A/N: Thank you for the feedback as ever, guys.
After six months and a day, I'm glad to present the next update to Misplaced Timing! Enjoy.
The journey from Konoha to Mount Myoboku took longer than Enma would have liked, as the sunrise of his eighteenth day since departure filled in the hazy sky surrounding the domain of the toads.
True, that was an impressive time considering that most of those who would travel the secret passageway were forced back to a month, save the most recent and unprecedented pace set by those attending Jiraiya's funeral not long ago, but he could not hold up to such a swift run again without some degree of rest in between.
It was no result of his age, however; time had to be spent making sure that he was not walking right into a trap set by the traitor Sannin, to ensure that the passage had not been compromised and its protections sundered, should Orochimaru truly have lived.
And the further he traveled without encountering any danger, the more his anxiety rose, as much as his frustration that the man that had betrayed their village was quite probably still alive- his journey was more or less a technicality, and he knew in his old bones that Jiraiya had been sacrificed to no gain.
Eventually, however, as time passed without incident, he was forced to conclude that for whatever reasons, Orochimaru had not attempted to sabotage the path or even attempt to trace the steps back into Konoha through it, which did not match his understanding of the rogue nin at all- surely he would have done something after the death of his once teammate and eventual opponent.
Unless the injuries sustained in the process were too much for even him to easily recover from. More knowledge of that day must be obtained, he thought uneasily.
Within another hours time, Enma passed through the boundary truly marking the mountain retreat of the toads and stepped into the lush field warily, remembering quite well the lesson that many a shinobi and kunoichi could and had forgotten after a long trip; the end of a mission held as much a chance for danger as the rest of it.
Nevertheless, his caution was unfounded.
A pair of sentry toads stood watch and greeted him accordingly, if warmly. "Enma-sama!" "Enma-sama!" they repeated, rising up on their haunchs.
Normally he would have at least smiled at the honorific, but his mission's purpose drained him of any desire to do so, and he merely nodded once in either toad's direction before moving on to business.
"I have need of Fukasaku and Shima, at the least," he said firmly, arms hovering at his side as if unsure whether to cross them over his chest or not.
The nearest of the two frowned slightly at his reaction, but he turned to his other half and asked, "Are they still here? I thought the Two Great Sage Toad's were preparing to set forth again, but maybe they're still preparing with the Great Toad Sage beforehand?"
"They definitely haven't come this way, Enma-sama." The other confirmed.
Enma nodded again once and inclined his head in thanks, then quickly carried forward and began to navigate toward where the eldest toad resided.
In his wake, the sentry toads wondered idly what had brought the great monkey king forward alone.
When he opened his eyes again, the Kazekage had worse bags beneath his eyes than usual. A wire of pain seemed to have been sewn into his throat, beneath the thick bandages surrounding it, if the stiffly layered material digging into his lower chin was any indication.
"Father!" Temari's voice reached his ears and seemed to come from somewhat farther away, as if down the hall rather than mere feet away.
The young kunoichi rose to her feet and then hesitated, unsure of if she should approach. He craned his neck and made to sit up- only to find that binding cloth was half-holding him to the bed.
He forced his features into a scowl, but when he opened his mouth to tell her to cut them, the wire in his throat stretched taut and ignited a rush of flames throughout every muscle in the radius, forcing him back down into the pillow with a strangled expression across his face.
Temari raced from the room and scurried up the hall until she came to the still ruined office where the incident had occurred some days before, finding the older kunoichi perusing the Konoha Invasion report once again.
Despite her deep concern, she had learned some measure of respect for how the venerable Chiyo-baasama and her stark temperament reacted when prodded. She bowed to the waist and then flicked her head back up after another long few moments without acknowledgement.
"I know, child, I know. He will be fine, provided he learns his place at a healers hands." The older woman stated somewhat acidically, still dismayed at being called upon in her retirement.
Temari exhaled slowly in relief, and began to thank her, when she suddenly asked, "Come here a moment, child, and give me your opinion on this subject."
Standing back up she approached curiously and looked inside of the folder held in the elder kunoichi's hands.
It detailed the invasion by the ANBU shinobi Danzo Shimura, of the Hidden Leaf, and his attempt at abduction of her youngest sibling, as well as the assault of two other presumed-Jounin shortly afterward.
All and all, it wasn't very detailed, but there were quotes from the meeting, damage estimates for what the invasion had and would cost them in the years ahead, and several pages dedicated toward what her father and their former-shinobi had gathered in the months since from the captured nin's own mouth.
"I am of two minds regarding this information, and in particular the Sandaime Hokage's refusal to respond to our message regarding recouping our losses," the elder woman told her openly.
Temari blinked and her mouth slid open in surprise over the honest and, beyond that, rather lengthy sentence. "Chiyo-baasama?" she asked.
Their eyes met for a long moment.
"Considering that your father is ill-prepared to answer, and that fool-Jounin Yura remembers almost nothing of the last several weeks, I must inquire from the next most stable of our militant remnants for my own answers." Chiyo stated.
"But Gaara is of a higher position, and he was closer to our father at the time of both of the incidents," Temari protested quietly.
Chiyo hmphed loudly and dropped the folder back to the desk with a muffled thump.
"I said the next more stable, child. And your father had little enough right to make such a promotion without an official exam, no matter had proud he may be." Something in the older woman's voice displayed an underlying reason for her disapproval.
The young kunoichi looked away, hiding her frown.
"Now tell me, how serious was his intention to draw Konohagakure into a state of war over this? I know that our forces are far too depleted now to allow for such an course of action, but that matter may be resolved in good time." Chiyo stated.
Temari glanced back down the hallway, where both of them could hear the Kazekage's bed shaking as he futilely attempted to sit up proper and stretch himself.
The subject she was being asked of could have terrible consequences for everyone involved, and the truth of it was that she did just not know for sure how he would choose.
He could bluster around from time to time and make sharp rhetoric with Yura, Kankuro, and herself, but despite his words, a certain sense of foreboding had always been reflected around his eyes, and for good reason- it was no secret within their own home that Sunagakure was struggling to gather enough of, well, everything.
Missions outside of the village had diminished over the last year, and affording enough food for the entire village often took away the lion's share of what profit they did turn.
Going to war against a more prosperous village like Konoha, if they could not strike so immediately and destructively as to end it almost before it had even begun... their own troops would likely starve within a week, and her brother was only just coming into his powers as a weapon of the village, to say nothing of what Iwagakure would do with the bulk of Suna's troops away.
Either her father would have to remain behind, or Gaara would, hampering their odds even further in this theoretical clash.
In short, unless they could repopulate their currently empty forces and train them even more harshly, and efficiently, to make up for the gap between their skills and strengths and that of Konoha's nin, and unless they could guarantee a truce of some-kind with Iwa, then any military strike against the larger hidden village would mean the death of Sunagakure.
Her expression as she thought must have given away more than Temari had expected, because the elder kunoichi tsked loudly in disappointment.
She had barely turned to face the other woman again when Chiyo-baasama spoke.
"Save your breath, child. And spend it training harder. See what you may do about your siblings condition." She dismissed her and settled down into the large chair to continue going over the status of the village.
Temari bowed again respectfully and retreated back down the hall to the infirmary, unable to quite meet her fathers harsh glare as the bed rattled again, and he made a choked noise of fury.
Across from him in another bed lay Gaara.
The red-haired jinchuriki had been close to comatose when he was broken free of the ball of sand surrounding his body, almost before the Kazekage had been tended to even, and he was still highly unresponsive.
Something about his eyes left an uncomfortable chill across her shoulders, however- they were ringed in black from his lack of proper sleep in two days, but his normally even gaze was... dark.
She had seen more lively corpses-eyes in the recent few days.
Something was desperately wrong within his head, as if a part of himself had been lost within that dense sphere, and he had emerged hollow as a result.
Temari shivered at the thought.
"It isn't enough. Why isn't it enough?" Orochimaru's voice echoed off of the table before him as he stared down into the microscope, and the samples of already fading twisted-chakra burning beneath its glass.
With his left hand he picked up the pen nearby and jotted down another failure in the list beside it.
Another failure, after so many others, and after so much time lost just to get back into his main laboratory within Otogakure. The child showed incredible promise when his temper was flared, but when he was calm...
With a quiet hiss he slid the sample out and stood up from his hunched over position, pacing over to the door. A narrow window in the top allowed him to look out, and he watched as the child, Jugo, thrashed against the snakes Anko used to pin him down in the main sparring room.
His student flicked her gaze over to meet his as if sensing his presence, and she tilted her head just enough to indicate a query- did he need more again?
There is something missing from my equation. I know this chakra, yet it refuses to comply with my efforts, as if it were deliberately fighting against my efforts to gleam anything of value.
A bare nod of his head confirmed her answer as he turned away.
So many possibilities, laying right there within his system, and I can not grasp even one! Not for the first time since he had laid claim to a usable body again, Orochimaru's patience grew thinner than was usual, and he had to check the urge to maim someone.
And that reminded him of the cause for all of his trouble.
Even now you manage to haunt me, Jiraiya. Dead beyond redemption, and-
His thoughts were interrupted in mid-steam as the door opened and Anko stepped through, two of the snakes emerging from her coatsleeves carrying another flayed section of flesh-and-chakra on a kunai between their mouths, while the other six coiled tautly about the boy's body with enough force to nearly cut off his breath.
The snake Sannin turned to face her, and for a moment the killing intent he felt toward his former teammate engulfed her.
She swallowed dryly, and the snakes she held flinched back warily, doubling over themselves to shorten the distance. For another long moment his gaze bored into hers, and Anko inclined her head respectively, twitching with the urge to step back.
Normally she would not have feared his intentions, but it had been a long period so far since he had behaved... normally.
"Lessen your hold before you kill him and ruin the rest of my day, Anko-chan," he stated sharply as his eyes tracked over her head and into the previous room, where Jugo had shuddered violently and begun to regress.
Her eyes widened, more at the old-term of referral than his pitch, and then again at his message, and she looked over her shoulder to see what had happened.
In an instant her hands formed the counter seals to council the ninjutsu, releasing the snake summons in a rush of smoke, and she barely had the presence of mind to recall the kunai with the sample attached to it.
By the time she had turned and dropped down low to reach for the weapon, Orochimaru had cut across the distance and done so himself, gripping the knife between the fingers of his left hand as though he intended to use it.
"O-Orochimaru-sama," she stammered nervously, bowing her head rather than risk meeting his stare again.
"Go. We will discuss this - thoroughly - tonight." He ordered.
Anko kept her expression from a grimace as she rose, until the door had shut behind her, and then she checked to make sure that she truly hadn't just murdered her mentor's prime test subject.
To her relief his chest heaved slowly, sucking down shallow gulps of air, even if his mind wandered unconsciously.
Behind the door Orochimaru stared down at the kunai, focused upon it, and the already-fading power it emanated.
He exhaled through clenched teeth and hastened back to the microscope, cursing the Toad Sage.
"Tsunade-sama," a quiet voice interrupted the older woman in mid-order, drawing a surly look from the famed slug princess and a grateful one from the bartender.
Dark hazel eyes glared from the bangs of blond hair halfway obscuring them and the heavy bags underscoring the matter, and Tsunade leaned over to find out what her student wanted now.
"Whaat?" she barked, keeping most of the drunken slosh out of her tone.
Shizune exhaled wearily and held up a small scroll she had found waiting on their windowsill a few minutes prior, still held by the courier bird. The last such message they had received had delivered news of Jiraiya-sama's death, and she felt a sense of foreboding over what this one would have to say.
She had yet to actually tell her mentor the words that Naruto Namikaze had spoken when they went their separate ways some time ago, not sure what to make of them, but she had been slowly whittling away at the meaning.
For that matter, she wasn't entirely sure why he had been at the funeral at all - so far as she knew, he was supposedly too young to have known the Toad Sage, despite his looks, and whatever he had said at the eulogy had been spoke of too quietly for her to catch.
Shaking her head a fraction to get her thoughts back on the present, Shizune offered the letter to her mentor and made sure the Hokage's seal was presented.
Tsunade glanced somewhat blerily at the emblem and then scowled something fierce down at it, flicking the object away like a meddlesome fly. "I've nothing more to say to or hear from Konohagakure, Shizune!" She stated lowly, slowly, and with a determined note of pain beneath it.
Her apprentice sighed. "But it could be import-" her words were cut off by Tsunade's fist cracking down on the bar, splitting the warn-down wood right down the middle beneath it, much to the protest of the bartender.
"That village has cost me too many loved ones. Send it back." She ordered her student, then turned her eye upon the man stammering about the repairs this would take. "And you, stuff it!"
Shizune bowed her head and turned to go, looking down at Tonton seated beside her master undisturbed by the noise. Sometimes I envy you, Tonton, she thought with a sigh, then narrowed her eyes.
Return it, she said, and that is what I'll do, but she never said it had to be unopened.
Naruto blinked, staring up at the Jounin. For a long moment he did just that, wondering why it would be brought up- he hadn't figured out the truth behind Sasuke's rapid recovery all those months back, had he? Surely Sasuke wouldn't have told him, or Lee for that matter, but a slip of the tongue perhaps...
"Er," he began, stalling for time. Kakashi tilted his head to the side.
"You do know something of it, then," the Copy Cat Ninja said curiously.
Oh, man. This isn't going to end well.
Closing his eyes and grinning like he used to when he really was just an eight year old kid so long ago, Naruto answered him, internally hoping the ruse would hold. "Ah, yeah, Hatake-sama. I learned something of it, with Old man Hokage," he lied.
Kakashi nodded. "I thought as much. But that doesn't explain something," he said.
"Ah?" Naruto asked, trying to keep a grimace off of his face, but for a moment he considered what the harm would be in telling the older shinobi the truth.
He could die tomorrow, that's what! An irritated voice reminded him of what had happened to Jiraiya, and he swallowed at the thought of inadvertently killing another one of his teachers.
Kakashi tapped the seal over his stomach lightly and continued with where he had left off. "You may not know it, Naruto, but your chakra coils are definitely out of alignment. What all did you learn about senjutsu chakra with Hokage-sama?"
For another moment Naruto paused. "What do you mean they're out of alignment?" He asked, dropping the grin and blinking his eyes open again.
"You're filled with senjutsu chakra right now, just as you are with physical and spiritual. I don't know how long that has been the case, but it could be detrimental to your health in the long run. I'm surprised Hokage-sama did not warn you already."
Naruto glanced down to his stomach, as if he could see through the clothing and the flesh to the coils beneath, and he frowned deeply. "We never got around to that point of the discussion, Hatake-sama..." he trailed off and then stood up.
"But I think that now might be a good time to get a refresher over what we did discuss about it. Thank you for the warning." He said slowly.
Kakashi frowned beneath his mask at the tone. "Of course," he stated, and stood up as well. "I don't know nearly as much about the subject as the Sannin, but if you've shown no adverse reactions in these recent months, than perhaps your body is already adjusting for the change."
Naruto nodded his head in thanks, and then took off at a moderate trot back toward the village proper.
The Jounin watched him go with another concern to replace those that had been settled, and as he turned to enter his house, he found his student standing just-inside the doorway and watching Naruto go with an equally concerned expression.
"I take it you heard what we were talking about, Sasuke?" He asked.
The Uchiha flicked his eyes over to his teachers and then nodded. "I haven't felt anything like that before," he said, referring to the shroud of chakra that had begun to engulf Naruto's body a few minutes prior.
"You should let him know that you know then, when the time is..." the Jounin trailed off after realizing what Sasuke had just said.
If Naruto wasn't using the Kyuubi's chakra when he helped Sasuke to awaken the Sharingan, than what was he using? Surely he doesn't have the kind of control over senjutsu chakra to do so, at least not consciously?
"What is it?" the Uchiha asked.
"Something else to consider. Tell me again about that race you and Namikaze-kun ran."
A knock at the door preceded Naruto's entrance to the Hokage's office, waiting until the old man had called out before stepping through. He was nervous enough about their last encounter to actually mind his behavior, something he had never truly felt he had to do in the Hokage's presence in the past.
"Naruto-kun?" Sarutobi asked in surprise.
"Old man Hokage," he nodded respectfully, not quite meeting the elder shinobi's eyes.
An uneasy silence filled the space as he stood there just past the doorway, each of them absorbed in their own thoughts and expectations regarding their next - now current - meeting.
After a few more moments Sarutobi bowed his head enough to hide his eyes behind the hat, faux-scanning the paperwork he had been reviewing prior so that he could gather his words together.
Then he stood up, sighing, and placed the hat down on his desk. "Come here, Naruto." He said tiredly.
The jinchuriki felt a moment of cold dread flutter through his stomach at the tone, but more than that at the hat coming off. This was a mistake, he thought, grimacing.
When the boy remained where he was, Sarutobi walked around to the front of his desk and reclined against it, reaching up to rub the bridge of his nose with his eyes closed, and then to massage the wrinkles in his forehead.
"Naruto-kun, I owe you an apology for the way we last spoke." He said, ignoring the hitch in his breath.
Naruto blinked, and the whirlwind of thoughts abruptly slowed.
"Huh?" He asked.
The Hokage opened his eyes and inclined his head.
"Jiraiya-san's loss, coupled with the thoughts that Orochimaru had also been killed, pushed me further than I would have expected. I snapped at you without any thought to my words, absorbed in the anguish of loss. You have my sincere apologies for threatening you in such a way."
The jinchuriki exhaled. "I'm sorry, too, Old man Hokage," he said truthfully.
"I blamed you for things you could not directly control, even if you did influence them. But more than that, I am afraid that Jiraiya's sacrifice was for nothing, Naruto."
The feeling of dread returned, as Naruto's eyebrows met together, and when the Hokage continued a bitter edge had taken over his tone.
"Orochimaru is still alive if not well, given Sai's words."
It took a moment for that to process.
Then Naruto stood up straight, and he crossed the distance separating them quickly.
"What do you mean he's alive? The toads as much as verified the death, didn't they?" He asked, but even as he spoke, he knew that they had not - there had been no mention of the snake Sannin's corpse, and everyone had assumed it was dealt with already by his fellow Sannin member before succumbing to his own wounds.
"Sai came from a village we are presuming to be Otogakure, Naruto. He described a man fitting Orochimaru's figure arriving two days before he himself vanished." The Hokage stated.
Anger that he had thought dealt with already bristled beneath the surface as the jinchuriki listened. "So that is why Ibiki turned me away from the old ROOT base. You're trying to figure out how to get back there and do something about this, right?" He asked.
Sarutobi nodded once. "If the path back to where Sai came from can be traced. I have already sent Enma back to Mount Myoboku to be sure we are not mistaken, but it is a foregone conclusion, and just a matter of ensuring the path between there and here is still safe for the toads to travel."
Naruto raised a hand to rub at his forehead just as the Hokage had done prior. "There's nothing I can do, is there?"
"Nothing more than I, Naruto. It is a lesson you should take to heart now, if you still desire to become Hokage in the future."
The jinchuriki nodded, stowing away the thoughts about the Sannin, and forced himself to focus upon one of the reasons for why he had come here to begin with.
"I wanted to ask you about Sai, Old man Hokage. I don't know what I should do."
"Do?" The Hokage turned to face him better, reaching back to pull at his pipe and bring it around, and after a moment to light it with a quick handseal, he answered. "You should do your best to befriend him, just as you already are with the other academy students."
"I already am."
"Then keep at it. His course is not set in stone any easier than our own." A quick, sharp cough passed the old shinobi's lips, and he clenched down on his stomach to try and get it under-control.
"Are you okay?" Naruto questioned in concern.
Sarutobi almost told him, but the thought that Naruto would blame himself stilled the answer in his throat, and he covered the pause with another cough.
"Old man Hokage?" Naruto repeated in concern.
"I will be fine, Naruto-kun. Just old age and my pipe getting the best of these tired lungs."
A wary look passed across Naruto's face, and he squinted up at him as if trying to see something, but relented when no further coughs racked the old mans body.
"Kakashi-taicho knows about the Kyuubi's chakra, but he also said something about me having too much Sage chakra, too," he said, remembering the conversation with the Copy Cat Ninja.
The Hokage arched an eyebrow. "Really? I did not expect you to demonstrate your Sage Mode so casually around him," he said.
"That's the thing; I didn't. He just scanned my coils, and he saw it then. I'm not supposed to have senjutsu chakra available until I reach for it from the environment!"
Sarutobi stood up. "Try to enter your Sage Mode now, Naruto. Do not gather energy from around you, but reach from within as if you were trying to mold chakra for any other ninjustu technique," he instructed firmly.
The jinchuriki closed his eyes and did so, and pulled, feeling an odd knot contract around his gut as he did so. For a moment he felt hot, as if he were channeling too much, but a sudden awareness suffused him shortly thereafter, and when he opened his eyes he could feel the usual effects he associated with the ability.
"Did it work?" He asked. The Hokage wore a bemused expression, but he nodded.
"So it did."
Two weeks after their departure, three figures approached the gates of Konoha at a leisurely stride, two of them hauling a palanquin across their shoulders while the third relaxed comfortably therein. A short distance behind them a handful of servants hurried to match the shinobi's pace, red-faced and panting with exhaustion.
Normally they would have held together as a group, but the closer they grew to the Hidden Village of the Leaf, the quicker Asuma Sarutobi's feet stamped down upon the soil beneath them, as if his body was at odds with his mind - he dreaded coming back to Konoha and speaking with his father, but he knew that he could not hang back and let their already dwindling time vanish altogether.
There were matters that had to see resolution, and he had no doubts that they were going to within the first hours of reunion. What those matters were however were in part the issue behind his reluctance.
Now it was almost too late.
The moment he set foot inside the border, he could no longer excuse avoiding the subject, as he had been able to all these years.
The guardsmen halted the palanquin to verify who they were, and while Chiraku handed over the papers, and the Fire Daimyo leaned out of the door and stretched. "Ah, Konoha," the old bureaucrat said warmly, looking up at the still-closed gates.
He climbed the rest of the way and turned to watch his servants rush up at last, gasping, and hunch over to catch their breaths. A raised eyebrow was directed toward Asuma, who shrugged in response once he realized he was being stared at.
"Time was of the essence, Daimyo-sama," he added mildly when the other eyebrow rose as well.
"Indeed," the Fire Damyo agreed as the last servant caught up, slumping over on his knees and one hand. "I think I shall walk the rest of the way, Sarutobi-kun - your pace has set these old bones to aching."
Asuma had the reserve to look abashed and offer an apology, which was in turn waved aside with a soft, "No matter, no matter."
A moment later the guardsmen handed the papers back to Chiraku and turned to bow formally to the elder man, then hurried to open the gate for them to enter.
The two shinobi hefted the palanquin again and waited for the Fire Daimyo to precede them in.
Twenty minutes ticked by as they entered the forest and soon emerged into the village center, the servants having eventually recovered and formed a surrounding circle around the three of them to fend off citizens gawking at the unexpected and relatively-unknown procession.
As they carried on, one or two Jounin passing by paused and did a double-take at Asuma, despite his hair mostly hanging down in his eyes. The Sarutobi heir quietly groaned every time they did so, recognizing men and women he had known, and the friendships he had abandoned to go his own way.
He was not anticipating a warm welcome once he was through talking with his father.
"Isn't it beautiful, Sarutobi-kun? Chiraku-kun?" The Fire Daimyo interrupted his thoughts, sweeping one arm out around them and staring in particularly fondly upon the Hokage Monument far ahead and above.
The shinobi monk answered him with a firm nod of the head, while Asuma paused to look up.
For a long moment he held his tongue, seeing beyond the past and taking a silent note of the slight changes in the district they were in compared to the last time he had been through it. "It is, sir." He said honestly.
The old bureaucrat nodded to himself, satisfied the distraction had worked.
End Chapter 25.