by Brian Randall
Naruto is the property of Masashi Kishimoto; these are his paints. Some tinting is borrowed from Rumiko Takahashi. The easel is mine, but that is all. No disrespect is intended with the posting of this story.
It wasn't as though he never returned to Konoha ... though he was more likely to just come close to it and use messengers. Being just outside of town let him communicate closely enough, and also avoid dealing with the nagging sense that even if he had a good excuse, he really should have helped keep a closer eye on his godson.
Then again, if he couldn't trust the Hokage and Konoha to do that, who could he?
Even though he'd been nearby, he couldn't help but grimace sourly at the sight of the walls - and more importantly, his best student's visage, staring stonily from the monument behind the Hokage's tower.
Sighing, he gave a curt nod to the ninja watching the gate, eyes widening fractionally in recognition, though they made no move to speak to him. At least he hadn't been gone so long no one recognized him anymore.
He didn't really have time to waste, though, and he was in town for a particular purpose - so that thought in mind, he made for the tower at a fast walk. He could have gone even faster, but as long as he'd taken already, there wasn't much point to that. The ANBU watching the tower didn't move to intercept him, and he quickly reached the door to the Hokage's office - the old man was hunched forward slightly, hands folded on the table before him as he stared at a number of short stacks of paperwork.
Shrugging, Jiraiya stepped in. "Sensei," he said warmly, glancing around. An ANBU with a bear mask idled in one corner, not bothering to conceal his presence, and Shikaku stood in the opposite corner with both hands clasped behind his back, staring out the wide windows and lost in thought. "Hmm, I'm not interrupting, am I?"
"Nothing particularly important," Sarutobi said with a wearied sigh, sitting up and then leaning back. Jiraiya couldn't help but grimace at the old man's appearance. He was ... well ... old. The signs weren't nearly as obvious, the last time the Toad Sage had seen him - then again, as he had mentioned to Iroh, time did that...
"Well, I brought something that should help cheer you up, anyway!" he said brightly, grinning as he produced a copy of the latest Icha-Icha. The story wasn't his best work, but it got the job done. "This copy is signed, too - a special gift from me to you, Sensei! One of my proudest creations, no doubt about it!"
The Hokage cracked a grin at that, shaking his head ruefully, while Shikaku turned around to regard Jiraiya with a raised eyebrow. The ANBU said nothing, and Jiraiya couldn't help but jibe to him, "Would you like a copy, too?"
The voice from behind the bear mask was flat, un-inflected as it softly announced, "That title has been highly recommended by colleagues."
"Weeeell, why wouldn't it be?" Jiraiya asked warmly. He turned around, closing the door, and in a conspiratorial tone said, "So, let me tell you about my designs for the next book - I have a scroll here..."
The three Konoha ninja humored him quietly as he dropped a previously prepared scroll across the Hokage's desk. The old man looked on with some interest as the Toad Sage slapped one palm into the center of the array, charging it with chakra and activating the privacy seal.
"The book is good, incidentally," Jiraiya added, his smile fading. "Some elements were more forced than I'd like, but I think it works."
Sarutobi shook his head. "I didn't summon you, myself - it was done because ... of what happened," he muttered. "Certain of those who work for me think they understand my health better than I do myself."
Even though the ANBU kept his mask in place and said nothing, Jiraiya got a distinct impression of him sending the old man a flat stare from behind the 'bear' symbol.
Jiraiya shook his head slightly. "I'm still watching out for him," he allowed, crossing his arms over his chest. Jerking his head at the ANBU, he raised one eyebrow in question.
"Both Shikaku and Tenzo know about your project," Sarutobi said quietly. "If I couldn't trust Shikaku for his help with this..."
"Right," Shikaku said with a nod. "How long will that seal last?"
"Days," Jiraiya said with a shrug. "It's meant for subtlety, though. It could be easily overpowered, but the point is to let us know if someone tries more than to shut anyone out. Someone who was very good at seals themselves could figure out a way around or through it without tripping it eventually - it's just something I slapped together to slow people down more than stop them. I'd say we have probably thirty minutes before we should suspect that someone who was as good as I am could start peeking through the edges. If someone's better than me, or were to just barge in through the windows and doors, then..." He shrugged again.
Jiraiya breathed out a long sigh, crossing his arms over his chest and tilting his head to one side. "I'm still primarily trying to monitor a certain organization. My contact informs me that Orochimaru has parted ways with them - this should have been in the report from quite a while ago. Whatever the snake's doing, I don't have good insight into it- So what's the deal here, then?"
"Some sort of infiltration," Shikaku said, at the Hokage's gesture for him to explain. "It's deep - ANBU trainer position. Some sort of seal is placed on new ANBU tongues, preventing them from revealing who placed it there."
"Interesting," Jiraiya mused, straightening up and rubbing his chin. "Who knows, so far?"
"This room, my team - that's Inoichi and Choza - Morino Ibiki, and the one ANBU we found," Shikaku relayed quickly. "The Hokage says this ANBU is trustworthy."
"Yeah?" Jiraiya wondered, raising his eyebrows at the unfamiliar figure.
"Tenzo is a survivor of Orochimaru's experiments," the Hokage clarified.
Jiraiya made a note to look into that later and nodded. He really needed to be out and doing things ... not stuck in Konoha. But the idea of letting that viper sneak in and undermine the village while he was busy elsewhere... "Do we have a copy of the seal?"
Sarutobi reached toward a desk drawer with a grim nod - before the privacy seal on the scroll abruptly burst into flames, just as the door slammed open hard enough to crack against the wall.
Shino resisted the urge to react outwardly and show his annoyance. Shikamaru's planning had seemed quite thorough, to him. It was a real question how Sakura had seen through it.
Shikamaru sighed and hung his head. "Really," he grumbled.
"Well?" Sakura pressed, putting her hands on her hips.
Hinata looked lost in thought, but that could be for any reason. The infiltration had gone so well, considering what they were really doing, until this point. Naruto probably wouldn't figure it out, at least, but if Sakura had, there could be others.
"What gave it away?" Hinata finally wondered, breaking from her distraction to stare at Sakura fixedly.
Shikamaru rolled his eyes, and Sakura smirked triumphantly. "We're all supposed to be learning to keep our eyes open," she said with a shrug. "You had to come up with an excuse not to hang out with Naruto - and he can make a bunshin to hang out with you without putting any effort into it." She looked briefly annoyed at that, before shaking her head, putting her hands on her hips and fixing Shikamaru with a firm stare. "So - what is it? And if you don't tell me, I'll tell him you are hiding something!"
Hinata's expression shifted to a scowl. "It's not bad!" she insisted. "It's for Naruto-kun!"
"So," Shikamaru interjected thoughtfully, "you were only suspicious until Hinata gave it away?"
Sakura gave a shrug. "She just confirmed it," she explained.
Hinata's face fell. "O...oh..."
"Well, the plan was to disclose this information to Naruto-kun once we understood it," Shino said.
Lacing his fingers together behind his head, Shikamaru nodded. "Right - well, Sakura's sharp, and anyway, we don't seem to really have a choice in the matter, so let's bring her into the loop."
Sakura grinned and looked between them expectantly.
"We want to find out if Naruto's got a blood limit - and if there was any information on his family," the Nara boy explained. "So, Hinata and Shino-kun gathered some information on him."
Sakura nodded thoughtfully. "I've thought he might have a kekkai genkai, too," she agreed, frowning.
"What makes you believe this?" Shino wondered aloud.
"His henge is off, and he's got a ton of chakra, for one," Sakura offered. "But that doesn't explain why you would hide the fact that you were looking from him."
Hinata nodded thoughtfully. Shino shifted his shoulders; this was the stinging point in their explanation. But, it did raise a question, even if it wasn't one that had occurred to Shikamaru or Shino before. "How is his henge 'off'?" he wondered aloud.
"I...it's solid," Hinata explained tremulously, before Sakura could.
The other girl just nodded in agreement. "I've heard that takes either tons of practice, or some sort of inherited ability," she added.
"That might explain it, but Naruto doesn't know about his family," Shikamaru said quietly. "And there could be a very good reason for that, so we have to be careful. Otherwise, we'd just ask him."
"Alright," she allowed grudgingly. "So ... what did you find out?"
Shikamaru shrugged and turned to Hinata expectantly.
"Ah- Naruto-kun ... I think I found his mother's death certificate," Hinata said cautiously. "Um ... it honestly ... seemed that Akimichi-san was ... trying to show me where to look for it..."
"Strange," Shikamaru mused, frowning. Shino guessed that the shadow-user would be trying to puzzle that out later. "Alright - what was on it?"
"She- She was a woman from Uzushiogakure - her name was Uzumaki Kushina. Um, her family was noted for ... some ability concerning 'chakra chains,'" Hinata explained cautiously.
"That's it?" Sakura wondered, already looking thoughtful. "Hey, I told you guys about Uzushiogakure! I wonder if that's why Naruto has that spiral patch on his outfit?"
"Perhaps," Shino allowed. "But he may also merely have copied the symbol from a jounin vest. In any case, if Naruto does not know of this place, he would not have intentionally chosen the design."
"Well, what else was there?" Shikamaru prompted curiously. "Anything about his father?"
"Um, no, there was no husband listed... Um, she wasn't married, she had a nickname, and she ... was killed by the Kyuubi almost immediately after she delivered a child," Hinata mumbled, frowning.
Sakura blinked slowly. "That's it?" she asked.
"It was a death certificate, so other than the blood limit bit and surviving family, the rest would probably have been hidden or in other files," Shikamaru reasoned, frowning. "So, now we just need to find out about this 'chakra chain' ability, and if Naruto has it, as well."
"That seems reasonable," Shino agreed. "At that point, we can see if it is possible for us to help Naruto learn that new ability."
"Well, I have a hard time seeing Naruto as a fuinjutsu expert, which is what they were supposed to be really good at," Sakura agreed thoughtfully. "What was her nickname, anyway?"
"Um ... 'red hot habanero'?" Hinata asked, shifting her shoulders and not meeting anyone's eyes. "I don't ... know what that means, but her hair was red, in the report of her description, so maybe that's it?"
"It..." Shikamaru trailed off and looked at Sakura with a frown. The pink-haired girl had gone white as a sheet at that nickname for some reason. "What? You know that name?" he asked, frowning.
"I- I've read it," she managed, shaking. She turned her head slowly to stare at the Hokage monument. "But ... it couldn't be..."
Shino's eyebrows rose. Was it possible that thanks to her, some clue they'd have missed had turned up after all? Shikamaru looked torn between irritation and admiration; undoubtedly he was reconsidering his previous classification of the girl's abilities.
Until meeting Tsunade personally, Kakashi had never taken Anko for the 'cute and cuddly' type. When he mentioned it in a grumbling observation, carefully well outside of the sannin's earshot, Anko's snorted reply was to explain, "I'm only an A-rank bitch; I gotta admit she's out of my league, since I already played my best card. Us lesser bastards and whatnot have to stick together, right?"
He'd decided it wouldn't be a good idea to let that line of discussion continue. Even if he had earned it, the 'bastard-sensei' title wasn't actually something he enjoyed. Though he didn't mention it, Anko seemed to pick up on that and changed the subject herself.
The trip back to Konoha was one of the most tense journeys in his memory - though Tsunade's eagerness to get the entire thing over with had her keeping pace with the other ninja. Well, she was one of the sannin, so they made good time, thanks to Shizune carrying the pig.
It was also possible that the blonde woman was just happy to run away from the debt collector; he really couldn't tell, and didn't want to ask.
What did surprise him was that Tsunade didn't even slow down once she reached the gates. It was not an official policy, but was at least considered good form to walk through slowly enough that the guards could confirm identification before entering the village. Tsunade didn't care, and after dashing through the gate, leaped to a rooftop and made a line for the tower.
Not seeing much choice in the matter, Kakashi followed, warning the approaching ANBU away with hand-signs - though he was sure most of them would recognize her before pissing her off. Then again...
She at least had the courtesy to go through the doorway and march up the stairs. After the trouble it was to get her back, Kakashi didn't have it in him to protest the way she stormed up. She didn't even glance at the irate Danzo and his followers as the jounin at the door insisted that they couldn't get in - she was at least gentle enough to avoid breaking anything when she shoved him out of the way, and then kicked the door open.
"I'm here!" she barked, scowling at the interior of the room, pausing at the sight of Jiraiya looking over his shoulder in surprise, evidently in the middle of presenting the Hokage with a copy of Kakashi's favorite book.
Well, that earned the Toad sannin some credit, in Kakashi's mind; he'd never realized his favorite author and the legendary ninja were the same person. He'd have to get an autograph later.
"So you are!" Jiraiya exclaimed, hiding the book after a moment of belated realization. "How nice to see you again, Tsunade-hime!"
"Cut it-" she started, before Sarutobi coughed, staring at her with a frown.
"Tsunade," he said neutrally, inclining his head slightly. "I apologize for the inconvenience. Kakashi, Anko ... what precisely is going on, here?"
Kakashi rocked back on his heels, sighing, and wondering how to put it. "To use words to explain it..." he began slowly.
Anko obligingly offered, "Tsunade wasn't going to come, so he bribed her to appear by paying off her gambling debts."
Well, that would do it, he supposed. He offered his most disarming smile and nodded, one hand going behind the back of his head. "There you have it!" he explained with cheer he didn't feel.
"I see," the Hokage said quietly.
"Anyway," Tsunade groused, "the deal was that I show up here and listen to you for a few minutes. That's it."
The Hokage sighed, and Jiraiya raised his eyebrows. "Well," the Toad Sage began, grinning, "I know one way you could make some-"
"Don't even finish that sentence," she said flatly. After traveling with the woman, Kakashi would have expected more anger in her voice than he actually heard. Then again, they had been teammates at one point, hadn't they?
"You wound me!" Jiraiya protested.
Crossing her arms over her chest, she explained, "Anyway, once this is done, my debt's clear, so it's not a problem anymore."
"A...actually," Shizune offered hesitantly, "um, Tsunade-sama, that's ... just one debt collector. There are ... others..." She trailed off at Tsunade's faint, but visible embarrassed flush.
Rubbing at his temples, Sarutobi sighed, finally taking his hat off and setting it on the table.
"This is a waste of the Hokage's time," Danzo interjected from the doorway. "Koharu, Homura, and I all have business with the Hokage-"
Waving a hand to forestall his longtime friend, Sarutobi overrode him. "Danzo, we will speak later. You didn't want my time before Jiraiya arrived, so I can't think it's that urgent. In the meantime, Tsunade's contract is evidently about to expire, so if it's all the same, I'll speak to my students in private.
"Kakashi, Anko, mission complete - return to your students. Shikaku, as the jounin commander, handle the debriefing and consult with Danzo and the council - I trust you to handle anything that cannot wait until we speak later. Jiraiya, Tsunade ... it's been far too long."
Kakashi nodded dutifully, he and Anko stepping out of the Hokage's office with Shizune, just ahead of an even more irate Danzo. Shikaku was the last one out, closing the door behind him. "Submit a receipt for that payment," he advised Kakashi. "No promises, but we'll see what we can do about it."
"Appreciated," Kakashi acknowledged, nodding. "I suppose there's no need for a real debriefing?"
"Mission successful, so unless you encountered something unexpected, not really. I trust your judgment," Shikaku said with a shrug. "For now, Danzo-san, you had a matter of some urgency?"
The old man set his teeth, frowning sharply. "I will wait for Sarutobi," he said flatly.
"Suit yourself," Shikaku agreed, shrugging before he fell back against the door to the Hokage's office, studying his fingernails as he leaned against the entrance.
Shaking his head, Kakashi turned down the stairs, Anko dogging his heels. "My apartment," she said. "I'll get out my good tea set - helps me calm down and think better. See if you can get Asuma and Kurenai; we can catch up on what we missed."
"Good plan," he agreed, as they reached the street. He should probably find out how Gai's handling of his students went, at some point, too. No matter what he and the other jounin suspected was going on, the genin were the priority, at the moment.
Danzo waited a minute, but Shikaku seemed entirely content to remain guarding the door. There was also no way for him to try and eavesdrop without alerting Homura and Koharu ... and as much as they would agree with Danzo in theory, that was simply too overt.
Shizune sighed, hanging her head and sinking to crouch by the door near Shikaku, waiting for her teacher and companion to finish. He could feel the charge indicating another privacy seal being placed, and shook his head faintly.
"Would you like a chair?" Shikaku asked, turning to look at the elder ninja curiously.
"If the Hokage's business takes more than a few minutes, we will retire to the waiting room," Danzo returned. "But your consideration has been noted."
Shikaku gave a small nod before turning to the young kunoichi. "Just a guess, but your teacher might be in town for a few days to make sure that her promised payment comes through. You probably have time to book a hotel before things finish up in there."
"Ah," Shizune said aloud, popping to her feet and bowing. "Um, Tsunade-sama has an ancestral property here in town ... though it's been sealed off since she left. Probably, it's quite dusty..."
Shikaku made a sympathetic noise and cocked his head to one side in thought. "Ah," he said, nodding. "Why not find a room for tonight, and file a D-rank mission to have the estate cleaned?" he suggested.
"Oh, um, that ... that would probably be a good idea. The cost of the D-rank would be less than several nights at a hotel..." Shizune allowed. "Okay- Thank you, um, jounin-san."
"Nara Shikaku," he offered, smirking. "If she gets out before you're back, I'll tell her where you've gone."
"Okay! Thank you, Nara-san!" she said brightly, bowing again before dashing down the stairs.
Danzo bit back a sigh at that; obviously a talented kunoichi, reduced to being the servant and watcher for an alcoholic former sannin. Two perfectly good ninja wasted on the folly of one- He pressed his lips together tightly as he considered, though. Shikaku was smart, and recognized there was no point to hiding the fact that Tsunade would likely be in town for a few days.
That just begged the question of why.
Grimly, one reason came to him, and he raised a hand to his forehead. "Perhaps ... the waiting room would be more comfortable for the moment," he sighed, leaning on his cane when Koharu turned a curious look toward him.
It wasn't all an act, but Tsunade let most of her ire fade once the door was shut, jerking her head in a nod at the ANBU. "Who's this?" she asked dully.
"Someone I trust," the Hokage answered, not changing position from where he sat, his head wearily cradled in his hands.
She nodded, then gave Jiraiya a meaningful glance.
"Oh, sure," the Toad Sage agreed, unrolling a scroll from within his robes and dropping it to the floor. He crouched and slapped a palm on it, causing the seals drawn across the surface to light up. "These things are so easy and fun to make; isn't like we just burned one out when you came in."
As tired as she was, and as uninvolved as she tried to be ... her sensei was still alive, so she ignored Jiraiya's grumbling. He wasn't really pissed off about the scroll, anyway. "Myocardial infarction," she said distastefully, eyes on his chest. "This job kills everyone, Sensei."
He sighed, turning his head slightly as she moved around the desk, putting the tips of her fingers across his back, probing carefully with chakra to examine his lungs. "And, what, you're trying to hide that somehow? Well, with how subtle it was trying to bring me back, anyone with half a brain will have figured out that something happened; you're weak, and now your enemies know it. This is just going to invite someone to hurry up the job you're doing to yourself."
"Fine, thanks," the Hokage muttered, but without the edge of real annoyance in his voice. She almost wished he had that instead of the grateful tone of warmth she heard.
This long after the event, there wasn't much she could do for his heart. It didn't involve exposure to blood, at least, so she could at least do something. A few chakra probes into his circulatory system detected a clot of ... material working its way very slowly toward the still steadily-beating organ. That would become problematic soon ... a few weeks, maybe sooner if his heart rate were to go up.
She focused on disrupting it slowly, shaking her head. "Hell of a lot of work to drag me back ... don't you have your own medics? That could look into this without all of that attention?"
"I won't pretend I'm unhappy to see you again," Sarutobi groaned, as she prodded a point of tension on his back with a fine needle of chakra. Normally a debilitating attack at full strength, something that could even cause paralysis in an enemy. Here, it just relaxed the old man's muscles; his body was too weary to keep handling the stress he put it through.
"But I wasn't the one who called you back - a well-meaning but panicking jounin commander was responsible for that."
Tsunade paused, finished with the ... matter that she had broken up, following his arteries up toward his brain with her fingertips running up his back. "Well, I'm here anyway," she grumbled. "Even if this doesn't actually cover all of my debt. That's a pretty poor judgment from your jounin commander, incidentally."
"Well," Jiraiya said, shrugging, "the reason for the panic was evidently Orochimaru."
Tsunade froze. At Jiraiya's raised eyebrow, she scowled, shaking her head, and resumed her scan of the unprotesting Hokage. "Is that why you sent Mitarashi Anko after me?" she muttered. "Figured you were going to get me good and pissed at him, so I'd come back?"
"No," Sarutobi sighed. "I'm not clear on the specifics, but she and Kakashi seem to have become personally involved. I should probably give her a reprimand for overstepping her bounds on that front; as far as I know, the mission was for him alone."
Tsunade grunted wordlessly at that.
"Anyway, that seal?" Jiraiya prompted. "Before I can't trust our privacy here, ideally."
Sarutobi moved lethargically to reach toward a desk drawer, and Tsunade worked around him, finding other weak points that could be addressed. Hemorrhage in the brain, potentially; those arteries were old, could break in coming months easily. A bit of chakra helped encourage them to strengthen, though unless she repeated the treatment regularly for a few weeks, it was really just a shrug at correcting the issue. She glanced at what he'd retrieved as he unrolled it - a storage seal. Medical grade, too; reliable for transplants. Why the hell would they care about a storage seal?
She didn't get a chance to ask before he activated it, revealing a severed tongue. A fairly carefully severed tongue, too. She blanched, focusing her attention on her sensei, working out and down to less severe issues, like strained muscles and stretched tendons. Even if it was clean, and there was no ... unwanted matter remaining on it, she didn't want to look directly at that.
"Sensei, that's a... Oh, hmm, seal on the tongue, right," Jiraiya mused. "What about the fifth- No, I suppose that would work, wouldn't it? There's an issue with the balance of... Far back, I guess, though. Simple, but clever. So... Alright, let's see..."
She'd done all she could for one day, and didn't want to participate in the study directly. Still, she'd already cost Jiraiya one of his privacy seals, so she stepped back. Looking for somewhere to divert her attention, her gaze went to the Hokage monument before she could stop herself, and she groaned, moving to the window, staring out with a scowl. Konoha seemed as happy and bustling as ever, to her eyes. After a few minutes, punctuated by Jiraiya muttering about the complexities of the array sealed into the ... severed tongue, the Toad Sage finished his analysis.
"The seal's not complete," he said, rustling the scroll and sealing the tongue back within it. "Someone went through a lot of work to try and keep the function hidden. Without the chakra of a living subject, the seal degrades. I can see a lot of compulsion and secrecy functions in it; considering the size of the seal, it's actually quite elegant."
"So Orochimaru has become adept at sealing?" Sarutobi asked with a sigh. "Given his other experiments, I shouldn't be surprised."
"I'm not sure," Jiraiya said after a moment of thought. "I'd need another sample of his work to compare it against, and it's not like we've got that on hand."
"Mitarashi Anko," Tsunade found herself saying, almost unwittingly. She turned around and found both the Hokage and Jiraiya looking at her, the Toad Sage with interest, and Sarutobi with a slow nod. "Orochimaru put a cursed seal on her neck."
"I'll compare them, then," Jiraiya agreed. "Does this 'Anko' have permission to share the details of that?"
"At her discretion," the Hokage confirmed. "There's one other detail - I had made a sealing array to study Mizuki's remains, to try and find some of the reasoning behind why he did what he did-"
"Wait, who? What?" Jiraiya asked, raising a hand and frowning. "He's not familiar to me."
"He- Ah, Mizuki was an instructor at the Academy," the Hokage began, before hesitating, paling slightly as though belatedly realizing something.
Unbidden, the ANBU in the corner - almost having faded from Tsunade's mind - offered, "Mizuki attempted to steal a forbidden scroll containing the sealing information for the Kyuubi, and also attempted to kill its container."
Tsunade had only rarely seen Jiraiya more than annoyed - he was generally an easy-going man, even in a hard fight. His behavior was boisterous, often disarmingly showy - but Tsunade knew him, knew how to tell when he was really pissed, not just annoyed. The tightening around his eyes, the slight protruding of his jaw.
"When was this?" he asked, his voice tight, staring sharply at the old man who couldn't meet his gaze. "The ... kyuubi's container was targeted for assassination?"
Sarutobi bowed his head, turning to stare at the floor beside his desk. "It didn't make sense; it was too sudden - I needed to know why," he said, though to Tsunade's ears, even from her great sensei ... it sounded weak and defensive.
"And you believe that Orochimaru is behind it," Jiraiya said, taking a slow breath, his brow furrowed. She knew him - Sarutobi obviously could tell, too. He was still pissed, but able to be reasonable ahead of that.
"There's more," Sarutobi warned. "I had - trying to interrogate the spirit - a vision. A sharingan eye ... several of them, implanted in an arm, and one - just one - in the face."
Jiraiya stared for a long moment, his eyes tracking toward the ceiling. "I don't think we have a lot of time," he said, indicating the scroll he'd left on the floor. "I'll say this much - to the best of my knowledge, the only active sharingan eyes past the massacre are with Itachi, and Kakashi. That means that Orochimaru has to have had these for a while, or found Uchiha we don't know about to get them from."
"I hadn't thought of that," Sarutobi lamented, frowning.
"The seal," the ANBU volunteered, indicating the storage scroll that contained the ... sample. Tsunade shifted her shoulders, then crossed her arms before her. "ANBU itself has been compromised, though we do not know the extent of it."
"So someone in ANBU got the eyes from the bodies at the massacre and gave them to Orochimaru?" Jiraiya asked dully. "That would mean that we've been compromised for- That's just swell. Someone's infiltrated us that long ago, and we only now found out about it?"
Clearing his throat, the Hokage added, "But even then ... the worrying part is that the words that he used were, 'For the village.'"
"So, Orochimaru's got an entire village?" Jiraiya asked with an even heavier sigh, rubbing his forehead. "Great... So he's established himself somewhere I haven't heard about yet, outside of my contact's field of awareness, and he's infiltrated Konoha. We don't know how deeply, but it includes an unknown number of ANBU?"
Sarutobi nodded grimly. "So ... even though I didn't mean for you two to be summoned here ... in the face of this, I need your help."
"Now I need an excuse to stay in town for a while," Jiraiya groused sourly, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Yeah, we can fight him when he attacks, or we can strike at his village - assuming we can find it - but if he's infiltrated, we need to take care of that first, ideally without betraying our hand." He dropped his hand to his side and nodded at Tsunade. "You up for this, Tsunade-hime?"
"I'm just here for the money," she said in automatic reply, not letting herself look at his hopeful gaze.
"I appreciate what you've done, in any case," the Hokage said, smiling more warmly than her attitude deserved.
"Well- Well, I have more debts," she muttered. "I might ... be convinced to stay a while to wipe those out ... since I came all this way anyway. I'm not interested in fighting anyone, and..." She looked away. "I'm still not ... good around blood."
Jiraiya's eyebrows rose. "Two excuses, then," he said with a smirk.
"I'll see what I can come up with," Sarutobi agreed. "And, Jiraya... Anko has the task of watching over ... certain promising genin. She might be able to relay some details to you while you're examining that seal."
"Good," Jiraiya allowed, relaxing. Tsunade felt a twinge, remembering the old days... Why was she letting herself get drawn into this again? No ... it didn't matter; it was about the money. "Yeah - okay, I'll start there."
Once she worked off her debt - a few weeks at most - she was done. That was going to be it. She didn't care about any of this; it was just a job, after all.
"Let's meet up tonight," Jiraiya prompted her, grinning - though she could tell it wasn't completely real. He was genuinely pleased to see her, but part of his mind was elsewhere. "Have a few drinks and catch up. It's really been far too long."
"You're buying," she replied, while he stooped and gathered the scroll at his feet.
"Sakura?" Shikamaru prompted, rousing her from her dazed distraction. "What is it?"
"It- It's just a coincidence," she said, shaking her head quickly. "It has to be."
"You know something about Naruto," Hinata determined, staring intently at her, byakugan active. Damn, could Hyuuga tell when people were lying? "Something about that nickname."
Shino stared at her, too, his expression unreadable as Shikamaru's eyebrows rose. She was reminded uncomfortably of the bug-user's threat to drain her chakra if she didn't behave - ugh, bugs.
Grimacing, she said, "I'm sure it's just a coincidence ... but... Well, okay. I've read every book the yondaime wrote, alright? He's got a good writing style and makes for easy study."
"So he mentioned this nickname?" Shino surmised.
Shaking her head, Sakura explained, "I also used to do volunteer work at the library to stay after hours; I found a lot of books that were misplaced, fell behind shelves, or were just in different sections. One of the yondaime's books, instead of being about strategy, or tactics, or that sort of thing, was a book of poetry."
Shikamaru looked especially unimpressed, while Shino was as unreadable as always, and Hinata looked on with confused curiosity.
Hinata and Shino didn't change their expressions, and Sakura shook her head again, turning to look at the Hokage monument. "It was kind of cheesy romance stuff, but ... he dedicated it, 'To my red hot habanero,'" she concluded lamely. Shaking her head again, even though she couldn't bring herself to look away from the monument, she said, "But it's - it's just a coincidence. I mean, this is Naruto, there's no way he could be..."
Shikamaru blinked several times, slowly turning his gaze to follow Sakura's. "Blue eyes, blond hair, absurd amounts of chakra," he said slowly. "A secret Naruto knows that he says is 'S-rank', and no one's supposed to know about..."
"But- That's hardly conclusive proof!" Sakura protested, shaking her head furiously. "I mean..." The idea that she'd been that dismissive of someone who might be descended from the yondaime? The fact that the yondaime was a legendary prodigy, and all Naruto had to his name was ... pranking, and a very recently discovered tactical mindset? Sure, it would explain why the Hokage had let him get away with what he did, but...
"The yondaime was a legendary threat to the other villages," Shikamaru said after a thoughtful moment, grimacing sourly.
"Ninja from other villager were ordered to flee at the sight of him," Shino added, huffing his own almost inaudible sigh. "He was called 'the Yellow Flash', and his colors meant 'fear' to enemy ninja."
"So we know who Naruto's parents are!" Hinata yelped, eyes wide. "We- We have to tell him right away!"
She turned to run, grinning with excitement, and Shikamaru bit back a curse; Hinata formed a seal, but the shadow-user was faster, managing to snare her with his kagemanu-jutsu.
"...success," he muttered, sighing, as Hinata slumped, her body assuming the same pose as his.
"What- What do you think you're doing?" she protested, showing more irritation than Sakura had ever seen from the typically meek kunoichi.
"We need to be rational about this," he warned, frowning intently. "Look- We just said Naruto knows an S-rank secret that's not supposed to get out. So he already knows something, even if they only told him part of it - which would make sense."
"Unfortunately, this is true," Shino continued, adjusting his dark glasses. "It's also still possible that we aren't entirely correct, and we could risk falsely raising his hopes. As has been noted, we currently lack proof."
Hinata growled, her features fixed in a scowl.
Sakura was mildly taken aback, but agreed, "That's true. If... If it is true, though, and Naruto didn't know it - once he found out he'd blab it to everyone, too. And a lot of enemy villages, if they found out, would be really happy to hurt him to get back at Konoha, after everything that the yondaime did - I bet that's why Naruto doesn't already know."
Hinata's face fell. "Well, what can we tell him?" she protested. "We did this entirely so we could give him some good news, didn't we?"
"The nature of his mother and her abilities do not seem to be particularly closely guarded," Shino said after a moment of thought. "He shares her name, obviously. Moreover, we know of no special abilities of the yondaime that could be expected to be passed down through blood. From Naruto's mother, there is one possibility. That information can be shared with him."
Hinata nodded slowly, as Shikamaru released the bind. "We can also tell him about his mother and be sure about it," he concluded sourly. "Personally, I'd hate to get Naruto's hopes up about his father and be wrong. Could you imagine how he'd be crushed by that?"
The Hyuuga's byakugan eyes widened in horror as her doujutsu faded. "Oh, oh," she fretted, looking like she was on the verge of tears. "That- That would be terrible!" she whimpered, hunching in on herself. "But ... his mother's okay to tell him about?"
"Yeah," Shikamaru agreed tiredly, one hand going to his forehead, shading his eyes as Hinata's reaction clicked into place for Sakura. "Hey - why not ... find some time - the next time you get a private practice session with Naruto-kun - and give him the good news?" he suggested.
Hinata nodded, reassuming the seal she'd used before, and- When did she learn shunshin?
"I didn't know she could do that," Sakura muttered, frowning.
Shikamaru's eyebrows rose as well, and he looked like he'd tasted something extraordinarily unpleasant. "That was bad," he groaned, shaking his head, sounding more agitated than Sakura had ever heard him. "That was really, really bad - not planned, not calculated, way, way out of scope- If she could do that it was only lucky I caught her..."
"Our luck has indeed been pressed," Shino agreed, sounding subdued, even for him.
"...Naruto really is the yondaime's son, isn't he?" Sakura asked quietly - though she realized it wasn't much of a question.
"Yeah, but no proof," Shikamaru grumbled, collapsing to sit on the lawn before falling backward, throwing his arms over his head across the grass. "Why the hell did I think this was a good idea?"
"Well ... if Hinata was right, for some reason Akimichi-san wanted Hinata to figure this out," Sakura said slowly. "But why?"
"And how was it known that Sakura would have read the book required to make the connection?" Shino posed.
"Because he and my father are on the same team," Shikamaru returned sourly. "And even if I wouldn't read a book of poetry, everyone knows Sakura volunteers at the library and reads it all. Obviously, he expected me to go behind my friend's back to dig for info on him. My father and Choza have been friends since the academy; it means I thought I was being clever, and my father wanted to warn me, 'You're just a dumb kid, no matter how smart you think you are.' It means he was saying, 'You should trust your teammate, and not dig around.' It means ... that I fucked up and didn't do the right thing. So if it's all the same, I'm just going to lie here and feel like a shitty friend for a while. Naruto-kun deserved better than that, didn't he?"
Sakura blinked slowly, as one of Shikamaru's arms went across his eyes. That certainly was not what she'd expected... She'd threatened Shikamaru and Shino - and Hinata - with the fact that they were up to something behind Naruto's back, but it was only then that it had really sunk in.
...it was still early. Unless something had changed, Naruto had clones in the library. Even though it wasn't her hobby, she stared up at the clouds, thinking. Should she treat Naruto nicer, now that she knew?
No ... not too much. That would give it away. And maybe the blond boy wouldn't pick up on it, but if she treated him differently, wouldn't she be doing a poor job of keeping that S-rank secret? Didn't that mean the best course of action was to continue as she had been? But then ... giving him a negative reputation like the village had, to better hide him...
She was unpleasantly reminded of how well she knew what it was like to get by without friends. She'd started warming up to him; he was proving himself, after all. She just needed to continue on that path, right? And, anyway, while Hinata was going to give him the news about his mother, maybe - just maybe - she could throw a book on fuinjutsu at Naruto and see what he made of it.
Yeah, that would help the entire team, anyway, wouldn't it? With his clones, if he figured out the basics, he could be churning out enough storage seals and exploding tags for all of them easily!
"I have to get to the library," she said, breaking into a run toward Konoha without waiting for a reply from either of the boys.
Asuma kept his expression carefully schooled from his perch on the branch, hidden within Kurenai's veil. They'd had to move a number of times to stay out of Hinata's byakugan, but he was able to use a subtle wind-natured chakra technique to bring the voices into their own earshot anyway.
Neither of them said anything, just digesting the genin's' speculation. Sakura left swiftly enough, not lingering that long after Hinata had shunshined away. When it was just Shikamaru and Shino, the Aburame boy turned to his companion, sinking to sit nearby.
"Questions remain unanswered," he remarked. "There have been rare but observable instances of resentment among the villagers toward Naruto-kun, which is not consistent with the expected behavior toward the yondaime's heir."
"Yeah," Shikamaru agreed quietly, arm still over his eyes. His voice was only barely carried across the wind.
"Such responses surpass what could be expected over an illegitimate child."
Asuma resisted the urge to snort; an heir to a bloodline was an heir to a bloodline, legitimacy be damned. Plenty of 'bastard' children had come about in the ninja world, to try and preserve kekkai genkai.
"There really is more than one big secret on him," Shikamaru sighed.
"What is the best course of action?"
"Damn it, Shino-kun... What does it matter?" Shikamaru asked bitterly. "I meant what I said - we shouldn't have dug. Yeah, I know there's something else, but all we have right now is the fact that we know something we have no business being aware of. Good for us! We're supposed to be a tight team? Trust one-another? Before the whole mess of 'let's stick the rookie nine together,' it was Shino-kun, Naruto-kun, and that lazy ass - the genin dream-team who'd gotten their hands dirty and stuck out.
"Then Naruto-kun sticks out a bit more, even to us, and what do we do? We screw it up. Bad enough Sakura found out, it's worse that my dad figured it out. So - it doesn't matter. I'm done digging. Naruto-kun deserved our trust, and for me, at least, from now on he's getting it. If he's got something else to tell us ... he'll tell us.
"Because right now, all we have to tell him is that we know something that we can't explain without admitting we didn't trust him. I don't know about you, but that makes me feel like an ass.
"And I don't know how to make it up to him."
Shino's head shifted slightly at that. "A stinging remark," he said softly. Adjusting his dark glasses, his head turned toward the Hokage monument. "We have become tangled in our own web. I agree with you, Shikamaru-kun."
"...thanks," Shikamaru sighed. "Alright; my dad knew what was going on. I think the other message there is that I'm not done taking lessons from him. I'm going to train with him for the rest of the day."
Shino nodded solemnly, watching without comment as Shikamaru hopped to his feet and began the trudge back to his home, shoulders slumped.
Once the Aburame boy followed, Kurenai dropped the veil.
"I ... had no idea," she said softly.
Sighing, Asuma produced and lit the cigarette he couldn't let himself have while they were hiding. "I didn't, either," he allowed. "I knew about Naruto's other secret ... not a very well kept one, honestly."
"Yes," she mused quietly, frowning.
Asuma cocked his head to one side. "Even a lot of chunin and some civilians that really shouldn't know it..."
Voicing the questions that were only just occurring to him, Kurenai asked, "But ... his own child?"
"I don't want to get into it," he sighed. "I'm not exactly close with the boy, and I didn't know his parents well ... but let's just say my father's handling of things was one of the reasons I left Konoha for a few years."
She pursed her lips as she studied him. "What exactly does that mean?" she asked.
"Let's leave that piece of the past in the past," he muttered with a shake of his head. "We have a chance to do things differently, and perhaps better from now on. Right now, Naruto is one of our students - one of nine. Without letting this bias us, but doing the best we can with this information..." He shrugged, looking at her expectantly.
"My lessons moving forward will be about the nature of trust, and its importance, I think," she decided.
"After that, it's going to hit some of those kids like a ton of earth chakra," Asuma rumbled, drawing deeply on his smoking brand. "I'll touch on the subject a bit myself; Kakashi's probably got less room for it."
"We should be moving them onto D-ranks, anyway. Speaking of Kakashi, shouldn't he be back soon?"
"Yeah," Asuma agreed, frowning at a small chakra-heavy form that dashed through the forest, seeming to sniff at the trail of cigarette smoke. Was that... It had to be a summon - a small dog with a hitai-ate? Realization set in, as the small figure bounded toward their tree, and he would have smirked, if the mood weren't so heavy. "Well, well ... look who's on time for once."
"I think 'on time' would have caught that conversation," she disagreed quietly. "But let's meet up with him anyway."
It didn't take Jiraiya too long to track Anko down to her apartment. He'd interrupted a tea ceremony, evidently, which she seemed to be conducting for a trio of other jounin (he recognized Kakashi, at least) with some skill, so he'd apologized and asked to have an appointment with her later. She'd agreed, making some offhand comment about 'meeting all three of the sannin.' He'd liked her more in the outfit she was wearing when she'd followed Tsunade to the tower, but she didn't look half bad in the demure kimono, either.
Kakashi seemed to have pretty good taste. A marker he wasn't going to give Orochimaru, even if he had tagged the kunoichi with a curse seal of some sort - but there was time to investigate that in the morning. Just as importantly, he could find out more about his godson.
In the meantime, he was still pretty pissed about his sensei not thinking it was worth telling him that someone had gotten close enough to killing Naruto that a chunin instructor died in his place. That made him want to punch someone, but if the Hokage were right about it being Orochimaru's meddling...
Then again, maybe it wasn't the snake's plan; he could have intended something else, and just accidentally driven his servant crazy or stupid with his experiments. Honestly, it wouldn't have been the first time.
Without any better approaches, he found a cheap dive that he judged unlikely to be overflowing with ANBU or gorgeous women. Pretty ladies were a great distraction, but it wasn't the time for that. Technically, he should be coming up with a good excuse for being in town, too, but there was just too much going on all at once to do much more than he had without a few bottles of sake for fortification.
This was the kind of place for that; almost all booths with curtains that could be closed to allow for privacy. Jiraiya didn't really care what anyone else might be doing behind their curtains at the moment, just that he could have one of his own.
He was only halfway through the second bottle before Tsunade found him. He'd expected it to take longer, really.
She slid onto the bench on the opposite side of the booth from him, taking the bottle he hadn't finished and draining it in one long pull. "Started earlier than I expected," she said coolly, slamming the empty bottle to the table without breaking it.
"Yeah, got a lot on my mind," he agreed. He waved to the server, a tired looking man of middle years. "Four more bottles, and one more glass," he said, before twitching the curtain across the booth.
"You can do that privacy trick even here?" she wondered.
"Eh, better," he said, biting his thumb absently. She looked away with a disgusted scowl, her face paling slightly. Oh ... he'd forgotten about that.
Shaking his head, he jammed his thumb against the bench at his side, muttering the jutsu under his breath and summoning one of the smaller toads he frequently worked with. The small creature hopped up onto the table, almost looking deceptively 'cute' in its small coat and white headband. "What's up, boss-guy?" he croaked at Jiraiya curiously.
The Toad Sage made a gesture, and the diminutive creature changed color, smoothly blending in with the wood as the server shouldered the curtain aside to place four fresh sake bottles on the table, and a glass before Tsunade. She nodded absently at him as he pulled back from the curtain, and Jiraiya reclosed it before sliding one of the bottles to the toad.
"Okay!" the creature chirped softly, reassuming its regular coloring again. "You want the 'especially happy lady' sound genjutsu?"
"Eh, nah," he said, not meeting Tsunade's eyes when she looked at him suspiciously. "Just make it sound like we're not talking about anything important and give a heads up if anyone tries to come inside the genjutsu to overhear us."
"Got it, boss-guy!" the diminutive toad agreed, chugging the entire bottle in almost no time - and seemingly without effect. Tsunade looked dubiously impressed, and no wonder; the bottle was almost as large as the toad.
"So, what, you use him to make it sound like you're seducing - or being seduced?" she asked with a sour grimace, eying the toad doubtfully.
"Sometimes it's actually going on," he said, a bit defensively. Before that could start a conversation that wouldn't go anywhere, he changed the subject: "Anyway - did you come up with an excuse?"
"Yeah, working off my debt going over some of the medic-nin at the hospital," she groused. "Shoring up their mistakes, maybe saving some lives. Pointless as that is... You still need to figure out why you're here, though."
He nodded absently, pouring sake to fill both of their cups. He wasn't in a mood to try and cheer her up at the moment, as much as he genuinely did appreciate her company.
"What's up with you?" she prompted, sipping at her sake slowly while he threw his back without hesitation.
"What do you mean?" he asked, staring at the empty cup before him.
"I mean," she said, taking the bottle and refilling his cup halfway, "that Sensei seems to have pissed you off somehow. What's so important about the Kyuubi's container, anyway?"
He hesitated for a moment. "Tsunade-hime," he said slowly, frowning. "You could probably guess it, if you tried. You have most of the pieces, anyway. Haven't met the kid, but you'd get it in a snap."
"Some bullshit village secret?" she asked doubtfully.
"Yeah, something like that," he agreed. "But you've stepped away from the village."
"I'm not about to start selling secrets that'll just cause more people to get killed," she said flatly, frowning intently.
He couldn't help but let one corner of his mouth quirk up in a half-smile. "Alright," he sighed. "The Kyuubi's container is the yondaime's kid. My godson."
Tsunade blinked a few times, then shook her head slowly and topped off his sake cup before filling her own. "I think I'd be pretty furious if someone came after Shizune," she said quietly. "She's all I've got ... so I guess I can see that."
"Yeah, well... I haven't exactly been doing a stellar job of watching over the kid - I try and draw fire away from him, trust Sensei to watch over him since I can't afford to spend that much time in the village, right?" he muttered, sipping from his own cup, then shaking his head.
"So, you ... you're going to become the next Hokage, then?" she asked dully, her eyes dimming.
He blinked. "Where the hell did you get that idea?" he asked belatedly.
She rolled her eyes. "Who better?" she returned, shrugging. "I'm serious - Sensei's got a year or two, maybe three or four tops if he keeps pushing himself like this. He could have up to maybe ten if he retires, lets someone else take the mantle. I'm working my debt off; I'll do what I can.
"Best I honestly expect is that he'll be relatively healthy right up until the end - and that's if we're lucky and he doesn't have to do any actual ninja work - no attacks, no other villages that get impatient and decide to speed things up by a few lousy months. He gets in two, maybe three serious fights? He presses himself too hard trying to train someone in one of those techniques not many other people know while keeping up the schedule of a kage?"
Her hand moved in a slow horizontal slash, cutting through the last of his remaining ire at the old man with it.
"That's it," she concluded. "Aside from that, like I said, we can try and hide it, but I got dragged back - people are going to ask questions. Some people might buy the excuse, but you're here, too. That's not so great, but he's dropping the ball.
"He wasn't with it enough to make the requests to pull us back in - or stop them once they got out. He evidently hasn't been able to give the attention to the yondaime's kid and run the village- And from what I hear, Orochi got his minions into the village right under Sensei's nose. It's a death sentence, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone - but I'm not sure he's the best choice for Konoha anymore. And if it's killing him anyway..."
Jiraiya could only stare dumbly, falling back to lean against the booth's wall. After a minute of Tsunade staring, one eyebrow raised in challenge until she broke off to quaff her sake, he experimented with some of the nastier curses he knew.
"That better be about what I said, and not me," she warned, mid-tirade.
He trailed off and grit his teeth. "No, you're right," he said sourly. "Except it's treason to try and do anything about it, and I respect Sensei too much."
"Too much to save his life by pressuring him to retire?" she asked archly. She hesitated, her voice hitching as her gaze went to one side, looking at the small toad providing the genjutsu that gave them privacy. "T...tell him you'll follow his lead - take his place and shoulder that burden." She finished in a mumble.
"Tsunade-hime ... I can't," he groaned. "I've got- I've got a spy network, and I couldn't just hand it off to anyone. There's some serious S-rank stupidity I can't let just anyone in on - it'd take ... six months, maybe a year and a half to get someone to handle what I've got in place right now. I'm running a huge risk as it is, just planning to stay here and try to get a handle on things. And anyway, who could do what I'm trying to handle? From the profiles, maybe Hatake Kakashi-"
"Well, who else could take over for Sensei?" she countered. "If you won't take the hat..."
"The... The current jounin commander," he offered lamely. "He's really sharp."
"Tactically, a legend," she agreed. "Why not just send messengers to the other villages saying, 'Hey, we're preparing for a war, and putting the best man for the job in the position to manage it.'"
"Still kept up on your politics, I see," he jibed reflexively.
"I've been on the road," she grumbled, shifting her shoulders, sliding the nearly empty sake bottle toward the toad and opening another one. "I hear a lot, even if I don't have spies anywhere."
"...I can think of one person who might be good for the hat," Jiraiya realized.
"What, Danzo?" she asked scornfully. "He's just as old as Sensei, whatever his ambition. He might last a year or two longer, but-" She cut off, looking at him sharply, her gaze hardening. "What are..."
"Tsunade-hime," he said, shaking his head, "think about it, huh? You can see everything that's going on - stuff I missed because my attention was elsewhere. Hey - we were great, on a team! And- It'd be behind a desk; you wouldn't have to deal with-"
"Not happening," she said stonily, glaring. "Or are you forgetting the third member of our team?"
"Yeah, I totally forgot about the missing nin who ended up throwing an assassination attempt at my godson," he retorted, leaning forward. "But if you do it - let me focus on that bastard-"
"I'm not coming back to Konoha!" she snapped.
He paused, considering the mild fuzziness he'd inflicted on himself already. With a hand-sign and some focus, he cleared his mind of the sake's influence. She eyed him suspiciously, finishing another cup of the stuff. "Tsunade-hime, you came here for money, but you're staying because of Sensei."
She flushed and scowled, but said nothing.
Leaning back slightly, he sighed. "Give it some time; you'll be here for a while, so ... think about it, huh?"
"The job is a death trap," she said flatly.
"So I should step into it next?" he asked, smirking faintly. "I'd hoped you liked me better!"
Her flush deepened and she threw back another cup of sake, finishing off the third of the four bottles. "That's not it," she grumbled. "When my debt's gone, so am I."
He sighed, crossing his arms over his chest and thinking. There was still time, but... It really was astounding enough that she'd come back at all; he couldn't push too hard yet.
"Alright - forget that for the moment," he agreed. "You're here to kick some medic-nin in shape and do what you can for Sensei."
"That's right," she agreed firmly, still eying him suspiciously.
"So - help me out, huh?" he prompted, pleading.
Her eyes narrowed. "How do you mean?"
"I can't reveal who my godson is just yet - not directly. But he's a genin, should be doing some starter D-ranks," he explained. And not only that, from everything Jiraiya had heard about him in recently years, he gleefully told everyone in earshot that he was someday going to become the next Hokage. "If you run into him by chance ... well, the kid's an orphan. I haven't been there for him, and he's a kid. We both know that Sensei tries, but like you said, he can't do it all, right?
"If word got out that I was talking to him, or he spilled it if I let him know... I just thought that thanks to Sensei, he'd be safer. That I was making the right choice by leaving him with Sensei and trying to distract the enemies of the kid's father, you know?"
"Yeah, I get that," she agreed. "Yondaime had a lot of enemies."
The toad on the table shifted slightly, croaking a quiet warning in the frog language. He knew enough to pick out the really important details from the description, and bit back a grin; the genjutsu continued, even if one extra person was inside the bubble it produced, and still outside of the curtain. "Right - but you..." He shrugged. "Kid's named Naruto - looks just like his dad. So, as a favor to me..."
"Fine," she said grudgingly. "If I happen to run into Naruto on some random D-rank around town, I'll try and give him some consideration," she allowed. "But don't even think of pulling strings to get him sent to the hospital specifically while I'm working there!"
"Because I'm going to try and get my godson sent to the hospital?" he retorted, grinning. "But, fine - holding you to it," he added, before sitting up sharply, feigning surprise. "Oh-" He waved at the toad with one hand, dismissing it; it hugged the mostly empty bottle of sake to itself and vanished with it in a subdued puff of chakra as Jiraiya swept the curtain back.
"Why hello there, little lady!" he greeted the kunoichi who was about to knock on the back of the booth for their attention.
He let his eyes drop to Shizune's chest, and then lower, to her legs. Not bad, actually. Not bad at all, if she weren't actually a bit young for him.
"If you're looking for a legendary sannin, there's two right here!" he exclaimed. "Ah, but you look tense - how'd you like to join us for this last bottle of sake? I'd be happy to give you a back rub!"
"I- Um, n-no thank you," Shizune stuttered, blushing.
He leaned closer, waggling his eyebrows as he leered - the view really was quite fine! "Front rub?" he offered, before Tsunade twitched, flinging the final sake bottle at his head with blinding speed- He barely pulled back far enough to dodge the projectile, moving his face right into the Slug sannin's backhanded slap as the vessel shattered against the booth wall.
"Perverted idiot," Tsunade groused, unable to hide the tiniest trace of affection from her voice. "We're done here."
"H-hey!" the server protested, scowling at the damaged wooden barrier, now punctured with irregular shards.
"Put the damages on my tab," Jiraiya said reassuringly, rubbing his stinging cheek with an intoxicated hitch in his voice. "It's worth it to see a pair of luscious twins like this!"
Shizune blinked in astonishment, biting her lower lip as she looked between the two sannin. "U...um, Tsunade-sama, I've gotten a room for us," she said, a calculating glint lighting in her eyes. "Um, t-tomorrow morning ... we can move into your ancestral home. I've arranged for it to be cleaned and dusted, but thought you might want to oversee it, just in case."
"Yeah, fine," Tsunade agreed absently, climbing out of the booth and giving Jiraiya a dismissive wave.
Training with the other genin was fun - in fact, he was starting to think of them as friends again. Even Sasuke was still good to practice with, though Naruto wasn't sure what brought about his sudden change of heart. Somehow, having the normally jerkish genin treating him like someone he wanted to learn from, even if it was for something in exchange...
Actually, that seemed fine to Naruto. He liked training with Hinata more; the idea of Sasuke showing up and making breakfast just seemed absurd.
But Sasuke was actually a little better at explaining techniques than Hinata was ... or else Sasuke was just teaching easier techniques. Throwing stuff and guiding it by wire wasn't quite shunshin, after all. He was worried about wearing his equipment out, but realized he could save a lot of trouble by only having his bunshin throw.
Sasuke was actually surprised by it at first, but then it didn't matter if a kunai or star was lost in the trees around the Uchiha compound - it would just puff into chakra anyway. Sasuke grudgingly acknowledged it would also save Naruto time spooling wire - so he got a lot more practice in then the Uchiha heir, when it was his turn to practice kawarimi.
This was the same time both boys came to realize that Naruto kind of sucked at teaching. They were both tired, though Naruto always recovered faster - not that Sasuke would let being tired slow him down. The pair of them were slumped on the lawn of the lake behind the Uchiha compound that Sasuke didn't even live in anymore.
"If you're so good at learning, can't you figure out how to explain thing better?" Sasuke finally growled.
Naruto's instinct was to shoot back that Sasuke should just get as good as him at learning stuff. But he had a point; how was he supposed to teach tricks to Shino and Shikamaru if he couldn't even explain how it worked to Sasuke? Sasuke himself was better at explaining things than Naruto - though nowhere near as good as Sakura.
"I'll ask the new head instructor at the academy for help on teaching things to other people," Naruto agreed. After all, Shino and Shikamaru would undoubtedly tell him not to yell at the other boy - and it would be a huge pain in the ass to lose all the ground they'd made. Plus he'd be out a throwing instructor, and that was going really well.
Sasuke paused, frowning and turning to look at Naruto speculatively from where they were sitting on the bank of the lake behind the Uchiha compound - in the center of the training facility. He looked away sharply, glaring at the water. "So," he said slowly. "The ... new instructor..." He trailed off there with an awkward semi-shrug.
"No one's as good as Iruka," Naruto answered, unable to maintain the enthusiasm of just a few minutes ago at that reminder. "Uh ... so, I have a bunshin working at the academy as a teacher's assistant. He owes me that."
"Good," Sasuke bit out, his expression unreadable. Shaking his head abruptly he glanced at the position of the sun. "The others will be at Senzo's soon."
"Right," Naruto agreed.
They rose from the ground, walking side-by-side to the old man's restaurant. Surprisingly, it was Sasuke who broke the silence first.
"Once you figure it out ... teach me the kage bunshin," he said flatly.
Naruto snorted. "Can't," he retorted. "Hokage made me promise not to teach anyone else. Said that it takes too much chakra, and some ninja die trying to pull it off."
"So why can you do it?" Sasuke asked skeptically.
"'Cause..." He trailed off. Because the kyuubi gave him extra chakra. Because he was cursed, but got power on the flip side of things. "'Cause I'm awesome," he said, a bit lamely. He wish he still had the confidence to just bark it out without hesitation, like Kiba ... but it wasn't just him being awesome ... and anyway, if he'd been awesome enough, Iruka would have survived.
Sasuke snorted, shooting Naruto an unimpressed glare.
"It's an S-rank secret," the blond finally muttered, not meeting Sasuke's eyes.
"Hm," Sasuke returned. Naruto thought he was going to press the issue, but he shook his head. "Whatever. Hinata can measure how much chakra people have. If she says I have enough to not die from it, teach me anyway."
"Hey, I promised the Hokage!" the blond retorted, scowling.
"You promised him you wouldn't get your teammates killed if they didn't have enough chakra," Sasuke corrected. "If I won't die, what's the problem?"
Naruto frowned sternly. Were those the words he'd used? He couldn't really remember ... but that did make sense. The old man was more worried about someone dying from trying to learn it than anything else. He certainly didn't mind Naruto using it.
"And what do you give me in return?" he asked, doubtfully.
"We both want to get stronger," Sasuke answered simply, giving Naruto a level stare. "You help me, and I help you. Right now, you have to catch up, first."
Naruto grit his teeth and nodded sourly. He was getting far too used to being told how much further he had to go... Well, it wasn't anything he hadn't heard from plenty of other people, too.
Even if it was from Sasuke, if the Hokage, Shikamaru, and Shino all said it, too, it was probably true.
That just meant he'd keep getting stronger.
She was so excited about the chance to tell Naruto something he'd never known that Hinata didn't even mind when Ino managed to get the seat right next to him. The blonde was nattering on about sensor abilities, and explaining how Naruto was helping her get stronger every day, but seemed to really be trying to impress Sasuke with her progress.
He seemed caught up in his own thoughts, just finishing his meal in silence and giving a curt nod to the other genin before leaving.
Ino pouted, but shook her head and demanded one of Naruto's bunshin to continue practicing with. Another bunshin went with Shikamaru and Shino, with the pair of them giving a significant glance to Hinata before leaving. She didn't need a reminder! A chance to give Naruto something like that was a precious treasure!
It felt like it took far too long to get out of Senzo's. "Ah, um, Naruto-kun," she said anxiously, once they were on the road, "um, can we go ... to your place tonight?"
"What about practicing?" he asked, scratching the back of his head. "Oh - are you tired?"
"N-no, that's not it," she said with a blush, smiling - he was so thoughtful! "Um, there's ... something I wanted to tell you!"
"Sure!" he said, shrugging, looking more excited. "Is it a surprise?"
"Yes!" she exclaimed happily.
"Let's race there!" he whooped, tearing off down the street at his top speed. She realized with a start that she couldn't outrun him normally ... but she did know shunshin, so was able to pace him anyway, reaching his front door at the same time as he did.
"Aw, man," he chuckled, opening the door and ushering her in. "I have got to learn that - oh, hey, Sakura's been helping me with math, so I might be able to get the numbers part better, now! Is that the surprise? You learned another awesome jutsu?"
"I... Um, Naruto-kun," she said, shakily, drawing a deep breath to steel herself. "Um, what ... do you know about your family?"
He started at that, frowning as he closed the door behind her and stared up at the ceiling thoughtfully. "Nothing," he finally answered with a shrug. "Only family I ever really had were the old man and ... Iruka-sensei..." He shook his head at the dismay she showed at unintentionally reminding him of the poor teacher. "Eh, why?"
"I found- I found out about your mother!" she exclaimed. "Um, Shino-kun and Shikamaru-kun had the idea, but they thought ... you might want to know, and we wanted to surprise you!"
Naruto froze, stunned, his mouth dropping open a short distance.
"I...it was hard ... and I didn't like ... not telling you- But I can tell you, now!" she said anxiously. "Um ... are you..." She hesitated. Naruto utterly freezing up was something she hadn't expected. She thought he'd be overjoyed!
"I-" he started, before coughing. "I had a mother?" he managed, staring at her in utter bewilderment. He shook his head abruptly. "I guess ... of course I had to have one... Why... Why did she..." He hesitated, eyes shining. "Why ... did she leave me behind? Is it because of..." One hand went to his stomach.
"Oh, oh, no!" Hinata exclaimed, shaking her head furiously. How could Naruto have thought it was his own fault? "Um, Naruto-kun, she ... fought the Kyuubi. I'm sorry, but ... she didn't survive. She couldn't have meant to leave you! We - we only ... managed to find the certificate that explained what had happened to her..."
"Oh," Naruto coughed out, as his eyes overflowed, tears streaming down his face. "S...stupid kyuubi..."
"She must have cared about you very much!" Hinata insisted. "She tried to protect you!"
"What was she like?" he asked, sniffling.
Hinata hesitated; her training insisted that she maintain composure whenever possible. She had also been taught that it was superior to ignore the lapses in composure of others. She'd never before found that training so utterly useless - so she ignored it instead. She really hardly even thought about it, but seeing Naruto like that...
She'd wanted to see him smile, and be happy- He was always so positive! And now, she'd made him so unhappy? It was her fault; she had to do something to make up for that, and so...
She wasn't sure where the confidence to do it came from, she just realized it had happened after the fact. She'd stepped closer and put her arms around him. He stiffened for the briefest, barest moment before something seemed to ... break. A deluge escaped as he began sobbing in earnest; her own eyes were streaming as she tried to remember so long ago, when her own mother had comforted her...
In the same tone of voice she could only barely remember, and with all of the warmth she could muster at the thought of her own mother, she softly explained, "Her name was Uzumaki Kushina. She was from Uzushiogakure, a village of fuinjutsu experts. She had ... she had red hair, and..."
It wasn't much, and it hadn't gone the way she had wanted... She had wanted Naruto to be so happy he hugged her on his own. She had run out of things to say far, far too soon. It had ended with the pair of them holding onto one-another, half collapsed onto his floor, arms about one-another. Not what she'd hoped for at all...
She couldn't even bring herself to focus on the clock - complex mechanisms and all - with her byakugan, if it meant looking away from him. It must have been close to an hour before he sniffled, pulling himself away and dragging an arm across his eyes. "I don't ... know what to say," he said with a mumble, eyes downcast. "I didn't ... really think that you, Shino, and Shikamaru would do something like that for me. Um ... but, Hinata-chan, you really are a good friend. Thank you."
"I... I'm glad you weren't upset about us ... not asking you about it first," she admitted, glad he seemed to somehow be happy about things after all.
"Nah," he said quietly, rubbing at his eyes, subdued. "I just ... never really thought about it, you know? My earliest memories were of the orphanage, and they had a different caretaker every few months, so I never really learned a lot about them and..." He shook his head. "I don't know how I can pay this back."
"N...no, no," she protested quickly. "You don't owe us anything! It, um, Shino and Shikamaru thought you might have a blood limit and just said to keep secret so we didn't get your hopes up, or anything."
He jolted slightly, looking alarmed. "Was- Was there anything like that?" he asked, looking worried.
"Um, well, that thing with 'chakra chains' I mentioned before," she answered earnestly. "I don't ... know what that means, though. Other than that, I think ... there was something about fuinjutsu?"
Naruto took a deep breath, then grinned - his normal brighter-than-sunshine smile, finally - and nodded. "I'm not sure where to start on the whole 'chain' thing, but ... you know, I do know where I can find more out about fuinjutsu!"
"That's great!" Hinata agreed, surprised. "Um, where?"
"First things first," Naruto said insistently. "I've got to learn to teach other people stuff better so I can get it out of Sasuke - and anyway, I have to give you something back to thank you!"
"How about a date?" she blurted out hopefully. Oh, that was improper! She should have said 'training' - not... Oh, dear...
He seemed not to notice somehow, and just nodded happily. "Sure thing, Hinata-chan!"