Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto, and I am not getting any profit from this fanfic, which is fine, I guess. Makes creating this story all the more...rewarding? Aw hell, who am I kidding?
Chapter 25: Parting Ways
"So, why are we all here?"
"I don't know, Naruto said he and Gaara wanted to tell us something."
The shinobi of the now Konoha Nine, along with Temari and Kankuro, were all sitting in a small room within the Hokage Tower. They had been summoned before daybreak to report to the small meeting room as soon as possible, and were not given any further instructions by their ANBU messengers.
"Any idea what they wanted to talk to us about?" asked Ino, who was just starting to wake up. She rubbed her eyes while letting out a quiet yawn.
"No idea...but they could have waited a little while longer. It's not even six o' clock for the love of-"
"Kiba-kun, they're leaving today. I'm sure this is important..." Hinata cut the Inuzuka's ranting off with a gentle hand. Kiba went silent almost immediately, grunting in understanding.
Only a few faces among the group had any idea what was going on, namely Sakura, Kankuro, and Temari. The two Jinchuuriki boys had discussed it with them earlier yesterday, stating that since the Fourth Shinobi War had begun, many ninjas would be out for their bounties. Not only that, but there was also Akatsuki to worry about.
The door to the room slowly opened, and the group of eleven shinobi all looked to see the two boys in question walk through the doors. Accompanying them were Jiraiya, Tsunade, Kakash, Baki, Hiruzen Sarutobi, and about six ANBU. The young Genin and Chuunin went silent as they sensed a feeling of seriousness emanating from the older ninja.
Tsunade was the first to speak, "Alright, I'm sure all of you are plenty curious as to why you've been summoned here to one of the private meeting rooms within the Hokage Tower well before most missions are given to the vast majority of the ninja populous."
"So I take it there won't be any continental breakfast served to us?"
"Keep it up Inuzuka, and I'll have you painting fences for a month."
Kiba went silent almost immediately upon hearing the Godaime's threat. She waited to see if anyone else was going to complain, and nodded to herself when the younger shinobi clearly weren't going to voice any opinions again, "Right. Anyway, you're all here today because Naruto and Gaara wish to share with all of you information that is top secret. Only those of the highest rank in shinobi society, and those that were alive during the Kyuubi attack or the most recent sealing of the Ichibi know anything of this secret."
Already the faces of the small audience were beginning to show signs of understanding. Shikamaru looked like he had been slapped in the face, Neji's eyes widened a fraction, and Shino pushed his sunglasses up while shifting in his chair slightly.
"While I am able to share this information with you, as well as the Sandaime, it would be best if these two share their story with you." Tsunade continued, "All I ask of you is that you keep quiet until they are both done. Should any of you decide to do anything...drastic...I'll have these ANBU here to bring you to the proper confinement facility."
"Geez, Baa-chan, you don't need to threaten them like that." Naruto mumbled while his cheeks flushed a bit, "I don't want them to get scared before I even start talking."
Tsunade gave Naruto a hard look, "It's best that they know the gravity of the situation before they get their toes wet." She looked to all the shinobi seated, "If any of you feel that you cannot be trusted with such a secret, then I ask that you leave now."
No one rose from their seats.
"Good." She looked to Gaara and Naruto, "Alright, boys. The floor is yours."
Naruto looked to Gaara, who simply nodded. He apparently wanted Naruto to go first. The blond expected as much, and let out a deep sigh.
"Well...better now than never, I guess," Naruto looked to each of the thirteen sitting before him, "I don't know how many of you are familiar with the details on the Kyuubi's attack on Konoha about thirteen years ago, but...well, it's true what they told us in school. To a certain point, at least."
He noticed the others were all focused on him. He looked to Temari, who gave him a simple nod, a small, reassuring smile on her face. He smiled back before continuing, "The truth is that...the Yondaime Hokage, Minato Namikaze, who was also my father, did not die killing the Kyuubi. He simply gave his life in order to seal it away within a newborn child born on that very same night; October tenth."
It was easy to see that the others were already starting to connect the dots in their minds. He figured they would, "The sealing of the Kyuubi required that a human soul be given as payment for imprisoning the nine-tailed fox within a newly born child. After the death of the Yondaime, that child was left with the fox sealed inside its body. Apparently a newborn's chakra coils are able to adapt to a bijuu's chakra."
"A human that houses one of the tailed demons within them is called a Jinchuuriki. As the name suggests, they are considered a sacrifice. In the past, they were revered as powerful beings in some cultures, while others saw them as the very things they contained." Gaara added.
Naruto nodded, "Yeah. Well..." He sighed before scratching his neck, "In case you didn't already get what I'm saying...I was that baby that the Kyuubi was sealed in. Man, I suck at story telling, heheh."
Naruto's fake smile was easily noticeable to those that knew him well enough. He clearly felt nervous, but this was important to him.
"I'm not 'possessed' by the fox, and while it has some effects on me, the seal is safely holding it in place. The Yondaime was amazing at Fuuinjutsu, so you can all rest assured that it's alright." He looked around at the group, trying to get a grasp of what they may be thinking, "I can use the Kyuubi's power, and I have on more than one occasion done just that. Neji, when I fought you, that power that helped me recover from having my chakra blocked off was the Kyuubi's. Like I said, though, the fox won't break out of me at any given moment, heheh."
"Naruto's right. His father and mother were both geniuses in at making seals, though his mother was the brains behind the basic structure." Jiraiya stated after a few moments of silence, "I hope you kids understand that."
The young shinobi all nodded in understanding.
"Wait, Naruto, your father was the Yondaime Hokage?" asked Lee, "That is most astonishing! I can see the resemblance, though. Yes, the flames of youth have passed on from father to son! I can-"
A sudden tug on his ear by Tenten quieted him down, "Don't interrupt, Lee."
It was Gaara's turn to speak, "Well, my story isn't as positive, but...I too am a Jinchuuriki. The Ichibi was sealed within me before I was born, and my mother died while giving birth to me. My father, the former Kazekage, had hoped to create a living weapon, and he almost came close to that."
"Gaara..." Temari began, but was silenced when Gaara slowly put up a hand. She frowned, but nodded.
"This sand within my gourd, which the Ichibi can channel its powers into, guards me without any thought on my part. You could throw a shuriken at me from any angle, and the sand would intercept it." Gaara closed his eyes for a moment before continuing, "I have managed to reign in the bijuu, however, and I am able to go about my life without worry of it being a danger to others."
The two were silent after that, looking at the thirteen shinobi before them. Temari, Kankuro, and Sakura all had what hopefully were supportive expressions on their faces. A few seemed to be struck with surprise. Hinata, who wasn't focusing directly on Naruto or Gaara, was frowning while her eyes were moistening at the corners. Shikamaru had his head down, deep in thought.
Ino, who seemed hesitant to speak, raised a hand. Naruto nodded, a smile on his face, "Ino?"
"So...you mean...you've both had those bijuu in you since birth?"
"More or less, probably a few minutes afterwards in my case. Gaara had his before he was born, as he said."
Ino nodded, "I guess...that explains why so many of the teachers ignored you in the Academy."
Much to the surprise of everyone, the Sandaime spoke up at that point, "I'm aware of that fact, Ino. It's unfortunate that I had so many shinobi under my command who couldn't see Naruto for who he truly is. A human being."
"Well," The Yamanaka continued, "how come none of us were ever told that Naruto was the Yondaime's son?"
Hiruzen decided to answer the blond's other question as well, "Unfortunately for Naruto, his father was a very talented ninja who made more enemies than most would like to admit to having. On top of that, he had done some major damage to Iwagakure's ranks during the Third Shinobi War. Naruto's heritage was kept secret to avoid any possible threats from coming up while he was young. Believe me, though, if it wasn't for that, Naruto would have known about his family much sooner than just recently."
"Oh..." Ino seemed to settle for that answer, and looked down.
Silence hung in the air again. Naruto felt his hands opening and closing while he felt his throat tightening a bit.
The two looked to Sakura, who was smiling with unshed tears. The blond suddenly felt his stomach turn to lead, "Sakura-chan? What's-"
Sakura waved a hand, "Sorry...it's just...well, I think we're all a little guilty of being hard on you. I'm just thanking you guys for keeping everyone safe, and protecting Konoha...and...well everything."
"That may be true, but Naruto was a bit of a class-clown." Shikamaru remarked with a smirk while turning to Naruto, "You definitely gave Iruka-sensei trouble."
"You all did." Ino spoke tersely, "Especially Kiba and Naruto."
"Oi, we were kids!" Kiba bristled.
The group burst into chuckles as Kiba and Naruto both grinned in embarrassment while Shikamaru rolled his eyes, a small smile tugging on his lips.
Eventually Tsunade spoke up, "Now that you have all been informed of this, I'm trusting the lot of you with these two secrets. You're the future of both Suna and Konoha, and as such, it's your duty to do what you can to see that our villages remain strong. Information is a powerful tool in the shinobi world, and there will be those who will seek out Naruto and Gaara. If you encounter such people, you must do what you can to keep these two safe."
"We're not helpless, Baa-chan." Naruto grumbled.
"Duly noted, Naruto. The point is that you two are going to be prime targets in this war. Iwa is well aware that we have Jinchuuriki, and seeing that Orochimaru is allied with them, they probably already know that you two are the bijuu's vessels." Tsunade stated, "While you two will be on the move for the most part, if someone were to find out your general location, it could have dangerous results for us."
Jiraiya cleared his throat, "Don't worry; I'll keep an eye on these two as much as possible."
Naruto groaned, "We are not Genin, Ero-Sennin! We can-"
"Naruto! Enough!" The blond was cut off by the angry voice of Tsunade, "I'm not going to say it again; you two hold power that some people would willingly strip away from you without a second thought. I'm sure neither of you need an explanation on what would result from that, correct?"
"...what would happen if the bijuu were removed?"
Tsunade turned to Kiba, "They would die."
The group went silent once more, a few jaws going slack as the Godaime sighed. She looked to Jiraiya, almost pleadingly, and the Toad Sage gave a shrug before speaking up, "Rest assured, though, it takes a lot of power to be able to do such a thing. It's not that easy of a task."
Shortly after that, the meeting was ended, and the group, along with Jiraiya, Naruto, and Gaara, made their way to the gate.
The giant doors of Konoha were open to the land outside of the village walls when they arrived. Naruto and Gaara both took in the great expanse that lay before them, a winding path leading to a seemingly endless forest.
"You boys have everything, right?" Jiraiya asked, "We're not going to make any stops back here once we're on the road, you know."
Naruto and Gaara gave nods, having packed and checked their backpacks the night before. Temari and Kankuro, along with Baki, had their packs with them as well, seeing as they would be accompanying the trio towards the direction of Wind Country. The duo looked to those who were staying behind. Tayuya had joined up with the group to bid the Temari and the others farewell. Naruto could see Iruka jogging towards the gate as well, looking like he still could use a few hours of rest.
"You two...stay safe, alright?" Tsunade spoke, "By the way, I never managed to get these to the two of you until today." She pulled out from her jacket pocket two necklaces, each holding a portion of the aquamarine colored crystal that Tsunade had worn around her own neck, "You two did win that bet, right?"
Naruto and Gaara both held their respective necklaces before tying them around their necks. Then Gaara spoke, "How did you manage to get the crystal separated so well? They look like to perfect halves of each other."
"Chakra cutting. It's an arduous process with that gem, but I managed to do it. Chakra control is a big necessity with that kind of skill though." She placed a hand on either of the boys' shoulders, "Take care of yourselves, and try to stay out of trouble while you're with the pervert."
"I'm right here, you know."
Tsunade ignored Jiraiya as she continued, "I expect both you of you to get strong, and represent Konoha and Suna well. Jiraiya will stay in contact with me via Toads, and Temari has agreed to keeping communication open with you, Naruto, via Kamatari."
"Right." Naruto gave a thumbs up, "Just you wait, Baa-chan. When we come back, we'll be even better than we are now!"
"Thanks for everything, Tsunade-san." Gaara added, giving a nod, "Please try to refrain from drinking too much. It's not good to work while drinking."
Tsunade flicked Gaara lightly on the forehead, sending the Ichibi boy stumbling back a few feet, though he remained standing nontheless.
The other shinobi all gave their share of parting words, including the Sandaime, who told Naruto that he'd make sure to keep his apartment open for him to use whenever he returned. Iruka gave the blond a pat on the head and stated that from here on out he and Naruto were no longer student and teacher, but equals in the world of ninja, "Just don't let that go to your head, alright?"
"Too late." Kankuro joked, causing the group to laugh while Naruto grumbled under his breath, a small smile evident on his features.
Sakura approached the two boys and gave each of them a hug, much to Gaara's surprise. She was shedding tears while smiling, "Gah, look at me. I'd rather not part like this considering it'll be awhile before you see me again, huh?"
The blond just waved it off, "It's alright, Sakura. I'll miss you too." He was holding back tears of his own, "Just...just keep getting stronger."
The kunoichi held out her hand, offering it, "Let's make that a promise."
Naruto looked to her hand before grinning, "Right. We'll both become stronger."
The two shook before Sakura gave a final hug, then walked over to Temari and gave her a powerful hug as well, causing the Suna-kunoichi to laugh in surprise.
Last of all was Kakashi. He looked to both the boys and gave them a masked smile, "I'm proud to say that I know both of you. Naruto..." He scratched his head while looking down, "I know I can't really claim to have taught you a whole lot-"
"It's alright, Kakashi-sensei...I was a pain in the ass at times, I can admit to it, heheh."
The Jounin sighed, "It's still not excusable on my part. Anyway...when you two return...I'll be happy to get back to training you. Gaara, Earth isn't my element per se, but I'm sure there's a thing or two we can learn from each other."
"I'd be honored." Gaara gave Kakashi a respective nod. Kakashi gave the two a final glance before stepping back, "Right. We better not keep you any longer—you've got a long road ahead of you."
Jiraiya, Temari, Kankuro, Baki, Gaara, and Naruto all turned towards the gate. Jiraiya let out a deep breath before walking out to the road ahead, "Later, Tsunade. I'll send word when the boys and I have found a place to settle down for a little while."
"You better...and don't go spending all your time at the brothels!"
Jiraiya tensed a bit while laughter could be heard from Naruto. He cast a weak glare towards his pupil, silencing the boy immediately.
As the six shinobi headed out, Tsunade felt moisture pricking at the corners of her eyes. She wiped them while smiling, "Stay safe..."
About a day had passed since the six had left Konoha. They were currently hunkered down in a small cavern about twelve hours west of Konoha. It was raining at the moment, and Jiraiya had decided to call it a day for as far as traveling went, considering it was going onto ten o' clock in the evening.
Jiraiya looked around at his group. Naruto was currently poring over a scroll while Temari looked over his shoulder, speaking to him in a hushed voice while pointing out a few things written on it. No doubt it was a Fuuton technique scroll if she was offering pointers about the jutsu written on it.
Gaara was poking at the fire they had made with a large stick while conversing with Kankuro about something that sounded related to the mechanisms behind the older brother's puppets. Meanwhile, Baki was leaning back against the wall of the cave, getting a bit of shut eye so that Jiraiya could rest later on while the veiled Jounin took over for watch later.
Jiraiya scrawled a few more lines in his notebook before pocketing it and standing up, "Alright, lights out everyone. I've got first watch, and Baki will be taking second. Kankuro and Naruto have third, and Gaara and Temari have the final shift."
The group voiced no protests, though Naruto seemed a bit reluctant to close up his scroll for a moment before Temari convinced him to do so. Within five minutes, the young ninja had taken their spots for the night and gone to sleep. Gaara even seemed to be resting from what Jiraiya could tell; a good sign if the Toad Sage ever saw one.
Jiraiya stretched a bit before standing up and adding another small log to the fire. He walked to the mouth of the cave and pulled out a scroll before summoning a small toad. The red colored frog gave Jiraiya an expectant look, "What's up, Jiraiya-sama?"
"Take this to your usual contact, and tell them that I'll inform them when we're ready to meet up at the capital."
"Roger." The frog gave a salute before disappearing with a quiet popping sound, leaving behind a small puff of smoke.
The Toad Sage rubbed his forehead and looked to the damp world outside of the cave. Judging from what he saw earlier today, there was likely to be fair weather tomorrow, which would help with travel. The rainy season was coming though, so the sooner they reached the Fire Country capital, the better. He had to exchange some information with the daimyo, as well as get Naruto and Gaara acquainted with the royal family.
The second purpose for the three going to the capital was namely so the two boys could set up relations with the royal family of the Land of Fire. This would only further help them in Jiraiya's eyes; he wouldn't pressure them into it, but he hoped that they would at least take up Fuuinjutsu and setting up their own spy networks as they got older. The truth was that the ninja world was always short on spies, and Jiraiya was pretty sure within another decade there would be only a handful of true spies left. While he never enjoyed the line of work, he hoped that by teaching the two boys the tricks of the trade that they'd be the ones to end the majority of the violence in the ninja world
It was wishful thinking, sure, but Jiraiya sincerely believed in the two. They both knew what it meant to trust people, and they were talented when it came to the ninja arts. If anyone could be a spy master, it was those two. The best way to help this happen was by getting them to learn more about the world around them, and the Land of Fire's capital had the largest library within the country. While most of it was open to the public, there were also areas that were reserved only for the ninja of the land who ranked at the level of elite, like Kakashi or himself. Numerous archives of information that had been acquired over the decades were stored within the vaults of the Fire Country palace library, and only the best of the best would ever hope of sneaking into it without getting caught.
Looking towards his two sleeping students, Jiraiya smiled. He could already picture the looks on their faces as soon as they laid eyes upon the vast amount of knowledge available to them. The boys absorbed information like sponges with water; it was only natural they'd want to study the scrolls the palace had.
With those thoughts fresh in his mind, Jiraiya sat down and opened a small booklet that had all his contacts in it. None of them had real names, which was intentional. The last thing Jiraiya ever wanted was to put his own allies in danger.
He made a mental checklist of which ones he had received word from recently, and made sure to contact those that he hadn't heard from in quite awhile. He'd also have to start introducing Naruto and Gaara, if they agreed to it, to these spies. Of course, they'd ultimately be in charge of setting up their own spy networks.
Jiraiya eventually found it to be time to switch shifts with Baki. He walked over to the veiled Jounin from Suna and spoke his name in a calm voice. The Jounin stirred, and blinked before nodding, "Already my turn?"
"Yep. Kankuro and Naruto will take over for you when your shift's over."
"Sounds good." The Jounin replied as he poked lightly at the fire.
With that taken care of, Jiraiya slumped down against the cool stone walls, the warmth of the fire comforting him as he dozed off.
The group soon found themselves at the point where they would be parting. Two more hours west from them was River Country, and about a half day's worth of travel northeast was the capital. Time was of the essence right now, so Jiraiya unfortunately had to rush the boys during their goodbyes.
"Well..." Naruto began as he and Temari faced each other, "...I guess this will be the last time we see each other for a while."
Temari smiled, "Hey, don't get all depressed on me now. We'll still keep in touch through Kamatari. Besides, I think Jiraiya said he'd be stopping through Wind at some point."
Naruto nodded, a small smile of his own forming, "Yeah, that's true." He and Temari embraced for a few moments, "I'm going to miss you, Temari. Take care of yourself."
"Hey, that's my line." Temari joked, holding back the moisture building up in the corners of her eyes, "Look after Gaara for me."
"I'm sure he'll be doing the same for me, Temari." He looked up to the taller kunoichi, "We'll be alright, okay?"
Temari planted a chaste kiss on his lips before letting go, "Let me know when you guys reach the capital."
The two walked back to the small clearing where the others were waiting. Jiraiya had a small smirk on his face, directing it towards Naruto, who merely rolled his eyes in response. Baki looked to Kankuro, who gave a nod, then to Temari, who did likewise.
"Well, I guess this is where we part ways."
Naruto grinned to the Suna Jounin, "Thanks for everything, Baki-sensei. I'll keep working on the Falling Falcon style while I'm traveling."
Baki smirked while approaching both Gaara and Naruto, placing a firm hand on either of their shoulders, "Good luck to you two. I look forward to seeing you both when you stop by in Sunagakure during your travels, alright?"
"Yes, sir." Naruto gave a mock salute while Gaara nodded, "Take care of Sunagakure while we're away."
"If anything, that should be easier." Baki, Jiraiya, Temari, and even Gaara, laughed as Naruto scratched his neck while Kankuro punched Naruto in the arm, "I'm just messing with you, Naruto. You two will be sorely missed."
"Thanks, Kankuro. Let me know if you find out anything else about those Fuuinjutsu scrolls for me."
Jiraiya and Baki shared a look of interest before the Sage spoke, "Fuuinjutsu scrolls?"
Kankuro looked to the older ninja, "Hm? Oh, yeah, Naruto was asking me about some weight seals that would help with his training."
"Really?" Jiraiya asked, "What kind of weight seals?"
Kankuro shrugged, "Not sure. I mean, I have only a basic, and that's putting it nicely, understanding of scrolls, but to dumb it down for simplicity's sake, they're often called 'gravity increaser' seals."
"Yeah, they make the person feel heavier by about...what, one to five percent?" Naruto chimed in, receiving a nod from the puppet master, "Well, anyway, they're a bit expensive, but Kankuro says he knows of a dealer in Sunagakure that could sell them to me for a nice discount. Kankuro and I are going to keep in touch so I can look into buying them, maybe I'll even be able to replicate a few and add my own touches once I understand them well enough."
"Yeesh, the kid's not even a year into Fuuinjutsu and he's already got more understanding of the arts than most shinobi twice his age." Baki commented.
A few more goodbyes and farewells were exchanged before the two groups parted. Temari and Naruto were the last to part. The two held hands for a moment, channeling chakra through one another. The tingling of their life force ran through their bodies, running up their arms and causing their mutual summoner seals to glow.
"I'll be back in Suna before you know it."
Temari fought back the moisture in her eyes, "Right."
The let their hands slowly drop to their sides, and Naruto decided to be the first to leap off. Temari watched for a few seconds before taking off as well. She quickly caught up with Baki and Kankuro, the two looking back to her.
Her brother noticed the far off look in her eyes, "You going to be alright?"
Temari blinked before laughing, wiping away moisture when Kankuro eventually faced forward, "Yeah."
Naruto was rather quiet as they leaped through the trees of Fire Country, and his silence didn't go unnoticed by his two other comrades.
"You'll see Temari-neesan again, Naruto." Gaara spoke, "I'm certain she would lose it if she was away from you for more than three years."
Jiraiya laughed while Naruto chuckled quietly, "Heh, you're right. The same goes for me though too." He looked ahead to his instructor, "Hey, Ero-Sennin, where exactly is this capital, anyway?"
"Not too far away." Jiraiya replied, "It's not like we're in a real hurry, either. We've got a schedule of sorts, but nothing that is putting too much pressure on us in terms of time."
"Jiraiya-sensei, are we going to be doing anything else besides studying the shinobi archives and meeting the Fire Country's royal family?" Gaara asked, "Not that I'm against either, but don't you think we should be working on our physical skills as well?"
"Oh, I'm sure you'll get plenty of that during your time as bodyguards."
Naruto raised an eyebrow, "Bodyguards? For who, the Fire Lord?"
"Not quite; you'll be escorting the prince and princess while they travel throughout the country with their advisors."
"Why would the prince and princess be traveling without the Fire daimyo or his wife?" Gaara questioned, "I could understand them traveling with the rest of the royal family, but just the two of them?"
"Good question, Gaara. The truth is that Natsumi, the Fire Princess, is to be the next heir to the throne, being the older of the two siblings. She's traveling along with her brother so that she can learn about the people she will be leading within the next decade or so. Her brother, Shuugo, is training to be one of the samurai within the royal guard, so he's not interested in the political side of the family. Still, he'll likely be the captain of the guard someday, so it'd be helpful for him to accompany her for experience for when he someday has to escort her."
"So...we'll be bodyguards for a princess and prince?"
"Yeah, that's pretty much the gist of it."
Naruto looked to Gaara, "That shouldn't be too hard to take care of. I mean, they're just going to be going around the country, doing the things nobles do."
Jiraiya smirked to himself while facing forward. Shuugo wouldn't be that much of a problem...but Natsumi was another story.
A sudden chuckle escaped from Jiraiya, which didn't go unnoticed by the two boys. The worst part of it was that the laughter from the Sage almost sounded sinister. The boys looked to each other before frowning to themselves.
It had been almost four days since Sasuke had fought Naruto at the Valley of the End. He now wore a dark blue shirt that was opened slightly, revealing his torso. His pants were of a black color, being tied at the waist by a simple black colored belt. Orochimaru had offered him one of the traditional purple colored ropes that the Sound Five had worn, but the Uchiha had declined, stating he was only here to learn from Orochimaru and to gain more power, not be one of his underlings.
The only people Sasuke really spoke to were Orochimaru, Kabuto, and Kimimaro. The youngest of the three had a rather cold demeanor about him, but it didn't surprise the Uchiha that much. Considering the atmosphere of Otogakure, it was almost like sentencing yourself to an early death if you were overly cheerful or kind to anyone.
Currently, the Uchiha was walking through the dimly lit underground corridors of Oto, the sparse light being provided by the torches that hung on the wall. Once in a while he would pass by a Sound-nin, who would either give him a nod, or ignore him all together. Not that it bothered him; Sasuke didn't care much for these shinobi, seeing as the vast majority of them were either nuke-nin or shinobi that held no concern for anyone but themselves. Sure, there was the rare young Genin or Chuunin who had taken up the way of shinobi to provide for his or her family, or because they wanted to make themselves useful in the eyes of their bloodthirsty leader. No doubt Orochimaru had a considerable amount of people indebted to him.
Sasuke closed his eyes while letting out an annoyed sigh; that was another thing. Everyone was treating him like a noble. No doubt it was Orochimaru's influence that was the cause of this, but it didn't sit well with Sasuke.
Turning around, Sasuke found himself face to face with a kunoichi that had hair and eyes of a strikingly bright red color. She wore spectacles and wore a loose-fitted shirt of a similar dark blue with a mesh shirt underneath, and tan pants that reached to her knees. He recognized her face as one of the shinobi that had been working in Orochimaru's 'research' facility.
"Hm?" Sasuke grunted, studying the young woman.
The kunoichi blushed a bit as she looked away, "Well, um...I'm Karin, and Orochimaru assigned me as your guide. I was told you haven't been given a proper tour of-"
"Not interested." Sasuke interrupted, turning around and continuing down the corridor. The last thing he needed was someone hovering around him while pointing out the bleak surroundings of the poor-excuse of a ninja village. In truth, he was more interested in seeing the nearby village where the normal citizens lived. He was thinking of maybe buying a few groceries with the little money he had carried along with him.
"O-oh, I see. Well, if you do wish to get a tour of our village, I'll be in the research lab. You know where that is, right?"
Karin frowned; so far she had made herself look like a complete idiot. She had been recruited by Orochimaru no more than two months ago, but she had already memorized the entire shinobi village layout. When Orochimaru had told her this morning that she was to personally give the Sasuke Uchiha a tour of Oto, she had almost lost it. She had seen the Konoha prodigy during the second part of the Chuunin exam, and his face had been imprinted in her mind ever since. He had saved her from a large bear when she had gotten separated from her team before getting lost in the Forest of Death. He had been looking for one of the other scrolls needed to complete the test, but she didn't have one. His smile had been...
She shivered quietly; he was like an Adonis among shinobi, with his smooth, jet-black hair, his piercing gaze, his flawless...
Karin snapped out of her daydreaming, "Huh? Oh, sorry, Sasuke-sa-"
"Drop the sama, it's annoying."
"Sorry, I didn't know." Karin adjusted her glasses while looking away.
"Whatever, anyway, do you think you could give me a tour of the nearby village? That place looks at least halfway inviting."
Karin gave Sasuke a look of disbelief, "You mean that village full of civilians? Um...I guess...Orochimaru never said anything about me not giving you a tour outside of Otogakure, so..." She smiled, "I'd be happy to, Sasuke."
Karin beamed as Sasuke gave her a small smile of his own, "Oh, it's no problem. I could stand to get some fresh air myself."
Sasuke and Karin soon found themselves walking up a flight of stairs leading to a door that was presumably one of the numerous hidden entrances to the Hidden Sound village. They exited the doorway, and found themselves underneath a tree that had its roots sticking above the ground. Walking out from the cover of the gigantic tree, Sasuke followed Karin as she guided him through the forested area that expanded over Otogakure.
Eventually the two reached the edge of the forest, and the two could see a small dirt road leading down to the village that Sasuke had been interested in. Ishitani no Sato was a rather small village, its population just above one hundred citizens in size. It's main income came through the growth of rice and breeding of livestock. Due to the protection that Orochimaru provided, the townspeople had no need to worry about raiding parties that other villages in more remote parts of the Rice Country dealt with.
Within fifteen minutes the two were walking through the stone-arch entrance, and walked into what was clearly the market area of the village. The Uchiha walked past a few of the vendors, Karin following behind, curious as to why he wished to come to some small civilian village. Sasuke eventually stopped at a booth run by a middle aged woman who was selling various produce that appeared to have been grown from her own garden.
"How much for a bag of tomatoes?" the Uchiha inquired as he inspected the red fruit with a scrutinizing eye. He held the fruit in his hand while digging in his pocket for what little money he had on him.
"You're the first customer I'd have today, so I'd be willing to give you a discount. How does three hundred seventy-five ryo sound to you?"
Sasuke looked over his money and gave a nod, "Sounds fair to me." He handed her four hundred ryo's worth of bills, and told her to keep the change. He picked out one of the bigger tomatoes from the bag, and looked to Karin, "Hungry?"
Karin smiled while giving a nod, "I was going to get something to eat later, but if you're offering."
Sasuke pulled out a kunai from his shirt's interior and sliced the fruit in half before handing her a portion. He then bit into his own half and sighed, "I haven't eaten anything decent in the past week now."
"Really? I half-expected Orochimaru-sama to be feeding you, seeing as your his pupil and-"
"I'm not his pupil. I'm merely here to get stronger, that's all. He can offer me that."
Karin noticed the icy tone he took at the mention of the Snake Summoner. She raised a hand, waving it apologetically, "Sorry! I didn't know that you-"
"Don't worry about it; now you know." Sasuke looked around the village before he continued, "How does Orochimaru treat these people? I know he offers them protection, but I'm sure there's a price, right?"
"Well..." Karin shrugged while taking another bite out of the tomato, "As far as I can tell, he leaves them to their own business. I mean, this place does give us a good portion of the food our shinobi eat, and all they ask from us is that we patrol their village area and keep them under our protection in return."
"So he doesn't hold that over their heads, does he?"
Karin chuckled, "Surprisingly, no. Though, that's just me talking. I'm sure someone has more to say about the matter, but I don't."
"Aren't you also one of the jailers for his prison?"
The redhead nodded, "Yes, but I try to avoid that area as much as possible." She took of her glasses for a moment and wiped them off with her shirt sleeve before placing them back on, "That place is full of things I'd rather not see if I could help it."
"You don't say?" Sasuke commented.
"Let's just say that it's better to not get caught by Oto forces if you can help it. Hell, death would probably be a better alternative in most cases." She shuddered a little, "It's not necessarily Orochimaru that I'd fear though."
"No; Orochimaru at least kills his victims. Kabuto on the other hand..." She let the sentence hang in the air, Sasuke catching her drift and silently nodding.
The two continued their impromptu tour, Karin pointing out what few things she believed were worth noting about the place; the mayor's house, the local law enforcement station, the festival grounds, and even the small shrine that apparently had been around since the founding days of the little village.
It was close to evening by the time the two decided to return to Otogakure, both of them feeling that it was better to be there before Orochimaru grew curious as to why they were spending so much time at a small little village like Ishitani.
"Karin," Sasuke began as the two parted down separate hallways, "Thanks for the tour."
Karin laughed quietly, "I didn't really give you much of a tour, to be honest. It was more like we just walked around aimlessly."
"Well, thanks anyway." He paused for a moment, "I'd be interested in learning about what the research facility has next time." He turned and continued down the dark hall.
Karin felt her heartbeat quicken ever so slightly; Sasuke thanked her. He seemed like he had a genuinely good time. He was hard to read most of the time, but he at least didn't act as hostile as he appeared be.
Part of her wondered why he had taken such an interest in the village down the road, but when she questioned him about it, he merely shrugged his shoulders while not giving an audible reply. She didn't pry any further. Perhaps he was just like her; he wanted to get some fresh air as well. She brushed back a strand of hair while heading down the hall to her own quarters. She yawned, surprised to find herself feeling tired suddenly.
Tomorrow, she would try to find Sasuke and give him a real tour of the research facility. No doubt he wanted to know what was going on in those dark rooms, and she was certain that Orochimaru had no qualms with her showing him the advances their village had made.
Meanwhile, Sasuke was making his way towards one of the training rings within the underground village. He took a left, entering through a nondescript door way, and found himself within a circular room, torches lining the entire room. The fighting ring itself was probably no more than thirty yards in diameter, but Sasuke wasn't going to gripe.
He got into a stance, and began to go through a series of movements, striking forward with his fists before spinning forward with both legs, striking an imaginary foe with both feet. He flipped back and threw several kunai at the ground where his foe would have been before speeding through several hand seals and blasting a small ball of fire.
Clap, clap, clap...
Sasuke looked over his shoulder to see none other than Orochimaru, the bandages still wrapped around his face like they had been when the Uchiha had first arrived, "A wonderful demonstration of your basic skills, Sasuke-kun."
"Hn..." Sasuke picked up his kunai, "Are you here to train me?"
"My, quite the impatient shinobi, aren't we?" Orochimaru approached the Uchiha, "No, we're not quite ready to train yet."
"I'm ready. I don't understand what's holding you up. You say you're powerful enough to teach me how to get revenge on my brother, but you have yet to prove it." The Uchiha locked gazes with the Snake Summoner, "I sure hope you weren't lying this whole time."
Orochimaru's eyes narrowed; he was prepared for this. He knew that the last Uchiha was not afraid of being rude and speaking his mind, but he still didn't find the younger shinobi's attitude very appealing, "Within a week's time we'll start. I'll begin by assessing your basic skills, and we'll improve wherever it's needed. We'll also work on the Sharingan's-"
Orochimaru frowned, though his bandages kept his face hidden, "No?"
"I don't need you helping me with my clan's bloodline. I know enough about it already. I'll train myself on my own time in how to use the Sharingan." The Uchiha didn't sound like he was leaving the topic up for argument.
"Very well, then. I can respect a person's need to keep a few secrets to themselves. I suppose after we get the basics down, we can begin your training in Kenjutsu."
Sasuke's eyebrows rose slightly, "Kenjutsu?"
"Yes. The use of the sword is actually one of my specialties, and I can already tell you have a vast potential in that field of combat as well." hissed Orochimaru, "First we'll see where you stand. I'm certain it won't be that hard to get you up to speed with my training, however."
"I think it's pointless, but if it helps me get you to train me, fine." Sasuke began to kick the air in front of him once more.
"I also will have you and Kimimaro work together as sparring partners."
Sasuke's eyes turned to Sharingan suddenly, "Kimimaro? You mean to tell me you're going to have me work with him? I was never informed of this decision."
"It's not that bad, Sasuke-kun. Kimimaro is a gifted fighter as well, and with his improved health, he'll be a more than decent partner for you during practice."
Orochimaru had a point, the Uchiha realized. The bone-user was far from social, but he knew a strong shinobi when he saw one, and Kimimaro definitely fell into that lot.
Orochimaru laughed to himself, "I'll leave you to train, then."
As soon as Orochimaru left the sparring ring, Sasuke stopped his Taijutsu drills and clenched his fists. He was ready to call the snake out on his appearance, and say that he knew all too well about his real intentions.
Sasuke was a bit unnerved to know that he was nothing more but a shell for the former member of the Sannin to use when the time came, but that didn't stop him from staying and learning what he could from Orochimaru. If he understood what he had heard from Naruto correctly during their fight at the Valley of the End, the leader of the Hidden Sound would have to wait another three years before he transferred over to another body, and judging from his current appearance, Orochimaru must have done just that no more than a week ago.
"Probably best to continue feigning ignorance. If I can keep up the act, Orochimaru won't be ready when I strike him down."
Sasuke was prideful, this was true, but he wasn't stupid. He knew that Orochimaru was strong, and if he planned on being able to take down the Snake user when the time came, he need to have every advantage possible.
Thinking more on the topic made him think about who else might possibly know about Orochimaru. Kabuto was out of the question, namely because Sasuke didn't trust the guy. Kimimaro was not an option either; he was too loyal to Orochimaru. However...
There was Karin...
As far as Sasuke could tell, she shared similar sentiments towards Orochimaru. She obviously knew he wasn't someone to get on the wrong side of, and he could only guess she was taken into Oto either because she had no other options, or because she was forced to.
For now, Sasuke would keep a peg on Orochimaru and see if he could figure out anything else that he would be able to use to his advantage when the time came to get rid of him. If anyone got in his way, they would be dealt with in whatever fashion necessary. Sasuke had taken the path of avenger, and he would stick to it.
"Well, boys, here we are. Welcome to the capital city of the Land of Fire."
Naruto and Gaara stood before a massive arched gateway, the kanji for Fire painted on either side in a fashion similar to that of the main gate of Konoha. There were no walls encompassing the massive city, and Naruto guessed that the capital was at least twice, if not three times, the size of Konohagakure.
"Damn..." Naruto profoundly stated.
There were stone lamps lining either side of the cobblestone road leading into the city, and every so often he spotted a samurai walking by, likely on patrol. In the far off distance he saw a massive building that towered over the other structures in the city.
"That must be the palace." Gaara spoke, following Naruto's gaze, "Jiraiya-sensei, how many people live here?"
Jiraiya laughed, "I couldn't possibly give you an accurate answer to that, but I'll go and guess about three to four times the population of Konohagakure, civilian and shinobi."
The three stepped headed towards the gates, only to have two samurai walk in front of them, decked in red armor with black helmets. The higher ranking of the two spoke, "Jiraiya-sama, it's good to see you. Hisao-dono has been expecting you for some time now."
Jiraiya grinned, "Really? I hope that I haven't upset the Fire Lord too badly. We had to make a side-trip and escort some allies from Sunagakure, so we were unable to be here as soon as we would have preferred."
The samurai gave a polite smile to the Toad Sage, "Not at all; Hisao-dono is completely understanding of the busy life you have; he's just eager to see you again, and meet your two pupils." The samurai looked to the two Chuunin standing behind Jiraiya and nodded before turning to his fellow patrol partner, "Send word to the Fire daimyo, inform him that Jiraiya-sama has arrived."
"Yes, taichou." The samurai then jogged on towards the direction of the palace.
"We can probably get there in half the time he does." Naruto spoke, "He doesn't need to go on ahead for us."
Jiraiya shook his head, "That's true, but it's better if we take our time. They need to prepare for us, after all."
"I was under the impression that we were expected." Gaara added, "What preparations do they need to make for us if we were expected to arrive almost a week ago?"
"The entrance ceremony, of course."
"Entrance...ceremony?" Naruto and Gaara repeated together.
Jiraiya nodded as they began down the road, "You two don't seem to realize how many people respect who I am. Hisao-dono is major fan of my work, and seeing as that I'm a respected shinobi of Konoha..."
"Respected pervert, you mean."
Jiraiya ignored the verbal jab from his blond apprentice, "...they want to see to it that we're all treated properly. I'm sure they'll have a large meal made for us, and then we'll get to be guests to a show of sorts at the theater, maybe a kabuki show, then perhaps I'll visit some of the local...establishments..." The sage giggled a bit while his nose trickled blood. Naruto and Gaara shared a look with each other before deciding fall back a bit further in hopes of not being associated with the pervert by the public.
Within ten minutes the trio was at the steps of the palace. The palace stood high above the other buildings, and was even larger then Naruto had first believed it to be. It was about ten stories high, and stretched out about several city blocks in all four cardinal directions. He took note of the ornamental trees that decorated the front, along with golden tiger statues that lined the stairway going up to the entrance of the palace entrance.
Another group of samurai, followed by a royal attendant, greeted Jiraiya and the two boys as they reached the top steps. The attendant was a balding man with gray hair and a long, thin beard that reached to his chest, "Welcome, Jiraiya-sama. I do hope your journey here was well."
Jiraiya grinned, "It was, thank you." He looked around a bit more before speaking further, "How is Hisao-dono these days?"
"Quite well, though it has been a bit stressful as of late with the war and whatnot. That and Natsumi-sama has been taking more political lessons from the advising council and our majesty himself."
"Oh, I can only imagine how that must be going."
The attendant merely smiled, "Natsumi-sama is very strong as far as character goes, but unlike Shuugo, she seems to lack patience when it comes to dealing with other people." He sighed a bit, "She does have her heart in the right place though when it comes to politics. She cares for her people and country before anything else."
"Good to hear, good to hear." Jiraiya gestured with a hand to the two boys, "These are my two talented students, Gaara of Sunagakure and Naruto Uzumaki."
"Sabaku no Gaara...and Naruto Uzumaki." The attendants eyes widened a fraction, "It is an honor to meet the two of you. I am Tetsuo Heiwakoe." He gave the two a bow, "I am the daimyo's head advisor, and have been in service of the royal family for two generations now." He looked back up to the two Chuunin, "I must say, word has spread about you two, as well as the others within your class, I believe. I do believe stating that your generation has proven to be quite the fine group of shinobi is an understatement."
"Heheh, we just do what we can." Naruto replied while placing his hands behind his head, "Nice to meet you, Tetsuo-san!"
Gaara gave a curt bow, "I'm honored to hear you regard us as such, Tetsuo-san."
The trio was then escorted through the main entrance, and down a large corridor that lead to another ornate door that was decorated with wood carvings of sakura trees blossoming. Tapestries of various animals, regal figures, and famous heroes lined either side of the hall, and Naruto found it hard to take it all in at once.
Tetsuo looked back to Naruto and smiled, "The royal family has collected art from all over Fire Country for many generations now. Some artwork dates back to the days before the founding the Five Elemental Nations, even." He turned to Gaara before continuing, "We're even beginning to have art exchanges with the new royal family in Wind Country. The daimyo's taken a particular liking to the china made in the capital of Wind Country."
Gaara nodded, "I can understand that. My own family has an extensive collection back home as well, though we do not have anything dating before the reign of second Kazekage."
Jiraiya couldn't help but swell with pride; Gaara was on the ball as far as carrying on a conversation with the higher classes. Tetsuo was a man that Jiraiya had known since his days a mere Genin, and while he served the royal family, he was a man who was always humble and never looked down upon anyone because of class or social status.
"Really? What about paintings?"
Gaara shook his head, "Not too many, to be honest. Temari-neesan has a few paintings depicting the Wind Maidens according to various stories, but nothing else as far as I know. My brother isn't much of an art collector either, but he does know a lot about woodwork."
Tetsuo gave a laugh, "Well, should I ever find myself in Sunagakure, I'll be sure to take a look at the paintings. The Wind Maiden folklore is something I've always enjoyed reading about."
They were soon at the giant wooden doors, and Tetsuo turned to face the three ninja, "Give me a moment." He opened the doors enough so that he could walk through. Several servants held the doors open a crack, likely so Jiraiya and the three would be able to walk through side by side when opened fully. Tetsuo's voice could be heard, "Hisao-dono, Shijimi-sama, they're here."
"Ah, do let them in." spoke a man's voice.
"Yes, my lord." Tetsuo cleared his throat, "I present to you Jiraiya-sama of the Sannin, Naruto Uzumaki, and Sabaku no Gaara."
"Alright, that's our cue you two." Jiraiya stated. The doors opened fully, and the three were welcomed by almost fifty samurai dressed in ornate armor, several dozen royal servants, and the royal family. Seated in the center was the Fire Daimyo and his wife, Madam Shijimi. To the Fire Daiymyo's right was Natsumi, the Fire Princess, and on Madam Shijimi's left was Shuugo, the Fire Prince.
"Ohhh, I told you that I was right, Hisao! That boy had helped me find my dear sweet little Tora!" spoke Madam Shijimi.
"Tora?" Gaara questioned in a whisper, Naruto being the only one who heard.
"Stupid cat..." Naruto grumbled quietly. Gaara decided not to question further on the matter.
The three ninja stopped a few meters away from the royal family, Jiraiya giving the most polite gesture he could muster, which was the equivalent to a very slow and deliberate nod in everyone else's eyes. Gaara and Naruto each gave curt bows, taking Jiraiya's gesture as their cue to do something similar. It was the royal family, after all.
"Jiraiya, it's been too long since you've visited the capital." The daimyo stood up, "Am I correct to assume you'll be staying for an extended period of time?"
The Toad Sage smiled, going back to his relaxed demeanor, "Yeah; these two are going to be hitting the books in palace library if you don't mind. I sent you a scroll not too long ago, and it sounded like you had no objections to that. I figured they could learn a few things while we're in the area. That and the two need more experience in the politics of the Five Elemental Countries, so what better way to learn than through travel while escorting royalty?
"Wait, you mean to tell me that those two are my so-called elite bodyguards that I'm to have escorting me throughout Fire Country?"
Naruto and Gaara looked towards the Fire Princess, who appeared to be unamused by this information. She had a rather bored expression on her face, and looked like she would rather be somewhere else at the moment.
Jiraiya seemed unaffected by her rather upset tone, "Natsumi-hime! My, you've grown up since I've last seen you."
Natsumi gave the older shinobi a rather annoyed look, "I see you've grown more lecherous since I've last spoken to you. Your book series is truly a mar to Konohagakure's reputation. I don't know why you're allowed-"
"Natsumi-chan, that's enough." spoke Hisao, "Jiraiya-sama is to be treated as a guest, and you will do as such, understood?"
Natsumi scowled, but kept her dignified air about her, sitting up straighter and sighing, "Yes, Father."
Hisao shook his head before looking to the sage, "I apologize. Natsumi's been a bit short in temper lately, though it's understandable with the increased amount of time she's dedicating to learning the ways of politics."
"I'm not short in temper, Father. I just don't agree with the idea of having two inexperienced shinobi escorting me while I-"
"Actually, Natsumi-hime, these two are part of the group of shinobi that helped stave off Orochimaru's attack on Konoha not too long ago. In fact, Naruto even went toe-to-toe with the snake himself."
Natsumi didn't bat an eyelash, "From what I've heard, the Sandaime was there as well. I'm certain that he did most of the work in that fight."
Naruto, meanwhile, was grinding his teeth. He had learned gloating over your own achievements was far from admirable, but that didn't change the fact that he hated being looked down upon. Gaara sensed his friend's patience dwindling, and decided to speak before Naruto blurted out something he'd regret, "Even if that may be the case, we're at your service, Natsumi-sama."
Jiraiya let out a mental sigh; thank goodness Gaara had a grip over his emotions right now. Naruto looked to his fellow Chuunin before scratching his neck idly and bowing, "Yes, the same goes for me too, Natsumi-hime."
Natsumi smirked a bit; clearly they knew the position she held over them. While the ninja villages of the Elemental Nations stood, for the most part, independent of their respective countries, this was only so due to the presence of the Kage, who stood on equal rank with the daimyo of the countries throughout the land. Should a Konoha-nin be anywhere else in Fire Country, they answered to the daimyo, or in this case, Natsumi, the daimyo's daughter.
Jiraiya had once complained about this to Hiruzen back when he was a Genin. The Sandaime had replied by stating that the Konohagakure was the sword and shield of the Land of Fire, but the daimyo was the voice of the country. Each relied on the other to keep the country strong. If the country were ever in danger, Konoha would fight off the threat. However, the daimyo was the one who made sure that such threats were avoided as often as possible.
"Well, I'm sure the three of you are rather weary from your journey here," Hisao began, "We'll have my attendants show you all to your individual rooms, and then we'll see about having dinner. I believe roast duck and pheasant were the choices for this evening."
The two Chuunin were soon organizing their few belongings within the lavish and spacious rooms they had been given. Naruto and Gaara were situated across from each other while Jiraiya's room was a few doors away from them.
After setting his things down, Naruto let out a sigh before plopping onto the cushy bed, "Unnhhhh...man, I am bushed."
He took in his room, and guessed that his entire apartment was probably a fourth of its size. If Naruto was willing to admit one thing, it was that the nobility really knew how to treat their guests right. He gazed out the large window, which gave a clear view of the capital. In the distance he could see tree covered mountains, and a small temple nestled on one of the earthen structures.
A knock at the door shook him from his thoughts. He got up, and approached the door, opening it slowly. He was greeted by the sight of a young woman, probably no more than five years older than him. She had sandy blond hair not unlike Temari's that was kept in a neat bun with the help of two hairpins and wore a dull blue kimono. She gave the blond before her a curious look before speaking, "Naruto-sama?"
"Um..." Naruto blinked, taken back by the honorific, "...yes?"
The woman, who gave a soft smile, bowed, "I am Mami, and I will be your personal attendant during your stay. I'll be by everyday between eleven and noon to clean your room and change the sheets. If you ever need anything, I'll be happy to help." She looked to the younger blond, "Is there anything you'll be needing that we haven't already provided you?"
"Uh, no, not really. This place is awesome!" He grinned while looking around the room a bit more, "You can extend my thanks to the daimyo for the great place, if you want."
"Of course," she bowed, "I was told by Hisao-dono to inform you that dinner will be ready in one hour."
"Any dress code I should worry about?" Naruto asked, hoping that such a thing wasn't the case.
"No, but if you feel the need to, there should be some clothes in the wardrobe closet that you are free to wear." She leaned a bit closer before speaking, "Off the record, dressing for dinner is always appreciated by the Fire Lord."
"Heh, thanks Mami-chan."
"You're quite welcome, Naruto-sama."
"Oh, and Naruto's just fine. I'm not a big fan of formalities."
The attendant blinked before nodding, "If that is what you wish, I have no qualms with that request." She gave another smile before taking a step back, "I'm sure I'll see you later then, Naruto."
Naruto gave a nod to the girl before she left, and went to his closet that Mami had mentioned to him just moments ago. He slid open the door, and looked through the various formal wear before his eyes locked in on an orange and black men's kimono, "Sweet."
Itachi stood in the unlit room of a small apartment within Takigakure. He flicked his ninjato once, crimson flying off it's edge and onto the wooden floor. He had just decapitated another Hidden Waterfall Jounin, and as far as he was aware, the last of the suspected traitors.
He sealed away the severed head of the Jounin, and calmly exited the house via bedroom window. The Jounin hadn't expected him, so he had been unable to put up a fight against the Uchiha. He leaped off the ledge of the window, and jumped through the trees of the small ninja village, avoiding the patrol teams as he did so.
He landed on the ground outside of the village boundaries and took off his Akatsuki cloak, and ring before removing his headband. He then pulled out another sealing scroll and placed said articles inside it before summoning another set of clothes. He now wore over a his black shirt a jet black cape, shin guards, and fingerless gloves. He looked around before pulling out a roll of parchment. He tore of a segment and scribbled a few words before summoning a small crow. The black colored bird gave a soft caw before letting Itachi tie the message to its leg. It bobbed its head once before looking to the Uchiha, as though waiting for the nuke-nin to say something.
"The mission was a success, in case you were wondering." He pulled a rice cracker out from his pouch and held it out. The bird's onyx eyes looked up to Itachi before plucking the cracker out of his hands and eating it. Itachi smirked a bit, "Good luck, and please deliver that as soon as possible."
The crow cocked its head to the side once more before giving a caw and disappearing in a puff of smoke. Itachi then turned south, and leaped off into the night. By the time his contact got the message, he'd be within the borders of Fire Country.
Honestly, he was looking forward to the upcoming task at hand. Namely because it would give him a break from the typical assassination work that he was always given. If all went as he hoped, he'd finally get a chance to befriend the boy that he had known since he started his career in ANBU.
"From what it sounds like, Hokage-sama, you simply wish for me to watch over Naruto Uzumaki, correct?"
Hiruzen Sarutobi smiled while tapping the burnt tobacco out of his pipe, "Correct, Itachi. I feel that you are more than qualified to keep the boy company. You are an older brother, after all."
Itachi was quiet for several seconds before he spoke, "That doesn't necessarily mean I'm a good brother, Hokage-sama."
The Sandaime raised an eyebrow before frowning inwardly; Itachi was a wonderful boy, but do to his position in the Uchiha clan, he had little time to live a life that a boy his age should lead. He was a shinobi, yes, but even the young male shinobi of Konoha were given time to relax and enjoy the simpler things in life once in awhile.
"I know for a fact that Sasuke looks up to you, Itachi, even if you may think otherwise."
Again Itachi was quiet. He continued to remain on one knee as he looked up to the elderly shinobi before him, "So, is it true that Uzumaki lives in an apartment by himself?"
"Yes; the village provides him with a weekly amount from stipends provided to village orphans, but he still is too young to be living on his own. It's only because of the ANBU, myself, and those that see past the Kyuubi that he is managing to live such a life."
Itachi was informed of the Kyuubi and Naruto's status as the demon fox's container the day he was inducted into ANBU. Hiruzen suspected that he'd soon be a captain, but for once he felt that letting Itachi take things slow was the best choice.
"When do I start?"
"Today would be fine, actually." The Sandaime answered, "It's currently seven in the morning; Naruto will be awake soon. Perhaps you could visit him? It's summer, so I believe he's got plenty of free time on his hands."
Itachi stood up and gave a quick bow, "Very well, Hokage-sama." He pulled down his ANBU mask and disappeared in a puff of smoke.
No more than five minutes later Itachi was landing on the roof that was Naruto's apartment. He landed on the ground in front of the steps leading up to the apartment flat belonging to blond haired boy. He had been given the boy's flat number the day he had been made an ANBU—just in case there was problems relating to the orphan. He had come to learn that the vast majority of ANBU actually liked the kid, especially the ANBU that had known him since he was first given his own apartment. He gave the usually bored ninja elite something to do during village patrol; the boy was a master at stealth when the occasion called for it, and even the famous Kakashi Hatake had trouble finding the boy at times.
Itachi approached the boy's door and knocked twice.
"Just a second!" came the reply. The sound of feet padding the floor within the apartment could be heard, and the door swung open suddenly as two blue eyes looked up to meet Itachi's masked face. Naruto grinned before speaking, "Hi! Does Ojii-san want to see me?"
"The Hokage wanted me to stop by and spend some time with you, actually." Itachi replied, kneeling down to the seven year old's level.
Naruto blinked before his smile grew into a grin, "Really? So, does that mean we can hang out and stuff?"
Itachi nodded, "Pretty much."
"Neat! Hey, hey, you ever been to Ichiraku's? It's awesome! They got really good ramen, and, and- oh! I got to find my shoes!" Naruto suddenly scampered off into his apartment once more, leaving the young ANBU at the door.
Itachi decided to walk in, and took in the boy's abode. It was, for the lack of a better word, spartan. There were two small chairs at a circular wooden table, and one of the chair legs seemed to be cracked. The boy's refrigerator was rather empty as he opened it; a carton of milk that was a week past its expiration date, a few shriveled vegetables, some leftover instant ramen, and few pieces of bread that looked rather old as well. Itachi frowned before closing the fridge; he'd be taking the boy out grocery shopping today, it seemed.
Itachi looked to see Naruto dashing out of his room with two shoes in his right hand. He quickly slipped them on and tied the laces on before looking up to Itachi, "Let's go to Ichiraku's!"
Itachi smiled a bit behind his mask, "Sure. Then we're going to go grocery shopping. You're fridge is pretty much bare."
"Awww, but grocery shopping is boring!" Naruto grumbled, "Can we do that later?"
"No, we'll do that after Ichiraku's. After we get some food for you, we can go to the park, or maybe one of the Academy training grounds."
"Oh...um..." Naruto looked down, "I don't really have a lot of money for food, though. My landlord charges a lot for rent, and I don't like asking for more money from Ojii-san."
Itachi raised an eyebrow, "How much does he charge?" Naruto simply shrugged. Itachi gave a nod, "I see...Naruto, how about I treat you to ramen today?"
Naruto's eyes literally sparkled, "R-really? You'll treat me to ramen?"
Itachi knew what he was getting into,but his wallet could handle the mighty stomach of the young Jinchuuriki, "Yes, and then I'll buy you some groceries. How does that sound?"
Naruto laughed, rubbing his eyes a bit, "Th-thanks, ANBU-san! All of you guys are really nice, haha!"
Itachi found Naruto's smile to be rather contagious, and the Uchiha heir's smile widened ever slightly, "Right. Well, let's go get some ramen, Naruto."
Itachi had been Naruto's personal bodyguard since then, along with a few other ANBU that the Hokage trusted well enough to care for the boy. Itachi managed to persuade the landlord into lowering the boy's rent down to the normal rate for young shinobi, and also instructed Naruto on what one should have in their fridge aside from ramen and old milk. After that summer, he was assigned ANBU captain rank, and a few months later the Uchiha massacre occurred.
Looking ahead, Itachi noticed the forest was starting to thin. He pulled out a bandanna from his pocket and tied it around his face before continuing through the forest. Eventually he was forced to land on the ground and continue through an expansive grassland. By tomorrow, he'd be in the Land of Fire, and he'd likely get a message from Jiraiya by then. For now, he'd lay low, keep to himself, and play the role of the wandering vagabond. Within a month's time, he'd hopefully begin tutoring both Gaara and Naruto on what they would need to know if they planned on defending themselves against Akatsuki.
This was Itachi's true goal; he wished to not become powerful and test his limits like he had said to Sasuke, but to take down Akatsuki once and for all. No, in reality, he was a spy for Konoha, working as the eyes and ears for Jiraiya within Akatsuki. He had seen and heard of the two boys' feats through whispers and rumors, and he truly believed that the two Jinchuuriki were capable of stopping the organization once and for all. Then, after it was all said and done...maybe, just maybe, he'd be able to face his brother once more.
The Karasu Clan
Itachi Uchiha is the sole summoner of the relatively young Karasu clan, which had been discovered by him shortly after he became a missing-nin. The Karasu clan specializes in stealth and reconnaissance, and a few of the birds are even capable of jutsu. Their leader is actually a raven named Kuroteisei, and who is talented in Genjutsu, much like Itachi, as well as Kenjutsu.
The Karasu clan chose Itachi as their summoner after monitoring him for some time during his time in Konohagakure and realizing just how dedicated he is to the village. Kuroteisei also feels strongly in defeating Akatsuki, feeling that the organization would bring great imbalance to the world if they should succeed in their plans.
The following is a brief story of his first encounter with the Karasu clan.
Itachi had been a nuke-nin for a little more than three weeks, joining Akatsuki upon the request of Madara. Currently, he was in Grass Country, having just finished a job for his new organization. He was taking a brief rest on a fallen log when he noticed a small a crow landing beside him. The Uchiha studied the black colored bird and offered it a rice cracker from a bag he had been carrying in his rations pouch. The crow happily took the cracker, ate it, and gave a caw before hopping off the log briefly.
Itachi watched as it flitted back with an item in one of its feet. The crow set a small scroll that his had been carrying in one of its talons done by the nuke-nin. Itachi realized right away that it was a summoning contract. Unsure of what to make of the mysterious crow, he unfurled the scroll only to see that none had signed it before him. Before he could think any further about it, a relatively large raven flapped down beside the Uchiha, and much to the Uchiha's surprise, spoke.
Itachi managed to get a hold of himself; it wasn't the first time he'd seen talking animals. The Hokage had a contract with Enma the monkey, and he knew for a fact that many of the toads Jiraiya of the Sannin summoned were capable of speech as well.
The raven studied Itachi for a moment, seeing that Itachi was listening, and continued, "We've been keeping a tab on Konohagakure lately. We're aware of the predicament you're in."
Itachi examined the crow more closely. The crow was missing an eye, and had a black eye patch tied over the apparent injury. It wore a straw hat on its head as well as a brown vest.
"You have?" Itachi asked.
"Mm." The raven nodded, "My family and I," The raven gestured with a wing, and Itachi suddenly found himself surrounded by hundreds of crows and ravens of varying sizes, some wearing various articles of clothing, some carrying small weapons, and so forth, "we've been looking for a summoner for quite some time now. We're relatively knew to that area of jutsu, but we've seen the benefits of having a contract with humans. It creates alliances, and we'd like to be allies of Konoha. We think you'd make a great summoner for our family."
"Konoha's already allied with both the Toads and the Slugs." Itachi replied.
The raven grunted, "That's true, but we're relatively neutral in the summoning circles."
Itachi looked over to the scroll before speaking, "Why me?"
"You're a true shinobi, through and through." The raven answered, "Your dedication and the ability to stick to your beliefs is truly admirable." The bird hopped off the log and walked in front of the Uchiha, "Itachi Uchiha, we wish to help you stop Akatsuki."
Itachi's eyes narrowed, and he drew a kunai from out of nowhere, "What are you talking about?"
A few of the crows and ravens began cawing while some of the birds carrying weapons prepared to attack. The apparent leader simply raised a wing, "Stand down! He hasn't attacked me."
The birds silenced almost immediately, and the Uchiha locked gazes with the raven, "How do you know about that?"
"I can tell. You're not the kind of person who would want to be part of an organization like this. You're too good of a person to really want to do that, despite what you seem to portray on the outside."
Itachi was disturbed, to say the least. How much did they know about him? He pocketed his kunai before speaking again, "Why should I trust you?"
The raven laughed, which sounded much like a caw, "Ever the cautious one. Good..." The raven walked forward, "We want to stop this organization as well. We've seen what that Madara has done...I've got family throughout the world, and they've told me about what he's done. His history is a dark one, to say the least."
Itachi frowned, looking at the blank scroll, "If I sign this, is it really possible for your clan to help me? What do you specialize in?"
"We specialize in spying namely. Everyone you see here has been trained in the art of reconnaissance, and we're capable of blending in with the shadows, or just becoming a part of the background. Besides...who honestly believes that a crow would be capable of jutsu?" The raven chuckled as Itachi gave a nod of understanding, "So, what do you say, Itachi Uchiha?"
Itachi thought about it. He was, in essence, alone. Madara seemed to be aware of the hatred Itachi had towards him, but neither of the two were willing to make a move against each other. Having allies like the Karasu clan could be beneficial, especially if he was planning on spying. He could send word to the Sandaime without anyone knowing.
Itachi bit his thumb before smearing blood on his four fingers, then pressing his bloodied finger prints on the paper. He signed his name in blood and handed the scroll to the raven. The one-eyed raven gave what appeared to be a smile, "You have our loyalty, Itachi Uchiha." He gave a bow before looking back up, "Oh, almost forgot," He extended a wing towards the Uchiha, "The name's Kuroteisei."
Itachi took the crows wing and shook it lightly.
And so ends the tale of how Itachi became the sole summoner of the Karasu clan.
End of Chapter Twenty-five: Yeah, a bit of a transition chapter here. I plan on going into stories that will focus on numerous characters during the next two to three years. Who exactly those people, I'm not one-hundred percent certain on, but I've got a list of candidates (though Naruto and Gaara of course will show up). Some may be on the front lines, others may be teaching new students and preparing them for Genin-ship during a war. Some may be ANBU...who knows?
By the way, for those who were wondering, Princess Natsumi and Prince Shuugo are both characters I borrowed from by beta-reader, Paradox Jast. They're originally from his fanfic, Whirlpool Country, but they were both so wonderful as far as OCs go that I just had to ask for permission to use them, which he so generously gave me. They'll be playing an important role in future chapters, for those of you who were curious.
As for that little excerpt about Itachi and the Karasu clan, I figured I'd just give a little back story on how he can summon crows. Personally, I feel that he fits the role; he uses crows in his jutsu, so why not have them as allies? Besides, crows and ravens are awesome.
So yeah, that's chapter 25 for you. Hope you enjoyed. The upcoming chapters will focus mostly on Naruto and Gaara and their training with Jiraiya and such. As always, thanks for reading!