Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
The Hokage sat at the mission table this morning, the other ninja that worked in the mission office on either side of him. He glanced over the scrolls that held the list of C-rank missions currently open and tapped one with his finger. "Number nine, I think."
The ninja to his left nodded and slipped a scroll from the pile in front of him. He handed it to the Hokage, who unrolled it and scanned the contents quickly. He nodded to himself.
"Yes, this will do nicely." He looked up and grinned at the four ninja of Team Kakashi arrayed in front of him. "I have heard nothing but good things from Itachi-san on your work with the police force, and Kakashi is pleased with your progress as a team. Therefore, I am sending you on a mission outside the village."
Sakura and Naruto visibly perked up at the announcement, while Sasuke just looked slightly less bored.
Minato held up the scroll. "This is an escort mission to Nami no Kuni. Your duty is to protect a trade caravan from bandits." He tossed the scroll to Kakashi. "You are to meet the client at the east gate in thirty minutes. Dismissed."
Before they could leave, Naruto spoke up. "Ano, Hokage-sama..."
"I know some people in Wave. Would it be ok if I visited them while we're there?"
The Hokage smiled a little. "You have friends in Wave?" he asked, slightly emphasizing the word 'friends'.
Naruto looked thoughtful before a slow smile spread on his face. "Aa. Friends."
The Hokage's smile widened, and he replied, "Well, I don't have a problem with it, but it's up to Kakashi."
Naruto turned questioning blue eyes on their jonin leader and he shrugged. "As long as it doesn't interfere with the mission," he said.
Naruto's smile turned brilliant. "Thanks Kakashi-sensei! It won't, I promise!"
"Good to hear," the Copy Ninja said, amused. He waved them out of the room. "Now scat; you've only got half an hour."
Twenty minutes later, Sakura stood just inside the east gate, waiting for the rest of her team. She had been the first to arrive, and Sasuke had shown up about five minutes after her. Now they were just waiting on Naruto and Kakashi. The silver-haired man was supposed to be getting their client from the waiting room in the Tower, so she fervently hoped he wasn't late this time.
Naruto strolled up a few minutes later, a pack slung over one shoulder. He greeted them enthusiastically, as if they hadn't just seen each other in the mission office. Sakura rolled her eyes, but responded anyway. Naruto hunkered down, apparently expecting to wait awhile.
So, it came as a surprise to him when their sensei sauntered up a full five minutes early with a sandy-haired man behind him. Sakura was surprised too, but thought it unprofessional to say so. Naruto, however, did not.
"You're early!" he exclaimed, jumping to his feet and pointing at Kakashi. "You're never early!"
She smacked the blonde on the back of his head. "Baka!" she muttered. "Not in front of the client!"
Naruto rubbed the spot she'd hit and grinned at her sheepishly. "Gomen, Sakura-chan."
She rolled her eyes and glanced to Kakashi. His gray eye was practically shut in the way that indicated he was grinning at them. "Michi-san, this is my team." He pointed at each chuunin in turn. "Uchiha Sasuke, Haruno Sakura, and Uzumaki Naruto. Team, this is Susumu Michi."
The man seemed to be in his 30s, dirty blonde hair pulled into a braid. His brown eyes were narrow, but the lines around them indicated he smiled often. He maintained a fairly neutral expression, though, as they bowed in greeting. Michi's eyes rested on Naruto's face thoughtfully for a moment before turning to Kakashi. "They seem awfully...young. Are you sure they can handle it?"
Sakura saw Sasuke narrow his eyes dangerously and felt Naruto bristle beside her. Thankfully, before her blonde teammate could say something insulting and get them in trouble, Kakashi lifted his hands in a placating manner. "Maa, maa, Michi-san. The Hokage wouldn't have assigned us to this mission otherwise." He smiled again. "I am a jonin, and, though my teammates may not look it, they are chuunin and very capable."
Sakura restrained her tongue at that half-compliment, half-insult, teasing as it was. Naruto, of course, did not. "Oy!" he started, before Sakura clamped a hand firmly over his mouth and smiled sweetly at the client. Who was covering his own mouth, trying to hide his laughter and doing a poor job of it.
Great. They were making a wonderful first impression. Very professional.
His eye still crinkled, Kakashi waved a hand towards the gate. "Let's head out!"
They formed a loose diamond around Michi, Naruto at point, Sasuke and Sakura to either side, and Kakashi in back. They weren't expecting any trouble before they met up with the client's trade caravan, but they were ninja. They weren't about to let their guard down.
Kakashi had explained the details of the mission, Michi adding a few things here and there. As Sakura understood it, Nami no Kuni had been a poor country until about three years ago, when they completed a bridge to the mainland. Trade increased and now caravans regularly made the trip to the small group of islands. However, that also brought an increase in bandit activity along the route. Many of the caravans had taken to hiring ninja to protect them.
"Why did the bridge make such a huge difference?" Sakura asked. "Surely ships made the crossing."
"Aa," Michi replied, "but shipping was controlled by a corrupt businessman. Any taxes or port fees that should have gone to Wave ended up in his coffers, and anyone who opposed him ended up dead. He tried to stop the construction of the bridge, too."
"He obviously failed," Sasuke said cooly. "What happened?"
Michi hesitated a moment, glancing at Naruto.
"He ended up dead, too."
The blonde's voice startled Sakura. He was still facing forward, but she could see his profile. His visible eye was hooded, in a manner eerily similar to Kakashi's, and his mouth was sporting a very self-satisfied smirk. He lifted his hands to lace his fingers behind his head. He looked...he looked like a cat that had just caught a very large mouse. The lines on his cheek only added to the impression.
Michi was openly staring at the back of his head. "You're the Naruto, aren't you?"
And suddenly the strangely predatory look was gone, replaced by confusion. Naruto turned his head to look at their client. "Eh?"
"The one they named the bridge after."
"What?" Naruto stopped walking and turned completely around. "Named the bridge after?
"Aa. The bridge to Wave is called The Great Naruto Bridge."
"Really?" Naruto asked, his eyes wide.
"You did say you've been to Wave before, ne, Naruto?" Sakura asked, curious.
Naruto nodded and Michi smiled a little. "I'm sure it's you, then," he said. "There can't be that many blonde, blue-eyed ninjas running around with the name Naruto."
Sasuke snorted a little. "That's true. Any other self-respecting ninja would have changed it."
Naruto's eyes narrowed. "Whadda ya' mean?"
Sasuke stared blankly at him. "You're named for a ramen topping, dobe."
Naruto huffed angrily and pointed at his black-haired teammate. "My name means 'maelstrom', teme! And besides, there's nothing wrong with being named for the awesome goodness that is ramen!"
Sakura suppressed a giggle, though their sensei didn't bother to hide his chuckle.
"Maa, maa, before you two start trying to kill each other in the middle of the road, we should get our client to his caravan," the jonin said.
Sasuke smirked. "Hn."
Naruto huffed again and turned on his heel, striding down the road muttering.
Michi looked on amused. "I can't believe he's the ninja the villagers all talk about." He shrugged and kept walking.
Sakura grit her teeth. Could Naruto be any more unprofessional? Ugh. She didn't want to find out.
It took them the rest of the day at the civilian's pace to reach Otafuku Gai, where they joined the caravan in the forest just outside town. Naruto had mumbled and sulked the whole way, shooting glares in Sasuke's direction, which the Uchiha ignored. Sakura was determined to have a nice long chat with the blonde about just what constituted proper ninja behavior in front of a client. So, when Naruto disappeared into the trees to guard the caravan until dinner, she waited a little while, then followed.
Her teammate was perched on a branch, looking out over the wagons. He seemed sad, which was a bit of a shock. Naruto was never sad, and Sakura found her anger slipping away. Sasuke had been kind of mean. She forgot about the lecture she'd planned on giving and just took a seat next to him. "Hey, Naruto," she said quietly.
"Hey, Sakura-chan," he replied.
She wasn't sure how to proceed, so she said nothing. She figured if Naruto wanted to talk, he would. He didn't have trouble doing it any other time.
"I like my name," he said abruptly.
She glanced at him.
"I like my name," he repeated. "I like the story my mother told me about why she gave it to me. It always made me feel...connected to my parents, even though they weren't around." He looked at her. "Does that make sense?"
She nodded. "What's the story?"
Naruto smiled a little. "There's this book that my parents both liked. And the main character was brave, and strong, and never gave up. My father said that if he ever had a son, he'd want him to be like that."
"And the character's name was Naruto, right?" Sakura prompted gently.
Naruto nodded. "So when I was born, that's what my mother named me. I've always been proud of my name, and I've worked hard every day to live up to it. To be like the ninja in the book, the way my father wanted." He paused and his voice dropped to a whisper. "I want him to be proud of me, not regret-" he stopped, snapping his mouth shut and looking away.
Sakura didn't know what to say to that. What could she? She had no idea how it felt, to be trying every day to live up to a father's expectations. To hope that said father didn't regret her very existence. It was heartbreaking. "I'm sure he would be proud of you," she said quietly. It was kind of an empty statement–she couldn't speak for Naruto's father–but she wanted to reassure her teammate and she couldn't think of anything else.
If Naruto thought it was a silly thing to say, he didn't show it. He turned back to her with a small smile. "Thanks Sakura-chan."
She smiled back and tried to turn the conversation to a less serious topic. "So, you haven't told us just what happened when you were in Wave last time. What did you do, for the villagers to name the bridge for you? It must have been something really cool."
He shook his head a little. "I don't really know," he replied. "The only thing I did do, they think Jiraiya-sensei did."
She blinked at him, a little confused. "You did something, but the villagers think Jiraiya-sama did it instead?" He nodded. "What?"
His smile slipped away and he stared at her with something unreadable in his eyes. "I killed Gato," he said suddenly, voice low and hard.
She blinked at him again. "Gato?"
"He was the asshole that was bleeding Wave dry. After Sensei and I took out the missing-nin he hired to kill the bridge builder, he showed up in person with a whole bunch of thugs. Well, first he tried to kidnap the bridge builder's family, but that didn't succeed." He smiled, somewhat savagely, Sakura thought, and continued. "So he came to the bridge itself with his goons, trying to intimidate us." He snorted. "Idiot."
"What happened then?"
Naruto shrugged. "He started spouting all this arrogant bullshit–you know how bad guys like to hear themselves talk. It really pissed me off. Plus, Sensei figured if he was taken out, his men wouldn't be so eager to fight. So I killed him." He snickered a little, ignoring her shocked expression. "His men were scared shitless, and then the villagers showed up too. With Jiraiya-sensei and I, and all of them, the thugs decided it wasn't worth it. They ran like rabbits."
Sakura swallowed. He spoke of it so casually. Did he really not care that he had taken a life? Of course, they were ninja. It was expected in their line of work. "How old were you?"
He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "I'd just turned thirteen."
She bit her lip. Thirteen?
"Was it your first kill?" she asked in a whisper. She herself was sixteen now and still hadn't killed anyone. She never would have thought Naruto, with his bright smile and easy laugh, had already done it.
"No." His voice was blank. He was looking out over the caravan again, refusing to meet her gaze.
Damn it! She didn't want to make him more upset! "Naruto, I'm sorry," she said, a little desperately. "I didn't mean to-"
He cut her off. "It's ok, Sakura-chan." He grinned, and the contrast was a little unnerving. "I know you meant well. And I do feel better, really."
She was certain he was lying, but she said nothing. She obviously wasn't as good at cheering people up as she thought.
The blonde beside her stood. "We'd best get back, ne? Dinner's probably ready by now." He stretched, arms over his head.
Sakura had just opened her mouth to respond when Naruto flicked his wrist and, in one smooth motion, threw the kunai that had appeared in his hand. Sakura sprang to her feet, words forgotten, and drew her own kunai while extending her senses to try and locate the intruder. As she did, she heard the dull thud of metal embedding in wood. And then she realized that Naruto had made no more moves, offensive or defensive. He was just standing there, hands on his hips and wide grin on his face. Huh?
"Oy, teme!" he called. "Come on out!"
Her jaw dropped as Sasuke materialized from the trees, lazily spinning a kunai around his finger by the loop and wearing his characteristic smirk. "Your aim sucks, dobe."
Naruto snickered. "Yeah, sure. Tell that to your shirt." He gestured and Sakura saw the small tear in the right arm of Sasuke's white shirt.
"Hn. Whatever." Their dark-haired teammate tossed the kunai to Naruto, who caught it with ease and tucked it back under his sleeve.
She was sure Sasuke would be mad at the unprovoked attack, but he wasn't. At least, she didn't think so. It was so hard to tell with him sometimes. Well, most of the time.
But even if he wasn't angry, Sakura was. "Baka!" She smacked Naruto in the back of the head. "What were you thinking? You could have hurt Sasuke-kun!"
Naruto rolled his eyes. "Not really. I wasn't aiming for anything vital." He grinned. "And even if I hit him, he'd heal right up."
Sakura gaped at him. "That's not the point!"
He blinked at her. "Well, what is the point then?"
Sakura moved her mouth, a small part of her brain bemoaning the fact that she probably looked like a fish, while the rest was utterly bemused at Naruto's comment. Before she could form a coherent sentence, however, Sasuke spoke.
"It's time for dinner." He leapt to the ground and started towards the caravan.
Naruto grinned at her. "See, Sakura-chan, I was right!" And he followed the Uchiha, leaving her staring after the two of them.
She'd never understand boys.
Sasuke surreptitiously studied Naruto across the camp fire as the blonde slurped down yet another bowl of soup. He'd overheard most of the conversation between his two teammates, and while he was most interested in the second half–as being most relevant to their mission, of course–he couldn't stop thinking about the first half.
It wasn't his fault that Naruto cared about the snide comments he'd made. The blonde shouldn't care. Caring was stupid–a weakness. If you cared, you got hurt.
A simple lesson, and one Sasuke had learned very well years ago, on a night of blood and pain and red.
Which was why Sasuke had a very, very short list of people he cared about. And Naruto was not on it. Sasuke felt no inclination to be nice or to be friends with the dobe. He didn't need those things. Didn't. Did. Not. Really.
So what was this uneasy feeling?
He scowled into his bowl.
The problem was that he understood what it was like to strive for a father's approval, to try and live up to a name. It was hard. Sometimes it was painful. And by insulting Naruto's name, he'd essentially insulted Naruto's efforts. If anyone put Sasuke down like that, he'd put them in the hospital.
...Guilty. He was feeling guilty. Just like he'd felt guilty after the festival, for not getting Naruto a present and then blowing up at the blonde and Sakura.
Which meant he did care...at least a little.
When had this happened?
He stared at Naruto again–at his bright eyes and his big smile as he spoke with Michi.
"I'll bring you tomatoes."
"Hey, Sasuke! Come get ramen with us!"
"You mean the Kyuubi? That doesn't scare me at all...I trust you Sasuke."
Sasuke slammed his bowl down, stood up, and stalked away from the campfire, ignoring Sakura's and Naruto's calls.
Sasuke didn't want to care, and he didn't want to feel guilty. So he wouldn't. If he ignored them long enough, those feelings would go away.
Tsunami hummed to herself as she dried the last of the breakfast dishes. Tazuna was already at his workshop and Inari would join him soon. At least, he would if he didn't want to be late.
A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts and she moved around the dining table to answer it. It was probably a villager, or perhaps a client, though they usually went to Tazuna's workshop.
She opened the door. A sunny smile on a whiskered face greeted her, topped with bright blue eyes and golden hair. "Hey, Tsunami-ba-chan!"
"Naruto!" she gasped, eyes wide. The next moment, she had him enveloped in a hug. He seemed startled, but returned the gesture. She noted, while squeezing him as hard as she could, that he was taller than her now.
"It's so good to see you again!" she said, stepping back, hands still on his shoulders. She eyed him up and down. "You've grown into a fine young man."
He rubbed the back of his head, his eyes downcast. "Thanks, ba-chan," he mumbled.
"Kaa-san?" a voice called from behind her. "Who-"
Inari stopped when he saw the figure at the door. "Nii-san!" he cried, practically knocking his mother out of the way in his mad dash forward. Naruto staggered a little under the weight as the younger boy threw himself onto the blonde.
"Hey, Inari," he said, a wide smile on his face.
"Inari, let Naruto breathe," Tsunami scolded, laughing.
Her son reluctantly let go of the older teen and stepped back.
"Would you like to come in?" she questioned.
Naruto shook his head. "No, I can't," he said regretfully. "I'm on a mission, and I gotta get back. I just wanted to say hi, and see if you guys could come to dinner tonight."
"Of course," Tsunami said with a smile. "Where?"
"The caravan camp. We're protecting the Susumu traders, and they said it was fine if you guys joined us. We usually eat around nineteen hundred."
"That sounds wonderful, Naruto," Tsunami replied.
Inari was staring, wide-eyed. "So, you're a ninja now?" he blurted.
Naruto chuckled and tapped his forehead. Tsunami realized that his black headband now sported a silver plate with the symbol of Konoha.
"Sure am, Inari. A chuunin."
"Sugoi," Inari whispered.
"Congratulations," Tsumani said, very happy for the young man before her. He had accomplished his goal, the dream that he had spoken of so fervently when he and his teacher had been in Wave years before.
"Well, I gotta go," Naruto said, turning to leave. "I'll see you guys tonight, though, ne?"
Tsumani nodded and Inari waved. "Yeah, tonight, nii-san!"
With a final wave and a face-splitting grin, Naruto blurred out of sight.
Sakura didn't know what Naruto's friends would be like, but the little family that showed up at their camp wasn't what she was expecting.
Tazuna, the patriarch, was in his sixties, with gray hair and a beard. He was friendly, in a gruff, teasing sort of way, and he brought his own bottle of sake. His daughter, Tsunami, was a few years older than Kakashi, with long dark hair and big dark eyes. Her son, Inari, took after her. He was almost twelve, and he idolized Naruto. That was also unexpected, but sweet.
It was 'Naruto-nii-san' this and 'Naruto-nii-san' that, until Tsunami not-so-gently reminded him he was being rude by ignoring the other Leaf ninja. After that, Inari made an effort to engage the rest of them, although really it was only Sakura that responded. Kakashi threw in an occasional comment, but Sasuke sat and stared out at the trees around their camp, only providing one-word answers if asked a direct question.
Until Sakura brought up the subject she'd been curious about for the whole mission. "Tazuna-san, why did you name the bridge for Naruto?"
All eyes, including Sasuke's, focused on the old man.
He blinked a few times and looked at Naruto. "Eh? You didn't tell them, gaki?"
Naruto rubbed at the back of his head with a sheepish smile. "I don't really know, either, jiji."
Tazuna burst out laughing and Inari looked shocked. "What do you mean, you don't know?" the boy practically squawked. "How could you not know what you did for us? For this town? You're our hero!"
Naruto blinked wide eyes at the boy. "Hero?" Then a slow smile, like the one in the mission office, spread across his face. "I thought heros didn't exist, crybaby."
"Heh." Inari grinned. "You don't know anything. Of course they do."
Sakura was ninja enough to know that she was missing something in the exchange.
"I don't understand," she said, glancing between her teammate and Inari.
Tazuna chuckled and took a drink. "It'll be easiest if we start from the beginning."
Nami no Kuni was small, supported by the trade ships that found its port a safe haven in their routes between Lightning, Water, and countries farther south. Smaller ships plying a more local trade rested beside their larger sisters. Tazuna himself was in charge of constructing a bridge to support overland trade as well. The country was diminished from its former glory by the Second Great Ninja War, but prosperous enough.
Until Gato came.
Tazuna paused in his work on the bridge and eyed the group walking along the adjacent seawall. It consisted of the owner of one of the local shipping companies and three men he didn't know–one who was very short with bushy red hair and sunglasses. "Who's that?" he asked.
His friend, the owner of a dock and a warehouse, ceased his hammering. "Oh, some businessman named Gato. Kobiyashi is selling to him."
"The Gato? The shipping magnate? Huh." Tazuna shrugged and went back to work.
Soon, Gato owned a sizable chunk of waterfront and many of the local trade ships. There were whispers of discontent, rumors that not all the properties had been acquired legally, but no real proof. His friend was one of those who scoffed at the rumors and refused to sell.
Tazuna stared at the remains of his friend's home, still smoldering in the early morning light. His friend had been inside, along with his friend's wife, son, and daughter-in-law. She had been carrying their first child. None of them had gotten out.
Things went downhill. The threats and the violence couldn't be linked directly to Gato, but everyone knew he was behind it. The local lords were usually the ones that kept the peace, but their men were either bought off or targeted. Supplies ran low; prices soared. Everyone struggled.
And then, when everyone thought things couldn't get worse...they did.
The only thought that penetrated the shock in Tazuna's mind was that Gato obviously didn't care about being careful anymore. Obviously, since Kaiza–beaten, bloody, mutilated–was lashed to a cross in front of the entire town and was about to be killed. Tazuna didn't hear the evil little man's words or see his thugs' sadistic smirks. All he could see was his son-in-law's battered face and the gentle expression on it, directed at Inari.
Too young! his mind screamed. He's too young to see this!
But Tazuna did nothing, just stood by his grandson's side and watched the sword arc through the air, watched the blood spatter. Watching was all he could do, as Kaiza died a hero's death.
Sakura was horrified. Kakashi and Sasuke looked angry. Naruto was frowning, and the small family just looked sad.
Tazuna sighed and continued. "After that, I knew it was too risky to keep working on the bridge without any protection, so I stopped. If Gato believed I had given up, he wouldn't come after me right away. I used the time to gather what money I could. Then I left for Konoha, intending to hire ninja to protect me and the bridge until it was finished. I was on my way there when I met Jiraiya-sama and Naruto."
Naruto snickered, breaking the sombre atmosphere that had settled over the clearing. "You got in a bar fight with Sensei," he said. "Over a bottle of sake."
Tazuna frowned at the blonde. "Yes, well, the point is, when Jiraiya-sama learned where I was going, he offered his and his student's services."
Naruto outright laughed. "You asked if he wanted the job after he strung you up in the nearest tree by your ankles. You said he seemed 'pretty strong'."
Tazuna glowered. "Gaki! They don't need to know about that." Sakura giggled, glad for at least a little humor in this bleak tale. Everyone else around the fire seemed to feel the same way, judging by Sasuke's relaxed shoulders, Kakashi's crinkled eye, and Tsunami's and Inari's smiles. "Anyway, I still got Konoha ninja, without the trouble of going all the way there."
Naruto snorted. "And without paying full price for them, either."
Tazuna grinned. "That too. Not that I had much choice. Wave could barely scrape together enough money for the bridge itself."
"What do you mean?" Sakura asked.
"The old man told us we were just protecting him from bandits and stuff, not other ninja," Naruto explained.
"Basically, he paid you for a C-rank mission when it was really B or A," Kakashi clarified.
"Well, technically I didn't know if Gato had sent ninja after me or not," Tazuna defended.
Naruto scoffed. "Maybe, but you knew he would, once he figured out what you were doing."
Tazuna had no comeback for that; he just grumbled and took another drink.
Naruto smirked and took up the tale. "Sensei was kind of suspicious from the start, but he went along with it. Until those two Mist nukenin attacked us. That's when the old man finally came clean." He shrugged. "But we'd already made a deal, so we continued the mission anyway." He grinned. "It was more fun that way."
Sakura shook her head. Naruto had the oddest idea of fun.
"Mist nukenin?" Kakashi questioned.
"Aa. A couple of chuunin. Sensei said they were called the Demon Brothers." Naruto made a disparaging sound. "Demon my ass. They were no match for me."
Sakura bopped him on the head. "Don't cuss in front of Tsunami-san and Inari-chan," she scolded.
Naruto rubbed his head. "Aww, Sakura-chan," he whined. "It's not like they haven't heard it before."
She blinked at him a couple times and shook her head. "Baka," she muttered, her lips curving up despite herself.
He grinned at her, entirely unrepentant.
"I remember when Jiraiya-sama sent the Demon Brothers' heads to be forwarded to Kiri," Kakashi said genially, as if it was no big deal for the Hokage to unseal a scroll and have a couple of severed heads appear on his desk. And it wasn't, really. "Hokage-sama was impressed that Jiraiya's mysterious student had defeated them when he was just thirteen."
Naruto ducked his head and scratched the back of his neck, uncomfortable with the praise. "Yeah, well, stupid Sensei made me do all the work," he mumbled. "Except the decapitating part, he did that himself."
Discussing beheadings may not have been unusual for ninja, but it was for civilians, and Sakura could see they were distinctly uncomfortable. Even Inari was looking a bit pale.
She cleared her throat. Time to move the conversation along. "That is impressive, Naruto," she echoed, which was true. She wouldn't have been able to defeat a couple chuunin when she was thirteen. "What happened next?"
Naruto looked up. "Uh, well, we went on to the old man's house. About a week later, a Kumo nukenin showed up at the bridge." Naruto's expression grew sad. "Sensei fought him, 'cause he was a jonin. He was a really good ninja, and not a bad guy. But he was no match for a Sannin. It really sucked that Sensei had to kill him." Naruto sighed and shook his head a bit, as if shaking off his melancholy. "After that, Gato got a little desperate, I think. He sent a couple of his goons to kidnap Tsunami-ba-chan, but they weren't any trouble to get rid of, with Inari's help." He winked at the boy sitting next to him, and Inari flushed. "I wanted to just get rid of Gato and be done with it, but Sensei said killing Gato wasn't part of the mission, unless the jerk directly threatened the old man." Naruto snorted. "I thought that was dumb. I mean, we all knew he was behind everything, so killing him would protect jiji. But Sensei said ninja have to be very careful about making judgements and acting outside the mission parameters, 'cause we rarely know the whole story. He told me to be patient, that Gato would get frustrated and screw up, and then we'd get him." He sighed. "He was right, but it was hard to sit around, waiting for Gato's next move."
To Sakura's surprise, Sasuke nodded. He hardly ever showed interest in the conversations around him, even when he was listening carefully. But then, she supposed he could relate to the situation. He wasn't a terribly patient person himself, and would have been equally frustrated had he been in Naruto's position.
"Luckily, I didn't have to wait long," Naruto continued. "A couple days later, Gato himself showed up at the bridge with a bunch of his goons. I guess he thought quantity over quality would do the trick." Naruto snorted. "Idiot. It was just what we were waiting for. Sensei says if you cut off the head of a snake, the body will die. So he took him out. Right in the middle of Gato's stupid rant. It was awesome." Naruto smirked, that same contented, predatory expression Sakura had seen on the road on their way to Wave. The light from the fire flickered over his face, glinting off his eyes and his teeth, and it made him look dangerous.
But just for a moment, because he shrugged and the look vanished. "And that was that, really. The villagers showed up, the thugs ran, and Sensei and I went back to Hi no Kuni."
"It seems to me the bridge should be named after Jiraiya-sama, then," Sasuke broke in. "Since he killed your ultimate enemy." He quirked an eyebrow at Tazuna, the faintest smirk lifting his lips. "Right?"
Sakura glanced thoughtfully at the Uchiha. How much of the conversation between Naruto and herself had Sasuke heard? Judging by his expression, enough to know it was really Naruto who killed Gato.
Tazuna shook his head. "It didn't have anything to do with who killed who," he said. "We named the bridge after Naruto because he did something far more important than beat up a few bad guys." He nodded at the blonde. "He gave us hope again."
Sasuke's eyebrow rose further, inviting an explanation.
"The whole town changed after Kaiza was killed," Tazuna elaborated. "He was considered a hero, and if someone as strong as him couldn't stand against Gato, what chance did the rest of us have? None. So everyone gave up, lost their courage. Lost their hope."
"Yeah. I remember all the crap Inari said when we first came," Naruto remarked and looked at the boy. "You went on and on about how nobody could defeat Gato and we'd just die if we tried. It really pissed me off."
Inari scowled. "Don't tell them what a punk I was, nii-san," he grumbled.
Naruto grinned. "Do you remember what I said back to you?"
Inari scoffed. "I'll never forget." He turned to Sakura. "I told Naruto-nii-san he didn't understand anything. 'Cause he was always smiling and cheerful, I said he didn't know how hard life could be. He just looked at me, with his eyes all narrow; I thought he was gonna attack me. And then he said, 'It takes a really big man to sit around and cry, you little brat. So go ahead, wallow in your own self-pity. Stay weak. I don't care.'"
"Naruto!" Sakura exclaimed, a little shocked. "That was really harsh!"
"No, it's ok, Sakura-san," Inari said. "I needed to hear it. I mean, he was right. I didn't get it right away, though. I stormed out, but Jiraiya-sama found me later, and he explained some things to me. He told me Naruto-nii-san understood how I felt, since he'd been left alone when he was really young, but despite that, Jiraiya-sama had never once seen him cry. He told me nii-san knew that crying and being pessimistic all the time never made anything better. That nii-san understood what it meant to be strong."
Naruto was staring at him. "He told you all that?"
"Aa," Inari replied. He cocked his head. "You didn't know?"
"Oh, well, it really made me think." Inari shrugged. "Then, when Gato's men came for kaa-san, I realized you were right. I didn't want to sit around and cry anymore. I wanted to be strong, like you and tou-san." He ducked his head, a faint blush dusting his cheeks.
"And you were, ne?" Naruto grinned and ruffled the younger boy's hair. "You distracted those two jerks at just the right time. Made it easy for me to take 'em out."
"I guess," Inari mumbled, still embarrassed.
"When Gato attacked the bridge, Inari went from house to house in the village, trying to get everyone together to fight with Jiraiya-sama and Naruto," Tsunami said. "It was hard at first, but he didn't give up." She smiled fondly at her son.
"It didn't matter that by the time everyone showed up at the bridge, Gato was dead and his gang too scared to do anything," Tazuna said. "The point was that the town had regained the will to stand up and fight. But only because of Naruto." He grinned and took a swig of sake. "That's why we named the bridge after him. Understand?"
Sasuke glanced at Naruto, then looked away. "Hn."
Naruto chuckled nervously. "It's no big deal, really."
Tazuna shook his head. "It's a big deal to us, gaki," he said. "Don't sell yourself short." He stood and stretched. "It's getting late. You gonna walk us home?"
Naruto did indeed walk them home. Tsunami and Inari disappeared into the house after the boy extracted a promise from Naruto that he would visit again before he returned to Konoha. Tazuna hung back, wanting a few words with the young blonde. He motioned for Naruto to follow him and walked along the dock, away from the house.
"What's up, jiji?" Naruto questioned, his hands linked behind his head.
Tazuna sighed and wondered where to start. He wasn't really good at this sort of thing. "I want you to know that I meant what I said to your team, about why we named the bridge for you. It really had nothing to do with Gato." He chuckled. "Not that we aren't grateful for that, too."
Naruto shrugged and smiled easily. "Sure. I believe you, old man."
Tazuna sighed again. He didn't know if Naruto really believed him or not, but he wasn't about to keep harping on it. "Does your team know what really happened?"
Naruto's smile faded and he shrugged again. "I told Sakura-chan. Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei were close enough to hear me. So yeah, they know."
Tazuna nodded. "Good." He looked out over the water, gathering his thoughts before he continued. "I'm not disgusted by what you did to Gato," he said finally. "It was a gruesome death, but that son-of-a-bitch deserved it." He continued in a quieter voice. "The only reason why I told everyone Jiraiya-sama killed him, instead of you, is because...well...you were thirteen." He glanced at the blonde, who avoided his gaze. "I know that a kid killing somebody isn't all that unusual for ninja, but the thought still makes me cringe. And I'm old enough to remember the hidden village that used to be in this country. Most of the villagers aren't. What they know of the ninja lifestyle comes from romance novels." He looked back over the water. "I didn't want to see how they–how Inari–would react to the reality. I didn't want to tell them a thirteen-year-old had splattered a man all over the place, and watch them go from admiring and liking you to being uneasy and fearing you. Not when you'd done so much for all of us. You deserve better than that, and they're happier with their illusion." He shrugged again. "But I'm glad you told your team. It wouldn't be a big deal to fellow ninja."
He looked over at Naruto again. The blonde was staring at him now, his eyes wide. "You were...protecting me?" he questioned.
Tazuna blinked a couple times. He hadn't thought about it like that, but..."I guess," he replied, with a little smile. "I didn't want to see you, or them, hurt."
Naruto stared at him a bit longer, then, to Tazuna's shock, he bowed. "Arigatou, Tazuna-san."
"Heh." Tazuna scratched his cheek, nonplussed. "You're welcome, gaki."
Naruto rose and grinned. "It's getting late. I should head back–and you need your beauty sleep, jiji."
"Why you-!" Tazuna attempted to smack the blonde in the head, but he easily ducked out of the way and started jogging backwards down the dock.
"See you later, old man!" he called.
"Night, brat!" Tazuna replied, waving.
Naruto returned the wave and disappeared.
The night was still as Naruto made his way towards the trees that signified dry land and the caravan camp. He took his time, not particularly eager to return when he wanted to contemplate Tazuna's words in solitude.
He was glad the old man wasn't afraid of him, despite what he'd done on the bridge, and that Tazuna didn't want anyone else in the village to be afraid of him, either. The bridge builder had been kinda twitchy after the final confrontation, and then he'd told everyone Jiraiya had killed Gato. The Toad Sage had gone along with it, and made sure Naruto did too. The blonde hadn't known what to think. So, it was good to hear Tazuna's reasons. The Hokage had been right; he really did have friends in Wave. Maybe he'd tell Tazuna the whole truth about himself someday, if the Hokage gave him permission. After all, the old man had already seen just what Naruto was capable of...
He was so angry. That kami-damned Gato bastard was just standing there with that stupid, smug look, like he had every right to threaten them, and Tazuna, and the villagers with his crowd of equally stupid, pathetic thugs.
Naruto wanted nothing more than to wipe that expression right off his ugly face. For Inari. For Tsunami. For everyone.
His demon half just wanted to shed blood.
He stepped forward, barely listening to the man's irritating voice drone on. The words only made him angrier, as did the sound of the man's rotten heart beating in his chest. Naruto could feel his chakra bubbling beneath his skin, his instincts rising in response to the intensity of his feelings. His eyes would turn red in a minute. He could already feel his nails lengthening, his canines sharpening.
Jiraiya looked at him sharply, probably feeling his youki leaking into the air around him. He didn't quite care at the moment.
"Can I kill him now, Sensei? Please?" He was whining like a brat, but he didn't care about that either. He wanted Gato dead.
Jiraiya's eyes narrowed on him. Then, the big man shrugged, and turned back to look at Gato and the thugs arrayed on the other end of the bridge. "Go ahead. If he's gone, his men might not be so eager to fight."
Naruto smiled, a feral, dangerous grin, and took another step forward.
He could hear the clones he'd made to guard Tazuna practically panting behind him. Too much youki and they'd pop. He ignored them. This would all be over in a moment.
Another step, and his crimson eyes fixed on the vile creature standing at the very back of the crowd of goons.
Naruto was pleased when Gato's eyes widened behind his stupid little glasses and his voice trailed off. He took a step backwards.
Naruto lifted his hand, palm out, fingers splayed. It wouldn't do for the slimy little bastard to run.
Gato's eyes got wider as he realized he couldn't move. His heart beat erratically. Naruto's smile widened. It was a fraction of the fear and pain that the tycoon had inflicted on the people of this town, but it was something.
"I'm going to kill you now," Naruto said, loud enough for everyone on the bridge to hear. And before anyone could react, he did.
It was a move he'd been working on when he was training alone. Now seemed like the perfect time to test it.
He clenched his hand into a fist, then flicked his fingers open.
It wasn't hard, really, to call all the blood out of a body at once. It just took some practice.
All that was left were bits of flesh and bone, tattered cloth, and blood splattered across the bridge and the nearest thugs.
Gato's men stared at him with undisguised horror as acrid fear-scent saturated the air. Somebody in the back retched.
Naruto smirked lazily and let his hand drop to his side. He felt much better.
"Gaki." Jiraiya's voice sounded odd, and Naruto glanced at him, the smirk dropping away.
"Yes, Sensei?" he asked, his head tilted in question.
Jiraiya couldn't quite meet his eyes, and it was then Naruto realized a little of the fear-scent was coming from him, too.
Naruto looked down at his feet, willing the youki away, watching as the claws on his hands turned back into nails. He felt no qualms about killing Gato, but he didn't want his teacher to be afraid of him. Ever.
And then an arrow soared over their heads and landed at the feet of the closest thug. Naruto didn't need to look behind him to know it was Inari and a good portion of the villagers.
"Stop where you are!" someone yelled. "This island is our home! One step further, and you'll die where you stand!"
Naruto ignored the clamor as the goons fled and the villagers cheered, keeping his eyes on his feet.
Until a heavy hand dropped on his head and ruffled his hair. He looked up, into Jiraiya's dark eyes. "You did good, gaki," the Toad Sage said quietly.
Naruto smiled, the dull ache in his chest eased. "Thanks, Sensei."
Naruto sighed and ran his hands briskly through his hair, rubbing at his scalp.
Tazuna was right that his team would be able to accept the truth much more easily than civilians. At least, they'd accept the fact that he had killed. Even if he'd been at liberty to tell them how he'd done it, he didn't think he wanted to. He remembered Jiraiya's fear all too well, and he wasn't sure he could stand it from his teammates.
"...It wouldn't be a big deal to fellow ninja..."
It's not that simple, jiji.
They may be able to accept what he did, but what he was–that was a different matter all together.
Kakashi leaned back, his chair propped against the wall behind him and his feet resting comfortably on the wooden side of the traders' stall. They had been in Wave for five days of their week-long stay and had settled into a routine. Bandits weren't a problem on the island itself, but there were still thieves of a less-organized variety. Therefore, three Leaf shinobi stayed with the caravan outside of town each day and one came with a small trading party onto the main market dock. They hadn't had any trouble, except for one incident where a couple local boys tried to swipe something on a foolish dare.
Sasuke had not been amused.
In fact, he'd scared the poor kids so badly that they had led him to the local authorities, finding them to be less threatening than the Uchiha. Smart boys.
Today, it was Kakashi's turn to guard their clients' stall, and what a beautiful day it was. The sky was a shade of crisp blue that only seemed possible in the fall, with a few puffy white clouds for contrast. The sun shone benevolently, preventing the salt-scented breeze from becoming too chilly. Gulls cried as they soared above the town.
Kakashi sighed contentedly to himself from behind his book. It was a good day.
"Reading again, Kakashi-san?"
The jonin looked up and grinned. "Aa. It's one of my favorite parts."
Michi smiled back at him. "I quite enjoyed that book myself."
The caravan leader had gone from being slightly skeptical of the Konoha ninja to completely confident in their abilities, even though he hadn't seen them in action yet. Kakashi thought this was in large part due to the confirmation that Naruto really was the person the bridge was named for. It was rather amusing, but as long as it meant the silver-haired man got to read his precious book in peace, he didn't care.
"To be honest, I didn't think you were the sort of man that read such serious things," Michi confessed.
"Well, you know what they say, Michi-san. Don't judge a book by its cover," Kakashi replied, eye crinkling. Literally and figuratively.
Michi laughed. "True, true. I think that applies to shinobi most of all, ne?"
Kakashi inclined his head. "Aa."
Minato didn't care if he openly read porn around the village, but on a mission representing said village...that was a different story. Ninja were sneaky, though–and Kakashi was an excellent ninja. It had taken him about five seconds to come up with the idea to disguise his Icha Icha novel as something more acceptable. So, whenever he left Konoha, the orange book sported the dust jacket from The Samurai by Endō Shusaku. Honestly, the charade probably didn't fool the Hokage at all, but as long as Kakashi didn't get caught, his sensei wouldn't say anything.
Michi chatted with him a bit more about the modern classic he was supposedly reading, then turned back to straightening the merchandise. Kakashi did a quick scan of the area. His gaze swept over the other booths, tents, and stalls that lined the road between the permanent store fronts. He took in the locals, the merchants, men, women, and children walking, talking, haggling, and playing on the busy dock. He saw the three ninja walking down the middle in a loose group.
His gray eye returned to his book, with nary a twitch or a gasp or any other sign he'd even seen the other shinobi, let alone felt alarmed by them.
But inside his mind was racing.
What the hell were they doing so far from home? Probably guarding merchants, just as he was. The only land route to Wave led through Fire Country and the treaty prohibited such border crossings, which meant they must have come by ship. That was good; they had no reason to come near the caravan camp, on the opposite side of town from the main harbor. Naruto was supposed to guard the stall tomorrow, but that could be changed. And his team would be heading back to Konoha the day after that. There was a chance he could get Naruto out of here without them ever seeing the blonde.
Scratch that. There was no chance.
He looked up at his sensei's son, who'd materialized in front of him holding a cloth-wrapped bento in one hand. "Lunch time!"
Though he wasn't looking directly at them, Kakashi saw the instant the Iwa shinobi spotted him.
And, more importantly, Naruto.
They froze, and then melted into the crowd. Not that Kakashi had any trouble tracking them. Chuunin, most likely.
"Naruto," he greeted cheerily, but he didn't smile. He needed to keep his eye open. "I thought Sakura was bringing my lunch today."
Naruto shrugged. "Yeah, well, she asked me if I'd mind doing it instead. She was working on that new doton you taught her."
Kakashi nodded and held his hand out. "I see. Thank you."
Naruto frowned as he handed over the bundle, chopsticks tucked neatly on top. "Something wrong, Sensei?" he questioned.
Kakashi debated for a moment. "Three Iwa shinobi," he said quietly. Better that Naruto know and be prepared for the very, very slim chance that the other ninja made a move. Naruto stiffened, head automatically turning.
"Don't look," Kakashi ordered. Naruto immediately stopped, his eyes sliding back to Kakashi. "By the fruit stand, the bookseller, and coming this way."
"They've seen us?"
Naruto's gaze dropped. "Sorry, Sensei," he mumbled.
"Not your fault," Kakashi replied. "You didn't know."
Naruto shrugged and scratched the back of his head. "What do we do?"
"Nothing. They won't try anything. Just pretend you don't know they're there, and be careful on the way back to the caravan."
Naruto nodded. "Hai." He smiled a little. "Have a good lunch."
Kakashi gave a genuine smile back. "Thanks."
With a last nod, Naruto was gone down the dock, smiling and greeting the villagers who called out to him.
Kakashi opened his bento and picked up his book.
The next few days were uneventful, much to Kakashi's and Naruto's relief. Naruto had reported unknowns around their camp twice–the Copy Ninja had felt the unfamiliar chakra, too–but never close enough to be considered a threat. They were only spying, collecting as much information as they could. Two of the Iwa ninja even went so far as to follow them when they left Wave, but it wasn't for very long. They wouldn't have much to report to the Tsuchikage, but he sure had a hell of a lot to report to Minato.
It was on the second day of their return journey that a threat actually materialized, in the form of a rather sizable bandit group. Naruto, of course, sensed them first.
"Kakashi-sensei!" He landed in front of the Copy Ninja, grinning like he'd just gotten a present. "There's a group one hundred meters ahead of us. Twenty, stationary, on both sides of the road."
Kakashi hummed. "An ambush most likely. Tell the others. Formation C22. Sakura and I will take the middle. Don't forget to put on your radios."
Naruto nodded and disappeared.
Kakashi shook his head a little. Naruto got excited about the strangest things...but a little bit of battle lust wasn't a bad thing in a shinobi. Not that this group would be much of a challenge. Bandits were usually civilians. One or two may have ninja training–either nukenin or dropouts from some academy–but they were probably no more than chuunin level. Nothing his team couldn't handle.
"Kakashi-san? Something wrong?"
He turned, eye crinkling as he faced the caravan leader. "Ah, Michi-san! Naruto just informed me there is a group of bandits up ahead, preparing an ambush for us." He held up his hands at Michi's worried looked. "Maa, maa, don't worry about it. This is why you hired us, ne?"
Michi smiled weakly back. "Aa."
"Good! Now here is what I need you to do..."
Tarou watched, pleased, as the caravan continued to approach his position, hidden in the branches of a tree next to the road. The scout had reported ninja with them, but he hadn't gotten close enough to see what village they were from.
Tarou didn't think it mattered, as they couldn't be very good ninja if they hadn't sensed his group's presence by now. And it didn't seem that they had. The caravan continued its placid pace up the road with no sign of offensive or defensive maneuvers by the shinobi. Oh well. All the better for him.
He held up a hand, waiting until the lead wagon was even with his position, then dropped it. With that signal, the bandits sprang to attack.
And then a voice called, "Doton: Yomi Numa!"
"What?" the bandit leader cried, incredulous as his men sank into the muddy pit the road had become while the caravan seemed to float above the mire.
"Ok, Sakura," the same voice said, the jovial tone grating on Tarou's nerves.
The caravan faded away to reveal two ninja–one tall, silver-haired man and one young, pink-haired woman–standing back-to-back in the road, surrounded by mud and struggling men.
"Genjutsu," Tarou spat through clenched teeth. "Bitch."
His hands were moving through the first seal for the only long-range attack he knew when the man turned his head to stare right at him.
"Are you sure you want to do that, bandit-san?" the man asked, his voice light but his one visible eye steely. The man's hands were poised to move too, and somehow Tarou knew this ninja was much faster than he was. But the thing that really decided it for him was the Leaf symbol on the headband covering the man's left eye.
Tarou turned and ran.
Behind the fleeing outlaw, the man lowered his hands. "Out of the frying pan, into the fire, bandit-san," he remarked quietly. He raised his voice. "How many stayed back on your side, Sakura?"
"Three," the pink-haired woman replied.
"I had two over here," the man stated.
"At least one had ninja training," Sakura said. "Do you think Naruto and Sasuke will be ok?" she asked.
The man waved his hand. "Of course. Have a little faith in your teammates. Now. Do you remember that sleep genjutsu Kurenai taught you?"
The young woman smirked. "Hai, Sensei."
Tarou jumped through the branches. One of his men blundered along on the ground below him, but he didn't pay much mind. His only concern was getting away from the Leaf shinobi. He wasn't fool enough to think that his meagre ninja skills could measure up to theirs.
The trees opened up in front of him and he jumped to the ground, pausing for a moment to take in the surroundings. Nothing. He allowed himself a deep breath and a sigh of relief. He could rest a moment.
His man burst through the undergrowth a minute later, stumbling to a halt when he caught sight of Tarou.
"Boss!" the man cried.
Tarou gestured sharply, to cut off any unnecessary rambling. "Shut up. Catch your breath, and then we'll head back to the base."
"I don't think so."
The shadows behind his man moved, and the bandit crumpled to the ground. Tarou could only stare at the figure that appeared, hand still raised from the strike that had knocked his man out.
This new ninja had black hair and black eyes and his voice was low and cold. And he was Leaf.
"Damn Konoha," Tarou muttered as he backed away, trying to ascertain his best escape route. He needed a distraction.
He started the seals for the same long-range attack he'd attempted before. This time, his opponent said nothing, only raised one thin eyebrow.
Tarou brought his hand to his lips, and it was then the ninja spoke.
"You want to play with fire?" the dark-haired man questioned. "Fine."
And even as Tarou breathed out, expelling his fireball, his opponent mimicked the motions, so fast his hands were a blur, and produced a ball of flame easily three times the size of Tarou's.
The bandit stared, terrified, as the other ninja's jutsu engulfed his and expanded, into a fireball of truly gigantic proportions. Heading straight for him.
He gasped and dodged, diving at the last minute to get out of the way. As it was, he felt the heat of the monstrous jutsu sear his skin as it roared past him. He made to stand, but the feel of cold steel against his throat froze him in place.
The Leaf ninja stood over him, staring down with unreadable eyes and the point of a katana pressed to his neck. "Who are you?" Tarou muttered.
A faint smirk twisted the ninja's lips. "Uchiha Sasuke."
Tarou's eyes widened.
The Uchiha's other hand blurred and pain exploded at Tarou's temple for just a moment before he slipped into blissful darkness.
"Tch." Sasuke sneered at the limp body of the bandit. What an idiot.
He spared a glance for the fireball that had almost reached the other side of the clearing. He frowned. It would probably set the trees on fire, and he'd have to get Kakashi to-
Everything seemed to happen at once.
Another bandit crashed out of the bushes, directly in the path of the flames. Two hands erupted from the ground and pulled the bandit down until only his head was showing, even as another, terribly familiar figure rose in his place. Naruto stood grinning at the buried bandit, hands on hips, back to the fire.
Sasuke stared, horrified.
He doesn't know it's there.
"N-Naruto!" he cried, panic lacing his voice, even as the blonde frowned and started to turn.
He can't see it. Can't he hear it?
Sasuke took a few steps forward, even though it was futile.
It's too close. He can't dodge...
Naruto's eyes were wide at the sight of the ball of flame bearing down on him.
...I can't save him.
The blonde's lips moved in a mumbled curse before he dropped to the ground and the fire swallowed him up.
Sasuke stood, frozen, disbelieving. Had that just happened? Did he really just severely injure or even...do something worse to...his own fucking teammate?
He started running, before the fireball had completely broken apart against the trees. If the blonde was even still alive, he'd need medical attention right away. He tried to steel himself for the sight of a blackened, charred corpse, only to stop again, so fast he thought he might give himself whiplash. His mouth fell open in utter and profound shock.
This time his voice was hesitant and unsure.
His blonde teammate was rising from his hunched position, unwrapping his arms from the buried bandit's head. He scratched sheepishly at the back of his neck. "Eh, heh. Gomen, Sasuke. That was my fault."
And Sasuke was moving again, unwilling to believe his eyes. The blonde wasn't even singed. He'd been directly hit by one of the Uchiha Clan's most powerful fire jutsus– fueled with the extra chakra from the smaller, weaker jutsu it had absorbed–and he wasn't even singed. What the fuck had the dobe done?
His hands latched onto Naruto's biceps, and his eyes roamed the blonde's figure. No angry red or charred black like he had feared. Not even a hair on the blonde's head was curled. It was like it had never happened.
His black eyes locked with blue. "Why aren't you hurt?" he demanded. He tried to go for calm and collected, but it came out slightly panicked. His heart was still pounding from the adrenaline.
You should be dead, I thought I killed you, Ifuckingkilledyou!
Naruto stared at him and his expression softened a little. "I'm immune to fire, Sasuke," he said quietly. "You could throw katon jutsu at me all day and I'd never be hurt." He paused. "I'm sorry I worried you."
Sasuke clenched his jaw, and his grip on the blonde tightened for one instant.
Then he punched him in the face.
"Damn it, teme!" Naruto cried from the ground, rubbing his cheek. "What the hell was that for?"
"You idiot!" Sasuke yelled, all his fear morphing pretty quickly into anger. "You aren't supposed to be here!" The black-haired teen waved vaguely behind himself. "You're supposed to be on the other side of the road! Formation C22! You told me yourself!"
Naruto stared up at him with wide eyes. "Well, yeah," he said. "But-"
"You decided to change things again, didn't you?" Sasuke interrupted. "Damn it, Naruto! How many times do we have to say it? You can't just do that without telling your team!" He jabbed a finger at the radio around his neck. "Why do you think Kakashi made us wear these? Otherwise, shit like this happens! What if you weren't immune to fire? What if I'd used a raiton? You'd be dead! I would have killed you!" Sasuke was panting now, his fists clenched tight. He never lost it like this. Never. But Naruto...kami, Naruto would have died.
He may refuse to care...but he didn't want the blonde dead.
Said blonde stared at him for a moment. "I understand, Sasuke. Gomen nasai," he said seriously. But then he grinned. "At least I got the bad guy, ne?" He gestured to the bandit.
Sasuke's relief was almost enough to overpower his annoyance. Almost. His eye twitched, even as he reached out. "Hn."
Naruto took his hand, grumbling about moody bastards as Sasuke hauled him to his feet, and the Uchiha had to fight a smile.
The idiotic urge disappeared though, as a thought occurred to him. "How are you immune to fire?" It certainly explained why Naruto never seemed to get burned during training. Sasuke had assumed Naruto protected himself with a water jutsu, but obviously there was more to it than that.
"Oh, well..." Naruto scratched at the back of his head again. "It's something I got from my mother. Remember I told you she was really good with fire?"
"Noooo...it's just something we can do."
Sasuke stared. "A kekkei genkai?"
Naruto looked distinctly uncomfortable. "Uhhh...well..."
Sasuke's eyes narrowed, but any plans of beating the information out of the blonde were quickly discarded as their third teammate landed next to them.
"Are you guys ok?" Sakura asked, looking concerned. "What happened to your face, Naruto?"
The blonde chuckled. "Oh, nothing, Sakura-chan. It's fine." But he didn't stop her as she lifted a green-glowing hand to his jaw.
Sasuke smirked, though his expression slid to blankness as Sakura turned to him. "Sasuke-kun?"
He sniffed and shook his head. "Hn."
She sighed. "Ok." Then she smiled. "Sensei said to bring these-" she gestured to the bandits scattered unconscious around the clearing "-to the road. We'll leave them tied up there. Sensei has already sent a message to the nearest outpost. They'll take care of them."
Sasuke nodded and Naruto gave the kunoichi a thumbs up. "Sure thing, Sakura-chan." Then he ambled off, already pulling a ball of cord out of one of his pouches.
Sasuke's eyes narrowed again. It looked like he'd have to wait to find out what he wanted to know.
Minato listened patiently as his son's team reported on their latest mission. The report for a simple C-rank that had been completed to the satisfaction of the client was not normally given to the Hokage in person, but Kakashi had made the request.
So Minato waited, and watched.
He saw the quick look Naruto shot Kakashi as the jonin finished up the report, and he saw the way Naruto's eyes lingered nervously on him as he smiled and praised their performance. That smile faded as soon as the door shut behind the four, and he sat in silence for a few moments, staring hard at the space in front of him. Then, without turning his head, he asked, "What happened?"
A beat of silence from the seemingly-empty room.
"A team from Iwa spotted Naruto."
Minato swore, one quiet but vicious expletive. He turned to the silver-haired man perched in his window. "Did they make contact?"
Kakashi shook his head. "But they followed us when we left. Only a few kilometers. They wouldn't have risked coming too far inside Fire Country's borders, even for a juicy tidbit like Naruto."
Minato snorted. "Even a few kilometers was a risk." He sighed, resignedly. "I had hoped for more time."
Kakashi nodded. "I know. But there's nothing to be done about it now. They first saw him five days ago. If they sent a message right away, the Tsuchikage will have the information by now."
"Mmm...but they probably waited, to gather more intelligence. They wouldn't have bothered with following you otherwise. You left three days ago?"
"That was probably when they sent it. We have a day, maybe two, before Ōnoki sees it. Unless we're really lucky and they wait to make the report in person." He glanced at his student. Kakashi stared blankly back at him. Minato sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Yeah, I don't think they'll do that, either."
"Will he make an attempt right away?" Kakashi questioned.
Minato thought for a moment, leaning back in his chair and pressing his fingertips together in front of his face. "No. He's proud and ruthless, but he's not stupid. He'll want more information. He'll send a spy or two."
"The easiest time to infiltrate will be during the Chuunin Exam," Kakashi pointed out.
Minato frowned. "Don't I know it. But they won't be held until spring. He might not want to wait that long."
Kakashi hummed. "The Winter Festival, then?"
Minato contemplated. "Hmmm, maybe."
Kakashi's eye crinkled up. "Well, then, we'll just have to be on our toes."
The Yondaime smiled back, but it wasn't a particularly friendly smile. "Aa. We will."
Yomi Numa–Swamp of the Underworld
'The Samurai' by Endō Shusaku is a real book. It was published in 1980 to great critical acclaim, and the author received the prestigious Noma Prize for it. It's the complete opposite of what I picture the Icha Icha series to be, which is why I picked it.
Thanks to everyone who's still reading, despite my horrible delay in getting this chapter posted.