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konoha_fifth in narukorp

testing, 1 2 3 [Tsurude, Izume, Kotetsu]

[[backdated about one week ago. and guess what this means? you're right! the paper dolls are BACK! make sure to friend them <3: little_metal, ima_paperdoll]]

Tsurude was anything but a man who shirked his duty. He knew very intimately the importance of responsibility and living up to it, of following through with promises and orders, of getting things done right the first time. He'd been a medic, after all, for longer than many people in his employ had been alive, and he wouldn't be such a good medic if he didn't stay on top of his patient responsibility.

No, Tsurude did not shirk his duties. But he was not above trying to find some competent other to do those duties for him whenever possible.

Over a year ago, long before Asuka had pulled her stupid, stupid stunt with Akatsuki, his best personal aides - Izume and Kotetsu - had come to him deciding they wanted to retire and open a fashion shop. A boutique, they had stressed, that catered to the frequently dismissed and very important whims of the beautiful kunoichi of Konoha. After a great deal of hemming and hawwing and inability to change their minds (not even a raise would do!), he signed the paperwork and let them go. He got a card from them every now and again, mostly on holidays; they seemed to be doing quite well. Especially considering the expensive district they'd set up shop in, though he'd never gone to visit it yet himself.

That had been before Asuka had pulled her retarded stunt. Then she pulled it, and paperwork from her screw-up, Kureno's screw-up, and everyone else who had been even remotely involved screw-ups, had come flooding in. It wasn't terrible, thankfully, just enough to irritate his already irritated temper. Tsurude had resisted calling them in for assistance mostly on point of pride.

Then he basically fired Kureno from his desk job without actually firing him. Just.... reducing his hours to a decidedly negative number. That Kureno helped handle a good deal of intelligence paperwork hadn't slipped his mind, he'd just... decided it was unimportant in the face of what had happened. This didn't help his workload any, especially without Izume and Kotetsu to make him coffee. (The new secretary couldn't make coffee if she bought it from a Starbucks. Whenever she delivered it, he just discreetly dumped it in the pot of the big fuzzy plant in the back of his office. It looked pretty dead by now.)

Then the Daimyo decided he wanted to throw a gala. Tsurude didn't even want to remember the amount of paperwork THAT caused.

And then he caught the flu DURING the gala, which caused an avalanche of backlog while he was forced to prescribe himself bed-rest.

And now the Daimyo demanding the Akatsuki be eliminated come hell or high water, ASAP.

Now the paperwork load was reaching critical mass. Tsurude wasn't going to lie; though he was still angry at Kureno's decision, the immediacy of the anger had faded, leaving him more with irritation, and after the gala... Well, no matter what the reasons were for his adding to the stupidity of Asuka's stunt, Kureno had a lot of time under his belt as a respectable ninja, in all fairness did deserve some sort of second chance, and could really really really assist Tsurude with the ridiculous amount of intelligence coming into the office now. Or at least help divert it to the right departments. Kureno wasn't going to be happy when he saw how much work was on his desk when he finally went back in.

But that wasn't going to help enough. They were far, far too behind in paperwork - not that this was exactly unusual for a government, but it was some bit worse than normal. The people he had in the office weren't enough. The addition of one more - though experienced - hand was not going to be enough either. He was going to need to call in the big guns.

Tsurude walked through the doors of the Paper Doll Boutique, bells jingling to announce his presence.

Paper Dolls 1

Living life as a civilian had been something of a culture shock when one had been groomed from a young age to become a shinobi. Izume, however, approached this new phase in her and Kochan's life the same way she approached everything: with Style.

Working in the Hokage's office, despite all the drudgery, the long hours that prompted her to get a hammock to string up in the office, the millions upon millions of papercuts that sliced her hands all over, the gallons of unbearably-awful-unless-she-or-Kochan-made-it coffee, and the meetings, had its benefits. For one, because she and Kochan worked directly with the Hokage (and Tsurude-sama liked to foist as much work as possible on them), they needed a rather high security clearance. High security clearance meant high paycheck. High paycheck meant plenty of investing opportunities. And Izume took full advantage of what she earned.

Meaning she badgered her investment-savvy family, as well as did quite a bit of reading, to learn what the best options were for someone who wanted to retire early. Or, in Izume's case, open up her own store. There were so many kunoichi in this village, and they were serious about their duties. Maybe a bit too serious. Izume decided that her shop would cater to the needs of kunoichi who appreciated fashion or who simply wanted to buy feel-good clothes. Because dressing well, even if only for yourself, was an excellent way to relax. And the best part? It wasn't exclusive to shinobi. The clothes and accessories and shoes catered to civilians, too. Izume's marketing actually factored in the civilians more than the village kunoichi as while the kunoichi on average had a slightly better paycheck than your average civilian, most kunoichi were quite practical in their clothing requirements and so would not be as prone to buy battle-impractical dresses. But there were times, too, like with the gala the Daimyo hosted in April, that a kunoichi needed just the right outfit that made them look good, and also hid the scars earned over the course of a shinobi's career.

And Izume was only too pleased to fill that niche.

Sewing was a hobby she rarely got to induge. Running the kind of shop she envisioned wouldn't leave much time for sewing, so if she couldn't sew, she could sell. And she was a very persuasive saleswoman who followed closely all the trends and was very sympathetic and anticipatory of (potential) customers' needs.

Kochan had needed a bit of convincing herself to join this endeavour. Kochan was the sometimes too practical one. And she was a whiz at accounts. They talked about the shop over the course of several discussions, with Izume doing most of the talking, and finally came to an agreement. Izume would manage the store itself, inventory, advertising, and be the actual saleswoman who interacted with the customers. Kochan would handle the bookkeeping (though Izume would also help so as to be aware of how their assets stood), keep the place neat, and other minutiae involved with the day-to-day care of the shop. Oh, and would handle the register and wear the stuff Izume personally designed and made in her spare time. (Now that she had spare time.) That was Izume's favorite part: she would get to dress Kochan up in lovely clothes and Kochan couldn't complain about the impracticality because it was part of the store's image.

So it was love with a little petty revenge thrown in, too. Izume never claimed to be perfect. She just looked that way.

Once Tsurude-sama had accepted their resignation and signed their discharge papers, the pair pounced on the building Izume had already picked out. It was a small, two story place that the two of them converted on their own time and dime into retail space downstairs and living space upstairs. Alas that this meant they would no longer be sharing space with the lovable Yuu-kun, but Izume assured him that they would be sure to visit him. Frequently. So he didn't get lonely~ ♥

Business was slow at first. To be expected. But! Such was the awesomness of Izume's skill and the sheer amount of work she put into advertising and attracting customers that within six months, they finally got out of the red. And now a year after opening the doors to The Paper Dolls Boutique (We'll Dress You Right!), they were doing wonderfully enough that they only needed to be open five days a week, leaving weekends to do whatever they wanted. They had a fair amount of regulars, and with the village hosting this season's chuunin exam they had had plenty of other curious tourists who had delighted in their wares.

This particular morning, Izume was in a fantastic mood. Good night's sleep, good breakfast, great outfit, and was able to put the fact that Kochan complained the water heater wasn't working temporarily out of her mind. (She'd ream the maintenance peoples' collective asshole during the store's lunch break.) So when the door's bells jingled cheerily, she stepped around a display with a demure smile on her carefully cosmetically enhanced face. Today's outfit showcased a lightweight summer dress, the pale blue fitted top with its single shoulder strap hugged her tight until her hips, where it loosened into a flowing skirt that reached to mid-thigh and darkened to a deep indigo. Silver cuffs set with blue glass stones of varying shades adorned her wrists, and a tiny silver chain circled her left ankle. Her shoes were white, open-toed stilettos that gave her a few more inches in height (and emphasized her long legs), as did the casual but still pretty up-do that bared her neck and the silver chandelier earrings dripping from her lobes. And one must not forget the artfully arranged bangs that fell over her right eye.

Her face lit up when she saw just who had walked in, even as her first thought was Oh shit.

"Hokage-sama~" she cooed as she swept over to him and took his arm. "So you've finally decided to pay us a visit~ To what do we owe the pleasure, hm? Shopping for a lady-friend~?" The sly glint in her eyes teased. Mostly.

To be honest, he'd never really spent much time in women's department stores. There were the general clothing stores that had men's stuff on one side and women's stuff on the other and kids' stuff in the back, but that was the extent of a clothing store he'd ever visited. This was... certainly high scale, a store that matched Izume's quite flattering outfit very well. Tsurude was afraid to check the price tags on anything in here, even the purses.

He folded Izume's hand in the crook of his elbow automatically, covering her hand with one of his own with a friendly pat. "Yes," he admitted, matching her smile for smile. "I've come shopping for my two most favorite lady friends in the world."

Life as it was now was most certainly not something Kotetsu would have believed possible for herself. Many 'what-if's had paraded through her mind - hers and Izume's - ever since the Academy years, all the way through the chuunin exams and beyond. What if we were civilians? What if we got married? What if we got pregnant and weren't married?

The worst 'what-if's involved blood, screaming, and breathless prayers to indifferent surroundings, as well as fingers digging into wrists hard enough to bruise, if there had been enough blood too colour deathly white skin.

A life of accountings, fabric, a dreamy roommate who scattered the room with miles and miles of sketches and hastily dashed colour wasn't quite what Kotetsu had envisioned life as a civilian would be, nor that of a retired kunoichi. But since neither of them were missing body parts or had more nightmares than were the norm, this sort of 'what-if' made into reality wasn't too bad.

Definitely not bad, Kotetsu mused, as she ran a hand through her hair absently, tugging at her bangs. They weren't shaggy now, Izume having long since convinced her to get her hair done at a professional salon. While it gnawed at her to have spent good money on a job she could have done just as well with a kunai and a mirror, the fact that Izume was more than pleased with the results satisfied Kotetsu.

Plus, with how Izume was in the fashion market, Kotetsu didn't even have to attempt to dress herself anymore. Izume did it for her.

Right now, she was wearing a loose-fitting short-sleeved shirt made of light silk dyed in the same changing blue hues as Izume's dress over a fishnet shirt with three-quarter sleeves of dark sapphire. Kotetsu had protested a skirt on the grounds that it was impractical - somewhat of a lie, because they both could fight well in a geisha's kimono if they had to - so Izume had obliged by giving her black velveteen pants that flared at the bottom to drape over calf-high black suede boots that were perfect for hiding a kunai in each.

Kotetsu loved that option of having kunai.

Her fingers lingered at the shell of her ear, and she was reminded of the delicate silver spirals that dangled from her earlobes. Izume'd convinced her to get them pierced half a year ago, and to her surprise, Kotetsu had found that she had a definite weakness for earrings. She had a whole collection of them now.

She was still idly playing with her left earring as she carried out a sheaf of records for Izume to look at.

"Izu-kun, the records are starting to drive me nuts, you should take a look at--"

Then she saw their former boss. Former slave-driver and master.


Izume didn't even have time to reply before her cohort in crime was coming out of the back room, paperwork in hand. Kotetsu was looking just as lovely - even if it was a little mind-boggling to see her made up, although not as mind-boggling if she'd been wearing a dress as well - which was undoubtedly Izume's work as well.

With just enough pressure on Izume's hand to keep her from slipping away, he moved across the shop to where the other kunoichi was blinking at him, bringing Izume with him. "Kotetsu!" he said, giving her a smile as well. No reason why he couldn't turn on the charm, right? Best way to butter them up before dragging them kicking and screaming back to the tower. "You look wonderful. Did you get your hair cut?"

Seeing poor Kochan was looking like a deer caught by a flashbomb, Izume responded, "Yes, she did. Doesn't it look lovely?" All while trying to free her hand from how Tsurude had trapped it, without making it appear like she was trying. Alas but she was quite nicely caught and she only had herself to blame.

Very well. Small talk was a given, though she figured the real reason for Tsurude's visit should come out relatively soon. "Kochan," she continued as she turned to her friend, "Tsurude-sama said he was shopping for not one but two lady-friends." That sly little smile she again directed at her Hokage, even though she was beginning to have a bad, bad feeling. She knew/hoped Kochan would pick up on her not-displayed unease. In all the time the boutique had been open Tsurude had never set foot in this district unless absolutely necessary. But he now he was here, mentioning his 'two most favorite lady friends' in a way that had her thinking immediately of herself and Kochan. He wasn't going to try and hire them back into his office, was he? They were retired, they were civilians, and Izume was not about to give up her shoppe because some poor schlep or schelps couldn't handle crushing amounts of paperwork like they had for almost five very long years.

Izume was doing that 'I can't get free' face - it was a subtle expression, just a slight thinning of her mouth at the corners and a slight wrinkle on her brow, but Kotetsu knew her since that one time Izume'd needed to be dragged up an apple tree to escape the bigger girls in the Academy courtyard. So Kotetsu could read that and it was never good when Izume made that face.

"Two lady friends?" Kotetsu said, trying to catch onto the rhythm of small-talk Izume had started, and managed to smile. "My, Hokage-sama, how positively..." A couple of words flashed up from Kotetsu's rather more risque vocabulary, and she settled on, "daring. Daring of you." She took half a step back - because there was no way she wanted to get ensnared by Tsurude, but she didn't flee. Tsurude had Izume in his blond clutches.

Daring, oh yes. That was certainly one way to put it, especially if he actually did have two lady friends like they were insinuating, which they should know would never happen by now, with as long as they'd worked for them. Or maybe they were just putting up a front before they dashed away like scared rabbits that knew he was after them. He'd have to work hard to snare them before they could find some sort of polite way of getting away. Or getting away, period.

"Isn't it?" He patted Izume's hand again and flashed her a quick smile as well. "And here I've found both of them. I think this calls for a date. Especially since we haven't seen each other in so long. A year? More? Why don't you take a break so I can treat you both to lunch?"

Izume's heart sank a little more at the smile and the suggestion, though she kept the pleasant expression on her face without looking like it was forced and succeeded at it fantastically. Long years of practice being Tsurude's paper-girls / bouncer-secretaries had allowed her to perfect that art. "Why, that sounds just peachy, Hokage-sama, but as Kochan was saying, she wanted me to look over some of the records. Plus," she continued with a perfect blend of wistful desire and reluctant refusal, "we have a minor maintenance problem that while not yet an emergency, really should be taken care of before it becomes a real issue. Broken water heaters are bad for business if they leak."

Their shoppe was their sanctuary. If they stepped outside...they were screwed.

"Yeah, that," Kotetsu grasped at Izume's excuses like a drowning dog clinging to floating debris and tried not to let it show in her eyes. "So much to do around the place, we're really quite busy..."

It was, unfortunately, very illegal to blow up the Hokage with an explosive tag. The way Izume's smile tightened ever so slightly, and Tsurude's all but possessive hold on Izume's hand made Kotetsu think that it might not, however, be so bad if a flash tag were used instead...

No, Kochan, don't say THAT-- Too late. They were obviously not yet that busy; they just needed to make clear that being close to home was best. What had been a very plausible, convincing reason for declining was now much less of one. Poor Kochan, Izume thought. She tries, but just doesn't quite succeed at challenges that didn't involve weapons or explosives.

Izume did her best to give a little helpless shrug of 'what can we do?' to try and add strength to Kochan's excuse.

Unluckily for the two of them, even if Kotetsu hadn't blown Izume's excuses out of the water with the ever-flimsy 'so much to do, we're really quite busy' excuse (he was intimate with that one - one of the many that actually translated into 'I don't want to', right up there with 'I have a headache' and 'I need to wash my hair'), Tsurude already had a ready counter-excuse to drag them out of their comfort zone. He deployed it now with a rueful shake of his head.

"Broken plumbing really is a pain. But why don't you let me take care of that for you? I can call up a plumber to repair it while we're out to lunch. And I'm sure you both know that figures often make more sense when you take the time to clear your mind and do something else for a time. Like a cup of tea with an old friend. Are there any shops you like around here in particular?"

Izume cried a little inside as the verbal ground became suddenly more slippery and more sharply sloped. She patted Tsurude's shoulder with her free hand. "Hokage-sama, that's so kind of you to offer, but we wouldn't want to trouble you with something so mundane as calling the plumber." Getoutofmyshoppepleasegetoutofmyshoppeplease. If Tsurude really just wanted to catch up on gossip and whatnot, he would've offered to take them out for sake. 'Tea' was code for 'come into my parlor' that spiders like to say to entice poor, unsuspecting and beautiful butterflies to their painful doom. Izume was trying hard not to panic.

Think, girl, think! You're--were an elite chuunin, use those brains!

"And it's not even really lunchtime yet, so closing the shop unexpectedly would be a grave disappointment to our customers." Who were conspicuously absent, she noted with annoyance. Why today of all days? "So if you're really in the mood for some tea, we could have it in the back room. That way you can spend time with old friends while we make sure the store is watched and are customers helped~"

She was grasping at straws now, too. But if they managed to figure out a good enough reason, they could oh-so-politely show him the door. Being as this was their place of business and residence.

Hmm. Not exactly what he wanted, but a man had to make concessions now and again. (He had a lot of experience with that.) While having tea in the back room prevented him from getting out of their comfort zone, AND prevented them from being indebted to him for taking care of the plumbing, it did allow him to get them both into a small space where he could corner them. Not as good as cornering them in public, but better than nothing at all.

He acceded gracefully with a tip of his head, acknowledging that Izume had successfully caught him - this time. "That sounds perfectly reasonable and responsible. I've always liked that about you."

Oh, damn, he was going to try and get them back into that hell-hole, wasn't he. "Flatterer~" Izume laughed. "Kochan, would you be a love and brew up a nice strong pot of the darjeeling for the three of us? It's in the tree-painted tin in the cupboard."

Kotetsu REALLY didn't want to leave Izume alone with Tsurude. Nothing against Izume's willpower, but Tsurude was an expert manipulator and politician, and Kotetsu didn't want to come back five minutes later to find Tsurude looking like he'd eaten cat, cream and goldfish all at once.

But there was no polite way of getting out of it, was there? And having tea here was better than being outside where they'd be pressured into saying yes or no to their Hokage.

"Alright," she said, with barely concealed ill-grace, eyeing the possessive grip Tsurude had on her Izume's hand, "Wouldn't you like to sit down inside then?" The small kitchenette next to the main shop space opened into the back room - Kotetsu could at least hear what Tsurude would be saying.

"You remember," he commented with a smile and genuine pleasure. Darjeeling was his favorite tea, not the least because it was so ridiculously expensive. (So he had expensive tastes, it wasn't a flaw.) He bet that if he'd suggested coffee instead Izume (or Kotetsu) would make it exactly the way he liked it. Unlike his current secretary. Ugh.

"And I would," he continued at Kotetsu's suggestion. "We can sit and talk, like Izume said. Catch up on everything that's been happening. How's the work going in the shop? You seem to be doing well."

Izume beamed at Tsurude while she fluttered her other hand at Kochan behind Tsurude's back in a signal they had cultivated and used time and again on missions where Izume provided the distraction while Kochan did all the stealthy work. This particular gesture said, I'll be fine just hurry up. She saw Kochan's irritation and was doing her best to try and calm it while still being her charming, wonderful self to Tsurude. Keep him happy and the chances of coming away from this encounter in a way that they wouldn't regret it increased. And she could more easily keep Tsurude engaged in chitchat while Kochan made the tea. Once the tea was made then they would sit down to the real business of why he was here.

Speaking of sitting...

"Marvelously, as you can see," she replied as she pulled Tsurude towards the back room and the small table it held. Two chairs flanked it, and she indicated that he should sit. Freedom! she thought as he let go of her hand. Pity the option of simply fleeing was gone, too. She settled comfortably into the other chair and crossed her legs, angling herself so she could see into the store just in case she didn't hear the jingle-bells. "And, really, Hokage-sama, did you honestly think I would forget your favorite tea?" She tsked and shook her head just enough to have her earrings sway and sparkle. "But, yes. I'm quite pleased as to how the shoppe is running. We're decently in the black, which is what matters from the business perspective. On a personal note, I'm enjoying myself tremendously. I'm meeting plenty of new people and I'm helping them to feel comfortable and relaxed with just the smallest change to their wardrobe. Even if all a customer purchases is a hair clip or earrings, she is buying something for herself. Something she likes it and if it makes her feel better about herself to wear it, then I'm successful at my job. Happy women make confident women, and civilian or kunoichi it's good for the woman herself and her village as a whole." Her eyes shone with excitement and pleasure as she spoke. Clearly, she loved her job. "I wouldn't give this up for anything."

Kotetsu could hear Izume smooth sweet honeyed words over to Tsurude. Hopefully it'd work - if Kotetsu could catch the right tone and play along, it always worked when Izume started. She was the smooth-talker, the polite one, the pretty one with the dimpled smile and the sweet mannerisms. It was a marvel to watch her weave her magic and slither out of things that Kotetsu's instinctual action of brute force got them into.

The water started to bubble in the kettle as Kotetsu rummaged through the small shelves. The kitchenette held nothing but several tea things and a tiny microwave on top of a small fridge. Kotetsu opened the fridge, considering a moment. Tsurude WAS their Hokage, and as such, should be treated as an honoured guest. Of course, he was here to attempt and steal their well-earned retirement from them. Kotetsu therefore selected their common tea-cakes - they were going to expire soon in any case - which they served to the less... discerning customers, and arranged them onto a tiny tray painted florid and gaudy enough to make even Izume blink.

Kotetsu had bought the entire set from someone's yard sale - it wasn't an heirloom, by any means, but it certainly looked like it'd last long enough to become one since it was nearly tasteless.

If it didn't drive the Hokage out of their shop by pure saccharine display, Kotetsu didn't know what else to do.

Tsurude nodded in all the appropriate places, actually paying close attention to what she was saying rather than relying on well-honed reflex to take over while his mind went somewhere else. Towards the end there it was really starting to sound like a sales pitch, though. Which made sense, considering this was a retail outlet. But it wasn't like HE needed to be convinced to buy earrings, so she could have probably left that last bit off and gotten the same outward effect.

"I'm glad you're enjoying yourself so much. There's nothing quite as pleasurable as a job well done." Kotetsu appeared then, with what had to be the most gaudy tea set he had ever seen outside the Daimyo's palace. Thankfully there were tea sets that caused much worse eyepain then this one, so Tsurude was able to accept a tiny cup without batting an eye. "And you, Kotetsu? How have you been enjoying your retirement?"

"It's very different," Kotetsu said, trying not to let the slight defensiveness show. How to convince him? Izume'd all but shown her hand - she really liked selling clothes, loved designing, adored making the world a slightly prettier place by encouraging slight personal indulgences that a lot of people didn't have time for. Kotetsu herself didn't see much point in it, but she liked seeing Izume happy, and that was what counted.

As long as it wasn't back in the Hokage's offices, though. It wasn't so much that they were glorified secretaries, but they were glorified secretaries with targets painted on their backs, and with the tedious, thankless jobs to go with it. Here, doing the monthly accounts, managing the shipments of fabrics and jewelery and countless other little tasks that Kotetsu hadn't thought shopkeepers had to do, well, she found it was actually less stressful than attempting to wake Tsurude up for a meeting.

At least, while they didn't make a lot selling glorified fabric, they didn't have to spend a lot of it on medical treatment. Other than the occasional pricked finger, but Izume did most of the sewing while Kotetsu made comments.

"I like it," she said, slowly, leaning her hip on the back of Izume's chair and touching her elbow to Izume's shoulder. "It's quiet. We get to meet people we otherwise won't meet." People who'd actually say more than two sentences, and not including, Can't we just hand it in tomorrow? Please? It's not like being a day later would make a difference...!

He nodded and sipped at the hot tea. Mmmm. Just the way he liked it. Why did he ever let them leave?

"I'm glad to see you two so happy. Anyone who'd try to drag you away would be crazy." After another sip, he set down the tea and saucer and decided to go ahead and let the ball drop. "Which I obviously am. While I am glad to see you happy, I also need your assistance." Tsurude folded his hands on the table. "I want to hire you both back as civilian contractors."

Izume glanced up at her friend to see what she thought only to see a blank look on Kochan's face, so she explained. "A civilian contractor is a civilian who has military clearance of a certain kind but has no rank outside that clearance. Typically you'll find them in offices where you need to have people that can be trusted to handle, say, paperwork, but having shinobi training isn't exactly necessary."

When she looked back at Tsurude, sharp seriousness replaced the flighty flirtation. "Is the office that backed up?" she inquired skeptically as she reached for her own cup of tea. Obviously it was, if he was here wanting to drag them back, but she wanted to hear it in his own words. This was where the downside of civilian life came in. Since they were retired, they no longer had that security clearance, and therefore where they would've been chin-deep in the know, now they could only stand on the shore and observe.

"Yes," he said simply. There was no reason to beat around the bush, after all. But there was also no reason to go into detail, or to break down and start whining about how much he hated it. He was here to offer a deal, not to beg and plead for them to come back and make him tea again. Damn, if only they were still shinobi, then he could order them...

... but after a brief pause, he couldn't help adding, "And the new secretary's coffee is terrible."

Kotetsu resisted the urge to say, "Poor baby." She could all but see Tsurude's pout - which was just emotional blackmail when the most powerful man in Konoha wore it, and knew it.

She couldn't, however, resist the smug smirk which she didn't quite hide with her teacup. Of course the new secretary's coffee was horrible. It had been horrible before Kotetsu arrived, and barring some sort of miracle, it'd be horrible again. The coffee maker only ever responded to Kotetsu's touch - it included mental curses, precise hits to specific parts of the machinery, and double boiled water with heavy cream - and produced substandard brown slush if other people so much as looked at it.

"You want us to go back and deal with your paperwork?" she said instead, not saying what she really wanted to say. If I went back, I'd want the rank to back me up when I tell whining idiots to take their badly written reports, shove it where the sun don't shine, and turn left. It'd get them towed back into the chain of command so quickly they'd both leave skid marks. It would be something to talk to Izume about.

Kotetsu couldn't be trusted to haggle this sort of thing. The price of fish and bread, yes, sometimes even the price of bolts of sequined fabrics. But not this sort of thing.

"Help," the Hokage clarified. "Help with the paperwork. You wouldn't be the only ones working the office, there's too much work even for you two to handle on your own." Which was true - while the stacks of paperwork they'd handled a year ago sometimes easily towered over Izume's perky little head, the stacks of paperwork crowding his office now were easily twice as high. Or would be, if they were actually stacked like that and could be trusted not to fall and kill everyone.

"And after all," he added, "someone still needs to watch the shop, too. I couldn't ask you to take over all your old responsibilities and run this shop at the same time."

.... well, actually he could, if he was really really really desperate. And mean. But he had a feeling easing into it and being flattering would win them over to his side of thinking a lot faster.

"Well then," Kotetsu said, leaning over Izume to put her teacup down. "We definitely'll want to talk about this, please..." Get lost? "leave us so we can discuss it?" Without pressure.

Ah, the benefits of having someone think on the same page. "If you wouldn't mind, Hokage-sama," Izume smiled politely at him and sipped her tea. It looked like they would be closing the shoppe a bit early after all, regardless of if he physically left the shoppe. She doubted he would, and she wanted to discuss this with Kochan upstairs where Tsurude wouldn't be able to overhear.

Izume clearly knew him far too well. With a smile he nodded, put one of the cookies on his saucer, and rose with tea in hand. "Absolutely. I'll leave you two back here so you can discuss to your heart's content. I'll just be in the shop."

And with that he went ahead and vacated the back kitchenette, sipping the tea and perusing the items on the shelves. Not that there was going to be anything in here he'd want to would buy for anyone, but it paid to know what they were selling. Hmmm, this cookie was pretty good, too...

Izume exchanged a quick look with her partner. Kochan would lock the store door and switch the sign from "Open" to "Closed" while Izume went straight upstairs to their apartment to pace in her heels and think furiously of what options they had.

Unfortunately, a flat-out "no" wasn't among them. Izume knew, probably better than Kochan, that while they were retired Tsurude could still reinstate their ranks and commissions and then order them back to the office as their superior officer, to which they would have no recourse but to go along and more than likely lose the shoppe. Therefore reinstatement was to be avoided at all costs.

Going back as civilian contractors who were only helping translated to them working only part time, so less than seventy forty hours a week. They could keep the shoppe, in theory. But running it as well as coming up with new designs and sewing them? On top dealing with the paperwork from hell? She and Kochan were good, but not that good.

By the time she heard Kochan coming up the stairs, she was visibly upset by the whole mess and tugging on the bottom of her ear as she tried to think of some way to salvage this. Because Tsurude would try to get as much as he could and it would be her job to make sure she and Kochan weren't drawn in deeper than they absolutely must.

Izume looked like she was about to cry. Kotetsu was, then and there, quite glad she had locked up the shoppe and back room with pointed clicks when it was obvious she could have done it quite silently.

It didn't look like this was going to be easy to get out of.

"Izu-kun?" Don't cry. Please don't cry... "We can't really just tell him to shove it, can we?"

Izume shook her head and tugged on her ear more. "If we could, I would've." And then she proceeded to outline to Kochan everything she had been playing through her mind. "Our only real choice is to accept, but on our conditions." Dark brown eyes show fiercely. "A raise, for one. A good one. Benefits for second. No more than twenty hours a week for third."

Then she deflated and crossed the floor to drop unceremoniously into a plushly upholstered recliner. "And we're probably going to need to hire someone to help run the store while we're working for him, too." In some ways, that hurt the worst. This was her and Kochan's store. They ran it, not some retail monkey who probably wouldn't know satin from taffeta if she shoved it in their face, and who would pretend to be happy but secretly hate the customers that allowed them to have a job in the first place.

She looked up at her best friend. "What are you thinking, Kochan?"

"That I wanna punch him in the face?" For practically making her Izume cry. "Other than that... I don't like having to hire someone." It just bit against the grain. It made Kotetsu - them - shopkeepers. Employers. People who might well grudge someone their pay... Kotetsu shook that thought away and refocussed on the now. They weren't on the streets. It wasn't like they were on the edge of it either. "I don't wanna go back to doing their paperwork - and without the rank to back it up, people'd be worse."

It wasn't like Kotetsu hadn't noticed how people thought desk-chuunin were paperflunkies. And that had been with the rank to take someone's smirk and shove it agianst the wall. Without that rank...

Kotetsu didn't understand this. It wasn't exactly in her idea of how the world worked. If you weren't shinobi, you were civilian. You worked as... whatever civilians did. You farmed, you banked, you did retail. If not, you were shinobi, you ran missions, you obeyed the Hokage directly, there was a chain of command.

How could you work within the chain of command as a civilian? Other than working in catering, of course.

Izume smiled gently. The comment of punching their village leader was absurd enough to amuse her (however she knew it to be), plus she and Kochan had known each other long enough that she could guess what the other was thinking. Kotetsu had a very linear way of thinking; it was what let her excel at missions and paperwork. Problems arose when she needed to think outside those lines--and that was where Izume came in. She helped Kochan expand where and when she could, and she helped keep Izume grounded when something really excited her. So right now, she knew Kochan was trying to understand the concept of a civilian contractor and w asn't getting it to compute.

"I don't want to do either, either, but. If he's desperate enough to come down here personally you know he'll give us our ranks back if we balk too hard. And we don't need the rank to tell people where to shove it. Just because we might not have the rank doesn't mean we've lost any of our skills and training--we've made sure of that." Nevermind keeping their skills sharp, but sparring was also great exercise. "Plus, if we do agree to this, I know Tsurude-sama will allow us a fair amount of leeway in how we handle the troublesome fuckwits who would disdain us for not being shinobi, because he knows we can get the job done better than anyone. Which cycles back to why he's here in the first place. He can't afford to not have us, and as long as we're outside the military chain of command he'll have to make some concessions to keep us happy because he wants to keep us. So long as we do the job to our usual standards, he has no reason to reinstate our rank as when was the last time we were actually sent on a mission that wasn't a gofer-errand?"

"If you say so," Kotetsu said, but she wasn't convinced. This entire thing struck her as dangerous, because while she wanted it to be familiar - civilian or shinobi - she didn't want to go back to being a shinobi. Shinobi meant Izume wouldn't have time to design, it meant Kotetsu wouldn't be able to play with the idea that maybe, just maybe she could try growing something, or buying new furniture, or working on expanding her reading or...

"I mean. Our missions weren't easy, precisely..." They'd worked with other jounin, after all, as elite-chuunin. It wasn't as if they were just paper-pushers. "Still..."

Perhaps not 'just' paper-pushers, but Izume really had a hard time recalling normal missions that happened before Tsurude came back to the village and was named Hokage. She sighed and pushed her bangs out of her face so she could stare at her painted toenails without her hair in the way.

"I don't know what to do, Kochan," she admitted. "I mean, I know what I, what we should do, but I... I don't want to go back. I like our life here."

Kotetsu never liked Izume to be sad. It just... was. It made Kotetsu angry, or maybe just as sad, and when that happened she wanted to punch things and make sure they didn't happen again.

Pity she couldn't punch the Hokage.

"I don't wanna go back either," she said, sitting down beside Izume on the recliner and tugging her into a hug.

Right now, that was the only thing Kotetsu could do.

Izume scootched over to give Kochan a little more room on the seat, winding her arms around Kochan to hold on tightly, resting her head on Kochan's shoulder and closing her eyes. She was angry at Tsurude for coming and ruining their happy little corner of the world and almost wished she had the courage to slug the man herself. If nothing else she hoped he was glancing at prices and having something of a heart attack.

They say the best revenge is to live well. They also say revenge is a dish best served cold.

Izume was certain she could find a way to combine the two. Maybe not necessarily now, but in the future.

"What would you want as far as compensation, for 'helping' like he's asking?" She knew that she would be the one to handle the so-called negotiations, so she wanted to know Kochan's desires so she could formulate a plan before they went back downstairs.

This, Kotetsu had to stop and think about. It was difficult for her to think more then two weeks in advance - other than accounts and shop business, which was like an intellectual exercise. Otherwise, life just... was normal for her. Grocery shopping was planned every week, not per month, and she had to go through the calendar for the year to mark dates rent and bills were due, or else they just didn't exist to her.

"More money?" she hazarded. "But you've mentioned that." Was there anything they wanted? Kotetsu wrecked her brain. "Maybe..." she cast her gaze about, and caught sight of a leaflet that was tucked under the dresser because it was just a little wobbly. "... health insurance?"

The answer was just so--so Kochan that Izume chuckled and squeezed her friend. "Got it," she smiled. "I almost want to pull out some sake myself. But I'll wait until he's gone." Because he'd try and snitch it away.

Kotetsu made a sound and hugged Izume tighter. "I'll go along with whatever you can think of," she mumbled into Izume's shoulder. "Don't care what, I just wish he hadn't shown up."

She sighed for a moment, absently inhaling the scent of Izume's perfume and apple conditioner.

"Definitely want some sake."

"The good sake," Izume agreed, indulging in a snuggle and making herself momentarily forget what awaited them downstairs. "We deserve a splurge after this. You and me and the most expensive bottle of sake we can find." Another squeeze, and then she stood up and stepped to the nearest full-length mirror. Still looked good, no evidence of nearly crying. Her bangs she positioned back in place over her eye and then she did another double-check.

She closed her eyes and breathed slowly and deeply several times. She would be calm and pleasant and still engaging as she haggled their price with Tsurude. When she turned to Kochan, her now-open eyes were clear and focused. "Ready, Kochan?"

"Never," Kotetsu muttered, but stood anyway. Izume had her game face on, and Kotetsu let her own expression smooth over into a calm smile. It felt sorta... empty, for Izume to walk away, leading the way down the stairs, but then, that was just how things were, right?

You and me and the most expensive bottle of sake we can find.

At least, no matter what happened, they'd be together in it.

Izume lightly squeezed Kochan's hand as she walked past her to the stairs. She disliked the feeling she was on a mission in her own damn home. But Tsurude had pushed them. Now it was time to push back.

She unlocked the backroom door with an audible click so it would attract his attention. Assuming a foxy little grin she strode towards him, oozing confidence and a distinct femaleness while she eyed him and what he was doing.

Surprisingly enough, the contents of the Paper Doll's shop were pretty interesting... in a very female way. Much of it was gaudy, but then again, a lot of women enjoyed gaudy, sparkly things, so it wasn't really off the wall. Purses, dresses, shirts and skirts and shoes and jewelry. Some of them were actually quite nice. He only looked at the price tag of one of them, though. He didn't need to do it a second time.

After a few minutes - and his tea ran out - he wandered to the back to see if he couldn't get a refill (and more cookies). But apparently one of the doors Kotetsu had locked while closing up the shop was the kitchen door, locking him out from the delicious tea and cookies. He spent a moment pouting at the deliberate act of spitefulness, contemplating just picking the lock and letting himself in (there were lots of hairpins around here, it wouldn't take him long), but ultimately decided not to on the basis of continuing politeness. Picking their lock would make them less interested in coming back to work for him, and damn if he didn't have to be polite because they were civilians. Grr.

So he went back to browsing (while pouting). There were some scarves up near the register that he ended up coming back to a few times before finally giving in and fingering the texture of the fabric. Very nice and soft and drapey, soft and silk-like without actually being silk, with simple flowing embroidered designs in the same basic color as the fabric. There was a black-on-black one that was catching his interest, but after the first tag he was afraid to check the price of this one...

The door to the kitchen clicked open, and Tsurude glanced up from his perusal. Izume was sauntering towards him with that 'I'm going to kill you and enjoy' sort of grin on her face. It always made him nervous when she did that, because it usually was a precursor for one of her and Kotetsu's many evil pranks.

So he decided to beat her to the punch. Draping the black scarf back where he found it, he folded his arms over his chest and turned on his no-nonsense Hokage face.

"Twenty hours a week," he said, "from each of you, bare minimum. You can work alternating schedules so that one of you can be at the shop, or work together, whichever you want as long as I get one of you during regular working hours. Specific schedule is negotiable. Pay is negotiable. The usual civilian contractor package including health care, holiday pay, and so on is included." He hesitated a beat. "And you make me coffee."

...Damn him for beating her to the puch. Still he managed to bring up several of the same points she was going to mention. Though the non-nonsense Hokage face was such a familiar sight. Silly Hokage-sama~

Izume had spotted the scarf he had been looking at, and with a smile went over to pick it up and examine it herself, fingering the expert embroidered design. "Your office will, of course, provide us with a copy of the contract with all the terms, conditions, and benefits so we might review it? Including," she continued, "the items discussed here. This is only a verbal discussion, not a binding agreement.

"Twenty hours is acceptable." She gave herself points for not choking on the words and in fact displaying an 'I got you' smirk. "As you said, specific schedule to be negotiated. And will be once we've seen just what your office has become, to balance out with our hours here. For pay, we want two hundred percent of what we were originally earning when we retired."

Let the haggling begin.

It was easy to hang back behind Izume, not quite leaning into her space, but being there so that she was visual and tacit support. Whatever Izume asked for, she was all for it. Already she could see that they'd lost a bit by having Tsurude toss the first volley, but Izume was a good negotiater - she would be able to make up for it.

The best thing Kotetsu could do at the moment was to do what she did best - keep a good poker face (mainly a faintly knowing smile) and be backup. While Izume haggled, Kotetsu did minutely shop-like things - like unlocking the front door so Tsurude could leave later without delay, tidying up the display cases - that kept her to Izume's side of the shop.

The lines have been drawn, Hokage-sama. Let's see how you make your position.

If he'd been a lesser man, he would have choked at Izume's brazen proposal for a two hundred percent payraise. He was already going to be paying out a ton of money for healthcare and benefits and not get any mission work out of them. And they wanted a two hundred percent payraise on top of that?!

Keep cool, Tsurude, he reminded himself. You were the one that was offering them a payraise when they left. You should have expected that.

So instead of pitching a fit, breaking something, or going to the back to sulk over more tea and cookies and think about it for a while, Tsurude just calmly counter-proposed, "One hundred-fifty percent."

Kotetsu had to ostentiously check the cash register, and the little cupboards below it, to hide her face.

Oh, Tsurude-sama, Izume is going to eat you alive. While Kotetsu's only survival strategy amongst politicians and civilian nobles was to pretend to look like the wall, she knew how to bargain at the road sides and markets - because when you had only three ryou in your hand you had to make each count - and Tsurude was doing it wrong.

Well, he wasn't known as the 'Legendary Sucker' for nothing.

“One-ninety,” Izume countered, stroking the black scarf’s soft fabric while her intent eyes stayed on Tsurude. One-fifty percent as a bottom offer was excellent. And actually a little more than what he had been offering when they first left. Things were already beginning to look up, somewhat.

If Tsurude had any idea of the blunder he just made, there was no sign of it on his face. He might have been known as the legendary sucker, but it wasn't for his poker face skills - which were excellent - but rather for his frequent sometimes incredibly poor choices in gambling. It has hard to learn when to walk away from a bet, and this one hadn't learned that skill yet.

Thankfully, this wasn't a bet, but rather a very important offer to get some good workers back into his office. Primarily so he could get more sleep again. With hardly a blink of his eye, he counter-offered, "One-sixty."

"One eighty-five." Izume had been nice in not going to one ninety-five, but that was out of respect for the man. For the remainder of the duration of the haggling, she would play harder.

"One sixty-five," came the swift counter.

Izume fought back a smirk. "One eighty."


"One seventy-five."

"Deal." The Hokage nodded, slipping the word in like shouting 'uno' before anyone else could, not wanting the price to rise any higher. A seventy-five percent hike on their previous pay was a stiff, stiff price to pay, but since he was only going to be paying for twenty hours a week (instead of forty and overtime and missions and free health care, too), he was actually going to be saving a bundle. It was really a very good deal compared to taking them back in as shinobi. Tsurude mentally patted himself on the back for being such a good haggler.

"Show up bright and early tomorrow morning." He uncrossed his arms and eyed the scarf Izume was still fondling before deciding to give it up as lost; he really didn't want to look at the price tag after all. "The paperwork will be ready for you to look at and sign."

Now Izume smirked. "We'll be there to look over the paperwork, and let you know when we'll be in to actually face whatever had you coming here. I must confer with Kotetsu, after all. But first..." She smiled, and with an expert flick of her wrist the scarf snapped around his neck so she could catch the other end with her other hand and pull him much closer. Most people might be afraid of entrapping a man capable of making you a quadriplegic with his ring finger, even in such a small and easily escapable way. Kamizuki Izume, however, had no such qualms. She only tilted her head to gaze into his whiskey-brown eyes.

"Do you like the scarf?" she asked, her voice a soft purr.

... to be honest, he hadn't been expecting that last part. Flirting, yes, came hand in hand with Izume, but her getting up close and personal was a new one. It wasn't flustering though. He'd been around the block one too many times to be affected by a girl half his age (er, or maybe less) pseudo-hitting on him.

So he just raised a brow at her, allowing her to make him lean down because of the scarf around his neck. "It's nice," he admitted neutrally.

Still smiling, Izume glanced down...and quickly tied the scarf into a rather manly look, the ends of the scarf pointed down and laying flat over his sternum. Then she stepped back, all bright and cheerful and so very much not a seductress. "Then consider it a present, Hokage-sama," she grinned. "No charge."

Izume grinning like that meant she'd gotten what she'd wanted. Enough to warrant giving away one of their speciality scarves. "Thank you for coming, Hokage-sama," Kotetsu said from the counter, leaning her hip against it to give the man a sharp edged smile. A hundred and seventy-five percent raise! That might actually be worth quite a bit, to compensate for lost hours working at the shoppe. "Can I have your eyes and ears for the records now, Izu-kun?"

Best to make the Hokage get out of the place before he remembered something else, a trait he seemed to do a lot, especially when piles of important paperwork (taxes, taxes, and more damn taxes) came due.

... right. Kotetsu's original appearance had involved paperwork of some kind; better to let them get back to it. The sooner they got down with their paperwork, the sooner they could get started on his. Straightening with a nod, he smoothed the ends of the scarf down over his chest as though it had been part of his outfit all along.

"Tomorrow morning," he said simply, giving them both a nod, before leaving the shop.

He was careful to be well out of the district before he stopped to do a victory dance, much to the confusion of his fellow passers-by.