To say that we'd gotten off on the wrong foot with our new sensei was a massive understatement. More like the entire leg, and let us not mention where it was stuffed, either. And it wasn't like she didn't have issues of her own.
"All right, you brats," she began, reminding me that she'd more than gotten off on the wrong foot with me as well. "I don't really have time for babysitting a couple of snot-nosed newbies, but the Hokage needs you two occupied with something close to home. I've been saddled with running the second part of the Chuunin Examination, so I got stuck with you." She paused, looking us up and down. "I was hoping to at least get some free labor out of the deal, but from the looks of things I'm just screwed."
I ground my teeth, but stayed silent. Asuka snorted a little.
"You think your pathetic uselessness is funny?" Anko snarled.
"If we were that useless, I don't think you'd have lost your coat or been knocked through a wall, sensei," Asuka said in a small voice.
Anko opened her mouth as Asuka spoke, but at the very end she clamped it shut. I felt my blood chill as our new teacher seemed to radiate malice. "Don't ever call me that again," she ground out.
"What?" I asked. "Sensei?"
Quick as a flash her hand snapped out and wrapped around my throat again.
Like I said… Issues.
The second set of bruises on my neck was healed by the time we made it to the training grounds. Anko didn't talk the whole way. Asuka was quiet. My frigging throat hurt.
"Okay," the psycho finally said. "This is where I ask you about your likes and dislikes, your hopes and dreams, and pretend to be interested. Then I make up a lot of lies about myself to make me sound cool so you'll pay attention to what I say." She paused. "Let's just skip that bullshit. If you don't pay attention to what I say, I'll make your lives a living hell. Any questions?"
"So," I said slowly. "We've established that you are a major bitch. You don't want to have to deal with genin students, and the only reason you were assigned to us is because the Hokage required it. You resent that, and thus you are determined to take it out on us. Is that it?"
"Yeah," she drawled. "But if you work your asses off, I might teach you a couple of things. Now I have an important meeting with several pieces of dango. Report back here tomorrow morning at 8 am sharp. If you make me come looking for you, I'll make you regret it."
With that, she formed some seals and disappeared in a swirl of leaves.
I glanced over at Asuka. "What do you want to bet she's off to buy a new trenchcoat?"
From my conversations with Naruto, normal genin teams were assigned D-Rank missions involving such riveting tasks as walking dogs, finding lost cats, and cleaning up messes. I suppose that might have been set up so new team-mates would get to know each other and figure out how to work together. In between missions, their sensei was supposed to train them and teach them what they needed to know.
When they weren't reading porn, that is.
Needless to say, Anko didn't do anything close to that. Instead of doing D-Rank missions, we were helping her fix up one of the largest training areas I'd ever seen. Yeah, I know Konohagakure is the "Village Hidden in the Leaves", so calling training ground forty-four the "Forest of Death" seems kind of redundant. I mean really, a forest within a forest?
The truly scary thing is that it didn't even occur to me at first. I was growing so used to Leaf Weirdness™ that it wasn't even impinging on my awareness anymore. Next thing I knew I'd probably start wearing wildly inappropriate clothing, reading porn in public, or screaming about the fires of youth like that nut-job I saw running laps around the village with a smaller doppelganger.
I just hoped Asuka did the right thing and immolated me on the spot if I degenerated that far. I mean, what are friends for, after all?
It's amazing what your thoughts will turn to if you get bored enough.
Learning how to re-wire a surveillance camera was actually kind of interesting. The first time. But doing it for eight hours straight is another matter entirely. It didn't help that the first day of it was an exercise in frustration.
Anko – we learned quickly to never, ever, call her Sensei – presented us with a pile of nonfunctional video cameras that had been retrieved from the Forest of Death, a couple of cartons of spare parts, and a toolkit. Our instructions were "make them work again" and then she wandered off to go terrorize some chuunin.
It took us about half an hour to figure out how to get the weather-tight cases open. Anko was not amused. When I asked her how the hell we were supposed to know how to repair electronic surveillance gear, she dug a couple of manuals out of another crate and promptly winged them at my head.
Okay, yes, I am a ninja, and if I'd actually been hurt by a softcover book I'd deserve it, but really, the principle of the thing! What the hell was wrong with her?
I spent most of the rest of the day poring over the manuals while Asuka opened some more of the casings and cleaned out any obvious contaminants. After we were dismissed by our clearly unimpressed leader, I went directly to the library while Asuka cashed in our pay stubs.
I smirked at the librarian as I straightened my forehead protector and walked right past her. She'd made it quite clear before we graduated from the Academy that I wasn't welcome in her domain. But now, she could hardly bar me from entering. I checked out a couple of basic electronics texts. Hopefully after reading those I'd be able to understand the more specialized manual I'd brought home from the workshop.
Aside from annoying the old woman running the library, the high point of my day occurred after I returned home. Asuka had gone grocery shopping on her way back, and the larder was full to overflowing. It turns out that our current assignment paid by the hour – and we were drawing a bit more than genin working D-Rank missions would normally earn.
She'd even had time to visit Iruka-sensei's apartment and borrow a cookbook.
Fortunately, she'd decided to stick with our original division of labor and leave the cooking to me. I'm not sure exactly why she is a disaster in the kitchen, but I made a point of not getting too amused about that. Besides, doing the laundry and the shopping was more than her fair share of the work anyway.
I also appreciated her delicacy regarding the cookbook. While I was technically far more proficient in the kitchen, my repertoire of dishes was rather limited. She didn't make a big deal about it, she just automatically made adjustments for it. I appreciated that more than I could say, so I let her pick the entrée.
Naruto arrived while I was just finishing up. Asuka looked up from the manual she'd been trying to work her way through and gasped. Our roommate looked like he'd been dragged through a hedge. Backwards.
He just shook his head when she asked him what happened, then he sniffed the air and his eyes grew wide. "What is that?" he asked.
"Beef Bowl with green onions and miso soup," I answered.
"Er," Naruto said, looking down, "can I have some?" he asked.
I blinked. "I made it for all three of us."
Naruto got this amazed smile. I started to feel a little uncomfortable when I was reminded of how some people treated him. For him to even ask like that…
"You need more protein in your diet anyway," I continued. "It's embarrassing for the head of the Uzumaki clan to be such a shrimp."
"Hey!" Naruto shouted. "I can't help it if I haven't gotten my growth spurt yet. I drink a lot of milk!"
"Milk alone isn't enough," I countered with a grin. It almost made me feel guilty, he was so easy to set off.
Asuka made one of those exasperated sighs again. She didn't even have to say "Boys!" this time. "Naruto, if you want to contribute some of your mission pay to the food budget, it's fine. It isn't that much more work to cook for three instead of two."
"She's right," I added.
"Just make sure you keep the place picked up and clean," she added in a slightly scolding tone.
Naruto gave her a mocking bow and made a big production of creating a quartet of clones and assigning them to clean-up duty. Asuka scowled a little. Maybe it was a little cheap of him to use a jutsu to help, but it wasn't like she had to do the laundry by beating it against a rock in the stream. No one thought washing machines were cheating, did they?
His clones finished up as I dished up the rice. "Hey Naruto," I asked as I measured out the portions. "Is that technique hard to do?"
Naruto shrugged. "It's easier for me than regular Bunshin no Jutsu," he replied. "But everyone says it's supposed to be really, really hard. Mainly because it takes so much chakra. I can do it because of, well, you know…"
As we ate, he told us the whole story about the night he learned how to do it. My respect for Iruka-sensei jumped up another notch. I just wish Anko was more like him. As we cleared the dishes, I broached the topic I'd been circling around since he arrived. "Would you mind showing me the seals?" I asked.
Naruto frowned. "For what?"
I resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of my nose. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu."
"Oh." He said, his face blank. "Sure."
It was my turn to blink. Most shinobi were pretty careful with information regarding their techniques – the higher ranked the more careful. From what I'd gathered, this was Naruto's favorite technique, and I wasn't sure how he'd react to me wanting to learn it.
"Er," Naruto grumbled, "are you sure you want to learn it?"
"Yeah," I said. "I think it would be kind of useful for some of the things Anko wants us to do. We're doing tons of maintenance work, and I think it's going to get ridiculously tedious after a while."
"I mean, are you sure it's, well, safe?" Naruto clarified. "Kakashi-sensei told us that it's a jonin-level technique, and if I didn't have really crazy chakra reserves it would have killed me the first time I tried to use it." He looked honestly worried.
I nodded slowly. He'd actually brought up a good point, and it deserved to be taken seriously. "I think my seal is like yours," I explained. "I appear to have really large chakra reserves as well. Old Man told me that making a set of explosive tags should leave me pretty tired, and I felt fine afterwards. I can also use chakra when I spar for a long time and not get tired. I don't think I've ever had chakra exhaustion."
"Speak for yourself," Asuka grumbled as she stacked the clean cups.
"Your seal was made by someone completely different," I added. "I think it was focused more on tapping into the elemental abilities of your Bijuu, rather than just it's chakra. I think that's why you are so incredibly good with fire techniques."
She nodded, apparently mollified. She'd been pretty annoyed when we trained together and she tired out before I did. She'd evidently displayed better endurance than any of her faux-siblings, and felt a little miffed to be the one that had to stop first.
"Anyway," I continued, turning back to Naruto. "You are right to be concerned. I'll start off slowly and only create one clone at a time so I can gauge how much it drains me. Fair enough?"
Naruto nodded enthusiastically, clearly relieved. Maybe he was taking this whole clan-leader thing a little more seriously than I thought.
I couldn't help but smile.
I couldn't help but groan as I fell into bed.
Learning Kage Bunshin no Jutsu was easy enough. After dinner, Naruto and I adjourned to the roof where he taught me the hand seals. Less than an hour later, I was staring at an exact duplicate of myself.
"That didn't take too much chakra at all," I said to Naruto. The clone nodded, which was a little disconcerting. It also helped that I didn't waste near as much chakra as Naruto did. He even said that his chakra control was much improved over what it had been in the Academy!
I played around with the technique a few times. Seeing how much chakra it took for one, two, five, and ten clones. Even the latter didn't really seem to put much of a dent in my reserves. After a while, my cautious experimentation must have bored my erstwhile sensei, because he suggested we adjourn to the nearest training ground to see how well my clones could fight.
I remembered grinning a little remembering how I'd torn through his clones when I'd been upset about making Asuka cry. I'd been anticipating a bit of a massacre.
I had no idea of how much that word would apply.
One-on-one, I knew my Taijitsu was a little better than Naruto's. Old Man had taught me what he could in the cell, and I'd polished it more than a little under Iruka's watchful eye at the Konoha Ninja Academy. Hell, even Akimichi Jaboru had helped – and not just a little. My clones had their own chakra systems – one reason why kage bunshin were so hideously chakra intensive – so they could do some of the same tricks I did to enhance speed and striking power.
However, one thing I didn't have a lot of practice at was fighting as part of a group.
Naruto's clones fought like some kind of freaky hive-mind gestalt.
Like a couple of kids I'd seen, playing with toy shinobi action figures, we'd gone to the training ground and created our own armies and set them against each other. The first exchange of blows wiped out three of my clones and seven of Naruto's.
The second took out eleven of mine as Naruto's clones took advantage of openings created by the deaths of their comrades.
My clones fought like, well, clones of me. They could man-handle any Naruto clone they fought one-on-one, but could be overwhelmed when tackled by three at once.
What was freaky was how his clones would all decide to attack specific ones of mine all at once. No whispered conversations, no orders, just jump in and kick their asses.
Naruto still had thirty clones left of his original batch when I had to start replacing mine. I concentrated on how they were fighting, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. That concentration ended up paying an unusual dividend.
The embarrassment at how my clones were faring wasn't the worst part either. As the war of attrition wore on, I started to become aware of phantom pains in my body. As I watched the battle, I realized I was feeling echoes of the last blows my clones took as they were dispersed. I closed my eyes when a rather brutal kick was unsuccessfully blocked – resulting in one of my clones turning bright red as a Naruto-clone's sandal ground into it's crotch. I felt a burst of nausea and realized that I could recall everything that clone had experienced, including its last instant of gut-wrenching pain.
I called for a halt as I struggled to keep my dinner down. Naruto immediately called off his clones and asked if I was feeling light headed. It wasn't chakra exhaustion I was feeling though.
"Did that scroll say anything about side effects of using Kage Bunshin?" I asked him.
Naruto frowned, scratched his head and shrugged. "I didn't get a lot of time to read the scroll," he said. "I thought I only had an hour to master one of the techniques, so I picked the first one. They never let me see the scroll again after we returned it."
I sighed and created another clone, whispering some orders into its ear. It tapped one of Naruto's clones and motioned toward the trees at the edge of the clearing. The two clones walked out of sight.
Naruto turned toward me. "What?" Then he twitched. "Why the hell did he do that?" he demanded, absent-mindedly rubbing his neck.
"What happened?" I asked calmly.
"You know damn well," Naruto snapped. "As soon as they were out of sight, your clone stabbed mine in the neck!"
"How do you know that?" I asked.
Naruto's mouth dropped open. "Uh…"
"I sort of noticed that when your clone kicked mine in the balls and I got the memory of what that felt like," I said. Naruto swallowed and looked a little sheepish. "No," I continued, "I know it was an accident. The point is that I shouldn't have known what that felt like – but I think we get memories from the clones when they are dispersed. That's how you knew my clone attacked yours when they were out of sight." I looked at him again. He looked utterly shocked. "You never noticed that before?" I asked incredulously.
Naruto shrugged uncomfortably. "I've always had them with me, fighting," he said defensively. "I usually don't let them out of my sight because I don't want them running around unsupervised."
"I see," I replied. Actually, I didn't, but I also didn't want to make him even more uncomfortable. "How do you get them to coordinate so well?"
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"The way they would gang up on my clones without even communicating," I explained. "Do you plan out battle tactics for situations like this ahead of time? Is there a set pattern you use? I couldn't detect one, but it's probably more sophisticated than I could figure out on the fly…"
"Ah, no…" Naruto murmured. "It's, ah… well, when I had to train by myself, I always imagined what it would be like to fight on a team, and, well…"
I abruptly felt like kicking myself again. Of course no one would train after school with the village's demonic pariah. Or even 'play ninja' with him when he was younger. I didn't even have to wonder why he tolerated Konohamaru's antics. He'd had only himself to play with, so his clones all fought like they had imaginary playmates – only theirs were real. If he'd been doing that for this long, no wonder he was kicking my ass.
It was both admirable and pathetic at the same time. As we made our way home well after dark, I realized that he'd make a perfect Hokage for this village full of weirdoes.
Before I went to bed, I decided to do a little experiment. I created a couple of clones and had them each sit on the couch and read as much of the library books as possible overnight. A third one was tasked with finishing the camera repair manual and making bento lunches for all three of us.
After we woke up, Asuka looked a little surprised to see a clone of me finishing breakfast. Seeing two more reading on the couch made her scowl. I carefully kept my distance as she ate. Bracing myself, I ordered the two clones to disperse themselves, one at a time.
The result was an instant headache as information began to flood my brain. I was glad we'd gotten up a little early as I nearly threw up before they were done. I'm also glad I'd done that before I'd eaten my own breakfast. I sort of collapsed onto the couch, eyes screwed shut, and began doing a deep breathing exercise Old Man had taught me for centering myself. The pain quickly ebbed to a dull ache. I opened my eyes when I felt a touch on my shoulder.
Asuka handed me a cup of green tea. I accepted it gratefully, hoping it would settle my stomach. "I'll be okay in a moment," I murmured. "I had the clones read all night. When they poofed, I got the information, but I didn't think it would hurt this much. I'd better warn Naruto to be careful if he tries this."
"You better be careful yourself," Asuka said in a low voice. Her eyes bored into mine and I nodded meekly. I was in no shape for a prolonged argument. "At least I think I know how we can fix the cameras now. Most of them probably have condensation formed in the power supply. Some of those probably had a voltage surge as they failed, which means we need to test the circuit boards as well."
"I don't care about the stupid cameras," she pouted.
"Neither do I," I countered, "but I also don't want psycho-sensei on our cases if we don't make some progress with them." Actually, in some ways, working on the advanced gear was fun – there were elements of electrical engineering that I could now see bore some resemblance to seal design. Circuit designs had their own parallels in chakra circulations, similarly how capacitors acted like chakra accumulators.
On the other hand, I didn't think Asuka wanted to hear any of my new insights at that moment. She didn't have to remind me that I and Naruto were all the family she had left, and she had grown up in a large family – even if they had been lying to her and manipulating her. She was used to having people around that she cared about, and she was clearly apprehensive about anything that might take one of us away from her.
After a couple of minutes, my stomach settled down and I was able to eat my breakfast. Naruto was the last to wake up and fell on his portion like a starving wolf. He promised to clean up the dishes as we left, smiling as he looked at the bento we'd left for him to take with him.
After my experiences that morning, I was understandably cautious about using Kage Bunshin to help with the repairs. However, a little experimentation showed that the disorientation and pain were directly proportional to how much new information was carried with the dispersed clone's memories. Doing simple, repetitive tasks that I already knew how to perform was relatively painless.
By lunch, I had five clones working on disassembled cameras, spreading the tools as far as they would go, while I sat down personally with Asuka and explained what I'd learned about how to diagnose dead surveillance cameras.
She pretty much insisted on only talking to "the real me" and not any of the clones. I just shrugged that off. I had little doubt she'd be willing to use a minor fire jutsu on me to see if I dispersed if I tried to pull a fast one.
When Anko checked in on us that afternoon, I actually got a raised eyebrow. There were fourteen shiny, good-as-new cameras stacked on the table next to the door. The rest of them were in various stages of assembly.
She walked up to one of my clones and gently poked it's shoulder. It looked up at her, putting down the soldering iron. "Kage Bunshin?" she asked and the clone nodded. She looked over at me working with Asuka and smirked, murmuring "gang-"something under her breath.
I was actually kind of glad I couldn't hear her.
"Okay," she said. "Maybe you don't completely suck after all. Finish these up before you leave and we'll go install them tomorrow. I wonder how you brats will like my playground."
That night, I decided to try something a little different. I carefully laid out supplies of paper and blood-laced ink, and set a pair of clones to making explosive tags while I slept. I wasn't even fully asleep before both of them dispersed themselves completing the first set of tags.
I groaned and got up again. Asuka grumbled a little, but didn't wake up. I'd forgotten exactly how much chakra I was putting into those tags before I primed them. I concentrated as I molded chakra, pouring more and more energy into the jutsu before I released it. It was even harder making sure that energy only poured into a pair of clones, as opposed to a couple hundred. I'd originally thought Naruto was exaggerating when he told us about that bastard Mizuki, but now I realized he wasn't. You really could make hundreds of clones if you had the chakra.
I sent the two super-charged clones into the kitchen, and then collapsed back onto the bed. Despite my reserves, and how I could already feel them replenishing, I wasn't going to have any trouble sleeping.
I awoke to two pleasant surprises. The kitchen contained a neat stack of tags, along with an already prepared breakfast. I hadn't specifically ordered my clones to do the latter, but the last clone didn't have enough energy to charge another explosive tag, so he took it upon himself to make tamagoyaki for everyone.
Now, the tags were not a surprise. The clone exercising initiative was. The second surprise was the lack of pain when he dispersed with a jaunty wave. Of course, the only new information his memories brought was the recipe for the rolled omelets he'd looked up in Iruka's cookbook. That, and his amusement when he realized that I didn't realize my clones already knew what I wanted them to do when they were created. If they were clones of me, then they also had my memories…
I grinned sheepishly as I ate my portion and fired up the stove while my roommates began to stir. Naruto had made a point of carefully rinsing out his bento when he returned from his mission with Team 7. I began boiling water for some udon noodles that would be tasty cold with a sesame sauce. It wasn't ramen, but it was close enough that I figured he'd appreciate it.
Anko actually nodded approvingly when she surveyed the fully reassembled cameras sitting on the workbenches. She picked one and hooked it up to the test leads, nodding at the green lights.
"All right," she said, "now that you've finally got these fixed, we need to place them." She dropped a couple of large canvas duffel bags at our feet. "Pack these up with some of that bubble-wrap. I've got a map of the surveillance points where we need to hook these up."
As we hurriedly packed up the unfortunately sensitive gear, she pulled a square of laminated paper out of her trench coat. "These cameras really aren't meant to keep track of everything that goes on in the Forest of Death. What they are meant to do is give us warning if there is an unauthorized entry. After that fiasco in Kumo three years ago, no one wants to take any chances."
"Er, what happened in Kumo?" I asked.
Anko gave a nasty smile. "A missing-nin infiltrated the outdoor training area where they were conducting part of their chuunin examination. Killed off the entire roster of examinees and slipped out before anyone knew he was there."
I almost dropped the camera I was holding.
"No one knows if it was a personal grudge or if he'd been paid to whack someone in particular and got carried away," Anko continued. "But they know it had to be a missing-nin. No kage would be stupid enough to approve such a mission. It'd be an instant war if the assassin was captured. Still, people have their suspicions, and might lash out at anyone handy. I'm going to have most of ANBU standing by in case we detect an intrusion."
"Oh great," I muttered. "Attack of the Killer Mimes."
I hadn't intended to be heard, but Anko's ears were a little sharper than I realized. She actually cracked up, laughing a lot harder than a little snarking warranted. "I can't wait to run that one by Kakashi," she finally said.
"You know Naruto-sama's sensei?" Asuka asked innocently.
"Yeah, he used to be the ANBU commander," she said. "And what's with this 'sama' business anyway? That's the brat that vandalized the Hokage monument."
"And led half the ninja of the village on a wild goose chase, from what I heard," I replied. "I suppose that's one way to get people to train you."
Asuka gave Anko her most wide-eyed and innocent look. "Surely you know our full names, Anko-, er, Anko-sempai." She'd almost slipped and used the forbidden term, but the other honorific was allowed.
Anko frowned. Then she reached into a trench coat pocket and pulled out a sheaf of papers and a scroll. The latter was looking slightly scorched. I smiled. Score one for Asuka. Unrolling the scroll, Anko read downward, then paused. She looked up at both of us. Then back down at the scroll. And then back up.
"Uzumaki?" she asked.
"Yes," we both said in unison. I couldn't have planned this better if I'd tried.
"You aren't related to him?" she asked hesitantly.
"We are now," I answered. "We already filed the paperwork when we received our licenses. Konoha now officially has an Uzumaki clan."
"Now I know Sarutobi has definitely gone senile," Anko muttered. "You both know about…"
"Of course," I answered. "Birds of a feather and all that. And I think Hokage-sama sort of approves of us associating with him. After all, no one else will." Those last words came out a little harder than I realized.
Anko winced a little, but just nodded. "All right, let's get going. Daylight is wasting."
It should have been obvious to me ahead of time, but Asuka and I both had a rather large gap in our shared skills and knowledge. I was raised in an underground prison cell, and Asuka was in her gilded cage built of lies.
Neither of us had an ounce of woods lore.
My chakra control was good enough to walk up trees, but I still tended to overestimate the strength of branches, sometimes with disastrous results. Asuka's chakra control wasn't quite as good – as far as I knew, tree walking or wall walking wasn't even covered at the Academy.
Both of us made far too much noise when moving through the underbrush. It was little wonder the ANBU had ambushed us so easily after we crossed the border.
Surprisingly, Anko didn't blow up at us. What she did do was teach us how to move efficiently through heavy woods and underbrush. Of course, her methods of correction often involved thrown kunai. But, she never seemed to aim at vital points, and never actually drew any of Asuka's blood, so I managed to contain myself.
We only got two cameras placed that day, but she seemed… satisfied… with our progress, which surprised me.
The next day progressed a little faster as we started to move more naturally. We no longer 'sounded like a herd of oxen' and remounted eight cameras. As we moved through the various terrains of training ground forty-four, Anko pointed out various edible plants and animals, as well as ones that could be used to distill deadly poisons. After she insisted we try various grubs and beetles that could be used as protein sources, I decided to place 'bottle of soy sauce' at the top of my supplies list for survival training.
I also discovered that normal (at least non-summoned) snakes simply would not bite me. At all. In fact, they tended to run away as fast as they could slither. Anko seemed rather miffed about that – I think she was planning something sadistic for later. Asuka, on the other hand, was rather happy about that discovery.
Unfortunately, she expressed this in words loud enough for Anko to hear.
"Why does that mean you don't need to worry about snakes?" Anko asked curiously.
"Well, I mean I don't need to worry about snakes sneaking up on me while I'm sleeping," Asuka said in a small voice.
Anko's eyes narrowed and I was volunteered to go remount the next camera by myself. At the top of a really tall tree that overlooked one of the gates. While she and Asuka stayed below.
I couldn't hear the conversation that occurred in my absence, but from the hard looks I received from Anko as I descended, I knew better than to ask. Coincidentally, I ended up remounting the next three cameras with a quiet murmur of voices echoing up from below.
Fortunately, I think Asuka was able to make the Special Jonin understand, because the glares I received were a little less angry each time I descended and Asuka looked a little less anxious each time as well.
The final bit of survival training that day consisted of dealing with a tiger roughly the size of a house that had decided the tree with our camera mount was in it's territory. I was feeling a little irritable from the judgmental looks I'd been getting all day, so when Anko drawled for me to 'deal with it' I wasn't feeling like playing nice with the kitty. As the tiger stalked toward us, I dipped into my pouch for a kunai and wire, and slipped a roll of explosive tags out of my tunic.
"Wait a second," Anko ordered as I selected a slightly larger than medium tag that would have reduced the feline to a stench of burnt fur. She made an obscure hand-sign that made the (obviously) trained tiger back away and turned toward me. "Where the hell did you get all those?" she asked.
"All what?" I asked stupidly.
"The explosives," she said poking my tunic where I'd tucked the rest of the tags away. "Those things are expensive. How the hell can you afford...?"
I shrugged. "Expensive? Paper and ink are cheap as hell."
She snorted. "Ah. Good bluff brat, I actually thought those were real. I don't think that would work on a wild tiger though. Who told you the ones in here were trained?" Her dark eyes glittered, clearly anticipating gutting whoever gave up one of her patented Genin-Terrorizing Secrets™.
I sighed as I wired the tag to the kunai and primed it. "No one," I said as I carelessly tossed it behind me. There was at least 30 yards of clear area for it to land in. Anko twitched as the explosion shook the ground and knocked leaves loose from the trees around us.
"Maybe you don't miss," I said, "But I don't bluff."
I was in a rather surly mood as we walked home. Anko hadn't let us go until I'd explained exactly why I knew how to make explosive tags. Her face was unreadable as she dismissed us, but I knew she was no doubt looking for ways to exploit what she'd learned.
Asuka didn't say much, just eyeing me occasionally as I kicked at a loose paving stone or bit of trash.
When he got home, she just sat at the kitchen table and watched me bang the cooking pots around with a lot more force than was strictly necessary. "Do you want to talk about why you are so grumpy," she finally asked I started boiling water for tea.
"Not much to talk about, aside from my undying hate for our sensei-but-don't-call-her-that-or-she'll-stab-you," I said sourly.
"She isn't that bad," Asuka insisted.
"Maybe you think that because she wasn't glaring at you all day and making you do all the climbing because she mad at you for something you didn't do," I snapped.
Asuka looked down. "I'm sorry I said anything about the snakes," she said after a moment. "I, er, had to explain that you weren't, um, taking advantage of me or anything." Her face became redder and redder as she spoke. "She seemed really concerned about that." She paused. "I think someone hurt her really badly when she was a genin, or even younger."
I raised an eyebrow. "When did you become a mind-reader?" I asked.
"I didn't," Asuka answered. "But look at the way she jumped to conclusions from what I said. It's almost like she's expecting it to happen. And I really had to convince her there wasn't anything bad happening. You just, well, keep me from having nightmares and burning everything up."
"And none of it is any of her damn business," I concluded.
"Not if she really is our sensei, or leader, or whatever," Asuka reminded me. "Maybe no one helped her when she needed it, maybe for the same reasons, so she is determined not to be that way."
"Well, I'm still sick of being the whipping boy for her traumas," I said truculently. I really hated the whiny way that came out.
"And you should be," Asuka agreed. "It isn't in any way fair that you are bearing the brunt of this. It isn't fair that you were saddled with me and my weakness, and…"
The kitchen table jarred as I brought the palm of my hand down on it. "Stop it," I commanded. "Stop it right there. You are not weak and you are not a burden. You got that?"
"But Anko nothing," I insisted. "My problems with her are between me and her. If it wasn't this, it would be something else for her to go off on me about. She's hated me in varying degrees pretty much since she first laid eyes on me. I'm pretty sure she was a student of this Orochimaru jerk, since she uses snake summons and I read that he was the holder of the contract for snakes. If he screwed her over before or when he left, my face is an unwelcome reminder of him."
"That's not fair!" Asuka shrilled.
"Life isn't fair, Asuka-chan," I shot back. I made an effort to calm myself. There was nothing to be gained by upsetting her. It's not like it was her fault. "No one said it has to be fair, we just have to deal with it."
"Well that sucks!" she all but shouted.
"Could be worse," I insisted. "We could still be in Iwakagure."
I wanted to bite my tongue out as soon as the words left my big, fat mouth. Asuka reddened, and then went very still. I hadn't meant to remind her of things that happened to both us before we escaped, but it still happened.
"I suppose you are right," she said. The mechanical tone she adopted made me want to throw up. I put my arm around her shoulders and squeezed as hard as I could without pulling her off her feet. She let out a noise that was somewhere between a squeak and a wheeze. I eased back the pressure a little bit.
I wasn't going to try to say anything else. My mouth had gotten me into enough trouble already.
Asuka was quiet that evening, but we managed to keep things peaceful. Naruto's arrival put a welcome buffer between us. Some of the wounds were just a little too raw to be examined right now. He jabbered on about the mission his team had performed that day, and slowly the tension in the room dissipated.
I was so grateful for the respite that I was more than happy to present him with a large stack of explosive tags my clones had produced.
My clan leader went all starry-eyed, staring at the tags in his hands. "Best. Room-mate. Ever!" He finally said after a moment.
"Humph!" Asuka groused. "Get used to wearing something besides orange!" she warned.
"Ah! Asuka-chan!" Naruto cried, (carefully) putting down his tags and rushing over to the red-headed girl. He swept her up into a hug and started dancing around the room with her. "I like you too! But you won't help me blow up Sasuke!"
She began beating on his back with her fists, but was hampered by gales of laughter. When he finally put her down, she was so dizzy she couldn't sit up straight and her face was beet red.
"Seriously," Naruto said, "you two are the best. I just wish I'd known you all my life." He frowned a little as he said that. Was there some disease going around that made us all say stupid crap today?
I sighed. "Well, if we can't change the past, we can sure as hell change the future. Right?" They nodded. "And I think in the future the Uzumaki Clan is going to be kicking ass and taking names. Right?"
Asuka nodded, and Naruto jumped up and struck a pose that looked like something from one of his manga. "Believe it!" he shouted.
I could barely contain myself. No telling how he'd take it if I broke down laughing. "All right, let's head out!" I announced instead, striking my own pose, pointing dramatically at the door.
"Out?" Naruto asked.
"We're going to Ichiraku's to celebrate!" I explained.
"Celebrate what?" Asuka asked, frowning in obvious confusion.
"We're celebrating 'Didn't Suck Day'," I said. "Nothing really horrible happened to any of us, and I think that's worth celebrating, right?"
Naruto was, of course, in favor of anything involving ramen, and Asuka didn't stand a chance against both of us in high spirits. As the head cook, I might have been offended at his preference for Teuchi's cooking to mine, but I'd already realized that the food was only part of Ichiraku's attraction for my friend. The cook and his daughter were both on the short list of people that treated Naruto like a person. Going to eat at Ichiraku's was as close as he came to being a normal person in many ways. Having a place he could go to and not be shunned or treated horribly? Hell, that must have been more precious than gold.
Asuka and I, of course, treated him with respect. But we were also fellow Jinchuuriki - we couldn't deny his humanity without denying our own. Teuchi and Ayame seemed to represent his hopes that the rest of the villagers would one day come to see him differently – just as Iruka and the Hokage showed that shinobi could rise above their prejudices as well.
Besides, Teuchi could really make some awesome noodles.
The next day, some of the tension seemed to have eased a bit between Anko and us. Now it alternated between Asuka and myself when it was time to scamper up a tree. While we waited, Anko seemed to be idly passing the time asking innocuous questions.
Of course, the idea of Mitarashi Anko doing anything innocently seemed utterly preposterous.
I could sort of see where this was all going, so by the third tree I just gave up and recited a condensed version of my history, much like the one I'd given the Hokage. Oddly enough, she gave a visible flinch the first time I mentioned my training in sealing techniques. I knew there was a story behind that, but I doubted I'd find out any time soon.
By afternoon, we'd finished with the cameras and she brought us to a large tower complex that lay in the exact center of the circular training area. It wasn't used very often and it was very dusty. Our job was to correct that condition, she informed us with a smirk. I made a face and then asked her where the cleaning supplies were stored.
After she explained that the janitorial closets were located next to the stairwell on each floor, I carefully molded a large amount of chakra. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu," I said, watching her face as sixty clones poofed into existence around us.
I just wish I'd thought to bring a camera.
I went home that night with a slight headache, accompanied by a thorough knowledge of the tower's layout. It was all worth it as far as I was concerned. The look on Anko's face had been priceless. I don't think she imagined I had anywhere near enough chakra to make that many clones. Heh. Especially not enough clones to get all of the clean-up done that afternoon.
On the other hand, she seemed inordinately happy to be off to her dango shops.
She gave us the next day off, since we'd basically completed two weeks of scheduled preparations in a little over four days. She said she'd need at least a day to find something for us to do. I almost thought she said someone, but I must have misheard that.
We'd also received a hefty little bonus, since the money was already budgeted by task, based on how long it normally took the work crews to get things done. Based on the sizes of our vouchers, they must have either been lazy as hell or had a really sweet contract.
As it was, Asuka decided that meant we really needed to shop on our day off. We could both use some spare working clothes and various sundries we'd skipped on our earlier budget-conscious purchasing.
Just the thought of visiting the paper store had me willing to agree to anything else she suggested.
I resolutely refrained from clearing out the scrolls and ink, doing little more than replacing what I'd already used to make stacks of tags.
I also felt pretty clever about leaving a clone in the apartment. Every time we accumulated a few bags of purchases, I created a clone to take it back to the apartment, where the clone I left behind let it in. I wasn't sure if cloned apartment keys would work, and I didn't want to take any chances with my paper.
I was also starting to see why Naruto used Kage Bunshin so much. If I'd been forced to carry all those bags around as we crossed and re-crossed the village, I'm sure I would have enjoyed the experience a lot less.
Toward the end of the afternoon, we ran into Team 7 as they returned from their mission. After hearing them talk about Tora, the cat belonging to the Fire Daimyo's wife, I'm amazed no one had 'accidentally' killed it yet.
When their sensei reminded them that they needed to report back to the Hokage, we decided to follow them to the Hokage's Tower to continue the conversation. Naruto talked about other missions they'd been on, though his recollections seemed to differ a little from Sakura's.
The Uchiha, of course, couldn't be bothered to participate in the conversation. Of course, I should be grateful to the sulking Sasuke. Anytime someone complained that three people wasn't enough to be a real clan, I could point at him and ask if that meant there really wasn't an Uchiha Clan anymore. I was already looking forward to that.
Naruto asked if he could be dismissed after they reported in so he could go with us, which seemed to shock Sakura more than a little. Kakashi nodded, so we hung around the front entrance until he emerged a few minutes later.
"Sakura seemed a little surprised you wanted to hang out with us," I observed as we left.
"Well, I guess she was expecting me to ask her out like I always do," Naruto said, scratching the back of his head nervously.
"You shouldn't keep asking her if she says no," Asuka said in serious tone. "It's not like she's suddenly going to change her mind if you keep asking."
"I guess," Naruto said, visibly deflating. "I just… well… she's so…"
I remembered what Asuka and I had discussed about finding someone more appropriate for our friend. "She's so hung up on Sasuke that you're just wasting your time," I added bluntly.
Naruto winced and I abruptly felt like a jerk.
"You can't expect someone to like you just because you like them," Asuka added, giving me a glare. "Not in that way."
"From what you've said," I ventured, "she also doesn't treat you very well, either. You deserve someone better."
Naruto opened his mouth, but wonder of wonders, slowly closed it instead of speaking. "I do?" he finally asked in a small voice.
"Yes, you do," Asuka reassured him. "You just need to find the right person."
Naruto looked oddly thoughtful as we made our way back to the commercial sector. On that note, I decided to make a little change in our itinerary.
Konoha's largest sumi-nin workshop was housed in an ornate building in the oldest section of the commercial quarter. The entire block was quiet, no doubt to aid the concentration of whoever was wielding the brushes inside. The exterior gate opened onto a small atrium garden with a koi pond.
Now I knew why tags were so expensive. This was big business in Konoha.
I took in a deep breath, and tried to let the burble of running water from the fountain sooth my mind as I collected my thoughts. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Asuka smile. They probably had something similar in the Tsuchikage's residence. Naruto looked a little uncomfortable as he fidgeted.
We made our way slowly along the clearly marked path to an old-style vestibule where we removed our sandals. I hadn't seen wood and rice-paper construction up close like this before. My eyes also picked up tiny seals placed at the corners of the panels. I could see silencing as well as strengthening patterns. The fragile-seeming walls might well be as strong as cinder blocks.
A young woman in a formal kimono appeared and asked our business. Her eyes widened when I asked to speak to the seal-master, but she merely bowed and backed out of the room, gesturing for us to be seated.
She returned after a moment and informed us that I would be allowed a brief audience. Refreshments would be provided for my companions while they waited. I rose to my feet as gracefully as I could manage and gave a short bow.
The head tag-maker was a slightly rotund man in his late fifties with a few wisps of white hair framing his balding head. As I expected, he was dressed in a rich silk yukata of a very traditional cut. I was starting to realize why the commercially available tags were so expensive.
It also rankled, just a little. I understood on a factual level why. The knowledge to create them was pretty specialized, and only people able to mold a fair amount of chakra could actually charge them. That meant the actual pool of possible creators would be fairly small. Academy dropouts would not have the chakra control or even the reserves to do very much. Very few people with the right training survived to be retired from active duty, but it seemed that those who did and retained the ability to use chakra could find fairly lucrative employment.
But I also suspected a fair bit of collusion was going on. Even if the man before me could only create a handful of tags in a day, it hardly justified the prices Iruka had quoted to me. Shinobi undertaking dangerous missions could afford them, but it was a substantial operating expense. That meant Konoha shinobi would be hesitant to use them, perhaps limiting their effectiveness. I couldn't detect any signs of collusion between the foundries producing shuriken and kunai, but I supposed any blacksmith could undercut them in if the prices rose too high.
Worse, if this man was a retired shinobi, as the battered and scuffed forehead protector tied to his sash suggested, then he knew what the high price of tags meant for active duty ninja – and he was still willing to profit from it.
On the other hand, who was I to judge this situation? The Hokage was obviously willing to let this situation persist, so it couldn't be too bad. Asuka and I had come to Konoha to find a new home, not pick fights with everyone we met. It also wouldn't do to make more trouble for Naruto either. There may also be other factors that I wasn't aware of, so I shouldn't be too quick to judge.
Nonetheless, I was a little uneasy as I introduced myself to Masamichi Okuda. He was a little dubious about my claims to be a fellow seal master, but that changed as I graciously answered almost every question he posed to me. His gaze grew increasing shrewd as his questions grew more and more obscure. Finally, he asked me to demonstrate one of my techniques.
Whether I liked him or not, Okuda-san had some really nice equipment. The brush I used was as soft as a morning breeze, with just enough resilience to make the kanji crisp. I shuddered to think of how much it must have cost.
He looked surprised when I used my own blood to prime the ink. I think that must have been a regional variation peculiar to Earth Country. He mentioned that they used trace amounts of special minerals to make their ink retain chakra better. I wondered briefly if that was why their tags were so expensive, and if his employees were all going have sore thumbs soon.
When I finished charging the medium-sized tag and presented it to him, Okuda-san peered at me more closely than the tag. It took me a moment to realize that he was looking for signs of chakra exhaustion. I smiled modestly.
"So," he said carefully. "How many tags can you produce on a normal basis?"
I shrugged. "On a good night, perhaps eighty."
His mouth dropped open and his eyes widened. I enjoyed the sight far more than I should have. "Of this size?" He asked after a moment.
"At least," I replied. "I've also been experimenting with some larger designs for structural demolition." I didn't tell him I planned to call it the Uzumaki Special. I'd also neglected to mention my last name when I introduced myself. Given what he knew of my background, such an omission wouldn't seem unusual. Yet.
I wasn't the only person in the room being tested.
That's when Masamichi began to speak about market conditions and how it was important not to oversaturate it. It was important that people not start undervaluing what they did for Konoha. He waxed rhapsodic about the dangers if explosive tags became too inexpensive, how younger shinobi might become profligate in their use, or worse, come to see them as toys and misuse them, often with tragic results!
Yeah, they were definitely holding back production to keep the prices high. And that also meant they were colluding with all the other tag-makers to keep the prices inflated – otherwise, someone not part of their agreement would make more tags and drop the prices.
It's nice to see my utter lack of faith in humanity justified.
We were dancing around making some sort of agreement when we heard a disturbance from the direction of the atrium. Okuda was pressing me to make some sort of exclusive binding contract to produce for his business and his business only, and I was playing the wide-eyed innocent. It was almost amusing to hear him try to describe what he wanted without actually admitting that they were creating an artificial shortage to keep the prices high.
Still, the sound of raised voices brought with them a sense of relief. I was getting tired of all the subterfuge. I murmured an apology to my host for the manners of my companions as I rose from the tatami and made my way to the door.
Okuda told me to think nothing of it. I could also hear the frustration in his voice. He really wanted to pin me down to an agreement before I walked out his door. Nonetheless, good manners compelled him to follow me as I made my way back to the entrance.
Inside the atrium, it was pandemonium. Asuka and Naruto were both standing in their bare feet. The young woman was standing off to the side, beside a tea service that was scattered on the floor next to an overturned tray. Beside the other entrance into the depths of the building stood a middle-aged woman in a brocade-covered kimono, accompanied by two hulking retainers.
The two bookends took a threatening step towards my clan members and I felt my chakra spike. Hard. "What is the meaning of this?" I snapped, using Old Man's harshest tone. Logically, I knew that two untrained or poorly-trained civilians were no threat to even a pair of rookie genin, but logic had nothing to do with me at that moment.
The room went utterly silent, and I wondered if I'd finally managed to do that 'killing intent' thingy Old Man had told me about.
Whatever it was, Asuka shook it off first. "Hikaru-san," she began with a short bow, "we were waiting here for you when this… woman entered the room and began shouting demands that we leave."
"Is this true?" I asked quietly. The retainers' eyes looked everywhere but at me. The older woman had no such compunctions. "I will not have that… thing… in this place!" she shrilled.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Naruto seem to shrink in on himself before he tightened his jaw and stood up straight again. Good. "And why is that?" I asked in a casual tone.
"Midori!" Masamichi snapped. "Wife, that is enough! Do you wish to be executed?"
I glanced at the retainers. They were well over thirty, and the looks they did direct toward Naruto were hateful. The younger woman fled the room at a gesture by Okuda.
"I think everyone in this room is aware of the Hokage's secret law," I said carefully. The men nodded, but this Midori harpy took that as permission to resume her attack.
"Good! Then you'll understand why I don't want that demon in my home!"
I gave her my most contemptuous look. "For the wife of an alleged seal-master, you remain remarkably ignorant of the art. He's no more of a demon than you are. Furthermore," I continued, turning toward Okuda, "you have insulted the head of my clan. I hope you will understand why there can be no accord between us now."
"Clan?" he asked, frowning.
"My full name is Uzumaki Hikaru. My companions are Uzumaki Asuka and you of course know Uzumaki Naruto," I explained coldly as I stalked toward the portly man. "We are all active-duty shinobi. Nonetheless, I will find the time to make as many tags as I can. I will take great pleasure in undercutting your prices until you bleed. Enjoy your fine house and unearned wealth, parasite. See how long that shrilling harpy stays with you after both are gone."
With that, I turned and stalked toward the exit, holding the door open so Naruto could leave first.