Onward they sped, following Kiba and Akamaru over Kirigakure's embattled labyrinth, not knowing where the scent trail they tracked would lead them or in what condition they might find Naruto when or if they ever did. The girl thought of her teammate and this time clung hard to his good qualities – his courage, his unselfconscious sweetness, his devotion to his friends and that spastic, unwavering idealism that had lead him to the Mist Village in the first place.
Oh, Naruto, she thought with a sigh, knowing that that last one, while sometimes endearing in little kids or compelling when expressed by movie action-heroes, lead people to some of the worst fates imaginable. It wasn't hard at all to suppose that whatever combination of wonders that had preserved the yellow-headed idiot thus far could have their limits. Inwardly, Sakura recoiled, her thoughts lurching palpably from even the prospect of life without him.
A furtive motion from Shikamaru warned of an oncoming threat but to remain calm. Sakura's emerald eyes flickered then locked on the squad of mist-ninja flying over the rooftops directly toward them. It was almost impossible not to tense a little but the kunoichi fought it. Have they seen through our Transformation Jutsus? she feared, imagining that in a few short moments they would be locked in furious combat with ninjas known for their pitilessness.
The approaching shinobi raced closer, fast as an oncoming train, then just as quickly passed. They offered no challenges, issued no commands and traded only some curt gestures of acknowledgment – a raised hand, a businesslike nod of the head. Then they were gone, pivoting sharply toward some disturbance closer to the center of the city.
"Holy crap, that was scary. I can't believe we really fooled them," Chouji confided quietly to her after they were well out of earshot; the ache of relief clear on his round, chubby-cheeked face. His eyes followed them. "Looks like they're all headed the opposite of where we're going. What a break for us!"
Sakura let out a breath she hadn't been aware she'd been holding, felt the pounding of her heart. "Yeah."
Since she'd started training under Lady Tsunade, her fighting ability had improved dramatically, her speed, her chakra-powered strength, but that wasn't to say she was eager to test them against mist-ninja regulars.
Landing again on another rooftop, Sakura gathered herself to spring but a hushed, urgent and familiar voice made her break her stride.
"Sakura!" The sound seemed to echo in her ears, rattle through her mind.
The kunoichi stumbled as she skidded to a stop then turned to stare. Though the speaker wore the blue-grey armored jacket and fatigues of a mist-ninja, minus the hitai-ate, there was no denying that bright brush of yellow hair, blue eyes and disconcerted expression.
"Naruto?" the girl marveled, nearly in shock. Only as an afterthought did she turn and call to her companions who all hurriedly circled back to join the kunoichi and her Team 7 teammate.
"Hi guys," muttered Naruto in a halting voice and hesitant wave of his hand. "I almost didn't recognize you in those mist-ninja uniforms."
Chouji was the first to break from his disbelieving gape and the deep strangeness of this unexpected moment. The bulky ninja straightened and crossed his arms. "Naruto! What do you think you're doing just running off to Kirigakure?! Do you have any idea how HARD we've been looking for you? The Hokage's pissed; she sent us to bring you back."
"I guess I'm in trouble, huh?"
"Ya think?!" blurted Sakura almost from habit as she stood there torn between emotions – intense relief at seeing him again matched with an equally intense anger at his recklessness.
Kiba blinked away his initial surprise and laughed gustily. "Naruto," he crowed in greeting, highly amused. "You just might be the craziest ninja who ever lived." Akamaru barked in agreement.
The blond returned a cavalier grin then turned toward Shikamaru who told him bluntly: "It is good to see you again, Naruto, especially because of what we thought might have happened to you…but you have to come back with us now. You understand that, right?"
Naruto nodded slowly, eyes downcast. "I know…and I know I've caused you guys a lot of trouble. And I'm sorry about that but I can't go with you right now. I will!" he added hastily, "I swear I will but there's just - there's just this one last thing I have to do."
"Naruto," Shikamaru began with a hard look in his eyes, a hint of warning in his tone.
"Hold on, Shikamaru, hold on," Kiba prevailed then turned back to the fugitive. "Are you not done here yet – saving the Mist Village? We know all about that. Mari told us. Is that why Haku's not with you?"
The genin again nodded. "I was going to meet up with him when I saw you guys."
"Come on, Shikamaru," Kiba urged the taller leaf-ninja, "he's our friend. This is different from Sasuke who just, you know, went flying off the rails on some kind of crazy-ass ego-trip. Naruto came here to help Haku and try to save Kirigakure. You know his heart's in the right place." The wolfish ninja, maybe sensing that he was overselling his case, slouched and finished with a casual flourish. "It's not like he's easy to catch plus we got to bring Haku too, remember?"
The chunin's expression made it plain that his dedication to the promise he'd made to Mari had worn thin but in another moment it softened and Shikamaru gave an exasperated sigh. "How long is this going to take, Naruto?"
"Not long!" the blond piped in promise, raising his hands reassuringly. "The place we're meeting is really, really close."
"Alright," Shikamaru agreed hesitantly, "but you have to understand that we're here to bring you back. It's an official mission, one we intend to complete."
"Thanks guys," Naruto gushed in gratitude, beaming happily. "I owe you big time. Follow me!" With that the young ninja turned and leaped away.
Sakura watched her partner go, more than a little dumbfounded. Could our mission really be almost over? she wondered. Simple as that? As happy as she was to see Naruto again, Sakura couldn't shake the feeling that something didn't seem right. It was almost as if this was too easy.
When they formed up and, one by one, sprang after Naruto, Shikamaru flashed them all a quick hand-signal for added caution.
He sensed it too, the pink-haired girl realized, comforted slightly that it wasn't all just in her head.
The chunin followed Naruto cautiously and at a comfortable distance as they bounded over the canal-carved city. What it was that bothered him, he couldn't exactly say. Naruto seemed every bit like the Naruto he'd always known, the one he'd been sent to retrieve, and yet Shikamaru had trouble accepting that the genin had simply stumbled into them in the course of his wanderings then obligingly surrendered himself with the exception of this one remaining errand. It was strange too that they'd made it this far into Kirigakure for this long without being discovered. That the place was in complete chaos and literally under siege had been a good-enough explanation for that…up until now.
Maybe it was just a case of paranoia. After all, if this wasn't Naruto, who was it; who would bother to impersonate him? A mist-ninja wouldn't resort to deception unless it was necessary. Being that they were IN the Mist Village and surrounded by more than enough manpower to easily bring down a small squad of invading leaf-ninja, all young and mostly genin, that would hardly seem to be the case.
After several minutes of travel, much farther than Naruto had lead him to think, Shikamaru found that his former classmate had taken them into some of the worst, most desperate slums he'd ever seen and he couldn't help but wonder if they were being set up for a simple robbery! Then suddenly, as if from the onset of hallucination, a great pavilion appeared, coalescing upon a lake, the waters of which drafted a perfect rectangle, smooth and flat as glass, which stretched right up to the walls of the shabby apartment buildings that surrounded it. A collective gasp rose from his team. The ninja's expression went wide. Never before had he beheld anything that could aspire to its dream-like majesty, its mesmerizing qualities. Naruto jumped down to a narrow stretch of shore from which a wooden footbridge lead, angling back and forth over the water to the entrance of the strange pavilion, hardly sparing it a glance.
"Here we are," announced the boy who waved his arm toward the edifice with a broad smile then took off running, his booted footsteps clattering loudly as he raced over the planks.
Shikamaru's expression hardened as he called out to him: "Wait, Naruto!"
Kiba smiled at the prospect of a race, Akamaru bouncing up and down by his feet in anticipation, and nearly bolted after the genin but a look toward his team leader held him back.
"There's more to this than what it looks like," Shikamaru warned then frowned. "Just be careful."
An obviously disappointed Naruto dragged to a stop then waited for them mid-way along the footbridge. "You guys are no fun," he yelled brashly and waved. "Come on!"
The chunin closed his eyes. For all his intellectual prowess there was one serious drawback – as with math, he could only calculate an answer if he knew what the problem was. Faced with the unknown, his guess was only as good as anybody else's. "This is troublesome," Shikamaru muttered in understatement but still followed his yellow-haired former classmate onto the bridge determined to see this puzzling turn through…and to make very sure that, unlike the last time, no one on his team ended up wrecked on the shores of their 'genius' leader's limitations.
Piercing shrieks, groans and roars chased the fleeing five as they raced down the twisting, alleyway followed by a percussive blast of chakra energies that rattled the walls and cracked windows, showering them with debris.
Haku chanced a quick look over his shoulder as he ran, half-expecting either the two Akatsuki or a pack of demons to be right there behind them. Thankfully, the warring parties seemed to have each other fully engaged. For how long – that was the question. It was far too much to hope for that they would be so evenly matched as to kill each other off. For the teenager's part, if there had to be a winner, he was rooting for the demons.
Heaven and Earth, that was lucky! Haku considered, vowing to stop at a temple somewhere and leave offerings to whatever great deity, saint or spirit might be in charge of such things. The conclusion left him a bit awed. Certainly there was nothing he'd ever done to warrant that kind of providence; though his moniker was 'The Demon's Apprentice' he'd never had 'the Devil's luck.'
"Please," rasped Gennosuke drily, weakly, breaking his train of thought, "I can't go anymore."
The boy staggered to a stop, heaving for breath and looking sick, braced himself against a wall and would have fallen over if Haku hadn't taken hold of him. They had come a long way in a great hurry to put some distance between themselves and their hunters. It was a testament to the skinny child's determination that he'd kept up this long. Gennosuke shot a testy look up at Haku and shrugged him off. Zabuza's former student backed away to let Sakiko tend to him but he was almost as dismissive of her efforts as well.
"Is everyone alright?" Haku asked to break the quiet and was met with breathless affirmations and nods all around with the exception of Naruto who glared hard back the way they'd come.
Haku followed the direction of the leaf-ninja's burning, blue-eyed stare, could feel the flow of his chakra the fingers of which reached toward the limitless reserves of the being sealed inside him. "Naruto!" he began in a chastening tone, alarmed at what he found in his friend's expression. "You - you cannot be thinking about fighting them."
Even from this far away from the ongoing battle, they could see the crest of a tsunami-like wall of water rear high over the rooftops then feel the thunder as it crashed down in the distance. The sheer malevolence of the Akatsukis' chakras permeated the air. As Haku gaped, the blond teenager held firm, breathing hard from running, teeth clenched, his body trembling with rage. "What kind of ninja can I be if I run from a fight?"
"A living one," answered Zabuza's former student empty of sarcasm, his mind overflowing with the exploits of the two S-Class criminals they had just been fortunate enough to evade, and the pages-long list of lethal jutsu with which they were proficient. These were the kind of men whose powers could route armies, rend entire cities and bring eras to a close. "You shouldn't even be considering taking on either of those monsters, let alone both at once. Please think about it, Naruto. Itachi alone was able to slaughter his entire clan of Uchiha shinob -."
"So what!" the young leaf-ninja snarled, whirling angrily, his face red, "I'm just supposed to live like a hunted dog waiting for them to come for me just so I can run away again? How can I protect anyone else if I won't even protect myself? How am I ever supposed to be Hokage? What good am I?!"
Naruto's words shot through Haku's mind like lightning. Taken aback by the outburst and not knowing what to say, he took a step back, then another, then stalked robotically away.
Deep down the young ninja knew that Naruto hadn't meant to insult him, to accuse him of craven cowardice, but it still stung as if he'd had and more bitterly and personally than he would have expected. Haku knew he was being overly and uncharacteristically sensitive but found himself helpless against the swell of emotions for he and Zabuza-sensei had lived just like that, just like 'hunted dogs' for two years – fugitives being hunted and not even by the likes of the Akatsuki.
As he walked, trying to push himself past his raw, slighted feelings, the teenager entertained the idea for a moment that maybe Naruto really had no reason to fear Itachi and Kisame the way he and Zabuza had to fear the Mist's ninja-hunters. After all, the power of the Kyuubi had saved Naruto from powerful enemies before. But no, shinobi as cunning and experienced as those two would never approach their quarry so boldly if there was even the slightest chance for defeat. Was Naruto really incapable of understanding that?
As someone who had changed the track of this life, dedicating it to the protection of others, Haku had often found the way difficult - so much more difficult than trying to further his master's grand ambitions. That, at least, though immensely challenging in other ways, had been pretty straightforward in comparison to his new calling which often brought him against the most unrelenting of all enemies: human nature. As a constable in the Land of Waves, Haku had found that he could save people from others, sometimes, arrest those who hurt others, most of the time, but could only very, very rarely save anyone from themselves no matter how much he tried or cared. The line of thought lead him to two conclusions he couldn't accept, the very ideas of which left him feeling lost and hollowed out.
Maybe Naruto is no different.
Maybe Kirigakure's a lost cause.
A cool, bony hand came to rest on his shoulder and jarred him from his thoughts. "Lord Aramata," asked Tensai, "are you alright?"
Haku's grey eyes flickered in bewilderment as if he'd just awakened. He looked up to find himself in a stretch of alleyway with the others of their group left a long ways behind. The teenager had been so preoccupied that he hadn't realized how far he'd wandered, didn't even remember passing his companions.
"Yes, Tensai. Fine," Haku muttered apologetically, "thank you."
He whirled then, disoriented as he noticed the particularly grim and desperate quality of the slums he'd entered. "Friary Hill," he remarked, recognizing the neighborhood, then turned again to his self-appointed guardian. "How did we get all the way over here?"
"I don't know," admitted Tensai with a small shake of his head, "we were following you."
"Just now?" Haku's eyes narrowed quizzically. "You mean when we were running from Itachi – from those two black-caped ninjas? I thought we were following you."
As he said the words, the Kaguya's face seemed to glow, flushing warmly, his white hair brightening with hues of orange and yellow but it wasn't him that had changed but rather the quality of the light. Haku turned. Up ahead, the alleyway opened into some broader space where bright sunlight shone in glorious beams – a true rarity for Kirigakure where the skies were pervasively sullen and overcast, the air draped in mist. The teenager wandered towards the glow and passed from the slums of Friary Hill into something he wouldn't have thought possible.
Shielding his eyes, Haku found himself at the edge of an expansive lake bounded on all sides by dreary tenement buildings. Astride the crystalline waters sat a grand pagoda with a sweeping hipped roof that rested on stout, lacquered beams and corbelled brackets adorned with gold filigree vine-work, intricate geometrics, dragons and creatures of the deep sea all supported on vivid red-orange columns; the whole of it haloed in sunlight that burst through the Mist Village's mantle of clouds in vivid, solid-looking rays. From the building, a wooden footbridge crossed the lake, zigzagging back and forth until it touched land close to where Haku stood. The teenager stared, transfixed at the sight, transported in time back to his earliest days as Zabuza's disciple and the tales he'd heard of the Coral Pavilion and its disgraced master.
"My Lord?" inquired Tensai as the three others of the group hurried to join them.
Naruto stopped dead in wonder. "Whoa!" he squawked and raised an arm to shade his eyes. "Amazing! W-what IS that place?"
Sakiko and Gennosuke stopped too, equally stunned.
Gathering himself, Haku set foot on the bridge and began purposefully to cross.
"Hey, Haku, hold on," said Naruto. "It looks really cool and everything but do we really have time to sightsee? Itachi and Kisame are still after me and don't we still have to try and stop that Nikai guy?"
Gennosuke growled at the suggestion that they thwart his master but before he could object Haku answered in a haunted voice that made them all pay attention: "This is an intervention," he began, thought better of it, then stated simply, "I don't think we have a choice."
Naruto frowned, his eyes narrowing to slits. "What does THAT mean?" he offered then chanced a look back only to find that the mouth of the alleyway from which they'd entered was no longer there. The boy froze, looked around disconcertedly then pushed past the others who'd already begun to follow Haku along the bridge.
"Hey, wait a minute, Haku! What IS this place?"
"'The Coral Pavilion' - that's all I've ever heard it called."
"You know that's not what I meant!"
Haku chanced a disarming grin. "I know," he confessed, "but it's kind of hard to explain since I don't know for sure either. No one does."
The leaf-ninja grimaced and shook his head. "Wait-wait-wait," he stammered, waving his hands in agitation, his high, gravelly voice insistent, "so what are you saying?"
"It's something like a 'haunted house' I suppose but -."
Haku frowned, realizing he'd said the wrong thing. "It's not really -," he began but it was too late to take back.
"There is NO WAY I'm going into a haunted house!" Naruto blurted adamantly. "Come on, let's get out of here. We can go over the water and -." As the boy readied himself to vault the railing, Haku caught him and pulled him back. The older teenager bent down then produced a shuriken and, after making sure that he had Naruto's attention, flung it hard and with a low trajectory at the mirror-surface of the water. When it struck, it didn't skip or sink. The metal star simply vanished.
"Naruto, when I said 'haunted' I didn't mean that there are any ghosts in there only that it doesn't exist the same way most things do. In that sense it IS supernatural," Haku attempted to explain. "I've heard it said that it's something shared from a dream, a vision from another world, or created by a genjutsu so strong that it actually twists reality into its likeness. Whatever it is, we have been lead here and allowed to encounter it for a reason, invited for a reason." The slender constable drew himself up and turned to face the structure in question. "I think it wise not to test the rules of this place or its master."
The blond genin scowled unhappily, feet planted.
"I don't know what awaits us inside," said Haku, losing patience. "You can stay here on the footbridge if it really bothers you."
Haku turned to go on then stopped. Naruto was his best and closest friend. Most of the time he felt uplifted somehow, happier in his presence; he loved him as dearly as he had even Master Zabuza. Though their relationship was so much different from the one the Demon's Apprentice had had with his late sensei, he was no less devoted. That understood, Naruto could be beyond infuriating at times, grate on his nerves in a way that no one else ever had.
Negotiating the complex ways of social interaction was something Haku knew he wasn't especially good at, that skill-set distinctly lacking from Zabuza's training regimen. Yet one thing that remained painfully with him was the idea that he had, in a sense, betrayed Zabuza and sealed his fate by failing to express his misgivings over his master's contract with Gato to kill Tazuna. Would his headstrong sensei have listened? Probably not, Haku had long since determined, and yet by having stayed silent for fear of giving offense, he had closed off that possibility and now had to live with the consequences of all that had unfolded.
"If you ever do become Hokage, Naruto," he offered bluntly, "you will be confronted by the unknown almost constantly. You'll have to make life-and-death decisions without ever having a full picture of what's going on, never know for certain if the information you have is reliable. You'll always wonder if you made the right choice. I think you would be better served and much more useful to those you wish to protect if you were less fearful of the unknown and more fearful of rushing headlong into battles you're certain to lose just to prove your courage." His cloud-colored eyes narrowed as he added with an edge in his voice: "It would certainly bring greater peace of mind to those who care about you. That's just my observation. You can take it or leave it, 'Lord Hokage'. I am but a lowly constable."
With that, Haku made his way on into the grand forecourt of the Coral Pavilion – a wide open space large enough for a formal ceremony involving hundreds, with a raised dais at the back. Walls of wood paneled screens carved with intricate, geometric patterns angled from the rear wall, deep in the shadows of the umbrageous, overhanging roof.
"Hey!" he heard Naruto's cross voice call at him, felt the stamp of his marching feet. "Hey, Haku!"
The Demon's Apprentice slid aside one of the wall panels, opening up a room behind it. Light glowed in through the screens. The teenager entered, found the room empty, and was immediately struck by the sudden silence. Pausing there, Haku turned around only to find that his companions, Naruto included, had disappeared.
The ninja let out a breath, surprised but not shocked.
Thanks for coming back for more. Have a great Cinco de Mayo or, as they call it in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo. :)
I see that this site lets you have a cover art for stories. If you come across anything you think would be good for anything I've written, let me know!