Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
Slight AU warning.
Don't forget to review when you're finished reading!

Summary: What if Konoha was a destitute, paltry city that bred nothing of worth within its walls? The people of this miserable community barely keep going every day. The shinobi are no different. However, the dreams of two ninja trigger a feeling of rebirth within their hearts and now they strive to reach their own dreams. Will they find themselves on the right road...or lost forever?

Note: Italicized lines often mean thoughts of a character or, in some cases, dreams. They may also indicate song lyrics. Bolded lines often mean Inner Sakura's dialogue. Bolded italicized lines often mean flashbacks.

The Author Speaks: There will be multiple couplings, but romance is not what is this fic is completely centered around. Despite this, you won't be disappointed come romance time. Look for the teenage ninja angst however! I will warn you, there will be heavy amounts of violence, swearing, blood, substance abuse, molestation, you name it! I don't like flames, but I do like constructive criticism. Also note; money! I have no idea what the equivalent to a dollar is when it comes to ryo, so I'm just doing it simple. 100 ryo equals 1 dollar. I'll trust you're intelligent enough to be able to perform equivalents with that piece of information will be limes/possible lemons in this fic, mentioned rape and explicit scenes.

Timeline: Being as how it's slightly AU, the time period is the same except all the characters are two years older than before the time-skip in the series (13 is 15, 26 is 28, etc). Also, Otogakure is the main village of the Land of Fire, the biggest city with the most powerful army. It's located where it is in the series, except the Land of Rice Fields is no more; it's part of the Land of Fire.

Definitions:
MSAT – Medical Shinobi Aptitude Test
MSMT - Master of Shinobi Medicine Trial
kyuubi's little beasts – a colloquialism for the small, ghostlike creatures that fell off the kyuubi and acted as its minions. All tailed beasts have these. Because the tailed beasts are seen as natural disasters in this world, think of them as the lightning that accompanies a thunderstorm.
filial – relating a child to a parent

Songs:
"Oats We Sow" by Gregory and the Hawk
"Parody" by Utada Hikaru
"Don't You Know Who I Think I Am?" by Fall Out Boy

Show Me a Hero

Chapter 22 – Elegy to Past

Naruto had been to more funerals than he had ever wanted to attend. Konohamaru, the boy with infinite potential, laid buried under the earth. And scarcely an hour ago was his grandfather lowered beside him.

It was a hasty, sad funeral, with almost the entirety of Konoha's shinobi attending it, along with Orochimaru, Kabuto, and a few men from around the country. There were those who were happy to see him gone, and those who didn't care much, but for the people who did care, the event still felt too unreal to believe. Konoha was without a leader.

The question everyone wanted to ask was why he died in such a way. Who would want to murder the leader of a third-class village, especially since everyone knew his senility had gotten worse? It pained Naruto that most of the funeral was spent hushing gossipers while they performed the rites.

He and others paid condolences to Asuma, who seemed almost completely unaffected. Naruto figured he secretly felt terrible, and just chose to hide it. It was a smart choice; it kept people from bombarding him with too many questions.

Trudging through the rain afterwards, Naruto stopped at a soup stand to eat with Sasuke, Sakura, and Shino. They were quiet for most of lunch, not really knowing what to say as they listened to rain drip on the stand's roof.

"He was murdered," Shino said, finally breaking the silence. "I don't mean to gossip like the others, but doesn't that seem strange to you?"

Sakura blew on her spiced carrot soup and rubbed her gloves together. "It's terrifying. Who would do that? And why? Obviously the murderer was skilled—one slash, so precise that it killed him in seconds."

Tsunade had invited her to do an autopsy late yesterday night, after the announcement had been made. Her first experience with a dead body had overcome her, and she emptied her stomach multiple times. Shaking with nerves, she had left the hospital, only to return ten minutes later and help with the procedure. Every time Tsunade had opened his mouth, Sakura imagined him speaking to her.

"I believe it was just a bunch of people upset with the way he was running things," Shino said. "It's strange that they would pick now to do it, because we've been taking steps away from our depression."

"I don't want to talk about this," Naruto said, staring at his simple ramen. "Can't we just let his memory rest for a few hours?"

"I agree," Sasuke said. The gossip brought to mind Itachi's funeral.

They finished their soup in silence. Naruto and Shino went in one direction, while Sasuke and Sakura went towards the house. She shivered.

"It's an unnecessarily cold day. I don't want summer to be over." She kept herself close to him.

He put his arm around her. "Fall's coming up. That means the next class will be graduating soon. It's strange, how much can happen in a year." He paused. Unable to keep his worry to himself, he continued in a somber tone. "What are they going to do? Who's going to run the village? No one's prepared for things like this."

"Tsunade told me the council is going to elect Asuma, because it's always been passed down via blood lines."

"There's no way Asuma's going to do it," Sasuke said.

"I know. They'll have to find someone, somehow."

Naruto stared bleakly at his soup. "I gotta save up," he murmured. "I don't have the money to spend on things like this."

"Don't even say that," Shino commented. "We're all doing okay, because of you. You—"

Naruto hit the countertop forcefully, growling a little. The owner glared at him, and moved back into the kitchen. The other three stared at him, surprised.

"The only reason we even got this far is because Lord Sarutobi helped us. He got those missions to Kakashi, to Asuma, to all the other teachers. He was old, and decrepit, but he never showed that side to us. He killed himself trying to help us. Who else is going to do that for us? Please, tell me who has that kind of faith." Naruto tried to hold back tears.

Sasuke frowned. "What the hell's up with you? Now, we've got so many people who have faith, because we've been so good to this place. You couldn't have been expecting a windfall! You work at it, little by little. Just because he's…gone…doesn't mean we can't keep moving forward. What's with that look?"

"You're one to talk. You had no faith at all." Amidst Sasuke's attempts to interject, Naruto continued. "You wouldn't even look at me or Sakura when we first started this. You were just too good for us, you and your goddamn Uchiha pride."

"Don't bring my family into this," Sasuke replied, his voice beginning to rise. "Obviously I changed, didn't I? Doesn't that go to show what you can do? You act like what we do doesn't matter. Don't get jealous because Kakashi gave me some extra lessons."

"I'm not jealous about that! While you were off playing favorites, I was trying to help a kid feel like a person again."

Sakura looked with remorse at Shino, who merely kept eating his soup. "Don't worry about them," she whispered. "They fight like this all the time. They'll get over it. Everyone's just a little on edge."

"I think you're the one who should be the most worried," Shino said. "Aren't you studying for your exams right now?"

"Yeah. The MSAT is coming up. I'm nervous; Tsunade said it's only got a 27% pass rate. Of course, that's not as hard as the MSMT, with only a 6% pass rate. But, I don't have to worry about that for a long time. Even if you don't pass the MSAT, you can still practice field medicine professionally, but you're severely limited; if you get a low enough grade, you're banned from medical practice on the battlefield." Sakura fidgeted, putting down some ryo for her soup. "Tsunade said she's preparing me to the best of her ability, though. Dr. Yakushi said he would also help me while he's here."

She peered over at her teammates. They had cooled down, and were making small talk while they doled out their money for the soups. Smiling, she stood up. "Well, in any case, I just have to keep positive. I can't get into the shadow of doubt, otherwise I'll never pass."

Shino also stood up, putting his hands in his pockets. The other boys followed. "Good luck with your studying, in any case. I'm going to head home."

"See ya, dude," Sasuke said, shaking his hand goodbye.

Naruto still looked glum. "I'll see you guys later, too. I'm gonna…I dunno, sit in the park or something."

"Do you want company?" Sakura asked.

"Nah, I'd prefer to be alone for now."

Sakura leaned her head against Sasuke's shoulder, watching her friend walk off. "I really hate that he blames himself."

"Give it time," Sasuke said, shaking his head. "That's all we can do for him."

XxXxXx

"I never thought I would be visiting Konoha under such sad circumstances," Orochimaru said, gripping his tea cup. His sadness made the lines of his face stand out, and he looked old in contrast to his natural youthfulness.

Tsunade said nothing. She stared into her tea. She had just gotten out of the council meeting, and had been invited over to his motel suite right after.

"I've made a donation in his name. Hopefully that will help keep everything balanced while you determine what to do next." He sipped his drink slowly, unable to look at Tsunade in the eye. Usually he was mentally composed for this sort of thing, but his soul was screaming and ripping away at his throat, demanding the truth to be told. He coughed and smiled. "I remember when he first saw us. I could tell that he wasn't happy about getting 'the weird kids'. Good thing we changed his mind, eh?"

"…You've only got one bed in here," Tsunade remarked quietly.

"I'm sorry?" Orochimaru complied with the subject change knowingly.

"You've only got one bed," she repeated. "Is Dr. Yakushi staying in another room?"

"No," he answered.

She stared at him for a minute. "Wow. I never would have guessed it."

He smiled, unashamed. "We're not in a relationship."

"You're way too romantic. There's no way you aren't dating. Ugh, but he's half your age. Well, whatever floats your boat, perv." Tsunade snickered, shaking her head.

"We are the most professional when we need to be, I assure you. Occasional…dalliances…don't harm anything. Besides, I remember when you used to float my metaphoric boat." He smirked.

Tsunade blushed. "I can't believe I lost my virginity to you. I was expecting someone more devil-may-care, with a fat wallet and baggy jeans."

"I tried to fulfill that as best as I could. Sure, I only wore skinny jeans, but I spent all the money I made on you. You were quite the gold-digger, back in the day. No, I shouldn't say that," Orochimaru mused, sipping his drink. "You were genuinely kind, no matter if I was broke or not. But you did like money. Well, we all do, I suppose. But money never substitutes for character, let me tell you. Some of the men I have to put up with in meetings, why, they act as if their very being is worth gold, when there isn't an ounce of courage in them. They're more rotten than spoiled milk. No worth in any of them. It's a warped world, where the weak can conquer like that." He paused. "Hiruzen didn't deserve any of this. It's a shame. I want to help Konoha, I really do, but nothing's changing. If there's another disaster, you really will collapse. I can't continue supporting you."

Tsunade had stopped responding to him once he started talking about money. When he tilted his head to get a better look at her, he saw she was crying quietly. He embraced her, and kissed her on the top of the forehead. "I miss him too. I loved him so much."

"Orochimaru," she cried into his chest, "I don't know what to do. They appointed me leader of Konoha. Me, of all people. They say I have the most worldly experience, and that I'll bring prosperity. All I did was rebuild the hospital and help a couple of kids realize their love for medicine. What's that got to do with good leadership?"

"People love hope," he replied, rubbing her back in an attempt to comfort her. "They're blinded by it. Sometimes, simple people become extraordinary to others by performing an act of goodness. Whatever you did to change Konoha, people took it to heart. That's when people make the most mistakes—by putting faith in the wrong person, just from one instance." He paused again. "I'm sorry, I'm just rambling. None of this applies to you. I truly think you are extraordinary, Tsunade. You'd make a great leader—not the kindest one, in all honesty, but you'd be effective, which I think is more important."

"You manage to be both," Tsunade remarked.

He smiled. "Nonsense. I'm not kind at all. Before you interrupted me, I was about to say that you shouldn't accept the offer."

She frowned, sure she hadn't heard her friend correctly. "I'm sorry?"

"You would make an excellent leader, but that has nothing to do with the prosperity of Konoha. This town is doomed, I'm sure of it. I don't want to say that, and I never even uttered the thought during Hiruzen's life…but the thought's always been there. Why do you think I left, Tsunade? Perhaps I was being unfaithful to my home, but I never did feel like this was my home." He recounted his past sadly, looking at his friend with guilt. "I felt much more useful—happier, really—in Oto. I helped Konoha more in one year at Oto than my life back there. You've helped Konoha, too, but that was because you left, grew, and chose to return with knowledge that this city never had. You and I are exceptions, Tsunade—we returned because of Hiruzen. Because of the war, this generation has no ties to Konoha at all. Give them the chance to leave, they'll leave in a heartbeat, prosper far away, and never return. Konoha's a dying flower that's been watered only a few times in its life. Soon, people will forget about it entirely, and it will die."

Tsunade listened to his treatise carefully, more depressed than ever. Everything he said rang true. Once the Hyuugas had left, the forces of law were cut in half. After the Uchihas were massacred, there were no policemen left. After the kyuubi wars, whatever progress Konoha had made from those dark times just disappeared into the mud. Even now, with the slow progress the village was making, the death of their leader just shook the faith of the people. Some would say that Hiruzen's death meant a new start to Konoha, but Tsunade couldn't fully convince herself that it was possible to restart. She thought of the woman she saved during her stay…she thought of Naruto, subjected to ridicule from others…she thought of Sakura, eagerly pursuing the MSAT, worried that her teaching won't be enough to help her pass…she thought of Kakashi, quietly sipping beers and regaling her with stories about his students... she thought of Konohamaru's death…she thought of Nawaki, of Dan, of Shizune…

"You should come to Oto, with me. Convince the council to dissolve Konoha's right to shinobi establishment, and abolish the symbol. Let them live as an ordinary village. The remaining ninja can work as police, and you won't have to pay the extra taxes to the Kage Bureau. If you can't convince them of that, then make them the leaders and leave it be. False hope will keep them going for a little while longer, if at all." Orochimaru gazed down at her, caressing her shoulder, smiling gently.

There was a knock on the door in the other room. Both of them ignored it; Tsunade remained in her thoughts, thinking that she would possibly take Orochimaru's advice.

"Hello?" a quiet, unfamiliar voice passed through the door.

Wanting to get up and get out of her gloom, Tsunade removed herself from Orochimaru's embrace and headed to the door. Orochimaru watched her leave, observing the misery in her eyes. He felt so guilty, knowing that even she wouldn't understand why he had killed Hiruzen. He sincerely hoped that she would take his advice and leave the dying city behind, so his only remaining emotional connection would disappear. Then, he could begin what he had planned, and bring the hardworking men and women some peace.

There was another knock at the door, and he heard the door open. He stood up to make some tea for them, also hoping that their visit would be much longer and elapse into intimacy. Not only would it make her more vulnerable to his suggestions, but he would also be able to happily enjoy her embrace once more—something that Kabuto, despite his vigor, could never fully satisfy.

An unnatural silence pervaded the next room. He felt its intensity from his spot in the kitchen. He fixed the tea, curious to hear who it was.

"Get out of here," Tsunade said in a tone comparable to a seething snake.

"I knew this was the right room," replied the other voice, male and deep.

"A joke. After years, you come back and joke. You missed the funeral, you fuck."

"I arrived later than I wanted, trust me. Don't insult me and say I didn't care about him—"

Orochimaru inhaled heavily, his stomach sinking. He had a notion of who it might be. The thought of facing that person again made him vice-grip his teacup, almost cracking the glass. Needing to gather more courage to enter the other room, he ran through hundreds of greetings in his head.

"Care? You left us, you piece of shit!"

"Please, I don't want this to be how we are for the rest of our lives."

"Wow, suddenly I'm in your life again."

"Look, I don't want to point fingers, but it took you fifteen years to come back here—"

"Don't turn this around on me!"

Orochimaru entered the main room, smiling pleasantly. Tsunade looked livid, her eyes teary once again. His gaze met with the man in the doorway's, and he found himself, after so many years, in the presence of his old teammate, Jiraiya.

Jiraiya looked bulky and buoyant, sporting his usual wild white haircut which reached his shoulders. He had red streaks of paint under his eyes to make him appear more menacing to a foe, and was dressed in comfortable green robes. Of the teammates, he certainly had aged the most appropriately by the lines on his face and the small wart to the left of his chin. His youthful good looks were not lost; rather, they had grown into a mature handsomeness. However, the mischievous look that usually decorated his face was replaced by sincere sadness and an earthly grimace. The delight in seeing Tsunade that was hidden behind these emotions faded to discomfort upon noticing Orochimaru, and any warmth he had for the reunion left him. "Orochimaru. I didn't expect to see you, too."

"Well, this is my room," Orochimaru replied with a small laugh, hoping that his ease with conversation would dispel any awkwardness between them.

"Oh. Someone said they saw you," he referred to Tsunade, "heading in here, so…"

"We were just having a conversation about Hiruzen. Reminiscing, really. Care to join us? We must certainly catch up, after all."

Both Tsunade and Jiraiya were taken aback by his offer. Tsunade looked angry. "I don't want him here," she said. "He's just going to bring up all the shit he accused you of before he left."

"Actually, I wasn't," Jiraiya assured. "And if it comes up, it's because you mentioned it."

"Emotions were running high that day, I'm sure of it," Orochimaru said, crossing into the other room, forcing his ex-teammates to follow him as he went back to making the pot of tea. "Anyway, Jiraiya, what have you been doing all these years? I'd love to know."

Aware of the scathing looks Tsunade was giving him, Jiraiya tried his best to ignore them. "Well, I've been traveling. I've gone to a bunch of the poorer countries, like the Lands of Swamps, Neck, and Frost and done some freelance teaching for the local law academies. Basically I've been training, though. Spent a year on this mountain in Stone, and finally perfected my Ultra Spiraling Rasengan. Almost dissolved the bones in my fingers, but whatever."

Orochimaru was about to remark on his accomplishment, but Tsunade angrily interrupted. "Poorer countries? You left Konoha to help other countries? What about Konoha? We're the poorest they come, and you decide other countries need your heroism."

"I came back for the kyuubi war, didn't I?" Jiraiya spat.

"And the dust had barely cleared when you disappeared, saying nothing to anyone."

"You don't know what happened."

"Please, you ran away, too scared to face us for the things you said."

"Tsunade—" Orochimaru attempted to interject.

"No, I'm not shutting up, Orochimaru. I've waited such a long time to tell him this. Orochimaru left, Jiraiya, to find a better life in Otogakure. But he never forgot about Konoha. He didn't leave saying 'I've got better things to do than remain in a garbage heap where the very leader let liars and villains run circles around him, like he's the goddamn village idiot.'"

Orochimaru observed the patronized glare from Jiraiya, remembering when Tsunade had stormed into his Oto office declaring that those were the final words he had spoken to her and Hiruzen.

"After that, he just stormed out! I was going to go after him, but Hiruzen wouldn't let me. Later, I went to his house, but everything was gone. He really had left us saying those terrible things." Tsunade appeared fraught with worry. "He said so many upsetting things before that, too. He said you killed your students, and that you didn't really care about anyone, and that you experimented on your disciples…he called you evil—his own teammate—evil."

"At least when I left," Tsunade raised her voice before the abused man could retaliate, "I didn't spit on my team." With that, she stood up, pulling a cigarette carton out of her robe and leaving the room with a slammed door.

This left the men occupying the kitchen awkwardly. Orochimaru finished preparing the tea while Jiraiya sat in silence. Offering a cup to the latter, Orochimaru sat down across from his old teammate.

"Thanks," Jiraiya said hastily. He sipped it. "You always liked tea better than coffee."

Orochimaru saw that his attempts to create conversation were based on filler memories rather than what he truly desired to speak about. He decided to oblige him. "I did. Coffee always made me too excited. Tea has much more range and vitality to it, anyway."

"…I wish Tsunade had been this polite when I had opened the door. I just wanted to put everything behind us, and she has to go and get pissed at me." Jiraiya drunk his tea with enthusiasm.

"Am I being polite? I was hoping to be natural," Orochimaru joked.

This brought a smile to his ex-teammate's face. "I missed you, you sonofabitch."

"Really? Then why did you accuse me of being 'evil' all those years ago?" he meant the question to be friendly, but immediately Jiraiya reverted to his previously dour state.

"Come on, you knew me. I was always the jealous type. I hadn't gotten over you leaving Konoha, and once you became Otokage, I knew you were gone for good. You'd gotten the love of Tsunade, the favor of Sensei, and the freaking Kage title. Meanwhile, I was just trying to keep Konoha together; keeping back Sensei's enemies while making sure Tsunade didn't gamble herself into a hole every week wasn't easy. I remembered those rumors that you used jutsu on your disciples in order to create new ones, and I remembered the Kumo incident, and I just kinda went nuts. It wasn't until after I had left Konoha that I realized just how…nice it was. To be out of there, I mean. I spent years helping out other places that stood a better chance, occasionally feeling guilty that I had so little faith in my hometown."

"You're not alone there," Orochimaru assured with sympathy. "I hoped a miracle would pull the city out of its depression. Instead, I was given a letter informing me of Hiruzen's death. I believe it's the people that we care about, more than the city."

"I agree with you. The only reason I returned was because of him. He sent me a letter, you know, a while ago, asking if I would return to help. I never responded. How horrible is that? I didn't even let him know how I was doing. That man was suffering so much, and I wouldn't even give him the comfort of a reply." Sickened at himself, Jiraiya pushed his tea away and stood up.

"Going so soon?" Orochimaru asked, taking their cups to the sink.

"I'm going to visit his grave," Jiraiya replied. "I missed the goddamn funeral; gotta see him one way or another."

"…And after this visit, you aren't planning to leave Konoha?" Orochimaru suspected something in the way his friend moved about the room. To his expectation, Jiraiya didn't reply. "Because, although Tsunade is truly upset at you, I don't think she'd want to miss an opportunity for the three of us to have lunch together tomorrow and enjoy lighter topics of conversation, do you?"

A small smile crossed his friend's face, and he crossed over to where Orochimaru stood. "I always hated that about you, you know; how you'd say the exact thing to make someone guilty, and so follow every suggestion you gave." He pulled his former teammate into an embrace. "Orochi-dobe...I've missed ya."

"The same to you, my friend."

XxXxXx

Asuma lit his six cigarette of the hour, standing by his shaded window quietly. An ashtray sat on the windowsill, bursting full of smoking ash. He threw out the empty carton and paced about his house, quiet, but not thinking of anything. Once again, he parked himself by the cracked window, and listened to the people outside.

His house sat close to the market, so he always found entertainment in eavesdropping on what the locals were talking about. Before, they complained about the state of things and wished each other empty hellos. Recently, however, they've been more optimistic and more willing to be kind to each other. Sociologists would probably have a field day with his observations.

That evening was a different story for him; as hard as he tried, he just couldn't pay attention to anyone else. He felt trapped in his own head, but he didn't really have anything to think about. Upset, and angry that he had no cigarettes left, he departed from his house on the decision that a good walk would make him feel at ease.

A comfortable breeze shook the roofs of the nearby houses, and caused the wheels of the market-carts to creak. The night air smelled fresh from the earlier rain, and the roads undergoing pavement shone new and proud in the brightening moonlight. Konoha certainly did look different. Only someone who had lived there his whole life could see it, but the changes were there.

Only a few people were browsing through the little corner store. Asuma went up to the owner, his friend Taki, and asked for his usual tobacco order.

Taki, a scruffy but friendly man in his late thirties, rang up the other without a question. "Hey," he said in a slow and serious tone, "I'm sorry."

Asuma waited for the cigarettes to ring up. "For—oh. Yeah."

"Doesn't matter how close you are to them, if they didn't do you much wrong, they're worth thinking of every now and then, I say," the storeowner replied.

"Yup."

His friend sighed, and threw an extra pack on the counter. "Don't smoke 'em all tonight, or I'll charge you double next time."

"Thanks, man. I appreciate it." Asuma bid him farewell, and walked back into the cool night without much motivation. He immediately dug into his new pack, eager for some sweet tobacco. Deciding that he wasn't ready to go home, he turned into the apartment district.

He noticed a couple placing a mourning flag on their door. He watched them, amazed that two regular civilians actually cared about the death of his father. He thought back to the funeral, and remembered seeing only about two dozen civilians paying their respects.

All of the old complains came flooding back to him. "All he does is think about the shinobi, and he seems to forget that we're here too." "He relies too much on the shinobi. We're the true hard workers." "What kind of leader doesn't let his people have representation? Your council is made up of ninja. They don't understand what we go through."

"Stop bothering me with these complaints," Hiruzen snapped at his son as he took his seat in his office.

"I hear them all the time, Dad." Asuma, young and obstinate, stood short-haired with a tuft of hair that he was attempting to make a beard. He was chewing on the end of a cigarette, organizing some papers in the file cabinets. "You really need to throw all this shit out. It's really unnecessary."

"Don't tell me what to do." His father always seemed to have little patience for him. "For the love of heaven, put out that damn cigarette. You're only sixteen. If Biwako was here, she'd have a fit."

"Yeah, Mom would be pissed that you don't know how to organize a goddamn office. Come on, listen to me for a second. Why don't the civilians get any representation in the council? They are just as important as we are."

"They have representation through our shinobi, you know that Asuma. Each shinobi represents a certain district, and civilians are found in all districts. Therefore—"

"Yeah, but we don't have their lives. It's not fair to them!"

"Boy, I don't have time for your rambling. We too must eat, bathe, sleep like them. They create the economy that keeps our village going. We sustain it through our missions."

"Well, then I don't get why we're not offering them even more benefits," Asuma countered, acting haughty and superior like a normal teenage boy would. "I mean, if they need motivation to go back to work, then why don't we give them some bonuses, or something. People like that, right?"

Hiruzen shot his son an angry glare. "Are you even listening to yourself talk, boy? If anyone is treating them incorrectly, it is you. You speak of them like they are something different from us, something to look down upon. Your words are sweet, but your motivations are wrong. We can't give them bonuses, Asuma. Look out the window," he gestured towards the view of the city, "and see the smoke that is still billowing from the pits of fire that we have only just managed to extinguish. Try and find your precious restaurants underneath the rubble that we've only just begun clearing. Go to the graveyard and see how it's expanded to three times its size in just one year. Don't you remember the kyuubi's little beasts crushing your arm to the point where we thought you'd lose it? How about when I fought them off of a heap of corpses that were buried in a landslide caused by the monster's foot? Have you forgotten that we lost forty percent of our population in that war? The stalls in the marketplace are empty because the people who manned them are dead. I cannot create life, nor can I just conjure up the money and resources we lost. I have debts to pay, and people to help, but I simply cannot do it more than a fraction at a time."

"Dad," Asuma remarked, not really understanding his point, "you don't have to pay Otogakure back. Orochimaru said so."

"I will not be in debt to my student," Hiruzen replied, growing grim. "I could not bear to see him and know that his men died for me, and I did nothing in recompense."

"Why do you care so much about what he thinks? He was just your student."

"He was more to me than anyone has been. I cannot fail him anymore."

Upon hearing his father's praise of Orochimaru, Asuma angrily slammed the cabinet shut and took a long drag of his cigarette. "You know what, Dad? Fuck this."

"What's wrong now, boy?" Asuma did not stick around to answer, or even listen to anything more his father wanted to say. Upset, unappreciated, and pissed, Asuma walked off to find his brother.

Thinking back on all of it now, his father was right. Asuma had just been another idealistic teen, not really understanding the impact the kyuubi war and its casualties had on the village. Sure, he wanted to help the people, but he had been incredibly rude in his opinion of them.

That was probably one of the only times dad ever spoke openly to me. For most of Asuma's childhood, his father had been a flighty presence. The stress of his work contributed to almost all of it, and once Biwako had passed away, communication with either of his sons had become strained and impossible. They were hippies, willing to get down in the dirt to stick it to the man—although they were working for the man anyway by being ninja—and had no real respect for what their father did.

Honestly, Asuma still couldn't say he loved Hiruzen, and he knew that Tsunade, Jiraiya, and Orochimaru had been given all of the love usually devoted to children. That angered him often as a child, and certainly became the cause of his rebellion. By adulthood, he had grown numb to the thought, and Hiruzen became no longer a father, but the man who happened to sometimes be there and feed him. After the death of his brother, he finally severed all familial ties with Hiruzen, only speaking to him when necessary, and treating him as a boss rather than a father. They usually were only in the same room when Konohamaru was concerned; but his death just distanced their relationship further. By the unexpected end of his life, Asuma had no doubt that Hiruzen had been barely affected by this distance—it probably made him more comfortable. Asuma's only regret was that he hadn't respected the old man as much as he deserved it.

A small and decrepit apartment building loomed over him to the left; he had walked right to Kurenai's former complex. He searched for her door, and saw that there was a prominent padlock on the knob—and that it had been severely broken. He frowned, thinking about all of her betrayals, and wondered if the upcoming baby would yield any change in her detestable character. If not, that child would grow up broken.

Broken…I guess I came from a broken home. I never thought about it before. I'm alright, though. The more he dwelled on his recent actions, however, the more he saw that he had grown awfully bitter and cold to others. He hadn't visited Shikamaru once at the hospital, nor made any attempts to explore the place where he was hurt. He hadn't enquired on the well-being of either Ino or Chouji, either. Kurenai made an absolutely horrible mistake in hiding her sickness and letting her students on the boat alone, but Asuma had no idea if his own students were okay either.

Kurenai had grown up broken, too. Her father was incredibly cruel and sexist, and would not let her become a ninja despite her desire for it. When she entered the academy without his consent, she spent a week in the hospital, and that's when she started running to men for protection. Though she was a marvelous academy student, she put too much value in insipid things and never understood commitment. In fact, Ino was just like that too. Why did I choose to let these things pass in front of me as if they didn't concern me? I reproached her for being a bad role model…but what the hell am I?

Asuma walked up the stairs to Kurenai's apartment. The lock on the door looked recently broken. He very sincerely wished that there were just squatters in there. Unable to control himself, he pushed open the creaky door.

Remarkably, the interior looked reasonably clean, if not a bit bare. A whimper emanated from the darker part of the room. "Who's there?" a weak female voice croaked. "Mr. Amaru? I promise, I can get some money…please don't throw me out again…I'll be going back to work soon, I swear."

"Kurenai?" Asuma tried to flick on the light, forgetting that there would be no power. Only the moonlight creeping in from outside paired with his dimly burning cigarette gave the room any color. Once his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Asuma beheld the poor woman lying down on a couch. It took only a moment to see how ill she was; her breathing sounded unnatural, and the paleness of her skin looked too white. Immediately he dropped down next to her and held her close to him. "Have you moved at all today?"

"I'm sorry." Her voice barely registered as a whisper. "I couldn't make it to the funeral. I tried, but I just couldn't get up."

"Don't apologize," he replied, feeling miserable.

"I decided to go back home after last night. I thought, maybe I could start again once I get some money. As long as my landlord doesn't catch me, it'll be okay. I'll be back soon, I know it." Every breath she took sounded pained. "The baby's been kicking. Even it wants me to get on my feet."

Each word that she uttered to him made him all the more upset. Her foolish optimism aside, he had been the one to induce her to such a state. Angry or not, he had turned out the woman he loved—a sick, abused, tired woman—because of his pride. He couldn't forgive her for her disloyalty, but he couldn't forget her smile. Just one genuine smile from her would light up every corner of his mind, and put him at ease.

Tossing the cigarette away, he held onto her gently. "Can you get up? Let me help." He slowly brought her to a standing position. She shook against him—obviously, she hadn't eaten at all today.

"Where are we going?" she asked, drowsy.

"You can't live here. You'll kill yourself, and the baby too." Asuma brought her outside, keeping her close to him and supporting her with all of his strength. "Don't be stubborn with me. You can't work with a baby on the way. The most you can do is teach, but you sure as hell can't go on any missions."

Kurenai startled him by beginning to weep. "I know. I'm so stupid, Asuma. I've been the most terrible person. It's so easy to get by when you're letting everyone else do the work, but my baby…I can't bear to think of it being hurt because of the stupid things I've done. And those children, they're someone's babies…I gotta take care of them too."

Usually, outbursts of emotion made him uncomfortable, but he almost felt like crying too. "I've done the same things as you. I've been just as terrible. I need to start forgiving and forgetting. You're coming to live with me; we'll be okay."

"I don't want to burden you," she whimpered.

"You won't be."

They arrived at Asuma's house; he led her inside, and closed the door with a small smile.

XxXxXx

Indigo skies washed the town in a gloomy blue light. The smell of fresh rain had disappeared, replaced by a typical late summer dryness that made the earth crack and the crickets especially noisy. In the graveyard, fireflies sat on the edges of headstones, making the usually grim place somewhat bright.

Naruto sat at the graves of Konohamaru and Hiruzen Sarutobi, playing absentmindedly with a rock. He didn't know what to think about anything; he had barely recovered from Konohamaru's death when this one struck out of the blue.

Who would murder Lord Sarutobi, he thought gravely, watching a beetle crawl over Hiruzen's birth date. Will there be an investigation? Who will lead Konoha? This can't be happening now. We were going to be great.

Despite the hot air, he felt chilly—scared, even. Lord Sarutobi had always been the rock that held Konoha down, the man behind the leaf. He had spoken at Naruto's graduation, and had given his faith to Team 7. Now, everything seemed different. Soon, it would be a year since graduation, and it seemed like so much had happened.

He heard grass crunching behind him. It seemed a little late for a mourner to pay respects, so Naruto decided to observe the person coming up to the grave. It didn't look like anyone he'd seen before, though the man was definitely a shinobi—though sporting a prominent belly, the man looked quite fit for his age, and the giant scroll on his back was a dead giveaway. At the very least, he certainly hadn't been at the funeral.

"Hey kid," the man said cordially to him, holding a bundle of flowers and a small bell.

"Hi," Naruto replied, not particularly talkative.

Silently, he watched the man place the flowers down and stand over the grave, staring at the inscription while holding the bell. It made little chiming noises whenever the air rustled. The look across the stranger's face seemed much too serious and knowing for him to be just an acquaintance of Lord Sarutobi; this interested Naruto.

"How did you know him?" he asked, curious.

"Oh." The stranger appeared surprised by the question. "He was a friend."

"It's good of you to come all this way to see him. I'm assuming you're not from Konoha?"

"I was born here, but I left a long time ago."

"Really? Not too many people have left here." Naruto wondered how he managed to get out.

"Yeah. I'd say, if you have an opportunity, take it. But that's not important." The man, by his low voice, didn't seem to want to continue talking about it. "I see you've got a headband there. How long have you been a ninja?"

"It'll be a year soon, come fall," Naruto answered, abiding his subject change.

"How's your team coming along?"

"I think we're doing pretty well," the blonde answered, much to the older man's surprise. "We don't really feel like a team anymore, though. We only meet up for missions, and we hang out, but our sensei doesn't really have time to train all of us at once. One of my teammates is studying for the MSAT, and the other is going through physical therapy with my sensei, who also was busy helping Lord Sarutobi. I mostly train by myself."

"The MSAT, huh? That's pretty ambitious."

Naruto noted his surprise, and gave a small smile. "I bet this must sound strange to you. There's this woman, Tsunade—she assisted Lord Sarutobi—who came sort of out of nowhere and began putting Konoha back together. I think people are impatient with her progress, but it's not like she can recover this place overnight. Anyway, she's teaching my teammate." He stood up to leave. "I know this place might look even worse from when you left, but I know it's going to improve. Lord Sarutobi was a great man, and I don't want to feel like his death," he gazed at the grave, "means the end of the world. That's how I felt when his grandson—I don't think you would have met him, but he's buried right there—died, but that's just self-defeating, really. Konoha's stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I don't care if what I want sounds idealistic, because it's better to try and fail than fail without trying. It's when people run on hope, not fear, that the greatest changes to the world are made. So a lot of people may see Lord Sarutobi's death as the true end of it all, but I never will."

The conviction and drive in the boy's voice reminded Jiraiya of Orochimaru. He had confidence, passion, and an understanding of the politics that surrounded him. If anybody could make a difference, it was this kid, and that enthusiasm made him smile too. "What's your name, kid?"

"Naruto," he replied, "Naruto Uzumaki."

Jiraiya froze upon hearing his name. He quickly took in the boy's features—tan, blonde, of a somewhat shorter height; nothing that would indicate anything special to him, but once noticing his whiskers, the name's familiarity rushed back to him.

"Thanks for listening, mister—um, I don't think I got your name either."

Before Jiraiya could reply, Naruto suddenly let out a shrill scream. Immediately afterward, his breath cut out and he started gasping heavily. His body seized, and he crumbled to the ground, shaking. "Dammit," he moaned, "not now, not now…"

"Wh-what's wrong, kid?" Not knowing what had come over Naruto, he remained still, unsure of how to react.

"I-I'm sorry to bother you, but…" the boy let out another scream, and began to roll around on the ground, "…can you please…take me t-to 184 Hyacinth Road, that's my house…drop—DROP ME OFF—d-drop me off…I'll be fine…just leave me in my bed." His next scream ripped through the air, sounding way too devilish and large in comparison to his small body.

Jiraiya realized exactly what Naruto was going through. He picked up the boy without hesitation, and rushed out into the dark roads, looking for said address. All the while, his mind remained in a different place, back almost sixteen years.

Black smoke covered the air; blood and filth painted every inch of ground around Jiraiya. His squadron had succeeded in clearing out the beasts from the area; but the kyuubi remained hidden in the forest, and he knew the place would be flooded again soon. Without a second thought, he ordered his ninja to search for any civilians, assist the wounded, and collect the dead.

He alone wandered into the remains of a small house; remarkably, the roof remained intact, though the inside was ravaged. A broken light bulb flickered above the shinobi as he waded through the debris, sure that he had heard human voices within.

His intuition had not led him astray. In the back room of the house, presumably the bedroom, two figures were intertwined in a most unnatural and disturbing way. A man with a head of spiky blonde hair held onto the broken body of a red-haired woman. She had been instantly killed by the beasts that had infested their home, and looked to have been almost snapped in half—Jiraiya noticed her spine protruding from her back. Still, the man embraced her tightly, sobbing. Upon hearing the shinobi's entrance into the room, he fell backwards and pulled out a bloodstained knife. "Stay away, you damn creatures. Leave us alone!"

Seeing the misery on the man's face made Jiraiya's breath vanish for a moment. "Sir," he spoke calmly, "you're safe now. Let me just get you out."

"I'm not leaving Kushina," the man cried, shaking his head. "No, no, I'm not leaving her."

Obviously the man was in such a shock that he didn't see that his wife lay dead. Jiraiya stepped over the split floor and reached his arm out. "I'll see to it that Kushina is safe."

"My boy. My boy my boy my boy," he began uttering quietly amidst wet, wailing gasps. "My boy, please save my boy."

Jiraiya put his hand on the crazed man softly. The man turned his aqua gaze on the shinobi; that's when the latter noticed a piece of wood running through the man's chest. He let out a soft cry of sorrow, angrily accepting that this man, too, would soon die.

"My boy. Please save my boy."

"Tell me your name," Jiraiya said, taking his hand and attempting to ease his mind, assuming that his words came from disengaged, dying thoughts. "Your wife's name was Kushina? What about you?"

It took the man an uncomfortably long time to answer, so long that Jiraiya was sure he had died, until he finally spoke, "Minato."

"Minato, good. Everything will be fine, Minato. You and Kushina will be just fine."

A smile came over the dying man's face; his lips were cracked, his face white. "I was going to ask her to marry me, you know. I had the ring picked out. She would've loved it—it was sapphire. She liked those much more than diamonds."

"That's beautiful, Minato. You're a very thoughtful husband." Minato cried out in pain, and Jiraiya squeezed his hand.

"Please, save my boy. My boy…my boy."

At this point, Jiraiya still thought he was moving in and out of sanity, until Minato, using whatever strength he had left, groped around the floor for a blanket that lay behind him. Pulling it away revealed a baby boy, barely a year old, with tufts of blonde hair growing on a fat, bald head, and eyes just as piercingly blue as Minato's. At first glance, Jiraiya thought him to be dead, but the baby's chest moved ever so slightly up and down. Immediately, Jiraiya grabbed the boy and cradled him in one arm while holding onto Minato.

"My boy," Minato said, his face brightening. "Kushina, look at how he sleeps. He's so sweet." He reached out his sooty, bloody fingers towards his boy, and touched him gently on the cheek. "Naruto."

Not a second had passed after uttering his son's name that he died. Jiraiya held onto the peaceful, sleeping infant, wanting to remain in the house and stay with the deceased couple. An explosion sounded outside the home, and screaming filled the air.

"It's right on top of us! It's going to crush us! What do we do?"

Somehow, throughout the commotion, Naruto kept on sleeping. Jiraiya stood up, took a long breath, and darted out of the house. Hundreds of feet above him, the kyuubi's massive body cast a shadow over the entire village; beasts were popping out of its flesh in clouds of chakra. Konoha squads railed against the kyuubi's legs in an attempt to push it back, while Oto squads began intricate jutsu formations to cripple the monster. Gasping for breath in the choked air, with a baby in his arm, Jiraiya took off to the mountaintop.

Scarcely three hours later, with Naruto still under his protection, he would make and execute the toughest decision in his life.

XxXxXx

Tsunade downed her whiskey shot with no effort. Years of drinking had made her immune to heavy taste of alcohol, and she never worried about gagging up her shot like an immature teen.

Not too many people populated the bar that evening; she certainly wouldn't have been out if not for the heavy load laid upon her that morning. Occasionally, she'd think about Jiraiya's return and just get more irritated. Sure, he was true in saying that she too left Konoha abruptly, but her reasons were pretty justified. Any attempt she had made to talk to him during the kyuubi war was met with militarily-minded indifference, and he did essentially vanish once the kyuubi had been sealed away. Something about his behavior in the final hours of that battle seemed off to her, but she could never really understand why.

In all honesty, his arrival made her happy, and she looked forward to breakfast with her teammates. She wouldn't let this pleasantry be known, though; Jiraiya still deserved some scorn from her while he remained.

Her thoughts returned to the big question. To lead, or not to lead?

She had been so absorbed by her inner arguments that she didn't realize Kakashi had placed himself beside her and ordered them both rum and cokes. Flushed with apology, she greeted him and claimed she had been oblivious to everything around her.

"I take no offense. I'd be pretty introverted too if I had to make such a decision." He stirred his drink and took a gulp. "Man, this does wonders to the nerves, I swear."

"What am I supposed to do?" she cried out unexpectedly. "Both Orochimaru and Jiraiya have told me to give up on this place, that I should tell the council to dissolve our contract with the Kage Bureau and remove our 'hidden' status. It's not like we would be denied; Orochimaru's favor is the only thing keeping us in the Bureau's ranks in the first place."

"Wait, Jiraiya? He's back?" Though not well-acquainted with the man, Kakashi nonetheless knew his name and the weight it carried.

"He arrived after the funeral."

"Personally, I'm surprised that they would say that to you. Orochimaru's always had a little faith in us—I mean, he's been supporting us all these years."

"That's because he cared for Hiruzen. They were like father and son, those two. Orochimaru's allegiance to Konoha only came from a sort of filial love."

Kakashi stirred his drink. "You don't think he's going to abandon us?" he asked nervously.

"No, that's not what I meant. We'll stay allies, but he won't be as confident in us as he's been before." She downed her drink in under a minute, and ordered another. "Hiruzen never would have listened to them about this, but maybe it's the right thing to do. There'd be much less of a burden on our people, and the shinobi could get regular jobs without having to wait around for any missions that probably won't come our way."

"Our first obligation is to protecting Konoha. We can't just have our security forces stuck in a factory. What if something happens? I get the appeal in dissolving our status, but it's not that easy. We still have trained shinobi," he reminded her. "They'd have to give up their status, otherwise they'd be marked missing-nin or vigilantes. Most of them will probably move to Otogakure, because you know Orochimaru will welcome them with open arms. You've gotta realize that, though he's your friend, he's a political genius. His ranks would increase, and we'd be left defenseless."

"Are you suggesting he'd absorb us into his territory?"

"He'd probably think of it as extending a helping hand. I don't doubt it. He'll sweet talk you and the daimyo into ceasing the middle lands to him. I can't believe you're not thinking about these things."

Tsunade frowned, staring at her freshly made drink. "I have been…maybe I'm okay with all of that." Before Kakashi could argue, she set her hand down on the counter and turned to look at him full-on. "I know you're going to argue, but what's so wrong with Konoha returning to where it began?"

"Wow," he laughed, almost bitterly. "I can't believe you're actually considering this. Don't—listen to me," he snapped, putting his hand on hers with command. "When Lord Sarutobi's father brought his people here from Otogakure, they were looking for a new start to life. Now, we have people who wish their lives were better. Your sensei left us with a pretty damn big mess to clean up, and I'm not going to let you dismiss it and let Orochimaru claim what was never his. It's the people, not the land, who made this village."

"Who ever made you the champion of the people?" the impatient woman countered. "Are you considering them in this equation?"

"From what I saw this morning, the shinobi aren't ready to give up, and I'd say that's a damn good sign that something was going right for once. And as for the civilians, we'll work with them, rather than lord over them. Dammit, Tsunade, I never expected you to just give up like this. I am not letting anyone's death be in vain just because you're too scared to give it a try. Let's think about what you have done: given us a hospital, started a medical training program, kept data organized, built a hotel, cleaned up the parks, and we're repaving the roads…all of this, by the way, coming from the successful missions we've managed to convince others to give us." Kakashi lowered his voice. "And if you go to the council tomorrow, and tell them that you're giving up, I'm going to argue for my own leadership."

"What?" she hadn't expected such a threat from this man. "You'd lead Konoha?"

The determination that lit his eyes prevented Tsunade from dismissing his claim as a joke. A young, romantic wisdom burned in his gaze. She'd never seen such a look from him before.

"We promised that we'd save Konoha." He meant his former teammates. "I spent a long time after their deaths lamenting that promise. Now, we're at that point where we've gotta try again. We fight—fight until we can't. I'm not going to die like my father; like a coward, giving up before the worst was over."

She cast her head down.

"Remember that your teammates haven't been here. They haven't seen what we have. All the shit that we went through in that war—Otogakure's loss can't compare to ours. Yet, even though things got bad, there was always someone trying to make it better. When Obito and Rin petitioned to the Bureau for better missions, sure, I was against it. I didn't see the point. And the Bureau didn't listen. But then they just went out and found their own way, no red tape involved."

"They died, though. Their money, gone. All of that effort…"

Kakashi frowned, as serious as ever. "I wasn't there for them. I got greedy. I thought, 'why don't we keep some of this money? We earned it, after all.' Obito told me that it wasn't for us. Rin said Konoha needed it, and someday we'd get some ourselves. I didn't buy it. So we argued. I told Obito that I wasn't going to help, otherwise I'd just end up taking some. He told me not to come. An hour later, I found out they've been murdered by an unknown assailant right in the forest, and the money was gone. Ever since then, I stopped living. I started drinking, and I stopped caring. Everything slipped away, and nothing seemed important. It wasn't until Sakura came to my doorstep last fall, begging me to help her train, and yelling at me, that I snapped right back and realized…life may not always deal you the right hand, but you're still gambling. Keep shuffling, and you'll end up with something."

"A gambling metaphor. I like it," Tsunade joked wearily. Moved by his conviction, she nonetheless seemed depressed. "But gambling's about luck."

"Depends on your game. We get to create our own," Kakashi replied. "Lord Sarutobi hadn't given up on Konoha—he'd given up on himself. That's what people don't see. If you really want to find a reason to keep going—just stop looking at the city. Look at the people. When you're done looking at each person, tell me then if you're ready to move on or not."

With that, he stood up and put down enough money for both their tabs. Before she could protest, he waved at a few civilians playing pool in the corner, and left.

Tsunade remained at the counter. After a few minutes of replaying Kakashi's words in her head, she turned and looked at the pool table. The three men were buff, but it appeared to be mostly from manual labor. They seemed like three ordinary men, insulting each other during bad shots but smiling and laughing all the same. A few beer bottles littered the table by them—cheap, but nostalgic brews that someone could always enjoy with friends. She smiled. For all the negative things she had to say about the town, it never dawned on her to actually take a look around and see what the people were feeling.

Yet, she couldn't help but believe that Kakashi was an idealist. What was she to do? Listen to her teammates and dissolve the "hidden" status, effectively abolishing shinobi and pushing them to find other jobs; or listen to Kakashi and keep the status, and keep trying?

She remained at the counter long after the bar closed, staring at her reflection in a bottle. It wasn't until the sun shone through the windows and the owner unlocked the door and came in that she stood up and left.

XxXxXx

Sasuke yawned loudly while pouring his medium roast into a chipped mug passed down from his father. He added some soymilk, sugar, and cherry syrup. Not many people knew just how girly he liked his drinks, and he didn't mind keeping it to himself.

The steam tickled his nose as he carried it outside. The morning contrasted the day before; the sun shone, the breeze was scarce, and the air was dry. He didn't really know what to expect during the Commencement speech later that morning, nor did he know what was commencing. He knew that Tsunade had to speak, but what she had to say, he hadn't a clue.

Outside in his backyard, Kabuto had the undivided attention of an eager Sakura. Every word he said, she jotted down without hesitation into a notebook. She repeated to herself his hand signals every time he would use one. On a chair nearby, Orochimaru sat reading.

Sasuke realized the strange nature of his backyard at the moment. Behind his little house on the outskirts of the village, the greatest medical practitioner of the age was teaching his young teammate the cons of using pure chakra to heal lacerations, while the most successful leader alive sat nearby, sipping on iced tea and cozying up with a book.

Cautiously, he sat next to Orochimaru and sipped his coffee while watching Sakura and Kabuto spar. Sasuke was particularly amazed at how great of a teacher Kabuto was. He listened to every one of Sakura's rookie questions with patience, and didn't hesitate to repeat himself several times so she could fully grasp his theories. Every answer she gave he met with patience, and rewarded her with a smile whenever she was correct, and a gentle correction when wrong. The time and effort he put into this one lesson seemed incredible; Sasuke wondered how the Academy would be if they had more teachers like Kabuto.

"She'll pass the MSAT with flying colors," Orochimaru remarked cheerfully. "Kabuto helped write part of the current edition, you know. He's giving her inside secrets."

"Good. She's been studying for such a long time." Sasuke took another sip of his sweet coffee. "Are you sure I can't make you anything?"

"I already had breakfast," Orochimaru assured, "With Tsunade and Jiraiya, in fact. It was quite pleasant."

"So, the teammates are back together," said Sasuke.

"Well, I'm certain it won't be for long. Hiruzen's death brought us together briefly, but we'll return to our lives soon."

"I can't imagine what Konoha was like in your day," said the younger one, drinking his coffee. His voice implied that he wanted a description, but Orochimaru was in no mind to give it to him. Rather, the cunning man saw an opportunity to segue into his next topic.

"What sort of life will you be returning to, Sasuke Uchiha?"

Sasuke frowned, hesitant to reply. Rather than ask Orochimaru what he meant, however, he thought about it while finishing his coffee. He watched Sakura briefly, and crooked his head toward his house, and then to Konoha beyond. "Well, it'd be back to the usual thing, I guess. Missions when we get them, training, and part-time work."

"I hate to be frank, but doesn't that seem…boring, to say the least?" Orochimaru observed Sasuke's confusion with a gentle smile. "Surely that's not what you want out of life."

The Uchiha really didn't know what prompted the sudden Q and A. "Sure it does, but it's not bad. I like knowing what I'm gonna do next. If I stick to the routine, eventually…" he hesitated. "…Eventually, something will happen."

"This is truly something that I shouldn't bring up so close to a tragedy. Yet, I can't seem to stop myself. I've been thinking about this…situation…for a long time: 'What would happen when Hiruzen died?' Well, Hiruzen has now passed, and, for the first time, Konoha is without a leader. Perhaps you should think about that. This is the opportunity to make a clean break."

Sasuke couldn't believe the implication underneath Orochimaru's carefully placed words. Sure, the Otokage's discreetness might work on many people, but he saw the blatant intention. "Are you implying—"

"You're right. I should be honest with you. I've seen your progress this past year, and I'm impressed by what I've seen. I'm offering you a spot as one of my students. Now," Orochimaru slowed his talk, seeing Sasuke's shock, "I know you're under contract with Konoha. However, I have reason to believe that the contract is under threat of dissolving. Even if it doesn't happen right away, without an actual leader, Konoha will default to council rule, and they will most likely choose to dissolve the hidden status. When that happens, I will personally take you under my wing."

Nothing could stop Sasuke from being honored. He grew red, accepting every one of the man's words as flattery, and even the skepticism of Itachi's circumstances vanished for a moment. However, certain insinuations remained with him. "What makes you think we won't have a leader? And that the council will dissolve our hidden status? If that happens, there will be hundreds of shinobi without a job."

"Many of them have no jobs now," reminded Orochimaru.

After the initial glee of being invited to such a prestigious position, the reality hit Sasuke. If Konoha had no leader, the Kage Bureau would hear from the council—a council made up of either complete naysayers, or conservative-minded types who wouldn't change anything from Hiruzen's rule. They would never agree on anything, nothing would get done, and people would suffer as a result. If that happened, people might even petition for dissolving, especially when concerning threats from other hidden villages. But, what would happen to Naruto, or Sakura, or Shino…hell, anyone from his graduating class? What would Kakashi do?

"I, I get that," stammered Sasuke, too many thoughts pouring into him, "but…I can't just…I can't just leave…." Doubt haunted him. He tried to find something to hold onto. He gazed at Sakura across the yard, and once again was acquainted with the beautiful keenness of her eyes. That determination had stayed with her through the year, even when he attacked it on their first meeting day. Ashamed that he could be so easily doubtful, he addressed Orochimaru's offer. "Why do you think I should be your student?"

"For various reasons. One, because you're a powerful shinobi. Two, because I know you have drive equal to mine, and—as you can see—that gets people places. Three, because, as an Uchiha, I know you don't tolerate the weak-hearted."

"Weak-hearted?" Sasuke didn't quite understand.

"Those who prevent progress. Those who cannot adapt to change, or keep the well of humanity dry. Those who care not to better themselves. Those who, if they ran the world, would destroy it with their idealism." Orochimaru's manner had shifted from calm and pensive to almost bitter. It put Sasuke off, and made him uncomfortable. Barely an instant had passed, however, before the former went back to his normal, gentle self.

"Well—if you put it that way," thought Sasuke, "I guess I agree with you. But I don't think anyone in Konoha is weak-hearted, really. I think we're just tired. Some of us want to sleep now, and others are willing to put the work forth to help us get the best sleep we can, even if that'll take a long time. That was kinda a stupid metaphor, but you get it."

Orochimaru stayed silent for a long time. As if he had never asked a question, he went back to watching Kabuto and Sakura. Sasuke took the awkward opportunity to get more coffee. Upon returning, Orochimaru seemed ready to continue. "Your brother thought that way as well."

"I sort of remember him being that way, yeah." Sasuke sipped the lukewarm caffeine. "But I don't really know too much of what he really thought." Images of that night crept into his reflections, and he shivered. "Before the…incident…he got really paranoid. He started talking about how useless everyone was, and that people shouldn't think on their own, because all we do is destroy. H—"

"That's enough," said Orochimaru mildly. "It still upsets me."

"What happened to him?" Finally, he had the courage to ask.

"The Sharingan did. I'm not an Uchiha, so I know very little about it. When Itachi came to train with me, I confess I had quite the interest in the kekkei genkai. However, only your clan would be able to tell you why he lost his mind. I don't doubt he strained his Sharingan to the point that it cracked his reality. After all, the genjutsu you can perform with the thing is remarkable. I told him to take it slow, but, Uchiha are stubborn."

"Why didn't my family see the symptoms?"

"They couldn't have foreseen the power that your brother managed to tap into. The mind is a very mysterious place, and, somehow, Itachi transcended the human within him and changed. Perhaps it's a good thing that you can't use Sharingan," admitted Orochimaru. "It would break my heart to see such a thing happen again."

The thought of literally breaking his mind scared the boy, but not enough to destroy his longstanding resolve. "Well…I'm not my brother. I'm not weak-hearted."

"You think Itachi was weak-hearted?"

"Well, in the sense that he let—no, made—the world crumble around him. If I had the Sharingan, I wouldn't lose my mind; that I can guarantee you. I wouldn't push myself like that," declared Sasuke. "But, going back to before…I can't know the future for sure. I need to work for today, and just hope the future gets better. I'm not going to promise something, if it means abandoning my friends. We promised each other something—and that means a lot to me."

Kabuto and Sakura were approaching them, apparently done with the lesson. Sasuke watched Sakura's excited expression near him, while Orochimaru observed Kabuto's satisfaction.

"If you choose to become my student," Orochimaru said, "I can bring your Sharingan back."

Sasuke, bewildered, could find no words in reply. He felt his heart beating, his blood pumping through him, and heard his breath. Orochimaru's utterance entered into his system and ran his body for a few moments. Each day since he stopped being innocent, the Sharingan had been his only goal. And, finally, here was the supposed opportunity.

Sakura broke his spell by plopping on the chair's armrest and drinking his cooled coffee. "I can't believe it's already eleven. Five hours, and I feel so much smarter!"

"We have plenty of time to spare before the council's speech at one," Kabuto remarked, smiling at his master. "Perhaps we should all get some lunch?"

Orochimaru stood up, beaming. "I think we should leave these two for a while. Let Sakura rest, she's been through your training after all. I have some things to discuss with you before the speech, anyway. Is that alright with you two?"

"Sure," piped Sakura, holding her notebook against her tightly. "Thank you so, so much for this chance, Dr. Yakushi. I can't believe you were so kind as to do this for me."

"Oh, Sakura," crooned the bespectacled man, "it was my pleasure. I look forward to your initiation this fall."

She blushed and looked at her teammate excitedly. "Yeah! Me too!"

Kabuto went into the house to pick up his briefcase, and Sakura followed enthusiastically, wanting to be as much help to him as possible.

Orochimaru made his way to the door. "Don't feel like you must be hasty with a decision. See how the future goes…and when you're ready, give me your answer."

Sasuke said nothing.

XxXxXx

It's so dark, Naruto thought, floating formlessly in his head. But I feel so warm. This isn't how it normally is.

Underneath him, Kurama sat angrily in his cage. The usual chakra lines that appeared during this state weren't there. You're not feeding me properly, boy.

Well, I can't exactly do anything about that. Usually you just take it from me.

I have to sit, hungry and weak, within you for months at a time, and you complain when you have to experience the same thing for merely a week?

The only reason you even have thoughts and feelings—the ONLY reason you're even remotely sentient—is because of me. So, if you just disappeared, then you wouldn't have to feel weak or hungry.

Perhaps I enjoy humanity, boy.

Naruto began to feel his form return. He was awakening.

The damn warrior, he's doing this. I knew I recognized his magic.

You mean chakra.

Chakra, magic—what's the difference? Because of his black arts, I'm here. Oh, how I'd love to rip him to pieces and feed on every last bit of his sweet magic.

Kurama's cage began to disappear. Naruto saw his body reflected in the darkness, and he felt the softness of sheets.

What warrior?

Naruto awoke. Without much effort, he sat up and found himself in his bed. The man he had met in the cemetery sat next to him, reading what appeared to be a perverted graphic novel.

Jiraiya noticed him to be awake, and tried to hide his book from sight, but the damage was already done. Naruto cracked up.

"Okay, kid, this isn't as weird as it seems—I just, I applied the chakra, and I was waiting for you to get up, and we got out of breakfast early, so I needed something to amuse myself, and I don't like to read, but—okay, um—yeah." The older man cleared his throat and put the book in a robe pocket.

"I'm going to honest with you, sir, I've never woken up and seen something like that," Naruto said, laughing heavily. It felt nice; he hadn't laughed in a while. When the amusement subsided, he smiled. "Thanks for bringing me home."

"Yeah, it's no trouble. You seemed to be going through something quite bad, there."

"How long has it been, by the way? How many days?"

"You only slept through the night. I made sure to cure you before anything bad happened."

Puzzled, but also elated in knowing that he hadn't been out of commission for a long time, Naruto was eager to both thank and question the man. "How did you 'cure' me?"

"Well, I just opened up the Four Symbols Seal temporarily, and blocked the Trigrams Seal from being accessed by Kurama, who—"

There was no possible way the man sitting by him could know anything about the information he was giving. Suspicious at his knowledge, Naruto jumped off the bed and backed up. "Hold on. Who the fuck are you?"

Jiraiya realized his mistake immediately. "Oh, um—I mean—"

"How the hell do you know about Kurama? How would you know I'm a jinchuuriki, let alone the type and name of my beast? Only I can know its name! And how the hell did you know how to stop it? What are these seals you're talking about?" Naruto craved to know the answers, repeating "Who are you?"

Jiraiya let the air clear before he responded, this time afflicted with a grave manner. "I told you at the cemetery, I used to live in Konoha, and that I was a friend to Lord Sarutobi. Well, I was more than a friend—I was his student."

That took the boy aback. "So, you're Tsunade, and Orochimaru's…?"

"Yep. I'm their teammate, Jiraiya. Not exactly as famous around the area, that's for sure. Anyway, I left shortly after Orochimaru became Otokage…but I returned to fight in the kyuubi war. I...oh, heavens…" he strained to continue.

Naruto felt the pain in his voice, and decided to try to fit the puzzle pieces himself. "Did you…meet…it?"

"Well, we all met it, in a sense," continued Jiraiya, "but yes, I met it personally, after it had taken a piece of your humanity and became sentient."

Unable to keep his astuteness at bay, Naruto started answering his own questions just by feeling the dread stemming from Jiraiya's words, and remembering his uncommon knowledge from earlier. His conclusion terrified him, but he decided to continue. "You…Jiraiya…did you…" now he was at a loss for words, and it fell to Jiraiya to complete his thoughts.

"Seal the kyuubi within you?"

Naruto swallowed. "…Yes."

No answer. That was enough to give Naruto the truth. Struggling with the strength to continue talking, Naruto said to him, "Lord Sarutobi told me that my dad sacrificed himself to seal Kurama inside me."

"No!" cried Hiruzen, sitting in a classroom in the Academy, far away from the fighting. "Under no circumstances will you even think of performing such a heinous action!"

Jiraiya, bloodied, panting, and cradling the baby Naruto, would not listen to his former teacher. "It'll kill all of us at this rate. The Oto forces are being destroyed; if this continues, nothing will be left of either of our villages!"

"You are suggesting your own death, you absolute idiot. You are too selfish to end your life in such a way; I know you. You're not the martyr type," spat the older man. "Orochimaru will be making his way here, soon, we can strategize then."

"Why do we always have to wait for HIM?" Unable to put aside his juvenile envy of Hiruzen's favorite student, he grew more definite of his decision. "If I use the Dead Demon Consuming Seal, I can drain its chakra. It'll disappear."

"At the cost of your life."

"Who cares? I'll be saving thousands of people. You wouldn't compromise your village because your student would be the one doing it, huh? I'm the only one who can do this properly."

Hiruzen recognized a change in Jiraiya's demeanor; he was more brash, more serious. He eyed the baby. "Please tell me you haven't changed your world view because of this boy."

"Your father, huh." Jiraiya shook off his robe from his hand. At that point, Naruto noticed that his right hand was fake.

"Can you still use chakra in that hand?" Naruto wondered out loud.

"Huh? Oh. Yeah. It was a difficult process, but I can. I expend just a little more chakra than I normally would, though, so I try not to fight so hard these days." Jiraiya was comforted by Naruto's mood. Despite the truths being revealed to his young mind, he seemed able to calmly accept them like a wise man.

"It was you, wasn't it? My dad…he wasn't even a shinobi, I bet."

Spot-on. "Hiruzen told you what he did for good reason."

"I know. He wanted to spare you my, and probably a bunch of other people's, hatred. But he didn't have to worry about that."

"I didn't want it to end up like that," said Jiraiya truthfully.

Jiraiya screamed, feeling the death god rip through him and suck the life out of both him and the kyuubi. The little beasts began evaporating in the midst of the battle. His hand began to fail him; however, the kyuubi was still in existence.

Naruto cried in his other arm. Why he hadn't put the boy somewhere safe, the warrior had no clue. Perhaps he thought his arms were the safest place. Perhaps he wanted someone to be there when he died. Now, his thoughts were for naught.

The seal failed. Yes, the kyuubi's chakra had been severely reduced, but it still managed to maintain a form. Jiraiya's hand turned black; it was dead, a consolation prize for the eager death god, who vanished with a chilling laugh. He began to cry, along with the boy, cradling him as he fell to his knees. The kyuubi sunk to the ground, moaning in supposed pain, weakened by the effort.

Naruto grabbed Jiraiya's cheek. "Hero," he hiccupped.

The warrior gasped in surprise and wretchedness. "No, I'm no hero. I failed everything. Oh, Naruto, I wanted to save all of you. The seal failed…" Upon finishing that thought, another one grew in his mind. It was a blasphemous, terrible one, something that surely would send Jiraiya to hell for even thinking of it. Yet, he had the kyuubi at a weak moment, and the power at his disposal.

He watched Naruto's little face contort and squeeze in innocent confusion, discomfort, and boredom. Wiping the tears from his bright blue eyes, he smiled sadly. "If we ever meet again, please know, you have every right to kill me. It's not me, Naruto…you're the true hero."

Untold up until the final lines of his recollection, Jiraiya repeated the words to the sixteen year-old boy sitting near him. He had purposefully left Konoha in the hopes that he would never see Naruto again, because he could not bear the guilt that the boy's azure gaze would surely give him.

"I wouldn't kill you," whispered Naruto, looking straight at him.

"Don't be good to me. I don't deserve it."

"No, you do. You saved Konoha." Naruto smiled then, throwing Jiraiya completely off guard. "I've been lonely, yeah. But that's just a part of growing up, isn't it? I found friends that I'd fight for, and a city to build, and that's good enough. I'm not going to change, just because I finally found out why I'm a jinchuuriki. In fact, I feel lighter than ever."

Though Jiraiya had known Minato for only a moment, he had seen a kindness and patience in the man that was now evident in his son. Naruto watched him with the same calm, trusting gaze that belied a strong, protective nature. For the first time since his transgression, Jiraiya felt relaxed on the matter.

Something about the boy made him recant everything he had shared with Orochimaru the day before. He quickly regretted strengthening his ex-teammate's argument, and hoped that Tsunade would make the right decision in the speech—which would be commencing in scarcely a half-hour.

"Oh!" Naruto remembered the event as well. "I should get going to the speech."

It took a moment for Jiraiya to be comfortable with Naruto's easy manner, especially considering the weight of their earlier discussion. "Yes, that'll be happening soon."

"We should go together, then. You can meet my friends—unless you're leaving."

Jiraiya made a choice that moment, and let it be known. "No…I'm not leaving. Actually, I wanted to ask you something. I'm quite knowledgeable with Kurama's chakra levels and output, as well as on how to manipulate the seals to give you access to its chakra, without directly contacting it. It's essentially an untapped reservoir you have. If you trust me—and I don't understand why you would, though you've proven yourself astonishingly forgiving—that I know what I'm talking about…perhaps I could train you on what I know."

An offer from someone as illustrious, and mysterious, as Jiraiya made Naruto feel quite honored. Honestly, he liked the man. He had expected fury of all sorts when learning of their connection; after all, Jiraiya's actions caused him to grow up lonely and unhappy. Regardless, he no longer held any resentment toward his circumstance, and he had stopped asking 'why' a long time ago. Jiraiya's sincerity delighted him, and his guilt dismayed him.

"I'd like that a lot, sir. Jiraiya. No...sensei."

XxXxXx

I hope you enjoyed this pretty long chapter. I really got back into the swing of things after conquering last semester, and enjoying a creative mood in this first month of the new semester. I hope everyone had a great Christmas and New Year. Happy Valentine's Day (though I'm a minute late over here)!