The Girl From Whirlpool
Chapter One: Beginnings
Three children sat on the iron balustrade above the marketplace, looking down over the swathes of people flowing in through the village gates. One was a girl with tightly braided hair the colour of jet with eyes to match, wearing a pale indigo tunic. Her name was Ai. Beside her, swinging his legs was a boy twice her size in girth and height with a face that drew unflattering comparisons with a greedy hamster. He was Saburou. A little way off from either of them sat a boy shorter and skinnier than both his teammates with hair the colour of sunlight and eyes the colour of the clearest sky at the height of summer. His name was Namikaze Minato, and he was destined to become the fourth Hokage of Konoha and the greatest shinobi in living memory, though at that moment in time he was busy untangling a stick of dango that Ai had dropped in his hair.
"I don't get why they have to come here," Ai complained sullenly, glowering at the influx of weary, dusty travellers being rounded up into groups by chunin officials. "Why can't they stay in their own village?"
"Jiraiya-sensei says there was a 'coo day tar' in their country," Minato said. He was still picking at the sticky sauce in his hair. "If they go back to their village they'll be killed."
"So?" Ai snapped at him. "How's that our problem? Konoha won't be Konoha if half the people living here are foreigners. They'll overtake us and get free money and food and houses and stuff."
Minato thought hard and looked down at the refugees. "But we're at war," he said. "Isn't having more people on our side a good thing?"
"They're not going to fight for us," Ai said disgustedly. "They're going to leach off our generosity and eat our food and steal our women and they'll expect us to keep fighting to protect our own and now them too. Our resources are already stretched, we really don't need them coming and taking what we earned for ourselves."
It was the kind of thing Ai's father said a lot. Minato reckoned she was just reciting what she'd heard at home. He sighed and watched another group of 'Whirlpool' citizens slope through the gates. They didn't look much like trouble he decided. They didn't even look that much different from the average Konoha citizen, only a lot of them looked tired and sad and some were even crying. There were only a handful of Whirlpool shinobi down there in the crowd, and the rest seemed to be mostly civilian women and children. Minato wondered exactly why those women would 'steal away' the Konoha women.
"Where's all the shinobi?" he wondered aloud.
A large hand landed on top of his head.
"They stayed behind to fight." Minato looked up into the grizzly face of his teacher. He bore a sad sort of smile. "They gave their lives to help their families escape. It's nothing but a slaughter where they came from. We're lucky any of them escaped."
"Can't they start their own village somewhere else?" Ai asked petulantly, her arms folded.
Jiraiya gave her a slightly bemused look. "Easier said than done. Whirlpool was our greatest ally, Ai-chan. If Konoha was destroyed and we had to leave we too would depend on the kindness of our allies to make it through. We must help them because one day we might need their help." He stroked his chin. "And the women of Whirlpool are notoriously beautiful... it can't hurt to acquire such... assets."
The three students rolled their eyes and looked away. Down below a group of children were being gathered up separately from the other refugees. Minato frowned. "What's going to happen to them?" he asked his teacher.
Jiraiya shrugged. "The orphans? They'll be looked after one way or another."
That didn't sound particularly reassuring, but then Minato didn't have to think too hard what it must be like for them to be in a strange place with no family to look out for them. Minato himself didn't have a mother – only a father whom he doubted was even his real father (suspicion had gradually dawned after ten years of putting up with beer bottles being thrown at his head with accompanying remarks along the lines of 'I should throw you out,' because 'you're nothing but that bitch's bastard child!')
Minato finally managed to free the dango stick from his hair with a triumphant smile as Jiraiya continued, "They'll probably be enrolled in the academy. Maybe some will be in your classes?"
Ai made a disgusted sound in the back of her throat as if this was some major offence. Saburou didn't seem to care one way or another, but he never talked anyway so it wasn't unusual for him to be so quiet on this matter. Minato regarded the group of children with a little more interest. They were potential new friends. They were potential competitors and rivals. Maybe there was a child down there who was just as good at ninjutsu? There was no other genin in the entirety of Konoha that could match Minato's skills in any area, but how strong were the genin of the Whirlpool country? Minato didn't know much about that place other than it bordered the sea and encompassed a few small islands – and between those islands swirled the biggest whirlpools in the world.
Minato didn't know what a whirlpool was or what it looked like. He just knew that they were big and they were in the sea. But even then he probably knew more about the whirlpools than he did about the people who lived around them.
He counted the orphans – there were fifteen of them; eleven boys and four girls. Most of them were crying, especially the youngest ones, but the last girl, sitting at the edge of the group upon a bag of what were her last remaining belongings, was collected. She sat and stared around with mild curiosity at the buildings and the trees and the uniformed officials moving around taking names. Her hair caught in the light and it shone like fresh blood; a striking characteristic that set her apart easily from anyone else around her. Minato was too far away to make out anything else about her.
"Minato! Are you coming?" Jiraiya called to him.
His team was moving away down the tiered street towards the bridge.
"Ah – sorry!" Minato shot the girl with the fiery hair one last look and then quickly caught up with his teammates.
"Minato was checking out a girl," Ai said in a sing-song tone of voice.
"I was not," he said furiously, feeling his face heat up.
"Yes, you were," she said in the same tone, doing her best to wind him up. "Minato and Whirlpool Girl ~ sitting in a tree ~ K-I-S-S-I-N-G-"
"Ai!" he protested.
"First comes love ~ Then comes marriage ~ Then comes a baby in a baby carr-"
"Ai-chan," Jiraiya said reproachfully, making the girl's mouth snap shut in a heartbeat. "And Minato. None of that until you're eighteen."
Despite people like Ai's father assuring everyone that these were the end-times for Konoha for allowing such an influx of outsiders into the village, the Whirlpoolers settled in relatively well. Not much really changed about Konoha, other than that new houses had to be built and the constant hammer of construction could be heard all over the village. New faces started appearing at the academy, but their knowledge and skills were so far behind everyone else that they had to have their own special classes. Minato only ever got to mix with them in the training yard during the mid morning and afternoon breaks.
He looked for the red-haired girl every time he went to the academy, but he didn't see her again for almost a month. It was as he was running out of the academy with his test score papers in hand (he had eleven straight S marks – the highest grade attainable) with the intent of rushing to the women's bathhouse to inform Jiraiya-sensei (it never occurred to him for a second to go home and show his father either now or later) that he came across her once again.
His route took him past the bakery where the hot bean bread was baked that made his stomach rumble every time he passed by, though he never had the money to waste on fanciful things like treats and snacks. That day there was a gang of children gathered in the path between the bakery and someone's fenced off wild garden. Minato paused and slowed down, wondering what all the shouting was about.
"Give it back!"
"Why? You can't wear this in Konoha. If you want to live in Konoha you have to wear our symbol."
"Give it back!"
"Ooh – I'm trembling in my-"
A piercing shriek split the air and everyone in the near vicinity flinched and recoiled a little. Minato peered over the shoulders of the other kids. His eyes widened to see the same red-haired girl as before standing at the centre of the gang, anger twisting her face as she faced down one of the largest bullies the village had to offer. He appeared to be holding her hitai-ate.
"Is that all you do?" he jeered her. "Some kunoichi."
"Give it back – or I'll bite you!" she snarled at him.
The bully laughed and drew back his hand. "If you want it," he said. "You're going to have to get it."
And he threw it on top of the bakery roof.
As everyone laughed, the girl's face fell in dismay, although something close to utter detestation was beginning to harden there. Minato looked up at where the hitai-ate lay on the edge of the roof, its long, dirty white ribbon dangling down to flutter in the draft one of the humming bakery vents. While the rest of the kids laughed and carried on teasing the girl, Minato folded up his exam results and carefully placed them in his mouth. He walked up to old drainpipe running down from the roof and summoned a little chakra to his hands to help aid him as he began to climb.
Gradually the laughter faded as he quickly shimmied up the pipe and reached across to catch the fluttering ribbon. By the time he had it firmly in his hands the alley below was deathly silent, but he paid them no mind as he dropped back down to the ground and turned to face the girl with the red hair.
She didn't looked quite the same as she did a month ago. She seemed to have hacked off most of her hair with a blunt kunai and now it was an uneven, jagged mess that framed her grubby face, though the colour was no less striking. She also wore clothes that seemed to have been meant for boys and if he hadn't seen her before in a dress, it would have been easy to mistake her for a boy. But her eyes defied that. They stood out above every attempt she'd made to diminish her looks, like swirling pools of green and blue beneath long dark lashes. They narrowed distrustfully at him as he approached. He gave her a smile to show he meant no harm, and held up the hitai-ate for her to take.
She made no move to take it.
So instead he stepped forward and pressed the protector over her forehead. He made quick work of tying the knots at her nape and then stepped back to see her reaction. A dark pink stain coloured her cheeks now and as she looked up at him, the light caught on the metal plate of her hitai-ate and the symbol of Whirlpool flashed in his eyes. She was grateful, he was sure. She just didn't know how to express it-
At least that was what he thought until she punched him. Very hard. In the gut.
As Minato fell with a winded wheeze to the ground, the girl looked fiercely at the bully who had accosted her originally and jabbed a thumb at her hitai-ate. "I am Uzumaki Kushina of Whirlpool! One day I'll be the greatest Kunoichi in the world and don't you forget it!"
And then she turned and shoved her way out of the ring of spectators to flee out of sight between two houses.
Finally able to breathe, Minato rolled onto his back and stared skyward. "Uzumaki Kushina," he murmured wonderingly between coughs.
What a horrible girl!
Faces peered down at him and he could tell that they all thought he'd spoiled their fun, but Minato had the unusual gift of popularity and people found it difficult to dislike him even when he was doing stupid things like this. Even the worst bullies didn't have the heart, or perhaps the nerve, to pick on him. Except for Ai. She was always picking on him.
"You're such a bleeding heart, Namikaze," someone said as they helped him up.
"I should punch you too for being such a div," the bully grumbled.
"It wouldn't be half as hard as the one I just got," he rasped.
The gang dispersed and Minato sat up slowly, carefully cradling his abused stomach. That girl, Kushina, hit as hard as Saburou did, and that was nothing to be taken lightly. If he ever saw her again it would be far too soon.
Driven to such distraction, he almost forgot about his test results. They'd fallen out of his hand when the girl had punched him, and he sat massaging his belly for a long time before he remembered them and carried on his search for Jiraiya-sensei.
He found him at the training grounds, sitting against the wall as he tapped a pencil against a small notebook in his lap. "What did you expect?" he said, when Minato showed him his results. "You're a genius!"
This was true, so Minato started telling him about the red-haired girl and her killer right hook.
"Is it possible? The most soft-hearted boy in Konoha has finally met someone he can't stand?"
"Jiraiya-sensei..." Minato murmured, embarrassed. Wind blew through the training grounds, ruffling up his blond locks. "I just don't get it! I was trying to be nice and then she just punched me. I don't know what her problem is."
"Women," Jiraiya grunted in a derisive tone, as if it was all Minato needed to know. "It is the purpose of their gender to confuse and abuse us men. Never forget how heartless they are, Minato. When a woman says no, she means 'do the dishes first' and when she says yes, she means 'until I change my mind', and if you don't figure out their secret code they'll get upset and blame you for everything. Don't try to understand what motivates their strange brand of female logic. Better men than us have tried and gone mad in the process."
Minato watched his sensei scribbling furiously away in his notebook, muttering something like, 'that's good, I'll use that somewhere'. "I thought you liked women," Minato pointed out.
"That is the curse we bear as men," Jiraiya said sadly. "Women make our lives difficult with their contrary ways, but masochism is in our blood. We can't live with them. We absolutely cannot live without them. Of course, you're young, and you don't yet realize what it is about the fairer sex that endears them to us."
Minato wrinkled his nose. "Endear?" he repeated. "Girls are useless. They're always either giggling in groups and talking about you behind your back or punching you in the stomach and rubbing food in your hair. How can anything about them be 'endearing'?"
Jiraiya chuckled. "When you're older you'll understand."
"What are you writing?"
"Ah – oh – never you mind." His teacher quickly snapped his book shut and shoved it inside his vest. "Show me that nature manipulation you're working on."
Always eager to show off, Minato clambered to his feet and clapped his eyes on the three tall posts protruding from the ground a few yards away, reaching toward the sky. He took a moment to find his stance and focus his chakra, and then with a sharp strike of his arm, a gust of air so sharp it sang as it cut through the air went streaking towards the posts.
In the quiet that followed, three loud bangs could be heard as each post was severed and the top halves came crashing down to earth. Minato looked on happily.
Jiraiya sucked his pencil thoughtfully. "You've figured out some form manipulation too, huh?"
"Yeah," Minato said. "But it could be better couldn't it, Sensei?"
"You said there were different grades of manipulation for both nature and form. What would happen if you used the highest grade of form manipulation with the highest grade of nature manipulation?"
"Something catastrophic, no doubt," Jiraiya said darkly, but he seemed amused. "It could work in theory, but first you'd have to figure out what exactly the highest form is. I doubt even you could figure it out and be able to control it, as well as imbue it with nature."
Minato pouted. "I bet I could."
"Egotism doesn't suit you, Minato," Jiraiya said as he got to his feet. "Although it's probably deserved."
"It's a nice day, Minato. Don't you have anything fun planned? Worry less about your training and go have fun. Chase some girls. Figure out how to avoid being punched-"
"I think I need to do some more research for my book."
After that, Minato realised he might have seen Uzumaki Kushina around more often than he'd realised. He'd previously been on the lookout for that pretty girl in the dress with the long red hair – whereas in reality he should have been looking for a dirty faced tomboy with a fringe as crooked as the horizon above the Iwa mountains. Now that he knew what to look for, he started seeing her almost everywhere, although he was beginning to wish he wasn't.
Being that she was in the special catch-up classes with the rest of the Whirlpool children, the only time they ever really crossed paths was in the playground. She was friendless and sulky, and mostly sat alone on a swing at the end of the grounds where few kids played. No one approached her, save for the academy instructors who often tried to cajole her into playing with someone other than the swing. She only ever stared stolidly back until they left her alone. Her Whirlpool headband seemed more worn and dirty every time Minato saw it, but she never took it off. Some of the kids even joked that she probably slept in it.
Later, Minato would learn that this was actually true.
In the spirit of the good Samaritan, he tried to approach her two more times in order to befriend her. Once by offering to push her on the swings (she pushed him in the chest without a word and stormed away) and once by sitting next to her at lunch and asking if she liked the baked beans (she didn't, so she dropped her portion over his head).
After that, Minato vowed not to bother with her again. She was friendless for a reason, and his hair had taken enough abuse from girls to last him a lifetime. For the most part he lost interest and forgot about her. His days were filled with training and learning and practice and field assignments. That ambitious claim he'd made to his sensei about mastering the ultimate form manipulation was something he was struggling to live up to, and any spare time he had was dedicated to crawling through the library and finding every book every written on the subject of form manipulation in order to better understand it.
When the last year of his time in the academy approached, he had just turned ten and was desperate to get a move on. Come the following year he would graduate and his team would finally be certifiable ninja ready for deployment. For all his life wars had been raging unheard in the distance. Jiraiya-sensei had fought in them and returned many times as a decorated hero for the lives he'd saved. Minato wanted to be a hero – one who all the nations talked about. Allies would whisper his name with awe and admiration, and enemies would whisper it with fear. But first he had to finish his homework.
And it was in this last year that he was forcibly reminded of the whirlpool refugees. They'd been filtering through back into the regular classes as they gradually caught up, though they had to be forgiven for their slowness. When you were from a country right at the heart of two wars, schooling was probably the last thing on your mind back there, and Minato's hope that he would find a suitable challenge amongst them was looking like it would go unfulfilled.
Then that girl arrived in the class.
As one of the last to be transferred, she was one of the slowest. She sat at the back of the class with a permanent scowl on her face, and when Minato ever chanced a look at her work, all he noticed was a lot of large, uneven handwriting that meandered across the page like the lines on the paper were just for decoration rather than guidance. Whenever the teacher asked her a question, half the time she wouldn't say anything, and the other half she would just give the wrong answer.
The class was often split into pairs or groups for assignments, and it happened often enough that it was only inevitable that he eventually found himself forced to sit next to her and try to communicate with her.
It was rather like talking to a wall.
"… so if two X plus four equals twelve, X must be four… you see?" Minato said, showing her the equation.
Kushina didn't give even the merest flicker of acknowledgement. Her head was rested on her folded arms over the desk and she was looking away from him quite pointedly.
"You see, because… if you take away four, the equation becomes two X equals eight. So you just have to divide eight by two and you get the value of X. Which is four. Right?" Minato tried to push the text book towards her, but she only leaned away. "C'mon, it's easy. You get this, don't you?"
"No, I don't," she said baldly.
"But this is important-"
"No, it's not!" she snapped, lifting her head. "When you're out there with people setting fire to your house and men pulling your mother into the street, you're not sitting there thinking what X might equal."
She put her head back in her arms and went back to ignoring him. Minato didn't bother her again. He quietly filled in the rest of the answers himself and thought to himself that perhaps her vehemence against academic subjects might have been more understandable if she hadn't been equally bad at the practical and physical aspects of schooling. She wasn't the fastest on the track. Her elementary ninjutsu techniques were weak and despite being left-handed, she would only hold a kunai in her right hand.
"That's how we are taught in Whirlpool," was her contrary response whenever she was criticised.
Minato was inclined to think Whirlpool had it wrong, but at least it explained why her handwriting was so atrocious.
The year passed swiftly and before he knew it summer was upon them and the final exam results were being handed out. As predicted, Minato passed with the best marks in the year – and the best marks of the last fifty years, for that matter. Ai and Saburou naturally passed with better than average grades, and didn't seem to mind Minato too much as long as he didn't rub his results in their faces.
The only one in their class who didn't pass was the red-haired Kushina.
"There's obviously something wrong with her," Ai said icily. "In the head."
They were standing out in the playground, fresh from the high of receiving their results, surrounded by other ecstatic children and their proud parents and teachers. Ai's father was standing a little distance away talking with Saburou's parents and Jiraiya. Minato's father hadn't appeared, which Minato himself was rather glad of. The last time his father had managed to pull himself out of a bottle and attend some important parent-teacher event, it had been rather embarrassing. Minato was perfectly happy to share this moment with just his team and his teacher, though when he looked across the grounds at the girl sitting alone in the shadows upon the old swing some of the happiness went out of him. She hadn't passed, but even if she had, there was no one to cheer with her. No one cared, not in the least because Kushina had spent her years in the academy doing her best to make sure of it. It was easy to stand with Ai and take the attitude that this foreign girl had no feelings to hurt and she deserved all her misfortune with such a bad personality, but when he saw Kushina sitting there by herself, staring at the headband in her hands whose ribbon had finally deteriorated and was no longer wearable, how could he feel anything but sadness? It wasn't her fault she had been born without talent or brains, any more than Minato deserved praise for being born a genius.
So he said, "Leave her alone, Ai. How would you like it if someone said that about you?"
His teammate looked affronted. "Well, why don't you just go marry her if you love her so much?!"
Saburou laughed, one of the few sounds he ever made, and Minato retreated to the relative safety of Jiraiya's shadow. It might have been a mistake, because the moment he did his teacher seized his shoulder and dragged him out into the open again. "Ah! Here he is, sensei, the one I was telling you about. Minato, say hello to the Hokage."
"Hello, sir," Minato said looking up at the tall and (to his young eyes) extremely old man standing before Jiraiya. Other adults he'd never seen or met before but whom were wearing equally official looking robes and uniforms peered down at him curiously.
"Congratulations on your results, my boy," said the Hokage with a grandfatherly kind of smile. "The best for fifty years, I hear. It seems you have broken my record."
Minato's eyes widened. "I'm sorry, sir."
The adults laughed and the Hokage grinned broadly. "I supposed we can expect many great things from you, Namikaze," he mused, though the laughter in his eyes faded as they wandered over to the lonely girl on the swing. "Shame it wasn't a hundred percent pass rate this year. I was so hoping that all the refugees would have caught up by now but... the immigration committee will be on my back again, no doubt."
"We'll just have the girl tutored over the summer," said one of the Hokage's advisors quietly. "She can retake the examinations before next year and it'll count. Perhaps one of her friends...?"
"Kushina doesn't have friends," Minato told the woman.
"A little socially awkward, that one," Jiraiya intercepted hurriedly. "Although Minato's the only person she's opened up to. He's a kind boy... very patient. A natural teacher, one might think."
Minato stared up at Jiraiya blankly. What on earth was he trying to suggest? Kushina had only opened up to him in the same way a venus fly-trap opened up to an insect.
"Yes... yes... there's something very fitting about that... the top student lifting up the dead-last... yes, yes..." The Hokage stroked his chin for a few moments, gazing skyward. Then he smiled again. "Then it's settled."
And he wandered away with his entourage to meet more parents and teachers, leaving Minato absolutely lost as to what had been 'settled'. He turned to ask Jiraiya who was looking unusually crafty. It was the expression he normally wore when he said he was thinking about research trips. Suddenly he felt very worried.
"This is your chance, Minato," Jiraiya said, bending down to conspire with him.
"For what, Sensei?" Minato asked apprehensively. If he was about to be asked to sneak into the bathhouse to steal underwear again, he was out of there. He still had the bucket shaped dents in his back from the last time, and he found he was getting rather too old to be able to widen his eyes and wobble his chin to ingratiate himself to a pack of naked women.
"To tutor Kushina."
Minato looked across the grounds at the girl on the swing who was now exploring the inside of her nose with a finger. He looked quickly back at his Sensei. "I don't think so."
"No, think about it, Minato," Jiraiya said, holding up a hand as if to slow him down. "You have broken the fifty year record... the record set by the current Hokage himself. Do you know what old Sarutobi-sensei was thinking when he met you just now?"
"Uhh..." Minato scrambled for the answer.
"He was thinking if you might very well be fit enough to become the next Hokage." Jiraiya spread his hands with a grin, but Minato only stared. "Oh, come on, kid, don't tell me you've never thought of it. Every child dreams of becoming the Hokage, and you're the brightest boy in the school... if anyone has a chance, it's you."
"Uhh..." Minato said again.
"But there are more qualities required to be considered than simple brilliance. You must be kind, patient, benevolent, and wise. If you can bring that little viper over there up to scratch before the end of the summer, I think it will prove something to the Hokage and the rest of this village."
It would certainly prove that he could work miracles. "This seems awfully calculated," he said mistrustfully.
"Then look at her." Jiraiya turned him to point in Kushina's direction again, now wiping something suspicious off on her shorts. "If she doesn't pass this summer, she'll have to repeat the year. She'll be older than the other kids and even more of an outsider than she is now. Don't you think, after her hard life, she deserves to have someone take the time to help her? I've spoken to your teacher, Minato, and it's true. He says you are the only one she's opened up to."
"But she's hardly said more than three words to me!"
"Then that's more than she's said to anyone else. Maybe you haven't noticed because everyone wants to be your friend, Minato, but however small the signs, you are the only one she likes. If there's anyone who can help her pass, it's you."
Minato felt his shoulders sag. He could see his summer slipping away. He should have been imagining the coming summer months with his team, going out on fun, dumb D-class assignments and training like hell in the fields reserved for graduated ninja. Instead he could see his days filling up endlessly with that horrible girl's face.
"I suppose... someone has to," he said at last, his heart feeling heavy.
Jiraiya beamed. "And this is why you'll make a great Hokage," he said, and when Minato looked puzzled he ruffled the boy's hair. "Only you would throw away a summer on a hopeless case like her."
"Oh..." This was not a great boost of confidence. The fact that Minato felt awful made him rather worried that he really wasn't so kind and patient after all, and as he crossed the grounds towards the swing he began to wonder if he was doing this to, as Jiraiya had said, prove to the Hokage and everyone else that he was a nice person, or if the only one he needed to impress was himself.
Kushina watched him as he approached the same way a wild animal did, one who was deciding whether or not to bite or flee. "Come to rub it in," she snarled, "Mr Smarty-pants?"
He felt even worse. "You have another chance, you know," he mumbled, feeling rather hot behind the ears. "You can retake the exams in two months."
She sniffed loudly and wiped her nose. It was bleeding a little. "What, and fail again so you and all your stupid fans can come and laugh at me a second time?" she said sulkily. "Why don't you go back to crawling up that old man's arse? He's the leader of your village, isn't he? What, do you fancy yourself the next boss or something."
"No, I – look, it's your village too!" Minato protested.
Kushina stuck out her tongue, along with her middle finger. For a moment he was too shocked to speak. That was something he'd never seen a girl do. "My village is Whirlpool!" she said, practically baring her teeth at him. "It's the most beautiful village in the land with the strongest ninja! And I'm going back there soon, so what do I need to pass your stupid exams for?!"
Minato bit the inside of his cheek. Last he'd heard from Ai, what was left of Whirlpool wasn't so pretty anymore. But... "Is that why you don't try? Because you don't care?" he asked quietly.
Kushina pulled another face. "No, I'm just stupid," she retorted, "that's what they all say. That's what you all think."
"I don't think that," he said, not knowing if it was a lie or not. Kushina had never struck him as unintelligent, just extremely unmotivated, but that could have been a consequence of not understanding her lessons, he supposed. "Hey, you could prove to everyone that you're not stupid, if you work really hard this summer."
She rolled her eyes.
"I'll help you."
Kushina threw herself out of the swing so fast, Minato took a hasty step back. "Leave me alone!" she exploded. "Who do you think you are, lording it over me all the time! I hate you!"
"I'm not lording anything over anyone!" he cried defensively. "I just want to help you!"
"No, you don't! You're just another arrogant Konoha boy who looks down your nose at me!"
"I can't help it, you're so short..."
"So you want to repeat the year?" he asked incredulously.
"No," she snorted. "But I'm not going to. I told you, I'm going back to Whirlpool when the civil war ends."
"You think that'll be before the end of summer?"
She remained quiet, scuffing her badly worn sandals into the dry grass.
"It might not calm down in your country for years. At least if you pass, you won't have to go back to the academy ever again."
She was tempted. He could see an ugly frown forming on her brow every time he mentioned the academy. She must really have hated the place. "So how does that work, then?" she asked petulantly. "You helping me?"
"I'll... well, I can tutor you."
"Where? Your house?"
Minato had never invited a friend over to his house before, and he didn't much like the thought of even the unpleasant Kushina meeting his father either. "How about yours?"
He regretted it immediately because her stare turned colder. "I don't have one."
"Uh..." Now he felt awful. "Ok, how about me meet at the library next week? Monday morning?"
She stared at him balefully, so he took that as a yes and was walking backwards away from her so fast he was halfway across the grounds before he turned around. He found himself practically nose to nose with Ai.
"What was that about?" she demanded, arms folded. He wondered if this was what it was like to have a mother.
"Nothing," he said, which he should have known would only make her more suspicious.
"Were you organising a date or something?" Her dark eyes narrowed on him.
Jiraiya strolled up behind her. "Well?" he asked.
Ai thrust a finger at him. "Aha! It is a date!"
"No!" Minato cried again, growing frustrated. It wasn't that he didn't want anyone to think he was 'dating' Kushina – he'd much rather no one thought he was dating anybody. At eleven, going with a girl was more a subject of ridicule than envy, because although they were now graduated ninja ready to take on their first assignments, they still hadn't grown out of the view that the opposite sex was a natural enemy. In Kushina's case, very much so.
But Ai was already off, skipping through the crowds of genin, parents, and teachers, singing in a loud, piercing voice. "Minato and Kushina ~ sitting in a tree ~ K-I-S-S-I-N-G ~"
Her voice faded into the distance but more than a few people were looking at him now and were witness to the alarming shade of red spreading across his cheeks. But some of the adults didn't seem so interested in what Ai was shouting, and when they looked at him he distinctly heard a few mutters.
"Top of the year..."
"... scored higher than the Hokage..."
"...such a handsome boy."
"Looks just like his mother..."
Minato sighed and, rather fed up with the whole day, decided to go home and let his father know he was now a fully fledged ninja with possibly the most brilliant mind in the village. He might as well get it over with and his day couldn't get much worse anyway. When he arrived in the small, dirty little apartment at the edge of the village, his father was where he was most days: sitting in his armchair, a framed photograph of Minato's mother in one hand and a bottle in the other.
From the doorway, Minato leaned into the room. "I passed, dad."
"That's nice, boy," his father said, his voice thick and slurry from drink. He didn't look up from the picture. "I'm proud."
Minato figured he ought to go to his room now, but his father's admission of pride surprised him and he felt the need to validate it. "I came top of the class," he added.
"Did you?" Something twinged there in his father's expression as he looked up, as if it was suddenly dawning on him that his son was standing there and he had been trying for the last seven years of his life to become a genin.
"Yeah... highest scores for fifty years," he said quietly with a faint blush, and when his father only stared he hastened to add, "Higher than Sarutobi-sama."
His father looked away with a faint scoff. "You're a little liar, Minato."
Minato's heart began to sink. "I'm not lying; it's true."
"How could a bastard like you hope to consider yourself equal to the likes of the Hokage?" his father sneered at him.
He'd never attended any of Minato's parent and teacher meanings so he had to be forgiven for having no idea. "If you just asked Jiraiya-sensei-"
"And humiliate myself before one of the jonin? You'd love that, wouldn't you, boy! You're nothing more than a dirty little liar," he spat. "Just like your mother."
He hurled the object in his hand at the doorway and Minato promptly stepped back and watched it shatter against the wall on the other side of the hall. Almost at once his father gave a great groan of alarm and lurched to his feet to stagger towards Minato. "I'm sorry," he cried. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I lost my temper... I didn't mean it, I'm sorry."
And he carried on staggering right past Minato to sink to his knees beside the shattered picture frame. The photo inside was scratched terribly, almost obliterating the smiling face beneath the fragmented glass. "Forgive me," his father babbled on, dropping the wretched bottle he'd intended to throw. "I didn't mean it."
Minato went upstairs and, for the rest of the evening, played picnic with his parade of stuffed animals.