Kirigakure's Shore -- Introduction
Hi, thanks for visiting. This fic is a sequel to The Broken Tool, but you're not going to be lost (other than a few details) if this is the story you start with. For cast and characters, the main protagonist is Haku, who survived the end of the Wave Country arc from the manga/anime. A number of canon characters will be involved too along with OCs from The Broken Tool as well as some new ones.
Again, I'd like to thank everyone who supported me, reviewed, faved and C2ed my earlier stories.
For Kirigakure's Shore, I try to stick pretty close to the manga/anime though I'm going to stray from it when I want to or when I don't know any better. Um, just being honest. I'm a Naruto fan, but no PhD. Just to warn you before you get too far into this, I have MANY stylistic weaknesses like being too wordy, getting carried away with commas, picking story subjects that only a very few people are interested in, posting chapters that are way too long, overdone plots and fight scenes. I'll try to control myself a little better this time, but no promises...especially with the fight scenes ;). Also, I'm not into using the Japanese honorifics, with the 'san', 'sama', 'chan', and all that, or clan name first, given name second, that I've noticed most Naruto fanfiction authors follow. So I hope that doesn't bother you too much either.
This story takes place after the Sasuke-retrieval arc and before the time-skip, and is going to be broken into a series of multi-chapter parts which I'll update here in the forward and in my profile as it goes along. Of course, if you LIKE surprises then skip down to where the story starts!
Part 1, Mission to Konoha -- Haku, now a constable in the Land of Waves, is dispatched to the Hidden Leaf Village to return some very disturbing stolen property. Though the unplanned trip gives him the opportunity to reconcile with Sakura and Kakashi, the former Demon's Apprentice finds himself the target for a group of ninja intent on killing him. If Kiba, who's been assigned by the Hokage to protect him, fails, then the genin's career as a leaf-ninja is over.
Part 2, Snow Angels -- An artifact left at Haku's grave leads the young ninja in a search for the secrets to his ancestry. Wave Country's building boom continues apace, but what exactly is it becoming? Inari and Chuuya continue their training, meanwhile Naruto discovers that Haku is alive.
Part 3, Complicated Shadows -- While a powerful ninja lord from Kirigakure visits The Land of Waves, the patriarchs of Water Country's bloodline clans search out Haku.
Part 4, The Jinchuuriki's Mandate -- Haku and Naruto are on a journey to stop the Hidden Mist Village from being destroyed. But vengeful ninjas possessing forgotten powers turn out to be the least of what the two must face as present-day ambitions collide with Kirigakure's dark past.
Sorry for so much disclaimer/explanation and set-up. Having said all that, I hope you like this fic. Thanks!
Birds sang and a soft breeze whispered through the trees as the solitary figure made his way unhurriedly along the Fire Country road. It had been quite a long walk from the coast, a passage of several days, yet the traveler was not at all tired.
A curious wren alighted on the slender, black-haired teenager's shoulder at which he smiled then spared his winged visitor a warm glance with expressive, grey eyes. He always had had a way with animals. They seemed to recognize his gentle spirit which was so often at odds with his avocation and the implications of the uniform he now wore – the sea-blue fatigues, grey, high-collared armored jacket, and the hitai-ate of a shinobi from the Village Hidden in the Mist. The one distinction in the young man's apparel was the singular patch worn on his right shoulder, a stylized wave modeled after Hokusai's painting 'The Great Wave off Kanagawa,' that indicated he was part of the Mist's forces occupying neighboring Wave Country.
Not that he really was anyway, a mist-ninja. He'd never attended Kirigakure's Martial School, let alone graduated…although his master, the man who'd trained him, Zabuza Momochi, the Demon of the Hidden Mist and one of the Seven Legendary Shinobi Swordsmen, had been preeminent among its graduates.
This is a bad sign, mused Haku, who stopped, adjusted the shoulder strap on the satchel he carried then drew a sip of water from his canteen. Here I am, deep into the Land of Fire's interior, plainly a ninja from a rival country's village, and yet no leaf-shinobi has even showed up to question me.
Haku had heard reports that the Hidden Leaf Village had been attacked by the combined forces of the Sound and Sand Villages. But being that the stories passed between the sailors, traders and travelers through Wave Country tended to be rich in drama but highly-questionable as far as accuracy, the ninja had had to patiently sort through the exaggerations, fabrications and fish-tales until he eventually came to understand (much to his relief) that the invasion had been repelled.
This lack of sentries however, bothered him, reviving fears that Konohagakure no Sato had been hurt much worse than the rumors indicated.
Far worse for Haku than the Hidden Leaf Village's being visited by war, burned the idea that Naruto and the others had been hurt or maybe had not even survived.
Careful, Haku warned himself. You have a mission to fulfill. And you KNOW how bad things can get when you let your personal feelings interfere.
He frowned and looked again down at his satchel then sighed, contemplating its baleful contents.
Maybe it's not the Leaf's fault, the ninja offered himself half-heartedly. The world is a dangerous place and Konoha has many enemies, as the Sound and Sand's attack proves. And after all, you can hardly blame THEM for not measuring up to YOUR childish standards.
Naiveté, Zabuza's sole apprentice knew from painful experience, was his weakness – a flaw he always seemed to run into. Like the proverbial brick wall, it hurt every time and there was no getting used to it.
Remembering that and resigning himself to this mission's completion, Haku thought back to the conversation that had sent him here of all places…alone on the road to the Village Hidden in the Leaves.
"Do you remember," Haku's superior, the Lady Magistrate, Orimi Hirai, ventured obliquely once the paneled doors to her office were closed, "that Yotsu gang cell you and your team took down?"
The young ninja gave the woman a blank look. It was two days ago, he wondered, of course he remembered.
Lady Hirai, arrayed in her exquisite magisterial robes and tasseled cap, awaited a response from where she sat behind her desk, smiling tightly with hands steepled. Just before her rested two sleek canisters, each about the size of a sugar-shaker, one black and one white. Far from being the normal sort of contraband you'd expect from a group of smugglers, these artifacts exuded the disquieting and exotic technologies found only in the Land of Snow.
"Yes, ma'am," answered Haku cautiously, knowing the mist-ANBU would get around to saying what she had to say in due course.
"I finished questioning the Yotsu under-boss, Fong. You'll never guess what he had to say about these."
Haku's brow furrowed. He was in the Magistrate's offices alone for this consultation, which was unusual. The woman was, of course, well aware of Haku's true identity, his training under Zabuza and even his kekkei-genkai. Being that her last assignment was to track down and kill him, she knew his abilities better probably than anyone.
"You're right," the young ninja admitted, suppressing agitation. "I doubt I could."
Orimi told him then in a few terse sentences.
Immediately, Haku's expression tensed and he turned away, feeling sick, sad, even a little betrayed.
"Heh!" his boss chortled, utterly without sympathy, then laid it on in a voice thick with sarcasm: "Oh, I'm so sorry, Constable Okame. Did you think Konohagakure no Sato was ABOVE such things; that only bad, evil and wicked Villages like Kirigakure would ever stoop to such a loathsome and despicable level?"
Haku straightened, stung by her cruel tone, drew a breath and did his best to compose himself. "I…apologize for my reaction, Lady Hirai," he said and bowed to her. "It was unprofessional."
Orimi stared at him then waved it off. "Forget it," she offered dismissively, then resumed, "So, tell me what you think we should do."
The constable struggled for a moment, still reeling from her revelation. "W-well," he began in a shaky voice. "Protocol dictates that you pass these…materials, up the chain of command. As unusual as this --." Haku stopped as he saw the Magistrate raise her hand and look away with a sour expression on her face.
"If I wanted a by-the-book answer I wouldn't have asked YOU, Haku," Lady Hirai informed him. "I've got a whole squad of mist-chunin who could have told me that only they wouldn't have had to tell me that because I already f-cking KNOW that!" The woman sniffed, put her hands on her desk then reiterated: "now, what do you REALLY think?"
Haku closed his eyes, only now apprehending the strain the arrival of such unpleasantness was taking on Orimi who'd only been Magistrate of Wave Country for a few months. Being good at her job was a matter of intense pride for her and considering the favors she'd done for him, like telling Kirigakure he was dead, Haku felt that his best advice was the very least he could give her in return.
The young constable shifted uneasily as he glanced again toward the canisters. Just the sight of them made him queasy. "Putting something like this in the Mizukage's hands would be disastrous," he assessed bluntly. "Given the ninja lord's present state of mind, there's no telling how he would react."
"Keeping them here, likewise, is impossible. Inevitably, they will be discovered."
Orimi nodded gravely. "That's what I thought. I think we should destroy the canisters and pretend we never saw them."
Haku shook his head. "No, my Lady, that won't be enough."
The woman eyed her underling curiously.
"I think we need to return them."
"What?!" the Magistrate gasped. "You've GOTTA be kidding, right?" She stared again at Haku who'd learned his lesson and waited this time with soldier-like discipline. "Ok," granted Orimi, "go on and explain."
"The Hidden Leaf Village's ANBU will undoubtedly track whoever stole these materials from them in the first place, to the Yotsu gang, to here. The Yotsus are smart, but since WE were able to discover them it's plain that they're not THAT smart." Haku paused then to let his words catch up with his thoughts. "If we keep the canisters, I think it's safe to assume that the Leaf ANBU will go to extraordinary lengths to get them back. Even if we did destroy them it's unlikely their ninja will believe them to be destroyed. In fact, quite the opposite: they would be compelled to assume the worst."
Haku's eyes shifted toward the bay window with its view of the sunlit Great Naruto Bridge beyond, then to the small alter that hung on the wall with its smoldering incense and framed photograph of a familiar, heavy-set ninja wearing black, thick-framed glasses. "I think probably they would attempt to capture you, me, Daigo, Chizuzu, Utako, Under-boss Fong, and everyone else who might know anything and subject us to the most effective and intense forms of interrogation they possessed." The ninja's eyes flickered, knowing that Orimi, an ANBU herself, would have conducted just such a response. "We could fight them, of course, but...," he let the words trail away. Both knew the perils associated with such a strategy.
Lady Hirai nodded. "Yes, I see," she allowed, then followed Haku's line of thought, "but if, as you suggest, we returned their stolen property then they'll know for sure and won't have any reason to pursue action against us." Her dark eyes looked up piercingly from her round face. "They'll also know that their 'little secret's' out."
The young ninja shut his eyes and tried to mitigate his disgust. "That part can't be helped."
The woman frowned. "And what about the Mizukage?" she asked with an absent gesture. "He's bound to learn of this."
Haku worried his lip and thought for a moment. "Put it in your report to him that the canisters were damaged in the raid and their contents spoiled. Having no conclusive physical evidence and only the statements of a criminal to support the idea that Konoha has violated the treaty between Elemental Countries, you then ordered what was left returned to the Hidden Leaf Village to gage their reaction. This was also a pretext to gather first hand intelligence on conditions within the Village since the Sand and Sound's attack."
The kunoichi grinned at Haku's free-balling then broke out in dubious laughter. "That's some serious bullsh-t." Her expression flickered shrewdly. "I'm not sure I'd believe that if I was the Mizukage."
"It's risky," conceded Haku. "But the way I figure it, it's better if the ninja lord doubts your judgment rather than your trustworthiness. If he thought you'd lied, he'd certainly have you killed." Like if he found out that I'm still alive, the ninja thought but let go unsaid. That was already understood between them.
Lady Hirai nodded then blew out a breath. "There's no good answer to this, but I guess that's as good as it's gonna get." She fell silent, burned with intense thought for a moment then slammed her hand on the desk and blurted: "DAMN Konoha! Damn the Yotsus too for bringing this CRAP here. They just HAD to bring it here! Ok," the mist-ninja decided once she was finished venting, "you've convinced me. You leave at once for the Hidden Leaf Village."
"ME?!" piped Haku who held up his hands. "Uh, Lady Hirai, I didn't mean to --."
"Volunteer?" she finished for him. "Well, guess what, you just did."
"Please reconsider," Haku prevailed on her. "There are ninja there who know who I really am."
"Who else can I send?" was Orimi's retort. "Under my command I got about a dozen, twitchy-ass, screw-faced, pre-reformation chunin who kill first and don't ask questions at all, and then I got like two companies of pre-adolescent genin CHILDREN. I sure as hell can't send any of them and I'm NOT going myself so that, my dear constable, my dear Demon's Apprentice, leaves YOU."
"This is STUPID," whined the boy from where he hunkered in the shade at the base of a thickly-trunked tree. "What are we DOING here?"
The man he addressed, a tall, broad-shouldered figure with long, somewhat shaggy hair the color of ashes despite his robust middle-age, stood with arms crossed as he contemplated in silence the two graves before him – one marked by a massive sword embedded into the earth, the other by a simple wooden cross. The contrast between the two improvised tombstones struck an apt parallel with the deceased they represented.
A girl in plain white robes knelt reverently at the foot of the second grave, with tears pouring from her distraught, fair-complexioned face. The fourth of their number, who stood downwind several paces away, stifled a sneeze then loudly blew his nose while the fifth kept lookout.
The boy, small-framed even for his age, played with a curl of lusterless, lavender hair then blew out a breath. "Oh, COME ON!" he grumbled, bored to the point of anger. "There aren't even any BODIES here! Momo' got sucked up by the ANBU and Haku wasn't dead at all. Get it? NO bodies, no body, nobody home!"
"Hush, Gennosuke," the man commanded in a mellow-but-regal baritone.
"But Tohma-sensei!" the boy continued, frowned, growled, then turned away as he crossed his thin arms in disgust.
Tohma ignored him and cast a concerned look down at the pale, grief-stricken teenager near his feet. "I'm so sorry, Sakiko," he offered in a comforting, paternal tone. "I didn't think coming here would affect you so deeply."
The silver-haired girl sobbed miserably and wiped under her luminous, emerald eyes with a handkerchief. "H-h-he," she burbled mournfully in a voice sweet with poetic accents, "was so brave…and beautiful."
"WHAT!" squawked Gennosuke. "What are you talking about; you never even MET the guy. And what makes you think he was so beautiful? He always wore that stupid, stolen ANBU mask; he coulda been hiding a GOAT FACE under there or something! Plus, his boss was the freakin' Demon of the Hidden Mist! YOU know what he did to your clan!"
"Enough!" their leader cried at which Gennosuke, chastened, fell silent. "Haku was our brother in all but flesh and deserves to be remembered with respect. Truly great men lead by example. He and Zabuza certainly did that."
"Huh," Gennosuke spat glumly, having already forgotten his elder's rebuke. "If they were so 'great' how come they couldn't kill the Mizukage?"
"That their revolt failed is entirely beside the point," Tohma illuminated in a serious tone. "They were magnificent in their efforts. If you don't see significance in their actions, then there is truly no hope for you. Besides, there's no fighting destiny. It wasn't meant to be, that's all. In the fullness of time Zabuza and Haku both will be remembered as heroes -- those who set the stage for Kirigakure's downfall."
The man looked up then closed his eyes. "I remember when we learned of Zabuza's coup d'etat. It was like…like a flash of lightning at night during a fierce storm when everything suddenly lights up bright as day. Think about it – who should it be who overthrows the Mizukage but one of his own most fearsome henchmen. And who should it be at Zabuza's right hand but one of US, a lost progeny of the Mist's blood-gifted clans thought to be dead and forgotten." Tohma looked at his companions and shrugged. "Just like lightning though it was over with in an instant…and all was dark again. But the boldness of those two gave me something of an epiphany. It was time for us to stop living in impotent secrecy. It was time to reclaim our birthright, our heritage. It was time to act."
The forth man, silent thus far, stiffened suddenly. The grey cloaked and hooded figure's back arched as he tilted his head back, tilted it higher, then erupted with a sloppy sneeze so profound that his legs buckled when he was through and he teetered almost drunkenly.
The others all fell silent, even Sakiko who broke from her grief, and stared worriedly in the man's direction.
"Sh-t," Gennosuke gasped, eyes wide. "Why the hell did we have to bring HIM? He's GROSS…and scary!"
"Quiet, Gennosuke," snapped Tohma. "Have you no shame? Our brother Noriyasu there is the lynch-pin of all our hopes. Until the moment of vile Kirigakure's destruction, I shall not let him from my sight. Lord Tsujita?" he called to the man, his voice tinged with concern. "Are you all right?"
Noriyasu Tsujita groaned, straightened his spectacles, then gestured weakly with a gloved hand that he needed a minute. Chestnut hair flecked with white hung over the man's drawn face and sad, brown, basset-hound eyes. From one nostril a thin trail of glistening mucous leaked.
Tohma straightened. A line of muscular tension quivered across his jaw. "If you believe you're unable to hold yourself together it's important you let me know now." Turning away, the shaggy-haired man shook his head then muttered direly to himself, "It's my fault. I may have pushed him too far in the search for just the right combination of strains." Looking toward the fifth of their company, Tohma called to him. "Hideo!"
The distant figure turned from his vigil and slouched slowly toward his master revealing, as he approached, a pudgy young man in brown robes but his expression was slack and his flesh ghastly pale.
"Please assist brother Noriyasu," ordered Tohma, but before Hideo could go to him Noriyasu's hand moved, his fingers forming the 'OK' sign.
The group's leader seemed to relax.
"Are you quite sure he's dead, Lord Nikai?" Noriyasu rasped loudly as if to change the subject. "He was alive the first time."
The taller man raised an eyebrow. "Haku?" clarified Tohma, "a sensible question, given his history. But the ANBU have both Haku's and Zabuza's remains back in the Hidden Mist Village along with an after-action report from Toru the Akita's team testifying to the two fugitives' deaths. So yes, regrettably, there's little doubt that the young master is dead."
"It was a terrible battle. That's what everyone says," Sakiko added fervently, clutching her delicate hands to her chest in fond remembrance of a person she'd never known. "Haku fought them, right to the end -- a true shinobi."
While Gennosuke made a mocking face and rolled his rust-hued eyes up into his head, Tohma smiled sadly and nodded. "I share your grief, 'little sister'. He died at the hands of leaf-ninja, or so it seemed, and then again fighting the Mist. No one should have to die twice…especially alone and un-mourned like so many of us have."
Sakiko took a calming breath then prepared an offering of fruit and incense she'd brought with her to leave at the head of Haku's grave.
"Oh, how marvelous," her elder remarked appreciatively, noting what the girl's offerings rested upon – a saucer of antique porcelain.
The chipped edge of the small plate was scalloped, gilded, and inlaid with a pattern of blue and gold scales, faded and weathered with age, while the center featured an exquisitely rendered crane and carp. The artifact was crisscrossed with jagged hairline cracks so faint you could hardly see that they were there at all unless you looked closely; that's how carefully it had been glued back together.
"A very touching and appropriate gesture, Sakiko," continued Tohma, substantially impressed at her propriety. "I can see you put a lot of thought into this." The man raised an eyebrow then inquired despite himself, "Did…did you get that saucer from your brother?"
The silver-haired girl nodded.
"Is he still…?"
"Yes," she reported in a hollow voice as she lit the incense. "Tensai still refuses to come home. He doesn't even listen when I talk about it." The girl's thin lips pressed into a line as she struggled with the emotions the subject evoked. "He doesn't even answer to his own name anymore…just 'Obake'." (ghost)
"I wish there was more I could do to help," said Tohma. "I know his absence pains you."
Sakiko shook her head where she knelt. "I just don't understand why he left us, why he chooses to…to lose himself like that among the trees and the ruins." The pale figure in white blushed with anger as her eyes filled with a different kind of tears.
"It's not that he doesn't care about us, Sakiko, or that he's abandoned you. It's just that…where you see ruins he sees the beauty of what's been lost," the grey-haired man endeavored to explain. "You see him as in the grip of some sort of mania but he sees himself as a guardian, the custodian of a sacred world forever slipping into the seas of time." Her elder patted her shoulder in an attempt to reassure. "Although I too wish deeply that he would return to our enclaves, I cannot fault your brother for what's in his heart.
"If heaven is with us," Tohma added, "perhaps a semblance of that beauty can flourish once more when our clans are restored. Perhaps then, Tensai will rejoin us."
"Do you think so?" the girl looked up at him.
"I can't promise anything. But once the Village Hidden in the Mist has been destroyed then our future will be a place fertile with glorious possibilities. That is why we must strive toward that end." Tohma turned to address the group. "For far too long, Kirigakure and the Land of Water have gone unpunished for the decimation of our once-noble clans. Look at us, their pitiable remnants and descendants, living as outcasts, hunted to near-extinction." He turned back to Haku's grave, sighed desolately then gestured toward it. "In some cases…to complete extinction.
"My friends, my brothers and sisters," he announced, "in only a few short weeks, we shall be ready to take vengeance. When it is complete, the Village Hidden in the Mist will be no more than a quiet city of bones -- a place where winds whistle through broken panes, weeds spring from cracked pavements there where no pilgrim stops to pause…and only carrion crows answer the twilight."
Though Hideo abstained, the remaining four of those assembled all looked toward one another at the same time and their diverse faces galvanized with expressions of solidarity.
"Gaaa-aa-achoo!" sneezed Lord Tsujita who brought a hankie to his nose. "'Scuse me."
Haku let out a breath then hung his head.
The timing of this mission couldn't BE any worse! He was just starting to feel at home with the Tezukas, more like one of the family than just some guy who paid rent to live in their basement. Mari, of course, hated it when he was away and wasn't at all shy about letting him know how she felt about all this 'ninja sh-t'.
How he missed her even though it had only been a few days. It was the longest they'd been apart since they'd met! Yet as much as Haku missed her there was something greatly encouraging, almost exhilarating, about having someone special to go back to, and a real home too -- a place to return where everything was familiar and peoples' faces lit with smiles when they saw yours.
Besides having to leave his girlfriend behind (and it still seemed so strange to him to use that word) there were his students, Chuuya and Inari. Those two were really coming along and developing a good-natured rivalry that pushed both boys to improve. Just up and leaving them now for who-knows-how-long was a terrible interruption in their shinobi training.
Still…Haku was intensely curious about what had happened in Konoha, and if Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke were still alive. Not knowing was really eating away at him, even more than the young ninja would have thought, and it didn't seem like he'd be able to clear the worry from his mind until he found out for sure what had become of them. These sentiments were foolish, he knew, and he knew too that Zabuza would have laughed at him for having them.
Haku remembered how he'd written a letter to Naruto but never got a reply. The teenager vacillated on whether that meant that Naruto was dead…or only that Haku's concern for him was far from mutual. Considering their history, the black-haired shinobi would hardly be surprised if that was the case.
All four of those leaf-ninja he'd met all those months ago, but Naruto especially, had lead Haku to believe that their Village was different from the others. They hadn't been like the other ninja he'd met who tended toward cruelty, selfishness and, in some cases, insanity, but quite the opposite! They'd been principled, kind, and courageous enough to make another's cause their own.
But all those great qualities that Haku had transferred to the leaf-ninjas' home and masters didn't exactly square with the nature of the cargo he carried now and what the sheer fact of its existence implied.
A mistake? Haku tried again to rationalize.
Or maybe Orimi had it wrong. Neither of us knows for sure what's in those canisters. Just because some…some smuggler told Orimi something under interrogation doesn't mean it's true.
But as much as Haku was disposed to believe only the best about Konohagakure no Sato, and as fond as he still was of Naruto Uzumaki and the rest, not even he was buying the arguments.
It's just another mission! the ninja declared furiously to himself, imposing a temporary end to this over-analysis, embarrassed at how needlessly complicated and personal he sometimes made things. Drop off the canisters and get back home…the sooner the better. That's all you really have to do.
Shaking his head at these ugly and overlapping complications, Haku moved on. There'd be plenty of time to sort things out and come to terms with them once he got back home.
Fighting his thoughts, the ninja had only gone about another mile or so down the tree bounded road when he looked up in puzzlement at the sight of a pair of boots rising, soles up, from over the crest of the hill before him. The boots, it turned out, were attached to long, skinny legs, as bright and green as a frog's, which, as they negotiated the hilltop, joined into an equally green, body-suited body of a young man who walked on his hands.
What in the world? wondered Haku who drew to a stop as the stranger approached, back first, head looking down and back the way he'd come.
The hand-walker's hands and forearms were wrapped in white bandages while, around his lean waist, he wore a sash along with some pouches and a holster for kunai.
"Good morning," ventured Haku with understated, uncertain nonchalance.
The stranger stopped with as much natural ease as if he walked on his feet. "Oh! Uh, good morning, ma'am!" he greeted cheerily without turning to look. "You're probably wondering what I'm doing."
"Well," the young constable began, wincing, but not totally surprised that his low, lilting voice would once again be taken as a girl's, "if I had to guess, I'd say you're training hard to become a stronger shinobi."
"AH!" the newcomer piped delightedly. "That is right! I would have put it exactly that way myself!"
The shinobi from the Land of Waves let out a breath. Remembering how Naruto had trained so hard and so late into the night that he'd fallen asleep outside in the forest, what other answer could there possibly be for THIS leaf-ninja?
"You needn't be surprised; after all, I'm a ninja too," Haku quipped then added pointedly: "Oh, and by the way…I'm a boy."
The hand-walker let his legs down then jackknifed upright with gymnastic grace -- quick, smooth and powerful. Haku's languid eyes startled immediately at the leaf-ninja's odd features – glossy, jet black bowl-cut hair, large, intense round eyes and the thickest, blackest eyebrows he'd ever seen.
"Uhn!" the newcomer gasped at him in surprise, "a ninja of the Hidden Mist!" His expression narrowed seriously. "Who are you?" his challenging voice trumpeted, his stance straight and martial, "and what is your business in the Land of Fire?!"
Although Haku knew he shouldn't doubt the leaf-ninja's capability, it was almost impossible to take him seriously with a face like that. "Please, 'older-brother', take it easy," the teenager stammered and held up his hands. "I'm Ha--, uh, Hiroo Okame, a constable from the Mist Village garrison stationed in the Land of Waves. I have urgent business with your Hokage."
The young leaf-ninja puffed his chest and jacked a thumb towards it. "I am Rock Lee, Konoha's Green Beast! And unless you have permission to travel in this land, I must disarm you at once and take you into custody."
"Disarm me?" Haku repeated in soft, mystified tone, then looked down at his constable's jutte, a tapered metal baton with a hooked flange close to the hilt, which he now wore habitually at his belt. "What…this?"
Lee frowned, nodding firmly.
Rolling his eyes with disbelief, the trespassing ninja withdrew the weapon and tossed it over.
The green ninja snatched it expertly from the air. "Is that all?"
"Um," Haku admitted, eyes flickering, "not exactly." He peeled open the top of his vest then, revealing hidden quivers of dozens and dozens of gleaming, razor-pointed senbon.
Lee gawked and startled, his expression making his face seem even funnier.
"Please, Mr. Lee," said Haku, holding back a chuckle and trying desperately to seem diplomatic. "I'm traveling alone, and there are many would go to great lengths to take what I'm carrying with me. It's only natural that I should be armed."
"Keep your needles then," the emerald figure allowed, "but you must still come with me."
"As you wish," Haku appeared to relent, being that this strange genin seemed intent on taking him to the very place he wished to go.
Lee frowned then gestured curtly for Haku to lead the way, at which the 'captive' ninja gave him a look but otherwise held his peace.
"So…Mr. Lee," offered Haku after they started walking. "Is the Hidden Leaf Village far?"
Lee, trailing him, remained silent.
"I don't think that information is secret."
"It is about ten miles," his custodian reported, although with palpable reluctance.
The ninja from Wave Country's eyes went wide. "You," blurted Haku, "you walked ten miles on your HANDS?"
"Yes," Lee affirmed, "I have only recently been healed from an injury I sustained during the chunin exams so my training is not up to my usual levels of intensity. Hmm, I should not have told you that."
Zabuza's former student again rolled his eyes.
The two continued on in a tense, awkward silence; Haku leading, Lee following.
"Tell me," asked Rock Lee after a time as curiosity apparently got the better of him, "what is it you wish to see the Hokage about?"
Haku half-considered a sour response but made an effort to be cordial. "We happened to recover some property that was stolen from your village," the ninja explained, relating a version of the truth. "I am simply returning it."
"That is all?"
Haku shrugged. "Basically," the young ninja said then added, turning toward a general sort of question he thought his minder wouldn't mind, "What's he like, by the way, your Hokage?"
Rock Lee remained quiet long enough to make Haku reconsider what he'd asked. The constable looked up the road ahead but listened keenly to his follower's steady footfalls.
"She," the leaf-ninja's voice clarified. "Lady Tsunade is our fifth Hokage."
Haku's mouth fell open as he pieced together the rest from what Lee had left unsaid -- The Third Hokage, Sarutobi, was dead then, killed probably during the invasion. "I'm sorry, I didn't know," the former fugitive offered. "What's she like, if I may ask?"
"Strong," Lee opined at once, then brightened. "And her skills in the medical arts are truly amazing! It was she who healed me when no one else was able to."
"A medical ninja, huh?" Suspicions tugged at Haku as the teenager took tighter hold of his satchel with its disturbing contents. "So what kind of woman is she?" he inquired, though the answer was a great deal more important to him than he let on.
Again Lee fell silent.
"She is," he reported awkwardly, "uh, very straight-forward…and certainly capable and confident."
Haku slowed his pace and frowned. "The Sandaime Hokage was a judicious man by reputation. I had hoped to meet with him. I've never heard of Tsunade, so I'm wondering if it's likely I'll leave her presence intact."
"Of course!" Lee bristled defensively. "If your mission is what you say it is, then you will be treated as a guest."
The young man once known as The Demon's Apprentice considered the leaf-ninja's tone -- high, energetic, and truly incapable of deceit…at least as far as he was able to tell. "I suppose I'll take your word for it," he resolved then resumed his pace.
The two walked on a bit further; the atmosphere stiflingly un-companionable. At last Haku heard his green warder ask: "I have never been to Kirigakure no Sato, Constable. What is it like?"
Haku's chin rose as the question stirred memories. He hadn't really expected Lee to ask that. "Oh, well," he began slowly, "it's been awhile since I was there, over two-and-a-half years, and I have few fond memories of the place. But what it's like – it's dark and dim for much of the year, often shrouded in mist just like its name suggests. It's old too and quiet, with ornate and ancient buildings bounded by murky canals that reflect the facades like black mirrors. The Village Hidden in the Mist has a haunting beauty, a lonely, eternal quality, but it is not a happy place." Haku could feel himself getting pulled into the past, when Zabuza Momochi was his entire world, and felt that he was probably telling Rock Lee much more than he really cared to know. Suspecting that, he quickly concluded: "I sometimes think that too many terrible things have happened there and too much blood spilled for it to ever be."
The young constable heard Lee hum thoughtfully behind him. "Konoha is nothing like that," he offered. It was not criticism but a statement of fact as he saw it. "We have only a few grand buildings, the stadium, the Hokage's tower; the rest are spare and practical. But there are people everywhere, going here and there, just simply living their lives!"
Haku nodded. That much was as he'd always thought. Whether he could trust the leaf-genin's masters in Konohagakure remained unclear, but it seemed so far that he could trust Lee.
"Mr. Lee," the ninja ventured, stopped then turned toward his still-suspicious guardian, "if you wish to talk more would it be too much to ask that you walk at my side?"
Rock Lee stopped and squinted at him doubtfully.
"Really, Mr. Lee," the teenager from Wave Country chided, "as 'strong and manly' as you obviously are, do you really think I could subdue you so easily that you need me to walk with my back to you?" Haku mugged a careful grin. Just like with Naruto, the ninja would leave it up to Lee to decide if he was joking or not.
The genin's thick eyebrows furrowed. "I suppose not," he answered after a moment, then moved alongside Haku. "If you intended harm, you could easily have avoided or attacked me before."
Haku nodded and gave him an obliging smile. "Actually, it's fortunate I ran into you. In your company I'm less likely to be killed by your patrols." The ninja looked up and squinted. "And it looks like we'll be putting that to the test."
Barely a minute later, five leaf-ninja appeared like ghosts from the foliage and had them surrounded. The leaf-shinobi waited a few moments. Whether that was to see how either of the two would react or just for theatrical effect, it was hard to tell.
"You're not trying to do OUR job too, are you Lee?" asked their leader at last. He was older than both Haku and Lee, and wore his hitai-ate in a blue bandana that covered the top of his head. Canting his head toward the stranger, the chunin asked: "So, who's this?"
"He says his name is Hiroo Okame," Lee reported, "a constable from the Mist's Wave Country garrison, and that he has come here to return some stolen property to Lady Tsunade."
Another chunin, with bushier black hair sprouting over the edges of his hitai-ate and a bandage crossing over the bridge of his nose, glared askance at Haku then down at his satchel. "You've sure come a long way just for that," the leaf-ninja offered doubtfully. "But you got to know that there's no way we're just going to let you walk up to the Hokage, especially when you could have practically anything hidden in that bag."
"Mr. Hagame is right," said Rock Lee to Haku, though in a more genial tone. "None of us can take her safety lightly."
Haku nodded coolly and noted how the ninja were preparing themselves. The teenager doubted they'd go so far as to attack him without serious provocation, but he could hardly be sure. Just as pressing on his mind was what would happen to his satchel and its dreadful contents if he turned them over…or if he were killed.
"Your reasons make perfect sense," the young ninja conceded. "However, my mission is to return these items to the Hokage herself. If handing them over to anyone else would do, I would have been more than happy to give them to Mr. Lee."
"Given the circumstances," said the leaf-ninjas' leader, slightly ominously, "you might want to consider being flexible. WE'LL take what you got, and if it turns out to be something important, we'll make sure the Hokage knows."
Haku shook his head firmly. Well-trained portions of mind were now plotting positions and trajectories, and judging which jutsu would be most effective given the number of adversaries and the terrain. The fact that Rock Lee had not backed away from him so much as an inch reaffirmed in his mind that his escort was an expert fighter and would try to take him on at close range.
"I'm only a visitor in your land," Haku ventured, "so I mean to abide by your rules as far as I can. Please try to understand -- the consequences would be great if these materials fell into the wrong hands."
The chunin's eyes narrowed with disbelief at having his non-negotiable terms contested. "Are you mental or something? I told you, we'll inform the Hokage about what you're carrying if it turns out to be what you say. But you're NOT going a step farther until we check you out and especially what's in that bag."
Haku frowned. Of course with a recent invasion burning in their minds it made sense for the leaf-shinobi to be suspicious of rival ninja bearing gifts. Still, relinquishing something like this to these ninja was completely unacceptable. As he considered his options, Haku could swear he felt the temperature drop.
Down boy, Zabuza's former student warned himself as he reined in his kekkei-genkai. Getting into a fight here is utterly senseless. "If I may suggest a possible solution?" said Haku in an agreeable voice.
The man with the bandana shrugged. "Go ahead."
"There's a jonin kunoichi named Anko Mitarashi who knows my commander, Lady Orimi. She visited Wave Country not too long ago and I think she'll be able to vouch for me."
The leaf-ninjas exchanged curious looks but then agreed. "Ok, Okame," said Hagame, "we'll go get her. But she's really, REALLY gonna be pissed-off if you're messing around."
With the matter postponed for now and five pairs of eyes watching his every move, Haku moved slowly to the side of the road then sat down and rested his back against a tree to wait.
The leaf-ninja patrol huddled up and discussed a game-plan for a few moments then one of their number rushed off, presumably to find Anko. Three of the remaining sentries then took cautious positions around the trespasser while the fourth made hand signs and vanished.
Haku breathed a sigh of relief, took up his canteen then looked up in surprise as Rock Lee joined him. Haku thought it strange, the smile on the genin's face as he curled in his green legs and sat down.
"I am glad that you found a way so that we would not have to fight, Mr. Okame," Lee proclaimed, his positive energy breaking the residual tension.
Haku raised an eyebrow then smiled. "Are you relieved…or disappointed?"
"Both," admitted the leaf-ninja guiltlessly. "Fighting for no reason is not part of my nindo. But still, I am curious as to what skills you possess. It is the funniest thing," Lee chimed in a puzzled voice, black eyebrows knitting, "although you do not look at all fearsome, when it seemed like we were going to fight…I actually felt a chill! That has never happened before."
The long-haired ninja looked away as he absently scratched his cheek. "Oh, well," he offered, "nerves affect people in different ways."
"Not me! Not until now, anyway." Rock Lee straightened then gestured grandly, eyes shining, grin flashing, fist upraised with passion. "For I am confident that the training Gai-sensei gave me and the hard work I have done will enable me to overcome whatever challenges may arise!"
Haku stared nonplussed at his strange companion's declaration. "I see," he managed to reply, but only barely. "That shouldn't surprise me, but keep in mind…I feel exactly the same way about MY sensei." The two ninja exchanged grins. Haku raised his canteen to his lips then, being gracious, offered it to Lee first.
Lee took it and drank; his dark, round eyes lit with surprise then he drank some more in a series of greedy gulps. "Oh! I am sorry, Hiroo, uh, Mr. Okame," he gushed when he gave the canteen back. "I did not mean to take so much, but that water is so wonderfully ice cold and I did not realize how thirsty I was. You must have just refilled it from a spring nearby."
Haku tilted his head and didn't contradict him. "You may call me Hiroo. Are you quite sure you'd rather not sit with your friends?" he teased then, tilting his head toward the other leaf-ninja that surrounded them.
"No," answered Lee. "I have known Izumo, Kotetsu and the others for awhile now and they have yet to tell me anything interesting. But you managed to in the first five minutes of meeting you." The genin's expression fell. "It does concern me though, Hiroo, that you might have come to bring harm to my Village."
Haku nodded. "A possibility you have to acknowledge."
"After speaking with you I do not think so, but I have been told I am still naive."
The young constable's eyes turned towards him. "My sensei said the same thing to me on occasion, and I've noticed it's true about me too…but I don't think it's a bad thing, at least, not all the time." Haku's wide, grey eyes lifted toward their guards. "Look at your friends – one's gone to get Anko, three have positioned themselves around me at strategic distances so they can watch my movements and prevent my escape, while the fifth has gone down the road to find out if I came alone. The presumption is that I intend harm, and they may be right. You, at least, consider other possibilities. Which of you is naive depends, I guess, on how this all turns out." The ninja grinned, took another swig of water, then raised it in a toast toward his companion. "Either way, I appreciate that you gave me the benefit of a doubt."
The two paused as the conversation lulled, an agreeable silence this time.
"Mr. Lee," the visiting ninja broke in with barely suppressed urgency, "there's something I've been meaning to ask you about. In your village, there's a team of genin lead by The Copy Ninja, Kakashi Hatake. Do you know them?"
"Yes, of course I do," answered Lee, surprised at the question. "Why do you ask?"
"Just tell me…are they still alive; did they survive the invasion?"
Lee grunted affirmatively and nodded. "They all did."
Haku brightened with relief…then looked away as his expression faded. There it was; he had his answer. Though it was wonderful beyond words that those four were alive, the young ninja knew now that Naruto hadn't replied to his letter not because he was dead but for some other reason: he didn't want to, or didn't care. The realization tore at Haku with unexpected intensity – a sickeningly empty feeling that took up residence in the pit of his stomach.
What did you expect? Haku castigated himself, mortified and ashamed at having been so foolish as to believe otherwise.
"Do…do you know them?" Lee inquired.
"No," Haku stated, shaking his head, then added more calmly, "no, not really. I encountered them on a mission awhile ago and was impressed enough to inquire. That's all."
A shadow crossed over Haku then at which the ninja shaded his eyes and looked up into a young woman's stern countenance. The leaf-kunoichi gave him a smug, imperious stare, hands braced into her hips. Her figure, marvelously athletic and hugged by dense fishnet worn under a tan trench-coat, the fierce, flashing eyes the color of slate, and dark hair worn in a pony-tail matched exactly how Lady Orimi had described her.
"So what the hell do YOU want?" said Anko Mitarashi, foregoing customary greetings and getting right to the point. "You better have a good reason for dragging me all the way out here, kid. I don't care who sent you!"
Haku blinked, blinked again then brushed himself off and rose. "I wish to see the Hokage," he explained simply and bowed.
Anko leveled a look. "She doesn't see just anybody, you know. Didn't these guys explain?"
"She'll see me."
"Oh, yeah, and why is that?"
"Because I have the canisters."
The veteran kunoichi paused, only for a moment, but it let Haku know she knew what he was talking about. "What canisters?"
"The one's you've been looking for," The Demon's Apprentice clarified matter-of-factly. "Of course, if I'm mistaken, then I'll be on my way."
"Yeah, yeah, hold on, tough guy," answered Anko who stayed him with a gesture. She was already done playing 'coy'. "So you know where they are?"
"I have them with me."
The jonin's expression startled slightly then hardened. "Let me see."
Haku met her eyes. "Please understand, I was instructed to turn them over ONLY to your Hokage." When the woman nodded, Haku unfastened the straps and zippers on his satchel then opened it wide enough for Anko to have a look inside.
The leaf-ninja frowned in thought then muttered curtly to the patrol: "I'll take it from here."
Izumo's expression pinched. "'You sure, Anko?"
The jonin nodded definitively at which the patrol collected themselves then leaped away to resume their duties. Anko then turned to Rock Lee. "You too, Lee," she insisted.
The green-clad ninja bridled at being dismissed but then accepted it, nodding first to Anko and then to Haku. "It was nice to meet you, Hiroo," he offered, smiling brightly, then returned his confiscated jutte. "I hope the rest of your journey goes well."
Haku couldn't help but grin. Of all the people he'd ever met, Rock Lee was certainly one of a kind. "Thank you, Lee," he said as he bowed his farewell.
Once the genin had gone and Anko was sure they were alone, she rounded on her visitor. "So you're just a helpful policeman returning what's been stolen," she offered with fiery suspicion, "is that your story?"
"I'm sorry, was that a question?" replied Haku with a wince.
"I just hope you know what you're doing."
Haku groaned, raised his hands tiredly and let them fall to his side. "Miss Mitarashi, I've come a long way," the young ninja explained. "I've left behind my duties and those who care about me, and I hardly need to have my motives, my intelligence and my character questioned like this. I am here because of you." He pointed toward his satchel. "These are YOUR canisters. Even if I was the devil himself, the depths of my iniquity would be like nothing compared to what I'm carrying."
Anko scowled then grit her teeth, clearly a woman not at all reluctant to start trading blows once fighting words were spoken, but this time she relented…only because she knew the visitor was right. "Come on," she grumbled brusquely then turned to lead the way, walking up the road toward the Hidden Leaf Village.
That's it for chapter one. Getting started is always the hardest part. After talking it over with some of my early reviewers I edited this chapter pretty heavily, removing the summation in the first couple of pages and just generally trying to smooth things out. Everything else seemed to go over ok, at least nobody had anything to say about the rest. Thanks.
Oh, I'd also like to thank top for letting me borrow the 'Tsujita clan' from his fic 'Assassins in the Snow.'
So...what do you think so far?