NOTE: If you are reading this chapter after noticing this story's first update in a long while, a previous chapter was also uploaded. First chapter after hiatus was Chapter 25
Kakashi has temporarily taken leave of Team 7 in order
to help Sarutobi with day-to-day affairs within the Hokage office.
After finally waking up from an almost fatal operation, Naruto still
seems to be in bad shape, and in an attempt to keep him safe from himself
Tsunade reveals her presence in Konoha.
"Honestly I'm not sure if you'll ever get better." Tsunade informed her patient callously "I've never seen anything as bad as this before, but I'd never seen a seal like that either. I'd have taken your own advice and never have used it."
"People would have died." Naruto responded flatly as he struggled to sit further upright and meet Tsunade's eyes "At one point you would have done the same if you thought it might have helped somebody."
"That's what people do in a war. They tend to die like that." She shrugged, not rising to the challenge of his words "That's what would have happened to you eventually if we hadn't have been nearby."
"I'll manage." He gritted out in response as he scratched absent-mindedly at the scarring covering his arms "I've managed before."
"Before you were still capable of managing high-level jutsu and walking by yourself." She pointed out, not bothering to hide the irritation in her voice "I can only promise you one of those two things, and I'd be confident in saying that any jutsu you attempt will only cause damage to yourself and those around you."
And wasn't that the truth.
Any control that Naruto had imposed on himself since his early days as a Shinobi was almost totally ineffective. His chakra system had been repaired to the point where it could sustain his life, but any attempt at a jutsu dangerously tipped that balance and left him weak and ill. The backlash of the accrued chakra dissipated in a violent manner and his first attempt at creating a simple academy level bunshin left his attending medic with a crippling case of chakra poisoning. The older man had pulled through, but it had left him unwell for over a week. Naruto hadn't tried again since.
"There's chakra blockages, contraflow-" Tsunade couldn't help but admire his steely resolve, there was no way he was as comfortable as he pretended. His snappish response betrayed the pain that must be racking his tired body.
"There's nothing to be done. I know." Naruto stated as he brushed over a book he'd requested from his own personal library. The brown cover wasn't obviously marked but the tanned pages betrayed the age of the well-worn book. "Has the Hokage been informed?"
"He's aware." Tsunade replied carefully "He and Kakashi have been called away to a peace treaty meeting with Sunagakure. Seemingly Gaara has been appointed as next in line to become Kazegake and has demanded that there be some kind of peace talks after the fiasco of the Chunin exams."
She flipped over the next page of the book she was invested in. It covered the topics of chakra systems she wasn't totally familiar with, yet so far it had been of very little help.
"Iwa don't seem keen to lose a potential ally, but the popular opinion seems to be that an alliance is on the horizon. We haven't heard from Otogakure, but they're going through some upheavals themselves after losing their Kage."
"I'm surprised the Hokage has left them to descend into civil war. They're a young nation, prone to outside influence. It might have been a smarter decision to offer diplomatic assistance." Naruto sighed, letting his head sink back against the pillow as he got caught up in thought.
"Do you always second guess your betters kid?" Tsunade grumbled, "The Hokage has made provisions. We're already in a difficult situation with our losses, there's no need to overstretch before Oto really do cause problems. As far as we can see they're in the process of setting up a voting system for their next leader, I'm sure there'll be an intervention if there seems to be any problems."
Shizune sighed at the both of them as she wrote down her observation notes in the corner. They just seemed to bicker back and forth until one of them got too tired to continue. It was tiring in itself just to watch. Naruto, for once, seemed mollified by Tsunade's answer and lapsed into silence.
"I'd like to sleep I think." He said quietly, looking towards the dark haired medic-nin with a sober expression. Shizune immediately stood to her feet, collecting her scrolls together with a nod as she shooed Tsunade away in her Ton-Ton guise. Kakashi had been sworn to secrecy and so far he had kept his word, even the Hokage remained oblivious.
That didn't stop the small pig from shooting irritated glances at the hospital-ridden boy as she left.
Once Shizune had entered her quarters, Tsunade dropped the genjutsu with an irritated roll of her shoulders and grabbed for the nearest vessel of Sake she could see… but it was promptly yanked from her reach by a serious looking Shizune.
"Tsunade-sama, I think you should look at this."
It was a recon report copied from an official report by Shizune's own scrawling hand. It concerned a particular infiltrator during the Invasion – a one Yakushi Kabuto. He'd been the apprentice to Orochimaru, and seemed like he planned to continue his master's work. The beginnings of genetic experiments and reports of missing children. An issue, but not hers.
"It's all very interesting Shizune, a terrible man but less of a threat than his master," Orichimaru gone… it still didn't quite make sense to her yet "I give him a few months before the ANBU bring him in."
Shizune shook her head empathetically with a look a worry in her eyes.
"Tsunade-Sama, look at his last known whereabouts." She tapped at the page of the report where a crude map had been quickly drawn. The feeling curdled in her stomach as she recognised the approximate location of a place she'd never wanted to visit. Ryuchi Cave.
"The Hokage needs to know of this immediately, we may be in more trouble than we thought. We could send a message through the Kono-"
"They're not reliable enough." Tsunade interrupted, "If this Yakushi finds out that we know… How are we to even guess at what he'll do next?"
"They'll be in Sunagakure by now." Shizune commented "It'll take days to get there, and there's Naruto to take care of-"
"Naruto is stable now, we'll draw up a plan to keep him stable until we can return. We're more likely to get the message through." Shizune nodded in agreement as she began to gather her things together.
It was going to be a hard journey, but who knows what would happen if Kabuto was allowed to continue.
It had been six hours since Shizune and Tsunade had gone home to sleep, the rest of the hospital had become still and quiet and if Naruto was going to get away successfully then this was his only chance.
His first job was to get his treacherous legs under control as the trembled beneath him. Snapping his hands down he dug at the tender flesh of his thigh until the shaking subsided. By the time he got himself under control he was left feeling rung out.
He couldn't be weak now, he needed to leave.
The window was silently jostled open and he carefully dropped into the grass, ducking behind some bushes until he was certain he could hear nobody approaching. His chakra sensing abilities were duller than he remembered, and things that once had been clear before now left him fumbling and lost.
It was heading towards morning now, and Naruto would have to leave before it started to get light. He needed every ounce of cover he could afford while he was still lacking his full repertoire of abilities. A quick stop off at his home would be required and then he could be on his way.
His home was much the same state as he had left it, but it was evident that someone had been in to ensure the place remained dust free. A bunch of flowers on the kitchen table made him aware it was Izumi. He wondered if Kensuki had been the one to mention it.
Warm clothing and easy travelling food was quickly bundled together, weapons pouches slung around his hips and thigh, but forehead protector was left on the bedside table along with the distinctive jacket that would only bring him trouble on his journey. It had been a while since he had travelled from the village, and he knew it was going to be cold where he was going. More provisions would have to be picked up once he was in more neutral territory.
Slipping from the house, Naruto knew the importance of leaving the village quickly before anybody found him. He was well enough to move, but not well enough to fight off a potential captor. With a lack of chakra he was a sitting duck if he stayed still too long.
The shadows of the backstreets kept him hidden from prying eyes, but the main difficulty was still to come. There was a feeling of relief that while he couldn't completely eradicate his chakra signature, years of iron control allowed him to at least dim himself enough as to not draw the attention of all Konoha shinobi within a few hundred miles. It would be important enough when it came to passing the gate with as few problems as possible. The walls loomed in the distance and were steadily growing closer. This would be the point he would be employing a jutsu, or a body seal but his system was so irreparably damaged that a seal would only short out and cause him further pain.
The good old fashioned way it was then.
Scaling the wall was out of the question – after the invasion security would be ramped up to avoid any potential backlash from their enemies spying easy pickings. Any secret gates usually used by ANBU to leave the city without detection would be even more heavily guarded and would bring more questions than he cared to answer. Today wasn't a day where he could just rely on his luck of knowing somebody, or call in a favour.
So, back to his first lessons. It needed to be simple, efficient and totally ordinary.
Squaring his shoulder he strode out into the main street and walked directly toward the gates with his pack hiked high on his back. Scarf wound around his neck to ward off the chill and throw more of his face into shadow, obscuring his natural shape from any guards who might glance down to check those who were leaving. No sudden movements. Pitch his voice slightly.
Not water tight, but those who knew him supposed he would still be in the hospital. As long as he could curb his limp until he was out of sight, then he was in the clear. He'd only need to travel to the next village along to check his onward travel options. In the past there had been at least one trade caravan route that passed near to his final destination, even if it was a little roundabout way of getting there.
"Horigoshi Takeshi, returning home after helping in relief efforts." Naruto smiled at the tired looking Genin staffing the checkpoint. Chunin and Jounin were at more important gates, and manpower was running low. This had been his best bet at getting out, and he was glad his hunch was right. Any Chunin or Jounin worth their salt could tell that the paperwork was hastily forged and out of date and that the boy across from them was far too haggard and thin to be a travelling labourer.
They glanced him up and down, figured he was no threat since he was leaving the village and gestured for him to move on. The night had been long and it wasn't far off the end of their shift. Getting caught up in a troublesome issue now just meant it would be longer until they got home to bed.
Thanking his lucky stars, Naruto assumed he was free. He managed to hold it together for ten minutes, until he was sure that any curious Konoha shinobi would have lost interest before he'd stretched aching muscles and popped pain killers. He had just a minute to prepare himself when two figures stepped out of the brush.
"Going somewhere nice?"
Meeting Tsunade and Shizune was not on his list of things to do that morning.
"I'll fight you if I need to." He replied wearily, sliding into the easiest beginning stance he could think of – one that didn't put undue strain on his healing injuries "I need to leave and I'd prefer to leave in peace."
Tsunade stepped forward, dodging Shizune's restraining hand.
"I'm not usually one to take it easy, but after all my hard work I don't want to go back to square one. Taijustsu only?"
"I'm lucky." Naruto acknowledged "Taijutsu it is."
Then drove his body immediately to the ground to avoid the fist that sailed over his head, ignoring the screaming song of tired and abused muscles. There was little hope of beating her, but he had to try.
She pulled back into safe territory and immediately Naruto had to move and dodge her foot as it cut through the air. He spun in a feint to get under her defences, but his body responded more sluggishly than he expected and she jabbed back quick enough to knock away his open palm. He immediately lost his footing and stumbled back with grunt. Tsunade chivalrously allowed himself a moment to gain his balance and steady his breathing.
He was already in bad condition.
Ducking under two lazily thrown punches and he went to stumble as if previous injuries were impacting more than he let on, then as Tsunade appraised the situation he drove his elbow into her side with all the momentum he could muster. She flinched at the impact, but Naruto doubted it would even bruise. Still the injured blond boy could make out her amused glance down as she regained safe distance.
"I'm impressed." She nodded, stretching her arms out a little "You're still good to go kid?"
Naruto drew himself upright with a heave and a tired grin in return.
"Could do this all day." He shot back, and waited for her next move. She was being considerate but she wanted him in the hospital, not journeying to places unknown. There wouldn't be much waiting. He was rewarded within seconds when Tsunade swung at him again with a volley of hard hitting punches which he narrowly avoided until a blow glanced across his cheek and broke skin. Blood bloomed and dripped from his chin slowly.
"Look, we both know you can't carry on like this. Just get back to the hospital."
"I can't do that." Naruto said sadly, shoulders sagging in a way that he would avoided had it been a real fight "I need to."
"What do you need?" Tsunade questioned angrily, her brow contorted "What is so dire to you now that requires such self-sacrifice?"
"It's difficult." The boy sighed, regaining his Taijutsu stance with a wince. He took a few steps forward but Tsunade was already there, first a punch to exploit his weakened sides which was quickly followed by a fluid side step and a knee driving in to his kidneys. He dropped to the floor with a roll until he stopped against a tree. He was relatively sure that he'd broken a rib and his nose was beginning to drip too. He didn't want to think how bruised he would be by tomorrow.
"Tsunade-sama!" Shizune was suddenly stood between them now, arms outstretched and preventing her mentor from coming any closer. When Naruto started to struggle to his feet, she turned to him "Naruto-kun! Both of you just stop!"
He managed to drag himself upright and leant back against the tree trunk. Every breath was a deep pant as he struggled to dampen the pangs which were racking overstretched muscles. He wasn't sure he could take another hit like that and still leave this encounter on his feet.
"Naruto, stay still! You're still hurt. Tsunade, you've proved your point." She gestured towards them both with placating palms "We clearly need to talk about this."
She settled down on the ground to look Naruto in the eyes and motioned for Tsunade to join them.
"Naruto, why do you need to leave?"
Meanwhile, the encounter between Itachi and Sasuke was far more drawn out and violent in nature. Thankfully Itachi had the foresight to ensure they were in a remote clearing far from the most frequented training ground with the least flammable foliage. Which was clearly a good plan because Sasuke was spitting out fire jutsu with each breath and Itachi was just letting him get it out of his system. He remembered reading somewhere that it was often a good idea to let children vent their issues, but he wasn't sure if the author had factored that 'intent to kill' could also be included in the child's venting process.
Clearly a major conversation was in order, and although he'd been informed that Sasuke was allowed to know most of the story, some parts still required at least a Jounin level clearance. He was sure he could make do.
Sasuke would calm down soon.
At least, that's what Itachi hoped. The little brother he remembered had nothing on the fire breather he currently faced.
"Are you sure you're my new Sensei?" Kensuki questioned quietly, intimidated the cloaked figure seated to his left at the bar. Probably not the best of places for a first meeting, but his new Sensei definitely didn't seem to care.
"Just be glad it was Itachi that called in this favour." Kisame replied with a frown, downing the last of his drink. He supposed that getting paid wasn't too bad either.
Sakura was currently sat reading about how to calculate poison dosage based on a person's weight and their apparent tolerance.
Anko was seeing how many dango she could eat before she threw up.
"Enma… talked to me." Naruto tried to explain as Shizune attended to his wounds "He told me that I needed to come to Iwayama. They could help me. It was more of a -"
The blonde gestured weakly with one hand in wordless attempt to find the right word.
"It was more of a feeling that anything, rather than straight out words."
He looked a bit panicked, as if his story sounded too crazy – even to himself. Thankfully Tsunade had heard worse stories on the battlefield and allowed him to continue.
"I really did try to summon him, but with my chakra so…" He twisted his wrist irritably "I couldn't even summon a lesser tribe member. With the Hokage gone… I need to get there by myself. It's really the only chance I've got to regain my strength."
"But why?" Tsunade interjected harshly "Why bother? From what I heard you've lead the life of a recluse, you ran away from what was needed of you. Why now?"
Naruto bowed his head, missing Shizune's disapproving glance at her master, but didn't seem disheartened. Instead he seemed as if only now he was connecting the dots behind his actions.
"I was scared." He admitted slowly, raising his eyes to meet with Tsunade's unflinchingly "I had gone out on a mission from the Hokage and found the intel we'd been given was wrong. A caravan that we had expected to be full of hardened ninja were nothing but young, disillusioned wanderers who had caused too much destruction after a life of war and upheaval. They weren't warriors. They were hungry, thirst and lost people and they had to die because someone disapproved of that."
He took a breath, pausing for input and when none was offered he continued.
"It's not the order itself. It's not even that particular mission. I've done worse things to better people in the name of the village, but it slowly sunk in that I was going to be the one who had to give those orders …"
The pain made him want to curl in on himself, even as Shizune healed the fractured ribs and the worst of the bruising. Reliving those memories and emotions was foreign and draining. He felt sick, even though he knew it was an after effect of the healing jutsu.
"It was the last thing I could bear. I was covered in another person's blood and-" Was he crying? He wasn't sure anymore, but Shizune was by his side even as Tsunade continued to level with him.
"I'm not going to say I made the wrong choice." He shook his head weakly with a self-deprecating grimace "I wasn't wrong, but I wasn't right either. In the past few months I could have seen the people I care about the most die simply because I was afraid… I can't be like that anymore. I can't be afraid."
"There's too much out there for me to be afraid anymore."
"Kid-" Tsunade began, her mouth tight in displeasure as she judged the boy at her feet, then she corrected herself "Naruto… I know why Enma may want to speak to you, and you're right. It's important that you get to them, they might be able to help you. But at the same time there might not be anything they can do. The seals are so intricate it took us weeks to decipher enough to even be able to rectify small parts of the system."
The elder woman settled back to the ground, her face serious and focused as she held the conversation in a way that Shizune hadn't seen for years."And we need you. We will need you. We found intel that Orochimaru's old apprentice is planning something sinister, he's heading to seek training from a creature you should pray to never meet and he can't be left to go unchecked. We're on our way to ensure that the Hokage knows of this immediately." She looked in to his eyes, searching for something only she could discern "We will need your help when the time comes, are you willing to be there for Konoha when it does?"
"Will you?" Naruto quipped back, tired and worn, but remaining steely in the face of such deeply cutting questions "If I'm going to be there, are you willing to stand by and let her fall?"
Tsunade seemed to entertain the idea for a moment, contemplating her answer before responding to the younger shinobi.
"I have lost many people in Konoha's name, but I've lost a great many people to a great many different things. I've fought against some of the most dangerous shinobi and I've healed others, I have lost and I have won, been afraid and brave. For a long time I was frightened by what else I might have to lose by being in the village, but perhaps I have almost lost those I care about the most by staying away." She held out her hand to the boy with the beginnings of a smile "I will do my best to be here to protect the Will of Fire as long as you are here to help protect it too."
Naruto seemed please by her words, his eyes softer than she had seen them yet, and his wavering hand grasped hers.
"It's a deal Tsunade-sama." Then he paused and grinned lopsidedly "Just please no more punching in the jaw, there's only so much one face can handle."
Thank you everybody! The response has been absolutely amazing and I'm so glad that even after all this time there are people coming back to this fic after all these years! I love to hear from you all, every PM and review from the past few years has really encouraged me to get the ball rolling again, so thank you again!