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Part III. The Waves Arisen by Plunging Into the Maelstrom
Sasuke kicked off and whipped his foot through the face of a shadow clone. A small fraction of the injury echoed through Naruto’s flesh.
With his byakugan active Naruto coordinated his clones around Sasuke, attacking with weak and delayed gushes from his new raging wave technique. He didn’t want to actually win, but he needed to keep up the illusion of fighting, and of doing so with big, inaccurate blasts of water that would impact a wide area.
The clones bit their tongues and re-summoned fresh replacements, defending themselves until finally Sasuke went after the clones nearest to Sai’s bug. The raging wave destroyed the creature on its way past, and a clone keeping watch with the byakugan clapped his hands to signal when he saw its chakra wink out of existence. The clones nearest to Sasuke halted their offensive.
“We’re being watched,” he whispered. “Still friends. Play along.”
Already he could see another of Sai’s bugs floating in from the forest.
“Use your fireball if you understand. Aim at the clone with a kunai between his teeth, in ten seconds.”
Sasuke said nothing as Naruto took up a fighting stance again.
One of Naruto’s other bodies held a kunai in his mouth, ostensibly to try to propel it with the force of the water—a trick he already knew was useless, but which might make it less obvious to Sai what he was really doing.
Sasuke exchanged a few weak attacks with the others before turning on the clone with the kunai and blasting his fireball technique in its direction, knocking out the replacement bug Sai had sent.
“Sai was sent to kill us,” Naruto said, speaking fast. “It’s complicated, but we need to kill him first. Trust me?”
The clone backed off again as a swarm of mosquitoes made from living ink flew into view. He knew he had been risking a lot by “coincidentally” destroying two of Sai’s bugs in a row, even if the second had seemed like Sasuke’s fault, but there was no way he could destroy this many without revealing that they were up to something.
“Are you getting tired?” he taunted, keeping up the charade.
Sasuke’s eyes darted across the sky. Small as they were, his sharingan saw them too.
He replied with false anger. “What do you want from me?”
Naruto almost replied without thinking, but noticed the double meaning in his words. He was asking what to do about Sai.
“…All I wanted was for you to be ready,” Naruto said, glaring at him. “…Tomorrow is too late; if you’re not ready now, then die!”
With that said his remaining clones all charged at Sasuke together, their fists raised to clearly telegraph their intent.
Sasuke took the cue and swept his leg through the horde as they came; wiping them all out so that Naruto’s last body took the brunt of the hit in his ribs.
He fell backwards into the dirt. It had actually hurt a little more than he’d intended, but at least he’d managed to put on a convincing show of losing the fight, without accidentally getting killed in the process.
“I’ll be ready,” Sasuke said, looking down at him with fake contempt.
Naruto took a moment to pick himself up before heading back to camp, trying to act as if he’d been genuinely humiliated.
Hinata had her byakugan active when he sat back down, and was looking at him strangely. He hadn’t even thought of that—hadn’t noticed her watching, or even thought about the danger, but if she’d told Sai they were talking, or that they were just pretending to fight…
“Just in time,” Sai said, stirring the cooking pot. “I think our soup is finally ready.”
Naruto sat down.
He still had the byakugan active, but the longer he waited the more opportunity Sai would have to politely ask him to deactivate it again, and when that happened Naruto would be forced either to give up the advantage or to spring the attack right then and there. He still didn’t even know how he was going to actually fight Sai—he’d mostly been thinking about how to let Sasuke know they were in danger, first.
Sasuke walked around the fire to pour himself a helping of pellet soup while Naruto pretended to sulk. His hand brushed past Sai’s neck as he replaced the ladle.
Sai recoiled, yelping in alarm with his hand on his neck.
It had been such a natural movement that it took Naruto a second just to understand what had happened. Sasuke’s fingers had cut Sai’s jugular open as they passed by his neck—shaping chakra like a knife. He’d moved with stunning finesse.
Blood leaked over Sai’s hand as he tried to rise to his feet, knocking the pot over, but Sasuke was already on top of him to deliver the finishing blow. It was over before Naruto could even stand up to help.
“It’s okay!” Naruto said. “We planned it! It’s fine. He was going to kill us.”
Sasuke felt around to confirm Sai’s pulse had stopped.
“What about the bugs?” Sasuke asked. “They gone?”
“Yeah, they’re gone,” Naruto said. “He’s dead. Wow—that really surprised me.”
“I wasn’t sure if you had a better idea, so I just went for it,” Sasuke said. “Mind telling me now why I just committed treason?”
“What’s going on?” Hinata asked.
“Sorry, Hinata. He had bugs everywhere, I couldn’t even explain much to Sasuke,” Naruto said. “Sai was planning to kill us, tonight I think. I’m pretty sure he’s from ANBU, and I think his real mission was to bring us out here so that Leaf could blame Mist for killing us. I figured either he had to die, or we would—I didn’t see any better way out of it. I only just realized tonight what he might have been planning.”
“What he might have been planning?” Sasuke echoed. “You sounded a lot more certain of yourself a minute ago.”
“Our communications were kind of limited, I couldn’t really clarify. Yes, I’m not absolutely certain he meant to kill us, but how likely does a thing like that need to be before it’s worth addressing?”
“You know what this means, right?” Sasuke said. “We can’t go back now. We’re missing-nin.”
“Why would ANBU want to kill us?” Hinata asked. “Because of Kakashi?”
“Sort of, but—look, I promise I’ll explain myself properly and we can go over everything and consider all the implications, but right now, I think it might be a good idea to get moving? I don’t even mind which direction we go, I just don’t feel safe with a dead ANBU lying around. For all we know he was planning to meet up with another team for assistance, and they’ll be here soon.”
“Nothing but Mist territory to the south and east. Unless you want to find some island to hole up on,” Sasuke said.
“Mist might be at war, soon,” Naruto said. “I think north might be our best chance, along the coast. We can cross into Hot Springs before sunrise if I carry you.”
“Sunrise?” Sasuke asked. “That’s, what, a hundred miles at least? You sure you have the chakra? We did just stage a pretty big fight.”
“One-fifty, I think, but it should be fine,” Naruto said. “I’ll still be able to fight if we’re caught.”
They began to decamp while they spoke. A pair of clones took Sai’s body south to dispose of it while Naruto explained his reasons for suspecting that they would have been killed; the value of their eyes, their lack of any representation amongst the village elite, the potential casus belli against Mist, the anger of the Hyuuga and so on, as well the Sai’s own suspicious behavior. The two of them were still clearly pretty uncomfortable with what had happened, but they didn’t have any immediate suggestions for how to have handled things differently. ANBU ninja didn’t just back down when you asked nicely, and giving Sai any chance to explain himself would have significantly lessened their odds of escaping alive. Even if they went back to Leaf and tried to get help they wouldn’t be likely to find many allies. Naruto had condemned the three of them to a dangerous fate, but it might have been a lot worse.
“I’m sorry about being rude before, too,” Naruto said. “I don’t really think any of that stuff I said is true, obviously. I was just trying to get you away so I could kill Sai’s bugs.”
“Yeah, I know,” Sasuke said, “you’d have to get a lot better at acting before you could convince me you’ve been hiding something that huge all along.”
“Well, uh—now that you mention it…” Naruto rubbed his neck, embarrassed. “There actually is one other thing, something I should probably tell you both.”
Sasuke looked at him as if he wasn’t sure whether or not that was a joke.
“I only found out about it myself just a few months ago, actually. When we became genin,” Naruto said. “But I couldn’t tell anyone, because the Third said it might get me killed. It’s actually another one of the reasons I thought Sai might have been sent to kill me, in particular. It’s not that big of a deal or anything, I just don’t want you two finding out at a weird time and having it cause a big problem, or—”
“Just tell us,” Sasuke said.
“Right,” Naruto said. “Yeah. So, apparently, my father was the Fourth Hokage.”
Hinata put a hand over her mouth. “Oh…”
“And, I’m also the jinchuuriki of the nine-tailed beast.”
Hinata flinched. “You’re—what?”
“Oh…” Sasuke said. “That’s why you have so much chakra?”
“Is it—is that safe?” Hinata asked.
“I don’t know, honestly…” Naruto said. “I think it’s safe. It seems that sometimes the tailed beasts just seize control of their host’s brain, somehow, and start going wild with crazy power and killing everyone. But most jinchuuriki never experience that, so the chance of it happening any time soon should be tiny. I’ve even passed out from total chakra exhaustion, before, and nothing happened. I certainly don’t feel like I’m on the verge of going berserk.”
“Basically a free upgrade,” Sasuke said. “All that chakra. Don’t suppose there’s a way I could borrow it, somehow?”
“You have to grow up with it in you to develop the extra chakra,” Naruto said. “Sorry.”
“Figures.” Sasuke said. “But hey, I’ve got something to say too, if we’re revealing our big secrets.”
“Oh. Uh, yeah?”
“Yeah. No big deal, but there really is a secret other Uchiha eye-technique you don’t know about. Oh—Hinata, by the way, this ‘third eye’ seal thing I’ve been using is a fake I got from that weird guy in Sound. We didn’t tell you, but it hasn’t got anything to do with the Uchiha. Anyway, the real second eye-technique is a better version of our regular eyes, called the mangekyou sharingan. I think Danzo probably has it, and my brother Itachi definitely does.”
“Oh, wow,” Naruto said. “Can you use it, too?”
“No,” Sasuke said. “You get it from killing someone you’re close to—it comes from the emotion of your suffering, like the sharingan coming from fear, I guess. My brother thinks I’ll need it if I want to beat him someday, but I don’t care, so whatever.”
“You mean—like, you could only get it by killing us, or something?” Naruto asked.
“Yeah. But like I said, I’m not gonna,” Sasuke said. “The Uchiha have a long history of stupid infighting and traitorous bullshit, but nobody hates that fact more than us. I’m not gonna avenge them in a way they would be ashamed of me for, even if they were mostly just a pack of assholes.”
Naruto wondered if Sasuke’s admission now meant that he’d actually been considering it at some point. But they’d come a long way in the last few months.
“My brother wants me to do it, anyway, so he can take the eyes from me. That’s probably enough of a reason on its own, just to avoid giving him the satisfaction.”
“Why would he want your eyes?” Naruto asked. “Didn’t you say he already had the second sharingan?”
“Yeah, I guess it’s like… the third sharingan, then. This stupid other thing, I don’t even know if it’s real or if it was just something that only Uchiha Madara could do. It’s not just a legend like the rinnegan—this was a real thing he had for a long time, and all the other Uchiha knew about it. Anyway, the mangekyou sharingan apparently fades away over time and eventually leaves you blind, but if one of your siblings has it too and you steal it from them, then it changes into the “eternal mangekyou” that lasts forever. Or it did for Madara, anyway—no one else ever got it to work. But that’s why Itachi left me alive in the massacre; he just wants me to grow him some fresh eyes, and then he’ll kill me too.”
“…Wow. That’s pretty intense,” Naruto said. “I’d always thought he left you alive because of, like… the remnants of his brotherly love, or something.”
“After what he did to the rest of his family?” Sasuke shook his head. “Not a chance.”
Through the night they travelled northward, crossing the isthmus and staying near the coast where the forest was thinnest.
Naruto calculated their chances of escape as they moved. There were eleven bases stationed throughout the territory of Leaf where scouting reports were centralized and whose lines of communication fed the village a daily stream of intelligence. Four chuunin teams typically manned each base, not counting messengers, or the section’s jounin who wouldn’t be out scouting—no, only two teams would be actively scouting at any given time, the other two would be at rest. So, if each team could observe maybe three miles in any direction, that was about 30 miles covered, so the two teams together were watching 60 square miles around each base at any given time.
Naruto estimated from the rough map in his head that each base probably had a radius of 30 miles or so of ground to personally keep watch over, in any direction. That would suggest about… 3000 square miles, per base—could that be right? The whole of Leaf country was about… maybe 250 miles squared, that’d be around 60,000 square miles, divided by eleven bases—or twelve counting the village, so that was… something like 5000, which wasn’t too far away from his previous estimate.
They had to cover about 150 miles to reach the border of Hot Springs country, about five hours at a run, passing through most of the territory of two bases.
He wasn’t certain—he felt stymied again by insufficient mathematical study—but he thought that it probably didn’t matter for the calculations whether or not the enemy teams were moving. Obviously they did move, but the chance of colliding with them was the same whether they were stationary or not, because for every chance to step into his path there was a chance to step back out, right? Assuming they didn’t know that he was coming.
So, the path of his team was like a corridor 150 miles long and six miles wide. If any enemy team was sitting in that corridor, they would be spotted. That was 900 square miles out of the territory of two bases, which was 8000 or so—that was around a one in ten chance, for each team. So, four teams, multiplied out—that was… probably something like a 66% chance they could slip out unseen.
But those were only the raw odds of collision—they still had the byakugan to help avoid any teams they actually spotted, just like they had meant to do in the chuunin exams. It hadn’t actually worked out so well, of course but that had been unusually bad luck. Better than even odds of making a clear run to the border seemed about right.
He had completely forgotten to account for the many, many ninja passing through the forests in the course of their regular missions.
This turned out to be particularly relevant, as Leaf was evidently building up their strength in the east in preparation for the war with Mist.
Luckily, most of the ninja they saw were billeted in civilian hamlets, and not on particularly high alert in the middle of the night. Naruto was able to route around them easily enough with the use of his byakugan and they reached the bay that marked the furthest extent of the southern part of Hot Springs’ territory well before sunrise.
After a tense night on the run, they could probably afford to be a little more confident from that point on, being outside the range of Leaf’s surveillance. Potential Hot Springs surveillance was a risk of its own, but their village and most of their remaining farmland was far to the north, as were the only real threatening neighbors they had—Sound and Frost country—so there was little for them to keep watch of in the rocky hinterlands to the south. It was said that Leaf’s scouting network was the most extensive of any country; roughly one in every three active chuunin were employed by one of those bases at any given time, which just wasn’t possible for a country with a lot of arid land to cover, like Stone or Sand, or a lot of tiny scattered islands like Cloud and Mist. Leaf had little choice but to make such a commitment to a broad and proactive defense, surrounded as they were by the other four great powers.
In the south of Hot Springs country they found a suitable cave to hide in, temporarily, amongst the rocks. They all needed to sleep, but Naruto in particular had to give his chakra a chance to regenerate—after all that running he was well below half capacity, and while he could have kept going a while longer it was likely that this was actually the safest place they’d pass through for quite some time, and it was important to keep some strength in reserve, in case they needed to make a quick getaway.
The three of them had decided to head toward Sound village, for the time being, mostly because Sasuke had a standing offer from Gen’yumaru to join the village, and he needed to head back there at some point anyway to get the second level of his third-eye seal finalized. Naruto had a personal interest in the seal now, too. He had his own reason to seek power, and it was possible that the odds weren’t really quite as bad as ninety percent—if it had anything to do with a ninja’s inherent chakra capacity, for example, he might have a perfectly reasonable chance of surviving. He was curious enough to want to know more, at least, and the advantages it gave Sasuke were clear. It wouldn’t be enough on its own to seize the reins of the world like the First Hokage had done, but he had to start somewhere.
Hinata didn’t think that their recapture would be a particularly high priority for Leaf, and the search area was growing rapidly by the hour. In the worst case Sai might have been scheduled to meet a second team that very night, or to report in somewhere immediately following the act. His absence might theoretically have been noted within the hour, and a message might have been relayed by pigeon to inform Leaf two hours later. If the jounin stationed at the nearest base authorized an immediate pursuit, and guessed their direction correctly, then the ones chasing them still would have been left far behind once they’d ran out of chakra. If they managed to relay the message up to the next base they could have kept up the chase a little further, but even if someone back in Leaf did know that he housed a tailed beast, it was very unlikely that the jounin based out in the forest did, and that they would expect him to have reached Hot Springs in a single night. More likely they’d try to encircle the three of them within a region they’d left behind hours ago.
If they could evade immediate recapture, even just for a few days, then their fates beyond that point would be in the hands of whatever village they ended up settling down in. A very small number of missing-nin were strong enough to perpetually roam wherever they pleased, living off the produce of the civilian hamlets they passed through, but that required the kind of strength that made entire teams of jounin back off when they saw you—the strength of someone like Sasuke’s brother Itachi, not three kids who looked young enough to be out on an academy field trip.
Naruto wasn’t certain exactly what the lives of most missing-nin were like, but he suspected that it shouldn’t be too hard for someone of chuunin rank to find a village willing to take them in—or even to pay for the privilege. A simple tally of the total number of chuunin and jounin in a village was a pretty good approximation of the country’s true strength, and the illustrious bloodlines of the Hyuuga and Uchiha would offer real prestige alongside the additional manpower to whatever country they might decide to call home.
There was of course the risk that they would be traded right back to Leaf, but as long as they made sure to extract some kind of public commitment to mutual fidelity then that sort of betrayal would probably be diplomatically costly enough to outweigh whatever small sum Leaf would be willing to pay for their return. When so many of the strongest jounin had large foreign bounties it was important for villages to make clear that they wouldn’t simply auction off their ninja to the highest bidder—even when it might be profitable in the short term. If Leaf moved to reveal his status as a jinchuuriki, to make him undesirable, he could probably still just offer to marry into whichever clan would pay the most to have his tailed beast pass into their bloodline—maybe he could even set up a bidding war.
Yeah. Things were bad, but not too bad. The situation could still be salvaged.
Everything would be a lot better once they made it safely to Sound.
The cave was quiet when Naruto awoke.
Sasuke was still sleeping, beside him, with Hinata sitting watch. Nobody dead yet. She waved good morning as he sat up.
Naruto shuffled over to sit down next to her.
“No problems overnight?”
“Nothing yet,” she whispered. “We still have a while before Sasuke will wake up.”
Naruto nodded. “Do you want to get some more sleep then? I’ll sit watch.”
Hinata shook her head. “I’m okay.”
“You sure?” Naruto asked. “No need for both of us. We might not have as good an opportunity in the next few days.”
“I, um—actually I, slept a little while you were carrying me, so…”
“Oh,” he said. “Well… I guess it’s good to know I’m smooth.”
Naruto looked outside the cave with his byakugan. He saw the three of them hidden away amongst the red, rocky landscape, in complete isolation.
“You know, Hinata… you probably don’t have to actually do this,” he said. “Leaving Leaf, I mean.”
She tucked her head into her knees.
“…Sasuke and I, we’ve got no family left anyway,” he said. “We’ve both been alone for a while—I know the Hyuuga haven’t treated you well lately, but there’s still a chance that you could make a life in Leaf, you know?”
Hinata said nothing
“I didn’t even have a chance to check with you before I put us on this path,” he said, “but if you just waited here—or if one of my clones took you back over the border, the scouts would take you back alive and you could tell them that I tricked you, say you had no part in Sai’s death. You could say I coerced you into giving me your eye, too—heck, you could even take it back with you, if you wanted. I’m not sure how they’d react, but I think there’s a pretty good chance they would forgive you. They might even take you back into the family again. You could have your old life back… But if you stay with us much longer… it’ll be a lot harder to play innocent later, if you change your mind.”
Hinata stared down at her feet.
“Am I slowing you down?” she asked.
“What? No, of course—” Naruto said. “Well, I mean, technically, yes, I could travel faster without you or Sasuke, but that’s only true in a literal sense, not connotationally—I’m not saying I want you to leave, I just think—I think… life might be better, for you. If you left.”
Hinata looked up at him. It felt strange for her to make eye contact. “I think… you are wrong,” she said. “It would not be better.”
Naruto smiled. “Okay… I guess it’s in your hands, then,” he said. “Let’s just hope we’re not all back in Leaf next week being executed for treason.”
“I would prefer being executed for treason in Leaf than executed in the forest for no reason at all…”
“I’m almost hoping that Leaf did plan to kill us, just because of how stupid I’d feel if Sai turned out to be innocent,” Naruto said. “Well, I mean, I guess he really was innocent, in a way. He was just obeying orders, like he’d been trained to… Disobeying would have been dangerous, but those orders came from someone who was just behaving reasonably in their own way, and so on and so forth for everyone else. There’s nobody really to blame except the world itself. Like I’ll have to get revenge on nature or something… I don’t know…”
She looked at him, curious.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot since Kakashi died,” he said. “I know it’s stupid, but I want to do something about it. Not just hurt the people who killed him—that would just feel like I’m being a part of it, you know? If I just went after Danzo, nothing would really change… I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out.”
“…I think you could do it,” Hinata said. “I’ve noticed… when—even when there’s a problem that seems like it couldn’t be solved, you don’t stop, or die, you just—you grow, and you keep growing, until you’re big enough and strong enough that it can’t hurt you.”
The three of them set off north when Sasuke awoke, but they moved at a walk rather than make any unnecessary haste; they would be passing through some pretty densely populated areas once they got closer to the northern coast, and if they arrived exhausted they’d be easy prey for the first foreign team they bumped into.
At a steady pace, making much use of shadow clones with the byakugan to scout, they travelled about thirty miles north that day before finding another cave suitable to rest in, but with his chakra now fully restored Naruto was able to leave a spare clone awake to keep watch while he got a good fraction of the necessary sleep. All the extra body heat had the bonus effect of keeping him warm—he wondered if there wasn’t some way to make use of a little trick like that, but then, what was “heat” even made of, anyway? Tiny fire? The ancients had probably known. It was probably something really clever, too. Like, it wasn’t really tiny fire, but rather the relative absence of tiny ice.
They had removed their Leaf village forehead-protectors to avoid revealing their identity immediately to anyone they happened to stumble across. Sasuke had turned his Uchiha jacket inside out to hide his clan’s emblem, too, and wrapped a cloth around his forehead. It would have been hard to conceal their byakugan from a more thorough inspection, but Hinata’s goggles and the bandage Naruto wrapped over his eye would function well enough for casual encounters.
They continued northwest the next day, keeping to the rockier regions and weaving between hamlets as best they could. Inevitably they passed a few civilians on the road, but they paid all customary deference to the trio as they passed, none of them daring question a group of ninja. Even in Hot Springs the civilians knew the smallest disrespectful gesture might mean the difference between life and death, with their lives a matter of so little consequence. And these were not the urban civilians living within the bounds of Leaf—the merchants and artisans who might on rare occasions even accumulate enough wealth to actually matter—these were the most common sort; the lowest of the serfs, who lived to work the land and feed the ones who ruled them so that the ninja might spend their time at war, fighting to secure their own futures at the expense of the unlucky farmers born on the wrong side of the border.
Civilian blood was stubborn, though; there was never any shortage. Even with five or ten civilian wives a ninja might still fail to sire a single heir with shinobi blood—a child who possessed the yin and yang chakra to form and shape as a weapon—it took a marriage of two ninja to reliably produce a third.
It wasn’t an enviable life to toil in the dirt year after year, but Naruto could see for himself now that inside them was nothing but the nature chakra present in all living creatures; an inward appearance less comparable to a ninja than to a shrub.
Their first real unexpected encounter since leaving Leaf was with a trio of Sound chuunin scouting near the Hot Springs border. Naruto saw them with his byakugan from a safe distance, but rather than withdrawing he left a clone out in the open to speak with them as Hinata and Sasuke concealed themselves nearby.
The Sound ninja approached with caution, fearing a trap, but eventually he was able to coax them close enough to communicate. He told them he had business with Gen’yumaru, and wanted safe passage to their village.
After a brief conversation between themselves, and a short negotiation, it was agreed that the Sound team would escort the three of them to the village, but would keep their distance on the way. One of the three was ex-Hot Springs himself, and he could tell that they weren’t natives of his old country. There probably weren’t more than a hundred ninja left in Hot Springs, these days, so it wasn’t too surprising that one might expect to recognize another. Leaf village was probably unique in being large enough that two chuunin could be strangers to one another more often than not.
Travelling inland took most of the rest of the day, and after the initial tensions relaxed a little he saw one of the Sound ninja summon an earth clone and dispatch it as a messenger to the village. He’d once heard that unlike a shadow clone, an earth clone could take a heavy beating before they fell apart, and were actually sometimes useful in battle even to regular ninja, though they couldn’t reincorporate any of their new experiences with the main body when they died—the fact that there even was any ‘main body’ was a big difference in itself. He would have loved to be able to experiment with it, but it was an earth-element technique, and it hadn’t been in the Leaf library, anyway.
A Sound jounin met them a few miles out from the village and joined with their escort for the rest of the way.
When they finally reached Sound village they found Gen’yumaru himself waiting outside to personally welcome them back.
He was dancing from one foot to the other, giggling. “Sasuke, Sasuke, Sasuke! Can it be true? I heard you were coming from in Hot Springs but I almost didn’t believe it!”
Sasuke nodded as they approached. “Yeah… Hi.”
“And I heard you passed your examinations too, top of the pack! C’mere you…!” He opened his arms wide for a hug. “I just wanna eat you up.”