Obligatory Disclaimer: The series Naruto is owned by Masashi Kishimoto; I only own my OCs, picture, and this story.

Chapter 39: Of Enchanting Snares

By the time we reached our accommodations, it was well into the afternoon which called for a late lunch, one that was graciously brought to our room. The other genin dug in immediately, though I was more hesitant; trusting food from an unknown source and in an unfamiliar place went against all my sensibilities. However, I was assured by the logic that Kusa wouldn't want a major incident just after the conclusion of the war; and the way Anko tore into her food without any ramifications assuaged the rest of my fears.

The room, or suite more like, was unnecessarily nice. It had a main room and two rooms that split off from it- Anko and I in one and Orochimaru and Shichirou in the other, an arrangement I did not envy the boy for. Even if there was a good chance that the trickster kunoichi would try something as I slept.

After a cursory scan of the rooms with my byakugan, I let myself relax though not without placing a few protective seals around the perimeter of the suite, an action that Anko mocked me for. Which on the one hand I could agree- because who in their right mind would enter the room of a sannin and his students? Still, it settled my nerves as I got ready for the night. As the other girl was off bothering Orochimaru about something, I plopped down onto the futon closest to the window, staring out into the village below.

Being in another's hidden village was more unnerving than I thought it'd be.

There was no security in walking through its streets like home. And when you're trained from birth, the difference between civilian and ninja was easy to spot, even if they weren't wearing their headbands. And many hadn't. The attention from the people here caused the hairs at the back of my neck to perk up with every step and I was grateful for the chance to finally relax somewhat. I mean, I was sure that no one would try anything but the village itself had a noticeable cloud hanging over it.

If I were to hazard a guess, the people of the Hidden Grass weren't exactly happy about their involvement in the war- and were probably experiencing internal administrative issues as a result, no more obvious amongst the heads of the village as we had seen upon our arrival.

Hopefully, they'd be considerate to have whatever blow out after we were long gone.

I was interrupted from my regularly scheduled internal ramblings by a twinge at the back of my mind.

Ah, the link.

With a sigh, I ran through the hand seals for the summoning technique and with a poof of smoke, Miki appeared looking miffed as usual on her blank face.

"We'll be in Kusa for a couple of days or more while its leaders overlook the agreement," I explained as she took a rest upon Riku's sleeping body, who stirred briefly to eye the owlet before resuming his slumber. "You'll have to stick closer than usual- we wouldn't want to cause any unwanted stress."

She blinked, I presumed in agreement before taking off through the open window. I didn't get the chance to call out to her before Anko came in, sliding the doors open with unnecessary force. She looked victorious, like the cat that caught the canary.

"Who were you talking to?" she asked, flopping onto her futon on the other side of the small room.

There was 'probably' no trouble telling her- she was a teammate I had to remind myself.

"I was explaining to my summon partner the details of our mission," I said, slightly enjoying the jealous gleam the shone in her eyes.

"What kind of summon is it?" she crossed her arms over her chest. "I bet it's nothing as awesome as sensei's snakes!"

I eyed her evenly. "She's been following us the entire trek to Kusa. Does that mean you didn't notice her?"

"The whole time!?" Anko sputtered.

I nodded and she frowned, her face scrunched up in thought.

"What is she like some mole rat or gopher or something?"

"That's something you'll just have to figure out," I smiled and left the room to clean up before bed.

We spent the rest of our first day inside the hotel, bodies exhausted after roughing it in the woods. Though it seemed like there'd be no rest for me especially as the morning of our second day began with an equally exhausting assignment from Orochimaru.

The rest of us stood at attention as the sannin sat at the low table in the communal room, skimming over some documents. A quirk glimpse told me that it had something to do with the upcoming chūnin exams. Another thing to worry about later.

"I have been informed that the Kusagkure Council will be in talks today and tomorrow and so we shall have our answer by the day after," he began. "So you genin are free to explore for the time being."

Anko cheered and even nervous Shichirou looked a bit more excited. I was curious but also cautious.

"You may go, though do remember that you are ninja from Konohagakure and your actions reflect the village. Don't cause trouble."

"Yes sensei," we chorused, though before we could disperse and go our separate ways, the snake had to make my life a little more difficult.

"As I might not always be available, I designate Junko-chan as squad leader. Fall to her orders if necessary."

So I had to babysit while he plotted his nefarious schemes- fantastic.

This, of course, got the biggest reaction from Anko.

"What! Sensei, I should be the leader! She's like a toddler compared to me, and even Shi-chan!"

Orochimaru leveled his serpentine gaze at her, causing her to freeze then pout as she crossed her arms.

"I'm sure your time will come Anko-chan," he said, closing the folder in his hand. "Junko-chan needs this time to get used to the team dynamic. Consider it extra training for the leadership of her clan as well."

The explanation didn't help her attitude- if anything, it probably made it worse, though she straightened up and gave an unenthusiastic, 'yes, sensei' in return. His gaze turned to me.

"Make Konoha proud Junko-chan~" He smiled before disappearing through the door.


Taking a breath, I turned to my teammates, ignoring the slight glare in Anko's gaze.

"I'm sure that we're tired of seeing each other's faces, so I think for all our sakes we split up for now," I began. "Though I am sure we'll all be heading to the markets, let's make sure to all meet up at noon. We'll decide the location once we get there."

And taking a page out of Orochimaru's book, I headed out the door before Anko could say a word.

The marketplace of Kusagakure lacked the vastness of Konoha's, but it had an intimacy that I appreciated, even with all the staring. We decided to meet up at a cozy looking tea shop in a few hours and split off, with an extra dose of warning for the other kunoichi who brushed me off with a huff.

I perused the stalls for some time, eying some small trinkets I could bring home to my family and friends. It seemed a little silly in retrospect, seeing as ninja could travel various places on mission, but it was the thought that counted. Plus it was bizarrely domestic, like going on a vacation and getting souvenirs. Just in this case, this 'vacation' had steep political implications.

I had just bought a pair of little glass-blown crows for my favorite Uchihas and other glass figurines with flowers imbedded within them when I spotted a flower shop. Though, more accurately, I smelt it before I saw it sitting cozily between a general store and a weapon's shop. My feet took me straight to it, my canine companion at my heels, though he opted to stay outside as I opened the door, his nose wrinkling at the overpowering smell.

I on the other head, enjoyed the concoction of smells that invaded my senses as I stepped over the threshold, both unfamiliar and familiar. It was similar to the Yamanaka shop back home with its variety but having more of the local flora of Kusa which varied in minute but significant ways. The arrangements that sat on the shelves were purposefully done, and the sight and smell came together to create a pleasing atmosphere.

"Welcome to Dragon's Breath!"

A female voice rang out from the back of the store and from behind the curtain emerged a white haired girl wearing a Kusa headband. Her eyes had a striking similarity to the village head, gray with those concentric circles. They must be from the same clan.

"Thank you!" I responded and began my too intense perusal of the aisles.

It was fascinating to see the subtle differences between the same species. Like the osmanthus here were called holly osmanthus or 'false holly', while the ones back home were of the 'sweet olive' variety. They had significantly different uses, though the ones back home were oftentimes used for tea.

I decided to grab some of their seeds as well as others that caught my fancy, to see if I could cultivate them at home. Since the earth around here had different properties than that in Konoha, it would be a fun challenge to see I could make them flourish in my own garden.

I paid only half a mind to the inquisitive gaze of the young shopkeeper, giving her a mild smile as I reached the counter with my items. I noted the slight surprise at my headband, and youth presumably, and passed her the money owned without incident, though I couldn't help but notice the book she had laid open on the counter.

"May I ask what you're reading?"

The other kunoichi blinked in surprise at my forwardness but returned a smile as she responded.

"It's a story about the legendary Moonflower which is popular around Kusa," she explained. "It is said to be able to grant the wishes of pure hearted people, though I'm more interested in its medicinal properties. Apparently, its petals can remove almost any toxin once processed; though that is if it exists at all."

I stared in awe as she turned the book over to where I could see the illustrations, depicting an ethereal looking eight petaled flower. The picture showed it falling from the sky and burrowing into the earth, sprouting with a bright glow somewhere deep below.

"That is fascinating," I commented, before remembering my manners. "Forgive me for my rudeness, I am Hyūga Junko. It is nice to meet you."

"I am Ryūzetsu," she replied, and I couldn't help the tinge of familiarity before dismissing it. "I assume you are a part of the Konohagakure group who came to form an alliance with us?"

"It is being headed by our sensei. It's more of a field trip for me and my teammates," I nodded, graciously taking my items and sealing them away as well, which the kunoichi looked on in surprise.

"Otou-sama told me one of you were very young but I didn't expect you to be this young," she said bluntly, before bringing a hand to her mouth, embarrassed by her outburst.

Ah ha, so she is Ryūnosuke's daughter.

I chuckled. "I get that a lot, even back home. I take it as no insult."

She brought her hands down and gave a small smile which I returned. She seemed friendly enough and trustworthy, if only at surface-level. Maybe I could get some information about the village from her. Letting my voice lower slightly, I began.

"Not to be forthright again, but it seemed to me that there was tension when we met with the leaders. Is everything alright?"

As expected, she became a bit guarded at my question, but seemed to deliberate with herself before speaking.

"It's pretty obvious, isn't it?" she sighed to herself, gazing at the book in front of her. I nodded sympathetically. "Though it is to be expected, I guess."

She looked at me evenly, her gaze stern and strong.

"We don't want to be under the thumb of the Leaf but the war has greatly depleted our resources. And the problems Iwagakure caused are long lasting."

I gave a nod of understanding. "I could see why you all would be fearful of that. But rest assured, Minato-sama would never subject the people of Kusagakure to such things or let Iwa break their side of the treaty."

At the very least, that was the hope; I was no expert in the politics that went into intra-village relationships but I knew Minato would try and do right by everyone if he could.

"The stories of your Hokage have been…terrifying to say the least," she admitted. "To think one man could take on a thousand shinobi by himself, sounds almost as legendary as the Moonflower itself."

It was odd hearing how feared Minato was by other nations, when I knew him as a proud pink apron wearing nerd who liked to bake and deeply loved his wife and students. Though I suppose I only thought that way because I knew him personally. I was thankful to have him as a confidant; although, placing me on a team with the sketchy sannin had put him lower on my favorite people list, though not significantly.

After everything, I did trust the man with my life.

"The Yondaime is a turning point for Konoha as well," I replied, careful with my words. I wouldn't want to give too much- village loyalty and all. "The war was hard on everyone. But we have hope that his leadership will bring a new age to the Hidden Leaf."

A wistful quality took over Ryūzetsu's face as she thought over my words.

"I believe…Kusa needs something like that as well."

"Are you not happy with your father's leadership?" I asked and she shook her head vigorously.

"It's nothing like that."

Ryūzetsu crossed her arms over her chest, looking out into the shop behind me.

"Otou-sama does the best he can with Mui-ojisan's help, but the others want to stick to past traditions; they don't listen to him."

That was probably the source of the tension I could feel when we met with the leaders. A sad but regular sight to see, even back in Konoha. That was why Hiruzen had chosen Minato in the first place I believed; a younger leader for a new era. It wouldn't be easy for him but I was sure he would be able to help Konoha in a way that the Sandaime never did.

Or at least that was the hope.

"The times are changing Ryūzetsu-san," I said, hopefully comfortingly. "It's going to take all of us to navigate this new normal we find ourselves in. And I believe us younger ninja will lead the charge, even if it'll be harder to get through to the older generations."

She looked down at me in surprise once more, but a smile spread across her face.

"You have wise words for someone so young, though I guess that is to be expected considering the headband you wear."

Her expression turned thoughtful as her eyes returned to the book which rested innocently on the counter between us.

"You know, although the Moonflower is considered a myth, otou-sama told me stories about how it was a petal from that flower that saved our clan long ago," she said, absentmindedly fiddling with the open page. "I'm determined to find it. It might be childish, but I feel like it could change everything."

She ducked behind the counter for a moment before pulling out a small pouch and deposited its contents onto the countertop. It appeared to be some sort of seed but it looked dried up.

"All my research has led me to believe that this is a seed from the Moonflower, but try as I might, all my attempts to cultivate it here have failed." She explained, a determined gleam appearing in her eyes. "But me and my friend Muku think we've found a lead to where it might actually be."

"That's amazing Ryūzetsu-san!" I said encouragingly.

"It hasn't been easy but I think we have the right spot; though it might be impossible to find the exact location. There are rumors that many who've search for it have gone missing in that area because the forest itself disorients you. By what means, we don't know for sure."

The words came out before I could really think about what I was saying, caught up in the conversation and thrill of the mysterious flower.

"My ninken companion may be able to help you," I said. "As long as we are in the proximity, he should be able to pinpoint the location with his nose. And I should be able to sense any distortion with my byakugan."

Her eyes widened. "You'll actually help me?"

I backed away sheepishly, having gotten closer in my excitement. "Well, if I am allowed to. My sensei said we are able to explore though I don't want to break any protocol whether it be with him or Kusa itself."

Ryūzetsu shook her head. "It should be fine. I can get permission from my father as long as your sensei permits you leaving the village for some time."

It would be a good opportunity to make some connections; plus it would be a good way to waste time while we waited for the Kusa heads to finish their meetings.

"I will ask my teammates but I think it's possible."

Her grey eyes shined with excitement. "Otou-sama should be on lunch break at this time, I can go ask him."

I blinked at her. "You want to do it today?"

She nodded. "Of course! The heads could finish deliberating sooner than we realize. We might not have enough time otherwise."

I nodded in agreement. "I understand; I'll do my best."

"Let's meet up at the main gates in an hour."

It wasn't difficult at all to convince the others about the excursion over lunch, an especially bored Anko biting at the chance to do anything in this 'dead-end' village which I scolded her for. The only problem we ran into was finding Orochimaru to tell him of our plan; a worrying prospect in itself. Though, realistically he was probably doing something nefarious elsewhere in the Land of Grass. Watching over genin was probably on the bottom of his priority list in comparison. Anko, in her excitement, suggested that we leave a note for him, claiming that he wouldn't care anyways since we were expected to be dependable, and in her words; 'It's a chance to show our usefulness to the alliance'. Though I think she was just interested in showing off more than anything.

I felt sympathetic rather than annoyed; while it was obvious she respected Orochimaru more than he deserved, it wasn't as if the sannin was a mentor she could truly depend on, only always looking to impress him in some way so he didn't turn his gaze elsewhere. So I didn't fight back when she wanted to write the note, leaving the task to her.

It was easy to spot the Kusa kunoichi as we approached the front gates, accompanied by a long-haired boy who I assumed as Muku. Introductions were passed around easily as we left the village proper, though my youth was more unsettling to the other Kusa-nin than his female counterpart. I caught many glances from the boy as Ryūzetsu led the way towards a mountain that stretched high in the distance.

"So you're really a ninja? This isn't some practical joke on Konoha's part, right?" he asked as we traveled through the trees.

I ignored Anko's snorting giggles from behind me and stared straight ahead.

"I can see how you would think that," I said absentmindedly as I took note of how the trees grew in size around us.

It was a result of the higher than normal natural chakra production if I were to hazard a guess. I could feel it in the air particularly, though it didn't seem to affect anyone else.

"Rest assured, I have been training since I learned to walk, which is more than half my life technically."

"That's ridiculous."

"I'm inclined to agree."

We stopped in a small meadow where the chakra in the air was particularly dense. We gathered in a circle and Ryūzetsu pulled out the dried seed, holding it out to Riku who immediately began to analyze the pod with his sensitive nose. She smiled lightly as his whiskers tickled her palm, before he turned his nose to the air around us with a few more quick sniffs into the air.

"How long is this going to ta-" I nudged Anko in the ribs before she could distract him but it wasn't long until he pressed his nose to the dirt.

And then Riku was off, his huge body splitting the high wildflowers as he followed a path only he could sense and we followed after.

"Do you really think Riku can find a special flower among all these other one? Especially one that's based on a legend?," Shichirou asked as we followed the canine who was dead focused on his task.

"I have faith that he can," I replied. "He seems to have caught onto something. Even if it's not the flower itself, it could be something tangentially related."

"It's better than nothing," Ryūzetsu joined in, eyes glued to the canine's back. "It was a struggle finding the seed and this meadow in the first place."

Muku sighed dramatically. "Yeah, we had to cross reference a bunch of maps and dusty old books for months just to get this far."

Ryūzetsu and Muku fell behind as Riku and I took charge. The overhanging leaves and branches made daylight seem like a passing dream and huge roots impeded our progress for some time, growing larger and larger the further we traveled in. Aware of Ryūzetsu's warnings, I was sure to keep track of my companions as the chakra and forest around us became even denser still, not knowing when or if the forest would trap or disorient us.

Though it seemed like the worry was for nothing.

We walked through a thicket of trees that broke out into a wide field full of wildflowers. They grew all the way to the bottom of the mountain that stretched high into the sky before us, the sunlight making every petal shine. It seemed like a completely different world, untouched by humanity. There was something beautiful about it, something that not even a camera would be able to capture.

A realm wholly at peace.

But despite its beauty, there was something off about it that I couldn't pinpoint at first. Our mismatch group of genin continued through the flower field, following the path carved out by our canine guide. My senses were on high alert and as a precaution, I activated my byakugan.

No way.

The ground below us pulsed with high amounts of chakra, traveling in long spiraling patterns under the surface, seeming to dig deeper and deeper like roots trying to find the center of the earth. It was no wonder that the area was so plentiful. But was this a natural occurrence or something more malicious? I couldn't tell. A weight settled in my stomach.

This may be more dangerous than we expected.

I didn't have to call for Riku as he reacted to the shifting of my chakra and returned to my side. His ears went up in alarm, pressing his nose back to the ground to smell for anything dangerous and the others were quick to come to attention as well.

"What's going on Junko-san?" Ryūzetsu asked, a kunai held at the ready.

"There's an unusual amount of chakra underground, in tunnels throughout the area," I explained, trying to peer further into the earth to see the source of the chakra. "I think we should retreat."

"Oh come on, Junko," Anko scoffed, though stayed at attention as she looked around. "It can't be anything too bad. Besides, we're close to this mystic flower thing right? Too late to give up now."

I frowned though didn't stop my search. I don't know how I didn't notice it before but there were no living creatures in the vicinity, above or below us. Not even a single insect. This is bad.

"That would be unwise; this is way above our skill level. Concentrated chakra like this could easily do damage to us and not just externally."

"Hyūga-san is right," Muku frowned as well, eyeing the ground around us, Shichirou nodding alongside. "Something about this isn't right."

Anko pouted in the way she always did when things weren't going her way and I couldn't help the irritation that rose in me as she began to walk away from our defensive formation.

"Anko, stop!" I ordered. "We have to go back!"

She turned back to glare at me. "I don't have to listen to you just because sensei put you in charge."

"He has nothing to do with this," I lifted my head to look at her directly. "Our safety is my only priority!"

She stomped her foot against the earth, crushing a handful of wildflowers in the progress.

"Thanks but no thanks," she huffed. "I don't need saving from a child."

But before she could get another step, before I or anyone else could say a word, Riku began barking alarmingly.

And then the earth shook. We braced ourselves against the vibrations that threatened to throw us to the ground, but that was the least of our problems.

Those tunnels I had seen, channeling chakra underground?

They were moving towards us.

"To the trees, now!" I ordered.

But it was too late.

The ground split underneath our feet with a speed that would make Minato sweat. We didn't stand a chance, though that didn't mean we didn't try. Massive roots broke through the surface, tearing through the earth, scattering grass and petals into the air as we tried to jump away.

I didn't, couldn't, see what happened to the others but the startled yells and cries were enough. They hadn't been lucky either. It was too fast and even as I tried to flicker away, a root wrapped around my body, pulling me into the dirt and into darkness below.

Author's Notes

Posted: October 10th, 2021

Happy Naruto day everyone! Thank you for all the nice reviews, I even got a little teary-eyed reading through some of them. I'm going to try to get the next chapter out sooner rather than later so you all don't get stuck on this cliffhanger but, uh, don't quote me on that.

Until next time.