The forests of Kusagakure were always dark, with thick branches that clotted out the sun and bushy leaves that made a hellish noise when the wind blew through them.
"Run! Run! Run faster!" the sandals hit hard against the wet leaves, as the small twigs on the ground cracked. "They're just behind us!" that was father's voice. "Gyah!"
Blood sprayed whether you liked it or not as long as your heart pumped it out. The same organ that kept someone alive would kill the human body if wounded, by treacherously pumping the blood out of the open wounds.
The heart was truly a fearsome enemy.
Thankfully, she had killed hers years before.
Or so she had thought, but probably it was just a matter of fatigue. Karin's eyes snapped open. She had fallen asleep after a tiresome night. Her gaze soon rested on the crib in the room with indifference —plain and normal indifference. The gurgling stupid calls and the tiny grabby hands meant absolutely nothing to her. They meant nothing.
If Orochimaru-sama called, she'd gladly deliver the baby.
The light filtered in from the windows, displaying the sunny day that seemed to cover the village of Konoha without a fault.
She crossed her arms over the side of the crib, letting it gently roll to the side. The kid's head turned with its bright red eyes towards her. The tuft of blond hair on his head was unmistakeable. The stupid thing gurgled happily. It really appeared to be a happy baby.
Karin huffed. She really didn't care. Her heart twitched, just a little bit.
It was a matter of hormones. She knew that.
She'd be back to normal in a matter of months —being her a faithful servant of Orochimaru-sama, she'd be back to normal in weeks.
"Gu isn't a word," Karin mumbled, letting her finger slowly descend to the grasping digits of the kid. It was such soft skin…and such a strong grip. "Really," she murmured. "What is this?"
Karin sighed. "What is this?"
Someone knocked at the door.
The baby began to cry. Of course, the peace couldn't last.
She sighed, hoisting the squirming infant up to her chest and then heading to the door with righteous fury clearly etched all over her face.
"I'm coming! Really, who the hell thinks knocking like a madman is—"
Then the door sprung open, and Fu barged in with a bright smile and… a bag filled with pastries.
"Surprise! Oh, oh! Here, I brought cake! Naru-chan is so cute! Can I hold him? Eh? Eh? Can I?"
Why was there that small side of her that wanted to tell 'no' to the girl? It didn't make any sense. Sure, she was an over-reactive squirrel but at the same time, she was a kunoichi with fast enough reflexes to catch Naruto if he fell…
There her heart skipped a beat again… what if he fell?
She was not mother material. She was not going to start having feelings for her 'spawn' birthed only because of its unique genetic background. She…
"Why don't you put the cake in the fridge?" she smiled, "I'll let you hold Naruto later."
Fu nodded brightly. "You know, I had to do this really cool thing with the Nanabi's chakra!" the girl exclaimed. "There was this big wood sphere and I had to pour chakra in it and it sort of sucked it out really fast, but then I was free to go."
Karin nodded absentmindedly. Everything was going according to Orochimaru-sama's plan. "Oh, really? Cool, I guess," she replied. "What about your friend, is she still out on missions?"
"Uh-uh," Fu replied, her head in her fridge. She came out of there holding a piece of jerky in her mouth. "She was sorry she couldn't make it to the baby shower, but it was awesome all the same right?" her eyes sparkled.
Karin gave her back a small smile. "Of course," how could she ignore the bright green toddler-sized spandex suit or bright green turtle-motif clothes? She didn't know if those things defined 'awesome' or not, but it did save her the time of having to go and buy them by herself.
There was a gentle lull of quiet as the baby stopped crying, interrupted only by Naruto's gurgling and his chubby fingers moving towards a lock of her hair. She exhaled lightly. The little baby squirmed in her hands, his warm body close to hers. It felt…it was…
She schooled her features a moment later. She utterly despised the hormones. When was Orochimaru-sama going to come and get her? She didn't know how long she'd last in such…such sappiness. He had even sent Hebi to help her out with 'leaving' the village when the time would come.
"I'm going on a mission soon," Fu said with a small smile, "Near the border of Kirigakure!"
Karin just smiled. "I see. I'm sorry I won't be able to come."
"Uh-uh," Fu grimaced, shaking her head. "It's just me, not the team. I have to check on Jiraiya's location!"
"Ah, I see," murmured Karin. She gently rocked Naruto a bit more, before another knock came from her door. She frowned this time around. She wasn't expecting any more visitors.
She was sorely disappointed when one blur of green entered, showing off a smiling face and perfectly white teeth that sparkled. "Ah! Are the flames of youth burning brightly today!?"
Naruto began to cry. He always did that when the words 'flames of youth' reached his ears. Maybe he just had a problem with Gai's voice, too cheerful for anyone not on a sugar rush. She smiled at the man and let him in —he was carrying pastries after all— before closing the door behind him.
She didn't have peace anymore…
Nevertheless, she strangely found it was all right. This was a pain to suffer through; the stupid people who seemed to enjoy screaming and laughing near her… and she loved pain.
"What you are asking for, Tsuchikage-sama, is highly unethical."
The ambassador of the Land of Tea was a portly man with beady eyes. "There is no reason for us to make a favourable price to your country, when all the others have to pay the same tariffs."
Naruto's hands clasped together, his elbows on the obsidian desk of the Tsuchikage's office. He had asked for a desk change to something more intimidating, especially because it reflected well with the white and red robes he wore as a Kage.
"I think instead that we might come to an agreement, maybe a lower price concerning Iwa's iron and steel exports tariffs? You're the reason our prices are basically doubled in every other country."
"You could always sell your wares in Iwagakure, Tsuchikage-sama. Or, barring that, you could take a land route, albeit I heard brigands and the likes are awfully active this time of the year…and passing through the land of Fire…"
That was the crux of the problem. Iwagakure had steel. Kumogakure and Kirigakure loved that particular brand of steel —just like Konoha and Suna— but unfortunately, to reach the first two the choice was always between the water and the land route.
It wasn't 'brigands' who took care of stealing the cargo of Iwagakure's caravans when they came through the land.
"But I heard that even the water is starting to get a bit problematic recently…something about pirates?" Naruto pressed on.
Mostly, it was 'Akatsuki'.
The Gato Industries and Gato Shipping Corporation were front businesses for the Akatsuki, and having learned that from the documents in the Tsuchikage's drawers, it was easy to see the pattern. It was also easy to see beyond the mere present.
Iwagakure depended on imports for food. The Land of Fire produced most of the elemental countries' food, which then it sold to other countries at steep prices —barring Suna, who was their allies specifically because of food reasons.
"Which is why the costs have gone up, Tsuchikage-sama," the ambassador continued. "We need to increase the security of the cargos."
"Yet, Gato Shipping Lines provide the same services at a lower cost."
"Maybe, but they are further away, which increases the costs higher than ours," the ambassador smiled.
Naruto smiled. "Not for long, I think."
The ambassador's own smile disappeared. "We have a contract of monopoly, Tsuchikage-sama. We are the ones you come to first and foremost."
"The contract signed states specifically that it is only for as long as you vow to maintain a price competitive with that of your rivals. Gato shipping line just recently received permission to start constructing shipyards near the land of Earth's coast," Naruto drummed with his right hand on the desk. "Warehouses are already loaded and as soon as a fleet will arrive, we will begin loading the merchandise."
"You are making a mistake," the ambassador's voice barely held on to his nervousness. "You're expecting a fleet to pass through the Kumo and Kiri fighting unscathed! That's preposterous!"
"Yes," Naruto acquiesced, "But if the fleet does manage, I expect those prices to be enough to put you and your fleets out of business soon enough."
His eyes darkened. "There are many ways to wage war, ambassador," he continued. "And if that 'pirate' problem does not solve itself, then I will see it solved with my own hands. Gato industries has private contractors for personal defence…if I were you, I'd tread lightly."
Thunderstorms gathered outside of the window, above the village of Iwagakure.
"I see no need for the years of good relations between us and Iwagakure to go to waste like this, Tsuchikage-sama," the mellifluous voice of the ambassador grated his nerves, but he just smiled. "Maybe we could renegotiate?"
"The land of Tea is basically a puppet of its merchants and families," Naruto said briskly. "Give power to one, to tear down the other. Acquire control of one, to bring down the other. Let me ask you, ambassador…as a man, as a family man…which family do you think would best suit the needs of Iwa?"
Naruto's right hand drummed on the desk once more, "Because we can provide…as long as we are provided to."
The ambassador nodded sagely. "There is competition held once every four years, the Todoroki Shrine race, in which families compete with runners. The winner becomes the owner of the Degarashi port, alongside with the honour of increasing its influence and power. Four years ago, the Wagarashi family won…"
"So this year, it's best they lose," Naruto ground out.
The ambassador nodded. "The Wasabi family is their main competitor. They would have won with ease, if not for shinobi from Ame interfering with the competition."
"Ame, uh?" Naruto murmured softly. "I see," he closed his eyes, lost in thought. "I will send one of my teams then, to ensure a fairer competition. I wonder though, will the Wasabi family really uphold their end of the deal, ambassador?"
"I was exiled into this post, Tsuchikage-sama," the ambassador replied. "As one of the Wasabi family…we have everything to gain, and nothing to lose."
"I expect fruitful results," Naruto nodded. "Tell the Daimyo he has nothing to fear about losing us as customers…for the moment."
The ambassador left hurriedly through the door, probably to pen two parchments rather than one alone. Naruto exhaled, cracking his neck. "Send for Kitsuchi," he murmured, "And the clan head of the Kamizuru."
One of the bodyguards hidden within the room's walls obeyed, leaving in a hurry through the rock.
The noise of water droplets crashing against the glass window of his office made him look outside, where the thunderstorm had begun picking up.
"Saviour or destroyer," Naruto murmured. "Well," he chuckled as he removed the hat from his head. "I wonder what…he would say about this."
Become the weapon that Konoha needs!
"He certainly wouldn't be happy at all," Naruto softly added.
The door to his office opened smoothly, as Naruto quickly placed the Tsuchikage's hat back on his head. The Kamizuru's clan head was a certain Takeo Kamizuru, a stern looking man with a squared jaw and dark cold eyes. Kitsuchi was his father-in-law since recently, but his gaze wasn't anything less than a full-out glare.
"Tsuchikage-sama," they both stiffly stood straight. Konoha treated clan heads and their clans with respect, being the village founded on the principal of different clans uniting. Iwagakure didn't make any distinction. Being a part of a clan just meant you had a large family or some sort of bloodline, but it didn't make you any more important than being a Jounin.
"I want two teams of your best able-bodied men," Naruto replied dryly. "They must be ready to depart for the land of Tea at a moment's notice."
He inclined his head to the side. "Needless to say they must be the very best," he continued smoothly. "Failure will not be tolerated…but success will be highly recompensed."
Both Jounin stood to attention, and Naruto dismissed them. He smiled bitterly as the rain increased in intensity.
"How easy would it be," he whispered, "To destroy everything?"
He closed his eyes. "Just a push, an order…ah, I see," he chuckled. "That's why…power without control…is meaningless."
The guards assigned to the Tsuchikage watched with a dispassionate look as their leader began to laugh, his shoulders trembling as the cackling increased with the thunder of the storm.
"A reason is not required," Naruto whispered. "To do what I want, I don't need a reason…" he opened his eyes. "Still…having one is better."
The ground trembled.
Naruto's eyes sharply turned towards the windows, and the thing beyond them. A massive coral column seemed to have sprouted in the centre of Iwagakure, like a sort of nascent tree. It tore apart a few buildings as it grew, before coming to a halt as a massive branch birthed from its side.
A shinobi was running across it, one that Naruto instinctively recognized.
"ALL SHINOBI! EVACUATE CIVILIANS TO EMERGENCY SHELTERS! S-RANK THREAT!" he roared, before the giant coral crashed against the sides of the Tsuchikage tower, breaking it apart.
In the middle of the debris, of the falling rocks and floors, Naruto's body twisted backwards as Kakuzu's right arm swung forward in a punch. The cerulean eyes of Naruto fixed with the green ones of the Takigakure missing-nin and, with a smirk, the S-rank shinobi crisply yelled.
"Well brat! Me and my partner here want to know…are you strong enough!?"
Naruto avoided the blow, flickering on a nearby falling rock and pushing his legs against it to jump in the opposite direction, one rasengan per hand.
"You tell me!" he snarled back, sending them both to crash against a shield of coral and…wood.
"I'm not impressed," Kakuzu grunted as they both landed on a nearby rooftop, the rain falling down sharply. "But we aren't done."
Naruto cracked his neck. "Why now?" he asked, "Why now, of all times?"
"Because," Kakuzu replied, "Your life belongs to me."
"You'll have to get it over my dead corpse," Naruto snarled. "And even then, it will not be enough!"
A wooden branch split off from Kakuzu's arm, as the man grunted. "You think? I had time to train the Mokuton ability I stole from your so-called teammate. I have a Bijuu under my control…what makes you think you have a chance?"
"Funny you ask," Naruto snarled. "I have three…and an army."
As a thousand Naruto appeared, Kakuzu chuckled. "Let's see it then…let's see if my wait was worth it! Come on then! Make my blood boil in excitement, Naruto Namikaze! Show me! Show me if you're stronger than the Shodaime!"
The building collapsed as Kakuzu slammed his right foot against its roof. The thunder streaked the sky. Lightning bolts shot down against the metal rods on the nearby rooftops. Naruto swallowed. This was…
This was a battle long postponed. He couldn't look bad in front of his village now, could he?
He was glad. He couldn't be pissed, so he had to be glad. Prohibited from feeling negative emotions was a heavy toll, especially for him who always had to think of the worst possible scenario and prepare contingencies for it.
Now, all he could do was be glad the rain had stopped and that he and Amaru could restart their journey on foot.
The vast land of the Land of Fire blossomed in front of him as they walked. He loved his land —be it because of his patriotic instinct of because he genuinely liked watching nature. His footsteps were just a little bit faster than usual, because he was on soil that belonged to the Land of Fire, on soil that belonged to his land.
He was going home.
The rainbow truly was a blessed sight. Even the beast within his guts didn't as much as growl. He wondered how Hiruzen would take the news of his return —if he hadn't kicked the bucket in his old age.
Holding on to a gnarled wooden cane —just a branch from a tree that Kisame had gifted him, after having masterfully worked it into something he could use to aid in his walking— he kept a steady pace on the road filled with mud and puddles.
"I can't wait to see Konoha. Is it really big like they say?" Amaru asked, trying to make conversation.
"Yes," Danzo nodded firmly. "It is. It is a beautiful village, whose roots are strong and trees many, just like the leaves…" he murmured. "It's beautiful to watch the sun set over it."
"I cannot wait to visit it then," Amaru replied. "Will it be all right? For me, I mean…"
"I will vouch for you," Danzo replied. "You are not a shinobi, and thus they won't make any problem…and if they do, they will answer to me."
He grumbled as the girl hugged him, before trying to help him along. "I know I'm supposed to be scared," Amaru whispered, "But I can't seem to find my fears."
"Why is it?" Danzo asked.
"Because I know the reason I'm still alive is because you were there, Danzo-san," she gave him a faint smile. "And you defeated the zero-tails, something I thought impossible…so there is nothing you cannot do."
Danzo chuckled. His own voice came out rough and unpleasant —he probably was no longer used to chuckling— but he still emitted an unmistakeable chuckle.
"Such hope and trust…" he murmured, "You really are a soothing presence for my old heart."
A set of hurried footsteps reached Danzo's ears, forcing him to halt and stop Amaru. His eyes narrowed, before they visibly relaxed as three shinobi with the leaf symbol stopped in front of him.
There was a flicker of recognition in one of them, which was something Danzo could not miss.
"Shimura-dono?" one of the three asked, "You are…alive?"
"I am," he acquiesced, giving a firm nod. "I survived, albeit grievously injured. This young lady saved my life," he gave a reassuring pat to Amaru's arm. "Now…one of you, go and warn Hiruzen I am coming. The others can escort us back to Konoha."
"Shimura-dono," another said awkwardly, his gaze low. "The Sandaime died of a heart attack, more than one year ago."
"More than one year?" Danzo whispered. "Has it really been that long?"
"It has, Danzo-sama," the man with the recognizable glint in his eyes said firmly, his tone lacking emotions. "Many await your return in Konoha with haste."
"I see," he exhaled. "Then I will test the limits of my body today, it seems," he took a deep breath before turning towards Amaru. "One of you, carry her."
The shinobi that had talked first obeyed, and soon all four dashed upon the heavy branches and the thick bushy trees, Amaru holding herself tightly to the neck of the man.
All that begins must eventually rot into oblivion and despair.
Hiruzen…so you couldn't wait my return. Were you heartbroken? Did you die, thinking me dead and waiting for you on the other side? I'm sorry my friend…my time has not yet come. I have things to do. For Konoha. For the villagers. For…For you, I will complete your task. I will soothe your deepest wound and regret.
He looked forward with renewed vigour.
I will stop Orochimaru. I…created him, and I…will destroy him.
She opened her eyes. The white cloth of the tent met her gaze, flapping from the light breeze. She didn't need a clock or an alarm to know what time it was. Her armour creaked as she moved her right arm over her face. The metallic gauntlet rested with its cold surface over her forehead, her breathing slowing down as she recollected herself.
Her back against the ground, her emerald eyes gazed at the shadows of her tent. It was quiet. The leather chaffed against her skin as she brought her right knee closer to her, slowly distending her sore muscles. She couldn't sleep in the sleeping-bag —it constricted her. The mask loosely hung from her belt. Her left hand gingerly touched it, her fingers trailing across the crevices and cracks it held.
It was just another day. The 'infestation' was being resolved. Only a few remained, and those few weren't a big enough of a problem. What then, was she going to do afterwards?
Konoha seemed like a nice place to go back to, until she bitterly realized she had nothing and no one waiting for her back there.
Her sensei, dead.
Her teammate, gone.
Her other teammate, somewhere.
The people she had grown up with in the academy either were dead or didn't want anything to do with her. She felt like a puppet without strings. Her disillusioned side was too heavy to bear for long, so she slowly shifted. It was better to think everything was fine. There was an Uzumaki back in Konoha she had to meet.
There was Fu, who was just like a child. There was Sai, who probably had become an even greater pervert than before. There was Shizune, who had taught her which poisons could make the guts rot and which could make you bleed from the ears like a fountain. To a minor extent there was that insufferable hag of the Hokage, who she was going to slowly murder in her sleep one day —or maybe just have her suffer a heart attack.
There were people she didn't like. She was going to kill them, one day. Itachi Uchiha was first in line.
Her 'chief' was going to be another one. She was going to enjoy killing her. Maybe cutting her to bits and letting the tigers chew on her. Of course, she'd impale her and her snakes on a big stick. Impaling someone rarely killed immediately after all. It was a form of torture for a reason.
She stood up from the floor with a grunt, letting her hands pass through her short hair. The mask fell into place a moment later. There really wasn't anything else she could do but take the required steps out of the tent and into the light of the morning sun.
She hated the mornings. The birds were too cheerful. The grass was too green. The good old and fashioned night, with the burning villages and the screaming soon-to-be corpses was much better for her mood.
The hawk shrieked sharply from a nearby tent, standing on its perch. It held a Konoha forehead protector tied to its neck, carrying the orders from the 'main command'. They probably amounted to the same old 'go there, find monsters, kill them all and report success' with a nice condiment of choice sultry words from Anko.
Sakura rubbed gently the hawk's throat, before taking the slip of paper with the orders. She was the one in charge —and the only one allowed to the messages.
"Oh," she murmured. "We're going for that? Already?" she inclined her head to the side, "Probably."
She emitted a sharp whistling, attracting the attention of the rest of the camp. There were flickers of shunshin, and soon twenty between men and women —all rigorously masked— stood kneeling behind her, their right hands clenched into fists on the ground and awaiting orders.
"Well…seems we took care of the last trouble in the countryside," she smiled. "We're moving from country hillbillies to city bastards! Aren't you all happy we're making a move into upper society now? Think about all that repressed anger, just bubbling to come out! Anyone ever wanted to punch a minor lord? Someone here wants to take dibs on slicing the Daimyo's guts? Anyone? Come on!" she whined a bit as the twenty Anbu didn't even flinch at her light-hearted tone.
"Nobody thinks it's going to be awesome? This is, like, doing a revolution without doing one! We're literally killing them all! Come on! Nobody here is interested? Not even one?" her lower lip trembled, not that they could see it, behind her mask. "Oh well…it's fine. It means I'll have more people to kill. Well!"
The Anbu dismounted camp in less than a minute, folding and storing in scrolls the tents. Taking point, she began to lead them through the trees. Nobody talked much to her, if at all. The most common word they addressed her with was 'Orders, Taichou?' and 'Understood'.
She was sure they were all just shy…even if they simply never said anything else.
It took a week to reach the capital, but the thick columns of smoke that rose from it halted her run. For there to be smoke, it meant things were burning. For things to be burning…it meant someone had started a fire.
Her orders barked softly, hand signs to complete them, the Anbu flickered and disappeared into the grass and the ground. She knelt down herself, starting to advance by crawling on the dirt. The sun was shining. The cicadas were screaming.
One of her Anbu took the order, and began to dash forward renouncing his cover. Two volleys of lightning bolts tore the Kage Bunshin of said Anbu apart, reducing it to a cloud of smoke as the ground near him cracked and split.
A Kumogakure squad of four appeared. Their body were tense and their eyes looked around for any signs of more shinobi.
Sakura smiled, and gave the signal.
Her fist smashed first into the head of the leader of the four-man team, while her Anbu slammed their swords forward to engage the other three. She sped up as the man blocked her fist with his shoulder, palming a small and thin metallic sheet coated in poison. She threw it forth with a hail of shuriken, watching it pierce the chin and draw blood.
As long as there were no survivors…nobody was going to know.
They had dared take her kill, they had attacked first, and thus…they had to pay. It was as simple as that. She laughed as she twisted her body, feeling the adrenaline rush through her veins. The poison was already working its way, popping apart the blood vessels in the eyes, making her enemy wince and close them as crimson rivers dribbled down from his eye sockets. She giggled, not caring in the least for the man's screams or yells.
He was angry and she was a bitch…what was there of new in that exchange of words?
Slicing his throat when he stumbled backwards proved to be surprisingly easy.
Her kunai came up then, parrying a short sword that met with her blade. She grinned, pushing her body forward as her head slammed against the enemy's nose, crushing it. Her body twisted, her elbow crashing against the man's guts before she pierced his neck with senbon needles. She jumped backwards, avoiding a crackling bolt of electricity.
She just loved it when the prey tried to fight back.
It was endearing.
A lucky kunai struck her in the shoulder, the armour bouncing it off as she threw an explosive tag straight back. It fizzled as it stuck to the shinobi's face, shining brightly before exploding.
"I'm loving this! Come on Anbu-Tan squad! Move it! Who kills more gets a prize!"
She giggled as she jumped on the nearby rooftop, watching the city burn as fighting still broke out between the monsters and the Kumo shinobi who had apparently arrived to the scene before them.
However, that would have meant passing through the land of Snow and the land of Hot water. Now, the Kumogakure shinobi were busy herding off the monsters, too stupid and slow to be a real threat if you knew how to fight them. Yet…there probably were too many shinobi to fight at the same time.
They had little time, and they needed to use it well.
She smiled, giving off a sharp whistle to her team. "You seeing what I'm seeing?" she barked out giggling, "Someone thinks they can come right over here and steal our kills! I don't think so! Team Leaf and Team Fire, ambush all troops you can after they deal with their little problems. Kill as many as you can," she emitted a sharper whistle, letting the hawk circling above their heads descend to land on her arm. "I will warn the high command of the situation at hand."
The Anbu dispersed. Sakura smiled. The hawk departed once more, this time screeching loudly as it carried quite the message.
Hunting Clouds along the Rice Fields,
Like gutting whores who love snakes.
It's so fun!
She was sure the woman would appreciate her Haiku.
Haiku were like that…at least, she thought they were. "Hunting, hunting," she hummed as she jumped down from the rooftop. "I love hunting…"
She bit her thumb, drawing out blood before slamming it on the ground. "Let's go hunting."
The puff of smoke dispersed a moment later, revealing jagged claws and feral eyes. The tiger's once luscious pelt had been repeatedly abused and covered with scars and nicks. Sakura hummed as she gently caressed the animal's neck. "Let's go hunting, Tora-chan."
The tiger obeyed.
Sakura's laugh echoed through the abandoned roads filled with rubble and the burning palaces of the capital, as ever so slowly, a dying country emitted its last spasmodic breaths.