Chapter 13: The Calm after the Raging Waters
Author’s Notes: Damn, it doesn’t even feel like a year has passed yet when I look at the last release update I see it has.
On the Seas
The skies above the ocean were calm, azure-blue riddled with patches of white clouds and squalling seagulls. On the small sailing vessel, riding atop the grand ocean between countries, Kushina’s group made towards the Land of Whirlpools. But there was no joy to be found at their homecoming. The atmosphere itself was somber, even as they left the Bloody Mist behind.
Kushina herself stood against the wall of the cabin, looking at the Maiden of the Sea confined to a wheelchair. Tsunade had been clear. Even with chakra to heal and set her bones, it would take time for them to become capable of supporting her body sufficiently again, something about her biology and the extent of the damage being the major factors.
The Kaima Form had saved her life, yes. But it would take longer to heal as a result. She was warned not to do anything strenuous for what could have been months on end. That included swimming, while transforming was outright forbidden and sealed by Kushina.
‘Despite everything that’s happened to me, the thought of not being able to swim again when the ocean is right in front of me hurts more than anything,’ she had told Kushina as they rolled her onto the boat, just before they left.
Those words haunted Kushina. She had been a shinobi for a long time, and she accepted that there were risks. But, damn it, that didn’t make it any easier. More so when she thought about how none of the kids should have been there in the first place.
“They survived,” Tsunade said from behind her. It was as if she read her mind. “She’ll recover if she takes it easy, and the blonde brat came out without a scratch. That’s more than what can be said for a lot of others involved.”
She would know. Her little brother and fiancé had been claimed during war, beyond even her ability to save. The fact that these two went against another Jinchuuriki, children who had yet to reach the age of eighteen, and survived… it spoke much about their circumstances.
They were strong. If they survived to adulthood, they could become great shinobi.
“It still shouldn’t have come to this,” Kushina said. “Looking back when Naruto was born, he shouldn’t have had to become the fox’s vessel when I was there. And Isaribi-chan was turned into a killer because of someone else’s machinations… even the Three-Tails and its host….”
“Which bodes poorly, all things considered,” Tsunade noted. “If the Mizukage could fall so easily, so could the rest. It’s a horrifying thought.”
“In an ideal world things like this wouldn’t happen.” Her voice came out low, wistful even. “A world where children could live their lives without violence, where they never had to live with knowing what it was like to stain their hands in blood, or the fear that someone would snuff their life out so easily.”
In contrast, Tsunade’s voice was somber. “Unfortunately, a world that nice doesn’t exist. No matter how much we wish for it. The only thing we can do is try to prepare them for the worst life has to offer, and hope that the next generation can make it better.”
A bitter, if true statement, Kushina had to admit.
Naruto moved through the motions of what taijutsu he knew, spinning from a back-side kick into a leg sweep. Water chakra seeped out as his leg’s tenketsu, transmuting into water that buffeted his imaginary enemy and knocked them asunder. The water splashed against the surface of the boat, moonlight glistening in it as the chakra slowly eroded and dissipated.
“Couldn’t—” Naruto summoned and flung a kunai on reflex at the abrupt sound, only to realize he was about to kill someone he knew after it left his fingers. Luckily, his godfather caught it and continued speaking as though it never happened.”—sleep, huh?”
Naruto fell onto his knees and assumed a pose of supplication. “I-I’m so sorry!”
“It’s fine this time.” The Sage twirled it between his fingers as he approached his godson. “But you’re going to have to wind down. Had that been your injured friend, it’s very likely you would have killed her.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he said shamefully. “I know we’ve left the Mist behind, but I can’t manage to get to any sleep. The nightmares won’t stop….”
“Well, let’s talk about it,” Jiraiya said, sitting lotus position in front of him. He set the kunai down between them, acting as a line. “Tell me about this nightmare.”
Naruto shook his head, bringing his hands around to grasp his arms before curling up. “I keep having the same nightmare, where those Hunters got their hands on me again and tortured me. Then I end up in a sea of blood, trying the break the surface. But, before I can, hands come out from beneath me and try to drag me down. The blood is thick, suffocating, but I can see bodies of people I’ve killed dragging me down, while the people I’ve seen killed float around helpless.”
“Hmm…” The Sage sighed, scratching the back of his head. “If I had to make a recommendation, since we’re out of danger for the foreseeable future, have a seal applied to you before going to bed that cuts off your chakra flow, and keep any and all weapons away from you. It’s the standard order given to people who return home after participating in war, so that they don’t accidentally kill their family members. It’s happened more than once in the past, more often with shinobi around your age.”
“I never thought it would be like this,” Naruto admitted. “I never thought… I’ve killed a lot of people in the last few days alone, even more than I did when I was traveling. It’s different than what I thought it would be like in the Academy.”
“How did you see being a shinobi back when you were in the Academy?” Jiraiya asked.
“A hero,” he said. “Someone who people looked up to in the village. The Hokage is the greatest shinobi in the village, and I wanted the same.”
The Sage’s brows crinkled in thought before he spoke. “Do you know why most shinobi are enrolled so young?” When Naruto shook his head, he continued. “It’s because of that belief. Most civilians are blissfully ignorant about the full details of what it entails, especially since we’re in a time of peace. Even then, it’s one thing to know about it and another to experience it first-hand.
“Here’s the thing, Naruto. Shinobi aren’t heroes in the sense you’re thinking. They’re soldiers. It’s not to say that they can’t become heroes, but those seen as such are often heroes of war and they earn that title more often than naught by spilling blood or stopping blood from being spilled. Your father would be the former, while Tsunade would be the latter. ”
Naruto seemed horrified at the mention. He had thought the Fourth was a hero and a loving parent from what his Mother told him. Then again, who was he to argue? He left a trail of corpses behind in the Mist and the bloodline woman had told him that it was thanks to him them the country could start fresh. Did that make him a hero in the same vein?
“Sad to say, this is one of the best case scenarios,” Jiraiya continued. “Your mother gave you a choice on whether or not to participate in the last fight. Because you made the choice yourself, you’ll know exactly why you did it and know that it was because you thought it was the best option at the time. Normally most enlisted don’t get that option. Typically, the commanding shinobi issues a command to strike and you obey. That’s when things get tricky.”
“What do you mean?” Naruto asked.
“It starts out hard the first time,” he explained. “At first it’s a usually a choice between whether you want to live or die, have someone under your care live or die, or whether you disobey a command from your superior. In most villages, especially during times of war, disobeying the commander can mean being executed, so that brings you back to the first case. After that, it’s about preserving your life in the battlefield—kill or be killed.”
The Sage looked out to the sea, dotted with rays from the moonlight that gleamed off the dark surface. “When the conflict ends, you receive counseling from either a jounin or specialist to help you rationalize it, turning an act of self-preservation into an act of loyalty to the village and keeping your loved ones safe. Those that can cope remain in active duty, those that can’t usually go into the reserve unit where their clearance and training won’t go to waste. Retiring prematurely is a frowned upon and results in being dishonorably discharged by having your chakra network sealed off and seals are applied to prevent secrets from being leaked. The only time it is truly acceptable is if you’ve had at least ten years of loyal service or suffered a career-ending injury in the line of duty.”
Naruto frowned at the thought of the Old Man doing something like that. “Does that apply to our village as well?”
Jiraiya nodded without hesitation. “Remember, our villages came about during times of war that make what you went through relatively tame. Don’t get me wrong, war is war no matter the era, but at least on the battlefield you can see the enemies in front of you.”
“It’ll never end,” Naruto realized.
Jiraiya, surprisingly, shook his head. “Little-by-little, things are improving. In our generation, Tsunade came up with the concept of having a medic on a squad and other nations adopted similar tactics, reducing the body count. Your father helped end the war sooner by keeping Kumo’s Jinchuuriki in check, which bought the current era of peace alongside countless others. One day, maybe we’ll grow past the need for war entirely.”
“…Maybe,” Naruto agreed, after a pause.
Jiraiya reached into his pocket for a small scroll and unraveled it, revealing it to be a sealing scroll. He withdrew an ink pot and sealing paper and drew on it. “In the meantime, drink some lavender tea to relax and then press this against your chest as you sleep, just beneath your shirt.”
He took the seal without a word.
At the Hidden Mist
The mist felt cool against Haku’s skin as he stood in front of a specific grave, erected hastily but crafted delicately out of solid stone. It was Villa’s cenotaph. How bitter it was that such a simple thing could encompass how short her life had been. Or the fact that there was a number more lining both sides, all people killed for reasons beyond their control and a belief stemming from difference of power.
He didn’t stir when he heard footsteps approaching, soft and calculated. Instead, he remained where he was as the newly-instated Mizukage placed flowers on the grave. Haku had only known the child for so long and felt the weight of her death, so he imagined the pain she felt was as heavy and deep as the depths of the ocean.
“…Kushina contacted me,” Mei said after a moment of silence, breaking the somber quiet. “They made it back to their home. That girl will recover too, in time. It’ll take a few months, but she’ll be able to walk again. I thought you should know.”
“It’s good news,” he said. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
Mei shifted the topic with that. “About my previous offer, have you given it some thought?”
He looked down to the mask she held out with both hands, as though it was an offering. It was similar to the one had worn when masquerading as a Hunter-nin native to their country.
“If you want to say no, I won’t blame you,” she told him. “You’ve done more than your share of fighting, and I’ll always be grateful for you and the others help in stopping Yagura. But I won’t lie when I say that your help would be immensely welcomed. There are so few bloodline users left, let alone those as capable as you are.”
“What rank would I be?” he asked.
“Officially, you’d be a Special Jounin. Zabuza himself felt that it was more appropriate. Unofficially, when the mask is on, you’ll be a Hunter-nin that reports directly to me. There are still rogues out there that need to be taken care of before we can lift the bloody mist covering our lands, and I want it cleaned up fast enough to host the Chuunin Exams in a few months. ”
“Are we really in any position to host it?”
“I plan on making a petition to do so,” she said. “I believe Sand is where it should be hosted this year, but they’ve recently gone through a bit of crisis not unlike our own. I have no doubt that word will get around that we’ve just been through a civil war, and people use the exams as an excuse to personally look into it and learn whether or not we’re vulnerable for a strike.”
It took Haku only a moment to realize where she was going. “But if you’re hosting the exams you can show that our country isn’t divided anymore, that we’re strong, and the exams are a substitute for war to do exactly that.”
She nodded. “The contracts from a good showing will ensure work, and any spies will be subsequently eliminated to send a message and weaken others in turn by taking away their assets. I’ll also be getting in touch with some very important figures from Konoha to talk an arrangement, in secret of course.”
Haku took a deep breath. He never liked the role he had been played, or death and violence. But… but he was needed. More blood would need to be spilled to clear away what was already there. At least for a little while longer.
He took the mask and slipped it on, hiding his face behind its smooth surface. “What do you need me to do first?”
Within a training field in the Hidden Leaf village, the group of Genin continued their collaborative training efforts on behalf of their Jounin instructors. The Chuunin Exam promotions had been canceled, for lack of a better term. There was too much interference for it to have been judged fairly, and they were supposedly still sorting things out. That meant they’d have to excel during the next exams if they wanted to bump their ranks up, barring a private promotion.
It didn’t personally matter to Sasuke, who was held his new sword in a reverse grip. Rank or no rank, he had to be stronger than he was now. Stronger than his brother. Tongues electricity streamed along the edge of his blade in branching forks that seemed to taint the air around him with the scent of ozone.
The sounds of crashing earth and ragged snarls reminded him that he was not alone and drew his eyes towards the others. Some of them were training harder than others. Kiba, for example, was sparring with his transformed hound, Akamaru. Their bodies spun like drills and crashed into each other before being rebuffed and then careening off to the side, only to come around again. Which one was the man and which one was the beast only became harder to tell as they both ended up snarling in the same manner.
Neji was practicing his family’s fighting style against an anatomically correct training dummy, while his cousin Hinata was chatting with some girl that their sensei had brought along, Yakumo something or other. That Tenten girl was experimenting with some kind of weapon that had a seal impressed in the metal, and Rock Lee was… well, being Rock Lee.
Sai was drawing something on a scroll, while saying something that aggravated Sakura into clenching her fist. Sasuke wasn’t really listening over the crackle of his sword. Then the pale boy looked up and smiled with a fake smile, only aggravating her further until the quiet Aburame held her back from trying to hit him.
Sasuke shifted back into his stance and went through the motions of swinging his sword at an opponent. He couldn’t use his brother for image-training, at least not appropriately. He hadn’t seen him fight in years, and he would only be setting himself up for failure when that day did come and his brother moved differently. Instead, he went a single notch above his skill set and pictured Naruto.
He stiffed at the thought that Naruto, the Dead Last of the class, had gotten stronger than him. Despite being on the run and without a village backing him, even accounting for the demon fox that sat inside of his stomach, he was stronger than him. It rankled him from a point of pride and practicality, but his head snapped up when he heard Kakashi dully clapping his hands together to grab their attention.
“Everyone, fall in at the center of the field,” he said as he drew a line in the ground with his foot. “We have a guest here today who’ll be helping you with your training, which will be to avoid getting knocked out or thrown past this line.”
As Team 7, Team 8, and Team Gai stood at attention, an elderly man with grey hair wrapped in a short ponytail approached. He wore a mesh armor shirt beneath a short, tanned sleeveless kimono with worn grey pants. And… was that a giant wok on his back, with a ladle of all things?
“Good afternoon,” he said, dabbing his forehead with a damp cloth. “I’ve been wanting to meet the youngsters of the last generation. Let’s get along for now.”
“This is Kosuke Maruboshi, also known as the Eternal Genin because he’s held the rank for the last fifty or so years. He’ll be your sparring partner for the next…” Kakashi trailed off, looking over his shoulder to Kurenai and Gai. “How long do you think they’ll last? I’m thinking about five minutes.”
“I must agree with my eternal rival on that assessment,” Gai added.
Kurenai gave him a sharp look, as if saying he should have more faith in them. “Ten minutes.”
Kakashi turned back to the other Genin and tilted his hand back and forth. “Ehh, we’ll call it seven minutes. If you last that long, we’ll go and get steak on my dime—the good stuff.”
“Sweet!” Kiba grinned as the older man approached. Sasuke could see it on his face what was going through his mind: an old guy the same rank as them wouldn’t stand a chance if they went all out at once. He crouched down and made a hand seal. “Let’s settle this in a single blow, Akamaru!”
The transformed hound mirrored his partner and chakra surged through their muscles and skin, strengthening them to withstand the intense rotations as they lunged forward and spun. Twin drills cut through the air and in an arch, centering on the old man. “Fang Over Fang!”
The old man reached back for his wok, chakra-streaming what looked to be earth-chakra into it, and then swung it left and right, hitting them both with a loud, gong-like sound that rang out both times as it vibrated in his hands. The two spinning drills jerked off their path and careened into the dirt next to him, throwing a spray of stone and earth as they carved a long scar into the ground before coming to a stop more than thirty feet away.
“You shouldn’t be so hasty and headstrong,” said the old—Maruboshi as he continued to wipe his forehead with a damp cloth. “Inuzuka are meant to work in tandem with their allies, blindsiding the enemy while their distracted. Also, you’ll need to tighten your rotations per second to be able to penetrate the most basic of earth-chakra enhanced items.”
“Ugh… Old Dude’s got moves…” Kiba wheezed, accompanied by a whine from Akamaru as they both remained splayed on the ground. The rest decided to take him a bit more seriously after that, slipping into fighting stances.
Sasuke activated his Sharingan just in time to see as the old man change the battlefield. Almost instantly he stomped his foot on the ground and spread his earth-chakra through it in a wave, creating a large cavity beneath the surface barring a single column just below him.
Sasuke jumped away from the area before nature took its course and the cavity filled itself by collapsing the ground above. The rest followed with the exception of Kiba and Akamaru, both still dizzy from the impact and crash. Unable to leap away, the pair fell down with a cry and bark, heavy stones around them getting ready to collapse on top of them while they were defenseless.
Hinata rushed to catch the falling pair alongside her teammate, the Aburame. Sasuke saw the chakra looping around them like a lasso, connecting them to the older man, and tried to warn them. But the warning came too late as the Inuzuka pair was displaced by the Substitution technique and the old man was in front of them with the wok chambered. The hit that came was hard enough that it sent Hinata, who had raised her hands in defense, into the quiet Aburame and then them both flying off. They both flipped over, looking like they would recover and plant their feet on the ground, but he spat out a Water Bullet that caught them in the abdomen and pushed them out of bounds.
Sakura winced next to Sai as he took to the air almost immediately on an ink drawing come to life, his brush working on another masterpiece to join in the fray. That ended when the old man made a few hand signs and pulled a Water Dragon Bullet out of thin air. Seriously, that was some bullshit considering he watched Kakashi go through forty-something seals to get that same result while standing on a ton of water.
The dragon actually roared, lunged, and then swallowed the ink-user and his creation whole. Sasuke could see him inside of its elongated body as the dragon circled around for more. “Move!”
Sakura did as told, leaping out of the way as it came around for the two of them. It missed them, but Kiba and Akamaru weren’t so lucky as it continued on. Even though they recovered enough to stand, they couldn’t move fast enough to avoid it taking them in as well.
The dragon surged past the boundary line before dispersing, depositing the three out of the combat area. Just like that, they were down by five in less than a minute. And he still wasn’t done, flinging a shuriken towards Team Gai and making hand seals.
The one shuriken became one-hundred, all launching towards to them. Tenten unleashed a load of condensed charka to bat aside the ones aiming towards her, Neji released chakra from all his tenketsu and spun around to deflect them, and Rock Lee jumped into the air to go over them all.
The old man targeted Tenten first, appearing next to her in a Body Flicker and tossing her in a swift motion towards Neji, who was still spinning. Hitting the Kaiten would be like hitting a spinning wheel, tearing flesh from bone and sending her askew with several injuries she wouldn’t recover from easily. Neji had no choice but to drop it to avoid hurting her and the old man made him pay for it.
A quick Water Wall technique leapt from his mouth, creating a raging torrent of water that bowled both Tenten and Neji over. She managed to plant her weapon in the ground and held onto it for dear life to remain fixed in place, but it washed Neji away until he was soaked and past the line as well. That was six down.
Rock Lee made himself known again, coming down from his aerial jump with a fist chambered. Maruboshi dodged as the ground beneath him was destroyed in a cloud of dirt and dust with a punch. The Green Beast of Konoha broke through the cloud while rotating, allowing the spinning kick to carry him forward through the motions.
Just as it looked like the kick would land home, Maruboshi sank into the ground as the earth parted beneath his feet from the Hiding like a Mole technique. No sooner than Rock Lee planted both feet on the ground to move again did a pair of hands pop out and pulled him under as the ground softened to swallow him and then hardened again, leaving only his head sticking out.
“This will not hold me—” His words were cut off when the old man tossed an egg that had been hollowed out in his face and the powder inside covered it. The moment Rock Lee breathed it in, he fell unconscious. Must’ve been sleeping powder.
He then turned to Tenten, who didn’t dare use that chakra technique against him while Rock Lee’s head was in the firing line, and drew his Tanto. He began to wave it around and the number of blades increased. It was an illusion from what Sasuke could see, woven from Yin Chakra that wreathed the weapon to copy its image and then spread out into a web of nodes, marking where each illusionary copy would appear.
The feints left her with small cuts amassing from where he landed his strikes, avoiding any major damage but showing. He was fast for a man of his age. The moment Tenten tried to leap back, flinging kunai to get some breathing room, the projectiles hit a log and he hit her from behind with an absolutely brutal kick angled to send here their way.
Sasuke dodged, leaving her for Sakura to catch while he rushed in with sword in hand. Lightning crackled along the edge as he swung it, combining it with kicks and rotations. The old man avoided them for the most part, but he was slowing down. It was only a matter of time.
At least that was what he thought until Maruboshi hooked the tanto’s blade down behind the butt of his sword, preventing Sasuke from pulling back and avoiding the lightning focused on the blade. Sasuke moved to kick him away, but his other hand came up and threw dirt into his eyes.
Blinded and in pain, he lashed out only to be caught square in the cheek. Judging from the smooth metal and the gong-like sound that grew distant as he flew, he assumed it was the wok. Then he came down to earth, feeling the coarse ground grinding against his stomach and chest as he came to a skidding stop.
“Cheap… shot…” he murmured, trying to rise onto to his feet as he wiped at his eyes furiously. A blast of water caught him in the face, gagging him momentarily but clearing out the dirt so he could open his eyes again. He was over the line.
Sakura and Tenten followed not even three seconds later.
“And… that’s three minutes.” Kakashi noted, looking at a stopwatch he pulled out of his pouch. “Okay, so what did we all learn today?”
“I believe ‘Fear the Elderly’ would be appropriate,” Sai said. Kiba, Rock Lee, and even Shino agreed with nods of their heads.
Kakashi also nodded his head slightly. “True, but the correct answer would be not to underestimate someone based on their rank. Maruboshi here has served under virtually every Hokage since the Second, who was renowned for his mastery of water techniques among other things, making him one of the most experienced shinobi in the village.”
“Why the hell is he a Genin then?” Kiba asked. It was a reasonable question.
“Penitence,” the old man said. “I was arrogant when I was younger, and it cost my teammates their lives. I didn’t feel that a promotion was something I was worthy of, but the Second insisted that I continued to improve my skills. Not bad for an old timer who’s missing a foot, right?”
“In short, rank does not determine one’s abilities,” Kurenai said as she helped her students up, knowing the shame they must’ve felt at being dismissed first from the fight. “So even if you don’t pass the next exam, that doesn’t mean you’re less than the effort you put in towards your training.”
“That is correct!” Gai chimed in, Rock Lee slung over his shoulder and still unconscious. “Perhaps you can give them some advice so that the flames of their youth will burn brighter the next time?”
Maruboshi scratched his chin in thought. “Teamwork would be the key here for them all,” he noted. “The young Uchiha spotted my first technique before it had gone off. Had he warned them they would have moved fast enough that perhaps they could have saved the Inuzuka pair. The second mistake was going to retrieve them once the technique was finished and leaving themselves open for me to eliminate them as well.”
“But we’re taught to protect our comrades,” Hinata said. Shino nodded.
“And I capitalized on it,” he pointed out. “Mind you, had the young Inuzuka not rushed in so headstrong they wouldn’t have ended up in that situation, but this was sparring practice so I wouldn’t have permanently harmed them.”
He pointed to Sai, Kiba, and Neji next. “After the more troublesome ones were eliminated, I took out the one who could add to their numbers with his drawings to keep reinforcements from arriving, the other two while they were weak and vulnerable, and utilized the risk of friendly fire to eliminate the one whose defenses would be the most difficult.”
“…an understandable means of battling superior opponents,” Neji reluctantly admitted.
“The rest were orthodox in execution,” he finished, looking at Tenten. “Your focus on weapons is admirable. They’re practical and efficient, focusing on substance rather than flash without being chakra-intensive. But you relied too much on the seal imbued on it to store and release it as a weapon. Such a thing should be reserved as a fatal blow or a surprise, not an impromptu shield.”
“You didn’t exactly leave me with that opportunity,” she pointed out. “And you were already aware of it after that and had Lee in the range of fire, so I couldn’t surprise you with it.”
“That’s what illusions are for,” he said, nodding his head towards Kurenai and the Yakumo girl. “If you’re going to collaborate for group training then you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help in learning a method to get over those weaknesses. Those two are proficient enough with yin-chakra and illusions that they could teach you something similar to my own technique.”
Last he faced Sasuke, who tensed. “Well?”
“The Uchiha are a well-known bloodline with well-noted weaknesses,” he immediately pointed out. “No one who sees those eyes or hears your last name will risk facing you alone unless they have a plan, have no other choice, or are overconfident. I chose the former approach, but in a two-on-one fight or against someone capable of creating solid clones, you’ll be at a disadvantage at best. You need to work on your teamwork skills, understand?”
“Yes,” Sasuke said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
He nodded his head and then turned to Jounin. “Is that good enough?”
“Yes. I believe the lesson will stick.”
Kiba raised his hand. “So, do we not get that steak or what?”
Kakashi rubbed the back of his head. “Well, you didn’t last very long, so…”
Maruboshi laughed. “How about I whip up something? A wok is made for cooking after all, and you pick up a lot of skills when you’ve been around as long as I have.”
As it turned out, he was a very capable cook too, Sasuke grudgingly admitted. Even as he coped with the shame of being beaten by a wok. It could have been worse, after all.
It could have been the ladle.
Notes: Okay, just a breather chapter after the last arc ended. More to come eventually, looking at things in Suna. And yes, Kosuke is filler, but he’s the good kind that can be exploited for a story.