Tale of the Setting Sun
Chapter 31: "Hero's Come Back!"
In the three years since Gatō's death, the capital of Wave country had completely transformed from an impoverished state to a prosperous trading port. What had once been a ghostly coastal town now teemed with the busy activity of commerce and the background bustle of what it took to run it. While it was a change brought about by the efforts of many, no one could deny the role played by the construction of the bridge that connected the island to its much larger neighbor, the Land of Fire.
Spanning the sea in a long unbroken line, the bridge culminated in an erected wooden post seared with the bridge's name:
The Bridge of Remembrance.
Tazuna, the master bridge builder, had stated in his opening ceremony address that it was in honor of the sacrifices that had made the bridge's completion possible.
It was not out of the ordinary for passing travelers to observe a moment of silence before moving on to their next destination. However, one particular morning found a certain figure lingering before the post far longer than could have been considered proper.
A tip-off muttered in the ear of a Wave border official soon brought the man striding over to investigate. "Hey, you there! Don't you see the sign? It says no loitering!" Drawing closer, he realized the vagrant wore a Leaf hitai-ate, and came to a wary stop. "Err—I mean, do you have your papers, sir?"
"'Papers'?" The ninja echoed, cocking his head. He was of average height, with cropped red hair, and wore standard—if bordering on threadbare—ninja fatigues.
The official cleared his throat. "Yes, sir. Your customs papers." Even though it had been two years since Wave country had officially tightened security around its border, there was still the odd journeyman who'd only just resurfaced and had yet to catch up with the changing times.
"Right. My papers." Raising a hand, the ninja pointed at something behind him. "There, he's bringing it."
Disapproval creasing his brow, the official began to turn around. "Sir, I recommend that you keep your own papers on yourself at all – " He suddenly broke off, realizing there was no one behind him. Something low hummed in the air, and he looked back—but the ninja was gone.
The official gulped.
He had worked in this field for long enough to know the trees had eyes, and even though he knew the ninja was long gone, he began to make a show of searching the area. Frankly speaking, he hoped his transfer request would go through soon. Border duty was way above his pay grade.
If Amegakure's claim to fame was its never-ending rainfall, Haku thought Konohagakure could put in a strong bid for perpetual sunshine. At the very least, he was fairly certain his skin had been irradiated more in the past day alone than in the last three months combined.
The sunny climate however did not seem to be reflected in the personalities of the people of the Hidden Leaf, who wasted no time in making sure the incoming foreigners felt unwelcomed.
"I'll bet you a hundred ryō that's a girl."
"With an Adam's apple that size? Two hundred he's packing."
"That's assuming he hasn't already paid someone to chop it off."
Haku colored, and Suiren levied a scowl in the direction of the howling group of Leaf genin. "Don't pay any attention to these untalented wannabes," she said in a low voice. "Otherwise, you'll only be playing right into their... Ajisai?"
Having marched right up to the offending group, Ajisai impassively glared at them in a sheer likeness of her mentor, the Lady Angel—never mind the fact that the kunoichi's head barely reached the shoulders of the shortest of them.
One of the genin, presumably their leader, stopped laughing enough to give her the evil eye. "You got something to say, princess?"
"If I were an ignorant Leaf genin like you," Ajisai began slowly, "and couldn't keep my mouth shut around ninja from other villages whose capabilities I knew nothing of... I'd be very afraid."
A beat passed—and then the genin averted his eyes, breaking under the pressure. With their bravado shattered, the group scuttled away, jostling each other in their hurry.
"Thank you, Ajisai," Haku smiled at his team leader. "It didn't matter, but I appreciate it." It was only partially a lie. Though he couldn't care less about what they had to say, that didn't mean he didn't find their leers uncomfortable.
"It's just as we thought. This village is full of small-minded morons," Suiren said scornfully.
Staring straight ahead, Ajisai reminded them, "Just don't forget why we're here."
She was talking about their mission to find a jinchūriki, but Haku felt his right arm throb below his sash and instinctively brought it closer to his body.
The memory of that day still woke him in the middle of the night, chest heaving and drenched in sweat.
After his loss to the Leaf-nin, he had been surprised to find himself opening his eyes again. His opponents were all long gone, leaving behind only a demolished mountainside as evidence of the hard-fought battle.
A painful and slow navigation of the marshlands eventually brought Haku to Zabuza's side. The moment he laid his fingers on the body, he knew it was not the kind of death he could induce with his senbon needles: Cold and stiff, it possessed the finality of their past targets' corpses.
Though it took some time with his injuries, Haku buried the body with Zabuza's favored broadsword, and as snow drifted down from the sky, he shed his last tears. When he rose to his feet, ice chilled his bones and fire burned in his veins.
"Haku? Is everything alright?"
At the sound of Suiren's concerned voice, Haku blinked, returning to the present. While he'd been lost in his thoughts, they had walked into a large hallway filled with what looked like at least a hundred other genin applicants. The air was thick with widespread posturing and the ostentatious sound of cracking knuckles; it was clear every single one of them longed for nothing more than to bring glory to their representative village.
As always, lies came easily to him. "Everything's fine," he said with a smile. "I zoned out for a second, that's all."
His teammates—as much as he had come to like them over the past two years—were no different from the others, in the sense that they thirsted to prove their village equal to the might of the Great Five.
But none of that mattered to Haku. Glory, recognition, pride—with Zabuza gone, there was now only one thing that moved him day and night, and it was a name:
Kakashi of the Sharingan.
At the proctor's signal, the sound of pencils scratching on paper filled the exam hall. Blank-faced, Gaara scanned his paper—it took only a few seconds to know that he couldn't answer any of the questions, and a few more to realize the true significance behind the paper test.
Temari was intelligent enough to figure it out on her own; his bigger concern was the third genin on their team. He still didn't know what her name was. Leveling a glare at her, he saw her back stiffen in what could have been a sign of acknowledgement.
Worse comes to worst, Gaara thought, I'll just have to get rid of her.
Somewhere in the periphery of his consciousness, he could hear Shukaku's usual raving, but for the moment, he ignored it. Instead, laying his hand out on the desk, he began to gather the sand he needed for his Third Eye.
It was the perfect technique for the job: The eye was made of his chakra-infused sand, and once connected to his optic nerve, it transmitted everything that it saw.
Gaara crushed the eye in his hand and sent the sand particles in the direction of his target, who started to rub irritably at his eye. Taking advantage of the distraction, the Third Eye reformed above his test paper. As the answers came into Gaara's own field of vision, he picked up his pencil and copied them onto his own paper.
"Number 43 and 27...start walking. You all fail!"
While the proctors had already begun to disqualify the weaker teams, he could see the other stronger examinees starting to make their moves. Although the vast majority may as well have been faceless to Gaara, a select few had managed to pique his interest. He would have to wait until a proper test before he could gauge their actual skills.
A slight shiver ran through his body. Through heavy eyelids, Gaara glared out in a haze at nothing in particular as he fought to steady his breathing.
It was going to be a full moon that night.
The hot springs of Snow country were said to possess legendary medicinal properties and the beauty of the women of Bird country was second to none—but there was nothing quite like coming home after a long journey.
Balancing himself on top of a telephone pole, with a smile, Jiraiya surveyed the sprawling rooftops of the village he had dedicated his life to protecting. "I'm back," he said fondly.
As always, the Hokage monument carved into the mountainside overlooked the village. There were four heads there now, representing the four Hokage who had led the village since its inception. In his entire life, Jiraiya had only ever seen the addition of one bust to the monument, and it had been that of his own student. While the Third had asked Jiraiya to take up the Hokage mantle, he knew that his destiny lay elsewhere. No, there was someone far better suited for the role than him—but she had her own demons to face.
"Jiraiya-sama!" cried out a voice. A bespectacled man gaped up at Jiraiya.
Jiraiya jumped down before raising a hand in greeting. "Oh, if it isn't Ebisu!"
There were three children besides the tokubetsu jōnin; Jiraiya recognized one of them as the Third's grandson. The boy had certainly grown since he had last seen him as but a mere babe in his mother's arms.
"I didn't realize even you were being called back for the exams," said Ebisu, adjusting his dark glasses.
"It was by the Lord Third's judgment. And old as he is, I trust he hasn't gone off the deep end just yet," said Jiraiya affectionately.
"Yes, and it's reassuring to see you back in the village. Now, if only Tsunade-sama would change her mind..."
A cool breeze swept through the area. Jiraiya watched a lone leaf swirling through the air.
If only, he thought, they would both change their minds.
Gathered beyond a padlocked fence, the group of genin who had passed the first exam all gazed with trepidation up at the Forest of Death. Watching their reactions, Sakura held back a smile.
And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.
"Before we begin the second exam, there's something I have to hand out." Sakura rustled up the papers from her qipao. "They're consent forms. Everyone has to sign one."
Once she had explained what the second exam entailed—a no-holds-barred survivor variation of capture the scroll—she herded the three-man cells to the hut where her fellow proctors were waiting to hand out the heaven and earth scrolls.
There were twenty-six teams, meaning there were seventy-eight applicants still in the running. By the end of the exam in five days, at least half of them would have failed—and judging from the bloodlust some of the applicants were exuding, Sakura would be very surprised if there weren't at least a few fatalities. This was, of course, compounded by the fact that several teams from the Hidden Rock were present for the first time in living memory, and inter-village rivalries were running high.
But out of all the standardized second exams to proctor, of course the Forest of Death was the one Sakura had to draw from the hat. It served its purpose in weeding out the weaker teams, but it was a touch unrefined for her tastes. Then again, there was only one reason why she'd volunteered as a proctor in the first place...
As a certain blonde genin walked into the hut, Sakura raised a hand to her mouth and gasped dramatically. "Ino, is that you? I can't believe I forgot you're still a genin. It must've slipped my mind somehow."
Ino gritted out, "You seem to be forgetting a lot of things lately, Sakura. Have you considered getting that checked at a hospital?"
"I have actually, it's routine for chūnin to get scanned after missions. But of course, you wouldn't know anything about that."
The two frenemies smiled daggers at each other as a proctor handed a heaven scroll to Ino's teammates, Chōji and an unfamiliar female genin. The latter was Shikamaru's replacement, as he had already been promoted to the rank of chūnin, a fact which would never not surprise Sakura—not for any lack of capabilities, but because of his infamous indolence. This may have perhaps explained his assignment as one of the referees of the third exam, a role she did not envy at all.
The genin teams were all situated at the gates, waiting for her signal to start the exam, when a blonde male suddenly flickered into the space beside her.
Sakura raised a questioning eyebrow. "What is it, Menma?" she asked, wondering whether he'd brought news from the Hokage.
His eyes flicking hesitantly at the other proctors, Menma said in a low voice, "I thought you'd want to know—Naruto's back."
Hailing from a country overflowing with forests, Karin and her team were no strangers to being dwarfed by the local flora. After several minutes of leaping between the branches however, Karin found herself beginning to question what was up and what was down. Unlike the natural habitats back home, the trees in the arena weaved unnaturally in and out with each other; it was clear they had been grown for the express purpose of disorienting any who dared to trespass.
Only when they had put some distance between themselves and the gate did her teammate, Kazami, motion for them to stop. "So, Karin, how's the competition looking?" he asked.
Closing her eyes, Karin focused and opened her mind's eye, casting her senses through the forest. Her first concern was the monster from the Hidden Sand—when she had first sensed his evil chakra, it had been so thick with bloodlust she'd almost gagged on it. Thankfully, his team was all the way on the opposite side of the forest, and she made a mental note to make sure it stayed that way.
There were plenty of other strong chakra signatures in the forest, but what stood out to her the most was a vibrant one from the Hidden Rain. She'd sensed it before in the first exam and then gotten a glimpse of him just before the second exam began: He may have had a pretty face and an outwardly gentle demeanor, but chakra spoke no lies. It was as cold as ice, and she added it to her rapidly growing list of people to avoid at all costs.
As had been her observation in her previous chūnin exams at Sunagakure, the Hidden Leaf made a strong showing with its participating teams. While none of them stood out as much as the previous two Karin had noted, they were all robust and for the most part, warm chakra signatures. She paused—and wondered where he was. He was already a chūnin and wouldn't be participating in the exams, but maybe he was in the village? If only, Karin thought, she could talk to him and –
A beefy hand shook her by the cuff of her shirt, breaking her out of her thoughts. "Hurry it up!" said Burami—her other teammate, a man who was as wide as he was tall.
"Burami!" Kazami admonished. "Have some patience."
"I'm just giving her some encouragement, that's all."
Despite how it may have seemed, Burami was still one of the gentler genin in Kusagakure, for which Karin was grateful. If she had been placed in Team Shiore, the other Grass team that had passed the first exam, she suspected she would have already been completely drained by now.
Even as she thought this, Burami bared his teeth and bit into her arm. She winced, feeling the chakra leave her body.
The next five days were going to be long...
When the ANBU ops Hiruzen had sent out to locate Naruto returned with the report that the boy was on top of the Hokage Monument, he contemplated summoning him to his office as he'd always done. But it was a warm spring day and he thought his aching muscles could use a stretch, so he put on the Hokage's hat and set out at a brisk pace.
He soon found Naruto seated on top of the Second Hokage's stone head. Catching sight of his face lit up in the glow of the setting sun, Hiruzen came to a sudden stop.
The resemblance to Minato is even more uncanny now, he thought soberly.
However, he kept his expression carefully schooled: With their complicated history, he knew that any overtures of warmth would be duly met with a rebuttal.
His usual smoking pipe in hand, he said, "So you've come back."
Naruto inclined his head in greeting. "Hokage-sama."
Hiruzen paused, noting that it wasn't just his features that had matured; his voice had deepened as well. It'd been almost three years since he had last seen Naruto, meaning the boy was now fifteen years old. He shouldn't have been surprised by the changes, but the way children seemed to grow up in the blink of an eye always managed to catch him off-guard.
While Jiraiya had already given Hiruzen the run-down of their journey, he would have preferred to set aside an evening to discuss Naruto's progress. However, given the ongoing nature of the chūnin exams and the rampant presence of foreign ninja throughout the village, this was neither the time nor the place for it.
"The reason why I've called you and Jiraiya back is that the Akatsuki have been growing bolder with their movements. Their motives remain unclear but there's no question that their main objective is to capture all the jinchūriki."
"And you would rather the Leaf's jinchūriki secured in your village than wandering outside," Naruto said drily.
With a twinge of discomfort, Hiruzen recalled the voices of his council members echoing that exact sentiment. "While I have complete faith in Jiraiya, I also have reason to believe that Akatsuki will make a move sometime during the chūnin exams."
"They're coming here to Konoha?" Naruto raised his eyebrows. "What's the going bid for me?"
Though he spoke in a light tone, Hiruzen wouldn't have been surprised if the boy actually held such suspicions. "I hope you're joking, Naruto."
"...It was made in poor taste. I apologize." Naruto stood up, and Hiruzen suddenly realized that the boy—man?—was now taller than him. "So what will you have me do?" he asked, his tone resigned. Even as Naruto looked expectantly back at him for his orders, Hiruzen had a feeling that his mind was somewhere far away.
"...The second test of the chūnin exams has just begun in area 44 and I've already put operatives in place to report back on any suspicious activity. It would give me some peace of mind if you would lend me your strength and join them." It was the reason why he had approached Naruto, and judging from the other's expression, he knew it too.
"As you wish, Lord Third." Forming the tiger seal, Naruto disappeared.
Left standing alone on the Hokage's monument, Hiruzen let out a sigh. He had a mountain of paperwork waiting for him at his desk, but as he stared out over his village, he allowed himself a moment's reprieve.
While the intel on Akatsuki's latest movements was the most pressing matter, it was hardly his only concern: He had his hands full enough as it was dealing with the foreign delegations. The Hidden Rock had extended a hand of friendship towards the Hidden Leaf in spite—or perhaps because—of their long antagonistic history, a hand which Hiruzen shook only after carefully weighing the potential risks and benefits.
He didn't know yet what the Tsuchikage's true objectives were, but neither he nor the world had forgotten the Tragedy of Yosuga Pass.
"As always, you tell the jinchūriki far too much. At least you're keeping him busy."
"I'm putting his skills to use," Hiruzen responded. The glow of twilight cast his lumpy shadow across the rock, and as he watched, a figure stepped out from it.
"Whatever you call it," said Danzō coldly.
Lowering the pipe from his mouth, Hiruzen exhaled in a gust of smoke. Say what you would about his past actions, he did genuinely care for Naruto, who was as much Minato and Kushina's son as he was a jinchūriki. Following the tragic demise of Team 7, he'd gone as far as to authorize his indefinite departure from the village despite strong opposition, namely from Danzō.
But having confirmed with his own eyes that Naruto had indeed returned to Konoha, Hiruzen would never admit that deep down, he was relieved.
Using hunger as a tool to sharpen the senses, the standard protocol for reconnaissance missions required a certain level of insatiety. But the journey back to Konoha had been long and taxing, and Naruto headed to his old haunt.
As he picked his way through the village, he left a trail of destruction in the form of stunned faces in his wake. Judging from the double takes and the frenzied murmuring, he knew the news of his return would spread like wildfire to the rest of the village. It was a reaction that had once disheartened and frustrated him, but now, he felt only the faintest stirring of something akin to wistfulness.
It was dinnertime, and Ramen Ichiraku was as busy as ever.
"Welcome!" a young woman greeted him. Naruto recognized her as the owner's daughter; Teuchi himself was tasting the broth behind the counter.
As the other customers realized who he was, the hubbub began to quiet down. Perhaps noticing this, Teuchi looked up. Catching sight of Naruto, he looked surprised—and then he smiled. "Will it be the usual, then?"
Seating himself on a stool, Naruto was soon digging into a large bowl of miso pork ramen.
He was draining the last of his broth when the soft thump of the flap sounded, letting everyone know that someone had come in. For a moment, the thick smell of ramen thinned as fresh evening air wafted in.
"Welcome!" Teuchi brightened. "I haven't seen you in a while either!"
The stool beside Naruto clattered as a masked ninja made himself comfortable. "The usual please, Teuchi-san. With extra garlic."
"Coming right up!" Teuchi paused, looking at Naruto's empty bowl. "Will that be a second helping for you?"
The standard protocol for reconnaissance missions required a certain level of insatiety. But the journey back to Konoha had been long and taxing, and Naruto nodded. "Yes, please."
A/N: Thank you to blueandgold for another fantastic beta-ing job. This marks the start of a new arc.
EDIT: This is starting to get annoying, so I'm going to address this here.
I've already mentioned this in previous chapters but the current chūnin exams occurring in Konoha are not occurring at the same time as they did in canon. Following the tragic deaths in Wave country, as well as with intel regarding Akatsuki's movements, Konoha chose not to host any public chūnin exams for several years, until now in the timeline.
Naruto is currently 15, around the same age as he was when he returned from the time skip in canon. The jōnin teachers decided that, following the deaths of the young members of Team Kakashi (tragic because it occurred in peacetime), it would be prudent to re-evaluate the strengths of their genin teams and reconsider whether to allow them to re-take the exams. This is the reason why certain genin are still genin.
I used this reasoning to decide which genin I think would have become chūnin by now, and which genin need more refining before being promoted. There is also a reason why Temari is still a genin which will be addressed in the next chapter.