Title: New Wind Nation ~ 新風国
Chapter 12: Missing-nin Kurosuki Raiga ~ Never Change (part 5/5) [FINAL]
Notes: Revised 07/2014.
'It's past dawn now, and we still haven't been able to find Kurosuki or his trail,' Baki thought, frustration building behind his emotionless façade. 'We should have expected this from a former ANBU, and neither of us specializes in tracking...'
He glanced at Gai, who appeared equally professional and impassive, but carried an aura of growing discontent. 'I didn't expect this problem,' Baki admitted to himself. Overhead, thunder rumbled ominously. 'I thought Kurosuki would seek us out himself, looking for revenge — I still think so, but he must be waiting until we are more worn down and the field of battle is most favorable to him…'
Lightning flashed, far closer than Baki had expected. It seemed to arc oddly, striking somewhere just above them on the mountain and wavering in the air for a second too long. "The lightning will strike, and I'll kill you all," he said. Could it be…?'
"Did you also receive that intelligence about Kurosuki controlling a thunder storm?" Gai asked, his voice terse.
Baki nodded sharply, his eyes scanning their surroundings. "Yes," he began distractedly, but stopped abruptly as both he and Gai tensed — the old warriors' sense of danger flaring. However, neither of them expected what came — electricity arcing up from the ground only an instance before it struck them from below, the last place they had expected it.
The powerful Raiton technique wasn't enough to kill or even knock out the jonin, but both dropped to their knees, stunned and momentarily paralyzed. Kurosuki Raiga's mad laughter echoed above them as he appeared on a cliff. He raised his swords, and wide lightning bolts flashed down at them from the clouds.
Gai managed to roll out of the way of the first and body flicker away from the following one, too fast to track or target, but Baki was not quite as quick on his feet. Several successive lightning bolts struck him, making the jonin waver and collapse on all fours.
"That's right," Raiga growled. Lightning danced around his form, throwing strange shadows over his face. "You two… it's your fault. It's your fault Ranmaru is…" He shook his head sharply. "No, no! I have to make a grand funeral for him. I'll wipe you out, and then… I'll be able to remember all the good things about him! All the good times we had together… Ranmaru…"
'He's distracted,' Gai thought, his eyes narrowing. He flickered in and out of sight quickly, finally appearing behind Raiga and aiming a powerful kick at his head. But before he could connect, a bolt of lightning struck him, flush next to Raiga himself.
Dropping to the ground, Gai wavered for a moment, but he just managed to jump away from the next bolt. Slowly, Raiga turned to look over his shoulder. His eyes were wild in his face, but different from before — without that fervor, he looked almost like a fresh corpse.
"Ranmaru…" he muttered before his eyes focused on Gai. "That won't work. What level do you think I am?" he added, almost as an afterthought. "I'm not weak, like those brats you brought… you brought… ah…" Raiga's head tipped back as something seemed to shift in his mind. A wide, gaping grin spread across his face and he began to laugh. "That's right… You brought them! Yes! I'll make them… come to Ranmaru's funeral… I'll make them remember him! Good or bad, it doesn't matter, right? As long as he's remembered…"
Raiga's mad laughter mixed with the thunder, rumbling across the mountainside. 'My students? He knows about them…' Gai thought, his stomach suddenly plummeting before he grit his teeth and glared. "You won't lay a hand on them!" he yelled, crouching as chakra flared around him. "This is the technique to protect — Omote Renge!"
'That's… Leaf's secret technique!' Baki thought, levering himself up as he tried to dispel the effects of the lightning bolts.
Faster than either of the other two shinobi could follow, Gai kicked Raiga into the air — again using the Shadow of the Dancing Leaf technique — and appeared behind him. Grabbing Raiga around the waist, Gai began to spin them rapidly. Both became only a single indistinct spiraling shape, plummeting head-first toward the ground.
Suddenly, lightning struck again, hitting them both. Gai pulled away, and Raiga drove into the earth alone, sending up a cloud of dust. 'That was too early,' Gai thought, touching down for a moment and spinning around to attack again. 'He might have been able to avoid the worst of the damage. I have to follow up!'
The force of his spinning kick parted the floating dust, revealing the crater formed by the attack and Raiga, struggling to his feet. But before Gai could connect, electricity crackled around Raiga, covering him completely, the light hiding his form. As Gai's leg plowed into Raiga's stomach, the electric field burst apart and both shinobi were forcefully thrown apart.
Although battered and holding his midsection, Raiga was the first to rise. He glared up through his long bangs, blood dripping down his face from a hidden wound. "You're s-strong," he hissed. His Lightning Armor had taken most of Gai's attack, but he had still taken damage. It had been a long while since Raiga had been last so hurt.
He straightened and began to walk toward Gai, swaying oddly with each step. His twin swords dragged along the ground, sparkling and crackling. "But," Raiga chuckled, grinning madly, "it's over…"
'I have to act now,' Baki thought, gathering his chakra. The wind swirled around his arm, ready to cut. 'I underestimated him…'
But before either shinobi could act, a young voice rang out across the battlefield.
In a swirl of sand, Naruto and Gaara flickered into sight between the combatants, the latter holding Ranmaru. Slowly, Raiga turned to face them, his eyes wide and shocked.
"Ranmaru… you're alive," he whispered, a smile hesitantly spreading across his face and tears gathering in his eyes. "Ranmaru! You're alive!"
"Raiga, you have to stop," Ranmaru said, his eyes darting to the two jonin before locking with Raiga's.
Tilting his head to the side, Raiga laughed. "Oh yeah, that. I was just going to… going to have a funeral for you, like I promised. Well, don't worry, I'll get rid of them quickly."
Ranmaru shook his head. "No, don't, Raiga. Please," he begged. Smiling tumultuously, he tried, "We don't have to do this anymore. You don't have to kill anyone, Raiga! It's okay. We can… we can live peacefully, without hurting anyone..."
For a long moment, Raiga remained silent. When he spoke, his tone was strange, unreadable. "Don't worry. I'll get rid of them quickly," he repeated, almost forcefully. "And then we can go somewhere new. This place is getting pretty boring anyway, right, Ranmaru?"
"No! You have to stop. Please stop killing people! Stop doing evil things," Ranmaru cried.
He tugged on Gaara's sash, quickly catching his eye. The Sand-nin gently lowered Ranmaru, letting the boy put his feet on the ground. As Gaara released him, Ranmaru swayed, his legs trembling under the strain. Pain twisted his face momentarily, but he looked up, determined. Slowly, he raised his arms to Raiga.
"Please, Raiga. Let's change. I know we can do it. You showed me this beautiful world, and now, I want to show you something too — a world full of people. Please. We don't have to be alone, always running and killing. We can live freely, Raiga. I know we can find a way," Ranmaru implored. His whole body shook under the stress of trying to remain standing as he reached for his partner.
Raiga shuddered. Gritting his teeth, he hanged his head and shook it furiously, making his long hair sway wildly. "No… No, Ranmaru! We made a promise! Stop saying stuff like that, or we won't be able to stay together!" he yelled. Electricity danced over his swords as he gripped them tightly.
For a single instance, Ranmaru's face was full of hurt and rejection. But then it was gone, and he was determined again. "Go ahead and have the lightning strike me," he said calmly, raising his chin. "But if I die, who's going to remember you?"
Raiga keened, trembling. He curled into himself and tried to cover his ears with his hands. Just as suddenly, he froze, his eyes wide. He muttered, "I can't remember when you were good anymore…" Turning slowly, he readied his weapons again, an empty, frightening expression on his face. "Don't worry — I'll do as I promised. I'll give you a wonderful funeral!" Lightning flashed, and he grinned.
A bolt burst from the clouds, and Ranmaru dropped to his knees, covering his head. But instead of striking him, the lightning only met sand that had suddenly gathered and risen up over both his and Gaara's heads. As the lightning died away, some of the sand fell over the two, the chakra moving it canceled out.
"Why do you refuse?" Gaara asked, his tone flat yet menacing.
"I, Kusosuki Raiga, don't take orders from anyone!" Raiga yelled, gesturing wildly. His eyes narrowed in a glare, like a cornered animal. "I hated everyone, and they hated me. Ranmaru… you were my only companion. But you broke our promise! You decided you didn't want to stay with me anymore!"
Another lightning strike accompanied his words, only to be blocked by Gaara's sand. The redhead glared at Raiga, accusing. "Just like that…?" he muttered angrily.
Ranmaru choked back a sob, his earlier composure crumbling away. "That's not true! I want to stay with you, Raiga! I want to stay with you forever!"
"You made other friends now… You don't need me anymore!" Raiga yelled accusingly. "So I… don't need you either."
Gaara narrowed his eyes, his posture tense and angry. "Someone who gave you so much deserves more," he said sharply. "Are you just going to drag him down into your madness? For his sake, find another way to live."
That was, after all, the double-edged blade of a bond — it wasn't just something you received, but also something you gave back. And whether what you gave back was good or bad remained to be determined. 'I… won't become like that. I won't be just a burden to Naruto,' Gaara promised himself. 'I'll find a way to become more than just a demon who loves only himself.'
"For Ranmaru's sake…? Another way? Stop killing? Why?" Raiga wondered blankly. His tone was genuinely confused. "What's wrong with the way we are? What does it matter? Why do we need anyone else? Why can't we just keep our promise and keep going the way we've been? Why are you doing this, Ranmaru?!"
Clinging to Gaara helplessly, the boy whimpered through his tears. "Raiga…" Ranmaru sobbed. "Raiga, no… it's wrong…"
Violently, Raiga shook his head, as if casting away his doubts. When he looked up, his expression was cold and driven. "Enough," he announced. Slamming the hilts together, Raiga linked his two swords and began to spin them above his head. "Now! Like I promised! The funeral begins! Rairyuu no Tatsumaki!"
Lightning generated quickly, forming a vortex around him. Taking the form of a pale blue dragon's head, its jaws open wide, the Lightning Dragon Tornado jutsu lunged for Gaara.
"Gaara!" Naruto yelled, running to his friend's side just as the ninjutsu engulfed all three of them. Gaara's sand rose, trying to protect him, but the swirling electric energy quickly wore it down again.
Raising his arm as if to cover his face, Naruto made a sharp, sweeping gesture. Wind-natured chakra burst out, spinning in the opposite direction of the Dragon Tornado. Two forces collided, canceling each other out in a wild explosion that send Naruto diving for Ranmaru, covering the boy with his own body.
As the confusion died down, revealing the combatants again, Gaara slowly raised his head and glared. "That's enough," he said coldly. "Stop this now." His sand surged forward, wrapping tightly around Raiga's legs and climbing steadily.
Raiga chuckled, a strangled barking sound that resembled sobs more than laughter. "I can't! I won't stop! I'll bury you all! This is the way we are! Because we're shinobi! We're all the same, all killers!" He still hadn't given up, and lightning began to crackle along his body, loosening the sand's hold.
Frowning in concentration, Gaara shaped his sand with his hands as he struggled to keep Raiga contained. But even as more sand surged to wrap around Raiga, the missing-nin managed to free one arm and point the sword still clutched in his grip at Gaara and Ranmaru.
Gaara reacted on instinct as a ball of lightning flew toward them. His sand rose as a shield and, swallowing the attack, rolled outward as a wave. He realized too late that the amount of force he had put behind it was too much — as the wave of sand slammed into Raiga, something snapped and tore in the man's body.
"Raiga!" Ranmaru cried out, trying to run to his companion's side, only to stumble and collapse. Undeterred, he crawled toward Raiga, dragging himself through the sand and stone.
Turning his head slowly, Raiga tried to speak, only to choke up blood. Still, he smiled, his lips bloody. "Ran… maru," he managed finally. "Looks like it's time… to keep your promise. Have a good... funeral for me. Remember me well, yeah?"
A low, hurt sound stuck in the back of Ranmaru's throat, but he nodded even as tears streamed down his cheeks. "I will. I promise, I'll remember all the good times we had together," Ranmaru swore, covering his eyes as more tears ran down his cheeks.
In consternation at his own actions, Gaara had taken a step back, but a firm hand on his shoulder kept him from retreating further. Looking down at this boy in sympathy and support was not something Baki would have imagined even a month before, but he said comfortingly, "There is nothing any of us could have done for him. Some shinobi… can't find another way."
Naruto made a sound of protest, glancing between Ranmaru, weeping as he held Raiga's bloody hand, and Gaara, who had gritted his teeth painfully. But a stern look from Baki kept him from objecting. Sometimes… optimism wasn't enough, no matter how much everyone wished for a solution.
Making his way to kneel beside Ranmaru, Gaara said quietly, "Then, we'll give you a grand funeral." As he raised one hand, sand flowed over Raiga's body, but the former Mist-nin only grinned widely, with anticipation and no fear.
"A desert coffin and…"
Ranmaru keened, and Naruto tensed, forcing himself not to look away. Gaara's hand closed into a fist.
"…a desert funeral."
"This place is great! Mom and I came here before!" Naruto chattered brightly, pushing aside the cloth in the entrance and ducking inside the building — a small red house with a large sign on the front proudly proclaiming it to be the Curry of Life Shop. On his back, Ranmaru smiled tentatively.
"Welcome!" an old woman's voice called out from somewhere deeper in. "We'll be with you in a moment!"
Gaara followed him in, dropping his sand gourd next to his shoes. When he looked up, he was surprised to find himself looking at a familiar face.
"Welcome to…" Karashi's bored greeting trailed off as he recognized the people stepping into his family's curry shop. His eyes darted between Naruto and Gaara, and he gulped uneasily. It was all too clear that he still remembered his last encounter with the Sand ninjas.
Fortunately, boisterous laughter broke the stalemate. A moment later, its source — Gai, in full Youth mode — ducked inside behind the two boys. "As it happens, I know this shop well also! It's a favorite stop on my training route!"
"Yosh! Gai-sensei took us here last year!" Lee added, entering at his beloved teacher's heels. Following him somewhat reluctantly, Neji made a face indicating horrible memories.
Bringing up in the rear, Tenten and Kankuro entered together. "I still think short-handled kunai just aren't worth it," Kankuro said, in a non-sequitur, following on some other conversation. "Normal kunai are much more versatile, and you can compensate when you throw…"
"With your puppet too?" Tenten asked, looking genuinely impressed. "I agree, actually. I still bring some, on certain missions, but..."
"The space and weight, though…"
"A sealing scroll…"
At the very tail end of the party, Baki sighed quietly to himself, apparently not even sure what to feel.
He seemed to be the only one to notice the tense atmosphere they had stepped into, studying Karashi speculatively for a moment. Raising his voice, Baki announced, "I'm going to settled things with our clients. Take a seat."
"O-okay!" Naruto called out as the jonin steered their former client aside.
The other seven shinobi plus one settled around a small table, Naruto and Gaara with Ranmaru between them, Gai and Lee together in a wall of green, Tenten and Kankuro still talking about weapons, and finally Neji alone, arms crossed and scowl firmly in place.
"Oh my! What a group!" an old woman exclaimed, appearing from the kitchen. She wiped her hands on her apron as she regarded them one by one. "Gai-sensei with his students again, I see," she chuckled. "Oh, and you boys must be the ones Karashi hired. Thank you for coming!"
"No problem!" Naruto said energetically, before losing some of his cheer as he glanced at Ranmaru. "You won't have to worry any more."
The old woman peered at him through her thick glasses before her eyes widened. "Hmm, you look familiar… Oh me! Oh my! It's Naruto-chan! It's definitely little Naruto-chan, all grown up! It's been, my, seven years now! Do you remember me — Sansho-obaasan?"
Naruto laughed. "Yeah! A bit… I remember eating your special black curry and crying for hours because I couldn't feel my mouth anymore!"
Granny Sansho laughed, while Neji silently shuddered. "Well, I'll make a new special today! My son Karashi just came up with it! But, your mother…"
"She passed away a while back," Naruto said simply. "But the one who really needs your curry is Ranmaru here! His body is a little weak, and Mom always said it made her feel a million times better, so it should make him feel loads better too!"
"Coming right up!" the old woman called over her shoulder as she hurried back to the kitchen.
However, the curry that arrived shortly did not inspire much confidence. It was bright red in color and very dangerous looking. "This reminds me of something… In nature, aren't the most poisonous animals brightly colored?" Kankuro wondered, twitching a little as he stared down at his place.
"It… looks even scarier than last year's black curry," Tenten added quietly.
"Itadakimasu!" Naruto, Lee and Gai chorused. Each took a huge spoonful, and each promptly turned a bright red to match the curry. While Lee and Gai shouted their praise, Naruto just scrambled for a glass of water and, after chugging it down, collapsed face first on the table.
"It's Life curry because afterward, you're grateful to still be alive," he mumbled to himself. Next to him, Ranmaru and Gaara carefully took smaller bites off their own plates. Gaara's flat expression didn't change, but he stiffened and managed to show his disgust clearly.
At the familiar sight, Naruto grinned. 'Don't tell me Gaara's actually a picky eater,' he thought humorously.
Between them, Ranmaru chewed thoughtfully. "This is… delicious!" he exclaimed, reaching out for more energetically. "This is the best food I've ever had! I wish I could eat this everyday!"
Instead of eating, Kankuro surreptitiously scooped up a spoonful of curry sauce alone and dribbled it into a small vial. "I think I can use this," he muttered to himself. "It's practically a biological weapon already." Beside and across from him, Tenten and Neji simply pushed their food around their plates without tasting it.
"We should get going!" Tenten declared suddenly. "I mean, we're already late coming back from our mission. We should get back and report."
Looking almost relieved, Neji nodded. "Tenten is right. We need to return quickly."
Lee and Gai matched determined stares and nodded to each other in tandem before grabbing their plates and shoveling down the rest of their curry.
"How Youthful, my dear students!" Gai exclaimed, jumping to his feet. "Alright, then! We will make it to Hidden Leaf before sunrise tomorrow, or we will all run a hundred laps around our beautiful village as punishment!"
"Eh? Tomorrow morning? But we'll have to run all night, and even then…" Tenten trailed off, glancing down at her still full plate. "R-right! Let's go!"
With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the Leaf genin filed out, quickly making their goodbyes. Gai brought up behind them, but he paused in the doorway, looking back at the Sand-nins. His gaze locked with Baki's as the other jonin emerged from the back of the shop.
"I look forward to seeing you and your team again," Gai said seriously, his eyes sliding over the genin. "Hidden Leaf is hosting the next Chunin Exam, you know." He grinned suddenly. "We'll show you some great places in our beautiful, wonderful home!"
With one last scary sparkle, the Beautiful Green Beast was gone as well.
Turning away, Baki sat down at the table with the genin and said, "It's time for us to get going as well. I've settled things with our client."
"He's never hiring us again, right? Is he still cowering from Gaara?" Kankuro said cynically, but with a tinge of humor, pushing away his plate.
Completely ignoring him, Baki continued, "It would be best if we addressed any questions you may have now, especially anything pertaining to what you'll put in your mission reports…"
"Don't worry, taicho!" Naruto said brightly. "This mission went great, even if we had a few snags! We totally beat the Kurosuki Family and freed Katabami Mine!"
Kankuro snorted. "He means what we're going to say about Shukaku coming out…"
Looking surprised, Naruto tilted his head to the side in confusion. "What's there to say? Gaara got knocked out for a bit, and then he woke up. Everyone's fine anyway." He shrugged dismissively.
"…And about those Leaf shinobi…"
"They happened to be here, and they beat up some of the Family thugs, just because they felt like it. They were pretty nice, and then they left."
'The Council is going to love this,' Baki thought. "Then, the only matter is Ranmaru's situation…" he began.
"Ranmaru?" Naruto repeated. At the sound of his name from Naruto, the little boy looked up from his curry, diverting Naruto's attention. "That's right! What do you want to do now, Ranmaru?"
His brows furrowing faintly in thought, Ranmaru slowly pulled the spoon from his mouth and said, "I've been thinking about that. I think I… I want to stay here and help all the people Raiga and I hurt. Maybe there isn't much I can do, but I owe it to them."
"I'm sure there's lots you can do," Naruto said confidently. "I mean, your powers are super useful. Like, you can even see through the rock, right? So you can see where everyone is in the mine, and stuff like that. I'm sure you'll be able to help them!"
Baki wanted to protest. 'This boy is a useful resource, with an incredible ability,' he thought. 'To even deceive the Byakugan…' But looking at the protective way Naruto was sitting beside Ranmaru, and the way Gaara hovered over them both, there was little doubt they wouldn't protest if he tried to bring the boy along. 'I suppose they wouldn't trust us with that boy's well-being — with reason,' Baki admitted to himself, a little bitterly. 'After all, we handled Gaara so well…'
"Is that really a good idea?" Kankuro asked dubiously. "What if they end up like the people in his hometown? Even if we don't tell them he helped Raiga, civilians are always suspicious of people with bloodlines."
The other Sand-nins looked troubled, but Ranmaru simply smiled in determination. "I know it'll be tough, but I have to try," he said. "It's all I can do to make up for everything Raiga and I did to them."
"Yeah! Besides, they'll see how great Ranmaru is in no time!" Naruto said optimistically.
"I suppose at least this place isn't like the Land of Water," Kankuro muttered. "They don't hate bloodlines the same way."
Naruto nodded enthusiastically. "Yup! Let's ask Sansho-obaasan if you can stay here," he chirped, to Ranmaru. Bouncing to his feet and picking up Ranmaru, he disappeared deeper into the shop.
Left alone with Gaara, Baki sighed and turned his mind to things he could control, unlike Naruto — for example, his mission report. "Should we never mention him or just say he died too?" he wondered. 'Honestly, Naruto…'
As the Sand team prepared to depart, old lady Sansho and Ranmaru stood in front of the curry shop to say goodbye, the latter rather unsteadily and only by leaning heavily on the old woman, but stubbornly remaining on his own two feet.
"Come back anytime," Sansho told them. "I'll make my special recipe just for you!"
"I'll do my best too," Ranmaru said. "Please come to see me again, okay?"
The team turned away, about to go, when someone called out, "Wait!"
As they paused, Karashi stumbled out of the shop — only Naruto was surprised, the other ninjas having noticed him dithering just beyond the doorway. With all eyes on him, Karashi froze and seemed to forget why he had emerged in the first place.
"I… er, I just…" he stuttered, before suddenly puffing up with false bravado. "Here!" Karashi declared. He thrust out a large box, wrapped in a plain cloth. "It's curry. On the house."
Even though Naruto was the closest to him, having hung back, instead of accepting the lunch box, he nudged Gaara forward. The redhead hesitated uncharacteristically before slowly reaching out to accept the wrapped box. Despite swallowing heavily, Karashi kept his hand steady until Gaara pulled the lunch box away.
"I made it myself, as thanks," Karashi muttered, looking away, "for beating the Kurosuki Family. And, uh, sorry… about freaking out before."
Gaara stared in surprise, until Naruto nudged him again. "It's… not a problem," he said slowly.
Nodding enthusiastically, Naruto added, "And if anything comes up, you come see us again!"
Karashi smiled embarrassedly. "Yeah… we'll definitely ask for you."
As the team set out, taking to the trees and picking up speed once the curry shop disappeared from sight, Naruto beamed at Gaara. "Looks like our mission was a big success," he said.
'I doubt the Kazekage or the council will agree with that assessment,' Baki thought. But, glancing at the thoughtful, pleased expression Gaara was still directing at the lunch box they had received, he supposed the mission was not without a certain accomplishment.
And they would have the bounty too, which would hopefully pacify his superiors somewhat.
They arrived back in Hidden Sand at sunset. The village looked beautiful, dyed in red and vermilion, as they made their way out of the entrance pass and into the town proper.
"It's good to be home," Naruto said suddenly, stopping to take in the view. Next to him, Gaara nodded thoughtfully. Naruto glanced at him, their eyes meeting. "I guess… this place has some bad memories for you…"
"But it has good ones as well," Gaara said calmly.
Naruto smiled. "Yeah," he agreed. "There are good memories here. And we'll make lots more great ones in the future." His expression became serious as he focused on the administration building's grand dome. "We can't ever erase the bad memories, but we can outweigh them. We'll make so many good ones, the bad times won't matter anymore."
"I'll be looking forward to it," Gaara said. Giving Baki a respectful nod, the two of them headed out together, no doubt for their coming home meal out.
"Well, then, I'm going to turn in as well," Kankuro said. "I've got a lot of work to do, to get Karasu back into shape…"
Once the genin were gone, Baki called out, "Well, what is it?"
A moment later, another Sand shinobi flickered into sight next to him, bowing respectfully. "Sir, the council and Kazekage-sama request your presence immediately," the other man relayed.
"Immediately? My report is hardly that urgent," Baki said calmly.
The messenger hesitated for a moment. "It would not appear to be about your team's mission, sir," he said carefully. "The Kazekage wished to be informed the moment your team returned."
"Something new came up while we were gone?" Baki wondered. "Very well, let's go."
In a swirl of sand, both shinobi disappeared.
Season 1: END