Tobirama disliked the way Naruto meshed with the masks.
Any normal child would be apprehensive about being surrounded by the village's most ruthless and adult killers, and yet Naruto was completely at ease.
Tobirama knew that Team Ke was partly to blame for this. The amount of time Naruto spent with them was immense. It was no wonder he had become desensitized to the ANBUs presence.
The other part of the blame, however, laid with him and the people Naruto usually surrounded himself with. The child was constantly in the presence of people much stronger and more experienced than him. This had the unwanted side effect of Naruto developing a warped view on power scales. Both Tobirama and the Uchiha children were exceptionally skilled, and Naruto's ANBU team consisted of individuals who were specialists in their chosen fields. That meant, that the child had no idea what kind of skill level was normal because he had only Tobirama, the Uchiha children and the ANBU to compare himself to.
In a way, it was both a blessing and curse. A curse because Naruto was pushing himself harder than any child should – and a blessing because Naruto needed to get stronger as soon as possible.
This was why Tobirama never attempted to correct Naruto's conception of strength. Instead, he adapted to it and used it to push the child just a bit farther.
It brought him no joy to see the child beaten and bruised, and it displeased him even more to be the cause of it. Nevertheless, he could not deny the pride he felt every time Naruto rose again with fire in his eyes.
Still, and this brought him back to the current situation, he disliked seeing his child among the masks.
He smiled a bit wryly to himself as he realized that only the presence of the two Uchiha stopped him from worrying too much.
"We have arrived."
It was a strange feeling to be among these people. The ANBU reminded Naruto of his team, and yet they were entirely different.
They were quieter, for once, and their postures more rigid. Maybe it was just Team Ke who was easygoing. Or perhaps it was the presence of their ANBU commander that made them exceptionally vigilant. He certainly had a strong presence, even though he had not spoken much besides introducing himself as 'Blank'. It was certainly a fitting name.
He had, however, left it to the jounin commander to explain their mission parameters.
Their objectives were short and ,at least in theory, simple:
"Get in, secure the evidence, and avoid confrontation."
Then he had sent them off while he had stayed back to coordinate their operation via radio.
That was when the ANBU commander had taken the lead.
Naruto looked at the man when they stopped in front of the shed.
"This is the correct location?" the commander asked sharply.
"Yes, Blank," Owl confirmed as he and Weasel came to a halt next to Naruto.
Blank made a curt hand gesture and three ANBU stepped forward. "Secure the area. Don't let anyone in or out."
The three masks vanished.
"Take your formations. We go in."
As Naruto was about to pass the commander, a heavy hand landed on his shoulder, and he looked up to meet Blank's empty mask. "Hare."
Naruto snapped to attention. "Yes, sir?"
"Yes, Blank," the man corrected sharply. "I have reservations about your presence, but I have been assured that you will be an asset to this operation. That said, I will give you the same warning I give to all my men: Mess up, and you will be running obstacle course C for five weeks straight. Got it?"
Naruto had no idea what course C was, but judging by the slight hiss he heard from Owl it was not anything pleasant. "Yes, Blank," he replied.
"Good." The hand squeezed his shoulder and gave him a light push. "Now, get inside."
'He's kind of scary,' Naruto commented mentally.
'He's the ANBU commander,' Tobirama's voice responded flatly over their bond. 'Men in his position are rarely recruited because of their amicability and outstanding social skills.'
Naruto nearly stumbled over his own feet. 'Did you just make a joke?'
'Concentrate, Naruto,' Tobirama admonished.
'Yes, grandfather,' Naruto replied obediently, not failing to notice the ghost's lack of denial.
It was dark inside. Only a single light cone illuminated the way. In the weak light, his companions' white masks shone almost eerily.
The interior of the shed had not changed at all. The air was still heavy with dust, and each step produced a fine cloud. Naruto could see the dust particles dance in the electric torch's light, and his nose tingled.
Weasel parted from their formation and walked towards the door leading to the room containing the entryway. Naruto could see the shadowed outline of his friend crouching down to inspect the frame. His voice was quiet as he reported his findings. "The piece of plastic is still jammed in. There are no signs of anyone passing through, Blank."
Naruto did not even know he had trapped the door. Weasel must have done it after Naruto had fallen asleep. His friend was thorough like that.
"Proceed," Blank's order cut through the room.
Naruto felt Owl taking position next to him as Weasel opened the door. His bracelet pulsed three times in quick succession. Naruto translated it to: "Be ready."
Weasel opened the door.
Naruto felt a rush of nervousness as the light cone hit the mighty, dark wood.
An ANBU holding the electric torch moved forward to examine it. "It's sealed, Blank. Like reported."
"That's what I am here for," Naruto interjected, and Weasel moved aside to let him pass.
He walked forward and crouched down next to the iron ring. "I will only be able to temporally disable it," he warned. "The array is carved into stone, which means I would have to carve into it, too, to destroy it. But we don't have enough time for that." He pulled a scroll out of his pocket and unsealed it. A bottle of ink and a brush popped out.
"This is a special kind of ink that can only be removed with an alcoholic solution." Naruto dipped his brush into it. "Which means it cannot be accidentally washed away by a water jutsu and blow up on us."
"Blow up?" Blank repeated. Naruto was too focused on the carvings that he missed the short signed exchange between Blank and Weasel.
"If removed incorrectly," Naruto replied. "Light, please." Shisui switched his electric torch on and moved the light cone towards the carvings. "Seals have a balance," Naruto continued as he started writing. "Every stroke supports another one. At any point of time, the balance must be maintained. Imbalance is one of the main reasons that accidents happen. No need to worry, though," he added as he saw the ANBU holding the electric light twitch in response to his words. "I know what I am doing."
Owl was amused. It was the first time he saw Hare being, well, himself in front of others. His young friend had the uncanny ability to accidentally render people speechless just by pulling and saying things a kid his age should not be able to say or do.
Hearing him lecture a group of ANBU about seals, while casually mentioning the probability of being blown up, was frankly hilarious.
It was even more amusing to see said ANBU shifting slightly in apparent nervousness.
"I am done," Hare announced. Owl had already known what to expect next, but he was still fascinated by the glow.
Just like the last time, the carving blurred out until it became unreadable and Naruto looked up. "It can be opened now," he announced and sealed his utensils away.
Blank raised his hand and the two ANBU next to him rushed forward to yank it open.
Darkness greeted them.
Tobirama placed his hand on Naruto's head. "This is where we part ways for now, child. Remember to stay close to your friends and call for me should anything happen." He paused to fix Naruto with a stern look. "Now, I want you to promise me that you will not unnecessarily endanger yourself. "
He did not trust the child not to pull any unnecessary heroics. While Tobirama had managed to temper Naruto's hotheadedness quite well, the child was still prone to the occasional bout of irrationality when he got overly emotional. He was too much like Hashirama in this regard.
'I promise, grandfather,' the child replied.
Tobirama studied him for a moment to make sure he was serious, and then nodded once. "Good." His hand lingered for a moment on the child's head before he finally withdrew it.
Then he vanished into the tunnel.
Wolf had worked with Weasel and Owl before. These two had always operated well together. But the wordless coherence they displayed now was new.
Her gaze wandered to Hare. The mysterious kid who had turned up out of nowhere and hung around one of their elite units. A kid carrying a codename while not being part of their organization. He belonged to his unit, but he was not one of them. It was a situation that was unheard off, and Wolf was not the only one interested in this. She knew everyone was paying very close attention to the kid's actions.
Seals were dangerous and difficult. Everyone was aware of these facts. The few of them who knew basic seals always required complete silence as they worked because they were terrified of messing up. Yet, the kid had been completely at ease. Hell, he had even managed to lecture them about improper seal removal.
Nevertheless, the effortlessness with which he had pained these dangerous symbols had filled her with both fascination and nerve-wracking tension.
Who the hell had thought it was a good idea to let a kid close to something so dangerous?
Weasel and Owl, apparently. They had been the only ones completely at ease.
It was most likely the reason why Blank had not interfered. She had seen the exchange between him and Weasel. Weasel had acknowledged Hare's skills, and Blank trusted Weasel's judgement.
It had not been a mistake. Whatever the kid had done, had worked. The entry was open. Wolf knew, the kid had just scored big with them.
As she watched their guides prepare to enter the tunnel, she wondered if the kid was aware of the scrutiny he was under. Owl and Weasel definitely were. She had noticed them subtly moving to cover the kid from overly curious gazes.
Then, the commander's order cut through the air and Wolf snapped to attention. "From now on, I want absolute silence. All communication will commence non-verbally." His gaze fell on Hare. He was probably trying to come up with a way to cover the kid's lack of non-verbal communication skills.
"I understand the sign language, Blank," Hare offered, and Wolf nearly blinked in surprise. What? Sign language was usually not taught before the rank of special jounin, or chunnin, depending on which field you worked in.
"He does," Owl agreed and casually stepped next to Hare.
"Communication will not be a problem," Weasel added, appearing at the kid's other side. They looked passively protective.
For a few second Blank was quiet, then: "You three. Take point." Wolf was sure she had just heard a note of wry amusement in the man's tone.
"Yes, Blank," they replied in unison and turned as one. The synchrony of this action was almost eerie.
Wolf was reminded of the way they had greeted the Hokage and was once again thrown aback by the casual coherence between them.
She could not see any visible communication going on between the three as Weasel wordlessly passed an electric torch to Owl and Hare naturally moved between them.
Then, Owl vanished inside the tunnel.
Not a very action-packed chapter, but it was time to take a closer look at how people perceive Naruto and his bond with Itachi and Shisui.
Oh, and thanks for not wanting the cookies back, I guess. Yes, this was totally not added as an afterthought.
By the way...I have recently been bitten by the crossover bug. Those who follow me probably wondered about the sudden Harry Potter/Marvel crossover "His Father's Son". Well, that's me be being accosted by a plot bunny and the need to fool around without having to think much about what I am writing. I am having a bit of a hard time, and it cheers me up to be silly. So, just consider this a heads-up for the notices about that story you'll receive. ;)