Please Note carefully: Due to unforeseen (at the time) advancement of the manga plot in the past few years, I have decided to declare this fanfic officially NOT following canon after a certain point, in order to maintain this plot and not have to cry over the changes that happened in the meantime.
StarsOfYaoi: This is my new fic, and will eventually be ItaNaru. I warn you though, the main focus is not on the romance, but rather on Naruto's growth and with a plot to fit everything in.
Takes place after the Valley of End. In this fic, Sasuke was rescued, so remember that, ok?
Rating: M (for future chapters)
Summary: (future pairings include ItaNaru, GenmaRaidou, IruKakaIru) Naruto had every intention to go train with Jiraiya after the Valley of End, but instead, he's given another option –become a member of the newest ANBU team…
Warnings: Dark themes, angst, possible torture and violence.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. It belongs to its creator Masashi Kishimoto.
–Flashbacks, memories, dreams–
Chapter 01: Approach
There was an unusual silence draped over the three figures standing in the Hokage's office.
It was thick and tense and tasted of uneasiness and hesitation, as they had been discussing things of vital importance that none of them wanted to talk about.*
Despite the detailed reports, there were still blanks to fill, and things left to ponder that were not at all pleasant.
Things had taken an unexpected turn, and even though they were three of the most competent ninja of the village, they still needed to thread carefully.
Tsunade was sitting stiffly in the Hokage's seat, slumped down on the desk; as she let out a soft sigh, her elbows slipped to hit a pile of paperwork, which managed not to fall. Brown eyes fluttered close as she slowly massaged her temples, a last attempt to make her migraine recede.
She was good at ignoring people and had successfully managed to ignore the two shinobi standing there for a good fifteen minutes after hours spent talking, but Tsunade was aware that she could not postpone this any longer.
The last few days had been vexing, and even though she would deny it if asked, she was tired, anxious, weary and most of all, pissed off.
Above all though, she felt old.
It was at times like these that she felt the brunt of her own age fall back on her shoulders, a weight full of pain that reminded her she was no longer the twenty-five years old woman she'd once been, no matter how many medical jutsu she used to seem younger.
As a ninja, Tsunade had seen her fair share of despair, pain and blood; it was enough to have her hold many regrets, and for a good part of her life she had thought this would only mean losing hope, day after day, running away and knowing her attempts to distance herself from the past were useless.
Then… she had been reminded that she had a 'home' to return to, a place she still loved and that had welcomed her when she had returned. Not all of her life had been pain, and it was good to remember that too.
Still that didn't change the fact that she was not young anymore; having to deal with Hokage business was most assuredly not how she'd wanted to spend the last few years of her life. Despite that though, Tsunade had never felt more alive. Accepting her past, her responsibilities, had not been an easy step to make, and deciding not to run was even harder, but… she could now look back with bittersweet eyes and still think this was the right decision to make.
Konoha had not felt familiar, not like the warm place one could call home, but Tsunade had long since realised 'home' was not just a place to live. It was people to belong to, it was being appreciated and welcome, and Konoha, no matter its faults, was that place, and 'home' was also the person who had save her over and over, until she could stand on her own again.
As newer generations took place of the older ones, Tsunade was finally starting to see why Sarutobi had been so sure about the future of the Fire Nation.
Looking ahead rather than being burdened by the past, accepting and moving on without forgetting –that was a strength she had not properly learned until meeting Naruto. Embrace the memories but not allowing them to hold her back, glance at the future she still had in front of her, protect the village and its people, and feel once again alive.
She had done that, had accepted her duties as a shinobi of Konoha, regaining that peace of mind she'd only felt once before, when her brother and Dan had been alive. And the village… Konoha was her village. she belonged to it, she loved it. That was the legacy her loved ones had left to her, and she would protect it to the best of her abilities.
This was tomorrow's hope, after all.
That did not mean it was easy. Determination born from blood and sweat gave her strength, but it was not infinite. The Godaime was tired, and the state of Konoha after the Sound's attack, was almost discouraging.
Of the many problems, the worst was the political issues she was facing, and it was the one she dreaded the most.
Uchiha Sasuke, the last member of the much glorified Uchiha clan, had escaped his sensei's surveillance, running from the village in order to join a high-ranked missing-nin. The further ramifications of this were even worse –the missing-nin was Orochimaru, once also part of Konoha, renown across all hidden villages for being strong and ruthless, and for his hatred towards his once village. Sasuke had showed little care for what that would imply, and had even harmed his teammate, who had been dispatched to bring him back.
He would have actually managed to escape successfully if Naruto hadn't been there to stop him; unfortunately, his attempt, although fruitless, still placed Tsunade in a bad position. An attempted betrayal of the village was no laughing matter, and Sasuke's position as the last of a powerful bloodline clan was not going to offer much leeway.
On the surface things seemed under control –the Uchiha was back into the village, and nobody was aware of the situation aside for a handful of high-ranked people; but Tsunade knew it would be hard to make the Uchiha settle down and prevent him from running away again.
Considering the instable position Konoha was occupying after Sandaime Sarutobi-sama had died (by the hands of the same missing-nin Sasuke had tried to join), if the news of the attempted defection of Uchiha Sasuke were to reach the ears of the neighbouring countries, Konoha would face more trouble than it was worth, and its pride would take a harsh blow.
It wasn't a secret that the Uchiha clan had been exterminated and the responsible had fled the village, and finding out that the remaining heir of the family had attempted defection… no, it would be a downfall.
It was said that the higher position one had, the harder it would fall… then Konoha was doomed to fall hard.
All of this over a stupid kid's hot-blooded decision.
Of course, ninja defecting from their villages wasn't uncommon; there were thousands missing-nin around the five elemental countries who found themselves unable to follow the rules, or simply broke down under the pressure, or wanted more power at their disposal.
Most of them remained nameless to the public, and only the bingo-books had detailed information on them, unless the nuke-nin decided to make a name for themselves, and those only served to bring shame to their original village.
Politically speaking, Sasuke had been a valuable asset; belonging to a loved, coveted clan, he had been worshipped and admired during his whole childhood, protected and pushed on the path of a ninja in order to serve the village as a symbol of power –the last Uchiha was still loyal.
If the news of his attempted defection were to reach potential opponents, they would use it against Konoha, and destroy its political standing with the other villages and the Daimyo.
Other ninja villages would feed on it, competing and teaming up against Konoha, weak after the death of its last Kage and after its almost destruction. People would not trust Konoha with missions and pacts, which it depended on to get back into gear, and following this the Fire Lord himself would deny Konoha his financial aid.
Her mind filled with those dreadful thoughts, Tsunade straightened her back and looked up at the two shinobi, still silently waiting for her to speak up. She was the Hokage now. All of this… was her responsibility, and avoiding such a horrifying situation was top priority.
Cold brown eyes regained control over her emotions and she took a deep, cleansing breath.
"Is he ok?"
Her tone was soft and worried, but her face did not betray her emotions. His safety would always come first, even before her village's concern.
Kakashi, who had until then remained with his back pressed against the wall, looking nonchalant, nodded warily, his only visible eye narrowed; the part of his face that was not covered by his mask and hitai-ate was stony, but one could easily see he was relieved, not just weary.
He had never been this easy to read in a long while, but that also made him look older… his constant worrying over his students had overwhelmed his past defences and guilt and regrets were now piling up inside him.
He supposed he'd have to face them at one point, but now was not the time.
"Yes," he finally replied, his shoulders tensing a bit without showing. "When the rescue team and I reached the Valley of End, both of them were still conscious, but Sasuke did not appear to object his return here. Naruto passed out on the way home due to fatigue, as his wounds were healing already on their own".
The masked shinobi hesitated a bit, but one look from the Godaime forced him to continue.
"I tried to question Sasuke about what happened at the Valley, but he would not answer. He kept repeating he would not break another promise and stated coolly more than once that he won't try something like this ever again".
The Hokage sighed, but nodded at him. Naruto was fine, and in an instant most of her worries ceased to exist, cooling down her steely resolve. Sasuke was also back –that wouldn't mean much if they did not make sure he wouldn't leave again, but it was a start.
Questioning the Uchiha would be the best alternative for now, but she would wait him to heal completely before ordering someone to proceed with the inquisition.
"Thanks, Kakashi," she said, her tone unwavering. "You can leave now".
The Jounin nodded.
"I will be with Sasuke and Naruto at the hospital if you need me," he muttered before vanishing on the spot, a small cloud of smoke in his place.
Tsunade shifted her gaze to the remaining shinobi; for a while, silence reigned on them once more, but the two could understand each other without speaking.
"What do you think?" Jiraiya finally asked, his rough voice showing his concern –he had been deeply worried, just like Tsunade had, because the blond brat had wormed into his heart just as much as he had done in hers.
The Toad Sannin moved towards the wall next to the window, unable to stand being in small constricting spaces for long; Jiraiya sought solace by leaning against the window's frame instead, looking outside.
"I am glad they are both back…" Tsunade sighed, shaking her head once again. "Many problems will be avoided thanks to Naruto, but…" '… but I am more concerned about Naruto than any of Konoha's political schemes…'
Jiraiya grunted, understanding her unsaid words and not-so-privately agreeing with her. As the Sannin watched, Tsunade pulled out a bottle of sake from underneath the desk, sliding out two small cups from a drawer; her skills at hiding alcohol from Shizune were getting better, and in a moment like this they needed it.
Pouring out the clear liquid for both of them, Tsunade let her gaze meet Jiraiya's before the two gulped their cups down. The sake burned down her throat, and she sighed silently, enjoying the strong feeling and the warmth.
"I want to take the brat with me".
Jiraiya knew that his words would not be easily accepted by Tsunade, but he had to talk with her about it anyway. She looked only mildly surprised, but not pleased, and he looked away.
"Come again?" Tsunade waited for him to repeat himself.
She wasn't exactly shocked, because she knew Jiraiya was trying to make up for the lost time with Naruto, but she had not expected him to offer so soon.
Unable to look at his old teammate, Jiraiya turned around, moving his gaze to the village he could see from the window of Tsunade's office, then slowly looked up, at the five stony faces above him. The Hokage mountain was a sight visible from every spot in Konoha, a pleasant connection to the past.
The four Kage looked down at him, ready to judge him for his words, and not for the first time Jiraiya wondered if the protection that most shinobi and civilians felt when looking up at them was also meant for someone like Naruto, who needed it the most.
The village had been founded by Tsunade's grandfather, one of the first two Kage of Konoha, and Jiraiya, in a way or another, had met all the previous Hokage. All of them had wanted to protect the place they had loved so much, and the people who lived within it.
Shodaime, Nidaime, Sandaime and Yondaime had always thought about Konoha first, and their own lives last, loving the place in their own, personal way…
He wondered, with a flicker of worry, if they would be supportive of his decision or not. If Yondaime would still trust him to make decisions for Naruto, with the way he had abandoned the kid and the village before.
Tsunade, just like them, had responsibilities. Even if her own love for the village came second only to Naruto's wellbeing, as a Hokage she had to think of the whole Konoha first and foremost; Jiraiya suspected that if something happened to make her take a side, there would be no doubt which one of the two Tsunade would protect first, Konoha or Naruto.
That was also part of the reason Jiraiya wanted to take Naruto under his personal tutelage… so she would not have to ever face this decision.
He had no real ties to Konoha, except for the few people he cared for that lived within the village, and that was also why Jiraiya would never be Hokage. Like Tsunade, he would place someone else before Konoha, but unlike Tsunade, he could do it without repercussions. He had no obligations to think about Konoha first, and that was why he could grab Naruto and get him away from here.
That boy needed to leave and get stronger outside of Konoha.
How could his thirst for knowledge and attention be granted without leaving? Konoha was stifling Naruto, rather than nurturing him, and Jiraiya had experienced first-hand what it meant to come to dislike a place you were supposed to love. Naruto needed his spaces, and some time to flourish. He would do that, and more, if he accepted Jiraiya's offer to train alongside him.
That was because Naruto had yet to learn to love Konoha fully –the true requirement to become Hokage.
Yes, Naruto loved Konoha… but what he loved was the idea of it; the ideal Sandaime had offered him. Enraptured by the man's words, Naruto had vowed to protect his friends and the people he cared for, but he did not love unconditionally the village.
He would slowly break down under the weight, and Jiraiya could not allow it.
If the kid couldn't stray from the path he had picked for himself, then Jiraiya would do what he could to aid him on that path.
Naruto was, after all, a child. There were many things he had yet to learn and see with his own eyes before he could understand things for what they were, and not through glittery-tinged glasses. His dream was mostly idealised, and he needed to grasp the darker sides just as well; he would have to learn there was no need to hurry, control his powers, and most of all he needed to open his eyes to the truth… and finally decide if he would be a good Hokage.
A Hokage's power and position could be easily overestimated, and maybe Naruto had just shaped his desire to be accepted into the role of the leader, and Jiraiya knew that feeling too well…
But Jiraiya was not the Hokage.
That was why Jiraiya wanted to show Naruto the world outside of Konoha. Before he could collapse under the obligations and pain, he would offer him a taste of what a shinobi really was, and help him make a conscious decision.
"I want to take Naruto with me on a three–year training period," he finally said, turning around to look at her again. "I am aware that Akatsuki won't attack Naruto for the next few years, and Sasuke is safe in the village. Orochimaru had to possess another body, or risk dying, so as long as he's guarded, there won't be problems for at least three years. That gives enough time to plan what to do about Orochimaru's goals with the Uchiha, and to give Naruto enough training".
Tsunade licked her lips; she was listening, although she didn't seem to like Jiraiya's careless mention of their former teammate.
"This is the best option for him, Tsunade-hime, and you know it. You have seen his eyes, the way civilians and shinobi alike react to him. He needs to leave and grow on his own…" 'and if the Council tries something, I will protect him fully without fearing any double-crossing from them,' he silently added.
With a start, Tsunade realised she was clutching the desk too tightly, and forced herself to loosen her grip, leaving ten small dents in the wood made by her nails. She had easily caught on Jiraiya's unspoken words, and she knew he was right.
And yet… Naruto was the reason for her return to the village.
A part of her was not ready to let him leave, but she had to think about his wellbeing first and foremost, and that was…
Jiraiya pressed on. "I will take care of him, Tsunade, this is a promise. I care for him just as much as you do, and I will make him strong," he tried to reassure her former teammate. He wasn't one to make shallow promises, after all. "If there are any problems with allowing a genin to leave, we'll deal with them one by one. But not even the elders can negate I am the best protection Naruto can have against Akatsuki".
Tsunade had the sudden urge to stand up and hit him, all be damned, but she knew she'd have to eventually relent to the white haired man's wishes. For Naruto. That was all for him.
"Your words mean nothing if I'm the one you ask for permission first. You'd have to find Naruto and ask him yourself first, then come to me" she muttered, taking a hold of her second sake cup and downing it in one gulp. 'I admit there is a point to Jiraiya's madness, but I do loathe to see him go…'
Jiraiya nodded at the acceptance he saw in her eyes, his shoulders relaxing slightly.
"I will go right now, then," he smiled at her, receiving a tired smile back –for once, they had not bickered. It felt good.
Before he could leave, there was a sudden chakra flare that alerted both Sannin; it was a deliberate, clear pulse made to warn the Hokage that someone was coming, subtle enough that only those within the Hokage office could feel it, so not to alert the guards by the door outside.
It was a signal only used by the Hokage's personal guards, the ANBU division, and the Blank masks belonging to the Hunters, meant to reassure the Hokage that the incoming shinobi was no threat.
Both Jiraiya and Tsunade tensed as a figure appeared in front of the Hokage's desk without the use of a smoke curtain, kneeling in front of the woman with his head facing down.
He was tall and looked no older than thirty, with dark, brownish hair cut short on his head; his frame was well built, but still lean and perfectly shaped under the dark outfit, while his face was covered by a white mask with black lines, whose shapes formed the features of a panther.
Tsunade lifted an eyebrow.
As his entrance and his appearance confirmed, the shinobi belonged to the ANBU team, and was in fact the Captain of the first squad, the commander of the corps and one of Tsunade's strongest allies within Konoha. The man's name-code was famous throughout the village and even outside, whose loyalty was strong and unwavering.
ANBU, as opposed to normal ranking shinobi, took orders directly from the Hokage in charge, and were trained to answer to the Kage's will alone; they did not respond to the authority of the Elder Council, nor to the Clan Head's Council either, and were a secluded category, separated from the usual shinobi rankings.
They were the elite of the village, respected and feared for their skills and courage, Tsunade's personal guard during public situations and first in line in battle and ambush.
There were not many differences between normal teams and ANBU ones; each squad had a team leader and three members, and sometimes two or three squads would work together on missions. The main difference between normal shinobi and ANBU was that to protect their identities, ANBU members wore masks, each of them unique and depicting an animal face painted in black on white.
Since ANBU had the most difficult, dangerous missions, their identities were heavily guarded, and outside of the ANBU headquarters only the Hokage knew the identity of each member (that is, unless it involved shinobi from important clans, who took pride in their strength and often allowed a small circle of people to know their position within the ANBU).
During peaceful times, the number of ANBU teams in service was five, but during war times it could increase exponentially. Squad members took orders from their leaders, and all of them only answered to the main squad's captain, who was the corps' commander.
Opposed to the rest of the ANBU, the identity of the Commander Head was a sealed secret that not even fellow ANBU knew. Even the Hokage, the only person who could see the Commander mask-less, preferred to forget having this knowledge, and never abused of this fact.
Between the ranks of the ANBU, identities were often shared amongst teammates, some deciding not to share it at all, some allowing the whole division to know; as it was, ANBU protected their own identity as well as their partners'. Loyal and secretive, one of their assignments was to protect the village and hunt down traitors (the Hunters' division was especially trained for that purpose), even though they also got missions that ranked from A–special to S, which were usually assassinations or undercover missions in enemy territory. Jounin shinobi were allowed to take up to A, although there were special cases where certain Jounin's skills overlapped those of the ANBU, and they were allowed higher ranking missions.
To be accepted within the ANBU division, a shinobi didn't need to go through any standard exam or reach a certain level; outsiders thought that to qualify as an ANBU choice one had to be at least of Jounin level, but in truth the troops held separate exams individually, offering a position to someone they deemed worthy or by accepting the Hokage's suggested choices every year or so.
The chosen ones would be placed under supervision for a month, and they would then be trained intensively to even out their skills and enhance their personal traits. After that period, they would get tested to see whether they were skilled enough to be accepted into the division.
Since ANBU life could interfere with normal ranking missions, and that protecting their own identity would bring out questions that could not be answered, most of the ninja in active duty that belonged to the ANBU troops were uninterested in formalities, and never took the Jounin exam.
Some ninja appeared to be meek and quiet, living a simple life with low ranking missions to fit the budget, and thus keep under the radar, avoiding overlapping missions with their second life as an ANBU member.
Others faked retirement from active duty for one reason or another, dedicating themselves to high ranked secret missions and using a simple job in the village as a cover-up.
The few ninja that actually decided to take and pass the Jounin exam were only the ones that strictly had to, either because their clan expected them to, knowing about their position (and thus leaking out the news to gain pride for the clan) or because it would have seemed strange not to. Some simply enjoyed the rush, or the need to look strong in front of their village.
ANBU never cared for age, rank or families and bloodlines; being accepted within the troops was merely thanks to personal skills, individual tests and training, and to actually be accepted was both a great honour and a great responsibility.
Since flooding the Hokage with daily missions' reports was unthinkable, Tsunade (as her predecessors) received the visit of one of the squad leaders for a weekly report; eventually she could ask for a specific ANBU to be present to inquire more about certain missions, but to actually see the Commander kneeling in front of her was not an usual occurrence.
She knew instantly that something was up.
The Commander's code-name was Hyoodoku, the only name this particular shinobi would be known as for as long as he kept his role in the ANBU, and nothing else.
ANBU masks only reflected the person behind them, and Hyoo was just as dangerous and feral as the animal painted on his mask was.
"Hokage-sama," the man said, voice deep and laced with respect.
Tsunade observed him for a second, relieved for his presence but somewhat curious as to why he would be there, and then nodded sharply to Jiraiya, signalling him he could stay. She returned her attention to the ANBU.
"Panther, what is the meaning of your appearance here? I have already received your weekly report yesterday… has something happened that I am not aware of?"
The kneeling ninja finally stood up, keeping his back slightly slouched in order to appear shorter than the Hokage herself, and cleared his throat.
He was there for a reason, and he knew he would be walking on eggshells if he could not explain himself properly to his new Hokage.
"Tsunade Hokage-sama, I am here for a pledge –ANBU troops ask for the permission to start a test for a new member".
Tsunade couldn't restrain a small twitch of confusion from showing on her face; as far as she knew, all five teams were intact, no member had died yet, and the usual recruits period was still a couple months away. What Hyoo was requesting was obviously a special test.
Why were the ANBU asking for one now?
"A new member?" she asked, intertwining her fingers in front of her face and leaning her elbows on the desk, ignoring the bottle of sake and the documents still scattered there. "Are you planning on creating a sixth four-man team?"
Tsunade had suspected for a while that ANBU were feeling less secure after the Chuunin exams. They had also been fooled by Orochimaru, and the result had been Sandaime's death.
That had been a huge blow for everybody, but for people who had been loyal to the Hokage first and foremost, the shame burnt even more –they had failed the only person they valued above any other, who had been commanding them for decades.
Hyoo hesitated for a second, uncertain on how to approach the subject with lady Hokage, but there was no way he could back down.
"Some formerly retired members have asked to be reinstalled to active duty, and they were accepted back," he said, his tone even but steady. "The Sixth team is however comprised of just three members, and I am here to request permission for a new trainee to be given a chance".
Tsunade blinked in surprise, and casting a quick glance at Jiraiya, she saw the same curiosity in his eyes as well.
To have old members reinstalled in the ANBU ranks was almost unheard of, since very few ANBU members were allowed to retire (unless crippled, or seriously ill) and they were closely monitored to prevent any leakage of information.
Even so, fewer ever asked to come back. Tsunade only knew of two, ever.
The woman forced her shoulders to relax –she would have to meet the members beforehand, and since she had no way to know who they were, given they had been on active duty with her predecessor, not her, this would prove to be a pleasurable distraction from her current set of problems.
More so, if the ANBU were asking for a new member, even though it was just so they could fill up their new team, that would be something to regard with attention; only shinobi with great potential or skills were allowed to give a try.
After all, of the many ninja that ANBU tested, only a few managed to pass the test and were thus confirmed trainees; most were disappointed by their own failure and would go back to their lives with the resolve to improve, their memories of the ANBU headquarters' location erased from their mind.
Rejected candidates usually returned for the following try-outs, while others simply gave up.
ANBU that dropped out from active duty, depending on their status, mental stability and eventual injuries also had their memories of the headquarters location erased, unless the ANBU decided to still keep in contact with them to use them as information-gatherers from outside the troops.
"I accept the meeting with the members," Tsunade finally said, nodding to the man. "As for the request for a new member, I need to know their name, current status, and a motivation for why you selected that person".
Jiraiya smirked, shaking his head inwardly at Tsunade's business-like behaviour. Despite all her mourning and bitching about it, the Hokage position fit her like a glove.
Hyoo hesitated again, as if pondering how to exactly tell the Hokage about his chosen one, then sighed, knowing there wouldn't be a way to sweeten it up.
"It is a young male we have been observing for quite some time, assessing his current performances and his progresses as a shinobi of Konohagakure," he started. "He has talent but needs a serious training, one that can unlock his skills and capabilities without interruptions –a rigid training to shape what now is raw and rough".
Tsunade narrowed her eyes, listening to the man's words.
"So you are saying that, even though if he is talented and has the potential to be an ANBU, he is still not ready yet?"
Hyoo nodded. "Our training regimen will polish what is there without fail, and it won't take much longer for him to be ready," he assured, sounding sure of himself. "ANBU have often acquired members for the sole purpose of training their raw potential, so it would not be the first time we have chosen someone who is not already fit for the position. This shinobi has good skills and strength, and all he requires is attention and constant focus".0
Tsunade grimaced. Something in the man's tone was making her stomach squirm uneasily. "And who would this promising ninja be?"
Hyoo exhaled slowly, preparing himself for the outburst that was sure to come.
As he stepped into the hospital room, Kakashi was suddenly aware of three things.
The first was how the beds were placed within the room, far from each other, which differed from the usual room formation with the beds placed closer to each other; Kakashi was sure that neither Naruto nor Sasuke had been the ones to move the beds like that, because the first was still unconscious, and the second was weakened and currently sealed on the bed.
The second was the crowd of nurses around Sasuke's bed, and by the Uchiha's displeased expression, it was clear he was not enjoying it. Naruto's side of the room was also unusually bare, making the Jounin inwardly frown.
He had seen Naruto's friends come with get-well cards, and Hinata had brought flowers, but there was nothing there. To make up for that though, Iruka was sitting next to the sleeping teen, eyes focused on his resting figure, looking calm and plainly ignoring the nurses.
The third and most important thing was how the nurses were pointedly ignoring Naruto's side, and Iruka. He didn't look unattended –Tsunade would never allow that– but Kakashi was sure that the only one taking care of the sleeping teen was Iruka.
The copy-nin paused only for a split second, committing to memory the nurses' faces for later, when he reported their unprofessional attitude to the head of the hospital, then moved to Naruto's side.
Iruka heard the approaching Jounin and looked up, eyes tired and weary.
"How is he?" Kakashi asked conversationally, tone cheerful but eye sharply focused on his sleeping student.
"Relatively fine, and after I scolded the nurses, they've taken on ignoring me," Iruka snorted, eyes taking on a dangerous glint. "They only did the minimum required, patching up his wounds and bandaging them. Thankfully he is recovering quickly. I guess this is one of the few times I'm glad he has… that," the Chuunin chuckled. "He should wake up soon".
"Good," Kakashi nodded, relieved. The Naruto on the bed was too pale, too quiet to compare with the Naruto he knew. He was young and yet had an enormous potential, and Kakashi felt a growing dread at his own actions towards both him and Sasuke.
Supporting one student at the expenses of another… what had he been thinking? Hiding his eagerness to train Sasuke as his pupil under the false pretence of helping him master the Sharingan…
Kakashi was ashamed of himself. He had always despised favouritism, but his words had been those of a hypocrite. He had not noticed, nor had he taken care of it, and he just hoped he would be allowed a way to fix his mistakes.
He had refused to see Naruto as his own person, seeing shadows of his old sensei and Obito in him, and had pushed away almost unconsciously, looking at Sasuke and seeing himself in the young genin.
Blinded by what he could see in Sasuke, what he'd deluded himself to see, he had failed to take notice of the darkness hiding inside the teen's heart –what Sasuke had learned from him had been used for revenge, while what Naruto would learn…
… would serve him to protect.
"Naruto will be ok, you don't have to worry," Kakashi told Iruka in a low voice.
They both paused to look at Sasuke's side. The nurses were finally gone, and the teen was now staring stubbornly out of the window, ignoring the two adults who could still see him peek at them… no, at Naruto… every now and then.
Kakashi could say he'd grown to understand Sasuke, even though he hadn't been able to see for a long time, and he had to wonder whether Tsunade would allow him to keep the memories of what had happened at the Valley of End for himself, or if she'd make him break just to know.
One thing was obvious, though –there was no hatred in Sasuke's eyes, and Kakashi had to strain his senses to feel the foul smell of possession coming from him.
With a sigh, Kakashi left the hospital.
Both Tsunade and Jiraiya were left speechless.
They stared at the ANBU commander with the same stunned stare, almost expecting him to take back his words, but that did not happen –Hyoo remained silent, defiant, though under his mask his face betrayed his tension.
He would stand his ground –this was far too important not to.
"Tsunade–sama… Jiraiya–sama," he finally spoke, staring at the two Sannin. He would include the white haired sennin in his speech due to his well–known familial love for the teen. "I formally request the permission to test one Uzumaki Naruto as the new trainee for the ANBU troops".
"No!" Tsunade replied, without even thinking. "I won't allow him to take that path!"
Disbelief laced her words –Naruto did not have the skills or the mental attitude to be an ANBU. He had no experience yet, he was not disillusioned, and Tsunade was secretly afraid to face the moment he would come back from a mission after having killed for the first time. Normal ninja could avoid killing unless it was strictly necessary, but for ANBU he wouldn't have that luxury.
He was too young, too inexperienced, he had yet to understand what the true life of a shinobi was, aside for teammates running away and organizations seeking out tailed beasts. Normal shinobi life was different, darker than the petty missions genin were allowed to take.
No, Naruto couldn't give his pledge to the ANBU. Not him.
Hyoo sighed, then straightened his back, mentally preparing to challenge his Hokage; she was stubborn, but he would not back down until she could see he was right.
"With all due respect, Hokage-sama, he has the qualities to become a great shinobi, if allowed to train with us," he countered, trying to reason with her. The boy had raw talent, talent that was being wasted.
But Hyoo's reasons for insisting with the Hokage had actually not much to do with the opportunity to add a potentially strong shinobi to his ranks, and certainly had nothing to do with the Kyuubi residing inside Naruto's seal.
More than to any other Hokage, the ANBU had especially been loyal to the Yondaime, the only man who had inspired not just loyalty, but trust within the ANBU corps. He had treated them not just as faithful weapons, but also as people, like the rest of the shinobi and the villagers. Yondaime understood the truth behind the façade of the ANBU.
They had been there during the Kyuubi's attack, they had seen the depths of Yondaime's grief over losing his wife, they had seen the determination flashing through his eyes, and the pain when he had given up his life in order to complete the seals that would chain the beast once more, this time in his little baby's body.
They were there for it all, silent testimony of a great sacrifice filled with hope, there to mourn on their own for the loss of their leader, of a comrade and a friend.
And unlike Minato and Kushina, they had been there for the aftermath. That little baby left behind to take the brunt of the village's pain, of a hatred misplaced and fired against a kid rather than at a beast, something Yondaime would have never believed to be possible.
The ANBU had guarded Naruto's life for the first few years of his life, preventing grieving ninja and even villagers from attacking him directly, but even they could not be everywhere, because after Kyuubi's destruction they had to do their own part to make Konoha rise again.
Naruto had not been as alone as he'd thought, but the ANBU had been unable to do much either way, because they couldn't interact directly with the little kid and they were forced to do what was best for the village first, as per Sandaime's orders.
But they knew. ANBU were aware that Naruto was not the Kyuubi, merely the container. Not a demon, but simply an unfortunate sacrifice.
Sandaime Sarutobi-sama had forbidden ANBU from taking little Naruto under their wing, partly because he wanted the kid to grow up like a normal kid, away from the bloodshed that being in the secret corps was inevitable, thinking that protecting the kid rather than telling him the truth would make him understand in the long run, not to mention his determination to keep the rest of the Council calm, and keep Naruto safe as much as he could without taking him under his tutelage.
The Council had wanted to kill the demon, not understanding that doing so would only let Kyuubi break free again, and afterwards they had wanted to deploy him to their service, making him grow as a human weapon with no identity, and they had been denied that too.
Keeping him away from ninja until he was at the academy, keeping him down low and hiding from him the truth was meant to make him seem weak, not a threat. It had worked, but to the expense of Naruto's own growth, self-worth and happiness.
Hyoo still felt regret over his inability to help.
If the Sandaime had allowed one of them to gain custody of Naruto since the very start, none of this would have ever happened, but they had been unable to do anything but watch from afar, protecting him as much as they could without interfering.
Now things were different, yet a mirror of the past.
Konoha had been attacked again and the ANBU had to get busy again to protect and aid its growth, but now Naruto was no little kid in need of protection. He needed guidance, and adults steering his life in the right direction. He could be given the chance to follow the ANBU, be taught by them and learn and grow.
Hyoo wanted Tsunade to understand –he knew that she cared for Naruto, it was a gift that Naruto kept spreading around, making bonds with people who would have never thought of liking him. She would only want his best, and she hadn't been there before. Hyoo had.
"Tsunade–sama…" he looked at her in the eyes, "We will take care of the Yondaime's legacy without fail".
His words made both the older ninja stiffen. Something that had never been spoken aloud ever since the Fourth's death was hanging in the air between them, raw and bare, almost accusing, and in Jiraiya's mind that stung like the blade of a katana.
It was a low blow, but one Hyoo had not hesitated in deploying.
The Hokage's hands were trembling as she poured herself a third cup of sake, gulping it down with her eyes covered by blond bangs, not speaking. She wouldn't give the man the chance to see how deeply his words had touched her.
"Naruto has to leave the village," Jiraiya interrupted harshly. His decision was being challenged, and he didn't want to allow someone else to take care of Naruto. It was his duty and even though he acted like the teen bothered him most of the time, it was the opposite. He was old and had a hard time learning how to care for someone else, especially so young, but it was his duty, not someone else's. "I will be taking him with me for three years".
Hyoo turned towards him, his mask hiding his face but not the tension in his body.
"Staying in the village only poses a danger to his growth," Jiraiya continued, voice not louder than a hiss. "He needs to learn that there is a world outside of Konoha, and that he can love his village by learning how things work outside, in the rest of the lands," his eyes narrowed. "ANBU is not the right path for him. He will stay under my tutelage".
Hyoo shook his head.
It would be wrong; Jiraiya-sama was a strong shinobi, yes, but they were all aware that he was running away. Before Naruto, Jiraiya himself would have admitted it, and it was true he was changing only because of Naruto's influence, but that meant Jiraiya saw himself in Naruto. He would take Naruto away from the village, and then the problems would still be there in the end, haunting them both during their travels.
Naruto would grow under Jiraiya's tutelage, but other parts of him would not mature.
"ANBU will offer the best protection in such circumstances. Jiraiya-sama can continue travelling on his own, gather information without having to split his attention between that and Naruto," Hyoo replied, keeping his voice firm and steady. "We will erase his identity and keep him in our hideout to train, within the village grounds, where he can observe without being influenced. The boy will need to face the truth with his own eyes, and confront it".
He paused, staring Jiraiya straight into his eyes. "We are going to offer him a purpose".
Tsunade licked her dry lips, breathing deeply for a few seconds as the two men stared each other down, neither stepping back from the challenge.
Tsunade knew that Naruto needed to grow, to learn. She also knew that his idealistic dream would hit against the barrier of reality, and he needed to learn that reality and dreams were different, and could only overlap when all was out in the open, no delusions and no hiding.
This… for how much it hurt her to think this, this was Naruto's decision to make. He might be young, but they were shinobi. Protecting Naruto from the inevitable would not aid him in the least.
These words echoed through Jiraiya's mind like boiling oil, bitter and accusing and brutally direct. Hyoo had probably meant to be blunt, not offensive, and the fact that Jiraiya felt attacked meant they were ringing painfully true.
Would it really be like running away if Naruto left the village to train with him? Did Hyoodoku have a point with his accusation?
Jiraiya dispelled such thoughts. Naruto as an ANBU… he couldn't see it. Despite his determination, he would never pass the exam, and what if he did?
Would he even accept to try out?
And if Jiraiya allowed him to try, only to see him fail, wouldn't that waste the little time they had before Akatsuki returned?
"Naruto has the rights to decide," Tsunade murmured, not looking up from her joined hands. "But he has to know there is another option, as well".
The Sennin stared worriedly at her; she had to be on his side, even when she wasn't really, but they had to make joint forced against the idea of Naruto joining the ANBU. He was too young, too inexperienced and clueless about the life of ninja to find it out that way.
He was not ready, and probably would never be. It was just nonsense.
'He will be a great shinobi, that is for sure –he will be Hokage one day, but… ANBU? No, never'.
Naruto could not follow their rules…
And even knowing that, Jiraiya knew he had to consider Naruto as an adult, in ninja standards. No matter his age, he was a shinobi of Konoha. He would need to know all the options offered to him, and whatever decision he took, it would be his own.
Jiraiya would have to agree and go along with it, because he cared for Naruto. Not because he was his old student's legacy, but simply because Naruto was Naruto.
Hyoo noticed Jiraiya's shoulders drop ever so slightly and felt a surge of satisfaction, knowing he had won; now he only needed to take care of the rest, to make sure the rest would run smoothly.
With a quick bow to the two older shinobi, the Panther disappeared without a trace from the Hokage's office, once again without smoke to hide his departure.
When Iruka finally left the hospital, it was already dawn.
Naruto had yet to wake up, but Iruka had every intention to stay by his side until he regained consciousness, and if the nurses tried to 'politely' send him off, he was going to put his foot down and file a complaint with the head of the hospital.
Since that meant the Hokage, he knew they would back down, and he had to smirk at the thought.
Hurrying down the street, the Chuunin teacher let idly thoughts run through his mind. He wondered if his laundry would be dry when he got home, and then he wondered if he'd have enough food to make himself dinner before going to bed early.
He needed some rest, as the following morning he'd have to get his class to the Academy Training Grounds for a shuriken-throwing practice lesson. He still had nightmares from his previous weaponry class, and there were holes in his pants he kept discovering even weeks after.
Teachers had it hard, and he sort of envied the team Jounin teachers, as they only had to control three teenagers each… he had an entire class of pre-teens ready to demolish the academy –not really a walk in the park.
Young kids thinking they were extremely gifted with weapons could be scary, especially when they were allowed to handle shiny and pointy things; most of them had a bad aim, of course, and the huge ego only children could have which made them feel like they were on top of the world. It took him all his skills and experience to keep them from hurting themselves (or him).
If he didn't love teaching, he'd wonder why he had opted for such job in the first place, though at first his decision had nothing to do with–
"Iruka-sensei!" he turned around, blinking in surprise when he saw who was approaching him –his former student Haruno Sakura, Naruto's teammate. She waved her hand as she approached him, and Iruka stopped to wait for her.
At a close inspection, she seemed to be tired and worried, with red cheeks and puffy eyes, sign she had been crying for a while recently. Iruka didn't need observation skills to be able to read such obvious signs, and knowing her two teammates were in the hospital, he was pretty sure that was the reason for her tears.
"Sakura, what are you doing here? You should hurry home, your family will be worried," Iruka chided her, in his usual mother-hen attitude he reserved for all his students, old and young alike.
"Sorry, I went to see Ino and lost track of the time," she apologized, smiling sheepishly at him. Sakura then cleared her throat, looking down at the ground and then back up at her former teacher. "Say, Iruka-sensei… did you visit Naruto and Sasuke-kun?"
The Chuunin nodded, smiling warmly at her. "They are allowed to receive visits now, so you can go see them tomorrow if you want, alright?"
Sakura nodded eagerly, then her expression turned conflicted.
"Is there something you want to say?" he asked her gently, keeping his tone even and warm.
"Iruka-sensei, I…" she struggled with herself for a moment, before staring into his eyes. "I made Naruto promise to bring Sasuke-kun back, and I was so cold and mean to him but he just… he said he'd do it, without even protesting and then… and he did it. He kept his promise and I…" she looked down, her shoulders trembling.
Iruka sighed. "Naruto cares for you, Sakura," he placed one hand on her head, like he had done countless times when she had been younger. "Not just because he likes you, but because you are his teammate. Tomorrow… I am sure you will find the right words for both him and Sasuke then. You know already what you want to say, right?"
She nodded, taking a shuddery breath.
"Then you will do well. Remember, being sorry means you are changing, and admitting you are wrong about something… or someone… is a good step ahead," he ruffled her hair slightly, then his tone turned mock-serious. "Now you'd better run home, young miss! I can still scold you if you're late for supper!"
A small smile appeared on Sakura's face, and she nodded to herself. "Thank you, Iruka-sensei… you're the best!"
Still subdued, but looking more relieved than before, Sakura bowed and turned around, walking quickly until she was out of sight, and Iruka watched her go with a soft smile on his lips.
Iruka did not move, though. He remained standing in the middle of the empty street for a long while, breathing the cool air and watching the shadows formed by the light of a lamppost curl around his feet, until a darker silhouette appeared next to his own.
Only then did he look up, facing the figure that was standing next to him in silence, almost waiting for him to speak. Iruka's face turned unnaturally blank.
"What brings you here? Is everything ok?" he asked, turning away from the other man and apparently not at all bothered by its sudden appearance at his side.
"Yes, I think everything is going rather well," the other replied with a shrug.
"Are you sure it's a good idea in the first place?" Iruka's voice was filled with worry and uncertainty, but the other man leaned towards him and patted his back with familiarity.
"I am aware of your bonds with him. You must agree with me that this is the best course of action… after all, you have not complained about yourself, and you're coming back as well".
Iruka let out a soft laugh, smiling as he stared up at the star filled sky. His shoulders relaxed and he found himself nodding in consent without even realising it.
"That's true, I guess. I don't mind coming back, after all, apart some gruesome parts, it was almost fun".
"Almost?" the figure chuckled under his breath. "Should I mention that time when–"
"Hmm," Iruka shushed him. "No need to remember that". Waving one hand in front of his face to chase away a very embarrassing memory, Iruka fell quiet once more.
The figure snickered softly, then tapped his shoulder. "Remember, we need to fix everything that is left over by tomorrow night, so be sure to report".
Iruka waved his hand dismissively and nodded, but the figure was already gone.
With a lingering smile on his lips, Iruka turned around and walked home.
StarsOfYaoi: Thank you for reading, I hope the chapter pleased you! Review if you have something you want to say. Comments are always appreciated!
Hyoodoku – Poison Panther. (Hyoo – Panther; Doku – Poison) written completely in katakana despite doku being a kanji.
–sama, –san – suffixes of respect. For further explanation on how those work, please research google or wikipedia.
ANBU ('Ansatsu Senjutsu Tokushu Butai' – 'Special Assassination and Tactical Squad') – elite ninja that every village has. They are commanded solely by the Kage of a hidden village and have various different assignments, such as hunting down missing–nin or protection of political figures.
Nuke-nin – missing-nin.
Hitai-ate – forehead protector.