Tempered in Water
Chapter 9 / Monsters
Distantly, Naruto could hear the sounds of a small campfire ravenously devouring wood and tinder. The faint smell of smoke drifted up his nostrils, and there was a vague sensation of warmth soaking into him. Darkness veiled his vision.
Above all else, there was pain.
His head throbbed fiercely. Every noise was like a hammer blow to his skull, every blurry shred of light his eyes could make out when he could stand trying to open them sent sharp needles lancing through his brain. As the scattered threads of his consciousness began their sluggish return, the pain only increased. Gradually, he became aware of the ache in his ribs and the chafing, raw sensation in his ankles and wrists. Steel wire was wrapped tightly around his ankles and his torso, cutting painfully into his bare skin, binding him to a tree.
His clothes were gone, his sluggish mind helpfully summarized, and he was tied to a tree.
Not good, was his brain's conclusion after a long moment of hazy contemplation.
A groan involuntarily slipped from his parched throat.
"He's waking up," a voice observed. Startled, Naruto cracked open his eyelids once more. Stabbing pain shot through his eyes, but he persevered. He squinted, making out a blurry, writhing orange shape. Fire, he labeled it after a moment's study. A bit more focus returned to his vision, allowing him to make out three vague human shapes.
"Good timing." There was a hint of glee in the reply. "I'm just about done setting everything up."
A snort answered. "If you weren't such a slow bastard, we could have been done by now," a sweet feminine voice spoke, the words entirely at odds with the tone.
"I didn't see you offering to help out." The glee was gone, replaced by irritation.
"Of course not," a haughty sniff spoke eloquently of what the girl thought of that notion. "I have other talents." Unlike you, the unspoken implication said.
"Meaning you couldn't do it even if you tried."
"Cut it out," a new voice interrupted. "We have a job to do."
Naruto's vision had cleared enough to make out his captors. They looked like they were all older than him; he couldn't tell how much. Their outfits were all gray—or mostly gray, anyway—and though they differed wildly in style, they weren't distinctive of any region. Try as he might, he still couldn't figure out what village they were from. Even their accents were commonplace.
"Who…?" his query came out as a hoarse, barely audible whisper. Naruto's throat worked and he tried again, "Who… are you?"
The three went still. The tall one, the one who had emerged from the bushes to distract him from the other two, came closer. "My name's Shinji," he introduced himself amiably. "This," he gestured, the sleeve of his dull-colored fatigues flapping as it followed his hand up, to the curvy brown-haired kunoichi, "is Mizunashi Mai." For some reason, Shinji placed special emphasis on her family name. "And this…"
"Makoto," the short, heavily-muscled teen squatting by the fire grunted.
"…is Makoto," Shinji continued, ignoring the interruption.
"Why are you doing this?" Naruto croaked.
He smiled at Naruto, baring straight, pearly white teeth, "We just want to have a little talk with you."
They're not after the scrolls, Naruto realized. They had expended way too much effort on him for it to be that. A more troubling thought followed. What are they after, then?
His confusion must have shown on his face. "I'll get straight to the point," Shinji said. "That girl you live with… What's her name? Where is she from?"
Alarm stole his rude, instinctive response from his throat. They're after Haku? Naruto wondered uneasily. "I don't know what you're talking about," Naruto replied hoarsely.
Shinji chuckled, amused. "Don't lie," he scolded, wagging his index finger. "We already know her name is Haku. We know that she's living with you, that she appeared in Konoha with you, that she's working at that beat-up little ramen stand. We did our homework, so don't think you can fool us."
"Then why am I here?" Naruto growled, his voice almost completely recovered. His eyesight was close to its normal levels again; his other senses were similarly recovering. Finally, he could make out the allegiances of his attackers.
Four curving lines were stamped into the center of Shinji's hitai-ate, creating the image of flowing water and waves.
Kirigakure no Sato.
Any vestiges of doubt were blown away. They were after Haku.
"We'd like you to confirm a few details for us," Shinji answered smoothly. "That's all."
Naruto set his jaw stubbornly. Don't say anything, he told himself fiercely.
"First," Shinji said, "did you meet her in Nami no Kuni?"
Naruto glared at Shinji.
Shinji ran a hand through his light brown hair and sighed. "Was she or was she not a member of Momochi Zabuza's organization?" he asked directly, cutting to the heart of the matter.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"She has a bloodline limit, correct? She can manipulate ice?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Has she ever told you," Shinji's gaze grew intent, "her clan's name?"
Naruto swallowed. Haku's… clan's name? "I don't know what you're talking about," he denied again. It had never occurred to him, but now that Kiri genin had brought it up…
How much did he still not know about Haku? He hadn't asked her much about herself. She had given him the story of how her family had died, but he still didn't know how they had lived. He didn't even know her family name; he had never even thought to ask.
Naruto struggled to push down the intense wave of shame that welled up within him. Haku had given him so much, had listened to him talk about himself and his life and his interests for months, and not once had he stopped to ask her about herself except when circumstances had led him to it.
How many years had he longed for someone to come home to? For how long had he dreamed of having someone who would ask him, "How was your day?" His teammates were his comrades, perhaps even his friends, but they didn't ask him about his day. Kakashi-sensei was his teacher and his commander, nothing more… though sometimes, when he did things like loan him money and show up out of the blue with vegetables, Naruto couldn't help but hope…
Team 7 was filled with his precious people, but they weren't family. Iruka-sensei asked. Iruka-sensei, who asked him about his day, scolded him over his habit of talking and chewing at the same time, and fussed over Haku's presence in his life. Iruka-sensei, whom he didn't see very often anymore. Iruka-sensei asked; Iruka-sensei cared, and for that Naruto thought that maybe he was something like what a father would be like.
Haku cared as well. He didn't know what role she filled in his family, but she cared. Yet he hadn't even taken the time to reciprocate. Instead, he had used her for training and to assuage his own sense of loneliness. Unthinkingly, he had treated her like a tool rather than one of his precious people.
He had used her just like that no-brow had.
Pain exploded across his face, sending white spots dancing in front of his eyes. Naruto spat, seeing traces of red in his saliva as it flew towards his tormentor. He cursed inwardly as it fell short of Shinji, who had neatly stepped out of range.
"It's not nice to ignore people that are talking to you," Shinji said conversationally, stepping back towards Naruto. Dark brown eyes narrowed. "Answer me!"
Naruto spat again, his glare hot with angry defiance.
Shinji stepped aside, once again avoiding Naruto's wet missile. "We will have you answer our questions," he growled, his affable expression slipping off of his face. "One way…" he gestured behind him towards squat boy playing with the pliers and the iron rod being heated by the fire, "…or another."
It took a moment for the implications to sink into Naruto's mind. He paled, fear robbing him of his voice. If he didn't tell them what they wanted to know, they were going to…
They were going to…
The first examiner's hideous scars jumped to the forefront of his thoughts. That was going to happen to him? It was an almost alien thought. How could that possibly happen to him? It didn't make any sense. It couldn't be happening.
"Well?" unfriendly eyes watched him expectantly.
All moisture had fled from Naruto's tongue. He licked his lips and swallowed, trying to conjure some saliva to wet his mouth. There was a curious trembling in his limbs. Makoto had lifted the long, thin metal bar from the fire and was simply standing there holding the end with gloved hands. The opposite end glowed orange, and the once comforting sensation of warmth against his skin abruptly felt menacing.
He could talk and avoid the pliers, the red-hot metal, and who knew what else. It was just a few questions. How much harm could it cause? Besides, they were in Konoha, not Kiri. What could they do?
"Because… at times, information is more important than life. On missions and battlefields, people risk their lives to get their hands on it!" the scarred first examiner's voice shouted from within him. "Getting incorrect information can cause great damage to your teammates and your village. But information in your hands can also be a powerful weapon for your comrades and your village."
Naruto closed his eyes. Fear still gripped him, casting a pall over his mind, but Ibiki's words also resonated within him. He could not answer their questions. Giving them the information they sought was out of the question. He marshaled his wavering will and tried to gird himself for what was to come.
Naruto opened his eyes, meeting Shinji's expectant gaze levelly.
The password had been a good idea.
It had worked, too. It hadn't really helped, but it had done its job. How could he have predicted that… that…
His leg screamed. Sasuke gritted his teeth and did his best to ignore it; it wasn't deep enough that he would bleed to death anytime soon. Shadows crowded around him, the gloom of the forest suddenly a double-edged sword that hid both him and his enemy. His eyes darted frantically around, searching for danger. Every sense he possessed was shrieking for him to run, to hide. Death's gaze, heavier than a stone coffin, rested on his back.
What do I do?
Sakura gasped, seemingly just coming out of her dazed state. "Sasuke-kun!" she exclaimed unsteadily, taking in the sight of his wounded leg.
Roughly, he slapped a hand over her mouth and leaned back against the tree trunk, reducing his profile. His nerves continued to twitch at every stray sound and every hint of movement. The sensation of being hunted overwhelmed him.
We have to run before we're found again, Sasuke thought, barely keeping a lid on the waves of panic threatening to drown him. But how can we run? What's the best way…?
Sakura frantically tried to shout at him through his hand. The uncomfortable heat of her breath against his skin would have been enough for him to draw back any other time. He ignored her, his mind furiously churning as it grasped for ideas.
His arm was shoved aside. "Sasuke-kun!" Sakura screamed. "A snake!"
Reflexively, he leapt from the branch as a massive mud brown serpent lunged down towards their position. The reptile's jaw struck the branch Sasuke had just vacated, sending a shiver through the massive tree and shaking broad leaves from their branches far overhead. Its body coiled swiftly around the tree and it launched itself after Sasuke. Sasuke stared into the snake's wide-stretched jaws, his heart thumping in wild terror.
There was death in those glistening ivory fangs and cold reptilian eyes, and behind it all loomed the shadow of the Grass-nin whose gaze held the essence of murder.
A terrified shriek burst from his throat. "Get away!" Sasuke screamed, hurling two fistfuls of shuriken into that gaping maw, desperate to put something between himself and the snake.
Shuriken thrown with frantic adrenaline-fueled strength drove into the serpent's enormous mouth, tearing into the vulnerable pink flesh within. A bizarre hissing wail erupted from its throat as it collapsed, finally crashing to the ground in an avalanche of flesh and bone.
Sasuke's breath came in quick, short gasps as his lungs struggled to keep up with the demand from his furiously pumping heart. He stared at the snake, watching it writhe in its death throes and then become still. Relief washed over him.
A bulge formed on the side of the dead creature's throat. There was a wet crackling sound as fractures formed in its scaly skin. "You can't relax for a moment," that hated voice spoke chidingly. "Prey should always be trying its best to run away…" The murderous Grass-nin emerged from the snake's corpse, dripping with gore. Their eyes met even across the large distance between them. A long, fat pink tongue slipped through the Grass-nin's lips, seemingly tasting the air in a decidedly serpentine manner. "…In the presence of a predator, that is."
Sasuke's limbs were frozen, reduced to quivering uselessness by the weight of his fear. Thoughts poured through his mind like water tumbling over the edge of a precipice. Inevitably, they all came back to one thing.
I need to run.
He had to get away. Somehow, he had to escape. He had to live until the day he avenged his family. No matter what, he had to live to see that day.
The Grass-nin... that thing in human form… lunged. It stretched, its body elongating as it swiftly coiled around the tree trunk, slithering up towards Sasuke with blinding speed.
I have to get away!
But his legs would not obey him. His body was frozen, his mind blank with terror, and all he could see were yellow reptilian eyes bearing down upon him.
I have to run! I have to survive!
Why weren't his legs moving? Why was he still standing still, waiting for that thing to get him like some weak mouse frozen by a snake's gaze?
"Sasuke-kun!" Kunai and shuriken slammed into the tree's tough bark in the space between Sasuke and certain death. The Grass-nin halted, glancing towards Sakura. Distantly, Sasuke could hear a choked gasp and a thump as Sakura's legs collapsed under her, overwhelmed by the impossible killing intent being directed at her.
Sasuke stared at the four bladed instruments of death that had given him a temporary reprieve. Think! What should I do? He wasn't fast enough to run from the Grass-nin. He wasn't skilled enough to hide from him. Was there anything he could use as a distraction? Sakura would be no help, and he had to consider how to get her away as well.
Unless… if he used her as a distraction, maybe he could…
Sasuke's ground his teeth together as he forcefully put the notion aside, sickened that the thought had even crossed his mind.
He could fight, and pray that a chance manifested. Yet Sasuke knew down to his bones that fighting his enemy would mean certain death.
What else could he do?
"Foolish little brother," that man's vile, hated voice whispered. "If you want to kill me, despise me, hate me, and survive in an unsightly way. Run, run, and cling to life… Then, one day…"
He had to live.
No matter what the cost.
"Wait!" Sasuke shouted, drawing the predator's attention back towards him. He took a deep breath, held it for a moment, and then blew it out softly. Slowly, he reached into his pouch and withdrew the scroll. The small, pale Heaven Scroll felt strangely heavy in his hand. "I'll give you the scroll," Sasuke said. "Please… take it and leave."
Take it and leave us alone, he prayed. The Chuunin Exams weren't important. His pride wasn't important. Surviving and growing strong enough to take revenge was all that mattered. He had hoped to measure himself against other genin and learn through battle, but this freakish Grass shinobi… he was in over his head. Sasuke could accept that. He could accept anything, as long as he met his brother again at the end of the road.
The ninja from the Hidden Grass chuckled. "I see… very smart," he—or she, or it; Sasuke couldn't tell—complimented. "The only way for prey to escape a predator…" that inhuman tongue emerged again, licking dark, painted lips, "…is to give the predator a different meal."
"Take it," Sasuke repeated, tossing the scroll.
His opponent caught it easily and took a moment to carefully look over the scroll. Seconds later, the scroll turned to ashes in the Grass ninja's palm.
"Hey!" Sasuke shouted, a bolt of fear running through his body. He didn't want the scroll? If so, then that meant… "What are you doing?" he demanded.
"It's too bad," the snake-like shinobi murmured, sounding disappointed. "I was hoping I would have a bit more fun with you."
"What are you talking about?" Sasuke asked uneasily.
"As I had thought, the older brother really is the best one after all."
Sasuke went still. Older brother? Rage rose swifter than any incoming high tide, battering against the edges of his fear. "What do you mean?" his question came out as a growl.
The Grass-nin ignored him. "Well," he sighed, "it's fine. There's no other choice, after all."
"Don't ignore me!" Sasuke roared, fury restoring his will to fight. The creepy shinobi before him had some kind of connection with Itachi. His opponent's strength didn't matter in light of that. He had to find out what the Kusa-nin knew.
Yellow reptilian eyes met Sharingan-crimson. Sasuke choked, control over his limbs once again leaving him.
Why… am I… so weak…?
He wanted to scream, to cry, to beat his opponent to death with his bare hands until his knuckles bled.
He was so weak.
Why was he so weak?
After all this time, after all the training he had done, this was all he amounted to? Trembling in fear of a single enemy, unable to move just because of meeting his foe's eyes?
How could he beat Itachi like this?
At this rate… I'm…
He couldn't do it. It was impossible. If this was how far he had come in the years since his family had been slaughtered, catching up with Itachi was an impossible dream.
It was too bitter to bear.
I need power.
Otherwise, he would never be able to avenge the Uchiha clan. Justice would forever be denied to the spirits of his family.
I need power!
He was walking the wrong road. Everything he had done was wrong. Sasuke finally understood. He couldn't gain the strength he needed if he continued on the path he was walking.
"Sasuke-kun," his terrifying enemy murmured, "I'm disappointed in you." Casually, he began forming seals. "But, even so…" a chilling grin revealed fangs no normal human could possess, "…I want you."
Before Sasuke could even begin to comprehend that statement, a pale face was flying towards him with astonishing speed, long incisors bared in a gesture eerily reminiscent of a snake's final lunge to swallow its prey whole.
Fangs pierced his skin, sending sharp waves of agony through his neck.
The teeth withdrew. A breath later, the monster's pale, extended neck began to retract. "My name is Orochimaru," the retreating head hissed. "Seek me… and gain power."
A scream tore its way out of Sasuke's chest. Every nerve in his body seemed to light up with pain, all of it radiating from the place where he had been bitten. He slumped to his knees, his legs too weak to support his weight any longer. His consciousness was fading, unable to hold against the overwhelming waves of agony battering against it.
He toppled forward, his vision fading to black. The last thing he heard was Sakura's shrill scream.
The Forest of Death was alive with noise. The sound of wildlife, both ghastly and mundane, was a near constant companion, as was the subtle groaning of trees and the occasional whisper of leaves. Sporadically, screams and the sounds of combat rang out over the native sounds of the forest.
Mai listened intently to the background noises, her senses warily attuned to the environment around her team's makeshift camp. With Shinji and Makoto paying so much attention to the little blond genin they had captured, it was up to her to make sure no one got the drop on them. It also meant she didn't have to pay too much attention to what was going to happen to their captive.
She had to admire his guts when he spat at Shinji and refused to talk, even though her stomach twisted in revulsion at the sight of the eager grin on Makoto's face when it became clear he would get to have his fun.
Shinji sighed and ran a hand through his unruly brown hair, his angry expression retreating. "You're sure?" he asked the bound Konoha genin, sounding regretful that matters couldn't be resolved without further coercion. Maybe he even meant it. Mai had long given up trying to understand her tall, handsome teammate's mind. His moods shifted like quicksilver, but she was never certain if he meant anything that he said or if the expressions he wore on his face were genuine.
The blond genin spat again. Shinji nodded to himself and then roughly hit the boy in the gut. "We'll have to gag him," he said conversationally to Makoto while their captive wheezed for air. "We wouldn't want anyone to follow the sound of his screams, after all."
"Right," Makoto groused, his expression petulant. The stocky boy rose and moved to pry the captive's jaw open so that Shinji could gag him without being bitten.
Mai averted her face, hiding her grimace from her teammates. Makoto enjoyed causing pain, and his desire to become an interrogator was driven by that and that alone, despite his insistence that he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps. The difference was that while his father was a professional, a surgical instrument that got results, Makoto was just a boy who delighted in cruelty.
He was an idiot who hadn't grown out of pulling the legs off helpless insects for amusement, and Shinji was an idiot for letting Makoto have a go at their target. He would probably accidently kill the boy in his enthusiasm instead of extracting any useful information from him. Mai shifted her weight uncomfortably, remembering the last time Makoto had been given free rein to use the macabre toys he carried around with him.
"When you're ready to talk, just nod your head, okay?" Shinji said cheerfully. The boy—Uzumaki Naruto, if she remembered their teacher's briefing correctly—simply looked at Shinji with eyes filled with loathing. Shinji nodded as if hearing a favorable reply and turned to Makoto. "Get started."
Makoto grinned happily and stepped towards Naruto. "Finally!"
"Mai," Shinji turned his head to look at her, "you should go and check the traps around the perimeter."
"Right," she said coolly, ignoring the way his eyes hungrily swept over her chest and then slipped downward. She turned and began to walk away, casually flipping her long chestnut hair in a haughty gesture, struggling to keep her disgust and discomfort locked tightly out of sight. Her skin crawled as she imagined his gaze on her ass as she walked away. She subtly tried to tug her mini-skirt down without calling attention to her actions.
Mai hated the necessity of it, but she had been trained as a kunoichi, and that included using those disgusting, leering gazes and the thoughts behind them to her advantage. It had saved her life more than once. Her body could be a useful distraction against male ninja, who accounted for the majority of active shinobi, and in close combat it had occasionally given her the edge she needed to win against stronger opponents. Of course, it would never work on any high ranking ninja worth his salt, but against males with less control and seasoning it had proven useful.
So she kept wearing outfits that revealed far more than she was comfortable with and endured the looks she garnered with forced indifference. In the end, it was just another tool in her arsenal, and she would be a foolish kunoichi to throw it away. That didn't stop her uneasiness with it though.
She may have been a ninja, and she liked to think that she was a good one for her level, but that didn't mean she was safe. In Kirigakure, strength was the only law that really mattered. There were still a lot of shinobi that surpassed her, and until she was strong enough to deter them she would never be truly secure.
She had spent her early years with her mother and had seen a lot of women who sold their bodies. Rape was nearly a fact of life for them, though it wasn't nearly as common—or perhaps it was merely less obvious—in the higher priced circles her mother had traveled through. Nonetheless, Mai had learned to fear it before she could even comprehend it. Once her body had begun to change in earnest, those ingrained fears had steadily grown into a silent terror that stalked her through her dreams and into her waking mind.
It was hardly an uncommon fate among women in the Country of Water, and kunoichi didn't always fare better despite their advantages. There were far fewer female ninja than male, after all, and as long as a team's ability to perform was not unduly affected, Kirigakure as a whole could care less what its kunoichi often suffered. Only efficiency mattered. If a kunoichi was hurt to the point she could not perform her duties, then there were punishments. If not, it was like it had never happened.
Things were sometimes different if a foreign ninja was the culprit. After all, that cast shame on the village as a whole, and the Mizukage was nothing if not proud. But internally…
Strength meant everything in Kirigakure. If you weren't strong enough to prevent it from happening, you deserved it… that was what they were taught. It was just the law of nature. It was the way the world worked.
She firmly believed that she had only avoided that fate—so far—because of chance, because she trained relentlessly to gain the skills necessary to protect herself from her peers, and because of who her father was. Her father's name was perhaps the strongest of the three.
Her father's name—her name—and perhaps the only thing he had ever given her since he had knocked up her mother.
It was the first time that name had done her any good. For the majority of her life, it had only proved to be a curse. Just because she was his blood didn't mean he held any affection for her. She had been an accident, the result of an ambitious young man's lustful dalliance with a famed courtesan—whore, Mai thought in her more bitter moments—and chance.
The outer perimeter traps were undisturbed. Mai began making her way around, her senses alert for any signs of potential foes, to check the second layer. A faint, curious noise caught her ears, one she studiously ignored. She was familiar with the sound of an agonized scream muffled by a makeshift gag. Makoto had gotten too enthusiastic again, too eager to hear the cries his hobby produced in his victims to practice restraint. Gagged or not, it wouldn't be hard for enemies to find them if he kept that up.
She put the thought out of her mind, unwilling to dwell on it lest her imagination take over and run with it. Logically, she understood the necessity of getting the information out of this boy in the quickest way they could. They needed to know if one of the Mist's old, cursed bloodlines had escaped the purge and fallen into Konoha's hands. Their teacher was counting on them to acquire critical information. Even so, there were better ways to do it than letting Makoto have his fun.
Don't think about it, she told herself grimly.
Mai focused her attention back on the task at hand, making sure none of the traps and tripwires had been disturbed. When she was satisfied that everything checked out, she reluctantly made her way back to where her teammates were.
Had she turned around in that instant, her eyes might have caught the quick, faint flash of light reflecting off of glass.
Naruto shrieked wildly, thrashing and twisting madly against the wires that bound him. Fresh blood dripped down his skin from where the steel bindings cut through his skin, but he hardly registered it above the sensation of his own flesh being cooked by red-hot iron. The acrid smell of burning skin and flesh filled his nose; the sound of his skin sizzling seemed to overwhelm the screams of pure agony rising from his raw throat. His entire being revolved around the blunt, burning instrument and the small, coin-sized area of flesh that it was pressing against.
There was no room for thought or emotion. All that was left in him was pain beyond anything he had ever known.
The iron was withdrawn after an eternity of suffering, but Naruto kept screaming. The burning didn't stop, wouldn't go away. He writhed frantically, but there was no escape from the heat that seared through his skin, deep into his flesh.
Naruto was drowning in an ocean of anguish; the sensation of being cooked alive piece by piece was only the main instrument in a symphony of shrieking wounds. Even though his tormentors had stopped for the moment, pain continued to ravage his oversaturated nerves.
Eventually, enough of the scattered threads of his sanity returned for him to realize that he was being given a respite for some reason. The pain wasn't gone, not even close, but for the moment nothing new was being added to it. He could hear the voices of his enemies arguing, though his fuzzy mind couldn't even begin to process what they were saying.
Fear flooded into Naruto. His body quivered with the terrified anticipation of more torture; his mind was wracked with it as he dreaded the moment the nightmare would start all over again.
Beneath it all, wrath seethed like an angry beehive. Naruto stared hatefully at his tormentors through bruised, swollen eyes. If he survived this—and he would survive this, somehow—they would die. No matter how long it took, no matter how hard it was, he would hunt them down and break them into pieces.
They were going to die. He was going to kill them.
Shinji gestured angrily. Naruto flinched, his anger submerged beneath a wave of terror once more, and closed his eyes. When nothing happened, he opened them again, peering fearfully through his swollen eyelids. They were still arguing.
Slowly, carefully, Naruto tried to move his arms. Waves of fresh agony lanced through him. Fresh blood carved warm trails down his chilled, sweat-soaked skin. The wire that bound him to the tree had cut deeply through his skin during his frenzied struggles. Trying to move his legs nearly made him sob aloud.
Naruto's sore jaw quivered. He was utterly helpless. He couldn't move at all. There were no tools he could use and no techniques he could fall back on. How could he possibly survive?
At this rate… at this rate… I'm going to…
He didn't want to complete that thought. It wasn't possible. He was going to be Hokage, damn it! How could he possibly die here?
But reality was merciless.
He was going to die.
Naruto's body tensed again, his muscles tightening despite the pain it caused him. Hot, red rage filled him, and he glared with renewed force at the two arguing Kiri-nin.
He hated them. He hated them more than he had ever hated anything or anyone.
It was an ugly, dark feeling. It reminded him of the days before Iruka-sensei, Team 7, and Haku. It had seemed like the world had reviled him, so he had loathed it in return. But the hatred bubbling up within him now was more intense and specific… it was utterly murderous.
Naruto had never felt such a concentrated urge to kill before. The feeling was so strong that it seemed almost palpable.
In the end, it was also futile.
There was no escape.
At best, he would be able to spit in their eyes before they finished with him. That knowledge didn't stop him from straining to figure out a way out. But no matter how hard he thought or how fiercely he struggled against his bonds, no way to escape emerged.
Naruto gritted his teeth and continued to struggle against his bonds, trying to endure the waves of pain and panic that battered him.
A flash light caught his eye, somehow managing to get through even his pain-hazed mind. His captors turned towards it; apparently they had seen it too.
There was a faint sound behind him, like a shuriken hitting wood, and Naruto abruptly found himself falling forward as the wires came undone behind him. He staggered forward, barely keeping his unsteady legs beneath him. Shouts rang out nearby, followed by the clash of steel as the two Mist genin deflected a barrage of shuriken, but Naruto hardly registered the noise.
The realization came quickly, along with a wave of dark exultation. Naruto stumbled forward, his legs trembling and shrieking with pain as they strained to support his weight, his hazy vision focused intently on the broad back of his closest tormentor.
He was dizzy and weak from all the blood he had lost, and the pain would have been enough to cripple him at any other time, but now... he had something he had to do, no matter what.
Three more stumbling steps brought him within Makoto's range. No thoughts traveled through Naruto's head. He had no plan. All he had left was an overwhelming, primal urge that drove him forward despite the agony of moving.
Someone shouted. It sounded like gibberish to Naruto's ears, but the broad, muscled back of his target began to turn quickly.
Instinct bubbled from his gut to his brain. It was time to pounce.
Makoto's fist came around, blindingly swift, meeting Naruto's face. Bone crunched and Naruto's vision went white. But it didn't matter. The pain was nothing. The fact that he couldn't see meant nothing. All that mattered was…
He slammed into his sturdily built enemy, driving him to the ground, fluidly drawing his enemy's kunai from its holster as he did so.
Makoto grunted as he hit the ground, his muscles tensing to throw the Konoha-nin off of him, but it already too late. It had been too late ever since the first blow, the first cut of the knife.
Naruto slammed the pilfered kunai down into Makoto's left eye. The sound of bone crunching, giving way to steel, the wet noises Makoto's eyeball made as it burst like a water balloon popping… it was like music, a distant symphony that filled his stomach with comforting warmth.
Move, instinct whispered.
Unthinkingly, he threw himself forward, rolling away from the corpse and just barely escaping the barrage of shuriken that sliced through the air just above Makoto's prone body. Getting to his feet required a titanic effort of will. He couldn't think, could barely move. Pain and weakness consumed his flesh.
But he had to move. If he stopped, he would die. If he stopped, then he couldn't…
There was still something to be done before he could rest.
Naruto pulled himself upright, overriding his body's refusal to comply, and eyed his prey, growling.
A kunai sailed through the air, hissing. Naruto almost laughed at the idea that a single kunai could stop him from bringing down his prey and shredding him to pieces. Contemptuously, he moved to bat it aside.
That wasn't right, but he didn't know why. His thoughts were out of focus, blurry, as if he was peering at them through an opaque window.
Then an almighty flaming hand picked him up and tossed his broken body through the air with explosive force, and he understood.
A black shroud descended over his mind. There were no more thoughts, no pain anymore, even though he knew that he had just broken many more bones, that his flesh had been burned and blackened. Somewhere far away, his body was screaming with agony as his weak flesh failed.
Something was still speaking within him. There was still one thought in his head.
A thunderous boom sounded from the makeshift camp. Mai staggered, her ears ringing, and looked around wildly in confusion. She looked towards the campsite, sapphire eyes taking in the heavy cloud of dust kicked up in the aftermath of an explosion. Moments later, her wits returned and she quickly moved to conceal herself.
Quietly, carefully, she slinked towards the site of the explosion. A shout reached her ears, followed by an eerie scream of rage and pain that sent shivers down her spine. Nonetheless, Mai kept moving forward and it wasn't long before she reached the camp.
Mai quickly concealed herself against a tree before cautiously peeking into the little clearing.
Shinji was crouched warily in a combat-ready position, his eyes trained on the opposite side of the camp. But where was Makoto?
Mai followed Shinji's stunned gaze, which was fixed on the blond boy they had captured on the orders of their teacher. A whimper slipped through her lips. Red chakra visibly bubbled over his skin, which was hideously blackened and cracked and bleeding. Blood dripped from his nail-less hands, and steam was rising from the raw red wounds across his body. Long incisors gleamed in his snarling mouth. The marks on the boy's cheeks were significantly larger and darker than before. Most intimidating of all were his eyes, which were like alien, murderous blood-stained rubies.
Revulsion and fear wrestled in her stomach. A bloodline limit, Mai thought, stricken. A terrible, disgusting mutation of human genetics meant only to kill was before her.
She had heard the stories, of course. Every ninja in Kirigakure knew about the wars that bloodline users had brought to the country, about the destruction and devastation they had caused and the purge that had ended it all. She knew that some of the shinobi she had seen in the First Exam had borne bloodline limits, the result of Konoha's filthy, short-sighted acceptance of such ninja.
But she had never heard of such an evil bloodline as the one she saw in front of her, one that could make the very air around her seem thick with malevolence.
Her heart pounded furiously in her chest. Run! Mai's instincts screamed.
A lump of brown and gray caught her eyes. The slow realization that she was looking at Makoto's corpse crept up on her. She stared at Makoto's broken corpse numbly, almost clinically, uncertain as to what she should feel. The cause of death was most likely the kunai buried in his skull, and the awkward position of his corpse was most likely a side effect of the earlier explosion.
Makoto is… dead…
She hadn't liked him, had hated him much of the time they had spent together, but still…
…What is this feeling?
Her teammate was dead.
A deep, bone-rattling noise filled the area, and it took Mai a moment to realize that the... thing… was growling.
Three kunai sliced through the air, slamming deep into thing's body. Thin trails of smoke wafted upwards, accompanied by a sizzling noise. The monster seemed to realize it at the same time she did, for at that instant it roared, sending a pulse of chakra out that was so strong that she could see it distort the air around the creature. The kunai were ejected from the monster's body, seemingly of their own volition, but the seals were already lit. Mai whirled, diving to duck fully behind the tree. A second later the three explosive seals exploded.
When the aftermath of the explosion had settled, Mai could only look around fearfully, deafened by the sound of the blast. Where her dead teammate's body had rested, there was only a crimson smear. Chunks of Makoto had been scattered all around the campsite like little random touches of crimson from the brush of an insane god. Every time her eyes glanced past a patch of blood or a chunk of her teammate, she could feel the bile trying to claw its way up her throat.
A grey shape hurtled through the air and hammered into a nearby tree with an audible crunch, sending bits of bark flying. Mai stared, stunned, as her last living teammate flopped drunkenly, pinned to the tree trunk by the monster, blood leaking from his mouth. Her hands flew up and desperately covered her mouth as she tried to contain her scream of terror.
Those terrible eyes turned towards her.
Shinji's body fell to the ground as the hand that had been thrust through his stomach, nailing him to the tree, was withdrawn with a sickening wet noise.
Mai tried to run, every part of her being shrieking at her to flee for her life. Her lithe, well-trained legs collapsed limply beneath her. There was another growl, close enough to draw another shriek from her throat and drag jagged fingernails down her spine.
She flailed in panic as he—it—drew closer, her arms and legs desperately pushing her away from certain death. Slowly, relentlessly, it drew closer. Her back met firm resistance. Mai's limbs scrambled against the dark, giving soil for a moment, her mind unable to understand. Rough bark scratched painfully against her back.
A tree, she realized, torn between laughing hysterically and crying.
It was over.
A blood-stained monster loomed over her. The hands that had killed her two teammates flexed, drawing her attention to the long, sharp claws that now crowned them.
Mai stared upwards, her throat closed by absolute terror. Her vision blurred. Warmth sliced down her cheeks.
How long had it been since she had cried? Years, certainly. Not since…
…not since that whore had hung herself over the balcony.
…not since her mother had died.
Mai shut her eyes tightly. Silent sobs wracked her body, and she drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms tightly around her legs as she waited for the end to come.
Maybe she would see her mom again.
A girl was crying.
Consciousness returned to slowly to Naruto, oozing back like molasses.
His whole body hurt. His skin was unbearably hot, damp, almost steaming, and so tender that moving felt like it would burst it open. Beneath his skin, blood scorched as it flowed through his veins and arteries. His whole face ached, and his eyes throbbed in concert with his heartbeat. The tips of his fingers were alive with pain, especially beneath his fingernails.
He remembered the agony as his nails were ripped from his hands, one by one.
Phantom pains erupted across his body as the memories came back. Here, where hot iron had been held against his skin, cooking it, creating a sensation that his mind could only shy away from recalling to keep him from madness. Slashes across his skin, there and there, where a blade had been slowly applied. In his chest was the ache of a broken rib, where the tall one had kicked him angrily when he had begun to tune it all out, to retreat into the safety of his mind.
Naruto remembered, and those memories brought back terror so thick he could choke on it, as well as a hot, burning hatred.
There was something else, too. In the back of his mind loomed a frozen tidal wave of wrath and destruction, just waiting for the moment to come crashing back down.
The ache in his face was familiar. He had felt it once before, when his facial structure had shifted, when his canines had grown too long for a human mouth and his jaw changed to accommodate them.
The blank hole in his memories was familiar. How had he escaped? What had happened to his tormentors?
The strange itching, burning sensation in his veins was familiar. The last time he had felt it was in the aftermath of Sasuke's supposed death.
His hands were slick with blood again.
Naruto exhaled as he made the sickening connection.
"That chakra… It'd be best if you kept your temper in check from now on. It seems like your anger brought it out, but if you can't control yourself well while you're using it… Well, you might end up hurting more than your enemies," Kakashi-sensei's warning came back to him.
He had lost control over himself. Naruto's own mind and body had, for a time, not been his anymore. Fear surged up again at that chilling thought. Naruto clenched his jaw, battling it back. Control, he thought fiercely. He had to control himself, to control his mind and his emotions so that it wouldn't happen again. This time he had been lucky; only his enemies had been hurt, and the dark power of the demon had probably saved his life.
But… in the future, if he lost himself while his comrades were around… the image of Sakura-chan's broken body, of Sasuke nothing more than a smear against the ground, of Kakashi-sensei's limp corpse flashed in front of his eyes.
His vision cleared, and Naruto finally began to pay attention to the weeping, shivering girl at his feet. As far as he could tell, she was unharmed aside from a few scratches and bruises. He felt vaguely relieved by that; enemy or not, if he had come to after tearing off her head, he knew that it would have weighed on him forever. There was no more anger left for him to muster as he looked at the terrified form of the girl. She was definitely older than him—her well-developed attributes told him that clearly enough—and she had been part of the team that had… hurt him… but he still couldn't help feeling pity for her.
It was stupid. He knew that. Feeling pity for the enemy… he was an idiot. If the situation had been reversed, she probably wouldn't have hesitated. Kakashi-sensei would scold him for it, and Sasuke would scoff derisively. But he wasn't them.
Naruto sucked in a deep breath, his eyes lidding as he thought.
What do I do? What would I regret the least?
He took a step back, exhaling.
The girl went still.
"Run," Naruto repeated.
Slowly, her head emerged from the embrace of her arms. Dark brown hair fell like a curtain across her pale, stunned face. Naruto swallowed as he met her glistening eyes, the utter terror and the spark of bewilderment in them raising a tumult of emotions within him. He tried to ignore the odd feeling of shame he felt for inspiring such terror in anyone. That wasn't the kind of person he wanted to be.
Instead, he focused on keeping his expression closed as he met her gaze levelly. "Run," he said again, his voice flat. He couldn't afford to let any sign of his pain or exhaustion show.
Cautiously, like a rabbit inching away from a still wolf, she unfolded her limbs and stood, her back scraping against the rough tree trunk behind her. Those wide, startlingly blue eyes remained fixed fearfully on him.
"Didn't you hear me?" Naruto growled, leaning forward slightly. "Run!" he shouted.
She bolted, her long legs blurring beneath her as she desperately fled. Within moments, she had disappeared from his sight. As he watched her flee, it belatedly occurred to him that letting her run away before trying to get some answers from her was probably a bad idea. But there was no way he could catch up to her in the state that he was in.
Nonetheless, Naruto heaved a sigh of relief, wincing at the sharp pain in his chest that caused. If she had sprang for him instead of away from him… He had been lucky enough as it was. No point in thinking about it, he told himself.
He looked around, studiously avoiding looking at the corpse that he had caught a glimpse of in the corner of his eye, trying to figure out which direction he needed to go in to find his team. Eventually, Naruto began walking unsteadily towards where he hoped his team was, or at least had been.
Time stretched. The sounds of the forest faded into undistinguishable background noise.
Shit… It hurts…
He needed to find somewhere to hide and rest. If another team found him in his condition, Naruto would have no chance at all. He could barely walk in a straight line; fighting was out of the question.
But he had to find his team. What if they needed his help? That wind had been unnatural, and an enemy with a technique that strong had to be dangerous as hell.
He couldn't stop.
Just wait, Sakura-chan…
All he had to do was keep putting one foot…
I'll be there in a bit…
…of the… other…
Sasuke's labored breathing dominated Sakura's hearing. Anxiously, she pulled the sweat-dampened cloth from his forehead and checked his temperature, then moved her hand down to his neck to check his pulse. His heartbeat was dangerously fast, and his skin radiated feverish heat. She replaced the cloth and slumped back, sighing.
Sakura didn't know what to do.
She had found a concealed, somewhat defensible spot beneath the massive, exposed roots of one of the Forest of Death's titanic trees. What little first-aid she could apply, she did. Traps and make-shift tripwires had been set around the perimeter. Once she had finished setting them up, she had started to run out of steam. There was little left she could do except watch over Sasuke and pray.
Exhaustion weighed heavily upon Sakura. Dawn was coming and with it the end of their first night in the forest. She had not slept since she had woken up to take the test. But no matter how heavy her eyelids were, she could not allow herself to fall asleep. Sasuke's life could very well depend on her.
Instead, she occupied herself with guarding her incapacitated teammate, occasionally checking his vital signs, and trying to think.
But no matter how hard she thought, Sakura could not think of a good way out of the situation Team 7 had fallen into. Naruto was gone; she had no idea if he was even still alive. Sasuke was unconscious and the seal on his neck was clearly bad news. Thinking about the seal brought her thoughts back to their encounter with the bizarre, utterly terrifying Kusa-nin.
Just the thought of it gave her chills. The Kusa-nin was the most horrifying shinobi Sakura had ever encountered, more like a nightmare given flesh than a living, breathing ninja… and he was after Sasuke.
Sakura could hardly imagine why a monster like that would be interested in any genin, Uchiha or not, but it had apparently saved their lives. He hadn't intended to kill them from the very beginning; his only objective had been to toy with Sasuke and leave his 'gift' behind. The chillingly reptilian Grass-nin was not done playing around with her teammate, either. He would have killed her if that wasn't the case. The only reason she was still alive was so that Sasuke wasn't killed while he was helpless; it was the only reason she could think of.
She had been utterly helpless again. She hadn't been able to do anything at all. The only reason she was alive was because she had a use, and because she just wasn't worth killing. There was nothing she could have done against a shinobi of that level—she wasn't even sure what that level was, only it was clearly far above her—but it still filled her with bitter feelings. The reason she had entered the Chuunin Exam was because she wanted to become strong, because she wanted to change herself. But despite her resolution, nothing had changed at all.
Her hands curled into fists.
Sakura winced, her eyes watering, and she put a hand over her eyes. The sun? Dawn had finally come. Light pierced through the forest canopy, driving back the gloom of the forest.
There was a subtle noise behind her, like the faint sigh of grass moving to the wind's will. Except, Sakura tensed, her hand slowly, inconspicuously removing a kunai from her holster, there's no wind right now.
She sprang upwards, whirling as she did so. Gray shapes made themselves known in her peripheral vision. Sakura launched the kunai the moment she saw them, even before she had fully completed her turn. No allies of Team 7 had been wearing gray clothes when they had entered the forest.
Otogakure, her mind made the connection almost instantly the moment she saw the musical note stamped into their hitai-ate. It was the same team that had attacked that friendly older genin, Kabuto, before the first exam had started.
There was a loud clang as her kunai was deflected by something metal. Sakura narrowed her eyes, studying the stooped Oto genin with the strange brown mantle. A metal bracer? Sakura wondered. The metallic noise when her kunai had met his forearm meant that there was something metal beneath his long gray sleeves.
"Sloppy," he commented, sounding amused. His bandage-covered head tilted, "Not enough sleep?"
Sakura set her jaw firmly, trying to contain the quiver that ran through her. "What do you want?" she asked coldly.
"We're here to see Sasuke-kun," their evident leader replied smoothly. "Would you wake him up?"
"What do you want with him?" Sakura demanded heatedly. "We don't even have a scroll anymore! Can't you see that he's in no condition to fight?" A bolt of icy fear lanced down her spine. What do I do?
The Oto genin looked taken aback for a moment. Finally, bandage-head replied, "Even so, we'd like to have a few words with Sasuke-kun."
"Words?" the brown-shirted boy slouching on the rock sat up straight, scoffing. He smirked maliciously at Sakura. "We're not here to talk! We're here to fight!"
"Hmph," the Sound kunoichi rolled her eyes and folded her arms. "Our orders are to…"
"Kin!" bandage-head interrupted, cutting off her words.
Sakura reached into her equipment pouch and pulled out one of her few remaining kunai. Their orders…? They're not here for a scroll? She shifted her weight and settled into a defensive posture, keeping her eyes focused on the three Oto-nin. "What are your orders?" Sakura demanded. "What does the Sound want with Sasuke-kun?"
"It's nothing," the leader said smoothly. "We're just here to see if the Uchiha live up to their reputation."
It didn't matter what they wanted with Sasuke. There was no way Sasuke could fight in his condition, and there was no way she could let the Sound genin do anything to her unconscious teammate. She stiffened her spine resolutely, ignoring the fear that clamored from the dark corners of her mind, whispering all of her doubts and fears over and over again so that she could never forget.
I can do this, Sakura told herself.
You're going to die, the whispers said.
She glared at the three foreign genin, willing her body to stay still, her face to stay calm. Betraying her fear would be disastrous.
"This is boring," the brown-clad genin complained darkly, hopping off of his perch on the rock. "I'll kill some time with this girl," he commented to his teammates, his eyes never leaving Sakura's, "and then we'll wake this Sasuke guy up and play with him."
The kunoichi, the one the leader had called Kin, snorted derisively. "I don't think you'll kill very much time with her," she commented, eyeing Sakura.
"Do what you want," the slouching leader sighed.
Sakura tensed, quashing the fury that had risen in response to the other kunoichi's contemptuous appraisal. I'll protect Sasuke-kun, she thought resolutely, determined to prove herself. This time… this time she would…
You will fail.
No. She had to be capable of that much. If she couldn't even defend her teammates when they were down, even if it was three against one, what was she worth?
Who was she kidding?
…Even if it was three against one?
Even if it was one against one, she probably couldn't succeed.
Sakura could barely remember the last time she had won a fight, and she had never won one that actually mattered.
She wasn't a true ninja at heart. She wasn't strong, not in her body or her heart. Her intelligence had never once made a difference against the few real foes she had faced. Outwitting Naruto in training was nothing like outthinking an enemy willing to cut her down.
How could she possibly protect herself, much less her teammates?
How could she survive this, much less defend Sasuke?
She was worthless.
Sakura blinked rapidly, struggling to keep her thoughts from showing, and in an instant her enemy attacked.
Metal clanged as Sakura smoothly deflected the shuriken with her kunai, unwilling to move from her defensive crouch. A moment later, her opponent sped past the pebble the she had placed as a marker. Her kunai twitched and the wire was cut. The log-trap descended in a blur, and the charging genin let loose a startled curse a moment too late. Ninja and log collided explosively, sending a shower of dirt and wood-chips flying throughout the area.
The sense of triumph that should have followed was held back by foreboding. What caused that explosion? Sakura wondered nervously, trying to make out anything through the dust. The log-trap she had set up definitely should not have exploded. The spike-pit nearby didn't have any explosives in it either.
A powerful wind blasted into Sakura, knocking her over and sending her rolling backwards. As soon as she regained control of her tumble she used her momentum to roll to her feet again. Sakura gritted her teeth, struggling to shake off her fear, and braced herself incase another blast hit her. The wind she had just been hit with reminded her of the technique the Grass-nin had used to separate Team 7.
The dust had finally cleared enough for her to see her opponent again. His dark eyes met hers, his expression smug. "How did you like that?" her enemy taunted, his palm still pointing towards her.
There's a… tube… in his hand? What is he?
He was an enemy ninja wielding a strange but devastating technique that she did not comprehend. Whatever else he was did not matter.
Once again, her knowledge let her down. She had no idea what techniques her enemy possessed. It didn't seem to be Fuuton jutsu, and she had never heard of wind techniques that made use of tubes in the body. She didn't know her enemy, and she had nothing in her arsenal to surprise him. Even if she was able to work something out with only Bunshin, Kawarimi, Henge, the traps she had left, and her remaining tools, there was still the matter of his teammates.
Her enemies outnumbered her three to one.
Even one foe was too much for her to deal with. How could she deal with three? A failure like her couldn't possibly do it. She had been useless against the Onikyoudai and helpless against Zabuza. Her contribution to the mission in Taki no Kuni had ended catastrophically and left her with nightmares that still hadn't faded.
She had bowed her head to a bully again, pressed her face into the dirt of her own will out of fear, even though she was a kunoichi.
How could anyone expect her to defend herself, much less her unconscious teammate?
It wasn't possible.
It just wasn't possible.
Disgust welled up deep within her. Bile rose in her throat. The bitter taste in her mouth was more than she could bear.
She was worthless, again.
She was helpless, again.
Why was she even here? Why was she in the Chuunin Exams, risking her life for something she didn't really want?
To change yourself.
That was right. She had entered because she hated herself, because she wanted to change, to step forward and become something more than she was.
She wanted to change.
What could she do?
What do you want to do?
She wanted to change.
She didn't know. How could she change? How did a person change themselves? What path did she need to take to become the person she wanted to be?
Sakura had no answers, only questions. In the end, she really didn't know anything important at all. She didn't know who she was or where she was going. She didn't know why she was a ninja, why she fought, or what she was fighting for.
What had set her on this path?
Where did she want to go, and what did she want to do?
Sakura didn't know anything. She didn't have any answers, only questions.
She didn't know what she wanted, why she was here, or where she wanted to go anymore.
Sakura was frightened. She was terrified of her foes, of the situation she was in, of failing yet again and adding to the many failures that already threatened to bury her.
She was scared of death. She had seen it in the Grass-nin's eyes, tasted it, felt it, and the knowledge of death would never leave her again.
Most of all, she was afraid of herself and everything that she was not and might never be.
Uchiha Sasuke was behind her, unconscious, just as helpless as her for once in his life. His life depended on her. Sasuke's life rested in Sakura's weak, trembling hands, whether he wanted it or not. Uchiha Sasuke had been her crush, her dream, her goal, and he had crushed everything she had offered him like she was so much trash. Despite all of that, even if there were no ties like the ones she had dreamed were between them, even if all he saw her as was trash, they were still teammates.
Those who abandoned their teammates were worse than trash.
Kakashi-sensei had taught her that. Taki no Kuni had taught her that.
Naruto, the teammate she had abandoned, had taught her that.
She wanted to change.
She wanted to be better than she was.
What do you want to do?
Sakura wanted to fight.
She wanted to fight and she wanted to win. She wanted to defend her teammate, to be better than she had been, to take a step forward towards becoming the kind of person she wanted to be.
That was right.
She didn't understand what was happening. She didn't understand the solemn sea of relatives in black, the incense, why Grandpa and Grandma were sleeping even though they had come back from their trip with Daddy and everyone had come to see them.
"Mommy, what's happening? Why are Grandpa and Grandma sleeping?"
Even back then, all she had were questions.
Later, even though she finally understood, she still didn't have any answers.
"Daddy, how come you walk like that? What happened to your leg?"
And she still didn't really know anything.
It had taken years for her to understand what had happened to her grandparents and what had crippled her father. It had taken even longer for her to understand why her father was only crippled and not gone like her grandparents. A ninja had saved her father's life. They hadn't been able to save her grandparents, or her father's leg, but her father was alive because of a Konoha ninja. That was when she had decided to become a ninja. She would save people like the ninja that had saved her father, only she would do it better. She wouldn't only partially succeed. With that determination, she had begged her parents to enroll her in the Academy. She hadn't really understood what it would mean, hadn't known what she would have to sacrifice or the risks she would have to take. When she had made her choice, she had been a little girl with a hazy dream.
But just because she hadn't understood, and maybe still didn't understand… that didn't mean that the determination that she had felt then was wrong.
It didn't mean that her choice was wrong.
She had wanted to be strong, but not just for the sake of having strength. It was not so that she could hold her head up high. She had not needed to match anyone, not back then, and she had no concern as to whose back she was looking at. It had nothing to do with pride. It had nothing to do with her tears or her shame; bullies and schoolyard mockery had not driven her to change her life.
It wasn't for Ino.
It wasn't for Sasuke.
No, that wasn't it at all.
From the very beginning… where she was going and what she wanted to do… the reason why she had stepped onto the bloody road of the ninja…
It had all been to protect her precious people.
She remembered now. That was why she had entered the Academy. That was why she studied, even though it wasn't fun or rewarding. That was why she trained, even though it was hard, even though it hurt. That was why she would risk her life, even though she was scared.
That was why she would fight, even though she could die, even if she became a murderer. Even if the girl she had been would look at her and see a monster, it would be all right as long as she was able to live up to that one dream.
She would fight.
Even though she was outnumbered, even though she was afraid, even though she had no chance of winning… Haruno Sakura would fight, because she had something to protect.
That was the kind of person she wanted to become.
That was why she was a ninja.
In the end, it was so simple she wanted to laugh.
Sakura quieted her fear and took a calming breath, steadying her breathing.
If Haruno Sakura wanted to be a ninja to protect the things that were precious to her, then she had to fight.
And she had to win.
No matter what, defeat was not an option, not while she had something to protect. Never again would she abandon a teammate. She would never feel worse than trash again, because she wouldn't give herself a reason to.
Sakura stared into the cold eyes of her enemy and, for the first time, felt no doubt. She was still scared, but fear was just something she had to conquer.
I can win, she thought. The realization was part epiphany, part faith.
It would be tough. He was probably a better ninja than her, and he had teammates by his side. Still, the chance for victory existed. It was so distant that she couldn't see the path that would lead her there, but it was there. All she had to do was take a step forward and the way would become a little clearer. If she kept moving forward, kept looking for a way to win, the path to victory would open up.
A small, genuine smile crossed her face. An instant later, she launched a barrage of shuriken towards her foe.
He snorted contemptuously. Air roared; Sakura's shuriken shot back towards her, moving even faster than when she had thrown them.
Those tubes… they can somehow blast air. Which meant that fighting at range was not a good idea, but if she closed the distance… taijutsu was her weakest point among the three principle ninja arts.
Still, she leapt backwards, creating more distance. She needed some more time to come up with a plan, and venturing closer to her opponent's teammates wasn't a good idea.
…Where was the kunoichi?
A dreadful premonition crossed her mind, but it was too late. A firm hand yanked her hair, driving her down to the ground. It was almost textbook perfect in its execution. It should have worked, would have worked, except Sakura was used to opponents putting her in submission holds from behind. Training with Naruto and battling his numerous Kage Bunshin had seen to that, if nothing else. Instantly, instinctively, Sakura sent a burst of chakra through her feet and drove herself upwards and backwards desperately. If she couldn't break the hold on her hair, she would be trapped.
Her vision exploded into white as her skull smashed into the Sound kunoichi's chin with a loud crack. Sakura leapt away, blind and heedless of direction, as soon as she felt the grip on her hair loosen. Her head was ringing like a bell, but she knew she couldn't stop moving. It was three against one, and if she got trapped it would all be over.
Her experiences from training with Naruto had taught her how to fight against multiple opponents. Fighting his Kage Bunshin was a lot easier than fighting the three Oto-nin, but the same principles applied. She had to stay mobile in order to evade being trapped or outflanked, and she had to attack before the Sound genin could recover their balance. If she lost the initiative, her chances of coming out alive went down drastically.
There was only one choice that made sense. The Sound kunoichi, Kin, was partially stunned by the hard blow to her chin and she was the closest enemy to Sakura. That meant that not only was she the closest threat, but also the closest opportunity.
Sakura reversed course instantly, thrusting chakra out her feet as though she had plenty to burn, blowing soil away from her feet as she launched herself back towards her target. In actuality, she was nearing her limit, having had no chance to really rest since she had entered the forest. But in light of the situation, conservation wasn't a consideration. Victory was all that mattered, and victory required speed.
She hammered into the other kunoichi with her shoulder, sacrificing grace and technique in order to keep from having to slow down and potentially give Kin a chance to recover any more than she had. Kin wheezed as the air was driven from her lungs by the impact, but her hands nonetheless managed to grasp Sakura and pull the Konoha genin with her as she was knocked to the ground.
"Dosu! Zaku!" Kin screamed hoarsely, struggling to restrain Sakura. "Finish her!"
Sakura twisted violently, frantically. Her back was exposed to the world and she couldn't move. All Kin's two teammates needed to do was throw a kunai and she would have almost no chance of evading it. She needed to escape the Sound kunoichi's grasp quickly, or she was dead.
Sakura bit into Kin's shoulder viciously, clamping her teeth down as hard as she could, and jerked her head like a dog tearing flesh from bone. The dark-haired kunoichi screamed in agony and for an instant the grip pinning Sakura's arms loosened.
Time was running out. The one called Zaku was nearly upon her. A few more seconds, and she would be dead.
The painful grip on her hair and the legs that trapped hers kept her from rising, but her right hand was free.
Sakura drew a kunai from her equipment pouch rapidly.
She had to move. If she didn't move, she would die. If she died, Sasuke would die too.
The thought of killing made her sick inside. It had ever since Taki no Kuni, though the feeling had started back in Wave Country when she had gotten her first real sight of violent death first hand.
The thought of failing again, of abandoning yet another comrade because she didn't see what had to be done or couldn't stomach doing it, made her even sicker.
She had become a shinobi because she wanted to protect the people that were precious to her.
She had decided to fight and win, no matter what.
There was no time for thought or second-guessing. Deep inside, Haruno Sakura's answer to the question had already been decided.
Sakura buried the kunai in Kin's neck, opposite of where she was biting the girl. Blood, warm and thick, gushed over her right hand. More hit Sakura's cheek as Kin let loose a bloody, bubbling gasp. The sensation barely registered as Sakura violently wrenched herself from the dying kunoichi's grip, her hands flying through seals.
Zaku's attack came less than a second later, delivering sure death to the log that was Sakura's replacement.
Don't think, Sakura told herself fiercely as she swiftly descended towards Zaku, a fistful of shuriken in each hand.
She couldn't afford to think about the blood, or the wet sound of a dying enemy's gasp.
That was all she could allow herself to think about. Keep moving, keep evading death and pursuing victory.
She launched the shuriken, then starting forming seals again.
Zaku had spotted her, and the shuriken, and released another blast of wind even stronger than before, buffeting Sakura and sending her weapons spinning straight back towards her. But that was okay; she had expected it.
Again, only a log was left to meet the attack.
Sakura charged towards Zaku's back, the last kunai in her equipment pouch gripped tightly in her fist.
She would fight.
And she would win… even if it meant killing, even if it meant her life.
To protect the things she had decided to protect, that was what she had to do.
When she had decided to become a ninja that was the choice she made.
Without hesitation, without mercy, Sakura closed the distance between her and Zaku and plunged the kunai into his side. It was not an instantly lethal blow, but it was enough to give her time to finish him.
Or it would have been, if she hadn't just stabbed a log.
"You're not the only one who can do Kawarimi no Jutsu, you know," a voice said from behind her.
Sakura started to move, to throw herself forward, but it was too late.
What was she seeing?
Yamanaka Ino could barely comprehend what was happening. Sasuke was unconscious. Naruto was nowhere in sight. Sakura was fighting by herself against the genin from the Sound.
It was not what she had been expecting to see when she had dragged her team to observe Team 7 after Chouji had spotted Sakura facing off against the Oto-nin.
How could she have grown so much?
Where was the shy, cute little girl who had cried so easily?
Sakura had fought a desperate, furious battle against an obviously superior enemy. It would have been utterly impossible for the Sakura Ino knew. But then, it had quickly become obvious that that Sakura was gone. In her place was a skilled kunoichi that had seemingly gone head to head with two opponents that she shouldn't have been able to match and come out even, if not ahead.
Sakura's swift reaction to the duo's trap spoke of quick reflexes and combat experience. Ino wasn't sure she could have gotten out of the Sound kunoichi's hold in time, much less turn around and bring her down instead.
Then Sakura was pinned.
"Oi!" Shikamaru hissed, alarmed. "Ino! At this rate…"
He didn't need to say it. Ino could see it herself.
Sakura was going to die if she couldn't get out of that hold before the brown-clad genin with the cheek-guards got to her.
But weren't they rivals? Wasn't this the Chuunin Exams? Should she interfere, even though she would probably get her team killed?
They would be in over their heads. Ino could admit at least that much to herself. Her team was probably the weakest in the exam as far as combat went. As long as she was being honest with herself, she could even admit that she would fare no better than Sakura.
How could she leave that girl alone?
There was no way she could do that. Their rivalry had yet to reach a conclusion; she couldn't allow Sakura to die until she acknowledged Ino's victory.
Besides, it would be four against three. Those odds weren't too bad, right?
Four against two.
What was she looking at, again?
Did she just see…?
Ino watched, stunned, as Sakura wrenched herself free from the dying kunoichi's grip. She couldn't move as Zaku stabbed her, only to find that Sakura had evaded him once more.
You've grown up so much, Sakura. The realization was bittersweet. The little flower she had once seen had blossomed beautifully after all. How much have you changed?
Suddenly, it was as if the gulf between them had widened into a vast, yawning chasm. More than Sasuke lied between them now. Sakura had changed so much in the time they had been apart. How much of their friendship was left?
How much of the little girl Ino had first met was left?
Then the Oto-nin was behind Sakura, and Sakura was moving desperately, too slow, and for some reason Ino was moving too.
Then she wasn't.
I can't move! Why! I need to move! I have to save…!
"Ino," Shikamaru's tense voice suddenly revealed everything.
"Shikamaru!" she hissed desperately. "Let go! I have to…!"
"Look!" he said urgently. "You can't go out there right now! It's too dangerous!"
Ino looked, gasping as she saw what was making Shikamaru so nervous.
It was Sasuke.
It was Sasuke, but…
It felt like filthy, oily sludge had been poured over her.
It felt like evil.
Sakura didn't know how else to explain the feeling that welled within her as she looked at her savior. Sasuke-kun had saved her, had batted away Zaku almost contemptuously with a single blow, but for some reason she wasn't happy about it. How could she be? The dark, inky marks that had spread across his skin gave him an almost sinister appearance, and the crimson Sharingan didn't help.
But the dark chakra that was leaking from Sasuke filled her with foreboding. She could feel the power; its potency lapped against her skin like waves on the seashore. Yet she could only describe it as disgusting, unclean.
It felt monstrous.
"…Sakura." She nearly jumped as Sasuke spoke. Even his voice sounded menacing. "…Who did that to you?"
"…Sasuke-kun?" she hated how weak her voice sounded.
What happened to you? What did that Kusa-nin do to you?
"We did," Zaku grinned in anticipation despite the blood slowly winding down his face. It was clear that he was relishing the moment.
"Sasuke-kun," she managed, her voice a bit stronger. "Your body…"
What happened? Sakura begged silently. Why does your chakra feel so wrong?
"Don't worry," Sasuke said, his voice still cold and sharp. "I feel power overflowing from within me… I feel… great..."
How could he feel great? Couldn't he feel the taint he was giving off?
"He gave it to me," Sasuke continued, but this time he seemed to be talking to himself.
"Huh?" Sakura felt lost.
"I finally understand it. I am an avenger." His fists clenched, "Even if I must eat the devil's fruit, I am on a path where I must gain power."
What are you saying?
She didn't understand. Only… his words filled her with dread. "Sasuke-kun…" What could she say?
Sasuke looked at the two remaining Sound ninja. The putrid chakra flared, amplified. Murderous intent filled the air.
"Now," Sasuke growled, "it was you guys, right?"
Consciousness, Naruto had lately discovered, was overrated.
When you weren't conscious things didn't hurt nearly as much, or at least you weren't aware of it, which was almost just as good.
The first time he had fallen unconscious during the exam had hardly been pleasant, but it had actually been rather pain free in hindsight. Getting blasted by an enormous gust of chakra-enhanced wind and nearly getting eaten by a giant snake were actually not too bad, all things considered.
Considering what happened after that… the pain he was feeling was nothing compared to the pain he had felt before he had fallen unconscious the second time. Compared to the pain then, when he had been cut and burned and broken, when his skin was blackened and cracked and weeping…
He closed his eyes tightly, his breathing growing erratic.
Don't think about it, he told himself desperately. Don't think about it, don't remember, just shove it aside and move forward.
It was the only thing he could do, because remembering those sensations would break him if he thought about it too much.
He winced as he shifted slightly, his still too sensitive skin protesting as his back rubbed against the hard ground beneath him. Naruto sat up cautiously, half-expecting his body to be too ravaged to comply. He was pleasantly surprised to find that he was actually in pretty good shape. No burns, cuts, or broken bones as far as he could tell. Sure, his skin still felt weird, and he ached all over, but he could deal with that.
So, his body was fine. He even had his clothes again, which was great.
That left the little matter of where he was and how he had gotten there.
"You're up," a friendly, familiar voice observed.
Naruto gaped in surprise for a moment. "Kabuto-san!" he exclaimed, shooting to his feet and immediately wincing at his body's sharp protest at the moment.
Apparently his body was not totally fine just yet.
The grey-haired genin frowned sternly, "Don't strain yourself, Naruto-kun. You were pretty beat up when I found you."
Now he knew how he had gotten to his present location. Things were looking up.
"You found me?"
Kabuto nodded solemnly, "I was scouting out some of the other teams. You were collapsed on the ground when I found you." He paused before continuing almost hesitantly, "You were… in pretty rough shape."
Naruto stared at the older genin uncertainly. Did he suspect something? How could Naruto explain away the side-effects of the Kyuubi's presence? Even so, if Kabuto hadn't come along… he didn't even want to think about what could have happened to him, alone and unconscious in the Forest of Death. "Thanks," he said finally, roughly, trying to conceal the emotion clouding his voice.
"It was nothing," Kabuto shrugged modestly. "Konoha-nin have to look out for each other, right?"
Naruto grinned. "Right!" he agreed.
"If you don't mind, could you tell me what happened to you?" Kabuto asked curiously. "It doesn't look like you just got into a fight…"
Naruto's grin faltered as he struggled to contain the tide of dark emotions that surged up. "I got separated from my team," he said finally. "The Kiri-nin caught me. They didn't like me that much," he explained lightly.
"I could see that," Kabuto said dryly. "You didn't like them very much either, right?"
Naruto frowned at him, "…What?"
"When I went to get your clothes, I saw some of the…" he trailed off, searching for the right word, "…remains."
It was hard for Naruto not to flinch at that. He had lost control again. As a result, his enemies' blood painted the battlefield, but still…
He still remembered Kakashi-sensei's words very well. One day, he could lose control and it would be his comrades who paid. His imagination could paint a stark picture of what he would see when he emerged from the darkness if that ever happened. The blood painting the battlefield wouldn't only be from his enemies.
Naruto could imagine it all too well. He knew exactly what it would look like now.
"You don't have to tell me," Kabuto said, interrupting the stretching silence. "But we should probably get moving now that you're up. I think we've been in one place for too long."
"Um, yeah," Naruto blinked and nodded uncertainly, shoving the image away. He paused. "We?" Naruto asked.
"I'll help you find your team," Kabuto smiled. "As a medic, I can't leave an injured comrade alone."
"You're a medic?" Naruto asked, startled.
Kabuto frowned, "Is that strange?"
"No, no," Naruto laughed nervously, wondering if he had offended the nice older genin. He didn't even know why he was surprised. Male medical ninja weren't that rare. Naruto coughed before exclaiming, "Let's get going!"
He looked around for a moment, trying to get his bearings. The ancient, twisted trees of the Forest of Death loomed as high as ever, their thick green canopies little more than gloomy shadows to Naruto's vision. Broken light bloomed in mottled patterns on the cool forest floor. Where's the sun? The forest was surprisingly tricky to navigate; it took several moments for Naruto to figure out the rough direction to where his team had last been. Finally, nodding to himself, Naruto began marching forward determinedly.
"This way, Kabuto-san," Naruto said tersely, not bothering to look back. He didn't want the other genin to see his rising uncertainty. Oh man, I hope this is the right way. The more he thought about it the less certain he became.
Behind him, Kabuto adjusted his glasses and sighed wearily before following Naruto.
They moved at a modest pace, partly due to Naruto's lingering soreness and exhaustion and partly because he wasn't sure if he was going in the right direction. Getting blown away by a massive Fuuton jutsu and then getting kidnapped had done wonders to make him lose his bearings.
Finally, Kabuto could take it no longer. Stopping, he raised his voice, "Naruto-kun."
Naruto turned, "Yeah?"
"Do you know where you are going?" Kabuto bluntly asked.
"…Um," Naruto stalled. He scratched his head sheepishly. "Not really," he admitted.
Kabuto sighed again, counted to five slowly, and pulled out a map. "Here's where we are," he pointed, showing Naruto the map. "Now, where were you separated from the rest of your team?"
Squinting thoughtfully, Naruto studied the map. Mentally he began retracting Team 7's steps from their access gate to where they had been separated. "Here," Naruto stabbed his finger down.
Something in Kabuto's tone offended Naruto. "Of course!" he said indignantly.
"All right," Kabuto nodded amiably, folding up his map and slipping it back into his equipment pouch. "Shall we go?" he asked, already starting to walk again.
Naruto nodded and silently followed Kabuto. He didn't like giving up the lead, even if Kabuto was older and more experienced than him, but he had already embarrassed himself once. Besides, finding his team was more important than who led the way.
Their pace slowly but steadily crept up as strength began returning to Naruto's limbs. By the time they stumbled across the scar in the earth left behind by the blasting winds that had thrown Naruto, he was comfortable enough to leave the ground behind and take to the trees. Comfortable or not, he would have forced himself to do it once he saw the devastating aftermath of the technique he had been hit with.
Anxiety flooded through him as he stared at the rent earth. The ground had been ripped apart where the chakra-enhanced wind had passed, and the proud trees that had stood in its way now littered the area, broken and smashed, some little more than matchsticks. The guy who did this was strong, he thought grimly. Really strong. He could only pray that Sakura and Sasuke were safe. If they weren't… he shook his head, trying to dislodge the grisly images his imagination presented. Naruto didn't know what he would do. He wasn't sure he could take it if he was too late.
Tracking Sakura and Sasuke was frustrating to an already impatient Naruto, but it wasn't long before he was thanking heaven for his luck in encountering Kabuto. The older genin's experience proved invaluable in picking up their trail and staying on it. Naruto didn't think he was too shabby at tracking—for a genin, at least—but it quickly became clear that Kabuto was way better than him.
It was a cry of pain first told them they were close. Immediately, the pair of Konoha genin stopped and exchanged glances. Kabuto gestured quickly. Naruto nodded, and the pair moved cautiously forward, searching for a good vantage point to scout out the situation.
The moment Naruto cautiously peered out around the trunk of the tree he had selected he knew he had found his team. Barely a second after that registered, he began making his way closer to them. Only the fact that he had seen unfamiliar figures with them kept him from charging into the clearing. His entrance on the Great Naruto Bridge—he still savored the name every time he thought of it—in order to save Sasuke had been an embarrassment, but it had also been a good lesson. He needed to make sure he understood the situation before making any overt moves.
Naruto crouched behind a dense patch of foliage and cautiously looked through the gaps between leaves. It was immediately clear that he had found his team, and a sense of relief so potent it was almost dizzying washed over him. The gnawing anxiety he had been trying to ignore ever since he had begun to suspect the danger they might be in began to melt away.
They were alive.
Sakura-chan was scuffed and bruised, and her hands were red with blood, but she was alive and whole. Sasuke was evidently fine, given the way he was facing off against the two Sound genin.
But there was no time to celebrate. His team was fighting and he had to help them, though as far as Naruto could tell Sasuke seemed to be controlling the pace of the battle easily enough.
He squinted. What the hell is going on with Sasuke? Naruto wondered. Tendrils of unease worked through him, regaining the territory that they had lost to his earlier relief.
Whatever was going on, it wasn't normal.
Sasuke was fast, but he wasn't that fast. He was a good ninja, even if admitting it made Naruto feel dirty, but he wasn't that good. And that chakra… Whatever Sasuke was or wasn't, he definitely didn't have chakra like that. Naruto could feel it seething through the air even as far away as he was. Being able to feel raw chakra wasn't normal, and its taint gave Naruto a bad taste in his mouth.
Naruto wasn't sure what he should feel as he watched Sasuke beat the two foreign genin around almost contemptuously, like a malicious cat playing with fat mice that couldn't quite manage to get away fast enough. His relief at seeing his teammates alive and relatively unharmed had already faded. He felt faintly disgusted at the way Sasuke was playing with his enemies, but he couldn't help but feel concerned.
That weird chakra… those marks… what the hell happened while I was gone?
Sasuke's soft laughter startled Naruto. In the instant his attention had wavered, Sasuke had somehow gotten behind one of the Sound-nin and pinned him to the ground. He had his foot planted between the Oto-nin's shoulder blades while he held his enemy's arms high in the air behind him, bent at a painful angle. It was not a hold Naruto had ever seen before, but it seemed to work fine for Sasuke.
Then Sasuke smiled widely. Naruto had never seen his teammate look so happy. A moment later, Sasuke's grip shifted and his foot slammed the Oto-nin brutally into the ground. A sickening crack rang through the air as the foreign genin's arms snapped at the elbows, forearms bending back over his joints at an unnatural angle.
The Oto-nin howled in agony as he collapsed limply to the ground.
Sasuke kept smiling delightedly.
Fury filled Naruto, so hot and thick he felt like he could choke on it.
They were ninja. Naruto understood that. Everyone in the forest was an assassin, a spy, a soldier of their hidden village and their country. They fought, they hurt people, and they killed. Sometimes they did dirty things, but they did it because it was their job.
They were not supposed to enjoy hurting people. They were not supposed to smile and torture their foes just because they could, just because they wanted to. Torturing someone for no reason, causing pain to others just because they were stronger, was not right. Torturing someone was…
Memories rose, shrieking, scrabbling at the barriers he had erected to keep them shut in the dark.
…It was absolutely wrong.
That was not the way of the ninja that Naruto had set out to follow. It was not the kind of thing he could sit back and watch happen in front of him.
It was unforgivable.
Sasuke turned to the other Oto-nin, still smiling, his mouth forming words that Naruto could no longer hear over the load roaring in his ears.
He's still smiling.
Rage overwhelmed common sense. Distantly, he was aware of his body moving.
Sasuke took a half-step forward towards the last Oto genin before stopping, his head turning slightly.
Naruto barely registered Sakura's voice. The world around him blurred, dissolved away. All he could see was that smirk.
He had to get rid of it.
Naruto stepped into range, chakra kicking up small plumes of dust where his feet hit the ground, and lashed out with a fist aimed unerringly towards Sasuke's pale, unusually marked face.
Almost contemptuously, Sasuke turned the attack away with one hand while the other moved to strike, to capitalize on the opening.
There was no time for Naruto to think, to comprehend Sasuke's attack or figure out how to counter it. His guard was down, and his enemy was faster than he had ever been; Sasuke's counter-punch was barely a blur to Naruto's eyes.
It was an attack that was impossible for him to avoid. They were too close. Sasuke was too fast.
Naruto reeled backwards, his head ringing from Sasuke's blow. He glared at his smug looking teammate.
How could he possibly get through to Sasuke if he couldn't even manage to avoid one counter? But one hit had told Naruto enough. Sasuke's fist was too fast for him as he was now. He could not dodge it or block it. It would hit him no matter how he tried to defend himself.
He did not have skill. He was completely talentless. He did not have any inborn talents. From the very beginning, Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki Naruto had been on different levels. Objectively, there was no way he could win.
Naruto had none of Sasuke's advantages. But… that didn't mean he lacked anything to call his own.
"The moment in which the enemy attacks is often the time he is most vulnerable, Naruto-sama. Learn to feel the moment, to grasp the instant your opponent commits," Haku's soft voice whispered from his memories. "When you can understand that, you will be able to cut through your enemy's attacks."
He had someone to look after now, someone who looked after him in return, someone to come home to.
He had promised her that he would do his best. He couldn't let her down. There was no way he could let the things she had taught him lose against Sasuke.
He had a team now; his friends, his comrades, his first real bonds.
Because of that, he had to stop Sasuke. He couldn't let one of his precious people soil their hands with other people's pain. He couldn't sit back and watch Sasuke smile while he hurt people.
Part of being friends, part of being family, was scolding them when they did bad things.
A shout rose in Naruto's chest. He launched himself back at Sasuke.
His mind couldn't think fast enough, his eyes couldn't see Sasuke's punch, but that was fine. Even without them, his body understood; it knew instantly how to respond. He had faced faster attacks hundreds of times already.
He wasn't a prodigy, but he had been hit by attacks just like Sasuke's—or even faster—hundreds of times in the past month alone.
In the end, what did it matter if he couldn't see Sasuke's counter?
The answer was simple.
It didn't matter.
Sasuke became a blur. Without thought, without understanding, Naruto's arm moved.
Haku walked along the street that would take her back to Ichiraku's, grocery sacks swinging lightly in her hands. Teuchi had started sending her out for supplies once he had realized that despite her being the most delicate looking, she happened to be the strongest out of all three of them. It was not a task she relished, despite it letting her get away from the heat of the stoves and into the open air for a time.
Being around so many people was difficult and mentally tiring. She still struggled with old fears, and the lack of even the most superficial disguise only made her disquiet more intense. Worse was the anxiety over Naruto that bubbled up inexorably whenever she was alone with her thoughts.
Her imagination never failed to conjure her nightmares, images that reflected the terror that lurked in the dark corners of her mind, whenever her mind turned to him.
Not knowing was the hardest thing of all.
It had been three days since she had last seen him. In a few more days, the first two exams would be over and he would come home again. All she could do was wait.
So she waited, working with as much enthusiasm as she was able to muster and training until she could barely walk. It had been an exhausting couple of days. But no matter how hard she tried, she was not able to drown her worries with work. She could not silence her dreams with exhaustion.
How was he? Was he safe? Healthy? Did he need her help? What if…?
The uncertainty would drive her insane if she let it. So would the knowledge that she could not be there to help him. She had stayed silent and stood aside as he entered the Chuunin Exams, believing in the boy who had saved her, supporting his dreams the only way she could.
Haku still thought she had done the right thing. But every day that passed made it harder and harder for her to believe that. Every day, her nightmares grew darker, stronger.
If anything happened to him because she was not there for him…
It would be just like that day.
If something like that happened again, she would…
No, she thought again as forcefully as she could, as if by thinking about it strongly enough she could brand her denial into her brain and make it permanent.
That was behind her.
Naruto was not the same as Zabuza. Today was not the same as that day.
Things were different now.
She had a home. She had a friend. She could live without being hunted.
Haku knew she had to keep moving forward. She could not allow the past or her fears to control her. A blade with such cracks was certain to shatter, to fail against the enemy, and she would not allow herself to be a flawed weapon ever again.
It was hard though.
Her fears did not care about her determination. Reason and will meant nothing to the darkness in her heart. All she could do was wrestle her terror back down whenever it surged up. But that was all right, as long as she continued to win. Even if the margin for victory was narrow, it was enough as long as she was able to maintain the careful thread of her sanity and reason.
If she hurt someone because of her own weakness again, she would never be able to forgive herself. The cut on Ayame's face had been small, and it had already faded, but Haku had not forgotten.
She was not superhuman, to be able to make a resolution and carry it through immediately and without fault. She was not strong enough to overcome her flaws so easily. Sometimes determination and will were not enough.
Change took time.
Haku understood that. It was frustrating, but she understood. But she wanted to change so badly. She had failed so many times because of her weakness.
But it would not happen in a day, no matter how much she wished for it.
All she could do was remember her resolutions and try to remain true to them every day, for as long as it took. Sometimes she would succeed. Sometimes she would fail. But she had to keep moving forward.
Haku closed her eyes, struggling to banish her worries and willing herself to think about something else.
The impact stunned her, sending her stumbling back several paces. One of the grocery bags slipped out of her hand and landed on the ground with a thud, sending several onions rolling across the ground.
Haku stared, unsettled, at the tall man she had bumped into. He was tall, brown-haired and brown-eyed, and heavily muscled. His sun-weathered skin and his clothes gave the impression of a construction worker.
That she had been so distracted by her internal turmoil that she had bumped into someone before she realized he was there… for a kunoichi used to being pursued by bounty hunters and Kiri's hunter-nin, it was immensely troubling.
She had to get her act together. She was getting too soft, too weak.
"Sorry!" the man blurted apologetically. He scratched his neck, looking embarrassed, "I wasn't looking where I was going and…"
"No," Haku said softly, though it took a moment for her to find her voice. "It was my fault." Inwardly, she was berating herself bitterly. If he had been an enemy, he could have killed her easily. Once again, her weakness had led to failure.
"No, no," he protested. "It was really my…" he trailed off, looking at the bag of groceries at his feet. "Oh!" he said, bending down to gather the items that had slipped out and picking up the bag. Haku watched warily as he approached, holding the bag in front of him. "Here," he offered, smiling.
"…Thank you," she accepted the bag cautiously.
"It was nothing," he beamed. "Really, I'm sorry about bumping into you," he apologized once more before getting on his way.
Haku watched him go silently, still shaken by her incredible lapse in awareness.
It was unacceptable. Somehow, she had to figure out how to get a handle on herself. If she could not control herself…
A slight stinging sensation on her hand broke her train of thought. Haku raised her right hand, dusty grocery bag rising in tow, and frowned at the small drop of red blood welling from the pale skin on top of it.
A mosquito must have bitten her, judging from the fact that she had not felt a thing until after the fact.
Nonetheless, suspicions began to form. She turned her head slightly, looking behind her.
Now was not the time to let paranoia take control of her.
Haku shoved aside her troubled thoughts and continued her journey back to the ramen stand, her pace brisk in order make up for the delay.
He stepped into his hotel room, locked the door behind him, and then swept through the room, searching for anything that was out of place. Once he was done, Takai Kouta finally allowed himself to relax.
Carefully, he pulled out a small glass bottle from its hiding place inside his shirt. Kouta held it up, studying the slender needle and the small drop of blood that stained it.
"What are you going to tell me?" he asked the bottle softly.
His hand trembled slightly. It was possible that he was finally holding on to the thing he had sought for nearly twenty years. He would take it back to Kirigakure himself as soon as night fell. There, he could have it analyzed and compared against the data he had meticulously collected over the years.
If it really was what he thought it might be, then he could finally achieve his dream. The reason why he had become a shinobi and driven himself all the way to jounin… it was at long last in his grasp.
Father, Mother… just a little longer.
A little longer and he would have his vengeance.
Kirigakure's purge of the bloodlines had been bloody and brutal. Civil war had gripped the whole country. It was not just ninja against ninja. Fear, hatred, and suspicion had filled the nation. To be suspected of carrying tainted blood meant death.
There had been so much death.
Ninja clans, especially those bearing bloodline limits, were not rabbits to be hunted. They fought back, whenever and however they could.
Innocents in that war were few and far between, but his parents had been among them. Kouta was sure of that.
It hadn't mattered.
They had been killed by ninja. He was sure of that too. There was no way they would have had frostbitten limbs in spring otherwise.
His life had been ruined. Kouta's uncle took him in, and while he hadn't hated the man, he was not Kouta's father. His wife was not Kouta's mother. Their house wasn't his home. But he had lived, or gone through the motions of living, without any thought of seeing justice done. Shinobi had killed his parents; what could a peasant boy possibly do?
A single conversation had changed his life. He had been nearing eight, and had lived for more than a year without his parents. His grief had become a hollow thing, and by that time he barely remembered what their faces looked like anymore, but he still hadn't found anything else to replace it with.
Two soldiers, bodyguards of the local lord, had been complaining to each other about a nuke-nin that had been assassinating nobles.
"What does he think we are? How are we going to protect him if some ninja comes after his head?"
"…hell if I know. All I know is it's not what I signed up for. Everyone knows it takes a ninja to deal with another ninja. Cheap bastard needs to…"
Kouta had forgotten most of their conversation, but he still remembered the words that had given him purpose.
It took a ninja to deal with another ninja.
If he was a ninja, he could hunt down his parent's murderers.
It was a simple idea, but in reality it nearly broke him. His first few years in the Bloody Mist had been brutal, and he had come so close to forgetting his parents altogether more times than he could count. But in the end he survived, graduated from the academy, and became a genin. His next few years remained a desperate struggle for survival as he clawed his way up to chuunin, and there was little time to even think about his parents when he was desperately training and fighting for his life.
Things were a bit different in the Mist now. His genin certainly hadn't faced the things he had.
It wasn't until he had become a chuunin that he could return to pursuing his original goal. By then, he knew that if the shinobi who had killed his parents had used ice, then they had to have a bloodline limit. That kind of chakra wasn't possible any other way.
With that knowledge in mind, he had begun investigating the purge and all of the bloodlines Kiri kept records of. Eventually, he had found one. There had been a clan capable of wedding wind and water to create ice.
Supposedly, they had been wiped out.
But Kouta had not struggled to become a ninja of Kirigakure for so little. If they were extinct, he had to make sure.
Making sure had taken him many years. He continued on, searching, training, and taking missions. Eventually, he became a jounin and the information he had access to increased exponentially. But even with his new rank, things didn't change. Many times, despair had almost overtaken him.
If they really had been wiped out, it would all have been for nothing. It was a thought that had kept him awake for many nights over the years.
Then, finally, the situation changed.
Zabuza, one of the infamous Seven Swordsmen of the Mist, had tried to overthrow the Mizukage. He had failed, but he had also escaped with his life.
A few years later, one of the hunter-nin that went after them had been found dead. It was unusual because the way he had been killed didn't resemble Zabuza's methods, or those of any of his known associates.
There had been faint signs of frostbite on the body.
Kouta had followed Zabuza's trail for years, growing more and more certain that he had finally found a concrete lead.
Zabuza died, but the trail didn't grow cold. The people of the Wave had been buzzing about the circumstances behind his end for months. Discreet questioning had revealed a wealth of information. No, the trail hadn't grown cold at all. It was hotter than ever, and it led straight to Konoha.
The Mizukage's agenda didn't matter to Kouta beyond being a convenient excuse to legitimately enter Konohagakure. He was a loyal ninja, but only to a point. Now his own agenda took precedence over whatever game the Mizukage was playing.
That was why he had sent his team specifically after Uzumaki Naruto, heedless of whatever issues that might arise.
That was why he had dared to go out and collect the sample he held in his hands, too impatient to wait even a few more days for his team's report to confirm his hunch before making a move.
That was why he would leave Konoha tonight, even though the Konoha-nin would probably mark his absence with suspicion, even though he would be leaving his genin behind.
The Mizukage didn't matter. His team didn't matter. Kirigakure, Konoha, neither of them mattered.
The only thing that he cared about was the truth hidden in the blood sample he carried.
If the results matched the records, he would finally have found the last legacy of those that had murdered his parents and stolen the peaceful life he should have had.
Kouta could at long last have his revenge on that clan of monsters and murderers. He would put an end to their accursed legacy.
He growled hatefully. To him, the name sounded more like a curse than a surname as it crossed his mind unbidden.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. Masashi Kishimoto is the creator, and owns the rights to Naruto and all the characters and situations contained therein. This is a non-profit work of fiction.
Thank you for reading chapter 9. I hope you enjoyed it.
As always, comments and/or criticism are welcome. However, if you're going to criticize, please do it in a constructive manner (in other words, don't just tell me that I fail as a writer, tell me why I fail). I'm still very much an amateur writer, so any help is appreciated.
Check out this story's forum at http:/www. / forum/ Tempered_in_Water/ 24999/ (remove the spaces), or follow the links in my profile. You'll find my review responses there, as well as more detailed progress updates than the one you can see in my profile. If you want to discuss anything about this story, that's the place to do it.
I'd like to thank Duke Bonez for once again assisting me as a sounding board and keeping me grounded, and Illjwamh for his help as an editor.
I'd like to thank everyone that took the time to read this story, and especially those who took the time to review. I appreciate it.
Thank you for reading Tempered in Water!