The path to training ground thirty-nine was well worn for how little it was used. It was generally out of the way, furthest from the junction that connected the jonin grounds to the regular use areas, and was comparatively small. The waterfall and resultant pond took up too much space for the training ground to be of much use to jonin without a suiton affinity.
All of it combined to make for the most privacy Naruto could realistically hope for in Konoha. His ANBU tail had disappeared sometime in the past two days since he'd officially been cleared for active duty, and he'd taken the intervening time to triple and quadruple check that his senses weren't being subverted. He was confident in his abilities, but he couldn't much afford a lapse.
And so Naruto found himself striding into the familiar clearing, senses on high alert, at dusk. The muggy air tickled his skin, a remnant of the late afternoon storm that seemed to happen every day. The fireflies were out, the intermittent flashes briefly illuminating the shrubs they fluttered between; they'd be a hit in the village proper, he knew, with children stumbling through the streets with jars to catch them. Fading sunlight poked through the treetops as he made his way to the waterfall. Leftover clouds were cast in pink and orange that bled into the deep purple of night.
Naruto gazed upward as he reached the water's edge, cast his senses outward. His chakra touched everything in a near half-mile radius, painting a picture of the world around him even as his eyes closed.
Two jonin sparred three training grounds away, their chakra swirling frantically. There were no other humans until he reached the main training grounds, only animals either going to sleep or waking for the night. He lingered on each of the insects within reach for a split second apiece, searching for hints of chakra that wasn't their own. Aburame made for glorious spies, but even their subtlety had its limits.
Satisfied that he wasn't being surveilled, Naruto reigned in his chakra, blanketing only the air of training ground thirty-nine. He dove gracefully into the still water a second later and swam until he felt the crashing of the water above his head. He ducked behind the spray, into the space between the small cliff and the waterfall. He pushed himself to the surface and curled his legs underneath him.
Eight hand seals called the Gentooshin no jutsu, and a moment later he was face to face with Konan. "Good evening."
"Naruto. It's good to see you," Konan greeted with a small smile. She was dressed casually in a black bodysuit, cloak nowhere to be seen. Her eyes glimmered in the fading light of Ame, seeming all the more striking next to her hair.
"You as well," Naruto said, allowing himself a smile as well. She was a breath of familiarity in a village he was still trying to acclimate to. "We're a go. Jiraiya received information regarding the location of a base in Waterfall Country, in the steppes near the border with Earth."
Konan nodded. "His network is more efficient than anticipated. We leaked the information yesterday. You deploy tomorrow?"
"First thing. Supposedly a two day trek at full speed. Up to thirty days allowed for further investigation and completion."
"You'll need it. He won't be there. Our intelligence points to him being far more active in Grass County and River Country these last two years."
Naruto grimaced. Naturally, they couldn't find him immediately. It would be too convenient, even for Jiraiya's network. "New info will be provided sometime during the thirty day window?"
"Yes, though it would be best if you turned south. It's unlikely Konoha will argue with your results when you apprehend Orochimaru, however, we need this as airtight as possible."
"Understood. My teammates are Uchiha Sasuke and Yamanaka Ino. Highly competent. If there's any trail, Sasuke should be able to follow it; he learned from Hatake Kakashi."
Konan straightened at the mention of his teammates. "They assigned Itachi's brother and the Godaime's apprentice…They either trust you a great deal or not at all."
My thoughts exactly. "I think they're seeking to build trust," he assured her.
"Or they're keeping your future assassins close."
Naruto shrugged artlessly. "Always a possibility, but I doubt it."
"Sasuke's presence is bait, more than anything. He and Orochimaru apparently had…dealings in the past. Enough that Konoha thinks Orochimaru would be tempted by his presence away from the village. Ino appears to be something of an olive branch. Conversations I've had with her are more geared toward understanding why I came back at all. Tsunade has been much the same."
Nodding, Konan hmm'd as she thought. "You've, of course, considered that this is simply a long play to tap you for information."
"I have. There's not much I can do about it, though," Naruto said. "They've seen everything we've allowed them to see in my mind. The best I can do now is to follow through on the mission and see where it leads."
"You think they believe you."
"I'm choosing to believe they do. You know how infiltrations work. If I spend all my time looking over my shoulder I'll either tip them off or go insane."
The reality of long-term infiltration missions was that the playbook went out the window very early. Paranoia, however warranted, had rapidly diminishing returns. He could cover his bases as best as possible, but to second guess everything that was said to him on all fronts would drive him mad inside six months. His reactions, his emotions, had to be genuine in the company of professional liars, and they couldn't be if he was constantly trying to parse the motivations of his new comrades.
"They don't fully trust me," Naruto said at length. "But we did a good job. The memories held. Worst case, far as I can tell, is Tsunade thinks I'm a burnout who's only back because I'm scared of something worse. I can work with that. The Elders are a bit trickier, but at least one of them wants to trust me."
He nodded. "The Sandaime and I go a ways back, which you know. Can't speak for Koharu or Homura, and Danzo doesn't trust anyone. But I don't need them. Jiraiya's made himself available for training and Tsunade hasn't pressed me on why I stayed away. I'd sooner throw in with them than the geriatrics," he said, lips quirking slightly.
Konan allowed a thin smile. "It's not unreasonable to think they see you as a kindred spirit."
"It's crossed my mind. I'm not counting on it, though."
"You'll have your performance to fall back on," she declared. "Good work, Naruto. As your handler I have to be sure you're considering all possibilities, but the reality is we wouldn't have sent you if we didn't think they'd accept you. Orochimaru will be a tough task, however. He's both highly unpredictable and highly dangerous."
"Jiraiya's done his best to prep me. I'm confident I'll be up to the task." Unsaid was that Jiraiya's information was woefully out of date, but he could work with it.
Konan raised her chin slightly. Her bronze eyes considered him for a moment before, "Reach out to Itachi. He'll have had the most recent dealings with him."
Naruto did his best not to let his surprise show. He'd not talked with Itachi since his departure from Ame. "Will do."
"How are you faring making connections?"
"Better than expected," Naruto said. "I've reconnected with my old ANBU squad mates and made the acquaintance of some younger shinobi." Best get it over with. Not like you knew. "The most notable was Yamanaka Ino. She and I slept together two weeks ago, after I was cleared by ANBU and before I was given charge of the team."
Konan's demeanor, rarely anything but coolly professional, closed off. "Explain."
Through some force of will he managed to not fidget. "We were introduced at a shinobi only bar through a mutual friend. Over the course of the night, it became clear she was…interested in me." Not like you realized it in real time… "Things progressed. We parted ways the next morning and I was tested by Jiraiya. With the revelation of the team, Ino and I have spoken and decided mutually not to sleep together again."
Konan looked at him for a few moments, and Naruto held her gaze no matter how much it felt like he was being dissected. "Can you speak to her motivations at all?" she asked finally.
"You mean do I think she seduced me on Tsunade's orders?" Naruto asked, somehow keeping bite from his voice. Konan's chin rose. "I don't. My psych eval had already been done and it'd be too transparent a ploy with her being on the team. Put yourself in their shoes," he said. "I'm a recently returned burnout who had enough bad experiences to leave the shinobi world behind. Would you send someone to seduce me, or think, reasonably, that that'd be a great way to destroy any trust in the system I had left?"
"A village lacking foresight isn't unheard of."
Naruto bit back a sigh. Think that's the closest to sarcasm I've heard from her. "It's too heavy handed for Tsunade. If it were anyone else but Ino, I'd consider it more." And I've already thought about it too much… "Ino and I also go back a ways. I saved her and a team of genin during the combined Suna-Oto invasion. She was…disappointed when I didn't immediately recognize her. I think she took it personally."
A thin, blue brow arched. "And decided to seduce you to prove a point? I wouldn't have expected the Godaime's apprentice to be so petty."
Naruto bit the inside of his cheek to keep from retorting. Ino might even describe herself as petty – she freely called herself a bitch after all – but he felt the inexplicable urge to defend her. Sex aside, he liked her; she was competent, ambitious, and a hard worker, all things he'd once aspired to be.
"Regardless," Konan continued after a moment, "If you don't believe yourself compromised, I have to take you at your word." Her eyes drifted closed as she ran a hand through her hair.
He opened, then closed his mouth, remembering their last conversation in Ame. Everything he'd said, with the possible exception of his and Ino's intimacy, was standard fare for any infiltration. "What's bothering you, Konan?" he asked softly.
Konan's lips turned up in a tiny smile that didn't reach her eyes. "You don't have to worry about me, Naruto."
Naruto refrained from rolling his eyes. He couldn't make her trust him, and her continued reticence was beginning to wear on him, regardless of how long she'd been alone with Nagato. "And if I worry anyway? You're my handler; we're in this together."
She laughed, a bitter, choked sound that set Naruto's nerves on edge. What in the world?
"I appreciate the sentiment."
"Is Nagato around?" Naruto asked. He remembered nearly walking in on her in a moment of some sort with the Deva Path. Surely Nagato would be sensitive to his oldest friend's emotional state – he'd likely have a better handle on whatever had set Konan on edge.
"He's not," Konan said immediately, her manner closed off once more.
Traveling then, Naruto thought.
"He's been…unsettled for some time now," she suddenly volunteered. "Since before you left, truly. Around his fight with…Obito."
"Much that I had thought to be true was proven a lie."
A blond brow rose. "He learned something off-putting in that fight. No idea what it was, but I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary." Nagato being anything other than his usual, mercurial self would certainly be enough to stress Konan out.
"You wouldn't have." It wasn't delivered sharply, but Naruto still leaned back a touch at the retort. Konan's countenance softened a moment later. "I apologize. You've no doubt noticed I'm not myself today."
"Can I help?" Short of returning to Ame or trying to track Nagato down, he wasn't sure how he could assist, but he'd certainly try.
She favored him with a small smile once more, one that lit her bronze eyes from within. "Not as you are. But thank you," she said with feeling, and he couldn't help the warmth that suffused him. "He's off visiting temples in the north if that gives you anything to think on. He wasn't all that forthcoming before he left."
Nodding, Naruto wracked his brain. "We met at a temple to Asura when he was recruiting me."
Konan's eyes widened slightly. "His brother, Indra, was more worshipped in the north…"
"He says he's descended from Asura while Indra was the patriarch of the Uchiha," Naruto said. "Not sure what Obito could've told him to send him up there, but that'd be my best guess."
"He's always been obsessed with the Sage," Konan murmured. "Yes," she said mostly to herself. "That must be it."
Naruto felt himself smile at helping provide a mote of clarity. "I'm sure he'll be back soon and tell you all about it."
"Nagato keeps much to himself," she said almost absently. "But yes…he'll be back soon." A cloud had come over Konan once more, and Naruto nearly groaned in frustration.
I'm not very good at this…
Konan shook herself a moment later and favored him with a polite smile. "I have much to do to prepare for his return. Please continue to keep me updated on your progress, Naruto."
Blinking at the sudden dismissal, Naruto nodded. "Of course."
"You as well, Konan."
Naruto let the connection fade and basked in the sound of the waterfall for a few moments. He was happy to have the briefing out of the way. He'd spent more time than he'd wanted parsing how exactly to speak about his experiences so far in Konoha. Konan's reaction had been better than he'd hoped for.
She was, of course, concerned for him and the sanctity of the mission. He'd expected that. That he'd gotten away without an earful about being smarter about who he slept with was a small mercy.
He cast his senses out once more and, satisfied that no one had wandered any closer during the conversation, flipped through the seals for the Gentooshin once more. He changed the final seal to Itachi's and was greeted with the older nuke-nin's face a moment later.
"Itachi. I apologize for the suddenness."
"It is no trouble. Your timing is fortuitous; Kisame is away scouting," Itachi told him. He was as unreadable as ever, but Naruto had spent enough time around him in Ame to be able to parse the occasional expression.
Naruto nodded and, wanting to get things moving, started in the most logical place. "I need information on Orochimaru. Apparently, you have the most recent dealings with him."
Both of Itachi's eyebrows rose fractionally. "His departure from Akatsuki was a result of him trying to take my body nine years ago."
"I'm sorry, when he what?" Naruto burst out. He saw Itachi's lips tilt ever-so-slightly upward. I'll never understand his humor.
"It is as I said," Itachi continued, his momentary bout of hilarity concluded. "Orochimaru chases immortality. To do so, he invented a technique that can transfer his consciousness to another host body." Naruto felt his eyes widen at the implications of such a technique; he still had so much to learn. "I suspect he chose me because of my Sharingan."
That made sense given Jiraiya's claim that his former teammate wanted to master all ninjutsu.
Refocusing, Naruto asked, "How did you counter him?" He couldn't have been more than fifteen, he thought, doing the math. Itachi was a tremendous shinobi, but Orochimaru had been S-ranked before either of them had been born.
"A question I've asked more than once. I can only conclude that he is greatly weakened by the transference jutsu. My genjutsu momentarily overpowered him and gave me the advantage."
"He underestimated you."
"I understand that hubris has long plagued him," Itachi said.
Can't count on that. "Do you remember any specific techniques? I doubt he'll try the same with me…"
"Only a simple binding jutsu using his snakes," Itachi told him. "He retreated quickly once I gained the upper hand. I was too wary to pursue him further. Perhaps I should have."
Naruto kept his expression neutral in the face of the useless information. Jiraiya had been far more knowledgeable. Still, he was about as prepared as he could hope to be to face a veritable living legend.
"Have you made contact with Sasuke, by chance?"
Guilt immediately threaded through Naruto. Should've led with that… "I have," he said. "He'll be part of my team as we hunt for Orochimaru."
He didn't truly owe Itachi much of anything, but they were friendly if not exactly friends. They'd talked and trained together during the weeks Itachi had spent in Ame in the wake of Nagato's power play.
"How is he?" It didn't take a genius to interpret the nearly hungry expression on the elder nuke-nin's face.
Naruto considered his words, wondering just how honest Itachi wanted him to be. Probably brutally, he reasoned. This was the man who'd weighed the pros and cons of slaughtering his own family at thirteen.
"Troubled," he settled on at length. "He's very talented. Smart, tactical, creative. But he's obsessive." Naruto paused momentarily. "He's fixated on killing you."
The hunger retreated behind the usual inscrutable mask. Itachi was quiet for nearly thirty seconds before asking, "Do you think he could?"
Sage fucking help me. Naruto threaded fingers through his hair, lamenting it not having grown all the way back so he could yank it out. "If I answer, will you tell me why you want your little brother to murder you?"
"A fair trade," Itachi said sardonically, real emotion bleeding into his voice in a way only Sasuke could elicit. Naruto barely kept his eyes from rolling.
He sighed. "He's a good shinobi but he doesn't have a hope of beating you as he is. I picked his strategies apart when I tested him. Some of that is a matchup of our skillsets, but you would do the same without much difficulty." Itachi couldn't manipulate lightning in the same way he could, as far as Naruto knew, but he was a slippery as they came.
"Where would you place him using the lettering system?"
Naruto pulled a face. "A-ranked if you made me choose, but you know those are subjective at best." The letter system was more accurate than the classification system villages used, but it was still tough to slot a shinobi into one particular rank with complete confidence.
"Indeed." Itachi paused, contemplative. "He is strong, then, but not strong enough. I fear without the Mangekyo he never will be…" he said, sounding like he was speaking mostly to himself.
The blond gave Itachi a few moments to pour over whatever was troubling before clearing his throat lightly. He didn't have all night.
Thankfully, Itachi took the cue. "The Mangekyo is the final evolution of the Sharingan. It can only be awoken through terrible emotional trauma. The most effective is being party to the death of a loved one. Uchiha history is littered with members killing their loved ones to achieve its power." Naruto felt his eyes widen in abject horror. "Mine awoke when my best friend, Shisui, killed himself before the massacre."
That Naruto was at least familiar with. He felt the stirrings of fury at Danzo's actions once more. Shisui had been older than Itachi, but he'd died at twenty-one.
"It is the source of Amaterasu, the black flame I used in our bout," Itachi continued. "In a fight between Sharingan wielders, one with the Mangekyo will inevitably win. Its powers are far more potent and are nearly impossible to counteract without another Mangekyo."
Which means Sasuke's goal is hopeless in a true fight, Naruto mused. Even without this Mangekyo, he suspected Itachi would be more than a match for his younger brother. The elder Uchiha was as close to a perfect shinobi as he had ever met.
"So…why exactly do you want him to kill you?" he asked at length, trying to get to the heart of the matter. Esoteric Sharingan abilities interested him little.
"Would you wish to live with the things I have done?"
Naruto blinked. "Yet you're still here," he said quietly.
"Sasuke is to be our redemption," Itachi declared. "The Uchiha plotted to murder their comrades as I did to them in turn. In killing me, Sasuke would avenge them and the new Uchiha could rise with honor; free of the taint of our bloody past."
"You thought of all this before you killed them?" Naruto asked, trying his best to control his expression.
"I confess that I was not in…the best state of mind." Itachi smiled as bitterly as when he'd divulged the truth of the massacre. "I loved my family. They were wrong, and their mistake would have cost the lives of thousands, but I still loved them. The last ones I killed were my parents. My mother was distraught; she could not understand the choice I made and pleaded with me until the end. My father named me traitor as I overcame him. In the wake of their deaths, I thought only of my own."
"And you saddled Sasuke with the responsibility."
Itachi closed his eyes. "I was shortsighted in the moment, and I'm afraid my actions likely caused him irreparable harm."
Naruto forcibly reminded himself that Itachi had been thirteen at the time. Of course he hadn't been thinking straight. And now, ten years later… "You didn't think to try to correct the mistake at any point?"
"The path I set Sasuke on is not one easily left," Itachi told him. "And, while I confess it was ill thought out, I still cannot conceive a better way to atone for what I did."
"And in what way does killing you actually benefit him? Deserved or no, he'll still have killed his brother," Naruto bit out, thoroughly fed up. For as insightful and intelligent as Itachi was, his intransigence on this made no sense.
Sure, it seemed to be all Sasuke thought about when they weren't discussing mission specifics and team maneuvers, but that wasn't healthy.
"And he will be celebrated for it," Itachi declared.
"For a lie!"
"Do you believe the truth to be kinder?" Naruto was silent. There was nothing kind about this. "It would destroy him, Naruto," Itachi implored.
"Nothing good can come from this deceit," Naruto said. "What if it gets out? He'd be better served hearing it from you."
"It will not." Itachi's voice brooked no argument. "With Obito's death, the only ones who know are you, Konoha's leadership, and Nagato. Neither Nagato nor Konoha stand to gain anything from telling him. Which leaves you."
The question was left unsaid. But Naruto wouldn't even know how to begin speaking of this to Sasuke. And it was just as likely that Sasuke would think him a delusional liar even if he tried.
"He should know the truth of his brother," Naruto said after a few moment's contemplation. "For your sake as well as his."
"The true mark of a shinobi is self-sacrifice," Itachi said. "The essence of our lives is to protect from the shadows. I chose to protect peace, and I have long since accepted my place in this."
I haven't, Naruto wanted to say. He couldn't truly empathize with his counterpart, but the idea of fighting and dying for the sake of a lie tasted like ashes in his mouth. Itachi truly cared. That was a rarity that ought not be snuffed out. He shook his head. "It doesn't make it right."
The blond started as Itachi actually chuckled. "Is there such a thing as right in our world? We fight believing in our own justice."
"But so does everyone else," Naruto finished. It was the basis of his and Itachi's understanding, and they'd discussed it at length in Ame. He refocused. "You have my word I won't tell Sasuke. But consider that your death likely won't bring him the closure he's after. He's not wired that way. The truth will hurt him, yes, but do you really think he can rebuild the Uchiha without knowledge of their mistakes?"
Not that Naruto would trust Sasuke to be the patriarch of any clan at this point. He liked him, worked well with him, but rebuilding such a clan with the heavy expectations on his shoulders was nearly as tall a task as killing Itachi was.
"I will think on it," Itachi promised, and Naruto knew he would.
All I can ask for. How'd I end up here? the blond wondered. He wasn't exactly one to offer psychological advice yet compared to the Uchiha he was downright well adjusted.
"Kisame will return soon. I would appreciate more news of Sasuke whenever you have time, however," Itachi said. The hungry look in his eyes was back.
"I'll likely have time to contact you once the mission is complete," Naruto said. "Stay safe."
"You as well, Naruto."
He rose before dawn, having retired immediately after the troubling conversations with Konan and Itachi. Not for the first time did he wonder at the turn his life had taken. He plotted to overthrow the shinobi system, debated ideology with notorious nuke-nin, and would be leaving to capture one of the greatest legends on the continent all within twelve hours.
He was a long way from dreaming of jonin and rebuilding the Uzumaki clan.
The early start gave him time to brush up on his tertiary objectives, at least – which his debrief with Konan had inadvertently reminded him of.
Or rather it would have, had the A and S-classified sections of the archive contained much information relevant to his objectives. Of the three, he could only find concrete information on bijuu in old war records and bingo books entries. Given what he knew of Akatsuki's goals, Naruto doubted Konan and Nagato needed decades old intelligence on the Gobi jinchuuriki's favored techniques.
Though they had given him some ideas regarding steam that he needed to explore.
He wandered out of the classified areas with a frown; he still had nearly two hours before needing to be at the gate for departure and little to do. For the first time, he questioned Konan's assignment. Why the subterfuge? What prevented her from simply giving him clearer instructions vocally? Why did she want him looking into the information in the first place? It wasn't like Akatsuki didn't have vast archives of their own. Hanzo had been meticulous in his documentation of anything he found worth keeping record of, which, as far as Naruto had been able to tell in Ame, was damn near everything.
There were also Naruto's counterparts in the other villages, unknown to him as they were. Was Konan tapping them for their village's knowledge too?
Shaking his head, he wandered down the stairs from the upper levels and into the general section which housed information open to academy students and civilians. There were a few people milling about in, early risers, insomniacs, and those who worked in the archive, but it was still mostly empty.
"Can I help you?" a high, feminine voice asked from over his shoulder.
Naruto turned and came face to face with an attendant; a pretty young woman, probably five or so years older than him. Auburn hair fell to her shoulders in ringlets that framed her face and made her green eyes stand out. She smiled at him and a twinge of familiarity tweaked the back of his mind.
"Mai?" he asked, eyes narrowed in thought.
She blinked and looked down, but there was no nametag on her chest. "…yes that's me," she said brightly, recovering quickly. "I'm afraid I don't…" Mai trailed off, still smiling brightly without a hint of the awkwardness that Naruto felt bubbling under his skin.
Right, haven't been in here in most of a decade. "Uzumaki Naruto," he reintroduced himself, attempting a smile. "I used to come in here –"
"Naruto? Little Naruto?" Mai burst out in a hushed whisper.
Naruto felt his eyebrows rise at both being remembered and being called little. He glanced down at himself, subconsciously mirroring Mai from a moment before. His eyes cut back to hers with an amused smirk. "Not that little anymore, I think."
Mai, who had been looking him up and down, blushed prettily. "My goodness, you've grown," she said, looking at him in something like wonder.
He shrugged. "Well, you know, eat your vegetables and all that." What are you even saying, you imbecile? But Mai laughed, and it didn't even sound forced, so Naruto pushed on. "I did need help, actually."
He pulled out a piece of paper that he'd written the mission objectives on and handed them to Mai – it wasn't like he was getting anywhere on his own. If she still works here after all these years she'll know exactly where to find them, too.
"I've checked the upper levels already," he concluded, and shoved his hands in his pockets.
Mai, who'd pulled a pair of glasses that suited her face far too well out of nowhere, stared at the list. "You wouldn't've found much up there," she told him. "The upper archives are entirely verified accounts of everything. Mission reports and techniques. You're looking for legends."
Naruto blinked. Well, that explains it. He echoed his thoughts out loud, and Mai handed him the paper back with a smile.
"I could take you to the proper section if you'd like. I don't remember you spending much time on fairytales when you were shorter than me," she said with a smirk that dimpled her right cheek.
Considering his days in the archive had been spent trying to find more efficient ways to kill people? Naruto scratched the back of his neck sheepishly. "Lead the way."
Mai turned on her heel and led him through the stacks briskly. Soon enough, Naruto stood before a towering serious of scrolls, each with a worn, colorful binding. For kids, right, he mused. All the scrolls in the classified section of the archive were stamped in red with a numerical sorting number and nothing else.
"I can't promise you'll find everything here," Mai told him, suddenly fidgety. Her hands smoothed out nonexistent wrinkles in her pants. "But this is your best bet. Is there any more information you have that could narrow the search down?"
"Not really," Naruto said absently, eyes scanning the scrolls quickly. There were a few dozen scrolls that he could see that dealt with Senju Hashirama alone. "It's more of a personal research project, to be honest. I'm not entirely sure what I'm even looking for yet."
It sounded wishy-washy to his own ears and he cursed Konan for not giving him anything concrete to go on. His eyes fell on Mai, worrying her bottom lip between her teeth, who appeared to be thinking it over as if they weren't standing in the children's section.
"Hmm," she murmured, eyes flittering between the shelves and Naruto himself. "The only way I can think of the three being linked is that the Sage, if legend is to be believed of course, created them after defeating the Ten Tails. Hashirama-sama could apparently control them, again, if legend is to be believed."
Naruto's brows reached for his hairline. "I mean, that's way more than I had to go on before," he said, chuckling. "Guess I really didn't pay attention to this kinda stuff…"
Mai giggled. "You had more important things to worry about, Naruto-kun. I could pull a selection for you?" she half asked, gesturing at the wall of scrolls. "I can cross-reference scrolls that mention the bijuu and Hashirama-sama and ones that mention the bijuu and the Sage."
Nodding, Naruto said, "Yeah let's do that!"
She beamed up at him. The smile faded a second later. "It may take a bit, though. I'd have to manually check the records and I'm sure you have more important work to be doing…"
"Nah, that'll be fine," he quickly reassured her. "I'm leaving for a mission today anyway. I should be back in a month."
"Oh, then it's no problem!" Mai said brightly, lighting up like the dawn. "I'll have a full list ready for you well before you're back."
"Thank you so much, that'd be fantastic!"
"Anything for my favorite visitor," she told him with a wink. She blushed a moment later and turned half away, back toward the main area of the archive.
"I'm surprised you're still working here," Naruto said as he started walking. "It's been, what, eight, nine years now?"
"Nine," Mai confirmed, a hint of wistfulness in her voice that reminded Naruto of days long past. Days when all he cared about was getting stronger and she'd tried to encourage him to do everything but. "It's funny, I never planned to stick around so long. But I got promoted to senior archivist a few years back and the pay is good and…I dunno," she laughed. "It just sorta happened."
"Life's like that." He smiled down at her and she returned it full force. "You still with that guy?" Naruto asked, struck by yet another memory. "What was it, Genji? Some merchant's kid."
Mai blinked up at him, brow furrowing. "Genji? Do you mean Gendo?"
Naruto snapped his fingers. "Yeah, that's the one. Nice guy."
Mai laughed breathily. "No, we're not together anymore. Wow, I don't think I've even thought about him in years. We broke up so long ago."
Suddenly embarrassed at his knowledge being so out of date, Naruto floundered. "Ah, I'm sorry…"
"No, don't be!" she quickly assured him, laying a hand on his arm as they reached the large front doors. "We were kids, nothing serious."
"Guess I was just even more of a kid, then," he said quietly, memories of what he'd been doing at sixteen resurfacing. Seven-hundred and seventy days…
A light squeeze of his arm dragged him back to the present. Mai stood close, looking up at him with a small smile that made her eyes gleam like emeralds.
"Lost you for a second," she said. "You all good up there?"
"Yeah, just, uh…thinking about the mission, you know?" Naruto managed.
"Well keep your head on straight out there," Mai ordered. "You've got a research project waiting for you when you get back."
Naruto barked a laugh. "Well, when you say it like that, how could I not be motivated to get home as soon as possible?"
"That's the spirit!" she cheered, giving his arm one last squeeze before letting go. "I'll have everything all set for you, so don't you worry."
"Wouldn't dream of it." Naruto grinned, genuinely happy to have seen her. "Good catching up with you, Mai. I'll see you when I get back."
"Stay safe, Naruto-kun."
That said, Naruto turned and strode out the door, into the waiting morning. Konoha had finally woken up. Shinobi rushed over the rooftops while civilians began opening up shop.
Striding into the main thoroughfare, Naruto let his mind wander. In the two weeks he'd been back, he'd been amazed by just how many people there were in Konoha. There was so much life in every direction he looked, from the shopkeepers to their children. Ame was bigger – from a civilian standpoint – but he'd never interacted with the general populace. Neither had Nagato and Konan, to his knowledge.
Passing a stand selling steamed pork buns, he was struck, suddenly, at how right Mai had been all those years ago. The shinobi lifestyle wasn't everything; it'd only taken him half a decade and a few hundred bodies to figure it out.
Better late than never, Naruto thought. The idea that he could still be in ANBU – or Root – was almost physically repulsive.
The face of the random agent Danzo has tasked with following him when he first arrived popped into his mind. The cursed seal on his tongue had marked him as one of Danzo's soldiers exclusively. Had he ever questioned his orders? Naruto's captain had never bothered with the same until the war had reached its pinnacle in Kusa.
He shook himself. Reminiscing helped nothing. He'd handle Danzo when the opportunity presented itself.
The gate came into view in a few short minutes, and Naruto extended his awareness. He'd been working on not always keeping it active in Konoha. It played havoc on his anxiety, but he had to get over his fears at some point. The fact he hadn't jumped when Mai had come up behind him was a step in the right direction.
The rush of chakra presences back into his awareness was like a dam breaking, but Naruto was well used to it. He turned his focus inward to blunt the sudden feeling of everyone and refocused a second later with nary a wince.
A familiar presence was cloaked half a block from the gate and Naruto took a half-step onto a side street. "Any last-minute advice?" he asked no one.
"Tch. You're too cocky with those senses of yours," Jiraiya told him, materializing from nothing.
"If you stopped trying to test them, we wouldn't have this problem," Naruto shot back.
"Ain't no fun in that, kiddo." The older man reached inside his haori and withdrew five slips of paper with intricate kanji written on them. "Parting gift. Should make your life easier once you get your hands on ol' snake face."
Naruto refrained from raising an eyebrow. Both Jiraiya and Tsunade were outwardly optimistic about the mission, but he wasn't fooled. Despite his showing against the former, Naruto wasn't convinced the loyal Sannin believed he could take Orochimaru alive. Not that I blame them, he mused, studying the tags absently. Capturing S-ranked shinobi was nigh unheard of.
"A binding?" Naruto asked, deciphering a few of the symbols quickly.
"Variation on Suna's nunoshibari. No cloth needed; just slap one these on the target and they're wrapped up tighter than a Kusa poison specialist." Naruto raised an eyebrow but didn't bother commenting. The less said about Kusa's poison specialists the better. "Anyway," Jiraiya continued when Naruto didn't react, "all it takes is a quick application of chakra and you're good to go."
"Sounds easy. How long does stasis last?"
"Been tested up to three weeks. Beyond that?" The Sannin shrugged. "Your best bet is hightailing it back here."
"Far as last-minute advice goes? Don't let him bait you. He's a master at getting people to overextend themselves," Jiraiya told him.
"I'll be careful," Naruto promised. "I've tangled with enough S-ranks at this point to know when to cut my losses."
"That'll serve you well. Much as I hate to say it, me and him were kicking around top level ninja for decades before you were born. You give him an inch…"
Naruto couldn't help his smile. "Like I said, I'll be careful," he assured the older man. He reached an arm out and hid a wince at the strength of Jiraiya's grip.
"Good luck, Naruto."
Nodding once more, Naruto stepped back into the street as Jiraiya disappeared from sight and from his awareness a second later. The gate loomed large with two familiar figures waiting for him. Sasuke stood leaned against the gate, his familiar, high-collared shirt standing out starkly against the drab wood. Ino had ditched her usual getup for a deep purple kimono and black pants tapered at the ankles.
Not a vest in sight, Naruto mused, looking down at himself. He'd defaulted back to what he'd worn most often in Kusa: grey pants that fed into split-toed tabi sandals and a loose-fitting, faded tan kimono top that tied at the waist.
"How're we feeling?" he asked as he approached.
Sasuke raised an eyebrow while Ino smirked. "Should we be feeling some type of way, senpai?" she asked.
"I'll take anything that isn't dread. Thirty day window so we'll be pushing the pace up north. Any questions?" He got two mutely shaken heads.
Introspection and character interaction abound. Mission starts next chapter. Thanks to the kind folks at DLP for all their efforts as usual.