Morning || Land of Fire: Konohagakure
A year had passed since he'd urged the genin to seek out tutors in their specific areas. They'd improved far beyond his expectations and when they did a mission here or there, it was nice to see how much they'd grown. This was what he loved about being a sensei, but it also made him weary. Soon enough his students wouldn't need him anymore and he wasn't sure he was ready for that. He wouldn't be there to protect them. His own team had changed considerably since his genin days. He'd lost his sensei and nearly one of his teammates. Minoru didn't want that to happen to them.
After some deliberation with Azumi, they'd come to the conclusion that they needed to get a picture of his team. Now would be the best time. In another six months they'd be approaching the application submission date for the Chunin Exams. He had faith in his kids that they'd make it through. If not there was always next year. It was barely even spring; snow was still on the ground but the beginnings of buds formed on the trees and new shoots of grass were trying to push their way up through the snow.
The sound of snow crunching from behind him caught his attention and he turned towards the sound. They were meeting at their usual spot not too far from the training grounds. Minoru had to look down in order to look at Koharu as she approached. While the kids were almost fourteen, she was still as short as she had been when he first met her. He'd asked them to dress nicely for this, as it was a special occasion. Koharu was dressed in a white long sleeve shirt with her clan symbol on the back and the hem of her sleeves was the same bright blue as her clan symbol. Her pants were much the same as they always were--basic black and slightly baggy. The sash around her hips matched the hem of her shirt and clan symbol and he was unsurprised to see her sword hanging from it.
He pat her head gently, fixing a stray lock of pale hair. "Was that necessary?" She asked with a hint of amusement lacing her words and expression. Koharu untied her braids and fixed her hair.
"Sorry. We're just waiting for the other two. Where's your shawl?"
"Home. It's warming up."With her training the use of her ice came easier and with it was a growing tolerance for the cold. She wasn't immune, no one in her clan was, but they got used to the feeling of cold when they could create ice.
Kazuhiko arrived just a few minutes early, and though he was unsurprised to find both his sensei and one of his teammates already there, he felt a twinge of guilt for not leaving earlier. While he’d been ready to leave a few minutes earlier than he did, his mother had elected to stop him, fussing over the collar of his black vest and the cuffs of the grey long sleeve he wore inside. As always, Kazuhiko had grown during the past year, and though he still fit his everyday clothes reasonably well, his mother had insisted on having new formal clothes tailored.
“The future heir deserves the best, ought to look his best,” she’d chided when he voiced his doubt, and just like that, the argument ended.
His new formal clothes weren’t so different from his old ones; all the key pieces were in place, from the Taketori symbol on the back of the vest to the small detailing trailing down the sleeves. The only real difference was that this set was slightly looser on him, held together by the belt that looped around his black pants into which his shirt was tucked. It was this slight upsizing that had prompted his mother’s fussing in the morning, but when asked, she’d merely smiled at him, patting his shoulder. “It’s in case you grow more next year,” she’d said, “so please do.”
“Good morning, Minoru-sensei, Koharu,” Kazuhiko said as he joined the pair in the snow. It was a bit chilly out, he noted, and both he and Minoru were more bundled up than Koharu was, which was more interesting than surprising. As a member of a clan from the Land of the Snow, Koharu had often talked about her memories of her previous village, which had always interested Kazuhiko. Despite the superiority that Konoha was often regarded with by his clan, none of the other villages seemed too different, if not a bit more adapted to their surroundings.
“I’m coming!” came a lively shout that Kazuhiko had come to associate with Natsuko, who dashed over, her feet crunching through the melting snow.
“Good morning, did you miss me?” she asked with a grin, looking between Kazuhiko and Koharu. “Ohh, Kazu-kun, you got taller again. Hmph, I thought the bit I grew would finally shine, but no, you had to go and grow again, huh,” she said as she stood beside him, tracing the distance between the top of her head and the top of his. “And you grew more than me too? What a surprise.”
Her dry smile hooked upwards again as she hopped through the snow to stand beside Koharu, her hand tracing her height to a hover over the pale-haired girl. “Hey, at least Haru-chan didn’t outgrow me too. Wait, did you grow at all, Haru-chan?” she asked, tracing her teammate’s lack of height again. “I feel like... you were this tall before...”
Looking back at Kazuhiko, she grinned, hopping over to his other side. “Kazu-kun, stand over here,” she said, giving him a shove that took him by enough surprise to send him stumbling so that he stood beside Koharu, “so that I can see better. And, yep, yep, the height difference is even bigger now.” She shook her head, sighing dramatically. “You two are going to end up with giants and midgets when you have kids.”
“W-what?” Kazuhiko managed, eyes wide, but Natsuko was already onto the next thing.
“Minoru-sensei, where are we taking the photos?” she asked, flourishing the silky purple blouse she wore. “I stole this thing from my sister’s closet just for the picture, so we better be taking it.”
She giggled, patting down her sleeves, around which her clan symbol was repeated in a near-white band. “As long I return it before tonight, she won’t know a thing,” she said, winking at Koharu.
Minoru didn't know what to do beyond hide his grin and bubbling laughter behind his fist. Koharu had been glaring at Natsuko when the girl brought up her lack of height. It was obvious that the girl wouldn't ever reach the heights of her teammates. Koharu focused her glare on him, and he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. She had improved the glare over the past year and he felt sorry for anyone else trapped under it. "I grew a half inch!" Koharu said, stomping her foot impatiently. Her growth hadn't been that noticeable, and was made even more apparent when Kazuhiko had been shoved in her direction.
Seeing them side by side made Minoru give a hearty laugh that had him clutching his stomach. His head was tossed back and tears had formed in the corners of his eyes. He didn't comment on her teasing because he knew it would be an insult to injury. He had just laughed at them after all. "By the river-" His words were cut short by Koharu throwing a snowball at him. It hit him in the center of his chest and he looked down at the snow clinging to his clothes before he looked at the girl who had thrown it. Her cheeks were a brilliant shade of red but she was glaring at him. Minoru didn't know that the red on her cheeks was caused more from Natsuko's comment than from his laughing at them.
She didn't think that the girl knew that anything between them would be complicated by the fact that they were both heirs, although society seemed to always favor the women as giving up their positions because they could marry into clans a bit easier than men could. When Minoru turned to lead them away (and so Koharu wouldn't throw another snowball at him) the girl took the opportunity to look up at the boy next to her. He'd grown a lot but she was used to craning her neck to look at him. Her green-gray eyes crinkled at the corners and a small mischievous grin came to her lips. She didn't tease as often as Natsuko did, but she wasn't always stoic.
"If those kids are as cute as you, I wouldn't mind if they were tall or short." Koharu followed after Minoru after that, a little unsure if she crossed a line with that teasing or not. She wasn't Natsuko. And besides she wasn't entirely sure about how she felt about the boy. Koharu enjoyed his company, as she did Natsuko's, but it made her palms sweat when he'd help her when they were up high but she didn't know if that was because she was afraid of heights or because of him. It was fun to see him caught off guard though.
The pale haired girl walked beside Natsuko, hands clasped together. "I like your blouse. It's pretty." Koharu said lamely. Even after all this time she was still a little awkward. "You two have grown a lot this year. I'm just maybe a little jealous."
Minoru led his team to the river, right where there was a small bridge that connected the two sides. It had been around when he was a kid, although he hadn't grown up in Konoha, he had come with his family on occasion. Minoru didn't know who built it but he assumed it was used for training as it was along the border of the training grounds and the start of some residential buildings. The photographer was already there with their camera set on a tripod.
"Okay, kids, who should stand where?" The most obvious choice was Koharu in the middle because she was the shortest and they could all bend to her height. Or perhaps they could have Kazuhiko be in the middle. He could always kneel.
“Thanks, Haru-chan,” Natsuko said with a grin. “Our sleeves match. Sorta,” she said, shrugging as they followed behind Minoru. When they arrived, she looked around, perking up as Minoru asked his question.
“I call middle!” she yelled, bounding through the snow to position herself in the middle of the bridge. When she arrived at the spot, she struck a pose, her hands forming a wide ‘V’. “Ta-da!”
From beside the photographer, her team looked at her with varying shades of amusement and exasperation. Kazuhiko, who looked like he was recovering from being a bit shocked, for some reason, flicked his eyes over before stepping forward.
“Minoru-sensei, maybe you and I can stand on the edges, and then Koharu and me after,” he suggested.
“That’d be good. Makes the middle people look taller, and frames the picture nicely,” the photographer said from where he was setting up the camera.
Natsuko pulled a face. At Kazuhiko’s pointed look, she sighed, rolling her eyes. “Fine, be that way.”
The team took their places, and the photographer finished his last minute adjustments on his camera. “One, two, three, say ‘Chunin,’” he said.
The photographer took quite a few portrait shots: one of the team, one without Minoru, individual portraits, and a few informal shots on the behest of Natsuko, who’d wanted a few ‘fun’ ones. As Kazuhiko quickly found out, this was a set-up to get him and Koharu a ‘couple shot,’ with Natsuko dispelling her clone on the count of three. Improving her skills seemed to have given her more tools to work with when it came to her antics, and Kazuhiko wasn’t sure how he felt about that. On one hand, he was happy that she was getting better, and it was clear that it’d helped her smooth out her confidence, which was geared only towards non-jutsu-related things before. On the other, she now had a whole repertoire of options in terms of her plots, and Kazuhiko wasn’t looking forward to seeing what she could come up with chunin and jonin-level skills, if she ever decided to invest the time and learn those.
Thinking of shinobi ranks and the future reminded Kazuhiko of the countdown until Team Six would informally disband. He’d heard many a story of how teammates grew apart after passing the exams, and as much as he wanted his team to be the outlying statistic in this case, there were statistics and sayings for a reason. Whether or not they’d pass the exam was a non-issue; he and Koharu were among the strongest in their year, and as presumptuous as that thought was, he had full confidence that Natsuko would manage to pass with them, even if that meant just scraping by. She was working on her skills, for once, and in a way Kazuhiko was forced to reevaluate his opinion of her as the team’s slacking prankster. In a way, he was surprised he hadn’t realized her potential sooner: The intensity with with she tackled her training was the same as the focus and creativity she used to devise her various antics. A simple change in application would make all the difference, and he had to wonder what kind of shinobi she would go on to be if she applied herself.
On the other hand, he understood Koharu fairly well. As a fellow heir, she was like him: The prisitine face of their clan, who was expected to be close to perfect and the strongest they could be. Mistakes would be tolerated but not accepted, and pressure and expectations were always nipping at their heels. Was this shared experience why they got along well, then? Was it why he felt closer to her, felt like he could confide more in her?
As the team walked towards Minoru’s, Kazuhiko looked down at Koharu, who was chatting with Natsuko about the local going-ons. Natsuko easily commanded the conversation, but Koharu wasn’t as quiet as she’d been at one point in his memory. Where he remembered her being steamrolled by Natsuko in the past, she now held her ground, even shooting Natsuko glares when they butted heads. She was changing—for the better. And Kazuhiko admired that.
Minoru's house had not changed much aside from the addition of toys and little sandals by the front door. The yard now had a fence to keep in Kazuha, who was walking now. Azumi and their daughter were outside playing in the snow. Kazuha was bundled up more so than Azumi. The little girl had difficulty in bending due to all the layers she was wearing. Her little nose was red and running. "Say 'hi' to everyone!" Azumi said to the girl, smiling when Kazuha offered a clumsy wave. The little girl looked a lot like her mother although the shape of her eyes and nose were Minoru's features.
Kazuha stumbled towards them, almost as if she was racing towards them as she pulled her mother along. Koharu smiled and squatted down with her arms outstretched towards the child. Kazuha let go of Azumi's fingers and launched herself into Koharu's arms. The genin missed the surprised expression of her sensei and his wife. That had been the first steps Kazuha had taken unassisted and she hadn't fallen. The little girl in her arms was smiling widely, pale violet eyes locking to hers. Kazuha loved the genin, as she always got excited to see them, but Koharu knew that she and Natsuko couldn't compete with Kazuhiko.
She scooped the child up and took her to them.
"How are you feeling, Azumi-san?"
"Fine. Just pains that I'm used to!" The woman smiled as she came to stand with the group. She was pregnant again (something that Koharu had glared at her sensei for) and at just a few months she wasn't really showing all that much. Azumi looped an arm around the pale haired girl once she passed Kazuha off to Natsuko. "How'd the pictures go?"
"Good. I can't wait to see them." Koharu really was excited to have a photo of her friends and sensei. She hoped that they'd all stay in touch when they got older. Koharu intended to keep her promise to her teammates after all. When Kazuha was finally given to Minoru, Azumi took the opportunity to hug the other two genin. She held Natsuko tightly, asking her softly if she had behaved. Minoru was lax when it came to scolding the girl for teasing her teammates, although there had been a few times when Azumi had seen the teasing returned.
Natsuko was a special case. Where her team had parents that were involved in their lives, Natsuko did not. Minoru and her had decided to give Natsuko some stability and guidance that her parents might have overlooked.
"Don't tease them too much, okay? You don't need them to snap at you." Undoubtedly, the slight changes within the other two genin had been cultivated by the girl, even if she didn't know it. Azumi pressed a kiss to Natsuko's temple before letting her go. She hugged Kazuhiko next. It was a shame that he was already taller than Azumi.
When she had hugged everyone, the Hyuuga woman ushered them inside for some hot tea. "I can't believe that you let Koharu go without a coat!" Azumi wasn't happy at seeing the girl in just normal clothes. "She could catch a cold, Minoru!" The jonin was wondering what his chances would be if he ran away from the scolding.
"She said that she wasn't cold!"
"She's a tiny girl! She's probably freezing right now!"
Meanwhile, Koharu and the others were in the living room. Kazuha was playing on the floor with a few blocks. Koharu heard the scolding going on in the kitchen and it made her frown. She wasn't that cold…right? She looked at her hands curiously before looking up at her teammates. "I don't think she realizes that I'm fine…see." Koharu reached out and patted both of her teammates with her cold hands. Too bad that she misjudged how cold her hands really were.
Hearing that Azumi was pregnant again was a bit strange, considering that she’d only just given birth and stopped being pregnant. Natsuko didn’t really know what to think of the whole situation. On one hand, she was happy that everyone else was happy; on the other, Azumi didn’t exactly look comfortable pregnant, and Natsuko had to wonder about her place in the world briefly. Her own mother had started having children younger than Azumi, and though Natsuko had never thought much of it, seeing Azumi go through her pregnancy made Natsuko realize how many years her mother must have spent pregnant. Five—that was longer than she’d been a genin, and perhaps even longer than it’d take her to achieve chunin rank. With five siblings, there was never enough attention and time to go around, and someone was always sidelined. Azumi, though, was only having her second child, so Natsuko figured there was nothing to worry about. Kinda. She’d talked to Koharu about it, who’d convinced her that Minoru was to blame for the whole situation, which was why she’d done her best to mirror Koharu’s glare when her teammate shot one at their sensei.
“Pictures went great!” Natsuko said, hugging Azumi back gently, afraid to make whatever pain the woman was talking about worse. At Azumi’s question, though, she grinned, giggling. “Not too much! Just had a teensy bit of fun.”
After the greeting and hugging finished, Natsuko bouncing between her heels and toes impatiently, waiting to get out of the cold since the coat she wore over her blouse was more for appearances than it was warmth, Azumi herded them into the cozy warmth inside. Natsuko quickly claimed a spot on the ‘best’ couch, sinking into the soft cushions with a contented sigh. One day, she’d buy herself a couch just as soft.
Azumi and Minoru started talking in the kitchen, Azumi’s tone chiding towards a sensei Natsuko could only assume deserved it. Natsuko, though, was busy staring at Kazuha, who was amusing herself with some differently-shaped blocks that Natsuko was amazed could entertain anyone. But, then again, she herself had been endlessly entertained with a hand-me-down toy tea set from one of her older sisters, so maybe it wasn’t too strange after all.
Koharu distracted her by starting on about her hands, which Natsuko knew were never warm. What she didn’t know, though, were that they’d literally turned into ice cubes.
With a high-pitched squeak, Natsuko flinched away from her teammate’s cold touch. On the couch across from her, Kazuhiko stiffened dramatically, suddenly shooting stick straight.
“Yeesh, Haru-chan. Just ‘cuz you don’t feel it doesn’t mean you’re not cold,” Natsuko said, shaking her hand out. “Must be nice never getting cold.”
“It’s an adaptation. Just like how you’ve gotten used to yelling while you practice your wind jutsu and I’m able to handle my electricity for short amounts of time, and at low voltages,” Kazuhiko said, rubbing his hand. “Do you really not get cold though, Koharu?”
"I do...it just takes a while. We can still get frostbite too. But that's why a lot of the adults wear gloves." She said, looking between her teammates. Koharu wasn't yet to the level that she needed to wear gloves but in a few years she probably would adopt gloves into her clothing. Some of the adults, like her dad, didn't wear gloves. It was more preference than anything else. "I'm still learning to control it." It would get better with age, or so she was told. Truthfully because she was the heir there was more pressure placed on her to advance her skills rapidly compared to the other members of her clans. Her brothers, although not heirs themselves, had been in similar positions. Koharu folded her hands into her lap and looked at the far wall, just a little bit nervous that someone (namely Azumi) would come to wrap her up in a multitude of blankets.
"Tell me more about how your training has gone?" They only told each other so much, and she was curious about the amount of training each of them had done. She lived with her 'new' teacher so she felt as if every waking moment at home was spent training. There were several new callouses to prove it. Thankfully the blisters had healed. The bandages always were a pain to deal with. Her father was a harsh teacher but she enjoyed the lessons. Osamu was a man who didn't show much, and in that regard Kazuhiko reminded her of him greatly, but training was their bonding time.
In the kitchen the two adults had abandoned their bickering in favor of watching the genin. They poked their heads out from the kitchen, watching them all. They'd seen Koharu press her hand to those of her teammates and their reactions. The look of shock that came over all three of their faces had been priceless. As the conversation drifted towards training, Azumi spoke. "She seems to compare her training to theirs a lot, doesn't she?"
"Is she trying to compete with Kazuhiko?" Azumi didn't see any signs of competition between them but they were both reserved enough to hide a lot. (As she knew from experience.)
[Color=darkgray]"I don't think so. Those two can go toe to toe. Their practice sparring matches last a long time. I usually take a nap-"
Minoru rubbed the spot on his head from where she'd smacked him. "You let them fight unsupervised? Their both heirs, Minoru. If they get hurt-"
"Kazuhiko is protective over the girls. He won't hurt them, and Koharu doesn't use her real sword when practicing with them." He'd been curious when she'd brought a practice sword, one lacking a dull edge and made of bamboo instead of metal. It still hurt when hit by it though.
“Same old same old,” Natsuko said, waving a hand. “Minoru said I’m finally close to mastering all the basics, thank god. I’m probably close to going to find a tutor to start getting special treatment like you two.”
Across from her, Kazuhiko seemed to still be in thought, his eyes on Koharu’s hands. Then, noticing Natsuko’s amused stare, he glanced away briefly, then back to her and Koharu. In one word? Absolutely adorable.
“I’m still working with Atomu, the clan tutor I told you about. He’s been training me on my sensaigan, mostly on basics right now,” Kazuhiko said, shooting a pointed glance at Natsuko as he spoke. “It’s a lot more training instincts and habits to lay the right foundation for future jutsu, and for speed, since that’s a big part of using sensaigan in battle.”
Natsuko pulled a face at Kazuhiko’s words, sticking her tongue out at him. As usual, the oh-so-cool genin ignored her, forcing her to listen along as he continued or risk being left out of the conversation, which Natsuko absolutely hated. Sure she probably had better things to do than listen to Kazuhiko drone on and on about his tutoring sessions, about which bunches of nerves connected to which bunches of muscle and all that, as interesting as it didn’t sound. Okay, so, she probably could have listened to that part, but the current part about how foot placement and arm placement was important? She could do without that. Minoru had already covered all she needed and wanted to know about posture, and she wasn’t about to listen to Kazuhiko become a more drab and dry version of her favorite sensei.
“But yeah, nothing too exciting, yet,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “I’m also still trying and failing to get Hidemi, our dojo master, to tutor me. He’s the strongest in our clan, or so everybody has said since forever. I mean, he’s older now, and I don’t think he’s been out on a mission in years, and,” he sighed, looking between Koharu and Natsuko, “he’s pretty against the idea of tutoring me.”
“Oh! This is the geezer who called you ‘boring,’ right?” Natsuko asked, grinning. Kazuhiko winced, nodding, but she was on a roll. “Hah! I love it! I need to meet him sometime—he sounds fun! Or boring. Probably boring, huh, since he’s a tutor and all that? And he doesn’t go on missions? What does he do all day then?”
Kazuhiko was silent for a moment, and Natsuko could almost imagine the gears in his head, winding and grinding as they hit the snag of—“I, well,” he started, shaking his head, “I don’t know.”
“Oh, wow, Kazuhiko doesn’t know? Must be a real mystery then. Unsolvable, even,” Natsuko said, clasping her forehead with a hand. “Whatever will we do? He called our local genius, Kazu-kun, boring!”
Kazuhiko shot her a very unamused look, and after a moment of internal gloating—because, hah, take that, how do you like a taste of your own medicine you broody string bean—Natsuko had to admit that she’d kinda overplayed the joke. Saying her boring team member was boring was only funny for so long.
“So, Haru-chan, how’s training been for you?” Natsuko asked.
As she did, Kazuha seemed to have noticed Kazuhiko, approaching him with a block in hand. Surprisingly or not, Kazuhiko attracted everyone under the age of ‘coherent’ to him for some reason. Babies loved him. Now, Natsuko wasn’t saying that she’d want babies approaching her all the time, but she at least wanted to know what it was about her gangly teammate that drew the blubbering masses to him like flies. Was it that he was tall and reminded them of their parents? Or was it that he was often in dark colors?
“Another baby down for the count,” she muttered, watching as Kazuhiko struggled to get Kazuha to stack her blocks on the coffee table. Pointing, gesturing, and inventing new forms of communication when words failed—what was fun about that? No idea, because Natsuko had never had to try.
Green-gray eyes crinkled in the corners as she watched her teammate and Kazuha. "My training is fine. My father is harsh and more often than not I've got bruises and open blisters on my palms but it's...amazing. Sounds odd, right, that I'm praising such harsh training...but my clan has passed down these techniques for generations and I'm finally learning them like my ancestors did." Koharu didn't outwardly show much of her enthusiasm for the subject aside from the way she clenched her hands together to stifle the desire to show off. Koharu didn't know if her teammates or even their sensei understood how harsh her training really was or how proud she was to have learned such techniques.
"Babies always like the awkward ones." She teased Kazuhiko. It was adorable how attached Kazuha was to him. "Play peek-a-boo with her, Kazu-kun. You look like you're scared of the blocks." Koharu leaned back on her palms in a rare display of carelessness. At home she was expected to be proper but here she knew that they didn't care about that. The habit was hard to break though so more often than not Koharu was often sitting in rigid postures that were pretty uncomfortable.
"They've grown so much." Azumi said, although it didn't need to be said. It just wasn't that they had grown physically, all of them seemed a little more sure about themselves and their abilities. Even Natsuko did. She'd often listen to her husband talk about the improvements the genin was making. Seeing the change in the other two was just a bit harder. They'd always been above Natsuko in skill but now she was starting to catch up. "I wonder how they'll be as adults." She crossed her arms, smiling as she watched Kazuha trying to get Kazuhiko to stack her blocks with her.
She glanced at her husband, finding him preoccupied with his thoughts. "Minoru?"
"Are you okay?"
He nodded. The man had simply been thinking of how his team was almost ready to take the exams. They were getting closer each month. He wouldn't hold them back but he didn't want to let them go. Minoru took his wife's hand and led her into the living room.
Koharu looked up at them with an easy smile on her face. Azumi let go of her husband's hand and grabbed a blanket off the back of the couch. She draped it over the pale haired girl and kissed her on the temple. "You need to get warm." Azumi said, finding the way the girl's cheeks flared red to be adorable.
Minoru chuckled at the display. He knew the girl wouldn't argue with his wife over needing to get warm.
"Yes Azumi-san." She looked at her teammates for help.
That Koharu’s uncle was strict wasn’t surprisingly. From what Kazuhiko recalled of the gruff-voiced man, Osamu was proud and stoic—as clan heads tended to be. Though some mellowed out when not actively performing clan duties, but Osamu clearly fell into the group that didn’t, the group that lived and breathed their leadership because it was as much a part of them as it was their responsibility. Kazuhiko could only hope he’d be as consistent as Osamu when the time came.
At Koharu’s comment, Kazuhiko’s eyes widened. She was… teasing him. She was just teasing him. And offering him advice. Good advice. He’d take it.
“Okay,” he said, nodding and turning to face Kazuha head-on. The little girl’s eyes were bright as they darted between everything close to her, and she wielded a block in each hand, a third on the table. Kazuhiko took a breath, then covered his eyes with both hands. Next… “Peekaboo,” he said, opening his hands to either side like a pair of double doors.
The motion caught Kazuha’s attention, and she zeroed in on him, pausing. He repeated the action, his ‘peekaboo’ pitching up slightly this time. Kazuha smiled, uttering a happy-sounding cry, and Kazuhiko repeated the motion again. Each time he did, Kazuha seemed to go through the same moment of happiness, as if discovering that his eyes being uncovered was the greatest thing she’d seen. Her raw enthusiasm was touching, and he felt his heart warm as she continued bouncing between surprise and delight.
“How does she not get bored of this?” Natsuko asked, brows knit. Kazuhiko chose to ignore her comment in favor of Kazuha, who was now raising the blocks she held at Kazuhiko, mumbling incoherent noises.
“Yeah? Blocks?” he asked, putting his hands out. Instead of giving him the blocks, though, Kazuha walked towards him, falling into his hands and forcing him to catch her. When she didn’t make any move to stand again, he got the hint, hefting her up onto his lap.
“There,” he said, exhaling as Kazuha clapped her blocks together excitedly from her new vantage point. “Thanks, Koharu,” he said, flashing the girl a grateful smile.
At this point, Azumi arrived with a blanket for Koharu, who looked to him and Natsuko with pleading eyes.
“Ah, Azumi-san, I think Koharu managed to warm up already,” Kazuhiko said, looking to Azumi. On his lap, Kazuha noticed her mother, reaching out for her mother with her blocks.
“Yeah, but I’m still a bit chilly, so I’m just gonna,” Natsuko said, lifting the blanket from Koharu and swinging it around so that it wrapped around her instead. “Ah, yep, nice and toasty. This is what I needed.”
Seeing Kazuhiko playing with Kazuha had made the older man smile. It was nice to see the boy be something other than serious for a change. Minoru hid his laughter behind his fist when Kazuhiko pitched his voice. He didn't know just how they'd gotten Kazuhiko to do that. It was unlikely that Natsuko had pushed him to play peekaboo. That only left Koharu. Minoru wondered if she'd simply offered the advice on how to entertain the child. That's what he got for spacing out and thinking how they'd not be his kids soon enough. They'd still be his kids but they wouldn't need him anymore.
"Well Kazuha is a year old. They like anything at that age." He told Natsuko, choosing a spot next to her on the couch. As Kazuha was passed off to her mother, he watched the other two genin and he'd noticed something interesting, and definitely something heartwarming. As Kazuhiko thanked Koharu, he'd noticed that the girl's cheeks turned a faint shade of pink. Minoru didn't draw attention to that, simply because he knew that the girl would probably freeze the floor and his wife would blame him for it.
"You're welcome." Her attention was snagged by Natsuko taking the blanket and she was grateful for the distraction. Koharu knew that they could see her cheeks coloring. She didn't know why but his smile had set her heart picking up its pace and blood rushing into her cheeks. Maybe it was because he didn't smile much at all. Yeah, that was definitely why she'd blushed. "Wear a thicker jacket, Susu." Koharu said, watching the other girl wrap herself with the blanket. Koharu wondered why the girl has chosen a thin jacket despite the cold. While her words were blunt, it didn't mask the fact that she did care about Natsuko's health. Koharu had a higher tolerance for the cold but none of her teammates did.
As things grew comfortable, Azumi laid her daughter down for a nap and when she got back she'd taken the girls into the kitchen so they could help her cook. Azumi pointed out that they'd need to cook for their families one day.
Koharu made a face at that. While she wanted a family one day she didn't know when that would happen. Her clan would want a marriage that brings an advantage, they just had to wait for her to get older. Despite her age, it had been something brought up a few times already at clan meetings. Her dad was really good at making everyone shut up about marriage at those clan meetings.
Minoru was sitting quietly with Kazuhiko, looking a tad bit uncomfortable for some reason. "Kazuhiko...you're getting to that age when you're probably starting to notice girls…" He was uncomfortable with this but he felt it was necessary; Kazuhiko was growing up and he was on the same team as two girls. "Or other boys, if that's more your preference...and that's fine! You just need to be safe with anyone that you-."
From the kitchen he could see a head of pale hair sticking out of the doorway. "That's not something that you discuss in a living room with three girls in the next room, sensei." Koharu said, giving her teammate a look of sympathy. Ouch this was a painful talk. "And you're probably the last person to give this kind of talk anyway. You can't talk about being safe when you've knocked your wife up twice already."
The glare that she was giving made him freeze up. Koharu disappeared back into the kitchen with poorly concealed giggles once she was hidden behind the wall. A yelp a short time later let Minoru know that Koharu hadn't escaped the wrath of his wife.
Koharu’s cheeks colored at his comment—or did he imagine it? Were her cheeks always vaguely pink? It could have been the cold—he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t. Koharu didn’t get cold, said she wasn’t cold, but they’d been outside in the snow earlier. It was probably that, then.
“I will, when we’re not taking pictures,” Natsuko said, sticking her tongue out at Koharu when the girl responded. Kazuhiko didn’t really know what to make of the comment; looking your best was important, he figured, but so was staying healthy. Personally, he valued comfort more than appearances, though both were taken care of by his mother and the tailor she’d hired. Where he’d gotten his clothes personally made for him, Natsuko had filched something from her sister’s closet. The subtle differences between their lives astounded him at times, and as much as he knew it was unfair that he got better treatment as the clan heir, he also understood it. He’d want every clan heir—Koharu, Mariko, or his own in the future—to get every opportunity that could be afforded to them. They were key to the success of their clan, and as uncomfortable as the thought was, they needed special treatment.
“But,” Natsuko continued, a mischievous grin spreading across her face, “say, Haru-chan, is it just me or are you blushing?”
What happened next, Kazuhiko felt that Natsuko deserved it. A little ice here and there never hurt, especially when his most cheeky teammate was concerned. After he helped Azumi lay Kazuha down for a nap, his teammates went to the kitchen, and Minoru called him over to the couch. He waited expectantly as his sensei sat in silence, wondering what Minoru wanted to say.
"Kazuhiko...you're getting to that age when you're probably starting to notice girls…"
Kazuhiko froze, eyes wide. What—what was this first sentence? He’d heard from boys on other teams of the dreaded ‘talk,’ but it seemed that parents usually handled it. When their team leaders did, it always seemed to be in jest, as a passing comment in case they needed a reminder or a jibe. But Minoru was doing it here, now, in his home and with Kazuhiko’s teammates in the next room over. If Kazuhiko was one to jump up and change the topic, he would, but instead he sat there in shocked awe.
A voice from the kitchen doorway interrupted Minoru, and Kazuhiko was horrified to see Koharu peeking out at them, an amused smile on her face. Of all people, her? She was the most attentive, yes, and the one who’d tease him the least, maybe, depending on how confident she was and how much Natsuko had rubbed off on her, but why her?
“What? What is it?” Natsuko asked, poking her head out as well. Her eyes darted between Minoru and himself, a grin forming on her face as she connected the dots. Kazuhiko could literally see the cogs turning in her head as she worked out each piece of the puzzle, and he was so, so thankful when Koharu pulled her away. Their trailing giggles prompted a sense of embarrassment that made his cheeks feel warm, but he stifled the shame and shot Minoru a hard, decisive, and pleading look.
“Minoru-sensei, can we talk about this some other time?” he asked. “Please.”
“He was getting the talk right? That’s why both he and Minoru-sensei looked so uncomfortable, right?” Natsuko asked before dissolving into another fit of giggles. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of them look so uncomfortable! Man, this will be great. I can tease him for months about this! Minoru deserves a hug for helping me out.”
And it was true. While Kazuhiko was unshakable in many ways, he’d always had a weak spot: Girls. During their academy days, it was any girl he had contact with, and he talked to quite a few back when he was the class prodigy who helped passed back tests. When he got used to that, it was Mariko, who’d been equally annoyed about it at first. When they started being able to brush it off, Mariko playing along at times and Kazuhiko ignoring her outright, Natsuko had been left at a loss, but then it was onto Koharu, who was someone Natsuko teased not just because it was funny. Her teammates dating—what a story, what a match. Two heirs who were killing it in the field long before they started coming out of their shells. They’d be the power couple of the year, even the decade, but even that had started to get old. A whole year of teasing them about each other had helped the shock factor wear off, but now? Now, Natsuko had some new ammo: Kazuhiko ‘getting to that age,’ ‘starting to notice girls’ and ‘feel some type of way.’ This, she was sure, was going to be golden.
“The talk, huh,” Azumi said, patting her hands on her apron as she walked over. A faint smile hung on her lips—a smile, Natsuko was beginning to realize, that was a lot scarier than it seemed. “That reminds me, it’s about time that we had a talk too. Your parents haven’t given you two one, I assume”
What should she say? What could she say to get Azumi to stop? No? Would that get her to stop? And—damn it, Koharu, why did she have to be such a goody-two-shoes, telling the truth all the time?
“Well, sit down, girls,” Azumi said, herding them to the kitchen table. Natsuko had clamped her mouth shut, unwilling and relatively unable to find something else to say. Koharu! She was definitely getting some blame for this. Sure it was Natsuko’s own fault, talking so loudly, but Koharu wasn’t getting off scot-free from this either. Now came the punishment.
“Now, where do I start?” Azumi asked, looking between them, and Natsuko briefly wondered whether pretending to faint was a viable option.