It was the day of the graduation exam. Okay, no, that wasn't right. It was supposed to be the day she sat the exam that would let her graduate from 'beginner' to 'intermediate' in the sealing arts, as well as take the competency test that would see her finally cut free from her mother's apron strings and allowed to go on missions with two of her peers and a senior nin of Uzushiogakure.
Three guesses on what didn't happen.
With Uzushio suddenly invaded, and every attempt to send a messenger out to their allied village of Konohagakure being both prematurely and violently cut off, no one was taking the time to worry about exams. Every child with sufficient knowledge to create a storage scroll was given the task of making sure that these enemies would not get their hands on the wealth of Uzushio.
Wealth in Uzushiogakure did most certainly not mean money. Only fools thought that 'treasure' was limited to silver and gold. To the Whirlpool Village, that word meant all the scrolls that taught sealing, any specially crafted weapons, and any and every scroll that explained how certain techniques worked. To those citizens with families, their treasure was the children who were protected by large sealed bunkers as they worked to further protect the history of their village.
Uzumaki Mao (her parents showed her how to write the characters of her name so that it read as "one who dances at the centre of the whirlpool", she quite liked it) had both of her swords strapped to her back, even though she knew she would not be joining the fighting. Her hands were stained with ink, rather than blood, as she hastily (but no less carefully for that) sealed scroll after scroll into another, waterproof scroll that she would be able to hide in her obi as soon as it was full and had been rolled up again.
"Is that everything you were assigned, Mao-chan?" asked a low, soft voice. No one was speaking loudly in the bunker. All of them either completely focused on their tasks or else straining to hear how the fighting above was going.
Mao looked up to see Haru-sensei standing over her, and nodded.
Haru-sensei nodded back, and her dark eyes – even darker in the candle-light of the bunker – gleamed with something that young Mao didn't quite understand.
"Time to evacuate you then," Haru-sensei declared softly, and waved for the girl to stand up and follow.
Mao's whole frame tensed at the word 'evacuate'. She knew that the messengers sent to Konoha had reportedly been killed before they got through the blockade. She could hear the fighting going on above still, and could hear screams of the dying as well. Had a way been found to get people out of Uzushiogakure without the enemy knowing? Was it being used to try and send another message to their sworn allies?
As Mao stumbled to her feet – she had been sitting and sealing for quite some time, as her assigned materials to seal away had not been insignificant – she realised that there were less people in the bunker now than there had been when she was first ordered to take her place at a desk with a scroll and a pile of things to be sealed away. Mao followed Haru-sensei along a corridor, out of a small door, and then was pointed downwards. A set of stairs had been carved into the sheer cliff face, and led down to a harbour.
"That's a long way down," Mao observed softly, her words almost lost to the roar of the sea winds and the distant echoes of battle that those winds brought from Uzushiogakure proper.
"It is," Haru-sensei agreed, "and it is only the beginning of your mission."
"Mission?! Haru-sensei, I was only supposed to take my graduation test today!" Mao objected in surprise.
"It doesn't matter now," Haru-sensei said with a shake of her head, short red hair bushing against her chin with the motion. "Every person evacuated from Uzushiogakure is being given this mission: escape, live, do not let Uzushio – its people or its teachings – be forgotten. Don't let anything stop you, Uzumaki Mao, and don't look back."
Mao bit her lip to stop the burning tears from falling, and swallowed down so that her heart no longer felt like it was lodged in her throat.
"Hai, Haru-sensei," she promised.
"Each boat down there has had rations for a month stored in seals up and down the mast, and the water barrel is lined with seals that are also full of more water. Whenever the barrel gets empty, activate one of them for more fresh water. Do not make for landfall until you absolutely must," Haru-sensei ordered.
"I understand, Haru-sensei," Mao affirmed solemnly.
Haru-sensei nodded to her, then closed the door between them, leaving Mao at the top of the stairs leading down to the hidden harbour. The door would not open again until Haru-sensei repeated the journey from the bunker with another child to be evacuated. It was sealed against being opened from the outside.
No sane person used a water jutsu to move their boat through waters with strong tides and whirlpools all over the place. Especially whirlpools. They had... adverse affects on water jutsu – and not consistent ones, either, or that could be compensated for with practice. No. Mao used a 'weak' wind jutsu to fill the sail of her little dinghy as she held tight to the tiller with one hand, and the other with one of the lines wrapped around so that she could control the yaw of the boom and the angle of the sail.
A 'strong' wind jutsu would have shredded the sail. After all, the primary attribute of the element 'wind' in ninjutsu was 'cutting'. A so-called weaker technique would act as a normal wind though, and give momentum to the sail that caught it. The technique that Mao used didn't have a name, as such. It was such a basic technique – taught to children as soon as they'd got the hang of manipulating their chakra with hand seals – that what it had was a description. In this case, "a good, stiff breeze", perfect for filling sails of dinghies or carrying a kite into the air.
Mao had heard that their allies in Konohagakure started their students with things like illusionary clones and transformations, because they didn't take much chakra, but in Uzushio, small chakra reserves weren't much of a concern. It was a fact of life that no two kids had quite the same amount of chakra available to them, but with sealing being such a big part of Uzushiogakure's curriculum, it wasn't much of an issue. Kids with smaller reserves could make a seal to store a part of their chakra for later use. Kids with larger reserves could do the same thing, only with the seal taking more and acting like a siphon as much as putting aside an emergency store. Every citizen of Uzushio put a chakra storage seal somewhere on their bodies when they mastered that level of sealing – and every single person in Uzushio was taught.
Kids tended to compare, too. Every chakra-holding seal was a personal design – had to be, by their very nature – so no two looked the same. Alike, occasionally, but never exactly the same. Mao's own (seriously, every kid who learned how, did, sooner or later, depending on their need) wrapped around both of her hips, climbed up her belly, and extended down both of her legs to her ankles. Not that all of that was visible most of the time. Most of the time, the only part of Mao's seal that was visible was a tiny and shining white swirl, like the Uzumaki clan symbol, just beneath her belly button. The rest of the seal only became visible if she was actively using the chakra that the seal was constantly siphoning off and storing.
Once Mao was past the whirlpools that surrounded Uzushio and gave her home its name, she released the jutsu and let safe tides and true winds capture her tiny vessel.
"Oh for a brave and a gallant ship, and a fair and a favouring breeze," she sang softly as she kept one hand on the tiller and the other wrapped in the line. Though she had released the jutsu and was safe from whirlpools, she wasn't about to let her dinghy and the elements choose her heading for her entirely. "With family, crew, and a captain too, to carry me o'er the seas."
It was a song that her parents had sung as they taught her how to sail. While chakra, sealing, and jutsu had been things taught by the sensei, sailing was something that family units did together and taught their children. Not to say that there hadn't been some overlap, but Mao and her cousins had learned the ropes (quite literally) from parents and other older family members.
"To carry me o'er the seas, my love, though I'll come back to you. Though I'm taking a trip on a sailing ship, I swear I will be true. For now it's rolling winds and ho! Sailing I will go. I'll stand no more upon the shore and watch the ocean blue. I'm off on the bounding main, though I'll be back again. Though I'm on a trip, Uzushio, I swear I will be true."
Mao almost choked on the last line as she sang it. Her family had all named each other in it a thousand times as they sang it. She could remember one cousin had even used it as a chance to declare his feelings for a girl, and they'd been married the next year. It seemed right to her now, as much as it almost made her cry, that she should name her village, her home. She might never be able to return home again – Haru-sensei had said "don't look back" – but she would never, ever forget her home and the loving family she'd had there.
She might have to re-word the song a bit, if she really was never going to return. Mao wasn't quite sure she wanted to think about that just now though. Oh, her parents had assured her that songs changed over time as the singers did – how that song could possibly have come out of Kaze no Kuni and Sunagakure, Mao had no idea – but she didn't have it in her heart to face making such a change at this juncture.
Besides, she had more serious things to worry about. Like the fact that she was alone at sea. Mao was a perfectly capable little sailor, whether she was in a dinghy on her own or working as part of a crew with her family on a larger vessel. There were, however, certain difficulties that had to be considered.
The problem with being the only one on a boat, especially when weighing anchor for the night isn't an option (the dinghy had a mooring line, but it did not have anything even resembling an anchor) is staying awake. Falling asleep with a hand on the tiller will more likely than not result in going off course. Mao didn't particularly want to wake up and find herself completely lost at sea.
Or worse, crashed ashore in hostile territory. Everybody in Uzushio had been taught at least the basics of navigating by both sun and stars, so 'lost at sea' wouldn't be too terminal. Mao had her water barrel, rations, and if needed then she could catch fish as well. Breaking her boat and landing herself in hostile territory would be much worse than not knowing exactly where on the ocean she was.
Mao did her level best to keep her heading due-south that whole time, well, once she'd gone around the headland anyway and dodged all those islands that were in Kirigakure territory. When the winds faded, she used jutsu until a true wind picked her up again. When she hit a wind going the wrong way, she tacked – back and forth, back and forth – but always with 'south' as her ultimate goal. She made a shelter against the sun out of her haori – exposure and heat-stroke would kill her as surely as running aground in enemy territory – and checked exactly how much 'a month' of rations was. She was still growing, and starving herself would stunt her growth, but that didn't mean she wouldn't be able to make those rations stretch an extra week or two if she was careful about it and supplemented the rations with caught fish.
At the end of her third day at sea, Mao finally felt the tug of exhaustion. With so much time and distance between her and Uzushio – indeed, all of the Elemental Nations, given her chosen heading – she was fairly confident that she would be safe from running aground in enemy territory. She hadn't even seen a bird for two of those days, so she felt fairly good about her chances of not running aground at all.
She took a couple of big gulps of water, did her best to lock the tiller in place (hopefully, she'd stay fairly true to her heading, even after she was asleep), pulled her swords from her back, and curled up beneath her haori. Uzumaki Mao gratefully slept from midnight until dawn.
Mao woke to a loud but distant yell.
"Dinghy ahoy! What cheer?"
It had been four weeks and three days since she'd left Uzushiogakure. She had successfully managed to keep her heading, even when allowing herself regular sleep. Mao hadn't feared running aground since the first time she'd slept, three days into her voyage. She felt mostly confident now that, whoever had spotted her little dinghy, they weren't the enemies of Uzushio. Whether or not they'd prove to be her enemies... well, that was yet to be discovered.
The language, at least, was familiar, so that was good. Surprising, but good. The accent was strange, but sailing for roughly a month, she really didn't expect any less. All the ship's sails were furled, and the anchor was down. High above, flapping very limply in the faint morning breeze, dark flags hung from the tops of the fore-, main-, and mizzen masts. Doubtless the standards of the ship's allegiance. As far as she had come, Mao was certain that she wouldn't have recognised whatever that standard might have been, even if it was clear to be seen.
Mao pushed her haori off her head and into its proper place around her shoulders, and reached for the water barrel.
"Ahoy! What cheer!" she answered back once she'd taken a gulp of water to moisten her tongue enough to form words.
"A girl!" exclaimed the voice that had woken her.
"Cast a line and drop the ladder!" a different voice snapped out loudly. "Let's get the lady aboard before she dies of exposure or scurvy!"
Mao angled the tiller and adjusted the yaw of the boom so that she could glide nicely up to where a thick line had been dropped from the side of the large ship, a rope ladder beside it. She neatly tied her own mooring line around the one that had been extended to her, despite the disparity in the thicknesses of the two lines. Once her dinghy was secured, Mao slipped her two swords back into their places at her back, double-checked that the scroll she had filled in Uzushio was firmly tucked (and properly hidden) in her obi, then reached for the rope ladder.
"Oi! Someone get the cabin boys on deck! Our guest has hair redder than Shanks!" a new voice yelled gleefully.
"Wake the captain while you're at it!" loudly growled the voice that had ordered a line and a ladder for her. "He'll want to welcome our guest. Rouse the cook, too!"
"Permission to come aboard?" Mao asked when she popped her head over the railing.
"Permission granted, jou-chan," answered a man with his facial hair all cut into short rectangles along his chin, tinted glasses on his face, and black hair. The owner of the voice she'd heard giving orders just before. "I'm Silvers Rayleigh, first mate of the Old Jackson," he introduced himself as he offered her a hand to help her over the side and onto the deck.
"I'm Uzumaki Mao," Mao presented herself. "Pleased to meet you, Siru-veru-san."
The man chuckled at her mispronunciation of his name, which was better than some people reacted to improperly-spoken names. Mao knew, as soon as she heard the name, that she would probably get it at least a little wrong. The language seemed to be the same, but the accent was vastly different.
"Welcome aboard, Uzumaki Ma-ou-chan," a new voice answered her – and while whoever had spoken had gotten her name more right than she'd got Rayleigh's, it still wasn't quite right. She wasn't going to correct this person though. Not right now, anyway, and saying 'ou' instead of 'oh' wasn't a very big deal, really.
It was certainly less of a mispronunciation than she'd managed.
Besides, Mao recognised the bearing of a leader as soon as she turned to face the owner of that new voice, and she wasn't about to correct a person who definitely held the power. Rayleigh was first mate, and he had authority, but this man? Mao was prepared to bet her boat she was now facing the captain. Not just because of the fancy coat and well-maintained moustache, either. All of the sailors around her were pretty clean for having been at sea for however long, even if they definitely weren't a uniformed lot.
Mao herself was not so fresh, as she suddenly felt very keenly. She had the one barrel of water, for all that there were storage seals full of more clean water lining the barrel. She hadn't wanted to use valuable drinking water for staying clean with. Bathing in the ocean wasn't the best idea either, so yeah. She was feeling less than clean, knew she smelled less than clean, and was equally conscious of both her sun- and wind-burns and her greasy hair.
"Wha-!? Her hair's as red as yours, Shanks! You related?" someone else yelped, exclaimed, demanded. It was a boy, a few years older than Mao herself, with a huge, round, red nose, and blue hair poking out from under his hat. He had blue eyebrows as well.
Next to him was another boy, about the same age, who could have been an Uzumaki – and Mao was only mostly-confident that he wasn't because she had known every Uzumaki alive back in Uzushiogakure. Of course, that didn't necessarily mean he definitely wasn't, because Uzumaki did travel the oceans, and Mao was old enough to know what people meant by the expression can't keep it in their pants. She was pretty sure she was the first to come quite this far from the Elemental Nations though. Still, possible, however unlikely. Not that she was likely to ever find out for sure, either way.
"Don't know," the red-haired boy, Shanks, answered, tone absent but eyes unwavering. Eyes that were fixed on her. "I don't remember my family."
Mao pursed her lips as the feeling that could only be described as everybody deserves family – fix this! reared up in her. Okay, so there was no way to be one-hundred percent certain, but there were a few universal factors in all Uzumaki. The red hair wasn't actually one of them – people who had 'stepped out' with blonde- or black-haired people tended to not get red-haired kids – but it was a pretty defining factor within the clan.
"Any real Uzumaki can eat or drink their favourite thing ten times more than anybody else in their weight class," Mao offered, "and won't actually feel any effects until they start aiming for double that. Everything else is normal quantities though."
"Hahaha!" the captain laughed grandly. "Shanks, next time we make port, I'll bet on you in a drinking contest!"
The red-haired teenager blushed a little, even as he smiled.
Mao smirked. Sake was a common enough 'favourite' among those Uzumaki who were old enough to be allowed to buy and drink it. One of her cousins in Konohagakure – a blonde young woman who was an Uzumaki by blood, but not name – could reportedly drink a bar dry, and walk out pleasantly buzzed rather than so utterly drunk she had to worry about liver failure and alcohol poisoning. Mao also had an uncle who drank five bottles of sake with every meal as a matter of course. Honestly though, she was more impressed with the cousin who could and would eat fifteen bowls of ramen in one sitting, and never gained any weight from it. As for Mao herself, well, she was partial to apples at the moment, but she didn't doubt she'd find something deeply unhealthy later in life to counter that.
"Anything else?" Rayleigh asked.
"More energy than any non-Uzumaki knows what to do with," Mao said with a careless shrug, as though that wasn't actually a big deal. Because it was. She was phrasing it so that it sounded insignificant, but the Uzumaki Life Force was potent stuff. Twelve-year-old girls shouldn't be able to stay awake for three days, and then be completely fine and able to do it again after only six hours sleep.
Then there was the not-ageing-like-everybody-else thing. Grow up? Sure, just like anybody. Grow old? Eh, not so much. They certainly never went grey. Mao had a very clear memory of meeting her great-great-grandparents, both as active and red-haired as her parents, for all that age, their only wrinkles were the kind that non-Uzumaki's associated with people who were hitting their forties.
"Sounds like Shanks," Rayleigh sighed.
"Then I do hereby claim Shanks as an Uzumaki," Mao said with a smile. "I'd hug you to welcome you into the family, but I've been sailing in my dinghy for a bit over four weeks, and I don't want to get too close to myself right now."
"Four weeks!?" the crewmen standing around her yelped in shock.
"Shanks, go run your new little sister a bath," the captain ordered. "Someone secure that dinghy properly. Jou-chan, if you would permit me, I'm sure we can find you something to wear while your own clothes are washed."
"I don't even know your name, Sir," Mao said softly.
The big man blinked in surprise over his curled black moustache, laughed, and bowed gallantly to her.
"Gol D. Roger," he introduced himself. "Captain of the Rogers Pirates."
It was Mao's turn to blink in surprise as she settled that introduction into her head.
"You don't smell like pirates," she said at last.
"Oh?" Rayleigh hummed, amused.
"My experience with pirates is that they don't understand about baths and laundry," she explained, and with a pout, picked up a bit of her own limp, disgusting hair. "I smell more like what I expect of pirates," she grumbled.
The captain, first mate, and every other member of the pirate ship she had found herself on – the ones that heard her anyway – laughed.