Tsume sniffed the air, loudly, in that way she knew Hiashi hated. Sure, she could do it quietly, but then he wouldn't make that constipated expression, and where's the fun in that? Shibi said nothing, as always, perfectly content to let his teammates rile each other up until they finally came to blows, at which point he'd say something insulting and they'd set aside their differences to unite against him.
It was a good system.
As it was, Hiashi was a little distracted, his byakugan activated and scanning the forest. They were, technically, on a mission, but weren't they always? Since the war began, their tracking team was always being sent behind enemy lines to take out key players or sabotage supply lines. As much as she hated to admit it, they weren't exactly a combat team. All the sneaking about was starting to make her restless.
Kuromaru growled back to her from his place further in the trees, confirming what she already knew from her own scenting: there was nothing. The blasted ruins the Hokage insisted they'd find were nowhere to be found, the puce green moss blending every tree into the other until her brain swam with it. If she never saw the color green again, it would be too soon.
She wasn't entirely sure what the Hokage was hoping to accomplish, reaching out to a kid who clearly didn't want to be found. Sure, her supposed kekkei genkai sounded pretty cool, but the entire Aburame Clan could talk to beetles. What did this one child have that he was willing to send his best tracking team to look for her?
Well, they were encouraged to look for her while they just happened to be in the area. If they found her, they were to provide her with supplies they carried just in case.
Right. She wasn't stupid, no matter what Hiashi said.
They weren't having much luck fulfilling their 'secondary' mission. There was something wrong with the forest around them. The obscene carpet of moss aside, it was eerily silent. No birds called above them, no animals shuffled through the undergrowth, no insects—. No. There were insects. Tons of them. Beetles with brightly colored shells crawled up and down the trees, their antennae waving frantically, but they made no sound. They didn't fly or hiss or make any of the other sounds she knew beetles could make. They just…sat there. Watching them.
Ok, maybe the kid's kekkei genkai had some potential. If she could use this literal army of bugs to watch them, then she'd be great for espionage.
She turned to Hiashi. The twist of his scowl told her he had as much luck as she and Kuromaru had in finding the ruins. The map said they should be right in front of them and Ino-Shika-Cho described them as a massive stone complex. Something like that should stand out against such a monotonous backdrop, right? At the very least, stone smelled different from trees!
"We tried!" She announced, throwing her hands up in the air. "The spooky ghost ruins don't like us. Let's go home."
"We cannot," Shibi interjected, speaking for the first time that day. "Why? Because the 'spooky ghost ruins' are right there."
Tsume and Hiashi turned in tandem, looking past their teammate at the crumbling stone stairway cut into a hill that had definitely not been there two seconds ago. How?
She inhaled deeply. Yep, that was the smell of stone, alright. A glance at Hiashi calmed her irrationally rising anger. If his precious byakugan hadn't seen it, then the genjutsu was just hella amazing and she didn't need to be so upset.
Still, why had it suddenly appeared, and to Shibi?
Was it the bugs? It was the bugs, wasn't it?
Shibi began climbing the stairs, leaving his teammates to trail behind him. Kuromaru ran up to Tsume's side, tongue lolling.
This was not here.
"I know," she told him, reaching down to scratch between his ears. "Don't worry about it, Hiashi didn't find it, either."
The Hyuuga sent her a pale eyed glare at the jab and she grinned, wide and feral. Ah, was there anything better than pissing him off?
The top of the stairs gave way to a level swath of cobblestone. A large, dilapidated building sat waiting for them, a fluffy grey cat watching them from the roof. It took one look at Kuromaru and arched its back, hissing loudly before running off.
Hmm, there must not be many dogs around. Cats only acted like that when they weren't socialized around them, after all. Although, it was weird to see a cat there, at all. Feral cats were a thing, sure, but even they tended to group around human settlements, if only for the increased number of small rodents living in their wake. What kind of prey was that cat hunting in this gods forsaken forest? Beetles?
A quick inhale told her there were a lot more animals than just cats—plural—living in the area. Had those scents been covered up by the genjutsu, too? Why? What purpose would that serve?
They stepped out into what looked like an enclosed courtyard and Tsume fought down a wave of minor déjà vu. It almost looked like a shrine of some sort. She hadn't been to one since way before the war started, but her mother had dragged her to one often enough in her childhood for the basic layout to be branded in her memory.
If she made the connection, there was no way her teammates hadn't. Their Clans were way more traditional than hers and had their own shrines and gods to worship. If this shrine was anything like the ones she remembered, then there would be an alter or something similar for offerings. Wait, no. That would have been out by the stairs. It must have fallen to ruin with the rest of the building.
They were in the inner courtyard, now, a place usually forbidden to worshippers. The building across the stone laid yard probably once held sacred relics and texts. Now, it looked like it might have been overrun by monkeys, if their territorial perch on the roof was any indication. Another sniff told her otherwise, though, as the many scents of human occupation wafted from within.
So, there was a person here, after all.
She grinned widely. "Hey! Kid! We know you're here! We brought you some shit!"
Hiashi sighed, long and weary. "Must you be so crass? This is a child, not a chunin you can play around with."
She ignored him, stepping further into the courtyard. There was a pool of water to the left, and ripples on the surface told her it wasn't unoccupied. There were a lot of animal scents in this small enclosed space. Was that pool the only source of water? That would explain why they congregated despite the mix of predator and prey. Water tended to build truces even between the most bitter of natural rivals.
"I see this is a shrine," she said, pitching her voice so it carried. "I dunno what god it's for, but I'll leave an offering if you show me where."
She choked on her own saliva, pounding her chest to clear her throat. There were tears in her eyes as she turned to look at the wall above the watering hole where a figure was perched beside the cat that had run from Kuromaru. If she had to guess, she'd say the kid was around ten years old. Her hair was a crown of golden corkscrews, standing in sharp relief against her dark earth skin. Tsume's first instinct was to assign her to Kumo, but another look had her reconsidering. Something in the tilt of her green grass eyes and the warmth of her skin tone set her just left of Kumo. There was some there, to be sure, but there was something else, too, something Tsume couldn't place. Iwa and Kumo were allies, so a mix like this wasn't totally unexpected. Still, she hadn't been prepared to see it. The kid was wearing clothing typical of the region, but she'd clearly outgrown it. The blue fabric of her sleeves exposed her wrist and her white pants came to a stop only just below her knees. Her feet were bare and covered in dirt.
"What did you say, brat?" Tsume's voice was always hoarse, her choking fit definitely hadn't made it worse, shut up. "I'm being earnest here."
"Bullshit," the kid repeated, lips curling in a baring of teeth. "Get out of my temple, you Konoha fucks."
Oh. Oh. Under different circumstances, Tsume was sure she'd like this kid. As it was, she kind of already did.
"Don't be that way, kiddo. Are you mad because the last couple of idiots didn't leave an offering? They're stupid. That's all I can say."
Those green eyes stared her down. The same green as the sickening moss which blanketed the entire forest. The moss which swallowed sound and filled her nose with what she just knew was the scent of green. Like, the color.
"I'm angry," the kid said, words slow and measured even as her tone vibrated with rage. "Because you think you have the right to offer anything."
Well, that was just rude. Tsume was half joking when she'd brought up offerings, but now she was serious. What the hell was this kid's problem? It was a shrine, wasn't it? A temple? Offerings were standard, right?
"Tsume, shut up. Why?" Shibi's expression was as blank as always even in the face of her glare. "Because you are upsetting the child."
Hiashi scoffed quietly. "Did you expect anything less?"
She turned on him, a clawed finger raised to his smugly expressionless face. "You—!"
"Child," Shibi's words cut off the fight that would have ensued, and Tsume's hackles lowered with the return to routine. "We have not come to fight or offend. Apologies if we have done so."
The kid regarded Shibi for a long moment and Tsume watched as big ass beetle crawled up to sit on her chest. She titled her head as though listening to the insect before sighing, some of the tension leaving her little body.
"Fine. But only because Mushi likes you. And you," she pointed at Hiashi. "Keep your eyes to yourself."
Tsume had to bite her lip to keep from laughing out loud, the look of utter scandal on her teammate's face tickling all the right nerves. Maybe that brat wasn't so bad, after all.
The kid jumped down from the wall, landing on the surface of the water. Impressive. Especially for a kid her age. That wasn't something most Konoha shinobi learned until after graduating from the academy. Although, kids were graduating a lot younger, these days.
That grim thought had her speaking again, despite Shibi's warning.
"How old are you, kid?"
She stepped onto dry land just in time to avoid losing a limb to an absolute behemoth of a turtle. Damn.
"Holy shit, kid you're tall as fuck!"
Hiashi sighed, again, even going so far as to pinch the bridge of his nose. The child, for her part, looked up at Tsume with wide, surprised eyes.
"Am I really?"
Tsume nodded enthusiastically. "For sure! I thought you were ten!"
The kid looked more than a little pleased with this information, a little smile playing about her full lips. It was a definite improvement from the anger and disdain from literally two seconds ago. Kids were fickle, though.
"Here, brat," Tsume continued, hoping to ride on the wave of goodwill. "We come bearing gifts."
In an instant she was on her guard again, gaze jumping from adult to adult.
"Why?" Her voice was tense and she showed more teeth than necessary as she spoke. "What do you want?"
Tsume pulled the scroll from the kunai pouch strapped to her thigh. "Why would we want anything? Can't it just be a gift?"
"If it was from you, maybe, but it's not. It's from your village. This is the third time someone from Konoha has ended up at my temple. The first time was an accident, but you guys actually came looking for me. That's not the kind of thing you do while there's a war going on. Not unless you expect to get something in return."
Well, damn. The kid was smart.
Tsume crouched down and unrolled the scroll, busying herself with unsealing the supplies stored inside. When he found out about their 'secondary' objective, Chouza had forced them to include a lot more than the bare essentials the Hokage tasked them with. So, on top of some clothes—which might actually be too small, now that she thought about it—some preserved meat and dried vegetables, there were also cooking utensils, seeds, and candy, of all things. Tsume grinned as the kid's eye narrowed on the brightly colored stars.
"The war is the reason we are looking for you. Why? Because it would be advantageous to have a safe haven behind enemy lines."
The kid smiled, the expression small and unkind. "Yeah, I thought so. Take your shit and leave. I don't want anything from Konoha except reparations."
"Reparations?" Oh, no. Hiashi's tone was harsh with disbelief. "Iwa started this war, you ungrateful chit."
"Is that what your government told you?" There was a light in her eyes, something that reminded Tsume of the older, more disillusioned jounin. The ones who threw themselves into the most reckless fights and never made it home. "And you believed them? Swallowed what they fed you like a good little boy? Tch," she shook her head. "You don't even know your history, and you think you have the right to lecture me. Pathetic."
A flush was rising in Hiashi's pale face, his anger threatening to spill over. The Hokage wanted this kid on their side, though, so Tsume quickly intervened before he could ruin things.
"Tell us, then. What did Konoha do that you hate us so much?"
Those green eyes met hers, again, and Tsume had the strangest feeling she was looking at something way older than seven.
"You destroyed my temple."
"Explain. Why? Because this temple was not on our maps until recently."
The kid snorted and grumbled under her breath. "Yeah, 'cause Wolf's a fucking snitch." She looked up at Shibi. "You, of all people, should know this. Mushi says your people lived here, once, and worshipped Choumei."
Shibi flinched and Tsume turned to look at him, surprised by the overt reaction. There was an actual expression on his face, though it was partially obscured by his high collar and sunglasses.
"How do you…?"
He didn't even finish his sentence. Damn. The kid got him good.
That unfriendly smile was back on her face. "Because this is his temple, you dumbass. Did the army of bugs not give it away?" She shook her head, clicking her tongue in disappointment. "Poor Choumei. To be forgotten by his own priests. So unlucky."
Shibi was uncomfortable. He radiated unease. Tsume knew basically nothing about the Aburame Clan. They wanted it that way and most Clans were similar so it had never really bothered her that she knew only as much as her friend wanted her to. The Inuzuka weren't quite so secretive, but even they had things they didn't share, so it was fine.
Except right now. Right now, it was not fine. At all. She had no idea what the two bug people were talking about. There was an entire layer of shit she was missing out on and she didn't like it.
"I'm honestly surprised the Aburame ended up in Konoha, at all," the kid continued, sounding for all the world like a mother whose child had done the thing she told him not to only to face the consequence she said he would. "Seeing as Hashirama was the one to leave you homeless in the first place."
The brat smiled oh so smugly at their flabbergasted expressions. "Oh, didn't you know? Tsk, tsk, tsk. What do they teach you in those academies? Though, I suppose knowing your founder is a war criminal wouldn't exactly help you swallow the whole 'Konoha is the best' bullshit they shove down your throats." She sighed. "In the face of such glaring ignorance, I'm afraid it's my moral obligation to educate you. This temple," she spread her arms, the beetle on her shoulder taking flight and going who knew where. "Was built by the Sage of Six Paths, himself. For thousands of years, it stood as a center for culture and religion. Until, one day, Senju Hashirama found out what was inside it. He decided he wanted it and, in a single day, destroyed it. One man's greed outweighed an entire region's cultural heritage. That is Konoha's legacy. If you want to buy my loyalty, I'm afraid you'll have to pay your debts, first. Plus interest."
Hiruzen sighed, smoke billowing out from his mouth. He'd read the report in his hands a million times, it seemed, but he still couldn't quite understand what was written there. If the Aburame Clan Head hadn't come to speak with him privately about their relationship with god named Choumei, he might have dismissed the girl's tale as just that. A fantasy. A mad grab for power by an isolated child without any. Part of him was still tempted to do so, but the shaken looks on the team's faces told him it wouldn't go over well.
Still, it was hard to verify her claims. There was nothing in the records about Hashirama destroying a temple in the Land of Earth. Not even a single mention of what he might have taken from it, either. That…wasn't actually surprising. When Tobirama-sensei took over, he'd personally overseen a…purge, of sorts. The village was in danger of dissipating, internal conflict threatening to tear it apart at the seams. Certain facts were erased and forgotten to ensure social cohesion. It was one of the sacrifices a Hokage was expected to make. The survival of the village came before all.
He took another long draught from his pipe, having finally given in to the cravings which only increased with every passing day. If Tsunade wanted to yell at him for smoking indoors, she'd have to come back to do it, and he was finally coming to accept that she never would.
What to do, what to do…
The temple was in a good place for a base within Earth's borders and the genjutsus protecting it would go a long way to funneling in men and resources past the frontlines. Now that he knew it was there, he couldn't just pass it up. If the child could be persuaded to aid them of her own volition, then that would be best. If not…
Well, she was only one child.