Does it matter what your family history is, or do you simply place one foot in front of the other and give the past no second thought?
Naruto pasted a pleasant smile on his face as he handed the woman in front of the counter her change. "Have a nice day," he said, hoping that his politeness and façade would mitigate any lack of sincerity in the words.
"…Yes, thank you," replied the woman after a pause. With that, she grabbed the vase of daffodils and sunflowers from its resting place on the counter and walked hurriedly out the door, the bell above the entrance chiming her exit.
Naruto allowed his expression to drop as she left, heaving a sigh as he did so. It was ridiculously frustrating that much of Konoha's populace still regarded him with some measure of suspicion or fear (or both), despite the fact that he hadn't done anything remotely similar to his pre-Zetsu counterpart in over a year. Not that he particularly cared what their thoughts of him were, but given that Inoichi – a prominent shinobi of the village – owned Yamanaka Flowers, Naruto had hoped that people would have enough faith in the older man's common sense to not employ a troublemaking teenager.
That, apparently, was not an opinion shared by everyone, and the Jinchūriki couldn't decide who should be more insulted, him or his employer. At least his presence in the florist's shop hadn't had a negative impact on business; he might've felt some measure of guilt if that had been the case.
"Hey, Naruto, there's a couple bags of fertilizer in the back that I want to use to pot some of the indoor plants we just got in; can you bring them up for me?" Ino asked, stepping out from the backroom. He nodded as she habitually wiped her hands across the apron covering her front, despite the fact that they were already clean after making the previous arrangement.
This was how their professional relationship worked – Ino was the artist and Naruto was the muscle and cashier. Even though she'd been teaching him the language of flowers for some time, Naruto didn't have a particular affinity (or interest) for flower arranging, preferring to find solace in the simple tasks he could do around the shop.
For someone whose brain was always active – thinking about what he needed to accomplish to meet his goals, what his next move should be, what the right answers were to the questions he didn't even know he had – doing menial labor was…relaxing. There was no method or underlying reason to it, no messy moral dilemma to reason through – just lift and move and hit buttons and make change.
It was why he'd wandered into Yamanaka Flowers almost immediately after dropping off Tsunade, Shizune, and their pig at the Hokage's office. Jiraiya's face had gone through a vast series of expressions, from impressed, to surprised, to pensive as the team's entrance had turned into a brief recounting of their mission. It had settled into a sort of disheartened look that Naruto couldn't quite decipher as Jiraiya had dismissed them, following the Leaf shinobi who toted the bodies of the Slug Sannin and her apprentice to the hospital.
Ino hadn't said a word when he'd entered the shop and grabbed his own apron, merely tossing a curious look in his direction before returning her attention to the customer she'd been helping.
It had been almost an hour since then, and the feeling of unease that had settled over him upon watching Jiraiya during the mission debriefing had yet to dissipate. As a shinobi, he knew he'd accomplished his set objective within the mission parameters and thus had no reason to feel apprehensive, but Jiraiya had a strange way of viewing the world – an idealistic way, one that trended much closer to his own pre-Zetsu disposition than his current worldview – and the way Naruto had handled his duties on the mission were probably not how the Hokage had intended them going.
It gave Naruto a headache thinking about being on the shit-list of not one, but two Sannin.
The tinkling of the bell sounded out as he began to lift one of the fertilizer bags; he ignored it in favor of focusing on his assigned task.
"Naruto!" called Ino, and there was a distinct note of irritation in her voice that made the Jinchūriki not want to respond. "Come here." He sighed lightly before dropping the bag and stepping out to the main part of the flower shop.
Speaking of headaches… he thought, taking in the scene before him.
Ino stood with her arms folded across her chest, a haughty expression painted in the crease of her brow and tightness of her lips. Across from her stood Tenten, who looked to be wearing the same forced expression of politeness on her face that Naruto used to deal with customers, though there was mild confusion shining in her brown eyes. Naruto didn't blame her, given that Ino appeared practically hostile and disapproving towards someone she'd never interacted with before.
That was a little strange, Naruto mused. The Yamanaka was amiable enough with most people – the members of Team 10 being a frequent exception, given how their personal quirks provoked and irritated her – especially towards other females. She'd even been rather accepting of his previous infatuation with Sakura, if a bit flippant about why his attraction was completely misguided.
Maybe they'd had some sort of altercation at the Chūnin Exams? But that didn't explain why Tenten seemed to have no idea where Ino's annoyance was coming from. "So," Ino continued in a tone of clipped patience, "who's your friend?"
So they definitely hadn't interacted at the Chūnin Exams. "Uh, this is Tenten," he answered, choosing not to test his teammate's ire. "Tenten, Ino," he introduced, gesturing from one girl to the other before turning back to the former. "Er, what're you doin' here?"
Tenten's eyes seemed to light with an intense fire. "I heard you brought Tsunade-sama back and I wanted you to take me to see her!"
"Wait, you got Tsunade of the Sannin to return to Konoha and you didn't tell me?!"
"So she's not back?"
"No, she is, but—"
"How'd that happen? And why does she care?"
"Tsunade-sama is my idol! And Naruto's going to take me to see her, right?"
"Both of you, shut up!"
The two girls turned to find Naruto rubbing his forehead with his fingertips, his eyes closed to remedy the headache his companions had caused. He'd never intentionally kept Ino and Tenten from meeting, but with the way he'd organized his life, there'd never been any need for an overlap. Ino had been both his way of getting out of Team 7 and his link to learning botany and hanakotoba beyond what Zetsu could teach; Tenten had been his method of perfecting first his shurikenjutsu and then everything weapons-related after that.
He'd put the two together on his own to create his fighting style, but having the girls interact had never been a necessity. And given how they were reacting to each other now, it was safe to say that that had been a good decision. As Shikamaru would say, the situation was troublesome.
Naruto opened his eyes and chanced a look at his two friends. Tenten was staring at him in mild surprise, though some shred of hopefulness still shone in her brown eyes. Ino's irritated glare was back and fiercer than before, and he briefly hoped that snapping at her wouldn't have any sort of repercussions. "…Didn't mean to yell," he placated, holding up his hands in a gesture of good will. "You guys were just talkin' over each other and…yeah…"
Ino blew out a breath of annoyed air. "So is what she's saying true?" she asked, jerking her head towards Tenten.
Hesitantly, almost afraid of their reactions, he replied, "…Yes."
Tenten clapped her hands together. "Great! So you're going to take me to see her, right?"
"Uh, well…that's probably not the best idea—"
"What did you do?"
Naruto blinked at the chorused questions, Tenten's tone curious and Ino's accusatory. Deciding that he'd prefer not to answer Ino's question, he said, "Uh, let's just say that Tsunade might not be very happy to see me."
"That's a risk I'm willing to take," Tenten announced. "I've been waiting forever for this!" Then she grabbed his arm and proceeded to drag him out of Yamanaka Flowers.
Naruto barely managed to untie his apron one-handed and toss it at Ino before they were out the door. His last glimpse of the platinum blonde was of her standing with her arms crossed over her chest, an annoyed frown crinkling her brow to match her pursed lips.
Naruto allowed Tenten to yammer on enthusiastically as they walked to the hospital (and what the blond thought was near-certain doom). He would admit to being mildly perturbed at the brown-haired girl's zeal for the meeting ahead, but only because Tenten had never before expressed such excitement over anything that didn't pertain to weaponry; unlike how Ino and Sakura had often fangirled over Sasuke, the brunette was typically level-headed and calm.
Then again, there had once been a time when he'd been rather obsessed with the Hokage title, so he could understand where her enthusiasm was coming from. Besides, he'd put up with sacrifices for Ino that were more annoying; he could do this one thing for Tenten.
When they finally arrived at the hospital, it became quickly apparent that acquiescing to Tenten's wishes had been a terrible mistake. The lobby was packed with incoming patients and visitors alike, all of whom had heads craned to look down one of the hallways that resounded with someone's voice.
Someone's loud, angry, distinctly female voice.
A door to one of the rooms slammed off its track and impacted the wall across the hallway, sending a web of cracks along the plaster. Tsunade stepped out from the new hole and barked, "Shizune, we're leaving!" into the room. Then she turned her head and stopped, honey eyes narrowing into angry slits as she spied Naruto.
The younger blond could practically feel the waves of undiluted hatred rolling off her form towards him, even with all the distance between them. He opened his mouth to offer some sort of excuse to Tenten about why he had to leave, but the intense pressure and Tsunade's snarl of, "You!" froze him in place.
She began to stomp towards him, shaking off Shizune as the younger woman emerged from the hospital room and tugged on her arm with a protesting, "Tsunade-sama, don't!" Absently, Naruto noted that most of the people who had been standing around had now disappeared.
Probably due to the same terrifying aura that had rooted him in place, though how they'd managed to ignore it was beyond him.
When she reached him, Tsunade bent down and held a finger warningly under his nose. "I should rip your damn head off," she hissed. "Who the hell do you think—"
"Now, now, Tsunade-hime, what did we just finish talking about?"
Jiraiya's hand was clasped in what Naruto could only hope was an iron-clad grip on Tsunade's shoulder. If it was, she certainly didn't seem to react to the pressure of her former teammate. There was a long moment of silence before she released a 'tch' of submission and returned to her standing height, though the hatred simmering in her honey-colored eyes lingered. "Let go, Jiraiya. Remember what we talked about?" she added mockingly.
Behind her, Shizune let out a quiet sigh of relief as Jiraiya's eyes shifted to Tenten, who appeared almost star-struck. "How 'bout you get to know some of the up-and-coming shinobi?" he suggested, releasing his former teammate. "Start to figure out who you'd like to recruit. Naruto," he added, "come with me."
Grateful to Jiraiya for the first time since meeting the man, Naruto willingly turned and began to follow him out of the hospital, leaving a distracted Tenten to deal with her idol. As he stepped through the doors, he heard Tsunade call, "He's on my list, Jiraiya, or the deal's off!" To Naruto's consternation, Jiraiya gave a brief nod indicating he'd heard without ever turning around. Tsunade almost cackled. "This isn't over, blondie! You'll regret screwing with me when I get my hands on you!"
The blond noted worriedly that she sounded both assured that they would meet again (when he had every intention of staying far away from her) and eager for the opportunity.
He followed Jiraiya in silence as the older male led him into the Hokage Tower and up to his office. Once there, the Sannin collapsed into his chair and buried his face in both hands. "You're gonna be the death of me, kid," he mumbled.
Naruto tried not to let his outrage seep into his voice; he was only partially successful. "I didn't do anything!"
"You brought back Tsunade."
"You asked me to do that!" he protested.
"Yeah, peaceably!" Jiraiya retorted, pulling his hands away to glare at Naruto. "You were supposed to convince her to come back, not sedate her while she was unconscious!"
"Yeah, well, if she'd wanted to come back on her own, then maybe your way woulda worked!" He crossed his arms, feeling distinctly put-out; if Jiraiya wanted to play the blame game, then he would oblige. If he'd had his way, he'd have never been on the mission to retrieve Tsunade in the first place. "Besides, didn't you get what you wanted? She's back, isn't she?"
"I was hoping for less…" Jiraiya waved his hands in the air, searching for the right word, "conflict."
"How'd you get her to stay, anyway?"
"Bribery, mostly," sighed the older man. "Some threats, and one or two promises that will be very, very hard to keep." He sighed again, louder this time. "You just had to piss her off, didn't you?"
Naruto bit his tongue to stop himself from saying that she'd started it. A younger version of himself might have done so, but he'd hoped he'd outgrown such childishness, never mind that he wasn't even 14 yet. "Then again," Jiraiya continued, seeming to muse more aloud than to the blond, "your family has a tendency to overreact, so I guess I shouldn't be overly surprised—"
The Chūnin started suddenly, alarmed by the Hokage's words. "Sorry, my what?"
Jiraiya's voice possessed that same innocently amused lilt it had when he'd 'forgotten' to mention that Naruto would be going to track down Tsunade. "Oh, must've slipped my mind. Tsunade is related to you…distantly, of course, but there you go." Apparently his curiosity was getting predictable, for as the blond opened his mouth to speak, the Sannin continued, "Remember how I told you Tsunade's grandfather was the Shodai Hokage? Well, his wife was a woman from the Uzumaki clan, same as your mother. Granted, it was so long ago that we have no idea what their exact relation was or how closely you and Tsunade are related, but that doesn't mean the connection isn't there."
"There's an Uzumaki clan?" Naruto asked quietly, his outrage giving way to curiosity. For the first time since Jiraiya had started imparting words of wisdom upon him, the Jinchūriki felt that the white-haired man was finally sharing information he was interested in.
The Sannin became suddenly somber. "There used to be."
"What happened?" The blond's voice remained soft with respect to the apparently sobering topic.
"Enemy villages attacked Uzushiogakure – where the clan lived," Jiraiya clarified at his student's confused expression, "towards the end of the Second Shinobi World War because of the amazing sealing abilities of the Uzumaki. Your clan was renowned far and wide as masters of fūinjutsu, and combined with its members' amazing longevity and stamina, the rest of the world feared it." He was silent for a moment, letting the gravity of his words sink in, before continuing, "But the Uzumaki clan and the shinobi of Konoha always had close ties, which grew stronger because of the Shodai's marriage into the clan, and some time before Uzushio was destroyed, your mother was sent here to become the second Kyūbi Jinchūriki. Some members avoided the destruction and fled to other parts of the world, but they're few and far between."
Naruto slowly brought a hand to his stomach, where Jiraiya had told him the seal containing the Kyūbi was imprinted. It's not just me, he thought, gripping his shirt; his mother had been forced to bear the burden of the mighty Bijū as well. "What happened to her…my mother?" The word was a little strange on his tongue, a title he'd never been granted the opportunity to give.
Jiraiya turned his head to avert his gaze from the Chūnin, unable to look the younger male in the eye. "She passed away not long after giving birth to you."
The blond's eyes narrowed marginally at the way his teacher avoided his gaze. Was the older man's inability to look at him guilt?
Jiraiya finally returned his attention to the Jinchūriki, clapping his hands together to break the uneasy silence that had overtaken the room. "Anyway," he announced in a way that suggested he was done speaking about the Uzumaki clan, "that's all a little off-topic. The point is that you need to get along with Tsunade."
Naruto blinked, confused and a little frustrated that he wouldn't get any more information from the Sannin. "Why?" He had no intentions of making the hospital a frequent place of visitation, let alone socializing with Tsunade, especially after her reaction to seeing him.
"Well…" Jiraiya drawled, "since she'll be heading the medical program, she has complete access to anyone she thinks might be qualified for it, and apparently you fall under that cate—"
"I'm no medic-nin!" he protested.
Jiraiya cleared his ear with a pinky. "Yeah, well, she disagrees."
Naruto crossed his arms. "She just wants to beat the crap outta me for what I did to her."
"Probably, but there's nothing I can do; it was part of the deal we made. So, as I was saying, since you'll be working under her, it'll be better for everyone involved if you could just try to play nice. That's an order," he added when Naruto opened his mouth to protest. "No negotiating," he finished when the blond tried to retort again.
Naruto fumed silently, all his avenues of fighting the injustice thrust upon him closed. It was no wonder Tsunade had sounded so assured of herself when they'd met earlier in the hallway. "As you say, Hokage-sama," he muttered, displeased.
Jiraiya smiled at him in a way that suggested he didn't really believe Naruto would follow through on his orders without raising some kind of ruckus along the way. "Remember, kid, you'll get more flies with honey than with vinegar."
Grumbling something unflattering about Tsunade being a bigger nuisance than a fly, Naruto left Jiraiya's office, slamming the door behind him.
It took him most of the walk downstairs to cool off from being ordered into a situation he wanted no part of, during which he realized that losing his temper at Jiraiya had probably not been the best idea. The Toad Sannin frustrated him, especially since it seemed to be his fault that Naruto kept getting into situations he wanted to stay away from, but he was also a powerful ally and, more importantly, his current superior; keeping the older man happy while not giving up too much personal freedom was better than getting on his bad side.
As his anger dissipated, his mind latched on to the one topic Jiraiya had mentioned that actually interested him: the Uzumaki clan and the revelation that he had a living relative. Granted, he and Tsunade were distantly related, and he'd put himself at the top of her shit-list, but still…for someone who'd been alone his entire life, the idea that he had family at all was remarkable.
He pondered the information Jiraiya had revealed to him about the Uzumaki clan, trying to condense everything and sort through it. Based on what the Toad Sannin had said, it was entirely possible that he had even more family members roaming around the Elemental Nations, perhaps as completely unaware of their history as he had been. He was a part of something bigger than he ever would've guessed, a clan so renowned for its sealing expertise that it had been brought to the brink of extinction and left its greatest ally with only his mother.
His mother, who had died shortly after giving birth to him.
As an orphan, he'd always been curious about his parents; what child left to fend for himself wouldn't have been? The lack of answers had been frustrating, but as a child with a vivid imagination, he'd always come up with wild scenarios explaining why his parents weren't a part of his life. To have the truth finally revealed was…well, he honestly wasn't sure how to feel.
He was pulled from his musing by the sight of Tenten striding purposefully towards him from where she'd apparently been waiting outside the Hokage Tower. Without preamble, she grabbed him by the wrist and began to drag him away from the building. "Uh—"
"We're going to fight," she informed him tersely, her tone brooking no room for argument.
Tenten remained silent at his question. Naruto let her brood as she led him to the training area they frequently sparred in, his mind coming up with only one possible explanation for the kunoichi's irritation – Tsunade.
In a way, the blond felt a little bad for his female friend. Tenten had looked up to Tsunade for so long that actually meeting the Sannin was probably a huge letdown compared to her built-up idea of her. Naruto had certainly gotten that impression upon meeting the blonde woman himself; she simply wasn't who the history books claimed she was anymore.
But people changed over the course of their lives, and Naruto didn't think he could begrudge her that without condemning himself as well. Her logic might've been backwards and she was probably bound to disappoint those who adored her, but there was something to be said for not staying the person everyone expected her to be.
However, as Tenten probably wouldn't appreciate any of that, he kept his thoughts to himself.
When she finally released him to walk to the other side of the field, Naruto went for the hunting knives sheathed against his forearms. Even more so than taijutsu, Naruto felt that kenjutsu – and other weapons' forms – were a lot like a dance, and his spars with Tenten were focused on speed, accuracy, movement, and not losing the rhythm. As the adage went, practice made perfect.
Tenten turned around and faced him. "Anything goes," she called out.
"Really?" Since they practiced shuriken- and kenjutsu, neither one used any of their other skills during their spars; most of what he learned in taijutsu and ninjutsu was put to use in Team 10's meet-ups. It would be interesting to see how the two of them matched up going full-out.
Tenten brought forth two small summoning scrolls, the grin on her face almost evil in its delight. "Oh yeah." Then she jumped into the air with them unraveling to the ground at her sides. "Sōshōryū!"
Until that moment, Naruto had never really given thought to the amount of weapons that Tenten carried on her person. Now, with an uncountable amount of kunai, shuriken, kama, and katana raining towards him, he wondered if his friend's interest in steel was a little extreme.
Hastily, he activated the Shinra Banshō, slipping underground before he could be turned into a human pincushion. "Coward!" Tenten yelled.
The insult was enough to give the blond pause as he moved through the earth, if only because it came from someone he actually respected. Was he a coward? Strategically, it was the right move; he both avoided the assault and could simultaneously stall and work out his plan of attack from within the safety of the soil. His skillset was well-suited for the role of an assassin, one who remained undetected until it was too late, and the Attack Prevention Technique was the lynchpin of that arsenal. Who cared if it was his go-to technique? So long as it kept him alive, what did it matter what others thought of him?
He'd prove Tenten wrong by taking the fight to her.
Naruto created a single shadow clone, which immediately moved away from his position. Briefly, he wished that Ino was around to sense where Tenten was, as they'd done against the Oto-nin days previously, but then he quashed the thought. Ino would not be there to help him out all the time, and he didn't want to become reliant upon her abilities as it was.
He counted to five in his head before surfacing, hoping that his shadow clone had done the job of distracting Tenten properly so that he could reappear safely. A hissing sound greeted him as he released the technique, and when his eyes were just above ground-level, he noticed that exploding tags were placed all over the field. "Cheers!" came Tenten's voice from somewhere, and then the world exploded.
Fortunately, the Chūnin managed to slip back beneath the earth's surface to avoid getting his head blown off. However, the blasts churned the soil, creating pockets of dirt that left Naruto's hiding area in pockmarked ruins. He surfaced further away from his intended spot, ears ringing and dust settling in his mop of blond hair, to survey the devastation Tenten's assault had caused.
She was ready for me, he thought, blue eyes wandering over what had once been a pristine training field. She saw me go underground and took precautions. And now she knows how to counter the Shinra Banshō, he finished, his wandering gaze finding his friend.
The idea that his go-to technique had just been bested – for the second time in a week, no less – was pushed to the back of his mind; it was something he would have to analyze later, when he wasn't in the middle of a fight.
If Tenten wanted to play with dangerous toys, then he would oblige her. Putting away his knives, he reached for one of his paralytic senbon and threw it in her direction. "Senbon Kage Bunshin no Jutsu," he muttered, and then one became a thousand.
In response, the kunoichi swiped her thumb along the scroll draped over her arm and summoned a metal shell that expanded to protect her. Every needle that impacted it produced a tiny clang that made Naruto frown a little deeper. Tenten was far more resourceful than he'd known, bearing the capacity to neutralize both his hail of senbon and his Attack Prevention Technique. Close combat was a bad idea to resort to, given that Tenten was well-versed in taijutsu and far better than him in kenjutsu, which left him with few avenues to pursue.
He started to grin, excited by a challenge that didn't threaten his life. This is gettin' fun!
Sitting down in the upturned earth, he pulled out one of his own summoning scrolls and unrolled it. Running his pointer finger along the scroll, a collection of ceramic jars appeared in a cloud of smoke. One by one, he picked them up and shook them, putting them down when liquid sloshed in them.
"Don't think you can ignore me!" Tenten shouted. "Sōshōryū!"
Naruto looked up, his hands immediately flipping through the required seals. Can't dodge, let's blow 'em away. "Fūton: Daitoppa."
Wind exploded from his palms as the Great Breakthrough technique picked up Tenten's arsenal and hurled it back at her. The kunoichi ducked behind her shield, and Naruto used the opportunity to summon two shadow clones. Both unsheathed the hunting knives the blond had put away earlier and ran at their opponent, looking to buy their originator enough time to find what he was looking for.
It was a pity he hadn't thought to equip his ceramics ahead of time, Naruto mused as he sifted through the jars. Wearing them in everyday life was cumbersome – which was why he hadn't had them on at Yamanaka Flowers – and since he hadn't expected an actual fight from Tenten, he hadn't found it necessary to reequip them during their walk to the training field. Another good lesson about always being prepared, he supposed.
Aha, he thought, checking the code he'd place on the jar when shaking it produced no noise. Gotcha.
Taking a deep breath, he uncorked the jar and blew a mouthful of wind chakra into it, sealing it immediately afterwards. Several wisps of pale yellow smoke still managed to escape as the jar rattled slightly in his hand from the internal pressure. Then, as Tenten slew his clones with a pair of broadswords, he hurled the jar into the air high above her head and made a single hand seal. "Fūton: Kakudai Kiri."
The jar exploded, sending shrapnel and yellow smoke billowing out from its position. Tenten blocked the pieces of ceramic that came in her direction with her swords, but she had no defense for the vapor that descended upon her like dust. Just like with Gaara and his sand, it was impossible to block what couldn't be touched.
Naruto changed the seal he was holding. "Fūton: Shinshuku Jōgo."
The smoke swept together into a rising funnel, caught up in a miniature hurricane of winds. It circled around Tenten with her at the eye, the shear forces of the technique's wall making it impossible for her to escape. In a matter of moments, Tenten was on the ground, asleep.
Naruto released the technique and allowed the winds and smoke to run free. Privately, he thanked Asuma for teaching him about the different properties of both wind and wind chakra. Out of the two techniques he'd created, the Expanding Mist one was infinitely more useful, capable of blanketing multiple targets in a broad area. As of yet, he'd rarely found use for the Contracting Funnel technique, not only because he generally had better ways to immobilize a single target, but because he had to fight the wind and smoke's natural inclinations to disperse.
It was a stepping stone to something greater, though what that was he wasn't yet sure.
Sealing away the remaining ceramic jars, the blond pulled a pair of smelling salts from his pack. He sat down beside Tenten and held the salts up to her nose, waiting until it wrinkled and her eyes popped open before putting them away. "You okay?"
She made a gagging sound as she sat up, trying to shake the smell of ammonia from her nose and mouth. "Yeah, fine," she grumbled.
Naruto wasn't sure whether she was more frustrated with losing or still upset about how her meeting with Tsunade had gone. "Wanna talk about it?"
"No," she sighed. Then she flashed him a tired smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. "Thanks, though."
He nodded in return, and both Chūnin let their thoughts wander in the silence. Naruto ventured back to his previous musing on the family he'd never known. Clans typically passed down techniques from generation to generation, like how Ino, Shikamaru, and Chōji were learning methods to manipulate minds, shadows, and body size. How different would his training be if his mother had been alive to pass down the secrets of the Uzumaki clan's sealing techniques to him? Not even just his skills, but what about the way he viewed the world, or his personality, or just his life in general? At the very least, there was no way he would've been lonely and desperate enough to listen to someone as creepy as Zetsu.
Zetsu… In a vague, mildly disturbing way, Zetsu was practically the closest thing Naruto had to a real family…or a real relative, at any rate. Granted, the plant-man hadn't raised him or showered him with love and affection like most parental figures were wont to do, but he'd given the blond perspective and guided him along a path similar to his own. Most of the teenager's techniques were mirrors of Zetsu's own special brand of unique ninjutsu: Shinra Banshō versus the Kagerō, Kage Bunshin and the former Kusa-nin's weird Spore Technique…he'd even instituted into the blond an interest in botany and poisons, specialties native to Zetsu's former home in the Land of Grass.
The fact that Jiraiya hadn't specifically mentioned a father – actually, the fact that he carried his mother's clan name rather than a father's surname – seemed to point to no real imperative need to know his father's history. Maybe he'd been the product of a one-night stand, or his father was as dead as his mother with no impressive ninja background…hell, maybe his father was still alive and wanted nothing to do with him for the same reason the entire rest of the village wanted nothing to do with him. By that logic, the identity of his father was a moot point.
But even though he carried on the name of a prestigious clan, did it really mean anything? He knew nothing of them except that the members had been wiped out because they had been feared, and fūinjutsu was pretty low on his current list of talents or interests. What legacy did he carry on?
He glanced at Tenten, who had taken to idly spinning a kunai around her finger by the ring in its handle. She was probably an orphan, too, as there'd never been any evidence of her having a surname in all the time they'd known each other. "Hey, Tenten?" he queried, suddenly curious. "Do you know anything about your family?"
The kunai stopped moving. "A little," she responded after a long moment. She didn't seem willing to elaborate, and out of respect for that, Naruto let the subject drop, but when the kunai started moving again a minute later, Tenten's voice echoed the soft swishing sound it made as it sliced through the air. "I'm originally from the Land of Iron. I looked it up in an atlas one time…it's to the northeast of here, between the Lands of Hot Water and Frost.
"I guess it snows there a lot, because my mom died not too long after I was born. The doctors there are apparently really good – nothing like Tsunade-sama, of course, but they've gotta be decent to save people from hypothermia or whatever, right? Anyway, I guess she caught some new strain of bug and she was too weak from the labor, so…" she shrugged. "From what I read, it wiped out almost 20% of Iron's population before a cure was found. It was probably a miracle I survived, since I heard those things hit the young and the elderly the hardest."
Naruto didn't answer; he didn't know enough about diseases to respond anyway, but Tenten's story had a lot of similarities to his: mother died shortly after birth, could trace her roots to a foreign nation…he wondered what else they had in common.
"Anyway, my dad was a blacksmith. Go figure, right? It was a good job since the Land of Iron uses samurai as a military force instead of shinobi, so he was constantly making armor and weapons for them. But then one day, he went to get a shipment of ore from the Land of Earth and he never came back. Bandits or nukenin," she clarified, "they never figured out which. I think I was around three…
"After that, I lived with a bunch of different samurai families. When I was around five, they discovered that I could mold chakra and decided that I'd get a better education from one of the bigger villages, so on the next caravan of goods to Konoha, they sent me along as well. When I got here, the Sandaime talked to me and decided to enroll me in the Academy and…here I am," she finished, trying to sound chipper. "Daddy's little girl, playing with weapons just like he used to."
Naruto was silent, digesting the entirety of her story and trying to fit the pieces into his own life. Even with no parents to guide her, Tenten had somehow managed to come full circle and follow in her father's footsteps as a weapons' master, albeit in a different capacity. Was that a sign, then, that he was destined to take up his mother's trade – his clan's legacy – of fūinjutsu?
No, that wasn't right. He could remember Tenten saying that her obsession with Tsunade had led her to try medical ninjutsu and chakra-enhanced strength before finding a calling in sealing techniques, kenjutsu, and shurikenjutsu. It had taken effort and practice and trial-and-error before the bun-haired kunoichi had settled on her specialty, just as he'd done.
He looked Tenten in the eye, feeling like the moment required him to say something poignant to show his friend he appreciated what she'd shared. "For what it's worth, I think your parents would be proud of you. Especially your dad."
Her melancholy seemed to dissipate slightly upon hearing that. "Thanks, Naruto…that means a lot to me. I bet your parents would be proud of you, too."
The blond highly doubted that – most parents would probably freak out upon seeing him hanging out with Zetsu, not to mention how twisted and selfish his worldviews had gotten – but he merely offered his friend a brief smile in return.
Tenten sighed and got to her feet, dusting off the dirt from her pants. "Well, I should probably get home so I can inspect my equipment. We've got a mission tomorrow and everything's gotta be in top shape." Then, in a move that surprised him, she leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. "Bye, Naruto," she waved, "thanks again!"
He watched her walk away, confused at the sudden display of affection. First Ino was all out-of-sorts with Tenten's appearance in the shop, and then Tenten had to go and kiss him out of the blue. Most of the time, he felt that he could read his two friends' intentions well enough, but now he was in the dark, and the lack of knowledge perturbed him. It seemed like the longer he knew them, the more they did things that he didn't expect.
Or maybe he was just reading too much into it.
"Looks like the idiot got himself a girlfriend while we were away."
Naruto flinched, startled by the sudden voice. "Holy—"
"Aw, don't you think they're cute together? No."
The blond craned his head up to find his tutor's upper body melding out of the tree branch above him. White Zetsu seemed to be grinning in maniacal amusement while his darker half was as unreadable as ever.
He rotated in his seat so he wouldn't have to strain his neck speaking to his tutor. "Zetsu! How long have you been here?"
"Long enough to know that looking forward to a happy ending with that one would be a grievous, if momentarily satisfying, error in judgment." White Zetsu giggled in a way that suggested what his darker half had said was funny.
Naruto thought he must have missed the punchline. "What? No, never mind. How come you came back?"
"We came to check up on you, like we said we would, remember? Clearly he doesn't, otherwise he wouldn't have asked. Oh, good point. So, Naruto-kun, how's it goin'?"
"…Fine," he replied. Maybe if he kept things simple, Zetsu would stop picking up on implied shortcomings in his speech and he wouldn't take so much flack from the plant-man.
"Have you made any progress with your agenda?"
The blond sighed. "Not really. I've been stuck running stupid missions for the village." Black Zetsu snorted something that sounded like 'typical'. "Then I had to get Tsunade to come back here, and now I have to train with her—"
"Tsunade of the Sannin? Obviously. Do you know of any other Tsunade that Konoha would be interested in? Hmm, I guess not…"
Naruto watched as his tutor fell silent. "What're you thinkin'?"
"You know of Tsunade's reputation, correct? She's more renowned than even Jiraiya because of her accomplishments in the medical field. Suna and Kusa got thrashed in the Second Shinobi World War because of her antidotes to their poisons. She could be your undoing should she put her mind to it."
"Yeah, well, I'm already on her shit-list," the blond muttered.
"Then you need to make her an asset," White Zetsu advised, "like you did with Jiraiya."
It was similar to what the Toad Sannin had told him; different words, same advice, even if the intentions behind them were wildly different. "Yeah? How?"
"Exploit her weakness. All humans have one, you just need to find hers."
Naruto huffed. That was easier said than done, especially since it seemed likely that Tsunade wanted to do nothing other than kick his ass. Then again…
Tsunade's past was riddled with affection for those she loved. She'd put all her faith in her younger brother and lover, and while it had only amounted to heartbreak, it spoke of her allegiance to those she cared about. And if she didn't have some morsel of those feelings still, it would've been highly unlikely that she would've obeyed Jiraiya, even considering whatever concessions he'd made her. In some capacity, Tsunade still cared about her teammate, the simultaneous successor to her grandfather, granduncle, and teacher, not to mention the dreams of her brother and lover.
And Naruto was her family.
It was a thin thread, to be sure, and it forced Naruto to accept an aspect of himself that he wasn't sure he wanted to, but if Tsunade could prove to be a hindrance to his plan, then having her on his side was certainly better than the alternative.
The thought of resorting to his familial bond with the Slug Sannin brought his attention back to the conundrum he'd faced when listening to both Jiraiya and Tenten. "Hey, Zetsu? Can you tell me about your family?"
"Why?" Black Zetsu asked in a tone that meant he clearly thought the subject was pointless.
"I think I know a way to get to Tsunade, but I've never had a family and I don't know if it'll work or not," he hedged. It wasn't entirely a lie, but the truth was he knew very little of Zetsu's background, and the idea that his tutor could give him a different perspective on the topic he'd been struggling with all day was somewhat relieving.
"…They were nice," White Zetsu offered after a pause.
"Were you from a clan?"
Black Zetsu made a noise of scornful amusement. "Hardly. If he was, I would not have been born in this body. No, Naruto-kun," White Zetsu answered gently, "but we were happy, just the three of us. My parents would've gladly died to protect me, and they did, because they were weak. They never got past Chūnin, but they taught me what they knew, which is why you never got past Chūnin, either. Oh, that's a good point."
"Do you ever wish they were still alive?" Naruto asked quietly; somehow, the answer to this question seemed more relevant than any of Zetsu's previous exposition.
"No," White Zetsu responded, and the answer was so immediate that the blond was taken aback. "Imagine their horror at seeing their son transformed into this," Black Zetsu commented with snide amusement. "People need to grow out of their parents' shadows, Naruto-kun," White Zetsu continued, ignoring his darker half. "Their deaths gave me freedom from my old life and the opportunity to branch out, literally. I don't use anything they taught me anymore, although you do."
Oh shit, Naruto thought, mildly horrified, Zetsu really is like my father. After all, it was the renegade's knowledge and techniques he was improving upon, not the Uzumaki clan's, no matter that the former Kusa-nin had an arsenal that didn't rely on any of said knowledge.
White Zetsu sighed in mock despondency. "One day, Naruto-kun, you'll be all grown up and ready to rebel against your parents. I'll weep as you try to escape us. I can't wait. The taste of rebellion is so sweet," Black Zetsu mocked longingly.
Even worse, the plant-man's two halves considered themselves his parents.
He had two fathers, and both were bat-shit crazy.
"Time to go. Bye bye!"
"Wait!" he called as the plant-man began to meld back into the tree. "You said everyone has a weakness. What's yours?"
"Me," both halves replied, and Naruto was so surprised he'd gotten an answer that he didn't make a sound when White Zetsu told him, "You'll forge your own path someday, Naruto-kun. And when you do, it should be strewn with corpses. Papa likes the chewy ones!" laughed Black Zetsu as the former Kusa-nin disappeared.
The blond felt a shudder run through his body as his tutor departed. Insanity aside, Zetsu had some good points. Just as the plant-man had abandoned his parents' history and taken up his own path – albeit under unique circumstances – Naruto's abilities weren't and didn't have to be dependent upon those of his clan.
For a long moment, he simply sat in place and tried to imagine what his life would have been like had he had an actual parent guiding him. If his mother truly had been the Jinchūriki of the Kyūbi, then her survival implied that he wouldn't contain the beast, which meant that the villagers wouldn't view him in such a negative light. Was it possible he would've had friends beyond the few he'd made for selfish reasons? Without a desire to be recognized by the villagers, would he have chased his now-defunct dream of becoming Hokage? It was more than likely that he would've been instilled with the same Will of Fire that Zetsu's cruel, blunt honesty had persuaded him was folly, a philosophy he would've been more than happy to accept if it meant having the care of a parent.
The dream popped, a soap bubble grown too far beyond its means. Maybe that could have been his life, but now it was nothing more than a fantasy. He sighed to himself as he rose to his feet and stretched his back. There was little purpose in musing on hypotheticals that would never come to pass; the past was the past, and if Naruto wanted to live his current life to the fullest, he was better off looking forward rather than back.
Still, there were aspects of Tenten's story that echoed within the void inside him, a deep desire to know where he'd come from. After all, learning about the Uzumaki clan didn't mean that he had to embrace its ways. Maybe it didn't matter for his ninja abilities, but he was still human, and the aspect of him that couldn't quite stop forming connections to people like Ino and Tenten wanted to explore his ancestry.
Human… Even as he adjusted his future plans to satiate his desire to learn about his history, Naruto wondered what his own weakness was, and who would find it first.
Author's Note: So I have a full-time job now (finally!), meaning that my free time is even more limited; I think you know what that means. I can't seem to find the Land of Iron marked on any map, so I made up a place where it is (despite there being no country there on the map). More in the next chapter about Naruto perceiving his own weaknesses.
Anyway, please feel free to let me know what you think of the chapter.