Know Your Heroes
Lee had never been angry at his parents.
Not while at the orphanage, where everyone would always make fun of him for his inability to use chakra.
Not when he'd been released from it, the day he'd become a shinobi (and, allegedly, an 'adult'). When the head of the orphanage, a sixty-year-old man, had looked dead at him over the bridge of his glasses and told him that his parents had dropped him off of their own volition. He had not been mad when the old man had explained that he'd been born prematurely and that it was the most probable reason for his underdeveloped coils. He had very nearly died as a child.
Lee had also been told about how his stressed mother had declared he could not possibly grow up without further complications, ones she apparently had not been willing to deal with.
Lee had not responded to any of that information and had simply waited patiently for the old man to sign the release documents. Once that had been done, Lee had wished the man good luck and turned to walk away, barely catching his curious, but empathetic gaze.
Lee was not impartial to the information he had heard on that day, but he felt that, with Gai-sensei in his life, it didn't matter if his parents had abandoned him or not. He had a teacher, an idol, and a father all rolled into one and he realised that it was not something a lot of people could brag about. As such, he wasn't interested in the past and decided to simply be there with Neji and Tenten, if that was alright with them and the others who would have to support their journey. Tenten explained that it wasn't so much the fact that they had to transport people back to the past but that they had to keep them there until they decided to return that made the jutsu exhausting. She and Neji said they wouldn't mind taking Lee along and Team Seven was okay to support all three of them.
Thus, the three members of Team Gai set off.
Neji, after both hearing the few details Team Eight shared about their journey and seeing Kiba's obviously terrible state of mind, had come to the conclusion that Hinata had been fortunate enough to have a happy, peaceful moment.
It seemed that luck ran in the family, in a way.
The portal had taken them to Neji's home in the compound, in his father's bedroom. It was winter - the snow seen through the window told him that much, and he could see a woman sitting on the floor, her back facing them, looking at the falling crystals. Light from the moon was streaming inside the room, and Neji made a move to go and see the woman up close before he realised there was a rather loud conversation going on in the room next to them.
"You cannot keep her here, Hizashi, it is against clan policy to-"
"-to keep the mother of my child warm? The child the clan elders insisted on?"
Neji tuned them out.
He made another move to face the woman, but his legs wouldn't move. All these years of wondering who his mother was, what she was like, seemed to be holding him back. All of his expectations acted as a restraint, preventing him from actually finding out if they were true or not.
Before he could find his resolve, his father entered, closing the door. He looked frustrated - his eyes were troubled, eyebrows creased, mouth pressed into a thin line. He stared at the woman's back for a second before letting out a sigh, the tension leaving his arms.
"I do not wish to sound ungrateful, my lord," the woman said, so quietly it took Neji a moment to realise she'd spoken at all. "However, it may have been against your interest to take me in. My cousins' house would have warmed me well enough."
Neji knew that talking back to a superior in the Hyuga clan, even one simply from the branch family, usually had awful repercussions, but his father simply sighed again, all the fight from before apparently drained out of him.
"Even though half of the compound has no heating at the moment, the main family hasn't been taking anyone in. True, your cousins' house is still warmer than nothing, but it is so crowded at the moment that it would probably be bad for both you and the baby, with all the diseases from the cold rampant. The least I could do, what with no one important enough taking in any people and leaving more space for the others, is at least make sure my family is safe."
The woman was quiet for a moment, but only a moment. "Family, my lord?"
She wasn't looking for a fight, as evidenced by her questioning voice. Neji's father threw her a glance and sat down next to her.
"Yes, family," he replied pointedly. "For what it's worth, you are the mother of my child, which makes you important to it, and that, in turn, automatically makes you important to me."
The woman hummed in response, leaning slightly onto Hizashi's arm. He let her. The couple sat quietly, watching the small ice figures dance downwards.
Neji felt strangely uncomfortable watching this scene. He'd known his mother was only a woman chosen from the clan and given to his father to bear his child. Yet, for a second, he could almost see an alternative turn of things, where they were what his father had said.
Neji walked away, leaving his parents, and the snow, fall out of his memory.
Tenten had thought she would cry if she saw her mother again.
She was right.
Tears were silently streaming down her smiling face as she observed the scene before her. It was Tenten's birthday - the three candles on the small cake told as much. The older girl watched her younger self look at her mother, who was singing and playing the violin, her favourite instrument. She always emanated some mystic power when she performed, but especially when she had her violin. Little Tenten was watching her mother with wide eyes and equally wide smile, filled with awe. Her father was leaning on the doorframe, a soft light illuminating his face as he watched his wife.
Tenten could see, out of the corner of her eye, Lee smiling at the heartwarming scene, and hear Neji hum quietly to the music. One of her biggest wishes had been to be able to watch her mother play again, because, even though they had recordings of her at home, they didn't have the same magic that she did. Tenten had known her wish was impossible, though. In the end, she supposed that word didn't really mean what she had thought it meant.
She remembered looking up to her mother as a child, even attempting to play some musical instruments. Tenten could figure them out with practice easily enough, but something was always missing whenever she performed; something her mother's music always contained, but hers lacked. Eventually, she'd reached her answer; soul. Her mother put her all into playing. Tenten couldn't, at least not with instruments. Only after singing for the first time had she found out something she could pour her heart into.
When she'd become a shinobi, she'd realised dead people couldn't be role models and so she'd set out to find a new idol, abandoning music. After finally giving up on being just like the great Tsunade, and realising that her strengths lay elsewhere, Tenten had returned to singing. Once, she'd sung around Team Gai's campfire, and afterwards she couldn't get Neji's surprised (fascinated?) expression out of her head for weeks.
Tenten realised she'd lost herself in memories only after her mother stopped playing. Just as the song ended, she could have sworn she saw the woman smiling directly at her. Then the moment was gone, and Team Gai left the happy and still whole family eating cake.
Ino sat down next to Kiba, not saying anything.
Usually, she preferred to simply pester him about whatever it was that was troubling him until he gave in and told her (it had started to take less and less effort), but Ino could feel that this time, she'd need a different approach.
She'd asked Hinata about what had happened, and the other girl had worriedly explained about the scene with his mother. Ino had immediately remembered and old conversation she'd had with Kiba, realising that the situation was probably more hurtful than it appeared. Hinata seemed to know that, too, if the glances she'd been sending their teammate had been anything to go by. Ino had assured her, quietly, that she was going to take care of him and Hinata had thanked her, eyes showing that she believed in her a surprising much.
After that, Ino had silently walked over to Kiba. He was sitting under a tree by the road, knees up, face hidden in them. He had his hood up, too. He'd started wearing it less and less over his head but had the habit of still doing so when he was vulnerable.
Ino looked at him for a bit. She knew he knew she was there, but they both didn't say a word. She hoped the silent company would soothe him enough for the time being until she got her thoughts straight and came up with a plan. She'd never been good with threading on thin ground, so what she needed was an actual spark of genius.
"So, what's your biggest wish?"
"Ah, we're getting personal now, aren't we, handsome?"
"And what if we are?"
"Hm. Well then. I want to be a beautiful cosmos."
"A beautiful what?"
"Cosmos. It's a flower term. I'll explain it in a bit. First, tell me your biggest wish."
"...It's kind of impossible."
"It's a wish, it doesn't have to be possible."
"Point. Um. My dad. I wish I could have met him."
"If you don't mind me asking...what happened to him?"
"He died at the hand of some Iwa shinobi after the war. That's all my mum's ever told me about him, to be honest."
"What do you mean 'only that'? No photos of him? No...no memories? Nothing?"
"That's right, princess."
"...I don't - I'm-"
"It's okay. Really, I haven't missed him in my life that much - my mum and Hana have more than made up for it. Just, you know, it would have been nice to at least have an idea of what kind of person he was. With all this mystery around him - mum doesn't talk about him at all, Hana clams up whenever I mention him...it feels like he wasn't even real. And that's beside what the rest of the clan says."
"The rest of the clan?"
"Well, that's a bit of a more complicated one."
"I have all the time in the world right now."
"Okay, then. You're still going to explain that cosmos thing, though."
"Ah, trust me, that one will most likely take longer."
"Ha, if you say so."
"Hinata told me what happened."
"If you want to talk about it with somebody, I'm here. Today, tomorrow, next week, whenever, just, know that I'm here, alright?"
"...Why do you think you can help me?"
"I'm your-because I've done it before, remember? I think I can understand you."
"Understand me, eh? Since you're such an expert, then, tell me what's wrong."
"It's not about your father."
"...Excuse me? It's exactly-"
"No, it really isn't, is it? You said it yourself when we talked about our wishes that one time. You were curious about him, but you didn't miss his presence in your life because you had Hana and your mother. The two people who raised you, who you've grown to respect and love the most - it's evident by how much you talk about them. And they lie to you, treat you like a kid. The consequences are already there; your clan knows that you're an outsider's children and they're already hostile. It can't get any worse and yet they still decide to deceive you and- "
"Ino?" Kiba raised his head and looked at her, startled by the angry tone her voice had taken, and equally as surprised by how true her words rang. Her eyes seemed watery, for reasons he couldn't comprehend. She blinked, then looked down, took a shuddering breath, and let the tension leave her arms. When she raised her eyes again, they were determined.
Kiba was even more surprised. "What - why did you..."
"I just...I care about you, okay? And I can see how they have been treating you, and how it's been affecting you, and to have your mother and sister lie to you with no good reason...It's awful."
Kiba was pretty sure he was staring at her. He finally registered that this girl, this beautiful, strong, amazing girl, cared about him so much that she was angry on his behalf.
He pulled her for a hug, barely registering her startled shriek, too caught up in the moment.
"Kiba..."Ino faltered, and put his arms around him. After all of that, his name sounded somehow special, coming from her.
Choji thought that, compared to the others, his reason for wanting to travel back in the past wasn't as important. When Shikamaru had explained how they didn't have much time and that everyone should quickly decide whether they would travel, Choji had seen the glimmer in the eyes of those of his friends who had lost a parent and had decided that he was not going to get in the way of them achieving their deepest longings.
Choji's wish was also one he held very dear and had always thought of as impossible. It had started back in the Academy, while he had been bullied by the other kids. They had insulted him and, more importantly, his whole clan, saying they were a bunch of fat losers, a disgrace to the shinobi world. The words had struck him deeply and, even though he had been very sensitive at that time, his temper had started to form, and the part of him that always got angry when someone insulted his weight had made appearances in the form of wishful, rebellious thoughts. He would picture the faces of these bullies if only they could see the great heroes of his clan, who had been with Konoha from nearly the very beginning, defended the village bravely, and honoured the Akimichi name.
These thoughts had shifted, over time, from his anger to his insecurity, and he would often wish he could see these heroes himself, in order to finally believe his father's fairy tales and be able to stand up to the bullies.
Still, he didn't want his personal doubts to get in the way of the others' happiness, and so he simply sat there, munching on his crisps, seemingly nonchalant for anyone who cared to look.
Shikamaru was pretty sure he was the only one to notice.
It had only been there for a brief moment - really, only as they'd been stepping through the portal, and everyone else had been too bottled up in their own experiences, or discussing them with others, to take a proper look before the final group had greeted them - Naruto, ever so cheerful (the edge to his smile going unnoticed, too), Sakura and Sasuke trailing behind him, watching silently as he went on to talk to everyone about their journeys.
Here is what Shikamaru did make note of, though.
He made note of the fact that Naruto never said anything even slightly alluding to Team Seven's travel through the past. He asked questions and actively discussed what the others had seen, hugging Tenten and Hinata, becoming serious for a moment with Neji, and passing over a silent look onto Kiba and Ino. Since people, being people, generally liked when they were the centre of attention, especially after such heavy emotional experiences, and Naruto usually stole that role for himself, they didn't really care to see anything outside of what he showed them.
They probably didn't notice the quick glances he'd exchange with Sakura and Sasuke now and again. They probably didn't realise that the other two members of Team Seven had yet to say a word, and, had they been scrutinised closer, would have probably revealed Sasuke's closely guarded expression, as well as Sakura's nervous stance.
And, of course, everyone, even Team Gai, who had been powering the seal at that time, had turned a moment too late at Naruto's greeting to see him wiping a single tear from his eye, as well as Sakura's terribly sad face and Sasuke's distraught expression.
Shikamaru looked up at the sky. It was close to sunset, and if they didn't head back to the village soon, the Fifth would become suspicious, and Naruto would run out of words to distract the others with.
He voiced only one of these thoughts, quickly startling the others into getting ready to go home.
Tsunade rubbed her temples, feeling a migraine settling in. She itched for sake but had already called for Shizune and she would catch her immediately if she took just one sip. She decided to wait until she would be alone for good, and then drown out the world.
Just as she'd let her hands rest on the desk again, Shizune practically slammed the door open, a worried expression on her face. Tsunade's mood dropped even further when she saw who she was with.
The Konoha Council strode in, prideful as always - Homura and Koharu, calm and elegant, and Danzo, with his determined step and knowing expression.
"We happened to come across your assistant, Tsunade-sama," Danzo said, in his calm, slightly cheery voice, a smile on his lips.
Tsunade had no doubt they'd heard the news even before her and even though it was the last thing her migraine needed right now, she was going to have to deal with them. She trusted none of these three, but Danzo was especially dangerous, and his smile only grew upon seeing her weary, albeit fierce expression.
"I reckon it would be a good idea to send these children, Tsunade," Koharu started, and Tsunade could feel her head throb even worse. "They seem to have developed as quite the shinobi if their reputation is anything to go by. Much word is being spread around the Shinobi Nations about Konoha's strongest of the current generation, the Konoha Twelve."
"That may be so," Tsunade remarked, in a rather grave tone of voice, "but we must not forget who the hosts are this time. Kumo has already shown interest in taming a Tailed Beast's powers, with not great degrees of success, and I doubt they would mind another test subject. Then, there is the matter with the Hyuga family. Ever since Hinata's failed kidnap, they haven't sent any of their clan to an exam hosted by Kumo."
"That is true," Danzo remarked. Tsunade sharply turned her gaze to him and carefully observed his relaxed stature and now smug smile. "In fact, Tsunade, you are being very reasonable about this." The fake surprise in his tone led her to grit her teeth. "However, ever since the Third's death, Konoha has been desperately trying to prove that it is still strong enough to hold its place amongst the Shinobi Nations. And even though the minor disturbances at our borders have stopped and we have been taking missions outside the country to show our power again, this exam could provide the ultimate proof. Konoha's newest generation - a fearsome mix of geniuses, emerging masters, and of course, Uzumaki Naruto. If we choose to stand down now, if we do not show them that the future of Konoha rests in the hands of capable shinobi, we will appear weak, ultimately ruin whatever these children have achieved, and lose our credibility."
Danzo let his words hang in the air. Tsunade, even though she wanted to fight these words with everything she could, realised this was not a battle she could win. Power struggles she could deal with, but she would personally resign before making a fool out of herself by fighting sensible words.
She sighed. Danzo's victorious aura filled the room. Koharu and Homura seemed smug enough in their own right, and Shizune was shooting worried glances at her teacher.
"Fine," Tsunade said, dismissing the four of them. After that, she went straight for her sake bottle, and drank until she couldn't recognise her own face in the mirror.
Orochimaru looked at his companion. He was sipping his tea calmly, as if he were at a friend's house, and not currently in a secret meeting with his village's number one enemy. The sanin nearly chuckled at the thought - the person opposite him had not had any friends in a very long time.
"It is a very good opportunity, I have to admit," Orochimaru returned to the matter at hand. Danzo lowered his cup, calm expression settling into a stone mask.
Now that brought a smile.
"A very good opportunity for testing your pupil, indeed."
"He is not ready." Not an impolite answer, but said with a tone of finality.
"Oh, not too confident in your subordinate's skills, Danzo-sama?"
"Not at all, Orochimaru-dono." A slightly condescending smile played on Danzo's lips, amusing Orochimaru even more. Even after all this time, the old fool still thought he had all the cards in place. "It is fact that he cannot measure up to them as he is; in fact, he was brought to you specifically as a slightly higher-class support, nothing more. He still has much to learn. I believe that knowing more about his targets will help him, too, and as such, I would propose the match is watched closely, even by the boy himself, so that he can learn. He is a smart boy, and I am sure that with your and Kabuto-san's help, he will be able to complete the mission."
Orochimaru took a moment as if he was contemplating the words when he hadn't expected and wasn't going to tolerate any other response. "I agree," Orochimaru said, a bit of airiness to his voice. "And as for your specific request..?"
"That is the other thing." Danzo took another sip before continuing. "Uzumaki Naruto's...persuasive abilities, you may call them? They have quite the effect, I hear. I have no doubt that my pupil could cope, but I would prefer not to take the risk. And, after all, it would be quite a nuisance off your shoulders, too. Isn't that correct, Orochimaru-dono?"
The sanin didn't reply, but his smile became razor-sharp.
"He can truly be quite bothersome, that boy. And you are sure Kumo will take care of him?"
"They will certainly try. If they do not succeed, I shall lend you my Root's strength, as per our agreement."
"Yes," Orochimaru muttered, watching as his companion finished his tea, put on his Henge and exited the shop. "As per our agreement, indeed."
A chilling force could be felt in the china, and then, all was quiet.
A/N: And cut!
It's officially finished. Two years (spent mostly procrastinating, I must admit), and it's finally done. I honestly can't believe it.
I'd love to hear your impressions of both this chapter and the story overall. It's been fun writing it and even though I recognise that it had a lot of flaws, I'm kind of proud of it. The only way now is up, I suppose. I'm planning on fixing grammar mistakes and starting the sequel next summer, but until then, I have other projects. I hope you've gotten at least some enjoyement from reading this.
Until next time.