"Second Chances in the Mist"
Chapter 1: "Rebirth in the Mist"
Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters do not belong to me by any means. Masashi Kishimoto and Shonen Jump own the series and its characters, not me.
Author's note: I am not a fan of the genre yaoi/shounen-ai in general. However, there are specific pairings that I have developed a fondness for. One of those pairings is Zabuza/Haku. They had a tragic ending in the Naruto series and I wanted to see them with a happier, or at least more hopeful, ending than what they got. So this story is my way of making it happen.
As Zabuza died, his last thought was, I'll see you soon, Haku-chan.
When the Demon of the Hidden Mist awakened, he was surrounded by ethereal blue mist.
"Where am I?" he asked.
"Relax, Momochi Zabuza," a deep yet wraithlike voice answered. "You're not in hell . . . not yet."
"Where's Haku?" Zabuza asked.
"Somewhere else," the voice replied. "Never mind your consort for now. I have an offer to make you."
"What?" Zabuza spat.
"How would you like to do it all over again?" the voice asked. "A second chance for you and Haku. A new life for you both."
"What kind of shit are you spewing?" Zabuza asked.
"It's not a lie, Zabuza," the voice responded. "I really can give you both a new life. All you have to do . . . is accept my offer."
If the voice had had a corporeal form attached to it, Zabuza would have most likely attempted to cut it down. That impulse, though, was checked by his love for Haku. As much as he hated to admit to anyone other than himself, he needed the boy much like most mortals needed air to breathe. If whoever was talking to him really could give him a second chance to be with Haku, what choice did he have . . . other than to refuse and go to hell?
"You've got a deal, motherfucker," Zabuza growled. "But if I find out you've been bullshitting me, I'll die again just so I can track you down and kill you."
"All right, then," the voice spoke. "There is a catch, though."
"What?" Zabuza asked.
"You'll be the only one to remember your past," the voice answered. "So you'll have to make him love you all over again."
"Fine," Zabuza hissed. "Long as I get to see him again, that's all I care about."
The next thing Zabuza knew, the blue mist was so bright that it was blinding. Zabuza instinctively shut his eyes . . .
. . . and opened them again to find himself in a bed.
"Ugh, what kind of freaky shit was that?" he asked himself. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up. Daylight seeped through the curtains of his room, enough for him to know that his room was sparsely decorated. There was a desk and chair, a dresser, a closet, a nightstand, and of course his bed. A look down at himself revealed that he was wearing nothing but a pair of black cotton drawstring pants.
Memories began to flow into his mind, of a rough childhood spent fighting to survive and gain respect among his peers, of graduating college early, of taking up a teaching job at a junior high school at the age of 22, and of having Haku as a student since the 8th grade.
Zabuza glanced at the clock on his nightstand, which told him in glaring green letters that he was on the verge of being late.
"Dammit," the assassin muttered and dashed into the bathroom, removing his pants and entering the shower. He turned the "COLD" knob up to maximum and stood under the icy water, quickly cleaning himself.
Five minutes later, he was dry and dressing himself. Black slacks hugged his legs, a white dress shirt covered his scarred torso, and black leather shoes encased his feet. A black tie and leather jacket completed the ensemble.
Skipping breakfast, Zabuza raced out the door of his apartment and down the stairway of his apartment building at a speed that would kill a lesser man. Once in the parking lot of his apartment complex, he stalked to his motorcycle and straddled it, revving it up and riding out onto the street at breakneck speed.
He made it to Konoha Junior High just before the tardy bell rang. Walking inside, he was greeted by a silver-haired young teacher wearing a patch over his left eye.
"Ohayo, Zabuza-san," he greeted amiably.
"What do you want, Kakashi?" Zabuza growled.
"Just to inform you that your class is waiting patiently for you," Hatake Kakashi replied with that same amiable tone. His voice dropped lower, almost conspiratorially as he added, "Especially Haku."
Zabuza growled again and stalked to his first class, which was Japanese History. At the moment, he recalled that they were covering the role of ninja in Japan's history.
"Morning, class," he growled when he entered.
"Morning, Momochi-sensei," the class greeted back.
Zabuza immediately noticed Haku, who was as feminine as ever, to the point of being dressed in the girl's uniform instead of the standard boy's uniform. Despite the lack of feminine curves, Haku filled out the uniform quite well, he silently remarked.
"Can anyone tell me a myth surrounding the ninja?" Zabuza asked.
"That they had special powers?" one of the students piped up.
"That's one," Zabuza replied. "Anyone else?"
"That they always wore black and carried swords?" Haku suggested.
"Yes," Zabuza confirmed. "We are going to dispel those myths here in this class. First of all, ninja did not have special powers. They simply made it look as though they did through deception, as a form of psychological warfare."
"Psychological warfare," another student, recognized by Zabuza as Uchiha Sasuke, echoed, gazing intently at him.
"Yeah," Zabuza answered. "You see, psychological warfare is what happens when you take advantage of your opponent's mental hang-ups to either make him back down or make a serious mistake that grants you the opening you need to finish him off."
The class said nothing, allowing Zabuza to continue.
"Ninja did not wear black. They simply wore whatever colors would enable them to blend into their environment. Since many ninja made their kills in the forest, they wore forest colors so as to camouflage themselves. If ninja were to operate in modern times, they most likely would wear black because they'd operate at night and not in the day where they could be seen by other people.
"Ninja sometimes used swords, but not all the time. If a ninja were to disguise himself as a merchant, would a merchant carry a sword?"
"No," Haku replied. "The merchant would most likely carry a dagger that could be concealed on his person for self-defense."
"Correct, Haku-chan," Zabuza stated.
As the class went on, Zabuza noticed that while Haku took notes, his soulful dark eyes kept traveling up to lock on him.
Is this reincarnation of Haku attracted to me? he wondered. No, he's probably just paying attention to what I'm saying. Still, if he is attracted to me, it'll go a long way toward my mission.
Eventually, class was over and Zabuza was on his way to the next class he had to teach, as in Japanese schools, it was the teachers that switched classes instead of the students. If his new memories served him, this next class would be a pain.
In the next class, he spotted a very aggravatingly familiar face. This face sported azure eyes and three whisker-like markings on the cheeks, as well as wild blond hair on the head.
At the moment, Zabuza was teaching the students the English language. Naruto kept interrupting it by writing perverted words.
"Naruto-kun . . . will you stop that?" he asked for what had to be the tenth time this day.
"Stop what?" Naruto asked with a wicked glint in his eye.
"Writing perverted words," Zabuza answered grimly.
"Why?" Naruto asked. "They're part of the English language, too, aren't they?"
"Yes, but that doesn't mean we speak or write them in school," Zabuza answered in his most menacingly condescending voice. All of his students knew that when he used that voice he meant business.
"Uh-huh," Naruto spoke in an almost bored voice.
Zabuza growled and stalked back to his desk, from which he continued to teach the class . . . until he made the mistake of asking Naruto to read page 46 out loud. In predictably unpredictable fashion, Naruto twisted the beginning paragraph of that page, reading it so that it sounded like this:
"Taku gaped with awe when he saw Miya slowly reveal her womanly treasures to him. He drooled visibly when he saw her tits –"
"NARUTO-KUN!" Zabuza roared. "For that, you're going to write a short essay about the English language . . ."
"Sounds easy," Naruto cracked, only to catch the bone-chilling smirk on Zabuza's face.
". . . in English," Zabuza finished.
"What?" Naruto uttered.
"If your command of the English language is such that you can recite pornography to the class, then you should have no problem writing it," Zabuza spoke with that same frightening smirk still on his face. "Two full pages. After school."
"Shit!" Naruto exclaimed.
"Three pages," Zabuza amended.
Undeterred by this, Naruto prepared a spit wad and launched it at Zabuza through a straw while the teacher-slash-assassin had his back turned. To his surprise, Zabuza simply moved his head out of the way without even looking.
"How did you do that?" the blond asked.
"Four pages," Zabuza replied without even turning to look at Naruto. "Class dismissed."
Zabuza walked out the door and to the gymnasium. Looking through the plate-glass window of the door, he saw the boys' group climbing the twin ropes two at a time while the girls' group played volleyball. His eyes locked on Haku, who was currently climbing one of the ropes. He watched appreciatively as the cross-dresser's slim, toned legs flexed, exposed by the girl's gym shorts he wore.
"Observing Haku-chan again, Zabuza-san?" the gratingly amiable voice of Kakashi asked.
Zabuza didn't bother looking at the other teacher. "Fuck off, Kakashi."
"Now is that language to be using in a school?" Kakashi asked mockingly.
"I should . . ." Zabuza started to say, only to cut himself off when he spotted another familiar face in the gym. It was the useless pink-haired kunoichi brat Haruno Sakura . . . and dressed quite fetchingly in the girl's gym uniform. He chuckled evilly. "I know why you're here, Kakashi."
Kakashi just snorted. "What would you know of my reasons for being here?"
"Sakura-chan," Zabuza answered, drawing out the honorific. "She'll never notice you in a hundred years, Hatake. Not so long as she's obsessed with her 'darling Sasuke-kun.'"
"We'll be late to our classes if we keep talking like this," Kakashi stated, changing the subject.
"I suppose," Zabuza agreed, he and Kakashi parting company to make it to their respective classes.
Eventually, the time for lunch came and Zabuza found Kakashi in the teacher's lounge, reading a book. A cursory peep at the cover revealed the book in question to be Icha Icha Paradise, the English translation being Make-Out Paradise.
"Why do you insist on reading that trash?" Zabuza inquired.
"To find out what happens next," Kakashi answered.
"No, I think it's just because you're a pervert," Zabuza grumbled.
"Hi, Momochi-san," a dark-haired woman clad in a blouse and skirt that were two different shades of blue greeted politely.
Zabuza spared her a grunt and a "Kurenai." He slumped into a seat and removed a metal lunchbox from his bag, opening it to reveal a utilitarian meal. He ate it with little haste. It didn't taste good or bad to him; he'd long ago ceased caring about those things. He just ate because it was necessary, because his body needed fuel every so often and would give out on him if it didn't get it.
"Gee, you're grouchy," Yuhi Kurenai remarked.
Zabuza didn't bother looking at her, although he could hear her move on to conversing with Asuma and Maito Gai. Once he finished his meal, he sent dagger-like stares of death to Kakashi's silver head, while Umino Iruka attempted to draw the patch-wearing teacher from his book. The most hateful thing about the patch-wearing teacher, other than his nigh-unflappable demeanor, was that they actually had something in common in this life. They were both in love with their students, Zabuza with Haku and Kakashi with Sakura. Neither one could do anything about it, as even though Haku and Sakura were legally old enough to consent to sex, any relationship with them until after they'd passed the entrance exams and entered high school would be seen as an exploitation of the teacher-student bond. Fortunately for them, no one else knew of their feelings but them.
Zabuza snorted softly. He could live with the consequences of being found out, as he didn't give a flying fuck what anyone thought of him. As for Kakashi, he valued Kurenai, Asuma, and Gai as friends and Zabuza knew full well that the silver-haired teacher would be crushed if any of them were to think any less of him because of his feelings for his student.
After Iruka had moved away from Kakashi and to his own lunch, Zabuza curiously peered over Kakashi's shoulder and read a passage concerning a beautiful student's attempt to seduce her teacher. With a snicker, he commented, "Wishing Haruno-chan would do that to you, Hatake?"
Kakashi didn't respond, only continuing to read. Zabuza chose not to bother with him any more than that, stalking out of the teacher's lounge and going to watch the students that had chosen to eat outside. Well, that was the excuse he'd offer to anyone who happened to see him and inquire as to what he was doing. In reality, he was just watching Haku, though his eyes moved to the other students every so often so as to deflect suspicion from himself.
Haku didn't really have many friends, since most people tended to avoid him once they found out that he wasn't a girl but merely a very feminine boy who liked to wear girl's clothes. The only two people he consistently interacted with on a friendly basis were a red-haired boy named Sabaku Gaara and a pale-eyed girl named Hyuga Hinata. Gaara was extremely hot-blooded and almost insane in temperament, as to which scores of visits to the principal's office for violent behavior toward fellow students would attest. Hinata, on the other hand, was even shier than Haku, particularly where a certain troublemaker was concerned. Honestly, Zabuza didn't know what she saw in that brat.
Haku was presently sitting with Gaara and Hinata, both of whom had offered to share their food with him, the former somewhat grudgingly. Haku had refused, saying that he was fine with the food he had already.
"You should eat," Hinata insisted softly. "You're almost nothing but bone and skin."
"He probably wants to maintain his girlish figure," Gaara remarked sarcastically.
Haku cracked a slight smile.
Zabuza's deadly serious expression lightened somewhat when he caught sight of Haku's smile. The boy had smiled so rarely in the last life, mainly because of Zabuza's insistence that he was just a weapon and weapons were not supposed to smile. The assassin-cum-teacher snorted in self-derision.
He'll smile a lot more often now, he thought fiercely.
"Again with watching Yukikaze-chan, Zabuza-san?" he heard Kakashi ask from behind him.
"What the hell do you want, Kakashi?" Zabuza asked.
"You might not want to let your eyes linger on him so long, Zabuza-san," Kakashi advised. "You'll draw attention to yourself."
"Aren't you supposed to be spying on Sakura-chan?" Zabuza inquired with a sneer. "She's your personal obsession, not Haku."
Kakashi grunted, a sign of the strain of maintaining his composed demeanor.
"Why do you insist on following me around every time I go to see Haku?" Zabuza asked. "It's not like I bother you when you're stalking Sakura-chan."
"It's not stalking if you stay out in the open," Kakashi answered.
Zabuza chuckled as the bell rang. "We'd better get back before anyone starts missing us."
"Like anyone would miss you," Kakashi quipped as the two walked into the school building.
The quip was innocent enough, but it made Zabuza think. Would Haku miss me if I were to die today? He shook his head. Quit it, Zabuza. You're getting introspective again and we don't have time for that shit.
After classes were over for the day, Zabuza sat at the desk of a classroom watching Naruto struggle through the first half of his four-page English-language essay with an expression of cold self-satisfaction on his face. While Naruto wrote his essay, Zabuza looked through the papers of his Japanese History students. Haku's paper was the one he spent the longest on, admiring the boy's penmanship.
Before he knew it, Naruto had handed him his essay. Zabuza looked through it. "Not bad. Your handwriting leaves a lot to be desired, but at least I can understand what you're saying. In the future, keep the perverted language outside of school."
"Yeah, yeah," Naruto grumbled. "Can I go now?"
"Sure," Zabuza replied. "If I have to see you here again, I'll make it worse. Got it?"
"Got it," Naruto griped before walking out.
Zabuza was about to leave the classroom when Haku walked in.
"Momochi-sensei," he greeted.
"Haku-chan," Zabuza greeted. "What brings you here?"
"I . . . wanted to see you," Haku admitted shyly.
"About?" Zabuza prompted.
"I'm having a hard time with the names of the weapons ninja used," Haku replied.
"Kunai were short daggers with diamond-shaped blades and hilts with loops on the ends," Zabuza stated. "Shuriken were typically four-pronged throwing weapons. Typically, such weapons were meant merely to disable and stun, but they could also be used as killing weapons. You ever heard of the kisarigama?"
"Ki . . . sari . . . gama?" Haku echoed hesitantly.
"Beautiful weapon," Zabuza continued. "A sickle with a chain attached. You used the chain to ensnare your enemy and then you went in for the kill with the sickle."
"If you say so," Haku spoke.
Zabuza carefully studied the young man while making a pretense of casualness. He had clearly frightened him with his talk of the kisarigama, but at the same time, he could tell that he was intrigued.
"If you're having trouble, I could tutor you," Zabuza offered. "I mean, entrance exams are coming up and you're probably worried about getting into a good high school."
"Domo arigato gozaimasu, Momochi-sensei," Haku spoke. "I would like that very much."
"All right," Zabuza said. "We'll start tomorrow after class. Right now, you probably need to get home."
Haku walked back to his home in an almost-dizzy state.
Momochi-sensei offered to tutor me, he thought. Does he like me? The young man shook his head to clear it of such foolish thoughts. No, he's my teacher and he doesn't seem like the kind to be interested in a relationship with anyone, least of all a cross-dressing boy.
Haku found himself in front of a large two-story house painted beige-and-red. The house looked like an ordinary house and it was, aside from the fact that it was home to youths that were rendered outcasts by Japanese society for their sexual orientation. A young woman named Mitarashi Anko had started it recently to show those young men and women that there were people who were willing to accept them.
A sad fact of the Japanese culture was that if the Japanese didn't like something, they simply pretended it wasn't there unless they were confronted by it. A homosexual or bisexual person could act straight or simply not exhibit their attraction to the same gender in front of others and that would be fine. A boy who dressed in girl's clothes, on the other hand, constantly exhibited his deviance in front of others and that had been why Haku's parents finally threw him out of their house.
Thankfully, I found these people, Haku thought as he entered the house.
"Hi, Haku-chan," a young woman with spiky dark hair greeted.
"Hi, Anko-san," Haku greeted. Without a further word, he walked upstairs to his room, sitting at his desk and preparing to study. Five minutes later, he heard a knock on the door. "Come in."
A girl with spiky blond hair entered the room. "Hey, Haku-chan. Mind if I help you with that homework?"
"Go ahead, Temari-senpai," Haku replied.
Temari walked to Haku and peered over his shoulder while he did his algebra homework. "Actually, x equals 6."
Haku blushed. "No wonder this problem was confusing me. Thanks, Temari-senpai."
"You're welcome, Haku-chan," Temari responded. She sighed. "I'm still having a hard time believing you're a guy."
"What's there not to believe?" Haku replied. "I was born with a penis. No getting around it, even if I do look and sound like a girl."
"Not to mention dress like one," Temari added.
"I like girl's clothes," Haku admitted. "They're more comfortable."
"Just don't get in the wrong section of the train when you're going to school," Temari remarked. "Plenty of old perverts there that'd love to rub up against someone as pretty as you."
Haku shuddered. "Thank you for putting that image in my head, Temari-senpai."
At least, the older girl had the decency to look embarrassed. "Sorry, Haku-chan."
Haku just smiled warmly at her before resuming his homework. Temari ceased hovering over him and turned on the CD player, immediately hearing the music of Björk.
"Nice," she remarked.
Temari was the elder sister of Gaara and along with him one of the few friends Haku had. She'd been quite shocked when she'd found out Haku was a boy, shocked enough to verify it by groping his chest and groin, much to the embarrassment of both Gaara and Haku. She got over it quickly enough, although she had a bad habit of dragging him to exotic lingerie stores just to tease him.
That night, Zabuza opened his closet and reached past his clothes to pull out a black sleeveless shirt and pants, both made of motorcycle leathers. He quickly donned them, along with black open-toed boots and black-spotted off-white arm-covers that buckled at the ends. He wrapped white gauze around his face, concealing everything all the way up to his eyes. He tied a black forehead protector around his forehead and twisted it so that the metal bar faced his left. He strapped a pouch of kunai and shuriken to his right thigh and finally, he attached a large sword to his back.
Momochi Zabuza was no more for this night.
This night, the Demon of the Hidden Mist went hunting.
The Demon's hunt had him stalking a businessman named Tazuna. Gato, the man who had hired him, wanted Tazuna dead because Tazuna had bought out the R & D division of his business and he was going to use his technology to improve the hospitals. Naturally, a man as vile and self-centered as Gato didn't want his inventions being used to help others. So he'd called upon the Demon of the Hidden Mist to kill Tazuna. Once Tazuna was dead, Gato could take his company and regain control of his technology.
The Demon shadowed Tazuna's limo from the rooftops of the city. Fortunately for him, Tazuna's driver was taking sparsely populated back roads to avoid traffic and get him to his destination quickly.
Good, he thought. This makes my job a lot easier.
Pumping chakra into his legs to grant himself extra speed, the Demon ran ahead of the limousine and jumped off the rooftop, somersaulting and landing in front of the limousine.
"What the fuck?" the driver uttered in shock as he slammed the brakes.
With a few quick hand motions, the Demon performed a technique that transformed the moisture in the air into a blinding mist. With everyone else's vision obscured, he somersaulted above the limo and crashed into the backseat through the sunroof.
"Who the hell are you?" Tazuna asked.
"The man who's gonna kill you," the Demon replied, casually lounging on the seat across from Tazuna. The businessman's two bodyguards reached for their guns. "You two oughtta be careful. Ya miss me, ya might hit your boss." He knocked on the glass partition separating the backseat from the front seat. "After all, this is bulletproof, right?"
One of the bodyguards growled softly.
The Demon of the Hidden Mist reached into his pouch and pulled out two kunai, throwing them at the bodyguards. The kunai sliced their throats and both guards slumped over, bleeding to death from their throats.
"Should have hired better guards," he remarked. "Now get out of the car. I can't kill you proper with so little space."
Tazuna sat there in silent defiance.
"Oh, you wanna play like that, huh?" the Demon remarked. "Brave guy." He reached behind him and withdrew his large sword, thrusting it upward so that it penetrated the roof of the limousine. One swift motion later, the back of the limo had been torn in half.
Tazuna ran for his life and the Demon followed. "Run all you like, little pig," he hissed under his breath. "I'll still find you."
"Is that so?" a familiar, annoyingly confident voice asked.
The Demon stopped in his tracks, confronted by a man in navy blue Kevlar mesh and a dull green vest. His face was concealed all the way up to his eyes by a navy blue mask and his left eye was concealed by his forehead protector. All that could be seen of him was a dark right eye and silver hair.
"Copy Ninja," the Demon snarled.
"Demon of the Hidden Mist," the Copy Ninja retorted calmly.
"Get the fuck out of my way!" the Demon of the Hidden Mist roared.
"I think not," the Copy Ninja replied. "After all, I was hired to protect this man."
The Demon chuckled. "Not like you can copy my techniques with my mist blocking your vision."
"I don't need to," the Copy Ninja said. "After all, I've already copied a thousand." He withdrew three kunai from the pouch strapped to his thigh and threw them at the Demon, who dodged and slashed at him with his large sword. The Copy Ninja blocked his slash with a kunai and kicked him in the solar plexus, causing his foe to stumble back.
With a few more hand motions, the Demon created a dragon out of water and sent it after the Copy Ninja, who retaliated with a water dragon of his own.
"Damn it," the Demon muttered under his breath. "Forgot that this bastard already copied that technique."
The two water dragons clashed, canceling each other out in a huge splash. The Demon created twenty water clones and they all swarmed the Copy Ninja, attacking him with their swords. While the silver-haired ninja was distracted, his opponent chased down Tazuna . . .
. . . only to be halted by the Copy Ninja.
"Damn you," the Demon of the Hidden Mist spat. "You're using shadow clones to fight my water clones, aren't you?"
"How astute," the Copy Ninja answered calmly, pulling out three kunai in one hand and three shuriken in the other. He threw the six projectile weapons at the Demon, who blocked them all with his sword and charged at him.
"Quit wasting my time," he snarled as the Copy Ninja blocked his sword with a kunai. His eyes suddenly widened in realization.
That's the whole fucking point of this exercise! the Demon silently roared. He's delaying me! The longer I fight him, the more time Tazuna has to get away!
He swung his sword in an arc and the Copy Ninja ducked, enabling the Demon to jump over him and break into a chakra-fueled sprint. The Copy Ninja sprinted after him and the two threw shuriken and kunai at each other as they ran along parallel courses. By the time they exhibited the Demon's field of mist, Tazuna was already gone.
"Fuck," the Demon uttered.
"My job is done," the Copy Ninja stated. "By now, Tazuna is on his way back home. And your boss Gato will certainly not be happy that you've failed your task. Of course, that's an understatement. Later days."
With that farewell, the Copy Ninja vanished into seeming nothingness.
The Copy Ninja was right about one thing, the Demon of the Hidden Mist mused. Saying that Gato would be unhappy with his failure was an understatement. The scumbag would probably send his thugs after him and while the Demon was very certain he could defeat them, he was also certain that he didn't want to deal with that stress. Apparently, his only choice was to lay low for the time being and place his full energies in being Momochi Zabuza, schoolteacher than split them between that and being Momochi Zabuza, the Demon of the Hidden Mist.
As he made his way back home, the Demon thought, At least I'll have more time to be with Haku.
End Notes: So what did you think of my first attempt at shounen-ai/yaoi? Not too badly, I hope. Personally, I'm more of a shoujo-ai/yuri guy, but there are some shounen-ai pairings I'm fond of, Zabuza/Haku being one of them. That's why I'm writing this story.
Why are there ninja in this new life? I'll explain in the next chapter. If you're wondering if Zabuza and the "Copy Ninja" are the only ninja in this story, I'll explain that, too, in the next chapter.
As for ages, the ages of the adult ninja are the same as in the show, but Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke, Hinata, and Gaara are 14-15, while Haku is still 15 and Temari is 17.
That's all out of me. Feel free to tell me how much you liked or hated this story.