Chapter 36: New Winds
There was no stopping him, not that anybody actually tried to in the first place, but if they had, their attempts would have fallen on death ears.
Once the legendary Green Beast of Konoha got started, it was a widely accepted stance to just stand aside and wait for Kakashi to settle him down.
So to that end, when the staff members unlucky enough to be scheduled to work that day in the Hokage's tower bore witness to Gai stampeding down the lanes in their general direction, all of them began moving and pushing things to the side, stowing documents away-
"THE FLAMING PASSION OF MY YOUTH COMPELS A MEETING WITH THE HOKAGE RIGHT THIS MOMENT!" Naturally, he didn't have an appointment lined up for today, but past experience told them that Gai didn't so much care for appointments, or basic decorum, given the way he blasted through the entrance doors and straight up the nearest staircase.
One of the workers, a woman who had squashed herself and her documents up against the wall, looked rather pleased, if somewhat winded. "Well, hey! No tables flipped, no files flying- this could be one for the record books!"
"I think it's a shame that we have to jot something like that down in the first place," a man off to the side noted, attempting to straighten out his wind-ruffled clothes. He then sported a smirk as he marked a red 'X' in a box on a nearby calendar. "Fifteen days strong, everybody."
It was a small victory for those who weren't shinobi, but when keeping order for mountains of documents had just as much importance as seeing enemy ninja off the face of the earth, it was a victory worth celebrating.
Not that Gai heard any of that, however. Past the second floor he sprinted, then through the third, and up and up, the exuberance of his passion undaunted by the terrified faces barring his path. No matter. He merely spun, pivoted, sidestepped, and dove around the human blockades until he was at last able to wrap his fingers around the cold doorknob that led to the Hokage's office.
A great pause overtook the respected Jonin for only a moment, during which he inhaled with the fury of a dragon about to spit flames, his chest expanding-
-before he summarily pushed the door clear open, completely ignoring the lock that was rendered busted beyond repair in the blink of an eye. It clunked to the ground and Gai, oblivious in his righteous passion, stepped right over it.
"I have something to say and I've already made up my mind on the issue!" Further into the office he stomped, all but quivering with exuberance and resolve; his cheeks glistened with free-flowing tears of joy. "Displaying his youthful energy for the first time, Neji claimed he was going to live in the Forbidden Forest and I, as his sensei and overseer, have approved it so–"
It was like a blow to the gut, the stunned sensation that lapsed Gai into silence as he finally took in the other inhabitants of the room. Along with himself, the other teachers of the rookie nine were already present, including Choza and….
"Kaede?" he managed to get out, now thoroughly confused.
The Keeper only offered him a sideways peace sign, her arms folded with an air of telling reluctance. It'd been some time since he had last seen her but if memory served him well, he did recall her once saying she detested being anywhere but her library.
Behind the dark-brown mahogany desk sat Tsunade, with two fingers gently stroking her temple in a silent plea for mercy from this ever-growing headache.
When it became apparent that no one else was going to speak following Gai's dramatic entrance, Kakashi finally broke the silence. "Welcome to the party, Gai. It seems that at least one member from each of our cells has decided to take an extended journey into the Forbidden Forest…." He didn't sound wholly upset by that even if he did sigh it all out.
Next to him, Asuma took an offensively long drag from his cigarette. "Welp… two of my three genin are now gone, poof, soooo…."
In unison, every head turned to Tsunade, and it was only then that Gai realized the Hokage had about two empty bottles of sake on her desk, and was busy polishing off a third, sans a glass.
"Good Lord…." Her speech was surprisingly coherent for being so deep into one of her usual sessions. "What the hell am I even doing here? It's Saturday… even friggin' Kage's should have a day off, right? A day to give absolutely zero fucks about anything? No? I don't get that…?"
The surrounding Jonin exchanged glances of apprehension. Who knew how long it would take for Tsunade to snap out of it so they could move on to the issue at—
"You should know, Tsunade-dono," Choza began staidly, almost as if struggling, "that I… that I gave Choji the scroll before he left."
Those words caused Tsunade to sober up faster than any other method used in all her life. The glass of sake fell from her startled grasp, threatening to shatter on the ground but Kakashi stuck out a leg and managed to catch it perfectly on his foot.
"You… did… what?" She slowly, very slowly, zeroed her gaze in on the portliest member of her shinobi. "You actually gave your child that scroll?"
A lesser ninja might have fainted on the spot, whether intimidated by the serene rage lacing each of her words or burned to a crisp under the heat of Tsunade's glare, but Choza met it with a solemn yet resolved nod. "Yes, Tsunade-dono."
For a moment that might have lasted a year, Tsunade merely observed the swirly-cheeked ninja, not blinking, not moving, barely breathing. Until she suddenly fell back into her chair with an aggrieved sigh. "Choza… as one of my special Jonin, I just have to ask… what in the greater hell possessed you to think such a thing was a good idea?" The heated glare flipped, instantly morphing into a leer colder than dead flesh. "No, you're an adult, you must know what you're doing. But… I want you to know this and know it well, Choza. If that boy dies before he's able to produce children, I will personally see to it that you never feel the sun's warmth ever again."
Amazingly, not even the threat of imprisonment could coerce even a sliver of fear from the Akimichi. He accepted her venemous claim with a formal bow and a, "Understood, Tsunade-dono."
"Okay, alright… first you had my interest, now you have my attention," Asuma said, exhaling another wispy plume of smoke. "What's this about a scroll now?"
"Well, typically, a scroll is a bare piece of parchment, y'see…." There was no hiding Choza's shit-eating grin as he answered Asuma's question to its barest degree. "And then you roll it up, tie it some twine and voila, insta-scroll."
There was some mild snickering from within the group of elder shinobi and Asuma relented with both hands up.
"Alright, alright, sheesh! I was just curious, Cho-san." Of course, Asuma hadn't really expected Choza, or the Hokage for that matter, to reveal the nature behind that ominous scroll; it was obviously something clan-centric and friends though they may all be, ninja wouldn't be ninja without their inner secrets.
Then his carefree smirk vanished, as did nearly every single other smile in the room.
"But just know that I echo the Hokage's sentiments, Cho-san. I care very deeply for Choji, even beyond our connection as sensei and student. It would pain me greatly if calamity befell him over this scroll situation, though... I wager it would pain you even more."
As Choza regarded the normally aloof Asuma with new understanding, he knew the Jonin did not mean that Choji suffering would cause him suffering as a parent, but that his suffering would come at the hands of Asuma himself, and quite possibly the others gathered around him given their equally stoic expressions.
"Thanks," was all he felt it right to say.
"You're welcome," Kurenai nodded.
"Fires always burn brightest in the heart," Tsunade said, pulling open a desk drawer near the bottom and pulling from it a stack of papers. With a thud, she let the bundle drop and placed her hand over it. "Truthfully, even though it's been nothing but a nonstop pain in my ass since day one, this was something I'd already foreseen. And I've adjusted accordingly. These files right here are all the different paths I'd jotted down for the rookie nine plus Gai's team to take, as I only assumed it would affect them all on some sort of level. And while it has most certainly caused its share of ripples…."
She paused, thumbing through and separating about a quarter of the stack, placing the larger portion back within her desk.
"I'm rather glad it only pertains to the original team sent to retrieve Sasuke, plus Crowa. Granted, that means more than half my work has been rendered superfluous, but still, less of a struggle in the long-run."
"Wait a second." Disbelief radiated from Kakashi as he stared from her to the comfortably-sized packet on the desk. "You mean you knew something like this would happen? That they'd all just up and leave?"
Kurenai lifted a hand. "I second Kakashi's questions. You didn't really know, did you? If you did I refuse to believe you would have allowed the situation to get this-"
"This entire operation involved Anko-kun." Tsunade spoke as if that single statement should have explained everything and then some. "From that point on, I knew I had better get started plotting out the impossible, because like Naruto, that's what she tends to dabble in. She has a fiercely strong gravitational force that unconsciously draws people to her. Kurenai-kun, you should know this considering she is your rival after all."
The crimson-eyed kunoichi said nothing, but the way the corner of her mouth sloped into the slightest of scowls spoke volumes.
"Add to it, she infected them with her stigma. She wouldn't have done if she weren't, one, serious, and two, already expecting them to join her. Those genin are at least smart enough to realize that the operation is utter suicide without her help."
"To be fair, the success-failure ratio hasn't really moved one way or the other in my book," Kurenai uttered unabashedly. "The severity of their future plans sound like the whimsical daydreams of a madman."
The end of Asuma's cigarette lit up as he pulled from it, blowing a series of smoke rings afterwards. "When we're that age, I think a bit of madness exists as a coping mechanism."
"Quoted for truth." A quick pat brought order to the papers in her grip and Tsunade turned to the thus far silent spectator. "Kaede-chan… I can see your eyes zipping about, seeing everything, and your ears twitching, catching our every word." The older woman nodded while the younger one continued her bout of silence. "Still such a cavalcade of conversation, I see. Excellent. From this moment forward, I want you to record everything. There's about to be a major shift in the shinobi world and, for better or worse, I want the logs to show the absolute truth. Can I depend on you for that?"
A sharp click resonated from Kaede snapping her heels together and then bending forward in a bow. "Yes, Hokage-sama. I won't miss a single syllable."
Tsunade seemed to expect nothing less from the Keeper and inclined her head in return. "Okay, let's start down the line, shall we?" She picked through the files for a moment. "Ah, here we are. First up, concerning Cell 7—it's disbanded herewith."
Even if they all had a sneaking suspicion of where this upheaval of events was heading, hearing it, actually listening to the words pass the Hokage's lips was no less shocking.
To everyone except the cell leader himself, Kakashi. He merely nodded, apparently expecting as such.
"Sakura will become my full-time apprentice, accepting missions that I deem appropriate toward her growth and current skill level." There was a slight hesitant pause, and then, "Team 10 is disbanded as well."
One rock after another struck the lake of comfort, a group-wide twitch rippling out to all who heard. Lighting and inhaling, Asuma blew out a series of smoke rings on the exhale, remaining silent.
"Asuma… do you mind this?" she asked tenderly.
Surprisingly, from deep within a pool of stomach-churning anxiety, Asuma managed to grin. "Not at all, mistress. It, uh… it actually does my heart good to know that my students are taking a provocative step towards becoming ninja—especially Shikamaru. Sure, dis…"—the word seemed to choke him, forcing him to try again—"disband away. They'll be fine, I know it."
Another shuffle. "Continuing on, Ino will be joining Sakura in all of her duties, up to and including her training regimen and the missions taken. They… the two of them have a very publicly known rivalry. And as we all know, nothing pushes a person to try harder quite like having someone else stand over them going 'nyah nyah nyah'; this should escalate their climb under my tutelage. Now then, Cell 8—"
Kurenai winced, her shoulders hunching.
"—will remain together and be receiving another squad mate. So you can un-clench yourself, Kurenai. It makes no sense to break them apart over this."
Words were beyond the normally stoic kunoichi leaving her with little else to do but bow graciously, so quickly that she almost cracked her skull on Tsunade's desk.
Chuckling to herself, Tsunade handed her a dossier, a rather thick one at that. "Take this. There are twenty eligible applicants within. Choose wisely and quickly and have your selection ready by tomorrow, no later than dawn."
"As for Gai's team, Kakashi… you will take on Tenten."
Not even the copy-nin of lore could keep his one visible eye from widening to near dinner plate proportions. He scoffed with disbelief, glancing from Gai to Tsunade, then to Kaede, then back to the Hokage. When she didn't rescind her earlier comment as nothing more than a joke, he raised a hand.
"Permission to speak freely?" he wondered, his question causing Tsunade to giggle at his attempt at formality.
"That shit right there makes entirely no sense whatsoever. None, not even an inch. What—I mean, why? It just sounds kooky!" he blustered, running a hand through his spiked hair. "I don't mean to sound like a renegade or anything but I was actually planning on keeping an eye on my cell by—"
"And so you shall," Tsunade remarked with a debonair smile, handing him a file. "That is exactly the course of action I figured you would take, with or without permission, so to save you the trouble and save me the grief of having to lock you up for insubordination, read her file, give her a chance. Trust me, you'll be surprised."
He took the folder with a sigh of reluctance. "I still think this is a mistake…."
A mighty hand came down on Kakashi's back with all the force of a hammer and Gai choked back a sob. "Kakashi… my eternal rival… don't let her outer appearance fool you!" he cried, thick streams of tears cascading down his face. "That girl possesses the brightest flames of youth I've ever seen! Kakashi! Take your time, be understanding, I leave it to you to unlock that chasm of passion that dwells deep within her and get it flowing!"
Several things happened in quick succession to Gai's galvanizing statement: Asuma inhaled a little sharply on his cig and started choking; Kurenai's cheeks adopted a fair bit of red that she tried to hide by lifting up her folder of applicants; Choza outright laughed; Tsunade's face showed all the evidence of wanting to laugh but her professionalism for the situation kept it down to a small smirk.
And Kakashi just twitched in place. "Gai, please… please don't say it like that, just… please…."
"Yes, well," Tsunade began with a little sniff, "as for your team, Gai—"
"Yosh! I will take Lee under my arm and form Konoha's unbeatable duo, the Twin Green Beasts!"
Only from the Hokage could a two-letter word have such a comedic crushing impact.
Halfway into his passionate rant, Gai was left blinking, confused, one fist in the air. "Ex-excuse me…?"
"I'm assigning you two new members as well. Your cell has always been vital, due mostly to your tutelage, and that's not going to change." She handed him two slips of paper. "Here. Unlike with Kurenai, I've already picked yours out. Read up on them, start making plans; they'll be starting in three days time."
In the span of eight seconds, Gai had read both files, his eyes beginning to sparkle as an amalgam of backbreaking training regimens rushed into his mind. "Tsunade-hime!" He struck a gallant pose. "I thank you for this great honor! I, the Green Beast of Konoha, will once more craft the most passionate cell in all the village!"
Subtly, Kurenai peeked at the forms in Gai's clutch, her left brow lifting. "So. We're really giving that land a try? I'm noticing all the applicants are from there."
Heavily, Tsunade nodded. "Yes. Putting aside personal preferences and giving this an objective view, doing this will aid Konoha as a whole, bringing not only new trade commerce but an extra alliance should things go… awry during the next Chunin exams." She joined her hands together at the fingertips, staring over them at her Jonin. "As a show of good will, it's going to be held here again, but we as ninja live in times of uncertainty, at all times. It'd be no great shake to say that the previous attack has probably put some less than admirable thoughts in the minds of the other lands."
When she suddenly banged her desk, jaws all around tightened.
"And I will not allow our village to seem frightened or weak in the face of adversity! What happened last time should have been cause for retaliation—but I was not in the chair then. Now that I am, I swear on all that I love that the next inevitable attack will result in war. I don't give a damn from where it comes—this village, this land… it will set our enemies hearts ablaze with the fire of fear!"
All of her Jonin bowed respectfully, even Kaede, but it was Asuma who suddenly asked, "Tsunade-sama, concerning Anko-san… can we really trust her to take care of our charges? I mean, with her track record and the severity of what they're trying to do–"
Tsunade lifted a silencing hand. "Anko-kun is an eccentric, most certainly, but she was trained and brought up by one of the greatest shinobi ever to draw breath in this world. No matter how corrupt he turned out to be, Orochimaru got to where he was through constant self-improvement, a trait that he managed to pass down to her quite sufficiently. I've already seen Anko-kun's mind—it's shattered, that much is obvious, but she has an astounding ability to turn that weakness into strength. Add to it, she will be providing me with weekly reports should any of you like to see how your genin are—"
"Yes, please, that would be great," Kakashi said at once, and the others agreed just as quickly.
A few more meager words of comfort were shared about the room before Tsunade called for a dismissal of everyone.
Of everyone except Asuma.
"Asuma, I'm sending you on an S-ranked mission to the land of Moon-X."
He blinked. "Come again?"
"You heard me." The way Tsunade leaned forward cast a menacing shadow over a majority of her face. "There's a rumor that Orochimaru is on the move towards his home… and for whatever reason that might be, it can't be good. So you're going to be stationed there for a short period as a liaison. Your cover story is based around seeking knowledge of their kind and giving some of ours in exchange, get creative if need be."
Glancing toward the ceiling, anywhere to avoid his matriarch's piercing stare, Asuma sighed. "Creative. Right."
"When the new recruits get here, you'll travel back with their escort, a fellow with a really long-ass name, so just call him Kazu. And to be frank, personally, I think Nanners is up to something stupid, and if I can snuff it out before things turn ugly… then I will."
"I'm sorry but… Nanners?"
"The Queen's nickname. Call her that if you want a quick death."
"Noted. Queen Nonohime it is. So I take it I leave in three days, then?"
"Correct. This gives you some time to get your affairs in order, and to say goodbye to a certain someone if you want."
She gave him a sly grin that offset the tension and he couldn't help but chuckle. "I'd appreciate it very much if you didn't watch me through that ball of yours, Tsunade-sama."
"Trust me, I didn't need a crystal ball to figure that out."
After the last Jonin had finally left, Tsunade sat back in her chair, lifting that third bottle of sake up to her lips for a long-awaited sip. Licking her lips, she stared at the hanging portraits of past Hokage's, each of them lined up in all their splendor.
"Grandfather, Tobirama-dono, Sarutobi-sama, Minato-kun… new winds are blowing in your legacy. Can you feel it?" She giggled, accepting the warmth that seemed to crawl up from her chest. "Those five trying to bring back the Uchiha… fools, the lot of them… but, you know, by journey's end… they might all be possible Hokage candidates. Wouldn't that be something?"