where the dead went down
The second day
Tenten awoke to the sound of hushed voices and the scent of cooking fish. She blinked, sitting up. Pre-dawn light streamed in through the window, catching motes of dust in the air and throwing long shadows.
She stood and performed the usual morning chores: folding up her bedding and storing it, and otherwise setting the room to rights. Someone had set a washbowl on the dresser. Once she'd righted everything else, she took advantage of it.
She changed her clothing and tied up her hair with only a few brief glimpses into the mirror. As she always did in the rainy season, she pulled on a travelling cheongsam over her clothes.
It gave her a slightly bulky look. Its only resemblance to the sleek, form-fitting, sexy dresses her older sister and female cousins wore lay in the high collar, frog buttons, and thigh slits.
Un-sexy as it was, it was the most practical thing she could wear.
Now dressed, she headed for the noise.
She found Neji, Lee and Gai loitering in the kitchen. They were trying not to loiter. After all, giving the impression that they had been waiting on her would make her feel bad.
She hated being the last one awake. It made for awkward situations like this.
That train of thought went no further when she noticed her team. She stopped short. She couldn't help it. It was if somebody had rotated the world ninety degrees.
Gai-sensei had either eschewed or covered up the spandex. He was wearing a button-down shirt under the jounin vest, and dark slacks. It was an oddity almost worth commenting on. She opened her mouth to mention it, but decided at the last minute that it was better to stay quiet.
"Tenten! You have awoken just in time for us to assign duties!" Gai announced.
She knew she hadn't. There was no doubt they'd assigned duties already. But it was nice of him to try and not leave her out. Acknowledging that in the only way he would accept, she poured herself a mug of tea and smiled.
"So, who's doing what?"
Gai-sensei consulted his mission plan, while Lee piled fish and rice onto a plate, handing it to her, and Neji nudged a chair with his leg. She grabbed the plate and thanked Lee, sitting down and turning her attention to the team leader.
"The children have been gone too long. We have no time to lose." Gai's impressive eyebrows furrowed. "We also have no time to waste. I've decided to conduct the preliminary investigation and the searches simultaneously."
Tenten nodded. "So we're dividing forces?"
She shovelled a little rice into her mouth, thumbnail idly scraping along the side of a chopstick.
Her teacher's large hands folded the papers with calm, unhurried motions. The paper made crinkling sounds. Two fingers smoothed along the creases. The papers went flat.
He looked up at her. "Indeed. You and I will interview parents and find out where the children are most likely to have gone. Lee and Neji have already agreed to search the forest."
The white rectangles in his hands became small squares.
She looked down and ate a piece of fish before replying, "Understood, sensei. I'll try not to slow us down any further."
In his hands, the squares became rectangles again, but much smaller this time.
Tenten ate as quickly as she could, feeling guilty for slowing them down, but also aware that she'd needed the rest. They'd done a lot of travelling, and it'd taken a lot out of her. Running for four days straight, even using chakra to enhance her leg capacity, was not her body's idea of a good time.
Neji's voice was quiet and calm. He looked smooth, unruffled. His clothing was beige, rather than white and slightly heavier. The mock-skirt was now two layers, rather than one. Those were his only concessions to the rainy season.
Lee, who had been somewhat more pragmatic in his choice of clothing, adding dark trousers and a tunic (probably over his spandex. Prying either Gai or Lee out of that would have been like removing a turtle from its shell), left the kitchen with a quiet encouragement to do their best. Neji followed him in silence.
Gai was kind enough to allow her to finish eating before insisting that they, too, should leave.
No time to lose, and no time to waste.
From the street, the Anami family's house looked no different from any other house in Choujin village. It could just as easily have been Mai's or anybody else's. The windows had a sliding wood cover over them, just like any external door. The yard and minimal courtyard looked like somebody had tried to garden mud. The house's cheap whitewash had begun to peel away, and nobody had bothered to do anything about it.
Gai teased her quietly as they strode up the front walk. She teased right back, of course, and he pretended to take offence. She hadn't actually hurt him, she knew. It was just their game.
The game stopped as soon as he knocked on the sliding wood slats. It took an additional three knocks, delivered two minutes later, for the house's owner to notice.
Someone slid the door open a fraction. The opening was just wide enough to see one wide, liquid eye with limp black hair hanging in it and four white-knuckled, aged fingers.
Gai removed his hand.
"Are you Anami Kiyohi?" he asked.
"Yes," said a woman's thin, nearly quavering, voice.
The door opened wider, and the Thing Made Of An Eye And Four Fingers became a dark-haired woman in an unkempt kimono.
She let them in, immediately hurrying to straighten things. The movement revealed her obi, which was in disarray. Part of the silk had come loose from the appropriate tuck. It trailed around behind her like a tail. Kiyohi didn't seem to notice; she murmured and gabbled apologies about how messy the house was and never once moved to fix her clothes.
Tenten ignored her. Gai replied to her with quiet reassurances. He was subdued, for once, and she was thankful. Now was not the time to be loud or overbearing. Now was the time to listen, prompting where necessary.
She was thankful, but not surprised. He could be quiet when he wanted— very, very quiet, and for periods long enough that you would ache for a little noise. A gush of tears, a cheek-numbing punch, and smiles so bright you could hear the shine.
As she looked around, she realised that Kiyohi did not keep her home obsessively neat like Mai. Everywhere she turned, she saw the kitsch a house with a family picked up. It wasn't that the place was dirty. It was just impossible to get rid of all the things that you needed or that your kids refused to let you throw out or that you kept around because they reminded you of something.
"I mean, you'd think, with Kenji— not here— I'd be able to clean up a little." Kiyohi laughed almost immediately after she said 'a little'.
There was a slightly manic edge to her voice. Kiyohi covered her mouth.
Tenten looked to Gai. The jounin returned her look, one large eyebrow lifting about a centimetre. He tilted his head forward. You take this one.
So she did.
Tenten stepped closer to the anxious mother, speaking quietly. "Asami-san. We came to interview you about your son."
Kiyohi looked over at her, eyes widening a hair. "That's right! This isn't a social visit, is it?" Another faintly manic laugh. "I'm so sorry. You needed to ask me where I think Kenji is, didn't you?"
"That is part of why we came." Gai stepped forward. He tilted his head a little so he could look the tiny woman in the eye. It was then that the weapons mistress realised just how short Kiyohi was. She didn't even reach Tenten's shoulder.
Tenten placed a hand on Kiyohi's arm. "Mostly, we came to learn about your son. If we know a little bit about him, we might be able to figure out where he would have gone."
Kiyohi nodded, turning away. "I'm sorry. I'm no good at this. Hitoshi is much better at dealing with—" she cut off with a vague gesture and pointed at four or so zabuton on the floor. "Anyway, if you'd like, you can sit down. Do you want some tea or something? I can put it on the boil."
Gai merely shook his head once. "We appreciate the offer, Asami-san, but we will regretfully have to decline."
Tenten took a seat, considering. She surreptitiously put a finger in the collar of her cheongsam, adjusting the fabric so it would stop bothering her.
Asami Kiyohi was showing signs of mania, but not cooking or cleaning. She hadn't seen any evidence of gardening, either. Not that there was much to garden in weather like this.
So then what was Kiyohi doing to eat up all her time and bury her grief? Evidently nothing practical. An art, possibly.
"Asami-san, do you paint or write? Or practice a martial art?"
Kiyohi stopped where she stood. She half-turned, stiffly, and looked Tenten over. "No, I don't. I weave, though. I can do some serious damage with a shuttle. Does that count?" Self-deprecating laughter. "I'm sorry, that sounds so silly. I suppose another blanket just… sucked me in. It's still on the loom and I somehow managed to cocoon myself!"
Gai gave Tenten a questioning look, eyebrow raised again. He wasn't going to say anything right now, for some reason she couldn't fathom. She shrugged as a response to both his unspoken question and his decision. He knew more about dealing with upset people than she did, after all.
She mostly just dealt with geniuses and their antitheses.
The cheongsam was heavy. It was more than just keeping her warm— she was already beginning to feel hot. She shifted in her seat, pondering which route to take. Should she ask personal questions, putting Kiyohi at ease, or should she get right to business?
She shifted again, widening the space between her knees a little.
"Does Kenji like to watch you work?"
Kiyohi stiffened noticeably. After a moment, she moved to join them on the zabuton. Evidently, there wasn't going to be any tea. She folded her hands in her lap, legs and ankles tucked neatly under her. She was completely silent for a moment, head tilted down, eyes closed.
And then she sighed. "Kenji hates my weaving."
Tenten clucked in sympathy. "Do you make his clothes out of what you weave? Is that why he hates it?"
Kiyohi shook her head. "No, he doesn't mind the clothes. He just hates the shokki. When he was very small, he got his hand caught in the heddle." She sighed again, beginning to fidget. "He got his fingers tangled, and— he's hated it ever since."
Tenten nodded. That was entirely understandable. Senjen was still very unsure about visiting the forge. Ever since he'd gone in and nearly put his hand on a hot anvil, stopped only by their father shouting at him, he'd had a strong aversion to going near it.
"Did he wear something you wove him the last time you saw him? When was the last time you saw him?"
Kiyohi looked away. Gai watched her, paying close attention to every shift of her muscles. Every twitch, every stiffening, would tell him something— and if he couldn't interpret it, it would tell Neji something, when relayed to him.
Tenten leaned forward, placing a hand in the centre of the square formed by the floor pillows. "Asami-san?"
"He was wearing clothes I wove for him, yes." Kiyohi turned to face her, making eye contact. Her voice was indignant, as though Tenten had somehow impugned her ability as a mother. "I last saw him the morning he disappeared. I helped him find some clean clothes, packed him his lunch, and sent him to school. That was the last time I saw him."
Gai made a humming sound and tapped his finger against his chin. After a moment he asked, "Did your son not come home after school?"
"No. Kenji usually plays with his friends for a couple of hours in the afternoon before he comes home." Kiyohi gave a hard, forceful sigh. She rounded on Tenten. "And can you blame me? Our village is poor. The schoolhouse only has one room. All the children too young to help weave or fish, cramped into one little room without enough paper or books. It isn't wrong to let him have a little fun before he comes home!"
Tenten put up her hands, suddenly very aware of the cheongsam and the shawls. They felt even heavier now that she had Kiyohi glaring at her as if she had criticised her parenting.
"No, no! Of course it isn't! Children need to have a little fun sometimes." She probably should have slid backward. But somehow, the accusations filled her with the need to move toward the other woman. She touched the other woman's right hand. "No-one could blame you for that."
"I didn't do anything wrong. It isn't wrong to encourage him to play," Kiyohi murmured. Tenten could barely hear her.
The kunoichi furrowed her brows. "No, no, you didn't. Is that all you can tell us? Did they have a place they usually played? What about off-limits areas?"
Children did so love to go where they shouldn't, after all. If the parents hadn't looked there… Well. Then they were probably in denial. And it could cost their children their lives.
"They didn't have a usual place— not that I know of. He almost always comes home muddy, though. Sometimes it's the forest; sometimes it's kicking a ball around in the streets. They get dirty everywhere they go."
It was true. Jiang had some sort of radar for substances that could leave stains after six washings. He probably could have found a way to get dirty in the Hyuuga Compound, and the Compound was as immaculate a place as she could think of. Senjen was the same way, and Shin was at least a little like that (but not too much; Shin was The Good One, The Reliable One).
"But what about off-limits places? You did not mention any of those." Gai-sensei leaned forward, watching her intently.
Did he expect her to try to lie or evade? That wouldn't make any sense, though.
Kiyohi tugged some stray hair away from her face. So many flyaway strands remained that it didn't do anything. The woman probably hadn't adjusted her bun in days, or even brushed it.
"That's because there aren't any off-limits places. They're eleven years old, not stupid. We trust them to understand what's dangerous and to stay away from it."
"But when they were younger, surely they had to be told—"
The way Gai said it had Tenten wondering if maybe, just maybe, Kiyohi was hitting a nerve. The older woman was being obtuse, but they had dealt with far worse. Perhaps not with so many lives at stake, but still…
"The only place we've ever outright forbidden them from going is by Choujin Creek, and I can't see any reason why they would have played there." Kiyohi gave a firm nod. "They know exactly how dangerous it can be. All those caves— walking by that creek, you're lucky if you get away with just a twisted ankle."
A shiver ran down Tenten's spine. She swallowed, making eye contact with the other woman. She couldn't hold it. She had to look away quickly.
"Was that all you needed to know? I would like to get back to my blanket if I can. I've needed an extra for Kenji's room for a while now."
Gai nodded. He stood, straightening his legs and stretching. He was tall enough, had legs long enough, that it seemed like he was unfurling forever. Tenten didn't stand until after he did, and it startled her to realise that not even a minute had passed.
Her captain bowed. "Thank you for speaking to us."
Kiyohi laughed. It sounded wrong. Hollow. "You act as if it's some favour. How couldn't I?"
They showed themselves out.
Once they were outside, Tenten looked up. Whether the sun had risen or not was completely irrelevant. Heavy black clouds blotted out most of the sky. The air felt thick with humidity and heat.
The blot of brown ooze that passed for a yard made sizzling sounds. The thick, dark mud looked caked and cracking. It had begun to dry.
"No rain?" It was already late in the morning. Not yet nearing noon, but still. With clouds like that, there should have been rain.
Gai looked up, then looked over at her. His mouth quirked into a grin. "So it seems."
"Looks like I'm wearing this cheongsam for nothing," she grumbled.
He simply laughed. It was a low, booming sound that came from somewhere deep in his chest or his stomach.
Rather than protest that her situation wasn't funny (did he want to wear an itchy, heavy cheongsam for nothing?), she merely sighed and rolled her eyes. If the sun truly was the gypsy deity Tai Yang Shin, then at least somebody would her complaint.
"Where to next?"
He pulled the mission plans out of his back pocket and scanned over them. "Karimizu Kanau. Her two oldest sons are missing, Shinji and Ken."
"Do they live far from here?"
He chuckled. "Not far at all, Oleander. Just down this street a little."
Tenten eyed the mud, eyed their shoes, eyed the street that never seemed to end, reviewed Gai's geographic definition of 'a little' and then asked to see the directions.
Karimizu Kanau actually lived several muddy streets over. Unlike most other villages and major cities, Choujin Village evidently wasn't content to use numbers or the names of important people to name its streets. Oh no. It had to use small variations on the same name. Said variations barely even showed up in the kanji.
It was infuriating. It seemed to her that this town's population barely justified a collection of mud huts, never mind a complicated and useless system of streets. Tai Yang Shin, it was a fishing village!
The Karimizu household had a goat tethered in the front lawn. As they moved toward the door, the goat bleated at them.
Somebody hurried out of the house with a bucket full of grain. It was a woman in a yukata and several layers of slips. The woman had tucked the yukata high enough that her knees and calves were bare.
The goat happily dug into the contents of the bucket. The woman bent down, fondly scratching the goat just behind its horns, and then hurried away.
"Karimizu Kanau?" Gai called.
The stranger whirled around. "Yes! And you are?"
"I'm Maito Gai, and this is my student Tenten. We were hired to look for your children."
The woman put a hand on one hip. "Then why aren't you looking?"
Tenten swallowed back foul words, contenting herself with, "Two of us are. But we need more information so we can direct further searches."