Chapter 42

Three days.

It took three days to reach the borders to the Land of Bamboo, during which time Sute had barely any respite from the terrifying force that was Maito Gai.

The pair spent nearly every moment together, only separating at night when they would rent separate rooms at inns. That was her only respite from his company, spending the rest of her time playing the Kanade façade. It proved more mentally taxing than she anticipated, wary of the man figuring out she wasn't quite the harmless civilian she portrayed.

(The trip could have been shorter if she'd agreed to his offer to carry her on his back. Given she had a box with three mamushis in it though, she'd respectfully declined since the ride would be very bumpy for them. So, she had no choice but to endure it.)

Finding conversation topics was surprisingly hard when all she really wanted to do was pick his brain about his taijutsu. Which she managed to do a little bit, by asking about his speed and getting to hear a bit of his training regiment. Which, holy shit, humans should NOT be capable of that level of intense training and exercise! Chakra had to strengthen bodies here or something, she was sure of it now.

On the bright side, she did manage to convince him to demonstrate a few of his lighter exercises meant for flexibility when they stopped for a short break on their second day. Or well, light by his standards.

"Gai-san, I cannot do that pose," Sute said bluntly as she watched him hover over the ground with both hands planted on the ground. He'd basically folded his torso in half, legs pointing outwards in straight lines with his arms planted between them to hold his body aloft.

"Hmm, I find the firefly pose to be rather invigorating myself," he mused, letting his legs relax to the ground. "Ah, but you're a beginner. So perhaps the crow pose would be better!" He kicked off the ground and folded his body into something close to the fetal position, hands still planted on the ground to hold him in the air. A pose which admittedly looked much more doable than the other, since it was based more on arm strength and balance than flexible leg joints.

Arm strength and balance that a civilian girl probably wouldn't have.

...It occurred to Sute that he was intentionally choosing advanced poses that she likely wouldn't be able to replicate. For all he acted goofy, he was still a shinobi, and shinobi couldn't reveal their secrets to outsiders too easily. Observing her attempts to copy them would easily reveal whether she had any prior training to someone with a trained eye like Gai.

At least he was choosing poses that wouldn't lead to potential irreparable damage or muscle tears if she was a civilian. Just painful tumbles. "Maybe I should just find a book on yoga later," she mused, and he nodded as he lowered his legs back to the ground and hopped to his feet.

"That is a wonderful idea, but I advise you be very careful," he said. "Advanced poses can lead to serious harm, so make sure you keep to basic poses. Although, I'm surprised you recognized those poses as yoga! Most civilians just assume those are just advanced kinds of stretches."

His tone was jovial as always, but Sute had enough experience to recognize the secret probing intent hidden in his words. She put on a bashful smile. "I actually don't know much about it. I only recognized it because you called those 'poses' and I only ever really hear that word used with yoga? Like I said, my father liked to make sure I could take care of myself, so he taught me some basic poses he'd picked up over the years."

All of that was true. Yoga was practiced in Kiri, but she hadn't ever really bothered learning about it beyond the basic stretches used in the academy. Her father had taught her a bit in her last life as well, even getting into more intermediate poses, but they stopped by the time she turned ten. She had never been too interested in it so he'd dropped it easily enough, and it had been long enough ago that she couldn't remember much anymore.

(Strange, to realize that her first childhood had been more than three decades ago. She didn't feel that old, either, her mental state older than this body's fifteen but not quite as old as the forty-three years she could remember.)

(She pushed the thought aside, having long since decided it was better not to think about her age too hard.)

Gai nodded in understanding, and she could only hope it meant she'd quashed any suspicions he may or may not have. The man was surprisingly hard to read when it came to searching for signs of suspicion, his perpetually friendly and cheerful demeanor just as effective as any poker face. They resumed their rest, and spent the remainder of the break with Gai discussing the basic poses and their benefits. She finished that conversation with a quiet resolve to learn more about yoga in the future.

Aside from that, most of their conversations stemmed from Gai asking Sute about herself. Things like her hobbies and interests, skills she'd picked up, favorite places she had visited, stories about her parents. Innocent enough questions on the surface that could give away so much more to a seasoned shinobi if one didn't watch their words closely enough.

She stuck to honest answers, unwilling to risk potentially slipping up and contradicting herself later. She had already mentioned her interest in herbs and medicine, and professed a desire to grow a garden of her own. Talked about her attempt to get into painting and how she found she preferred making the paints to drawing. Expressed awe at the scenery in Hot Springs, and recounted her surprise that avalanches didn't sound like thunder as she once believed.

And just like any civilian, Sute let some more personal details slip too. "I never actually knew my mother," she admitted when they stopped for dinner that evening. Still en route to the next town, their path diverted by a flooded river forcing a detour so their travel bled past sunset. "She died when I was still a baby."

Gai's face looked appropriately somber at the information, the shadows cast by the fire making his features almost gaunt. "My deepest condolences, Kanade-san. I remember you said she died, but I didn't realize it happened when you were so young."

"It's alright, I never knew her so it doesn't bother me. It was always just me and my father for as long as I could remember, and he made sure I never felt like I was missing anything. It took me a while to even realize most kids have two parents." Sute paused then, and glanced to the fire as she said, "Um, Gai-san? I think the fish is burning."

"Ah!" He quickly snatched the two sticks holding the fish he'd caught for dinner out of the flames. He blew out the lingering flames clinging to them, the meat more than a little black now. "I apologize, I got distracted by our conversation. I... do not know if this will be very good to eat," he added a bit sheepishly.

"It's alright, just give me a knife and I can cut off the charred bits," Sute said, holding out a hand. He handed over the fish and a kunai without hesitation, and she quickly got to work trimming off the burnt bits. Her motions weren't as smooth and fluid as they usually would be, pretending to fumble a bit with the kunai's shape, but she didn't try to pretend to be a complete beginner either.

"You're quite good at that," Gai complimented.

"My father and I would roast fish on the road fairly often, and he made mistakes too. This knife is a bit awkward compared to what I'm used to, but I'm used to trimming off burns." A lie this time, she and her father never cooked fish the few times they went camping together. He was never one for the great outdoors, a man suited to work behind computer screens or in his basement rather than braving the elements. He could do hikes, go to cabins in national parks, but camping never appealed to him. Wilderness survival had been her own interest, one which he'd indulged and studied purely to help her learn.

"A handy skill!" Gai praised. "I'm admittedly more used to eating ration bars on missions, so I'm a bit rusty at cooking in the field myself." Sute actually had to hold back a laugh at that considering she learned this from following the Seven Swordsmen during the war. They got sick and tired of rations, and she got sick and tired of them complaining about burning their own stupid fish. She didn't even eat the dang fish, she was just done with the violent death matches over the one fish that wasn't burnt.

"Well, my father always said you can't be good at everything," she said with a genuine smile. "As far as weaknesses go, burning food isn't an awful one."

"I suppose you're right!" Gai laughed, and Sute handed the kunai back along with one of the fish, now reduced by a third of its size but void of any overly charred bits. As they ate he commented, "So did you handle all of the cooking, then?"

Sute chuckled as she swallowed. "No, my father was honestly a bit of a gourmet. He made sure I could keep myself fed, but he was very serious about cooking."

"But... you just said he'd burn fish?" Gai's eyebrows furrowed in confusion, and she giggled.

"Yeah, well, fish was a different story for him. He said seafood was more mom's thing, so he felt wrong trying to cook it after she died. He'd always kinda space out while cooking it." His expression cleared and once again became somber.

"He must have really loved her," he said softly, and her own smile grew a bit softer as she nodded.

"He said she was the only woman he could ever see himself loving," she replied just as softly, and they lapsed into silence as they ate.

(One time while on vacation in their last life, her father had paused on a boardwalk and just stared at a stall selling freshly caught fish. He stood there for what felt like an eternity, eyes full of longing as he stared at something beyond the rows of fish laid out atop ice, before finally turning away.

"Your mother would have loved this," he'd said simply, almost like a confession, and then continued down the colorful boardwalk holding her hand a little tighter.

She never knew her mom, but she'd heard stories. Had heard plenty about how they'd met at a concert, and he'd used his backstage passes to woo the pretty girl with a bad dye job. How what should have been a one-night fling ended with more encounters as they talked into the night and found more shared interests. How the space between each encounter grew shorter and shorter. Until finally months later she showed up with a positive pregnancy test, and he found it only natural to propose then and there.

Her father was a bad man, but there was no denying he loved her mother. Their love was like a storm, intense and raging without ever once losing passion. Every day they spent together he just fell more and more in love, even at the worst of her midnight screams demanding some cheap mint-chocolate bars at the height of her pregnancy. He had even been willing to give up his other, less legal interests to guarantee a peaceful life together.

Then three months after she was born, her mom's own crazy mother ended up stabbing her to death in the parking lot of a grocery store after a late-night trip to get more formula.

The police never did identify the culprit, but her dad knew it was her. It was pretty obvious since the hag had been sending Sute's mother a slew of death threats since she moved out two years prior. When she'd been forced to literally flee for her life after a particularly bad fight that ended with a knife stabbed into the wall, and a new scar on her forehead from a coffee pot flung her way.

The woman had been a "mother" in blood only, seeing her child as a mere extension of her will, and was violently furious that her daughter dared try to exert any sort of independence. She'd chased her daughter across state lines, managed to track down her new address and number no matter how many times she changed it because too many people just couldn't understand why someone might not want their mother to be a part of their life.

Apparently her mother status outweighed the many, many, many pleas that "she made me starve for three days when I was fifteen because I got a bad grade on a test," or "she broke my headphones because I forgot to take out the garbage one time."

Funny how those idiots never believed them until the "sweet old lady" actually carried out her threats and left a small baby motherless and a murderer a widower. No one ever listened until it was too late.

No one but her father.)

(On that note, she met her grandma once, when she was six.)

(She wondered how many more years her grandma stayed in the basement after that.)

A couple hours after lunch on the third day, Sute and Gai finally reached the borders of Bamboo. "I'm afraid this is where we part, Kanade-san!" he announced. "I wish I could accompany you further, but I must hurry now to complete my own mission."

"Thank you for your kindness and patience, Gai-san!" Sute dipped into a grateful bow, and he laughed.

"Please, there's no need to be so formal! Escorting you has been entirely my pleasure, young lady. The power of youth runs strong in you!"

"Not as strongly as you," Sute replied with a teasing smile as she straightened. The jounin gave a boisterous laugh, flashing that trademark grin that somehow had that anime-twinkle even in real life.

"Never lose your sense of humor, my friend! Remember, if you ever need any help, don't hesitate to reach out to Leaf ninja! And if you ever decide to visit Konoha, I hope we can meet again. Your company has been quite refreshing!"

"I will keep it in mind," Sute replied with a pleasant smile. She would go to Konoha when Suna froze over, so not like she'd have to follow through. "I hope your mission ends well."

"I am sure it will!" he replied, adding a thumbs up to match his grin. "I hope you find your family safely!"

"Thank you, I do too."

"Farewell, Kanade-san. Until we meet again!" Sute waved as Gai sped off, courteously moving slow enough to actually let her see him leave before seeming to almost blink out of existence. Once he vanished from her line of sight she turned and walked down the path into Bamboo.

Only after she casually touched a tree fifteen minutes later and she felt no traces of his chakra in the area did she finally let her façade drop, her whole body sagging tiredly.

"Oh, thank kami he's gone," she groaned, running a hand through her hair. Keeping up the Kanade persona around Gai full-time had been exhausting, and she was ready to ditch that particular persona forever more. Turns out the always-cheerful and excitable "genki girl" trope was very tiring if it wasn't part of your natural personality. At least he hadn't seemed to notice anything amiss.

Either way, she was beyond relieved to no longer have to play up the pleasant civilian image constantly and be on her own. Even better: the Land of Bamboo had some very thick forests, many of the trees clustered closely enough for the roots to tangle together. The sprawling root systems gave Sute plenty of range when she used her sensory trick, confirming no one was around for miles.

For that reason she let herself relax and fall into a faster shinobi pace, periodically slowing down as she'd pick up people within a certain range. She still didn't feel a particular need to rush, but after so long it felt nice to just run.

Because of that she covered a good amount of ground by sunset, at which point she set up camp near a river. Hefting her bag off her shoulders, she pulled out the large box with her mamushis and opened it. Mushi Mushi, Mushishi and Mama-chi all raised their heads at the appearance of light, tongues flicking and tasting the air. Sute smiled warmly as she pulled out a storage scroll to unseal some dead mice to drop inside.

"Just a little longer, babies," she crooned sweetly as they began eating. "And then you'll hopefully never have to ride in a box ever again." She placed a screen over the box so they could get fresh air before reclining against her bedroll, taking some time to relax and organize her thoughts. She idly traced some of the lines used in her memory seal against her wrist, using the motion to help recall the last memory she'd checked with it.

"The southeastern part of the Land of Bamboo, near the borders to Fire and Rice Fields," she murmured to herself, loosely echoing Shiromi's words during their fateful encounter. "The village is nameless, and it has an inn with a sign with a moon and yellow rabbit on it." Easy enough to remember. Between the moon, rabbit, and bamboo, the whole setup made her think of the legend of Princess Kaguya, the baby found in a stalk of bamboo.

She craned her head back to look at the moon which had begun its ascent, lost in thought. Did this world have the legend of Kaguya? It at least had a Kaguya clan living in Kiri, but their brutal and savage nature hardly matched the elegant princess of the legends. Kimimaro seemed to be a bit closer with his white hair and delicate features, but overall the clan seemed like an odd tribute to the moon princess.

She could investigate that later. For now, her main priority was getting there.

Finding the village would be somewhat tricky without an actual name or even landmarks. All she had was a general idea of the region. As Shiromi said, she'd likely have to depend on someone seeing her eyes and recognizing them as similar to this cousin Rei. With how bright the yellow-green shade was, it certainly stood out; Sute had yet to encounter any eye colors close to it. Even Sakura's eyes had been a minty green in the manga and anime.

Between that and the various comments about it being a Yorozuyo family trait, she at least knew Rei was absolutely related to her.

Sute was actually going to meet a relative. A blood relative in this world. Sute... didn't know how she felt about that. This world seemed to make such a big deal about blood ties for some reason, but even now after thinking on it for so long, the Yorozuyo name meant nothing to her. This Rei guy was a stranger—their whole clan was full of strangers. She didn't even have a canon example of a member for reference.

Did the Yorozuyo clan appear in canon? Given Uzushio had fallen years ago, the chances were probably pretty low unless there was a flashback to its fall. Man, she'd have loved to see that. Maybe it would shed some light on all those mysteries Shiromi mentioned, like why the Yorozuyo were so strict and possessive about children. And also why Rei had been so certain no one else had survived.

Dwelling on it wouldn't help her. Tomorrow she'd set out to find the village, and hopefully she'd get the answers soon.

The search took over a week.

The stretch of Bamboo she searched was mostly rural villages and small towns, and clearly not a common destination for travelers. Larger towns had inns for traveling merchants, but many of the places she visited didn't. The very first village she visited lacked so much as a restaurant or even a store, consisting entirely of small, residential homes and farms.

When she'd transform she changed only her hair to a dull brown, not too concerned about being seen and recognized. With no landmarks or names to use as a reference, her easiest option would be to personally ask people about the inn with the rabbit on the sign or Rei himself. Their distinct shared eye color would make it easier to bring up the latter.

Sute never lingered long in the settlements, staying just long enough to find tips on where to go next before heading off. Very few people in these rural villages ever left, leaving traveling merchants in larger towns as Sute's primary source of information. Sometimes they would have something useful like other nearby towns with inns that could have other people with leads. Other times they would have nothing new to offer, or she'd arrive to find no merchants present. Twice she had to use her sensory trick to find nearby clusters of chakra to locate other villages due to a lack of leads.

But eventually, the effort paid off. On the ninth day, Sute finally found it.

The nameless village was in a more mountainous region, almost nestled within a valley near the foot of two rugged mountains. The buildings were all simple and rustic, with wooden roofs and most using curtains instead of doors, and surrounded by fences crafted from tall bamboo stalks. As Sute stood on a high cliffside above the village and viewed the sign with a yellow rabbit jumping over a moon, she felt a wide smile spread across her face.

She didn't enter the village itself just yet, keeping to the fringes. "He didn't live in the village proper," she murmured to herself, echoing Shiromi's words as she brushed a hand against a tree, "and the children seemed to gossip about him almost like a youkai."

Most of the chakra signatures were inside the village, with a few scattered in the surrounding area. One signature stood out though, much more clearly refined and developed than the rest. It was the first shinobi-level chakra signature she'd detected since parting ways with Gai, much stronger than the paltry civilians. Sute set course for it immediately, following an unruly sloping trail that led up the mountainside until she reached a small house.

The construction was unremarkable, a simple single-floor wooden structure that looked large enough to have perhaps three rooms. The back pressed directly against a cliffside, cutting off ways to enter or exit there. The only entrances she could see were the front door and a large window on the front, which had shutters to prevent anyone from peeking inside.

It also had a garden planted to the side sporting a variety of plants. While she didn't recognize all of them several instantly stood out, recognizing them as medicinal herbs she herself had grown and used. Some of them had been quite finicky to grow in her greenhouse, requiring a good deal of effort to cultivate them. They weren't something a casual or hobby gardener would bother with.

So he likely had medicinal training too. Another point in her favor.

She dropped the transformation as she approached. This would hopefully be the start of a long, beneficial relationship, and starting with deceit would hardly be appropriate. She knocked on the door three times and waited about a minute until it opened, revealing a man she judged to be in his late twenties. As she looked him over, only one word came to mind in Japanese: bishounen.

Pretty boy.

Rather than rough and rugged like most shinobi Sute knew, this man was beautiful. He had silky hair with a rich shade of dark red that bordered on brown, surprisingly long and pulled into a high ponytail that extended past his shoulders. His lightly tanned skin suggested a good amount of time spent outdoors, his face void of the wrinkles from age and his features sharper than most, yet almost delicate in a way.

More striking than that though were his eyes: bright neon green, the exact same shade as her own.

This was Rei. Her distant cousin.

For a moment the two just stared at each other, just soaking in each other's features as if in a trance. Then, finally, he broke the spellbound atmosphere as he took a breath. "No," he said, followed by the door promptly closing in her face.

Sute huffed quietly, more amused than irritated by the immediate dismissal. Not one to be deterred, she rapped on the door again. "I'm not going to leave just because you closed the door," she called.

"If you're looking for a heartwarming family reunion, you're at the wrong place," came the blunt reply, and that had Sute smirking. Shiromi hadn't been wrong about his lack of interest in meeting a relative.

"Good, we're on the same page then," she said. "I'm not interested in the Yorozuyo clan. I'm here to make a deal that can benefit both of us."

A few moments passed in silence before he spoke up. "Not interested."

Her eyebrows shot up. "You haven't even heard my offer."

"Don't care, not interested."

"Not even going to give me a chance?"

Rei didn't even respond this time, which was answer enough. Sute quietly huffed as she turned to walk away, accepting that she wouldn't be able to persuade him. Not right now.

That didn't mean she'd give up that easily though.

And luckily for her, this village happened to have an inn.

Sorry for the delay! Sute's cousin Rei REALLY didn't want to get to know her and I needed to push through the block around their meeting in the draft. Seriously, his trust issues bled past the fourth wall. But I FINALLY got through their meeting so I don't have to constantly edit/scrap/rearrange their initial interactions, and now I'm FINALLY able to move forward in the draft and move onto the future! I'm out of editing hell and onto fresh new territory!

On that note, anyone got any requests/suggestions for ninja for Sute to meet/encounter? Especially non-Leaf ninja and people outside the Akatsuki. I do have plans for the Akatsuki and Orochimaru. For reference, at this point it's Year 4 post-Naruto-birth, so there are still a few people alive or who have yet to defect. I have a few plans, but I'm open to any suggestions and requests~