The Serpent's Pass
As Naruto watched his brother, Aang, Sokka, and Toph begin their way to Full Moon Bay, he was unable to help but feel as though something wrong were to happen while they were separated, despite his last words. With Kurama shrunken and wrapped around his shoulders, the blonde shinobi made his way to Appa, who Katara would be flying across the lake and straight to the ferry's port.
"Alright, the sooner we leave, the sooner you three, and soon to be four, will be within the safety of the Walls of Ba Sing Sei." Naruto said with a bright smile.
"Thank you again, Mr. Uzumaki." Cheng said to the older teen who looked a little put out at his name.
"Maa, don't call me 'Mr.' Just Naruto will be fine." noting the man's nod and smile, he continued, "Now why don't I help you get onto Appa, Ying?"
The pregnant wife smiled at the blonde and said, "That would be greatly appreciated, Naruto."
Nodding, Naruto walked up to her and picked her up in a slight bridal-style, as she looked as though she were sitting rather than being carried like a bride in his arms, and jumped up onto Appa, using his wind manipulation to make the jump and landing a lot softer than usual. Ying looked shocked, as did her sister and husband when she was gently placed sat down on Appa's saddle, but the blonde just smiled pleasantly at them.
"I'm an air-bender," he admitted, "It's not that big of a deal, but I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone. I don't want to think of what the Fire Nation might do to me if that information got back to them."
"Of course, Naruto." Ying said sincerely, "We won't say a single thing about it."
Nodding with a smile in thanks, Naruto jumped back down and picked up the supplies that couldn't be placed in seals, since both Gaara and Naruto were still trying to keep a low profile and their true shinobi abilities hidden from the group they traveled with. The pair-dimensional hoppers both knew that eventually, they would have to come clean to the group, as they couldn't afford to loose their trust with the Avatar being a center part of said group, but for now, cementing their place among them was a first priority, and only when it was said and done could they tell the truth about their situation, and about Kurama and Shukaku.
Once he brought the other supplies onto Appa's back saddle, Naruto noted that everyone and everything was on board.
"Great, now we can get going." Katara said as she sat on Appa's neck. "Appa, yip-yip." Immediately the bison took to the skies, the ground becoming further and further away as they got closer to the clouds above them.
"Naruto," came Cheng's voice, "how did you come across the Avatar and his friends?"
Seeing no point in deceiving them, Naruto answered honestly. "Both Gaara and I ran into them at a small pub in a small desert town. Both of us were in search of updated maps, and Professor Zei, Head of Anthropology at Ba Sing Sei University, gave us the means of obtaining said maps at a library located in the middle of the desert. We've been traveling together ever since...which truthfully hasn't been that long at all."
The three refugees listened intently on the story of how Gaara and he met the Avatar and his friends, and Ling asked, "You know a Professor from Ba Sing Sei? Did he continue what he was doing out in the desert? Is that the reason he isn't with you?"
Katara flinched a little, her aura becoming noticeably sad at the mention of the late Professor.
"He decided to stay in the Library and continue to read the tomes within it even as we left." Naruto answered honestly, not wanting to tell the group that the rather enthusiastic man had died...though truthfully, he partially the children for his death. If they had kept their word to Wan Shi Tong, then the bird would have never sunk the Library back to the Spirit World and Professor Zei would have been able to share his discovery to the world.
"Though I agree partially, the man did decide to stay behind, even as sand surrounded him, knowing what his fate would be." Kurama said while nudging his head with hers,
'He did...a shame such a man is lost to the world though. There are so little people in the world that are truly enthusiastic about learning everything and anything they can while sharing it without wanting anything in return...just for the sake of knowledge itself. Professor Zei was one such man...'
"He was. But the man chose his fate, and is undoubtedly bugging Wan Shi Tong with ten thousand questions." The fox mentally said to the blonde with a snicker in her voice.
"I see, a man of knowledge then." Cheng said in understanding.
"Very much so. I also learned from him that my companion here, Kurama, is a near extinct Firefox."
"Truly?" Ying said astonished.
Nodding, Naruto watched as Kurama bounded up to the pregnant woman, knowing that in her undeniably adorable "chibi" mode, the woman wouldn't be able to resist petting her.
When the woman petted the red fox, Kurama nuzzled up beside her and enjoyed being pampered.
"She's been my partner since I could remember, and I'm glad Firefox's are incredibly long lived...I don't know what I'd do without her."
"Aw, kit. You're making me blush." Kurama said with a mental smug look.
'Ahhh, shut it.' Naruto grumbled mentally, though he wouldn't say that he had lied about not knowing what he'd do without her. She had been there since the day he had been born. Sure she was the reason his childhood was a practical 'hell on earth' but she also healed him, gave him her chakra when he was nearly depleted, and helped train him. Without her, he would have been dead before he reached the tender age of five.
"She seems to be a wonderful creature." Ling commented as she stared at the near-purring fox.
"She is, though sometimes she can be a little demon." Naruto admitted with a mental smirk.
"Damn right. I'm the Kyuubi no Youko, bow down to me mere mortals! Bo- oh, right there...just a little to the right..."Kurama started sarcastically before she leaned into Ying's touch as she, apparently, scratched a perfect spot that turned her to complete mush.
Laughing a little, Naruto said, "I think you just made a friend for life, Ying. I don't think I've ever seen her like that."
With a smile of her own, Ying continued her scratching under Kurama's chin.
"What about Gaara's raccoon-dog, has he had him very long?" Katara asked as she turned to face the four on the saddle.
"He's had Shukaku a little less than I've had Kurama, since I am older than he and we both got Kurama and Shukaku when we were born."
"Really? You've have Kurama that long?" Katara asked somewhat shocked by the revelation.
Shrugging, Naruto said, "Well, yeah. Not that big of a deal."
"It must be nice to have had a companion for so long." Cheng said with a smile on his face.
With a mental grimace, Naruto replied, "I actually didn't know I had her until I was about twelve. She was more of a silent guardian up until then."
"Why didn't you know you had her?"
"My Village Leader thought it better to have her hidden from me until I could take care of her on my own. She's incredible protective of me, but leaving a kid to take care of an animal when he could scarcely take care of himself wasn't exactly the best way to go."
Ying looked at the blonde with a confused gaze and asked, "Why would you need to take care of yourself? What of your parents?"
With a bitter-sweet smile, Naruto answered, "I'm an orphan."
Ying's face dropped to sympathy, as did her husband and sister. "I'm sorry to hear that, Naruto. I'm sure you're parents are very proud of the man you've become without their help."
With a tight nod, Naruto said, "I'm sure they are, and there's no need to be sorry, I've had seventeen, nearly eighteen, years to accept the fact that I'm an orphan."
For a while, the five sat in silence, enjoying the cool breeze that came with the altitude and speed Aapa was flying at. Naruto and Kurama took to leaning on the edge of the saddle, looking down at the thin stretch of land that connected the two bodies of land they were crossing. The sliver of land hardly looked like a serpent, which caused Naruto to furrow his brow in confusion.
'Why call it 'Serpent's Pass' if it doesn't even resemble a serpent?' Naruto thought curiously.
"It is because there is a water-serpent that chose these waters as it's home. I am particularly glad we did not have to cross this land my foot, for even the slightest disturbance in the water could have brought the blasted thing upon us."Kurama said, looking down at the water with disdain. As a fire-natured creature, Kurama was wary of water, and though she could obviously swim, she preferred to stay on dry land and have as little contact with the element as she could.
'Ah, that makes sense...' Naruto thought before his eye caught onto a few Fire Navy ships patrolling the water.
"Katara, is the Fire Nation really this far out into the Earth Nation?" the blonde asked the water-bending girl who looked down to where he was looking with a curious look.
"I didn't think they were," she admitted, "but it looks like they are even this deep into the Earth Nation."
"The Fire Nation patrols the Western Lake," said Ling, "There are rumors that they are working on something big on the other side and they don't wish for anyone to find out what it is... but they could just be that, merely rumors." Even though she said it could just be mere talk, her voice indicated that she was not so confident to believe the Fire Nation wasn't up to something.
Naruto stared harshly down the lone Fire Navy ship, hoping that whatever it was, would soon come to pass so that Gaara and he could put a stop to it.
Gaara looked to his fellow companions as they sat around on the deck of the ferry. It was a pitiful sight; the amount of refugees that sought asylum from the War, as well as their current physical state. Many of them seemed to have shrunken in themselves, some so bad their thin layer skin was the only thing covering their bones, but the worst was when Gaara caught sight of a child, no older than eight, who bore more burns and scars than any he had seen before, coming to par with Ibiki, who was tortured.
From the look of the others, it seemed they were taking the sights poorly. Gaara could see the pain that clouded Aang's eyes, the guilt and shame he was feeling evident as he stared at the refugees around, wanting to help them, but not knowing how. For the most part, the group tried to look away, and concentrate on their own worries, an act Gaara could only shake his head at. It was this inaction that caused hundreds of innocent civilians to die in war. Provisions were scarce during wartime, as were resources, but if one took the time, they would see and find ways to help those who were horribly affected by the wars they fought. Looking at the pitiful bowl of gruel that the Ferry captain left them to eat, Gaara picked the bowl up and walked to a small group of children, knowing that the teens he traveled with stared at him as he did so.
With Shukaku at his side, Gaara crouched down to his knees and offered them the bowl, and said, "Here, you must eat more if you are ever to grow big and strong like the men and woman fighting for you."
The children looked at him with wide eyes, before thanking him profusely for the extra bowl. Gaara merely smiled before dividing the contents of the bowl equally into their own. It wasn't a glamorous meal, nor did he think it had the slightest nutritional value, but it kept their bellies full for a time being so that they didn't have to go to sleep with a quarter-filled stomach.
Sitting down cross-legged before them, he asked, "What are your names?"
The boy to his left answered after he swallowed the food in his mouth, "Dai," and was followed by the other boy to his left who said, "Jin," and finally by the last small girl who smiled widely, her two front teeth missing, "SuLyn"
With a small smile, Gaara introduced himself, "I am Gaara no Sabaku, and this is my companion, Shukaku, a raccoon-dog."
The children, who could be no older than seven to eight years of age, looked at Shukaku with a twinkle in their eyes. Shukaku, knowing what they wanted to do, padded over to the center of them and sat patiently, waiting for the little ankle-bitters to pet him.
"You may pet him, he will not harm you." Gaara said assuring the children, watching as they tentatively brought their hands to stroke his sandy-colored fur, giggling in delight when they realized how soft it was. Shukaku wasn't particularly pleased, having these little cubs pet him, but he wasn't about to deny them something so simple and pleasing to them when they were nothing more than innocent victims of war; the victims that most people forget and turn a blind eye to.
When the children's respective parents came to bring them back to their sides, they thanked Gaara for the extra food, a thank that Gaara waved off as something that should be done without thanks or a reward. He was Kazekage, it was his duty to protect, and even if they weren't his people, they were still people who needed protection and care.
He walked back to his group and sat around them, noting the expressions they wore, as well as the fact their food bowls were gone.
"That was a good thing you did." Suki said with a grateful look in her eyes.
Gaara simply turned to her and said, "It is simple acts such as those that save hundreds of lives. Ignoring, or deluding yourself to not see those who do not directly affect you, while easy, condemns them to pain, suffering, and often meaningless death. While one cannot save everyone, even helping one will make a difference."
The group remained quiet for the time, and Gaara noticed a young man that seemed to be eying him for a time. Staring into the teen's eyes, he motioned his head for Gaara to follow, the wheat strand that he held between his teeth moving with the motion of his head. Curious, Gaara stood up and walked toward the youth, unknowingly blocking the teen's body with his own from Aang and the others. He followed the boy until they were on the other side of the ship, out of sight from his friends due to the masses of refugees that stood in between them.
"Is there something I can do to help you?" Gaara asked curiously while Shukaku stared observantly at the teen.
"My name's Jet, and these are my Freedom Fighters, Smellerbee, and Longshot, and this is Li." the teen introduced, pointing to a girl with red markings on her cheeks, a taller, quiet looking bow with a straw hat on his head, and finally a taller paler boy with a very distinctive burn scar on his left eye.
"I am Gaara no Sabaku, and this is my companion, Shukaku."
Nodding, the teen continued, "I saw what you did for those kids," he said, "and I wanted to let you know that the Captain is eating like a fat, happy King while us refugees have to eat on his scraps. I was wondering if you might want to join us on...liberating some food?"
Gaara took one look back at the other refugees before he nodded his head, "I will help you."
Jet smirked victoriously before asking, "What's in that huge gourd on your back?"
"It contains sand that I use with my...bending." Gaara said, remembering the correct term used in this dimension.
"You're a sand bender?" Smellerbee said slightly surprised.
"That'll be really useful." Jet said, "We'll go once the sun's set. The food's stored at the top deck."
Nodding, Gaara said, "That is acceptable."
"You have the eyes of a warrior, young man." an elderly voice broke in, causing Gaara to look at a rather pudgy older man with grey hair and beard.
"And you have they eyes of a leader...and that of a veteran..." he replied, a knowing look in his eyes. Despite years of what seemed to be retirement, the elderly man's stature and eyes were proof enough for his words. Even if someone like Gaara, or even younger such as Konohamaru were to retire, the way they held themselves was something too drilled into them to ever go away, so much so that it became second nature to stand attentive, and observant to everything around you.
"This is my uncle, Mushi." Li introduced, his arms crossed, a speculative expression on his face.
"A pleasure to meet you." Gaara nodded to the man. "I should return to my companions, I will meet you at the base of the stairs before sundown."
"Alright. We'll meet then." Jet agreed, watching as the red-head returned to Aang, Sokka, and the other two he didn't know. He thought it would be better if he didn't approach them, even if he was dying to know why not only Katara was not with them, but why they didn't just take Appa over the lake. He would try to get answers later from Gaara, if he could convince him to eat with them later at night.
When nightfall approached, Gaara excused himself from the others, and, despite their questioning looks, they did not press him to where he was going or who he spoke to earlier. Walking to the base of the stairs, he waited with the others for the sun to fully set on the horizon before making their ascend to the top of the ferry.
Deftly, Jet, Li, Smellerbee, and Gaara made their way to the food store, with Smellerbee taking watch for any guard that would make it's round. As soon as the guard past the stair base, the four made their way to the door where Li forced it open with his twin blades, both Gaara and Jet quickly making it inside and beginning to swipe as much food as they could.
Gaara used his sand to carry the boxed fruits before turning to both Jet and Li as Smellerbee called out quietly, "Guard!"
Rushing outside, the four waited for Longshot to shoot them a way down, tying the bags of food to the rope at the end of the arrow he shot before using it to slide down as well. The arrow retracted seconds before the guard made his way back.
Once they were down, Gaara helped Jet pass out the food, smiling at the children he met earlier who were ecstatic at having "yummy" food to eat. When he passed by his companions, they stood up and Sokka called out, "Jet! What are you doing here!?"
Jet merely looked at Sokka with a dry expression and said, "Taking the ferry to Ba Sing Sei."
"You stole this food, didn't you?" Sokka accused, though before Jet could reply, Gaara chose to speak up.
"This food was less than a third of what was in the Captain's stores." he said, "These refugees need this food more than he or his guards do, and if there is enough to spare, he should have given a portion to them. As he failed, we liberated some of the food for them. Unless, you would prefer that these children continue to eat the scraps given to us earlier?"
Sokka looked at Gaara before nodding grudgingly, "You're right..." He couldn't deny that what they did was for a good cause. When they had watched Gaara give his food away, all of them had done the same and the horrendously grateful look that the refugee gave him was something that would forever be imprinted on his mind.
"Where are you're other Freedom Fighters?" Aang asked. He might not like Jet, especially after trying to drown an entire town, but Gaara seemed to have helped him, and so far, Gaara spoke with wiser words than some of the monks he grew up with, and he did help for a good cause.
"Smellerbee and Longshot are with me, and I should get back to them, but where's Katara and your bison, Appa?"
Aang chose to answer, "She's with Naruto, and a trio of refugees taking Appa across the lake. One of the refugees was really pregnant and we thought it would be better for them to get to Ba Sing Sei as quickly as possible."
Nodding, Jet turned to Gaara, "I think Li's uncle wanted to talk to you, and I was hoping to talk to you alone later as well."
Gaara gave the group a small nod before walking to speak with Mushi. There was something oddly calming about the man, yet he could feel the trained, experienced power that he kept controlled inside him.
"Wait up, sand-man. I'll come with you," Toph said rising with her bowl in hand. "Better than sticking around here and listening Sokka and Suki give each other 'goo-goo' eyes." she whispered so that only Gaara would hear, though he was certain she hadn't meant for anyone to have heard her complaint.
"Uhh, I'll stick around here." Aang said once Gaara looked to the other three questioningly. Despite not wanting Gaara to leave and eat with Jet, and his Freedom Fighters, he hadn't known Gaara that long at all, and scarcely knew anything about the older red-haired teen. So it certainly wasn't his place to say that he shouldn't talk to them. Sokka felt the same way.
"I shall leave Shukaku here with you, and if you need me before we reach land, send him to me and I shall come." Shukaku padded over to the small plate filled with raw chicken and ate contently by Aang, knowing that Gaara was really asking him to watch over them should anything happen on the last leg to the other side of the lake.
"Alright, Gaara." Suki said with a small smile.
With Jet at his side, Gaara and he returned to the small circle where the others were eating. The two arrived just in time to watch as Mushi unknowingly insulted Smellerbee by saying,
"So, Smellerbee, that is an unusual name for a young man..." expecting to hear a story behind such an unusual name.
"Maybe it's because I'm not a man, I'm a girl!" she said before she stood up and stormed off.
"Oooh, now I see," Mushi tried to amend his mistake, "It's a beautiful name for a lovely girl!"
Gaara was tempted to go and say something to her, but her friend, Longshot, merely gave her a look that translated into something he was sure was consoling.
"Hello again, Li, Mushi, this is my friend, Toph Beifong. Toph, to your left is Li, and Mushi." Gaara introduced, having learned that Toph could "see" using the vibrations from the earth. Even though the ground was wooden, she should still be able to feel the vibrations, even if they were softer than when on dirt.
"Hey." she said, taking a seat on a small red cushion.
"You know, from what I've heard," Jet started, "people eat like this every night in Ba Sing Sei. I can't wait to set my eyes on that giant wall."
Gaara took a seat next to the teen and to the right of Toph and said, "Even in the greatest of cities, there are those who still struggle. Those who are unable to rise from their situation, and remain in the slums for the entirety of their lives."
Mushi looked at Gaara with a thoughtful expression before saying, "It is a beautiful city, but Gaara is right...unfortunately there will always be those who remain beggars and thieves in order to survive."
"I know," Jet began, "and I'll do everything to help them. I'm a Freedom Fighter, and we fight to help people."
"It is a noble cause." Gaara said with a nod, "but do not lose yourself through it. Stay true to your beliefs, and allow nothing to cloud them as personal experience and pain can do." The red head could see that Jet was taking in his words, though if they would affect him, was unknown. "You have been there, Mushi?" he asked curiously.
The man in question gave a grim look filled with regret and said, "Once. When I was a...different man." Even Toph could clearly hear the amount of guilt and regret in the elder man's voice.
"I've done some things in my past that I'm not proud of," Jet admitted, "but that's why I'm going to Ba Sing Sei. For a new beginning...a second chance."
"That's very noble of you." Mushi said approvingly, "I believe people can change their lives if they want to. I believe in second chances." The ending glance toward his nephew caught Gaara's eyes, and wondered what they had been through. From merely looking at Li, it was clear that he had suffered, what with the large burn-scar over his left eye, but it seemed to be something more, deeper than merely losing someone, or a home.
"I know this to be true." Gaara said, thinking about Naruto and how he continued to fight and protect to change people's opinion about him. Despite Konoha banishing him, he changed the lives and hearts of hundreds across the Elemental Nations. Some so deeply, that the respected countries cut off all ties with the Village. He took his own life as an example, since he had killed hundreds in his childhood, feeling no remorse and showed little to no mercy until he had met Naruto and decided to change himself. He had been given a second chance that day, since Naruto could have chosen to kill him, rather than show him that he could change.
Mushi looked at Gaara as though he knew that he was speaking of himself, while Li kept a blank expression, as though there were some internal struggle he was fighting through.
The rest of the small meal continued with little talk, though Gaara and Toph both grew to respect Mushi greatly. He was wise, but had a very kind and grandfatherly air about him that was genuine and allowed them to relax. Near the end of their trip, Li left to look out at the edge of the boat, Jet by his side. Whatever they had said to each other, seemed to be rather personal, and neither Gaara nor Toph paid attention to it.
Once Gaara could see the other side of the lake, he excused himself and bid Jet, the two Freedom Fighters, Li, and Mushi goodbye.
"Perhaps we shall see each other again within the walls of Ba Sing Sei." the red-head said with a nod.
"Maybe, see you around Gaara, Toph. Say 'hi' to Katara for me." Jet said with a small wave, knowing that they would probably run into them again.
"It has been delightful talking to you both. If we ever see each other again, we must have tea." Mushi said with a smile that caused Gaara to return one back, albeit smaller than the one given.
"As it has been with you, Mushi. Till another time." With that said, both Gaara and Toph returned to the others, unknowingly spent the meal time talking to none other than Iroh, ex-general of the Fire Nation, and Zuko, ex-Crown Prince of the Fire Nation. When asked who they spoke with, they answered what they believed to be the truth, and they hadn't bothered to ask to meet them, so the group left the ferry without ever crossing their paths again.
Once they were off the Ferry, Suki pulled Sokka to the side and said, "Sokka, it's been really great to see you again."
"Woah, hold on..." he began a bit startled, "why does it sound like you're saying goodbye?"
"I cam along because I wanted to spend some more time with you, but now that we're on the other side, I need to get back to the other Kiyoshi Warriors."
"So you came along...just to be with me?"
With a slight blush, Suki said, "Listen...I'm really sorry about earlier..." she began talking about how she confessed her feelings for him and tried to kiss him, only for him to reveal that he had someone he loved before...but hadn't been able to protect. "We were talking and...saying things...an-"
Before she could finish, Sokka kissed her on the lips before pulling away shortly after to say, "You talk too much..." and continued to kiss her lovingly. Gaara merely noticed this with a "whatever" expression, before Toph decided to cut in.
"Hey, pinnaple-head, you gonna come over here so we can get going, or are you gonna keep sucking face?" she said with a teasing voice and smirk plastered on her face. The new couple broke apart quickly, both blushing brightly.
"Couldn't give me a minute...could you Toph?" he asked rhetorically before smiling at Suki and giving her a brief kiss. "We'll see each other soon..."
"Definitely. Once I regroup with my other Warriors, we'll head to Ba Sing Sei too. We'll see each other then." she promised before leaving to talk to the one of the guards about taking the Ferry back.
Just as the group exited the bay area they had docked in, they caught sight of Appa and the others, though the refugees they had taken over weren't seen.
"Appa!" Aang exclaimed, rushing over to his bison. "Missed you buddy."
"Hey guys!" Naruto greeted with a bright fox-like smile. "I guess Appa's faster than a Ferry, we've been waiting for you guys for a while now. Ying, Cheng, and Ling all took the train to Ba Sing Sei. We spoke with one of the guards and explained why they didn't have their passports. He was a lot nicer and let them on the train with a pass into the city. They also asked me to tell you "Thank you" since the train was about to leave and wouldn't be back for a few hours."
"Great! I'm glad they were able to make it into the city safely." Aang said with a smile.
"Come on, we should get to the Earth King as quick as we can." Sokka commanded as he got on Appa.
"Right," Aang said, waiting for everyone to get on Appa before calling out, "Appa yip-yip!"
Soon enough the group was well on their way to Ba Sing Sei, finally relaxing as everything would be straightforward from here on in. As soon as they saw the wall, the entire group, save for Toph who unfortunately couldn't see, gasped in awe at the sight. It was ridiculously high, and both Gaara and Naruto could say they had never seen such a sight in all their travels. It was truly an architectural masterpiece, and both shinobi could easily understand why it's called the "Impenetrable City."
But their awe was short lived, since Aang gasped at another sight to the left of the wall, though rather than awe, it was in shock and fear.
Looking to the left, the group caught sight of a huge drill, making it's way slowly to the wall, intent on entering the city. No one had to wonder, even with the Fire Nation insignia on the top of the machine, that it was they who were trying to invade the only untouched city in this near 100 year war.
"The meeting with the Earth King will have to wait." Naruto said standing as he stared at the Drill.
Things just couldn't be simple, could they?
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