Chapter 9: Trailing
December 3rd, 8th year after Kyuubi
"…following rendezvous you will escort the caravan through the Land of Rivers, into the Land of Fire, and ensure their safe arrival at Susuru, capital of the Land of Noodles…"
Our planned course, a stretch of land in a Byakugan's range of a thousand kilometers. No sweat for any ninja worth his forehead protector, traversable in a few days of tree hopping and chakra enhanced sprinting. Tied down by a convoy of civilian merchants, however, we won't be returning to Konoha before year's end.
"…accommodate breaks at the commerce stations specified in your mission scroll." Sarutobi rolls up said scroll, hands it to Gaku, and as our jōnin leader steps back in line with the rest of Team 6, Sarutobi directs his attention to the genin. "Your sensei is already aware, and our intelligence division designates the concerned sectors to be low-risk zones, but I'll be remiss omit to mention a recent development," at this, the Hokage's wrinkled face turns grave. "A chūnin squad has been labeled MIA following a week-long failure to establish contact at one of our northeastern border checkpoints." Steely eyes pass over each of us in turn, "Teams leaving the village walls are cautioned to maintain high alert."
"Yes, Lord Hokage," we acknowledge in unison. I chew my lip while mulling over that tidbit, searching for threads. Nothing about some chūnin getting ambushed screams S-rank threat to me. Is this event worth notice in the scheme of things?
At a glance to my teammates, Sai display of aloofness is as expected, whereas Izumi's stoicism puzzles me. How frequent are incidents like these to leave Team 6's more emotionally expressive member unperturbed?
A beat. Sarutobi leans back in his seat. "Which brings us to the last matter," his gives us a wistful smile, "A shinobi's first excursion from the village is an important career landmark." Of course, can't let a little thing like an unknown party taking out Konoha nin distract us for too long. More green child soldiers for the war machine to churn.
But who am I to complain? There is no fine print for those who sign up for this life.
The Hokage spreads his arms magnanimously, "I urge all three of you to make use of this opportunity. Observe, listen, and contemplate. A well-rounded shinobi or kunoichi must possess insight into the lands without their village's walls, and the concerns and inclinations of the people there." Agreeable enough, Sarutobi's suggestion lines up nicely with my own wants.
"Of course," he continues, "You mustn't forget that out there, your conduct and choices are representative Konoha foremost…"
"No worries, Lord Hokage," Gaku butts in, sporting a particularly toothy grin "I'll make sure there's no monkey business."
I manage to divert an involuntary facepalm, clutching the back of my neck in embarrassment — a terrible pun.
The Third massages his temple, "I believe that one lost its zing around the time you were born."
"Sorry, sir," Gaku's enthusiasm is undiminished, "just monkeying around."
December 6th, 8th year after Kyuubi
Snow crunches underfoot as Team 6 moves in a practiced formation. It's morning, three days following their departure from Konoha. The fast-approaching meetup point with their clients already in view.
Ahead, stretching to the horizon, Land of Wind dunes sparkles with melting vestiges of the night's snow. The trade convoy, numbering perhaps three dozen carriage wagons, straddles the border. Between them and Team 6, a more persistent layer of snow blankets a quickly shrinking stretch of the Land of Rivers.
Although Konoha's backdrop of nigh-eternal spring reigns uncontested in Izumi's heart, she cannot see herself tiring of these scenic landscapes found outside the borders of her home village. Perhaps part of what Lord Hokage meant.
An idle thought prompts Izumi to wonder if Itachi ever stops to take in the sights, but hurries to shove it away.
Before Team 6 can reach their target, three figures peel away from the caravan to intercept. The newcomers draw close before coming to a halt, near enough to unveil details of their wear and chakra to Izumi, allowing her to distinguish them as Suna shinobi, the traders' current escort. A chūnin and two genin, she guesses.
A notable disparity in the strength two villages allocated to what is, by most degrees, the same missions. Did that make Konoha spendthrift, or Suna stingy?
As Gaku steps forward with Kumanaru in tow to negotiate the handoff, Izumi arcs her head to Hakaru while keeping an eye on her sensei's standoff with their counterparts. "They seem a bit… grouchy," Izumi keeps her voice low, "You think Suna nin are usually like that?"
He's scrutinizing them as well, reflective, and but for a slight tilt of Hakaru's head she might think her question went unheard. "I can't imagine it's pleasant," he mutters, "Having a client display blatant bias towards another village's services." Hakaru explains, "They're allies. Can't imagine it's an issue to escort the caravan through the Land of Fire." He shrugs, airy disgruntlement, "At least up to our border with the Land of Rivers."
Izumi looks back to the scene and reassesses. A smaller squad, fewer people split the mission's pay... Izumi bites her lip. "You think this is common?"
Sai chooses that moment to add in his two cents, "It is irrational to hold sympathetic concerns for another village's troubles," he advises, "Assuage yourself knowing that Konoha's leadership is surely capitalizing on our advantageous position. Our duty is to follow suit."
No- just no. Izumi plants her fists on her hips and leans closer, "Suna's our ally!" she hisses.
There is hint of neither contrition nor irritation in Sai's expression as he replies, "Irrelevant, the shinobi rules clearly state that a ninja must prioritize the interests of their village to the exclusion of all others." He's been like this for a time now. An inter-personal regression to his disposition at the team's inception, only now far more likely to cite the shinobi rules at perceived infractions.
A clan child, it didn't take much for Izumi to come to suspect that whatever clandestine organization Itachi was inducted into before he left, Sai was somehow related as well. She wants the truth, badly, but a shinobi of his strain can't be pressured to share. Izumi can only wait for Sai's disposition to shift, keeping him in arm's length until then.
Though, each flash of Sai's impassive façade is a twinge of aggravation, contradicting all previous hints of his budding headway. It's wrong. She wants to yell, to shake him — Auntie Mikoto's preferred method of browbeating uppity clan members. A spur of spitefulness has Izumi considering her self-appointed role model's approach. Anko's distinctive mix of kunai, snakes, terror, snakes, blood, and more snakes.
It will wipe that stupid aloof expression off his stupid face if nothing else.
"Sai, Sai, Sai…" Perhaps sensing Izumi contemplating the merits of subjecting her other teammate to Anko's brand of consoling, Hakaru butts in. "Don't you know?" He wags his finger, "Ask not how to serve your village, but what the village can do for you," Hakaru delivers with a beaming smile and crass indifference.
A saying as dissentious as any she'd heard. Sai blinks perplexedly at Hakaru, "The shinobi rules c-"
"Were written by a tool," Hakaru cuts him off jovially. Izumi hides a snort behind her hand after failing to smother it, and he shoots her a wink.
"Indeed," Sai agrees slowly, Hakaru's choice of double entendre going over his head, "But it has little bearing on the point." Sai's obliviousness makes for an odd mix of unfortunate and amusing.
Hakaru nods, but the mirth playing in his eyes speak apathy as he shows a side contrary to his previous display of thoughtfulness.
Gaku's call cuts short the dysfunctional display of team-mating, beckoning the genin. The Suna team is leaving, speeding off into the Land of Wind's vast desert with nary a glance to their discharging clientele.
Sai complies first, dropping the conversation. His carelessness comes in a similar flavor to Sensei's, a detachedness of shinobi attuned to their lot in life.
Izumi finds that she's in no mood to emulate any of her teammates' temperaments. The looming shadow of an unknown threat striking at Konoha teams would have been bad enough without a clan member being among the missing. Poor cousin Nezumi.
Maybe if she pretended long enough though…
December 22nd, 8th year after Kyuubi
Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop.
It's an overcast day in the Land of Noodles' countryside, not far from the Land of Fire border. A wide dirt path carved into endless forests. Today's traversed section of the road is bent more closely on the side of dusty than muddy, a small comfort for which the whole convoy is thankful.
Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop.
A two weeks' routine, immersed in features of uneven roads, neighing horses, and haggling merchants, ends to the sound of a horn.
I stir from my lounging spot on a carriage wagon's roof as a din builds up. Panicked cries signaling a likely danger prompt me to stand.
A dust cloud picks up, and wood creaks as the convoy sharply comes to a halt, and an application of the Tree Walking Technique keeps my feet beneath me. I try to get a sense of the situation from the back of the caravan, my post for today.
That's when the arrows start falling.
With a swish, the first one pierces the right side of a wagon ahead, and from within frightened cries ring out. I'm spared less than a moment to track the arrow's origin when another flies from the opposite direction.
Then I'm standing over the wagon's driver as chakra quickens beneath my skin, an arrow plucked from the air pointed at his heart. More shouts echo from up and down the caravan, but the minute details fall to the side as the rush of blood fills my ears, and my teeth clench. In the time it takes the panicked man to stumble from his sit and scurry under the carriage wagon, I miss five and swat three more arrows out of the air with thin streams of water from between my lips. A slow to hide merchant, two carts ahead, is hit before reaching cover and goes down screaming.
Invisible behind dense foliage, non-shinobi chakra signatures. A tenacious blind spot in my chakra senses.
A bandit ambush. Place a self-imposed restriction, minimizing material damage springs to mind, and this nascent altercation might serve as benchmark for my progress.
"YRAAAAAH." Two men in mismatched armor bursts from between the trees on either side of the road, katanas held overhead, and battle-cries in their throats. Rushing forward, they veer towards me.
Discharging a spark of chakra into one of the storage seals bandaged around my wrists unseals a watery volume of which I take hold with my chakra. I thrust my hand in and grab at the water. Wrenching my hand back, a taut cord unspools from the blob. The bandits leap forward as I sidestep an arrow whizzing by my ear and mime a whipping motion to sling my water whip at the one to my right.
Midair, an attempt to parry the water fails as his sword phases through it. The whip continues to smack him center chest to the sound of cracking bones, the back-strike against his fellow inflicts a similar result. Flung away like rag dolls, the bandits crush against trees on opposite sides of the road and crumple to the ground.
No lull grants itself, and already the distraction dotted the besieged convoy with yet more arrows. I unseal greater volumes of water, and it quakes in the air before liquid and focus both expand and stretch into deflective sheets against the raining arrows.
Between cues from lodged arrows, our assailants' failures to caution, and deft maneuverings of the watery shields, the number of arrows meeting their mark is driven down. I manage only a single water bullet to plow the trees at a likely archer position before, donned in full samurai plate, another outlaw comes stomping on to the road bellowing, "Aim for the kid you fools! Ten thousand ryō to whoever offs the little bastard!"
Nascent thoughts of retaliation are cached as two incoming bolts force me to hop and twist and contort horizontally. Midair, I grind my teeth in frustration, pulling inward my water whip and chakra, cramming them into a marble of constrained violence in my cupped palms. To be put on the back-foot by these scrubs… Embarrassing.
Encumbered by defenseless civilians or not, the indignity stands.
My arms stretch out as I land in a crouch. Following my arms, a sphere of water and force explodes outwards. It sweeps the bandit off his feet like so much trash and slaps him back to the trees. Unsatiated with that reprisal, and disinclined to leave my charges undefended, I unseal the totality of the water in my storage seals.
I cross my arms and spread my legs to brace against the pressure in the eye of an airborne maelstrom as it manifests. The focus to coordinate the expanse of water leaves me lightheaded, and I emulate a recent training exercise on a macro scale. Instead of droplets, the water vortex shatters to hundreds of watery sheets, and an exertion of will spreads them out.
Stacked together, the shields turn to walls. An enclosed corridor stretching up towards Sai's post.
I glim a sense of the outlaw breaking off, their morale fragmenting with the completion of my barricade. A jump through the barrier carries me out unimpeded.
Now, to clean up.
My first three quarries are comatose and probably heavily bruised. I spew streamers of water that sweep in and loop around each in turn. Their forms bob in the air, trailing behind me. The captives being unconscious, they don't sound complaints about the unorthodox manhandling.
From there, I plunge into the trees, stalking from the canopy.
Two muted points of chakra huddled close draw me. A first-class buddy helps his concussed friend to hobble away, a victim of my only counterattack. On the ground, a broken bow left discarded. They wear crummy, mismatched, leather armor. An application of the Body Flicker Technique puts me in a position to deliver quick chops to the back of their necks, and both drop to the ground. The water cord gathers them up as well.
I secure another outlaw in similar fashion, before coming across three bandits sprinting away in a bid for safety: two men and a woman.
Huh… Equal opportunities in the bandit work sector.
A water bullet sends them tumbling, and the men crash to the ground, hard. Chance has the bandit lady win only a sample serving of kinetic energy, and a forceful stumble lands her in an awkward sprawl.
Fine, chance has little to do with it, more like an uncharacteristic chivalrous whim. Or is chauvinist the better term?
My approach is bereft of stealth. Unlike her friends, being still in possession of some mental faculties, the bandit's complexion loses color as she inhales sharply. Perhaps it has to do with the limp bodies bobbing in the air, bound in my water.
"Bastard!" She spits at me, fumbling for her bow. I brace to dodge, but it proves redundant as a pained cry from looks like a sprain has the weapon slip and clatter to the ground.
Maybe not quite that, chivalrous.
A bout of expletives ensues as bandit lady draws a knife with her other hand. "Don't get any closer! Shinobi freak!" Shaking knife. Quivering voice. "I'll cut off your private parts and-"
"Shut up," I cut her off, voice low as my childish vocal cords allow. I couldn't care less for what some degenerate outlaw has to say. "Your… friends are just unconscious." Water whips forwards to loop around the three. She screams as it secures her hands to her body, either from fright or the rough jostling. She quiets after, reduced to a rattled panting.
Immediate surrounding scoured, and unwilling to pursue further afield, it takes me but a minute to get back. My watery wall parts around me to reveal the convoy. I deposit my captives in the dirt and gather overall impressions.
Soggy, bruised, and largely dead to the world, they're a motley bunch. What ignorance drives such weak individuals to challenge shinobi? As I set about relieving them of weapons and binding hands, an asinine notion pushes to the forefront of my mind. I almost feel cheated, to be forced to contend with these louts, as if the standard I hold my training to demands a proper challenge to prove its worth. It's ridiculous, of course, and I best shove that thought to the furthest reaches of my mind.
Some of the caravan's braver passengers make tentative probes, poking their heads out from the relative safety of their wagons. Of those that do not hasten to pull back, some cautiously stumble their way out. Their numbers split between those marveling at the unnatural barricades I had erected, and those taking stock of the damages and wounded. A few warily eye the subdued bandits.
An appreciative whistle penetrates the din, and I turn away from the prisoners, "You certainly don't settle for half-assing Hakaru." Gaku comes into view with Sai and Izumi in tow, marching down the length of the water corridor. "Still, we'll clearly need to talk about subtlety," he adds, "A discipline I myself had a bit of trouble with in my youth."
I feel something unclench at the sight of my teammates whole if a bit dirty, and slowly exhale. They come beside me and pause. "Mmm," Gaku stares at the bound bandits, eyes crinkled, "you didn't kill them?"
I open my mouth to enunciate that thought but stop short. A hurried reexamination of Izumi and Sai admits some striking smatterings of splattered blood. From there, the conclusion does not require a chakra sense sufficiently acute to detect non-shinobi chakra signatures to grasp.
Huh… They've killed them all.
From behind, a gasp casts my captives' presence in stark highlight.
"Ehhhh," I fumble for words, to explain my mindset with care, "it seemed the most instinctive response at the time." Sai radiates disapproval, and Izumi gives me a strange look. Doubt grabs perch in the back of my head.
Gaku crosses his arms, and with an arched eyebrow asks, "And what do you suppose we do with this lot?" His tone suggests he's humoring this situation for its novelty.
That one is easier. "Take them to the nearest settlement," I start, then pause to recall. "…We'll reach Shizai tomorrow. Let their policing force put them on trial."
Gaku scratches his goatee, eyes dart between our would-be assailants and me. There's a distinct feeling of me missing something, and my confidence falters as the seconds tick away.
Maybe I should grab a kunai and-
"Sure," Gaku drops his hand, smiling, "Let's do that." He snaps his fingers and points in my direction, "I trust you'll have no issue handling their guard duty until we drop these off?" The jovial offer is a thin veil to the underlying command. The bandits are my responsibility.
Craning my neck to glance at the bereaved bandit band draped haphazardly on the road, I mentally shrug and turn back to Gaku, "Right," and nod my acquiescence.
"Great!" The two other genin on Team 6 flinch as our team leader's hands come down on each of their shoulders. "Now I think is time for some quality 1-on-1s," Gaku says as he begins to escort my teammates back, "Sai, I think we'll start with you. Could you go make sure Kumanaru doesn't gnaw on anything he shouldn't, Izumi?"
Their first kills.
Izumi looks a little green as she ducks her head and pushes forward. Sai and Gaku follow at a more sedate pace, until the latter pauses and jogs back. "Almost forgot," he blurts, and grabs the bandit decked in samurai garb, carrying him off like a sack of potatoes. Over his shoulder, he calls out, "And clean up all the water, too," before dragging off Sai.
By the time the merchants' caravan is ready to resume its trek, my charges are awake, either through natural course or liberal application of water. A variety of terrified and mutinous looks meet my disinterested gaze, and a water whip demonstrates my desire for silence to any who break it. Chakra enhanced superhuman strength simplifies the manhandling required to have them tied to one another and walking in line, secured to the last cart in the convoy. The two remaining swordsmen are too battered to keep pace, and so retake their position in the grip of my chakra construct.
Gaku visits, after a time. He drops the previously taken bandit, now conscious, at my feet, and grunts, "Going to take care of some business. Kumanaru is team-leader for the next hour or so." Gaku flickers away without waiting to see me roll my eyes.
Pressing the outlaw to the back of the line, the visibly shaking man offers no resistance. Traumatized, despite not looking particularly worked over. Then I catch a scent and sniff in... Eww. At least his pants are brown.
The convoy braves no more incidents today, and come sundown, set camp. On his way back, Gaku nabbed a wild hog, and so the smells wafting from the campfires are especially enticing. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, the bandits are to be kept well away from our clients, preferably out of sight. Someone also has to keep an eye on them.
That someone is me.
I watch the subdued bandits chowing on surplus food rations in a sequestered forest clearing, and my eyes turn to a similarly pale slab of trail food in my hand. Lips pursed, and feeling somewhat forgotten; I weigh the merits of divulging my proficiency with the Shadow Clone Technique to obtain a cut of wild-caught pork.
Then, I sense Izumi approaching.
She crosses our divider with the rest of the camp and, and I catch sight of the offering in her hands. "You're the absolute best, Izumi, can you make I write that down later?" My outburst is received with an indulgent smile as she hands me one of two plates loaded with an actual proper dinner.
We eat, sitting in companionable silence until Izumi speaks, "It's nice out here, on the road. You know, Hakaru?"
I hum my agreement.
"It's peaceful…" she sighs.
Unable to help myself, I crane my head to catch her eyes. My mouth is full, and I smile in mirth, pointedly glancing towards my captives huddling to the side.
"…For the most part," Izumi admits unabashedly, and tilts her head upwards, "and the night sky is beautiful here."
I swallow, "It is." Unshrouded by Konoha's light pollution and the waxing moon, the light of a trillion blazing stars dots the sky in brilliant hues…
"I still miss my bed, though," Izumi admits, making me snort.
Speaking of, "That reminds me," I pipe up, and as Izumi looks at me, gesture to our unwilling company, "Could you possibly, maybe, please cast genjutsu on these guys? Get them to sleep until morning…" Using my best pleading look for added effect probably doesn't do much, lack of practice considered, but damn it, I want to sleep tonight. "…Please?"
A seal could have done the job, easy. I see it my mind's eye, a skin contact tag that induces sleep and or paralysis. Given time, it's feasible to develop with enough shadow clones, but hindsight is about as useful as people make it out to be. I've no intention to delve into fūinjutsu experimentation out in the field, least of all on human test subjects. Best as I can tell, Orochimaru's image never recovered from the PR hit.
"I can't." Izumi's words cut off my musings.
"Huh?" I blurt and instantly regret it on seeing her embarrassed expression.
"Sorry. Genjutsu isn't a skill I ever really focused on," Izumi confesses, "Anko likes to monopolize what time I spare for training, and it's hardly her specialty. Before Anko…" and here her embarrassment compounds into something heavier. "I had other things on my mind…" Izumi falls silent.
Welp, time for plan B. Putting my plate to the side, I hurry to wave off the issue, "Don't worry about it." After sprigging upright and brushing dirt from my pants, a puff of smoke heralds an ink brush materializing in hand from a storage seal. I hold it up and give Izumi a conspirative smile, "To the journeyman seal artisan, there is always another path."
While conducting fūinjutsu experiments on the roadside middle-of-nowhere remains subject to hesitation, I'm perfectly willing to employ known formulas. Now I need to combine a climate control seal and an extra powerful sticking seal in a circle large enough to accommodate nine people lying down. They won't need to worry about hypothermia, and I get to sleep without getting my throat slit. It's almost definitely, certainly, probably not going to explode.
Hm. I'm almost sure this counts as a hypothetical Geneva Convention violation.
December 23nd, 8th year after Kyuubi
Rain arrives come morning, and Sai soon drops in to pick up my guard post so that I could attend to a drudgery Gaku aptly named de-muddyfying duty. A task marginally superior to managing morose marauders.
Keeping the caravan going for hours on end in the muddy roads provided by the season is a uniquely exhausting exercise. Still, I should technically be thankful, as drawing liquid from the soil counts as Water Nature Transformation, and the only form of practice available to me. Singular bandit ambush notwithstanding.
Before I can convince the leading cart's driver to let me draw a structural integrity seal on the wheels, at around noon, a not insignificant village greets us. We are granted passage through Shizai's walls easily enough, and gate guard runs off to notify an appropriate authority of the captured outlaws. Our clients push ahead at speed to set up shop in the marketplace, wanting to make the most from what's left of the day.
"I'll go with them," Izumi volunteers to look after the clients, "Really," she huffs, "the first real market we see in…" Izumi trails behind them
That leaves the four male members of Team 6, Kumanaru included. The latter growls at the nine apprehended bandits as two gate guards stare at us funny.
Before long, a company of guardsmen approaches, led by a man whose quality of robes and manner place him as an administrator of sorts. He bows, "Greetings honorable shinobi. In the name of my lord, I, high secretary Bantō, welcome you to Shizai."
Bantō's eyes find the bandits, and he claps merrily, "I would also thank you most graciously for your service to the greater Land of Noodles, bringing these ruffians to justice." He pulls a handful of parchment slips from the folds of his robes, "Please accept this grateful tribute as a sign of our gratitude." His manner is such that it appears a product of custom.
As the guardsmen drag the bandits away, I idly inspect one of the cards. It's a coupon, for a deluxe, extra-large bowl of ramen in one of the local establishments. Lost in musing over the repercussions to the Land of Noodle's bandit population should Naruto hear about this transaction, I almost miss Bantō's hurried parting words. "The execution will take place shortly, in the main square, just as soon as preparations are complete."
"Wh-" An iron-clad grip closing on my shoulder makes me choke on my protest. Gaku doesn't make eye contact with me and instead responds. Some hollow courtesy, but I'm no longer paying attention.
Gaku knew. There was never going to be a trial. This is a bandit's justice in the Elemental Nations. I frog-marched men and woman to the gallows. They probably knew it, too.
For What? Needless. Pointless.
We are left alone, then I shrug off the hold and round on Gaku, fist clenched tightly, "Did you think I couldn't murder…" But he is shaking his head slowly.
His hand moving to pat Kumanaru's back, Gaku takes a moment before speaking. "A shinobi upholding his duty to Konoha is never a murderer," he wags his finger, "But, should the situation calls for it, he may play the part of executioner." Judge and Jury too, apparently.
Sai is looking on blankly from the side. Uncharitably, I assume he probably doesn't understand the distinction.
Gaku's face shifts to chagrin and bares some discomfort. "Forgive your overly sentimental sensei, Hakaru," he laments, then admits, "I've no doubt in your nerve, just a wish to not mark the start of your career on that kind of note."
Closing my eyes and breathing in deeply before sagging, the hostility melts, drenching me in resignation. I can stomach Gaku's motivation. Still, "I'd prefer the truth," I snap as my shoulders slump.
"Now, now," Gaku voice returns to its usual spirited tilt, "Your efforts haven't gone to waste." At my furrowed brows, he puts a hand to his mouth and says under his breath, "It's good to let the civilian's take an active part from time to time, gives them an illusion of power and makes them less skittish around us ninja."
Huh. Crafty, that. This all thing was pretty traumatizing, so... "Anyone up to go watch an execution?" Might as well see it through to the end, put this farce behind me. Closure is the aspired to outcome, anyway.
Gaku and Kumanaru pass up on my offer, but curiously Sai elects to accompany me. As our distance from the village's gate grows, dirt roads gradually shift to cobblestone paths, until we stroll into a public square where the sight of a crowd gathering around nine hastily erected posts greets us. The people are lively, and a buzzing drone permeating the air intensifies as the condemned are escorted into the plaza at sword point and made to stand on wooden boxes.
Is culture so meager here to have a hanging double as pastime entertainment?
Standing beneath a post, bandit lady is wailing, insensate, holding the hand of another. The man is biting his lips, face a mask of misery, and tightens his grip before the couple are wrenched apart, their hands are tied behind their backs, and necks fastened in nooses.
Sai's voice sneaks up on me. "Those two are engaged to marry," he puts in, voice not unlike a researcher discussing a dissection, "Formerly farmers faced with destitution and hardship, they turned to banditry."
"How do you figure?" There are another two holding hands to eke out some comfort beside first the pair I caught sight of, before they too are bound.
"I questioned the captives this morning." Seriously? Sai looks at me strangely, "Do you not intend to carry out the Third Hokage's orders?"
The sound of clattering wood, followed by straining ropes and strangled gasps forces my attention to the hanging's culmination. Despite my lack of concern, the visceral spectacle of dangling, choking bodies leaves my mind blank for a second.
Sai's uncharacteristically perceptive expression only compounds my agitation.
I was not prepared for today.
Winter sunsets in the Land of Noodles are pretty enough, and our inn's roof tiles hardly make for comfortable sitting, yet both are insufficient to derails my thoughts. Today's procession of peculiarities left me with a serving of disagreements to digest. Izumi poking her head out from a window below, however, is a much superior distraction.
Izumi sots me and climbs. "Hi," she offers. I crane my neck to nod mutely, and hum in reply to her monosyllabic greeting. Izumi sits to my right at the roof's edge, joining me in staring at the twilight horizon, our feet dangling in the air. The silence rebounds, but a glance at Izumi tells of a short-lived lull.
She's hesitant, twiddling locks of her hair. A flight of whim prompts me to prod Izumi, "You don't usually struggle with words," I say, pushy above the norm.
She scoffs, a first. "Not any more than you struggle with your choices," Izumi retorts without looking.
Objection bubbles up, and an urge to needle her. "You know Izumi," I monotone, "It's sooo peaceful here…"
This time Izumi meets my eyes. "Hakaru," she weekly intones her disapproval.
"…For the most part," I finish, deadpan.
Izumi looks away, docking her head. "Sorry," she mutters, "Gaku filled me in."
I exhale, pushing a twinge of guilt to the side, and my resolve to stop this uselessness waffling solidifies. A glance at Izumi, "Well yeah," I try again, "You're kinda right. I am contemplating." stressing the last word, "Did I do right. The next time …" I trail off. Might as well get a relatively unindoctrinated second opinion.
"It could be the right choice," Izumi says as she pulls up her legs to hug her knees, "What you did." In her mulish voice, an uncertainty born of challenging ingrained upbringings, a bloody legacy of countless shinobi generations.
"Why, though?" I rest my right cheek, trying to challenge her, "Everything else being equal, the bandits you killed suffered the least." The "Humane" approach, or at least a short-sighted version of it.
"Just the one," Izumi grimaces, "A textbook kunai throw, just like Anko taught me, and my Sharingan recorded everything... I spaced out." Damn. Embarrassed, she looks away, "It felt wrong. As if I betrayed…" Izumi bites her lips, then skips ahead, "I was out of it, and Kumanaru had to save my skin and take care of the rest." She leaves it at that.
So not particularly humane after all. A riled Kumanaru comes to mind. Fang and claw, bristling fur, and a feral howl. Helpless as civilians for all that matters, those bandits probably knew a singular terror before the end. Still, it doesn't answer my question.
"I think maybe," Izumi's voice carries a thoughtful inflection, "Maybe it doesn't have to be about them. Just us, ninja, being decent whenever we can." She turns resolute eyes to me, "And I realized I admire what you did, even if most genin don't have the luxury of measuring to that ideal, the fact you chose to…" Izumi pats my shoulder, her expression chagrined, "Just don't give up yet, ok?"
It's hardly the bandits' fate that truly bothers me in the end. What rankles most is being just another mercenary in service of the status quo.
Izumi is not entirely off target though, and I can see how her approach could lead a ninja in general to improved mental health on the long-term if they could be convinced to practice it. That being a pretty big if. Still, I don't see much hope for change following that avenue alone, even if a deluded idealist might conceive of a farfetched outcome of mutual de-escalation.
A "Sure" and a slow nod assuage Izumi, and she gives me a relieved smile as she leaves me to stew.
"Maybe," I sigh, after a time. If this mission taught me anything, it's the limitations of my perspective.
Easy enough to amend.
A minor discharge of chakra smoke heralds the appearance of shadow clone beside me. There's a frown on his face as I open my mouth-
But I can't resist, and grin, "Go, my pretty."
The more transient version of me grumbles to himself as he bounds away, but not without a parting shot… Now that's a rude a gesture.
I lose sight of me as the last slivers of sunlight slip behind the horizon, allowing Shizai's nightlights to take prominence.
"Hakaru!" Gaku hollers, "Get down here. We're going to find dinner."
Picking myself up, I fish out a crumpled coupon from my jacket. It's worth, a bowl of ramen, or an outlaw's life in the Land of Noodles.
I eat ramen that night; it's delicious.
January 5th, 9th year after Kyuubi
Sharp eyes scan the target, searching for obstructions to his orchestrated plan of action.
Sai's master had once explained to him that much like in a physical clash, those who struck the first blow on the mental field of battle are afforded the opportunity to set the tone of conflict.
Squinting eyes and an unaffected smile turn slightly, "Izumi-san, could you please pass the soybean sauce?"
Strike one – a probe.
She blinks, "Sure," and hands over the condiment, "Here you go." Izumi's smile doesn't reach her eyes. A masterful parry, but, to what is ultimately a feint.
Spreading it over a slice of grilled pork, Sai takes a moment to feign an appreciation for the savory flavor. "Thanks, Crybaby." A decisive blow.
Sheets of rain drumming on the booth's window is the only audible sound as its occupants pause to digest those words. Gaku and Hakaru pull their gazes up from the sizzling grill, stirred from their meat induced stupor, they quirk their eyes at Sai. Kumanaru remains unconcerned, however, and seizes the opportunity to gobble up any unguarded slice of premium Konoha barbecue meat.
Slack mouthed shock transcends to seething outrage as Izumi's eyes flash something dark. Her visage turns almost demonic, "What," Izumi growls, "did you just call me?"
Sai, in response, smiles.
So much as Sai's most recent assignment made sense to him, it was equally regretful that his conduct following the renewal of his service to Lord Danzō had alienated his team some. Sai was to seek closer ties with his official teammates, Uchiha Izumi and Hakaru, a member of the treacherous Uchiha clan and an acquaintance to Konoha's jinchūriki respectively. It confounded him initially that Lord Danzō only now saw fit to charge him in this undertaking, but it is hardly Sai's place to ponder his superior's motives.
Shin came through for him, as always, and provided a booklet describing techniques to foster camaraderie. According to it, assigning nicknames is an excellent way to break the ice and strengthen bonds. The following outburst from Izumi is, as explained by the author, a simple example of increased expressiveness accompanying effective relationships amongst teammates.
Snatching a lean piece of beef from the grill, more in line to Sai's tastes than Hakaru's praised marbled cuts, he dabs it with a hint of fish sauce for added umami. Chewing on the slice, Sai dismisses putting any effort to interpreting Gaku's or Hakaru's efforts to dissuade Izumi from strangling him. The violent charge in the air and the inflection of Izumi's emotions immaterial to his purposes.
Several meat platters later, Gaku's congratulatory outing for the completion of Team 6's first C-rank mission concludes. "Take it easy," Gaku orders as he walks out, "reassemble in two days. Usual place and time," and disappears with Kumanaru into the rain using a Body Flicker, then Sai approaches Hakaru.
"Sap," Sai addresses him. On the devising of nicknames, the booklet recommends using either exaggeration or contradiction.
Stealing a glance to the side, Hakaru exaggerates rolling his eyes to Izumi and waves her off. For some reason, she is tense again and muttering angrily under her breath too low for him to pick up on her words. Izumi shoots Sai a glare for the establishment's entrance and bounds away.
"Sai," Hakaru returns, nodding to him after straightening his gaze. No other outward reaction ensues, and Sai suppresses a frown as is second nature. It appears his earlier success has made him negligent, failing to prepare a proper set-up to the nickname's inauguration.
Shin's booklet warns that indeed, not all methods of approach would work for every individual. Time for another approach.
The manual lauds synergy as a hallmark of successful camaraderie. "Would you take part in a joint skirmish revision drill?" A twitch of Hakaru's face signals his surprise before he shifts to thoughtfulness, scrutinizing Sai.
"Sure…" Hakaru drawls. He then brightens, a speculative gleam in his eyes, "I'm down for some, eh… mutual betterment." Hakaru spins in place, beckoning Sai to join him, "No chance for much of that out on a mission." Sai falls into step as they propel themselves atop Konoha's buildings. From Hakaru's bearing, Sai recognizes a likely destination to be the Ninth Training Ground. Keeping silent, he notes the sun's place in the sky indicates that plenty enough daylight remains.
Soon as they arrive on the field, at the team's customary meeting point, Hakaru turns to Sai. "So, what can you tell about the chakra mechanics of animating ink?"
Sai's practiced smile drops from his face as he fails to respond, trying to make sense of this sudden tangent. The quiet stretches, but fails to disturb Hakaru's expectant state, before his mouth twitches and he snaps his fingers. "My bad, it's easy to forget with the… Never mind, I'll clear up a bit." Nonsensical words uttered, Hakaru forms a few hand seals, and the ensuing pulse of chakra wafts against Sai's skin. Opening his mouth to question Hakaru about the purpose of his jutsu, Sai's ears pop from a shift in air pressure as excess moisture on his person starts to evaporate.
Stretching his neck skywards, Sai squints. There's a break in the air, a dome in which raindrops dissipate. Sai wonders if the opposite is within Hakaru's ability also, and then blinks. His teammate rests cross-legged on the grass in excited anticipation, fūinjutsu instruments arrayed around him. Hakaru's query makes its way back to Sai's thoughts.
Seals are creations of introspection and imagination, as Lord Danzō explains it, a tool only the rare adept may wield with anything approaching proficiency. Thus, it's unsurprising Lord Danzō disinclined to invest in its learning among his subordinates, and therefore, Sai's grounding in the subject begins and ends at recognizing the few mass-produced schemas. Sai almost twists his lips, ruminating that he is likely to achieve insight only insofar as Hakaru chooses to share. A less than equivalent exchange.
Still, the shinobi rules demand that the mission supersedes such concerns, and gathering martial intel is not his first objective.
Sitting down beside Hakaru, Sai recounts the first lesson of his art. Picking up a scroll and brush, he makes two quick strokes. "If there are two lines of ink," Sai feeds the ink chakra and forces them to wobble, "then the stretch of space defined between is subject to manipulation..."
Hakaru subjects Sai to an hours-long inquisition into the principles behind his techniques. His expectation for a gratifying, hard-fought sparring session, with the welcome exacerbation of a mid-winter downpour, is subverted. Rather, Sai is consigned to squat in a circle of grass untouchable to the elements, rehearsing jutsu theory. Jutsu theory he has been made able to recite in his sleep, on pain of pain. Hakaru's experimentations, drawing seals and discarding them at an abnormal pace, in turn, are incomprehensible to Sai. The progression of his mission aside, a wasted afternoon.
Subsequently, Hakaru defies Sai's expectations again when he proceeds to present the diagrams for a new seal to Sai, one he states is designed specifically for Sai's techniques. A beacon-marker seal duo.
"Tap the marker seal on one of your constructs," Sai does as instructed and touches the tag to an ink snake of his creation, which stirs, and starts to slither towards the tag's pair, "and it will try to make its way to the beacon seal." The ink snake slides up the tree trunk where the beacon seal is plastered, then on reaching its goal, sinks into the wood.
Scratching his head for a moment, Hakaru makes a quick adjustment to the marker seal, "That should fix that bug." Sai doesn't understand what insects have to do with fūinjutsu, but then, he is more concerned with how he might apply this useful tool to facilitate covert, long-distance communication with his allies.
February 20th, 9th year after Kyuubi
The westward path to Nankō stretches like any other road winding about the Land of Fire, differentiated only in that it is part of the minority surrounded more by fields than woods. By way of my trek on the dusty path, I'm finding walking to have a modicum of meditative quality to it through my ceaseless wonderings.
At least, that's what a couple of the me that came before figured.
I can't tell what those me were thinking; well I can, but prefer not to. The minute circumstances of my inceptions left my leanings further the part of individualistic and less inclined to accept my predecessors' perspective. Consequently, following morning me's decision to walk today for the sake of structure has a smarting sting to it — that privileged bastard.
But then, that's just me cloning around.
Now, there's no clear objective on the horizon, and so clone hours are spent training in the deeper forests, or either hiking or tree hoping to whichever destination I last picked. Previously, I'd been tracking the bandit couple, the ones Sai helpfully pointed might have a history that could summarize beyond: here hang horrible people.
Adopting the guise of a nondescript traveler under the Transformation Technique, I followed leads of past movements of the now wiped out bandit band and snooped for stories similar to Sai's second-hand account. That, surprisingly, wasn't the hard part. Cases of couples and new families being forced to seek out new livelihoods after losing theirs are common, too common to be sure if I found the right pair.
I decided to conclude my search in an entirely unremarkable village near the south-eastern edge of the Land of Fire. There, four aging parents described a pair similar enough to match my memories and told of crops destroyed by unkind weather, of hope for something better, and of promised letters never received.
All I said, was that the two had had a run in with bandits and did not survive.
The road is awfully silent today.
Visiting all those villages and towns, then and since, I've been drawing a picture in my head of economics outside a hidden village. In truth, their lack. The peasantry don't have much of anything; wealth, hygiene, education, or a hope for something better — no sign of the modern comforts prevalent in Konoha. In their ignorance, I believe, they are content in their lot and anxious to write off incidents like the one that started of my investigation as-.
Days' worth of recollections crash into my brain, and I almost miss a step. The original finally deigns to send an update, and it is a dichotomy that rattles and calms in unison. A gap nearly a week in the making, a sense of differentiation from the original, evaporates — a conflict between prideful egoism and fear of missing out.
In the middle of the road, I stop and recollect. Not overmuch new. Another D-rank. More Team 6 antics, an amalgam of polar personalities. Another sparring session with Neji, Hinata tagging along as is becoming the norm.
Ugh. That particular deviation from canon is never not creepy.
"Kind travels, stranger."
I jump, hurling myself away from the voice's origin.
Chakra surges in my veins, a tide of energy saturating my senses. An airborne moment is simultaneously stretched and compressed, my perception a pinprick of instinct and reflex. Touching down is a smooth transition to a ready stance, and across from me, I take in…
An old man.
Barefoot, the man wears white and gray robe-like garb beneath a red sash. Palms pressed in greeting; he raises his head and bows again, "Ah, excuse me, that's quite the scare I gave you." He lifts his head to meet my eyes and a broad smile stretches across his face, "Though, I hadn't seen anyone jump like that since I hid a horned viper in one of the temple's wilier pupil's smallclothes when he elected to duck his duties to go swim in a nearby river," the man lets out a guffaw. Leathery skin, tanned by the sun and marked by smile lines. A wild wreath of silvery hair on the sides and none up top, "Unfortunately, young Chiriku never quite forgave me the transgression."
Tension bleeds from my tendons, and I deflate. Still, I do not let down my guard fully. This man's chakra is not a civilian's. "Hisomeru is my name," I give out my chosen alias when under the Transformation Technique, "honored elder." The common people are humble, for they have claim to little.
He stiffens on hearing my name and replies as soon as I'm done, "Forgive my manners friend, many moons in stranger lands to the far west may have dulled my senses. I am Arataka, a monk of the Fire Temple, now returning from a prolonged pilgrimage." Supposition affirmed I relax further.
Arataka gestures to a grassy patch beside the road, "Please, may we share in your company and my tea?"
I mentally tally up the time I have left and nod my agreement. Figure there's enough to enjoy a cup and maybe listen to an interesting story or two.
One of the necessities to sustain a long-distance clone journey is regular self-replacement every two hours. Portioning out the memories in short chunks is best to minimize strain on my original. That every lengthy conversation has to be interrupted by a "bathroom break" is a small price to pay for freedom allowed through my abuse of the technique. And yet, all this still would not have been possible if it wasn't for the Shadow Clone Technique's most confounding aspect.
The chakra divided equally, always.
Every time a clone is conjured or dispelled, the chakra reshuffles among all instances of the user. A unanimous distribution of experiences and chakra potential, and perhaps there's more...
"...And after we finish deliberating and I suggest we part for solitary meditation, that albino spinster declares that since I'd abstained from undertaking her trials, she'll eat me for lunch." Arataka slaps his knee and hoots, "But what she didn't expect," he points to his temple, "is this devilish mind."
"You outwitted a sage?" I furrow my brow, finding myself grinning, infected by Arataka's good cheer.
"Bah," Arataka waves his hand, "outwitted nothing. It's her nature I used against her. None of us can escape our innermost natures." He reaches into his satchel and withdraws a handful of leaves. "Lemongrass," he says and deposits them in a bubbling pot he had set up after lighting a stick of incense. "Grouched and moaned about it the entire time I was leaving, but that she let me leave is a sign of a good sport."
Arataka produces two cups, a pair of old and beaten clay utensils. "Tell me then, young Hisomeru, what is it that you," he pointedly points to me, "seek in your travels?"
"Understanding mostly," I say. "My home is a sheltered place, and there are holes in my education in need of filling." A vague truth.
The pot pauses above the first cup, and Arataka's gaze returns to me. "Might it be that you, as I do, tread the wanderer's path to enlightenment?" He asks and leans forward.
I shrug, "Enlightenment is easy enough; it's life after that's the real journey." As candid a comment as I've shared on this subject. I attribute my charitable response to the Transformation Technique and Arataka's strangeness. "Knowledge is what I want."
Arataka exhales an overdramatic sigh, "Ha," and proceeds to pour tea, "the hubris of youth." I wave off on sweetening my drink, and Arataka drowns his in an avalanche of sugar. "A forgivable, if poor, justification for such an aloof claim for that which so many spend lifetimes striving for…" He says with little venom and hands me a cup. Despite the nettling sting of the underhand slight, we take a sip together.
Still, my counter is quick to come. "It's clear enough, for those who do not deafen and blind themselves to the truth like frightened children," I say, feeling a bit heated in my retort.
Bringing a hand to his chin, Arataka meets my eyes, "Do… enlighten me."
The terrible pun defuses the tension some, and I inhale deeply to try cooling some of the heat that's built in my gut. I oblige Arataka's request and spell it out, "Meaning and value both exist only in the eye of the observer, in the most absolute of ways." The subjective is the only real objective. "Go live with that."
Arataka declines to respond immediately, his face impassive.
I look down and put a hand to my stomach as the heat becomes a burn. "I think there might have been something in that tea." My vision loses some focus despite repeated blinking as my world becomes swabbed in cotton.
"How typical of a shinobi," the cold disdain snaps my gaze forward more than the words, to meet a half-lidded stare. "To shake off the bindings of xenophobic nationalism only to sink to an egoistical rut."
A shiver of comprehension sends clarity lancing through the mounting pain, even as I lose balance and fall to my side.
There was definitely something in that tea.
"Was the-mrrm," I grunt, "counteragent in sugar?"
"No," the man shakes his head and sips from the tea, "a sweet tooth is my one great vice," he says with mirth. Aside from poisoning people, I would have said, if not for the paralyzing pain. Arataka is undisturbed by my silence, it seems, as evident from his continued monologuing. "It was the incense that loosens your tongue and clouds your thoughts, in case you were wondering."
My eyes widen, and my teeth clench harder. It should have been obvious, in hindsight, that something was wrong when I started orating personal observations that I'd barely hinted at to anyone.
"Hearing of that old bastard's death," Arataka continues, "I knew the Land of Fire was ripe for my return. All I need to ignite the conflagration is a following of virtuous disciples." He frowns sadly at me, "I tried to grant you fair chance, truly, but such blatant disregard to the wider world and the greater understanding, the delicate balance between all living things and nature itself…" He sighs with a sense of finality, "So arrogant. You shinobi see what you want to see, and in turn, what I want you to see."
Spittle drips from my mouth as I lose more motor functions and I clumsily wipe it away before forcing out a response "Your wider world wouldn't even exist without the me there to observe it." Arataka's expression of serene condescension makes me wish to see his face on realizing his mistake. "And I'll remember your face, bastard."