Break it down in pieces, make it simple
'Cause you know damn well that I'm a simple man
All these things go changing like the weather
And they stay that way until the weather man says,
"One down, gone to waste"
I think there's still a piece of that smile on your face
-"Crutch," Matchbox 20
Outside the OR, silence enveloped the hall. Sakura splayed her hands, picking at her nail polish. Kakashi, eye closed, leaned against the wall. Sasuke balanced his forehead on the base of his palms, ignoring the continued stabs that radiated from his shoulder. The clock on the wall continued counting down the seconds, minutes, hour. The red light above the doors Naruto had been shoved through continued humming a soft red. There had been little movement since they arrived except for a tall, blond woman who had stormed past them, thrown open the doors and disappeared inside. Neither Sakura nor Kakashi appeared surprised.
And they waited.
The others had gone soon. Ino, Shikamaru and Chouji had been the first to leave. Ino had said something to Sakura that made the pink-haired woman simultaneously laugh and try to trip her friend. Hinata, Kiba and Shino remained a little longer. Kiba absentmindedly kicked the floor while Hinata wrung her hands. Shino remained silent and aloof against the wall. A dark-haired woman with vivid red eyes soon appeared and called to them. They followed after her dutifully. Before leaving, Hinata's pale eyes flickered back to the double doors.
Then, it was just the three of them. Kakashi walked to the end of the hall as if looking for something. He returned empty-handed. Sakura curled her knees to her chest, resting her chin on them. Sasuke's muscles burned from the constant tension needed to keep his body from trembling. Vision swimming, he closed his eyes, leaning forward to rest his head between his legs. The position offered little relief.
Finally, the red light clicked off. The same woman that had rushed by stepped out calmly, stripping gloves from her hands. Her amber eyes ran over them. When she smiled, her entire face transformed, looking incredibly young.
"He'll be fine," she began without preamble. "He lost a lot of blood and we had to give him several transfusions. He's stable now. He suffered little damage to his internal organs and the wound should scar over nicely. Provided he doesn't do something stupid, he should be up in a few days. We'll move him to a private room later where you can see him."
Sakura sighed. Her limbs melted against the wall, her smile widening. Kakashi cheerfully took out his novel. Sasuke ran a shaky hand through his hair. The woman knitted her brows at him.
"Are you all right?" she barked.
"Fine," Sasuke croaked. Clearing his throat hastily, he tried again, "I'm fine."
She knelt beside him, holding the back of her hand to his forehead. Before Sasuke could react, she grabbed his chin, tilting his face to the light.
"You're running a fever."
"I'm fine!" snapped Sasuke, wrenching away. The movement jarred his shoulder, making him flinch.
She seized his upper arm. Sasuke was surprised by the steel in her grip. She jerked him sharply and he started in pain. The shirt shifted, revealing the edge of a purple-black bruise.
"When did you get this?" She pointed a finely manicured finger, holding it just above the dark stain.
"It's nothing." Sasuke tried to pull away, but she was too strong. "Just a bruise."
"Just a bruise?" she repeated delicately. Her finger pushed down lightly on it. Pain unlike any he had experienced arced down his spine. His limbs seized; his head felt like it would explode.
"I can see it's just a bruise." Throughout his fit, the woman had not let go of him.
"Shishou? What's wrong with him?" Sakura stood in front of him, peering worriedly into his face. Her hand rose as if she would touch him, before she thought better of it.
"Come on, boy." The woman hauled him to his feet. "We need to get you into an examination room."
"Tsunade-shishou?" Sakura followed closely, green eyes flickering between Sasuke and Tsunade.
Tsunade. That sounded familiar. Had Sakura spoken of her before? Sasuke had little time to wonder. Tsunade pulled him down the halls, barking orders over her shoulder.
"Sakura, go fetch Shizune. Bring her to Examination Room 4. Kakashi, find Anko. Both of you be quiet about this."
"Yes, Tsunade-sama." Kakashi bowed respectfully to her. Sakura's green eyes followed them worriedly. Then they turned a corner and Sasuke could not see them anymore.
The farther she dragged him away, the more Sasuke struggled. Tsunade, however, appeared to have a vice grip.
"Stop fighting," she finally hissed. "You're just pumping the toxin further through your body."
"Toxin?" Sasuke stopped and almost had his arm wrenched from his socket.
Tsunade sighed heavily before turning around. "Did you meet a pale man, black hair, yellow eyes at any moment?"
"My name is Orochimaru. I believe you could use my assistance."
"Orochimaru," answered Sasuke.
Tsunade swore. Again, she hauled him along behind her. This time, Sasuke refrained from fighting. She shoved him through a door. Sasuke stumbled to medical bed.
"Climb on. Take off your shirt." At Sasuke's arched eyebrow, she rolled her eyes. "Kid, you're not that pretty."
He pulled his shirt over his head with difficulty as Tsunade opened and shut drawers in quick succession. She seemed to find what she was looking for as she left one drawer open. She motioned for him to sit. She took his wrist delicately, counting the beats.
"About how long ago did this happen?"
Sasuke shrugged. "A few hours I suppose." His vision swam again.
"Hmm." Tsunade burrowed in the open drawer. She pulled out a slender rectangular object topped by a long needle and an alcohol swab. At Sasuke's questioning look, she explained, "I need to biopsy the tissue."
She quickly passed the swab over his skin, careful not to press down. His skin, however, was hypersensitive and he had to bite his lower lip to keep from squirming. Once she was satisfied the skin was sterilized, she aimed the silver object. Her hand was steady as the tip broke his skin, but Sasuke could barely suppress a cry of pain.
"You'll feel a bite," she warned. She pushed a button.
Sasuke screamed, his body writhing away from Tsunade. A bite, he thought darkly before passing out.
Kakashi tapped a senseless beat against his ankle. He sat with one foot propped over the opposite knee, waiting for the unconscious Uchiha on the bed to wake up. Shizune bustled around the small room, a variety of different objects decorating the desk. The labels on the bottles ranged from pain medications to antibiotics to things whose name Kakashi did not trust himself to pronounce properly. Hearing a soft rustling, he glanced up to catch Sasuke's eyes blinking at the overhead light.
"Welcome back to the living," Kakashi quipped cheerfully.
"Ah, Sasuke-kun!" The addressed turned to face Shizune. The woman smiled warmly at him. "How do you feel?"
Sasuke shrugged, but the movement made him flinch.
Shizune tsked. "Don't try to move yet. Tsunade-sama should return soon with the results of your biopsy. I'm sorry, but we can't give you much to help you yet. We don't want to risk you going into shock because of a bad reaction to the medications."
Sasuke lowered his chin in a fraction of a nod.
Kakashi leaned forward. "Would you like to know what happened after you passed out?"
"I'll take that as a yes." Kakashi smiled. Sasuke looked like he was debating different ways to kill him. "Tsunade-sama herself is running the tests. You should count yourself very lucky. Before she left, she injected you with something that stabilized you. I had to change you into those hospital clothes." Kakashi hid an amused chuckle at Sasuke's suddenly disturbed look. Although he had not stripped him down completely so he would not know, Kakashi could not avoid the need for a sharp jab. "You have very little to be ashamed of."
Sasuke's eyes flashed.
Ignoring the murderous aura, Kakashi continued. "Sakura is currently with Naruto. He's fine." Kakashi held up a hand when he saw Sasuke's mouth open. "Sleeping, last I saw him. I suggested putting you in his room. Just please keep from breaking the headboard against the wall."
Shizune furrowed her brow. Sasuke's look promised death.
Kakashi beamed. Teasing Sasuke was like poking a porcupine: risky, but much too enjoyable to stop.
Before Kakashi could continue testing the other's limits, the sound of violent cursing reached him. Shizune groaned. Kakashi chuckled.
"Tsunade-sama hasn't repeated herself once," Kakashi observed admiringly. Shizune passed her hand over her face.
The door to the examination room was thrown abruptly open. Tsunade stormed in, still in the middle of her diatribe. Anko followed behind, visibly trying not to laugh. When she saw Sasuke, her smirk faded.
"—and when I get my hands on that motherfucking snake I'm going to wring his motherfucking neck—" Tsunade cut herself off abruptly when she noticed Sasuke. "Oh, you're up. Good; saves me needing to explain myself twice."
"You've been poisoned," she said baldly.
"…Okay." Sasuke blinked.
"It's a toxin designed to alter your phenotypic attributes. Not unlike a certain serum." The last she muttered under her breath.
Serum. Kakashi had been hearing that word a little too much.
"From the sample I removed from your shoulder, I was able to culture the cells. They show marked signs of deterioration as if exposed to strenuous physical activity. Moreover, their rapid division is similar to that of cancerous cells. Unlike cancerous cells, these are undergoing apoptosis at an exaggerated rate."
At the blank looks, Tsunade rolled her eyes. "The cells are dying quickly."
"So what does that mean?" Sasuke clutched his shoulder.
"For you?" Tsunade interpreted correctly. "Major stressful activity will cause the cells to react in this manner. Their rapid cell division means that any wounds incurred will heal relatively quickly. However, there will be severe trauma. All cells have a specific lifespan and cutting it down will incur different consequences. Your skin will be hypersensitive; the slightest pressure may prove painful. After the stressor fades, your muscles will cramp and you may be incapable of any form of movement. If the nerve cells are affected, which is the most worrisome, there is a whole spectrum of consequences. Irritability, memory loss, slowed reflexes and hallucinations are only at the top of the list."
There was a thick silence.
"You were able to get all this from staring at my shoulder cells?" Sasuke responded after a pause.
"Only the first part." Tsunade smiled bitterly. "I know the consequences as there is another person who was injected with the same toxin."
At Sasuke's questioning look, Tsunade motioned to Anko who smiled ironically at the younger man. "Anko, here, is the first person to have been injected—and survived."
"Survived?" Sasuke repeated.
"Most don't," Anko finally spoke up. "Count yourself lucky we have an antidote that can counteract the more…lethal side effects while your body adjusts."
"If you have any questions," Tsunade continued, "Anko is the person to ask."
"Why were you injected?" Sasuke's dark eyes seemed to be analyzing the spiky-haired woman.
She grinned, but there was a bitter twist to her smile. "Because his student happened to be the closest test specimen."
Sasuke fell silent.
"It'll be annoying at times and there are days the pain will be unmanageable," as she spoke, Anko's hand rose to her left shoulder, "but you'll live."
Kakashi observed their interaction: Orochimaru's rejected student and the man he suddenly took an interest in. Shizune's eyes flickered between them.
"It's late," Tsunade declared. "We can continue this conversation tomorrow. Sasuke, you're out of immediate danger. I'll escort you to your room. There, I'll give you a shot that will numb the pain and allow you to rest. You'll sleep through the rest of the acclimation. Any problems?"
Sasuke shook his head.
"All right. Shizune."
"Oh, right!" Tsunade's assistant almost tripped over herself as she grabbed a wheelchair propped against the wall and unfolded it.
"No," Sasuke said immediately.
"It'll just be down the hall…"
Tsunade hid a grin. "Fine. Follow me."
Sasuke carefully climbed off the bed. Kakashi followed them down the hall, leaving Shizune and Anko behind. In Naruto's room, Sakura was sitting in a chair she had set next to the bed. Her feet were pulled up on the seat, her head resting on the back of the chair as she dozed lightly. She jumped when Tsunade touched her shoulder, relaxing when she realized who it was.
"You okay, Sasuke-kun?" she whispered. He nodded, but his eyes were focused on the sleeping man on the bed. The black eyes traced the tubing curling away from Naruto's hand to the clear IV bag hanging from its stand.
"Come on." Tsunade pushed him lightly to the opposite bed. "Time for your shot."
Sasuke crept into the bed, pulling the sheets over his legs. Out of her pocket, Tsunade withdrew a vial, an alcohol swab and a needle.
"I'm going to inject this in your shoulder." As she spoke, Tsunade broke the packaging around the needle, carefully withdrawing a measured amount of the clear liquid in the vial. "The injection I gave you earlier had an anesthetic, but this still might hurt."
Sasuke nodded. He did not move as Tsunade broke the surface of his skin with the needle and pushed the contents inside his body.
"You'll be able to sleep now," she said. "I'll be by in the morning to check on you two." Before she left, her hand ghosted over Naruto's hand. Kakashi saw a sad smile curl her lips as she glanced at the blond.
Sakura left after Tsunade, aiming a smile over her shoulder. Kakashi stepped out last, closing the door behind them. Before the door closed completely, he noticed Sasuke shove the covers off him. Stumbling, he walked the four steps to Naruto's bed. Raising the sheets, he slid into the bed beside the sleeping man. His fingers curled lightly around Naruto's hand.
Tsunade fiddled with some stray papers on her desk. She should have been getting a head start on work, but it was difficult. She still couldn't believe Naruto had returned. When she saw him, saw the amount of blood drying on his skin…
She screwed her eyes shut. He was fine. It didn't matter that she lost him once on the operating table; he pulled through. That's what mattered.
The Uchiha boy was a different matter altogether. Again, she smoothed the paper with the result of his examination before her. Out of curiosity, she had run an esper test. When the number came in over the maximum value, she ran it again. Outside of the hosts, very few people had such a high esper ranking. In Konoha, there was no longer anyone who even came close to the maximum value, much less surpass it. She was certain she had made a mistake.
The second result was the same.
A knock at the door interrupted her musing. Glancing once at the clock, she knew it would be bad news. Nothing good ever came at three in the morning. She quickly stuffed the paper with Sasuke's results out of view.
"Come in," she called and immediately wished she hadn't. "Danzou," she forced through a smile.
The older man leaned heavily on his walking stick as he came in. Half of his face and body were covered in bandages.
"I heard the Kyuubi host returned," he said softly. By which he meant, Tsunade mentally translated, that he heard the rumor and already verified it.
"Yes." Tsunade refused to give him any extra information.
"Do you think it wise?" Danzou pressed. "Letting the creature inside our walls again?"
"That creature," Tsunade spat, "was your greatest joy. Or weren't you the one constantly suggesting him for missions?"
"That was before." Danzou's features were closed, revealing nothing. "How can we be sure he is not a threat?"
"What do you suggest?" Tsunade asked silkily. She waited for him to make a mistake. Slip up, she implored. Punching him would make her feel thoroughly satisfied.
"I am not suggesting anything. I simply believe we ought to keep an eye on him and the man he came with."
"Oh?" Faking interest, Tsunade leaned back in her chair. "And how do you suggest we do that?"
"Assign one of my group to them. Just to watch over them for the duration of their stay."
"Thank you, but I don't think that will be necessary." Tsunade trained her gaze on his. "Kakashi is more than enough."
"Excuse me, Tsunade-hime, but I believe his suggestion has merit."
Tsunade groaned inwardly. Just what she needed. Mikotado Homura and Utatane Koharu. Now her night was complete.
The elderly advisors pushed open the door to her office, standing beside Danzou. Homura continued, "He ran away when he was twelve. Suddenly, he returns? It's suspicious."
Tsunade could feel a headache brewing behind her eyes. She couldn't admit she had smuggled Naruto out of Konoha; they'd call her traitor and she would be of no help in a cell.
"And considering Kakashi's prior relationship with the boy, as well as being Yondaime's former student, he may be biased," Koharu finished.
They had a point. Which only served to irritate Tsunade further.
"I take it you already have someone in mind," she said after a pause.
"Sai," Danzou answered promptly. "He's their age so he will find it easier to ingratiate himself. And there's no question about his loyalty to Konoha."
More like his loyalty to you.
"Fine," she said. "But one of my ANBU will also be constantly present. To help…Kai, was it?"
It was petty, but her glare dared Danzou to correct her.
He bowed respectfully. "Hokage-sama." He left. Homura and Koharu remained long enough to remind Tsunade about what her position meant, a reprimand she had heard so much she had it memorized. She tuned them out until the door closed behind them. When she was certain they were gone, she raised a hand, curling the fingers into her palm.
A man dropped from the ceiling, dressed in the regulation ANBU uniform. A porcelain mask hid his features.
"You heard?" Tsunade asked, knowing the answer.
"I tried not to, Hokage-sama," he answered politely.
"You may remove your mask." She waited until he did so before continuing. "I'm assigning you to Kakashi's team. You will operate under the code name 'Yamato'."
"You want me to keep an eye on the host?" inquired Yamato.
"Naruto doesn't worry me," she confessed. "I want you to observe Sai. Report any suspicious movement."
"If I may, Hokage-sama," he lowered his head in a demure fashion, "perhaps you're over-analyzing the situation."
"I certainly hope so," Tsunade replied softly.
Bleary eyes slit open, revealing a line of blue. A plain white blur stretched above him. Blinking brought the ceiling into focus. It felt obscenely early. If Sasuke wasn't awake yet, then it was too early. Hearing the even breaths to his right, Naruto curled closer into Sasuke's warmth—and winced at the sudden stabs that arced up his body.
"Wha—?" he gasped. His torso felt stiff. When he palmed his side, he thought he felt the slightly scratchy feel of bandages. Out of his hand, a slender tube led to a half-empty IV bag.
This is a hospital.
But why would he need...
Seisa hurt me.
But that meant...
Naruto tried to sit up and was only able to curl around his stomach. Millions of white-hot needles pricking every inch of his skin. His side felt like it was on fire.
At Naruto's abrupt movement, Sasuke startled awake.
"What are you—?"
"Fuu-chan," Naruto groaned. "Where is she?"
Dark eyes lowered. "Naruto..."
"They took her, didn't they? Akatsuki took her."
Sasuke nodded. Naruto's hand flattened against his abdomen. He curled further into a ball.
"Naruto?" Sasuke's hands tightened around the other's shoulders. "Does it hurt? Do you need pain meds?"
"Yes." Neither was certain what he was affirming.
Sasuke searched for the call button in vain. Finally, he pulled himself out of the bed. "I'll find a nurse. I'll be right back."
Leaving only a thin gap open, Sasuke slid the door shut. The pain in his shoulder had calmed to a dull, but manageable throb. His muscles were stiff, but he forced them to move. He found a nurse walking down and the hall and quickly called to her.
"My friend needs some pain medication," he said.
"What's the patient's name?" she queried.
"Ah, yes, Naruto-kun." She nodded. "Tsunade-sama said he could have some Percocet as soon as he woke up. I'll go get it."
Sasuke debated whether to follow her or return to Naruto's side. He massaged his shoulder absentmindedly. The nurse soon returned with a plastic cup, a tablet resting inside it. They were silent as they walked down the hall. Sasuke pulled open the door, letting her step through.
"Oh my!" she gasped, almost dropping the cup. Sasuke panicked. Did Naruto fall? Did his wound open again? He shoved past her.
The curtains billowed in the breeze from the open window. The room was empty.
As Naruto walked aimlessly, he realized Konoha had not changed much.
The buildings crowned with scarlet roofs still shadowed the winding streets. Familiar stores met his eyes. Delicious smells wafted to his nose, many of which he recognized from his childhood.
His one-time home thrived with life. Children ran by him, playing games. Women called to each other. Men laughed in a corner. He spotted a trio of twelve-year-olds running after a fat black cat. He chuckled. He remembered that mission. He had had to capture the cat alone, as he had no team. He'd berated Tsunade after it was done, asking her how it was possible that someone of such talent could be assigned such a pathetic mission. She had thrown a shoe at his head.
In retrospect, he suspected Tsunade had been aiming to kill. The shoe's heel had stabbed through the wood paneling of her office's far wall.
She was infamous throughout for her monstrous strength. And her incapability to gamble. But that was beside the point.
It had been plainly obvious why Tsunade kept assigning him simple tasks.
When he looked up, he realized where his legs had carried him. The door to his old apartment stood before him. Naruto rested an arm on the unpainted surface, feeling the effect the years had on the wood. This apartment had been his first house. Then it had been the even smaller apartment Tsunade had found him when she smuggled him out of Konoha. Finally, it had been Sasuke's apartment, the first one Naruto had called home.
He clearly remembered moving in with Sasuke.
Naruto had juggled with the three bags and two suitcases. Pursing his lips, he had freed one hand to press the doorbell repeatedly. Again. When that had failed to elicit any response from inside the apartment, he had alternated between knocking and kicking at the door.
Glaring at the smooth wood as if it had been his greatest enemy, Naruto had dropped his bags. He had inhaled deeply. Raising his hands and one foot, he had assumed a crane-like pose. With a kung fu yell, he had kicked the door.
Just as it had opened.
Sasuke had not even blinked as Naruto had fallen into a semi-split. Rubbing his eyes, he had asked in a voice still thick with sleep, "What to do you want, dobe?"
Naruto had reeled up, grinning widely. "Here, Sasuke, help me with this."
Sasuke had had no time to react as a bag, a heavy and solid bag that made a crackling sound when manhandled, collided with his chest. Only his reflexes had saved him from falling.
Naruto had bustled past him, lugging the other four bags. "Can you put that in your kitchen? That's my ramen. Oh and do you mind if I shove some clothes out of your closet? I need to make space for mine. This moving in stuff is more difficult than I thought. God, I'm so dirty already. There was so much crap in my house. I still haven't packed all of it. I'm hungry. Hey, Sasuke, can you make some of that ramen while I shove these bags in?"
Sasuke had just stared, eyes half-lidded from sleep. He had nodded blankly, stumbling to the kitchen. It was when he had set the water to boil that one particular sentence from Naruto's monologue sunk through.
"You're moving in where?!"
Naruto smiled. A hand ran over the peeling surface of the wall. He tried the knob and was unsurprised when it did not give way. He knew his way around the door, however. Fiddling with the underside of the knob, he found the catch and heard the door click open. He turned the doorknob, stepping into the dusty hall.
It looked like the apartment had not been touched since he left it eight years before. His feet raised little clouds of dust when he walked. The windows were gray, the sunlight fighting to get through. It glimmered off the dust filtering through the air. He followed the hall to his bedroom. He laughed when he saw his ramen poster still clung to the wall. The bed looked like it might collapse if any weight settled on it. The wooden dresser had water stains.
Ignoring the signs of time, he stepped to the window and threw it open. He coughed at the sudden storm of dust. Waving his hand, he hastened its dissipation. His side was screaming and it was with a grunt of pain that he pulled himself through the window and clambered to the roof.
With a sigh of relief, he lay against the red shingles. The heat they had absorbed filtered through his thin shirt. He closed his eyes against the glare of the sun, focusing on his breathing. The pain in his side was a constant throb, annoying, but manageable.
His throat was dry. His eyes ached.
Naruto cracked open an eye to see Jiraiya beaming at him. The white-haired man waved one half of a Popsicle in front of Naruto's face.
"Ero-sensei? When did you get here?"
"A few hours ago," the older man answered as he settled down beside Naruto. "Thought I'd find you here. So, want one?"
"I'm twenty, not ten." Naruto grasped the candy by its wooden stick.
Jiraiya looked mortally offended. "You're never too old for a Popsicle!" he cried.
Smiling, Naruto bit into the cold treat. It was cool and soothing, the artificial sweetness rolling around on his tongue.
"Tsunade's pitching a fit," Jiraiya began conversationally, biting into his half.
Naruto shrugged. Jiraiya shoved his temple with a finger.
"You should be more caring, kid. Don't you feel bad for the poor chairs and walls she's destroying right now?"
"And what about Shizune? Poor thing has to deal with Tsunade now."
"Shizune-nee-chan always has to deal with Tsunade-baa-chan."
"True enough. …They told me about Fuu."
Naruto stopped eating. Jiraiya swallowed thoughtfully before he continued speaking. "I remember her. Couldn't get her to shut up. She was even more of a pain in the ass than you when you were kids."
Orange drops slid down the length of the Popsicle, over Naruto's fingers and fell to the roof. They darkened the area they fell on, reflecting the sunlight.
"You remember when you dyed my hair orange? Know why you never got caught?" Naruto's eyes shot up, but Jiraiya was looking to the horizon. "She took the blame for you. When I told her she was lying, she grabbed a vial of ink and poured it over my head. 'I dyed your hair,' she said and actually sniggered at me. A nine-year-old! Sniggering at me!" Jiraiya shook his head. "She was always defending you."
Naruto's knuckles shone white.
"It was her choice, Naruto." Jiraiya glanced at him over the Popsicle. "It wasn't your fault."
"Yes, it was." Naruto bit the inside of his lip harshly. "I just wanted to help Sasuke. We just needed money. Sasuke was almost hurt. Kakashi and Sakura could have died. And Fuu…"
More of the melting orange liquid dripped over his fingers, painting sticky trails on the smooth skin.
"Akatsuki was hunting you. You know that." Jiraiya chewed on his Popsicle. "They would have found her and they would have found you. That had nothing to do with you. And, hell, at least you actually had good intentions. This," he said, waving his hand over the sprawling village, "isn't the most ethical of places."
"I was talking to Sakura. She said Fuu realized Seisa was part of her." Naruto started at the news. "I think Fuu finally accepted what happened to her and what she was made into. I think it was a choice that she made for herself and for you.
"You all have a self-preservation instinct that is supposed to make impossible any sort of altruism. The fact that you didn't made you special among the others." Jiraiya's hand squeezed Naruto's shoulder. "That girl chose something that should have been impossible. She chose something that Seisa should have prohibited. Her possible death over your capture. Not many people find such selfless love."
A different drop fell to join the splatters on the roof, one clear and salty.
Voice breaking, Naruto gasped, "Ero-sensei…I didn't want this to happen."
"We never do." Jiraiya's hand tightened comfortingly. "And you know? You shouldn't count Fuu out just yet."
"What?" Naruto looked at Jiraiya without understanding. The older man smiled.
"I've been researching Akatsuki. What they do. We all know that their imprisoning the hosts is bull. But we have a chance. The process to synthesize the serum from the blood takes three days. They'll first have to wait for her to heal before attempting the process. Not to mention that she managed to hurt a few. That gives us a window of opportunity of a little over a week to attempt a rescue."
"You know where she is?" Naruto gasped.
"That's the information I was bringing Tsunade. I know where the operation takes place."
"How do you know that?" Naruto's eyes were wild with hope.
"I've got a spy inside Akatsuki." Jiraiya smiled. "He keeps me well-informed."
Naruto could feel his heart pounding against the base of his neck. The corners of his lips twitched upward.
Jiraiya winked. "Don't give up just yet. We'll get her back."
With a watery laugh, Naruto jumped on Jiraiya.
"WHERE THE HELL WERE YOU?!"
Naruto flinched at the unholy scream. "Baa-chan…too loud."
Tsunade looked five seconds from murdering him. "You have a hole in your side! What the hell are you thinking, leaving the hospital and wandering around?!"
"I'm fine." Naruto waved her off. He continued leaning on Jiraiya. His skin was pale. When Tsunade grabbed his arm, she found it cool to the touch.
"If you want to kill yourself, I'm willing to punch your head off," she snarled. She barked at Jiraiya, "Take him to his bed. And if you dare get up without my permission again, I will tie you to the bed."
"No, you wouldn't," Naruto taunted. Tsunade smiled, but there was nothing kind about it.
"I wouldn't?" she repeated delicately.
Inside the hospital room, Sasuke crossed his arms in front of his chest. Naruto wrested with the bindings around his wrists and torso.
"Sasukeee," Naruto whined. "Help me!"
"Come on, Sasuke!"
The onyx-haired man pointedly turned away.
"Oi, Sasuke! Untie me or I'm tying you to the bed!"
"And how will you do that when you can't even get up?"
Naruto's face was turning red with exertion. "Sasukeee!"
Sasuke ignored him.
Changing tactics, Naruto stopped fighting. "I'm sorry, Sasuke. I promise I will stay in the room. Could you please untie me?"
Sasuke arched an eyebrow. "And you'll behave?"
"Yes." Naruto's eye grew wide and shiny. He pouted.
Rolling his eyes, Sasuke gracefully stood from his bed and walked the three steps to Naruto's. There he reached for the blond's pillow and shoved the edge into the man's mouth.
"Mmm hmmm pfmm!"
"This is so peaceful now. Don't you think, Naruto?"
"I think I'll take a nap."
Naruto was still spitting out stuffing. He had bit into the pillow and got a mouthful of cotton. Renewed struggling only made the fibrous material creep to the back of his mouth. Sasuke didn't help as he thought Naruto's choking sounds were just a new ploy to get free. It wasn't until Naruto began turning blue that Sasuke pulled the pillow out of the blond's mouth.
"You," he said while feeling around with his tongue for stray fibers, "are a bastard."
"Do you two ever stop fighting?" Sakura asked.
"No," they chorused.
They waited in the Hokage's office. Sakura and Kakashi had stopped by their room earlier to tell them the Hokage wanted to speak with them. Naruto had promptly thrown a fit that he wanted to see the Tower. Kakashi had shrugged and appropriated a wheelchair. They'd promptly smuggled Naruto out of the hospital.
The Hokage, whoever he was, was taking his fine time. Sasuke controlled the urge to tap his foot against the floor.
"Where is the Hokage?" he finally asked.
"I'm right here." Sasuke started. Tsunade smirked at him. "I would apologize except you're the reason I'm late. My patients should stay in the hospital."
She stared pointedly at Naruto. He had the gall to grin.
"So what is it, baa-chan? I've still got healing to do."
"I think I prefer you comatose." Tsunade strode past him to settle into her chair.
Naruto made a face. Sakura laughed.
"Let's do this quickly so I can get you out of my office." Tsunade leaned back. "While you're here, you will be accompanied by two guards."
"But I didn't do anything!" Naruto's eyes widened. "You can't pin anything on me!"
"I know you haven't done anything," Tsunade patronized him. Her tone seemed to go over Naruto's head. "Nevertheless, you and Sasuke are outsiders. Just consider it a…necessary precaution. They won't bother you. You may come in now!"
Apart from Tsunade, those in the room turned when the door opened. Two men stepped through. One with an almost unhealthy pallor and dark hair looked to be around Sasuke's age. The other with brown hair seemed several years older.
"This is Sai and Yamato," Tsunade introduced them, pointing to the younger one first.
"Hi! My name's Naruto!" The blond beamed.
Sai cocked his head to the side. His smile didn't quite reach his eyes.
"You're really beat up," he observed. "You must be really weak, dickless."
There was a pause.
"WHAT THE FUCK, ASSHOLE?!"
Sasuke and Sakura quickly grabbed Naruto to keep him in the wheelchair.
"That was not nice." Sakura frowned at him. "You shouldn't insult others upon meeting them."
"Ah. I understand." Sai nodded solemnly. "You defend him since you're an ugly whore."
"YOU WORTHLESS BASTARD, I'M GOING TO TEAR YOUR BALLS OFF!"
"Now, Sakura, let's settle down." Kakashi seized her by her shoulders.
Sasuke watched the commotion quietly. Sai examined him and Sasuke arched an eyebrow.
"Is this your little fag boyfriend?" Sai asked Naruto politely.
Naruto turned purple. "I AM GOING TO KILL—!"
"Did you expect to glimpse our characters by attacking when we least expected it?"
"Is that what you think?" Sai smiled.
Sasuke calmly began wheeling Naruto out. "I won't waste my breath arguing with you. I'd rather not infect myself with pond scum. Sakura, we're leaving. Hokage-sama, good day."
With a victorious smirk, Sakura skipped past Sai.
"That was amazing, Sasuke!" she enthused. "Did you see his face?"
"How come you get all the cool lines?" Naruto whined.
Sasuke shrugged. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of yellow.
Through the slit left by the half-shut door, he saw a line of portraits lining a wall. The fourth had a man with messy yellow hair and Naruto's blue eyes.
"Shouldn't you be with Naruto?"
Sasuke jumped, hand going to the gun at his waist. It was only when his hands closed around air that he remembered he no longer had it.
There was a click. Light flooded the room.
Tsunade lounged against the far wall, one manicured finger lingering over the light switch.
"Hokage-sama," Sasuke greeted politely.
"What are you doing?" Tsunade crossed her arms under her ample bosom.
"It seems I misplaced a ring."
One blond eyebrow rose. "Here?"
"I got lost earlier." Sasuke shrugged.
"And I can work without sake." Her voice was completely devoid of sarcasm. "I take it you wanted a closer look at our Hokage. Or were you only interested in one?"
Sasuke was silent.
Smiling to herself, Tsunade moved to stand in front of the first picture. "This was my grandfather, Senju Hashirama. Our Shodai. He founded Konoha. His brother," she nodded to the picture beside it, "Senju Tobirama, established our military force. Hiruzen Sarutobi, Sandaime and my teacher. He was our longest reigning Hokage and, under him, Konoha saw incredible growth—and two of its greatest wars. After the second war, he relinquished the position to our Yondaime."
She paused in front of the fourth photograph and the solemn, yellow-haired man pictured there. "He was our youngest Hokage, barely twenty-six when he assumed the position. He was already famous—and infamous—for his speed in battle, to the point that he was nicknamed Konoha's Yellow Flash. His esper ability was said to be seen only once in a generation." Her smile widened, her gaze distant. "He was Jiraiya's student and there was no way to shut up Jiraiya for months after he was named. Namikaze Minato."
"Minato?" Sasuke's eyes narrowed.
"Mm-hmm. Naruto's father." All signs of humor evaporated from Tsunade's face. She did not notice or ignored Sasuke startling. "His reign proved the shortest in our history. Barely a year."
"Why?" Sasuke pressed after Tsunade fell silent.
She sighed. "It was around this time the Bijuu appeared again." Before Sasuke could ask, she continued, "Bijuu is the nickname of a series nine serums designed by Hashirama and his companion, a man who also helped him found Konoha. They were created with the purpose of developing a greater breed of fighters. Everyone here is an esper, of course, and—"
"Esper?" The term sounded familiar to Sasuke.
"Yes. Simpler way of saying ESPer," Tsunade explained. "Individuals with a capacity for illusions, empathic ability, telekinesis and other, even stranger talents. It tends to run in families. The Bijuu are a special breed, though.
"Increased aggression, immunity to pain, greater muscle endurance and strength, sharpened senses. Unfortunately, there were some…undesirable side effects. Much like the movies, in fact."
As she spoke, Tsunade strolled to her office. Sasuke followed, casting one last look at Minato's portrait.
Tsunade approached her desk. Taking out a key, she unlocked a drawer, pulling it open and removing an unmarked envelope. She punctuated each phrase by tossing a picture onto the polished wood of her desk.
"Feelings of paranoia and persecution." Fuu, eyes wide, seemingly backed into a corner. She was curled halfway into a fetus position and the lines of her body stood out in fury.
"Increased bloodlust." Gaara, the sand around him dark and glistening. The same glutinous liquid stained his hands. If the picture weren't black and white, Sasuke would not have been surprised to see the liquid glimmer crimson.
"Beast-like characteristics." A woman with long blond hair on all fours, back arched like a cat.
"And decrease in rational thought." Five other pictures fluttered down. A sixth was held delicately from a corner between Tsunade's fingers. Sasuke slowly reached out, taking it in his hands.
This one was in color. A young boy, not looking a day over twelve, was crouched on all fours. His blond hair was standing on end, the curious marks on his cheeks dark and jagged. The lines of his hands stood out in sharp relief, curled like claws. His lips had thinned, baring his teeth. His eyes were a vicious, inhuman red.
Sasuke almost didn't recognize Naruto.
Tsunade sank into her chair heavily. "They were monsters," she stated softly. "They could destroy any enemy quickly and efficiently, but were just as likely to kill their companions. They could not be taught or controlled."
"And Minato did this to his own son?" Repulsion was evident in Sasuke's tone.
"Minato never did anything without having a good reason, boy." Jiraiya strode into the office like a victorious war general. "He didn't inject his kid on a whim."
"Then why did he?"
"Because we were at war," Tsunade continued. "And the injection would kill an adult. Minato could not allow it to fall into enemy hands."
"Why not destroy it then?" Sasuke argued.
Tsunade pursed her lips. "The answer to that, I'm afraid, is something Minato took with him to his grave. Now…shouldn't you be with Naruto?"
"Where were you?" Naruto glanced up from the bed at Sasuke as he stepped through the door. Sasuke arched an eyebrow.
"You're my parole officer now?"
"Always have been."
Sasuke rolled his eyes. He dropped into the other bed.
"Come on, tell me," Naruto wheedled. Sasuke ignored him as he plumped up a pillow.
"I'll cuff you to the bed."
Sasuke choked. When he turned around, Naruto was grinning. "Is that meant to be a threat or a reward?"
"Whichever you prefer," Naruto answered breezily.
Sasuke scoffed. "You could try."
"That a challenge?" Naruto's blue eyes glinted mischievously.
Sasuke turned around.
Sasuke fell heavily into the bed, his face burying in the sheets. He could barely breathe as several pounds of blond idiot landed on him. He couldn't fight him off very well, not without risking Naruto's wound reopening. Sasuke managed to seize one of his wrists and turned them over.
"What?" Sasuke pulled his arm back only to have his movement restricted. Naruto smirked. When he looked up, he noticed the silvery metal of a handcuff encircling his wrist, its other end tied around one of the bedposts.
"I told you I'd cuff you to the bed." Naruto cackled. "And I still owe you for leaving me to die by suffocation!"
"You dead-last moron!" Sasuke snapped between stinging smacks from Naruto's pillow. "Untie me! Naruto!"
"You know, I don't think I will." Naruto slid off Sasuke's bed and climbed into his own. "Good night, Sasuke!"
"I heard your first meeting didn't go well."
"I apologize, Danzou-sama." Sai kneeled respectfully. "I am to meet with them tomorrow."
"Good. You understand your mission, don't you?" Danzou opened a book, flipping pages until he seemed to find what he was looking for.
"Then you may go."
Silently, Sai disappeared.
Danzou examined a drawing on the page. The diagram showed two children: one, kneeling, snarled; the other, standing, had strange red eyes. Above the two of them was a scarlet circle. A black dot marked its center, a slender black circle surrounding it. Three comma-like marks branched away from the circle. Next to it there was only one word.