Haku inhaled deeply on the way to collect Zabuza's herbs. The night's mist was still present, and carried a delicate, unmistakable 'forest-y' scent. A light chill was lingering in the air, even as the weak morning sun tried to penetrate the mist to fill the forest. This was... pleasant. Peaceful. Calm. Such things were not shared with Zabuza, as he was unlikely to care, but Haku enjoyed (relatively) restful periods like these, times when they remained in one place long enough to smell the proverbial roses, whether by choice or necessity. Even if Zabuza's initial reaction to such situations tended to be somewhat impatient. Thoughts of how Zabuza's restlessness would manifest were he healthier brought a small smile as Haku came to the clearing where the necessary herbs were and stopped short.
A blond, orange-clad genin was lying spread-eagled on the ground, apparently asleep. From his face, he was quite peacefully fast asleep, dead to the world around him.
Haku drew closer, but musing on that phrase for a moment.
What a curiously apt metaphor it was.
Kneeling over him now, more details were apparent: He was scuffed and a little dirty, but not bruised. He must have been a quick healer, or he didn't bruise very easily. This close, certain smells were obvious as well. Sweat, dirt, crushed grass, steel and underneath that, a very distinct twang of chakra, and underneath that... Haku chanced a quick sniff. Fermented soy?
Oddities aside, one thing was obvious. This was the same orange-clad ninja who was one of Kakashi's students. One of Tazuna's protectors. Most importantly, he was the one who had not only seen through Zabuza's water clones, but also devised the plan that had lead to his teacher's freedom. Haku fingered a hidden senbon. He was just so close, and so oblivious. It would be so easy just to kill him here, making things easier for them later on. Eyes darted to his exposed neck.
Dead to the world.
* * *
Naruto continued to blink in an attempt to get the last bits of sleep out of his eyes, his hands otherwise occupied with picking the herbs Haku was looking for. He still didn't know what half the plants he was fiddling with were for, and he doubted it would be a good idea to rub whatever oils or whatever they had on them all over his eyes. So he continued to blink. He held up a freshly-picked herb for Haku to see.
"Like this one, right?" Haku glanced over and nodded with a smile.
"That's right. As many like that as you can find would be a great help, thank you."
Naruto grinned in response, dropping the herb into the basket before looking around and picking four more. As he made sure he was grabbing the right plants, he tried making conversation.
"Nee-chan, why exactly are you out so early in the morning?"
"I could ask you the same. Why were you asleep in the middle of the forest?"
He grinned, "Training!" Haku turned to face him, the herbs forgotten in favor of this conversation.
"Could it be that you're a ninja, then? That hitai-ite..." He just nodded in response. "Wow, that's amazing... But, why were you training?"
"So I can become stronger. Why else do people train?" He answered with a warm smile still in place.
"You look strong enough already, though."
"That's..." The smile faltered, slowly fading to downcast as he spoke. "That's nice of you to say, but I'm not. I know I can be stronger than this... I can't afford not to be, either."
Eyes narrowed at this proclamation, "You can't afford to be? Is there some reason you need to be stronger?"
No longer downcast, Naruto's eyes came up, and just as hard as they had been when he had demanded to know Haku's identity. Not that he had known it was Haku, the false oi-nin rationalised, but still that look was the same.
"Yeah. I do." Haku knew that tone.
"I see. So, it is for someone else, then?"
"...It's for a lot of someone elses. It's for everyone in the village, even if they do hate me. It's for my friends, it's for my teachers, it's for..." His face went slightly red and he mumbled a name to one side. Haku barely caught it. 'Himaka'? But he wasn't done. "But, mostly... it's for me."
"What?" After saying all that, how could he then...?
"See, I want to protect them all, because I don't ever want to see any of them get hurt. I want to be strong enough to do that." He smiled. "That's what I want. Not them. Not anybody else. I want to become strong enough to protect them. All of them. From anyone." His face turned fierce as he focused on nothing in particular. He then seemed to notice the basket again. "Oh, that's right! Herbs, herbs!" He smiled broadly, the hardness in his expression changing to warmth almost instantly as he returned to picking out the correct plants, while Haku remained sitting, stunned by what he'd just said.
He wants to help them, to protect them, because that's... what he wants?
Just like I am Zabuza-sama's tool. Because I... want to be needed.
Haku smiled lightly at this minor epiphany, turning to the nearly hyperactive young genin where he was enthusiastically trying to help. Haku felt a sudden heat in the facial area. A blink, and Haku quickly turned away from him. Fortunately, Naruto's back had been turned, so he hadn't seen Haku's light blush. Mentally, Haku tried to rationalise things. It was not a reaction to him, it was to the idea that serving Zabuza-sama was as much for Haku's own reasons as his. It was most certainly not because Naruto was the first person since... mother... to apparently care about Haku as a person. Nor was it that Naruto seemed to be trying to get Haku to self-identify as an individual, someone with their own wants and fears. Nor was it that he was the first to ever make such an attempt, Haku included. No, that couldn't be it at all.
"Oi, nee-chan!" Haku looked up. Naruto was walking forwards with a warm smile and a fistful of the herbs Haku was looking for. The flush returned and brought its friend, elevated heart rate.
Sasuke watched the girl walking towards him with bemusement and a hint of suspicion. Her clothes didn't seem to match what the other villagers wore they were too clean, for a start. She was also walking quickly with her head down, avoiding his eyes. He looked past her and saw Naruto watching her leave with a frown of confusion.
She must have noticed the look of recognition when he saw Naruto, though, since she stopped just behind him and spoke.
"You have an... interesting friend."
"That's one way of putting it," he responded, half-smirking.
She didn't answer, instead resuming her quick walk.
* * *
Zabuza considered the apple in his hand. It was not especially large, his fingers closing around it almost completely. It was smooth, shiny and red, with a fair weight. He squeezed, and found it firm. It was a good, ripe apple, and if he were to bite into it, he was sure it would have that same satisfying taste common to most good, ripe apples.
He squeezed harder, and it pulped in his hand, sticky juices running down the now split skin to drip from his hand onto the floor.
"As expected of Zabuza-sama. It seems you're fully recovered already." Haku handed him a damp towel. Zabuza dropped the ruined fruit and took the towel, wiping off the apple juice. "Now that you are recovered, how shall we proceed?"
"We attack at the bridge tomorrow."
* * *
Hinata's mind was only half on the spar with her instructor that evening. She was worried about Naruto. True, he had come out of that mission all right last time, but a jounin was a jounin, and combat situations were inherently chaotic. She couldn't trust to chance that he would come out alive this time again, not even with his unbelievable luck. She smiled internally as she blocked a twisting strike to her neck. Naruto had luck, yes, but he was intelligent enough not to rely solely on it and was also sufficently... unorthodox, that he would be able to improvise his way out, for both himself and his team, if anything went wrong.
She blinked as she twisted away from a kick aimed at her stomach. Then she caught it as it reversed to follow her hip. That... was not a move she should have been able to notice coming. Come to think of it, neither was the earlier blow to her neck. Hinata retaliated with a basic one-two blow, only to be blocked and countered, she deflected the counter easily, the correct response coming without thought.
The both of them paused. The counter her teacher had just used was not one Hinata should have been able to identify at her level, let alone be expected to defend against it. What was she doing? Their eyes met and suddenly Hinata knew exactly what her instructor was doing. She was testing her. The teacher's eyes narrowed as she saw the light of realisation in Hinata's face. If her student had figured it out, then the time for subtlety was over. The woman came at her, fast, with the intent to do real harm. Hinata reacted and defended herself before she knew what she was doing, then began to fight back in earnest, all thought of restraint or wayward loves gone, swept away in the effort of the fight. Deflection, attack, counter-attack... it took all her skill to keep up. Hinata's eyes widened in horror. It took all her skill, carefully hidden until now, to keep up.
That moment of shock was enough for her opponent knock past her guard and deliver a strike to her chest. That palm was pulled moments before contact. They pulled away from each other, Hinata's mind racing. Why had she done this? Even if she knew Hinata was holding back in lessons, why go to such lengths to prove it? Her teacher simply examined her with her Byakugan before deactivating her eyes. She calmly began to speak.
"While it is not the place of the Branch Family to question the Main Family, I am currently acting under your father's authority." Hinata started. She hadn't suspected her father would be on to her so soon, let alone order her instructor to investigate her. "You have been holding back in our sessions. I suspected this, but that display just now confirmed it. Why?"
"I cannot say." Her tone was respectful, but she did not break eye contact. The instructor took notice of this.
"For what reason?"
"I cannot say, only that it concerns the well-being of both the clan and the village as a whole." It was technically true, Hinata mused. Depriving Konoha of the jounin Neji would become would indeed be detrimental to its well-being, and the resolution of his antagonistic feelings would help ease the tensions between the Main and Branch Families. Her instructor continued to press, though.
"In what way?"
"...I cannot say." She dropped her gaze in remorse at this. She truly couldn't speak of her reasons, not without answering even more questions that could not be asked yet. The instructor, however, was not aware of this, and was simply unimpressed with her reticence. Her eyes came back up to lock with her teachers'. "I ask that you not inform my father of this."
"I cannot do that, Hinata-sama. His authority supercedes yours. When he asks for the results of this test, I must answer truthfully." Her teacher's gaze met hers, both unwavering.
She tried a different approach, "Then I ask only that you do not reveal the extent of my restraint."
"For the clan." She repeated.
"And the village, yes?" The question was somewhat acerbic in tone.
"...Yes." The two of them did not look away from each other, their eyes locked, each silently daring the other to question their resolve. Their silent duel continued until the instructor spoke a few minutes later.
"You have not even considered it, have you?"
Hinata blinked a couple of times at the unexpected change in topic.
"I'm... sorry? Considered what?"
Her instructor was silent, seemingly considering for a few more moments. "...It is nothing. I can promise only that if he does not ask me directly, I will not answer."
Hinata smiled and bowed in thanks. "That will have to be enough, then. Thank you." When she straightened up, she asked, "If I may be excused, sensei?" A nod, and she turned to leave. She felt her teacher's eyes on her the entire way. Once she had gone, the Branch Family member lifted a shaking hand up to her forehead, lightly brushing her fingers against the bandages there. In their confrontation, Hinata had not even considered it. The very idea had not even entered her mind.
She let her hand drop back to her side and began crafting the story she was going to tell Hiashi.
* * *
It was already nightfall when the two genin staggered back towards Tazuna's home, arm over each others' shoulders to help steady their gait. They'd done it. They'd both made it to the top, and by walking there, too. They could honestly say they'd mastered the exercise now, and that knowledge buoyed them up despite their fatigue.
There was, however, a question lurking in one of their minds. A question he wanted answered before they returned to Tazuna's home, and food, and company.
"Why did you run out to go train after Tazuna told us about that guy Kaiza?" He chanced a look at his team-mate's reaction. "You were out there all night. What was it about that story that got you so worked up?"
"Because Inari didn't learn what Kaiza was trying to teach him. I want to fix that." Sasuke couldn't tell what expression that was. It could have been resolve or careful neutrality or simmering anger or...
"So what was Kaiza trying to teach him?"
Sasuke hadn't previously thought Naruto was capable of being deliberately cryptic. The smile he got in response to his question easily convinced him otherwise. They were both silent until they reached the house on the water where their team-mates, food, their client and his family, and their food, were waiting.
Most importantly, they were hungry.
"I, uh, I probably shouldn't be asking this, but... Why are you all still here, even though I lied about the request details?" Tazuna looked intensely uncomfortable, as though he had asked against his better judgement, but his curiosity wouldn't allow him to stay silent. Kakashi laced his fingers in front of his mask and recited a lesson that his own teacher had once imparted. It had taken a long time, and the death of a friend, for him to understand it.
"'Not doing right when you know it is right is a coward's way. There are no weak soldiers under a valiant commander.' Those are part of the teachings of the previous Hokage," He explained to the room.
"That's right!" Naruto added cheerfully, despite his exhaustion. "So don't worry, we'll kick that Gatou's ass and make sure you can complete the bridge." It was at that point that Inari exploded.
"Why are you guys trying so hard!" His question went unanswered, a very cool silence descending on the room, which he quickly broke. "You'll never be able to beat Gatou! You won't! You can't, he's got too much- It's impossible! You can't win! So why... why are you..."
Naruto took a deep breath. This was important. Inari needed to know this, to learn the lesson that Kaiza had been trying to teach him. He needed to choose his words carefully if that was ever going to happen.
"So, that makes it all right, then? Your opponent is so incredibly far above you that there's no chance of winning, so that makes it all right to just give up?"
Someone else, however, beat him to it.
"'I can't beat him. He's so much more powerful, there's no way to win. So it's fine if I just give up, right?'" Sasuke glared at the boy. Unlike his usual passive scowl, there was real anger in his eyes. "Grow up, you little brat. You think that just saying the word 'impossible' makes it all right for you to just give up? To just let him get away with what he's done to you, to your family, your friends, your neighbours? You think the word 'impossible' makes it all right to just lie down and DIE? Grow up!" He snarled, "So what if you think you can't win! So what if you think you can't even come close to touching him! You haven't even tried yet!"
Inari visibly flinched at that, but Sasuke, if anything, only became more intense, his voice dropping in volume but losing none of its heat.
"Don't go spouting words like 'impossible' until you've done everything you can, until your body is blistered and sore from the effort and you can barely stand, but even then, you can still stand and SPIT in his face! Don't go giving up until you've done everything you can to make that bastard PAY FOR WHAT HE DID!"
Sasuke blinked, suddenly conscious that everyone in the room was staring at him and that at some point he'd stood up and leaned over the table to properly berate Inari. He straightened up, grunted once, and then left without saying anything else. Sakura stood to follow him almost by reflex, before bowing in apology to Tsunami and Tazuna, and only then trailing after him.
Naruto watched her leave, musing hard both on what Sasuke had said, and on the fact that he had said anything at all. He'd been perfectly content to leave Inari to his own problems last time. He turned to see the boy's reaction.
He was crying, tears streaming down his face, but seemed to be refusing to break down completely in front of any member of Team Seven. Naruto shot a look to Kakashi, and then stood to leave himself. He needed to get to sleep anyway if he was going to wake up on time this time around.
* * *
Inari hadn't moved from where he was for at least ten minutes, despite how uncomfortable the position he was sitting in had to be. Kakashi had been debating with himself whether or not to explain matters since that little outburst of Sasuke's earlier. On the one hand, it was obvious that Sasuke had been angry for at something beyond just Inari's attitude. On the other, Inari likely hadn't noticed, his attention consumed by his own problems, and so had just interpreted it as Sasuke being spiteful.
Though, personally, Kakashi didn't know how to interpret it himself. While Sasuke's rant had not been unsurprising to his teacher, given what he knew, it was unexpected. He hadn't thought Sasuke would care enough about some random civilian to give him a piece of his mind like that, nor to let slip that much about his mental state. He had thought Naruto would, and was surprised he hadn't said anything before Sasuke did. Though, adding to what Sasuke had already said would have been... overdoing it, perhaps. He blinked, then frowned. It was perhaps surprising in itself that the loud and Naruto would have possessed social insight to realise that. Kakashi shrugged at that. Regardless of what his students were or weren't trying to do, he wasn't here to help a kid work through his issues, especially as he was far from the best qualified in that regard. He may not do anything about them, but he knew damn well just how many issues he had himself. So, no matter how much it might help, he wasn't in any position to... to...
Not doing right when you know it is right...
...Damn it, sensei.
Kakashi took a seat next to Inari, his feet hanging above the water instead of curled up like the boy next to him. Despite the relaxed posture, he was just as uncomfortable as the boy next to him had to be. Where did he even begin? Perhaps with the words that had sent Inari out here to begin with?
"Sasuke didn't say that out of spite," He began, "He just lets his temper get the best of him sometimes. He's similar to you, in that he lost his father when he was young. Well... Not just his father. His mother, his aunts, uncles, cousins... His entire family. They were one of the largest clans in Konoha before it happened, and as the clan head's son... he knew a lot of them personally. The worst part of it, I think, was that it was done by someone he'd previously looked up to. He swore revenge that day, even though he knew how much more powerful his target was compared to himself. Even though it was... impossible." Inari stirred, relaxing slightly. "That word was likely in his thoughts a lot. That what was he was doing was impossible, that he couldn't even hope to come close to the man he wanted to kill. Despite that, though, I don't think he's ever given up on his goal. What he said to you, in there, is probably what he's been telling himself every time it looks like he might not be able to achieve his revenge. He probably understands what you're going through pretty well."
"At least one of you does..." He mumbled.
Oh, more than one.
"Well, I say that, but there's another one who probably understands you even better." At Inari's questioning look, he elaborated, "Naruto."
"...Him?" Inari had curled back up, staring at the horizon. "He's always smiling or laughing and so damn energetic... there's no way someone like that can understand what real pain is."
"Again, he's in the same boat as you. He had no father when he was young. In fact, he doesn't even know what parents are, nor did he have any friends until a couple of years ago. Despite that, I haven't seen him timid, sulky or crying. In fact, I've never seen him like that..." Kakashi's brow furrowed momentarily before he continued, "More than anything, he wants people to recognise him for himself, and he's willing to risk his life for that dream. More importantly, he's willing to risk his life for the people who have already recognised him. He knows the true meaning of strength. Much like Kaiza did." Inari was silent, but his silence was at least thoughtful, rather than reticent. Kakashi stood to leave, "Well, I shouldn't be late for my first day actually protecting your grandfather." It was only once he was almost back inside that Inari spoke up.
"...Do-?" He caught himself, and Kakashi watched him out of the corner of his eye. Inari clearly wanted to ask something, but seemed to be holding himself back. He let the boy think through what he was trying to say. "Do... do you... are you...?" He looked up, and met Kakashi's eye, somehow conveying his question without words.
"...Yeah. Not quite as early as you three, but it was still painful. I didn't handle it well at all, and it took... a good friend to make me realise that." He probably still wasn't handling it very well. What would Obito say if he could see him now?
Hm. Now his Sharingan was itching. What an odd coincidence.