It's been over a year since I've updated this story, but rest assured I haven't abandoned it. I lost inspiration for a while, then got caught up with other issues, and I've actually written and re-written this chapter multiple times, and I'm still not really sure if it works very well, but this is the version that I've settled on. I wrote it with this plot development in mind because I'm going to get some of the lead out of the plot with the next few chapters, particularly with what's happening in Konoha with Shisui and the Uchiha clan. Large time skips won't be used, but I will move over things like repetitive training, and traveling, and of course any periods of time that are simply filler between plot events and explorations of the world and characters.
The air felt alive. Asuma walked through the village, his gaze flickering from the sky, to the trees, to the buildings. Everywhere he looked, he felt, not a pressure, but a presence, a brush against his skin, at the base of his skull, down in his stomach. He narrowed his eyes, looking intently at a small patch around the trees. White. White flecks. Insects? He frowned. No. They floated too carelessly, too effortlessly, almost like snowflakes caught in a slow, lazy updraft. Almost like...
"Flowers." He spoke out loud, garnering Naruto's attention.
"Hm? What about flowers?" Naruto came closer and looked around, craning his neck.
"Do you see those white flecks around the trees? They're hard to see against the sky because the sun is almost at its peak."
"Yeah, I can see them. They look like bugs."
"That's what I thought, but they're moving too slowly, and too randomly."
"Oh, right," Naruto nodded before looking away, his acknowledgment as brief as his attention to the anomaly. He rubbed the side of his head, an absent gesture, as though something ephemeral brushed against his skin.
"Do you feel something?"
"It's just something brushing against my hair. But it's not that windy. Is there something special about this place?"
"No. There aren't any records of chakra residue; no strong shinobi fought here, none of the tailed beasts were ever sighted." He raised his hand, palm open, and tried to capture some of the floating specks, but they remained out of reach. Wind chakra could bring them closer, funneling them to the ground. He brought his hands up, fingertips touching, the seals rising in his mind as effortlessly as the images of Naruto and his father.
"You're going to use ninjutsu?" Naruto looked at him, his face calm, but his eyes wide and encapsulating a taught, barely restrained eagerness, even after all this time.
Asuma winked. He finished the seals the next moment, and the air around them came to life, the flecks conforming to the shape of the vortex like dye in water. When the jutsu ended, Asuma scraped a piece off the ground, scrutinizing it as he walked, carefully moving it between his thumb and forefinger. Soft and flesh.
"So it's a petal after all," he muttered and placed a fresh piece in his pocket.
Naruto looked disappointed. "Nothing special?"
"We'll see." Asuma looked over at the trees again. The forest flanked the village, and went on for several miles to the east, slowly sloping downward and ending in a wide valley. It looked as though the homes at the edge would be overshadowed, night and day.
What a depressing way to live. A breeze picked up, and the branches swayed lazily, causing birds to fly out and land on the rooftops. But good for a shinobi.
"Couldn't you have just jumped and gotten a piece?" Nartuo stared at the sky, as though trying to judge the distance between the pieces and the ground.
"I could have," Asuma said solemnly, nodding as though in contemplation. Then he smiled, almost conspiratorially. "But that wouldn't have been as fun, right?"
Naruto's expression mirrored his own. "No."
They continued on, and Asuma remembered that Naruto had memorized all the hand seals, and could mold his chakra quickly enough to pass for a beginning academy student, though from the vantage of his experience, his hands appeared to move as languidly as an old man in the grip of arthritis.
"Hey dad. If we don't find what we're looking for here, how much longer do you think it'll take?"
Couldn't have asked me an easy question, like how long do you think it'll take until I can use wind chakra without feeling like I'm going to pass out?
"Hm. I don't know, to be honest. The nearest village is a two day walk from here, if I remember the map correctly."
"You always remember the map." Naruto might have been telling him the sky was blue.
"Well as long as I have you confidence, we should be fine. But, after this, we'll go to the next village I mentioned. It doesn't have any kind of gambling establishment, at least according to Genma."
"Genma gambles too?"
"Occasionally. When he's bored and doesn't feel like indulging in other activities." Things that involve women he's never met before.
"Is that why he drew smiling faces over some of the towns on the map?" Clean, curious innocence.
Asuma winced, internally and likely otherwise. But then Genma never bothered to pretend he didn't enjoy his vices, whether alcohol or women. "I'd group those expressions under the category of other things he enjoys."
Naruto accepted that without question. "So we're going to the bar again?"
Asuma made a sound of acknowledgment. In the middle of the day. And she'll probably be a few bottles in by now.
"What will we do if she just says no?" Naruto asked abruptly, his full attention on his father again. He never turned his eyes anywhere other than his addressee.
"Nothing. We can't force her to help us. And even if we could, it's not something I would do."
Naruto snorted. "First the toad man, then the snake man. Why did she leave Konoha?"
They stopped outside the bar. Asuma did a cursory examination of the people milling around them. Just a few tradesmen, an elderly man, his walking stick more of a prop than anything else.
"Why do you always make sure no one's listening before you start talking about them?"
Asuma almost complimented Naruto on using vague terms to describe their topic, but moved straight to the point.
"It's best not to broach that topic in the open. There are always overly interested people who might get the impression that you know more than you should, or that you know more than you really do."
"Ok." Naruto didn't sound quite certain he understood, but he again took it in stride.
"As for her, she left because she lost a few people in the war, and I suppose after that she felt there wasn't anything in Konoha worth staying for." But then, Kakashi lost more than a few people, and he still decided to stick things out.
Naruto frowned, looking thoroughly confused for several moments before his features relaxed.
"So she lost her family, and she spent the last few years in hiding. What is she going to do when we ask her to come back with us? We can't do anything to bring her family back." He spoke in a tone that Asuma could only describe as serious and simple. He knows there's a possibility we might have wasted our time coming here. But then he met Shisui. And if we can count him as an ally, then the time was worth it. An ally. He smiled suddenly, bemused as he stepped through the door, into the brightly lit room. Even so early, Asuma spotted a fair number of customers, a good portion of them close to his own age. And they're mostly men. And not a single shinobi amongst them. He rounded the shoulder-high wooden partition between the counter and the rest of the restaurant, his gaze shifting to the corner booth.
"That's who we're looking for?" Naruto voiced his doubt loudly as he spotted Tsunade, who was in the process of emptying a sake bottle, her sixth, if the number of empty containers decorating her table was any indication.
Well at least he didn't point. Asuma thought that by now he'd drilled the necessity of subtlety into Naruto's head.
Part of her reputation is justified."He motioned for Naruto to follow him as he crossed the bar. And it's just a little past noon.
Tsunade spotted them as they approached, her eyes widening slightly and momentarily. She glanced from Asuma to Naruto, frowning when she saw him.
"And to what do I owe the company of the Third's son and...his pupil, apparently?" She finished with a hint of amusement in her voice. Asuma could almost feel Naruto frown.
Before Asuma could respond, the woman sitting opposite Tsunade rose from her seat.
"Shizune?" He concealed his shock, blinking and letting his face relax. She'd told him he was going. She'd come to him the night before, and he'd told her he was going to join the Temple Guardians. And I was so naïve and stupid that night it's painful to think about. She wanted comfort and intimacy, and I gave her a book.
He smiled at her, the awkwardness of years past dispelling even when she returned the look.
"Asuma, it's good to see you. Are you here on business from the Guardians?"
"Of a sort. I'm looking for your mentor, actually."
"And you've found me. What do you want?" Sake apparently did nothing to blunt her directness.
Asuma looked around the bar, taking in all the people milling around. He didn't want to have this discussion here.
"How much longer are you planning on staying here?"
Tsunade shrugged. "As long as the sake keeps flowing, and as long I don't get bored." She smiled as though just waking from a pleasant dream, her body swaying slightly to the side.
Taking in the sight, Asuma couldn't help but silently echo his son's assertion. This is the woman who's regarded as one of the Sannin, the one who's unmatched in medical jutsu and taijutsu? He looked at Shizune, who shook her head and sighed. And this is what you left friends and family behind for? Never mind if you might have learned things from the beginning, what the hell are you doing here now?
"Dad do you really have to stay here and watch her drink?" Naruto crossed his arms, looking around the bar with distaste. He'd never liked smoke, and there was plenty of it in the air now.
That seemed to bring both women to full attention, albeit Tsunade's facial expression took longer to correlate itself with her mindset.
Shizune spoke first. "You're...a father?" She looked at Naruto with a kind of wonder.
Tsunade 'tsked. "He looks nothing like you." She took another drink while her gaze stayed on Naruto.
Naruto's back stiffened as Asuma laid his hand on his shoulder.
"Yes. This is my son." He gave the shoulder a squeeze and that seemed to give him enough confidence.
"I'm Naruto. Nice to meet you." He inclined his head but otherwise didn't move, watching Tsunade with an almost weary eye.
"And I'm Shizune. Asuma...your father, and I used to be teammates."
Naruto's head turned and his eyes widened in recognition. "Oh, you're the lady he talks about. Genma said that you and my dad were probably more than friends." He frowned at the last statement. "I'm not sure what he meant, but..." He shrugged.
Asuma wanted to strangle Genma. Then he remembered Shizune stood only a few feet from him, and that made him recall that night all over again. He only smiled and looked at Naruto.
"It's best to ignore most of what Genma says, especially when it's in regards to his friends."
Shizune just nodded politely, letting the comment pass over. "It's nice to know that you haven't forgotten your teammates. When did you see Genma?"
"A few weeks ago." He didn't want to get into this right now, not with Tsunade already ignoring them
in favor of her bottle.
"Can we join you?"
"Of course." She hesitated. "If Naruto doesn't mind sitting here."
Naruto looked up at Asuma before nodding. "I guess it's all right." He followed Shizune, sitting between her and Asuma.
Tsunade poured the remaining contents of her bottle into a cup, supporting it on a tripod of fingers. "Well, you're here. And you haven't answered my question."
"I'd rather not have that conversation in a bar."
She laughed, loud enough to draw attention from other tables. "Oh, so is this a matter concerning Konoha's security? Or is the Daimyo in danger of suffocating under the scent of his own perfume? It must be difficult work, sitting around all day and fanning yourself." She chuckled at her comment.
Not as difficult as drinking yourself into a stupor on a regular basis. "This isn't official. I'm here for a personal favor."
That piqued her interest. "Oh." She leaned forward. "Personal favors usually require some form of payment. What mission rank would you put it as?"
"Lady Tsunade, I don't think this is necessary. They tried to find you, and that couldn't have been easy."
Asuma didn't bother to contradict her. "It's fine, Shizune. I can understand where she's coming from. Shinobi are used to being paid for their services, especially if they have unique skills."
That made Tsunade smile. She looked at Shizune. "If you were with him, at least you didn't choose someone completely stupid."
Asuma cleared his throat. "That being said, we spent a lot coming here. Food. Lodging. I bought new equipment, just in case something unexpected came up." It wasn't a total lie; Chiriku had given him freshly sharpened kunai and shuriken, and Jiraiya and Shisui had provided scrolls for Naruto. "Then, there was the relative risk, especially with someone as young as Naruto." His son scowled but thankfully kept his silence.
"What risk? We're at peace now." Tsunade frowned, though her expression still wavered.
"We had a close encounter at one point. Mercenaries. That set us back for a few days, and warranted a visit to the medic, but I guess that's what we get for crossing paths with Konoha shinobi on a mission."
Tsunade made a noise of acknowledgment.
"Genma's mission?" Shizune glanced at him.
Asuma just nodded. "That turned out to be fairly highly ranked. At least A rank I'd say, since he couldn't tell us much about it."
"My point is that, instead of just having a pleasant walk from A to B, we were dragged into a a dangerous mission that ended with us being attacked by a group of Iwa mercenaries. My son's life was placed at considerable risk." His eyes flicked towards Naruto, who swallowed heavily and wrung his hands. Whether he acted on genuine fears from the memory, or out of an attempt to play along with the story, Asuma didn't know. I've overlooked the fact that he didn't grow up during a war, haven't I?
Tsunade made a deep sound from the back of her throat, like she decided to sigh in the middle of trying to clear her throat.
"And then, I suppose, you want me to take that into consideration when I offer my price?" She smiled, bemused and unfocused.
"You don't agree?"
She seemed to consider. "Who knows? I haven't made an offer yet. Maybe...maybe I don't want to help you with something like this." She turned her head to the side, resting her chin on her shoulder. "We're rather well off at the moment, aren't we, Shizune?"
Shizune didn't respond immediately. She had her attention on Naruto, as though still coming to terms with his assertion of parenthood. Did you think of that, think of me? What I might have been doing with my life? Asuma quashed his ego the moment it reared itself.
"We have enough to last us for a time."
"Months, Shizune. Months." To emphasize the point, she smacked the table with an open hand, the resounding clap causing the buzz of the bar to dull as conversations were brought up short, but the lull lasted for only a moment, with many of the patrons not even bothering to turn.
Shizune sighed. "Yes. Months." She looked towards the wall.
Asuma controlled himself, clearing his throat when it suddenly became dry, flexing his fingers when his hand started to shake. What have you gotten yourself into?
"What happens after those months?"
"Mmmm. What happens? Who knows what will happen?" Tsunade didn't even speak to him, or Shizune. From the looks of it, she addressed the cup sitting near the corner of the table.
Asuma grabbed an empty bottle by its neck and shifted it along the table. "And you don't want to be found out, so you won't stay here long."
She rolled her eyes. "Obviously. Wonderful that all the academy training you received has given you a sharp mind."
"Hm. Well, you apparently believed in its merits, since you took Shizune with you."
"Before. Before I took her with me, she barely knew anything about healing and taijutsu, Compared to what she is now...there's no way to measure the two, the past and present, against the other." She trailed off and hunched over the table.
Naruto nudged Asuma.
"Dad, is this really the person we want to spend our time on?"
Asuma would have laughed if he thought it would have gone unnoticed. Or maybe it might. I wonder
what dad would think of his student now?
"Just a few more minutes, Naruto. We need some kind of confirmation, or a definite rejection, before we leave."
"But she's just drunk. What's the point?" Naruto thankfully spoke in a hushed tone, having picked up his father's look of warning.
"That is the point. We have a better chance of convincing her to her help us when she's like this than if she were sober." He glanced at Tsunade. I hope.
Naruto didn't look convinced, but held his peace for the most part, fidgeting in his seat and glancing at the walls for something to keep himself entertained.
Shizune came to his rescue. "Why don't I take Naruto back to the hotel? I think he'll be happier there than sitting here with nothing to do."
Naruto brightened at the suggestion, looking at Asuma with a smile. "Can I?"
Asuma glanced at Shizune's face. She'd matured. Her cheekbones, round and high, looking almost delicate, like thin porcelain. Her lips...Asuma swallowed. Into a woman. But I've been with a woman. Women. I know what a woman is like.
He nodded. "Yes, Naruto. You can go with Shizune." He smiled at her, and when she returned the expression, Asuma felt a sudden heat on his palms and face, a brief, sharp loss of the control of his facial expression, so his full smile morphed into something like bemusement.
"Dad, are you all right?" Naruto nudged, him, causing Asuma to mentally lose balance as his higher mind made rough contact with what his body expressed.
Hell, am I sixteen and just realizing that boys and girls are different? "Fine, Naruto. Go with Shizune. I'll be back as soon as I can." Tsunade didn't seem that she would be curtailing her intake of alcohol any time soon.
Naruto nodded and fell into step beside Shizune. She hadn't reserved any special expression or gesture for him, just a wave and another smile. Nothing unique. Just a reflex.
"So. You came here because you want her, hm?"
"No. I didn't." He managed to say it without hesitation, stated it like a fact. It is. I didn't come here for Shizune. And I can't let her twist this into an issue of unrequited teenaged love. Or infatuation.
"Mmm." She sounded amused, her voice taking on a low, languid quality that Asuma suspected only came partially from the alcohol.
"It must be a long time since you've actually been with anyone, if I'm not mistaken. How much time could you have had for that sort of thing at the Fire Temple, especially when you're carting around your...son." Again the weight of amusement hung on her voice.
"That's not why I'm here. I'm too old to be letting hormones goad me on from place to place."
Tsunade laughed, loudly enough to draw attention from adjacent tables. She didn't take notice, or didn't care.
"Too old? You're...what? Twenty two. Three? Four? How many times have you even been with a woman? Don't talk like you're grown up and versed in the world." The reprimand, if intended as such, fell flat with the addition of her residual laughter. "But, I suppose you're still being goaded on by The Will of Fire, and all that, right?" She laughed again, a low sound this time.
Asuma didn't have a quick response to that. He could have brushed it aside with a curt statement, just a handful of words, but she'd fleshed out the issue so casually it left him at a loss.
Tsunade acted on his silence, moving her cup in front of her slowly as though it carried a ponderous weight.
"I'm sure you swallowed all of that, when you were younger. Old Sarutobi was always one for spouting that at us. But, it doesn't mean anything. It's just a way to make sure that those of us who have the power to change things stay well behaved. And most are stupid or complacent enough to play along with it."
"And what? You were one of the smart ones?"
"No." Her voice, sharp, almost acrid, snapped Asuma out of his passive mindset; he felt himself drawn into the discussion for the first time since he'd arrived, a low, morbid curiosity smoldering within him.
"I was the biggest fool of them all. I took what was most precious to me, and entrusted it to other people. People who didn't care about anything except their own egos and petty, unfounded suspicions." The glass in her hand cracked and crumbled in her grip, shards and grains of ceramic spilling from her loosening palm.
And now I'm on crumbling ground. Before he could speak, Tsunade continued.
"And it was all for what? The Will of Fire? When I fought in the final battles, on the fringes between the Sand the Leaf, and watched so many die under the rain of needles and the plumes of noxious smoke, I still believed. I shrugged it off as a necessity. Ha!" She leaned back, seemingly relaxed. The gesture had an inverse effect on Asuma, and he feared she would notice his stiff back and tight fingers, but she continued.
"I healed them, our shinobi. Healed them, snatched them from the brink of death, only to send them to an even more gruesome fate. A more virulent poison. Something that dissolved capillary walls instead of slowly assailing the nervous system. Drowning as your own blood flooded your lungs. Or, being pinned to the ground by a barbed metal spear, thin enough and thrown accurately enough so as not to hit any vital spots. Death by desiccation." She threatened to smile then, Asuma thought, the vestige vicious even as it died, defeated by fear or loathing or something old and festering within her.
"I could go on and on, but I'm sure you know. You were an avid student of history, from what your father told me."
Oh? Did father speak of me in such esteemed company? He cut off his train of thought. Or has her bitterness simply turned virulent?
"No. You don't need to go on about that. But what I'm here for does have something to do with Suna."
"Fascinating. And what is it you want to know that you can't find in your books?"
"Your medical experience. I have a sample of poison. I'd like to know where it's from. And," he leaned in closer, and she just raised her eyebrows in amusement, "I'd rather not to that here."
"Oh?" She leaned closer as well, sounding coy. "And what exactly would you want to do with me in private?"
Asuma moved back rapidly, his face heating in spite of himself. She can't be this drunk. Is she just this averse to helping anyone from Konoha?
"I..." He cleared his throat. "You know that's not why I asked."
She laughed. "Oh, who knows? You're young and attractive. The Hokage's son. I'm sure you've had plenty of experience. Who was it...Genma? Yes, he said you and Shizune were more than friends, according to the boy you're traveling with. Who's is he anyway? How's that for a topic of conversation?"
"You know the answer to that question. And I didn't come here because of Shizune. I didn't even know she was with you."
"I didn't ask about Shizune. I asked about that boy."
"Naruto," Asuma said, his voice low and calm.
"Naruto. Interesting name."
Asuma sighed, not wanting this to drag out. "He's Minato's. There."
Tsunade took that without question. "And how did he come to be in your care?"
"Because no one else would take up the responsibility."
"Mhm. How noble of you. This wouldn't have anything to do with your own father?"
Asuma's eyes narrowed. Only if you mean it taught me not to let mistakes happen if I can help it.
"If it does, I don't how any of that matters."
"Of course. It's the end result that matters. Not the intentions behind it."
"Are you going to help me or not?"
"You know, maybe Orochimaru had the right idea. He never let anyone tell him what to do."
Asuma grimaced. "And look how well that worked out."
She continued, unperturbed. "Oh of course, it's all a great tragedy and such. A waste of talent. A betrayal to the village and to old Sarutobi." She sighed, suddenly melancholy. "It hit him very hard, of course. How old were you, when he defected?"
"Old enough to remember what it did to my father." And old enough to understand that he'd finally resigned himself to having me as his legacy.
She nodded slowly. "Mmm. I imagine things must have been tense then." She looked towards the ceiling as though in contemplation, the fresh cup in her hand now a genuine prop. "Old Sarutobi would make such a deal out of Orochimaru. Jiraiya insisted on shambling over to the Hokage's tower after the whole fiasco. Age takes its toll, no doubt, but to compare him on that first night, and then a half year later, it was as though a decade pressed on him." She sighed. "But again, the dangers of trusting your greatest cares to someone else. Did he ever confide in you during that time?"
Like a son to me. He was like...Asuma's hand, moved from the table's edge, to its surface, now quivered near his temple, a malformed fist.
"I don't see how that matters at this point." He sounded as though he'd gone without water after talking for most of the day.
"Though I imagine you lavish Naruto with all your attention. You've probably even started teaching him Sarutobi clan techniques. A personal touch from an experienced instructor at such a young age can make a great difference."
Asuma lowered his hand to the table, slowly and deliberately. "What I teach Naruto isn't important to this conversation." He rotated his head as though trying to alleviate pain in his neck. "Enough about Naruto. Enough about my father. I came here..."
Tsunade waved her hand. "Yes, yes. The poison. And you haven't given me a hint that you'll give any kind of payment for that service."
"Payment? Fine. With travel, the incident with mercenaries, the time it took to find you, I'll put this as B rank." He paused. "Even though you should be paying us, if you're going with that analogy, I'll give you 5000, if you agree now."
She smiled. "I could get more for giving a routine exam to a member of a minor clan."
"Then it shouldn't be a problem for you to take a few minutes to examine this sample. Consider it a payment for giving me peace of mind, like any other patient.
Tsunade straightened in her chair, setting the cup down. Her face reverted, as if by a jutsu, into a normal, placid expression.
Asuma wasn't moved. "You said you could get a comparable amount by giving a routine examination. This isn't much more difficult, so I don't see why I should pay you double."
"And I don't see why I should lower my price when you've all but admitted that you consider me the best person for the job."
"Hm. I would have thought you'd have enjoyed testing your mettle against something from Suna again."
Her brow furrowed slightly. "You're sure it's from Suna? Who told you that?"
"No one. One of ours was incapacitated by poison and the perpetrators were from Suna; I was attacked a day later, while we were retrieving him, and the physician found it was a thickened stimulant. Not many people have the knowledge to do something that, so I went with the most likely suspects."
Tsunade remained silent, her finger nails trilling against the polished surface of the table. It seemed to Asuma as though all other sound in the restaurant had deadened, and he felt suddenly uncomfortable, like he sat with his father at the dinner table, with all avenues of conversation closed off.
Finally, she exhaled. "Fine. Give it to me."
Asuma frowned. "What? Now?"
"Yes," she said, impatiently. "Now. I can identify a compound like that without special equipment."
Nodding, Asuma reached to a canister fastened near his hip, a simple white tube reinforced with a rudimentary seal. A thin stream of his chakra broke the tube's binding, and deposited the vial into the palm of his hand before placing it in the center of the table, wherein Tsunade accepted it without comment.
She drained the sake from the shallow cup and uncorked the vial, holding it delicately between thumb and forefinger; she rested her jaw against the heel of her left hand, observing the flow of the liquid with what appeared to be complete detachment.
"Not very viscous," she spoke to herself, then raised the vial, so the stream of liquid thinned dramatically.
"How long have you had this with you?"
"About eight months. I was told there wouldn't be any detrimental effects on the chemical composition."
"There aren't." She lifted the bowl and sniffed its contents. "Someone made sure there wouldn't be." Without warning she dipped the pad of her finger into the bowl and brought it to her lips, sampling it like a fine, exotic spice.
"What are you doing?" Asuma sounded alarmed, in spite of her calm.
"Tasting. That should be obvious even to someone without medical experience."
"I know what..." Asuma fell silent at that.
Tsunade lowered her hand. "Hmm. It's pure. No adulterants. Tasteless." She lifted the cup and examined it with a critical eye. "All in all, a reasonable product."
"You seem much less drunk than you were before."
She smiled. "Being drunk has as much to do with your state of mind as it does with how much you drink. Or didn't you learn that at the Fire Temple?"
When Asuma gave no response, her expression became less light, if not bored. "Such a small concentration won't do anything to me, not if I ingest it; it's meant to be taken through the blood, in its current state. You were cut, and rather deeply too, so it went into your system quickly."
Asuma only nodded.
She continued, a sigh on the heels of her voice. "And it didn't degrade either, as you say. Excellent chemical fidelity." She paused, as though waiting for him to interrupt and curtail the conversation. "Yes. It's from Suna. Congratulations. You've experienced first hand the handicrafts of the most skilled poisoners in the world." And her voice turned mocking, though whether the mockery was directed at him or the apparent veracity of her statement, Asuma couldn't tell.
"Are you always in the habit of tasting chemicals as a way of finding out what they are and where they're from?"
She shrugged. "When it's the fastest and most convenient method, yes."
Asuma muttered, "Then I could have saved myself some time."
"And done what with the information? I wasn't under the impression poison recognition was something they drilled into you at the academy. It wouldn't have meant anything to you with regards to the origin, and there are few from the field of the Second War who still actively practice." She leaned back. "And now, that we're done, I'd like payment for my services."
Asuma provided the ryo notes without comment, and Tsunade examined them briefly, like a banker checking for fidelity.
"Is that satisfactory?"
"I suppose so. It was faster than any medical exam would have been, at least. Now, if there's nothing else, I have some drinks I'd like to finish. Unless you'd like to join me?" She asked rhetorically.
Asuma didn't move from his seat. After traveling for weeks, and placing Naruto in danger, a ten minute conversation followed by the bare moments of an almost cursory examination seemed like a pittance in comparison to the time taken, even if he'd received an answer.
"And you're just going to keep doing this? Moving from village to village, drinking and gambling?"
"Some villages don't have formalized gambling. You'd be surprised what people have to do to keep themselves entertained." She'd opened another bottle of sake, and was already pouring it into a second shallow cup. "But, I might stay here for a little while longer. I've had some interesting offers for my services, and I need time to consider them, and I can amuse myself well enough here anyway."
Asuma couldn't keep the disdain out of his expression, and Tsunade didn't notice, or care.
"It can be quite nice, you know. No one takes a drunk seriously. Especially a drunken woman. I can say and do basically what I please, within some reasonable sphere. The people who matter know of and seek my skill, and in the end, that's all that counts."
"And who are the people who matter?"
"The people who pay for my drinks."
"Please," Tsunade waved her hand. "Don't think medicine is such a selfless calling, or that I'm some kind of heartless aberration of character, taking advantage of hapless people."
"That never crossed my mind." He paused, considering his next words. "Is Shizune going to stay with you for very long?"
"Oh, I see we're back to her again. That's her decision, as I've told her. I'm not coercing her in any way, with force or guilt." She smiled again, all the mockery and gleeful insinuation resurfacing. "Are you planning to rescue her from my clutches? Spirit her back to Konoha like some sort of savior, the noble son of the Hokage?"
"No," Asuma spoke with more force than intended, again pushing himself away from the table.
"What a pity. It might have been entertaining to witness that." She drank deeply. "In that case, I suppose you'd better retrieve your son, so called, and get going. Where, I don't care."
"I was going to ask if..."
She cut him off with a wave of her hand. "No. I'm not teaching you, or him anything. If you want, ask Shizune for scrolls on medical jutsu. I'm sure she'll oblige; they're of no use to her, and I wrote them so long ago it's embarrassing to even look at them."
Something pulled Asuma's thought in a different direction. "Does Jiraiya know where you are?"
The question didn't surprise her. "Sometimes. He'll take it upon himself to find me, randomly, for old times sake, he claims, but all he's really doing is making some butchered attempt to persuade me back. He was never good at persuasion, not using words, anyway. Charisma was more Orochimaru's province, if the ridiculous amount of time he was able to operate illicitly is any indication."
Asuma frowned, but again didn't speak.
"Don't think that your father didn't have at least some inkling of where Orochimaru's ambitions were leading him. By the end of the Second War, he was as feared by some on our side as he was by Suna. Never mind that he held everyone of us in special contempt, and did nothing to hide the fact. It was pride and affection that kept old Sarutobi from putting the pieces together, until it was too late, and even then..." She just scoffed and went back to her bottle.
Asuma felt a strange sense of anticipation at her contempt. He'd stumbled upon someone he might confide in, and he would garner more than a sympathetic smile, and a scrap of unknowing banter. He almost reached out to her then, spoke of his own frustrations and misgivings. But that would be unforgivably juvenile, especially towards Naruto.
He moved to leave slowly, but the electric feeling along his skin and against his skull surged, and he paused, gripping the table.
"Can't you feel that?" He asked, hoping Tsunade really wasn't far gone, as she'd claimed.
"Of course I can. But it doesn't interest me."
"It doesn't concern you that someone is dispersing large amounts of their chakra around the village?"
She sighed, then muttered, "I swear, I left Konoha to escape this idiocy. I'll be leaving within a day or so regardless, so it doesn't concern me. Besides...I'm not worried about its source."
"You know who's doing this?"
"I have a theory. But it wouldn't mean anything to you." With that, she leaned back and called for more drinks, drawing the attention of a nervous looking attendant.
"And if some of the people in the village are hurt because of that source?"
She glanced at him. "It doesn't concern me."
Asuma felt defeated as he left the bar. He kept his hand on the handle of one of his blades, even if he suspected the precaution wouldn't do much against whatever might be responsible for the dispersed chakra.
He walked slowly towards the hotel, looking up, to the side; the flecks of white weren't moving farther or nearer to him, and he wished for a continuous breeze, so he could at least gauge the force of what kept them aloft. He thought of unleashing his wind release again, but that would only draw unwanted attention. Tsunade is complacent, but then again what would concern a Sannin except another of their kind? She's not even a shinobi anymore; just a drunk and gambler who knows how to mold chakra.
Asuma saw Naruto running towards him along the path. He stopped in front of Asuma and looked at him, as though expecting something.
"Where's Shizune?" Asuma couldn't help elect for caution now.
"She's back at the hotel. I got tired of waiting, so I came out looking for you."
Asuma nodded slowly. "And she let you go out on your own?"
Naruto frowned. "Shouldn't I? Is this place dangerous?"
"It might be." He started walking, and Naruto fell into step beside him, his hands almost motionless at his sides.
"Hm?" Hi son looked from the road to him.
"I think I'll be able to convince Tsunade to train you in more advanced taijutsu and seal work."
Naruto's face came alight. "That's great! When would I start?"
"Well, there's not definite, but...it might be a problem, if your hand seal speed isn't fast enough. I was thinking we could practice a bit."
"Oh, ok." Naruto seemed uncertain for a moment, but regained his enthusiasm a moment later. "Do you think I can increase my speed?"
"I might know a trick or two that could help. Why don't you go through the series now, while we're talking, just to enforce concentration a bit."
Naruto only frowned and brought his hands together, drawing on his chakra, starting with bird.
"You know, it's odd. I didn't really expect Tsunade to cooperative. When we first started talking, she didn't seem like she cared much."
Naruto didn't say anything. He'd moved from boar to dog, and the flow was smooth, if slow, but still placid, without any hesitation or jerking.
"I think she might be able to help you with your seal techniques as well. That would be nice, wouldn't it?" Asuma moved both hands behind his back.
"Yeah." Naruto's face was drawn in concentration as he moved from dragon to ox, like he was handling something fragile and unique.
Asuma watched silently as Naruto finished the remainder of the hand seals. Their pace slowed considerably, until they were simply ambling down the road like an old couple on an afternoon walk. When he finally finished, Naruto exhaled, and brought his hands down to this sides again.
"How was that?"
Asuma smiled and nodded. "Good. You seem to be doing better than before." One hand rested on the handle of a kunai; the other he brought forward to place on Naruto's shoulder. They continued at their lethargic pace, until Asuma finally stopped altogether, and Naruto made no move to continue his steps.
"I think it would be in your best interest to drop whatever illusion you've used."
The image of Naruto made no reply immediately; the electric feeling against Asuma's skin increased, growing stronger than it had in the bar, and Asuma tightened his grip, out of reflex and anticipation.
"You can stab through the neck if you'd like, but it won't do much good in the long run."
Asuma readjusted his grip on the kunai. Shadow clone? But it's molding its own chakra with ease; it's too self-aware.
He cleared his throat. "You're responsible for the chakra infused material throughout the village then?"
"No," the clone spoke pedantically. "But I would say, it would be better for you if you not mention this encounter to anyone."
As if sensing Asuma's skepticism, the white flecks began to amalgamate, and the tingling against his skin became sharper, and he could smell smoke, and hear a crackling, like burning paper.
Asuma's eyes widened and he removed his hand.
"What do you want?"
"You're not going to leave this village, and you're not going to mention this incident to anyone else. If you do, this village will be reduced to cinder."
The false Naruto moved forward without looking back or speaking. Asuma stared at the retreating figure, only breaking from his trance when the clone had moved past the village limits, pulled by its unseen progenitor. As Asuma ran towards the hotel, he could see not the figure of his son, but squares of paper, falling lazily to the ground like leaves.