Another chapter is here!
The night air felt chill against Karin's face as it whipped past her unseen. It was the weekend and Naruto had asked her to join him for dinner, which seemed simple enough. But then he stated that it was a special place that he wanted to take her to using Suzaku, and asked that she wear a blindfold and not use her Mind's Eye to avoid ruining the surprise.
That set off some alarms in her head. She couldn't fathom why he'd ask her to do that, but the use of her Mind's Eye prior to accepting revealed that it was him and he wasn't under the influence of foreign chakra. So she put her trust in her clansman and accepted his terms.
Still, it was unnerving to be flying blindly like this. A weight settled in her stomach as she tried not to panic and fought against the instinctive desire to activate her Mind's Eye while her physical eyes were blindfolded. Instead, she tightened her hold on the warm figure nestled against her and ensured that she was still anchored to the Vermillion Bird through chakra.
"We're almost there," Naruto said with his voice raised to be heard over the rushing wind that whipped at their hair. "I promise you'll like it."
"I'll take your word for it," Karin said, holding him tighter. It was less out of fear this time and more because he felt warm to the touch. That and, if she was being honest with herself, she enjoyed the feeling of comfort it brought without putting any pressure on him.
Their flight continued on for a few minutes until she felt a shift in the air and gravity. They were descending. Suzaku landed softly and then lowered itself onto the ground for them to un-mount.
"I guess we must be here now?" Karin released the anchor she had to it and moved to lower herself. She hadn't even set a foot on the ground before she felt herself being lifted into Naruto's arms, one around her back and the other beneath her knees. "Eh?"
"Let me carry you until we reach it," he said. "It won't take a minute."
Whatever this surprise is, it must be elaborate, she thought to herself as she felt heat pooling in her cheeks while being held like this. She kept silent as he moved forward, but the sound of water shifting under foot with each step led her to believe that they were in the middle of a pond or lake. And there was a scent, a hint of sweetness tingeing it to the point where it slightly tickled her nose. What could he be planning?
The unasked question was answered when Naruto eventually came to a stop and set her down in what felt like a chair. "We're here. You can take the blindfold off."
She lowered it from her eyes and rested it around her neck before reaching for her glasses, which were perched on the collar of her long-sleeved lavender blouse. It ran long, down to her black pants to cover up her skin entirely. The moment she put them on and her vision cleared, a surprised gasp slid out of her mouth as she took in the surroundings.
Dark water stretched out around them, small lily pads with candles in paper lanterns burning the sweet incense as they drifted left and right. Motes of light hung in the air like suspended rain drops, glittering in intervals between stone columns rising out the water marked with the crest of their clan. The stars above were shining brightly as well, like diamonds woven into the night sky.
"Was this the surprise you mentioned?" she asked, looking back towards Naruto. He had dressed up somewhat in a different outfit than his usual jumpsuits, instead wearing a dark shirt and black pants. Next to him was a table that had a serving platter with a lid on it and candles burning next to it.
"Yeah… well…" He looked off to the side, a nervous smile on his face as he gathered himself. "I wanted to do something special, so I called in a few favors and… arranged for a date…"
There was a moment of silence as his words registered. Then she felt heat bubbling up in her chest and then rising to her head as she blushed, completely flustered. "This is a date!?"
"If that's okay," Naruto quickly added. "I wanted it to be a surprise for you, so I couldn't ask if it was fine. But—"
"No, it's fine! It's fine!" She rose to her feet. "I mean, if you had told me ahead of time I probably would have told you not to go out of your way for me. But since I thought we were just eating together casually, I just threw on something appropriate for going out in public. If I had expected something like this I would have done something with my hair, or maybe spray on perfume, or wear something more attractive."
"You look cute—" He shook his head. "No, beautiful the way you are."
"That's sweet of you to say." Seeing how nervous he seemed, Karin took a moment to pull herself together. He had clearly done all of this to set a mood, but it was still something he didn't seem confident in. She couldn't let him think he'd done something wrong. "And you look handsome too, Naruto."
"Ah… thanks." His shoulders relaxed, all the tension in his body growing slack. "I had a talk with Ayame-nee a few days ago about how to set a date properly, because I wanted to respond to what you told me. About being in love with me…"
Karin brushed her hair at that. "I didn't want you to feel pressured to answer that."
"I know," he said. "But I want to. I want to tell you that I'm still learning what it means to know what it's like to love someone. I mean, I care about others a lot. If I can protect them, then I will even if it costs me my life. That's part of what I determined in the Land of Waves."
She knew that much. It was part of why she cared so much for him.
"But it's different with you," he continued, putting a hand over his heart. "When I'm with you, I feel… happy, in a different way than when I'm with everyone else. And the thought of losing you and that happiness makes my heart feel heavy, so I'm scared that I'll make a mistake and endanger that."
His words weighed on her heart in the opposite direction, making it feel lighter as her pulse quickened. She walked closer and reached out her hands, cupping his cheeks to gently straighten his head towards her. Then she leaned close until their foreheads were touching.
"I feel the same way, Naruto," she told him. "It's confusing for me as well. I've never felt like this for anyone else and I'm scared that I might do something to push you away. But it feels right for me, so I want to take it slow."
"Me too," Naruto said, so close that his breath wafted against her skin. It was minty-fresh, a detail she would normally overlook. But they were so close that Karin noticed not only his breath, but also how his skin also had a freshly-washed scent to it and his eyes had a nervous glimmer in them.
She found all of it cute and wondered how easy it would be to lean forward, tilt her head to the side slightly, and then kiss him like this. The stray thoughts led to her lips towards his, only for her to catch herself and twist his head to the side just enough to instead kiss his cheek. Compared to kissing him on the lips again, it was probably the safer option since she didn't want to push him out of his comfort zone.
Pulling back and clearing her throat as he blushed furiously, Karin then turned to the table and serving platter. "So what are we having for dinner?"
"Looks like you didn't mess up," Sakura said as she watched them sit down to eat from her perch at the base of the tree, just outside of the area where she overlaid an external Genjutsu over the surface of the lake in the training field. Next to her was a clone of Naruto, actively overseeing how the date was going.
"Yeah," he said with a goofy grin as he rubbed his cheek where Karin kissed the original. "I was worried that I had made a mistake or something, but it looked like it worked out. Thanks for helping out."
When Naruto had approached her and talked about what he had planned, Sakura found some hesitation in using her growing prowess with illusions in this manner. The False Surroundings technique was simplistic in that it was only C-ranked, but it took some creativity and effort to get the image just right to make it look as well as it did.
"I know you asked me to arrange for the illusion, but I still don't know how you set all this up," Sakura said. "Much less how you got a giant lily pad here for you to have the dinner on. Walk me through it."
"Well, I wanted to recapture how she taught me how to walk on water as part of my training, since it was a good memory, so I reserved the training field. Then there was the matter of getting something to eat on. I couldn't afford a boat and using transformed clones was a risk since they could sink, plus I didn't want to burn chakra needlessly, so I called up Gamakichi and Gamatatsu for advice."
"You mean the little toads that I see you with every now and again?" Sakura guessed.
"Yeah, that's them. They managed to loan me one of Toad Boss' lily pads that he uses as a floating sake tray. Then there was dealing with any mosquitoes and bugs around, so I asked Ino for anything I can burn to keep them away since she knows about plants and stuff. As for dinner, Ayame-nee had me go get the ingredients for a romantic meal and said she'd prepare it, so I picked up some pork, ginger, rice, curry, and some other stuff."
"That does looks delicious," Sakura said as she observed the original removing the lid on the serving tray to show the dinner. It was pork cut into slices, glistening with some kind of sauce and layered with what looked to be some kind of grated herbs. Vegetables covered the side and for dessert there looked to be a stack of sweets piled onto one another, with two cups between them.
"Here," the clone said, setting down a sealing slip that released a second serving tray. He removed the lid to show it was a similar meal to what they were eating, if there was less of it. "Ayame-nee wanted to make sure I had enough so that the date went well, but I was afraid if we ate too much then we'd have trouble skating on the water afterwards."
"Thanks," she said as the scent of it enamored her. But before she could take a bite of anything, she froze as a thought came to mind. "Naruto, would you have gone this far for me before when you asked me out on a date all the time?"
His face scrunched up in thought for a moment. Then he shook his head. "… In all honesty, I would have shown you around and taken you to Ichiraku's for dinner. I didn't really get any of this stuff before now, or what it'd mean to really ask someone out until Ayame-nee explained it to me. No wonder you were always upset when I asked."
"Part of that was me overreacting," Sakura said. "I probably wouldn't have done any better, so seeing you pull something like this off actually surprises me with how mature you've gotten when it comes to this sort of thing."
He nodded as he looked out to the original as he said something that made Karin laugh. "I want to do this right, so I asked for help with things I didn't know rather than trying to do it all myself."
His answer left Sakura feeling a bit envious there. This sort of set-up was something that she used to picture doing with Sasuke not even a few months ago. But as time went on, Sakura saw him less as her ideal and more of the person he really was. And as much as she wanted to help him, like she was helping Naruto, he wouldn't let her.
"Naruto, have you seen Sasuke recently?" she asked.
"… No, I haven't," he said after some thought. "He's probably mad since he's been stuck in the village all this time. When he gets like that, he doesn't like to be around others, so it makes sense we wouldn't see him wandering around the village."
"I just wish he'd let us help him, but he's really starting to act like he was before we were a team," Sakura said. "It's only been a short time since then, it's felt like so much has changed."
"It'll be okay," Naruto's clone said. "I promise, Sasuke will come around in time. Kakashi-sensei will probably be able to talk to him once he gets back, so don't worry about it so much."
"I guess you're right," she conceded. There was really nothing to be gained by worrying at the moment. That concern briefly shelved, she finally tasted the food that had been given to her and found it to be exquisite. "I've got to ask for her for recipe to this."
Kakashi felt his ears burning. Not from his students talking, but from how dangerously close a stream of flames so thick it was almost a solid object slammed into the earthen wall he raised and lapped at the edges. It turns out the original location they had scouted out had been cleared out, barring moving corpses that had to be destroyed. But the move had been sudden enough that there was a trail his nin-dogs could follow, so they spent their time tracking it down given that they picked up Kabuto's scent.
He figured they were on the right track when abominations burst out to greet them, monsters that were once men only to be warped by the Cursed Seal.
As the flames refused to stop coming out, Kakashi made a set of hand-seals and thrust his hand into the bulwark that he raised. It burst into shrapnel that speared forward and shredded holes in its body. The flames stopped long enough for him to swoop in with kunai-in-hand while streaming Lightning Chakra and cut off the transformed shinobi's head.
Craning his head around, he watched as Guy slammed his foot into the chest of a Tiger-man, knocking it past another monstrosity that was impaled by wooden pikes spearing from the ground. His sharpened ears could make out the ribs being shattered and driven into his heart and lungs. The same thing happened to the last few they'd encountered, since Kabuto had apparently been handing them out to those who they couldn't give a Cursed Seal to, all in an effort to buy them time.
"It's open!" Jiraiya shouted as he finished getting the door open into the base. He'd already turned the surrounding land into a nightmarish pit of mud just to make sure that anyone trying to escape through the ground would be trapped and drowned. "Kakashi!"
Kakashi came over and revealed his Sharingan to survey the distance. Traps littered it, waiting to discharge and blow everyone who entered the walkway into pieces. "Do we set them all off ahead of time or send in a decoy?"
"We don't have time for that," Jiraiya said as he made hand-seals and then slammed his hands into the walkway. The corridor transformed into the innards of a fire-breathing mountain toad, replacing the interior entirely and whatever traps were in the way to hinder them. "I've made it so that we can walk through while everyone else inside will be trapped. Let's go."
The four-man team pressed on through the corridor, circumventing the traps by Jiraiya literally reshaping the terrain, until they came to a wide-open room that was untouched by the time-space technique. Candles burned on pillars that lined the spacious room, casting an ominous glow over the seat at the back.
That's where Orochimaru sat, fingers laced and hiding his smile as he looked at the four. His shadow was cast deep from his chair. "Jiraiya, I've been waiting for you."
"So, you really were back," Jiraiya said as he stepped forward, eyes narrowing and fist balling up in anger. "You should have stayed dead."
"Come now, we both know that my return was inevitable." He rose from the seat. "I have transcended such a petty thing as death. All you've done is set me back by a few months or years at the most, but I have all the time in the world. Try all you like, but I will return again and again until I fulfill my—"
Wooden spears curved from behind Jiraiya, stemming from Tenzo's outstretched palm to impale the Snake Sannin as he spoke. At the same time, Kakashi and Guy had moved with Body Flickers to come in from the right and left. Between the wooden spikes from the front, the kunai streaming Lightning Chakra from the right, and the sweeping foot carrying enough momentum to shatter his skull from the left, it should have been enough to kill him three times over.
Yet they were all rebuked by wooden pikes that came from his shadow and formed a wall around Orochimaru as he stood there, an unmoving smirk visible on his face. Water followed, a powerful stream that took the shape of a serpentine dragon breaking through the wood and then circling around with its maw open to shatter the offending wooden spikes like toothpicks and drive away the attackers, before spearing towards them all.
Tenzo wrapped them in a dome of thick wood that weathered the rushing water until the dragon lost its cohesion and shattered. He then split the dome in half to clear their line-of-sight and it revealed Orochimaru standing where he did before with two other figures that were unmistakable. After all, who wouldn't recognize the first two Hokage of their village?
"I shattered their coffins during the exams, so that should have destroyed them," Jiraiya said through gritted teeth.
"You may have stopped their resurrection during the Finals, but those were merely vessels sacrificed to house the souls of these two," Orochimaru said as he produced two kunai from behind his back with tags on them. "As long as I have their genetic material and their souls can be reached, I can bring them back over and over."
"You always have to play God, don't you?" Jiraiya asked. "Stealing bodies, trying to burn down the village that you were born in, denying the dead their final rest—you're never content with just leaving things the way they should be, and you don't care who you hurt in the end."
"Of course. I wouldn't be a man of science otherwise," Orochimaru said. "Those that fail to ascend their limitations will wither and die. Only those willing to break free of the natural order and such things as morals will truly make any sort of progress. But enough talk."
He stabbed the kunai into the back of the First and Second Hokage's heads and gave the order. "Kill them all."