Hinata's fingers ached and it took her a moment to realize that her hands were tightly clenched as she stared down at her teammate's face. Naruto-kun was still unconscious from Itachi's attack, though he was resting peacefully now. But periodically his face would twist into an agonized expression like he was having a nightmare he couldn't wake from.
At first, she and Shino had tried to wake him when this happened, thinking he was throwing off the effects. However, he could not be roused, even when Jiraiya-sama touched a forefinger glowing with chakra to Naruto's forehead.
At that point, he frowned and Hinata felt her stomach drop. Their mission leader was wearing his 'all-business' expression, when the playful façade he wore dropped away and she could see the Sannin behind it.
"I think he's suffered some sort of mental trauma," he said thoughtfully, "and that's why he can't wake up. Fixing that sort of thing is beyond my skills."
Hinata did not allow herself to gasp. She would not be weak now, not after Itachi used harming her as a threat to manipulate Naruto, along with the news of what he had done to Sensei. Just thinking about that for an instant made her gorge rise, so she ruthlessly suppressed it. Not on a mission. Not when she needed to be strong. Not when people depended on her.
"Who can repair such damage?" Shino asked quietly, returning from where he'd laid out the unconscious Uchiha. Using the genin and some shadow clones, Jiraiya had moved them to another inn, undamaged and more secure, faster than Hinata would have believed possible.
"Coincidentally, our objective is one of, if not the, most highly skilled medic-nin on the continent," Jiraiya replied. "It's not directly in her specialty, but I'm pretty sure she could help. We just need to find her before she leaves town."
Hinata spoke up. "Then we must find her, and quickly. Jiraiya-sama, do we really have to stay with the stealthy approach now?"
Jiraiya shook his head. "No, not after all the chakra released earlier. She'd have to be blind drunk not to notice it. She's either decided it doesn't involve her or she's halfway to Wave Country by now."
Hinata had to steel herself not to flinch at the older man's words. They could not fail, not now, not after everything.
Jiraiya was all business now. He assigned Shino to guard the new room he'd rented, while Naruto rested fitfully and Sasuke slept off the beating he'd received. He also left behind a couple of shadow clones and seeded the area with summoned toads of various sizes to keep watch.
For some reason he didn't leave any in the room with Shino. Just the two clones – one that monitored Sasuke's vital signs and another that kept watch out the window and periodically jotted down notes in a thick scroll opened on the table beside it. Hinata thought it was just her imagination, but Shino seemed oddly relieved for some reason.
Within minutes, Hinata and Jiraiya had taken to the air, leaping from rooftop to rooftop as they crisscrossed Otafuku City. Hinata kept her Byakugan active the whole time, ignoring the slow burning sensation that built up in her eye sockets as she compared every face she saw to the faded photograph Jiraiya had shown her. She refused to be weak, not after everything that happened, but her chakra reserves were running low when she got a glimpse of a blond-haired woman's face at the very edge of her range. She stopped dead on her next landing, cutting back over ninety degrees to pursue the trace she'd seen. She almost thought she'd imagined it, when she found the woman again kneeling down to throw dice inside a gambling hall.
Hinata's relief was palpable, but she was shamed at the way her knees buckled a little as she landed in front of the hall. She was mortified when Jiraiya had to steady her shoulder even as he asked what she'd seen. She merely nodded, unable to speak through her suddenly closed throat, and pointed toward the open doors of the gambling hall.
But the white-haired man didn't sneer at her weakness. Instead, he grinned and gave her a nod of acknowledgement. "Good job, kid. I know you're a little young for this kind of place, so stay close to me."
With that, he threw open the swinging doors and strode in, bold as daybreak.
Tsunade looked down at the dice in her hand and frowned. She'd started winning, just a little, earlier that afternoon. That wasn't so bad, and if anything might get Shizune off her back about the debts she was piling up.
But now her dice were on fire.
She didn't mind a little luck. Every gambler needed some. But not like this. She'd gone from winning every now and then, maybe coming out a little ahead, to winning steadily. And now it seemed like she couldn't lose, no matter what the odds.
And that frightened her.
Her luck was a fickle bitch. She could only remember a few times she'd been this lucky. She'd purchased winning tickets in two different lotteries on the same day. Another day had seen her draw a royal flush, cold, during a card game with her teammates as they waited for a mission assignment.
The lottery results were announced the day her brother Nawaki left for his first, and last, mission. The poker game had been played with Dan and the rest of his team before the mission against Stone that ended his life.
So, it was no wonder that a winning streak like this put Tsunade on edge. And brought up old memories, memories that could only be laid to rest with large amounts of Sake. She wasn't roaring drunk, but she was definitely speaking-louder-than-necessary drunk.
Sake was also good for letting her put off thinking about Orochimaru's offer. Her old teammate looked like he'd seen better days – missing an arm and one lung somehow damaged by frostbite. He'd fed her some cock-and-bull story about a jutsu that backfired, but what she couldn't ignore was the carrot he offered.
She wasn't sure if this jutsu he claimed to have developed would do all that it promised. But even getting to see them again for an instant would be worth it… even if it meant dealing with a traitor to the Leaf. Besides, what had the Leaf done for her but give her heartache and pain?
She shook her head and prepared to roll again, but a familiar shade of red caught the corner of her eye. Damn. He was still wearing that ridiculous outfit. All she needed to make this day complete was a visit from her other annoying teammate. Ex-teammate.
"What do you want, Jiraiya?" she asked in a flat tone as she stood up. No use trying to enjoy her scary run of luck now, not with him watching her and being all subtly disapproving. Like his habits were any better, the damn lecher, even if he claimed he still served Konoha…
Her eyes narrowed as they picked out the small girl standing in his shadow. "What the hell, Jiraiya?" she asked. "This isn't the kind of place for someone her age!" she scolded.
He shrugged in that way he'd developed that completely infuriated her. It acknowledged that he heard her – he just didn't care. "No older than Shizune was when she left with you," he shot back. "Nice to see you again," he added, nodding toward her assistant, who was holding Tonton, Nawaki's pet pig. "You must be twice as tall as the last time I saw you."
"It's good to see you too, Jiraiya-sama," Shizune replied, in a far too respectful tone to Tsunade's ear. Was she getting old enough for his charm to work? Was she brainless enough as well?
"Well, that makes one of us that thinks so," Tsunade grated. "What do you want?" she demanded.
Jiraiya managed to look hurt, but never lost his teasing grin. "Is it too much to want to catch up with an old teammate? Relive the good old days?" The old bastard was enjoying this, she realized.
"There were no good old days," she snapped, "just a lot of meaningless death and blood shed for nothing." The aftertaste of sake faded to ashes on her tongue.
Jiraiya sighed in a tolerant fashion that made her want to hit him. "I'll buy you a drink and we'll talk, all right? My treat."
Her stomach stewed with resentment, but not enough to turn down a free drink.
A few minutes later, they were in a booth at the bar next to the gambling hall. Shizune ordered some tempura, hoping as always that a little food would blunt the effects of sake. Tsunade couldn't really resent the girl's efforts to curb the worst of her excesses. Not after all she'd put up with in the past. Her assistant also got some tea for herself and Jiraiya's companion.
Peering owlishly at the small girl, Tsunade finally noticed her eyes. A Hyuuga? And with that unmarked forehead, she was of the main house. As quiet as she was, she must be seething with disapproval. Just like the rest of her stuck up house. Something occurred to her that instantly put Tsunade on her guard. How many favors had Jiraiya used up in Konoha to secure the services of a Main Family Hyuuga just to help locate her?
Shizune valiantly tried to maintain civil conversation at the table as Tsunade glared at Jiraiya. Finally, as the first bottle was emptied, Tsunade spoke. "All right, you didn't come all this way just to talk. What do you want?" she asked bluntly.
Jiraiya grimaced. He was always transparent to her, and it always seemed to catch him off guard when she saw through him. "I wanted to ask a couple of favors," he admitted.
She smirked. Here it comes. She raised a hand before he could continue. "I'm not going back," she declared. "I thought I made that clear years ago. That village has brought me nothing but pain."
"Look," Jiraiya said, "hear me out. I know why you left, and I understand-"
"You understand nothing!" Tsunade snarled. Damn, now she was getting mad, and nothing burned the sake out of her system faster than getting angry.
Jiraiya made a placating gesture with his hands, glancing around as their table started attracting attention from the rest of the bar. "Can you at least just take a look at a genin for me?" he pleaded. "He was hit with a genjutsu, a powerful one. I think it caused some psychological trauma, but it's beyond my skills."
Tsunade was a little taken aback, her anger fading. Usually the old fool's pride wouldn't let him fold so quickly. Damn, and she was sort of looking forward to a spat. Maybe she could push him a little further. "So you acknowledge my superior skills?" she asked in an arch tone.
Jiraiya assumed an unusually serious expression. "I have never once questioned your skills with medical jutsu," he said.
Okay, so he didn't want to play at all. "I see. Still, to bring a patient all this way…"
Her old teammate's mouth twisted. "Well, actually, he'd come with us, to ask you about something else, when he was attacked," he admitted. Then he quickly added, "that's a separate matter though. We can discuss that afterward. This… well, I'm asking it as a personal favor. I will owe you one."
Tsunade frowned. In Jiraiya's personal code, annoying as it was, that was a major concession. Still, better to draw this out and see how serious he was. "I thought I sensed some serious chakra usage earlier. If I wasn't retired… I don't know, tempting as having something to hang over you is, I'm not sure I want to get involved in whatever vendetta someone has against you."
Jiraiya's face gave a flash of betrayal that actually made her feel a little guilty. But more surprising was the fact that the little girl who was with him spoke up. "Please, Tsunade-sama, it isn't far from here," the Hyuuga said in a subdued tone. How it must have grated to use such a humble voice. She probably didn't want the mission to fail and let Jiraiya out of whatever concessions he made to get the help of her clan. Well. Maybe she could use that stiff-necked pride the Hyuuga were known for. Maybe Jiraiya would owe her one.
"So, you want something from me as well?" she asked. "Okay. Fine. My assistant Shizune here is getting a little too old to take care of mostly menial tasks. You agree to be my personal servant for six months and I'll see what I can do for this genin." She sat back, gently elbowing Shizune to shut her up. There was no way a Hyuuga would agree to-
"With Jiraiya-sama's permission, I accept, Tsunade-sama."
Naruto was normally a sound sleeper, but once he was awake, he was awake. Rousing himself once he was conscious was never a serious chore. And not one usually accompanied by a splitting headache, either.
His eyelids felt like they'd been painted over with glue. Reaching up to rub at them was complicated by the fact that his arm seemed to weigh a thousand kilos. Before he even got it halfway there, a cool damp cloth had been applied to his eyes, wiping the gummy secretions away. He knew without opening his eyes that Hinata was nearby. He bit back a groan as he tried to sit up, but his body was not cooperating. That wasn't good. Sensei would have his hide if he stayed in bed all da-
"Is it true?" he tried to ask, but all that came out was a rusty croak. A small, strong arm circled around his head, supporting it as it helped him to sit up. He opened his eyes as she brought a cup of water to his lips. The tears beading up in the corners of Hinata's lavender eyes seemed to already be answering his question. If Itachi had been lying to get him off balance, she'd already be assuring him that their jonin-sensei was all right.
So the even bigger Uchiha Bastard wasn't lying. Yuuhi Kurenai was dead.
Naruto felt his body sag for a moment as despair surged through his spirit. The first adult to take his ambition seriously, and she was gone.
No. She was taken. By the Uchiha. Itachi.
Naruto felt his formerly-sluggish chakra surge. With it came a wave of energy as his normal constitution seemed to kick in. He still felt a general dull ache, not dissimilar to what he'd felt in his arm after he destroyed Orochimaru's curse seal. He guessed that whatever happened after he was knocked out had strained his chakra coils to some degree.
Surprisingly, Hinata didn't flinch back as he stiffened. She merely waited patiently as he greedily sucked down the water. She released his head as he sat up straighter and pushed back the covers he was sleeping under. He was relieved to find himself wearing a plain white sleeping tunic. He hoped Jiraiya had changed his clothes though.
He glanced around and saw the woman they'd been tasked with finding holding green-glowing hands over Sasuke's wrist. "It's a simple fracture. He should lay off training for a couple of days to let it finish mending," she announced as the glow faded. "The concussion should just be left alone for now. He'll be around in an hour or so."
Naruto nodded. It was hard not to hate someone that resembled Itachi, but from what he'd learned of Konoha's recent history, Sasuke really hated his brother. Too bad he wasn't going to get a chance to kill him. Not if Naruto had anything to say about it.
The woman who'd been identified in their briefing as Tsunade turned toward Hinata. "You seem to have the basics down," she said with a grunt. "Hope you plan to get used to taking care of sick people for the next six months."
Naruto's eyes narrowed as he looked from her to his friend. "What does that mean?" he asked warily. Sensei was dead, but she was still depending on him to look out for his teammates.
"In return for my services," Tsunade answered with a smirk, "Miss Hyuuga has agreed to serve me for six months."
Naruto scowled and turned toward Jiraiya, whose chakra he could feel loitering near the doorway. Beyond him, Naruto could see the shoulder of Shino's jacket. Just knowing he was nearby made Naruto feel a little better. Especially since he was likely listening to everything said for later analysis.
The old pervert shrugged. "That jutsu's damage was beyond my skills to repair, so I asked an old teammate to look at you as a personal favor. Instead, she asked your teammate for payment."
Naruto grumbled and let out a sigh. In a way, this would keep Hinata from having to deal with her father for a while longer. At the same time, he didn't want her leaving Konoha, even temporarily. Of course, if Tsunade came back as Hokage… "What about the mission?" he asked Jiraiya.
The Toad Sannin made a face and straightened up. "Tsunade, there's another reason we're in town. We were looking for you."
The blonde woman did not look nearly as surprised as the younger dark-haired woman standing off to the side in a black kimono. "You always have an ulterior motive, Jiraiya, that's never changed."
The white-haired man ignored the jibe. "You might have heard that Konoha was recently attacked," he began. "Sensei was hurt pretty badly and lost an arm."
"He's not dead?" Tsunade said quickly. "I'd heard he was mortally wounded."
"No, but his career as a shinobi is over," Jiraiya admitted. He paused. "With everyone asleep during the battle, how did you hear he'd been killed?" He was maybe a little too relaxed as he waited for her answer. Would she correct him?
"A wandering shinobi that was in the crowd," Tsunade replied, but Naruto thought her words lacked her earlier arrogance. Before he'd turned traitor, Orochimaru was her teammate, along with Jiraiya, under the Old Man. If the reports were true about him losing an arm, maybe Orochimaru had sought her aid as well?
"I see," Jiraiya replied and Naruto wondered if he'd picked up on that too. "Anyway, he sent me to find you and bring you back to Konoha."
Tsunade shook her head. "As old as he is now, there's no way I could regrow his arm without killing him. The shock from just debriding the stump would –"
"Not to heal him," Jiraiya cut in. "He knows he's too old. He wants you to replace him."
The room was utterly silent for a moment, before Tsunade let out a contemptuous snort. "Do you really think I'm that stupid, you old womanizer?" she accused in a harsh tone. "Or is this one of your moronic jokes?"
"No joke, Hime," Jiraiya answered in a serious voice. His posture even straightened a little. "He thinks you are the best choice to lead Konoha and rebuild its strength."
"After all I've…" Tsunade shook her head. "No. It's impossible. I refuse." With every word, she shook her head harder, her words growing angrier. "You'd have to be an idiot to want that job."
In Naruto's defense, it should first be noted that he had made great strides in controlling his temper since his academy days. Kurenai-sensei's lessons featured multiple examples of shinobi in the past who had let their anger override their reason, often with tragic and messy results.
On the other hand, Naruto had also recently suffered the loss of that same sensei, been subjected to a psychologically-damaging S-Rank genjutsu, was just informed that his best friend had sold herself into servitude to get a healer to repair the damage, and finally watched someone be offered the one thing he'd desired as long as he could remember. And reject it utterly.
It's really no wonder at all that he snapped.
"Idiot?" he demanded. "The only idiot I see here is you!"
"Watch it brat. I just fixed you and I can un-fix you just as easily!"
"I'd like to see you try it, you old hag!" Naruto smirked as her face colored. You didn't become a prankster of his skill without knowing how to home in on peoples' weak spots. If they were on the same genin team, she had to be as old as Jiraiya. To look as young as she did would require a genjutsu of some sort – which meant she was sensitive about her age.
"Sempai, no!" the dark-haired woman cried as Tsunade gathered herself to lunge at Naruto's bed. "We can't afford to pay for damages again!"
"All right Shizune!" Tsunade snarled. "Outside, you little snot, unless you are afraid to take your medicine."
"Fine," Naruto spat, grabbing the clothes piled beside his bed and marching toward the bathroom. He was just glad his convalescent wear included pants or it would have spoiled the effect.
He came back out in less than a minute, having quickly made certain everything was in place. He paused as he was about to pick up his sandals. "You really think you can take me?" he asked, remembering his mission briefing on the target.
"With one finger," she snapped, turning away from Jiraiya who'd evidently been trying to talk her out of something. She stomped through the doorway and out into the hallway.
The Toad Sannin rolled his eyes and shook his head mouthing something that looked like "blondes".
Naruto grinned a little as he caught up to her. "Why don't we make this a little more interesting?" he asked as he and the medic-nin led an odd procession toward the hotel entrance.
Tsunade's eyes narrowed. "What stakes?" she asked.
"If I win, you come back to Konoha," Naruto said.
"No way," she refused, shaking her head.
"So you're afraid you can't beat me?" He taunted. "What happened to one finger?"
Her eyes narrowed and Naruto was amazed he didn't burst into flames. "Fine," She snapped. "You know, I'm surprised you didn't ask me to forfeit your teammate's six month debt," she jabbed back. "I guess the mission is more important than your teammate to you. And people wonder why I left."
"Not at all," Naruto shot back. "I just want what's best for her." He paused. "She probably didn't protest the debt too much, did she?" he taunted.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Tsunade demanded.
"Nothing you won't find out after you arrive in Konoha," Naruto assured her as they stepped out into the street.
"You are really getting on my nerves, boy," she snarled.
Naruto turned back toward her after stepping off ten paces. "And you called my Hokage stupid," he snarled back as his eyes narrowed and he formed the Ram seal. "Tajuu Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!"
Everything went silent as the street filled with clones… along with the roof tops to either side. Then a double-tsunami of green engulfed the Slug Princess.
Jiraiya decided to stay inside, having heard far too much about Naruto's exploits during the Sound invasion. Intelligence estimates of exactly how many clones the overexcited jinchuuriki spawned while pursuing the Sand genin were classified as an S-class secret, but from what he'd heard the boy must possess memories of working beside practically every member of ANBU before the fighting was concluded. The idea of being accidentally trampled by his subordinate was a little disturbing. But distinctly possible. Minato would never let him forget it if that ended up as his epitaph.
Naruto's teammates hovered in the main entrance. Jiraiya didn't know what they expected to accomplish, other than provide moral support as his old teammate wiped the street with their friend. He just hoped he didn't have to sell another one of them into indentured servitude to pay the medical bill.
Naruto hung back while his clones swarmed his opponent. Creating that many clones actually left him lightheaded for a moment, proof that he was still recovering from whatever Itachi had done to him. Unfortunately, Tsunade was annihilating them by the dozens. The really frightening part was that she was doing it with just the one finger as she specified. He didn't really want to find out what would happen if she struck him with that finger, but he suspected it would be as short as it was painful.
Then the crazy alcoholic reached down and struck the street with that finger.
The resulting shockwave blew all his clones off their feet and opened a fissure that arrowed toward him. Taijutsu or doton jutsu, it didn't matter. Naruto leapt backward, avoiding the seemingly bottomless rift, even as he raised his estimation of Tsunade's threat level. He started to understand why Oji-san wanted her as his new successor, despite her personality.
"Get back here, you little coward!" she bellowed. "If you run away, you forfeit! And maybe I'll take it out on my new assistant!"
Of course, that personality could be a weakness, Naruto thought as he gritted his teeth and charged back in.
Tsunade grinned and set herself, right hand back, finger curled to the thumb ready to deliver a flick that would knock an ox into the next prefecture.
But the genin stopped short and brought his hands together like he was about to begin a prayer. "Naruto Majutsu: Chakra Pulse!" he shouted, rotating his palms toward the Slug Princess in a throwing motion as he released the chakra he'd been gathering in his hara.
The Sannin flinched back as the directed pulse wave washed harmlessly over her. Well, harmless to her body anyway. As Naruto suspected, she wasn't as young as she looked, concealing her age beneath a powerful genjutsu. One he had just disrupted.
Naruto let out a laugh. "Wow, you really are old, Baa-chan!"
In an instant, his air was cut off as her fingers closed around his throat. It really didn't help that he was still trying to laugh behind his blocked off throat. The humor of the situation faded a bit as things started to grow dim and his peripheral vision started to grey out.
He noticed Shizune pulling at Tsunade's shoulder, but not doing much to distract her. Then a mass of Kikai bugs engulfed her head and nobody but nobody can ignore that. She released Naruto, formed her fingers into a seal, and dispersed the cloud with a burst of chakra. He felt Hinata's hand steady his elbow as he gasped for breath, trying to blink the swirling motes in his vision away.
However, when Naruto straightened up, he had a large grin on his face. He massaged his bruised throat as he assessed the middle-aged woman with a few wrinkles and blond hair fading to silver. "That was a lot more than one finger, Hokage-sama."
Tsunade's eyes widened. "You did all that, just to get me to break the terms of the wager?"
Naruto shrugged. "It worked, didn't it? Or will you welsh on our bet?"
She scowled. "You're an interesting little pipsqueak, but be honest. Did Jiraiya put you up to that?"
Naruto shook his head. "No, I just remembered something Kurenai-sensei taught me."
"Hmmm," Tsunade murmured as she restored her genjutsu. "I'll have to meet this sensei of yours."
Naruto's face got a pinched look about it as Hinata let out a small hiccup. The Hyuuga quickly walked back into the inn, Naruto following her, looking worried. The Aburame boy, Shino, turned to look at her, his face expressionless below his sunglasses. "Unfortunately, you will not have that opportunity," was all he said.
Jiraiya wasn't surprised when Tsunade cornered him. He was just surprised it took her so long. In her place, he didn't think he'd be able to control his curiosity as well. That was probably one of the reasons Sarutobi wanted her as his successor.
That, and what he threatened to do if his Sensei forced him into the role. Fortunately, they both agreed that what he was doing now was too important for Konoha to give up.
Of course, given how painful large pieces of her own history was, it shouldn't be any wonder that she could be circumspect with the grief of others. If nothing else, he imagined she didn't want any reminders.
After his "victory" of sorts, Naruto stayed downstairs long enough to inhale some broth and steamed rice. Hinata was unusually insistent that he take it easy and go back upstairs to rest. Jiraiya wondered if she saw something in the boy's coils that worried her. For the brief moments it had been active, the Kyuubi had thrown around an enormous amount of chakra. If the brat wasn't so insanely tough, he'd be more worried about permanent damage.
With the Aburame backing her, the Hyuuga prevailed upon Naruto to return to his room to rest. Shizune followed along to supervise and Jiraiya found himself sitting at the bar next to an irritated Sannin.
"Mind explaining what the hell that was all about?" she demanded after ordering another bottle of sake.
Jiraiya sighed. "Their jonin-sensei was Yuuhi Kurenai. Just passed the exam a few months ago. Uchiha Itachi tried to kidnap her, probably to use as bait for Naruto. Something went wrong and she was killed. We found out when they showed up here to try and grab him anyway."
Tsunade let out a sound somewhere between a grunt and a groan. "S-Class or not, it takes a lot of balls to try and use a jonin as a bargaining chip."
Jiraiya nodded. "The Aburame boy, Shino, says she managed to break one of Itachi's 'unbreakable' genjutsu. He probably killed her to make sure she didn't tell anyone how."
"Damn," Tsunade cursed. "You ever meet her?"
"What was she like?" Tsunade asked.
He had no idea where this was going, but decided to play along. "Besides being scary smart? Stubborn, opinionated, and vindictive. She hated my books without reading a single one."
Tsunade let out a snort of amusement.
"On the other hand," he continued, "she was very, very focused on her genin. And it shows. She took three kids, one of whom barely passed the graduation test, and got them functioning at chuunin level or higher in just a few months."
He didn't need to see her raised eyebrow to sense his teammate's disbelief.
"No joke. If the exams weren't interrupted, both boys would likely be wearing chuunin vests. The girl got knocked out of the preliminaries by her own cousin, a Jyuuken genius. Naruto returned the favor during the finals."
"Yeah, he's his. Not that it's hard to tell with the way he looks and that hair. Sensei said he's been telling everyone he was going to become Hokage since he learned what the word meant. First thing after graduation, his new sensei asks if he really wants to be Hokage… and then tells him what he needs to start doing to get there. Crazy brat started training sixteen hours a day and by the exams he's learning A-rank jutsu and took down a Hyuuga prodigy using taijutsu."
"You sound pretty proud of him," Tsunade said thoughtfully. Almost all the bitterness had leached out of her voice, and Jiraiya wondered if she was remembering her lost little brother, Nawaki.
"I am," he admitted, "not that I have a right to be. Everything he and the Hyuuga are… is mostly her doing. Now I have a question for you."
"What is it?" she asked, her face guarded again.
"Are you going to abide by that wager?"
She gave him a flat look, but his own expression didn't soften. "I'll think about it," she finally said. "If nothing else, I should go back and see how bad a job they did healing Sensei. I might… hear what he has to say." She shook her head ruefully. "I can't believe I let him sucker me like that."
Jiraiya smiled. That was more of a concession than he'd been expecting. These kids were good luck. Or maybe they reminded her…
"Speaking of suckers," Tsunade continued, breaking through his sake-fueled reverie, "what is going on with that girl? Is she really a Hyuuga?"
Jiraiya's mouth puckered, like he tasted something foul. "I don't know all the details," he began, "but I think you actually did her a favor…"
Sasuke woke up shortly after they returned to the room. He abruptly sat up, glancing around wildly, then holding his head and groaning. Hinata advised him of the analgesic powder Shizune dissolved in his water and suggested he drink it all. The last Uchiha looked like he wanted to protest, but his mouth stilled when he saw both Naruto and Shino staring at him.
The air in the room was… tense. It wasn't full of killing intent. Not quite. But if emotions had smells the room would reek of them. Naruto figured it was probably a good thing Shizune was off feeding the pig. It would likely be going crazy in here by now. Sasuke sat up, drawing his legs in until he was sitting cross-legged on the mattress, holding his water in both hands as he slowly sipped it.
Finally, he finished the water and spoke. "I acknowledge your grievance against my clan," Sasuke said in a formal voice, reciting words that Naruto wondered if he'd memorized at some point. If his father was clan leader, had Sasuke already been in training on such formalities? He dismissed the thought as irrelevant, but stopped. It was something Kurenai-sensei would have wondered.
"Uchiha Itachi is a traitor to both Konoha and to the Uchiha Clan," Sasuke continued, his voice flat, almost monotone. "But he is still of my blood. I will kill him and avenge Yuuhi-san along with all of the others. This I have pledged."
His black eyes didn't meet theirs, instead staring off into the distance. Naruto realized, with a chill, that Sasuke wasn't really talking to them. His true audience had been dead for years.
"We accept your declaration," Shino said after a moment. "It is widely known that Itachi does not act as an Uchiha any longer. You have also made it clear you plan to end his betrayal."
Naruto turned to look at Shino. Was Sasuke seriously thinking they'd go after him because of Itachi? Or was this formal crap just to make sure everyone knew where they stood? Impolite or not, he wasn't going to let this pass. "That's only if we don't find him first," he warned.
Sasuke looked like he was about to say something, but held his tongue. A muscle jumped along his jaw and Naruto wondered if he was remembering how it got broken.
It was a subdued group that left for Konoha the following morning. Naruto found that a good night's sleep had washed away most of the lingering aches, except for the hollow throb of grief in the pit of his stomach. It seemed almost a betrayal to sleep peacefully after what had happened, but Hinata had mentioned that was probably his body recovering from what had happened. It surprised him, just a little, that she'd known what he was thinking after he woke up. But then again, she'd always been good at reading him – much better than he could read her. He grimaced as they walked down the street after checking out. She was a much better teammate than he was.
As upset as he was, though, Naruto still felt uneasy for other reasons. As they left Otafuku City, he thought he could feel unfriendly eyes watching them. With a few discreet hand-signals, he alerted his teammates, but none of them could detect any hostile presences.
"Orochimaru-domo," Kabuto whispered, his head inclined respectfully, "are we just going to let them leave?"
"Now is not the time," the Snake Sannin ground out, masking his killing intent only with great effort. They were hundreds of yards from the road, under a camouflage jutsu, but he still had to be careful he wasn't detected by his old teammates. "Against both of my former teammates, especially with only one arm, I would be at a disadvantage, and I doubt you could stop that genin team by yourself."
"They are just genin, Sensei," Kabuto murmured. They had seemed slightly competent to him when he encountered them during the chuunin examination, but surely not that much of a threat.
"At least one of them should be a chuunin," Orochimaru snapped. "And the three of them were… impressive… when I was testing Sasuke-kun. Don't underestimate them."
Kabuto ducked his head in apology.
"Besides, I don't want to risk any damage to my future vessel," the Sannin continued. "Soon we will see if he will seek me out, given the proper… inducements. With a new body, I'll have two arms again. Pity. I was so looking forward to corrupting the Slug Princess…"
Clouds were gathering overhead as they arrived back in Konoha. Conversation had been sparse on the return leg of their mission, which suited Naruto's mood. That was probably just as well, given the pace the two Sannin set. Even Shizune seemed a little short of breath as they descended from the tree-line at the gates to Konoha.
The Chuunin on gate duty snapped to attention immediately. "Jiraiya-sama, the Hokage requests that you report to his office immediately."
Ero-sennin just nodded dourly as they passed. Tsunade didn't even acknowledge the guards. Naruto knew from her reluctance that something was wrong with her… or at least with her past. He just hoped the Old Man could talk some sense into her.
Naruto felt many eyes upon him as they made their way to the Hokage's tower. It was a little unnerving at first, until he remembered Sensei's lessons and tried to view the situation from their point of view. The death of a jonin in a public place wouldn't have been kept secret for long, especially if she was going to have a public funeral as her rank required.
From his peripheral vision, Naruto noticed that most of the scrutiny seemed to come from older villagers and shinobi, ones who likely knew he was a Jinchuuriki. So they were watching to see how he reacted. Maybe they were worried he would lash out in anger at Sensei's death.
Naruto almost snorted in amusement. Like he would demean her teachings by ignoring them now. He kept his face as impassive as possible. He would do his duty and make her proud. Wherever she was now.
He could do no less.
Jiraiya lingered at the back of the group. He didn't really think Tsunade would cut and run now – if nothing else curiosity would keep her for a little while. Instead, he wanted to keep an eye on the kids without being obvious about it.
The Hyuuga's body language and posture were a little off. Given her reactions when the Hokage announced her stay with Kurenai was coming to an end that was no surprise.
The Aburame was as impassive as any of his clan when in public view. He was a little surprised to see a slightly sarcastic temperament displayed in private with his teammates, but he figured no one could remain stoic all of the time. He remembered putting together a dossier on the boy's mother before Shibi returned to Konoha from his posting. It hadn't looked like it at first, but her influence still might breathe some life into the Aburames before that emotionless exterior they cultivated made them truly inhuman.
It was Naruto that was the real surprise. After his rage at Kurenai's death nearly unleashed the Kyuubi on Itachi, Jiraiya wasn't expecting the boy to hold it together this well in the village. Instead of glaring or even visibly grieving, he was just as impassive as the Aburame.
Rather than being impressed, this made the Sannin a little worried as they entered the tower. He wondered if the boy's… former… teacher had the opportunity to speak to him about dealing with loss. Some might admire Naruto's ability to keep things bottled up, but Jiraiya considered them fools. He needed to talk to him, and soon.
Unfortunately, that wasn't to be. The Old Man looked like utter hell, and Tsunade looked like she wanted to throw everyone out of his office so she could examine him immediately.
"Team Eight, Jiraiya informs me that you are already aware of what happened, correct?" Sarutobi said, ignoring Tsunade's glare for the moment. When they nodded he continued, "the memorial service will be held tomorrow, at the Square of Remembrance." He shifted his gaze toward the Uchiha. "Shino, your father confirmed that he'd granted permission for your trip, and Sasuke, you were well within your rights, but in the future I would request that you inform the Hokage's office if you see the need to travel outside the village in the future."
Jiraiya's practiced eye caught the Uchiha's shoulders slumping a little in apparent relief. Surely he didn't think the Village Council would let the Hokage punish him too sharply…? But then he remembered rumors about Kakashi's new training style. Maybe he was hoping the Hokage's acceptance of that legal fiction would keep him on the jonin's good side. Then again, if the stories about Kakashi were true, leaving to warn a classmate of danger was one of the few reasons he might accept for being absent without leave.
Then the genin were dismissed, while the Hokage asked his former students to stay. Jiraiya gritted his teeth and complied. Maybe he would be able to find his godson afterwards.
Naruto went to bed early that night. He wasn't hungry and even skipped stopping at Ichiraku's after they'd been dismissed from the Hokage's office. Of course, going to bed didn't mean sleeping. Instead, he lay on his familiar old twin bed, staring up at the ceiling in the dark. He couldn't stop visualizing what had happened. Had it hurt? Or was it too fast for her to feel anything? Did Sensei even have time to realize she'd broken one of the so-called invincible Genjutsu? He hoped she'd at least had time to know that. But he'd never know for sure.
He twitched as the latch on the window in his living room clicked. In a flash, Naruto was on his feet with the kunai he kept under his pillow. He peered through the slit of his not-entirely-closed bedroom door. The mane of white hair identified the bulky man climbing through his window. Not that anyone not a shinobi would be calmly climbing through a fifth story window like that.
"If you're here for anything besides cup ramen and old mail you're going to be disappointed," Naruto said flatly as he walked into the living room in his pajamas and nightcap.
"I'm too old to take up burglary, boy," Jiraiya shot back, not at all surprised he was detected. He straightened up and looked Naruto over, raising an eyebrow. "You look like a fish is eating your head," he said after a moment of staring at Naruto's nightcap.
"It was a gift," Naruto said defensively. He thought the Hokage had left it on his doorstep one morning, but he'd never known for sure. "So what can I do for you?" he asked.
"I… thought you might want to talk," Jiraiya said after a moment.
Naruto peered at the older man for a moment. Why was he so concerned all of the sudden? Then he thought about his prisoner and his teeth began to grind together. "Despite what happened with Itachi's jutsu, I am not going to willingly release the Kyuubi," he ground out.
Jiraiya looked puzzled for a moment, and then horrified. "No! That isn't what I meant, brat!" The Sannin scowled, and then took a deep breath. "I just thought you… might want to talk. Alone." He made a face and looked down at Naruto's couch. "I was older than you were when I started losing people in the war. The Old- My Sensei talked to me about it. It helped some. Your sensei isn't around, and I made a promise."
Naruto glared at him while his mind worked. In a way, it made sense. Hinata was at home, where Jiraiya was hardly welcome. Shino had his parents to talk to. Maybe he was just trying to help. Maybe everything wasn't about the damn fox. With an effort, he reigned in his temper. "I'm sorry," he said after a moment, "would you like some tea?" He had some instant stuff that wasn't too nasty, and Hinata had taught him at least the basics of etiquette.
So they sat on the couch and talked. Naruto turned a blind eye to the face Jiraiya made when he sipped his tea and listened as the man talked about losing his favorite student… and how he felt when he'd arrived back in Konoha too late to do anything to prevent it.
Naruto didn't say as much, but did ask some of the questions that had plagued him. Yes, Kurenai-sensei's death had been quick and painless. Yes, from Kakashi's report, she seemed aware that she'd overcome Itachi's genjutsu. Jiraiya even reached over and rapped him on the scalp when he said he wished he'd been there.
"Your sensei was a jonin, brat, facing one of the most dangerous missing-nins of their generation," he growled, "I doubt at this point you'd have been anything but a hindrance. Your job is to work your ass off and get good enough so that when you do get a chance, you can clean his fucking clock. Do you understand me?"
Naruto's fists clenched so tight he thought the skin would split. But he nodded his understanding. "Does it ever get any easier?" he asked after a moment.
"Not even a little," Jiraiya said. "And if it ever does, then I don't want to know you. Understand?"
Naruto slowly nodded.
"Good," Jiraiya said. "We get enough of that crap from Danzo's little cult. He says that the perfect ninja has no emotions, but people that practice that nindo never seem to last. They either completely lose their personality, or they crack like Itachi did."
Naruto scowled at the reminder. He wondered if Jiraiya was doing that on purpose… maybe an enemy would mention Itachi just to provoke him? It was something to consider. Kurenai-sensei would do something like that.
As the night wore on, the pauses between questions and answers grew longer and longer until Naruto finally drifted off to sleep. He was mildly surprised to wake the next morning tucked securely into his own bed.
The weather the following day was appropriately gloomy. Storms had moved in during the night, and the morning dawned damp and overcast. Naruto found it appropriate as he slowly donned the plain black formal uniform that every shinobi was issued, but no one spoke of. The funereal garb was worn only if a shinobi of jonin or higher rank was killed in service of the village. Such occasions demanded a formal memorial service. Not many attained such an exalted rank, and the loss of even one was a hard blow that must be acknowledged by the village as a whole.
This tradition began with the founding of the Village Hidden in the Leaves, and was still followed to the letter. Naruto stared at the dark fabric bunched in his hands. If the rumors were true, he nearly had to wear this for the Old Man's funeral. He squeezed his eyes shut as they burned. It wasn't fair! Why did she have to die when he wasn't there to do anything to stop it!
The fine hairs on his forearms bristled as he felt his chakra circulate faster. With an effort, he calmed himself. He would not dishonor his sensei with an outburst, especially not today. He let out a shaky breath and thought about Jiraiya's words the previous night.
Naruto shook himself and slowly got dressed. The reality of what he faced today made everything seem… off. Almost dreamlike. Maybe part of him hoped this was all a bad dream he could wake up from. Even with no basis in reality, just the possibility made his pulse race. He clamped down on his emotions again. Jiraiya's words aside, this wasn't the time to give in to them.
He dressed mechanically and made his way to the square at the appointed time. The overcast morning light seemed to leach the color out of everything it touched, making the horrible occasion seem even more unreal. It wasn't until he saw his teammates that everything became real for Naruto. Shino stood as still as a statue, flanked by his parents. Hinata's blank white eyes were rimmed with red.
The Hyuuga was flanked by her cousin and father. While Neji stood at her elbow, his presence was at worst neutral. Her father, on the other hand… Fine wrinkles gathered at the corners of his eyes. While his eyes were as pupilless as any Hyuuga's, his attention seemed to be fixated on his eldest child as she held herself stiff and still. Given what he heard of the clan elder, he was probably searching for any crack in Hinata's public veneer, so he could reprimand her later.
His appearance, along with the more welcome presences of Shibi and Misato, also served to remind Naruto that with no family, he stood alone. He glanced toward the podium, where Jiraiya and Tsunade flanked the Hokage. Jiraiya looked uncomfortable, but didn't move.
Naruto flinched a little when a hand came down on his shoulder. Iruka-sensei was there, flanked by Konohamaru and his friends. The scar-nosed chuunin gave his former student a sad smile. Konohamaru was uncharacteristically pale and silent. Naruto supposed the death of an adult who'd rescued him was a hard blow. Naruto gave them both a firm nod and straightened his spine a little.
A light drizzle fell as everyone assembled into ranks and the old man gave a short speech. Naruto couldn't recall a single word of the eulogy. Instead, his eyes sought out the framed photograph of Yuuhi Kurenai that was placed on a fabric-covered stand at the front of the square.
Naruto wondered if she knew what this picture would be used for when it was taken. Her brows were slightly drawn together in a frown of concentration, her features displaying the ferocious intelligence with which she approached everything. Sensei didn't accept mysteries in life – everything could make sense, and would make sense if she had enough time to figure it out.
The realization hit him like a kick to the stomach. Now she had no more time, and she wouldn't be figuring out anything else, ever again. Whatever she had that let her see him, see the real him, and believe in him… that was gone, gone forever. He didn't even realize he'd fallen to his knees until the damp pavement soaked through the fabric.
Hinata had managed, with some subtle assistance from Neji, in avoiding her father for most of the previous evening. But tradition required the clan to travel to the memorial service as a group.
She felt her father's eyes on her the entire way.
She didn't know if he knew about her pledge to Tsunade-sama yet. She imagined not, since he hadn't said anything to her yet. It hadn't occurred to her at the time, but on reflection knew he'd take offense.
Surprisingly, she didn't care.
There were plenty of reasons she'd done it. A ploy to get the future Hokage interested in the village. A desperate desire to see Naruto restored to consciousness. But in her heart of hearts, Hinata knew the truth. The moment the older woman had suggested her fee, Hinata immediately accepted because she knew it would be six months that she wouldn't have to return home. To a place she no longer saw as home.
She inhaled slowly, willing her hands to still the trembling that threatened to show. If she wasn't working twenty-four hours a day, she would still be able to see Naruto. Training with him would only make her a more valuable servant, so Tsunade probably wouldn't object. Her objections made sense, unlike… others.
Not having to go home. Still being able to see Naruto and Shino. It would be almost as good as the time she spent with Kurenai-sensei.
Hinata swallowed, the skin around her eyes growing fever-warm. The time she'd spent "convalescing" after she was discharged from the hospital was one of the best times she could remember. The only times that approached it had been when she was very young and her mother was still alive. Father… was distant, but not the looming angry presence he was now. He seemed… content to leave her to her mother. A mother that didn't seem distressed at Hinata's shyness.
She and Sensei had talked for hours, especially that first night. Their first conversation after her fight with Neji had left them awkward, with things between them that could never be unsaid. But Sensei had explained why, and her reasons made sense. Hinata was horrified at her teacher's predictions of Naruto and Shino's actions if she had found the death she sought. But at the same time, a small corner of her soul wondered aloud at the thought of anyone valuing her life so much.
Their talk had consumed the entire evening and left Hinata drained of energy, but as she dropped off to sleep, she also felt lighter in spirit than she could ever remember.
After that, they were more comfortable around each other, like some barrier had been broken down. Kurenai-sensei was very rigorous in her supervision of Hinata's breathing exercises, but her supervision was interspersed with praise – rather than reminders of the foolishness that led to her injury. It bothered Hinata so much that she finally asked Sensei about it.
"Hinata, you know what you did wrong, what good would it do to keep reminding you of it?" Kurenai had asked in return. It was such a simple question, but it stopped the Hyuuga girl in her tracks. What good did it do? What good did it do when her father berated her over and over for every mistake? What good did it do when he reminded her of her failures before every match with her sister? What good did it do to make sure she was always aware of what a failure she was?
No good at all.
Then why did he do it?
Hinata clenched her fists at her sides as the eulogy ended. The weather finally broke, a soft drizzle falling on the assembled mourners. She looked at the portrait of her sensei, and recalled their last private conversation. Sensei had told her how proud she was of her recovery and the way she'd helped her teammates. Then she asked her specifically to watch out for Naruto.
That puzzled Hinata, as by now she was sure he was the better fighter. But Kurenai simply smiled and shook her head. "That's not the kind of help I think he needs the most," was all she said. Hinata still wasn't sure what that meant, but since then she'd seen how badly he'd been affected by the news of Sensei's death. Not all hurts were physical, and it scared her a little to see how badly it cut into him.
Her Byakugan was not active, but motion at the edge of her vision still caught her attention. She swallowed hard as Naruto's legs buckled and his knees hit the pavement. Iruka-sensei squeezed the boy's shoulder, but Konohamaru glanced around, looking a little panicked.
Hinata was moving before she even thought about it. She felt her father's eyes boring into her back, but nothing in the world would stop her from fulfilling Sensei's last request.
Naruto swallowed the hot bile burning the back of his throat as he felt the sense of loss roll over him. If this is what it lead to, maybe that Danzo guy wasn't as stupid as Jiraiya thought. He simultaneously wanted to scream, throw up, and run over and tear that casket open. He wanted to see Kurenai again, and shake her until she woke the hell up and –
His jumbled thoughts cut off as a small but strong pair of arms wrapped around his neck. His head was cool from the steadily strengthening rain, but his eyes felt hot and his vision was too blurry to see now, but he knew it was Hinata, and her father was going to freak out on her and—
Biting back a sob, he wrapped his arms around her waist and squeezed her like a drowning man would hold a life preserver. His eyes screwed shut, he could hear the steady pound of her heart through her jacket. The sound seemed to soften the jagged shards of grief ripping through his insides. His whole body shook as hot tears poured from under his closed eyes. He didn't want to open them, knowing they'd be red for more than one reason.
Then another arm draped across his shoulders and the sound of Hinata's heartbeat was joined by an agitated, but steady hum. Shino's hives, Naruto realized in an instant. He let out a shuddering breath.
No he wasn't alone. He'd never be alone.
The sound of teeth grinding was audible from several feet away. Hyuuga Hiashi had seemed shocked, at first, at his daughter's violation of proper decorum. Especially as it was to comfort an ill-bred piece of trash that clearly had no idea how to behave in public.
He settled for glaring at her for a moment. Hopefully, when she looked back, she'd see his expression and realize the gaffe she had committed. That way she would know to return to her proper place without him having to break protocol as well.
Except she didn't turn around. Or even look back.
His sense of outrage building, Hiashi was about to step forward to retrieve his errant child when he blinked in confusion. The Aburame boy was standing with them as well now, engaging in very unusual behavior for one of his clan. Had that wretched brat infected his entire team with the seeds of madness?
He shook his head. That was a problem for the boy's parents to deal with. He had his own daughter to discipline. It was at this moment that two shinobi, both wearing the formal black tunic and pants, stepped forward, flanking him on each side.
Hiashi froze at the sudden violation of his personal space. He could banish them in an instant with a Kaiten, but to do so now, for anything less than an actual assassination attempt, was unthinkable. And that was a remote possibility, at best, as he recognized both men.
To his right, Hatake Kakashi spoke first. His lips barely moved under his ever-present mask, but the words were clear. "Appropriate weather for a funeral," he said.
"I suppose," Sarutobi Asuma rumbled, a little louder. "Rather not have any at all."
"True," Kakashi agreed. "Still, it's nice to see such a strong turnout. Making Jonin is hard work, something that people should recognize, even if they never see us doing our jobs, neh?"
"If we do it right, no one ever sees us," Asuma agreed.
Kakashi nodded. "Good to see that respect. It's important. Especially since Kurenai was one of us, right, Asuma?"
Kakashi nodded again. "Good to see her team together like that. Shows how much she will be missed."
Hiashi made a sharp inhalation. If he thought the humiliation of the Hyuuga clan was some sort of tribute to—
"They're doing better than I did," Kakashi added, seemingly as an afterthought. "When my sensei died, I went on a bender, just so I'd be too drunk to attend the ceremony."
"I didn't know that," Asuma added quietly.
"Things were really a mess back then, I doubt anyone really noticed. I'm sure Sensei understood." Kakashi murmured. "Anyway," he added in a firmer voice, "I know you have no wish to do anything that might seem disrespectful to Kurenai-san's memory, so you'll stay right here and leave her team alone to say goodbye as they wish to."
"You have no right to interfere with my clan," Hiashi hissed under his breath.
"No, I don't," Kakashi agreed. "But I do have a right to share any jutsu I've acquired. You know, 'Copy-Cat Ninja Kakashi' and all that. Bingo book says I know over a thousand." He shrugged eloquently. "I know of at least two dozen that can neutralize or otherwise bypass eye bloodlines… like the Byakugan. Iruka's always after me to contribute some jutsu to the Academy curriculum, especially for their advanced jutsu workshops."
Hiashi froze in place. He turned his head fully toward the former ANBU Captain. "That's treason," he said harshly.
"No, not at all. I'm providing these to the village as a whole. Just because everyone else in the village learns how to fight against the Byakugan – if they have to – doesn't make it treason against Konoha, does it?"
"I don't have anything half so elegant," Asuma added. "I'll just kick your ass if you take one step towards those kids."
Hiashi turned toward the more direct threat. "Do you really think you can do that?" he asked with a sneer.
"A few days ago," Asuma replied in a low tone as the rear ranks of the assembly slowly departed, "the two of us were fighting two of the most dangerous missing-nins in the world. We were out of position or too slow to save a valued comrade from being killed. Now here you are, someone she clearly despised, trying to make an ass of yourself and disrupt her funeral." He paused. "How can we not?"
Hiashi barely stopped himself from lashing out at the fool and making an even bigger spectacle of himself. "You haven't heard the last of this," he snarled.
Kakashi merely nodded thoughtfully.
"Come, Neji," Hiashi commanded, and stalked toward the back of the Memorial Square.
Neji nodded and followed. His expression did not change as he caught the eye of his own sensei, who had a somber expression, but still spared his student a nod.
Author's Notes: Many thanks to Runamok and Bibliophile for awesome beta work.
Someone has already asked about the Rasengan. Just because Naruto doesn't learn it at exactly the same time as canon doesn't mean he will never learn it. Do you really think Jiraiya won't at least try to teach Naruto the technique his father invented?
On a side note, I have a short story that's been published in Jim Bernheimer's Horror, Humor, and Heroes, Volume Two: New Faces of Fantasy. I'll put a link in my profile if anyone is interested in checking it out.