A parent's worse nightmare. (Yaoi, Naruto/Neji established, heavily features OCs. This fic is in the same world as The Risk.)
Akemi glowered at Makoto. He gave her a pleading look.
"I really, really wanna play. I'll stay with her next time," he promised. They both looked beyond Akemi to where Keiko was sitting at the edge of the tiny stream that ran along this part of the forest's edge, examining some pebbles with devoted interest, bringing them close to her face.
Behind Mako, Hizashi was hopping on one foot impatiently, white eyes narrowed. "Makoto, come on." Akemi redirected an annoyed look at him and he smiled weakly. She wasn't really all that annoyed, but Karin-ba-san had asked both of them to play with Keiko today while she and Shikamaru-oji-san cleaned their house. Keiko was nice, and Akemi liked her, but she wasn't really that exciting to be with. And now Makoto wanted to go have real fun with Hyuuga Hizashi because "we only need one more, Akemi, and Keiko can't play anyhow," while Akemi got stuck playing baby games with Keiko.
"Go on, go on," she said with a shrug. It wasn't like she hadn't played that game a million times already, and Makoto had missed the big one yesterday because he'd been helping Iruka-sensei after school. Still, as they left, she kind of wished she knew how to make real exploding tags so she could attach one to Makoto's butt.
"Akemi!" Keiko shouted, and Akemi turned with a glum sigh, to meet Keiko's grin. They were the same age, but Keiko was smaller than Akemi, and her face was shaped in a weird way. Papa had explained it was something in her genes. The same way that he and some families had special Bloodline Limits in their genes that got passed down when families had babies, sometimes genes got broken and made kids like Keiko. Who was mostly fun, but acted like she was four instead of eight, and was too clumsy to even make pretend hand seals. Keiko's little brother was four for real, and almost smarter than her already, and way better at playing ninja.
Oh well, at least Shikaichi was at someone else's house so she didn't have to look after two babies. "What, Keiko?" Akemi replied automatically.
"I got one with spots," Keiko presented a flattish pebble. It was really kind of pretty, pinkish with white flecks that glinted when she turned it in over in her hands, but Akemi wasn't really in the mood for playing 'find pretty rocks' anymore.
"It's nice. Go find another one?" She pretended to be excited until Keiko turned back to the stream, then slumped down into a small hump in the grass, pulling her kunai out of her belt pouch and stabbing it idly into the ground.
She sat, idle. She normally liked this spot, so far from the center of the village with its little meadow and rocks and shallow stream that was great for splashing and building dams and digging up the sloppy clay deposits in that one spot. She just wasn't really willing to have fun with Keiko when she knew Makoto was going to the school training field to play missing-nin versus Anbu.
Imagining a few good scenarios herself, it was a long time before she realized Keiko hadn't shown her a new rock in a while. "Keiko?" she said, looking around, but there was no one nearby.
Suddenly concerned, she rose and spun on her feet, scanning the immediate area. "Keiko?" she called, raising her voice, but there was no answer. "Keiko, if you're hiding, you gotta come out NOW!" she called. Jumping across the little stream, she looked up and down it, but Keiko wasn't hiding behind any of the bushy stands of water weeds. "Keiko!!" Akemi bellowed again, her worry sharpening to send a stab of fear into her belly.
Looking frantically about, her gaze fell on the collection of pebbles strewn by the stream's edge, and the flattened grass where Keiko had sat to inspect them. Right. Tracking. Just like in class.
Now that she'd remembered, it really was just like in class, especially since Keiko had been making no attempt to hide where she walked. Bent grass and shifted forest-floor debris marked her path, and soon she could see Keiko's short black pigtails through the underbrush. "Keiko!" she called, and crashed through the bushes towards her.
Akemi stopped short when she realized Keiko was staring up at a strange man. "Hey, what're you..." Akemi trailed off her confused question when she took in the man's clothing. He wasn't a local patroller, that was for sure. He was dressed in a scruffy black tunic and pants. He wore a bandana, but no engraved metal plaque to mark a hidden village. He had a big backpack, and a sack dangled from one hand, half-filled with the familiar red-veined leaves of the greyish-green fadeleaf plant that grew in specially hidden plots throughout the village's forest. His gaze jerked up when she spoke, frustration showing on his wide, sunburned face.
He grabbed Keiko by the shoulder. She whimpered in fear, and Akemi froze in shock, then reached reflexively back into her pouch for her kunai... which lay near the stream a few hundred meters back. Falling into combat stance anyway, she hurriedly formed the seals and spoke the command, voice shaking, "Kage-bunshin no jutsu!" Two clones formed, on one each side. The man's eyes widened, but before she could do anything more, something heavy hit her from behind and sent her sprawling to the uneven ground.
Her concentration shattered, the clones dissipated into smoke, and Akemi was flipped onto her back. Another man with the same kind of clothing as the first one stared down at her, narrow face made narrower by a stringy, twisty beard. He had a sack too.
"What are you doing here, now?" he said, sounding like he thought she was funny, but it wasn't in a good way, and she didn't answer.
The fadeleaf in the sacks was a poisonous plant with both healing and combat applications, Akemi knew. They'd learned about local herbs only last week. The plant was almost impossible to grow anywhere but its natural habitat, so the med-nins kept special areas throughout the forest to replant lone bushes. It grew slowly, was a highly-valued trade item with other hidden villages. And these men were stealing it.
Akemi was afraid. It felt like a the ground was turned to water, and she wasn't very good at standing on water. She kicked herself back up and retreated until she collided with something. Keiko.
Keiko was a hostage.
She almost couldn't breath, suddenly, but she stared up at the man with the ugly beard. "I'm a ninja of Konohagakure!" she said. And it wouldn't be that hard to fight him, she could tell. These men didn't look or feel like ninjas. She could fight the ugly beard man, or just run away, easily. But Keiko couldn't run, or help by fighting the other man. She was more a problem than anything else in a fight, and Akemi couldn't leave her behind.
She felt hot, and then cold and her heart raced in her ears.
"Akemi..." Keiko squealed, starting to sob. Akemi gritted her teeth.
"Ninja?" The ugly beard man stepped right up to her in one long stride. He reached down and pushed one sharp, grimy finger against her bare forehead. "Don't see your forehead protector anywhere, little bitch, did you forget it back with your knife?" He reached into his pocket and pulled out her kunai, waving it point-first in front of her eyes. "I didn't see it lying around. Wasn't anyone else to help you over there either."
She was breathing so fast her throat was dry and hurting, but she reached up in a flash and grabbed the kunai, twisting it sharply out of his hand, and leaped high enough to kick off the man's shoulder and land behind him.
Holding the kunai so tight it hurt, she faced them both. It was for sure, then, if she had been able to get the kunai back, these definitely weren't ninja. The ugly beard man twisted around to face her.
"Going to attack, are you? Or maybe run away? Or maybe... not," the bearded man said, pulling a second kunai out, one with teeth along one edge. He grabbed Keiko by the hair and put the point at her throat. Keiko squirmed against his grip. He pulled up on one pigtail until she had to stand on her toes.
Akemi wanted to stab the man's eyes out. She wanted to make a thousand clones and kill both of the strangers. She wanted to throw up. Why hadn't she thrown the knife at him while his back was still turned and then kicked the other man until he let go of Keiko?
She hadn't done anything right.
"Put it down, why don't you? Unless you're curious what the inside of someone's throat looks like."
She dropped the kunai.
Naruto flipped the stir-fry in the pan, grinning as the mass of mixed meat and vegetables rose a good three feet into the air before he caught them. A very simple pleasure for one who could pin a shuriken on a fleeing enemy at three hundred feet, but always fun nonetheless.
A familiar presence neared the house. The front door opened, and closed with a slam. Naruto added a dash of pepper to the pan, and greeted Makoto from where he stood. "Dinner is going to be ready soon."
Makoto wobbled into the kitchen, grinning and obviously all played out, and flopped into a chair, brown hair now a fair camouflage with dried leaves sticking out of it, and the rest of him streaked with dirt. He grinned. "We played Anbu versus missing-nin, and I was an Anbu."
"You picked up half the dirt outside while you were at it. Go clean up," Naruto laughed. "Where's your sister?"
"I dunno, she was with Keiko, and I went to play with Hizashi," Makoto said as he fished a pair of chopsticks out of the drawer and stole a chunk of celery from the pan. Naruto frowned.
"Oh, yeah. Didn't Karin ask you both to watch Keiko? You couldn't wait until someone came to get her?"
"Well... yeah," Makoto said with his mouth full, looking suddenly guilty, "But Hizashi only needed one more for the game or it wouldn't be even, and he asked me. I told Akemi I'd stay next time," he added hopefully, and swallowed.
Naruto regarded his son, still frowning. "A game isn't a good enough reason to not complete a task someone gives you, Makoto." Not that Keiko wasn't in good hands with Akemi, but that wasn't the point.
"I... know," Makoto looked embarrassed. Good enough, Naruto decided. And he had promised to owe Akemi one. "I guess they went to her house," Mako said suddenly, "You want me to go get Akemi?"
"Please do," came a dry reply from the door. Neji was also giving their son a look of mild reproach.
"Yes, Papa," Makoto answered, still meek, and made a beeline back to the door, Neji turning to follow as another presence neared the house.
Naruto heard Mako-chan open the door, but both he and Neji had identified the presence before she spoke.
"Good evening, Mako-chan, Neji-san," Karin said, "Hmm, Akemi-chan and Keiko are not here?" the petite chuunin's voice was surprised.
"No, Karin-san... I was going over to your house to get Akemi..." Makoto answered. Naruto took the pan off the heat and joined the others at the door, exchanging a look of mild worry with Neji and Karin.
Keiko was still crying, but the ugly beard man had tied a cloth around her mouth, so she barely made any noise. Her nose was dripping, though, and her face was patchy and red. Her hands were tied up in front of her, and the ugly man held the end of the rope, his knife in the other hand. Akemi stayed close by Keiko as best she could while trying to walk without tripping over. The ugly beard man had bound her hands together in front as well, an mistake she didn't dare take advantage of while he could see her. He had, however, been smart enough to tie a short rope between her ankles so she couldn't run.
She watched the tired-looking sunburned man walking ahead of them. He'd looked really nervous ever since the ugly beard man had started to tie them up, and Akemi had heard him talking to himself. "..right on their fucking doorstep is no problem, is it?"
When she'd asked where they were going, the ugly beard man had smiled, and then pulled Keiko so hard by the pigtails she'd fallen over. Akemi felt rage in her throat like a scream trying to get out.
"Never you mind," he'd grinned, eyes making fun of her, "No one else will. No one will be following our tracks." He'd hauled Keiko up by the back of her shirt, snickering when she cringed away from him.
You don't know anything about ninjas, Akemi thought furiously back at him, but remained silent after that.
That had been hours ago. It was dark enough that it was getting more difficult picking for the men to pick their path through the woods. They weren't moving very quickly, and Akemi hoped desperately that her fathers or Keiko's parents or... anyone... would catch up to them. She couldn't understand how the perimeter guards hadn't spotted the trail by now. But Tou-chan and Papa had to have noticed... she was late for dinner. Tou-chan and Papa must be looking for them now. Of course they were. All she had to do was make sure the men didn't hurt Keiko.
Akemi looked up when she heard distant splashing and rushing water, nearly making herself trip over a raised root, and stumbled to a halt, her heart sinking fast enough that she felt sick. They'd go into the river now. The river didn't let you leave tracks unless you could leave chakra marks behind, and even if it was almost dark enough that Akemi might try to make seals, she'd never be able to stand still long enough to finish them.
Near the bank, the water was only shin-deep on Akemi, and the bottom seemed to be mostly smooth. It wasn't even that cold. But every splashing step felt like it was pulling Akemi apart like a loose thread unraveling a bandage. What if the ugly beard man really could hide their tracks? And Tou-chan and Papa couldn't find them? Was that why the border guards hadn't seen them?
Akemi stopped walking at that thought, feeling herself about to panic. She took a deep breath, concentrating on controlling herself. Just like when she got frustrated with sparring against Mako or Hizashi, she had to think of what was happening now, here, not anything else, just like Papa had taught them. "Not everyone can run on instinct like your Tou-chan," he would remind them. "most of us have to be able to think carefully even when we're mad or afraid."
They were walking in the river. The river ran to the edge of the forest. And then it went underground. At the end of the river, they could leave tracks again. And Papa and Tou-chan would find them. They would.
She ignored the beard man when he said something in a sharp voice. Her chest hurt and her throat felt so tight she was afraid she couldn't breath, never mind speak.
The beard man hit her. She fell on all fours in the water, head ringing. "Move it, you little bitch, or I'll just cut you both open here."
She stayed down for a few seconds, head clearing, and said the first thing that came to mind. "I have to go to the bathroom," she whimpered. Faking that she wanted to cry wasn't really that hard.
There was silence, like neither of them had thought of that.
"Come on, just let her do it and we can get out of here," the sunburned man muttered.
"Fine," the ugly beard man snapped, "Don't take your time. Nothing funny, little bitch, I got your retard friend right here."
Large hands picked her up around the middle and carried her to the bank, setting her down at the base of a skinny tree. Akemi stared up at the bulkier form of the sunburned man, jerking back as he knelt down. He unbound one of her ankles. Holding the length of rope tightly, he turned around. "Go," he muttered.
"Yes," she whispered, and inched behind the tree. They weren't looking. Just for right now, they weren't looking.
In a hidden village, Naruto fumed, you would think it would be simpler to find two missing children.
Akemi and Keiko had not been at the park, or the Academy, or anyone else's house. They were not in any of the children's usual hiding places around the town. All their friends had sincerely vowed they were not playing a practical joke, and neither Neji or Naruto had sensed even the vaguest trace of Akemi's chakra, nor had Karin or Shikamaru sensed Keiko's. That left only the possibility that they had left the borders of town. But the only trail at their play site by the stream was the one they used to and from town.
It was near midnight, now, and every second passed with a further sinking feeling. Naruto's temper had been completely lost when it was finally established neither girl was inside the village borders.
Neji was infuriatingly composed. Naruto knew it was a mask, but the way Neji appeared so calm was getting increasingly aggravating.
And now they were both at home, Neji sitting at the kitchen table, hands folded, Naruto pacing, both cut from the search parties.
Kakashi-sensei had taken one look at the search teams when they'd reconvened at the academy and ordered them all home. He and Neji, and Karin and Shikamaru. The other couple had had matching grim looks.
Of the six groups of four, each one with a parent in it was far more worn down than the last two.
The assisting jounin were eyeing the parents warily, but Naruto didn't give a damn. So he had yelled a bit. Or more than a bit. It felt like the jounin he'd been assigned-more like saddled with-were in no way worthy of the rank. Apart from Kakashi-sensei, no one he would have wanted on the search was in Konoha tonight, all on missions, as if there was anything more important than this. The jounin available seemed slower than first-year academy students and half as smart, and he hadn't been afraid to share his views, along with several more creative epithets.
"Leave. Now. You're making this harder, not easier," Kakashi had said, sounding not particularly concerned, though his pack of summoned dogs belied that, teeth bared and hackles raised, and Naruto had brought his fist down on the table so hard it had broken. Vaguely, some part of him was surprised at his eroding self-control, but he ignored it. He tossed the splintered wood against the wall of the meeting room and glared at his former teacher.
"Naruto," Neji's voice carried low from where he stood, and Naruto worked his fisted hand and turned away from Kakashi before he got any closer to trying to hit him.
Shikamaru's normal lazy demeanor was nonexistent, angry frustration at everyone's lack of results billowing off him in waves, face tight with tension. Karin's dark, pinched expression looked as enraged as Naruto felt, but she was much better at keeping her opinions to herself.
Neji was just nodding, slowly. Of all of them, he had been nothing but silent. Intent, focused, deathly grim, and mute.
Now, Naruto just paced. There was no distraction to be had. Makoto was hiding in his room, having taken one look at his parents and deciding making himself scarce was the best option for him. Naruto felt a weak pang of guilt for that. He should be comforting Mako, not scaring him off. But he knew his current state wouldn't allow it, and snapping at the boy by accident would only make everything worse.
Casting an eye on the clock regularly, Naruto watched the time pass in small, slow chunks. He didn't dare leave to work out his fury at the nearest training ground, lest he miss something, and so he kept himself from exploding by forcing himself to run down long memorized lists of powder and smoke ingredients, or the steps of setting the more complex traps. Anything to keep his mind from dwelling on the worst that could happen to Akemi and Keiko.
Because he'd seen, many times, the worst that could happen to children, and he'd go out of control if he didn't force the images from his mind.
He froze and Neji stood as a familiar presence came near their house. Pakkun. Neji held up a hand, and Naruto gripped the counter top to keep himself from following his mate to the door.
"There's a trail, kids, way down by the east creek. We're ready," the little dog's gravelly voice carried down the hall of the silent house.
"About fucking time," Naruto seethed.
Pakkun was at the front of the house, Mako recognized the funny little dog's chakra. So, there was news. He rolled off the bed and wiped the dampness from his face with his sleeve. He'd cried so much his eyes were raw, and the pressure of his wrist hurt. He felt heavy and tired, miserable, and there was nothing he could do to make any of it better. Tou-chan was so angry, and Papa was like a statue. He wanted them normal, wanted them to tell him Akemi would be found, wanted a hug and... dinner. But he didn't want to stay near them now. It just felt worse. Alone in his room was a little bit less horrible because he wasn't looking at them. There was nothing here, though, that could distract him from thinking about Akemi.
He'd left to play with Hizashi, and now his sister was gone. Guilt had filled him like a poison in his stomach when he'd realized something was wrong, and it hadn't gone away, even after Papa had said that it wasn't his fault.
Maybe Pakkun would have good news.
Cautiously, he slid out the door and edged down the hall.
"About fucking time," he heard Tou-chan say, and his eyes widened at the curse. He came to the kitchen doorway, standing half behind the edge of the wall.
Tou-chan looked around at him, and Mako could tell he was trying to hide how mad he was. But his eyes... there was red in them. Mako sucked in a painful breath around the knot in his throat and held on tight to the wall. He'd been feeling Tou-chan's other chakra since they'd come home, had felt its prickly, dirty pressure, but seeing the red made it seem even bigger and angrier.
"Kakashi-sensei has a trail for us to follow now, Makoto," Tou-chan's voice was calm, but it was fake. He was trying not to let Mako hear his real feelings. He wasn't very good at that normally, and today wasn't any different.
"I want to come," Mako blurted suddenly, just as Papa came back into the kitchen.
Mako was unprepared for the shout that answered his words. "ABSOLUTELY NOT!" Tou-chan roared, and Mako shrank back from the doorway until his back hit the opposite wall, his heart pounding and mouth drying out, more scared than he'd ever been in his entire life.
Because now Tou-chan looked scared too. When Makoto had spoken, his face had lost all its color and he didn't look angry, or impatient or anything else except completely terrified. And when Mako looked at Papa, it was the same face, Papa's white eyes wide, his hands clenched... frightened.
Mako's vision got watery, and he felt the tears slide down his cheeks, and he didn't care, Tou-chan and Papa were afraid, and that was worse than anything so far. "I'm sorry," he said, even though he was choking around the lump in his throat, "I wanna help too," he was really crying now, his voice was rough and his face was hot. He didn't know what to do.
"You STAY HERE and you WAIT!!" Tou-chan's roar filled the whole house once again, the fox aura flickering around him, monster chakra pushing against Mako like the room had filled with something hot and slimy. Mako sobbed, and then Tou-chan shut his mouth with a snap, looked away to take a long, hissing breath. The fox aura flickered out, and then he turned around and went out, moving too fast for Mako to see him go.
The fox's remaining aura faded as he left, but when Mako looked at Papa, he didn't feel much better. Papa was normally so calm and always full of good manners. Today he had been just as angry and impatient as Tou-chan, except not as loud. When Mako looked at him, he didn't yell, or say anything, only closed his eyes for a second. He seemed very tired.
Papa opened his eyes again, and he was still tired and afraid and all pale, but the scariness was gone. He came forward and opened his arms to Mako, who ran to him and held on tight to the rough cloth of his fighting clothes. He pressed his face against them, letting his tears get dried off even though it scratched his sore face. Papa's hand smoothed slowly through Mako's hair, and then he kneeled down and hugged him.
"I wanna find her and Keiko too," Mako whispered into Papa's shoulder. His voice hurt. He tangled his fingers in the smooth black hair hanging down Papa's back, "and fix it."
"We know you want to help," Papa's deep voice was calmer now, his strong arms tight around Mako, as tight as Mako's around his neck, "Thank you, Makoto. But we would... feel better if we knew you were right here waiting for us."
Makoto squeezed his arms as hard as he could. He still hurt. His eyes burned, his throat felt like it had been scratched up on the inside, his chest was tight. He wished he'd stayed with Akemi. But Papa's hug warmed up the place inside that had been so cold all night.
He didn't want to let go at all, but he knew he had to because they were going to find Akemi now. He pulled back, holding onto his own shirt instead and let Papa stand up and take his bag.
"I think Tou-chan needs a hug too," he said. Papa made a sound almost like his normal quiet laugh.
"You may be right," he said, and squeezed Mako's shoulder. "Now, Pakkun went to tell Iruka-sensei to come over here. We... will try and be home soon."
Mako nodded, and then Papa was gone as fast as Tou-chan had disappeared. Mako stood for a while, and then sat down against the kitchen wall and shivered at the empty house.
Naruto hadn't thought it was possible to feel worse this night, but damned if his screaming at Mako hadn't done just that. Guilt thickened in his chest, and he only hoped Mako would understand when he apologized. It had been automatic, that raging denial. Makoto had to stay there because any other option now was horrifying.
He felt Neji catching up to him. "Thank you," he muttered, all he could manage, but he knew Neji had stayed back to repair his stupid outburst.
"He says you need a hug," Neji replied, and Naruto barked a laugh, a spark of humor penetrating his furious worry, and his guilt eased just slightly. Oh, how he loved that boy.
"He's right." They landed lightly on a roof at the edge of the village, and Neji stopped his next jump, turning him by one arm so they faced each other, staring and waiting. Naruto shook his head. "I scared him," he said, not trying to suppress the disgust at himself, "And I wanted to, I fucking want him to stay home for the rest of his life."
Neji put out a hand, cupping his jaw and touching one of the fangs just barely concealed under Naruto's upper lip with the tip of his thumb. Naruto could feel the red chakra humming inside him, knew his eyes were no longer blue. Neji traced back over the widened whisker marks and slid his hand to the nape of Naruto's neck, pulling him in for a short kiss, uncaring of the fangs, and then into a tight hug.
"So do I," he said.
Naruto let himself cling right back, holding on for dear life, for only a second, and then they separated and continued to the creek where Akemi had vanished.
"It's a chakra trick, folk jutsu. A variant of the one from the hamlet south of here." Kakashi had explained when they arrived, and Neji examined the fraying illusion closely. He could see why no one had noticed the tracks before. "It's all they have, but it's damned effective. Illusion, but incredibly robust. They could go right by anyone who didn't know exactly what to look for."
It was slowly dissolving now, revealing the tracks of the girls and two others, men by the weight of the impressions, and not ninja either, despite their little trick. They must have caught Keiko first, Neji realized, or Akemi would have been perfectly safe. She knew enough about hostage situations not to risk antagonizing them.
A frustratingly slow pursuit, dictated by the rate of decay of the illusion, took them deep into the forest. An hour in, there was a flicker, an echo of dearly familiar chakra, and Neji's head snapped up, scanning just as Naruto's did, and found the meager glow some distance ahead.
Naruto couldn't see what Neji could, but they both felt it. "Bunshin," Naruto said, and it was in view in a moment, the pool of chakra they'd both felt, a clone sitting among the roots of a tree by the river where, Neji was relatively certain, the tracks would vanish.
"Akemi," Naruto's voice broke slightly, strained at the sight of this shadow of their little girl.
The clone waited until they were close. It didn't move at all from its cross-legged position. It was maintained by a reserve of chakra sunk into the living tree it leaned against, but there wasn't much remaining.
Naruto landed, crouching on all fours, completely rigid, and Neji knew he'd had to stop himself from touching the fragile clone. It would dissolve at any contact, as it was designed to, but it was insubstantial anyway. Akemi could have made a solid one, but it would have taken far to much chakra to maintain for long.
Neji crouched next to Naruto, sliding a hand over the back of his neck. Shikamaru and Karin were immediately behind them.
"Reporting," the clone whispered. It looked at them, but didn't see them in particular, reciting what it would have told the first person to find it. "Two non-ninja, Avalanche mark. Poaching fadeleaf." Akemi was delivering information first, like she'd been taught. It was a hollow pride at the moment. "Walk river to forest border most likely. Uzumaki and Nara remain good status."
Naruto's neck tightened under Neji's hand as they watched the clone fade to smoke, Shikamaru sighed slightly. "Both," Karin said. "Thank you, Akemi-chan."
"You said we were going to leave them," the sunburned man stared at the ugly beard man in horror, and moved from where he'd finished tying both Akemi and Keiko to a stocky sapling and stood between them and his comrade. "They're just kids, come on."
Akemi had been watching the beard man the entire time. She had felt a fresh, and entirely expected, stab of twisting, angry fear when beard man had pulled out his knife again. She and Keiko had both been tied to a good, sturdy little tree. There was no hope of just breaking it, or the ropes, fast enough to get away if he tried to use it one them.
But her hands were still in front of her, and now Keiko was out of the hands of the enemy.
If they weren't going to simply leave, then... she tensed, and waited.
"Outta the way," the beard man snapped, and took a step forward, only to snarl angrily when the sunburned man didn't move.
"Stop, come on, man, we got what we wanted, it's worth plenty, we don't need to do this."
"They're from a ninja village, you dumbfuck, they will remember us," the beard man shoved at the sunburned man, as if to move him, but the sunburned man stood firm.
"I don't care, they're children," he protested again, "give me-" he grabbed for the knife, and the ugly man evaded him. He lunged again, and Akemi watched a combat encounter between two grown-ups with skills that she would have been ashamed of three years ago. It would have been funny if the sunburned man hadn't let out a horrible groan after a few lunges, and sunken to his knees, hands clutching at his side.
No more waiting.
"Kage-bunshin no jutsu!" Akemi forced her hands into the seals in record time, feeling her nails scratch her palms because of the rope bonds. Three clones appeared, solid as she. One stood over them in defensive stance as the other two attacked.
After the clumsy fight she'd just witnessed, much of Akemi's nervousness had gone. And with good reason. The beard man lunged inexpertly and caught a kick to the stomach, then a twist to his wrist. He dropped the knife with an incoherent curse, and one clone snatched it up while the other darted about him for the best attack point, vaulted over an arm convenient extended for a uselessly slow punch, and then landed a neat kick on his temple. He dropped like a sack of stones.
Akemi had the clone with the knife cut her bonds. She kept her concentration, maintaining the clones as her heart pounded. Would he wake? Would the other man die? The rope gave under the serrated blade and the loops slid away. Akemi took the knife herself, and all three clones arranged themselves in guard over the two men.
She wiped the sunburned man's blood off on her pant leg, and carefully slid the knife blade under Keiko's gag and cut it away. "Gimme your hands, Keiko, and stay still," she ordered. Keiko was staring at her adoringly, which felt weird, but at least she did exactly what Akemi asked, and the ropes were removed without any accidental scratches.
Keiko lunged to cling to her as soon as she was able. Akemi was panting still, and the hilt of the knife was digging painfully into her hand. The ugly beard man was still sprawled, unconscious, and Akemi had the clones bind his feet and hands-behind him-before she detached Keiko from her waist and approached the sunburned man, who was curled on his side, gasping, hands now coated with blood where they clutched his wound.
She squatted on her heels and peered at it. Real blood. Not the pretend stuff the teachers put in dummies for medical triage demonstrations, and not the little bit she'd seen on scrapes and cuts. Her stomach flip-flopped, but still, she remembered enough from class to know that this wasn't too much blood. The wound was in a bad place for infection, but he wasn't losing enough blood to worry, not enough to die soon, at least. She stood up again.
He stared up at her, face white with pain, while she held the knife to his throat and had the clones tie him up as well.
"'M sorry," he gasped, and she shrugged uncomfortably.
"You trespassed and you stole things, and they're gonna be mad. But you tried to stop him, so they won't punish you as much."
"You're a kid..." the man's eyes flickered downward to her hand on the hilt of the knife, "You're just a kid."
He was tied up now. Akemi left him there and moved back from them, letting Keiko clutch at her again, letting the clones dissolve. She felt cold as ice suddenly, and dizzy. She had to sit down. She dropped the knife. It was getting hard to hold onto because her hands were shaking. Keiko climbed onto her lap and wrapped herself around Akemi in a full-body hug. Akemi shivered and hugged her back.
She wanted to go home. It was warm, there was food, and Tou-chan and Papa and Mako. But she was too small to carry these prisoners. She had to... had to wait... for support...
She shook herself. Had to stay awake.
They all felt them well before they hit the treeline, and tension eased even as urgency mounted, and they moved faster.
Naruto was slightly ahead of them, and Neji could make out the shimmer of the fox-shape around him as he shot from tree to tree. No need to follow the slowly emerging tracks anymore, they were making for the girls in a straight line.
Past the trees the dark was just as oppressive, but the steady glow of Akemi and Keiko's chakra was like a beacon, and Neji had never been as grateful as now for the Byakugan's special sight.
And then they could all see them, barely outlined in the moonlight. Two trussed bodies and two little girls.
"Akemi!" Naruto bellowed, but she had already noticed them, was struggling to her feet, lifting Keiko, who seemed to have fallen asleep against her.
Naruto skidded to a halt, and Neji came to a more controlled stop next to him, but it was to Shikamaru and Karin that Akemi turned, while Kakashi and his dogs surrounded the two men nearby.
"She's... uninjured," Akemi spoke, voice monotone and halting with exhaustion, "she fell asleep."
Karin lifted her daughter from Akemi's small, dirty arms with aching care that trembled with the urge Neji knew each of them felt, to grab and hold tight and never let go.
Shikamaru dropped to one knee to look Akemi in the eye. "Thank you," he said solemnly, dark eyes bright with a wet shine.
Akemi nodded, and swayed slightly. Neji put a restraining hand on Naruto's arm when he jerked forward. Akemi wobbled and turned on her heel, "The injured one tried to stop the bearded one when he wanted to kill us," she raised her voice to carry to Kakashi.
"Hm," he grunted. "Alright. Retire, Akemi. You're clear."
Naruto sucked in a breath at Kakashi's field-debrief dismissal. Neji squeezed his arm.
Akemi turned and staggered again, and Neji let go of Naruto's arm. Naruto dropped to his knees in front of her and caught her face in both hands, thumbs stroking her dirty cheeks while he stared at her.
He let go with one hand, gently running it down her body, feeling bones and tendons for trauma, and Neji looked carefully as well, narrowing his eyes as he checked the finer chakra confluences. She really was physically fine, only worn out.
"Good girl," Naruto breathed when he was done, "my good girl."
Akemi bit her lip, her breath hitched and her face crumpled, and she started to cry. Naruto pulled her to him, kissing her hair, and then stood, gently handing her over to Neji in favour of his flak-jacketed chest. Neji embraced her shaking body, felt her arms snake around him in return, her cold skin a welcome shock against his neck.
"We're going home now," Neji said quietly. She continued to cry, long tired sobs that he sensed were coming only now that she could let them.
Makoto was fast asleep on the couch, cuddled against Iruka, who was not-really-watching television with the sound almost off. Neji nodded at him as he passed, Akemi dozing fitfully in his arms. He went on down the hall to the bathroom to wash the grime off her. Naruto leaned heavily on the wall for a moment, meeting Iruka's smile of relief with one of his own. "Thanks for staying with him."
"It was no trouble at all," Iruka replied quietly, gently patting Makoto's head, where it lay pillowed on his thigh. "How is she?"
Naruto shook his head in renewed exasperated awe. "Not a scratch. She knocked them out when she got the chance, tied'em up, and then waited for us to find her."
Iruka's eyebrows rose slightly and he nodded, "sounds like she'll make an excellent ninja," he said.
They shared a look of mutual understanding, one that had come every so often as Iruka watched Naruto learn how it felt to watch ninja children grow up.
Iruka looked down after a few seconds, and Naruto saw Makoto squirm a little under Iruka's arm, then look up. "Tou-chan?" he asked scratchily.
"She's home now, Mako," Naruto said, feeling the rush of knee-weakening relief again. He moved over to the couch and crouched down by his son, ruffling his hair. "I'm sorry I yelled at you before." He'd be carrying that disgusted guilt for some time.
"It's alright," Makoto said sleepily. He reached out one hand and touched Naruto's cheeks, smoothing over the marks. "But I'm glad the fox went away."
"Me too." Makoto reached around his neck and Naruto hugged him, but only for a moment, before Makoto pulled back and knelt up on the couch, peering past Iruka out into the hall.
"I wanna see Akemi," he said.
"Give her and Papa a few minutes. She's just having a bath. And then everyone is going to bed," he added. It was well past three in the morning now.
"I'll have them excused from classes tomorrow," Iruka offered. Naruto nodded. "See how Akemi feels, though, if she wants to come to her afternoon classes, let her."
Naruto nodded again.
"Alright, I'll see you soon, Mako," Iruka squeezed his shoulder and stood up. "Time for my bed too."
After he'd gone, Naruto filled a request for Mako for some juice, and then they settled back down in front of the television. Makoto kept falling asleep and twitching himself awake.
Naruto gently shook him awake after he'd gone under again when he heard the bathroom door open. "Let's go see Akemi," he said. From the sound of it, she and Neji were going to the kitchen,
Makoto seemed suddenly shy, half hiding behind Naruto as they met Neji and Akemi in the kitchen. "Hi," he said. She sat at her usual place, leaning sleepily on her arms while Neji started pulling leftovers out.
"Hi," she answered. "I did the kage-bunshin and knocked out a guy."
"Really?" Makoto's hands tightened in surprise where they were clinging to Naruto's shirt, then he let go and sat down as well.
"Yeah. Made three, and they were good ones." They regarded each other for awhile.
Naruto joined Neji at the counter, leaning into him slightly, and took one of the containers, scooping the long-forgotten stir-fry into bowls for warming.
"Were you scared?" Mako asked under his breath.
There was silence for a little while, and then Akemi murmured, "a bit."
"I'm sorry," Mako whispered in a rush. Naruto glanced over his shoulder to see Mako rigid in his chair, hands clutching stiffly at the seat edge between his knees.
Akemi shrugged, looking at her brother with an expression of concern. "It's okay."
That seemed to be enough. Makoto relaxed and fidgeted idly on the table. They were both silent, and very tired. When they were served, they ate quietly. Makoto only picking at it, but looking comforted, Akemi hungrily.
When Naruto mentioned them staying home from school tomorrow, Akemi shook her head. "I'm going."
Naruto nodded. There was an awareness and resolve in her eyes and her voice that made Naruto's stomach clench with muddled sadness and pride. She'd gone from seeing training as simply exercises to truly comprehending it's purpose-a way to learn how to fight and kill people. All academy students gained that understanding eventually... but he'd hoped to avoid seeing it from his own children for a while longer.
They'd found Akemi, and she seemed the stronger for her ordeal. But she'd lost part of her innocence in exchange.
Akemi got free of the crowd that had been demanding another retelling of her fight with the poachers by excusing herself to the bathroom and then going through the halls to the other end of the building to exit onto the empty throwing range.
Makoto and Hizashi had both left her alone, Makoto because he knew she was tired of talking, and Hizashi out of guilt, but everyone else wanted to hear her explain what happened again and again. It had been great the first few times, but now it was just annoying. She hadn't done that much. The bad men had both been worthless fighters, and with the fun wearing off the storytelling, the memory of all the rest was coming back instead.
How she'd been slow and useless for hours. She should be better than that. She had to have faster reflexes and learn better tactics. She'd never get Tou-chan's monster fox power, or Papa's special eyes. It didn't work that way in their family. She and Makoto only had what was inside them already.
Shuriken and kunai were stored in a weatherproof locker outside the door, and she performed the unlocking symbols for the section assigned to her class and pulled out a rack of kunai. There was a kind of practice she'd heard about that would make her react quicker.
She took two kunai from the rack, and chose two nearby targets that were next to each other. They were both only ten feet away, and she could throw much farther than that, but not this way, not yet.
She squinted at the targets, threw the first, and launched the second one almost immediately.
There was a faint "cling!" sound as the second kunai struck the first.
One sank point-first into the dirt in front of its target, the other went end over end past its intended mark.
Akemi narrowed her eyes, and grabbed two more. She had time until class started again. She wasn't going to waste it.