So, at this point, our Unko-chan has been in the temple for two years! I know I'm moving really fast, especially compared to the other two fics in this series, but it'll slow down, eventually, and then y'all will be asking me to speed it up, again, lol.
The forest was miraculously untouched by the war raging within it. No. Not untouched. Unconcerned. Battlefields—bloody, pockmarked earth, toppled trees, bodies abandoned by their living comrades—disappeared before they could be marked on any map, the moss swallowing them whole and erasing all proof of human interference. Even the living feared standing still too long, lest they, too, be absorbed by the sea of green which insisted on disorienting everyone, regardless of allegiance.
It was mildly amusing to watch the two armies stumble through a region neither of their governments actually wanted. Iwa was happy to leave the entire accursed corner of Earth Country to its own devices. If any people lived among the trees, they were exempt from national taxation, if only because no one cared to brave the tree line. One might expect Konoha to be better equipped for arboreal combat, but they fared no better than their opponents, losing their way—and their supplies—more often than not. Still, the moss drenched forest was a convenient place to stage their conflict, well away from the things they wanted to protect.
It was incredibly vexing to be lost, himself, though.
He stepped into yet another clearing, identical in everyway to the one he'd just left, and his rage threatened to boil over. He could feel the caustic sting of magma bubbling in the back of his throat and he was sorely tempted to just let it spew and set the entire forsaken forest ablaze, bury it in molten stone and never see another speck of moss for the rest of his life. That would show it!
He swallowed down his anger and chakra. If he gave in, he'd give away his location, and then the idiots who liked to think themselves in charge would order him around; likely sending him to reclaim more bits of forest nobody cared about. If he could keep a low profile, then he would have a little time to himself where he didn't need to fight for a village that didn't give a shit about him, aeanyway.
He'd like to spend that down time somewhere other than the forest of hell, but he'd be stuck there if he didn't find his way out before his so-called comrades came across him in the infernal maze. He pumped chakra into his feet and ran up a tree, bursting through the thick canopy with a leap. He hung in the air for half a moment, taking in the unbroken field of green with a scowl.
No. Not unbroken.
The noxious blanket of canopy gave way before what looked like a building. Gravity began pulling him from the sky and pushed up off the tree below him with an explosion of leaves, propelling himself toward the anomaly. As he got closer, it became clear that it was a ruin of some sort, the stone worn and crumbling. He landed in the center of a square pool of water, ripples flaring out from beneath his feet. The herd of cattle drinking from it fled in a panic, rushing through a hole in the opposite wall. It was small courtyard, with buildings on either side, one in better shape than the other. His first instinct was to dismiss it as crumbling relic of days long past, but another look had him hesitating. There were signs of life. Ceramic jars lined the porch of the intact building, cloth coverings tied over their openings with twine. The courtyard was relatively free of leaf litter and the roof looked to be recently replaced with large round, handwoven trays of reed laid out atop it, laden with plants and meat set out to dry in the sun. Someone was living in the ruin. A group of forest dwellers, perhaps?
"Do you like your toes?"
He spun on his heel, tilting his head to look up at the person sitting on the wall above the pool. It was a child, looking far too much like Kumo's people to be a true native of the region. Their skin was too dark, their hair too light and curly. Well, the alliance between Iwa and Kumo was several generations old, now, so it wasn't too strange to see someone like them crawling around the backwaters.
They looked down at his feet then back up to his face. "Your toes. Do you like them?"
He shook his head, mentally trying to place their accent and failing. "Why?"
"You're gonna lose them if you don't move, soon."
He leapt away from the water, landing in the middle of the courtyard. Where he was standing only seconds before, something dove under the water's surface.
"Don't worry, Turtle," the kid said with a sad sigh. "One day. One day, you'll eat someone."
A turtle? Could turtles even get that big?
The child leapt from their place on the wall, landing only a few steps away from him. They—she, he realized from her manner of dress—crossed strong arms over her chest, thick, black criminal tattoos standing front and center on her wrists. Were they some kind of fashion statement among the wildmen, now? Her clothing was several sizes too small, the sleeves of her black shirt cut away to make room for her well muscled shoulders and her pants cut off at the knees. Her feet were bare and covered in filth.
Clearly, the forest dwellers weren't benefiting from their tax breaks as much as the taxpaying citizens claimed they were.
He crossed his own arms, mirroring the tall girl's stance with a scowl. "Where are your parents, brat? Get them out here."
She raised one short eyebrow at him. "I don't have parents."
He sniffed loudly, looking away. "You live here alone, then?"
"Yep. Well, unless you count Mushi." A giant rhinoceros beetle alighted onto her waiting palm. She grinned at him, revealing crooked eyeteeth. "He's my buddy."
He scoffed. "You know there's a war going on, right? Why haven't you evacuated to wherever it is your fellow savages have run off to?"
She laughed, the sound harsh and unfriendly. "Savages? We're not the ones at war, you know."
He clicked his tongue at her, brows furrowing. "If you stick around, you might get caught up in it. This forest is a hot spot of activity."
She cocked her head at him, a smile playing about her full lips. "You didn't notice?"
That put him on alert. She was a child, clearly poor and likely underfed, so she stood no chance against him, an elite shinobi and a jinchuriki, besides. Even if there was a secret army of forest folk waiting in the shadows, they would prove no challenge to him.
He didn't sense any other people, but there was a weird, claustrophobic sensation, like a heavy blanket had been laid over his senses. The seal on his chest tingled, like something was tickling it from underneath his skin.
"What is that?"
The kid shrugged, clearly in the know but unwilling to share. "If you can't tell, then you're not as cool as you think you are."
He laughed despite himself. What a bold thing to say to a shinobi. Was this girl not a civilian, like he first assumed? Did the forest dwellers even have shinobi? If they did, why weren't they fighting against the foreign ninja occupying their land?
"If the war finds you," he said, trying to keep his tone measured. "It won't be kind. You'll lose everything you have, here, and maybe even your life."
She grinned widely at him, a light twinkling in her verdant green eyes. "So, I should let a big strong shinobi like you stay here and protect me, is that it?"
He turned away with a huff. Damn. Was he that obvious? Truthfully, the ruin was more than he'd hoped to find in the godforsaken forest. He hadn't heard anything about it from his 'superiors', so, odds were, they didn't know about it. There was a supply of water, and clearly food, if the girl was living there on her own. It was the perfect place to avoid the war while also being in the area just in case he was desperately needed. If Konoha deployed their precious Nine Tails, he'd be ready, but he wouldn't be around for any of the tedious bullshit the smallminded idiots of his village insisted on forcing him and his fellow jinchuriki to do for them. Clearing trees? Any idiot in the Demolitions Corps could do that.
Honestly, he was just tired of it all. The stares, the jeers, the stupid hazing. Once the war was over, he'd probably just cut his losses and run. A shinobi of his caliber couldn't be found unless he wanted to be.
"What'll you give me?"
He turned back to the girl in surprise. "What?"
She shrugged, her mouth pulled down in an exaggerated frown. "Hey, if a guy as strong as you wants to stick around, I can't exactly stop you. Plus, this is a temple, and if it let you in then I can't really argue with it, you know? Still, you should at least pay rent, or something, you know? I don't like you, either," she added with a purse to her lips and a narrowing of her eyes. "So, I oughta get something extra, don't you think?"
He barked a laugh, shaking his head at her bold demands. "What's your name, kid?"
"Unko." He rolled the syllables around in his mouth, trying to figure out what kanji could possibly give a name like that a proper meaning. "I'm Roshi."
"I know," she grinned at the way he tensed. "But I won't tell you how. If you haven't figured it out yet, then that's a you problem."
Right. Because that wasn't a cause for concern.
"Tell you what, Unko-chan," Nope. He still couldn't wrap his brain around that name. "I can see that your 'temple' is a little worse for wear. I'll do some heavy lifting for you, how does that sound?"
She bit at the inside of her cheek, looking him over with a judging gaze. What was she gonna do? Say no? She wasn't nearly strong enough to turn him down, but he wasn't that much of an asshole, either.
"Ok," she said after a long moment, nodding to herself. "That's fine. On one condition!" She held out one finger, her face scrunched angrily. "No fighting in the temple! It's sacred ground! If your enemies pay a visit, then you can't fight them!"
That was the whole point of staying at the temple. He, too, pretended to think it over before nodding. "You drive a hard bargain, but I accept those terms."
She grinned up at him. "Cool! It's been forever since I saw another human! Mushi's been my only friend for so long~!"
The beetle, now perched on her shoulder, made a strange hissing noise. She nodded.
"Yes, you're right. But I'm a human! I need human friends."
…He wasn't gonna ask. Nope. Bug people were the least freaky thing about this damned forest.
"How old are you, anyway, kid?"
What kind of eight year old—!? She was almost as tall as him!
No, he wasn't short, she was just obnoxiously tall! That Kumo blood was stretching her out!
Stupid brat. Tch.