disclaimer: i don't own any of this
this has not been betaed; i will post the betaed version later. i thought, after such a long time, i didn't want you guys to have to wait any longer.
The Chain of Change
For once, none of Danzo's meticulous preparation and paranoia had been of any use. By the time he realized just how fucked he was, it was far, far too late to do anything about it.
One minute, he was in a meeting with a civilian aide (Shiwa Hiro, small, harmless, and completely lacking in anything that could even be considered an imagination) in a closed office of Hokage Tower, and the next thing he knew, someone had sent him flying back into the air with the punch to end all punches. Danzo's trajectory was interrupted by a bookshelf, which cracked, along with a few of his ribs, neatly in half. With his head still reeling, the veteran's first thought went to what Tsunade could have possibly dug up on him, but then he looked up realization set in along with a sort of cold, sinking feeling in his belly.
He hadn't been hit with a punch at all, but rather an airborne Rasengan. On the other side of the office, the Yondaime stood facing him, his long coat billowing slightly from the draft at the door. In his hand he held another fully-formed Rasengan, and he was idly tossing the tightly whirling ball of chakra in the air and catching it again as if it were a baseball. The jutsu seemed to falter a little in the air, the loops of chakra somehow rotating slower around its core, only to speed up again once it made contact with Minato's hand once more, but the blond didn't seem to notice. Instead, his attention was wholly fixed on Danzo; hunting sharks had expressions friendlier than the one the Yondaime currently wore. If looks could kill, then the elder would have been safely dead right there and then.
When Minato made no move to follow up on his first bone-breaking strike, the veteran pulled himself to his feet, careful to feign, even through the aching pain in his chest, the normal stiffness of motion one would expect from a crippled old man. Only then did he notice Naruto standing behind his father in the doorway. The younger Namikaze's expression was perfectly neutral, but his blue eyes were like cut glass as he regarded the elder.
A natural inclination for devious and years of experience had lent Danzo the ability to think quickly on his feet. Even now, his mind was rapidly working out worst-case scenarios and routes of escape as he bluffed, "Minato, what the hell are you trying to do? Do you think you can actually get away with striking an elder without provocation? Hokage or not, I'll make sure you face the full consequences of your actions!"
The Yondaime's expression twisted into a smile so wicked and out of character, the veteran momentarily lost track of his thought process upon seeing it. "Oh believe me, Danzo, you've provoked me quite thoroughly. But luckily for you, I'm going to hold back my current desire to pull your head through your asshole, and give you the chance to come clean."
Minato must have discovered the study and its cache of illegally-obtained documents. But the older blond was truly and deeply angry, angrier than the elder had ever seen him - something had infuriated him on a personal level. Which meant… Danzo's eyes flickered over to Naruto, and suddenly he knew how he was going to escape.
He clasped a hand to the side of his head and made a show of pretending to rub at a bruise there. He was, in fact, loosening the bandages that covered his right eye. Shisui's unique dojutsu didn't require eye contact, which meant that it could be activated even under the bandages swathing the right side of his face, but he needed the Sharingan's other advantages if it came to an actual fight against the Hokage. He continued the charade, buying time. "Have you gone insane? I have no idea what you're talking about."
"We found your secret clubhouse," Naruto said, confirming his suspicions.
Danzo turned to the younger blond, as if intending to finally reply, but instead channeled chakra into Shisui's eye and activated the dojutsu.
The transition was immediate, and at once Danzo could hear the steady sound of water dripping. His surroundings had turned dark and slightly damp, the air cold enough to cloud his breath into fog. The elder unconsciously curled his lips into a grimace of distaste as he looked around. He'd always known that the boy's mind was a sewer, but never had he suspected the comparison to be so literal.
Behind him, the tunnel ran on endlessly into pitch blackness, but when he faced forward he thought he could see a murky light in the distance. He walked towards it, his sandals sloshing in the inch or so of scummy water that flooded the ground. It seemed to grow colder still, and by the time he reached what lay at the end of the sewer, he was shivering violently.
An enormous grate stood before him, completely sectioning off the tunnel. It was made of some dark metal that glistened wetly in the darkness, probably covered by some kind of slime mold or mildew. Danzo thought he saw someone standing on the other side, half-shrouded by the gloom. He approached the grate for a closer look.
There was a flash of yellow, and the elder and was barely able to pull back in time to evade the hand that suddenly stretched through the grating, lightning-quick. Behind the barrier, Naruto's subconscious snarled in frustration. The boy's features were viciously feral as he regarded Danzo through the murky half-light with eyes the color of hot magma.
"Kyuubi, how good to see you," the veteran baited, trying to disguise how quickly his heart was suddenly beating, how much the sudden encounter had rattled him. "Everyone's been wondering where you've been, all these years."
The other's response was not at all what he expected.
"Kyuubi? You've got the wrong person, old man."
Danzo blinked, completely thrown. Then, reasoning that the demon must be lying (since it was, after all, a demon), he pulled off the bandages covering Shisui's eye and stared the other down with all of the Sharingan's whirling glory. Silently the elder reminded himself that he had the upper hand, had tortured and twisted his own body so he might one day gain control of the beast before him.
"Tell the truth, demon!"
The Naruto lookalike laughed derisively. For all effective purposes, it seemed that the technique had done nothing. "You're not too bright, are you?"
This time, Danzo was unable to mask his surprise. He backed away from the grate, feeling as if his stomach were sinking through his asshole. What the hell was going on? With Shisui's eye, he should be able to compel anyone who didn't possess the Sharingan, no questions asked. Add in the fact that this was one of the bijuu standing before him - his doujutsu should have complete control!
His companion must have noticed this consternation, for he let out another another bark of amusement. "Didn't you notice this thing?" he asked, bringing both hands up to grab hold of the grate, leaning back slightly even as he pulled himself toward it. "I don't get to rip your face off if you're standing on that side, so it's only fair that you can't mindfuck me while I'm over here."
"You are the Kyuubi no Kitsune," Danzo spat. "I possess both the Sharingan and the cells of the Shodaime Hokage. My mere presence should be enough to control you."
"For Kami's sake, are you retarded? I'm not the Kyuubi."
Danzo stared hard at the figure. "Then who are you?"
The blond grinned lazily, his teeth gleaming into sinister points in the dimness. "I'm what you get when part of a bijuu's fractured consciousness possesses an infant in a botched sealing. Which is also your fault, by the way." The grin widened further as he noticed the wheels starting to turn in the elder's head, and Not-Naruto tilted his head to one side, regarding his visitor with a gaze bright with alien intelligence. "I know what you're thinking, old man, and I'm telling you right now that you can forget it. There's only one way to restore me to Kyuubi status, and you don't have the power or the balls to do it. So let's just face it - you're fucked sideways. This little chat's going to end soon, and you've just lost the one trump card you had against the Yondaime."
The last of Danzo's composure was rapidly slipping away into the darkness of that sewer. Somehow, he found within himself the ability speak again, one more desperate try at winning over the inhuman creature that stood before him.
"Help me, and I will break you free of this prison. You must hate the man who is at least partially responsible for reducing you to this state! Help me, and we can take Namikaze Minato down together."
He was rewarded with a final burst of laughter, slithering through the air like dark velvet. "Fuck Danzo, even with that Sharingan you can't see what's right in front of you. This isn't a fucking prison. It's my half of the sewer. I'm Naruto's subconscious, you dumb shit! I'd strangle you myself right now, but unfortunately you seem to have entered our mind through the wrong side. So do me a favor - make like a tree, and get the fuck out of here."
Minato regarded Danzo with narrowed eyes as the man appeared to space out for the barest second. Ninja do not just lose track of what they are doing in the middle of a potentially lethal situation for no reason; the bastard was trying to pull something. Whatever it was, Minato had no intention of letting it continue.
So he propelled himself forward, a blur of motion too quick for the eye to follow, intending to deliver an incapacitating but not lethal strike. As much as he would like to dismember the man, Danzo was more useful to him alive. Maybe missing a few fingers… limbs… reproductive bits, perhaps - but functional enough to reveal the full depths of his treachery.
At the very last second, Danzo's visible eye snapped into focus, and he headed off Minato's strike with a block, shifting his weight back onto his left leg to absorb the force.
Swiftly, Danzo seized the bandages covering his face and pulled them away. Shusui's eye whirled balefully as he faced his opponent. If Minato was surprised by the unusual modification, he gave no outward sign of it. Instead, the older blond produced a handful of kunai and flipped them lazily about the room before vanishing from sight.
Less than a second later, the elder was doubled-over and clutching his sides, where the Yondaime had directed several sadistic hits, further traumatizing his broken ribs. But instead of following up, Minato reappeared across the room, studying his opponent with narrowed eyes.
"You're not defending yourself," he murmured. "Isn't this your chance? If you beat me now, Konoha is yours."
"We both know I don't stand a chance," the elder spat, barely able to stand. "You won't kill me. Not while I still have information that you need."
The Yondaime stared at him for a moment longer. Then his lips curved into a truly terrifying smile. "I'm so glad you believe that," he said. And, just like that, he was gone again. Almost instantaneously, Danzo went flying into a wall, impacting with a sickening crunch.
"Get up," Minato snarled, hanging back again to give his opponent room. "Fight me with everything you've got. Maybe you'll die. Maybe not. But continue on like this and I will kill you, here and now. Or," he continued, his voice soft even as his killing intent saturated the room, "Did Konoha do the unthinkable, and raise a coward?"
Danzo said nothing, but the words seemed to have an effect on him, and he levered himself to his feet. As he straightened, he freed his right arm from where it was hidden beneath his robe, revealing an enormous metal bracer, held together by a series of riveted cuffs. With slow, deliberate movements, he set about unlocking each cuff, until the entire thing came apart and clattered to the ground, carrying with it a swath of bandages.
The Yondaime sucked in a sharp breath as the grotesque sight of the elder's Sharingan-studded arm was revealed to him. "The Uchiha Massacre… Of course. Danzo. You utter bastard."
"I thought you discovered all there is to know about me," the elder replied impassively, raising his arm. "It's time that I rid Konoha of your weakness."
Minato's hands flashed through a complex sequence of hand seals. Their surroundings blurred and warped as the fabric of space itself was contorted, the wooden paneling and bookcases of the office giving way to grass and trees and a wide-open sky.
The jutsu had deposited them in the middle of the forest surrounding the village. They stood in a largish clearing, fenced in on all sides by enormous trees. At a closer glance, the bark of these trees were scarred and grooved and studded with three-pronged kunai. The weapons were even embedded in the ground at regular intervals. The seals attached to them were tattered and weather-worn, but the characters on them were intact and stood out starkly in the sunlight.
"This is…" Danzo said, his eyes widening in realization.
"The place where I perfected the Hiraishin no Jutsu," Minato confirmed. He tilted his head slightly to one side. "Interesting. Your injuries no longer seem to be bothering you."
Danzo answered by inhaling sharply, then abruptly spinning his body around, releasing an enormous scythe of wind. As the razor-edged attack reached his opponent, the Yondaime flickered out of existence, immediately making contact with the elder with a Rasengan. Danzo was smashed into the ground and Minato vanished just as an exploding tag went off, reappearing about thirty feet away. His left arm hung at his side, bleeding from where the elder's kunai had pierced it, even as he'd flashed away from the attached exploding tag in the nick of time. A second later, a blast of wind chakra cracked several indentations in the bark of the tree immediately behind where the blond had just been standing.
My last blow should have killed him, Minato observed, even as Danzo rematerialized and began to channel wind chakra into another kunai. That arm. One of the eyes is shut, and they were all open about a minute ago. If I remember correctly, the number of people involved in the Uchiha massacre with mature Sharingan…
"Are you kidding me?" he said out loud, and suddenly he was wearing an uncharacteristically savage grin. For a moment, the resemblance between father and son was disturbingly apparent. "I get a whole nine minutes to beat the absolute shit out of you without having you die on me?" The Yondaime took a deep breath and tilted his head back to peer at the flawlessly blue sky. "This... is turning out to be a fantastic day."
Almost precisely ten minutes after they vanished, Minato and Danzo reappeared. Naruto was waiting for them, sitting in one of the office chairs that hadn't been smashed to bits by his father's initial assault and flipping through the pages of a familiar-looking orange book.
Danzo was sprawled on the ground. The breath rasped laboriously in his chest, and every single Sharingan on his unholy right arm was tightly shut. His face was lined with cuts and abrasions, and his real eye had been blackened and was beginning to puff up. Apparently surprised that the abuse had ended so abruptly, he lifted his head to look at his opponent.
Minato gazed back steadily. Blood dripped from his arm, but he was otherwise uninjured.
"Kill me," Danzo gasped out. "I've lost."
"Yes," the Yondaime agreed mercilessly. "You have."
To his surprise, a strangled, painful sound emitted from Danzo's direction, like a death rattle being continuously drawn from the throat of a corpse. It took a moment for him to realize that the elder was laughing.
"You think this is the end," Danzo managed to choke out, levering himself upright on one arm. "But I still have the upper hand. Do you think you've discovered how deep my roots truly run?" He turned his head toward Naruto, looking for all the world like some bedraggled, demented owl. "Once my allies find out what you've done… what do you think will happen then?"
Then he keeled forward and passed out.
"Well," Naruto muttered, eyeing the limp sack of flesh that now decorated the floor, "That was anticlimactic."
Minato gave his son a withering look. "You didn't fight him. He had a whole horde of tricks up his sleeve." He sighed, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "We should get him to the Interrogation Force. They'll know what to do with him."
"The slimy bastard will try to escape the first chance he gets."
"Oh, he can try," Minato agreed. "But I think you forget exactly how good I am at sealing…"
All of a sudden, the light shining through his eyelids was too bright, and his mouth felt like someone had stuffed an entire hand towel inside it. Gaara let out a low groan and turned over. He felt his cheek rub up against coarse sand and breathed in deeply. It smelled hot and dry, and reminded him of Suna.
He thought he heard someone shout his name. It was very faint, as if coming from a great distance away, but it sounded kind of like Temari. "Gaara!" the voice repeated, and compelled him to attempt the Herculean task of opening his eyes, just a tiny crack.
The harsh sunlight that seeped through momentarily dazzled him, and he squeezed his eyelids shut again. His senses seemed to all swim together in one muddled conglomeration, and something other than the momentary discomfort of being alive nagged at him, something that swam just out of reach of his consciousness, like a half-forgotten dream…
Kakashi nearly had a heart attack as the Kazekage, who had been dead not less than five minutes ago, suddenly sprang awake and sat upright. Gaara's eyes snapped open and fixated immediately on Kakashi with disturbing intensity, their pupils so large they nearly swallowed up the entirety of the green irises.
"You!" he said. His voice was cracked and raw, but the words are clear. "Get back to Konoha!"
"Uh." How exactly did the chain of command work here?
"Konoha!" Gaara repeated. "You need to go back!"
The jounin fought the urge to back away. Apparently being brought back to life also induced temporary insanity. Who knew? "Kazekage-sama," he said, very slowly and placatingly, as if to a child throwing a tantrum. He threw several glances at Temari that practically screamed out loud for help, but the Sand-nin only glared back at him, her cheeks still stained with dried and drying tears. "You were just recently very badly injured and -"
"You were dead," Sasuke cut in bluntly. Kakashi felt some sort of tic begin to go off at the corner of his adopted eye, and fought down the urge to hit his student upside the head.
Instead, he continued lamely, "It may be better for you to rest for a while."
The Kazekage regarded him with a quizzical expression, as if not sure what to make of the jounin's strange behavior, before grating out, "I'm not crazy!" He somehow managed the feat of looking both peeved and exhausted at the same time. "Get back to Konoha. Naruto's in danger."
"Naruto?" Kakashi repeated, frowning behind his mask. "How do you know that?"
"Kyuubi. Kyuubi told me," the redhead said. Seeing the jounin's gobsmacked expression, he snarled, "Stop asking stupid questions and go!" before turning away in a clear indication of dismissal.
"Kakashi." Surprisingly, it was Sasuke, and his voice was both quiet and calm. "Let's go." Grudgingly, the jounin allowed himself to be led away, leaving Gaara alone with his siblings.
"Temari? Kankuro?" The redhead's voice was almost tentative.
"We're here, Gaara." His sister knelt down beside him, head bowed.
Kankuro mirrored the movement. "What do you need?"
For a moment, he was silent, staring down at the sand. Then he said, "Shukaku's gone."
Naruto had time to kill, and for once, he wasn't doing something self-destructive.
He was seated on top of one of the large, roundish stones that some overpaid landscapist had considered to be particularly aesthetically pleasing and therefore worthy of being a part of the Hokage's garden. From his perch, he could see the koi pond, where now and then a flash of orange or silver would disturb the reflection of a perfectly cloudless sky. A warm breeze picked up, and he let himself lean into it slightly. It was strange; he'd never really noticed how enjoyable good weather could be in the past, and how nice it was to just sit still and daydream. Maybe it was all of that senjutsu he'd been using lately. Or Shikamaru, rubbing off on him.
"What the hell," he said outloud, maybe to one of the koi swimming in oblivious circles below him. "Why am I so mellow all of a sudden?"
"Well," a voice answered, from somewhere behind him, "Maybe you've found peace of mind at last, kid."
"Jiraiya!" the blond exclaimed, flipping off the stone. "What're you doing back here?"
The Sanin stood at the gate, leaning casually against the tall doorjamb. He hadn't crossed the threshold, and thus hadn't triggered Minato's early-warning system.
"Hey," he protested, "Don't make me sound so unwanted."
Naruto snorted. "What are you just standing there for? Are you waiting for me to invite you in or something?"
It had been two years, but Jiraiya hadn't changed much since the last time Naruto had seen him. On closer inspection, however, there seemed to be additional lines creasing his eyes and the sides of his mouth, and his movements were slower, less fluid than before. For the first time, Naruto realized that the man, who had always been an energetic and supportive presence in his life, was growing old. It was a startling realization, and before he could help himself he blurted out, "Are you doing okay, old man?"
The Sanin gave him a curious look, his dark eyes piercing. "The hell's that supposed to mean? I'm not ready to croak yet, if that's what you're implying. Anyway, how are things?" He meant: How are you and Minato?
"Eh," Naruto replied. Then, more slowly, as if the words were reluctant to leave him, "Things have gotten better recently."
"Really?" Jiraiya's expression didn't change, but suddenly the intensity of his attention was focused on his godson. "How so?" He asked, almost cautiously.
The blond allowed himself a little smile as he said, "We might have gotten to the root of the problem. Anyway, you never answered me. What're you doing back here?"
The Sanin blinked at the sudden change in topic, but made no move to comment on it. "Not here. Let's go inside, and let's see if your father's got any of that fantastic Ginjo sake that Tsunade won last time she went out on a gambling spree. Kami, it's unnatural how lucky that woman is."
"Uh, Jiraiya, not that I'm complaining, but it's two in the afternoon," Naruto pointed out. "And, technically, I'm convalescing."
"That's fine," the Sanin said. "More for me. Say, you don't fancy a quick trip to the onsen while we're at it? For old times' sake?"
Five hours of eyeball-melting effort later, Minato actually had his work done in time to make it home for dinner. Not that, mind you, he had anything in, but it was a considerable improvement compared to the days when he'd stumble home at around eleven and make himself a pack of instant ramen before crawling into bed, only to get up at seven in the morning to repeat the process. Maybe it was time to give in and hire the assistant Kakashi'd been nagging him about for so long.
It was most certainly time to reevaluate his situation. He was Hokage, the leader of the village, but somehow he had lost control of his own life. Haunted by feelings of guilt, he'd played right into Danzo's hands, and as a result, he'd almost lost the most important thing in his world.
That could never happen again.
The sun was sinking low and heavy in the western sky as he returned to the Namikaze estate. Out of habit, he surveyed the grounds as he closed the gate behind him. His personal ANBU knew better than to follow him home and there was always the chakra warning system to inform him of intruders, but ninja thrived on paranoia. For a moment, the sunset stained the entire garden a deep and sinister red. All the plants appeared to burst into flame, and the koi pond seemed awash with blood.
Minato shook his head in disgust. The paranoia was certainly catching up with him.
He took off his sandals before stepping inside the house. "I'm home," he began to call out, then stopped as he caught strains of laughter coming from the kitchen.
His sensei and Naruto were seated at the kitchen table. Jiraiya was howling with mirth, and Naruto had a self-satisfied, lazy grin on his face; clearly, he was the one to tell the joke, whatever it was. Between them lay two empty bottles of sake, and the Sannin was currently doling out generous amounts from a third into two masu.
The room went completely silent as its occupants realized Minato's presence. Jiraiya stopped pouring so abruptly that the sake sloshed over the edge of the masu and onto the table.
"I thought," he hissed at Naruto, "you said he wasn't getting home til ten."
"He usually doesn't!" the younger blond shot back. "Don't start pinning this one on me."
Minato cleared his throat. "…Is that the sake Tsunade gave me?"
"Uh." Jiraiya said eloquently. "Yes?"
The Yondaime sighed, then crossed over to the table. He picked up the bottle and continued filling the masu. This done, he took the nearest one and raised it up to his former teacher.
Jiraiya broke into a broad smile, and he lifted his own masu up in the air in acknowledgement. "Kampai," he replied, before drinking.
"So," Minato said, seating himself after he'd drained his portion. "What brings you back to Konoha, Jiraiya-sensei?"
"Why is that the first thing anyone asks me? You're just as bad as your kid."
"You've been away for so long, it seems like a valid question."
The Sannin pulled a face, then nudged at his godson. "You explain. I'm tired of repeating it."
"You only said it once!" Naruto protested, glowering back at him. Receiving no response, he sighed in disgust before giving in.
"Akatsuki," he said, helpfully.
"Ugh, can't depend on you to do anything right," the white-haired man muttered, interrupting. Then, turning to Minato, he said, "For two years, those bastards have been lying low. Only taking jobs as mercenaries - nothing ground-shattering. Now, it seems like the something's crawled up their collective asses. The entire organization's on the move. Word has it, they're collecting the bijuu, and they've succeeded in getting all but one."
"And no word on Gaara," Naruto cut in, slumping against his chair.
"That leaves the Kyuubi," Minato said quietly. "So they're headed here then?"
"It has to be their next move," Jiraiya said grimly. "I don't know when it'll happen. None of my contacts near Konoha have reported any signs of them. But I came here to warn you, so you can get that statue under guard. Whatever Akatsuki means to do with the bijuu, it will not end well. They must be stopped."
Minato looked over at his son. Naruto was staring at the window, out into the night. Doubtlessly, his mind was on his friend, all those miles away in Suna.
"Naruto." The Sannin put a comforting hand on the boy's shoulder. "Gaara's in good hands. And in this case, no news is good news. You have to stay optimistic."
"Yeah," Naruto agreed, but it was half-hearted at best.
There was a stretch of silence as the Yondaime considered what he would say next, and what impact it would have. He almost didn't say anything. But the words seemed to form on their own, unbidden.
"Jiraiya-sensei. The statue."
His teacher regarded him curiously. "What about it?"
"It's not the only thing we need to protect."
Fuck, it has been a long time. All I can say is that I'm sorry, and that unfortunately, I'm still swamped at work. I'm also floored at the amount of encouraging reviews and messages. Thanks for sticking with me, guys. I'll try not to let you down too much with the next update.