~ "Ugh..." I groaned as consciousness began creeping back to me. I sat up, and a stab of pain shot through my spine, causing me to wince. That moment, a hand settled itself on my shoulder, and a familiar voice advised, "Don't overexert yourself."
~ Turning my head, I looked to see Uchiha sitting right next to me. Closing my eyes, I asked, "Where are we? How long have I been out?"
~ "We're at Tazuna's place. The others are in a separate room. You passed out right after Kakashi collapsed. That was two days ago. You remember what happened, right?" Uchiha said, and I slowly nodded, recollecting all the events that occurred before I blacked out. He nodded, saying, "Good."
~ "One question, though. You said the others were in a separate room. Why aren't you there, as well?"
~ "I volunteered to care for you. Naruto said it was a bad idea, that no one should care for you except him."
~ "I figured as much; don't blame him. I tend to react to my surroundings differently when I'm ill or sleeping. I forget who's my friend and who's my foe."
~ "If that's the case, then doesn't that mean you can't recognize Naruto as your ally?"
~ "Actually, no. I can recognize him, by his chakra and other various things. Naruto is the only who's actually safe, in all reality." I attempted to stand, only to wince and collapse on my knees. Uchiha smirked at my predicament. "Is help in order?"
~ With a glare, I flipped him off, and he chuckled before proceeding to help me up, his arm around my shoulders. Leaning against him, we walked out the room and into another, where Team Seven and its client rested. Kakashi sat up from a futon(1), while Naruto, Haruno and Tazuna sat around him. Deliberately clearing my throat, I caught the attention of my fellow teammates and the client. Naruto's face beamed with joy. "Kei-chan!"
~ "In the flesh." I snickered, and Uchiha led me towards the group. Sitting down, I asked, "So, what's going on?"
~ "Kakashi-sensei was just telling us that we might stay here for about a week to let him recover." Haruno explained, and I nodded, humming.
~ "Yes. We should be safe now. It's odd, though," Kakashi wondered aloud. "These circumstances..."
~ Slowly, Kakashi went back to sleep. While Naruto and Haruno were trying to see what was under Kakashi's mask, I looked at Uchiha and thanked him. Raising a curious eyebrow, he asked, "What for?"
~ I shrugged. "Before I passed out, I remembered you catching me. Just saying thanks, ya know?"
~ "Yeah, no big deal. Just be more careful next time, you prideful Goth-wannabe. Stop hiding injuries, damn it." He scoffed, and I rolled my eyes, retorting in a humorous tone, "Tch, what the hell ever, you arrogant prick."
~ He chuckled, and I smiled. For a moment, everything was ok. That is, until both Haruno and Naruto shrieked. We looked to see Kakashi staring contemplatively at the ceiling, while Naruto and Haruno cowered a few feet away, startled. I asked, "Is there something wrong?"
~ "Yes, in fact." Kakashi responded, scratching his head. Everyone went alert. "Something isn't adding up to this equation. The boy that killed Zabuza is too suspicious for my tastes. From his mask, he supposedly is from Kirigakure's Hunter-nin(2) Association. However, his actions don't add up. What did he do with the body?"
~ "How should we know? He took the body with him." Haruno answered, shrugging carelessly. Kakashi nodded. "Exactly. He only needed the head, and was required to burn the body right on the spot. In addition, the weapons he used..."
~ "Senbon... acupuncture needles..." Uchiha began, but then stopped. His eyes widened with the realization. "No way..."
~ "Yes." Kakashi said, seriousness inside his tone. Naruto piped out, "What are you talking about, sensei?"
~ Kakashi gazed at Naruto, Haruno, Uchiha, Tazuna and I - all of us - square in the eye, and announced, "It is a strong possibility that Zabuza is still alive."
~ Haruno, Naruto and Tazuna went white-eyed, Uchiha narrowed his eyes and Tsunami, Tazuna's daughter who just came into the room, looked confused. I bit my lip at the thought; Zabuza being alive means that the masked boy is his accomplice, which means even more trouble. Tazuna stammered fearfully, "Ar-Aren't we getting a little carried away with our conclusions?"
~ I shook my head, retorting, "It makes perfect sense. The way he both killed and disposed of the body... it makes more sense to assume that Zabuza was being saved rather than killed."
~ "But Kakashi-sensei," Haruno exclaimed, "Didn't you make sure that Zabuza was dead?! You said so yourself!"
~ Kakashi responded, "Yes, I did. However, the chances of actually killing someone with senbon is very slim, and has to be done with extreme accuracy and precision. In addition, you can put someone in a death-like trance by striking the correct points of the body, perceiving to be dead."
~ "So, Zabuza could be alive..." Naruto grinned with excitement, and I couldn't help but flash a toothy grin; the thoughts of Zabuza still being alive does nothing but pump adrenaline.
~ "Well," Kakashi hummed, "I guess there's no time to relax, after all. It's time for training."
~ "Training?! How is more training going to help?! Even with your Sharingan, Zabuza nearly defeated you!" Haruno cried out incredulously, and Kakashi flashed a smile under his mask. "While that is true, why don't you guess who saved me. You all have grown immensely. Especially you, Naruto; it seems that you've grown the most."
~ Naruto grinned at the compliment, and rested his hands at the back of his head. Kakashi continued, "Also, after being put into a deathlike trance, it takes time for the body to recover back to full strength. This will give you enough time."
~ "This is gonna be fun!" Naruto laughed, and suddenly a small voice mumbled, "It won't be fun for you."
~ We all looked to see a small boy at the doorway, wearing a fishing hat. He looked to be no older than seven or eight years old. It was obvious that Team Seven didn't know who the boy was, since everyone gazed at him with either curiosity, confusion, or both. However, it seemed Tazuna knew exactly who the boy was as his face beamed and he called out the boy's name. "Inari!"
~ "Hi grandpa, welcome home." The boy greeted somberly, taking off his sandals and walking towards Tazuna for a hug. It was then when Tsunami finally spoke. "Inari, treat our guests properly! These good shinobi are the ones who brought your grandpa home safe and sound!"
~ The boy scanned each of us with a watchful eye, before pointing at our direction and stating calmly, "But momma, they're all just gonna die anyway."
~ All of Team Seven looked concerned, even I. So much for the vote of confidence. He didn't even bother giving us a chance. I said, "Don't sell us too short, kid. You don't know what we're capable of."
~ The boy scoffed. "No one can defeat Gatou and his men."
~ "Listen up kid," Naruto boasted, "This guy named Gatou? Gateau? This guy's named 'chocolate'! You can't honestly expect me to be afraid! I'm gonna be Hokage someday, my village's greatest hero! I have no time to be afraid!"
~ The boy eyed Naruto for a moment, then narrowed his eyes and let out a grunt. "Hero? You must be stupid. There's no such thing as 'heroes'."
~ The kid began to walk out of the room, and Tsunami asked, "Inari, where are you going?"
~ "To watch the waves from my room." With that, the door to his room was shut, and Naruto exclaimed with irritation, "Ooh, that little... I'ma go give him a piece of my mind!"
~ "Leave him alone, Naruto!" Haruno snapped, but Naruto already stomped away. I sighed. "I'll go get him."
~ I walked out the room and took a left, hearing Naruto's distinctive grumbling. I followed him all the way to the little kid's room. Peeking around the corner, I spied Naruto about to open the boy's door. But for some reason, just as Naruto had his hand on the sliding door, he moved no further. Instead, he rested his ear against the door, trying to hear the other side. His eyes went wide, then returned to a sympathetic expression. He backed away and walked toward my direction, and he turned the corner and explained softly, "He was crying for his father."
~ I hummed, but said nothing. There was nothing to say, anyway. We walked back to the room, where Kakashi was just about to clarify our training. "It would be better to go outside."
~ "But, without crutches, you can't move, teacher." Tazuna pointed out, and Tsunami said, "I have crutches from my last injury. You could use those."
~ Once equipped with his essential tool, Kakashi led Team Seven into the nearby woods. Satisfied with the location, he stopped and faced Naruto, Haruno, Uchiha and I, announcing, "Our new training will begin today. But first, let's discuss the basics: chakra."
~ "Chakra?" Naruto repeated, perplexed. "Yeah, uh... what is chakra again?"
~ "Baka!' Haruno scorned, jabbing an accusing finger at the sunshine blonde's direction. "Did you sleep in every class?!"
~ Naruto laughed nervously, rubbing the back of his neck. "Let's just say I used to take grade-A naps."
~ "This is bad." Kakashi sighed, and I offered to explain the concept of chakra. Kakashi nodded in approval. "Go ahead."
~ I turned to Naruto, one hand on my waist. "Alright Naruto, pay attention. I'm only gonna say this once, got it?"
~ After he wordlessly nodded, I continued. "Chakra is what you create by mixing two things: your mental energy," I tapped his headband. "and your physical energy." I lightly poked the middle of his chest. I proceeded, since Naruto looked like he understood so far.
~ "Once you are able to make chakra, you can perform jutsu, such as your Bushin no Jutsu. To do jutsu, of course, you have to form the hand seals.You got any of that?" Naruto huffed when I finished. "This is all so confusing! Just show me that way my body can learn it."
~ "Besides, we already know how to use our chakra." Uchiha added, and Kakashi shook his head. "Wrong. None of you have fully mastered your chakra control. As Keiko said,chakra is a mixture of both mental and physical energy. No matter how much chakra you summon, if you can't maintain your balance, then not only will your jutsu's effectiveness be cut in half, it might not work at all. Plus, you'll be squandering your energy, thus slowly developing significant weak spots."
~ "So, what do we do?" Haruno asked, and Kakashi answered, "We're going to climb trees."
~ Haruno seemed irritated about the announcement, as if it wasn't possible to climb a tree; Naruto looked confused. Uchiha and I expressed the same, usual indifference. He because he didn't want to admit that he had no idea what Kakashi was talking about, and I because I knew exactly what Kakashi was talking about. Haruno finally asked, "Uh, sensei, how is climbing trees going to help?"
~ "Well, climbing with your hands and feet isn't going to help. So, we're not going to use our hands." While everyone else had more intrigue, Haruno's skeptism remained firm. "And how are we supposed to do that?"
~ "I'd rather just show you how." With those words hanging about the air, Kakashi formed a tiger hand sign and closed his eyes. Moments later, his feet began to glow blue with the concentration of his chakra. After which he selected a tree and began calmly walking up. Everyone showed some type of awed curiosity.
~ "He's climbing the tree..." Naruto began, and Haruno finished, "With his legs and feet parallel to the ground."
~ Once he was a good 15 feet above the ground, Kakashi stood upside down from a branch, and began to clarify our training exercise. "There are two objectives here. The main one is mastering the chakras. Use no more than necessary, yet maxamize its effectiveness in where and how it is applied. Subtle control like that is very critical to every jutsu and technique you'll ever apply. It is also the most difficult skill to acquire. This exercise requires fine and delicate application of chakra, because the bottom of the foot is an area most difficult to release one's chakra. Long story short, if you master this, then no jutsu should be beyond you... in theory, that is."
~ "The secondary goal is to build enough stamina needed to complete your task once your chakra has been focused. If you think this looks hard, it's much harder to maintain your chakra when using ninjutsu. In battle, circumstances are always changing, so you have to be able to manipulate and maintain your chakras on the fly if you hope to succeed. Standing around, trying to summon and control your chakra, is a luxury that you won't be able to have. So, while you're climbing trees, you'll also be mastering skills that will most likely save your lives on more than one occasion."
~ When he finished his lecture, he threw four kunai, each one landing in front of our feet. "Use the blades to mark the highest point you can climb to. Try to mark a higher spot each time you climb."
~ "Ha!" Naruto hollered, "This is an easy task for me! I'm the most improved one on the team, remember?!"
~ Kakashi rolled his eyes. "Less talking, more action. Running should give you enough momentum for a good first try, since I don't expect any of you to reach a treetop automatically. Now, pick a tree and up you go!"
~ Everyone closed their eyes and formed the tora seal, concentrating all of their chakra to the soles of their feet. Once accomplished, Naruto yelled, "Here I come!" before everyone ran toward their chosen tree. Naruto only took a single step before falling back; Uchiha ran up about three feet before the tree's own energy repelled him, engraving his footprint into the bark. He did a backflip and landed on his feet, grunting. Haruno and I kept climbing until we got to the very top. It had been a while since I did this type of exercise, so I started small, my tree being same height as Haruno's. Haruno giggled, "This is eaiser than I thought!"
~ "Well," Kakashi stated, "It seems that the ones with the most control are our young ladies."
~ "Way to go, Sakura-chan! Keiko-chan!" Naruto exclaimed with a grin, although I sensed a tinge of envy. Uchiha sighed, dejected at the fact that the girls were better than him. Kakashi continued, "It also seems that the girls are closer to becoming Hokage, despite all of Naruto's boasts," Naruto raised his eyebrows. "and the finest of the Uchiha Clan isn't looking all that great either." Uchiha narrowed his eyes. I smirked; looks like someone had their button pushed. Haruno gasped and pointed a finger at Kakashi. "Kakashi-sensei! You're going to make Sasuke-kun hate me!"
~ Both Naruto and Uchiha glanced at each other. Kakashi's words was meant to encourage them, rather than degrade them. Most likely they were thinking the same thing; to surpass us. I wouldn't be surprised if they did. All of a sudden, I felt a presence nearby, and I looked to see the boy named Inari hiding behind a tree, spying from a distance. Then, he simply walked away. I raised an eyebrow, but did nothing to alert my team. At the moment, the boy wasn't our main concern. Zabuza and his masked accomplice were.
~ While Team Seven were busying themselves with their no-hands tree-climbing exercise, the masked boy had taken Zabuza to a large tree-home to care for him. As the boy set Zabuza on the bed, he unrolled a package full of tools on the bedside stand. He grabbed a pair of clipper, mumbling, "Not, I must shed the torn bandages wrapped around his mouth and let the blood rinse out..."
~ Just as the clippers were cutting the first layer of bandages, Zabuza opened his eyes and grabbed the tool. He lowered the bandages and growled, "Enough Haku... I will do it myself."
~ "As you wish." The boy said, putting away the tools. He watched as Zabuza ripped off the bandages and spat out a large amount of blood into a trash can. He grumbled, "Must you be so rough, Haku?"
~ Then, Zabuza severely snatched out the two senbon from his neck, and Haku warned. "Oh! You must not be so rough yourself! Handing yourself in such a way could really kill you!"
~ "When are you going to take off that ghastly mask?" Zabuza interrupted, and Haku sighed wistful-like. "It reminds me of the old days. Plus, it worked well for this act."
~ Haku took off his mask, revealing a feminine face from behind. Zabuza grunted, "Any other part of my body would have been fine."
~ "Well, I didn't want to mar your beautiful body, Zabuza-sama. Plus, the neck has less muscles, which means I can pinpoint more accurately." Haku responded, and Zabuza hummed. "So innocent, so clever. Indeed, that is what I like about you."
~ Haku giggled. "Well, I am just a kid."
~ Haku then looked out the window, and said, "The fog is finally clearing up." He looked at Zabuza. "You should fully recover in about a week. Until then, just rest."
~ Zabuza hummed as his response. After, all was silent for a moment. That is, until a stubby midget wearing a pair of black shades and two samurai busted inside. The man hollered, "You have some nerve, coming back here!"
~ Zabuza glanced at the short man. "Gatou..."
~ "You Kirigakure shinobi are highly overrated! First the demon brothers, and now you! Some skills you have! Can't even take out a measly bridge builder and his lackey bodyguards!" Gatou walked up to the bed, and the samurai protectors partially unsheathed their swords. Haku frowned. 'Are they going to attack?'
~ "Well?" Gatou snapped, reaching for Zabuza's neck. "Any last words?"
~ Suddenly, Haku grasped Gatou's arm, squeezing tightly till a crack was heard. He growled, "Don't you dare defile Zabuza-sama with your filthy touch!"
~ Gatou yelled in pain, then snatched his arm away. The samurai were fixing to completely unsheath their swords, but before they even realized what was going on, Haku snatched away their swords and placed them against their necks in a criss-cross style. The pair were frozen with shock, disbelief and fear. Never before had they seen someone move so quickly! Haku snarled, "Don't make me angry. You won't like it when I'm angry."
~ "Muh... Monster..." One samurai stuttered fearfully, and Gatou stammered, "Th-That's enough, boys! Z-Zabuza, you better get this job d-done! Otherwise, d-don't come back here!"
~ Then the man and his pathetic pair of protectors scurried back out the door. Zabuza, who was discreetly holding a kunai blade under his sheets, said, "Haku, there was no need for you to..."
~ Haku interrupted him with a sigh. "I know, but if we take him out to soon, we'll be on the run from them again. For now, let's just be patient."
~ "I suppose..." Zabuza agreed, and Haku nodded.