With this chapter, I have officially hit the 50k goal for NaNoWriMo! YAY! Thanks for coming this far with me! I'm gonna keep updating every day, but I hope you will understand if I take this Thursday off for Thanksgiving. :)
"You know, I'm starting to think you made it up. Think about it. This forest is weird and creepy, you were concussed—it makes perfect sense for you to hallucinate, don't you think? This is, like, prime hallucination real estate. I'm pretty sure we've passed that same tree a million times, but I've made sure to mark it the last couple of passes, and every time we reach it again the mark is gone. It's incredible, really. Not even fiction can compare to the reality I'm witnessing, here, and I write it!"
Jiraiya continued to chatter, his thoughts flowing straight out his mouth as he gaged the reactions of his Uchiha guide. It was a little odd, having the recently ascended Clan Head lead him through the forest like a glorified tour guide, but he wasn't complaining. The Uchiha as a whole were all rather stuffy, so it was always fun to push their buttons, especially one as tight laced as Fugaku. Plus, he wasn't lying about the forest being creepy. The air was too still, too quiet, too heavy. He could feel it settling on his shoulders, an unwelcome burden that only increased with every step he took beneath the canopy.
No wonder Iwa had abandoned this place. Still, it begged the question of why they'd defended so fiercely for as long as they did. Clearly, Konoha had gained nothing by acquiring the accursed forest. The only signs of people he'd seen thus far were the ones left by Konoha. If the forest had a native people, they were very good at covering their tracks.
Of course, that was why sensei had sent him out to this desolate corner of the world. He was a people person, after all, and having such a glaring blind spot in his spy network was a real no-go. Even if this forest was handed right back to the Land of Earth after the end of the war, it was only a matter of time until the next one. He needed to establish a foothold while he still had access to it.
"It really is amazing," he said again, this time more to himself than to Fugaku, his ever silent guide trudging on ahead like just walking through the forest would establish his dominance over it. "To think, Sakumo actually failed a mission. It really makes you wonder what kind of person the little princess is, to resist such a charming character."
That got Fugaku's hackles up. His whole body stiffened at the mention of the little girl at the heart of nearly every report involving the infamous temple. Jiraiya had read through them all, spending extra time on Sakumo's since it had the most information on her character. It was the closest he'd likely ever get to knowing her, himself, since the temple was most unlikely to appear before either him or Fugaku. 'Impure motives' was practically his motto. It was a shame, though. From what he'd read, the girl sounded like a real cutie. Maybe he'd come back in a few years and see if she showed herself.
Once again, that same tree came into view, but with a marked difference. Nestled in the base of the tree was a shrine, black lacquered tablets standing erect with lit sticks of incense and a plate of what looked and smelled like braised pork belly. Jiraiya ran over to it, delighted at the first break in monotony since he first set foot in the forest. As he read the words painted on the tablets in still wet gold paint, he snorted loudly.
Uchiha Fugaku's Pride
May The Wheel Turn On It Again
Those words, while hilarious, were also very revealing. He'd never seen a memorial tablet written like that before. In the Land of Fire, the person's name was usually all that was written. The well wishes written here might be a local custom—if a local people even existed—but there was more important information to be gleaned.
Someone was following them.
Jiraiya wasn't a sensor, by any means, but even he could feel the chakra in the air. Every breath he took was thick with it, almost cloying in his lungs. For the young Head of the Uchiha Clan, it must be even worse. The memorial plaque had a double meaning then, referencing both his past failures and his current inability to sense what could only be little Benihime herself picking a fight with him.
Indeed, the younger man was vibrating with suppressed rage. If Jiraiya poked him, he'd probably burst into flames.
Well, might as well pay his respects. Why waste such a perfectly good set up?
He got on his knees before the shrine, clapping his hands and bowing his head in mock prayer. He could feel the waves of anger rolling off his companion, but he was also rewarded with the sound of childish laughter echoing through the trees. The sound was clearly muddled by a genjutsu of some kind, as he couldn't pinpoint its origin, and he was clearly meant to hear it, or the forest would have remained as artificially silent as before. He was playing right into her hands, but that was fine. Having Fugaku on hand was pretty lucky, too. He could use him as a foil, setting himself up as the preferable option between them. By going along with her childish prank, he also established himself as a fun guy she might want to play with again, someday. Not his usual tactic when setting up a means of future contact, but he had a feeling his normal route wouldn't win him any points with the literal child laughing in the canopy.
"This is very well done," he said as he got to his feet after adding a couple of food pills to the offering tray. "How fast do you think she did this?"
Fugaku said nothing, but he did growl rather menacingly. Scary.
"This does prove me right, though. We have been going in circles! How else would she have known we'd pass by here?" He shook his finger at the slowly imploding Fugaku. "I thought you knew where you were going."
Oh, the Uchiha was seething. Ha!
This was fun. He should collude with children more often.
"I wonder," he said, pitching his voice loudly so his hidden coconspirator could hear more clearly. "If we keep walking, will there be another surprise in store for us? This trip is suddenly so much fun. Let's go!"
He took the lead then, dragging the frothing Uchiha behind him. As much fun as he was actually having, indulging the little girl could not be his main purpose. He needed to actually meet her, speak with her, if he could. This was an opportunity he didn't think he'd ever get and he couldn't afford to waste it. If anyone was going to know about the locals in this place, it was one of the three confirmed people living there.
Granted, he wasn't sure he wanted to meet the other ones. A jinchuriki? No, thank you.
Once again, the tree came into view. The black wooden memorial plaques were still there, but when he kneeled before them, this time, there were new words painted on in dripping gold paint.
Uchiha Fugaku's Patience
May Its Strength Never Wane
He and the poor beleaguered Fugaku couldn't have taken more than five minutes to traverse the loop, so she had to be somewhere close, lying in wait. He didn't dare hope he could get the jump on her. The genjutsus at work in this forest were beyond even the Uchiha. The reports made it clear there was a seal or two at work, as well, but without immediate access, he wouldn't be able to discern a counter seal. They—Jiraiya, Fugaku, every Konoha shinobi in the forest—were stuck.
It didn't help that the girl had a strong, well documented grudge against Konoha. Even if they said pretty please, the odds of getting any help were incredibly low. Maybe, if he made a big enough fool of himself, she would be inclined to help him if not them.
He got up and began walking the circuit again, tugging Fugaku along behind him. With every go round, the trees closed in on them, the sunlight dimming as the canopy became tighter, the ground beneath their feet becoming uneven as more and more roots twisted over each other. If this continued for much longer, they'd have no choice but to turn back.
Again, the tree appeared. Again, there was a shrine. He kneeled before it eagerly.
May The Venerable Elder Take A Breather
Fugaku's anger dissipated with a poorly concealed laugh and Jiraiya spent longer than was probably wise staring at the fresh paint.
How…how had she learned his name?
Laughter echoed in the air, again, and it was a lot less cute now that it was aimed at him.
"You know what," he said, forcing himself to shrug it off. "I'll give it to you. You apparently pull the same trick on Sakumo, so it's cool. I'll forgive you. I do have a question, though. Is there a reason you don't want us to go past this tree? Is it special? Are we breaking some incredibly obscure taboo we could never have known about without you telling us?"
He wasn't actually expecting an answer. Fugaku sighed into his hand, lamenting the fate that had him stuck out in the woods with a man so much better looking than he was. Naturally, they were both very surprised when the voice actually spoke instead of just laughing at them.
"Well, Iwa's demolition squad left a minefield in the clearing not two yards past it, so…"
"Aww, you're protecting us? That's so sweet of you!"
"Ridiculous," Fugaku grumbled under his breath. "We've been here for weeks and we haven't found any minefields."
"You're welcome," the girl said blandly, earning another surprised laugh from Jiraiya.
She was actually talking to them! What an unexpected surprise! He needed to do something to put himself in her good graces. There was no saving Fugaku, but he, at least, had some redeeming qualities.
"So, you're saying you've been trapping our shinobi in genjutsus to save them from the minefields?"
"Not trapping," she replied with a huff. "If you go back the way you came you should end up back at your camp."
Fugaku didn't like that. "You know where the camp is?"
"Of course," she sniffed. "It's my forest. I know where everything is."
We~ll. That was handy. If only there was some way to get that knowledge out of her head an onto a map.
"You know, Hime-chan, I can't help but wonder how you knew my name." He gestured at the memorial tablets. "I don't remember introducing myself to you. How's about we get formally acquainted."
The air was filled with the sound of dramatic retching. "Ewwww~! Fuck off you grody old man! My spies are better than yours!"
Well. The kid deserved a prize. She made Fugaku laugh.
She also threw down a gauntlet she couldn't take back.