Wherein There Is a Lot of Foodstuff (And Only One Is Explosive)
Naruto was bored. This fact alone would have made many otherwise imperturbable Konoha jounin flinch if uttered out loud and many ANBU members whose sense of humour otherwise leaned towards the black and morbid kind suppress snickers. Even now the rumours of Naruto's second year in the Academy and especially the Great Prank with Feathers, Sequins, the Hokage's Hat and the Rubber Chicken circulated, growing with skillful narration until the story much eclipsed the hilarity of the prank itself.
(That Sandaime had allowed and secretly even enabled these pranks was a truth he had taken to the grave with him. The ANBU tended to both be unstable and avoid the councellors assigned to them like the plague and anything that made them laugh and wasn't a human being bleeding his life out had been worth a little embarrassment in his opinion.)
But Naruto was bored, Jiraiya-sensei wasn't there for him to bother for a new technique and in a lucky coincidence there was a ramen bar near the clinic where Naruto was staying. It was a little place with only one room and a handful of small tables, but the ramen smelled almost as good as the Ichiraku's. The place was empty when Naruto came and the woman standing behind the counter was reading a knitting magazine, appearing thoroughly bored.
"Hey, where is everyone?" he shouted form the door. The village was fairly bustling that day with people running around with heavy-looking loads and parcels, moving carts and huge bundles of colourful fabric that were probably tents and otherwise looking like they were preparing for a festival of some sort. And when a festival approached it always meant busy time for restaurants, bars and stands of all sort in Naruto's experience.
"Haven't you heard?" the woman asked as she put the magazine down and put a professional smile on her face. "The Daimyo's uncle has decided to pay his respects to the kami of our shrine again! If only he might give us a little more time to prepare for these visits..." the woman's voice trailed down as she clearly felt uneasy at expressing displeasure with a noble of such high standing.
"What is the daimyo's uncle doing here? I mean, it's a nice village and all, but usually the nobles stay in the big cities," Naruto asked. He had of course never met the Grass Country Daimyo's uncle, but he had seen the Fire Daimyo's nephew at a distance once when he had visited the capital with Jiraiya and the man hadn't looked like he would go to a place where he might risk stepping into a mud puddle or on a cow dung if someone threatened him with a jutsu. From what he had understood those airs were very common among the old noble class that had long since lost their warrior status to the ninja and so clung to the civilized poetry-reading, flower-arranging tea connoisseur aspects with bloody-minded tenacity.
"Ah, I have heard that the Honourable Uncle is a little, um, eccentric," the woman said and eyed around like he expected someone to be crouching under a table, ready to report her words to said Honourable Uncle. Naruto cheerfully replaced "eccentric" with "totally nuts" in his mind.
"The Honourable Uncle is a great believer of astrology. He commissioned the Court Astrologer to deduce which of the shrines of the Grass Country would be the most auspicious for him to pay his respects to the gods. He was born in the year of Yang Water Horse, you see. The astrologer deduced that the year our shrine was founded and that the altar is in the western area of the shrine makes it the most suitable for him. What would you like to have?" the woman ended his explanation asking.
"Pork ramen with an egg, please. I'm sorry, I don't know what's your name. I'm Uzumaki Naruto," Naruto introduced himself; he just didn't feel right calling the "the woman" in his head. "And why it is so important that the altar is in the western part anyway?" He didn't know anything about astrology since the shinobi weren't the superstitious sort as a rule. They didn't live in the world of presentiments and I-just-feel-it, but cold, hard facts. Naruto of course thought that some things couldn't be rationalized and cost-estimated and needed to be felt, the positions of stars weren't on his list of concerns.
"I am Suzuki, it's nice to meet you, Uzumaki-san," she said and it was clear from her expression that having a family name had pushed him up the ladder in her estimation – and that she at least hadn't ever heard of Narutoism.
"The eastern area of a building is an unlucky area in the year of the Yang Water Horse, the southern area isn't lucky either and the northern area won't generate the career and money luck. There is a money star in the southeast area and the southwest area can make people smarter, but the west is the most auspicious direction," was Suzuki's answer. The whole thing felt totally absurd to Naruto, but if it brought a noble and some business to the village, good for the villagers.
"So he cares about career and money luck?" he asked as Suzuki turned towards the stove just to say something.
"You truly aren't from Grass Country at all, are you?" she asked with good humour. "The Honourable Uncle is only starting his career so it is a pressing concern for him. You see, our Daimyo-sama's grandfather re-married at a very old age. The Honourable Uncle is only seventeen years old."
The Honourable Uncle? Naruto's first thought was: and Konohamaru thinks he has got it hard!
Arai Isamu of the Takigakure no Sato was a good jounin. Ninjutsu and intelligence gathering were his strongest suit and he was no slouch at taijutsu either. He didn't have much talent for creating genjutsu, but he could break most A-class techniques and anything below that. In addition to this he was actually a good teacher as well – knowing how to do something was no guarantee one could teach others how to do it – and he thrived as a jounin sensei, teaching his village's next generation.
He was currently running through a bamboo forest for his life and simultaneously trying to buy his genin the time to save their lives, if only the accursed brats would obey him and get away!
"If I have told you twice, I have told you a hundred times! Run!" he shouted and turned to face his pursuer again.
"Our jounin-sensei taught us all we need to know about arithmetics," Ohno Maaya said at his back, and where were the running steps disappearing into the distance? He wasn't hearing any.
"If she doesn't kill you, I will do it myself," he growled. Where was the madwoman pursuing them? She should have been here already and that she wasn't in sight did absolutely nothing to reassure Isamu.
"Our jounin-sensei taught us all we need to know about anticipation - or maybe it should be something about Karma in this case? I teach you to defend your life so I can end it sort of thing," Musume said piped in, her voice shaking, but still determined.
"Everybody thinks they are a comedic these days. I am not only your teacher, but also your commander!" he raised his voice in the hopes that the unusual tone would shake them up a bit, make them realize how dire the situation was.
"Our sensei can write us up on charges of insubordination when the fight is over, and I'm pretty sure that definition of Karma only applies to Jashinism." And this was Ando Kazuo completing the set. The set that was refusing to leave, damn it.
"So touching. This would be a lot easier on all of us if you would just answer a few, meager questions about a demon woman you can't possibly regard as anything but a threat, this would," an almost bored voice interrupted them - and it came behind their backs! Isamu turned around so fast he could feel whiplash to look at the dark-haired woman wearing a top of bandages. She was holding kunai casually against Maaya's throat in the classic back-to-chest hostage position. Maaya was breathing shallowly, quickly, but her lips were pressed into thin, white line of determination and Isamu cursed silently. She would do something stupid if he didn't do it first.
Isamu didn't know his enemy, though he of course knew of her. She had often used the names Haruka, Ikumi and Iyona and the I&T department was still arguing on whether or not any of these was her real name. She claimed to be a missing-nin's daughter and they had three likely candidates from two villages, her skill set considered. But her origins weren't important, not now when it was clear that Haruka-Ikumi-Whoever was standing a step higher on the jounin ladder of power and skill - and it was an infuriatingly important step.
"Just give her up to me and all will be well, it will. Just tell me the safe house and all will be well, I will get my money and you will all get away, you will," the woman crooned and bent to lick the shell of Maaya's ear, the kunai moving a minuscule bit from the pale girl's throat. Just a minuscule bit, but it was enough. A fast replacement jutsu had a log in Haruka-Ikumi-Miss Nutcase's embrace and Maaya safely transported away, and Isamu didn't waste any time attacking.
"Dosei Haji no Jutsu!" he shouted as his fingers nimbly, rapidly flickered through the handseals and a rock fist burst out from beneath the woman's feet, but the woman was too quick, casually jumping over the clenched fingers of mud and hardened gravel, her hands flickering through a jutsu of her own. Tiger, ox, dog, rabbit, snake... oh shit.
The wind jutsu hit Isamu mid-leap with the power of a sledge-hammer being wielded by a rabid monkey summon. The force of the attack simply blew him across the small clearing and through a copse of tall bamboo stalks and eventually against a rock. He managed at the last second to twist his body so he didn't break his skull or back on impact, but a silvery-red streak of pain shot up his leg in breath-taking flash against his eyelids, accompanied by a sickening crunch. His suddenly limp body dropped to the hard ground with a thud.
Isamu had time to feel despair, to fear for his genin's life. He had time to conclude that even now he couldn't give Hoshino Fuu away to this bounty hunter. He didn't like his village's Jinchuuriki, didn't trust her, but Fuu was a Waterfall ninja just like he and as a resource much more valuable to the village than he and his little genin cell.
"Take this, bandage-woman!" a new voice called out. Isamu forced his eyes open just in time to see an orange flash at the corner of his mind, to see Haruka-Ikumi-Bandage Woman holding a cupcake with pink frosting and sprinkles in her hands, a bemused wrinkle appearing on the bridge of her nose. The orange-clad someone had arranged the sprinkles into the shape of a smiling face.
"Am I supposed to poison myself with this, am I?" she asked. "Make your job easier by taking myself out?"
Then the cupcake blew up.
The thing was, Ohno Maaya actually kind of liked Hoshino Fuu, a whole lot even. She knew that many people avoided Fuu because she was a Jinchuuriki and better safe than sorry, right? No-one thought - or at least admitted thinking - that she might do something on purpose, but when a huge monstrosity of chakra that only yearned to kill everyone was sealed inside a fragile human body with nothing more than a few lines of ink, well...
"Most people don't really understand sealing very well; to them it's just something that makes the exploding tags explode. As long as I don't weaken the chakra-mind barrier by channeling too often, I will be alright," Fuu had said, almost begged Maaya to believe with her strange, orange eyes.
Fuu who was her second cousin on her mother's side, Fuu who mixed her own blends of herbal tea in her spare time, Fuu who had sharpened, oiled and polished Maaya's sharp, pointy things for her when she had been in the hospital with the whooping cough because that was how she had learned to show friendship and then wholly failed to understand the innuendo thirteen-year-old Maaya had thrown at her. Fuu whose bizarre colouring put Konoha girls to shame. The same Fuu her sensei claimed she was stalker-fixated on, which made sensei a hypocrite in a really big glass house considering how he stalked the baker down the lane from the Town Hall, and the poor woman was even a civilian and couldn't see him following her around. Maaya was simply Fuu's best friend; it made her feel really special to know that she was someone's only friend and guilty that she could feel happy over something so horrible.
Anyway, Maaya liked Fuu and because she liked Fuu she had looked up Narutoism, making up half-formed daydreams where she would meet Uzumaki Naruto and tell him to go meet Fuu and then they could be friends as well and she would still be special because she would have been the one to help Fuu meet the other Jinchuuriki.
When Ohno Maaya met Uzumaki Naruto for the first time he handed a cupcake to the woman who had tried to force her sensei to give up Fuu's safe house. Then the cupcake blew up. This wasn't something she had ever imagined.
"Why there was a smiling face on it?" was the first thing she could think to ask.
"I thought it would add insult to injury," Uzumaki said shamelessly. He had the kind of grin that probably would have softened the heart of a corpse suffering from rigor mortis. Maaya thought: he is going to be so good for Fuu.
"You gave me a cupcake bomb?" the bandaged woman complained with a voice that was for once more surly than shrill and superior She had managed to drop it and jump back a fraction of a second before it exploded, but her clothes were charred, her eyebrows gone and there were now bamboo splinters in her hair all the same. "Who does things like that?"
"Who attacks genin? Take on people in your own weight class!" Uzumaki fired back at the woman. "Well, I'm technically speaking a genin too, but feel free to attack me. I dare you." He cracked his knuckles menacingly and something shifted in the air around him. Maaya had never witnessed Fuu using her biju's chakra and she wondered if it would feel like this, like someone was dragging hot salt all over her chakra sense.
"No, I don't think so, I don't. Remember, little paragon, we are ninja, not samurai," the woman sighed and pouted before leaving in a swirl of bubbles. Uzumaki's fist hit the ground where the woman had stood less than half a second too late and the force of the impacts made the nearby bamboo's sway as though a fierce wind was bending them.
"I hate it when they do that," he growled and there was a hint of visible red around him before the burning chakra disappeared like it hadn't been there at all. "Never mind, that sort always comes back like a bad ryo. Let's take your sensei to the clinic, the doctor there is great, he'll take care of him. I'm Uzumaki Naruto, shinobi of Konoha and an ally, it's nice to meet you." He thrust out his hand towards Kazuo who was standing the nearest, but when he failed to take it she rushed in and grabbed it instead.
"I'm Ohno Maaya, would you please be friends with my cousin Fuu, Uzumaki-san?" she asked.
"Maaya!" her sensei shouted, trying to stand up and regretting it immediately if his pained hiss was anything to go by.
"Is she a nice person? And call me Naruto, Uzumaki-san makes me feel old," he said and offered her another blinding grin. She imagined him smiling to Fuu like that and Fuu looking startled and hopeful at the same time and felt all soft and gooey inside. Who said kunoichi had to be hardened anyway?
"She's really nice, I'm sure you will get along famously. You have so much in common too," Maaya said and ignored her sensei's half-growled protests.
Doctor Fujiki wasn't quite as good as a real medic nin would have been, but as one of Jiraiya's contacts he knew a little bit of chakra healing that would help to speed the Taki jounin's recovery along and he had a good medicines stockpile. Besides, he was properly scary which surely meant that he knew his stuff. Naruto was currently trying to explain this to the three genin who were sitting nervously around the table while their sensei was being operated in the other room.
"He's only the good kind of scary, the kind that drags you out by the hair if you try to enter the doctor's office in dirty clothes that are going to contaminate it with bacteria, you imbecile, are you trying to get everyone who's not immune to everything and the pox killed, and if you get hurt doing something stupid they are going to hit you over the head and shout at you a lot. And the good kind doesn't have the patience for stupid things in general so it's best to be really good at dodging around them. Doctor Fujuki is really almost like a real medic-nin." His aim was really poor when compared to Tsunade's and he couldn't send people through the walls with playful finger flicks, but he was a civilian so Naruto didn't hold that against him.
Now the kids were giving him funny looks. What gave?
"That's what good doctors are like in Konoha?" the red-haired girl named Musume asked. "Is sensei even going to survive this?"
"Don't worry, protecting your genin from missing-nin is a universally good reason to get hospitalized," Naruto reassured him. Even Tsunade at her most ornery would give but a sniff and then proceed to do her absolutely very best in a situation like this even if the other guy had been someone like Itachi.
"If that's the good kind of scary, then what the bad kind of scary is like?" the boy asked, looking at him all wide-eyed. Really, what kind of medic-nin did they have in Taki anyway?
"Orochimaru," he said. If there was one thing the snake bastard was good for, it was being his own descriptor. Now everyone shuddered.
"Isamu-sensei told us that in the last war the enemy hated going after the medics the most when they fought Konoha," Maaya said with contemplative voice. "Does it have any battle applications?"
"Any good medic-nin can make a heart go asplode, and they are often good with poisons too," Naruto bragged.
"Stop making my patient nervous and go buy us some food! I refuse to cook for this many freeloaders," Doctor Fujiki's voice sounded through the door, making the three genin jump. But Naruto knew he wasn't really angry from his tone - Doctor Fujiki liked it when people said he was scary and evil and probably raised the dead in his basement with heathen rituals. So he just shouted his agreement and started running towards the ramen bar. Hey, if the doctor hadn't wanted ramen, he should have specified something else!
But he didn't have the time to even reach the half-way point when he saw Suzuki walking towards him, carrying a load of take-away containers on her arms. He could smell delicious, spicy broth and pork and chicken there and something that was probably grilled bamboo. It was enough to make his mouth water.
"Oh, good, they let you out," Suzuki whispered and gave Naruto the four containers. It would make a small meal for six, but they would have to manage. "I was sent to see if those terrible shinobi were holding you and the good doctor hostage. If something is wrong, just slip me a word now and the priest will talk with the Honourable Uncle when he arrives tomorrow. He will extend his protection to you as long as you are in the village." She was looking around in a way that was probably supposed to be sneaky to see if Naruto had been followed. He only now realized that he was given looks by many people.
He really should have realized sooner, but even now he was just expecting looks of pity and deep-simmering anger, he guessed, it was that stupid, ingrained de-sensitization that had prevented him from noticing the anger wasn't directed at him at all.
"Uh, no, we aren't! Their sensei just got hurt fighting some crazy missing-nin. It's probably a good idea to tell Uncle-sama about that because that sorts always starts trouble and I think she's going to hang around nearby. Besides, if they start something back at the clinic, I can protect the doctor," he promised. If the missing-nin who had beaten Isamu that badly had just run away at the sight of him, Isamu couldn't be that tough an opponent himself, but Naruto didn't think it would come to blows. He had been to Taki with his genin team once and they had seemed like nice people.
Suzuki begun coughing and Naruto thought he could hear "Uncle-sama" along the wheezing. It hadn't been such an odd thing to say, had it? Tsunade-baachan would probably drop of her chair from shock if he called her anything as respectful as Baa-sama – and then strip search him for mind control seals.
"Uzumaki-san, please don't do anything foolish. I know that you are a strong young man, what with you helping to get Masayo's cart off that ditch, but these are shinobi. They can be real monsters if angered," Suzuki pleaded while wringing her apron's hem in her hands and Naruto realized with a start that she didn't know he was a shinobi as well. But Ero-sensei hadn't said anything about keeping that a secret, he wouldn't have lifted that cart off the ditch otherwise... Who was he fooling? He would have, but he would have made and henged some shadow clones to make it look more normal.
"I can be creepy too, you know. Don't you think it's scary when I order chicken ramen with an egg on it?" he whispered with confidential voice. Naruto thought it was creepy and that's why he hadn't eaten any chicken ramen lately. Not quite Orochimaru levels of creepy, granted, but it definitely hit the rolling-back-your-eyes-are-you-even-going-to-be-able-to-roll-them-back levels.
He was only adding the eggs in the first place because Iruka-sensei had sent him a letter where he reminded Naruto to make certain he received the necessary levels of protein and cholin for a growing shinobi.
"Um, no? Why adding eggs would be creepy?" Suzuki asked, but at least she had stopped trying to pull her apron apart with her bare hands.
"But isn't that like eating a newborn in a soup made of its mother?" Naruto rolled his eyes wildly and made his best demented face.
Suzuki burst out laughing, first in half-suppressed giggles that quickly got out of control and matured into very un-ladylike snorts. She bent in half and pressed her arms against her stomach, tears and a little snot running down her face.
"Thank you, Naruto-kun, I needed that. You really are a good boy," she said once she had enough breath to do so and ruffled Naruto's hair. It still surprised him sometimes when people just touched him like that for no reason. "But please don't try anything, your - ah-ha, diet of evil chicken-ramen aside, you clearly don't have it in you to be a ninja."
Well, that was just cold. And to add the insult to his injury the ramen was cold too when he got back to the clinic.
Yamato had been the one to grow the trees they were standing below after the Chuunin Exam Siege was over and the reparations of the village begun. They were lush and strong and their trunks still straight, artificially grown into perfection no natural tree reaching such height would retain. He had always liked these quiet little groves hidden in the village's empty niches, the gentle green canopies rustling above and spreading over the little people like comforting blankets, and while this particularly one didn't feel as real as the old one, he knew that it was just a matter of time.
Under the trees that had sprouted at his command at Konoha's gate he gazed upon his new team. Uzumaki Karin, formerly of Sound, now a genin with the skills equaling those of a tokubetsu jounin, was standing with her hands at her hips and her head thrown back a little so that she could look him into the eye.
"What are we waiting for? I want to arrive to Suna with time to spare and that trip to Grass isn't helping any," she declared haughtily.
Hyuuga Hinata, stood next to Karin and twiddled with her thumbs, a slight blush to her cheeks. She already appeared to be short of breath and Yamato couldn't help but wonder what would happen when the girl actually saw Naruto. Still, she was reputed to be quite skilled and... Wasn't she supposed to be promoted already?
"Didn't you get your promotion after that mission to the Earth Country, Hinata?" he asked. A field promotion was a bit of a rarity during the peacetime, mostly out of desire to keep that peace with foreign powers; it was rare that a powerful, skilled opponent wasn't a member of another village and some ninja might claim to have no feelings, but their pride still bruised laughably easily. The Hyuuga still managed to claim promotion this way fairly regularly.
"N-not yet. My father was pushing it through, but then the opportunity arose." She blushed even brighter at this and Yamato was forced if she was really that innocent and bashful or just that dirty-minded. He knew that the Hyuuga saw chakra coils with their eyes, not bare skin under the clothes like the stubborn urban legends claimed, but sometimes he wondered about the whole clan. The basic psychological theories he had been taught while in ANBU all suggested that the level of repressed behaviour the Hyuuga clan displayed often hid deep, dark waters. No-one could be that dignified and decorous every waking moment and stay sane. Something had to give.
He had Orochimaru-trained Uzumaki and a bloodline heiress in addition to the Kyuubi Jinchuuriki. The numbers of the final round contestants varied a little depending on the village holding the exams, but as a rule out of over a hundred chuunin-hopefuls less than ten would even have their chance at the final round. Often the new chuunin could be counted with one hand's digits and fingers would be left over.
"So much for foreign good-will," Yamato said. This year no other village stood a chance.
He wondered why he was doing this for Kabuto anyway. Not that he had anything against Naruto, though there were still villagers who stubbornly did, and he certainly had nothing against Hinata who showed much too sweet demeanor to be a kunoichi if anything. Even Karin who could be abrasive on occasion if the rumours were correct wouldn't bother him much. If these three received a promotion, more power for them as far as Yamato was concerned. No, the reason he disliked this was because Kabuto was a stone-cold bastard, a former and possibly future traitor and one who habitually stuck his nose where it didn't belong. But, but, but.
As cold and amoral Kabuto was - in the true sense of amoral that he didn't understand morality at all - he was still capable of loving one person and that made him at least relatable. Yamato kept seeing himself in Kabuto, the person he might have become had Orochimaru not been caught, had not Sandaime wrestled him from Danzo's clutches. As irrational as it was, maybe this was some sort of survivor's guilt. And Kabuto in all likelihood knew that exactly; the way he was utterly incapable of understanding morality and canny at deciphering the irrationality it drove people into at the same time fascinated him in a morbid kind of way.
And the trees they were standing under shouldered their bit of blame as well. Yamato had to quit ANBU in order to be allowed to devote time to the rebuilding program and that had left him with the time to spare now that the rebuilding was over.
A man without morals manipulating a man without understanding into taking three genin into an exam where no other team had a chance. Now they only had to walk into a bar and the joke would be complete.