Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.
AN: As the summary mentioned, this is an AU. Naturally there will be some difference regarding the world and the cast. I'll leave it to you to discover what changed. Again, and for all following chapters, my thanks to the team over at DLP. Over the years they've offered me a lot of support, and for this story, too, their feedback has been invaluable.
"They are coming, sir."
Bad words, and a horrible start to the day. I had every reason to keep my eyes closed against the early morning chill and bury myself farther into my Jōnin vest. A few more seconds, that was all I asked for.
"Sir . . . Sir!"
The voice broke into my dream landscape, echoing from the sky as I sat lounging in an oversized noodle bowl. Someone was shaking my shoulder. I stirred with a grumble and turned onto my back.
The face of a Chūnin greeted me. She had pretty eyes, a rare shade of amber, but the tense lines around them betrayed her worry. I disliked anxiety in the morning hours, and Izuna was overflowing with it, more so than her master Sakura had ever been.
"I heard you," I said, pushing myself up into a sitting position. "I'm up."
I craned my neck to look up the oak I had been sleeping against, trying to catch some sun with my face. Nothing. Only shadows and a green wall reaching to the sky. I jerked my head back down, grimacing when pain jolted through my body. The Kyūbi was still on a strike. I had come to expect nothing less.
Rising to my feet in an awkward stumble, I wished myself back into my dream. Nothing happened—no return to that sweet world. No way around it, then. When duty called you had to answer. Those were the rules now. And that, so it had been made clear to me, counted double during war time.
Izuna was tapping her index finger against her thigh, looking around nervously.
"Report," I said, wiping the sleep out of my eyes.
At the command, her back became straight as a board. "Subaru has sighted the target to the north: six carts, guarded by nine Iwa-nin. Nothing unusual stood out about them."
"How long do we have?"
"They are approximately half an hour away."
I could have slept a good ten minutes longer, then. But that was a newbie for you, with nerves coming through when you least needed them. Izuna was skilled, certainly more than I had been at fifteen, but the Brass' decision to fast track her was ridiculous. This wasn't a field trip.
The silence betrayed me, and she looked at her feet. Great. Hinata was right—I became far too grouchy when I didn't get my seven hours.
Izuna would learn in time, though. I just had to make sure she survived until then. I gave her an encouraging smile, albeit a tired one. "Wake the others and tell them to get ready. One convoy left, then we can get the hell away from this place. I'll make sure we get the best food camp has to offer once we're back. You better believe it."
Izuna took some cheer from that, saluted, and went to fulfill her orders. I gave her five minutes tops, then her anxiety would come back, worse than before. I was a little twitchy as well, though. You never really got used to setting ambushes neck deep in enemy territory.
Still, things were looking good. So far we had gone three for three in terms of raided convoys, and I hadn't lost a single shinobi of the seven under my command. I couldn't wait to get back, though. If this mission proved a success, I'd have all the arguments lined up to get myself two weeks of leave. I'd be away from this damp forest in Fang Country, and back in Konoha in time for the birth of my daughter.
Yawning, I gave the swirl-shaped pendant around my neck a squeeze. Hinata had pained it red and white, like my favorite topping and, coincidentally, also the Hokage's hat. I let the pendant fall back into place. Feared squad leader my sweet tushy. Hinata had made such a sap out of me, it was a miracle I didn't cut myself on my own kunai when I thought of her and the little one.
I shrugged into my vest, ignoring the pain in my shoulder. Around me, the squad was rising, shimmying into their mesh shirts, searching their knives and tantos for nicks and imbalances. At length they assembled in a line, Shikamaru at the far right, waiting for me to give them the rundown once more.
A few months ago, Shikamaru had still held these kind of meetings, while I listened and looked important. Jiraiya had made it clear, though, that a Hokage had to speak, and speak well, in front of others. You could talk like a normal person most of the time, but eventually you'd have to pull out the big sentences to make people feel awe. Writing down speeches was supposed to make giving them easier, but that was the one advice I wouldn't take. The written word and I weren't the best of friends. Taking over Shikamaru's talks was my way of easing into the whole speech thing.
I told my shinobi I would pose asleep near the river, a Konoha-nin who thought he could rest up in peace and drink the horrifying images of his mission away. I'd fight back against the sudden attack, then lure the lot of them away on a wild goose chase through the forest. Iwa-nin, dense bastards that they were, could never resist a defenseless man from Konoha. Once they had weakened their forces around the carts, Shikamaru and the squad would swoop in to destroy the supplies, then give the signal and make for the hills. Once I saw the signal, I'd do likewise. A nice speedy good-bye, after which I'd have Izuna patch me up as best she could.
I expected the same eagerness and anticipation they had shown me every other time. Today, though, I panned my gaze along a row of concerned expressions. I said, "I thought you'd love the idea of getting out of here. Show some spirit, guys. We're almost done with Fang!"
The Chūnin looked away. Only Shikamaru and the third and last Jōnin were returning my gaze. They exchanged a glance, then Shikamaru stepped forward. The years of war had left deep marks on his face. Stress had etched in most of them, but one—running from his chin along his throat—was a gift from a Kumo-nin. His eyes were dark and beady, flashing with cunning and seeing right through you. In those traps you never wanted to be the mouse.
He cleared his throat. I was about to become the mouse.
"It has nothing to do with a lack of spirit," he said. "We're all happy this mission will end soon."
"What's the problem, then? Thought of a better plan? We've only got a little time left, but if you speak fast enough, maybe we can wing it." I shot all of them a cheesy grin, trying to ease the tension. The Chūnin looked guilty. I didn't like that very much.
"The plan is fine," Shikamaru said. "But I think I speak for all of us when I say that we'd be much more at ease if you sat this one out. Let someone else be the bait for once."
Ah. That again. Well, that wouldn't happen. "Come on, Shikamaru. We've been over this. I'm the most suited for the role."
I was, not just strength-wise but also in terms of speed. That we had lost no one so far was owed in large part to the fact that I usually drew the attention of every enemy onto me. After over a decade of service, half of those years spent as a team leader, I hadn't lost a single shinobi under my command. Not unlike Kakashi, who—even years after his death—still held the highest record of team members making it back home alive.
I was getting up there, though, and that was nothing to sneeze at. Such numbers couldn't be argued with, even if Shikamaru still tried it now and then. I got that he only was concerned about me, but the outcome of this attempt would be the same as every other time.
"Maybe you are the most suited," Shikamaru said. "But you're also injured, and have been for a while now. We have several people here who can play that part just as well. People that were assigned your squad for a reason."
"He's right, sir," Haru, the Jōnin next to him, spoke up. He had a sharp, pointed nose that looked like an arrowhead lodged in the middle of his face. "I'm not as fast as you, granted, but I can give them a good run for their money. Give me the chance, and I'll prove it to you."
The Chūnin chose that moment to find their courage, nodding cautiously in agreement.
I actually felt insulted. As if a few injuries were enough to hold me back. "I'm not brittle enough to fall apart after a few injuries, guys." I swept my gaze along the line and made eye contact with each and every one of them. None of them had sustained a crippling injury. That was all the reassurance I needed. The method worked. "We'll do it the old way. Get to your positions. They'll be here soon."
At the direct order, they vanished into the trees, becoming mere shadows in the mist-wreathed forest around us. All but Shikamaru, who kept standing in front of me, his arms crossed. The stance of disapproval was so familiar, I expected long blonde hair to sprout from the back of his head any second now.
"This is a mistake," he said.
My lack of sleep must have really made me look tired. I loved Shikamaru like a brother, but these past weeks he had been clucking about like a mother hen. A sting shot through my arm when I waved his concern away. "You know I don't die easily. In a few days all my injuries will be gone."
"Why not give it a few days then? There's no harm in that."
I rolled my eyes. "I don't need rest. I'm still fully functional."
He let out an explosive breath. "Sometimes you're such a bothersome blockhead, Naruto. Think of Hinata and—"
"Stop it," I said, whiskers twitching. "Call me a blockhead all you want, but leave my family out of this."
Shikamaru paused. "You're right, I'm sorry. But why can't you listen to my advice on this one? You're running yourself into the ground. And you're fooling nobody when you say you're on top of your game right now."
"I'm still fit enough to do the job, though," I said. "Fit enough to ensure my team's not in danger anyway."
"Maybe. But they won't always have you around to protect them."
I gave a frustrated shrug. "This isn't a training camp, Shikamaru. As long as I'm their squad leader, I won't lose a single one of them. That's a promise. Everyone gets to go home."
"Everyone but you?"
The question was asked so earnestly, it stopped me in my tracks as I was about to make another argument for my case. Shikamaru had abandoned the frustrated stance, leaving behind nothing but weariness. He looked defeated, and that smarted more than I cared to admit.
Was he that concerned? I had dealt with so much indifference as a kid, even after all these years I found it strange for people to feel so strongly about me.
"Listen," I said with a sigh, "I'll stay as bait. But, if it makes you feel any better, I'm taking Haru along for the ride. A Jōnin escort for me should put you at ease, right?"
"It would," he said.
The relief on his face made me uncomfortable. "Send him down, then," I said. "We haven't got much time left."
While Shikamaru joined the squad in the treetops, I took a swig from the bottle of sake that was to be my prop. I had a group of Iwa-nin waiting to be robbed. I wouldn't want to disappoint them.
Wet grass pressed through my poncho. I was lying next to Haru on the bank of a river meandering through the clearing. Thick mist was curling on the water. Perching on the trees across the river, my squad would be sitting to observe it all. Or rather they would look to Subaru, whose Byakugan was the only thing that could see me through the mist.
He was a strange cookie, that branch Hyūga. Long hair tied back in the way of his clan, but the rest of him a much darker complexion since he'd been stationed in Wind Country for years. He was as unreadable and stern as the rest of his family, yet the desert had also seen him picking up some kind of shamanism. What would the mighty Hyūga clan say when he came home after all these years, dark as sunbaked clay, with little bones woven into his hair? The more prim and proper Hyūga would probably burst a blood vessel. I'd pay good money for that kind of entertainment.
The earthen smell and bird song around us would have been idyllic if my back weren't soaking through like a towel thrown into a puddle. Slinking around wet to the bone was a bad way to the spend the summer, but at least the sake kept me warm.
"Want some?" I sat up, reaching Haru the bottle.
Haru shook his head. He was tense.
"One more," I said, taking another swig. "That's all we need. Then it's back home. How old are your kids now?"
"Seven and three," he said.
"Seven, huh? That's the girl, right? She's about to enter the Academy then."
"They lowered the age to five." Haru stopped looking around the clearing. "She's been a student for two years already. Our backyard is full of wooden shuriken and kunai. They're only allowed steel in their third year."
"I bet she can't wait for that. Steel's the real deal. Wood got nothing on that cold feel of a real brace of shuriken between your fingers."
Haru's lips curved into a smile. "True. And she's got it in her head that she'll be a Genjutsu expert."
"Not Ninjutsu like her father? Is your wife good at Genjutsu?"
"Passable, I'd say. But Kurenai is a friend of hers, and she visits us whenever she gets some leave."
"That would explain it," I mused, leaning back. "I never got into Genjutsu. I just don't have that kind of control."
"Which is a damn shame, sir, if you don't mind me saying so. The area you could cover with those reserves is staggering. Putting a whole town under wouldn't be a stretch, I think."
I shrugged. I was about to say that I had made peace with my inability at Genjutsu a long time ago, when the rumbling of carts became noticeable. Soon after came the voices—Iwa sure wasn't hiding its presence. I climbed to my feet, pulling up Haru with me.
"Did you just call my wife ugly?" I shouted, waving the bottle around.
Haru looked uncomfortable at the situation I had put him in. I grinned, teasing the courage into him.
"I never would," he said, raising his voice. "I called her daft for marrying a chump. Who'd want to cook for you?"
Ouch. He was getting into it. "Well, you won't have to worry about anyone cooking for you once my fist finds your face, dumbass."
"Yeah? I'd like to see you try, you two-bit—"
"You two, stop it!"
Haru and I turned to the Iwa-nin, the leaf of Konoha proudly displayed on the hitai-ate around our foreheads.
"Shit," I said, hurling the bottle right at the first one's head. As it shattered, I flipped off the rest of them. "Today's your lucky day. But don't you go and feel safe now. If we meet again, we'll have ourselves a grand party, you hear me?"
Their confusion was a memory to be treasured. When they jumped at us, we leapt away, straight into the mist. My feet feathered across the river, then I was off toward solid ground once more. I leapt again, this time onto a branch, with Haru right beside me.
The chase was on. I didn't know how many were coming along for the ride, but it sounded like more than four at least, which would've halved the group around the carts. Shikamaru should encounter no trouble cleaning them up.
At the whir of shuriken, I ducked my head and hurried on. The projectiles missed their mark, biting into the bark near me. More followed. I dodged around the branches, swinging myself down to another height before shooting off again, ignoring the discomfort in my shoulder and arm.
I always kept an eye on Haru, but he was fine, deflecting and dodging as needed.
An incoming hail of pebbles tried herding us to the right, but I had been fighting Iwa-nin for too long now to fall for that trick. "Brace!" I called out, barreling with Haru right through the hail.
A moment later, a boulder the size of a trashcan hurtled past us, right at where we would've been had we tried to avoid the stony rain.
Sometimes, Iwa-nin were really too easy.
The thought amused me until the more careful part of me called me a fool in Kakashi's voice. Too easy wasn't good, not in these parts. I reached for a kunai from my leg holster and swiped at a host of senbon before they could shave off my whiskers. As the senbon fell to the ground, it hit me. The attacks were lukewarm. Just enough to keep us going, but with barely any effort put into them.
Shikamaru usually worked fast, and we were already four minutes away from the clearing. He should've given the signal by now, and—
The sudden silence in the forest was eerie. Not even a bird plucked up the courage to interrupt it.
I stopped, cracking the branch under my feet. "Haru—!"
Too late. Haru hurtled past me, toward the ground, a red-wreathed shadow following him. I leapt after them, the hairs on my neck like vipers. My body had felt it earlier than my mind could process it. The potent miasma of chakra that had hit Haru set my teeth on edge. The essence of it was as familiar to me as my own.
Haru lay prone on the ground, dazed by the blow. I blasted myself forward with wind chakra, barely overtaking the shadow before it reached him. I had no time to get into a better position. The force of the punch fell right onto my injured arm, cracking it. I bit down a curse while the attacker leapt back into the mist.
I wouldn't play that kind of game. I called more wind, blowing away the mist in every direction, and found him standing in between the trees, looking at us. He was built like a brick house, his arms covered in tattoos. His lips twitched between his scraggly red beard.
"Are you alright?" I asked Haru, but no answer came. "Haru?"
That first monstrous blow had knocked him out cold. I couldn't blame him, given that it had been right to the head, but it made this far more difficult.
Now there were other presences as well, sitting in the trees north of us. Six, maybe seven people, though none of them resembled the signatures I had felt pursuing us earlier. I narrowed my eyes at the Jinchūriki. The skill needed to create clones that couldn't be detected by a Byakugan was staggering. I couldn't do it. I was able to fool Jiraiya and Tsunade, but Hinata always knew whether I was real or not.
Out of habit I had left behind some clones on the chase, though, hidden as animals and branches. They were to assist my squad if necessary, but I needed them more now. I summoned a new clone with mental orders that came alive as a stone under my heel, and squashed it.
Time was everything. I had to make do until Shikamaru got here to take Haru off my hands and keep the other Iwa-nin busy. Maybe that guy would leave us the hell alone if all his friends were out of the picture.
First, then, manners. The wife was particular about those.
"Can I at least have your name before we smash each other's faces?"
"I don't see my face getting touched here, boy." He was calm and solid as rock, his brow raised in challenge. "The same can't be said about your friend there."
That sentence alone was more than enough reason to have earned himself a good hiding. He'd also called me boy, though, and I'd pay him back gladly for that. Later. Once Haru was out of danger.
"Say what you want, old man, but since we're both, you know, of the same kind, I thought it'd be nice to be polite."
"Stalling, huh?" He shrugged. "Ah, doesn't matter. You go first."
He had seen right through me. Although, to be fair, I hadn't tried to hide it. That he was still playing along was a problem wholly of its own.
"Uzumaki Naruto," I returned, more wary now, even as my clones took up position south, west, and east of us.
"Rōshi of the Lava Mountain."
Admittedly, the title got that certain something. "Fancy name that. Now, Rōshi, it's been fun talking to you. Have a nice day!"
The first blade of wind slammed into him. The next cut through the mist from another direction. Then followed a third, and a fourth, and ever more until the screeching wind filled the entire forest. Blade after blade was shearing through the trees and greenery, cutting off branches and slicing whole trunks in two. Oaks crashed into one another, struggled, then hit the ground with a threatening rumble. As the first trees fell sideways, shrubbery and branches poured from the sky, blotting out my vision.
Shadows leapt between the falling trees, trying to find steadier footing. The chaos had rooted out his allies as well.
I used the confusion to make my escape with Haru slung over my shoulder. There was no way this would've been enough to lay out Rōshi, but that hadn't been my aim anyway. This whole thing looked like a trap for me, and not like a supply convoy quick on the uptake.
Besides, I had never faced off with another Jinchūriki before. I planned to keep it that way. I didn't know what would happen if we actually got into the thick of things. Would I be able to keep from using bony claws and swishing tails and the red, toxic cloak of chakra when the fight got too intense? I didn't want to be the first Jinchūriki to violate the Tenmen Treaty, perhaps the only piece of paper in this world that still held some weight—which was a miracle in itself.
I was pushing off another tree when I sensed Rōshi right next to me. I turned midair, barely getting Haru out of the way of the blow. Rōshi's knuckles hit me like a hammer an anvil, smashing right through my hasty defense and sending me hurling toward the ground.
I clutched at Haru, turned, and landed hard on my back, tears jumping to my eyes as the forest floor cratered under me, blasting grass and moss away and leaving nothing but hard earth.
Dizzy, I pushed Haru off me and climbed to my feet. I spat out a wad of blood, and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.
Rōshi was walking toward us, his fists smoking as though he'd use them to brand me like cattle. There was a death-like certainty to his steps that, frankly, pissed me off. I straightened as much as I could under the pain.
The wind shifted behind me. Pebbles crunched. Then my team was there, standing and crouching around me and Haru like protective statues come to life.
I had conjured them after all, and grinned my bloodiest grin at Rōshi. Say what you want, but the Uzumaki magic worked every time.
"Good to see you're still alive," Shikamaru said.
"Agreed," I returned, "though Haru's got the worst of it. Izuna, he's your responsibility now. Subaru, work it."
Crouching next to me, the Hyūga raised his hands in a seal. The veins around his eyes popped. "Six shinobi. One of them carries a huge scroll, though he looks like a close combat specialist."
The ground under our feet shivered. We leapt aside, Izuna taking Haru, as a fount of lava broke open the floor.
Then Rōshi was in front of me, fist flying. I leaned to the side, death passing me by, and kicked off from the ground, shooting high into the air and out of reach. "Squad, get them! I'll take care of this."
Half a second later I was slugging it out with Rōshi again. Or rather, he was slugging it, and I did my hardest to keep distance between us. Soon my team would have taken care of things. There was no need to let loose here, even though I really wanted to. I had learned this the hard way, though. Whichever path gave us the highest chance of making it out alive with everyone was the one I'd walk.
Rōshi drove me relentlessly before him. Where I stepped, he was too, delayed by only a fraction of time. An endless stream of clones rose from the ground, met my own, crumbled as mine puffed away in clouds of smoke. Earthen spears, fiery boulders, lava lances—the projectiles at his command were inexhaustible. I dodged and weaved, switched with my clones, but no matter what I did, Rōshi cottoned on to it.
For all my craftiness, he had a good thirty years on me, if not more. Decades in which people had been running from him while he hunted them down. He had probably seen every method of escape man ever invented.
The problem was that I even had to resort to craftiness instead of brute force, but my arm was nearly unusable and gave me little choice.
When I juked left, then switched with a clone, I found his elbow crushing my insides. Half a minute and twenty maneuvers later, his fist struck my face a second time and sent me flying.
I was losing, slowly but surely. I had no time to think about the causes, though. I had to keep him away from my team, that was all. As long as Rōshi didn't fight them, everything was alright.
The forest around us became a wreckage. Fir trees stood on fire, trunks lay scattered and broken, and mounds of earth had welled up where our techniques met. My body was a single bruise. My breath came heavy.
Then Shikamaru landed next to me. I was sick to my stomach. He shouldn't be so close! But an enemy shinobi landed next to Rōshi, and I took the breather.
"How . . . How are things?" I panted. "What's with the scroll?"
"Three down already. We think they've sealed the supplies in that scroll. Their mission was probably to kill us and deliver them afterwards."
What a rosy prospect. It made sense, though. The chakra requirement for sealing scrolls scaled with the amount packed into them. Only a Jinchūriki was able to seal supplies from a whole convoy. Which also meant this ambush wasn't planned just for me. If anything, it was a horrible coincidence for Rōshi and me to meet.
That changed things. For this mission to be successful, I'd have to destroy that damn scroll and the supplies inside. Otherwise I wouldn't get my leave, and neither would my team. There was no way in hell I'd miss out on my daughter's birth.
"Get back and finish off those guys," I told Shikamaru.
Shikamaru knew better than to argue during a fight. He told me to survive, then left me alone with Rōshi, who had strapped the scroll to his back.
It was time to go on the offensive. It would be one of the crazier ones, likely to leave Shikamaru a horrified mess were he to see it. Good thing he was busy.
I said, "Seems like your guys are almost done fore. Want to give up?"
Rōshi barked a laugh. "I'll just kill all of you before that happens."
Done speaking, he ran at me. I matched him pace for pace, and we met right in the middle of this place that had once been a forest and now was ash and tinder.
He swung wide, his fist encased in hardened lava. I ducked under it, pushed forward into his guard, and took a hold of him with both arms. It was like hugging a furnace. Hits rained onto my back. Their repeated impact made my shoulders cry out in protest, while the fabric of my vest burnt away, leaving a searing heat on my back as though he was hitting me with a hot poker.
I stifled a scream, my hands racing through a seal behind his back. One more second, then the work was done. I let go, and slid down against him to the ground, leaning against his legs. Sheer relief came over me as the heat gave way and the crisp morning air caressed my burnt back.
He smashed his fist into me from above, sending me sprawling at his feet like an old doormat, then kicked me away.
Every bone in my body was screaming, even more so when I came to a halt and looked up awkwardly from the ground. Rōshi was breathing wildly, eyes bugging out. Evidently, he didn't like hugging. And for once in my life I counted myself lucky to be a Jinchūriki. Any normal human would've died from that onslaught.
I struggled to my feet, wiping sticky red hair away from my eyes. He would notice it any moment now . . .
Rōshi reached behind him. The scroll was gone.
While holding tight to his midriff I had cut the threads to the scroll with a wind technique, before forming a clone to take it away.
"Where is it?" he growled.
"Scattered," I said, gesturing at the tiny pieces of paper littering the ashen forest floor. "I've never been good at handling valuable writing. Sorry, man. Maybe with some time and spit you can glue it back together?"
His chakra flared like a thunderstorm. He looked ready to go Bijū on me right there. Then his head swiveled. A moment later, my squad landed next to me, all worse for the wear but alive.
Rōshi looked at us like an enraged bull, neck muscles bulging, hair windswept and standing on end. He took another long look at me, coal-like eyes shining fiercely, then he was gone. I had a feeling he'd remember my face.
I turned to my team. "Is Haru alright?"
"He's fine," Izuna said. "Just unconscious."
"Good. Two other things," I said to Shikamaru.
He was battered and bruised, but right there to listen. "Yes?"
"Get the scroll from my clone. He's hiding somewhere in those bushes over there." At that point, the scattered remains of paper went up in ringlets of smoke as my army of hidden clones puffed away. I was unreasonably pleased that my ruse had worked.
Subaru went over to the shrubbery to get the scroll. Shikamaru said, "The second thing?"
I was too tired to make a kiss face, so I looked him straight in the eyes and said, "Hold me," before keeling forward, out like a light.
It took me a day to wake up for the first time. All I could remember was a bone-deep exhaustion, the soothing voice of a woman, and a gentle swaying, as though I was standing on the deck of a ship. Two days later, when I woke up again—this time for real—it was on a straw futon, lying on my stomach. Izuna was carefully applying salve to my back, her long, thin fingers bringing relief with every cold touch. If I hadn't been curious about the state of affairs, I might have drifted off toward another day of sleep.
She told me that we were back at the main camp. She had carried me all the way from Fang, healing me as much as possible while on the run. It wasn't a trivial task, and I saw why Sakura had taken such a fancy to her. When I said as much, Izuna's fingers paused, then resumed their work with even more diligence.
"I hope you don't think me too forward, sir, but I'm glad we're back here and you got to rest."
"Fang wasn't my idea of a good vacation either," I told her. "Tell the others that from now on until the next mission rolls in I want the whole squad drunk and in a good mood. If I see one sober soul, that'll be latrine duty for the whole team."
"I will do that, sir," she said. I could hear the grin in her voice.
"Damn right you will. We survived an ambush and took a whole convoy worth of supplies from a Jinchūriki. If that's not worth celebrating, I don't know what is. The Brass must be dancing on the tables right now."
The moment her hands stopped working their magic I knew I had said something strange. My voice hardened. "What is it?"
Before she could answer, the flap to the tent was pushed aside. Shikamaru stepped inside, clad in black slacks, his Jōnin vest nowhere to be found. The casual Shikamaru was usually a harbinger of good news. This time, though, he had a pinched look on his face, as if he were about to talk to potential in-laws.
"Can you give us a minute?" Shikamaru asked.
Izuna's cold hands left my back. I was bemoaning their loss even as I tried figuring out what I had missed.
"I was outside and heard about the order you gave," Shikamaru said, pulling over a chair. "I'll make sure they stay drunk. Even Subaru, though that might take some convincing."
"Stop buttering me up and give it to me straight. What happened?"
He leaned back in the chair. "The scroll we took from your clone was a fake. Infused with chakra and with enough scribbles to make it look like an actual seal, even to a Byakugan."
"So we didn't get the supplies . . ."
"If there were supplies to begin with. Rōshi might have played us. They might have stashed the supplies somewhere else. Or maybe they never existed at all. There are too many variables to say for sure what happened."
I lay still as I listened. Outside sounded the rough barter from passing shinobi and the yapping of dogs. I balled my fists. All these injuries for nothing, then. Would they let me go back to Konoha now?
"Before you start spiraling you should know that I already made my report," Shikamaru said. "They didn't care all that much about the supplies. To be frank, they found it miraculous that none of us died, even though we met a Jinchūriki. They're pleased, is what I'm saying."
"I find that hard to believe." The Brass was never pleased. They were always looking for excuses to dock you leave time. None of my missions so far had been perfect, even those that were.
Shikamaru shrugged. "I'm just telling you what they told me. Though you're right that they're probably after something else. Stories are spreading already—again. We told Haru what happened, and naturally he told the rest of the camp. The word is that you single-handedly sent Rōshi packing while we kept his posse off you. Some even say that you sent him packing while defending us from his men."
I hadn't exactly sent him packing, but I could stomach the added notoriety. I had done it all my life. "Does the Brass' pleasure come with any benefits?"
"Good food. Better quarters. And, most importantly, more leave. They're giving us three weeks instead of two. All they ask for is that you check in with the Godaime first, once you're in Konoha."
"Huh? Can't he just read the report?"
"I'm sure he can, but I'd be surprised if he was asking you there just to talk about the mission."
I didn't much like Danzō, but so far he had steered Konoha well enough through these troubled times. Eight years, I think. Since Jiji died. On further thought, my dislike for Danzō was solely based on his sinister looks. I had never had much to do with him in a professional manner. Maybe he was a perfectly nice old man who had drawn the shit end of the stick in the facial department. Such things happened sometimes. I was about to share that vital piece of information when Shikamaru reached into his pouch and pulled out a book with a grimy cover.
"A diary I suppose," he said. "Subaru found it next to the fake scroll."
I hadn't been all that precise with my wind technique while fighting Rōshi. I had probably cut the book loose on accident.
"Rōshi didn't strike me as the kind to write a diary," I said.
"It's not his. It belongs to a girl, I think. I haven't read much farther than the first few sentences, though."
"Why would Rōshi keep that?"
"Beats me. The content could be valuable, though. It might give us some clue how to fight him next time."
"A girl's diary? I doubt it."
"You want me to give it to an analyst? I haven't shown anyone else yet. I thought you might like to see it first."
I shrugged and held out my hand. Shikamaru gave me the book and left the tent, saying that he had to make sure everyone stayed drunk, even Subaru. Outside I heard the click of his lighter.
I brushed my thumb across the rough leather cover. A diary, huh? It would be the first time in years that I read something besides a mission scroll. A new experience, if nothing else. I cracked open the book to the first page. There were wet stains and also droplets of dried blood. The handwriting looked crude, and was still worlds better than mine:
Mom gave me this book to write in and made grandfather promise I could keep it. I don't know how often I will be able to write though. I don't want to leave the estate, but grandfather forces me to. I hate him! Why do I have to leave mom when I could live with her? And that because some old man in the mountains is supposed to make me into a strong shinobi . . . I don't even want to be a strong shinobi. All it brought my family so far has been pain. I'd much rather play with my friends. And I don't think this man knows how to do my hair. Only mom knows how. I won't trust anyone else with it.
I raised my eyebrows. Who wouldn't want to learn how to be a strong shinobi? That girl had some issues, though the wish to stay with her family was certainly easy to understand. I turned the page for the next entries:
I hate grandfather. He is adamant that I go. He says I exist only because mom was too weak to defend herself on a mission. Does that mean I'm a mistake? He hugged me when I asked him. I never know what is going on with him. Grandfather is a strange old man.
My new teacher is called Rōshi. Just Rōshi. He's even worse than grandfather. He's always angry. He shouts at me every day, and makes me run and learn how to fight. If I don't hunt for my own food, I won't get anything to eat. I really, really, really hate him. He insults me all the time and sheared off my bangs because supposedly I need to see what's in front of me. Yesterday I fell unconscious from one of his punches. That asshole broke my nose! I really don't know how long I can stomach this training. I want to go back to mom, but Rōshi won't let me. Apparently it would weaken my resolve.
Rōshi and grandfather can't keep me in these mountains forever, though. I know when Rōshi falls asleep—his snores are loud like a mountain echo. I can use that and run away. Tomorrow night I'll make a break for it and see mom.
Rōshi liked to cut off the hair of little girls? I filed that information away for later. The story wasn't half bad. If that nameless girl managed to flee from Rōshi, I'd for sure taunt him to hell and back should we meet again.
I was about to turn the page when a person came storming into the tent, skidding to a halt in front of my futon.
That kind of excitable voice could belong only to one of two persons in all of Konoha. One of them was dead. "Lee? What are you doing here? I thought you were stationed in Ikuba-Chō." I looked up in askance and immediately regretted that decision, since his green suit was hugging his junk like a prostitute her pimp. I found a point at the opposite side of the tent that was much better to stare at.
"I still am," he said, "I've been on leave for half a week now, though. But when I heard the news I said I'd do it and came straight here from Konoha."
"News?" I asked, straining hard to look past his junk and toward his face. His smile was so big, bright and excited, you could have powered a whole village with it.
"It's Hinata," he said. "She went into labor! Sakura told me. I came here as fast as I could, hoping you weren't out on a mission to bring youthful glory to Konoha."
The words hit me like a brick to the face. I was frozen to the futon, my thoughts going a mile a minute. Then I jumped up, rushed over to the corner where my duffle bag was leaning against a barrel of water, and rifled through it for my shirt. The pain was so remote all of a sudden that I could hardly believe it myself. My eyes felt like they were about to pop out of their sockets as I was struggling into my vest.
Shikamaru came back into the tent. "I just heard that Lee's here," he said. "What are you doing, Naruto? You should be—"
"Hinata's in labor," I said.
I half-expected Shikamaru to stop me due to my injuries, but he said nothing else, content to observe me alongside Lee. When I turned from my bag, all kitted out, Shikamaru smiled. "I'll take care of things here. Give Hinata my best. The little one as well."
"I will," I said. I couldn't keep it in anymore. My whole face felt stretched into a single, all-encompassing grin. I shouldered the bag and stepped out into the sunlight, Lee following me. Two minutes later we were cutting through the forest toward Konoha at a speed that would shear the skin from bone for most people.