Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto
Chapter Thirty One:
"You guys sure about this?" asked Kiba. In each hand he held a scroll; the Heaven scroll, still sticky with the blood of the Ame ninja who possessed it a short time earlier, along with the Suna team's Earth scroll. Team Eight would have three, counting their own Earth scroll. That was enough to complete the test and knock another team out of the running. Too bad the foreigners' kid brother had to lose his head like that.
Kankurou, black hood thrown back and his face paint smudged around the edges, nodded gruffly. "Yeah, man, take'em. They're not doing us any good now." The puppeteer was handling his brother's loss a lot better than Kiba thought he would have, if it had been Hana who was killed. Even for a dude wearing makeup, he probably didn't want to look upset in front of a bunch of kids from another village.
The Suna ninja's hot older sister agreed. "Without Gaara, we'll be disqualified." She glanced off to the side, where Kankurou's oversized puppet held the bandage-wrapped bundle that was her youngest brother. The puppet gave Kiba the creeps. Not only did it smell positively toxic, it just looked off, inhuman in a way that offended his sense of form. "Please accept our Earth scroll as thanks for assisting against the Ame scum." Temari seemed more upset of the two. Kiba was pretty sure he'd seen her dabbing at her eyes with the end of her sleeve. Girls could get away with stuff like that without looking weak.
Akamaru leapt from his perch on Kiba's head, launching himself for the older girl. She caught the enthusiastic ninja puppy and laughed as he proceeded to lick her face most vigorously.
Kiba fought down a blush at the puppy's suggestion, glad Naruto wasn't around to translate for anyone.
"Let's get to the tower. We need to report to Baki and you three should get some rest in case there's more to the exam." Kankurou waved his hand, wiggling his fingers as he did so, and the creepy corpse-bearing puppet came to life, standing on its own then leaping to a tree limb ten meters above their heads.
"Lord Orochimaru is dead," announced Yakushi Kabuto to his fellow spies. Of the three traitorous genin of Konoha, he was the only one of any note. Yoroi and Misumi were barely more than cannon fodder, given just enough information to be useful, but not enough to be dangerous, and quite expendable. To a master spy like Kabuto, his teammates were nearly as much of a burden as they were an asset. They did, however, provide good alibis when necessary and sometimes an extra pair of hands was more useful than all the skill in the world.
"What?" Misumi almost yelped. Professionalism was dead, along with their boss, apparently. It was an effort not to show blatant disdain for his teammate. Of all the surgical upgrades he could have requested to increase his combat potential, the man had chosen something so asinine as a Soft Physique-type modification. There were ninjutsu techniques to temporarily mimic the modification with none of the long term side-effects.
"I observed Lord Orochimaru's total destruction by an unknown force after he attempted to mark Uchiha Sasuke with a Curse Seal," Kabuto reiterated. ANBU operatives had arrived at the scene of his master's death with alarming speed, forcing him back into hiding before he could even strike out at the Uchiha boy in revenge. Hours later, when the area was once more clear of interlopers, he was able to examine the area where Orochimaru perished. Nothing of the snake summoner's remains was left to be found and the last wisps of his chakra signature were dissipating on the evening breeze. Whatever method was used to strike down the powerful ninja, it appeared to originate with Sasuke, and affected the boy alongside Kabuto's deceased master, though not to the same extent. An Uchiha kinjutsu he'd never heard mention of?
"What do we do now?"asked Yoroi pragmatically. Yoroi was a more solid sort than Misumi, still dumb as a brick and totally lacking in imagination, but he stuck to a given plan without question and followed orders precisely. The man's ability to absorb chakra so easily had actually been examined by Orochimaru and incorporated into the modifications made to Jirobo, one of the Sound Four. It was a power Kabuto eventually wished to acquire for himself, either with Orochimaru's aid or through his own efforts. Supplementing his own near-miraculous but costly ability to heal himself with the stolen chakra of others would increase his threat on the battlefield significantly.
Yoroi had asked a pertinent question. In the long term, Kabuto did not have any plans; he'd been riding Orochimaru's coattails for years now, and what a ride it had been! He had unprecedented freedom, when away from the supervision of the useless jounin instructor assigned to his team, to perform any experiment he wished, on subjects living or dead, using the fantastic resources his master had gathered. Incredible devices unearthed from ancient medical facilities by Orochimaru during his quest for immortality opened up so very many possibilities.
In the short term, however, there was much to be done and he had no predetermined goals to word toward.
The invasion was off the table now, of course. Lacking a suitable counter to the Sandaime Hokage alone, despite the man's advanced age, would have been ruinous to any hostile force attacking Konoha. Without Orochimaru to goad the Yondaime Kazekage into action, Suna's continued cooperation was in doubt, and their ninja force, while smaller than Sound's, was of far greater overall quality and effectiveness. The rogue ninja's death also removed the snake summons from Sound's arsenal. Much of the invasion plan relied on several of Manda's largest offspring to breach the nearly impenetrable walls of Konoha. An attack was still possible, but it would be a fruitless waste of men and materials.
"There is a team of Sound genin participating in the exam. We will remove them. They have become liabilities." The mouthy runts weren't intelligent enough to keep quiet. Their misplaced confidence and the laughable arrogance instilled in them by Orochimaru's rhetoric could lead to unpleasantness if the Hokage decided to announce the man's demise before Kabuto could make arrangements to depart.
The infrastructure and assets, human and otherwise, assembled by Orochimaru were still of great value. They were decentralized, spread over the entirety of the Elemental Nations, with little authority vested in any single individual. There were few among those gathered by Orochimaru who could challenge him directly. If he acted quickly and consolidated his power, it was possible that Kabuto could assume control of his former master's organization. Or, if the fancy struck him, he could simply raid the scattered bases for valuable research data and the more interesting machines and leave the rest to be picked over by scavengers. Decision, decisions.
Whatever course of action he chose, for now it would be best to keep Sound from being implicated in any threats to Konoha, overt or covert.
"Damn, Old Man, this is a nasty piece of work!" Jiraiya exclaimed with a long whistle of appreciation. Laid out before him on a workbench in the Hokage's private laboratory was an inert and decompressed version of the seal array that had spelled the end of his former teammate. His old Sensei was a genuine seal master, but his expertise paled in comparison to Jiraiya's own. The seal was a quite impressive, though he could see areas of the array he would change if he was going to use it himself; simple refinements that would increase the range of the trigger even further, decrease the pain of the transfer, and lessen the time required for the transfer to take place.
The Hokage nodded at the praise and puffed at his pipe contentedly. "A necessary evil, I'm afraid. That it ended up protecting Sasuke from Orochimaru's machinations as well as eliminating the traitor is mere happenstance." He did not miss the slight note of pain in the Old Man's voice when he casually mentioned Orochimaru's death. Even after everything the asshole had done, their Sensei still cared for him.
The pair sat in silence for a long half hour while Jiraiya closely examined the array. Finally, the younger man sat back and cracked his neck. "I see the problem, Sensei. To make it transferable you have to root it in the first Celestial Gate. Tsunade could tell you for sure if she were still around, but I'd be willing to bet that just being affected by this thing once is enough to cause some lasting damage to the gate. Probably nothing noticeable or that won't naturally heal in two or three years," he finished, confirming the Hokage's own conclusions.
"I suppose it could be hooked into the second gate, if you were really desperate," Jiraiya added, frowning down at one section of the array. "To access the Rest Gate, you would have to pry open the Opening Gate permanently to manage and no one can survive in that state for very long."
Well, Tsunade probably could, but she cheated. Huh…
Now that he thought about it and saw how the Old Man rooted the array's terminus in the Opening Gate, he had a good idea how Tsunade's own Yin Seal functioned and where it kept all that chakra. Clever girl!
"I guess you'll just have to keep that miserable mummified bastard away from the Uchiha kid the old fashioned way."
"As I expected," sighed the old man.
Jiraiya accompanied him back to his office in the Hokage Tower, exchanging small talk as they walked. It was convenient to have someone of Jiraiya's skill to give a second opinion on his seal work, but that wasn't the main reason he'd asked the roaming ninja to visit the village. Among other things, his last remaining loyal student was famous, known far and wide to a variety of personages. His reputation among the wealthy nobility and well-to-do gentry, while not exactly savory, carried a lot of weight. The common people still remembered him as a war hero of great renown. With the Chuunin Exam hosted in Konoha this year, Jiraiya represented a feather in the village's cap, so to speak, that would not go unnoticed. It also did not hurt to remind everyone that Konoha still had ninja of frightening power to call upon if needed.
Nonchalantly, Hiruzen brought up an image in the crystal ball sitting on a small pillow in the center of his desktop. How best to broach this subject with his long time student?
"Checking out the hot springs again, eh, Old Man?" asked his student with a leering cackle. Jiraiya was comfortingly predictable sometimes. As if he'd do any such thing with witnesses around.
Despite the privacy seals cutting the Hokage's office off from outside observation, the pair of ANBU guards stationed on either side of the door stiffened as they heard a faint shout of, "What?"
"Was that really necessary, Jiraiya?" Hiruzen asked, glaring at the younger man as he straightened the Hokage hat on his head.
"Stuff it, Old Man. You knew Minato's kid is planning to pick a fight with the Ichibi's jinchuuriki and you didn't do anything to stop it? That kid is ten kinds of crazy!" The Toad Sage paced the room, his long white hair swishing about animatedly. "I checked into it after you told me what happened in Wind Country with Ebisu's team. He's a freaking serial killer with several dozen victims from Suna alone, and those are just the ones I could find out about. I'm confident Naruto is a tough kid, Minato and Kushina wouldn't spit out a weakling, but Gaara of the Sand is a monster!"
"The container was ten kinds of crazy, not is," he interjected firmly, stopping Jiraiya before he could work himself up any further. He was showing a lot of concern for one who hadn't ever been involved in Naruto's life. Maybe it was time to introduce the pair.
"What?" Jiraiya asked, coming to a sudden halt in front of his desk.
"Naruto successfully assassinated Gaara hours ago. I watched him carry it out myself, as I was trying to tell you before you overreacted so spectacularly. It was a neat piece of work, in my opinion. Hyuuga Neji tracked the team down and Naruto made the kill, decapitating Gaara from over a hundred meters away. No one saw or heard anything to link the act to Naruto or his team. In fact, through Team Nine's planning or good fortune, the timely arrival of an Ame team moments after the kill seems to have given Gaara's remaining siblings the idea that the Rain Country ninja are responsible."
"That is a neat piece of work," Jiraiya admitted, once more taking his seat. "Unless they get the body back to Suna in the next few hours, there's no way the Ichibi can be safely extracted and placed in a new container before its seal breaks down."
"The Ichibi will escape and won't begin to reform for years," he agreed. "That's why I was hoping you could do something to stabilize or reinforce the seal, so that it will remain intact long enough to return to Suna."
His former student, now into his fifth decade, could still pull off the wide-eyed look of shock he'd made such frequent use of in his preteen days. "Really, Old Man? I could do it, no problem, but doesn't that seem kind of, uh…" he trailed off, lost for words.
"Appropriate given the amicable alliance the villages of Suna and Konoha have shared since the hostilities of the last great ninja war ended?" Hiruzen finished for bewildered man.
"Look what a mess they made of the jinchuuriki this time! Who's to say the next one won't end up just as insane?"
Hiruzen shrugged the question aside. "I'm certain the Kazekage will have learned a rather harsh lesson, given the loss of his youngest son and the short and bloody life he led. Suna is not economically stable at the moment, Jiraiya, as you must know. The loss of the Ichibi on top of that could prompt them to take desperate measures to survive. I would prefer to return a prized weapon to one of our few true allies. It would further cement ties between the villages and possibly prevent a conflict that could turn into something none of us want to see again in our lifetimes."
Jiraiya nodded helplessly in the face of the Hokage's logic.
"Perhaps, a noted seal master could even accompany the body back to Suna and assist in placing the Ichibi into a new container," he hinted with no small amount of distaste.
Jiraiya grimaced. "I don't want to have any part in creating a jinchuuriki." He crossed his arms over his massive chest and glared obstinately.
"I apologize for making the suggestion." It had been out of bounds, he had to admit. Jiraiya, much like Minato, would not hesitate to bind a Tailed Beast into a child if it meant preventing a rampage that could kill thousands. That didn't mean he was comfortable with doing so for political expediency or the outright creation of a weapon. It was an unpleasant business, forever burdening a young vessel with a demon.
"The Ichibi is the runt of the litter, anyway, as Tailed Beasts go. Suna can keep it in that oversized tea kettle of theirs until a suitable host is found." It was a sad fact that the Ichibi, despite its massive power, could have been contained indefinitely, without stooping to the creation of a jinchuuriki to carry it at all. "I guess I can give them some tips to seal it so that next time they don't end up with a raving maniac, if the monster is even to blame for how the kid turned out." Left unsaid was the typical treatment most jinchuuriki received from their peers, even when it was not warranted.
Before Hiruzen could respond, Jiraiya continued, "Or we could just seal it away ourselves and drop the vessel down a trench in the middle of an ocean somewhere."
Jiraiya's independent investigations had confirmed earlier reports he'd covertly received from Uchiha Itachi, detailing the existence of an organization, Akatsuki, that seemed interested in collecting the Tailed Beasts for use as weapons to conquer the world. Denying a group of S-Rank rogue ninja a weapon like the Ichibi was not a bad idea, but in the grand scheme of things, he believed the disadvantages of such an action outweighed the potential benefits.
"If you wish to intercept the jounin of Suna who is carrying Gaara's remains out of the Forest of Death as we speak, you should be going," Hiruzen responded, making it clear to the white-haired man his feelings on the matter.
Jiraiya stood with a massive sigh and shook his head at the roundabout dismissal. "Fine, fine, if that's the way you want it, Old Man."
"If you would please pass a message along to the Kazekage?" he asked, sliding a wax-sealed scroll across the desk. The wax was stamped with the Hokage's Seal of Office and hidden beneath it was a security seal keyed to the Kazekage's own Seal. There was nothing sensitive contained within, just a short missive conveying his condolences to the Kazekage over the loss of his son. Even in times of grief, the diplomatic forms must be maintained.
Naruto was poking around the tower, trying to pass the time. He could have asked Neji to give him a rundown of the entire structure, but that wouldn't have been any fun at all. The top floor was blocked off by a pair of proctors guarding the stairwell entrance, as was a section of the ground floor that had been set aside as an infirmary, not that he would have wanted to go in there anyway. As predicted by Sasame, the mess hall really didn't have anything worth mentioning; all the ration bars you could eat, if you could stomach them.
He had just about consigned himself to a long and boring four days stuck in the tower waiting for other teams to straggle in when he discovered the basement. It was freaking huge!
It had to be some sort of training area. It was too open and empty, with the exception of a gigantic pair of stone hands locked in a ram seal, to be of any other practical use. What was up with the hands, anyway?
The height of the ceiling represented a huge amount of wasted space if this place was meant for storage, unless Konoha planned on housing a Tailed Beast down here. The walkways suspended well above the floor along the length of both longer walls made excellent points to observe or supervise those below.
Sasame had mentioned that the tower had once been a manned outpost of Konoha during wartime. This area would have allowed ninja stationed in the tower to train without exposing themselves to potential enemies or the many, many hazards native to the Forest of Death, though surviving extended periods in the forest was itself a kind of training.
Team Nine could make use of the abundant space to train and stave off boredom for the rest of the exam. They'd just have to be careful not to break anything. It would suck to get this far and end up disqualified because a ninjutsu technique collapsed a wall or turned the floor into lava.
Another quick survey of the tower after leaving the basement had turned up no other teams or any items of interest. There were a lot of locked doors, hiding who knows what, but he wasn't quite curious enough to bypass them. No telling what could get him in trouble in this place. Being confronted by Akamaru upon returning to the third floor of the tower was a pleasant surprise. It was cool and impressive that a rookie team like Kiba's could acquire the appropriate scroll and reach the tower safely in such a short time.
"Akamaru! Hey, buddy," Naruto said, crouching down to scratch the ninja puppy behind his floppy ears. "So you dragged Kiba's sorry ass all the way through the Forest of Death?"
ARF! Grr! ARF! ARF!
"Really? Wow." Team Eight had indeed stumbled upon the remainder of Gaara's team and ended up assisting the pair of Suna ninja with getting rid of the Ame genin Neji had spotted. They'd even accompanied one another to the tower. It was an awesome outcome, better than Team Nine had planned.
Naruto laughed and stood back up. "Yeah, I gotcha. Let's find Kiba and give him some shit."
A/N: There will be no prelims in this story. Not enough teams will get through the Forest of Death portion of the exam with both scrolls to make it necessary and I'm tired of reading them over and over, much like the written exam. To write it would hurt my brain.
I was waiting for someone to call me out on Gaara's sand shield. A couple folks did. Yes, I'm aware that much later in the manga, the resurrected Yondaime Kazekage claims that Gaara's sand shield is actually maintained by his mother's love and will to protect him. I call BS on the whole explanation. That's going beyond the typical ninja magic that is chakra and straight into Harry Potter levels of Rowling-style handwavium. For some reason Kishimoto wanted to explain Gaara keeping his sand shield after Shukaku was extracted and went with a totally off the wall excuse instead letting it stay a skill he might have learned to use over the course of his lifetime possessed by the beast. After the extraction, it wasn't the Ichibi directing it any longer, but Gaara himself, consciously and unconsciously, as a voluntary or reflexive action. Sadly, he's dead now, so it's a non-issue.
A similar case, but with Naruto inheriting Kushina's chakra chains and being protected by them would make for an interesting story. It would even make a certain amount of sense, given it could be an inheritable Uzumaki quality and he does have a portion of her chakra sealed inside of him…
Please remember to review. Comments and criticisms are greatly appreciated and help keep me on task.