Ibiki had been not so much dreading this moment, as putting it off until it absolutely had to be dealt with. He'd been avoiding even thinking about it since that day a week ago when a list of newly recruited ANBU agents had caught his eye. The document had been lying in plain sight on Shida's desk, stamped with the red inked seals that marked it highest security. A pencil casually dropped on the papers had obscured birthdate and rank, but pretty well underlined the name and registration number of his friend and former genin teammate, Shiota Natsumi.
Shida had probably set it up like that, laying the pencil just so, Ibiki thought. It was the sort of mind game his mentor liked to play.
Ibiki hadn't let it throw him. He'd continued that day's interrogations without interruption, and only after hours done a little discreet digging to ascertain that Natsumi was indeed joining ANBU's ranks.
He should have congratulated her, he told himself, but it was awkward. She'd talked too many times, with too many stars in her eyes, about joining ANBU's exalted ranks. When they'd advanced to chuunin together, it had been one thing, but at seventeen he'd easily made special jounin, while Natsumi, with her weak chakra, remained a chuunin. Her bitter envy, beautifully disguised to all but Ibiki and maybe her family, had been enough to convince him it would be the height of cruelty to taunt her with his having joined ANBU when he did.
Nearly two years had passed, during which the lies had come easier and easier to his tongue. Working in Intel. Classified. Nothing he could talk about directly. His meetings with Natsumi had been regular, though infrequent, and it had been a simple matter to tell her about his brother, his mother, his latest model ship, and omit the details about what he'd been doing lately. He'd even found ways to tell her, in little half-truths, stories from work. He'd heard about an interrogation in which this funny thing happened. He talked to a guy from T&I who reminded him of their old sensei.
It had been harder and harder to even consider telling her the truth.
He turned around, coat swirling around his shins like a guilty conscience--like a sign in glowing letters telling her he wasn't just in Intel, not even just in ANBU, but wore the uniform of ANBU's Information Extraction unit. More commonly known as torture and interrogation. His own parents didn't know he worked there.
"Natsumi." He smiled, but didn't take a step towards her yet. "I only just heard you got the tojou promotion and took the oath." His fingers traced out a salute, caressing the hidden tattoo on his left biceps. "I was going to come find you..."
Shida could probably smell that lie all the way down in the basement. Ibiki hoped Natsumi was a little less astute.
"If you were looking for me," Natsumi said dryly, "you were heading in the wrong direction."
It was ridiculous, really, the way his smile made her own mouth twitch in response. Even as a boy he'd been solemn, almost stern, with an uncanny ability to make even upperclassmen at the Academy think twice about their plans to bully the new kids. But when his scowl split into a grin, Natsumi had never quite been able to keep from smiling back.
He knew it, too. And he was using it. Natsumi closed the distance between them in a few quick steps and stopped an arm's length away. Surely he wasn't any taller than he'd been the last time she'd seen him, but he still seemed to loom more than she remembered. Maybe it was the uniform, high-collared grey tunic and trousers under the heavy black coat, black gloves hiding his hands. Maybe it was that unmistakable salute, a gesture she'd never seen him make before. And yet he made it as easily, almost unconsciously, as her father did, with the familiarity of old use. No awkward fumbling, no itching bandage under that sleeve...
"How long have you been here?" She crossed her arms, bathing bucket dangling from her hand. "Why didn't you tell me?"
One of the things Ibiki liked best about Natsumi was that there was no compromise with her. You always knew exactly where you stood with her, what she wanted, what you were supposed to do. They were a good fit that way, good teammates, good friends.
Right now, though, he felt no more at ease with her than his subjects felt when he asked his first question. He reached a hand up to slick his ponytail down, in case any stray hairs were there to catch Natsumi's ire. Then thought he should have left them, because stray hairs might have distracted her from everything else.
"I joined nineteen months ago," he said. "I was recruited. And I didn't tell you because..."
Because I didn't want to see that hurt look in your eyes. Because I didn't tell anyone. Because it's not the sort of job you brag about. Because, because, because...
"Because I couldn't." He backed up a few steps, stopped in front of number 327 and keyed open the door. "This is my apartment. I was just getting home. Might go down to the cafeteria for some food. You want to come in?"
Changing the topic was a genin's trick, but maybe her curiosity about his living quarters would buy him time to think up a better answer?
Natsumi glanced down, dismayed, at her loosely belted yukata and little wooden bathing bucket. Well... Better his room than the hall. And he'd seen her in much less, anyway.
And he was distracting her again. How did he do that?
"Nineteen months," she echoed, as he stood back to hold the door for her. "Recruited." At least he hadn't softened that blow. Recruited for ANBU at nineteen, back when people were telling her she'd never make special jounin and shouldn't wear herself out trying... She shed her geta, leaned against the gleaming formica surface of the kitchen counter, and stared blindly at the worktable where Ibiki built his model ships. The little drawers of tools and parts were all carefully labeled, and there was a half-finished boat on a stand, with a neat array of spars spread out around it. Ibiki's room was one she'd never had to tidy while visiting, even when they were children. He appreciated the importance of well-ordered surroundings and a well-ordered mind as much as she did.
The spider plant on his windowsill was beginning to wilt. She focused on that instead.
"That's the Intel uniform, isn't it? Takeo's is the same, except he doesn't have the coat or the gloves. And his generally isn't ironed." Her brother turned artfully dishevelled into a fashion statement. Half the time she was convinced he did it solely to drive her mad.
"I didn't know ANBU Intelligence agents wore the same uniforms as regular village Intel. Should I have guessed? I wondered why you and Takeo never mentioned running into each other, but I thought you were both just busy. And you and he never got along very well, did you? Still."
Nineteen months. And he'd never said anything, even when she babbled about how close she was to finally receiving her promotion to special jounin, even when he sipped green tea and listened to her plot out her assault on her dreams.
"Did you really not believe I could do it?"
Ibiki took a deep breath, hunching his shoulders, then letting them drop. He stripped off the leather gloves and pushed them into the pockets of the coat, then removed the coat and hung it on a heavy wooden hanger in a closet near the door.
The thing to do was to figure out how to answer her to get the most desirable reaction. To tell her enough of what she wanted to hear to pacify her, without tipping his own hand too much.
No, the thing to do, because this was Natsumi, his friend, was to leave all that sort of thinking in the basement where it belonged.
What Natsumi probably wanted was exactly what she was asking for anyway. The truth, unvarnished, heavy as a bludgeon if need be.
"I didn't think you had the chakra reserves to make special jounin." He pulled two glasses down from the kitchen cabinet and opened the refrigerator. "And I didn't think your parents would let you join ANBU, or that you had the will to defy their wishes. You still like pineapple juice, right?"
"Yes," Natsumi said, numbly. She set the bucket down on the floor at her feet, accepted the glass of pale yellow juice, and took a sip without tasting it. She'd known his opinion of her chakra reserves, of course; everyone else shared it. There was a reason shinobi didn't often marry civilians, and it wasn't only because civilians found it so difficult to adjust to their loved ones' brief and bloody lives. Shiota Takahiro had been one of the most talented jounin of his generation, but his son Takeo had less than three quarters of his father's chakra. Natsumi had even less. The day she'd finally accepted that she'd never inherit the family summoning contract had been one of the bitterest of her life.
But she hadn't let that hold her back, and she'd never quite believed he'd thought it would.
"My mother refused to give her consent until I made special jounin. My father supported her. But--he believed in me, too. And he stood sponsor for me, when I swore my oath."
Would she have gone against his wishes if he'd refused?
The tang of pineapple juice couldn't quite drown the bitter flavor of the truth. She set the glass down half-full on the counter. "I proved you wrong anyway, Ibiki-kun. That's a rare occurrence. I think I'll savor my victory."
It didn't taste much like one.
Natsumi called him kun in two cases, Ibiki thought. When she was feeling nostalgic, and when she was putting him in his place. He supposed he deserved it.
"I'm glad your family is behind you," he said. "ANBU is lucky to have you." He paused, then grinned. "I'll be able to keep a better eye on you if you're here, too. I should have thought of it months ago." Before she could hit him, he raised his hands in surrender, and picked up his juice. She wouldn't hit him while he had a full glass in his hands--too messy!
The juice was refreshing and cold. That was something that Ibiki had been surprised by--that conducting interrogations made him thirsty. But they did. It was the talking, so much talking. Talking to the subject, talking to colleagues about the subject, talking to Shida-sensei about all of it, analyzing the sessions on tape, deciding when the subject had been lying, when he'd told the truth. When the interrogator had missed an opportunity, and when he'd struck gold.
Or she. There were only two female interrogators, but they were devastatingly effective in the right situations.
His eyes slid to the closet briefly, then back. Natsumi hadn't said a word about the coat, only the dress greys. Did she really not know what that black leather mantle meant?
"I don't spend much time with the codes and ciphers department, or in Main Village Intel. So I haven't seen your brother." He said it casually, dropping the bait into deep waters. She needed to know. He needed her to ask. And he definitely didn't want her to find out just exactly what the rest of ANBU thought of Morino Ibiki from someone else.
"You told me you were in Operations Analysis," Natsumi said. "And that you couldn't really talk about it. I take it that was a cover, too?" She tried to cleanse the bitterness from her voice, to sound calm, reasonable, slightly intrigued. She ended up just sounding flat. "You're not a field operative." He'd always been a superb analyst; it had made perfect sense when he told her he'd joined the village Intelligence corps. But his dark gaze remained level, patient, waiting for her to come up with the answer.
She'd hated that gaze when she was fifteen and asking questions he refused to answer for her. She didn't like it any better now. "What have you been doing? What am I supposed to figure out?"
His eyes flicked over her shoulder again. She half-turned and saw only the closet, one sliding door revealing uniforms, casual clothing organized by type and color, stacked boxes labeled in black marker. The long black leather coat hung at one end, drawing the eye like an inkblot in a scroll painting. Was that supposed to be the answer?
"You've taken up clubbing?"
She really doesn't know what that coat means. Ibiki took a long, slow breath through his nose, and blew it out through pursed lips. Natsumi had always been impatient, he told himself. When there was something to puzzle out--a note from their sensei, a book of sudoku, a fork in the trail--and Ibiki solved the problem first, he would wait for her to catch up, dropping hints if he had to, trusting she was smart enough to work it out for herself.
She hadn't liked it when they'd been genin, and she didn't like it now, obviously, as her absurd guess about clubbing hinted.
"I work internally," he said evenly, walking over to his coat and extracting his gloves--thin, supple, black leather, still warm from his hands--and holding them out to her. "And I wear that coat and these while I'm working."
He looked her straight in the eye, unblinking, unsmiling. If she didn't get it now, it was because she was refusing to face reality.
She was impatient, obsessive, and smart. But never one to flinch from the truth, no matter how unsavory. At least she never used to be.
She also, like most of Ibiki's comrades, knew T&I strictly by reputation. He wondered if she'd walk out his door and never say another word to him. It didn't seem out of the realm of possibility.
"You," Natsumi told him, "are infuriating."
His expression didn't flicker. Gods above and below, he was serious. A leather coat and gloves worn for internal work, an assignment he wouldn't--or couldn't--tell her in so many words...
She took the glove from his hand. Softest calfskin, with black-on-black stitches she found by touch rather than by sight. His hands were half again as large as hers, but the gloves were shorter. Where her newly issued uniform gloves ran nearly to her shoulders to protect delicate skin from the chafing straps of an arm-guard, his would stop a few inches past the wrist. The leather was soft enough to mold perfectly to his hands, but it was too thin to offer more than the slightest warmth. This wasn't a glove for protection. Paired with the sweeping black coat, with Ibiki's stern face, with dark eyes and a low voice, it was made solely for intimidation.
It wasn't bloody, at least. Small consolation.
"I think," she said very quietly, "I might have preferred it if you'd decided to join the club scene. I'd have gone with you."
No wonder he hadn't told her. She set the glove carefully back in his outstretched hand. "I don't believe I'll ask to see your office, Ibiki-kun."
There was always a moment when the subject being interrogated understood some crucial truth--Ibiki had learned to see it in their eyes. To capitalize on that moment. He saw Natsumi's epiphany reflected in a slight widening of her eyes, a momentary dilation and contraction of her pupils. He saw her muscles tense ever so slightly, as she chose how to respond to what she now knew.
She didn't bolt.
That was the first, maybe the most important thing. That, and she still consented to speak to him. He could read very little in what she said, beyond that she didn't like the idea much at all.
But then, Ibiki had yet to meet anyone, even his compatriots in the subbasement who worked under Shida-sensei's twisted gaze, who felt at ease with the nature of their work.
He didn't really breathe easily, though, until she handed him his glove back, and called him kun. It was the other kind of kun this time, the nostalgic kind. The kind that said, I've seen you scrawny, naked and stupid, and you might be some kind of scary man now, but I've known you since we were ten and you're still that Morino Ibiki, too.
"I don't rate an office of my own anyway," he told her, stuffing the glove back into the coat pocket. "But when I have enough seniority to get one, it will probably be a boring place. Offices usually are. Of course, I'll probably put at least one ship down there." He glanced at his desk, with wall-mounted shelves of completed models above it.
"But I don't think you ever cared much about my ships. At least not enough to ask to be taken to an office just to see them."
"I liked some of them," Natsumi allowed. "The yacht-thing you made for your mother was very pretty." If not nearly pretty enough to entice her down into the basements. She'd heard stories...
Ibiki had told her stories. Carefully edited, she realized now, to turn what must have been personal experiences into second- or third-hand accounts. The rookie interrogator who'd pressed his silent subject for answers for almost a minute before he realized the man had already passed out--had that been the boy who whispered ghost stories in their tent late at night, until Keigo shrieked with fright and Natsumi hid in her sleeping bag and Hitoshi-sensei roared at them to go to sleep?
Well. Ibiki always had been a good storyteller.
She found her glass again and took a sip. "If you were recruited... You must be good at it. I'm not surprised. You were always good at whatever you did--or else you just didn't do it, if you weren't good. Do you enjoy it?"
You enjoy it, don't you, boy? he could hear Shida asking him, early in Ibiki's months as a rookie. You have to use that enjoyment. That's what's going to make you one of the great interrogators of your generation, boy.
And he remembered the visceral pleasure Natsumi had gotten from perfectly targeted kills at thirty meters. Shots that had pierced eye-slits in full armour. Shots that had plucked the runner with the message out of a sea of decoys. And the way she'd been sick with herself afterwards, for having taken delight in her hands-off assassinations.
"I'm good at it, yes," he said simply. "And I'm doing work of vital importance to Konoha's safety and security. I'm here because here is where my talents lie. Just like you can shoot a baby out of its mother's arms without ever being seen. If that baby has to die to keep Konoha's population safe, you don't hesitate. You do the best job you can, and you take pleasure in having done so."
It was more of an answer than she'd expected. More than she'd wanted. He could see it in her eyes.
"Are you certain you couldn't think of a worse hypothetical?" Natsumi forced herself to take another drink. Her throat burned. "Involving, say, kittens or baby birds?" The juice was nearly gone; she finished the last two swallows and turned to set the empty glass in the sink. "No wonder they want you in Interrogation. You have a gift for finding the hardest truth and hitting people with it."
She turned around, folding her arms under her breasts, hugging herself so tightly that her fingernails dug into her ribs. He still hadn't moved from his spot near the closet door. Like a man trying to tame a wild animal, leaving it just enough space that it wouldn't kill itself trying to escape...
"Oh, for the gods' sakes!" she snapped. "I'm not going to scream and faint, or run, or--or throw my bucket at your head. Well, I might do that, but only if you keep watching me. We've both done things we shouldn't be proud of. You showed the worst judgment of your life when you were panting after that Nakamura girl, and I didn't turn my back on you then, did I? Believe me, I was tempted."
Ibiki blinked slowly at Natsumi, then grinned. "Alright, I'll stop watching. For now. But only if you stop throwing Nakamura Tamami at me. I don't bring up that guy with the gap between his teeth that you were mooning over a few years ago, now do I?" Agata Sachio had been three years older, a friend of Natsumi's brother, and made of cool, with that gap-toothed smile just adding to his charms. He was, Ibiki knew with certainty, a chuunin handler for undercover ops in Main Village Security now, and still as unaware of Natsumi and her somewhat bruised heart as he'd been five years ago. That alone was reason for Ibiki to dislike him.
He eased away from the closet and refilled his glass, drinking his juice in hearty gulps now, relaxed at last. Really relaxed. It was the first time in nineteen months he'd been able to have a conversation with her, and look her in the eye without something concealed behind his. She knew. She knew and she was standing there, threatening him with a bath bucket, and dressing him down for being a fool for thinking she'd let it affect their friendship.
"You know, I haven't told my mom or anyone. About where I'm working. They know I'm in ANBU, but they think I'm in Intel Ops, not the subbasement. If my mom wasn't sick, maybe I'd tell her."
"You had a lot of stories to keep straight," Natsumi said quietly. She tried to imagine keeping a secret like that from her parents, spinning elaborate fantasies every time they asked about her work. No. Ibiki had been right. Whether she lacked the strength or the desire to defy their wishes, she couldn't have entered ANBU without their blessing.
Well, she had it, and she was here. She'd already discarded the bandage that protected her new tattoo, run her first mission, collected her first bruises. Her shoulder still ached dully, flaring to new life every time she moved her arm. She'd have to think of a story for that. Hypocrite.
She took a deep breath and loosed her folded arms, holding out her bruised wrist. "I got back from my first mission this morning. We completed our objective, but I let one of our opponents get too close. He took me down." She tipped her jaw, baring the fingerprints branded into her throat. "He would have done worse, if my teammate hadn't come in time. I...don't plan to tell my parents, either."
The bruises on both her wrist and throat were dark and angry, and showed a four-striped pattern where fingers of a hand at least as large as Ibiki's own had crushed delicate flesh. It wasn't the worst injury Ibiki had ever seen Natsumi with, as far as physical damage went. But the implication of rape was there. No kunoichi was immune--no ninja at all, especially if he were captured and interrogated, Ibiki thought with a dull flush of anger and something like shame.
It was a risk; they were ninja. And it shouldn't happen to Natsumi. Ever.
"How far did it go?" Ibiki asked, and walked around her, studying her with newly critical eyes. Her hair gleamed, loose and silky around her shoulders. Her pretty blue yukata with its breezy spring pattern of budding pink plum blossoms came to mid-shin, concealing more than just her shape. "And who was your backup?"
He'd look into that. Maybe the man had done his job, and maybe he hadn't. Maybe he shouldn't have let Natsumi get into a compromised position in the first place. Or maybe she shouldn't have. It wasn't like her to take the kind of risk that would put her in harm's way if there was a way around it, he thought. But that had been five years ago, and maybe she'd changed. She'd wanted to join ANBU for as long as he could remember. If she thought she had something to prove, if she thought the gain was worth the risk...
He walked away from her, looking back to indicate she should follow, and pulled out one of the silver vinyl-seated chairs at his dining table. "Come on, sit down. If you got those, you probably have more. Have you even been to the medic yet?"
"Not yet," Natsumi admitted, sinking down into the chair he'd offered. It shouldn't feel so much like a confession, even if the new, probing note in Ibiki's voice demanded answers. She had nothing to feel guilty for. Her shoulders tightened painfully anyway, until he stopped prowling and dropped into his own chair. "I got back late this morning, submitted my report, and crashed. It's not too bad, really. I was supposed to be the back-up while Kaito-kun freed the prisoner."
And she'd done a spectacular job at that, hadn't she? Her lips tightened. She picked up the salt-shaker in the center of the table, moved it to the right side of the pepper-shaker, and clustered the bottle of hot sauce and the jar of seven-spice ramen seasoning above and below the shakers. Too untidy. She reorganized them by height. "I killed three guards and didn't realize the fourth was a ninja. He used kawarimi to get behind me. He could have broken my neck if he'd wanted." She switched the ramen seasoning and the hot sauce, ordering by spiciness this time. "I suppose I should be grateful he'd always wanted to try a 'Konoha bitch'."
Her hand was trembling. She flattened it on the table. "He made the same mistake I did. Didn't watch his back. At least I've only got bruises to pay for it. If I go to the medics it will go on my official record, won't it? My father could see that, if he asked. Takeo certainly could, if he wanted. I'd rather they didn't."
The hot water of the baths would help loosen her shoulder. And if she timed her next visit home correctly and wore long sleeves and a high collar, she wouldn't even have to make an excuse not to join her father in his archery practice.
Ibiki kept the emotion off his face. It was easy now, second nature even, to hide his thoughts while reading someone else's. Natsumi's fidgeting with the condiments was more telling than her carefully chosen words. She wasn't happy. She was concealing something, he thought, and fightig with herself about how much to tell him. Probably worried about how much he could guess from what she did say. And she was furious with herself, feeling like she'd let someone down. Her father maybe?
She didn't want this on her official record. If she'd been raped, it was no wonder she didn't want her brother or father finding out. If she'd been raped, would she let any medic examine her, or would her dignity and shame overrule common sense?
She needed a medic. She needed to be examined and treated, whether she let it go on record or not. There were ways around official channels.
Ibiki couldn't stand to think what he was thinking--that the first and most likely thing to come to mind was sexual violence. And that he could take it so matter-of-factly. He had changed, he thought, from the boy she once knew.
"If you really don't want it on your record, there's a few field medics in the Hunter ranks you could go to. Guy here on the third floor, Shiranui Genma." He hesitated, scowling. "He's a player. But he's also an Eros-Ops guy. He'll understand what you've been through, know why you want it off record."
He couldn't believe he was actually sending Natsumi into Shiranui's path. The man had a different partner in his bed every third night, and he didn't seem to be particular about gender. But he was Eros-Ops. They were a different breed in that corps. And he was a good field medic by all accounts; good enough he could have been recruited for the medical corps if he hadn't ended up an assassin.
He reached a hand out for Natsumi's, to stop yet another reordering of pepper and salt. "Don't be stupid about this. If you're hurt, get it treated. Shiranui's smart enough to tell you if he thinks you need to see a real doc. Just watch yourself with him. Don't act too friendly."
"I'm not being stupid," Natsumi said stiffly. "And I'm not hurt." Well, not badly. She still couldn't lift her left arm above her shoulder, but the soreness would fade with time. And aside from being fantastically and treacherously colorful, the other bruises weren't a problem. "I told you, Kaito got there in time." She twitched her hand toward the hot sauce bottle. Ibiki's fingers tightened.
"It isn't straight," Natsumi said.
His grip didn't loosen.
She reached up left-handed, nudged the bottle into perfect alignment, and managed not to wince as the banked fire over her shoulderblade flared up into new life. The sudden stillness of her face gave her away, anyway. Ibiki's eyes darted to her sleeved arm. She sighed, and dropped it back to her lap.
"He got a kick in on my shoulder. Nothing's broken, but I couldn't use my arm for ten or fifteen minutes afterwards, and it's still painful. Maybe your medic friend would be a good idea, after all." Kaito had mentioned the same man, hadn't he? If even Ibiki recommended him, he had to be good.
But a player?
She tipped her head, thinking it over. "If I asked him to look at my shoulder, I'd probably have to take my shirt off." Her thoughtful frown edged sideways, verging on a grin. "Are you sure that wouldn't be getting too friendly, Ibiki-kun?"
Ibiki's pleasure at having forced her to reveal her shoulder injury was short-lived, and tempered with self condemnation for using interrogation tactics on a friend. But it was hard to tell where the tactics started and his own instincts left off; he'd done similar when they'd been genin, after all, pulling secrets from Natsumi and Keigo when they least wanted.
At least her words reassured him on one count: she hadn't been raped. Or she really wanted Ibiki to think she hadn't.
"He's not my friend," he said, pushing his turmoil aside in favor of a more easily addressed problem. "I don't know him, and he keeps well away from me. He's got a history with interrogators and doesn't much care for us." That much he knew from reading Shiranui's files. It had been an interesting case study, something Shida had set him to, reviewing the files of active agents with a history of successfully resisting interrogation while in enemy hands.
Shiranui was an interesting guy; there was a lot more to him than met the eye. But that didn't mean he wasn't a snake in the grass when it came to Natsumi.
"I've told you what he's like. He has a reputation. He sleeps around, a lot. And he sleeps with men as well as women. If you take your shirt off for him, that's your business. Just make sure you and he both know exactly why you're doing it." He frowned and let go of her hand, looking away from her bruised throat and silken hair.
"You want to go get some dinner? After your bath, I mean. I'd cook, but we both know how well that will turn out."
"With food poisoning? Once was enough, thank you." She resisted--barely--the urge to make another minuscule adjustment to the line of seasonings. "All right. I'll go see Shiranui-san tomorrow. And I'll try not to pick up anything from him, either."
The thin attempt at a joke fell painfully flat. Natsumi looked away. Ibiki really did need to take better care of the spider plant in his windowsill. Its leaves were beginning to curl. "You should water your plant," she said distantly. "And open your blinds once in a while. This room could use more light."
And that still wasn't what she meant.
She pushed her chair back and rose to her feet. "I can meet you at Botan Garden in an hour. That should be enough time, shouldn't it?" It effectively derailed her plans for a long soak, but that wasn't what she needed right now, anyway.
What she needed was still sitting in his chair, watching her.
"Ibiki," she said quietly. "Thank you. I'm...glad you're here."
A decade and more of knowing Natsumi--genin teammates living in close quarters, watching her back, studying her every mood--had taught Ibiki enough about her to know how hard it must have been for her to say that.
It was a much bigger deal than he'd expected, that the nineteen month gap in their closeness--when he'd joined ANBU and started keeping secrets from her-- hadn't been enough to estrange them.
"I'm glad you're here," he said quietly. Meaning every word. He smiled and stretched, unfolding from the chair to see her to the door.
"Botan Garden seems like a good place to celebrate your promotion. My treat, although really I should take you someplace fancier. But uh..." He glanced guiltily at his models. "I just bought a kit for a Regal Era Wind Country racing yacht..."
Natsumi's sober face lit up with a bright laugh as she picked up her bath bucket. Ibiki chuckled with her, tugging on his hair. "Go take your bath, and we can walk over to the restaurant together when you're dry. You know where to find me now."
When she'd gone and Ibiki had shut his door, he leaned back against it, and laughed with relief. There was at least one person now--one very important person--he didn't have to lie to.