Disclaimer: You know it.
A/N: This is what is called shock and awe.
There For The Taking
The Mizukage residence burned for three nights, more of a testament to elaborate architecture and paranoia than anything else. Shinobi being who they were it was all together an easy matter to snuff the blaze. But it still burned.
No one wanted to be the hero that stood up. Within the Bloody Mist, insensibility was the jerk-knee reaction.
The stuttering fire eventually died off under the morning fog; its light unnoticed in their new reality.
They were a Hidden Village without a kage and what executive power Mizu's Council possessed had ordered the Village's lockdown. Whatever powers' resided in Mizu would have to resolve the issue themselves while a few cool heads did their best to prevent infiltration by other powers.
There are stages to war—civil war being no exception. The beginning of war is defined by an odd mix of bravado and trepidation. Before the reality of war is revealed every half-ambitious man and woman dreams of being a newborn legend; of being one of the few to break the impossible boundary between the ordinary and extraordinary. Even those in charge—who should know better than to dream—insist on retaining a sense of invincibility. In the beginning every notable power has a stockpile of supplies and men. It is easy to imagine victory.
But unless there is one overwhelmingly superior power—and there isn't—war will only be resolved in the endgame, desperate dogfights.
Naruto had seen all this before.
He's seen it once already within Mizu. But even then he has seen it many times as a boy trailing a white-haired pervert across every reach of the continent.
War and conflict is just another universal concept.
And a boy scowled resentfully—just as he once did—at nothing in particular. Inari—newly minted gennin—was too talented to be retired like many of his dorm mates.
"Sensei? Why…" An uncertain frowned flashed across the child's face. "Why…is Mizu like this?"
His hand came to tousle the child's hair. "Conflict…people have been asking that question for ages. I was your age when I asked my mentor and he'd traveled the world for decades without having found an answer."
Inari kept his face half-inquisitive and half-petulant.
"It's wrong." He said with all the certainty of a child that could still see in black and white with no shade of gray. He repeated, more quietly and a tat fiercer, "It's wrong."
Nagawa Suki, gennin, member of Team 2, teammate of Ito Hiiro and Aomaki Inari, died eight hours ago.
"If you revenge yourself against those that hurt you, and in turn are hurt by them in vengeance, then despite understanding each other, you cannot hope to ever find peace. It is a cycle of hatred that creates conflict; that rules the world of shinobi."
Inari didn't look at him, the scent of salt betraying the presence of tears. "How do you stop it?"
"That is the question, isn't it?"
"I'll find the answer." Fierce eyes turned to him. "I will!"
Naruto smiled. Decades ago he'd promised something similar. And now this boy turned to him and he saw so many faces. Enemies and allies alike had carried those very eyes and sworn to change the world—for better or worse.
Information became sketchy as time wore on. For all intents and purposes the Intelligence Department was operating outside the village proper and waiting for everyone of interest to slug it out.
Sometimes the only proof a skirmish was a flashy jutsu made by some inexperienced shinobi. There was a reason Mizu was famed for its silent killing.
And the only reason he was warned about the attack on Aoitsuki House was due to a most unfortunate overlap of events. In a melting pot of confusion, three rival groups had met nearly a block away and proceeded to flaunt their grievances—loudly.
He'd been there, perched high on a courtyard's tree branch. Curiosity, mostly.
But shinobi who are too much of a shinobi—if one could understand that—are almost as unsubtle as greenhorn civilian. Sometimes they are the worst at blending, if one knows what to look for.
And he did.
Little puppets dancing on a sting, given anagrams of personality and called human, something malicious in him whispered.
Not like that was new.
So he hummed a lullaby even as distant explosions and crackles faded.
Unnaturally concentrated and stilted chakra—too much a shinobi—advanced on his position. Oh, but they weren't alone. Wilder points—fresher and younger—hid beneath their own aura. Like close knit partners, except he didn't think it anything remotely innocent.
And he saw them now, not that they were attempting to hide. Never mind shinobi tenets; they were in this way rather sharp.
Hadn't he always known? Hadn't he already been warned?
There would come a day when his children would be used against him.
They stood in plain sight. Five shinobi, dressed in drab grey and brown; they wore no significant marker and even what features he could see could be just another illusion. And in their hands the slumped figures of five of his children—gennin still—rested. Distantly he knew they'd be mortified once they knew what they had been forced to betray.
Things were changing. He was changing or maybe just discarding his self-delusions. He'd been so sure when the time came—when his own would be hostages against him—he'd be able to look away. To retreat from what he saw and let men twist themselves.
Perhaps there was a little more of his younger self in him than he realized. Tsunade would no doubt approve.
He stepped forward; and those hooded shinobi didn't know enough to realize it's been years since he'd done anything but stand still.
"Kneel. Place your hands on the ground. Disobedience will be punished."
It was a woman's voice—modulated to near androgynous level. But it would take more than one trick to fool the last apprentice of a man who'd prided himself of being a connoisseur of woman.
No bragging, no emotion, no unnecessary waste.
Knees now soaked with damp from the ground, Naruto smiled faintly as he looked down on the ground. It taken years for anyone to consider him a threat.
Strange, how reminiscent he seemed today. Did it mean his old volatility was on the rise?
He only had a second to hear—and that was more than enough—the dull thumps of bodies falling—before the world became dark and he knew no more.
Not that it mattered.
He woke sometime later. His hands were bound in a bleached wire threaded jacket. For all intent and purposes, he was dressed fit to step into an asylum. Furthermore, his feet were chained, the gleaming steel etched with chakra suppressing seals. A strange weakness tugged at him and he knew it was because brilliant blue (…human…) chakra was being stifled.
Something nasty and hot tugged at the pit of his stomach. Chakra—red for destruction, red for rage, red for calamity—ghosted through his veins. It been too long since it had been denied.
But dear gods, how it burned.
For all he made ill-thought allusions to being more a monster than human maybe he'd really been wrong all along.
Because it burned.
And didn't that just have to remind him of all the moronic things he'd done and not done.
Naruto chucked weakly, eyes still closed.
Soft steps hovered near him, deft fingers touching his face and numbing it a second later.
They really weren't taking any chances. Perhaps they knew of something like Orochimaru's odd tongue.
Minutes were hard to judge when the worth of a second was always relative. And though he felt more than a little bored it couldn't have been more than an hour before more footsteps approached him. His senses were numb and thought the world felt duller it did not stop his nose from picking up the warm scent of sandalwood and steel.
So he opened his eyes. His visitor was a middle age man, grey haired and steel-eyed with a face marred by a two scars on each cheek.
It was a poor mimicry of his demonic possession marks. Not that this man would know of anything to that effect.
And he wanted to howl. At the stupidity, the irony, the improbability—but most of all the luck.
On either side of him stood a young man and woman, similar enough in features to be very closely related if those grey-eyes were any indication.
"Aoitsuki." The Elder smirked. "You are cordially invited to be our guest for however long it takes for you to be…reeducated."
The young man remained impassive but it was the woman—despite her poise—that spared a burning glance to the Elder.
How…interesting, Naruto grinned. His head cracked back as a blow slammed, his vision swimming.
"I would advise you to not taking anything here in jest."
They were gone.
Naruto scoffed in his cell. He was very curious as to why Asaka—one of the primary suspects behind the Mizukage's early retirement—felt the need to abduct him. Surely it wasn't because any of his resources. Asaka must have known what it faced when it sparked off the civil war. They would have had to stockpile supplies with time and it was much too early for them to start feeling pinched.
Why exactly was he being cowed just now?
Certainly not for what he knew—hours later and there had yet to be an interrogator present. It was a conventional tactic, isolating and keeping him in suspense, letting his own mind imagine his worst horror.
Conventional might as well have been useless for all that it affected its intended target.
So why take him now?
He was resolved to wait.
Absentmindedly he glanced at the seals etched on his cuffs. Already they had begun to be marred. The corrosive nature of demonic chakra was not to be underestimated—especially when there were no other primary seals that marked the sealing of the demon. But what did they know? Sealing his human chakra was the worst thing they could have done.
Naruto grimaced, wincing when like flash and fire, pain danced near his navel.
How it burned.
It was the young woman this time. Alone and hooded.
Unseen, Naruto snickered, now certain Asaka's particular troubles were about to spill over to involve him.
"Wake up Aoitsuki." The woman commanded, her voice that of the favored daughter. Ojou; the clan princess.
Naruto lay sprawled in a corned, face flushed and sweat on his forehead. His face was haggard and eyes tired.
The arrogant asses were no doubt congratulating themselves and celebrating over ramen, he thought.
The pain had gotten worse. Too human, it was telling him.
Well thanks. Even his body was telling him he'd been a coward for too long.
And then this uppity little girl had to come.
His head rolled back and darkened blue eyes met grey head on. She was certainly good; nothing of her uncertainty or reluctance shown through her pretty features.
36C, a white-haired man would have leered.
Embarrassment and habit was the instinct: Pervert!
A boy like you wouldn't understand. Another leer.
"You have very little choice left now. My Clan will not let you leave here without some concession from you. You can either bow to my Clan Elders or stand with me."
She's lovely when she takes control.
Naruto twitched and almost wished he could glare at himself. "And…why should I join such an unknown as you?"
She flushed prettily. "You can either be a slave to my Clan's whims—watch as everything you have is drained away—or…or you can gain something by joining me. I offer my name and honorable marriage to me."
Easy. Let's have fun. No need to settle down. Naruto slammed his head against the wall, eyes heavenward.
…Are you sure the baby's mine? The pervert had nearly stuttered. Serves you right!
He laughed. Woman like that—gutter whore or princess bride— used to give birth to such a sick feeling in his gut. Like bad milk.
Cruel eyes flickered up and down her form, his gaze assessing and unmoved. Did she think he was moved by lovely faces?
"And who exactly are you?"
She drew herself up, back squared and head high. "I am Asaka Kagana, daughter of Asaka Sho, Head of the Asaka Clan."
He hummed slightly. "Twin of the other Asaka Heir."
It was almost disappointing. She came looking for him to win some support against her twin brother. But to offer herself? Only if she planned to kill him as soon as the ink was dry would she ever agree to marriage; unless it was a real indicator of just how badly the Heir contest was going.
"And what exactly would I gain as an Asaka ornament?"
She couldn't honestly think he was deluded enough to think he could wrestle control from her should she ascent to Clan Head.
"And what exactly to you think being the Clan Elder's…toy will gain you?"
She was amusing, none-the-less. Like the barbed dolls that still insisted the baby was his. Trap a man, keep a man, control a man. Only this clan heiress didn't have a geisha ramming the subtly that came with these games into her skull.
"The thing about trapped quarry…promises are never worth what they were the day they were made." He snipped back.
She flinched, uncertain if it was a threat or a barb at her own ambitions.
Thin lipped now and a hint of the woman she might become. "Don't you dare belittle my name!"
"I'll give you this, princess. When you move make it count."
He'd never been very good at doing as he was told. Someone might have warned those stiff-lipped Asaka. Either way they would be discovering the fact soon enough.
That and the unreasonable agony those that touched his chains would no doubt feel. Demons were never meant to live next to humans. He should know.
Which might have been why he nearly gave those loitering in Aoitsuki's House a heart-attack.
"Father?" A boy muttered, standing so abruptly he overbalanced and nearly toppled over.
"Father!" The girl at his feet mouthed—similar enough to be his sister—and this time the child did topple over.
Small hands, dirty and grimy clutched at his clothes in what could only have been shinobi speed. Soon enough the news sparked into every corner of the compound with a suspiciously fast speed.
"Sensei!" A woman screamed, knees folding the moment she came into the courtyard. It was enough to draw everyone in hearing distance. Izumi, mess of red hair and all, barreled into him.
He'd only been gone two days.
Izumi clutched him harder.
Starting from the moment they'd carried unconscious gennin left slumped at their gate. Two days as hour after hour dwindled and they realized clones whose chakra matrix had reached their most unstable point were dispelled and not replaced.
Till finally someone had puckered the courage to ask one of the clones.
The only reason the clones wouldn't be replaced would be if the original body wasn't there to replace them.
"Come with me." Calloused fingers gripped his arm. Titling his head back, he met Ren's dark expression.
"Izumi, Izumi. Its fine now. Don't worry." Naruto muttered as his hands shifted to form a single seal.
Ren didn't even bother to be ruffled as another Naruto pulled him away from the scene of tears. Silently they walked toward his office.
The door clicked lightly as Naruto eased it close. He turned around to face his one time ward.
And then Ren punched him.
"You idiot Sensei." Ren seethed.
Stunned he could only touch his aching cheek.
"You complete fool." Frustrated Ren ran his fingers through already wild hair. "What did you think you were doing?"
Ren fell into a chair with a huff. Still stunned Naruto silently took his own seat, suspiciously eyeing the office they'd entered. He was sure it was his—it just didn't feel like it at the moment.
"If you are lost, we are lost." Ren pressed his palm against his eyes. "Honestly, what did you think you are doing? You're the one that taught us to make smart choices. Since when was it perfectly acceptable to let yourself be kidnapped?"
Naruto gapped. "Ahh…"
Ren glared at him, completely unimpressed with his defense.
"Izumi isn't strong enough; I'm not strong enough to hold this place together. You think you can walk away from us? After everything you've promised—everything you've build—you think you can walk away and we'd remember you fondly?" Ren finished with a hiss.
"This is your fault. Half of us are alive because we met you. You can't walk away and think this was a job well done. You don't get to run away from us."
Naruto wasn't sure if he wanted to deny deny deny or just break out laughing.
"Shit, kid." Naruto muttered. What a joke.
"You stupid man." Ren wearily cursed him, relief finally breaking through worry. He stood up and closed in on Naruto. Half expecting another punch Naruto really did gape again as instead, Ren fell to his knees in front of him and buried his head in Naruto's lap.
Which was just odd, Naruto knew. And not just because Ren was starting to look older than Naruto. Ren hadn't let himself appear weak to anyone since he was a solemn, reed thin boy.
"I can't do this, Father." Ren confessed in a whisper. "I really can't."
Naruto numbly petted dark hair.
"You can't give wild creatures and monsters a family and expect a happy ever after."
Hands tightened around hair in reprimand. Naruto crouched over the head in his lap only to whisper fiercely, "None of you are monsters."
Ren merely snorted at his adopted father's delusions. "It's your job to say that."
Naruto huffed as he straightened up. "Who's the stupid one here?"
Even as it began the half-smile died on Ren's lips. "Do you want to rule?"
Naruto was really starting to wish he knew even half the different mental tracks Ren was currently running down.
"You could, you know. You could."
Naruto remained silent. A boy in him screamed dreams for all the world to hear. And years later that man he became only had silence.
I Will Be…!
"You've always wanted our loyalty to belong to the village. Wanted us to love this place. And we do—have come do. But you can't be blind to who we are—were." Ren was silent for a few moments and Naruto was content to wait him out.
"I was sixteen when I tracked my birth mother down. The last time I saw her I was probably three and kami knows I hadn't a clue how she looked like. But I found her. I went to where she lives…I spend an entire day just looking at her—just looking. I don't know what I expected; didn't know if I was going to hate her or love or just snap and burn the whole place down. And you know, I spend a damn year brooding over what I felt when I finally saw her before coming to terms with it."
Ren sighed softly. "I didn't care. Apparently I only cared that I didn't care. And I finally understand why. I might as well have been dropped from the sky for all that I have a mother. Because I don't. I only have a father and what seems to be hundreds of brothers and sisters." Ren tightened his grip on Naruto's clothes.
"I don't care if you want to rule or whatever mad idea you might have. But you can't run away from what you promised." Ren finally looked up at Naruto. "You cant take wild creatures and monsters—teach them to be human—and expect they've lost every trigger in them that makes that primal thing in all of us cling and fight for what we need. And we need you."
"You used to corral us away from that instinct—deflect the notion or need for you to have soldiers—by saying we couldn't act without damming our brother and sisters to what crimes we might commit. But it's hell.
"We lose if we fight, but father, we lose even more if we don't fight. I have spent the last few days trying to talk everyone from special jounin to academy student down from mass murder. I did the best I could even when I didn't believe the shit I was sharing. And I'm pretty sure there are a few more bodies in the gutters today than they were the day before. So you can't leave and break your promises and you can't keep pretending—even if we all would like to—that we're normal."
Something like vertigo was invading every sense in Naruto's body. He had two thoughts, neither of them pleasing. One, he might have been smarter when he was an idiot, and two, he should have seen this coming.
"We didn't end up here and calling you father—even if some of us never say it out loud—because things were right and normal. We were thrown away—left and lost and it was like we stopped being equal and human next to everyone else. So don't expect that we can keep pretending to be human when the very cornerstone for this facsimile of normality is taken away.
And he's known.
Hadn't he already known he'd die for his first home the moment cool metal slipped over his forehead?
He'd known devotion.
"It's too late for any of that." Ren finished, burning dark eyes and mouth pressed in a thin pale line. Calloused hands curled into the folds of his—by now—dirty cloths. "It's too late for any of that."
Horror burrowed through the pit of his stomach.
He'd just become Orochimaru; the Elemental Nations had the worst luck in raising orphans into anything levelheaded.
Ren could read the pale features of his father and sense the sick nausea that seemed to be rising. And even if he flinched a little, clenched lips never took back the awful revelation.
Not after everything he'd dammed himself into doing.
Because this man had to understand. Understand it as well as Ren did.
Because Aoitsuki Naruto had become a linchpin in one too many psyches. And should he die—be killed—not even Ren—for all his theories and calculations—could stop the maelstrom.
Because Ren would pick a kunai himself and bury it in someone innocent. Not so human after all, he'd known. But excelled shinobi, his T&I mentor had mused.
A part of Naruto wanted to push Ren off. And to his shame he almost did. It would be human. But something kept him there. Maybe it was attachment; maybe it was as uncomplicated as responsibility, or even just guilt.
It didn't really matter.
"This isn't fair." Still petulant, even now. Still a child playing at adult, or at the very least human (when he knew he really should have been a shinobi). "This was never what I wanted."
And Ren—steel-eyed interrogation specialist, Ren—solemn, hard child gave him one silent study and scoffed.
"Get over it. This and that—we aren't playing house here. Aoitsuki has more in common with a mad house than we do paying mummy and daddy. It isn't enough to love us and love you in return. That alone makes everything more terrible. Can you accept this? That we're wrong—capable of doing awful, terrible things; for you, because of you." Ren leaned in closer, whispering now. "Capable of breaking.
This was it. He could say it. Say it straightforwardly; forget all the riddles of his adult life. Say that it was wrong. He was wrong.
Not just capable of breaking. Broken.
"I…I…" The words withered.
It was there.
He wasn't strong; never when it mattered most. He wasn't any sort of role model anyone should look up to. And right now everything was so much duller because of his insecurity. Everything wonderful in his life was tainted by that nagging feeling—will it still be here tomorrow?
He still feared being alone; abandoned. Not so different from his charges. But it was even worse because he knew and encouraged his own insecurity. Hiding still.
Because when it came down do it he was still a child living off resentment.
So how could he be an adult, much less one responsible for hundreds?
But then again, how could he be anything else?
But now Ren was saying the same thing his willful, younger self had often thought.
Get over it.
Life sucked; gave out raw deals like they were the next best thing. Made soldiers and sacrifices out of children and every one else into stubborn old (older) fools.
The questioned rattled in his head, twisting and stumbling and choking till it fell into a spot near his heart, into a corner made just for it.
"Ren…" And for the first time he sounded like the old man he should have been. Weary and creaking and ready to face his responsibilities. His hand touched his son's—and he could not lie and say this wasn't his son—dark head before settling on a strong shoulder. "Get up you foolish boy."
Ren did, startled enough to obey without question.
Naruto laughed—or croaked. At that point it sounded the same.
"Ren…I haven't a clue what Mizu means; not really anyway. And I needed that for the longest time; not to see or know anything that made me think of where I came from. Because I was angry." And Naruto smiled his titled grin—half grimace and half fatalistic humor. "I'm still very angry but I suppose…it doesn't matter anymore, does it?"
"I've outlived any sort of future anyone ever saw for me." And not even Naruto was sure what he meant by his last words. "So I'll try not to be as stupid as I've been in this and in many other things."
Ren settled into a crouch, face serious and a little bit incredulous.
"And you'll stop running into idiotic escapades?"
Naruto smiled. And wondered why it was so much easier.
"I'll stop running."
Get over it.
His twelve year old self could have told him that.
Because only his resolve had ever been weak. Because he'd let himself doubt; played the dead dog in hopes he'd be overlooked.
"I'll stop pretending." Naruto confided.
Ren eyed him strangely but equally intensely. Years of watching a mask and Ren could finally see the cracks in it. Would finally meet the man who'd saved him but had never been saved. Not by the ones that owed him the most. Not by Ren.
A strong hand gripped Ren's shoulder. "It's my own fault. It only figures that now I would be seen as a piece in someone's game, ready for the taking."
Ren shot him an annoyed glare. "You've done little from dissuading anyone of the contrary. Harmless civilian—of course you're a fat prize. If this kidnapping—one you didn't even try to escape!—didn't wake you up to the fact I don't know what would have."
Naruto laughed. "Clever. That I suppose is also my own fault. It's been a while since I've been duped like this."
"You're lucky you won."
"For what good it does me. They're a clever bunch. Soon enough they'll figure out why they weren't aware of how close strangers came to you. Yutaka at least should have seen it by now."
"Yutaka," Naruto repeated in bemusement. "Now there is a boy who doesn't forgive."
A sour glare was his only answer.
Get over it.
21 Jan 2011
A/N: Miss me? This chapter has been done for about three months but I never felt like proof reading it. So ignore my various mistakes unless you prefer to wait another three months.
This chapter marks the conclusion of Naruto's healing. About time he got over. And yes, Ren let Naruto be kidnapped as a wake up call. It worked.
Up next Naruto finally starts acting instead of reacting.
As of today next chapter is 30% done.
That is all.