Caught in the Whirlpool
Kushina chewed at the inside of her cheek as she looked up the path that led to her old childhood home. She'd already checked over the local motels and discovered that one had gone out of business, another was full (which had surprised her), and the few that were left were of the extremely seedy, rent-by-the-hour sort. As she was an adult, staying in the Pokémon Center dorms was frowned upon for longer than a one-night emergency stay. So that left only one option
Ugh, might as well get this over with.
Steeling her nerves, she marched up the path through the sparse clumps of grass to the front door. The house looked rundown and in need of fresh paint. And it looked smaller than she remembered.
She stopped in front of the blue front door and knocked
And the person that she least wanted to see was on the other side. Her silver-threaded wavy brown hair was now iron gray with white streaks in it. Her humorless face was lined with more wrinkles than Kushina remembered and her freckles looked more like age spots. She was dressed in an informal blue and gray kimono and her cold brown eyes swept crucially over the visitor standing on the doorstep.
Can I help you?" Asuka asked frostily.
"Hi Aunt Asuka," Kushina almost groaned. "Could you move so I can come in?"
The older woman gave her a second and much more intense visual inspection before her face grew even colder and darker in recognition.
"Oh, it's you," Asuka said, injecting icy derision into every syllable and turning the final word into a curse.
"I didn't come to argue," Kushina struggled not to growl. "I just need to crash in my old room for a while."
"That room belongs to Akane now," Asuka replied.
"Then I'll sleep on the couch's pull-out bed," Kushina said with a shrug. Of course Akane has my room nowshe was probably desperate to not have to share with her mom anymore
"Go elsewhere," Asuka demanded and started to close the door.
"This isn't your house," Kushina snapped, wedging her foot in the door to keep it open. "This is my father's house and he's the only one who can tell me to take a hike!"
"You've shamed this family enough," Asuka shot back. "Do us a favor and go back to the mainland before everyone else learns how much further you've fallen since your childhood defiance."
"You married into this family; you're not an Uzumaki at all!" Kushina snarled and braced her shoulder against the door.
"I may not be an Uzumaki by blood," Asuka retorted sharply. "But unlike you, I care about what remains of this family's reputation!"
Kushina was just about out of patience and she started to force the door open. "Why you"
"What's going on here?"
The masculine voice startled Kushina so much that she almost lost her balance and fell. And when she turned to find out who had interrupted, she did a little double-take. She almost thought that it was her father, but then she realized that it was her oldest brother, Kenshin. He was a middle-aged man now instead of a teenager, with the start of crow's feet around his eyes and gray sprinkled in the hair over his temples. It made him look weird and old.
Kenshin-nii-san, Aunt Asuka's being mean!" Kushina complained.
Kenshin just stared at her in confusion without any hint of recognition. Her eyes started to sting a little as the silence stretched on. Her oldest brother, the one who'd taught her how to fish, had no idea who she was.
Kushina?" he said hesitantly.
"Of course, what other woman would call you 'big brother'?" she sniffed.
"Your hair has gotten very long," Kenshin blinked.
"Yeah, I know." Kushina dropped her duffel bag on the stone steps to rub at her sore shoulder. "But Arashi already told you about that, didn't he?"
"Arashi ran into you?" her brother gaped. "When?"
"What do you mean 'when'? It wasn't even two months ago that I saw him in Cove Town," she informed him with a slight frown.
"He never said anything to me about seeing you anywhere," Kenshin said as he came a few steps closer.
"What the hell?" Kushina grumbled. Why wouldn't he tell anybody about me when he got home? And then another thought struck her and she wheeled back to face her aunt who was still standing on the other side of the half-open door. "How did you get my phone number?"
"You sent it in one of your letters," Asuka replied with a sniff.
"What letters?" Kenshin asked. "I haven't seen anything from Kushina since her last postcard years and years ago."
"Where did you find them?" Kushina demanded.
"They were in a shoebox in your father's closet," the older woman answered.
Kushina clenched her teeth until her jaw started to ache. Of course
"So Daddy's read them?"
"The envelopes were still sealed when I uncovered them." Asuka's line face tightened with disgust. "I'm very disappointed in what I found in those letters and I'm glad that Kenjiro never read them; he'd be so ashamed."
"Shut up!" Kushina snapped.
Anger burned through her veins. She was pissed off at Aunt Asuka for all the usual reasons plus the recent annoying phone calls. She was intensely irritated with Arashi for keeping their meeting to himself for whatever reason. And she was enraged and hurt that her father had hidden all of her letters from the rest of the family and had never read a single one.
It was all too much, so she abandoned her travel bag by the front door and stormed down the path and past Kenshin feeling like steam was pouring out of her ears.
"Where are you going?" Kenshin called after her.
"I'm taking a walk!" Kushina snapped back as she took the fork in the path that led down the sea cliffs to the beach. "Don't follow me!"
The trail down to the ocean was steep and it zigzagged as it descended to the shore. It was early evening so the tide was receding, slowly increasing the width of the beach. Unlike the soft golden sands of Jungle Country, the beach here was covered in rough gray rocks and some larger boulders. Right now the dreary place suited her ugly mood perfectly.
Kushina stalked over to her favorite flat-topped boulder and glowered out over the choppy waves. Almost directly in front of her crouched the gym that had been in her family since its founding and on clear, calm days she could sometimes make out the people standing on the tiny island. But right now it made a good target to shout at while the crashing surf drowned out her words.
I should never have come back here, she fumed as she vented her fury at the uncaring ocean. This was a mistake
Kenjiro deeply inhaled the brisk salty air as sea spray stung his face. He stood with his legs braced apart for maximum balance as Tank, his blastoise, cut through the choppy water towards the shore. His watery commute between his gym and his home wasn't particularly long or scenic and it was only dangerous during poor weather, but he always enjoyed the ride.
When Tank crawled onto the shore he stayed horizontal until Kenjiro hopped off the giant turtle's battle-scarred shell. He started straight for the trail up to the top of the cliff, but his blastoise hesitated. Kenjiro looked to see what had caught his oldest pokémon's eye and stiffened.
A woman was pacing along the beach just out of reach of the waves several yards away, and for a moment he saw his wife, Atsuko. But this woman's hair was the wrong colorred instead of blackand when she paced back in his direction he could see that the eyes weren't quite the same either. And the clothing that she was wearingjean pants and a zip-up hooded sweatshirt over a T-shirtwas not something that Atsuko would ever have worn. Still, there was something about her face, about her build, about the way that she moved, that reminded him so strongly of his dead wife that something twisted in his chest as he stared at her.
The red-haired woman was so lost in thought that she didn't see him until she was only a few feet away. She jumped back with a startled squawk when she did see him and almost fell down when she stumbled on some loose rock. Her brow furrowed in confusion as she studied him and then she spoke.
"Daddy, you look so old!"
Kenjiro sucked in a sharp breath as her odd resemblance to Atsuko suddenly made perfect sense. Behind him Tank made a startled noise. And then for several minutes after that, the only sound was the growl of the surf on the beach.
Didn't you swear that you would never come back here again?" Kenjiro finally said.
"I meant that I'd never move back in again," his daughter retorted. "And I'm not. I just want to crash on the couch bed for a while. Unless, of course, you back Aunt Asuka again and tell me to go elsewhere."
He eyed his errant child closely, his mouth set in a thin line. He'd always tried to do right by his daughter, but all she'd given him in return was defiance and headaches. Her rebellion at the start of her pokémon journey and the mocking postcards that he couldn't hide had led some of his neighbors to jeer at him for being unable to properly control one little girl. And he was sure that most of the rest of the town whispered about his failure behind his back.
The way that she is, is all my fault, he knew. If Atsuko had lived, Kushina would never have turned out this way. But I was the only parent and I found myself raising her as a son. By the time that Asuka moved in with Akane to be strong female role models for her, it was too late to undo the damage that I had done with my ignorance
"You can have your old room back," Kenjiro grunted.
"No, thank you," Kushina grimaced. "That's Akane's room now. I'm sure that it's been painted bright pink, it smells like perfume, and the bed is covered with ruffles and lace. I'll take the pull-out bed in the couch."
"That's no place for a woman to sleep," Kenjiro argued.
His daughter's face turned thunderous. "I'm sleeping on the couch bed or I'm going to one of the dockside motels."
Kenjiro wanted to curse at her. The few dockside motels were used almost exclusively by sailors and fishermen to meet with whores or mistresses. If Kushina went and stayed there, there was a good chance that men would start propositioning her, thinking that she was for sale.
"Fine!" he snapped. "Take the couch, then! I only thought to offer you some privacy."
"I'd only need a private room if I slept naked," Kushina snorted and walked around him to the foot of the trail. "And I don't do that."
Kenjiro ground his teeth as he put Tank back in his sphere and trudged after his youngest child back up to the house.
This girl is going to ruin my blood pressure!
When Kushina reached the top of the trail where the ground leveled out, she was ambushed.
"Cousin Kushina!" Akane squealed, clasping manicured nails over her chest. "You're alive!"
Her cousin looked much like Kushina had expected her to. Akane was no longer a gorgeous teenager, but a beautiful woman with bright green eyes and her wavy red-brown hair carefully braided into an intricate bun held stable by lacquered hair sticks. She was dressed in an informal kimono, much like her mother, except that hers was more brightly colored and the outer layer was decorated with a butterfly pattern. With her delicate features carefully enhanced by make-up, she looked almost like some kind of princess or noblewoman from an older age.
Kushina felt plain and ordinary standing next to her.
"Of course I'm alive," Kushina snorted. "Who told you that I was dead?"
"Well, your pretty postcards stopped coming and you didn't come back so something bad must've happened to you," Akane replied. "So what did happen? Were you kidnapped? Did you get thrown in jail for committing some crime? Were you shipwrecked on some remote island down in the tropics? Did"
"Nothing like that happened," Kushina sighed. "I moved into a house and started sending letters instead."
Akane cocked her head like a confused puppy. "What letters?"
"Letters I sent that Daddy thought belonged in the bottom of is closet," Kushina grumbled. "You'd think he'd be curious about how I was doing, but he never read them," she added acidly. I worked hard on those letters, and the first few were really important, but he didn't care!
"Your postcards were bad enough," her father grunted as he reached the top of the trail. "Every time one arrived the entire town would be gossiping about it within hours. Pardon me for being tired of having little old ladies scold me for raising a daughter that would send such rude messages home."
"The gossip did get nasty," Akane agreed. "Mother would come home so angry and embarrassed sometimes because the neighbors would be joking about how you thought you were a boy, Kushina."
"Whatever," Kushina growled, too pissed off to think of a longer response, and stalked back to the house.
People had always laughed at her childhood ambition of becoming a well-traveled pokémon trainer. Girls kept pokémon as pets or trained them for contests, they didn't specialize in battling and they didn't go far from home by themselves. They told her that she couldn't do what the boys did and that she should give it up.
But she'd stuck to her dream and struck out on her own. She outdid the boys by traveling farther from home than most of them and never once called home begging for money or help. And instead of being proud of her and impressed by her accomplishments, her family was ashamed and everyone else treated her like a freak.
I hate this place so much!
Just outside of the front door her twin brothers, Ichi-Tora and Ni-Tora, had arrived and were talking with Kenshin. They, too, looked strange to her now that they were all grown up and no longer gawky teenagers. But they were still identical and she couldn't even begin to guess which carrot-topped man was which.
"So our baby sister is back in town?" one asked Kenshin.
"For real?" the other added. "No joke?"
"No joke," Kenshin replied gravely and pointed over their shoulders. "She's right there."
They turned, blinked, and their jaws dropped in eerie twin unison.
"You guys are still kind of creepy when you do that," Kushina complained.
"Do what?" they asked at the same time.
"Use your weird twin powers," she said with a little frown. "And how is it that there's still no way to tell you two apart? Do you conspire to get the same scars?"
"No, but that's a great idea!" one said enthusiastically.
"No, that's a terrible idea!" the other snorted.
They paused and locked eyes with each other as if angry that they hadn't had the same opinion. Kushina almost thought that they were going to start one of their strange but rare arguments. But instead their slight scowls morphed into boyish grins through some silent exchange and they turned back towards her.
And then they latched onto her, sandwiching her in-between them.
"We missed you!"
"Why did you stop sending postcards?" one complained.
"Some of those pictures were really cool, even if your messages were a little snotty," the other grinned.
"Not all of my postcards were snotty," Kushina protested as she tried to wiggle free.
"Yeah, only most of them were," the first one teased.
"Your hair's so long!" the other remarked in amazement. "When did it get so long?"
"When I stopped getting it cut so short," she sighed. "C'mon Tora-Tora, let me go!"
"No!" the second one refused.
"You'll disappear if we do," the first one said.
"No I won't," Kushina snorted. "I'll be around for at least a few weeks."
"Only a few weeks?" they nearly pouted.
"There's nothing stopping either of you from coming to visit me at my house if you really want to," she told them and finally managed to slip free of them.
"But we don't know where you live," one of the twins complained.
"Well, you just need to"
"And where have you been?" Kenjiro demanded and Kushina was momentarily baffled, thinking that he was talking to her.
But when she turned to look, she found that he was staring down Arashi, who was trudging up towards the house. Her youngest older brother had a sullen expression on his face and an odd fiery glint in his dark eyes. Everyone radiated tension and Kushina felt lost as to what the big deal was.
"Well?" Kenjiro demanded when Arashi still hadn't answered.
"I've been around," Arashi grumbled. "Is it a crime to go for a walk?"
"And what were you doing on this walk?" Kenshin asked his youngest brother.
"Nothing," Arashi insisted.
Well, whatever's going on, I've got my own bone to pick with him, Kushina decided and used Kenshin and her father as cover to sneak around to Arashi's side without him noticing.
"Hey Arashi!" she cried with a grin and latched onto his arm. "Tell me, how come you didn't tell anyone that you saw me in Cove Town?"
"Wh-what are you doing here?" Arashi sputtered, staring at her wide-eyed.
"You were in Cove Town?" Akane asked. "Ah, we could've met for lunch!"
"I'm going to be working for Professor Utatane for a while," Kushina answered. "So how come you didn't tell anyone about seeing me? Did you not want to admit that you didn't recognize me and that you flirted with me?"
"You did what?" Kenshin hissed.
"Ew!" Ichi-Tora and Ni-Tora gagged.
"If I had had any inkling that I'd been talking to you, I never would've done it!" Arashi snapped. "And Aunt Asuka knows"
"You told Aunt Asuka and no one else?" Kushina growled and tightened her grip on his arm. You told the one person I really didn't want you to tell? Really?
"I only told her about seeing you and the letters!" Arashi sputtered. "Be grateful that I didn't mention that you're supposedly engaged."
"What?" Kenshin, Ichi-Tora, Ni-Tora, their father, and Akane cried.
"You're engaged?" Akane sniffled. "I
I don't even have a boyfriend anymore. I'm going to die a spinster!"
"Who is this guy?" one of the twins demanded.
"Let us at him!" the other glared.
"Are you sure that you're making the right decision?" Kenshin worried. "This isn't something you should choose to do impulsively."
Her father didn't say anything but the look on his face was clearly angry and dangerous.
"You jerk!" Kushina whispered harshly and ducked behind Arashi, turning him into a human shield. "Look what you did!"
Before anymore questions or demands could be thrown at her, Asuka stepped out of the house and clapped her hands.
"Dinner is nearly ready!" Asuka announced. "Everyone come inside."
"Mom!" Akane wailed. "Arashi says that Kushina says that she's engaged!"
"Oh?" An expression that might've been approval briefly touched Asuka's stern face. "Good. Hopefully that will legitimize that little boy of hers."
The silence that followed that sentence was deafeningly loud.
What?" Arashi blinked and looked over his shoulder at Kushina. "You
a while ago, yeah," Kushina muttered. She swallowed and gathered her last shreds of bravado. "You'd know that already if my letters had actually been read instead of gathering dust in a closet."
Arashi and the Tora-Tora twins just gaped at her. Akane looked distraught. Kenshin's face was unreadable. Asuka just shook her head and went back inside the house to make sure that dinner didn't burn. And her father gave her a look that she couldn't accurately describe, but it made her want to melt into the ground.
Coming back here was a really, really big mistake
and when I get back home I'm going to kill Professor Sarutobi!