Tale of the Setting Sun
Chapter 19: "Heaven-Shaking Event"
The attack came under cover of mist.
After an early night's rest at the inn, Naruto and the others had risen before the sun, and gotten on board one of the very first boats to Wave country – a small but sturdy wooden fishing boat, manned by a self-professed freelance poet wearing a woven straw hat.
The fog grew steadily thicker as they approached the small island country, and the only sound Naruto could hear was the rhythmic sloshing of the oar as it sliced through the water's surface, made opaque by the reflection of the overcast mist. The conversation, which had been scant to begin with, had all but died down in the face of the grey morning.
Rai had fallen asleep again, and even as Naruto watched, a trickle of drool silently made its way down the side of his face.
It was just as well that Rai had been sitting next to Toru, for just as Naruto reached out to shake the other boy awake, a pair of pale, slimy hands shot out from outside the boat and seized the merchant by the shoulders.
A look of shock and then fear flashing in quick succession across her face, she mutely toppled backwards, breaking the surface of the water with a loud splash. While Mayu and Sai jumped to their feet (with a yelp, the boatman ducked behind them), Naruto managed to lean across Rai in time to grab her ankle with his already outstretched hand. Before he could lose his grip or be pulled over himself, he dug his elbow into Rai's chest, and planting his feet against the wall of the boat, he pulled back, feeling the strain in his arms immediately.
As Rai choked and wheezed back into consciousness below him, two more dark shadows suddenly burst out of the water from the other side of the boat, and from their hands split off a multitude of smaller shadows that flew straight toward them. Mayu and Sai, with a kunai in each hand, hovered protectively in wait.
"Rai!" Naruto shouted out, as the piercing sound of metal striking metal resounded across the water's surface. His eyes immediately focusing, Rai reached upwards with a grunting sound and wrapped his arms around the merchant's kicking legs. Sticking his head in between, Rai leaned forward, gritting his teeth. Letting go of Toru's legs, Naruto quickly made the necessary combination of signs with his freed hands, noting with some anxiety that with the merchant's head underwater, her struggling had started to weaken. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu (Shadow clone technique)!"
In a burst of white cloud, two clones appeared by his side, and they both immediately dove into the water. As they did so, Naruto rejoined Rai's efforts and grabbing Toru around the torso, he pulled back. After a few seconds, with his clones keeping the underwater assailant busy, the opposing pull on the other end suddenly gave way, and as they fell backwards, the merchant's head resurfaced with a wet gasp. Her body tumbling back onto the boat, she hunched over on all fours immediately, shaking and coughing out water.
Meanwhile, Sai had pulled out a scroll, and with a flourish of his brush, a pair of white and black drawings that Naruto quickly identified as bats had burst out of the page. They disappeared into the fog, in which he could already hear the sound of bluebirds' twittering, and shortly afterwards, the storm of shuriken came to a halt.
"Fūton: Kyōfū (Wind Release: Gale)!"
A strong wind swept into existence, sweeping away the fog surrounding the boat – and revealing nothing but a recently disturbed surface. As if in response, Naruto's two clones popped their heads above the water, and as he dispelled them and gained their memories, he let out a sigh.
"They got away," he told the others, though it was mainly for the merchant's benefit. Mayu's bluebirds had already returned and were perched on her shoulders, pecking lightly at her nape.
"They were ninja weren't they?" Rai said, his eyes narrowing. "What village were they from?"
"They weren't wearing any identifiable markers," said Mayu, as she petted a bird with her finger. With a whisper, they swirled back into hairclips that returned to her hair.
Naruto crossed his arms. "They were mercenaries...But it's strange. They were a cut above the ones that've attacked us befo – "
He broke off at the sound of strangled coughing; Naruto turned to see Toru on all fours again. Water and bile were dripping from her mouth.
"Toru-san! Are you alright?" asked Mayu, rushing over to the woman's side.
"I'm fine," said Toru weakly, her face still pale. Naruto noticed that near her collarbone was a sizable hand-shaped bruise that was already growing purple.
Naruto turned toward the boatman. "How far are we from our destination?"
"I'm fine, I said," Toru insisted, even as she bent over the side of the boat, making a gagging sound.
"We're not that far from port," the boatman offered helplessly. "So long as we aren't attacked again, we should see land in two hours."
"She's a civilian – a head wound like that needs to be looked at immediately," said Mayu, shaking her head. Naruto's gaze shot back to Toru, and he immediately spotted the blood on her scalp. Hesitantly, he opened his mouth –
Rai stood up. "I can carry her and run the rest of the way. I was the least useful in that fight. Might as well show my worth now."
"Aha – so you do have some sense of self-awareness," said Sai, with an indulging smile. "Your development isn't as regressive as I feared...but still, futile. Your carrying her would jostle her skull and make it even worse."
"You got a better idea then?" Rai demanded, but Sai had already pulled out his scroll once more. Dipping a brush in ink, his hand blurred across the page, and a large black and white bird was soon unfurling its wings before them. Sai clambered onto its back, and Rai and Naruto carefully picked up the merchant – who was now too weak to protest – and laid her behind him. Sai quickly drew something on his scroll, and this time, a long snake burst into existence, which he used like a rope to fasten Toru into position behind him.
"Please don't get killed on the way back, now," said Sai, as the bird rose into the air. "There'd be too much paperwork to do by myself."
Just before they reached shore, a black and white fish popped its head out of the water, and when Naruto opened an empty scroll, it turned into black calligraphy that seeped into the page.
"They're at the house of an acquaintance," Naruto read off the message. "There'll be someone waiting for us nearby the bridge."
"A bridge?" Rai repeated skeptically. "What's an itty bitty little place like that need a bridge for?"
"It isn't a complete bridge," the boatman said, pausing his rowing to adjust his straw hat. "Tazuna is building a bridge to connect Wave country to Fire country."
"That'd put you out of a job, wouldn't it?" said Rai, in a rare moment of astuteness.
The boatman shrugged. "This is only one of my many jobs. If there was a bridge to connect our country to Fire country, our economy would improve, and other opportunities would open up."
"...and Gatō wouldn't like that, would he?" Naruto said. The boatman shook his head.
"Gatō? Like the shipping magnate?" Rai said incredulously.
"Then were the ones who attacked us earlier Gatō's men?" Mayu asked in a hushed voice.
"It's not impossible. But why would he specifically target a common merchant with barely anything in her hands?" Naruto looked down at Toru's knapsack, which had been left behind. As a B-rank mission, he'd expected some tussles along the way of course, but that recent attack had been different. It had been planned ahead of time, and the fact that they had been able to attack and slip away so easily showed that they weren't ordinary mercenaries. But as he had voiced aloud, the question was – why would they target their client? Was Toru somehow involved with the bridge?
When he realized that no one had answered his question yet, Naruto looked up and saw immediately what had silenced everyone.
From the thick fog which had been obstructing much of their view, a gigantic uncompleted bridge had suddenly emerged. It towered above them as their boat quietly slipped between its legs; coming down from far above, Naruto could hear the distant sounds of hammering and clanging.
When Naruto and the others finally stepped on dock, they immediately spotted Sai, who was seated along the water's edge, drawing something in a small notebook. They waved goodbye to the boatman, who tipped his hat in farewell before rowing away.
"That took awhile," said Sai, closing the notebook shut and climbing to his feet. "I was beginning to wonder whether I should be ordering extra coffins." When Mayu's face paled and her mouth opened, he smiled. "Just kidding. The merchant is doing fine. She just needs some rest."
With that, they began to follow Sai along a dusty but well-trodden path that led away from the bridge.
The mist dwindled rapidly as they got further away from the waterside, and soon, they were walking past a rickety rotting sign and into a settlement with rows of wooden buildings alongside a thin river that cut through its middle. The paint on the rooftops looked like they could have been bright once, but had dulled and chipped away, while some buildings were not even graced with a rooftop, and were instead covered with what looked like cotton sails. Most of the buildings were short, as if clinging to the ground, but at their center was one tall building which spiraled out to a watch post at its tip.
The streets were busy, but not with the hubbub of an afternoon market; the majority of the people there were walking along dejectedly in their straw hats, looking as if they had nothing else to do. Some wore sandwich signs that advertised their willingness for any type of job, while others dazedly lay sprawled out along the sides of the street with a half-empty bottle in their hands. Mayu stopped at one point, when they passed by a group of small children sitting hunched over against a wall, but was pulled away by Rai.
As the others followed Sai inside what looked like a grocery store, Naruto paused as for some odd reason, he felt like he was being watched. Then, his hand whipped out and firmly grabbed the wrist of a bony man whose hand had been straying too close to the bag on his back.
"Careful," he said, giving the wrist a warning squeeze before letting go. With an answering yelp, the man scampered away and disappeared into the throng of people passing by. For several moments, Naruto waited with narrowed eyes – but the sensation that he was being watched had disappeared. He frowned; were the people of this village really so poor and broken as to try and rob a (seemingly) defenseless child in bright daylight? He'd visited a large variety of places with Kakashi over the past year, but never somewhere as pitiful as this one.
The store's bell clang as Naruto entered, and he'd barely been able to take in the scarcity of the nearly-empty shelves before he realized that his teammates were talking to a bespectacled old man with a towel wrapped around his neck and a girl in an eye-catching red qipao. She looked vaguely familiar with her long pink hair, and she was wearing a Leaf hitai-ate like a hair band.
"Ah, and there's our team leader," said Rai, gesturing toward him. The old man raised an eyebrow, clearly unimpressed.
"I don't think I even saw this many kids in the entire village while I was there," he said exasperatedly, though not unpleasantly. "You ninjas sure start out young."
"Who are you?" asked Naruto, looking curiously at the odd pair.
"I'm Tazuna, master bridge-builder," said the old man, tipping his straw hat with some pride. Naruto nodded, his thoughts turning to the bridge they'd seen as they docked.
"I'm Sakura. I'm here with Team Shirakumo," said the girl, and Naruto nodded again, remembering that the Hokage had told him about them. Her eyes flitted to the Leaf hitai-ate on their foreheads, and lit up. "So you four are all from Konoha too, huh?" She scanned their faces, and to Naruto's surprise, paused at his. A look of recognition flashed across her face. "Oh...I remember you! You were in my class for a bit, weren't you? At the Academy? The quiet one?"
"Oh wow, I actually forgot...Naruto, you were transferred to our class late, huh?" said Rai, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
Naruto had stopped paying attention to his classmates early on, so he couldn't say he remembered 'Sakura,' but he did vaguely remember having once sparred against a girl with her hair color.
However, without responding, Naruto looked straight at Sakura. "If you're on an escort mission, why are you still here?"
Immediately in response, Sakura looked away and bit her lip, while Tazuna coughed uncomfortably.
"This sort of talk would be better kept behind closed doors," said Tazuna, directing a meaningful look towards the shopkeeper. "I'd invite you to my home, but it looks like you already have somewhere to be?"
The others looked at Sai, who shrugged and pointed at a small stairway near the counter. "We're already here."
Exchanging a few words with the shopkeeper – a short man who looked nervously around the store's premises – they headed up the stairs, which creaked at every step. Sai knocked four times on the door, and after a few seconds, they heard the sound of shuffling. The door opened a crack to reveal an eye, before opening to reveal Toru, whose head was swathed in bandages; her face seemed to have regained some of its previous color.
She stepped back, ushering them in with a quick wave of her hand. "Quick, come on in. Nobody's supposed to know I'm...here..." She trailed off as she finally saw Tazuna standing at the edge of the group.
He gaped back at her, his glasses hanging askew. "Kaine!"
With a blank look on her face, Toru regarded Tazuna silently before finally heaving a sigh. She opened the door wider in a sign of invitation. "...You'd better come in, then," she said quietly.
Inside was a small, clean three-room apartment not unlike Naruto's own home in Konoha – but judging by the poverty of the rest of the village, it might have been considered luxurious. Toru – or Kaine – disappeared into the kitchen, and with Mayu helping, distributed cups of tea for all of them. With everyone sipping from the hot tea, the story soon came out.
"My real name is Kaine," said the merchant. "And as I'm sure you've deduced by now, I am being targeted by Gatō for being an accomplice of the bridge's construction."
"So you were our mysterious benefactor?" Tazuna said heavily, looking down at his untouched cup. "Why didn't you tell us?"
"What good would that have done?" snapped Kaine. "Whenever you weren't working on the bridge, you were just a bumbling, drunk fool of an old man."
"The past year hasn't been kind to you," said Tazuna, not rising to the taunt.
"At least I'm still alive," she retorted. "Which is better than what I can say about my dear brother."
There was a pregnant pause; while Sai appeared to be gazing at the design of the tea cups with some fascination, Sakura and Mayu stared wide-eyed at the hard-faced merchant woman. Rai uncomfortably gulped down his tea, and Naruto followed suit, taking his first sip of the drink. It was bitter.
"You are angry with me," said Tazuna at last. "For being alive."
Kaine's head snapped back as if she'd been slapped. "Why would I be?"
"You wish I'd been the one executed instead of Kaiza," said Tazuna. This time, it was Kaine's turn to be silent.
"Um...who's Kaiza?" asked Sakura awkwardly, raising a hand as if she were in class.
"The hero of this city," Tazuna answered and at the same time, Kaine said, "My brother." Kaine's mouth thinned into a single line, and Tazuna took off his glasses to wipe it with his sleeve before continuing. "He married my daughter, and became my grandson Inari's father. They were like a true father and son, and inseparable...but when Gatō took over, he stood up to them. And for that, he was executed in front of everyone. Kaiza was the bravest man I ever knew, and died because of it."
"My brother wasn't brave," sneered Kaine, her hands visibly tightening over her cup. "He couldn't protect his first family, so he ran away to Wave country and thought he'd redeem himself by playing at being a hero, only to get killed...but I suppose compared to you, he was brave." She raised her eyes aggressively toward the older man. "He didn't cower behind a fence, watching as an innocent man got murdered. He didn't sit complacently at home, drinking himself silly and venturing out only when someone gave him some coin. He wasn't brave, but he wasn't a coward like you."
"That's not true!" Sakura burst out angrily. "Even though it was dangerous, Tazuna-san came all the way to Fire country. On the way to Wave country, we even got attacked by a missing-nin named Zabuza!"
Naruto's eyes widened and from beside him, Rai spit out a mouthful of tea.
"A missing-nin...?" Mayu repeated, growing pale.
Naruto didn't recognize the name, but by principle, all missing-nin were dangerous. Any ninja who could leave their village without being caught by their village's hunter-nin had to be at least jōnin-level.
Sakura jumped to her feet, looking upset. "Even Shirakumo-sensei got injured during the battle. But after all that, Tazuna-san went right back to the bridge to continue working on it. Another man quit today, but he still isn't giving up!"
"That's alright Sakura," said Tazuna, though he looked rather touched. "What Kaine is saying isn't wrong."
"...if you can realize that, then I have nothing else to say to you," said Kaine, white-faced. "Please leave."
At her words, Tazuna's form sagged, making him look even older than he had before. But without protest, he nodded. Leaving his tea still untouched, he reached for his straw hat, which he had hung neatly on a chair.
He paused before the door. "Thank you for your funding, Kaine. If this bridge is completed, this city...no, the entire country will be in debt to you." With a nod to Naruto and the others, he left. Shooting them a final pleading look, Sakura followed him.
Several minutes after the door had closed shut, Naruto got to his feet. Keeping his voice neutral, he said, "Well, we have to get going now. I apologize for your injury, but if you want to file any complaints about our work, you'll have to contact our village by post." Mayu and Rai jumped at his words.
Slowly shaking her head, Kaine reached into her pocket to pull out a handful of coins. "No, your work was satisfactory. This should cover your passage back to Konoha." She averted her gaze. "Thank you for escorting me here. I wouldn't have made it without you kids."
Rai hurried to drain the rest of his tea, and the rest rose to their feet. After a few murmured farewells, they left the apartment.
"Hey...Naruto," said Rai hesitantly, as the store's bell clanged behind them. He looked up at the building with a troubled expression. "Can we really just leave it like this?"
Naruto glanced back. "Our mission was to escort her to Wave country. There was nothing about staying here and helping her clean up her life."
"I guess you're right," said Rai, his face clearing up. "It's not like we could do much about it, anyways."
They began to walk away, but a few seconds later, Naruto stopped, realizing that Mayu hadn't moved. She was picking at the tail of her hair in the way she did when she was anxious about something, and her eyes seemed fixed on something. Following her gaze, he saw that she was staring straight at a small, hungry-looking girl begging for food on the other side of the street. Naruto suppressed a sigh.
"Mayu – " Rai started, but she suddenly put up a hand, silencing him.
"You heard what Sakura said," Mayu said quietly. "Their sensei – Shirakumo-sensei – is injured. That's probably why they're still here. Can we really just go without helping them? They're from Konoha too."
"So this isn't about the orphans at all," Rai said sarcastically, crossing his arms. "Or about Tazuna and that mess with Gatō."
Mayu turned pink. "So what if it is?"
"We're ninja, not philanthropists," Rai hissed. Sai drew in a sharp breath, and they all automatically turned toward him.
"Did you sense something?" Naruto asked, looking around. The feeling that he was being watched had returned, but there were too many people milling around for him to pinpoint the source.
Sai shrugged. "I was just taken aback that he knew such a big word...But you should probably stop talking so loudly about all this. We're drawing attention to ourselves."
Before Rai could retort something back, Naruto put a hand on his shoulder. "Sai's right about people watching. Calm down." He turned to Mayu and lowered his voice. "But Rai is right too. We're not philanthropists. Our mission's complete. We don't know anything about the situation besides what we've just heard from two biased sources, and there's little we can do about it. Involving ourselves would mean involving Konoha in a foreign territorial dispute, and the village would lose face with clients."
In truth, Naruto couldn't care less about the village's reputation, but he figured playing to Mayu's sense of loyalty would have more effect than the real reason why he wanted to leave. There was the desire to quickly return to Konoha and rack up points for another successfully completed mission, but more than that – this seaside city made him uneasy. It could've been the way he kept feeling like he was being watched, or it could've been the dead look in everyone's eyes, but whatever the source was, Naruto had been itching to leave as soon as he'd set foot in the city.
It was a pity about Kaine, but Naruto had barely known her for a week, and did not feel the urge to lay down the lives of his teammates in exchange for her continued safety – a safety that, indeed, well exceeded the conditions of their mission. Because the truth of the matter was, his every nerve was screaming at him that it wasn't safe here. Every minute spent here only increased the chances of their being in irreversible danger, and to Naruto's chagrin, he didn't know if he was strong enough yet to protect the team. He knew he had gotten stronger over the past year with his extensive tutelage under Kakashi, but he had yet to win any of their frequent bouts against each other. And if there was one thing he had learned over the past year on their missions together, it was that the world was large and crawling with unknown powerful enemies. There were many weak ninja, but there were just as many strong ninja. And without the rules that he'd come to be familiar with in the village and the Academy; without the regulations and expectations that, no matter how vaguely, governed the chūnin exam; and without Kakashi acting as an ever-present reassuring shield – Naruto found himself questioning what he was and wasn't capable of, knowing that if he overestimated their abilities, there would be no return trip back to Konoha – outside of a coffin, if their enemies were so kind.
Is this what the pressure of being a team leader is?, he wondered.
"But Shirakumo-sensei – "
"Shirakumo-sensei is a jōnin, Mayu," said Rai, in a slightly calmer voice. "Sakura's team should be fine, so long as they don't stick their noses in anything more."
"Are we going to go or not?" said Sai, managing to look bored even as he smiled.
Mayu bowed her head, and with some relief, Naruto turned around. He raised a foot to step forward, when to his surprise, she said, "No."
"Uh...Mayu?" Rai asked uncertainly.
"You heard what she said. Toru...no, Kaine-san is still in danger. What kind of ninja are we, if we abandon her here?" She raised her head, and Naruto was stunned to find that her eyes were blazing. "I'm going to stay with Kaine-san...and I'm going to find Sakura's team and see what I can do to help."
"Mayu – " Rai began, but was cut off once more as Mayu held up a hand. She looked piercingly at them – Naruto suddenly realized that her eyes were hazel, not brown – and then when, against all expectations, she smiled, Rai actually took a step back.
"I'm sorry for being so selfish," she said. "But I've never been more grateful that I'm a ninja than I am right now."
Without another word, Mayu turned around and disappeared into the store; the bell sounded behind her like a death knell, and Naruto and Rai mutely stared at the closing door with, for once, identically astonished expressions on their faces.
"Did...did that just happen?" Rai finally let out weakly. "Where did that come from?"
"Is that what they call premenstrual syndrome?" Sai cocked his head, with what looked like a genuinely curious look fixed on his face.
"Naruto?" Rai turned to him with a pleading look, and for once, he found himself unable to think of what to say.
When Sakura opened the door to the ramshackle house beside the windmill and found Mayu beaming back (with Rai, Naruto, and Sai awkwardly hovering behind), she flung it wide open with a look of delight, and the two girls rushed into each other's arms as if they hadn't met for the first time just a few hours ago.
"I didn't think you'd stay behind!" exclaimed Sakura.
"Of course we'd want to help a fellow Leaf ninja in need!" Mayu said, clasping her hands together. "Isn't that right, guys?"
Rai scratched his face. "Uh...yeah. Totally."
"No," said Sai.
Naruto didn't respond, his mind furiously working to try and salvage the situation.
It wasn't new for Mayu to disapprove of one of his decisions, but she had always deferred to them...until now. After the initial shock, his immediate thought had been to order her as team leader to return, and if that proved insufficient, to resort to whatever physical means necessary. And perhaps even just a year ago, Naruto may have gone ahead and done just that. But now, as the thought of how Mayu might look at him for it floated into his mind – feeling a tightening in his chest, he dismissed it. Even if it were at the cost of a mission, he didn't know if he could bear either of his teammates looking at him in that way ever again.
What's happened to me?, Naruto thought frustratedly to himself.
Meanwhile, as Sakura uncertainly took in their less-than-enthusiastic expressions, a male voice called out from another room, "Sakura? Who are they?"
"They're chūnin from Konoha," Sakura responded, and a few seconds later, a curious-looking blonde boy in a black t-shirt stepped out. He looked them over with a rather suspicious glint in his eyes, which only slightly cleared at the sight of their Leaf hitai-ate.
"How do you know for sure?" the boy asked cagily. "They could be Gatō's goons, for all we know." Without pause, he turned around, and cupping his hand around his mouth, he said, "Hey, Sasuke! Come here for a sec. You recognize any of them?"
Another boy, this time dark-haired, stepped out from the other room, and with an equally wary look in his eyes, he looked at Naruto and his teammates.
After a pause, he pointed a finger straight at Naruto. "That one. I remember him."
"Jeez, Menma," said Sakura, shaking her pink head exasperatedly. "He was in our class for a year. How could you forget?"
"Oh, was he?" The boy let out an easy laugh, raising a hand to his neck in embarrassment. "My bad."
A/N: Thank you for your reviews.