Chapter 12

The morning sun was shining brightly by the time Kakashi re-joined his bleary-eyed genin team at the field that was their meeting spot; an open area between the village and the forest. These are not morning people, he thought to himself, not for the first time. If Obito were still around, he would probably say it was only appropriate that he be condemned to lead a team of slow-pokes – a fitting punishment for all the years Kakashi spent reprimanding his Uchiha comrade for his lax attitude.

That morning while the others still slept, he and Tazuna had gone through the village house to house, gathering volunteers to learn how to fight and defend the village against the likes of Gato. Now, the future army of the Land of Waves awaited them, arrayed before them in all their glory.

Besides Kakashi, Naruto blinked blearily as he looked upon the newly founded Resistance. “Ah… is the rest still on their way here or something?”

“No, these are the only ones who came,” said Tazuna, his grey eyes staring out over his spectacles to regard his chosen people. “Ever since Gato had Kaiza executed, this village has been robbed of all courage. They no longer believe Gato can be fought… even these ones wouldn’t be here, if the presence of you ninjas hadn’t raised their hopes.”

The first one to join the group had been the rower from yesterday, still wearing the same conical hat and with the same surly expression on his face. Beside him was a grouchy-looking bearded old man, who had apparently been part of Kaiza’s original resistance force. Another was a pretty teenaged girl in a pink kimono, looking innocent enough to have never even heard of the concept of war. The fourth was…

Tazuna looked up in surprise. “Inari? What are you doing here?”

“I need to become stronger,” the boy said simply. “If I don’t have any power and nobody listens to me and everything really is gonna go all wrong… then the logical thing for me to do is to gain power.”

“Now look here,” said Tazuna. “I’m glad you’re up and about for once and I’m all for showing courage, but you’re far too young to…” he trailed off as another person joined the group. “Tsunami? Why are you…?”

“Well, I’m not going to let my son fight Gato all by himself,” the young woman replied calmly. “That stands to reason.”

The old bridge builder dragged his daughter away by the hand to argue with her, but it was clear he might as well have been talking to a brick wall. Before long he looked ready to tear his greying hair out in frustration. “My neighbours are cowards and my family are stubborn fools! Bloody hell, do as you want then, what does it even matter what I think?” Inari seemed to watch them both with quiet satisfaction.

Naruto gave Kakashi a worried look. “Is this really gonna work? I mean, it takes years just to train academy students into genin. Even if we stay here for a month it won’t amount to very much…”

“Don’t worry,” Kakashi assured him, as he led his team away from the newly formed resistance until they were out of civilian hearing distance. “They won’t really be fighting against Gato and his forces, after all; this training is just so they can pick up the pieces after we leave.”

“That’s right,” Sasuke said grimly, his black eyes gleaming with anticipation as he fingered the hilt of his chakra-forged blade. “We’ll take care of Gato, and finish this once and for all.”

“Or more accurately, I will,” Kakashi corrected him, “since you’ll be staying here.”

Sasuke rounded on him. “What?”

“Assassinating someone who employs ninjas is an A-ranked mission, which the three of you are nowhere close to ready for. So while I go and determine Gato’s current location, you kids can stay behind with the villagers and do some nice tree-climbing exercises. I can’t imagine you would take any issue with this, Sasuke-kun… unless, of course, the only reason you manoeuvred the team into assassinating Gato is so that you could get combat experience a little faster?”

Naruto stared at his teammate in confusion, but Sasuke gritted his teeth and said nothing. Sakura meanwhile turned to Kakashi. “But, hold on… if you’re going after Gato, does that mean we have to defend Tazuna by ourselves? That doesn’t seem very-”

Kakashi flicked through the necessary handseals, and an identical twin puffed into existence.

Naruto let out a whoop and punched his fist into the air. “Hah! I always knew he could create shadow clones! I told you, see, I said that any smart shinobi would…” The boy slowly deflated as he saw that neither of the others paid attention to him. “Okay, fine. I still knew it though.”

Sakura blinked at the newly created clone. “But then, who’s going to train the villagers? Surely it would take too much chakra to have a clone stay with Tazuna, as well as with us and the villagers at the same time?”

“Naruto will,” Kakashi said simply.

“But he’s going to be doing tree climbing exercises,” she pointed out. “So how can he-”

Naruto formed the required seals, and a group of shadow clones appeared besides him.

“Oh never mind,” she grumbled. “I swear I will never get used to that ability.”

Sasuke sniffed irritably. “I sincerely doubt Naruto could teach them anything worthwhile, but it’s not like it matters in the least.”

Leaving the clones to take care of the villagers, Kakashi led his genin team to an outcrop of tall trees relatively free of branches. There he explained to them how ninjas could scale vertical surfaces by expelling a carefully controlled stream of chakra from their feet in order to stick to the surface. The difficulty inherent in controlling chakra so precisely was immediately illustrated by Naruto, who attempted the exercise by running up a tree and promptly falling onto his butt.

“I don’t see the point of his,” the boy complained as he nursed his backside with both hands. “I mean, if we’re going up against ninjas, shouldn’t we be learning a combat technique instead of climbing trees?”

“Aren’t you the one who mocked the Hidden Stone ninjas for never learning to walk on water, just two days ago?” Kakashi took on a lecturing tone as he admonished his student. “Now you see how that happens: At any point in time you can always find something more pressing to do than that one vital but not immediately necessary task, and it’s only once it’s too late that you look back on your decisions and your mistake becomes painfully obvious. The trick is to substitute thinking ‘do I do this now or later?’ with ‘do I do this now or never?’, because all too often that’s the choice you actually end up making.”

He turned to watch Sasuke, who was undertaking his own attempt to run up a tree, only to drop down again after just a few paces. “Anyway,” he said, “this training does more than just let you climb trees; it also teaches you to control your chakra, which is the essence of what it means to be a ninja – and it looks like you guys still have a long way to go.”

“Actually,” a voice called from above, “this training is pretty easy!”

Kakashi looked up to find Sakura sitting on one of the highest tree branches, and upon seeing Naruto’s and Sasuke’s stunned reactions, he could not help but smile. “Well, well, well… It looks like the person in this team with the best chakra control isn’t the genius Uchiha or the boy trained by Jiraiya of the Sannin, but clan-less little Sakura. It seems you two have some catching up to do.” This only served to aggravate them further, which suited Kakashi just fine. Let them have the extra motivation, and tone those egos down for once.

Sakura rushed down the tree to land on the ground next to him, and Kakashi greeted her with a masked smile. “Well done, Sakura. Since you’re so far ahead of the others, you can come help me protect Tazuna, or you could help Naruto train the villagers if you prefer.”

The face she gave him was one of perfect innocence, sweet and pink as a cherry blossom. “Or, you could teach me a combat technique. You know, considering how I don’t have the Sharingan or shadow clones to let me learn faster, or a clan of my own or one of the Sannin to teach me secret techniques…”

“All right, all right.” Kakashi raised his hands in mock surrender. “I’ll teach you something useful, I promise. Come.”

-o-

Sakura followed her sensei into the forest at the edge of the lake. They went far enough that the others would not overhear them, but she could not help but note that they remained in clear view of Naruto and Sasuke at all times. Does he really not have enough chakra to create another shadow clone? Or does he just not think I’m important enough to give me his full attention?

After a while, he began talking as they walked. “Based on your success with the tree-climbing exercise, I think it’s fair to say that chakra-control is your greatest strength. It’s probably your highly focussed and disciplined mind that lets you do it so easily. That makes you ideally suited for learning medical ninjutsu, as well as genjutsu for which I already taught you the basics.”

She frowned. “Those are both support techniques.”

“Well, yes.” Her sensei did not turn his head but kept walking, his feet inaudible as they drifted over the forest floor. She noticed that the stray leaves and forest debris gently parted before him, and the thought occurred to her that he was using the exact same trick as for climbing trees and walking on water. “You said you wanted to be a great medical ninja like Tsunade of the Sannin, didn’t you? Medical ninja fulfil a vital role in any team; don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’d be any less important, just because you’re not on the front line.”

She had to admit that all of that was true. “But… I could be a front line fighter too, right? I mean, if I wanted to.”

“You could,” Kakashi agreed. “Tsunade can use her chakra-control to perform incredible feats of strength, which together with her regeneration technique allows her to fight in melee combat as well. But, another fighter is not what this team needs.” They arrived at a clearing, and Kakashi turned to face her at last. “Naruto has enormous amounts of chakra and uses the shadow clone technique expertly, which makes him a perfect front-line brawler, with a joint role as distraction and reconnaissance. Sasuke meanwhile is fast and has the Sharingan, making him ideally suited for taking out key targets. They’re both very talented ninja, but if either of them gets hit, they’ll die just as easily as anyone else.” His one visible eye bored into hers, now. “If you don’t learn medical ninjutsu, and the team ends up needing it, then you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. This I can tell you for a fact.”

The intensity of his words reeled her, and the image of Naruto and Sasuke’s broken and dying bodies entered her mind involuntarily. “But, that’s not fair,” she protested, even as she dismissed the image. “Why can’t one of them learn medical ninjutsu? Why do I have to be the responsible one?”

“Because you are the responsible one.” Kakashi glanced in the direction of the others, who were still attempting to run up their trees, going up several meters before falling down again and starting anew. Sasuke could reach considerably higher than Naruto, but neither of them was making much progress as of yet. “Naruto has the mental discipline of a distracted squirrel, and Sasuke is far too bent on revenge to ever focus on healing another. That leaves you, and you happen to be ideally suited to the task.”

“Because I’m a girl, you mean.” It came out stronger than she had intended, but then it had been welling up for a while now. “You come up with all these reasonable sounding arguments, but the conclusion is always the same… Whether it’s me or Ino or Hinata, it’s always the girl who has to stay in the back and support the others. Am I wrong?”

Kakashi shrugged again. “Maybe. Do you deny that you have better chakra control than the others? Do you deny that neither Naruto nor Sasuke will ever learn medical ninjutsu, and that the team needs it?”

“Well, no, but-”

“Then it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s true that kunoichi are better suited for support roles in general, or maybe I’m just prejudiced. It makes no difference, because in your specific case it definitely holds up.” He sat down on the grass, folding his legs beneath him. “Shall we get started?”

She stared down at him, fuming. “You don’t care at all, do you? It makes no difference to you how I feel… it doesn’t matter what I or any of us want. You don’t care in the slightest.”

“I suppose that’s true,” he said calmly, and the blatant acknowledgement of the fact somehow drained away part of her anger as well. “The only thing that matters is that you survive long enough to become jōnin: That is my first and only priority as your sensei. Sakura, when you grow a little wiser, you’ll realize that some things are more important than mere feelings. Fools are always quick to voice their opinion when wise men think and say nothing.” Just as her blood started to rise again, he stared her down once more. “Sakura. I think you’re closer to realizing the true meaning of power than either of the others, but right here and now you need to acknowledge that I’m your teacher and listen to me.”

That’s right; I’m supposed to be the one who deals well with authority figures, aren’t I? She had almost forgotten that, in the heat of the moment. “Then what do you want me to do, Kakashi-sensei?”

He beamed at her, so brightly it was visible even through his mask, and patted the grass next to him. “I want you to sit next to me and learn medical ninjutsu. Come on, it’ll be fun.”

She glowered at him again, but did as she was bid. She squatted next to him on the grass with her arms folded and her hands clasped underneath her armpits. At the same time, Kakashi laid a scroll out onto the grass from which he produced a large trout, lying still and looking to be very dead indeed.

“This is Taeko the Trout,” Kakashi announced brightly. “She’s feeling a little under the weather right now, but we’re going to fix her up again, right as rain.”

“That’s impossible,” she said flatly, as her brain shifted to the familiar territory of correcting people about basic Academy material. “You can’t store living creatures inside scrolls, which means it has to be dead, and you can’t just heal dead things back to life.”

“Ah, ah, ah! What did I just say about listening to your brilliant and handsome sensei?” He waggled his finger at her. “Reanimation might result in brain damage, but trout aren’t very smart to begin with, and Taeko here wasn’t exactly the first in her school.” Sakura groaned inwardly at the pun, which had been exactly as stupid as her father’s always were. “Now, watch.”

As she looked on, he formed a series of hand seals – she recognized a modified Ox and Tiger seal, which meant he was using the Mystical Palm technique. In response, a faint green glow began to emanate from his palms. He glided his hands over the trout, infusing the dead fish with healing energy. At first nothing seemed to happen, but after a few moments there was a faint stirring. Then the trout started flopping in full and her heart skipped a beat, and the world tumbled as she fell back onto the grass behind her.

“Incredible…” She stared at the flopping trout in awe. The mystical palm technique was the most basic medical ninjutsu, which imbued the injured with restorative chakra to stimulate the natural healing processes. He brought an animal back to life with just that? “I didn’t even know you could do medical ninjutsu… you really are amazing, Kakashi-sensei.”

Her teacher shrugged. “I learned the bare basics from my teammate, Rin, who used to tend to our injuries when we got wounded. When I achieved the rank of jōnin she gave me a first aid pack as a graduation present. I didn’t learn any real medical ninjutsu until later.” His one eye misted over slightly.

A wave of guilt washed over her as she remembered the story he had told them only two days ago. Did you come to wish that your own feelings had not been taken into account, Kakashi-sensei?

“What was she like?” she asked instead. Naruto would’ve just blurted out what he really wanted to know, she thought morosely.

“Rin?” Her teacher rubbed his masked chin, reflecting. “She was kind, and gentle. She was always willing to help out the team, never complaining even when we caused trouble for her. She was a, she was…”

She gave him a concerned look. “Kakashi-sensei?”

An odd, glazed-over expression was fixed onto what could be seen of his face. “It’s the strangest thing. I’m trying to think of a word to describe her that isn’t a synonym for ‘nice’, and I’m failing. I can’t shake the feeling that I never really got to know her at all. Isn’t that strange? I consider her one of the best friends I ever had, and I don’t even know anything about her. Even if I try to remember her face, all I see in my mind is the picture I have on my nightstand. Minato-sensei told me that my friends would live on in my memories, but I suppose those are gone now too. There truly is nothing left.”

She had no idea know what she was supposed to say to that. Her teacher did not say anything else however, and so the silence stretched on, until she could contain herself no longer.

“Kakashi-sensei… can I ask you a question?”

He looked up, distractedly. “Hm?”

“Why do you keep doing this?” Her hands immediately went to her mouth as she realized how that must have sounded. “I mean, why do you tell these stories about your past? It has to hurt just to think about it, so why do you, I mean…” She stopped talking.

“Oh, well. I do not want it to happen again.” He made it sound so obvious. “Sometimes, tragedies happen for important reasons that you just can’t do anything about, and if that’s the case there’s no point in beating yourself up over it. But most of the time, terrible things happen for stupid and pointless reasons, like seeing your teacher make a mistake but not saying anything because it would be just too awkward. Or having your team fall apart, because you did not think it was your responsibility to keep it together. If all of you were to die, and I could have easily prevented it just by telling you a few stories…” He smiled at her, and it was visible even through the mask. “Well, that would just be too pathetic.”

She gave no reply to that, for there was nothing that could be said. Before them, the trout had stopped flopping around again, and Kakashi seemed to have noticed as well, because his one visible eye lit up.

“Ah, I see that Taeko is having some problems with her lungs. Sakura, why don’t you see if you can help her with that? Now, these are the hand signs that you should use…”

-o-

A hundred meters or so away, in the open field between the forest and the village, the training was going about as well as could be expected – and Naruto’s expectations had not been high. Amongst the two dozen ragtag and ragged volunteers, the only ones who turned out to have any talent at manipulating chakra were Tsunami, her son Inari, the surly rower and the pretty teenage girl in the pink kimono. In the end Naruto decided to focus his attention on them, while the remainder of his clones helped train the others in conventional combat.

(Naruto might not be the greatest teacher in the world, but at least he always found the time to give each of his students his personal attention)

As he watched, Tsunami paused in her attempts to channel chakra and slowly lowered her hands. “I’m not very good at this, am I, Naruto-sensei?”

“You’re doing well… uh, relatively speaking. It takes years for anyone to learn just basic chakra control, so even managing to boost your muscles a little bit is really very good.” Mentally, Naruto wracked his brain in an attempt to come up with something else to say that was both supportive and encouraging without being, strictly speaking, a blatant lie. “Anyway, you can stop calling me sensei now. I thought it was kind of neat at first but now it’s just gotten weird.”

She smiled wanly at him, before turning her attention towards Inari, who was being trained by another instance of Naruto’s self. She spoke wistfully. “To think that he would be so much better at this than I am. I can’t help but wonder, what would have happened if he had grown up in Konoha instead. How differently things could have turned out…”

Listening in on the other pair, Naruto was somewhat embarrassed to realize his fellow clone was giving Inari the exact same encouragement he had just given Tsunami. Apparently identical great minds really did think alike. “Yea, he’s really… quite something,” he replied absently. “Hey, I just got an idea. When we finish here, I could ask Kakashi-sensei if it’s possible to make Inari a citizen of Konoha. Maybe he could pull some strings, and then Inari really could become a ninja! Wouldn’t that be something?”

“That sounds amazing.” The young woman smiled politely, but even Naruto could tell that the thought only made her sadder, though he could not quite understand why.

Naruto’s gaze drifted off to his second clone, who was trying to make himself heard amidst strangled cries of “don’t swing your kunai like it’s a sword!” and “stop leaving shuriken lying on the ground where other people can step on them!” Naruto was starting to realize he had vastly underestimated the gap in expertise that lay between being a newly graduated ninja, fresh from the academy, and not being a ninja. This made him somewhat more confident in his role as a teacher, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he must look just as hopeless to a real ninja like Kakashi as these civilians seemed to him.

Under the diligent watch of Naruto’s third clone, Inari clasped his hands together and strained his muscles in an effort to squeeze out just one more drop of chakra. Naruto did not have the Sharingan like Sasuke and could not sense chakra directly, but even so it was obvious to him that Inari was not having much success.

“You’re doing really gr- generally quite well, all things considered,” Naruto tried half-heartedly.

“It’s not enough…” Inari stared at his scrawny hands with a sullen expression. “I barely feel any stronger. I’m never gonna be able to fight ninjas like this, am I?”

Naruto scratched the back of his head, awkwardly. “Eh, well… I mean, the plan was never for you to fight ninjas straight away. Becoming stronger isn’t something you do for like a week and then forget about, Inari. It’s something you are, something you work at every day for the rest of your life even if you don’t have to, and even then it won’t work unless you have the talent for it. I mean, if it was that easy, everyone in the world would be a ninja.”

“Then what’s the point?” Inari stared Naruto in the eyes with a look of defiance bordering on despair, though the suspenders and floppy hat somewhat detracted from the effect. “Even if I keep training, it won’t be in time to protect mom and grandpa from Gato. I guess all that talk about getting stronger was just empty words, after all…”

An idea occurred to Naruto as he looked at his sullen student, and though he knew he should consider it for longer, he found that he had already decided by the time he opened his mouth to speak. “Listen, Inari: I’ve got something for you, but you’re not to tell anybody, okay?” He shot a glance around the training field to make sure none of the others were paying attention to him, and stealthily palmed Inari a tag from his pouch.

“What is this?” Inari attempted to decipher the scribbling that covered the rectangular piece of parchment, but other than the kanji for ‘explosion’ in the centre there was nothing that could be read.

“It’s an explosive tag,” Naruto explained. “If you push just a little bit of chakra into it, it’ll go off a few seconds later and create a big explosion. Even you should be able to use it, and no enemy would expect it from you, but it’s incredibly dangerous so you gotta promise me you’ll be really, really careful not to set it off by accident.”

Inari stared at the parchment in total awe, as if he had just been granted one of the lost Imperial Relics rather than an expensive but ultimately basic ninja tool. “I promise,” he whispered, sounding every bit the pre-teen boy he truly was.

But as excited as Inari was with his newfound power, the civilian that held the most promise was the teenage girl in the pink kimono. She was pretty in a way that made him feel peculiar, with long black hair and smooth pale skin, but more importantly she turned out to be talented as well.

“That’s great!” said Naruto, and he meant it. He’d never seen anyone learn to mould chakra that quickly, though he supposed that for all he knew Sasuke could have been throwing Grand Fireballs around since he was six.

“Is it?” She seemed a little bewildered, which made sense, as many of these civilians had grown up with stories that described ninjas as living gods. She kept staring at Naruto’s clones, half a dozen of which were running around the field shouting instructions or giving personal advice to those that needed it. “How are you able to do that?” She asked in a hushed voice. “There’s so many of them…”

“Oh, that?” Naruto folded his hands behind his head and grinned, trying to look confident. “That’s the Shadow Clone technique. It’s a super advanced Jōnin-rank technique, but I managed to learn it anyway. Well, I mean, I did have Jiraiya teach me, but he’s really useless so I had to figure most of it out myself.”

“Wow, you’re amazing.” She looked at him with big brown innocent eyes. “Who’s Jiraiya? Is that the name of your teacher?”

“Nah, he’s my dad. Well not really my dad, but you know. My sensei’s Kakashi and he’s supposed to be really great, but to be honest he’s kind of a bum. Half the time he tries really hard to make us strong and protect us, but the next moment it’s like he doesn’t care at all.” He frowned. “I dunno what it is with strong ninjas, but it’s like they’re all really weird or useless or else they’re totally crazy.”

She giggled softly into in her fist, which somehow made her look even cuter.

“So, uh, what’re you doing here?” he asked clumsily. “Are you the daughter of a noble or something?”

She laughed again. “No, Naruto-kun. My sole role is to accompany my master in his travels, though now that Gato controls all shipping in the Land of Waves it seems we’re stuck here for the moment.”

“You travel the world with just your master, without any friends?” Naruto was sure he looked just as appalled as he felt. “Doesn’t that get, well… terribly lonely?”

She smiled sadly. “You’re right. It can be, sometimes – but as long as I’m with my master I can endure it. The difference between having no one and someone is everything.”

Naruto nodded absentmindedly. That part at least he understood very well, though he still felt there was some important context missing with regards to this strange and mysterious girl. “So who’s your master? It sounds like you’re really proud of him.” He cocked his head. “What does he do?”

“It used to be that he could do anything he wanted to,” she said wistfully. “But he was forced out of his home by a cruel man, and ever since we’ve been forced to travel the world, taking on any job we can just to survive. One day, once we’ve earned enough money, we’ll finally be able to go back and change everything to the way it ought to be.” Her easy laughter was gone now, buried beneath a melancholy look that was equal parts sadness and determination.

“To be able to go back home again… that’s a good dream to have,” Naruto said sincerely. It was not as good as putting an end to all the darkness in the world, of course, but he supposed there were limits to what a civilian could realistically accomplish. No wonder she wants to learn to become a ninja. Even a recent academy graduate could earn far more than a civilian girl ever would, after all.

“A dream?” She tilted her head at the mention of the word, ever so slightly. “How do you mean?”

“I think it’s something the Fourth Hokage once said,” Naruto explained. “He thought that every person needs to have a clear goal, to motivate them, or something like that.” He frowned, trying to remember the exact wording.

“…for when you have something important to protect, that is when you are able to become truly strong,” she said in a whisper. She shook her head before Naruto could respond, as if she were trying to clear away a sudden weariness that had befallen her. “I’m sorry, Naruto-kun. I need to go.”

“Go where?” he asked, confused and disappointed. “It’s only been-” he looked at the sky, where the sun was already starting to set. Has it really been that long?

“I’m sorry,” she said again. “My master has need of me. However, I’m sure we’ll see each other again soon, Naruto-kun.”

“You haven’t even told me your name yet,” he protested feebly.

She hesitated only slightly before answering. “It’s Haku,” she said. Then she turned her back, and left.

By the time the original Naruto went back to Tazuna’s house, day had turned to night, and when he dispelled his clones none of the others asked him why he suddenly looked so wistful. They probably thought it was exhaustion from the long day climbing trees and training civilians, and nothing more.

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