„What brings you to our outpost stranger?", a samurai guard addressed Team 4 when they came to a stop at the main gate.
"My Lady Kusa Arichimi is to meet her future husband here in a few days. I am here with these two servants to see to her safe travel. There should be rooms reserved at the inn.", the Sensei stated, he had hinged into an older man with slightly gray hair and beard.
"The Inn is the third house on the right. Your arrival had been announced. The Lady of the inn will inform you about any rules of this outpost. Please enjoy your stay.", another guard bowed, motioning for the Team to step inside.
Raidon and Hiraku were dressed in simple yet still expensive linen yukata. They stood on either side of the little wagon that served as their transport-a rich lady wouldn´t travel by food after all and followed it through the gates.
"We will do so. Thank you very much Samurai-sama."
The outpost was buzzing with life. Merchants lined the street with their wagons and wares, offering them to other merchants and customers alike.
Kuma scanned whatever they passed from her seat on top of the wagon.
"Kusa-sama. Allow me to help you down. Your father had arranged for us to stay in this Inn until your betrothed arrives in a few days. You must be exhausted from the travels. Please feel free to rest in your room while we take care of everything else.", the older man bowed, offering her his hand to step down the carriage.
As an answer, she gave him a small but strong nod and accepted his hand. As Ladylike as she was able to do she carefully got off.
Not that she would be able to get off the carriage on her own in her costume if there were no witnesses around. The Kimono she was forced to wear was restricting her movements immensely. She felt uncomfortable and uneasy wearing it, but playing a rich merchant's daughter she had no other choice.
It was white with pink sakura blossoms on the hem and sleeves, with a red obi around her midsection. Her usual ninja sandals were exchanged for wooden ones that had soles as thick as a balled fist which made it harder for her to balance and walk. Her long silvery-white hair was styled into a Shimada mage (AN: similar to the hairstyle of a Geisha) that was decorated with her two hair needles, filled with senbon, and a comb made of nacre.
"Lady Arichimi and her entourage, I assume?", an old woman greeted Kuma and Daisoku upon entering, "We have prepared the three rooms as requested: One room for the Lady, one for the staff, and a greeting room. The rooms do have a small private bathroom and of course, visits to the Onsen next door are included in the stay."
"You have my thanks. Lady Arichimi is tired from the travels, please show us to her room so she may rest until we took care of everything."
"Of course. Please follow me.", the elder bowed before leading the way down the hallway and up the stairs.
"These three rooms are yours, the Lady´s is the one on the right.", she bowed again before returning to the reception."
"Prepare the room as we discussed earlier. Hiraku, Raidon, and I will get everything into the other rooms and then start the first round through the post. We will have to show ourselves to the public tonight to prevent the wrong kind of attention. I fear you have to stay in costume for the time being."
" Yes, Sensei." , she sighed, " I will try my best."
"I know. Do as much as you can in this state. We should be able to join you in two hours."
" Yes, Sensei. I will start with the seals. And then prepare my room in case someone enters."
And she did.
Within the first hour, the whole room was overflowing with all different kinds of seals: each door and window had a seal that would inform them about intruders, one that would knock out said intruders, and one that kept any words spoken within the room from carrying outside.
The offered tableware got seals that would start glowing when poison or narcotics come in contact with them.
And those were just the ones that were mission relevant.
When she was finished, she was ready to burn the Kimono while wearing it, it was just so uncomfortable and ready to sleep.
A knock announced the return of her team and she went to join them in the adjoined room.
"Finished the seal-work?", Raidon asked, looking exhausted.
" Yes. No one can enter without us knowing. And no one can hear what is being said within these walls."
"Good. We were able to get work done as well. And even got a few information already.", Hiraku declared exited, "There are a few merchants from Kirigakure and two from the land of rice. Everybody else is locals."
"And a caravan is supposed to arrive any day now from the land of earth. We think they might be the ones we are looking for. They are on their way back from the land of wind. They will pass through Konoha before they come to a stop here."
" That means they should have been on their way to the Land of Wind when we encountered the enemy."
"Exactly. For now, the three of you can rest. A table was reserved for dinner where we have to play our roles."
"Yes, Sensei." " Yes, Sensei."
" Raidon, Hiraku, can one of you help me with my Kimono. I can´t bind the obi on my own without it falling within an hour.", Kuma groaned, " And can you help me with my hair Hiraku? I can´t get it to stay the way I need."
"Yeah, give me a moment. Is Sensai still gone looking for information?", the dark-haired boy answered around the breakfast in her mouth.
"Yes. He said he would be back in an hour before we meet with Sparrow and his team. I am preparing the bento boxes for the alibi picknick. Anything special you want in yours Kuma?", the blond one called from the main room.
" Surprise me. I just want this mission to be over." , she sighed, entering the room the two boys sat in with her obi in hand and hair in a high bun.
"Come here so I can bind you and do your hair."
" Thank you Hiraku."
"No problem. Will you be able to do your makeup on your own?"
"That will take too long. She can´t do her makeup while you do her hair.", Raidon stated, "I will do her makeup, you make her hair. But if anyone talks about this, I will punch you."
"You can try."
" I owe you."
"What are teammates for? At least those stupid lessons are useful now.", he grumbled, "Now stay still. Or you will ruin my work."
Frozen to her spot, Kuma allowed the two boys to get her ready for the day and secret meeting with the ANBU.
"Ready for the meeting? Sparrow will meet us at the cherry tree near the temple. He will be impersonating the advisor of your future husband's father. You will give him any information we gathered in the last one and a half weeks."
" Yes, Sensai. I will exchange the information."
"I know. Well done you two. They should have made the Kunoichi lessons mandatory for anyone sooner it seems. These kinds of missions usually end up in arguments and fights between the teammates.", the sensai continued.
"What will we be doing in the meantime?", Hiraku asked.
"The two of you will go around and do some shopping and keep an eye on those traders we are watching for the last two days. If they start to behave strangely you let us now."
"Yes, Sensai.", both boys answered as of one mouth, and not long after all four of them left to do their mission of that day.
"Lady Arichimi.", a tall man with short blond hair and dressed in an expensive-looking yukata bowed.
"You assume right. Master Serano, I assume?", Daisoku Sensai bowed in return, "Lady Arichimi is full of delight to finally be able to meet her future husband."
"And he is just as excited if I am allowed to say. But before the meeting, you need to be made aware of a few traditions of your betrothed honorable family."
"Of course Master Serano. Please continue.", her sensai answered and Kuma- or rather Lady Arichimi- bowed respectfully, when seconds later she felt the distinctive tickle an activating seal emitted.
They exchanged any vital information within ten minutes and then continued to sit silently with each other while the seal made anyone around made believe they were talking about tea ceremonies and how to address her future Husband's family properly.
"Your part of the mission is over. Tomorrow I will return with lynx, deer, and harpy. Lynx will be playing your future husband. We will stay a day longer and then leave together. We will split around half a day later and you and your team can return to Konoha.", he spoke shortly before their meeting was scheduled to finish.
" Yes, ANBU Sparrow. I will inform the others about this ."
"Good. Lynx will stop by tonight either way so you can speak about how you want to play your roles."
Soon after Kuma and her Sensai returned to the inn, informing the other two Genin of their team to return as well.
"A new group of traders arrived just when you called us back.", Raidon started when they met at the inn.
"They seem to trade metal, crystal, and products made out of those things.". Hiraku added, "And are for the first time at this outpost. They have their guards that seem to be neither ninja nor samurai."
" We can tell ANBU Lynx tonight. Sparrow said he would come by to speak with me about our roles. What weapons do they carry?"
"Axes and swords. Their armor consists of chain-mail and leather, combined with small plates of metal.", the blond groaned, stretching his back.
A feeling of dread shivered down the girl's spine when she listened to what her friends were saying. It sounded a lot like she would describe the traveling merchants of her clan.
" Can, can I change Sensai, or am I required to stay in costume longer today? I think some fabric slipped and is now pressing uncomfortably into my side.", Kuma asked, hoping to get some time alone to sort her thoughts. If her clan was really in this outpost then everything could change.
Hiraku and Raidon had sworn to avenge her past, and she did not know how she would react if confronted. Would she attack them? Would she run? Or would she do nothing?
"Change into something less formal. Something fitting for staying in your private rooms, without being too casual. We will eat in here tonight, I will tell the Lady of the Inn that you are not feeling well because of nerves.", he answered, his voice sounding as it always did, while his eyes held a glint of interest. He had noticed the ever so slightly change in his pupils' demeanor.
He would keep an eye on her for the next hours and speak to her if he had the feeling that nothing changed.
"Do you need help with your hair? I had to use a lot of pins and bands to keep it in check today.", Hiraku asked, already getting ready to stand up when she shook her head no.
" It´s fine. I will just take the ornaments out." , and with these words did she enter her room and began slowly stripping off her outer layers.
Concentrating on her breathing, she closed her eyes and tried to meditate.
It failed. Whenever she had reached a state of calm, a memory of her old past resurfaced. But not memories of what had happened to her. Faces, clothes, hairstyles, and weapons flashed before her inner eyes. Like her brain wanted to remember anything that would let her recognize those that meant her harm in the past.
Kuma´s mind had been overtaken by the need for survival, that she nearly stabbed the person that appeared next to her with one of her gifted hair needles. Only the persons' quick reflexes and strong grip saved it.
"Genin Kuma Shiranui. Seethe your attack.", a young man whispered, his face hidden behind a porcelain mask that pressed against her ear. An ANBU.
At once, she let any muscle go limp and averted her head in a submissive manner she had not shown for years.
" Apologies." , she signed with her free hand.
"Accepted. I am aware of your way of communication. My name is Lynx. I am here to discuss the parameter of our teamwork from tomorrow on."
" Yes, Lynx. Apologies for attacking you, I must have lost awareness of my surroundings. It will not happen again."
"I will release your hand now. Proceed with what you were doing. Your Team left the apartment a few minutes ago to take care of the food.", he informed her, and she nodded in understanding, "Are these the clothes you took with you from the Fundus? Allow me to see through them so our cover looks more believable. We cannot dress too different from another or we will gather too much attention."
" Yes. The ones on the far right are those I already wore in our time here. On the far left are the thin and more casual outfits for when I go to the Onsen or when I stay in these rooms. In the middle is the Kimono for more official occasions and walking around the outpost." , she explained, "May I ask for your assistance first? It seems my teammate outdid himself with knotting the Obi tonight. I am unable to open it."
"Turn around.", Lynx stated and with skilled hands, the Obi became lost.
" Thank you."
"Are you able to undress or do I need to help with that as well?"
She wanted to answer ´No.´ when he motioned to her hands. They were trembling.
"Being nervous on your first infiltration mission is normal.", he tried to reassure her, but the slight flinch she could not suppress told him something else was amiss.
" Raidon and Hiraku noticed a new group of merchants entered the outpost during my meeting with Sparrow."
"We are already aware of that."
" I – I believe I might know them.", she gulped, "I think they- they might be p-part of the clan I -that- "
"Does that endanger the mission?", he asked after a second of consideration.
" I don´t know. Raidon and Hiraku can´t learn about this. They might do something stupid."
"This makes it all more complicated. Inoichi is responsible for you, make sure to talk to him after the mission. I will talk to Sparrow about these changes."
" I am sorry.", she breathed, almost whimpered.
"Their appearance is not your fault. Unpredictable things can happen on missions. Tomorrow we will be meeting for the first time, where you met Sparrow. Things like this are prone to gathering groups of people. You will wear a uchikatsugi tomorrow. We will claim that you are wearing it now because with the official meeting between yours and my character the betrothal is official and it would be below your new social standing to walking around without it. Wear this White Kimono with the cranes and the Orange Obi. The Ushikatsugi will be also white and brought here by tomorrow morning."
" Yes, Lynx-san. I will get dressed in a Yukata now. Can- can you please wait in the adjoined room? I will be with you in a moment. Please feel free to serve yourself some tea and snacks. I am sure Raidon has the table flown over with Dango and chocolates."
"Call if you need help, Girl.", were the words he called out through the already closing door.
Their ´official´ meeting went about without a hitch and when the next morning came they all had breakfast together
Sparrow and Daisoku-sensei sat together at one edge of the table playing their roles of chaperones. Raidon, Hiraku, and the two other Anbu, deer and harpy, sat together clothed as servants. And Kuma sat next to Lynx, playing the happy freshly betrothed girl, her face hidden by the white cloth.
Luckily she did. The tea had just been served by a waitress when some men closed in on the table.
"How can we be of help?", Sparrow addressed the stranger, as the highest-ranking ninja in the group he would decide what happens.
"We do not mean to disturb your breakfast for too long. We were made aware that this is a small celebration of a betrothal and wish to give our honest compliments to the young couple. Please accept these two talismans so they bring you fortune and happiness. They are made of Jade and silver.", one of the men spoke and it took everything within the young girl to not move. If she even so much as blinked she was sure her body would react on instinct and flicker away out of fear and self-protection.
The man that had just spoken was her brother's uncle (from his father's side) and one of the clan members that had left the most scars on her body. And if he was there, her brother´s father usually wasn´t too far behind. But the Veil made it hard for her to scent the air, traditionally they are sprayed with perfume to save the wearer from unwanted scents.
Her sudden stillness and stiffness did not go unnoticed by any of the other Konoha nins and the atmosphere threatened to tip.
" Please, leave." , she almost whimpered, hoping she had only spoken to her Sensai and the Anbu.
"We appreciate your congratulations and accept your thoughtful present. Please apologize for my Lady's silence, she is shy and does only talk to people she knows. If you were so kind to tell me where you live, so my Master can send proper Thanksgiving once the official ceremony is over.". Sparrow spoke, his voice held an authority that made sure the stranger would understand he was not allowed to stay at their table any longer than necessary.
"Of course. We are merchants from the land of Iron. Our Clan lives near the border with Fire and we specialize in jewelry making and are currently traveling to seek out new customers. I cannot tell you the name of our clan, but we are known as the Stone weavers.", her brother´s uncle spoke, his voice filled with fake politeness and hidden calculations.
"I will inform my Lord, now please, our travels will be long and we wish to leave as soon as we broke fast."
"Of course. Safe travels and congratulations again."
Kuma did not realize he was gone until Lynx nudged her with the back of his hand against hers.
" Apologies." , she breathed. Only now did she become aware of the pain in her jaw from clenching it too much.
"Eat. We will leave within the next fifteen minutes and will not take a break until it is time to split.", he whispered.
" Good?", she saw Hiraku's sign, hidden from any civilian's eyes.
" Just the nerves. Sorry." , she lied.
" You are nothing but trouble Pity." , Raidon teased, but his worry was evident in his voice.
" Sparrow-san. May- Am- I -", she stumbled over her own words, fearing the answer to her question as well as not knowing how to ask it.
"Yes, Kuma?", he answered.
The two of them stood a few meters away from the group, so she could change into her clothes. The ANBU had been using Henge to hide after all, and Hiraku´s and Raidon´s costumes were a lot simpler than hers.
" I didn´t know." , she almost sobbed after another few seconds of trying to find the right words.
"When you were given the mission by the Hokage you were a ninja of Konohagakure, the village hidden in the leaves.", he answered, pausing for a few seconds that made a tear fall down her face, "And you are and will still be considered a Ninja and Villager of Konoha when we return. Nothing that was revealed during this mission changes that. Now hurry back to your friends. They are worried about you."
" Ye- yes. Thank you Sparrow-san." , and with these words, she joined Team 4 at the edge of the little clearing.
"Ah, Kuma. Hand me your costume so I can seal it in the scroll and we can leave. It is a two days travel by foot back to the village.", Daisoku-sensei hummed, his face feigning a smile that did not meet his eyes. He knew his student well enough to know that the group of merchants and Kuma had a history together. And knowing her, the history wasn´t a good one.
" I will never take them back. Next time Hiraku can play the rich daughter."
"He would be an ugly girl though.", the blond boy teased back, glad that his friend seemed back to normal, her behavior during the last 24 hours had worried him. So much so that he and Hiraku had promised each other they would make her talk before they reached the village.
"Spit it out Pity. What the heck happened?", Raidon called his friend out.
"And don´t think about saying it was just the nerves. We know you well enough that you weren´t.", Hiraku added, both of them cornering her against a tree.
"No, Sensai. You noticed as well, didn´t you? Did the ANBU tell you what they knew?"
"No. But there are things we did not need to know to successfully finish our part of the mission.", he tried to calm them down. He did want to know what went on, but not if it meant Kuma would suffer. He had a feeling that it was something delicate they were ready to beat out of their friend.
"It is relevant if it makes our teammate uncomfortable like that.", Raidon argued, "You don´t trust us? Is that it?"
" Wha-? I trust you."
"Then what is it?"
" If you knew, you would have done something stupid.", she started to explain, dreading her friends' reactions, "I knew the merchants. They- they- the man that gifted us the talismans- he is my brother´s uncle. I never knew I was born in Iron."
For minutes no one said a word.
Minutes that felt like an eternity to the young girl.
"Did he hurt you?", Raidon clenched through his locked jaw.
"Did. He. Hurt. You?"
" He is not worth-"
"Dammit Kuma, answer the question. DID HE HURT YOU?", Hiraku joined in and with a sigh, she finally nodded yes.
"Why did you not tell us?", Daisoku-Sensai inquired, he had a feeling what the answer would be.
" I feared they would do something stupid and get into trouble. The mission was more important."
"Are you alright?", he asked next.
" I don´t know. Can- Can we just get back? "
"Fine. But next time you tell us. Got it Pity?",
" Good. Now, let's hurry. Tomorrow is all you can eat at the BBQ."
AN: Comments are always appreciated :) Thank you for reading ^^