Naruto: Potential Realised
One million hits sure is something else. Didn't think I'd make it this far. Thank you so much for reading and reviewing. Also, The Uzumaki Descendant is a thing, so go read that too!
Edited by A Fan1204
CH20: Bend or Break
(Forest of Death)
The last thing Sasuke remembered was the look of twisted delight on the purple-haired proctor's face right before she knocked him unconscious with a cheeky, "Good luck! And try not to die!"
When Sasuke came to his head still ached enough; he wore the same garments he had on in the hospital, a dark blue short-sleeved shirt and loose, grey sweatpants. 'That bitch.' Vowing to exact revenge on Anko, he picked himself of the ground and patted the dirt off his clothes.
He had no equipment; no map, no weapons and no food. His stomach grumbled as looked around and noted he was in a forest, a familiar one.
'The Forest of Death,' Sasuke surmised with a glare. 'Did she really think this would scare me?' He would've scoffed if anyone were around. He survived this place before, when he was much weaker and an S-ranked rogue shinobi after him, he could do it again, easily so.
Sasuke tried activating his Sharingan… only to realise he couldn't. Something was off. "What's happening?" He felt a pulsing sensation on his shoulder. Was it his Cursed Seal, could Kakashi have reinforced the Evil Sealing Method seal during his unconscious convalescence? 'No,' he quickly dismissed the thought. 'Kakashi wouldn't do something so reckless.'
The only reasonable explanation was that Anko had done something to him. From the way it felt she had either meddled with Kakashi's Fūja Hōin or added another seal of her own creation to completely prevent him from drawing chakra, including his own. "That devious bitch!"
A hissing noise prompted Sasuke's battle instincts to kick in; he dived out of the way just on time as a clout of snake soared past him and bounded off the dirt.
"That's not very nice!" a cheerful voice quipped.
"You!" Sasuke glared upwards at a tree.
Anko shot him a grin. "You took your time coming to. What's the matter, did ya notice you can't use your chakra, pretty boy?"
"What did you do?" Sasuke demanded.
"Tell you what," Anko replied, crossing her arms lazily. "If you can track me down in the next 24 hours, I'll take my seal off. If you fail to do that, then the seal goes off when I say it does."
Sasuke glared daggers at the tokubetsu jōnin. She was infuriating without trying, but he refused to play her game. "I'm leaving."
"Feel free to pussy out, broods. If you can make it out here of anyway," Anko shrugged carelessly. "Careful now!" she chimed right before she disappeared in a whirl of leaves.
"Bitch," Sasuke swore again. He never was one for swearing but she brought it out in him, even more than the blond she reminded him of. 'I hope he's having a worse time than I am.'
(Mount Kongōurin Valley)
It had been approximately three hours since Naruto had set foot in the perilous valley beneath the mountain upon which the stronghold of the apes was located. It had not yet even been half a day and yet his life had been in considerable danger twice. Suffice to say Naruto had plenty on his mind when he dragged himself away from mangled corpses of four giant scorpions under the harsh sun.
He was worse for wear and exhausted. His eyes were unfocused, his skin was slick with sweat and his clothes were torn in various places and singed where they weren't. He had yet to make much progress but he was already so very tired he could barely think. Fighting was much more difficult in the unreasonably hot climate of Kongōurin Valley. He was thirsty and lightheaded, and to make matters worse, the volcanic fumes he had inhaled earlier whilst chasing those mischievous little monkeys, had left him feeling dizzy and nauseous. He couldn't even focus his chakra properly to use jutsu anymore once the effects kicked in.
Still, he had to keep going if he wanted to keep his promise.
He had given himself one week to reach the mountain summit. One year to return to Konoha. One year to return to Rei. The thought of her alone was enough to return life to his eyes and motivated him to persevere through the heat. "What I wouldn't give for a cold bath now…"
Hiruzen stroked his beard pensively, eyes glued to the crystal ball depicting the blonde's trek through the valley. "Interesting…" the Sarutobi clan head commented. "What do you think, nephew?"
"He's got plenty of talent but he's too raw." Sarutobi Kagerō crossed his arms and rubbed his chin in thought. "He's not as clueless as he looks, I'll give him that, and from what I can tell he has excellent battle instincts that will serve him well if he gains more experience. I'm surprised he's knows element ninjutsu of four nature types. You don't see that often these days. Does he know any raiton jutsu?"
Hiruzen continued to stroke his mane as he answered. "I have yet to observe him use any but if he followed my instructions he should know at least two."
"All five elements… Very few humans ever bother learning jutsu of the five basic nature types." Enma shook his head, though not in disapproval. "The Uzumaki clan's innate talent for understanding and developing jutsu is quite fearsome. He will undoubtedly be an extremely dangerous shinobi one day."
"Even fewer master all five," Kagerō added with a look to his uncle. "My old man must have envied you when you were kids, huh?"
"Your father was a man of greater virtue than I, my dear nephew," Hiruzen chided, a soft smile on his face. "He was of greater virtue than any shinobi had any business to be."
Sakura kicked off her sandals as soon when she got home and groaned tiredly as she climbed the stairs to her room. She had just returned from taking her test and was both tired and frustrated. While she was confident she had aced the theoretical part, she knew she had fallen short on the practical side by failing to maintain her chakra reserves long enough. She had no other choice than to take two ration pills to replenish her chakra, one more than what was granted, at the cost of unspecified credit. No doubt that would affect her score badly. What made it worse was the fact she had spent the entire week leading up to the test perfecting her control to the tiniest fraction to make sure her meagre reserves could cope.
The rosette was in a bad mood to say the least and now all she desired was to take a shower and eat a nice, hot meal and maybe something sweet for desert to console herself. As she walked into her room she was already pulling down the zip to her dress, turning to her wardrobe and unaware she was not alone.
"I should say something before this gets awkward."
Sakura let out a scream as she covered herself upon finding Naruto sitting on her bed. "NARUTO!"
Knowing her first instinct would be to hurt him the blond held up his hands as she retreated behind the door and covered her modesty. He hadn't seen much aside from her undergarments but he doubted the rosette would care. "Hold on, I'm a clone!"
"You're dead is what you are!" Sakura shouted as she threw a punch.
"Hold on!" The Naruto-clone caught her fist and released it immediately, shaking its hand. Since when did Sakura pack a punch that hard? "I've got a message from the real me."
Momentarily surprised, Sakura lowered her hands. "A message?"
The clone nodded. "The boss went on a training trip. He won't be back for a year so he wanted you to hear it from him… sorta."
"A year?" Sakura blinked in surprise. Her mind shifted to her most recent conversation with Shikamaru regarding her former teammate. Her anger subsided almost immediately upon remembering what the Nara clan heir had shared with her. "Oh."
The clone frowned as her expression fell. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Sakura said quietly as she sat on her chair by her desk. She ran a hand over the smooth mahogany, fondly remembering the days she would do her homework on shinobi history or studying the theories behind ninjutsu and genjutsu. Now all she used this desk for was studying medicine.
"Sakura." Naruto's lack of affectionate suffix when he said her name was something she had still not gotten fully used to. "What's wrong?"
"This isn't about me, Naruto and there's nothing wrong. Why don't you tell me your message?" The rosette had decided a while back she would heed Shikamaru's words. It wasn't her place to confront Naruto with the truth about his status as a jinchūriki. She would wait for him to trust her enough with that information. Only then would she breathe a word about it.
"Well, that was pretty much it. The real me won't be coming back until a year from now. He had to leave on short notice and couldn't really think of a way to tell you guys," the clone explained, its concerned frown persisting still.
Green eyes softened. "I understand."
"What do you understand?" the clone asked suspiciously, proving it (and the original) was more perceptive than she thought. "What's bothering you?"
'The fact you won't tell me why you had to go.' Of course, she had a good idea why, which was the reason she decided to change the subject. "How about the fact you just tried to peep on me while I was changing, you pervert?"
"I was not!" the clone denied immediately. "How was I supposed to know you'd stroll in half-naked? I mean, who does that anyway?"
"How did you even get in here?" Sakura shot back flushed with embarrassment.
Naruto looked at her with a dry expression. "Have we not met before?"
(Mount Kongōurin Valley)
"Ahaaa, it's so hot!" Naruto bemoaned tiredly. The valley stretched for miles beyond his vision and he still couldn't see the summit of Mount Kongōurin; it was simply too high and obscured by clouds. He briefly considered stripping down another layer but aside from his sleeveless bodysuit and baggy trousers he didn't have much on and thus dismissed the thought. 'I would kill for some shaved ice right about now.'
He allowed himself a minute to enjoy a drink of water from his flask. He was still too inebriated from inhaling the volcanic fumes mixed with the hallucination inducing herbs that grew in the valley soul and didn't trust himself with manipulating chakra. As he greedily gulped down he wondered how much stronger he would be by the time he got back. If he was struggling this much to actually begin his training, he really couldn't tell how much better he would at the end. He just hoped it would be enough.
"We will come for you."
He lowered his flask and turned the cap tightly. "And I'll be waiting for you sons of bitches." If one thing was for sure, he wouldn't leave this place until he was strong enough to at least give whoever came for him more trouble than it was worth coming after him. Maybe he wouldn't be able to defeat Itachi the next time they met but he'd be damned if he didn't take him down with him at least.
Maintaining a steady pace was less tiring than dragging himself forward, so Naruto pushed on with that in mind. The jinchūriki had every intention to succeed in making it to the top of the mountain within a week. He never went back on his word. Neither the heat nor the scorpions could stop him.
Several hours later, Naruto was still moving forward with single-minded determination, though his legs felt heavy and his throat dry as a scorching desert, he kept moving.
On the highest tower in the centre of Amegakure stood a tall man with spiky orange hair, in a black cloak with red clouds, and many piercings adorning his ears, nose and lips. His most noticeable features were his purple, ripple-patterned eyes that shined with soul-piercing intensity. The man stood lonesome on the tower as his eyes overlooked the great metropolis he had built. Tall, metallic skyscrapers stretched into infinity from the heart of Amegakure.
Perpetual rain showered the metropolis, even at night when the city was ablaze with countless lights that illuminated it brilliantly. Ame no Kuni was an oddity amongst most countries for it had no Daimyō or any form of civilian government. Many years ago it was a wealthy country rich in culture; the people were happy and generous and lived in humble abodes of stone and wood. The earth bore fruitful soil with each harvest due to its unique climate of tropical rain showers and long periods of sunlight. None went hungry for there was food to spare. The people of Ame believed the rain was a gift from the gods who favoured them above all others for their charity and humility, and they thanked the gods for their blessings by celebrating them many times a year with many grand festivals and emulating their charity unto others.
Unfortunately their happiness would not last.
The nation of Rain was a small country, landlocked with the three of the great five elemental nations: Earth, Wind and Fire. The nations of River, Grass and Stone also shared their borders. Though they had managed to stay out of their neighbouring countries' conflicts for many years, wars became an entirely different phenomenon with the inception of the shinobi system. The Warring States Period in which shinobi clans fought for the highest bidder had grieved them relatively little as they had always been able to hire shinobi of their own for protection or mustered enough crops for tributes in exchange for peace. This this was no longer an option with the new shinobi system in which shinobi swore fealty to country and Daimyō. No army could stand on even ground with a properly trained shinobi force. Greed, hatred and fear birthed one conflict after another, one war after another. Before long not even Ame could remain neutral, for if they paid peace tribute to one country, another would demand the same or declare them enemies otherwise.
Six countries surrounded the small nation of Rain. At times, six warring countries. Any tactician worth their salt would have considered Ame the perfect staging area for war. At first Ame's neighbours promised they were merely establishing trade routes. Then they promised they were merely building storage facilities. Then the promises stopped altogether. Ame had no Daimyō or standing army; they were not considered anyone's equal for those reasons and had thus ceased to be a true country in the eyes of their oppressors. It didn't matter how much money they could make and crops they could offer, they could not hire shinobi clans to protect them for they were now their aggressors. Neutrality was no longer an option. It was bend or break.
What was Ame to do but bend if not break? Nothing it seemed. The Rain nation was a small country with a population of less than a million, of which the majority found home in many of the smaller settlements in the countryside as farmers and craftsmen. They did not know how to fight so they did not fight, and so their lands were no longer their lands in the truest sense for it was now paved with roads and strongholds they did not build and guarded by people they could not call their own. What could they do but hold their tongues when foreign Daimyō stationed their troops on their lands? What else could they do but watch on as conflicts broke out and armies numbering tens of thousand men marched, killed and bled on Ame soil? They could pay the ultimate price for their defiance or simply do nothing, and so they did nothing for that was all they could do without bending or breaking. They simply did nothing.
Death and destruction swallowed Ame no Kuni. The rain continued as it always did, though now it held a different meaning. No longer was the rain a blessing from the gods. The country and its people wept and so did the gods that could no longer protect them.
For a brief time they found renewed hope when a hero was born at the time. A young, fierce and noble man ascended to the forefront as a champion of the people. Hanzō the Salamander they called him. He was the man who single-handedly united the country and rallied its people and their support. Hanzō was a force to be reckoned with, as strong as even the most elite shinobi of the great five and a master tactician. Ultimately Hanzō too lost his way as he became disillusioned with his dream to fight for the country had named him hero. What was one man to do against the might of many? He was but a man.
The salvation of Ame was not a task for a man.
It was a task for a god.
Only a god could vanquish its enemies and only a god could protect it.
There once was a boy named Yahiko who dreamt of becoming such a god. He died many years ago at the hands of none of that Hanzō the Salamander, who by then was nothing more than a paranoid bygone, a shade of his former self. The true gods were cruel to have Yahiko die by the hands of the man he had once idolised.
Yahiko died a young man barely into his prime. He died before he could acquire the salvation of Ame, before he could father Konan's children, before he could become a god.
Though tragedy struck not all was lost. Something was gained. The day Yahiko died was the same day Pain was born. Pain was the true god Yahiko aspired to be. And though he assumed the appearance of Yahiko's closest friend whose hands were still red with Yahiko's blood, he too was dead…
"Nagato," a soft voice called out.
Pain turned to face Konan. Like her origami, her beauty appeared as though it would never fade.
"No need for an introduction, Konan-san," another voice said. "After all, we're all close friends here, aren't we?" An orange, spiral-patterned mask glistened with wetness under a black hooded cloak adorned with red clouds.
"Tobi," Pain said stoically. "I see you've returned."
"I have indeed."
Konan looked at both men with hidden apprehension. "Let's take this inside."
"I won't be here for long,"
"You relayed the message?" Pain asked.
Tobi smiled thinly under his mask. "I have indeed."
"Itachi won't be a problem," the masked man stated confidently. "Nor will Kisame. I have complete confidence their excursion to Konoha was a one time thing."
"Very well." Pain caught the look of displeasure from his angel. "You're displeased, Konan."
"They both challenged you directly," the blue-haired angel stated. "A mere warning is not enough."
Tobi eyed her with juvenile curiosity. "I never took you for one to hold a grudge, Konan-san."
She ignored him and held Pain's gaze.
"Make no mistake, Konan, they will both feel my wrath if they cross me again." The god of rain spoke with absolute finality. "Whatever the reason it must have been something of significance for Itachi to defy me."
"Don't trouble yourself any more than necessary," Tobi insisted lightly. "They know what will happen, what must happen, if they defy us again."
Pein considered his plan of action. "You are certain you have no knowledge as to why they would do such a reckless thing as infiltrate Konoha?"
"I never said I didn't know the reason." Tobi crossed his arms, his one visible eye on Konan's angered expression.
"What is the meaning of this?" Pain demanded in a elevated voice. "Speak, Madara."
"A man is entitled to his secrets, Nagato-kun."
Konan narrowed her eyes. "You dare-!"
"Enough," Pain silenced her before she could say any more. "Very well, Tobi… You may keep Itachi's secret to yourself, but know that I will personally hold you responsible in the event he betrays us."
"That is fine by me," Tobi agreed easily. "Now then, if you will excuse me, I have other business to attend to."
God and angel watched the masked man disappear in a swirl of colours that ripped through the fabric of time and space.
"I hate that man," Konan said.
Pain acknowledged her. "I know, but he is of use to us for now."
The deserts of Kaze no Kuni stretched farther than the eye could see. It went on and on seemingly perpetually, without an end in sight. At day it was like a sweltering oven, unbearably hot; during the night it was unforgivingly cold. No man could survive the desert alone, it was too big, too treacherous, and a habitat to giant monstrosities such giant scorpions, spiders and other predators so vicious they made the creatures of the Forest of Death look like tame pets.
No man could survive in these harsh conditions without support of comrades, no man but one. From a young age they called him Sabaku no Gaara. It was fitting in more ways that one. The desert was his realm and he was its god. Both blessed and cursed by the power of the Ichibi no Tanuki known as Shukaku, Gaara possessed the ability to manipulate sand as though extensions of himself. The sand obeyed him and the sand protected him. The sand also isolated him from the rest of the world.
Senju Hashirama had been exceptionally generous when he gifted Sunagakure with the Ichibi in the hopes of laying foundation to friendship and understanding. Naturally, the shinobi world spat upon such consideration. The official records to this day state rather than gifting the bijū, the Shodai Hokage was made to surrender it to the Shodai Kazekage. Few bothered, or perhaps dared, to question the legitimacy of the official records. Nationalism was key to maintaining a shinobi force, and those who presented themselves as dissidents were often silenced. One way or another. This practice was not exclusive to Suna of course; in fact most shinobi forces had military police factions in place to maintain the status quo.
Sabaku no Gaara cared little for the details, or at least there was a time he didn't. Though he resented none as much as his own father, the young jinchūriki harboured an intense hatred for the Shodai since he was youngster. It was part of the reason why he never thought of questioning the invasion of Konoha, despite the long-standing good relationship between both villages. He simply wanted to destroy the home of the man that indirectly destroyed his life.
The invasion failed much to everyone's shock. Sand and Sound had meticulously planned their invasion for months, preparing in absolute silence as they set the stage of their dubious plot in shadows. If successful the invasion would have been unprecedented, and it would have been the greatest victory in Sunagakure history, had it not been for Konoha's very own jinchūriki, Uzumaki Naruto, the only one to have ever defeated Gaara in battle. The entire invasion hinged on the successful unleashing of the Ichibi in the village like some kind of bomb, before the eyes of many foreign representatives and doubters. But when Gaara fell so did their chances of success.
It had been nearly a year since the failed invasion and a lot had changed since they returned in disgrace. Oto continued to do battle with anyone in their way, usurping villages wherever and whenever they could. They suffered even more severe losses than Suna had but were neither deterred nor intimidated. Orochimaru continued to laugh in the face of the Great Five with supreme confidence.
Suna was not so lucky. Unlike Oto, they did answer to a Daimyō, and Konoha knew which door it had knock on. War had been narrowly avoided due to the Daimyō of Kaze no Kuni not only denying involvement but also by condemning the actions of Suna and promising justice to Hi no Kuni. Who could blame him when he truly had nothing to do with the invasion? There was plenty of cause for embarrassment to go around and the feudal lord suffered no small part seeing as his top shinobi had been assassinated and replaced by an imposter who orchestrated the invasion to begin with, under his nose and without his knowing. In fact, there were still many traitors within the village that had been involved, double agents and traitors that either took orders from Orochimaru or had their own agenda.
The Daimyō's ire had seen to it Suna's military budget was but a shade of its former self; morale was dangerously low and fewer missions were coming through every day. Kaze no Kuni was beginning to even outsource missions to smaller hidden villages. In their defence, who would want to hire the services of a shinobi village that been duped so easily, who would trust them with their secrets, to protect or take lives with discretion when they couldn't keep their own house in order?
Suna was on the verge of collapsing. In the past few months not only was their worthiness of being considered one of the Great Five had being called into question, dissidents began to pop up and became more vocal. There were even rumours that a civil war was on the horizon. A rebellious faction within the Hidden Sand was gaining traction more and more each day; disgruntled shinobi that felt betrayed by their Daimyō and the commanding officers of the shinobi force. The Yondaime Kazekage had been the first shinobi in many years to inspire as much confidence and faith. Two of the three previous Kazekage had been assassinated, but when the Yondaime proved himself capable of even defeating a bijū Suna once again had renewed hope. That hope was crushed when the death of the Yondaime was made public. With morale at an all time low and traitors in their midst, the Suna-nin were becoming more and more apprehensive, anxious and rebellious.
If balance were to be restored, the traitors would have to be dealt with, and it was for that reason the Ichibi jinchūriki was all the way out here, in a secluded oasis roughly two miles out in the outskirts of Sunagakure were he was isolated from the rest of the village as he waited.
Gaara's teal eyes were fixed on the plot of graves. Few people knew of the gravesite, it was a solemn place, a shrine to the late Kazekage's wife. Gaara had been there only twice before, both times with his father and siblings, when he was a young child. He cursed Baki as he read his father's name and almost smiled whimsically.
What would his father think of their current situation? Would he blame his son like everyone else in the village did? Gaara didn't have to be more involved with people to know that they blamed him, cursed him for failing to commence the invasion properly. If he cared enough he might wonder what they were doing about the shinobi council; Orochimaru couldn't have gotten Suna involved without at least some backing in it. In all likelihood his father had unknowingly been in the company of traitors that had aligned with the serpent. There was no other reasonable explanation why his father, the only man known to be able to completely dominate and suppress the Ichibi through complete mastery of Magnet Release, would have fallen so easily in an ambush.
Gaara's eyes shifted to the grave next to his father belonging to his mother Karura.
"Your mother didn't love you, Gaara. She cursed your existence and that of the village."
Yashamaru's words still stung all these years later.
The Ichibi jinchūriki's eyes shifted to the set of three other graves beneath those of his parents. He didn't read the names on the tiny headstones; he wouldn't give them that.
From left to right: one month and three weeks, a boy with the same teal eyes as his own; two months and three days, a girl with their father's dark eyes; three months to the day, another boy, born with dark eyes and a tuft of light brown hair.
Gaara had seen the pictures and read the files. His father still smiled during those pregnancies, they both did. They both held hope, hope they lost when he was conceived
He'd seen only one picture of his parents when his mother was pregnant with him. There was no joy in their eyes or smiles on their faces, only blank expressions as though they had already given up on him, as if they wouldn't have fought for him to survive.
Sometimes, in his most private moments, Gaara wondered if there was perhaps a fraction of happiness in his parents when he was born. Had his mother rejoiced in his birth at all, even if only a little, or had she truly cursed him and the village for squeezing the last drops of life out of her?
Pale fists tightened.
Gaara felt a presence through the sand. He had been expecting company, though not of a friendly kind.
"Gaara?" a familiar voice said with bewilderment. Temari had grown even more beautiful since the Chūnin Exams.
The red-headed jinchūriki cast her a brief look over his shoulder. "You shouldn't be here."
Temari frowned somewhat confused not only because of the fact Gaara was here of all places but also because he was telling her to make herself scarce. "I'll leave you to it after I pay my respects. They were my family too you know."
She had grown bolder of the past few months as well. She had come prepared with flowers for both their parents and their unborn siblings. "What are you doing here anyway, you hate this place."
At first he said nothing, but when it became apparent she had no intention of leaving on his command he relented. "I'm expecting company."
Temari's eyes widened for a moment and then narrowed, the meaning of his words weren't missed on her. He briefly entertained the thought she would slap him. "Here?" she whispered incredulously.
"Why would you lead them here?"
Gaara declined to answer. Baki hadn't specifically instructed to come to this place; he didn't know why he did either. He had just felt like it. "I won't protect you if you stay."
Temari snorted derisively, something she would have never done mere months ago. "Don't underestimate your big sister. I can take care of myself."
Brother and sister remained standing in silence in front of their parents' grave. Temari laid flowers down by the graves of their unborn siblings. The sentiment irritated Gaara but he gave it no it voice.
Temari shifted. "Gaara."
"They're here," he acknowledged. Of course he knew, no one could hide from him in the desert for he was a god amongst the dunes.
Tsunade pored over the report in front of her, a furrow in her brows as she did the math in her head. She hadn't had much time to read clan reports since becoming Hokage due to the state the village was in after the invasion, and not being one to press political issues unless absolutely necessary, she had been content putting the reports on the backburner. If it hadn't been for Shizune reminding her the other day she would have likely forgotten all about them.
Clan reports were similar to reports submitted by division heads, written and submitted by clan heads to include the status of their clan members, how many were on active duty and so on. They were often long, tedious and rather passive aggressively laden with criticisms on a great many things. Tsunade just so happened to be reading one such a comment in the Hyūga clan's report. Lord Hiashi was of the opinion that the Home Garrison was doing a rather terrible job of keeping its shinobi in line and had numerous suggestions on how to better discipline shinobi on leave acting out.
To be fair, Tsunade had gotten several similar complaints and to make matters worse she had gotten disturbing news the day before a jōnin by the name of Fukuda Shinya had gone missing. The Godaime had her ANBU commander personally investigate the disappearance of Fukuda. She didn't know what to make of the disappearance but knew she couldn't afford to lose any more credibility. What would it say about the Hokage if one of her men was missing and she knew nothing about it? Of course, she wasn't just worried for her reputation; she was worried for the missing jōnin, as it was her job to be. As Hokage she was responsible for the shinobi force, it was her obligations to ensure that her men were ready and able to serve country and village. That also meant it was her business to account for all shinobi. It was particularly worrying that Fukuda hadn't been seen at his station for several days before his absence was reported. From what she understood he had been connected to several spies in the invasion, though Ibiki personally cleared him several weeks after.
"Heh." Tsunade laid the report down and rubbed her chin. An idea had just struck her, though before she could consider it the door to her office opened and Jiraiya strolled in at a leisurely pace.
They touched down on the sand, light as feathers, silent and observant. There were at least three dozen of them, they wore matching uniforms of black shinobi attire including facemask and carried wickedly curved scimitars and chains. They bore no insignia nor did they speak, but Gaara knew who they were.
They were of a clan of assassins that hailed from one of many remote islands near Kaminari no Kuni, a hidden village true to its name, unreachable to outsiders. Gaara knew his enemies were willing to pay top ryō to have him eliminated. This particular clan of assassins were far from cheap; they were perfectionists, highly disciplined in teamwork and with a hundred percent success rate. They weren't particularly powerful as individuals but they were considered unbeatable when working as a unit, something they were trained to do from birth.
Baki had told him they would show up when he was most vulnerable. His eyes shifted to Temari… Bastards.
Jiraiya stood leaning against the wall by the door. "That's right, Hime."
"I could use you," Tsunade said with a light frown. She sat seated behind her desk.
"I'm sure you could," the sage replied playfully.
"You know what I mean." The Godaime glared at him for a moment but then relented and released a sigh and reclined further into her chair. "Where are you going?"
"Do you remember that summit I told you about?" Jiraiya asked.
Tsunade recalled the hermit having informed her of such in a letter and in person weeks ago. "Sōgen."
"Sōgen and a whole lot of other dubious people," Jiraiya said with all seriousness. "Orochimaru might be there."
"He'd sooner send a representative, whether they know it or not," she added before he could correct her. "Orochimaru never liked crowds."
"He never liked much of anything."
"I'd offer you back up but I know you'd refuse."
"I would," Jiraiya admitted.
"You worried about me? I'm touched."
The Slug Princess ignored the immature remark. "When will you be back?"
"Three months maybe? I don't know," he admitted with a shrug. "I have other things to take care of, informants I need to speak to, and debts I've got to pay. You know, boring stuff."
"You're telling me," Tsunade replied with a gesture to the mountain of paper work to her right. "I should've never let that kid fool me into taking this job."
"You didn't stand a chance, did you, against him."
Tsunade gave a wry smile. "I suppose not."
The Sannin shared one last look. Jiraiya considered kissing her before he left but decided against it and instead peeled his privacy sealing tag from behind him. "I'll be seeing you, Tsunde-hime."
"Be safe, Jiraiya."
The Toad Sage flashed her a grin. "I will."
The assassins were quick and light. To attack them was like trying to strike a leaf in the wind. They were so nimble and precise there was no wasted movement as they manoeuvred silently, working in perfect synchronisation as they changed formations and dodged waves of sand and blasts of wind.
Gaara cut the wind with his hands and he tried to corner them; if he could dictate their mobility he would enjoy a relatively easy victory. They were in the desert after all. Unfortunately it wasn't going to be that easy as his enemies read him like an open book, it was as if they what he was going to do before he even did. They must have observed him and meticulously planned in advance. In an attempt to catch them off guard the jinchūriki raised his arms as the sand from his gourd protected his from multidirectional jets of water and bolts of lightning whilst he raised the desert beneath their feet, forcing them airborne. "Rendan: Suna Shigure!" His successive shots of Sand Drizzle managed to only catch three out thirty-six. They were so skilled in teamwork they pulled each other of harms way thus suffering as few casualties as possible. A projectile glinted in the sunlight.
"Kamaitachi!" Temari put up a good fight of her own, swinging her fan and creating a whirlwind of cutting gales. Blood trickled from a cut on her cheek where a kunai had flashed past her, a fresh addition to the numerous cuts and scratches she had already gotten despite Gaara's best efforts to protect her. Her aim was true enough to catch the offending shinobi in her in wind technique, cutting him to ribbons. He was dead in seconds.
It wouldn't be enough though, Gaara knew. If they both wanted to survive this battle, he had to be able to go all out, but with Temari so close that wasn't an option. There was a reasonable chance his sister could get hurt in his larger scale jutsu. That wasn't a risk he was willing to take so long as she was in the fight.
She'd surely be angry with him but Gaara decided to take his sister out of the fight. Sand began to pour from the gourd on his back and pool to the ground where it continued to grow in mass. "Sister."
Temari's eyes shifted around rapidly as she calculated distances and strategies as expected from an excellent long-range combatant. She hadn't heard him, or if she did, she pretended not to.
"Temari." Gaara rarely called her by name.
It was enough to call her attention. "What is it?"
The demon of the sand raised his hand towards her and clutched his fist. In an instant a thick cocoon encased his sister. Temari's outrage was faintly audible and they didn't particularly bode well for him, but she'd be out of harms this way Gaara rationalised as he lowered the cocoon in the oasis.
(Mount Kongōurin Valley)
Naruto had a new appreciation for the sheer size of the valley. It was much, much bigger than he had imagined. 'How didn't I see it?' he asked himself as he made his way through the jungle.
That's right. Jungle.
How he hadn't seen the lush, tropical forestry from Sezaru's back when he flew in, he still didn't quite know, but he was partially relieved nonetheless. It sure as hell beat the volcanic planes he had suffered through.
After hours of trudging through the red waste under the scorching sun, Naruto had stumbled into a jungle. A very large jungle. Dazed, thirsty and barely conscious (and still a little inebriated), his mind hadn't even properly registered the tropical forestry until he heard the sound of running water.
Fresh running water.
He nearly lost his mind when he stumbled upon the stream. He was too tired and too thirsty to even consider popping a contamination pill to check whether the water was drinkable and dipped his head in the water and drank to this heart's content.
Minutes later, his stomach filled with water, Naruto slumped to the ground and lay on his back. His lips were stilly crusty from dehydration but he felt considerably better and confident enough he could muster enough chakra control now his mind was clear and thus held up his go-to hand seal. He paused for a moment however.
Would using the Kage Bunshin to collect food and materials for shelter be cheating? He supposed not, the old man hadn't expressly told him not to, but he couldn't help but shake the feeling in the pit of his stomach that he ought to do it by himself. 'Maybe I'm overthinking it,' Naruto thought as he blinked through irritation of sweat in his eyes. 'I didn't have this feeling when I fought those scorpions… Then again my life was on the line then and now I'm being lazy.'
The blond released an exasperated sigh. 'Really, you're arguing with yourself now, Uzumaki?' Deciding to think on it for a few minutes, Naruto closed his eyes, using his backpack as a cushion.
Five minutes of rest and he'd know what to do.
Naruto fell into a deep slumber the moment his eyes shut.
Volumes of blood seeped through the sand surrounding the oasis hidden by the dunes; dark splotches, some mixed with viscera, enough to make even a seasoned shinobi's stomach churn.
Gaara's arms moved continuously and vigorously as he manipulated the sand with fluid precision, like a master conductor directing a sublime ballet of death and destruction.
His enemies attempted to slow him down with water jutsu, they had come prepared with efficient formations to overwhelm him in turn, moving in groups of half a dozen men. Were it anywhere else, they would have likely won, perhaps even if the red demon of sand tapped into the Ichibi's power.
High-pressure water jets with considerably cutting power battered his defences from all sides as Gaara continued to uphold his efforts. Half a dozen eyes floated above; Gaara bided his time, they hadn't noticed yet.
His non-Shukaku eye glanced to the oasis. Temari's laid at the bottom protected in an airtight cocoon to keep her from getting in the way and, if he had to be completely honest, for own safety. The sentiment would be for naught however if he didn't act quickly before her air supply ran out.
Gaara took a deep breath and whirled his arms in a circling motion, encasing himself a thick cocoon of compressed sand. The jinchūriki pressed his and middle finger to his right eye. Like always, for a brief second, a part of him marvelled at the irony of him using this technique, one he had copied from his father. "Daisan no Me."
He could only use one eye at a time with his Third Eye technique and only in his base form, and thus repressed his initial jinchūriki mode so he could quickly, and carefully, calibrate his enemies' positions, switching from eye to eye like a one-screen camera feed.
Three dozen men had been sent after him, ten he had already killed (including Temari's victim) and twenty-six remained. They continued to attack in four groups of six with water, lightning and fire jutsu – the three elements that stood the best chance to weaken his Ultimate Shield.
'Now.' Gaara pulled enough of Shukaku's chakra to strengthen his jutsu as he released his Daisan no Me jutsu. He had yet to try out this particular technique in combat, but now was as good a time as any.
Shukaku's Ultimate Defense spoke for itself. Gaara wanted to see what its Ultimate Offense was capable of.
Gaara knelt and placed both palms on the sand beneath his feet and concentrated. The blood of his fallen would-be assassins began to gather in a pool beneath him and stretched up with him, mixing with the sand as it formed into a spear with four wickedly curved blades. His chakra strengthened the iron in the blood with the compressed sand into an incredibly durable weapon.
The Spear of Shukaku.
The sand dome dissolved and Gaara stood tall, his eyes replaced by those of the Ichibi.
Kankurō was beside himself with worry. Perspiration ran down the side of his face; he rubbed his prickling eye with his sleeve, unknowingly ruining his kabuki-styled face paint. The puppeteer led the charge at the head of a thirty strong search party.
"Keep up!" the newly minted jōnin barked.
That damnable fool Baki had tried to keep it from him that Gaara was in danger. He had known of the snakes in the sand, of course he did, he was no fool after all, but how was he to know they would be bold enough to strike now, and in the desert no less? Naturally, Gaara could take care of himself, Kankurō had no doubt of that, but Temari… All colour had drained from Baki's face when he mentioned Temari went to pay her respects.
"Kankurō-sama!" one of the chūnin in his hosts closed in. His name was Kaizawa Masaki; he was their sensor shinobi, an invaluable asset in the desert. "I'm sensing a colossal spike of chakra in the direction we're heading."
Kankurō's eyes darkened. "Gaara."
"I thought so too," the sensor agreed. "Kankurō-sama, it's still rising. Perhaps we should wait for reinforcements in case the Ichibi escapes."
"Absolutely not. My sister is with him, and Gaara can't control himself when he uses the Ichibi's power!" His legs picked up even more; his breathing became harder soon enough. Puppeteers didn't have the greatest of stamina to begin with as stationary long-range combatants, and Kankurō was carrying a puppet on his back. "Let's go!"
They ran in tense silence for some time, undoubtedly anxious and apprehensive; there was a good chance Gaara could lose control if the assassins pushed him far enough. Kankurō was considerably more worried for his sister however, and pushed himself to run even faster to the point he had a considerable lead on his men. He suspected they weren't giving it their all, not that he could blame them. Gaara was his brother, he was somewhat used to it, but his men didn't know anything about him. They probably believed all the rumours, even the inane ones like the one that suggested Gaara was the one who slew the late Kazekage.
Kankurō's mind drifted to the time shortly after their return in disgrace. It was the first and only time his younger brother had ever confided in him.
"Gaara, Baki has been looking for you all over. We should-"
"Brother… why do you think I lost against Uzumaki Naruto?"
"I… I don't know. Maybe he got lucky."
Gaara had shook his head. "What do bonds really mean?"
"Until now my bonds with others have only been ones of hatred and murder, but now… After he beat me, I've been thinking. Perhaps I can… change. Perhaps I can be more like him." (1)
"We're here!" Kaizawa reported.
Kankurō's eyes widened in shock as they came upon the site of battle. His legs kept moving, unaware his search party had stopped. Their eyes were even wider his, and filled with fear.
There was so much blood…
Gaara stood in the middle of a revamped dune formation, his arms crossed and a spear of blood and sand levitating behind him. Around him several dozens spears protruded from the sand; roughly two-dozen men remained suspended, their bodies perforated as blood continued to drip from their carcasses.
Kankurō blinked hard as he finally willed his legs to stop. For a moment he thought Gaara's hair had grown longer, only to notice his younger brother was drenched in blood, likely from the assassin mounted on the spear floating above him. "Ga… Gaara…"
"Kankurō." Gaara's voice sounded hollow to him, almost alien. Shukaku's eyes pierced his soul; Kankurō involuntarily took a step backwards.
"Where's Temari?" he asked when managed to find his voice. "What happened to her?"
Gaara grimaced; he fell to his knees and clutched his head. "Gah!"
"Gaara!" Kankurō hesitated. Could he touch his brother safely or would the Shukaku intervene? Deciding not to risk it, he instead asked, "Are you OK?"
Gaara didn't answer him and instead raised his arm and made a gripping motion towards the oasis. Kankurō turned his head, eyes widening once more as a cocoon of sand emerged from the water and dissolved, unceremoniously dropping Temari's limp form to the ground in a free fall.
"Catch her!" the puppeteer barked loudly.
Before anyone could intervene Gaara commanded the desert sand to shoot up and secure their sister. For a moment Kankurō couldn't believe his eyes, did Gaara just overexert himself to save Temari?
Gaara breathed heavily, finding his feet and folding his arms, fatigue clear in his eyes.
'He fought the Ichibi for control,' Kankurō realised. 'I didn't know he could fight it. But why?' He turned and ran over to his sister. "Medic!" As he barked commands the realisation hit him. Gaara had fought the Ichibi not for himself, but to protect Temari… "Gaara-"
As Kankurō looked at his brother he saw a something, a glimpse, a shadow. "Gaara, behind you!" One of the assassin's had survived and hidden from sight under the sand. "Stop him!" he barked the order as he unleashed Karasu.
In the heat of the moment it didn't dawn on Kankurō that his sensor should've noticed, should've sensed the assassin. Why were they all so quiet?
Before Karasu could get within range of its target, the nameless shinobi was upon his brother, sword steadied for a killing blow. The sand erupted and encroached the assassins, but not before his blade struck and tore a gash in Gaara's face.
A sliver blood flowed through the wind.
Enraged, Gaara roared and gripped his fist tightly. His killing intent spiked to levels of the days prior to his defeat. Gaara wanted blood, and he got it copious amounts. "Sabaku Sōsō!"
Kankurō had witnessed Gaara's Sand Waterfall Prison many times before. He had seen Gaara kill countless times, out of duty, out of a desire for pleasure; he had even seen Gaara kill out of sheer boredom.
Kankurō had never seen Gaara kill for revenge.
He didn't know how much more terrifying it was. Gaara's sand didn't cover the assassin's face, his facemask had been torn aside, and bore his agonising expression for the world the see. The fear in his eyes stood out even from a distance, it was as if he was looking at the devil himself.
In that moment, Kankurō thought he did too.
Blood and viscera exploded in a rain of stomach churning gore, splattering on the sand audibly.
Kankurō released a breath he hadn't realised he was holding and sighed in relief for a moment; then, turning to shout at his subordinates, it hit him. Too little to late.
The sensor, Kaizawa, held a subdued Temari the ground, on her knees, which were turning red due to the hot sand. Temari was barely conscious; her fan was in the custody of another shinobi. Kaizawa pressed his kunai against her neck. "Thi- This is our chance! We can get rid of all three of you eyesores right here and now!"
Kankurō's blood ran cold. "Release her, Kaizawa. Now."
"That's not going to happen," Kaizawa said, somewhat nervous, but smiling nonetheless. "You three are just like the Yondaime, his blood runs through your veins, that stubborn, cursed blood that got him killed. His weakness is the reason why we failed to destroy Konoha! The world is laughing at us because of his stupidity!"
"What are you talking about?" the puppeteer shouted. "Let my sister go!"
"Don't worry, she's not going anywhere," Kaizawa said coldly. "None of you are." The sensor sneered as he caressed Temari's cheek. "Your father, the fool, refused to align with Orochimaru and look what happened to him, he got himself killed and now we're a laughing stock in the shinobi world. All the sacrifices we made were for nothing. He failed us - he was the one who turned his back on us! Suna has always had to prove itself, it's common knowledge we're the weakest amongst the Great Five. Suna commands no respect! The lowest in might, manpower, income… the weakest bijū – tell me," Kaizawa geared his ire to Gaara. "How did you lose to a jinchūriki who isn't even fully realised? You are just as responsible for the failed invasion! Tell me exactly how could you have lost to such a weak host?"
Kankurō wished his eyes could kill in that moment as he glared at Kaizawa with nothing but unadulterated hatred. He had no idea their failure could have done so much damage, but more than that, he couldn't forgive anyone for blaming them, for blaming his brother, when they had done the best they could, but before he could speak, Gaara did, in a voice so calm and composedhe could hardly believe it.
"He fought for a greater purpose," Gaara said as he locked eyes with Kaizawa. "I lost because he..." A ghost of a smile graced Gaara much to their collective shock, including his brother. "Uzumaki Naruto fought for a greater purpose than I. That is the reason I lost."
Kaizawa's expression was one of disbelief and madness. "What are you saying?" he screamed. "Are you saying we lost because you couldn't find you resolve? Is that it?"
"I was resolved to kill Uzumaki Naruto, I've never wanted to kill anyone so badly in my life, not even my own father who condemned me to this existence…" Grains of sand trickled in Kaizawa's shade as Gaara spoke up, loud enough so they could all hear them. "It was not for a lack of resolve that I lost. It was for a lack of purpose. I fought only to prove my existence, I killed so I could feel alive, to confirm that I existed, that I… mattered."
No one had ever heard Gaara speak at such length because he never had, because no one was ever brave enough to listen. They feared Gaara because his violence knew no limits, they feared him because was unbeatable. Now that Gaara had tasted bitter defeat, they no longer feared him as much, for he was not the invincible demon they believed him to be, not anymore. More importantly, he seemingly cared enough for his siblings that they could have him at their mercy with one of them as their hostage. They weren't afraid because, much to their own disbelief, they had found that Gaara… had a heart.
So they listened.
"I understand your anger," Gaara continued in the same loud voice. "Until recently, it was one of the few emotions that I understood. My father was the first in many generations that could demand the world's respect, and you idolised him for it. He brought you hope for a future, hope that your families might not be harmed under his protection, hope that the world might not look down upon us… My father disappointed you when he died, he failed to live up to his potential, he failed to be the hero that you needed him to be, and rather than blaming yourselves for your own failures, you are blaming a dead man."
"What do you know about any of this? You know nothing! You live only to kill and destroy, you were born for that purpose!" Kaizawa screamed. "What do you know about the losses we have suffered? This village has suffered for generations at the hands of every aggressor that thought they could take what's ours! Your father's stubbornness made us fail and because of him many good men died in vain!" Kaizawa's grip tightened around Temari's throat as he pressed the kunai hard and drew a line of blood.
Gaara understood. Kaizawa needed someone to punish, he wasn't interested in reason or logic, he simply needed vindication, in any way he could get it, and wasn't alone. "The sins of the father…"
"That's right!" Kaizawa said hysterically. Tears were flowing now, it was as if the Suna-nin was finally able to unleash the pent up anger and frustration within him by focusing it all on Gaara. His shinobi training was forgotten now.
"Cowards!" Kankurō shouted at the top of his lungs. "Weaklings! You are every bit as much responsible for-" Floating grains of sand caught Kankurō's attention.
Before they could follow his sight, Gaara spread his arms. "My brother and sister are weak, far too weak to ever have had any control over the situation. If you want your vengeance, then come and take it. My sand won't stop you. Kill me and be done with it, but you will not harm them."
Kaizawa cackled with laughter, unaware he was the only one. Everyone else was too shocked to say anything, too stunned with disbelief at what Gaara was proposing. "You really expect me to believe you?" The deranged chūnin unsheathed the blade of a nearby subordinate and threw it to Kankurō.
The blade lodged into the sand and remained standing. "You are out of fucking mind if you think I'm going to play your game," Kankurō said.
"You'll do it or I'll slit your sister's throat!" Kaizawa's hand caressed Temari again; he kept his eyes on both brothers, taking perverse pleasure in provoking them, and even going as far as sliding in hand down slowly until… he had sealed his fate.
Kaizawa was a dead man, Kankurō decided in that moment. He grabbed the blade by the hilt and began a murderous stalk towards the traitor.
"Kankurō!" Gaara's voice thundered. "Do as he says. Do I have you word you will release my sister once you have your pound of flesh?"
"You're actually serious about this?" Kaizawa laughed hysterically. It was completely lost on him how the air had changed, how his men had begun to think differently. "Sure, as you wish! Kill him, puppet boy, before I shame your sister even more!" To make a point, Kaizawa squeezed.
Fire burned in Kankurō's stomach as he turned and raised the sword. 'If you're going to do something, you better do it now, Gaara! While their eyes are on us!' Kankurō gave an angry roar as he charged at his brother.
The blade swung down just as sand erupted, blasting the men skywards and encasing them in levitating Sand Coffins. Kankurō halted his momentum and turned, immediately running towards Temari as she slumped forward. He managed to catch her, and embraced her tightly.
"What took you so long?" Temari said weakly. She had been conscious the entire time, though too weakened by oxygen deprivation to be of much assistance and thus had feigned being unconscious, even through Kaizawa's…
Kankurō released her sister and rose, sword in hand, with a murderous look in his eye for the blob of sand from which Kaiza's head protruded. "Gaara, he's mine."
"You're right, he's mine," Temari insisted.
Kankurō gave her a resentful look, though he couldn't blame her. The traitorous sensor had wronged them both.
They looked to Gaara simultaneously with matching look of disbelief and opened their mouths to argue, but he wouldn't have any of it. "No one dies."
"Gaara, what do you mean?" Temari had a hard time containing her own shock and disbelief while feigning being unconscious, but she was certain those words would have gotten her to blow her cover. "You're going to..." The word didn't simply feel right, it felt foreign even, especially in association with her younger brother. "Spare them?"
"Whatever I may think of him… Father was a hero to them. His failure is our failure, and despite what we may tell ourselves, we failed them too," he explained calmly. "Though, if I must be honest, I am… glad that we did."
Temari hadn't been there when Gaara confided in him, she hadn't realised how much Gaara had changed. Kankurō placed a hand on his sister's shoulder. His hatred for Kaizawa was still there, but he understood what was more important. Gaara had changed, to make press him into taking another life simply wouldn't be right. "It's his life they were after, it's his call."
Under normal circumstances Temari wouldn't have let it go, she would have pressed the issue until she got a satisfactory result, but she was not oblivious. "Fine."
"You really think we're going to believe you?" Kaizawa crooned provocatively. "You're not fooling anyone, demon."
Gaara looked straight at him.
"What, you don't like that word, demon?" Kaizawa sneered.
"Just shut up, Kaizawa," another Suna shinobi said quietly. "Just accept your fate like a man. It's over."
"You think he'll spare you for those words, fool? He has to kill us, it's what he does! It's a compulsion, isn't it?" Kaizawa looked Gaara in the eyes, his expression faltered. "What's with that look? Don't you look at me as if you can pity me, demon."
"I remember you now," Gaara said. "You had a brother. Kaizawa… your brother was in my father's guard."
Temari looked at the suspended jōnin, she could clearly see his face now.
"Kaizawa Daisuke," Kankurō supplied. "I remember how proudly you said his name when you told me he had died with our father, protecting him, loyal to the bitter end. It's why it comes as such a shock you would do something like this, Masaki."
"You have a lot of nerve addressing me so familiarly, scum! Your father-"
"Enough." Gaara lowered the Sand Coffins and crossed his arms again. It took considerably more control to keep thirty men bound securely especially when they were levitated. "You keep blaming our father as though he is the cause for all the misery in your life. Why don't you take some responsibility for your own failures instead of hiding behind excuses and scapegoats because you don't want to acknowledge your own shortcomings? Coward."
"Just kill me and be done it with, demon." Kaizawa Masaki fell silent and resigned to his fate.
Gaara contemplated his next decision. He was certain that, despite what they had done, he didn't want to kill them, he didn't want more blood on his hand if he could help it, least of all blood from fellow Suna shinobi. Mere weeks ago he would have killed them without second thought, months before that it wouldn't even have come to this, he might even have allowed Temari to die. But now? Things were different. He was different.
'I don't want to be that person again,' Gaara realised. 'I don't want to be alone again.'
"The pain of being alone… it's out of this world, isn't it? I don't know why… but I understand your feelings so much, it actually hurts. But I… I have people that are important to me now. I won't let you hurt them." (2)
Those words had haunted him ever since Uzumaki Naruto had spoken them. As bitter as defeat was, they gave him hope that he might believe in them, that he might change because of them.
And now he had changed.
Gaara closed his eyes. "No one dies." The Sand Coffins began to dissolve; the captives were free before either Temari or Kankurō could complain, not that they would.
"Wh- What is the meaning of this?" Kaizawa demanded in a voice so filled with disbelief it was a genuine. "Why won't you kill us – is this some trick?"
Some of the released rebels began to murmur amongst themselves, though the majority were fell in a shock-induced silence.
"In my defeat… I found hope." Gaara silenced them all with those words. "All my life I believed I was fated to become the incarnation of evil, and that death and destruction were all I was good for. I didn't believe in things such as friendship and family because I didn't think I was worthy of being considered human, of being able to have and appreciate those things… It wasn't until I met Uzumaki Naruto, a jinchūriki like me, someone who understood me and felt my pain simply by looking at me… It wasn't until then that I realised that I could be something else, something more than what I am now."
He didn't know if any of this was breaking through to them, he didn't know whether they would believe him, or whether they were truly listening in the first place, or even whether they'd stop trying to kill him, but as Gaara told them everything that had been on his mind since his defeat, as he bared his soul to them, he felt an immense weight lift off his shoulders. For the first time in his life, Gaara felt as though he was human, as though he was changing – really changing. He couldn't stop himself even if he wanted to.
"In defeat I learned what is truly important, I learned that fighting for myself would never bring me peace, and that my resolve would always fail against someone who fought not his own sake but for those who were important to him." Gaara did something unusual: he smiled. It wasn't one of his usual wicked, murderous grins he had when he was under the influence of Shukaku. It was a genuine smile. "I didn't realise it until now that I've had people important to me around me all along. My brother and sister are important to me, I want to protect them, and I'll fight for their sake to protect them."
From the corner of his eye Kankurō could see tears welling up in his sister's eyes. He hadn't seen Temari cry since they were little, she hadn't even cried when they heard about their father's death. He couldn't fault her though; his own emotions were threatening to get the better of them.
"If you'll let me, I'll fight for your sake too," Gaara said finally, in a voice so strikingly genuine he couldn't hide it if he wanted and they couldn't ignore it. "Uzumaki Naruto fights for his village, it made him strong, stronger than I ever could be, but more importantly, it gave him something much more valuable: it gave him peace. I want to do the same, I want to be like him, so I won't kill you. I won't hurt you. Instead…"
Gaara didn't know if he had the courage to say the words to commit to his change, but somehow he found it deep in the pit of his stomach.
"I'll become Kazekage and protect you with my life."
The tears were flowing freely by now, and Temari wasn't the only one. Amongst the men Gaara had spared many fell to their knees and cried for forgiveness, whilst others remained in a state of shock or had their guilt eat at them. Even Kaizawa Masaki was without words as he cried, his head pressed to sand and fists clenched tightly.
Kankurō wiped his eyes with his sleeve, pulling Temari in one-armed embrace as the men clung on to Gaara's robes crying for forgiveness.
For the first time ever, the sand did not intervene. There was no threat left to be exterminated, no enemy to defend its host from.
"He's going to do it," Temari said wiping away the tears. "He's changed, Kankurō."
"I know, sis," Kankurō replied, a grin plastered on his face.
"I never thought it possible," a familiar voice said.
The two turned as Baki approached them. Several feet behind him a host of fifty or so shinobi remained standing. The seasoned jōnin had a look of pride in his eye as he watched Gaara separate himself from the mass and kneel by Masaki. "I didn't think this day would ever come."
"None of us did," Temari said chokingly. She was beside herself with happiness, she felt she had just witnessed a miracle. Perhaps she did. "They're all in love with him now, they believe in him," she said as more shinobi began to circle around Gaara.
They were chanting his name.
A smile found itself on Baki's usually stern face. "I heard everything. It appears Gaara has inherited whatever power Uzumaki did."
Kankurō gave a confused frown. "What do you mean?"
"Whatever power Uzumaki had over Gaara that allowed him to change him, it looks like he's passed it on, that unique charisma that inspires trust in others," Baki expanded vaguely. "I've never seen anything like it."
Brother and sister could only nod in understanding. What Baki was saying, as strange as it was, they knew there was some truth to it. They had seen their brother change before them, and they had witnessed the power of that change.
They knew then and there that they were looking at the next Kazekage.
(Mount Kongōurin Valley)
The jungle was breathtakingly beautiful at night. A touch of cool breeze clung to the night air soothingly, and the night sky was a beautiful mix of black, blue and indigo, adorned without countless stars shining so brightly Naruto couldn't think of anything any more beautiful.
"This place is all right," he mused, lied down in the tall grass. "When things aren't killing me I mean." He chuckled a little. "I'm talking to myself already." To be perfectly honest, he wasn't feeling lonely in the slightest. If anything he felt more at peace now than he had in Konoha, lying in jungle grass with the most beautiful view he'd ever had, nice breeze on his skin and the sound of babbling brooks and unseen critters shifting through darkness.
'So this is what's like to actually decompress, huh? It's nice.' Naruto never decompressed much before, he was usually to busy for that, or fighting for his life or someone else's. His days off were usually spent fooling around or in the company in the others.
For the first time in a long time was completely alone with his thoughts. It was surprisingly relaxing.
Naruto pulled his pendant from under his bodysuit and admired it properly. The Shodai Hokage had worn this thing, probably even in battle. Words couldn't describe how cool that was, just the thought made his lips twitch in a smile. Now that he thought it about it, he had an unusual connection the Hokage. His father was the Yondaime; the Sandaime raised him and he was related by blood to the Shodai, Nidaime and Godaime through his mother's side. Sarugaku's suspicion of him made more sense now than it had before.
It was almost like a higher power was at work. Surely his connection to the past Hokage couldn't be a mere coincidence? Head resting one arm and another stretched as though grasping at the curtain of darkness that was the sky, Naruto let his mind wander from the Hokage to his mother.
The Uzumaki clan was something else if his mother was able to protect him shortly after surviving a bijū extraction and childbirth, two ordeals of which was certain to kill the average jinchūriki, if such a thing even existed, and another potentially lethal for any woman, but even more so for a jinchūriki who'd have to go through the pain of labour whilst warding off a bijū. That impressed him even more than his father's legacy, and it meant more to him than anything ever could because of the simple fact she did it for him.
The fact he lived was undeniable proof that he was loved when he was brought into the world. That was something most children took for granted, in their minds their parents were supposed to love them, that was their job, but for a lonely orphan who knew nothing about his parentage or background, it was normal to assume the worst; that they weren't loved or wanted but instead perceived as something negative, an inconvenience.
Naruto had vowed never to let his children ever feel that way if he ever settled down, which was a greater uncertainty for him than anyone else he knew seeing as he was a jinchūriki and had an organisation of S-ranked shinobi that made it their business to hunt him down and extract the Kyūbi from him
'If they weren't assholes trying to kill me they could have the damn thing.' Ever since he found out he was the host to his parents' killer his resentment for the Kyūbi had grown exponentially. He hated the beast, pure and simple. If it was within his power he'd make the fox suffer for eternity. 'To think I felt sorry for him…' As much as he feared the fox, he knew it was not much different from a caged bird, and in some ways, he could relate to it, but there was nothing in this world that could make him forgive the bijū for killing his parents and subsequently making his life a living hell. He could only imagine now what life would have been like if his parents were alive, he doubted he would have to hide his secret.
Naruto released a sigh; it wasn't like him to ponder what-if scenarios. As comfortable as he was, he knew it was time to get going. He was rested well enough and he had a deadline to make.
'One day down, six more to go,' he thought as he got up and shouldered his bag.
I sincerely hope that was worth the wait. Probably not, but it's what you get for now. I had a recent realisation the other day: I suck at keeping promises with regards to my stories. I don't know what it is, I try to stay motivated, inspired to write as much as I can, but for some reason I'm never able to do that. My creative process is chaotic. When it hits me, I feel compelled to write it down and sometimes I can write entire chapters based on just one impulse. Other times I manage a few pages, sometimes only a few sentences. It's hectic, it's inconsistent, but it's me. And you know what? In a way, I'm glad I don't force myself to be like other author's who have seem to have insatiable hunger for writing. I envy those guys like Kenchi618 and Sarah1281 to name a few. They can put out genius and rates that just don't seem human, but as much as I wish I could be like that, I simply can't. The few times I've managed to force myself to put pen to paper (figuratively and literally) I wrote garbage. Not only that, I find myself wishing I hadn't because then sometimes I'm hit with sudden inspiration, something great, something awesome I wish I could've incorporated in a chapter. Usually when you I make you guys wait so long for chapters, and trust me, I really am sorry I do that, I often manage to come up with and include awesome new ideas. Seriously, you wouldn't believe how this story would've turned out if I hadn't held back for with some chapters. Anyway, enough about me.
While Naruto's off training, I'll be using this opportunity to focus on some other things, characters that don't get much screen time, ideas I have for the story, exposition and so on. I wonder how many of you thought that bit about Fukuda Shinya at the start of chapter 18 was just me being random.
OK, this AN is getting a tad long so I'll end it here. Again, hope you guys enjoyed the chapter and let me know what you think. I'd promise earlier updates but you guys should know how full of shit I am by now. I'll see you when I see ya, but if you're still up for more, there's that The Uzumaki Decendant story I've been writing. Slow updates on that one too but it's an interesting read if the reviews are anything to go by, plus a new chapter should be out soon.
(1) It's not clear whether this conversation between Gaara and Kankurō took place after the Chūnin Exams or somewhere during the timeskip, but for the sake of the plot, I've pushed it to post Chūnin Exams. Remember: this story has gone down a different path so a lot of things may be different or told differently.
(2) More or less a direct quote from Naruto to Gaara after their fight. Various sources have got it differently but this is what I'm going with.
Uchiha Sasuke | Ninjutsu: 3 | Taijutsu: 3 | Bukijutsu: 2.5 | Genjutsu: 2.5 | Intelligence: 3.5 | Strength: 2.5 | Speed: 2.5 | Stamina: 3 | Chakra: 3 | Chakra Control: 3.5 | Total: 29 |
Uzumaki Naruto | Ninjutsu: 3 | Taijutsu: 2.5 | Bukijutsu: 1.5 | Genjutsu: 1 | Intelligence: 3 | Strength: 2.5 | Speed: 2.5 | Stamina: 4.5 | Chakra: 5 | Chakra Control: 2.5 | Total: 28 |
Haruno Sakura | Ninjutsu: 1.5 | Taijutsu: 2 | Bukijutsu: 1 | Genjutsu: 2.5 | Intelligence: 3.5 | Strength: 2 | Speed: 2 | Stamina: 2 | Chakra: 2 | Chakra Control: 4 | Total: 22.5 |
Gaara | Ninjutsu: 3 | Taijutsu: 1 | Bukijutsu: 3.5 | Genjutsu: 3 | Intelligence: 3.5 | Strength: 2 | Speed: 2.5 | Stamina: 3.5 | Chakra: 5 | Chakra Control: 3.5 | Total: 30.5 |
Kankurō | Ninjutsu: 2 | Taijutsu: 1.5 | Bukijutsu: 3.5 | Genjutsu: 2.5 | Intelligence: 3.5 | Strength: 2 | Speed: 2 | Stamina: 3 | Chakra: 2.5 | Chakra Control: 4 | Total: 26.5 |
Temari | Ninjutsu: 2.5 | Taijutsu: 1.5 | Bukijutsu: 3.5 | Genjutsu: 3 | Intelligence: 3 | Strength: 2 | Speed: 2 | Stamina: 3 | Chakra: 2.5 | Chakra Control: 3.5 | Total: 26.5 |