Kaito didn't like the Uesugi guy one bit.
Kaito didn't like most people, but he was firm on that point. It wasn't his job to be the friendly one, or the diplomatic one, or the one who wanted to interact with village kids when they went on missions. Kaito's job was to hang back and counter everything he heard to make the others think through their options. So while Aiko was happy to have an ally and Roku reserved judgment until he got a signal from Sensei or Obito, Kaito tried drilling holes in the back of the samurai's head with his glare alone.
Worse, Sensei and Obito seemed pretty conflicted already. That wasn't a good sign for this mission as a whole.
Kaito trudged through the snow with a grumble practically rattling through his frame. He felt a little like a cornered alley cat, already poised for a fight before anything materialized. He could ice Uesugi easy if only he'd give Kaito a reason to kick his ass.
"Still mad?" Roku asked out of the corner of his mouth.
Kaito rolled his eyes. "Bubbling."
"On a scale of one to steam explosion?" Aiko prompted, while adjusting her hat. It was nearly the same color as her hair was normally.
"A little more than a simmer," said Kaito. He knew perfectly well that his teammates were making fun of him, but it was a long-standing joke. For some reason, referring to his temper like it was made of water just seemed like the funniest thing in the world when they were kids.
Roku didn't even glance in Kaito's direcion. "Oh, good. If I had to shove you into a pond to make you get over yourself already, I think you'd make sure I died of hypothermia right now."
"Probably," Kaito agreed. His eyes darted toward the adults—minus Roku, who didn't count even if he was nineteen—and he grumbled, "You two don't honestly think Uesugi is helping us out of the goodness of his heart, do you?"
Roku's already-dark eyes dimmed a little more as he activated his Magnet Release bloodline again, if only for a split second. It looked like he recovered from the world's most literal black eye faster than humanly possible. Then, in a whisper, "He's only carrying what we can see. At least as far as iron and steel weapons go."
"That doesn't mean much," Kaito insisted, equally quiet.
Their team, of all teams, knew better than assume that someone not being able to lay hands on spare steel made them harmless. One of the first true lessons Kaito ever had with Sensei—as a shinobi and not just a kid trying out inherited power—involved making as many senbon as he could out of ice. Kunai and even tantō blades followed. Roku got most of the same kinds of lessons, but earlier, since he was the oldest student on their team. Sensei spent a lot of time trying to weaponize other people's bloodline limits, and everyone benefited from it.
"He is one of Sensei's relatives," Aiko suggested, while toying with the braid hanging from her left temple. "I mean, I think so."
It was a weak argument, and her fidgeting proved she knew it. Kaito hadn't had a ton of luck with his extended family, who all lived in a totally different country and probably wouldn't be happy if they met the members of Team Kei. Kaito couldn't really remember his parents that well, but he did know that Kirigakure wasn't someplace he was ever supposed to go. Sensei's refusal to let them go to the Kiri Chūnin Exams seemed to bear that paranoia out, making those childhood warnings that much more real.
He didn't see why the Land of Iron was any different for Sensei. Just because they were samurai didn't mean they had any honor. And Kaito did remember Hayate's stories about how terrible the Gekkō family had been until somebody got assassinated. Anybody from outside of Konoha played by rulebooks written for them, by them. All of this stuff was just too convenient.
But explaining that to Aiko kind of felt like it'd be bullying, especially because Kaito knew his temper got away from him most of the time. Aiko's family was okayish. Roku didn't know who his was. Kaito was pretty sure he was the only one who'd ever really been told to run when anybody from the Yuki or Hōzuki clans ever came looking for him.
Or fight back.
Maybe kill them.
He could do that now.
Kaito finally just blew out a frustrated breath. Ice and snow melted to give them better footing, with hardly any effort on his part. "Sometimes families suck. Especially the parts you don't know anything about."
Aiko opened her mouth to argue, then sighed. She picked her way around the suddenly-clear path, dodging snowmelt without looking. "Sometimes."
"At least if he has some creepy puppet collection or something, we'll never see it," Roku said, with a theatrical shudder.
"That bunraku puppet show got to you, too?" Aiko asked, her gray eyes wide. She was keeping pace with Roku by walking sideways with her hands casually behind her head, even if they threatened to dislodge her hat. "Because I think the worst part was really the way the joints—"
"Shhhhh, they're talking!" Kaito hissed, because he'd had his eyes on the adults.
"—call bullshit," Sensei was saying.
Uesugi protested, "I'm telling the truth."
"I'm not sure I believe you, and I actually think most people are honest," said Obito.
Kaito formed an ice knife in his left hand, under the long edge of his haori sleeve.
"My wife's name actually is Keiko."
Dammit. It seemed like they weren't arguing for real. A real argument might've had jutsu flying before Kaito had a chance to do anything, but he remained optimistic. For a given value thereof. Something nearly in the same country, maybe. Countries were nice and big. Plenty of space for gray areas.
"You're doing the thing again," Roku muttered, while the sheath of his salvaged katana poked at Kaito's side. "Don't get caught up thinking of ways to justify it as self-defense."
Kaito snorted. "It'll be over too fast for anything after."
Roku put a hand on Kaito's shoulder. "Kaito."
"Roku," Kaito sniped back.
Metal creaked; a sign that Roku's patience had limits, somewhere. "Kaito, don't push it."
"I've never seen a more obvious trap in my life, Roku."
Roku was not impressed. "That's what you said when I went on a blind date. And followed me."
"Anko could have set you up with anyone!"
"You're just mad they left and you didn't get takeout and you couldn't raid the fridge," Aiko rattled off all at once, because she was a traitor. Kaito felt his face heating up even before she said, somewhat defensively, "It's been a month. Statute's over! Right, Roku?"
"If you kids don't stop arguing, I will mail you back home. Possibly in a shipping crate," Sensei called over her shoulder. "Don't think I won't."
And with Obito right there, she probably could really do that. She'd originally tapped Obito for the handler role because he was so good at folding space-time into a dumpling. The three students quieted, though Kaito's cheeks still burned a bit from the scolding. It was phrased like it could be everyone's fault, but he knew better. He ducked his head before Uesugi looked back to see what the big deal was.
"I didn't believe Aunt Sumomo's stories until now," Uesugi said, apparently accepting that none of Team Kei were going to give him any ammunition. With Kaito's glare burning a hole in the back of his topknot-adorned head, he continued obliviously, "After bringing me to her home, we never heard from Aunt Tomoe again. No letters, reports, or anything else."
"That must've been nerve-wracking," Sensei commented, and Kaito cheered up slightly at the thought that she was still on guard. She might've been remarking about the weather. Which was snowy, forever. It was fucking awesome.
"It was over thirty years ago," Uesugi said after a while, shaking his head slowly. "Aunt Sumomo was the one who had time to worry. And…I guess she was sure her baby sister would be able to accomplish anything. And you're here, so she must've managed to survive."
"Mom's been dead for twelve years," Sensei said, as blunt as a hammer. Even Kaito wasn't that bad most of the time. She sighed, still stomping through the snow. "But, well, I do have an idea of what she was doing right after you got dropped off."
Not for the first time, Kaito wished he'd been able to meet more of the people who helped make Sensei who she was now. From the scraps of stories he'd gotten from Hayate and sometimes even from Sensei, their mother had been about as fierce as Aunt Misaki and Aunt Chinatsu. Kaito didn't remember either of them that well anymore—ten years felt like a whole lifetime ago—but he got the idea. There was a personality type that was made of solid steel.
"Wait, you mean you guys never figured out what she was up to?" Obito asked. Kaito couldn't sense chakra nearly as well as Sensei (or Uesugi, apparently), but Obito wore his heart on his sleeve. His scarred-up face never hid his emotions, except in a fight.
Sensei poked his shoulder, hard. "She couldn't exactly tell them, Obito."
"I'm not sure this guy ought to know, though," Obito protested. When Uesugi gave him a funny look, he held up his hands defensively. "Look, there had to be a reason she never came back, right? Even if she's dead now, it seems a little…weird."
"I'm not sure if I would use the word 'weird' to describe what happened," Sensei muttered, as all of them rounded a curve in the road.
"Story time?" Aiko asked from the flank of their group.
"No," said Sensei.
Aiko groaned in dismay and Kaito decided to follow suit a second later. Roku grabbed both of their haori collars and just dragged them forward into the snow, practically off their feet, before either of them could take a second breath and try wheedling the truth out of Sensei again. It made ignoring the urge to jump Uesugi a little harder, because they hadn't had a single fight since coming to this weird snowball country.
Kaito knew that was the point of dressing up like samurai, but still.
"I can feel that," Sensei said, as Kaito picked up the pace a little to get away from Roku and almost smacked into her. When Kaito got closer, she looped a long-sleeved arm around his shoulders and squashed him against her side for a split second. "Keep a lid on it."
Kaito sighed when she let go. This was going to be such a long mission. And it had already been a couple of weeks. Or felt like it. "Sensei…"
"If I know anything about fighting," Sensei told him, her voice a little lower so it wouldn't carry at all, "you'll miss the boredom when it's gone."
Kaito eyed her grim expression and then shook his head slowly. It was one of those things Sensei said sometimes, in the same vein of remarks such as, "You'll understand when you're older." That particular promise never seemed to come true. Kaito might've been forgetting examples, but if he'd forgotten it was a bit pointless to remember them now.
"You'll see," said Obito. He thumbed the warp of his mouth, where the pressure scars changed its shape. Kaito didn't know if it was a nervous tic, or just a show he was putting on for Uesugi.
"Maybe," said Kaito, but he at least remembered not to stick his tongue out at anybody.
"Are any of you hungry?" Uesugi asked. The not-quite-genuine concern made Kaito's skin crawl. "We have been traveling for a while…"
"No," said Kaito.
"I'm good," Aiko said.
"I brought my own snacks," said Roku, pulling onigiri out of a long sleeve. Because of course he carried his stash everywhere. His exact loadout changed with the times, but somehow he always had food on him. Local dogs loved him. Cats, less so, but only because they tended to have marginally more of what humans called dignity.
It looked similar enough if people squinted.
Uesugi looked a little surprised, but he didn't comment further. He was going to be doing a lot of that, and it'd only get worse the more he hung around the team.
If Kaito let him.
He still hadn't decided yet.
"I don't like him," Kaito said, once the adults moved off again. Except for Roku. He didn't really count, nineteen or not.
"You've made that obvious," said Roku, because he was an adult in a specifically annoying way.
Kaito grumbled. Whatever he said seemed to bounce off everyone's ears like someone had put wax in them. What, did he have to break out an itemized list (which he didn't have) to make his case against Uesugi's involvement in this mission? Or a chart, like Rin-sensei used for explaining complex biological concepts.
Bleh. This sucked.
The rest of the day passed with more meaningless conversation until frigid nightfall.
Uesugi led them to a village he assured them was abandoned, or near enough. Kaito didn't relax until Sensei confirmed it, saying that she couldn't sense anything more threatening than a winter fox for four kilometers. Her range was way larger than that, but even the omission impressed Uesugi, from what Kaito could tell.
They found a house with an intact roof after searching for only a few minutes, and then it was time to camp. Indoors, for once. Only two rooms, for all that it mattered in a country overrun with glaciers and a barely adequate growing season.
"I'll get a fire going," Aiko volunteered, once Obito dug enough wood out of the pile in the back of the house and dumped it in the hearth. The firepit in the center of the room was practically iced over, but it'd serve. And in the end, Aiko kind of liked starting fires. Her chakra nature pointed that way to start with.
Sensei had talked to her about that once, so it was under control.
Sensei and Obito dug the rest of their supplies out of scrolls. Though Kaito didn't like showing exactly how many concealed resources their team had to Uesugi, seeing his eyes bug out was pretty funny. He only carried what turned out to be the basics, packed into a pair of bundles that swung from his neck all day. Seeing the samurai balk was just weird, and Kaito had only known him for like a day.
Did fūinjutsu not exist out here? Out of all of Sensei's skills, it was probably the one that got the most use. Out of her students, Aiko was the expert, mainly because she had to learn it just to use her family's techniques. It was the same way Roku was the best at kenjutsu, of the three of them. Kaito kept all of Sensei's Water Release and Wind Release ninjutsu, though all of them had the basics of all of those disciplines.
The only thing Sensei wouldn't let them touch was the center of it all—Isobu, the Three-Tailed Beast.
It worked out for the best.
Kaito helped set up the various sleeping bags, once they were free. They didn't have a spare, but searching the house turned up a futon that hadn't been aired out in months. It'd work in a pinch, but seeing the comforter and everything else made Kaito frown nonetheless.
They'd also found an old, well-loved cooking pot, the better part of a family shrine with the portraits and incense missing, and other signs of habitation cut short. Any fields outside were long snowed under, and breaking into the well required Kaito's skills instead of just Obito's right arm. A thick layer of dust covered everything, shifting when disturbed.
It reminded Kaito uncomfortably of Sorayama, during annual trips to see the wilds reclaiming the village. So much for a fortress of a town. Kaito hadn't trusted static fortifications since.
Judging by the shadow over Roku's expression, even with the firelight casting everything with a warm glow, he felt it too. Worse, maybe, because Roku had been older then.
Still, might as well consider it dinnertime. It got dark at like three in the afternoon here, at best. Not that Kaito could really tell, given the snow-laden clouds that had blocked the sun all day.
Sensei didn't bother with melting suspect snow for the cook-pot. She flexed her hand into a half-seal and water streamed out of the air exactly where she wanted. Kaito wasn't there yet, but it was always cool to get an idea of where he could be if he kept training.
Cup ramen for dinner, but Kaito wasn't going to whine about not getting to eat anything better with Uesugi right there. Sensei's scrolls contained fresh food on long-term missions like this, so the cup ramen was just a way of staving off any questions from someone they didn't fully trust. They'd lived through worse. If they didn't go for the ramen now, it'd be a matter of breaking into yet more storage scrolls. Far on the end of the preferences list lay a hazard no one wanted to chance—standard-issue rations.
Obito once told them that he had nightmares about living off of those things, and Kaito was never entirely willing to chance it. Ten was a formative age for those kinds of stories to stick, though Kaito had long figured out that whoever made the things didn't actually intend to poison whoever ate them.
"Thank you for the food," was whispered all across the circle, though only half of them meant it.
So there they all sat, lounging around a now-snuffed fire and digging through packaged food. With a stranger in their midst, they couldn't speak freely, but hell, it was dinner. If everyone was talking, then they hadn't come up with anything to complain about yet.
The silence couldn't last forever. They still needed to figure out watch rotations.
"Why was this village abandoned, Uesugi-san?" Kaito finally asked, when curiosity got the better of him. He kept the hostility well out of his voice or face. Mainly by curling up in his sleeping bag with his chin on his folded arms, but who cared?
Samurai did the thing where they responded best to being addressed by family or clan names. It was weird after a lifetime of being raised in the shinobi model, but if he fell out of the practice now, he'd never get back into it. And there was still no way in hell he was calling this guy "Yūki," even at swordpoint.
"'Yūki' is fine, kid," Uesugi said, but Kaito ignored that. Wasn't like he was using his name either.
"Still waiting on an answer," Kaito insisted, a bit less polite this time.
Uesugi hesitated, glancing at Obito and Sensei. Without his hat, it was a lot easier to read his pinched expression. The flecks of gray at his temples weren't as extreme as the white streak in Kaito's hair, but everything about the firelight made the guy look older somehow. Even though Kaito was pretty sure he wasn't even half a decade older than Sensei.
Kaito glared at him for real this time.
"The hell are you looking at me for? They're adults here," Sensei told him. Oh right, the Land of Iron thought people were adults when they turned fifteen. It still sounded back-asswards every time Kaito remembered. "Get on with it."
"If you insist." Uesugi pinched his chopsticks together and laid them across his empty cup, signalling that he was clearly done with the whole eating business. With entirely unnecessary gravitas, he asked, "How much do you understand about the way the Land of Iron is put together politically?"
"Enough," said Kaito. Which wasn't true, and Uesugi could probably tell, but he was sticking to that story. His teammates nodded along.
Uesugi gave him a skeptical look, but Sensei cut off the potential interrogation with, "How many villages has Shinjitsu taken from you? How many local lords are either dead or scattered?"
"The word you're looking for there is probably 'disappeared,'" said Uesugi. He sat in seiza on his borrowed—stolen?—futon, hands on his thighs. Formal and uncomfortable, except for the bit where he wasn't directly on the wooden floor. "The local government was gutted years before Shinjitsu set up shop in our country. Around here," —He waved a hand, indicating the windows— "there've been several groups of magistrates and other officials, but no one's lasted more than a year or two. Landslides, fires, sickness." Uesugi sighed. "The only real difference with Shinjitsu's influence is that we have an explanation better than 'bad luck' for all of this."
Kaito frowned into his crossed arms. While this particular political lecture didn't sound familiar, a lot of things never filtered down to lower-ranked shinobi, who wouldn't generally be asked to do much more than "go here, stab things" on most missions. Even on this one, the briefing was aimed mostly at Sensei and somewhat less at Obito, who probably wasn't really supposed to be traveling with them the entire way. He didn't have to, and he didn't like snow anyway.
"For how long?" Aiko piped up from her sleeping bag, gray eyes wide.
"Since the destruction of the Uesugi clan," was the reply. As the rest of them watched, Uesugi stared blankly into the fire for a long moment. When he looked up, it was like the orange glow got caught in his eyes. "This land's overrun with ghosts."
Sensei, leaning on one hand and expression forced impassive, said, "Makes sense to me."
"I was two years old when it happened," Uesugi said, shaking his head slowly. "I don't remember any of it. But I'm almost the only officer ever stationed here who came back to the capital with all my limbs after the second rotation. Strange, isn't it?"
It's not if you're working for the shitheads out here, Kaito thought. By now, even a better class of sensor-nin would've probably just given up on trying to befriend Kaito. Putting out hostility consistently saved time.
Obito was lying on his sleeping bag, head propped up on his right arm. The one that wasn't really his, according to what he said about it. "So, question."
Uesugi blinked, either expecting more of a reaction or less of one. Saying stuff that was supposed to spook people had a way of killing conversations. "Yes?"
"Do you actually know what happened back then?" Obito frowned. "Because if you were two, and you don't remember anything, there's a lot of holes in the story that might or might not make it a better ghost story, you know? Sorry to kill that dramatic moment, but seriously."
"I…I'm sorry?" Uesugi didn't have feathers to ruffle, but Kaito figured he could use it. "What does that mean?"
"It means my mother gave a full account of the events of the Uesugi clan's demise, as far as she understood it, when she applied for asylum in Konoha thirty years ago. I read the censored report a while ago," Sensei told him, after only the barest glance at Obito. She took a slow sip of her lousy road-quality tea, then added, "Do you want to hear it?"
During Sensei's little speech, Uesugi leaned forward with interest by centimeters. By the time she finished, he was almost bowing, and actually did so once he realized what she was offering. Without looking up, hands crossed in front of him, he said, "Please!"
"Okay, then get up. And get comfortable, all of you," Sensei said, while she settled into a more comfortable position, too. With her headband gone, her hair flopped forward over her eyes like a real ghost, and the grin Kaito always associated with Story Time appeared on her face. He wasn't sure how real it was, given how little she trusted Uesugi, but it was something.
"I think I know this one, but let's hear it," Obito said. He rolled onto his back and rested his head on his hands. "It'll be fun."
"Not sure if I'd use that word, but sure." Sensei cleared her throat. "All right. A long time ago—"
"—Thirtyish years—" Kaito interrupted.
"—Yes, thank you, because you're being picky about things." Sensei rolled her eyes. She tossed a chopstick at Kaito to shut him up. "Before I was born and when Yūki-san was two, there was a castle in a snow-cloaked country. Which is where we are." This last was added with a glare at Kaito, who smiled. "The owners were the Uesugi clan.
"There were plenty of other clans around here, near as I remember. One of the bigger ones was the Asakura clan, who decided to marry their adopted youngest son to the youngest daughter of the Uesugi—my mother," Sensei said. "The head of the Asakura, Murasaki, was a proud woman, and so was our great-grandfather. The two clans had clashed over their shared borders for so long that nobody remembered who originally owned what. But because of it, they hoped that intermarrying would finally allow the two clans to have a lasting peace. Or at least as long as the married ones managed to live. Maybe their kids, too."
Sensei wasn't the best storyteller in the world, but Kaito figured that a story that got passed down as badly as this one was just going to have to work. None of her students lived in Konoha early enough to have met Sensei's mother, but they got little things sometimes. This kind of night was the closest they got to learning anything about Miyako Gekkō.
Besides, it had Uesugi distracted. That way, Roku could find his spot for first watch without really being noticed and start setting up traps.
"Mother met her future husband, Isshinta Asakura. They prepared for the wedding like anyone would," Sensei said, "with her entire family invested in the party. It was probably a pretty big production." She poked at her container of instant ramen. "It was probably better than this."
Uesugi had his eyes closed. "I… I almost…"
Sensei forged on without acknowledging him. "Isshinta Asakura was a kid. Barely an adult even by samurai standards. Mom said he got along well with all the children of the clan. You probably knew him back then, or your cousins did. And the Asakura used him and the wedding to get them into the Uesugi castle in the dead of night. After drugging all the Uesugi clan members they could find, they killed everyone."
Uesugi bowed his head. His fists clenched against the comforter atop his futon.
"Isshinta Asakura died saving my mother's life, and she saved yours," Sensei told him, merciless. "Then she took everything she had—every clan secret she buried with her old life and took to her grave with her—and killed them all. Every Asakura clan member she linked to the attack. Every official who turned the other way. Six months of death and bloody vengeance in the name of dead family." She turned a kunai over in her hands. "The Ghoul of Three Wolves is your aunt, and my mother."
Or she is if you are who you say you are, Kaito thought. He'd heard this story before, even if he could tell that Sensei was leaving things out of this version. Even when he'd been a kid—for real, not just by technicality—Kaito liked the stories where doing evil meant punishment. The person who razed the world didn't get to sleep peacefully in the ashes.
But this had strategy behind it.
"I…" Uesugi looked up. "Isshinta had red hair, didn't he? The only person I'd ever seen with it." In the tone of someone trying, desperately, to chase down a far-off memory, Uesugi said with his face scrunched, "I think my mother stopped me from pulling his hair."
Sensei shrugged. "After that night, Mom took you to your other aunt, with the Kato clan. Crossing enough borders meant you'd never be chased down and could live whatever life you wanted." She waved a hand to indicate all the snow. "I don't think she ever meant for you to come back to the Land of Iron, but you did."
"She wasn't my only aunt," Uesugi said after a while. The man wasn't half as tense as before, but he was still cautious.
"Grandfather's sister married into the Takeda clan, here," Uesugi said. Eyes open now, he looked away. "I'm just the only one who still carries the Uesugi name. No one from that side of the family could tell me anything, you know. Aunt Tomoe never went to them."
Kaito got the impression Uesugi had done a mock interrogation of his distant relatives to be that sure. "Does that mean we're gonna drown in more of Sensei's relatives?"
"No, no—they wouldn't come this far out into the snowfields," Uesugi said dismissively. "But… They were the ones who kept the Uesugi sword style alive. Not really on their own, though. It turns out the one who actually knew how to perform the last few techniques was a mountain hermit. I think he's a potter now. Or he was. It's been years since I last saw him."
Sensei sighed. "I'm going to assume this mountain hermit taught you."
Uesugi winced. "More or less?"
"We should probably compare notes," Sensei suggested, but not like she cared. Like it was just a passing whim. "Or we could get some sleep and start early tomorrow."
"We could do both."
All five shinobi gave him skeptical looks until Uesugi gave in with a jaw-cracking yawn. "Fine, fine. I know when I'm beaten." He nodded to Sensei. "I… You've given me a lot to think about. I'll meditate on it before going to bed."
"Fair enough," Sensei told him placidly.
A flick of her fingers, however, let her team know that their watch order. Roku and Aiko first, then Kaito and Obito, and finally Sensei herself. They were to wake her if there was any trouble at all, and damn the consequences. Obito could get them out of the Land of Iron if they needed to leave in a hurry. Uesugi could die in the snow for all Kaito cared.
Kaito planned to sleep with one eye open that night, just to be safe.
He didn't manage it, but at least he tried.