Tale of the Setting Sun
Chapter 22: "Veritable Pandemonium"
The ship's departure from the dock had been stalled for some time for an unknown reason, but finally, when both the sky and the ocean had become a deep inky black, it set off again. The lights from the cabins cast a reflective yellow glow across the sea, making it an easy mark for Kakashi to follow.
Keeping watch from below the stern of the ship, it hadn't taken him much effort to identify the cabin Naruto and the others were in. Naruto must have passed by an uncovered porthole, for Kakashi had immediately noticed the flash of red.
It's not like you to let down your guard, Naruto, even if you're returning from a completed mission, Kakashi chided silently.
As the hours passed, the wind picked up and the lights in the cabins began to flicker off. Kakashi himself was starting to feel it in his shoulders – I'm getting old, aren't I?, he thought amusedly to himself – and he'd been drenched in icy sea water more than once from straying too close to the ship.
Finally, only when Kakashi had narrowly avoided being vomited on by some poor straggler at the deck of the ship, did he decide that it was time to actually get on board.
Projecting a burst of chakra down to his legs, Kakashi shot himself up along the ship's side, landing silently in the shadowy silhouettes of a stack of wooden barrels. Looking around the empty deck, he made sure that the coast was clear. Though even if it weren't, he doubted he'd come across any real trouble – the ship had some hired guards, but they were at best genin-level ninja who could barely tell apart clones from the real thing. No, the hardest part about this would be hiding his presence from Naruto and the others.
However, Naruto's cabin was all the way at the other side of the ship, and it was unlikely that any of them would venture out before dawn – by which time they'd already be at the border of Fire country. The best course of action, he decided, would be for him to simply sit tight where he was, and then get off the ship before it docked at port.
Suddenly, hearing footsteps, Kakashi shrunk further into the shadows – but it was just a stumbling, pale-faced cabin boy simultaneously swearing and hacking up what looked like the rest of his dinner over the railing. Nevertheless, Kakashi kept his eyes sharp and watched the boy, with a final utterance of a curse word, stumble back down through a hatchway.
Kakashi wrinkled his nose; some of the vomit must have splashed on to the deck, for he could quite clearly smell, along with the distinct odor of stomach acid, that dinner must have involved quite a few potatoes.
"What - what are you going to do to us?" Grapefruit-breasts breathed in a high voice, her eyes flicking down repeatedly to the object he was twirling in his hand.
"Surely you don't think we'll crack from you tickling us with a feather," Bubble butt scoffed. She'd recovered face relatively quickly despite being completely immobilized in his hair trap, but the underlying tension was still apparent.
"This will make excellent material for the next book I'm writing," said Jiraiya with a shake of the feather. "It'll take some time, but you ladies aren't particularly pressed for it I hope?"
"We're not telling you anything!" Bubble butt spat at Jiraiya, but he made no move to avoid or clean it off. He sighed instead.
For her own sake, he hoped she would.
They were waiting where they had agreed to meet, by a massive oak tree near the edges of a forest along the far outreaches of Tazuna's village.
After everything they had already gone through, Naruto had braced himself for the worst – so when Rai and Sai's faces finally came into view, the relief he felt was so immense, he nearly stumbled on his landing. With Mayu helping to support him up, the two of them landed down just as the sun was starting to rise, spreading its tendrils almost shyly through the cracks of the canopy trees.
"Mayu! Naruto!" Rai called out to them, relief spreading across in his face. Leaving Sai behind, he began to run toward them. "You're alri - whoa...Naruto?" Rai hesitantly came to a stop in front of them, his eyes raking up and down Naruto's bloodied form.
"I'm fine, they're just flesh wounds," said Naruto, deciding not to mention the pain in his ribs. The pain had already ebbed away to a minor throbbing in his chest. Sitting down, he tipped his head back and allowed himself to lean back against the tree trunk.
"Kakuzu found us," Mayu said shakily, her arms crisscrossing across her chest.
Rai's eyes widened. "You too?"
"What do you mean?" Naruto frowned, quickly turning toward the other boy. "Were you caught too?"
"Yeah, that other one – Hidan, he got to us," Rai confirmed with a troubled look on his face. Then, apparently noticing Mayu's expression, he hastened to add, "But nothing happened. He was just spewing a lot of crap...and then he suddenly started talking to the air, before leaving."
"That's essentially what happened with us," said Mayu. "Except...except Kakuzu didn't talk so much." Rai's face noticeably grew in pallor, and this time, it was her turn to add, "Don't worry, I'm alright. It was Naruto who fended him off right until he suddenly left."
As some of the color returned to his face, Rai let out a whistle. "Didn't Sai say he was an S-rank? And you managed to hold him off?"
Naruto didn't say anything, but clenched his hands tightly. He looked down at the ground, unable to meet his teammates' eyes. It had been his plan to split up the team and send off decoys, but it hadn't worked. His decisions had placed all of his teammates in danger, and it could only be called a miracle that they were all there alive.
"Naruto – " he heard Mayu start, but she was cut off as suddenly, Rai punched him on the shoulder so strongly, he could have sworn he'd heard another rib crack. Naruto's head snapped up to see Rai looking down at him exasperatedly.
"Oh come on now, enough with the gloom," said Rai. "Two insanely powerful lunatics were after us but the three - well, four I suppose – of us are all here in one piece, relatively unharmed. What more could you ask for?"
Naruto paused. "Sorry," he finally said, his hands uncurling at his sides. Rai was right; this was no time to be wallowing in regret.
And if it was any consolation, despite Kakuzu's comment about jinchūriki, Mayu seemed to be none the wiser.
"Anyways," Rai said, waving away his apology with a dismissive air. "We did get something out of that Hidan guy. Turns out they weren't just a random pair of criminals walking around in the middle of nowhere. They're involved with whatever's going down in Wave country right now."
Mayu's hand leapt up to her open mouth. "You mean with Gatō?"
"There's going to be an event of some sort in three days," Sai finally spoke up. It seemed the incident with Hidan had gotten to him; he seemed unusually on edge. "Someone important will be in the city."
Rai shrugged. "Well, that's the basic digest of what we thought Hidan was saying anyways. It's probably got nothing to do with us, but..."
Naruto got to his feet. "But first things first, we need to get back. We'll decide what to do after we've gotten back in touch with Shirakumo and the others."
However, forced to take multiple detours and roundabouts to throw off any possible trackers, it was several more hours before Naruto and the others finally reached Tazuna's home. Ushered through the door by a worried-looking Tsunami, the starving four were promptly seated at the table with platters stacked high with – as one could have guessed it – fish and rice.
Once they had managed to get out the full story of what had happened, the involved adults stood around with troubled expressions on their faces while Naruto and his teammates stuffed their faces.
"An event in the harbor city in which someone important will be in danger?" Tsunami murmured uneasily.
"There's only one thing that could be," said Kaine flatly.
Tazuna sighed. "Aye. The ceremony."
"The ceremony? What's that?" Menma cocked his head curiously. "You've got a piece of rice stuck on your face by the way," he pointed out to Rai, who ignored him.
"The daimyō and his children will be paraded through the city in a charade of well-being, with the stated purpose of reassuring the citizens that they are doing just fine," Kaine spat. "But basically, one of Gatō's ways of appeasing the other nations by telling them that he's not trying to overthrow the system."
"And at the same time, reminding everyone in the country who's really in control," Shirakumo murmured, his brow furrowed in thought.
"So is the daimyō going to be assassinated then?" Tazuna asked in a heavy voice.
"It depends on whether those two you described – Hidan and Kakuzu, was it? – work for Gatō or not," Kaine said. "But regardless, this doesn't change anything. Risks like this have already been accounted for in my plans."
Naruto put his chopsticks down, and looked at Kaine. "Plans?"
The others had also stopped eating – though Rai continued to chew on some seaweed – as they waited for the guerilla merchant to answer. She looked around at them seriously, her freckles in stark contrast with the morning lighting.
"I've already forced you all to overextend your stay for the affairs of a country that have nothing to do with you," she said, with a slight bow of her head. "And I am truly sorry for that. But that ceremony in three days is when all my plans come to a head. After that ceremony is over, whether the mission has succeeded or failed, I will ensure with all my power that you are all properly compensated and relieved from your obligations here."
"And this mission will involve...?" Shirakumo crossed his arms across his chest.
Kaine smiled grimly, and looked directly at Naruto. "How good are you all at behaving like actual, normal children?"
Hirumo whistled as he looked around at the messy scene. "This is brutal, Jiraiya-sama..." His nose wrinkled. "Is that something burning I smell?"
Hirumo was one of his trusted sources in Wave country, and their mutually beneficial relationship had a long history spanning the many years Jiraiya had spent building up his spy network. The short pony-tailed ninja's best characteristic was, in Jiraiya's opinion, the way he showed up promptly and without any unnecessary questions as soon as he was called for. He was, if anything, efficient and experienced in covering his tracks, making the chance of his being caught and spilling details of their alliance rather miniscule indeed.
Jiraiya sighed heavily. "If only they'd break sooner." He made no move to wipe his face, which was speckled with tiny flecks of dark blood. "It would have been better for them."
"I assume you got the information you wanted?"
"Some. The one who actually knew anything didn't break quite so easily."
Squatting down, Hirumo opened the mouth of one of the bodies, peering inside it with the air of looking at an interesting museum specimen. "You had preventative measures to stop her from biting her tongue or ingesting any sort of poison, I gather?"
"Yes," Jiraiya said simply. He chose not to mention how he'd chosen to end her life as soon as he realized that he'd gotten everything he'd ever get out of her. A loyal one, she'd been. "She was working for Zabuza...who is in turn, working for Gatō."
Hirumo nodded in confirmation. "Yes, I've heard multiple reports about Zabuza being spotted as a bodyguard for Gatō. He's not exactly a difficult man to miss. But is that it...?"
"She didn't seem to understand the significance behind a certain word they were using as a code name for suspicious individuals such as myself...but perhaps you could shed some light on their connection to them."
"This certain word being...?" Hirumo said curiously.
"Akatsuki..." Hirumo repeated slowly, tasting the word with his tongue. His eyes had lit up like a child that had just caught sight of a favorite toy he had put aside at one point, and then forgotten about its existence. "I'd heard rumors but dismissed them..."
"Rumors about?" Jiraiya prodded him.
"About a growing organization that was supporting Gatō from the shadows – or even controlling, perhaps," Hirumo said. Then with a thoughtful look, he added, "There's been a confirmed recent sighting of Kakuzu at one of the bounty stations along the coastline."
Jiraiya folded his arms across his chest, processing the information. Kakuzu was one of the more frequently spotted members of Akatsuki, showing up from time to time to turn in a ridiculous amount of bounties in exchange for money. However, there was nothing Jiraiya could do about that – bounty stations were strictly black market, and while information regarding Kakuzu's visits could be bought at a price, his visits were indiscriminate and without pattern, making them impossible to track.
Hirumo got up, wiping his hands clean on the sides of his pants. "Was that it, Jiraiya-sama?"
"There was one final thing I got out of the interrogation," Jiraiya said distractedly. "They were supposed to report back to Zabuza at some sort of big event soon, in the harbor city. Do you know anything about that?"
"That'll be the daimyo's ceremony for sure," said Hirumo without any hesitation.
"Out of the way, kid!"
In the fat man's hurry to get to the front of the crowd, he reached out with an impatient hand to shove the small boy to the side – but to his surprise, it swiped uselessly through the air. The man glanced down and then did a double take, finding nothing there. He looked around – but there were at least a dozen other children of the same size and coloring in the immediate vicinity. The boy could have been any one of them. So, with little more than a fleeting wondering thought, the man moved on.
Meanwhile, through bright blue eyes, Naruto watched the man disappear into the crowd before effortlessly merging into it once more. As he began to be jostled forward by the mass, he looked around at the numbers calculatingly.
It seemed that a substantial number of people had gathered at the city for the ceremony, for he had never seen even half that number of people during the busiest hours of the city. And while most of them looked like civilians, there were some who stood out like a sore thumb, namely those with weapons. Most were subtle, with daggers strapped to their thighs, but here and there were the obvious ones with bulky swords and katana on their backs. Those kinds of people walked about with a bubble around them, as the civilians avoided eye contact and gave them a wide berth.
A flashing motion caught Naruto's eye, and he turned to see a scruffy-looking boy with dark coloring nod at him before ducking and disappearing into the crowd – Rai. As he looked around, several more caught his eye – a sour-faced girl with short hair, a scratched-up boy with cropped black hair...Sakura. Menma.
He couldn't spot Mayu, Sai or Sasuke but that was because they were situated on the other side of the venue, a winding path that led from the daimyō's ceremonial estate to the city's center. They were all arranged strategically near the front of the crowd, along with most of the other civilian children. It was a custom in Wave country for the daimyō's procession to hand out ryō and candy to the watching children, and as Naruto looked around at the many orphans crowding around him, it was apparent that most of them had made the pilgrimage here for that very purpose.
Is this why Kaine-san took it as well as she did, when she found out we were her escorts?, Naruto wondered.
Henge, the transformation jutsu, was an E-rank jutsu, but it was difficult to maintain perfectly while under high external strain. And the closer your transformation was to your real appearance, the easier it was to maintain it. For example, it would be easier for an adult male to transform into another adult male than into a young boy, and vice versa. Once Naruto and Sasuke's teams had transformed into typical hungry-eyed children, melting into the background became effortless.
This was key for the mission Kaine had proposed to them three days earlier in Tazuna's house: to rescue the daimyō's two children, the prince and princess, so that Gatō couldn't use them as a means of controlling the daimyō anymore. According to Kaine, rescuing the daimyō himself would be too risky – not only would he be the most heavily guarded, but it would only give Gatō a reason to seize the vacuum of authority left behind in the daimyō's absence, no matter how temporary.
Suddenly, there was a flurry of motion and then hushed whispering. The moving crowd came to a stop, all of the heads facing one direction – and there, at the far end of the pathway, Naruto could see what looked like the beginnings of a procession making its way through. At the back was a series of ornately decorated sedan chairs, from which Naruto could make out smiling faces and waving hands – the daimyō and his children. And standing around them was an array of women and men with kunai and swords glinting nakedly on their persons. Naruto quickly did a headcount and saw that Kaine's information had been on spot: the sedan chair holding the princess and prince was relatively lightly guarded with three bodyguards, not including the carriers. If Kaine's information could be further counted on, there were a few more guards scattered in the crowd disguised as civilians, but if their plan worked out, they shouldn't have time to matter.
The daimyō's sedan chair on the other hand, was surrounded by no less than seven guards, most prominently of which was a pale-skinned man with bandages running across the lower half of his face, and a gigantic broadsword on his back. Without fail, wherever he passed through the crowd, a visible wave of fear swept through it.
"That's Zabuza," a passing voice hissed tightly in his ear – Menma – and Naruto nodded. So this was the infamous missing-nin. He'd thought that Menma's team had finished him off, but this was no time to question things. Either Zabuza had survived or someone was impersonating him – whatever the case, he was another powerful obstacle they would have to get through to complete the mission.
Naruto felt an uneasy shiver go down his spine. It was strange, however, that a missing-nin could be so boldly parading in front of thousands of people like that. No matter how powerful he was, he was basically painting a target on himself for any of his village's hunter nin.
As he waited for the signal, Naruto watched the procession get closer and closer to where he was standing. Every now and then, a hand, full of something that glinted brightly in the afternoon sun, popped out of one of the sedan chairs and every time, as if a dam had broken, the children surged forward. There seemed to be some invisible rule in place that prevented adults from joining in; when a few stragglers moved forward to do so, they were promptly knocked out by the children around them. If they were lucky, their unconscious bodies were dragged out to the edge of the crowd.
Just as the first sedan chair began to pass by where Naruto was waiting, the hand popped out once more, and this time, he could see that it was attached to a young-looking girl dressed richly in pale robes. She looked cheerful – likely she was too young to understand the precarious hostage situation her family and country was in. The children around Naruto surged forward, and he joined in half-heartedly. He reached up in the air with a hand – and in that instant, met the princess' gaze. Her eyes were blue, like his. Taken aback, he held his breath – and then with a bright smile, she tossed the coins in her hand toward him.
Before they reached him, however, several of the larger and rougher orphans knocked his hand aside and leaped up to swipe the coins. Naruto saw another orphan boy aiming a kick at his chest; easily dodging it, he nevertheless pretended to have been hurt and fell backward in the crowd, intending to disappear and lose whatever the small attention he'd unintentionally gathered.
But before Naruto hit the ground, a strong hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him up. He looked up to see a tall man with long shaggy white hair, and immediately recognized him as the man he'd chanced upon in the bathhouse a week ago.
"Are you alright?" said the man, and Naruto mutely nodded, his mind whirring with several possibilities – was this other man working for Gatō? Had he found out about the plot, and seen through Naruto's disguise? But before Naruto could do anything else, the man simply said, "be more careful from now on," and then walked away.
Naruto stood still, unsure of how to react – and as if answering him, a roaring sound filled his ears. Naruto's head snapped toward the procession's path just in time to see three massive black and white tigers leaping at Zabuza – the signal!
The crowd had been stunned into silence, but as the missing-nin pulled his sword off his back with an accompanying flash of steel, they were galvanized into action. Screaming, people, children and adults alike, began scrambling away from the path. The same orphan boy who had tried to kick Naruto before came running at him with a panicked expression on his face; leaping forward, Naruto jumped past him, heading straight for the procession.
Naruto landed on the path, with Rai, Sakura and Menma right behind him. All of the guards were distracted, focusing their attention on the other side of the path, where now, on top of Sai's beast drawings, a flock of birds as well as several fast-moving bodies were wreaking havoc.
Naruto pulled the tantō from his back and in the same smooth action, burst forward to the princess and prince's sedan chair. The main guard, a tall disciplined-looking woman with hair tightly pulled back in a bun, noticed him and as she raised her blade toward him, her mouth opened to shout a warning. But before she could make a sound, Naruto was past her – with a spray of bright red blood, the body fell to the ground and her head rolled away on the ground. When Naruto glanced behind to check, he saw that Rai had similarly taken care of the other guard, while Menma and Sakura knocked out the third. Menma and Sakura looked at them with stunned expressions on their faces, but paying no mind, Naruto reached into the sedan chair.
The prince and princess, looking terrified, had backed away to the other side. Noticing that their eyes were fixated on the blood dripping from his tantō, Naruto hastily returned it to its sheath. Then, he grabbed the arm of the princess – Rai grabbed the prince – and pulled her trembling figure out. She began to struggle in his hands but she was weak, even for a civilian.
"What're you doing?" the princess cried out. "Stop!"
"We're here to save you," said Naruto quietly. He shot a look toward the daimyō's sedan; though Zabuza's back was toward them, one of the guards had noticed them and had started to move toward them with a sword in his hand. "We don't have time. Come quietly, or I'll knock you out."
Growing still, the princess' eyes became as round as the coins she'd been tossing out, and taking advantage of it, Naruto tossed her over his shoulder and jumped out of the chair. Just as he prepared to leap down into the crowd, there was a scream –
Naruto turned to see Rai duck just in time to dodge a long sword. Rai backed away protectively in front of the prince as the guard thrust the sword again at him. Naruto's hand immediately went down to the kunai on his thigh holster, but before he could throw it, there was a flash of blue and then the guard was yelping, swiping at the air around his face with his hands.
"Mayu!" Rai yelled out, relieved. "I'm okay! Go help the others!"
Mayu, pale-faced, nodded. Menma tackled the guard she'd been distracting, and she ran off, her birds flocking around above her head. To Naruto's relief, Zabuza seemed to be completely ignoring them, focusing his attention instead on the jōnin weaving in and out to attack him – Shirakumo. Naruto and Rai jumped down into the crowd, the princess and prince collectively in their arms, and began to run swiftly past the shocked faces of the civilians.
As they ran through the mayhem, one guard managed to get past Menma and Sakura, but Naruto quickly disposed of him with a flick of a kunai. After that, with a cursory look around, Naruto confirmed that there was no one else coming after them.
"Send the signal," Naruto said shortly. Rai nodded, and brought his hands together in the snake hand seal. Immediately, there was a distant exploding sound; on the other side of the gigantic crowd, a billowing black cloud of smoke rose into the air – a planted harmless letter bomb that signaled that Naruto and Rai had successfully retrieved the prince and princess, and that the others should retreat.
Be safe, everyone, Naruto thought to himself, his teeth gritted and his heart pounding loudly in his ears.
With a long history of battle with fate, Jiraiya had set foot in the harbor city that morning steeling himself for whatever the day's events should throw at him. However, what was unfolding before his eyes had even his mouth dropping wide open.
It was utter chaos. Any semblance of order had dissipated as soon as the missing-nin from Mist drew his sword. Civilians were screaming and scrambling to distance themselves, while a scattered few in the crowd were drawing hidden blades and struggling to reach the procession.
From what Jiraiya had been able to see, it looked as though a group of ninja had attacked the guards standing around the daimyō's sedan chair. While the guards were distracted, a group of four civilian children swooped onto the sedan chair in front – it was at this point that Jiraiya realized they probably weren't as innocent as they looked – and pulled out a pair of children, before running off with them.
Jiraiya was now in a quandary. Should he interfere? And if so, which side? The supposed kidnappers, or those who had been keeping the daimyō hostage?
His gut was tugging him in the direction of the daimyō's sedan chair. As a cloud of black smoke suddenly burst beside him – the level of screaming around him elevated to even higher heights, but Jiraiya could tell it was harmless – he decided to trust it. It was, after all, what had kept him alive all these years.
Leaping strongly into the air, Jiraiya headed directly for the daimyō's sedan chair – and as he did so, immediately, he could tell that something was off.
The smoke must have been a signal for them to retreat, for the various ninja that had been attacking were now trying to flee. But even as he watched, the one named Zabuza knocked out a black-haired boy with a swing of his blade and then reached out to grab a thin woman, who slumped in his grasp.
There were two cloaked figures beside him, one holding an older man and a struggling young girl in each hand, the other exchanging blows with what appeared to be a shinobi wearing the Leaf hitai-ate. Now that Jiraiya was close enough to see, he knew immediately who he was facing: The masked one was Kakuzu. The other one was not a familiar face to Jiraiya, but judging from his black cloak, was a member of Akatsuki as well.
"Jiraiya-sama!" the shinobi, who Jiraiya suddenly recognized as one of the Leaf's jōnin, cried out. "Is that really you?!"
Leaning forward, Jiraiya thrust out his hand and struck a pose. "Yes, it is I! Jiraiya, the great Toad Sage and bestselling author of Icha Icha!"
Zabuza turned toward him. "So you're one of the legendary Sannin, Jiraiya..." He released the woman he'd been holding; falling to the ground, she scampered away.
The man beside Kakuzu looked interested. "A Sannin?"
"As much as I'd like to get the bounty on your head, Sannin," said Kakuzu. "I have no interest in fighting you today. Some other time, perhaps." He jerked his head at the other man, who scowled widely. Zabuza stepped back to the sedan chair to grab a frightened-looking man in fancy robes.
"Some other time, you say..." said Jiraiya. "That'll be difficult, seeing as how you'll be dead."
A/N: I didn't want this chapter to get any longer so this is where it ends. There will not be a big fight just yet, however, which should tip you off about how this turns out. Also, there'll be more about Kakashi next chapter. Lots of answers soon.
Thank you for your reviews.
(P.S: I'm sad Naruto is ending soon.)
Edit 2/26/17: Oops. I removed ch 23 (the SOS one). I didn't realize that'd actually notify everyone/mark the story as updated. Sorry guys.