Watching the Rokudaime Hokage kiss their teacher goodbye, Kemuri was making overdramatic spitting coughing sounds and flapping his hands about wildly: "Cut that out! It's, like, all mushy and sappy an' like, ewww!"
Miyako smacked him across the head indignantly. "It's romantic, you moron!"
"Like I said, ewww!"
Shirabe was pretending he didn't know either of them, scowling at the ground and scrubbing a toe in the dirt; their teacher was blushing bright pink, and Rokudaime-sama was laughing at all of them.
"Ignore him, Hokage-sama," Miyako said hastily, a fixed smile plastered on her face. "We're not all insensitive idiots like some people; some of us understand being in love..."
As Kemuri rolled around making gagging sounds and thrashing wildly, Shirabe leaned over and shut him up with a swift kick that left him more gasping for breath and huddled around bruised ribs and less coherently mocking. Then Shirabe transferred his glower to the Hokage's toes rather than his own, and mumbled something.
"What was that, Shirabe-chan?" the Hokage asked with a smile, bending closer.
"...said I'll protect Saki-sensei for you..."
"So will I!" Miyako chimed in, not to be outdone. Even Kemuri managed a noise that was clearly meant for some kind of don't-forget-me.
Grinning from ear to ear, the Hokage bent a bit and ruffled their hair for them, which led to much spluttering and a humilated squirm from Shirabe.
"Then she'll be in good hands, I'm sure," he said, which produced an even more ferocious blush on Saki-sensei's face, and then that produced a thump on the Hokage's head that left him rubbing his scalp ruefully. "Ow..."
Shirabe transferred his glower back to his own toes, satisfied with the arrangements. Saki-sensei kicked the Hokage, though, and her boots were solid.
In a whisper that was slightly louder than he'd intended -- because subtlety had never been one of their esteemed leader's strong points; strength, yes, enthusiasm, yes, courage, yes to the verge of idiocy and right on through sometimes, but subtlety, no -- the Hokage murmured to Saki-sensei, "It's their first C-rank mission, love; let them be proud of themselves a little, all right? Let them be proud of growing up? You remember what we felt like back then..."
Saki-sensei's answer was much better at subtlety than the Hokage's had been, much to Miyako's disappointment, because she'd been hoping for some gossip. But the Hokage just chuckled, and kissed Saki-sensei's forehead again, and his hand did something behind her skirt that led to a startled squeak, and then Saki-sensei was quickly taking the lead through the gates with strides longer than anyone in those boots really ought to have been able to take, leaving a gawking trio of genin and a loudly chortling Hokage in her wake. The genin, at least, had to hurry to catch up.
There was something hidden about Saki-sensei, Miyako thought. She was the most beautiful woman Miyako had ever seen, and so elegant and graceful and feminine that sometimes Miyako wondered how shed ever gotten her hands dirty enough to pass the chuunin exam, let alone the jounin exam. But every once in a while theyd get just a glimpse of the strength she was hiding behind that elegance, like a katana sheathed in silk, Shirabe had said once, and then hed stopped and turned scarlet with embarrassment and never mentioned it again.
Shirabe was head over heels in love with Saki-sensei, even though hed die before admitting it, because everybody knew she and Hokage-sama loved each other madly. And so her one sane teammate spent all his free time torturing himself by being excruciatingly polite and holding doors and being a perfect silent gentleman to their beautiful teacher, who sometimes smiled at him just a little, and that was more than enough for him to moodily break his heart over.
Sometimes Miyako wanted to smack some sense into him, because somebody else on the team needed to have some sense too, and pining over their gorgeous sensei who already loved the Hokage was a fantasy that was so unbelievably doomed. But most of the time her needs-smacking impulses were distracted by Kemuri, who wouldnt know the meaning of gentlemanly if the dictionary walked up and bit him. So instead she did all the talking that Shirabe didnt want to do, so that he looked at her gratefully once in a while.
It was better than being insulted as an ugly tomboy by Kemuri, but not as much better as she wanted it to be. Miyako wished she could be more like her elegant, beautiful teacher, so that someday somebody would look at her the way Hokage-sama looked at Saki-sensei, but her own rough and tumble instincts kept getting in the road. Saki-sensei seemed to be the only person who didnt mind the way she talked and acted, though; her parents were always lecturing her, but Saki-sensei listened, and once in a while she would nod a little, and that meant more to Miyako than all kinds of gushing from her teenaged friends.
If Miyako had been a boy, she would probably have had a crush on Saki-sensei too, she admitted a little despondently, so she really couldnt blame Shirabe for losing his mind. At least Shirabe had a mind to lose. Kemuri was just hopeless. Didnt even understand the meaning of romance
Their mission wasn't that much better than a D-rank, for all Kemuri's loud speculations. They were to gather information about a somewhat questionable restaurant in a nearby village; there were rumors that the restaurant was a cover for several more profitable and less legal businesses, and Kemuri was convinced that this meant their mission was to go in and kick everyone's butts and take their names, not that he knew what to do with them but it was what one did as a natural consequense of kicking butts in the name of justice. (Miyako wondered how Saki-sensei and Shirabe managed to tune out that much noise and idiocy, because she needed some help managing it.)
Kemuri's first disappointment was that they weren't going straight to the restaurant to commence the kicking of butts. His second was that they weren't allowed to wear their headbands anywhere in the city. His third was that they had to hide all their weapons while they were hiding their headbands. His fourth was that the inn they were going into was much smaller and shabbier than the restaurant with the collection of butts in such dire need of kicking.
By the time Saki-sensei informed them that they were going to be working as dishwashers in the inn where she'd arranged for them to take rooms, Kemuri was ready to explode.
"Senseiiiii! What the hell, dishwashers? My kid sister does that! That's not a ninja job! What the hell makes this a C-rank mission if we're going to be up to our elbows in dish soap the whole time?"
"Moron!" Miyako protested, hands on her hips. "If Saki-sensei's going to get her hands dirty then so are we -- and if that's what Saki-sensei says the mission is, then that's what we're going to do! Or else what, are you scared you'll melt if you touch soap or something? Don't tell me it's been that long since you washed -- that's gross!"
Kemuri spluttered incoherently, then snatched his jacket off the floor and threw it over a shoulder. "Forget it, I'm gonna go get something to eat, I'm starving to death already, and don't tell me, they don't feed us either do they-- shut up, Miyako, I'm not gonna blab anything to anybody, I'm a ninja, remember? Even if some people seem to have forgotten that part..." He stalked toward the door.
"Be back by sunset," Saki called after him, as soft-spoken as ever.
"Yeah, whatever." And the door slammed behind him.
"You're just going to let him go?" Miyako asked, incredulous. "That's insubordination!"
"He'll be back."
Miyako's expression must have been more dubious than she thought; even the normally stoic Shirabe was shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
"He'll be back," Saki-sensei said again, with a rueful quirk at the corner of her mouth. "I've trained with someone just like him... if not even more obnoxious. Don't worry."
Miyako and Shirabe traded a silent skeptical glance. Then Miyako took over the conversation for him, because Shirabe was even quieter than Saki-sensei, which took some doing; and it seemed like Saki-sensei was in a more talkative mood than usual, since they'd gotten more than three sentences from her.
"Sensei? What exactly does dishwashing have to do with being a ninja...?"
...Which was sensei-ese for "that's part of the lesson that you're supposed to figure out on your own, and wheedling is just going to produce a silent gaze out the window and the occasional soft sigh of enduring such small-mindedness while lost in the grasp of something infinitely greater. So you may as well give up now, before I Zenfully ignore you into actual hopping-up-and-down arms-flailing frustration, because I get a quietly malicious kick out of doing that to impressionable genin even though I'm never ever going to admit that aloud." (That was Miyako's translation of course; Kemuri's translation went along the lines of "she goes all 'flowery-hmph,'" and Shirabe had never volunteered his translation.)
Over the next few days, all of the genin became more familiar than theyd ever wanted to be with inn dishwashing protocol -- glasses first so that the water was cleanest, utensils next, plates next, frying pans and the like last, and by that point anything short of a chisel was fair game for the scrubbing, and ninja muscles certainly came in handy too. And they were supposed to do all this while dressed in servants' kimono. With dangly sleeves. Not as dangly as they could have been, but more than dangly enough to get in the way of everything. Mercifully, Saki-sensei taught them what a tasuki cord was for, but Kemuri nearly strangled himself on a regular basis while trying to get his sleeves tied back anyway.
And during their work hours Saki-sensei didn't even talk; she just scrubbed, and on her breaks she went outside to sit under the tree and not-talk even more, sometimes plucking cornflowers to braid into little circlets that she decorated the tree with. In the evenings she went wandering through the town often with one or more of the genin trotting along after her through their furtive awareness of their promise to Rokudaime-sama that they'd take care of Saki-sensei, who sometimes seemed so far disconnected from the rest of the world that even Shirabe tended to wonder if she needed a leash or something to keep her from drifting away like dandelion-fluff.
People tended to stare at her, because even dressed in an inn's serving kimono, she was one of the most beautiful and refined people ever to set foot in the rather shabby little village; Kemuri and Shirabe took turns vying for who made the best bodyguard, the silent glaring type or the loud bristly type. So they made quite the little menagerie in the market while shopping for eggs and tomatoes and rice and fish for onigiri for dinner. (Miyako made herself the price-negotiator, because Saki-sensei wasn't aggressive enough with her haggling and the women would take advantage of her -- though some of the men tended to give her discounts that would partially make up for it.)
Miyako felt it was her obligation to make up for Saki-sensei's lack of talking to their co-workers, and she explained to anybody who would listen that their teacher was just shy. Kemuri felt compelled to make the backstory more interesting than that, and had concocted some wild-eyed thing involving robbers or pirates or pirate robbers or maybe samurai pirate robbers who'd come through and wiped out their village and the three of them were the only survivors because he'd singlehandedly rescued the other three thanks to his own greatness of course. Miyako gritted her teeth and tried not to contradict his backstory embroidery too much; at least she didn't have to worry about Saki-sensei or Shirabe contradicting him.
"My hands are prunes," Kemuri wailed at the end of the week, flopping over on his bed and staring up at them. "It's going to be weeks before I get enough calluses back to climb a tree right or anything!"
"Shut up, idiot," Miyako said by sheer reflex, because she was only half listening.
"Something's wrong," Shirabe said suddenly, and Kemuri was so surprised by Shirabe speaking voluntarily that the argument he'd been winding up for got caught in his throat and made him cough in surprise.
"Huh? Huh? What's wrong? Aside from you talking that is--"
"Saki-sensei's never late. For anything. We usually start dinner fifteen minutes ago."
"You're right," Miyako said, startled.
"Hey!" Kemuri protested. "Why don't you ever say that to me?"
"Because you're always wrong, dimwit," she replied. "Did she say anything about where she might be going?"
"She's going to kick butts and take names of course!" Kemuri crowed. "Come on, we gotta go catch up--"
Miyako caught him by the back of the collar; it wasn't technically her fault if he half strangled himself before skidding to a halt. "If Saki-sensei wanted us there she'd have told us that."
"So -- so -- she got kidnapped or something! And we're breaking our promise to Hokage-sama if we don't go rescue her and kick butts and take--"
"Numbskull," Miyako said, bringing a fist down on his head the way she'd seen Sakura-sensei and Saki-sensei do to Hokage-sama on various occasions. "Saki-sensei's a jounin. If somebody was good enough to capture her, we sure wouldn't have a chance of rescuing her!"
"But if they captured her, they know where she is, and they wouldn't know where we are! 'Cause we're like ninja and stuff! We'd be all like sneak-sneak-sneak-POUNCE and then we'd be all kerpow and then we'd get to kick their butts and take--"
"I know, I know," Miyako groaned, rubbing her temples. "Leaving aside the kicking for five minutes-- just five minutes, Kemuri-- have either of you got any kind of plans? You know, things we think ahead about? For how we'd go about, say, finding Saki-sensei, let alone figuring out if she's even in trouble, let alone all the kicking?"
Kemuri and Shirabe looked at each other. Kemuri folded his hands behind his head. "Don't look at me," he said. "You two are the ones who like to, y'know, think and stuff."
Miyako bit back the first three replies to that, and sighed. She really had no idea how Saki-sensei managed to look so calm and collected and dignified all the time when she had a student with the brainpower of grilled eggplant walking around not on a leash or in a nursery pen so that someone with more than three brain cells to rub together could keep him restrained.
"There are mice," Shirabe said.
"...Huh?" Both Miyako and Kemuri blinked at the involuntary echo, and looked at each other, and then back at Shirabe.
"Mice," he said. "Restaurants. Inns. Food in storage. Mice. You see?"
Saki-sensei would have understood the first time he said it. His teammates blinked at each other.
"Shirabe, dude, like, are you telling me you summon mice or something? 'Cause as totally uncool as that is, and as much as I'd normally mock your sissy ass for admitting it, right now that could be, like, hella useful..."
Shirabe glared at the corner fiercely, and mumbled, "Never mind."
"No, hey, wait! Go on and do your girly-ass mouse summoning thing, we could like totally use that--"
"I don't summon mice."
"You just said you did!"
"Hey! No fair! I said I wasn't going to make fun of you and everything! And you know that's gonna take some serious self control, because damn, dude, MICE? Why don't you just summon cute little pink and purple hamsters while you're at it, couldn't be much more useless-- I mean, except for right now--"
"Shut up, you idiot," Miyako snapped, and hesitated over whether Shirabe would appreciate it if she put a hand on his shoulder. "Shirabe-kun? He-- I can't say he didn't mean it; he's an imbecile, we both know he meant it, but he's also dead wrong. All the time."
"If you can summon mice, that would be a really useful technique for all kinds of situations," Miyako continued desperately. "Ninja-type situations, where people think about things like stealth and not being noticed, and NOT just focusing on kicking any butts available--"
"HEY! KICKING BUTTS IS TOO NINJA STUFF!"
"Will you just shut up before you make the entire situation worse, dumbass?"
"Can you summon mice, Shirabe-kun?" a different voice said, amused.
Even Shirabe gasped and turned toward the sound; Saki-sensei had her arms crossed on the windowsill, sticking to the outside of the building.
Kemuri toppled over backwards, one sandaled foot twitching spasmodically.
Miyako coughed a couple of times, trying to get her heart unstuck from where it was lodged in her throat, and finally managed to squeak, "How long have you been listening, sensei?"
She walked up the wall lightly, sat on the edge of the sill, swung her ankles in through the window without so much as rippling the hem of her kimono, and straightened her sleeves as she sat there.
Because of course it wouldn't do to be disheveled even when you were getting done frickin' scaling the walls like some freaky paper-dress-up-doll-crossed-with-honking-large-spider thing, as Kemuri likely would have said if he'd been done frothing at the mouth.
Kemuri sat up, shook his head violently, and took a deep breath. This was always a bad sign, so Miyako kicked him before he could produce whatever howl or tirade was about to ensue.
"Where were you, sensei? We were getting worried!"
"I could tell." Her voice was low and indulgently wry. "Very sweet of you to be concerned; but your decision-making does still leave... something to be desired."
Coming from their gentle and soft-spoken teacher, that was clearly an understatement; Miyako blinked twice, startled, and Kemuri's lower lip started blubbering.
"I'm -- I'm sorry -- I tried to tell 'em we should stop jawing and just go make sure you were okay and nobody wanted to listen to me, I'm sorry, we should've just gone to help you and--" He stopped, and gasped for breath, and then looked at her again; she was still patient and calm, and her expression hadn't changed in the slightest -- and Kemuri knew what that meant, since she hadn't smiled at him. "...we... we shouldn't have...?"
"You tell me." She folded her hands lightly on one knee and waited.
Miyako shot another desperate look at Shirabe; Shirabe nodded at her and clamped both of his own hands over Kemuri's mouth to make sure of things. Kemuri was even ashamed enough to let him.
"We should've had more faith in you, sensei," Miyako said in a smaller voice than she meant. "Because Kemuri is always wrong, and since it was his idea, obviously you were fine..."
Saki-sensei didn't blink, still waiting. Miyako gulped and tried again.
"And if we did think there might have been something wrong, then we should've figured out how to... how to figure out what it was that was wrong... that sounds wrong, but you know what I mean? I mean there were two steps there, figuring out if there was anything and figuring out what there was, and we had to figure out the if part first..."
For the first time Saki-sensei nodded slightly, and Miyako breathed a huge sigh of relief. "And you had been making some progress on an investigative plan, until it degenerated into fruit and woodland vermin and such. Start again from there."
"From, er, 'prune-head' and 'shrew-face'?" Miyako asked fuzzily. The corner of Saki-sensei's lips quirked, which meant that she wasn't really angry with them, even if she was still waiting. "Er... we probably would have jumped on each other and broken some furniture over each other's heads and Shirabe would have been acting like he didn't know either of us..."
"Unfortunately, I can see that all too clearly," Saki-sensei agreed, rubbing her temples with one pale hand for a moment, then folding them in her lap again. "I meant for you to back up to the point where you would have had a productive discussion."
"I would've had to muzzle Kemuri and start over," Miyako muttered, which got an indignant squawk from behind Shirabe's hands.
"It was his idea to investigate whether a problem existed," Saki-sensei replied. "Leaving aside the details of the ker-pows and the kicking--"
"You were watching that long?" Miyako yelped.
"...The thought itself was not incorrect," Saki-sensei continued without a pause, and with just a faint flicker of amusement in those dark eyes. "Trace through the thoughts, Miyako-chan, not the particular expressions, and then tell me what you see."
"We needed to find out whether you were okay, and if you weren't we needed to figure out what to do about it," Miyako said, chewing a thumbnail. "If you weren't, we were gonna be in a hell of a lot of trouble -- sorry about the language, sensei..." She stopped, and puzzled it over for a minute, and then said, "But that doesn't matter yet because the first thing to do was to figure out if you were okay. So we had to find you. --Without kicking people until someone talked," she amended hastily, with a glance at the wriggling Kemuri; Shirabe nodded at her. "So Shirabe-kun was going to summon mice until Kemuri started being a total ass about it, and that's when it all turned to shit... sorry again..."
"Is that so?" Saki-sensei asked Shirabe, who abruptly let go of Kemuri in order to curl up and hide his face in his knees.
"I told you I wasn't going to make fun of you even if that is the most lame-ass pathetic excuse for a summoning animal ever!" Kemuri said, somehow managing to make himself sound like the injured party. Shirabe didn't respond, still huddled.
"You see?" Miyako asked her sensei, flinging both hands into the air. "How are Shirabe-kun and I ever supposed to get anything done with him around?"
"Learn to adapt," Saki-sensei replied, and slipped two fingertips into the cuff of her kimono sleeve; she flipped something silvery toward Miyako, who caught it by reflex and then realized it wasn't sharp after all. "Kemuri-kun, Miyako-chan, go and fetch some tea and dango. --Legally," she added, before Kemuri could get overexcited about kicking people. "By paying for them, and with no kicking involved whatsoever. Understand?"
Kemuri muttered something foul under his breath, and scrambled to his feet, glaring at Miyako's toes. Miyako understood that it was a punishment for Kemuri, but didn't understand why she was getting punished too -- but then, she was supposed to be better at taking orders than Kemuri, so she sighed deeply and followed the little brat through the door.