AN: M rated for ahm... stuff. There is also a small Orwellian reference that I butchered contextually but I think readers get the idea.
Chapter 18: Conspiracies of Shadows
"I think we might be in trouble," Naruto groaned as he went over the interrogation reports with Jiraiya. Tayuya was not being cooperative – at all.
Far from being broken, the prisoner had shocked Konoha interrogators with her resilient defiance, and the initial success they enjoyed proved ephemeral. The Yamanaka's mind technique relied on the subject's subconscious cooperation to provide accurate information. However, this proved problematic with the Iwa prisoner. To their horror, the interrogators found in subsequent sessions that no additional piece of data could be corroborated between the different memories, or with external sources of information. What was more, not a single memory remained unchanged when revisited. Tayuya was constantly changing her own memories of past events, hiding the truth from herself and her interrogators.
Inoichi had dubbed it "doublethink," the ability to conjure and accept contradictory ideas at the same time; to tell lies and believe those same falsehoods wholeheartedly as truth in one breath. How she accomplished such a feat no one knew, but it left the Konoha interrogators back on square one.
"Ibiki recommended terminating our efforts and the subject. I'm almost inclined to agree with him," the Hokage remarked. There seemed little point in expending additional time and resources on what appeared to be a dead end.
'So why don't you?' Naruto thought privately.
"Because we haven't exhausted all our options yet," Jiraiya responded aloud.
"I hate it when you do that," Naruto muttered before continuing, "I don't really understand what you are trying to accomplish by sending me – the real me – into the interrogations."
"You fought her once before, and we know you made enough of an impression for her to remember it. It's not much, but at least it's something. Besides, you won't be able to hide behind your alias forever, so why not start introducing you around?" Not to mention controlling potential fallout or backlash against the jinchuuriki within the secretive ANBU Torture and Interrogations was a far more manageable task than trying to do the same elsewhere.
"Commander Ibiki accepted your presence without question," Jiraiya offered encouragingly. But the interrogations chief was already aware of Naruto's involvement as Genji's assassin and agent provocateur during the Chuunin Exam. The clueless Yamanaka, however, was another matter.
"Inoichi seems to hate my guts. He wasn't happy to see me in there," Naruto noted with a trace of disappointment. He had expected better of the renowned ninja.
Jiraiya had his suspicions, but kept his own counsel. "Inoichi has his own demons to fight. I wouldn't dwell on it too much," he advised.
Just then, there was a knock at the door.
"I'm sorry, Hokage-sama, but your special guest has arrived," the secretary called. "She insists on seeing you immediately."
"Send her right in, please," Jiraiya answered. "We'll talk more after your next session with the subject, Naruto."
Although extremely curious about the "special guest's" identity, the young ninja said nothing. The Hokage obviously didn't wish to share any information about his visitor. As he was leaving, a statuesque blonde carrying a metal box walked in and he noticed the wide, lecherous grin on his leader's face. The woman was covered by a cloak that did little to disguise her generous assets.
'Wow, look at the size of…' Naruto forcibly killed the stray thought.
He realized Jiraiya had been too busy lately to engage in his usual recreational activities, but surely he wouldn't be so crass as to desecrate the sacred Office of the Hokage just to indulge himself.
'Yeah, right.' There was a reason why he called – rightly in his mind – the esteemed Godaime, Ero-sama. The worst part, however, was that now he couldn't stop thinking about what business the village leader could have with the stacked blonde.
Damn Jiraiya and damn his hormones.
"Fuck off, snake bitch!"
Naruto winced at the sound of metal on flesh said words provoked. Tayuya was tenacious if nothing else. However, he couldn't help but wonder about the futility of her defiance.
"If you want to be difficult about it, that's fine by me. Since you don't seem to want food, we can start this session immediately," commented Anko with a cheerful grin.
Naruto felt disturbed watching her calmly finish her dango stick mid task. He was beginning to think there was something seriously wrong with his companion.
"Do you need to leave the room? This might not be suitable for your virgin eyes," she asked with a sly grin.
If Naruto didn't know better, he would've thought she actually enjoyed these sessions.
"I'm fine," he responded curtly.
"Suit yourself," she answered with a shrug. Without further ado, special jounin Mitarashi Anko proceeded to tear into her victim with as much gusto as when she was devouring her meal.
A few hours later, the heaving purple-haired special jounin dropped into a seat. She popped open the cap of her canteen and began downing its contents as if she were the one who'd undergone torture.
"Wa-water," the subject rasped with great labor. "Please…"
After a minute of suffering silence, Anko relented. She walked over and brought the water bottle to her subject's bloodied lips. Tayuya took great gulps of the cool liquid, as if she were dying of thirst – which she likely was. Based on how emaciated she looked, Naruto guessed she was kept on a very "stressful" deprivation cycle so as to induce her cooperation. Carrot and stick only worked if you had both the carrot and the stick – or so the theory's proponents claimed.
"Is there anything you want to share, Tayuya? Anything at all?" Anko asked softly, laying one hand gently against the Iwa kunoichi's bloodied cheek. "If you told us something – anything – I could make all this go away."
Weak mutters permeated through the air in response. Sensing a break, Anko lowered her head, hoping to hear the words. But instead of catching critical intelligence info, she caught a thick wad of spit – right above the eye.
"Go to hell!" Tayuya spat hatefully.
Naruto's expression darkened. This wasn't going to end well. Of course, it wasn't as if anyone held great hopes for success. Ibiki had even admitted that this was an act of desperation, but what choice did they have? Tayuya was far too valuable an asset not to use – or abuse, rather.
"Torture me, kill me if you want, fucktards, but I ain't telling you shit!" she raved in a hoarse whisper. Although exhausted, she still strove to show that she was far from broken.
Anko calmly wiped away the bloodied slime and glared at her victim. "That could be arranged," she answered with deathly coldness. "I'd be happy to break a sorry ass cunt like you."
The Iwa prisoner responded with characteristic defiance, spitting at her interrogator once more. Anko seemed compelled to prove her point even if she had to kill her, but was prevented by Naruto's presence.
"Anko, don't you think that's enough?" he interrupted. He realized he was an observer for the most part, but he'd been unsettled enough for one day. This was just pointless violence.
The purple-haired kunoichi arched an eyebrow at her younger companion.
"What were you told about revealing our real names, Naruto-kun?"
"Like that matters. She's dead anyway, right?"
Anko tossed her head, considering. "True. I guess I've had my fun for the day," the kunoichi mused. "It's only fair that I give you a turn."
"That's – wait, what?"
Naruto sensed something terribly wrong in the dark look she sent him.
Anko grinned lewdly. "Hey, if you want to play, you only need to ask. I'm a little disappointed you don't want me around, though. I guess it's understandable since it's your first time." Here, she tossed Tayuya a nasty look. "Naruto here is quite the pro, even though he's only a genin. I heard he slaughtered dozens of your compatriots during the Chuunin Exam, so I'm sure you're in good hands."
"What're you doing?" Naruto asked with alarm.
"Don't worry about protection. She's clean, so have fun! I'll make sure no one bothers you two for a few hours." With that parting remark, the special jounin slipped out the door, leaving the flabbergasted blond behind.
"What? Are you waiting for an invitation?" Tayuya taunted her would be rapist, seemingly without fear. She even arched her back, lewdly presenting her naked body for his perusal. Like most kunoichi, Tayuya possessed an excellent figure, consisting of a lithe frame and taut, toned muscles built for speed and flexibility. Although far from model material because of some uneven skin pigmentations and several disfiguring battle scars, she was still a fine female specimen.
Naruto, however, turned away in embarrassment, and did his best to ignore the triumphant look on Tayuya's face.
"Are you hungry?" he asked upon hearing her stomach growl. It was a foolish gesture, but in his defense, he wasn't exactly trained for this line of work and his mind was still reeling from Anko's stunt.
The redhead wasted no time in unleashing a torrent of insults. "What kind of fucking moron are you?! You stupid—"
Naruto tuned out her screeching and popped open his bento box with a sigh. This was a massive waste of time.
"Do you want some of my food now? It's probably better than what they feed you," he tried again once the girl had exhausted her vocal chords.
She glared hatefully back at him, as if daring him to proceed.
Despite her lack of consent, the audible growls her stomach emitted forced his hand.
"Don't spit it out," Naruto commanded as he edged closer.
Although it was for her own good, Tayuya continued to resist. He had to resort to some very heavy-handed persuasion, namely pinching her nose shut and shoving the food down her throat.
Tayuya gagged, her body's need for nutrients warring against her prideful spirit. Ultimately though, her body won out and she swallowed even as she maintained an expression of disgust. When he offered a second helping, she was noticeably more compliant.
Naruto took advantage of the lull in the prisoner's watchfulness to attempt a dialogue. After all, he had a job to do and it wasn't merely to be a food provider. The difficulty was in how to approach the closed-mouth subject. So far, all direct methods had failed to crack the stubborn Iwa jounin, but maybe the interrogators had been looking at this from the wrong angle.
"What did Orochimaru hope to accomplish?" That Tayuya was loyal to her home village and nation, he could understand and sympathize with, but loyal to that snake? Definitely not.
The redhead's eyes narrowed as she swallowed another load. "What?"
"Come on, you were the Iwa commander of this attack, right? You must have realized what you were up against. Did Orochimaru really expect the invasion to succeed?"
Naruto knew the answer and he knew she knew the answer, even if her face betrayed nothing. Tayuya was obviously intelligent, and any intelligent person would've come to the proper conclusion in an instant.
"Why are you protecting him when he betrayed you? He killed the leaders of Suna and Iwa!"
"A traitor from this shithole would never be able to defeat the Tsuchikage!"
"Maybe not alone, but what if he had help?"
The Kyuubi aside, never had Naruto experienced such fury, both overwhelming and impotent, being directed at him. It was almost awe inspiring.
"The snake isn't just our enemy, he's yours too. He's the one that caused the death of your allies… and your lover."
Again, Naruto spoke the truth, but either he overplayed his hand, or his unease at being the manipulator showed. Tayuya wasn't fooled.
"The snake bastard might have been an accessory to their deaths, but you killed them and you killed my Kin! You and the other trash from this sorry excuse of a ninja village. Nice try, shithead, but not good enough."
Naruto jolted as he remembered the raven-haired girl's expression of shock and pain as he ran her through with his blade. Tayuya had no idea how right she was.
'Bummer.' Beaten back, the blond fell silent. Further talk, he realized, would accomplish nothing save to fortify her resolve. As it were, he took comfort knowing that his reticence deprived Tayuya of the opportunity to gloat. She still growled, fumed and glared, but otherwise remained docile as he continued feeding her.
"Who the fuck are you?" she blurted out finally. "You're no genin. I knew there was something off about you the first time I saw your ass. Did they fucking clone the Yellow Devil?"
The Yellow Devil. It took him a second to recognize the reference to the Yondaime.
"They call him the Yellow Devil in Iwa?"
"'Like a cyclone of death, a whirlwind of destruction, the Yellow Devil stalks the earth beneath the unwary.' Every ninja trainee learns that on the first day," Tayuya recited. "I know the snake enrolled dozens of infiltration teams in the exam – and you took care of them by yourself?"
She didn't even try to hide her disbelief.
"Not all of them."
Naruto carefully took note of her calculating look. Despite her current circumstances, which would almost certainly end in her death, the girl refused to give in to despair. She remained sharp and alert as ever.
"I'm his son."
"Namikaze Minato, the Yellow Flash of Konoha, was my father," he admitted calmly. "And my brother, Genji, was the strategist in charge of Konoha's defense during the invasion… just so you know who to blame," he added oh-so-helpfully a minute later.
Tayuya looked stricken, probably not surprised by the information so much as by the careless manner in which it was given. She'd undoubtedly already planned a complex scheme to extract the information he'd just given her. Naruto smiled internally. At last, he might be onto something. If all their attempts at direct coercion failed, then perhaps a quid pro quo system could offer better return. Maybe, just maybe, she could be tempted to give up something that was unimportant to herself, or her homeland, but of great value to Konoha.
"Got any more noodles?"
Naruto's chopsticks scraped the bottom of his lunch box. He frowned and shook his head.
Broken out of her haze of hunger, Tayuya instantly closed up. Her eyes, which previously shone with curiosity, turned hostile.
"Then either fuck me, or get the fuck out."
Ugh. He was so sure he had her cracked – but before he let his disappointment show, he realized something important. Sometimes, what was most significant wasn't what was stated, but what was left unsaid. Despite her anger, rage and resentment, at no point in their exchange had Tayuya said: "No."
"I'll be going now, but I'll probably be back in a few days. Got anything else to say?" Naruto gave a cheerful smile that undoubtedly caused great consternation to Tayuya, who looked away.
The blond shrugged and walked toward the door.
"I like pork flavor better than beef." The tone was soft, but firm and easily audible.
With his back to the prisoner, Naruto allowed himself a grin. "I'll remember that next time."
"I knew that kid was special. What did I say, what did I say!" Anko crowed, laughing.
"Indeed, it was a very impressive performance for someone without training," Ibiki admitted.
"I can't wait to see Inoichi's reaction. A twelve-year-old brat broke a prisoner he couldn't by using the oldest trick in the book… with my help, of course." The special jounin proudly snaked an arm around said brat.
Anko grinned wolfishly. "Good ninja, psychotic ninja."
Naruto didn't buy it. His partner in crime had enjoyed the session way too much to have just been playacting and he told her as much.
Anko backed away and shrugged. "You're right. I enjoyed hurting her. Intentional or not, she helped the traitor."
"That's not good enough," Naruto blurted out.
"It is for me."
Naruto would have argued further had he not caught the sharp look Jiraiya sent him. Ah, of course, how could he have forgotten; he was currently speaking as Naruto, the genin, and not Genji, the high jounin. Fortunately, he caught himself, but not before arousing Ibiki and Anko's interest and amusement.
"Good work everyone, you can go. Naruto, please stay for a minute."
The two older ninja exited.
"That was close," Jiraiya remarked after making sure they were alone.
"Didn't I warn you about getting too attached?"
Despite the blond's obviously defensive response, Jiraiya chose not to pursue the issue. "Naruto, I want you to meet someone very important," he added.
The youth watched with curiosity as the Hokage hollered for his guest. The door opened and in walked the big breasted woman he had seen earlier. Naruto instantly turned red.
"I know you're horny, but the Office of the Hokage is not your personal playhouse! What the hell are you doing bringing whores around?"
One moment, he was red faced, indignant and facing Jiraiya from across his desk, the next, he was red faced, in pain and eating dust on the floor.
"Watch who you're calling a whore, brat!" the female growled with clenched fists.
Naruto rose unsteadily to his feet, holding his bruised cheek.
"Hold on, Naruto. Trust me when I say you don't want to get into a fistfight with Tsunade-hime," Jiraiya warned.
"Tsu-Tsunade, as in Tsunade of the Sannin? Tsunade of the Konoha Sannin?"
The white-haired sage smiled. "One and only. Tsunade, meet Uzumaki Naruto, Minato's kid. Although he's better known nowadays as Namikaze Genji."
The blond high jounin gulped. He just had to piss off an S-rank kunoichi within five minutes of meeting her.
Tsunade coolly looked at him with calculating eyes. "The brat doesn't look like a Savior of Konoha to me."
Naruto blinked again. First, he hadn't realized his reputation had traveled so quickly. And second, what was that supposed to mean? He bristled at her tone, not helped at all by her superior demeanor and the tingling numbness in his cheek, which refused to subside. Knowing the medic kunoichi, she had probably laced her punch with anti-coagulating chakra derivatives.
"But then, I said the same about Minato and I was wrong. You think you can prove me wrong too?" she challenged.
Naruto blinked a third time and with it, his budding anger dissipated. He realized Tsunade wasn't being haughty or contemptuous so much as skeptical, which was fine by him. He excelled at converting skeptics. After all, hadn't he convinced the Konoha council to go along with the Hokage's schemes just recently?
"Think? I know I will," Naruto answered eagerly before turning to the Hokage. "So why am I here, Ero-sama? Somehow, I don't think it's just to meet your former teammate."
"You're right, it's not. Before that, though, I want you to bring Tsunade-hime up to speed on your experiences with the rookies and Uchiha Sasuke in particular."
"I don't see the connection between Sasuke and Tayuya. Other than them both having the cursed seal, of course, but even then, they're of completely different types." Naruto was confused and perhaps a bit put off by the amount of attention being paid to the Uchiha. His abilities, strengths and weaknesses? Fine. But if Tsunade wanted to know what his training schedule was, what he ate for lunch, or what color his boxers were, then maybe she should talk to Kakashi or his mother instead, which was exactly what he told her.
"They are connected because of recent developments," Jiraiya explained, directing the blond's attention to the square metal box by Tsunade's side. "Open it."
Naruto obeyed. He found a disgusting spongy ball covered with hair inside and nearly gagged at the horrible stench. At first he thought it was a joke, a retaliatory prank for his earlier stunts. Then he realized that the foul smell was that of decomposing flesh and the grotesque gooey ball was, in fact, a human head – or at least he thought it was a human head. It was so deformed and discolored that he barely recognized it.
"What the hell was that?!" he yelled, slamming the box shut.
"That was my top informant inside Iwagakure. He went incommunicado a few weeks ago."
"I was in Otafuku Gai when I received the box from an anonymous source two days ago. I thought it might have been for you," Tsunade added dryly.
Naruto frowned. Something wasn't right. "Why did they send it to Tsunade-sama and not–oh, I see…" Naruto began, but trailed off as his mind worked out the implication. "So Orochimaru penetrated Iwa intelligence and security?"
"That's our interpretation," Jiraiya confirmed. "I don't think Iwa could've tracked Tsunade down without help."
Not a terribly shocking surprise, but still an unpleasant revelation as it confirmed their fears.
"The problem is this, Naruto. While you're making good progress with the Iwa prisoner, it's far too slow." The Hokage shared a look with his colleague. "Tsunade and I have a rather radical idea we want to try, especially considering what has happened to the genin, Uchiha Sasuke."
"I don't understand," Naruto admitted. "How is Sasuke related to any of this? His cursed seal is being suppressed, right?"
"Right, but also wrong. Information about the cursed seal made available to you, Kakashi and other senior Konoha ninja is not entirely accurate." Having said that, Tsunade tossed the blond a thick dossier.
"The project portfolio for an experiment spearheaded by Orochimaru, back when he was Konoha's Chief of Operations."
"What?" Naruto looked at Tsunade wildly. The old lady couldn't be implying what he thought she was… "No, no way! You can't be serious! There's nothing about the cursed seal in any of the top secret or above top secret files."
"It's not a joke, Naruto," Jiraiya answered solemnly.
Alarming as it was, it made perfect sense. The cursed seal was a creation of extraordinary complexity. Even with his rudimentary understanding of seals at the time, Naruto had instantly recognized this. He'd thought Orochimaru must have been supernaturally talented to have done it alone and in secret. Fortunately, he was wrong. Orochimaru wasn't god. He'd created his masterpiece only with the help of loyal Konoha personnel.
"How did you help him?" The operative words being "how did you" as opposed to "did you."
Tsunade looked surprised, Jiraiya didn't and neither tried to deny the accusation.
"I provided Orochimaru with the optimal sealing architecture and design profile," the Hokage answered candidly. "Tsunade provided the physiological framework for chakra to human interactions and general medical assistance. Funding came from various slush funds and supplies and manpower were requisitioned from ANBU Black Ops."
Naruto was aghast. No wonder he didn't find any paper trails.
"And you did all this under the old man's nose?!"
Tsunade shook her head. "You were right, Jiraiya. He's very perceptive, but also terribly naïve. Turn the page, kid."
Angry, confused, and intensely curious, Naruto flipped the cover of the file. In the center of the very first page, he found the damning authorization order, complete with Sarutobi Hiruzen's messy scribble, etched in pitch black ink and in extra large font.
The file suddenly felt unbearably heavy, but Naruto held it tightly as he began reading.
Some time later, a grim Naruto stood in solemn silence, listening to Jiraiya reiterating his concerns while studiously ignoring the piercing look from Tsunade. The dossier lay unattended to the side.
"…The cursed seal will amplify whatever misgiving, doubt or hesitation he has. It's not a question of if but when Uchiha Sasuke will go rogue."
"You don't know that. He could resist Orochimaru's call just like Anko did. He passed all of the psych tests, didn't he?" Naruto answered defensively.
"Barely," Tsunade countered. "If he had the strength of character that Special Jounin Mitarashi Anko has then I'd believe you, but he doesn't. You yourself mentioned his lack of restraint and control in your recent test."
"That wasn't what I meant!" Naruto shouted in dismay. What cruel irony, to have his own words thrown back at him to sanction the assassination of a fellow Konoha nin. While there was no love lost between he and Sasuke, or with the latter's overbearing and ungrateful clan, he wasn't so petty as to wish fatal harm on them. Plus, the whole notion of killing a loyal ninja off because of what had been done to him by no fault of his own touched a very sore nerve.
Heated words were exchanged with Tsunade and Jiraiya – to a lesser extent – taking a hardline stance, while Naruto rushed to his peer's defense.
"Naruto, we're dealing with facts!" Tsunade pressed, her eyes sharp and predatory. "Knowing what you know about how the cursed seal can warp a person, and about the subject's character, do you still think Sasuke is not a threat?"
Maybe it was his questioner's tone or the intense expressions both legendary ninja wore, but something tipped Naruto off. They were being way too concerned about what a genin might do. So, either they were hiding something or the whole affair wasn't about Sasuke and his cursed seal at all. Rather, the hapless Uchiha was the surrogate for a far more important and dangerous character.
"Why aren't you having this conversation with Kakashi? It's his student you're trying to kill."
Jiraiya ignored the barb. "Kakashi can't know for obvious reasons. Besides, you're the group commander, so you'd ultimately be responsible for planning and executing this operation alongside with ANBU Black Ops, if we decided to take that route…" he countered, "…but we aren't doing that."
"Don't be mistaken. Tsunade is right, but Konoha did not reach the top by murdering its own talents," Jiraiya explained while his former teammate crossed her arms with a huff. "However, we still need to address this problem."
"You got any ideas?" asked Naruto. No doubt the two legendary ninja had already decided on the course to take.
"Yes. This is where you and the Iwa prisoner come in," answered Jiraiya, going on to elaborate.
Naruto listened attentively, but allowed his distaste to show. It was a ghastly experiment, one which he feared would make Inoichi's interrogations and Anko's torture sessions look like tea parties. But, it was still preferable to the alternative, right?
"Let me get this straight. You want to apply the Kyuubi's chakra to Tayuya's seal?"
"In simple terms, yes. While the cursed seal itself is irreversible, Orochimaru's influence isn't. Or at least we hope so," replied Tsunade. As the medic-nin went on to explain, their plan was to displace whatever contaminating chakra Orochimaru might have introduced into the cursed seal carrier with a healthy dose of a stronger chakra.
"In the Hierarchy of Chakra, the power of the tailed beasts is unsurpassed, and the Kyuubi is the strongest of them all. If you can control its chakra as you say, then you should be able to gain complete control of the cursed seal carrier once we complete the procedure," Jiraiya added.
Complete control of the subject… virtual slavery. Of course, this was the whole point of the cursed seal and the original reason for its study under the auspices of the Sandaime Hokage. Beset by enemies within and without, Konoha was looking for an efficient method of maintaining the loyalty of its ninja and allies. The increased fighting prowess and other positive attributes that came with the cursed seal were secondary benefits.
"This is such a hassle. Why use this procedure on Tayuya and not Sasuke?" he asked.
"Because it's still mostly theory. When Orochimaru went rogue, he took the bulk of the human research data with him. He's had years to experiment and refine the process and we don't really know the consequences of infusing a human with the unfiltered chakra of a tailed beast," Tsunade answered. Given all the uncertainties, it was only reasonable – if not very noble – to test the hazardous procedure out on an enemy prisoner first.
"But if you're set on having the Uchiha as your personal slave, Naruto, we can go along with it. Of course, there might be some in the village who'd take issue with the arrangement," Jiraiya quipped. Both members of the Sannin laughed uproariously at the blond's horrified expression.
"What-you-I hate you guys so much!" Naruto sputtered in disgust, his face scrunched up comically as he envisioned such a scenario. "Fine! When do you plan to do this?" he asked, once the two Sannin had quieted.
"Tonight! Isn't that rushing it?"
"Do you see any reason to wait?" Jiraiya countered. "The sooner we start, the sooner we can resolve this." Left unsaid was that so long as the problem remained unresolved, Uchiha Sasuke's loyalty and life were at stake.
"All right. I'll be ready. Just tell me how much chakra you need."
"Minato's child is certainly interesting," Tsunade offered. "Charming and intelligent, but I thought you said he hated the Uchiha."
The blonde woman allowed her surprise to show. This was not the impression Naruto had conveyed.
"That's just the thing. He might hate the kid, but that doesn't mean he'll agree to unjust punishment. I suspect his innate nobility is what attracted sensei in the first place."
Tsunade was, if not dismissive, less than convinced. "It could be youthful naivety. None of this proves that he hasn't been corrupted by the Kyuubi." Few would call the last Senju Konoha's most patriotic daughter, but that didn't mean she didn't still hold a lingering affection for her home. After all, she'd fought and bled for the village for most of her life. Her family tree was littered with the corpses of martyrs, so one could argue it was in her blood.
Jiraiya looked up into the ceiling, seemingly ignoring his former teammate's comment completely. "I talked to Bunta the other day..."
"…about getting him another summoner. I figured Naruto was ready for a contract and being Minato's son won't hurt. You remember how close those two were."
"Don't I?" Tsunade gave a rueful chuckle. "You cried like an old woman for days about losing your partner to your student."
"Hey, I did not cry like an old woman!" Jiraiya retorted archly. "I was just pissed off that my student stole my summon for a drinking spree without so much as a goodbye." To his chagrin, his remark only spurred on more laughter from Tsunade. "Anyway, the old toad was enthusiastic… until I mentioned Naruto's unique condition."
"And then he refused as a matter of principle and Ma and Pa backed him up," Tsunade guessed, correctly too as Jiraiya's silence indicated.
It was difficult for those without contracts to understand the intimate connection summoners shared with their summons. More than just comrades in arms, summons, with their longevity and vast knowledge, were often mentors and confidants whose judgments were trusted by their summoners above all else. The toads' categorical rejection of Naruto must have weighed heavily on Jiraiya's mind.
"Minato, you fool! What the hell were you thinking, sealing that thing in your own son!" he muttered hotly.
"I know what you're thinking, Tsunade," he continued, turning to her with a frown. "You think the Kyuubi is using Naruto. You read the letter from Sarutobi and thought the old man was taken in by the creature, and that I've fallen in the same trap."
"The thought did cross my mind."
"You're wrong," Jiraiya stated firmly. "I know what the dangers are, Tsunade. Why do you think I haven't taught him the Rasengan or the Hiraishin?"
"Why didn't you? Do you really expect him to master Minato's legendary techniques when you failed to do so in over a decade?" Tsunade's voice belied her disbelief. The jinchuuriki was impressive, but not that impressive.
"Absolutely. Naruto is ten times smarter and more dedicated than I ever was," Jiraiya answered with conviction. Ironically, it was those very qualities of his that made things difficult. "You saw how quickly Naruto managed to figure it out," he continued, referring to the blond's accurate deduction of who was responsible for weeding out his Iwa mole. "We needed to keep him off balance, so that he didn't figure out our real goal is to test him to see whether he can keep the Kyuubi under control, or if it's controlling him instead. And we'll know if it's the latter because the beast will, if at all possible, try to take control of the Iwa prisoner."
Tsunade nodded. She knew the line they'd fed Naruto about learning from the Iwa kunoichi's cursed seal to be a load of crap. Certainly, they could gain valuable intelligence regarding Iwa and perhaps Orochimaru's duplicitous alliance, but they weren't going to discover anything that could help deal with the Uchiha's condition. Indeed, the entire issue with the Sharingan genin was nothing more than a cover story to keep Naruto distracted.
"Alright. Do what you think is best."
Tsunade stood up, preparing to leave.
"I'm surprised you returned."
"That makes two of us."
"Are you staying?" Jiraiya asked, fighting to keep his voice neutral.
Tsunade pondered the question for some time.
"I suppose I am. Someone has to keep an eye on you," she said at last, a soft smile gracing her face.
"Yeah, and I'm sure running up those massive debts at the casinos in Otafuku Gai had nothing to do with it," Jiraiya responded with a grin.
Tsunade arched an eyebrow. "I might gamble with money from time to time, but you're gambling with the lives of everyone in this village. I hope you know what you're doing."
"Even if I didn't, I'm sure sensei did. This is all according to his plan, right? Making me Hokage and making you come home so we can look after Minato's legacy…" The white-haired sage trailed off, his eyes distant and his voice forlorn.
"You could be right," Tsunade admitted.
And people thought Danzou was the manipulative one.
With that, the legendary medic tossed on her crude disguise and swished out of the room, leaving the Hokage behind to reminisce about a happier past and consider an uncertain future.
"Hey, chief, how's the girl?"
"She's in stable condition, Naruto," Dr. Haruno answered in a quiet voice.
Tayuya's breaths came shallow but steady, indicating she'd finally fallen unconscious. Under the adults' watchful eyes, Naruto reached for a wet towel and gently wiped away a trail of blood on her forehead.
It was a miracle she survived.
The Kyuubi's chakra had proved to be far more volatile than expected. Half a dozen emergency surgeries had been required to arrest systemic organ failures when the invasive red chakra overwhelmed Jiraiya's containment seals. The whole deal might have been more manageable had they been able to use painkillers, but they couldn't. Tayuya literally screamed herself hoarse and then some before her enhanced pain tolerance gave way and allowed her to succumb to darkness.
Naruto's prediction had been correct. The procedure did make Inoichi and Anko's torture sessions look like tea parties.
"Doctor, I trust you understand the sensitivity of this operation and the need for discretion," Jiraiya added.
"Of course, Hokage-sama. I'll make sure the other doctors are aware of it."
"Good. As you've looked after Naruto in the past, I'm making him and the subject your responsibility. I'd like you to closely monitor them in the future."
"For what, if I may ask?" Unlike many of his colleagues, Dr. Haruno had risen through the civilian ranks and maintained minimum direct contact with Konoha ninja. All this cloak and dagger business unnerved him very much.
"You'll see," Tsunade answered mysteriously. "Thank you again, Doctor Haruno. You and your team are a credit to the medical profession."
"The pleasure's all mine, Tsunade-sama." Tired, exhausted and a little frightened of whatever it was that required the personal attention of the Sannin, the veteran practitioner nonetheless graciously accepted the praise from Konoha's most legendary medic.
"Let's go, Naruto. There's nothing more for us to do," suggested Jiraiya, to which an unusually quiet Naruto complied. "Tsunade, Dr. Haruno, take care."
"Tsunade-sama, I hope I'm not out of line," Dr. Haruno began once the Hokage and Naruto had left. "But if I'm to be responsible for my patients, I'll require some background information and I don't believe this girl is from Konoha."
"Her name is Tayuya. She's a veteran jounin of Iwagakure believed to have been their commanding officer during the invasion."
The Haruno stared at Tsunade with a shell-shocked expression, wondering just what exactly he'd signed up for this time.
"…I can't say much, but I can tell you she's currently Konoha's most valuable asset."
Tayuya resisted the urge to groan in pain, lest she gave herself away. Still drugged up the wazoo, she didn't catch much of the conversation, but what she did overhear gave her hope. Her captors didn't intend to terminate her just yet – a grave mistake she intended to use to her advantage.
"…Naruto knows what to do so I wouldn't worry too much, but still keep an eye on…"
Naruto. The name sent a jolt of rage coursing through her veins.
The Iwa kunoichi kicked herself mentally for having developed the tiniest of rapport with the blond Namikaze. She'd almost allowed herself to be fooled by his pretense of kindness, like some stupid orphan girl.
One day, she would make them pay. She would make them all pay, especially the conniving brat that dared to befriend her before stabbing her in the back.
Lost in her thoughts, reveling in her own diatribe against this accursed land, Tayuya lost track of herself and forgot to feign sleep.
"Hang on, I think she's awake. We'd better put her out. Use the maximum dosage this time."
The redhead barely had time to register the remark before the anesthetic knocked her out again.
"Fuck!" Tayuya sat up, rolling her head from side to side to disperse the dizziness. She glared into the dark expanse, which stretched out before her as far as her eyes could see. "Who's out there?"
"What an impatient human."
The voice came from everywhere and nowhere all at once.
"What the fuck! Who's out there? Come out, or are you a pissing coward?"
"Coward?" the shadowy creature mused. "Be careful of how you speak to me, mortal. You have no idea what I can do."
Having never been one to take abuse or disrespect from Naruto, the creature didn't hesitate to show its displeasure at the foul mouthed girl.
Tayuya bit back a scream as pain surged through her body, reminding her of the mind numbing agony the Konoha medics had inflicted on her. Damn sick experiment. Having nitric acid introduced intravenously into her system couldn't have felt much worse.
"What are you?" the redhead gritted out, panting heavily from her position on the ground. It was a rhetorical question; it was a simple matter of two plus two equals four for her to figure out what had happened. Tayuya knew more about the jinchuuriki than most people because of her contact with the Kumo turncoat. But she had never witnessed the might of a tailed beast. Yugito, for one, kept the Nibi on a much shorter leash.
The voice chuckled in the darkness. "I'm sure you've already figured out what's going on, or maybe I'm giving my pathetic host too much credit. It would be just like him to pick a completely useless member of his species to practice on. As for your question, what I am is less important than what I want."
"And what do you want?"
"The same as you. To break free of this prison!"
An enormous creature with nine fiery tails appeared. The Kyuubi held its image for a second before shifting to a humanoid form with fair skin and blond ringlets that bore an uncanny resemblance to Naruto – a female Naruto rather.
"And you, my dear Tayuya, are going to help me."
AN: I should point out that this chapter isn't as dark and grim as it would seem. Jiraiya and Tsunade aren't the bad guys here. Like Naruto, they are trying to do what's best for Konoha. But it does show the conflicting agendas and motives different people can have even when they are on the same side. Note that this applies to Orochimaru's post-Akatsuki alliance as well.
Sorry for the long wait, but I was distracted by other pursuits, which included, you guessed it, chess. At the time of writing this, Magnus Carlsen, whom I mentioned previously, has a two point lead and a guaranteed clear first place finish at the super GM (ELO 2700+ players) Pearl Spring Tournament in Nanjing. Perhaps not surprising since he is being coached by none other than the God of Chess, Garry Kasparov. No bets on when he's going to be World Champion.
Now you know what I've been doing lately. Enjoy this offering and please leave a review!