EDIT: For those who are reading this chapter for the first time - This version is currently under revision and may be later replaced completely. Please continue/abort as you see fit.
To those who have already provided feedback - Many thanks! I had long suspected my characterizations would be quite off after such an extended neglect, but it is only through your objective eyes that I can start to pinpoint where the problems are. There is naturally no guarantee that an eventual new/revised version would be any better, but hopefully it would have taken your valuable comments into consideration. Once again, you guys (and gals) are the best.
Disclaimer: The usual. Though I'm starting to wish that I own this series. Or win that next lotto.
Warning: Yes, contain up to even the latest spoilers. Please read on at your own risk.
CHAPTER 20 – CAPACITY (II)
Naruto ran, tore, and catapulted into the room. He even made it into a snug seat before the door groaned to a close behind him.
But on the other side of the one-way mirror, the session had obviously already started.
'—Fine.' Naruto elbowed several chairs out of the way as his feet wheeled him towards the control panel. '—s fine.' A cacophony of sounds blasted his ears as he fumbled over the kanji-labelled buttons. 'I said IT'S FINE!'
A pile of folders decided to tip over just then.
An aeon passed as papers and photos and zipper bags and stuff-that-he-could-see-but-didn't-want-to-recognize poured down around him in a blinding flurry. As he caught the last piece of flying scrap notes, his head actually started to hurt from the image overload.
'And I still hate reading kanji.'
Naruto could've sworn he heard a chuckle somewhere in the back of his head.
He angrily tousled his hair in retaliation. Except, er, well, he kinda regretted it when those loose strands kept falling in front of his eyes for the next five minutes.
That did it. Screw Itachi's laziness. He was going to get a real haircut after this.
The decision miraculously broke his spell of inexplicable clumsiness. Those characters suddenly read like a breeze and the playback system even became coherent on its own after only two more kicks. Maybe, just maybe, he had gotten a tad too worked up over Anko's stupid rumour-mongering.
But oblivious to his glare, said woman finished just as he finally got everything working.
Naruto stared as he watched Anko giving the captive a shrug and sauntering out of the interrogation chamber without another word. That was it? That was quick! Not that he would expect anything less from a former long-time subordinate of Itachi, but—
Before he could execute his signature Hide-Mess-no-Jutsu, Anko had entered the observation room. Thankfully, all he got was a mere glance at the wheel-marks: "Last-minute errand?"
"Yeah…" Standing up, Naruto could only smile sheepishly. "So he's okay with it?"
Anko froze almost imperceptibly before shaking her head. "He wants some clarifications. I don't know enough about the background to this order to properly answer him."
"What is there to clarify?" Naruto felt a frown tugging at his eyebrows. Why did Anko hesitate before giving her reply? "The options were laid out clearly."
"Too clearly." Anko echoed his frown. "So it really was you who lobbied for this order? What were you thinking?"
—"Not even a mercy kill?"
His fingers tightened around the hilt, but did not press the blade deeper.
"How typical of your lot." Battered and worn, the white-haired genin still managed a hysterical laugh. "My name is a code…My glasses are are a tool…But that's right! I've always been nothing more than a tool to your lot—"
Naruto lowered his eyes in a seeming nod; he didn't dare raising them until he felt the tingling subdued. "It was the least that I could do."
"You are seriously softer than I thought." Anko was outright grimacing now. "I can see why you'd need that other personality on top of a drug all these–"
Naruto's rising annoyance smothered as the kunoichi apparently bit back her last words. Did he just hear what he just heard? Did they actually believed his spur-of-the-moment explanation for how he managed to obtain the Eien no Man… Hold on! He only told it to Fugaku and the two elders! Since when did the Uchiha clan share any info of value with the village? And something so closely related its kekkei genkai, no less? What was the world coming to?!
Not that he actually… minded. He was so sick and tired of all the lies anyway. But it's just– Just a bit too good to be true! In fact, if he was willing to admit, it was more probable that he was simply jumping to a conclusion that he wanted to hear.
So forcing himself to ignore what had to be a bait, Naruto met her eyes squarely. "Off the records or not, Kabuto has possibly saved Konoha on more occasions than I have. Say what you will, but I believe he deserves at least this much!"
"There's a reason why people are remembered by their last act," Anko snorted, even as he curtly turned his back on her. "You can't possibly believe he's still loyal to the village! He's an impulsive liar! A self-made spy!"
Unbidden, Naruto paused briefly in his steps. "And 'once a spy, always a spy'?"
Without waiting for an answer, he left the room.
"Itachi-kun." The white-haired captive looked up from his holding dome as if startled. "What a pleasant surprise."
Naruto was too tired to taunt back. Besides, it was rather hard not to notice that the other genin was looking everywhere except his eyes. If Kabuto was trying to guilt-trip him, he was succeeding spectacularly.
"Well, spill." Naruto looked away. "Heard you have questions."
"But of course, I would not dream of occupying your valuable time more than is necessary." After a suspicious pause, Kabuto spoke slowly despite his words—almost in a drawl. "May I ask why have you obtained a pardon order for me?"
Naruto clenched… and unclenched his hands. "That doesn't seem to have anything to do with whether or not you'll take up on it."
Kabuto chuckled. "Sorry, old habits die hard. But I have to wonder why you would bother, after you personally interrogated me the other night?"
Before Naruto could suppressed it, one of his eyebrows twitched. Sure, he was trying to make amends, but that didn't mean he had to dance to the guy's tune either. "So what's your actual question?"
Kabuto's response came in an eerily familiar tone: "What's the real order?"
Naruto heard the words, but they weren't making sense. "What real order?"
"I know the drill." Kabuto's voice remained emotionless. "There is no need to test my loyalty; you must have ensured the room is sealed."
'He assumes that I came with an order from Danzou.' Realization hit, drawing out an anger that Naruto thought he had left outside the chamber with Anko.
Swing back without another thought, Naruto grabbed Kabuto by the collar. "Will you man up? Stop using missions as your crutch! We are perfectly thought-capable humans before we can be those so-called tools!"
Kabuto only yawned. His voice reverted back to that sickening cheerfulness as if those toneless sentences had came from a completely different person. "My, you still believe in what this village harps to the other nations? The Academy truly did a number on your brain then, Mr. Rookie-of-the-Year. "
"Hey, you don't see me bringing up your Ne conditioning." Naruto spat back. He had nothingn to do with the Uchiha brothers' academics. "Or was it Orochimaru's I-am-your-shining-beacon speech that did you in? It didn't really sound all that convincing to me at the time, but maybe he had improved enough by the time he tried it on you?"
"Touché." Kabuto inclined his head. "Orochimaru-sama can be over-dramatic at times, but he was at least right about one thing: Only we can define ourselves."
"He actually said that?" Naruto felt his eyes widen. "Okay, he has his moments."
"So why have you obtained a pardon order for me?" Kabuto asked again, smiling coyly this time.
Naruto rolled his eyes, but wordlessly took his hands off the other ninja. Talk about being haphephobic… "I once knew a guy who grew up not knowing what he was. He didn't like the conclusion he drew from other people's actions around him, so he went ahead and worked towards one himself .
"I wanted to give you a chance to live for your own goals, that's all."
Kabuto finally met his eyes. "What a fascinating story. But I'm afraid I already have a goal, and infiltration missions are currently my best means of reaching it."
Sounded like a weird goal. "That so? Well, as long as you're sure it's your goal and not some random target that someone else had coerced you into taking."
Oddly enough, Kabuto actually narrowed his eyes at this point. Maybe they were still too close to each other? "You must not know your guy very well then. A goal—even if it was shown by another to begin with—is more than what a lot of people could ever ask for, Uchiha-san."
"What do any of us really have to start with at birth?" Naruto shrugged, trying to step back to give Kabuto his comfort zone. "Our name? We usually don't get a choice with that. Our body? We often also have no say with that. Our senses? Not everyone could take those for granted either.
"But to think: given a chance, we can grow up to question those! We can make a name for ourselves. We can train our body. We can complement our senses. Those things may not always come easy, but I believe we'd always find a way if our mind is set. In my eyes, the real challenge is to make sure what you are pursuing them of your own volition.
"That's why I wanted to remove at least some of the obstacles for you." Naruto clenched his fist. "I wanted to let you live without constantly worrying about a master. You don't have to spy for fear of Sasori, Orochimaru, Danzou, or even Konoha. You don't have to define yourself through the missions they gave you! Heck, if you don't want to be a ninja, this order will even let you walk out of here as an anonymous civilian!"
Yes, even if his original recommendation was to nurture Kabuto's obvious potential and groom him for becoming Konoha's most respected medical ninja—if that wasn't something Kabuto wanted, then Naruto would just back the guy for whatever he really wanted to achieve in his life! Now more than ever, he believed Kabuto deserved a far better future than trying to carve out a pitiful identity in Orochimaru's shadow!
"Be my own master, huh?" Kabuto murmured, faintly smiling. "You're two years too late, Itachi-kun. Orochimaru-sama had already given me the chance."
"With carrots and sticks?" Naruto curled his lips. "I wasn't talking about choosing from options that were given to you. Goals should be about creating new options for yourself… "
Kabuto's smile deepened. "My goal will give me new options."
Naruto was actually a little curious about the guy's goal now. And yes, he was pointedly ignoring the voice nagging him about the dangers of releasing Kabuto back into the spying business—even with the suspicion that can be carefully magnified at a convenient time basing from his past month's captivity. "But honestly, infiltration missions?"
"Perhaps you need a fresh reminder," Kabuto twisted his smile into a smirk, "but not everyone sees those missions as undesirable. Don't project your preconceptions onto me."
As if taking a cue, his own darkest memory whose replay he had tortured himself with over and over again came to him then:
—Casually twisting the bloodied blade in his hand again, Sasuke smirked. "What makes you think I am you, dumbass?"
Naruto's breath caught, and he couldn't find his voice for a while. Damn, so much for complaining about how people kept on mistaking him for Itachi. They were not the same person. They were not identical. None of them were. Sure, at some levels, they could probably understand other people who might have shared similar experiences or principles—but understanding didn't always mean agreement.
Naruto heard a… nice laugh. It wasn't loud. It wasn't deep. It was… just infectious. Then he realized that he was the one laughing.
It was his post-Fourth-Great-Ninja-War laugh. Through Itachi's throat.
But by the time he had realized that, the words had already left his mouth: "You stole my line!"
Those diplomatic missions must be good for something after all, because Naruto was actually relieved when he was able to smoothly recover: "But y'know, I think we both hold such preconceptions for a reason…
"Hajimemashite, 'Uchiha Itachi' desu." Naruto grinned as he swiped his pass over the dome and reached out to a released—but frowning—'Kabuto'. Yeah, yeah, it wasn't proper customs but he had enough of all the bowing and the bow-backing within the Uchiha clan already. "Douzo yoroshiku."
"He so is!"
"Is!" Someone coughed behind Anko and him.
"N—" Naruto whirled around and found a flush-faced Ero-sennin. "Hi?"
"Kids these days…" the white-haired ninja started—before being pummelled by a disturbingly cheerful Tsunade-baachan.
"Oh, sorry." She smiled innocently. "I thought a kid was trying to interrupt."
Naruto numbly cranked his neck over to the side. Seeing a déjà-vu, he was suddenly unsure if the benign expression on Sandaime-jiichan's face was actually sincere or not.
"Tsunade had examined Itachi only last week." See, he could even hear something in that flat sentence! "I had given Itachi the scroll with full confidence in her report."
"But he just released Kabuto! With no guards or safeguards. Nothing!" Anko didn't looked reassured. In fact, her flush had completely taken over a face that had been so white after they met again outside the interrogation chamber—as white as if she had seen a ghost. "He let that bastard walk free!"
"Itachi was authorized if that was Kabuto's decision." The Hokage calmly stated.
"This fool just loosened a traitor among us," Anko hissed between gritted teeth. "Orochimaru has another uncovered set of eyes in this village again!"
"Guy's been declared a detainee for at least one month." Naruto rolled his eyes. "His past contacts were either identified or alerted in the process. His past acquaintances all knew what he might have been up to. He won't be back to any sort of spying capacity for at least another two weeks."
"I don't see you bringing him back into T&I's hands after that!" Anko spat. "Like I said, you've really gone off the deep end this time!"
Surprisingly, it was Ero-sennin who spoke in his defense this time. "His logic sounds good to me. I think you just weren't listening: That kid isn't going to be fully trusted by anyone ever again."
Anko's eyes widened.
Baachan pummelled Ero-sennin again.
"That wasn't quite what I meant…" Naruto interjected weakly. Ah, well, it was sort of a testament in itself if they all forgot about Anko's past for a moment there, right? "I mean, there are no bad spies in the world—just spies with bad orders."
"Indeed." Jiichan quickly backed him up too. But what was with that… thoughtful look? "Itachi had discussed all aspects of this issue with me before I signed off on that order. Regardless of his decision, Kabuto would pose no risk to us as long as adequate care is taken; in this case, Jiraiya will be his supervisor for the next mission."
"Understood." Anko stiffly responded. "I wasn't… thinking. Please excuse me, I am not feeling too well."
The door had barely closed when Sandaime-jiichan spoke again, "I heard your clan is starting to prepare for the Fire Festival again this year?"
Naruto blinked, then belatedly realized the question was directed to him. "Er, yea… I mean, yes! Repair work in the District is almost complete, and the festival won't really be held until December anyway."
"Another ten years." Tsunade-baachan dryly observed. "I don't suppose you still remember the previous one?"
"I remember." Well, Naruto sure wouldn't remember something so far back himself, but Itachi… That guy could keep a long memory. Besides, that day had been one of the most significant for him. "This year's will probably be on the largest scale though; we are no longer in a war." Yet.
"Let me know if you require any assistance." Jiichan smiled wistfully. "Every festival had been a well-cherished event for the village."
Was he suppose to take a cue somewhere in that? "I will communicate that to the Clan Head."
Ero-sennin might have been about to say something, but Baachan beat him to it with an elbow. Now Naruto was certain that he had just missed something.
"Spend this weekend with your family, Itachi." The Hokage spoke as if he had seen none of his students' antics. "You've trained hard enough."
"You you—You were spying on me!" Naruto spluttered before he quickly lowered an unconsciously raised finger. Having guesses were one thing, but to hear them straight from the horse's mouth… "Um, but I've been out of practice for a while and I'll be responsible for seven other ninjas come Monday. Diplomatic mission or not, I need to bring them back safely!"
Naruto almost spluttered again when he saw Sandaime-jiichan sharing an obviously meaningful look with Baachan and Ero-sennin. He hated it when people acted as if he wasn't there!
"No matter how thorough we prepare them, plans always have flaws," Sandaime-jiichan finally said, with almost-enunciated words. "Accidents happen even under the best of our care. Just as easily your teammates' families can lose them on a mission, so can your family lose you; that is why we teach you to watch each other's back. Go home, Itachi."
'But I don't wanna.' Naruto nearly whined, but bit back just in time. Alright, so maybe he had been avoiding Itachi's parents a bit. Or maybe more than a bit. Actually, probably more like a lot. There, he admitted it!
He had accepted Itachi's name as a label that he would have to go around with, but accepting the guy's family as his own… would still take more time. He wasn't quite ready yet. He didn't want to forget his own badass tou-chan and awesome kaa-chan. He didn't want to lose what little recollections he had before they could be all passed onto the chibi. He just wasn't.
But: "I'll try." Naruto sighed. Itachi owed him really big time. He was so going to torture the softie with bunnies in the after-life. "If you'll excuse me—Jiichan, Ero-sennin, Baachan."
Tsunade-baachan's Fist of Ungodly Wrath never reached him.
Mhahaha, unless Ero-sennin brought out the big guns, he won't be beat on speed now!
Naruto felt an eyebrow twitched as both Sasuke and chibi reach him at the exact same time—even with Sasuke's hand on a fistful of chibi's clothes and chibi's leg between Sasuke's ankles. He was never that bad with hiding his tracks when he was their age, right? He couldn't have.
"I was here first!" "Was me! You cheated!"
Taking a deep breath, Naruto pointed to the dishes that have been separated on two sides of a very long kitchen counter.
"Help me put back these dishes?"
But when they both came running to him after finishing their pile at the same time, Naruto wanted to dig up Itachi's grave.
"Go take your baths." And no, he was not going into the bathroom with them. Mikoto could take care of deciding which one of them gets to go into the hot bath first.
That should give him enough downtime for the next little bit. Walking back to Itachi's bedroom up the stairs, Naruto resumed his latest experiment with Rasengan. It was probably too late to be worrying about it now, but he still hoped this would be a somewhat more private space than those training grounds.
Extending a palm, he watched with pride as a perfect wind-infused Rasengan spiraled into shape. It had taken him several days of exhaustion (and being tied to the hospital bed on Tsunade-baachan's order) to create enough clones to safely test it out, but he could finally manage it with minimal wastes of chakra in Itachi's body.
Now, for the part that still eluded him: adding Itachi's…
"Is that Yondaime-sama's Rasengan?"
Startled, Naruto nearly lost control. He had a moment of panic when his eyes found Mikoto standing beside an opened screen door.
When could she creep up to him like that?
Dispersing the chakra, Naruto shut out the Voice-In-His-Head. Screw it, he really didn't want to make up another excuse now. He had already given the Uchiha enough to work with; he didn't want to lose himself any deeper with lies—like Itachi …and Kabuto. "Yeah, but a completed version."
See? Mikoto only raised an eyebrow. "His was incomplete?"
"He was planning to add elemental nature transformation to it." Naruto shrugged, extending another palm to bring forth a plain-vanilla version.
"I didn't know he documented his work." Mikoto examined it, admiration clear in her voice.
Mikoto froze, then looked away.
"It's okay. You can probably already tell this is not a jutsu that can be copied by Sharingan." Naruto grinned. "At least, not without one's own sweat and blood. The basic principle is really what anyone could have found out from Academy text, but you'd have to worked it out yourself."
"He was a good Hokage." Mikoto slowly turned back, but her eyes were still lowered. "Very intelligent, but also very compassionate. Sometimes, I think it is a miracle how he hadn't broke from the kind of missions he had been through."
He knew it! His dad was great! It was the first time that Naruto had directly heard anything about his father from someone in the same generation—other than his own kaa-chan, of course. He almost beamed from her words as if he was complimented himself. "Because he must be very strong too! Not just as a ninja, but also as a person!"
"Or perhaps, he is the only one he sees as a tool." Mikoto murmured. "He will not break as long as others still need him."
"When a person has something important they want to protect, that's when they can become truly strong." Naruto recited Haku's scarring words softly, but his hands were clutched. "But I think he is stronger than even that. He doesn't suppress his emotions, but uses them as his strength."
Tou-chan was more than a ninja. He was his idol and father!
"It sounds like you admire him."
"Who doesn't?" Naruto gapped as he realized the voice came from another person in the hallway… What was up with Itachi's usually paranoic people-sensor today? "Chichiue."
"He is the type that dies young." Fugaku sounded… disapproving? "When you cease caring for your own survival, you are asking for death."
"That's not true!" Naruto quickly dispersed the quietly swirling ball of chakra in his palm before standing up. "He's just as human as we are. He just happened to give up his life because it would save this village! If he had a choice, he would never have sealed Kurama into his own son!"
Fugaku narrowed his eyes and gestured. Only after Mikoto had left the room did he ask: "You know the Nine-Tailed One's true name?"
"I guessed?" Naruto caught himself before he could fidget.
"Don't be flippant," Fugaku rebuked. "Did you read the tablet again after gaining your current eyes?"
"Why can't I have learned from a different source?" Naruto rolled his eyes. Uchiha and their sick fascination with Rokudou Sennin's legacy. "And don't change the topic on me either. Yondaime was a far better father than you'll ever be!"
Seeing Fugaku's stunned expression… Crap, he spoke his thought aloud this time?
"Regardless, he died before his time." The man didn't take too long to regain composure. "He can't be here to take care of his son now, can he? Men like him depend too much on themselves."
"He knew he could depend on others to take care of his son." Naruto would have none of it. "If not everyone in the village right away, at least enough people to start with. He trusted."
"I should just throw you out of the family." Fugaku leveled his activated eyes with his. "You clearly think very little of it."
"Last I checked, I can claim a room in the ANBU barracks." Naruto paused when he saw the shadows huddling behind a screen door. "But I suppose blood ties can't be cut, huh?"
If his body language was any indication, the Uchiha clan head was torn between anger and… sadness? Well, looked like this was the day that he could part with Itachi's nukenin skills for good! "Your mother had came up to ask you to take care of the empty bottles in the house. See that you do before your next mission starts."
Empty bottles? Naruto scratched his head, but he was already walking past the man. If he recalled correctly, those were strangely restricted to Mikoto's territory in the past? "Yeah, whatever."
He started to feel a little bad after discovering the paper disks he apparently had to swap from under the bottle caps. He actually felt bad when his eyes scanned over the opened pieces on their kitchen counter and the new pieces that he had to fold back.
One of Itachi's longest-held suspicions was confirmed: the Uchiha clan head's wife was also the head of the clan's intel system.
This latest batch of intel was clearly all gathered for his upcoming Kusa mission.
Naruto felt decidedly sick when he didn't see Fugaku in the house again for the rest of that weekend.
"So that's what happened." Naruto folded another paper crane in front of the tombstone. "I'm such a jerk, aren't I?"
Shisui, of course, could give him no reply. Precisely why his tombstone was the only privileged entity that had ever heard his entire time-hopping-plus-identity-crisis story in this timeline.
"Well, wish me luck." He tied the crane to the tenth strand of its kind. "This stupid thing better works, else I'll really screw your fiancée! "
Shisui obviously had no comment, even if it was him who first told Itachi about the superstition and taught the guy how to fold paper cranes.
"Then again, I never asked you if this was just your fabrication." Naruto chuckled, pocketing the strands of paper cranes safely in his vest. "You do love Fukurou though, right? No objection? Then I'm taking that's a yes! And no, I never believed in your she-is-just-a-sister-even-if-she-happens-to-be-the-strongest-unmarried-kunoichi-in the-clan crap one bit."
But as the bloody sun sets over the deserted graveyard, Naruto felt the warm tears streaming down his cheeks. "Why did you let me live, Shisui?"
Even with fans whirling at their max speed in frenzied croaks, the conference room was still sweltering enough to drench them in clothes-sticking sweats. It also didn't help that the atmosphere around the table was, well, far from balmy.
"I really have to go." Kotetsu's lips did look like they were quivering. "Can't hold it anymore."
Shimon rubbed his chin, but otherwise only eyed him quietly.
Feeling the weight of their combined gaze—plus of his title as the leader for their delegation—Naruto relented. "Fine, fine. Go. Quickly."
He really didn't want to recognize the smell that railed Kotetsu's exit from the room.
"So moving on…" An Ame representative seized on the opening like a vulture who had just found rotting meat.
Naruto frowned. He didn't want to have to resort to this drastic measure (and who knew if Akatsuki still went through with that damned plan after he didn't stir up an international ruckus with the Massacre in this timeline?), but their country was the one stop playing nice first! "Should we really include a delegation whose home country just lost its leader to revolt?"
"How dare you curse our leader!" The representative stood up. "We demand a formal apology from Konoha! That and the return of next ten year's lease on Kusa's marsh ginseng crop!"
"I don't mind giving an apology," Naruto sat back in his chair and made a move as if to look over the horizon beyond the nearest window—in pitch dark. "But I think I just saw parts of Kumo and Suna's contingents left."
"This is our contingent!" That was Kumo's head representative—not Killer B, unfortunately.
"One must say Ame's own native supply of marsh ginseng is quite enviable…" That was Suna's representative, but not without giving him a dirty look.
As Ame scrambled to appease the two Great Nations, Naruto hid a yawn. Dammit, why can't they just divide up the stupid crop evenly and leave this table for good? Everyone already knew for five years that there was a replacement herb for marsh ginseng anyway! This item was only an pitiful excuse for the Five Great Nations to cite Kusa as a threat if the country ever detracts from its currently 'neutral' policies!
Shimon elbowed him.
Naruto automatically suppressed a start—yes, it had sadly became an impulsive counter-impulse. According to the notes that Shimon scribbled for him, apparently he was supposed to cast a vote on behalf of Konoha now.
Didn't he just raise this proposal earlier in the… back in the afternoon? Didn't everyone (including Shimon) shot him down because they preferred complete consensus?
At this rate, he was going to become even more cynical than a smoke-deprived Shikamaru!
"Yes." Naruto pinched himself to speak with a straight face. He never thought he might miss Itachi's poker face one day…
"Five yes's to leasing the crop to Kusa." Naruto pinched himself harder as the Mifune tallied their vote with an equally straight face. "Three no's. One abstain. I declare the lease is thus voted to be given to Kusa."
Naruto finally had it when the leaders from the other Five Great Nations' delegations started to congratulate Kusa.
"If you'll excuse me." Naruto managed before his face crushed into the table in disgust.
Kusagakure's Head Ninja was the first to find him alone outside.
"You're the most…honest leader I have seen at these forums in a while," he commented, offering him a tonic in a silver cup. "Marsh ginseng extract with bowroot essence, the best reward for a long night's work."
Another jab? Naruto gave him a tired smile. They both knew that bowroot was the very herb that had replaced marsh ginseng's popularity among the Five Great Nations, especially after they all 'domesticated' a wild variant of it—whose source shall forever remain unnamed, of course.
Gobbling it down without hesitation, Naruto felt some of his drowsiness lifted. "Indeed. Thank you."
"You're also the most direct Uchiha I have ever met," the Head Ninja chuckled. "Let me guess, you must not be very popular with your clan?"
Maybe it was really the tonic, but Naruto felt a little more alert now. "I think they are just trying to decide which stage in life I fit in—childhood where one could speak with complete frankness, or adulthood where one should speak with anything but frankness."
"Ah, so you're a late-maturer." The Head Ninja laughed as if greatly amused by his own 'joke'. "So you cast a vote on behalf of your village and yet displayed obvious disgust with it."
Naruto balanced the empty chalice on a finger. "I just don't see how forcing a country to lease back its own crop could really lead to lasting peace."
The Head Ninja gave him a searching look. "You actually meant that."
Nodding, Naruto ignored Shimon-san's frantic gestures from the other balcony. "To me, it makes more sense for reducing conflict by ensuring countries have their needs met equally. Kusa wants Konoha's timber, Konoha wants Kusa's herb; a mere thirty years ago, there was a fair and even trade of strategic goods between our villages on behalf of our countries. Things seems to have really taken a turn for worse after the last war."
"A war that the Great Five Nations started," the other ninja sullenly noted. "You destroyed our main economy: no client would ever come to us without your recommendation any more. We cannot survive on herbs alone."
"Can't we?" Naruto wondered aloud. Tou-chan believed he could find an answer, but he was admittedly a little far from home to be still searching. "The Lords define us as their land's protectors; we can never keep as much revenues from trade as from war. Sometimes, I wonder why are we still supporting this whole country-village system. It is clear that we are used as a way to keep their internal discontent outside."
"Speak carefully," the Head Ninja had dropped his voice to a whisper. "Those are dangerous thoughts."
But the man's dark eyes were glinting.
Shimon-san hadn't been happy with him after that little incident. But Naruto didn't care; he preferred substance over appearance. If there was one thing he learned from talking with the miners back home, it was that stomachs led the way to hearts.
Besides, he had finally brought them all back into Hi no Kuni's territory safely; he couldn't postpone his attendance of the other mission anymore.
"Those bases are the ones that Kabuto pinpointed after reporting in with Orochimaru again?" Naruto ran the locations through Itachi's earlier memories of Akatsuki's honeymoon with the Konoha nukenin. "Look legit to me."
"That they may be," Ero-sennin was—as usual—peering into an onsen from their well-appointed perch. "Doesn't mean they won't be more booby-trapped now."
"Well, then we'll just have to cut through the fireworks." Naruto dug deeper into Itachi's memories for the local terrain at each of the bases. "May even make for great covers."
"No use." His master suddenly giggled. "Wooh, look at those boobs! Must be at least…"
"Tsunade-sama…" Naruto started.
Ero-sennin kept on giggling, "Try again, brat. You aren't going to get me with that again."
"Fine, stay here." Naruto sighed, rolling up the make-shift map. "At least I will be able to find you again once I'm back."
"I told you it's no use." Ero-sennin finally looked at him. "Orochimaru picked his bases well; you won't be able to get in without alerting whoever is inside. "
"Then I'll alert whoever is inside." Naruto took a few compact rations from their combined stash—just enough to last Itachi's current appetite for at least four days. "If I'm lucky, they may panic enough to move the captives."
"Everyone else are still gathering supplies," his master called after him. "You aren't going in alone!"
"I won't if you come with me." Naruto hid a victorious smirk. Who was the one that decided to hide the toads from 'Itachi'?
When the white-haired ninja cursed vehemently that he had just lost his inspiration again, Naruto knew he had gotten the man again this time.
It sure was great to be working alongside his master again—suspicion and all.
A/N: Awesome week-off is awesome. Adds just enough oil to restart my admittedly very rusty creative-writing engine. My muse apparently also can't agree more. But please do excuse the lack of proof-reading, as my original beta has obviously moved onto better things in life.
Sorry, still no fights yet. I'm afraid this may start reading like a bad soap opera or some random rambling. If it helps, consider this the ARC of Narutachi's post-traumatic angst. But hopefully its loose ends have been mostly tidied up & we can go back to a somewhat cleaner slate starting with the next chapter.
Certain deviations from canon will remain no matter what keeps on happening (though I did have fun trying to tie the newer developments back in); the rest, I hope will be reasonable or at least somewhat plausible given the premise of this story. I'll leave you to the fun of deducing where the other sources might be.
And yes, cheers to all of you who are miraculously still reviewing and keeping tabs on this story after so long. This chaper would not have been possible without (...my guilt from) your steadfast support.
Of course, you can also tell me that this chapter ruined it all for good and I can forget about further undertakings altogether.