Forests and Fights
The morning lights of dawn began to creep over Kanoha, bringing with them a beautiful golden tint that made the entire landscape resemble something to shame any leader's treasury. Just outside the towering gates, Kurenai gazed at the orange and pink horizon marking where the sun would soon rise. Looking past the majesty of the scene, the seasoned Shinobi noted the lack of clouds. Most likely, the recent rain was over, which came as a relief to the woman.
Looking away from the sight, Kurenai noted her team waiting behind her. Red-eyed from the early rise, Hinata counted through the supplies in her backpack. It was one of many nervous habits the girl had. She also had a tendency to over-pack, which had originally slowed her down, but, overtime had unintentionally added to her stamina as she had refused to hold her team back. It was small moments like that that always restored Kurenai's faith in the girl. Hinata had a determination few saw beneath her nerves and lack of self-confidence. The poor girl may not have much faith in herself, but when those she cared about needed her, Hinata rarely let them down. It was one of the reasons the Genjutsu mistress slightly hoped the Uzumachi might one day return her student's affection. Believing she could impress the boy might be the boost the girl needed.
Pushing the over-trod matters from her mind, Kurenai saw Shino next to the girl, barely moving as he stared down the road. Wearing his trademark sunglasses, even before the sun had risen, the boy's face was its usual calm mystery. Shino was an odd Genin. Many thought the boy socially inept or apathetic to most of the world, but his instructor had learned that he just spoke far more in his actions. The insect user cared deeply for those close to him, he simply saw no point in making speeches about the matter. He would help those that needed him, staying behind to train longer with Hinata or helping keep Akamaru free of parasites, and then return to whatever he had been contemplating before he had been interrupted. Kurenai wondered if the boy simply saw no logic in becoming worked up over anything. The Jonin was distracted from her thoughts as Shino moved his head to look behind them.
Gravel crunched underfoot as the last of them arrived. The orange morning light went rather well with the wild locks of Arata's hair. His pack bobbing on his shoulders as he stopped, the boy looked expectantly at his newfound leader.
"Good," Kurenai said as a greeting, "you're on time."
Looking back to her original team, the teacher motioned to them and said, "Well, I suppose some introductions are in order. As I told you yesterday, Kiba will be temporarily replaced for the purpose of this mission. This is Arata-san from Team Seven." The redhead gave half of a sleepy wave.
Shino stepped forward and gave a simple statement, "Shino Aburame. Genin."
"Arata," the fellow Genin replied in turn, eyeing the stoic boy. Shino continued to stare for a moment as the redhead began to fidget under the gaze.
The bug user eventually spoke again before Hinata could introduce herself, "You were chosen because of the context of the mission, correct? You are quite experienced in infiltration and acquisition I suspect." Kurenai almost sighed. Shino had never been known for diplomacy. Maybe he saw no logic to niceties either.
Arata just shrugged, "Yeah, I guess. I'm good at what I do." Hinata was curious. She couldn't quite figure out who this boy was. The Hyuga could only remember him as the child from lunch yesterday that had been sitting next to Naruto-kun. She'd never heard of an Arata in the academy, and certainly not one skilled in such areas. Still, the name kept ringing in her ear, as if nagging her for not remembering it.
"Good," Shino noted, "I look forward to working with an expert. I know little of such matters." The redhead wasn't entirely sure how to take that. It was the first time someone had described him in those words.
He decided he rather liked it, "Thanks."
Hinata noticed that her Sensei was looking at her expectantly and realized it was her turn.
Stepping forward, she gave a deep bow she had practiced for her familial duties a number of times, "Hinata Hyuga, of the clan Hyuga, main branch."
A thought struck Hinata, "You are from Team Seven?"
Arata nodded, "Why?"
The kunoichi suddenly blushed, a change hard to detect in the dawn light, "No reason."
"Um, well, Arata," the boy introduced himself again.
"It is good to meet you Arata-san," the girl said before realizing something else, "Um, what was your surname?"
"Depends on who you ask," he shot back.
As Hinata gave the boy a curious look, Kurenai tried to cut the conversation off, "Lets walk and talk. If we keep a fair pace, we can hopefully reach the town by tomorrow afternoon."
As the group began to move, the Hyuga fell in step beside the new addition, "Ah, Arata-san, I didn't understand what you said before, about your family name."
The redhead shrugged, "I don't have one." That was an unexpected answer. Hinata found herself with nothing to say to the boy as she tried to process the reply.
Behind her she heard Shino's calm voice inform her, "Arata-san was formerly of a wandering lifestyle before being apprehended by Team Seven for minor theft. The Hokage saw fit to allow him a better focus of his skills." Suddenly the name wriggled its way into her mind and registered. It was that Arata. The one responsible for the Nobend's recent troubles. The one that seemed to infuriate her cousin so much. The boy rogue that had a reputation for, well, a lot of things. The Kunoichi suddenly let loose a sound that could only be described as an "eep" before jumping and covering her mouth.
Arata rolled his eyes beneath his hood. He didn't need this. She'd probably be like the rest now, watching him like he was about to mug her at any moment. Slowing his pace a bit, the redhead drifted to the back of the group before matching their pace again.
"That may not have been the kindest of welcomes Hinata," Shino commented softly as if describing the weather.
"I-I didn't mean to-," she whispered back before feeling a hand on her shoulder.
Kurenai gave her student a look that told her to calm down, "Relax, things will smooth over as we travel." Hinata wanted to believe that. Maybe she should let the matter cool. Still, guilt nagged at her. As she thought about it, from what she'd heard, Naruto had become fast friends with his new teammate. Arata probably deserved more of a chance than that if her crush trusted him. Also, if Naruto thought she had treated his friend unfairly… Making up her mind, she came to a dead stop for a moment until Arata caught up with her. Beginning to walk again, she noticed the redhead wasn't even looking at her.
"Um," she began, cursing her words as they immediately failed her, "Arata-san?"
"Yeah?" came the aloof reply.
"I'm… sorry," the girl offered, "That wasn't- I shouldn't have jumped like that."
The boy didn't respond, but Hinata saw him glance sideways at her as she continued, "I've never met you before. I shouldn't have leapt to conclusions. I wish to start over if you are willing." Hinata watched the boy expectantly for a moment. She hoped he wouldn't stay angry.
Her fears were alleviated when Arata shrugged the matter off, "Sure, no problem."
The Hyuga breathed a sigh of relief before the Genin added, "You know, you're easier to get along with than that other guy in your family."
"Neji-kun?" Hinata asked, "He's my cousin."
Arata gave her an odd look, "My sympathies." The girl almost smiled. It was nice not to be immediately measured against her relative for once.
Her curiosity getting the better of her, she asked, "Did-did you really steal Neji's wallet?"
Holding up two fingers, the boy answered, "Twice. Well, that he knows of." Hinata couldn't help herself. Despite her mortification, she laughed.
As the midday sun beat down on the group, birds sang and called in the trees, each demanding attention from a mate or rival with their own unique voices. Bugs zipped through the air, pulling loops and summersaults on drafts of wind imperceptible to the traveling shinobi. Kurenai swatted one of them from her face as they came to a point where the path widened. There were signs that others had often used the spot for camps, a ring of stones marking where a fire might have been a few days ago, the ashes now a dark grey mess in the middle. The rain had turned them largely to mud before the sun had dried the ashes into a silver cake.
The Genjutsu mistress found herself inclined to continue the pattern, "Alright, we break for lunch. We're a little ahead of schedule, so it can be a warm meal. Shino, start a fire. Hinata, see if you can't find anything fresh in the area, roots, berries, anything not preserved. Arata?" Kurenai looked to see the boy already sitting down. The redhead had been in the rear of the group most of the day, and the instructor was beginning to become annoyed with him.
"People stop here to use the nearby creek," the Jonin said, "Would I be inconveniencing you if I asked you to fetch some water?" The boy glared at her for the comment before standing and collecting the group's canteens.
Kurenai watched them go about their work and took stock. Hinata and Arata seemed on even footing now, but the team still seemed a bit put off by the change. If the Jonin wanted them working together on this, she needed them to be able to talk more freely. Maybe she could encourage them over dinner when they stopped for the night. After a few minutes of pondering these things, she saw Arata come back through the woods, water skins jostling at his side. Depositing them next to the groups' packs, the redhead noted Shino's efforts in starting a fire.
"No luck?" the Genin asked as the Aburame continued to strike the tender and flint to no avail.
"No," came the terse reply, the slightest bit of frustration in Shino's voice, "The wood is still damp from the rain."
Arata looked the pile of firewood up and down before saying, "You tried an accelerant?"
"A what?" Shino asked, finally turning to look at his companion. Kurenai watched the scene unfold from over the map she had been reviewing. Arata motioned for the Aburame to back up before pulling an unlabeled plastic squeeze bottle from his bag. The redhead flexed his hand, and the tip sprayed a thin jet of a clear liquid over the stubborn kindling. Producing a match from seemingly nowhere, the boy rolled up his right sleeve and dragged the match head over the rough wrappings covering his forearm like a magician might pull flowers from his cuff. The match hissed as it sprung to life with a small orange flame. Carefully holding the burning light above the wood, the boy let go and yanked his hand back. This was for the best as the moment the match hit the wood, a small pillar of flame leapt up to roughly the height of the two boys before settling down to manageable size in a few seconds. Kurenai nearly jumped at the ferocity of the small cooking fire. Shino looked at the happy flame, now at a normal level and hissing a bit as any remaining dampness was quickly being evaporated.
Turning, he saw Arata smiling softly as he looked at his handiwork, "I see your expertise extends beyond what I had originally considered."
"I'm good at fire," the boy responded simply, putting the bottle away. As she smacked the map against her side to put out the corner that had caught fire from a stray spark, Kurenai was almost certain that was a hobby that would end poorly(*1). Still, with a fire came warm meals, and with that a chance to find out if Arata lived up to his reputation.
Realizing one of them hadn't returned, Kurenai stood up, "I'm going to go check on Hinata."
"I'll get her," Arata offered, already heading towards the woods, "I can see what she has for me to work with." Stepping through the brush, he picked up her perfume. It was a subtle scent, lacking the gaudy nature of the fragrances used by most girls her age, but it was there, mixed with something oddly similar to honey. Picking up another scent beneath the perfume, Arata's nose twitched. Maybe he could make this lunch a bit special.
He must be very hungry, Hinata thought as she watched the small creature in front of her continue to nibble at the greens she offered, I can't believe he's this close to me. The girl knew she should be getting back to camp, but her side pouch was already filled with a few herbs and roots she had found, and how often did one get a chance like this? She wondered if the adorable thing might let her pet it if she moved very slowly. The creature's nose twitched as it ate, the faint breath tickling the girl's fingers and forcing her to suppress a squeal of delight. A snapping twig was heard in the bushes to her right and her newfound friend took off, disappearing into the bushes.
Within a second, thoughts of her loss were gone, replaced by instinct. Rising from her crouch the girl fell into stance in the blink of an eye, readying herself. Whatever had caused the noise had been large, but trying to move quietly. It could be one of the others, but it could just as easily be a bandit or wild animal seeking easy prey. Looking around her, she prepared to unlock her Byakugan if her guest didn't show themselves. A rustling in the bushes to her left caught Hinata's attention and put her on edge before Arata finally stepped through.
Relief flooding her limbs, the girl relaxed her stance and smiled, "Hello Arata-san. Did Kurenai-sensei send you?" The boy nodded as he tried to untangle himself from a shrub with one arm.
Hinata apologized, "I am sorry. I just got distracted. There was the cutest little bunny and he was eating from my hand and everything. You might have seen him, but I think you scared him away." Arata's face froze and went a bit pale, his other arm becoming stiff as it held something behind his back.
"Arata?" Hinata asked, confused by the strange behavior, "What's wrong?"
"N-nothing," the boy answered, turning to keep his back directly opposite from the girl.
Curious, the Hyuga asked, "What's that?"
"W-what's what?" Arata replied quickly.
"Behind your back," Hinata pushed.
"…don't freak out."
Kurenai was about to start looking for the pair herself when she finally heard them returning.
"It took you long enough," the woman began, but stopped as she turned to see them. Arata stood there, covered in leaves with Hinata lying over his shoulders in a fireman's carry, unconscious with a terrified expression on her face. At the boy's waste, hanging from his belt by a leather loop, was the body of a small rabbit, it's neck at an angle that showed the creature to be quite dead.
The boy looked up to see Kurenai's face matching that of his passenger and said, "Okay, so, I can explain this."
"I do hope so," came the ludicrously calm voice of Shino.
Across the training field, a number of metallic notes rang out. There was no pattern or melody, just the occasional clang of metal striking metal, accented by the soft grunts of the Genin as they trained. Darting forward and back, lashing out before retreating, the group spared with kunai. Naruto was breathing heavy as he tried to keep up with his opponent. His foe was stronger and had a longer reach, but he was faster. The boy needed to keep his distance for now. Sakura knew he did too and pressed ahead. Flipping the blade forward in her hand, she jabbed for the blonde's side. Naruto slashed to his left to intercept the knife, but Sakura dropped her arm back, revealing the feint. Her empty left hand shot forward and caught the wrist of her opponent's knife hand. Pulling hard towards herself, she yanked Naruto off balance, sending him collapsing towards her and his stomach into the waiting point of her knife. Upon contact, the tip of the training kunai shattered, the soft plastic that made up the point of the blade splitting to release the neon paint inside.
It was a clear triumph, but Naruto hadn't finished falling yet. Tripping forward, he collided with Sakura and the pair went tumbling to the ground. When he opened his eyes, Naruto was eye to eye with the kunoichi. His face took on an immediate scarlet as the two stared dumbly for a moment. He could feel her breathe as the pair kept staring. A voice in the back of the Genin's mind wondered if her cheeks were red because of the training.(2*)
"G-good move Sakura-chan," the blonde managed.
As if awoken by the words, the girl heaved forward and tossed the boy back, "Thanks, now get off!" Naruto was propelled back a few feet by the force, collapsing on the grass.
"Seriously Naruto," Sakura lectured, "You need to lay off at the fifth bowl of ramen."
The blonde sat up, grass tangled in his golden mop of hair, "Sorry Sakura-chan, I was really hungry today. That was a cool move though."
The girl suppressed a blush and said, "I was supposed to spin at the last moment and let you fall after the stab. Arata showed it to me. He's good at this stuff."
"Yeah," the blonde agreed before resting his chin in his hand in a thoughtful pose, "I never see him use that big knife of his in a fight though."
Sakura stood and dusted herself off, "Makes sense. There's only one, so it's not meant for throwing, and Genin don't use our kunai in close proximity much either, save to counter an enemy that does. The village encourages us to take our opponents alive and unarmed skills suit the tactic better."
Naruto was about to agree when a shadow fell over him. Before he could look up, the boy felt a weight colliding with him, sending him tumbling.
The pair coming to a halt, Sasuke rolled off of Naruto, brushed himself off and continued the conversation as if nothing had happened, "It's a mistake."
Snapping back forward, the blonde shouted, "Watch where you're going! And what do you mean a mistake?"
Sasuke snorted at the question, "If he has an advantage, he should use it. Hesitation can cost as many lives as holding back saves."
Approaching the trio, fresh from flinging one student into the other, Kakashi chimed in, "And is being more able to take a life an advantage Sasuke?" The raven-haired Genin shot a glare at his instructor and looked ready to reply, but said nothing. Kakashi worried a bit at what his answer might have been.
"Arata can hold his own Sasuke," Naruto spat, ignorant of the look in his teammate's eye.
The Uchiha climbed to his feet and shrugged, "He hasn't been lately."
"Sasuke," Sakura chided, "You shouldn't say things like that."
Before Naruto could shout an argument, Sasuke replied, "I don't doubt he can keep up, but if he holds back, he's slowing us all down."
"Well, since you and Naruto seem to be in such a combative mood, and you have the energy to waste on idle chat," Kakashi broke in, his tone declaring the matter closed, "What do you say the two of you burn it off with a sparring match. No restrictions. I want your best or you're both staying for laps. Around the village."
Grinning at a chance for payback, Naruto took his place across the field from Sasuke. His opponent took the opposite position and waited, almost bored as he watched Naruto bounce on his heals in anticipation. Orange book already in hand, Kakashi dragged his attention from the pages long enough to lift his hand and let it fall, signaling the match.
Naruto immediately formed his favored seal, shouting "Kage-bunshin no Jutsu!" His end of the field quickly began to fill with dozens of the blonde's images. With a bellowed cry, the group charged. Sasuke gave a contemptuous tsk at the move. Predictable Naruto. He always did this and had yet to even knock the Uchiha down in a fight. Withdrawing a single shuriken from his pouch, Sasuke flung his arm forward and let it fly. The projectile buzzed through the air spinning at a speed to resemble a disk instead of a star. The weapon found no target, but impacted with the ground in front of the group, the clones continuing to charge past the failed attack.
Sakura was confused. It wasn't like her Sasuke to miss. Kakashi quietly watched over his book, a sudden concentration in his eye.
"That's a gamble," the Jonin thought, "If this fails, he'll be begging to be overrun."
Sasuke brought his hand to his mouth and seemed to bite his thumb before beginning to run through a long series of hand seals. When finished, the army of Naruto's was almost upon him. The Uchiha could feel the chakra welling up inside him as he concentrated. His chest warmed and felt as if it were expanding. His throat seemed to be on pins and needles as he forced the energy upward. His teethe almost seemed to rattle in his mouth as he felt the force he was about to unleash. It was this time, the moment right before release, that he felt it all, that he felt the most alive. And by the gods it felt good.
Opening his mouth, the force finally rushing out, he called "Ryuka no Jutsu." The wire leading from his teeth to the shuriken still planted in the ground behind the charging clones lit up in dazzling flames, the thick gout of fire traveling through the group to collide with the end of the line, crashing past the shuriken like a wave over a rock at the end point before dissipating. Clones in a wide arc in front of the Genin immediately blew apart, their smoke joining the thick black cloud rising from the blaze. Surveying his work, Sasuke's eyes darted to look for his opponent. The jutsu hadn't been enough to seriously hurt the blonde, but it would have certainly put him down.
Kakashi was impressed. Sasuke shouldn't be even close to that level of jutsu at his age, but the Jonin had watched it with his own eyes. Granted, it had been a tamer version than most, but he had time to master the technique before the exams. The instructor was also impressed that Naruto didn't seem fazed in the least. Zigzagging and ducking around his companions, the blonde did his best to replace the losses. The Genin's maneuvers made it difficult to track which obnoxiously orange combatant was him. With the crowd beginning to return to proper size, Kakashi wondered if his other student noticed some of the clones in the back disappearing.
Realizing quickly that he had missed his opponent due to the still very solid group of clones bearing down on him, Sasuke leapt back. He celebrated inside. Just now had been the first time he had used the Ryuka no Jutsu in a fight, and it had worked superbly. Now his blood was flowing. Now the Uchiha was in the fight. Soaring back, Sasuke felt his chest expanding again as he drew in a breath. Landing, the boy formed hand seals and pushed himself, feeling his body tremble at what he asked from it. The power rising again, the Uchiha let loose. From his mouth sprouted a cone of fire that widened as it grew, flowering in the manner that had given rise to the jutsu's name. As it reached a certain size, the incandescent petals began to break apart, forming a stream of fiery projectiles that flew forward, spreading out and decimating the remaining clones. As the Narutos disappeared, smoldering shuriken and kunai clattered to the ground behind them, their flames spent.
The Genin could feel it now. He was tired, but he was close. His eyes were burning. Flecks of red were becoming visible in his irises. As the smoke began to clear, Sasuke actually hoped Naruto wasn't down. If he could just push himself a little further…
Answering his wish, the ground surrounding the boy erupted as just under a dozen Naruto's sprung up from the earth. Surprised, Sasuke brought his arms up in defense, his form slow to respond from his exhaustion. Luckily, the Uchiha could always rely on Naruto's incompetence in Taijutsu. The clones began to fall as Sasuke fought, holding them and pushing back. A leg came flying from his left. The Genin ducked under it and spun into the owner with an elbow to the sternum, the chest giving resistance for a moment before collapsing into a white cloud. Catching a jab, Sasuke stepped forward and threw a punch into his opponent's throat, the figure disappearing in a haze. Still, there was always another to step forward, and too many flying limbs to be stopped at once. A fist got through and connected with the Uchiha's jaw, sending him staggering back. Catching his balance, Sasuke rode the pain and kept fighting, trying to keep his wits in the whirling melee. A foot clipped his shoulder there as a fist glanced painfully off his hip here. Still he was winning. The burning sensation giving way to a throbbing beat just behind his eyes, Sasuke reveled in the moment as he drove his hand through the last of them.
Standing triumphant, the Genin was breathing heavily as he tried to collect himself. Let his critics say what they will, Naruto made for a fantastic punching bag. With what he had learned from this fight, Sasuke might finally be able to unlock the Sharingan. His Sharingan. The thoughts were short lived as he felt a powerful pair of grips attach themselves to his ankles. Looking down, Sasuke saw the hands and grinning face of Naruto poking up from the ground. Hearing rapid footsteps, the boy's eyes shot up to see a trio of the blondes charging towards him, dirt falling from their hair to mark their recent emergence. The middle one crouched and leapt into the air, the clones on either side of him cupping their hands together and catching the boy's feet as he landed. Screaming a battle cry, the middle Naruto was propelled forward by the blondes towards his shocked opponent. Colliding full force, Naruto's skull slammed into Sasuke's stomach, throwing the pair to the ground. Looking up, Sasuke saw Naruto on top of him, shaking.
The chakra exhaustion of producing so many clones and their own separate jutsus allowing him to do little more, the blonde gave a tired grin, "Finally did it. Finally knocked you down."
Kakashi was pleased. He'd yet to see that kind of performance from either of them. Naruto had never shown that kind of restraint and patience before. The boy was learning to think. The blonde had known that almost the only advantage he had on Sasuke was his chakra capacity. He needed to wear the boy down before he even stood a chance. The Uchiha had stepped up to the challenge considerably, showing off his own growing skills. But he'd fallen for it all the same, the Genin finally pushing Sasuke from his feet. Still, as the blonde lay there, trembling, Kakashi knew Sasuke was still the winner, Naruto having worked himself to exhaustion. One fall did not make the match. The Jonin's proud musings, however, did not last.
As he felt the power slipping, Sasuke glared up at his opponent in frustration. Without thinking he swung and landed a hook against Naruto's jaw. Growling, the blonde grabbed his teammate's shirt, pulling him with him as he rolled. The boys' match quickly dissolved into artless brawling as the two spat and cursed as they rolled about, fists flying between the tangled pair. Sasuke was winning against the tired blonde when he felt himself being lifted into the air by his collar. Naruto too was given the hangman's treatment as he was hoisted up.
"That's enough!" Kakashi bellowed at the two of them as he held them there. Sakura watched the group and worried. Sensei had never yelled like that before.
"Sasuke started it!" Naruto shouted back.
"Shut up Dobe!" the Uchiha argued.
"I said that's enough!" Kakashi repeated himself, shaking the two by their collars, "You're teammates damn it! Act like it!" The pair suddenly grew silent as they seemed to finally notice their enraged instructor.
Dropping the two to the ground, Kakashi spat, "I'm done. I've lost patients. Every step forward for you two is two backward."
"S-sensei," Sakura called, trying to calm the man.
"Quiet," the Jonin warned the girl before turning back to Naruto and Sasuke, "In two days, you two are meeting me here at noon and we settle this."
Turning and walking away, Kakashi called over his shoulder, "You're growing up even if it's at knife point."
After the man disappeared in a puff of smoke, Naruto was the first to speak, fear marking his words, "What the heck does that mean?"
"So Arata," Kurenai sighed once again as the group traveled, "You see a small rabbit in the woods."
"I smelled it," the boy corrected.
"You smelled the rabbit," the instructor repeated, stressing the word with annoyance, shifting the weight in her arms, "And decided to find it instead of Hinata."
"I was going for both," the redhead defended himself.
"Well you clearly found one before the other," the Jonin added, "and your first thought at seeing the fuzzy little creature was how great it would look with the right seasonings?" Arata could see she was mad. It was probably best to keep his head low, try to settle the matter quietly. Probably.
"Rabbit is good meat," the Genin replied, betting against himself, "You should know, you ate it."
"It was delicious," Shino felt the need to point out.
"That's not the point!" the woman snapped, her face scarlet at the mention of lunch. As the boy had explained what had happened, Kurenai had laid the girl down and done her best to wake her. Without a thought to the matter, Arata had gone about doing his assigned work, lunch. Unfortunately, about the time the instructor's efforts paid off, the shinobi chef was in the process of cleaning and skinning the rabbit. Hinata proved far harder to wake up the second time.
"I don't see the big deal," the boy continued to argue, "doesn't your academy or whatever teach basic foraging?"
"You don't know much about dealing with girls do you Arata?" Kurenai scoffed. It took a supreme act of will on Arata's part not to note that at least that wouldn't be a problem when dealing with her.
Instead he said, "Well I'm sorry. I've said I'm sorry. Food is food when you're hungry. How was I supposed to know?" The Jonin had to give him that. The boy probably hadn't ever had the luxury of separating an animal from a slab of meat in his mind that the average butcher afforded. A sinking feeling in her stomach told her she didn't want to think about how much the child had probably had to provide for himself in the first place.
"Fine," Kurenai finally conceded, "I guess it was an accident. It was just an inconvenient one." They were behind schedule now. It would be the evening when they reached their destination tomorrow. As the instructor was calculating possible shortcuts, she felt Hinata begin to stir in her arms.
Looking up, the girl saw her sensei giving her a sympathetic look, and she realized her position. Her face scarlet, she remembered what had happened.
"Are you okay to walk?" Kurenai asked as she put the kunoichi on her own feet.
Blushing, Hinata answered, "Yes, I am sorry. I slowed us down." The Jonin reassured her and the group began to move again.
Arata handed her her pack, which he had been carrying, "Uh, sorry."
"No," the Hyuga insisted, "I-I shouldn't have fainted."
The redhead only shrugged, "Some people just don't like that kind of food. I'll make different in the future." Smiling at the offer, Hinata reached into her bag and withdrew a small candy. The honey chew was a small comfort she always kept with her to calm her nerves. Slipping it into her mouth, the girl savored the flavor and the fact that no one seemed angry with her. Picking a different pocket, Hinata opened an oat bar. She'd have to eat on the go. She tried very hard not to think about the rabbit as she did so.
"Okay, split up and set camp for the night." It was getting late, the sun becoming a deeper and deeper red as it approached the horizon. Kurenai wanted camp finished before it became too dark to travel.
"Shino can handle tents. Hinata, could you get out some rations?" the Jonin asked, "I think we'd all prefer them. Clear the site for a fire too please." The instructor didn't have to turn around to know that her newest pupil was bringing up the rear.
"Arata," came the clipped order, "you're on firewood." The redhead let his pack fall lazily from his shoulders and laid it by the others before disappearing into the trees. Kurenai watched him go. If his slowness hadn't been pushing her buttons, she might have commented on how good he was at already being invisible.
Pitching in herself, the Jonin rolled a nearby log over to the sight, a convenient seat for the group. After helping Shino with the tents and being sure dinner was ready to prepare, Kurenai realized Arata had yet to return.
"I swear something is eventually going to go smoothly on this mission," the woman grumbled before calling, "Shino, would you mind finding Arata? You placed a bug on him right?" The boy only nodded to show that he had indeed planted one of the females of his nest on the redhead. It was an unsettling but useful habit of the boy's that Kurenai had just come to accept. The Genin stood and made his way in the direction Arata had gone.
A bit of a ways in, Shino's hive vibrated in his chest as it felt a different presence in the same direction as his teammate. The bugs were being territorial as usual with this particular rival.
Stepping through a few bushes, Shino found Arata. Standing next to a full pile of firewood, the boy was busy at work tying together a bundle of smaller sticks and twigs, the greens of pine needles and leaves showing in the middle. The boy was wearing training goggles over his eyes and had a rag tied over the bottom half of his face. The drawstring of his hood was pulled tight and the front zipped up, hiding his forehead and the last of his exposed skin. More string held the cuffs of his jacket and pants tight, his hands covered in their usual wrappings.
"What are you doing?" Shino asked as Arata looked up.
"Getting desert," the boy answered, hooking his thumb at the nearby tree, a beehive buzzing in its branches.
Striking a match, Arata stuffed it in the center of the bundle. Slowly at first, but rapidly increasing, smoke began to billow from the roll of kindling. Hurrying over to the tree, keeping his head low, the child placed the smoking bundle directly beneath the hive. Backing up, Arata watched the cloud rise and engulf the nest, the buzzing inside becoming more sedate within a few moments.
"Smoke makes them sleepy, like a drug. They don't attack," the redhead announced over his shoulder.
"I didn't know that," commented Shino, sounding interested for the first time in the mission. Pulling a pocketknife and a small jar the size of his fist from his jacket, Arata approached the tree and began to scale it, walking up the trunk. Hanging upside down from the same branch as the beehive, Arata crouched and sank his knife into the walls of the nest. Some of the bees began to circle him, but for the most part, they seemed to fly in lazy, lilting patterns. Twisting the blade, the hive was opened, and gleaming honeycombs could be seen inside. Reaching inside and past the teaming pile of insects, Arata pulled one of the slabs of wax free and held it over the jar, amber honey dripping into the container. After a few more pieces, the jar was mostly full, and the boy was finished. Closing the jar, the Genin pocketed the golden treasure and released his hold as the bundle beneath him began to burn out.
Shino was about to comment on the events when Arata landed. Badly. Collapsing to one side, the boy spat an oath and grabbed at his right foot, the one he'd landed on. Hurrying over, Shino hooked his arms under the other boy's and dragged him from the hive as it slowly grew louder and angrier with the lack of smoke.
"What happened?" Shino asked.
"I screwed up the landing," Arata growled as he tried to pull himself to his feet and failed, nearly falling again before his teammate caught him and supported his weight.
"We should get back to camp so Kurenai-sensei can get a look at that," Shino suggested, awkwardly bending to take an armful of firewood while trying to keep his companion upright.
"Great," Arata sighed as he began to hop along, "something else I screwed up."
"That's it," Kurenai announced as Shino eased Arata down next to the campfire Hinata was building with the newfound wood, "I'm the only one allowed in the woods from now on." The woman had been surprised moments earlier to see Shino coming out of the trees, Arata hobbling alongside him. After checking to be sure the boy was fine, the kunoichi had decided she shouldn't be surprised.
"How did this happen?" the Jonin asked.
"I was climbing a tree and didn't land properly," the redhead answered, reaching over to the stack of ration cans piled against the log, looking them over as if he were discussing the weather, "I'll be fine." A tree was all Kurenai could think. A shinobi had fallen from a tree. Perfect.
"I'll be the judge of that," Kurenai stated, bending down.
Arata immediately pulled his foot back, "Relax, just give me a night's rest."
"It could be a sprain or worse," corrected the instructor, beginning to lose patients with the boy, "Now give me your foot."
"It'll be okay, just let it be," the boy argued.
"Damn it Arata!" Kurenai snapped, finally loosing her temper, "Start obeying orders! I'm your commander, not your damned mother!" The colossal stupidity of the statement only hit the Jonin as the words left her mouth. The horrified look on Hinata's face and even a raised eyebrow from Shino served to confirm that she had indeed just reminded an orphan that he was just that. Arata glared hard at the woman but extended his leg. Her face red and unable to look the boy in the eye, the kunoichi just pulled the boot free and unbound the wrappings around his foot.
Finally seeing the problem, Kurenai pushed her mortified thoughts aside and asked, "Arata, how were you traveling like this?" The soles of the boy's foot were a swollen, deep purple mess of bruises.
"It's not as bad as it looks," the redhead offered, "I can walk fine. The landing just got to me. I'll heal up soon."
Eyes still glued to the foot, Kurenai tilted it and watched the boy wince, "How did this happen?"
"New training," he child answered, "I'm trying to figure out a technique. It's hard on the feet."
"You mean both of your feet are like this?" Kurenai asked, looking up. The child nodded.
"What is Kakashi thinking?" the kunoichi asked, "This isn't healthy."
Arata shifted awkwardly, "He sort of doesn't know. This is extracurricular."
"So you've been doing this on your own," the Jonin realized, "Why?"
The Genin's face became a bit red as he found the fire incredibly interesting all of a sudden, "I'm, uh, falling behind. The others keep getting better, and so do I… just not as fast. I don't want to slow them down."
Fiddling with the food containers again, the boy continued, "Speed I can do just about better than anyone. I figured I should focus there. I thought if I trained myself to use chakra for more traction and then push off with some extra like when you use too much while climbing, I could go a lot faster. It works, sort of. Look, I'm just not going to hold my team back."
"And you decided to come on this mission injured?" Kurenai asked disapprovingly, her instincts immediately demanding she scold the boy for pushing himself too hard.
Arata shook his head, "Stuff like this always clears up in a day or two with me."
Looking down at his foot, the boy added, "Or it usually does. I can't figure out the problem this time."
Kurenai put together a few pieces in her mind and nodded before turning to the girl next to her, "Hinata, would you mind giving his foot a once over. Use the Byakugan." The Genin crouched next to Arata and began to run through a few hand signs, keeping her eyes shut. As she neared the finish, veins began to rise at the edges of her eyes. Opening her eyes and whispering the jutsu's name, her irises shone in the fading sun as they stared intently at the boy's foot, resembling the play of light across a pearl. A look of concern replaced the one of concentration on her face, and her teacher grimaced.
Arata didn't like where this was going, "What is it? What is she doing?"
"Her abilities allow her to see chakra paths in the body," Kurenai told him, "And yours seem to be amiss."
Nodding, Hinata released the jutsu, her eyes returning to normal, "The paths in his foot are overworked and have become damaged, as has some of the tissue."
"The bruises," the Jonin agreed, "You aren't healing normally because any wound that harms the chakra network slows the local flesh's recovery, like damaging a blood vessel. It will heal, but the travel has exacerbated the problem."
Arata's head hung a bit at the words, "I- sorry, if I'd known, I wouldn't have come along."
"You didn't know," Kurenai told him, not feeling he deserved quite that amount of shame, "You thought your body could handle it and normally it probably would, but this is a bit above your knowledge." The instructor was actually impressed. Without formal teaching, the boy had grasped advanced ideas about chakra manipulation, putting them together into a method actually used by a number of more advanced shinobi. Had he not been too stubborn, or perhaps embarrassed, to approach Kakashi, he might have gone about this the right way. Unfortunately, without the proper academic knowledge, he didn't understand the subtleties of the chakra network and how easily it could be damaged with improper control. The finesse required for such a technique was something most Genin lacked. The teacher in her was already considering options to properly train the child when they got back. But that was a matter for later.
"Luckily for you, you're traveling with a Hyuga," Kurenai noted, causing Arata to look up again, "Hinata? Fetch the medicinal cream you keep in your pack." The girl dug through a side pouch before pulling out the small jar.
"What is it?" Arata asked.
Hinata answered this time, "My family's bloodline focuses on precise chakra control and release. This can lead to injuries of the chakra network when still learning. We developed medicines that hasten the healing process of that part of the body, just apply to the affected area and allow the injury to breathe."
"Hinata made this batch herself. She's quite talented in the matter," Kurenai added with a bit of pride as her pupil's face lit up. Taking the offered jar, Arata began to rub the cream into the sole of his foot before unwrapping and doing the same to the other. The pain seemed to lessen immediately.
"Stay off your feet for the rest of the night, and we'll see in the morning," the instructor said, "Regardless, we can't turn back now, so no point in worrying." Arata gave a sheepish nod and began to pry open the ration cans, already intent on fixing dinner.
An hour and a full stomach later, Kurenai had to admit that Kakashi had indeed been hiding a prodigy under his hat. She wondered how long it would take news of his skills to make the rounds of the other instructors. At least she had him until the end of the mission. She allowed herself a small grin at the idea that the arrogant Jonin would be going without for a while.
Sitting next to her teammates, Hinata basked in the warm glow of the fire and the feeling of contentment in her stomach. It was a rare feeling indeed when on a mission. Thinking about the day, a thought hit her mind.
Leaning over to the now beloved cook, she asked, "Arata, why were you in the tree where you hurt yourself in the first place?"
The boy's eyes widened at the question, "That's right." Fumbling with his jacket, the redhead produced the amber jar of honey.
Grinning, his face growing red, Arata explained, "I, well, I wanted to make it up to you for earlier, and I saw you eating the candy, so I figured something fresh might be nice. There should be enough for everyone."
Opening the jar, the boy offered Hinata a piece of bread. The girl was a bit shocked at the gesture. It wasn't something she would have really expected from anyone. Smiling, she dipped the bread in the sticky confection and popped it into her mouth. It was delicious. Passing the jar around, the Genin enjoyed their treat, Kurenai waving off the offer. It was best to let it be something between them, she decided, despite how wonderful it looked.
"We're getting up early tomorrow," the Jonin eventually announced, "Get some sleep. Hinata, why don't you take first watch."
There had always been something charming about nights in the wilderness to Hinata. With the small campfire behind her, staving off the slight chill the night brought with it, the girl could focus her mind on enjoying the beauty of it from her perch in a nearby tree. Like any child, she had originally been intimidated by the unknown of the darkened forest, but now had come to enjoy it. Out here, with her whole world limited to the ring of light that was her campsite and the stars above, she could stop hearing her father's voice in her mind, stop feeling like she didn't belong in her own home, and just pretend it all couldn't get her out there. It was somehow liberating to know that she could take herself somewhere none of those thoughts could touch her, even if she was only fooling herself.
She wondered about Arata, looking down to watch him sleep, his arms crossed and leaning against the log in front of the fire. The Hyuga couldn't begin to think about how hard his life must have been, but still she envied him in some ways. The freedom he had was something alien to her. He spoke and acted seemingly purely as he pleased. She'd never heard anyone speak to Kurenai-sensei as he had before, and admittedly the Genin had never seen her instructor quite so mad before. It was almost funny to her, seeing the redhead fluster people so easily. Hinata wished she had that kind of gall sometimes. Turning back to watch the quiet woods, she thought that perhaps, with it, she could join Naruto on one of his prank excursions. After a time, the Hyuga giggled at the thought, her cheeks flushing at the idea of spending a day of troublemaking with the blonde.
The girl nearly jumped out of the tree when she heard a voice ask, "What's so funny?" Turning to the sound, Hinata saw her teacher standing over her, her body horizontal as she stood on the tree trunk next to the Genin.
"It's nothing sensei," the Hyuga replied, trying to slow her heart.
Smiling, the woman stepped onto the same branch as her student, scooting next to her as she sat down, "My watch is beginning in a while. You may get some sleep if you want."
Hinata shook her head, "I'll finish."
Kurenai smiled at the small act of dedication, "Fine then, I'll join you. I haven't been getting much sleep anyway." The two were silent as they watched over the campsite, the fire crackling in the background and the many insects of the night chirping around them.
Eventually Kurenai asked, "Think I can salvage this?"
"What sensei?" Hinata asked.
"The mission," the instructor answered, "I'm not doing a very good job am I?"
"I-I think we've been doing fine," the girl reassured her, "Why would you think you've done something wrong?"
The older kunoichi sighed and said, "I manage to take a student who needs help, who needs guidance, and I alienate him. Do you think he hates me?" Kurenai stared into the night, as if answering her own question. Hinata couldn't believe what she was hearing. Who in the world could hate her sensei?
"Of course not!" Hinata insisted, her high voice louder than she intended. The Jonin gave a weak smile as the girl covered her mouth and checked to be sure the others were still sleeping.
"Thank you Hinata," Kurenai replied, "But I feel like I've done nothing but put my foot in my mouth. I berate him for the incident with the rabbit when he was just trying to cook a good lunch for us. I criticize him for being slow and he turns out to be injured. I shout at him instead of ever asking why he was acting the way he was."
Combing her fingers through her hair, the woman let out a long breath, "I just wanted this mission to go smoothly, to show I can do this. Some teacher I turned out to be." Hinata was shocked. Kurenai-sensei never spoke like this. The Hyuga hadn't ever known her to be so down on herself. Things certainly weren't as bad as her teacher seemed to think they were, at least not from the Genin's perspective.
Looking down at the sleeping form of the redhead in question, Hinata said, "I…I think Arata is just a difficult person to understand." Kurenai raised an eyebrow at the words, broken from her self-pity.
"He didn't tell you about his feet, or try to explain himself earlier," the Genin continued, "If you'd known, I don't think you would have acted like that sensei. I don't think he's used to telling people when he has a problem."
"Or telling us anything perhaps," Kurenai added as an afterthought. Hinata was right, as she often was when given a chance to quietly examine a person. The woman had noticed as the girl grew that she had a talent for reading people, a common Hyuga trait, but one she excelled in beyond many in her family. Understanding subtle facial expressions or body language came easy to the child, provided it wasn't a personal matter. Her father had noticed this, and encouraged her, even inviting her to meetings with those outside of the clan. It had been with the intention of knowing the motives of those the family did business with, but the girl was still thrilled to be noticed. It was the closest the Jonin had ever seen Hinata come to being comfortable around her family, but as she showed no improvement in her combat skills, her father's interest had waned and he had returned to having no faith in the girl.
"Well Hinata," the Jonin said, "What's your take?"
The girl's face lit up at being on the spot, but she said, "He seems… to be frustrated. He said he was falling behind, but he sought to solve the problem himself. It bothers him, needing help. Arata might think it means there's something wrong with him."
Kurenai nodded, "Explains why he's been as combative as me."
Hinata shook her head, "That's part, but… I think he's almost… scared."
"Scared?" Kurenai echoed.
"It's subtle," Hinata said, her eyes squinting as she thought, "but he seems nervous about something. The way he's sleeping right now, not in a tent, but near the fire, his arms crossed, not quite relaxed. It's like he's expecting to be attacked in his sleep, or at least preparing for it. Earlier, with his foot, he didn't want to tell you about it, but he also didn't want you touching it. I don't think he likes physical contact."
Breaking her gaze, Hinata looked up, concern crossing her features, "Why is that sensei? Why would he be like that?" Kurenai bit her bottom lip as she thought. Everything the girl had said was true. What it could mean was a myriad of other things, none of them comfortable to think about.
"It could be a lot of reasons," the kunoichi eventually replied, "but I don't think they're our business. Get some sleep, we're going to try moving faster tomorrow." As Hinata descended her perch, Kurenai decided that she had lied. She was going to make it her business.
The Genjutsu Mistress allowed herself a smile. The group had awoken in the morning to a fresh start and healthy feet. Arata's soles had taken an amazing turn over the night, the bruises having nearly disappeared. Though still sore, the group had been able to keep as fast a pace as Kurenai had allowed, still careful of the boy's health. The Genin had been talking more too. Shino had not let Arata rest until he had explained the effects of smoke on different bees and wasps and the best materials to burn. The redhead was only too happy to talk about incendiary-related information, something the Jonin had even been willing to let go in the spirit of the moment. Hinata had been hesitant at first as Arata had asked more about her family traits, but had relaxed as the boy only acted impressed at the details, the girl for once being the center of praise in the group. The instructor was even pleased to see the boy didn't seem to be uncomfortable around herself anymore either.
Coming over the last of the hills, their destination finally came into view. Despite the delays, the squad had arrived on time. The afternoon sun overhead, they approached the walled village. Originally an outpost during a previous war, the borders of the Land of Fire had long ago outgrown the now idle fort, turning its walls into protection against little more than bandits for the quiet town now housed within.
Halting at the small gate, Kurenai approached a nearby guard and announced their arrival. Hurrying off, the man returned minutes later with another, older individual. Looking exhausted, the bags under his eyes sagging and dark, the gentleman walked toward the group.
Giving a small salute, the Kunoichi announced, "Sir, Team 8 reporting to aid in the investigation." The man looked Kurenai up and down before doing the same to the Genin. A shadow of a grimaced crinkled his lips before it was gone.
"I was told the main village was sending shinobi," the stranger said, "I didn't expect them to send children."
The Jonin let the insult roll off of her and replied, "I can assure you, my team is more than skilled enough to handle whatever is thrown at them."
"Good," the man sneered as her turned to walk away, "Because your case just got upgraded; from burglary to homicide."
Another chapter comes and goes, finals and projects with lazy partners making it a miracle. Bum Bum Bum as to the ending. Kurenai may seem a little ooc at times, but I wanted to show her as being new to being a jonin and an instructor (something the show points out), and is a bit self concious about it. Anywho, read and review please, and thanks again for reading at all!
(1)* Yeah, that's probably a given.
Also, holy crap, over 100,000 words... wow.