Ghosts and Memories, Tea and Tears
Author disclaimer: I do not own any of the Naruto characters below,
and stand to make no profit on this story.
The damned place was full of ghosts.
She walked through the streets of Konoha more often now, hat down low over her eyes, peering beneath the rim, unsure if the people she passed seemed more like ghosts or maybe she was just looking through them. All of it, her friends, her citizens, Konoha itself, all seemed so transient now.
When Nawaki died it had simply seemed impossible that he could be gone.
When Dan died she’d been weighted down with it all, the enormity of her loss, an eternity without him. She’d fled Konoha because everywhere she looked reminded her of Dan. Each restaurant and shop had been a place that they had frequented. The training grounds, the classrooms all held memories of him which she could never escape as long as she remained in the village.
But now this.
Jiraiya was gone and everything in the world seemed so ephemeral, so transient and illusory.
He should be here. He should always be here. No matter how far she had wandered, how long she stayed away, she had always known in the back of her mind that he would be waiting for her.
And now he was gone.
This feeling wasn’t the inability to comprehend the loss as it had been with Nawaki. She understood far too well Jiraiya was gone and not coming back.
It wasn’t the dull weight of living without Dan, lost in her youth; the seemingly unending years to be spent without her lover stretching before her. Tsunade wasn’t dreading all the years ahead without Jiraiya.
She regretted all the intervening years when she had spent so little time with him. And now she haunted the streets of Konoha like a ghost herself, looking for places that would remind her of him.
Walking through it today she realized how much the village had changed. Buildings had been torn down and replaced. Many had been destroyed in one battle or another, some rebuilt, some not, but all areas had changed. There were few places left where she and Jiraiya had spent time together. Guiltily she acknowledged that there had been few places to begin with. Jiraiya had always asked and she had always made excuses.
Tipping the hat forward, shielding her eyes a little more, she was grateful yet again for that accoutrement of office. It kept her from having to meet people’s eyes. It also hid the red rims of her own. Not from tears but from the drinking. She started a few minutes earlier each morning it seemed. Never enough to be drunk exactly, just enough to take the edge off and get through the day.
As long as the papers got signed and the missions doled out she was doing her job, wasn’t she?
Tsunade entered her office, avoiding the concerned looks from her guards and her assistants. She tossed the hat onto the desk and sat down heavily, picking up the pen to begin tackling the papers in front of her.
Voices outside her door stopped her. Politest of disagreements, soon escalating. Shizune’s clipped tones indicated her exasperation. Who could fluster her aide so?
“Stand aside, Shizune,” voice graveled by age and, if the truth be known, smoking.
Tsunade’s heart froze. What did the old hag want here?
“Lady Koharu,” Shizune replied, “I am sorry but the Hokage cannot be disturbed when her door is closed. I cannot let you …”
“Our dear Hokage-sama was my serving girl before you were even born, Shizune! Open the door or I will do it myself.” The curt reply sounded like a cat growling.
Tsunade saved them both by opening the door herself.
“What it is you want, Koharu-san?” she sneered the honorific, wanting to tack on an extra ‘you old hag’ but thinking better of it. Shizune already understood her opinion of the old woman all too well. But Izumo and Kotetsu were in earshot.
“Shizune, you do such an admirable job of standing watch,” Koharu said as she bustled past them both. “See to it that we’re not disturbed.”
Tsunade rolled her eyes at Shizune and actually allowed the ghost of a smile to play about her lips as she closed the door behind them, following Koharu into the office. At least it was only the old woman, she hadn’t brought Homura-windbag along in tow.
“Well,” she snapped, crossing her arms in front of her chest, “what do you want Koharu?”
“Want? I merely came to see you, Tsunade-chan. Although tea would be nice.” Her voice was rough and oddly soft.
It was a most ungainly combination. Tsunade found it suspicious.
“Fine,” she replied moving toward the door. “I’ll have Shizune fetch some.”
“A pity. You used to do such a lovely job yourself, Tsunade-chan. Why don’t you prepare it?”
Tsunade huffed and turned toward the shelf that held her own utilitarian service.
Standing with her back to the old woman while the water heated she drummed her fingers impatiently on the countertop. When the water was ready she poured it into the pot along with the tea then pivoted with the tray to where Koharu sat. Sliding it onto the desk she sloshed the tea into the cups and thrust one toward the councilwoman.
“Here,” she said curtly.
Accepting the cup with a ‘thank you’ Koharu added, “Pity.”
Tsunade grabbed her own cup and sat down across the desk from Koharu.
“Cut the critique,” she said through gritted teeth. “You rapped my knuckles enough times for doing it wrong when I was a girl. I’m a grown woman now. Drink your damn tea and tell me why you’re here.”
Porcelain cup held delicately in the fingertips of both hands, Koharu looked down into the steam and murmured a question, “How are you feeling, Tsunade-chan?”
This brought Tsunade up short.
“I’m…I’m fine,” she stuttered, wondering why she hadn’t snapped back an answer.
“Is that so?” came the whispered question.
Dammit, how could the old hag be soft now? For years she had been nothing but grit and steel, scathing comment and biting insight. The last thing she wanted was her pity and she said so.
Koharu sniffed. “I do not pity you Tsunade. You had a friend so dear to you that you are inconsolable in his loss. A friendship such as that is to be envied, not pitied. No, my purpose here is to tell you that you need to grieve.”
A small derisive laugh escaped Tsunade’s lips. “Hah, you’d like that wouldn’t you – to catch me crying? A reason to call me soft.”
Koharu shook her head. “You misunderstand grief, then, Tsunade. It reminds us we were fortunate to have someone so very important to us in our lives. I would not call you soft if you grieve. I question your humanity when you don’t. That is what makes me question if you are currently fit to be Hokage.”
“So that’s it then? Tell me old woman, when has the office ever run more smoothly?”
“Smooth. Yes. And soulless.”
“And does the Hokage not walk among her people in the village? Tell me that old woman. Every day. Don’t you see me on the streets of Konoha every day?”
“I see you on the streets walking between people, avoiding them. Looking right through them. Tell me, Tsunade, do you ever look them in the eye or are you too busy searching for dango shops and ramen stands that don’t exist anymore?”
Tsunade slammed both hands flat on the desk. “What do you care? What would you even know about it you old hag? Do you know what it’s like to lose someone who saved your life more times than you can count? Someone who saved you when you didn’t even know you needed saving?”
She pushed herself from her chair, leaning over the desk and councilwoman both. “He died alone, Koharu! I wasn’t even there to help him. He died alone, lonely, no one to bring his body back. We don’t even have his body so we can’t…”
“Yes,” Koharu spoke her voice still soft but the firmness now betrayed by her own quaver, “I do know.”
The words echoed in Tsunade’s ears. Ice gripped her heart and she swallowed hard. Bowing her head, willing tears not to fall she managed to rasp out, “Forgive me, Koharu-sama. Of course you know.”
Still gripping her desk, Tsunade felt Koharu’s hands cover her own. She had expected the old woman’s hands to be rough and dry. Instead they were soft and warm.
She rubbed the back of Tsunade’s hands softly, then reached up and smoothed her brow, tucking back an errant strand of hair.
Tsunade hadn’t realized how much she needed this, someone to care about her, to take care of her. She’d been so busy hiding behind her hat and drink, looking right through people and assuming they were looking through her.
She was grateful that at least one person had been looking out for her. She thought she could just stay here the rest of the afternoon, Koharu’s tired, gnarled old hands holding her own.
But when the old woman whispered, “Tsunade-chan,” once more in that strange mixture of gravel and tenderness that she had earlier found off-putting, Tsunade felt a dam inside her break. She choked back one sob but couldn’t stop the second one. Stumbling around the corner of her desk she sank to her knees. Resting her head in Koharu’s lap, she sobbed out all the tears she had been holding back since she’d heard the news.
* * *
Some days later, Moegi grumbled to herself about her current assignment. She tottered through the village on the unfamiliar okobo getta praying that she would not ruin the Hokage’s own girlhood kimono. Her head hurt from all the tugging and pulling she’d had to endure until her hair was arranged satisfactorily. Moegi wondered if she’d ever be able to blink again.
Her mission was to deliver four invitations to a chaji hosted by the Hokage herself.
The first two were to be delivered to the two elderly council members. Moegi was basically terrified of the pair. She trembled as she executed the deep formal bow and presented their invitations to them.
The next went to Kakashi-sensei, who, although imposing, never seemed to frighten her as much as the two old people did. She felt that her bow and gestures were much more fluid and graceful by the time she got to him. The twinkle in his eye as he smiled, she assumed, when he accepted the invitation from her reassured her.
The fourth was actually the most difficult to execute. Her sensei had been inordinately proud that his student had been requested by the Hokage herself. Yet when she showed up in the formal attire and presented Tsunade’s invitation, Ebisu was bemused and then suddenly speechless. Apparently, he hadn’t expected to be one of the recipients, although he really shouldn’t have been surprised. Moegi, tempted to giggle, struggled very hard not to.
Moegi did not participate in the ceremony itself, Shizune served as hanto to her mistress.
Tsunade’s presentation was flawless, earning the admiration of all and a few tears from Koharu.
In the end it was just as well that Moegi had no further involvement in the ceremony beyond delivering the invitations. The wall scroll Tsunade had chosen for the tokonoma was one Jiraiya himself had created.
And the quotation in calligraphy made even Koharu blush.
chaji – formal tea ceremony with meal
hanto – assistant to the host at a chaji
tokonoma – alcove in the tea room where a wall scroll is displayed that has been chosen by the host to reflect the theme of the ceremony
The number of guests at a chaji is typically four