We made a first stop around midday, and took the opportunity to check the supply depot nearby. I tagged along with Kirigane armed with my scroll and little ink-brush set to note down everything she told me to write down. She looked over the kunai, shuriken, food rations, and other essentials that were stored in an underground hollow hidden behind the heavy roots of a massive tree.
She pointed out to me the signs, etched into the wood and surrounding stone, which indicated the location.
"See, Fujimi? Secret code, that's what that is. This one's meant for your average team, but there are some, further out, which are only accessible by Jounin. The codes change accordingly. They also indicate where the nearest depot is, so if this one's compromised there's an alternative."
She crouched and motioned to the cavern. I got on my knees to look inside.
"Shinobi on long term missions can't always bring everything they need with them. Too heavy, and not everyone's handy with a sealing scroll. And what if they lose their gear? That'd be a heck of a way to go, escaping with your life only to starve to death."
"Can't they just hunt?" I asked, peering closer into the cave. It was just big enough for someone my size to crawl in. An adult could only reach in with one arm. Still, it was packed to the brim.
"Not always an option. If you're low on chakra, best to conserve your energy if you can help it. We've got these about half a day's travel apart from each other. Closer to the border, they're farther apart and have more interesting stuff in them." She grinned conspiratorially and lowered her voice. "But I know where they are. I don't think I'm supposed to, but I make a point to hunt them down every time they relocate them. Never saw a code I couldn't crack. They aren't as slick as they think they are."
I looked up and blinked. "They? Who's they?"
Her mouth split wide like the Cheshire cat's. She looked positively devilish, like she knew something neither of us were supposed to know, and relished in it. "Never you mind, shrimp. I'll tell you when you're older. Hey, do me a favor, crawl in there and write down what's left. My back's killing me."
I did as I was told and emulated a badger, or possibly a marmot, for the few minutes it took to make an inventory. I emerged and shook the dirt off my clothes. I was still curious as to who had special supply depots far away from the village, but if Kirigane wasn't telling then there was no use prying.
That night, Kirigane sat me down by the fire and began to teach me the code.
"It changes periodically, but once you know the basic pattern you can figure any of them out." She snorted. "Intel thinks they're soooo smart with their fancy-pansy symbols, but I can see through them. A squirrel could. They don't even bother to change the encryption key."
She wrote the symbols down on leaves and burned them once I'd memorized them.
Once I had the basics of the code down, Kirigane had me hunt down the supply depots on my own. At first, I missed the little scratches and artfully placed rocks, but soon I caught onto where to look and found them every time. It really wasn't that hard, once you knew what you were looking for. I reported back with my findings, and she decided whether or not the supplies needed to be swapped out, replenished, or taken out altogether.
We arrived a the old outpost after about a week of traveling. It was made up of a few buildings, with fortifications in the form of a winding pit around the perimeter. A few squads had arrived ahead of us and gotten communications up and running.
Kirigane took one small shack in the middle to serve as her office, and we got to work.
The main part of our job was rebuilding some of the older buildings, which had rotting wood and weak foundations, as well as expanding the base itself. We took the opportunity to shore up our defenses; the walls got outside coats of thick mud, which was a low-tech way of making them fireproof, and the outside moat was augmented by sharpened spikes and a wooden wall. We didn't want to make the outpost too big, as a big part of its utility was the fact that it was hidden among thick trees. Instead of making the settlement bigger in circumference, we added lookout towers and shelters either in the tree trunks, or among the branches. The forest being evergreen (I still didn't understand how that was possible, ecologically speaking), the foliage would provide excellent camouflage and the extra height, good vantage points.
I was given the important (or so Kirigane said) task of helping to direct construction. Unlike my previous deployment, manual labor was, to my utmost relief, not on the menu. I was kept busy tracking supply shipments of stone, lumber, and food coming via out supply route, coordinating them with the building teams, keeping accurate records, and helping Kirigane with odds and ends - she always seemed to need a fresh cup of tea at the worst possible times, even though I was half sure she didn't even drink it most of the time. I think she just liked to see me hop to it.
On the way here, not only did we make sure the depots were still good, we made sure there was a passable route for the parties of three or four carrying supplies sealed in scrolls. That was the ninja version of a supply train. Wagons generally do poorly in heavily forested areas - not to mention, they make excellent target practice for the enemy.
This particular supply route did actually use a chunk of the main road leading out of Konoha, before swerving north and branching out to various outposts. In wartime, it was traversed by two or three teams daily, running back and forth at top speed. Some even carried mail - the non-urgent kind, of course.
I was so busy I didn't have time to screw my own head on straight. Each day I rose early at the sound of the gong, retrieved my unappetizing ration from the cookhouse, headed to Kirigane's office to put it in order (a truly Sisyphean task), met the day's first shipment - making sure to check the delivery and write it down (first rule of bureaucracy - CATALOGUE EVERYTHING) - and then met up with the morning assembly. That was basically a general meeting during which Kirigane handed out assignments for the day, read out important news, and, every so often, when she felt like we deserved it, give a pep talk. The teams would stand in line, with the team leader waiting to be called to the front to receive the daily orders.
It was all very neat and orderly and official-looking.
It made something deep at the back of my brain tingle with pleasure.
Lunch, then onto worksite supervision (I toured them daily, and reported back to Kirigane), meet-up with the second shipment, a stop at the hawk tower to check for important letters, back to Kirigane's office for a second cleaning, and then a little bit of downtime to write down my reports.
All of this was interspersed with Kirigane's . . . sometimes off-putting requests. Tea was one thing, but stealing a team's head Chuunin's task scroll? Fetching a particular Jounin's secret stash, which turned out to be . . . potato chips?
As time went on, she upped the bizarro factor.
Writing my report in the same room as her without being caught writing? Sneaking near-deadly amounts of pepper into the daily soup? Getting around the camp all day without stepping on wood nor stone nor dirt?
Play a one-sided game of tag with a target, trying to stick a piece of paper on their back without being seen or getting within ten meters of them?
It was simply odd. And disruptive. I still had to do my job, and these tasks were making it harder and harder to accomplish anything at all. Not to mention the weird looks these chores got me.
One evening, I joined my Genin Corps friends for a round of well-earned complaining and commiseration. We sat around the fire with our dinner, the quality of which made me doubt it was food at all. The gruel sort of looked like glue, with chunks, and didn't fall when Shin experimentally turned his bowl upside down over his brother's head.
"Sounds like she has it in for you," Kai said, after he'd batted Shin away. His face, diving into his rice bowl, was nowhere close to sympathetic. Probably because I'd had to tell him off for shirking work earlier.
Kai had a tendency to do that. I couldn't blame him though. I might have played hooky too, if I had to dig a ditch and/or had a less well-developed work ethic.
"At least you're making yourself useful, Ukiyo," Tetsu said. "Unlike some others in present company."
Kai shot him a glare. Tetsu turned up his nose at him and returned to his food. He bit down on something hard. A crack split the air.
We all stilled.
Tetsu blinked a few times.
Tentatively, he spat out a rock onto his palm. He felt around his mouth with his tongue and turned white. A bloody molar joined the rock. Kai cringed. Shin whistled.
Tetsu made a disgusted face and threw his entire supper, bowl and tooth and all, into the fire.
"Good thing it was only a baby tooth," I commented.
"I don't need your sympathy," he snapped and turned around on his log. I noticed him gingerly holding his cheek.
We all looked at each other, Kai and Shin and me, and following a silent accord, bade our dinner an ashy farewell.
"But seriously though, the captain's gone loony," said Kai. "What was it today?"
I groaned in humiliation just thinking about it. "I had to do everything while sticking to the shadows. It wasn't so hard in the morning, but I had to meet a convoy around noon and I had to convince them to throw the scrolls to me. I was glued to the wall the whole time because the shadows were so thin."
The boys burst out laughing while heat curled up my neck.
"It wasn't funny! They looked at me like I was a lunatic!" I moaned and covered my face with my hands. "This job is hard enough as is!"
"Hey, at least you weren't on latrine duty," Shin said. He stood. "I'm gonna go see if there's rice somewhere. I'll try to make us something halfway edible. Kai, you got the cards?"
"Sure thing. Tetsu, wanna play?"
A strangled hiss came from Tetsu.
"Ooookay, well I'm drawing your cards. They're on your right."
Kai drew for us and when Tetsu begrudgingly turned around (cheek swollen), we started a three way game of Go-Fish. Shin came back with a pot of steaming rice and flaked fish and set about making us riceballs. No one asked where he'd gotten the fish. He might have told, but then he would have had to kill us all.
Tetsu won the first round, which did wonders to improve his mood - unfortunately, these weren't the kind of wonders that had any noticeable effect on his behavior. Shin passed out the food. The rice was still warm.
"You know," Shin said. "I can't help but think there's a point behind what the captain's doing."
"We all know she's crazy," Kai commented, gathering up the cards for another round. "I mean, the genius kind of crazy but who knows, maybe she's finally gone off the deep end."
"You guys are sooo reassuring." I gathered up my hand. "Of course she's up to something, I just haven't had the time to figure out what. I'm her gofer. I'm busy. Tetsu, got any threes?"
"Go fish," he mumbled. His cheek was swollen and it made it hard for him to talk.
I picked up a card from the pool. Not a match.
"Seriously dude, medical tent." Kai rolled his eyes. "Ukiyo, any kings?"
I handed over the card.
"Thanks. Seriously though, Ukiyo, are you gonna be alright?"
"I doubt whatever she has in mind is gonna kill me," I said. "If she was, she'd use that butcher's knife of hers. Chase me into the woods. Psychological warfare isn't her forte."
"Kai, give me your kings," Shin said, and made a come-here gesture.
Kai raised an eyebrow. He turned to me. I'd introduced the game to them. "Is he allowed to do that?"
I nodded, and hid my smile behind my fanned out cards. Kai handed the two kings over, and Shin triumphantly set all four down in front of him.
"You must have some idea what she's got in mind," he said to me.
I thought I might. I tapped my cards against my lips, thinking. "Well, kind of . . ."
"Oh my god you people are dumb!" Tetsu threw his cards down in a rage.
"Oy!" Kai snapped.
"The Chuunin exams, you humungous dolts!" Tetsu yelled. "It's training for the Chuunin exams!" He winced and clasped his hand over his cheek.
The three of us looked at each other. Dawning realization washed over me.
"Oh," I said.
Tetsu gathered up his cards. "The Chuunin exam has a practical exam component, and it changes every time. Since you never know what could come up, you have to prepare for the unexpected. Who knows what you could be asked to do? And you," he jabbed a finger in my direction. "Are getting a recommendation. God knows how you've managed that one, since you aren't good for much, but the least you could do is show some awareness of the things people do for you!"
There was a pause. Tetsu huffed and crossed his arms. He seemed to be near tears, and I didn't think it was just because of the tooth.
"What's gotten into you?" I asked.
"Nothing. None of your business. Shut up."
"Now, you're obviously upset," I said in a smooth tone, as if speaking to a child (which, technically speaking, I was). "I can't help you if you don't tell me, Tetsu."
He glared at me with those big bug eyes of his. They looked like moons, narrowed and angry and trying not to show it.
Shin's eyes suddenly went wide and he blurted out,
"He's upset because he won't be on your team."
Tetsu's eyes snapped to him, and I could feel the murder in them.
Shin continued. "A while back, the three of us," he indicated his brother and me, "decided we'd train for the exams and go as a team. He's upset because he won't."
"So what if I am? It's not fair! I was on her team, you know!" He angrily pointed at me. "We both got failed! Why do you guys get to take the exams with her?"
I anxiously shifted from side to side.
"It's . . ." I swallowed. "It's not for sure that I'll get to take it. I still need a recommenda . . ."
"Shut up! You'll get it! The captain likes you, she'll get someone to recommend you. She's got fingers in every pie and dirt on half the Konoha forces. She's a menace. Why do you think she's stuck doing logistics? She'd be too much of a pain anywhere else!
"Why do you get all the luck? Why do you get attention and praise? You don't belong to a clan. You're not any better than any of us, you're not special or strong or talented, you're nothing."
I felt like I swallowed a rock. My face burned. I looked down at my cards in my lap and tried to remember that Tetsu was just a kid. A scared, angry, resentful kid.
It still stung more than it had any right to.
Kai, completely white, got to his feet.
"You . . . you . . ." he gritted his teeth. "I dare you to say that again, you piece of shit. How dare you."
"Kai . . ." Shin tried to put himself between them, but Kai pushed him aside.
Tetsu doubled down. "It's true and you know it. She's a nobody. She just got lucky."
"When you say that to her, you say it to all of us. What, just because you're a clan kid and you've got fancy eyes you should be the one getting all the attention?"
Tetsu's face contorted with rage. He was on his feet in a flash.
"You don't know anything," he spat.
"I know you're being a dick right now. I also know I really want to punch your face in."
The two stood off against each other. Shin and I met each others eyes.
"I'm . . ." I swallowed. "I'm gonna go . . . y'know. Do something."
Neither of them looked at me, but Shin shot me a reassuring smile.
I turned tail and ran.
I wandered around the edge of the camp. I gave the shinobi on watch a quick sign and proceeded unimpeded into the woods. It was perfectly safe. We had lookouts along a wide perimeter, and I didn't go very far.
Once I was sure no one was around, I climbed up on a big root and sat down.
The air was cool and damp. My feet hung down into nothing. I swung them a little bit.
I wondered if it was wrong to feel guilty like this.
I'd truly lucked out getting Kirigane as a captain. If not for her, I wouldn't have had any hope of making it out of the Genin Corps. I wouldn't have begun training for real, I wouldn't have spent time with Kakashi's team, and I wouldn't be anything at all.
I would be with Shin, Kai, and Tetsu, digging ditches and hauling lumber until I retired.
Tetsu was right - none of this was fair. I'd gotten lucky. So supremely, irritatingly, unfairly lucky.
I remembered my initial demand in the afterlife office, when I'd been offered this reincarnation deal. I'd asked for good luck. Maybe this was it.
But even if it was, what was I supposed to do, roll over and whine about how someone else deserved this more than me, and gallantly give up opportunities so that some phantom person more miserable than I was could, maybe, take them instead? That made no sense at all.
Luck or not, deserved or not, fair or not, this was how things were and I had to make the best of it. I could start by not being a flagrant disgrace to the people who'd given me a chance.
I took a deep breath. I summoned water chakra into my hand and focused on what Minato had told me.
I spun the water in my hand. It sprung up into a water spout.
I added momentum. It rose higher, thinner, tighter.
I set my other hand above it and clamped them together in a vice. I felt a raging whirlpool form in my palms.
For a moment I thought I had it.
My control slipped and the water exploded.
I blinked. My ears rang.
I looked down at my hands.
They were riddled with fine, deep cuts. I could see bone, glistening wetly in the half-light.
Something warm trickled down my face. I touched it with stiff hands. There were cuts on my face too. I tasted blood where they went all the way through my cheek. I felt a rip along the edge of my eye socket.
I sat, frozen. My chakra kicked into high gear. The flesh of my cheeks knitted back together. My blood cooled and congealed as layers of muscle and fat and skin closed back up.
When I brought my hands in front of my face, they were bloody but intact.
Nausea rolled in my stomach. I remembered the dog.
For a moment my hands as I saw them weren't whole, but eaten by tumors and diseased flesh. I couldn't stop myself from picturing them burrowing under my skin and wrapping around my bones.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath.
"You're fine, Ukiyo," I told myself out loud to stave off the mounting panic attack. "You're fine, you're fine . . ."
I repeated it until my heart rate returned to normal. I flexed my hands.
"See? No tumors."
I was fine. I could do this. I had to do this.
I brought my hands up again, and gathered water chakra, again. I closed my eyes, and breathed deep.
"Again," I told myself firmly.
So yeah, my family's streak of bad luck is ongoing. Our three chickens died about two weeks ago - an animal of some sort got them. They were good birds.
Overall, I'm feeling pretty miserable. I figured I'd better get this out now, even if it's not as long as I would've liked, because I'm trying to learn to trade in 'perfect' for 'done.'
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