fire back to life while Choji sets about preparing coffee, because everyone likes it the way he makes it. The first steaming tin cup goes to Omoi, the best and most genuine apology Choji can think of.
Omoi accepts the cup with both hands.
“I love the morning,” Omoi says, and the others hum their agreement. He catches Choji’s eye while Choji’s passing out coffee to Karui and Bee. “Ha,” Omoi laughs. “Nobuhiro told me something once,” and here he pauses to wink at Choji. “Every morning is a new life to a wise man.”
It all comes out in the wash and they’re thick as thieves by the time they reach the borderlands between Hot Water and Frost. They’re sitting around a low fire to beat the damp, unexpected morning chill while they wait for Bee to come back from his poetic wanderings.
But Choji’s restless, eager to move on to the next undiscovered country. “Why does he do it?” Choji asks. “Bee, I mean. He could just write here, or while we walk. But he goes off in the sticks, like it’s some big secret.”
Omoi and Karui glance at each other. “The best way I can explain it,” Karui starts, “is that Bee-sama does have secrets. Things that need seeing to. Things that...” she hesitates.
“Things that need speaking to,” Omoi says, enigmatically.
Karui coughs lightly. “Maybe he’ll tell you someday. But it’s not our place to say.”
“Okay,” Choji agrees quietly, and decides to let it lie. “Show me how to do the egg again.”
Karui rolls her eyes. “Why should I show you again if you weren’t paying attention the first time? Maybe you’re just not meant to know the secrets the egg shall reveal.”
“Egg shall,” Omoi offers. “Get it? Eggshell?” He grins sheepishly when Choji busts up laughing.
“That’s it. Egg divination lesson over.” Karui launches the egg at Choji, who ducks, and the thing splatters against a rock.
“That was our last egg!” Omoi cries out. “Assholes!”
“Call Kazuharu,” Choji suggests. “He’ll eat it.”
“Yeah,” Karui teases. “He’ll eat anything. Remember that time with the chocolates Bee-sama brought back from Kiri? The ones that had maggots in—”
Omoi gags. “Shut up, we don’t talk about that,” he groans, and summons Kazuharu.
Choji watches, oddly content now, and the urgency and restlessness seeps from him drop by drop as the snake drinks the yolk from among the eggshells.
“Hope that wasn’t our last egg.” Bee’s voice rings out, startling them all badly and drawing weapons from the bunch.
“Bee-sama,” Karui mutters, tidily sheathing her katana. “Please don’t do that.”
Bee laughs. “You kids sure are wound up tight.” He peers at the last dregs of yolk in its broken shell, and Kazuharu within and without. He scratches his head. “I don’t know about oomancy—hell, I’d peg that for the orphic egg any day, but anyway.”
“You find out anything from the border, Sensei?” Omoi interrupts.
Bee shakes his head. “Well, I guess when it rains, it pours. Lotta people, couple caravans, no one allowed through without that interview, but I’ll take care of it no problem. Still, we’ll have to physically go through the checkpoint to get into Frost Country proper. They’ve got the valley locked down tight, and I’d hate to change our route just because of political bullshit, pardon my language kids.”
Choji and Karui abruptly quit messing about with eggs and snakes and tune in. Choji finds himself eyeing Omoi. “You good?” Karui asks tentatively.
Omoi scrubs a hand across his face and gives an unconvincing, bitter little laugh. “I’ve dealt with worse, and without friends in such high places. So yeah, I guess I’m good.”
“Don’t sweat it, kid,” Bee shrugs. “They can try to hold us up all they like, but the people know the truth about the land. They know their ancestral roots and their ancestral routes, if you know what I mean. Borders are arbitrary, my bambinos, and they never stick.”
Omoi gets up and starts mechanically breaking up camp. “It’s not like we’ll be held up anyway, not with you with us. But you’re right, the people for sure know all about the sovereignty of the land and the arbitrary nature of borders, or whatever. I’m sure that’s the first thing they’ll say to you when you ask them what’s up.” Omoi casts around and sinks his gaze on Choji. “You’ll see.”
Choji swallows, says nothing because he’s way out of his depth on the path of an argument that seems well-trod to everyone but him. So he just stands close to Omoi, the only show of solidarity he thinks his friend will accept, and their shoulders brush occasionally as they begin the work of moving out.
The border is just as intense as Omoi’s grim attitude prepared Choji for. But unexpectedly, it’s also sort of vibrant, in a busy way. Choji struggles to hang back with Omoi while Karui flits around chatting with people, holding babies for preoccupied mothers, and making small, nominal purchases from the ramshackle stands of vendors catering to those whose only job is to wait and see.
It’s not unusual for Omoi to eat his heart, but it’s such a strange role reversal to see Karui as the social butterfly. It leaves Choji at odds.
Omoi catches Choji’s gaze and smiles ruefully. “She was a Kumo orphan—never had to move around like I did, never had to see all the shitty things that happen in places like this, so it’s interesting to her. And she’s, you know,” Omoi laughs and imitates Bee’s baritone, “a student of the universe. Sort of like Sensei, I guess. Except he’s done learning, he’s already figured everything out, right? He’s so set in his goddamn ways. This is the only thing he and I fight about.”
Choji summons up his courage. “What happened, Omoi?”
Omoi’s mouth twists up in a way that makes Choji’s gut churn. “It’s in the past now. But hey, we’ll be out of here quick once Sensei meets his contact. Go explore with her. She’d like that.”
Choji just squeezes Omoi’s shoulder, and goes to join Karui.
“I got us some sodas,” she says when he approaches, without ever turning back to look at him. “They’re in my pack.”
Choji leans down and gingerly removes a cola from the bag slung over Karui’s shoulder, as she crouches above a blanket laid out with beautiful, albeit beat-up fans. The vendor watches them with one eye, half-asleep.
“It’s warm,” Choji comments, and peers at the soda dubiously.
Karui finally looks up at him, wry. “You see a fridge around here?”
The vendor chuckles, and Karui smiles at him as she takes Choji’s arm and leads him away. “How’s Omoi?”
Karui winds through the crowds and takes them to a rocky outcropping with a lovely view of the land below. Well, lovely except for the sharply watching samurai stationed around the camp in a moderate perimeter. Karui takes a long drink from her soda before she speaks.
“His parents were murdered by border guards when he was just an infant.”
Choji sits down, and Karui joins him. “It happened at a place like this. Who knows, it might have even been here. You know, one of these small ports-of-entry between minor nations without hidden villages. Violence is commonplace.”
“Violence is pretty commonplace in hidden villages too, you know,” Choji mutters, and the words ride from his mouth atop a panicky laugh.
“But here, no one knows. It’s the tree that falls in the woods when no one’s around to hear,” Karui sighs.
Choji is feeling something, some expansion, some angry understanding that the scales have fallen from his eyes, and he would pick them back up and paste them back on if he could, but the scales have dropped into a little pool of blood, and the blood belongs to the dead kid. The one Choji killed. You can leave me here. I don’t care. Let me rot in the sun. “Fuck,” Choji says.
“Yeah,” Karui huffs. “I know.”
“It’s not fair.”
“We’re gonna charge through this place like it’s nothing. But in an hour someone could be killed.”
“Right. Or even just detained, or something like that.”
“And we’ll be on our way.”
“But borders aren’t real, right?” Choji half-mocks.
Karui hesitates. “You sound like Omoi now.”
“Well, Bee keeps saying it, but everything I’ve seen so far has led me to the opposite conclusion.”
“Hm. Well, Bee-sama and Omoi are on two opposite sides of a spectrum. But I haven’t seen enough to make a decision one way or another, idealist or realist. And you definitely haven’t, so chill on that, okay?”
“Talking about me again? You guys are obsessed, acting like there isn’t anything better to talk about.”
Omoi stands against the setting sun, so Choji and Karui have to shade their eyes to see him.
“Talking about you? Obsessed? We don’t even like you,” Choji deadpans, and Karui tugs Omoi down to sit next to them. Choji offers Omoi his soda.
The three of them sit in companionable silence, listening to the crickets singing like oil in a hot pan.
“I came over here to tell you that Bee’s through with his contact, we’re good to go,” Omoi eventually says. “But this is nice though, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Karui says. “It is.”
Choji wakes, before dawn, with a sneeze.
He sits up and pauses in the still night air, just to make sure he hasn’t woken anyone up.
Bee and Omoi remain asleep in the clearing where they all passed out, not too far from the port-of-entry, but far enough. Karui is nowhere to be found, but Choji isn’t worried.
It’s chilly and damp—Choji pulls his jacket tighter around his body and puts on his sandals before setting off through the woods.
The night is viscous and clinging, still fending off the penetration of morning. The only sounds are the whistles of a faraway train running across the border. It coaxes Choji onwards to his destination.
Karui stands, facing away, to the east.
“Why,” Choji starts. “Why do I feel like I’ve been here before? Like deja vu.”
Karui nods. “I feel it too. But not quite like that. More like... jamais vu. Like all these familiar actions and impulses have suddenly become unfamiliar.”
“Familiar?” Choji asks, unsteady. “I don’t know if I meant familiar. I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually woken up in the middle of the night to find myself marching into the woods to see...uh, someone...before.”
Karui finally turns and sheds the air of mystery with an eye roll. “Idiot.”
“But why are we here, Karui?” Choji asks softly.
“You’re ready. The spirits want to meet you.”
Choji’s heart is stuttering and sputtering in his chest for a moment, before leaping savagely forward and thundering away at a gallop.
“Your summons?” he asks.
Karui tamps down a smile. “Spirits, Choji. Not summons. What would Tama think if she heard that? Don’t make me change my mind about this.”
“Too late to turn back now anyway.” Choji feels himself pulled closer to Karui. The wet air is suddenly staticy, charged with electricity. The hair is standing up on his arms and legs. “Are you doing this?”
“ They are,” Karui says, and her voice falls away into a sticky susurrus coming from all directions. And then, it’s obvious.
Choji almost wants to laugh. Bees, of course. Like student, like teacher.
They’re here now, filling the air and the trees. Fat, friendly-looking ones, legs heavy with orange pollen, and sleek, quick, dangerous-looking ones, buzzing mightily.
“They’re excited,” Karui admits.
“How do you communicate with them?”
So Karui hums. The song soars high and then abruptly low, and the music sometimes catches stickily in her throat, then bursts forth again, vibrating around in the heavy air. The bees alight in her hair, along her arms. They’re listening. Some even answer back. A conversation.
“What are they saying?”
Karui huffs, just a bit, at the interruption. “Well, they like you. They have since the start. They’re complimenting you.”
“Yeah? You seemed to be doing most of the talking.”
“Dope. Like you would know.”
“If they liked me since the start, does that mean they’ve been spying on me?”
Karui smirks. “They’re nosy. And terrible gossips. They talked about you so much, I bet—oh god.”
“What?” Choji asks.
“I bet that’s what all your sneezing was about!”
They laugh hard enough to scare the bees out of Karui’s hair, and by the end, they’re leaning on each other for support.
“Tell them thank you,” Choji eventually says. “For trusting me.”
“You’re welcome, Choji,” Karui answers.
“My mom hums just like that,” Choji muses, as they walk back to camp. “Maybe she should contract with a local hive.”
Karui lets the joke slip away into the night. “You’re lucky,” she replies.
“I know.” Choji feels the truth of it in his gut.
“I didn’t have a mother to hum to me. I had to hum. I had to be my own mother.”
Karui glances slyly at him. “ Such is a commoner’s lot ,” she imitates Omoi, perfectly.
They’re back in the clearing now. Bee lays with his eyes closed, obviously feigning sleep, but Omoi still rests peacefully in a bed of serpents.
How are you?
I know this will probably embarrass you, but I’ve been thinking about how much I miss the sound of you humming while you sharpen shuriken. One of the things I miss most from home.
Deep in Frost Country, now.
For a little while, the days pass just like that night with Karui—dreamy and cool to the touch as summer winds down. But they’re moving into colder lands.
And then one day, abruptly, summer ends.
They’ve been drifting towards the Land of Lightning for weeks now. Before, their wandering could have been written off as aimless, but now they’re so far out on the peninsula that it can’t be anything but deliberate.
There’s little to stand in the way of getting into Lightning from Frost. Karui explains the political situation to Choji one night, quiet so no one will overhear. Frost is a protectorate of Lightning, so the lion’s share of border patrol happens at Frost’s border with Hot Water. Not to mention, the mountains rise up at the entrance to Lightning, establishing a natural border.
Karui pulls him aside the day she’s sure they’ve crossed it, just to let him know, since Bee hasn’t said a word about it. But Choji could have figured that already. There’s been something like embarrassment or guilt in the air for the last couple of days. Like no one wants to look at each other.
It’s Killer Bee’s fault. He stays with them, dawn to dusk—never once leaving to meditate, or write, or whatever the hell it is he does.
He just...looms. And watches them like a hawk.
Omoi and Karui notice, of course. Omoi raises eyebrows and communicates to Choji through gestures, but Karui peers thoughtfully at Bee, while Bee frowns at Choji and wrings his hands. It’s an irritating situation, and Choji keeps to himself, and keeps himself busy.
He’s got a lot to think about anyway. He’s losing too much weight, it’s un-Akimichi-like. His father won’t be happy. Choji minds his business and cooks and eats whatever he can forage.
After a few days of hiking through foothills, Omoi and Karui tell Choji that they are, without a doubt, on the quickest route to the hidden village. Choji finds that he can’t let Bee be the only adult in the room anymore.
“Why are we going to Kumo?” Choji asks.
They’re all sitting around a dim fire in the early dusk. Omoi is painstakingly cleaning his fingernails with the sharp end of a kunai. Karui is turned away, gently folding her red hair into an updo before tucking it away in a bonnet for sleep. And Bee is fiddling half-heartedly with his own head, distractedly moisturizing his rows. He puts the bottle of oil down when Choji speaks, wipes his hands on his pants, and smiles disarmingly.
“You don’t want to see my city?” he asks.
Choji stares him down. “Bee,” he says, quietly.
The older man shifts, looks down, away, anywhere else.
Now, the others are listening too, and waiting. Choji knows it’s been on their minds.
“Summer doesn’t last forever, kid,” Bee says, finally.
See, now, Choji doesn’t feel like the other adult in the room. He feels like a kid, with ice-cold fear in his belly, because he doesn’t want summer to end. He doesn’t want to go home.
“What’s happening?” Omoi asks. He sounds small.
Bee goes somewhere else then, in a way. Closes himself away behind those dark glasses, shuts a door, seals away the warm man Choji knows.
“I wrote to your Pop.”
“But you don’t know who I… you don’t who my—”
“I’ve been around a lot longer than you all. I know Akimichi Chouza. And he knows me. And now he knows I’ve been looking after his son all summer. He’ll pick you up in Kumogakure under the supervision of my Kage and accompanying Konoha anbu. He will retrieve the body of the jonin Ebisu. And the situation will remain contained.”
There’s stunned silence, and nothing else. Bee opens and shuts his mouth a few more times, and then mutters, “I was a fool to keep you from home this long. You’re not my student, or my son. The world doesn’t work like that.”
Killer Bee gets up and leaves, vanishing into the scrawny trees, the rock and brush. Choji doesn’t move an inch. And in the stillness, Karui inhales shakily, and begins to cry.
Bee slinks back in the night, guilty as a dog. Guilty, not least of all, because he shouldn't have left the kids alone at this hour. Even though he was guilty and wanted to hide. Guilty, guilty, guilty. He's working overtime at the guilt factory, working double-time.
The three of them are tucked together to beat the chill, curled in a pile like puppies. The snakes drape themselves over and around. Bee should have been here.
"Bee. Go to sleep."
It's the voice that speaks from inside of him. "No," Bee says to it, reedy and broken. "I need to watch over them."
"Idiot. You need to rest. I'll watch them tonight."
"I know I fucked up. I know I fucked it all up to hell, I just can't seem to figure out how."
"That's a question for the daylight. I'll protect them through the night."
With just a bit of chakric coaxing from the beast in his belly, Bee sinks gracelessly onto the cool soft ground, and falls fast asleep. The chakra that blankets the four sleepers is purple, and bitter, and gentle. It watches over them till dawn.
I’ll be home soon. I’ve missed you guys.
Not even going to pretend to explain what’s going on —I’m sure you’ve already figured it out, know-it-all.
Kumo is unlike anything Choji has seen. Not even the Valley of the End prepared him for the dizzying height of it. Even though Choji is still pissed at Killer Bee, he takes the tea the man offers him with pathetic gratitude. It helps with the altitude sickness, a bit. The rest, Choji endures with sheer bull-headedness. Even Karui and Omoi look a bit green around the gills. It's been a while since they've been home.
They crest the final peak and stand before the gates of the city around four in the morning. The buildings shine like silver in the early light. Choji wishes he were here under different circumstances.
They're led through the city by amiable shinobi with sharp swords. That much, at least, is familiar. When they get to the Raikage's office, Choji is given a blanket and another cup of tea by a woman named Mabui, who pinches Omoi and Karui's cheeks, and eyes Bee suspiciously.
All that's left is to wait for the Raikage. The man that Choji’s textbooks call Unruly Ay .
The man doesn't disappoint. He thunders in, and observes Choji with a sharp eye while he moves. He's quick, despite his size.
Next, he grabs Bee in a crushing hug. The brothers embrace, and Ay says, in an undertone, "Don't stay away so long again."
"I won't, brother."
"And," Ay continues, "do not embarrass me like this again either. It will end badly for you."
Bee cringes away. "Ay—"
"No," Ay says. "This could have been disastrous. Your head in the clouds, again. When will it stop?"
The man turns to Choji. "Akimichi-san. I trust my brother treated you well?"
Choji is taken aback by the formality. "Of course," he stutters. "It was—I mean, I decided to travel with them. After my Sensei died. Bee took care of me. Of all of us."
Ay squints. "Very well. Scouts report that your father will arrive within a day. Mabui, get them settled. Bee, with me."
Mabui smiles kindly, and then when the men are gone, winks. "I scored you guys the best of the guest rooms. No need to thank me."
It's sweet, and Choji appreciates the effort, so he smiles back at her. But the world is turning. And when the doors shut on the Raikage's office, it feels awfully final.
On the eve of parting, Choji and Omoi find that it’s a bitch and a half to get any privacy whatsoever. But with enough doe-eyed wheedling, Omoi’s able to wear Mabui down and convince her to let them up onto the roof of the Raikage tower.
“She’s in love with me,” Omoi winks as they wind up the stairs.
“Pull the other one,” Choji laughs. “She’s about as in love with you as Karui is with me.” Why did I fucking say that.
Omoi looks over his shoulder at Choji with his minimal eyebrows all scrunched up under his freshly donned hitai-ate. He’s fighting a smirk.
“Please disregard,” Choji begs.
“Nope,” Omoi quips, and opens the door to the roof.
The air is sharp with electricity. Lightning Country is embroiled in a squall, but the village is the eye of the storm, spilling out onto the mountain. The rest is lost in dark clouds.
“Nice view,” Choji says, practically staggering.
Omoi scrubs his hand over the back of his head. “I didn’t bring you up here just for the view, actually. It was gonna be more of a view-speech combo.”
“Smart. Then if your speech doesn’t cut it, at least the view will get me.”
“Exactly.” Omoi takes a deep breath, and begins. “You can go back, you know. I don’t know a lot of things, and like, yeah. A lot of the things I do know, I second-guess. But yeah…”
“That it? Your big speech?”
Omoi cracks a smile. “Nah, lemme work up to it.” He plucks the ever-present toothpick from his mouth and casts it away, suddenly serious. He steps closer, puts those kohl-rimmed, downturned, high-lashed eyes right in front of Choji’s eyes.
So Choji gives in. The damp, cool wind buffets him towards Omoi. There’s perfect, complete surrender in Choji’s open, clammy palms. Surrender in his voice when he says, “lay it on me, Omoi.”
“So I shall, Choji,” Omoi straightens his flak jacket and settles into it. “It’s been a good three months, hasn’t it?”
“It’s been a good three months,” Choji echoes.
“Best three months of my life, man. I mean that.”
There’s a little spot of warmth growing in Choji’s chest. Choji cradles it there in his heart, and waits.
“You’re my best friend,” Omoi tells him. “Karui’s my sister, but you’re my best friend.”
And Choji can’t sit stoically with that. He surges forward and wraps his arms around Omoi, and they bolster each other. Build fortifications against the howling wind below.
“Mad man,” Omoi finally huffs, and releases Choji. “I wasn’t done.”
“I know. Keep going.”
“I will, thank you. I think this is what I’m trying to say. You can go back home. You don’t have to wander the world untethered like Sensei. You can go back to Konoha and do your duty, but it doesn’t have to change anything about this summer. It still happened. It was still good. You won’t betray everything you did and saw by going back. And maybe, one day, there will be peace in the shinobi world, and we can do this again.” Omoi’s eyes light up. “Or maybe we can do this every summer. Well, anyway, speech over.”
Choji closes his eyes. “That was a good speech, my friend.”
Omoi exhales. “You’re a good audience.”
Choji and Omoi linger there on the roof, breathing in the night as the hours press on. Below, in the valley, the air is still roiling and bubbling with thunder and lightning. But here in the village, they’re above the weather.
There aren’t any words left between them. They’ve filled that cup, watched it overflow, emptied it and filled it again.
Killer Bee, on the other hand…
When the man finally makes an appearance, Choji’s not sure whether to feel relieved that he’s come, or disappointed that he’s waited until practically the very last moment. He emerges onto the roof from the door to the stairs, and it’s so casual an act that Choji frowns. He was expecting more fanfare.
“Choji,” is all Bee says.
So Choji rises and follows him. They don’t go far. Just to the other side of the roof, for a semblance of privacy from Omoi.
“Scouts reported back. Your Pop’ll be here by dawn, if the weather doesn’t slow him down too much.”
This is not what Choji has been waiting for. So he just keeps waiting.
“Listen, young man—”
Now . Choji, finally, seizes his moment. If he says his part first, there’ll be nothing left to say. And for once, Choji wants to have the last word.
“Thank you.” Choji says.
Bee shakes his head. “Don’t thank me, not after all the hot water I got you into.”
Choji ignores him. “Thank you for teaching me. For showing me so much.”
“I didn’t teach you a thing. Anything you learned, you learned from the world.”
But Choji’s not done. “Thank you for saving me.”
That stops Bee short. “What are you talking about.”
“Thank you for saving me from the most boring summer ever .”
And then Bee is laughing, deep and booming to match the thunder. It’s been weeks since Choji’s heard him laugh like that.
“And we can keep in touch, right?” Choji continues. “Maybe letters…”
Bee does something wholly unexpected, then. He takes off his glasses.
There’s nothing shocking underneath them. Just brown eyes, twinkling and brimming with a lifetime of delicious secrets that Choji is suddenly hungry for. Thankfully, Bee unwraps the best of them right before their very eyes.
“I’ll do you one better than a letter,” Bee says, and then bubbling in the air between them is the most powerful chakra Choji’s ever felt. It’s almost salty on Choji’s tongue, and very, very visibly purple.
“Didn’t you wonder why Tama thought she knew me?” Bee laughs, and Choji’s practically floating in chakra now. “Well, it wasn’t me that seemed so familiar. It was my roommate.” Bee pats his chest for emphasis.
“Jinchuriki,” Choji gasps, because literally of course. Choji had always thought that Killer Bee seemed larger than life. Now the proof is between them.
Bee winks. “With friends like ours, you’ll find writing letters a little slow. If you ever need me, Tama can get a message to us licketty-split.”
“Us,” Choji marvels, dumbfounded at the thought. Of course Bee stole the moment back from him. Choji couldn’t be mad even if he tried. “So you’re...friends? You and a bijuu?”
Bee leans down and places a hand, gently, on Choji’s head. “His name is Gyuki. We wanted you to know it.”
Choji tilts his head up to meet his teacher’s eyes and smiles, and hopes it’s enough to convey that which goes beyond words, now.
Bee chucks Choji under the chin and settles his glasses back on his nose. Together, they make their way towards the roof door.
Omoi, from the other side of the roof, perks up and meets them halfway. “So?” he asks. “Whose speech was better?”
Choji glances at Bee in amusement. “Last chance for parting advice, I guess.”
Bee strokes his chin, considering. “Know your audience,” he settles on at last. “Know your enemy. And keep rhymin’ and stealin’.”
WIth that, Bee ushers both of them inside and shuts the door on the Kumo night.
Choji is, admittedly, heartbroken that Karui hasn’t come to see him off. It’s been hours since he’s seen her last, and there’s nothing left but the leave-taking.
Chouza, icy in demeanor, is wrapping up a tense conversation with Mabui and a handful of other diplomats while Choji sulks off to the side, watching the sun steadily rise. When they’re done, Choji’s father turns to him with stoney eyes that say let’s go , and it’s only then that Karui darts out of the village gates, hair flying and wild-eyed.
She skids to a stop in front of the group, and briefly eyes Chouza apologetically before fixing her attention on Choji. “I almost missed you,” she says.
Choji nods, heart hammering. “Almost.”
Karui strides forward then, and thrusts her hand out for a shake. Her body-language is all awkward rough edges, and Choji catches Mabui raising a well-manicured eyebrow at the proceedings. Chouza even sighs aloud.
But they don’t hear what Choji’s hearing. The bees are humming in their low, steady way, and Karui’s eyes tell him that the song is their secret.
“Bye Choji,” is all she says.
Choji releases her hand at last. “Goodbye, crab ass.”
She doesn’t even roll her eyes. Just half-smiles and steps back to stand with Mabui.
Now there really is nothing left to say or do. Choji turns and follows his father, home, to Konoha.
The journey home from Kumo is—after everything—one of the most difficult of Choji’s entire life.
Chouza is a riot of emotions—and it’s strange for Choji to be back in the company of another Akimichi. There’s so much in them. But Choji has changed a bit, or maybe he just missed his father, because he weathers it all as patiently as he can. The heartbroken anger over Ebisu, the I-know-the-academy-taught-you-better-than-that frustration about Choji’s failure to report the death of a Konoha shinobi, as well as the fear and awe as Chouza looks at a son who he realizes he may not know anymore.
Choji meets his father’s feelings head-on. Choji knows he’s done some wrong. He also knows he’s done what feels like quite a lot of good, for himself. And he knows he loves his father—so he won’t look away.
Obviously, obviously, when they reach the village, Ino and Shikamaru are waiting, as if they hadn’t moved an inch the whole time.
“Well,” Choji says. “I’m back.”
“What is this, the Lord of the fucking Rings? You’re back? I swear to god—”
Shikamaru clamps a hand over Ino’s mouth, familiarly. “Ino,” he marvels. “Look at his hair. ”
And then they’re on top of him—and they’re pawing at his head and rolling around in the dust and then Shika whispers, “please don’t do that to us again.” And Ino whispers, “next time take us with you.”
She would swear up and down that it’s not true, but sometimes, far away in the wild parts of the world, Omoi hears Karui startle awake in the middle of the night, with a sneeze.