— "You stand upon the threshold, and what awaits you on the other side is both wonderful and terrifying."
Absolute Zero: The Azure Sky
By: James D. Fawkes
Chapter Five: Rainbow Duet
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
When Naruto woke up, the room he found himself in was empty.
It was not the hotel room he had spent the previous night in, nor was it the familiar walls of his apartment. He sat up and looked around. They must have moved on, he figured. They had probably carried him to the next town over and were stopping only long enough to eat or something. Or, depending on what time it was (he had no idea, but judging from the light peeking through the curtains to his left, it was still daytime), Jiraiya was getting drunk and Tsunade was gambling.
Whatever they were doing, it kept them out of his room.
He made a single hand seal and two Kage Bunshin popped into existence as he reached for Hyôrinmaru and unsheathed him. The two Kage Bunshin got to work immediately — one rummaged through his bag and the other careful picked through Jiraiya's. One pulled out the scroll on the Uchiha Massacre and the other pulled out one of the numerous blank scrolls Jiraiya seemed to carry around everywhere. A moment later, they had started copying the Massacre scroll and were writing it down word for word in their best approximation of the Sandaime's hand writing.
Naruto took a cross-legged seat on his bed and laid Hyôrinmaru across his legs, then propped his hands up on his knees, closed his eyes, and focused.
The idea to inscribe something on Hyôrinmaru had first come to him the night before he had left with Jiraiya when he remembered what Kakashi had told him at the tournament. Kakashi had said that he was passing Hyôrinmaru off as an ancestral weapon from the Uzumaki clan. Surely, then, such an ancestral weapon would have something special inscribed upon the either the sheath or the blade, right? Naruto had run the idea by Hyôrinmaru and had gotten the go ahead. He'd never really had the chance to do it before (there had been so much other stuff going on), but now…
That was how he found himself sitting in Jinzen, as Hyôrinmaru had called it. It was the pose that was supposed to be used when one wanted to commune with their sword (Hyôrinmaru had almost said something else — "Zanpa" —before he'd caught himself). Naruto, of course, had never needed it to communicate with Hyôrinmaru, but Hyôrinmaru reminded him that Naruto had never intentionally visited his inner world. Jinzen, he'd explained, was designed for that purpose.
And so Naruto sat and focused. Time slipped by unnoticed — it could have been hours, it could have been minutes. The world around him vanished and the only thing that existed was the single thought that occupied his mind and the familiar icy coldness that sat at the center of his soul.
Then, so suddenly that he stumbled and nearly fell, he was standing knee-deep in lukewarm water. His eyes snapped open and he threw his arms out to steady himself against the wall. He was vaguely aware of the feel of rounded metal like that of pipes beneath his fingers as he looked up and around and found himself in near-total darkness. Candlelit lanterns flickered from the walls, and the only stable source of light was the red glow coming from down the hall.
Standing straight, he looked back into the inky blackness behind him, then forward again, wondered how exactly he'd gotten there and where exactly "there" was, and decided that the only way out was to go on. He let his arm fall back to his side, clenched his fists, squared his shoulders, schooled his expression, put one foot in front of the other, and made for the red glow.
The source of the glow turned out to be a giant room, easily at least twice as large as the stadium he'd fought in during the Chûnin Exam Finals, and came from both a vast network of what must have been pipes on the nearly-indiscernible ceiling and some mysterious…something behind the tall, thick bars that looked to split the room in half.
As he stepped closer, however, a large pair of malevolent red eyes snapped open behind the bars and he caught the gleam of two rows of sharp teeth being pulled into a grin — and if the teeth were any indication, then whatever was behind those bars could swallow at least a dozen ninja whole.
"So," a dark, deep voice said, "my creator has become my jailor…how appropriately ironic."
An ominous chill swept down Naruto's spine. He forced himself to ignore it.
"Where are we?" he demanded first.
"We are in your soul," the voice said. "This is the deepest darkest part of your being, where every little bit of malice and anger festers. Naturally, I'm quite at home."
It chuckled sardonically.
"Don't bullshit me!" Naruto shouted back. "This isn't my soul! Where's Hyôrinmaru? Where's the ice and snow and the trees blooming with white flowers? Where's the rumbling clouds and sky? Don't jerk me around! Tell me where we are!"
There was a dark, amused chuckle, the derisive kind that people laughed when they found it funny that you were being stupid because they knew something you didn't. Naruto was intimately familiar with it — Mizuki had laughed like that, and so had Kabuto and Orochimaru.
"We are in your soul," the voice repeated. "This is the deepest and darkest part of your being, and it lies beneath the snow and ice, hidden from those clouds and the sky. In this place, you are invisible to that frigid monstrosity upon whose power you call. You should already know that. My memory of the time before is a little hazy, but I do recall very faintly that it was you who banished us to the darkest part of your soul, just as it was you who split us apart. Have you forgotten that already, Creator?"
Naruto frowned, but could not recall even faintly what the voice was talking about. He was pretty sure he would remember a voice like that, or banishing something to the "darkest part of his soul."
"What are you talking about?" he demanded. "Who are you?"
There was a moment of silence, then a great rustling sound as what he could only imagine were giant claws scraped loudly against the floor. The water sloshed around, and it sent gentle waves breaking upon Naruto's legs. The eyes and teeth moved, then settled again, and, a moment later, lanterns blazed to life around the room, and Naruto could see, just beyond the bars, the giant, hulking figure of a fox. Nine tails swished behind it lazily, and its massive snout rested upon a pair of surprisingly human-shaped forearms.
"Kyûbi," Naruto uttered numbly. Something in his belly twisted nastily.
"Stop playing the fool," the voice said, and it rumbled out of the fox's mouth. "You may change your form, Creator, you may change your face and your hair and your body, but your soul is intimately familiar to me. Did you think that simply disguising yourself thus would render you unrecognizable?"
"Shut up!" Naruto yelled. "Stop talking about stupid things and make sense, would you! I've never met you before — well, except for the night you got sealed — but I've never talked to you before! And you should be glad I didn't, or else I would've torn you a new one for ruining my life, you bastard! It's your fault that Mom and Dad are dead! It's your fault that the villagers hate me! It's your fault that I grew up alone and miserable! Everything bad that's ever happened to me can be laid at your feet, and I'll never forgive you for that!"
There was a long moment of silence as Naruto panted and tried to gather his breath, and he glared as hard as he could at those evil red eyes. The fox shifted a little and peered at him with an expression that could only be described as curious.
"Can it be? Is it possible…that you're not him? No, I see now. You're his reincarnation, aren't you? You don't have all the memories yet!" it suddenly threw its head back and let out a loud, barking laugh, one that sent the whole room aquiver. "Oh, how perfect! That wretched Yondaime sealed me into his own son and unknowingly into the reincarnated Sage! Oh, how the gods themselves must be laughing! The soul of the very man who created me now inhabits the body that imprisons me, and is none the wiser!"
"What are you talking about?" Naruto demanded again. What did it take to get a straight answer? People wondered why he got so confused — they never got to the damn point. There was always some long winded or cryptic explanation that never actually got to the heart of the matter. And he was getting tired of it.
The Kyuubi snorted and refocused on him. "Be gone for now, Little Sage," it said. "Return here when you need power and remember who you are. Return here when you are who you were."
It blew warm, fetid breath at him, and he was suddenly falling, falling, falling, down into darkness, and it was all around him and he couldn't escape and he wouldn't stop falling…
Naruto opened eyes he hadn't been aware were closed. He was back in his hotel room. His Kage Bunshin were gone, and everything they had been using was back in its proper place. The original Massacre scroll was in Jiraiya's pack and the copy was in Naruto's. He let his arms drop from his knees and lifted Hyôrinmaru up to inspect the blade just above the hilt. Where before there had been only smooth steel, there were now words etched in exquisite detail.
"Living amongst the Whirling Tides," they said, "Our glories never fade."
And on the other side, "O'er wind and water our clan presides, Our fortune as the Gods have bade."
Everything seemed to have worked properly, but…
He couldn't shake the awful feeling squirming in his belly.
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
"To be honest with you," Tsunade said from behind her new desk, "I'm not really sure what to do about this. Since the exam was disturbed, some people think that nobody should pass."
Naruto stood before her with an uncharacteristic calm, but was fidgeting and bouncing on the inside. Next to him was Shikamaru, and behind Tsunade were Anko, Shizune, Ibiki, Genma, and Jiraiya. He wasn't exactly sure why he was standing there, but if the direction of her words was any indication, then he could probably take a good guess.
The Chûnin Exams.
It had only been a scant few hours ago, just after dawn, when they'd arrived back in the village. They'd been greeted with minimal fanfare — the only ones to see them return had been a pair of half-asleep Chûnin, Kotetsu and Izumo, who had both just started their shift a few minutes before. Naruto had immediately set off for home while Tsunade and Shizune went to establish themselves in the Hokage Tower and Jiraiya went off somewhere, probably to peek.
He had just barely gotten unpacked when he'd been summoned to see the Hokage, so, grumbling all the while, he followed his escort (some guy with a bunch of scars on his nose and cheeks, looked like burns) to the very office in which he now stood.
"It seems, however, that someone did," Tsunade went on. She lifted a brush, dipped it in a pad of ink, and began to write on the scroll in front of her. "I heard that the late Sandaime Hokage held the two of you in high regard, and even the other Chûnin have made comments about your skills. The spectators, feudal lords, and the examiners all agreed, as well. That means that it's not really my problem, so I don't have to worry too much."
She finished writing with a flourish and looked up at them, smirking, "From this day forward, your actions will be looked upon with greater scrutiny, and your skills and decisions will reflect upon our village, so make sure to make us all proud! Congratulations! You two are now Chûnin!"
Tsunade rolled up her scroll and handed it to Ibiki, who took it with a nod. She folded her hands in front of her face. "With the formalities out of the way, you can pick up your vests at the supply office a few floors down. Officially, you don't have to wear them. As a general rule, shinobi and kunoichi are allowed to wear whatever uniform suits their fancy. The only time you'll be expected to actually wear your vests will be during diplomatic ceremonies or similarly themed missions, so keep that in mind. Any questions?"
Both Naruto and Shikamaru shook their heads.
Shikamaru turned and left, but a voice stopped Naruto.
"And Naruto?" Tsunade said quietly. He looked at her and she smiled. "Congratulations, brat."
He grinned. A newly familiar warmth bloomed in his chest — how good it felt to have someone to say that to him. Of course, he already had Iruka, but Iruka was often very busy, and his schedule often conflicted with Naruto's, so they rarely got to see each other except when Iruka was handing out missions.
And now he had Hinata and Jiraiya and Tsunade, and how wonderful it was to hear them praise him. Was this what it was like to have a family, he wondered.
Tsunade chuckled and shook her head, then waved him away casually. Naruto turned to follow Shikamaru out the door, but a sudden hand on his shoulder stopped him, and when he turned to look, a serious-faced Jiraiya was standing over him. His mouth was set into a thin line, his brow was furrowed, and his eyes were flinty and glinted like sharpened steel. It was a little jarring — Jiraiya only ever looked that serious when he was in the middle of battle.
"Listen, Naruto," he said lowly, "could we go someplace and…talk?"
Naruto glanced over at Tsunade, who was speaking in quiet tones to Ibiki and Genma, the proctor from the Finals. He never had heard what happened to that Hayate guy. He looked back at Jiraiya, "Sure."
Jiraiya gave his shoulder a squeeze, and that was the only warning Naruto had before something jerked on his navel and the entire world blurred into a swirl of reds and blues and greens and browns. For a second that lasted an eternity, he was weightless and frozen in his spot, and then the ground slammed into his feet and left his toes and heels tingling with pins and needles. He breathed in, and the spell that had held him in place was broken.
"Whoa," he whispered. He was standing back at the waterfall where he had trained for his match against Neji.
"Never seen someone react like that to Shunshin," Jiraiya mumbled with a chuckle.
Then his hand left Naruto's shoulder and everything turned serious again. Jiraiya's lips thinned back into a line and he lifted his arms and crossed them over his chest. Already the tallest person Naruto knew, he looked taller and more intimidating than ever before, and the dramatic flailing of his long hair in the sudden breeze completed the picture of the most powerful ninja in the entire village.
For the first time, Naruto realized what it meant to be one of the Sannin. How in the hell had he managed to come away from three confrontations with Orochimaru relatively unscathed?
"I found the most curious thing in my backpack on the way back from picking up Tsunade," Jiraiya said seriously. "It was this scroll that I know for a fact I didn't have when we left, and the only one of our group who had both the method and the means to slip it into my stuff is you, Naruto. Of course, the letter the old man left for me helped a little — really quite ingenious to hide a sealing array in the text of the report, I almost didn't catch it. Which means you couldn't have known, either."
Naruto swallowed thickly. This was it. The moment of truth.
"You — You read it?" Naruto asked quietly.
"The entire thing," Jiraiya replied stoically. "I considered the idea that it was all fabricated, but even the best of ninja would need a Sharingan or the mind of a Nara to fake sensei's handwriting that effectively, and only someone like Danzou is clever enough to hide a seal inside the text of a scroll. But Danzou would never admit to something as shady as setting up the massacre of an entire clan, so he couldn't have forged the scroll and the letter that that scroll contained. That means that it really was sensei who wrote all that."
Naruto swallowed thickly again. He hadn't even considered the idea that the scrolls, the letter, and all the information they contained might be fakes, but it was good to have Jiraiya confirm that they were all the genuine article.
"But the fact that you ask that means that you must have read it, too, right?" Jiraiya went on. Naruto nodded. He could not force his voice to work, not over the sudden shame that speared through his gut. He felt like a child who'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Sensei mentioned that you might. He also said that he hoped you wouldn't, but that he couldn't — or wouldn't, I suppose, since he technically could have used any number of security measures — stop you. He listed his reasons for having you deliver the scroll, and I must say that they were quite clever — Danzou would never have thought the old man would risk such dangerous village secrets by having a Genin as their courier."
"Yeah," Naruto said lamely.
"He also said that he left a letter for you that told you who your parents were," Jiraiya continued neutrally. "And a Fûinjutsu scroll from your father — Minato really was brilliant, so you'd better take that seriously, got it?"
"I know," Naruto said firmly. He looked away. "He…he also gave me a photo of them. Of Mom and Dad."
Jiraiya's gaze softened for a fraction of a second, then it was serious again.
"I'm going to assume that the letter that I was supposed to deliver to Itachi was already delivered, since it wasn't with the scroll when I got it, so there's one more issue that bothers me," he declared. "Sensei mentions that one of the reasons he thought you could handle delivering the scroll to me was because Kakashi thought you were mature enough to inherit an heirloom from your mother — that sword on your back. The thing is, Kushina came here with nothing more than the clothes on her back, and she never had the chance to head back to Whirlpool to salvage whatever was left. Sensei didn't know her well enough to know that, though, and neither did most of the guys currently on the council, so Kakashi's ruse worked out pretty well — until I got wind of it."
Naruto's blood ran cold. His hands clenched into fists and his palms were sweaty. Fight or flight instincts were sputtering to life in the back of his brain. He wanted nothing more than for the earth to open up and swallow him.
"So if that sword's not an heirloom from the Uzumaki clan," Jiraiya said lowly, "then what is it? Naruto?"
Naruto opened his mouth to speak, closed it, opened it again, then closed it again. Nothing came out.
"You have indeed earned all of the fancy titles attached to your name, Jiraiya of the Sannin," a deep voice said suddenly. Naruto jumped and Jiraiya's eyes went wide. There, standing next to Naruto with his back straight and tall, was Hyôrinmaru in all his draconic glory, and he was as solid as the earth beneath his claws and the trees in the distance.
"What're you doing?" Naruto hissed.
"Who are you?" Jiraiya barked demandingly.
"I am Hyôrinmaru," Hyôrinmaru declared simply. "Jiraiya must know," his voice resounded inside Naruto's head. "There are things at work here currently beyond your understanding, and Jiraiya's help will be invaluable."
"Hyôrinmaru, like the sword on Naruto's back," Jiraiya mumbled. Fierce eyes turned to Hyôrinmaru. "No, the better question is 'What are you?"
"What do you think I am?" Hyôrinmaru asked.
"A sword capable of the things I saw, this Shikai and Bankai stuff, and the energy it let off — which merged with Naruto's own natural chakra when he used that Sage Mode rip off," Jiraiya mumbled, more to himself it seemed than anyone else. "One also capable of something at least resembling sentience and self-awareness — something like that…" he looked straight at Hyôrinmaru again. "The only thing I can think of that could ever be capable of some of the things I've seen Naruto do with that sword would be one of the Mist's Seven Swords or one of the Rikudô Sennin's treasured tools, but all of those are accounted for, as far as I know…"
"Um, Ero-Sennin?" Naruto began. "What're these 'treasured tools' things?" Because this Rikudô Sennin guy sounded really important and anything owned by someone that important had to be completely awesome.
"No, you are correct," Hyôrinmaru said. Naruto's question was ignored. "Once, many centuries ago, I was held and wielded by the man you call the Sage of Six Paths. By your words, I may surmise that the Bashôsen, Benhisago, Kohaku no Jôhei, Kôkinjô, and Shichiseiken have all been found and are in the hands of one power or another. I am his most famous tool, sought after by every swordsman ever to wield a blade. I am Totsuka no Tsurugi."
Jiraiya frowned and shook his head, "The Totsuka was lost ages ago, and is said to have the ability to seal away anything it pierces —"
"The legends have long embellished my form and ability," Hyôrinmaru interrupted. "I cannot seal away anything, much less whatever I pierce. My purpose has always been combat, and my powers have always reflected that purpose — I control all the moisture in the air. So long as there is water to be drawn from the land or sea or sky, my powers cannot be stopped or broken."
"Even so," Jiraiya argued, "no ordinary sword, not even something as powerful as the legendary Totsuka, has a mind of its own! The only thing even similar is Enma, of the Monkey Summoning contract, who can turn into a staff! What you're proposing is impossible! And even if it's true — especially if it's true — that kind of power in the hands of a Genin — hell, in the hands of a Chûnin — is ridiculous! There's no way someone of Naruto's level should have access to that kind of power!"
An indignant anger surged up in Naruto's belly; if Jiraiya thought he was going to take Hyôrinmaru away, he had another thing coming, and he was going to make sure Jiraiya understood that — but Hyôrinmaru beat him to it.
"But the Rasengan, an A-ranked technique whose full power can turn a person's innards into mush, is perfectly acceptable?" Hyôrinmaru challenged dangerously. "But that is beside the point. Even if you wanted to, you could not take me from Naruto. I am not like the Nine-tails. Even if you seal me away, you cannot hold me if Naruto calls upon my power, and you cannot stop him from calling upon it. I am not like a summoning contract — even if you apply a contract seal, you cannot sever the bond between Naruto and I. There is a reason so many men have spent their lives searching for me and died unfulfilled. I am bound to the soul, Jiraiya of the Sannin, as I always have been and always will be. I am a part of him, not a separate entity. I serve one master, now and forever, even if I may withhold the farthest reaches of my power until he is ready to wield it properly."
Something seemed to click in Jiraiya's brain, and he kept glancing back and forth between Naruto and Hyôrinmaru. There were several long moments of silence, and Naruto could see the pieces fitting together in Jiraiya's head, though what those pieces formed or what conclusion Jiraiya was drawing, he did not know.
"Wait a moment," Jiraiya said finally. "You're a part of him? And you serve only him? And Rikudô Sennin was your master, ages and ages ago? Then that would mean…Naruto, he's…"
"He is," Hyôrinmaru said solemnly, "though he doesn't know, just yet. I would like to keep it that way, until I think he's ready."
In Naruto's head, Hyôrinmaru's sentence extended to, "which may be sooner than you think."
Jiraiya's jaw snapped shut with an audible click. Then he grinned. "Heh," he chuckled mirthlessly. "Something like this…if it got out, there'd be a lot of trouble. People all over would be scrambling to kill him, recruit him, or steal from him. Yeah, I guess I can keep this secret. But yeah, wow. I thought Nagato…"
"I assure you," Hyôrinmaru said. "I am not mistaken."
"No, I know," Jiraiya replied. He glanced at Naruto. "I knew this kid would be something when I started training him, but I never expected…Hmph, I guess it'll be pretty interesting, won't it? Orochimaru thinks Naruto's a failure. Can't wait to see the look on his face when he finds out."
Naruto had a feeling that something really important had happened, but he had no idea what it was. All this talk about legendary swords and treasured tools and sages — his head was swimming just thinking about it. It was important because it all involved him somehow, but that's all he knew for sure.
Well, at least he'd made Chûnin.
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
Naruto should have expected that not everything would go his way. In fact, things had been going so well, he really should have known that something would happen to ruin his general good mood. Hadn't it always been a sort of pattern that way? Things would go his way for a while, then everything would sour. Wasn't that how his life had always been?
"This way, Uzumaki-san," his guide said quietly.
Hyôrinmaru had awakened inside of him, he beat Kiba, saved Hinata's life, matched up with Neji in the finals, got trained by Jiraiya, who really knew his stuff, even if he was a pervert, then he beat Neji in front of a crowd of people and proved his worth. That was a whole month of good things happening, at least generally, anyway. And what happens to spoil all of those good, happy things? There's an invasion, he has to fight Gaara, and Sandaime was killed.
Then good things started happening again: he spent time with Hinata, got closer to her, went with Jiraiya to recruit the Godaime Hokage, learned an A-Rank Jutsu, made a new friend in Tsunade, landed an awesome blow against both that traitor Kabuto and Orochimaru and lived to tell about it, and then he got promoted to Chûnin. That's another string of really good stuff. So he really should have expected to wake up three days after he got home to find a stiff-backed Hyuga standing at his door with his shoulders squared and his mouth pulled into a serious line.
And it had all been going so well, too.
"Na, Hyûga-san, you never did say what I'm doing here," Naruto stuffed his hands in his pockets. The Hyûga compound was huge, he mused idly as they turned right down a hallway. "I think I'm entitled to know, you know. You took me away from my ramen for this."
"I already informed you, Uzumaki-san," his guide said, and it was a testament, Naruto thought, to the Hyûga Clan's training and general disposition that only the slightest bit of exasperation bled through his tone. "Hiashi-sama wishes to speak with you."
Naruto groaned. "But that's so vague!" he whined. "That could be about anything! He could want to congratulate me for beating Neji — which would be so totally awesome, by the way — or he might want to ask me how I eat ramen so often and maintain such a lean, ninja-esqe figure. Or maybe he wants to ask me to ask Baa-chan for a favor. Or he might want to ask me for a favor! Ha! Now wouldn't that be so totally awesome."
"Yes, Uzumaki-san," his guide said blandly. They took a left down another hallway. "That would be so totally awesome."
Naruto was silent for a moment. His guide led him down another left hand turn. He had no idea how the Hyûga navigated this place — all the walls looked the same to him. He'd probably get lost the first day if he'd had to live here himself.
"I'm not feeling the love, here," he said quietly. He stared squinty-eyed at the back of the Hyûga's head. "That sounded like sarcasm."
His guide groaned, then stood ramrod straight and suddenly declared, "We're here!"
Naruto blinked and looked in front of him. They were standing in front of a pair of large oak double doors fashioned with gold-colored knobs and finished with a mirror shine. "Huh," he said lamely, "I guess we are."
His guide breathed a sigh of relief through his nostrils and twisted one of the knobs, then opened one of the doors. He leaned in, bowed his head, and spoke quietly.
"Hiashi-sama," he said, "I've brought Uzumaki-san."
"I see," a calm, smooth baritone rumbled from inside. "Very well. Show him in."
Naruto's guide bowed his head again and opened the door the rest of the way, then gestured for him to enter. Naruto frowned and strode past him and into a lavish room that was bare but for the ridiculously stylized table at the center and the two high-quality royal-purple cushions set out on either side of it (they were trimmed in gold filigree). Atop one of those cushions, seated calmly in seiza, was an imposing man with a strong brow, sharp eyes, and black hair longer even than Neji's. His forehead was clear and uncovered, and he was dressed in expensive cream-colored robes.
"Come in, Uzumaki-san," the man said as he gestured to the empty cushion. "Please, take a seat. You are my guest here."
Naruto carefully schooled his expression into a blank mask — it was easy when he remembered what Hinata had told him of this man, her father, who had constantly told her she was a failure — and sat down cross-legged on the other cushion (because seiza was way too damn uncomfortable). He lifted his sash and Hyôrinmaru over his head and set them both down beside him. Hiashi's eyes followed the motion closely.
There was a moment of silence. Hiashi reached down and gracefully picked up one of the mugs of steaming tea settled on the table, then took a short, stoic sip and closed his eyes briefly as though to savor the taste. Naruto, figuring the other must be for him, picked up the second mug and took a sip from it. It was high grade black tea with sugar and lemon, the kind imported from Earth Country — expensive and rare. It was Naruto's favorite tea because it was spicy with a hint of citrus and very, very sweet.
That Hiashi knew it was his favorite — at least enough to have it prepared for him — was worrying and kind of creepy.
It took all of his concentration to keep his face neutral.
"I understand that you have an acquaintance with my daughter," Hiashi began smoothly. He set his cup down. Naruto did the same.
"Yeah," he said, "she's my best friend."
"Indeed," came the reply. "You and she have been seen together on several occasions and you visited her in the hospital every day. I am aware that you and Hinata have become…close."
Naruto frowned and crossed his arms. "I'm not hearing a question."
"I have not asked one," Hiashi responded coolly. He lifted sly, half-lidded eyes to meet Naruto's. "I have been informed that you intend to accompany Hinata to the Tanabata Festival this year, yes?"
"Figured it'd do her some good," Naruto said defiantly. "She needs to get away from all this formality and tradition and the pressure of all the crap you guys put her through. She needs to learn how to have fun, and that having fun isn't a crime."
"I'll thank you not to tell me how to raise my own daughter," Hiashi said softly. There was an edge to his words that hinted of danger, that reminded of a knife concealed in velvet. Naruto didn't care.
"If you could call it 'raising'," Naruto sneered. There was an indignant anger sputtering to life in his belly and a spur of adrenaline rushing through his veins. "Tradition's fine and all, but the Uchiha clan was all about tradition, too. And look what happened to them."
He was bluffing, but if it worked…
"If you can't be a family as well as a clan, then things are gonna go sour eventually. All those traditions, like marking the Cadet branch with a Juinjutsu of all things — and I might only be a novice at sealing, but even I understand what those are — and expecting everyone to have the same skillset, then punishing them and scorning them when they don't — all of that's gonna add up, and someday, someone's gonna get tired of it and just decide, hey, the clan's gotta go —"
"Are you threatening me?" Hiashi demanded abruptly. His eyes were narrowed and the innermost veins were beginning to bulge.
Naruto's shrug was a lot more casual than he felt, "I'm just making an observation."
The veins receded, and Hiashi took in a deep, deep breath. Naruto imagined the anger seeping out of him like a black mist and forced his own heart back to its normal pace. That was incredibly stupid, he berated himself. He was talking to the strongest Hyûga in the entire clan. This guy could probably kill him six different ways before he could even think of reaching for Hyôrinmaru.
"I'm going to overlook what you just said to me," Hiashi told him calmly. "You are, after all, entitled to your opinions, and it would be incredibly foolish of me to lash out at you for voicing them. Moreover, that is not the issue I wished to discuss with you today. My interest is more in your sword."
Naruto glanced at Hyôrinmaru out of the corner of his eye. "Yeah, what about it?"
"Hatake-san informed us — that is, the Clan Heads who sit upon the Council — that it was a clan heirloom, and most were satisfied with that explanation," Hiashi explained. "Most, however, do not have the Byakugan, and could not, therefore, see that this weapon has its own source of energy that is nearly independent of your own. Furthermore, if this Hyôrinmaru is an heirloom passed down from the Uzumaki clan, why, then, does Hinata have one as well?"
Naruto opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. His jaw snapped shut with an audible click. He could think of no explanation, and he really didn't like where the conversation seemed to be going.
"The only answer that makes sense is that it isn't," Hiashi continued. "That is fine. I'm not particularly interested in the nature of your sword or how you came about it — there are other legendary weapons out there, after all, including the varied swords carried by the Hidden Mist's Shinobigatana Shichinin Shuu and the artifacts said to have been used by the Rikudô Sennin. What concerns me is the fact that Hinata appears to have one as well, and I wish to know how exactly I am to separate it from her."
Hiashi straightened his back. "It is unbecoming of a Hyûga to rely on a weapon, after all. No matter whether it is a legendary weapon or not, Hinata should not be wielding a sword. The Hyûga have always been experts at Taijutsu, and so shall we remain."
It had to have been a joke.
Naruto grinned and let out a laugh. He couldn't stop himself. The idea was too absurd to not at least chuckle at.
"You're an idiot!" he said between cackles. "That's the only explanation for how stupid you are! Because the only other thing that makes sense is that you're joking!"
A creasing of the brow and a downturn of the lips — a frown. Somehow, Hiashi made it seem like the darkest of scowls.
"I assure you, Naruto-san," he said stoically. "I am quite serious."
"All right," Naruto could not completely wipe the grin from his face; Hiashi already knew more than Naruto would have liked, so Naruto would have to explain everything in order to prevent some…misunderstandings, but the idea that you could separate a part of your own soul was, in a morbid sort of way, funny (gallows' humor, Jiraiya had once called it), "since you've already figured this much out, I should probably tell you what's happening before you try something stupid and get either yourself or Hinata-chan hurt."
He picked up Hyôrinmaru by his sheath and brandished him in front of Hiashi. Hiashi's eyes were glued to his sword like a pair of particularly stubborn noodles stuck together.
"This is Hyôrinmaru," he explained. "He's a sword, as you can see, but he's not just a sword. Hyôrinmaru is a part of my soul. He manifests as a sword in the real world, but in the place he inhabits in my soul, he's a dragon. He has complete control over ice, snow, and water. When I unlock the first tier of his powers, called Shikai, he can even control the weather. Scary, huh?"
He was careful not to mention Bankai, nor Hyôrinmaru's exact limits. In order to protect Hinata, he would risk it all by revealing Hyôrinmaru's secret nature, but if it ever came to blows, he wanted to have enough of an edge that he could still surprise Hiashi if he had to. He was not fool enough to believe that he could beat and/or kill Hiashi in a straight up fight, not without having one or two aces up his sleeves.
Hiashi leaned forward and inspected the hilt and scabbard with shrewd, narrowed eyes.
"And what would happen if I were to destroy the blade?" he asked cautiously.
Naruto noted the use of 'I' in Hiashi's sentence — it was not some curious academic interest like 'what if the sky was green'; Hiashi wanted to know the consequences before he acted.
A sense of unease grew in Naruto's belly.
"What happens if it's broken or melted or otherwise ruined?"
Hyôrinmaru whispered the answer in Naruto's ear — it hadn't ever been an issue for him before. At least now, though, he knew, just in case it ever did happen.
"Depends," Naruto said uneasily. "If the blade's broken in half or melted away or whatever, then it'll simply regenerate from the hilt. If the entire thing's lost or destroyed, then it'll reform on its own. Hyôrinmaru doesn't exist in a physical realm — it's like the seal on my stomach. If you make a cut across the seal markings, it doesn't actually alter the seal or damage whatever it contains. Same thing with Hyôrinmaru: if you destroy the sword, it doesn't mean you're destroying Hyôrinmaru."
That scroll Sandaime had given him about sealing was definitely coming in handy.
"Then…Hinata's 'Tobiume'?" Hiashi asked.
"Tobiume's a part of her soul," Naruto told him. He fidgeted a little. He did not like this conversation at all. "You can't get rid of it or destroy it just by throwing the sword itself into a fire or tossing it into a volcano. It's a part of her, and it takes on the form it chooses, and it knows her better than you or I could ever hope to. And you can't seal it away, either. It'll just come back. It's not physical, it's not made from energy, it's a part of her soul. You'd have better luck trying to seal her left arm into her right arm without doing any damage."
Hiashi snorted derisively.
"So I am to just accept that my daughter will never be a proper Hyûga?" he retorted sardonically. Naruto thought that there were a lot worse things in life than not being a proper Hyûga. "Forgive me if that is a bit difficult to swallow."
The unease festered into indignant anger; it took all his control not to lash out. Naruto shrugged a lot more casually than he felt and stood, slipping his sash and Hyôrinmaru over his head fluidly. His tea sat there, unfinished and cold. He had no intention of carrying the conversation further — if it continued along the same vein, he was liable to lose his temper. "It's up to you whether you deal with it appropriately or not."
He turned to leave and rested his hand on the doorknob. Hiashi didn't protest, so he twisted it and opened the door and was just about to walk away when he thought of what might happen. Images of Hinata flew through his brain — covered in bruises and sobbing as he held her and told her that she would be okay, even though her eyes were closed and she was blind; her forehead branded with the same seal as Neji; her sitting in the corner, curled up on herself and shivering and unresponsive and death was a kinder fate than that; her lying in her room, cold and dead and with her eyes wide open, staring unseeing into nothingness…
His blood ran cold. The festering indignant anger froze and the entire world condensed into that single moment as he imagined what might become of Hinata. He wouldn't allow it. He wouldn't. He needed to make it clear just how stupid it would be for the Hyûga clan to try and remove Tobiume from Hinata (or to punish her for having it).
"Hiashi," he said lowly. He cast one frigid blue eye over his shoulder and only passingly wondered just how intimidating a twelve-year-old could be to a full grown man. "If you guys do anything to Hinata that can't be undone, if you spill one drop of her blood…I'll personally slaughter each and every one of you pompous Hyûga. What Itachi did to the Uchiha? It'll look like a picnic."
There was a long, tense moment of silence. The plans were already forming in Naruto's head — the oldest ones would have to go first, then the rest of the adults, and the only ones who wouldn't feel Hyôrinmaru's steel would be the children too young to be Genin. He didn't relish the idea — killing senselessly never sat well by him, even if he understood that it was necessary — but even he could be pushed too far, and, he was quickly finding out, Hinata was one of those buttons you just didn't push.
"Is that a threat?" Hiashi demanded dangerously.
"No," Naruto declared. He gathered up all of the reiryoku he could and unleashed the full force of his reiatsu. He was pleased to see the look of surprise dawn on Hiashi's face. "It's a promise of a lifetime."
The door closing behind him was loud enough that he could have slammed it and it would have made little difference. He stopped, tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and let out a long, weary sigh. Inhale, exhale. He could feel the anger sapping from him as the breath slipped out past his lips, and he was left standing there, hollow and tired — it couldn't have been later than noon.
His guide, the Hyûga who had led him through the compound earlier, was nowhere to be seen, so Naruto took the first left and decided he'd either puzzle his way out or find someone who could show him the way.
He'd not traveled thirty feet before he turned the corner and came face to face with Neji.
"Naruto-san," Neji said calmly. He did not look surprised. He reached down and grabbed Naruto's wrist and Naruto had the sneaking suspicion that Neji had actually been looking for him. "Come with me."
He spun around and started walking and Naruto was forced to follow as he was led through the compound once more. Neji was insistent and seemed to ignore him as Naruto walked briskly to keep up with his forceful new guide — really, could Hyûgas not take "no" for an answer?
Left, right, left, left, right, left, right, right — he lost track of what turns they took where and thought that it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway. How often would he have to navigate his way through the Hyûga clan's compound, especially with Hiashi's office as his starting point?
Finally, they reached a door and Neji slid it open and — sunlight, beautiful sunlight — pulled him outside into a sprawling garden with neatly trimmed trees and flowers and perfectly cut grass. He led Naruto down a cobblestone path and finally came to a halt in front of a pond where a pair of koi fish — one black, one white — swam circles around each other.
Neji let him go. The moment his wrist was free, Naruto pulled it to his chest and rubbed it tenderly where Neji's fingers had been wrapped so tightly he'd nearly lost feeling. "What's this all about, Neji?"
Neji frowned, looked down a little, and fidgeted nervously, then suddenly fell to his knees and pressed his forehead to the ground. Naruto felt his mouth drop open. A ripple of shock shot through his belly.
"Please forgive me," Neji said into the dirt. "I belittled you unnecessarily, spat on your hopes and dreams, and did a great many things of which I am now ashamed. So I ask you: please forgive me for what I did."
Naruto's mouth snapped shut. He frowned and crossed his arms. "It isn't me you should be apologizing to," he said as sternly as he could.
There was a slow moment of pause, then Neji lifted his head and sat back on his haunches. His eyes were cast downward in shame. "I know," he said solemnly, "and I have already apologized to Hinata-sama. She told me that there was nothing to forgive."
Naruto nodded, satisfied. If Hinata forgave him, then Naruto could, too.
"Then we're cool," he said.
"Cool?" Neji asked curiously.
Naruto grinned. "Frosty."
Neji bowed his head again. "Thank you."
"It's no big deal," Naruto waved it off. And it really wasn't. There was no point in holding a grudge against someone who genuinely regretted their actions, especially if they apologized and atoned. Besides, he had already kicked Neji's ass. Humiliating the rookie of the year in front of nearly the entire village was punishment enough. "Now, ah…do you think you could show me the way out?"
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
The morning of the Tanabata Festival dawned bright and warm and beautiful and Naruto, contrary to his usual habits, did not spend it training. Instead, he slept in until ten o'clock, had a late brunch, and spent most of the day studying the Fûinjutsu scroll his father had left to him. He had already finished the first tier, which covered everything from the very basics of Fûinjutsu to sealing an ordinary item inside a scroll, and was reading through the second tier, which detailed more complex storage seals, such as fire or water, and the effects different mediums, like ink and blood, had on the sealing process.
Around four o'clock, he rolled up the scroll and hid it beneath the loose floorboard under his bed, then got a long, hot shower, brushed his teeth, toweled his hair dry, and did whatever else he thought he needed to do to get ready for the festival. When he had done just about everything he could think of, he reached into his wardrobe, stood on the tips of his toes, and pulled down the folded kimono sitting on the shelf at the very top.
The kimono Naruto had picked out for the Tanabata Festival was not especially fancy or expensive, but he felt that it suited him and that it would be enough for what he intended to use it for. Sakura probably would have disagreed — an orange kimono, she would have said, had no business at such an important event.
But Naruto liked it well enough. It was mainly orange, so that was a huge plus, and it was a deep, dark blue at the shoulders and along the collar. Strips of red and gold formed into a long, sweeping bird design across the back and right side — a phoenix, the teller had called it. He would have liked something with a dragon on it, but the only ones that had one were all dark, dreary colors, like black and blue, and he didn't want to look like a walking bruise. That was Sasuke's job.
A golden silk sash tied it all closed, and as he looked in the mirror, he thought that it looked pretty good. Granted, he felt like he was wearing a dress because you weren't supposed to wear hakama for Tanabata, but the overall look was a lot better than he might have thought.
With his formal wear on, he reached down and picked up Hyôrinmaru, which he had set against the wall while he dressed. He looked at the black sheath for a moment, fisted the smooth cotton of the orange sash, then set his sword down on his bed. This would be the first time since the Forest of Death where he would consciously make the decision to leave Hyôrinmaru behind.
The warmth that suddenly bloomed in his chest reminded him that even if the sword was here at home, Hyôrinmaru was a part of him. Hyôrinmaru was always with him.
He took one last glance at the mirror, then left his bedroom and headed for the front door. He slipped on the specially bought pair of straw sandals that he'd gotten specifically for that day, then twisted the doorknob, opened the door, and closed it behind himself. It clicked shut.
Naruto lifted his head and looked around, first left, then right, and shuddered, then squared his shoulders and made his way towards the stairs. He felt naked, then and there, without Hyôrinmaru slung over his shoulder. A sword, however, would not go over well at a formal festival. Even in a ninja village, there were limits.
The walk to the Hyûga compound was a long one, made longer by the fact that he had to mind his step because his kimono was more restrictive than his usual clothes, and he did not fancy showing his underwear off if he tried to go too fast. Nonetheless, it was an incredible relief when the compound gates came into sight, even though the stiff-backed guards gave him only a short, contemptuous glance until he was right in front of them.
"We have been expecting you, Uzumaki-san," one of them said before he could even open his mouth.
"She will be out in a moment," the other declared.
There was only a long, tense silence after that, and the five-minute wait seemed like an eternity. Then the gate opened inwards, and Hinata stood beyond it, dressed in a white kimono that looked as though it must have cost a fortune. The collar was plum-colored and it was tied closed by a large, golden-yellow sash. Hung about her shoulders was a length of pale purple silk whose ends reached her knees, and patterned along the hem of her sleeves was a series of purplish circles that he imagined were supposed to be plums.
Naruto had no problem admitting that she looked rather stunning, especially for a twelve year old girl.
He grinned and offered her his arm. "Shall we go?" he asked.
She smiled and took it with a nod. A faint dusting of pink colored her cheeks, and as her warm body pressed up against his, shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip, he felt his own face blush.
They walked in a sort of companionable silence. Neither, it seemed, knew exactly what to say, and Naruto thought that they were both in very unfamiliar territory — Hinata had probably never gone to such an event informally, and Naruto had never gone to such an event period.
They didn't speak again until they came upon the beginnings of the festivities, where a large yellow banner declared "Tanabata Night" in bright red ink. Beyond it was a large, milling crowd and a series of stalls selling things like food (squid-on-a-stick, udon, teriyaki dishes, even okonomiyaki), his-and-her masks with stars and other such things on the front, knick knacks and doodads, pinwheels, and all sorts of other items. Streamers hung from everywhere, and red paper lanterns, normally reserved for the Red Light District, were strung up and lit. Everyone was dressed in a semi-formal kimono, and everyone was talking and chatting excitedly.
"A-amazing," Hinata whispered breathlessly.
"Yep. Guess Baa-chan went all out for this thing," Naruto grinned. He gave her arm a tug. "Come on, let's go."
The first thing they did was visit the mask stall. Naruto picked out a stoic white fox mask, the only one of its kind, with thick red whiskers and marks above the eyeholes. He thought it looked remarkably like something the ANBU would wear, he explained to Hinata, who had herself chosen a more human looking mask with stars patterned just beneath the right eye and purple lips. When she put it on to see what he thought, Naruto wisely kept to himself just how creepy it was to see her pale, pupil-less lavender eyes staring out at him from behind the mask's cool, calm face.
After slipping the masks into their belts, they wandered off aimlessly and wound up at a stall that was selling themed accessories, Tanabata or otherwise, and Naruto, after glancing shortly at Hinata, bought one of the most expensive ceremonial combs on display. As they walked away, Hinata stuttered her thanks and Naruto tried to fit it into her hair. Unfortunately, Hinata's hair was a little too short, and after trying just about everything he could think of, he gave up with a disappointed huff.
"S-sorry," Hinata mumbled. Her face was flushed and miserable-looking.
Naruto frowned, then reached over and pulled the left side of her bangs back. He affixed the comb, a brilliant golden thing with a beautiful phoenix design engraved on the body, just above her ear as snugly as he could, then let his arms drop. It stayed.
"That'll do for now," he said. "But if you grow your hair out, then it should be fine next year."
Hinata flushed. "N-next year?" she asked quietly. The thinly disguised hope in her voice sparked a surge of joy in Naruto's chest.
"Of course," he promised with a huge grin. "We're friends, right? Why wouldn't I go with you every year?"
She smiled. "Thank you, Naruto-kun," she said.
They moved on after that, slowly making their way through the large crowd until Naruto's stomach loudly voiced its opinion of their next destination. Naruto flushed, laughed, and scratched sheepishly at the back of his head. Hinata smiled. Then, out of nowhere, Hinata's stomach let out a much quieter growl, and she ducked her head as her cheeks turned bright red and the tips of her ears became pink. Naruto's barking laugh got him strange looks from the others in the crowd, but he ignored it and led Hinata over to Ichiraku's, which was having a special just for the festival: five bowls of ramen for the price of one and a free bowl of udon for couples.
"Hello, Naruto," Teuchi grinned broadly, "and you, too, Hinata-san. What'll it be for my favorite customers?"
"Pork for me," Naruto declared.
"U-um, Miso, please."
"How many tonight, Naruto-kun?" Ayame called over from the pot she was stirring.
"I'll take four," Naruto told her.
"Coming right up," Teuchi declared brightly.
A few moments later, two steaming bowls of ramen were set down in front of them — a pork for Naruto and a miso for Hinata — and they both murmured a quick "Itadakimasu" before they broke their chopsticks apart and dug in. Naruto, as he always did when eating with Hinata, made sure to eat much slower and savor every bite.
"My goodness! Naruto, Hinata, is that you?"
Ino suddenly burst into stall and threw herself onto the counter, leaning over so she could get a better look at them. Naruto lifted his head and blinked, vaguely aware of the large stream of noodles hanging from his lips. Hinata had dropped her chopsticks and nearly left her seat, she's jumped so high. She must have been really surprised, Naruto mused. He slurped his noodles, chewed them quickly, and swallowed. Ino looked vaguely disgusted.
"Oi, Ino," Naruto said. "What're you doing here?"
She had on a kimono the color of sunshine decorated with purple flowers and a violet sash. Tucked into her broad belt was a folded paper fan, and her hair, which had had nearly two months to grow out since when she'd cut it during the Chûnin Exam Preliminaries, was done up into a fancy bun. A light dusting of purple shone from the upper lids of her eyes.
"Well, I was enjoying the festival," Ino said. "Then I saw you two and decided to come over and say hello. So, are you two enjoying your date?"
Hinata's whole arm twitched violently and crashed into her bowl, sending it careening over the side of the counter. It was only Naruto's quick reflexes that allowed him to reach out and snatch the bowl before it could make the rest of its trip to the ground. Plus, he thought thankfully, it gave him a moment to wipe the blush of his face before he sat back up and placed Hinata's bowl back where it belonged.
"I-Ino-san!" Hinata gasped. Her face was scarlet.
"I-it's not like that," Naruto said. He silently cursed the slight waver in his voice. "We're just friends, and as Hinata-chan's friend, I'm going with her to the Tanabata festival. Alright?"
"Whatever you say," Ino retorted flippantly. "Anyway, you look really pretty tonight, Hinata, and Naruto, that orange looks surprisingly good on you. Now, I'll see you guys later. I'm going to go and find Sakura."
She stood and turned to leave, then gave a quick wave — "Bye!" — and disappeared into the crowd.
"She's like a tidal wave," Naruto murmured after her. "Here and gone, but what a mess she leaves behind."
"Yeah," Hinata, Ayame, and Teuchi said simultaneously.
They spent the rest of the meal in silence. Neither Naruto nor Hinata could stand to even look at each other without erupting into a violent blush, and Naruto was thankful that Teuchi and Ayame were nice enough not to push the subject — he thought he'd die from embarrassment if they decided to tease him and Hinata about what Ino had said.
"Have a nice evening!" Teuchi called as they got up and made to leave.
"Thank you," they muttered, then left.
After that, they didn't talk too much. They mostly just wandered around and visited a random stall or two. Ino's words hung around them like a dark cloud and rendered them almost unable to speak coherently to one another as it slowly got darker and darker out, until, that is, someone mentioned that there were going to be fireworks soon.
That gave Naruto an idea.
"Come on, Hinata-chan," he said suddenly. He grabbed her hand and started steering her through the crowd. "Follow me!"
He led her through the throng of bodies, pushing his way through here and there and ignoring the indignant cries that followed after him. A few minutes later, they burst out of the crowd into an open alleyway, and as soon as Naruto looked around to make sure no one was watching, he pulled them both into Shunpô.
A few seconds later, he jerked to a stop on top of the Hokage Monument, and Hinata took in a long, quiet gasp behind him. He let her hand go and turned around, gesturing broadly to the land behind him. He grinned.
"Welcome to the Hokage Monument," he said grandiosely. "When it comes to views, it doesn't get much better than this. From here, the fireworks will be amazing."
"Naruto-kun," she whispered. Her eyes were wide. "This is…"
Just then, a single firework shot into the sky and exploded into a bright pink flower. The roaring approval of the crowd in the streets below was deafening. Naruto grinned again and grabbed her hand.
"Come on," he said as he dragged her over to a spot of bare earth. "It's already starting."
He sat down and pulled her down next to him just as the next firework soared upwards and exploded into green, and Hinata gasped next to him as the crowd gave another answering cheer.
They stayed like that through the entire show, watching in silence as firework after firework exploded in front of them and showered them in red and green and blue and purple lights. Somewhere during all of that, they'd begun holding hands, and when it was all over and there was nothing left in the sky but faint smoke trails and the bright full moon, Naruto found he didn't want to move. He didn't want to let go of the warm, soft hand entwined with his own. He didn't want that moment to end.
"I wish every day could be like this," Naruto said suddenly. "No fighting, no conflict — just people being carefree and happy."
"Naruto-kun," Hinata mumbled somberly. He felt her squeeze his hand. "I-I wish so, too. N-no worries, no problems, j-just us and the sky."
Naruto smiled. He liked that idea. "Us and the sky."
Just the two of them, together and alone, underneath the sun and moon and the vast sea of stars. Just the two of them, carefree and happy. The thought brought a wonderful warmth to his chest.
"There you are!" Both Naruto and Hinata jumped and were immediately on their feet. Their hands fell separate and they turned to look behind them. Standing a ways away, apparently have just come up the beaten path, stood Ino, and a panting Sakura was behind her.
"I-Ino-san?" Hinata asked faintly.
"We've been looking everywhere!" Ino declared. She marched up to Hinata, grabbed her hand, and started to lead her away. "Come on, it's almost time to put up our wishes! We've got to go!"
"B-but," Hinata began weakly.
"No 'buts'!" Ino declared. "And Naruto," she called over her shoulder, "this is a ladies' thing, so you stay out! Don't worry about Hinata! Sakura and I will take her home, okay? Bye!"
"Good night, Naruto-kun," Hinata mumbled resignedly.
And just like that, Naruto was alone. He sighed, scratched the back of his head, then shrugged and turned back around to stare up at the moon. Even if it hadn't gone exactly the way he'd planned, it had been a good night, he decided. He and Hinata had had fun, and that was what mattered. So he hadn't gotten to do everything that he'd wanted to — who cared? He and Hinata had enjoyed their time together. He wouldn't change a thing.
He wouldn't change a thing.
"A youngster like you shouldn't be up here alone, especially when the festival is about to end," a voice said suddenly. Naruto's head turned so fast that he could swear his neck had cracked. There, standing next to him, just outside of his peripheral vision, was a crippled old man with a bandaged right eye and no right arm. He hobbled on an old, gnarled wooden cane that looked as though he had carved it from a tree himself.
"I was watching the fireworks with a friend of mine," Naruto said. "She got dragged off by a couple of other girls, so I figured I'd just…watch for a little while, you know?"
"Mm," the old man agreed. "There is something calming about looking up at the moon, but it's also rather humbling, don't you think? It reminds you just how small you are in the grand scheme of things. In the end, you're just an insignificant speck on a giant ball of mud."
"Never thought of it that way," Naruto admitted, because he really hadn't. The old man hummed again.
"Most ninja do not," the cripple admitted. "Ninja tend to be rather arrogant, you know. They wield the power of the elements as though they were the Sage of Six Paths themselves, so confident that nothing can touch them, so confident that their way is the best way, and bowing only to the whims of their Kage. Too often they forget what it really means to be a ninja, to abandon their humanity for the sake of something greater and that they are all but a small cog in a very large machine.
"But I've gotten ahead of myself," he said. "You are Uzumaki Naruto-kun, yes?"
"Ah, I see," he said. "And your teammate — it's Uchiha Sasuke-kun, am I right?" Naruto nodded again. "I see, I see. Very tragic young man, isn't he? Lost his entire family in one night. Very, very sad, don't you think? I wonder what he must see when he looks up at the moon. I wonder if he realizes just how small he is, just how small his family was."
Naruto said nothing, but when the silence stretched on, it appeared that the old man was waiting for an answer, so he decided to be honest without revealing what he knew — the best lies, he had long ago learned, carried an element of truth.
"It depends," he said. "I mean, sometimes a clan can be related, but not be family, you know?" He thought very distinctly of Hiashi. "I guess it really all depends on whether or not Sasuke's clan was his family, or just a bunch of people all sharing the same surname."
"Very true, very true," the old man nodded. "But even so, there must have been someone in the clan he cared for — someone he loved, hm?"
Naruto hesitated, then plowed on. "He was always talking about his brother, Itachi," Naruto revealed. "It was always 'Itachi this' or 'Itachi that' — you'd think he worshipped the ground his brother walked on. I mean, I didn't know him all that well back then, but if you just sat and listened for a while, Itachi was all he talked about."
"But Itachi is the one who killed the clan," the old man mused. "Sometimes I wonder, though. Itachi was an incredible ninja — even the best of his age group, you might say — but the other Uchiha were nothing to sneeze at. Granted, not all of them were ninja, but there were quite a few who were powerful in their own right — the Itachis of their generation, you could say. So how — how did Itachi manage to kill them all in a single night while the rest of us were none the wiser?"
He thumped his cane on the ground.
"It's suspicious, is what it is," the old man declared. "That kind of thing would have raised so many alarms, but no one came to the Uchiha's rescue. There must have been a conspiracy. Someone must've wanted the Uchiha dead, someone with a lot of power. Right?"
Naruto felt the fingers of his left hand curl into a fist and he swallowed carefully before answering.
"I wouldn't know," he said. "I was just a kid when all that happened."
"I suppose so," the old man admitted. "Hmph. Forgive an old man his rambling, Naruto-kun. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm afraid I must be off."
He straightened and turned to hobble away. His cane clunked loudly with every step. Naruto let out an inaudible sigh.
"Oh, I never did introduce myself, did I?" the old man asked suddenly. The clunking stopped. "I'm Danzou. Shimura Danzou. It was nice talking with you, Naruto-kun. Have a pleasant night."
And then he hobbled away, but Naruto was still not alone. Thoughts were whizzing through his head like super balls, and they never stayed still long enough for him to make any sense of them. They haunted him like ghosts, and he felt as though the entirety of the Uchiha clan was hissing and spitting at him from the afterlife, because the one thing that hung about him, pressing on his mind like the grip of a boa constrictor, was a single, terrifying realization.
He had just had a conversation with Danzou, the man who had ordered the Uchiha clan's massacre.
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
Naruto descended back to the streets a time later when the crowd below began to thin. He was actually just going to go straight home, because he had a lot of things to think about, but as he made his way down the streets, one of the venders called out to him and beckoned him over.
"I haven't seen you around here yet," the vender said, "so you mustn't have written up your wish, right? Here — pick out a piece of paper, write your wish on it, hang it up on the wall, and it'll get put on the tree tonight at midnight."
He gestured down at the almost-empty countertop, where a single brush and inkwell sat waiting. Hanging from the top of the stall was a series of paper strips in all the colors of the rainbow, and on the wall behind the vender hung the wishes of the entirety of Konoha — or at least the portion that had visited this particular stall.
Naruto picked out a strip of orange paper — "Orange!" some part of him cackled gleefully — dipped the brush into the inkwell brought it to hover over the paper, then stopped. He had no idea what he wanted to wish for.
Well, what did he want to wish for? He asked himself that question as seriously as he could. What did he want? Well, what did he want aside from becoming Hokage and earning recognition and protecting the village and stopping all the hatred and bigotry and everything that plagued the world as he knew it — and that's when he knew what he wanted to wish for.
He wrote it quickly and dramatically and signed his name with flourish.
I want to change the world!
The vender smiled and gestured to the wall behind him. Naruto stepped around the stall and behind it and looked for a place on the wall to hang his wish. His eyes roved over the various wishes already hanging there and skipped over most of them (Sakura and Ino both wanted a date with Sasuke, go figure, and Chouji wanted a lifetime pass to all of his favorite restaurants, who would've thought, and Sasuke, funnily enough, was wishing for a basket of freshly-harvested tomatoes), but one in particular caught his eye and he smiled as he hung his wish next to the one signed Hyûga Hinata.
"Have a nice night," he told the vender as he left.
"You too!" the vender called after him.
That night, he fell into a blissful, dreamless sleep without any trouble. The memory of what Hinata had wished for banished all of the dark thoughts Danzou's talk had brought to the surface and he fell asleep with the image of her purple strip of paper in his mind.
I want Naruto-kun to be happy.
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
Omake: For Reviews, the Fourth Wall Comes Tumbling Down
"He's really disappointed," Naruto said.
Sasuke arched an eyebrow. "Why? What's there to be disappointed about?"
Naruto rolled his eyes.
"Well, duh," he said. "Think about it, Sasuke. Even if the legacy stats page tells him that sixty-eight thousand people have visited the story in total, that doesn't account for how many people have read each chapter more than once, or how many people have started reading, decided they didn't like it, and quit, or how many people actually enjoyed reading it."
"So?" Sasuke asked.
"So he promised that he could get out a chapter every other week if he got two-hundred reviews a chapter," Sakura chimed in. "Think about that, Sasuke. Each chapter is about fifteen-thousand words — that's fifteen thousand words twice a month. Some people have difficulty getting out five thousand words a month."
"Oh," Sasuke said lamely. "I guess reviews are really important, then?"
"That's a huge understatement," Kakashi told him. "A good review is worth fifty, even if it's as simple as 'Good job' or 'I really liked this chapter'. Two-hundred of those is worth ten-thousand, and a really good really long review is worth nearly two-hundred — that's four times the standard 'Good job'. Can you imagine how much that motivates him? He can get out these massive chapters in two weeks in between all of the other things he's doing with his time, including classes and assignments and everything else life throws at him. That's difficult, but if he's given two-hundred reviews per chapter — at least on average, anyway, the exact number of reviews to any given chapter isn't particularly important, just as long as it's an average of two hundred a chapter — then he can manage to rewrite these chapters almost from scratch and post a new one every other week."
"That's…actually pretty impressive," Sasuke commented. "Yeah, I can see why reviews are important. Why aren't more people reviewing?"
"If only I knew," Kakashi said. He smiled, but there was something very scary about his expression, even hidden as it was behind his mask. "If I did, I'm sure I could find some way to…motivate them."
"A good chapter every other week should be motivation enough," Naruto said sourly. "I mean, there's so much more depth to this story than there was in 'Sit Upon the Frozen Heavens.' The back story is much more thought out and the plot is a lot deeper — all this effort he's put into making this an epic tale, and then all of these guys go and make him feel worthless and underappreciated. The nerve! Why, if it was me, I'd — !"
"We know, Naruto," Sakura said calmly. "Besides, I'm sure there's some sort of explanation."
Sasuke snorted. "Don't make excuses for them, Sakura," Sasuke said. "It's their lives, they can make their own choices. If they don't like the story enough to contribute, then that's their problem."
"Maa, Sasuke, that's surprisingly mature of you," Kakashi said.
"Don't get me wrong," Sasuke shot back. "If it were up to me…But it's not. He's tried to be polite and ask nicely. It's not my fault that it doesn't work. Common human decency was hard to find long before we came around, and he can't really compete with that 'Methods of Rationality' thing over in the Potter section, no matter how much he wishes he could. It's just the way things are. No sense wasting time wishing things were different."
— o.0.O.O.0.o —
To be continued
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or Bleach
When Chapter Six goes up, that last bit with Team Seven will be edited out. And, over the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours, I will be doing some editing of the text of this chapter so as to fix a few mistakes or add a bit more content or make things flow a bit more smoothly. That said, it'll be much easier if you guys tell me what feels forced or rough so that I can correct it more easily.
Ooh, mysterious! Kyubi knows something and he's not telling! But then, you've all already guessed exactly what it is, haven't you? I mean, I beat you over the head with all the clues I dropped. Remember, though, that Naruto doesn't have sufficient knowledge of the plot to understand what all those clues lead to, but all of you do. You might have already come to a conclusion based on those clues, but Naruto is still scratching his head.
And I give my congratulations to those who realized just how insulting it was for Naruto to sit in agura while Hiashi was sitting in seiza. The only reason he got away with it without being told off is because Hiashi wanted something from him.
And my version of Hiashi is something like Ikari Gendo; he's not exactly the best father, but it's more because he's been caught up in clan politics for so long that he doesn't care the way he should anymore. In his own strange way, he does care for Hinata; his concern with her being a proper Hyûga is as much about protecting her as it is her meeting his expectations.
I agonized over the confrontation with Jiraiya, because I revealed a piece of the plot that should probably be coming out later and I was afraid I'd gone just a little bit too far with the Totsuka bit, but I can't really imagine a way of cluing Jiraiya in about Hyôrinmaru without adding it. Just keep in mind that any preconceptions about the Totsuka sword, Hyôrinmaru and not the one used by Itachi's Susano'o, are likely false. In fact, you could stake money on it.
This marks the first chapter where Naruto starts to have actual romantic thoughts about Hinata, even though he hasn't realized it yet.
More Absolute Zero stuff can be found here: acornerofabsolutezero(dot)blogspot(dot)com
Warning: there are spoilers on that site.
There is no going back. The only way out is forward.
James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes
James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes(Signature best viewed in Wendy Medium font style)