He smelled wood smoke. He heard the faint crackling of the campfire and the odd chirping on a nocturnal bird. He felt a thin bedroll under his back and the very hard ground underneath that.
When he finally pried his eyelids open, he saw a splash of stars peaking through ragged patches of dark clouds.
I'm alive, was his first thought. His second was: It's quiet and peaceful, and there's a campfire…it must've worked. And his third: I must've been out for a few hours…the moon's gone and it's gotten cloudy.
Minato exhaled and stiffly rolled over onto his side, expecting to see his sensei sitting nearby…
Instead, he found himself looking upon the face of a woman.
She was lying right next to him, barely six inches away, on her side and facing him; deeply asleep. Her expression was calm and her face, even thought a bit smudged with dirt, was very pretty. Locks of long red hair—held back by her Konoha hitai-ate and a barrette—hung over her arm and almost seemed to glow in the flickering light of the campfire. Her pale blue kimono-styled top was torn and stained with blood in some places, but she didn't seem to be wounded.
He stared at her for several minutes, taking in every detail, before he woke up enough to realize what he was doing, that it was rude, and that he needed to stop.
So he sat up, leaned away, and almost fell over.
I feel so weak…
"Ah, you're awake."
Minato blinked away the spots dancing in front of his eyes and sluggishly focused on the campfire, and the Jiraiya sitting on the other side of it.
"Hi, sensei," he croaked, wincing at the dryness of his throat. "How long have I been out of it?"
"Oh, about twenty-four hours," was the white-haired man replied cheerfully. "How do you feel?"
"…Tired," Minato answered hoarsely. Really, really tired… "Was I really out that long?"
"Yep!" Jiraiya chucked a water canteen at Minato's head and he barely managed to catch it. "Rehydrate yourself!" Minato slowly unscrewed the cap on the container, suddenly unnerved at the overly cheerful tone and smile of his former sensei. "You have a lot of explaining to do…"
"I do?" Minato very slowly took a sip of water. "…Did something go wrong?"
"Please explain to me what that ritual that you half-assed was supposed to do," the Sannin requested, the spark of irritation in his eyes contradicting the smile still on his face.
"Well…" Minato swallowed, getting the distinct impression that he was in trouble somehow. "It was described as the ultimate purifying ritual to cleanse evil and corrupted souls."
"You're paraphrasing, what exactly did it say?"
The blond jounin nervous scratched the back of his head. "I…don't remember. The text was very old and badly translated from an ancient dialect. …What did it do that's made you so upset?"
Jiraiya slowly, carefully stood up and worked his way around the small fire. He held an odd bundle of cloth delicately in his arms. And when he reached Minato's side, he crouched down and shoved the mystery thing into the younger man's lap.
"You made the little monster, you take care of it."
Cold dread oozed over Minato's skin and seeped into his flesh. What did his old sensei mean by that? Had purifying the vicious nine-tailed fox demon…shrunk it somehow? Had the ritual spontaneously reincarnated it into an infant Kitsune?
Warily he moved aside the cloth scraps to find…
A human baby.
With marks on its cheeks that looked like animal whiskers.
Kushina stubbornly tried to ignore the two men talking. She was so tired and sleep was so nice… It was a lot better than the land of reality that she had found the last few times she'd been awake.
It had all started with the temple and the fox demon. On the way back to Konohagakure no Sato, her travel group had stopped for a twenty-minute breather. Some idiot had wandered off and she had been one of the volunteers to go find him. He'd found his way to some ancient, abandoned temple so overgrown that it was only when they got inside the "cave" and saw all the straight angles and carvings that they realized what it really was. They found the moron deep inside the old temple just as the ding-bat decided to pry out some scummy-looking semi-precious stones set into an alter with a kunai.
And then the altar had exploded (probably killing the wandering idiot) and there was the fox demon there. Two of the five person party had died before they all fled from the chamber (much smaller now that there was a massive fox inside it) and back to the outside. It didn't matter that the corridors were too narrow for the demon fox to follow them. The beast simply fired a chakra blast from its mouth several times until it had blown its way out of the temple.
She'd tried to bind the beast with her odd chakra. When she used it on other ninja, it didn't matter how strong or fast they were. Once they were bound, they were powerless and would stay that way as long as she could keep her focus solid. But the demon fox was infinitely stronger than any foe she'd ever faced before. Kushina had barely lasted five minutes before its struggling and one of her comrade's yelling in her ear had snapped her chains.
It had mauled her then. The others had managed to distract the demon from her, but they were slaughtered one by one for their efforts. She'd laid in the carnage, then, waiting for it to come back from chasing the last few chuunin down, knowing that even if it forgot about her she'd just bleed to death…
And then he had shown up with his kooky, perverted master.
For the briefest of moments, she'd had hope. Surely two of the strongest shinobi in the entire village would be able to slay the beast that had chewed up all of the little chuunin. There was no man or beast that could stand up to the team of Jiraiya of the Sannin and Konoha's Yellow Flash.
Of course, she'd been wrong.
They'd had to fall back on some kind of desperate plan. It had been hard to stay awake at that point. But she'd managed to be some help, which she'd liked.
And when that weird dream/hallucination had happened, she was sure that she'd died…
Only to be woken up some hours later by a frantic-looking Sannin awkwardly holding a shrieking baby.
"Hurry up and feed it!"
"You're a woman; feed it so it'll stop crying!"
"Feed it…you…you mean breastfeed it?"
"Of course! Unless you happen to have a bottle and baby formula handy."
"What…you…you freaking pervert! I am not a cow! I can't just produce on command!"
"Damn it! Just try!"
In the end, she'd given it a try, too tired to argue and sure that once he saw reason he'd let her get back to sleep. She didn't know crap about babies or pregnancy (and she didn't plan on learning anything about them, either), but she was certain that it took being pregnant and having a baby to get milk flowing, and she hadn't gone through that process. Except…when she "gave it a try" as per the white-haired pervert's request…the baby (what the hell was the man doing with a baby? Had one of his bastards finally caught up with him?) had gotten something.
She hadn't thought much about it, and promptly gone back to sleep afterwards…but then Jiraiya woke her up again. The random baby needed more food. So she grudgingly fed it, the old perv made her eat and drink something, and she'd slept again.
And now this. Jiraiya and his old student were talking and keeping her from being completely asleep. If they caught her awake, Hentai-sensei would probably demand that she wet nurse the mystery baby again. So she laid as still as possible and tried not to listen to the nonsense that they were babbling about.
"But-but sensei, are you sure that this baby is—"
"For the last time, I'm sure! One minute there was that snarling demon, and the next it was gone and that baby was there!"
Liar, Kushina sneered to herself. Demons don't turn into human babies, not even the shape-shifting ones. Babies are annoying and stupid and helpless.
"I…I don't get it. If that ritual was supposed to instantaneously reincarnate the target, shouldn't it have just been reborn as a baby fox?"
"Well, let's go through this one step at a time… Describe the ritual circle to me."
The discussion that followed was easy for Kushina to ignore, because she didn't understand a word of it. They talked in complicated sealing terms that made about as much sense to her as a foreign language. It was a little sad that her village, Uzushiogakure no Sato, had been known for producing seal masters and advancing sealing techniques, and she knew barely anything about that branch of the ninja arts.
But her village had been destroyed when she'd been barely ten, and she'd escaped with little more than the clothes on her back. She hadn't thought to try and save any scrolls on sealing from her clan's library, and even if she had, she couldn't have done it without getting killed. And when she got to Konoha, it was all about survival. Keeping a roof over her head and food in her stomach was more important than trying to figure out fuuinjutsu, which she probably wouldn't have been that good at anyway as it was all about reading and writing and she had little patience for that.
"So, what happened when you activated the ritual? I couldn't see anything."
"Um…this is going to sound crazy, but I think we met a goddess."
"A goddess? She must've been a real looker! And what do you mean 'we'?"
"The kunoichi was there too…I think."
Kushina opened her eyes then. It was nighttime now, and their forest clearing campsite was lit by a cheery little fire. Namikaze (who Jiraiya had let sleep through the baby's crying fits) was finally awake and sitting upright less than a foot away from her, with the baby dozing in his lap, half-forgotten. Jiraiya sat on the other side of his student, probably leering at the thought of a goddess and how divinely sexy she had to be.
I thought that was some crazy hallucination. Her gray-blue eyes stared up at Namikaze, whose gaze was trained into the fire. But if he experienced the same thing… It was real?
And then she thought of the vision she'd had—the memory that hadn't been hers. She'd seen Namikaze as a boy, playing around with his two teammates. They'd gone on a routine mission, that hadn't been so routine. And when Jiraiya had split off to take care of something, it had all gone to hell. Namikaze had been wounded, and both his teammates killed. Jiraiya had come to the rescue, but the blond boy had been so horrified that he'd wanted to quit being a ninja.
It had seemed so implausible. Namikaze was great, and although she knew that his teammates had died at some point, she never believed that he would ever consider giving up his shinobi career. From the moment that she'd met him, she'd known of his crazy dream to be Hokage, and that office could only be achieved by a ninja.
But if that experience had been real, and what she'd seen had been real, wouldn't he have seen something of hers?
"…and then, at the end of the goddess sorting through my brain, I saw something strange—like a vision, I guess. There was a village by the sea and it was burning—"
"Skip it," Kushina hissed.
Namikaze flinched and glanced down at her in surprise. "Oh, you're awake! Why should I—"
"Skip it," she growled, eyes blazing. "That part isn't important."
He'd seen it. He'd seen her village burn, her people die, her world end. He'd seen her cut her hair and steal one of her dead brothers' hitai-ate. She'd never told a soul the details of that day, and he'd seen it all as clearly as she'd seen his mission from hell.
It left her feeling violated.
Namikaze looked puzzled for a moment, and then understanding filled his sky-blue eyes. And there was pity, of course. He'd seen the awful things that the poor, pathetic refugee girl had to suffer through and felt bad about it.
She wanted to hit him.
"Yes, I suppose it isn't," he agreed and turned back to face his sensei to finish his account of what happened.
Kushina clenched her teeth and clawed her way into a sitting position. She felt more awake and with it than her two previous stints conscious after the demon attack. And she noticed, with great confusion, that the wounds that the nine-tailed fox had given her were gone…but the damage and blood on her clothes was still there.
What the hell?
"So, that was it, huh?" Jiraiya grunted thoughtfully.
"Yes, sensei," Namikaze nodded.
"This goddess figure wasn't specific on whose wish she was granting?"
"And you included the kunoichi's blood in your circles?"
The white-haired giant of a shinobi was silent for a time, leaving the only sounds to be the burning fire and nocturnal creatures' cries. While the Sannin appeared to be deep in thought, Kushina sullenly studied her surroundings. From what she could tell, they were camped near the ruins of the ancient temple. Any remaining bodies of the dead chuunin had probably been buried during daylight hours when she'd slept. She spied a water canteen leaning up against Namikaze's leg and she snatched it to get a drink.
"Well, here's what I'm thinking," Jiraiya said at last. "That old ritual purifies by reincarnating the target through the divine power of a goddess. The new form of the target is determined by the blood used in the circle. In this case, the target was a fox demon, and the blood used was human, so the fox was reborn as a human infant."
And then Jiraiya let out his trademark pervert chuckle.
"Furthermore, considering that the blood of a man and a woman were used in the circle, the baby produced would take traits from both adults…"
Namikaze gaped at his teacher, stared down at the baby in his lap, and then went back to gaping at Jiraiya.
Kushina had to take a moment longer to realize what the pervert was insinuating…and then she got profoundly annoyed.
"So, you're saying that Namikaze and I basically made a baby…without having sex?"
"Exactly!" Jiraiya giggled. "I'd stake my reputation on it!"
"Well, that sucks," Kushina huffed. "Sex is the best part of making a baby."
In fact, it was the only good part. All that she knew about pregnancy was awful (getting fat, throwing up, mood swings, no drinking, limited physical activity). All that she knew about labor was awful (hours and hours of pain). And all she knew about babies and small children was awful (helpless ungrateful brats that thought that the world revolved around them and they made messes everywhere).
And sex with Namikaze would've been great. He was good-looking and a good guy and pretty much every single woman (and lots of married women…and some men) wanted him. But unlike most of them, Kushina knew that she'd never get him. She'd sabotaged any chance of them ever being simple friends back when they'd been children. Anything at all with him and her that was positive was a childish fantasy, and she wasn't about to torture herself and waster her time with silly daydream.
There was a war going on.
"I like you, Red!" Jiraiya grinned, wiggling his eyebrows.
"Don't for a minute think that I'm a whore the way that you're a man-whore, dattebane!" she shot back.
"You wound me!" Jiraiya sighed dramatically.
"…So, um…what should we do with this baby?" Namikaze asked, playing the responsible adult. "I…I don't really have room, and Hokage-sama always has missions for me."
"Well, I don't want it," Kushina snorted as the blond's eyes started to drift her way. "Take it to the orphanage."
"You don't?" Namikaze sounded confused. "But…you wished for a family—"
"I wanted my father and my brothers and my aunts and uncles and cousins back!" she snapped. "I did not ask for a damn baby!"
"I suppose this could be considered a case of 'be careful what you wish for'," Jiraiya mused. "When you made your wish, you weren't specific enough."
"Dump it at the orphanage," Kushina repeated. "I don't want it. I'm a ninja. I don't have the time or the money to cater to an infant's needs."
"…Is it because the baby used to be the demon fox that killed all of your friends?" Namikaze wondered.
"No," she scoffed. "That baby isn't that icky fox anymore. And they weren't my friends. I barely even knew half their names. I haven't been on a stable team since the war started. I'm just a filler chuunin."
"Oh…" Namikaze muttered.
"If you two can't decide what you want to do, Hokage-sama will decide for you," Jiraiya said. "He'll definitely be interested in this very unusual case." The Sannin reached over towards the baby still dozing in Namikaze's lap. "Now, I'd like your opinions on this seal…"
Not interested in being bored to death by more talk on high-level seals, and needing to use the little girl's bush, Kushina slowly stood up and staggered off into the trees. She didn't go too far; she was too tired for a long hike and too weak to defend herself if she ran into trouble. As soon as she found a secluded clump of bushes where the two men's voices were an indistinct murmur, she went about her business.
I don't think he recognizes me, she thought after she'd finished and found a nearby tree stump to sit and rest on. As polite and professional as Namikaze is, I don't think he'd stay sitting next to me if he knew who I was.
She flipped her hair around her shoulder to comb through it with her fingers.
"Leave me alone!" the blond boy hissed, his normally kind face tight with anger. She stared up at him from the ground, her cheek throbbing from where he punched her, and wondered why there were bandages wrapped around his left arm. "I don't ever want to see you or speak to you again, Uzumaki-san!"
Shivering, but not from the chill night air, she kept on working on the numerous snarls in her long red hair.
No, he wouldn't be nearly as civil to me if he remembered…
After Minato and Jiraiya finished tearing apart the odd sun-patterned seal on the infant's belly, the blond shinobi noticed that the red-haired kunoichi hadn't returned. Leaving his old sensei by the fire to keep an eye on the baby and write out a report for the Hokage, Minato stumbled off in search of her. His legs felt like jelly and protested being used but without knowing how long she'd been gone he had to check on her.
Thankfully she hadn't gone too far and hadn't really tried to hide her trail. She was barely visible away from the firelight, sitting on a tree stump and staring off into the dark. He held back, hesitant to disturb her especially since she wasn't in any way distressed.
This kunoichi had to be the strangest woman he'd ever met. She looked pretty and exotic, yet her personality was almost abrasive. And there was something in the back of his mind that nagged at him when he looked at her, like he should know her…
"How long are you going to stand there?" she asked, making him flinch.
"I, uh…" He gulped. "I was just…"
He'd never been good with girls. In a professional situation—on a mission, during training—he could handle them alright and treat them just as another ninja. But on his own time—when he was strolling around the village or running errands—when he had to interact with a female he felt awkward and uncomfortable, made worse by the fact that a lot of women seemed to be interested in him. And right now, even though he was technically in the middle of a mission, he felt like he was in his civilian clothes with a pretty woman hovering around him…despite the fact that she was doing no such thing to him.
"…Checking on me?" she finished for him.
"Um, yes," he mumbled, hesitantly shuffling a bit closer.
She turned in the darkness, one side of her face barely visible, and scrutinized him.
"You have no idea who I am, do you?"
"…No," he reluctantly admitted, trying not to fidget. "But you seem familiar. Weren't we in the same class?"
"Yeah, we were," she replied with a bitter laugh. "I suppose I was nasty enough that you blotted me out of your memory… Or maybe I really do look different with long hair."
Minato blinked. There were very few people that he really disliked and even fewer that he'd attended classes with. And hair that shade of red was distinctive and memorable no matter the length…
Only one girl fit.
"Uzumaki-san," he hissed, suddenly feeling very, very cold.
He remembered her. She'd transferred into the Academy out of nowhere and came in looking for a fight. After declaring that she'd be the first female Hokage, she garnered the unflattering nickname of "Tomato", which had quickly morphed into "Bloody Habanero" after she pummeled a few boys who'd taunted her with the original moniker. Not many other kids tried to approach her after that, and she didn't seem to mind.
Back then, Minato had tried to be her friend. It didn't look like she had any friends and he believed that everyone should have a friend. She was interesting with her slight accent and funny figures of speech that she'd use. And he couldn't help but look at her red hair, because red was his favorite color (although when asked, he'd always say that his favorite color was blue as a ninja whose favorite color was red was assumed to love blood, and he did not love blood).
But every attempt he made to befriend her was rejected. She sneered at him and called him a pretty-boy, a flake, a pansy, and dozens of other unflattering things. She belittled his ambitions to be Hokage and turned up her nose at his offer of a friendly rivalry for the position. And even though he was the better ninja, she seemed determined to hurt him, to make him bleed.
And then, after he'd become a genin and after he'd lost his teammates on that mission, he'd run into her after being discharged from the hospital. She was still her nasty self, but instead of taking her childish abuse, he'd snapped back and hit her. He'd yelled at her and hated her and stormed off, hoping never to see her glaring tomboy face ever again.
Yet here she was, after years of kindly staying away from him, and it didn't seem like she'd changed all that much.
"Yes, it is I, the dreaded Uzumaki-san," she said dryly. "I'm sorry that the fox demon didn't eat me so that I could stay away from you."
Minato clenched his teeth and turned to leave. But he held himself back. It was stupid to cling to a childhood grudge. He was mature enough to let the past go, wasn't he?
At least, he could try to.
"…Uzumaki-san, those chains that restrained the fox demon just before…did you generate them?"
"Yes," she answered.
"What technique was that?" he wondered.
"No idea," the kunoichi told him.
"What do you mean—"
"You saw what happened to my village, didn't you?" she interrupted, her voice low and intense. "I barely learned anything of my clan's techniques, and I'll never be able to."
"I'm sorry…" Minato mumbled, feeling awkward.
"What are you apologizing for?" she snorted. "You had nothing to do with what happened. If anyone should be apologizing, it should be me, even though it probably doesn't mean anything by now."
"You'd apologize to me?" he muttered in disbelief.
"Yeah, I was a total bitch then—and I still am most of the time—and you didn't deserve any of it," the kunoichi said quietly.
"Then why were you so awful to me?" he demanded.
"Because you were you," Uzumaki-san replied sullenly. "You were smart and talented and everyone liked you and you belonged there in Konoha—you had everything that I didn't and were everything that I wasn't. It was stupid and awful of me, but I wanted to make you hurt the way that I hurt. …And for what it's worth, I'm sorry."
Minato frowned as he stared off into the darkness and mulled over what she'd said. He stiffly turned around to look at Uzumaki-san again, but it was too dark to really see her. Unsure of what to say, he opened his mouth—
"Hey!" Jiraiya called out to them jovially. "How about we call the little brat Naruto? It'll be great publicity for my book!"
And that got the baby wailing.
"I'll tie him down and you stab him!" Uzumaki-san hissed.
The blond jounin sighed deeply and buried his face in his hands.
What exactly did I do to deserve this?
Author Notes: A lot of people wanted to know what happened when Minato and Kushina woke up afterwards… Well, here it is! I hope you enjoy it.
Happy birthday, Naruto!