Chapter Soundtrack: "After the Festival" by Evan Awake
Chapter 1- En Route
Gaara had taken his first assignment as a jounin very seriously. The details had said that he was scheduled to meet with a medic-nin who had supplies ready for Sand. They were rare supplies otherwise unattainable in either the Fire or Wind Country. They were coming for surprisingly cheap but there was a catch: they could not be sent. Someone would have to go north to retrieve them.
Consequently, Gaara was following a poorly-drawn map and his instinctual sense of direction to navigate the treacherous landscape of the Land of Stone. He was warned to be wary of Iwa ninja who were always slavering for a fight. So far he had met no resistance. Before he had set out he had asked why they had to be picked up in the first place instead of being sent by the Rock village directly.
"Because they aren't coming from Rock," Baki explained to him, "Rather some backwater mountain in the middle of nowhere. It's close though; that's why there could be shinobi from Iwa getting tangled in this which would be less than helpful."
Gaara had asked why someone from the Stone Country would be willing to aid Sand.
Baki had shrugged, honestly unsure, "I've been told not to question a blessing. She's not from Rock so that helps. Supposedly this medic is as talented as Tsunade-sama but not as famous. Maybe that's why she refused to come in person. Everyone has their reasons, Gaara."
It had been about a two day trip through hazy mountains and absolutely no interference before Gaara even began to suspect he was nearing his destination. 'Backwater indeed...' There was a small town nestled on the west side of the mountain but his patron was said to have lived at the peak. More walking was required.
He pressed on dutifully, not complaining or doubting, and ignored the curious looks of the indigenous folk as he passed through the sleepy town. After leaving the village and coming again to thick forest Gaara tossed the map aside. It was useless anyway. He had made his way without it well enough and had the route back to Sand committed to memory. Now it was a matter of finding the client's home.
The mountaintop was fairly secluded and a good place for a recluse to live, he guessed. Gaara marveled at the strange animals that resided in the area and avoided a large wildcat that had pounced on an unsuspecting ewe on the rocky slopes close by. Few people would want to live away from civilization with predators abound, but Gaara again assumed a medic-nin would be able to defend herself well enough.
A small building came into view as he followed a bend in the path. It was built into the mountainside, guarded by tall trees, and out on the porch a large dog laid asleep. Gaara froze at the sight of it.
It appeared more wolf-like than anything: broad, burly features and a muzzle just barely concealing enormous fangs. It would stand taller than he on its hind legs for sure, he estimated. Curiously, its fur was golden blonde, unusual for a wolf. Gaara supposed it was then a dog if it was anything.
He could feel his sand quivering impatiently in the gourd on his back. Gaara knew that at the first sign of danger if the animal attacked it would be crushed even without a direct order. Knowing he was in no peril considering the circumstances, the red haired nin approached the house confidently.
The dog didn't raise its head to look at him until he was a foot away at the bottom of the steps. It looked down at him, sniffing guardedly. The dog regarded him for a long moment, still waking up from its nap.
"Ah," It said, its voice was a low rumble, "Sand."
Gaara nodded, feeling the gesture was ineffective. He waited for the beast to prowl aside to let him pass and then it resettled on the far side of the porch for another nap. Gaara was relieved he was expected, and paused outside the front door which had been left wide open. He wondered if he should enter uninvited, but the dog spoke again after noticing his indecision.
"Go in! You are late as it is," It yawned lazily, "She will not bite you. Have you noticed already that I haven't?"
"Courtesy is my issue." Gaara said flatly, he feared no one and nothing, "I need more practice."
"You're doing well so far!" The dog's chuckle resonated deeply in its chest, but it then added, "Sand: make sure you don't touch the little one. Touch him and I will tear your pretty face off."
He entered silently after that, deciding that he didn't want to know what he was being warned of. Business still had to be conducted and there was no time to worry about threats. Gaara walked in, finding the place was dimly lit and it smelled strongly of herbs and plants. After moving in further Gaara noted pots of flowers and other medicinal flora that were placed hither and thither about the room. He passed through slowly, taking in the sights curiously.
It was in a back room lit brightly by a skylight in which he discovered a woman at work butchering a piece of meat. He cleared his throat, not wanting to alarm her, "Good day."
She looked up, blinking, and then smiled in embarrassment, "Woo! You caught me in the middle of lunch it looks like!" She stuck her knife in the cutting board beside the hunk of bleeding meat, and then wiped her hands on her dirtied apron, "You came such a long way to get here! How about a drink, fellow?"
He nodded, "Thank you."
Gaara followed the woman through another corridor and into an open dining room. She hung her apron on a chair and then proceeded to a cupboard, muttering to herself as she fumbled around for a glass. He took a seat at the table quietly as she went about tipping sake into a cup. She placed it in front of him a moment later with an accomplished expression on her face, "There you go!"
He stared mutely for a moment and she balked, realizing her judgment was off, "Oh...they said jounin. Gosh you're young! My mistake! How does milk sound then?"
"This is fine, madam." He thanked her softly.
She shrugged and then placed the wine bottle back on the counter, and then turned back to watch his reaction to the rice wine. A moment after trying the sake Gaara put the cup down again, his face betraying his disdain.
The woman placed her hands on her hips and laughed loudly at him, "Ha! Not good, eh? I don't like that stuff much either, but my husband likes some now and then...I'll get some milk for you."
"Gaara." He smiled back at her, "Thank you."
"Gaara, huh?" She fished through a refrigerator and retrieved a milk carton, "Nice to meet you! My name is Inuzuka Rin. Please don't be a stranger if there's anything else you would like."
Gaara accepted the milk from her and listened as she explained the status of his mission, "You've really done great coming up here all on your own, Gaara. Shinobi who travel in groups out here are often sized up by the local Rock ninja. It's safer, believe it or not, to go solo. They tend to suspect only teams...but I'm afraid there's a problem."
"So soon?" He was not pleased to hear it. Things had gone well so far, "Can I be of help?"
"I think so." Rin nodded, running a hand through her chestnut hair, "You see the herbs that you want just came into season. I haven't gone out to find them yet and they're out in Rock territory, unfortunately. But I'll go nab them quickly for you. I've dealt with the likes of them plenty of times myself."
Gaara understood, "I will go with you then, Rin-san. It's the least I can do. I haven't come here to sit idly and do nothing."
He drank the milk and she grinned at him, amused, "That's fine with me, I'll just have to tell-"
A small boy bounced up through the back door and rushed to her side. Rin sighed, still smiling, "Speak of the devil...seems he decided to show up even after he's been out playing all morning!"
"Hey, Ma! Guess what?" The child's grin was missing a few teeth, "My shuriken jutsu is perfect now! I hit all of the targets and Sesshu said I was great!"
She patted his head lovingly, "It's in your blood, Yuma." She turned to the shinobi at the table, "Now say hello to the nice Sand ninja who's stopped by. Gaara-kun's going to help me get some medicine in a little while."
He blinked shyly at the newcomer, "Er...hullo."
Gaara took a moment to note the child's appearance. Yuma looked nothing like his mother. He was pale, ebony-haired and his eyes were obsidian like the blackest night. He was cute, like most children his age, "Hello, Yuma-chan."
Yuma stepped out from behind his mother after seeing the visitor was friendly enough and had his mother's trust.
"I assume that he is the one your dog was talking about?" Gaara inquired, recalling the guard out on the front step.
Rin chuckled sheepishly, "Sorry if Sesshu snapped at you. He's a bit protective is all, but he's a big lug! He wouldn't hurt a fly unless I told him to." She looked down at Yuma, "You'll have to wait with Sesshu while we're out, okay? No wandering until I'm back."
He nodded, but then asked, "What about Dad? He said he'd be back soon."
Her face saddened at the thought, "Yuma...your father won't be back for a few days, you know that. He works very hard to keep us safe. Once he comes home you can show him your shuriken jutsu, what do you think?"
Yuma nodded, then ran back out the door, calling, "Sesshu! Ma's going out so we can practice more! Get my kunai for me!"
Rin shook her head in exasperation once he had gone, "Always in a rush..."
"May I ask you something?" Gaara had finished his drink and wore a curious look.
"Of course you can, Gaara."
His face became serious, "I lived a long while in the Hidden Leaf Village before returning to Sand. You said you are of the Inuzuka, a resident clan of Konoha. How is it that you ended up here?"
"I'm afraid that's my business." Rin sniffed, suddenly put out by the mentioning of her past, "If you're quite ready we'll be going now, Gaara."
She moved back out into the hallway to prepare and Gaara also stood, wondering how he had offended her so easily.
After setting out things were tense, for Rin, at least. Gaara followed her in silence out into the unknown wilderness, accustomed to the quiet. He could tell that she was still conflicted with what he had brought up earlier, but he refused to apologize for it since he hadn't meant any harm.
The afternoon dragged on and it became hot on the mountain trail. Rin stripped off her jacket to be more comfortable, and it was then Gaara noticed how she had an armor plate strapped to her chest. It was thin and lightweight, barely noticeable, but she looked ready for battle as far as he could tell. It seemed like she was expecting it. Quivers for throwing spines were laced around her arms, and two holsters of supplies were secured around both of her thighs. She had experience.
"Will Yuma be safe without you for so long?" Gaara thought to ask at length. Though he had hidden it for a while, he was still concerned about the boy.
"He can fight, you know!" Rin said smiling, glancing over to him, "He has special powers. He's going to be six soon."
He frowned, "You'd trust him to defend himself already? He's a child."
"He has Sesshu with him. He'll be perfectly safe!" She concluded. It was quiet for a while after that, and then she added, "You want to know something, Gaara?"
The red haired nin gave her a passive look that answered in the affirmative.
Rin went on, "Sesshu wasn't my first ninken. When I was little, just enrolled in the Academy, I had this cute little dog named Piri..." She smiled at the memory, "Just before the Chunin Exams my team and I took a mission on which she was killed. Without her I wasn't sure how I'd be promoted to Chunin...or be able to fight like I used to..."
Gaara thought of Kiba briefly but decided not to mention him, "How did you come by Sesshu?"
"He was a present for me once I became a chunin. He was just a puppy and not bred by my clan either, so at first my father said he'd be useless to me in a fight," Rin chuckled, half to herself, "But Sesshu was special. One of my teammates gave him to me to reconcile my loss of Piri. It worked, as you can see. I owe him so much..."
He nodded in understanding, somewhat interested in what she had to say. They continued down a steep slope covered in bramble, and the young mother couldn't help but reminisce, "I trained Sesshu as best I could, but I wasn't able to bring him along with me on most of my missions. It was too dangerous. I was scared of losing him...and instead...I lost one of my teammates." She smiled, "The gods enjoy taunting me, I think."
"Is that why you left the village?" He asked and they settled again on a flat road, continuing west.
Rin sighed heavily, "That was one of the reasons. I didn't know how to cope with my losses. And also...I was in love with someone who didn't love me back. I was so tired of the war...of death...I took Sesshu and left once I worked up the courage. Leaf was a place filled with pain for me." She paused, "But I was blessed after that. Love returned to me in a way I did not expect..."
Her words filled Gaara with anxiety. Now more than ever he missed Sakura terribly. Rin's memories made his spirit heavy, reminding him how he had compromised his happiness by going somewhere far away. He could only hope he would be reunited with Sakura someday.
Rin sniffed the air worriedly, "This smells like trouble...there are four of them up ahead. We're going to have to take the long way around. Keep up with me, okay? We have to get out of sight quick!"
She darted off of the path and onto the jagged slopes of the mountainside, bounding over tangled roots and trees. Gaara followed to the best of his ability, not nearly as nimble in such an environment.
It was a mad dash over a plateau before they turned west again. Rin paused in their descent, regarding the change in the air, "I think we lost them. Good work! Our destination is just over that ridge there, see Gaara?"
His sand shield automatically deflected a brace of kunai that shot out of nowhere. He scowled at the forest ahead, folding his arms, "We didn't evade them completely..."
Three shinobi, all of Iwagakure, from the look of it, had appeared on a tree branch ahead. They were covered in mud, and Rin cursed silently to herself for letting such a simple trick fool her sense of smell.
"We've heard of you! The resident dog-bitch who can scent people coming even before they appear. Not too hard to avoid that little problem, huh?" One of them crowed, "We've been told that you steal from a garden that belongs to Tsuchikage-sama, and he isn't very happy about that..."
"I don't steal! It's my garden! I'm the one who planted it! He's the one who steals from me!" She howled ferociously, "I'm so sick of you all acting as if everything on this land is the property of your beloved Tsuchikage! What about the rest of the people who live here?"
"They aren't from our village. Why should they matter?" Another piped up lowly, "Give it up now, hag! It's about time you learn your place in the Land of Stone!"
A senbon plunged into his eye a moment later and he toppled off of the branch with a shriek.
Gaara smirked sidelong to her, impressed with her speed. She was already on top of the other two, dodging their respective Earth jutsu. Gaara let his sand fly ahead and encompass them as they touched down to the ground, waiting for the chance to strike. Rin wouldn't give him an inch though; she was hot-blooded and determined to show her skills.
With a cry she lunged for one of them while he whipped out a kunai, and Gaara could see flames envelope her as she threw her body into a terrific spin that gouged up a good portion of the cliff side. He thought of Kiba's Gatsuuga briefly, 'Inuzuka...' He reminded himself, and then ignored the rest of her deadly technique as she chased her target around the clearing in a vortex of fire.
The third wheel of the team had attacked him head-on, and Gaara decided to get practice in on the whelp. The Iwa nin's sword strike glanced off of his sand armor and Gaara retaliated, landing a swift kick to the shoulder that sent his foe tumbling. The Rock ninja vaulted with one hand back to his feet, agile like a deer, and kicked out at the Sand nin's head with both feet in quick succession. Gaara recoiled from the blow and his sand rushed ahead to meet his adversary, stalling his follow-up attack.
Aggravated by the swarming sand, the Iwa nin hurled his sword with precision timing, just skimming Gaara's calf as he made a leap to dodge it. His sand closed in tighter, limiting the Rock nin's movement, and he drew his sword back to his hand with the beckoning of a chakra string. A shadow clone twisted over him from behind, and vectored down with a swift heel kick that made an audible crack as it connected with the Rock shinobi's temple. He limply tumbled over, still cocooned in sand.
Gaara looked back over his shoulder, seeing Rin had torn out a good portion of the other Iwa nin's abdominal region. It was the first time he had witnessed disembowelment. The sight of blood made Shukaku roar gleefully inside of him, but he breathed deep, ignoring its demand for more action. Rin glanced over to him as well seeing he had also defeated his foe.
She wiped her bloodied hands (or were they claws?) on her jacket that was still tied around her waist. Her skin was coated with a slick layer of perspiration from the fight. The dreadful heat certainly wasn't helping. Rin sniffed the air again, taking a moment to identify the other scents wafting in it besides the stench of gore, "Hm...looks like the other one is off to limp back to his home in the Rocks..."
"Shall I finish him?" Gaara asked. His sand was still anxiously pacing the clearing in gusts, searching for more prey.
"No. Let him crawl back to his proud leader." Rin snorted inelegantly, "That way he might be wiser the next time he thinks to send his goons so far out. They weren't even the usual chunin that check into this area...looks like he's starting to give up."
Gaara crushed the remains of the bodies in the clearing with his sand, and then followed Rin again as she bounded ahead into the tree-line. He asked if it was really her garden they were headed to and she admitted that it wasn't.
"It belongs to a friend of my husband's." She clarified, "He let us have it once he became too old to keep up with it. It's where we raise all sorts of herbs. We try to help out the local villages with their medical supplies and I think we're really having an impact."
Gaara caught on that she had not taken her husband's name. Even after marriage and children she still considered herself an Inuzuka, and he was curious if it had something to do with her nostalgia for Konoha.
"When did you meet your husband?" He found the question hadn't come out quite right. What he had meant was who he was but she understood anyway.
"Well...after I left home I ended up here and I lived with an elderly couple who were kind enough to take me in." Rin recalled distantly, moving like a shadow through the canopy, "Come to think of it...it was way earlier than that when I met him, but...we were reunited after I had started living here for a few years. I was eighteen, I think, when he showed up again. I didn't even recognize him."
"Is he another Leaf shinobi?" He had a suspicion that it would be true, since she had lived in Leaf most of her life.
"You could say that..." Rin said quietly and then asked, "Gaara...do you believe in people coming back from the dead?"
He stared at her for a moment. They had stopped. The garden was all around them now, filled with rows of different plants and markers, colorful and eerie. Gaara hadn't noticed their arrival because he was still thinking about what she had said.
"I don't." Gaara concluded, "Too many people die. I have never seen someone rise again to rejoin the living."
Rin shrugged, hopping over a column of cabbage, "Good point. That's what I had thought too. But..." She smiled to herself, "Sometimes the past isn't always gone for good. Even when it hurts to remember it...there is a rare time when it will return to you with a smile, and suddenly it's not so horrible."
She plucked a large plant out of the soil by its roots, and wrapped it in a cloth quickly. The material was immediately dyed a ginger color by the oil it produced. Rin handed it to Gaara, "There we go...don't worry! You can hold it a bit rougher, it won't fall apart. I don't think you'll have an allergic reaction to it either..." She moved from one row to the next, selecting and harvesting what was needed.
Gaara held the plants she collected as she piled them high in his arms. Suddenly he found himself talking. He didn't know why. Perhaps because her reminiscing had moved him to speak, or that he had wanted to break the silence while she worked. She was glad to listen.
"There's this girl I know who's being trained by the Hokage..." He began.
It had been one solid, miserable day since Haku had left Konohagakure. Though he had not yet begun to regret it, his heart teetered on the cusp of aching doubt.
The first dim rays of sunlight were warm on his face and Haku opened his grey eyes slowly, adjusting to the morning light. He had taken refuge in an ancient oak tree the night before, desperate for sleep. He had settled himself on a large, steady branch and was lulled into dark dreams by the whining forest.
With dawn breathing new life into the world, Haku awoke gawking at his unfamiliar surroundings. He hadn't the time to plan out his course and he had trusted himself to nature rather than search for a nearby town. The dark haired boy slipped from the tree branch soundlessly and began to stretch the sleep out of his limbs once on the ground. A mechanical routine settled in and he rested at the base of the oak, fetching a bento from his travel bag. He felt somewhat ill this morning and food was undesirable, but he'd need the energy. There was going to be a long day of traveling ahead.
He ate solemnly. Sounds of life called through the woods, none of which were human. He was alone for the first time in a long time and he had done it intentionally. It weighed heavy on his heart now, 'If I had stayed with Gaara-kun I'd be sharing a meal with my friends in the desert, presently...'
The thought was evidence enough of the guilt he had been trying to ignore. Going separate ways with the Sand siblings had taken its toll. Haku had hoped he could have departed from them harmlessly but had known all along it couldn't be that way. He had never intended to upset his friends. He had also never intended to leave Leaf so abruptly either. Everything was strange and uncertain now; he had himself to thank for that. 'But they don't understand...I must go the Water Country. There's no way to begin searching for my clan if I don't have Zabuza on my side...'
Haku thought that maybe he could have explained it clearly to them earlier, but it probably wouldn't have had the desired effect. They still would have objected and there was a fat chance of getting the nukenin's cooperation anyway. But Gaara had understood what he meant. He knew. He was his friend; his brother, and knew better than to deny him closure. Even though he hadn't wanted Haku to go (so soon, he supposed) he had still allowed him to leave without a fuss. There had been no major protest from his friend and it was something Haku would be forever grateful for.
He finished eating and returned the empty bento back to his bag. A gravel trail was nearby and Haku began to follow it south again as he had the day before. Chirping crickets and frogs sang repetitive melodies in the trees. The path wound aimlessly through miles of woodland and after being alone with his thoughts for an hour of walking his true emotions surfaced.
'I miss their voices. I've been to very few places without Naruto-kun and Gaara-kun,' He acknowledged the irksome fact and his chest began to tighten, 'I can't falter. I will see them again.' He would endure without his friends for as long as he had to, he decided, because they would never let him give up before he was met with success.
Naruto looked over to Jiraiya from his place on the water's surface. They had stopped by a stream on their passing to the next town and the Toad Sage began a lesson on breaking Genjutsu. Naruto found out quickly that it was no simple matter interrupting chakra flow, especially his own. His teacher looked up occasionally from his notes to see how his student was doing. Not much progress from where he had started, as he had expected.
"Why couldn't you just teach me how to cast Genjutsu instead of this crap?" Naruto grumbled, unable to concentrate, "If someone else can get me out of it why should I learn at all?"
"Because you're not always going to have others around you, kid." Jiraiya reminded him dully, "When it's just you that's it. You either escape or you die. And besides...you were never the type who would have skill in creating an illusion...maybe Haku, but definitely not you…"
He barked in disgruntlement at his sensei shortly before splashing into the water.
The sennin chuckled in entertainment, "Well, looks like you can stop your chakra flow now...but remember to bring it back up quick or else you give your foe an opening."
The blonde boy stuck his head up through the surface of the river, trying to not get upset. He had fallen in plenty of times before, but at last he was making some headway. Naruto grinned at his minuscule accomplishment.
Later on they stopped in a teashop though it wasn't quite time for lunch. It just happened to have a number of beautiful women in it at the time and Jiraiya you couldn't help himself. While they snacked on a plate of daifuku, Naruto insisted that the sage get him to work on another technique, seeing as he was close to completing his training with Genjutsu.
Jiraiya, though distractedly, began to demonstrate to Naruto the helpfulness of summoning weapons into battle. "It's way more efficient, for one..." He told his pupil, "For another, you'll be able to keep more varieties of weapons with you and use them in a fight just as quick. Takaharu's kid is an old pro at it by now!"
Naruto nodded in agreement, "Yeah, you're right about that Ero-sensei." He smirked inwardly, "Heh...this means I could carry way more fuuma shuriken now...or just about anything I want." Naruto looked back to his teacher from across the table, "Hey! How about you teach me how to use cool stuff like swords and-?"
"Later, if you want..." Jiraiya cut him off, "That girl over there is inspirational!"
No longer able to resist temptation, the sage stood and crossed the room to where a busty red haired woman sat at the bar. Naruto scowled and followed after him. Jiraiya looked like a fool to have his disciple escort him from the premises by his ear, and people snickered at the sight as they made their exit.
"Way to make me look like an idiot, kid!" He snarled as they traveled down the street. Jiraiya was mortified Naruto had caught him off-guard, "Now she definitely won't talk to me at all since I got dragged off by some punk-ass-"
"You're supposed to be training me, hello!" Naruto yowled, equally annoyed, "This isn't a road-trip, Ero-sensei! For once try to focus on why we're out here in the middle of nowhere!"
Jiraiya stormed down the street ahead of the blonde boy, muttering angrily to himself. Naruto tailed behind him with a sigh. As far as training had gone, he wasn't learning very much. More importantly, the genin reminded himself, was that Jiraiya hadn't yet explained to him why he had been given the Fourth's kunai. The Kyuubi had helped, if only a little, 'Jeez, the fox really hates the Yondaime, but I still wonder how the heck he knows so much about everything. Even if he is a grumpy bastard he's smart...'
They skipped over the sightseeing that was available in the tourist port and looped further west on a sandy trail. Jiraiya didn't speak a word to Naruto, still highly humiliated from the fiasco at the bar. The blonde boy chose to give him space and hung back a ways, thinking quietly to himself, 'Ah...he's old. Let him smolder for a while and pretty soon he'll be kicking my butt again.' Naruto smiled to himself, 'That's the best way to train, hee hee!'
While they walked Naruto stared up at the seagulls overhead, whistling a cheerful tune. The sea air made him giddy, so did the fact that he possessed a weapon that once belonged to the Fourth Hokage, 'I have to get serious though! If I'm going to be Hokage I have to be as great as he was...greater, even! Can't be goofing off anymore!' He drew out the three-pronged kunai from his holster and let it spin idly in his palm. The cool metal felt good against his skin. He could feel memories shuddering off of the knife.
Jiraiya glanced back and noticed how his protégée was fiddling around with the historical weapon. He smirked to himself, unable to keep up his bad mood, and then spoke aloud, "Handles well, doesn't it Naruto?"
"Sure does..." Naruto hummed, too distracted to pay much attention to his teacher.
The sage paused on the trail waiting for Naruto to catch up with him. The blonde boy gave him an odd look once he had come to stand beside Jiraiya, "What now, Ero-sensei?"
"Detour." Jiraiya said shortly. They strayed from the road off to a deserted beachfront. High tide had drawn in, obscuring most of the white sand. The two travelers stopped on a rock outcrop overlooking the waves, and the Toad Sage grinned at Naruto, "Now I'm pretty sure you know what that knife is for, huh squirt?"
"I guess." Naruto shrugged casually, "But what does it have to do with me, Ero-sensei?"
"The same thing the Rasengan had to do with you." Jiraiya folded his arms while he spoke, "This type of kunai was made during the Great Shinobi War between Rock and Leaf. It was used by my former apprentice to make use of the Hiraishin no jutsu. It's one of the reasons Leaf was victorious, you know."
The blonde boy picked at his ear in boredom, "Yeah, yeah...I've heard all this at the Academy before..."
"You should be an expert on it then because I know you paid attention in all of your classes!" The sage snorted in annoyance, "Listen kid, this jutsu...it isn't like the Rasengan. Even I haven't mastered it. The difficulty of this technique is not on par with anything you've ever witnessed before, I promise. There's a great chance you won't be able to master it."
"I might as well give it a shot though, right?" Naruto suggested and then frowned, "Unless you want me to quit while I'm ahead? Have a little faith, Ero-sensei!"
Jiraiya nodded, "Right. Might as well...have a seat and we'll get started." Naruto got comfortable on the boulder and listened intently as his teacher went on explaining the origin of the jutsu. It would be a long talk and an even longer attempt at perfecting it.
"Home again at last!" Lee cried joyously as he and his teammates trudged through the village gates, all looking worse for the wear. Their client and his brother had been delivered home safely, but returning to Leaf had proven dissatisfactory when it had been pouring rain for the majority of their journey.
Back in the Fire Country the skies were clear and their clothes were soggy. Shikamaru, the team leader, ordered they go home and rest and not bother him for the next few days, "I feel like shit...does anyone else suspect they caught the flu?"
Neji and Tenten nodded wearily, but Lee popped up between them, patting their shoulders, "All will be well, my friends! Just a bit of rest is all we need!"
Tenten smiled weakly at her friend and allowed him to tug her along down the street when her feet wouldn't move faster than a shuffle.
Shikamaru rubbed his watering nose and then glanced over to Neji. The Hyuga had been exhibiting peculiar behavior ever since they stopped at the inn with Kon. He wasn't sure if it was a good thing and he decided not to bring it up. Neji stalked past him after Lee, as if he had stolen something from him. The Nara called out to him in annoyance as he went ahead, "Whatever. Fine. Leave me to fill out the mission report. That's not troublesome at all..."
At the end of the street Tenten dismissed Lee, asking him to check and see if Gai-sensei had returned. He continued on jubilantly and she hung back to wait for Neji. The Hyuga prodigy studied her face for a moment. The mission had taken its toll on everyone, but she didn't appear to be completely out of energy. He wondered if she was still thinking over what had happened between them at the inn near the Lightning Country. Certainly he still was, much to his annoyance.
"Come train with me now." Neji offered, assuming she had nothing else to do, "We can meet up with Lee and Gai later on."
She nodded, smiling, and they temporarily parted ways to dump off their travel gear at home. Tenten flung her bag into her apartment and promptly ventured back out, passing Sato on the way. He waved to her with his usual goofy grin and she sighed, waving back but not stopping to talk to him. She didn't want to waste any time she could be spending with Neji.
'It feels like he's a lot more open these days...' Tenten thought to herself, 'Naruto really had an impact on him, as did Hinata-chan...' She smiled to herself, 'Maybe...maybe things can work out after all now that his feelings aren't locked up inside as much.'
A weight lifted off of her and Tenten quickly found herself back at the compound searching for him. By instinct she turned left at the mansion's gate, in sync with his habits. He'd be near the garden if he wanted to unwind from a mission. Sure enough she found him there, pale and wondrous in the sunlight, and seated on the porch waiting. She couldn't help the irrational, stupid smile that spread across her face, 'If I didn't know any better...I'd say he liked me too!'
But she did know better.
The heavens made sure to remind her of that when Hiashi stepped out onto the porch as well, and his nephew's expression soured somewhat. Tenten approached cautiously, not wanting to be rude as the Head of the Hyuga spoke to Neji. She had run into Hiashi before on a number of occasions, and she was always polite and respectful to him, (even though much of Neji's own bias against the Main House still made her bristle when they were near) but she had a feeling he had no idea who she was most of the time, 'It's just as well...I'm not that important anyway.'
To her eternal surprise, Hiashi paused while speaking to Neji and glanced over to her. Her smile came naturally, as she always did have a friendly demeanor, and she made sure to bow low to him when he acknowledged her. Hiashi's lip twitched in an almost-smile at her display, and he then turned back to Neji, finishing his announcement. The clan leader nodded to her briefly before returning to the house. After the coast was clear Tenten went up to the porch as well, and gave a hopeful look to her teammate.
Neji blinked at her, his face betraying no trace of emotion. Yet still, she could sense his patience had again been exhausted by his pressuring uncle. Her spirit dropped a bit. There was going to be a change in plan for certain. Tenten smiled darkly, 'Can't make time for me when uncle needs something...' She thought, 'I wouldn't ask you to stick around but if you did anyway, even if he needed you for something important, do you know how happy that would make me?'
"Hiashi-sama has asked me to go train with Hinata-sama now." He informed her, displeasure clear in his voice, "She has become...exceptionally challenging to him now, and he has asked me to oversee the development of her new abilities."
"Oh, right..." Tenten nodded, vaguely understanding, "I heard that Hinata's Byakugan is different now. That's pretty awesome."
Neji's facial expression finally revealed some frustration, "It's perplexing more than anything. Hinata-sama is struggling to understand its extent for herself." He looked at her for a long moment, "Tenten...come back later. I will wait for you."
She nodded, "Sure thing, Neji."
The kunoichi watched him leave, barefoot, going back into the house. Tenten felt her stomach twist sadly. For some reason she didn't want to come back later, but she knew she would anyway because he had commanded it. If he was going to take the time to wait she ought to take the time to show up.
Tenten raised her chin, refusing to let her disappointment swallow her. She walked back out over the lawn, staying close to the porch because new flowers had been planted there. She admired them as she went on, deciding that she'd pay Hinata a visit later as well, 'Maybe she put all of these here...I wonder how she's doing?'
It was quiet as she loitered outside of the Hyuga household, inspecting the improved hedges. Her limbs still ached from the mission and she was admittedly grateful she would have a chance to rest. Training immediately with Neji would've been a painful endeavor.
She blinked, startled, and looked over to where a young man was sitting beneath a blooming maple tree. He had short, bronze hair and gentle, opalescent eyes. It took her a moment to recognize his features, but she beamed when she did, "Hikune!"
He smiled widely and stood up, brushing his pants off. Tenten realized she hadn't recognized him because he was dressed in the traditional robes of the Hyuga. His Chunin vest was gone. Hikune greeted her with a friendly handshake and she almost didn't know how to react to it. Her hand in his was an alien feeling.
"Well, I didn't expect to see you around here, Tenten," He chuckled, his voice was so smooth it tickled her ears, "I would think you'd be busy training with Neji-sama."
"So would I." She admitted, sheepish, "I got the boot, though. It wouldn't be the first time."
Hikune frowned at the statement, "Ah...that's Neji-sama...always so busy his friends sometimes get pushed to the wayside. I was just going to have lunch, why don't you join me since you have some free time?"
Tenten hesitated for a moment. The last time she had seen Hikune was at the hospital when Neji had been bleeding all over him. She wasn't sure if that made them acquaintances, friends, or simply comrades in arms. Then again, regardless of how they knew each other, why decline? 'I am starving after all...and he invited me so I guess it would be alright!'
The kunoichi grinned and then nodded, "If you're willing to put up with me."
Hikune's laugh made something in her stomach loosen. His presence was soothing; an uncommon trait for a member of the Hyuga. The only people from that clan she had believed she could be comfortable around were either Neji or Hinata, 'But I've been wrong before...'
He led the way back onto the porch, where they entered through an open door into a tearoom. Food was already spread out on the table, tempting her nose with mouth-watering smells. When he asked her to take a seat Tenten gladly did so. Hikune sat across from her and decided to catch her up on what was going on in the Hyuga.
"My little brother graduated from the Academy not too long ago, since his marks were so high." Hikune said proudly, passing her a bowl of hot soba, "There, I hope you like that, I made it myself. Anyway, Fujita-chan is now training under a man named Nitobe Sawako, a renowned jounin of this village. I actually think he's a friend of your sensei's."
"Gai-sensei?" Tenten asked, stupefied (that he had a friend of the like.) She did her best not to spit out the noodles she had been ravenously slurping up.
Hikune nodded, "Yes, that's it. I believe they went on a mission together to the Land of Bears, Fujita-chan said."
"That sounds about right. Gai-sensei said he'd be out there fetching a whole bunch of stuff..." Tenten tapped her chopsticks against her lip thoughtfully, "He never mentioned who was going with him though. That's...really cool. I'm glad for your brother!"
"Thank you." He smiled back at her, "I was given off these last few days for my leg injury. It was upsetting that my team had to go ahead without me on a mission, but..." His eyes glimmered spiritedly, "Tsunade-sama was kind enough to promote me to jounin rank thanks to the success of my last mission."
She felt one of the noodles she was chewing on go down the wrong pipe. Tenten hacked inelegantly for a moment, and after catching her breath, congratulated him, "Jounin? That's great! I knew you had it in you! What did Hayate say?"
"He's the one who recommended me, actually." Hikune admitted, slightly embarrassed, "I owe a lot to Hayate-taicho. He's been a very good friend to me."
"It's been a while since I've seen him...I wonder what he's up to?" Tenten wondered aloud, helping herself to a skewer of yakitori.
Hikune's smile was a bit mischievous, "I've heard he and Yugao-san are engaged."
Tenten raised her eyebrows, "Wow! I never thought he was that brave. Good luck to him then, I suppose..."
"He's told me a few things about you, Tenten," He added thoughtfully, "Though mostly he talks about his former master, your father, if I am not mistaken."
"You sure aren't." She chewed, savoring the food. The thought of her father made her chest ache a little so she tried to focus on the meal.
"He said that Takaharu was a man of great repute and not originally from Konoha." Hikune recalled, taking a sip of tea, "Hayate-taicho was very fond of him. He said that he created the Dance of the Crescent Moon and is also responsible for averting a number of terrible battles that may have occurred during the war..."
Tenten chewed quietly, nodding as Hikune listed the things her father was known for.
"And also I've been told..." His voice dropped a bit, "That your father was one of the shinobi nominated to succeed the Third as the next Hokage."
She froze, unnerved. It was a fact she had tried to forget.
Hikune gave her a curious look, "In fact, I was told he was in the greatest favor with the council as the candidate for Yondaime, and yet he declined. Why would he turn down a chance to be-?"
"That's private." Tenten snapped, but then relaxed, deciding to explain anyway, "It's just...he and my mother...they were always out on missions together all the time. They hated it when they were apart. He said that he couldn't imagine being away from her when she was going to have a baby." She sighed at the notion, "Me. If it weren't for me, my dad would probably be the Hokage right now instead of Tsunade-sama."
The explanation helped the young jounin understand her heartache a bit better. He smiled gently, "Does that upset you? That he chose family above a position of power?"
"I..." She frowned, "I'll have to say yes. If I were him I'd take the job!"
"But a very capable shinobi succeeded the Sandaime in place of your father, you know." Hikune added helpfully, "He was beloved by this village for helping us conquer Iwagakure during the war. In a way, maybe it was better that a hero took power rather than someone who just fit the job description, don't you think?"
Tenten stared at him, "Maybe. I've heard plenty of times he was way stronger than my dad..."
He laughed, taking another bite of onigiri in front of him, "That's a matter of opinion, Tenten. Don't let it bother you. The past is done now and all you have to worry about now is who will succeed Tsunade-sama as Hokage."
"No one deserves to, really, Tsunade-sama is the best!" She declared ardently, but then paused to think, "But...there's this boy named Naruto who is probably going to wipe out all of the competition when it comes time for that. He's hell-bent on it."
"Why is it that your Dad takes you on all the cool missions? Ugh!" Sato cried, ducking back to avoid a swipe to the head that may have proven lethal. He leapt back from Shino, avoiding each strike of the nagamaki the Aburame was wielding.
It was a shortened pole-arm, in which the blade was made more sword-like rather than a curve, and the staff was less than two feet in length. Much to Sato's disgruntlement, Shino had spent the past few weeks receiving exclusive training from his father on clan techniques and wielding his new weapon. The silver haired genin also had to be wary of the increased population of Shino's Kikaichu colony.
He floundered, countering the sweeping blows of the nagamaki with his kodachi, but found it was becoming increasingly difficult. His own training with Kakashi had not improved his sword skills terribly and Sato was quite bitter that his friend was quickly surpassing him in skill. Shino moved only when Sato backed away, otherwise his position was stationary. His weapon arced easily through the air, allowing the greatest range with little need to exert energy.
Sato peeled away in a cartwheel and his leg lashed out during the tumble, his heel connecting with the blade and sending Shino's weapon spinning from his hand. The young Hatake grinned to himself; an opportunity at last.
"How about this!" He didn't raise his short swords when his friend was unarmed, and instead spiraled forward, clipping Shino in the head with a reverse kick. The Aburame's glasses flew off from the impact, and he stumbled over sideways, granting Sato enough leverage to plant a second hit as his other leg swung around in the same direction.
Shino crumpled, and the silver haired nin leapt back again, seeing he had inflicted plenty of damage.
'What the-?' Sato balked as his friend separated into a swarm of insects that rushed back at him. Sato flailed for a moment, ready to flee from the cloud of Kikaichu insects, but Shino was quicker. He reappeared behind the Hatake and pressed the flat edge of the nagamaki's blade to his throat in warning. Sato instantly halted in response.
"Aw damn..." He grumbled, but then nodded, "I concede, Shino."
The blade was withdrawn from Sato's neck and the boy rubbed the spot tenderly, annoyed, but was unwilling to act childishly about his loss. It was something he had been working on. He found the less he goofed off the easier it was to get Shino to cooperate. Shino respected when he made an effort to be mature, and Sato was beginning to find the same proved true for Kurenai-sensei and Kakashi as well.
And yet still he could feel his insides boiling at the fact that his teammate was clearly stronger than he was. It had never bothered him before in the early days of their team; they had all been equals with their individual strengths. Now he felt his place on the team was being questioned. Sato breathed deep, sheathing both of his kodachi and keeping his emotions under control, 'Easy there...don't freak out. Can't make chunin if all you do is keep complaining about everything.'
"You're fast." Shino told him at length, concealing the nagamaki in his coat, "Very fast. You've changed while I've been gone."
Sato scratched his head, "You think so? I've just been running around after my uncle is all. Maybe you should give it a try and see if you improve too!" He laughed at the idea, 'Heh! Shino-kun chasing Kakashi around! Where's my camera?'
"Maybe some other time." Shino had said it in all seriousness. Sato took it as a trivial answer, simply because he wasn't the type to give chase to anyone. He made foes come to him, Sato knew.
"You've got some place you need to be, don't you Shino-kun?" Sato asked pointedly, frowning, "Let me guess...your Dad is hauling you off on another mission, right?"
The Aburame adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his nose, "Your assumption is correct. We should be returning in a day, approximately." He could sense his friend's discontent, "If you would prefer, there could be negotiations with the Hokage so you may join-"
"No, please, it's fine!" Sato interrupted, his brow furrowed, "Since when have you gone out of your way for a lame-ass like me, huh? Just don't worry about it. I bet old Kakashi wants me to keep working on my jutsu anyway..." He trudged off across the training field, "Kick some butt then, buddy! I'll see you around!"
Sato promptly left, feeling that if he stayed any longer the rage he had been concealing would explode out of him. Shino waited for a short while in the field, considering his friend's odd behavior, and then moved on to locate his father.
The silver haired nin's mouth was a thin line on his face, trying to contain all of his frustration, 'When did I become so weak? Shino was tossing me around back there! What's the matter with me? Once my uncle started training me I thought I'd improve but, I just...'
He descended from the tree tops and followed the forest path, burying his hands in his jacket pockets, 'I'm such a loser. Naruto was right after all!'
Sato looked off to his left where a cedar tree was twisted into an impossibly ugly form. The trunk was constricted by disobedient branches that coiled around it in braids, 'Oh yeah. I know how you're feeling Mr. Tree. You and I are both hard on the eyes and not good for much. And you know what's worse? I'm talking to a tree I'm so miserable. That's messed up.' Sato snapped a picture of it out of habit. Just another item to log away into the countless disappointments he had been witness to.
He pressed on while fighting off depression. He honestly didn't feel like training with his uncle for a second time that day. He was tired enough as it was, and lacking motivation. 'Maybe I just need a distraction...like a good movie. Pocky maybe.' Sato thought to himself, 'I'm sure Shikamaru would be glad to whoop my ass again in a game of shogi...'
Sato strolled out into a clearing in the forest where, he quickly realized, there was a training area for another team. He had not run across it before but he was glad he had, because a beautiful, black haired girl was hard at work beating the daylights out of a training post.
"Don't you work in the afternoons or something, Tama?" He called out, walking across the field towards her.
She paused in her forms and faced him, smilingly widely, "I do. I'm on break right now."
"And on your break...you're out here getting sweaty and beating on a training dummy?"
"That's right," Tama confirmed it, "Call it an old habit. This is a way I can really be at peace so I'm not running around doing what people tell me to all day. Minimum wage doesn't build muscle."
"Ah." Sato said succinctly, standing beside her as she turned back to her Taijutsu practice, "No wonder you punch like a guy..."
She chuckled quietly, slamming her palms forward in a deadly one-two combination that Sato was sure would've hurt if he had been the dummy. Tama asked him if he was alright, "You look pale again. Is something wrong?"
Sato admitted to himself that Tama was his lifelong friend, his intended and an all-around trustworthy person. There was no reason to hide his feelings from her. He broke down, his face wracked with anxiety, and explained how Shino and Hinata had surpassed him in terms of skill. He had no idea how to correct such an imbalance or if he should even bother trying.
Tama stopped his rambling after a minute and asked, "Does it really bother you that much that your teammates are improving? You're getting stronger too, Sato-kun."
"Yeah, but...it just doesn't feel like it's enough." He muttered, still distraught.
"For what it's worth, you're still an excellent ninja who I feel deserves the rank of Chunin." She told him, smiling faintly, "And me? Look at me if you want an example of failure. I'm so far behind I never made genin. Isn't that a bummer?"
Sato's expression lightened out of curiosity, "You never did explain that to me why you dropped out of the Academy."
Tama glared at him for a moment, stopping her Taijutsu forms completely, "You think I chose to quit? That I gave up? Jeez, Sato, I thought you knew me better..."
He took a step back, fearing the ferocious right hook she had displayed earlier, "N-No! What I mean is...I still don't understand. I was always under the impression that you were fantastic in the Academy...but you never told me why you left. You just moved on with your life like you were fine."
"Not exactly..." She said quietly, "You see I was doing pretty well. But...there weren't many people who were willing to hang around me when I was in school. It was pretty lonely there."
Sato nodded, "So you didn't have any friends?"
Tama shook her head, "Nope. All the other girls thought I was a weirdo because I didn't mind getting bruised or dirty. I was always out training with boys. But even then, they started to dislike me too..." She chuckled, "I wasn't a prodigy, you know. My marks in basic ninjutsu studies and tactics were average. Taijutsu was different for me. My family always has been a bit off the deep end in hand-to-hand combat."
He took a seat on the ground, deciding to listen to the entire story, "I believe that alright! So you were good with Taijutsu in school, but what does that have to do with you leaving?"
Tama sat beside him, wondering how to phrase it, "Try to imagine being the best at something. Some people are book smart. Some have the best aim. My teachers didn't think I was being challenged enough by the other students in my class when we did basic Taijutsu forms. They started pitting me against students from other years who were closer to my level."
"Like who, may I ask?" Sato prompted, smirking slightly at the thought. He had a good idea already.
"Hyuga Neji was in the year behind me." Tama admitted, "He was also the best in his class. We sparred a few times. I lost a few. I won a few. I think... that's when I started to realize what I wanted to be." She turned to Sato, "Specializing in Taijutsu just like my uncle would have been unusual for a woman, they told me. I didn't let that discourage me. I kept on being strong."
She passed a canteen to him after taking a drink of water and Sato took a sip as well. Tama went on, "I remember one day that there was this kid in my class who never stood up for himself. He just let some pig-headed idiot beat the crap out of him because he was too afraid to fight back."
"So you wanted to set an example of righteous fury?" He quoted her uncle, laughing, "That must have been something. Did you even do the pose?"
"No. I just grabbed the kid, wiped his bloody lip, and told him to go home and stop being a coward." Tama explained shortly, "But the jerk who was picking on him was second best in my class and wanted to remind me of that. He stuck around to fight me."
Sato looked at her for a long moment, "And you beat him...right?"
"I guess. I returned all of the punches he dished out." She told him, accepting the canteen back from him, "Once he tired out I just warned him to leave the other kid alone. He didn't want to hear it..."
"He kept fighting?" The silver haired boy asked.
"You could say that. I was already on my way out of the courtyard when he decided he wanted to get the last hit in." Tama rubbed her aching knuckles at the memory, "And at first I wasn't sure what had happened. He wanted to be all high and mighty and toss a kunai at me…but I didn't see it. Too bad his aim was awesome. He was just being an idiot."
Sato's eyes were wide, "He hit you?"
"That's what they told me. Square on my back somewhere serious and it knocked me out." She recalled the incident in fragments, "They had to drag me to the hospital and remove it so there wouldn't be some spinal injury or whatever it was...and my parents were horrified. All I remember when I woke up was a lot of screaming at my sensei. I hadn't even realized I had been hurt so seriously."
"What about the asshole who hurt you?" He snarled, "Did they bust him up good?"
"No. It was an accident really. Just kids fighting...even if it was with deadly weapons. We're ninja you know, it can't be avoided." Tama chuckled at the thought, "But the bottom line was that he never meant anything by it. He was angry. And my father didn't want to hear it either. Even before I was out of the hospital he had me pulled out of the Academy."
"That's bullshit! They didn't even tell you first?" Sato stood up after hearing what had happened, "What were they thinking?"
"They were afraid for me. They panicked and did what they thought could keep me safe." She recited the excuse, "Don't get me wrong, I was upset. But they distracted me with all different sorts of things so I wouldn't have the time to say how miserable I was. I was always at some class, working somewhere or competing for something. I made them happy so they could forget how unhappy I was."
He looked down at her, his face solemn. He wondered how he hadn't realized it sooner. Tama had never been the type of person to go out and enjoy normal civilian life on a whim. Her parents had pushed it upon her after the first sign of danger, 'Didn't they realize when they first enrolled her in the Academy what it means to be a ninja? That we get into fights constantly?'
Though he agreed with their wish of keeping their only daughter safe, Sato thought it was unfair they had taken her dream away from her.
"If they wanted to keep you safe then they should have become ninja too." Sato announced icily, "You can protect yourself; there's no doubt about it. There's no need for them to intervene."
"But they don't think that I'm like Uncle Gai. I don't look tough enough to them." Tama informed him, "No matter how I try to explain it to them they just can't understand. It's not their fault, Sato..."
She stood up and patted his shoulder, telling him not to worry about it. Tama felt better after having gotten the truth off of her chest and she went back to practicing against the training dummy. Sato watched her for a short while, and then asked, "But if you could become a ninja now...would you go for it?"
"Sure I would." Tama admitted, "But I'm too old for the Academy. You can't do that over. And my parents would definitely have a fit if they heard of me becoming a Genin."
"You can do it, I think." Sato scratched his chin, "What if I found a way for you to graduate to genin without the Academy or your parents finding out?"
"Then I'd be impressed." She shrugged, not getting her hopes up.
He frowned, seeing she wasn't interested. Sato grabbed her wrists and tugged lightly so she turned to face him, "No really, Tama, I can pull some strings. This can work!"
"With who? And how?" She snorted incredulously, "My chance came and went. Even if I'm hanging on to a dead dream, that doesn't mean it can come true if you weasel a deal out with Tsunade-sama."
"I'll tell you what, give me a day to talk to some people. If something comes up that can help you out I want you to cooperate and start brushing up on your basic jutsu, alright? Fair?" He offered, grinning, "And if they tell me to take a hike then you can go back to being a cashier in that charming little shop of yours."
"You're such a jerk."
"Is that a yes?" Sato smiled at her, his midnight eyes lively again.
"Alright. Go ahead. But nothing drastic, you hear me?" Tama agreed lowly, "If my parents hear about this they'll kill you first and then me."
"That's usually how it works..." He sighed and then darted off into the forest again. Tama stood quietly for a moment, wondering what the chances were that he would succeed. She turned back to the dummy and resumed her forms.
By noon Haku had passed several rice fields ready for harvesting, and then breaked for lunch in a small village in the shadow of a mountain. The local specialty was a foreign, fish-based dish, which he took a liking to, though Haku suspected that the owner of the tavern was making him overpay for his lunch because he was an out-of-towner who didn't know any better.
The past few days his endless walking had brought him to a number of different towns dotting the Southern trail. The money he had with him went a long way, and at night sometimes he would rest at an inn, or if he was still on the road when night descended he took shelter under a tree or ledge.
A week into his journey Haku was reduced to using the scarf that he had received as a gift when he was a child. The cold grew with each passing day, biting at his skin. It was proof enough he was nearing the cooler climate of the Water Country and winter, it seemed, was fast approaching. The first night it snowed was miserable. The small fire he had made didn't last long during the squalls.
The tree he had been sleeping in was bereft of leaves to buffer the silent snowfall, so for a while Haku blearily remained awake to consciously relocate the white flakes with his Kekkei Genkai. After a time he would nod off and so would his power. The snow would build up quickly and blanket him with cold. He would wake up shivering violently. It happened several times during the night, before Haku finally resorted to creating a small dome of ice mirrors for shelter. The mirrors stood obediently while he slept.
Once morning arrived his joints ached terribly from sleeping curled up during the night. Haku could see his breath in the frigid air and knew that the only way to stay warm was to keep moving. He walked across the deeper snow-drifts with chakra until he reached the trail again.
He stopped to eat at another village after a few hours of walking, and enjoyed the temporary warmth of being indoors. 'It won't be long before I have to cross the bay out to the island chain,' Haku thought, aware of the local geography, 'Once I reach Kuro I can continue south.' He smiled at the notion, 'I wonder if Hiroshi will be there...'
It didn't seem likely, though. With Hiroshi being a merchant it was conducive to travel far and wide to sell his wares, rather than being restricted to one area. 'I would like to see him again though...maybe I can find him before Zabuza and see how he is.' Haku speculated. It wasn't out of the question but it certainly wasn't probable.
After he finished his meal he paid the owner of the establishment and stopped in a store across the street. He had decided the night before he was in desperate need of warmer clothing if he was going to risk the wilderness so often on his journey. 'That and I cannot be too conspicuous... a Leaf ninja wandering the Water Country would attract more attention than I need.' With that thought, he removed his hitai-ate and slipped it in his bag.
He took the clothing available into consideration before deciding on the attire he preferred. Haku selected longer pants over the shorter, dark pants he had worn frequently in the Fire Country. The black sweater he had chosen fit tightly to the skin, but was made with insulated material that he knew would be helpful.
The girl who owned the shop observed him, "Well, you certainly are cute! But wearing all black makes you look like you're up to no good..." She paused thoughtfully, "Are you a murderer?"
He didn't answer, but he did take her advice and slipped his blue gi back over the sweater, breaking up the dark colors for a more friendly effect. Once the girl approved of his appearance and had been paid he thanked her, and bought a parasol to shield himself from the snowfall outside.
Haku wrapped his scarf around his face and neck and set out on the main road. He looked back as the shop girl poked her head out the door, shouting, "Grandma! Come and get some lunch while it's hot!" When no response came the girl looked up and down the street; her grandmother was nowhere in sight, "Now where did she go?"
She disappeared back into the shop and Haku continued on out of the village, viewed only as a stranger with an umbrella. He estimated the time it would take to reach Kuro, 'Since it's the next town over I can reach it by late afternoon if the weather doesn't get worse.'
The entire journey was rapidly becoming dependent on the climate. He wondered how different it would be if he had lived his whole life in the Water Country and was accustomed to the weather. 'If I had continued my life here all by myself...would I have lived as long? Would I be a Mist ninja instead?' Haku shuddered at the thought of not being brought to Konoha. Even now he was not certain how he would manage life outside of his village. Without Naruto or Gaara he felt his confidence was strained, or maybe even nonexistent.
A few minutes outside of the village Haku spotted an elderly woman crouched on the side of the road. He suspected she could be the missing grandmother the shop girl had been calling for, but he chose not to jump to conclusions. The dark haired boy moved to the opposite side of the trail, curious as to why she was inclined to stay out in the cold.
He noted a small shrine at the base of a tree that was dedicated to someone who had died. 'Perhaps she is grieving over a lost loved one...' Haku surmised.
The old woman stared at the grave with nostalgic eyes, immune to the snowflakes beginning to crown her head. Being the morally-disciplined person that he was, Haku knew better than to leave a heartbroken woman in the cold of a snow shower. He cleared his throat and she was finally alerted to his presence.
She looked at him blankly for a moment, drinking in his beautiful face and then blinked in puzzlement when he handed her his parasol. She couldn't think of anything to say and watched as the mysterious boy continued on down the trail. The falling snow magically avoided him as it drifted down.
"An angel?" She wondered and then turned back to the shrine to pray, shielding herself with the umbrella she had been given.
Neji had a new nightly habit of light reading before sleep. A pillow was pressed beneath as his chest as he spread out on his stomach in bed, his chin propped up with one hand, and the gifted novel balanced in the other:
The Tale of the First Shinobi, Chapter 5
Yuanjia learned quickly and showed surprising wisdom as he trained under Tian Tian. Her dislike for him faded with time, yet she still viewed him as a child when he had only been alive for eighteen years; a mere speck in the grand scheme of the world. She had six years' experience over him and he asked if that really made such a difference.
"Enough difference for me to be the teacher and you to be the student." Tian Tian reminded him, "Your form is sloppy! Hold that sword straighter!"
For two years she trained Yuanjia, watching proudly as he excelled in ninjutsu. Tian Tian had to admit he had become proficient in swordsmanship, though he was still nowhere near as talented as she.
They roamed the country as an unlikely pair: the best of friends who always concluded arguments with laughter. Sometimes they would go away for weeks on end, leaving Ukigaru to imagine what they were up to.
The master and student's favorite past time was breaking up groups of bandits and upholding the law in her father's land. Policing through the mountains together, their names were feared by thieves for miles. Tian Tian gave up her hostilities completely for her pupil and soon returned the loyalty that he felt for her. One day their friendly adventures were cut abruptly short.
Yuanjia was summoned back to his home where he was expected to take over family duties in his clan. Tian Tian was hesitant to release him, but he sadly insisted that he return to help where he was needed. She cast aside her bitterness for his sake and presented him with a parting gift: her sword, Taige, and he humbly accepted it. Tian Tian felt he was the only person she could trust to wield such a powerful weapon.
And so Yuanjia returned to his clan, leaving his teacher alone again and Ukigaru did his best to raise his daughter's spirits. He knew that for all of her discipline and strictness, Tian Tian was an incredibly emotional creature. Without her student she suddenly felt vulnerable to the world again, unsure if she was willing to share her experiences with others as she had with him. Though Yuanjia had helped dissolve the shell that kept her withdrawn from people, she supposed she had no reason to not continue her adventures. She informed her father that she would be out on another journey for a while and he wished her health and a safe return.
She set out through the mountains, keeping bandits in check and small towns safe from raids. Though guarding her father's land brought her great pride, Tian Tian still felt a horrible loneliness without her pupil by her side. During her travels, however, she encountered a man named Seto who was irresistibly charming and he captured her heart. Seto adored the beautiful princess and asked her to stay in his village with him rather than continue on through the mountains alone. Eyes clouded with love, the lonely kunoichi relented and agreed to stay with Seto.
She told him stories of her youth in the Realm of Stone and how she had mentored a fine ninja. Seto, though fascinated, never really understood what it meant to be a shinobi for he was not one himself. Tian Tian loved him anyway, tamed by his presence, and soon grew fond of the small village they lived in. It was not long before they became lovers and dreamt of marriage and children. By year's end things had changed.
Tian Tian would pass long nights on her own waiting on word from her beloved. Sometimes he would disappear for days on end and return disheveled and hurt, and she feared for his life since he so often hunted in the treacherous wilderness surrounding the mountain. "Let me accompany you, then, so I may know that you are safe?" Tian Tian suggested, willing to guard him in the night if she had to.
Seto shook his head in response, "You needn't worry for my safety, love, this mountain shall never conquer me."
So she waited faithfully, grateful for every morning he returned alive and well. Though there were times she wondered why he dared hunt in the darkness of night or why, sometimes, he returned without a kill. Her naivety persisted for a long while until one day Seto confronted her.
"I am leaving you," He informed her, "I am in love with someone else."
Tian Tian was shocked by his decision. Not once had she ever questioned his loyalty to her and she felt her heart break as Seto explained, "Her name is Nyi and she is the most beautiful woman I have ever met. You are to leave this place by nightfall so she may come and live with me."
Tian Tian didn't understand his change of heart. They were to be married in the coming fall. She pleaded with him, her eyes tearing, "How could you abandon me like this, Seto? I've sacrificed so much for you, told you only the truth and I have given you my heart and soul. Yet you would cast me out for another woman...how has your love for me so suddenly ended?"
"You were a princess of noble blood, so naturally I was taken with you at first," Seto admitted, "But you are just so strange! It isn't natural for a woman to carry weapons and fight! I just don't understand an enigma like you. You are beautiful, Tian Tian, but not as beautiful as Nyi."
Her heartbreak quickly turned into rage. Her lover's betrayal had reawakened her hatred of men. Tian Tian stormed out of the house and left the village, never to return. She wandered aimlessly for months, consumed by her heartache, and remained withdrawn from society. The trust she had felt had only existed with Yuanjia and he was long gone. She would never again be so foolish.
Tian Tian's father had sent scouts to retrieve her while he was sick with worry, but all of those who were able to find her she turned away. She had willingly chosen the path of a rogue and she would have it no other way.
Neji put the book down, highly disturbed. He had thought that Tian Tian, as the protagonist of the story, would have at least been given a bit more dignity. But the terrible deception she had endured after it taking so long for her to learn to trust another person was quick to ruin it all.
He could not help but feel that Takaharu had not given the name to his daughter simply because it was "in fashion." The Hyuga heir pondered if perhaps Tenten was feeling the same things that her namesake had felt in her lifetime, if it was any explanation of her odd behavior as of late.
Neji stared at the cover, not trusting the words that lay on the pages beneath it. They were cheating happiness and he disagreed with it. He tossed it aside, aggravated, and snapped the light off to go to sleep for the night.
Konoha, 17 years prior
Riei awoke with a sudden jolt, startling the nurse in the room who had gone in to check on him. He relaxed after seeing where he was and apologized, "I'm sorry, ma'am, I didn't mean to scare you."
"It's alright." She answered, checking his pulse while she was at it, "Good. You're doing much better now. You nearly died, you know. How could you wear down all of your chakra like that?"
He blinked at her meekly, "I've been running for a week and a half. I guess I'm just used to being tired."
"Exhaustion like that is dangerous to your health." The nurse sniffed, "Don't let it happen again, sir. You may not survive the next time..." She walked to the door and Riei sprang up from the bed.
"Wait!" He cried, "Where are you going?"
The nurse stopped to stare at him, her hand still on the doorknob, "This is a hospital, sir, and I have rounds to make with other patients."
"So...you're just leaving me here?
"Yes, until you are well enough to be released to your family." The nurse explained, frowning quizzically.
Riei's eyes dulled, "I don't have any family..."
She blinked in confusion, "You mean to tell me that you don't have any family or friends here to visit you?"
"I'm not from here." He admitted, as if she hadn't already realized it.
The nurse took a moment to think and then told him, "Stay here. I'll send someone up to keep you company then."
Riei thanked her and watched as she closed the door behind her. He had never been in a hospital before and already it was making him feel claustrophobic. The nurse ventured down to the ground floor and then swaggered into the lobby. She tapped her nails on a desk. The rapping sound caught the attention of a silver haired woman who looked at her.
"Semi," The nurse droned, "There's some guy up on floor two who you should go talk to."
"Alright," Semi pushed her papers aside, smiling, "What's his name?"
"I didn't ask, he's a real weirdo." The nurse replied snippishly, "If he starts scaring you or anything you can just leave. He's up in room 210."
Semi nodded and then stood from her desk, making her way through the lobby. As a volunteer at the hospital she was often sent to act as a social worker for patients. She had seen all sorts come through, and in her opinion there was no one weirder than her younger brother. She wasn't intimidated by him either.
Once on the second floor she knocked politely before entering. She slipped inside quietly and was greeted with a strange sight. A young man with a mop of snow-hued hair sat cross-legged on top of his bed, staring out the window on the wall beside him. Semi assumed he was anxious from being alone, but when he noticed her a dazzled look appeared on his face.
Eyes like night and hair like starlight: she was an angel he could have only seen in his dreams. She couldn't have looked any more beautiful, even though she was in a plain white hospital outfit.
"Hi." He gave a short greeting, hoping he wasn't staring rudely.
"Hello," She did her best not to laugh at his childlike behavior, "My name is Hatake Semi. I'm a social worker here. I thought you might like someone to talk to."
Riei smiled, "Thank you, Semi."
There was a strange silence.
"Um...why don't you introduce yourself?" She suggested, taking a seat in the chair beside the bed.
He sat up a bit straighter, slightly embarrassed, "Sorry! My name is Riei."
"Riei, huh?" She smiled, "Good. And you don't live in the Fire Country, Riei?"
"I've lived everywhere at least once," He answered distractedly, glancing around the room in alarm, "I...I think I've been robbed!"
"What?" Semi laughed.
"I wasn't wearing these clothes last I remember!" Riei declared, pulling suspiciously at the shirt and shorts the hospital had provided, "All of my things have gone missing..."
"No they haven't!" Semi crossed over to the closet and opened it, "We keep your things right here."
He blinked, seeing all of his belongings had been stowed away. It dawned on him that he had no need to feel threatened anymore with Nisa gone, but old habits die hard. Riei made a rabbit-like leap over to the cupboard and snatched up his bag. He marveled at how all of his clothes had been washed and he settled back on the bed contentedly, his possessions splayed out in front of him on the sheets, "That was weird. I've never had my things put in a closet before..."
The amusement that had been flickering in Semi's eyes morphed into curiosity, "You've never used a closet?"
"No. Not once."
"So then...what about your house?" She asked him.
"I haven't lived in a house since I was a baby," He laughed at the thought as if it were preposterous, "I told you before we lived all over the place."
Semi was intrigued, "You mean you and your family were nomads?"
"You could say that." He agreed, fishing through his bag to see if anything had been stolen, "We didn't want to be. We had no place to go after the war and...a lot of people gave us a hard time."
"Is that how you ended up in the Hidden Leaf Village?"
"Gosh...is that what this place is called? I just needed to get away. I wasn't paying attention to which village I was running to..." Riei admitted sheepishly.
Semi frowned, troubled by his situation, "So when they let you out...where will you go?"
"That's a question I ask myself everyday..." He sighed, "But I'm safe now. Nisa and I were the last of our clan and now that he's gone I can finally rest easy." Riei smiled as an afterthought, "Maybe I can stay here. This village is one of the best I've seen and those faces on the cliff are pretty cool!"
"The Hokage Monument." Semi informed him, "Once you're all better I'll take you there if you want."
Riei blinked, "You don't have to do that. You barely even know me."
"Well, that's why I'm trying to get to know you!" She smiled amiably, "I think you could use a friend if you want to live here."
He grinned at her, "I appreciate it but you know I'm going to have to start from scratch. I haven't got a lot of money and I don't think you'd want to be seen with a hobo like me around here. Lots of people look down on people like me. I've learned."
"I'll decide for myself, thank you."
Riei shrugged but was truly grateful she could care less about his economic status. He fished a large scroll out of his bag and showed it to her. "See this?"
"This is one of the few things that was left in my family after the war. It's my clan's summoning contract. I've been saving it so Nisa wouldn't get his hands on it." He elaborated, rolling it from one hand to another.
"Summoning contract?" The phrase was relevant to her, "You're a shinobi?"
"Sure I am!" He made a childish face, "Maybe not an orthodox one, but my dad taught me how to fight."
"I can imagine," Semi agreed, "And you keep talking about someone called Nisa?"
"Yeah, he was my cousin." Riei replied sourly, "He's the one who killed the rest of my family."
"Oh...I'm...I'm so sorry..." She felt she had touched upon something that was none of her business, but Riei was more than willing to talk about it.
"Don't worry, it was his fault not yours. And he didn't do it alone either..." He sneered, "His dad and his big sis helped him. They all thought they were entitled to the scraps that were leftover. My dad was the leader of our clan but after we lost our home he just couldn't keep those three in check..."
"That's why you were protecting the scroll?" Semi asked, pointing to the contract.
Riei nodded, "That's right and it wasn't easy. He nearly got it from me once, but he only managed to sign it. He's also stolen my pole-arm from me...I let him have it because I was just so sick of fighting."
Semi watched him with sad eyes, empathetic.
"Now that he's dead I guess that means my naginata is lost for good..." He mumbled, shoving all of his belongings back into his bag, "At least I'm alive though. I can't complain about that!"
Before Semi could respond there was a brief knock on the door and Takaharu entered, smiling pleasantly, "Ah, room 210, the dwelling of our mystery ninja! May I ask your name?"
"Well it's nice to meet you, Uh-Riei!" He beamed, "Listen up. Your medical report says that you're well enough to be discharged. Hokage-sama would like to speak to you and, oh! I figured you might want this..." He reached out into the hallway and retrieved a naginata he had propped up against the wall.
Riei hopped up and took it from him happily, "Thank you sir! But...how did you know it was mine?"
"Your opponent didn't wield it so well and since it's such a handsome thing I wanted to keep it for myself," Takaharu explained, "But it wouldn't be fair of me to not check with you first."
"Thank you." Riei repeated, slightly overwhelmed.
Takaharu then turned to Semi, "Hey, Semi-chan. Why don't you come with us to the tower?"
"I really should get back to work..."
"Nonsense! Kakashi would be thrilled if you attended the meeting with us." Takaharu smirked knowingly and Riei watched as mischievousness crossed the woman's expression.
"Alright then." She agreed.
Takaharu glanced back at Riei, "Good. Now Riei, get dressed and then I'll take you to Sarutobi-sama."
Immediately the white haired nin complied and stripped off his hospital clothing. Semi turned away with a shriek, startled by his abruptness. Takaharu paid little mind to his lack of modesty, finding his shamelessness comical, 'He's definitely lacking a few social skills. We'll have to work on that...'
Shino's mission, unknown to his good friend Hatake Sato, had him reassigned to a team led by Gekko Hayate. Lee and Sakura were also in attendance for the C-rank assignment as they set out to guard a young man named Shibuki, of Takigakure. The young ninja was actually (allegedly, Hayate muttered) the leader of the Hidden Waterfall Village. At first Sakura had believed that he commanded an air of confidence, what with his solemn face and his well-kept attire and weapons. It was not very long into the mission that Shibuki's true mouse-ish nature was revealed.
"Wuh-ahhh!" He leapt in surprise when a crow fluttered unexpectedly from a bush.
Shibuki ducked down behind Sakura, generating puzzled looks from his companions. After trekking down the road for most of the morning they soon grew accustomed to his nervous behavior. Lee told Shibuki fantastic stories about Leaf, mainly regarding his team's achievements. Sakura considered his missions with Neji and Tenten head and shoulders more difficult than what her team undertook regularly. Shibuki only acknowledged the triumphant endings with a distracted snort.
By the afternoon they had come upon a beautiful waterfall that cascaded down from a mountaintop. The village was concealed within it, and the team stopped to admire the scenery for a few minutes before moving on down the hill and following the river's edge. Small voices in the distance carried through the air, "Shibuki-sama!"
Two small children, a brother and sister, ran up to him, "Welcome back, Shibuki-sama!"
"Now, now, keep some distance will you? Show some respect for your village leader!" Shibuki reminded the youngsters, "I'm sorry, but I don't have time to play with you right now."
"But that's not why we're here," The boy answered, his eyebrows were close to Lee's in thickness, "We're supposed to clean up the trash by the shore."
"Mother's making us pick up every bit of it!" His sister added in a squeak.
"I see," Shibuki folded his arms, smiling down at them, "Well look! I've brought you some help!" He turned, gesturing to the genin behind him, "These ninja have come from Konohagakure! What do you think of that?"
Lee grinned at Shibuki's rather abrupt proposition, "Yes! This is another opportunity to aid our comrades of the Waterfall!" Sakura and Shino remained less enthused.
"Pick up garbage? I'm tired though...can't we just go home?" The pink haired girl sighed. Shino made no comment but sided with Sakura. He wasn't keen on wasting any more time when there were other, more important missions he could be partaking of back home.
"We'll pay you for your time." Shibuki offered Sakura with a smile, "Just think of it as part of the mission!"
"Thank you brave ninja!" The girl squealed and her brother joined in on fawning over the foreign shinobi.
Hayate watched in amusement as Lee moved ahead to interact with the children, while Sakura and Shino stayed back, bored and irritable. He, as leader of the group, had no reason to protest an extension on their mission if they were going to be paid for it.
"Move along then. Since Shibuki-san has been returned home safely, your body guard duty is over." Hayate had to prod the rest of his team into action, "Time for phase two. Stop those faces, huh? Look lively, please..."
Sakura moved ahead to join Lee as he waded through the water with the children. After a long, silent moment Shino did as well. Hayate sighed at their lack of conviction and then rested on a nearby log. Lee cheered as his teammates assisted him in scooping litter from the river bottom, and Sakura cracked a smile at last, reminded of Naruto's equally bubbly attitude. She missed her friends, but she found she wasn't as affected by it as she feared she would be.
"Actually, it's a good thing we've decided to stick around for a while..." Hayate mentioned as Shibuki took a seat beside him, "That way we can investigate these rumors."
"Rumors?" The young village leader gave him a quizzical look.
"It may be nothing, but there have been indications that some rogue ninja have certain plans for your village." Hayate explained vaguely, drawing his sword and then proceeding to polish it.
"Well, there are always rumors like that going around..." Shibuki replied shortly.
The jounin worked methodically on the blade and then asked distractedly, "Come to think of it, your father once had to fight off a bunch of troublemakers like that didn't he?"
Shibuki remained quiet, recalling his father, and then ducked with a cry as a hawk swooped just over his head. It vectored in its course with a beat of its wings, and landed gracefully on Hayate's outstretched arm, "Not to worry...it's just a messenger from the Hidden Leaf Village."
He took a moment to read the note, "Someone's looking for me..."
"Does this mean you're leaving?"
"Yes, but don't worry. The others can stay and finish up here," Hayate informed him, and then turned to his laboring team, "Listen! I'm needed back at the village so I'll be going now."
"Did something happen?" Sakura asked with her arms piled high with cans.
"They've called an emergency session at the jounin council." Hayate answered, standing up and stowing away the message, "You will all follow as soon as you are done here."
"Understood." Shino's voice was low.
He suspected that something had occurred back in the village that put Tsunade on edge. There would be no other reason for her to summon all of her jounin to her so suddenly. He was curious as to what the situation was, but it would have to wait until later. Hayate bade them farewell and disappeared swiftly into the surrounding forest. The genin watched him leave and then turned back to their work.
They finished a short time later, but Lee was too busy chasing after the laughing children to realize their task was complete. Shibuki watched irritably as the oblivious nin horsed around with them, "Are you quite done now? Why don't you just go already?"
"Oh." Lee paused, looking back at him quizzically, "Is it time to leave already?"
"You heard me," The village leader snapped, "There's nothing keeping you here any longer so beat it!" The children gave him a somber look, and then reluctantly trudged back to Shibuki's side.
Lee still didn't get the hint. Shino, on the other hand, heeded the warning, "Very well then." He turned to go and Sakura followed, confused.
"Shino, wait a minute. What's got his underwear all bunched up?" She asked quietly, again annoyed by his defensive nature, "We could stay a little bit longer, right?"
"The secret entrance to the Hidden Waterfall Village must be near," Shino surmised keenly, "It's logical that he would not want us to see it. We have no business remaining here."
"What a trusting guy..." She muttered, her pink brow furrowed, "I thought our villages were allied."
"Yes, but what if that changes one day? What's to keep you from betraying us?" Shibuki bit back after overhearing their exchange.
"Again, a logical point." Shino repeated. His objective point of view at least gave Shibuki more credit than he was probably due, but the offence still sunk in quickly.
Sakura scowled at the leader of the Waterfall and Lee also looked troubled, "Shibuki-san, there really is no need for your doubt us. We will go now if you wish it, but we never meant any harm by coming here!"
"Will you please just get out of here?" Shibuki growled again, his patience was wearing thin.
Lee sighed and then gave a short goodbye to the children before moving ahead to join his teammates. A shriek from the little girl followed shortly after, "Oh! Mother!"
They looked back, noting a rather plump woman staggering towards them. Her face was wracked with pain, and her children scuttled forward to meet her.
"Shibuki-sama..." She rasped, her legs quaking, "It was awful!"
Tension crossed the young leader's features, "What is it? What happened?"
"They attacked without any warning..." She collapsed shortly after that. A kunai had been lodged in her back. Both the children and Leaf shinobi backtracked, rushing to the injured woman.
Sakura knelt down and immediately examined her, "It doesn't look fatal, but she's lost consciousness. I'll handle this."
"Let's go!" The little boy cried, "We have to get back to the village!"
"That would be foolish." Shino interrupted him, his sharp eyes were briefly visible above his glasses as he looked down at the victim, "Judging by this, the village has already been infiltrated and taken. Rushing back to counter now would be costly."
"She said that there was no warning..." Lee repeated softly, his expression grim, "Who exactly is responsible?"
"It isn't possible...there's no way anyone could even find the village..." Shibuki muttered, his eyes narrowed in thought, "This doesn't make sense."
Shino looked to the kunoichi of the team, "Sakura-san. Guard the children and their mother. Look after them somewhere out of sight."
She nodded in agreement, "Right. What about you and Lee?" She didn't have to ask, though. Sakura already knew that Shino was planning to investigate and retaliate, if possible. Lee would be with him, but there was still the issue of finding the village. His Kikaichu insects would not be able to thoroughly investigate the area with so much water inhibiting them.
"We must go now while we can!" Lee cried ardently, "Shibuki-san, you must show us the way to your village so we can challenge those responsible for this!"
"So you will huh? I'd like that! Just how do you expect to help us anyway?" Shibuki snapped back at the glaringly green ninja. Shino darted ahead of them suddenly, and they turned to watch as four enemy ninja blew their cover hidden in the waterfall. He was out on the water, ready to meet their volley of kunai.
His nagamaki appeared and he swiped, deflecting the storm of knives that rained down. Lee quickly moved ahead when there was an opening and met one of the ninja head-on. His fist cracked upward, catching one in a flying uppercut that threw him back into the waterfall, his face a bloody mess. Shino raked through another with his weapon and Lee soared over him, rotating in the air and clipping the third in the gut with a downward kick. His foe crumpled, stunned by the blow, and was finished by a swift heel-bash to the side of the head before Lee even touched the ground again.
The remaining ninja saw he had miscalculated and halted when Shino approached. "So you've got help with you, huh?" The rogue spat furiously and then dove back into the cover of the falls.
Once the immediate threat had passed, Shino concealed his nagamaki again and turned back to shore with Lee. Shibuki was cowering in a ball on the ground while the children crowed for him to have courage. After seeing the fighting had been dispelled, Shibuki stood awkwardly, "Oh...it was nothing...I just got a little excited."
"That should be proof enough of our intentions," Shino announced, coming to stand in front of the village leader, "I planted one of my Kikaichu insects on the last rogue. She will stay hidden on him and keep me informed on his position, that is, if you will grant us entry into the village to finish this."
Lee nodded fiercely, "Yes! A new mission! We can defeat these wretched ninja and further preserve the Hidden Waterfall Village."
Sakura sighed to herself, lost in thought, 'Oh boy...this isn't too much different from something that Naruto and his team would get into...but I doubt Shibuki will be very willing to cooperate even now.'
Shibuki stared at the ground for a long moment, weighing the prospects. After a while he stood and ushered for them to follow. They proceeded closer to the falls while Shibuki explained, "These natural surroundings have served as a barrier that have protected our village from most of our enemies. The only way in is through the waterfall..."
The group paused on top of a ledge overlooking the falls and once near enough, a cavern behind the veil of water became visible. Lee and Shino regarded the cave entrance, and Shibuki spoke again warningly, "Let me make one thing clear...you must never reveal this secret to anyone."
"Of course, Shibuki-san," Lee promised gladly, his smile glinted in the sunlight, "You have our word as honorable Leaf shinobi!"
They moved ahead after that, following the ledge behind the cascading water and entered the mouth of the cave. Pools of eerie green water were corralled by stalagmites all throughout the cavern. They continued through the echoing cave, wary for enemies as they occasionally stopped behind boulders. Shino's insects remained alert for danger.
"This way!" Shibuki went ahead and they followed after him as he came to the lip of a large, green pool, "If you're helping me then this is the only way to get inside." He dove into the water a moment later and Shino, seeing the means of progression, had his colony retreat back into his body to escape harm from the water. He and Lee also plunged in after the young leader.
Outside of the waterfall Sakura finished tending to the woman's wound. Her children sat nervously beside her even after Sakura had assured them that she would be alright. The girl cried to herself, mewling for her mother to wake.
"Don't cry, Shizuku." Her brother said softly, "Sakura-san is here to help and I know Shibuki-sama will take care of this!"
"I'd be surprised..."
The children looked up in fright when a ninja appeared behind Sakura and landed a knockout blow to the side of her neck. The kunoichi's eyes rolled back and she toppled over bonelessly. The children squealed in terror as the rogue ninja chortled, "Her reactions are a little slow...and she calls herself a ninja?"
"You bet I do!"
They all looked far off to the right, where a large fireball was soaring forward from the underbrush. The newcomer leapt back promptly to avoid the flames, but blanched when knives darted ahead that had been hidden within it. He strained to make another more panicked leap backwards, landing a fair distance away from the helpless children and their mother.
'What the hell was that? I thought-!' He looked back and saw that she had substituted herself, having anticipated his attack. Even worse than that, was that a fog had descended in the woods that had not been there earlier, 'Some kind of genjutsu, huh? I'll just have to release it then!'
He didn't do it quickly enough.
"Doton: Inner Decapitation Jutsu!" She had ambushed him from underground, blind-siding him, and pulled the rogue by his heels beneath the surface of the soil. It was a technique her sensei had first used on her and her teammates as a practical joke, but now she found that after having learned it she could apply it. He had not found a way to escape the technique fast enough; unable to believe a girl has bested him.
She loomed down over the hissing, struggling rogue, and pinched a nerve at the nape of his neck. He flopped over inertly after that. The children's faces lit up with relief after seeing she had been victorious. Sakura smiled over to them, "Don't worry, I've been in tougher situations before…and sheesh! Give me a little more credit! I'm the Hokage's apprentice you know!"
The pink haired girl hefted the unconscious ninja out of his earthy prison and splayed him out on the ground. Sakura methodically disarmed him of all of his weapons and supplies, taking them for herself, but noted how she would have to be more thorough, 'Once he wakes up he'll make a bee-line for his cohorts...I better make him useless so when he does get back to them they won't learn anything from him.' It made her shudder a bit at how she was starting to think like Tsunade.
With her chakra scalpel Sakura severed the tendons in the flunkie's arm to start, disabling his ability to wield weaponry and perform jutsu. She moved to his throat and then damaged his vocal chords, knowing that without speech his communication would be thoroughly limited. And just for good measure she tied him up, wondering if later when he woke, he'd be able to free himself, 'He'll definitely have crappy motor functions in his hands. I'd be impressed if he pulls it off.'
Sakura stowed away her newly acquired weapons and then turned back to the children. They were ready to leave and she hadn't even asked them to prepare. They had slung her team's travel bags on their backs. All that was left was their dozing mother at their feet. Sakura bent down and easily lifted the injured woman and then said, "Listen you two...I need you to show me the way to get into your village. Once I'm in I want you to hide with your mother somewhere safe while I go find Lee and Shino, alright?"
"You got it, Sakura-san!" Shizuku's brother cheered, leading the way out of the tree-line and back towards the falls. With a huff Sakura followed the children, hoping they wouldn't have another ninja encounter anytime soon.
Lee and Shino surfaced silently after Shibuki, coming up just in front of a massive tree that shaded the entirety of the village beneath it. They went to the shore and stopped just outside a row of houses. They looked around the empty town.
"What a stunning place..." Lee remarked, wide-eyed, "It is no wonder you would so fiercely defend it."
Shibuki hovered in the water for a moment, a listless look in his eyes. After a moment he dove back under the water and set out again. Shino spoke sidelong to Lee, "My insects indicate there will be an attack. Go follow Shibuki-san and guard him."
Lee looked hesitant when his teammate was willing to fend off an ambush by himself. It felt like something that Neji would choose to do. Yet he had grown to trust people who trusted their abilities in a fight. He nodded to Shino, "I will hurry back!"
He leapt in after the village leader, moments before the hidden rogues descended like vultures.
They leapt for Shino together and he let his Kikaichu colony attack for him, swarming his assailants and feasting on their chakra. He knocked them aside while they flailed about, but cursed once a blue rope tangled around him. The ninja who had escaped him earlier had an accomplice with him; a woman who was at the other end of the rope, pulling fiercely as if to snap him in half.
"Ooh, you're not bad at all, kid!" The woman jeered.
"You didn't think it would really be as easy as last time, did you?" The other rogue crowed, "I say we thrash this punk, Hisame!"
"Gladly!" The woman pulled tighter in unison with her partner, tearing the trapped genin in two.
They balked to see that bugs had made a clone of their master and they scuttled off once their distraction had succeeded. Hisame snarled furiously, tossing the cable back at her partner, "Great! He's loose! What is Suyin-sama going to think of this?"
"He doesn't have to know," Her partner supplied darkly, "We'll nab that kid! We can look for him while Suyin-sama keeps tabs on that idiot-leader of this village. Where do you suppose Kirisame is? I wish he'd get his crazy ass in gear and get back here already!"
Hisame leapt up onto a rooftop, tailing her partner. "Who knows? Maybe that little girly he went after finished him off?" She speculated and then smirked, "Or maybe he wanted to have some fun with her..."
Shibuki surfaced in a tangle of roots beneath the great tree. He scrambled to the shore and opened a large cabinet. He sighed in relief to see that the precious item he was charged with guarding was still there, 'The Hero's Water...it must be protected!'
He untied it from its suspension and took the bottle down, holding it carefully, 'I can't let them have it...no matter what!' Shibuki placed the Hero's Water in his hip-bag and then dove back into the water. Now that it was safe he needed to find a place to avoid his enemies. It was a fight he knew he could not win.
"Shino!" Sakura hurried through a thicket of bramble, thanking the small Kikaichu insect that had met up with her and lead her directly to her teammate, "The kids showed me in. Where's Lee?"
"He went to guard Shibuki-san. The situation has become even more perilous." He informed her, and then sent another small swarm of his colony to go check on their teammate's position, "I encountered two jounin-level ninja after arriving here. They intercepted a clone since they were so eager to fight. Where did you leave the children?"
"I dropped them off near that big tree with their mother," Sakura replied, and then frowned, "But I really hope they don't go looking for Shibuki with so many ninja running around. They could get hurt or..." She shook her head, "No, they'll stay. I told them to. By the way, this guy tried to ambush me earlier. From the look of it he was a nukenin from the Rain Village."
"Rain…the others bore that symbol as well. It is strange that they should want to interfere in this village," Shino said pointedly, "It is very unlikely that they infiltrated this village on their own. Someone from the inside must have showed them in if their interests were aligned in some way."
"You mean that someone from Waterfall betrayed their own village?" Sakura asked quietly, "Wow...this is bad. What a time for Hayate-sensei to leave!"
"We move out now. Unfortunately I attracted the attention of the other two Ame ninja before. They are looking for me and my insects can sense them getting nearer." Shino reported calmly, "It would be best to see where their base is, that way we can organize an ambush of our own."
The pink haired girl agreed completely and followed him back out into the town. They stayed in the treetops to remain out of sight, and it didn't take long for them to find a congregation at the center of the village just beneath the ancient oak. Civilians and ninja alike were tied together, watched by the opposing ninja guardedly.
"They've taken the villagers hostage!" Sakura hissed furiously as they observed from a lofty branch, "Just what is it that they're after?"
"They probably intend to gain whatever it is they are seeking by threatening Shibuki," Shino predicted, "They will kill the villagers if he doesn't comply. Now we should intervene."
He paused and then leapt abruptly, Sakura mirroring him. Shuriken thacked into the branch they had been perched on and the Leaf genin scrambled to right themselves before they landed on another tree limb.
Before Shino could again substitute himself with a bug clone, the blue cable that his opponents had tried to snare him in earlier looped around him and Sakura. Once they were knotted Hisame and her partner howled in triumph, pulling down and sending them crashing to the ground together.
"Oh look at this! Looks like he's got a little friend with him this time!" Hisame chortled, grinning, "Let's show Suyin-sama what we caught..." She and her partner dragged the two struggling ninja out into the open where an older, bearded man looked at them in amusement.
"Have a look, Suyin-sama! Meddlers!" Hisame's partner laughed, "Shall we kill them here in front of everyone?" The rope tightened around Shino and Sakura, squeezing threateningly. The pink haired girl fought desperately not to cry out in pain and Shino remained dutifully silent.
Suyin stood from where he sat near a shrine, "Not yet. They might come in handy when we negotiate."
Hisame and her partner heeded his command and sent an electrical current through the cable without warning, stunning both of the struggling genin. They tumbled to the ground on top of each other. The cable went slack once the job was done and the villagers looked on in terror at the vicious display. A few of them voiced their disagreement.
"Why Suyin? You were once our most respected shinobi! How could you betray us this way?"
"If Fuu were here she'd rip you apart!"
"Are you planning to take over the village?"
"Fuh!" Suyin snorted at the thought, "What would I want with this pathetic collection of huts? No, I've come for the Hero's Water..."
"Are you insane?" One of the captives cried, "Do you really think Shibuki-sama will just hand it over?"
"If he were a different sort of village leader then he may be content to hang on to it, yes. But you forget I am the one who taught him the ninjutsu of Waterfall." He grinned, pleased with himself, "I know your Shibuki better than anyone!"
Shibuki looked on from his hiding place in a tree gap. Everything Suyin had said was true and Shibuki grimaced to himself, fearing what would become of his people if he didn't surrender. Or more importantly, what would happen once Suyin possessed the Hero's Water. Either way he had already lost, 'It's over...I can't hope to defeat so many enemies. I should give up now...'
Shibuki stumbled backwards in shock, slamming into the other side of the gap. He realized his panic was wasted when it was only Lee who had found him and not the enemy, "Y-You! How did you get here?"
Lee hopped down from the top of the gap, grinning, "I was looking for you down near the roots of this fine tree, Shibuki-san. But as it so happened my searching led me here, straight to you! Is that not fantastic luck?" He looked back over his shoulder, "But I wonder...who are those people outside and what is it that they want?"
"Their leader is named Suyin." Shibuki told him quietly, "He used to be a shinobi in this village."
"He used to be?" Lee parroted him, "He is now a rogue ninja, then?"
He nodded, "Yes."
From outside Suyin's voice reverberated through the air, "Hey Shibuki! I know you can hear me wherever you're hiding! Now don't be shy, come on out here and bring the Hero's Water with you! Don't make this village suffer anymore because of you!"
Shibuki shook in violent fear against the wall, clinging pitifully to the bottle in his hands. Lee took notice of it after a moment, "Shibuki-san...what you are holding…is that the Hero's Water that he is speaking of?"
"Yes..." He answered weakly, "And making sure it's protected is the most sacred duty of the village leader..."
"It just looks like a jug of water." Lee pointed out, puzzled.
"It is," Shibuki said softly, "But this water is drawn from the trunk of the ancient tree only once every hundred years...and whoever drinks it will have his or her chakra increased tenfold, maybe even more!"
"Tenfold or more!" Lee cried. To him it sounded like the ability to use chakra gates, but without the price of laborious training and meditation.
Shibuki nodded to him, "There are no shinobi remaining in our village that are as strong as your Hokage...so in times of trouble we've had to rely on the Hero's Water to defend ourselves." He took a shuddering breath, "In the last Great War the water was the only thing that saved us from destruction, but the Hero's Water exacts a terrible price..."
Lee listened intently, seeing why it was so important that the water be kept safe, especially from Suyin.
"Whoever drinks it has his or her life shortened by the same degree to which his chakra was increased. Many of our shinobi have not died in battle, but from the water's effect! Ever since then the Hero's Water has been hidden away to keep it out of people's hands. And it was made the duty of the village leader to guard it." Shibuki explained and then said sadly, "Some years ago we were attacked by shinobi from a distant land. As leader of the village my father did what he felt he had to do to defend us. He drank the water...but he was not a young man."
Lee lowered his eyes, understanding what had happened.
"The increase of his chakra was too great. My father was a fool!" Shibuki cried at the memory, "He performed his sacred duty and was hailed as a great leader because he drank the Hero's Water and died!"
"Shibuki!" Suyin called out again, "You wouldn't be foolish enough to be thinking of pouring it out would you? No...if someone ever attacked the village again you know you wouldn't be able to defend yourselves without the Hero's Water!"
Shibuki cried pathetically where he sat, torn on what he should do, "I know I'm the leader of the village and I must guard the water at all costs...but if I let them take it I will have betrayed my peoples' trust and doomed my village!"
Suyin's voice was impatient, "Time's running out! There's a limit to how long you can just sit out there hiding away! So hand over the Hero's Water now or I'll start killing your villagers one by one, very slowly and painfully!"
Shizuku and her brother, unfortunately, had earlier been apprehended by the rest of Kirisame's team (though he proved to be useless to them by that point.) They called out, begging Shibuki not to surrender. Their captor kicked them back into silence.
"I will not stand for this!" Lee closed his eyes, distraught, "Shibuki-san...you must act!"
"Leave me alone!" Shibuki yowled, turning his gaze away shamefully.
"Those children...they believe in you, even if you do not believe in yourself. They believe that you are strong and worthy of admiration!" Lee reminded him, "They talk about you as if you are a hero!"
"That's because they're only kids and they have it stuck in their heads that the village leader has to be a hero!" He rebutted guiltily, "I am not my father. All I did was inherit his title..."
Down below, Shino and Sakura began to stir and were greeted with the sight of Suyin untying Shizuku and pressing a blade to her small neck.
Sakura thrashed in her place beside the Aburame, "Put her down you son of a bitch!"
Shino looked on darkly, seeing things were then beyond their control.
"Hey Shibuki...I warned you before that my patience is limited! I'm giving you one more minute. If you don't come out by then we'll start with this little one here and then pick off all the rest of the children!"
Suyin's threat infuriated the adults being held captive. They demanded to be killed first, but Suyin assured them the children would be a more effective argument, "Shibuki has always had a soft spot for the kiddies..."
"I may not know entirely what happened...but it sounds to me that your father was a great man." Lee said, looking back at Shibuki.
"Who are you to say that? You don't know anything about my father!" Shibuki snarled defensively.
Suyin counted down the remaining time from outside, torturing the young leader.
"I know that he was willing to sacrifice his life for his village and that is not something an ordinary man would do!" Lee told him, looking back to the villagers.
"What are you going to do?" Shibuki asked, watching Lee move to leave.
"You would give up so easily, Shibuki-san…but I cannot!" Lee declared courageously, "I simply do not know how! There is always a way to win! To save the people you care for! To never give in, no matter the circumstances: that is my nindo! Your father is the kind of person who would not be swayed by fear or doubt...and neither am I."
Lee disappeared from the entrance a moment later.
Shibuki stared in astonishment at the empty space the Leaf ninja had once occupied. He couldn't believe Lee was willing to fight when he was not. Then again, he could believe it.
Suyin's countdown drew into mere seconds, and his eyes crossed as an exploding tag thudded to the ground just in front of him. Startled, he jumped, and Shizuku bit down on his hand during the tumble. She rolled away from him when he recoiled, and hurried back to her family in the confusion of the blast.
The smoke cloud had temporarily confused the rogue ninja. Suyin scrambled to his feet furiously, 'There's no way a coward like Shibuki would show his face to fight!'
Sakura was well aware that Lee had created the diversion, even before he slashed at the ties around her wrists, "Lee! It's good to see you! Where did you learn a strategy like that?"
"Tenten says that the best distraction is the one that explodes!" He chuckled. He didn't have to free Shino; his Kikaichu insects had already chewed through his bonds and the Aburame disappeared into the smoke cloud to ambush their foes.
Lee and Sakura moved back into the clearing prepared to defend the helpless captives. Shizuku hopped from one group to the next, cutting people loose. It was mayhem as ninja began to dive at each other, slashing and punching. The smoke cloud dissipated and their wits returned.
Shino had gone directly for Suyin, drawing his nagamaki and commanding his insects to drain his foe of chakra. Sakura and Lee charged Hisame and her partner, avoiding their cable, and also defending the captives from odd-ended projectiles.
Sakura threw a monstrous punch that missed Hisame's partner, but gouged an enormous crack in the ground. As her opponent leapt up, Lee caught him, "Leaf Hurricane!" Three consecutive kicks had both knocked a number of his foe's teeth out, and sent him crashing into an upraised tree root. Sakura rounded on Hisame and attacked with her chakra scalpel, wanting to sever whatever she could to disable her foe.
Hisame lashed out with her cable-like a whip, snapping at Sakura and leaving an ugly welt on her shoulder. It didn't delay her as the pink haired girl barreled ahead stubbornly and swiped her muscle-severing hand across Hisame's chest. It was a fatal hit but it merely destroyed a water clone, 'No! I had her for sure!'
Hisame was positioned behind her and plunged two kunai into the younger kunoichi's back. Sakura made a strangled noise before dropping to the ground.
"Sakura-chan!" Lee dove at Hisame, chasing her away, and then returned to his teammate's side, "Sakura-chan! Are you going to be alright?"
She sat up, her knees quaking with the effort, "Sure...but I've got to get these out of me. Lee watch out!" The cable snapped forward and snared him tightly. Hisame and her partner had regrouped and used the same electrical jutsu they had on Shino and Sakura.
Lee howled in response to the shock, but he remained conscious for the punishment. Unlike his teammates, his stamina and endurance for pain was greater. Sakura screeched at them to release him. Shino, on the other side of the clearing, had been testing Suyin's abilities to the extreme. The cunning leader eventually resorted to snatching up Shizuku's brother and drew out a kunai, "Now...let's say we calm down a bit, hm bug-ninja?"
Shino lowered his nagamaki, not willing to endanger the screaming child's life.
"You certainly did put up a valiant effort, but face it; you are outmatched and outnumbered!" Suyin called to the Leaf ninja, "Give up! I only want Shibuki...there's no need for you to be involved." He turned to the ancient tree, "I know you're hiding there, Shibuki! Why don't you come out and save your precious little friends?"
A vortex of water abruptly shot-gunned passed Hisame and her partner, knocking them aside violently. Lee tumbled free and leapt back to Sakura, where she was mending her injury. Shino also moved to his team as the twisting current blew away the rest of the rogue ninja, before stopping ahead of their leader.
The water cleared and Shibuki stood in front of Suyin. A visible corona of chakra surrounded him and a hateful look was on his face, "Traitor. Let the villagers go! You've been waiting for me, right?" He glared at his former teacher, "Well here I am!"
His villagers cheered together to see their leader had descended at last. The Leaf ninja, especially Lee, were also pleased he had joined their cause.
The rogue ninja regrouped, leaping at him. Shibuki raced through hand signs, "Suiton: Water Dragon Blast!" An enormous current shot up from the water's surface and swallowed the incoming nukenin, dragging them back into the water before they could even land a hit.
Shibuki stared down Suyin, and his old mentor spoke at length, "Well Shibuki, you haven't changed a bit! Heh heh! What impressive chakra! I take it that you drank from the Hero's Water?"
"I did." His answer was plainly for show. He had no real reason to answer to traitorous slime like Suyin.
"But not all of it, surely!" Suyin added, grinning, "Where's the rest?"
"It's too late for it to do you any good. I am going to defeat you right here and now!" Shibuki declared confidently.
"Quite the little hero...you're aware of what happens to someone of your limited abilities when he drinks the Hero's Water?" Suyin reminded tauntingly, "You of all people should know that..."
Shibuki looked on, his chakra radiating off of him, not swayed at all by Suyin's chatter.
"It will do little good for you anyway you fool! You are so far out of your league..." Suyin warned, "If you multiply your chakra even by ten times or twenty, it's still no match for the chakra I already possess!"
"We'll soon find out!" Shibuki retorted, "Alright take this! Hidden Waterfall style: Water Slicing Blade!" He reached out his hand and formed a jagged ice sword that he had made with chakra. Suyin tossed his captive aside and also created his own water sword, ready to counter the leader of the Waterfall Village.
They leapt at each other, slashing wildly, as fast as wind. Suyin sneered at Shibuki's display, "Your chakra may have increased but your moves haven't gotten any better! You've left your guard wide open, just as you used to!" He pushed ahead, getting leverage on Shibuki. Suyin cut down the center of the leader's ice blade and snapped it, reducing it to a splash of water.
Shibuki was stunned by the tactic and could not counter in time. Suyin ran him through with his own blade, skewering him like a stuck fish. Screams of children and adults alike filled the air. Lee looked on with horrified eyes as Shibuki stumbled and then fell in defeat.
Shibuki's chakra faded and his body convulsed, desperately trying to obey his brain's commands, 'Get up...I have to do this for the village...for the children! I have to protect them!'
"You really haven't changed all that much, Shibuki," Suyin sighed, kicking the man and rolling him over while he bled and shuddered, "You never did show much ability. You were weak then and you are weak now." He reached into the young man's shirt and drew out the bottle, "How convenient! You've brought it with you!"
Suyin raised it above his head victoriously, "Now I have it at last! The Hero's Water! The world is mine for the taking!"
"Give it back!" Shibuki rasped and Suyin stomped on his wound to silence him. The treacherous rogue uncorked the jug and raised it to his lips, drinking a generous portion.
His chakra grew more potent and visible with each sip and once he stopped Suyin again stomped down on Shibuki, grinding him further into the ground, "Oh ho ho! Sorry! I guess I don't know my own strength!" He laughed loudly, "Did I just hear a rib crack? You should be honored, Shibuki! You'll be the first demonstration of just how strong your old teacher has become!"
A kunai whipped past Suyin's face and he turned, seeing Lee had not backed down. The Leaf genin stood ready, challenging him in an offensive stance, "I have met foes like you before. You feel that simply because you say something makes it so, but I will make you eat those words!"
Shibuki smiled from his place beneath Suyin's foot, "You tell him...Lee."
"Prepare to face the wrath of the Lotus!" Lee cried, racing forward, "Take this! Leaf Hurricane!" He lashed out with the strike that Suyin instantly blocked, something that was rarely done. Lee raced around him, attacking at random and searching for an opening. Suyin retaliated, and hurled the genin up into the high limbs of the tree, crushing him against the trunk.
'Such power!' Lee acknowledged that he was not on the same level as his opponent, 'If I am to defeat him then I must match him! I must surpass him!' He blinked in shock when Suyin immediately reappeared next to him, 'He is fast!' Lee, also quick and alert, jumped forward before Suyin could land another hit.
He landed on a lower branch and quickly snapped his leg weights off. Without the enormous restraints on him, he could emulate Suyin's speed even without the use of chakra. Lee zipped away from Suyin's blows, frustrating the veteran ninja. Lee threw his own punches, but found none of them had an effect when Suyin's chakra was great enough to absorb them.
'I am not strong enough to hurt him...' Lee avoided a fearsome swipe to the head, and then tried to trip his foe with a sweep-kick, 'So I need to become stronger!'
He only had time to open two of his chakra gates before Suyin had descended upon him again, hurling a punch that devastated part of the tree and snapped one of its gigantic roots in two. Lee charged forward when there was an opening, and kicked Suyin into the air. He was inspired to use a move that he had once seen his sensei perform. Though he could not himself use it, he could mimic it.
Lee reappeared above Suyin, faster than the eye could trace and vectored downward with a storm of wicked punches, "Fledgling Peacock!"
The blows connected brutally and Suyin gave a small cry before he crash-landed on the ground, tearing up earth from the force of the attack and his own chakra.
Though it had caused damage it had not been enough. Lee moved ahead to attack again, but Suyin had recovered remarkably fast and met him with a massive blow. He kicked the genin so hard he was sent skipping like a stone out over the water, before violently splashing into it. Lee disappeared after that.
"Is that the best you've got?" Suyin chortled madly, "Shibuki and his little Leaf friends set an excellent example, don't they? Selfless bravery! Selfless stupidity!"
Shino hacked at him with his nagamaki and carved a vicious gash down Suyin's left shoulder, "Did you forget someone?"
Shocked that he had been injured, Suyin retaliated. He created another water sword and dueled with Shino on the shore. He was unaffected by the Aburame's swarm of insects; he was exerting more chakra than they could devour and moving faster than either they or Shino could match. Sakura joined the fray shortly after, not fully recovered, but too stubborn to let her teammate struggle alone. She could only hope Lee was alright.
"Stupid little pups! You don't know when to give up!" Suyin thrashed, fighting them off, but found that their attacks were progressively becoming more effective and his own progressively less effective, 'What's this? The water must be wearing off...very well then.' He leapt back and took another drink. His chakra grew again and he met them, blowing them away with blasts of water from the shore.
From beneath the water's surface Lee was busy opening his chakra gates. He had figured the best place to avoid conflict was underwater, where Suyin would assume he would stay if he had been defeated…but five chakra gates open was hardly defeat. Lee exploded out of the water, catching Suyin from behind at the surface. The rogue moved to dodge, barely able to do so, and Lee's punch ripped past him and connected with the container of Hero's Water, shattering it.
"No!" Suyin could not believe he had been so careless. He lashed out but his strikes barely even nicked the genin. Lee's force and speed far exceeded the traitor's and he had done it without the help of the sacred water of the village.
"Time to finish it!" Lee declared, plowing into Suyin, sending him hurtling across the wide lake to the lower-district homes. He met Suyin there and hit him again, his speed and strength so heightened that he tossed the nukenin back and forth across the lake like a helpless rag doll. Suyin was no longer a match. He was finished.
"Reverse Lotus!" Lee appeared beneath Suyin and hammered him in the gut with a kick that had all of his pent-up chakra channeled into it. Suyin hacked and then disappeared, thrown clear over the rocky edges of the village and out into the falls beyond. Sakura found the sight similar to a rocket-launch.
Lee landed and then fell to his butt.
It was not what they had pictured for when they defeated Suyin, but his teammates were relieved to see Lee's divine youthful energy had triumphed once again.
"Success!" Lee cried joyously and then fell over, exhausted.
By day's end peace had been restored and Hayate had returned to pick them up when they hadn't shown at the village. After hearing the story he was not as enthralled as his team had expected him to be, "You don't say? Good work then, all of you. I would expect no less of shinobi of the Leaf Village."
They thanked him and Sakura then turned to Shibuki, who was looking worse for the wear: heavily bandaged and bruised. He was still smiling, "Is everything alright now, Shibuki? Are you feeling any better?"
"I'll be fine." He told her quietly.
"That is the best part about this, Shibuki-san!" Lee grinned at him, "You drank the Hero's Water and still survived! Your youth has shielded you from its harmful effect! You truly are the hero of the Hidden Waterfall Village!"
"I'm afraid I'm just as much of a coward as I ever was..." He admitted sheepishly, "I was scared out of my mind the whole time."
"Of course! Anyone would've been scared, Shibuki-sama!" Shizuku mewed up at him, "But you didn't let it stop you and it made all the difference!"
He smiled at the children clinging to him, "Thanks for that..."
"It's time for us to be on our way." Hayate announced and his team gave a short farewell to their Waterfall companions. As they walked down the path into the sunset Shizuku and her brother called after them, offering for them to visit again sometime.
Shibuki smiled as he watched them leave, 'Thank you, Leaf ninja. Perhaps we can be allies after all...'
The following afternoon, Naruto found himself and his sensei in a new city, large and glorious by the bustling seaside. He was itching to try his luck with the new jutsu he had been briefed on, but while they trekked along the outskirts of the tourist town Jiraiya halted suddenly, setting his student on edge.
"What's wrong, Ero-sensei?" Naruto asked him, seeing it was a serious matter.
Jiraiya glanced over to his pupil, "Naruto...make sure you stay quiet. They're coming this way but they won't bother us if you keep your mouth shut."
The blonde boy immediately thought of the Akatsuki, 'No way! How could they have found us? And how does the Perv expect us to-?'
A moment later he realized it wasn't the Akatsuki at all. A suspicious group of ninja, however, did approach them from down the road. They were leaving the city and Naruto and Jiraiya would have to pass them in order to enter it.
The leader of the platoon was not a subtle man. He was dressed in armor that looked to be from Jiraiya's time. He was garbed in dark, rich colors, and his face had a single, muted scar that ran from above his left eye diagonally down across his nose and right cheek. His hair was a copperish color, now graying. He was old and clearly wasn't aging as gracefully as Jiraiya. His face was wrinkled and his eyes were lit with an intensity that could have only been gained from years of fighting.
Instantly Naruto knew that the shinobi ahead of them was someone not to be trifled with, "Hey...Ero-sensei...just who is that guy over there?"
"Him? I don't blame you for asking, Naruto. That there is the most talented murderer in the history of the shinobi world." Jiraiya warned him darkly, "His name is Dintei Bihokokuni. I hoped I could have lived out the rest of my life without ever seeing his face again..."
The description did not sit well with Naruto. Suddenly he was sorry he had asked.
Once the two parties were on opposite sides of the street, though it was much to Jiraiya's disdain, Bi's party halted when he held up his hand. He looked to Jiraiya and smiled a sickly-looking smirk, "Oh, well, if it isn't Jiraiya-sama, one of the Legendary Three! Fancy seeing you down here."
"I can't say the same about you, Bi." Jiraiya answered coldly, "I wonder what it is that an old man like you could possibly be scheming these days?"
Bi chuckled, "Now, now, Gama-sennin, no need to be so rude! These days I no longer hold a quarrel with Leaf. My village is prospering again, at long last." Contradictory to what he had said about Leaf, the stranger looked down at Naruto and scowled, as if he actually recognized the boy.
"I'm not going to make nice, Bi. Don't forget how many innocent Leaf ninja you slaughtered during the war..." Jiraiya wasn't picking a fight, but if one started he would be sure to finish it, "That isn't something that can be forgiven."
"I would hardly call them innocent," Bi smirked and then added, "And certainly they weren't Leaf shinobi at all, if you ask me."
Naruto didn't understand, 'What is this guy talking about? How can he talk like that when he killed so many people in Konoha? Of course they'd be-!'
"Confused, kiddo?" Bi noted the blonde boy's perplexed expression, "It's really quite simple. You see, I only eliminated those who called themselves Leaf ninja under false pretenses. They were really ninja from my village, Iwagakure, and they defected during the war after...disagreeing with me. Cowards like that deserved to die."
"No. They were all brave people who I was honored to call my comrades." Jiraiya corrected the false statement. He wanted Naruto to know the truth, and more importantly know the ethics behind it.
"You are entitled to feel however you like," Bi shrugged dismissively, "Although...it's a good thing that there are no more traitors hiding in Konoha, right Jiraiya-sama? Or else I wouldn't be able to retire!"
He laughed at the thought and Jiraiya grimaced, as if he were concealing the possibility. Bi's small troop of underlings waited behind him in silence, their expressions vacant or hidden. It was as if they couldn't hear the conversation at all.
Bi decided to move on, "Well then, it was a pleasure seeing you again, you old toad," He glanced down at Naruto and added, "And good day to you too, Namikaze-san." He said the name with great revulsion.
"This boy is an Uzumaki!" Jiraiya immediately corrected Bi, "You shouldn't assume so much, Bi."
"Hmm. Uzumaki." Bi had great familiarity with the clan names of ninja, "That sounds like a Whirlpool name...I suppose that makes him less disgusting."
He and his platoon left after that, moving on down the sandy road. They were so confident and unafraid of other ninja that they traveled out in the open, or at least, made it appear that way.
"That was a Genjutsu..." Jiraiya muttered, troubled, "Those guys are good...there's no error in their formation."
"Uh...Ero-sensei..." Naruto spoke up after they continued on down the path, "Just what was that back there? Why did you get so mad at what he said to me?"
"Because Bi mistook you for someone that he hated very much." Jiraiya told him succinctly, "I corrected him. I'm not going to let his hard feelings rub off on you, you hear me?"
Naruto nodded, not fully understanding, and they continued on into the city in silence.