Chapter 1: Clash & Controversy
Chicken broth burned a path down her throat and soothed her soul. Little else ever did on the days Hotaru forced herself to pay a visit to her family’s home. Worse still, this bowl of ramen was only the beginning.
She sighed and placed the empty bowl on top of its brothers and sisters. “Another order of beef ramen,” she called to the shop owner. “And make it a double.”
A muffled chuckle drew her attention from the new bowl of steaming soup to kitchen where the owner, Teuchi, watched her with crinkled eyes. He shook his head. “I’ll never understand where you put it all,” he said. “You really should join my Ramen Ichiraku Eating Competition this year. We could use your help in advertising our ramen. First prize is free meals for a year!”
Where did she put it? In all honesty, she never felt full when eating at Teuchi’s, and she preferred things that way. Besides, it wasn’t as if she always ate ramen. No. Hotaru reserved Ramen Ichiraku Shop for special occasions. Like routine pop-ins with the shrine, and her father. As for the competition...
“Teuchi-san,” she said with a shake of her head. “A prize like that would be wasted on me. I only eat here every so often. And never that much.”
Old man, Teuchi raised a brow and motioned to the stack of bowls.
Hotaru shrugged, a sheepish grin curving the corner of her lips. “What? I’m allowed to binge once a season.”
“I’m not one for interfering in personal matters,” Teuchi said, stroking his chin, “but you’re visiting Seiji-sama today. Am I correct?”
Seiji-sama. The name every villager in Konohagakure called the head priest and her father. The shrine her ancestors hid among the leaves of Konoha’s oldest district. An area forgotten by all but time. And Hotaru. Very few citizens acknowledged the Kurisu Shrine as a part of Konoha. Older civilians, like Teuchi, still paid the shrine an occasional visit to pray and check on her father. But the younger generation?
“Yes, I’m stopping by the shrine on my way out of the village this afternoon,” She slurped down the remaining broth and set the bowl beside the others. “Tell Ayame I’ll swing back by tonight before I go.”
“Hotaru,” She stilled as he covered her hand with his own, “the Kurisu family has always been good to us. If you ever need someone to talk with I’m here.”
“I’ll see you tonight, Teuchi.”
She apologized to Teuchi silently for her rudeness. Teuchi and Ayame treated her like the family she’d always wanted. Hotaru never wanted to see them disappointed. Not because of her. Never because of her.
Tab clenched in her fist, Hotaru ducked out of the small restaurant, bowing in pardon as she bumped into an entering customer and his companion. She couldn’t shake the feel someone was watching her as she dashed in the direction of her family’s shrine.
“Stop sulking,” her father scolded. “As a future Kurisu priestess and bride you must exude grace and encouragement to those in the village. You are their source of hope!”
More like their source of amusement.
Hotaru shot daggers at the young shinobi hiding behind a teacup while she cleaned the floors of the shrine. With her hindquarters in the air, back arched as she pushed the sud-soaked cloth across the floor, she wasn’t in any mood to chatter with some stranger.
“Father, why am I doing this again,” Hotaru asked. “I just shined the floors the other day. ”
“A shinobi needs to see his wife is capable of holding down the home while he’s away,” Seiji said with a snort that was anything but quiet. “Besides, it is your duty to protect the Kurisu family name by producing an heir. Any potential husband will want to know his future wife is fertile.”
No matter how hardened a shinobi’s resolve, few missions could prepare a man for her father’s old fashioned honest ways. Or at least so Hotaru thought because Seiji’s guest began to choke on the tea.
Hotaru stood to her full height, a head or two taller than her father who sat prim and erect, still sipping tea.
She squeezed the rag between her fingers until soapy water coated her hand. “Are you insane?” she seethed. “It’s one thing if you need help around the shrine. It’s a complete other for you to invite shinobi over to stare at my hips.”
Seiji settled his cup on the table. “Child bearing hips, dear,” he said. “Your mother had them as well. A fine sign of a firtile woman.”
She listened as the wet cloth hit the ground with a less than satisfying shwack! “What are you breeding? Livestock?” She argued. “I’m not marrying a man, shinobi or otherwise, when I haven’t even...”
Hotaru bit her lip to keep from continuing.
“Hotaru, you are this village’s hope for the future,” her father said, his voice rising. “No daughter of mine would so selfish as to deny innocent’s a chance at happiness.”
Holding her father’s sharp gaze, Hotaru searched his eyes and found no trace of remorse. Her heart dropped into her stomach.
Father... What about my happiness?
She bowed her head, wishing her dark brown bangs were longer. Then, maybe she could hide her eyes.
For the first time, since she learned of her fate. Of the Land of Fire’s fate should she fail, she turned her back on Seiji and her tears.
She snapped back around, unable to hold her voice steady any longer. “Then I guess I’m not your daughter!”
The sound of fidgeting and curses met her at the entrance. Two men with eyes bright as the sun itself looked up at her and stared.
“Sorry,” she said, fighting to steady her voice. “The shrine is closed. If you’re here to see my father, he’s currently busy.”
The blond reached down, his hand tracing the curve of her jawline. “A frown doesn’t suit you,” he said. “Smile for me, Princess.”
Her chest clenched almost painfully as she smacked the hand away. “Please, if you’re one of my father’s potential husband choices, I’m not interested.”
His lips curled, and a flash of white teeth warmed Hotaru down to her toes.
“There’s nothing potential about it,” His eyes darkened as they swept over her body. “You’re mine.”