The Dragon of the West sat in a foreign land, alone and utterly defeated in every way imaginable. In the months since the disaster, he had shed weight like melting ice, living only because he didn't know what else to do with himself.
"Excuse me sir? Would you like a refill?"
Iroh looked wearily up at the cheerful server. Another day, he would have started a conversation. Perhaps he would tomorrow. "No thank you," he said quietly, letting the woman take his china.
He had ended up falling back on his White Lotus contacts, contacts that led him to the city of Omashu for the first time in his life. The highest level member there was an incredibly eccentric man, but King Bumi was also knowledgeable even by White Lotus standards. Iroh had heard of the Elemental Countries of course. No royal from a country best-known for wanting to conquer every other nation would be completely unaware of an entirely new continent. But King Bumi knew more than the vague information that had led Fire Lord Azulon to decide to postpone attacking them until the Earth Nation was under their rule.
The sights and sounds of the marketplace were dulled by his mood as Iroh slowly plodded back to his hotel room. This country was strange, as was the Land of Iron where he had first arrived. At least the shocking technologies of that place were much less frequent here, even if he had been informed it was because the military governments refused to allow technologies that might disrupt their operations. Civilians with money here had access to the television technology and refrigeration (the second of which seemed much more appealing and useful to him). From what he understood, some of the more powerful military governments had monopolized video, camera, and short-range audio communication technologies for themselves and completely stopped things like the telephones from crossing the border from the Land of Iron entirely.
He recognized that the control of information and technology like that was a bad sign—it meant that the military villages were working to ensure that their power wasn't undermined and that the civilians they terrorized would remain helpless—but he still found himself a bit soothed by the comparative normalcy.
The transition from a rusty bucket on the ocean around the Earth Nation to Mifune's elegant home had been unpleasant (he was too old to have to learn so much), but the utter strangeness of this new land had probably helped to shock him out of his depression.
Even the hotel room and the bed he sank his weary bones down into discomfited Iroh. If he didn't have a mission to accomplish, he would probably lie down and die.
'And that is probably why Mifune-san has asked me to gather information,' he sighed to himself, scrubbing at his face with cool water from the tap. It was possible that the information he would pass along would actually be important—but it was also possible that he would never hear anything of importance. That was the nature of intelligence work, a fact he had made his peace with.
Still, his host had given him a task. Despite their peaceful state, the non-shinobi countries still had reasons to be concerned about what happened in the ninja countries. Apparently, an entirely new village had been founded in the previously neutral land of Rice very recently. Until some diplomatic snafu about a month after Iroh arrived, no one knew of their allegiances or even their leader. When that information had come out, Mifune-san's aide had cursed up a storm. The Land of Iron was not allowed to send representatives to the shinobi lands. But the new village and the country it had taken control of shared a border with the Land of Iron, and the aggressive behavior the small nation had indulged in had given Mifune and his countrymen cause to worry.
Which is where Iroh, who was not affiliated with any of the nations, came in. 'They must really be worried about this Orochimaru person if they are willing to risk getting caught sending an agent across the border,' Iroh thought wearily.
Tomorrow. He would make his way to the Land of Rice tomorrow.
Orochimaru rolled his eyes in irritation as his new apprentice yet again failed to deliver any killing blows in his spars. "Pathetic and sentimental," he hissed. At his side, Kabuto chuckled.
"Orochimaru-sama, he was raised in Konoha's peacetime," he pointed out mildly. "I would wager that Sasuke-kun has yet to see death in combat, much less deliver it himself. Perhaps that should be rectified before this training continues."
Yellow eyes followed the lithe figure engaged in a taijutsu match with Tayuya. The girl had been surpassed, but she was still doing her level best to maim the boy. Sasuke, on the other hand, had yet to land a blow that would do more than leave bruises.
The Sannin stood to leave, giving the sparring partners one last condescending look when they paused to look at him, leaving. His Otokage robes trailed on the ground behind him. Kabuto ducked his head to hide a slight smile at the disgruntled look on Sasuke's face and pulled the heavy doors shut behind them. The boy was far too obvious in his desire for approval. 'Of course, he was coddled by the teachers at the academy,' Kabuto chuckled to himself. No wonder Sasuke-kun had thought he was stagnating when he found himself under a man like Hatake. From what he knew, Kakashi wouldn't have the social skills to flatter the boy even if he'd wanted to.
Iroh took his time on the way to the Land of Rice, and carefully and skillfully avoided using the road and well-travelled paths. When he finally passed the border, he was very glad he had exercised such extreme caution. The roads even from a distance were in poor shape, and there were kunai and other signs of struggle all over the area. Iroh took a moment to remove a still-sharp kunai from the ground and tucked it into a pocket, just in case he might have a use for it later.
He wasn't very far into the Land of Rice, and he was already disturbed by what he saw. Abandoned houses, scorch marks adorning the ground, and ...was that blood? Iroh's mouth grew dry and his feet felt unwilling to take even one more step, but he forced himself forward, trudging towards the nearest village on the map, when he was startled and stopped by something strangely familiar.
You know it's bad when you're familiar with the smell of burning corpses, he thought grimly. With that cheery thought in mind, he thought it best to hurry towards the village.
Iroh had been a General for years, and he was hailed as the Dragon of the West by many, lauded by his compatriots and feared by his foes. He had only ever really been defeated once, and he had seen all the horrors that war had to offer.
What he saw when he neared that village nearly stopped him in his tracks.
"My kami, is that a demon?" Iroh gasped. He had seen many things—spirits, dragons, and even a man who thought he was a cat. But he had never seen anything like the two-legged beast in deceptively white robes. If it weren't for all the blood on the sleeves and the discolored skin peeling off everywhere that the fabric failed to cover, he might have mistaken the beast for a man. Granted, it would have to be an exceptionally ugly man with strange colored marking and a flat face like a snake.
Iroh rapidly tried to process the scene in front of him. There were bodies everywhere, fires burning in many of the buildings, and there were only two people in the street. There was a young boy and a… wraithlike beast. His skin looks like snakeskin, he thought in confusion. As he stealthily closed the distance between himself and the monster, the monster started speaking.
"I know you're out there" he hissed giddily, "and I'll find and slaughter every last one of you villagers. No hard feelings, I just couldn't possibly let anyone else think they don't have to acknowledge me as their new Kage. I haven't even gotten a proper fight out of any of you, and my student here" the monster put a blood-coated hand on the seemingly frozen boy "hasn't even gotten to do more than bat any of you around yet." The monster slithered down the street, poking his head into the doors and windows of buildings, and unleashing small, brightly colored snakes from his robes that slid into even the tiniest nooks and crannies of the houses he was trying to search. Horrible shrieking sounds and thudding emanated after each animal.
Iroh felt sick to his stomach. His hands were trembling, and he quickly stuffed them in his pockets to calm his nerves. He should do something, he knew. But what? Would he do more harm than good if he involved himself? He didn't even know what was going on. Was he risking the hospitality of his poor sponsor Mifune-san? He had been warned that relations between the Land of Iron and the shinobi nations mostly relied on non-interference. Then again, the monster in front of him hardly looked like an agent of the law.
"I found you" the monster hissed again, pulling a young woman from the rubble as she kicked and screamed. "It's rude to hide from guests" it jeered at the woman, and she began to cry and flail helplessly in its grasp.
Iroh knew then that he didn't care about being caught. The Land of Iron could disavow him easily, and be absolved of any interference.
But he had to end it fast. If he didn't end the monster quickly, there would be more chances for openings for the monster to end him and go on terrorizing innocent people. Luckily, the likelihood that it would initially recognize him as a threat was incredibly low.
There was only one thing he could do. He focused quietly, pushing all emotion from his mind, and gently pushed away all his tumultuous thoughts and fears. He could do that for a time, at least, even now. He went through his motions, gently but firmly separating his yin and yang energies. He stepped out slowly and silently to a place with more of a vantage point, and let his body go through the motions it knew so well. This had never been one of his favored moves, but there had been a time that the sheer mastery the skill required had been something he took pride in.
"You!" he shouted out hoarsely, hoping the monster would drop the girl and come investigate. "You are a disgrace."
The monster's head reared back on an unnaturally long neck and took in Iroh with a quizzical expression. Then it laughed, and dropped the woman on the ground, her cries muffled by the rubble she fell onto.
"And what do we have here?" it hissed again happily. "It's been so long since my snakes had a meal that fought back."
Iroh knew there was no more time, and he let his arms swing around in a circular motion. His yin and yang energy recombined, setting loose a hellish bolt of lightning that swept furiously down towards the monster.
The monster laughed. "That's an interesting justu." He didn't seem concerned in the slightest, which made Iroh nervous for a millisecond. Until it hit.
The monster screeched, not having bothered to dodge what he doubtless thought was a pitiful old man's dying effort. Iroh watched as the wisps of electricity climbed up the snakelike appendages, withering and burning them, and made their way to his heart and head.
"I'll kill you!" it screeched as it burned, and fell to the ground. The boy that had been with it had been knocked down with the blast, and looked at Iroh like he might actually be somehow worse than the monster he had just slain.
The monster was living longer than Iroh had expected it to, but it wouldn't matter. The strikes were fatal, and it writhed and screamed on the ground, while it smoked.
After the horrific thing finally breathed its last, Iroh let out the breath he didn't know he'd been holding. Getting close to that thing, or having to fight it for an extended period of time would have been fatal for everyone involved.
Iroh finally looked away from the smoking corpse on the ground to its former companion, to find that the boy had already been staring at him with wide eyes and an otherwise blank expression.
"You're stronger than Orochimaru" the boy whispered.
Well, wouldn't Mifune-san be pleased as punch.