Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto, The Gamer or any other familiar characters.


Chapter 12 – Land of Mine.

Quest Created:
There's a whistle up above.

ANBU Mission - Patrol.

Rewards:
16000 Exp, Standard payment.

We headed northwest to Fukuwara, one of the two major trading ports of the Land of Lightning, the one closest to the capital.

We ran for a day and a half without much rest. Not that I cared much, ANBU set a fast pace, but my SP regeneration was up to the task.

All in all, ANBU training wasn't such a dreadful ordeal they made me believe.

Two months I trained with the force before they deemed me fit for duty and gave me a mask, a uniform, a gray vest and a number. That number would change if I rose through the ranks, but otherwise I was known thereafter as Twenty-seven.

The rookie mask was blank, no form nor color. Though uncommon, some of the captains -like our current one- had color streaks on their masks. Others used animal or elemental signs and sigils. I was stuck with a blank mask.

Ah, the training. I should've considered it gruesome, but I found it... lacking. Physically it proved demanding, but ANBU life wasn't hard that way for someone like me. The Gamer's body was a precious gift in that regard.

Training consisted of physical exercises and spars from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a high-calorie and protein-filled lunch squeezed in between. Afternoons were reserved for studying and older members would teach the ins and outs of the profession up to 9 p.m., then we would have dinner and afterwards everyone would go to train or study whatever they wanted, either to hone their specialties or rectify their weaknesses.

ANBU training somewhat resembled Yugito's: it was meticulous. When you asked. They were quick to correct any flaws, clumsiness or innocence from our ways, quoting rules, experience or simple logic. They answered every question we had -if they were allowed to- and recommended us a bunch of different books or instructors for any needs we had.

ANBU didn't have an extended library, but it had all the essential information we could need for everyday missions. They didn't have many jutsu, regrettably.

I improved my bukijutsu, stealth, increased my stats a nice margin and, somehow, learned even more feints, tips and tricks that finally maxed the Veiled Fist.

I learned much about history -the behind-the-curtains history-, politics, weaponry, international laws... the list went on and on.

The other rookies -five chunin kids ranging from 13 to 17 years old- complained about the lack of sleep and their sore bodies. I didn't even care about the cold, hard floors or the stiff mattress, I sat down to meditate or kept to my own research at night.

I missed training alone in the dungeons...

We were expected to live in the ANBU headquarters for as long as our training took, so I entrusted the old man with my house while I was stuck there. After two months though, I was labeled fit for duty.

I later learned that was exceptional for an 8-year-old kid, even for one trained by Haou Kogure and one of the jinchuriki. Of all the new recruits, only I completed the training program within that time frame. I became a sort of prodigy in the force.

Now, ANBU didn't take a lot of the missions you might think of from the manga. Outside of war, the force mostly dealt with high-priority shinobi targets -domestic and abroad- and border and homeland security. The force followed direct orders from the Raikage and had a straightforward internal chain of command; from the Commander to the captains to us, the grunts. Only Dodai was allowed to chip in in ANBU decisions, but I wasn't sure what his position was.

Assassinations, I learned, were also special cases. Kumogakure never took civilian assassinations. At all. Whenever such a request arrived at the Raikage's office, he rejected firstly and then passed it to the council and advisors, who reviewed the mission and likewise rejected it. They then would investigate the narrow-minded idiot who tried to hire official shinobi to kill their competition or ex-lovers or whatnot. The first Raikage stated long time ago that no amount of money should buy the head of a civilian. There were missing-nin for that.

Shinobi assassination missions were more frequent. Those were normally hunter missions where the ANBU tracked down a priority target for security reasons, being a local member of the shinobi force that went rogue or any high-profile ninja that steps inside the Land of Lightning without proper authorization or bypassing the official channels.

Outside of the country, ANBU went... silent. The few missions beyond the borders involved mostly political or military espionage, preventive assassinations on dangerous targets and off-the-grid search and elimination of missing-nin. I was aiming for the last.

After my training was done, I was supposed to be a regular chunin while not on ANBU missions or training, but the force contacted me the day after with my first mission. We departed immediately.

Fukuwata was located on the western coast of the Land of Lightning peninsula, northwest from Kumogakure, a day and a half -at civilian pace- west from the Capital.

This part of the peninsula was a collection of flat-floored central valleys between the mountain ridges of Kumogakure to the south, the Thundering Peaks' towering ranges to the east and north, and the short coastal plains to the west. The weather was warmer, with calm falls and not-so-gelid winters, a sharp contrast to the steep valleys on the eastern and northern portions of the country.

The land was once plentiful; we must have crossed three farming villages on our way. Sadly, they were yellowed and withered, half of the buildings lay rundown and abandoned, and most of the farmland was turning to animal husbandry.

I saw them, too. Villagers escaping poverty and hunger, trudging to the capital looking for better opportunities. Or that was what captain Six told us.

The Land of Lightning was suffering from an ongoing decade-long drought and what little water came from the receding snowpacks atop the central mountain ranges was polluted with something -arsenic, I later found out- reducing yield and production to a third. That were if you found any water at all.

Five wide and meandering rivers crossed these valleys, two of them emptying into the sea next to Fukuwata. One was completely dry and the other carried little water for its channel, heavily polluted by wastewater after crossing the capital.

Fukuwata didn't look any better than I hoped for after seeing the surrounding misery. It was a medium-sized trade hub with short wooden buildings, dirt roads and an assortment of inns, drinking alleys and gambling parlors, all set in a small natural harbor. The harbor itself was the terminal for all sorts of cargo, with a dozen or so ships of different beam moored around.

Workers moved around the docks, unloading crates and sacks of various sizes and colors. A bulky man, who from his level I guessed had some sort of shinobi training, was unloading crates as big as cows all by himself. Produce, farm animals and all sorts of products were being loaded into and unloaded from the moored ships.

Regular chunin patrolled the terminals and the streets quite visibly, and with puffed-out chests and elevated chins. In contrast, we ANBU were supposed to be rarely seen by civilians. We were a symbol of power and authority, seldomly displayed and only to intimidate and quell any misbehavior from civilians and shinobi alike.

Hence, we crossed the town silently over the rooftops and entered an unassuming two-story building overlooking the terminals at the southern edge.

As I closed the roof hatch behind me and entered a dimly lit room that smelled of salt and rotting wood, a nasal but resounding voice greeted us.

"So, you are one of the green teams," it said. "S'always great to see new faces in the force."

'Yeah, faces,' I mouthed from behind my white mask.

The voice belonged to another ANBU captain, standing in the middle of the room with his arms crossed in front of him.

Masanobu Horiuchi
[Good]

'Ah, a Horiuchi.' There was a fair share of them in the force.

My Observation skill didn't care about masks, false identities or undercover agents. I knew the names and basic stories of all the ANBU members I've run into.

I noticed the captain's mask fixed on me.

"You kid. What's your name?" He was tall, bulky, dark-skinned, gray-haired and wore the standard gray vest and a mask with a small ochre lightning bolt painted under the left eye hole.

I hesitated. "I don't know if I'm allowed to give you my name under these circumstances, captain."

"Good question, it doesn't have an answer. On international missions or any mission regarding civilians we use our numbers, but outside those we use our names," the captain answered. "When in doubt, just use numbers. A name is precious, but a number is earned; never be ashamed of either. Still, better to learn the proper way from the start, ain't it, Six?"

Captain Six -our team leader for the mission- took off his mask. He was a Fuse clan member named Kuraki who wasn't as unhappy as one would expect of someone babysitting a bunch of new recruits in such a vanilla mission.

"Yeah, yeah. That stopped being funny years ago, Three," Kuraki answered back. "Anyway, these are the green members and he's the newest recruit, and if your royal highness does not mind, I would like to give them the tour and begin showing them the works before teatime."

Those emphases made the alluded captain laugh heartily.

"Okay, okay, let's get this over with." Captain Three took the scroll with the new orders from captain Six's extended palm, and we went outside to the city to do a round around the terminal.

I understood the idea behind the masks, though it wasn't as obvious in the beginning. When not on missions and without the risk of being seen by outsiders, ANBU ditched their masks and used their names. Slowly, every agent would come to know the name behind the mask of every other member, even if we concealed our hair or altered our voices while on duty. With the exception of the Commander; he didn't take off his masks ever from what I've been told. Not that I cared, I knew his real name and odd story.

We moved concealed in what little shadows we could find, jumping from rooftop to rooftop and keeping our chakra levels down to avoid detection by any potential enemy.

Captain Six already explained the concept behind these rounds in trading posts and border controls. First of all, security is commissioned to regular chunin or jonin-genin patrols. We could see the team of chunin strutting around the small-vessel pier, double checking papers and cargo. ANBU were in charge of keeping an eye out for bigger threats in key ports of entry, like concealed shinobi, high-profile cargo and local and international leaders and other important figures' movement.

In all ANBU teams present in any such areas, at a minimum one decent sensor shinobi was mandatory. The purpose was twofold: to detect any chakra-wielding individual trying to smug inside the country or attack said important figures, and to double check the veracity of ANBU members during rotation. It has happened, we were told: an ANBU member supplanted by a foreign shinobi.

This sensing was on top of the ANBU coded passwords that were revised, updated and rotated every given amount of time. I did wonder how captain Three was so sure we truly were ANBU.

We stopped at the roof of the tallest building in the area, a five-story-tall run-down hotel. It overlooked the bulk cargo terminal where the biggest ships were still being loaded and unloaded.

The mid-day sun took most of the shadows away, the ocean was a deep twilight blue and the soft winds blew inland, carrying that oceanic salty smell that reminded me of my childhood vacations in some secluded beach whose name I couldn't recall anymore. My mind was anchored here, though, in this world, or specifically on a piece of paper that drifted among the briny winds and stuck to my left boot.

A political pamphlet, one that read things you wouldn't expect from a militarized society. Hate, doubt and subterfuge. It spoke of political powers perpetuating the state of crisis for their own volition, closing up mines that allegedly were still rich, diverting water from croplands to push prices up, concealing assassinations and political abuses in the capital...

"Don't believe those things, Twenty-seven." Captain Six caught me eyeing the leaflet in my hands. "Those are getting more common every day since the Uonuma mine collapsed about five months ago. Some of them are anti-shinobi, too."

I looked down at the words in my hands. "What's wrong then? Drought and economic recession?"

"Yes, precisely that. The biggest and one of the most profitable iron mines in the country went dry six years ago, followed by another five months ago. Iron and weapons were among the greatest exports of the Land of Lightning. A lot of civilians have lost their jobs and are moving to the lower valleys looking for work, only to find the farms closed because of the drought. They are turning to animal husbandry, we saw it; it can better withstand polluted waters. That takes time, though, and we still have to grow their forage and fodder." That flat voice was from one of my teammates, Motoichi Yasui, number Twenty-four: a 17-year-old chunin who recently entered ANBU. He was a history and political science aficionado.

"Yeah, the Land of Lightning is going through an economic crisis and many lost their jobs. Of course they are blaming the government," the captain continued. "That and relations with our neighbors are pummeling. The Land or Water is buried in a civil war, the Land of Frost is suffering its own scarcity and the Land of Rice Paddies is under international scrutiny... they used to import raw iron, weapons and produce from us, but now we have little to sell them -or won't for political reasons."

"Things are not looking good. There's-"

"And who do you think is guilty of this?" the other ANBU initiate interrupted Motoichi. "The political powers only care for themselves while everyone else is fighting to survive, they are doing naught for the civilians!" Ochiyo, clearly, was a political opinionated individual. A strong Horiuchi clan member, 13 years old and specializing in lightning ninjutsu. Only his black hair could be seen above the white mask, which concealed his snub-nosed face.

Our captain ignored the I-hoped-exaggerated remark. "You kids have seen it. Crisis calls and turns people to crime and piracy, who target the few caravans and ships crossing our borders. They are probing and pushing, trying to smuggle whatever they can to make a profit. Even narcotics and other people." He pointed down to the pier, where the chunin patrol was checking the cargo of a small ship. "We stopped here because there's a chance some missing-nin is trying to enter the country, or a little girl or boy might be locked in one of those big ships, to be sold to the highest bidder at whatever twisted island they might be heading." That was grim. "That's why we are here, kids. We protect the Land of Lightning. We protect our families."

Feeling curious, I extended my senses, looking for any unusual metal signature around the piers and the cargo. My range had increased after so much late-night Magnet Release training, it extended up to half a mile now.

Between the sparsely armed civilians working at the pier -which was expected, I guessed- and the signatures from the cargo being moved around, something stood out.

"Something's not right there, we need to get closer," I informed the group.

Captain Six nodded and we moved over the rooftops to the tallest building near the area. Down, between the boxes of produce being loaded into a scrawny-looking long ship, I sensed a number of kunai underneath the sacks of grain.

"There, third box on the right. There are kunai hidden under the top sacks."

The captain flared his chakra in short-coded bursts, strong enough for the roaming chunin patrol to pick up. They shunshined up to our position.

"Third box on the right," captain Six informed their captain. "Concealed weapons cache underneath the main cargo."

Their team leader -an eighteen-year-old girl with black hair, brown skin and a charming air- nodded. "Got it, we'll take it from here."

The three chunin jumped down from the rooftop and strode up to the bony man overseeing the cargo operation. A few words were exchanged, and the agitated man was forced to remove the top sacks. The bottom ones, also marked as grain sacks, indeed contained kunai.

"Good job, kid," the captain congratulated me. "That kekkei genkai of yours is damn useful!"

I wondered if I could keep those kunai. Damn things were getting more expensive by the day.


Quest Created:
The mountains sing aloud.

Protect the cargo.

Rewards:
18000 Exp, B-rank standard payment.

"Earth manipulation is substantially different from wind manipulation; earth chakra is easily controlled but difficult to transform and mold. Are you following?"

We were walking beside a civilian caravan of three carts and a handful of merchants from the gates of Sakamatsu port to a mining village up in the mountains. This time, we were near the eastern coast of the Land of Lightning peninsula during winter, so the one-day walk became a two-day trek through the snow-packed trails which was finally coming to an end.

The scenery was beautiful, though. The road meandered between the narrow valleys and canyons, sheltered from the glacial winds by the first mountains of the range. A tall but thinning pine forest covered the area, crowned white by the remnants from the previous night's snowstorm. The dirt under the trees was almost barren and nearly frozen solid due to the blocked sunlight.

"Hmm," Yugito answered and nodded, walking beside me. I knew what she was doing, she was listening even if she didn't understand or care about what I decided to ramble about. 'You have two states, Kioshi: you are either silent as a tomb or you drone on and on about some unfathomable concept.' Still, I appreciated her effort to actually listen, even now that she had little time to go on missions with me nowadays.

"But I'm getting there," I added, looking my condensing breath float away. "Slowly but surely."

I missed my mask, it helped against the glacial winds better than the fur-padded coat I was wearing. One grows fond of it after a year in the force. I also missed my gray vest. I didn't like the oddity of this white one, but this was a non-ANBU mission, the only ones Yugito and I could take as an apprentice-teacher team.

Fudai village appeared in between the last trees. The humongous mountain range, crowned by the Thundering Peaks, towered behind.

"Anything you can tell us about the place, Mr. Marutama?" Yugito asked.

"Ya ninjas think you have it tough, but ya didn't grow up here. This place is always freezing, I tell ya. Snow, ice, storms. Every 'ay, every month," the bulky businessman -the leader of the group- started. "But land here is rich for the strong man! Two small mines are still giving, and we'll find another, I tell ya!"

Right, close to Fudai was the mine that closed a year and a half ago. "Who's in charge of the prospections?"

"Ya kid use big words! A stiff man and his crew are looking around the area, they are getting close! And he's paying for this cargo too. A good man, Mr. Makino. I tell ya."

'That makes sense.' The Makino clan were the owners of most of the irons and silver mines in the peninsula and were in charge of most of the trader guilds and custom offices, per official decree of the Daimyo.

"Has the closing of the Uonuma mine brought any issues?" Yugito asked the merchant.

"Yep," he answered accentuating the p. "Made a lot of good folks leave to the capital for work, but those of us who stayed, we are putting sweat and muscles into the mines. At least we make enough to buy food for everyone still here. Ya'll see when we deliver the carts, I tell ya!"

I turned my gaze up to the village

Built into the mountain side, at the foot of the first range of the Thundering Peaks system, Fudai was layered uphill with sloping dirt roads and staircases within. Wooden buildings, two-story houses and some larger stone constructions were densely packed in between, all colored in various shades of grays and browns, with sloped roofs whose ridgelines all faced south. Smoke emanated from some of the buildings' chimneys, but besides the telltale barks of a dog the place felt like a ghost town.

Fudai overlooked the eastern lower valleys and verdant canyons we took so long to cross, covered in snow now colored bronze by the late sun setting behind the mountain tops. Now, the vegetation was scarce: the village was farther up the mountains than the forest line. Some thorny bushes, thin-leaved trees and scattered pines decorated the gloom atmosphere. Higher up even this type of vegetation died off and gave way to barren rock.

Two steep roads climbed up the mountain side from the village, leading to the mines themselves, I presumed.

"Don't look so miser, kid! Tell ya what, let's deliver the goods and ya both can have supper at my home. Deal?"

"We'll be honored, Mr. Marutama." Yugito smiled at the man under the thick overcoat.

I looked back now that the trees didn't block the view. I knew that beyond the faraway hills was the ocean, and that brought a small smile to my face.

"Hello, Mr. Marutama. I trust your journey was safe?" A new voice greeted the caravan as we arrived at the village's entrance and the barking dog ceased its noise and approached to sniff the weary oxen.

The man's eyes lingered over me before turning to Yugito. "Ah, Yugito Ni. It's a pleasure."

Kawanari Makino.
[Neutral]

"Mr. Makino, I presume," Yugito answered back. "This is Kioshi Shirasu, chunin, under my protection."

"Ah, yes, Kioshi Shirasu. Your fame precedes you, young boy." Kawanari cordially greeted me and motioned us to follow while the caravan group unloaded the carts. He looked like a regular civilian, with some gray in his lustrous black hair, a stout face, a simple suit and a winter coat over his tallish figure.

That suit looked cheap for a Makino.

'Observe.'

Name: Kawanari Makino.
Level: 9
Age: 37
Kawanari is one of the finance managers of the Makino clan. A devious and power-hungry man, he strives to maintain his social status within the village and his clan. Unmarried, he lives a life of self-indulgence, gloating about both his money and his unscrupulous life.
Relationship level: Neutral.

Oh.

From the way he greeted Mr. Marutama and addressed the villagers while we followed him around the village, to the suit he wore and his dirty shoes, this man was either an impostor or was lying his ass off. If my Observe skill was anything to trust -and it was- I leaned toward the latter.

"Things are rough around here," he began as we entered a three-story building with a notice board next to the door. "Mr. Marutama might have told you so." He removed his brown winter cloak and hanged it in the mud room. We did the same, happy to feel warm without having to rely on chakra and heavy cloaks.

The vestibule was a traditional Japanese room -in contrast to the more contemporary look of the outer building- with a large hearth at the center. A few hanging scrolls with poems written in neat calligraphy broke the dull atmosphere the beige walls radiated. It was an unpretentious and traditionalist house, almost humble if not for the box of tea sitting next to the teapot by the hearth: an extremely costly black tea from Tea Country. It would take me two B-rank payments to buy that box.

"Please, have a seat. Let me get my pen to sign your mission report."

Yugito and I sat down on the cushions by the fire. She let her hair down and combed it with her fingers, carefully removing pine needles from it. The cold weather of the Land of Lightning takes a toll on her hair, she once confided, and she ought to be militant about dryness and split ends. She gave me a lecture on it one day.

"So, tell me about your mission first."

"We know this type of caravans have become common targets for bandits and missing-nin recently," Yugito said. "I had my doubts about why this was labeled a B-rank mission until I saw your signature on the mission scroll."

The 'and you can afford it' was implicit in her words.

She was right, though. Business for smugglers was in a record high, and reports stated some were hiring low-level missing-nin.

"Indeed. It's better to prepare for the worst and get a chunin or jonin team upfront to deter such actions." Kawanari hanged the teapot from the pothook at the center of the hearth and proceeded to rip open the sealed tea box nonchalantly.

"The mission was simple enough. No attacks, no theft and no problems besides the frozen roads on our way here."

Yugito taught me when and who to give detailed information regarding the mission, and the client was often not one of them. The truth was, I did sense some sword-wielding signatures circling us at some point during the journey, but they never got close and gave up a few hours later.

I wanted to ask why the Makino clan would send this particular man to this remote village. I wanted to ask about Fudai, about the economic issues and about the new prospections.

I sighed internally. Rule number... something... of the shinobi force: don't dig up information not related to the mission, the client gets irritated and distrustful.

Kawanari signed the mission papers and I never got to try that tea.

We were expected to have dinner with Mr. Marutama and spend the night at the town, so we followed Kawanari's instructions and knocked on the door of the large stone building.

There, we were received by Mr. Marutama's wife -a plump woman with short dark hair and brown eyes- and were shown to a big room with a tall ceiling and a roaring fireplace at one corner. At the center, a long table with simple dishes of fish, vegetables and rice was set for ten.

Other people were sitting down already, Mr. Marutama's family and some friends. They all worked in the mines and looked weary and stressed. There was even a kid, a twelve-year-old boy whose neck was still dirty from working in the mine. He was an ox-boy, the one who drove the oxen-pulled-carts out of the mine, carrying backfill or iron ore to the slaters outside.

We were invited to sit down, and from then, the conversations took turns. From the weather to the trading port and from the journey here to the last snowstorm. Then the topic of the crisis came.

Yugito casually asked the family their opinions on the current state of the economy and the social difficulties, and their opinions started as polite answers before turning to a more candid discussion.

They blamed the Daimyo.

"You have to understand, in all these years we haven't received a single word or any support from the Daimyo. He even increased import taxes when wheat production dropped, you should have seen the price then." That was Tsutomu, the eldest son of Mr. Marutama and currently sitting in front of Yugito and me. He was pushing forty, and had the tough look of his father, the look of a mine worker. "The Uanuma mine closed a year and a half ago, and we haven't heard anything from the capital. A cousin went there and says it's a mess, no work there either."

Mrs. Marutama pinched the bridge of her nose and added, "The truth is, if not for the efforts of the Makino clan, we would've had to leave months ago. The village would've become a ghost town." There was sorrow in her voice.

"Ah, but we're all right, no? We are made of tougher skin than that I tell ya!" Mr Marutama put a hardy face and the rest of the evening passed talking about family, weather and remembering better times.

This crisis in the Land of Lightning was slowly turning into a political one.

The next morning, after a silent night of meditating in a cold, frugal bedroom -something I've grown to like- Kawanari greeted us at the exit.

"I'll be leaving in two days and will be coming back monthly or so," he said to us, "maybe you'll end up protecting myself or my cargo again."


The night was dark, clouds covered the sky and concealed what otherwise would've been an overwhelming display of stars. Nights in the Land of Lightning were the most beautiful picture I could've imagine.

Up in the sky to the east and in between the tops of the pines, the glow of the full moon bathed the clouds above in silver, but not bright enough to shed some over the green forest.

It was another cold night, and I convinced Yugito to stop and lit a small fire while we set up the tents. I wouldn't pressure, but I heard and sensed her rustling around her room in Fudai last night. She didn't sleep at all. Also, she snores...

Nights were simple enough for us. Yugito was aware that I didn't need to sleep at all, so I always volunteered to take the watch. It wasn't as Yugito slept much, but she usually conceded. That kind of trust was nice either way.

"I'm taking the first watch, Kioshi."

'Here we go again.' Sometimes, she was too stubborn for her own good.

"You know I don't sleep," I answered while watching the embers fly into the night, "and I know you didn't sleep last night." There wasn't enough natural light to read, so it was going to be a silent night of contemplation and shallow chakra meditation. I wouldn't be alert enough if I went too deep.

Her eyes, once fixed on the clicking flames as we sat in front of the fire were now turned up to the sky, to the moon behind the silver clouds. She shuffled the big blanket that rested over her shoulders. She blamed her condition for her sensitivity to cold, but in her defense, it was below freezing. "I-"

"No, Yugito. You should sleep, okay? Even if it's only a couple of hours. I can see the bags under your eyes."

A yawn betrayed her, and she stood. "Yeah, a couple of hours sound good." She trudged to her tent, with her blanket draped over her shoulders and a half-eaten ration bar in one hand.

Sometimes she was all zealous and spirited, eager to train up to the late hours of the night even during missions. Other times she was withdrawn and reticent.

I learned to respect the latter. We all need some quiet time and, frankly, I liked mine.

It was a little past one a.m. when movement shook me up from my thoughts. I sensed Yugito rip open her tent and jump up to a nearby tree, but before I could move an inch, a chakra signature, the strongest I've ever felt, hit me like a freight train.

Biju chakra detected!
[Resisted.]

Its overwhelming feeling vanished in a second and I hesitated for another before I jumped out of my tent and looked up.

Bathed by the silver light of the full moon now shining through the open clouds, Yugito was crouching on a high branch of a pine, her gaze set on the celestial orb. She was covered by a blood-red chakra shroud, a single tail raised up stiff behind her.

Again, I hesitated. Even though my Gamer's mind worked fast, the underlying scorn and hate I sensed was difficult to push aside. Was she there or was that Matatabi or something in between? Seconds passed before I realized I was standing at the center of the camp, unmoving.

I could blame it later on my curiosity if I had to, but I made my choice. I walked to the tree where she was and began to climb it, slowly and gently, trying to maintain a meek demeanor and my gaze on the glimmering clouds, anywhere but her.

She didn't notice me, or if she did, she didn't acknowledge me, still transfixed by the moon.

I reached the branch she was on -a solid one, at least- and sat three feet from her with my feet hanging loose. I looked at her askance. The blood-red shroud covered her entire body, the dim red glow and the moon's silver light just enough for me to see her form under the bubbling chacra.

Her head turned. Two mismatched eyes -not unlike my own- glowed below the red. They stared at me.

'Matatabi.'

She held her gaze and I held mine for a while. I then turned my eyes to the night sky again.

The moon was peaking from behind the clouds once more. There was something about a full moon that mesmerized people and cultures along the history of mankind. But in this world, the moon told a somber story.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" I should have said something more befitting but talking under pressure wasn't my strong suit.

I looked back at her. Her eyes were again fixed on the moon. Her breathing was deep and steady, in contrast to her stiff tail and posture, squatting over the tree branch.

"Are you okay, Matatabi?"

Her head whirled in my direction so fast that my heart skipped a beat and I had to willfully hold back my urge to leap away and take up my kunai. She didn't attack me, though. Her head cocked to one side; her gaze was curious. She looked serene.

"Are you okay?" I asked again.

She remained silent and unmoving for half a minute.

I should've been frightened, or at least moderately uneasy, but the cold breeze, the silver moonlight and the eerie atmosphere didn't mean much to me then. I kept my gaze to hers, mismatched eyes to mismatched eyes.

She suddenly blinked and nodded slowly. Then she turned her head back up.

We sat there, on a tall branch of a big pine tree in a frozen forest in a glacial night, looking up at the moon and the silver clouds.

Sometimes I forget that Matatabi was a conscious being, not the hassle or the chakra battery my ANBU companions thought of her, not the monster the civilian population believed, and most definitely not the hate-filled beast one might infer from her chakra or the mouth-to-mouth tales among shinobi and civilians.

An hour passed by, filled only by the steady murmur of the wintry winds and Matatabi's steady and rhythmic breathing.

The jinchuriki cloak suddenly faded away and Yugito's form slumped forward. I stopped her before she fell. 'This woman, always sleeping with her jonin vest on.'


I was sitting by the fire I lit three hours ago, trying to maintain some heat in the area. Temperature dropped below freezing that morning, so the camp -meaning the only tent still standing as Yugito ripped hers open last night and had to set her in mine- the camp was covered in frost.

Earth manipulation was a tricky thing at best, as it was the complete opposite of wind manipulation which I came to love and appreciate. Earth nature transformation could be done inside your body before releasing it, in stark contrast to wind nature transformation. That difference was the basic principle of the technique I was trying to develop.

But the gamer system was direct and slapped me with the requisites as soon as I made some advance: my Earth Release skill must be at least at level 60. I still had a long way to go.

My Wind Release skill was sitting at level 73 while my Earth Release skill was at 35. Blazingly fast in contrast to my early dealings with nature transformation. Regrettably, those levels would only increase if I underwent the correct training. I couldn't just endlessly repeat a basic exercise to grind experience, harshly diminishing returns and all. It forced me into a more thorough understanding of chakra, though.

Furthermore, I couldn't measure or quantify most of the properties of chakra like density or viscosity, which sucked because it meant I couldn't develop a solid theory around it as it was. But, well... you work with what you got, right?

Training, however, was frequent enough. ANBU missions lasted from some days to a couple of weeks, but they were far in between. Sometimes a month passed without being called in. That meant a lot of money for kunai -which were expensive now- but also a lot of time to train and occasionally go on regular missions with Yugito, rare as they were now.

However, since the success of my first ANBU mission I was repeatedly called to patrol the same port towns along the west coast over and over again. I was growing tired of it.

It was 10 a.m. and I was sitting cross-legged by the fire with my eyes closed, feeling my chakra seep into the cold ground, moving around the substrates, probing the various rocky formations and unexpected density breaks.

I sensed Yugito stir. She ripped the tent apart -my tent!- and jumped out, just like she did the night before, almost tripping on her way out.

"Kioshi!" Her face was pale, her eyes darted from place to place around the camp before setting up on me.

I interrupted my silent training and turned to her.

Yugito's mouth was wordlessly moving up and down, with an expression set between relief and worry. "Kioshi," she finally spoke, "are you... you are all right?"

"Why yes, Yugito. I'm perfectly fine this morning, relishing on the winter winds," I answered, "and if you're talking about last night, everything's fine."

"W-What happened?"

"I met Matatabi."

I saw what little blood still flowed through her face drain away and her eyes widened. "But you're all right! She didn't do anything to you?" Her voice trembled. "What happened?"

"Nothing. I sensed you moving out of your tent and then I felt her chakra. Terrifying to be honest. Then you climbed that tree over there and stared at the moon. We sat down together and had a great ti-"

"Don't joke about it Kioshi! Did she hurt you? Did-"

"No, everything's fine," I answered her. "We really sat together up on that branch. I asked her if she was okay, she nodded and sat still until you came back."

"W-What?"

"I mean, it was frightening at first and overwhelming to say the least, but nothing happened."

"Don't you ever do that again, you hear me?" Yugito scolded me. "I've attacked other ANBU when she takes over! Don't underestimate her!" She took a couple of deep breath. I saw color returning to her face. She began to comb down her blonde hair with her hands. "I'm sorry you had to see that, Kioshi. It wasn't supposed to happen last night. It's just that..." She exhaled. "I don't know."

"Nothing happened, Yugito." I tried to sound as calmed as I could, but there was something oddly specific in her answer. "What do you mean by supposed to happen?"

She looked conflicted but didn't lower her gaze. "I guess you should know..." She was back in work mode. "Every full moon or so the Nibi's chakra seeps from my seal while I sleep. So, I stay awake those nights."

"Fine, but what do you really mean."

Then her gaze lowered. "I don't know. Most of the times is just a trickle, enough to give someone a good scare, but sometimes she comes forth and manifest completely. She attacked the Commander the first time it happened, back when I was a starting at the ANBU." Her demeanor was back to normal, but her deep voice had a hint of ... sorrow? I still couldn't point it out. "They developed these seal tags to suppress her. I should give you a couple. Sorry Kioshi, it was supposed to happen the other night, not last night, I-"

"You don't like the seals, don't you? Else you would just sleep with one on." I could tell I hit the nail in the head by her wincing.

"Never mind, I'll give you some just in case. Maybe you were lucky to meet Matatabi without her attacking you or getting crushed by her presence, but I'm not- Wait, how do you know her name?"

Ah, fair question, simpler answer. "The old man."

"Right."

Yugito insisted on hitting the road after breakfast, despite the fact that she looked about to fall over any moment.


Quest Created:
Like pawns in chess.

ANBU Mission - Patrol.

Rewards:
22000 Exp, Standard payment.

It was summer and temperatures were mild. The oceanic westerlies carried coldness and moisture into the inner valleys and the surrounding ranges peaked tall enough to still be crowned by scattered white caps of undying snow. The Thundering Peaks stood imposing to the east.

The Capital was beautiful in her own mellow way. Long, straight roads ran between tall whitestone buildings, a combination that indicated the rich part of the city: clean, magistral. The Daimyo's palace stood proud; a two-body mansion encircled by sprightly green.

The outer rings of the city, however, presented a different picture: sun-bleached brownstone houses clumped in between bedraggled three-story buildings bordered by heavily crowded and weathered roads. The air was thick and stale and the sun beat down whoever wasn't lucky enough to work in the shade.

Nevertheless, a cheerful atmosphere uplifted the fusty air. People busied themselves hanging ornaments, colorful banners and paper lamps, and setting up parlors around the greenish public squares, mumbling tunes and greeting their neighbors with wide smiles.

The Summer Festival was starting.

In Kumogakure, in contrast, the whole ordeal was always an insipid experience. Another reason to drink, to gift each other and to try eccentric cuisine. Here in the capital it was a hectic ordeal, but a necessary uplift.

Among the crowd, some people wearing jade-dyed leather vests walked around in pairs and trios. The civilian police force. Only in the big capital were the civilians allowed their own formal police force. However, given the amount of movement and people, the Daimyo's office customarily hired shinobi to oversee foremost events and festivities.

This year was slightly different, even if fewer people came to the capital solely for the festival. The increasing crime rates -specifically in the slums- and the civil discontent made the ruling class opt for hiring ANBU operatives besides regular shinobi teams.

We moved to yet another building and I again gazed down at the growing crowds. The eve of the festival was chaotic, everyone tried to take their cut. Appearances were not deceiving, though: not a lot of money would be made this year.

A loud voice drew me to the central plaza down the street. A man -an old civilian- stood over a wooden crate in the center and began addressing the crowd.

They weren't words of encouragement or hope, but bitter words, possibly intending to implant the minds of those who listened with ideas and subterfuge, to brew hate against those he considered fair to blame: the ruling class, the Daimyo and his court, the police, the shinobi force. But he spoke objective truths between his persuasive words: increased taxation during the crisis, lack of aid for small settlements, insecurity, hunger.

What he spoke of, I've heard enough during missions. The incompetence of the ruling class and bureaucratic procedures, the stalling of new mining prospections and farming grants, the delays in signing new trade agreements with neighboring nations… And now, we shinobi were thrown into the mix as unforeseen culprits, too.

I sensed our captain stand up from our concealed position to throw a senbon down to the street below. It pierced a woman's purse and nailed it to the ground just as a pickpocket made a run with it. We were forbidden to make any arrest or interfere with the local police work unless a greater threat was evident -or forthcoming- but the message was clear: 'we are watching.'

Captain Four had a big heart, unusual for someone who lived through the third war. Takamori Fuse wore a white mask with blue streaks across the forehead. On his back, sticking out over his brownish hair, the lustrous handle of a long nodachi added to his imposing stature and, strapped to his belt, a familiar wakizashi still brought bitter memories to my mind. Takamori wore Kazuya's blade as a badge, to never forget the mistakes and neglect that led to his son's demise.

Our trek to the capital wasn't a silent one as they usually were with the ANBU, it was a pain-filled march of remembrance were I finally opened up and talked about my ex-teammates' death to my colleagues. His father wanted to hear the story from my own mouth, and I found myself compelled to; it only took two years in the force for me to open up.

Kazuya's father wasn't a bitter man but a righteous soldier that held the betterment of the country over his own wellbeing as was common among his clan. His son's destiny, like a bucket of cold water, brought back his idealistic mind to the real world, but it was all too late. Kazuya's mother, his wife, died of grief -or so he said- a year later, and Takamori vowed never to repeat the same mistakes with his remaining son.

His reinstatement into the ANBU force after his leave of absence was seen not as a mistake, but as his own way to atone for his wrongdoings. He blamed himself and took the whole weight of the Raikage's accusations without harboring an ounce of hatred toward him or the Horiuchi clan. Or me.

The conversation lifted a weight from my shoulders I refused to admit until then.

During following days, the festival went along uneventfully. The meager celebrations and fireworks were just enough to somewhat embellish the gloom atmosphere, at least for those few summer days.


Quest Created:
The flood is threatening.

ANBU Mission – Security and Protection.

Rewards:
36000 Exp, Standard payment.

"Team two, extraction cues are standard," captain Eight concluded. "This should be a simple mission."

The briefing room was cold. It was one of the many inside the bunker near the border with the Land of Frost, the same one from my first C-rank mission. The gray walls added to a general feeling of distress coursing my body.

"Something to say, Twenty-seven?"

"No, captain," I answered. "Just an odd foreboding feeling."

Maybe I was just feeling a little nervous, but wasn't 'follow your gut' another of the unwritten rules of ANBU?

Captain Eight was a simple man. Pushing forty, bald and favored the sword. Virtually everyone favored the sword in the force and, apparently, I was a special case. The man under the captain mask -a white mask with three red lines crossing from top left to the lower right jaw- was a fierce and experienced shinobi. At level 97, he ranked among the highest level ANBU operatives after the Commander.

He and the Commander told me I was specifically chosen for this mission because of my ability to sense hidden weaponry and enemy shinobi, but I prefer to think it was also due to me -a twelve-year-old kid- beating the shit out of every other chunin in the force, and most jonin too. Even so, he still held my recommendation to jonin because of 'inexperience'. Three years in the force, and he calls me inexperienced.

"You know, I bet it's because you're always so quiet, Twenty-seven," Twelve, the team's medic, added. "If you're not nurturing your body's essence, it'll unbalance everything else."

"Yeah, and once you are imbalanced, you'll feel weird until you align your energy centers again, kid." That was Thirteen, a long-range support ANBU. "You could use a day with the White Monks, I could show you around the monastery once w-"

"Quiet you two and get ready, it's already dawn. We'll move out and scout the area."

Envoys from the Land of Frost and from the Land of Lightning will meet to discuss a major trade agreement between the countries, an important matter considering the economic difficulties we were submerged in and the growing crime rate across our border.

ANBU were in charge of security. Mostly because the meeting place was a small shelter at the other side of the border -international territory for us- and partly because the envoy from the Land of Lightning was one of the Daimyo's cousins.

The border with the Land of Frost, even during Fall, donned thin layers of snow over of the ground and on top of the thinning forest, and as the team -Twelve, Thirteen, captain Eight and I- exited the stone bunker, I welcomed the cold as an old friend. My blank mask had become a second face and the gray vest, while bulky, was something I took a liking to; they kept the winter glacial winds from my skin. This fall weather, I was becoming enamored with it. I've grown to relish on the Land of Lightning's wintry climate and Kumo's chilling drafts.

We ran and scouted the area between the bunker, the border and the meeting place thoroughly, inspecting the surrounding hilly forest for hours. We searched under every rock, among every tree and in every crook we found. It took us the whole morning.

The meeting place itself was a sturdy and well-kept log-house-like building with large overhangs. A civilian snow shelter, unlike our bunker. Two stories, a chimney already emitting smoke, some small windows and snow still stuck between the interlocked logs.

Thankfully, it was located at the center of a fifty-foot-wide clearing. It would be a security nightmare otherwise with the tall pines and thick undergrowth encircling the place.

The inside was spotless and meticulously cleaned. A large room on the first floor with a large wooden table at the center was supposed to serve as a meeting hall.

I was responsible for sensing the surrounding area during the meeting, and, if my gut was right, I had to be vigilant. Fortunately, my Magnet Release skill level was high enough that it became completely passive, no longer needing me to consciously focus nor use any chakra to sense something up to my max range. I only had to focus if I wanted to identify a distant signature.

All along our revision, three non-masked Frost jonin kept a sharp eye on us, which was expected while in international territory. Their levels ranged from sixty to low eighty, nothing our ANBU force couldn't manage if worse came to worst. I did wonder if Frost had a proper ANBU-like force.

Our second ANBU team -Seventeen, Twenty-one and captain Seven- arrived later in the morning escorting the Land of Lightning's envoy: a short man wearing a silvery sokutai, a thick winter cloak and snowshoes. His entourage trailed behind: one advisor, some staff and a small handcart with what I guessed were provisions.

Similarly, the envoy from Frost and his entourage arrived half an hour later, escorted by two of their shinobi: a jonin captain and a low-level, 16-year-old chunin. From his info, the latter was a notorious sensor too. I dismissed him as unimportant.

Every shinobi was armed to the teeth and even the Frost envoy had a blade hidden up his sleeve -something I also assumed normal, even for a borderline morbidly obese political envoy.

The meeting began after both representatives had a late breakfast -or early lunch. We were forced to watch the obese man as he sat at the table and gobbled several heavily glazed pastries like a pig. Kumo's envoy only had a cup of tea -an exorbitantly expensive red tea- and drank it with a royal demeanor: slowly and exuding disdain. Politicians and royalty; a thin line between both, and both with sickening manners to compel their superiority.

After the extended but otherwise silent breakfast, we left the building. Only captain Seven and the Frost captain stayed with the dignitaries and their advisors in the main room, the rest of their entourages were ordered to wait in the contiguous rooms.

Seventeen, Twenty-one, Twelve and Thirteen stood guard at each side of the shelter, while captain Eight and I sat on the slanted roof, over the snow. There we waited.

Captain Eight warned me these types of meetings could last hours, even days. In the latter case, we would escort the Land of Lightning representative back to the bunker past the border. 'Oh, the humanity! A politician would have to sleep in a bunker!' Motivation to wrap things up quickly.

Four long hours crawled by and my butt was falling asleep.

Suddenly, something happened.

I didn't sense them; they were too far away. I just happened to see some small windows floating in the distance while I cracked my neck.

'Observe.' A nice thing about the Observe skill was that even if I couldn't read the names on the tiny floating windows because of the distance, I could still actively Observe the windows. That took me quite a while to realize.

I read their info windows: seven Frost shinobi, all jonin level, were approaching, moving suspiciously slow.

Slightly confused, I focused on their signatures; Frost wasn't waiting for backup, relieve, nor other dignitaries as far as we were informed.

A cold shiver crawled up the back of my neck as it dawned on me. I didn't sense an ounce of metal on them, not a kunai, not a vest, not a hitai ate. Nothing. Which could only mean one thing: an attacking force, and they knew I was here.

'Motherfuckers.'

Our identities were supposed to be kept under strict secrecy during international missions, as were the numbers of the operatives involved. But this meant they knew who I was behind my mask and my number.

'Fuck.'

If this was some stratagem from Frost to attack or kill our dignitary -and probably us in the process- for whatever political or financial reason, I had to inform captain Eight without arousing suspicion. Luckily, I had something in mind planned for these situations.

ANBU had a lot of ways of communicating inconspicuously. We had hand signs, primarily used for silent communication but not privacy as everyone could figure out the other nation's coding. Then there was a sort of spy speak: we used a casual conversation to have a hidden meaning. Useful during undercover missions. Shinobi weren't stupid however, any type of unusual conversation would alert the Frost shinobi around us and would break another unwritten rule of ANBU: when spotting a trap, spring it to your advantage.

I kept a calmed demeanor, sitting cross legged on the roof. The closest Frost shinobi -the chunin sensor- was sitting on a tree branch to my right, the others were standing around the building closer to the edges of the clearing. 'Don't arouse suspicion.'

There was no need to focus or use any chakra at this distance, captain Eight was sitting close. I mentally reached into his kunai pouch and rattled it two times. There was an old morse-like code in ANBU, never really used in missions but we were required to learn anyway.

Captain Eight didn't hitch nor move, he read between the lines.

'Incoming shinobi, two miles bearing northwest. Up the trees, moving slowly. Seven signatures. No metal.' The last part was key, it proves they were avoiding detection so we would assume belligerence.

Captain Eight's relaxed attitude and posture -he was sitting leisurely a few feet to my left- worked on his behalf. He gently took a kunai from his pouch and began digging under his fingernails. I could sense the blade moving rhythmically, a code hidden in between.

'Confirm missing-nin. ETA.'

'Frost. Sensor turned head, but no action. Twenty minutes at current speed.' I didn't really notice if the Frost sensor moved at all, but it was a good way of assuring him they were Frost shinobi even though I technically had no way of sensing them to begin with. I would have to come up with an excuse for that afterwards.

The captain remained silent for far too long for my liking. 'Inform Seven. Prepare, we spring trap on my signal. Attack to kill, focus on sensor and surroundings, then backup.' He was being cautious in case we've misread the situation. Unlikely.

Following orders, I quickly informed captain Seven of the incoming attack in a similar way. He didn't sign anything back, nor I was asked to inform the others.

While my muscles involuntarily tensed, I pondered on the situation. Seven of us: two ANBU captains and three ANBU jonin plus me. We stood out on our own, and captain Eight was regarded as the strongest duelists in the force after captain Two and the Commander.

Frost had five shinobi, one of them a mid-level chunin, another armed with a straight chokuto. Little could be said from their information window, but their levels ranged from low to high jonin, though I knew better than to judge by levels alone.

The upcoming shinobi, on the contrary... the seven of them were experienced jonin according to their information windows. The older was a commander during the Third War.

All of a sudden, I sensed captain Seven and the Frost shinobi inside the shelter move. The southern wall then exploded outwards and the wooden building shook.

Captain Eight and I jumped down to one side of the house, just as captain Seven burst through the wall with the dignitary slumped over his left shoulder.

'Take dignitary away.' Captain Eight signed him when their eyes met, then his deep voice bellowed around the briefly silent clearing. "ANBU, fight to kill! For Kumo!"

Remembering my orders, I looked up at the Frost chunin up on the tree. He was standing on one of the top branches, his eyes darting from left to right. Struggling to get a hold of the situation, it seemed.

He didn't sense nor react to the magnet release-empowered kunai I flung his way. One pierced through his jaw into his skull, the other impaled him in the chest, piercing his vest. He fell to the ground.

Hit! Critical x5.
1995 DMG.
Severe Cranial Trauma applied.
Bleeding applied.

Hit!
398 DMG.

Enemy killed.
3200 Exp awarded.

I sensed captain Seven shunshin away, carrying our envoy back to the Land of Lightning. Twenty-one's body lay on the ground at the other side of the shelter, next to the unmoving corpse of the Frost captain, the one who was inside the meeting room with the dignitaries. Twelve shunshined to Twenty-one's position.

One Frost shinobi moved to the northern edge of the clearing, while the other two stood across the clearing to the northwest, kunai and blades in hand. I looked at the incoming reinforcements past them, now speeding through the forest. We didn't have a much time until numbers turned against us.

Seventeen and Thirteen dashed to the single Frost shinobi from the sides, while captain Eight moved toward my position.

"Let's give 'em hell, kid," he said and dashed by me, his sword drawn. I quickly followed him around the shelter.

We closed in on the pair of Frost shinobi. Kunai flew our way, I diverted them to the sides. Captain Eight feinted left, sidestepping a kunai jab, and swiftly thrust his sword, impaling one of them.

The other leaped back, his hands speeding through hand seals, but I reacted.

'Shellshock.'

-15 Chakra.

He didn't finish his jutsu and staggered, giving me enough time to fling a magnet release powered kunai at almost point-blank range.

Hit! Critical x5.
1995 DMG.
Cranial Trauma applied.
Severe Traumatic Brain Injury applied.

It buried between his eyes. He wasn't getting up from that.

Twelve shunshined to us, bleeding badly from his right side and carrying one of the civilians from the dignitary's entourage over his shoulder.

Captain Eight turned to me and said in a stern voice, "How many, how far?"

"Seven shinobi, thirty seconds." I gestured to the northwest.

"Seventeen, with us. Thirteen, support. Twelve, take the survivors to our bunker, now!" the captain bellowed while flashing through hand seals for the Electromagnetic Murder jutsu.

A huge surge of electricity rushed from his fingers through the snow covering the clearing and into the forest, attempting to slow the enemy down.

While a single scream was heard, a water bullet sped from the forest. Captain Eight dodged left, Seventeen and I jumped right.

I flashed through eight hand seals while airborne, hastily molding a huge volume of chakra.

Ox, Dog, Dragon, Rat, Dog, Boar, Snake, Tiger.

In a sweep motion, I summoned fifteen kunai around me and flung them with my magnet release to the first name window I glimpsed in the forest, immediately releasing the pent-up chakra.

'Shuriken Shadow Clone Technique.'

-1250 Chakra.

The fifteen empowered kunai turned to sixty.

Hit!
398 DMG.
Severe Bleeding applied.

Hit! Critical x5.
1995 DMG.
Ocular Trauma applied.
Traumatic Brain Injury applied.
Severe Bleeding applied.

Hit!
398 DMG.

Enemy Killed.
4200 Exp awarded.

Hit!
398 DMG.
Left arm disabled
Serious Bleeding applied.

Hit!
398 DMG.
Bleeding applied.

Hit!
398 DMG.
Bleeding applied.

Hit!
398 DMG.
Bleeding applied.

I ignored the notifications popping up on the lower-right corner of my field of vision and rolled right as an earth spike rose from the ground. It grazed my left leg.

-80 HP!

While I recovered from the roll, one of the Frost shinobi lunged at me.

I countered his blows one by one, each precise and powerful. It wasn't easy, the man had a longer reach and I could lose the taijutsu bout from experience alone.

'Toxic Smog.'

-53 Chakra.

In between the throat punches and hard kicks, I found the opening to exhale a reddish mist of my own concoction: a corrosive substance, the only one I could produce from chakra alone -others required a much higher level Poison Making skill.

Target has been poisoned. [Caustic Agent]

The Caustic Agent attacked mucous membranes before entering the bloodstream, and the Frost shinobi breathed it in. A hacking sound was all I got from him as he jumped back, waving his hands about. Thirteen's precise kunai pierced his chest and throat and he fell to the ground.

I turned to Seventeen. He was in a difficult position, being overwhelmed by two Frost shinobi. Before I could move to aid him, a pair of hands burst out of ground, trying to grab my ankles. If it weren't for my Earth release training, I wouldn't have reacted him in time.

I quickly flung a kunai to the sprouting arms as I jumped away. The splashing of mud wasn't a pleasant sound, and I was too enthralled with the fighting to focus and read name windows.

-427 HP!

I was rewarded with a kick to the side of the head that sent me rolling over the ground toward the edge of the clearing, but I recovered my footing just in time to see the tall Frost shinobi coming at me with his fist cocked back.

Reacting promptly, I replaced myself with a piece of wood that lay a few feet behind him.

-10 Chakra.

His fist cracked the ground I knelt over not a second earlier and I summoned a kunai to each hand. He immediately jumped away and turned to me, landing a few feet away with a confident smirk over his jeering face.

-34 Chakra.

I willed my chakra and almost-invisible wind rustled around my kunai. For the briefest of instants, the low humming sound of an almost-perfected Flying Swallow was all I heard above the thumps and grunts of the surrounding fights.

I lunged in, feinting with my right hand. He tried to sidestep and failed to notice my left hand drawing a fast arc from below. The wind blade -extending one foot from the tip of the kunai- moved from his left knee up to his midsection, feeling no resistance whatsoever.

Hit!
568 DMG.
Critical Bleeding applied.
Target is crippled.

As he buckled down with his eyes wide open and blood gushing, I turned the blade in my palm to a reverse grip and plunged it into his upper back.

Hit! Critical x5.
2840 DMG.
Nerve Cord severed
Critical Bleeding applied.
Target is immobilized.

That was confirmation enough that he wouldn't stand up again.

My eyes scanned the area, adrenaline coursed through my veins.

With my magnet release I hurled both kunai, but it was too late for Seventeen. A fast water bullet crushed his head from the side while another enemy shinobi kept him occupied in a taijutsu exchange. Seventeen's body followed his head and crashed against the side of the burning building. His name window disappeared.

The Frost shinobi who sent the water bullet narrowly dodged my kunai and turned to me with a murderous look, the other jumped over the burning building to where captain Eight was.

I couldn't allow myself to be distracted by that fight. Thirteen would have his back, I hoped.

Bird, Dog, Snake: 'Wind Release: Funnel.'

-53 Chakra.

I spewed a concentrated wind stream to intercept the water torrent headed my way. My technique -a high-pressure, faster version of the Great Breakthrough- prevailed, and water droplets sprinkled around the area.

Intrusive genjutsu detected!
[Resisted.]

The Frost shinobi rushed at me from behind the splashing water. Taking advantage of our height difference, he went for a knee to my face. His eyes widened when I blocked it with both forearms, my feet digging into the ground and when our eyes met...

'Petrifying Gaze.'

-42 Chakra.

[Target is immobilized]

I summoned a kunai to each hand and lashed at him. One pierced up to his armpit where his jonin vest didn't cover and the other entered his skull through the lower jaw. His eyes turned upwards, and he dropped forward.

Hit!
568 DMG.
Severe Bleeding applied.
Right arm disabled.

Hit! Critical x5.
2840 DMG.
Traumatic Brain Injury applied.
Target is crippled.

With him out of the fight, I took a deep breath and turned around looking for more enemies.

I sensed three kunai coming from Thirteen's position, so I dodged right. The weapons impacted a piece of rubble with clear signs of a replacement. My eyes darted to the sides.

Another Frost shinobi appeared close to the burning building but, almost instantly, a lightning bolt pierced his side. That was Thirteen's specialty: support weaponry and fast lightning jutsu.

The Frost shinobi wasn't down yet, his hand clamped the smoking piercing wound on his side as he grunted. Summoning a fuma shuriken to my hand, I followed through Thirteen's jutsu. In a swift motion, I coated it with wind chakra and threw it.

Hit! Critical x5.
1995 DMG.
Target decapitated.

Enemy killed!
4200 Exp Awarded.

Enemy died due to blood loss.
4200 Exp Awarded.

The shuriken kept flying out of the clearing and into the surrounding forest, the sound of cracking wood and falling trees followed.

My eyes darted around the area and slowly I realized the fighting ended. It was over.

I could feel the adrenaline in my body and the roar of my blood -something I loved even if the Gamer's Mind mitigated most of the effect- dripping away.

I took a deep breath. Seventeen's body lay against a burning wall. On the other side of what was left of the building, Twenty-one's metal signature was unmoving since the explosion. At the edge of the clearing I could sense Twelve's signature but there was no name window. He didn't make it either.

"You okay, Twenty-seven?" Thirteen asked me as he limped from the side of the burning shelter. I could see the tiredness behind his mask, the stress in his posture. He was spent. I sensed him fight a Frost shinobi in close quarter by himself and then provide support for Seventeen and me. He covered our asses back there, but regrettably, it wasn't enough. Twenty-one was a close friend of him, and even if I tried to remain moderately isolated and detached from other ANBU by mostly calling them by their numbers with very few exceptions, they were my friends too.

I nodded in response. The Frost reinforcements were a tough bunch, but without metal weapons they were ill-armed against us and we exploited the advantage. It was a long fight, a costly fight, but what angered me the most was the situation at hand.

Not only this was a fight on international soil that at least we won -none from Frost survived, I could sense their bodies around- but they had intel on us. Somehow, they knew about me being here, and that pissed me off.

Captain Eight approached us, sweat dripping down his neck. He's a beast There's a reason he's held in high regards by the others and was given command on this assignment.

The Frost war veteran, who I assumed was the commanding officer of the Frost reinforcement group, lay dead against a tree, his face frozen open in a cold expression and our captain's blade sticking out of his chest. Two other bodies lay around, both with still-smoking holes above the navel.

"Every-"

The captain's voice cut quickly, and his body tensed, his eyes focused on the forest behind Thirteen and me. We turned, kunai and blades in hand, ready to strike.

Three more Frost shinobi stood stiff at the western border of the clearing facing us. Same fur-lined, bluish vests and same gray gloves as the dead ones, but these sported white, featureless facemasks. 'Frost ANBU?' None of them wore any metal, either.

I gazed at the name windows over their heads.

Maki Yamanaka
[Neutral]

'What?' "Wait, no! Don't loo-"

Intrusive genjutsu detected!
[Resisted.]

In a split second, their hands moved and one of them jumped at us. I sensed metal moving behind me and I immediately replaced myself with the nearest thing I could find.

-10 Chakra.

Thirteen's tanto sliced through the air above the burning log I replaced myself with and continued through captain's Eight neck, just as the other shinobi's open palm reached him.

My mind was working on urgent mode; thankfully, sparing with a biju-powered taijutsu specialist honed my reaction times to the limit. Two consecutive and hastened sets of hand seals, and I sent a huge amount of chakra through the sole of my boots into the ground.

Ram, Rat: 'Mass Shellshock.'

Tiger, Snake: 'Rock Garden.'

The open palm attack sent Thirteen barreling backwards into the flaming building. As he flew right by me, I released both techniques.

-93 Chakra.

-468 Chakra.

The three masked shinobi stumbled from the genjutsu, and a heartbeat later, solid earthen stakes, ten feet tall, exploded upwards from the ground all around them, covering a fifteen-foot-wide circle.

Hit! Critical x5.
4687 DMG.
Heart pierced.

Enemy killed!
4500 Exp Awarded.

Hit!.
937 DMG.
Right arm disabled.
Serious Bleeding applied.

Hit!.
937 DMG.
Serious Bleeding applied.

Hit!.
937 DMG.
Left leg disabled.
Target is immobilized.

Hit!.
937 DMG.
Spinal Cord severed.
Severe Bleeding applied.

Enemy killed!
4500 Exp Awarded.

I again ignored the blinking windows and sound prompts as I noticed the smoke wisps of a single replacement, half-confirming my suspicious. I summoned black iron sand into my clenched fists, I had to be subtle with the last one.

Movement at the edge of my vision surprised me and my eyes turned left. The masked shinobi closed in in a blink of an eye. My forearms quickly moved to cover my heart and torso and I took a step back, but his extended fingers went for my left shoulder instead.

-320 HP!
Left arm disabled.

As his other hand went for my other shoulder, I opened both of mine -my left involuntarily. I willed the sand and long, jagged spikes shot outwards. They pierced his neck and upper torso.

Hit! Critical x5.
1995 DMG.
Heart pierced.
Critical Bleeding applied.

Hit!
398 DMG

Hit!
232 DMG
Severe bleeding applied.

Hit!
398 DMG
Left lung punctured.
Bleeding applied.

Hit!
398 DMG
Tracheal trauma applied.
Critical Bleeding applied.

Hit! Critical x5
1165 DMG
Spinal cord severed.
Target is immobilized.

Enemy Killed.
4500 Exp awarded.

I sidestepped his falling body, the iron weaponry dispersed and the black sand came back to circle around me.

I looked around hastily, searching for any other threats. A quick scan of the edge of the clearing assured me I was alone and no other name windows were approaching from the forest.

Enemy died due to blood loss.
4500 Exp awarded.

The other two attackers were dead, impaled up on my earthen spikes, just like captain Eight's body. His severed head had rolled away, his mask gone.

Thirteen was gone too, his body sprawled over the muddy snow next to the burning shelter, his chest to the skies and his head turned to me. If not for the mask, he bitterly reminded me of Kazuya.

I took a deep breath and my body shook. My stamina, while not depleted, was low and my left arm throbbed. That was when the gravity of the situation fell on me.

I glanced at the corpse at my feet.

'Observe.'

Name: Routa Hyuga.
[Dead]

The Observe skill revealed no in-depth information from a dead body, but I could make a pretty good guess at who they were.

Kneeling, I turned his body around with my functioning arm and removed his blank mask. His eyes were white, completely white, already sealed away by the fading seal on his forehead. But I was interested in his tongue.

Indeed, it was there, in the shape of three solid and two broken lines. Danzo's seal. Root. And they didn't wear any metal.

'Fuck.' I turned my head up at to darkening, cloudless sky, calming my nerves. 'First, follow protocol and burn my colleagues' bodies. I'll think about the problem while I'm at it.'

I looked at my left arm, it dangled lifeless at my side.

Status Effects:

Left shoulder disabled.
- Glenoid cavity tenketsu sealed by juken strike. Unattended recovery is gradual.

We were inducted on the different techniques and styles we could encounter during our missions, and the Hyuga trademark taijutsu was one of them. All I had to do is circulate a small amount of chakra around the tenketsu and the surrounding swollen tissue for the next half an hour or so. Slowly, or I risked permanent damage to the tenketsu. Medical ninjutsu -the little I knew- was out of the question.

One by one, I solemnly placed the bodies inside the still burning log house: captain Eight's, Thirteen's, Seventeen's, Twelve's and Twenty-one's. As protocol, I sealed their masks and weapons away. Somehow, for whatever reason, I was surprised to see their faces underneath.

Thirteen was a caring guy, captain Eight was married, Twenty-one had a daughter... and these assholes killed them.

A few low-powered Great Breakthroughs fanned the flames.

The worst was that this was all a trap, and Frost had inside information. Was this merely an assassination attempt on the Daimyo's cousin? Was Frost actively looking to start a war?

What was Danzo's scheme? The Hyuga attacked me, but not to kill. Did they want to capture me? Danzo had connections with Orochimaru. Did that double-dealing fuck strike a deal with Frost or is he a vulture, hoping to cash in on the opportunity?

I was at my wits' end and any ramblings or open questions would only lead me down a blind alley. Anger wouldn't subside any faster, either. I needed information before hoping for any answers.

One thing was sure, someone tipped off Frost -and perhaps Danzo. ANBU identities were a secret outside of the force, and any knowledgeable shinobi understood the weight of such secret. All the more, the numbers and identities of the operatives sent on any high-profile mission such as this were kept under secrecy known only to the captains and the Commander, and outside the force, to the Raikage and Dodai. Maybe B or Darui.

All of them were supposedly good guys in the manga, but inside the force was another story. The Commander, though, was Dodai's love child. I didn't know the whole story -Observe didn't show that much information- but Dodai held him at high regard.

Still, one thing was for certain: ANBU had a traitor somewhere up the chain of command.

I removed and sealed the heads of the three Root agents -the Yamanaka, the Hyuga and the single-name orphan- and tossed their bodies into the fires after searching them. I also searched the bodies of the Frost shinobi for their kunai and anything of value and left them to freeze where they lay. The dim beams of white light that marked the Gamer System loot gave me kunai, money and a standard Frost jonin vest; only those I killed had the additional loot.

The clouds were tinted red and shadows were long. I would have to hurry if I wanted to get to the border before nightfall, I needed to inform the shinobi border patrols as protocol stated. They wouldn't cross into international soil, but they surely would be bolstering the security waiting for official orders.

I flared my chakra in code as I crossed, and the border patrol found me. The jonin and chunin in the bunker were half-surprised and half-relieved that I made it back, and were already made aware of the attack by captain Seven when he crossed the border some hours ago, carrying the body of the Daimyo's cousin. He didn't make it either.

Soichiro Kamo, the jonin still responsible for the patrol schemes and who was informed of the dignitary meeting in Frost, informed me that captain Seven was now rushing to Kumo with a black scroll. The ANBU patrols were already keeping a stricter eye on the crossings and he was coordinating the jonin and chunin patrols to support them.

"Get Ten to the Hokenzo road," I said to Soichiro, remembering the ANBU teams patrolling the border. "Frost might try a spear incursion or cross as civilians. Send an operative to the customs office and send word to Kuwana port."

For now, ANBU and the jonin stationed along will strengthen their watch to the best of their ability, stretched thin as they already were. Orders and backup will come after the Raikage takes a stance and reports came in. The Land of Lightning will have to ponder and decide if this was an act of war. Until then, the border was to be closed shut, as per protocol.

I couldn't trust anyone until I reached the Raikage, not the patrolling ANBU nor the jonin stationed in the bunker, so I immediately began my way back to the village.

The snow-covered ground and the thin forest of tall pines gave way to the steppe grasslands and scattered birch trees. The peninsula's short rainy season had come and go, leaving behind stripped trees and barren ground dotted with weathered rock outcrops and patches of dead grass.

Morning found me crossing the White Waters mountain pass in between cold November winds, and I kept running without stopping, maintaining my speed just below my stamina regeneration: not a full-fledged race but constant and fast enough.

I ignored the deserted gravel roads and ran across the dry valleys at the foot of Kumo's main mountain range. I was finally getting close. As ANBU, I was free to run or shunshin up the stone steps into the village, only flaring my chakra in code to announce myself and my urgency to the guards and sentries.

It was a little past mid-day when I crossed the cloud blanket, so I entered the village and shunshined over the rooftops to the Raikage's building.

As protocol established, I stopped at the roof entrance. Twenty-six, a green ANBU chunin, was stationed there.

"Direct orders, code six-seven-three," I snarled. In other words, 'crucial information that requires direct and urgent appraisal.'

He stood still for a moment before nodding. I turned without another word and opened the black iron door into the poorly lit stairwell. The steps led to secretary's office.

Without Mabui's permission -who recently took the full-time position of secretary- or Twenty-two -who stood at guard in front of the double doors- I entered the Raikage's office.

I was greeted by turning heads and harsh looks from the Raikage, Dodai, B, Darui and the Commander.

"Mission report, code six-seven-three," I simply said. Long gone were the times when I looked at these shinobi and felt intimidated.

"We received Seven's report an hour ago, Twenty-seven," Dodai dryly stated leaning back against the windows beside the Raikage's desk, a marked bag under his visible eye. "Report."

He used my number, which meant this was being treated as serious issue. Good.

I took a deep breath, ignoring the sweat running down my brow and tuning out the dense atmosphere. I glanced up at the Commander, his mask looking down at me. He nodded. I had to build from captain Seven's report, I guessed. 'Let's get to the point.'

"It was an ambush, Raikage-sama," I started. His eyes fixed on me. From the clenching of his knuckles that rested above his desk, his curling lip and the rigid cords in his neck, the effort he was making to avoid punching the desk to splinters was obvious. "The Frost shinobi attacked. Under captain Eight's orders, we fought back and held against the reinforcements. I was the only one who made it." I couldn't give too much information, specifically not about Root, not with Twenty-two standing outside the door.

I turned to the Commander. "I followed protocol, sir." I extended my hand and offered the small black scroll containing the weapons and the masks of captain Eight, Twelve, Thirteen, Seventeen and Twenty-one. He grabbed it without a question, just a solemn nod and a tensed back.

As the Commander handed the scroll to the Raikage and before I had to continue with the details, I tried to do the same kunai-moving trick to convey a message. The Raikage wore no metal besides his hand weights and belt, all too heavy to rattle quietly. Dodai, nevertheless, was wearing a kunai holster on his right leg. I reminded myself he was one of the good guys in the manga.

'More information, two-twenty-nine, secrecy required.' A two-twenty-nine was the article number of the 'Information Leakage, Complicity and Collusion' section in the ANBU manual.

"Twenty-two!" Dodai interrupted whatever the Raikage was about to say after putting aside the scroll. In a blink, the door opened and Twenty-two entered. "Find me council member Sunichi, bring him to my office at the ANBU precinct."

She faltered for a second. "Yes, Dodai-sama!" She left the office in a hurry.

"Darui, wait at the door, please," Dodai added, inflecting the 'wait'.

Huffing and sagging his shoulders, Darui muttered an almost silent 'Dull' before leaving the office, closing the door behind him. In between his seemingly permanent yawning face, I noticed his alert eyes.

The Raikage's serious gaze moved from Dodai to me, his face puckered.

I scanned the area and looked around, there was no name windows nor metal signatures apart from us. If Dodai didn't send the Commander away he trusted him, and that was the best I would get now.

"The Frost group that tried to ambush us, they carried no metal. No weapons, vest or hitai ate," I said seriously. "A-sama, they knew who I was, they knew I was there."

The Raikage's eyes widened and promptly his face turned into a deeper scowl, his fist shook, and his jaw clenched. I sensed the twitch in the Commander's posture.

"Seven said you informed him about the attack. How did you sense them?" Dodai asked narrowing his lonely eye questioningly.

I expected that question. I summoned a small scroll to my hand in my pouch, then unsealed a handful of metal fillings. Before I got used to sensing other people's weapons, I experimented with larger bits of metal, tossing them over the ground so I could detect enemies stepping on them.

"These are the smallest bits of metal I can detect," I lied. "I can't control them, but I can sense them all right. I tossed a fair amount of them around the forest area during our perimeter inspections. As to the fact I could tell they were Frost shinobi, their sensor turned his head to the incoming group but didn't act on it."

"Argh!" The Raikage's patience ran out, his fist smashed his desk in two. He grabbed a dumbbell by his feet and started curling. I could swear his goatee tried to stick up.

Dodai scratched his own chin fervently. "Those are indeed bad news."

"That's not all," I interrupted him. "We defeated the Frost delegation and their backup, but we were attacked once more, this time they took us by surprise."

The dumbbell dropped to the ground with a loud clang. "What? Who?"

"I better show you." I unfurled another black scroll down on the office floor, this one containing the heads of the Root agents. With a little chakra, I unsealed the head of the Hyuga, his mask still on.

The Commander bent down and picked up the head by the hair. He removed the mask. If he hadn't had his own mask over his face, I think I would have seen the same expression as the Raikage and Dodai. Wide eyes, raised brows, and rage.

"What? What is the-" the Raikage seemed to recovered his composure and dropped the volume a few decibels. "What is the meaning of this? That senile monkey is trying to-"

"No," I interrupted before he got any angrier, "not the Hokage. Danzo Shimura. Those are Root agents, all three have the seal on their tongues. A Hyuga, a clanless shinobi and a freaking Yamanaka. That's how they surprised captain Eight and Thirteen." I breathed out slowly, my gaze boring at the Raikage. "Raikage-sama, they didn't carry any metal on them either."

The resulting grim silence crawled on for minutes, everyone in his own head with a pensive frown. They knew the irrefutable truth behind the situation: there was a traitor among the ranks, and a foreign force was aware of it.

"We have to look at this from all perspectives," Dodai began, breaking the silence. "One, we have a serious information leak in the ANBU command chain; any member of the team could be the informant, regardless of their fate, and all captains are also suspects, and that includes off-duty and on-leave officials." His voice was heavy, but his lonely eye steeled. "Two, we have to look for the reason behind the action. Frost is to blame for the incident in particular, but there must be a personal gain beyond money for any traitor behind such specific leak. Three, that we have found a leak does not mean that it's the only one, it rarely is, or that there are no more people involved, even outside the shinobi force."

"That's the first step, Frost." The Raikage stood and began pacing around his office, his hands behind his back. "They attacked, inside information or not. Any gain from the incident will have to be analyzed, we have to look for the political or military objective behind this. We already called for an emergency council meeting; we'll see if this is an act of war." He stopped and turned to face Dodai. "You'll be in charge of the investigation and cleansing of the ANBU, take what you need and keep it off the records; from now on this is an S-rank secret, understood?"

That last part was directed to me, so I nodded my head. "Understood."

"Now we have the looming threat of war, an unstable border and the body of the Daimyo's cousin with a kunai to the chest in the morgue, and only our word against theirs to prove their dignitary did it. Commander, take th-"

"What?" There was something not right there. I shook my head. "No, no. What did captain Seven's report say about our dignitary?"

In view of my probably confused posture, Dodai answered, "The report was simple, the frost envoy attacked the Daimyo's cousin and the Frost shinobi inside the meeting room attacked captain Seven and lit an explosive note. Seven was trying to lead his fight outside wh-"

"Did he see it?" I interrupted again, a bitter taste forming in my mouth. "Did captain Seven see the Frost envoy stab ours?"

Dodai cocked his head marginally and squinted at me. "Yes. His words exactly."

"Sir, the Frost envoy only carried a kaiken tanto concealed up his left sleeve, not a kunai. I sensed it."

I heard the Commander's leather gloves stretch as he clenched his fists.

Dodai closed his eye and took a deep breath. "The coroner's report also confirmed a kunai wound. Are you sure about this, Twenty-seven?"

"Yes, sir," I dryly answered.

The Raikage went to his chair and plopped down, ignoring the splinters that used to be his desk. "Then you have somewhere to start," he said to Dodai. "Keep an eye on Seven, he's fast and strong but he isn't known for his brains. Find all of them, ANBU, shinobi or civilians alike. I want this sorted out by the end of the month. Nobody crosses Kumo and lives to tell the tale."

'At least,' I thought, 'I didn't inform Seven that the coming Frost group wore no metal...'

The next thirty minutes were spent discussing the details and procedures to follow and who was behind both the trade agreement attack and the information leak. It seemed that this wasn't the sole leak they suspected to have; this was only the most serious.

There wasn't much for me to say, this was way beyond my area of expertise.

Mission Failed!
The flood is threatening.

ANBU Mission – Security and Protection.

Rewards:
-

First mission I flopped, but I didn't care much.


I wasn't allowed to go back to the ANBU headquarters, supposedly on leave after the disastrous mission. The Commander rationalized that having me back in the rooster too quickly after being the sole survivor of an international clusterfuck of a mission would be too suspicious to whoever were scheming behind the curtains. He convinced me to take the standard three-week leave, during which Dodai and the Commander would scourge the ANBU and shinobi ranks looking for the double-dealing members and would, undoubtedly, find them all.

Dodai insisted on me remaining inside the village and recommended that I take an appointment with a psychiatrist. 'Yeah, no.'

I wanted to help weeding out the traitors in the force, but they completely cut me out of the investigation. They had their reasons, flimsy as they were: I didn't have the experience for this sort of things and wasn't familiar enough with the internal workings of the force and its political aspect and weight.

The Commander promised to alert me if they needed my help once they formulated a plan and needed the hands to execute it, and Dodai rested his hand on my shoulder telling me he was proud of me and my service to Kumo. That was a new memory for the nice-memories box.

I really believed they were trying to protect me from further attacks, even if I didn't mention that Root tried to capture me back there. I sensed the Commander's signature from time to time checking up on me from then on.

Old man Yataro came to visit me at home from time to time, carrying news about the state of our borders. The Raikage, smartly, didn't push for a war. Waging an asymmetric war against a small country would be seen as an act of aggression and expansion by the other nations -the old man explained- and relationships with Iwa and Konoha weren't exactly peachy.

The Land of Lightning completely shut down its land border with the Land of Frost and upped the security along, this time sending additional personnel: more jonin and chunin teams were dispatched to strengthen patrols, with direct kill-on-sight orders against any trespasser, civilian or not. Additional shinobi and ANBU teams were dispatched to all harbors and port towns along the Land of Lightning's coastline, now the only ports of entry for people and cargo.

All the while Dodai and the Commander undertook the internal scrutiny of the force.

The Land of Frost had not given any official statement, and no other shinobi had been seen poking along the borders. The incident went public, the Raikage saw to it to avoid any false impression and made the Land of Lightning's posture clear in a very diplomatic way:

'We do not condone this type of behavior and economic sanctions will follow. Any further signs of military aggression will be taken as an act of war and the Land of Lightning will proudly take arms to protect its land, people and its way of living.'

Convincing the Daimyo was easy: he did not like his cousin, the old man heard. What wasn't easy was calming the Raikage himself, it took a full Sunday morning of 'sparring' with B. Tremors were felt in the village all the way from the Valley of Clouds and Lightning. Wherever that place was, it wasn't far enough.

I immersed myself happily in my training once again, trying to push everything out of my mind. I trusted Dodai.

There was still a lot to do, too. While ANBU missions rewarded me with a lot of experience, they left me without much time to train my skills, and nature transformation required a lot of it. My Earth Release skill was increasing steadily, albeit a little slower than what I would've liked. I needed to level it up to 60 in order to finally use that one technique I craved, the one I received as a reward to the chunin exam quest.

My physical training was going slow too. I didn't have to train to maintain my skill level, but since I was growing, I needed to exercise and spar to familiarize myself with my new reach.

I was tall in my previous life, a lanky guy just below six feet. Here, I was growing steadily too, already reaching five feet two at twelve years of age. From some family pictures I found at home, I was destined to be a little shorter this time around; dad was about five feet eight and mom five feet six. I couldn't find any pictures of mom's childhood, but dad was a tall kid. Regardless, people in this world were shorter on average, so exceedingly tall people like Haou-sensei or B, exceedingly stood out.

Training comprised in a lot of active stretches and katas and practicing hand seals with my growing hands. Fortunately, most of that training I could do at home. I couldn't use the ANBU training grounds while on leave, but I made use of the general ones when I needed to. Always looking over my shoulder, though.

The Iron Sand training, regrettably, was still falling behind because of the lack of combat experience and usage. In all these years, I only found three more dungeons around the village, the last one in the ANBU training grounds. I quickly outgrew their level, and now I used them as a training spot for the Iron Sand whenever I could. Without decent enemies, however, the skill leveled up sluggishly.

Two weeks after I returned from the mission at Frost, well into the night, I finally got the call. Or the visit to be exact.

I was sitting on my bedroom floor, still training earth chakra manipulation. At around 11 p.m., a shinobi metal signature came into my range and stood outside my house. I recognized it immediately and went to open the door. He didn't even knock. The Commander looked down at me.

"Put your gear on and follow me." His gravelly voice still grated my nerves.

I went back inside and swiftly changed into my ANBU gear, then followed the Commander silently through the rooftops heading north. We didn't shunshin nor stop at the Raikage tower, we circled the peak and went farther into the upper valleys behind, running at top speed for about five minutes until we arrived at a bleak, almost-hidden vale. The Raikage's private training grounds, my map pointed out.

Angular pebbles covered the ground, swept clean of snow by the morning winds, and a deep-cold breeze twirled around. Up in the pitch-black sky and between the clouds, the mid-fall constellations and a gibbous moon shone over.

Dodai stood at the center, six other ANBU members in front of him: Ten -a jonin level sensor- and captains Two, Three, Four, Five, Six and Nine. Between them and Dodai, a small fire was lit, just bright enough to see each other's masks.

The Commander went to stand next to Dodai while I joined Ten and the ANBU captains.

Dodai took his time to look at each of us with an inscrutable expression. "Now that we are all here, we can begin."

"We are missing Kenko," captain Two noted.

Dodai ignored him. "The Makino clan have been found guilty of treason, subversive activities, attempt of coup and hosting a Mist fifth column," he began. "Several members have been conspiring against the Daimyo, his court and the shinobi and residents of the Land of Lightning. Two hours ago, the Raikage authorized the imprisonment of the civilian members actively involved and the termination of their shinobi associates, starting tonight."

My eyebrows wouldn't go any higher and I felt my stomach churn, and the few seconds of sepulchral silence that followed suggested a similar expression behind the others' masks.

The captains reacted with restrained voices.

"W-What?"

"The Makino clan?"

"Motherf-"

Dodai's voice interrupted the murmurs. "The clan head, four clan members, three Makino jonin and three chunin, and one non-clan jonin and a chunin were confirmed involved. But that's not all." He tuned to look at the Commander, who cleared his throat.

We snapped to attention.

"Please remove your masks," he said in his raspy voice.

Without hesitation, we obliged.

The shock still imprinted on my face doubled when his right hand went for his own mask. The Commander never took his mask off, not even in the HQ. I had never seen his face.

His dulling eyes and black hair glistened with the faint firelight, but his expression was set in stone. Anger.

"Brothers and sisters, we have been betrayed." I sensed everyone tense, my jaw clenched from the memories of the fight in Frost. "Seven and Nineteen have been selling inside information to our enemies, which recently led to the death of six of our members." He looked at me and took a deep breath. "Our identities have been compromised."

"I'm going to kill that son of a b-" Captain Five's anger began to vent, but the Commander continued.

"These are your orders. Dodai-sama will take two jonin teams and arrest Hirokumi Makino, Teijo Makino and Yasutake Makino and their immediate families. Masanobu, Takamori, Kichi; you are ordered to terminate jonin Yukimitsu Makino, Hiroharu Makino and Shungiku Makino and arrest their immediate families, take an ANBU team each. Danjuro, you are to terminate jonin Wakiko Kitajima. Maeko, you'll take two teams and terminate chunin Torio Makino, Katai Makino, Marise Makino and Hikosaburo Kasamatsu; arrest their families accordingly. I'll take care of Nineteen and Seven," the Commander spat both numbers angrily.

The captains all looked at each other, nodding to their teammates for the night as their orders were given, no doubt wordlessly planning their actions.

"As you can tell," the Commander continued after a pause, "we've taken all the necessary actions to ensure that everyone involved are in the village tonight, with one exception. Masanori Makino, who has been overseeing the weapon trafficking to Yagura's forces, was supposed to return from Fujisaki two days ago. Kioshi, Sarai," he added looking at Ten and me. "You are the best sensors of the force: your mission is to locate and capture Masanori. Contact the chunin patrol or the genin team stationed there if needed. You leave immediately."

Before anyone could say anything, Dodai spoke with a harsh tone. "Tomorrow the Raikage will take half the ANBU to the capital to deal with the Makino clan head and the dissidents among Daimyo's court. Widespread orders to stop all trading with the Land of Water and Search and Destroy protocols against all foreign shinobi incursions will be enforced. ANBU, we follow war-time procedures. They dared to move against our home, we'll show them Kumogakure's retaliation."


Quest Created:
By the light of the moon.

ANBU Mission – Search and Capture.

Rewards:
37000 Exp.

We ran southeast through the cold western highlands for four hours, crossing the small coastal mountain range and travelling next to the main road in case we stumbled upon our mark on his way back to the village.

Sarai was a short and slender twenty-five-year-old woman. Her dark-brown hair, always tangled and held in a tall ponytail, was her only visible feature besides the medium-sized ninjato strapped to her back. We wore the same outfit: a blank ANBU mask, a dark gray vest and black everything else.

She entered the force three years ago and made a name for herself as a talented swordswoman and thanks to her accurate sensing ability. It had a way shorter range than my metal sensing, however, but was very precise.

We've never had a mission together before -being both sensors and all- but we've sparred and trained side by side a couple of times.

It was a silent run and we only stopped once for Sarai to rest and to eat something. ANBU training had us prepared for this kind of frantic pace, and it was vital now; if the Makino clan were dealing with Mist, Masanori Makino was a run-away risk

Thankfully, Fujisaki was the second-closest trading port to Kumogakure and had a very direct route. At 5 a.m. we stopped next to an abandoned house at the town's outskirts.

"There are no noticeable metal signatures in motion," I whispered to Sarai. My sensing range was long enough to cover the whole town -loading docks included- but static metal signatures were everywhere in such a busy place. Unless they were moving or I were fairly close, it was almost impossible to discern a normal shinobi from, say, steel hammers and scattered clinch-nails.

"Not even the chunin patrol?" Sarai asked.

I hummed in wonder. "Well, there's some movement on the harbor. Maybe armed dock workers, no obvious shinobi signature anywhere, too much noise to identify a vest." And too many name windows floating around. "Go look for the chunin patrol at the docks, they should be making their rounds. I'll go to the safehouse and contact the genin team and their jonin sensei. I'll meet you in ten minutes."

She nodded, and silently shunshined away.

I looked to the west side of the town. As in most coastal and inland settlements near the eastern shore of the peninsula, buildings were made with sturdier materials than the flimsy light-wood constructions found along the western coast. Winters on this side were crude and merciless, and sea storms were a common occurrence; foundations had to be strong enough and isolation was crucial.

We were instructed to memorize all the safehouses around the country, and in this small town, the top floor of an unassuming four-story-tall building in the residential area served as a general shinobi safehouse. ANBU didn't have such a specific place here; this was a small trading port, and we were only called here in case of an emergency.

As I jumped over the roofs, two unusual metal signatures began to move and stood out. They were closing in on the safehouse. I focused on the area: three hitai-ate without vests were inside, while the two bizarre signatures were prowling around the side of the building. I recognized parts of them: rebreathers. Two, to be exact.

I quickly looked between the endless different-sized name windows floating around for the genin's and the other two signatures. I recognized their names instantly.

Gozu
[Bad]

Meizu
[Bad]

'Shit.' That didn't bode well.

I shunshined as fast and as silently as I could -which wasn't difficult at night with a maxed-out stealth skill- stopping on the roof of the neighboring building. The Demon brothers were crouching on the rooftop of the safehouse, seemingly looking for something.

With the concealment of darkness and before they had the chance of noticing me, I threw two empowered kunai.

Hit!
1995 DMG.
Critical Traumatic Brain Injury applied.
Severe Bleeding applied.

Hit!
1995 DMG.
Critical Traumatic Brain Injury applied.
Severe Bleeding applied.

Enemy Killed.
3000 Exp awarded.

Enemy Killed.
3000 Exp awarded.

Kunai to the side of head to both, enough to take a chunin out and a quick and silent kill.

I jumped to the safehouse's rooftop, a faint beam of white light shone between the Demon Brother's bodies. I expected to find ryo and some kunai as with most kills, but there was a glittering chain underneath.

'Observe.'

Shuriken Chain
- A bladed chain that was attached to a pair of unique gauntlets.
Quality: Rare
Covered in C-rank paralytic toxin.

'Nice.' I put the chain away in my inventory and sealed the bodies in a black scroll -I wouldn't cut their heads in the middle of a civilian town, rooftop or not.

I opened the wooden hatch to my left and entered the safehouse. The three genin had taken a defensive position at the center of the room, holding their weapons menacingly. They must have heard the bodies drop.

A tanto-wielding girl with a slight frown flared her chakra in code. ANBU code.

I glanced at her name window.

Aroha Fuse
[Neutral]

'Ah, figures.' I flared my chakra in a coded response. She let out a breath and sheathed her tanto, her shoulders relaxed.

"Are you kids okay?" I asked.

The girl, which by then I assumed was the 'leader' of the team, answered, "Y-Yes, thank you. What happened?"

"Where's your sensei?"

The girl straightened up. "He went to the docks to look for the chunin patrol. One should've returned two hours ago and sensei got anxious."

"This position has been compromised. Relocate and follow protocol," I instructed.

She confidently nodded back and motioned her teammates -two brown-haired boys who looked still semi-asleep- to their backpacks.

"Are you really an ANBU?" one asked me.

"Yes."

"What happened?" he pressed.

"Two Mist shinobi tried to enter," I grunted back. "Now move."

"Thank you," Aroha said, as they all began packing up their futons.

Leaving the genin, I ran over the rooftops heading to the docks. With the Demon Brothers in town, I knew who to expect.

Halfway there I stopped to concentrate on my sensing. In between the noisy signatures, I picked up a clump of Kumo jonin vests at the far side of the harbor. The signatures got clearer as I got closer.

Sarai and another Kumo shinobi were on a rooftop at the northern end of the docks, three other Kumo vests were packed together nearby and, as I expected, there was one noticeable signature I've never sensed before: a peculiar piece of steel that felt dimmer than any other metal I've encountered, even if it was larger than myself. Kubikiribocho.

I stopped next to Sarai. She was crouching over the rooftop beside a dark-skinned, red-haired jonin, both looking down at the cargo docks.

Yunosuke Koide
[Neutral]

Sarai looked back at me and motioned me to come closer.

"I found them," Sarai whispered while I crouched next to her, "but they're not alone." The red-haired jonin turned to look at me

I glanced in to where Sarai gestured, a two-story building at the edge of the docks. Inside I could sense the chunin on the second floor and two other bizarre signatures. All the name windows were easy to read now.

Zabuza Momochi
[Very Bad]

Haku Yuki
[Neutral]

Masanori Makino
[Bad]

"There are two other strange chakra signatures," Sarai continued. "One strong and dense, almost like yours, the other feels... cold."

"The genin are safe," I said while scanning the area. "They were attacked by the Demon Brothers from Mist, which can only mean that the huge metal signature I'm sensing in there belongs to Zabuza Momochi, the Demon of the Mist."

Yunosuke's face paled when I mentioned the genin, Sarai gasped when I mentioned Zabuza. The jonin's head then turned to me with a cocked head, his eyebrows raised, then his shoulders relaxed.

Yunosuke Koide
[Good]

I turned my attention to the surrounding rooftops. "No spotters?" I asked.

"No," Sarai answered. "No other chakra signatures around the docks."

At little past 5 a.m., there wasn't much movement in this part of the docks. A lonely civilian carrying a bottle of sake staggered around near one of the small ships moored nearby. That would change soon, though. The first lights of dawn were already peeking at the horizon.

"When one didn't come back from his night shift, the others went looking. They were supposed to report back two hours ago," Yunosuke whispered. "There was no trace of any foreign shinobi disembarking here." He sighed. "Anyway, that's the Makino family office, your target should be in there. You think he hired the Demon of the Mist?"

"Maybe, but that's beside the point now." A simple plan began to form in my head.

We couldn't fight Zabuza in a civilian area, we would risk too many casualties. I was confident that the three of us could take him and Haku down, even next to water, though I had my reservations; my kekkei genkai rendered his sword and his mist ineffective but I didn't want to risk an open fight.

Zabuza and Haku were meant to fight Kakashi's team seven, and Naruto would grow much from that encounter, even if it meant the death of both Mist nin. I wouldn't lie to myself thinking I had any control over the original timeline, not with my current level and strength, but Zabuza and Haku were important. I already killed the Demon Brothers, but the less I deviate...

I could try to negotiate with them, compel them to leave. Only fight it out if things went sour.

"I have a plan," I whispered to Sarai and Yunosuke, "but I need both of you to stand ready if fighting starts. I'll try to end this peacefully."

Yunosuke was about to retort, but Sarai beat him. "Kioshi, you're playing a risky game here."

"Yes, but I'm the better suited to fight him," I said. "Trust me. Just cover the entrance. And my back."

Sarai nodded, but I could see the apprehension behind her tense back.

"Yunosuke, stand on the other rooftop and henge into an ANBU," I added looking at him. He clenched his jaw, nodding with clear apprehension.

I channeled chakra through my body and double checked my mask, forcing nervousness out of my mind. I jumped down to the deteriorating wooden dock and walked to the building's door. I knocked twice.

I sensed Zabuza and Haku move to the back of the building and Masanori's name window got closer to the door.

The door half-opened to the inside, Masanori's angular face peeked from inside.

"Shi-Shinobi-san," he stuttered looking down at me. "Eh, is there a problem?"

He was a bony man wearing a simple slate-colored long jacket over gray pants and shirt, with slicked blond hair and a thin moustache over his quivering mouth.

I ignored the man. "Zabuza, I've come to bargain!" I called.

Masanori's eyes bulged. "I-I don't know who-"

"Move," a deep voice growled from inside the house. The alluded man paled even further and stepped back.

I forcibly relaxed my shoulders and entered. Zabuza was a proud man and a dangerous shinobi, I couldn't let him take the upper hand in a negotiation.

In between the dim white light from the ceiling fixtures and the yellowish glow of the lit hearth at the center, the towering form of the Demon of the Mist stood with a serious expression and a penetrating gaze, just as I remembered from the original story; bandages covered the lower half of his face and he wore his hitai-ate slanted, but, peculiarly, he wore navy-blue wrist and leg warmers. Kubikiribocho was strapped to his back.

Shivers crawled up my spine.

"ANBU?" he growled looking down at me.

I kept the door open and stood a few steps away from the entrance. Masanori had moved behind a lone desk next to a wall, visibly shivering and glancing between me and Zabuza. Haku moved to his side, between a nearly empty bookshelf and the desk; a green and white haori over an olive outfit and his slitted mask covering his face. I could sense the senbon hidden between his clothes and the three he held in his hand behind his back.

Silent seconds passed that seemed to me like minutes, Zabuza's eyes squinted.

"What do you want and what do you offer?" he growled again, frowning. His right hand went menacingly for Kubikiribocho's handle.

"The chunin you have upstairs and the Makino. He's guilty of treason and illegally selling weapons and supplies to Yagura's forces."

Masanori's widened eyes focused on me in fear. "No, no! I didn't do anything! You can't take me!" He turned his gaze back to Zabuza, stammering. "Y-You, I hired you! Finish t-"

Zabuza's eyebrows overshadowed his eyes, a low growl escaped between his bandages. He turned to the culprit, murder in his eyes. Kubikiribocho moved surprisingly quick and silently, stopping a fraction of an inch from Masanori's neck. My heart skipped a beat, and I struggled not to react.

"I have protected you," he snarled, "now pay up or I'll chop your head off."

Masanori's mouth trembled, his eyes turned from the blade at his neck to me, pleading.

"You've heard him," I said trying to keep my voice neutral. "Now pay up."

Tears flowed from his eyes, his right hand clumsily opened a drawer of his desk, trying his best not to move any other part of his body. He procured a thick envelope and held it to Zabuza. Haku took it from his shaking hands and tucked it inside his haori.

"You have your money, Zabuza," I said as he removed his sword from Masanori's neck. "The ANBU won't pursue you now, but you leave the Land of Lightning today."

Zabuza's head snapped in my direction. "What guarantees can you offer us? What's stopping me from taking you hostage too and negotiate from there?"

"What you get is our word, nothing more, nothing less," I answered. "I'd really like to avoid the ANBU fighting you in the middle of a civilian town. I'm offering you a way out without bloodshed for you and your accomplice. I believe the Demon Brothers were already dealt with, though."

'Please take the offer, please take the fucking offer.' I'd rather not play the intimidation and overpower game with the freaking Demon of the Mist and an absurdly fast Yuki.

Zabuza growled one last time and nodded to Haku. They both disappeared in a shunshin.

I let out the breath I held as I sensed both signatures -Kubikiribocho and senbon- shunshin north nonstop.

Sarai immediately entered the building, followed by Yunosuke.

"You let them go," she stated, half a question half a declaration.

"I averted a needless fight and completed our mission," I answered.

Sarai grumbled something under her mask and moved to tie Masanori, who slumped to the ground, trembling and stinking of urine.

I went upstairs and found the chunin. They were tied together, unconscious but alive. Just one look and I recognized the green-haired girl from my first day at the academy.

Kumi Kanegawa
[Neutral]

I smiled.

They were knocked out unconscious and had a mild sleeping drug in their bloodstream. Nothing a simple antidote and some amateur Mystic Palm wouldn't fix.


Name: Kioshi Shirasu

Title: ANBU of Kumogakure
Age: 12
Level 73 (22320/53700)

HP: 2934/2934
SP: 3280/3280
Chakra: 2723/2723
Chakra Control: 96%

STR: 167
DEX: 218
VIT: 161
INT: 154
WIS: 149
CHA: 7/10
Points: 9

Money: 746700

The day was beautiful. Orange leaves still floated around the cool winds, flown into the eternal blanket of white clouds below the valleys and peaks, all underneath a clear blue sky. The last days of fall in Kumo.

I sipped on my steaming tea, sitting by the window that overlooked the ANBU training grounds below. They were almost empty on Sundays, just as the tea shop we were in.

Gray stone-slab floor, walls painted white, big sliding windows and small circular tables with a pair of chairs each, the small and cozy tea store was restricted to ANBU only and served everything from beer, sake and wine to protein-heavy meals and sweet snacks. A retired ANBU captain opened this place some years ago after persuading Dodai and the Raikage with free food and convincing the Commander the force required a place to genuinely relax outside the headquarters.

"We kept an eye on every suspicious agent after the Frost mission. Kenko in particular. He was always looking over his shoulder after he learned about you coming back from your mission. All the while Dodai-sama made his own inquiries and investigation." The Commander sat in front of me, looking at the mid-afternoon sun. "In a week we had the whole ordeal figured out, and a week later we had all the names and the evidence we needed."

The Makino family was stripped of its clan status, which meant they no longer held a position on the council nor had any authority in Kumo.

"The Daimyo and the Raikage cleared his court from any Makino associate and barred them from all political positions of influence in the Land of Lightning. Those who supported them followed; most are now trying to worm their way back into the court." I could feel the smirk behind the Commander's mask. "They had everything planned years ago, you know, and were cautious enough to cover their tracks carefully. But not enough that we wouldn't find them once we knew where to look. A long-winded and bold plan, Dodai-sama called it."

He spoke as if all Makino clan members were either conspirators, instigators or complacent, when in reality, only those involved were imprisoned and charged -and the shinobi executed. The Makino family was given consent to continue their commercial duties with some hefty restrictions.

"The clan was inducing political instability, trying to destabilize the country. The one in the Daimyo's court bought support and publicly preached about the efforts his clan had made into helping and feeding the struggling families. All the while they turned the other advisors against each other, forcing unmanageably large committees and drowning any proposal under bureaucratic paperwork. They even pushed for the approval of that tax increase on exports and imports to worsen the black markets." The Commander -wearing his mask despite us being alone in the tea shop- was fuming. His coarse voice had a tinge of anger. "Some court members suspected underhanded tactics for some years now.

"The worst thing was they secretly sponsored resistance efforts and factions against the Daimyo in the capital, right under his nose. 'Social movements,' the people called them. Then they started a non-profit organization to support the downtrodden towns as their public façade, cutting deals and whatnot."

I looked at him from my cup of tea, surprised. That was a long list. "How did we find all of this?" I asked.

"People talk when you threaten them with a life behind freezing bars up north," he nonchalantly answered. "The clan had their hands in everything, and even the oblivious clan members, shinobi and civilians alike, knew better than to ask too many questions to their superiors. If they did, they disappeared. The accomplices who didn't are now striking deals to reduce their sentence."

It was hard to believe a prestigious clan took advantage of the drought and the farming crisis to further their own agenda. Even more so that they have gotten away with it under the eyes of the shinobi for so long.

"What angered the Raikage the most was their agreement with Mist. The Makino managed some clandestine iron mines in the northern ridges; they processed the ore, forged weapons and shipped them to Mist from illegal ports of call up north. Those new prospections we always heard about? Most were poorly done, delayed or even fake. Even extremely talented shinobi can only find shallow iron deposits, which are mostly depleted already.

"They wanted to aggravate the shortage of weapons in our shinobi force." The Commander scoffed. "What we confiscated around the eastern harbors was from small merchants trying to take a cut, and the Makino were cautious enough to avoid tracing the sell back to them." He sighed. "We now have to dismantle those operations on the north and clear the Ice Coast of Mist's influence. There's evidence of slave trading too for fuck's sake."

"So, they did strike a deal with Mist, then?" I asked. I knew the answer to that, especially if the Makino clan was accused of Fifth Column.

"With Yagura's loyalists. They confessed to make deals to gain support of Kirigakure for when they moved to depose our Daimyo and push their own clan member into power. And then, they wanted to impose control over the village with the clan head here. Both him and the advisor are now chained in the ANBU prison waiting for their execution, while we are waiting for them to confess all their dealings."

"Bastards."

"Yes. That sums it up." the Commander half-laughed in his gravelly voice.

We fell into a comfortable silence for some minutes, looking out the windows to the training grounds below and the cloud blanket beyond. I offered the Commander a cup of tea again, and again he shook his head. I downed mine and poured more from the teapot.

"You've been promoted, Kioshi," the Commander said casually.

"Really?" I asked.

"Dodai pushed your promotion, and Sarai and Yunosuke's team commended you."

"Sarai?"

He nodded. "We questioned her on your mission report. She followed your command, even if she was your senior. You completed the mission without risking a fight with the Demon of the Mist. A fight I don't doubt you would've won." He chuckled. "Even the Fuse genin commented on your professionalism."

"Don't patronize me, Commander." I wasn't speechless, but I had little to say. I've had the skill for years and now they finally decided I had the experience. 'One step closer.'

"You will be promoted to jonin and assigned a new number," he said standing from his seat. "Congratulations, captain Eight."

I stood too, a smile on my face. That was a good number.

"Thank you, Commander." I bowed my head.

"A little underwhelming, wasn't it?"

"Well, I'm not one for fanfare."

The Commander shrugged his shoulders. "Anything you want to add before I go feed the ANBU gossip machine at HQ?"

I let out a heavy sigh. There was something I wanted to say for some time now.

"Yes," I answered. "I'm sorry." His head turned. "I'm sorry I couldn't save Thirteen. I know you two were close."

He sighed back. "It's okay. That's the risk of our profession." He paused for a second. "At least I got my revenge."

His voice was bitter, so I changed the subject. I've had another question in my mind for some time now. "By the way, Commander, can I have a summoning contract?"

"Well, y-"

In unison, our heads snapped to the ANBU training grounds down below: a hint of demonic chakra permeated the air.

'Yugito…'

"Eight, go find th-"

"No," I interrupted him. "No, let me handle this. Just stay alert."

This wasn't Yugito angry.

I shunshined out the open window down to the empty ANBU training grounds and walked to her name window. I found her sitting below the shade of a rocky outcrop, her back against the rock and her arms hugging her knees close to her chest. She wasn't wearing her jonin vest and her blonde hair was loose, falling over her right shoulder, the cold winds gently swaying it.

She was sniffling quietly, a sad and defeated expression on her face.

"Hey," I said.

She turned her head to me, her eyes puffy and red. My heart missed a beat.

"How did you find me?" she whispered, turning her gaze back at the ground by her feet.

I sat down beside her, resting my back against the cold rock. "You're leaking her chakra."

We sat there in silence for some minutes. I could sense the Commander's signature up on the rooftop of the tea shop, captain Two now stood at his side.

Matatabi's chakra lessened, and Yugito's sniffling stopped.

"He br-" she tried, but her words seemed to catch in her throat. Her jaw clenched and her lips trembled. "Is... is there something wrong with me?"

I took a deep breath. 'I'm sorry, Yugito.'

"Yes."

Her neck stiffened and she closed her eyes. She shook her head, stood up and turned away. My heart cracked a little more.

"No, don't you walk away from me," I said getting up as she began to walk away.

She stopped and turned around, arms crossed, a frown over hurt velvet-black eyes and half a sulk. I could see the sadness behind her slack expression and downturned lips.

"I won't treat you like some average run-off-the-mill friend, Yugito," I confessed. "I'm not going to give you false hope or some sweet empty words just to calm you. There is something wrong with you, there is something wrong with people like us! You just can't keep trying to sugarcoat it."

Her eyes widened and jaw clenched again; her saddened expression was set in stone.

"Look, I'm not going to repeat some bullshit excuse for an advice so you can continue to ignore the ugly truth. No, I refuse to lie to you, you have other friends for that. We're above that, and you're done avoiding me anymore."

She winced and turned her gaze away. "I haven't been avoiding you."

"Yes, you have. Don't think I haven't noticed," I pressed. "Taking long-term solo missions, avoiding the Raikage tower and the training grounds... you even stopped coming to our Sunday spars. You once told me I shouldn't isolate myself. Were those empty words? Did you believe them yourself?"

Her face turned back to me with an empty stare, her lips pressed thin. "I- I'm..." A couple of tears rolled down from her reddish eyes and her chin trembled.

"Yeah, I know," I said. "Now, fight me."

"W-What?"

"I said fight me!" I summoned a kunai to my right hand. "You know how I work, Yugito, you know what I do when I have bad day. You know I lock myself at home and drink borderline-toxic amounts of tea while painting some ugly whatever or working on some convoluted chakra theory. And you know I then go to the old man or Kichiro or Suguna to ramble about whatever I found. You know because you've been there for me, too.

"And I know how you work," I continued. "I know you get all melancholic for about half an hour before you go all serious and train until you collapse, and only then you go home and try to sleep your sadness away. I know I'm the only one who's seen you like that. So, c'mon, let her chakra out! You know I can handle her. You know the ANBU will answer if worse comes to worst. If a fight is what it takes for you to tell me the real reason you've been like this for three fucking years, then do it!"

Her eyes squeezed shut, her fists clenched. "No, no," she said shaking her head, her voice getting louder. "No! I won't fight you, Kioshi!"

"Then tell me the truth, Yugito!" I pressed. "Tell me the reason you turn and whimper in your sleep, even with no full moon!"

"No! You don't get to-"

"Tell me the reason you've been isolating yourself," I yelled back. "The reason you've been avoiding me!"

She choked on her words and turned away once more.

"The truth, Yugito!"

Her shoulders hunched and her face turned to the ground. Her hands grabbed her golden hair. "No. Just, just shut up! Please!" she cried.

"Tell me!" I shouted back, heartbroken and angry. "Tell me what are you so afraid of!"

"I, I-" I heard her cry between sobs.

"Tell me what's eating your heart away!"

"I," Her neck stiffened and her hands pulled harder on her hair, her knees almost buckled. "I just-"

I barely managed to cover my face with my arms just as a deafening cry tore the training grounds.

"I don't want to be alone!"

My hair fluttered from the air and gravel displaced by the surge of chakra. Between the blowing winds and the swirling dust, I saw her crouching figure; red, bubbling chakra surrounded her body and two red tails swayed behind her. Her head snapped back at me, two mismatched slitted eyes finding mine.

I coursed chakra through my body. Without my Iron Sand, this was going to be an extremely difficult fight.

. . . . . - - - . - . . - . - - - . - - . . .

Through the dim glow and the thick mist came the silhouette of a man, pacing about the narrow gaps between the willows and birches, waiting. He wanted to whistle, to run, to fight... anything to stave the memories off, but he couldn't risk being seen. Not yet.

He was tired. It was no easy undertaking and neither a bloodless one, but it was his duty. His job. One he learned to love in his own crooked way.

By effort and training he came to his own set of skills -not a simple task, he believed- and the rest by pulling strings, swinging his blade and whispering words. Whispering them into the covetous ears of those who would gladly dance along with the prospect of power and conflict and of love and revenge. Such different ways to conceive the world!

Everything was set in motion by his will, all now moving and vibrating by its own. Momentum, that's what he wanted, and he had to be both harsh and forbearing now. The further things escalated, the more difficult to control.

The Daimyo of the Land of Wind was easy to sway, the Land of Fire was still convalescent -he's seen to it personally- the Land of Lightning was digging into its crisis, and the Land of Earth has even been hiring them!

The Land of Water, however, required a hands-on approach. Only this morning Yagura's side lost their first battle, the beginning of the end. A very bloody end, he promised himself.

His spirits soared and he almost smiled in twisted joy. His plans! Finally coming to fruition! He allowed himself to stretch his arms as he paced among the midnight shadows, his cloak swayed with his cheerful movement.

He suddenly stopped and turned around. A figure emerged from the ground.

"I have news from the Land of Lightning," it whispered, and, in a deeper voice, added, "Bad news."

His spirits dropped back. He exhaled.

"The ANBU got word of the plan," the deeper voice continued, "they dismantled the operation."

He imagined something would go awry. Somewhere, on any scale. This in particular meant he ought to go about his arrangements in the Land of Lightning directly, too. Much more directly.

His gaze now turned to the night sky, he rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck. His neck always hurt when under tension. He felt the weight of his damp cloak -oh, how he despised the permanent mist of this country- and the sweat running behind his mask.

He nodded, more to himself than to the bizarre figure that stood against the foliage.

Indeed, Obito would have to take matters into his own hands once again.


Author's note:

I realized too late that I made a serious mistake: I began this chapter from the end. Two months through and I realized I couldn't just upload what I had... And I ended up scraping a third of the chapter because it didn't fit well and broke the story and had too many inconsistencies and etc. I'm not trying that again.

Lost my job because of the virus and whatnot, and haven't found another yet. Things are getting grim, and that kind of stress is really weighing on me.

Thank you all for your reviews and comments, they lighten up my day.
S
peak up if you spot a mistake or a typo.

Edit: Corrected typos and grammar and punctuation mistakes / I Added Kioshi's status screen before the last scenes as some of you wanted. I've been going through the previous chapters, correcting typos, grammar mistakes, punctuation and etc. I'll upload the corrected chapters in batches, so you won't get bombed by emails and notifications every other day.

Thank you all for your kind words.