A/N: Hope you all had splendid holidays. This mostly took so long because of my tendency to procrastinate, even concerning things I actually enjoy doing, such as writing. I spent a lot of time turning this beginning scene over in my head and not writing any of it down. Anyway, I'd like to say that this chapter is not necessarily one day after the previous, it might be days or weeks, but the timeline won't matter so much until we bring more of the main cast into the mix and the plot gets moving. Also, the dream flashbacks will only last as long as there is exposition to write. They're not gonna be there the whole time.
A sixteen year-old Naruto was running as quickly as his legs would carry him down a mostly empty street. He could hear the sirens blaring several blocks away, fading steadily into the distance. As the sound of the sirens dimmed, the sound of his footsteps and those of his partner, Sweet-feet Lee, seemed to grow louder.
It was a nickname born more of irony than respect. Lee was the clumsiest thief Naruto had ever met, but he was always willing to share in a score and even though his perpetual clumsiness got him caught more often than was generally acceptable for someone in their line of work, Lee never ratted anyone out.
Naruto reached out and pulled Lee into an alleyway. They leaned against one of the walls and Naruto pulled down his scarf from over his face and caught his breath. He bent over and leaned against his knees, one hand wrapped tightly around a long, thin, cloth covered object. He looked over at Lee and saw him sitting on the ground opening a small canvas sack and extracting a rather ugly statue.
"All that trouble, just for that thing?"
Lee looked at Naruto and shrugged. "That's what the triad asked for." He looked away and fidgeted slightly before looking back to Naruto. "You really shouldn't have taken that. How are you even gonna fence it?" Lee asked, looking at the object in Naruto's hand.
"This isn't for selling. I'm keeping this one." Naruto unwrapped the black silk that bound his bounty and revealed a sword, long and curved, sheathed in a plain black scabbard. The guard was circular, also black, and the handle was wrapped, again, in black cloth. It presented a very plain image, but Naruto drew the blade out and was greeted by the gleaming steel of a curved, single-edged sword.
"Never seen a sword like that," Lee said. "Dunno how you're gonna learn to use it." He gathered up his statue and clambered to his feet. "I'm gonna split, I'll bring you your cut at the usual place in three days."
Naruto sheathed the blade and nodded to Lee as he passed on his way out of the alleyway. Lee could be trusted to keep up his end of the bargain and even if not, Naruto had a consolation prize should anything go wrong.
"Maybe Old Jian has some idea on what type of sword this is."
Naruto awoke at the crack of dawn. He didn't stir and just lay in bed, contemplating the dream he had just had. As it turned out, Sweet-feet Lee had lived up to his name; he had tripped on his way home, destroying the statue that had been the goal of their heist, and leaving him in debt to the Triple Threat Triad. Naruto had then been forced by his own good will and loyalty to help Lee work off his debt through a series of burglaries from which he saw not one red cent.
Sighing, Naruto sat up, stretching and yawning. He looked around the attic he shared with Mako and Bolin. He spotted his pants a small distance away, retrieved them, and pulled them on. He then went back to his bed roll, reaching under a small ways past the edge and pulling his blade from under it. The katana, as Jian had told him it was called, was around forty inches long in total, one fourth of that length being the handle.
He pulled the blade and gave it a few practice swings, listening as it sliced through the air. He then inspected the blade for any knicks that might have mysteriously appeared since the day before. Bolin had a curiosity about him that drove Naruto up the wall sometimes. He loved to sneak a look at one of Naruto's most prized possessions, often without asking permission. Satisfied with his inspection Naruto gathered up the rest of his clothing, dressed himself, and made his way out of the attic and the pro-bending arena.
LINE BREAK LINE BREAK LINE BREAK
Naruto walked into Old man Jian's shop, noting in passing that the tin bell had been removed at some point in the last month. He spied the old man behind the counter where he usually was, still as a statue made of flesh and bone. Naruto wandered about the shop, browsing the many mismatched odds and ends that were scattered about the store.
"Put it back, boy."
Naruto started and dropped a small knick-knack he had been slipping into his messenger bag.
"I can never get one over on you, can I?"
"I've lived too long to be taken in by an innocent face so easily. Especially when I know the boy presenting it is guilty of half the thefts in this city. Never trust a proven thief, even if he supplies you regularly."
All pretense of innocent browsing dropped, Naruto made his way to the counter. He adjusted the sword strap that was slung across his torso and the old man's eyes twitched to attention.
"When are you going to sell me that blade, boy?"
"I'll leave it to you in my will if you outlive me, old man." Naruto arrived at the counter and pulled a moderate roll of red bills from his bag. "You told me you would have something for me?"
Jian stroked the rather long white whiskers growing from above his upper lip before reaching under the counter and pulling a scroll, yellowed with age and looking like it hadn't seen use in a century or two. He set it on the counter and held out his hand for the roll of money. Naruto placed the money in his waiting hand and went to inspect the scroll before the old man's other hand slapped his away.
"Not before the money is counted!"
Naruto clenched his jaw and breathed out loudly through his nose in impatience, but Jian seemed to be in no hurry as he set about counting and recounting his fee. Finally, the old man eyed Naruto and bowed his head slightly in a gesture of approval. Naruto claimed his prize in the blink of an eye and unfurled the scroll. The inside was covered in a plethora of text that was punctuated with various drawings. Each set of drawings showed all the steps in a certain motion and the men in the drawings had swords just like Naruto's own.
He grinned and set about inspecting the text. After a moment his grin turned into a frown. He couldn't read the scroll. The characters were familiar but their arrangement was alien to him.
"I can't read this, old man."
"I'm certain that is not my problem, boy. All sales are final. I'm sure you will make due with the pictures alone. Or, for a fee, I could see about searching out a translation." Naruto could see the glint of avarice in the old man's eyes.
"You're a crook, you know that?"
"No more than you, boy."
Naruto rolled the scroll back up, placed it into his bag delicately, and turned to leave the store.
"Make sure your sticky fingers don't stick to anything of mine on the way out, boy."
Naruto waved dismissively over his shoulder and said, "Ah, bite me, old man." Naruto stopped at the door and looked at Jian. "You know, you were a lot nicer when I was a kid."
Jian stroked his mustache and said, "You were young and trying to survive on your own. You're not that young boy struggling to find his path anymore. An old man's kindness is not what you need now."
Naruto shook his head and stepped out into the streets of Republic City without another word.
LINE BREAK LINE BREAK LINE BREAK
A quick trip to his home and back into the heart of the city found Naruto in front of a door in a rather rundown tenement building in the bad part of town. The door was a dull green color and the paint was chipping in more than a few places, showing the cheap wood that had been used in its construction.
Naruto transferred the roughly carved wooden sword he was carrying in his right hand to the other before raising it to knock. He had carved the sword a few months back and it hadn't been the first. His skills as a carpenter left much to be desired and he was constantly picking splinters out of his fingers, but the sword was a passable approximation of the actual blade he carried on his back.
The sound of his knuckles rapping against the door echoed out through the barren hallway and Naruto waited. He didn't have to wait long before the door was thrown open and before him stood perhaps the oddest person Naruto knew.
The teenager stood an inch or so taller than Naruto and his head was topped by an inky black mop of hair, meticulously groomed into a bowl cut. His bushy eyebrows rested just below his fringe, twitching wildly as his black eyes surveyed everything in view. A huge smile covered his face and his strong and rough features did nothing to dampen the openness of his smile.
Naruto's eyes glanced down and he quickly realized that the teenager's sense of style hadn't changed even slightly in the few days since Naruto had seen him last. He wore a shirt that was bright green and skin tight over his torso, doing nothing to hide the ridiculously hard muscles that covered seemingly every inch of his body; they weren't exceptionally large, but Naruto had learned first hand the wallop this man could pack into every punch. It also didn't help that the shirt was sleeveless, showing off his large arms and the odd assortment of tattoos they were adorned with. His hands were wrapped in white bandages that traveled up his forearms until terminating a few inches below his elbows.
The teen's pants were the more normal knee-breeches common in Republic city, but his feet were adorned with shoes that could be described as such in name only. The black canvas only covered the tops of his feet and if Naruto looked hard enough he could see that underneath they were bare as the day he was born. His shins were adorned with orange leg warmers of such a garish shade that they almost hurt Naruto's eyes to look at.
"If it isn't my main man Rock Lee?" Naruto raised his hand with a cheery smile spreading across his face. His cheer was quickly curtailed by Lee reaching over and pulling him into a bone crushing hug.
"Naruto, my friend! It's been almost a week, I had thought the flames that fueled your ferocious training died out!"
If Sweet-feet Lee was the epitome of clumsiness, Rock Lee was his exact opposite. The latter's strange form of dress belied the graceful confidence that he moved with. Rock Lee's gait was that of a hardened martial artist; his steps were sure and strong and he always seemed ready to fight at a moment's notice.
While Sweet-feet Lee had gained his name through his various misfortunes, Rock Lee had gained his by the ferocity of his blows and his nearly unparalleled strength. Naruto had seen him break a stone in two with just a punch and thus the name Rock Lee had stuck.
"Just been busy, Rock. You know how it is." Naruto brushed himself off and gave Lee a sideways look. "Is that a new tattoo?"
Lee patted his right shoulder proudly. "A sunrise to represent the eternal springtime of my youth!"
Lee was like this, loud and eccentric, but he was undoubtedly strong and he knew a little something about sword fighting so Naruto wouldn't have turned down this training partner even if he wanted to.
"Yeah... You wanna go train? Got a scroll, want you to help me figure some of the moves out." Naruto held up his wooden sword and received an excited pat on the shoulder that almost sent him careening to the floor. Lee bolted back into the recesses of his apartment and returned later with a wooden stick that Naruto suspected had once been a broom handle.
LINE BREAK LINE BREAK LINE BREAK
Naruto and Lee's short walk was marked with a veritable storm of odd looks. Lee stood out like a sore thumb and he drew looks of astonishment and fear in equal measure. Rock Lee's strength bad built for him a fearsome reputation. Gang members and other such low life hoods knew to stay away and children who knew of his martial prowess trailed behind him, looks of twisted awe and bewilderment on their faces.
They arrived in front of a rundown martial arts school. It had belonged to Lee's father before the man had died four years before, leaving Lee with enough money to just barely survive if he lived frugally and put enough aside to pay the rent for the school itself.
The outside of the building was covered in graffiti and the ground was littered with various types of refuse. Contrary to the state of the outside, the school was pristinely maintained on the inside. Lee lifted the metal shutters where windows might have been fitted if either Lee or his late father had had any inclination to put any in. Light flooded in, illuminating the padded floors and white walls, covered with various scrolls extolling ancient martial wisdoms and other such sundry.
Naruto removed his shoes as he entered the school, and Lee, seeing as he was mostly barefoot anyway, just wiped his feet as best he could on a brown mat at the entrance that read 'welcome'.
They spent an hour huddled over the scroll that Naruto had procured from old man Jian earlier in the day, poring over its contents trying to make sense of the various illustrations and giving the words up for a lost cause as of now.
After some preparations, Naruto and Lee took up stances across from each other, Naruto holding his wooden sword in front of him with two hands and Lee holding his broken broom handle in one hand and standing side face.
"Full speed?" asked Lee.
Naruto's nod marked the beginning of their practice duel and they were off.
LINE BREAK LINE BREAK LINE BREAK
Naruto walked the streets of Republic City, nursing a red welt on his left hand and lamenting the loss of his wooden sword. It was always hard to find a piece of wood that would suit his purposes and whittling was a pastime for old men that he cared very little for.
The sun had set a few hours before and Naruto meandered along at a sedate pace. He was headed home, but he wasn't in any rush. This was triad territory, but Naruto wasn't worried; the people who mattered knew enough to leave him alone and the people who didn't know him never got too serious without the say-so of a superior. Naruto's criminal exploits had lined enough triad pockets over the years to buy him some peace of mind.
As Naruto walked along, he came upon an alleyway. It was plain and unassuming and the buildings that formed its sides prevented the moonlight from illuminating its contents. Naruto would have passed it by like he had passed a dozen others if not for the faint sounds of a commotion coming from inside. Naruto stopped and strained his eyes to look into it, but the darkness made it hard to make out anything but unmoving shadows. He turned his head from side to side, surveying the street which had been mostly deserted, occupied only by street thugs and hooligans much like Naruto himself. With a shrug, Naruto made his way into the alleyway at a light jog.
The alley continued for a few dozen feet, shrouded almost completely in darkness. As he neared the other end, the sounds of a commotion quickly became the sounds of a scuffle. People spoke infrequently in raised voices punctuated by the sounds of what Naruto recognized as fire-bending.
When he reached the mouth of the alleyway, he saw that it opened into a stone courtyard. It was apparently an area shared by the four tenement buildings on the block and there were children's toys scattered about about and tables and chairs set up, probably for the adults that watched said children. In the center of the courtyard there were five people. One was dressed in black shorts and a white tank top, his pale face was topped by a mop of black hair that spiked up in the back in what Naruto assumed was the great mother of all cow-licks. The figure was surround by four figures, Naruto assumed they were men, that were covered head to toe in weird outfits, colored grey and maroon. Their faces were covered in masks, the eyes of which glowed green.
The teenager in the center snapped his fist out at the masked man ahead of him and a large ball of fire flew out. The figure spun to the side in a dodge that Naruto recognized as a move he might make himself. As one figure dodged, the others moved in, trying to overwhelm their opponent with numbers while he was distracted.
The teenager lashed out with a spinning kick that released a tongue of bright flames. Two of the figures backed off immediately, but one seemed to have seen it coming and slid under the fire on his knees, and regained his feet behind the teenager.
"Behind you!" Naruto called.
The teenager turned around, leading with a blind elbow, that his enemy ducked under. The masked figure then began to pepper the right side of the teenager's torso with quick punches, rising quickly and stopping when he reached his shoulder. The teenager's right arm slumped down to his side limply and then the strength seemed to flee his leg as he fell to the ground.
Naruto's eyes widened as he witnessed this masked man's chi-blocking. He had never met another chi-blocker in the city. It piqued his interest and Naruto decided it was time to step in. He reached to his belt and loosed a knife which he then threw at the masked man. It planted itself in his calf and the man yelped in pain as he fell to his knee.
The masked man's allies all snapped their attention to Naruto and he had the sneaking suspicion that if they weren't wearing masks, surprise would be plastered all over their faces. They all turned away from the subdued fire-bender and approached Naruto cautiously.
"Call me old fashioned, but four on one just doesn't seem fair to me," said Naruto. "Sure, I'm a thief and I fight as dirty as they come, but I never gang up on people. Interferes with my sense of sportsmanship, you know?"
Two of the figures pulled out weapons that looked like three spheres bound together by tightly woven string and began spinning them above their heads while the third one addressed Naruto.
"It's benders that don't play fair. They have so much power and they use it to oppress non-benders!"
"Well, I'm sure you have a whole spiel to read me justifying what you're doing, and I'm sure it's real interesting and inspiring. But me? I like an underdog, you know? And since you guys are ganging up on that guy, that makes him the underdog. So... I guess I'm gonna have to kick your asses now." Naruto shrugged as if the whole matter was out of his hands. "Sorry, that's just the way it has to be, buddy." He cracked his knuckles and drew his sword. "So, if we're all clear on what's gonna happen here, let's get started, yeah?"
The two figures who had been spinning their weapons over their heads loosed them in Naruto's direction, one after the other. Naruto began closing the distance, ducking under one of the spinning weapons and slicing apart the other as he rose. One of the masked men ran towards Naruto and he backed him off with a one-handed slash. His other hand quickly followed with a throwing knife that caught the man in the hip causing him to immediately lose his feet.
The man's allies weren't far behind, they moved in tandem, one a few feet in front of the other. Naruto ran to meet them. The first one reared his fist back as he neared Naruto, though his mistake was assuming that Naruto would try defend himself. Naruto leapt up, planting his foot in the man's face and leaping off of him to come down on his partner. He brought his sword down in a downward slash that the masked man had to dive to the side to avoid, though he didn't escape unscathed. His left arm was bleeding from the shoulder where Naruto's blade had bitten into it.
Naruto quickly drew another throwing knife and buried it in the man's other shoulder with a quick throw. He then ran over and drew the man up to his knees by his collar, circled around behind him, and placed the tip of his blade at the base of the man's skull.
Naruto watched as the enemy he had used as a springboard regained his feet and said, "So? Are we done here? Or do you feel like pressing this guy's luck?" Naruto pressed his blade into his captive's neck and he yelped as it drew a small amount of blood.
The masked man put his hands up in a sign of surrender. "That's what I thought. Now take your friends and go regroup at your clubhouse or whatever. Leave the knives. This guy will meet you in a minute." The men hesitated to leave and Naruto urged them on. "Go! Me and your friend are just gonna have a little talk. He'll be along in a minute."
When the men were out of sight, Naruto stood his captive up and pulled off his mask. He had black hair and black eyes and looked about as normal as anybody could be. Naruto removed the knife from his shoulder, pushed him to the wall of a building and placed the knife under his chin.
"What's your name? And don't lie to me."
"M-my name's Chen. P-people call me Swift Chen."
"Well, Swift Chen, my name is Naruto. Sometimes known as Naruto with the gentle hands. As you can see, that's more of an ironic nickname than anything." He punctuated this by pressing the knife into the man's skin, drawing a drop of blood. "I'm not very gentle at all, am I, Chen?"
"So, if you or your friends follow me or come looking for me, what do you think I'll do?"
"I don't know."
"I'll make it a short and painful meeting is what I'll do, Chen. So, do me a favor and don't come after me, okay? Revenge just isn't worth it." Naruto wiped his knife clean on the man's chest before sheathing it at his belt, he then repeated the action with his sword. "Cheer up, Chen. You're gonna be just fine!" Naruto grinned widely at him. "Now go on. Be on your way and pass along my message."
He watched as Chen ran off to join his comrades and when he was safely out of sight, Naruto turned his attention to the fallen fire-bender. He walked over to where he was lying on his back and looked down at him.
"You okay there, buddy? That chi-blocking sure is a kick in the ass, huh?"
The fire-bender's black eyes looked back up at Naruto and he seemed to be measuring him, sizing him up. "Is that what it's called?"
"Yep! Thought I was the only one in the city that did it. Guess someone's been spreading it around. You'll be alright in a few minutes. My name's Naruto by the way." Naruto held out his left hand to help the bender up before withdrawing it. "Oh, right." He reached down and picked the teenager up, draping his right arm over his shoulder and helping him walk out of the courtyard. "So, what's your name?"
"Sasuke... and don't think this makes us friends."
"Oh, I wouldn't dream of it."