The main lesson I've learned out of all of this is to not pay much attention to rumors. Damn things will get you killed.
I suppose the start of this story lies in that night, over twelve years ago, when the Nine-Tailed Fox decided to practice 'Urban Renewal no Jutsu' on the lovely village of Konoha. I wasn't there, of course, but the stories say that the Fourth Hokage invented a new technique, an incredibly powerful jutsu that utterly destroyed the Kyuubi.
Of course, you can imagine that the other hidden villages became intensely interested in the means by which such a feat was accomplished. After expending sufficient resources (i.e. buying the local drunks some sake), they discovered what really happened. Instead of destroying the demon, the Fourth Hokage was forced to seal the demon away, inside a newborn baby. The child would, over time, absorb the demon's chakra, neutralizing it, and would be known as the hero of the village for finally vanquishing the demon. Rah, rah, rah.
It also meant that this child would have the potential to become an incredibly powerful shinobi… perhaps an instrument of destruction only slightly less powerful than the Kyuubi itself. Pleasant thought, eh?
Well, it was pretty unpleasant for the other great ninja nations, especially the ones that were not too friendly with Konoha. When spies reported that the Hidden Village of Sand, Sunakagure, had duplicated this feat, they became even more nervous. There were only so many of the Biju still roaming around, and not all of them were easily located.
Pretty soon there was a race on. Nobody knew how powerful these 'Jinchuuriki' could be, but nobody wanted to be caught without one if the answer was "very".
Iwakagure, the 'Village Hidden among the Rocks' was no exception to this. The Tsuchikage was an ambitious bastard, and he wasn't about to let Konoha or Suna hold any advantage over him. It didn't take long before his spies were able to uncover the general means by which the Biju were bound.
His first attempt was a less than stellar success. Luring Hachimata, the eight-tailed dragon, down out of the mountains was the easy part, even though it did eventually cost him thirty shinobi. Either the lives of his men meant little to him, or the Iwa ninja sucked so badly that he wouldn't miss them much.
But binding such a beast into a seal was another matter entirely.
He knew he needed an expert on seals to enact the rite, so his agents turned the Land of Earth upside down and shook it. Hard. What they found was an itinerant monk who had an encyclopedic knowledge of chakra manipulations, not to mention being pretty spry for an old geezer. Of course, the Tsuchikage had his own 'special requirements' for the ritual. He wanted elements added to the seal that would make this weapon easily controlled. It might make the child little more than an emotionless automaton, but what did he care?
Now, if you're wondering if I'm portraying the illustrious Tsuchikage, leader of Iwakagure, the most powerful ninja in all of the Land of Earth, a man who made his enemies quake in their boots… blah, blah, blah, and so on as a ruthless, treacherous bastard, well… you'd be right. Before his rise to power, there were several small independent shinobi clans that coexisted with Iwakagure in the Land of Earth. Within ten years of his ascension, they were no more. Their members all disappeared, and their techniques 'mysteriously' appeared within the Tsuchikage's libraries.
Now, as you can imagine, exterminating a ninja clan down to the very last member is easier said than done. At least one of those ninjas, an expert on seals and ofuda, saw the 'writing on the wall' (forgive the pun) before it was his turn and decided on a career change. Shortly thereafter, the Land of Earth had one less ninja… and one more monk.
Now, this 'monk' was an honest cuss, as honest as only people who have nothing left to lose can be, and he eventually admitted to me that he originally planned to make the seal as ordered… only with a few intentional, minute imperfections. Hachimata would be able to break free within a few weeks or months – right in the middle of the Tsuchikage's fortress within Iwakagure.
The only problem with this plan was the old man going soft at the last moment. He didn't have a problem with the sacrifice initially powering the seal – that was a pair of Rock Jonins who knew too much. The Tsuchikage could kill all of those he wanted. But the vessel of the binding was, by necessity, a helpless newborn plucked from a brothel. And that was where his remaining scruples intervened.
When the sealing was completed, the Tsuchikage immediately knew something was wrong. The mind-control elements were obviously not present when he examined the seal. His jonins seized the old man, and one of them recognized the missing ninja they had sought so long ago. At this point, the old man laughed and pointed out a few "truths" before the Tsuchikage could do anything rash.
The old man told the furious kage that no, the seal did not include the requested mind-controlling elements. If he'd been stupid enough to do as the man wanted, the demon within the seal could also use those elements to seize control of the host. Furthermore, if he tried to dispose of the babe, the moment of its death would mark the release of Hachimata. And once bound by such a seal, it was impossible to use the same one again, so the dragon would therefore be unstoppable. Old man was pretty good at lying through his teeth.
Enraged and humiliated by this betrayal, the Tsuchikage had both the old man and the infant consigned to the chakra-shielded cells in the deepest dungeon beneath his fortress. At first they were held while the Tsuchikage tried to think of a way out of his dilemma. No matter where the child was murdered, the demon would know where it had been sealed. It would likely return to that location to seek vengeance. The 'monk' was kept alive in case his blood or chakra was needed for a second ritual that might resolve their problems.
The absolute master of Iwakagure was still struggling with this dilemma, and was about to risk calling the old monk's bluff, when his jailors made their weekly report. One casual statement caught both his ear and his inspiration. The guards mentioned how the old man was taking care of the child and the ruthless leader's eyes lit up. They would allow this interaction to continue, so as the child grew up it would become attached to the old monk. Then the Jinchuuriki would do their bidding to keep the old man safe and secure. They would still have the services of Hachimata for the inevitable war with Konoha.
The Tsuchikage was so pleased with this plan that he managed to go three whole years without bragging about it to the old man who thought he'd deceived the "greatest" of the kages.
Of course, I know about this because I'm the one that grew up in an underground prison cell with a weird tattoo on my stomach and a crotchety old man telling me what to do. This seemed pretty normal to me, but the old man liked to drop hints about how I came to be… and, I think, to awaken a desire within me to see the outside world. It wasn't until a lot later that I realized he meant, 'without him'.
My earliest memories are sitting at the old bastard's feet, listening to him tell stories and scratch himself. Hygiene was a little hard to come by down there, and it was a good thing I was an extremely healthy baby. Otherwise, I might not have made it. Of course, with what I know now, I realize why I didn't get sick nearly as often as I should have. Even living in that dank hole.
Anyway, the old man loved to talk, so I just listened a lot. After a while I began to talk back. He didn't like that at first, but gradually I began to ask better and better questions. I'll give the crusty old bastard this – he never talked down to me or used baby-talk like I see some people use. What the hell is the purpose of that, anyway?
But mostly he talked, and I listened. I would get up and walk around when I got stiff, and he would correct my posture and the way I walked. The special maximum-security cell wasn't large, but it did at least have enough room to move around. I suppose I wouldn't have been much use as a weapon if I couldn't even walk.
As the years passed and I gradually grew taller, the old man focused my overabundant energy into special kinds of movement. I was halfway through my first kata before he explained what Taijutsu was. The idea of combat kind of threw me at first. Who could I fight down here, except for him? But when you're young and there's nothing else to do, you stop asking questions after a while.
I suppose, in one sense of the word, I've had little to no formal training. But in reality, I've trained every day of my life from the day I first walked to the evening I saw my first sunset.
This isn't to suggest that the Rock shinobi left us completely alone. Every so often the old man would dump our food into the waste pot as soon as it was delivered. Other times he would begin breathing very shallowly, and hold his hand over my mouth and nose as well. His hand would feel funny, making my face itch where the skin touched, until he let me go. It wasn't until much later that I realized he'd detected drugs or poisons in our food, or even the air itself. Canny old bastard.
When I grew tired of moving, the stories continued. The old man told tales of his youth, and his life as a shinobi. I'd acquired a very narrow perspective on life in this mythical 'outside' he kept going on about, but becoming a shinobi sounded like something interesting to do. So, I began asking for more and more details on how they did things. He seemed encouraged by this, and sometimes even got up from his bench to demonstrate things… though this happened less and less often as the years passed.
Though my lessons were primarily oral, he also insisted that I learn to read and write. Let me assure you that you pay a lot more attention to your brushwork (actually a lock of torn-off hair and a flat piece of floor) when the only pigment available is your own blood. Fortunately, I could nick a finger with a sharp edge of stone and it would heal up almost before I was done. I noticed the old man avidly watching this one day and asked him why. He wouldn't answer though, and said he would explain more some day. As the years passed, he began to teach me about special kinds of writing, and he taught me more about seals and sealing techniques than I thought it was possible to know.
This continued until a few months ago. He taught, I learned, and I would have been content to do so forever… until the old man acquired a ragged cough that wouldn't go away. I knew something was wrong, because the pace of our lessons abruptly increased. He'd begun showing me some basic chakra control exercises, and I enjoyed hanging from the ceiling by my feet to show off. He insisted, though, that I never do this when one of the other people was around. He called them guards, but I thought of them almost as servants. They brought us food and water, and carried away the waste pot… what else could they be? But I also noticed that he breathed very shallowly while they were around, and thus almost never coughed. Later I would realize that he didn't want them to know he was ill.
I grew uneasy as the lessons quickened in pace. He spoke faster, sometimes stumbling over his words until he broke down in a coughing frenzy. At the same time, the fascinating things I was learning were a clever distraction from my worries.
Finally, I awoke half-way through our sleeping period, sensing something was wrong. The old man's breathing was harsh, and labored. His complexion was pale, the lips colored with a bluish tinge. He gestured for me to come closer, and in a halting whisper, he told me all the remaining details of how I came to be. He said that he would be dying soon, and wished to apologize for my life thus far. I didn't even really understand what he was saying, but he was so agitated that I forgave him on the spot, for whatever he might have done. He smiled, and the years seemed to fall off of his face for a moment as his claw-like hand tightened on my forearm. Then he went into another spasm of coughing that left his cracked lips red with blood.
"I've told you everything I could think of, taught you everything I know," he whispered, "When I'm gone, I want you to sit there like you are meditating, but with your eyes wide open. Don't respond to them, no matter what they say or do, until they open the door to take my body out of here. Then, I want you to run. Run your ass off, boy! Don't ever let them catch you and put you in a cage again. Get away from this shit pile of a village and leave Earth Country far behind you."
"Where will I go?" I asked, my mind shuddering back from the idea of him dying and me leaving. This was our home!
"In Konoha, there is another like you, one that helped save their village when they bound the Kyuubi. He shows that a Jinchuuriki can be a hero. Go there, to the Land of Fire, and you'll get far better treatment than you ever will here." Then the old man's haggard face grew fierce again. "Let the Tsuchikage's weapon leave and join with his enemies. Live well, boy, that's the best revenge!"
And then he was seized with another coughing fit that left him unconscious when it was done. His breathing grew slower and slower and then finally stopped.
It wasn't hard for me to don a wide-eyed stare as I suddenly felt alone, for the first time in my life. The guard who brought our food called out to the old man, and then swore when he didn't respond. He tried to get my attention in a softer voice, but I did not move. It was almost an hour later that a group of six men arrived, more than I had ever seen before. I felt my pulse quicken as I realized they did intend to actually open the door. What they needed to do could not be done with the small sliding panel.
Sure enough, a large metallic key was produced, with no small flourish. It was an eternity after it was fitted into the lock that a loud clank was emitted from the door. With a spray of fine red dust, the door to our cell opened for the first time in my memory. I almost lost control of my face, which would have been disastrous, when the blood began to pound through my veins. My muscles began to tremble and I was suddenly bursting with energy. The chakra suppression field on the cell must have been disengaged. The old man had explained the theory behind it, but I'd never felt the difference it made.
I surged to my feet and charged forward in one motion. I ran between the guards for the most part, nudging a couple off-balance. They were so shocked that I was out in the hallway before any of them even shouted.
I ran up the stairs, feeling my legs stretch at the unaccustomed motions. The old man guessed we were at least five levels underground, so I didn't begin checking doors until after the fifth landing.
Finally, I heard the sounds of pursuit approaching, so I slipped through a door into a darkened hallway. I padded over the absurdly soft floor mats, my calloused feet making no sounds. Since I was only wearing a filthy pair of pants at the time, I had no chance of blending in with the guards or anyone else. My only chance lay in a rapid escape. The rapid footfalls echoing up the stairs drew closer, so I pushed against the closest doorway.
It took a frustrated moment for me to realize the door actually slid to one side, but I didn't waste time cursing. Slipping through, I found myself in another hallway. There was a window halfway down the right-hand wall, and I stared out of it in wonder.
It's pretty useless to describe what looking at the sky for the first time was like, not for someone who has come to take it for granted. So I won't. Let's just say I lost track of a couple of moments as my brain rearranged itself. The window was sealed shut, so I drew back my fist and prepared to shatter it.
A strange sound reached my ears and I hesitated. It wasn't a particularly smart thing to do, and I've wondered how things might have been different if I'd been able to control my curiosity.
As I said though, I was disoriented and behaving rather stupidly, so I followed my ears to the opposite doorway. It slid open and I saw a young person that I guessed was a girl.
She looked a year or two younger than me, though she was even smaller in stature, with short red hair and bright green eyes. She was dressed in a yellow tunic and leggings. The green of her eyes, however, was heavily veined with red, and it was obvious she'd been crying. I was no expert on the 'softer' emotions, but even I could tell she was upset. Even discounting from her coloration, there was something very odd about this girl.
I, on the other hand, was terrified. If she cried out, the guards would find me in seconds. I was still pretty buzzed from being out of the chakra suppression field, so when I jumped backwards, the seal on my stomach glowed green for a second.
The girl's eyes widened, and her mouth dropped open. But instead of screaming, she said, in a wondering whisper, "You've got one just like me."
I didn't think anything else could knock me off balance that day, but I was wrong. Rooted to the floor, I stared as she modestly raised the hem of her tunic and screwed her eyes shut. The skin on her stomach was pale, though not as pale as mine. The orangish-red lines of her seal stood out in dark contrast as they flared into visibility, wavered, and then disappeared.
Loud footsteps echoed, coming from the hall I'd just left. My head snapped toward the window, but the girl silently took my hand. "You want to get out?" she whispered.
I nodded urgently and she pulled me into the room. I quietly closed the door behind me as she cracked another door and carefully peered into another room. "This is my secret room," she explained, her voice just as quiet. "Follow me."
She led me through more twists and turns than I could keep track of. But true to her word, we were soon slipping out of a servant's entrance and into a back alley. I glanced up at the towering building we had just exited, the monument to the Tsuchikage's ego, and my home for the last decade or so. I said goodbye to the old man and prepared to fulfill his last command.
But the girl didn't let go of my hand. "Take me with you," she said, a crease forming between her eyebrows as she frowned.
"I have to run away…" I started to explain, but then stopped. There really wasn't time.
"I know," she said. "I overheard them talking. I… I'm not really his daughter, I'm just a tool to them, some… thing they're raising to be loyal. My whole life is one big fat lie! I don't want to ever see them again!" Her last words came out in a hiss, and for a second I thought the sun was reflected in her eyes. Then I knew better.
"All right," I agreed, wondering if I would regret this later. "But it's going to be dangerous, and we have to move fast."
"I bet I can run faster than you," she challenged.
"We'll see," I said as I took off down the alleyway.
We tried to stay out of sight at first, but we weren't really dressed or equipped for stealth. We were halfway around the marketplace before someone spotted us. In seconds a cry went up and the two of us ran like the wind.
Our pursuers were only slowly gaining on us. The shinobi were bigger, and maybe a little faster, but we were smaller and more maneuverable. And probably better motivated. The girl proved true to her words and I wondered if we might actually be able to make it when disaster struck.
Bad luck and our last turn led us into a dead end. The pursuit was right behind us, so I only had a moment to shove the girl behind a pile of crates before I leaped to the top of a wall so I could start running across the rooftops.
Of course, we'd stayed on the street level for a reason. No sooner had I cleared the awnings and debris than a pair of bolos flew through the air and wrapped around my arms and legs. I fell to the rooftop, rolled off, and landed hard on the pavement. To my dismay, I ended up not too far from the girl's hiding place, but there was nothing I could do about that, other than hope she kept her mouth shut. Better at least one of us got away from those assholes.
Anyway, the Tsuchikage's men didn't appreciate the exercise we'd given them, and they let me know with their hands, feet, and assorted sharp implements. I was a bloody mess by the time they were done with me, and I could do little more than twitch and bleed as they lifted me by my feet and dragged me off.
On the plus side, the girl hadn't lost her nerve, and was still hidden… though I thought I heard her gasp once when my arm was cut open. With the eye that wasn't swollen shut, I glared up at the five shinobi that dragged me through the streets. What was up with those stupid one-sleeved uniforms, anyway? Old man was right, they were a bunch of losers. I could have sworn there were six of them when they were beating on me, but my memory was a little fuzzy.
Anyway, the fashion victims soon grew tired of dragging me, and I was far too filthy for them to want to carry, so they decided to kill the "pasty-skinned freak" on the spot and let the villagers clean up the mess. The passers-by didn't say a word during this discussion; they just looked away or stared through us like we weren't even there. They were deciding who would get the honor when a messenger showed up with orders. Underneath the steadily-decreasing pain, I was vaguely amused when they learned I was to be captured, not killed. A member of the Tsuchikage's household had gone missing as well, and she was to be returned unharmed at all costs. I wondered if they hoped I knew something about her whereabouts, or if they were actually demented enough to believe I'd ever serve them.
My time sense was a little out of whack, but I slowly began to realize that I was hurting a lot less than I was earlier. While the Rock Shinobi argued about whose fault it was that they'd disobeyed orders, I was slowly loosening the cord around my arms – the one around my knees was removed when they took me for a drag,
"Where's Tetsuo?" one of the shinobi abruptly asked, looking around.
"I don't know," another one answered. "Lazy bastard didn't even help us drag this piece of shit."
"Idiot!" the first one said, slapping the other on the head. "We're supposed to be looking for a little girl."
"Shit!" more than one voice hissed.
The blatant fear in that expletive made my blood run cold as four of the five Shinobi took off running back the way we'd come. Had this Tetsuo creep heard her or something?
The remaining ninja guarding me looked a little sick and I felt my stomach tighten as well. I was still covered with blood, but aside from a little stiffness, I didn't hurt that much. Minutes seemed like hours, but the bolo cord was almost untied behind me when a loud explosion made everyone look up.
Screams erupted as a brilliant ball of fire rose over the marketplace. Eyes wide, my guard stared at it, facing the same direction as his companions had gone. The bolo cord was around his throat, and my knee was pressed into the small of his back before he even realized I was moving. The fleeing shopkeepers didn't try to stop me. In fact, they gave me a wide berth as I hauled back on the bolo, chakra burning in my aching muscles, until I felt the shinobi's trachea collapse.
As I eased the body to the ground, I broke the neck with a sharp twist, just to be sure. Then I took off running in the opposite direction as the panicked civilians – toward the growing fire.
There were muffled bangs as more flammable wares exploded, but nothing to equal that first eruption. I began dodging burning embers and detouring around flaming wreckage as I grew closer to the alleyway where I'd been caught. I felt sick about the little girl, and hoped she was all right. Even though she'd fairly demanded that I take her with me, it was at least partially my fault if she was hurt.
The fire was moving towards me as I approached ground zero, so I had to detour onto the roof of a stone warehouse to get past the flames. The clay roof tiles were nearly hot enough to raise blisters, and I wondered how far the fire would spread. Then I shook my head. Not my problem.
The alleyway was redolent with the sickly-sweet smell of burnt flesh. Five charred skeletons smoked on the scorched stones. The crates, bundles, and junk were all gone, reduced to a fine spray of ashes that settled in my greasy hair and coated my throat.
I winced as my feet sizzled on the hot stones. The pain numbed almost as soon as it started, and I felt the chakra around my seal circulate even faster. The cooking smell grew stronger and I was afraid to look down.
My eyes were drawn to the sole inhabitant of the alleyway. The girl stood there, her clothes gone… burned away or something. Her eyes were closed and she was shuddering so hard she could barely stand. The seal on her stomach glowed like it was made of live coals, but it was the livid bruises on her skin that made me feel sick to my stomach.
Her eyes snapped open as I approached, and I braced myself to be incinerated. An angry orange glow had replaced the brilliant green, but then it winked out. She staggered forward and I barely caught her before she hit the ground. "You're all bloody," she whispered.
I just grunted, not trusting my voice. I picked her up and was amazed at how light she was. Moving across the rooftops and using the smoke and confusion from the fire, we were able to slip out of the city without another confrontation. I wondered how many would die before the blaze was under control.
The girl passed out as soon as we were no longer in danger.
I'd never seen a tree before, so it was a little odd to be surrounded by a double handful of them. But the small grove was the first decent cover I'd seen since we left Iwakagure, and I needed to get my bearings.
I was also a little worried about the girl. She hadn't stirred much since she passed out, and I wondered if she was hurt worse than she appeared. I hope that Tetsuo bastard died screaming.
Anyway, the grove was centered on the merging of two small streams. The cool water soothed my throat, but nothing would help my conscience. I tried to drip a little water into her mouth, but that just set her to coughing. She let out a low moan and slowly sat up.
"Are you all right?" I asked. Which was a remarkably stupid question, now that I think about it.
"My stomach hurts," she whispered as she wrapped her arms around her middle.
I ground my teeth. I hoped he had time to scream really loudly. "Look, can you stay here for a minute? You can, er, get cleaned up if you want to, and I'll get us some clothes."
She dully looked down at herself. "He cut my shirt. I liked that shirt."
"I'll get you some new clothes," I promised – not that my track record was worth a shit with her. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
She just nodded. So I grunted and stood up.
Night was falling, so it wasn't that hard to sneak up on what looked to be a fairly prosperous farmstead and 'liberate' some clothes from their laundry. Funny the euphemisms you use for stealing when it's you doing the thievery. I found a dark green kimono close to my size, along with some black drawstring pants. I also stole a short, pale yellow dress and dark brown leggings that looked like they would fit the girl. I lingered long enough to steal a quartet of eggs from their chickens.
It was almost fully dark by the time I returned to the small grove of trees. I found the girl near where I'd left her, but sitting in the stream. She was chattering from the cold water and crying her eyes out, her body racked by silent sobs. I dropped the bundled clothes to the ground and sat down on the bank near her, completely at a loss as for what to do.
She jumped as I sat down, and the next thing I knew her arms were wrapped around my shins. She was shaking so hard she almost pulled me off the bank. "I thought you weren't coming back," she said miserably, then hiccupped.
I awkwardly patted her head. "You aren't getting rid of me that easily," I said, with confidence I did not feel. I wondered how often the old man had to do that with me.
She looked up at me. "Promise?" she asked warily.
I nodded, ignoring the jabs from my conscience.
"Thank you," she said. Then she wrinkled her nose. "You smell bad," she said. Then she frowned and pulled a lock of crimson hair in front of her nose. "I smell bad," she concluded.
"Use the stream to get clean," I suggested gently as I stood up and separated the bundles of clothes. I moved downstream far enough to be just out of sight around some bushes.
"There's no soap," she said, her voice quavering a little.
I shucked off the pants I'd worn longer than I cared to think about and jumped into the stream. "There's sand along the bottom," I replied. "You can use that to scrub away dirt, and then rinse it off." Old man said that was almost as good as soap on a long mission – it was hard to sneak around if you stank.
She didn't say anything for a while. I stretched out, luxuriating as the chill water flowed over my body. I'd never felt anything like this before. I dunked my head and began trying to strip away some of the blood and grease in my hair as I rinsed away the ashes and smoky smell.
When I pulled my head up out of the water, I heard the girl's voice again. "Where are you?" she cried out.
I cringed at the noise and forced myself not to snap. "I'm here," I replied in a loud whisper. "I was just washing my hair."
"Oh," she said in a quieter voice.
"What did you want?" I asked as I rinsed off and stood up. I was a little raw where I'd raked my nails over the skin, trying to rid myself of as much dirt as possible. I'd never had a chance to bathe like this before, and I didn't want to waste it.
"Did… did I kill that man?" she asked.
"You distracted the others enough that I was able to get away from them," I answered. It wasn't exactly what she asked, but I had no idea how to tell her the truth. Would she be glad she'd killed the bastard? Would she break down? I had no frigging idea, and I wished the old man had given a lecture or two on how to deal with distraught females. Especially since this was partially my fault, dammit.
"I'm glad you got away," she said tonelessly. There was a little splashing, so I waited a few minutes after it stopped before I walked back around the bushes again.
She was dressed and sitting huddled on the grass near the bank. I sat down cross-legged next to her.
"Thank you for the clothes," she said.
I nodded and pulled two of the eggs out of the folds of my kimono and handed them to her. She looked at me questioningly as I pulled out the other pair. "Old man said these are good to eat. Use your eye tooth to punch a small hole in one end and suck out what's inside."
She watched me do it, so I tried not to bobble it too badly. The liquid protein was thick on my tongue, but I swallowed it anyway. She copied my motions, but made a face after swallowing. "It tastes yucky," she said.
I shrugged. "It'll keep you warm through the night. I'll try to steal something tastier for breakfast."
She frowned. "My… they told me stealing was bad."
I nodded. "It is, but we are operating in enemy territory, so that's a little different. It's okay to do bad things to enemies."
"Enemies?" she asked. Her eyes took on a faraway look for a moment, and then she nodded. "You're right… uhm. What is your name?"
That question brought me up short. Old man had always called me 'kid', but I knew that was also the general term. I shrugged after a moment. "I don't have one," I admitted.
That little revelation made her mouth drop open. "How can you not have a name?" she asked - a little disbelieving and a little outraged at the same time.
I sighed. "Because it was always just me and the old man in that cell, as long as I can remember. If he was talking out loud, I knew he was talking to me, and vice-versa. Come to think of it, I don't know if he had a name either."
"He had to have a name. Especially if he was old. He wasn't always in that… cell? Was he?"
I shook my head. "No, he wasn't."
"Did he do something bad?" she asked, more innocent than accusing.
"The Tsuchikage thought so. He put the seal on me, but he didn't make it so it would break my mind. That's why he was imprisoned for the rest of his life," I answered, my grief making my words come out more bitter than I intended.
"My father is a bad man," she concluded sadly, and I belatedly made the connection. They must have raised her within the Tsuchikage's family to try and ensure her loyalty. "He's not even really my father, is he?"
She began to sob quietly again, and I sat there, appalled at my own big mouth. Old man would smack the back of my head if he could see me now. A righteous rage does not justify the abuse of the innocent, he'd once said. I gingerly put my hand on her shoulder, cringing as I felt her tense. "It's going to be all right," I said inanely.
"How?" she asked, raising her tear-stained face and pinning me in place with her red-rimmed eyes. "I don't have a family anymore. I never had a family, really." She shook her head and continued, "I have no one… I might as well be dead."
Sometimes, when I don't know what to say, I just open my mouth and spout off the first thing that comes to mind. Usually, it's a disaster. "You have me," I said.
That brought her up short. "You?" she asked.
"Yes, me." I pointed toward her stomach. "We have something in common, something almost no one else does."
She eyed me doubtfully. "You won't go away?" she asked.
"I don't plan on it," I answered dryly. "Anything can happen," I continued, paying my respects to Muir Fé, the Kami of bad karma, "but I have no intention of ditching you."
"Promise?" she asked, but at least her eyes were clearing up.
"I promise." I said with a nod.
"How can you promise if you don't have a name?" she asked suddenly. "You can't give your word if there is no word for you, can you?"
I shrugged as I tried to puzzle out her logic.
"Can I give you a name?" she asked.
"I suppose," I agreed. Anything to stop her from crying. I felt really cold and sick when she did that, not knowing if she would ever stop.
She frowned for several minutes, deep in thought. "How about Hikaru?" she finally asked.
I shrugged. "Sounds good to me. You can call me Hikaru if you like."
She gave me a little smile. "Good. Hikaru, my name is Asuka."
"Good to meet you, Asuka," I replied, trying to remember what the old man had said about proper manners for introductions. "Out of curiosity, where did you get the name from?"
"Well, we had a dog named Hikaru," she said. "Until sister hit it with a kunai one day."
I felt my smile falter a little. "I'm sorry. Did you miss him?"
"Not much," she admitted. "He farted a lot so he smelled pretty bad."
"But I always thought he had a neat name," she assured me.
"Well, that's good to know," I observed.
"Why do you have green hair?" she asked.
I looked at a lock hanging down onto my shoulder. It was a slightly darker green than the grass or the leaves, but undeniably the same hue. I shrugged. "I don't know. Why do you have red hair?"
She frowned at me in the gathering gloom. I looked around the stand of trees, which was becoming quite dark as the light faded from the western sky. There was no moon, which left me with mixed feelings. Old man had told me about it, so I wanted to see it almost as much as the sun, but at the same time its absence would make us harder to track. I'd covered a considerable distance while the girl, I mean Asuka, was unconscious. I calculated that we were probably safe for the night, as long as we were moving at dawn.
If we were lucky, the Tsuchikage's men might think we were still inside Iwakagure, or had perished in the fire. But the old man had taught me to never rely on luck. For anything.
We both curled up at the base of a tree, positioned so no one outside the grove could see us. As I drifted off, I was dimly aware of her curling up against my back, shivering a little.
Growing up where I did, I learned to sleep curled up into as tight a ball as possible. This minimized the number of stone edges that could dig into my skin as I slept. While the grove was cooler and far breezier than I was used to, the grass and forest thatch was immeasurably softer.
What woke me up was a pulse of heat, warming my back. An instant later, my sleep-muzzled ears picked up murmured denials and soft cries of pain. I sat up quickly, feeling a hand drop away from my side. Without me in the way, Asuka curled up into a tighter knot of misery. There was another soundless pulse and some of the dried pine needles around her began to smoke.
"Asuka!" I hissed, reaching for her shoulder to shake her awake. My finger-tips stung as they gripped her shoulder, but the heat died away as her eyes shot open. Blazing orange faded to their normal brilliant green. Before I could say anything she had her arms wrapped around my waist and I was awkwardly patting her back. "Nightmare?" I asked.
I could feel her head nod. I felt a chill go down my back as I wondered how close she'd been to another explosion. It didn't matter. I'd made a promise.
We settled back down, leaning against the tree, but this time I kept my arm around her shoulders. I woke twice more before dawn. Each time, I gently shook her until the murmuring stopped and she settled back down.
We left the grove at dawn. Asuka was quiet, but as we walked she stayed as close to me as a second shadow. The gray light made everything seem abnormally still, and my voice seemed too loud as I gently asked her about any training she might have had.
I was relieved; both by her willingness to talk about her former family and by the fact that she was going through basic kunoichi training with her sisters. That immeasurably increased our chances of survival. Then she had a question of her own. "Hikaru, where are we going?"
"Konohagakure," I replied with a smile.
"But they are the enemy!" she said in a shocked voice.
"Whose enemy?" I asked with a tight smile.
"If they are the enemy… of our enemy… does that make them good guys?" she asked, eyes wide.
"Not always," I said. "But old man said that, many years ago, that village was saved by someone… like us. If we want to live where people… like us… will be treated well, then Konoha is our best bet."
She nodded slowly. "He was very smart, wasn't he?"
I nodded, ignoring the tightness in the back of my throat. "Yes. Yes, he was."
My original plan was for us to dress like farmers or villagers and try to quietly slip across the border. Old man had given me a pretty good grasp of basic geography, but he wasn't sure how the local conditions might have changed since he'd been locked up.
Slow and steady therefore seemed like the wisest course. Most sneak thieves are idiots: they try to run with their loot, and only end up drawing attention to themselves. Of course, I was also banking on Asuka's nerves, but she'd stayed put while I was getting the crap kicked out of me, so it seemed like a smart bet.
It wasn't until we were overtaken by a merchant and his guards that I realized the flaw in my plan. As they passed us, I heard the men mutter something about hair. Thinking back, I hadn't seen many people in Iwakagure with red hair, and I hadn't noticed anyone with green hair. Now, my hair is pretty dark, so it looks black from a distance, or in dim light, but the sun was well up and they were close.
Motion out of the corner of my eye made me turn, and I pulled Asuka behind me before the guard's hand could close around her shoulder. I was just bringing my hands back around in a basic Taijutsu stance when his eyes widened and he stumbled backward with a gasp. "Demon!" he screamed, pulling out his sword.
The others were shouting and clawing at weapons as well. I backed away, noting that Asuka was right beside me. As the swordsman took a step forward, we jumped backward into the underbrush. In moments we were running down a steep gully lined with scrubby bushes.
What? You wanted to hear how we leapt forward, kicked all their asses, and proved that they shouldn't mess with shinobi? Sorry, our objective was getting past the border, not beating down random travelers. Pointless heroics are for idiots.
Our feet were as swift as they were silent, and soon we were far from the road. As soon as we stopped I looked back the way we came and held my breath so I could hear better. Nothing. Then I swore bitterly. "What the hell was that all about?" I snarled.
It was more of a rhetorical question, but Asuka answered it anyway. "I think he was afraid of your eyes," she said thoughtfully. Then she nodded. "Yes, it had to be your eyes. He'd already seen your hair before you turned."
"What about my eyes?" I asked warily.
"Well," she said. "They're a pretty green, dark green, really. But the black part in the middle is all funny. It's squished together in the middle and sharp on the top and bottom."
"What the hell are you talking about?" I was trying to visualize what she described, but without a lot of luck.
She frowned, raising that crease between her eyebrows again. "I'm not making this up," she said, sticking her lip out a little.
"I… " my voice trailed off and I took a deep breath. "I didn't say you were, Asuka, I'm just having trouble picturing what you are describing."
"Well…" she said, "they look a little like snake's eyes. I saw one in a picture book.
I stared at her.
"It's true," she said defensively. "Don't you ever look in a mirror?"
"I've never seen a mirror," I replied. My stomach was still sinking. What the hell had that damn seal done to me, anyway? There was almost no chance of my original plan working.
"Oh," Asuka said, looking down.
"All right," I said, trying to sound confident. That's a pretty good trick after committing a colossal blunder, let me tell you. "I don't think we can pose as villagers. Do you?"
Asuka shook her head.
"Then we go with plan B," I said with a sigh.
"Plan B?" Asuka asked, cocking her head.
"We run like hell. Those idiots are probably already spreading the word about us, so it won't be long until the 'Kage's men come." I paused. "I'm going to push us to the best pace we can make. I'm not going to leave you, but you need to let me know when you start getting tired, all right?"
Asuka nodded, but I noticed she was trembling. I gave her a quick, but intensely awkward hug as she sniffed. "I don't want to go back," she whispered.
"Then show me how fast you can run," I said as I stepped back.
The rest of that day was spent in constant motion. I shouldn't have had that much endurance. While I could do a lot of Taijutsu drills, the cell I'd grown up in wasn't very conducive toward long-distance running. For that matter, I didn't think Asuka's kunoichi training dwelt on it in any detail either. My best guess is that the presence of our "tenants" was making this easier. About time the bastards did something to help.
We made surprisingly good speed, but I'm still amazed we cleared the border without any trouble. Maybe from the description those guards gave of us, they thought we were still trying to sneak out. Idiots.
I was still stunned by our good fortune when a kunai slammed into a tree trunk right in front of me. I dived to the ground, pulling Asuka with me. I got a tree trunk behind me, and Asuka in between, when I rolled to my feet. I saw motion out of the corner of my eye and leaned back just in time for a huge shuriken to skim past my face. I was turning to face the way it came when the wire it trailed wrapped across my chest. I was yanked backward, knocking Asuka off her feet as well. We were pinned against the tree trunk as the shuriken orbited the tree a dozen times before embedding in the bark next to my head.
Asuka was gasping, trying to get her wind back as I struggled against the wire. Three men wearing ceramic masks with animal features dropped to the ground in front of us. What is up with those masks, anyway? I thought we were about to be mugged by a gang of rogue mimes.
"This isn't Kanareto, they're just kids," the largest one, who sported a bear mask, observed.
"No shit," I replied. My ego was throbbing a bit from how easily we'd been caught.
"Kids or not, nobody who moves like that can be a villager," the weasel-mask observed.
My brain began to catch up with my feet. If they didn't recognize Asuka, then… "Are you Konoha shinobi?" I asked.
"What does it matter to you?" the raven-mask asked.
"Are we in Fire Country?" I asked, raising my jaw and trying to look like I wasn't scared. Trying, anyway.
"You are," the bear said after a moment. "Why does that matter?"
"Because we've been running like hell to get out of Earth Country," I said, hoping I wasn't using too many large words. "We want to defect."
"You?" the weasel asked, derisively.
"She's the Tsuchikage's daughter," I said, playing my hole card.
The three masked marvels looked quickly at each other. I don't know why, it wasn't like they were suddenly going to become attractive. "And you?" the bear asked.
"You could say I'm an escaped prisoner," I said carefully.
"They're full of it," weasel insisted.
I shrugged as well as I could with my arms bound to my sides. "If I am, then let the Hokage deal with me. I'm sure a hidden village has enough nasty jobs to do if he feels the need to punish me."
"Kanareto is long gone by now. We'll take them to the Hokage," bear said, and I relaxed a little.
"We're going to regret this," weasel predicted.
"Life is full of regrets," I said in a philosophical tone, much like the one old man used to drive me up a wall. Then I leaned forward and peered at the shinobi who doubted my honesty. "How come you don't wear a mask like the other two?" I asked, trying to sound puzzled.
He cursed under his breath as he wrenched his shuriken from the tree.
Of course, with the escort, who I later learned were members of the ANBU squad, we made pretty good time. When we arrived at Konoha, they escorted us through the gates with little more than a hand-wave.
Konohagakure had a much different feel than Iwakagure. I hadn't seen much of the latter, except as a blur, but Asuka confirmed it for me later. People were much more fearful in the Tsuchikage's capital. The officials were haughtier as well. Konoha seemed relatively relaxed, for a hidden village, anyway.
We got some odd glances as we were escorted through the streets. I walked with my head hanging forward, and let my hair shroud my face a little. I also squinted as much as I could. At least the looks I received were not universally hostile. Asuka garnered more sympathetic looks, and I relaxed a little. She'd probably be okay here, even if I wasn't.
"So Hokage-sama" I said, "this is how we came to be brought before you. Asuka and I will answer any questions you wish. At least she can when she wakes up. Anyway, as you are aware, with our… special circumstances… I am sure that we could prove useful to your village."
Many thanks to Runsamok and Bibliophile fortheir beta work!
This story will contain little to no Japanese flavor-words. All the jutsu names will be in English. If you are wondering why, when Ibowed to requests to use Japanese jutsu names in Team 8, all the langauge-snobs came out of the woodwork. Everyone had complaints, none of which agreed, by the way, and no one offered any solutions or assistance. So I said to hell with it. You know who to blame.