To her considerable aggravation, Sakura discovered that falling asleep on a boat was much more difficult than it had any right to be. The pitching and the rocking and all the creaking from wood that was probably older than she was kept the girl from falling very deeply into her nap. Every time something nearby would groan just a little too loud she'd be wide awake and it would take another ten minutes to go back to sleep. As tired as she was, Sakura gave getting a decent few hours of sleep a dozen different attempts before admitting she was defeated; she would have to sleep when the captain slept.
If the captain slept; Floki hadn't left the ship's wheel in hours. Sakura had tried to spend the time taking in the scenery, but cypress after cypress going by could only keep her entertained for so long. Only the rare animal sighting could pique her interest and those were few and far between with all the noise the old boat was making.
Sakura did have one way to waste some time, though. She had once had a pair of marbles that reacted to her chakra, a basic item for studious Genin, but they were lost with all her original gear before getting to Suna. Instead, Sakura substituted the marbles for her canteen full of water which she was now trying to manipulate in the same way. Sakura didn't want the water to interfere with her doton jutsu again in case she had to use one out on the water.
Going was slow. Water was a very, very different element than rock and earth. With the earth, a good jutsu required the user to push as much chakra into it as they wanted and force the jutsu out. The same idea didn't work at all for water, which was easy to push chakra into but hard to mold into a jutsu. To Sakura it was like trying to look in two directions at the same time – the push of the chakra and the molding of the jutsu.
A bit winded and annoyed at her lack of progress, Sakura pushed the glass away and got to her feet for a good stretch. She walked over to the railing and leaned out over the water. No matter how much she looked at it, one bit of river looked the same as any other.
"Hey old man, do you really know which way we're going?" she called out. "We've already passed a few forks in the river."
Even from down on deck Sakura could see Floki's grimace. "I've spent more time on this river than your mother has spent on her back, brat. Just sit back down and let me work so you can fail and I can go back home."
Delightful as always. Sakura clenched her hands a few times and counted to ten before trying again. "Why are you being so difficult? I need your help and you need mine. We should be working together."
"Because you're a ninja. All you lot do is drain us of our money like swamp leeches on a catfish."
"You didn't have to bring me if you hate me that much. That other guy volunteered to take me."
Floki sucked his teeth. His eyes strayed from the river for a moment and he fixed Sakura with a look. "That's my business," he spat. "You just sit there, shut up, and be happy that you managed to con the village elder into believing that a little squirt like you can do anything for us."
Rolling her eyes, Sakura didn't ask any more questions after that. She went back to the bow and sat down with her legs between the railing, letting her feet dangle near the water.
Sakura tried to remember the last time she'd relaxed like this and found she couldn't remember. Before she'd graduated the Academy (and before Kabuto) she and her mother had gone to places like the park or some of the playgrounds scattered around their neighborhood. Even back then, though, she'd been more ninja than little girl, what with her habit of pointing out all the various things that could be used as improvised weapons or poisons. Her mother had stopped taking her places altogether when Sakura had earned the privilege of being able to carry a modest weapon pouch with her outside of school.
She dipped her toes into the cool river. Did she really mind that, though? Sakura didn't feel angry at the memories – just a tad wistful. That had been a different little girl, one overly-proud of learning academy lessons faster than anyone else and eager to share. Was it any wonder it had made her mother uncomfortable? She was as much a civilian as the people back in Westpike. Her mother knew that jutsu weren't "magic", but beyond that she was probably as unnerved as everyone else.
"You know how to keep quiet when your elder tells you to. Maybe you're not so bad."
Sakura hid her surprise at hearing the captain so close with a loud scoff. "You got me thinking about my mother," she said. "I'm wondering if she's secretly as scared of ninja as you are."
Floki was amidships fumbling with a crate of fishing supplies. Looking up at the wheelhouse, Sakura saw that he'd wedged a stick under the ship's wheel to keep it going straight.
"I'm sure she's scared shitless of you and your little magic tricks," he flatly gibed. "Now come help me with rigging up some trawling rods or you'll be licking the deck planks for dinner."
Baiting tackle wasn't much different than making traps and Sakura took to it without much direction. Even though Floki was as scathing about her work as ever, in less than half an hour six rods were baited and dangling off the back of the boat. To Sakura's relief, the old man went back to steering the boat himself with only a grumbled order to watch them.
The back of the ship was more or less as exciting as the front. Sakura could have gone back to paddling around in the water with her feet – if not for the wicked way the boat's prop churned. Sakura, like many ninja, wasn't well versed in mechanical technology; it was a civilian science. Electrical science had its place, but ninja typically eschewed things like bicycles, motorbikes, and boats because they could travel quicker and quieter with just chakra.
"Quiet" and "quick" were two things Sakura would never say about this boat. It was twenty-five feet of flat-bottomed junker that had been patched and patched and patched again over the years. Sakura was no religious scholar, but she was sure in some corners of the world something this old would be taken out of the water and venerated as some kind of eldritch boat god. With its growling engine and breath full of black smoke it certainly looked the part of a vengeful monster prowling up and down the river.
Not that Sakura had much experience with ships or being on the water. One didn't find too many boats in Konoha and even less of an opportunity to ride on one. Sakura thought she remembered that there was a public ferry in some village a few miles to the east, though she'd never been there on a mission or otherwise.
"You know, this is my first time on a boat," Sakura said aloud. "You're a pretty bad host. Aren't you worried you'll give me a bad impression of all boats and fishermen?"
Sakura made a face and went back to watching the rods. She decided that was going to be her last attempt to draw the old man into a conversation. If he wanted to go the rest of the day without talking then so be it. She pulled back out her canteen and went back to her chakra experimentation.
The silence lasted for nearly half an hour. One of the rods started squealing as a fish pulled out the line. Sakura had no idea what to do, but she jumped up and locked the reel up.
The boat's engine died and Floki was down off the wheelhouse in a flash. "Out of the way, girl!" he barked, yanking the rod out of Sakura's hands.
He flipped the drag switch and the squealing stopped. "You can't choke it up like that or the line'll snap. You have to let them run with it until they get tired. Grab the gaff."
Sakura had no idea what a 'gaff' was, but an angry explanation from Floki sent her scurrying. When she finally found the thing he took it without a word of thanks and continued his battle with whatever was on the line. Sakura was put in charge of hauling in the other rods so that the fish didn't get tangled and she found the work a welcome respite from her boredom; she was even a bit anxious to see what they had hooked.
Floki managed to surprise her as well. With a gaff in one hand and the rod in the other he didn't look nearly so gnarled as he did standing behind the ship's wheel. He was old, of course, but in his element Sakura almost convinced herself it was a stately old. His beard bristled when the gaff came down, straining well-worn muscles, and when he finally hauled the fish over the side he gave a deep grunt that could have been mistaken for a roar of triumph.
That quickly changed when he got a good look at the catch. "Piss on it. All that work for an alligator gar."
The fish was aptly named. It was nearly as long as Sakura was tall with massive fins and a broad snout filled to the brim with nasty-looking teeth. Even the thing's scales looked like the great plates of its namesake. Sakura stood well away as it thrashed on the deck, getting impressive height itself and also swinging around the spar still stuck in its side.
"What's wrong with it?" Sakura asked. It looked perfectly fine to eat to her. The gar's middle was bigger around than her thigh.
Floki squinted up at the sun. "Nothing is wrong with it, but gar meat has to boil a good bit before it's fit to eat. Supper will be later than I thought even if we put anchor down now."
Sakura didn't like the sound of that. The gar had stopped thrashing and Floki yanked his gaff out of it. "You said we could get there by this afternoon," Sakura griped. "I need to get back to Konoha!"
The captain ignored her objection and hooked the gar's gills with the spar. "I won't sail on this river at night; there are too many sunken logs and rocks that are closer to the surface now that the water levels are down. We're only a few miles from the nearest canal and we'll be there before you even wake up in the morning, so no more bellyaching. I want help cleaning and gutting this fish or you'll have to catch your own dinner."
Sakura recognized a losing argument when she heard one. Reluctantly she followed Floki to the back of the wheelhouse where his modest kitchen was. She was given the job of watching the stove and preparing the broth for the stew (by following a very strict set of instructions that had been barked at her) while the old man went at the gar with a massive skinning knife. Making the fish broth was fairly simple, so Sakura had ample time to watch how the fisherman went about his business. Floki carefully skinned the gar after gutting it and took the time to set the skin out to dry. When she bothered to ask why, he'd surprised her by saying that gar skin made for decent leather and the scales could be used to coat a plow.
When Floki finished there was more cleaned meat than the pot could hold. Floki packed what was left into a untrustworthy-looking freezer and gave the rest to Sakura to dice and put into the pot while he went and anchored the ship. Sakura, who had never cooked anything more difficult than scrambled eggs, thought it all turned out rather well. It did take a rather long time for the gar meat to get soft enough that it mixed in well with the rest of the soup, but the end result was much better than the hasty breakfast Sakura had cooked for herself that very morning.
Even Floki found little to complain about after he came in. "It's not terrible," he muttered when Sakura asked how it was. He didn't bother to hide his grumpiness at seeing the girl's smug smile after that. "A monkey could follow a set of directions on how to make fish stew. More importantly, shouldn't you be studying or training or something to clear that canal instead of angling for compliments?"
"It doesn't really work like that. I can't prepare anything until I see what kind of jutsu was used. If it's really cement I can do something about it, but it might be something completely different. You might just think it looks like cement."
"I damn well know what cement is since the entire village helps whenever someone wants to put up a new shack to squat in. The entire canal was filled with the shit."
Sakura nodded and shoveled another forkful of stew into her mouth. She was already on her second bowl and was grateful that Floki didn't make an obvious note of it. Considering all she'd really had since leaving Konoha were the lackluster meals with the first caravan and disgusting hospital food, the gar stew was a godsend.
She stifled a contented burp as she pushed away her bowl. "Well, if it really is cement I can get rid of it."
"With the earth magic or the water magic?" Floki was trying very hard to sound nonchalant, but it was obvious he was curious and had never dealt personally with a ninja before.
"It's not really magic the way you're thinking. They're just jutsu, techniques, that we're trained to use." His fuzzy white eyebrow's knitted. With a sudden inspiration, Sakura pointed to the stewpot. "We follow a recipe of sorts, add the ingredients together, and out comes what we want to happen."
Floki looked a bit less confused after that explanation. "So anyone can use those techniques as long as they have the right recipe? I suppose that's why you all hole up in your hidden villages so that nothing gets out."
Sakura reached across the table and took a loaf of bread from the captain's plate. She challenged his grunt of protest with a level look of her own and promptly chomped down on one side of it. "Something like that," Sakura said between chews. She held up a finger and easily slipped into a lecture. "You have to train really, really hard to be able to use your chakra. Chakra – that's the 'ingredient' that you use to make a jutsu function. It took me years to learn how to draw it out."
There was no helping the captain understand the concept of chakra; it was something you had to experience yourself. The first time Sakura had ever felt that mysterious fuel bubble up from inside she'd thought she was sick and going to die. Silly, but Sakura comforted herself by remembering she'd only been four at the time.
"But I'm right about the villages, though. You all do keep your blasted secrets hidden in there so you can charge us honest folks more."
The accusation in the captain's voice rolled off Sakura like water off a duck's back. "It's a business. You wouldn't teach everyone all your secret fishing tricks, right? Same principle." A cross look told Sakura just how much Floki appreciated his profession being compared to ninja work. "We don't get to just hoard money," Sakura tried. "We pay through the nose to live and work in the city to the point where basic mission pay is next to nothing for Genin."
She didn't bother mentioning that nearly all Genin lived with family. A few odd ones would stay in the lowest ninja bracket for years, or even decades, but they were the exception. Chuunin practically ran the entire village so keeping a steady flow of graduates was important.
Floki dismissed all that with a distracted wave of his hand. The captain had started rooting around in a floor chest when Sakura began trying to make excuses and returned to the conversation with an open pack of cigarettes. He lit one up and took a few puffs, poignantly ignoring Sakura's loud, fake coughs.
"What kind of expenses could you possibly have," he huffed, swinging around his cigarette. "Have to buy food? Clothes? Considering how much you all gouge us for that's nothing."
Sakura began counting on her fingers. "Hospital bills, rent, equipment costs, licensing fees, occupational insurance, separate taxes to the Fire Country, training equipment, and lots of other things."
A great snake of smoke slithered out the corner of Floki's mouth as he let out a lungful of hot air. "Your parents take care of that," he decided, though it was only after a long consideration of Sakura's words. "Taxes and insurance and everything else. I'm sure a kid like you has no idea what your village does to the small folk that have to pay for your missions."
Floki wasn't wrong. Sakura honestly had no idea exactly how much her village charged per mission, since the actual fee was determined by the Hokage and other village elders. Generally a D-Class mission was affordable for nearly anyone, but above that involved actual shinobi work and thus the price was much greater on average. Considering the travel time and nature of work, what she was going to do for Floki's village would probably be a C-Ranked mission if the village had accepted it.
Demurring from arguing mission price, Sakura focused on the other part of Floki's comment. "I'm technically an adult. Once I got my forehead protector I received the right to take care of my own finances."
Sakura reached into her pouch and brought out her Konoha headband. When she handed it over to Floki, it gleamed in the low lamplight. "It shows our loyalty to our village."
"So why aren't you wearing it?" Floki asked, turning the polished slab of metal over in his hand. He let out a whistle when he ran a finger over the fine leather strap it was mounted on. "Something this nice should be shown off."
"I don't know who I'll run into in this country," she explained, accepting the headband back and safely stowing it away again. "Konoha has enemies and I'm a lone ninja operating without a team on an unsanctioned mission. I could run into factions that are unfriendly to my village and cause problems for you." She really didn't expect anything like that this close to the Fire Country, but then she'd never expected to get attacked on the way to an allied village either.
Sakura's unease didn't extend to her companion. "You don't know what a problem is," Floki scoffed. "Protect me? What can a little twig of a girl protect anyone from? You can talk about being an adult all you want, but in the end I have grandchildren older than you."
Floki leaned over the table and cocked his head to the side. In the lamplight, Sakura could make out a long white scar that ran from his jaw and down past his collar. "That is from an actual fight, girl."
He sank back into his chair and jerked the collar of his shirt back up as if he were exposing himself to a crowd. Another long drag of his cigarette and he muttered, "Blades and blood – that's a real fight. You can't throw a fancy headband at a pirate hacking your crew to pieces. You can't run off and beg some ninja to take a mission. You just suffer."
The boat was silent again except for the creaking of the wood as it bobbed in the water. Minutes later it became too much for Sakura and she left the captain with just his smoldering cigarette and the memories she'd clumsily drudged up.
Morning came too soon for Sakura.
After the awkward and unpleasant turn the last night's dinner conversation had taken, Sakura had retreated to the deck of the ship to find a place to sleep. In the end she'd never been shown a specific place to even stow her things, so Sakura had curled up on a deck chair for a few fitful hours of sleep. Like the rest of the boat, the chair had seen better days and her back had more than a few kinks and splinters in it from all her tossing and turning.
That hadn't woken the girl up, though. No, it had been Floki loudly ringing the ship's bell that'd done that. Sakura shot an annoyed look up at the wheelhouse which the captain accepted with unabashed and unsightly (for his age) glee at having a petty bit of fun.
"Wake up, girlie. It's time to fail miserably!" At least he didn't seem to be brooding about last night. Sakura rolled to her feet and groaned at how badly her back creaked.
Floki certainly sounded chipper and it only took Sakura a moment of looking around to see why. The boat had been moved down the river and now it was moored next to a modern-looking dock. It was jarring to see metal buildings and piers that were clean and maintained when all Sakura had been around since leaving Suna was wilderness and shanty towns.
It was their destination, or so Sakura imagined; she'd certainly never seen such a thing in all her life. The river had been artificially split and diverted down a perfectly square canal that branched off into a clear field. It looked like that was where cargo would have been unloaded from the larger ships so that they could float down the canal without scraping bottom.
Floki's little boat didn't have that problem. The captain revved the ship's engines and took them into the mouth of the deserted canal. There were places along the bank where once the canal's operators would have sat to collect tolls from the passing boats, but all the stations were empty now. Sakura imagined that actual ninja sabotage would have frightened the usual workers away until the River Daimyo could coax them all back and fix the canal.
Another few minutes passed before the blockage came into view. Sakura stepped up to the bow of the boat and leaned over the rail as Floki maneuvered them to the edge of the canal.
"It'll take a few minutes to hook a line up there without any of the blasted channel workers around," Floki griped as he climbed down off the wheelhouse. "We could hook it with the gaff and try to lasso the damn thing, or…or you could just walk up the damn wall and leave me on deck."
Sakura sent the befuddled captain a pleasant smile from the top of the canal wall. "I would offer to help," she called back, "but you said before we left port that I only had a day to fix this mess before you leave me behind."
It seemed a bratty thing to do, but Sakura wagered the old man could use some time away from her as much as she needed some time away from him. Too much unpleasantness had been dredged up on both sides.
The buildings dotting the canal zone gave Sakura ample opportunity to stretch her legs. She walked a few feet, stretching out her muscles, before leaping to the top of a freight container sitting by the canal. Soft hollow echoes followed her as she began a small journey around the yard with short, chakra-infused bounds. The feel was nostalgic; Sakura had only just begun to travel like this along Konoha's rooftop ninja "highway" before the mission to Suna.
With her chakra buzzing in her chest and her body warmed-up, Sakura angled toward the canal and landed atop the concrete damming the canal. The view from above confirmed what she'd seen from the water – sixty feet of solid concrete higher than the mast of Floki's ship and as wide as the canal itself stretched below her.
Sakura kicked off her sandals. The concrete was cool and hard under her feet, not yet warmed by the day's sun. Her chakra surged, but struggled to sink into the mix. She had to concentrate on getting any kind of read on the substance.
A few minutes later, Floki showed up at the edge of the canal huffing and puffing from the climb up the side. He didn't step out on the edge, but called out, "Got anything done yet?"
Sakura bit back a snap. "It's weird," she said instead. She struggled for a proper explanation of what she was feeling.
"Remember what I told you about chakra last night? How it's the 'mix' that creates ninjutsu?" Sakura had her eyes closed so she couldn't see if the man nodded or not, but he didn't make a sarcastic quip so she continued. "I'm using my chakra to see how the cement was created. If I can figure out the jutsu the ninja that created this used, I might be able to just unravel it and save us a lot of time and trouble."
The clicking of a lighter told Sakura the old captain had come prepared for a long wait. "Tell me again how you can 'see' anything with your eyes closed." Sakura was thankful that there was a breeze and that she wouldn't have to smell those awful cigarettes of his.
"It's an extension of my body, I guess. The chakra comes from inside me when I mold it." Sakura slowly began making her way toward the center of the concrete. She could feel something inside the block resisting her. It wasn't alive per se, but it was unnerving to force her chakra up against.
"You're putting your body down into that concrete?" Floki let out a loud harrumph as he cleared his lungs of smoke. "I don't get it. How can you put your body down into a big chunk of rock? I don't see you doing anything but walking around."
Sakura opened her eyes and smiled bashfully. "I don't really understand it myself. Using my chakra like this is something I have to do when I use doton jutsu, so I thought I could get an idea of what jutsu caused this if I studied it first."
That, and Sakura wanted to test just how her chakra had changed since her fight with the Rain-nin. Throwing out her chakra through the ground and using it to sense things was the basics of doton jutsu, but she'd suffered more than a few setbacks recently, with the failure at Floki's village instantly springing to mind. Sakura didn't believe that her inability to sense very deeply into the cement underfoot had anything to do with that, though.
"There's chakra still in this cement," Sakura said with conviction. Chakra wasn't alive, but it would resist other chakra trying to interact with it. "You said that this plug was made days ago, which means the chakra used to create it was…amazing."
Sakura walked over to the edge of the block and looked down. It wasn't a universal cut of concrete, but instead it looked like someone had poured it from the edge of the canal. The concrete looked melted closer to the water, like a candle burned down to its base.
Whoever had done this was Sakura's better when it came to doton jutsu. Sakura couldn't even use a basic one when she'd been underwater.
That wasn't all, though. Sakura used her chakra to break off a chunk of the concrete and carried it over to where Floki was sitting. The girl felt far more comfortable standing on solid, natural ground than on top of someone's jutsu.
"The concrete is strange," Sakura said, answering the earlier question. It felt like something had been mixed with the doton jutsu to create the concrete, but Sakura had no idea how that had been achieved.
"Think you can figure it out?"
The girl turned the piece of concrete over and over in her hands, lacing the thing with her chakra until she could feel the rock moving between her fingers like putty. She twisted and turned the rock this way and that, separating the hard bits that she couldn't mold from what she could. To her surprise, it was the softer bits that she had the trouble with; harder chunks mixed with her earth natured chakra easily.
Floki fell back onto the grass and closed his eyes. "I can see that you're busy, so just wake me up when you want to give up. I'll drop you off at the river fork so you can hoof it to the next village."
That turned out to be the last bit of commentary from the difficult captain and Sakura gladly forgot his presence as he dozed in the morning sun. She went back to studying the broken-up piece of cement, seeing how her chakra changed, and didn't change, it.
She tried to remember a lesson from the Academy or something from a book that would help. As a rule, the Academy had never taught anything beyond the most basic of jutsu. Iruka and the other teachers had stressed chakra control above all else. Sakura knew that was right, since good chakra control was necessary to use any jutsu at all, but she'd never had trouble with control and had thus ignored most of the lessons beyond learning what she needed for an exam.
Kakashi was likewise unhelpful. Her sensei had focused on mundane things like stamina training, taijutsu, and his philosophical 'life lessons' that he would impart from time to time. None of them really stuck with her and they seemed far too broad to apply to anything serious.
Surprisingly, the only time during training that ninjutsu had really been the focus had been when they'd had a free practice day with Kakashi's supervision. Sakura had been hiding the full depths of her training at the time, but Sasuke and Naruto had no such qualms. It had been one of the only times Sakura had actually seen her teammates use their ninjutsu. The Kage Bunshin wasn't an elemental technique, but Sasuke had been practicing his Gokakyu no Jutsu and hadn't minded the audience. Sakura still remembered the feel of the chakra that Sasuke had been molding to use the technique.
With a start, Sakura realized she hadn't recognized the sensation as elemental chakra until this very moment. The dense, fierce chakra that went into the Gokakyu no Jutsu had been written off as her standing too close at the time, but now it was crystal clear that she'd been feeling the chakra being molded and just hadn't recognized the sensation.
The desert; the Rain-nin; the camp fire – it all snapped into focus for Sakura at that moment. She'd learned the feel of fire elemental chakra when she'd reached out to the campfire in the desert. In fact, she'd actually used it to attack the Rain-nin.
Sakura looked back down at the broken-up cement with bolstered curiosity. She cleared her mind and started lacing her chakra back into the parts, only this time she wasn't molding it. What had been a difficult, rigorous exercise was now simple; her chakra flowed into the entire block of cement. She could sense how the earth chakra mixed with a second and third type of chakra.
Somehow whoever had made this plug had managed to use earth, water, and fire chakra. It boggled Sakura's mind that the three elements could have been mixed in such a way. Suddenly the issue of removing such a thing seemed more unreasonable than ever.
Don't think like that, Sakura thought and she gave herself a light pat on the cheek. Her skin felt clammy and damp under her fingers. Molding so much chakra for such delicate work had taken a lot out of her, but she couldn't stop yet. Especially not now after she'd finally figured out the secret to the cement.
She did, however, sit down again to rest. Her mind pulled inward, quieting her worries and doubts. Sakura forced herself to look at the plug as a problem to be worked out and not some physical obstacle to be overcome. If this were a question on an exam, what kind of answer would she give? Three chakra natures, all mingled into one substance, had to be removed; what was the most efficient way to do so?
The most logical step would be to reverse engineer the jutsu. Every jutsu had an "off" switch, so-to-speak, that a user could activate to end the effect on jutsu that didn't originate inside a user's body. However, this was an odd jutsu that used three different types of chakra natures. Sakura had never encountered such a thing before and doubted that she'd ever be able to understand such a thing.
Next would be physically breaking the block apart with brute force. Putting aside the question of actually knowing a doton jutsu powerful enough to do such a thing, Sakura had an added stipulation of time. Recovering from using that much chakra would take hours of rest; maybe even a full night's sleep. Floki wouldn't wait that long for her.
The more she thought, the more Sakura accepted that she had to find something to neutralize the cement quickly and without much effort; something that she could easily reproduce at future canals; something that didn't involve actually learning the full intricacy of the jutsu.
Her thoughts drifted back to how she'd managed to change the cement with her earth elemental chakra. It had broken apart into two different substances – a dry, brittle rock and a malleable type of clay. Sakura correctly deduced that the clay was earth mixed with water, which meant that the rock was the earth mixed with fire. Why hadn't she noticed that the remaining rock had been part earth and fire? Why had it been easier to mold with earth chakra than the clay?
Sakura looked down at the scattered pieces of cement she'd been experimenting on. The dry rock had been broken up into tiny pieces mostly by her earth elemental chakra while the clay had continued to resist manipulation until she'd used her normal, unmolded chakra. In fact, Sakura hadn't even realized that the first bit was mixed with anything until realizing that it was a multi-element jutsu.
Only one explanation raised its head after Sakura eliminated everything else: the jutsu that had seemed a simple doton, that had then transformed into a three-pronged jutsu, was actually in two parts. The ninja had used earth and fire chakra in the original jutsu and then had applied water after the fact.
A smile tugged at the corner of Sakura's mouth. "The old man was actually right," she chuckled, happy that Floki was still asleep. She didn't want him gloating.
It wasn't a jutsu – not really. The plug was natural quicklime, the chemical building block of simple commercial cement. There were no tricks to it other than its quick production and solidification, likely caused with the introduction of water. Some kind of earth and fire jutsu had created the original mix and then the ninja had added a water jutsu to make it solidify. It was why the water didn't truly mix with the fire and earth.
If she was right, then the solution was remarkably simple – eliminate the water inside the cement and break the brittle rock apart.
Floki sputtered when Sakura prodded him awake with her foot. "I need you to move."
"It's not like you're going to be doing anything," he grumbled. Still, the old man hobbled over to where Sakura directed him with only a little more fussing. He could see the purpose burning behind Sakura's eyes. She had an idea – thought she had an idea – about how to actually fix this mess and he wouldn't be the one to muck it up by being obstinate.
Sakura took her time walking back to the plug. She recalled memories, pleasant and unpleasant, from deep within her mind. Thanks to her unique memory, everything was crystal clear once she had a grasp on what she wanted. In particular two things came to the forefront – a feeling and a sequence of seals.
Slowly she forced her fingers into unfamiliar shapes. Chakra boiled up from her chest, racing down pathways never-before used for jutsu, pushing and straining at her body so much that Sakura thought she'd throw up. When she clenched the final seal, the feeling redoubled and Sakura couldn't keep her mouth shut any longer. She coughed once, twice, and then violently hacked up dark globs of spittle and phlegm.
Sakura wiped her mouth. What she had feared was blood was actually her own spit mixed with a flakey, powdery substance.
Sasuke's seals came faster and with more confidence the second time. Sakura copied everything she remembered her teammate doing, from the way he arched his body to how deep a breath he took. The chakra she forced to feel like it had in the desert when her body had done it unconsciously. This time she could feel the heat radiating out from her chest and didn't resist the nauseous feeling as it burned up her throat.
A modest-sized fireball erupted from the super-charged gas pouring out Sakura's mouth. It ignited right in front of her face and she fell back on her backside as the hot blast wave washed over her. She reached up and frantically rubbed at her eyebrows just to make sure they were still there.
"Did you see that!" she yelled out to Floki. "That was a fireball! I did it!"
Floki couldn't respond; his jaw had gone slack at the first puff of smoke.
Sakura hopped to her feet and flashed through the seals once again. A sheer feeling of triumph burned through her hotter than the fire chakra she was molding. "Katon: Gokakyu no Jutsu!" Again the feeling of super-heated gas burned through her throat and it erupted into a conflagration that scorched the top of the cement plug. The flame rolled over the cement like liquid fire, but Sakura could only hold the stream for a few moments before her breath gave out.
The genin sucked in another lung-full of air, but her chest didn't want to cooperate. Instead of another belch of fire all that came out was a strangled cough. Deciding that she'd already pushed it a bit too much for a new jutsu, Sakura stepped over to the canal bank and sank down into the grass for a rest.
While she had been experimenting with the katon, Floki had recovered. The captain now hobbled as fast as his sea legs would take him over to the girl. Sakura grinned and let him recover his wits when he sank down beside her, but soon enough he was talking.
"I've never seen a damned thing like that! You spit out an explosion like some kind of dragon!" A change had come over the captain and now he looked at Sakura with an expression of wonder more at home on the face of a child than a grizzled old timer. "Are you going to blow up that sodding plug with your bomb breath?"
Sakura laughed at that even though the action caused another fit of coughing. "No," she sputtered, "not with the bomb breath."
As best she could, she began explaining just what she was trying to do with the cement. Heat would evaporate the water out of it and allow her doton jutsu to simply collapse the whole thing like a giant block of sand. Floki understood her a bit more than Sakura would have given him credit.
"So you're making a clay pot." It was such a strange, basic concept that Sakura could only nod dumbly at the captain. "Why not make a kiln, then?"
It took the rest of the morning, but the two managed, with the help of a few doton spires and an electric wench from Floki's ship, to tear down some of the prefab warehouses surrounding the canal. The metal walls and roofs settled over the cement with a few feet clearance and Sakura's renewed efforts were having a much greater effect.
By noon most of the cement slab was a deep black color and the metal "kiln" was starting to warp from the heat. It had been half an hour since either of the two had been able to get close to the oven and the River Country summer heat was helping their efforts nicely. After a lunch of leftover fish broth, Sakura felt confident enough in their efforts to attempt to break the block down with a doton.
Floki watched anxiously from the bank as Sakura crawled down the canal wall to the base of the concrete plug. Even down close to the water the heat was incredible. Sakura fought her body's natural instinct to stay away from such a heat source and started molding her chakra into more the familiar earth nature she was used to. She'd never tried to create so much sand at once, but now that they'd done so much she wouldn't fail. She couldn't fail.
She pushed her hand up against the scalding cement and sent her chakra into it. Nothing resisted her as the brittle rock bent to her will, grinding and condensing and gnashing itself into a more powdery existence at Sakura's command.
Floki let out a whoop as the plug shuddered. The structure started to sag in the middle as the lower levels were turned into sand, but then the entire thing shifted and slid into the water like an immense gray waterfall.
Water that had been bottled up on the other side of the plug surged over rubble, letting up a cloud of hissing steam as the channel hit the blistering sand. Sakura scurried back up to the side and avoided the worst of it, but she still felt like she'd waded through a swamp when she reached the top of the embankment.
She looked around for her partner in crime and spotted Floki only just disappearing down the rope ladder that led to his ship, still laughing like a maniac.
The old captain still had trouble believing it, but the roll he felt from his ship couldn't be denied. Water was starting to flow back down the canal and the current would soon take his boat up and over the scattered debris that remained from the little ninja's demolition job. He clamored up to the wheelhouse and flipped on the engines, just in case he had to maneuver back if the current became too strong too soon.
Things would be different now. Better. With the canal open village ships could come and go as they pleased to the better fishing grounds in the larger rivers. They wouldn't need to go trade, not with all the things they'd loaded into his boat before he'd left the village. Now he could go and carry on their trading for them at the River capital.
Thinking of his village made the captain glance at his radio. In his excitement he'd forgotten about it!
"Breaker, breaker," he intoned, barely containing his excitement. "This is Captain Floki Thorson of the Sepiida. Voss, I know either you or your wife is listening! Get back to me!"
Barely a minute passed before the radio started crackling. Voss's young baritone voice came through the speaker. "Floki? You old goat, are you on your way back to the village?"
"Not a chance! Eastmarch is clear! Do you hear me? The Eastmarch Canal is clear! The little kid did it!"
"Clear!? Did I hear that right? You said she cleared it?"
Floki clapped his free hand down on the ship's wheel. "Clear as the space between your ears, Voss! Our girl magic'd the cement right out of the canal like a great big sandcastle. We're going to push through to the capital and break down every one of these damn plugs we find."
There was a squeal from the CB as multiple new transmissions tried to come in all at once. Most were fisherman on the river from villages surrounding Floki's own, all asking about canals in their area being clear. The captain was in such a good mood that he didn't mind repeating things again and again for anyone that asked and he was very pleased to get a hold of one of the Eastmarch canal operators who was listening from his houseboat. The man promised to get in contact with his section boss and likely they'd all be back at work in a few days.
It was a radical change from a few days ago when he'd first heard about the wave of sabotage in the country. Floki had been sure that was the death of his little village. No canals meant no fish and no trade after all; there was nothing a community of a few dozen could do about it if it involved ninja.
"Breaker, breaker for the Sepiida. You said you were at the Eastmarch Canal?"
Floki grinned and pressed the transmit button on the side of his microphone. "That's right, Breaker. Consider the canal between the Soja and Nagi rivers open for business."
"That's good to know, Sepiida. You're heading for the capital from Eastmarch? We'll follow you right in." A moment of dead air went by before the broadcaster responded, "Give your ninja girl our regards."
As other captains echoed that sentiment, Floki promised them all that he'd do just that. Though, he couldn't remember when he'd mentioned he had a ninja with him…
Another chapter down! Few things to run through in today's afterward: First, my deployment date for Air Force basic is set in August. That means I have two months to write as much as I can before I'm gone for an indeterminate amount of time (boot + tech school + getting settled at my post). I'm going to do my best to keep a brisk updating schedule, so we'll see what I can do.
Second, a lot of people have asked me in reviews and on other sites what my motivation was for writing this. Well, to be honest I never liked Sakura as a character until I read a story called Suiren by Eimii. It's a wonderful Sakura-centric story that not only advances her in a believable way, it also expands on her home life and family which we don't see a lot of in the manga. I'm not exaggerating when I say it was that one story that started my entire Sakura kick, which really first showed itself way back in Black Sheep. It's a great story even if Eimii has been MIA for a few years now.
Anyway, I hope you all enjoyed this update. It clocks in at almost 8k words so I can say I nearly met my "massive update" promise. The next chapter in Loyalty will be quite...active and thus even longer than this. As always, thanks for your continued reviews and words of encouragement!