Sasuke stared in disbelief. He'd made steady progress on climbing the tree. He'd be able to finish before Naruto even managed to go half way, but the blond idiot managed to somehow have huge jumps in skill from nowhere. Naruto would stall for hours at the same height and then suddenly go a full two or three meters higher. Then one night, after Orochitama stopped coming around and the client's grandson acted like a little asshole, Naruto stormed out of the house and stayed gone for the whole night.
Then everything changed.
The moments of Naruto stalling out and making no progress became few and far between. He had developed a zealous focus that Sasuke recognized. A single mindedness that let one ignore all the distractions around them and make real progress. The kind of focus that skipped meals, that didn't notice when people called out to you, that made you unaware of your bleeding fingers and sore muscles. Sasuke knew the look well. He saw it in the mirror often enough.
Naruto having it was just unnatural though. Uzumaki was supposed to be distractible, silly, and unthinking of anything that didn't involve Sakura or ramen. But he and Sakura both struggled to get their teammate away from his training area, much less into the house.
Sasuke had stepped up his own training, doggedly keeping his lead, despite the fact that Naruto seemed able to just keep going, as if the cheerful optimism was just converted to a fuel source that kept him going beyond what anyone should be capable of.
And now Sasuke had lost his lead. Naruto had shot past him by a full meter, and they only had two meters of tree left.
Now he was faced with a choice. Did he risk pride on Naruto getting to the top first? Or did he...ask for help.
A shiver of revulsion ran through him.
No. He wouldn't let pride get in the way. He'd bow his head to even the most terrible of demons if it meant that he could kill It-
If he could kill his enemy.
"Naruto." Sasuke stated. The blond didn't even twitch. "Naruto!" He called again.
"Wha-? Huh?" Naruto turned to look over at him. "What do you want? Is it lunch time?"
"How are you-" the words caught in his chest like a slab of spiked lead. "What are you doing that's helping you advance so quickly?" He growled out. The words tasted bitter.
Naruto blinked a few times before looking up at the two trees. The orange-clad ninja's eyes went wide before he leaned his head back and looked at Sasuke like a tyrannical lord would look at a beggar.
"Huehuehue." Naruto said in an obviously faked laugh. "Need help from your superiors Sauske?"
Sasuke restrained from punching the bastard in his smug face.
"Forget it." He growled out and turned to walk away. He didn't have to deal with this bullshit.
"No. Wait. Stop." Naruto spoke up, voice sounding as reluctant as his own had earlier.
"Why?" Sasuke asked back.
Silence reigned in the clearing for a moment, the cool night air rustled leaves and the sounds of crickets filled the air. Finally Sasuke started to away again.
"We need to help each other. This is...too important. We need to both be as strong as we can." Naruto stated, stopping him in his tracks.
"What?" The only thing restraining him from asking how the Dead Last ever thought he could help Sasuke grow stronger was the simple fact that he's the one that started with asking for help.
"I sent a Kage Bunshin into town." Naruto stated, voice suddenly solemn.
"And?" Sasuke asked, not seeing how the two relate. "Why would you do that anyways?
"I wanted to see if I could find Orochitama or that other ninja she said is hanging around." Naruto responded with a shrug. "So anyways, I sent one to town-"
"You did WHAT?" Sasuke gasped. "Why the hell would you go looking for her? Or for the other S-rank ninja? Do you have any idea what that actually means?"
"What? I just wanted to check on her. She's a friend."
Sasuke placed a hand against his face and sighed. What kind of idiot goes running off to find an S-rank ninja while only a genin?
"She's not our friend Naruto!"
"Anyways!" Naruto said, ignoring his comment, "I sent a kage bunshin into town. I looked around a bit and...It's bad there Sasuke."
"Bad?" Sasuke said, his anger draining away. "Bad how?"
"There was the kid. Like five years old." Naruto looked to the sky and shoved his hands in his pockets. "She was living in a box. An actual box. And she was so thin...even through her clothes I could see her ribs Sasuke."
"There are lots of starving people in the world Naruto." Sasuke stated. Gentle wasn't really something he could manage, he settled for matter-of-fact.
"Maybe." Naruto stated begrudgingly. "But Emiko is only there because Gato killed her parents, then her brother died when he was sick and the night was cold."
"Emiko?" Sasuke asked in confusion.
"The kid." Naruto replied.
"Wait. You talked with her?" He asked in surprise. For some reason he had expected Naruto to just walk away. Keep searching. Not go up and talk with the random homeless kid.
"Yeah." Naruto said. "I took her to Tsunami. She said she'd make sure the girl was taken care of."
"I mean...that's sad Naruto." Sasuke said and he meant it. If nothing else he could understanding wanting to help an orphan. "But what does one girl have to do with the training?"
"It's not just one though." Naruto said. "There was also Old-Man Tadashi, who lives in his son's burned down house. Gin, who's mom killed herself. Haruka, who's missing a leg after a fight with one of Gato's thugs. Renji, a fisherman with no boat now. Daisuke, who-"
Sasuke watched with wide eyes as Naruto continued on, listing person after person. Naruto, who could hardly be bothered to remember someone's name on most days, listed dozens of names and the wrongs done to them. As the list continued Naruto's face sagged and tears began to pour down his cheeks, and Sasuke just watched in astonishment.
Sasuke wanted to ask how Naruto even knew all this. That there was no way that he would have stopped and gotten to know all these people. It was clear that Naruto had done just that, the idiot wasn't smart enough to make that many names and stories on the fly. But a part of him rebelled at the idea that Naruto cared enough to stop and help this weak and helpless civilians.
"And that's why we need to beat Gato! We have to stop this Sasuke! He's starving them! Beating them!" Naruto's hand gripped at his own chest as if desperate to grip his own heart. "Make them live...alone."
Sasuke felt his own heart clench. Sasuke didn't care for it.
"So what? What does that have to do with you getting up the tree faster?" Sasuke demands.
"Because I know Zabuza will be back. And I know that he's probably not the worst thing that's gonna show up. And I also know that all of that doesn't matter." Naruto stated, standing taller than Sasuke had ever seen him. The blond smacked one fist into the palm of his hand with a meaty smack. "Because even if I gotta fight the Old Man Hokage himself. I'm not leaving these people until Gato is gone!"
All at once Sasuke realized why he had trouble believing Naruto earlier. Why he didn't think that Naruto would stop to help all those random lost souls. The most simple of reasons.
He couldn't imagine doing it himself, and Sasuke just wasn't sure how that made him feel.
"So, what? You think just because you're fighting for these broken strangers that you're stronger now?" He asked to change the subject.
A 500-watt smile came over his face. "I'm beating you, aren't I?"
"Tch." Sasuke said and looked away. Still. Naruto was getting results. "Fine."
Sasuke looked back up the tree. Days of work scaring the tall pine. Sasuke heaved a sigh.
"For the lost and broken strangers." Sasuke stated.
"Nah." Naruto interrupted. "For those forcibly made to be alone."
"For those made to be alone." Sasuke agreed.
He ran at the tree.
Kakashi leaned against the wall and let his body relax. The aches and pains in his bones were going away. Another night of rest and he'd probably be able to use chakra again without injuring himself. Chakra exhaustion was less like normal fatigue and more like a pulled muscle. It didn't stop you from using it, it just was painful and rushing things could permanently injure you. That said, Zabuza would probably be recovered enough to fight tomorrow as well. Or at least be damn close to it.
How quick a body heals wasn't an exact science.
Kakashi perked up as he felt two presences approach. He instantly recognized them as his students. Partly it was the feel of their chakra. The two had many skills, but neither tended to hide their presence as they walked around.
Though really the major hint to the identity was-
"Kaaaaaakaaaaaashiiiiiiiii." A loud voice yelled through the door before it was violently wretched open, "Sensei!"
He considered getting onto the boys volume, but then he caught sight of the glow on his students face. Even Sasuke's face looked lighter than usual.
"Ma. Did my cute little genin get it?" He asked.
"We nailed it-dattebayo!"
Kakashi couldn't stop his smile. For all that this mission had been a pain in his ass, he couldn't help but be proud of his team. Each of them had grown and changed, allowing him to see the beginnings of the fabulous shinobi that they would become.
"So, which of you got to the top first?" He asked.
"Uhhhh." Naruto droned as he looked at Sasuke, who shared the questioning glace.
Neither of them knew? They didn't pay attention to their rival when they reached the top of the tree?
He honestly wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad one.
"Of course it was me."/"I reached it first." The two stated at the same time.
"Oh come on! I was way in the lead." Naruto bragged.
"For like five minutes before I passed you." Sasuke scoffed.
Fire began to spark in their eyes and Kakashi acted quickly before the two could dissolve into an argument.
"Naruto. If you would, I think Tsunami-san had been asking for you. Could you go see what she needs?" Kakashi asked.
"Huh? Oh. Sure I guess." Naruto answered. "We'll finish this later, ya bastard." With a parting stink eye, Kushina's legacy left the room.
The last loyal Uchiha smirked after Naruto. For once, the scion of the sharigan's face looked more boyish in that moment than he'd ever seen before. It confirmed to him all the more that what he was about to do was the correct course of action.
"Sasuke. Follow me. I need to talk to you."
A professional mask of indifference slid over the boy's face, barely hiding the fear.
God. Was that what he looked liked at that age?
Kakashi walked out to dock just behind the house. The old wood groaned under his feet. He could walk lighter, aim for stepping on the supports in just the right way, and avoid making any sound, but something about the creaking of old wood always just seemed to comfort him.
Sasuke stepped up beside him.
"So. We're in a bad spot." Kakashi stated.
"Hn." Sasuke acknowledged.
"We should probably run." The Copy-Nin continued as he looked out into the water.
Sasuke tensed and didn't respond immediately. Kakashi didn't press it. He let the implication hang in the air as he glance up to the sky. Wave had little light pollution, and the sky was filled with stars. You could even see the subtle glow of light that hung about the stars in only the most deserted of places. Though not quite as bright as the deserts of Suna at night.
"Naruto won't run." Sasuke stated finally.
"I can handle him." Kakashi said. "I'd rather he be alive and pissed than dead."
"I-" Sasuke hesitated before continuing, "I'm not going to run."
Why did the people he cared about always have to be self sacrificing idiots?
"Okay." He said whilst running a hand through his silver hair.
"Okay? That easily?"
Kakashi found the surprise in his voice vaguely insulting.
"Sakura said the same thing earlier, and I'm not heartless. I want to help these people too." His student shifted uncomfortably. "If we stay though, we have to send a message back to Konoha. As soon as humanly possible. It's unlikely, but we could get reinforcements in time."
"Reinforcements?" Sasuke asked in surprise, likely not realizing that was an option. Though he thought on it for a further moment before turning a chin up in defiance. "I'm not taking the message."
"I didn't expect you to." Kakashi took the paper out of his pouch he had been working on all day. A complex array of seals on it's surface.
"A...messaging seal?" Sasuke guessed.
"Of sorts. A summoning seal. With just a bit of my chakra you can use it to summon one of my nin-dogs. But, if you do that, it will mark you. You will be tied to my summons, and could learn to summon them again on your own."
There was a sharp intake of breath.
Good. His student knew the implication. Summons were a deeply personal thing with ninja. Summons aren't often shared with even your closest friends. It was the sort of thing you passed down to your children. To your family.
Or to an apprentice.
An apprentice to a ninja was as good as blood. It was someone beyond just a genin student. It was someone that you trusted not just with your technique, but your way of life, your nindo. If things weren't so dire, he'd never consider doing this. Sasuke was a good kid that needed a lot of help, but it wasn't the sort of thing he'd want to do. Not yet. Not till Sasuke could show himself as worthy of the position.
Multiple S-ranked ninja showing on a C-rank mission tended to change one's priorities though.
"So...I'd be your apprentice." Sasuke stated.
"If you wanted to be. But either way, I need this done. If I do it myself tonight there's a good chance I won't be ready for Zabuza."
"Why me? Why not Sakura or Naruto?"
The very fact he asked that was a fantastic sign.
"While my summoning isn't as intensive as some other's, it still requires more chakra than Sakura can handle right now. And Naruto..." Kakashi trailed off. "Well let's just say Naruto already has someone that wants to be his master."
"Really? Naruto?" Sasuke asked askance.
"It takes all kinds."
"So it's because they aren't well suited." Sasuke said with a nod.
"Yeah." Kakashi acknowledged, "And also because you are a lot like me. Possibly too much."
The sounds of the night filled the silence. It was a big decision, so Kakashi let him consider it.
Kakashi inhaled deeply. The cool night of Wave made the damp air crisp and invigorating. Kakashi had never been one for fishing, but it made him want to sit somewhere with a cane pole.
"So how do I do it?" Sasuke asked.
Decision made then.
Kakashi settled once more into the role of teacher.
I gave a stretch of my arms and a hearty yawn before getting out of my hammock. The morning sun not yet having risen. Kidomaru and Tayuya stood up behind me.
The last few days had been incredibly boring, but we had to prepare for everything else to be in place. Communication back to Sound, for things to get in place, to hope that Mei would back out and not get involved. No luck on the Mei front. I'd managed to catch glimpse of her a few times.
One way or the other, things were ending today.
"Kidomaru-kun, are your summons in place?" I asked.
"Yes. Ready to go on the signal."
"Tayuya-chan? You know your target?"
"I'll have him out when you're ready Boss Lady."
I gave a nod. Azuma, my summon I'd left with the exploding tags, hadn't been killed and hadn't reported back, so those were all still in place.
In the distance, I felt chakra moving and killing intent rising.
Earlier than I thought. I'd hoped that I could do this before he recovered.
"You have your missions. Go." I order.
We disperse and I head directly towards the bridge, the center of the conflict.
I arrive about the same time Kakashi and his group do. I find my own dance partner on an island of pure rock a short distance from the bridge. An island that hadn't existed the day before.
I casually make my way over to it. The black stone plateau takes only seconds to climb and I join Mei's side, just out of arm's reach from her.
"So you really are going to start a fight?" Mei asked casually.
"No. I hope to end it if I can." I replied.
"It's a bit late for that, I think."
"Ara ara. It's never too late for that. We just lie to ourselves to feel better about it." I respond again.
Mei scoffs at the idea. Orochimaru would have scoffed too.
"If the fight goes poorly for Zabuza, are you going to jump in?" I asked. It was the key question here. Mei couldn't let people know she was part of the rebellion. They weren't out and fighting Yagura yet. If the Konoha ninja knew it would be an issue. If a spy found it in Konoha's archives it would immediately turn bad. Where as if it was information provided by known traitor and liar Orochimaru, it would be investigated thoroughly first.
If Mei revealed herself to the Konoha team she'd have to kill them to keep her cover safe.
"Yes. We can't lose here."
"Are you sure we can't just share the resource? I have reason for Yagura to be deposed myself."
"Yes, letting you get your claws into Mist could only end poorly. I've seen some of the labs you've had there. You are just as monstrous as Yagura."
"Why must you bully me so, Mei-chan?" I pouted.
Mei's face contorted between expressions of disgust and confusion.
That was a fair reaction from anyone that had seen one of Orochimaru's labs in the land of Mist.
"Ara ara. Such a sour face for your partner for the day." I chided before smoothing my sweater out a bit. The purple turtleneck looking far more appropriate for going to the local grocery store than wearing into battle. "Shall we make each other scream here or relocate a bit?"
Mei glared at me and widened her stance.
"Oh my! This close the children will hear us." I said before giving a tut of disproval. "Voyeurisms is all well and good so long as it's with consenting-"
A wave of lava spewed towards me.
The fight was on.