Tazuna may have underestimated these shinobi types, especially the brats, and he feels a little bad about lying, but they still agreed to come with him to Wave than abandon him to his grisly fate. He’ll take it.
Even if that Kakashi guy’s been giving him the murder eyes when no one else is looking.
“Hey, Tazuna, I see you made it back with the shinobi!” An old boatman with leathery tanned skin and a couple missing teeth grins as they walk up to the dock.
Tazuna smiles with a wince and says, “Yeah, uh, I did. So! What’s new with you, Hadō?”
“Eh, same shit different day. Hey, spotting more foxes near shore this week, though.”
“Ooh,” says Tazuna, excited, as they all climb into the boat.
“Foxes?” Sakura asks with a curious frown.
“Oh, you Konoha folk don’t tend to like them, that’s right,” says Hadō.
Naruto hunches his shoulders.
The boatman continues, “Well, you all keep that to yourself. People here like foxes; they say some of ‘em are the spirits of fallen Uzu folk, looking out for their families and allies even in death.”
Naruto’s shoulders drop a fraction, and he asks, “Uh, Uzu?”
“Uzushio; you kids gotta know about that."
“Yes, but why is Uzushio important to Wave?” Sakura asks, curious.
The boatman scoffs. “They teach you kids to kill with your pinky finger, but they don’t tell you economics? Ah, well, not like Konoha cares one lick about Wave anyway.”
“That’s not true!” Naruto argues as he scowls at him.
Hadō holds up a hand. “Peace. I get it. You’re kids. Young enough to think your village could do no wrong.”
“Well—” Sakura starts to say.
“I’m not mad; just a fact of life. The fall of Uzushio collapsed our economy, our protections. You might think I'm being rosy, but they really cared about us. And they knew how to party. You know they had a seal that could swap body parts? Wildest night of my life,” the boatman’s eyes go distant for a long moment, “...but you kids are too young to hear about that.
“Anyway,” he continues, “our economy’s been a shambles since; maybe gets going for a year or two before it collapses again. No security of stability, so assholes like Gato think they can waltz in here and take charge. Boy, he'd be singing a different tune if the Uzumaki were still around."
Sakura’s eyes widen a bit at that, and even Sasuke looks up. Naruto opens his mouth to say something, but Kakashi puts a firm hand on his shoulder.
“What an… illuminating piece of history,” says Kakashi, “Thank you for sharing.”
Hadō grins. “Of course; if it helps you at all with killing Gato or whatever you’re here to do, I’ll be happy. The bridge will be good for trade, if anything.”
Kakashi gives Tazuna a pointed look. Tazuna sinks lower in his seat.
And then Momochi Zabuza attacks them.
Tazuna starts to fear that Kakashi might not stop at the murder eyes by the end of this.
Sensei is stuck injured in bed after the fight with Zabuza, resting for the predicted Round Two in just under a week. Sakura, Sasuke, and Naruto all agree: now is the perfect time to corner him about the Uzumaki.
Uzumaki? A clan? Sakura didn’t expect it, though in hindsight it makes sense. Uzushio, Uzumaki.
“Maa, you all want to know about the Uzumaki?” Kakashi asks where he’s sitting up in bed, reading his gross book.
Sakura nods her head emphatically; Sasuke tips his the slightest.
“Yeah, and there’s nowhere to run, Sensei!” Naruto declares.
Sensei gives them an unimpressed look. Sakura starts to sweat a bit, but she doesn’t break, and not just because Sasuke and Naruto are also holding their ground. She’s so curious; she has to know.
Sensei sighs, then looks like he’s weighing his next words. He shuts his book with a snap.
“Maa, let’s start with Uzushio. What did you learn about it in the Academy?”
“Uh, the spiral was important?” says Naruto. Sakura wants to facepalm.
Instead she says, “They were one of our greatest historical allies.”
“Uzushio fell because Konoha couldn’t arrive to help them in time,” Sasuke adds.
Kakashi nods, “Correct, well, correct enough, to all the above. The fall of Uzushio is Konoha’s greatest failure. Kiri and Iwa ambushed the island, reportedly wiping out every living person on it.”
“Why did they do that?” Naruto asks, aghast.
“The Uzu people, especially the Uzumaki, were masters of fuuinjutsu. I’d say beyond mastery. Their prowess is what made Uzushio a target for elimination. It also makes the Uzumaki name a very dangerous one to reveal in some parts of the world.”
“Oh,” says Naruto, a bit pale, “good to know, Sensei.” Then he brightens, “But it’s okay to be an Uzumaki in Konoha, yeah? Maybe there’s—oh, wait. I would’ve run into them in the village by now. Aww,” he hangs his head.
Sakura thinks a moment, then suggests, “But maybe there were survivors. They could still be somewhere; maybe they relocated elsewhere? Or maybe they changed their names?”
Sensei shakes his head, “No, I don’t believe so. In all the places I’ve been, I’ve never seen evidence of any other living Uzumaki. And despite our original failure, Konoha would have reached out to them to provide aid.”
“Oh.” Naruto deflates. “I’m happy to finally find out about my name, but… they’re still all gone, huh?”
They all sit there for a bit in silence, letting Naruto’s words hang in the air. Sasuke stares at Naruto for a moment, and then looks away, a strange look on his face. Sakura wonders what it means.
“...Maybe we can look on the Memorial Stone for their names, at least,” Sakura tries, attempting to sound hopeful.
“Yeah,” Naruto mumbles, downcast, “maybe.”
Kakashi is tired.
Naruto looks… so disappointed. Kakashi sees Kushina in that face, disappointed in him. Actually, Kushina would kick Kakashi’s ass to Tea Country and back if she could see this sorry display, and Kakashi would deserve every second of it.
His students get up to leave, mood still heavy. “Naruto,” he says before he can stop himself, “would you stay back a moment?” All the kids hesitate, but Kakashi shoos the other two out with a wave of his hand; this is something Naruto should hear first. If he shares it, that’s up to him.
Kakashi is tired of running away.
“Uhh, what is it, Sensei?” Naruto asks, looking a bit nervous.
“Hang on,” Kakashi pulls out a little slip of seal paper from a pocket. “Stick that on the door; we still have some cute little eavesdroppers outside.” He watches Naruto go to the door, and he thinks about what to say next.
Naruto may never have memories of Kushina, but he can have stories. Naruto shouldn’t have to search for piecemeal information about his own mother; he should hear about her from Kakashi. Kakashi fiercely tamps down on the rising grief he’s still yet to heal from. He needs to do this, no matter how much it hurts, no matter how late he is. He owes Naruto this much.
Naruto sits back down, a mixture of nervous and curious, as he looks at Kakashi expectantly. Kakashi can’t let himself back out now, but how should he handle this?
Fuck it; he decides to take a page out of Kushina’s book and say it plain: “I knew your mother.”
Naruto startles. “What?” He looks like he can’t believe what Kakashi just said.
Kakashi lays it out. “Her name was Uzumaki Kushina. Her nickname was the Red Hot-Blooded Habanero. She had the reddest hair I’ve ever seen, but she’d throw you off the Hokage Monument if you ever dared to call her Tomato. She was the most terrifying kunoichi I’ve ever known and she loved ramen even more than you do.”
Naruto doesn’t scream at him, asking him why he’s only saying something now.
Naruto doesn’t punch him in outrage for keeping this from him.
Naruto scoots over to sit next to Kakashi and says, incredulous, “...She liked ramen more than me?”
Kakashi nearly laughs. Leave it to Naruto to surprise him. He eye smiles instead, and says, “Oh, she did; there was this one time Teuchi held his first—and last—ramen contest and…”
Kakashi tells story after story, the tidbits he can think of. He shies away from mention of Minato. He—he can’t. But somehow... talking about Kushina hurts less with every sentence. He watches Naruto’s face brighten again, and Kakashi feels his own grief begin to slowly ease.
Maybe Kushina will kick his ass slightly less in the afterlife.
Kakashi-sensei’s been nicer the past few days. Or Naruto think he’s been a bit nicer. He acts the same, but he’s ruffled Naruto’s hair a bunch of times.
Naruto is pretty happy, too. Kakashi-sensei has so many awesome stories about his mom; Naruto wants to be just like her now. Maybe he can convince Teuchi to do another ramen contest if he promises not to knock out a load-bearing wall in a fist fight against another contestant. Or get glitter everywhere.
Naruto does stop once to wonder how Kakashi-sensei knows his mom but Jiji doesn’t. Huh. Weird. He shrugs it off for now.
Kakashi-sensei also has them tree climbing, which sucks. Sakura already figured it out, because she’s Sakura and amazing. That jerk Sasuke is having just as hard a time, at least. He’s being weird, though. Quiet. Not his dumb brooding, exactly. A weird kind of quiet.
Naruto takes a break after a few hours, sweaty and frustrated, not much farther up the tree than before. He stomps over to the river to cool off.
He’s later drying off in the sun when he hears a noise and looks over to see a fox digging around in the tall grass. Naruto thinks about what that boatman said, about Uzumaki coming back as foxes, and he wonders.
“Hey, hey fox,” he calls to it just above a whisper. He doesn’t want to scare it off. Its ear twitches, and it swivels its head around to look at him. Naruto holds his breath. Animals usually run away from him. But this one edges the slightest bit closer, cautious. Naruto squints at the fox. It seems pretty normal to him, and not like a creepy spirit.
Still, it wouldn’t hurt to try, right?
"Hey fox, I know it sounds dumb, but..." he whispers as he plays at the hem of his jacket, "if you’re an Uzumaki, do you know my mom? Her name’s Kushina. And… if my mom or dad are still around, could you tell 'em... I said hi?"
The fox stares at him, then leaps into the brush, darting away.
"Dumb fox, dumb Uzushio." Naruto kicks at the dirt with his heel as he leans back in the grass, disappointed.
Still, he wonders.
Haku notices the blond boy from Zabuza-sama’s fight passed out in the grass. Not the smartest move; an enemy could sneak right up on him. An enemy like himself, Haku muses. Still he crouches down and shakes the boy’s shoulder.
The boy snorts awake and sits up. He looks wildly around, and then sighs. “Aw, man, I was still hoping the fox came back…” he mutters.
Haku cocks his head. “A fox?”
He scowls at the river. “Oh, I just wanted to ask it for something. It’s dumb.”
Haku is unsure what that means, but he plays along, “I’m sure it’s not dumb; would you like to tell me?”
“I was hoping it was an Uzushio fox. I asked if it knew my mom and if it could, uh, send a message to her if she was a spirit, too. Sounds dumb, right?”
Haku vaguely knows about Uzushio. Zabuza-sama had mentioned Uzumaki and ghost stories, once. He doesn’t like talking about it, so Haku doesn’t ask.
Haku shakes his head. “I don’t think so. It’s not dumb to want to speak to your mother, if she’s no longer with you.”
The boy smiles. “Alright, so it’s not dumb? Anyway,” he scowls again, “I don’t think it worked, which sucks. She’s the only family I know about so it would be nice to at least say, I dunno, hello.”
“No family?” Haku asks.
“Yeah. Everyone related to me is apparently dead, so,” he shrugs.
“Family doesn’t have to be by blood. You have people you care for? People you want to protect?” Haku presses.
“Oh sure,” the boy says, “my team! I definitely want to protect them.” He furrows his brows. “Even that jerk Sasuke.”
“It might not be a stretch to consider them as family. They don’t have to replace your parents, but they can add to the family you already have.”
“Kind of like making a bigger family, huh,” the boy contemplates. “Yeah, maybe my team is like my family.”
Haku thinks fondly of Zabuza. He may be a tool of shinobi, but… “Of course. Family is what you make of it,” Haku says with a gentle smile.
“Yeah, I like that. Thanks!” He grins. “But still, it would be really cool to meet my mom if I could.” He grins wider, “Uzumaki Kushina was really amazing, you know! She threw people off mountains if they made her mad!” He blinks, and adds. “Oh right, I’m Uzumaki Naruto, what’s your name?”
Haku blinks at the boy’s enthusiasm. “Oh, I’m Haku.” Then he blinks a few more times as the name registers.
This boy... is an Uzumaki?
At the end of the week, like Kakashi-sensei expected, Zabuza appears at the bridge site. And Haku from the river too, which Naruto thinks is really uncool of him.
They all get into position, ready to defend Tazuna and the bridge.
Zabuza doesn’t move to attack. He instead says, “Yeah, no, hang on.” He walks away from them all, ambling over to the edge of the bridge site. It becomes more confusing when a fuming Gato walks out to meet him, alone.
“You think you can call me here early ?” Gato calls out as he crosses his arms in angry posturing.
“You came, didn’t you?” Zabuza scratches at his chin. “Anyway. I quit.”
“You… you quit ?” Gato squawks.
“I’m not going up against even a baby Uzumaki for any amount of money.”
Kakashi-sensei gives Naruto a look. Whoops. Naruto laughs sheepishly and Haku coughs once.
“Quit, eh?” Gato reaches into his pocket. “You can’t quit when I fire you.” He smirks as he brandishes a handheld detonator. “I’ve got this bridge rigged with so many explosives that you’ll—”
Zabuza deftly plucks the detonator from Gato’s hand and snaps it in half, elbowing Gato once in the face in the same movement. Gato shrieks in pain and scrambles away, while pulling out an ornate scroll from his jacket.
“Ha!” he crows as he shakes the scroll open, wiping at his face with his other hand, “I have other insurance!” He smears the blood from his nose over the design, holding his hand in place as the scroll lights up with an ominous glow.
Kakashi-sensei’s eyes widen in recognition. “That fuuinjutsu scroll is—you idiot!”
“Scared of Uzu, huh, then get a taste of this scroll! The seller promised a guaranteed death! Hahaha—AUGHH!” Gato clutches at his chest and he falls over, the scroll hitting the ground with a clatter. But the scroll doesn’t stop moving, and Naruto hears a thunderous rumble. He looks up at dark clouds forming impossibly fast overhead and rain begins to fall.
Zabuza takes a step back. “Oh, fuck. Haku, we have to go—”
“Zabuza-sama!” Haku pushes Zabuza out of the way as a streak of lighting runs through him. He collapses in a heap as Zabuza shouts in horror. Zabuza kneels over him, desperately looking for any signs of life. Naruto can only watch helplessly. Haku can’t be dead, please—
“Run!” Kakashi-sensei cries, pushing Naruto to move. Rain pelts down in sheets as they try to run for it. There’s another rumble, and the ground trembles with it. Sakura trips, and Sasuke pulls her to her feet, holding onto her hand as they push against the wind in futility.
Naruto squints through the sweeping rain and sees the crackling energy shoot across the ink-black clouds and begin to gather. He can see from where he is that—oh god, it’s going to strike Sakura and Sasuke!
Naruto doesn’t even have time to shout a warning when Kakashi-sensei darts in front of of them, taking the lightning strike dead on.
Kakashi-sensei collapses backwards. Sakura and Sasuke go down with him as they grab at him to keep his head from hitting the ground. Naruto can hear Sakura’s scream even above the wind. She’s trying to hold Kakashi-sensei up by his flak jacket, visibly trembling as she attempts to read for a pulse. She tries and tries again as she starts to sob. Sasuke shakes as he brackets Kakashi-sensei’s other side, too shell-shocked to even move.
Naruto doesn’t think, he doesn’t have a plan; he just needs to get to his team. He crosses his arms over his face, bracing against the brutal wind, picking up faster against him and pelting him with bullets of rain as the rumble starts again.
Naruto flails out a hand and Sasuke reels him in. Sakura’s eyes are clenched shut in absolute terror, tears and rain streaming down her face as she grips them both. Kakashi-sensei is braced between them all; he’s still not waking up. Sasuke clutches Naruto’s arm and looks right at him, his Sharingan spinning wildly. Naruto stares back; he sees the fear in his eyes and watches the new tomoe take form. He can’t look away, and Sakura holds them tighter.
They need help. Any help. Anything.
Sasuke’s Sharingan spin faster. Sakura’s grip turns punishing. The skin of Naruto’s stomach burns.
And everything stops.
In that moment, the wind stills, the thunder halts. Even the rain, impossibly, pauses mid fall, like the world is holding its breath.
A bell chimes.
Then the rain around them shudders, ripples and contorts inward. It shapes into a violent vortex, a whirlpool, pulling them all in as they hang onto each other for dear life. The lightning strike hits the vortex and shoots wildly off course, unable to touch them.
“What the fuck is that!” Zabuza cries over the whistling wind, refusing to let go of Haku’s too-still body as the maelstrom drags them closer. Sounds of screaming and shrieking laughter reverberate around them, glowing shadows streaking past the swirling water, just outside his vision, but Naruto isn’t looking at anyone but his team, his family, as bells chime, louder and louder and louder.
Fuzzy. His head is fuzzy, buzzing. Naruto’s not sure what happened; he’s supposed to be at the bridge site, right? He tries to remember.
Naruto opens his eyes, and is startled to see a face he knows. Startled, because he’s seen that face on the Monument almost every day of his life.
The Yondaime is standing above him.
The Yondaime, who takes one look at Naruto, blinks several times, and says, “Uh oh.”
Naruto shrinks back. No, please, if not even the Yondaime can stand to be near Naruto—
The man immediately holds up his hands in placation. “Goodness, not that it isn’t wonderful to finally see you again, Naruto!” he says with a genuine smile.
Naruto blinks, now confused. The Yondaime is... happy to see him? Huh?
But if the Yondaime is here, then, “Did I… die?” Naruto asks, beginning to panic.
“Oh, no, not in the least! It’s just, well.” He laughs a little nervously, and turns his head to call out, “Uhm, Kushina…?”
Naruto jolts. He knows that name now, thanks to Kakashi-sensei. That’s his—
A red-haired woman shoves a yelping Yondaime out of the way with one hand, “Oh, is he here? I wanna see him! And mouth shut; you’re catching flies like your toads, pretty boy!”
Naruto’s mom could push a hokage around like it was nothing. He likes her already.
She doesn’t hesitate and kneels down in front of Naruto. “Naruto, my little noodle bowl! So good to see you all grown up!”
Seeing her, having a face to a name, having anything after all these years…
“Mom…” Naruto manages to choke out, as he squeezes his eyes shut and tries not to cry. He can’t believe it. The fox from the river had listened. It must have answered his plea; he gets to meet his mom.
“Aw, baby,” She leans forward and scoops him up, holding him close and rubbing soothing circles into his back. “There there, you’ll be alright, you know?”
Naruto rests his head against his mom’s shoulder, because now he can.
She continues, “I want you to know your dad and I are rooting for you!”
Naruto blinks. “Huh? My dad?”
“Uh, yeah, he’s right there, you know!” she jerks her head to the side at—at the Yondaime.
“You—the Yondaime’s my dad!?” Naruto is awed for only a few moments when—
“Hey! You sealed that shitty fox in me!” he shouts over his mom’s shoulder.
She turns around to join in. “Yeah, Minato, you sealed that shitty fox in him!”
Minato flails, “Ah, I’m so sorry, Naruto; it really seemed like the best idea at the time and I—”
“Don’t worry, I already punched him in the head for it,” Kushina stage whispers, conspiratorial, to Naruto.
Naruto loves his mom.
Minato settles down and coughs awkwardly. “Er, Kushina, what about the whole…” he gestures to Naruto.
Naruto, confused, looks down at himself, finally realizing—
“Gah!” Naruto flails in his mom’s arms until she’s holding him upside down.
“Oh jeez, watch the claws, kiddo!” She flips him back over and sets him down on the hazy ground.
He spins around in place, only to flop over, trying to look at all of himself at once. “How—what the hell?!” Naruto shouts, his tail—and that’s weird—whipping about wildly.
“Ooh yeah, bit of a hiccup there,” she says as if she’s talking about the weather.
“...Our son turned into a fox,” Minato says faintly. “I mean, I’ll love you no matter what, Naruto, but. That is not supposed to happen.”
Kushina shrugs. “Could’ve happened to me, you know. Could’ve been married to a fox.” She waggles her eyebrows as Minato makes a strangled noise. “Plus you messed with Uzu fuuinjutsu; what do you expect, pretty boy?”
Minato rubs at his temples with a sigh, “I’d like to say I expect for it to work with any logical sense, but I should really know better by now.”
“What’s more strange to me,” Kushina says to Naruto, “Is why you know who I am but you don’t know your dad.”
“Oh, Kakashi-sensei only told me about you, uh, a week ago?”
“A week ago?” Kushina shrieks, making Naruto’s ears pull back. “No one told you? Where was Jiraiya? Where the hell was anybody?”
“Oh no, I think I see what's happened, ” Minato groans, “did Hiruzen decide it needed to be kept top secret?”
Kushina growls. “Ugh, he so would do that! I wanna punch him in the head now too, you know!”
Naruto’s ears swivel—which feels so weird—in confusion. Who is Hiruzen? Maybe Jiji knows. He has an idea though, “Oh, hey, can I ask Kakashi-sensei about dad too; he's got stories, right?”
“Oh absolutely—wait, Kakashi-sensei? He’s teaching?” Kushina guffaws.
“I’m sure he’s… doing fine… as a teacher,” his dad says with a smile that’s more a grimace. “Kakashi-kun’s an excellent shinobi, at any rate. If there’s anyone I’d trust to look out for you, it’s him.”
“He was an intense kid, yeah,” says Kushina.
Intense? After that Zabuza fight, Naruto could maybe see it. Maybe. And his dad has a point; when it comes down to it, Kakashi-sensei said he’d protect his team with his life—
The world shudders once and it all comes crashing back. His team, the storm, the bells —
“Wait, oh no, Kakashi-sensei and Sakura and Sasuke!” Naruto looks around wildly. “I gotta—I gotta go make sure they’re all okay!”
Kushina nods. “Good idea. That’s our cue that time’s almost up here, anyway. As for the fox thing: go to Uzushio; you should be able to get on the island, and there ought to be something there to help you out.” Kushina turns to Minato, “Any last-minute fatherly advice for our kid, pretty boy?”
“If you can work with others as a team, and be a good friend, I think you'll go far,” his dad says with a warm smile.
“And after that, love is all you need!” his mom adds with a wink and a grin.
Naruto nods. Uzushio, teamwork, love. No sweat!
His parents run up and hug Naruto together. “We love you so much, noodle bowl!” They let him down and take a step back. “Good luck! Say hi to Kakashi for us!”
“Bye mom, dad!” he calls out as the world around them grows hazier. His parents wave as everything fades away.
The storm... stops.
Tazuna looks up from where he’s hiding behind a pillar of the bridge, and lifts his arms away from his head. His ears are ringing; he wonders if it’ll ever stop. He scoots forward and peers around the pillar. Besides the debris carried in from the storm, there’s… nothing. Not a soul besides Tazuna remains.
...Maybe that isn’t quite true. He thinks he sees things dart away out of the corner of his eye but they’re long gone when he turns look. Maybe it’s better he doesn’t see. Maybe he doesn’t really want to know. What he already saw in the eye of that storm—
He hears tinny shouts over the ringing in his ears. He turns to see two crowds form; those bandits of Gato's are finally arriving... at the same moment as the villagers, who don’t hesitate to attack.
“Uh, hang on,” one of the bandits eventually shouts over the cacophony of battle, “where’s Gato?”
“Yeah… and didn’t he have the detonator?” says another.
“That asshole. He ditched us!”
“I’m not losing out on pay again!”
“Nah. Let’s go raid his hideout.”
The rest of the bandits like the sound of that and summarily abandon the fight. The villagers, bemused, watch as the still-standing bandits run off into the distance.
“Uh, well. And stay out!” a villager calls after them. They all then look at each other, at a bit of a loss. One of them halfheartedly kicks an unconscious bandit in the side. Tazuna figures that’s the end of that. Good. He can finish his damn bridge and then go drink for a month straight.
“Huh. So what happened with Gato?” Tsunami asks.
“...The shinobi took care of it,” Tazuna decides to say. They sure as shit did something.
“But where did those shinobi go?” asks Inari, craning his neck around the build site, frowning at the scorch marks.
“I dunno. Maybe they’re not into goodbyes,” Tazuna lies. He lies because that was some of the freakiest shit he’s almost died from, and he partied with Uzu people back in the day. He isn’t about to scare his grandson.
“Aw, I wanted to tell them that I was sorry,” says Inari.
“Hey, it’s okay, kiddo. They helped us and I’m sure they know we all appreciate it. Maybe we could name the bridge something to honor them.” Tazuna scratches his head a moment then grins. "Hey, how 'bout this: The Great Uzumaki Bridge," he declares, stretching his arms wide out.
“You don’t think that might make anybody from Kiri or elsewhere angry?” a villager says, worried.
Tazuna waves a hand. "Screw 'em. The world will know where we stand. Besides,” he says with a helpless laugh, “we got the gods of Uzu on our side!"
Zabuza lurches awake to the honks of birds. He pulls himself up, and squints through the bright sun, heart racing, to see… a flock of flamingos wading about a tide pool. One or two give him the side eye but otherwise they don’t give a shit about him. He stares at them for a long moment, trying to figure out where they came from. His gaze shifts, and he stares out at a violently churning sea in the middle distance.
This… this doesn’t seem right at all. It was raining, with that stupid bridge, those stupid Konoha brats, and Haku was...
He tenses; oh fuck, last he remembers, Haku was... Haku was—
“Zabuza-sama?” Haku calls out from where he’s slowly sitting up, farther down the beach.
“Haku!” Zabuza says as he scrambles to his feet, not caring in that moment if he sounds too relieved. Haku is here; somehow, he’s still alive.
Haku smiles, beatific, “I’m happy to see you’re well too, sir.”
Zabuza trots across the beach and holds out his hand to pull Haku to his feet. "Any idea how we got here?"
Haku frowns slightly as he brushes sand off of himself. “I’m afraid I don’t know, but I don’t believe we are in the Land of Waves anymore.”
“Yeah,” Zabuza agrees. He doesn’t know how the fuck it’s possible, but the eddies alone confirm his suspicions. “I think this is Uzushio.”
Haku’s eyes widen, and he looks around in newfound wonder. Zabuza just wants to get out of here as fast as possible. The place gives him the creeps, and Haku didn’t endure years of stories of the Uzu boogeymen from teachers and parents in Kiri.
Zabuza stares out at the sea. They’re far from other land, but, "...Can you use your ice to get us across to Wave?"
Haku shakes his head. "With that amount of water to contend against, and with the whirlpools moving that quickly? I'm afraid not, Zabuza-sama."
With Uzushio gone for years now, it didn't matter in Kiri to learn techniques to surmount the eddies anymore. It wasn’t like anyone could access the island anyway, with whatever freaky seals the now-dead Uzu people left behind in their wake.
Zabuza has the sinking feeling that may have been short-sighted of Kiri. He sighs. “We better find some shelter at least, if we’re stuck here for a bit.”
They walk a bit farther inland, past a sparse copse of palm trees and into the sprawling wilds of the island. They could always eat coconuts and flamingos at least, if they find nothing else.
Haku suddenly tenses, and stares at the ruins of a little shrine Zabuza didn’t notice before. “Sir… do you see what I’m seeing?”
Zabuza squints in the direction Haku is looking. “No, just some broken garbage. What is it?”
"Ah, well.” Haku hesitates. “A ghost is speaking to me."
Zabuza’s brow raises. A ghost? He doesn’t normally doubt Haku, but seriously?
"Oh, I’m sorry,” Haku says to thin air. “She says she’s a chakra impression. Now she’s saying only the young and innocent can see her—"
Zabuza snorts loudly at that. "Innocent. Yeah, right. Pull the other one."
"Oh. She just doesn't like you."
“Really,” Zabuza says, flat.
“You called her shrine garbage,” Haku winces ever so slightly, “...so she thinks your face is garbage.”
Zabuza shouts, “Then she can say that shit to my face—ow!” A seal flares and a rock shoots out of the shrine, pelting Zabuza in the arm.
Haku bites his lip. “She says she didn’t wait around for 30 years to talk to a rude idiot like you.”
“Oh, I’m the rude one?” Zabuza mutters, rubbing his sore arm, but he suddenly gets chills. Some creepy invisible chakra impression managed to last here all this time? It's supposed to be stupidly difficult to make a normal chakra impression in the first place. Zabuza knows about the extended life force of Uzu people—making Kiri consider their bloody victory all the sweeter—but to do something this incredible?
...Perhaps Kiri won the battle, but not the war. The island of Uzushio might not be as dead as previously believed.
And now Zabuza is stuck on it.
Cue the island music!
This starts heavy and then gets... hmm. You'll see.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Kakashi is dead.
There’s no relief, no great exhale, like he might have felt even a month ago. He just feels sick. He left his students behind to brave an Uzushio storm by themselves. And for all his affinity, it means nothing when he jumps in front a lightning strike with no other defense ready. He just… reacted.
He just hopes that bought them time. He hopes they somehow made it out alive.
Kakashi turns sharply to see, by a bonfire, the only source of light in this vast space, someone very familiar. “...Dad.”
Sakumo looks distraught. “You’re here, so young…”
“Struck by summoned lightning,” he says blankly, “while trying to protect my students.”
“Yeah.” Kakashi sits down next to him and doesn’t say any more for a long moment. Sakumo doesn’t press. He thinks about the one thing he wished he could say to his dad.
“Your mission,” Kakashi begins. “You did the right thing.”
Sakumo stares at him, surprised.
“It took me awhile to understand it. Way too long. I learned an important lesson from a dear friend: those who break the rules are trash, but those who abandon their comrades, their friends, are worse than trash.”
Sakumo smiles. “Sounds like a very wise friend.” He huffs a humorless laugh. “I could have used those words by the end of it. I’d say I’m worse than trash for abandoning my family.”
Kakashi remains silent. His father left him, yes, but Kakashi didn’t help things; he had turned his back on his own father. He could have seen the signs, done something different.
But Sakumo can still read him like an open book. “Kakashi, you were only six.”
“It shouldn’t be on you at that young an age, or any age, to fix the mistakes I made. I had others I could’ve reached out to.”
Yet the ones who could really make a difference, who couldn’t be swayed by public opinion, The Sannin, were all out of the village at the time.
...How conveniently inconvenient.
“Isn’t that…” Kakashi starts to really think about the circumstances of his father’s death, “Isn’t that strange that you were singled out—vilified—for that mission out of any others you may have failed? Of any missions other people have failed?”
Sakumo sighs, “But what I did started a war—”
“No.” Kakashi interrupts. “No.” He looks right at his dad. “You, you specifically, were made into an excuse for one.”
Sakumo stares back, then looks ahead into the fire thought. “I wonder…” he trails off.
Sakumo sits back and rubs at his face with one hand. “That mission, something about it… it never sat right with me.”
“What was it?” Kakashi presses.
“Ah, no proof, just a strange feeling.” He smiles wryly. “Not much we can do about it now.”
Suddenly, a brief flash lights up the campsite from behind them.
Sakumo blinks and looks around. “That’s... different.”
“That hasn’t happened before?” Kakashi asks.
“Nope. Just me and the bonfire for twenty years.” Sakumo says with more cheer than that statement really warrants.
Quiet flashes of distant lightning erupt overhead. A steady jingling sound moves closer, growing louder. It’s the sound of little bells, and with it… a grey mottled fox?
The fox looks at Kakashi and then Sakumo and back again, the fur on its back sparking every so often with static.
“What on earth…” mumbles Sakumo. Kakashi wonders the same thing.
The fox, turns, jumps with an even louder chime of bells, and twists into a dive, disappearing into the ink-black ground. The ground ripples, and warps, contorting into a growing spiral. Water begins to flood in from all sides, a growing ocean pouring into a vortex. The fire extinguishes, throwing them into darkness only relieved by the growing flashes of lightning, echoed by the chimes of bells. They both stand up, alert and wary.
“What—ah!” Something jerks Kakashi forwards and he plunges into the water, now impossibly deep. He breaks back up to the surface to discover he’s already ensnared in the tide.
“Kakashi!” Sakumo cries out, diving in after him.
Kakashi tries to fight the current, but it’s so fast, he’s caught in a stalemate, and losing. Kakashi wrenches his arm out, and Sakumo grabs Kakashi’s hand as they’re pulled closer to the center. They’re tumbling, the vortex wrenching. Their grip is going to fail any moment.
“Whatever happens,” Sakumo gasps over the water, “just know I love you, okay?”
Kakashi can only nod and squeeze his father’s hand one last time. Their fingers slip apart, and Kakashi is dragged down, down, down into the center of the eddy.
Sakura wakes up, and hunches over the grass, coughing up water.
Caught in that storm… it was all she could do to hold onto her team, refusing to let go, praying for help. Anything.
She doesn’t know how this happened, or what’s going on, but somehow… somehow she knows she kept them all together.
She looks up and her heart leaps to her throat. Sensei still isn’t moving. She tumbles forward, forcing her limbs to work the short distance through the grass. She nudges at his side, desperate. “Sensei, Sensei, please…”
He coughs a few times—no water in his lungs, thank goodness—and huffs and breathes for a few moments.
She sobs in sheer relief. Whatever—whatever happened, he’s okay. He isn’t dead.
Kakashi hears his student’s voice. “Sakura?” he asks hoarsely, not quite able to open his eyes just yet. Something is.. peculiar. His chakra is… off, but it’s not genjutsu. And somehow, he has an awareness of all his students, a sixth sense that they’re here.
And, by some miracle, they’re all alive.
Kakashi’s eye snaps open. And blinks. Sakura is… that can’t be right.
Kakashi looks down at himself. His brain stalls. And refuses to start up again.
Okay. Kakashi is not going to freak out about this.
He opens his other eye. Nothing happens. His Sharingan feels like it’s there, but strange, dormant.
Alright, freakout levels rising, but he’s still—Oh no.
He doesn’t even have a mask.
“Sakura,” he says with incredibly forced calm. “You’re alright? Any injuries?”
“No—no injuries, Sensei,” she says wetly.
“...Can you tell me what happened?”
“I—I don’t know! There was so much water and the lightning and you didn’t have a pulse and I don’t know!” she wails.
“Breathe, Sakura, breathe. Focus on that.”
She nods and starts taking measured breaths.
“Wha—Guys! Sakura! You okay?” Naruto calls out as he startles awake.
“No, I’m not okay!” Sakura shrieks back at him as she huffs through breathing exercises.
“Naruto, what did you do ?” Sasuke yells next.
“It wasn’t my fault!” Naruto the—Naruto the fox shouts back too quickly from where he’s sitting up.
Now Kakashi knows some part of this is Naruto’s fault.
Because Kakashi, and all of his students, have somehow... been turned into foxes.
His ninken are going to laugh at him, he just knows it.
“Alright,” Kakashi calls to order after he allows everyone a good screaming session, “who can tell me what happened.”
“Uhhh,” says Naruto, “I talked to my mom and dad?”
Kakashi nearly falls over in shock. “Is that so?” he asks lightly, his newfound claws in a death grip in the dirt.
“Yeah, they say hi, by the way.”
“Ah.” That’s nice of them.
“Mom laughed really hard when she heard you were a teacher.”
“Hmm.” Yes, he always assumed she would laugh if she knew. Thanks, Kushina.
“She also punched dad in the head when she found out he sealed—” Naruto’s mouth suddenly snaps shut with a click and he hunches his shoulders, refusing to say any more.
Sakura looks at Naruto quizzically but then says, “I—I don’t really remember much after the water started to spin around us.”
After a moment, Sasuke starts to speak. “We were in the storm, and something changed. There were these… bells. The rain, all the water, started to move inward, pulling us into the current, into this whirlpool.”
Kakashi listens, stunned. This sounds distressingly similar to what he experienced… dead.
“There were things—foxes—running all around us. This... giant fox head grew out of the middle of the whirlpool, and it opened its jaws, water rushing into its mouth. It carried us all in.” Sasuke’s eyes grow haunted. “It ate us.”
Alright, Kakashi is glad he wasn’t awake for that part.
“Before it formed, I saw… the Kyuubi,” Sasuke says as he stares at Naruto, “When I looked at you. In you. I thought that’s what I saw, with my—” he grimaces, “—with my Sharingan.”
“Uh,” Naruto’s ears droop and he hunches up further, “Maybe?”
Sakura gasps. “You, you’re—”
Well. There goes that secret.
Kakashi cuts them off before they can misunderstand further. “Do you two know what a jinchuuriki is?”
He takes their silence as a no.
“A jinchuuriki is like a human container for a tailed beast. While they might have access to large amounts of chakra or other abilities, that doesn’t make them a demon in human form, or possessed. They’re still their own person. Naruto is Naruto. He’s not the Kyuubi.”
“I see. So the fox isn’t him.” Sakura nods in comprehension. “It’s just sealed in him.”
“A seal? That makes... more sense with what I saw,” says Sasuke, bewildered.
Ah. Kakashi wonders if Naruto and Sasuke together had done something with the seal…
...Who is he kidding; Kakashi never understood how Minato-sensei managed to make any Uzu fuuinjutsu do what he wanted. He’s not even going to begin to guess what the kids stumbled into.
“Yeah,” says Naruto, perking up from his teammates being understanding, “but I still don’t know what my dad was thinking, sealing that shitty fox in me.”
Sakura pieces it together. “Wait. The Yondaime was your DAD?”
“Yeah, neat, huh. Hey, Sensei? Will you tell me more stories about my parents later?” he asks.
“Maa, I can do that,” Kakashi agrees. He turns to look at Sakura and Sasuke as well. “Once this is sorted and we’re back in Konoha, it would be prudent of you all to keep this secret. Not only Naruto’s status as a jinchuuriki, but the Yondaime had a lot of powerful enemies who might seek his son out for revenge.”
“Oh, good to know,” says Naruto. “Wait. Really? I mean, I guess he was Hokage, but he seemed kind of like a dweeb.”
Kakashi wants to laugh. Naruto is so much like his mother sometimes, it’s scary.
“But, um, how do we fix this, Sensei?” asks Sakura.
“Oh! Mom said to go to Uzushio!” Naruto cries happily. “She said something there could help!”
Uzushio? Kakashi hasn’t the faintest idea how they’ll manage that, especially now, but he’ll just have to find a way. He trusts Kushina to not steer them wrong. They’ll have to plan an effective trajectory to the island from where they are now, and they certainly aren’t in Wave anymore. South Tea Country, if Kakashi has his ecology right. How they ended up here is another mystery.
But the kids look worn out, and could probably do with a longer break. “Before we do anything else, we’ll eat. You wait together here. I’ll go catch some food.” He hums to himself. “Maa, rabbit or something.”
Sakura grimaces as she watches Sensei trot away to find food. “Raw rabbit. Eugh.”
Naruto shrugs. "I bet it’s not bad. I've eaten way worse. Like old food thrown out from shops and stuff."
"What?" Sakura asks, aghast. "Why?" Why would anyone choose to do that?
"Rent's expensive. The landlord guy is always adding extra fees or raising it."
Oh, right. Naruto lives by himself in an apartment, but, "...Isn't that illegal?" she asks.
"I dunno. It's annoying though."
"It is illegal." Sasuke suddenly cuts in. "You should have legal protections as a renter that prevent added costs or stipulations without contract renegotiation."
Sakura and Naruto look at him in surprise.
Sasuke's ears pull back, defensive. "What? I have to know all those rules. I have a property to maintain."
Naruto tilts his head. "Huh. Good to know, jerk."
Sakura starts to giggle. She tries desperately to stop and then starts up again. "I-I'm sorry, but it's—we've been turned into foxes and we're discussing tenant's rights, of all things!"
Naruto laughs. "Oh man, can you imagine me going up to that guy as a fox demanding he stop his bullshit fees?"
"You could bite his ankles, just as effective," says Sasuke.
"...did you almost make a joke?" Naruto asks, shocked.
"I'm pragmatic," he says flatly. It only sets off Sakura into another peal of laughter. Foxes.
Oh god, they’re foxes.
It all comes crashing to the forefront again and her next laugh comes out as a sob. She starts to tear up. "...Am I ever going to see my parents again?" she asks in a small voice.
"Aw, Sakura," Naruto sidles up over to her. "We'll get to Uzushio, fix this and get back to Konoha."
"You don't know that!" she warbles.
"Nope! I don't! But we gotta try, right? We can't give up already. We gotta—we gotta be a team on this because we only got each other now."
Naruto is stupid most of the time, and she doesn’t understand how he can be so optimistic, but his words make her feel just the slightest bit better. She’s not alone. "...You're right," she sniffs. "We can't give up."
Sasuke looks at them both silently. She’s a bit embarrassed she’s cried in front of him, but he looks more contemplative than judgmental.
Sasuke is unsure what to think of anything at the moment.
He’s a fox. His Sharingan is there but not. He’s a fox. He has no means to kill That Man anymore. He’s a fox. His whole life’s goal is now wrenched out from under him.
He sees Naruto, though, still at ease through any pain, still going despite it all, shrugging off his own father sealing a demon fox in him, bouncing back from the learned extinction of his clan, and laughing in the face of transforming into a goddamn animal. How he’s rallying Sakura to not give up.
How he’s secretly, quietly, no-one-can-ever-know-about-this, inspiring Sasuke not to give up either.
In any case, he’s got absolutely no choice but to play Wilderness Survival with his team for the indefinite future.
That is until about thirty minutes later, when he and Sakura turn to listen to Naruto suddenly yelling at himself.
Naruto gets up and starts to pace around. “What? I dunno what happened… you tell me what the hell happened! ...At least a fox is an improvement? I don’t get thumbs, asshole! ...Huh, you get thumbs?”
“What are you doing,” Sasuke says more than asks.
“Huh? Oh hey, Sasuke, talking to the shitty fox. ...Yeah I’m talking about you!”
Sasuke freezes. “...the Kyuubi is talking to you?”
“Oh, yeah! He just woke up!” Naruto says as if that isn’t absolutely terrifying. “He’s being more annoying than anything.” Naruto’s eye twitches. “Well you are!” he shouts aloud.
Kakashi-sensei saunters up and drops another dead rabbit from his mouth. “What is Naruto doing now?”
“Talking to the Kyuubi,” Sasuke hisses. Sakura eeps.
“...Ah,” says Kakashi-sensei, a bit faint.
They all watch, baffled and alarmed, as Naruto argues with a demon fox. Sasuke can’t believe this idiot.
“If you’re just gonna be an annoying asshole then—eh? Foxes?” Naruto goes and looks over the cliff, “There’s nothing down there but trees and—”
The soft ground starts to give way under Naruto. Kakashi darts forward and grabs Naruto by the scruff of his neck as they both topple over the side.
They slide down. It’s less a cliff and more a large ridge; it isn’t too steep, but as Kakashi tries to snare the surface with his claws, the loamy soil is too soft to maintain any grip. They come to a stop at the bottom, and Kakashi sets Naruto down on the ground.
“Please be more careful,” Kakashi says, exasperated, as he shakes out his dirt-covered fur.
“S-sorry, Sensei,” Naruto says, abashed, ears flat.
“Maa, well,” Kakashi looks up, “we’re not getting back up that way.” Add that to Kakashi’s wishlist: useable chakra, thumbs, thumbs, and thumbs.
“Should we come down there, Sensei?” Sakura calls out. Sasuke peeks out overhead.
“Might as well; just be careful,” he replies, watching them from below, ready to catch them if they fall too fast.
The kids tumble to the bottom of the ridge not too worse for wear. They have no choice but to walk into the forest ahead of them, growing darker from the dense canopy.
“This is creepy, Sensei,” Naruto whispers. Kakashi is on edge, watching for predators.
Chittering and shrieking laughter suddenly surrounds them. Kakashi moves to stand in front of his students, coiled tight in tension.
“Ooh, who are theyyyyy?” a red fox calls out.
“Ooh, yeah, weird foxes sneaking into our forest? That’s no good!” a white fox says, guarding a cave entrance.
The red fox comes slinking up, laughing eerie. “No good at alllll. We’ll have to—”
Kakashi lunges forward and smacks the fox hard in the face. The red fox shrieks in shocked pain and darts up a nearby tree. The white fox looks just as stunned.
"Dog-fox plays dirty!" the red fox accuses from a high branch. “Dog tactics!”
“Maa, I do train ninken,” Kakashi says, now a bit more amused than worried. The kids peek out from behind Kakashi, Naruto starting to laugh and Sakura giggling. Even Sasuke’s tail swishes slightly.
"A fox with dog friends? Such power," the white one says, awed, from her perch.
Naruto laughs harder. “Oh man, I can’t believe the Kyuubi said to come here.”
"Kyuubi?" the red fox says suddenly from behind them, where he's scooting forward on his belly trying to sneak up on them again. “You know the—”
Kakashi smacks him in the face again. The fox squeals and scrambles back halfway up the tree trunk.
"Stop that!" the fox shouts, frazzled. "And I'm sorry, I'm sorry; I didn't know you knew Kurama!"
Several more foxes poke their heads out from their hiding spots. "Ohhhhh!" they chitter, suddenly impressed, "They're with Kuraaaama!"
The white fox's tune immediately changes and moves away from the cave entrance. "Want to come in?"
"What the hell; just like that?" Naruto says.
Her tail twitches, "Of course! You aren't weird strangers now! You're just dumb, right?"
Team Seven is ushered inside by happy foxes, all trying to ask them questions at once.
"Ack! Were you bothering them, Maru, Rei?" a frail old fox with many tails limps forward. "They're gonna help us!"
"I wasn’t bothering them, Suzu,” says the red fox, Maru. The old fox gives him the stink eye. Maru pulls back his ears. “Okay, okay, not anymore. They know Kurama!!"
"Oh, that makes sense, huh." Suzu coughs, and then amends to, "Hmm, hmm, of course, totally knew it.”
"No you didn't!" the white fox, Rei, shouts.
The old fox coughs again and ignores that statement. “Hmm, we got an Uzumaki boy here, yes?” He looks at Naruto. “No one has called on Uzu gods for a long time, you know. The power available to the foxes is nearly gone. So,” he says gravely, “we need your help!”
“Uh, help that turned us into foxes, you know!” Naruto says, angry. “Why should we?”
“You three called the gods for help, and now they need yours! It’s not a damn freebie!” Suzu gestures to Kakashi. "I heard bringing that guy back from the dead was more than a little tricky, you know!"
"Ooh, that always takes a bit of work, yeah," Rei nods.
“Ooh, not just a bit!” Suzu complains. “Just had to be difficult.”
The kids take a moment to absorb that comment, then:
"What?!" Sakura shrieks. Sasuke looks at Kakashi, vaguely horrified.
"Sensei, YOU DIED?" Naruto shouts.
"Maa, well..." Kakashi trails off, a bit sheepish.
“Mmm hmm, so really, they help you, you help them,” says Suzu.
“Not that we don’t sympathize with your plight,” Kakashi lies, “we’re just looking for a way to become human again—”
“Oh, you want to have a human form again? I see, I see,” Suzu nods his head. “Then yes, bringing Uzumaki to the island will totally help.”
Somehow, Kakashi isn’t reassured by that statement.
“Uzumaki—aren’t they all, um, dead?” asks Sakura, looking nervously at Naruto when she says it.
“Oh no, there are some left, otherwise we’d really be in trouble, hoo boy. Any people who claim Uzu as home could count… but Uzumaki would be the most helpful first.”
“So there’s still—there’s still Uzumaki?” Naruto asks, excited.
Kakashi starts, “Naruto—”
“I mean. Mom said to go to the island anyway, Sensei; we could find them too,” says Naruto, pleading.
“It might be nice to help,” Sakura adds.
“This is our only lead on becoming human,” says Sasuke.
Some more foxes gather, trilling delightedly.
“They’re gonna help?” asks a hopeful fox.
“We’re gonna be okay?” says another, relieved.
Kakashi sighs, resigned. His cute students are too enthusiastic for their own good. “Maa, it seems so.” It looks like their only option. For now, anyway.
Shinobi skills do not include making a raft.
Zabuza is so glad Haku had immediately vetoed Zabuza’s suggestion to escape the island via ice, because something about their chakra is fucked up.
Zabuza had tried a simple water jutsu while Haku was still chatting to the chakra impression and it… just exploded on him. Haku had tried next, and lost enough control that he froze a palm tree to the point of it shattering it in seconds.
They both agree to shelve experimentation for the time being.
So Zabuza had asked Haku to ask the chakra impression about it. Apparently Zabuza didn’t ask nicely enough or something, or she is into being cryptic and completely unhelpful. Some creepy shit about a heart. So Zabuza had maybe threatened to cleave her shrine in two, but she didn’t have to drop Zabuza into a seal-triggered pitfall!
Haku suggests they let her cool off for a bit and he steers Zabuza back towards the beach.
Now Zabuza is working on his new project and Haku is fanning a fire as he readies to grill some fish. Haku didn’t even have to hunt for it. The flamingos just gave it to him. And a damn monkey thing stopped by to drop off some mangos.
What’s with this place.
Shinobi skills definitely do not include making a raft out of coconuts and palm fronds. He keeps ripping the leaves, and he’s not sure the damn thing will even float, let alone get past the eddies of death. He just needs to make something, do something, to try and leave because this island is nightmarish and definitely cursed. Not that he believes in curses.
He tears another frond entirely in half. Zabuza yells incoherently and throws the raft into the sea. The current pushes it immediately back to shore, and Zabuza just stands there, looking at it. Mocking him.
“...Zabuza-sama?” Haku calls out, tentative. “May I have one of the intact coconuts if you are done with it? Uzumaki-sama gave me a recipe for a fish curry to try.”
“Yeah,” he sighs. “...Can I have some of the curry?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Hey, didn’t you say Kurama was with them?”
One of the foxes peers at Naruto, then to the rest of Team Seven and back again, with eerie eyes, which then widen. “Oh no, is he still stuck? That’s no good; we’ll help you!”
Another fox rolls up a star ball. “Good thing we’ve got one of these left!” It brings it up to its mouth, getting ready to throw it.
Suzu sputters, “Is that my star ball? Don’t you dare—”
The star ball shatters, sending the glittering energy within it across them. His students yelp, and Kakashi braces himself. A menacing red cloud of smoke erupts in front of Team Seven, with maniacal laughter emanating from it.
“I’m free, hahaha—oh what the fuck,” the demon fox hisses, in a voice so much less booming than it should be.
The foxes murmur to each other.
“...Is he supposed to look like that?” Maru stage whispers.
“Uh, Kurama is so…” Rei trails off.
“Tiny!” another fox blurts. They all nod their heads.
Kurama the very normal-looking fox swivels his head around. “Tiny? You say I’m tiny?” he shrieks at them, swishing his single tail in aggravation.
"Eep!" the foxes fall over themselves as they scramble back.
“Tiny for you! Still bigger than all us!”
"But nothing wrong with little, you know!”
“You might want to quit while you’re ahead,” the Kyuubi says, voice dripping with venom as he takes a threatening step forward. They screech and scurry away, leaving Suzu and Team Seven standing there.
“Kurama, good to finally see you again.” Suzu slowly says, clearly stalling. “...I’m sure you have questions—”
Suzu coughs, “Well. The power we had is nearly gone, so… it seems we borrowed it.”
“Borrowed it,” the Kyuubi says flatly.
“Look. The kids asked for a lot—”
“Borrowed it?” the Kyuubi shrieks.
“Yes, I wondered how we got any of it done. But ooh, now you can all work together to restore Uzushio!”
Team Seven disagrees. “Uh, not with the shitty fox that destroyed our village!” Naruto shouts.
“Who you calling shitty, you little brat!” the Kyuubi barks back.
“Oh, hmm, Konoha? Weren’t you being controlled by someone at the time?” Suzu asks almost absently.
“Controlled?” Sasuke and Naruto ask at the same time, then look at each other.
“What? No! No I wasn’t!” the Kyuubi squawks at them. He turns and hisses to Suzu. “What the hell! Don’t tell them that!”
“The gods would hope you could work together,” Suzu says with an exaggerated solemnity, but his eyes sly.
“You are so dead when I get my tails back. And your gods can kiss my—”
The foxes scurry back up to the Kyuubi, and skitter about him in excitement. And despite his posturing, the Kyuubi—Kurama—hasn’t actually hurt any of the foxes. Or even Kakashi and his students. Kakashi isn’t quite sure what to think about that. Or any of this.
“They’re gonna help, Kurama!”
“Uzushio is gonna come back!”
“And you’re helping too, right?”
All the foxes turn to stare at Kurama, expectant.
Kurama looks at all of them, turns, walks out of the cave and shouts for a very long time.
Suzu ignores the outburst. “Mmm hmm, and you’re all in luck, there’s a young lady with Uzumaki blood nearby.”
"It's little Tsunade," Maru sighs.
"Aww, poor Tsunade," Rei says with drooping ears.
"She's not doing so good," says another.
"Tsunade?" Kakashi’s ears perk up.
“You know her, Sensei?” Sakura asks.
“Tsunade of the Senju. Of the Sannin. She’s an unrivaled medic-nin who was also an incredibly strong front-line fighter.”
“Ooh,” Sakura marvels, starry-eyed.
“But,” Kakashi hums, “she hasn’t returned to Konoha in a long time. This must be where she’s been.”
“Here sometimes, yeah. We’re so weak, she can’t hear us; it’s so sad,” says Maru, as Kurama stomps back in from his shouting.
“She’s so sad, but now it’s really not good!” Rei cries.
"She's got a shark after her!" Maru exclaims.
"A loan shark," Rei drops her voice to a whisper, horrified. "Sounds scary."
“...A loan shark,” says Kakashi, flat.
Kurama stops in his tracks, and mutters, “Sage give me strength.”
“Why are you following us, huh?” Naruto asks loudly to their demon fox tag-along. They’re ambling down a path that brackets the forest and rolling pastures, on the way to find Tsunade.
“I need to make sure you stupid fox brats use my power right!”
“What power?” Naruto snarks.
“Incredible power you’re too stupid to use!” Kurama snipes back, baring his teeth.
With the awe of the Kyuubi well worn off by now, the kids merely look incredulous at his statement. Kakashi eyes the supposed demon fox, who now looks like an unsettling and oversized, if otherwise regular, fox.
He suspects Kurama might be bluffing.
“Fucking brats,” Kurama snarls. He then declares, “I’m getting this shit over with and getting my tails. Maybe I’ll knock over a village afterwards. How nostalgic for all of us!”
“That you were controlled during,” Kakashi counters, not rising to the bait, though it opens up so many horrifying questions about that night.
“Fucking asshole had to say that,” Kurama seethes.
“Who did do it then?” Sasuke asks.
Kurama grins. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Yeah, actually, we wanna know!” Naruto says.
“You don’t get to. I’m not talking about this,” Kurama snaps.
“Maa, then stop bringing it up,” Kakashi says.
“Oh look, we’re here!” says Sakura hastily.
They crest the hill overlooking the modest portside village of Chaba. They should likely find Tsunade any of the village’s bars, if Kakashi recalls correctly.
As they start to sneak into the village proper, Sakura asks, “When we find Tsunade-sama, what if we just… tell her?”
“Huh, tell her what?” asks Naruto.
“Tell her who we are. We could trust Tsunade-sama, right? What if we just try and tell her what happened, and she can get us to Konoha where we could get more help?” Sakura suggests, excited.
“And then what, and be caged?” Kurama’s tail swishes, agitated, looking around at all of them. “You know that’s what will happen. You really trust your precious humans to help you?”
“Of course I do!” Naruto says, outraged.
Kakashi considers it. There are a few he trusts, yes, but there are certain powerful people he doesn’t want anywhere near his students in any capacity, especially as vulnerable as they are now.
“It’s best we keep it secret,” Kakashi declares, hopefully curtailing any argument. Naruto turns to look at him and Kurama’s tail actually stills, surprised. “Secret until we fix this, alright?”
“We won’t get in trouble for that once we get back?” Sakura asks, anxious.
Kakashi hums. “It’s a bit of an extraordinary situation. Either way, as your team leader, I’ll take responsibility for any fallout.”
“But it’s not your fault, Sensei!” Naruto cries. “You didn’t do it!”
“But I should’ve been able to keep you from being forced into such a situation in the first place. Ergo, my responsibility. Alright?” Kakashi asks, firm, looking at all of them.
“...Fine,” Naruto mutters, sullen. Sasuke and Sakura reluctantly nod. Kakashi’s pretty sure they’re all just pretending to agree with him on his point. Subterfuge, how adorable.
Kurama hasn’t said anything, which is fine. Kakashi doesn’t need to hear whatever he’s thinking. He’s just going to focus on keeping his kids safe.
Team Seven is past due to return from their escort mission to Wave. Delays occur in any mission. It’s not necessarily cause for alarm, but this one—
This one, Hiruzen worries. He hasn’t gotten this far in life to not trust these instincts. Something has happened. Something is different.
In many respects, Hiruzen sees all the students of Konoha as his grandchildren. He cares for them, and of them, he cares for Naruto especially. The boy who is quick with a grin, who’s loud but tenacious. A boy with bold dreams, who calls Hiruzen Jiji.
Yet for the good of the village, that boy was vilified instead of held heroic, is held at arm’s length, cast into darkness on his own parentage. Hiruzen knows he’s failed this child, ever more cruel when the boy looks up to him as a grandfather. Family. And now he fears he may have lost any chance, however slim, to rectify what he’s done to Naruto.
For now, Hiruzen must keep his worries buried deeply. Danzo is quick to accuse, as he arrives unannounced to bother Hiruzen, inscrutable, in his office. Hiruzen is unsurprised he’s had his hands in mission assignments. “How could you let the boy leave, Hiruzen? Let such an asset to Konoha’s defense walk outside its walls? You should have kept the jinchuuriki here—”
“Here to do what, Danzo? How would the boy grow, learn, become the best shinobi he can without these experiences?”
Danzo scoffs, but doesn’t yet elaborate on his thoughts. Hiruzen can guess. He’s well familiar with Danzo’s stance on jinchuuriki, on their “village’s greatest weapon.”
Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. An ongoing struggle for any kage, Hiruzen feels it weigh down on him, crush him, more as each new year passes. In his worst moments, Hiruzen fears he’s damned himself on all sides, irreparably, ever since Minato died. What would he think of Hiruzen, if Minato saw him now?
It’s a struggle Danzo never seems to understand.
In any case, Hiruzen is in no mood to hear him. “We’ll discuss this later. I have an appointment to see to.”
“Later,” Danzo promises, as he turns and limps out of the office. His next appointment gives Danzo a wide berth and then comes to stand in front of Hiruzen’s desk.
“Hokage-sama,” Asuma says, laid-back as always in demeanor, but still professional. Distant.
For all his supposed wisdom, Hiruzen doesn’t know how to begin to bridge the chasm between him and his son. The physical distance may have closed when his son returned to Konoha, but perhaps Hiruzen was a fool to believe that alone would make any difference.
“Asuma,” Hiruzen begins as he folds his fingers together, “I understand your genin team would like to petition for their first C-rank?”
“Ah,” Asuma smiles wryly, “it appears so. I guess Ino has been bothering the mission desk again?”
“Your team together, though young Ino is the instigator, yes. I’ve received the most interesting complaints.”
“Well, if they can show teamwork with that, even if it’s Ino dragging them along, then I don’t see why they can’t manage a C-rank.” He scratches his beard once in thought. “There’s a courier mission to Tea Country, last I checked. I think that would work well.”
“Very well. I’ll have the mission desk draw up the paperwork.”
Asuma nods. “Is that everything?”
Hiruzen hesitates. “Asuma,” he begins to say again. Something feels strange. He wants to plead to his son like a father, Be careful. Stay safe, damn the mission, no matter what.
Asuma’s cigarette slips the barest fraction. The hopeful coward in Hiruzen likes to believe Asuma can hear the words without him being audacious enough to say them. Instead:
Perfunctory. “I wish your team the best of luck.”
Distant. “Thank you, sir.”
Hiruzen watches as Asuma shuts the office door, leaving him to his thoughts.
Hiruzen is tired.
He’s tired, but he’s made his decision, hasn’t he, to remain? To put on the hat, to put aside the few for the many, no matter how much he hurts his remaining family, as it slips through his fingers.
Hiruzen is damned as a Hokage.
Things got weirder!
Next time: The search for Tsunade, we learn more about Uzushio, and Team Seven fights a loan shark
(Edit: I realized while tooling around through ao3 that there was another fic I read quite a while ago with a similar inital concept of Team Seven as foxes called Skulk in the Leaves, and like other fics I've seen with foxes and fox characters over the years (like backslide and reverse), this one I definitely derived subconscious inspiration from and want to give it proper credit. It's completely awesome; you should go read it.)
Jirōchō was borrowed from the anime, somewhat superficially, where he too deals with loan sharks that plague Tsunade. Meanwhile, this loan shark is wholly made up, which is probably for the best.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A portside town means many sailors and traveling merchants. And many sailors and merchants means many, many portside bars.
They’re creeping along the pier in the growing dusk, openly discussing their next moves as they look and listen for any hints about Tsunade or the loan shark. This lack of subtlety would rankle Kakashi, but as it turns out, no humans can actually understand them. Kakashi isn’t sure if that makes him feel better or worse.
“We’re sure Tsunade-sama is in a bar?” Sakura asks again, dubious.
Kurama rolls his eyes. “Where else with her? She’s either gambling or getting trashed.”
...Kurama would only know that if he was still well aware of the outside world when still sealed in a jinchuuriki. Kakashi is just... going to completely refuse to think about the implications of that right now.
“Hey, what if we split up to look for her?” Naruto asks, excited by his own idea. “We could find her faster!”
They could split up, but Kakashi thinks of his last moments as a human, the lost grip of fingers as he plunged into darkness. He isn’t ready to let any of his kids out of his line of sight.
He’s about to veto the idea when Kurama, surprisingly, beats him to it. “Yeah, fuck that. Let me show you brats how it’s done.”
Kurama peers around, opening his eyes wide then squinting a few times. This goes on for nearly a minute. “Fucking—come on, work, Sage damn sight—ah HA!” he barks as his eyes go eerie for a sputtering moment, his abrupt fox shriek startling a passing sailor so badly he falls off the pier.
“Ah haaa,” Kurama says again, smirking. “Found her.” He ambles with a swagger right out into traffic, civilians gawking or scrambling to avoid running into him.
Kakashi wants to sigh as he and the kids start to follow. No subtlety whatsoever.
They push their way through the door of the seedy bar Kurama insists Tsunade is in.
“Hey, get the hell out of here.” A middle-aged patron, a merchant, tries to drunkenly shoo them out. Kurama hisses open mouthed at the patron, who swiftly leans far back in his seat. The bartender refuses to look up from the glass he’s cleaning, pretending he’s not seeing any of this.
They find Tsunade, of the Senju and of the Sannin, in the bar’s seediest corner, face-down at a grungy table, whose surface is littered with sake bottles and glasses.
“Is she okay?” Sakura asks, concerned.
“Maa, she will be.” Kakashi hopes so, anyway. That is an alarming amount of booze.
“How’d you find her so fast?” Naruto asks Kurama. Kakashi’s curious to hear this too.
“By her wretched misery,” Kurama declares proudly.
“What do you mean by that?” Sakura asks, even more concerned.
“You did something with your eyes,” Sasuke states.
Kurama did do something with his eyes, Kakashi thinks. Barely.
Kurama holds his head aloft, his face the perfect picture of smug. “You little shits dare doubt me, but one of my amazing powers is to see and detect emotions in people’s hearts! I always used hatred to—”
“Like you can tell if people are hungry?” Naruto interrupts.
“Wha—no, that’s stupid, why would you—”
“I’m gonna try it,” Naruto stares at Tsunade, straining his eyes open as hard as he can. Nothing happens. “Owwww,” he whines. Sasuke and Sakura look skeptical again.
Kurama barks, “Don’t just stare, you idiot! You look, you see.”
“That doesn’t make any sense!”
They’re interrupted when a stocky man with grey hair and a worried expression rushes into the back of the bar, right for Tsunade’s table.
Wasabi Jirōchō races down the pier.
He’s tried all day to distract the loan shark Socha, to convince him Tsunade wasn’t in town, but Socha’s caught on to the lies. Tsunade owes the loan shark more money than Jirōchō has to cover for her, and time is running out.
He finds her at her favorite bar at the back table, surrounded by—by a bunch of foxes. They swivel their heads to stare at him in creepy unison. Beyond that, they’re kind of… cute, but the biggest one of them looks off; it has weird paws that almost look like hands. Jirōchō can’t bring himself to look at them for long.
He instead directs his eyes to his longtime friend. “Tsunade!” he hisses. He feels the gaze of the foxes, still staring at him. He ignores them as he tries not to sweat; he has bigger things to worry about right now.
“Tsunade!” he hisses again. “We need to get you out of here!”
“Heeey, Jirōchō,” she waves her hand, slowly blinking, then cocks her head. “Do you hear that?
Jirōchō listens. He hears drunken yelling and someone retching somewhere. “...There’s a man throwing up?”
“Nahhh, not that.” She shakes her head a bit. “Nevermind; wanna drink?”
He does, but not now. “Listen, Socha is after you, and he’s on his way here right now. We have to go.”
“Oh,” she slurs. “Oh shit.”
Jirōchō rushes Tsunade as best he can to his home. The foxes race underfoot after them, and sneak through the front door of his house before Jirōchō can shut it. He guides Tsunade to the couch, hoping she’ll stay there. He goes over and pulls back the window curtain a fraction, risking a peek to the front road. He doesn’t see anyone out there, but that doesn’t mean the loan shark and his goons aren’t on their trail.
She paws at the side of her head. “Ears are ringing, what the hell…” she mumbles.
“I’ll get you something to drink,” Jirōchō says as he walks towards the kitchen. Maybe he can sober her up.
“Oooh!” she leans her head back into the cushions. “Yes, please!”
He comes back with a glass of water. Tsunade hoists herself more upright, making grabby hands for it. She takes a swig and instantly spits the water back into the glass. “Blech.” She glares at him, accusatory, then says, “Got any gin?”
“...No.” He’ll try to distract her. He can’t take it anymore anyway, he has to ask. “...What’s with the foxes?”
Tsunade shrugs from where she’s listing on the couch. “Dunno; they were just there all a sudden, staring at me.”
“That’s—” he looks at the big orange one with the angry face and and immediately averts his eyes when it glares at him. “That’s... interesting.”
Naruto is still thinking about the whole sight thing. The shitty fox was completely unhelpful, so he’s just gonna keep trying on his own. He plods over to where Tsunade is starting to slide off the couch. He tries to look again. The voices of everyone else fade away, and this time, he sees. Oh no, the foxes were right . She’s so sad, it’s awful. His heart clenches. If there was something, anything, he could do—
Tsunade full body shudders and her gaze snaps to Naruto. “...What?” She slides fully off the couch to kneel on the floor and she squints at him. “What is—”
She rears back with a jolt, and stumbles to her feet away from Naruto, all the color draining from her face. “Nawaki…”
Naruto cocks his head. Who’s that?
“No, no, you can’t be… I can’t...” Tsunade backs away from him, drunkenly shaking her head, clutching at her hair with her hands as a tear slips out of her eye. “Stop! Stop with the bells! I’m sorry, please, I can’t—”
“Tsunade!” Jirōchō tries to stop her. She shoves him out of the way with the barest shift of her shoulder and slams open the front door.
They run out to follow after her, but there’s no sign of her. She’s already gone.
“Shit! Why did you that?” Kurama barks at Naruto.
“Do what?” Naruto shouts back. “I just tried the dumb seeing thing; I didn’t do anything!”
“You fucking did something, you—”
But Kurama stops as their ears flick. A strange noise just came from behind the house. They all creep to peek around the side, through some bushes. Naruto watches as three guys enter over the fence to the back garden. The leader directs one guy to come with him, and points the other guy in the opposite direction. They split up as they sneak around to the rear entry points of the house.
“Hey, Sensei,” Naruto whispers, “is that the loan shark guy?”
“Maa, it must be; it looks like Socha brought hired help as well. Mercenaries.”
Kurama’s tail swishes in sudden delight. “And look, they split up. Oh dear, a lonely thug breaking in to this nice home? Can’t have that.” Kurama smiles with bloodlust as he drops low and slithers through the bushes after the solo mercenary.
Team Seven’s ears flick sideways again when they hear a pained shout from the kitchen. It sounds like Jirōchō! They all scramble back through the open door towards the source of the noise.
Jirōchō winces from the surprise attack, his left arm crippled by a knife wound from the mercenary. But Socha is still loitering here, so that means he didn’t see Tsunade leave. Perfect. He can distract him.
“Like the gift from your new friend here? Give her up Wasabi, or you can make more new friends.” The loan shark turns his head towards the back door, waiting for someone. And waits. “...More new friends!” he shouts a little louder. Nothing happens. Jirōchō starts to edge away to the hall.
“...Where is the other guy I hired?” Socha barks to the mercenary, who shrugs, confused. He then turns back to Jirōchō, who has to pause his escape. “No matter. Last chance, Wasabi; where is she?”
“Never,” Jirōchō shakes his head. “I won’t tell you.” Tsunade has her issues, but she’s his friend. He’ll do what he can to keep her safe.
“If you’re going to protect her, then I’ll take her debt out of you and your own hide!” Socha laughs and laughs as he walks up the stairs to raid his home. The mercenary brandishes a knife and begins to menace Jirōchō, who’s unfortunately unarmed, and down to one functioning hand for combat. He’s cornered, with no escape.
He wishes, futilely, for any help.
Team Seven peeks out from behind the corner, where they see Jirōchō being held at knifepoint in the kitchen. “What do we do, Sensei?” Sakura whispers.
“We gotta help and fight that bad guy off!” Naruto insists, all but vibrating in place.
Sasuke looks the barest moment at Naruto and says, resolute, “We could take him.”
Sakura hesitates, but nods with growing resolve. “We could fight… couldn’t we, Sensei?”
Kakashi eyes the mercenary. He got a lucky shot once on Jirōchō with the knife, but his movements and stance reveal him as a rank amatuer, not to mention all his overcompensating posturing. He’s likely to be caught out by the unexpected. How unfortunate for him. “Maa, if you work together, I think you can take out one full-grown man.” His kids are getting squirrely anyway; they could use the outlet.
The kids look at each other one more time, and turn to scurry into position.
The mercenary waggles his knife about in Jirōchō’s face. “Scared, huh? Get ready for me to stab you agai—what the FUCK.” The man drops the knife, startled, as three fox kits attack.
Naruto runs up the mercenary’s pant leg, skittering up and down his body like a laughing furry cockroach in distraction. Sakura leaps from the table and catches the man ‘round the face, digging into his skin with her back claws. Sasuke focuses on biting at his ankles, narrowly and deftly avoiding getting kicked several times.
Kurama walks past from the hall towards the stairs, but he pauses and snorts at the kitchen spectacle. “You’re just going to watch?”
Kakashi doesn’t look back, keeping an eye on his kids and the flailing mercenary. “They’re doing just fine. It’s a good learning experience for them.”
“...You don’t want to do any work, you lazy asshole,” Kurama accuses.
Kakashi sighs, exaggerated, “I suppose I’ll give them a hand if I must.” His kids made an... admirable plan, but it’ll take awhile for the mercenary to actually go down at this rate. Plus that Jirōchō is just standing there in shock, staring, instead of doing anything helpful. He’s the one with thumbs here.
Kakashi stalks silently behind the mercenary, and presses hard into the back of one of the man’s knees with his front paws. The mercenary’s leg buckles and he falls with a shout.
Sakura takes advantage. She positions her paws and slams the man’s head into the floor with the ensuing momentum. Sakura looks at the man, and then to everyone, amazed and elated. “He’s down! We won!”
Naruto whoops as he marches all over the body. "We did it! Go team!”
“We didn’t need help, Sensei,” Sasuke grouses from where he’s now scratching an intricate design in the guy’s ankle with a claw.
“Maa, duly noted,” Kakashi says, amused.
Jirōchō watches as the baby foxes trill and shriek over the body of the mercenary, while the grey one looks on like a proud parent.
Well, that’s one way to take care of this problem for Tsunade.
"You creepy foxes are alright." says Jirōchō. He then hears a horrid scream from above him, and the sound of another human body—Socha the loan shark—thumping down the stairs. The angry fox saunters back in a minute later, pleased for once. The look on its face is ghastly.
Jirōchō smiles tightly. "Please leave my house."
They track down Tsunade again in another bar. She’s slouching in her seat, miserable.
Naruto walks up to her, in hopes of figuring out what he did to upset her at Jirōchō’s house. Tsunade flinches as she sees him, but she doesn’t run away again.
“Oh,” Tsunade begins to cry as she picks up Naruto, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Nawaki." She sobs, holding him close, “I’m sorry I ran away. I’m sorry for everything. I—I should’ve never given you that necklace, or you might still be…” She trails off as she hiccups.
“Uhhh, I’m not Nawaki, but I bet whatever happened, he’s not that mad at you!” Naruto trills. They feel like the right words to say, even if she can’t understand him. They make Naruto feel warm.
“You... forgive me?” she asks, peering into Naruto’s eyes. After a moment, she beams through her tears, wondrous. “You forgive me. My brother forgives me,” she says again, holding Naruto up happily to the now-unnerved bartender.
She sits Naruto on her shoulder and pats his side, “You can sit right there.” She looks down at the other foxes. “Hey—the bells are from all of you right? And you all must’ve fucked up that loan shark real good—” she squints at Kurama, “—especially granny there.”
“WHAT DID SHE CALL ME,” Kurama barks, the shrill sound startling half the patrons.
“Exactly! Can always count on UZUSHIO!” She hollers just as loud in a toast and knocks back the glass. “Another!” She holds the glass out to the bartender with a grin.
The bartender takes it but makes no move to pour another drink. "Listen, lady, you're making a scene—"
“You’re making a scene!” she yells back, slurred.
"Seriously, you need to go; the big fox is scaring everyone—"
"Oh yeah? I was just leaving!" She grabs all of the foxes at once as they squeak in alarm. "And you!” she addresses everyone else in the bar, “Show—show some fucking respect to the DEAD!" She kicks open the door, knocking it halfway off its hinges, and staggers down the street.
“Uhhh, where are we going?” Naruto asks from where he’s perched on Tsunade’s shoulder.
"...Wherever she wants to take us. Not much else we can do now," Kakashi-sensei sighs.
"Now she's crying on me!" Kurama hisses, outraged.
"Do you think she'll be alright?" Sakura asks, worried. “Tsunade-sama seems really upset.”
"As long as she doesn't drop us," says Sasuke, terse, clinging to Tsunade's arm in a death grip.
"Shizuuuuuune," Tsunade leans on the door and calls through it.
Shizune opens the door. “Ah, you’re finally back—” She takes one look at her face and the foxes in her arms and says, "...I'm not even going to ask."
Tsunade stumbles in past her.
"I'm good to go back to my room then?" Shizune turns back to see Tsunade dead-asleep on top of the bedding, clutching the foxes like stuffed animals.
She exits the room slowly. "...I'll take that as a yes."
Zabuza snorts awake from where he’s lying facedown in a large patch of moss. He looks up and—
Shit, it wasn’t a dream. He and Haku are still stuck on Uzushio.
He sits up and squints in the morning light. Haku, all bright eyed and bushy-tailed, is pulling open a mango with his fingers while sitting a short distance away on the beach. A lemur is dozing in his lap. He’s near the tidepool of flamingos, some of whom wander up the beach for Haku to pet them.
Zabuza watches a toucan carefully pull a large leaf, with fruit piled atop it, through the sand. It gently pokes Haku’s arm with its beak, cawing and pushing at his hand to take some of its bounty. Haku pats its beak in thanks and the toucan chatters in delight.
Haku turns his head and notices Zabuza is awake. All the animals turn to stare at him too. Haku’s smile dazzles in the backdrop of the glittering ocean waves, lit up by the morning sun. “Good morning, sir. Would you care for some breakfast?”
Zabuza lies back down and presses his face as hard as he can back into the moss, screaming into it. Maybe he’ll wake up for real this time.
He doesn’t. And the chakra impression is still here too.
“Good morning, Uzumaki-sama,” Haku tips his head in greeting. “Oh, thank you, you too.”
“Meh,” Zabuza says from his spot on the ground.
“Oh! Zabuza-sama, she’d like to tell us why we’re on Uzushio.”
He rolls over and sits up. “Perfect. No cryptic bullshit. Please,” he adds as the shrine flares in warning but before the chakra impression can shoot another rock at him. Zabuza knows how to be polite!
“The gods of Uzushio placed us here for a reason.”
Zabuza lays back down. He’ll risk the rock.
“She says what she’s telling us will help us get off the island as well.”
Zabuza sits back up. “...I’m listening.”
“She says we’re here because we’ve been given gifts from the gods and chosen to help in restoring the island, allowing access to and from it again. And also because we have actual flesh hands.”
Yeah, that’s not creepy phrasing at all. Wait, specifying flesh could only mean—
“What, she wants our blood? Our skin?” Oh no, no fucking way. He remembers what happened to Gato with that scroll; that asshole was lucky enough to just fall over dead. Plenty of horror stories on Kiri were variations on why you never ever ever tangle up your blood and guts with Uzu seals. Zabuza’s least favorites stories were the one about a careless Kiri nin whose entire arms got swapped with stubby kunai and another who turned half his internal organs to sand trying to turn back time. Eugh.
“Of course not, sir, she doesn’t need our skin,” Haku lightly chides.
That wasn’t a no on blood.
Haku then cocks his head and blinks a few times as he listens. “...Ah, excuse me. She says she doesn’t need our skin yet.”
Zabuza is so horrified he can’t even speak.
“Oh!” Haku suddenly smiles, with a relieved little laugh. “She’s kidding. She says that was just a little Uzu humor, sir.”
Zabuza stares ahead at nothing for a moment. He supposes he could count himself as lucky. Most Uzu jokes maimed people. “Ha ha,” he says flatly, “and what did she mean by gifts?”
“...She says she cannot explain it just yet.”
Of course. Of course she can’t. But Zabuza can guess. “Yeah, fucked up chakra is a great gift.”
Haku hums. “Whatever it is, sir, they’ll help us do what Uzumaki-sama cannot. She could only jump to the point of the entrance to where this seal is to aid the island, and she doesn’t have the ability to activate that particular one. It's up to us to do this.”
Zabuza is stuck on jumping. A chakra impression that could not only activate, but also jump to different seals. Everything about her is terrifying. But when he thinks about it, she hasn’t killed them, or seriously tried to hurt them. She gave Haku a fucking amazing curry recipe. And for whatever mysterious reasons, Haku really likes the Uzumaki, believes her. Zabuza can see that Haku believes this will work. And Zabuza… he trusts Haku.
“Alright,” he says, resigned to this madness, “where’s this place we have to go to?”
Haku points. “It’s right over there, sir.”
A cavern entrance that Zabuza swears was not there earlier is standing open in the moss-covered rock face that sits a modest distance past the flamingos’ tide pool. Opening that entrance had to have made a racket, and Zabuza didn’t even wake up once in the middle of the night.
Zabuza and Haku peek in, not yet daring to enter. Zabuza notices etchings of designs in the ridges of the cavern opening. He notes little flying flamingos… and foxes. Foxes. The angry and vengeful spirits of Uzushio threatened to come and curse weak Kiri children in the night and—
No. That is a fable. There are no spirits like that. He doesn’t believe in curses. He is a grown man, not a child silently afraid of foxes. He’s doing this to get off the island. He has to keep telling himself that.
“So there’s a seal in there? What are we supposed to do?” Zabuza does not want the answer to that.
Haku provides it anyway. “Ah. One of us is meant to activate it.”
Oh fuck, oh no. This is something out of Zabuza’s worst nightmares. How many cautionary allegories in Kiri began with poking at Uzu nonsense ill-advised?
But Haku believes the chakra impression. And Zabuza trusts Haku.
Haku catches the trepidation on his face. “Sir, I could go—”
“No,” Zabuza interrupts. “No, I’ll do it.” He’s still unsteady, off kilter, from Wave. Where in one flash to the next, Haku fell, so still, unmoving, as the rain fell down around them...
It keeps playing over and over again in his mind, freezing his insides with lingering terror. He’s afraid he actually will wake up back in Wave, and maybe Haku won’t. What if something happens and Haku gets hurt again? Zabuza wants to keep him safe, this time.
Zabuza gives the order. “I’ll go in, and you just watch and wait by the entrance.” Just in case the whole thing explodes and the cave collapses.
“You’re certain, sir?”
Zabuza quirks his lips into a grin. “Yeah, come on, it’ll be fine,” he says with false confidence.
Judging by the look in his eyes, Haku won’t even pretend to believe his bravado for a second, but Haku also knows Zabuza will hold firm on this.
“Good luck, sir,” Haku says. The lemur now on his shoulder waves to him. The flamingos gathering behind Haku to gawk all honk and twist their necks about, as if to cheer Zabuza on.
Zabuza just… turns around and walks in. “What is this place,” he mutters lowly to himself as he starts to walk down the incline, deeper into the cavern.
A place of renewal.
Zabuza barely manages to avoid startling, but a shiver runs from his feet all the way to the tips of his hair. A woman’s voice echoing—is that the chakra ghost? No. Impression. Chakra impression. He loiters a moment but hears nothing else but the pounding of his heart in his ears. Zabuza picks up the pace.
He walks until he finds a large flat stone dias with inset steps, presenting nothing but a small seal carved into the wall behind it. That must be it. He pricks one of his thumbs on his sharp teeth as he takes the stairs. He looks at the seal, like a little spiral sun, and reaches his hand out slowly towards it.
This has to be, without a doubt, the dumbest thing he’s ever done in his life.
Zabuza can’t help but hold his breath, his hand now mere millimeters from touching the seal. Whatever happens to him, he has to believe this seal will help, and that, if anything, at least Haku will be okay. He hangs on to that belief as tight as he can, and like the idiot he is, presses his hand flush to the wall.
Immediately he feels the tug. The seal pulls and pulls and pulls at him from within, his chakra fluxing, spiraling, and impossibly rising to meet its call with indomitable ease.
As the seal pulls, warmth spreads throughout him, traveling up his fingers and down to his toes, running over his shoulders and swirling in his chest. Array after array of interconnected seals light up in a growing spiral, forming a dizzying kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and yellows. He turns his head enough to watch as they race along the walls and ceiling, as they travel up and out through the rest of cavern.
Just as soon as it began, the tide recedes. Zabuza slowly exhales as it all stills, and he retracts his hand, flexing it a few times. His fingers tingle, but he’s… completely fine. It didn’t kill him or turn him inside out or anything. He feels kind of good, actually, like dozing in the aftermath of a relaxing hot bath.
He walks back, taking the time to peer at the new seals all along the cavern walls that weren’t there before, in wild shapes and designs he can’t even begin to understand.
He gets back to Haku safe and sound, and Haku looks starry-eyed. “That was… that was amazing, Zabuza-sama,” Haku breathes. “Everything on the island… lit up.” He fans out his fingers a little for emphasis. “It revealed all of the dormant seals on the island.”
Yes, it was very pretty. Great, whatever. They could find out how to leave now.
“Now Uzumaki-sama can freely travel the island to help us with the others!”
“She says that was just the first one. There’s four more seals we need to help with, sir.”
Zabuza eyes the moss on the ground. Maybe he should try screaming into it again.
Tsunade wakes up that afternoon and groans, "Why the fuck are there foxes on me."
She lifts the little orange one off her face and plops it on the pillow next to her.
She rubs at her forehead with a grumble and heals her hangover from being drunk for two days straight. Shizune will probably yell at her for it, but whatever, Tsunade needs to figure this fox shit out.
The biggest orange one is now pacing the floor, snapping its teeth at nothing. The grey and black one lazily eyes it for a moment, and then the cheeky little shit gives Tsunade a look as if to say, Oh, so nice of you to finally join us. The black one looks unimpressed with everything. The pink one is pawing at Tsunade, sincerely concerned.
They’re weird. It doesn't help that they all have an eerie aura about them. But a bit of her memory of the past day is coming back. She thinks about her grandmother's stories of bells and spirits and she wonders.
"...Uzushio foxes?" shes asks aloud. Are they? Did they finally come to visit her? Shit, she might really be in a bad way if this many Uzushio foxes think they have to stop by and check in. "I dunno why you're here, but I guess I can't exactly tell you to get out." She'll let them stick around for as long as it takes.
If they do, she should probably give them names.
She looks at the little orange one now jumping around the bed. Loud, bombastic, playful. He reminds her so much of Nawaki it should hurt, but really, she feels… lighter. Grief ebbing out with the tide.
She points one by one at the little foxes. "Pinky, Inky, Loud-Nawaki, hmm," she tilts her head at the adult foxes. "Grey-boy kind of reminds me of Sakumo, but way sassier." The fox flicks his ear sharply but otherwise doesn't react.
"And the big one reminds me..." she squints at it, "of grandma Mito."
Tsunade watches the largest fox shriek angrily and knock over a side table, breaking one of the legs. It grabs a pillow and shakes it in its mouth, feathers going everywhere.
She says, impassive, "There goes the deposit." She's out of money anyway. Tsunade turns to the other four. "Alright,” she claps her hands together, “you guys ever skip out on a bill before?"
There’s a knock on the door. “Tsunade-sama, are you finally up?”
"Shizune! We're going out the window!"
"Again?" Shizune asks as she enters with Tonton in tow. The big fox is still off in its own little world of minor destruction, but the other four all swivel their heads to stare down the pig.
"Hey, hey!" Tsunade snaps her fingers, "No eating the pig!" Shit, this might be a problem. But her command does the trick well enough. They all look away, pretending like they didn't just plan her pet's death. Pinky actually looks chagrined.
Loud-Nawaki gets back on her shoulder as she scoops the biggest foxes each under one arm. Angry-Mito is snapping and snarling, ineffectual in Tsunade's expert hold. She's held down worse patients with less leverage. Sassy-Sakumo looks completely unimpressed with his fox companion. He turns his head up to Tsunade with a flat expression that says, Are you seeing the shit I have to put up with?
Shizune slides the window open and picks up Pinky and Inky, not even questioning the presence of foxes. Tsunade adores that about her.
“Alright, hang on, we gotta book it fast outta town!” Tsunade says with a grin as she leaps into the alley below.
Ino wants to skip down the path leading them down south through Konoha, towards Tea Country. Asuma-sensei finally is taking her team on a C-rank! A mission outside of Konoha!
She can’t believe Billboard-Brow already beat her to this, rubbing it in Ino’s face on the way out to Konoha’s gate. But maybe Ino’s team will finish their mission first, and she can rub that in her face. Or... maybe Ino will see Sasuke out here on the way, too, and she can impress him with her mission prowess.
Ino maybe skips once or twice.
It doesn’t even matter that their mission is totally boring. The courier mission is for a Konoha baker who’s got a special shipment for a teahouse and is overly paranoid about his cakes or whatever getting stolen. Even worse, he’s one of those people who thinks that too many items in one storage scroll impacts quality. She wants to roll her eyes. Civilians.
“You could help carry something,” Shikamaru grouses as he hoists his backpack higher on his back.
“No can do. I’m supervising you!” That’s what he gets for not pulling his full weight to get this mission in the first place.
“I believe that’s my job,” Asuma-sensei points out, ambling along behind them.
Shikamaru doesn’t quite give up. “Help Chouji at least.”
“Um, that would be nice,” Chouji says. He’s carrying the vast majority of the scrolls, his backpack totally overstuffed. He’s carrying an overstuffed messenger bag as well, full of potato chips.
“Oh, fine,” she sighs. She plucks out a single scroll sticking out out from Chouji’s bag. “There!” she says, sunny. “You’re welcome, Chouji!”
Shikamaru gives her a seriously judgmental look. Rude.
She tries for innocent. “What? I’m helping!”
“So troublesome,” he mutters with a groan.
“Come on. Take this seriously,” Asuma-sensei says, tone light as he chastises them. But he also shifts the cigarette in his mouth, and his head tilts the barest southeast, in the direction of Wave.
Ino isn’t an expert at tells, but she’s paid a lot of attention to her team. Asuma-sensei… something might be bothering him. She and Shikamaru share a look; he’s come to the same conclusion just as fast. Chouji quiets as well, immediately catching on to their change in mood.
The wind picks up Ino’s hair, blowing it towards Wave in rivulets. It makes her shiver. She wonders where Team Seven could be.
C-ranks tend to be like test runs of real missions, for genin. Ino knows how they work, at least in Konoha. While the missions take genin outside the safety of Konoha’s walls, they’re not very high risk; they’re day trips or overnighters, and easily completed by any jounin instructor if they need to step in. Anything more strenuous for a genin team would call for an organized training trip instead.
Billboard-Br—Sakura… she’s been gone for well over a week now. No C-rank should take that long, right?
They cross over a stream, and Ino spares a glance along its banks. Near the shore grows flowers. Red spider lilies. For the first time on their mission, Ino is worried.
Somewhere in the northern half of Tea Country, a young man sits in a private booth in the back of a tea house, enjoying a bit of luxury in a place that doesn’t recognize him. Sometimes, in the quiet places, he likes to pretend he belongs, like he could blend in. He fiddles absently with his pipe, considering where he’d like to wander next. It doesn’t exactly matter, as long as he isn’t bothered by anyone.
He sips his tea.
He’s often restless, he knows, but it’s a different sort of restless that’s plagued him recently. Not the urge to move. More like… somewhere to settle, no matter how impossible that is.
But in this very moment, he knows this restlessness isn’t all him. He shifts in his seat, then closes his eyes, dipping his head to the side, listening.
“...What is it, Saiken?”
Next time: meeting new friends and old, and a whole lot of running.
Tsunade skids to a halt along the fork of a dirt path overlooking the eastern seas. She snaps her head around looking for any angry innkeepers or loan sharks that somehow followed them out this far. She doesn’t sense anything, and only hears the chirrup of early summer cicadas and the low growl of Angry-Mito under her arm.
Phew. Looks like they’re in the clear.
Then Angry-Mito writhes in her grip with renewed agitation. He snaps at her foot as she finally drops him down to the ground.
“Geez!” She jumps back and damn near kicks the fox off the cliffside out of reflex. “What’s your problem?”
He barks at her, fur bristled. He’s angry, but she catches the undercurrent of unease in the fox’s demeanor. Oh. Tsunade would freak out too if someone snagged her with little warning and ran for it.
“Alright, alright,” she says as she puts down Sassy-Sakumo and Loud-Nawaki and holds up her hands in placation. “I get it, I’m sorry. I won’t pick you up again.”
Angry-Mito stops mid-snarl, and looks at her in bewildered disbelief, like Tsunade is acting crazy.
Sassy-Sakumo shakes out his fur, not even bothering to react to his larger companion’s antics, and lazily lopes after Loud-Nawaki, who’s running over to Shizune.
Shizune crouches to let loose her armful of baby foxes to their cohort. She straightens and turns to Tsunade, “Where to now?”
Hmm. Where should they go? Tsunade figures going to River Country might be a nice change of pace. There’s some raucous outposts by the border if things haven’t changed in the last few years. Then again, it’s been long enough that she could get away with going to Tanzaku Quarters again. Whether or not she wanted to stick around in Fire Country was another story.
Tsunade tips her head to the left path. “Let’s go west for now.” They’ll wander up the west coast of the peninsula and enter Fire Country that way.
But the foxes don’t follow, and yip at her when she and Shizune start walking down the inland path.
“What?” Tsunade asks as she turns back around, trying to figure out what what’s wrong now. “This way?” She points up the east coastal path that will take them up closer to Wave. “Why?”
Angry-Mito barks again. Angrily.
"I can't understand ‘fox,’ you know," Tsunade barks back, irritated.
So the foxes attempt charades. It goes badly.
Pinky and Inky are watching Loud-Nawaki spin in place, trying to describe whatever-the-hell, when Sassy-Sakumo finally sighs and wanders over to a tree. He picks up a fallen branch and saunters back. He paws away some leaf litter and starts to draw in the dirt of the path.
Tsunade and Shizune tilt their heads at the awkward, but semi-legible characters that start to slowly form. "Go to... Uzushio? Ohhhh."
Tsunade stares at the message for another moment, but the words suddenly register and she yelps, "What?! There is no way I’m going there.”
Angry-Mito opens his snarling mouth again but Tsunade cuts him off. "Hey, don't look at me like that,” she snaps at him. “I don't know enough fuuinjutsu to get in! I've seen the security there and who knows what’s been activated since—since it was attacked.”
It was grandma Mito that knew the way, who knew the safe paths, the few times Tsunade went along with her grandma’s pilgrimages as a child. Grandma always said that anyone was welcome if their heart was in Uzushio. It’s just that… Tsunade isn’t sure she counts anymore. She had turned her back on her prior life, her own history, for years now. She isn’t going to risk it with her heart as broken as it is.
Tsunade continues, “That place is riddled with defense seals that would vaporize me if I looked at them wrong.” The she winces, thinking of her empty wallet. “And I don’t exactly have the money to get across the ocean." Not to mention knowing anyone crazy enough to travel near the island.
But wait, she’s talking to Uzushio foxes. They want her to go there for a reason, and she’ll be damned if she willfully ignores a request from them. If anything, they’d have the power to help her along, right?
She cups her chin and asks, "...Unless you all can get me there?"
The foxes freeze, and all look at each other. They start gekkering at once in some sort of argument. Loud-Nawaki seems to be insisting on something, with Pinky and Inky backing him up with admirable sass, but Angry-Mito chitters back with serious attitude. Boy, if a fox could sound sarcastic, Tsunade would bet it’s like that.
Oh, the fox conference is over. Sassy-Sakumo turns to face Tsunade, and sheepishly shakes his head no. Fucking wonderful, she got the amateur foxes.
She sighs, "Well, shit, we might be out of luck." It figures for her.
Pinky’s ears droop, and her eyes turn huge and sad. Loud-Nawaki squeaks in alarm and pokes at her with his nose, trying to comfort her. Even the stoic Inky is beginning to look upset, and Loud-Nawaki is looking back and forth at them, at a pitying loss. Tsunade has to turn away; it’s too distressing.
Unfortunately, she looks right at Shizune, whose watering doe eyes match those of the baby foxes. “There’s nothing we can do, Tsunade-sama?” Shizune pleads, already irreversibly invested in helping the cute foxes find their way home.
Fuck. Tsunade’s already lost this battle. They’re getting to that island one way or another. “Alright, fine. I don’t know how, but we’ll do it.” She turns to the foxes. “We’ll think of some way to get to Uzushio, okay?”
The baby foxes start to perk up at that, thank the gods.
...In fact, they perk up a little too quickly, preening at their success. Gods-dammit, she just got fucking played.
Before she can shout at them, Shizune pipes up, “Oh! For fuuinjutsu help, we could ask—”
Tsunade cuts her off, "We’ll leave him as a last resort." She grimaces. Who knows where that pervert is, anyway. “Let’s just figure out how to get there first. I guess if we can find a ship…?”
Tsunade is lost in thought for a few moments as they begin to walk up the coastal path. All her plans suck. This is going to suck.
"Tsunade-sama?” Shizune asks, hitching Tonton up higher in her arms. “What do the foxes have to do with Uzushio?"
Tsunade glances over to her with a start. "I never told you? Huh, I guess I wouldn't have." It’s another painful thing she’s avoided until now.
What exactly happened last night? What do these foxes really want from her? She furrows her brow, trying to pull all her grandma’s stories from her memory. She keeps getting stuck on one—
Shit, she took too long thinking. “These,” Tsunade waves her hands out to their new four-legged companions, stalling, “are Uzushio foxes. They have to do with… everything.”
Shizune’s lips purse. “Why do I get the feeling you’re stalling for time?”
Tsunade groans, “Okay, I am, but give me a break, Shizune, I haven’t exactly thought about this stuff since I was sixteen!” Ever since Nawaki— “I’ve never even met a fox before, but they always show up for a reason.”
"Like if you’re in trouble. Uzu people have all these traditions and stories about foxes. Oh, I know!” Tsunade snaps her fingers. “There's one story that always stuck with me," she begins, "of a girl who lost her mother off the northern shores of the island.”
“This was before the central village, when there were few Uzu people on the island yet. The girl and her mother had gone to collect fish from net traps in anticipation of a summer storm. They split up to cover more ground as they pulled up the many nets.
“The girl ran along the beach to check her family’s nets, but came across a fox trying to sneak out a fish from the catch. However, it was clumsy and not very good at navigating the nets. The ringing bells in the girl’s hair alerted the fox to her presence, and it tried to appear innocent despite being caught red handed. The girl scolded it lightly, hoping to shoo it away, saying her mother would not appreciate her fish stolen by a fox.
“To her surprise, the fox spoke, ‘Ahhh, but what if I was really your mother in disguise?’
“...But the fox’s impression was so bad that it just made the girl laugh. ‘It’s clear you’ve never even met my mother!’
“‘I’ve met you!’ the fox said in a perfect imitation of the girl, ‘...So what if I was you in disguise?’
“The girl only laughed harder, causing the bells in her hair to chime. The fox’s excuse was so funny and it looked so pathetic that she opened up the net and threw the grateful fox a fish anyway. The fox ran off and she got back to work.
“Unfortunately, the winds picked up much more quickly than the girl anticipated, and the rain came pouring in. Due to the location of the island, Uzu storms are particularly unforgiving and unpredictable. The girl barely managed to find shelter to wait it out and to find her mother.
“What the girl did not know was that her mother was not so lucky and did not survive the storm, being swept out to sea and overcome by the maelstrom. But the girl searched. She called and called for her. She tried until her voice was gone. And there was no answer, as her mother’s spirit was too lost to the gods of the storm and sea.
“But what did hear her,” Tsunade leaned in, “was the fox.”
“The fox heard her efforts and decided to help her as she had helped it. ‘I can run faster, see farther, and cry louder than you can. I’ll find your mother.’ The fox also asked for a bell from the girl’s hair and used its chime to mimic the sound of the girl as it leapt along the churning waves. Somehow it rang above the howling winds, just as loud as the fox’s cry.
“The mother’s spirit heard the call, and recognized the bells as the ones she weaved in her daughter's hair; her spirit was so overcome with the need to see her daughter, to make sure that she was safe, that she found the strength to follow the fox back to the island. The girl, though grieved by her mother’s death, was happy that she could say her goodbyes, and that her mother’s spirit could find peace.”
“The fox kept the bells, and could be heard ringing with each step as it ran through the island and along the seas. So it is said that since then, foxes could call forth departed spirits for those in distress or to help say farewell.”
Shizune hugs Tonton close. "Oh, that poor girl. At least they got to see each other again…” She trails off, and then asks, glancing at their new companions, “So the foxes... became guides for spirits?"
"In that story, yeah," Tsunade crosses her arms and hums to herself as she tries to remember, "but it’s more than that. They actually have a lot of roles. They help guide the living as well when they've lost their way, or to direct them on a better path. Some of the stories have foxes tricking certain people too, to teach them a lesson." She smiles wryly, "Though it's like an Uzumaki lesson. The story with the snakes is something else."
She laughs a little to herself; she only remembers that one because it was Orochimaru's favorite story, the weirdo.
Sakura turns away from listening in on Tsunade-sama’s conversation, mulling the story over. Does that make them all spirit guides? Is that what Naruto had done for Tsunade-sama? She had kept saying the name Nawaki. Maybe that was someone’s spirit.
She turns her head to ask Naruto, but is alarmed to find that he’s loudly sniffling, his eyes wobbling with tears.
Sensei notices too. “Maa, Naruto?” he asks, a bit bewildered.
Naruto buries his face in Sensei’s side. "That was so sad!” he wails, muffled. “But the girl got to see her mom again too, Sensei!"
“Ah, yes she did,” Sensei commiserates, awkwardly shuffling along as he tolerates Naruto leaning his entire body weight into Sensei’s side.
Right, Naruto mentioned meeting his parents, one of whom was the Yondaime. She shakes her head at how crazy yesterday was that she nearly forgot.
She does have a question for Kurama too, now that he isn’t in such a nasty mood. "Um... are you a spirit guide?" She doesn't think that's likely, but it can't hurt to ask.
"No!" Kurama barks, immediately offended, "I have nothing to do with that!"
“You’re a fox,” Sasuke points out, blunt.
"I am not just a fox. I am the Kyuubi no Kitsune, brat. I am powerful beyond mortal imagination and much more amazing. I have no need to deal with spirits and so-called gods."
He says he has no connection, but Sakura... really doesn't buy it. He's been nothing but cagey about the other foxes—and there’s obviously a history there—along with whatever spirit thing Naruto did yesterday to Tsunade-sama. Plus Kurama was no help during the pacing tantrum he threw for most of the morning. There's more to the story but she doesn't think it's wise to press.
She tries her luck with another question. "How are we going to find more Uzumaki?" Tsunade-sama doesn't exactly stand out in Sakura's senses as an Uzumaki descendant, and that worries her.
Kurama's ears flick. "Didn't you listen to the story the sad drunk just told us? You use bells. It’s a sense. That’s what the drunk heard and it’s what Uzushio foxes use for call and response.”
"But…” Sakura hesitates, “I haven't heard or sensed anything?" Was she supposed to this whole time? Is something wrong with her? Is she going to be of no help to find them?
Before Sakura can spiral into a pit of self-doubt, Naruto shouts, "Me neither!"
"Not since... the storm," Sasuke adds.
"Hmm, so we need to learn how to reliably trigger this sense,” Kakashi muses.
They all look at Kurama, expectant.
But Kurama doesn’t answer, his expression suspiciously blank.
"...You have no idea how, do you." Sensei states rather than asks.
"What the hell! And I bet you haven't heard anything either!" Naruto accuses.
"Fine, I haven't!” Kurama spits. “And I shouldn't! I don't deal with this Uzu shit! You three just had to call those gods, didn’t you? The bullshit they think they're pulling tying up my power with their power... I'm not rolling over and accepting that like a good little fox!"
"Gods we called?” Naruto yells back. “That's what that old fox guy said, but we didn't even ask for this, you know!"
"Oh, really? You didn’t ask for any help at all?” Kurama presses.
“Well, I thought it, but that doesn’t count!” Naruto’s ears fold back, “...Right?”
Sakura looks away. "...I just prayed for someone to help us. All of us."
Sasuke’s whiskers twitch, and he doesn't deny it, either.
"Of course not. You're stupid children who don't know what you played with—”
"Arguing about this again won't change what happened," Sensei idly cuts in. “We need to move forward. Any suggestions, Kurama?” he asks.
Kurama blinks, surprised, but quickly shifts his expression back to irritated. “Hmpf. With more people, meaning more power, we should be able to work faster.”
“So we really do need to find more Uzumaki first,” Sakura confirms.
“But how are we supposed to find more of my family? Sensei, even you said you don’t know where any are!” Naruto cries.
“Then we find people who would be willing to migrate to Uzushio,” Sasuke cuts in. “That fox said anyone who calls it home counts.”
Naruto perks up. “Oh yeah! We could find a bunch of people then.”
Sensei tips his head. “You’re right that we could, Sasuke, but that’s if we can convince anyone. We’ll keep it in mind, but it might not be an effective route, considering our circumstances.” He swishes his tail in emphasis.
Sakura looks between Sensei and Kurama. “Then, um, what’s our plan for now?”
"Since the island is likely locked down and the gods are sitting on their asses after handing out my chakra like party favors," Kurama throws an ugly sneer eastward, "we check everyone with red hair and find some sorry excuse for seal master."
This sounds like... an unrealistic plan.
"Auugh, we're gonna be foxes for forever!" Naruto moans as he flops over into the grass, startling Sakura. What the hell; he’s supposed to be the optimist here!
Sasuke goes to stand over him, eyes narrowed. “Are you already giving up, idiot?”
"And what happened to all your confidence from yesterday?” Sakura tries to rally, now more uncertain than ever, “We—we can do this, can’t we?”
"Yeah, sure, but when can I have ramen again?!" Naruto wails.
Sasuke stares. “...That’s what you’re worried about?” he asks, incredulous.
Naruto rolls around pitifully. “How can I eat it as a fox?” He waves his little paws in the air. “I can’t even hold chopsticks!”
It’s decided. Sakura is going to punch Naruto the second she has hands again.
"It’s still better than being human," Kurama adds unhelpfully.
She’s going to punch Kurama too.
"Oi, foxies! Loud-Nawaki? You alright?” Tsunade calls back, where she’s stopped a good distance ahead of them on the path. “We’re burning daylight!”
Sasuke pounces at Naruto. “Get up, dumbass.”
“Make me, asshole!” But he jumps up anyway, bats at Sasuke, and they chase each other up the path towards Shizune.
Sakura watches them go. She starts to walk after them and sighs, trying not to cry again in frustration at their situation. At everything.
Sensei trots up alongside her. "We haven’t lost yet, Sakura,” he murmurs. “We do have Tsunade on our side now, and she knows of a good seal master who could help if we really need it. It's a setback but it isn't hopeless. Okay?"
"Okay," Sakura sniffs once but nods, just a little more determined. It's nice to hear Sensei's reassurance.
Tsunade-sama glances at Sakura and covers her eyes with one hand with a groan. "Jeez, don't bring out the cow eyes again, Pinky.” She pulls her hand down and winks. “We'll get you home in no time." She turns back around and scans out ahead as they crest a hill. She smirks, “And I have an idea for our first stop.”
Tsunade leads them along the coastal path with renewed purpose. The path takes them slightly inland, as the sea air gives way to rolling fields. They travel past rows of tea plants, overlooked by the distant mountains, as they enter the south side of the bustling agricultural village of Matcha.
“Alright, foxies,” Tsunade declares as she stretches and cracks her fingers out in front of her, “I got a good feeling about this; we’re gonna try for a lot of money the old fashioned way.”
Shizune tries to interrupt, “Tsunade-sama, no—”
“Yes! Let’s find us a gambling den!” Tsunade crows as she marches away on her self-appointed mission.
Shizune sighs, world-weary, and crouches down next to Kurama. She holds a hand up to the side of her mouth to whisper conspiratorially to him. “I don’t know if you know this, Mr. Fox, but her luck is not the greatest. Please try to help her,” Shizune grimaces, “or at least stop her if needed.”
And that’s absolutely going to be needed.
Utakata hasn’t moved an inch from his seat, clutching his pipe tight in his hand and letting his tea go ice cold. He’s caught between incredulity and fascination. What Saiken is telling him is outrageous. As it turns out, his brother—a free tailed beast—is coming this way. And, somehow, he’s supposedly the key to finding Utakata a safe place, a home.
He can’t be serious.
...Oh. Saiken insists he is serious.
Utakata shakes his head, as if the words the slug is telling him will align and start to make any more sense. He has so many questions. How on earth can a tailed beast walk into a village without being noticed, let alone fit into a tea house?
Then Saiken suddenly and fully retreats, and for once, Utakata’s mind is completely silent. It’s… terrible to have it so quiet. It’s strange to admit, but he’s gotten so used to Saiken’s chatter. The slug has become something of a constant companion, a creature who—admittedly—buoys Utakata’s spirits throughout the endless lonely days of his life on the run.
Before the silence can break him, he hears Saiken’s merry voice again in his mind, and he can’t help but relax, secretly relieved. He wonders what the slug was up to. Saiken doesn’t answer that, but he’s changing their status quo again, pressing forward. He’s requesting control once they meet his brother. Just to talk.
Utakata hesitates. While he’s comfortable working with Saiken, he’s never given up conscious control before. Saiken could easily run rampant and do anything he wanted.
But... Saiken isn’t like that. He’s not some mindless, evil thing. And as Utakata’s discovered over the years, Saiken’s nothing if not sincere.
And Utakata is tired. Any chance for a place to call home is a temptation he can no longer resist.
“Okay,” he says out loud, to himself and to Saiken. “Okay.”
He takes a deep breath, and peeks out of the curtain.
Asuma flicks the ash from his cigarette as his genin team crest the northern outskirts of Matcha.
As irrational and irresponsible as it is, he itches to run off to Wave, to barge in and investigate. He only has pieces of a picture, but he trusts his instincts. He knows something isn’t right.
Asuma had caught the end of his dad’s conversation with Danzo, and then the hesitation in his dad’s voice before he dismissed Asuma. It’s rolling through Asuma’s mind, over and over.
Something has gone awry with Konoha’s jinchuuriki, and by extension, Team Seven. And that means something went wrong with Kakashi. He may be a prickly shit, but the guy knows how to survive. His penchant for tardiness aside, he’d never let his team take this long on a C-rank of all things.
Oh, Asuma caught whatever worried hint his dad was trying to project at their meeting, not that it explains anything. Unfortunately, the esteemed Hokage’s favorite pastime is to be as obtuse as possible. Asuma doesn’t get it. It would save him so much grief if his dad could lay it out straight for once.
The whole situation makes for a sick, oily feeling in his gut. It doesn’t help that all his contemporaries this year for the rookie genin teams are new to this, new to taking on the the responsibility of children who have never been in a real battle, or seen the true horrors of war and conflict.
He shies away from the hypothetical of Kurenai and her team going missing too, and he brings himself out of his ruminating. He needs to focus on this mission, on his team.
Ino is subdued. Shikamaru is pretending he’s not watching Asuma closely; Chouji is following Shikamaru’s lead, though a little less subtle. Asuma curses in his head; either these kids are already way too attuned to his moods or he’s getting seriously sloppy.
He’ll distract them with their mission specs. He pulls the cigarette out of his mouth and says, “Alright, you all remember where we need to go?”
“Yep!” Ino brightens with a fake smile, “It’s the Oolong Tea House on the west side of Matcha.”
“And all we do is deliver the storage scrolls, right?” Chouji adds, a little uncertain.
Shikamaru nods. “We’re supposed to pass them off to the owner of the tea house.” He slouches, and mutters, “And then we’re hopefully done.”
Asuma brings the cigarette back to his mouth. He hopes so too.
Tsunade zeroes in on a place called the Oolong Tea House. Either she's been here before, or she possesses the uncanny ability to sniff out an underground gambling den like an expert ninken. After observing her for the past 24 hours, Kakashi wouldn’t put it past her.
Shizune appears fully resigned to this adventure, but she straightens up and goes, giving a stern stare-down to anyone who so much as looks askance at the parade of animals behind her.
She’s a good ally, Kakashi thinks.
Shizune jogs ahead to follow Tsunade through the back door into the gambling den, but Kurama stops in his tracks. He looks sharply to his left, his tail going stock still. “Shit.”
Kakashi tenses, which causes all the kids to tense, alert and wary. What now?
Kurama notices their staring. “What?”
“What’s wrong?” Sakura whispers, worried.
“Nothing. Nothing’s wrong. Shut up,” he snaps, clearly lying. “Let’s just go and watch the alcoholic lose even more of her money—”
“Excuse me,” a young man in a loose robe speaks up as he steps carefully out from a private booth, looking over each of the foxes in growing confusion. “May I... speak to Saiken’s brother?”
Kurama curses again.
Ino rolls the the scroll back and forth in her hands.
She's being ridiculous, right? Those spider lilies are just freaking her out because she's already feeling a little off kilter from Sensei's mood.
She'll just focus on their mission. They're almost done.
They walk down the bustling market street where Oolong Tea House stands on the corner. It’s one of those trendy places that has a looser café feel to it, rather than a stuffy ceremony. Ino's surprised there's one like it in a place as small as Matcha, but she supposes it is Tea Country. A lot of the newest foodie trends crop up here first.
“Welcome to Oolong Tea House,” A robe-clad hostess smoothly intones when they enter. She glides right past them with a tea tray in hand. "I'll be right with you folks."
"Actually—" Sensei tries to interrupt but the hostess wanders off to a table to set down the tray and chat up another round of customers.
Shikamaru sighs. "Troublesome." Ino can't help but agree; she just wants this mission over with. Then she can go back to Konoha and Billboard Brow will be back and it’ll assuage Ino’s silly lily fear that her rival might be dea—
Ino catches a flash of pink out the corner of her eye and her heart seizes for split-second.
But it's not Sakura.
"Hey," Ino whispers to Shikamaru and Chouji, "did you see that?"
She gestures to the far side of the tea house, where there’s booths with privacy curtains. It’s a man in a loose fitting robe that should look ridiculous on anyone, but Ino thinks he makes it work. What really grabs her attention, however, is that the man is surrounded by a very… colorful assortment of foxes. Huh. Are they summons? They really don’t seem like it, but she wrinkles her nose; the big orange one is certainly ugly enough to be a weird summons.
As if it heard her thoughts, the big one whips its head around and bares its huge teeth in an appalling grin. She and her teammates quickly tear their eyes away, inadvertently looking at each other.
Ino can't help but let a giggle escape at her teammates’ unnerved faces. She covers her mouth with her hand. "That thing was scary, wasn’t it!" she breathes, her heart still beating slightly too fast.
Shikamaru’s shoulders drop with a snort, and Chouji’s shocked expression slowly morphs into a helpless grin, his cheeks dimpling. “Yeah, it was pretty creepy!”
"And what are you all laughing about?" Sensei turns back to ask, a blessed thread of genuine amusement in his voice.
“Oh, nothing,” she lies, smiling.
Kakashi wants to bang his head against a wall. Of all the C-rank missions available, of course Asuma had to choose one that sent his genin team here. And then, because Kakashi’s life is never easy, Kurama had to go and make it a hundred times worse.
“You really had to do that?” Kakashi asks as they follow the jinchuuriki for Kurama’s brother. He knew the rumors that one of Mist’s jinchuuriki was a missing nin; how interesting of him to be lurking around in northern Tea Country of all places.
Kurama trots into the booth, and wobbles his head with a self-satisfied grin. “I’m intimidating those brats into leaving us alone. You’re welcome.”
Intimidating? It might intimidate those genin for a minute. He tries not to sigh audibly. “Or they’ll just get more curious.”
Kurama just squints at him, like he can’t comprehend such a possibility.
If Kakashi had hands, he’d put his head in them. “The less they notice us, the better.”
Kakashi never thought he’d be in a position to explain to the Kyuubi the first lesson in stealth, but he never predicted he’d die and come back to life as a fox, either. What an oversight on his part.
Kurama starts to scowl again as the jinchuuriki gestures to the cushions. “Make yourselves comfortable,” he says. The man’s keeping himself composed, but it’s clear he’s just as caught off guard by this development as they are. “And, well,” he begins, “I’ll… let Saiken take over from here.”
The man sits down and shuts his eyes. His head tips down, like a string was cut. After a beat, he perks up and his eyes open again, his expression much more open and upbeat than before. He bobs his head and greets, “Kurama! Long time no see! And you brought friends!”
Kurama sighs, “...Saiken.”
“Well look at you!” Saiken gushes, resting a hand on his host’s cheek. “Back to your own body!” He looks Kurama over again and exclaims, “Oh! But one tail… you match Shukaku!”
Kurama instantly bristles, and that single tail whips around, puffed up. “You dare compare me to that weak little shit?”
“Haha, sorry, sorry!” he waves a hand and backtracks with a laugh, “I didn’t mean it like that! It’s just been so long since we’ve talked face-to-face like this.” He glances over and stage whispers to Team Seven, “For two thousand years now.”
“Woah, what, that long?” Naruto blurts out.
“You didn’t talk to your brother at all?” Sakura asks, shocked. Sasuke gives Kurama a very judgmental look.
Kurama ignores them. “Just get to the point, Saiken.”
“You’re up to something,” Saiken sing songs, “and I want in on it.”
“No, absolutely not,” Kurama snaps back.
Saiken carries on as if he didn’t hear that, “Oh, I think I can guess what it is~! Uzushio, right? The foxes make it so obvious.”
“Stay out of it,” he hisses.
“But it’ll be fun,” Saiken whines a little, “and Utakata,” he taps at his host’s chest, “is nice for a human. He’ll definitely agree to help you. And we can bring in everyone!” He counts off on fingers, “Matatabi and Kokuo and Chomei and—”
Kurama snarls, ears flat to his skull. “You’re going to tell them? Saiken, don’t you dare—”
“Ah, going to? No.”
“Good, and you better keep it that way—”
“Because I already told them to come!” he warbles happily.
Kurama screeches in inarticulate rage.
“It’ll be like a family reunion!” Saiken continues on over the noise, but then he deflates a little. “Not that I could get all of our siblings to respond.”
“How tragic,” Kurama bites out through gritted teeth.
Kakashi’s eyes widen. Kurama’s siblings—
That means more jinchuuriki may decide to up and leave their respective villages. Ethics aside, jinchuuriki are positioned as linchpins for maintaining truces and power balance between the major countries. Kakashi thinks about hypothetical destabilization of alliances, treaties overturned and even the possibility of a world war—
This is not going to end well.
“Thanks for waiting,” the hostess chirps as she finally comes back. “Four, then? And where would you folks like to sit?”
"We actually have a delivery," says Sensei.
She tilts her head and looks them over, spotting their hitai-ate. "Oh! Oh, do you kids have a mission here? Isn't that fun! I'll go get my manager." She wanders off again before anyone can say anything.
Ino can't help but groan in tandem with Shikamaru. More waiting!
She looks around and tries to spy on that fox guy again. She strains her eyes and catches a glimpse through a sliver of the curtain. She frowns. That's weird; his mannerisms have changed from earlier. He seems more... bubbly, and delighted to be talking to the foxes.
But then the woman who must be the manager walks up to them, ruining Ino’s fun. "Welcome to Oolong Tea House. You have a mission here?"
"We have a cake delivery!" Ino declares.
"Cakes? I didn't hear about cakes," the manager says with a frown. She squints at them, suspicious, but then shrugs a shoulder. "The owner probably forgot to tell me about it, but let me go ask and make sure."
She beckons them to follow her. She saunters to a door at the very back of the hall of private booths and cracks it the barest amount open. She hollers into it, "Hey, Takusu, did we order cakes from Konoha?"
She steps back as the owner comes barrelling out of the back hall, smacking his shoulder hard in the door frame on the way. He slams the door shut behind him before Ino can get a good look at whatever’s back there.
"You startled me, Yanomi!" He wipes his sweating hands down on his apron, wincing from his likely bruised shoulder.
“Did we order cakes from Konoha,” she repeats, flat.
"Cakes? Of course, of course, uh, Maple Bakery, yes? And you, uh, have every storage scroll?”
Sensei raises an eyebrow. "We have every scroll that was present for delivery," he chides lightly. Ino would snort if they weren't in front of the client. Like they’d be so inept as to forget one.
"I, uh, just don't want to get cheated, you see!" he stutters. He looks totally nervous. Civilians can get that way, but is he that scared of shinobi? The other employees aren’t so skittish.
She catches Shikamaru’s eye, careful to keep her face neutral. Something is weird here, but Sensei seems to be pretending nothing’s the matter. Maybe he’s waiting for them to figure it out on their own.
Whatever; she and her team could take a sweaty tea house owner in a fight, easy.
As Saiken and Kurama continue their back and forth, Kakashi surfaces from his catastrophizing to see the kids edging slowly towards the curtain, trying to peek out of it.
“Maa, what do you three think you’re doing?” he asks.
They freeze. Mostly. Sasuke keeps going, bless his recalcitrant little heart. Kakashi darts forward to block his path.
“Well?” he asks them again as Sasuke glares at him.
“Nothing!” Naruto lies.
Sakura doesn’t. “We thought we saw something, sensei.”
Kakashi hopes that something isn’t—
Shit, Asuma’s team is right outside.
Naruto gasps. “Hey, that’s Chouji and Shikamaru!”
Sakura’s tail whips around. “And Ino-pig!”
“And you’re all staying in here.” Kakashi’s more worried about the young Yamanaka than anything. Her clan's techniques could immediately out them.
“Low profile, yeah, yeah.” Naruto tilts his head to peer through a gap in the curtain. “Haha, their mission looks so boring. Ours was way more cool!”
‘Cool’ is not the word Kakashi would use.
Asuma is tempted to facepalm. Or maybe strangle this idiot.
Nobody gives this much of a shit about cakes.
Either the actual goods are more valuable or volatile than disclosed to avoid a higher insurance fee and a higher mission base price, or this asshole had the gall to make his team, his students, the proxies for a smuggling operation.
And who the fuck vetted this mission? Asuma is going to give someone in Administration absolute hell for this.
He keeps all his thoughts of punching Takusu out of his expression and instead quirks his lips in a lazy smile. “We have one or two bits of paperwork we have to do before we wrap up here,” Asuma lies, stalling.
Takusu pauses. “Paperwork? I, uh, never had to do paperwork,” he argues.
So the guy’s a repeat offender. Good to know. Asuma scratches his cheek and shrugs a shoulder. “New protocol, sorry. It’s a real pain.”
Whatever is in these scrolls, Asuma is not handing them over.
Saiken nods at Kurama. “So it’s settled; Utakata will go with you.”
Saiken interrupts, “Okay, great, bye!”
After a moment, the jinchuuriki—Utakata—blinks out of a daze.
He takes one look at Kurama’s angry face and says, “The discussion went well, I take it.”
Kurama sneers. “Yes, thank you so much for conspiring with Saiken on this farce.”
Utakata blinks at him. “...I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
All of a sudden he tenses and shoots out of his seat. They all still; even Kurama looks wary. Utakata waves at them to stay quiet and tilts his head like he’s listening for something.
His eyes widen. “...We all need to leave now,” he whispers, urgent.
They sneak out the booth, Utakata obscuring their exit with a ruffle of the curtain, while the shop owner is arguing with an unyielding Asuma.
They’re barely down the hall when they can sense the air displacement of a shunshin. Masked shinobi appear behind Asuma’s team, about to strike.
“Ino!” Sakura screams, horrified.
Double update! There will be another chapter uploaded very shortly after this one so stay tuned!
Endless thanks to everyone who let me scream at them about these chapters, including but not limited to: thewizards_mafia, kirosveta, keepyourpantsongohan, tomicaleto, uintuva, ranembi, and the fine folks on discord
Ino jolts at the shrill cry that cuts through her, that threatens to shake her out of her skin.
She looks back—
—Just in time to twist to the side, barely dodging the blow that smashes through the support beam of a private booth.
Her eyes snap forward and she slides around, snatching a kunai out of her leg pack, her hands a fine tremor. She can’t stop to think how that would’ve been her head if she were a moment slower. She doesn’t register the customers beginning to scream. Her attention is solely on her attacker, the masked shinobi, with Mist symbols painted on their porcelain face.
...Mist nin? Why are they here? And why are they trying to kill her?
She dives to block another blow as Asuma shoots forward to counterattack. Chouji ducks to his right as the curved blade from another hunter snags his backpack, slicing it open, spilling the scrolls everywhere along the floor. Shikamaru pulls him away from another strike, and they scramble to brace for another attack.
But these Mist nin ignore him in favor of—the storage scrolls! Ino holds her scroll to her chest, wary, as the grip on her kunai tightens. She brings it up to block as the hunter-nin goes after her again, bringing his ragged sword straight down at her.
Asuma pulls Ino flush to him with one hand as he whips a trench knife up to block the sword. The awkward angle and rough blow staggers them back as the metal of his trench knife screams against the blade, jostling the scroll out of Ino’s hands. He watches the hunter-nin’s head twitch as he follows the rolling scroll.
Hunter-nin from Kiri? No. hunter-nin don’t act or operate like this. These nin are brazen, out in the open, their movements too rough.
Asuma grips his trench knife around his fist with a grim smile. These are fakes, hiding their identity behind a fearful image. But they must be equal parts bold and stupid to take on a disguise like this and remotely expect it to work.
Asuma presses forward as he lets Ino snake behind him, pushing the sword back to the false hunter’s chest. Takusu is pounding on the back door, screaming in a panic, while Yanomi is flush to the wall, terrified. Asuma moves to lunge again when another false hunter snags Takusu’s collar and shoves him and the manager to the side as he slaps a tag on the door hinge. Asuma aborts his forward strike, nearly gutting Yanomi.
The exploding tag hisses wildly and everyone ducks as it erupts, taking out the door and chunks of the surrounding frame, blowing splinters and smoke over them. A false-hunter swipes the storage scroll in the distraction, snapping open the seal, and he takes off through the back door with his accomplices, dragging Takusu behind them.
“Shit—” Asuma leaps to his feet and races after them. They fly through the back room—a gambling den, he registers—and the patrons start to back up out of their chairs. Asuma’s target upends a poker table as he passes, tossing aside the now-empty storage scroll. Asuma hears an angry shout, a pig squeal, and cups and bottles shatter to the floor.
“You assholes, I’ll—”
The voice drowns out as all the players erupt in an uproar around them, pulling out weapons and joining in the brawl, fighting anyone and anything.
Amidst the chaos, Asuma twists around in time to see another false-hunter slap down a second exploding tag, this time on a mid-floor support beam. Asuma can see his students’ eyes widen and he shouts to them over the din, jerking his head towards the outer door. They scramble as the tag explodes. The beam bows, the ceiling creaks, and Asuma rushes through the exit as the entire structure starts to come crashing down.
Asuma covers his face with his arms as the blowup of dust and rubble whites out the side alley, obscuring the retreating backs of the false-hunters. He hears another crash, and instead of chasing, Asuma looks back instead, heart in his throat. His students could be—
He sees Chouji wheezing, Ino’s incensed scowl, and Shikamaru groaning irritably. They’re covered in dust and coughing, but his team are all well and whole behind him.
He turns back and swears fiercely; the false-hunters are gone from the alley. Split up, likely. He tries to cast out for chakra but it’s all muddled, whether from frazzled nerves or the cacophony around them. He never was much for longer range detection.
Ino whips her head from the left to the right with a sneer. “Ughh, those jerks! They split up!” she cries, her more innate sensing confirming Asuma’s assumption.
“We have to get whatever they stole, back, right?” Chouji asks, nervous, but beginning to steel himself again.
The glimpse Asuma had caught of the scroll prickled, buzzed instinctual fear down his limbs. It’s ornate and old. Very few scrolls that look like that are good news, and Asuma would bet his hitai-ate it’s for summoning. But whatever that scroll houses, letting it fall into any enemy hands is not an option.
“We can split up,” says Shikamaru, and dammit. Asuma knows that’s the strategic option, but he’s already had one heart attack today from his genin nearly dying.
He nods anyway and takes off to the left. He doesn’t notice the tag-alongs behind him.
Utakata runs out the front of the teahouse, his senses and Saiken on alert. He’s putting himself out in the open, he knows, but he has the power to risk it. He doesn’t want to injure any civilians in the crowd of the teahouse if he can help it.
He hears the dull boom of an explosion from behind him, and renewed screaming. Too late for that, perhaps.
What a mess this is. As if those ambushers inside were hunter-nin. Obvious fakes using a costume to hide their identities. Missing-nin or bandits, maybe, likely angling for some kind of reward out of one of those scrolls.
But they aren’t his problem, he thinks, as his senses prickle again.
The real hunter-nin are.
Unfortunately for them, Utakata has played this game for years now. As civilians are gawking or running from the now-collapsing building, he walks to the middle of the street, lifting his pipe to his mouth, his chakra rising. They’re several years too late to truly catch him by surprise.
But in the moment the hunter-nin descend, shrouded in mist, two of the false hunters barrel out of the side alley, smoke trailing at their heels.
“Fuck, that was close,” says one of them, hitching a scroll up under his arm as he looks up towards the road. “Come on, let’s get outta—”
They all pause, and the hunter-nin twitch their heads the slightest to stare at them.
“Uh oh,” says the other fake.
Ino and her teammates take off in the opposite direction of their sensei. They don’t have his power and speed, but they can work together and potentially prevent those Mist nin, or whoever they are, from escaping.
They peek out of the alley, and Ino is surprised to see the foxy robed man out in the middle of the street. And seriously, how many of these Mist guys are after this scroll, anyway?
But the foxy robed man doesn’t spare a glance for them as he blows on his pipe, bubbles billowing out from it, chasing after the masked nin closest to him.
But nevermind that; there’s the jerk with the scroll, and he’s going to get a taste of Ino-Shika-Cho.
The one with the scroll freezes mid-step next to his partner. His head is twitching, trying to turn it. “What the f—”
Shikamaru smirks from where he’s standing in the shade of the building, his shadow holding the masked nin firmly in place.
“Don’t just stand there, get them!” the frozen one barks to his companion.
His partner turns to move… and yanks the scroll out of his hands.
“What are you doing?!” the frozen one shrieks.
His partner grins and tsks, “Taking back something that doesn’t belong to you~”
The partner—Ino—hollers as she tosses the scroll, “Chouji, catch!
Chouji, holding Ino’s body in a one handed grip, reaches up to grab the scroll, but jerks his hand back when an ugly oversized fox leaps up to snatch it out of the air.
“AHHH!” the nin all scream together, Ino clutching at her host’s head. That ugly fox has their scroll! The one thing they can’t lose!
She hastily cancels the transfer and leaps out of Chouji’s arms, chasing after the fox with a shout.
But then her team and the fox run straight into the middle of the foxy robed man’s fight, right as he releases a torrent of bubbles to counteract the haze of the mist.
Her senses are immediately strained, trying to keep heads and tails of where she is and her teammates nearby. They take a step forward and—
“Do not interfere,” masked nin intones as he sweeps scary close near them before disappearing again as bubbles descend and—pfft, yeah right. Like an intimidating voice will work on them.
Then Ino hears an angry yowl and the sound of the scroll rolling off somewhere, but she can’t get her bearings with all the bubbles everywhere. She sees the fox rush past her legs after one of the masked men, snapping its jaws viciously and attempting to bite him to death.
The bubbles thin out, following the the robed man and his attackers as they move further down the road.
Now’s her chance to look. Ino’s alternating scanning the ground and watching out for any encroaching masked nin, checking around by the now-abandoned produce stalls. Scroll, scroll, where is that scroll?
Shoot, did one of the masked nin pick it up again? It’s possible. They’ll have to take their best guess to nab it back. So warning or not, they sneak down the road and back into the fray.
Shikamaru catches another masked nin and something is immediately wrong when Shikamaru’s fingers start shaking. This one is dangerous, and is much harder to hold off against.
“Uh, a little help?” he asks, voice already strained.
“Right!” Ino and Chouji get ready to attempt a transfer, but a whip of water streaks at them. Shikamaru’s concentration breaks, releasing his shadow’s hold. They all duck behind a fruit stand to avoid the whip crack as the more terrifying masked nin round on them.
“You were warned not to interfere—”
But that’s all he gets out when a cabbage stall slams full force into him.
The masked nin leap away as another stall flies into the street, bursting apart and sending eggplants all over the road.
Ino looks for the source, and an imposing woman with a pink fox on her shoulder steps out to the center of the road, her face set in an irritated smirk.
“You,” she bellows, as she cracks her knuckles, “you all wrecked my winning hand, you know?”
Kakashi wants to sigh. First a tailed-beast reunion, then Asuma and his genin, and now more botched missions and explosions; can’t the universe give it a rest for half a day?
A wish like that would take luck, however, and Kakashi clearly has none of that.
Since they’re caught up in the mayhem again, Kakashi might as well do what he can to help Asuma out while keeping his more eager students from rushing in and killing themselves.
And to start, they need a better vantage point. He looks about and—ah, that’ll do. “Up here, Naruto, Sasuke!”
They skitter up the metal awning, where a carpenter has hastily vacated their construction project. From here he can observe the fight from all angles. His whiskers twitch, and he sees another encroaching nin, concealing himself. Asuma, distracted enough as he is, is being ambushed. But how to warn him…?
Kakashi glances over at the lumber and rebar sitting precariously on the edge of the awning. Ah. It would be a shame if anyone accidentally tipped it over.
Asuma stalks forward and he slashes his trench knife up, catching the lip of the mask and chipping it as the nin pulls back. He gets armor on the next shot, and puts more power into it as he backs the nin into a corner in the alley.
He lands a direct blow under the chin, and cracks the man’s mask in half on the upswing. It drops off the face of the collapsing false hunter, revealing a scratched out hitai-ate from Suna. Missing-nin then, and not much of one if he’s resorting to exploding tags and weapons. He knows to watch out for wind, now—
A cutting wind passes overhead, slicing into the wall opposite him; it’s another missing-nin, and now Asuma’s the one cornered in this dead end. He’s now stuck avoiding rapid fire cutting jutsu in an enclosed space. He brings his fists up after dodging again. He’ll have to risk pressing his attacker into a forced melee—
—but watches as a load of lumber and rebar instead crashes down on the missing-nin’s head.
Asuma follows the trajectory up, and blinks. There’s a grey fox peeking out from the awning above, with two little foxes peering out after it.
“Uh, thanks, but I had him,” he calls out.
The grey one just tilts its head at him, and Asuma gets the distinct feeling he’s being judged.
It then nods towards the exit of the alley as if to say, Go on, then.
Asuma snorts to himself as he goes. Weird thing.
He sprints out, looping around to the main road, and it’s a disaster. Everything’s hazy, vegetables and wood fragments litter the ground, bubbles are floating everywhere, and... is that Senju Tsunade?
He never expected to ever see her again, but he can’t worry about her right now.
He cuts in front of Shikamaru to block the attack, and he can tell with every strike that this fake’s demeanor is composed and so much more frightening.
Then Asuma sees the loosely robed man fighting with a bubble jutsu against Mist techniques and oh fuck these are actual hunter-nin his students picked a fight with.
And great, now the bubbles are coming this way. He’s so done with this.
Asuma shouts back at his students, “You three get out of here!”
“We can help, Sensei!” Ino cries. But the bubbles multiply around them, pushing the kids back, merging into a barrier, and blocking them off from the fight.
Asuma brings up his fists, alarmed and alert. He’s not sure where that loose-robed man went, or that hunter-nin, his senses muted by the haze. He sees Tsunade barreling ahead, pushing the fight farther down the road as she lifts a cart clear over her head.
He hears a warning shout, and before he can turn, pain explodes in the back of his head as his vision goes black.
Tsunade throws another apple cart.
These assholes. She was going to buy a boat with that money!
And was that Hiruzen’s kid back there? Ugh. She doesn’t remember him as a tattler when she babysat him, so maybe Sensei won’t hear about this.
...Who is she kidding? She’d have better luck hitting another jackpot.
The cart edge catches one of the nin in the arm. He tears off his sleeve where he’s cut open and—
Tsunade lurches, and can’t quite avoid the incoming blow that sends her backwards into the outer wall. It’s a weak hit; her head barely cracks the boards, but she’s starting to breathe a bit too fast, her vision a bit too dark. The sight of red—too much red on Dan—is pulling her down and down.
Sakura nearly topples off of Tsunade-sama’s shoulder, gripping the sleeve with her claws as they sway. But she falls of right as Tsunade is thrown backwards.
Sakura looks up, horrified, as Tsunade-sama staggers away from the wall. Sakura doesn’t know what happened; she seems ill, about to drop.
All Sakura knows she has to help; she has to do something.
It hurts—Dan, she can’t—
Tsunade forces her hearing to focus; she latches onto a fox cry as a beacon through the haze. Pinky is standing in front of her now, defensive and bristling.
One of the bastards laughs, “The fuck is this pink thing trying to do?” as he steps up to kick Pinky aside.
“Touch this fox,” Tsunade spits as she staggers forward, trying to keep her vision from greying out, “and you’re getting turned inside out .”
The bleeding missing-nin laughs at that.
But Pinky shrieks furiously at them this time, her little face a snarl. Through the sound, Tsunade hears a distant chime. She wonders if she hit her head too hard against that wall. But Tsunade braces herself up anyway, glaring at these laughing assholes, wanting nothing more than for them to feel the same, to reflect the the worst sort of pain on them, and—
She watches the nearest hunter-nin crumple to the ground, his legs falling out from under him. For a moment, she thinks he’s dropped dead, but then his body heaves into pitiful moans and broken sobs.
“Oh god,” the hunter-nin gasps out as he’s digging his fingers painfully into the dirt, “mom, I’m so sorry…”
The other two stare, bewildered. “What…?”
“What’s wrong with him?” asks one of the missing-nin.
The other hunter-nin assess Pinky, and one completely breaks composure, jumping back. “Oh, fuck me, that’s an Uzushio fox!”
“A what?” another missing-nin asks.
“Those things trick you with visions,” the hunter's starting to sweat, “and they steal your soul!”
Pinky shrieks again. The hunter-nin and missing-nin scream.
But it’s not just the fox, she thinks.
Tsunade, so lightheaded but no longer caring in the slightest, takes an unsteady step towards them as she begins to laugh, the bells clamoring around them.
Utakata curses this entire situation as he chases off the hunter that attacked that Konoha nin. At least he blocked off those children in time.
All these people are throwing themselves like idiots into his problems, risking their lives. He should just leave, not drag anyone down into this and hurt them like he always does and always will. Always like the jinchuuriki he is.
But Saiken is warbling in the back of his head, insisting there’s a place for him, pressing on his chance of home and—
Utakata inhales sharply and turns around. He loops back to face his attackers, but the first hunter he comes upon is frozen, stock still and hands twitching.
The man rips off his mask, tears in his eyes. “Little brother, I didn’t mean to…”
What? But man’s not looking at Utakata, he’s looking through him, and Utakata watches him stagger away, talking to nobody Utakata can see. What on earth…?
The sound of laughter cuts through his thoughts, and he looks back in time to watch the blonde woman roundhouse kick a fake hunter-nin through a wall.
Asuma’s senses come awake to barking, and his ears are ringing from the lucky blow. Oh, it’s the grey fox again, urging him to get up.
He gets to his feet. His hearing isn't quite back to catch whatever the other nin are screaming about, but he shakes his head once and tightens his fingers into a fist as he rushes forward. He has an ample opening to take one flailing bastard out, punching him clean in the temple as Tsunade pummels the other in the gut.
Asuma smirks down at his fox audience. “How’s that?”
The grey one glances away and stares at the spot where Asuma blacked out, and then back to him. It blinks once, slow and unimpressed, before it lopes over to Tsunade, the little black and orange ones on his heels.
...Asuma just got wordlessly dressed down by a fox . He can’t believe this shit.
He hears a series of bubbles popping; and his students are racing over to his side.
"I'm alright," he says as he shakes out his head again. One last nuisance, he thinks, eying the last fake standing, and then he’ll find that teahouse owner and gut him.
Tsunade will probably collapse if she lets herself, so she won’t.
She sees Shizune emerging from the half-collapsed teahouse, and hopes the casualties aren’t too bad. Besides, she’s raring to get the hell out of here; she’s got bells calling.
She steps forward; now to deal with this last asshole.
“Hey! No coming closer!” the one remaining missing-nin hollers, a battered yet intricate scroll in his hands.
“That’s—” She and Asuma stop at the same time. Her stomach drops. That scroll is—how on earth does he have that ?
“Yeah, yeah! You better stop,” says the still-standing idiot, brandishing the scroll, lisping from his swollen lip. “I’ll just use the big weapon that’s sealed in this thing!” He shakes it with emphasis.
Too much emphasis, when he loses his grip and it drops, the abused spiral seal on it snapping as it unfurls on the ground.
Asuma drops the concussed hunter-nin from his hands and takes a giant step back, pushing his students behind him. Tsunade and the foxes are already running, Shizune not far behind her, scrambling for higher ground.
“What the hell?” the missing-nin calls out, dripping blood all over the iconic spiraling matrices. “It’s just some stupid paper—”
Water explodes out of the scroll face, engulfing the nin in its wake as the torrent snakes along the road, sending sprays of foam and gouging out deep rivulets in the ground with its power. Civilians scramble indoors to avoid being taken by the current.
Tsunade braces Pinky by one hand and follows the other foxes as she climbs the wall of an inn to its overhanging wood balcony, with Shizune and the brats from Konoha not far behind her. She looks back and sees the robed weirdo warily maneuvering Angry Mito up the balcony while the fox snaps at his fingers. Tsunade hefts the large kid up just as the as the water passes right under his feet, and she kicks a passing missing-nin in the head for good measure.
They watch, amazed, as the main thoroughfare transforms into a writhing river, stretching across the entire village and beyond. The water is unrelenting, cutting deeper and deeper through the ground, until it finally settles into a steady flow, its mirror surface reflecting the late afternoon sun.
“What the fuck,” Kurama seethes. “Is someone giving out these fucking scrolls like candy?”
Team Seven all nod in agreement as they stare at the torrent; it sure seems that way.
Sakura looks up from the river that was once a road and asks, “Aren’t Uzu scrolls rare?”
“With Uzushio destroyed, incredibly,” Kakashi answers. “If someone is distributing them like this, the biggest question is why.”
“Because they’re stupid!” Naruto says confidently. “All they’re doing is making a mess!”
“It’s not stupid, idiot, if they intend to cause that damage,” Sasuke cuts in.
“That’s so dumb! And who’re you calling an idiot, asshole?”
And they’re off squabbling again.
“As for who,” Kurama says lowly with a glare, ears flat to his skull, “you know where they must be coming from.”
Of course Kakashi knows where. There’s only one logical answer: Konoha. It’s all the more reason to avoid the place as they currently are.
Kakashi then watches Kurama turn his glare to Asuma. Ah.
“I’m not about to reveal us,” he reminds Kurama.
“You better not,” he turns back and sneers, but his ears lift back up. In relief, Kakashi suspects.
Naruto breaks the moment to interrupt, bless him. “Oh yeah, Sakura, that thing you did was so cool!”
“Maa, it was a very effective technique,” Kakashi adds.
"Oh thank you," Sakura can't seem to help but preen, a little flustered, "But... I don't really know what happened? I just shouted at them."
Naruto snickers. "Yeah, but you scared the pants off of them! I bet you could freak out a room full of missing-nin, you know!"
But now Sasuke has a look in his eyes like he absolutely wants to be the first one to terrorize a room full of of missing-nin. “Then we need to determine how it was done.”
That’s a healthier goal, Kakashi supposes.
Kurama is now snickering as he listens to the kids start to argue about how it works and who can pull it off first. “Genjutsu? Really?” he says to himself.
“Hm? Care to share?” Kakashi asks.
Kurama gives him the side-eye. “Why should I when you’ve already figured it out?”
Kakashi shrugs. “Maa, just bits and pieces.”
Really, his best guess is they’re spiritual conductors, with Uzumaki as emotional conduits. The technical hows of it are currently escaping him, but he’ll puzzle it out.
Kurama snorts. “I’m sure you’re really struggling, you smartass. As if it’s so hard to solve; let them figure it out.”
“You’re passing up an opportunity to boast about fox power?”
Kurama looks like he’s seriously considering it. Then he grins as he watches Naruto and Sasuke break out into a scuffle while Sakura is yelling at them both. “But it’s funnier not to tell them how.”
Oh, Kakashi can attest to that. And isn’t it novel to relate so well to a demon fox?
“Well,” says the loose-robed man, eyeing the river that used to be a road. “That was odd.”
Odd is an understatement, Asuma thinks, and what the hell kind of guy is this, anyway, to have so many hunter-nin after him?
He opens his mouth to say so, when Tsunade cuts in, “Oh hey, everything alright, Shizune?”
Shizune smiles. “Yes. I’m fine, and the people at the teahouse are too. Most injuries were fight-related. You punched the ceiling in time.”
Tsunade nods, mostly to herself. “Good.” After a moment, she asks, “...You think they’ll make us pay for it?”
Shizune purses her lips. “Hm. Seems like it’s time for us to go. Again.”
Tsunade nods again, and hauls herself to her feet. She squints at Asuma. “In that case,” she points a woozy but threatening finger towards him. “I... was never here, kid.”
The foxes circle around as Shizune and the man in the loose robe as they all coax Tsunade away. The large fox sneers at Asuma and his team as it stomps off.
Asuma raises his eyebrows and watches the parade leave across the rooftops. This is going to be hell to explain in his mission report.
As his team makes their way back down the building, Asuma sees Takusu attempting to skulk away down the alley behind them. Asuma jumps down, pivots on his heel, and twists Takusu’s arm as he hauls the bedraggled teahouse owner up. Takusu flails, but Asuma slams him into a wall, pressing his forearm hard into his neck.
Asuma smiles thinly. “We should talk.”
“I don’t know what you—”
Asuma presses harder. “Do not bullshit me. What did you really order?”
“Okay, okay!” Takusu wheezes. “I shouldn’t have denied that the cakes had gold leaf!”
Asuma must have not heard that right.
Takusu continues, “I—I had a broker help me arrange it with the bakery. The order was already so expensive; it would’ve bumped me up to a higher insurance bracket if I declared it!”
“A broker?” That wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the briefing.
Takusu swallows and nods. “Well, indirectly. He approached me a couple weeks ago with the idea and had me sign all the paperwork.”
Asuma loosens his grip. “And you don’t think that’s the least bit suspicious?”
Takusu wrings his hands. “You don’t know how hard it is for a teahouse to stay popular here! It would be a great promotional item! Maybe as a nice comp for our high rollers! And I swear, I didn’t know there’d be anything else!"
“You risked this for a gambling hall—”
“Of course I risked it! I am an entrepreneur, thank you!”
“What you are is a damn proxy for smuggling!” Asuma barks. “You think Konoha won’t be interested in investigating?”
“Okay okay, wait, please; I didn’t know what they were after; I was just told to sign papers and to make the payment for the order and things would be taken care of in Konoha!”
It’s clear Takusu was taken for an easy pawn. Someone in Konoha had to have had a hand in this. But to involve something on the level of an Uzu scroll…
Asuma needs a cigarette or six, but he stares Takusu down. “You’re going to tell me everything about your meeting with this broker.”
Double update! Please click back to read chapter 5 first!
Asuma’s team takes a break in a copse of trees in an orchard a good few kilometers outside Matcha. His students all look rattled, but it could have been so much worse.
An Uzu scroll—Asuma feels sick. He knows them by the stories he shouldn’t have eavesdropped on when he was a little kid. His team had that thing in their possession the whole time. An unpredictable weapon those missing-nin would have taken to do gods-knows-what.
He had interrogated Takusu a while longer, but the description of the broker was a non-starter; plain face, brown hair, brown eyes, nothing distinct. He could’ve used a henge, possibly, but there’s no way a civilian would be able to detect the difference.
C-Ranks aren’t supposed to be like this. Things can go wrong, but this wrong? Without any vetting? Precautions? It makes his stomach sink more, thinking of the absent Team Seven, of his suspicions. What if genin teams are being targeted?
In any case, someone in Konoha’s administration may be compromised, and he doesn’t know who yet, or how far up it goes. As much as Konoha nin like to project belief in each other and their village, betrayal is not inconceivable; the forbidden scroll debacle with that academy instructor is still fresh in his memory.
“Sensei, um,” Chouji’s fingers are twitching; he looks like he wishes he had a bag of chips in his hands. “What exactly was that scroll?”
Ino peers at Asuma as well. “And who was that woman? She knew you.”
Shikamaru doesn’t look away from the sky from where he’s lying in the grass, but his brow furrows. “How this troublesome mission even happened in the first place is the real question.”
“Alright, listen up.” Asuma puts out his cigarette. “I’ll answer what I can, but then I’m going to teach you all an important lesson: how to keep your story straight.”
“And who the hell are you, anyway?” the blonde woman growls. The other woman—Shizune—is looking warily at him, and even the pig is staring him down.
Utakata’s not quite sure what he’s gotten himself into. He keeps his face blank as he walks with them. They’re along the newfound river that was once the road, putting the remains of Matcha behind them, the farm fields giving way again to wild prairie. He’d rather run in the other direction at this point, and Saiken is much too pleased for any of this.
“Utakata,” he finally says. He doesn’t want to give away his jinchuuriki status if he can help it, so he simply adds, “I’m with that one,” as he points to Saiken’s brother.
She squints at him. “Angry-Mito?”
Utakata gets the feeling that is not the right name when the fox hisses and Saiken outright guffaws. He decides it’s wisest to not comment.
She then asks the fox, rudely pointing at Utakata, “This guy’s really with you?”
The big fox huffs and puffs, but eventually nods.
“Fine,” she says, crossing her arms, tipping her head to the foxes. “But you so much as look at any of them funny and I drop kick you through a mountain.”
Right then it hits him as he places her face, her strength, and the seal on her forehead to a half remembered Kiri warning. As little as he ascribes to the fame and infamy of most nin—a jinchuuriki has little to fear—this is Senju Tsunade. She is an undeniable legend, a force to be reckoned with, and a third of the once-whispered nightmare of the Sannin.
But then she looks him over in appraisal and says, “So. Since you’re here, you got any money? A couple hundred thousand, preferably.”
She huffs at his stunned silence. “Typical. Then are you any good at gambling?”
Oh, she actually wants an answer. “...Er, not really—”
She groans with feeling. “I’m surrounded by amateurs, Shizune!”
Her companion pats her arm. “There there, Tsunade-sama.”
Utakata doesn’t quite know what to say to that, so he peers at the foxes next. He knows “Angry-Mito” is a free tailed beast, somehow, but that still doesn’t explain the other four.
“Are... they your summons?” he asks. Utakata’s fairly certain she’s called the Slug Princess, not the Fox Princess, but he can admit to being wrong.
Tsunade snorts and waves out her hand. “Of course not. Just listen to them.”
Listen to them? Utakata just gives her a puzzled look.
She blinks and looks at the foxes and then back to him. “What, you can’t hear it?”
“...Hear what?” Shizune asks.
Tsunade groans. “Oh come on, Shizune, seriously? No one else hears the bells?”
Bells? Bells ? Utakata suddenly wants to take a step back. Or maybe several. The claim of bells could only mean—
“Those are Uzushio foxes?” Utakata can’t help but let his voice go a bit breathless at the end of his question. He thought they were just made up or a myth. For all the notoriety of Uzushio, of the untold horrors they could summon to earth in battle, spirits simply walking among them is unheard of, never really believed. They’re supposed to be stories to scare children. They aren’t supposed to be real.
And that’s where Saiken wants to go? Uzushio?
Yet... Saiken is promising him sanctuary. A home. It’s something he hasn’t had in years, something he never thought he could have. The thought is tempting in the most agonizing way.
Utakata wants so badly, and Saiken knows it.
...But he looks at Angry-Mito, still hissing, and all the eerie foxes, and wonders yet again if a smarter man would’ve run to the other side of the continent by now.
On an island in the middle of the ocean, next to their makeshift moss beds, Haku folds over the palm leaves wrapping the provisions he’s gathered.
That is, provisions that even more animals have gathered for him. It’s a spectacle of birds: pelicans with fish in their beaks, parrots dropping mangos from high branches, and a goofy-looking thing—”A shoebill, Zabuza-sama,”—had rolled in an entire watermelon. Zabuza isn’t sure he wants to know where it managed to find that.
And great, more toucans are here. One of them pecks at Zabuza’s hand when he tries to take a berry from another small pile it dragged in on a palm leaf. “Ow, fuck! You little sh—”
“Now don’t be like that,” Haku waves a finger at the bird, lightly chiding, “it’s okay for Zabuza-sama to have some of this food, too.” He picks up a couple berries and sets them in Zabuza’s palm. “See?”
The toucan bows its head, as if chastened by the rebuke. But the moment Haku turns away, it turns its beak and narrows its eyes suspiciously at Zabuza.
Haku sets the palm leaf packages into his coat, folding it all into a makeshift bag. Zabuza had tried to offer to carry something but Haku just gave him and his sword a look and politely laughed it off. Zabuza doesn’t force the issue. These birds might try to kill Zabuza if he took all that food of off Haku, anyway.
Haku loops the newfound bag around his shoulder and tugs at it, ensuring it’s secure. “I think that’s everything. Are you ready, sir?”
Zabuza is ready to try his raft plan again. Or just swimming for it, but Haku would be upset if Zabuza drowned in a whirlpool like an idiot.
Four more seals. Four. More.
“Yeah,” he says instead, as he hefts Kubikiribōchō up and straps it to his back, a comfortable weight. He needs all the comfort he can get, willingly walking into Uzu wilds.
They make their way along the beach, Haku bobbing his head politely along to whatever the Uzumaki is saying. He turns to address Zabuza. “Uzumaki-sama says this is a good point of entry.”
Zabuza just nods, because what the hell else is he going to do?
Haku turns around and waves goodbye to the flock of flamingos loitering near them, and the flamingos honk and flap their wings. Zabuza waves goodbye to any hope of getting off this island quickly.
They start along the path into the trees, into the rainforest that brackets the sand bar. The Uzumaki is making the path for them; seals seem to be hidden all over the damn place on here—rocks, trees, more of those shrines—and they light up wherever the ghost maneuvers to one. He can’t quite get over how effortless she makes it seem, and he still can’t even see her.
As relaxed as he still feels in the aftermath of activating that seal in the cave, that shit still creeps him out.
More and more animals are peering out of the brush and trees: red pandas, lemurs, iguanas, all brazen in their curiosity. That’s fine. Whatever. As long as it isn’t a fox.
Not that he’s scared of a stupid animal.
They carefully cross over a shaded river—Zabuza curses their current lack of chakra control—at the point where a felled fig tree bridges the two sides. Zabuza looks along the river’s length, seemingly endless. It must span the entire island. Its shoreline has all sorts of weird plants around it, too; red flowers, especially. He was never great at botany, but Haku might know them.
“Spider lilies; very pretty, sir,” is all Haku says to it.
They continue on. Despite the warm breeze, he can’t help but shiver. Since they crossed over the river, it feels like something’s been watching them, and he doesn’t mean the creepy ghost.
Just then, Zabuza spots something out of the corner of his eye and he turns sharply. Was that—
He looks around, but nothing’s there to be seen. He shivers again and presses onward, fingers twitching the slightest for Kubikiribōchō should he need it.
He doesn’t spot the curious eyes peering at them from the underbrush.
They reach the southern interior of the island. The fig and rubber trees begin to thin out, giving way to dogwoods and oaks. Fewer and fewer chattering birds fly overhead, following their path for only a few minutes before veering off again. Before long, they come to a solid wall of trees, close together, and through the impassable vines snaked around them, Haku can barely make out an open meadow. The place feels still, devoid of sound.
Haku looks up. Hundreds of bells are tied by a rainbow of strings to the branches. They dance in the gentle wind, but none of them chime. In turn, hundreds of lunar moths rest along the tree branches, silently shifting their wings closed and open, catching the glances of late day sun in their span. A few tip off the branches to alight down to Haku. He tips up his palm and lets one land on his hand.
“Seriously?” he hears Zabuza-sama mutter next to him. Haku hides a smile when he sees one land in Zabuza-sama’s hair without him noticing.
But, he wonders, where is the seal they need to activate?
Haku blinks and Uzumaki-sama is standing in front of him again. He watches as her fingers glance a small seal hidden in the knot of a tree trunk. The vines unfurl, gnarled roots twist and open, the gap between two trees grows wide enough to slip through.
"You're sure you want to do this?" Zabuza-sama asks, gruff but hushed in the resuming silence.
"I want to help, Zabuza-sama, and it would not do to make you do all of this alone." Haku murmurs back.
Zabuza-sama nods, though stiff and tense. His eyes are wary and alert as Haku walks forward, leaving Zabuza-sama at the treeline.
Uzumaki-sama whispers to him as he passes between the opening of two trees:
A place of recall.
The moths takes off again towards the plinth in the center of the meadow, surrounded by an impressive spiral of set mossy stones half buried in the grass. Haku looks close as he passes the outer tendril, and can see flowing seal etchings in patches between the moss growth on the stones. They’re beautiful designs, though he has no chance of reading them. Perhaps he could ask Uzumaki-sama about them.
He steps to the plinth. He feels the barest wisps of wind waft from it. He examines the central seal, made of several tight spirals. This must be it.
He pulls a senbon from his hair and pricks at the veins in his palm, watching the blood begin to bead.
Blood. Haku thinks about his mother, the moments few and far between with just the two of them. How the worst of the world could fall away when she held his hand, kissed his cheek, whispered a song.
Haku thinks about the family he's made in Zabuza-sama. It's like he said to that Uzumaki boy: family can become bigger, or change in time. It's what you make it, and Haku wants to make it that they stay a family for a while longer.
He smiles, fond, and turns his hand over and sets it into the seal.
It pulls at him; the breeze picks up and tassels his hair about. He hears the whooshing exhale of the wind as it casts out farther, faster. The seal takes and takes, but he’s got more than enough to give. Then, it shifts, inhales, and Haku is the center of a whirlwind. He breathes with it, buoyant, lighter, like his very being is rising with the moths now dancing up around him.
The bells chime all around. He looks back at the other moths scattering from their resting places in the trees, fanning out and above the meadow, joining their brethren as the bells sway in time.
Haku can almost imagine his mother’s voice singing in the wind.
He walks back to the treeline, where Zabuza-sama steps out to greet him and can’t quite hide the worry from his eyes. "You're alright, Haku?"
"Perfectly fine, sir. I feel better than before, in fact."
Zabuza-sama nods and shivers a little. "Bells, huh," he tries to say nonchalantly as he looks around. "Wonder what that'll do." Then he snorts. “Probably not what I expect.”
Haku smiles. “Probably not, sir.”
Uzumaki-sama closes her eyes for a moment, taking in the sound. She smiles, opens her eyes and turns her face to the west, as if watching the wind carry the symphony away.
Far west of Tea Country, a bell rings.
He takes a sharp, pained breath. He thinks of his parents, for the first time in many years.
But they fall away again, and he thinks of his friend, his partner, who he cannot go a single moment without aching, hurting for. His mouth tightens at the still-open wound.
His friend began this dream.
He will see to it that he finishes it.
Back east in Konoha, in his miniscule kitchen, he flinches. Thoughts of his grandfather and of stories of secrets come unbidden. Things he was warned by his family to bury deep away, keep safe, though he never quite managed. Minato—
He hears a tap on the glass. Fuck. A crisis of self couldn’t come at a worse time.
He opens his window to a messenger hawk. He’s being summoned for an audience with the Hokage.
He takes a deep breath through his nose, schools his expression, and pretends nothing is different as he jumps off of the balcony.
In a neighboring country, in a fortified compound, he nearly snaps his pen in half.
...Well, isn’t this something.
He taps his pen on his desk, thinking, considering, combing through the memories bubbling up to the surface. The stories he’s heard. Maybe... maybe he doesn’t have to give up on his original dream after all.
But as curious as he is to follow now , as tempted as he’s ever been to drop everything and run , he’s on a deadline. He has arrangements in Sand to make.
Surrounded by the desert dunes, it’s just the two of them in their team training today, as it is most days, to their relief.
They each play off the sudden wince as intentional. Though they are genin, they are their father’s children. There are expectations of no mistakes.
But when their mentor dismisses them, and when no one else is listening in the dusty evening haze, a sister whispers to her shaken brother, “...You heard that too?”
In the underbelly of Tanzaku Quarters, his breath nearly hitches. A chill runs up his body, but he is not cold. He does not understand. It is an old memory, his brother. He should not think of—
Focus. He is his mission. He does not feel. He is no one.
But the memories keep coming and the feeling won’t stop.
In the chasm of his private world, the silence breaks.
It’s muted, muffled, but there… the sound that carried with it a team who came together. Meant to be with each other.
The sound ceases as soon as it begins, and he can’t be sure he ever heard it at all.
In a prairie in north-west Tea Country, Kakashi can’t help but stop in his tracks.
The sounds of the bells echo through him, and sets his nerves electric. It’s nothing short of invigorating, his senses expanding, spreading out in a wave across the continent. There, warm swirls of life and light. It’s few, and distant, difficult to really pinpoint, but they’re there.
Uzu people. Uzumaki. Naruto’s family, Kushina’s family. They’re out there and alive.
“Oh,” he says, and he thinks words can’t really convey how he feels right now.
“Woah, what is that?” Naruto asks next to him, looking around wildly. Sakura is wide eyed, peering out intently.
“It’s people,” Sasuke says, a little awed.
“People?” Naruto squints hard, sticking his tongue out, then gasps. “Oh, wow!” He dances around. “So those those swirly things are people? Cool!”
“It appears so,” Kakashi says. “Somewhere to the west.”
“And that’s my family, right?” Naruto asks, vibrating in excitement.
“Oh now we all sense them?” Kurama asks, derisive. “Then—” He freezes, then sneers. “...Oh I’m going to kill Suzu.”
Kurama doesn’t elaborate, and Kakashi’s brow raises. Doesn’t that sound intriguing. Considering how cagey Kurama is about anything, Kakashi supposes he’ll have to bide his time on it.
Of course, Naruto immediately asks, “Kill the old fox guy? Why’s that?”
“None of your business, brat.” Kurama automatically rebukes, turning farther west and walking away.
“Then don’t say your business out loud, shitty fox!” Naruto hollers after him.
Kurama ignores him in favor of Tsunade. “Hey, you drunk has-been! This way!” he yells.
“Don’t talk about Tsunade-sama like that!” Sakura snaps at him, and, well, that’s new. Kakashi silently approves.
Kurama snorts. “I’ll talk about anyone I damn well—”
“Oh,” Tsunade turns back to assess them, “you all have something figured out?” She grins. “You’re our guides, then. Lead the way!”
Naruto whoops and scampers ahead, his teammates not far behind him. Kurama grumbles but picks up the pace. They run north-west, the wind behind them, and for once in his life, Kakashi feels light on his feet, his faith in Kushina to see this through.
She’s hiding in the supply closet. Just a few minutes. Just to take a break. She can say she’s checking inventory if anyone catches her. She’s mindlessly rearranging a row of bandages when she nearly pulls down the shelf from its hinges in a full-body jerk. Her knees wobble, and she carefully lowers herself to the floor.
The most astonishing feeling just crossed her senses. Loud, bright, vibrant. The feeling warms her through, like swirls in the sun.
Like her mother was.
Karin swallows hard.
She focuses. It’s still there. It’s far, too. All the way across Fire Country and out to sea. It’s far, but so, so bright.
She could… she wants to...
Karin shakes her head. What is she thinking? She’s needed here, to help people, to heal them. There was noise of her trying for the chuunin exams in a few months, too. She’d become a missing-nin? For a feeling? Throw it all away?
(Like they threw away her mother?)
She takes a deep breath and stands. She better return to her shift before anyone notices how long she’s been gone. But the feeling swirls and rings in the back of her mind and she wonders .
By the end of the night, her arm sore from bite marks and fingers stiff, she…
She can’t take it anymore.
She’s going to find the feeling or she’s going to die trying.
She sneaks back into the supply closet and steals as many things as she can, things that are usable or tradeable, as much as she can hide. She goes home and shakes out a backpack, stuffing her spoils into the pockets. In the remaining space she’ll put clothes, and food. She hides all the money she had tucked in her bed roll in various spots on her person.
She pauses to grab a small photo of her and her mother that’s tacked to the wall. She stares at it for a long moment, then carefully tucks it into a hidden pocket of her shirt, sitting it above her heart.
She turns off all the lights and unlatches the window. Her skills in chakra suppression will really come in handy now.
She makes it a few kilometers out of the village when she pulls off her hitai-ate. She looks to her left at the sound of flowing water. It’s impulsive, and probably stupid, but she takes great pleasure in dropping it in the river. All the while, she has a kunai under her sleeve, gripping it tight in a thrum of terrified certainty. If she dies trying, she’s going to go down swinging.
She arrives to the mawing darkness of the tallgrass field stretching before her, lit only by the stars, pointing the way East.
The bells in her mind ring loud and clear as she steps into the grass.
edit: added an extra short scene for clarity
The fox parade marches on towards the sinking sun, into rolling savannah that brackets the southern border of Fire Country. The little foxes had been running after each other, Inky and Loud-Nawaki each trying to stay ahead of the other, Pinky at their heels, and Sassy-Sakumo behind them at a comfortable distance. As the evening closes in, they’ve slowed a bit now to walking, their shorter legs not quite suited to long treks.
Tsunade yawns into her hand, kicking up a couple oak leaves on the grass pathway with her sandal; her first “Uzushio Fund” plan was a total bust—not that it was her fault for once—and they somehow managed to pick up a weird hitchhiker, too. Speaking of:
“Do you know where we’re going?” Utakata asks, walking a touch ahead, politely in Tsunade’s line of sight.
“Nope!” Tsunade responds, and that’s a bit of a lie. She has an idea, an inkling—
But she wants to see what Utakata knows.
Tsunade doesn’t know Utakata’s backstory, and she probably doesn’t want to, but he’s likely led just as sorry a life as she has the past few years. He’s an unknown, and definitely on the run for some reason, but if the foxes gave him the O.K., she’s not going to press hard. Well, press too hard.
“So, how do you know Angry-Mito?” she asks, crossing her arms as she tips her head to look at him.
Utakata glances back at her, then looks ahead again. “...I know his brother,” he offers.
Tsunade’s eyebrows raise. “Oh?”
But he doesn’t elaborate. “This is the first time we’ve met,” he says instead, gesturing to Angry-Mito in front of him. Angry-Mito rolls his head back and sneers. The rest of the foxes are all blatantly eavesdropping at this point, slowing down to hear this conversation.
“I can tell,” Tsunade smirks, “you seemed surprised to see them.” And the fact that he didn’t recognize them at first.
“Well, I didn’t realize there were that many,” Utakata responds, composed as ever, but a bit paler as Loud-Nawaki runs around his feet.
Yeah, Tsunade’s pinging him for a Kiri kid, if she had to guess. It raises her hackles; they’re half of who wiped out her grandmother’s home, her people, her history, and she won’t ever forget it. But it says a lot that he’s here , and not running back to Kiri. They don’t like to let their people leave the village and live to tell about it. Something must have happened there to make him find Uzushio more appealing than his homeland, possibly something to do with Angry-Mito’s brother. She never thought any Uzu fox would become friendly nowadays with someone from Kiri, but what does she know? It’s hard to guess the motives of spirits. The foxes never visited her before until now either.
Before she can ask another question, Tsunade yawns again. She’d usually be drinking at this time of day, but her routines are out the window for the foreseeable future.
Then the baby foxes yawn with her, starting to list to the side as they walk, tails drooping.
“Tired, huh?” She asks. She crouches down, scooping up all the baby foxes into one arm as they grumble-squeak.
The older foxes are looking equally tired. Maybe they can get in another hour of travel and find a village if she carries them too. But as if reading her thoughts, Sassy-Sakumo side steps her, moving nimbly out of arm’s reach.
She huffs and turns to Angry-Mito. "You want me to carry you?"
“It's not that bad,” Tsunade argues, but Angry-Mito bares his teeth at that.
Well, she asked this time. Tsunade rolls her eyes and jabs a thumb over to her left. “Then your new pal can carry you—”
Utakata shakes his head ‘no’ very quickly.
“We’re getting nowhere fast at this rate,” Tsunade complains.
“It has been a hectic day,” Shizune hedges.
Tsunade can take a hint. She doesn’t have to like it though. “Ugh. We’re gonna have to rough it, aren’t we.”
“Fine.” Tsunade sets the foxes back down and looks around for a tree to settle under. “We’ll set up camp.”
She supposes she’s slept in worse places.
It’s dark on the island, now. The light of the stars is barely peeking through the growing density of the rainforest canopy. They’re under the impressive silhouette of a fig tree, where a stone shrine is bracketing the trunk, tilting sideways.
It’s creepier here, Zabuza thinks, than it was at the shoreline. At least he could pretend he had an escape route there, as much as the water mocked him. Haku also keeps looking like he’s trying not to laugh at Zabuza; Zabuza would ask what that’s all about, but he privately likes seeing Haku in such a good mood.
They could continue on, and Zabuza would actually prefer it, but then Haku stops in front of him and frowns.
“Oh,” Haku says, his brow furrowing slightly, as much as Zabuza can see it in the darkness. After a beat, Haku adds, “Uzumaki-sama wants us to stay and camp here for the night.”
He bites his lip. “She can only say she will be back as soon as she can.”
More questions unanswered. Zabuza bares his teeth under the wappings and addresses the empty air, “What, so we’re just supposed to sit here twiddling our thumbs all night while you wander off?”
He catches a flare of light from the corner of his eye. He turns, only to get pelted in the arm with a pebble. It doesn’t even hurt, but—really? He knows she can fucking talk to him!
He wants to find these seals, unfuck this island, and leave . They can’t do that if they’re wasting time. Despite what most people would believe, he still has a shambles of a life to get back to. He still likes to pretend he has plans.
“C’mon, Haku.” He steps forward to continue on, but freezes, as an overwhelming wave of chakra rises, spinning out of the seal of the shrine.
Do not go alone, whispers her disembodied voice as the invisible power flows around and through him, causing all his hair to stand on end. The moment it’s there it’s gone again, seals behind him lighting up in warm firelight, one after another, until the path disappears into the thick of the rainforest.
...Alright, point made. In fact, he might prefer the rocks.
The darkness encroaches on them once more as they settle against the trunk of the tree. He sighs and his stupid hair flutters again. Stupid Uzushio.
First order of business.
She steps from seal to seal, tree to shrine to stone to tree, edging closer to the center of the island. She should—she needs to see, to soothe what’s gnawed at the back of her mind for the last thirty years captive at that shoreline.
She wraps around the final seal and leaps. Her feet touch down at the edge of the once-gleaming pebbles, where the very center cradles the once-bombastic gem that had thrummed with life and so much more.
She exhales, tension bleeding out of her.
The gods may not be here, but this—this is still here, and for now that is enough.
And now to the second order of business.
Something has been circling around them—her, Haku, and the other one—calling to the shrines ever since the first seal was activated. As much as it pained her to ignore the call, it was vital to activate the second seal quickly. Now they have a bit of time. She can search, seek out who it is.
She arrives to where she last heard a call, peering around the dark forest. Hopefully, whoever it is hasn’t wandered too far.
She senses a rustle of leaves from the side and she slinks back into one of the still-intact shrines to observe the curious new visitor to the island. Her eyes widen, the barest smile playing at her lips.
Ah ha, she says to herself, so this is what the gods are up to?
She follows along with the little interloper from shrine to shrine, her smile widening at these newfound implications. She’ll have to introduce herself.
Of course it had to be those particular gods, as well. She laughs to herself this time. I am in so much trouble, aren’t I?
They are in so much trouble, aren’t they?
It’s night, quiet with the low brush of lazy wind against the grass. His kids are (supposedly) settled, all is well for the moment, but Kakashi can’t turn off his brain. Tailed beasts and their jinchuuriki may be on the move, someone is throwing Uzu scrolls across the nation, and they need to find the last remaining Uzumaki before it all really goes to hell—
His ear flicks at a the sound of movement yet again behind him. "Maa, you're supposed to be sleeping, Naruto," he murmurs.
"I am sleeping!" Naruto says nonsensically. But a couple minutes pass, and Kakashi hears shifting again.
"Hey, um, Sensei," Naruto whispers as he wriggles over to where Kakashi is sitting. "Can you tell me another story about my mom and dad?"
The request twinges, but Kakashi can't help but acquiesce. "I'll tell you one for now. Let's see..."
He can tell Sakura and Sasuke are listening in now too, still pretending to be asleep. He needs to teach them how to better fake their breathing tempo.
But for now, he thinks back, and decides to tell the story that he wanted to share back in Wave. "I was five, a new genin, about two weeks into training with Minato-sensei."
"You graduated at five?!" Naruto interrupts.
"Isn't that the youngest age ever?" Sakura asks, scooting closer over while dropping any pretense of sleep.
"One of the youngest," Kakashi hedges, watching Sasuke stiffen slightly out of the corner of his eye. "In any case, Naruto, your dad had agreed to take me on as a student, sans a team. This was his first time teaching, and I was an outlier student. He wasn’t quite sure what do with me at first, so we spent a lot of time in the library as he showed me his research."
"The library?" Naruto says, appalled. "Reading!?"
"I love the library," Sakura admits.
“Uhh, me too,” Naruto quickly corrects.
"I was reading through advanced ninjutsu theory for the third straight day—" Kakashi pauses for effect, then adds, "—when the roof completely vanishes."
Naruto gapes at that. Sakura gasps a little. Sasuke's ears stick straight up.
"In the shock, this red haired woman drops down from nowhere, trips my sensei, screams, 'Demo time, nerd!' and grabs me before he can even react." Kakashi hums. “I’m sure you can guess who that was.”
"My mom is so cool," Naruto whispers, open mouthed.
“We’re off running through the village. I couldn't even begin to escape the hold she had me in, but Minato-sensei quickly catches up with her as we made it to a training field. So Kushina throws down etched kunai, tosses me behind a seal barrier with a wink, and says this would get me out of studying.
“It was the first time I'd ever seen such fuuinjutsu up close. We'd practiced tags at the Academy," all three of his students made a bit of a face at that. Kakashi could relate; the fuuinjutsu curriculum is seriously lacking in Konoha. "And I heard your dad was skilled in it, but to see it incorporated into fighting the way they could… it appeared as if Kushina was creating new seals on the fly, pulling whirlwinds from hidden spaces, things I’ve never seen before and never the same way twice.
“Minato-sensei was no slouch either. Did you know his nickname was the Yellow Flash? At his peak he could fly across villages in a snap. What he lacked against Kushina in spontaneity and power he made up for in speed and precision. I've never seen two people work so well in tandem.” Kakashi pauses, then adds, “I don’t think I’ve seen a training field destroyed so quickly, either.”
“So who won, Sensei?” Naruto asks excitedly.
“Maa, who do you think won?”
“My mom?” Naruto guesses.
“Um, Naruto’s mom,” Sakura decides.
“Kushina,” Sasuke says without hesitation.
Poor Minato-sensei. “It was…” Kakashi says dramatically, “a tie.”
“What!” Naruto shouts.
"They got yelled at to stop before they damaged the surrounding fields too. And then later they were both yelled at by the librarians and banned for a month, but I finally got to do some training and missions, so I was happy.”
“But who would win?” asks Sasuke.
Kakashi shrugs. “Who knows? They balanced each other in fighting and in life. It was an interesting early lesson as a genin, though it took me a while to recognize it. Kushina believed in living, learning, purely by experience. Minato wanted to know the whys of everything. She always thought, ‘why not?’”
"Pfft, don't look so deep,” Kurama suddenly interrupts, “she just got back from a long mission and didn’t even know you were there when she sealed the roof away. She was just flirting with him hard, and changed her plans when she spotted you."
Kakashi thinks about it. Kurama... is probably right about that. How much did he really witness? He tamps down on how unnerving that is, and instead teases, "Maa, do you want to take over storytelling then?"
His students look at Kurama expectantly, and he recoils.
"Wha—NO!" Kurama shouts, flustered. "Forget I said anything! GO AWAY. I'M LEAVING." He stomps away again to the edge of their camp.
Even if it wasn’t her turn on watch, there’s no way Ino could sleep.
They’re taking a rest break for a few hours in a forest in south Fire Country, before they make a push for the final stretch at dawn. Everything Asuma-sensei had said is running through her mind, over and over and over.
Their sensei is finally asleep himself, up half the night on watch planning and writing out what he called his “show” mission report. Ino really is learning so much about subterfuge, in retrospect.
Beyond that, it’s bothering her. This mission. Team Seven’s mission. Nothing’s sitting right, and she can’t stop wondering—worrying—about Sakura. Ino realizes it could have been worse for Team Seven. They might not have had someone like Senju Tsunade to help them, or that guy with the bubbles. Considering how her team’s mission could have otherwise played out—
Red flashes through Ino’s mind.
But Ino isn’t one to sit on her hands. She needs to—no, she’s going to do something.
“Psst, Chouji!” Ino hisses. “You asleep?”
“Um, not with you talking in my ear,” he mumbles.
She graciously ignores that. “Then poke Shika awake!” she insists quietly.
Chouji reluctantly does. Shikamaru bats weakly at his hand, but he does show more signs of life.
“Hmngh, what?” he grumbles, grouchy, not bothering to get up.
“It’s bothering you, isn’t,” Ino says without preamble.
“It wasn’t when I was sleeping,” Shikamaru stresses, finally rolling over to face her, “but yes.”
“Me too. But what should we do?” Chouji asks, worrying the hem of his shirt.
“As troublesome as it is,” Shikamaru’s eyes flick to their sleeping sensei, and back to them, “we’re not letting this go.”
“Well, duh,” Ino says. “So here’s the plan…”
It’s not quite dawn.
Zabuza doesn’t feel that staticy prickle of the Uzumaki’s presence, or see any lit up seals around them. The ghost still isn’t back.
He looks to his left where Haku is sleeping, his back to a large snarl of roots, a lemur resting in his curled arms.
Zabuza blinks, looks up, and sees the reflective eyes of more lemurs staring at him.
Right. Warning from the ghost or not, he has to take a leak, and he is not doing that where every damn animal can stare at him.
Besides, it’s not like he’s wandering off far.
Shit, he might be lost.
Zabuza either got turned around at some point, or this island can rearrange itself at will. He’s choosing to believe he’s just stupid, because the alternative is terrifying.
He passes by an unrecognizable low stone wall inset with another shrine, trying to keep an eye out for any hazards, when something tips off his head, and he sees fluttering green in front of his face. “Wha—”
It’s a lunar moth from before, from that wind seal. How… how long has it been in his hair?
“Fuck off,” he says, more mildly than usual, shooing it a bit. But the moth doesn’t get the message, bouncing happily onto his hand and fluttering in front of him again.
The moth flies around him, flying off for a few meters out from the wall and then back to him. It’s annoying.
“Cut that out, I’m trying to figure out where I am,” Zabuza argues, and then realizes he’s talking to a moth. This island might be getting to him.
The moth responds by... flying and landing on the shrine. Huh.
He waits for a moment but it doesn’t move from its spot. Zabuza walks further past the wall into a grove and realizes immediately he’s made a mistake when he hears a snap. He must have triggered something, and he tries to take a step back.
Red hair flashes in front of him, and before he can even process what’s happening, the shrine light shoots impossibly fast around him, along several once-invisible seals along the base of the trees. The ground all around him gives way, exposed tree roots pulling Zabuza hard down into... another goddamn pitfall. He’s making a mental note to destroy every single shrine on this hellscape of an island when he registers a rush of whistling air above him, and an almighty series of crashes.
He hears Haku’s voice, distant. “Zabuza-sama!”
The roots loosen and recede. He lifts himself slowly out of the hole, peering up at the cause of the noise.
Whatever it was, it was something with enough force and velocity to cleave several trees in a line. So fast that without the help of chakra he wouldn’t have even hoped to dodge it. Worse, the line of the cuts sit right at Zabuza’s chest.
The moth settles back into his hair again.
“...Thanks,” he says, and he’s not sure if he’s talking to the moth, or what.
Zabuza nearly startles at the ghost’s voice. He looks about, eyes wide, ears open, but he still can’t hear or see her any more than he did before. Figures.
He’s glad she saved his life, but she’s still creepy.
"Hey, what the fuck is this place, anyway?" Zabuza asks in the middle of Haku scolding him.
Haku pauses a moment, listening to thin air, then answers, "A genin exam course."
Zabuza squints at Haku, then at the mangled carnage of trees, and back.
...He really should be more surprised.
The moth flutters in his hair.
Taking on a genin team is so much harder than Kurenai ever expected.
It’s early, about an hour past dawn, as Kurenai makes her way to the front entrance of the Administration building to meet her students.
“Good—good morning, Sensei!”
Hinata arrives first. Hinata always arrives first.
Kurenai remembers when Hinata’s father practically thrust the poor girl into her hands after she made genin. It rankles, to think her student still lives in that compound when her family barely acknowledges her. It can’t be good for her. Kurenai remembers some of the worse-off clan kids in the Academy, and beyond, and how much that affected them.
She’s technically Hinata’s guardian now as well, and that complicates matters. She’s been thinking about it, and the space she can make in her apartment. She wants to offer—but big clan politics are so touchy in a way she doesn’t really understand; Kurenai’s not sure if she’d be overstepping as an instructor, and she’s not going to simply ask around for advice. Asuma might know what to do, or maybe Kakashi as well.
Or, maybe not. It would be an understatement to say they both don’t like talking about their clans; it’s become a sore spot for Asuma since he returned to Konoha, and Kakashi practically pretends his doesn’t even exist.
She resolves to try and ask Asuma anyway the next time she sees him; she might have better luck there.
Shino arrives exactly ten minutes early, as he always does. He nods politely, but briefly, to Kurenai. She likes all her students, but she can count on him as the most even-keeled of her team. He’s not one for conversation though, and Kurenai isn’t going to bring up her current worries with Hinata, so they all wait in amiable silence for their last wayward member.
Then Kiba comes sleepily—and noisily—shuffling in, Akamaru snoozing away in his coat front, barely on time.
Good, they’re all here. Well, they’re physically here at least.
“Alright,” Kurenai claps her hands to get their attention, walking with them into the building, “as you can guess, today we’re starting with a mission.”
“Aw, more D-ranks?” Kiba whines, Akamaru whining along with him.
“And what’s wrong with D-Ranks?” Kurenai asks.
“They're boring! And the other teams get to do C-Ranks!” Kiba complains. “Why can’t we? Back me up, Shino.”
“A C-Rank mission would be preferable,” Shino says. “Why? To gain skills lacking in D-Rank missions.”
“You three really think you’re ready for a C-Rank?” she stares at them, stern, outside the mission room.
“Hell yeah we are!” Kiba says. Shino nods once, and they both look at Hinata until she reluctantly nods as well.
Kurenai’s not sure if they’re ready, but as the other genin teams advance, she worries she might be holding hers back.
She takes the binder the mission desk clerk hands to her. “Well, let me take a look at the list.” What could it hurt to check? There has to be something.
Kurenai begins to flip through the C-Ranks. And keeps flipping through them in growing despair. Absolutely not on courier and escort missions. She worries about distance and the added risk of protection against bandits or missing-nin on the way. You never know—those sorts of things could happen. Plus, imagining her students coming together as an actual team to fight...
She’s starting to get to the end. What would be the ideal mission to help them—
Oh! A simple recon mission, due to start immediately; it’s an investigation of minor thefts in a village southwest of Konoha. It’s a quick enough day trip, no expectations of serious fighting, and it will play to all of their strengths in tracking and observation. Kurenai wants to sigh in relief; this should be no sweat for all of them, especially a Hyuuga. Maybe it’ll help boost the poor girl’s confidence, too.
Kurenai looks up at her students, a mix of eagerness and trepidation, and says, “We’ll petition the Hokage, then."
Good thing they got here so early. They might be able to meet with the Hokage and leave in good time.
It’s morning in the savannah. Birds chirrup and insects hum as Kakashi steps gingerly out of the pile of children that have crowded him in the night.
Tsunade is snoring away on the ground, her robe rolled up as a makeshift pillow, with Shizune next to her. Kurama is inexplicably curled up right between their heads, wheezing angrily in his sleep. Utakata too is asleep a bit off to the side, his little bubbles dotting along their campsite perimeter in lieu of a watch.
Since no one else is awake, Kakashi stretches his legs forward and yawns freely, blinking his eyes open. Both eyes; he can’t quite forget that his Sharingan isn’t working right now. It makes him uneasy, that Obito’s gift is just out of reach.
He instead focuses, and feels the warmth, the swirling beacon in the back of his mind. If they can find another Uzumaki, they may finally be able to attempt the island.
More minutes pass, but soon the little fox pile starts to stir, his students yawning awake, and the rest of their party coming back to life.
The bubbles all pop as Utakata opens his eyes. Shizune rubs at her face tiredly.
“It’s too fucking early,” Tsunade grumbles, facedown. Kurama grumbles an agreement in turn, but then seems to realize who he’s talking to and slinks away, pretending he wasn’t sleeping near her.
His cute students seem full of energy this morning, though. How nice for them. And they’re whispering to each other about something; he pretends not to notice as they break away and look up at him.
“Sensei,” Sakura starts, “we were wondering if we could do some training?”
Training? That’s fair. No need to neglect that just because they’re foxes.
“Yeah!” Naruto adds, trotting up next to Kakashi and grinning, “like with reflexes or something!” Sasuke nods with him.
Kakashi hums, a bit suspicious. “I suppose we could do that.”
"Really? Then… you'reitsensei!!!" Naruto hollers as he jumps away and all three of them scramble away.
Kakashi blinks as he watches the tallgrass dance and then still in the wake of their escape. "Maa..."
Kurama snorts. "Some reflexes you have."
"You'd think so," Kakashi muses. He then taps Kurama's side, "But you're it," and darts into the grass after his students without looking back. He hears Kurama squawk in outrage and laughs silently to himself as he ducks and hides low to the dirt amongst the bluestem, ready to watch this play out.
It'll be fun to see if his cute students realize what happened.
"Ssh, Sensei's right there!” he hears Sakura whisper.
Then he hears Naruto yip once, then shout, “No, guys, Kurama’s it! Hahaha!” and it becomes a cacophony of shouting and rustling in the grass, Kakashi following along to watch.
“C’mon! Are you slow?” Naruto taunts, and Kakashi hears Kurama growl.
Kakashi follows them out as Naruto and Sakura squeal; even Sasuke looks startled as they rush to the side, Kurama chasing after them. They break out into the opening, but Kurama is faster than them. He bowls them all over in a tackle, but not enough to hurt them.
“Ha, you’re all it!” Kurama crows, as he rolls with a twist back to his feet.
“What? We can’t all be it!” Naruto argues.
“That’s not how it works!” Sakura adds.
“Fine,” Sasuke says, surprising his teammates.
“Huh?” Naruto asks.
“Then we can all can chase him,” Sasuke replies, pointed.
The kids look at each other once, and then sprint off into the tall grass in three different directions.
“Maa, you’d better run,” Kakashi says, amused, to Kurama, who just snorts.
“Ohh, we could get Sensei too!” Naruto whisper-shouts from somewhere in the grass.
“Shh!” Sakura and Sasuke hiss in tandem.
“Ah…” Kakashi says mildly, “we’ll both run.”
Utakata watches, a bit bemused, as the foxes chase each other back and forth into the savannah.
Saiken blurbles, delighted. Utakata has to agree, it’s pretty cute.
Then the little orange fox races over to Utakata. He taps at his foot with a pleased yip and barrels off again.
"Looks like you're it, kid," says Tsunade.
"I'm it?" Utakata glances at the swaying grass where the fox kit had dashed through.
“You never play tag? Just touch someone else and they’re it.”
“Oh.” He tips up his hand and touches Shizune’s arm. “You’re it?”
Shizune smiles, but immediately responds by tapping Tsunade, “Then you’re it. Run, Utakata!”
Utakata, alarmed, rushes off, and turns back to see Tsunade grin. “Guess who’s it now!” she hollers. The little foxes all shriek, Saiken’s brother hissing madly, crowding behind Utakata as she stalks forward.
“Run, please,” he says to the foxes as he darts ahead, the little foxes all following him. Is this supposed to be fun?
But he sees Shizune laughing alongside him, and sees the foxes running underfoot, and he supposes it might be a little fun.
Asuma doesn’t let his shoulders slump as his team crosses Konoha’s gates, but it’s a near thing. What a shitshow of a mission, and today might only get worse.
He turns his head, realizing his students are still following him.
“What now, Sensei?” Ino asks.
“Take the day off, and remember what I said,” he says as he gives a pointed look to all three of them. He’s going to pretend they’ll heed his words as he makes his way to the Administration Building. He has a report to drop off.
Danzō is in Hiruzen’s office again.
Hiruzen is largely tuning him out. It’s again about jinchuuriki and security and Hiruzen has a headache. It’s too early for this. Surely he has meetings scheduled for right now. Maybe his assistant will take pity on him and find one.
Hiruzen finally waves a hand to cut him off. “I have it handled, Danzō,” is all he says to it. He already sent out a shinobi to perform an initial investigation into Wave. He hopes for the best, but he has potential plans and cover stories ready to be set into motion if worst comes to worst.
He prays that will not be the case, but as he’s discovered in life, prayers don’t mean anything.
Danzō, of course, cannot leave it at that. “Have it ‘handled’? Just like you handled—”
“Sir,” his assistant interrupts, “a reminder you have a meeting with Sarutobi Asuma.”
“Of course, let him in.” There was no such meeting scheduled, but Hiruzen could kiss his assistant for providing the distraction.
“Ah, Asuma.” He latches on to his appearance like a lifeline. “You’re right on time. Have a good day, Danzō,” Hiruzen says in clear dismissal.
Danzō snorts derisively but leaves, staring at Asuma, no doubt building up scathing remarks of nepotism for their next one-on-one. Hiruzen wants to roll his eyes.
Hiruzen also wants to breathe the biggest sigh of relief. His son has returned no worse for wear, it seems. “I see you’ve returned from Tea Country,” he observes.
“Yes, sir. Mission complete.” Asuma nonchalantly drops a report on his desk and pulls out a new cigarette.
Hiruzen considers this. Direct delivery of a mission report to his desk is unusual, but Asuma was delayed. It’s also his first C-Rank as a jounin instructor. But perhaps something happened on the mission that Asuma believes needs Hiruzen’s attention, and that’s never a good thing.
“And I take it your team is well?” Hiruzen asks instead, fishing for insight.
“Hale, hearty, and whole,” Asuma says, cribbing an Akimichi phrase. “A bit of a misunderstanding with the delivery, but hey, we all lived.”
That piques Hiruzen’s interest, but he’ll read the report. “This is good progress, I’d say, for all our genin teams to make it to C-Ranks so quickly. It could make for an interesting Chuunin Exam this year, should they qualify.”
“All of them, huh.” The cigarette rolls in Asuma’s mouth, and he scratches his beard. “Yeah, could be. Is that all, sir?”
“That’s all,” he says looking back down at his desk, but it the words feel like a mistake the moment they leave his mouth. He looks up from the report cover. “Asuma—”
But Asuma is already gone, leaving Hiruzen alone in his office. He gets the feeling he’s missed something.
But it’s a good time as any to read the report, he supposes, and opens it. He has to immediately school his expression, because what Asuma has handed him… is the most outrageous mission report he’s read in years. A river? What on earth?
He reads down the summary of damages. And keeps reading, for pages and pages. She isn’t named, but Asuma is descriptive enough. that particular flavor of collateral damage can only mean Tsunade. Hiruzen barely resists the urge to bang his head against his desk. He will never escape his student’s proclivity for destruction.
On the other hand, he’s surprised she fought at all. Perhaps… perhaps she’s finally healing.
Perhaps he finally has a successor.
He puts that out of his mind for now and refocuses on the report. For the thousands of mission reports Hiruzen has read over the years, he knows better than anyone how to spot discrepancies. Something about this doesn’t add up. Something is wrong.
Asuma wanted to send him a message, but Hiruzen is missing a part of the puzzle. This calls for additional investigation. He wishes he had this information yesterday before he sent out Shiranui, but it can’t be helped.
He’ll call Tenzō—Cat—for this one.
Asuma walks into the streets of Konoha with purposeful calm he absolutely does not feel.
This is bad. Asuma lost his nerve a bit, with Danzō’s stare, and it’s just as well; at this point, he can’t trust his dad’s office isn’t being spied on by someone like Danzō. Because what if it is? What if?
Kurenai is not here. She’s gone , on a C-Rank of all things, the one linking thread of these suspicious events. What if she—
Asuma wants to scream, but he won’t publicly panic, as much as he wants to. It would do him no good in the long run, and he can’t draw that kind of attention to himself right now. But what can he do?
Gods, this is risky, but if he can get away with sending her a message with no one noticing, he’s going to try. He tucks around a corner and bites his thumb. His badger summons, Saka, trots out of the plume of smoke.
“What,” she says more than asks.
“I need you to get a message to Kurenai outside the village.”
“What, a love letter?” She flexes her claws, pulling up a tuft of grass. “I’m not a mailbird.”
He knows. And he knows she’s not a ninken. He’d ask Kakashi instead, but of fucking course, Kakashi going missing is the big problem in the first place.
“I don’t have a lot of options,” Asuma stresses. He also ignores that love letter barb; he and Kurenai are not dating, thank you.
“Then you owe me BBQ,” Saka hits back.
“Yes, fine,” he agrees, distracted. Saka can eat twice her bodyweight in grilled meat, but Asuma is too frantic to care at this point.
She pauses at his easy concession, peers at him, but doesn’t say any more about that.
“Tell her to be careful, that there’s something strange going on with the C-Rank missions. And if—” Asuma pauses. He thinks of who else he can trust, and who his dad trusts. “If you catch wind of Jiraiya, let me know?”
She just nods once and goes, burrowing down into the dirt and disappearing.
The rainforest warms to a damp heat, growing wetter with every passing kilometer, and it’s making Zabuza feel slow and languid. Maybe part of that is the adrenaline crash from another near-death experience.
They’re walking to the third seal, Zabuza figures. The moth-that-won’t-leave is still settled in Zabuza’s hair, its wings wide open, soaking up the sun it can catch.
Haku blinks, and turns back to address Zabuza. “Uzumaki-sama just left.”
Zabuza raises his brows. “Again? Why?”
Haku shakes his head slightly. “She didn’t say; she just left in a hurry. Towards the east, it seems.”
“Huh.” That’s odd, for her. “Let’s follow her,” Zabuza suggests.
“She didn’t say to stay this time, did she?” He’s also not going to lose his only guide out of this damn place.
Haku frowns. It’s small, but it’s there, and very disapproving. Considering what happened earlier this morning, Zabuza probably deserves that. But he knows Haku is curious too.
“We’ll even follow the moth,” Zabuza offers.
“Only if we follow the moth,” Haku reluctantly agrees.
The moth flaps its wings, delighted.
Gato can't believe this. What was that seller smoking? The stupid scroll had—had teleported him or something! If he ever gets his hands on that lying asshole—
He trips over another root.
He woke up on this godforsaken island days ago. He got lost in the muggy tropical forest for hours the first day, so turned around he ended up back where he started on the beach. He was nearly eaten alive by bugs and a lemur threw a mango at him! Then it stole the mango back when Gato tried to eat it! He had even tried swimming out to sea (it couldn't be that hard to avoid those whirlpools), but those damn pink birds kept pecking at him when he took even one step into the water.
"What is with this place!" he hollers as he kicks at a tree, swearing when he only succeeds in hurting his foot.
Just then, a fluffy grey fox pokes its head around the tree and peers at him curiously. Gato stiffens, and braces himself for the beast to lunge at him or something. But it just keeps looking at him, cocking its head in idle curiosity.
“What?” he asks, wary.
It doesn’t respond, it just looks at him. Dumb animal.
But... it's not coming after him. It’s the only living thing that hasn't immediately attacked him so far. Gato can't help it; he starts to vent to it.
He vents for a while.
"All I want to do is be a businessman, is that such a crime?" he complains, thirty minutes later. The fox is still there, sitting by him like it’s listening, so Gato keeps going.
"I can't trust anyone to do anything right! My hired help up and quits in the middle of the bridge job and then the Uzu scroll I was promised would summon a lightning god to kill those dumb Konoha shinobi instead throws me on this damn rock!” He turns to the fox. “Isn’t that ridiculous?"
The fox stares at him a long moment then abruptly stands up. It makes to leave, and then turns its head back in a beckoning motion. It wants Gato to follow it? Well, it still hasn't bitten him or anything. Maybe the dumb animal will actually be helpful. He scrambles to his feet.
Gato edges through the brush to a clearing and sees the fox trot up to a nearby stone shrine. Gato’s seen a few of those wastes of space in and around this forest. In fact, this whole forest is a waste of space. Gato would have razed it to the ground by now.
“Well?” he asks, impatient. “What is it?”
The fox stares at Gato one more time, severe, then barks at the shrine. The shrine flares, and the last thing Gato remembers is a rock hurtling towards his face.
Something jabs Gato in the side and he wakes with a groan, rolling on the ground. He squints open his eyes, and stares up into the face of the man he prayed to never see again.
“Gato,” Zabuza says, genial, as he hoists his sword to rest on his shoulder, "so funny meeting you here." He pulls the bandages down his face, and smiles wide with all his sharp, sharp teeth.
Zabuza has no idea how Gato got here, but he doesn’t care right now. He steps forward, swinging Kubikiribōchō down to pin Gato where he’s lying on the forest floor, stopping short of piercing flesh. Haku is watching, quiet, at Zabuza’s shoulder.
Gato squeaks, terrified. Good. He should be.
“What—what do you want?” Gato stammers. “Money? I can give you any amount you want!”
That twinges, just a bit; Zabuza’s not stopped to think about his goal, the reason he worked with Gato in the first place, but that’s on hold while he’s stuck on this island. But now Gato’s stuck here, too, and Zabuza has finally found a way to cheer himself up.
“There is nothing you can possibly offer me,” Zabuza grins, resting the blade against Gato’s sorry neck, “other than your life. I think I’m going to enjoy separating your head from your shoulders.”
You will do no such thing.
“What,” Zabuza grits out, too incensed to be startled by that damned voice. He whips his head around to shout in the general direction of the ghost, but his words die on his lips.
A woman stands before him, proud, her hair as red as freshly spilt blood. He has no idea who the fuck she is, though he feels like he should. It’s only that the very sight of her—Uzumaki red—sets off every ingrained warning alarm in him.
He holds his breath, and doesn’t let that terror show. “Why not?” he manages instead, not moving Kubikiribōchō away from Gato’s neck.
Her eyebrows lift as her eyes flick to Gato, her lips twitching up into a smile. It’s horrifying. You will see.
“What? Who—who are you talking to?” Gato has the audacity to demand, his voice pitched high.
“Shut up,” Zabuza says absently, still staring at the Uzumaki, the gears whirring in his head. He’ll see, huh?
After a long moment, he tips his sword to the side, letting the point of its blade rest against the ground. “You owe me for this,” he growls, pointing an accusing finger at the ghost. “Me and Haku,” he adds, since Haku, of anyone, deserves as much. Haku places a hand on Zabuza’s arm.
I can accept that, the ghost concedes, still smiling. Zabuza wishes she would stop that.
He glances over to where Gato is attempting to crawl away. Zabuza snatches him by the collar, hoisting him to his feet. “You caught the interest of the Uzumaki. Lucky you.”
“Uzumaki? What does that mean? Aren’t they all gone?”
Zabuza laughs lowly as he drags Gato through the trees. “Don’t you know? You’re on Uzushio now. You’re going to wish you stayed dead.”
That went well, all things considered.
Sakumo ducks further back into the underbrush and watches the spectacle move back deeper into the forest. As much as he’d like to tear apart this Gato character strip by strip for daring to harm his son, he ought to remember to be a little cautious, and heed the island. He’s dealing with too many unknown entities now, still-unfamiliar territory, and more than a lack of offensive options. Twenty years dead is no excuse to be careless, and he needs to stay alive now. He desperately wants to know if Kakashi’s okay, and that means surviving for a while longer.
Care to talk now, in a manner of speaking?
Sakumo jolts, hearing that voice again. He peeks out from behind the bushes to peer at the ghost, the incredible chakra impression, that he’s felt shifting from place to place in the forest, keeping a passive eye on him. Sakumo doesn’t know much about chakra impressions or how they work, but he doesn’t think they’re supposed to work like this. But if anything, an Uzumaki could make it happen. And of all the Uzumaki who could make it happen, it was her. Her, a reassuring voice he could hardly believe was real, that offered him help when he needed it, as long as he played by her rules.
And with Gato, he definitely needs to play by her rules.
Hatake Sakumo, the ghost says, warm, as she sizes him up in the morning light, the gods were quite lucky to get you, weren’t they?
He cocks his head, quizzical. Gods? Uzumaki gods? Is that what had happened? Off hand stories from Tsunade, long ago, were one thing, but this...
Oh yes, one of our kin finally made the call, and to have this in answer… it is quite interesting.
As much as he respects her, Sakumo can’t help but give her a flat stare. Interesting isn’t the first word he’d use for coming back to life with four legs and a tail.
Oh, should I stop being so cryptic? she asks. It was necessary at first with those two boys, but perhaps I’m going too far.
He nods. He’d like some answers, if possible.
She sighs to herself. Here I am, indulging in such childish whims. Then her lips turn up, Though it is so amusing after nearly thirty years with no one to talk to, and eighty years with nothing much to do.
His eyes widen at the number, tilting his head. She’s been here that long? How?
Oh yes, she says with an impish grin, that’s what I get for adding and adding and adding to the consciousness of my chakra impression across a lifetime of return visits. It’s just as well. I do appreciate my husband indulging me my trips, as I’m now the only Uzumaki, in any form, left on the island.
The destruction of Uzushio took away more than my people, my homeland, my culture. It brought about an intentional, malicious, imbalance of spirit and will in the world. So here I have waited, waited for the chance to restore it, to set it right. But when the remaining impressions began to dissipate so quickly, and none of my people returned, I believed it nearly too late, and that I would merely wait in silence on the shore until I finally faded to nothing, along with the spirits. She shuts her eyes with grief, head slightly bowed. Perhaps such an ending was my penance for leaving my people; it would be what I deserved for failing them so completely.
Sakumo can commiserate, considering his own still-fresh memories of his time in the in-between. Still, as much as he himself deserved it, it’s not a fate he would wish on anyone else.
But with you, those two young men, and what I suspect the winds will bring this way, perhaps there is hope after all. To bring the island back to life… to return the Gem of the Eddy to its full glory... we may be able to avert total disaster.
Sakumo shivers; this is something bigger than him, bigger than he can put into words. He barks to get her attention, and she looks up, breaking out of her mourning.
You will help? She asks, eyes hopeful.
Sakumo nods. He owes his newfound life to the Uzumaki, to the island itself, and how could he not help her?
Her shoulders drop with a sigh. Thank you. This means more to me than you know. She looks over her shoulder, her brows raised. I suppose we should keep an eye on those boys, to make sure they all make it to the next seal in one piece?
Sure, Sakumo can do that. He could follow them. And maybe take a small bite out of Gato, or scare him. That won’t kill him.
She watches Sakumo go, creeping silent through the brush towards the rainforest after her guests. Ah, foxes.
Of course it had to be that gift, which only means one thing, she mutters to herself with a wry snort. I’m certainly in deep trouble, she says, and then laughs again to herself. But if you ever asked poor Tobirama, Uzumaki Mito causes nothing but trouble!
Team Eight travels along the well worn path along west Fire Country, weaving through the trees of the forest. Hinata tries to still her fidgeting fingers; despite her nerves, she can admit it’s exciting to finally go on a mission beyond the walls of her village. The weight of her hitai-ate is starting to feel more real, that they’re trusted enough to go on a C-Rank mission.
(And maybe now—maybe now Hinata can finally begin to prove to her father that she’s worthy as a kunoichi.)
The small village of Kaede comes around the bend of the tree-lined dirt path, breaking open into tilled land. It’s a modest farming community in the dip of a valley, so small in comparison to Konoha. But it seems bustling today from overtop the path, with civilian commotion towards the center of town. Hinata wonders what it is. A festival?
“We’re nearly there,” Kurenai-sensei says from where she’s walking behind them. “Are you all ready?”
“Yeah!” Kiba hollers. Hinata winces a little at his volume. Still, his enthusiasm is infectious. Hinata likes that about him.
“Um, yes, Sensei,” Hinata confirms after Kiba, trying to mirror his confidence. She’s not sure she quite managed it.
Hinata looks to Shino next, but he shakes his head minutely. He then sticks a hand in his pocket and pulls out a pair of sunglasses. To Hinata’s surprise, they’re rather cute, with a lavender tint to their lenses than his usual black.
He hands them to her. “Wear these,” he says. “Why? To further conceal your eyes.”
“Thank you, Shino,” Hinata says, taking the glasses and sliding them on, adjusting to the new hue. It’s a good idea, actually; she tends to forget her eyes would make her stand out even more outside of Konoha.
“I would have suggested a henge, but very thoughtful, Shino,” Kurenai-sensei says, with an approving smile.
“Looking good, Hinata!” Kiba calls out with a thumbs up. “I should wear some too!” He makes grabby hands at Shino until Shino gives in and hands Kiba a pair of brown sunglasses.
Kurenai-sensei side-eyes Kiba’s antics, but instead says, “Alright then, if that’s everything, let’s get started.” Her gaze sweeps across the three of them. “This is an investigation on a limited schedule,” she frowns down at the village, “and in a crowded space. There are a few potential ways to approach this. What would you do?”
“We could totally split up,” Kiba suggests. “Why?” he adds, adjusting his glasses, imitating Shino’s voice, “because… uhhh, it’s a good idea, right?” He looks to his teammates to back him up.
“We could cover more ground quickly,” Shino covers for him. “My kikaichū can also travel undetected in this search.”
Kurenai-sensei nods. “Reasonable options for the search itself. Suggestions, Hinata?”
Hinata resists the urge to bite her lip. “Um, we can check places that were targeted for clues first.”
Kurenai-sensei smiles. “Excellent answer. Instead of beginning with a wild search, we can first narrow down possible suspects and locations. But what should we do before that?”
“Uhhh,” says Kiba. Hinata is drawing a blank, too.
Kurenai-sensei waits a beat, and then puts them out of their misery. “Talk to the client,” she stresses, but not unkindly.
“Ohhh,” says Kiba, adjusting his sunglasses again. “I knew that.”
Itachi reads over the letter in his hands again and again. It’s already burned into his memory, but he keeps thinking he’ll read the words differently.
It’s a coded message from Konoha, from the Hokage, that he received a day ago. Only a reckless fool would keep a letter like this for so long in the Akatsuki, as a spy, but Itachi has the benefit of near-solitude, and Kisame would never go through Itachi’s things.
And maybe Itachi’s starting to feel a little reckless, himself.
He’s left the clean-up to Kisame, this time, and Kisame won’t be due back for another several minutes to their meeting point. Itachi reads the letter again. One of his few requests is that he receive updates about Sasuke amidst the intel, even just to confirm he’s still alive and whole. Sarutobi occasionally takes pity on him with scraps of detail.
Last time, Sasuke was about to embark on his first C Rank mission, accompanying a bridge builder. Itachi knows the only possible location to fit the parameters would be Wave. So perhaps Itachi suggested he and Kisame take the job to track down useful informants in South Fire Country. He’s not entirely sure why he offered; it’s too soon to see Sasuke. Was it the desire to be close to his little brother anyway, when he doesn’t deserve it in the least? Guilt? Masochism?
Itachi didn’t make it to Wave yet, anyway, as their informant search erupted into curtailing spies instead. Ironic, that.
But that was last week. This time, the letter holds nothing. Nothing at all about Sasuke.
It sticks at him. A mission outside Konoha. A bridge. Wave. And then nothing.
Something isn’t right.
Itachi burns the letter, and watches the trail of ash swirl away in the wind. His breath catches on the next inhale, breaking. He coughs, ragged and slow. He tries to ignore how it’s getting worse, how he’s on borrowed time, less than most shinobi. However little he has left to borrow, he has to hope it’ll be enough.
His breath evens out again as Kisame returns to their meeting point outside the village.
“That one went quicker than I thought,” his partner chuckles, patting Samehada’s side. “Looks like we have a bit of free time, but we probably shouldn’t spend it here.”
It’s the perfect opening. “I have... another lead,” Itachi lies.
Kisame rolls his shoulders, and Itachi catches him eying the specks of blood still dotting Itachi’s fingers. He’ll let Kisame come to his own conclusions. “Ah. Your side project. Where to now?”
Itachi can taste the ash in his mouth, swirling with the blood. “Wave.”
The mayor’s assistant welcomes Team Eight into the main office of Kaede, which is more of a lean-to built aside a house than a standalone building.
“Welcome to Kaede!” says the assistant. “Our mayor has been expecting you.”
The mayor takes that moment to come bustling out of the office. “Oh thank goodness you’re here, and couldn’t you have filled this mission faster? We’re almost out of time!”
“Out of time?” Kurenai asks, frowning at the woman’s attitude and the time limit.
The mayor tips her head towards the front window, as if it were obvious. “For Kaede’s Annual Maple Festival! There’s been more thefts since, and the items stolen are of critical importance!”
“Critical?” Kurenai repeats. “We would have appreciated that information updated in the mission request.” It could change mission grading criteria and priority.
The mayor sniffs. “There wasn’t time, and I don’t expect you big village folk to understand how important Kaede’s Annual Maple Festival is.”
“We call it Maple Fest for short,” the assistant helpfully chimes in.
Kurenai keeps her eye from twitching, if only because she is a professional. “And the missing items?” she asks as the assistant pulls out a list.
A frying pan. A candy mold. A banner. It goes on. This mission is more of a joke than Kurenai thought. It’s a bit of a relief, though that thought makes her feel guilty. That said, none of her kids look particularly impressed, either, though Hinata appears more politely confused if anything. Kurenai appreciates that in comparison to Kiba’s baffled scowl.
The mayor steeples her fingers against her lips. “We’re worried about a scroll, as well.”
“A scroll?” Kurenai asks. That’s more intriguing. And potentially more dangerous.
“A decorative scroll, that’s displayed in the festival shrine. The hinge is rusted, so nobody can open it. But it’s supposedly got the great Shodaime’s autograph in it!” the mayor gushes.
“Such a man of good arboreal taste,” the assistant sighs.
“...Right,” says Kurenai. She’s not going to get much more out of these two at this rate.
Kurenai holds back a sigh, and ushers her befuddled students out the door. “We’re on it. Please leave this mission it to us.”
“Good luck!” the assistant calls out at the door shuts behind them.
Kurenai lets out a silent sigh, and turns to her students. “So, the key places are the display hall, the festival shrine, and the central market.” She feels less trepidation for her students going off by themselves, at least. Kurenai idly wonders if there’s a tea room she can wait in. “Do you feel like you three can handle this?”
Hinata wrings her hands, and Shino slips his hands into his pockets. Kiba wrinkles his nose. “Yeah, but it seems kind of lame, huh?”
“Well, any sort of theft is a problem, right?” Kurenai hedges. “And it could escalate over time, so it’s better to stop it now.”
“Ohhh, ok. That makes sense. We got it, Sensei!” Kiba nods, with Akamaru barking in affirmation. Shino and Hinata nod along with him. It looks a bit ridiculous with her team all decked out in sunglasses.
“I’ll leave you three to it,” Kurenai says to her students, trying not to feel like a nervous parent. “I recommend sticking together to start out with for this one. Meet me back here in an hour to regroup.”
Kiba swings his arms in front of him, marching down the road with his team. Awesome! They’re starting their mission! It’s kind of dumb, but Kiba supposes that their sensei is right: searching for this stuff is important. Any thief is bad news.
Kiba looks down at his partner. “Got anything, Akamaru?”
Akamaru wuffles from his jacket, sniffing the air, but only sneezes; the maple stuff everywhere is pretty overpowering.
Kiba looks back at his team next. “Should we go see that scroll thing?”
“More items were taken from the marketplace,” Shino points out.
“And there, um, might be more clues there?” Hinata adds.
“Oh! Yeah! Let’s try that market,” Kiba decides. His friends are so smart. That scroll still sounds kind of cool though, but they’ll get to it eventually.
The crowd grows bigger as they reach the village center. It’s starting to get tough to move forward faster. They could be all shinobi sneaky, but it’s probably smarter to just blend in, civilian style. Otherwise these sunglasses would be pointless!
The stalls are selling a bunch of cool stuff, though. Maple candy, clothes with maple leaf designs, maple jewelry. Maybe they can look around more after the mission. Maybe there’s a maple chew toy for Akama—
Just then, Kiba spots a big man, wading through the people. He towers over everyone, like a tree. A big, armor-covered tree. And, yeah, that is totally suspicious. Who even wears stuff like that? Even though it is super cool.
Shino’s eyebrow twitches. Whoops, Kiba said that out loud. He shuts his mouth, but makes a toothy grin. They found a lead already!
This mission is going to be easy.
You have a little dog and bug following you, Kokuō says, voice billowing up from the back of Han’s mind.
“I am aware,” Han responds under his breath, more amused than anything by the two children playing at shinobi. He could stand to humor them—what could they do to a jinchuuriki?
Han was only in this village because Kokuō asked. It’s the first time Kokuō’s ever requested a visit to a sibling, and Han can admit to giving in to the curiosity of meeting another fellow container. He’s only known one other jinchuuriki from his former country, his long-buried former life, but he’s lost contact in the last several months. Han can only guess where Rōshi is these days.
Kaede is a convenient meeting point, at least, with the unexpected benefit of a festival. Han glances down at a stall promoting maple candies, and idly picks up a bag; it might be a nice introductory gift when meeting a fellow jinchuuriki. He doesn’t miss beat of hesitation in the seller at the sight of Han, but the seller smiles as Han drops a few coins into his hands. People tend to overlook eccentricities when one has money.
Han knows that he’ll always stand out. He’s stood out for forty years, and he’ll likely stand out for another forty.
He’s brought out of his musings when the woman in the stand next over gasps, looking frantically under boxes.
“Hey! My candy bags are all gone!” she cries.
“Ugh, you got hit by the thief, too?” groans the seller in front of Han, as he hands over a few spare bags. “I’ve had to hand-mold all my candies this week, and it’s just the worst.”
“It’s totally sabotage,” the woman seethes. “Someone has it out for us.”
Han really should stay out of it, but: “A thief?” he can’t help but ask.
Karin hikes her bag up higher on her shoulder, wandering into the village from the sloping field. Her feet should ache from walking all night, but she hardly feels it, a lilt in her step from the steady chime.
Her map says this is Kaede. It’s got a crowd to get lost in, anyway, to blend in, and Karin appreciates that. She keeps her eyes open, wary of any potential shinobi, anyone who might recognize her and try to drag her back to her own, no, former village. They have to know she’s missing by now. If she wanted to, she could sense the hospital director’s agitated spike of chakra, the village’s panic. But they don’t deserve any consideration.
She touches the picture in her shirt pocket. They don’t deserve any more of her time, of her gifts.
Karin can’t help but absorb the excitement of the people carrying around sweet foods, wearing yukata and clothes with maple leaves all over it. A maple festival, huh. Karin had never heard of such a thing before, but that’s not so surprising. She hasn’t heard of a lot of things. She thinks about maybe trying some maple syrup. Or even some candy! Who’s going to stop her?
But a bright spot is nagging at her. A sense, something that is familiar, a piece of home, blinking like a low beacon in this village. She knows this isn’t her final destination, but she doesn’t think she can leave without taking a look first.
She wanders towards the stage at the center of the market street. She looks around, making sure no one is paying attention, and downplays her chakra presence for added effort. She cracks open the door of the hall at the back of the stage, and slips in. The signal is stronger now, singing. The hall is more of a shrine, an empty space, that seems only halfway set-up for a festival in full swing.
The feeling calls to her. She creeps towards a central display, as it grows louder, and she unlatches the door. An old, metal rusted scroll sits hidden in the center, with whirling spirals of designs, red in color.
She stares at it, transfixed. This must be it, but she needs to touch it, take it, to make sure.
She’s already a fugitive, since she’s abandoned her village. What’s another crime? It’s for a good cause, anyway.
Karin picks up the scroll, holding it carefully in her hands. It feels like the swirls in her head, the feeling stretching eastward, but even warmer, an untamable thrum under her hands. It doesn’t belong here. It would be happier with her, where she’s going. The whirlpools—
She jolts as she hears the door open. She snatches the scroll before she has any more time to think, and suppresses every drop of chakra that she has. She’s not getting caught so soon. She’s not going back now. She’ll die first.
“Let’s follow that guy!” Kiba announces, and runs off into the crowd, Shino one step after him.
Hinata takes a step and is accidentally knocked forward by a passing civilian, her sunglasses nearly flying off her face. She hastily grabs them and slides them back on. As she looks up, she realizes she’s facing the market stage, and spots a girl glancing around, before sneaking onto the platform.
She has the reddest hair Hinata’s ever seen.
But that’s right, the scroll is up there, too. That could be suspicious.
“Um, guys—” Hinata starts, turning back to her team, but Shino and Kiba are already long gone, tracking after that tall man.
She makes to run forward after them, but a large group of civilians passes in front of her, blocking her path. The crowd’s gotten denser. It might take to long to go after them. She looks back again. She doesn’t see the girl anymore, but the path to the stage, and to the shrine hall, is a bit more clear.
She can be brave. She can go take a quick look, to see what that girl was up to.
Hinata sneaks around the pop-up stalls, dodging civilians, inching towards the festival stage. It all appears normal still. The girl might even be gone already, but Hinata might as well investigate it; this is one of the potential targets of theft, with the display scroll.
She steps onto the corner of the stage, cracks open the door, and slides in. The hall is oddly empty, and doesn’t seem to be open yet. She shouldn’t get in trouble for looking, right? It’s for a mission.
Hinata is about to take another step forward when she hesitates. Something is off. It feels like someone might be here. She then hears a slight creak in the wood and tenses. Someone might really be here. She activates the Byakugan behind her glasses, straining for any signs of chakra, anything out of place. But instead she senses nothing. Even the smallest animals have slivers of visible chakra, and the lack of it sets Hinata on edge. Someone who can conceal themselves so completely might be dangerous.
She holds her hands up, defensive, as she inches around to the back of the shrine.
Another creak, and she runs forward, and cutting off the escape of the red haired girl. The red haired girl holding a scroll in her hands—the display scroll!
“What are you—” Hinata begins, but the the girl interrupts, immediately on the defensive.
“Who are you, huh? Are you a shinobi?” she accuses, taking a step back.
Hinata tries not to show surprise at being already caught out. She casts about for an excuse, “No, I’m not a—”
“Liar!” the girl hisses, with a certainty that startles Hinata into activating her Byakugan again.
The girl doesn’t have a hitai-ate, but Hinata can now see she has a lot of chakra. An alarming amount, in fact; she’s only seen one other at genin age—Naruto—with comparable amounts.
This girl could be dangerous, but. But she just looks scared, terrified of Hinata, and Hinata doesn’t know what to do with that.
“What are you doing?” Hinata tries again, covering up her hesitation. “You shouldn’t be in here.”
“You can’t make me go back!” the girl yells, not answering the question.
Hinata falters at that. “Go back?” she asks, unsure what that means.
“I won’t go back there! They killed my mom!” the girl snarls, startling Hinata.
That sounds… that sounds terrible. Hinata can’t imagine such a place. So she pauses, and slowly holds up her hands. “I’m—I’m not here to make you go anywhere like that.”
The girl stares at her, tilting her head a fraction. “You’re telling the truth,” she says after a beat.
Hinata nods slowly. She has to ask, though, eying the scroll in the girl’s hands. “But… are you the thief? Stealing everything?”
“What? No!” the girl denies, scandalized. Then her eyes dart to the scroll in her hands, and her face colors, perfectly matching her hair. “Uh, well, I’m taking this,” she admits. “But it’s not supposed to be here anyway. I think.”
Hinata feels like she’s missing something. “...It’s not?”
The girl nods. “I can feel it, uh, sense it. It doesn’t want to be here. It belongs somewhere else.”
“Where is that?” Hinata asks, letting her eyes finally deactivate.
“I don’t know,” the girl says. “But I can feel it, hear where it is, and I’m going there too.”
This is all so confusing, but Hinata might as well press. “Hear it?”
She smiles a little to herself, cradling the scroll. “The bells. They remind me of my mom.”
Despite her confusion, Hinata smiles too. Even without the Byakugan she can tell this girl is genuine. “That’s wonderful, um. What’s your name?” Hinata tries, gentle, if awkward.
“Ka—Wait. What’s yours first?” the girl demands.
“Hinata.” It seems pointless to lie to her.
“Hinata,” the girl tries out the name, and nods to herself. “Well, that’s true. I’m Karin, and your chakra is really cute,” she blurts out, face going all red again.
Hinata blinks a few times, and decides to take that as a compliment. “Thank you. No one’s, um, told me that before.”
Karin starts to smile through her blush, when her eyes suddenly widen, and then narrow. “Someone’s coming? No, a lot of people. Come on!” she hisses, pulling Hinata along with her, ducking behind the display.
A rumbling comes from the front stage, and the hall door slams open. A plume of smoke erupts on the stage in front of the shrine display, laughter emanating from it. “Ha ha!!”
Karin and Hinata curl in against each other. Hinata pulls up her hood and holds her breath, trying not to cough. The smoke clears, and she sees a group of colorful masked men appear posed on the stage. They move forward one-by-one, and Hinata can hear the people outside clapping, oohing and ahhing at the flips and jumps.
“We!” Red cartwheels.
“Are!” Yellow flexes.
“The!” Blue spins in place.
“Evil!” Green high kicks.
“Acer-rangers!” Silver punches the air.
“Wait, did the green guy say ‘Evil?’” someone calls out.
“And we…” they bring their hands together in spirit fingers, “are here to destroy Maple Fest!”
everything is totally fine