Chapter 36


Now that they were safely on their way back to Konoha, the scolding could commence.

"Why were you late?" Jiraiya asked. "You know what the schedule is. It's noon already, Kakashi. You've missed the first two hours of the Chunin Exam."

"Sasuke was having difficulty mastering a new technique," Kakashi said. "He needed those two hours to get it down to the point where he wouldn't kill himself. I thought it was important."

"But it's not," Jiraiya said.

"You don't know Sasuke," Kakashi said.

"Meaning?" Baki asked.

"He would have used the technique anyway, even if it hadn't been safe," Kakashi said.

Sasuke didn't offer any comment.

"Well, I'm sorry, but that's Sasuke's decision," Jiraiya said. "You can't make a kid wise up by coddling them all the time."

"Normally, I'd agree with you," Kakashi said.

"Kakashi," Sasuke said quietly. "Don't bother."

Jiraiya caught that. "He calls you by your name? No honorific or anything? Sheesh. What is our youth coming to?"

"Sasuke is my responsibility to protect," Kakashi said. "I am the last link he has to the Uchiha clan, and I'm not going to let him die on some foolish quest for revenge. As soon as he makes chunin we're leaving the village to pursue Itachi."

"Whoa," Jiraiya said. "Do I have to turn this toad around? That's crazy talk."

"Why?" Sasuke asked simply.

"Because Itachi's part of Akatsuki now," Jiraiya said. "He's not on his own. He comes attached with several other psychopaths trying to rule the world. Revenge is not a good idea right now."

"I can't simply wait for him to leave," Sasuke said.

"Yes, you can. Take it from me, kid: Revenge is patient. If you want to do it the right way, i.e. without being killed in the process, you have to wait for the right moment," Jiraiya said. "If it's revenge lessons you want, take 'em from me: I waited forty years to get revenge on Orochimaru. I'm alive, and he's…well, whatever you can say a sealed spirit is. Inactive? Trapped? Either way it means I win and he loses, and that's because I waited until the right time."

"Thank you for that," Kakashi said wryly. "I've been trying to teach him that revenge isn't the right way to go about things."

"Kakashi hoped I would change my mind after seeing how fruitless it was," Sasuke said. "He made a bet with me that I would give up after seeing what it was like."

Jiraiya snorted. "Kakashi, kid, you're naïve."

"I'm not naïve," Kakashi said. "I just know everything is my fault. Why blame someone else and make them take the punishment when I know it was all my fault to begin with?"

"That's a complex," Jiraiya said.

"Maybe," Kakashi said. "But you don't know, do you? It could be all my fault."

Baki stayed out of this.

"Minato dying was your fault," Jiraiya said. "Sure. It couldn't possibly be the evil masked man that infiltrated our village, that ANBU failed to stop."

Kakashi was silent.

"Masked man?" Sasuke asked.

"It's not in the history books," Jiraiya said.

"No kidding," Sasuke muttered. "What's this about a masked man killing Yondaime?"

"That's what happened," Jiraiya said. "It's been preserved in ANBU reports. And I gotta tell ya, Sasuke, information points to that guy being part of Akatsuki. So you think going after your brother is insane yet?"

"No," Sasuke said quietly. "That just means I need more help."

Kakashi sighed. "What's past is past."

"Not for me," Sasuke said. "I don't have a future because of what Itachi did. I want him to pay for that."

"Since when are a mother and a father the only kind of future?" Jiraiya asked.

"He killed my whole clan. He killed my whole clan's way of life," Sasuke said. "How can I be an Uchiha if there is no Uchiha clan?"

"How come it's so important to be an Uchiha?" Jiraiya asked. "Kid, lots of us lose our clans. Kakashi lost his clan. I lost mine. Minato lost his. We are more than a clan. We are a village. If we weren't, none of us would hang together."

"But what is a village?" Sasuke asked. "What is it really?"

"A village is a place where people all vow to support each other," Jiraiya said.

"Then you should vow to support my revenge," Sasuke said.

"This is why I don't try to talk him out of it," Kakashi said.

"If you don't support me, then you're not my village," Sasuke said. "If no one supports me, then I am a village of one."

"There's no 'village of one' talk on this toad," Jiraiya muttered. "Don't be melodramatic. Just hang on and let us help our way; we're old for a reason, you know. We survived. And we survived some pretty terrible shit. So we know what we're talking about."

"I'm not opposed to you helping me," Sasuke said. "Kakashi explained Itachi's taunt to me. Itachi was trying to get me to fail, challenging me because he knew I had a temper and would take his dare seriously. If I want to win against him and get revenge for my family, I need help."

"That's the way." Jiraiya nodded. "I had the help of this guy right here, and Yondaime Kazekage." He patted Baki's shoulder.

Baki smiled over his shoulder at Jiraiya. "That's right. And I was happy to help."

Sasuke looked at them both speculatively. "What's with the resemblance?"

"We're second cousins," Baki said.

"Second cousins once removed to be exact, but we're really brothers," Jiraiya said, grinning. "We took a vow to be each other's brothers. I had an older brother who died, and he had a younger brother who died. So we're filling in each other's spots."

"But that makes you the Ototo and him the Niisan," Sasuke said, frowning.

"So?" Jiraiya shrugged.

Sasuke looked thoughtful at that. "Maybe it's okay."

"I think it is," Kakashi said.

Jiraiya was glad for the support, even if Kakashi didn't know how far it had gotten. Speaking of Kakashi, he suddenly remembered the reason for his worry. "Look, there's something I have to tell you once we reach Konoha. In private."

"Okay," Kakashi said.

xXx

Gaara's sand overwhelming the arena put Naruto purely on the defensive. He dodged tentacles, enormous hands, and other attempts to grab him.

"Now we'll see if Jiraiya's seal holds," Yondaime said, leaning forward in his chair. "Usually when Gaara uses this much power, Shukaku starts to take control. The more power from the Ichibi that Gaara harnesses, the more freedom Shukaku has to do whatever he wants."

Sandaime nodded. "I'll have ANBU team 3 stand by. There is a man on that team who can control the chakra of the tailed beasts; suppress it if he wishes, with a special jutsu." He gestured to his guard, the one with the burn scar on his face.

The man nodded and used his walkie-talkie to radio to the ANBU team. Yondaime couldn't understand the message – it was in code – but he trusted Sandaime.

xXx

Kankuro watched tensely, shaking his head as Naruto's kunai were swallowed up by Gaara's sand harmlessly. Naruto set off explosive tags, but the sand that showered down just reformed, gripped again by Gaara's magnetism release.

"At this point, Gaara's victory is a foregone conclusion," Temari said. "Look at all that sand."

"Yeah, it seems that way," Kankuro said. He didn't trust Naruto not to have some kind of backup plan. Then again, Naruto hadn't known for sure that he was going to be fighting Gaara.

Naruto took his chance. He leapt back and paused long enough to make hand seals and bite his thumb.

A wall of sand wrapped around Naruto, flexible as a scroll, and a sand tentacle rolled out, punching Naruto in the head. Naruto went limp.

Gaara gestured, and the sand unrolled, gently lowering Naruto to the ground. He walked over, carefully shielding himself with tendrils of sand.

Naruto didn't move.

Genma flickered over and knelt by Naruto, checking vital signs.

Kankuro held his breath.

Ten long seconds passed.

Genma stood. "Naruto has been defeated! The winner is: Gaara of the Sand!"

Kankuro and Temari cheered, but not very many others did in the stands. Kankuro was resigned to that.

Gaara teleported back up to them with a swirl of sand. "Did I do well?"

Kankuro hugged him impulsively. "You did better than well! You did great!"

Temari joined in, seeing that Kankuro wasn't being pushed away. "You were awesome, Ototo."

Gaara blushed and allowed himself to be hugged from both sides.

xXx

Sandaime stared down at the arena as two med nins carried Naruto away on a stretcher after bandaging his head. It didn't look as though Naruto had been injured badly the stretcher was just a standard precaution.

"I did tell you that Gaara would win," Yondaime commented with a small smile.

Sandaime chuckled, and then burst out laughing. "Was that an 'I told you so'?"

Yondaime grinned and chuckled himself. "Oops. I suppose it was."

Sandaime laughed again and shook his head. "Very well. You were right, Yondaime. Gaara did best Naruto-kun. This should mean an increase in sales for your village."

Yondaime shrugged. "I was less concerned with that." Truthfully, though, he was relieved. Gaara had made a good show, managing to control Shukaku and win. The potential clients from all over the Five Great Shinobi nations would hear about this, even if they weren't here to witness Gaara's victory. Word would spread that the jinchuuriki of the Sand village was stable, thus increasing the village's ranking.

He made a note to himself to thank Jiraiya. This victory was at least partially the Sannin's doing.

"Where do you think Jiraiya and Baki are by now?" Yondaime asked.

"If I know my student, I can hope that Jiraiya has found Kakashi and that they are on their way back," Sandaime said.

"I hope so." Yondaime nodded. "I wouldn't want Baki to miss Kankuro's match against Aburame Shino. That's next, isn't it?"

"If they can get the sand out of the arena," Sandaime said.

"I'll speak to my son about that," Yondaime said. He rose from his chair.

Sandaime smiled wryly. "That might be best. My earth specialist doesn't usually deal with large quantities of sand."