Chapter 8: The Hourglass Scroll
Harry kept one eye on Naruto, who had rejoined him after a quick stop at his apartment, toting a large brown backpack that bulged every which way and that was topped by a bedroll. The whole thing reminded Harry vaguely of a caterpillar perched on a rock.
"Naruto, here," Harry said, exasperated when the blond insisted he had to have every single thing he'd packed, even though that meant he couldn't actually close the backpack. Naruto looked up from where he'd been trying to pull the flap shut by sheer will. "Take this." As enthusiastically as his student was going about this, he was bound to end up ripping the seam that kept the flap attached.
Naruto frowned at the small bag held out to him, then moved his gaze to Harry. "Sensei, I don't think any of my stuff will fit in there." He squinted at it. "Maybe the kunai, but I have my pouch for that."
A smile tugged at the corner of Harry's lips. "It's a special bag, Naruto."
Naruto blinked, the look in his eyes changing from skeptical to curious. "Special? How?"
"Try putting... hmm... try putting the bedroll in it?" Harry suggested, smiling wider when the blond's forehead creased with confusion. The small bag wasn't even half the size of the bedroll.
Then Naruto shrugged, and with movements that said he was just doing it to please Harry, he unhooked the bedroll from the backpack, opened the small bag and shoved one end into it. And promptly stumbled, as the bag swallowed both the bedroll and Naruto's arm up to his shoulder. "Wah!" The blond flailed for a second, stumbling back and then ripping his arm out of the bag, like he was afraid it might swallow the rest of him too.
Spinning around, he stared up at Harry with wide eyes. Harry crossed his arms over his chest, struggling not to laugh at the goldfish-like expression on his student's face.
"What kind of bag is this, Harry-sensei?" He stared at it in fascination, tugging on one corner and squinting, like he thought he might be able to figure out how the bedroll had fit into it if he stared hard enough.
"It's bigger on the inside than on the outside," Harry said, still struggling not to laugh. Fred would have been proud of him for pranking the poor unsuspecting boy like this.
"How?" Still looking mystified, Naruto pushed a hand into the bag again, and Harry thought he might be flailing it around in there, even if that didn't show on the outside.
Harry thought for a moment before he answered. "It's a special technique that my people invented," he said, which wasn't a lie. Naruto looked up with a confused frown, slowly withdrawing his arm from the bag.
"'Your people'? You mean, your friends?"
Harry had known he wouldn't be able to keep his status as an outsider a secret, and this was as good a time as any to throw the boy a bone. "I wasn't born in Konoha. I'm allied with your Hokage, and I moved here on his invitation." Although it had taken some time for him to accept that invitation, he wasn't being untruthful.
"Oh." The blond blinked, looking uncertain, and thoughtfully ran his fingers across one side of the bag. "Where were you born then, Harry-sensei?" Harry smiled at the curious lilt to Naruto's voice, like he was struggling to imagine the kind of place Harry might have hailed from.
Harry shook his head. "It's very far from here." Naruto's mood shifted in that lightning-quick way it did, and he opened his mouth like he was preparing to shout in indignation at the non-answer. Harry held up his hand. "It's classified. Suffice to say that even if I told you were I'm from, you wouldn't have heard of it anyway."
The blond's mouth closed, and disappointment flitted over his face. Only for a moment, though. "Okay, but this special technique that your people invented, how does it work?" He looked excited, mood once again snapping from one end of the spectrum to the other.
"To summarize: it manipulates space." Though that was really the bare basics. Hermione knew the theory much better than he himself did.
"How?" The boy leaned forward, still looking excited.
"I can't tell you that. At least not yet." He wasn't sure how much he wanted to reveal to Naruto when the boy was still so loose-mouthed and prone to excitable outbursts. Naruto looked offended for a moment, half like he might protest and half like he might be a little hurt, but then his face slowly cleared as he apparently came to some realization.
"Yeah, okay. One of those classified things." He nodded to himself, and Harry decided to let the assumption stand. It wasn't really a false assumption, not entirely, and it did edge in on the things that truly were classified. Or at least a secret by unspoken mutual agreement between him and Sarutobi.
"Shall we take our leave, then?" Harry asked, not quite trying to distract the boy but succeeding in doing so anyway, if Naruto's bright grin and eager nod was any indication.
Darkness was falling when Harry remembered his previous half-formed thought to give Naruto a concentration exercise to try and improve his focus. The boy had been jumping all over the road since they passed the gates, occasionally stopping to stare at one interesting thing or other, and at other times badgering him with the most inane of questions.
It had gotten to the point where Harry was about to do something drastic just to shut the kid up for a few minutes when the idea made a reappearance.
"Naruto," he called to his student, who was hovering over a rock by the side of the road, entranced by a tiny frog. Naruto looked up with a grin and at a small gesture from Harry, immediately walked up to him. "I want you to do something for me." He picked up a small pebble from the ground and dropped it into the blond's hands. "I want you to balance this on the tip of your index finger for as long as you can."
Naruto frowned down at the pebble, obviously confused. "Why?"
Harry debated keeping the truth to himself for now, but since he wanted Naruto to ask questions when possible, that didn't seem like the best idea at this time. He wouldn't even have entertained the thought if not for the fact that Naruto had told him how much he'd hated the Academy's meditation sessions about as much as he'd hated doing 'leaf balancing'. This was really more of the same, and he didn't want the boy to be unmotivated before he even began.
But in the interest of not keeping more secrets than he had to... "I think we need to improve your focus."
Looking sullen, and a bit like this might have been something he'd heard many times before, Naruto asked, "And balancing a tiny stone on my finger will?"
It wasn't really a known method for improving focus, but Harry didn't have the materials for any structured exercises. For now, this would have to do. "I hope so."
"Hmph. Fine. At least I don't have to just sit for hours and hours in silence. "Like this?" He said, placing the pebble on the pad of his finger. Shaking his head, Harry turned the boy's hand over and replaced the pebble on his nail instead. It wobbled in place even when Naruto was obviously trying to keep his hand as still as possible.
The next two hours were spent watching his student walk as stiff as a board with his arm stretched out in front of him and trying not to chuckle at Naruto's muttered curses whenever the pebble fell from its perch - which at the start of the two hours had been once every ten seconds and at the end of the two hours was about once every one or two minutes. Naruto was wholly focused on his task, expression contorted into a mask of almost comical concentration, brows drawn together and the tip of the boy's tongue peeking out at the corner of his lips.
It had been two hours of blessed silence in which Harry had actually managed to take some time to memorize a map of Konoha and its surroundings, so when he suddenly felt the earth underneath him tremble and shift, he was almost unsurprised. Whenever it seemed like a task was going to be easy or straight-forward, it invariably ended up being a complicated tangle of age-old conspiracies, betrayals and snakes digging themselves out of people's necks.
Harry cast a silent Homenum Revelio to the left, where the rippling underneath him was the strongest-
"Whoa," Naruto tripped over his feet and spun around. "Sensei, did you feel that -?"
Instead of giving in to his surprise and the urge to gape at the boy – how could a boy barely out of the Academy feel that? He'd performed the spell in the village once or twice, and nobody had reacted – and instead threw himself forward, wrapping an arm around his student and Apparating to the right just as the dirt road exploded where they'd been not a second before.
Paying no heed to the choked noises coming from Naruto, Harry threw up a shield around the boy and then moved forward. The Revelio hadn't caught any other people in the vicinity, so as long as he kept the unknown nin's attention firmly on himself, he shouldn't have to worry about his student. Between one breath and the next, Harry shifted into the Se and dampened his presence as much as possible. Since he was without a team, he couldn't fight in the true spirit of the style, but it wasn't like it was useless just because he was alone.
The black-clad shinobi was unremarkable except for his bright red, spiky hair – the only part of his body that was visible – but in the eye-holes of his mask, Harry saw the man's gaze shift and search. Good. The man wasn't one of those chakra tracking people, didn't notice that Harry's signature hadn't faded completely where he stood crouched behind a tree.
The man's head turned to look at the treeline on the opposite side, and in the opening provided, Harry moved. With loping steps like a gazelle, as light, careful and treacherous as a prey-animal, Harry ran forward. His dagger came up in an arch that wasn't quite as graceful as the move the unknown shinobi made to counter it – but no matter, Harry had always preferred his wand to his Fairbairn-Sykes, would have used it if not for the close proximity of his student, and as he spun into a low kick he faded out again to buy himself another opening.
Of course, as he was still within the man's sight, he couldn't hide – but he could throw off the shinobi's perception of his body, where Harry's hands and feet were and how they moved when out of sight. The shinobi's hand came up to clasp around his arm like a vice, his grip stronger than Harry could break – but he didn't need to break it. He was close enough now that there was no way a spell would go wide. His wand slid out as smoothly as silk moved over velvet, and with familiar wood between his fingers, Harry put the very tip to the covered neck in front of him.
"A stick?" The man snorted, Harry smiled, and a red flash of Stupify later he had his arms full of unconscious enemy. A pretty familiar situation, all in all.
"S-Sensei..." Harry turned around to see Naruto with his hand clapped over his mouth, eyes wide. He looked a little pale and Harry was sorry this unexpected mess had to be the blond's first experience of a fight, even if he hadn't participated in it himself. Laying the enemy shinobi on his back, the thought hit him that perhaps this was better after all – that Naruto had gotten to see a real fight, as short as it had been, before he had to partake in one. Even if he hadn't been prepared.
Merlin knew Harry had had nightmares about Quirrell after that whole debacle, it being his first real experience with life and death fighting. If he'd seen a fight like that before that experience... but no matter, now.
The boy's throat bobbed as he swallowed. "Is he dead?" Despite his obvious discomfort, Naruto took a few steps closer, and Harry felt approval swell in his chest. In this moment, the blond reminded him strangely of Neville, afraid but willing to be brave.
"No." Crouching over the prone body, Harry carefully removed the mask. "I tend to want to know why people pop up to kill me before I kill them," he said, inserting dryness into his voice and watching from the corner of his eyes how Naruto huffed out a shaky little laugh. More bravado than real humor, but it was something.
The boy came forward to stand at his shoulder, and Harry remained crouched to let Naruto tower over him. "Sensei," he spoke up after a few minutes of staring as Harry divested the man of his weapons, "That was freaking awesome." Harry looked up to find the blond grinning down at him, still pale but with calm settling over him again. Or what passed for calm in Naruto, anyway.
"Glad you think so," he said, laughing a little. The laugh caught in his throat a moment later, fingers catching on something. He'd found a tiny scroll shoved into a hidden pocket in the man's collar, one stamped with a seal Harry actually recognized. The hourglass emblem of Suna.
"Hey, I recognize that -" Naruto said, but Harry made a clipping motion with his hand to silence him. It was a bit harsher than he usually was, but over the years many people had claimed he had good instincts - and at the sight of the hourglass, those instincts started blaring.
There was a circle of seals around the hourglass that Harry couldn't make sense of but that made him leery of actually opening the scroll. Better to just take it with them to the outpost. Perhaps someone there would know what to do with it.
"Let's move." Naruto opened his mouth, apparently thought better of it, and closed it again. He nodded, and without any kind of prompting, created three clones to carry the man's body. Harry took a moment to nod appreciatively at the initiative, and then they were off at what to Naruto was probably break-neck speed. To Harry it was more of a jog, trained for speed as he was.
Harry estimated that they'd been running for an hour when they reached the Kanzaki outpost – a large circular building that vaguely reminded Harry of an old European watchtower, except made with metal instead of stone – whereupon Naruto collapsed to his knees, breathing so heavily it almost sounded like he was sobbing. Pushing away the spike of guilt at having driven his student so hard, Harry immediately knocked at the door the way their mission scroll had stated. He didn't know if they had any time to lose, after all, and it wouldn't do to be careless with something his instincts were warning him about.
A minute passed in silence, and Harry would have assumed that the password had been wrong and that he should be ducking into a defensive stance, if not for the familiar feeling of eyes resting on himself and his exhausted student.
The way the door looked would have lent itself to an accompanying creaking sound, but when it opened, it did so noiselessly. A dark-haired man with red-framed glasses looked back at Harry, head tilted. "And you would be..?"
"Tokubetsu Jounin Harry. This is my student, Genin Naruto." Naruto mumbled something that didn't sound much like a greeting, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. The shinobi stilled in a way Harry recognized from the disastrous introduction to Unsui, but before the disaster potentially repeated itself, he continued, "We were sent here to deliver a scroll, but a few miles back we were attacked." Gesturing to the unconscious man still in the grasp of Naruto's clones, Harry noted the fact that the blond's clones were still intact, despite Naruto's own weariness. Hm.
"I see. Please come in." The shinobi stepped aside to let them enter, and Harry made sure Naruto walked in ahead of him, under his own watchful gaze. He couldn't read any hostility in the man's carriage, but since shinobi were trained not to project emotion into their body language, that didn't tell him much. "My name is Yamashiro Aoba, also a Tokujo." He showed them to a table in the middle of the room. "We caught your approach, but not the fight preceding it." His head turned slightly toward the their captive. "I'd appreciate a description of what occurred."
Which meant that they had either shinobi or cameras positioned around the outpost. He should have expected that. Watching as Naruto dumped the unconscious body on the table, Harry shook the thought aside and mentally began to prepare his report. Now that they were in presumably safe territory again, he could afford to throw his mind back to the fight and try to draw out details. As he sat there thinking, the original mission scroll traded hands without fanfare, and then both Yamashiro and Naruto sat down.
His recall broken by the sound of shuffling, Harry tried not to laugh at the way the clones stared at each other before seating themselves around the table as well. Yamashiro was turned towards him, waiting, and the Narutos apparently decided to take that as a cue. Harry was a bit surprised that his student wasn't immediately launching into a retelling of the fight, and wondered if it had rattled Naruto more than he'd let on.
There really wasn't much to say about the fight itself, as quick as it had been, and since they had the man here there was no need to describe their assailant. The scroll he'd taken off of the unknown shinobi was all the more interesting, though.
"What's a Suna scroll doing inside Fire Country borders?" Harry asked at the end of his report. He'd placed the scroll in front of the other Tokubetsu Jounin, whose expression reminded Harry of the one Ron had worn the first time he'd tried Hermione's (attempt at a) lemon cake. She'd gotten no better at it, the last time Harry had inquired, but that was probably because neither of them had ever been courageous enough to tell her what they honestly thought of the cake. There was being Gryffindor brave, and then there was being an idiot.
"I don't know." Yamashiro leaned back and turned his head, shouting, "Izumo!" The door to their right rattled, and then a man carrying a sheaf of papers so thick he could rest his chin on it appeared in the doorway.
"What?" Half of his hair covered half of his face, but the other half still managed to look annoyed. "I haven't sorted this out yet, and if you're going to..." he trailed off, blinking. All the Narutos waved at him and Harry gave him a quick nod to hide his smile. He recognized the expression on the boys' faces.
"Hey! I'm Uzumaki Naruto and this is my teacher, Harry, and we were just in a fight! Well, it was mostly Harry-sensei, but it was still awesome, except we found a mysterious scroll from Suna on the guy who attacked us -" said all the Narutos, not quite in concert or using the same words, and this time Harry couldn't keep himself from snorting out loud – though he doubted anyone in the room heard him over the racket the Narutos made. The paper-carrying shinobi looked like someone had whacked him over the head, fumbling with his papers and obviously trying to follow Naruto's dramatic retelling of the fight. The boy used a lot of sound effects, and even to someone who'd actually been there, Naruto's tale was all but completely incomprehensible. Harry was still happy to see such an animated expression on his student's face. Perhaps his worry had been premature.
Finally Naruto wound down from whatever sudden adrenaline high he'd been on, trailing off into expectant silence and quite obviously waiting for a reaction from his audience. Izumo cleared his throat, placing the sheaf of papers on a side table. "So if I understand you correctly, you were in a fight with a sand shinobi wielding a scroll, and your teacher -" the man gestured to Harry, "beat him up with kunai that shoots red lightning?"
Naruto looked affronted, Izumo looked bewildered, and Harry pinched the bridge of his nose and thought of dead kittens. He would not laugh. He would not. Yamashiro apparently didn't have any such compunctions, burying his head in his hands and laughing so hard his shoulders shook.
"Let me," the man said, wiping under his glasses, and then proceeded to repeat what Harry had explained to him. Izumo's expression slowly cleared, and just like that, the tension in the room was back.
"Suna doesn't have leave to operate within our borders without explicit permission. They haven't had leave to do that for years," he muttered, picking up the scroll and squinting at the seal. "It's real, alright."
"How'd you know?" Naruto asked, curious. "How do you know it's real?" he elaborated at Izumo's quick glance.
"I did a stint in Cryptology some time ago." Naruto didn't look like that that answer had actually answered anything, but Harry shushed him with a gesture before he could ask anything more. He was a bit surprised when the boy actually obeyed him, though he tried not to let that show.
Izumo cocked his head, eyes moving from Naruto to Harry. "Pardon me, but who are you?" Introductions were made again, and Harry found out that in addition to Kamizuki Izumo and Yamashiro, two more people were currently stationed here. At least, they'd acknowledge two more: Inuzuka Hana and Ani Yurika. How many more shinobi were actually around, Harry didn't doubt they'd keep a secret.
"Well, this one be going to T&I," Yamashiro said, gesturing absently to the still unconscious shinobi. "I think Hana will have to take both him and the scroll. Can't risk a messenger bird being intercepted if this really is as bad as it seems." Harry wasn't entirely sure just how bad 'this' was, but by the shinobi's tone, he figured it was serious. And also that he really needed to educate himself about Konoha's political standing in the Hidden Countries – perhaps the Hokage could help with that, or at least point him in the direction of someone who could.
"You did well on your first mission, Naruto-san," Kamizuki said with a smile, effectively breaking the re-emerging tension. Yamashiro had gotten up to talk to this Inuzuka Hana person, heaving the body up on one shoulder and leaving through a sideways door without a backwards glance.
"Hehe. I didn't really do much, though." Naruto scratched the back of his neck, looking both embarrassed and pleased. "Harry-sensei was the one who fought..."
"The fight was outside your mission parameters. Your mission was to bring this scroll to this outpost. Which you did." Izumo picked up the scroll Yamashiro hadn't taken with him, which had been all but ignored up until now. Naruto's grin was bright, and Harry wondered again at how easy it was to make the boy happy.
That was yet another thing he was going to have to talk to the Hokage about. Harry thought of Yamashiro's stillness at the mention of Naruto's name, and out of sight of the table's other two occupants, he folded his hands together tightly.
A/N: After a year of pretty much not being sick, I've now been sick twice in a month. That's what I get for thinking 'I'm going to have lots of time to write when I graduate!'
But. New chapter of Teacher, and things are happening!
How did you feel about the action sequence, short though it was? I don't write action very often, so I worry it won't feel 'action-y' enough.