Chapter Soundtrack: "Cough Syrup" by Young the Giant
Chapter 17- A Beginner's Guide to Rejection
"Lee, if you keep at that your tea is going to be cold by the time you finish," Tenten warned, sipping her own drink, "And that would be a shame. It came from your Grandpa's stash."
"I...know." Lee's reply was fragmented. He was doing vertical push-ups with one hand, "But Gai-sensei…demanded…five hundred…of these…"
"How many are you at right now?"
"Well that's more than half-way," Tenten observed from her seat on a tree stump, "You probably won't like me telling you this…but Gai-sensei didn't say to do this routine without stopping. He just said you had to complete five hundred."
Lee paused, balancing on one hand, "True." He continued his exercise, "But it is always implied, Tenten! I can't…stop…"
"This tea is expensive. It's rare," She tasted it again, batting her lips together, "And it's really good!"
"I can…have it some other time…"
There were some mornings Tenten could not persuade Lee to take it easy. Even if their gift from Lee's typically stingy grandfather was going to stay warm in a thermos for a while, there was no way it would survive five hundred pushups, 'And Lee's doing them slowly today…trying to feel that burn, I guess.' At least she had gotten him to eat breakfast before he started.
She projected that Lee still would not be finished even by the time Neji arrived. Gai had gone off to the Jounin Standby Station for a short meeting but promised to return by noon.
Lee's dedication was cutting into Tenten's training time with him, 'I wanted to help him practice with nunchaku today. He's gotten so much better!' She had even given him a spare set to keep, 'But I need to open the forge in thirty minutes to fill those orders that came in…it's good money…'
Tenten tipped the tea back and finished. She stood and said, "You are going to do this all in one shot. That's fine. Give this tea to Neji then if you can't make time for it."
"I…will…" He puffed and then glanced at her, "Where are you going, Tenten?"
"I'm opening the forge early. I need to get some work done. I should be back by the time Gai-sensei is finished up too," She estimated, "But then don't get distracted, Lee! We agreed to work on nunchaku today so that's what we're doing later!"
And she marched off, glad that she had gotten her way, sort of.
After leaving their training field, Tenten walked into town and passed the Jounin Standby Station to steal a peek at what was going on.
She could see several shinobi on the balcony above. It appeared as if all of Gai's generation had gathered into their old teams to discuss something. Kakashi, team-less, stood near Gai and his teammates, Genma and Ebisu. 'I remember helping Genma once when he was too drunk to walk home by himself…' That had been after the Third's funeral. Gai had commended her compassion.
They spotted Tenten going by on the sidewalk below. Gai grinned down at her and gave her a thumbs-up.
She suppressed her embarrassment and returned the gesture tepidly. Genma whacked Gai in the shoulder, pointed to Tenten with a senbon needle, and then proceeded to ridicule them. Other Jounin asked them to shut up.
'Jeez…I bet they were always like that…' Tenten mused, entering the business district near her home, 'I wonder if we'll be like that when we're Jounin too…Neji, Lee and I…just as we are now.' It was a scary notion, but she knew she would never ask her teammates to change. Despite their quirks, they really were perfect the way they were. She thought so, anyway.
When she arrived at the back of the forge Tenten opened a padlocked door and proceeded, switching on lights as she went. She turned on the fan above the furnace on and then checked a clipboard on her workbench, 'Okay. First, finish the tessen and then I can work on that set of kunai…' Her father had taught her how to make several types of weapons before his death. If Tenten did not know how to make something, she knew of several suppliers in the Fire Country who sold wholesale through her father's business. She was in frequent contact with them.
This worked out very well for Tenten, a blossoming Weapons Master in her own right; who needed a variety of tools so extensive there was no way she could meet her own demands. More often than she liked, she ordered weaponry from other professionals and then sealed it into scrolls by category. When Tenten decided she liked something in particular, it was brought along in her big scroll on missions or redistributed in the shop, where she could upsell the product to other shinobi. It was a fantastic strategy.
She had already constructed the metal war fan that was ordered a few weeks ago. All it required now was some sharpening and polish. Its soon-to-be owner was a member of the Sarutobi clan who had just entered the ANBU. That wasn't the best part, in Tenten's opinion.
It was that it was a kunoichi who was taking strides in such a career. It was a privilege to take the project, Tenten thought. She loved a tough female role model.
Coming in early was advantageous. Tenten finished her work on the tessen and then unlocked the front door of the shop to allow customers. She flipped the "open" sign on the window. She sighed and boxed up the super-sharp hand fan, saying goodbye to it, 'I'm sure I would've loved using this. I hope it serves her well…'
Tenten hunkered down to continue work on a custom set of kunai she had started days earlier. She had to check balance and weight to be sure the measurements she had taken were accurate. The grooves along the longer-than-standard knives would allow them to fly farther when thrown. She made a set for herself after receiving the design and commission. She sat behind the counter on a stool and meticulously checked each kunai with a scale and magnifying eyepiece.
The bell on the door rang as customers came in. Tenten shouted Hello without looking up from her work. Two young men were browsing around the showroom. She noticed a familiar, nasal voice, 'Oh no…' She pegged her eye on Mion; the shotgun-wedding ninja who was teammate to Hyuga Hikune.
Naturally, Hikune was accompanying him.
'I am not up for this right now,' Tenten acknowledged, putting the eyepiece down, 'I was in my happy place! I should've kept that door locked…'
Hikune smiled at her as they approached the counter. Mion wished her good morning and asked if he could commission a new sword.
She pointed to a stack of applications near the register, "You can fill out one of those order forms. Once you pick the specs you want I'll look at it and tell you if I have the materials."
"Awesome!" Mion was grinning, "Thanks, Ten-chan!"
"Don't call me that."
He grinned and took a form. He asked for Hikune's help while checking boxes off, not sure of what the parameters were. They kept their voices down for a while and Tenten was able to work.
After Mion had completed the order form he handed it to Tenten. She glanced over it, "This is fine. No problem. When did you want this by?"
"Can it be ready in two weeks?"
"Give or take a day, it'll be ready." She assured him, "I charge after forging and assembly since I take market values into account."
"Smart lady…" He nodded.
She frowned, "But this will be about 10,000 ryo."
Mion frowned right back at her, "You're pricey."
"Making weapons is expensive and difficult. You can go the forge on the east side of the village if you don't like it." She reminded him, "But they suck and sometimes they charge more."
"She's right, Mion-kun. I don't like going there anymore." Hikune agreed.
Mion sighed, "Fine! Fine…I'll set a little extra aside after a few missions." He looked at the bun-haired girl with a more light-hearted expression, "I know you know what you're doing. My cousin's sword came from here."
"Maybe six years ago."
"My Dad made it." Tenten said shortly.
"Are you as good as him?"
He laughed, "I bet you are! You're very professional."
"Thank you," Tenten handed him a receipt, "Have a nice day."
Mion left the shop but Hikune did not. Tenten tried to make it look as if she were still busy inspecting the new kunai set, but she had more or less determined they were flawless. He stood in front of the counter watching her, smiling contently.
"Hi Hikune, I'm a little busy and I am trying to finish this up so I can get back to my team," She thought that sounded too coarse so she added, "How are you?"
"I am well, thank you, Tenten." His eyes were playful, "I hope you've been well. I haven't seen you in a while."
"Sorry," She was genuinely regretful about her absence, knowing he had gone looking for her a few times before, "I've been pretty busy since Gai-sensei doubled our training."
"Then maybe you'd enjoy some leisure…" Hikune ventured, "Why don't you come out to dinner with me?"
"No, thank you."
"We can go anywhere you want."
Tenten set the knives down carefully, "Hikune…I don't want to."
"Would you like to do something else?"
"No." She repeated, unable to disguise a hint of frustration, "Why are you…trying to start something with me? I am young. I am still trying to become a Chunin and get my life in order…but you insist on being around me."
"I think you and I are a good match." Hikune told her sincerely, "Everything about you…makes me feel happy."
The words pierced her heart. Tenten knew it would happen eventually. He was going to say something to her that she was hoping, praying someone else would tell her. Now that it had happened she still felt unprepared for the emotional anguish.
"Honestly, I disagree," Tenten replied with some dignity, "Spending time with you or dating you would be awkward, Hikune." She added, "I'm Neji's teammate. If you wanted to be with me it would be at my expense and his. That's not fair."
He was surprised, "You really think that would happen? That it would bother him?"
"I know it would." She asserted, but in her mind Tenten was terrified that Neji wouldn't notice, or heaven forbid, he wouldn't care if he saw it happening.
"This isn't about Neji. It should be about what you want." Hikune told her, "He doesn't care. All I want is the chance to make you happy."
Tenten was beginning to fume, "Well you're not succeeding at that right now! If you want me to be happy then please leave me alone."
He looked hurt. The gentle features of his face reflected distress when he spoke, "Why are you so concerned about him, Tenten? He has nothing to offer."
"Enough!" She exploded, "Even if that is the case, let me make this crystal clear: I am not starting anything with you. I considered it and it only made me feel terrible."
"Tenten…" There was sorrow in his voice.
She felt just as bad hurting him as she did spending time with him. Tenten believed she had to shake loose, no matter the pain it inflicted.
"I love Neji. I feel that way without expecting anything back. That is where I am at. I prefer being independent, when it gets right down to it," Tenten explained, "You are a great man. You're talented, caring and a great role model among the Hyuga. I am just not going to do something I am not ready for."
He touched her face gently, "Then I hope you'll consider it when you are ready."
Tenten jerked back from his hand, "This has been a mistake. Please leave, Hikune."
Hikune locked his eyes with hers. She saw all of the despair in there that was so much like her own suffering. In her case, however, Tenten had cautiously and effectively imprisoned unrequited feelings in an internal dungeon where they couldn't hurt her. Hikune did not have this mechanism yet, she supposed. Tenten wished him the best but hated him simultaneously.
After a few moments he turned and left the shop. Tenten jumped up and quickly locked the door behind him. She kicked an empty crate over and then returned to the counter. She was furious. Why did someone have to put her in this position? 'I don't want to be the one to trample on people's feelings, most especially not when they're good people!' She never wanted to be like that. She empathized. She understood.
Hikune was a good man and a good choice, Tenten was sure, but she would be betraying herself if she handed her heart away to someone other than who she had chosen.
It was difficult to stay on the course she had set. Living every day with unacknowledged desires had taught her restraint and gratitude. Her mind was sharper. Her will was stronger. Tenten had come to find that she enjoyed being on her own. The reality was that she was more accustomed to being alone than anything else. Getting closer to people was quite the hassle. She wagered she would even have problems being with Neji, if the day ever came.
She returned to her work with sharp objects in order to calm down.
The same day, across the village from the forge, Kiba stood in the courtyard of his family's homestead. He watched in silence a few meters away as his mother and sister greeted Nichiyo, his father. They were embracing happily. Akamaru sat beside the young man, watching curiously.
'This is just…so disturbing.' Kiba conceded, 'I thought I was prepared for this…I knew he was going to show up soon…'
Seeing his father again was strange. It was even more alarming to see the tearful reunion ensuing. Kiba had expected such a reaction from Hana, but certainly not from his mother Tsume, who was the most hardened woman he knew. Kiba had already said hello and participated in an awkward hug earlier with Nichiyo, but he was not as emotionally awakened as the rest of his family. 'Maybe I should feel bad about that…but he kind of did just leave us high and dry. I'm not over it, apparently.'
In time, Kiba supposed, he would acclimate to his father's reappearance. Nichiyo had returned a bit thinner and shorter than Kiba recalled him being. There were more lines on his face and his hairline was receding. His voice was the same. His scent was the same. Kiba felt like he was a child again, in the days before he had enrolled in the Academy, when his father had been his first friend.
Behind Kiba came a grunt of annoyance. He turned to see his grandfather, Tsume's father, seated on the porch with his hands on his knees. Inuzuka Utari was one of the elders of the clan and had never in his life suffered fools. Kiba was sure the events unfolding were grating on his grandfather's nerves. He walked up to Utari and took a seat beside him.
"What's up, Grandpa? You don't want to join the group hug?"
"No. Like you, I am refraining from such idiotic posturing."
"I…still don't trust him."
"You should never trust him, Kiba. He may be your father, but he is a coward who should never have been accepted by our clan." Utari shook his head, "I can't stand that fool. I want my daughter to come back…that's who should come back!"
"Huh?" Kiba was confused, "Who are you talking about, Grandpa?"
"Your Aunt Rin, that's who." Utari clarified, "She ran away long ago when your sensei rejected her. I haven't seen her since. All I can do is pray for her safety."
The sheerest bolt of shock broke over Kiba, numbing his brain and extremities. Aunt Rin. Kakashi. Rejection?
"Um…" The boy took a deep breath, "Are you serious? Kakashi-sensei…did something mean to Aunt Rin?"
"They were teammates. He told her that he didn't love her." The old man sighed, "Tsume believes that is what made Rin sneak off, with the blessing of her sensei, of course. I wanted to hate them for letting her leave…but now I don't feel as resentful as I did."
"Kakashi-sensei broke my Aunt's heart?" Kiba hollered, stunned.
"Yes, he did." A small smile appeared on Utari's face, "Of course…Kakashi would never tell you that, Kiba. No self-respecting man would."
He was enlightened. The astonishment subsided as Kiba thought about it, realizing there was a whole other dimension to Kakashi besides him being the supportive sensei he knew.
"Is it wrong if I'm not mad at him?" Kiba was genuinely perplexed.
"It's not wrong. He didn't harm you after all. In fact, being honest about one's feelings is never a crime." Utari touted some wisdom, "The Hokage at the time, Minato-sama, spoke with me and said that Kakashi did care for my daughter…but there was some complexity to that situation that prevented him from getting close to her."
"That's a relief. I'd be upset if he straight up disliked her."
"So would I."
They watched Nichiyo talk to the kunoichi and ninken while he kept one arm lassoed around Hana's shoulders.
"Do me a favor, Kiba," Utari growled, "And get him out of my sight."
After the brief family bonding session Kiba whisked his father out into the village, as per his grandfather's request. Nichiyo needed to be reacquainted with the community that had built up and expanded since his desertion. They made small-talk as they traversed populated roads, walking side by side.
"You've grown so much, Kiba." His father tousled his hair, "Are you a Chunin yet?"
"I will be after the next exam." Kiba knew he was being a bit arrogant, but he refused to remain a Genin any longer.
"You're a real man now. When I laid eyes on you and your sister…it was like seeing Tsume when she was young."
"Yeah…it's kind of a shame…you didn't get to see us grow up." Kiba said carefully.
Nichiyo was quiet for about a block before he spoke again, "I regret that. I'm sorry, Kiba."
"There was a time when I thought I was part of the reason you didn't want to stay." Kiba reflected aloud, "It didn't occur to me that maybe you just couldn't stand being around Mom. I thought Hana and I made you angry, or something."
"No. You and your sister had nothing to do with it." Nichiyo assured him, "Tsume and I…fought too much. Brutally. We just about never made peace. It wouldn't have been right for you to grow and watch us thinking that kind of relationship was acceptable."
"I knew it wasn't." The boy grumbled, "But it still didn't feel any better while you were gone."
"I know." His father agreed, "I didn't feel better while I was gone either. I missed my family."
"It's never going to be the same."
"That's why I came back. I didn't want it to be the war that it was." Nichiyo told him, "Now is the time for us to make peace. I'm older and wiser…and I still love your mother."
Kiba was flummoxed, "How…is that possible?"
Nichiyo gave him an aggravated look.
"Dad! Come on! You didn't talk to her for years."
"She's my wife."
"She's not the same person she was when you were married." Kiba injected some reality into the conversation, "How can you love Mom when you don't know each other? I don't even think she loves you…"
A tremendous amount of grief was emanating from the man beside him. Nichiyo had stopped on the sidewalk, trying to keep it together. His teenage son was ripping his heart out and dragging it along for the tour. Kiba paused beside him and patted his back in apology.
"Shit…I'm sorry." The boy said softly.
He shook his head, swallowing hard, "It's alright, Kiba. It's what I deserve. She won't feel the same about any of this…even if we never fight again…she won't love me."
"Well we can't know that for sure!" Kiba tried to salvage some of his father's optimism.
They walked a few paces more and Kiba watched as Kakashi rounded the corner. He looked up from his book in time to spot Kiba and his weepy companion. Kakashi's visible eye widened, fell on Kiba and begged the question: What the hell is this?
"Uh, hey Kakashi-sensei…" Kiba greeted uneasily, "You've met my Dad, haven't you?"
Kakashi seamlessly assumed his friendly-greeting mode. His eye crinkled with a fake smile, "Oh yes, Nichiyo. How are you? I haven't seen you around in quite some time."
"Hello Kakashi." The man was still somber, "Thank you for training my son so well. He's needed a good mentor in my absence and I'm glad that it was you."
"Thank you. I'm glad too."
Turned so that his father wouldn't see, Kiba gave Kakashi a telling expression: Make a break for it. I'm stuck with him!
Kakashi bid them good day and hurried onward.
Kakashi spared some precious reading time to think about Kiba's predicament. So his father had returned and was moping…probably in a bid to get back in his clan's good graces. 'Good luck with that…and poor Kiba is going to bear the brunt of it all.'
He spotted Sakura chatting with Ino outside of the Yamanaka Flower Shop. Kakashi veered off the road to check in with his student.
"You're not training with Tsunade-sama today, Sakura?" Kakashi's tone was sing-song. He didn't want to carry over the previous encounter's awkwardness, but he couldn't filter all of it.
"Hi Kakashi-sensei!" She was high-spirited, "Actually, Shishou said we'll be performing a task at night. I'm not sure what it is yet."
"Have fun, in that case. Maybe you'll want to get some extra sleep." He advised.
"I'll nap later." Sakura decided.
"Also…if you see Kiba today you might find him a little stressed." Kakashi warned her, "He'll be making an announcement soon."
Sakura and Ino blanched.
"It's not that horrible. He'll explain." Kakashi assured them, "See you around, girls." He continued on.
"More drama on your team?" Ino intoned to Sakura, "Maybe you'll want to avoid it for a day or so."
"Maybe I will…but we've been pretty quiet lately." The pink haired girl observed, "Since Gaara's inauguration nothing crazy has happened."
Ino grinned, "That's right! Someone's dating the Kazekage…"
"Lucky bitch." Sakura was grinning too.
They kibitzed relentlessly beside a stand of orchids. No one was around to discourage the gossip, and so they talked for a long while before a customer interrupted them.
"Excuse me, ladies. Can I place a large flower order here?" A man asked politely.
Ino immediately noticed how the gentleman was dressed in elaborate kimono. Additionally, he was handsome, had a smooth voice and four retainers were at his side. 'Rich aristocrat!' The alarms in Ino's head went off, 'Time to make some serious cash!'
"Why yes! Of course!" Ino turned on the charm, discreetly moving Sakura aside, "I would be happy to fill an order for you." She whipped out a clipboard, "Who is making this purchase?"
"Lord Moritsune, of the Oga Clan." When Ino gave him an inquiring look he added, "I'm Moritsune."
"Oh! It's so nice to meet you! I'm Yamanaka Ino," She gestured to the shop's sign above, "My family has more experience with flowers than anyone else in this village."
"It's fortunate I stopped by then." He was smiling, but he wasn't taking the flirting-bait, "How many pink roses do you have available?"
Ino furrowed her brow in thought, "Well…I think we have about three dozen currently. We've raised more red, white and yellow this year."
"That'll do. Pink sends a message of trust and friendship." Moritsune tapped his chin, "Perhaps some white anemone will convey sincerity as well…"
Ino whispered out of the corner of her mouth, "Sakura…he speaks the language of flowers."
Sakura was amused, "Is he your long lost brother?"
Ino wondered if maybe he was, 'We could be siblings alright, if not for that brown hair. Hmm…wait…but Mom has brown hair!'
A retainer reminded Moritsune that he had an appointment to keep. The man asked if Ino had the flowers available for an afternoon delivery.
"I believe so. Can you tell me where they're going?"
"To the Hyuga estate."
Something didn't feel right. Ino and Sakura exchanged a short glance before Ino continued writing the order down. She accepted payment from a retainer, which was substantial, while trying to investigate the odd gesture, "So…are the Oga clan friends with the Hyuga clan?" They came from the outskirts of the Fire Country, if she had heard correctly.
"We have not yet been formally introduced. However, the kind elders of the Hyuga clan recently extended an invitation to the Oga to meet the lord's eldest daughter." Moritsune explained, "It was very flattering. I'm excited to meet the Lady of the House. They've encouraged the possibility of courtship and marriage, claiming that she is destined to have powerful heirs."
Sakura turned around and walked into the shop, shoving her fist in her mouth to prevent a primal scream. 'WHAT. THE. HELL?'
Ino somehow kept a poker face, "Well isn't that lovely? I hope you have a nice time being introduced!"
"I will! I heard the Lady likes flowers," He smiled, "Let's hope they meet her approval!"
Blissfully unaware, Moritsune and his entourage ventured forth to sightsee in the village before afternoon tea with the Hyuga. Once they were out of earshot Ino ran inside past Sakura and screeched for her father. Inoichi rushed inside from the back door, wearing an employee apron. He was alarmed, "Ino? What's wrong?"
"Dad! Oh shit. Dad!" She tossed him the clipboard, "Fill that! Pronto! I've got to sabotage the wealthy lord who just paid us an obscene amount of money!"
"Why would you do that?" He frowned, "That is a valuable customer!"
"No! He's trying to marry my friend!" Ino screamed, "He's thirty! He's got to be at least thirty!" She was still running as she pulled off her apron and threw it aside. It landed on her father's head.
She seized Sakura's wrist and they set into a run, blasting out the front of the store and onto the streets. Crowds on the road parted for them as they stampeded across town.
They were slightly out of breath by the time they arrived at the entrance of the Hyuga estate. The girls took a moment to fix their hair and smooth their clothes before proceeding at a brisk walk. There was no need to look disheveled even if there was a crisis at hand.
Sakura stopped by Hinata's typical hangouts: the garden and the porch near her family's wing of the Main House. No sign of her. Ino folded her arms while Sakura tried to think of where to search next.
"She's not on a mission is she?" Ino wondered.
"Most likely not…if the Oga are here to see her today." Sakura pointed out the obvious.
"But she may not be here at the moment." Sakura thought of how she could maybe enlist the help of Pakkun or Akamaru if all else failed, 'But then we'd have to go looking for Kakashi-sensei or Kiba first…'
Another idea came to Sakura as she thought of Kiba's new friend, Fujita; the freshly minted Genin. Though she had only met him once while he had been out to lunch with Kiba she remembered he was friendly. He would either be able to tell them where Hinata was or at least use those talented eyes to spot her. Sakura shared this bit of genius with Ino and they were off again.
They walked around for a while, circumventing the Branch House, and then noticed a young man coming up a gravel path.
Ino murmured to Sakura, "I don't know about finding that pipsqueak, but that's his big brother there."
"How do you know?"
"Shikamaru hangs out with him sometimes." Ino explained, "He's a Jounin. Super good looking too…"
"Let's just ask him! He should be approachable, right?"
Sakura sighed, "Fine."
Ever the socialite, Ino stepped up to Hikune and said hello. He was nice enough, but Sakura picked up on a strange tone of voice and posture in the man, 'It's not like he's being mean or rude or anything…but he's kind of…' She squinted her eyes a bit, 'He seems depressed?'
After learning what the object of the visit was Hikune voluntarily used his Byakugan and surveyed the grounds.
"Hinata-sama is here." He pointed them in the right direction, "She is with her teammate in the scullery. Would you like me to escort you there?"
Ino twittered in the affirmative. Hikune was not very talkative after that but he led the way through a side door and into an auxiliary building of the Main House. Down a long hallway and to their left they came to a small kitchenette. Hinata and Shino had their sleeves rolled up as they ground herbs at a table. Hikune knocked on the doorway to announce their presence.
"Oh! Hello everyone!" Hinata smiled in surprise.
"What an unusual assemblage." Shino commented.
Ino thanked Hikune and then stepped into the workroom. Sakura looked at the young man when she thanked him, "I appreciate you taking us here, Hyuga-san."
"Not at all." He smiled weakly.
She wanted to ask if something was bothering him, but since she did not know him nearly well enough; Sakura followed Ino into the room. Hikune departed quietly after that.
Hinata apologized, supposing her friends had been looking for her outside. She and Shino had joined forces to make a healing salve they could bring with them on missions.
"I hate to bust up this project of yours, but…" Ino gave an impatient look to Shino, "We need to speak to Hinata privately."
Shino was mildly insulted.
"Don't go too far Shino." Sakura recommended, "We only need to talk to her for a few moments and then you can resume."
"Very well." Shino agreed, stepping out for some fresh air, "Thank you for being polite, Sakura-san."
Ino grumbled for a moment. The girls snapped back to task and stood across from Hinata at the table. The white-eyed girl regarded them with concern, "Is everything alright?"
"We need to warn you about something, in case you haven't already heard." Sakura informed her.
Hinata set her mortar and pestle down, "Heard of what, Sakura-chan?"
"The Oga clan is in town." Ino announced, "They stopped by the flower shop for a large order of flowers…for you."
She peeped in confusion.
"You didn't know?" Sakura pressed, "The Lord of the Oga said that the elders of your clan invited him to meet you! They're advertising marriage!"
"This is…the first I'm hearing of this." She was troubled, "My father mentioned something like this could happen…but after the Chunin Exams at the earliest," There was some frustration in her voice, "Did the elders say that to Father to trick him?"
"I don't know, but you may want to figure that out." Ino told her, "You're having tea with Lord Moritsune this afternoon."
"Why would this happen in the first place?" Sakura inquired, "You're barely fifteen. He's like…" She and Ino looked at each other, thinking, Thirty! At least thirty!
"I suppose…" Hinata trailed off, "The elders didn't want my father to get his way. They have been quarreling for a long time about the roles Neji-niisan and I will fulfill in the Hyuga clan."
"So they want to marry you off?" Ino was irritated for her.
She folded her messy hands and considered it, "They intended to…but when I am grown! Our elders demanded that my father match me with a family of noble blood that I can preside over, since Neji-niisan will lead the Hyuga clan someday." Hinata added softly, "But Father said I wouldn't have to worry. He said…he wouldn't let them determine my future."
"It's kind of happening anyway …" Ino pointed out.
"It's because of your bloodline, isn't it?" Sakura worked it out, "They want you to pass it on?"
"I don't even know if I will…" Hinata lamented, "But they would gamble my future for the tiniest possibility of seeing a clan derived of my lineage. They didn't even address me personally. They know that I object and so they mandate things Father cannot stop."
"Jerks!" Ino was furious, "You're not some chess piece they can move around! You're a person!"
Hinata nodded sadly.
"You want to be with Naruto, right?" Sakura presumed aloud.
Hinata quailed, "Of course!"
"Then you've got to fight back and tell those old men," Sakura gestured her thumb back at the Main House, "To take a hike! As soon as Naruto gets back he'll protect you!"
"Um." She pursed her lips, imagining the calamity Naruto would bring about in her defense, "That would help."
"Let 'no' be your new favorite word." Ino advised, "You won't get married if you keep saying no! You just have to have more patience and willpower than your elders and eventually they'll stop trying!
"We'll help you." Sakura added.
"Thank you…" Hinata murmured. She reached out her arms and Ino and Sakura embraced her tightly.
After a group hug they called for Shino to come in again. Before leaving Ino turned to Hinata and said, "Just prepare yourself…the Lord of the Oga clan is nice…but he's old enough to be your Dad."
Kakashi had heard through the grapevine, via Tama and Gai; that Sato was wishing to speak to him. He stopped by his nephew's apartment and knocked on the door. He heard multiple voices call out in response, "Come in!"
Kakashi stepped inside. He heard an additional shout that was Tama's, "I just cleaned so please take your shoes off!"
Tama and Sato were mildly surprised when Kakashi came inside and waved hello. Sato had been expecting Hinata and Shino, but they were running late for some reason.
"I hope I'm not interrupting your lunch." Kakashi told them.
The betrothed were seated with bowls of stew in front of them. A large piece of cake was set aside, most likely for Sato. His nephew was looking more robust and bright. He had some minor trouble walking, but he had built himself up again with physical therapy. Sato insisted he would be taking missions again but he understood that he could not rush it. Tama looked very happy to be sitting beside him.
Sato leaned back contentedly in his chair, "Nah, we just finished. Would you like something to eat?"
"No thanks. Gai's team treated me earlier."
They thought maybe he meant Gai and his students, but Kakashi clarified, "The Jounin council had a meeting today and then we went out to eat."
"So like, his old teammates were there?"
"What are your old teammates like, Kakashi-sensei?" Tama asked innocently.
Sato bit his lip, horrified, realizing he had not schooled Tama on Kakashi's painful history.
Her teacher just shrugged it off, "They're not around anymore."
She accepted the answer and collected empty bowls from the table. Kakashi took a free seat and watched in amused silence as Sato assisted Tama with the dishes, 'Well this is good to see…he's not being waited on anymore. He's taken an interest in helping out.' Not that Tama would ever complain about Sato being lazy, but she was accustomed to doing things for him. Kakashi was noticing these slight changes in the boy's behavior even if she wasn't.
After tidying up Kakashi advised Tama to keep an eye out for Kiba, who could potentially be stressed by his father's arrival. She promised she would as she pulled on her boots, "I'll cheer him up if I see him! I'll be back after my shift! Will you be staying for dinner, Sensei?"
"Dinner here?" Kakashi verified.
"Yeah, we'll make it together." Sato said while tucking into his cake.
"I suppose I could. I don't have much to do later." Kakashi agreed.
Tama was thrilled. She ran out the door and Kakashi returned his attention to Sato. He was not maintaining the standard amount of distance he kept from Tama. It seemed as if his disinterest had become interest.
"How are you feeling now, Sato?"
"Much better." He said with a full mouth. He lost a few crumbs.
"That's good. I was told that you wanted to talk to me about something." Kakashi approached the subject.
Sato swallowed before speaking, "Yeah! I did. If you have the time."
"I do. I wanted to talk to you about something as well."
"Oh?" The boy was intrigued, "You can go first, then."
Sato watched curiously as his uncle pulled up his headband to reveal his Sharingan eye. Kakashi leaned across the table so he could have a clear look. For a moment nothing seemed out of place, but then Sato witnessed the three separate tomoe of the Sharingan fuse into a kaleidoscope shape around the pupil. The boy sat back and rubbed his neck, "That's different…" He looked helplessly at his uncle to confirm what he saw, "That looks different, yeah? I'm not sure what just happened."
"It is." Kakashi established, "I'm still trying to understand it."
"When did that happen to your Sharingan?"
"Just after you were killed, I think. As you can imagine I was having a meltdown at the time…so I didn't notice it immediately." Kakashi described the incident, "The Sharingan responded to how I felt. I can't explain why that is, but I believe it evolved into something much like what Uchiha Itachi has, the Mangenkyo Sharingan."
"Freaky." Sato was pleased.
"That's not how I would describe it, but I'll take it."
"Does it do something weird?"
"I don't know." His uncle propped his chin on his hand while leaning on the table, "It might. It won't matter to me either way. This eye has always been special to me."
Sato smiled, "It's like your friend is watching over you."
"I know he is," Kakashi then changed the subject, "Now tell me what it is that you wanted to talk about."
"Uh, well…it's not nearly as earth-shattering as your announcement." Sato confessed, "It's just that…"
"What?" Kakashi raised an eyebrow when he hesitated.
"Tama kissed me." He said it quickly and then exhaled, feeling better.
"At the hospital. And then when I came home. Then again earlier today…" Sato chronicled, "I don't really know what to do about it."
Kakashi had suspected that something was afoot with his student and nephew, but now he was getting a more accurate impression. It was healthy progress, in his opinion.
"Do you dislike it?" Kakashi asked.
"Nah!" Sato almost laughed at the question, "There's nothing to dislike about it."
"Then you don't know if you want to reciprocate?"
"Try to." Kakashi advised, "If it becomes uncomfortable then be honest with Tama. You owe each other such respect and you have all the time in the world to figure it out." He watched as Sato crammed more cake in his mouth nervously, "You know, Sato, she was very fearful after you were hurt. Tama is more inclined to show you her true feelings now."
"So I guess this means…we are definitely going to be together forever."
"Not necessarily. In the event you both mutually agree to call things off, you're free to go your separate ways without damaging our family's reputation. If not, then you abide to the agreement." Kakashi reminded him, "Your arrangement is actually quite a happy one, with all things considered."
"I assume that was your first kiss."
"Yeah. It was good."
"Just so you know that was hardly news to share. I've expected it. My advice is to enjoy it and be aware of your feelings."
"Oh, so you're the expert on that, huh?" Sato teased.
"To you I am."
A few days later at Mount Myoboku, Shima hopped out of the Enshinsui pool after a shopping trip in Leaf. She met with Fukasaku and Naruto inside the house and gave her critique of human stores.
"They can be so rude sometimes! As if I wasn't good enough to be there, or the money I gave them wasn't acceptable!" She ranted, "It was a battle, Naruto, but I was able to get these for you." She had returned with a training outfit: a white shirt and black pants. He accepted it graciously.
In Naruto's opinion the discrimination against non-human customers was stupid. People in Konoha had seen enough of the world's curiosities by now. 'I'd think that when people treat Ero-sennin reverently it'd only make sense for them to be nice to the toads who trained him!' Evidently, not everyone was as well-informed or as courteous as he was.
Naruto changed into his new clothing and then volunteered to take some food to Jiraiya. Fukasaku handed him a tray with a bowl of soup and an assortment of prepared insects.
"And make sure he finishes this time!" The toad demanded.
Naruto ventured outside with the meal, past the yard and houses, and stopped at a green field ringed with mushrooms. Jiraiya was lying out on the grass and enjoying the mild weather.
He took a seat beside the lounging sage and set the tray down, "Make sure you finish your bugs, Ero-sensei."
"Damn bugs." Jiraiya grumbled, "The food is the only thing I don't miss about this place. Everything else is just gorgeous…"
Naruto sampled a grub, "Hm…this isn't so bad." He nudged his teacher, "Go on and have one."
Jiraiya reached with his uninjured arm and took the smallest insect. He quickly slurped it down and then groaned quietly. Shima shouted over to them from the settlement, saying she was off to visit friends. She too ordered Jiraiya to finish his meal.
Jiraiya remained horizontal and stared up at the vast blue overhead, pretending he hadn't heard her. Although he didn't know it, Naruto intended to finish eating the insects in the event his Master didn't. In small ways, he was trying to make the man's life easier, as if to apologize for harming him. Naruto had said that he was sorry many times, but he continued to show how regretful he was with action.
They relaxed in the grass and enjoyed their tranquil surroundings. Naruto was mindful of how he felt. His body was no longer sluggish or struggling. He had adapted to the chakra-dense environment of the mountain.
"I've got to say…" Jiraiya spoke after a long silence, "I feel like the biggest piece of shit, kid."
Naruto smiled, "You really don't have to."
"I have to."
"Because I haven't done right by you; not you, not Haku, not Gaara…not even the first team I ever trained. Maybe I did a bit better the second time around, but…I have never supported you the way I was supposed to."
"Look, it's okay!" The boy insisted, "You don't have to do this. We both understood! We wanted to test my limit and you keep blaming yourself, Ero-sensei."
Jiraiya was pensive, "I'm not talking about that."
"No. I'm talking about how I shirked responsibility when I brought you guys to Leaf. I shouldn't have dumped you in the village the way I did," His voice trembled a little, "I wasn't making your lives much easier at all when I did that. I should've gotten my act together right then and there to support you. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to, and I'd twice be a liar if I said I was incapable of raising you three."
Naruto stared at him. Jiraiya had closed his eyes and sighed.
"Looking back…" Naruto said quietly, "That might've helped."
"Don't get mad…" Jiraiya offered a preliminary apology. There was a pause that indicated he had more to say.
"Well…I'm your godfather."
The boy sat up so he could breathe properly. This knowledge did not fit with everything else he had accepted as truth. Jiraiya had no familial or personal tie to him, at least not since their introduction as Master and student. Fearing it was a fact, Naruto braced himself. He felt his throat tighten and his head spin. If Jiraiya was his guardian, for whatever absurd reason that was…'Then why the hell didn't he protect me?'
"Your parents appointed me." Jiraiya continued, "I failed them. I fled when you needed me."
"My parents?" Some outrage leaked into Naruto's question, "You knew them?"
Naruto's heart was shredded, "Why didn't you say anything to me?"
"Good question." Jiraiya commended him for asking, "I was too cowardly to tell you. When they passed away I was totally unprepared to follow through with what I had promised them. I didn't share it with you…because knowledge of your parents might be a bit overwhelming…"
"I can handle it!" Naruto snarled.
"I will tell you…but there are a few things you need to know about Leaf first before I explain." Jiraiya smiled, more confident, "Give me a few days and I promise, I'll bring you up to date with everything. It really is the least I can do."
Naruto exhaled, "Alright." He stood up and brushed off his pants, "I'm angry with you, Perv. I've got to walk away now."
Naruto plodded back across the green field in silence. Jiraiya must have understood what kind of agony this was for him, Naruto gathered. It explained his reluctance and apologies. He wanted to slap Jiraiya in the face for not being forthcoming about such precious information, but Naruto had already eviscerated him, even if it was accidental. That would cover the slap that was owed.
'But now…I see why he did things the way he did…' Naruto recalled what was more or less preferential treatment back when Jiraiya had been assigned as his team's Jounin Instructor. He was taught the Rasengan in private and brought on trips that excluded his teammates, including the current (canceled) trip. Naruto had never pegged it on Jiraiya disliking Haku or Gaara for any reason, 'And honestly Ero-sennin and I butted heads the most…' So it couldn't have been that.
Jiraiya had been looking out for him at the request of his deceased parents.
It was like a punch in the gut; uncalled for and dizzying. While it explained part of why he had been orphaned, 'Maybe they died around the time I was born?' Jiraiya's confession had only spawned more questions. Naruto had pieces of information: he knew he was a descendant of the Uzumaki, he had some natural talent from that clan, his parents had lived in Leaf, and he could guess that maybe one or both or his parents were Uzumaki as well.
'Why not just tell me?' It was eating Naruto up, 'Why wouldn't Ero-sennin tell me? Or, if anyone in Leaf had known them or been friends with them…why did no one say a word?' Infuriated, he stomped back into Fukasaku and Shima's house. Naruto went to his room, slid the door shut and then flopped down on a futon. His indignation had consumed some energy.
As he calmed down, Naruto considered some other things the admission had confirmed. 'Well…my parents were most likely shinobi…' He had always imagined them to be, 'And maybe that's why they're dead…' He had been too distracted by life and adventure to ever think about visiting a graveyard or memorial to search for others with his family name, 'What am I stupid? I never tried it! I know Ero-sensei said he'll tell me about them…but I bet I could have figured it out on my own.' For years, Haku and Gaara had kept Naruto in too cheerful a mindset to yearn for parents he had never thought much about. Without them, Naruto was more easily shaken by things.
He rolled over and watched as the door slid open, allowing sunlight in again. Fukasaku hoped inside, beaming, "You have a girlfriend, eh? Wonderful!" He handed a scroll to Naruto, "Kosuke brought this for you."
"Thanks, Pa. I'm glad I sent him."
"Yes, this is the sort of task that he's suited for," Fukasaku agreed, "Time for me to go; I'll be back later. Shima is off gambling again and I don't want to miss it when she wins."
Naruto smiled and thought, 'Wow. Ma must be way luckier than Baa-chan.'
Fukasaku exited while Naruto opened up the scroll. A few dried flower petals fell free from the parchment and the scent put butterflies in his stomach.
Naruto, please know that I miss you too.
Thank you so much for my necklace! It is beautiful and I wear it all of the time! It made me so happy to read about your feelings. Truthfully, I feel the same way. I try to be patient, but I do sometimes get frustrated when I think about not being able to spend time with you. Every day seems a bit less enjoyable as a result.
I have always relied on you as well. You inspired confidence in me even during my darkest times. My happiest days were spent with you. I shall never take another moment for granted when you come home. For now, I am training very hard to become stronger. I imagine that Tsunade-sama told you already, but I was terrified when I fought against members of the Akatsuki. I could not do much but delay them. I hope to make a difference and protect comrades from them, because Sato should not have suffered at their hands the way he did.
I will make you proud, Naruto. There is less tension in my family now and we spend more time together. I have also learned some medical jutsu from Sakura-chan. When I can, I work on mastering my Water Chakra Affinity so that I can create my own jutsu.
Naruto looked up and thought, 'She's like…a secret genius.'
I have fun in my spare time, but it just isn't the same without you. Shino and I collected herbs that we plan to make into ointment in a few days. Maybe that isn't fun for most people, but I like how peaceful it can be. Neji-niisan asks about you frequently and hopes that you are getting stronger. I can tell he kind of misses you, everyone here does! Let me know what you've been doing and what it's like where you are now. I am curious!
By the way, your house plants are doing well. If Mr. Ukki gets too big I will have to transplant him into my garden soon. Oh, and I was told that Gaara-kun has become the new Kazekage! Isn't that amazing? It will be your time soon, Naruto, I am sure! You are always on my mind and I can't wait to hear back from you. Take care!
Joy overtook him. All of the distress he had felt after listening to Jiraiya had been completely stripped away. Naruto rolled from his back onto his stomach and let thoughts of Hinata consume him.
'Why is she so cool like that? I grew up with her and I always knew that she was dependable and smart, but Hinata could like…be Hokage…if she tried.' Naruto grinned to himself, 'That would make me happy! So what if I don't get it? If Hinata did become a village leader, then Konoha would be a much nicer place…and lady Hokages are the next big thing.'
Naruto reached and picked up a blue flower petal from the floor, 'She's been working hard on her jutsu and it shows. There's no way I'll slack when I know that Hinata's pushing that hard! She's also getting along okay and having fun…' He envisioned her out on the town with friends, smiling, 'She thinks about me a lot. She's so sweet. Hinata's probably…more grown up…' He blushed, 'Than when I last saw her…' There was definitely an erection pressed against his stomach. He was thinking too much. Naruto lay in silence and stared straight ahead, perfectly visualizing her face; a pale beauty whose love and devotion would be coveted by many men in her lifetime.
'And she loves me.' The thought was euphoric. If nothing else in the world could go right in his life, Naruto thought, at least being the object of Hinata's affection would keep him a very content man. It did not matter if he was educated about his parents or not, he reminded himself. He had learned how to be happy without that knowledge. What was the use in being troubled by it now? It was a piece of who he was, of course, but not the most important piece.
Naruto was sure of one thing: when he set next foot in Konoha and saw Hinata, even if it was a fleeting glance, he would never, ever chose to leave again.
Miles and miles beyond the verdant refuge of Mount Myoboku, nestled in the cliffs and crests of the River Country, Sancho was interviewing a potential new cook at the Curry of Life Shop.
The tiny old woman was seated at a low table with a teenage girl. The interviewee was a beautiful, freckled young lady with red hair, and the picture of manners and charm. Sancho's son, Karashi, was peeking from the door of the kitchen, praying that his mother would hire such a fair blossom.
"And what is your name young lady?" Sancho asked, extinguishing a cigarette.
"I'm Ninomiya Rishan." She was lively, "I live on the opposite side of the valley in Gakone Town."
"Oof! That's a walk. Why not just find a job in your town, rather than journeying out to Katabami?" Sancho suggested.
"I did just that. There's no work left." Rishan replied, "Grandma can't work anymore since she had a stroke. My auntie looks after her…but I was told that I have to start making money. We need to support ourselves somehow."
"Oh I see…how old are you?"
"That's good!" Sancho was warming up to the idea, "And you cook?"
"Very well!" The girl boasted.
"Do you have experience with curry?"
"No, but as soon as I learn how to make it," Passion burned in her eyes, "I swear I'll impress you!"
"Okay! Easy there, dear, I want to hire you. I'm only concerned about how far you need to walk to get here. It would mean that you'd be crossing the big bridge over the waterfall everyday too…it can be dangerous after rainy days…"
"Please don't let that disqualify me!" The girl pleaded.
"It won't. I have an extra room upstairs. You can stay here and I'll have you work five days a week. Then you can visit home and bring some money to your family." Sancho advised, "Of course, you may do that if your family consents."
"They consent. If I'll be employed they consent."
"Very well then…" Sancho sighed, "Let's get you started in the kitchen…" She called out to her son who quickly came bounding with a ladle in hand. "This is my son, Karashi. He'll help you learn how to make all of the dishes served here. Practice with him for now and this afternoon you can learn the basics of waitressing."
"Thank you!" Rishan was thrilled. Karashi awkwardly introduced himself while leading her to the back of the restaurant.
Sancho noticed a lone customer had entered the shop while she had been wrapping up the interview. Her bespectacled eyes quickly picked up on the flak vest of a shinobi, and she looked for a headband to identify the hungry ninja, 'Well now! It's a Leaf shinobi! How wonderful!' She was reminded of Lee and his stalwart team. They forever had a place in her heart.
"Welcome, Leaf ninja!" Sancho greeted, "Please have a seat! What can I get for you?"
"Today's special." The man gave her a small smile, "Or whatever you suggest."
"Ah, I hope you like your dishes spicy then!"
"I don't mind it." The ninja took a seat at an empty table while Sancho shouted for an order through the kitchen door. She returned to the table and put her hands on her hips.
"Now what is a Leaf ninja doing out here in Katabami? We've been having some harsh weather and your village is much nicer than this dump! I haven't seen my friends around here since the rains began."
"It's not much better where I'm from." The man said, "You have friends in the Leaf Village?"
"Oh yes! I sheltered some young Leaf ninja here while they worked on a mission to kick the Kurosuki family out of town."
"You don't say…" The man smiled interestedly, "Who were these youngsters? I bet I know them."
"Let's see…well of course Rock Lee, my best customer, and his teammates Hyuga Neji and Tenten. And they also brought along a cute little novice!" Sancho cradled her cheeks when she thought of Fujita, "He was an adorable boy…whatever his name was…"
"I don't know about the boys…but I know Tenten."
"Oh? She was a lovely girl! Very talented and brave."
A plate of curry arrived and while the man ate Sancho divulged about her experience with Team Gai.
"Yes, she and Neji-san were the leaders of the group and very close. They came up with strategies to scare off Kurosuki Raiga. Things are so much better now without that brute!" She sighed, "And Lee, bless his heart…he's a bit silly…but my goodness can he eat."
"They sound like an energetic bunch." The man told her, leaving some rice on his plate, "Thank you for that meal, Madam. It has prepared me for my mission."
"I'm glad you enjoyed it. Would you like anything else?"
"No thank you," He set a few notes on the table and stood, "Farewell."
Sancho had more to say, but the stranger strode out without another word. A crash came from the kitchen and was followed by Karashi's wail of pain. Rishan was chirping in alarm as well.
'Karashi dropped a pot on his foot again, I bet…probably while trying to impress my new employee…' The old woman shook her head as she went to check on them, oblivious as the man outside, visible from the window of the restaurant, changed his appearance.
Shimofuri Koinyu had been transformed while in the Curry of Life Shop.
After discarding his henge he spat a mouthful of curry-flavored remnants from his mouth. He had gotten tips from Orochimaru that he could find useful information in Katabami for his master. Orochimaru might have considered giving him this intelligence himself, had he not been furious with Koinyu's failed attempt to recapture Haku, 'To this day I still cannot figure how that boy negated my seal…'
Rather than take another mission that could possibly result in failure and inspire more of Orochimaru's ire, Koinyu wisely decided to investigate things himself. His lord and master, Dintei Bihokokuni, rightful heir to the Sasagainu line, wanted his young female competitor sniffed out and squashed. Their unfortunate target was Tenten, who they had suspected of burglarizing Sasagainu treasure within the last two years.
'The only reason Konoha would choose to retrieve the Hiyumi would be if they still had an eligible wielder in their village…otherwise they would have let Iwagakure take possession of it. The Third Hokage was fully aware of that. Considering that Bi-sama killed all of his competition in Rock and Leaf over the last few decades, this girl is a loose end that needs tying…'
Of course, it had never been easy trapping dwindling Sasagainu turncoats outside of the Leaf Village. It took patience to pick them off. It had last been done several years ago, killing two adult clan members, but Bihokokuni had suspected that the Hokage was trying to avoid such ambushes in the future.
'If we're going to lure the little girl out into the open for Bi-sama…then I'll need the right bait.' Koinyu smirked, 'And that lovely old lady gave me some wonderful suggestions.'
Being Kazekage was a lot of work, but it was also kind of fun, Gaara thought.
He was no fan of the extremely tall stacks of administrative work and files he reviewed at his desk, and sometimes it gave him a crick in the neck. To remedy the awful condition, Gaara took intermissions to visit other offices and parts of the village that requested his presence. He was often welcomed warmly by whomever he visited. Gaara's favorite part of every morning was sitting with a panel to assign missions to the regular forces. It was a great way to get to know all of the Sand shinobi he was not yet familiar with, especially the Genin and Jounin. Shigenori's occasional requests for missions were awkward, of course, but they kept things professional.
Council meetings were typically boring and uneventful. Gaara supposed that since he had only been acting Kazekage for a little over two weeks that he couldn't expect excitement right away. He survived the meetings with some poise, often wishing he could get away with dozing off like many of his elderly counterparts did. Seeing him sleep would probably panic the council. He could just imagine their toothless screams of fear and ignorance. Gaara had informed them that his seal had been strengthened and that he could rest safely, but the old folks just couldn't wrap their heads around it.
If it wasn't a particularly busy day he could get away with a short nap after lunchtime. Gaara found that he could sleep just about anywhere: benches, rooftops, alleyways, balconies, under desks, tables, storage rooms and basements…he was not picky. Kankuro had caught on to this sneaky indulgence of Gaara's and had gotten him a hammock. It was tied between two posts out on the roof of the administrative building. Gaara bought him dinner he was so thrilled with the gift. Temari told them it was extremely tacky.
Matsuri's superstardom among the students and trainees in Sand was taking a toll on her. She got along with the kids well enough and answered their questions, hundreds of times over, but she expressed her concerns to Gaara. Though he was Kazekage, he still prioritized his mentorship of Matsuri, and he made sure she knew that.
"They don't really care about what I do or who I am. They only seem to want to know about you, Sensei." Matsuri explained, "I already had difficulty making friends…but now it feels like no one will ever try to get to know me."
"If you're patient and open-minded, someone will eventually befriend you for your own sake," Gaara assured her, "You'll need to wait for all of the superficial people to leave you alone before genuine people have the chance to approach you. It will happen, Matsuri."
She appreciated his encouragement.
Gaara's office days varied in length, but by early evening he was usually free to go. He would then find Matsuri if she had not been sent on a mission with a team, or with Temari or Kankuro. Her training had intensified the way weapon-training often did in the Sand Village. His siblings had given Matsuri guidance as well. Her specialization was with the Jouhyou, a weapon used primarily for preventing an opponent from getting too close. Temari and Kankuro shared their perspectives with her, specializing in fan wielding and puppets, respectively. She was a quick learner who took advice and made it work in practical applications.
Gaara would swear she had even become somewhat of a phenomenon with a rope-dart…or any ranged soft weapon, like chains, whips or rope. She practiced day and night, had thousands of tricks and feints, and had learned to move so swiftly Gaara was sure even Temari and Kankuro couldn't keep pace with her. Not bad for a novice, he told himself.
Her Ninjutsu needed more fine tuning. She had potential for Genjutsu, which unfortunately Gaara could not assist much with. He prayed for her Taijutsu to improve, which was essentially nonexistent, knowing the incremental training he gave her was all that she could take. Gaara believed that as long as she had her weapon in hand and teammates with her, Matsuri would be a successful kunoichi.
Five days earlier at a council meeting, some very good news was shared. Mara's water treatment facility in the south had benefited many municipalities of the Wind Country, including Hidden Sand. The director of the facility was in fact a man who resided in the Sand Village, and he had submitted reports showing the gradual decline in costs for fresh water. The availability had enticed new residents and businesses to settle in an otherwise unattractive environment, which in turn had boosted, if marginally, the economy of the Sand Village. They had a bit more cash than usual.
The council had deliberated on what local causes to give to. Most of the money had been absorbed by Suna's expenses. Some of it had gone to the Academy, some to the hospital and a bit remained for whatever pet project cropped up. Then a day later a very interesting request came in.
While he sifted through a small pile of remaining work, Gaara noticed a scroll on his desk that was addressed to him. He was shocked to see it was sent by Tazuna.
Greetings from your favorite bridge-builder,
I just wanted to congratulate you on becoming a village leader, Gaara! My family and I just can't shut up about it since we heard a week ago. Does this mean that your teammates will be in your line of work soon? We'll have to throw a party if that's the case. I'm a sort of unofficial village leader myself around these parts. Our civil committee just voted to name our city the Tide Village, which was kind of an ode to our people's admiration of shinobi. Of course, there's a little bit more to it than that. That's my secondary motive for sending this message to you.
There was another venture that was voted on shortly after that. Our people here and our officials agree that the Tide Village needs an effective way to defend itself. We've never been this wealthy or well-equipped before here in the Land of Waves, but we still face the dangers that come with being in proximity to some rowdy ninja villages. It's been decided that the defense system we intend to create is modern standard of shinobi village. The problem with meeting this demand, since we have maybe three ninja living here in Tide (and they're virtually retired) is that we must fortify our village with our own ninja. The options were: outsource shinobi or outsource training. The people chose training. However, it's a hell of a lot cheaper to hire an experienced ninja than it is to hire an experienced ninja to train inexperienced citizens.
It's an ambitious goal to found a ninja village this way, but if you look at how the Grass Village or those rich bastards in the Hidden Moon Village did it, things can turn out alright if you have enough money and people cooperating. People here want to be trained as ninja so I'm going to make sure they get their wish.
We agreed that asking the Hidden Mist Village to participate with us would be the same as letting a rabid dog in the house. Not the best idea. Because I was close with your team, I was asked to pitch this idea to the Hidden Leaf Village. There's just one problem.
Your Hokage said no.
When I asked Lady Tsunade why she would not consider our request she explained that she was already cementing a pact with the Hidden Star Village. She was already up to her eyeballs in complaints from her advisors, and she determined it would be impossible for Leaf to extend aid to another village currently. Quite a bummer, isn't it? I understand her position but I was still very disappointed. It was a matter of bad timing.
And so, when I heard that you've made yourself quite popular in Hidden Sand I thought it might be worth at least asking you what you thought of this idea. I won't hate you if you say no, but I do expect one visit from the new Kazekage to see how beautiful our home has become. It's thanks to you and your friends that we've prospered and no one here will ever forget it. If it helps, we have a new vacation resort that just opened and the beaches there are glamorous. You could get yourself a good deal, being who you are.
I think I've greased you up enough. Say yes already. Help us out once more. It would make Inari and pretty much every person here happy. Then you can throw it in that old lady's face while you're kicking back on the beach.
Your friend, Tazuna
Gaara quickly thought: too expensive…
Then he thought: definitely doing this.
The next council meeting was quite riotous. There were mixed reviews about Tazuna's proposal, as well as Gaara's enthusiastic support of it. Chiyo was in attendance and was surprisingly verbal of how there was no way in hell Hidden Sand could pass up the chance to get free passes to a beach resort. Her brother apologized for her momentary insanity.
The arguments ensued. Every pro and con they could think of was debated for two days until, finally, after a close vote; Gaara's support was favored by the council. Many decried the greenhorn's lack of experience or knowledge of lending foreign aid, but Gaara promised he would research the best ways to be cost effective. He followed through on what he said.
While studying Sand's previous out-of-country endeavors he learned that Suna had a great track record for inter-village cooperation. 'It kind of explains why they were so quick to support the Sound Village…' He thought wryly. Dating back to its founding, at the time of the First Kazekage, the village had strategically denied itself the offering of Biju at the first Kage Summit (they had already sealed away the Ichibi) in exchange for trade, wealth and influence. Ever since, Sand had flourished and secured allies.
The public funding for the endeavor was estimated and approved, but a new challenge arose when Gaara considered plans put forth on how to go about training Tide ninja.
It would take a considerable and diverse assembly. Every facet of the regular forces: Academy teachers, Sensory corps, Sealing corps, Interrogation corps, Medic-nin and any willing Chunin and Jounin…they had to be represented to train neophytes. It was a risk to send so many to the Land of Waves and leave Suna vulnerable, so Gaara surmised that it was best to deploy each division in waves.
Gaara imagined they wanted shinobi to be trained in secret operations as well, much like the ANBU Black Ops, whom he was chiefly fearful of parting with because of the sensitive information they could divulge to trainees. Gaara would give Tide Village time to train their shinobi for however long it took, and then allow their 'best' to receive training from one of his ANBU cells, or at least attempt it. The Black Ops team would get some very strict rules to abide by before he sent them, naturally.
He also needed to think about who was going to spearhead these efforts. Gaara would be delighted to visit the Land of Waves to give instructions to Sand's forces and Tide's trainees, but he simply could not be outside of the village for so long. He called upon the two people he trusted most.
"I want you two to decide amongst yourselves who will go." Gaara had his hands folded under his chin as he leaned on his desk, "I know you can both do it."
Temari and Kankuro were not exactly jumping at the chance to lead such a cumbersome mission.
"Why can't we both go together?" Temari inquired, "Wouldn't that work just as well?"
"I need at least one of you here. You're my advisors, and if I needed to consult with someone while you were both away…" He frowned, "Then I would probably need to speak to Chiyo for advice."
"That would…definitely not be good." Kankuro agreed. The old kunoichi was a skilled veteran but she was rapidly losing her marbles.
Temari and Kankuro looked at each other, contemplating the offer.
"How about…you start off this mission and get everyone situated?" Temari suggested, "Then I'll rotate down there after a few weeks and relieve you. That way it'll be fair."
"Big sis knows best." Kankuro conceded.
"So you'll be going first?" Gaara gave his brother a critical look, "That means you'll be introducing the Chunin, Academy Teachers, Sensory corps and Medic-nin to the trainees for basic training."
"I'll do it." Kankuro agreed, "I need to read over your report again to see what the game plan is…because I'm kind of flying by the seat of my pants. No one has done anything like this in a long time."
Gaara produced a small file and handed it to his brother, "Here. Stick to the itinerary. It goes over the first four weeks in detail," He added sternly, "But improvise if there's danger."
"One last thing," Gaara told him, "You're taking Matsuri with you."
Haku was not very happy about it, but he was participating on another morally ambiguous mission.
It was a sunny day on one of the outermost, southern islands in the Land of Water, which was home to one of Koseki Inagawa's cartel rivals. Inagawa had paid a large amount of money to make sure that his up-and-coming challenger was cut down. He had sent forth his two most lethal and reliable mercenaries.
Zabuza and Haku had accepted the task but upon arriving on the island, they realized that they had not been adequately informed of the target's defenses. The gang leader's residence was sheltered in rugged woods, tucked behind sheer cliffs that faced the ocean. The compound had two enormous concrete walls surrounding the perimeter. Patrolling along the border of the walls were hundreds of guards. Zabuza said all of this was fine. There was only one thing bothering him.
He pointed to the top of the wall. For a blink of a moment, a man was standing there, surveying the area; then he had disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
"That was a shinobi." Zabuza stated the obvious, "Which suggests that there might be a few more of them in this asshole's employ. Koseki had a lot of nerve not mentioning we need to get past other ninja here."
"That's because it would make this task more expensive." Haku stated. He knew the rules now.
"Well he's paying up when we get back. He's got a death wish if he thinks it's safe to be a cheap with me." The nukenin growled, "We have one target and he is hiding behind hundreds of thugs and shinobi. That costs way more than what we agreed to."
"How should we proceed?" Haku asked, "Entering the fortress unnoticed won't be easy without intel."
Zabuza was crouched on a tall branch in a tree, adjacent to Haku's position. He rubbed his bandaged chin while he thought, "I've been in similar situations…" He glanced at Haku, "How's your Genjutsu?"
"You said you were practicing some weird shit with it."
"Um…it's not weird, in my opinion." Haku contested, "It's a clever application."
"Clever my ass…" The man snorted.
"Do you want me to cast an illusion or not?" Haku hissed in annoyance, "The fact is that I can enter that building more easily than you can. You'll need a better distraction to do so, which I can provide for you."
"Do it." Zabuza told him, "But don't call yourself clever."
Haku sighed. They approached cautiously through the tree tops and were wary of traps, and came to the back end of the wall nearest to the tree line. Several guards were playing a game of cards on an overturned can. Haku made hand signs and produced small ice mirrors behind each unsuspecting sentry. His Genjutsu weaved through the net of mirrors, and just as soon as the lookouts noticed their reflections in the floating ice they drifted into catatonic states, ensnared in a happy illusion. They sat together in stupefied silence as Zabuza and Haku flashed by and over the first barrier.
Slinking along with great care, they arrived at the second wall, hypnotizing distracted guards with Genjutsu mirrors as they went. The pair passed through a tunnel and adeptly avoided detection. It was less likely they could skate by so easily once inside the mansion. The building's architecture was designed to funnel people forward into small spaces, with many doors and a scarcity of windows. It was a gangster's dream house.
Things got a little uncomfortable in a narrow hallway. Haku had a bad feeling as soon as he noticed the glass panel on the wall to his left; definitely a one-way mirror, 'Without a doubt…someone is there watching.' He was not really surprised when three ninja appeared at each end of the hallway to block their retreat. One shinobi was ahead of them and two approached from behind. The width of the corridor was shorter than the full length of the Seversword, but that wasn't going to stop Zabuza from using it.
He drew quickly and Haku had been anticipating it. The boy leapt and rolled across Zabuza's back as the man bent, getting leverage on the blade, and he somersaulted over Zabuza towards the lone ninja ahead of them. The Seversword ripped through the sheetrock of the wall and arced into the first idiot who had charged from behind.
Haku blocked a brief exchange of punches before kicking his opponent in the face, knocking him back, and stuck him full of senbon needles for good measure. He looked back to see Zabuza had bisected one thug ninja and beheaded the other. The fight had destroyed the walls of the hallway, with huge gouges carved into the soft plaster and glass shattered on the floor. Blood was artfully distributed among the debris.
"You made a mess." Haku informed him.
Zabuza grunted, replacing the sword on his back, and they continued on, poking into doors until they came to a stairwell. It was another claustrophobic climb up, sandwiched in the echoing straight of the stairway, and they leapt up and up until they came to another metal door. It was locked. Haku focused, and with two hand signs, exhaled a chilly breath that froze the hinges of the door. They snapped off. Rather than kicking it down nosily as Zabuza would have, Haku opened the door quietly in reverse.
The top level was roomier and looked as if it was reserved for administration. The wood floors were new and the layout of the bureau resembled offices. Haku paused for a moment when he heard footsteps. Zabuza grumbled behind him. A cleaning woman rounded the corner and straight into a Genjutsu mirror. She fell flat on her back, dreaming.
Haku produced two Shadow Clones to continue in opposite directions and search for the gang boss. He and Zabuza loitered, deciding not to commit to a direction until they knew it would take them to their target. They ducked down behind a filing cabinet and waited for Haku's clones to send info back to them.
"Why didn't you bring that rabbit?" Zabuza asked quietly.
"Whatever the fuck its name is…"
"I wanted to. She'd be very helpful right now." Haku agreed, "But I sent her to deliver mail to my friends. She won't be back until she finds Naruto and Gaara."
"I can't believe you still concern yourself with talking to them."
"They're my best friends. I love them."
"You're going to make me barf."
"Gaara-kun was just made the Godaime Kazekage." Haku smiled proudly, "And Naruto will be Hokage someday."
"I don't know about the loudmouth," Zabuza vaguely remembered Haku's teammates, "But the other one will probably never fall in battle."
"I doubt he will."
"How did he get the job? He's your age."
"Gaara outclassed other candidates in Sand." Haku said quietly, peeking over a desk, "And…his father was the previous Kazekage."
"Sure. Leave that detail out."
Haku told him to shush. A fuzz of visual information entered his mind and he could see what his dissolved clone had seen. It was working out well. The boss, a thin, terrified-looking man, had two henchmen with him. They fled the Shadow Clone when it entered the locked office via an Ice Mirror, exchanging projectiles, and the two thugs fell in defeat as the gang boss carried on screaming. He was chased into a corridor and, hopefully, the other Shadow Clone would shepherd him along into the lobby where Haku and Zabuza had stationed themselves.
Moments later, the gasping man darted out of a hallway to their right. He ran past the intruders' hiding spot. A flurry of senbon needles sunk into his calves and he collapsed to the floor face-first. Haku stood and approached the boss as he frantically tried to drag himself to shelter, hollering for help.
"Are you Kunimura Maro?" Haku asked.
"If I said no would you let me go?" The man sniveled.
"Well I am, fuckface! It won't do me any good now." Maro was confused as he regarded the young man, "I thought you were…chasing me back there. How'd you get here? And why did you do that to my legs?"
"I did it because I don't have time to play cat and mouse. Inagawa-san asked us to eliminate you."
"N-No…" He realized that they were seeking a bounty, "Please!" Maro began to weep, helpless, "Please don't kill me! You won't kill me, will you?"
"I won't." Haku assured him.
He stepped away and Zabuza brought his sword down.
An hour after the assassination Zabuza had bagged Maro's head and bulldozed their way out. Most of the shinobi that the gang boss had hired were poorly trained. They did not put up much of a fight. Haku tried to prevent innocent causalities of janitors and housekeeping, since such people were often caught off guard by close-quarters shinobi scuffles. After a brief and one-sided gambit, most of the thugs retreated, knowing Maro could no longer provide them with paychecks. They left the fortress victorious.
The rocky cliffs whistled with an afternoon breeze as Haku and Zabuza leisurely made their way home. Some rainclouds rolled in with the winds and Haku looked up, noting the change in weather.
"Do you want to keep going?"
"What? Is there going to be a storm?"
"Yes. We won't have much cover out here."
"Whatever. You keep us dry." Zabuza grunted, "I want to stop and eat and then get the hell off this island."
A short time later, the clouds broke and Haku exerted a minimal amount of chakra to redirect the rain from their persons. They walked for a long while along a cliffside path and then stopped at a stone overhang. They sheltered beneath it for a break. Zabuza took a seat on a smooth faced boulder and pulled two packed lunches from Haku's bag. He ate in silence, not even questioning his younger companion when Haku quietly walked off down a sandy slope. He rightly assumed the boy needed to relieve himself.
The dune overlooked a rock-studded beach below. Haku stared out at the rolling waves, careful not to stand in the wind (which made peeing a tricky affair), and did his business. His eyes glanced across something curious when he finished up. He hopped down the slope and took a look at prints left in the sand, 'Someone has been here recently?' The footprints were small, and judging by the spacing, the person had been moving fast.
Inquisitive, Haku followed the trail of prints north along the beach and then up a steep dune. The drizzle was passing over, thankfully, making the tangent more bearable. At the top of a hill he found a log of driftwood lined with kunai. It looked deliberate; like target practice. He tried piecing it together, 'Is this a shinobi? But those feet were small…like an Academy student…'
"Is someone here?" Haku called out, "Are you a trainee?"
"Sort of." A small voice answered.
Haku looked around, dubious, not seeing the owner of the voice. The little varmint was good at hiding.
"Don't you want to come out?" Haku asked, concerned, "You're not here alone, are you?"
"No. My friend went fishing for lunch. He said I can't talk to people I don't know."
Haku smiled, "My friend is having lunch too. It's good that we're not alone."
A tiny, round face poked out from among some cattails, superbly childlike. It was a young boy with violet hair and red eyes. He was obviously intrigued, "How did you find me here?"
"I saw your footprints on the beach."
"I thought the tide would wash them away…"
"That would have worked…if it wasn't low tide."
"What's your name? I'm Haku."
"Ranmaru." He was smiling uncertainly.
Haku stepped over to the weeds and held out his hand. The little boy shook it and then stepped out of his cover.
"Are you training to be a Mist ninja?" Haku wondered.
"Well no." Ranmaru admitted, "I'm training, though I'm not from that village. But I was born in the Water Country."
"So was I!" Haku was genuinely surprised, "I'm actually a Leaf ninja."
Ranmaru's jaw dropped, "You are?"
"I swear I am. I've come here to the Water Country to find my clan and train."
"I have friends in the Leaf Village!" Ranmaru told him excitedly, "Do you know Lee-san?"
"Rock Lee?" He laughed, "I'm friends with him and his teammates, Neji and Tenten."
Ranmaru squealed. He darted over to the log and extracted his kunai. No more practice. This was set to be an ordinary day, made extraordinary by leaving his footprints on the beach. A kindred spirit had come along.
And he and this fellow named Haku got to talking for quite a while, discussing their common friends and aspirations. Haku had lost track of time and was abruptly jerked out of the conversation when he heard a furious shout ring out far down the beach.
"Oh my," He was fearful, "I forgot about my companion…"
"I hope he isn't mad." Ranmaru said softly.
"He is…I should get back." Haku smiled at his new friend, "You should visit Nanakusa after you find your birth village. That's where I am staying while I train."
"Good! I will!" Ranmaru promised, "I'll ask Raiga to take me there soon. After lunch today he said he would teach me Lightning Style jutsu."
"Really?" Haku was alarmed, "Why is he teaching you that?"
"I'm an apprentice! I'm training to be one of the Seven Shinobi Swordsman." The boy divulged, "One day I will use the Thunder and Lightning Fangs."
Haku felt his stomach twist with fright, 'Another Swordsman is here with a companion!'
"You said your master's name was Raiga…" Haku said carefully, "It just so happens…that I am training with an old acquaintance of his, Momochi Zabuza."
"Oh! Maybe they'll want to talk after lunch?"
Haku was horrified, "No! Absolutely not!" When the boy gave him a confused look he added, "You see…the Swordsman have disbanded and hate each other now…"
"No, I'm serious!"
"But you and I get along so well..." Ranmaru said meekly.
"Ranmaru…that has nothing to do with them. They're entirely different people and I assure you, no matter how much you and I get along, they never will."
Ranmaru was discouraged by the news. Haku patted his shoulder, "It's alright. You and I can be friends…but we should avoid reuniting Raiga and Zabuza."
Nearby, a super-agitated shout caught their attention, and as soon as Haku turned to look for the newcomer, he was hit full-on by a ball of lightning. He was hurled back into the sandy dune with a cry, and Ranmaru flapped in a panic, distressed to see his new friend had been ambushed.
Raiga had appeared at the top of a rocky outcrop and his swords were drawn, "Get away from Ranmaru, you filth!"
"Raiga! No!" The little boy held out his arms, "He's my friend!"
"I told you not to make friends out here!" He roared, "Everyone here is a mercenary! He'll snatch you!"
Haku wheezed, grazing over his burn with the Healing Palm jutsu, and wobbled to his feet. He had truly been blind-sided by the assault, 'He wasted no time attacking me…but what if he hits Ranmaru? He's careless!' Several successive blasts of lightning tore down at him again, and Haku tucked Ranmaru under one arm, feather-light, and leapt away from the volley. Raiga's frenzied screaming was only intensified by the gesture.
"You really should put me down..." Ranmaru advised, "Raiga thinks you're trying to hurt me!"
He was offended, "I would never! And he's the one risking your safety by attacking that way!"
"He has never hit me!"
"Today will be the day." Haku warned darkly. He set Ranmaru on his feet and stepped away from him, "I'm sorry. We can talk again some other time…but it isn't safe now."
"I'm sorry, Haku!" The boy peeped.
He made a break for it but it was no use; Raiga was incensed. The swordsman rushed after Haku, summoning lightning from the clouds overhead, and it crashed down in multiple bolts in the seaside valley. Haku frantically tried to evade, and even though he was not struck directly, residual electricity coursing through the moist ground was zapping him over and over. He did not want to fight back; fully aware that Ranmaru's caretaker was only trying to defend his ward, despite his ostensible insanity.
Haku left a Shadow Clone behind to cause a diversion and then ducked behind a rock formation. Tremendous lightning jutsu shook the hillside, and Haku gulped in air, trying to calm down. His next move would be to sneak off through an Ice Mirror, and while making hand signs and focusing chakra, static crackled to life, sticking to him, 'Oh no…' A lightning bolt pierced down right beside him and Haku tumbled, fried, struggling to escape while his paralyzed body betrayed him. When he stumbled and hit the ground Raiga pounced on him mercilessly.
The carving tip of one of Raiga's blades jammed snuggly in his shoulder, pinning him, and Haku wailed. He flailed for a moment before deciding to hold still, hoping that the other blade would not come down and pierce him in any vital spots. He did not want to tempt the swordsman to roast him with a point-blank shock either. Raiga glared down at him, "What were you trying to do with Ranmaru?"
"We were…just talking…" He could hardly breathe.
"Liar!" The man bellowed, "You want him for his Kekkei Genkai! You're a hunter aren't you?" His eyes were crazed, "I'll kill you for this…"
"I'm…not a hunter." Haku managed, "I'm an…apprentice…just like him."
Raiga paused, suddenly perplexed, "What?"
"We're students! So we wanted…to talk."
The swordsman grimaced, not buying it, "I don't believe you." He bore down on the sword and Haku shrieked again, "What are you doing out here then, apprentice?"
Ranmaru screamed. Raiga's head snapped in the direction of the cry, and Haku strained to tilt his head; he could see that Zabuza had arrived. His eyes went wide as saucers when he saw that Zabuza was not taking kindly to the situation. He had Ranmaru's neck surrounded by the circular opening in the Seversword, trapping him. The boy was quaking in fear; his knees knocking together in terror. Zabuza had supposed that the little boy might work as leverage.
Raiga locked his gaze on the fellow nukenin, stupefied by what he was seeing. It gradually clicked in his head. Very slowly, he withdrew his blade, freeing Haku. The boy gasped, clutching his shoulder, and then limped to his feet. He could feel Raiga pointing a sword at the back of his head, warning Zabuza not to try anything.
"Give me Ranmaru," Raiga growled lowly, "And you can have this rat of yours back…"
"No." Zabuza retorted, "Haku goes first. You already fucking stabbed him."
"Stop!" Haku shouted, and then tried to catch his breath again, "Just send…Ranmaru…"
Zabuza lifted the sword away, freeing the violet haired boy. Ranmaru tottered on his feet, moving forward, too frightened to look back and see if his head was about to be lopped off. Raiga nudged Haku forward as well and he began to take pained steps towards Zabuza. While the boys walked slowly to exchange themselves, Raiga and Zabuza continued to bicker.
"What were you doing with my apprentice?" Zabuza demanded.
"He was trying to take Ranmaru away!"
"Like hell he was…why would he want some snot-nosed kid?"
"You probably put him up to it!"
"You're out of your damn gourd!" Zabuza jeered.
"You want Ranmaru for his Kekkei Genkai!" Raiga snarled.
"Newsflash, asshole: Haku has his own Kekkei Genkai."
"You're a selfish defector and you want to rebuild the Seven Swords…you obviously want them both!"
"One student is too many, to tell the truth." Zabuza struck a sarcastic tone, "He's a pain in my ass. Why would I want the pain in your ass?"
"I should kill you…" Raiga was grinding his teeth furiously.
"Bring it, you stupid fuck. This is why I don't work with you anymore…"
Haku stopped beside Zabuza and gave the man a weary look. Was it really a good time to pick a foolish battle? On the opposite end of the sandy stretch, Ranmaru was likewise persuading his mentor to think twice about fighting. After telling Zabuza that he was "scum" and should "go kill himself" Raiga retreated with his tiny student. The tension ebbed away and Haku sat down on the ground, focusing on healing his wound.
Zabuza slapped the back of his head.
"Are you out of your mind?"
"No, I'm not." Haku was aggravated, "I understand perfectly what a fiasco that was."
"You never should have approached them."
"Ranmaru was alone. I had no ideahe was an apprentice until he told me," He fixed an impatient eye on Zabuza, "Moments before Raiga turned up. Don't lecture me right now. I've been skewered and electrocuted for being friendly."
"Serves you right."
"Thank you," Haku added, stilted, "For…not hurting that boy."
"If I did that he wouldn't have traded you back. Raiga would have gone and cut your eyes out of your head." Zabuza speculated, "I know how that moron thinks…which is pretty much not at all."
"And he's training an apprentice…" Haku sighed in disappointment, rising to his feet. His shoulder was adequately repaired. His hair and skin smelled like charcoal, though.
"That's not going to pan out." The nukenin guessed, walking a bit slower to accommodate the deep-fried young ninja with him, "He has no concept of what it takes to keep things alive, most especially not a kid. Raiga can't think. If he tries to, he thinks in circles. He always needed someone to tell him what to do next."
"So that was your duty in the Swords? To guide him?"
"He needed it more than the others did. Some people are born just smart enough to know how to breathe and fight and that's it. He's one of them." Zabuza explained, "I was leader because I understood how to manipulate the others into functioning together. It's not easy keeping that many assholes on the same page."
"Do you not want to reunite the Seven Swordsmen?" Haku asked.
"I thought about it…but two of the people I need are not coming back." Zabuza said simply.
"Hozuki Mangetsu was brilliant and did better work than me. He's dead. He took the Master Scroll with him." He broke it down, "His little brother was my student. He's probably dead too. He disappeared after a Sound ambush. Then Hoshigaki Kisame," He shrugged, "He prefers the Akatsuki over rebel causes and he's not bringing Samehada back."
"The Akatsuki…" Haku muttered, remembering Naruto and Gaara's clash with Kisame and Itachi in Tanzaku Quarter.
"Now if I trained you…you're probably no good with a weapon this big." Zabuza speculated, referring to Kubikiri Boucho, "You would need to learn with the Nuibari sword, and I have no idea where the hell that blade is. Probably still in the scroll…"
"It doesn't matter. I can't even get it for you." Zabuza dismissed the idea, "The point is there is no way that the swords could ever assemble again. Too many members and weapons went missing. All that matters…" He gazed out over the bay towards the main island, "Is that you do as I say and learn what I teach you."
"We made a bargain. You said that you would tell me about my clan." Haku reminded him sharply.
The man gave him a cold look, "That's not happening until you lend me your powers. Then you can do whatever you want. You're almost ready to help me finish this."
"Finish what?" Haku pressed, frustrated.
"Retaking the Mist Village." Zabuza enlightened him.
It was a long trip down to the Land of Waves. Gaara had notified Tazuna in advance that Kankuro would be spearheading the effort; Baki and Matsuri would be accompanying him. They had 50 Sand shinobi deploying with them which included 10 Academy Teachers, 15 Chunin, 10 Jounin, 5 members of the Sensory corps, 5 members of the Medical corps, 3 Genin excluding Matsuri, and 2 elders: Chiyo and her brother, of course.
During the trip, Chiyo swung between fits of complaining and gushing excitedly over the beach resort she was promised. Gaara had to rent her a luxury suite as a condition of her participation, which she had told him "was a dire wish for a woman nearing death." He paid for it himself just to shut her up. Her brother apologized on her behalf, but Gaara informed him his apology would come in the form of him keeping her under control.
Kankuro was glad that he was in good company. Matsuri was well behaved, helpful and obedient. Baki, his former Sensei, gave him good advice when he needed it. After several days of traveling through arid desert and rationing water, they entered hospitable lands. It was quite a scene as they crossed the famous Great Naruto Bridge. The orderly procession of Sand shinobi was met with fawning oohs and ahhs as they passed by locals. It inflated their egos a little bit.
Tazuna and Inari met them halfway along the span of the bridge, "Welcome!" The old man happily clapped Kankuro's shoulder and shook his hand, "So you're Kankuro of the Sand! I didn't know Gaara had siblings until he wrote back to me."
"Yeah, we lived apart for a while." Kankuro replied, "It's good to meet you, Tazuna."
Tazuna patted his grandson's head, "And this is Inari! He's looking forward to training."
"Hi Inari," Kankuro was in a good mood so he smiled, "This is my Sensei, Baki." He introduced his teacher, who nodded, "And this is Matsuri, Gaara's student." The girl waved and said hello. Inari stared at her critically.
"Gaara's training a girl?" Inari balked, "He's so tough I thought for sure he'd pick a boy to train!"
Before Tazuna could reprimand him for the rude comment, within a blink, Inari had been hog-tied around the ankles by Matsuri's Jouhyou. With a yowl, the boy toppled over. She had clearly taken offense.
"Uh, yeah, about that," Kankuro cleared his throat, "Matsuri here is the only one among a class of fifty six students that Gaara was willing to train. She had more character than all of them put together." Inari freed his legs and stood, dusting himself off as Kankuro added, "So please, unless you want her to knock each of your teeth out one by one with that rope-dart of hers…show her the proper respect."
"Thank you, Kankuro-sama." She was beaming, "You're too kind."
"Jeez…" Inari muttered.
"Well now, she showed you, Inari." Tazuna was grinning, "Remember: you know nothing. Even Matsuri should be treated as a teacher from here on out. She knows far more than you do."
"Okay, fine." He huffed, folding his arms.
Tazuna moved along to greet the division of fifty ninja behind Kankuro, who were for the most part very happy to have arrived. Chiyo was at the front, looking tired, but Kankuro was shocked to see she had a pair of sunglasses on already, 'Where the heck did she get those?'
They moved on to the village where several blocks along the coast had been prepared to host the guest shinobi. The beach resort, which was far away at the end of the strip, would be Chiyo's paradise. She said farewell to Kankuro and marched down the street with her brother. It was kind of a relief that she had gone, he thought.
The coastal barracks were newly furnished and organized by class. Kankuro's quarters, where Baki and Matsuri would be staying with him, was at the center, nestled in with the other Jounins' lodgings. Tazuna told him it would make him accessible to all of his subordinates as well as townspeople who needed guidance.
The official tour followed and Tazuna and his grandson split up. Inari led one half of the shinobi coalition around town while Tazuna took Kankuro and his group. They walked past a near-complete Ninja Academy and two primary schools. A series of shops and residences led up to an Administrative Building and then a tall lookout. Tucked within a sea of substantial buildings was a large hospital, which Tazuna boasted was already quite successful.
Kankuro was surprised to see a small group of Mist ninja walk by and smile. Two looked younger than Matsuri while the adult must have been a Jounin.
"Some families have settled down here to live." Tazuna explained, "A lot of Mist ninja came here because they were tired of fighting. They're mostly from the rebel forces, but I think a couple of the Mizukage's loyalists retired here as well."
"And they help out?" Kankuro was surprised.
"Sure they do! They rave about this place!" Tazuna chuckled, "I used to be very suspicious of Mist ninja…but these days we don't see any thugs types. We've hired too many upstanding shinobi for protection that prevent nukenin from trying their luck here again."
"Are there any other shinobi living here?" Matsuri asked.
"Not yet. We get some commuters now and then. There's a nice Grass kunoichi who's a Medic-nin, and she helps out frequently at our hospital."
"Have you discussed with your former Mist residents if they wish to become Tide ninja?" Baki arched an eyebrow, "They may not want to live here and forsake their heritage."
"I asked. Some of them, mostly the younger ones, were all for it." Tazuna told him, "The older folks…they're done doing shinobi work for the most part."
"Then they can help us too, if they're willing." Kankuro suggested.
After getting acquainted with the layout of the Tide Village, Kankuro wagered it was a hair smaller than Hidden Sand. The suburban residences and fishing district beyond the city were not considered annexes of the Tide Village, which had defined finite boundaries. Tazuna explained that regardless of what and where Tide was, everyone who lived in the Land of Waves took pride in the city, which had become the country's crown jewel.
At the end of the day the Sand shinobi retired to the barracks and had dinner. Tazuna's daughter, Tsunami, had stopped by and given Kankuro a meal to share with his friends. Tazuna's family stayed for a short while before returning home for the night. Kankuro, Baki and Matsuri sat at a table together and digested.
Matsuri was very taken with the Tide Village, "I love it here! It's sunny like home but there's so much water and the breeze feels good…"
Kankuro smirked at her, "Do you want to move here?"
"If Sensei will let me…"
"Probably not. It's our duty not to get carried away and forget why we're here." Kankuro reminded the girl, "Gaara said he enjoyed being here too, but back when he visited it wasn't nearly this nice."
"I heard them talking about all of the crime that was here." Matsuri acknowledged.
"It wasn't pretty. They struggled with corruption and gang bosses." Kankuro recalled, "Gaara said he had to kill members of a drug cartel who had it out for Tazuna."
She lowered her head sadly, "Even then he had to do such things…"
"Your Sensei had no option." Baki told her, "Those gangs were notorious for executing innocent civilians. He acted to defend them."
"Not to mention they were getting chased down by Momochi Zabuza." Kankuro added, "Gaara and his teammates were only Genin at the time, but they had to protect Tazuna from a legendary assassin too. They didn't sign up for that crap."
"He…won't come back, will he?" Matsuri was concerned by the mentioning of Zabuza. Gaara may have been strong enough to fend off a powerful nukenin, but she was aware that she certainly wasn't.
"Surely he won't." Baki presumed, "Not unless there is any profit in it for him."
"No one is going to try to mess with Tide after it has its own shinobi. Well…" Kankuro qualified the remark, "No one will mess with them beyond what's typical of competitive shinobi villages. They will be able to handle it, Matsuri."
"Because we'll be training them." Matsuri affirmed.
"Yep," Kankuro leaned back in his chair and yawned, "But that could take a very, very long time to accomplish…"
In the Leaf Village, it was an eventful day at the hospital. Tsunade had dropped by with Sakura in tow, intending to skip administrative work in favor of educating Leaf ninja. They had planned a seminar that would go over poison extraction and manufacturing antidotes. This offer had attracted many Medic-Nins who were not busy with missions.
Shoda was one such Medic-nin hoping to drop into the Hokage's first-come-first-serve class. He had taken his teammate and good friend, Hikune, along for the day. They had not seen each other in a while and hoped to spend some quality time. Shoda was curious as to why Hikune had suddenly taken a high volume of missions in the last week. He wanted his friend to justify his absence.
"It isn't necessarily because I was needed for those assignments," Hikune admitted to him as they waited in the hospital lobby, "It's because I didn't want to be home."
"Really?" Shoda raised his eyebrows, "Mion-kun said something was bothering you. Why won't you just tell us?"
The Hyuga hesitated. Hikune had not really clued his friends in to the fact that he had been infatuated and forward with a fiercely independent, Genin-level kunoichi. Moreover, he had not discussed his rejection and dismissal by said kunoichi either. It had been painful. It had been humiliating. It had not been worth mentioning.
"I…" Hikune exhaled, "I've been in a bad way."
"I can tell, Hikune."
"The Hyuga clan elders have been inviting these strange people…families from all around the Fire Country…to meet Hinata-sama." Hikune elaborated, "It's terrible. That poor girl is accosted every week by older men. I can't believe that Hiashi-sama would allow it in the first place."
"I'm sure it bothers him too." Shoda could imagine, "It wasn't his invitation."
"It bothers everyone. These people have no tact at all. No one is a suitable match for Hinata-sama."
"It's like the secondhand embarrassment Mion-kun gives me sometimes."
"Yes, like that."
They laughed for a moment.
Shoda continued, "Is that really all that's been troubling you?"
Hikune trained his eyes on the far wall ahead, past where Tsunade was chatting with receptionists, "There is…something else…"
"What is it?"
"I've been trying to avoid Tenten."
"Oooh." Shoda's expression was apologetic, "Wasn't that going well? Mion said you just stopped by the forge to see her."
"It's not going well. She wants me to leave her alone."
"You'll have to accept it." Shoda advised, "You really were pushing the limit. She seems lovely…but far too headstrong."
Hikune gave him an annoyed look, "I like that quality in her."
"To each his own," His friend tried to disarm him with a smile, "What you'll have to take away from this, even if it's hard for you, is that maybe it isn't a good time for her."
'As long as Neji is her teammate, it will never be a good time.' Hikune thought, 'It has kept her very close minded.'
They lined up outside of a meeting room for class just as Tsunade was pulled aside by a nurse. Inuzuka Tsume had her husband leaned against her shoulder as she led him inside the lobby. He looked absolutely dreadful; pale as a ghost and perspiring. Kiba and Sakura exchanged words that Shoda could not hear. The two rushed off to follow behind his parents as Nichiyo was admitted. Tsunade announced that the class was cancelled.
Shoda sighed deeply. Medical emergencies took precedence. He patted Hikune's shoulder, "This is a sign that we need to go home and relax."
"Hm. I didn't interpret it that way."
"That's why I interpreted it for you, because your mind is in a dark place." Shoda informed him, "I owe my little sister some quality time, so I'd like to go home and visit. Maybe you should hang out with Fujita? Just take it easy and don't think about her for a while."
"I will." Hikune agreed. They parted ways outside of the hospital.
At home, Hikune discovered that Fujita had left early to train with his Sensei. He wanted to shove Shoda's interpretation where the sun wouldn't shine. His teammate was very good at getting his way. As soon as class had been cancelled Shoda had decided he didn't want to spend the day with a mopey-Hikune.
Hikune acknowledged that his friend was correct; it would make him feel better to horse around with his little brother, but now he was even more frustrated that he was on his own again. Hikune walked along a path through the garden of the Main House, trying to appreciate the fresh air. It would have been far more relaxing had he not kept thinking of how Tenten spent time with him in the same garden.
He checked with his Byakugan to see who was home. His father must have been out, but he could see his mother was weaving happily with some of her Branch friends. He didn't want her to have to put up with his crabby mood. Hikune continued following the bend, considering some practice with Jyukken forms might help him shake off irritability. He took a left into the central courtyard.
He was surprised that Neji had dropped by at the same time. He was seeing off Hanabi who had finished complaining about something to him. The girl scampered away and Neji turned to face his older cousin. It was likely that he intended to practice forms as well.
"Hello Hikune," Neji was appropriately respectful.
For some reason that Hikune could not rationalize, the friendly greeting felt like a spike being driven into the top of his head. His impatience began to manifest.
"Spare me your pleasantries." Hikune retorted. He brushed past Neji and noticed the hurt expression on the boy's face.
Neji genuinely had no idea why he was being treated so coldly. He and his immediate family, at least these days, got along extremely well.
Hikune decided that he wanted to leave, knowing it was best to spare his cousin from his temper, but he stopped and took a deep breath. He rounded on Neji, regarding his quizzical face; how the heir of the clan still looked so respectful and frustratingly naïve. How he had changed like everyone said.
It was nauseating.
"I suspect…that you are ignorant of what has been going on, considering how conveniently blind you have always been." Hikune no longer felt obligated to spare anyone from his foul mood. Speaking freely felt much better.
"What have I been ignorant of?" Neji asked, alarmed by Hikune's venomous attitude.
He had never tried to upset the older boy, knowing what a valuable ally he was in the Main House. Hikune had always been mild. He had always been his brother Fujita's idol. There was no rhyme or reason for his icy treatment.
"Your teammate." Hikune announced boldly, "She and I have been spending a lot of time together. Tenten is unlike any other kunoichi I've met."
The woeful confusion Neji was feeling quickly devolved into all-consuming dread. He wanted to say something to discredit the words but it wasn't possible. There was no rebuttal. Simply invoking Tenten's name seemed indicator enough that something was terribly out of sorts. Could she have really done such a thing without him noticing?
"Unbelievable." Hikune sneered at Neji's shock, "You really had no idea, did you?"
One of Neji's faithful standbys, anger, asserted itself accordingly, "How dare you talk so freely about my friend!"
"Why shouldn't I? Because you are the heir to the Hyuga clan and I will be punished if you take offense? You…the head of this house…" Hikune spelled it out plainly, "Hinata-sama is more suitable. I am more suitable." He was defiant, "Keep your title. Enjoy it, Neji. It's the only thing of value that you acknowledge."
"Why are you passing judgment on me like this? How have I wronged you?" Neji was openly upset, "You are someone that I have always looked up to."
"It's not me that you have wronged." Hikune corrected him, "Tenten is the person you should look to for guidance. No one in this village cares about your feelings and future more than she does." He raised his chin and added, "And no one will cherish her more than I do, most certainly not you."
"Your words are careless!"
"I am deserving of her affection…there is nothing I wouldn't do for her…" Hikune was rambling, "But she could not betray you…she'll have nothing to do with me."
He spoke more incoherent nonsense that Neji tuned out. While it was a rough picture, Neji had pieced together what Hikune was ineffectively describing. Although Tenten had never brought it to his attention, Hikune had been making advances towards her. 'They became acquainted after the Retrieval Mission.' He felt ill thinking of how long she had silently endured unwanted attention, 'Did she not trust me enough to say something to me? That somehow my intervention would not have mattered?' If anyone was going to defend her from his own clan, Neji thought, spiraling with frustration, surely Tenten would have asked him to do it?
"And you," Hikune accused at length, "You're the one who is careless. You have ignored someone precious. How can you be preferred…in spite of such neglect?"
This notion that Hikune kept bringing up was also worrisome. While Neji could not confirm what Tenten thought, Hikune definitely seemed to think that she had a preference. Hikune had come to believe, for some crazy reason, that Neji was a rival for affection. It did suggest that something must have happened, and it would require him to ask Tenten about a few things, but Neji couldn't bring himself to ponder that incident just yet. He needed to set the record straight.
"I will not tolerate this disrespect any longer," Neji was calm when he spoke, "You know nothing about me…and it seems you know nothing about Tenten either."
He thought that he could diffuse the situation by walking away. It would be the mature thing to do, Neji assumed. The silence that followed was empty and sad; then the distinct rustle of gravel came from behind him. Hikune had lunged while his back was turned.
Neji whirled about with a cry, discarding all courtesy.
He countered Hikune's successive Jyukken strikes that were delivered with tremendous speed. Initially, Neji only sought to defend himself, dodging and blocking Hikune as best he could, but he began to understand Hikune was not willing to let him go. That was abundantly clear when Neji's guard was broken by a non-traditional combination and he took a savage right hook to the face. He staggered sideways, catching himself, and Hikune switched to Gouken the likes of which Neji had never witnessed before.
He tried to draw on his experience with sparring Lee, but hit after hit, Neji understood that there was no comparing the angry Jounin's skill. Hikune slipped between styles, crafty and ruthless, and gladly bloodied him for several minutes. Neji could only force him away with a Rotation. With several meters between them Hikune continued to attack with a perfected Air-Palm. Neji rolled and ran to avoid it, knowing his own technique was not yet refined.
They exchanged what projectiles they had with them. Both rotated to avoid being hit and then resumed. Jyukken was used again as they bashed each other, more than willing to damage organs, and Neji substituted several times when fatal strikes came close. Hikune was fast enough to evade and had not bothered to replace himself. When his patience wore out Hikune attacked again with Gouken, knowing Neji would have trouble with anticipating his movements. He then quickly switched, eyes narrowed, and closed thirty-two tenketsu in the span of a few heartbeats.
Neji leapt away, gritting his teeth, 'I have no idea if…he really wants to hurt me.' So far he was quite badly injured, and there was no telling what Hikune would consider "enough". Neji's plan was to keep up, maintain some pride, and then try to be fair while explaining the debacle to his uncle.
Another flat-palmed assault followed and Neji prepared to defend himself. He blocked, but the mere contact of skin abruptly electrocuted Neji. He gasped and fell over as Hikune stalked a few paces away, eyeing him unsympathetically.
"You're not really a genius." Hikune said lowly, "Maybe some would say you are…but you're rather average for someone in the Main House."
After a few labored breaths Neji hauled himself to his feet, "I'm not…disappointed by that."
"Hiashi-sama already tested your Chakra Affinity, but I can see that you've done nothing with it." The older boy observed, "I should share with you what I know."
That was Neji's tip off that Lightning-based attacks were in store. He had to avoid one last kunai aimed for his head before fleeing what he could only assume were shock-Jyukken strikes. Neji evaded and danced, straining himself, knowing he was too tired to continue. He closed some of the tenketsu in Hikune's arms in an act of futility before his cousin rotated, spinning with a surge of lightning-infused chakra. The bolts struck him with searing hot pain and sapped the last of his willpower.
Neji landed on his back in the dust of the courtyard. Hikune kept his distance, supposing he had delivered proper punishment within ten minutes.
Neji stared up at the sky overhead, blue and empty, and had to mentally command himself to inhale. It was just about the same excruciation he experienced in Katabami, being struck by lightning on numerous occasions. He held still and tried to find any ounce of strength that would bring him to his feet again. There was none.
"I think that now you're feeling…a bit of what I feel." Hikune told him, approaching slowly.
Neji doubted it. He had never personally experienced heartbreak or rejection, but he estimated it was not on par with this level of physical pain. He just refused to entertain the idea that it was possible. Hikune, reciprocally, had probably never felt enough pain to understand that.
While his brain made gradual contact with his legs, Neji beheld a shadow leaping over him, silhouetted by the sun above, and then swoop down on Hikune. There were brief sounds of a struggle and what was unmistakably Jyukken.
He came to a sitting position and could see Hinata had arrived and subdued Hikune. Earlier, Neji had thought it was odd that no one had seen their skirmish. Hinata obviously had, and she had also realized it was not a friendly contest. She did not receive any resistance from Hikune while she sealed his chakra points. The older boy sat on his knees in the dust, knowing he could not continue his tantrum with Hinata present.
Hinata rushed over to Neji and helped him sit up fully, running a healing hand over the angry bruise on his face, "Neji-niisan, are you alright?"
He nodded dizzily. She set to work healing the other injuries and burns he had sustained, finding tell-tale and discolored dots along his arms where his tenketsu had been shut. The momentary peace ended when several members of the Branch House rushed by, accompanying Hiashi and Hinata's former babysitter, Ko, into the yard. They surrounded Hikune and demanded an explanation. Neji heard fragments of the exchange before watching his uncle settle an appalled gaze on the older boy. Branch members hoisted Hikune up and dragged him back into the Main House while he protested. Ko supervised the arrest.
Hiashi looked back to his daughter, "Hinata…"
"Help Neji and then bring him inside. I need to speak with you both."
She nodded. Hiashi followed after the sobbing captive in silence.
Hinata took both of Neji's hands and hoisted with all of her might, pulling him back to his unwilling feet. She healed him a bit more before he asked her to stop. Remorse and rage flicked through Neji's expression as he reflected on what Hikune had told him.
"What happened?" Hinata asked softly.
He was quiet for a moment, thinking. Neji was still trying to make sense of it, distinguishing his imagination from reality.
"Hinata-sama…" His voice was low, "How often has Tenten stopped by?"
"To see me?"
"Very often, I suppose." Hinata estimated, "She and I spend time, but then I was under the impression she went looking for you afterwards."
"I've met with her here only on a few occasions." Neji pointed out.
Hinata pursed her lips, contemplating it. She and her cousin walked slowly back to the veranda of the house. Hinata was getting an idea of why Hikune was upset, "Did she visit Hikune frequently?"
"If she did she hasn't told me about it."
Hinata blanched, "Was he…upset about something? About Onee-san?"
Neji stopped at the doorway. He didn't want to go inside. He didn't want to confront what had occurred.
"I'm sure he was." Neji determined, "I will try to explain it to you and to Hiashi-sama," He stepped inside grudgingly, "But…I don't want to believe any of it."
Chapter 18- Temperance