CHAPTER 3 – Going Back
Travelling on a cart was a new experience for Kushina, and she it fun and relaxing. After fleeing from Amegakure she had avoided populated areas and spent more or less a year like an hermit in the mountains.
Later on she had visited some villages on the border with Hi no Kuni and moved further north into Kusa, doing the occasional job to earn some money but never staying in the same place for more than a couple of weeks.
She had been looking for such a job when she arrived at Basue, but what she found was more or less a ghost town with the last villagers preparing to move out to Taki. She thought about it for a whole ten seconds before deciding that putting a country between her and Ame was the best thing she could do. Hell, she'd have gone to Kiri if she hadn't heard the Mizukage had genocidal tendencies.
When a strange dark haired kind woman approached her Kushina was defensive, but as it turned out that woman, Yasame, was really just concerned over the fact a young girl like her was travelling alone. And she was also kind-hearted enough to offer her a job so that she'd be able to travel with them.
An inconvenience of being on a wagon, however, were the jumps it did every time there was a bump. Her ass was starting to seriously hurt.
'Screw it, just one more and I'll fucking get off and walk on my own.'
"Are you alright?"
"Yeah, I just can't understand why no one's able to make a goddamn road flat, we might as well be going through the forest for all the stupid bumps we got."
Kaiza chuckled weakly at her. He really was a considerate sweet guy, he definitely took after his mother in that regard. On the other hand, though, he was a bit too zealous sometimes, she was sixteen, an adult, she didn't need a babysitter.
Hell, she was the trained fighter, even if she hadn't had a teacher in years, Kushina was trained as a kunoichi from an early age. A front-line fighter ninja, to be exact. If they were attacked she was more likely to save his life than the other way around.
That was, of course, if their escorts didn't dispatch the threat as they had the previous time.
The young redhead had watched as Jiraiya stood back and left his student take care of those thugs, and had been impressed. Not by his winning, any ninja worth his name should have been able to obliterate third rate scum like them. What really made her re-evaluate her opinion on Namikaze was how fast he moved.
No, it wasn't that either.
It was weird, she couldn't put her finger on it, but his movements were precise, relaxed, as if he felt like he was going in slow motion. She had the distinct impression the blond could move faster than any jounin she had ever seen if he wanted to.
And then there was that jutsu he used to destroy the barricade. What was it? He had been with his back turned so Kushina couldn't be sure, but from the position of his arms she doubted he did any handseals. She thought she had seen something, like a glowing ball... of chakra?
Whatever it was it looked unlike anything she knew of.
So, it seemed the blond was up to being his master's student, after all. Who knows, maybe one day he'll become ever stronger than him, one of the Legendary Three. He already had him beaten in wooing women, that was for sure.
In fact, right now he was chatting quietly with a brunette, although the others who seemed so smitten with him earlier had retracted. Kushina guessed they were shocked by his performance, maybe fearful at how easily he could kill those men. Pathetic. He was a ninja, what did they expect?
If anything Kushina was surprised he didn't purchase those that fled to finish them off. Maybe there was something wrong with her after all, God knows she'd seen enough violence and death to be desensitised, as much as she hated that.
"We should arrive tonight." Kaiza tried to strike up a conversation.
"Yeah..." Sadly Kushina wasn't much of a people person and his attempt fell on deaf ears.
An awkward silence descended between them. Then a wheel hit yet another stone, shaking the wagon and making Kushina almost fall flat on her face.
"Stupid damn road, how fucking hard could it be to level it, retarded road-makers can't do anything right." She kept on grumbling to herself as she jumped down the cart and started to walk alongside it.
Jiraiya, or rather the toad summon passing himself for him, sighed resignedly. It seemed he won't receive any interesting inspiration from these two to pass to his summoner. Maybe the blond tadpole would be better in that regard, though.
Minato was in fact having a nice time talking with Rei, a brunette with a good head on her shoulders and warm grey eyes. It hurt a bit to see the other girls suddenly looking at him like he would attack them at a moment's notice, but it was nice to be given some space.
Rei, unlike the others, had known from the start what to expect in case they were attacked. From what she told him, his brother was a samurai, and she had seen what ninja did during a chuunin exam he had brought her to see when she had visited him and his family.
The blond jounin himself didn't have problems with killing, sure he didn't enjoy it, but it was necessary and a part of his job. He killed to prevent others being killed, it was how the world worked, even if one day he'd like for it all to change. It was a dream he had inherited from his mentor, and although he still didn't know how such a thing may be possible he still liked to think it would happen.
The present, however, was as far from that dream as it could be.
"So, Rei, didn't your brother leave his village?"
"No, I told him to, but he's too stubborn." she answered with veiled sadness, "He told me he became a samurai to protect his village, and won't leave it even if it kills him. Besides his wife's is eight month pregnant and can't travel anyway."
Minato hummed to let her know he was listening.
"He actually lives further north, and his last letters weren't comforting. Grass-nin have intensified controls and they all look nervous, as if they expect an attack. They also started refusing a lot of missions, that's why we had to hire from Konoha.
"We don't know what is going on, but tension has continued to rise for a while now, and if it's true we're coming close to a new time of open hostilities then staying in Kusa is folly. The only place worse than this would be Ame."
"Yeah, Rain is always between a rock and an hard place..." Minato answered, but he was thinking about what he just heard.
He hoped Jiraiya was fine, but he feared that when this mission would end and he met his sensei again he'd have to hear something he really didn't want to.
Minato had accepted killing was part of his profession, but war had a way to make everything worse, to bring every action to its extremes and give you a front-seat view of your worst nightmares.
'Damn it, damn it, damn it all! Fucking backstabbing bastards.'
Jiraiya was scanning through the copies of some documents he had done earlier. Getting his hands on them had been tricky, he couldn't afford being found out and if anyone spotted him the game would be over. He already had to kill one jounin and make it look like a drunken brawl, any more deaths and the Iwa scum would become suspicious.
'I told him, Orochimaru and I told sensei Iwagakure was acting weird, but he just had to trust them because of our treaty. Where's that damn non-aggression agreement, now? If only he had let me investigate sooner we wouldn't have come to this.'
The Toad sannin had first thought to yell and rant at his sensei, the third Hokage, as soon as he came back. Now he felt more like punching the old crone in the face. If he moved when he first caught wind of something odd going on in Earth Country they they wouldn't be outnumbered three to one.
The estimates on the papers he was reading were awfully precise about how many active ninja Konoha had, and Iwa had literally build an army capable of overpowering them with sheer numbers.
Jiraiya rolled the papers and tied them tightly in a scroll which he pocketed. He would have handed it to one of his toad for safe keeping, but he couldn't summon one without attracting attention. Looking furtively around, the white haired man moved through the shadows till he made it to the outskirts of the village the Stone-nin had occupied after evacuating all the civilians who lived there.
He waited until the jounin he was observing walked away, leaving only two chuunin on guard duty. Thankfully the two were obviously inexperienced as they were paying attention only at the door and windows of the building. They were also relaxed, clearly not expecting anyone to have passed the border without alerting the patrols.
'I hope this is a sign that their numbers affected the quality of their ninja.'
The sannin managed to infiltrate through the roof, which were unusually low guarded. It was truly interesting to observe how Stone-nin gave so little thought to something any Leaf-nin would guard closer than the front door. On the other hand, no Konoha-nin would pay so much attention to the underground routes that could be used to enter a building.
'Now, to find the messages coming from the Hidden Stone Village.'
That was another downside from having waited so long. If Sarutobi sensei had let him do his move a month ago, when he had asked, he could have gone directly into the shinobi village. Now getting there was beyond even him, especially with the timetable he had been given.
Moving stealthily along the corridors, Jiraiya finally reached the room he was looking for. As he thought, it was empty in that time of the day. He estimated that he had some time as the place wasn't heavily guarded.
He went through the drawers looking for the last letters, half of his mind occupied on checking if anyone passed the chakra sensors he placed at the beginning and at the end of the corridor outside. Finally he found what he was looking for and like he did for the other documents went to make copies.
Spreading the letters on the desk, Jiraiya unrolled a scroll and covered them with it. He paused to make sure no one was too close to his position, then cautiously released the littlest quantity of chakra he could while still making the copying scroll works.
As soon as that was done the sannin paused again holding his breath and straining his senses. No activity nearby, he had gone unnoticed. He exhaled a sigh of relief and hurried in rolling up his scroll and pocket it, then carefully put the letters and everything else he touched back where they were before he came.
Although everything had gone well so far a frown marred the white haired Leaf-nin. He hadn't read the letters, just copying them, but from the few words he glimpsed it seemed Iwa wasn't alone in preparing for war, and whomever it was they were allying themselves with they were ready to attack Konoha and Fire Country.
'Shit, why is it that all news are bad news? Sigh, I better hurry up and get out of here. I hope Minato didn't have any unforeseen problems.'
His hand had just touched the doorknob when he felt someone walking down the corridor, just toward the room he was in. Turning hastily away from the door he went for the window and was about to go out from there when he noticed a seal on it. If he opened the window he'd have all the shinobi in this village on him.
An Iwa jounin entered the room and went to retrieve some papers from the filing cabinet on the left wall. He hummed lightly to himself as he went through the drawers taking out three folders, then closed the drawers and walked out of the room locking the door behind him. The seconds ticked away as the sound of his steps down the corridor became weaker and weaker till they faded completely into silence.
Jiraiya emerged from behind a bookcase, coming out of the space between it and the wall, where no human should fit. He wasn't a legendary ninja just for his good looks after all.
'Gallant Jiraiya one, nameless backstabbing Iwa scum zero. The great sage of Mount Myōboku did it again, oh yeah. Sarutobi-sensei better let me peep in peace once I get back.'
He then proceeded to pick the lock of the door, re-close it behind him, and slip out of the building at the village like a shadow, with none being the wiser.
"Hey look, look, mom! We're here!"
Minato smiled warmly at the excited children that were jumping and shouting. The sun was almost down, but they had managed to arrive to their destination before it got too dark to travel, just as they had planned.
He chuckled thinking about his old teammate, Mikoto, who probably had her hands full right now. Minato himself liked children, especially when they were past the age in which they'd throw up on him but still too young to be all rebellious and ready to go against anything said to them.
The thought of children made him remember about the request he submitted the previous month about becoming a jounin sensei. He really hoped that once they came back from this mission the Hokage would give him his own squad to lead. It was something the blond had wanted to do for some time now and he felt confident in his abilities to both teach and guide them.
'At least, I hope I can. If a war is coming, then it may be much harder than I thought.'
Loosing a teammate was already hard, how much worse would it be to loose a subordinate? A student? A child whose parents you'll have to tell you weren't fast enough, strong enough to protect? He was beginning to understand why Jiraiya used to go crazy over every time Mikoto Reimaru and Minato himself decided to try something out a new jutsu on their own or go scouting without him.
A sudden slap to the back of his head shook him out of his increasingly glooming thoughts.
"Liven up Namikaze, we're arrived and your mission is done. You look like someone died with that sour expression. It's depressing." Kushina scolded him.
"You don't look that happy either Uzumaki, although you do seem more cheerful whenever you can insult someone. Or when you hit me." Minato replied.
"I'm not hitting you, I'm trying to hurt you." The redhead confessed candidly. Minato couldn't decide if she was joking or not. "And stop looking down on me." She added.
"I cannot help it if you're that much shorter than me."
Kushina looked at him for a second before rolling her eyes. "You're a pathetically lame person to banter with, Namikaze."
The fact that the critic came from a girl two years his junior made it even worse. He was just grateful Jiraiya-sensei wasn't there to hear it.
"I'm sorry." He wasn't sure why he felt it his duty to apologize.
Even more confusing was when his younger companion turned to stare at him. Minato was starting to feel unnerved under her gaze when she finally shook her head.
"No, you're not." she sentenced, "But it's all right, I guess ninja stuff is taking up all your brain capacity."
Why did this girl have to insult him every occasion she got? Admittedly it wasn't ill spirited as it had been on the first day, but it was still somewhat annoying. Minato chalked it up to her just being an immature little girl, even if he himself wasn't convinced about this conclusion.
"Well, I better go pack up my things."
"Huh? Why?" The blond jounin asked. That was something he was thinking to do since he had to get back to his own village after rejoining with his real sensei, but she had just arrived to her destination, hadn't she?
Kushina spared a glance at him before shrugging.
"I'm not stopping here. I've joined them because Yasame insisted so much, but I want to keep going."
Minato noticed a far away look in her eyes as the young Uzumaki seemed to fall deep in thought. He had the distinct impression that she was trying to flee from something, maybe a painful memory. It'd explain why she had nightmares.
"Well, just be careful, ok? It can be dangerous on the road."
His comment, made out of genuine concern, had the effect to raise the girl's ire once again judging by the murderous glare she levelled at him.
"I am not a defenceless little child Namikaze!" she spat venomously, "I had hoped to at least part on friendly terms, but if this is all you can do then forget it! You're just a pompous snobbous ass!"
Minato watched with his mouth hanging open as the redhead stormed off. He couldn't understand how she could switch moods so fast so often in the span of a minute. Granted, he knew that the girl was somewhat self-conscious about her age, but she just flew right off the handle at the slightest comment, even when he his words had nothing to do with it.
And she did that only with him! Jiraiya -and Gamashiro after his summoner's place- could say the exact same things as Minato without Kushina trying to bite off their head.
Although he had to admit it was somewhat fun to see her doing just that, Minato had noticed that she started to say nonsenses when she got angry. It was cute in a way.
'I wonder what she'd think of Fugaku if she thinks I'm snobbous. Snobbous... is that even a word? Probably not.'
The Leaf jounin turned to see Rei smiling shyly at him.
"The sun's already down, and... Well, I wanted to know if... If you'll wait till tomorrow morning before leaving?" She stammered as her cheeks colored.
Minato smiled at the nervous girl and nodded.
"So you're really leaving?"
Kushina looked up from her crouched position over her backpack to meet Kaiza's eyes.
"Yeah." She answered turning back to check if she had everything, "I want to get to the other side of the country, and then I think I'll go further North till I get on the coast."
"I see." He said sadly.
Finally satisfied and sure that she had packed everything, Kushina stood up slipping her backpack onto her shoulders and turned to face Kaiza properly.
"Don't make that face, now. I swear you guys are always looking at everything as if it's a tragedy!" she tried to get him out of his dark mood. When she saw it wasn't working, the redhead sighed and gave him a smaller and more honest smile. "Thank you Kaiza, I already told your parents, you and your family have been very kind to me, but I need to go. It doesn't mean we won't see each other again, though."
This time her words seemed to reach him as he smiled back and nodded. Then, surprising her, Kaiza hugged her and whispered his goodbyes before turning and almost running away.
Kushina stared after him for a bit, confused at the sudden gesture, then shrugged it off and walked across the village to the exit at the opposite side of where they had entered it.
Saying her goodbyes to Kaiza and his parents had taken her mind off her anger at the idiotic blond jounin, but now that she had passed the village's gates and was alone once again she found herself thinking back about him.
Since their first bumping into each other -all Namikaze's fault- he had annoyed her. It was just that his behaviour, the way he talked to her, the way he simply existed grated on her nerves. She had seen the way he addressed the other girls of the caravan, always smiling and charming, but with her... he treated her like she was a child.
Kushina kicked a stone on her path with anger. She didn't understand why she was getting so upset over this. Sure, Namikaze was a good-looking guy, and that night when she had had a nightmare he showed to have a gentle side she wouldn't have suspected in a shinobi but...
'Gah, what the hell am I thinking?'
She kicked the stone again. Kushina stood still and watched it rolling down the dark path. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply to calm down. Once she had regained a cool head she tried to analyse the problem once again.
Honestly speaking she hadn't found Namikaze's personality that bad, he was actually quite charming, although her own character clashed horribly with his. And there was no denying that physically he was kind of handsome. All in all she liked the guy. There was nothing deep or serious whatsoever to it, and obviously, considering her situation and lifestyle, if he had expressed any kind of interest in her she would have rejected him. So why was she so annoyed at him?
Kushina stopped and looked down at herself. The moonlight allowed her to barely see her own body, which she observed with a critical eye. Maybe the problem was just that a guy she considered good-looking and that she liked couldn't even see her as a woman.
Now, that was a depressing thought.
'Too bad for him! Damn bastard, who the hell does he think he is?' Kushina kept on stomping on her way down the road. 'At least I won't see ever again, I've got enough of his attitude to last for a lifetime. Stupid moron, as if three years are that much of a difference.'
It was early morning and the sky was just beginning to clear up on the East anticipating the sunrise.
Minato exited the village and jumped on the tree branches, hopping from one to another. He had more than enough time to reach the rendezvous point where he would rejoin his teacher, but he felt the need to stretch and nothing worked like a run on the trees.
Once he had left the village and any potential witness within, there was also no need to mask Jiraiya's absence anymore so Gamashiro had promptly dispelled itself. Minato had no doubt however that he'd see him soon enough, likely to complain with Jiraiya about how little action he had seen.
But for the moment he was alone and he was enjoying the quiet. It may be the last chance he had to do so for a long time.
Minato thought about his still unnamed original jutsu. He had had the chance to use it to clear the way after that bandit's attack, but it still took him too long to form it. He needed more practice if he wanted to be able to use it effectively on the battlefield.
Once he did that, however, he'd still have the problem of reach. His chakra ball -a tentative name he was sure Jiraiya-sensei won't approve of- was a short range attack and more suited for a one on one confrontation than anything else. If only he could get the Hiraishin to work the problem would cease to be, but the only time he managed to use it he threw up right before loosing consciousness. And he hadn't manage to do it again either.
'So I have one unnamed jutsu with a glaring weakness, and a named jutsu that doesn't work. Maybe I should just forget this and go back to study old jutsu instead of creating new ones. If anything it wouldn't be so frustrating.'
Minato kept his pace all morning, made only a brief break to eat lunch, and reached the agreed meeting point only a couple of hours after that. Since he was early he hid himself in one of the highest trees. While half his attention was on anyone approaching or passing through the area, he took out a notebook to study the design for the Hiraishin markers. He'd have practiced his chakra ball too, but he didn't want to risk being sensed him if he did.
The Hiraishin markers as a matter of fact were seals Minato had created modifying the core one of the summoning technique. In fact, one could say that the whole principle of the jutsu was to summon oneself. The major problem was that the summoning jutsu wasn't designed for human beings, and he had been warned multiple times by both his sensei and his sensei's teammate, Tsunade, that even if he succeeded a prolonged use of such a technique could have long terms negative effects on his body.
Minato, however, was determined to complete his jutsu, especially if a war was coming. Being able to summon himself from one place to the other on the battlefield with a mere thought could allow him to save hundreds of lives. Or end them.
The blond jounin felt a familiar chakra signature enter his range of perception and put away his notes.
He waited patiently for the figure of his sensei to appear and wasn't disappointed. He didn't ask him what he had found out since Jiraiya's expression was indicative enough to let the blond know that their worries were founded.
They made their way back to Konoha mostly in silence.