So, it's been 4 months without an update...Oops. I've got no excuse really, but I'm working full time and I'm a full-time student, so you can imagine I'm busy. As it is, I feel terrible for leaving you guys without an update on any story for so long.
This chapter isn't all that action-filled. There's more Itachi and a little of Sasuke at the end, but mostly this is just a transition for the Chuunin exams, as I'm sure you all have been anxiously awaiting. ^.^ And, I'm still working out that one-shot, if any of you were wondering; I haven't forgotten! Any ideas and suggestions are welcome! I've got finals this week, but I should have some free time to write soon!
If anyone is feeling a bit lost with all the stuff going on in previous chapters, tell me and I'll try to write a summary up to this point!
Otherwise, I hope you enjoy the chapter. Mid-way though I had something completely different written, but I discarded it in favor of some less angsty paragraphs. Sorry to the angst-lovers. :-(
There was complete silence.
Naruto and Itachi were back in the clearing they had been in not an hour before. Now, a small fire burned off to the side, near two trees that were suited for back props. The two ninja were utilizing said back props to the fullest, with outstretched legs and arms resting in their laps. A small pot was boiling over the fire, and Naruto watched it closely, with such unnatural focus that it was obvious he was trying to avoid paying attention to something else.
He'd just finished explaining everything. Well, almost everything.
He fought to hide his shaking hands, and he wondered for a moment why he was so nervous. He almost wished that Kyuubi was awake to talk to him, but she was exhausted and had practically ordered him to leave her alone. She'd also seen fit to inform him that she would be unavailable for the next two weeks. He supposed that controlling such powerful recoils of chakra would make anyone tired.
He nearly sighed in irritation, but caught himself before he actually did. Itachi was quiet, thinking, Naruto guessed. He didn't dare break the silence to ask.
He mused over the consequences of telling Itachi who he was and how he'd gotten here. He knew the man was probably highly skeptical and he could only hope not to be laughed at, but if he did believe him… Well, that would be a different case altogether.
Itachi could help him figure out what was happening with all the changes to this timeline. He could help Naruto gather intelligence on Akatsuki and no one would be any the wiser for it. Hell, bringing Itachi in would probably be leagues better than Naruto could have thought possible for his plans. But then, something else was bound to happen soon to stop his recent chain of good luck in its tracks.
That would always be the way of things when he was concerned.
"You didn't say how you knew of my involvement in the Uchiha Massacre." Itachi said. The words were so sudden in the silence that Naruto couldn't stop the flinch of surprise they caused. His thoughts interrupted, it took a second before his mind caught on to the answer-prompting statement.
"Well, I learned about it through a few different sources, yourself included. I'm not really sure who exactly told me the main portion of the mission, but I think I finally pieced the whole thing together on my own a few years after I became a genin." Naruto started, thinking back. He barely managed to hold a stoic face as he spoke his next words. "It was a few months before you died in my time."
There was more silence.
"I see." Itachi said the words like Naruto hadn't just imparted a key bit of knowledge that affected his entire life.
"How did I die?" Naruto winced. He really didn't want to answer that question. But when he met Itachi's eyes, he found he couldn't be so cruel as to hide this from him.
"Sasuke…after he came back to the village, I mean…He told me that he'd killed you."
Disregarding the fact that the Uchiha clan had probably the most emotionless expressions in the entire ninja world besides the Hyuuga clan-and Naruto was fairly sure by now that those expressions were genetic- Naruto thought Itachi was probably entirely unsurprised. He had egged his brother on for all those years, after all. Knowing this man, he'd probably had it all planned out from the moment his orders spilled from the elders' mouths.
But, Naruto had decided, he wouldn't let that happen now. And it seemed Sasuke had already begun to forgive his older brother anyway. It might have been because of the reprisal that Naruto's presence offered him from his self-imposed loneliness. It might have been that this Sasuke was simply different from the one he'd known; less angry, less miserable. It didn't really matter to him, though, so long as it ended with a little less death and a little more forgiveness.
"So you are twenty-two now?" Itachi asked. Naruto was surprised at the off-topic question, but nodded. He wasn't surprised that Itachi had figured up his age according to what he'd told him. The man was used to paying to such details after all. He only wondered why Itachi would care about it. He didn't have to utter the question, though. Itachi spoke up again without prompting.
"I can't believe how much happened in such a short time. Ten years…"
"More. If you count all the years that passed since Konoha was established, or after Madara left the village." Naruto must have had a note of astonishment in his tone, even as he answered the question, because Itachi turned to him and raised a brow.
"What? You thought I wouldn't believe you? With all the things you know that only one other person in this world knows? Sarutobi would never, even under torture, speak a word of my mission to anyone. And the elders…well, they would prefer to wipe my birth from all the records in existence. Chakra can do almost anything. I know that better than most. It isn't too much of a leap to think that a jutsu could let a person travel across time."
"Well, then." Naruto huffed, at a loss for how he should continue. He'd had such little expectation that Itachi would believe him, that he wasn't sure how to accept that he actually did. The only other people who knew- Sarutobi, Kakashi, Iruka, Jiraiya, Tsunade, and Shizune- were one thing, but Naruto wasn't even sure if they believed his story completely either.
Itachi snorted in amusement, a smirk on his lips, and shook his head. Naruto couldn't get enough of the man's… well, his expressiveness. After dealing with the man so sporadically. After misjudging the man so thoroughly in his own time. After not bothering to think about Itachi's motives in the first place. He supposed that he would have to make up for all of that this time around. And he'd do it happily.
They sat for a moment before Itachi glanced down at Naruto's neck and frowned. Naruto blinked and raised a hand. The bandages Itachi had wrapped around his neck were soaked. Itachi turned away a little and dug in the pouch at his hip. He pulled out a rolled-up strip of bandage and stood, circling around behind Naruto. He carefully pulled the bandage he had applied in Gato's office from the cuts that were beginning to scab over. They were drenched in blood, making them unusable even should they boil them in water. Naruto felt goose-bumps rising along his neck as a drop of blood rolled down it.
Itachi dabbed at the wound, catching the drops of blood with the old bandage.
"Thanks." Naruto mumbled.
The adrenaline that had come with the visit to Gato's office, and with having razor wire wrapped about his throat, had long since faded and the pain from the slowly healing cut was becoming intense.
"Why hasn't Kyuubi healed this?" Itachi asked, taking care to call the demon by her name-at least, at least by the one she preferred- rather than her nature and race, something that few other people, even in his own timeline, had ever bothered to do
Naruto sighed irritatedly at his situation, though the gesture the man was making took the edge off his frustration. "She's exhausted. As it is, she can't direct the chakra to the areas that most need to be healed. The chakra's working on everything at the same time.
"You're injured somewhere else?" Itachi asked, his eyebrow raised.
"Nowhere you can get to."
"When the chakra expelled itself from my system, it wasn't picky about what it sliced through to get there. Thankfully, Kyuu took care of the organs, but I've got damaged tissue and muscles everywhere."
"And you've been moving?" Naruto heard pure amazement in the Uchiha's tone.
"It's not as bad as it sounds. I'd imagine it's almost healed, anyway. I can't really tell as it is, though. My body practically burns everywhere from the chakra!" Naruto let out an explosive breath. "But it's healing; it's just a little slower than usual."
Itachi finished wrapping Naruto's neck and sat back down in front of him.
"Logically, I realize you have enough experience to know how much your body can take. But your words are coming from a child's mouth; the same age as Sasuke is. It makes me want to lecture you." Itachi finished with a frown.
Naruto wanted to laugh. He definitely found the Uchiha's words amusing. But this man had probably not spoken to someone he could trust in a very long time. He probably didn't have any friends he hadn't lied to; none that worried about him or that he could worry about in turn.
And it seemed that Naruto had quickly become the only person that fit into that category. More quickly than he should have, even. It made the ANBU in him squirm uneasily. But he pushed that feeling away. He'd already decided, after all. Fate could go fuck with someone else. It'd already had enough fun with Naruto for one lifetime.
Naruto smiled. "Thanks." He said. He leaned back against an old tree. He looked around him. The little clearing might not have ever hidden Naruto's and Kyuubi's chakra binding for all the signs it showed. And in the light that was now quickly spreading through the sky, Naruto looked at himself and saw, for the first time, his shredded clothing.
His shirt was in tatters, not only from the shuriken and razor wire that had bitten through the tough fabric, but also from the chakra that had been forcibly rejected from his body. His pants hadn't been spared, but the parts that came closer to his groin were considerably less damaged, thankfully.
It seemed that the areas that had received the most damage were the higher traffic areas of his chakra-his forearms and near his hands, his feet, and his stomach near the seal.
No wonder Itachi was worried. He was a mess.
"Kami." Naruto sighed. He stood and drew a scroll from a pouch that lay on the ground, one that he'd brought with him on his pain-clouded journey to the clearing and, upon his arrival, discarded at the base of the tree for fear of damage to its contents.
He unrolled the scroll and pressed his hand to it without drawing blood. His hand sunk through the paper and, when he pulled it back, he held a black shirt in his grip. He did the same three more times. By the time he was through, he had the shirt, a pair of pants, and plain boxers lying over the crook of his arm. A pair of sandals lay at his feet, which he picked up after rolling up his scroll and replacing it in the pouch.
He glanced at Itachi, who was looking equally amused and curious.
"Just a sec." Naruto said with a small grin. He stepped behind the tree he had been leaning against and quickly stripped, changing his ruined clothes for the new ones. As he slipped on the second sandal, he pushed himself up and plopped down back in front of the tree.
He put his old clothes in a pile, performed some nameless fire jutsu and watched them burn into a pile of ash. When he looked up from watching the flames dance, he saw Itachi was still studying him. He felt a lopsided grin sneaking up on his face.
"What?" I couldn't have gone back to my team like that." He said. Itachi watched him for a moment longer, then he finally shook his head. Naruto understood suddenly that the man probably didn't feel comfortable asking outright questions.
"I'm not used to seeing a child being so resourceful, I suppose." The man said. "Even most Jounin in Konoha don't use storage scrolls.
"Well, I'm not a child, as you well know. But I've been on quite a few missions where I've been out of contact with anyone for a long time. They've come in useful."
"I see." Itachi nodded sagely. Naruto smiled at the man, then looked at the sky, noting that the sun must be nearly over the horizon. They had maybe a half hour before sunrise; two hours before they would leave for Konoha.
"Me and my team are leaving today. How will I keep in contact with you? Or would you prefer it be the other way around?"
Itachi thought for a moment, then he dug once again in the pouch at his side. What he pulled out wasn't exactly what he expected. A block of red sealing wax, an inch square and maybe five inches long, sat in the Uchiha's palm, proffered to Naruto. He picked it up and looked questioningly at Itachi.
"If you fill it with your chakra, I can make it so that any missive I seal with it can only be read by you. Otherwise the letter or note will be destroyed the instant someone tries to read it. I will give you a block with my own chakra so that you can do the same." He pulled out a blue block of wax in demonstration.
Naruto grinned. "Konoha ninja did the same sort of thing in my time, except it was with paper. This is a much better idea, though; sealing was would last much longer. There's a limit to how much paper you can carry around, since you can't put anything with chakra inside a storage scroll. Though I suppose Konan wouldn't have had a problem with that method of communication."
"That would be cumbersome, yes." Itachi agreed as Naruto put some chakra into the red wax. As they traded blocks, though, Itachi pulled his hand away from his wax with a surprised grunt, causing Naruto's block to fall to the ground. Naruto caught a glimpse of the man's hand before Itachi turned it towards himself to survey the damage. It was pink, close to being painfully burned. He didn't crowd the man, but he did crane his neck to see if he was alright and hissed in empathy.
"Damn, sorry about that. There's still too much of Kyuu's wild chakra running about. Usually, I can keep it from burning others but-" Itachi waved him off.
"It's fine. I'll just be more careful." He pulled a piece of cloth from nowhere and bent down to wrap the wax with it and stow it in his pouch once again.
"Good. Now, about methods of transport. Umm…will a toad be alright from my end? Your ravens would be fine, but I can't exactly go around borrowing message hawks all the time. I just want to make sure it won't be too suspicious."
Itachi snorted. "I think I can manage secret correspondence without being discovered. A toad will be fine. You can distinguish my ravens from live ones?"
"I would think so, after you shoved one down my throat. I think I could find one of your ravens even in a horde of others. Especially if I had to rely on taste." He grimaced, then mock gagged.
Itachi actually laughed then. It made Naruto want to smile, seeing such a hardened man enjoying himself.
"I would apologize. But that would sound redundant considering that it hasn't happened in this timeline."
They spent the next few minutes planning communications. Then the sun finally peeked up over the horizon. Naruto stuffed his wax into his pouch, fastened the pouch around his waist, and turned back to Itachi with a smile.
"Thank you for trusting me and helping me. For believing me, too. I promise you won't regret it." Naruto stuck out his hand, feeling unable to completely express his gratitude to the man.
Itachi clasped arms with him, forearm to forearm, as comrades would, and clapped a hand to Naruto's shoulder. "I don't think I will at all."
The statement was short, but to Naruto, it said everything. After such a brief meeting during the fight when Gato had been killed and after such a revealing meeting during the past few hours, it seemed that Naruto had gained Itachi's trust, tentative though it was sure to be. As one of the most secretive and cautious ninja he knew, it was a wonder that the man hadn't just killed him in his moment of weakness.
Remembering the tragic death of this same man in his own timeline made his eyes mist over, and before Naruto could start crying, he said his farewells and headed off towards Tazuna's home.
Realistically, Naruto shouldn't have expected that breaking the news to Sarutobi about Zabuza and Haku would be easy. It had been hard enough to convince Zabuza to stay outside the village; he'd wanted to see the Hokage's face when Naruto broke the news. And it seemed that Kakashi, now hardly ever seen out of Zabuza's company, was just as curious as to Sarutobi's reaction. On the trip back to Konoha, the copy-nin had barely let either of the two men out of his sight and had pulled Naruto aside multiple times to question his intentions.
So now, Naruto and Kakashi sat in chairs that had been placed in front of the Hokage's desk, telling him how the mission had gone. Iruka stood behind the man in his almost designated spot. He wore a disgruntled expression, but he hadn't said a word yet.
"And where are these two men now?" Sarutobi asked. He had yet to say how he felt over the matter.
"They are just outside of Konoha, with Sasuke and Sakura." Naruto said.
"You left your teammates alone with them?" Iruka burst out, unable to hold his opinion on the matter back any longer.
"And a number of clones to watch over them all. You think I'd leave any of my friends unprotected?" Naruto bit back, sending a stony look at his old teacher.
Iruka blanched and muttered a quick "Sorry."
"Are you sure about this Naruto?" Sarutobi asked him, resting his chin thoughtfully on the bridge of his intertwined fingers. "I can see your point on their usefulness, but they are still mercenaries, if not murderers."
"And ninja aren't?" Naruto asked with a raised eyebrow. "You can hardly judge a person on their occupation these days, especially if chakra is involved."
"True enough, I suppose." The old man muttered with a frown. "And from what you say, granting them a pardon would go a long way to gaining their loyalty. So long as their work doesn't work its way into the Fire country, I'm not too troubled about it, either."
Naruto nodded in agreement, a smile working its way onto his face.
"For what it's worth, I trust them on their word." Kakashi added, earning a surprised look from Naruto. The older ninja had questioned his decision the whole trip back, after all. Sarutobi nodded with a sigh.
"I'll agree to a pardon, then. I did say that you had the right to offer such things, after all, if you thought it necessary. I won't go back on it now."
"Thank you." Naruto said. He leaned back in his chair, relaxing now that the hard part in the conversation was over. Kakashi took over and told the rest of the story, including Gato's unceremonious death and Sasuke and Haku's victory over the man's hired ninja.
Naruto hadn't told anyone of his meeting with Itachi. As far and anyone knew, he'd just gone to the training ground for an early morning workout, to work off some frustrations or something. And knowing his odd sleeping schedule by now, his teammates hadn't commented. Haku had wondered aloud how he wasn't feeling miserable, having passed out the previous day with such low chakra levels, but Naruto had passed it off with his unnatural healing from Kyuu.
Sasuke and Sakura were clueless so far, about him and about Kyuubi, and Naruto planned to keep it that way. At least for a little while longer. He had promised Sasuke an explanation for all the weird things he'd picked up on, but he hoped that conversation would wait.
Not long after he'd returned to Tazuna's house, he'd had Kakashi get everyone up and ready to leave, too quickly for anyone to get too curious. Zabuza and Haku had insisted on getting a written form of this pardon, or at least an in-person agreement with the Hokage.
So here they were, in Konoha, safe and sound for the moment. Naruto breathed a sigh of relief inwardly. His body had healed well over the last four days of travel and his energy was back to normal. There hadn't been any time for impromptu training sessions from Kakashi, which had become the norm with their team, but they'd kept a brisk pace, taking a longer route back to Konoha to avoid any possible parting gifts from Gato or any of his remaining men.
"Have you figured out anything on this organization? Akatsuki?" The question broke through his thoughts.
"We haven't heard anything yet, but Jiraiya only just began looking into them. They've only been on our books for a few years."
Liar. Naruto felt a spike of anger on behalf of Itachi, who had been so wronged by Konoha; banished and used as a spy thanklessly. You knew about them for years.
But no, Sarutobi had tried to protect Itachi, at least, instead of having him killed as the Council of Elders wanted.
"They targeted Sasuke, though. That's what you said, wasn't it, Naruto?" Kakashi asked.
Naruto nodded. "They did. And when I figure out why they're moving so soon, we need to deal with them right away. They are a real danger."
The solemnity of that statement effectively ended the conversation. The silence was only broken when Sarutobi pushed his chair back and stood, stretching. He set his kage's hat on his desk and gestured for Naruto to lead the way through the door.
"It's about time we see to Zabuza and Haku, I think. Let's leave the more serious matters for when we have a little more information."
The four of them set off for the gates of Konoha.
The Hokage's meeting with Zabuza and Haku went interestingly. That's what Sasuke thought, at least. Haku, who had become something of a friend to him since their battle against the ninja in the woods, seemed to be honored to be meeting such a great man. Zabuza, on the other hand, seemed unimpressed that the Hokage had come from beyond the safe walls of his village to meet the two of them.
They had been left outside the gates while Naruto and Kakashi had continued on. Zabuza and Haku would be attacked should they step foot in the village while their names were still in the bingo books, so it made sense.
Sasuke and Sakura settled in on some tree branches, glad to be home once again, while Zabuza and Haku huddled together at the far end of the clearing, evidently planning their future should the Hokage agree to grant them a pardon; something Kakashi had told his students about just before they reached Konoha.
Unsurprisingly, Sasuke noted that this news was not new to Naruto, and he hated being left out of the loop. He was well aware that several important things were being kept from him, and he was pretty sure that Sakura was beginning to realize it, too. But he knew the time would come when Naruto wouldn't be able to hide things any longer. And it had damn well better be soon, too. He thought to himself.
When the Hokage arrived, with Naruto in the lead, he just frowned and left the adults to their business, standing on the sideline with Sakura while Zabuza, Haku, and the Hokage debated over the terms of the pardon. Naruto made his way over to their side while Iruka-sensei and Kakashi stayed flanking the Hokage.
Not ten minutes later Zabuza and the Hokage shook hands and the Hokage handed over a scroll that evidently declared the pardon. Looking sideways, Sasuke saw a slow smile pull at Naruto's lips, one of genuine happiness for the two ninja, unless Sasuke missed his guess.
Team 7 dispersed, with Iruka-sensei and the Hokage leading Zabuza and Haku to safe lodgings for the night within Konoha's walls
He wondered why Naruto had been so eager for this moment to happen. Who were Zabuza and Haku to Naruto? And why, for Kami's sake, did he feel happy for the two as well? They'd tried to kill them at first. But then they'd switched sides just as quick. They probably shouldn't be trusted. But, oh, to hell with it.
Sasuke forced himself to stop thinking. Though he'd gotten a semi-good night's sleep for each of the last five nights, sleeping on the earthy ground wasn't exactly conducive to comfort. He got home and collapsed on his bed, not bothering with lights to move around in the now darkening house or even to strip down to his boxers or take off his weapons pouch.
And once again, we end with a character falling asleep. Hmm...I need to think of another way to break up chapters. Oh, well. Tell me what you thought! I'm interested to see if any of you even remember what's going on anymore. Lol. Thanks for sticking with me!