Clearing battlefields just sucks, okay? All active-duty shinobi have, at some time or another, had to clear the dead guys off a battlefield before they rot. Since fighting doesn't stop until everyone's dead or one side's retreated, given how many shinobi fight just as effectively at night, Obito and I weren't allowed anywhere near the main body of the attack until Sensei's corps had already routed the enemy. Kakashi was with him, since he was technically one of the senior chūnin involved (even if he was still short).
It was only when the folks still fighting were more than twenty kilometers away that rookies like Obito and I were allowed to see what carnage was left.
The worst part is the silence.
Well, actually no. The worst part is the actual physical job of dragging corpses to the mass graves that used to be defensive trenches half a day previously.
Obito and I tended to stick together even on jobs that awful, and we both grabbed one of a dead Iwa-nin's ankles to drag him toward the nearest pit. Alive, he might have outweighed us by thirty to thirty-five kilos each. Dead, it seemed more like sixty.
It probably would have been easier to stick him a corpse scroll, but Sensei hadn't gotten around to teaching me how to make one and I didn't have nearly enough scrolls for all the corpses lying around.
And once he was in the pit, we went back for another body.
Aside from collecting the wounded (and occasionally being called on to help keeping them in the land of the living, or not), that was our day. It sort of bled into the next day, and the day after that, until the smell of blood and rot and feces and acrid smoke practically clung to our clothes and hair and I wanted nothing more than to dive into a river and scrub.
It wasn't until we were about to leave to head back home, with our cleanup mission completed at last, that I actually got a chance to sit still. I was packing my bag, glad to be finally getting the hell out of the junction of nowhere and hell on earth. That I happened to be doing it inside of a medical tent was less because I cared about anyone inside and more because it had started to rain.
There was only one almost-dead guy around, and he was easily ignored.
He looked…normal. Not like a bad guy, really. He'd gone white under his tan and looked more corpse than man by this point, lips chapped and expression pained if he was conscious. Aside from the remnants of an Iwagakure flak jacket, he really could have been just anyone (with a handlebar mustache). I didn't care. I was so far past caring that he was around—besides, he wouldn't be for much longer.
It was the last tent. End of the line. He was just the only one left of the fatally wounded that was taking three days to die. The rest had already been buried.
He coughed. I didn't look at him. Instead, I gave a sharp whistle designed to alert the head medic that his patient was dying on him, finally.
But once I was done packing, I stood up. The head medic—a man named Hisoka something or something Hisoka—stuck his head into the tent and was leaning over the patient while I shuffled around, going about my business.
Obito, as it happened, also stuck his head in. His spikes were lying almost flat on his head because of the rain, but he'd packed and seemed ready to go.
"Good to go, Kei?" Obito asked.
"Yeah, " I replied, slinging my pack over my shoulder.
That was Iwa-nin on the cot coughed, "Yellow…Flash."
Obito and I both looked at him.
He didn't…exactly have the look that most of Sensei's victims did. Ergo, he still had the ability to talk—Sensei had a tendency to go for the throat in most cases that didn't involve the Rasengan, and the guy's innards were also mostly on the inside. I could only guess that one of the other jōnin had gotten him—there was a through-and-through pair of stab wounds in his stomach and chest, but nothing else.
(Of course, he'd been bleeding for days on end and his injuries already smelled awful, so I guess it didn't matter that no one else had decided to end his misery.)
(The fact that he'd been interrogated in the field, with all that entailed, hadn't helped at all.)
Hisoka rolled his eyes. The expression didn't really sit well with him—he looked, honestly, like what happened when one's sideburns and beard took over one's face in brown hair. He kind of looked like Hagrid, but short.
Oddly, the almost-dead man was looking right at us. Obito and I, I mean.
Something was flickering in those fever-clouded eyes. Something I didn't like, which spoke of recognition.
How the hell does this guy know who we are?
"Y-Yellow Flash…childr…" He started to sit up. His eyes were laser-focused on us, and Hisoka was a second too late to push him back down.
I never want to see a man look at me like that ever again, as long as I live.
Obito grabbed my hand.
What the fuck?
Then a kunai whipped past my head, so fast that I only belatedly realized Sensei had arrived right behind me in a burst of chakra.
Sclortch. The Iwa-nin reeled backward, a kunai embedded up to the handle in his eye. He was definitely dead now.
"Oh, ick." I heard myself say, numb. Obito was tugging on my hand insistently by then, but I hardly even noticed.
Sensei wordlessly grabbed both of our shoulders and steered us out of the tent. I caught a last glimpse of Hisoka waving his hands in frustration at being deprived of a patient (or victim), and then we were off into the dreary, never-ending rain.
We found Kakashi under a tree, arms crossed and visible expression grim. He looked tense. Most of the time he was bored or frustrated or maybe even unwillingly entertained when Obito and I were around, but the stiffness in his posture went up a notch or two when he spotted us.
I agreed, even if I wasn't quite sure what I was agreeing with.
Sensei ruffled Kakashi's hair when we finally reached him, which struck me as odd even considering the events just beforehand. When Kakashi didn't lean away or bristle, I knew we were in trouble. Obito and I kind of slunk over to his side like chastised puppies—he did, in fact, scoot away from us. But not by a lot, and not obviously.
Sensei crossed his arms, looking at us with a completely expressionless face.
After a few moments, I guess he felt we were aware of the gravity of the situation and broke the stare-off by reaching into one of his vest pockets and pulling out bloodstained, jet-black book. It was only the size of a pocket calculator at most, and probably about fifty pages thick, but I still recognized the symbol on the spine.
An Iwakagure bingo book. You don't think…?
"Over the past couple of weeks, I'm sure you've been wondering why I've only let Kakashi into the field with me," Sensei began.
Obito nodded, but I shook my head.
Of course, not wanting to be on the battlefield meant I was really more inclined to count my blessings when I was allowed to stay back with the Medic Corps.
"Here's the reason." Sensei opened the book, flipped a few pages, and finally tore one out. Then he flipped a few more and tore that one out, too.
He let me have the first one.
Name: Konoha's Yellow Flash
Distinctive Characteristics: Blond hair, blue eyes. Attacks in an instant using teleportation.
Orders: Do not approach. Flee on sight.*
*Note: The Yellow Flash is often accompanied by three children, assumed to be his students.
Orders: Live capture; kill as last resort.
There was the sound of a page ripping, again. I looked over, and noticed that Kakashi had already shredded the sheet he'd been given. His chakra was agitated, but he was hiding his anger better than I would have.
"They mistook him for the White Fang last time." Sensei told us.
Obito looked blank. I bit my tongue to keep from saying anything.
Sensei sighed. "For the next stretch, I'm going to be assigning you a different mentor."
I felt a protest well up in my throat—no, no, that's how we'll get killed—and Obito actually said, "But Sensei—!" I felt Kakashi's chakra jump.
"That's enough." Sensei snapped.
We went quiet, wide-eyed.
"You're chūnin now." Sensei said, calmer. His gaze lost its laser focus as he looked at the three of us, and his tone softened somewhat. "I've taught you all since you were brand-new genin. You've come farther than I'd ever…oh, that isn't important." His eyes were dark. I could only imagine what he was remembering. "Iwagakure knows you're my students. So, Kumogakure will know soon enough. If they don't already. If they can't get to me—and they can't—they'll come after the three of you in the hopes that hurting you will keep me from fighting. I won't stop until the war's over, and you know that, but they don't. Or if they do, they won't care."
…That must have been why Minato couldn't reach Rin and Kakashi after the Three-Tails was sealed inside her.
My blood ran cold.
Rin's death was the catalyst for Tobi's birth.
And hadn't Spiral Zetsu said that Minato was stuck on a separate mission, just before the moment of truth and despair?
He'd been fighting A and B at the time. Kumogakure shinobi.
Kiri had been backstabbing us.
Sensei went on, "I'll be taking solo or group missions from now on. I should have done this before—now that you've been promoted, you should have been shuffled around and allowed to gain experience alongside older chūnin and learn what the rest of your graduating class has to offer in terms of teamwork, talent, and personality. You've been isolated by sticking close to me, and…we can't afford to be that lenient anymore."
In a way, it was almost a repeat of the time Yamaguchi-sensei cut me loose. "You're doing so well, you don't need me anymore," in a nutshell.
But that was a lie. A damn, dirty lie. It didn't feel like an accomplishment—it felt like abandonment.
It felt like a death sentence.
"They won't stop trying to kill us." I heard myself say, distantly. I crossed my arms, mirroring Sensei and Kakashi and also trying to stave off the cold. Everything felt wrong. "It's not going to stop them."
"Maybe it won't." Sensei murmured.
I suddenly wondered if that was why both of Sensei's genin teammates were dead. Maybe someone had gone after Jiraiya, or even Sensei, and settled for the next best thing.
Sensei had scars too, even if he'd hidden them so well that I'd have never known they were there, if I didn't think to look.
"We'll still be training together." Sensei told us. He frowned. "As far as I'm concerned, you're still my students, and I'm certainly not going anywhere. But for now, I'll ask that the Hokage keep you a little closer to home. If you get any missions without me, Kakashi's in charge unless there's a senior chūnin. Understood?"
"Yes, Sensei," we chorused.
I mean, it wasn't like we could exactly argue with him. There's a difference between arguing with a big brother figure and arguing with a superior officer, which was the role he was stepping into. We gave in without a fight and were eventually shoved off on other shinobi for the sake of mystifying our enemies, which we hadn't actually even earned on our own merits.
Or so I thought.
"Now, listen closely." Sensei told us a little later. The three of us stood at attention, and Sensei went on, "In a month, I'll be off the roster for a few days. If we can get together in time, I'll put you three to your final test." He scratched the side of his face, sheepish. "I really should have done this right after you were promoted to the same level, but…things happen."
"What kind of test, Sensei?" Obito asked. "I mean, the Chūnin Exam would've counted for fighting against opponents of the same level, and the writing part was evil."
"You're right, Obito." Sensei said. "But it's not that kind of test."
"You want to know if we can handle ourselves against a much stronger opponent." I suggested after a moment, since Kakashi didn't seem to have any input.
Then Kakashi said, "The bell test."
The side of Sensei's mouth quirked up. "Did you really have to spoil the surprise, Kakashi?"
"Yeah, he probably did." I murmured. "So, what exactly is the bell test?"
"That's for me to know and you to find out." Sensei told us. "Now, get moving."
Thinking about it, I supposed that the infamous bell test didn't necessarily make sense for genin unless the goal was explicitly to screw them over. New genin, in particular, had all of the normal issues with attachment and getting along with strangers. It was just amplified by the nature of the challenge.
Still…the idea of fighting Sensei set my heart pounding.
We'd all sparred against Sensei before—it's a basic part of shinobi training, to get us used to fighting people taller or stronger than we were. He'd always given us a challenge, sure, but he fought us one-to-one and generally the others were waiting in the wings for their turn. He never had to take us seriously, or as a group.
It was strange, but I wanted to test myself against the Yellow Flash. If I couldn't test myself, I'd never know if I could go the distance.
…Wow, I sound like a Disney movie.
Okay, to be honest, I was kind of terrified too.
Who wouldn't be? I knew Sensei was capable of more things than I probably ever would be. He was capable of fighting A and B at once, of beating the Nine-Tailed Fox down to a draw, and of out-speeding any shinobi alive. He knew timing and precision inside and out, could wipe out an Iwa contingent so quickly that most hardly realized they were dead before the flash of yellow, and had a dozen powerful jutsu he'd never used in front of us.
The idea of facing someone like that was daunting and thrilling in nearly equal measure. He was our teacher, after all. And our hero.
When I got home, I got started on the explosive seals. A month wasn't that long.
A/N: GUESS WHAT'S MAKING A TRIUMPHANT RETURN?
Also, concept art of characters appearing in Catch Your Breath can now be found on my author profile. Enjoy!