▲ five time my muse thought about kissing yours, and the one time they did.
Five times my muse thought about kissing yours, and the one time they did.
“Why spend money on an inn when I got a perf’ctly good house you c’n stay at f’r free?”she’d asked him, bouncing off of her left foot. “Heehee…well awright, maybe notf’r free-free. I’d hafta charge a small fee…that you c’n pay with yourcomp’ny.”
The house issmall and run-down and on the edge of the fields—one bedroom, one bathroom;there had never been a need to make room for anything larger when she was theonly one living here—but it’s cozy and it’s got a garden she and Mama hadraised up from seeds with a plum tree and a pond around the back. No inn inKonoha can boast the same. Besides, she’s made up for the distance from themarkets of the village by stockpiling on what groceries she could not grow forherself, or else trading food and supplies with the neighbors in exchange forfixing this chicken house or tracking down that cat.
She wouldhave thought she’d feel comfortable with everyone by now with the number oftimes she’s run in and out of their farms and their stands. That she could lookat any one of them and call them her friend without that same dryness in herthroat and hollowness in her chest that she gets when the sun in a crueler moodcreates mirages of puddles on the path at the height of summer.
Never mind.Jiraiya is staying here. She insists. He has free range of every space exceptthe bedroom. The bedroom is, of course, hers.
Actually,she wouldn’t mind sharing it. In fact, she’d like that very, very, verymuch. But sharing a bed could lead to trouble she’s not brave enough to make orface, so she pulls all the furniture to the walls to lay out an old futon onthe floor in the den while he “takes the load off” in the backyard. She insistshe do so. He is a guest, plus the furniture (two chairs, a couch, a low table,a lamp) must be kept in order. It’s an order she can’t explain to him even ifshe wanted. It just makes her nervous if they are not perfectly parallel to thefaint round prints they’ve made on the carpet, like puzzle pieces she can findand easily click back into place when he leaves again. Pieces to a puzzle she’snot even sure she wants to keep anymore.
Her labor completed,she dabs at her brow with her headscarf, then goes to the kitchen to fish out apitcher of tea, chilled in the fridge, and two cups. It’s all right. Today, itis spotless. Well, as spotless as it can be for its age.
He’s alreadygotten comfortable on the stone bench overlooking the pond by the time she’s thrownback the screen door, kicking his wooden sandals off to the side and hoistingone leg over his thigh.
As soon asshe reaches him with the pitcher and stacked cups, she takes her turn kickingoff her padded sandals before taking the empty seat by his right. “I broughticed tea,” she announces, squeezing the stacked cups between her thick, softthighs—closer to her knees, mind—before tipping the pitcher to fill the topcup. There is no deeper meaning to the move beyond convenience, yet she mustpause at the sensation of eyes glancing down at…the cups? Her thighs? Both?Unlike him and his longer pants, she’s wearing shorts. No deeper meaning tothis other than dressing for today…although this is the shortest pairshe owns. And the night before, she’d endured lathering on that stinkyhair-removing cream to make her legs silky smooth to spare the razor. She neverdid that before meeting him. She’d never had a good reason to.
She leansdown and tilts her head to return the glance, heat flashing through her thathas nothing to do with the weather. Their eyes lock for a second before hisface splits into that broad, shameless grin that makes her melt inside. Has henoticed her legs?
For aninstant, she tries to imagine how it would feel to have her mouth over it whileher freshly shaved legs wrapped snugly around his waist and her bottom tuckedin his lap.
She can’t. Hissmile is too big. Or is hers too small? She’d end up kissing more teeth thanlip.
“Um…herey’go,” she stammers with a shake of her head, clutching the filled cup aroundthe rim as she uproots it to hand over to him. Then she tips the pitcher tofill the remaining up still tucked between her thighs.
Feel mylegs, she wants totell him. They’re smooth as silk!
Instead, sheleans in to rub her shoulder against his, asks, “So tell me all ‘bout yourtrip, right fr’m th’ beginning!” and crosses her leg in the opposite directionhe’s crossed his so hers can brush along it with a wiggle of her toes. He maynot be able to feel it through the fabric of his pants and his giant hands arepreoccupied with his tea, but at least he can see her dark skin shine in therays of afternoon sun cracking through the branches sheltering them.
Not that shedoesn’t care about his stories. She does; that’s why she asked for one. He isquite possibly the best storyteller she’s ever met after Papa. She just wisheshe would stroke her leg while he was at it and punctuate every other five or sosentences with a smiling kiss on her mouth.
But she’stoo afraid to ask for that second part. And he either misses the hint in histhirst—for tea—or is too afraid to take it.
He’s sittingcross-legged in the grass with the notebook in his lap and his pen pressed upagainst his face. Ah! The artist is contacting his muse. What does his muselook like? Do they have a name? What do they sound like? Are they temperamentallike he is?
She stopsabout two meters behind him and scratches her left cheek, then the nape of herneck. Should she bother him while he’s concentrating? The point of his pen is abit too close to his eye. He could poke it out if he’s not careful. If shesneaks up on him, he might just do that.
So sheshuffles off to the side like a crab and half-circles around him beforeplopping into the grass herself, about a meter in front of him, mimicking hiscrossed legs and the hand he rests his chiseled jaw in. She looks him over upand down as she waits for him to break out of his trance. In the meantime, hereyes come to rest on his pouting lips.
Those lipshave probably known at least a thousand other pairs of lips before she saw them…maybea million. For all she knows, they’ve kissed people here in this very village whenshe’s not there to see.
Not thatshe’s asked. It’s not her place to ask. She’s too afraid to ask.
Never mind.They’re all gone. It’s just him and her, right here, right now.
Do his lipsfeel as plush as they look?
What mightthey taste like? The eggs she’d cooked him this morning? Tobacco? Garlic? Saké?A rainstorm? The mountain air? The universe itself? Not that she’d know whatthe whole ever-loving universe tastes like. Maybe he might, though? Maybe theycould find out together?
Her reverieis broken by the jerk of Jiraiya’s head, his voice ringing through her like aprayer bowl as he asks what she’s staring at with a bemused smile. Has he gotsomething on his face?
“Ah, nothin’that wasn’ awready there, ahaha,” she giggles, making a triangle with herfingers to peek at him through as her stomach fills with foam. “Wha’cha workin’on over there? Can I see?”
He says he’snot sure, it’s just a seed of an idea at present. She can’t tell if he’steasing or not.
“Well, can Isee it anyway? I could help, I reckon! I know a l’il ‘bout growin’ seeds. Ifit’s leakin’ your new story you worried about, I won’ tell nobody. Promise!” Sheraises her left pinky in solemn oath.
Herheartbeat quickens when he reveals, after the slightest of pauses, that it’s apassage from one of his smuttier works.
“Ah…ah well,ladies c’n like smut too, don’t you know! C’mon, show me, show me it!”
This is howshe ends up curled behind him, chest pressed against his back and chin tuckedon his broad shoulder as he, with a little more gentle prodding (it’s hard tomake out his handwriting, no matter how hard she squints or what angles shetilts her head), tries to explain the context of this scene he’s working onbefore he reads the first sentence out loud to her with but a pause ofhesitation. He smells of parchment and smoked wood. She shuts her rubbingthighs as tightly as she’s able and tries to keep her hands on the level of hisbiceps—rather than his waist, where the twitch in her fingers tells her they’dreally rather be. Not that his biceps aren’t nice; they’re firm and musclyunder his sleeves. Those arms could shut out the whole world, or they could holdit together.
She justwants to melt into him, with a kiss on his sturdy neck if not his mouth.Instead, she takes its wild tail of cloud-white hair that’s always drapingbehind him and drapes it over her own shoulder and down her back. She couldhide under this hair. She would if only he let her.
TheVillage’s Madness. That’s the nickname everyone here has for him. Even afterlearning this tidbit, Aina has wondered who they’re talking about. Oh, it’s notthat she thinks they’re lying about the peeping and everything else,necessarily. Why would they make up things they knew weren’t true? She’d justrather check gossip on her own instead of taking it at face value. Is seeingnot believing? It could very well be an exaggeration or a case of mistakenidentity…even if there is no one quite like him.
There’s nosurefire way to account for all he gets up to when he’s out of sight—she hasn’ttold anyone about the two of them; all they’d do is judge, as if she needs anymore of that, and it’s not their business anyway—but with her, he has been arelative gentleman. Yes, he ogles and tells jokes that sound vaguely dirty, butthat’s what she wants. For him to notice her. To speak to her on his level.Only then can they grow closer.
That’s beenthe problem, actually. Maybe it’s because she’s been hiding things from him aswell and they’ve been mirroring each other in that way (consciously orotherwise), but she’s been unable to shake the feeling he’s been…holding backon her. Like he’s been telling himself he can’t make a mistake in front of her,lest he lose her respect. A total opposite from the stories she’s heardsecondhand about him.
What has shedone lately to make him think this way?
She’s on herway to the bathhouse thinking about him the day she catches him in the actherself. The whole walk up there, she’s been pondering if they should takethings to the next level and visit an onsen on their next date. Maybe not herein Konoha, though; the baths here are separated by gender. Jiraiya should knowsome good places outside the village where men and women can bathe together. They’llbook a room and share a bed, but not before they get a good long soak in therejuvenating hot spring. They’ll sit next to each other, skin to warm tenderskin, and she’ll rest her head on his broad chest and listen to his slowingheartbeat while she drapes his hair over them both and combs through the thickwet locks with her fingers. The rest of the world washes away in that bath in awisp, and all they’ll be able to see is each other.
She’ll keepa hand on his cheek to anchor them both, while the other traces the outline of thered lines that mark his face…then his nose and the silver piercing studding theleft nostril…then his lips, marking it for her own to find even as his faceflickers in and out of the steam…
Huh? Who’sthat over on the side of the fence?
She blinksout the blue and gold blurring her vision and makes out a large bright redhaori crouched down toward the sandy ground with the biggest mop of striking whitehair she’s ever seen.
He seems tohave come back early from his last expedition. What’s he doing over there? Herhead swims as if she’s just stepped out of a bath she’s soaked in for too long.She wobbles. Had he dropped something while hopping the rooftops? Did he sprainsomething?
Despite thedozen or two questions buzzing between her ears like radio static, she issilent as she walks to him, hands wringing in front of her. The pink flush inhis cheeks, highlighting the red marking on it, and the enticed coos driftingfrom his agape mouth, the likes of which he’d never made around her before,tell her everything she needs to know.
Still, shemakes no sound. Either time has slowed down or she has, like a turtle trappedin ice, as she waits for him to notice the holes she’s drilling into his back.Maybe he can’t feel them? His back is made of steely muscle.
She findsjust enough feeling in her legs to shuffle slightly to her left, her feetdragging extra-deep into the sand. This must break Jiraiya out of his trancebecause he turns his head with a whole-body jerk that would probably be comicalin other circumstances, his hair swiping to the side as he looks over hershoulder, stormy eyes wide with shock.
“Howdy,Jiraiya,” she mumbles flatly, returning his incredulous expression with a blankone as all but one thought crumbles into a puff of ash and smoke. “You, um, youfixin’ t’ have a bath, too? Ha. So was I. But the, ah…th’ entr’nce’s back‘round that way.” With a tremble of her fingers that ripples through the restof her body, she hoists up her left hand to point her thumb around the corner.“Y—you also standin’ on th’ women’s side. Th’ men’s bath’s on th’ oppositeside.”
One of themany things she loves about him is the broad funny faces he makes in nearly anysituation you can think of. If only she could muster up even half the humor andflair and confidence he has about life! She takes her turn to kneel down,mimicking his squat. A crane of her neck reveals a small round hole in thefence, the perfect size for inconspicuous peeping. Her breath still in herchest, she can hear the chatter and laughter of women in the bath, all of whompresumably naked and not yet aware they are being watched.
If she hadgotten into the bath any sooner, would he have noticed her in the group? Whatwould he have done, then?
She doesn’task. It doesn’t occur to her to ask. Her tongue keeps sticking to the roof ofher mouth. Her throat keeps tightening no matter how many times she gulps. Shecan’t get out much more than: “Ah. Hole in th’ fence. Gotta—gotta let ‘em know‘bout that. Th-th’ hole, I mean. Sounds crowded in there t’day…better come backanother day.”
It takes herlonger to stand back upright than it should. Never mind. There’s always thecreek. Or she could just walk back home and draw a hot bath, sprinkle in somesalts to simulate a hot spring.
Maybe sheshould have done that all along?
She turns onher heels and wobbles away. Her ankles suddenly feel weak, her insides rollingand twisting like raw ramen noodles. Her hands find their way up on her head,where they fist bunches of her own curls. Anything to keep from exploding whereshe stands. Her head hangs down to keep the sun off her brow. She tries toblock out his face by squeezing her eyes shut, but the inside of her eyelids isas red as he is. He’s bled indelibly into her thoughts.
“Quiet.Quiet, please, b—be quiet. I…leave me alone.”
Briefly sheslumps against the fence two meters away from him, snorting through hernostrils and panting through her drying mouth as she tries to get air back inher lungs. She doesn’t want to make a scene. Really, she doesn’t! She can’t standcommotion, especially in moments like these. She only pounds her fist once intothe fence to buck off whatever this thing is that’s crushing her into the dirt,break whatever seal is keeping all her energy in the pit of her floppingstomach.
She doesn’tsee the indentation her fist leaves, and she only vaguely catches a woman onthe other side demanding, “What was that?”
If theladies catch on to Jiraiya then and there, she wouldn’t know. The instant herfists recoils, she launches off the fence with her hands over her ears like akunai. Maybe a little slower.
They don’tsee each other again for three weeks.
To be fair, asit occurs to her once her head stops throbbing and her eyes are dry and morerational thought trickles back to her, she’d told him to leave her alone. Shehadn’t told him for exactly how long. She could have meant a day, a week, amonth, forever…he has not the luxury of waiting for her to calm down. He has peopleto see, places to go, books to write, a village to protect, a world to change,fancies to chase.
Did he…set upthat whole thing on purpose? He’s a shinobi, a spy. Surely he would have beenmore careful about not getting caught…unless he had meant for her tocatch him? Had the whole thing been a test? If it was, then she had failed it.
Why would hepeep on women who don’t want him to, when he could just as easily get someonewho wants him to watch? One of those ladies from the brothel, forinstance? Maybe one of his flings she hopes she never meets? Or…
Or could itbe that he most prefers people who don’t want him?
Where is thesense in that, she wonders with a turn within her bedsheets on anothersleepless night, tucking herself in as if she is resting in a cocoon—maybe inthe morning she will rise from it beautiful?
And yet, it mightexplain why he wouldn’t respond to her advances as she’d wanted him to.
But then whywould he have spent all that time on her that he could have just given to astranger? Jiraiya isn’t the type to waste time on people he doesn’t like. Whykeep coming back to her? Why send her those hydrangeas mottled with blue andpurple and pink, just like the emperor in the story?
Gratitude.Genuine emotion. Apology.
She ripsherself out of the cocoon of blankets to pull in the book next to her. Theflowers are still pressed in its pages. She traces the petals with the gentlestfingertip, able to tell their colors despite the dark of night concealing themfrom her sight. Heaven knows how often she’s taken them out.
Surely he’dmeant it when he’d said he wanted to try to…open up?
She rubs herwatering eyes on her forearm. She’s missing a piece to this puzzle, if notmore.
She’smissing his smile, his laughter, his stories, his colors, his handwriting, thetwinkle in his eye, his jokes that she doesn’t always get (at least on thefirst time he tells them), his warmth…even if the closest she’s ever gotten toit is through the cuff of their hands or the entwining of their arms.
All right,so he peeps sometimes. His eyes and his hands wander as much as his feet do. Hehas an inexplicable appetite for the joys of the flesh the size of Earth itselfshe’d never be able to satisfy—no matter how much she might wish she could. Butthat’s no reason not to have him in her life!
No…this isgood. This is good, actually! Whether Jiraiya had planned it or not, this was meantto happen. It’s a lesson. Love isn’t supposed to be conditional. The only wayyou can know that it is so is to have someone…hurt you? Disappoint you? Thosewords are too strong. Do something you wish they hadn’t. Yes, that’s it! Love mustbe unconditional if it remains even as someone does things you’d rather theynot.
Besides,what right has she to criticize? She’s…hardly a perfect person, herself. She’snot even really a good person. Frankly, she’s about a hop, skip, andjump away from being a monster—if she isn’t one, already. She’s taken thingsfrom people, up to and including their lives. Sometimes, she’ll leave thedishes unwashed and the stove cold for days because there are splatters ofblood that won’t come off the counters or the floor no matter how hard she scrubs.It doesn’t matter if this is a different kitchen than the one she and Mama had runout of all those years ago in the Land of Lightning, after she…
It seems nomatter where you go, you can’t run from yourself. Unless you change yourself.
Never mind. Ainagrabs her lantern and shuffles outside to brew a cup of tea in the firepit. Jasmine,this time. One of his favorites. It had been one of Papa’s favorite scents,too.
She mustn’tlet the past define the present, let alone the future.
She doesn’twant to return to loneliness again. Nor does she wish to cast him back into it.
She praysshe hasn’t destroyed their bond beyond repair as she searches for Hiruzen in hisoffice the following morning. Hiruzen used to be Jiraiya’s sensei. As Hokage,he would know, at the very least, his general whereabouts for missions. Sheneedn’t know where he is at the moment if it’s supposed to be secret. She justneeds to pass along a message.
“Oh? Andwhat might that be?” asks the old man with a bemused smile, removing the pipefrom his mouth before he speaks.
“I…it’skinda pers’nal, Hiruzen.”
“Sorry…L-LordThird Hokage. I’ll jus’ say this much. We kinda, ah, had a disagreem’nt las’time he was here…”
Is that theright word for what happened? She can’t think of a better one. “Fight” and“argument” imply mutual conflict. She hadn’t even given him a chance to explainhimself.
“…an’ I needt’ make up with ‘im. Please, when you see ‘im again, tell ‘im t’ meet me at myfarm any day a-at either sunrise or sunset.” The only two times she’s certainto be home. She’s not planning on camping or going anywhere else until this is settled.“He knows where it is.”
“Ah, I see.Well, I’m afraid I can’t give you any promises as to when I’ll see him. ButI’ll be sure to pass the word on for you when I do.”
“Ahaha!Yippee!” Aina softly claps her hands before pulling Hiruzen in for a tight hugthat lifts him off the ground, prompting him to drop his pipe. “Thank you thankyou thank you! I’m countin’ on you!”
“You’rewelcome,” he half-grunts, half-chuckles uneasily. “You can, er, let go of menow.”
She is outby the firepit watching the dimming sun sink into the trees that cradle theirvillage when she spots him in the corner of her tired eye. Five children fromthe orphanage dash past him with their pay for the day’s work either gripped intheir fists or bouncing in their pockets. They pay him no heed as they debateamongst themselves how they’re going to spend their award.
She hasn’thad the chance to freshen up, having spent the whole day showing the childrenhow to gather up the fruits, and vegetables, of their labor for market (nextweek, they’ll go over selling them). He will have to see her in her dirt-cakedwork clothes, tugging off her headscarf to wipe the sweat and dust off herbrow. To be fair, he hadn’t said when he was coming. Neither had Hiruzen, nomatter how often she’d come back to ask.
“Well, thisis new! Opted to hire some help, huh?” he asks her with a hand cradling theback of his head. He hasn’t changed a bit that she can tell from the last timeshe’s seen him. Thank Heaven!
She wringsthe old tattered scarf in her hands. She’s been practicing what to say to himfor the past two and some weeks. Yet now that he’s standing in front of her,she’s forgotten the opening lines. The sleepy orange glow of the sun bathesthem both, its warmth seeping through her like tea. Is it a good sign or a badone that he hasn’t asked why she’d requested his presence?
“Ah…yep! Ireckon you could call it that. I’ve invited th’ children fr’m th’ orph’nage t’ comehelp me ‘round my farm once a week. I get th’ chores done faster, they earnsome money, they learn import’nt skills they’re gonna need f’r life…”
And if allgoes well, they shall one day inherit this place. Not that she’s told them herplans, yet. It’s too soon. Maybe after they’ve gotten more comfortable here? Youcan’t take your worldly possessions with you when you die, and she has noremaining family to leave these things to. Those children could make good useof it. What else do they have in this world besides each other?
Jiraiyagives her this strange, crooked smile, cupping his chin in his fingers. “I see!Good thinking; kids’re cheaper, too.”
Aina tensesin her seat on the stone bench. “W-what d’you mean? I’m payin’ ‘em all asmuch’s I’d pay an adult for th’ same work.”
For amoment, Jiraiya blinks at her as though taken aback, though he quickly recoversfrom the confusion with laughter. “Ah, sorry! I keep forgettin’ you’re notfluent in sarcasm. My bad.” He places his left hand on his hip, while his rightflashes a thumbs-up accompanied by a wink. “Seriously, that’s great! Hopethey’re not givin’ ya too much trouble. Kids can get awfully stubbornabout hard, tedious work. I’d know that from experience—I was once one of them!”
Aina shakesher head. “They been awright. Th’ older ones do seem t’ ‘preciate th’ value ofthis work more easily than th’ younger ones, though.”
Then shefalls silent, peering down at her boot-clad feet. Her feet itch with heat andconfinement. Now, she supposes, is a good time to kick them off, so she rotatesto face away from the firepit and does so, placing her bare feet on the warmgrass. C’mon, Kame, get to th’ point!
She fixesher gaze on his sandal-clad feet. “I, ah…thank you f’r comin’ over.”
“Oh well,what choice did I really have?” he chuckles with a shrug. “The old man saidyou’ve been buggin’ ‘im every day askin’ about me since I left. He was all,‘Jiraiya, you’ve gotta talk to ‘er! I’m gonna lose what’s left of my hair atthis rate!’ So here I am!” he proclaims with a broad wave of his arms.
Her stomachgrows taut. The part about coming to Hiruzen for updates is literally true. Butis that really how Hiruzen had described it to Jiraiya? She can’t be thatbothersome…can she? She rises onto her bare, clammy feet, tying the old scarfaround her hands and tugging. “I…did’n’ know how else t’ contact you…an’ I gotworried he’d f’rget. What with how busy he is…”
Mustering apinch of will, Aina glances up to his face, where she notices the features ofit softening. One of his hands drifts back around the back of his head, thistime lowering to the level of his neck. “I may be hyperbolizing again. Aclassic writer’s technique. Anyway, I suppose we both share a little blame forthat. I never told you where I was goin’, and you, uh, ran off without askin’.”
She gulps.“I…that’s what I wanted t’ talk t’ you about, act’lly.”
Somehow, shewills her feet to move in his direction, far enough to let her come to a stopright in front of his toes. Her eyes glue themselves to his square chin. Hestill smells of parchment and smoked wood. Without touching him, the heat ofthe sunset radiates off him, like he’s a prism capturing the twilight.
It’s slight,almost invisible, but she could swear she spots him stepping backwards. Hishands rise up, palms facing her. “Hey, easy—”
What’s all thatfor? Her hands, now clenched in fists clutching the scarf, rise from the bottomof her vision.
“Uh, please correctme if I’m misreadin’ you, but you almost look like you’re about to hitsomething.”
Aina joltsin horror. No! She wasn’t going to hit him! She was just—she rapidlyshakes her head. After taking a moment to wrangle her hands out of the bindsshe’s created through her wringing, the scarf flutters to the ground, coming torest between their feet. A flag of surrender, perhaps? Her hands now free, theyfloat in front of her in space before lacing together in prayer.
Her eyesresume their place on his chin. Every few seconds, his lips bob into view fromthe top of her vision. “I—I reckon I been unfair t’ you. You…you been trynatell me all along how things are…how you are…an’ I ain’t lis’ned. I-Idid’n’ really lis’n. Ev’n when I thought I did. I’m…sorry I lost mytemper. An’…an’ I’m sorry if I made you feel unwant’d. I did’n’ mean to. I hopeyou c’n f’rgive me an’ my ignor’nce.”
Now it’s histurn to fall silent. She itches all over. Her eyes roll up to soak in his lips,which have pursed into a small, tight line. What is he think—
Aina tumblesbackwards to land on her rear in the grass, a short jolt of electricity rippingthrough her. Towering over her, Jiraiya makes the hand sign to dispel genjutsu.
“Hmmm…eitherI’ve fallen under a genjutsu, or I’ve somehow stumbled through a portal into abizarre parallel universe. What was that last thing you said, Aina?”
“I hope youc’n f’rgive me an’ my ign’rance…why’d you think you’re in a genjutsu?” sheasks, momentarily short of breath.
He laughsagain, this time more softly. “Beg your pardon. This is just the first time inmy life that I can recall an instance of a woman catching me red-handed with myresearch and she apologizes to me, instead. It’s so strange…I’d even goso far as to call it eerie. Unreal. So if my senses aren’t mistaken, then maybeyours are?”
“B-but I’mtellin’ th’ truth! I been thinkin’ ‘bout this f’r weeks I mean ev’ry word I’msayin’ right now!”
In a second,he kneels to her with a hand outstretched in offering. “I believe you,” hesays, more softly, this time, as he glances off to the side at something downthe road only he can see. “I mean, I believe you now. I’m just…a bit in shock.”
She doesn’tnotice his hand, right away. She’s staring more fully at his mouth, soaking inhis words. Has this happened before? Him getting caught peeping, or looking atsomeone else? Playing with someone else? Had all the other women before herreacted more…angrily? She can’t find it in her to ask, but that might explainhis supposed shock.
It takes herlonger than it should to finally notice his hand, and her depth perception mustbe suddenly gone because she grabs his forearm instead. He hoists her upnevertheless with breathtaking ease, and in another hitched breath, they’restanding chest to chest and she swears she’s floating, every hair on her bodystanding up from the soft current of electricity coursing from the point whereher hand clutches his arm.
Can he feelit, too? Or is this more like a flock of thunderclouds striking the earth withlightning before drifting onward? Whichever it is, for a second, she wants tofeel that spark dance between their mouths. The lighting is so tender and perfect.She wants to dip him in her arms—to Hell with their size difference!—and pepperhis mouth with slow, long kisses, only pulling away to get enough air to chant Ilove you I love you I love you I love you—
Instead, sheblinks hard, shakes her head, pulls away to rub the dust and tears and reveriefrom her eyes. Damn it! She isn’t supposed to do this! She’s got to stopthis, for both their sakes! “Th-thank you. F-f’r helpin’ me up,” she mumbles.
“No problem.So, uh…what, now? I got a feelin’ that’s not all you wanted to say,” hecomments, arms akimbo now that they are free. “What are you thinkin’?”
She swallowsdown a lump that may or may not be her heart. “Well, ah, way I see things asthey are now, it appears we want, um, s-somewhat diff’rent things…when it comesto romance, I mean. I’m pretty awful sure I am, as some folks would call it, inlove with you. But…I don’ think you don’ feel quite this same way ‘bout me. Whoknows if, o-or when, y’ever will?”
He doesn’tanswer, and her heart sinks to her feet on top of the scarf. Silence can be ananswer in itself, she’s found. Is that a “no, I never will”? An “I don’t know”?It most certainly cannot be a “yes”. If it were a “yes,” he would say it to theuniverse.
Would he notalso say so if it were a “no”?
She forcesherself to look him more squarely in the eye. “Well, that—that’s fine.” No. Itdoesn’t feel fine. But no wound does when it’s fresh. If she leaves it be, itwill heal with time. The physical ones work like that, at least. Surely thissort of wound does, too?
“It willbe fine. Let’s not worry ‘bout that no more.” She’s swaying side to side on herfeet, the daze still tipping around the edges of her mind. “I…won’ try bein’your girlfriend no more. I mean, aha, I wasn’ never really your girlfriend t’start with, right? Fr’m now on…I’ll, ah, I’ll be your friend who happ’ns t’ bea girl.”
Yes, thereis a difference. Sometimes she loves words. Sometimes she loathes them.Especially the ones with more than one meaning.
He frowns.“I’m not sure I follow.”
“Well, w-wegot that much in comm’n now, don’ we? We are friends. We done found friends ineach other…I don’ wanna give that up no-how! You—” Gulp. “You c’n gowhere y’want, see who y’want, come-n-go as y’want, an’—a-an’ tell me only asmuch’s you wanna tell me.”
Actually,she doesn’t want to hear about the others. Not that he’s bragged aboutthem to her! But until now, she’d figured that was because he was trying tohide them…without really hiding them. But if she’d said, “I don’t wanna hearnone of it,” he might take it as her passing judgment on him. Or jealousy. She’snot sure if both are true—from the bile that’s boiled up her throat, at least oneof them is—but she won’t say it either way. She can’t afford to. It’s best toleave that part to his discretion. He surely won’t be so cruel as to shareevery sordid detail of his affairs now that he needn’t hide them anymore…exceptmaybe in his books, dressing it up with embellishment and selling it as fiction.
Never mind!If she doesn’t have names or faces or voices, it should be easy enough not toimagine them. She has not the energy to give them these. She still has more tosay. The rest pours out of her like blood from a vein in her arm. The rightone, which she takes a moment to squeeze as she re-focuses on his eyes. They’velost some of their shine, if only for this moment. Is that because of her?
“I-I onlyask in r’turn that you…you let me stay a part of your life. I—I wanna keepmakin’ breakfast with you an’ have you in my gard’n writin’ an’ read yourmanscripts ‘fore anybody else does. I wanna go fishin’ with you an’ learn howt’ play mah-jongg with you an’ see parts of th’ world I ain’t never seen an’ Iwant you by my side as my guide. I wanna hear all your stories and laugh at allyour jokes even if I don’ get ‘em th’ firs’ time around. I wanna keep doin’ allwe been doin’, but without any, ah…expectation of any romance. Or, um, s-sex.”The last word tears out of her like a hiccup.
“But Ireckon most of all…I want a chance t’ prove you ain’t gotta pr’tend you neversad with me. That you c’n come t’ me f’r help of any kind. I—I wanna besomebody you go to when you are sad. I want you t’ trust me.” I wannatrust you, too!
“An’ I-I nowreckon that c’n only happ’n if we, um…focus on jus’ bein’ friends. ‘Cause areal friend’s somebody you ain’t gotta try t’ impress all the time.”
One day, shehopes, she will tell him the whole story of how she’d ended up here. So far,she’s only fed him the more palatable pieces. But like romance, that can wait.This is all about him.
He doesn’tanswer right away and she’s paralyzed. Did she say it all wrong? Is she wrongabout their mutual desire for friendship, too?
“Ah, I’mlistenin’, I’m listenin’!” he insists with a hard nod. “Sorry, it’s just a lotto process. Soooo your point is, we should just be friends. For now?”
She nodsmore rapidly. “Please! I-I ain’t pr’posin’ this ‘cause I don’ love you no more!I’m doin’ it ‘cause I do! I—” Oh, she might as well, if honesty is thegoal. “You ain’t stopped bein’ attractive t’ me! I-I almos’ can’t stand it! Wetouch an’ it’s like you send sparks through my whole body…”
Suddenly hesmiles as if to write over a grimace, like he’d eaten a spoiled piece of friedchicken he hadn’t realized was spoiled in his hunger and is just now feeling itchurn through his guts. Could they even work as a couple anyway, when he loveschicken so much while she retches at the mere smell of cooked meat, spoiled orfresh? “You get electrocuted every time we touch? That doesn’t sound verypleasant…”
So hedoesn’t feel it, too?
What doeshe feel when they touch?
“B-but it is!It’s much more th’n ple…I-I’m not explainin’ it right! Lotsa times, it’s—it’s muchsofter. An’ warmer. Feels like all my muscles loos’n up…”
“Ohhhh.”He perks up, eyes widening and lighting up with renewed clarity. It’s amazinghow quick his face changes expression from one moment to the next. Like onelightning strike to the next. “Y’mean like…vibrations?”
“Ah, yes! Ireckon so!” Vibrations, like the soothing downpour of hot water along her bodyin the shower. Or a summer rain. She can think of nothing better to describeit.
“Ha!So I’m a walking, talking vibrator! I knew my sex appeal was beyond measure,but it seems I’ve grown so potent as to make a woman tremble just through thecasual brush of my fingertips!” he declares with a theatrical roll of his headand a flash of his palms.
Is this oneof his jokes? Or is he implying something more behind his antics? She doesn’task. In that moment, nothing else matters except the brilliant grin returningto his face. Yes! This is the first dirty joke he’s told in front of her (or atleast the first she’d realized in the moment was a dirty joke). It’s working! He’sopening up, bit by bit!
The sight ofthat grin splitting his face splits apart the tension in her own body, and withthe warmth of the last lingering rays of the sunset flooding her full cheeks,she holds her fluttering stomach, no longer so taut, and laughs with him. Abovethem, the sky starts to paint over the pearly pinks with velvety violets.
When thelaughter tapers off into giggling and the giggling ebbs, Aina rubs her eyes onher wrists and steps forward, reaching out for him only to jerk into a stop.
Jiraiyapeers down at her, his smile shortening but otherwise stuck on his face. “Ithink we got a little off-topic, there. But I understand. Maybe we shouldtake a break? From romancing, I mean,” he says with a wink that melts heralmost as much as his touch does.
“Uh-huh…youain’t disappointed, are ya?”
“Oh, no! Me,disappointed? Noooo…mm, well, awright, maybe an itty-bitty bit,” headmits, pinching his index finger and thumb as if holding a grass seed betweenthem. “But that’s a me-problem. I know I can be overpowering in largedoses—even in small doses. We have been getting real hot-n-heavy. It’sfor the best we cool it for a while.”
Aina’s mouthmakes an “O.” “Really? ‘Cause I been worried that maybe I beenoverpowerin’ you?”
The twilightis either playing tricks on her eyes, but Jiraiya turns a touch paler, thoughhis complexion turns ruddy again with a crooked smirk. “Oh sweetheart, youdon’t have that kind of power!”
Hershoulders slacken. What kind of power does she have?
There arevery few things she dislikes about him. She could probably count them on onehand, but only if she felt like sitting and thinking about it, and most days,she’d rather not. One of said things is how he sometimes says things withoutthinking about how they might make people feel. As a writer, he shouldappreciate the power of words better than most. Either the link between hismind and his mouth is fickle, or it’s another one of his seal-enforceddefenses.
“Jiraiya?Are…friends allowed t’ hug each other? Or would that be too…”
A stupidquestion, maybe. But between what she’s just confessed to and the fact that hemay well be the first friend she’s had in years that she could call her friendwith a fuller feeling in her chest…she honestly doesn’t know. When she wassmall, she used to get pushed to the ground by the other children who lived onher street when she’d try to hug them. Their faces are blurs to her now, their scoldinghalf-coherent crackles in her memory, but the scrape of the clay against herlegs taught her well.
Adults are,usually, more subtle about their displeasure when it comes to their personalspace being encroached upon, but the lesson was the same: don’t touch.
Somethingflickers through his face that almost looks like pain, like she’s accidentallystepped on his toes. Has she? His pain tolerance is extraordinarily high—canhis toes even be stepped on in a way that could cause him discomfort? Not thatshe’s inclined to find out. She shuffles back a bit just in case.
“Heh-heh! I can’tspeak for everyone else’s stance on it, but I personally don’t see why not. Ifa hug is what you want,” he says, holding out his arms. She wastes little timelaunching herself into them. Her arms are just a bit too short to link togetheraround his torso, but she’s just as happy to bundle him up in them, to bury herface in his chest and wash away the troubles of the day and the past threeweeks with his scent. The electricity from before has morphed into a more solidwarmth, the likes of which she gets from a hot spring. The sort of cleansingheat that assures her everything will be all right.
There isalso a hint of tobacco wafting about him. And spilled saké. He must have had asmoke and a drink before coming here.
She turnsher head to press her cheek against his sternum. “Thank you. An’ welc’me home,Jiraiya. I really missed you.”
Either she’simagining things again or he tenses in her embrace. Was she not supposed to saythat?
He doesn’tsay he’s missed her back. Does he really have to, though? He’s gone out of hisway to see her. He never would have come here just because Hiruzen had urgedhim to. That alone should prove his feelings. Jiraiya says a lot, but as witheveryone, she supposes, one needs to look more closely at his actions to knowbetter what he means.
Aina sighsas his arms strap over her, rub the spot between her shoulder blades. Thepurple of dusk darkens into silvery blue. “Ah, since you’re here…I’m makin’soup f’r dinner. Kenchinjiru. I’d love you t’ come help me cook it. It’s allveg’tables but it’s very filling. We’re gon’ cook it outside over th’ fire…withth’ stars out.”
The kitchenis too messy to look at.
When shetakes his hand to lead the way to the firepit, his warmth simmers more evenlythroughout her being. Her hand could very well be glowing with it. It’s enoughto make her swing their arms.
Jiraiyabeams at her. “Veg’table soup, huh? Under the stars? Sounds like my kinda setup!”
Aina leansto rub her arm against his. It’s smooth and firm, like one of her crystals.“I-I’m jus’ gonna say this, an’ then I ain’t gonna say no more ‘bout it. If you’regonna, um, peep, you oughta be sure th’ people you peepin’ on really wanna be,ah, peeped on.”
Tsunade.Orochimaru. Jiraiya hasn’t shared too much about them, and it’s not from a lackof asking on Aina’s part. What she does know about them that she didn’t getfrom Jiraiya, she’s gotten secondhand from neighbors. They’re war heroes.Konoha’s Legendary Sannin.
She’s notsure how oblivious he thinks she is, and it’s true that she may notparticularly smart, but even she can’t ignore the way he speaks of them in theoccasions when he does, how his eyes light up when he says their names. Hetends to stick with happier memories when sharing with her—of which he isspoiled for choice. How he used to be rivals with Orochimaru and pursueTsunade’s love no matter how many times she shot him down (sometimes literally).How he and Orochimaru shared what little they had with each other, with Tsunadechipping in as the richest of them being the granddaughter of Hashirama, theFirst Hokage. How the three of them used to gang up on Hiruzen and worked seamlesslyoff each other in combat…even if they frequently disagreed off the field.
Then hestops before his yarns roll into unhappier territory.
Just whereare they, now? Do they ever call? Ever write? Ever write back?
How is it hisfault that Tsunade had caved in from her grief and Orochimaru had gone mad withhis ambition? Why keep running away from people who want him to keep chasingafter people who, from what she can tell, do not—even if they might haveat one time?
He won’ttell her.
Does shehate them? She’s not sure. But as things stand now, she’d probably spit in boththeir eyes, if she ever saw them. She doesn’t even know them or theirsides of the story and she’s imagining spitting in their eyes. How insane isthat?
They’dprobably kill her for her disrespect. Either of them could snap her in pieceslike a twig. Together, they could grind her up into splinters too soft topierce their skin. But somehow the image of dying by their hands doesn’t chillher all that much.
No. What doesis the accompanying image of Jiraiya doing nothing to stop them if it came toit. Because he’d be too in love with them to raise a hand against them. Noteven for her sake. In her dream, she can hear him garble into her ear as shebleeds out that she should understand their pain.
Never mind!Never mind, never mind, never mind! She’s just overwhelmed by the buzzing lightsand the shouting and laughter across the street on either side of her. Aboveher, Jiraiya starts to slide off her, forcing her to stop and hoist him back upon her back and shoulders until he becomes a cape of blushing, gurgling, dimlyconscious hair and flesh reeking of musk and alcohol trailing behind her.
What are thechances such a meeting with the other two would happen, anyway?
She hadgotten home later than she’d planned from her camping trip, held up by both herpondering over when and how to pitch her new idea to Jiraiya about becoming ashinobi (even if she never had much in the way of formal training and she can’task Hiruzen about getting registered, for fear of him finding things out abouther if he looks her up—then again, won’t Jiraiya, too?) and an injured turtleon the road whose side she had refused to leave until she was certain it wouldmake it. She’d spotted Jiraiya slumped against the front of one of his favoritebars, drool pooling at the corner of his scowling mouth as he’d taken swipes atsome youngsters who dare to make passes at his pockets, tossing a slurred curseor two their way. In an instant, she’d descended upon the rogues, swatting themback with her frying pan before they’d given up and disappeared.
He’s alwaysbeen fond of the drink, almost as much as he’s fond of people, but it’s…notlike him to get this intoxicated. With his size, he would have had todrink at least twenty bottles of saké to make this happen. Or maybe ten bottlesof something stronger, like whiskey. What could have possibly happened to drivehim to this? A really bad day, is her best guess. The explosion of one too manybad days crammed and shaken in the same bottle.
Suppose shecould ask Mama the same question? They’d rather get “wasted” than talk abouttheir pain or even acknowledge it. Aina herself has pondered the value ofalcohol to numb her own, only to decide against it. Somebody has to remain thesober one, and anyway, she’s tried it once. She hadn’t liked being drunk.Jiraiya likely wouldn’t like her drunk, either.
How is shesupposed to understand anyone’s pain, never mind his, if they won’t tell herabout it? Hypocrite! Does he think she can’t handle it? Why, because she wasn’tthere like they were? Because she isn’t strong or smart like theyare? Well, if he’s trying to protect her from it, it’s not working. And if thisis a ploy to drive her away…that’s not working, either.
Aina can’tcarry him all the way home like this. Not with her skin and skull threateningto split open from all this overload. Luckily, there’s an inn just a few morestaggering steps away that she can just barely make out in the haze of black,gold and red. It seems decent enough.
One room,one bed. She’ll pay for it. She’ll apologize to the innkeeper in the morningfor snapping at her the instant she’d crossed over the threshold. She justneeds to get him a bed to sleep in and herself a corner in which to sew hermind back together.
EitherJiraiya is too big or the bed is too small, because when she rolls him onto it,his arms and legs dangle off the sides like the air roots of a banyan tree, hishands and knuckles brushing the polished wooden floor. He’s missing one of hissandals, the right one. It must have slipped off while she was dragging himdown the street. Hopefully, it’ll still be out there tomorrow. Even if not, hecould be missing more important things.
Aina sits atthe foot of the bed with her knees curled up to her chest, eyes shut andmatching her breath to the circles she rubs with her left thumb into the rosequartz tucked in her hand. All the lights are out save for a few beams ofartificial light peeking through the cracks in the shades. She can’t standlights any longer, not until these rings and worms have left her vision. Behindher, Jiraiya snores away like a chorus of bullfrogs. Two dozen bullfrogs.
It could behalf an hour later; it could be more than an hour later. There is no clock tocheck even if she wanted one. However long it takes, Aina pushes herself backup on her feet to check up on him once she feels stable enough again, thequartz still clutched in her hand. One of Papa’s crystals. It attracts love andenables healing. Its rosy pink color and warm smooth texture, at least, sootheher in times like these.
Aina hoversover him to untie his lumpy horned forehead protector, pausing to trace thekanji etched into it before she sets it aside. “Oil.” Oil feeds fire. The toadsfrom Mt. Myōboku make their own special oil. That’s probably what Jiraiya’sband is referring to. She hopes he’ll take her to see that place sometime.Hopefully, she’ll be worthy of it by the time they make that pilgrimage.
His mouthhangs open in a way that can only be described as unflattering, fluttering withevery snore. The scent of alcohol hangs even heavier on his breath than it doeson his clothes. And yet, as she combs back those thick, damp white bangs withher fingers, she sees herself latching her mouth onto his, the two of themadrift in space and the darkness. She’d inhale all his demons through theirkiss and store them at the bottom of her lungs like smoke.
Then she’dtrack down Tsunade and Orochimaru and spit them all into their eyes. It’d onlybe right that they should take his demons. They’re the ones who cursed him.
She slapsher own cheek. Stop it! Stop it stop it stop it!
She doesn’thave that kind of power—literally or figuratively. She is petty, selfish, tooweak in spirit. In such concentrated form, the demons might consume her. Shehadn’t the stamina to even walk to her farm tonight. It’s one reason why shefollows him. Even if he hasn’t necessarily reached enlightenment himself, he hasgotten closer to it than she has.
Besides,even if she had the capacity, she couldn’t take them upon herself if Jiraiyawon’t give them up. An exorcism only works when it is sought out by theafflicted.
With aresigned sigh, Aina places her rose quartz next to his headband. He can borrowit for a while. May it soften the edges of his dreams…whatever, or whoever,those might look like.
Her lefthand free, she smacks her lips against her palm before pressing it gently to hisflushed cheek. “G’night, Jiraiya,” she whispers, not expecting a response. Shewishes she could climb into bed with him, tuck his arm over herself and resther weary head on his chest, drift off to sleep to his heartbeat. But there’s no room, and even if there was, itwould just cause trouble. More trouble than she has the courage or energy toface.
Never mind.She’ll set up her sleeping bag on the opposite side of the room.
Before shepulls away to do just that, Jiraiya’s head turns into her hand so his cheek iscradled more fully in her palm, squeezing her hand into the mattress. Maybeit’s an accident; maybe it’s subconscious? Either way, her heart aches at thetouch, tender as a bruise. Every part of her aches as his warmth seeps throughit.
So shelingers, only pulling away when she remembers that he ought to be on his siderather than his back. In case he throws up before he regains consciousness. Shecan never be too careful.
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