Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
~ O ~
The doctors, orderlies, and even the patients urgently make room for The Hokage who strides purposefully down the neutrally-colored hallway leading to the post-op ward. He's not alone; flanking his left is Rabbit who effortlessly keeps pace with the beset kage who, despite the hundreds of responsibilities inherent to his position, has only one concern right now.
The old man's feelings are obvious for all to see, but Rabbit's feelings are signaled only by the clenching of his gloved fist.
The thought of having failed Naruto is almost enough to ruin the immaculate composure that he must always possess as an ANBU.
They cross an adjoining hallway that is thickly populated by bloodied gurneys containing the remains of the fallen Uchihas. Sarutobi stops and looks; tending to the bodies are ANBU wearing colors darker than those worn by standard operatives. One of them sees the Hokage and, contrary to proper etiquette regarding someone of higher rank, this dark ANBU makes no attempt at a salute or even acknowledgment of Sarutobi. The operative curtly turns and escorts a hospital orderly who wheels the body of an Uchiha off to the morgue.
Rabbit steps close to Sarutobi, "Root?"
The old man nods, "Scavenging for spoils, no doubt."
It seems that the brutal massacre of a whole sector of people isn't enough stave off the silent power struggle between The Hokage and the forces of his oldest rival.
"But now's not the time to deal with them."
A minute later he and Rabbit are inside the post-op ward; an ANBU on guard parts a curtain isolating the unconscious, bed-ridden form of Uzumaki Naruto. His spiked red hair is matted down by dried blood and his face obscured by a translucent oxygen mask. Beads of sweat roll down the child's whisker-marked cheeks.
Sarutobi and Rabbit stand at the foot of Naruto's bed and silently take in the sight. The boy is in worse shape than Uchiha Sasuke who only suffered minor injuries, but physical wounds can't compare to the horror of seeing one's family sadistically cut down. Sarutobi recalls his brief visit with the unconscious Uchiha survivor; his calm young face was no doubt a curtain which, if drawn back, would reveal sights that would traumatize a grown man, much less a nine-year-old boy.
As for Naruto, this is not the jinchuuriki's first visit to the hospital; the thrown rocks and empty bottles of idiot villagers had brought him here several times over the last five years. Sarutobi had a security net set down over the boy since he was born, but always some fool would slip through quick enough to do damage. Nevertheless, it was not fools who slipped through today and the damage done would leave wounds too deep for either medicine or The Kyuubi's influence to heal.
The attending physician enters; a man close to Sarutobi's age with a shiny bald head, tanned skin, and enough stress lines to give him a rigid, wooden appearance.
The Hokage and the doctor greet each other, "Takeshi-san, how is Naruto-kun's condition?"
Takeshi picks up and reads Naruto's medical chart, "Three broken ribs and a punctured lung caused by two stab-wounds to the chest. Anybody else would be in critical condition, but his is stable. Unsurprisingly."
"His tenant," Sarutobi states cautiously.
The doctor nods, the implication of The Kyuubi does not affect his demeanor. The old professional clearly remembers the maimed and the dead that flooded the hospital on the night of the Kyuubi's attack. Most of them were shinobi since they had the suicidal task of stalling the beast for the sealing prepared by the Yondaime.
After it was over, Takeshi went through the motions of caring for the fallen, but he knew it was hopeless. If they had not made direct contact with the beast, then they would still pass away painfully beneath the lingering blanket of the beast's toxic chakra that blasted the landscape like a poison tempest. Hundreds of young, vibrant chuunin dying like crops lost to a fire and all the veteran physician could do was cling to ineffective procedures and utter the same empty words of hope to the dying.
He was expecting to carry all that anguish with him when he was later summoned to examine the newborn jinchuuriki. He imagined the shadowed, bloodied bodies of the dead he could not save standing over his shoulder and quietly urging him to take revenge for them. However, those expectations of becoming an agent of vengeance were immediately quashed upon first setting his weary eyes on the innocent child.
An innocent child who, in many ways, was the damned beast's worst victim.
His retrospection is broken off by Sarutobi's voice, "Speaking of his tenant, were there any issues regarding the other doctors?"
Takeshi snorts bitterly at the thought of those few doctors he had to dismiss through the years because of their attitude towards the boy.
"No. That is not to say that prejudices don't exist in this hospital but all involved in his treatment today at least performed their duties professionally. If their feelings towards the boy haven't changed then they at least know how fast I'll throw their asses out of this hospital if they try anything."
Both elders exchange a friendly smile, though Takeshi's smile seems to strain through a face coarsened by decades of stress. Content that Naruto is in good hands, Sarutobi and Rabbit leave the post-op. Both men are oblivious to Umino Iruka who waits for them to disappear around a corner before he carefully enters the ward.
He peevishly approaches the ANBU guard, "How is he?"
The operative's emotionless voice matches his ape mask, "He's not allowed any more visitors. Moreover, shouldn't your immediate concern be the students at the academy? We're in the middle of a crisis and those children will need to be kept calm."
Iruka flusters; he knows he has committed a dereliction of duty, but he had to come.
"I made sure that Mizuki and the other instructors keep the students calm in my absence. Besides, Naruto is one of my students, so why shouldn't I be interested in his welfare?"
The impact the Kyuubi had on Iruka's life was no mystery, but the ANBU tactfully chooses not rebuke him with it.
A touch of threat creeps into the operative's voice, "His welfare is currently not your responsibility, Iruka-san. In fact, right now you are neglecting your responsibilities towards the academy students who need you more than Uzumaki-san does."
Iruka averts his eyes like a scolded child; he wants to be here but that does not excuse him for leaving his students. The Uchiha were part of the foundation of Konoha and children are always the most affected when a part of the world falls out beneath their feet. If something like this occurred in another village then they would shrug it off after the initial shock because, ultimately, it does not personally affect them. But they all know Uchiha Sasuke, and that makes the atrocity too personal for the youngsters to simply shrug off as they normally would with bad news from a distant land.
The chuunin is here only out of concern for both Sasuke and Naruto, his most distinct students, but many would be baffled about why he chose to visit the ostracised redhead first. When given the choice between an Uchiha and anybody else, the common thinking is to always go with the superior breed. That's how it has always been in Konoha and will be even more so now that Sasuke has become a rare commodity. The last Uchiha in Konoha; the pressure put on him to single-handedly carry on the legacy will be unimaginable.
Sasuke will be more than well taken care of, but Naruto, as always, will recieve only the bare essentials needed to survive.
It's not right.
"Please, I'll only be a couple of minutes. I just wanted to see how-"
"-Let the chuunin in, ANBU-san," calls Takeshi's voice from behind the guarded curtain.
Iruka is shocked by the sudden godsend while the operative just turns his ear in Takeshi's direction to be sure he heard right.
"Are you sure that's wise, Takeshi-san?"
"No, but since he's already in trouble for coming here, and you're a more than capable protector, then I see no problem in letting him in as long as he keeps his visit brief and his distance ample. Please be mindful, Iruka-san, that any deviation from the terms I have set down will result in your immediate transference to the morgue. Am I understood?"
"Yes, Takeshi-sama," nervously emits.
The ANBU allows Iruka to step forward and gently sweep the blue partition curtain aside; it closes wistfully behind him.
Out of ear-shot of any unconcerned hospital personnel or patients, The Hokage and Rabbit begin discussing the darker half of Naruto's situation.
"What will be the official explanation of what happened in that alley?" asks Rabbit.
Sarutobi doesn't miss a beat, "That two malcontent chuunin attempted to assassinate Naruto and would have succeeded if not for ANBU agents who chanced upon the scene. That's partially the truth, anyway."
No need to mention the fact that the chuunin assassins were already dead when the ANBU arrived. Both men know that much will have to remain unsaid about what happened, even though the Kyuubi was, surprisingly, not directly involved. If the beast had been involved, then the whole village would have felt its chakra and whipped itself into a greater panic. But no chakra was felt and amazingly no civilians saw what Naruto had done to the two chuunin.
Even without having the Kyuubi sealed inside him, Naruto still has secrets that, if revealed, will only make people more wary of him.
In the depths of Hozukijo
The heavy cell door unlocks; the internal mechanisms are so well greased that they move almost soundlessly as it opens. Light spills into the cell and falls on the bed that contains Kushina. Her katon-tenro and sleep seal are still intact.
Standing trepidantly in the doorframe like someone about to take a terrible plunge into the unknown is a medical orderly. He's a large man wearing white scrubs; in one hand he holds a tray supporting an i.v pouch full of wheat-colored nutrient supplement. Safer to feed her through intravenous and less chance of rousing her from the deep, dark chasm of sleep she's been exiled to for the last nine years.
The orderly's movements are quick and economical; he's done this so many times it's become a routine that's backed-up by the modicum of fear he feels for just being in this cell. While there's been no incidents, the tense atmosphere created by the inordinate security measures make it seem like he's entered a forbidden chamber containing something that should be kept out of the world forever. He follows the ingrained routine and quickly replaces the empty i.v pouch; the routine is interrupted when he notices something out of place.
The sleep seal on the woman's forehead appears slightly burned.
He slowly leans in closer to examine it, that's when he feels something cold, sharp, and metallic wrap around his ankle.
He looks down, it's a black chain with sharp, accented links that draw blood as they constrict and cut.
The orderly screams; the thing in the forbidden chamber has finally awakened and has chosen him as its first victim!
He screams louder when the chain coils tighter and grinds flesh. He falls back; the chain slackens and reveals more of itself from under the bed. It moves through the air like the skeleton of a snake that's being animated by the ghost of its old flesh.
And Kushina remains blissfully asleep while the gruesomely absurd scene ensues mere feet away.
The guards hear the screaming and come in with weapons drawn. Tantos and chisa katanas for fighting in confined spaces. They strike at the chain; it doesn't break but releases the orderly who desperately scampers out of the cell. The chain whips forward like a cobra; it sails over the sweep of a tanto and wraps around a guard's arm. It twists and grinds through flesh, muscle, bone, then nothing because the limb is now completely severed.
The guard falls back clutching the stub which is a bloody mass of tattered flesh.
"Fall back, now!" shouts a voice from outside the cell.
The remaining guards cautiously back out and leave their amputee comrade to his fate. The cell door begins to close; the last they see of their comrade is him covering his face with his remaining arm as he backs himself against the wall. The heavy cell door grinds shut and cuts the chaos in the cell out of existence. Nine years of silent inaction violently broken by a mere minute of grotesquery that has now been abruptly cut off.
All outside the cell can only stand in awe of the sudden silence; the foundation permits no noise to penetrate otherwise they all would be subjected to the final agonized screams of the comrade they abandoned. The guards look to the man who gave the order; a tall, gaunt man with long dark hair and dressed in a formal robe coated by a black cloak. Though an older man, his thin face is almost completely unblemished by stress lines; it gives one the impression that he is a man who's lived a charmed life free of pain and heartache.
He walks over to the orderly who frets over his wounded ankle.
The man's calm voice is rife with authority, "What did you do?"
The orderly's mind immediately abandons care of his ankle; the man's tone makes it clear he may still be in danger even though he's escaped the cell.
"Nothing, Mui-sama! I changed her i.v pouch the same way I always do. The damn thing came out from under her bed like it was just waiting there!"
Mui walks up to the cell door and peers through the porthole; the bed and its peaceful occupant almost distract him from the wicked chain trailing out from under the bed and into the dark where the edge of pooling blood expands more and more into the light. In the dark, the abandoned guard's body is contorted in ways that show an advanced state of defilement. Finished, the chain slithers back under Kushina's bed as if preparing its next surprise attack.
Mui turns back to the orderly, "You're lying. You must have fumbled around and disturbed her. You're probably of the same ilk as that degenerate who-"
The orderly immediately knows about whom Mui's implying, "-No! I didn't do anything like that! I just replaced her meal i.v and-"
-As if reading their leader's mind, two guards grab hold of the orderly's arms and restrain him.
Mui's calm voice fills the hallway, "Right now, I don't care what you have to say, only that you've proven unreliable. And unreliability is the last thing we tolerate here in Hozukijo."
The orderly goes dead-white, "No..."
Without needing an order, the guards disappear into the halls with the orderly like two demons dragging an unwilling soul to his punishment.
His ill-deserved punishment.
A new presence makes itself known, Mui turns to see a younger man in a white medical coat approach. He has a softly shaped face and wears thin-rimmed glasses under neatly-combed brown hair. Followed by a brutish escort and surrounded by the walls of this dreary utilitarian prison setting, the refined young medico looks like he'd been teleported straight out of a bright, high-tech medical facility.
He moves with a calm composure tinged with urgency.
His voice holds a tone of snideness, "So, one of our V.I.P guests finally grew tired of our services. And after all the trouble we go through to make them comfortable."
Mui scoffs, "Try keeping that facetious tone, Tokubara, when you actually look on what's happened."
The doctor walks up to the porthole and looks in, his composure wavers much to Mui's satisfaction. Up until now, Tokubara has been used to the down-time of Hozukijo; when all is running according to strict security protocol and any incidents with prisoners are easily dealt with. But now he's faced with what might be the prelude to a potential disaster.
"Her bed should be blanketed by a fire with her charring body lying within it," he says while trying to stay detached.
Mui walks up beside him, "Yes. This is completely unprecedented. The katon-tenro should incinerate her if the sleep-seal gives out. It appears that neither has happened. Curious."
Tokubara looks at him, "Curious? That's all you can say? You'll understand if I'm just a bit more concerned than you are."
"There's a difference between being concerned and being emotional. You're the latter, Tokubara-kun. This can easily be dealt with."
Tokubara almost rails on the older man, "Then do it. Zero-tolerance for offenses by A-rank prisoners, remember?"
Mui shakes his head, "Then we would lose our annual incentives from Konoha. We need that money, remember?"
"And what if she proves to be more trouble than she's worth?"
That does give Mui some pause for thought. Kushina's dossier didn't mention anything akin to being able to sadistically kill people in her sleep. Konoha either held back on the details they gave about her, or they didn't know. Either way, protocol has been broken and Kushina should be disposed of.
Then a significant percentage of Hozukijo's funding would be cut because Konoha, for whatever godforsaken reason, wants her alive.
Four days later
Naruto enters his apartment through the balcony and locks it, not that a simple lock and the half-inch sheet of glass that makes up the sliding door could possibly be enough to keep out the dangers he has in mind. He quickly crosses the room and rigorously affirms the lock on the front door. He shakes his head at the fact that this apartment can't get any more secure.
He locks his doors out of custom like everyone else; but he knows that the security of his modest home amounts to next-to-nothing in a shinobi village.
He fills the kettle and turns on the stove burner; as he waits for the water to boil he walks into the middle of the apartment and sits cross-legged facing the wall covered by the collage of drawings. Crude but colorful mementos from more innocent times that are always falling farther and farther away. Now they feel like they belong to another person's life entirely.
He takes off his shirt and roughly throws it at the wall; it harmlessly ruffles a few papers before crumpling to the floor.
An ANBU had brought a fresh pair of cloths to him before he had been discharged from the hospital. An ANBU who, in order to get those cloths, entered and left his home without leaving a single trace of having done so. He knew he should have felt grateful to the operative for delivering him some cloths; instead he was left with a newly stoked sense of paranoia.
An overly-acute mindfulness of everybody around him and their potential to do him harm.
In fact, more than ever, he feels utterly exposed to the village and the dangers it holds for him. Not even the visit from The Hokage and Rabbit could assuage him; otherwise, he wouldn't have pretended to be asleep when they visited him in the recovery ward. He heard their words of concern, he wanted to believe them, but he couldn't find it in him to do so.
But then Iruka came in after they were gone; his words left a deeper impression.
He quickly shakes the memory out of his head because words, no matter how sincere, hold no weight compared to the cold iron kunai that nearly ripped him open.
That had been the second deliberate attempt ever made on his life; the first involved a local drunk and a broken sake bottle. When that attempt failed, and the drunk was left on the ground unable to give chase, he left the six-year-old with something worse than a physical wound. With tremendous drunken relish, the man left him with the knowledge that he was the jinchuuriki of The Kyuubi.
In the silence of his apartment, he can almost hear the wind rushing through that dark, decaying landscape and the booming steps of The Kyuubi coming ever closer. It was like a Hell custom-tailored specifically for him and the thought of there being anything worse almost makes him sick. As far as he's now concerned, that Hell dutifully awaits him if he allows himself to fall victim again.
The kettle starts whistling; so caught in thought is he that he lets the whistling grow louder and louder for almost half a minute.
Then it abruptly ends.
He looks over at the kettle; a chain is lifting it off the oven burner.
He yells; the chain drops the kettle back on the burner and retreats in his direction. The hundreds of links shear through the air as the chain recoils over his shoulder and disappears behind his back. He tumbles around on the floor with a hand clawing at his back trying to catch and pry the intruder off his body
The problem is that he feels nothing there except the pain of his nails digging at his own skin.
Back in place, the kettle resumes its shrill whistling and finally manages to get Naruto's attention after he's certain that there's nothing on his back. He stomps over to the oven and makes to smack the kettle off the stove. He resists the impulse and instead turns off the oven burner.
The whistling dies down; Naruto quickly moves into the bathroom and looks at his back in the mirror. There's nothing out of place except his nails marks, some of which have drawn blood. He grunts in frustration and moves back out into the living room; he paces back and forth wringing a trembling hand through his damp red hair.
"Enough...Enough...J-Just fuckin' enough, alright?!" he grumbles angrily in futile hope that some higher power will hear and find it in their heart to not pass another sentence on him.
Now feeling lividly paranoid and unable to contain himself, Naruto begins tearing through his apartment in search of hidden dangers. Right now, he's in enemy territory that was once his home and now must be taken back if he's going to reclaim any feeble sense of security. He becomes nothing but raw nerve reacting to a constant and unpleasant stimulus.
For the next half-hour, he throws open cupboards, upturns his table and chairs, then with particular spite, he rips his drawings off the wall and searches through them like a heap of garbage that he's lost something in. They hide nothing and he doesn't give them another thought. He searches his bed last; when he finds nothing, he whips around and scans with wild eyes for anything else that could possibly be harboring a threat.
There's nothing left; it's all in ruins.
He doesn't know what else he can do so he finally makes the attempt to calm himself down by standing still and breathing deep. He does this for several minutes while surveying the damage. He's done everything short of tearing the damn walls down. The paranoia has run its course and left him to deal with the aftermath.
But he's too damned exhausted, so instead he turns and crashes hard on his bed.
"Enough..." he drawls pitifully into his pillow.
He doesn't know what else to do except let himself sink deep into his weariness. Breathing deeply with a cheek against his pillow, the catastrophic thoughts fade into the background and allow him some respite. They aren't gone, just forced to the murky fringe of his mind until the time inevitably comes when he must face them again. For the time being, he revels in the warm nothingness of an empty mind; a meditation technique that academy students delve into for an hour each day.
And it's in this empty state, where all his fears are suspended, that he finally senses something different.
Whatever it is, he senses it like a limb; he just instinctively knows it's there. He sits up and stretches his arms and legs; the sensations of flexing muscle and shifting bone are different from this new addition to his realm of senses. But he knows it's there, and somehow, he knows how to call upon it.
Not really knowing what will happen, he raises his arm and concentrates.
His eyes widen, as does the diamond-shaped hole that yawns open on the back of his arm. Startled, he rapidly scoots back against the wall and stares at what he's summoned. It's a hole darker than scorched sin; a black haze rises out of it along with what sounds like inhuman throats exhaling deeply. He imagines a chorus of maimed vocalists being conducted in a dark, burning place. Perhaps in that dark netherworld where The Kyuubi prowls over a landscape of crushed bones, a small portal to our world has opened.
And Naruto stares into it, not knowing what might be staring back at him.
His rational mind finally returning, he speculates that this thing has to be the result of some kind of jutsu. But as far as he knows, jutsu require willpower, chakra, and handseals in order to be executed. Whatever thisthing is; he brought it into existence by his will alone.
Naruto tilts his arm at an angle; he sees the hole isn't actually in his flesh and floats three or four millimeters over the surface of his skin.
He gives a startled yell when a chain slithers out of the hole and coils around his arm like a serpent. The chain is of a sublime black alloy he can't identify; it feels smooth and cold against his skin as it moves. The head, which is a mere blunt link, comes to rest in the palm of his hand like a pet that's finding comfort in its master's handle.
"What the hell?" he whispers to himself.
It lays in his palm and nothing more. He can't explain why but he doesn't feel threatened by the chain; whatever will is guiding it seems to be aligned with his own. Or perhaps it is his will that guides it.
With no fear, he wills the chain to rise and move. More of it extends out of the portal and hovers gently in the air. By the merest inclination of his thoughts, it waves and flows through the empty space of his apartment like an aquatic creature peacefully exploring its boundaries. He concentrates harder; the chain coils around the handle of the hot kettle and lifts it off the stove. He tries to will the chain to pour the boiling-hot water into the mug next to the stove; it misses and splashes on the counter.
Thought it is responding to his will; the chain is still a new and unfamiliar appendage.
Is that the right word for something that isn't physically connected to his body yet obeys his merest whim like a hand would?
The rest of the chain still fills the air like black party streamers; he gets off his bed and carefully walks amongst the links. He carefully touches them as he passes; the metal is cold yet the links respond by brushing gently against his hand in what might be acknowledgment. Though he seemingly has control over the chain, the force that actually animates it seems to be trying to make a good first impression on him.
At least in this world; it had already saved his life in the other one.
Naruto reaches the counter and takes the kettle away from the chain which yields to him. He pours himself a cup of tea; just as he's about to take his first careful sip he hears footsteps out in the hallway. He tenses up; the chain shares in his alarm and reacts violently. Its whole length recoils back into the portal with such speed and force that it leaves gashes on the walls and roof before knocking the cup out of his hand.
The head of the chain disappears into the closing portal just as the cup breaks on the floor.
Again feeling that uber-paranoia, Naruto backs himself against the wall expecting the sound of footsteps to cease because the person heard the ruckus and is right this very moment thinking of investigating. Mercifully, the footsteps continue their steady, undisturbed pace past his door; they fade out somewhere down the hall. Whoever it was; they either didn't hear anything or they simply don't care because they know who the apartment's occupant is.
There are other possibilities and that's why Naruto stays deathly quiet for almost ten minutes in wait for some trap to be sprung by his slightest movement. Nothing happens; he shakes the tension off and sets about clearing the broken glass and spilt tea off the floor. Finishing with that, he looks at the white scars that the flailing chain left in the plaster of the walls and roof.
He scoffs at how his apartment hardly looks any worse than it did before when he trashed it in his desperate search for imaginary enemies.
Raising his arm, he looks down on the clear patch of skin where there had just been a hole to dimension of living chains. He knows he can will it open again but decides against it; he feels too burned-out to want to experiment again right now. With a sigh, he lets his arm fall to its side as he returns to his bed.
He throws himself on it and buries his head in his plush pillow. Despite the state of his apartment and the high emotions that rampaged through it, a calmness finally descends on the humble living space. All he hears is the sound of his breathing and the occasional muffled movements of the tenants in the surrounding apartments. A sliver of light creeps through the blinds; the billions of glittering dust particles still float in a frenzy caused by the hasty retreat of the chain.
He muses over how much people are like dust particles: easily influenced by forces beyond their control and sent on possibly unalterable trajectories. Being a jinchuuriki set him on a trajectory with little room for deviation: no matter what he accomplishes, he'll always be seen as a thing to be kept on a short leash until someone decides it's time for him to destroy something. He has the same liberties as any other citizen of Konoha, but the time will come and those liberties will be revoked when they need him to fulfill his pre-determined role as Konoha's siege weapon.
Unless he goes missing-nin.
However, he'll still be a jinchuuriki, and jinchuuriki are hated no matter what hidden village they live in. He could go into hiding and live off the land, but he doesn't want to become a peasant and be deprived of the means to advance his ninja skills. And he has to advance if he's going to survive.
Three days ago, he contemplated what his purpose for getting stronger was; now he has his cold, bitter answer.
He is the jinchuuriki of The Kyuubi and a war asset to what is arguably the strongest of the hidden villages. If he doesn't get stronger, they'll probably rip the damn Fox out of him and zip it up in a host they deem more useful. Even if Sarutobi truly does care for him, a Kage will never choose one life over the thousands he's pledged to protect by any means necessary.
When the pressure comes, the old man will sadly but definitely sweep aside his affections for the scrappy red-haired orphan and cut him open for the fox-shaped mega-weapon locked in his tummy. This is the life that was set out for him when he was born; his trajectory, just like one of those billions of dust particles. But where do the chains fit in? Does Sarutobi know about them, and if he does, does he have a contingency in place to deal with them?
Naruto's life is locked on course because everything about him has been accounted for in case he becomes a flight-risk. But what if the chains aren't accounted for? They just might be what he needs to break free. Not necessarily from Konoha, but from the stigma of being the mindless force of destruction that everyone expects a jinchuuriki to be.
And until that day comes, survival will be his religion.
Three years later...
Hiruzen Sarutobi walks out onto the balcony of his office overlooking the village of Konoha. The old leader lays his ceremonial Kage hat down and pulls a long, ornate smoking pipe from his robe. He takes a sniff of the tobacco before loading it into the pipe; the scent invigorates him and draws out a sigh of short-lived contentment. It's hard for him to be relaxed so soon after a major security breach has occurred.
Sarutobi lights his pipe and takes a deep, relishing drag while watching the drowsy early-morning activity in the streets below. He remembers that day almost fifty years ago when, standing right where he is now, he assumed the role of Hokage with the roaring approval of a crowd of thousands brimming below. Now the crowd goes about its business taking for granted that their venerable leader is always there to watch over them.
He releases a breath of smoke as a pair of feet set down and a shadow falls in front of him.
"Status report," Sarutobi patiently demands.
An ANBU wearing a monkey mask rises from his kneeling position, "It's been eight hours and we've made no progress in locating the scroll."
"What about the tracking seals? Surely they must have generated a lead."
The operative shakes his head, "Whoever did it removed the tracking seals. Only someone from the intelligence department would know how to do that, so an investigation in that area is already under way. Our Inuzuka trackers can't detect the scent that was put on the scroll, so that means that the thief hid the scroll in a storage seal using basic fuinjutsu. The trackers won't be able to catch scent of it until the thief unseals it, and it likely won't be in the village when it is unsealed."
It doesn't need to be said that only a traitor operating on a high level within the village could pull off such a theft. The archives are elaborately netted with the best security measures created through the cooperation between Konoha's core of engineers and the intelligence department. Either there is a conspiracy, or a lone operator with ANBU-level skills managed to silently waltz unimpeded through the security net.
If it is a conspiracy involving Konoha personnel, then the ringleader would likely be his oldest rival, Shimura Danzo. They were friends as young men standing shoulder to shoulder in the second shinobi war, but Danzo severed that bond with ease when he was passed over for the role of Hokage. Though Sarutobi has stayed in office for over forty non-consecutive years, which itself is a testament to how successfully he has governed the village, there were always dissenters who opposed his 'soft touch' in the political realm. And where there was dissent, Danzo was always there in the background supplying fuel to the ones building the fire.
As for the lone operative, well, Sarutobi knows how easily that can be accomplished; his greatest student managed it for years before escaping Konoha untouched. He takes a drag off his pipe and lets out a chuckle at how badly he would appear to an average villager who's privy to what's happening. The once-great Hiruzen Sarutobi, the 'Professor' as he's known across the Elemental Nations, had a 'senior moment' and stood by like a doddering spastic while a spy slipped away with a dangerous village secret.
He looks away from the ANBU, takes a drag off his pipe and nods; the operative acknowledges his dismissal with a bow before his body peels into leaves and scatters into the breeze. As he releases the comforting breath of smoke, he tries to push aside the self-loathing that he's nursed for decades. While the village has prospered under his watch, it doesn't offset the guilt of all the mistakes and sacrifices he's made in the process. His record, overall, is a long and impressive one but marked in parts by the blood of the Konoha shinobi who died either by his decision or his oversight.
He pushes it all aside like the contents of a cluttered table and focuses on more comforting things. Today is graduation day at the academy which means that many promising young genin will be released to enrich the shinobi ranks. Most of these promising genin-candidates are clan heirs and rarely does such a crop have as much potential for greatness as this one does. And Naruto will be among them.
Though the exams won't begin for another three hours, it's a foregone conclusion that Naruto will brandish the Konoha hitai-ate by the day's end. Even without being a jinchuuriki, the red-head has the potential to become one of Konoha's most powerful asset. But after the events of three years ago, there is the distinct possibility that Naruto won't wear his hitai-ate with pride.
After all, a hitai-ate is the symbol for a shinobi's pride in his village, and Konoha hasn't done Naruto any favors.
The young, would-be ninjas try to make good use of what is hopefully their last recess before graduation. In groups or individually they engage in activities to warm themselves up for their remaining examinations. A group of three practices henge and transform into different characters while another group sit in a circle and propel a white ball from one to another using only chakra channelled from their palms.
The more distracted students gather and watch Uchiha Sasuke perform an elegant taijutsu kata that would be deadly if performed on a living person. They all blush or gape at his display of prowess but can't even begin to fathom what drives him. He delivers punches and kicks to empty air but fantasizes that each one is delivering a crippling blow.
Crippling, but not fatal; he wants the person he has in mind to suffer when the time finally comes.
At the other end of the recess yard is Uzumaki Naruto; he relaxes under the shade of a tree and reads a manga entitled 'Gorehound Ginji: Where Legends Go to Die.' The cover displays a grizzled samurai with one arm sliced clean off and the other using his katana to push himself off the ground for more combat against the revolting fiends surrounding him. The red-head can use this time for light reading because he did his training the night before; no need to tire himself out before the exams like some other students are currently doing, particularly the Uchiha-prick.
A white ball taps the end of Naruto's sandal; he looks up from his manga to see a group of students looking in his direction from across the recess yard. They look at each other nervously; one takes a step in his direction before a kid behind pulls him back and whispers harshly in his ear. Four years in the academy and the bullshit rumours never died down; if someone forgot then there was always another nearby to remind them.
Startling them, Naruto pulls up his leg and kicks the ball back to them.
The ball's roll slows and then stops near the children but they don't move to retrieve it. They stand looking down on the ball as if they just learned its horrible secret and want nothing more to do with it. One by one they walk away to find something to do that hopefully won't get the demon involved.
Naruto just resumes reading; what just happened has no obvious effect on him.
All of the students are gathered in the training yard behind the academy. The sun shines brightly in a blue sky fettered only by thin wisps of cloud. The students talk animatedly among each other until Iruka and his partner, the white-haired chuunin Mizuki, walk out in front of the large group.
Mizuki speaks strongly, "The first phase of the practical is the kunai-throwing test. The goal is to throw ten kunai and land at least five on the dummy. If you land less than five hits, you fail."
He turns and throws a kunai; it lands deep in the dummy's head.
Nearing the end of her turn, Sakura throws a kunai which hits and bounces off of the dummy. Eight of the small blades protrude from its chest while the rest lay on the ground. Iruka nods as he writes on his clipboard.
"Well done, Sakura."
The pink-haired girl enthusiastically pumps her fist up into the air.
"Next is Sasuke."
The aforementioned boy strides through the crowd; they give him a wide berth out of gushing adoration. He stops ten meters from the dummy and takes his usual stance with knees bent and hands held out at the sides. His dark eyes gently close and his face tenses in concentration and, unknown to all the others, recollection.
A voice from memory speaks; the voice of someone he hates yet who holds all the answers.
'When you know in your heart what is most important to you, then you can easily surpass all obstacles between you and your goal as if they were nothing-'
He acts before the rest of the grisly memory can play out and trip him up.
-His eyes snap open as a quick flex of his arms propels five kunai out from each of his sleeves. He catches all ten, arcs his arms back and throws with tremendous force. They glint and whistle through the air and strike the mid-section of the dummy causing it to shake slightly.
One doesn't hit hard enough and clatters to the dirt. The crowd gasps before erupting into wild applause for Sasuke who stands with a lightly winded demeanor. He doesn't hear the applause; all his attention is on that one kunai on the ground that spoiled what should have been a perfect score.
'Settle for nothing less than perfection, Sasuke-kun. Otherwise, how can you ever hope to reach mylevel?'
He wishes he could turn and shout at the idiots for being so easily dumbstruck by what is, at least to him, a mediocre performance. Only perfectly-honed skills will keep him alive out on the field while most of the idiots behind him drop like flies. Will they still laugh and brag about their above-average academic scores when faced with an enemy possessing superior ability and the utmost intent to kill? At least they're all not completely hopeless; some of them might even live long enough to be of use to him in the future.
Iruka reads off the next name on his clipboard, "Naruto."
The students ignore the announcement and continue fawning over Sasuke who turns and makes his way through the crowd to find a spot where he can be alone. Through the gawking faces and shifting bodies he sees the colors of Uzumaki Naruto approaching from the opposite direction. The two pass one another; the dark-haired boy does his best to remain nonchalant but still gives the red-headed boy a quick appraising glance.
After all; he can't help but feel some interest in the only other student whose skill rivals his own. But while Sasuke fails at remaining nonchalant, Naruto succeeds. The red-head shows absolutely no outward sign of interest in anything except making his appointment with something he can throw kunai at.
Naruto wears a grey camouflage vest with charcoal-colored padding on the shoulders and collar. On the back of the vest is the standard red spiral symbol. Beneath the vest, Naruto wears a baggy navy-blue turtleneck. Adorning his mid-section are leather item and weapon pouches. His pants are a darkened shade of red.
Black, white, red, and many shades in-between; a color-scheme that gives his appearance an air of menace.
He walks out past the crowd and takes his designated spot. None of the other students pay attention to him except Sasuke who watches him with interest from the back of the crowd. The redhead stretches his arms and neck with audible cracking sounds.
Now limber, he pulls apart his vest to reveal a row of sheathed kunai wrapped around his abdomen. His right hand pulls out a kunai and holds it ready for an over-handed throw. His blue eyes concentrate sharply on the target; his arm makes a snapping movement which propels the kunai swiftly at the dummy.
Sasuke's eyelid twitches and several other students give their attention when they see Naruto's kunai land deep in the center of the dummy's chest. A satisfied smile spreads across Naruto's face and at a quick but controlled pace he draws and throws his remaining kunai. In an even succession, they all land in the dummy's midsection.
Naruto relaxes and Iruka looks on proudly.
The redhead nods contentedly to himself and turns to walk back through the crowd who cautiously give him space. He sees Sasuke; the dark boy eyes him with a furious look. Naruto doesn't acknowledge The Uchiha; but inside he can't help but feel some satisfaction in making the prick jealous. It's little things like this that make life in Konoha easier.
~ O ~
End of Chapter
Author's Note: I originally intended to get this chapter out sooner and with the Naruto/Mizuki fight included, but I've been side-tracked quite a bit by health problems these last three months. I'm much better now and hope to be updating the story at a faster pace. I want to give a shout-out to Infamous Storm whose endorsement of my story has given it the lift-off it needed. Read his story 'A Different Legend'; it's one of the best and weirdest on this site.
Thanks for reading and please review.