"Thump-thump," the soft padding of footfalls reverberating through the boards and into the pillow Mitarashi Zoukihara was reclining his head on beckoned him to half open a tanned, age speckled, and wrinkled eyelid. His view was filled with the widely grinning whisker marked face of a lightly tanned diminutive blonde eight year old girl clad in a white tee shirt and brown shorts that was bowed over him.
"Hey-hey Zoukihara-sensei I got the exercise done, you know!" Scrubbing her finger underneath her nose the young girls purplish-brown eyes were sparkling while her small frame was practically vibrating in place. "Ten of twenty-five, just like you asked and everythin'!"
As Zoukihara raised his head slightly off the pillow the girl retreated back. His long gray lounging Yukata caught up under his elbows so rolling his abdominal muscles he seamlessly transitioned to the palms of his hands. Glancing at the ten widely placed targets across the training range in his yard with his one open eye he took in the view of the target range in a breaths span.
"Tut! Ryuuka the exercise isn't done until you've recovered your shuriken and kunai. Shinobi tool basics. You know this." Laying his head back on his pillow he closed his one eye. "Besides that; perfect practice makes perfect. Drill it again and this time recover and check your tools."
"How can you grade me though if I don' ask you to check my work?!"
Swinging a lanky, wiry arm to the side of his head Zoukihara tapped the tip of his age speckled pointed ear. "These aren't just skin flaps my dear, just because I'm old doesn't make me hard of hearing!" Lowering his hand he rested it on top of his other hand on his stomach. "The density of the individual target rings is different enough that I can tell through the sound when your hits are on the ten or off. Now off the veranda and back to practice with you."
The soft pat of her landing in his yard and the trailing grumblings of what may have been murderous imprecations was the only response.
"Remember Ryuuka, you begged me to train you in the Shinobi arts. The ability to move and tag a target across a distance with accuracy is a precious basic skill. It's perishable as well so you have to keep at it in addition to upping other aspects of your training regimen. Soon I'll have you work on hitting moving targets and after that you'll have to work on hitting moving targets while you are on the move."
Pausing, he listened for a response from the young girl.
T-pat! Thunk! Pat! T-pat! Thunk! Pat! He could hear the steady staccato of her push off, hit, and landing. After counting another twenty-five sets of clean ten point hits he heard her sigh. "I know this stuff is important Zoukihara-sensei, I know it is! I was just... hopin' to learn some ninjutsu at the same time." Her voice fell off softly at the end.
"Young ones shouldn't look down on the effectiveness of a kunai or shuriken between the eyes at twenty to thirty feet. One of the best ways to defend yourself and it doesn't require both hands like molding Chakra or casting hand signs for techniques. Even though I understand your reasons you really don't have to push yourself so fast. You have four years in academy before you have to graduate. Nonetheless when you get throwing weapons and taijutsu down then we will work on the aspects that require Chakra. How quickly we move to those aspects depends wholly on your dedication and progression in these early stages. Just like going from walking to running to free running."
Rolling his head, neck, and shoulders up and placing his elbows on the pillow he opened his good eye halfway and regarded her as she was carefully withdrawing her kunai and shuriken from the targets and inspecting the tips and edges of her various throwing implements.
"Putting your training schedule aside, how have you been handling your time in the village?" There was a stiffening in her shoulders and a hesitation before answering.
"Umm, I haven't exactly been stayin' in my apartment, and I only really go in to the busier side of the village for academy..."
While maintaining a flat observatory stare on the young girl, Zoukihara groaned internally. "Am I to take it that you've been staying in the 'Outpost' every night? If so you should at least let the Hokage know you no longer need the apartment."
"Euuugh," the girl turned looking him in the eye with her lip curled. "Yah' know if I have to tell him we're just gonna end up in a huge argument. He has already made it clear he wants me ta' drop out from the Shinobi side of the program and enter the Kunoichi side."
Rising as easily as his advanced age would allow him Zoukihara walked over to where the young girl was standing and stared her down. "It can't be helped Ryuuka, Sarutobi-sama needs to know so he doesn't send some poor chuunin out here to drag me in just to read me the riot act. Stop by the administrative section after your class tomorrow. And. Tell. Him." He jabbed his finger at her on each of the last three words.
Standing downwind from her he noticed something he hadn't picked up on earlier. "Ryuuka?"
"If you haven't been staying at your apartment or going back to the village aside from your academy classes, what have you been doing for laundry, bathing, and...other bathroom needs?"
Ryuuka grinned widely. "Nature provides all one needs."
Staring down at Ryuuka Zoukihara sighed and shook his head. "You really do lack all delicacy as a girl." Ryuuka didn't respond besides a slight reddening of her cheeks, rubbing the back of her head, and looking around at the ground.
Zoukihara waved his hand in the direction of a large structure built high up in the limbs of a Konoha Greater Oak deep in the treeline of his property. "Get all your laundry from the 'Outpost' and bring it to the house."
Later that evening after settling the fresher smelling young girl and her laundry back in the tree-house, Zoukihara knelt down near the entrance hatch. "Remember what I told you, first thing after your academy class tomorrow I want you to go straight to the administrative section to let the Hokage know you are living here."
From her cross-legged perch on her futon Ryuuka rolled her eyes and pursed her lips. "Yes sensei."
Turning, Zoukihara opened the hatch in the floor and peering through the opening he paused. "I'm on your side Ryuuka, but you have to give at least a little. The Hokage does what he believes is in the villages best interest. While you and I may not agree with his beliefs, we can't always see the big picture." Jumping through the opening, the sole of his sandal attaching firmly to the tree trunk he pulled the hatch shut, just barely making out the soft, "I get it, sensei."
Reaching his hand over his opposite shoulder the Third Hokage Sarutobi Hiruzen dug a rough, hard callused thumb into the tense muscle, working to loosen up his shoulder so it wouldn't effect the brush strokes on the scroll he was writing on. Practicing his calligraphy made for an excellent unwinding exercise at the end of his typical day but it would be hard to prove that he was in any way as serene as the word he was inscribing to paper if his body and mind weren't on the same page.
Just as he was finishing the final stroke his relaxed mind picked up a chakra presence he hadn't felt in his vicinity for weeks. Considering the blow out they had at their last meeting it was understandable that she would want to spend some time away. In any case he was pleased that she was visiting of her own volition and with any luck his cool head and her rocky disposition may be able to come to an agreement on her curriculum. Gingerly picking up the scroll and moving it to one of the console tables lining the walls in his private office he moved his calligraphy implements to the concealed drawer in the same table.
Letting the sleeves of his ceremonial red kimono and white haori down Hiruzen rested in seiza on the settee that had been placed on the dais at the back of his office. Placing the large diamond shaped hat and hood of office on his head he didn't have to wait long for the knock asking for entry.
"Go ahead Genma-kun," signaling the Tokubetsu Jounin standing guard outside his office. A click of the latch releasing and the door swinging in Hiruzen smiled crookedly as Ryuuka shuffled through the opening into his office; each step dragging slightly. "Thank you Genma-kun." The bandanna clad man who was holding the door open pulled the door shut giving the small blonde and Hiruzen their privacy.
"Good afternoon Ryuuka-kun! So you've finally agreed to make the shift from the Shinobi program. You'll have to work hard to catch up in your Kunoichi studies but with hard work..." Hiruzen paused mid-sentence when he noticed Ryuuka's head was shaking rapidly.
"No ol' man Hokage, I haven't changed my mind. I'm stickin' with the Shinobi side until I graduate from academy." Staring down the eight year old stubborn blonde in front of him, Hiruzen clenched his teeth.
"Ryuuka! Why do you persist in testing my patience? The instruction you receive from the Kunoichi program-"
"Is useless! Flower arranging? Traditional tea ceremony? Practices of a Geisha? I can learn that in my spare time! High Intensity Chakra Generation; Cover and Concealment Best Practices; and Trap Craft for Best Effects! At least those classes don't bore the life outta me, you know!
Hiruzen rose from his cushion and slammed his sandal-clad foot on the dais. The chakra he released shook the air and sent the girl back a step. "Those 'boring' classes serve a valuable purpose when Kunoichi are older! It has been a long time since we been at war as Shinobi and the ability to blend in with other countries cultural traditions is important!"
Turning sideways Ryuuka crossed her arms and screwed her eyes shut. "Che! I really didn' come here to argue 'bout tha'. Zoukihara-sensei tol' me to come here to let you know I don' need the apartment you've been rentin' for me to stay in any more and to let you know that if you need to reach me outside the academy I'm livin' at his property." Turning and facing Hiruzen Ryuuka gave him a quick bow before whipping around and making a beeline for the door.
"We are no where near done Ryuuka!" The girl blinked as she was staring at a field of red standing between her and the door. Glancing behind herself at the empty dais and turning back Hiruzen didn't give her time to register the pair of fingers he used to tap her in the middle of her forehead pushing her back a step, tripping over her own feet, and landing on her rear end.
Getting up on her feet she reached behind her self and rubbed her derriere. "Oi, that hurt! You can' order me around ol' man! I'm not a Shinobi yet!" Running to one side of Hiruzen she dipped low.
Reaching down Hiruzen clamped onto Ryuuka's shoulder while the other hand dipped down and caught her elbow, applying a light amount of pressure on a certain point in her lower arm. Ryuuka stomped the thick soled sandal on the portion of the floor that milliseconds before had been occupied by his own foot his quickness and experienced reflexes preventing him from suffering fractured toes. "Don't touch me! Don't grab me! Let! Me! Go!" She punctuated each cry with a stamp on the floor aimed at pulverizing his foot.
Releasing her from his grip Hiruzen placed himself against the door and narrowed his eyes staring down at her face. The pupils of her eyes which normally blended into the dark purplish-brown were standing out huge and apparent and shimmering. Her lightly tanned cheeks had a tint of redness that stood out uninterrupted by her whisker marks. Beads of sweat were trickling down her face from her temples.
Sliding out from in front of the door Hiruzen moved back away from the girl. Ryuuka shook slightly and her pupils contracted to their normal size. Seeing the unblocked door she grasped the knob and spun it, swinging the door open towards herself. Walking out quickly she didn't see him raise a hand and shake his head at the Tokubetsu Jounin stationed on the other side.
"Ryuuka...you..." Shaking himself Hiruzen glanced through the door at his stationed guard. "Find Aoba-san and tell him to bring me Mitarashi Zoukihara. I don't care what Zoukihara is doing, that old man better have the answers to my demands or he'll find himself under the care of Inoichi and Ibiki."
Zoukihara rested serenely in seiza, sipping a lukewarm bitter tea from his mug. He could feel waves of palpable irritation and what may have been murderous intent from the village leader. Barely opening his one good eye he noted his shinobi junior in terms of age and experience was currently grinding his teeth. Zoukihara repressed the urge to smirk. It wouldn't do to drive the Hokage into definite murderous intent.
"Sooo...if I'm any judge of events Ryuuka and you Sarutobi have bashed horns. Again." There it was, the spike in Chakra that would give most men his advanced age a myocardial infarction. Keeping his expression smoothly flat Zoukihara kept his heart pumping through the circulation of a protective Chakra sac around the vital organ. He had written the book on the intimidation tricks the Hokage was using and if he'd let his expression slip a patronizing smirk would lead the Shinobi commander to pummel him through the floor of his office.
"Zoukihara-dono," the Hokage ground out. "I will be perfectly frank with you. The fact that you are willfully and flagrantly flaunting my authority by training the villages only Jinchūriki outside of the academy puts you on my list. However that isn't the reason you are here."
Opening his good eye fully Zoukihara settled his drained mug on the floor next to him. "Something to do with Ryuuka ensconcing herself in my training yard for a few rounds of vigorous 'pierce the target dummies'? Great work that by the way; normally I have to wheedle her to train that hard with basic throwing weapons and Shinobi tools."
The mug next to Zoukihara split into two and he was finding it slightly harder to breathe from the pressure Hiruzen was applying through Chakra presence alone. "Do you think I am meeting with you to amuse you?! I took her in hand like a parent would an unruly child and she nearly broke my toes!"
Zoukihara arched the brow above his open eye. "Took her in hand? How so?"
The Hokage rose from his settee on the dais and demonstrated the his control technique on the retired Shinobi. Granted Zoukihara didn't believe the pressure he used on his shoulder and elbow were consistent with what the Hokage would have used on an eight year old girl but he had been 'prodding the dragon' so to speak so he ignored it in favor of moving this months 'reading of the riot act' along.
"Ah...So...," Zoukihara nodded to himself. "Hmm, hmm, it makes sense given that incident."
The Hokage pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm losing patience Zoukihara, what incident?"
"Oh, I thought that given Ryuuka's status as the village's 'prize' Jinchūriki you would have been aware."
The Hokage bowed his head slightly forward, blocking Zoukihara's view of his eyes. The Chakra that had been beating against his chest and pushing against his inner ear dissipated almost instantly.
As Zoukihara related all that he knew of the incident from ten months prior he noted the Hokage's physical reactions. White knuckled clutching of the red fabric that formed his kimono of office here. A sharp downward curl of the lip there. A stuttering rise of the hand as if the Hokage was going to ask him to cease the private testimony all before the arm stopped and dropped boneless onto the settee.
Arriving back at the compound on his property after nightfall Zoukihara could no longer make out the training dummies spread across the yard. He could however make out the shorts and t-shirt clad form laying in the middle of the target range. Letting out a soft sigh and shaking his head he knelt down a short distance from Ryuuka. Sliding his sleeve up to his elbow he ran his index and middle finger down the inner arm from elbow to wrist. A puff of displaced air found a rough wooden doll with a basic human frame laying lengthwise on the portion of skin he had stroked. Settling the practice toy on the ground in front of him he drew his hands together in the form of the ram and molded his physical and mental energy down through the coil leading to his center. Plunging the container he felt the Chakra rush through his network as if trails of warm water were coursing into his arteries and veins. Weaving the necessary hand signs for one of the first jutsu he had claimed from a beaten enemy the wooden doll on the ground stirred and rose to it's little feet.
Sending the wooden doll over to the resting girl he set it to patting her lightly on the cheek. If he had been expecting it to take long to wake her he made no sign as Ryuuka's eyes opened and her head whipped side to side sending small clods of dirt and rock skittering from underneath her head.
Sitting up quickly she clutched her head and shut her eyes tightly, drawing light crows feet at the corners of her eyes. Zoukihara could sympathize; sleeping on the ground without a pillow normally meant pinched nerves in the neck and shoulders. Looking around her she focused on the wooden doll kneeling in a perfect mockery of Zoukihara. Running her fingers through her short cropped soft spiky blonde hair she threaded the accumulated rocks and dirt out. "Wha's tha' sen-" she yawned widely, "sensei?" She pointed at the doll.
A twitch of his fingers and the doll shot up to it's feet and pointed back at Ryuuka. The girl blinked and clapped her hands together. "That. Is. So..."
Zoukihara grinned "Awesome? Amazing? Cool?"
Ryuuka dropped the base of her fist into the palm of her other hand. "Lame! I'm eight, not stupid! I've read about Suna and their puppeteers corps."
Despite her comments to the contrary Zoukihara knew she was interested. Her shimmering eyes focused on the puppets movements and the fact that anything that bored her in the slightest she ignored was the only proof he needed. "To answer your original question the doll is a preview and a promise."
Ryuuka's cocked her head as her eyes didn't stray from the toy that was now doing back-flips across the training ground. Sending the doll over to Ryuuka he cut the threads of chakra that allowed the puppet to move. As the puppet fell Ryuuka caught the small wooden doll and looked directly at Zoukihara. "A preview and a promise? You're gonna' teach me puppetry?"
"Hmm, maybe before you graduate from academy or maybe after. I would rather train you in some more original and useful techniques than something as specialized, difficult, and limiting. No, what I really meant by preview was how I would train you in hitting mobile targets. It helps to use purpose made targets that can take hundreds if not thousands of hits to improve your aim."
"How many can you control sensei?"
Zoukihara's eyebrows shot up at the question, a slight grin curling the corners of his mouth. "Five at a time with any level of efficiency and competency to be useful for target training."
Ryuuka's grin split her face, her long pearly incisors standing out among all of her teeth "Ah, so even you can be cool sometimes sensei?"
Zoukihara narrowed his eye. "Humph, when the time comes I'll show you just how 'cool' I can be."
The whispered words that came from the girls mouth caused his lips to purse. "I'll give you a five second head start and if I catch you anywhere other than the 'Outpost' you better be ready to face the consequences."
That was all it took for the girl to disappear into the tree line that directly led to the tree-house at the edge of his property for the night.
Yamanaka Inoichi tugged on the high collar of his black shirt. He had just delivered an official assessment on the mental readiness of certain 'questionable' personalities in the village to continue serving in the corps directly to the Hokage and the council of Elders. It was bland work mostly brought on by complaints of allegedly 'injured' parties but it was an official request and Inoichi was a consummate professional when it came to his work on the clock. Now he was sitting in the lounge side of the office of his commanding officer hoping that he wasn't going to be dressed down for a recent escapade involving himself and his former teammates of the 'winning hand trio'.
"No need to look so worried Inoichi-san. I'm not calling you out for last weeks debauched off the clock entertainment spree that led to a damaged bar and two male villagers living under the delusion that they are five year old girls."
Inoichi's face reddened, he thought that masterpiece of mind molding would have worn off before the rudimentary military police caught on to the signs. They were no Uchiha Clan in terms of ability to discern technique usage. "Ah, well than how may I be of service Hokage-sama?"
"I would like your opinion on the possibility of therapeutic recovery of a Kunoichi in the village." Inoichi watched as the Hokage set a pair of files in between them and noted on one a particular last name stood out on the cover.
"Mitarashi? What? Has Anko actually carried through with sacrificing someone to her 'altar of sweet dumplings'?!"
"Ha-ha! No Inoichi-san. Dear Anko has yet to go for blood. No the Mitarashi listed on the folder is Mitarashi Zoukihara, and he was simply delivering testimony as an eyewitness after the fact."
Inoichi stared down at the file that was clearly marked with the Uchiwa Fan, the official clan seal and symbol of the Uchiha Military Police. "Why would the Uchiha clan include the eyewitness but not the victim on their investigation files?"
The Hokage shrugged. "Unfortunately there are none to ask that question. I have however spent a portion of my early morning with certain members of staff at the Konoha General Hospital. The only conclusions I can draw from those interrogations is that the staff that saw her wanted nothing to do with the situation but being placed in a position they decided to conceal and suppress information about the incident."
Picking up the investigation file first Inoichi flipped open the front cover and began reading. His eyes slowly drooped as he was having to push himself to keep reading. Girding himself he took on a clinical detachment and focused on the facts given. Once he reached the end of the investigation file he reached for the medical file, only to be stopped by the Hokage pressing down on the cover fingers splayed. "Hokage-sama?"
"Are you sure you are ready to read about it Inoichi, a dark side of the Hidden Leaf Village?"
Inoichi locked eyes with the Hokage. "Yes Sir."