Beta: Duesal edited this at approximately the speed of light. So for that, he's awesome.

Disclaimer: I own nothing, apart from a box of imaginary cookies.

Swinging Pendulum

Chapter Four: Tests

There is a mirror. Thin, rounded at the edges, the back silky smooth and lightly spotted—everything but the shiny surface as blue as a robin's egg. There is a crack. It starts at the wooden, ornate handle, tendrils curling upwards from the base and spider webbing across the reflective surface. The invisible tentacles latches to the worn wood, keeping a delicate glass existence in place, like balancing an egg on the tips of a kunai.

It was a gift from a long time ago. Christmas had come around again, bright bursts of green and jolly red lights flickered in the stormy hues of dusk. Snow had quietly spiralled down, blanketing the worn road in white, soft and feathery against his skin. "A gift," the old man had rumbled. His eyes hard like tarnished steel in the declining light of day.

"It was my wife's." And there it was—that look, ancient and knowing. The smoke curling from his pipe scented of jasmine and pine-wood, and rough, worn hands clasped the little package into Naruto's own. It was similar, so incredibly familiar to that distant, unreadable slip of the eye Hokage Jiji used to give him.

It was warm.

"It matches your eyes, young 'in."

Naruto holds the mirror at arm's length, staring at the boy reflected inside. He sees a child with a man's eyes, determined, a little weary, with something that needs to be accomplished no matter what. He sees a strong-headed boy that loves too much and forgives too easily. He sees blue, a bright, brilliant blue. A blue like the ocean that harbours so much. A blue like the sky, forever watching and forever accepting. A blue like his mirror, weary and beautiful, precious and hopeful, strong and broken.

Ninja—and the general population with common sense—know that trauma doesn't go away in a single night. To be honest, it doesn't go away at all, instead floating behind its victim like a dedicated evil spirit. The only real solution to avoiding old ghosts was to embark on a quest for temporary amnesia (there was a reason why bars were usually full) and maybe getting one's head cracked open in the process.

Striding down the hallway, Naruto eyed the classroom door with careful consideration. Should he kick it down or not? It was the last day, and he would never venture back into this knowledge-filled building which raised assholes and geniuses alike. At least not on his count.


The door flew open, fully intact. Naruto could just make out the foot shaped dent on its surface if he squinted. Shame. Still, they probably made the door with some kind of ninja-proofing material. Who knew how many of them they used to clean out in a week?

"Sorry I'm late," he chirped, leisurely walking to the back where the chibis sat in a tight circle. "There were these baby polar bears. And one of them ate my alarm clock this morning, so, you know, I kinda needed to do the right thing and bring them back to the forest."

He tried, he really did, but he could feel the phantom ruffle of a gloved hand through his hair. Sasuke's familiar hnn that marked him Konoha's number one asshole grated in his ear, and Sakura-chan's acid-filled expression of half exasperation and I-am-going-to-kill-you jollily trapezed around his head like a phantom limb that just wouldn't go away.

"Naruto." The tone was soft and tentative, like he was some delicate object that could break at the slightest touch.

"What's up?" he grinned. Normal normal normal.

Tsunade frowned. "Naruto."

Okay, so maybe he was a little messed up. A little. Hallucinations and all that would come and go with time. And hearing imaginary voices couldn't be all that bad. Right?


Who was he kidding? He was fucked up. Really, really fucked up. Of course, a good dose of crazy usually came hand in hand with the job descriptions, and everyone had ways of channelling their inner angst into eccentricities. But him, well, he had seen the decided end of the world, or at least the impending doom of the zombie apocalypse. He could doubtlessly pose as the poster child for fucked up, topped only by Kakashi-sensei (Uchiha Madara and Obito didn't count, they were bat shit insane), which was really saying something.

Gigantic fox sealed into him at birth? Check.

Shunned by villagers for the great majority of his years? Check.

Best friend decided to stab him in the heart? Check.

Gigantic perverts for teachers? Che—that wasn't bad, really, but still. Check.

End of the world against two mad morons? Double check.

It was really a wonder he hadn't snapped yet. Kami knows how many times he had just teetered on that horrendously thin line, only to bounce back at the last minute.

And now, Kakashi-sensei's collection of excuses, each manufactured around such beautiful bullshit, had decided to grow arms and legs and run around his mouth like they belonged there.

"... Team six, Uchiha Souta, Ai Yukihime, Furuhara Kai..." Naruto's head jerked back. This was it, this was the crowning moment of the day, this was team seven's stage. They had spent so much time squinting over worksheets and old test notes, trying to discover new ways to mess up without arousing suspicion, and getting Jiriaya to purposely flunk those two tests to get put on the same team as the rest of the chibis.

At the speed of a snail, the chunin cleared his throat, "Team seven Senju Tsunade, Orochimaru, and..." he paused dramatically. And even though Naruto already knew who was going to be third in the team, he figured that the only reason the teacher paused was because he was trying to kill off the remainder of his students via heart attack. He patted Jiraiya's shoulder in a comforting gesture, but quickly retracted his hand when the boy fiddled with a package of explosive notes, looking as if he wanted to lob them at the teacher if only to make him hurry the hell up.

"Hatake Jiraiya..." the man finished, having spotted Jiraiya and knowing full well the extent of his student's arsonist abilities.

"Holy shit," Jiraiya whispered, his tone thick and gleeful, even though everything had been meticulously calculated to work out. Even without edging Jiraiya towards the position of dead last, they doubtlessly would have been planted in the same team anyways—three prodigies of the same age that slid together like puzzle pieces, though a little roughed at the edges—it was a powerhouse dream come true. "Holy shit."

"We made it, guys." Tsunade's expression was blinding and her tone proud.

Orochimaru smiled. It was freaky, in a way, because even here and now as children, Orochimaru rarely smiled. It made his face light up and his eyes go wide. Jiraiya and Tsunade were perfectly fine with it, having known no other OrochImaru. Yet when the picture, that innocent, beaming scene registered in Naruto's mind, his mental functions automatically compared it with the other Orochimaru's slippery grin that made it's way up his spine like a horde of ants. Considerably, this combination caused his mind to reboot after a moment. The image made perfect sense and it was rather touching, but Naruto could swear that he also saw flowers blooming in the background, if only for a split second like Gai and Lee's youth genjutsu. Or maybe timetravel was taking it's toll and he had hallucinated the entire thing up.

Never one to think negatively, Naruto patted his friend on the shoulder.

"…And lastly," Okay, so Naruto was a little annoyed, but only a little. They were having a moment here, couldn't Daiki-sensei see that? "Uzumaki Naruto will be placed under the apprenticeship of Lady Uzumaki Mito."

His words were drowned out by a loud squeal and a spike of chakra as Tsunade hurtled towards him, pinning Naruto to the ground in a warm, tight hug. He could just imagine the terrific strength that she would gain in the future as chubby arms proceeded to squeeze the life out of him. "Congrats, 'Ruto, you made it. We all made it!"

"Yeah," Naruto muttered with soft eyes. "You think my aweso-OOMPH," the dog pile on top of him had miraculously expanded within two seconds. Naruto made a strangled noise, and a musician might have eloquently compared it to that of a drowning elephant. "MY POOR BACK! SERIOUSLY PEOPLE! GET OFF!"

Jiraiya snorted from the top of the dog pile. The explosive notes were still clutched in his hand, and a flash of worry decided to rear it's head before ebbing away to you-know-what?-who-cares. Naruto laughed. "You can handle this little weight just fine."

"Well, he can. Probably." Orochimaru shifted underneath his best friend and shot Jiraiya a withering look. "I, however, can't."

"You're stuck there anyway," Jiraiya snickered.

"Oh, he's just pretending." Sassy! Naruto usually emerged in the form of Naruko. Usually. He should probably do something about that clone; she was really rubbing off on him. "You know you loooooooove us," Naruto teased, wriggling his arms free of Tsunade's squashed grip to awkwardly half-clap Oroichimaru on the back. Sure, Orochimaru could be an asshole and all with his seriously deadpan attitude, but the guy was ridiculously fun to pester.

"He's just shy," Tsunade declared, her voice a little muffled.

"I am not shy," Orochimaru defended.

"Don't worry, one day, you will finally come to terms with your true self," Naruto said, his face painted with a solemn expression. And as long as that self didn't involve immortality, soul-switching and terrifying experiments, it would be fine.

"You know what?" Orochimaru groaned exasperation and amusement flickering in his eyes and one hand reaching out to futilely swat Naruto in the face. "Shut up."

He breathed it in, the waft of vanilla and soft crumbling soil; of shining eyes and wonderful, loving family. Naruto smiled, and thought of home.

It was time to put them away, those old ghosts, even for just a little while. It was time to focus on the present.

It was alright-fate, destiny, tragedies be damned—he was Uzumaki Naruto, and as long as he had someone to protect, as long as his friends were by as side, he was going to continue forward.

It was a fruit basket.

For all five seconds, Sarutobi Hiruzen stared unflinchingly at the object. It was a nice basket, really, with a boutique of carefully arranged flowers laid on top, a small card attached to the handle and, well... an artfully arranged variety of produce ranging from shiny apples to ripe mulberries.

On a regular day, he would've stowed it away from himself (after checking for any traces of poison and the odd explosive note) but today was the team assignments, which meant meeting his (90% possible) future students, which meant having to shoulder the burden of being a teacher to those possible students. It was definitely not a regular day.

He had arrived early to fetch his trio genin-wannabes, shunshining to the academy, only to find a room full of excited children still awaiting their instructors and after a quick scan, no traces of team seven. A blond Uzumaki boy had pointed him into the direction of the roof after staring at him rather awkwardly for a drawn out moment (there was the jaw-dropping and eyes-bursting-out-of-his-sockets expression). Considering that Mito-sama was perched patiently on one of the child-sized chairs, Hiruzen suspected that the only reason the Uzumaki prodigy (there had been a small quarrel on whether he should have been picked for the team along with Tsunade and Orochimaru) had remained in the room was to warn him about the upcoming predicament.

That had been three minutes ago.

Upon arriving on the roof, Hiruzen had immediately scanned his surroundings for any foreign chakra signatures—or rather, the signatures genin team he was supposed to meet. Twenty seconds of semi-desperate sensing proved there to be nothing but himself, the occasional dregs of dust, and the fruit basket. Half a second later he was back in the classroom, nearly demolishing the already broken window—how it was destroyed the first time he didn't really know—only to find the Uzumaki student-teacher pair having miraculously disappeared.

When he dragged himself back onto the roof, the woven little thing sat there innocently, mocking him in all its colourful glory. The words from the Uzumaki brat had obviously been his only plain clue from his students (he was already beginning to think of those goddamn brats as his own) and the fruit basket was the only other thing in sight. He edged towards it carefully, discretely checking for any traps that might have been placed around the basket. Thankfully, there were none.

Hiruzen crouched, eyeing his adversity with a hawk's gaze, and stared.

Which lead him to where he was now.

He gently prodded an apple with a kunai, the surface ripe and shiny, making sure not to touch it himself. His paranoia was getting a little ridiculous, he knew that, but these brats had already thrown him for a loop. He didn't need to get an explosive to the face and a smoking shirt to add to his lack accomplishments.

Satisfied, the Sarutobi pocketed his kunai and flipped open the little card.

Meet you at the training grounds.

-team seven.

Yes, those kids were absolute little shits, Hiruzen thought, amused. He was going to expand their training regime as soon as he managed to get his hands on them. A few months worth of D-ranks would constitute his revenge very, very well. They were underestimating him, or maybe they were simply playing with him, trying to gage whether or not he would be accepted as their teacher. It hurt his pride a little that these six-year-olds were trying to get one over him. It made him feel something like pride, however, when he realized that freshly minted genin twice their age didn't have the guts nor the creativity to try something like this.

He crumpled the card, swung the basket over his shoulder, and headed for training ground seven.


Like he would actually fall for that! As soon as he was out of sight, Hiruzen quickly flipped through some handseals, nodding as his clone poofed into existence. He flung the newly formed kage-bunshin the fruit basket, and then he doubled back, repressed his chakra and sullenly watched the seemingly empty rooftop.

Five minutes later, it seemed that his assumptions were correct. There was a slight pop of chakra, and childish, gleeful laughter as smoke billowed outwards, signalling the release of a jutsu. Three equally nondescriptent pebbles scattered randomly across the roof enlarged hundred-fold. When the haze dissipated, the grinning forms of his genin team were prominent amidst loose tendrils of smoke.

"He fell for it!" the grinning white haired one said enthusiastically.

The long-haired boy gingerly peeled off a slip of paper attached to his arm. "These are...?" he questioned, gesturing to the paper.

"Oh yeah, they hide chakra signatures and such. Mito-shisho went over them a month ago. Careful, though, I've only got a few of them perfected," Jiraiya said.

Impressive, Hiruzen thought, eyes tracing the experienced dips and twirls of the chakra ink imprinted on the page. Jiraiya's advances in the art of seal-making were the literal highlights in his files, and his tutelage under the Uzumaki Mito was more than pronounced. Mito-sama had long since refused to take a protégé, much to the constant ire of the counsel, and now, in the timespan of a year, she had taken one boy under her wing and had personally decided to teach another one.

Once again, there had been an uproar from the council (involving a great deal of screeching, underhand tactics, and Tobirama-sensei's headaches). As proficient as the Uzumaki boy was, he was still an orphan of unspecific linage.

But the moment one of the elders had suggested Mito move her interest into someone else—preferably someone from a prominent clan—Mito had stared at him openly, calmly even as the sound of splintering wood (he suspected it was from the armrest) crashed into the air and an aura of power bubbled its way up to the surface. Hiruzen didn't really want to know what it was about, he and Danzo were only there to watch the political aspects of the village, but Tobirama-sensei had stilled. When her long red hair beginning to float out of their restraints ominously, Mito-sama looked like a tigress—or maybe a demon—ready to pounce.

The message had been quite clear: no Uzumaki meant no apprentice.

He would admit, from what he had read, Jiraiya was brash and impatient—not the best material for someone that wanted to learn seals—but Mito-sama had always had a keen eye for talent. From this demonstration, it seemed that the brat was certainly doing well.

Tsunade pocketed her seal. "Never mind that," she dismissed. "That beard guy took my fruit basket!"

"I thought that was supposed to be bait," Jiraiya said.

Orochimaru pointed out, "That 'beard guy' as you put so eloquently, is our teacher. Probably."

"I thought that he'd only take the card," she admitted.

"... It was a good fruit basket."

Tsunade nodded solemnly. "It took me hours to get it right. And the flowers, they were specifically arranged."

"... The amount of effort you placed into making it is rather daunting."

"We were supposed to eat it together," she sighed. "You know, after we got our teams and stuff."

"Er... I may have tucked some explosive tags in there," Jiraiya said sheepishly.

"What? When?" She whirled around, horrified. "My basket!"

"Again... I thought it was BAIT!"

Ah, well as much as he'd like to continue watching this, Hiruzen had things to do, genin to humiliate—his pride was at stake here, dammit—and places to be. With an invisible flicker, he landed in front of the trio. Orochimaru was the first to react; the boy used Jiraiya's head as a stepping stone and nearly nailed him in the face with a kunai. Jiraiya whipped around, a sheet of paper scrunched up in his hands.

A twirl of a shuriken later, and Tsunade was pinned to the roof, swearing at him profusely. He ducked a kick aimed at his head, making sure to trip Jiraiya along the way. Then flipped his way over the explosive tags aimed at his, stomach, grabbed the two brats and banged Jiraiya and Orochimaru's heads together.

"Ow..." Jiraiya groaned.

"You," Hiruzen drawled, glancing down at his students, "are a bunch of tricky little brats. But you're going to have to do better if you want to out-smart a jounin."

All three glanced up at him with varying degrees of sourness etched in their expressions. Most likely over the fact that their little stunt had failed, but Hiruzen thought it was probably because of the goose-eggs decorating the boys' heads as well.

So much for first impressions.

"My name is Sarubtori Hiruzen," the bearded man started, easily ignoring the death glares that had been directed at his head for a while now. "I like my summons, my teacher, and ninja wire. I dislike paperwork, and my dream is to become someone admired by my village," he paused, before tacking on, "and to surpass Tobirama-sensei. Your turn."

"You've already read our files," Orochimaru muttered, "you should know about us." While Jiraiya agreed that there files were important, face to face interaction was better, and to be true friends and companions, a couple of punches had to be thrown somewhere into the mix. Only problem was that right now he was too pissed to even consider a civilized introduction, and had his head not been swimming with little blinky dots, he would've tried clawing Hiruzen's eyes out.

"And what makes you think that?" Hiruzen challenged.

Orochimaru deadpanned, "because if you had not, then you are an extremely incompetent ninja, and we should really be on our way to scouting out a new teacher."


Why can't there be a four man team of students?

It had taken a few seconds for him to calm down, although staring at the sky and trying to to securely count the wisps of puffy clouds lazily traversing by did the trick. Jiraiya twitched, partly because the pebbles cemented into the roof was digging uncomfortably into his back, partly because Orochimaru was tapping the rough stone in quick, repeated patterns. He was thinking, and Orochimaru always had to fidget with something when he was thinking. Sometimes, Jiraiya wondered if there was something about ninja and a guarantee for ADHD. But maybe that was just because they were children.

He rubbed the back of his head, carefully navigating his way through the tousle of white hair, and winced as his fingers prodded the large bump.


Slowly, Jiraiya shifted into a sitting position, wiped his hands on the front of his yukata, and opened his mouth. Judging by the staring contest Orochimaru was in, and Tsunade's grip on her shrunkein, they surely were not going to be the ones initiating any sort of conversation.

To be fair, a part of his brain was silently screaming at him to lob something sharp and pointy at this jounin. But if they stayed like this, they were never going to get anything done.

"My name is Jiraiya," he sighed. "My likes are..."

"Hey guys—Holy Kami. Did you guys start a prank war I didn't know about or something?" Naruto said, watching as storage scrolls disappeared within other storage. The smoke lazily curling through the air was almost pliable, like hazy gray molasses. Pages marked labeled rations, shuriken sets, senbon packages and a dagger with a suspicious mark (the one that came from one of Kiri's best blacksmiths, where had they gotten that?) all flew within neatly labeled scrolls. The red rimmed one was for weaponry, the blue for food, water and other necessaries, and the green for first aid.

Jiraiya propped open another scroll, this one with an orange squiggle across the center, and started to load in cups of colour-organized glitter and paint buckets. Naruto watched open-mouthed as Tsunade and Orochimaru heaved something large from the south wall. The sharp, glinting edge of the metal wavering dangerously near the sealing, just barely swiping the innocent light-bulb. "How did you get a mace? Where did you get a mace? And why are there so many weapons in my house?"

"Nice to see you chipper again," Jiraiya said dryly.

"We're ninja," Orochimaru pointed out, the wooden end of the mace clattering noisily onto another storage scroll. Naruto nearly squawked in anguish as Tsunade released her hold as well, uncaring for the already dented wooden floor as she crumpled with a pitiful moan. "So... heavy."

"...My house," Naruto mourned, scowling at the floor.

"Apartment," Jiraiya muttered.

"Why are you keeping all your stuff in my apartment?" the blond demanded.

"Not your apartment," Tsunade groaned, unplastering her head from the floor. "There's still Tanaka-san. You know, the one that lives on the second floor with all the bottle caps? Yeah. It's his. And Shiroko-baa-san's, too."

"Fine," Naruto huffed. "Then it's my floor."

Orochimaru held up a tiny bottle of medicine up to eyelevel. "Akashi accidentally cut his hand open when he managed to somehow, somewhere, get his hands onto my kunai set. It's not happening again."

"Granny said she'd throw out my dagger if she ever saw it again," Tsunade pouted.

"What'dyou do?" Naruto asked.


"What'dvou do?" Jiraiya muttered around the inkbrush clenched between his teeth.

Tsunade fidgeted with her sleeve. "I, ah... there was an accident. And then Granny's Tea set, the one with the dragons carved on it, the real pretty one. It... kinda broke," she admitted.

"..." Naruto said. "Let's not mention that in front of her. Ever. Anyways, why are you packing everything? You didn't already get assigned a mission right?" That would have been so incredibly unfair. Team seven—Naruto's team seven—had to put about more than a month's worth of D-ranks and the humiliation of the Bell test before they had gone on any real missions. Sure, the Wave thing was a bit overboard, but he had gotten awesome bragging rights and an A-ranked accomplishment under his belt.

Jiraiya positioned a chair (what was he going to do with that?) above yet another storage scroll. At this point, Naruto figured the chibis could probably make a one way trip to Suna and whip up a base there in an hour of unpacking, no problem. "We have a survival exercise tomorrow," Jiraiya explained. "The thirty-three percent can pass thing."

"I know," Naruto frowned. "But a chair. For a survival test in Konoha."

"Better to be over-prepared than not," Jiraiya pointed out, and in yet another burst of hazy smoke, the chair was gone.

"A chair."

Tsunade, recovered from her momentary collapse began stuffing some of the scrolls into a bag. "Hiruzen-sensei might forget to bring four chairs," she suggested amiably. "And we might need an extra one. Besides, you know that one time when we snuck into the secret... roomy thing underground? Where we couldn't use our chakra? … A chair would have really helped."

"Fine. I concede to your point. The chair is awesome."

"Yes it is," Jiraiya said.

The chibis stayed for another half an hour. Naruto perched on the window sill, his hands on his chin, watching as the room got racked bare and his eyes began to droop tiredly.

"Any ideas 'bout the test? Yours, I mean," Naruto inquired, yawning. In his time, Kakashi had only given them a vague eye-smile and nothing more than "don't eat break-fast you'll throw up." They had, of course, all followed his words with uncanny precision until the last moment, despite him being a one-eyed bastard who had been late by two hours.

We were all pretty stupid back then.

Orochimaru hmmed, large, zoning onto an interesting spot on the ceiling, the wooden grains stained auburn. "We have... a vague outline. The possibility of actually winning against the jounin is highly unlikely, so there must me some sort of hidden lesson underneath it all. I checked with some of the older genin teams. Apparently, each teacher has a different style, some ask for information. Others do a version of hide and seek. The goal is to test our skills, weaknesses, and how well we cooperate with others."

Tsunade piped, "I checked with Granny Mito. You know the old story about Uncle Tobirama testing his genin with bells that we were told that one time? Yeah. Hiruzen-sensei was on that team, so..."

"Maybe," Jiraiya muttered.

"What about you, 'Ruto?"

Ah yes. Apprenticeships weren't all that different from four-man teams, but because the teacher in question was only testing one student, their expectations were usually much higher. Most focused on certain talents that related to their own strengths. Mito-sensei had vaguely hinted at the training exercise, sipped her tea, and gave him a figure it out yourself look.

Today was for scouting. The actual task was to come tomorrow, bright and early at four o'clock; thank the gods Mito-sensei wasn't like Kakashi. "Er... it's a work in progress," Naruto explained.

"On the other hand, you did bring it, yes?" Orochimaru asked, turning to Jiraiya.


"And you're absolutely sure it's the right kind. Those people love to scam us," Tsunade interjected.

"Give me some credit. I henged. It's all good."

She grinned, teeth glinting white. Naruto would've thought it was scary, because a riled up Tsunade was like a demon on the prowl, if not for the fact there was a large gap in place of her front incisors. Instead, with her eyes all bright and her hair done up in lopsided pigtails, she looked like a baby bird, ready for her first flight.

Wrapping one chubby arm around each of her teammates, Tsunade bounced towards the window, the black bag with all the supplies strewn over her shoulder.

The shutters had been left open early in the morning, and a flippant breeze swept through. (Security was of no issue. Jiraiya and Orochimaru had plastered enough seals in the walls to keep anyone but those with registered chakra keys from getting in without either facing electrocution, a stream of condensed water to the head, or an invisible wall.)

"Time to roll, boys," she said.

Then, in a burst of shunshin, they were gone.

The next morning

"There are only two bells," Hiruzen explained, dangling said bells in front of his students. "So one of you will fail and be sent back to the academy for an extra year." He paused. "That is, if any of you actually manage to get them from me."

Once again, there were the three, flat stares.

I should really be expecting this reaction by now.

"I see," Orochimaru muttered blandly. "So this is a timed test. And we have until lunch."

Hiruzen beamed. "Precisely."

"And only two of us can pass."

He nodded.

The three brats gave each other a long, knowing look.

Three seconds later, only Hiruzen was left in the empty field, the bells safely tucked away onto his belt. His genin candidates had fled, all three darting into opposite directions, away from him—there was no doubt that yesterday's introduction had firmly targeted the soft parts of their egosand into the thick patches of leafy undergrowth.

He waltzed into the trees, cheerfully humming a tune.

"Hey 'Raiya, shouldn't it be, I dunno, kicking in by now?"

"You sure you got the dosage right?"

"I was trying to not set off the fifty-something traps he has around. Who puts that many triplines in his kitchen anyways?"

"He might have eaten out for dinner."

"... We should probably tell him to throw out his rice after this. We don't want him to permanently hate us after all."


"But if he fails us, I say that we go and dump as much poison as we can over his food. I am not having a black mark on my record."







To you, what is love?



1. It is Grandpa Hashirama's sweet, rambunctious laughter filling up the air, Grandma's tight, tight hugs on stormy mornings when lightning crackles ominously outside the fragile windows. It is mama's quiet, lilting voice, singing lullabies when night overturns dusk, and papa's smile as he views his village with such pride Tsunade thinks his heart is going to burst. Love is the gentle touches of her mother's hands, and the sparkling of her grandfather's eyes. It is family dinners gathered around heavenly pots of food with their knees touching underneath the table.

But it is also the thick, sterile taste of hospital air on her tongue. The bleached walls feeling as if they were closing in when she grips the sheets, staring blankly as auntie lies on the hospital bed, cold and ashen, with her blue eyes unseeing and the bandages dyed redredred—a scarlet like the evening sky. She thinks it's unfair, because no one told her love was supposed to hurt this much, because auntie looks like one of those cheap dolls on display, broken and terrifying.

Tsunade watches, and wonders.

She's supposed to be strong and brave and a kunoichi like the woman that bound over the rooftops with their metal headbands and confident smiles. She's supposed to protect them, the people that she loves, but she can't. Not yet, not right now, because all she is right now is a little girl wanting to play ninja.

They flash through her life: the sounds of laughter, faces, pats on the head. But they don't stay, they never stay for long, and by the time she laughs and cries and loves, they're trails of red dribbled on the ground, the only makings of their identity carved into her mind and the stab of gray stone.

She's terrified.

So she locks it away, deep, deep into the backs of her mind and reserves it only for those whom she knows are strong.

Sometimes, when she's alone and her mind drifts on the edges of something and nothing, it nips at her consciousness, a consistent tug that coils and purrs, sending waves of uneasiness up her throat. (Because in the end, she can pretend to not care and pretend to be shy and try to stay away from them. Auntie's gone now, and Uncle's next and I'm trying to keep away from them, but why then, why does it still hurt so much?)

But in the end, death is inevitable—don't go. Grandpa don't go, please please please. Be safe Grandpa, come back soon Grandpa, I love you Grandpa. Don't go—and she shoves it down even more.


2. He comes into her field of vision bright and grinning, dragging a stumbling white-haired boy in his wake.

(Wild inky hair, sun-tanned skin. A laugh wild and rambunctious, promising to protect.)

Tsunade blinks.

Is that you, Grandpa Hashirama?

She promises herself she'll only spend a little bit of time playing with them, only a little.

(Then comes spring and so does the boy with amber eyes and long black hair. By the time graduation rolls around, they have already found their places in her heart.)


3. Tsunade loves her boys.

She loves loud, rambunctious Naruto with his ideals of friendship and his willingness to forgive and forget. Naruto is her twin in everything but age.

She loves cunning, exasperated Orochimaru with his calm, settling nature, always acting as a balance between three supernovas. He is the boy who nags and lectures, who smacks Naruto and Jiraiya on the head whenever they do something stupid.

She loves reckless, scowling Jiraiya. Who taunts Orochimaru and wouldn't hesitate to take the blame for a wayward prank gone wrong. He is the one always getting in scuffles, fighting those who bad mouth his friends behind their back and muttering vague words when he comes back with bloodied fists and a black-eye.

Out of everything, Tsunade despises feeling helpless. Her boys are hers, hers to protect.

(Unlike the Grandfather who disappeared, and the aunt with her wide eyes and Uncle, dear, sweet uncle, thrown into a box laced with velvet.)

Love is of human essence.

(If you didn't have anything to love, didn't anything to hold on to, what would be your reason for living?)

Tsunade loves Konohagakure. She loves this village her grandfather had built with sweat and tears and blood. However, a village's value only comes from the people that reside within it.

As much as she loves her village, she values her friends even more.

Senju Hashirama did not build Konohagakure for power or corruption. He made it so that the future generations would no longer have to experience the devastating costs of war. Konoha was built for her people, not the other way around.

Many have forgotten this.

Tsunade hasn't.

4. Tsunade is of Konohagakure.

But she is also the spark of Naruto's eyes, Jiraiya's reckless accomplishments, and Orochimaru's rare, candied laughter.





They are the ones she will not fail.




Author's Note

I am alive! *Gets pelted by tomatoes.* Ahem. The muse has finally reared its head again, but I really can't promise anything about updates. The wait should probably be shorter than this one. Probably. But if I don't get my act together within two months, send me a PM or something of that sort. I am very prone to procrastination. On the other hand...

127 reviews. O_O I love you guys so much. So, very much.

And yes, Mito is now officially Naruto's teacher.

If you have any questions, send me a PM, or leave a review behind. I don't bite.

Reviews will be cherished. Forever. XD