A/N: I apologize for the long wait, but here it is- the final chapter of A Fox among the Hounds.
A Fox among the Hounds
Path to a Brighter Tomorrow
Two days after he regained consciousness, Naruto was transferred into the regular ward; and on that same day, Kurenai finally returned to the village, haggard and empty-handed. The first thing she did was to report to the Hokage on the current situation.
Tsunade was less than pleased upon receiving the news. In response, she immediately summoned Tsume, Kakashi, and Jiraiya to see her. All three soon arrived posthaste to discuss the gravity of the situation.
"Alright, I'm going to lay it straight," said the Slug Sannin. "Despite our best efforts, the traitor Orochimaru was still able to get a hold of the Uchiha kid, and it's only a matter of time before he takes over Uchiha's body. Because of this-"
"Actually," Jiraiya cut in, "I just received word that Orochimaru has already transferred bodies before the Uchiha kid arrived Oto. It'll be another good three years before the bastard can acquire his dream body."
"Then what are we waiting for?" asked the Inuzuka matriarch. "I say we round up our stealthiest ANBU and smuggle Uchiha back home ASAP."
Jiraiya snorted. "I don't see why everyone is so hung up on that brat. I know his type; he's the kind of guy who'd sell you out for a smidgen of power."
"Who said anything about bringing him back for the village?" Tsume remarked disdainfully. "The punk's hijinks alone have caused nine injuries and one fatality. He ought to be hung, drawn, and quartered."
Kurenai gasped. "Lady Tsume! You can't be serious! I know Sasuke can be difficult-"
"Difficult? The kid's like a Level 10 crisis," Kakashi grunted. "Don't tell me you've already forgotten the condition Naruto was in when we found him. Face it, Kurenai, your student's gone rogue."
"But executing him?" Kurenai shouted. "At least have a heart!"
"Have a heart?" Tsume's voice was dangerously low. "Have a heart?" she exploded. "Did Sasuke Uchiha have a heart when he abandoned his teammates? Did he have a heart when he left two retrieval teams at the mercy of the Oto-nin? Did he have a heart when he killed my son's ninken? DID HE HAVE A HEART WHEN HE NEARLY KILLED MY SON?"
Jiraiya tried to calm down his former student. "Now Tsume, I know you're upset-"
The brunette chuckled mirthlessly. "Upset? I'm not upset; I'm livid!"
Suddenly, there was a loud crack as the Hokage's desk shattered into a hundred fragments. "ALRIGHT, EVERYONE SHUT UP AND CALM THE HELL DOWN!
"Look," Tsunade continued, "Sasuke Uchiha's defection is indeed a serious matter, but we cannot keep on risking lives in retrieval attempts. Now that he is in Orochimaru's territory, it would be suicide to break into Oto and recapture the kid. It took the combined efforts of Jiraiya and me to defeat the old snake, and if he's healed himself as Jiriaya claims, the guy could wipe out an entire ANBU squad without blinking. My decision firmly stands; no further retrieval squads will be sent after Sasuke Uchiha unless I say otherwise. Is that clear?"
"Yes ma'am," was the sullen chorus.
"Good," said the Hokage. "You're all dis-"
"Wait!" Jiraiya called. "Before we leave, there's one more issue we have to discuss."
Tsunade glared at him. "If it's about those cockamamie novels of yours, I already told you I'm not interested."
"This is no laughing matter, Tsunade," he persisted, his tone serious. "I have been informed that there has been a recent spike in Akatsuki activity."
At the mention of Akatsuki, everyone quieted down and all attention was directed towards the Toad Sannin.
"As you all you know," Jiraiya went on, "The Akatsuki is a notorious group of S-class missing-nin bent on world domination. One of their pet projects is the capture of the Bijuu, one of which of course is the Kyuubi. Because of this, I am requesting for your permission to allow Naruto to accompany me in a three-year journey as my apprentice."
"Haven't we been down this path before?" Tsume snarled. "As powerful as you are, the Akatsuki travel in pairs. Wouldn't it make more sense if the pup stayed in the village where it's safe?"
Kakashi rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Lady Tsume does have a point," he added, "If the Akatsuki try to attack Naruto in the village, we could all just band together and drive them out. Strength in numbers, right?"
Jiraiya shook his snowy mane. "Teamwork's not gonna help you here, my boy. If anything, you're just digging a deeper hole. The Akatsuki is virtually a small army composed of S-rank missing-nin. If all of them were to attack us now, they would completely level us in our weakened state."
"And how does having my son parade about the Elemental Countries help?" Tsume retorted.
"Tsume, the boy will be on a two-and-a-half year training mission with me," Jiraiya replied. "If anything, he and the village should be perfectly safe."
Tsunade held up a hand, silencing the other woman in mid-protest. "Tsume, think about it… Altogether, the Elemental Countries is a pretty big place. With Naruto constantly on the move, the chances of him being found are practically slim to none."
Tsume buried her face into her hands as she sucked in a deep breath. "When does he leave?" she asked.
"As soon as he's completely recovered," was Jiraiya's reply.
Naruto glumly looked at the little trinket he held. Aomaru's fang- the only physical reminder he had left of his partner.
Immediately after the puppy's body had been brought back, it had been cremated and the ashes scattered, but Tsume managed to save a fang and hand it over to her youngest son as a keepsake.
As Naruto looked on, he felt a lump form in his throat. Despite what Hana, Kiba, and Tsume had told him repeatedly, he just could not disregard the fact that Aomaru died so soon.
His grip on the fang tightened. 'I never forget what you did for me, boy. I promise you I'll get stronger for your sake so I can protect the ones I love. And if I ever see that traitorous bastard again, I'll make sure he gets the justice he truly deserves. Believe it.'
Suddenly there was a knock, and Naruto quickly pocketed the fang. "Come in!"
The door flew open and Kiba strolled in followed by Sakura, Hinata, and Shikamaru. "The fun has arrived!" he announced. "So how ya holdin' up, Bro?"
"A little better," Naruto replied. "But still crummy."
"Dude, don't be like this!" Kiba said. "It isn't like you to mope around and stuff. It's been three days already! Where's your usual cheery self? The persistent, go-getter attitude? The-"
"Don't you get it? I failed!" Naruto shouted. "How can I protect you guys when I can't even protect my own partner?"
"Naruto, we already told you-"
"I know what you said!" snapped the blond. "But that doesn't change anything. Aomaru is dead, and your murderer of a teammate managed to escape scot-free.
"And you know what the worst part is?" his voice had dropped to a hoarse whisper. "The worst part is despite what he did, I still held back. He killed Aomaru, and I #%*^ held back! I mean I was already in my two-tailed form, a Rasengan in my hand. I could have just said 'Screw the rules' and ripped him to shreds, so why didn't I?"
"That's because you're Naruto Inuzuka, the most virtuous ninja there is!" Hinata exclaimed. "You're brave, kind, loyal, and you always keep your promises."
Naruto scoffed. "Yeah, that really helped me retrieve Sasuke back there," he muttered darkly. He hung his head even lower. "The bastard was right, even with Aomaru, I'm nothing."
"That's not true, Naruto!" Kiba shouted. "That idiot doesn't even know what he's talking about."
"Yeah!" Sakura piped up. "Since when did you care what Uchiha thought about you? C'mon Naruto, you know better than to listen him!"
"I know you're an oddball-of-sorts," Shikamaru added, "But you can't possibly be that crazy to believe that kind of nonsense?"
Naruto smiled wanly at his brother and friends. "Thanks for the pep talk, guys, but-"
"But nothing, Naruto!" Hinata cried, eyes blazing. "Uchiha-san knows nothing about true strength. Strength doesn't come from getting everything right the first time. Strength- true strength comes from accepting your shortcomings and working hard to overcome them.
"When we were in the Academy, I was always behind Sakura and Ino. At home, Neji-niisan bests me all the time. In those times I felt like quitting, but whenever I look at you, I feel inspired because back then you were not the best either, but you kept working until you were.
"You may have failed this time, Naruto, but don't let that keep you down. Because I think, you already are an incredibly strong person with or without Aomaru."
Naruto was overwrought with emotion. "H-hinata…" He hugged her. "Thank you… Thank you for believing in me and helping me believe in myself." He released her and gave his friends his first genuine smile in days. "Thanks guys. Thank you for everything."
"We're friends," Sakura replied matter-of-factly. "You can always count on us to help you."
"What Pinky said," Shikamaru concurred.
Kiba grinned. "And we're brothers, man. We'll always have each other's backs."
Sometime after his friends and brother visited, Naruto sat back in his bed watching the dusk clouds float by.
'Shika may be a genius,' he said to himself. 'But he really needs to get a new hobby. I just don't see the fun in this.'
Just then his mother entered the room, followed by Jiraiya; their expressions dour yet apprehensive.
"Naruto," Tsume began, "How do you feel about travelling the world?"
"That sounds cool," he replied. "But isn't that expensive? In order to do that, I'd really have to rack up my successful mission count. Unless of course… " He gazed at his mother hopefully. "…you're paying."
"Naruto ! Be serious here!" she rebuked.
"I am serious!" said the blond, "A world tour really is pricey. I'll need some serious cash."
"Actually," Jiraiya cut in, "I'm paying."
Naruto's face fell. "Well, now I know this trip is really going to suck."
Tsume gave her son a strange look. "And why is that?"
"Because this old coot is a complete and total cheapskate, that's why!"
"Can it with the jokes, Naruto!" Jiraiya thundered. "This is a grave situation we're in! Your world tour is a three-year training mission with me. There will be no friends and only a limited contact with your family. Every single day will be spent in rigorous training."
Naruto stared at the Sannin in shock. "You gotta be kidding me!" he cried, "I can't do that! Mom would never allow it!"
Tsume cast her gaze downwards. "I already did."
Naruto stared at her incredulously. "Without asking me about it? Without considering how I would feel? Or is it my punishment because of Aomaru's loss?" His eyes welled with tears. "That's it, isn't send away the weak link because-"
"It's none of these things!" Tsume snapped. She knelt down and wiped away her son's tears. "Honestly Naruto, we've talked about this before; Aomaru's loss doesn't make you weak. You were never weak. In fact, that's the entire point of this training mission. Without Aomaru and your refusal to take up a new ninken, I can teach you no further. In lieu of this, Jiraiya has offered to train you mind, body, and soul to better prepare you should such an incident occur once more."
"We could just train in the village," Naruto muttered sourly. "That's what we did before."
Jiraiya snorted. "And have the Akatsuki level it? I think not.
Upon hearing the name, Naruto felt his blood run cold, the memory of his encounter with Itachi Uchiha still fresh in his mind.
"Besides," the Toad Sannin added, breaking the blond's reverie. "This particular training will take two to three years to complete and will cover a wide variety of disciplines not native to Fire Country."
"But what about Sasuke Uchiha?" Naruto burst out. "He's still out there! He's-"
"Gone rogue," Jiraiya finished. "That's the cold, hard fact, kid. Get used to it."
"Well, even so, there're bound to be more retrieval missions to bring him back," Naruto replied. "And I plan on joining each and every one."
"Unfortunately for you, all retrieval missions involving Sasuke Uchiha have been put on hold indefinitely," Jiraiya stated. "Not to mention you're not doing it for the village."
"Of course, I'm doing it for the village!" Naruto shouted. "He betrayed everyone! His people, his leader, his teacher, his teammates-"
"Don't you spout that kind of nonsense!" Jiraiya boomed. "Do you really think I'm not aware of your motives? That's where you're wrong, Naruto Inuzuka!
"Again and again, I have seen young, hopeful people like you get consumed by the thirst for vengeance. Blinded by their desire, they soon lose their morals, their aspirations, and eventually everything they hold dear until there is nothing left but a bitter shell. And even if you did manage to kill the Uchiha kid, it's not gonna bring back your ninken."
"Then, what should I do?" By now, Naruto's voice had risen to a half-shriek.
"With that Uchiha kid as a prime example, you already know first-hand what vengeance does to people," Jiraiya replied as he turned to leave. "And if you want to throw away your life and become the very thing you hate, be my guest. But don't say I didn't warn you."
"Wait!" Naruto cried, stopping the Toad Sannin in mid-step. "I'll do it… I'll do the mission."
"Well, that was quick," Jiraiya stated nonchalantly. "Why the sudden change of heart?"
"Someone has to step up," Naruto answered, a dogged glint in his eyes. "I don't ever want to have someone die under my watch again. I want to get stronger so that I can protect everyone- my friends, my family, the whole village."
Jiraiya smiled lopsidedly. "You're an eloquent one, aren'tcha? It's agreed, once you've fully recovered; meet me at the fourth head of the Hokage Monument. I'll be waiting."
Orochimaru leered at the bedraggled figure before him. "So glad you could make it to my humble village, Sasuke Uchiha. I take it you had a comfortable journey?"
The Uchiha glared up at him, revealing his new scar in the flickering torchlight.
"I'll take that as a 'no'," hissed the Snake Sannin. "Anyway young Sasuke, now that you're here, I suppose you are aware of my little proposition?"
"Yeah, yeah…" snapped the Sharingan user, "So what about the power you promised?"
Both Orochimaru and Kabuto's eyes widened in shock at Sasuke's pluck. 'So impatient,' Kabuto thought, frowning. He bent down to the younger boy's ear level and whispered, "If you value your life, you'd better watch your mouth. Even though he looks different, that's Lord Orochimaru you're speaking to."
However, Kabuto's warning fell onto deaf ears. For all his trouble, he was rewarded with a death glare and a wave of killing intent.
"Kabuto, Sasuke, enough!" The warning echoed throughout the hall. The bandaged man descended from his dais and leaned towards Sasuke. "I don't how you address your superiors in Konoha, young Sasuke; but you'd best learn some respect or elssssssse…"
Despite the civility in its deliverance, Orochimaru's statement clearly left a promising threat, and Sasuke found himself nodding.
"Very well, you may go," said the Snake Sannin, "Kabuto, take young Sasuke to his new quarters."
Orochimaru smirked as he watched the bespectacled medic lead his newest apprentice away. 'My future lies within this boy… Soon the all secrets of ninjutsu shall be revealed to me…'
"Hey Shikamaru," Chouji asked been mouthfuls, "Is it true that you and Ino had a falling out?"
The Nara exhaled loudly. "Yeah… What about it?"
"Aren't you guys going to patch things up anytime soon?"
"Nope," came Shikamaru's swift reply.
"But you guys have been friends before you could even talk!" Chouji exclaimed. "Would you throw all those years of friendship because of pride issues?"
"Chouji, let me be honest with you," said Shikamaru, "I only tolerate Ino because of our dads' friendship. She's everything I don't like in a girl- She's vain, shallow, self-centered, naggy, the list goes on. In fact, I feel sorry for you and Shino-"
"Now see here!" Chouji bellowed, throwing down his bag of chips. "I don't know what crawled up your butt and died, but you just crossed the line. Sure, I'll admit that Ino can be a bit high-strung, but she's a nice enough gal. She nags because she cares about our well-being. Among all of us in Team 10, she's the one who promotes team bonding the most. And I think-" He suddenly cut himself short, unable to continue.
"Well, what do you think?"
Chouji averted his gaze downwards. "Forget it… It's nothing…" He sighed heavily. "Just make peace already. It's obvious that this spat is killing you both."
Shikamaru sighed as well. "Chouji, I'm not gonna repeat myself- I'm not forgiving Ino. We're just too different. You'll just have to accept the fact that the friendship between Ino and me is over." He stood up and headed for the door. "So, sorry…" And with that, he left.
Koh Hyuuga knelt by the shoji door. "Lady Hinata, you have a visitor."
"Oh? Who is it?" she inquired.
"It's Master Naruto," Koh replied. "He claims he has some news of the utmost importance."
"Where is he now?" Hinata asked.
"He is currently waiting at the gatehouse," said the Branch Member. "Shall I send him in?"
"Yes. Please escort him to the parlor and have Misao send in some tea. I'll join him shortly."
"Thank you Koh, and one more thing…" Hinata called from the behind the partition.
Koh looked up from his position. "What is it, Milady?"
"You don't have to be so formal; after all, we are family."
"Yes Mi- my dear cousin."
Even though he had visited the Hyuuga Manor countless times, Naruto could not help but feel out of place. The entire estate simply screamed "regal", "imposing", and "aristocratic". Hoping to ease his nerves, he reached and took a sip of the tea that had been served. Just then, the shoji door slid open and Hinata entered the room, smiling warmly.
"Good afternoon, Naruto," she greeted. "I'm glad to see that you have recovered."
"Yeah, me too," the blond replied, "But I'm not here to talk about that, there's something I've got to tell you…"
"Is it something severe?" Hinata inquired. "You don't sound too happy."
"No… It's nothing of that sort," Naruto replied, "But it's not the best news either- I've been assigned to a training mission with Jiraiya of the Sannin."
"That doesn't sound so bad," Hinata remarked. "In fact, that's wonderful news, to have been mentored by a warrior of such renown."
"There's one more thing-" he said hesitatingly. "The training mission will last for at least two-and-a-half years. I won't be able to see my friends, my family, or you for a very long time. I-"
"Go Naruto," Hinata encouraged, a heart-rending smile gracing her lips.
"Go for me," she repeated. "Don't hold yourself back because of us. We'll work hard as well, and we'll always be with you, one hundred percent all the way. I promise."
Naruto felt emotions run high as he listened to the Hyuuga speak. Mechanically, his hands clasped over hers. "Then I promise too…" he spoke in a voice choked with emotion. "I'll do my best to become a better ninja. And I'll keep my word because it's my credo. Believe it!"
"I believe you Naruto," came the whisper-soft reply. 'Always had and always will.'
Naruto shouldered his pack a little higher as he cast a lingering look at his clan. "Well, this it guys," he spoke, swallowing the lump in his throat. "I guess it's goodbye."
"Aw man, don't be like that," Kiba replied, blinking back his tears. "You'll be coming back, won'tcha?"
"And we'll write to you as much as we can," Hana supplied. She turned to Kiba. "Are you crying?"
"No!" the brunet snapped, though he voice had a slight tremble to it. "It's just something in my eye!"
Kuromaru licked the blond's hand. "We'll always think of you fondly, Pup," he spoke. And in a voice choked with emotion, he added, "As we will Aomaru."
Tsume bent down and hugged her son in a warm embrace. "Work hard and do your best, Naruto," she advised as she released him. "Have a safe journey. We'll miss you."
A tear tricked down Naruto's cheek as his mother spoke. "As will I." He began to walk in the direction of the Hokage Monument, waving back to the Inuzukas. "Goodbye guys! Take care!"
A chorus of farewells rose from the other Inuzukas as well. "Goodbye!" they called, over the howls of their nin-ken, "Goodbye!"
"Never forget your pack!"
After several minutes of walking, Naruto finally arrived at the base of the Hokage Monument. Looking up the imposing figures towering over him, he reached into his pocket and took out Aomaru's fang and raised it towards the carving of the Fourth. "Watch me…" he whispered, clenching his hand over the trinket. "One day I will become the greatest Hokage that has ever lived and I too will continue protecting Konoha just as you have."
"Oi, Naruto!" Jiraiya called, leaning over at the top of the monument. "Are you coming, or are you just going to dally all day?"
Naruto put the fang back into his pocket. "Yeah… I'm on my way…"
'The path to greatness is often wrought with hardship; but ultimately it will lead to a brighter tomorrow.'
A/N: And that concludes the AFatH series. But fear not, as one chapter in life closes, another one opens. Keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming sequel- AFaTH Shippuden: Tale of Tails.
N & B's Explanation Corner:
Naruto's attitude: The reason for AFatH!Naruto to be less upbeat than Canon!Naruto is simple. AFatH!Naruto has a lot of bonds and familial attachments in Konoha, namely his family. Also, after much success early in his career, Naruto's experience of failure, combined the loss of his partner would have opened his eyes to the harsh reality of shinobi life. In other words, he is currently undergoing an epiphany-of-sorts along with a personal crisis.