Chapter 21

“Naruto, hold the corridor,” Sakura ordered. “Cover our backs while we advance. Sasuke-kun, try to scout ahead, see if you can locate the enemy with your Sharingan before they notice us.”

While Sasuke grunted his assent, Naruto closed his eyes and focussed. In his mind’s eye, the dimly-lit corridor stretched out before him, the dusty stones and cobwebs revealing no sign of recent passage. If the enemy had come through here, they had hidden their steps well.

“Movement!” Adrenaline flooded Naruto’s system as the fourth member of their group cried out. “Above you, hidden in the shadows of the rafters, there’s a shadow passing over you.”

“I’ll use my Shadow Clones,” Naruto said hurriedly. “I can-”

“Too late!” The girl leaned forward eagerly, and the dice rolled over the table with a terrible, ominous clatter. “The Mujina flashes through a technique that sends tendrils of lightning at Sasuke’s exposed back, flashes of light arcing through the narrow corridor with no hope of escape. Sasuke’s body convulses and bends in impossible shapes, his clothes on fire as he dies a terrible, agonizing death.”

Sakura sat back on her bench and groaned, sunlight framing her face in stark contrast to the shadows he imagined earlier. “Darn it, Naruto, I told you to watch the exit! What’s the point of having those giant chakra reserves and forbidden techniques if you’re just going to close your eyes at a critical moment?”

“I was just getting in character,” Naruto protested. “The whole point of this game is to make everything feel as realistic as possible. I wasn’t actually supposed to be closing them.”

“Your behaviour in the real world reflects your actions within the simulation,” Naruko reminded them with an unnervingly gleeful grin. “There wouldn’t be any point to this exercise if you didn’t genuinely feel terrified to blink. Speaking of which, while you’re busy cursing the heavens for the gross injustice of the world, the Mujina rips out your spines and you both die terrible, agonizing deaths.”

Sasuke’s brow twitched dangerously, perhaps finding that Naruto’s illusion-clad clone took just a little too much pleasure in describing their untimely demise. “I should’ve been able to dodge that attack without any effort,” he said. “There’s no way I’d ever be that careless on a real mission.”

“You don’t get to defend against attacks you can’t see,” Naruko reminded him. “Anyway, upon death you find that the afterlife is real after all: The king of the Shinigami appears before you and kills you so hard that you come back to life, trapping your spirit inside your rotten corpse so that you experience a continuous, agonizing death for the rest of eternity. You are unable to scream.”

“I should have been able to resist it, then,” said Sasuke, ignoring her. “You didn’t take into account the superior strength of my clan’s chakra. I could have easily overcome the technique with that.”

Naruto groaned. “Sasuke, for the last time, there’s no such thing as chakra-strength. We tested it with every available academy technique, and I just have more chakra than you do – that’s it. If you have some kind of ability that we don’t know about, feel free to show it to us so we can add it to the list.”

“You can’t expect Sasuke-kun to reveal all of his clan’s abilities just because we’re on his team,” Sakura chided. “Rule forty-nine: The sum of a shinobi’s secrets is the measure of his life – when he runs out, he is sure to perish.” She turned to face Sasuke with a more gentle expression. “If you could just give us some indication of how your chakra is different from ours, I’m sure we can find a way to better account for it in the future.”

“It isn’t really any different,” Sasuke mumbled. “Just, you know. Better.”

Naruto was about to deliver a scathing retort to this when a sudden displacement of air from behind his bench alerted him to his teacher’s arrival. “Sorry I’m late, kids. I was just…” Kakashi’s eyes slowly drifted over to Naruko, whose blue eyes gave him a look of purest innocent in reply. “Do I even want to know?”

“We were just trying to run a combat simulation, to improve our chances of surviving any dangerous missions in the future,” Naruto said, shuffling awkwardly on his seat. “It doesn’t really work without a fourth person to run things.” At that moment Naruko dispelled herself in a cowardly bid to force him to explain what had ultimately been her own idea, and wow did regaining those memories result in a confusing moment for him there. He looked down for a second to reassure himself that nothing was missing.

“Anyway,” said Sakura, “we’re very glad you’re here, Kakashi-sensei. Do you have a new mission for us?”

“Not quite,” said Kakashi. “I just wanted to let you know that I am impressed with your performance so far and have judged the three of you ready to advance in rank. As such I have signed you up for the coming chūnin exams, with one month left to prepare.”

This announcement was met with a wall of silence as the team digested his words.

“The chūnin exams?” Sakura choked out. “But, those are incredibly dangerous! I mean, the tests change each time so you never know what to expect, but there’s almost always a lethal element involved. People die in those exams, and even when they don’t they come back different. We’ve still only experienced one real combat mission – there’s just no way we’re ready for something like that!”

“Now, now,” said Kakashi. “That one mission may not seem like much to you, but you have to remember that we’re living in a time of peace – tenuous though it may be. Even having been on just one dangerous A-rank mission gives you far more combat experience than any of your classmates, I promise you that.”

A mission we failed, Naruto thought glumly. If their track record compared favourably to that of his classmates, he had to wonder how many people had died on their missions. Had Ino and Shikamaru perhaps unleashed a daemon that laid waste to a whole country, in addition to murdering their client?

(He supposed that he had at least not broken his promise by releasing the Kyūbi back then, for all that it might have been the wrong decision. It still felt unreal, how close he had come to losing everything.)

Sakura looked about to protest, but Sasuke spoke up first. “What our teacher is neglecting to point out is that this year’s chūnin exams are held right here in Konoha instead of in allied lands, giving us a homeland advantage: Not only will we have a higher chance to pass, but the Anbu will be looking out for our safety and stand ready to intervene if necessary – meaning that participating in the exams now is a much safer way to gain combat experience than continuing the way we have until the next Land of Waves Mission comes along to kill us all.” He looked up sharply. “Isn’t that right, Kakashi?”

Their teacher nodded approvingly, but Sakura’s expression only grew in frustrated incredulity. “I cannot believe this! That is the exact same argument you used last time, to convince us to continue the Land of Waves mission despite the danger involved. That whole disaster would never have happened in the first place if you had just listened to me when I said it was a terrible idea.”

“Hold on,” said Naruto, who felt the need to interject before this got out of hand. “Sakura-chan, you can’t say that his argument is wrong just because the outcome happened to be bad. Nobody could have predicted that one of the Seven Swordsmen was gonna come after us, and it’s totally unreasonable to blame that on Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei.” He paused, realizing what he had just been made to say out loud. Still, it had been unreasonable of him to blame everything on Sasuke back then – he even had admitted as much to himself once he had calmed down a little. He hesitated, unsure of how to continue. “Sakura-chan, if you really think Sasuke is wrong, you can just explain why and I promise we’ll listen.”

But Sakura offered only seething silence in response, and there was a moment of uncomfortable quiet wherein Kakashi gave the three of them a quizzical look. “Well,” he said at last, “I’ll give you kids some time to argue things out amongst yourselves. But whatever you decide, make sure it’s unanimous: Only teams of three can sign up for the exams, and I’m guessing none of you would want to suddenly change teams. Anyway, good luck with it.” There was a flicker in the air as he vanished without a sound.

Sasuke glared into the space where their teacher had been. “…useless bastard.”

Naruto extended a worried look to Sakura, who still wore an expression of barely-restrained fury. He had seen her like this a few times before, but only ever when it was he who said something stupid – never when it came to Sasuke or Kakashi. That just did not happen.

He spoke to her softly, ever so carefully. “Sakura-chan…”

“Forget it,” she said brusquely. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll go along with the stupid plan. I mean, I already know it’s going to happen no matter what I say – You’d just come up with these really logical-sounding arguments, and I wouldn’t be able to think of anything in reply because you’re better at this than I am. I might as well skip the argument and cut straight to the conclusion.” Naruto was still trying to figure out which one of them she was talking to when she brusquely gathered up her gear and stormed off in the direction of her home. He stared after her, wordlessly.

“That went well,” Sasuke said dryly. “It’s a good thing you were there to calm her down, or she might have gotten upset.”

Naruto glared at him. “It’s not like you were helping any.” He paused. “Do you think she’s right, though? I mean… participating in a giant death tournament does kinda sound like a really dumb idea.”

Sasuke shrugged. “Kakashi is a useless bastard, but he’s not an idiot, and he’s made it pretty clear he doesn’t want us to die. If it were really that dangerous, he wouldn’t have signed us up in the first place. Common sense says that we should just listen to him instead of trying to be clever about it.” He started collecting his gear, pausing as he picked up one of Sakura’s kunai before tossing it in Naruto’s direction. “Look, I’ll participate either way for the sake of gaining experience, but if you or Sakura don’t feel ready to join me just yet, that’s fine – I’ll figure something out. You don’t need to worry about me.” Having spoken those words, he calmly stood up and walked away, never so much as glancing backwards.

Naruto stared after him, only belatedly finding his voice. “I’m not – nobody’s gonna worry about you! Who cares what you think, anyway? You’re a massive jerk.” After a while he picked up his and Sakura’s equipment, and walked back towards his apartment, feeling vaguely like he’d been had.

-o-

Sakura was sitting on her bed fuming silently, knees clutched tightly to her chest in her pink and far-too-girlish room, until at last her anger and dread subsided enough to allow for something approximating rational thought.

We’re all going to die at this rate.

Her brain kept repeating the same familiar patterns, over and over: When she closed her eyes she was back in that civilian house – a quiet beacon in the middle of a storm of ice and fire, filled with the bodies of the dead and dying. Sometimes she was throwing shuriken at an endless row of bandits and drunks, each of them tumbling over with small and pitiful gasps of pain. Sometimes they wore the faces of Konoha villagers, or even her own classmates. It hurt to see them fall every time, but it never bothered her as much as she thought it should, and that was what bothered her most of all.

We can’t continue like this. We’ll just end up taking more and more risks until everything goes wrong again, only there won’t be any miracles to save us this time.

A small part of her mind, which she might have called the voice of common sense but which sounded suspiciously like her mother, insisted that she should just quit her career as a ninja and find a safer way to spend her time. Like selling flowers, or making dresses. But though she could not have explained why – whether it was the idea of giving up or the prospect of having to work for her own classmates – it became more and more of an impossibility to heed that voice each time it spoke. At last her inner self threw up its conceptual hands in frustration, and declared that if she was not going to listen to anything else it said, she could at the very least act like a sensible person by talking about it to someone.

And so it was that she found herself on the doorstep to the apartment of the only person she knew who might be considered a reasonable adult – certainly not her parents, who could barely understand a word she said. Kakashi called for her to enter before she could even knock on the door, and she pushed it open effortlessly, its defences evidently having been disarmed.

“How did you manage to find me?” Her teacher was sitting on the window still of his first-floor apartment, his one visible eye fixated on the (probably perverted) book in his hand. Having the window open in this warm weather was sensible enough, but dangling one leg out over each side was decidedly peculiar, and gave her the distinct impression that he was ready to jump either in or out of the building at the first sign of threat. He did not sound remotely surprised to find her here, but then he never really displayed any strong emotion, so she supposed that did not really tell her anything.

“Your address was in your public file,” Sakura said distractedly. She was struck by just how small his apartment was: Most of the bare wooden floor was taken up by a single bed, as well as a nightstand on which stood a faded image of a young genin team and a man who could only be the Fourth Hokage himself, Namikaze Minato. On the floor there was a small potted plant labelled ‘Mr. Ukki’, which caused her to do a double-take. Aside from that there was a simple desk, a bookshelf filled with scrolls and (probably perverted) books, a few calligraphy scrolls along the walls and not much of anything else.

She cleared her throat. “Kakashi-sensei, I was hoping to you could help me with something. As you know, I don’t think that entering the chūnin exams is a good idea, but I can’t seem to convince the others of my point of view. Do you have any advice for how I could get my teammates to take my concerns more seriously?”

“Hm?” It was so fast that Sakura might have imagined it, but his eye seemed to dart to the bustling streets and rooftops of Konoha, instantly taking in his surroundings before flickering back to her and to the only door of the otherwise windowless room. “Oh, that’s easy: You’re too predictable.”

She blinked. Sakura had specifically posed the question in such a way as to prevent her sensei from waving her off with a pat on the head – had definitely not made a sad face and asked in a wistful tone why nobody ever took her seriously – but of all the replies she had imagined Kakashi would give, this was definitely not one of them. “Too predictable? How do you mean?”

Her teacher raised his index finger, and took on a lecturing tone. “You can think of it like a mission: For any conversation, and especially where ninjas are involved, the goal is to get the other person to like you and prevent them from thinking ill of you. Even during a casual chat, those concerns are always there in the back of your mind, taking up your thoughts and limiting what you might say. And just like in a mission, if a person is always going to help or hinder you regardless of what you do, then you might as well remove them from the equation so you can focus your attention on other things. If you allow yourself to be taken for granted, then you can easily end up fading into the background of other people’s lives.” He gave her an uncomfortably piercing look. “Or, to explain it in a different way: What do you think is the reason you treat Naruto the way you do?”

She stiffened. “What do you mean? I don’t treat Naruto in any particular way, and in any case he doesn’t fade into the background at all. He’s loud and obnoxious, he interrupts people constantly and he never takes the time to think before he speaks.”

The piercing look intensified. “And do you think he’s doing any of that on purpose?”

“Well, no. But he’s just so, so immature!” She struggled for the right words to explain herself, even as her pent-up feelings came pouring out all at once. “He just says whatever is on his mind, and he doesn’t take my feelings into account at all. It’s like nobody ever taught him how to behave himself properly.” Which, considering that he was raised by one of the legendary Sannin, she found especially shameful.

Kakashi scratched his masked chin. “So in other words, he doesn’t have your strengths and in your eyes that makes him weak – beneath your notice. You know you could never get away with insulting Sasuke because of who he is and how he makes you feel, but Naruto has no other friends and so he holds no power over you, allowing you to safely take all of your frustrations out on him. Is that about right?”

She stared at her teacher in shock. She could not understand how her teacher could even think that about her. “You’re wrong,” she said. “That’s not what I think at all! I just feel like he could try a little harder to be polite to those around him, that’s all. Anyway, you’re changing the topic: This isn’t about me and Naruto.”

“Oh?” said Kakashi amusedly. “Who is this about then?”

“Obviously it’s –” She flushed scarlet. “I mean, it’s just obvious that Sasuke is the one who really gets to make all these decisions, as Naruto just agrees with whatever he says because he looks up to him so much, and Sasuke doesn’t take me seriously at all…” She trailed off as a horrifying thought occurred to her. “Wait, are you telling me that what you said before is how Sasuke really thinks about me?”

Kakashi shrugged. “Well… maybe not so much anymore, at least not where you or Naruto are concerned. But in general terms, yes: I promise you that that is precisely how he thinks.”

She stared at him dumbly, unsure what to say to that. A part of her wanted to ask how Kakashi could possibly know that, but she suspected she already knew what he would say: Because I was just like him once, ever so long ago…

“Then, what should I do?” she asked instead. She pulled a stool from underneath his desk and sat down heavily. “Kakashi-sensei… what am I supposed to do with my life?”

At last he turned around to face her, pulling his leg away from the window still and sitting down on the bed opposite her. He smiled, and though his mask hid his face she could see the crinkle in his eye. “What an interesting question,” he said. “I’m very flattered you came all the way over here just to ask me that.”

-o-

Far away and to the east of Konoha there lay a vast island, surrounded by a ring of smaller islets like a mother goose and her goslings. Deep in the heart of the largest island one could find a deep valley, surrounded by mountains and forests and covered in a perpetual mist, and in the midst of that valley sat a Village known as Kirigakure – though these days it was more commonly referred to as the Bloody Mist.

In truth that place more closely resembled a fortress than a village: Tall, unyielding ramparts exposed an invading force to attack from every angle, and if an attacker did manage to scale those walls then the stone fortifications within would prove just as unforgiving. Attempting an invasion of such a place would be madness – yet for all that it was mad, the fortress was still being invaded.

“They are in the courtyard! I repeat: The invaders have entered the courtyard!”

In the centre of the Village stood Kirigakure’s observatory, a round stone building perfectly placed to oversee the entire city. Within this building there was a circular chamber, wherein sat a middle-aged man. A veteran from the Third Great Ninja World War, Ao wore the standard Hunter-ninja garb, though upon being assigned his new position he had done away with the white mask and armour. ‘Assigned’ was definitely the word he remembered being used, and certainly not ‘promoted’. Still, after the debacle with Gato and his failure to capture Zabuza, Ao was grateful to be given another chance to prove his worth. It meant that his loyalty at least was not in question, though he supposed the fact that he was still breathing was proof enough of that.

The previous captain of the sensor division had not been so fortunate, if rumours were to be believed.

A single drop of sweat trickled down Ao’s brow and struck the stone tiles upon which he kneeled, an echoing sound that went unanswered by the five other sensors as they focussed their efforts on the massive orb of water that hovered in the centre of the room. A steady flow of chakra flowed from their outstretched palms into the sphere, slowly numbing Ao’s hands and body, but he barely it noticed anymore.

He focussed his thoughts on the sphere, and the continuously updated map of the Village it provided: The information they gathered with their individual sensing techniques was gathered and combined into the Orb, on which the Village’s ninja were represented by expanding and contracting ripples. The greater the ninja’s chakra reserves, the larger the ripples they cast, which seemed to Ao almost poetic. Right then, a dozen large ripples that did not belong to anyone he knew disappeared from the orb, and reappeared elsewhere a moment later.

“They are inside the armoury! I repeat: The enemy is inside the armoury!”

For the fact of the matter was that great stone walls might seem impressive to civilians, and they could certainly withstand assault from any number of samurai or brigands, but a small force of skilled ninja could easily scale those walls under cover of darkness. Scale them, or as seemed to be the case here, teleport right past.

How? How are they doing this? Ao’s eyes were shut tight as he desperately tried to keep track of the rapidly shifting enemy forces with his sensing technique. His implanted Byakugan could see in every direction, make out small details at great distances and even pierce through walls, yet when he directed his gaze at the enemy he saw only darkness. A pall of night surrounded the infiltrators, shrouding them like a cloak of shadows as they struck one location after another with unstoppable force. As far as he could tell, not one of the attackers had fallen so far, while the same could not be said of their own troops. The enemy left a trail of explosive tags as they went, so that when they teleported away only death and devastation was left behind. Worse still, they seemed to have allies within the Village itself – bloodline bearers and sympathizers that attacked their own allies at the worst possible time and made any orderly defence impossible. Ao silently resolved to beg the Mizukage’s permission to hunt the traitorous curs down himself once they had repelled the enemy, be it with or without his white mask.

The one upside that Ao had figured out, the one reason they were able to muster any defence at all, was the fact that the enemy was seemingly unable to teleport into a place they had not already visited. Ao had only once seen such a powerful teleportation technique before, and that had been far away in a distant land, and in a different era. The Fourth Hokage Namikaze Minato’s Flying Thunder God technique… Could it be? Are we fighting Konoha once more? The descriptions given in the scattered reports they had received did not match the ninjas of Konoha, but that could just be deception at work. They were ninjas, after all, and in a world of ninjas you could never trust anyone. Ao had learned that lesson from his own graduation ceremony, during the practice that had earned the Village the moniker of Bloody Mist: His best friend had tried to kill him then, but fortunately for Ao, his best friend had failed.

Another set of ripples disappeared from the Orb, and Ao realized that the armoury had been lost. His stolen Byakugan only showed colourless outlines, but even so it was all too easy to fill in the details of the massacre that had taken place there. He focussed his efforts on sending another telepathic message to the rest of the village. His native chakra sensing and transmitting abilities were not nearly as good as those of Konoha’s Yamanaka clan, but it was all they had and so it would simply have to do.

“The armoury has fallen. I repeat: The armoury has fallen.”

Ao’s brow narrowed in confusion. Though the invaders had clearly disappeared from the armoury, he could not seem to determine their new location. His Byakugan allowed for incredible range and precision, but he could not observe the entire Village at once: He had to focus on one segment of the Village at a time, scanning the locations in order of strategic importance. At last his eyes opened wide as he realized just where the invaders were attacking next. The door to the observatory blasted open, pure darkness pooling into the room and shrouding the enemy as they fell upon the sensing team like living shadows.

“They’re here! The enemy is–” An invisible blade cleaved into Ao before he could react, and even as the words died on his lips he realized he had forgotten to relay the message telepathically. There would be no help coming for his team.

The Village Hidden in the Mist was under attack.

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