The Life Aquatic №3

Jomei

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<FONTFACE fontface="georgia">How often do we take the years for granted? Shinobi are by definition the warriors of a cause, living and working to serve. They put their lives at risk day in and out, often falling prey to enemies or accidents when the dice fall to poor results. Kaji Okada was marked amongst the fortunate ones who’d live comparatively long lives— he was seeing his forties now and looking well. But the aging Kaji knew the luck he had, as his age was over twice that of the average shinobi who've found an early death in battle.

While the years were kind to Kaji, he knew many peers and protege who did not see today. Sometimes he would venture into the woods of the ancient forest and offer memorials for the fallen from a stone altar, a monument to the Wild Mother. Along with the shedding of memories in a commune with his deity, Kaji would whisper calls for the protection of others who still lived. There was a list of names that rolled from his lips— his daughter and wife were always first, but after them would come the names of the children who he considered his wards. Some shinobi took many apprentices and rotated them the way one might change the tools in their pouch. But for Kaji, each apprentice was like a seed he planted and sought to nurture. There was always a hint of remorse when he whispered their names to the Wild Mother: thoughts that he had never done enough for them. He would never truly be able to protect them or even teach them enough to stave off the eventual demise that comes for us all. There was also guilt; in recent years Kaji had changed his attention to the sole raising of his daughter despite the belief that his apprentices were like his children. He had watched and practically raised Tatsuo, but the same could not be said for the other two, whom he felt he neglected. Sayomi was a gifted girl, Kaji knew; he was sure that with the Lionvolt within her she’d overcome any adversity. And where her own power faulted Sayomi would have the protection of the Santaru family to protect her. However, Kaji was not so sure when it came to Hirateuchi, who reminded him of himself at that age when Kaji took the boy on for training. Hira’s affinity with water nature chakra had incredible potential for an untrained student. Kaji knew the boy would go far, but his lack of confidence could have caused his downfall more than anything. At first, Kaji sought to nurture these gifts in Hirateuchi and oversee his development into a solid shinobi, but the course of life encumbered Kaji with other duties. Ultimately, Kaji recognized his absence as a failure and became content... Until one day where a whisper in the wind told him to reconcile with the old student. Perhaps it was not too late.

A few days prior, Kaji sent a request for Hirateuchi to meet him in the forest at the same spot where they had trained his elemental jutsu prowess all those years ago. It was not a demand, and the note made as much clear, offering the meeting only if Hirateuchi wanted to attend. In truth, Kaji had no idea how the old apprentice would react, perhaps with disdain or even excitement. Prepared for just about anything, Kaji had arrived at the forest thicket dressed in a style that seemed unchanged from the years prior. His attire was almost the same articles: the same espresso aviator’s jacket, weathered yet classy, an egg collared shirt beneath, and midnight blue slacks that met his black riding boots. He had become a bit slimmer than in the past though, seemingly losing some of the muscle from his peak form during the tournament days. His hair was the same flowing obsidian, but had gained streaks of silver as his age began to really show. New markings ran along the outside of those striking emeraldine orbs he had for pupils. While Kaji was unsure just what the reunion had in store, he did not leave the saber eelspine behind. The emerald in its pommeled gleamed, reflecting the sun’s glory beaming through the treeline. Despite the slight changes brought on by father time, everything else went unchanged. The forest remained vivid, verdant, and lush. The wind danced in the trees, creating a symphony of nature in the height of springtime. In a private moment, Kaji paused to envy the seeming immortality of the land which remained unchanged by the years. Full of curiosity, Kaji wondered what the droplet that was young Hirateuchi had become.


- Kaji has entered the thread.
- Requesting Hirateuchi.
- This is a private thread.
 

Hirateuchi

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How many years had it been since that dreadful night? How many more would fall to the foreign demon before someone would find the strength to stand against the tyranny? Ash and brimstone, destruction and damnation: fuel for feeding the raging fire of nightmares that would persist to present day...

Hira woke with a sweat, muscles twitching in anticipation of imagery long since past. He looked down at his shaking arm, wondering just when this feeling of weakness... more aptly of powerlessness would fade. He knew he wasn't spared because he presented a challenge, but rather out of pity and malcontent. Gritted teeth and a harsh punch to the ground could have made all aware of his frustrations, but with silent resentment towards his own capabilities he found himself preparing for a long and uncomfortable day.

Kaji Okada. A name that at one time had meant a great deal to the genin as he had provided not only mentorship towards the way of the shinobi, but on how to live life without regrets, without hesitation. Not all of his lessons were strictly verbal, and some came from juts observing him, but the full truth of the matter was that he saved Hira from giving up on this way of life; However, his invitation this day came not only as a shock, but a slightly unwelcome interruption. It was not on Kaji's part that Hira was hesitant to answer the call; in truth, Hira felt as though he would be a disappointment. All this time and he had barely managed to make any amount of progress in his power, and was embarrassed to bring that fact to light, but after all this time without a moment's communication he knew he owed it to the man.


After some time, Hira managed to find the area of the forest that Kaji had mentioned. He stood there in the clearing, impressive as ever though just as plainly dressed as he always made himself out to be. That modesty was something HIra greatly admired about him, and to some extent had put effort into mimicking at least for the day. Instead of his usual brightly colored and decorated kimono, Hira was dressed down with a simple and single colored shirt and jacket and dark pants. His long jet black hair hung messily over his face and down to his shoulders as it always had, though his height might have come to a surprise to Kaji despite the years.

With a slight clearing of his throat, Hira managed to speak up as he approached, not sure what to say after so long. "Kaji-sensei? I got the message, what did you wanna talk about?"
 

Jomei

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<FONTFACE fontface="georgia">The melody of a bird song was broken by the sound of Hirateuchi calling out. The boy was strolling into the grassy clearing with awkward energy, visibly anxious but not unnerved. Kaji stood with a stoic posture, firm, like the peaks of Momento Deo; he uncrossed his arms, trying not to seem so intimidating to his old apprentice. He made a slight, knowing nod, recognizing the underlying changes in Hirateuchi only the years could provide. In fact, Kaji almost didn’t recognize him and would have offered directions had Hirateuchi not offered salutations first.

“Well if it isn’t Hirateuchi,” said Kaji, taking on an amiable tone. “It’s good to see you kid… I know it’s been a while, but what're a few years between friends? ‘I was doing a bit of reflecting the other day— you came to mind... so, something made me think to send for you.” Then he paused for a beat, collecting an explanation that wouldn’t sound too unsettling. “Call it sensei’s intuition, if that makes sense. Anyway, I decided that we were overdue for some kind of reunion! I don’t want to make this sound formal at all because it’s not… just— how have you been, kid?”

Kaji turned away just slightly, embarrassed by his fumbling. A hand came to his chin, stroking the stubble as a nervous tic showing his perplexion. At the core of his intentions, Kaji really wasn’t sure why he summoned Hirateuchi to that same forest grove, it was merely him acting on the inspiration he found at the Wildmother’s altar. What good was he meant to be to the young man now? Hira was likely far enough along in his training that Kaji’s methods would hinder him with relearning. Mentorship? Self-reliant ninja rarely sought advice and Kaji really wasn’t the one to give it with his life seemingly in shambles as of late.

“I was also curious about how your training has been coming along” he tacked on the words after a moment, nervously trying to give their meeting some definition in case Hirateuchi wasn’t open towards small talk. “It’s been how long? Your water whip is probably a water dragon by now, I bet. ‘Was gonna offer a spar to see how you’re developing, but I don’t want you tearing the forest down trying to land a hit.” He dared to be cocky, honestly hoping to hear an energized response, and even more so, a polite decline.
 

Hirateuchi

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Hira looked awkwardly at Kaji, taking in his words in a reserved manner. For some time he simply watched and nodded, letting his former teacher finish his thought before looking down, hair covering his eyes and expression until…

“Hahahaaaaahhhaa!”

Hira burst out laughing, hand holding his chest as he struggled to breath. It took a moment for him to regain his composure, but soon spoke up once more.

“You're just as dorky as I remember Kaji-sensei.” The boy chuckled a few more times before calming down, only a faint but sincere smile resting on his face as he looked into the distant flora. “You know, I hate to admit this but I really missed you, old man… and about that water whip?”

With ease, a small stream of water eased it's way out of the young shinobi's hand, growing to a remarkable length before it would expand, subtle liquid fangs appearing along with a roar that one might have been convinced was not simply the rush of the water itself. It began to coil rapidly, and as it did an trail of freezing mist followed from its tail end through to the front, until only a sculpture remained, about the size of Hira's arm and encased in ice.

Hira held his hand out, offering the art to his former mentor. “I wouldn't have made it this far without your help.”
 

Jomei

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<FONTFACE fontface="georgia">“So you’ve advanced into ice style as well, fantastic” observed Kaji with modest applause. Hirateuchi might have given Kaji credit for showing him the way, but it was certainly his own effort and mastery of the talents that brought Hira so far. But with the congratulations came a slight mist from Kaji’s breath, air bitten by the sudden chill. The grass below the master’s boots crunched with every step as he advanced towards the ice dragon jutsu. “The crystallization looks dense— defensible,” he said, and then raised a hand to knock on the ice with a casual approach, sure that Hiratuechi wouldn’t accidentally smite him with the creation. “It might as well be made of steel Hira, and the radius of the freeze feels like winter’s worst. Muy Bien… Pulling something like this out during battle is what I’d call keeping cool under pressure.” Puns aside, Kaji was genuinely impressed.

“The jump in skills you’ve made is a very good sign, Hira. Both you and Tatsuo sure have taken unto your own.” The sudden transition of subjects had Kaji pacing around the creation to have a direct line of sight on his pupil again, seemingly concerned by something. “Recently he and I met up just for a time at the pub, nothing big or anything— but, when we dug up some our adventures he mentioned you…” Kaji made a grave pause, wondering if Hirateuchi might have known exactly where he was going with it all. “You never told me that you faced Kaen Shinku in combat… perhaps in the wrong place at the right time but, surely a foe out of your class at the time.” Seeing that stellar creation of ice Hirateuchi put on display, Kaji was realizing that there might have been a specific purpose for developing that difficult specialty. “Talk about being reckless.” He bit his tongue then but held an incredulous stare. His emeraldine eyes said plainly: you were lucky to be left alive.

 

Hirateuchi

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Somehow he should have known it was coming down to this. That night… rather that nightmare… was something he had wished never to have to share with anyone. That’s why he had been working all this time to get stronger. That’s why he had been training all these years.

“I…” Hira struggled to find the words to explain to Kaji what he had went through that night. “It was an accident that I wish the others never had to endure. I wasn’t strong enough then, but I refuse to let that same thing happen again. I took what happened that night and it drove me to near madness.” Hira’s hands shook as he recalled that which he had sought all this time to suppress.

“The nightmares never stop. I see a great demon burning the village to the ground, and I’m there, powerless to stop it. I won’t let that dream become a reality Kaji-sensei… I just won’t. I’ve been through some rough things to get where I am. I wish I could tell you about the great underwater city, my time in the forest, all the new people I’ve met… but there isn’t time.”

He found himself in need of a seat, finding himself opening up to his old mentor more than he imagined he would after so long. Taking advantage of a nearby tree’s roots, he continued, speaking more to himself at this point than Kaji. “I can feel it coming. This isn’t over, not even close. I need to be ready if he comes back…”
 

Jomei

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<FONTFACE fontface="georgia">The hard look of scrutiny softened to empathy and guilt from the sensei who loomed over his student’s past experiences. Along with his guilt came a sense of regret, as it was the Kaji’s decision to spare Kaen which led to the imprisonment in the belief that the Tarterian Specus might help him: the vassal of Mother Suna. Trying to cage him only created a festering will for Kaen’s revenge, but only Hirateuchi and the other genin were in his path that day. Spare one villain and endanger those you love— it was an elementary principle which made killing all too easy for shinobi. “I could have prevented this,” he thought, glancing aside. “I should have.”

But feeling sorry for oneself rarely serves in helping someone else. Kaji set his focus back onto Hirateuchi, who was approaching a vital point in the lives of all their kind. “The scars of the past, whether physical or mental, serve as a reminder that we must forge on or fall victim again… But let them rule you and it only leads to fear and a thirst for vengeance.” Kaji followed Hira and sat on another adjacent root; a marvel of the forest’s unfettered growth into massive proportions.
“For shinobi, a decade is like a lifetime of experience… You have had time to grow since you faced Kaen last, no doubting that. You’ve gone places and done wonderful things, met fine friends and come a long way as a result of it: that is what has made you stronger.” Positive growth.

“When I faced Kaen, it was a close encounter and I barely managed to stop him” admitted Kaji nervously. “I didn’t do it alone though; I had Rhokul by my side and I’m certain that it would have gone a lot different without him.” Kaji too had plaguing memories of the past, though they were less about Kaen Shinku and more about the energies around him. “You see, Kaen is not alone either… there is a dark power within him that is not his own. He serves its ambitions through his chaos but feels its ire every time he fails. He is the wildfire that burns without aim, seeking to consume until there’s nothing left. Better to burn the world than burn himself, or at least, if he’s going to burn then we’ll all burn with him.” Kaji would never forget the experience he had within Kaen’s mind, touring that dangerous space with Yuii all those years ago. He would never forget the image of the Arch-Fiend. “What I’m trying to say is that this isn’t something you can shoulder by yourself.” As he said so he reached out and set a hand that was firm like steel on Hira’s shoulder. “I’ve known. I’ve felt the warnings in the wind and have been shown visions by the mother of the wilds… I can smell the cinders now like they’ve never left my nose. He’s going to create a path of destruction until it leaves a great wound on the face of the land of lightning… You can feel him coming because it’s true.”

 

Hirateuchi

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So Kaji-sensei had trouble fighting Kaen too, huh?

Was he truly so menacing that even the man who captured the Volt Lion had trouble keeping up? Hira wasn't sure whether to take this new information as somewhat of a reassuring message that he wasn't as weak as he perhaps thought, or if it was a dangerous sign of the damage yet to come.

"I..." Hira started with a mutter before a single tear ran down his face. There was always some part of the boy that had hoped the nightmare would stay as such in his dreams. He hadn't truly been forced to grow up, as much as he thought the shinobi world had hardened him. His emotions began to betray his once calm demeanor as a single tear turned to a steady stream. "Kaji-sensei... I'm scared. I don't think I'm strong enough to do anything if he comes back, and even if we work together..."

Hira thought of his mother still at home, trying her best to keep on living by herself. She had already lost one of the only two people in her life, and he couldn't bear the idea of causing that kind of pain again. All the pain she endured as a refugee... Memories flashed to Tatsuo, Hoshi, Lili... all of the great friends he had made in this village. Even as an outsider from birth, he was accepted here like family, and those friends had always pushed for him to be his best so that he could protect the ones he loved. His thoughts ran through Raku-sensei, Siu-sensei, and all of the other teachers the academy and his parents had pressed on him knowing how big of an impact it would make. He glanced the face of the man in front of him...

"What am I supposed to do? I don't want to lose anyone else... Hira looked down in shame at how vulnerable he felt in that moment, though it would not hide his tears hitting the ground. Even if just for a moment, all seemed quiet as he struggled to find the words to speak, but it was not tranquil as the forest usually was. The calm before the storm was truly the most terrifying silence of all.
 

Jomei

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<FONTFACE fontface="georgia">As they lived to fight, they risked the touch of death speeding towards them in every encounter. Such was the life of shinobi, but even a shinobi resigned to that fate always had a crutch— some factor, or the ones they swore to protect. In the case of Kaji Okada, it was that fear of failing them which gave him his reason to fight. The words rang out in his mind— “a shinobi’s efforts mean nothing if they serve no one,” and so they floated from his savvy tongue unexpectedly. He looked to Hira, knowing he needed to offer a context in his time of trials. “I mean, it’s what you feel for those you care about, let it drive you. Not pride, or honor… as a shinobi, you serve the village— but it’s not some plot of land... or even just it’s people.” Then he sprang up, popping aging joints but with the spryness of a jungle cat with a sleek design flexing. “There’s something different about you, Hira. I’ve known plenty of shinobi who could do amazing things, with gifts so incredible just for them to waste them with a hunger for more power. This gift of yours is something with a purpose— I could feel it when the air crisped like nature was flourishing from your touch. You are meant to serve the living, Hira. Yours is water that nourishes life.”

But for all the realizing and rallying Kaji might try with Hirateuchi, he knew that the real gift he could bestow was the only token that could turn a tide: knowledge. “More than me or anyone else for that matter, you are the natural counter to Kaen’s abilities. You’re well-versed in chakra natures. You’ve also fought him before: so you respect his strengths, but you target his weaknesses.” Kaji began to pace away, gaining space within that familiar forest clearing. His every move was becoming fluent and sure-footed: battle ready. “Enough feeling sorry for yourself kid, it's about time we train. On your feet.” The tone was authoritative, less encouraging and more a call to action. “Remember him… everything Kaen did to you, to your friends, my students. Remember the heat— that fire so intense he hurt himself in the process.” An image flashed in Kaji’s mind’s eye, recalling the burns which covered Kaen body-wide, more severe than what he caused Kaji. “Kaen wielded his power haphazardly and it costed him... he cannot burn without fuel, but your power is infinite in comparison. You have to keep a cool head and contain him… cut off his surroundings and let him burn himself out.”