It all starts with a storm. Nothing too unnatural, but something seems...different about it.
The wind howls its haunting tune, and the rain still fell as if the earth was crying. But all of it seems dark.
This was the first warning.
The Ninja Master must have sensed it too, Hiro realizes. He was much too quiet even now, days after.
Kunoichi calls them for supper before he can voice his opinions to Futo and Suzume. But as everyone starts to pile into the Ninja Craft after a long day of training, he also realizes that everyone else seems to notice it too.
They eat in uneasy relative silence. Any small attempt made at conversation was usually by Shun or Suzume, mostly to keep Kunoichi entertained. By the third time the conversations died, Hiro cracks.
“Master,” he asks quietly, putting his bowl down. “Is something wrong?”
The Ninja Master sighs, and Hiro feels a pang of guilt for asking.
“I merely have a suspicion about something. I know you children are worried, but it will be alright.” He smiles at them as lovingly as if they were his own children. “Tora, I would like to speak to you in private after we are done eating.”
And boy, did Tora look scared. To his credit, the Ninja Master never talks to someone privately.
The Ninja Master chuckles as he strokes his beard. “Do not worry, my little tiger. You are not in trouble.”
He seems to relax at that. He gives a small purr and continues eating, unaware of the strain that was becoming noticeable on the Master's smile.
But the conversations become much more lively after that. Kunoichi gets up and starts to climb up to Futo’s shoulders, and Hiro's stomach finally starts to calm after days of flipping.
“I’m so tall!” Kunoichi says brightly, and they all laugh.
Hiro finally lets himself relax. He feels...peaceful.
...It only lasts a few minutes.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watches the Ninja Master set down his bowl of rice and hunch his shoulders.
“My wild tiger,” Hiro swears he hears from the Master's lips, but doesn't dare comment on it. It sets off a whole new round of uneasiness in his stomach.
The little voice at the back of his mind chants 'It's just beginning.'
Hiro ignores it.
This is the second warning.
There are no hints on what was talked about once they came back inside. Hiro could tell something big happened, but he couldn’t tell what.
Maybe if he askes-
A dull ache shoots through his leg. He glares over at Suzume, who’s shaking her head.
‘Not now.’ she mouths, and he sighs in acceptance. The Ninja Master said he would explain tomorrow. And there’s no changing his mind.
Speaking of the Ninja Master, he sends them off to bed practically as soon as he stepped through the door. Which means he can’t ask Tora, either.
Morning. Morning it is.
He can tell sleep won’t come easy tonight. It’s only been an hour since their talk, lying on his bed and he’s already tossing and turning, unable to get comfortable. He can hear the soft snores and purrs from the others, and it only fills him with dread.
Ninja Instinct? Or just nerves?
He doesn’t even realize he’s fallen asleep until he wakes up. Fox had curled up to his side protectively sometime during the night, and he smiles softly as he runs his fingers through his fur.
“Children, it is time for breakfast!” the Master calls from outside, and Hiro practically leaps off his mattress and out the door, the others not - too - far behind.
Ah. Rice with rice. A perfect breakfast.
His stomach growls at the sight of food, and he quickly sat on the cool grass as he picks up his bowl.
Hiro doesn’t even have to ask what last night was about. The Ninja Master seems to think now was a good time anyways.
Not that Hiro was complaining of course.
“Children,” he address, stroking his beard. “I will get straight to the point. I have reason to believe that the last storm we had was not natural.”
Well, that’s...not good.
“What do you mean, Master?” Futo asks gently.
“Ashida seems to be up to his tricks again. I believe the storms are at the cost of his dark magic - think of it as a balancing act.”
He waits for them to nod before he continues. “If Ashida is using dark magic, he is throwing the world out of balance. I fear he has been growing in power lately, and if it really is Ashida, than he must be stopped at once.”
“Master?” Kunoichi asks, a sliver of fear tinting her voice. Shun rests a hand on her shoulder, and Hiro takes a second to glance at Tora. And he knew at that exact moment what the Master's plan was.
“Last night,” he explains, noticeably quieter than he was before. “I asked Tora to go investigate Ashida’s old castles, and to bring word back on what is happening.”
If the situation wasn’t so grim, Hiro would have laughed. The air almost seemed to be sucked from everyone's lungs, and no one dares to speak.
What do you say to such a dangerous proposal, anyway?
The Master addresses Tora alone next. “You may go as far as you wish and you deem safe,” he says, “but I ask you to be back within one month.”
Tora purrs as he dips his head respectfully, the first real noise he’s made since their talk last night, and the group becomes quiet once more.
The Ninja Master clears his throat. “You may leave next week; please, use this time to prepare yourself for your journey.”
Tora nods and begins to walk to the nearby forest, seeming himself dismissed. Hiro watches him go, and a crushing feeling settles in his chest.
“Master, is it wise to send him alone?” he asks, and the Master smiles at him.
“Tora is strong and a very capable ninja and hunter. I have faith in him.”
His Ninja Instinct, no offense to Tora, tells him otherwise.
He ignores it. Surely the Master knows best.
This is the third warning.
The week goes too fast for Hiro liking. It’s too soon, and he almost wants to beg Tora to stay behind.
Of course he won’t. That’s not what a Real Ninja would do.
They’re all lined up at the Village gates, and it’s time for them to bid him farewell and good luck. He has his tiger claws on, and Hiro could almost swear he sees little claws attached to his shoes as well.
They each take their time saying goodbye. And maybe they can’t fully understand Tora with his growling, but Hiro has always been more than happy to translate.
Kunoichi is possibly the most emotional one. Tears slide down her cheeks in waves, and Tora smiles at her as he wipes them away, careful not to cut her with his claws. She has been upset all week, now that Hiro thinks about it, but he doesn’t blame her.
Tora approaches him next, the last person before his quest. He growls out a few words to him, and Hiro pulls him into a hug.
“I’ll miss you too,” he says, and he feels his face start to burn. Tora squeezes back playfully before stepping away. With a quick bow to them all, he’s off.
He doesn’t look back.
One week passes, then two and three, and each evening Hiro sits himself down and waits for Tora to bound through the gates with a grin on his face.
1 month passes.
Tora does not bound through the gates.
2 months pass and Hiro realizes that the Ninja Master has begun to think the worst.
3 months pass by, and they've all become quieter. It seems...empty. Less full without their playful companion.
3 months pass, and the Ninja Master makes a decision.
4 months pass and the Ninja Master sends another.
4 months pass, and Hiro still waits by the gate every evening for the lively tiger.