Author's Note: Hey, it only took me one month instead of two this time!
I mean, obviously Christmas/New Years was going to be a busy time. But the update rate WILL increase. I promise. Also, before I start on the next chapter of Entwined, I think a quick one or two chapters for Just One of Those Days would be nice, so I might do that.
Thank you everyone for tolerating all the bullshit over the past few months! It means a lot that so many people are still interested in where this story's going.
I've finally got some music for you guys, though FF seems to have made getting to them more of a pain in the ass. It doesn't look like you can copy/paste the url anymore. I'll try to figure something out, but until then, we'll just keep on keeping on.
(1) - /watch?v=lhzotCfAo7s
(2) - /watch?v=CZ91QMhS_6M
A big thank-you to kylekatarn77 for beta-ing the story, and to OGAFazer89AC for helping me iron out a few ideas!
Book Three - Chapter 19: Over the Line! How Far are You Willing to Go?
Tenten was scowling when she snuck out of bed, before anyone else was awake. She was scowling as she laced up her sandals and slid on her jacket. And she was scowling when she finally ran into Neji, as she had planned.
"What on earth are you doing, wandering around by yourself?" he asked, his breath misting in front of his face. "I was worried something was wrong."
"I knew that if I walked around long enough, you'd eventually notice me," Tenten explained. "And now that you're here…"
She swung at him. He ducked underneath, catching her wrist. "What is the matter with you?" he hissed.
But Tenten was long past being able to speak. The stress and frustration had been building ever since they had arrived in Kiri, compounded by Neji's refusal to meet them for more than minutes at a time. All her anger and fury was flung at Neji full force, without resorting to her weapons. Even in her current state, she was mindful of the mission.
Eventually Neji's confusion at why she was attacking him cost him. She caught his stomach with a curled fist, and he doubled over, grunting in pain. In an instant she had grabbed the front of his collar, forcing their faces inches from one another.
"I'm going to give you one chance to get your ass out of this," she said, grinding her teeth. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
She watched the gears turn in Neji's head. If he so much as hinted that he didn't understand what she meant, she would put her arm down his throat.
His mouth thinned. "You think I have been neglecting you." It wasn't a question.
She shoved him away. Despite the jacket's quality, she still felt the bitter cold, and hugged her chest for warmth. "What was your first clue? This goes further than the mission; I know it. You need to tell me what's going on. That's what people in relationships do, you idiot. They talk."
"I don't want to put you in danger," Neji said, stubbornly. "If we were consistently seen together, the risk of being exposed would be far too high."
She stared holes through him. "That is bullshit! You and I both know I can take of myself. Tell me what this is really about!"
"I have already told you. If you don't want to listen to reason—"
It was the worst thing he could have said. The urge to hit him just faded away, and Neji watched with a mixture of surprise and shame as the fire in Tenten's started to fade.
She didn't cry. That just wasn't something she could do. Tenten only felt her legs give out beneath her, and she slumped into the snow, immune to the cold.
"Is that all I am to you?" she asked, her voice small. It reminded Neji of Hinata's, back in their genin days. "Has all of this just been another one of your 'missions'?"
Tenten hugged her knees to her chest. She felt like a child, small and frightened. Even as Neji stooped down, trying to console her, she felt lost. All her hard work, all she had done to try and pierce that cold exterior…were they together only because Neji found it 'reasonable'? Because she was his best option?
So she asked him just that. The frailty in her voice scared her even more, but she felt like there was nothing more she could lose between them.
The question rocked Neji to his core, and he joined her on the ground, staring at her. "H-how long have you thought this?" he asked. His usually stoic demeanor was shattered, and he felt as if he had been removed from his own body, like he was forced to watch someone say and do things for him, while he was helpless from inside. He didn't want Tenten feel this way; it hurt him to see her this way almost as much as he seemed to have hurt her.
He reached out for her hand; thankfully, she let him take it. "Tenten…I never knew you were feeling like this. I never even could have imagined it." He squeezed her hand until she looked at him. "Please, let me say first that I am sorry. I am sorrier than you can even imagine."
"I understand that I am gruff sometimes, or even cold and distant. That is not how I wish to act when I am with you, but I am still learning. And I learn more every day I spend with you." She moved a little as he spoke. That was a good sign.
"I never meant to make you think that you mean less to me than you do. In fact, I cannot even begin to imagine what my life would be like without you in it."
He held her cheek, forcing her to look him in the eye. "I am not good with expressing myself, and yet despite my flaws, you are patient with me. There is no one else I can imagine myself with, and I would be happy to spend the rest of my life with you. It's the only way I can see my own future now."
And then, in a rare display, he grinned from ear to ear. "Now, is that enough, or do I have to sing you a song, too?"
For a long while, Tenten didn't say anything. She just sat with him in the snow, listening to the silence, and huddling for warmth. Neji did not know if he should speak, or kiss her, or hold her there until she was ready to say something. He chose to do nothing, and simply wait.
She punched him on the arm. "You sound so weird when you talk like that." She laughed, that bright sound filled with life that Neji had grown so fond of. "But I appreciate it."
Tenten kissed him, long and hard. "And I needed that. I really, really needed that. You've been acting weird ever since we got here."
Neji nodded slowly. "I apologize. I have been preoccupied. I have never been on a mission of this magnitude before. If we do not act when the opportune moment presents itself, we will be the catalyst for an entire war, spanning across nations, like the days of our fathers and grandfathers. I wish to break that cycle before it even begins. I apologize that it has resulted in my distance from you."
He stood. "Reinforcements will be coming soon; perhaps then I can have some peace of mind. Perhaps then we can all have some piece of mind."
He smirked, looking up at the endlessly grey sky. A crane flew overheard; a sign that nature was beginning to stir. "Speaking of, how has Lee been faring with that young woman?"
Tenten giggled. "He seems happy enough. She can go from furious to ecstatic in seconds flat, but she makes him happy, and that's good enough for me. Do you think something could come out of it?"
"When I first found out, no I did not. I thought it inappropriate that he would try to attempt a relationship with someone outside the village. And then I realized how backwards and foolish that sounded, and although he does not know it, Lee has my acceptance. I wish him the best. I also wish they could have met under better circumstances. It would be less stressful on him."
They both fell silent, listening to the village wake up. They heard boisterous children leap into their parents' beds, shopkeepers unlocking their windows and doors, dogs barking and chasing after mice and cats in the nooks and alleyways. They heard animals crow and call and yap through the crisp morning air, the chilly wind whip through the tall buildings, and the silence that winter brings.
"It is time I left," Neji finally said, standing. He offered his hand out, and lifted Tenten to his side. He kissed her cheek, to her own surprise, smiling sadly. "I wish we never had that conversation, but I will try to be a better person for you from now on. Tenten, I want you to know that I love you."
Her eyes widened, but Neji was off before she could say anything, as a villager suddenly appeared around the corner. She laughed softly to herself, whispering his name to herself, again. They were lost against the wind, but she heard them loud and clear.
There was a hop in her step as she walked back to the house. She wondered what would be for breakfast, and felt completely at ease for the first time since they got there.
That evaporated quickly when she walked inside. Suigetsu, who was sitting at the table with his feet propped up, smiled a toothy grin.
"There she is! Out for an early-morning stroll, were we? I've been waiting on you." He rested his arms behind his head, watching as she crossed the room to where Lee and Guy were standing.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, trying hard to remember herself. It was hard; she just wanted to deck him across the jaw, with how smug he looked sitting there.
Suigetsu acted surprised. "You mean, you don't remember? I mentioned that you three might be useful for our plans, and I decided it's time we act on those plans. I mean, you weren't planning anything today, right? You're free?"
Tenten heard something from the other room. The big man who usually accompanied Suigetsu appeared, pushing Kasumi and her mother forward. Tenten sucked in air through her teeth.
"Yeah, I mean these two have this delivery business that I hear you've been helping out with, but I think they wanna take the day off, don't you ladies?"
The man struck the both of them across the face with the back of his hand.
"K-Kasumi!" Lee blurted, stepping forward.
Suigetsu laughed and raised an eyebrow. "Well, I didn't know you had a thing for civilians. But I thought we were on the same side! I'm not wrong, am I?"
Tenten ground her teeth as she watched Lee. He looked ready to leap forward and tear Suigetsu in half, but he stepped back, looking down.
"That's what I thought. The big guy will stay here with your hosts. Don't worry, he'll keep them safe."
He led them through the busy streets of the village, without the slightest bit of concern over who might be paying attention. But little to no one looked their way, instead keeping their eyes on their work, or anywhere else. A few minutes later, they arrived at a very tall building, its upper portion concealed by the mist.
"This is the administration building," Guy said, frowning. "It's dangerous to be here."
Suigetsu laughed. "Ordinarily, you'd be right. But there are special circumstances. We have the place all to ourselves." He kicked the door open, and sure enough, no one was inside.
"You see, they take the jōnin selection exams very seriously," he explained, leading them through the halls and stairwells. "Unlike the chūnin exams, which is essentially measuring each other's military, the jōnin selection exams are a place where individuals are judged by their ability. Because they are sending in shinobi with more impressive skills, the stealing of information is more common than you'd think. So for the duration of the exams, they move everything off site to an undisclosed location, and leave the old building. All files and secrets are removed, regardless of whether or not they deal with the exams."
"So we have the place all to ourselves, and I thought this'd be the perfect place to show me how committed you are to our cause."
He took them downstairs, deep beneath the building's foundation. Fractured stone work and metal girders hung like rotting wounds from towering ceilings, as the rooms grew bigger and bigger. The mist from outside seeped even here, and it hung heavy in the air, trapped by the concrete walls. The sounds from the village were gone now; they were beneath a dense silence, the only sounds the echo of their footsteps.
"They used these underground floors to train their secret operatives," said Suigetsu. "We'll be using them for other reasons."
He pushed open a large metal door, leading into a massive room. The ceiling must have been two-hundred feet high, and all along the walls were tiny lights that lit up like little stars. Electrical cables hung down, unused for many years.
Four shinobi were tied up in the middle of the room, with seals over their mouths and blindfolded by their own headbands. All four were from Kirigakure.
Suigetsu embedded his sword into the ground next to one of them, delighting in the terrified grunt the young man made. "Kill them," he said, taking a seat on the ground.
"Excuse me?" Lee said, eyes wide.
"I said kill them. These four were going to be proctors during the exams, helping test the potential jōnin. If my plan's going to work, I need people on the inside, and that's where you come in. Kill them, take their place, and everything will be ready."
He picked at his teeth with a dirtied fingernail. "They use chūnin instead of other jōnin to judge, to prevent bias or jealous jōnin from underselling their equals. I managed to gather all the others in my pocket, one way or another, but these four were a little more stubborn. Now, kill them."
Lee, Guy, and Tenten didn't move, unsure of what to do. Suigetsu's smile faded, as he bared his sharpened teeth. "You won't do it? Oh, I know why! You want a challenge, don't you?"
He stood, dusting himself off. "I mean, I never intended to just let you kill them. That would be way too easy, right? You have to prove your worth, and what better way to do that than a fight? You won't have to worry about them running away; I've got that covered."
There was a control panel on the far side of the room, to the right of the door they entered in. Suigetsu grinned from ear to ear as he smashed his fist on one of the larger buttons. A siren began to wail, and the walls around them rumbled with a great weight. Panels alongside the walls rose up, and water started pouring in, with the force of a tidal wave. Suigetsu, who was immediately swallowed by the water, reappeared seconds later, rising up with the water swirling around him in some monstrous shape.
"If anyone tries to leave before I say they can," he called, "I kill you all! Make it quick you three; we have a job to do."
The water rushed up to meet Lee and his team, and they leapt high into the air to avoid the crushing force. The three Kiri chūnin were not so lucky, still being bound and gagged, and Lee watched as the water smashed them into the walls, breaking their bonds.
"We don't have much longer before they'll be attacking us," said Guy.
"What makes you think they'll be so eager to try and kill us?" Tenten asked. "And what about us? Are we really going through with this?"
Guy stared at her, long and hard. "We have to. They tell you of these kinds of decisions when you were in the academy, Tenten. These young men are by no means innocent, but they do not deserve to die. But if we want to keep our cover, and succeed in our mission, they have to die."
One of the chūnin was rising to the top of the water, wiping his eyes and brandishing a kunai. Guy jumped several feet back, falling into a defensive stance.
"We have no choice," he whispered. "It's us, or them."
The other three burst from the water as well, the seals still covering their mouths. Two of them chased after Tenten, while the last, and biggest, charged towards Lee. He was a strong, burly man with an enormous gut and large hands. He formed several hand signs, and then clapped his hands together. A shockwave shot out, creating another large wave, which the man rode on to Lee. He swung his arm to try and cut across Lee's chest, but Lee ducked underneath, kicking the man into the air with both feet.
Tenten, who was already in the air, saw him coming. Out of one of her scrolls she produced an enormous ball and chain, which she slammed down onto the man's back before he could react. He went thundering back down into the water, crashing beneath the waves.
Suigetsu laughed, his thin voice rattling off the walls. "That's what I like to see! Keep it up, you three!"
Lee realized seconds ahead of time that Suigetsu was trying to distract him. Just as he jumped away, the large man erupted from the water with rage in his eyes. He formed another few hand signs, and placed his hand on the water's surface. The water clouded almost immediately, and through the darkness Lee saw a giant shape form from the bubbles. He ran away just in time as a large tentacle tried to grab at him.
Guy was currently holding off his own opponent as well as one of the men who had gone after Tenten, fighting them on the ceiling. He looked down. "Lee, watch out!"
Two more tentacles emerged from the water, sliding along the surface to try and hide their approach. Lee jumped backwards as they lunged forward, only for a third to surprise him from behind. Lee used what little momentum he had, and kicked the tentacle away, jumping to the wall. He watched as a giant squid rose to the surface of the makeshift pool, its many arms swirling around its body. All at once, all of them were thrown in Lee's direction, faster than before, and it was only because Tenten intervened that he was not grabbed. She threw two massive shuriken at the beast's arms, and it roared in pain when they sunk deep into its flesh, retreating a short distance to the other side of the flooded room.
Guy jumped away from the other chūnin, collecting Tenten on the way to Lee. "We need a strategy if we want to come out of this without serious injury. It's five on three right now, and unless we even the odds, this could get bad."
The Kiri chūnin were closing in, as was the one man's squid summon, racing underwater to attack from below.
Tenten threw a few more shuriken to give them an extra second or two. "What do you have in mind?"
Guy pointed at the summon. "Lee, you take care of the squid and its summoner. Tenten will keep the others off of you, and I will make sure that they do not come after her. Go!"
Lee was off like a bolt of lightning. As he rushed up to meet the squid summon, he unlaced the weights bound to his legs. They dropped under the waves, hitting the bottom in seconds, and denting the floor. This time, as the squid tried to latch onto him, Lee dodged with ease, shooting in and out of its many tentacles. The squid groaned in confusion, tying its arms into knots. It tried crashing its head down onto Lee, but missed again, falling into the water.
He took his chance. Lee rocketed to the ceiling of the room, activating the first three chakra gates in quick succession. As the sudden burst in energy overtook him, he pushed off with his legs back towards the water, straight for the squid. His leg came crashing down with tremendous force, and with such large amounts of chakra being exerted, it carved clean through the summon's tentacle, and it dropped into the water.
The squid disappeared in a huge cloud of smoke, but Lee wasn't finished. He lifted what remained behind of the squid's arm, and swung it in a wide arc, straight towards the summoner. It collided with his body before he could get out of the way, and he was flung across the room like a ragdoll, landing on a piece of debris, bobbing up and down in the water, unconscious.
"One down!" Suigetsu shouted with glee. "Three more to go!"
The other three chūnin became significantly less confident in themselves, backing together on the far side of the water. Lee did not bother to wait and regroup with Tenten and Guy. He shot after the other three, pulverizing them with a rapid-fire series of punches and kicks. They had no idea what to expect, surprised by his sudden burst of speed, and collapsed in a heap in seconds, unconscious.
Lee panted hard as he slowly shut the opened chakra gates one by one, overcome with exhaustion. Tenten and Guy raced over to him, concerned.
"Are you feeling alright?" Tenten asked, patting him on the back. "You don't need to push yourself so hard."
Guy was about to say something as well, but they were stopped by Suigetsu, who had begun to clap. Slowly, the water in the room began to drain out, but not through any holes in the wall or floor. It was all being absorbed by Suigetsu himself, and as more and more water entered his body, his arms and legs began to billow out plumes of mist. Soon all the water was absorbed, and he strode across the floor, grinning with his sharpened teeth.
"Not bad, you three," he said, shaking his head. "You took them out pretty damn fast. I think I made the right decision to pick you three for this job. There's only one problem."
He reached his arm back towards the door, where the first man lay. A stream of water shot out of Suigetsu's arm, racing over and grabbing the man, before dragging him back. Suigetsu did the same with the other three chūnin, dumping all four in a heap at Lee's feet.
"I told you to kill them, not knock them out. You want me to trust you, you're gonna cut their throats." He pointed at Lee. "And since you're the one who did all the work, you get to do the honors."
He tossed him a kunai. "Use that, and get it over with. I need to know I have the right kind of killer on my side."
One of the chūnin began to stir, groaning through the seal that covered his mouth. Suigetsu smiled, an evil look in his eye, and after a quick hand seal, removed the man's seal.
"You d-don't have to do this…" the man begged, coughing up water. "P-please…my family… just let me go, and I'll never speak a word of this. We'll leave the village, o-or—"
The man tried to stand, but Suigetsu kicked at the back of his knee, breaking his leg with a disgusting snap. The man cried in pain and fell back to the ground, sweating.
"You're starting to piss me off," said Suigetsu, glaring at Lee. "Kill them now, or I find people who can, and a couple empty graves for you three."
Lee could feel everyone's eyes upon him as he held the kunai in his hand. Tenten, Guy, Suigetsu, and the man whimpering at his feet. All watching, waiting to see what he would do. He ground his teeth, chewed at his lip until it bled. He felt like he was in someone else's skin. How far was he willing to take this? To kill these men would keep their cover intact, and allow them to wait and see what Suigetsu's plan was, giving them the chance to strike when it would serve them best. But at the same time, this was a chance to cut the head off the snake now, to stop him before his plan got any further along.
'You know that won't work, Lee,' he could hear Guy's voice tell him. 'If we took him down now, his partners would simply take over and enact the plan themselves. You have to do this, or risk open war.'
Lee felt like throwing up. His body shook, and he squeezed his eyes shut, refusing to look. He reached forward, grabbed the man's neck, and ran the blade across it. He felt something warm splash his hand, but kept his eyes closed.
Suigetsu started laughing again. Not a cruel, quiet snicker as before, but a loud and long laugh of happiness, like he was truly enjoying this. He wiped his mouth. "It feels amazing, doesn't it!?"
"I just love taking something from someone and…and cutting it." He licked his lips, grinning from ear to ear. "Tearing things apart makes me feel more alive than anything else in the world. It's what people like you and I were made for. We're killers, all of us, and if we're not killing, we're not doing what we were put here to do."
"Kill these others, like I said, and we'll get started on the next step." He picked up the first man's corpse, throwing it away, while the other three still lay together unconscious.
Lee quickly looked to Guy for guidance. His teacher stared long and hard at him, conveying as much emotion as he could without speaking. He displayed a great sadness in his eyes and offered as much comfort as he could. He nodded slowly, telling Lee that he must go ahead.
He thought of Kasumi. It was the only thing he could do to take his mind off his bloody task. He thought of her smile, her warm laughter, and the feeling of her hand over his, as he cut the throats of the other three chūnin.
Suigetsu had given them another date where they would meet, and had sent them home. "Your lady friends will be safe and sound," he assured, digging the dirt out from under his fingernails. "But don't miss our next meeting, or they won't stay that way."
The entire walk home, Lee did not say a word. He kept his eyes on the ground, watching one foot in front of the other. Nothing Guy or Tenten said could stir him from his own thoughts, until a sudden outburst.
"How far are we willing to take this?" he asked, his voice hoarse. "What if he has us killing innocents next? Civilians? We are not murderers!"
He turned to Guy. "You always told me that there is always a way. But I could not find a way out of that, Guy-sensei! I failed to find a way, and now four shinobi are dead because of me!"
"You are on a mission from the village, Lee," said Guy, without a trace of his usual boisterous attitude. "Tsunade-sama has given us the task of preventing an open rebellion, and I intend to make sure that mission succeeds. I have told you that there is always a way out, yes, but I never said that it will always be available to you, or be an option you even want to take. There was only one thing you could do, and you did it. You don't need to feel guilty."
"It was only a matter of time before you realized that there is not always a peaceful resolution, that violence now is better than violence later."
"And what good does that do if we sacrifice our humanity to get there!?" Lee said, angry. "I do not want to become someone who kills when he wants, someone who believes the ends justify the means."
He broke ahead of them, leaving them behind. Tenten made to go after him, but Guy stopped her, grabbing her arm. "No…he needs some time by himself to think on this, and Neji will be waiting for us soon. He will be fine, Tenten."
Lee found Kasumi and her mother sitting on the couch in their home, a little shaken but fine, as Suigetsu had said. When Lee walked in, Kasumi leapt up. "What was all that about?" she demanded. "Who was that man? He hurt my mom."
Lee nodded sadly. "Y-yes…and I am so sorry for that. We did not intend to drag you into this. It seems they know more about us than we think."
"Are we in any kind of permanent danger?" Niwakō asked. "I have family we can stay with."
"No, that would not be a good idea. If you left, they would suspect something. It will be safer for you if you stay, and I will personally watch out for you from now on." Lee sat down opposite to them. "Where is Enmu?"
"His is visiting some friends," said Niwakō. "He won't be home until later tonight."
Lee nodded. "If they did not go after him as well, they were likely only trying to scare us, and will not seriously hurt you."
Kasumi was staring at him. Lee tried to keep his eyes off her, but the moment he glanced at her, even for only a second, she was upon him. "Something's wrong. I can tell. Lee, what happened while you were gone? Lee?"
Lee looked at Niwakō. "May I speak to your daughter in private?"
Niwakō smiled a little, and left them alone. For several minutes, Lee said nothing, wringing his hands and wondering where to begin.
"You killed someone, didn't you?" Kasumi said, in a quiet voice. "That's it, isn't it? I've seen that look before."
She scooted a little closer to him, resting a hand on his back. "It's not something you get used to, is it? When I've visited other ninja's homes, and look at them, I see the same look. They didn't want to do it, but for one reason or another, they had to. I haven't known you for very long, but I know you're not the kind of person who would enjoy hurting someone else. You won't become like that, ever."
"It is so strange to think about," said Lee, staring at his hands. "For my entire life, I have gone on so many missions, many times with enemies. But I have never directly been the cause of someone's death until now. There was always something else that finished them off. I have never had to end someone's life until now, and now that I have been forced to, I am not sure I can do it again. It was a horrible feeling, and the people involved did not deserve that kind of end."
He sighed. "I have a friend back home, a very strong person who wants to change the world. I believe that if there is someone who can do something like that, it is him, but I think I am finally starting to understand why he wishes that change upon the world. This endless cycle of violence and death is so pointless and destructive. It makes shells of people, and I am afraid of becoming one of those people if I have to continue killing those who other people tell me are my enemy."
Kasumi hugged him. "You're not a bad person, Lee. In fact, you're one of the kindest, gentlest people I know. You won't ever become someone like that. Not if I have anything to say about it."
Lee looked at her. "We are from different villages. There is not much you could do if I went home…"
Kasumi blushed, dropping her gaze. "Well, I a-actually wanted to talk to you about that…I like you, Lee. I like you a lot."
Lee found the heart to smile, if only a little. "And I like you very much as well! You have introduced me to so much here. I can never thank you enough."
Kasumi laughed, a high-pitched and nervous sound. "Th-that's not what I meant, stupid…I really like you, and I don't know how to tell you this, but I w-want to try and find a way that maybe…maybe we could keep seeing each other?"
Lee's eyes opened as wide as saucers. "You m-mean you…?"
She answered his unfinished question by leaning in and kissing him on the cheek. "I think I do, yeah. I've met plenty of other guys here, Lee, but you're different. You never seemed to care what other people thought about you, and you were always willing to help someone else, no matter how much it might cost you. I've never seen that quality in someone before, and it's made me realize how great of a person you are."
"She's right, you know." Niwakō was standing in the doorway, holding something in her arms. "You are a wonderful young man with equally wonderful friends, and I am so happy you and my daughter have met. I hate to interrupt the two of you, but there is something you need to know. There might be a reason why that man came to scare us, and it does not involve you."
Kasumi covered her mouth when she saw what her mother was holding. "Mom, are you really…you're not going to tell him, are you?"
Lee was confused. "What is going on? Is something wrong?"
"My mother never wants to talk about this," Kasumi explained, frowning. "I was only a baby at the time, so I do not remember it, but my mother will. You see, I used to have a sister."
Niwakō sat down opposite to them, handing Lee what she had been holding. It was a picture frame, the wood rough and worn-down over the years. The picture itself was crumbled and faded, clinging clumsily to its frame. A little girl was seated there, with brilliant violet eyes and a far-off look within them.
"You are probably well-aware that in the past, clans with special abilities, Kekkei Genkai, were persecuted in Kirigakure. There was an inherent distrust, and the village was constantly on the verge of civil war because of that distrust. We managed to avoid that kind of persecution by fleeing the village, returning only after the chaos has died away, and even then, we came as refugees."
Lee was stunned into silence. This family possessed a Kekkei Genkai, like the Hyūga or the Uchiha?
"I can see you are surprised," Niwakō said quietly. "At its earliest incarnations, we could glimpse visions of the future, of things to come. Through training, we could control when the visions came to us and how strong they were. But our clan's abilities were rare amongst us; only a few here and there were able to tap into it, but that did not stop the village from lashing out against us. I was only a little girl when it happened, but most of our family was killed off. My father and I were of only a handful that escaped. After he died, and I had grown up, I came back to the village, certain that the persecution had ended. But now, it seems like we may not be allowed that peace of mind any longer. I am certain those men knew who we are, regardless of the fact that we are your hosts."
Lee rubbed at his wrists, nervously glancing between Niwakō and Kasumi, back and forth. Both looked guilty to have hid this from him, and they had yet to explain the girl in the picture.
He pointed at it. "So who is that? Does she have something to do with all of this?"
Kasumi nodded. "Yes. That was my little sister."
Lee felt the ice in her voice. "W-was?"
"Kasumi is telling the truth. She did have a sister. While we were still far from Kiri, in a small village along the coast, something happened. Some men came, looking for the remnants of our clan. They intended to kill us all if they found us, but the village took pity upon us, and assured the men that no one from our clan was hiding there."
Niwakō took back the picture, staring at it with sad, longing eyes. "Neither of us possessed the ability of our clans. It wouldn't have mattered if we were alive or dead, but they wished to kill us all the same. I could not understand that kind of blind hatred, the kind that took my daughter away from me."
She blinked back several tears. "When we returned home, my youngest was gone. There wasn't a single trace of her left, and we never saw her again. I asked for rumors now and again, but I never heard any good news. She was just a child, barely able to speak. I was getting my hopes up for nothing."
"What was her name?" Lee asked, though he did not know why.
"I did not name her. It was a tradition amongst our clan that we choose our own names when we reach a certain age. But she did not get there; my little girl never got a name of her own."
She sobbed a few times into the sleeve of her jacket. Kasumi hurried over to comfort her, cooing soft words in her ear and hugging her close. Lee felt compelled to console the woman as well, but his own shame at reminding her of this kept him rooted to the spot.
Eventually, however, she calmed down. "That is what this is about, isn't it? Someone within the village is trying to stir up that hatred again, to throw the village into chaos, and use that to gain power."
Lee leaned forward, taking Niwakō's hand. "That is what we will stop from happening. You have my word on that. My friends and I will make sure that this does not come to pass."
His confidence was genuine, and his resolve was strong, but Lee felt the eyes of the girl upon him. Judging him, assuring him that because others had failed in the past, so would he in the present. He looked away from the portrait, but still felt those unsettling violet eyes staring at him.
Naruto felt something tapping against his cheek, waking him. He sat up in his bed, rubbing his eyes, as Hinata pulled the sheets away from him. The sun shone brightly through his window.
"You need to get going, Naruto-kun," she whispered. "You can't be late for your promotion ceremony."
"Crap! I almost forgot about that!" He shimmied towards the edge of the bed, not wanting to stir Miso, as Hinata tossed him the cleanest pair of pants she could find. They smelled a little like dog, but they would have to do, as Naruto pulled them on. He rummaged through his closest looking for his zip-up while Hinata fussed with his hair, patting down what little bed-head she could.
She took a few steps backward, admiring her handiwork. "It's not great, b-but it'll have to do. Promise to behave yourself, okay?"
He scooped her into his arms, kissing her nose with a devilish grin. "I promise. I wish you could come with me."
"You remember what Tsunade-sama s-said. The less people that are there, the better. I'll be waiting at home with breakfast, okay?"
Naruto waggled his eyebrows. "Maybe when I get back, we can do a little celebrating." He giggled to himself as she turned red, and hurried out the door.
Tsunade had chosen to conduct the ceremony in her office. Aside from her, only three other people were present: Kakashi, Iruka, and to Naruto's surprise, the Daimyo himself, via video screen. Iruka caught him staring, shaking his head with a smile.
"This is a very unique circumstance, Naruto. The daimyo's presence is required to assure that both parties agree to it."
The daimyo waved his fan in greeting. "I have heard many stories about you, young man. If you are interested, I am always looking for shinobi of great talent to act as my personal guard."
"Maybe later," said Tsunade gruffly. "For now, he's got a job to do. Naruto Uzumaki, step forward."
He did so with cautious enthusiasm. His head was pounding, and it was hard to contain the smile that threatened to spill across his face. He wished more people could be here to see this: Hinata, Sakura, Jiraiya…but Kakashi and Iruka were here, and that was a good feeling. Iruka was filled with pride, and even Kakashi was finding it hard to hide his satisfaction.
Tsunade pushed a few papers across her desk. "Sign those, and we'll be good to go."
Naruto blinked. "Wait…that's it?"
"Were you expecting more pomp and circumstance? We've got work to do. You, Hinata, and Sakura will leave at sunset for Kirigakure, meeting up with liaisons along the way, including Neji once you reach the village itself. He will fill you in on the details."
"We're leaving today?" Naruto said. "Is it really that bad?"
"It will be if you're late. You have the rest of the day to make any preparations you want, but I need you at the gate at sunset tonight. No exceptions."
The daimyo nodded sagely. "The Godaime is right. A great many people will be counting on you, young man. Do your village proud." The screen switched off.
Tsunade was already burying her nose in other paperwork, as Naruto just stood there, dumbfounded. Iruka walked up beside him, clasping him on the shoulder.
"I know it might not be what you expected, but there are still very many people who are proud of you, Naruto. If it was open invitation, I'm sure half the village would have been here to congratulate you!"
Naruto smiled. "Thanks Iruka-sensei, I guess you're right."
"And there will be plenty of time for bragging once you're back from your mission," Kakashi added. "I'll even treat you to ramen a few times if you'd like."
Another ninja knocked on the door. When Iruka let him inside, Naruto recognized the man as one of the guards assigned to watch over Raiā. He felt a bad feeling beginning to stir.
"Naruto, Raiā has asked for you immediately. He said it is imperative if you wish to succeed in your mission."
Tsunade glared at the guard. "And how would that shriveled old man know about this? Only those with the highest security clearance have been given even slight details."
"I do not know, but he demands that Naruto meet with him in his cell. If not, he will kill the other guard. Tsunade-sama…he is holding him hostage."
The Godaime's eyes widened. "What? Why didn't you say that in the first place!? Naruto, you and I are going over there now. He'll be lucky to keep his miserable life after this."
They found the elder Uzumaki seated against his bed, calming holding the other guard by his throat, with a kunai pressed into his neck. He was whistling a happy little tune when Tsunade and Naruto arrived. There was a gaping hole in the bars of his cell, bent as if they had been made of paper.
"There you are!" he exclaimed, grinning with his uneven teeth. "I was wondering if you'd accept my invitation or not."
He released the other guard, holding his hands into the air. "I'm sorry for the theatrics, but I had to make sure Naruto would have no other option than to come and meet with me here."
Tsunade growled. "How the hell did you do that? Those chakra-repressing shackles were supposed to—"
"Those idiotic devices wouldn't have stopped me in the slightest if I were half as smart as you think I am," said Raiā lazily. "I could have escaped anytime I wished. I chose to stay because we have a mutually beneficial relationship. I need you for protection, and you need me for my skill, and because I can teach Naruto to control the Kyūbi's power."
"How did you know about my mission?" Naruto demanded. "I never said a word to anyone!"
"The sealing arts are more versatile than you think, boy. I have my methods, but they are not important right now. What is, is making sure you have learned to control that beast's chakra before you leave. I promise you, if you do not, the mission will fail."
He folded his arms, frowning. "We have less than one day for you to learn those skills, so I suggest we start now. The Kyūbi possesses an enormous wealth of chakra reserves. You and I are going to steal it and make it something you can freely access."
Tsunade narrowed her eyes. "And how do you plan on doing that?"
There were footsteps coming from down the stairs towards Raiā's cell. He pointed towards them, smiling. "I have enlisted some help in that regard."
Bee flicked the dirt from his shoulder, offering those present his finest rap pose. "Yo."
Author's Note: Like I said, I want to better the update rate, especially so you guys aren't waiting so long for the next chapter. Hopefully this is enough to get you excited! Also, I hope I didn't forget anything; please let me know if something is amiss.
Until next time.