Naruto almost thought that he was back in his room in Konoha Town when he woke up. He clearly wasn't in the hospital room anymore, nor was he staying in the plain rooms packed with bunk beds that pokémon centers kept for travelling trainers. But as he cleared the sleep from his eyes, he started picking out all the differences between his room and this room.
The bed sheets were all wrong—he had magikarp- and staryu-patterned sheets, and this bed had pokéball-patterned sheets. The posters taped to the walls were wrong—all of these posters were old and faded by years of sunlight exposure and most were of trainers that he'd never heard of (like who was Sakumo Hatake the "White Fang"?). The walls were the wrong color—his room was yellow-orange, not pale blue. And the books that lined the bookshelves…he didn't have that many books, he mainly collected stacks of manga magazines.
How'd I get in some other kid's room? Naruto wondered fuzzily as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. …And what a lame room. It's full of ancient posters and boring books…and dust.
He stretched slowly with a lot of wincing and some yawning. With his painkillers worn off, his ribs really ached. So he stiffly shuffled out of the mystery bedroom, leaving Demon sleeping on the end of the bed and dimly wondering where the toad-print pajamas he was wearing had come from.
Frowning in concentration, he thought back to the previous night. He remembered the ramen dinner at the nice little restaurant and how good the noodle soup had tasted. He also recalled how Minato-sama had come along too, and how the man had kept touching his mother's hand and giving her mysterious looks and smiles. Now Naruto was just plain frowning.
Minato-sama is cool…but he should know better than to touch someone's mom that way! It's creepy and wrong! And…and not allowed!
He wandered aimlessly through the strange house, poking his head through open doors. He found a few closets, a bathroom, one locked door, and a room full of books before finding the stairs. After slowly going down the steps, he started looking around the ground floor.
And then he found his mother.
She was curled up in a green sleeping bag on the floor of the living room fast asleep. But she wasn't alone; Minato-sama was there too, asleep in a dark blue sleeping bag. And even though they were in separate bags they were snuggled up next to each other, and they looked like they were holding hands.
Naruto gawked at the sight.
This was clearly Not Appropriate. This was obviously Not Allowed. And Naruto was going to put a stop to it…and then get his pills.
He opened his mouth to yell—
A large hand closed over his mouth, an arm wrapped around his torso, and then he was lifted off the ground and carried Naruto away to another part of the house. The boy tried to struggle, but it hurt too much. Just as he was starting to panic over being kidnapped, he was plopped down on a chair in the house's kitchen and he got a look at the person who had grabbed him.
"Hey!" Naruto muttered indignantly at the white-haired gym leader. "Why'd you grab me?! Are you a pervert and a pedophile?!"
The towering man scowled down at him. "I am not a pedophile! I was merely preventing you from disturbing such a cute and romantic scene!"
Naruto squinted at the man in confusion. "Huh?"
"Let them sleep," Jiraiya said as he started going about brewing up a pot of coffee. "They need it after being apart so long."
The boy watched him measure out coffee grounds. "What are you doing here?"
"This is my house," Jiraiya snorted. "Why shouldn't I be here?"
"Oh." Naruto rubbed at his scarred cheek. "So…who's room was I sleeping in?"
"Minato's old room," the man answered as the coffee maker started to bubble. "And those were his old PJs, if you were curious."
The blonde boy boggled at that.
The self-proclaimed "Toad Sage" studied him curiously from across the kitchen. "Why so surprised?"
While Naruto wasn't one of those crazy fans who'd pay money to get their idol's used tissues, he was blown away by the fact that he'd slept in Minato-sama's room and had some of his clothes. It was beyond his wildest dreams. Not only had he met the man in person and spoken with him, the man had gotten him a haunter and offered him the chance to trade, he'd gotten to meet the man's dragonite, and now all of this…
Naruto wanted to explain all of that, but he was still dumbfounded.
Jiraiya settled himself across the table from the boy. "Kid, what do you know about your father?"
"Uh…" Naruto dropped his eyes to the table. "…Nothing."
"…Nothing?!" Jiraiya choked.
Naruto idly traced a swirl in the grain of the wood of the table with his finger.
"That…that stupid, stupid girl!" the man growled.
"Eh?" Naruto glanced up curiously. "Who?"
"Your mother," Jiraiya grumbled.
"Don't you call my mom stupid!" Naruto snapped, instantly incensed. "Take it back right now!"
The gym leader was unaffected by Naruto's righteous anger. "No. She ditches Minato with no warning or word and leaves him miserable for years, and she tells you nothing? That's stupid. She has no reason to do that."
Naruto opened his mouth to protest—
"I smell coffee," Minato-sama mumbled as he blindly stumbled into the kitchen.
"It's not ready yet," Jiraiya grunted and gently guided the blonde man to the table. "Here, sit down."
The League Champion yawned and scrubbed at his eyes. "What were you talking about?"
"How stupid your girlfriend is," Jiraiya answered.
Naruto sat back in his chair, his mind spinning off in an entirely new direction. The two men kept talking—something about smart people panicking and irrational fears—but Naruto really wasn't listening. His mother being Minato-sama's old friend and traveling partner was one thing, but if she was his girlfriend…
Without a word, Naruto slipped off his chair and left the kitchen. He found a door that led out onto the back porch and went outside. The house was a lot like his home in Konoha Town. It was on the outskirts, surrounding the building with the open spaces of nature. Naruto walked off the porch and kept going until he found a nice big tree to sit underneath that was just out of sight of the house.
His mother never really said anything to him about his father. But once she had let slip one thing. She told him that she'd only ever had one boyfriend, and that boyfriend was his father. So if she was Minato-sama's girlfriend that meant that…
Naruto curled up into a ball and, although he wasn't sure why, he started to cry.
Demon woke up and found himself alone at the foot of the bed. That didn't bother the vulpix any. Whisker Face wasn't likely to be too far away. So with a yawn and a stretch, the oddly-hued vulpix hopped down from the bed and looked for a way outside.
An open backdoor let the little fire fox out into the cool morning air. A bush near the porch was as good a place as any to relieve himself. But before he could head back inside and seek out food, Demon noticed Whisker Face's scent and footsteps in the dewy grass.
Curious, and not yet starving, Demon followed the trail a short distance into the trees to see what the stupid little human was doing.
Whisker Face wasn't alone. The female venusaur that belonged to the more evolved Whisker Face look-alike was there, poking the curled up human with a vine. Whisker Face ignored the pokes and just kept making soft pathetic sounds that didn't seem to have any meaning.
Demon poked the venusaur's thick leg with a paw. :What are you doing?:
:Something is wrong with your trainer,: she told him. :I saw him walking out here while I was gathering morning sunlight. Do you know why he's crying?:
:I dunno,: Demon muttered. He could smell no blood so the boy hadn't hurt himself again, and no other reason for crying came to the fox's mind. :I just woke up. And who can really understand humans anyway?:
:Other humans can,: the venusaur replied. :Perhaps you should go fetch Minato-kun or Kushina-chan to help him.:
Demon ignored the suggestion in favor of poking the boy himself. :Hey, Whisker Face! Hey!:
:You call him "Whisker Face"?: the venusaur rumbled disapprovingly.
:Sure,: Demon snorted as he put both paws on the boy to shake him. :It's not like he can understand a word that I'm saying.:
The boy uncurled slightly and reached out to push the vulpix aside before curling back up again and ignoring both pokémon.
The boy never pushed him away and ignored him. The human was always eager to try and bond the vulpix tighter to himself and pounced on every instance when the fox pokémon approached him voluntarily. This behavior was all wrong.
Demon darted back to the house and found two humans sitting at the table in one of the rooms—a human with long white hair, and the Whisker Face look-alike. Using one of the chairs, the vulpix bounded up onto the table and parked himself directly in front of Look-Alike. The human paused in sipping at his mug at looked at Demon curiously.
"Hello again," Look-Alike greeted and reached out a hand to pat Demon's head.
:No,: Demon barked, snapping at the fingers. :You will not pet me. You will follow me!:
"Interesting critter," White Hair remarked. "Would you look at that coloration… It belongs to the kid?"
Demon bristled at the color comment, but focused on his task and pounded his paws on the table top. :Follow me, stupid!:
"Yes, it's Naruto's," Look-Alike answered, putting his cup down. "I have to remember to ask him how he got a hold of it."
:Stop sitting there and follow me!: Demon snapped. :You followed me last time, what's so hard about it now?:
"What's got it so riled up, I wonder," White Hair muttered. "…And where did the kid go?"
This gave Look-Alike paused and he finally stood up and focused on Demon. "You know where he went?"
:Yes!: Demon dove off the table and waited by the open door. :This way!:
The human followed and Demon led him the short way to Whisker Face. The boy hadn't moved and was still making miserable sounds. Look-Alike moved in to determine this strange human problem and fix it.
Demon hopped up onto the venusaur's head and settled in to wait.
Minato had no idea what he was going to find when he followed the vulpix out behind the house. Myouboku Town was a fairly safe place, but there were plenty of ways for Naruto to have found himself in trouble again. Maybe he'd gotten a little loopy on his painkillers and wandered off. Or perhaps he'd become sick and couldn't return to the house.
It was a relief to find that Hana was with him. He liked to let his venusaur outside overnight so that she could catch the earliest rays of the morning sunlight. Hana hovered over the boy anxiously, poking at him but getting no response.
Naruto was huddled up in a ball and whimpering. He didn't appear to have any new injuries, which relieved Minato some. He knelt down by the pajama-clad boy and put a hand on his back.
The boy flinched away from his hand. "Go 'way."
"Why?" Minato asked. "What's wrong?"
"Leave me alone," Naruto whimpered.
"Not until you tell me what's going on," Minato insisted. "Why don't we go back inside? It's kind of damp and cold out here, and I'm sure you could use some breakfast."
Naruto didn't respond to that, but instead started speaking about something else. "Your uncle said…that my mom was your girlfriend."
"Yes," he nodded slowly. "She was."
The boy slowly, stiffly sat up, and rubbed at his damp, blotchy cheeks. "She said…that she only had one boyfriend…and…"
Minato shifted to sit beside the boy—his son—and stare out deeper into the woods. "…And this bothers you? Your mother seems to think that you would be happy."
"I don't know," Naruto mumbled hoarsely, digging his hands into his hair. "I guess it's really cool, but… You weren't there. It was just Mom and me."
"I would've been there, if I'd known," Minato sighed and leaned back against the tree trunk. "She disappeared on me and never let me know where she was. And I never knew about you until I found you myself."
Naruto stared down at his hands for a while, and Minato just sat with him, unsure of what to say or if there was anything else that he could say. Then the boy abruptly got up and trudged back to the house. Minato followed him a few steps behind all the way to the living room where Kushina still lay sleeping. He watched from the doorway as the boy sank down on the carpeted floor beside her and shook her shoulder.
She slowly started to stir—
Minato started as his uncle touched his shoulder. "What?" he whispered.
"Phone call for you," Jiraiya murmured back. "In the study. It seems important."
With a grimace and a sigh, he went to the small study in the corner of the house and took the video phone off hold. He wanted to grimace again when he saw a grim-faced police officer on the screen. But instead of frowning, he managed a polite smile.
"Good morning, officer. What can I do for you?"
"Good morning, Minato Namikaze-sama," the office greeted formally with a slight bow. "I am Officer Tekka Uchiha."
It wasn't much of a surprise to find an Uchiha police officer. Only so many of the Uchiha could go into the family business of running Uchiha Corporation, and the Uchiha Clan was a sprawling mess of interconnected families. So most of the leftover Uchiha tended to go into the "other" family business and become police officers throughout the Land of Fire.
"I am aware that you are on vacation at the moment," the Uchiha continued. "However, a matter has come up in the Forest of Death that we would wish your assistance in investigating. Suspicious characters have been seen skulking around and it is believed that they may be poaching pokémon. It is also believed that they used pokémon to attack a pair of young trainers who may have inadvertently stumbled across what they were doing."
Minato sucked a breath through his teeth. "So you want me there as soon as possible to back up your officers?"
"Yes," Officer Tekka nodded. "We wouldn't have bothered you, but…" He frowned deeply. "…Tsunade Senju is on another gambling binge in the Senju City casinos and refuses to be bothered. No other gym leaders are close enough to justify calling them away from their posts to assist us."
"…Alright," Minato sighed, doing his best to bury his irritation and disappointment. "I'll leave here later today and meet you at Police Headquarters in Senju City?"
"That would be most appreciated, Namikaze-sama." The Uchiha bowed at the screen again. "And we're terribly sorry about cutting into your off-time."
"It's alright," Minato replied, even though it really wasn't. "I'll see you then."
The police officer nodded and the phone screen went dark.
Minato groaned and turned the phone off.
Fantastic, he thought sarcastically. Just great. Tsunade-oba-san, why do you have to be so selfish?
Tsunade Senju really wasn't his aunt, even though he always referred to her that way. She and his uncle had been old traveling partners and childhood friends. If she hadn't fallen in love with a pokémon ranger named Dan, Minato was sure that she and his uncle would've been married. But after Dan's tragic death while working out in the wilds, Tsunade became bitter towards the world and spent more and more time drinking and gambling in her home city's casinos. It had gotten so bad that Minato wondered why her gym's certification hadn't been revoked—she was almost never available for trainers to challenge her and she hadn't given out a badge in years.
Well…I better get going. Breakfast and then a shower. Shaking his head, he moved towards the kitchen. And then I have a few errands to run before I leave…
Naruto sat on the edge of the porch behind Jiraiya's house and fingered the great-ball that contained Spooky. Demon was dozing next to him. Bolt was playing with a pokéball, kicking it around and balancing it on his head. Shadow seemed to be playing tag with Uzu-chan out in the backyard. And Gamakichi had found a rotten tree stump to use as a punching bag.
He really wasn't paying any attention to what was going on around him. His head was too full to really think clearly. He didn't know what to feel.
He supposed that he should be happy. He'd gone from having no father, to one of the coolest fathers possible. If he went down to the pokémon center where Sakura and Sasuke were staying, he would surely amaze them with this new information. They would certainly think better of him knowing that he was related to someone cool and important, instead of just thinking he was nutty and unimportant like his eccentric mother.
It was hard to imagine her afraid of anything. She wasn't bothered by ghosts or scary movies or the dark or bug pokémon or anything! One time, at Konoha Town's grocery store, a wild spinarak had gotten stuck inside and while all the other women screamed and ran away from the spider pokémon, she calmly picked it up and let it outside. His mom was tough and fearless and always knew what to do and was the best mom ever.
And yet, when he talked to her about why his father wasn't around, she claimed it was because she had been afraid. She hadn't been ready for him to come along; she hadn't expected him at all. She'd run away…and never had the courage to come back.
"But…I don't understand!"
"Maybe you will one day, when you're older and you've found that special person—that special person who is the foundation of your world. I never thought I'd find that, I never expected to, I never wanted to. But then I found him, and the thought of him hating me or resenting me or just being disappointed with me…it turned me into a cowardly idiot."
"You're not a coward Mom! Or an idiot!"
"You'd be very surprised if you could watch a movie of my whole life… I've told you already, Naruto—I'm not as perfect as you think I am. I'm far from perfect. I've made a bunch of dumb decisions that haven't been fair to you, your father, or any of my family. This whole mess is my entire fault. Really, you ought to hate me…"
He didn't hate her, though. He could never hate his mother. Sure, he got mad at her when she didn't let him have that extra cookie or grounded him or made him do his homework, but he could never, ever hate her. She was the only family that he had.
Well, he did have a father, and that father apparently had an uncle. And then there was his mother's father and brothers and cousins and such out in some little foreign backwater country that he'd probably never visit. But he didn't know any of them, and hadn't meet most of them, so they really didn't count.
Naruto groaned and leaned his forehead down to his knees. He just wanted to walk away from this mess, forget the gym challenge, and just disappear into the mountains for a while until he could figure things out. With his trainer's license now secure, there was no pressure to get badges as fast as possible. As soon as he was healed and off the painkillers he could just walk out of town into the wilds…
"Never do what I've done, Naruto. Never run away when things don't go your way or you get scared. It never solves anything and only causes more problems. Promise me, Naruto…"
"But I wanna," Naruto whined to himself as he slowly straightened back up. "It's not like I wouldn't come back."
"Where are you going?"
Naruto yelped and twisted around to find the League Champion standing behind him. "Gah! Quit doing that!"
"I don't mean to sneak up on you," the man apologized. "So…where are you going?"
"Nowhere," Naruto muttered and turned back to watch the pokémon frolic in the yard. "I was just talking to myself."
"Okay." The man came closer and sat on the porch steps beside him, setting down a heavy pack on the grass. "Well, unfortunately, I am going somewhere."
"You are?!" Naruto blinked.
"Yeah," he sighed. "Something's come up somewhere and it doesn't matter that I'm supposed to be on vacation for a month." The man shook his head. "If I knew there'd be so many different demands on my time I might not have tried so hard to become the champion."
Naruto stiffened in shock. "Really?!"
"Really," he said with a faint smile. "I probably would've waited a few years, taken my time to enjoy things a little more. …And then I would've stepped up so that Hiruzen-sama could retire to study pokémon in Konoha Town."
"Oh." Naruto fidgeted with the great-ball.
"Well, before I go…" The blonde man pulled a red digital device from his bag and handed it to the boy. "I believe this is yours."
Naruto took the repaired pokédex and flipped it open one-handed. He pressed the "on" button and, after a few beeping tones, the screen lit up. There was a warning tone, and then the great-ball that contained the haunter disappeared in a flash of light, shooting upwards to an orbiting satellite to be relayed back to Professor Sarutobi's lab in Konoha Town. And then he was once again within the legal limit of six monsters on his person at a time.
"Bye bye," he murmured and put the pokédex away in his pants pocket.
"And one more thing…" The Champion pulled a plain wooden box from his pack and held it out. "…A few things you might find useful someday."
Naruto took the box, but didn't open it.
"Well," the man sighed ruefully. "I'd better get going."
He stood up and walked out into the middle of the backyard where he released Ryuu the dragonite. Then he pulled a large leather harness out from a side compartment of his backpack and started slipping it on the dragon. Naruto realized that he was going to fly to wherever he had to go. As the man finished up his preparations for departure, Naruto slid off the porch steps and hesitantly walked over.
The blonde-haired man paused in lashing himself to the crouching dragon when he noticed the boy's approach. "You need something?"
"I was wondering…" Naruto traced the corners of the wooden box with his fingertips. "Will I…ever see you again?"
"Of course!" he chuckled. "Unless…you don't want to see me?"
"Nah, it's-it's fine if you want to…I don't care," Naruto shrugged, running a nervous hand through his hair.
The man smiled faintly at him. "Alright. Stand back now."
Naruto took a few big steps back, and all the loose pokémon gathered around him to watch the dragonite lift off. It didn't seem possible that such small wings could lift such a large dragon (and a human!) into the air, but Ryuu lifted off the ground as light as a feather. The dragon quickly climbed high into the sky, circled the house once, and then darted off in a direction. In moments, the man and the dragon were gone completely from sight.
"Wow," the boy breathed.
And then his eyes fell to the box in his hands. It wasn't very heavy, but it wasn't light like it was empty either. Curious, he lifted the lid to peer at the box's mysterious contents.
Inside, he found two stones. One was yellowish in color, and it looked like it had a flame trapped inside it. The other was a glassy green with a yellow lightning bolt shape at its heart. Both stones seemed to have a strange energy about them.
They were evolution stones: A thunder stone and a fire stone. The unique radiation put off by the rocks was a catalyst. The thunder stone would cause Bolt to evolve from a pikachu into a raichu. And the fire stone would make Demon evolve from a vulpix into a ninetails.
Taped to the inside lid of the box, Naruto found a folded note.
For when you think that they're ready…